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Sweet, but not a pushover, Joe revised with a shake of his head, impressed in spite of himself.

Eddie put on the sweatshirt and stood to give Kylie a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks, dudette. Come by later in the week. I’ll have my mistletoe packs on deep discount since the season is over.”

Mistletoe, Joe’s ass. Undoubtedly, it’d be weed.

Kylie started walking before turning back to Joe to give him a what’s keeping you? look.

Yep. Sweet, not a pushover, and . . . also a tyrant.

Once in his truck, she pulled a wig from her apparently bottomless bag and set it on her head so that suddenly she had long, dark brunette waves. “Okay,” she said, tucking in some stragglers. “Ready to do this.”

Joe stared at her as she applied a dark gloss to her lips, which, combined with the wig, had him spinning. “Kylie—”

“Ready,” she said.

Yes, but the question was, ready for what? Shaking his head to clear it, he navigated the roads without speaking again, which he knew drove her nuts. Good. She could join his club because she drove him nuts too. Especially as she used the ride to add horn-rimmed glasses to her ensemble so that now from the neck up she looked like a naughty librarian while from the neck down she was the girl next door. It was like Christmas for his eyes so he forced himself to stop looking at her as he drove into Hunter’s Point, a district by the water and the ballpark in the southeast corner of San Francisco.

“Interesting neighborhood,” she murmured.

He parked, going still when she leaned in to him to look up and down the street. He nodded, speechless, because her breast was pressing into his bicep and killing his concentration as he attempted to keep an eye on their surroundings at the same time.

Usually he multitasked with no problem in his work zone. But Kylie had shot his zone straight to hell. She looked so different in that wig it was startling. Different and damn sexy. Not that she wasn’t always sexy. She was, incredibly so. But it was messing with his head a little—or a lot—to see her looking like herself and yet not.

“So?” she asked. “What’s next?”

Right. What was next—beyond wanting to haul her into his lap so that she could straddle him and grind them both to an earth-shattering finish? He cleared his throat. “Jayden and Jamal work here in Hunter’s Point. I want to get a look at their inventory and see if we find anything resembling the workmanship of that table or bench you’re supposed to authenticate.”

She pushed some of the brunette strands off her face and he told himself to be careful. If the woman had enough skills to hide her identity, she could just as easily hide other things—like his dead body.

Although the truth was that though he did have to be careful around Kylie, it wasn’t his life he was worried about but his damn heart, an organ he’d thought long dead. She was an irresistible dichotomy of sweet charm and heart-stopping sexy, and she threw him off guard with every look, be it a smile or a glare. In fact, he kinda liked when she gave him dirty looks, which meant he was seriously losing his shit. And he never lost his shit.

Never.

Yeah. He was royally screwed and the thing was, even knowing that, he didn’t want to walk away because he enjoyed her so much. How crazy was that?

“I’m going to go try to get a look inside,” he said. “Trust me, I know this area. It’s not good, so you should—”

She held up a finger. “Let me stop you right there. If you’re about to let out your inner caveman and say ‘stay in the truck,’ I’m going to sic Vinnie on you.”

Joe took in the sight of Vinnie snoring and snorting in his sleep from his perch in her lap. “Yeah, you’re right. That five-pound rat is terrifying.”

“I’ll have you know that he’s seven pounds. And fine, I’ll find some other form of payback.”

“Payback away,” he murmured, enjoying the blush that lit up her cheeks. It suitably distracted him from the reason he had a ball of dread low in his gut—that they were, literally, parked in his past, in his old neighborhood, and it was every bit as rough and ugly as he remembered.

Although undoubtedly it was mostly his own memories making it so. Still, Hunter’s Point had always been San Francisco’s radioactive basement. It was dirty and dangerous, and he’d have really liked for Kylie to have stayed as far away as possible.

“I’ve never been here,” she said quietly, as if sensing his mood change. “Have you?”

“Yeah.”

He felt her turn to face him and he met her gaze. “Grew up here,” he said.

He could feel the weight of her concern. But he didn’t want or need it. Instead he concentrated on the night and any trouble that was most certainly lurking in it. The decommissioned naval shipyard up the street was quiet. Still. Too still.

There’d been efforts to clean up the area, including redevelopment projects two decades back. In some areas, such as the former navy shipyard waterfront property, they’d been fairly successful. In others areas, not so much. Drug and gang activity was high, as was the murder rate.

“Not exactly warm and cozy,” Kylie said.

She had no idea. They were parked across and down the street from the warehouse. On the northeast corner in front of them, he’d once been confronted by a few of his friends who’d turned into gangbanger wannabes. In order for them to get into the gang they wanted, they’d been challenged to steal a car—except none of them had known how to hot-wire a car, so they’d tried to get Joe to do it.

When he’d refused, they’d stolen something of his to hold over him and force his hand.

Molly.

They’d held his sister for nearly three full days before he was able to get to her. He’d retaliated by nearly killing the guys who’d kidnapped her. A judge had then forced Joe to decide between jail and the military for his restitution.

He’d chosen the military, and though he’d hated it at the time, with dubious maturity he’d come to see it as the best thing that could’ve happened to him. It’d been a way out of here, a lifeline he hadn’t realized he’d needed. Granted, the army hadn’t been easy. In fact, they’d practically beaten discipline and temper management into him.

But there was no doubt he’d grown up. He was different now, slower to rile for one thing, and yet not so different that he couldn’t remember what it’d felt like to be trapped here in Hunter’s Point, thinking there was no way out.

Kylie slipped her hand in his, bringing him back to the present. Which thankfully was very different than his past. Although he was still armed and dangerous, so maybe not all that different after all.

“Do you have a specific plan of action here?” she asked quietly. “For getting a look inside the warehouse?”

He did. He always did, and had ever since that long-ago day when he’d pulled Molly out of the rat hole they’d held her in. There was a plan A, and a plan B, C, and Z too.

First, he wanted to stake the place out from right here for a little bit, get a feel for the layout and make sure they were really alone. No way was he getting Kylie into something that he wasn’t prepared for. He knew she’d think he was being overprotective, and hell, given the fact that they were seeking a three-inch piece of carved wood—excuse him, a penguin—maybe he was.

But his instincts had saved his life more than a few times and they were screaming now. It felt like the threat to Kylie was escalating and he wasn’t going to ignore that no matter what she thought. This whole thing had gone from a way to amuse himself to something far more serious.

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