Tye Callahan’s base camp for the summer was an old camper picked up for two hundred bucks on Craig’s List. He’d fumigated his new acquisition, trying hard not to think about any less-than-wholesome activities that might have taken place on the worn-out bed. The camper was a cheap, handy place to crash and that was precisely what he needed. No fuss, no muss. His truck had a hitch too, so he could pull out of town any day of the week. Could, not would, but the possibility was there. In the meantime, he made do with his own personal fire pit, two Wal-Mart folding chairs, and a solar-heated shower. His new digs were definitely not the Ritz, but the first and last time he’d been inside a five-star hotel, he’d been running a Spec Ops mission, gunning for a suspected terrorist.
This was far better.
His temporary residence in Strong, California involved far fewer bullets and way more logistics—as did his current mission. He hoped. Moving silently, he got his first visual of the firehouse. The town’s firefighters had slapped a coat of bright red paint on the outside, but the place was still a work in progress and beyond old. Paint was a good start, though, the first coat glossy enough to see his reflection in. Nothing new there. Aviator sunglasses hid his eyes. The military haircut was still the same, as was the pair of worn BDUs and his favorite—okay, his only—pair of steel-toes. The T-shirt was new, navy blue cotton with Donovan Smoke Jumpers printed across the front in neat block letters. New job. New threads.
He didn’t look like a killer, which just proved that looks were deceiving.
The firehouse door was propped wide open, so there was nothing stopping his forward advance. Intel said his target was indeed inside the building. Painting. He’d spent his first three days in Strong learning the lay of the land, where the exit points were. Katherine Lawson rented a bungalow on Spruce Street—and he must be getting used to the wholesome Americana feel of the place because the fact that all the side streets in Strong were named after trees barely made him wince now—and she drove an impossibly small Kia with a correspondingly large dent in the front fender. Surrounded by friends and family, she had plenty of bolt holes if he scared her and she ran.
So he wouldn’t scare her.
That’s an order, sailor.
He paused just inside the door, quartering the hallway. No visible hostiles, but the open door to his left led out to the garage bays. One fire truck was partially visible, the bay echoing with the cheerful din of men checking gear. Framed black-and-white photographs of the firehouse in its glory days lined the hallway to his right. The place had looked better fifty years ago, no surprise. He’d looked better ten years ago himself. A strong smell of paint wafted from his right and… bingo.
He moved out. The hall went straight for twenty feet, then bent ninety degrees. As soon as he reached the turn, he got his back to the wall. Going in blind wasn’t an option he favored, so he peered around the corner and—holy Mary. Targets in the good old U.S. of A. were a hell of a lot prettier than anyone he’d made in Baghdad or Afghanistan.
When the blonde at the bar had mentioned painting, he’d imagined a gallon of Behr’s finest and some roller action. Color him wrong. His target faced off against a large wall half-filled with an explosion of pinks, greens and yellows, although he had no idea what the mess was supposed to be. She fisted a paintbrush like it was a weapon, reaching out to brush another stroke of bright pink over the layers and layers of paint on the wall, her ponytail bouncing as she worked. The shoulder-length hair was mostly brown, but the southernmost end was pink and—he squinted—purple. Huh. He hadn’t spotted any purple in the monstrosity she’d splattered on the wall.
She brandished the brush at the wall. “You, sir, are supposed to be done.”
Tye looked at the wall again. Nope. The wall still sported a good fifteen square feet of empty space. Unless this was some kind of post-modernist crap, she was way behind schedule.
She sighed, cursed—was that French?—and bent over to dunk her brush in the paint can by her bare feet.
Color him a dirty old man because, sweet Jesus, in all his thirty-two years he’d never seen a sexier pair of legs. Katherine Lawson—and if this woman wasn’t Katherine, he’d eat his BDUs—wore some kind of itty-bitty romper thing where the top and the bottom were all one piece. One very short, ass-hugging, boob-clinging piece covered with yellow and white polka dots and held up by thin straps. A lacy scrap of ribbon traced her cleavage and outlined sweet curves his fingers itched to touch. Hiding a bra underneath that top was mission impossible, which had to be his favorite part of her get-up. Dip his fingers beneath the edge and he’d find nothing but sweet, bare skin.
Stand down, sailor.
As she crouched to daub more paint on the bottom of the mural-in-progress, Tye reminded himself he wasn’t on leave. The romper pulled tight, outlining the curve of her ass and hinting at a tantalizing strip of hot pink that definitely advertised thong territory. He wasn’t here to—Jesus—date or even one-night-stand Katherine Lawson. There was one reason and one reason only for his presence in Strong. To make sure she was as okay as she could be and do whatever he could to make up for his part in her fiancé’s death. That dose of cold reality took care of whatever else might have been stirring in his BDUs.
This was Kade’s girl? The letters she’d written Kade had been funny, although not half as funny as the wicked drawings she’d doodled in the margins. Little vignettes from Strong, poking gentle fun at the town’s residents and small town life. Reassuringly, blessedly normal news and chitchat while he and Kade had been parked in the middle of hell. He hadn’t realized how young she was. Kade had been twenty-eight to Tye’s thirty-two, but Kade’s Katherine… was even younger. No wonder Kade had worried about her. Had made Tye promise to look after her if shit hit the fan and he couldn’t finish the job.
Except then… the firehouse siren went off. With a startled shriek—Katherine Lawson had a pair of lungs on her, because he heard her over the siren’s ear-splitting wail—she toppled backwards. Tye sprang into action, swiftly closing the gap between them to crouch down behind her and cup her elbows.
Her headed thudded backwards, banging into his chest even as her back hit his spread thighs. He caught a glimpse of wide brown eyes before she twisted in his arms. Yup. He’d scared the shit out of her. Way to go.
Her foot lashed out and the paint can flew up. An Olympic diver would have scored full marks for the perfect somersault—and then lost every last point on the ultimate splat. He’d had no idea one small can could contain that much paint. There was paint on the wall, on the floor, and all over those long, bare legs he’d be fantasizing about later tonight… He tightened his fingers on her elbows, holding her above the rapidly spreading pool of red.
“I’ve got this,” she snapped, jerking against his hold. “Let go.”
No, she didn’t.
But, hey, he knew no when he heard it and he was turning over a new, gentlemanly leaf. So he let go and she ass-planted right in the small lake of paint. Right at his feet.
“That’s what I was trying to avoid,” he observed.
“Merde,” she said with the worst French accent he’d ever heard and tried to get to her feet.
He could see what was coming next, but there was no way he moved in time. She slipped—the paint was as slippery as it was red—and her hands shot out, grabbing for support. Her palm slapped against his crotch, painting his BDUs with a red X-marks-the-spot.
“Oh, my God.” She stared at her hand like she couldn’t believe she’d just pawed a total stranger. Which meant she also stared right as his dick, which decided her words had to be a compliment. “I mean, mon dieu.”
He grinned as parts of him shot to life. She yanked her fingers away.
Merde, merde, merde. Katie scrambled backwards from the large, dominating male looking her over. Even crouched down, his steel-toes planted on the worn linoleum, he wasn’t on eye-level with her. And, oh God, she’d touched his goodies. His really, really impressive goodies. Maybe the floor would give way and take her with it. Or she’d wake up and this would be one of those dreams where you were strolling down Main Street in your laundry day undies while every hot guy in town stared, and not in a good way.
She closed her eyes.
When she opened her eyes, he’d be gone. Or this would be just a dream.
His rough, raspy voice sounded close to her ear. “Katherine Lawson?”
She cracked an eye. He was staring at her like she was crazy. And he knew her name. So maybe he wasn’t a random stranger. She didn’t know if that was better or worse.
She said the first thing that came to mind. “Je ne sais pas.”
Time for all those hours listening to her French MP4s to come in handy. She could be the non-English-speaking, soon-to-return-to-Paris sophisticated exchange student. Anyone, in fact, other than who she was.
He dipped his head, his mouth inching close to her ear. “You’re not French. And that’s the wrong answer.”
Darn it. He sounded certain. “How did you know?”
He crossed his arms over his chest, all stern-looking and in charge. He positively radiated danger and authority, except—her eyes dipped south before she could check herself—for the bright red handprint decorating his fly. Hard to be Mr. Big, Bad and Dangerous wearing that splash of color.
He didn’t look away, but the corner of his mouth quirked up. He didn’t seem mortally offended by her assault but, then again, he was a guy. For all she knew, he had a fantasy about getting it on in public in a firehouse.
He leaned toward her, his forearms relaxed on his thighs. He looked like the kind of man who ran ten miles a day in combat boots. Kade had done that. Every morning of their last summer together, she’d sat with her feet up on her porch, waving him on as he ran and catcalling him something fierce because that was what friends did. She eyed the BDUs and blinked. She didn’t have tears in her eyes. She didn’t.
“I spent six months in Afghanistan. The French peacekeeping force cursed worse than any SEAL,” he said.
He shrugged and leaned forward until she could feel the warmth of his body, his knees brushing hers. Then he whispered a really salty French curse in her ears. At least she thought he did. If she was being honest, her French didn’t extend past basic body parts.
Her eyes widened.
He rocked back on his heels. “Convinced?”
“Well, shoot. Merde,” she corrected. “I’m supposed to be practicing. To get better.”
She’d certainly planned originally on having an entire lifetime—or two or three, if the reincarnation thing turned out to be an option—to learn French. She needed the time because the language-learning gene had clearly skipped her entirely. It was just that learning the language was on Kade’s bucket list and she’d made conquering that list her own personal mission. She honestly didn’t know why Kade had wanted to learn French—probably because he wanted to go to France, or read a French menu, or impress a girl. Knowing Kade, the answer was all three. She wasn’t kidding herself. Kade was definitely the kind of guy who lived on Santa’s naughty list.
Her mystery man shook his head. “I’m going to be cashing a pension check before you get better. Your accent’s even worse than Kade’s was.”
She ignored his use of the past tense. “You know Kade?”
“Yeah. I did.” He flowed effortlessly to his feet, paint-free except for that single X-rated spot. How had he managed that? He strode away before she could correct him.
“Do,” she bellowed after him, standing up and keeping her feet this time. “Do know Kade.”
Just when she thought he’d left her standing there—admittedly, in a mess of her own making, but still, he returned with a fistful of rags. Practical and hot. It was her lucky day.
He squatted and wrapped a large hand around her right ankle. “Lift.”
Well. Oookay. Mr. Tall, Dark and Deadly clearly had the military training—although the haircut and the dog tags would have given it away. “Do know Kade,” she repeated.
He shook his head and wiped paint off her foot, carefully setting the clean foot down on a piece of paper towel. “He’s dead, Katherine.”
“Katie.” Her embarrassment at pawing the man’s crotch (and her second and third glances confirmed it was still a really, really impressive crotch) was not helped by the fact that he’d decided to play cleanup crew. On the other hand, refusing his help meant either tracking paint down the hallway to the bathroom—which she’d then have to clean up—or performing some kind of mutant snail crawl to said lavatory. That kind of thing ended up on Facebook fast.
“Katie, huh?” He flashed her another quick, hard look from eyes that said he’d seen plenty. That just reminded her of Kade again, so she grinned, forcing the dark thoughts back into their box.
Mystery man stared at her dimples, his fingers flexing on the rags. She had no idea what he was thinking, but she took a stab at it anyhow while she waited for the gods to bless her with secret mind-reading powers.
“Switch.” He tapped her left ankle with his fingers. The goose bumps were because the rag was cold and not for any other reason.
“Kade’s not dead.” Sure, she was apparently the only person who believed that, but one person was better than none. Every instinct screamed her fiancé was still alive. Obviously, he’d run into trouble—or he’d be here himself—but he was coming home.
The alternative was unacceptable.
“He is.” Her rescuer stood and placed his hands on her waist, swinging her effortlessly over the paint before she could so much as squeak.
“You can’t know that.”
“Can too. I was there.”
“Who are you?” she asked, when what she really meant was How?
Reaching over, she nudged his sunglasses up. He let her. That surprised her as much as anything about today because he wore that aura of a leashed predator like other men wore Ray-Bans. He was definitely deadly. Imagining him moving through the backstreets of Baghdad with a semi-automatic in front of him was all too easy. The look in his eyes was serious. Hard. The small lines fanning out from the corners could have been due to age. Sun. Experience. Any one or all of those three were possible, but the one thing they sure weren’t were laugh lines.
“I served on Kade’s SEAL team. Tye Callahan.” He stuck out a hand, looked down at hers, and handed her the pile of rags instead.
“Well, Tye Callahan,” she said, wiping off the paint the best she could, “I don’t believe Kade’s dead.”
“Uh-huh. I was there,” he repeated. “I saw the insurgents surround Kade. We were pinned down, taking some heavy fire. We’d called for back-up, but our boys had our position wrong and we got in the way of their insurgent meet-and-greet.”
“Really?” He sounded like a late night movie and she must have sounded as confused as she felt because he heaved a sigh and summed up for her.
“Kade got hit by friendly fire. There was nothing left but a crater.”
She stared at him. “You redefine blunt.”
He stared right back, not moving. “You want me to lie to you?”
She had a feeling he would, if that was what she wanted. His dark eyes held hers, making her wonder what else he’d seen. She pushed the wave of sadness away. No matter what Tye Callahan thought he’d seen, Kade was coming home. He was just delayed because that man had never been on time for a damned thing in his life. Believing anything else was impossible.
Taking the rags back from her, he spread her fingers out and began to methodically wipe the paint off.
“You fought with Kade?” Kade had mentioned the guy. What had he said? She racked her brain. Oh, yeah. Big, badass and deadly. She could see that. Unfortunately, her libido was jumping up and down, going Pick me!
“That’s me,” he agreed, his voice tight with an emotion she couldn’t identify.
“And you saw it all.”
“Jesus.” He balled up the dirty rags. “Sure. It was dark o’clock. Our Humvee hit an IED and we got out, which was dumb luck right there. We were pinned down in a back alley, taking fire from hostiles. Then, our team got into the act and fired. Shortly thereafter is the point where the insurgents—and Kade—cratered.”
“No one told me,” she said. “Not the details.”
Walking away from an IED was lottery ticket material in itself.
He shrugged. “It’s probably classified.”
“Why are you here?” She forced herself to step away.
“At the firehouse? Or in Strong?”
Both were good questions. Right now, he’d clearly made it his mission to help her clean up. Or, if she was being honest with herself, he’d taken charge of the mop up operation and she was just along for the ride.
“Either,” she said finally.
He nodded. “I promised Kade I’d look out for you. You got shoes?”
Well. Alrighty then. She hadn’t seen that one coming, but the request certainly sounded like Kade and right now she’d take any connection to him that she could get.
She motioned towards the corner. “Campers,” she said.
He stared. She’d bet he knew the brand name for every handgun out there, so she wasn’t taking any guff because she could name her shoemaker.
“Those are shoes?” He sounded slightly stunned.
What was wrong with him? Her shoes weren’t just nice—they were spectacular. The canvas shoes had a little curved wooden heel and green ribbons that tied over the instep for those days she needed a little extra jaunty in her step. Plus, not only were they covered in tiny pink roses, but they were comfortable and feminine. A double-win.
He looked skeptical. She looked at his feet and, sure enough, he sported a pair of combat boots so shiny she could see her face. Her red and pink face.
“You could buy a small car in some countries for what those shoes cost,” she pointed out. He still didn’t seem impressed and, really, the price tag wasn’t what made the shoes so awesome. That was the wooden heel, in her opinion. She’d spent hours trying to recreate that heel for herself.
“You can walk in those?”
She went for show instead of tell and slid her feet into the shoes, bracing a hand against his shoulder while she storked it and tied the laces. Probably, that touch was playing with fire but she’d already molested the man, so his opinion of her social skills couldn’t possibly sink any lower.
As soon as she was shod, he neatly placed her cans and brushes into the milk crate she’d lugged them in with. Apparently, he’d decided painting was done for the day. She snuck a peek at her watch and decided she could live with that. She had an art class to teach at the senior center in an hour and she needed to change first.
Since she was now wearing a quart of pink paint.
“I don’t need watching after,” she said.
He dropped the dirty rags into the trashcan at the end of the hallway. “Right. Humor me.”
“For how long?” Ten minutes, she decided. Humoring him could last that long while he walked her to her car. Then she’d pat him on the head—metaphorically speaking, of course, because no one could ever mistake this man for a puppy dog or anything else cuddly or cute—and they’d go their separate ways.
Which was really too bad.
He was the hottest man she’d seen all the summer and, given the delicious abundance of firefighters in Strong, that was saying something.
He shoved his sunglasses back into place.
“You’ve got me for the summer.”
He shouldered the door open and held it for her.
Oh, she wished.
She really, really wished he were hers.
Instead, he led the way to her car—which wasn’t creepy at all, she told herself, because it wasn’t like any of Strong’s firefighters would even fit in her tiny purple Kia, so it just had to be hers—put her things in the backseat, and stood there, hands on his hips and watched her drive off.
Copyright © 2014 by Anne Marsh
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