Two months ago…
SOMETHING WAS WRONG.
It wasn’t anything obvious, but Captain Matthew Girard felt it in his gut nonetheless. It was an itching sensation across his skin, a buzzing in his belly. Perhaps it was simply the weight of this mission pressing down on him. Though the Hostile Operations Team always performed critical missions, this one was even more so. Failure was not an option.
Beside him, Kevin MacDonald lay in the sand, his camouflage-clad form as still as marble until the moment he turned his head and caught Matt’s eye.
Kev’s hand moved. Doesn’t feel right, he signaled.
No, Matt signaled back. Count on Kev to pick up on it too. They’d been on a shitload of ops together. Matt knew that if his second-in-command was picking up on this weird vibe, it wasn’t just him. Yet the mission was too important to scrub without more than just a gut feeling to go on.
“It’s awful quiet in that compound.” Jim Matuzaki’s voice came through the earpiece a few moments later.
“Yeah,” Matt answered into the mic attached to his helmet. Almost as if the tangos inside knew that a HOT squad was coming and had abandoned the compound.
The stone structure thirty meters away rose two stories high and lacked windows. The roof was flat to enable gunmen to look out on the surrounding territory and defend the building.
But there were no gunmen. Not tonight.
In the surveillance photos, the gunmen were so plentiful they’d stood out against the pale roof like a porcupine’s quills. And now…
Though it was quiet here, gunfire exploded in the distance at regular intervals. A pitched battle between a pocket of enemy forces and a Ranger battalion raged a few miles away. HOT’s mission was quieter, but no less deadly.
They were here for Jassar ibn-Rashad, heir to Freedom Force leader Al Ahmad. But this mission was different. Usually, they killed the target. Tonight, they were extracting him. The rumored new Freedom Force mastermind was wanted higher up in the chain, and Matt didn’t question orders from the Pentagon. They wanted him, they were getting him.
Matt and his team had planned the mission to kidnap ibn-Rashad for weeks. Down to the last damn detail. And then they’d gotten word just a few days ago that ibn-Rashad was moving to this location.
The intel was good. Damn good. And their contact had been reliable on more than one occasion.
But this time?
The bad feeling in Matt’s gut was getting stronger by the second. He’d thought the kid seemed more nervous than usual the last time he’d gone to meet with him. The kid had always been nervous, but he’d seemed to trust Matt’s word. And Matt had trusted him as much as he was able. Trust, but verify.
Which the CIA had done. All the chatter indicated that ibn-Rashad had moved to this location. Nothing indicated that the Freedom Force had any idea they were being targeted. And in spite of the niggling feeling he’d had about the whole thing, Matt had chosen to press forward with the op.
Just then, a light flashed up on the roof and blinked out again. Male voices carried in the night, followed by a bark of laughter.
“Two men,” Marco San Ramos said over the headset. “Smoking.”
Marco and Jim were closer and had a better view through the glasses.
“Richie?” Jim’s voice came through the headset again, calling Matt by his team name.
He knew what the other man was asking. What they were all waiting for. In another location close by, Billy Blake, Jack Hunter, Chase Daniels, and Ryan Gordon also waited for the signal to go or to retreat. The timeline was tight, and if they didn’t go in now, they’d have to scrub the mission. They had precisely twenty minutes to infiltrate the compound, kill the tangos, and extract ibn-Rashad.
If they were going in.
“Mission is a go.” Matt made the split-second decision in spite of the acid roiling in his belly. What if they didn’t get a second chance at this? Lives hung in the balance with ibn-Rashad remaining free. This mission had always been risky, but what did they ever do that wasn’t?
Failing was simply not a part of his genetic makeup. Maybe he got it from the old man—that combination of stubbornness, meanness, and sheer cockiness that wouldn’t let him back down unless there was no other option. He wasn’t stupid, but he wasn’t a quitter either. And people’s lives hung in the balance.
People he could save. He’d made a promise, long ago, and he’d kept it. He was still keeping it.
“Repeat,” Matt said, his jaw tight, “mission is a go.”
“Copy,” Jim replied. The rest of the men chimed in. Seconds later, two cracks rang in the night. And then Billy’s voice came over the headset. “Targets on roof neutralized.”
Matt let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Jack “Hawk” Hunter could always be counted on to make the difficult shots. The dude was probably the best sharpshooter Matt had ever seen. Thank God.
Everything went like clockwork from that point on. They converged on the compound from their separate locations. Kev set a charge on the door and then it exploded inward. Billy tossed a flash-bang into the opening. It went off with a loud crack, the light flaring for a split second as bright as a nuclear flash. Whoever was in that room would be temporarily blind and disoriented after that baby went off.
The team rushed through the door, going right and left in succession, guns drawn, as pandemonium reigned inside. HOT worked like a well-oiled machine. Each man knew instinctively where to shoot, could have done so blindfolded.
Within seconds, the terrorists lay dead and the scent of spent gunpowder hung heavy in the air, along with the odors of smoke and stale sweat.
Sweat also trickled down the inside of Matt’s assault suit. He didn’t have time to be uncomfortable. Instead, he and Kev raced up the steps along with Marco and Jim, searching for ibn-Rashad, while the other guys secured the perimeter.
A methodical sweep of the rooms proved futile.
“He’s not here,” Marco spat. “There’s no one else.”
“Goddamn.” The skin-crawling sensation Matt had had from the beginning of this op was now a full-blown assault on his senses. Kev looked at him, his face bleak behind the greasepaint, his eyes saying everything Matt was thinking.
Jassar ibn-Rashad was supposed to be here. He’d been reported here as of this afternoon, in fact. There was a price on the man’s head and no reason to move from this location… unless he’d been tipped off they were coming.
Sonofabitch. Matt suddenly felt like he was standing in a lightning storm, holding a steel rod in the air. He wasn’t necessarily going to be struck down, but the possibility was damn good.
“Do another sweep for intel. West side. Three minutes, and we’re out,” Matt ordered.
“Copy,” Marco said. He and Jim headed for the west side of the house while Matt and Kev split up to cover the rooms at the east end. Matt swept into each room, weapon drawn, helmet light blazing. There was nothing. No papers, no computers, no media of any kind. Nothing they could use to determine what ibn-Rashad was planning next.
He hit the hall again and met up with Kev, who shook his head.
Jim and Marco arrived next, empty-handed. The four of them pounded down the stairs. Another quick sweep of the rooms on the ground floor, and they were back into the night with the rest of the team, running for the extraction point five miles away.
They hadn’t gone a mile when bullets blasted into the air beside them. A hot, stinging sensation bloomed in Matt’s side. He kept running anyway. Until they crested the dune they’d been traveling up and came face-to-face with a series of rocket-propelled grenade launchers pointed right at them.
“MM-MM, LOOK AT THAT GIRARD BOY, all grown up and better looking than a man ought to be,” said one of the ladies under the row of hairdryers.
Evie Baker’s heart did a somersault. Matt Girard. Dear God. “Careful,” Stella Dupre yelped as warm water sprayed against the side of the sink and hit her in the face.
“Sorry.” Evie shifted the hose.
She was a chef, not a shampoo girl, but she didn’t suppose that distinction mattered anymore since the bank now owned her restaurant. Shampoo girl in her mama’s beauty salon was just about the only job she could get at the moment, in spite of the resumes she’d blasted to every culinary school contact she could think of. The economy was bad and no one was hiring—and she didn’t have the luxury of waiting for something else to come along.
She didn’t think her skills would rust anytime soon, but it hurt not to be cooking right now. She should be playing with recipes, tweaking the flavors, and experimenting with new combinations. Instead, she was rinsing hair for a host of Stella Dupres—and doing it badly, apparently.
Mama glanced over at her, frowning even as the snip-snip of scissors continued unabated. The ladies in the salon swung to look out the picture window as Matt strode along, and the chatter ratcheted up a notch. The odor of perming solution and floral shampoo surrounded Evie like a wet blanket, squeezing her lungs. Her breath stuttered in her chest.
Matt Girard. She hadn’t seen him in ten years. Not since that night when he’d taken her virginity and broken her heart all at once. She’d known he was back in town—hell, the whole town had talked of nothing else since his arrival yesterday. She’d even known this moment was inevitable, except that she’d been doing her best to avoid all the places he might be for as long as possible.
They’d had an easy relationship, once. The kind where he could tug her ponytail, drop a frog in her shirt, or tease her endlessly about her buckteeth—which, thank God, she no longer had. But that had been when they were kids. Then she’d gotten breasts and started blushing whenever he looked her way, and things had changed. Or at least they had for her.
Matt, however, had been determined not to see her as anything other than little Evie Baker, the tomboy he used to play with when her mama went out to Reynier’s Retreat every week to fix his sick mother’s hair. He’d apparently persisted in that belief until the night she’d asked him, after a single shot of whiskey to give her courage, to be her first.
She’d had so many stupid dreams, and he’d crushed them all. But not before he gave her what she’d asked him for.
“Heard he got shot out there in Iraq,” Mrs. Martin said as Evie’s mama rolled a lock of gray hair around a fat pink curler.
“Yes indeed, got a Purple Heart,” Mama said. “The senator was right proud, according to Lucy Greene.”
“That’s not what I heard!” Joely Hinch crowed. “Miss Mildred told me he’s being kicked out of the Army because he didn’t obey orders.”
“Fiddlesticks,” Mrs. Martin said. “That boy bleeds red, white, and blue. Same as his daddy and every last Girard that ever was born up in that big house.”
Joely crossed her arms, looking slightly irritated to be contradicted. “You just wait and see,” she said smugly.
“Shush up, y’all,” Mama said. “I think he’s coming in.”
Evie’s heart sank to her toes. She wasn’t ready for this. Not on top of everything else. She was feeling so bruised and battered after her failure with the restaurant. She did not need Matt Girard swaggering back into her life and making her feel all the chaotic emotions she’d once felt for him.
She finished Stella’s shampoo and wrapped her hair in a towel. “I’m not tipping you, Evangeline.” Stella sniffed. “You have to be more careful than that.”
“I know. And I don’t blame you at all.” Except, of course, she desperately needed every penny she could get if she hoped to escape this town again. It wasn’t that Rochambeau was bad—it’s that it was bad for her. Always had been.
Here, she always felt like the awkward kid who lived in a tiny cottage with her mama and wore secondhand clothes because that’s all they could afford. Didn’t matter that the clothes were no longer secondhand, or that she wasn’t a kid anymore. Or that she didn’t care if the girls who lived in the nice big houses with the manicured lawns didn’t like her; she still felt like that girl who wanted so desperately to fit in.
And the biggest part of fitting in had, at one time, relied on the man striding toward her mama’s salon like he didn’t have a care in the world. Evie’s heart did a somersault as he reached the door.
Magazines snapped open in a flurry as the ladies tried to appear casually disinterested in the six-foot-two hunk of muscle about to open the glass door. More than one pair of eyes peeked over the tops of glossy pages as he stepped up to the sidewalk from the street.
No way in hell was she sticking around for this. It wouldn’t take these ladies more than a few moments to remember the scandalous rumors about her and Matt, and she didn’t want to be here when they did.
“If you’ll excuse me, I have to get some things out of the back.” Without waiting for a reply, she strode toward the stockroom. Rachel Mayhew, Mama’s regular shampoo girl, looked up and smiled as she passed. Rachel was only twenty, so she probably didn’t know about Evie’s disastrous night with Matt. Or maybe she did, considering the way this town talked.
What should have been Evie’s own private shame had all too quickly become common knowledge back then. Part of that was her own fault, and part was Matt’s—but she still wasn’t sticking around to endure the sidelong glances and whispered conversations.
Life had beaten her up enough recently and she wasn’t in the mood to feel like a wounded teenager today.
A month ago, she’d said goodbye to her dream. It still hurt. Her lovely little bistro in Florida was now in the bank’s hands, and all because she’d trusted a man. Or mostly because she’d trusted a man.
Her restaurant, Evangeline’s, hadn’t exactly been doing a booming business, but things had been getting better and growth had been steady. It had, for a time, flourished under David’s management, which was how she’d grown to trust his insistence that he knew what he was doing and that she should spend her time perfecting her recipes instead of worrying over the mundane details.
David was cocky, charming, and utterly confident. She’d found that intriguing. One thing had led to another, and they’d ended up sharing a bed from time to time. She’d liked David, thought they were on the same page. He was an accountant who loved to cook, who knew a lot about social media and advertising, and who increased her profits by a few simple—or so he’d said—marketing tricks.
All of it lies. He’d increased her profits, yes. But then he’d robbed her blind. She’d seen the books on a regular basis and never known anything was out of whack. He hadn’t meant her to know, of course, but it still bugged her that she hadn’t seen through David’s schemes.
No, she’d been so thrilled with the way things were going that she’d spent more time doing what she really loved—cooking and creating recipes for the Cajun fusion dishes she’d become known for in their community. A mistake that she still kicked herself over, even though David had covered his tracks too well for her to see anything amiss.
She’d trusted him. But how had she not known he was bad news? How had she let herself be fooled by a handsome face and charming manners?
She’d learned in the aftermath of the destruction he’d wrought that the authorities thought he had ties to organized crime. He’d been skimming money, along with other more nefarious schemes such as money laundering and extortion. She hated to think about it. Evangeline’s had been everything she’d ever wanted when she’d broken out of her hometown and gone to cooking school a few years ago.
But here she was again, back in Rochambeau and washing hair in her mama’s salon, just like when she’d been in high school. Loser. All she wanted was to get out again at the first opportunity. Before that loser feeling wrapped around her throat and squeezed the rest of her dreams away.
Matt reached for the door, and Evie darted behind the stockroom curtain. Her heart slammed against her ribs as the tinkling bell announced his arrival. She turned to lean against the doorjamb and pushed the rose-print polyester aside with one finger. She was being silly. He wasn’t here because of her. He was here because his sister had sent him on some errand or other for her wedding.
Hell, he probably wouldn’t even blink twice if he ran smack into her.
Evie frowned. Her eyes slid down his body and back up again. He was still something to look at. Something easy on the eyes and hard on the senses.
He’d changed in ten years, but some things were still the same. That cocky swagger as he’d approached the shop. He’d always walked like his daddy owned all the oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Which he damn near did. The Girards had been Rochambeau’s wealthiest family for as long as anyone could remember.
Matt’s dark hair was cut very short, and his shoulders were much broader than when he’d been seventeen. The fabric of his white cotton T-shirt stretched across a wide chest packed with muscle. His bare forearms made her throat go dry.
Something quivered deep inside her, the way it always had from the moment she’d become aware of Matt as more than a boy she played with. Something hot and dark and secret. Evie squashed the feeling ruthlessly.
He pushed a hand through his hair, every muscle of his torso seeming to bunch and flex with the movement. She would have sworn she heard a collective sigh from the ladies in the salon. Rachel absently ran water in her sink, cleaning out the soap bubbles from the last shampoo. When she got too close to the edge, the water sprayed up into her face.
Evie would have laughed if she too weren’t caught up in Matt’s every move. She’d adored him ten years ago and worshipped him until the night she’d given him her virginity.
What a mistake that had been. Not because the sex had been awful. No, it’d been pretty exciting, all things considered. It was what had happened afterward that ruined it for her. The shift in their relationship hadn’t been what she’d expected. And then he’d been such an ass about it.
“Afternoon, ladies.” Matt tipped his head to them.
“Afternoon,” they murmured in unison, voices sugary and lilting, eyes assessing and cataloging him.
“Miz Breaux.” He took her mother’s hand and kissed it like a courtier.
“Oh, shoot.” She smacked him playfully on the shoulder. “What do you want? Don’t you know this is a beauty parlor? Sid’s Barber Shop is on Main Street.”
“Well, ma’am.” He grinned that devil-may-care grin Evie remembered so well. “I figured Old Sid can’t see so well anymore and I’m still fond of my ears. I’d much rather have a lady’s touch, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh my.” Mama giggled. Giggled.
Evie rolled her eyes. No wonder she couldn’t pick a decent man. She came by the defect genetically. Mama had been divorced three times. She’d gone back to using her maiden name after the second one in order to avoid confusion. Evie had her daddy’s last name, her sixteen-year-old sister had a different name, and Mama had yet another one.
“You don’t even look like you need a haircut,” Mama was saying.
He scrubbed a hand over the nape of his neck. “My sister thinks I do. And it’s her wedding.”
Mama giggled again. What was it about that man that turned even the smartest woman into an airhead? “Well, we can’t let Christina be disappointed then, can we? But you’ll have to wait until I finish with Mrs. Martin.”
Mama gestured toward the pink vinyl seats in the front of the shop, and Matt gave her the famous Girard smile that used to melt the female hearts of Rochambeau High School. Evie felt a little hitch in her own heart, in spite of herself.
Why did he still have to be so damn good-looking? Was it too much to ask for him to be balding or growing a potbelly? Apparently so. Mother Nature was cruel.
“Sure thing, Miz Breaux.”
Before he’d taken three steps toward the waiting area, Mama said, “You remember my daughter, Evangeline, don’t you? She was a year behind you in school. Y’all used to play when I’d come out to do your mama’s hair every week.”
Evie’s heart crashed into her ribs. The ladies in the shop grew quiet while they waited for his answer. She knew what they were thinking. What they were waiting for. Why should it bother her what they thought? What any of them thought?
It had been ten years ago, and it didn’t matter anymore. She was grown up. Matt was grown up. Who cared?
Except that’s not how Rochambeau worked, and she knew it. It might have been ten years, but he’d humiliated her. He’d broken her heart and tossed her to the wolves when she wasn’t prepared to deal with the consequences of her actions. Not that anyone knew for sure what had happened, but rumors were usually enough in Rochambeau.
“Yes, ma’am, I sure do. How is she?” He didn’t sound in the least bit remorseful. But why would he? He’d departed for college a week later, and she’d been the one left behind to pick up the pieces.
“Evie’s great,” Mama announced. “Been living in Florida, but she’s home now. Maybe you can talk to her while you wait. Y’all can catch up.”
Evie’s stomach plummeted to her toes. Oh no. No, no, no. What if she went into the bathroom and refused to come out? Or just quietly slipped out the back door and disappeared for a couple of hours? It was time for her lunch break, and—
Coward. Evie stiffened her spine. She wasn’t running away. If it wasn’t now, it’d be some other time. She couldn’t avoid him forever. And far better to get this over with in public, while she could maintain her dignity and show the good people of Rochambeau there was nothing left to talk about.
“That’d be great,” he said in an aw shucks way she didn’t buy for a second. He might talk smooth and act all friendly and gee-whiz ma’am, but she knew better. God, did she know better.
He was nothing more than a self-centered, arrogant jerk with a giant sense of entitlement and no mercy for those he considered beneath him. A little corner of her heart still hurt like it had been yesterday, but she ruthlessly stomped on the feeling until it stopped.
“Good,” her mother said as if it were the best idea in the world, her gaze sweeping the shop. “She was here just a minute ago. Evie? Evie?”
“She went in the back,” Stella offered with what Evie was convinced was a hint of glee. Bitch.
Right. There was nothing Evie could do except face this particular blast from the past. Because there was no way on earth she’d ever let Matt Girard humiliate her again. She’d learned the hard way, but at least she’d learned.
“I’m right here, Mama,” she said, whipping off her smock and pushing back the curtain.
MATT STILL DIDN’T KNOW WHAT he was doing at the Cut ‘N Curl, but the second Evie Baker walked out of the stockroom, he felt as if someone had dropped a truckload of cement on his head. He hadn’t seen her in ten years, not since the night he’d taken her virginity in the back of his daddy’s Cadillac.
He’d never forgotten that night, never forgotten what a dickhead he’d been. He didn’t expect she had either, which is why he wasn’t surprised that she was currently glaring daggers at him.
Little Evie Baker. Not so little anymore.
He remembered the first time he’d ever seen her, when he’d been seven and his mama had first gotten sick. Norma Breaux always brought Evie with her when she came out to Reynier’s Retreat. He hadn’t known any of the kids in town because he’d been in private school then, but when Evie didn’t scream after he dropped a worm on her, he knew he’d found someone fun to play with. His sister always screamed and hated even a speck of dirt to land on her pretty clothes, but Evie had been as good as any boy when it came to getting dirty.
Matt’s temples throbbed. He’d never wanted to hurt her, God knew, but he’d been in a bad place back then. No, he’d been an arrogant, entitled prick. He knew he shouldn’t have touched her when she’d asked, but he’d done it anyway.
By that point, he’d been trying for years to ignore the way she’d changed—one day she started wearing dresses and blushing whenever he looked at her; the next she had breasts and curves and he had no clue what to say to her anymore. But then she was there, standing before him with her eyes flashing and her cheeks flushed, and she’d just been so damn pretty, and so damn exciting, that he’d taken her hand, led her out to his daddy’s car, and drove them away from the party they’d been at.
He’d felt guilty every moment since, but it was simply another thing to add to the heap of guilt inside his soul. Later, when he’d gotten his head on a bit straighter, he’d thought about calling her to apologize, but too much time had passed. By then he’d figured it was better to let it stay in the past.
A mistake, he thought now. This woman was not happy to see him. There was no pushing aside old mistakes, no going back to a simpler time when they’d gone fishing for crawdads together or sat in a tall tree and watched the gators glide through the bayou.
This Evie Baker was not in a forgiving mood, and he didn’t blame her at all.
Still, a very male part of him couldn’t help but appreciate her on another level. The level that had gotten him in trouble in the first place.
Evie had been a lovely teenager, but she’d blossomed into an even lovelier woman. And he shouldn’t do a damn thing about it, no matter how much he might want to. If he’d met her in a bar, he’d do everything he could to get her to go home with him.
But she was not a woman in a bar, and he owed her more than that. Matt focused on her pissed-off posture and flashing eyes.
“Evie.” She stopped in front of him, arms crossed.
Jesus. She was all curves and sleek skin in a pair of cut-off jean shorts and a body-hugging pink tank top. Her legs were still long, still built to hug a man’s waist.
Shit. He didn’t need to be thinking that way.
And yet, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t help it. It was the first thought that sprang to his head when his gaze glided over those legs. He’d kick himself for it later. Right now, he had a bigger problem: keeping his body from responding the way it wanted to at the memory of the last time he’d seen her.
She’d been naked, her lush form arrayed before him, her skin hot, silky, and damp with sweat. She’d been so damn sweet, so innocent. And it’d been a long time since he’d had any sweetness in his life.
“You’re looking all grown up.” He could have bit his tongue off when her eyes narrowed.
“It’s what happens in ten years.” Hostility swirled around her like a tornado.
He stretched his arm along the back of the chair beside him with a casualness he didn’t feel. New tactic. “So how have you been?”
She was smiling now, but he wasn’t fooled. Violet eyes looked back at him with a mixture of embarrassment and fury. He’d done that. He’d put that look on her face, and it bothered him more than he could say.
God, he had a lot to answer for.
“Great,” he said, parroting her like an idiot. “Why don’t you have a seat?”
She shook her long black ponytail. He remembered wrapping his fists in that hair and tugging when they’d been children. And then he remembered wrapping his hands in her hair for a completely different reason.
“Thanks, but I can’t stay. It was nice to see you.”
“Wait a minute,” he said as she moved away. She stopped and half-turned toward him. He glanced at the ladies watching them. They were just out of earshot, but he leaned forward and pitched his voice lower anyway. “What’s your hurry? We’ve hardly said two words to each other.”
He knew the reason, but he didn’t want her to go. Not yet. There was something about having her near, something that sparked inside him and made him feel somewhat human again. He didn’t know why, and he didn’t know if it would last.
But he liked it. For the first time in months, he felt as if he could breathe again. As if he’d come home for real instead of simply going through the motions.
She sighed and turned to face him completely. He got the distinct impression she was calling up some sort of internal armor system in order to deal with him. Definitely not what he was used to in a woman—but then nothing about his relationship with Evie had ever been normal.
Usually, with other women, he was the one with the internal armor. He was the one who pulled away, because he had nothing to offer beyond a few stolen nights before he was back out on a mission.
But dealing with Evie felt completely different.
Her chin thrust out, her eyes flashing cold fire. “It’s not personal. I’m just busy. And there’s really nothing to say, is there?”
Matt stood. Hesitated when she seemed to shrink away from him. His height and size could be intimidating, he knew, but he hadn’t expected that reaction from her of all people. As if she were afraid of him. She’d never been afraid of him, even when he’d jumped out from behind a tree and screamed bloody murder. She’d shrieked, of course—and then she’d socked him.
But this, here and now… it loosened any remaining restraints on his tongue.
“I’m sorry.” He hadn’t known quite what he would say if he ever saw her again, but that was certainly the least of what he owed her.
“For what?” The question surprised him, though perhaps it shouldn’t. Evie Baker never had liked to show any weakness. She glanced over her shoulder to see if anyone was listening, lowered her voice another notch. “I came on to you, remember?”
At least she didn’t pretend not to know what he was talking about. He admired that. And he also admired the way she always tried to take responsibility, even when it wasn’t her fault. It was frustrating as hell, but so was Evie. She’d never backed down from a challenge in all the time he’d known her.
Still, she wasn’t the one at fault here. He was. “Yeah, but you probably didn’t expect me to brag about it.”
Anger slid through him. He’d been such an arrogant young fuck back then. Stupid. She’d given him her innocence, and he’d trampled it in the dirt like it was his due. He still had no idea what he’d been thinking when it was over and he’d swaggered back to the party.
He was leaving in a week, going off to West Point, and he remembered being so ready to escape. Ready to get the hell out of his father’s house and be his own man. He’d been drunk, stupid, and filled with a rage at the world that he couldn’t explain.
Evie shrugged. “What guy wouldn’t have told his buddies, especially at that age? It was a long time ago.”
He stepped closer, lowered his voice as Rachel Mayhew turned off the taps to her latest shampoo customer and cocked an ear in their direction.
“Maybe so, but I shouldn’t have done it. We were friends and then—”
Her gaze snapped to his. “Were we? Were we ever?”
He felt her words like a barb to his heart. He deserved them. “I thought so. But I fucked up. I’m sorry.”
He didn’t bother to tell her he’d been falling-down drunk when he’d spilled the details of their evening to his friends. It wasn’t an excuse.
She drew in what he assumed was a calming breath. And then she lifted those lashes and speared him with her pretty eyes again. “You did fuck up. Bad. But nobody gave you a hard time about it. They reserved that for me.”
Shame rolled over him. “I know the guys made your life hell after I left.”
“Not just the guys. Oh, they thought I was an easy mark, that’s certain. But the girls weren’t particularly nice either. Well, some of them. It hurt. A lot.”
Before he could even begin to answer, to find the right thing to say, she seemed to shake her head as if clearing away the fog of pain and anger. “Ancient history though. Over and done and not your problem.” She glanced down at her bare wrist. “Oh, hey, look, it’s time to get going. As much as this little reunion has buoyed my spirits, I gotta run.”
The door chimed then and a petite blond woman barreled inside, stopping Evie in her tracks and cutting off any further apologies Matt tried to make.
He recognized her cousin right away, but Julie Breaux didn’t even spare him a glance.
“Hey, Evie, can you see if there’s room to fit me in? I want to get my highlights done before the party tonight.”
“Sure, let me check the schedule.” Evie turned away and the woman started to follow, then came up short as if she’d just realized he was there.
If looks could freeze a guy in his tracks, he’d be stuck here into the next millennium. Julie arched an eyebrow, coolly assessing him.
“Heard you got a whole battalion captured out there in Iraq.”
Jesus. There was nothing this town didn’t blow out of proportion. Though what he usually did for the military was top secret, the Department of Defense propaganda machine had to work overtime once the Freedom Force took to the airwaves with news of their captives. By the time the DoD was done, Matt and his team looked like average G.I. Joes on a rescue mission rather than part of an elite counter-terrorism unit.
Which was precisely as it should be. There was no compromising the identity of HOT. Ever.
“Nope, it was just a platoon,” Matt replied with a sarcasm he didn’t feel. Jim Matuzaki and Marco San Ramos weren’t ever coming home again because of him. Because he hadn’t listened to his gut that night.
Not a day went by when he didn’t think about them. Two guys he’d shared dusty foxholes and claustrophobic caves with, who’d watched his back more than once. He’d failed them by not scrubbing that mission. He’d wanted to get Jassar ibn-Rashad and save lives, but he’d lost two instead.
Ibn-Rashad was still out there. Still planning to kill.
And Matt might not ever get a chance to do a damn thing about it. His future with HOT was shaky at best after the failure of the last op. His team had been inactive for weeks while other HOT teams came and went. They’d had to sit and watch others go into the field, knowing they’d failed at their task, knowing others were in danger because of them.
Soon, he’d find out his fate. Next week, when he left Rochambeau, he had to attend a hearing on what had gone wrong out there in the desert. He would take responsibility for what had happened to his team, and he might never go on another operation again. His days in HOT very well could be over.
The place where he’d been shot still throbbed. The bullet—a long, ugly mother called a 7.62×39—had pierced the skin, but it had lost momentum going through his assault suit and gotten stuck without passing into his body. He’d been lucky that day, even if he hadn’t deserved it. And luckier still when another HOT squad infiltrated the camp and rescued his team before the rest of them could be killed.
Standing here now, in a beauty salon in Rochambeau, was surreal at best. That sense of unreality he’d been living with for the last couple of months grew stronger. What the hell was he going to do if he got assigned to a desk for the rest of his career? It would, in effect, be a demotion, even if they never stripped him of rank.
And it would mean the end of everything that made any sense to him.
“So how’s Christina doing?” Julie asked. “I haven’t seen her in a couple of weeks now.”
“Fine. Nervous, maybe, but fine.”
“That’s good. She’s nice, your sister.” Unlike you remained unspoken.
“She is indeed.”
Julie’s gaze dropped over him then. “So you gonna be at the lake tonight?” she asked, switching gears on him so fast he had to shake off a sense of whiplash.
He looked at Evie, didn’t miss the look of disbelief that crossed her face as she glanced up from the appointment book. Her cousin had just performed a one-eighty turn at ninety miles an hour, going from hostile to flirtatious in a heartbeat.
Julie stuck out her lower lip. “Too bad.”
Definitely a sexual vibe there. He tried to imagine it. Couldn’t. But he could imagine it with Evie. It’d been far too long since he’d had a woman, and though Evie was the wrong woman for a variety of reasons, he couldn’t help but think about it.
“Great news, Jules,” Evie said. “Mama can fit you in in about an hour.”
“Sounds good,” Julie said as she went and leaned on the counter beside Evie.
“Will you be there tonight?” Matt asked Evie as she penciled her cousin’s name in the appointment book. He didn’t know why he was asking, since he had to attend a formal dinner for Christina and her fiancé tonight. But he wanted to know.
She looked up, her gaze locking with his, and he felt the jolt inside, right at gut level.
Julie pinched her arm. “Yes, you will. I promised everyone I’d bring you. You’ve been in town for almost a month and you keep promising to go. It’s been so long, and everyone misses you.”
Evie looked skeptical and Matt felt a throb of irritation at her cousin. “I really don’t think—” Evie began.
“Aw, Evie, come on. It’s just one night. Don’t be so stuck up.”
“We’ll talk about it later.” Evie was clearly not happy with the idea. She put the pencil down and grabbed Julie’s arm. “Let’s go get some lunch. Give your sister my congratulations, in case I don’t see her before Saturday,” she said to Matt.
The two of them headed for the back of the shop, disappearing behind the same flowered curtain she’d emerged from earlier. Matt turned and sank down on the pink vinyl seat again, feeling oddly numb and out of place.
He was home in a pink nightmare of a salon, Evie hated him, and Jim and Marco were dead. The contrast was so stark, so gut-wrenching. Half the time he just wanted to shout at everyone that they had no idea what kind of things happened out there in the world and how dare they go on as if everything was normal, but the rational part of him knew they wouldn’t understand. Not only that, but they’d also think he was crazy.
He thought of Evie’s dark hair and flashing eyes. For a few minutes, she’d made him feel grounded. Real. Now he felt the way he had for the past two months: as if he were walking around with his guts on the outside.
“You ready, sugar?” Norma Breaux said then, whipping Matt from his dark thoughts. She shook out a hot-pink plastic smock and wrapped it around his neck as he sat down in her chair.
He was ready for anything these days.
And none of it good.
* * * * *
French Quarter, New Orleans
The files were gone. The computer. Everything. He’d been careless. David West melded into the shadows of the building, peering into the dark alley. Rivera’s grunts had been in his room. He couldn’t go back, nor could he verify what he knew to be true. But he didn’t need to. He’d seen them, seen Brianna Sweeney leaving with her two thugs in tow.
Once, he’d been one of them, doing as he was told, moving into an area and enforcing Ryan Rivera’s will. He’d been the bean counter, much higher on the brain meter than any of those three, but he knew them intimately. Had worked with them countless times.
Most recently with Brianna in Florida at a place called Evangeline’s. He thought he’d evaded the organization this time, but sonofabitch if he hadn’t quite done it after all.
He’d wanted out, but apparently once Rivera had a hold of you, you never got out.
Cold sweat dripped down his spine. He’d blown it. He should have moved on by now, but he’d holed up here for the past two weeks instead, indulging in the decadence and sin the Quarter had to offer. He’d gotten cocky, and he’d gotten stupid. He’d been so sure he’d covered his tracks. He was going by a new name, and he always paid in cash.
He’d left Florida five months ago, moving around constantly until he’d landed here. He’d been safe, goddamn it! Certain he’d pulled it off. How had they found him?
He shook his head. It still swam from one too many absinthe drips. He pressed a hand to the damp brick to steady himself and swallowed down a flood of acid in his throat. The sounds of revelry and jazz wafted down the alley from Bourbon Street. The air was hot and sweet, saturated with humidity, liquor, and the smells of spicy food.
David sucked in a sharp breath against the bile rising in his throat. Brianna had his files now, the bitch. Panic flooded him. Briefly, he wondered if she would negotiate. If she would consider a cut of the money he’d taken to give them back again.
He put his forehead against the brick and breathed deep. Fuck no, she wouldn’t negotiate. He knew that. He’d tried once before when he’d sensed she was as sick of working for Rivera as he was.
But Brianna was tough, and she wasn’t caving. And now he was out here with his dick swinging in the wind. He had no guarantees without those files. The money wouldn’t do him a damn bit of good if he was dead.
It had taken years to build the dossier. It was his protection, his assurance that Rivera wouldn’t send anyone to kill him. So long as he had the files, he was safe. Or so he’d told himself—except that he hadn’t quite believed it enough to live out in the open under his own name.
He should have set up an online backup, but he’d been too worried it would somehow fall into the wrong hands. He didn’t want evidence of Rivera’s crimes—and his by extension—sitting on a server somewhere just waiting for the Feds to find it.
It was different if he traded it for immunity, but to have the Feds get all the info without him having it as a bargaining chip?
Right now, he almost wished he’d taken the chance. If he had parked those files somewhere online, he wouldn’t be standing here and cursing himself six ways to Sunday. He’d only be a simple download away from replacing the evidence, but instead the files were gone and he was as vulnerable as a virgin in a whorehouse.
He should have moved to a new location by now. That was the second dumbass thing he’d done. He’d stayed here when he should have gone south and kept going until he nearly fell off the tip of South America. He was tired of doing Rivera’s dirty work, tired of being the brains behind the financials and getting nothing in return. Hell, Rivera hadn’t even recognized how valuable an asset he could be.
But David had gotten the last laugh when he’d skimmed a cool ten million for himself out of the Florida operations. He wasn’t greedy—Rivera was worth far more—but he wanted his due.
Yeah, he’d run Evie’s business into the ground in the process. Maybe he shouldn’t have done it. Her paltry earnings were only a drop in the bucket of his ten mil—but it had gotten him what he wanted faster than if he’d waited another few months to skim the money out of Rivera’s operations. Simply put, he’d had no choice if he wanted his freedom. And he wanted that far more than he’d wanted anything else.
David shook his head again. It wasn’t too late for him yet. Rivera probably thought he had him between a rock and a hard place. But Rivera didn’t know a damn thing about him if he believed that.
There were other kinds of backups. Other ways to hide information. David just had to go and sweet-talk Evie one more time. A much more difficult task this time around, not only because she was pissed at him but also because Brianna Sweeney was on his ass.
But desperation had a way of making a man do whatever it took. He would get those files back again.
And then he would disappear for good.
EVIE FROWNED AT HERSELF IN the mirror as she turned this way and that.
“You look gorgeous, Evie. Now let’s get moving.”
Evie turned to her cousin with a sigh. “It’s a lovely dress, but I’m not quite sure it’s appropriate for an evening at the lake.”
What she really wanted was to pull on her faded jeans and a T-shirt, but Julie wouldn’t hear of it.
As expected, Julie scoffed. “Please. We’ll be at the pavilion—and the other girls will be dressed up too, you’ll see.”
Julie smoothed a hand over the denim mini she wore. She’d paired it with a silk tank and a pair of pink platforms, and she looked gorgeous. Julie was petite and cute, whereas Evie was tall and not so cute.
Evie tugged at the hem of the dress. It was a pale pink color with wide straps and a skirt that was a hair too tight. And short. The three-inch heels Julie had talked her into wearing didn’t help either. “It’s a bit short, don’t you think?”
Julie shook her auburn ringlets. “No. It looks amazing on you! That dress has never looked as good on me. Blush is so not my color.”
Evie sighed and gathered the tiny purse Julie had insisted she carry. “This really isn’t me, Jules. I’m a chef. I work in hot kitchens all day and I wear comfortable clothes.”
“You aren’t a chef right now,” Julie pointed out. “Think of it like you’re on vacation. Everybody gets dressed up on vacation, right?”
“Yes, but I don’t feel like I’m on vacation.”
Julie huffed. “Is this about Matt Girard and what happened back in high school?”
Evie felt a tiny pinch in her chest. “Of course not.”
Julie looked militant. “Good. Because that was high school, Evie, and we aren’t there anymore. No one gives a good goddamn that you slept with Matt our junior year or that he bragged about it. Half those girls would have dropped their panties in a New York second if they’d thought he’d give them a lay. Still would.”
Evie’s skin was hot and she wasn’t quite sure why. Because Julie was right, and she really didn’t give a shit what people thought about her these days—her reaction in the salon notwithstanding. She wasn’t sixteen anymore, and she couldn’t be hurt by whispers and rumors.
No, her issues with this town were the same issues she’d always had—the ones where she felt like there was a box she was supposed to stay in and she just didn’t want to. Aside from that, her only problem today had been coming face-to-face with the boy she used to love and remembering the way he used to make her feel.
“Fine, I’ll wear it. Let’s go.”
“Excellent,” Julie replied. “Besides, you look hot—and you want to impress Matt, don’t you?”
Evie’s stomach bottomed out. “Why would I want to do that?” She waved a hand. “He’s old news. Besides, he’s not coming, remember?”
Julie laughed, her dark eyes sparkling. “Right. Didn’t you see the way he was looking at you today? He’ll be there.”
“He wasn’t looking at me any way. We were just talking.”
Julie shook her head. “Girl, I think the heat in those kitchens has gone to your head. Matt Girard is just about the hottest thing on two legs, and he was definitely looking at you with interest. He wants in your panties again, trust me.” Julie grinned. “And if you’re smart, you’ll let him.”
Evie felt as if her cheeks were six shades of fuchsia. The last time she’d let a man in her panties, she’d lost her damn restaurant. And though the thought of Matt there made her body tingle in ways it hadn’t in a very long time, there was no way she was going to repeat the mistakes of her past. They might not be teenagers, and she might not give a damn what anyone said these days since she was no longer vulnerable, but sleeping with Matt was just a bad idea all around.
Her feelings for Matt had always been a giant tangle, like a ball of Christmas lights buried in the garage all year, and she really didn’t want to start sorting them out again.
“He won’t be there, Jules. Mark my words.”
Julie sighed. “Fine. But he will be in town for a few days, so do yourself a favor and don’t push him away when he comes around. You definitely need to get laid.”
Evie shook her head. “Maybe so, but he’s the wrong man to do it.”
Julie snorted. “Well, I can promise you one thing. If he looks at me that way, I’m not saying no.”
“Go for it,” Evie said, though a little twinge of jealousy speared into her at the thought.
“There’s always Jimmy Thibodeaux, if you insist on saying no to Matt. He’s been asking after you since he got back.”
Evie frowned. Jimmy had been one of the worst back in high school after Matt had left. Always calling her Easy Evie and grabbing her ass. She’d hated him then. She didn’t much care for the idea of him now since she’d heard he hadn’t changed much. Thankfully, he’d been away in Montana on a hunting trip for most of the month and she hadn’t yet had the dubious pleasure of running into him again.
Julie shrugged. “Probably best. Jimmy’s not been quite right in the head lately. He pulled a knife on Ginny Temple a couple of months ago.”
Evie’s heart somersaulted. “What do you mean?”
“She said something about his hunting dog crapping on her lawn and Jimmy waved that knife around like he was some kind of avenger. But nothing came of it.”
Evie shook her head. Damn crazy Cajun redneck. She hadn’t missed that about Rochambeau at all. “And you were seriously suggesting I should sleep with him?”
Julie’s mouth turned down. “Of course not! I was kidding. Geez, you’ve lost your sense of humor lately.”
“It hasn’t been a good few months, Jules.”
“Which is why I said you should get laid. Take your mind right off it. But no Matt and definitely no Jimmy.” She patted Evie’s arm. “We’ll find someone.”
“I’d rather we didn’t.”
Julie grinned. “We’ll see. Now let’s stop talking about it and get going.”
Evie’s little sister looked up from her position in front of the television as they walked through the living room. Evie’s heart twisted at the look on the girl’s face. Evie had been home a month now, and Sarah was still sullen and withdrawn.
Not that she could blame the kid. There was ten years difference in their ages, and Evie hadn’t exactly been around for the past few years. No, she’d been off doing her own thing and calling home on occasion rather than making an effort to be a part of her little sister’s life. She hadn’t thought of it much at the time, but being home and seeing the effects—well, it made her feel rotten every time she saw that wary look on Sarah’s face.
“Where are y’all going looking like that?” Sarah was curious, but her tone said she couldn’t care less.
“It’s a party.” Julie put her hands on her hips. “For adults.”
Sarah snorted. “Yeah, I figured that.”
“I don’t have to go,” Evie said, though Julie made a noise when she did. “Is there something you want to do tonight? We could go for pizza, or maybe a movie?”
Sarah turned back to the TV and pressed the channel button. “I ate pizza for lunch. And there’s nothing at that lame theater I want to see.”
Evie sighed. “Mama’s at the Moose Lodge for the evening. Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?”
Sarah’s eyes flashed. “I know where Mama is. She’s been going to bingo every week for the past four years. Not that you would know that.”
Julie bristled. “You need to lighten up, little girl. Your sister’s had a bad time of it and she could use your support.”
Sarah shot to her feet. “Yeah, well why do I have to be nice to her when she’s never thought twice about me and Mama? Went off to that fancy cooking school and forgot all about us. Now she’s back and thinks we’re supposed to care? Like hell.” Sarah tossed the remote onto the couch and stalked toward her bedroom.
Julie’s dozen or so bracelets clinked as she popped her hands on her hips again and stared after Sarah. “That little brat. You want me to go get her and make her apologize?”
Evie shook her head, even as she swallowed the lump in her throat. “No, forget it. She didn’t get mad overnight, and she won’t get un-mad that way either.”
“Your mama’s been too indulgent with her. She would’ve paddled your behind for acting that way, no matter how old you were.”
“Mama’s busy, Jules. And I doubt Sarah acts that way toward her. Me, on the other hand…” She sighed. “Maybe if I had been here, she wouldn’t be so hostile. I can’t really blame her for not trusting me.”
Julie snorted. “Don’t kid yourself, girlfriend. She’s a teenager. Brattiness is practically a requirement.” Julie tossed her hair over her shoulder and peered up at Evie. “C’mon, you ready to go get laid? That’ll certainly help your mood, I promise.”
Evie laughed, though inside she still stung from Sarah’s rejection. But there wasn’t much she could do about it. Even if she stayed here, she’d get nowhere with the kid. Sarah would hide in her room until Mama came home later. “God no. But I’ll go out to the lake with you and have a beer or two. Then I’m coming home. Alone.”
Julie rolled her eyes. “Your loss. Especially when Matt Girard shows up.”
“He’s not coming, Julie.”
“Bet he does. And when I win, you have to cook your famous gumbo for me.”
Evie rolled her eyes. “He won’t.”
Julie looked smug. “We’ll see…”
* * * * *
Rochambeau Lake had a split personality. One side—the side with picnic tables, charcoal grills, and a big pavilion—was clear and calm. But the farther you went across the lake, moss-draped cypress trees crowded together like shadowy sentinels and the lake became a bayou. Gators swam deep in the cypress, down the long winding fingers of murky water that branched and stretched for miles throughout the parish. Snakes coiled in the trees overhanging the water, sometimes dropping in on unsuspecting anglers.
Evie couldn’t see the people splashing in the dark, but she heard them laughing. Crazy to go swimming in the middle of the night, even if it was hot. A flash of murky water and the black S-curve silhouette of a snake flowing toward her were the most vivid memories of her last foray into the bayou.
Evie shuddered. She wasn’t getting into—or onto—the bayou ever again. She’d never been particularly squeamish, but that afternoon when the snake had fallen out of the tree and into the little canoe—which she and Julie then proceeded to overturn in their panic—had seared itself into her memory.
Just then, Jimmy Thibodeaux reappeared with a beer and a wine cooler, and Evie gritted her teeth. So much for avoiding Jimmy. He’d made a beeline for her the minute they arrived and he hadn’t let her out of his sight in the fifteen minutes since. He’d been nothing but polite, however, so she couldn’t exactly get away from him without being rude.
And she wasn’t prepared to be rude just yet. She kept thinking of him pulling a knife on Ginny Temple, but she didn’t think he was crazy enough to do something like that here with so many people around. The other guys would tackle him if he tried it.
Evie craned her neck, looking for Julie, but her cousin had slipped into Steve LaValle’s arms and didn’t look as if she was slipping out again anytime soon. She didn’t think Julie had meant to leave her with Jimmy, but that didn’t change the current situation.
“I know you said beer, but I thought you might like this better.” Jimmy handed her a wine cooler and sat down on the bench beside her. “I know how you ladies like foo-foo drinks.”
Evie’s jaw felt like it might crack. “Thanks.” She scooted down the bench as much as possible. The crowd closed to hide Julie and Steve from her view.
She turned and tried to smile politely at Jimmy. He wasn’t bad-looking, with his dark hair and dark eyes, but she’d never liked him. He was loud, brazen, and a bit too macho. Always had been. If she had to hear another story about him bagging a gator—or a moose in Montana—she’d probably scream.
“So,” Jimmy said, his hand skimming across her bare knee and up her thigh. “You back in town for good?”
Evie pushed his hand away and kept smiling. There wasn’t an ounce of friendliness in it, but she knew Jimmy was too dumb to see it. No, he leered and groped like they were back in high school and she was still Easy Evie. More than anything, it made her mad. Livid.
“Nope,” she replied through clenched teeth. “I’ll be leaving again soon.”
She didn’t know that for sure, but it was definitely the plan. The sooner, the better. She felt a pang of guilt when she pictured Sarah’s sullen face, but that was life. Her life dictated that she had to get out of Rochambeau or go crazy.
“That’s a shame. Maybe we could get together before you go.” He leaned in a little more, his fingers skimming the side of her breast.
Evie shot to her feet, and Jimmy barely managed to catch himself before he fell into her vacant seat. “No, thanks.” She said it politely when what she really wanted to do was sock him. “I’m not ready to start a relationship.”
“Who said anything about a relationship?” Jimmy blinked up at her, clueless as usual. But there was something in those eyes, something cold and mean. It made her shiver. “You got time for sex, ain’t you?”
Warning bells rang in her head as she faced him down. Her smile could have cut glass. Maybe she should have socked him anyway. “Oh darn, I took a vow of celibacy two days ago. Look, there’s my cousin.”
She spun on her high heels, thankful she didn’t trip and make a mockery of her grand exit, and walked away without waiting for an answer. She didn’t turn around to look at Jimmy, but she could feel his eyes on her as she stepped into the pavilion. She’d pissed him off, that was for sure.
Evie breathed a sigh of relief as she skirted the makeshift dance floor where couples gyrated to the music someone played using an iPod and two great big speakers. She didn’t think Jimmy would pull anything, but she liked having a crowd around her just in case.
She searched for Julie, finally spotting her again. Julie leaned back against Steve, her head on his shoulder, her lips tilted up to accept a lingering kiss.
By the looks of it, Julie wasn’t going to be willing to leave just yet. Julie had probably had sex with Steve a thousand times, but they still had to go through this ritual-courting thing first. They got together, broke up, then made up a few days later with wild monkey sex. This looked like a monkey-sex night, but there was a protocol to follow. Why they couldn’t just admit they were hot for each other and go for it, Evie would never understand.
Evie set the wine cooler she’d nearly forgotten she was still holding on top of a table as she skirted the crowd. She’d go hang out in Julie and Steve’s corner until they were ready to leave. If she were lucky, it’d be a matter of minutes before they couldn’t keep their hands off each other and wanted to go back to Steve’s place. Before they did, she’d get Julie’s keys and drive herself home.
“I think you lost your drink.”
Evie knew that voice. It slid over her like hot silk and she spun to find Matt Girard standing behind her, holding the bottle she’d just ditched. Why did her heart skip the second he showed up? And why did he have to look so delicious?
“I didn’t lose it.”
He stood there in faded jeans and a dark T-shirt that molded to his hard pecs and biceps. But it wasn’t his clothing that got her attention so much as his eyes. There was something in them, something she didn’t remember seeing when he’d been seventeen. He’d been part of this crowd long ago, much more than she had, but he no longer looked like he belonged—in spite of the longing looks some of the women were casting in his direction.
His gaze dropped over her before rising again, slowly, and her body reacted as if he’d brushed his fingers over her. There was something hot, sharp, and thrilling in that gaze—and she was way more susceptible to it than she wanted to be.
Once, she would have given anything for him to look at her like that. Now, she wasn’t certain she’d survive the experience.
“Great dress.” His voice was silky.
Evie swallowed. She was tingling, and that wasn’t a good thing. The last time she’d tingled over this man, it had not turned out so well. “Thanks. I think.”
He grinned. “It’s definitely a compliment.”
Evie crossed her arms and tried to look cool. “Thought you weren’t coming tonight.”
“Now what made you think a thing like that?”
Her blood slogged like molasses in her veins. “I believe you said ‘probably not’ in response to Julie’s query.”
His teeth flashed. “Yeah, but that’s before I knew you’d be here.”
“What do you want, Matt?” Her heart thrummed like she was sixteen again.
His gaze dropped once more. “Maybe I’d like to see what’s under that dress.” His voice sounded low and sexy. It pooled in her belly and sent hot waves of need spiraling outward.
“Forget it,” she said with a conviction she didn’t quite feel. “As I recall, the last time didn’t turn out so well for me.”
“I know, and I’m sorry.”
“You said that earlier.”
She tossed her hair over her shoulder. “So why’d you come then? I heard you the first time.”
He sighed. “Evie. Jesus.” He raked a hand through his hair, and her blood hummed at the ripple and flex of muscle. “I just got back from the desert. Life out there is… unpredictable. It makes a man think. And I’ve decided that I don’t like feeling like a shithead for something that happened ten years ago. I want to clear the slate.”
Evie let out a breath. She’d been so hurt; then she’d been angry. But it was a long time ago and she couldn’t hold a grudge forever. Even now, she recognized that most of her feelings about the incident were still tied up with having her love so cruelly flung back in her face. The other stuff, while definitely unpleasant at the time, hardly mattered anymore.
“We were kids, Matt.”
“I hurt you.”
She didn’t flinch from his gaze. “You did. But I’m not sixteen anymore. And like I said today, it was my fault too. I asked you to do it. And I told a couple of my friends about it, so it wasn’t just you telling the boys.” She shrugged with a lightness she didn’t quite feel. “What happened was probably inevitable. The guys thought I was easy. The girls who were jealous said I was a slut. They made my senior year difficult in some ways. But what hurt the most was never hearing from you again.”
There, she’d said it. She’d told him what really hurt, and she’d given him a window into her feelings back then. He’d have to be an idiot not to know, but it was always possible he hadn’t.
“I should have called you.”
The music changed, the beat slowing. Evie took a step backward instinctively, but Matt caught her hand and held it tight. She tugged once, then stopped. They faced each other across a few feet of space. Around them, couples began to slide together, fitting into each other.
Evie’s pulse beat harder. Her skin sizzled where they touched, his big hand engulfing hers, his palm calloused in a way that shocked her. He was a Girard—rich, entitled—and he had a workman’s hands.
Her insides melted a little more. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”
But what she really wanted to do was say yes.
His eyes were bright. “Why not? We’re adults now, Evie. No one’s getting hurt here.”
He said it like it was so easy, but was it really? Wasn’t she still vulnerable on some level? She was down on her luck right now, feeling like a loser, and here he was, the same gorgeous, cocky, beautiful creature he’d always been.
Except, no, he was more than that, wasn’t he? There was something behind his smile now. Something dark and sad. Pain flared in his gray eyes and then was gone so quickly she wondered if she’d imagined it.
It shocked her. She suddenly wanted to know what had happened to him. She’d heard about him being held captive by terrorists. How could he not be affected by something like that? Of all the things she’d expected Matt Girard to do with his life, putting himself into danger had not even occurred to her. He had everything. Why would he want to risk his life that way?
She remembered when his mother had died. He’d been twelve. Mama had taken her to the wake out at Reynier’s Retreat. There were so many people crowding the beautiful rooms of the mansion. The house was heavy with sadness and thick with grief, and it had scared her. She’d escaped to run down the wide lawn. She’d known where to find Matt. He’d been curled inside the hollow of a tree they’d found a few years before.
He’d been dressed in a black suit, his dark hair slicked back carefully, his gray eyes wide and wounded as he looked up at her. Her heart had lifted into her throat then. She’d only been eleven, but she’d felt something in that moment that rocked her world—and would continue to rock her world until she was sixteen and shattered by his casual cruelty.
But not that day. That day, she’d slid into the hollow and sat down beside him. When she’d put her arms around him, he’d turned his face into the crook of her neck and wept.
Evie sucked in a breath. How could she walk away from him now, knowing there was something behind those eyes? He was hurting again, and she didn’t know why.
“One dance, Evangeline,” he said softly when she hesitated. “Make a soldier’s night. I just got back from the desert a few days ago. I’d like to dance with a pretty woman and forget about that hellhole for a while.”
Evie swallowed. “That’s not fair.”
He grinned. “Because you can’t say no now?”
“Good for me then.”
“Just one dance and we go our separate ways, got it?” Because she didn’t want to feel this tangle of emotions again. This tiny blossoming in her heart that said she was going to be in so much trouble if she didn’t shut it down quickly.
“If that’s what you want.” His voice was rough.
He took her other hand then, ran his palms up her arms to her shoulders. Little sparks of sensation swirled in her belly, lighting her up like the Fourth of July. He pulled her into his arms right there on the edge of the dance floor.
Evie braced her hands against his chest, pressed back when he tried to bring her closer. It was already overwhelming to be so close to him. To feel his heat and hardness next to her body.
To feel everything she’d once wanted so much.
“I don’t bite,” he murmured. “Unless you want me to.”
“Hardly.” But heat flowed through her at the thought. Evie closed her eyes. This was insane. Why had she agreed? It was like she’d stepped back in time and gotten caught in all her girlish dreams.
She was in Matt Girard’s arms, dancing with him in public. Poor Evie Baker and the rich senator’s son. The boy most likely to succeed and the girl who would never amount to anything. What a pair.
She should have refused, no matter how much she ached for him. No matter how much history flowed between them.
But he’d trotted out that returning soldier line and she’d caved like a fallen soufflé.
She should walk away right now, but she couldn’t seem to make herself do so. Instead, she tried to keep distance between them, stood stiffly in his embrace with her hands on his shoulders until he grasped her arms and twined them around his neck. “At least look like you’re having fun.”
“What if I’m not?”
He laughed. “Pretend.”
They swayed to the music without talking. His body was so hard, like he’d been carved from marble. He was lean and lethal, a finely honed military machine. From the hard contours of his shoulders to the flat planes of his abdomen, there wasn’t an ounce of softness anywhere on him.
His hands were in the small of her back, caressing her as they moved. She became acutely aware of her breasts pressing against his chest. When she tilted her head back to look up at him, his eyes were intense. She turned away even as a thrill shot through her.
“I’ve missed you, Evie. I didn’t realize how much until I saw you today.”
“I’m not lying.”
A bead of sweat trickled between her breasts and her skin grew hot. She’d forgotten how steamy Louisiana nights could be. Why did these morons still party at the lake? They weren’t teenagers anymore, and they had houses.
“We haven’t spoken in ten years. I hardly think you missed me that much.”
Matt’s hands slid across her back, leaving a trail of flame in their wake. “I said I didn’t realize it until today. That’s the truth. You were always honest with me, Evie. I liked that. Needed it.”
Evie snorted, more to cover the riot of sensations inside her than anything. “You couldn’t have liked it that much. You used to sit on me until I cried uncle.”
Matt laughed. “Yeah, you really knew how to piss me off back then. But you were my best friend when we were little.”
“Until you left private school and started going to Rochambeau Junior High. Then I was persona non grata.”
“Hardly. But you were a girl, and I needed to get in good with the guys.”
“And the other girls.”
He gave her that pretty grin of his. “Yeah, that too.”
As if he’d ever had an ounce of trouble in that department. She remembered his first day in public school, how thrilled she’d been to have him there where they could hang out together—and how jealous she’d been when he’d started paying attention to other girls.
“We go back a long ways, don’t we?” Her arms around his neck relaxed a little, until it felt almost natural to be dancing with him like this.
“Yeah. It’s kinda nice, isn’t it?”
Her body was singing and zinging with sparks. “It is, in a way. In other ways, it’s not so great.”
He looked puzzled. “How do you mean?”
Evie sighed. “Geez, Matt, you aren’t that clueless. It was fun while we were kids. I adored you—and then it changed as I got older and realized what boys were for. But it didn’t change for you, and that set me up for a lot of angsty nights discussing you endlessly with my friends.”
“You discussed me?” He looked puzzled and she wanted to pinch him. Men.
“Of course. It’s what girls do. We like a boy and we obsess about it. About what he said, what he did, how he looked at us. Does he like us or not? Things like that. I wanted you to like me as a girl, not as a buddy. And you never did.”
“I did.” Her heart did a little skip that it shouldn’t have so long after the fact. “But I tried not to. I didn’t want to mess up what we had.”
“We didn’t have anything by then. You’d been ignoring me since I got breasts.”
His gaze dropped to her chest and she automatically stuck a finger under his chin and tilted his head up again.
His grin was not in the least apologetic. “Hey, you mentioned them. They are magnificent, by the way.”
She refused to feel an ounce of pleasure over that comment. “I did indeed, but that wasn’t an invitation to ogle. Focus on my eyes, Girard.”
“Such pretty eyes. So blue they’re almost purple.”
Evie rolled said eyes. “Flattery? After all this time? Care to tell me what’s up?”
His expression changed, growing quietly serious. “I wish I could.” He gave his head a little shake. “I’ve seen a lot of bad shit in this world, Evie. You’re soft and sweet and you smell good.”
There was a lump in her throat. “It’s just perfume. You should smell me when I’ve been picking crabmeat out of shells all day. Or after a long shift on the line, standing over a hot grill—”
Evie blinked up at him. “What?”
“You gave me one dance. Do we have to talk about crabmeat and grills?”
Heat slid into her cheeks. “No, I suppose not.”
He slid his hands to her hips and pulled her tighter against him until she wanted to whimper. “Good. Because I want to remember this the next time I’m on an op.”
Evie dropped her gaze from the heated intensity of his. They moved together silently for a few moments. And then she spoke. “I heard you got shot. Did you really?”
Her eyes flew up again and her heart pounded. “Where?”
“A flesh wound in the side, nothing life threatening. Hurt like hell though.”
She shook her head. “I can’t understand how you ended up in the military. It’s not what I thought you’d do.”
His eyes glittered. “And I always knew you’d do something with cooking.”
She didn’t miss that he’d deflected her comment, but she smiled anyway. “How could you know that? It wasn’t like I ever cooked a meal for you when we were swinging from trees or sneaking up on Christina with crawdads.”
“No, but you talked about food a lot. About the texture of cupcakes, the correct sweet-to-tart ratio of lemonade, and the heat index of your mama’s jambalaya. And then you went to work out at Charlie’s that summer before my senior year. I brought Jeanine Jackson on a date there, remember?”
Evie had to stifle a groan. “God, how could I forget? I dumped a pitcher of sweet tea down her shirt. But that had nothing to do with cooking.”
Matt laughed. “No, it sure didn’t. What did she say to you again?”
“I think you bitch is about right. Or some variation of that phrase.”
“No, I mean before that. Before you ‘tripped’ and lost control of the tea.”
Evie sighed. “She gave me a dirty look and told me not to talk to her boyfriend if I wasn’t taking his order.”
“Was that it?” His brows drew down as if he were thinking back. “I thought for sure it must have been something worse.”
“I didn’t like her tone.”
Matt snickered. “Sounds about right. You never did back down from a fight.”
The song ended then and Evie took a step backward. Matt’s grip on her tightened, but then he let her go, his hands dropping to his sides. Evie swallowed. “Thanks for the dance. It was nice.”
His gaze was so intense she wanted to look away, but she didn’t. “It doesn’t have to end here. I’m home for a few days. I want to see you again, Evie.”
Her heart ricocheted around her chest. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
He shook his head. “You keep saying that to me, chère, but your eyes say something different.”
She clasped her hands together and took a deep breath. “I’ve always been weak where you’re concerned. But too much time has passed and there’s too much drama when you’re involved. I’ve got enough going on in my life without adding you to the mix.”
His expression sharpened. “Are you seeing someone?”
She wished she could say yes, wished it were true just long enough to make him go away. And she didn’t, because she didn’t want him to go away.
Geez, way to be strong, Evie.
“It doesn’t matter. Besides, you’re leaving in a few days. What would be the point in spending any time together?”
“I think you know the point.” His voice was a deep, sexy growl, and she felt an answering throb in her belly and her sex.
Impulsively, she stepped forward and squeezed his hand while she gave him a peck on the cheek. He turned his head and their lips met, but the contact was too brief as she backed away again, her heart hammering in her throat and ears.
Evie turned to go just as the lights in the pavilion snapped out. She stumbled to a halt as the crowd gasped. Scattered headlights illuminated the area, but not enough to see more than a few inches.
A car backfired, and Evie nearly leapt out of her skin. Someone screamed, and then a chorus of screams erupted when the car backfired again. The crowd surged, knocking her off balance. A hand wrapped around her arm and tugged her up against a hard chest.
“We have to get out of here.” It was Matt’s voice in her ear and she turned her head, prepared to ask him why—until the car backfired again and she realized what was really happening.
That wasn’t a car. It was a gun.