Crap, there are three of them.
Three men, dressed in jeans, dark tees, and baseball caps, standing in my driveway.
My stomach clenches and jumps. Seeing Vance again is nerve-racking enough, but all three of them … together …
They arrived only moments ago, parking their vehicles and getting out. They haven’t made a move to approach the door yet, seemingly content to just stand there, scoping out my house. It looks as though they are talking, but the movement of their lips is so subtle that I have to squint to see it.
Swallowing thickly, I work hard to push down my jittery nerves. I should have seen this coming. Kim warned me that her cousin never works without his partners, and come to think of it, it was a rare occasion to see Vance without one or both of them, but somehow, I hadn’t expected them all to show up at my house for the initial consultation.
I knew I should have gone to the grocery store. I considered it. I was going to bake cookies, and maybe some of those Pillsbury pastries.
But then, I thought about my clients and deadlines, and the reality of how far behind I am hit me. Taking time for shopping and baking … Not really in the schedule.
And besides, Vance isn’t a sweets kind of guy.
We met when Kim and I were roomies in college. He came to our apartment to install a security system the day we moved in. Then he came back to fix the bathtub faucet when it jammed and the hot water wouldn’t turn off. Then there was the time that Kim’s car wouldn’t start and he came over to fix that, and then again, when my key got stuck and broke off in the deadbolt and we couldn’t get in.
He started to come around—a lot—after the deadbolt incident, fixing things that didn’t need to be fixed, and visiting with Kim. I used to see him once a week, sometimes more, and each time he came over, he stuck around for food and he always skipped dessert.
So instead of shopping and baking, knowing that the effort would be wasted on Vance, I went to the kitchen, found crackers, cheese, and some summer sausage. Not much, but enough.
Well, it would be enough as long as I took the time to arrange it to make it look like it was enough and I didn’t nibble on it at all.
So that’s exactly what I did. I took the time to cut the cheese and sausage, arranging it on a plate, and then I went back to my work, thinking that it would do.
Except that was when I thought only one person was coming.
Prying the blinds open further, I scan the guys over. They’re all tall, well-built, and hot to boot, but it’s Vance that really catches my attention.
He always catches my attention.
He isn’t smiling like Jase and Wes, and he seems to be doing most of the talking. His eyes are hidden from my sight, beneath the brim of his baseball cap, but the hard set of his jaw gives me the sense that he’s not impressed.
My eyes skim further down his body, taking in his broad shoulders and muscular arms. I can just make out the edges of a tattoo curling along his right bicep, peeking out from the edge of his dark tee. His hips are slim, his waist, narrow.
The man looks incredibly solid from head to toe.
He says something to the others, and they turn away from him, walking over to his truck. The tailgate is dropped, and they begin to unload boxes, stacking them in my driveway.
But Vance, he doesn’t move.
His gaze sweeps the house, pausing on the living room windows, scanning them critically. Nervous energy twists a knot in my stomach. I don’t have a clue what he’s looking for, but the intensity of his inspection has me feeling uneasy.
After a moment, his head swivels, scanning over the left side of my house, and I get a clear view of his face. Strong cheekbones, firm jaw covered in a few days’ worth of stubble, full lips, and dark eyes.
It doesn’t occur to me that I’m watching him from one of the windows, until his gaze hits mine. His eyes narrow and he regards me for a moment, before a slow, cocky smile forms on his lips, melting away his hard features, giving his face a boyish quality. He lifts his chin, and then winks at me, before turning away, and moving over to the truck.
Panicked at being caught checking him out, I drop the blinds quickly, letting them fall back in place. I step back from the window, slinking further into my office, my heart thumping hard in my chest.
“My God,” I whisper. He’s still the hottest man I’ve ever seen. There’s just something about him, something about all that broody swagger he has that makes me lose myself every single time I see him.
What have I gotten myself into here? I should have made Kim come for this meeting.
No. Scratch that. I shouldn’t have even let her schedule it in the first place.
For a fraction of a second, I consider sitting back down at my computer, and maybe pretend that I didn’t see them. If I ignore them, perhaps they’ll just go away.
Okay, that’s a pathetic idea.
I’m being ridiculously pathetic.
Ugh, get it together, Pipes.
It’s just Vance and Jase and Wes. No big deal.
Right, okay. No big deal. I can do this.
I grab my phone, stuffing it into my back pocket, and head out of my office before I have a chance to change my mind.
I take a deep breath as I open the door, trying to calm my nerves. As I step out, closing the door behind me, Vance turns, catching my eye. He regards me peculiarly, as I start toward him.
Trying to ignore the way my heart is racing in my chest, each beat pounding through my body painfully fast, I force a bright smile and lift my hand, offering a little wave. “Hey, Vance.”
Oh God, did I just wave? I swallow down a groan as a hot flush spreads through my cheeks. Crap, I did, didn’t I?
Way to play it cool, Pipes.
The corners of his lips twitch, revealing a slight smile, and he chuckles.
My God that sound … it’s hard and rough and beautiful.
My heart smiles, and my stomach flutters for a moment, but I quickly push it away. I’m really not the stomach fluttering type, or at least I try not to be.
“Hey, Piper,” he says, striding toward me. “Sorry we’re late.”
I glance at my watch, my brow drawing in, confused. Our meeting was scheduled for one, and it’s only a few minutes past. Not what I’d call late.
Shaking my head, I meet his eyes once more as he stops in front of me, letting out a nervous laugh. “Not a problem,” I say. “You’re not late at all.”
He says nothing, regarding me for a moment, his eyes tracing my face intently. I can’t tell what he’s thinking, though that’s not really a surprise. I could never get a read on him before either.
Swallowing thickly, I force my eyes away from him and glance at the growing pile of boxes, waving a hand toward it. “What’s all that?”
He eyes me curiously for a moment, smirking. “It’s your new security system.”
My brow furrows in confusion, and I turn back to him, catching his eye. “Pardon?”
“It’s your new security system,” he repeats, a flash of amusement passing across his face. “Picked it up this morning.”
Um … what?
What the heck?
I blink, certain I’m looking at him as though he’s insane. “You, uh, already bought a security system? Without even knowing what I’m looking for?”
“What else was I supposed to do?” he asks, arching an eyebrow in question. “Let you go without so you can consider your options while you’ve got a goddamn stalker lurking?”
I roll my eyes. “I don’t have a stalker.”
“I picked it up,” he continues, ignoring my response, “because I couldn’t in good conscience leave you here without it.”
I stare at him incredulously, not sure what to say. I don’t know if I should be annoyed that he took such a liberty, or touched that he wants to make sure I’m safe.
I’m still contemplating how to respond when I hear footsteps, and I glance over to see Jase and Wes sauntering toward us, arms loaded with boxes.
“Hey, guys,” I say, waving again. “Good to see you again.”
Jase grins, flashing a dimple. “Hey, Piper.”
“Yo,” Wes says, lifting his chin. “You mind if we take this stuff inside?”
Feeling slightly uneasy, I glance at the boxes, noting that there are still quite a few sitting in the driveway. “Um, I’m not sure I need all of that.”
“It’s already paid for, Piper,” Vance says. “No returns.”
“Right,” I mutter, rolling my eyes and giving him a look. “Of course it is.”
Vance chuckles at my look, amusement touching his eyes, as he gives me a look of his own, cocking a brow, almost daring me to argue with him.
Flustered, I scramble backward to the door and push it open. I nearly trip over my own feet, but catch myself before I tumble, offering them a frazzled smile. “Come on in.”
Vance steps inside, Jase and Wes following him. I close the door behind them as I watch them scope out my place, their eyes scanning everything, cataloging, assessing. My first instinct is to ask them what they’re looking for, but I hold the question back, instead asking, “Um … Can I get you something to drink? I have beer, rye, coolers, or I can make some …”
I’m about to ramble off that it will only take a couple minutes to make some coffee when Vance says, “A glass of water would be great.”
Nodding, I walk quickly toward the kitchen. I’m overly aware of them moving around my house, checking locks, bringing in more boxes, as I retrieve three glasses from the cupboard and fill them with water from the Brita. Once filled, I wedge a tumbler in between my right arm and torso, grabbing the second and third with my hands. I don’t bother grabbing the cheese, sausage and crackers, because I know it’s not going to cut it. There’s barely enough for two, let alone four.
They are talking in low voices when I come out of the kitchen, standing in the living room. Juggling the drinks, I maneuver around the boxes stacked through the room, careful not to spill, and hand them out.
Vance’s eyes follow me the entire time.
My stomach flutters once more as I hand Vance his water, though this time, it’s not a pleasant feeling. There’s an odd expression on his face that takes me a moment to place. Annoyance.
“The place looks good,” he grumbles after a beat. “No goddamn security, but it’s nice.”
Nice. My eyes narrow and my shoulders straighten. What a crappy word. It’s an open concept bungalow with floor to ceiling windows and French doors overlooking the backyard. Fourteen-foot ceilings, and stainless steel appliances. Everything is modern, and decorated perfectly.
My place isn’t nice, it’s incredible.
Before I can tell him exactly what I think of his assessment, Wes says, “Gonna need to replace the lock on the French doors. Wouldn’t take much to pick it, or snap it with the right tools.”
“The door from the garage into the house needs a new lock, too,” Jase adds, turning to look at me, his lips drawn tight.
“There’s locks on the windows,” I say with slight offence, even though I know they are right. The security here sucks. “And a deadbolt and chain lock on the door.”
“Jesus, Piper,” Vance grinds out, glaring at me. “Kim said you needed an update, not a full-blown overhaul. You’ve been here six months now. You should have called. I would have put in a goddamn system when you moved in.”
I open my mouth, and then close it when nothing comes out. They’ve only just gotten their drinks, and they already look as though they want to throttle me.
Crapsicles. This isn’t going well.
Piper folds her arms over her breasts, shifting from foot to foot. She blinks at me, and her mouth keeps opening and closing, as though she wants to say something, but she can’t find the right words.
It’s been almost six months since I’ve seen her last and I swear the woman is more beautiful now than she ever was. I scan her instinctively, exhaling slowly, keeping my expression blank. Her skin is smooth, the color of cream, and her nose and cheeks are dotted with freckles. Her long, naturally red hair is pulled back into a braid that hangs down her back. She’s wearing a black ribbed tank top and the skinniest jeans I’ve ever seen, making her look curvy as hell, and with the way her arms are folded over her breasts, I can see the edges of her bra at her sides. I can’t stop myself from wondering if her underwear is made of the same hot pink lace.
The thought momentarily distracts me.
Her eyes dart around the room, looking anywhere but at me. She’s always been a little shy around me, and has never been very talkative, but she looks even more anxious than normal, which I guess makes sense since I’m clearly angry, but it’s only because she’s being careless.
I should have come over here when she first moved in. I thought about it. I almost offered, too. But she’s always so goddamn nervous around me that I figured she’d just blow me off.
She always blows me off.
Always has an excuse.
But Christ, I thought she had more sense than this. If I wanted to get into this house, I figure I could do it in about two minutes flat.
And that would be taking my time.
Silence ensues as I wait for some kind of response from her. For the first time in probably forever, Wes and Jase keep their mouths shut, seemingly content to just watch us. I’m pretty sure they’re just as pissed off as I am, seeing the crap locks on her house, and the lack of any kind of security. She didn’t even put in window alarms, and you can find those at the goddamn dollar store.
Seconds tick by. Five, maybe ten, before Piper looks at me. She unconsciously hugs her arms tighter over her breasts, pushing them together and making her cleavage pop further. “Um … I don’t really know you, Vance,” she says, scrunching her freckle dotted nose. “I’m not entirely sure why you’d think I’d call you to put in a security system.”
I snort, arching a brow. What a bullshit excuse. She might have avoided me. She might have even gone as far to run the other way every time she saw me coming, but she knows me. “You’ve got my number on your phone listed as badass hottie and it’s been there since that first day you moved in with Kim. I’m gonna guess that you haven’t deleted it.”
Timidly, Piper ducks her head, refusing to meet my eyes as pink creeps up her neck, settling into her cheeks.
It’s a gorgeous shade.
“Oh my God,” she mumbles under her breath. “I’m going to kill Kim.”
Wes laughs, but it comes out as a wheezing choking sound, as though he’s trying to swallow it. He turns his back to us, walking over to the French doors and bending down as though he is inspecting the lock further. He’s not. I’m certain he’s just trying to hide the shit-eating grin splitting his face.
“You should have used the number,” I say. “You shouldn’t have fuckin’ waited this long.”
“Vance … I, uh …” She presses her lips together and her jaw ticks as though she’s grinding her teeth. “I don’t really know what to tell you. I didn’t think I needed it.”
“Obviously, you were wrong,” I say. “You wouldn’t have called Kim to get in touch with me otherwise.” I know I’m being a dick, but I can’t help it. You’d think after everything I did to make sure her and Kim’s apartment was safe, she’d take at least a few simple precautions.
“You about done, Vance?” Jase asks, annoyance thick in his voice. Whether it’s at me or at the situation I’m not entirely sure, but he’s glaring at me; I can feel it, though I can’t pull my eyes away from Piper to glare back at him.
I almost tell him to fuck off, but I bite it back. “Yeah, I’m done.”
From my peripheral vision, I notice him move toward the couch and take a seat. He sets his glass down on the coffee table, and then leans forward, resting his forearms on his knees and dangling his hands between them.
“Why don’t you tell us what’s been going on, Piper,” he says, managing a gentle and encouraging tone.
She frowns, unfolding her arms and looking around, avoiding my face. “Didn’t Kim already explain all this to you guys?”
He nods. “She said you have a stalker, but I wanna hear what’s been going on from you.”
“I don’t have a stalker,” she says tersely, her jaw tightening. “Someone’s been messing with me, but it’s not a stalker.”
“Gonna need a little more than that, babe,” Wes says, as he crosses the room and takes a seat next to Jase. He leans back, extending one arm along the back of the couch, crossing his right leg over his left knee, and rests his glass on his thigh. “What do you mean someone’s been messing with you?”
She hesitates, her eyes flickering to me again. I can see her concern as she fidgets with her clothing. “Um, well,” she says, her voice quiet, passive. “Ten days ago, someone threw a brick through my front window. Nine days ago, someone keyed my truck right in my driveway. Eight days ago, someone spray painted the words ‘stay away’ across my garage door.” She laughs once, shaking her head. “That one really pissed me off. The jerk didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me what the hell I need to stay away from.” She stalls for a tick, her jaw tightening once more. “Each day it’s something new, a new piece of my property vandalized.”
“So you want us to find who’s doing this?” I say.
Piper looks at me, her expression turning hard. “No, I don’t want you to find anyone. All I want is a security system. Something with cameras so the police can ID the person.”
I move in front of her, meeting her gaze straight on. My eyes narrow, as I stare at her for a moment. It’s peculiar to me how casually she talks about her situation, as though having someone threaten her and destroy her property is no big deal, but there’s something about her voice that sounds off, and I catch the uneasy look on her face. “What’s really going on here, Piper?”
She looks away from me, her gaze shifting over my shoulder, and she shrugs helplessly. “If I knew that,” she says, “I wouldn’t want video surveillance, would I?”