Anticipation rolled through him and settled in his chest, making him grin like a fool. After fourteen years in the military, he was out for good now. He could hardly wait to see his friends again and start his new life.
Grant Kent, security consultant. It had a nice ring.
He turned the corner onto Isabelle’s street and found the right house number. The place was old, but well maintained and way too big for one person. Even in the dark, he could see the bright white paint glowing under the porch light. The landscape was tidy, the trees pruned, and even the winter-dead grass managed to look manicured.
Grant pulled into the driveway, hoping this was the right place. She hadn’t left an address in her message, and he was afraid that if he’d called to ask for one, he would have regretted it.
They hadn’t exactly parted under the best of circumstances, and Grant wasn’t going to make it easy on her to push him away, not while there was any chance she was in trouble.
He got out of his car and stretched to ease the tightness in his back. As much as he loved his Mustang, it wasn’t really made for his tall frame, and he hadn’t taken much time to stop and stretch along the drive. He’d been too anxious to get here and have this over with.
Of course, now that he was here, he was seriously reconsidering the wisdom of his decision. He had no idea what he was getting into here, or even if she’d want to see him after so many years.
A cold March wind whipped around his body as he headed for the front door on reluctant feet.
The last time he’d seen Isabelle, she’d been sixteen, sitting in the back of an ambulance hugging her knees. Tears had been streaming down her face as she’d watched the police drive away, with him handcuffed in the back seat of the patrol car.
He wasn’t exactly looking forward to their reunion, but he was man enough to reach out and push the lighted doorbell.
Pleasant chimes filtered through the leaded glass at the top of the door, and a moment later he saw a shadowy movement behind the window. The door opened, and it took Grant a full ten seconds to recognize her as Isabelle Carson. He’d been expecting a larger version of the sixteen-year-old, sickly child he’d last seen, with stringy hair and sallow skin stretched too tightly over frail bones. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the exotic Japanese heritage accenting her American girl-next-door features, he might never have recognized her at all.
Grant had seen a lot of beautiful women, but Isabelle was simply . . . stunning.
The shock of it silenced him for a moment as he drank her in. She was tall now—easily five-nine—when before she’d only come up to his chest. Beneath her casual clothes were slim, tempting curves made to fit just right in a man’s palm. Her glossy black hair hung straight down her back, but a fringe of bangs drew his attention to her eyes. They were a deep, rich green, like a forest in twilight, canted slightly at an exotic angle.
Those eyes widened, and she stood there in shocked silence, staring at him.
Grant stilled, giving her a moment to adjust to the surprise. He wasn’t sure how much he’d changed since she’d last seen him at seventeen, and he found himself holding his breath, hoping she wouldn’t slam the door in his face.
Grant’s knuckles ached from clenching his fists too tightly. Not a good sign at all for the man who was used to controlling his body rather than the other way around.
On more than one occasion, he’d spent days peering through the scope on his sniper rifle, gathering intel or waiting for a shot, knowing that an enemy patrol could stumble upon his location at any moment, but he’d never been as nervous as he was right now, facing Isabelle again after so many years.
What if she didn’t like him? What if she saw only that angry, belligerent kid he used to be? Or worse, what if she hated him because he was the boy who’d killed their foster father?
Grant stifled the urge to run, to protect himself from whatever bad opinion of him she might have. He wasn’t sure he was man enough to live through her disappointment. But instead of running, he squared his shoulders and stood his ground.
Isabelle blinked several times as if she wasn’t sure she believed what she was seeing. She stood frozen, holding the door open, and he could feel the heat from her brightly lit home sliding over his face as it leaked out into the night sky.
“It’s really great to see you, Isabelle.”
She stood there, just far enough away that she didn’t invade his personal space, but close enough that he could reach out and touch her.
He didn’t. He was too worried how she might react.
Grant tried to smile—normally such an easy thing for a man like him to do with a woman—but no smile would come.
“Grant?” she asked in a confused tone, like maybe she wasn’t sure it was him.
“Hi, Isabelle. Been a long time.” He sounded casual, almost careless.
“What . . . what are you doing here?”
Not exactly a warm reception, but then again, he hadn’t expected one. Too bad that didn’t make it sting any less. “I got your message. Thought I’d come find out what was going on.”
She glanced past him, looking up and down the street. After years of covert operations, Grant knew that look well. She was expecting trouble.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she told him.
“I probably should have called first before dropping by.”
Again, she didn’t look at him but kept her eyes on the street. “No. I mean you should go. Now.”
If it had been anger or resentment brightening her eyes, Grant would have turned on his heel and marched out of here. But it wasn’t. He saw the faintest flicker of fear cross her face, heard it waver in her voice.
If she expected trouble, then Grant was going to be right here when it showed up.
“Will you please let me in?”
“No. Just go, Grant. Before someone sees you. Please.”
Grant turned and looked at their surroundings. He saw nothing out of place, no signs of anyone watching from the deep shadows surrounding her home. “Who’s going to see me?”
A car turned the corner at the end of the block, its headlights splashing bright swaths of light against the house across the street.
“Get inside.” Isabelle grabbed the front of his shirt and gave him a hard tug.
Grant barely stopped himself from stumbling into her as she pulled him into the house and slammed the door shut. “Get down.” She yanked on his shirt again, tugging it toward the floor.
He ducked even though he had no idea why. He figured he must just be too used to doing whatever the ladies asked. Usually, when they asked him to do odd things, it ended in both him and them having a really good time.
He was pretty sure this was not going to be one of those times.
Through the window, he saw the car drive by without stopping or slowing.
“What the hell is going on?” he demanded.
She let go of him and turned to peek out the window. Grant tried not to look at her ass, but he couldn’t help it. She was right there, he was ducking as she’d asked, and everything just aligned so that he had no choice.
Her tight jeans molded to her perfectly, showing off the kind of curves a man never forgot. Her black hair fell to her waist, and it shimmered an instant before she turned back around.
“Why are you here?”
“That message you left worried me. I was on my way to Denver to start a new job, so I thought I’d stop by and make sure you were okay.”
Her slim shoulders sagged a bit in relief. “Denver. That’s hours away. You’ll be safe there.”
Safe? As in, he wouldn’t be safe here? What kind of mess was she in?
Frustration was swiftly eroding Grant’s patience, so he took a deep breath and tried again. “Will you please tell me what’s going on?”
“It’s best if you just leave. There’s no need for you to get involved.”
Grant crossed his arms over his chest and planted his feet. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what the hell is going on.”
Her full lips tightened and her eyes narrowed, glowing with a hint of anger. “I didn’t invite you here. You have no business being here. If you don’t leave, I’ll call the police.”
He shrugged. “Fine. Call them. Maybe they’ll know what’s got you so spooked.”
“I’m not spooked. I’m just being cautious.”
Her mouth clamped shut and she looked away.
Grant had never touched Isabelle before. She’d always seemed so frail, and he was afraid of hurting her, maybe even breaking her.
But she wasn’t breakable anymore. He’d felt the strength of her body as she’d tugged at his shirt. He could see for himself that she was whole and healthy.
No reason not to touch her now.
He put one finger under her chin and forced her to look at him. The pad of his finger grazed her soft flesh, and when her eyes finally met his, they were such a stunning deep green he nearly forgot what he was going to ask her. But that spark of fear was still there, and it helped his brain keep spinning rather than stall out under the power of those eyes of hers. “Why, Isabelle? Why should I leave town? Why are you so afraid?”
She swallowed nervously, and a subtle vibration made her chin wobble for a second before she controlled it by gritting her teeth. “Because people are dying, and I don’t want you to be next.”
Isabelle never should have let the truth slip out, but she’d never been able to resist Grant Kent. Not when she was sixteen, and certainly not now when he was standing right in front of her, so beautiful and big and unexpected. And he was touching her. She’d spent years dreaming about him touching her, and now that he was, she could hardly think straight. Sure, it was just the tip of one finger, but with Grant, that was enough to make any woman’s body heat up.
Like she needed any more excitement in her life right now. She had more than enough without adding both ancient history and a years-old crush to the mix.
Grant was bigger than life. Confident, self-assured, gorgeous. He was tall, lean, and graceful, with eyes that glittered gold when he looked at her. His hair was shorter now than it had been during his rebellious youth, and even though winter was only now fading away, there were still sun-bleached streaks running through his hair that caught the light whenever he moved. He had the kind of magnetic appeal that made women flock around him, and Isabelle wasn’t immune to the gravitational pull of his good looks and charm. She never had been.
Isabelle hadn’t understood everything she’d felt for him when she was a girl, but now she knew exactly what those goose bumps meant, as well as the little shiver that ran along her spine when his finger grazed her skin. She was no longer innocent, which also meant that she knew what she had to lose by letting herself become charmed by the potent effect he’d always had on her.
His glittering eyes caught her gaze and held on. There was a fierceness there, a kind of unyielding determination lurking just below that charming exterior. Whatever the army had had him doing for the past fourteen years, she was pretty sure it hadn’t been behind a desk. He had the air of utter competence, complete control.