Warmth spread through her body at that sexy as sin voice. The man had always been able to get under her skin without even trying. Apparently that hadn’t changed. She wanted to hate that about him, but in reality being near him made her feel strangely safe. Turning her back to him, she went to the cupboard nearest the sink. Thankfully her aunt hadn’t moved anything.
Though she tried to block it out, she couldn’t get the image of Braden’s lean body out of her head. Even a brown and tan polyester uniform couldn’t hide the outline of his broad shoulders, muscular chest and trim waist. He’d definitely filled out since they were eighteen and it was in the form of all muscle. Something she should not be noticing. Still, it was hard not to imagine what he’d look like without that uniform. And what it would be like to trace her fingers over all those striations and muscles—
“I’m sorry about your aunt. Everyone’s going to miss her.” Braden moved around her and grabbed a handful of paper towels.
“Thank you,” she murmured, hating that his voice and nearness brought back too many memories. Hot, naked memories.
When his arm brushed hers, that unwanted heat spread even lower, which made her feel like even more of a freak. One moment she was scared out of her mind and the next she was turned on. By Braden Donnelly of all people. Not that that was so surprising. He’d been her first everything. First boyfriend, first kiss, first…
Yeah, she couldn’t go down that road. It would only bring her pain. She shook her head before collapsing at the kitchen table.
Seconds later Braden joined her. “You look good, Lil.”
She willed herself not to care, but could feel heat creep up her neck. The way he said her name transformed her body to mush. “So do you.” Better than good. For a moment she glanced at his hands and unwanted, vivid images flashed in her mind. He’d run his strong fingers over her entire body too many times to count. Not that she should be remembering any of that. Racking her brain, she tried to think of anything in the realm of normal conversation. It had been a decade since she’d seen him and they hadn’t parted on good terms. It was almost impossible for her to believe he was here, sitting in her aunt’s kitchen minutes after she’d arrived in town. To top it off, he was being nice to her. “When did you join the force?”
“A little over three years ago, but I was elected sheriff a year ago.”
It surprised her that her aunt hadn’t at least mentioned it, but Braden was a touchy subject for Lilly so she couldn’t blame Aunt Debra for avoiding it. “What happened to Sheriff Benson?”
“He retired.” Short and to the point.
She tapped her finger against the table. He wasn’t exactly throwing her a bone in the conversation department and she knew he wasn’t here to make small talk so she jumped right in. “Why did you stop by tonight?”
He shrugged and something akin to pain flashed in his dark eyes. “I saw the lights on and figured you’d arrived. Wanted to make sure you got settled in okay.”
So he’d come specifically to see her. He didn’t hand her some contrived story about being in the neighborhood. That was interesting. “Oh.”
“Are you really surprised I’d want to see you?”
“No, I just…” She swallowed, trying to formulate her words. Thankfully, the whistle of the kettle saved her.
Her hand shook as she placed his mug in front of him. As soon as she’d set it on the table, he clasped his hand around hers and stood, totally invading her personal space. “No matter what happened between us, your aunt meant a great deal to me, Lilly. You were the most important person to her and I just wanted to check on you.”
Unable to find her voice, she set the other mug down and mutely nodded her understanding. To her horror, a few errant tears escaped and rolled down her cheeks. She tried to pull away, but Braden muttered something incomprehensible and pulled her into a tight hug. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d let someone hug her. Touch her. Maybe it was stupid, but she needed the kind of strength he could provide so she let him hold her.
His masculine scent and strong embrace definitely hadn’t changed. He murmured soothing words against her hair and she let herself relax. When his familiar male scent washed over her with startling intensity, she cursed her traitorous body. Her nipples tightened against her bra when he stroked a soft hand down her spine. With one gentle touch her dormant libido flared to life.
A low buzz started in her ears as his grip tightened. It had been ten long years since she’d seen him and all she wanted to do was tilt her head up and feel his lips against hers. What kind of masochist was she anyway? Before she could let her thoughts stray into dangerous territory, she stepped back. It was biology. Pure and simple. She might still find him attractive, but that didn’t mean anything. The past would always come between them.
The reality of her physical reaction was beyond maddening. No one since him had the ability to turn her body into a blazing inferno with one touch and she hated that the physical reaction he’d once stirred in her was still there. Instead of looking him directly in the eyes, she found a spot over his shoulder to focus on. “I’ll be fine, I promise. I appreciate you stopping by.”
“I didn’t see a car in the driveway.” For some reason his words almost sounded like an accusation.
“I took a taxi from the airport. I’m going to pick up a rental tomorrow.”
She frowned. “Around eight. I’ve got a lot of arrangements to handle before Friday.” It was Monday night and the next three days didn’t seem like enough time to take care of everything before the wake. Her aunt was being cremated but her instructions had been explicit. No sappy funeral, just a wake with all her closest friends. Which meant over half the town.
“I’ll pick you up at seven forty-five.” He spoke like a drill sergeant.
“You don’t have—”
Braden shook his head. “Forget it. I’ll be here.”
She inwardly smiled. Some things never changed. “Fine, I’ll see you then.”
His eyes darkened and she instantly knew this wasn’t a social visit. Maybe it was instinct or maybe it was simply because she’d once been as close to him as a woman could be to a man. A cold sweat blossomed over her skin.
“Lilly, things have changed since you’ve been gone. Make sure you lock your doors and don’t answer the door for anyone you don’t recognize.”
After years of traveling the world it was second nature to be more aware of her surroundings, but the intensity of his tone surprised her. “What happened?”
“Don’t lie to me, Braden Donnelly.”
The corners of his lips curled up slightly. “This isn’t common knowledge but there’s been an unsolved string of deaths—murders—in the past year. I don’t know one hundred percent but it looks like the murders are related to me.”
“Murders? In Hudson Bay?”
“I can’t go into the details yet, but as far as we can tell, it’s been the same perpetrator and the guy is…sick.”
“Wait a minute, you mean like a serial killer?” Her heart skipped a beat at the thought of something like that happening in her hometown. Not only was there a possible killer on the loose, she was apparently seeing apparitions now. Just great.
“I didn’t use that word.”
She put a hand on her hip. “You’re also not denying it.”
His radio buzzed, but he blindly reached for it and turned the volume down. “Promise me you’ll be careful. Whoever this guy is, he’s managed to elude us. And if he does want to hurt me…you’d be an obvious target considering our past.”
She had a thousand questions—the first being why would someone want to hurt Braden, but she held her tongue. The look on his face told her he didn’t want to talk about it. Besides, he’d warned her and for that she was grateful. She had enough monsters in her past that the thought of dealing with another one was just icing on the cake. “I’ve got a SIG in my purse and I’ll sleep with it on my nightstand, okay?”
“You carry a SIG?” His dark brows rose in surprise and maybe a trace of admiration.
“It’s standard issue for…what I do.” Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t tell him what she did for a living. For all intents and purposes, everyone thought she was an analyst for the NSA. Which technically, she had been her first three years working for them. All that changed when she’d been recruited as an undercover agent. She’d only been an agent less than two years and some days she wished she’d just kept her job as an analyst.
His shoulders tensed as his radio sounded again. “I’ve got to get this, but I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
A small smile touched her lips. “I’ll be here bright and early.”
Braden nodded and headed toward the front door. She followed him and locked up. After he’d gone, she sagged against the door. Why had she agreed to let him pick her up? Her high school sweetheart of all people. That was probably the dumbest thing she could have done. Just being around the man made her tongue swell. Even now her heart beat an erratic tattoo against her ribcage, threatening to jump out of her chest.
With his warning fresh in her mind, she checked all the windows upstairs and downstairs before setting her aunt’s alarm to stay mode. While the system didn’t send information to an alarm company, it let off a deafening siren if anyone tried to break in.
After dragging her luggage upstairs, she shook her head as she glanced around her old bedroom. Almost everything was the same. Still had the same cherry wood desk, bureau, and even the same floral pink and sage comforter decorated her bed.
Lilly unpacked a few items of clothing and all of her toiletries, but she was running on fumes so after brushing her teeth and changing into a set of long pajamas, she got into bed. The thick comforter and sheets enveloped her. Just as she was drifting off, her cell phone rang. Groaning, she grabbed it from the nightstand.