Scotty Devonshire sighed and headed up a set of rickety wooden steps that creaked and moaned beneath his muscled bulk, then reached out to knock on the door—only to discover it was already partially open, the doorframe around the lock splintered and gouged with the telltale signs of a break-in.
Apparently the area wasn’t so clear after all.
Slowly, he pulled his Glock from the holster at his waist and flicked off the safety. With his free hand, he eased the front door wider and moved cautiously inside. Light filtered in through the gauzy curtains and cast long shadows through the surprisingly tidy living room.
Pulse thudding and weapon at the ready, he surveyed the space, then inched toward what appeared to be a dining room. Everything looked beige and bland, with no sign of Nick or Natalie or, for that matter, anyone else living here. No family pictures on the walls, no mementos of any kind.
Something squeaked from down the hall and Scotty froze in place, all his finely-tuned SEAL instincts blazing to the forefront. Discover. Assess. Neutralize. His specialty was hand-to-hand combat and direct assault, but nothing beat a 9mm and a full clip at the ready.
He took a deep breath, centered his body and his mind, then charged through an arched doorway and into a small kitchen. “Hands up, asshole, or someone dies!”
Several facts bombarded him at once.
First, his target was a woman. Second, she was cute. Really cute. Third, she held what appeared to be a spatula as her weapon of choice. Death by batter?
Scotty frowned and lowered his gun slightly, squinting at the woman. “What are you going to do? Kill me by frosting me to death?”
Her stern expression fractured slightly and her pretty green eyes narrowed. “I’m a black belt in judo. I can make anything into a lethal weapon.”
“Really?” He raised a brow and relaxed his tense stance a tad. As a martial arts expert himself, he could see by her ridged, downright silly pose that she didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. Not to mention the only thing lethal about her were those curves. With her fiery red hair glinting in the sunshine and her creamy cheeks stained with dots of pink, she looked like a 40s pin-up girl come to life. Hot damn, but she was a fine little thing.
He considered himself something of a connoisseur of women—short, tall, skinny, curvy, all ages and races and sizes, Scotty Devonshire loved them—especially redheads. He lowered his Glock and stepped closer. She held her spatula higher and didn’t retreat. She stood half a foot shorter than his own six-three height, making her nose about even with his upper chest, which is where she kept her focus.
For some odd reason, he wanted her to look at him directly again, wanted to see the spark of indignation in her emerald eyes. Then he shook his head and scowled. He was here on a mission, here for Nick, here to find files supposedly hidden in a trashy romance novel—the irony of which did not escape him—not to pick up a goddamned date.
He clicked on the safety on his weapon once more and holstered it with one hand while snatching the cooking utensil away from her with the other. His fingertips brushed her soft skin and for a moment he had the crazy urge to find out if she felt that soft all over. Snapping his lust confused brain back to reality, Scotty tossed the spatula into the nearby sink, then widened his stance and crossed his arms. “Who are you?”
“Who are you?” she countered.
The woman had cojones, he’d give her that.
Hell, there’d been times when he’d been training rookies in Kandahar where one lethal glare from him had the rookies practically soiling themselves. But not her. No, sir. This one, she stood her ground. Scotty found that turned him on all the more.
He didn’t answer, just watched her. Interrogation of targets had been part of his military training and he’d put his skills into frequent practice during his SEAL days. The best tactic was to wait it out, let stress and adrenaline work their magic. Eventually they’d talk. Most of them, anyway.
Seconds ticked by with agonizing slowness as a whole host of emotions flickered across her delicate features—fear, anger, determination and finally, resignation. At last, she glanced up at him and a tingle of awareness shimmered though his bloodstream at the renewed eye contact.
Spring. That’s what the color of her irises reminded him of. The fresh promise of new beginnings.
Scotty scowled and forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand. Find the e-reader, download the files, report back to his team leader. Still, it had been nearly two weeks since he’d gotten laid. Maybe that was the reason he was waxing poetic over some chick’s eyeballs. Jesus. Thank God the rest of his team wasn’t here to see this. They’d never let him live it down. Frustration made his voice harsher than he’d intended. “Name. Now.”
She winced, her full lips thinning into a hard white line. “Hayley. Hayley Stevens.”
“What are you doing here, Hayley Stevens?”
“I should ask you the same thing.”
He inched closer, hoping to use his size to intimidate her into answering, even though he’d never hurt her. Would never intentionally hurt any woman, truth be told. But she didn’t know that. “Tell me.”
“I’m Natalie Matthews’ niece.”
Well, didn’t that just take him back a step. He’d planned to use being Natalie’s nephew as his cover. Damn. Guess that wasn’t an option anymore. Frowning, he scrambled for a new, plausible story.
“Niece, huh?” He eyed Hayley with skepticism. “Funny how Nat never mentioned having a niece.”
His statement seemed to fluster her for a moment. She bit her lower lip and he couldn’t help staring at the tiny movement. “We, uh, hadn’t seen each other in a while. That’s probably why she didn’t mention me.” She smoothed a hand down the front of her pink button-down shirt, then crossed her arms. The movement only served to highlight her excellent rack. “Okay. Fine. You know who I am. Now who the hell are you?”
He thought about making up a name, but in the end went with the real thing. Easier to keep track of the lies that way. “Scotty. I’m an old friend of your aunt’s.”
Sounded weird, calling Natalie an aunt, especially since he and Hayley didn’t appear to be that far apart in age. He was twenty-six and he guessed her to be around twenty-four, maybe twenty-five tops.
“Huh.” She snorted. “No accounting for taste, I suppose.”
“Yep.” He couldn’t help but grin at her snark. Women had always thrown themselves at him like moths to a bug zapper. He’d never been sure why exactly, but they seemed to like the way he looked and his mama had raised him to always treat women with respect, so maybe that had something to do with it. Either way, this woman posed a challenge. He’d always been a sucker for challenges. “So.” He hiked his chin toward the sink. “You doing a little cooking?”
She looked him up and down slowly and Scotty said a silent prayer that she liked what she saw. He sure as hell liked what he saw in her. “Actually, I was doing a little digging. My aunt seems to have vanished. You wouldn’t happen to know where she is, would you?”