“I’ve been in some rough places,” Pierce Jennings confessed as he tightened his grip on the couch and angled down the hallway. “Some of the worst hellholes on the planet. Places littered with gunfire and death. Places where ash filled the air, and every breath was laced with bitterness, but, until now, I have never, never had to deal the torture of being trapped in—”
The door to his left swung open, and a cheerful voice called out, “Pierce!” A sweet cream and honey scent filled the air. “Do you need some help?”
“The friend zone,” he finished darkly.
Pierce was pretty sure his buddy Colt Easton choked out a laugh.
Forcing a smile, Pierce turned his attention to the little ray of sunshine who was currently giving him her dimpled smile. He tried—and failed—to ignore the hard kick in his gut. Every time that he looked at her, his whole body tightened. Hardened. Wanted.
Her dimples flashed at him. Fucking adorable. And sexy. Her blond hair—curling lightly with a mind of its own—trailed over her shoulders. Her heart-shaped face tilted up toward him. She had to angle herself up because the woman was tiny compared to him. All soft curves and delicate slopes. He clocked in close to six-foot-three, and he was all solid muscle thanks to what some had called his too rigorous workout routine.
“I can help carry the couch,” Iris Stuart continued in that lush, made-for-a-bedroom voice of hers. A voice that stroked over his skin and made him have way, way too many fantasies.
“I got it,” he growled back in a voice that Pierce knew sounded like a freaking bear’s rumble. Dammit. “No worries.” He did have the couch. He could carry it in his sleep. Did she not see the muscles he was deliberately flexing her way? Maybe he should flex a little more. But his t-shirt already strained around his biceps.
Another choked laugh came from Colt’s direction. His asshole of a partner seemed to find the whole world to be utterly hilarious. Why, oh, why had Pierce thought confiding in Colt about his obsession with his new neighbor would be a good idea? Not like Colt would be offering him any life-altering advice.
“Well, if you’re sure.” Iris nibbled on an absolutely delectable lower lip. Her eyes—the darkest, warmest chocolate brown he’d ever seen—swept over him—and darted to his buddy. “Oh, hi.” She took a quick step forward. “I’m Iris.” The amber in the depths of her dark eyes gleamed, looking like a flash of battered gold.
“I have heard of you,” came his partner’s amused reply. “Name’s Colt. It’s a pleasure. Truly.”
If it had been possible—if they had been close enough—Pierce would have kicked him.
“And let me just say,” Colt continued in that faint Texas drawl of his, “you have completely exceeded my expectations.” He acted as if he wasn’t currently holding up one end of a couch. As if he had all the time in the world to fawn over Iris. “I love your tattoo,” he added, as his gaze darted to her legs.
Oh, hell, no.
Iris currently wore a faded pair of old jean shorts, shorts with frayed edges and faint paint splatters on them. The shorts revealed the golden expanse of her legs, and the sexy-as-hell tattoo that drifted lovingly over the top of her right thigh.
“Do you have other tats?” Colt asked her curiously. “Because I’ve got—”
Pierce shoved the couch toward his partner. Hard. “Don’t worry about any other tats that she has.” Keep your eyes off her legs.
Colt turned his head toward him. Smiled innocently. “I was just thinking of getting a new one, and I figured she might be able to offer some inspiration.”
Right. The hell he’d thought that. Pierce’s eyes narrowed. “We need to move the couch inside. Now.”
“Oh? Is it getting too heavy for you?” Colt asked, all fake sympathy. “Probably need more protein in your diet. Or maybe you should do more lifts.”
Or I need a friend who isn’t an asshole. “I can carry this thing on my own.”
Behind them, the elevator dinged. Pierce and Iris were the only ones living on the second floor of the old, converted warehouse. For the elevator to ding…
Who is coming to visit her?
Automatically, his head turned as his gaze focused down the hallway. In the seven days that he’d been living in the building, no one had come to visit her place. He’d started to—rather optimistically—think that meant she wasn’t involved with anyone.
But the man striding from the elevator immediately locked his eyes on Iris and a wide grin split his face. His expression warmed and—
And Pierce considered tossing the couch at him.
Nope. Can’t do that. You’re one of the good guys, remember? It was just that when he was around Iris, Pierce didn’t feel quite so good.
“Iris Stuart?” The newcomer’s smile broadened. “I’m Bentley. Bentley Prestang.” He completely ignored the couch. And both Pierce and Colt. Instead, he closed in on Iris as he strode forward with his shoulders back, his chin up, and a gait rather like a rooster’s. “I’m here for the modeling job.”
Modeling job? Pierce knew she was an artist. He’d glimpsed some of her work when he’d poked his head inside her place to return the screwdriver she’d given him the other day. Not that he’d actually needed the screwdriver, not when he had six of his own, but borrowing hers had given him an excuse to talk to her. When he’d briefly gone in her place, canvases had been everywhere, and the work had been damn good. But this bozo…
“Let me just say,” Bentley announced with a fierce nod of his bright, blond head, “I am completely comfortable doing nudes.”
What. The. Fuck? Pierce dropped the couch.
“Ow! Sonofa—” Colt began.
Pierce had already whirled and was glowering at Bentley. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Iris grabbed Bentley’s arm. Tugged him toward her place. She inclined her head toward her open door. “Bentley, why don’t you go inside, and I’ll discuss the position with you?”
The position? Red seemed to fill Pierce’s vision. His head swiveled back toward her.
Her dimples winked again. “I should let you guys get back to moving furniture. If I can help, please shout at me.”
Oh, he felt like shouting.
“Good luck with the rest of your move,” she continued ever-so-sweetly. “Maybe I can bring some pizza by later and we can watch that movie you mentioned yesterday? I’ll get extra pepperonis. I remember you said you like your pizzas that way.”
Nudes. The dick offered to ditch his clothes for her. Pierce took a lumbering step toward her door. “My place,” he gritted out. I want you in my place now.
“I’ll be there. Eight sound good?”
Now sounded better, but he managed a jerky nod.
“Perfect.” Her smile held mega wattage. “So glad you’re in the building,” Iris added with a dip of her head. “It’s nice to have a good friend close by.”
The door to her place closed with a soft click. He stared at the wood. In his mind, he saw Bentley’s carefully styled blond hair. That too-white, capped-teeth grin. The jutting chest and rooster walk. Pierce’s fist rose toward her door.
“Ahem.” Colt cleared his throat. “In case you missed it, I am holding one end of a couch by myself right now.”
Pierce hadn’t missed a thing. He never did. He’d been trained to be extra observant. “He’s named after a freaking car.”
“Yeah, but I’m named after a gun, so who am I to judge?”
Pierce wanted to slam his fist into the door. To, uh, knock. “Nude.”
“I did hear that word mentioned, but she’s an artist, so I’m sure she works with naked men—I mean, works with nudes all the time.”
Not what Pierce wanted to hear. He slanted a glare at Colt. “I hate you right now.”
“Nah, you hate Bentley.”
“The friend zone,” Colt mused. “Man, that is hell.”
“Tell me about it.”
Iris released a slow, soothing breath. Or at least, the breath was supposed to help soothe her. Only it didn’t. As she stood in front of Pierce’s door, a pizza box clutched in her hands, she felt anything but relaxed and soothed.
Her heart raced. Her knees did a little quiver, and her entire body just felt hypersensitive because—
The door swung open.
Hello. Because Pierce Jennings was right there. Every big, bold, delectable inch of him. He wore loose, gray jogging shorts and a black t-shirt that displayed his muscled perfection because it basically fit him like a second skin. He filled the doorway and just seeing him had every bit of moisture drying from her mouth. The man oozed sex appeal. Temptation of the ever most carnal kind, and she absolutely wanted to lick him all over.
Not going to happen. Not. At. All.
“Where’s the dick?” he rumbled in his deep, make-her-body-quake voice.
And, automatically, her gaze jumped down to his—
“Bentley something, wasn’t it? He finally gone?”
Her gaze flew right back up even as heat filled her cheeks. Bentley. He was the dick in question. The burn in her cheeks helped Iris to focus. “Oh, he’s long gone. He won’t work at all for what I need.” The guy had been pushy as hell, and it had taken a serious effort to get him out of her place. He’d kept poking and prying. She lifted the pizza higher. “Got the extra pepperonis like you wanted.”
His gaze—a truly gorgeous baby blue that she wanted to capture as a sky in one of her paintings—swept over her face. Swept over. Lingered. His jaw hardened.
Nervousness trembled through her. “Pierce?”
“You’ve got pizza.” Another rumble. “And I’ve got wine. Come on inside.” He stepped back, making room for her to cross the threshold.
She hurried inside, and when she did, her arm brushed against his chest. A surge hit her. Not electric. More like…pulsing. Throbbing. Aching. An awareness that she was very much going to ignore.
Pierce might look like walking temptation, but she knew how to resist. This was not her first ball game, not by a long shot. Just because he might have a stare hot enough to melt her panties, it did not mean that she would be jumping into his arms. Getting involved romantically would be far too dangerous.
Iris did a fast two-step away from him. “The couch looks great!” Her voice broke a wee bit. She might have put far too much enthusiasm into that announcement.
He took the pizza from her. His fingers tangled with hers.
More aching. More throbbing. Oh, jeez. She needed to get control. They were friends. She needed a friend. After far too much time being alone, of not letting anyone get close and having no one to trust, she desperately needed someone like Pierce.
Someone upstanding. All law-abiding. Someone who knew how to make the right choices even when things were hard.
She’d gotten background info on him. Her handler Franco had provided the intel to her before Pierce had set one foot in the place. Not like he was going to let some stranger just waltz into the building without doing a full check on the person. Pierce Jennings had come up clean. Sparkling clean. She knew nearly every single detail about him, and that was one of the many reasons why she felt comfortable being in his place with him.
He was a former Army Ranger. One who had a fist full of medals that he’d earned for bravery. He’d saved his team members. He’d risked himself over and over again. Then he’d come back home and gotten a job at Wilde, an elite protection and security firm. The man seemed hardwired to protect. He wanted to help people. And after spending most of her life with individuals who wanted to do just the opposite…
Such a nice change.
But who knew that being good could also mean being so hot?
“What happened to Bentley?” Low.
She let go of the pizza box. “He won’t do at all. I thanked him for coming by, but he’s not exactly what I need.”
Pierce smiled at her. It was a slow, toe-curling smile that started with a tilt of his lips and ended with a sparkle in his eyes. “That’s just terrible to hear.”
If it was terrible, why was he smiling?
She trailed him into the kitchen. While he poured wine, she snagged plates for them, easily navigating around him and going unerringly to the right cabinet. After all, she’d helped him to unpack the plates, so she knew where they were stored.
They munched on pizza. She savored the wine. They made small talk. Even wound up on the couch together to watch an utterly awful old horror movie about clowns who came from outer space. Side note…she wound up loving that movie. And laughing as she flinched because she did enjoy her horror.
And just as the credits were rolling…
“So are you going to be in the market for another model?” Pierce asked, voice casual.
“Uh, yes. I just have to find the right look.” Her wine glass was empty. She toyed with the stem even as she darted a glance at the clock. She’d need to leave soon.
“What look do you want?”
“I’m going for more of a Greek-god-type thing. Muscles and strength. Power. Bentley was just too…” She didn’t want to say pretty-boy. “Runway ready.” That was better. He’d been handsome in a high-fashion manner, while she wanted savage strength and barely contained passion.
“I see.” A murmur. “Figured that out when he stripped, did you?”
Her hold tightened on the glass. “Things didn’t progress that far. I knew as soon as I saw him in person that it wasn’t going to work.”
“Good to fucking know.” He looked away.
She frowned. His words had been growled so she hadn’t quite made them out clearly, but it had sounded like—
Pierce glanced back at her. “I’ve got a great idea.” His smile came again.
Her stomach quivered. The quiver was not from the wine. “I should go.” She jumped to her feet.
“I can model for you.”
Her feet became rooted to the spot. “Excuse me?”
“I’m right next door. Talk about convenient. And I still have a week before I start my next case at Wilde. That means my schedule is pretty flexible. I can be your model.”
The sudden visual she had…Pierce, standing in her studio, all the wonderful, perfect morning light falling on him as he posed before her…totally nude. Oh, my. Her knees wanted to dip.
“Such a bad idea,” she mumbled.
His brows shot together, and he raked a hand through his thick, dark hair. “Why do you say that?” He rose to stand next to her. Towered over her. “Am I not savage enough for you?”
Breathe. In and out. That was what she did. Then she shoved a smile onto her face. “You really want to stand naked in front of me for hours and hours—”
“While I—wait, what?”
He shrugged. “I’m good at standing still. Not moving at all. When you’re in some of the most dangerous spots on earth, you have to move with care—or often, not move at all. You have to wait out the enemy if you want to succeed.”
“I…um, I need to go.” Now. Fast. “The movie was fun. The wine was great. Top-notch. Truly. And you are—” Hot. No, no. Wrong thing to say. Maybe she’d had too much wine. Time to go. She made a beeline for the door.
“Are you afraid of me?”
His question stopped her cold. Her hand hung in the air. She’d been reaching for the doorknob when he asked his question. “What?” Iris glanced back over her shoulder. “Why would you think that?”
“Because a lot of people are afraid of me. I’m a big guy. I make certain people…” He stalked toward her. “Nervous.”
Nervous wasn’t the right word. She didn’t feel nervous. Iris felt edgy. As if she might jump out of her skin. And hot. She felt really hot. It was hot in there, though, wasn’t it? Maybe she should tell Pierce to get his air conditioning checked.
He stopped just inches from her. “Do I make you nervous, Iris?”
She turned to fully face him. Sucked in a breath. Then lost it on a laugh. “Oh, goodness, no. But that is adorable.” Her hand lifted and patted his cheek in a friendly gesture. His stubble tickled her palm. “You’re the hero. The nice guy.” She dropped her hand because that wasn’t a tickle that she felt. It was something more.
“Nice?” he bit out.
Her head bobbed. “You’re the kind of man who makes a woman feel safe. You don’t scare me. I’ve seen plenty of scary guys in my time.”
A furrow appeared between his brows. “What—”
“And I’ve developed a radar for them. You don’t set off the radar. I’m not the least bit afraid of you.” If she’d been afraid, she wouldn’t want him the way she did. Her hand pushed to her side. Her fingers pressed to her shorts. “I’m glad you’re in the building. It’s nice to have someone here with me.” She tried a smile. “How great is it that we get along so well already? Talk about being fast friends.”
“It’s just awesome.” A muscle jerked along his jaw. “Awesome,” he repeated. “I love being your friend.”
Her breath caught. That was awfully sweet of him to say. Her hand reached for his, an impulsive gesture. His fingers were rough and strong and about twice the size of hers. She still squeezed them gently. “Thank you. That’s the kindest thing anyone has said to me in a very long time.” Far longer than he would suspect.
The furrow between his brows deepened. “Iris?”
“I need to go. I plan to be up by dawn so I can go down to the park and sketch the sunrise.” She let go of his hand. “Thanks for a lovely night, Pierce.”
“Anytime, Iris.” His gaze held hers. “Anytime.”
A knock sounded at her door. Iris glanced up, frowning. She’d snagged a book from her shelf and been in the process of heading for the couch. She always liked to curl up and read before bed.
A lick of excitement filled her as she hurried for the door. Pierce was the only other tenant on the floor—actually, the only other tenant in the whole building—so she knew her late night visitor had to be him.
Had he forgotten to tell her something? Or did he need to borrow something else? A smile was on her face as she swung open the door. “Do you need the screwdriver again—” The words died in her throat.
Because Pierce wasn’t on the other side of her door. A man in a tailored, black suit waited. A man with midnight black hair and cold, gray eyes.
She immediately tried to slam the door.
His foot pushed across the threshold, stopping her. “Iris…” A sigh of her name. “Is that any way to greet an old friend?”
He wasn’t a friend. Never had been. “Move the foot and get the hell out of here.”
He didn’t move his foot. “We’ve been looking for you. Wasn’t very nice of you to hide.”
She should never have opened the door without looking through her peephole. She’d gotten complacent. Sloppy. “Move your foot.”
“I’m here to offer you a job, Iris. My boss will pay you well—”
“Get the hell away from me!” She hadn’t meant to yell. Had she?
But…now the nearby door was squeaking open. Pierce’s door. A jerk of her head showed him standing in his open doorway, still wearing those jogging shorts but now minus a shirt. He was big, muscled, and looking very, very dangerous as he locked his gaze on the man who stood so close to her.
“Iris?” Pierce called. “There a problem?”
Yes, a huge, terrible, back-from-the-past nightmare. “No,” she hastened to say. “He’s at the wrong door. And he was just leaving.”
But the man before her didn’t leave. Constantine Leos leaned toward her and lowered his voice as he told her, “If you don’t contact me to take the job, there will be trouble.”
He took her book from her. Tucked a card inside the pages before slamming it closed. “Call the number. It’s my direct line.”
She yanked her book back from him. “No. I don’t do that stuff any longer.” She’d never chosen to be in that world. Her chin lifted. “Whatever your boss wants, the answer is no. So be a good errand boy, and tell him what I said, will you?” Her words were barely above a whisper.
His features tightened. “Don’t piss me off.”
Don’t come to my door.
“Iris?” Pierce’s voice held a definite edge. And his voice was louder. Because he’d marched closer. “You need me?”
Constantine tossed her one more glare, then he spun and stalked for the stairwell. The stairwell, not the elevator.
“You said he was at the wrong door. How the hell did that guy get in the building?” Pierce wanted to know as he eliminated the distance between them. “He should have needed to type in the security code downstairs.”
Yes, he should have. But a man like Constantine would be able to get past most security setups. “We’ll have to check on that tomorrow. Call the building manager.”
His gaze held curiosity as it assessed her, then Pierce nodded. “I’ll just make sure our unwanted visitor gets his ass out of the building and that the system is functioning properly once he’s gone.” He started to follow Constantine—
“No!” She grabbed his arm.
Pierce frowned at her. “What’s wrong?”
You don’t have a weapon. You’re just wearing jogging shorts. Constantine could have a gun hidden on his body. Constantine habitually fought dirty. Iris did not want Pierce anywhere near the guy. “He’s already in the stairwell. Gone. I don’t think we need to worry about him again.”
Lie, lie, lie. All she would be doing for the rest of the night was worrying.
He tugged free of her hold. “I’m just going to make sure.”
But just like that, he was gone.
This is not good. She grabbed for her phone and dialed her handler. Answer, answer, answer—
His voicemail picked up.
“Franco,” her voice sounded breathless to her own ears, “we have a problem.”
The stranger had almost slipped away. Pierce bounded onto the sidewalk and surged after him. His fingers closed around the guy’s shoulder, and Pierce swung him around.
The man came up in a battle-ready pose.
“Who the hell are you?” Pierce demanded.
The fellow just laughed. “Didn’t Iris tell you?”
No, she hadn’t told him jack, and Pierce had a very, very bad feeling knotting his gut.
“I was at the wrong door,” the stranger murmured. “Surely you picked up that part?”
Wrong door, my ass. He let go of the other man’s shoulder. “How did you get in the building?”
“The main entrance was open. I just walked right in.”
Pierce blinked. “Do I look like the type of man who believes bullshit?”
The gaze on him sharpened. “You look like the type of man who is smart enough to heed a good warning.” A long pause. “So consider yourself warned. Don’t go playing white knight. The pay for the gig is shit, and you’ll just wind up bloody in the end.”
Pierce angled his head to the right. Squinted his eyes as he stared at the fool who was threatening him, and laughed.
It was obviously not the reaction the jerk had expected. “What the hell?”
“Indeed. What the hell?” Pierce let a shark’s smile curve his lips. “You have me confused with someone else. Obviously. Someone who minds blood. See, I don’t mind it. Not even a little. I don’t mind getting my knuckles absolutely fucking bloody when I fight. Because I fight hard, and I fight very, very well when I’m protecting something—or someone. So how about I give you a warning?” He paused a beat. “Stay away from Iris.” Because he’d seen the fear in her eyes when she’d looked at this creep. He hadn’t liked that fear. Not at all. “If you come around her again, let’s just say that our next interaction won’t be so pleasant.”
“Am I supposed to be scared?”
“I don’t know, are you supposed to be smart? Because if you are, then you might want to step back and think…how bad will you feel when a wannabe knight kicks your ass?”
The guy yanked away from him. Stomped down the road. With his eyes narrowed and his hands fisted, Pierce watched him leave. When he was sure the SOB was gone, only then did Pierce turn back to the building. After he went inside, Pierce made damn sure the building was secure. And he stalked back up the stairs to Iris.
Sweetheart, what in the hell was that about?
His Iris had secrets. It was a good thing that he excelled when it came to uncovering secrets. Truth be told, uncovering secrets was his favorite hobby.