“Okay, how about this—you’re walking down the street and suddenly you bump into a tall, dark and handsome stranger who sweeps you off your feet, looks deep into your eyes and says, ‘I have never seen such exquisite beauty. Have coffee with me, my mysterious maiden.’ Would you go out with him?”
Marley Kincaid burst into laughter, nearly spilling her coffee all over the oak work island in the middle of her kitchen. She set down the mug and grinned at her best friend. “‘My mysterious maiden’?” she echoed. “Uh, yeah, I’m not sure I could go out with any man who called me that.”
Gwen Shaffer rolled her eyes. “Okay, pretend he didn’t say that. He’s just a drop-dead gorgeous guy who wants to buy you a cup of coffee. Would you go?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” Marley sighed. “Why are you so eager to get me dating again?”
Gwen had raised the subject the second she’d walked into the house nearly an hour ago, and Marley was growing tired of it. She didn’t usually mind when Gwen popped in on her day off to chat over coffee, but this conversation was beginning to annoy her. Somehow it had gone from Gwen trying to convince her to go on a blind date to what-if scenarios that made no sense. She knew her friend meant well, but what was the point in talking about all the possible ways she might meet a man?
“Because you’ve barely left this house in months,” Gwen replied. “I want to see you having fun again. All you do is paint and put up wallpaper and—”
“I’m renovating,” Marley interrupted. “And I’m enjoying it.”
“You’re hiding from the world, and you know it.” Gwen’s tone softened. “Look, I understand, hon. That bastard is still on the run. If it were me, I’d be worried, too. I mean, what if he shows up here pleading for help or something?”
Marley’s entire body tensed. She swallowed hard, turning her head so she was spared the familiar flicker of sympathy in her friend’s dark-green eyes. She hated it when Gwen brought up Patrick. Hated being reminded of the disastrous relationship that had ended in a train wreck she hadn’t seen coming.
Eight months ago, she’d been on top of the world. Working at a job she loved, buying her first home, falling in love.
Well, she still had the job and the house, but the man she loved? Turned out he hadn’t been all that worthy of her undying affection.
She’d met Patrick at the hospital, where he’d been recovering from a nasty stab wound to his side. Mugged on his way home from work, or so she’d believed at the time. She’d been assigned to his room, and it hadn’t taken long for Patrick’s easygoing charm to lure her in.
They went on their first date the night he got discharged from the hospital and, three weeks later, he practically moved into her house. Four months after that, they were engaged.
It’d lasted five months. Five months of great sex and laughter and that wonderful feeling of falling in love with a handsome, attentive man. He’d wrapped her in a protective bubble and made her believe anything was possible. Patrick had been good at that, playing make-believe. So good that when the cops had come knocking on her door, she’d actually defended him.
She still remembered the disbelief on those police officers’ faces when she’d finally realized the truth. That her fiancé was not a freelance web designer, but a drug distributor. Not to mention the prime suspect in the fatal shooting of a federal agent.
God, what a fool she’d been.
“He won’t show up,” she said darkly. “He’s probably lying on a beach in Mexico, laughing at the law-enforcement officers who couldn’t catch him.”
Fortunately, Patrick hadn’t tried contacting her since he’d fled three months before, and good riddance. She never wanted to see that man again, and for the past few months she’d gone to great lengths to permanently erase him from her life. Burned his clothes in the backyard, flushed his engagement ring down the toilet.
Too bad none of that had succeeded in actually exorcising him from her mind.
“I’m not too happy with the cops, either,” Gwen said with a frown. “I still can’t believe they thought you were involved.”
Marley’s lips tightened. “Detective Hernandez couldn’t accept that I was so naive. How could I not know my fiancé was a criminal?”
“You weren’t naive. Patrick was just a good liar.”
“Yeah, he was.” Marley picked up her mug, along with Gwen’s empty one, and set them both in the sink. “At least the police are finally leaving me alone. I only hope it stays that way. Now, can we please stop talking about Patrick?”
Gwen’s face brightened. “Okay. Can we talk about
Nick’s friend then?”
Marley suppressed a groan. “I told you, I’m not interested.”
“I’m not suggesting you marry the guy. It’s just a date. One measly little date. You said you were ready to date again.”
“No, I said I might be.” She blew a stray strand of hair off her forehead. “But a blind date isn’t the way I want to go about it, okay? I’m not having dinner with a complete stranger. It’s too forced, too…intimate.”
“Then we’ll make it a double date.”
“No.” Without looking at Gwen, she swallowed back the bitterness sticking to her throat and added, “I can’t agree to go out with a stranger. I can’t do it, Gwen. Not now, anyway.”
“Fine, but the subject’s not closed, you know. We’ll talk about it later.” Gwen hopped off the stool, her brown curls bouncing on her shoulders, and reached for the black leather purse she’d set on the counter. “I have to run. I’m meeting Nick for lunch.”
Marley followed her friend out of the kitchen, her bare feet slapping against the weathered hardwood floor. They reached the front hall, sidestepping the stack of two-by-fours obstructing the way. Marley’s younger brother, Sam, had promised to extend the coat closet by a couple feet, so last weekend he’d come over and hacked away at the wall. Then he’d gotten a phone call and taken off to handle a work emergency. He hadn’t been back since, and Marley was now left with a gaping hole in the floor and all the supplies he’d brought into her hallway.
She didn’t mind, though. Sam was busy working at their dad’s construction company, and it made her happy he was doing well. Her brother had always been irresponsible and scatterbrained growing up. It was nice seeing him act like an adult, even if it did mean he’d left his sister in the lurch.
Gwen paused on the front porch. “Want to come to lunch with us?” she offered.
“Thanks, but I’ll pass.” Marley was so not in the mood to watch Gwen make googly eyes at her longtime boyfriend. The two of them still acted as if they were in the mushy newlywed stage when in fact they’d been together for years.
Her friend looked suspicious. “How are you planning to spend the rest of your day off?”
“Cleaning out the eaves,” she said, fighting back a smile.
Gwen blew out a frustrated breath. “You’re incorrigible.”
Marley’s smile reached the surface. “Yeah, but you love me anyway.”
“Can’t argue that. All right, I’ll see you at the hospital tomorrow.” Gwen leaned in to give her a quick side hug, then bounded down the porch steps toward the shiny black Jeep parked behind the red Mazda convertible Marley had owned since she was eighteen years old.
Marley waved at her friend, watched Gwen speed away, then walked back inside. Alone, she let out a heavy sigh. Talking about Patrick always brought this awful feeling to her stomach. A cross between sorrow and bitterness, with a hefty dose of anger thrown into the mix. Everyone in her life kept pushing her to forget about him—Gwen, their friends from the hospital, her dad, her brother.
None of them seemed to get it. They didn’t understand how badly Patrick had hurt her. Not only that, but he’d taken a skewer to her judgment and punched so many holes in it she wasn’t sure she could ever trust her instincts again.
What kind of woman fell in love with a murderer? How could she have been so blind to Patrick’s deception? She knew she wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last woman to be duped by a man. Heck, she’d once watched an entire documentary about serial killers and how they skillfully deceived their loved ones.
But that didn’t make this situation any better. She still felt like a fool. She’d completely fallen for Patrick’s lies and she hated how easily he’d conned her. He’d even convinced her to open a joint savings account, saying they’d need one anyway when they were married. Good thing she hadn’t gotten around to depositing anything into it, but it still irked—especially since she couldn’t close the damn thing because the cops had frozen it.
And sure, maybe she was hiding from the world, just a little, but the renovations on her house helped keep her mind off her fugitive ex-fiancé. Besides, she really was enjoying the work.
Her place was nestled in a neighborhood of quaint Victorians and leafy elm trees at the end of the cul-de-sac. Two stories high, it was painted pale cream and in desperate need of new shutters. But she loved the old place. She planned on tackling the exterior after the inside was all spruced up.
Heading to the laundry room, she grabbed all the cleaning supplies she needed. She slipped her feet into a pair of white sneakers, then hauled her bucket of supplies out to the side of the house, where the wooden ladder she’d set up earlier leaned against the slate-green roof.
Fine, so maybe cleaning out eaves wasn’t the most exciting thing to do on one’s day off, but it needed to be done. And who knew, maybe one of Gwen’s what-if scenarios would come true.
A tall, dark and handsome stranger approaches the house. “My mysterious maiden,” he says. “Your beauty overwhelms me. Let me clean your rain gutters.”
Marley smothered a laugh. Rolling her eyes, she snapped a pair of rubber gloves onto her hands and climbed the first rung of the ladder.
“This maiden needs no man to take care of her,” she murmured to herself with a grin.
Caleb Ford leaned back in the plush swivel chair and wondered when exactly he’d become a voyeur. His job had forced him to sit through many a stakeout but somehow this one seemed.wrong.
Arousing as hell…but damn it, wrong.
He’d been a DEA agent for ten years, had put dozens of criminals behind bars, gotten shot twice in his career—and yet this one little stakeout was killing him. It should’ve been easy, a wait-and-grab he could’ve done in his sleep. The location was perfect, the electronic equipment was sweet, and his target, despite the irregular hours she worked, didn’t leave the house much.
Yep, in theory, this stakeout should’ve been a piece of cake.
But none of his theories had taken into consideration the powerful allure of Marley Kincaid.
Caleb shifted in the chair, hoping to ease the ache in his groin. A sip of the cold soda sitting on the desk in front of him helped cool his throat, but did nothing to snuff out the fire in his lower body.
A quick glance at the screens displaying Marley’s front and back doors showed no movement. Not that he had to be so vigilant; the motion detectors they’d set up caused the monitors to release a loud buzz every time anyone walked by them. There was plenty of movement at the side of the house, however.
Marley was up on a ladder, wearing faded cut-off shorts, a red tank top and yellow rubber gloves, and she was cleaning out the eaves using a long brush. Wet leaves and mud went sailing down to the grass ten feet below, remnants of last night’s thunderstorm.
Damn, she was cute up there on the ladder, her blond ponytail swishing back and forth as she worked. When he’d taken the case, he’d seen pictures of Marley, sure, but seeing her in person was a different story altogether. It had been a week since he’d hunkered down next door to her, and already he’d memorized every detail of her face—her golden-brown eyes set over a pair of unbelievably high cheekbones, her cute upturned nose, her full sensual lips. God, those lips. She had a mouth made for sin. Not to mention a body that could cause a man to forget his own name.
For seven days now he’d wondered what she looked like naked. But they only had clearance to install cameras outside the house. And she always closed her drapes when she undressed, forcing his imagination to run wild as he stared at her enticing silhouette removing various undergarments.
His cell phone began to ring, a much-needed distraction from the woman next door.
Sighing, he snatched the phone from its perch near the computer keyboard and pressed the talk button. “Ford,” he said. His voice came out hoarse, and he had to clear his throat before speaking again.
“I’m at the Starbucks around the corner,” came AJ Callaghan’s southern drawl. “Want some coffee?”
Caleb tore his gaze away from the monitor. “Hell, yes,” he told his partner.
“Huh. You sound cranky. Ms. Kincaid doing yoga again?”
“Nope, cleaning the rain gutters.”
“Darn. I won’t hurry then. But call me if she starts up with the yoga.” AJ’s tone revealed the man was no doubt sporting a huge grin. “You know,” AJ added, “I can’t see Grier staying away from her for much longer. We already know he was infatuated with Nurse Hottie, and seriously, with that bod, who could blame the guy?”
Oh, Caleb couldn’t blame Patrick Grier for craving Marley’s extremely delectable body, either. Thanks to all the cameras Caleb and AJ had set up around the perimeter of Marley’s house providing visuals of the kitchen, living room and bedroom, Caleb had firsthand experience with Kincaid’s assets. And he was doing a little bit of craving himself.
Fortunately, all it took was one swift glance at the picture taped to the side of his computer monitor, and the need for vengeance replaced his desire.
As Caleb hung up the phone, he stared at Patrick Grier’s grainy features. What pissed him off the most was how normal Grier looked. Brown hair, brown eyes, handsome in a preppy sort of way. That was drug-dealing murderers for you—they rarely ever looked like the scum they were.
If it were any other scumbag dealer, Caleb might have handed the case over to a junior agent and focused on the bigger fish swimming around in the drug pond. But this particular scumbag had murdered Caleb’s best friend, and he wasn’t going to rest until Patrick Grier was behind bars.
He looked back at the monitor and grinned when he noticed Marley leaning to the side, one slender arm stretched out as she attempted to tackle a clump of leaves that refused to dislodge. The grin faded, however, when something caught his eye. One of the rungs on the ladder looked…wrong. He leaned closer, squinting at the screen.
“Damn it,” he muttered under his breath.