Aimee adjusted her earbuds, then headed toward the front door for her late-afternoon run. It’d been a hell of a day, and she needed the stress relief. She turned the knob, then screamed. A large, gorgeous man stood on her porch, arms folded across his broad chest.
Stunned, and more scared than she would ever admit, she froze.
He moved toward her, galvanizing her into action. She took an immediate step back, then shoved against the door to slam it.
“Wait!” He placed his booted foot in the entrance, blocking her efforts. Not just a booted foot, she noted wildly—a massive one, with the black leather riding boots showing nicks and scars—from a life on the edge if her guess was correct.
Her pulse slammed into overdrive.
Crap, crap, crap.
“I’m Trace Romero,” the man said, pushing back against her.
Would a potential bad guy introduce himself? Her older sister carried a gun while Aimee was the nerd with the iPod, ponytail, and a scientific mind that rarely shut down. They were both employed by Hawkeye Security, but since Aimee worked in IT, she’d never gone through firearms or specialized tactical training programs.
“I’m from Hawkeye. Your sister sent me to stay with you for a few days.”
Her breath whooshed out.
She should be relieved, but she wasn’t.
Two hours prior, she’d returned from the coffee shop to find the back patio door slightly ajar. Concerned, she’d notified her sister. The fact that an agent was standing on Aimee’s porch meant her sister had called out the cavalry in the form of one of their colleagues.
And she didn’t want him here. Hawkeye was one of the planet’s most exclusive security firms. They hired only the most qualified operatives, recruiting from the military and police, even the FBI or Secret Service.
But that didn’t matter to her. She had no intention of letting an arrogant alpha male inside her home. She’d learned her lesson with know-it-all men, and she was too smart to repeat the mistake.
“Please step back, ma’am. Ms. Inamorata is expecting a report from me.”
“You can tell her you were here and that I sent you away. Mission accomplished.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that. If I don’t answer your phone when she calls, I might as well turn in my resignation and throw myself off Pikes Peak, save her the effort of hunting down my sorry carcass.”
Aimee’s running shoes slipped as he threw his strong shoulder into the door. For all the success her efforts were having at keeping him out, she might as well be trying to hold back an avalanche.
Maybe she couldn’t beat him when it came to physical strength, but she could batter his ego and get under his defenses. “I can’t believe a big, strong man is frightened of my sister.”
“Terrified, actually. Like all mortals,” he confessed.
“Damn.” She groaned. His ego was intact enough for him not to rise to her bait.
“You have two choices, ma’am.” His deep voice was controlled and clipped. “We can do it my way.” He paused for a couple of beats, then added, “Or we can do it my way.”
She hated having people in her space. It was bad enough sharing the fifteen hundred square feet with her rescue parrot that rarely shut up, but having someone around who would watch her television, eat her food, discover her deepest secrets…
The brute of a man nudged her back another few inches. “It’s okay to stop the badass act.” But a panicky little part of her was afraid it wasn’t an act at all.
“Step away from the door, Miss Inamorata.” This warning wasn’t as friendly as the previous one had been.
So maybe she didn’t carry a gun, but she’d learned a few things from listening to her sister. If you can’t go through, go around. “Okay. You win.”
He stopped pushing. She counted to two. When he let down his guard, she grunted and then shoved forward with every scrap of determination she could summon.
But her pissed-off best wasn’t good enough.
His foot was still firmly lodged in the entrance.
Within seconds, he filled the space.
Good God, he was big. Bigger than big.
Instinctively she took a protective step back. No matter how mad she was, she would never be able to win against this man.
He dominated the space and sucked up the air she’d been intending to breathe. He stood well over six feet tall, and his shoulders almost filled the width of the opening.
She, who rarely got flustered, was immobilized. Agent Romero made her oh so aware of being a woman. In her shorts and tiny tank top, she felt small, vulnerable, while he was spectacular, from his angular cheekbones to his military-precise haircut and rich, deep brown eyes. His skin revealed a Spanish heritage, and it might have been a shade or two richer for having been in the sun. His strong jaw was set in an implacable line. In every way, he spelled danger.
He took her shoulders, moved her back a foot, then released her long enough to turn, slam the door, and turn the lock…all before she could even draw a protesting breath.
“My way,” he reminded her.
From the other room, Eureka squawked.
“What the hell is that?”
She should probably warn him about Eureka, her blue-fronted Amazon parrot, but it would be much more fun if he found out himself. “It’s my bird.”
“Inside? A pet?”
“He thinks he’s the boss around here.”
“Anything else I need to know?”
“I’m pretty boring.” She shrugged.
“Not if someone broke in.”
“Maybe I left the patio door ajar myself.” But that couldn’t possibly be true. Because she wanted to keep Eureka safe, she was careful to keep all possible escape places closed.
“The local police said there have been no other reported break-ins, and I understand nothing was taken?”
“That’s true.” Her electronics were still in place. None of her jewelry was missing. Even her emergency stash of twenty-dollar bills remained untouched in her dresser drawer.
“Which means it wasn’t a random thing, and you and Ms. Inamorata know it. Want to show me around?”
“No. Not really,” she said, not even trying to disarm her words with a smile.
“You can show me, or I can look myself.”
His way. Or his way. “There’s not much to see. My bedroom, which you’re not going into, my office, which you’re not going into, the kitchen, dining room, the guest bathroom, and my living room…which you’re standing in. That’s it.”
He took another step toward her.
The scent of him seared her, like a cool Colorado breeze wrapped in the spice of night.
Reluctantly she ceded the ground. Just as fast, she regretted her action. Instead of remaining where he was, Trace took another step in her direction. This time she forced herself to stand still. She crossed her arms across her midriff, fighting the natural instinct to get the hell away from him.
“I’ll show myself around.”
“Fine.” She angled her chin in false bravado. “I’ll just go for my run while you have a look-see. Be gone when I return.” As she started past him, he snagged her wrist firmly enough to say he meant business.
“I’ve been assigned to protect you. You run, I run.”
Her patience snapped. “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”
“Yeah. Something like that.”
She snatched her wrist away from him, pretending her heart wasn’t thundering. She wouldn’t need a cardio workout if he stayed under her roof another five minutes. His touch bothered her. His aggressive style bothered her. But what concerned her most was her own way too feminine reaction to him. “You’re interrupting my schedule, Mr. Romero—Agent Romero. Whatever your name is.”
She exhaled. He’d said it softly, a whisper of seduction. “You won’t be here long enough for us to get that familiar.”
“Don’t count on it.”
“Look, I appreciate what you’re trying to do—”
“What I’ve been ordered to do.”
“My sister overreacted, probably because I overreacted.”
“Ms. Inamorata doesn’t overreact.” Patience wove through his tone. Maybe because he knew he would win. “If she thinks someone should protect your body and your secrets”—his glance started at her head and slowly traveled downward, igniting too-long-dormant senses—“then I’m going to be here for as long as she says.”
“The police said they’d be happy to drive by.”
“Periodically.” He nodded. “But they’re not going to provide the kind of protection I can.”
“Listen, Miss Inamorata. I’m here. And I don’t need your permission to stay.”
She tightened her ponytail. “Can I finish a sentence?”
“Depends whether you’re going to agree with me or not.” He grinned then, and strange things happened to her insides. “For the record,” he continued, “there are other ways to shut you up. Who knows?” He leaned in a bit closer. “You might enjoy them. I would.”
What the hell? No. Her heart increased its tempo to at least eighty-five percent of her target heart rate. She told herself he wouldn’t kiss her, told herself she wouldn’t let him if he tried.
The phone rang, mercifully shattering the moment.
“That’ll be your sister, for me.”
The phone trilled a second time.
She sighed. “Through there,” she said, pointing toward the kitchen. It wasn’t lost on her that he had won every battle thus far.
He nodded and headed into the heart of her home.
She trailed him, fully intending to eavesdrop.
Scowling, Trace turned to look at her.
“Eureka!” she commanded. “No.” God, no.
The incessant phone, the shrieking bird, her tension, all created sudden pandemonium. From everywhere at once, Eureka flew into the room, a fury of feathers and obnoxious squawks.
“Duck!” she warned.
Eureka swooped low over Trace’s head.
Aimee pushed her palms against her eyes, unable to watch.
Her word exactly.
“Return to base,” the parrot cried. “Return to base!”
The phone stopped ringing. Eureka landed on the perch on top of his cage. He rang a bell that hung beneath a mirror. “Mission accomplished!” Then silence, sudden and oppressive, echoed.
“Sorry about that,” she said, slowly pulling her hands away from her face. “I should have warned you about his…tendencies.”
“Does he do that a lot?”
“Only when he’s upset. Hopefully he got the intruders. Bastards for leaving a door open, anyway. If anything happened to him—”
“I think he’s okay,” Trace said drily.
She was glad for his interruption. That ridiculous, bad-mannered bird was her best friend.
“Did he get me?” Trace ran a hand across the top of his head, then looked at his palm.
“You’ll need to change your shirt,” she said. For the first time, she smiled at him. “Since you probably don’t have another one, you can just go home.”
“Stubborn man,” she countered.
“It will wash.” He dragged the hem from the waistband.
He exposed part of his stomach, showing off his tight abs. Damn. Then he pulled the shirt a bit higher. “Don’t!” she begged. “Please.” Having him this close was bad enough. Half-naked would undo her.
The phone rang again. Looking at Trace, Eureka lifted a foot from the perch, as if considering his options.
“Eureka, no,” she warned. He put his foot back down. “Good boy.” But she, too, had her eye on Trace as he continued to the kitchen. His boots were loud on her hardwood floor, and as large as he was, he dwarfed the space.
On the third ring, Trace picked up her phone. “Romero.” He looked at her as he spoke to her sister. “No, ma’am. She hasn’t been the least bit hospitable. I have a bruised foot and parrot shit on my shirt.”
“Yeah, no problem.” He held out the phone toward her.
Reluctantly she crossed to him, not wanting to get any closer to him than she needed to. Her mind might not have wanted him in her space, but her body most definitely did.
She took the device from him and, to her sister, said, “Hey.”
He stood there, watching as her sister gave Aimee hell, finishing with, “We don’t know what’s going on. You have to think about yourself and the project.”
“Exactly,” Aimee agreed. Each day, the team drew closer to making the whole project work together. And the world would change when they succeeded. “Now you see the issue. I can’t work with someone breathing down my neck.”
“Is that what he’s doing?”
Actually he was close enough that she could feel the warmth of him. And it wasn’t all terrible. But it sure as hell was a distraction.
“I’m sure he’ll do his best to stay out of your way.”
“In a house this small? That’s not possible.”
“It’s either Trace, or I will move you to a safe house. That’s actually my preference.”
“That would be traumatic for Eureka,” Aimee protested.
“Those are your only choices, Aimee.”
Aimee was the scientist, calm and rational, or she had been until ten minutes ago when Tall, Dark, and Dangerous showed up on her porch. She sighed.
“Do it for me?”
Trace’s penetrating gaze was still on Aimee, heating her blood. “This is under duress.”
She hung up.
“The formidable Ms. Inamorata wins another round?” His arms were folded across his chest, and he didn’t gloat.
“Could you look smug or triumphant or something? It would be easier to dislike you that way.”
“Surprisingly, some people like me.”
She couldn’t afford to be one of them, as easy as that promised to be with him standing only inches away and smelling so damn good. “You’re right. That is surprising.”
“When I first got here, I checked out the front of the house and the backyard. I wish you had a privacy fence rather than a chain-link one.”
“The neighbors have a dog.”
“Good to know. Now let’s get the grand tour over with.”
Did he ever give up? “You still need to wash your shirt.”
“I have a duffel bag in my vehicle.”
“Why am I not shocked?”
“Deductive reasoning? I understand you’re a scientist.”
“There is that.” She couldn’t help but smile. He was as charming as he was uncompromising.
“I fully intended to stay, regardless of your reception. I have workout clothes as well.”
“But if we both go for a run, no one will be protecting the house.”
“Wrong again. Your sister has assigned a couple of details. Bree Mallory and Daniel Riley are stationed in an SUV down the block. There’s another team at the entrance to the subdivision.”
“She thinks of everything.”
He headed for the front door. “Be back in less than thirty seconds.”
Aimee thought about locking him out, but the dark glance he shot her, combined with that set of his jaw, promised retribution if she crossed him. His way.
Standing in the doorway, she watched him jog across the road to his ridiculously large badass SUV. It resembled a military vehicle, capable of climbing anything or plowing through a lake. Faded denim hugged his powerful thighs and showed off his long legs. But if she were honest, she'd admit she liked the way they fit his taut ass. It appeared to be as nicely shaped and as honed as the rest of him.
Aimee mentally gave herself a shake. She shouldn't be having fantasies about her temporary jailer.
After grabbing an army-green duffel bag from the passenger seat, Trace slammed the door. He gave a thumbs-up signal to a white Suburban parked down the street—Mallory and Riley, he assumed—before jogging back to her.
Aimee took a step back to let him into the house.
“Should I change in your bedroom?”
“That’s off-limits, I told you.”
Right there, in the entryway, he pulled off the black cotton shirt.
She should have known better than to forbid him to do something.
Carefully he wadded the T-shirt. Even though she tried not to look, she was mesmerized. As she’d already surmised, he was seriously one sexy man. He had no excess fat around the middle, and a smattering of dark hair arrowed down the center of his chest to disappear behind the brass button holding his jeans together.
Her pulse easily reached eighty-seven, maybe eighty-eight, percent of her target heart rate. She didn’t need her fitness monitor to tell her that. “I’ll, uhm, throw that in the washer.”
He handed her the T-shirt, then bent to unzip his bag.
“Is that a freaking gun tucked in your waistband?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“No. No guns in my house. No way, no how.”
He sighed, but he didn’t stop riffling through his bag. And heaven help her, she couldn’t help but cast a surreptitious glance at the contents, looking to see if he had underwear there. He pulled out a replacement black shirt, but she didn’t see any boxers, briefs, or tighty whities. That realization revved her libido into overdrive.
“I mean it, Trace. No weapons.”
He stood. “I appreciate that you don’t want me here. I realize having a gun in your house is uncomfortable. I know I’ll be invading your privacy.”
He took her by the shoulders. “Tough.”
When he released her, she slumped.
How did everything get to be so out of control? She hated this, despised all of Hawkeye Security at the moment.
Needing to do something useful, something she could control, she pulled away from him to head down the hallway to the bathroom that also served as a laundry room.
A man in her house. Protective detail. A damn pistol. This morning, life had been blessedly normal, but now nothing was.
She turned on the washer to the smallest load setting. In the nearby basket, there were some dark clothes that she could wash, but throwing their stuff in together seemed too intimate.
When she was in college, she’d fallen madly in love with Jack Cotter, a man significantly older than her. He was a trial lawyer, confident and sophisticated, so different from the techie geeks she hung out with.
He’d proposed, and she’d accepted and been swept into a world she didn’t understand. He bought her a new wardrobe and expected her to help him entertain his clients, sacrificing her school work for his ambitions. Within six months, she lost herself, cutting back the number of classes she enrolled in, no longer seeing her friends, always being available for Jack and his demands.
When her sister returned from a long assignment, she’d been concerned about Aimee’s well-being, but Aimee hadn’t been ready to end the relationship.
After Jack took her phone and changed the number to keep the sisters apart, Aimee was finally able to see what was happening. Her sister was the only relative she had, and she couldn’t imagine a life without her.
Weeks before the wedding, while Jack was embroiled in the trial of the century, Aimee fled. Even though she’d gotten away, it had taken her months to rediscover who she was, and make up the work she’d missed to graduate on time.
She’d vowed never again to allow a man to take over her life.
Deciding to wash her own clothes later, Aimee dropped the lid on the machine, then returned to her office and closed the door. She was aware of Trace’s movements as he went through her house, coldly invading her privacy.
Even though she’d banned him from her office, he entered after a perfunctory knock. Jaw locked to hold back her temper, she looked up at him. “Can I help you with something?”
“Just need to have a quick look around.”
“Anything out of the ordinary. A bug, potentially. Something planted on your computer.”
She hadn’t considered that possibility. More than anyone on the planet, she should have. A hardware hack was difficult, but not impossible.
“You don’t have to stay,” he said.
As if she’d leave. Aimee remained where she was, watching his every move.
He was thorough. He flipped through her stacks of notes, shook her pens, looked under the desk, opened drawers and the closet doors, looked behind the curtains, checked the window. He pulled the cord on the drapes and said, “Leave them closed, if you don’t mind.”
Since she liked natural sunlight, she did mind, not that it mattered.
When he slid aside her Georgia O’Keeffe print, her hold on her anger began to fray. “Have you seen enough?”
“Doing my job. We need to check your computer.”
“I’ll do it myself.”
After a nod, he left, and she remained where she was, breathing in his scent, willing away his lingering presence. A minute later, realizing she hadn’t moved, she stood and crossed the room to nudge the O’Keeffe print back into place. Then she checked her computer and ran a diagnostic.
If she couldn’t run, she could work, or at least pretend to do something useful.