Micah pulls into the driveway of an inn twenty minutes off the 80 East in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and cranks open a window, filling his lungs with the chilly night air.
The place is beautiful, the architecture of the wooden structure indicates it used to be a ranch, upgraded to seem more like a cozy inn by painting the exterior with a blue-tinted-white.
“This place looks nice.” I scan my surroundings, assessing any danger that may be waiting. “Maybe a bit over my budget, though.”
“I’ll pay the difference,” Micah answers without so much as a second thought, and I turn to him with a raised eyebrow, indicating that I don’t find that acceptable. “No arguing, Milly.” His expression the epitome of serenity, a light breeze ruffling his dark brown locks as he circles the flower bedding in front of the inn’s main entrance and comes to a stop. “This place is one of the few I never skip when I’m traveling west. If you’re unhappy with my choice of venue, you’re welcome to find yourself a different one.”
“Yes, seriously.” He opens the door and turns to me, leaving the car engine running. “Pick me up in the morning, say, 8 am?”
Then he’s gone, grabbing his bags before sauntering all that sexiness with complete ease up the petunia bedded path leading to the porch, climbing the three stairs lined with potted flowers and colored in a dark gray to match the color of the roof tiles, then disappearing through the front door.
There’s a moment where I consider jumping into the driver’s seat and speeding off to Ohio. Micah won’t report it, he won’t even call it in with his brothers until I’m in Ohio.
I don’t know how I know this, but something about how his attitude towards me changed over the past few hours makes me wonder if he wants me to up and leave.
The thought makes my stomach knot, and that alone is reason enough to disappear on him. I’ve known this man for less than forty-eight hours. I shouldn’t care what he thinks of me or what he wants from me. I shouldn’t want him to want things from me.
Dirty things. I throw myself back on my seat with a groan. That non-physical interaction earlier at the gas stop was hotter than some of the actual sex I’ve had in my life. Flirting with Micah is too easy, I’m not Mildred Twine when I’m with him. I’m one hundred percent me and I love it. I want more of it.
This attraction is wrong on so many levels. I shouldn’t be preoccupied with how sinfully charming Micah is while I’m running for my life or wonder how soft his full lips would feel against my neck, and I definitely shouldn’t be fantasizing how his broad muscular back would flex under my fingers while he’s pounding into me. Not when I’m in the middle of an assignment gone wrong.
Yeah, I’m leaving.
With a newly found determination, I hop into the driver’s seat and buckle in, shift into gear and drive down the dirt path leading to the inn. There’s a stop sign at the end of the path before turning onto the road that connects the interstate. All I need to do is turn right and drive straight to Columbus, but I can’t seem to remove my foot from the breaks.
I forgot something important but can’t put my finger on what. It seldom happens to me, I’m an incredibly organized individual, which makes this feeling even more urgent.
Picking up my backpack, I rummage through it, taking stock of everything. It’s all there, but the nagging feeling won’t go away, so I dump the contents of the bag onto the passenger seat, hoping that seeing it all spread out will help jog my memory.
My second-hand copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn catches my eye, and I pick it up, flipping to the handwritten dedication that has me smiling every time.
Waiting for you to come slay all my dragons.
I stare at the scribbled line for a while, wondering why it settles that part of me that was starting to get frantic over missing something, and then it clicks.
It feels as if I’m driving away from safety, and the thought of leaving Micah behind is the reason. Another foreign feeling, considering how overly independent and self-reliant I usually am. Not to mention that I’m much better trained to handle dangerous situations than Micah is.
If anything, I’m the knight in shining armor. Just the idea of bringing danger to him over a crush should have me hitting the gas pedal and putting as much distance between us before he realizes I’m not showing up tomorrow morning.
Headlights come my way and my pulse quickens, fingers gripping the wheel ready to move at a moment’s notice. The car passes me, and I relax, but it makes me wonder if the next car will also be as innocent.
Maybe I’ve already led danger straight to Micah. After everything he’s done for me, the way he’s so determined to protect me, and here I am thinking of leaving him behind when he may not be safe? He doesn’t deserve that.
I sigh and shift into reverse. “You just had to go and be both sexy and decent, didn’t you Micah Peak?”
After parking the car back in its original space, I repack my backpack and sweep the area outside again before quickly making my way into the inn. I’m about to call Micah when someone clears their throat from the lounge area to my left.
Micah’s sitting there with a book, the risqué cover leaving no room for imagination as to genre, smirking at me with a half-grin that sends heat licking up my spine and over my cheeks.
“How far did you get before you started missing me?” he asks with a twinkle in his eyes, and I shrug, plopping down next to him on the loveseat.
“Down the entrance road, couldn’t bring myself to drive onto the interstate.” I catch his gaze, and it shifts when he sees how serious I am. “Was that supposed to be some sort of test?”
“No.” He closes his book and tucks it between his solid thigh and the armrest. “I honestly believed you’d find a cheap motel and be back in the morning.”
“I almost skipped town.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I realized that I feel safe when you’re around.” There’s a flash of protectiveness mixed with delight in his eyes at my confession, and I find that I like the thought that my well-being is so important to him. “Despite how used I am to handling things on my own, I selfishly preferred to stay close to you because I kind of like the feeling.”
“I’m glad you feel safe, Milly, and if whatever you’re running from catches up, I promise I’ll do everything in my power to make sure you are safe.”
“I know, and it’s confusing.” I lean back and play with a loose strand in the couch. “Barely two days, Micah, that’s how long we’ve known each other. Why are you so intent on helping me?”
“I’ve been diagnosed with a Knight in Shining Armor Syndrome.” He mimics my posture, leaning back on the other corner of the loveseat and draping an arm over the backrest. “I can’t help myself.”
The corners of my lips twitch. I meant to have a serious conversation with him, but he’s darn near making it impossible not to smile. “Diagnosed, you say?”
“Clarissa from my book club is a licensed therapist.” He keeps going, his expression profound as if the entire situation is of grave importance. “Sure, she’s been retired for almost ten years, but she’s as sharp as a whistle.”
“So, your book.” I indicate the shirtless man in knee-length breeches worn over stockings, leaning over a woman in an extravagant purple gown dropping off her shoulder as she dramatically sprawls on a chaise longue. “A forced read, dictated by Clarissa and her elderly comrades in the book club?”
“Yes and no.” He picks up the book and hands it to me. “I’m not a fan of historical romance, so not my top pick, but it is a romance-slash-chick lit book club.”
“Huh.” I turn the book over and read the blurb about a duke and a lady-in-waiting who defy the etiquette rules of society by falling madly in love. “I’ve never met a guy who likes reading romance.”
“I think we can both agree I’m a unique specimen.”
My eyes travel from the book to Micah’s abs and up to his grinning face.
“Can’t argue with that,” I answer with a smile of my own. “So, what brought on your dire diagnosis?”
Micah’s smile falters and he seems to be reluctant to answer. I know I should take a hint, but I can’t seem to stop myself with him, so I use the intel I’ve gathered paired with my profiling training to make a calculated guess of my own.
“You’ve always felt less because you couldn’t literally serve and protect like your brothers, not necessarily because of your medical condition as much as you couldn’t put Nona through fearing for your life twice. I’m guessing she was extra fussy with you? Maybe even still is?” His eyes snap to mine, wide but not at all angry at my observation. “So, instead, you decided to be a different kind of protector – your family’s protector. You keep making life choices based on their needs, but you aren’t always entirely happy about it and, in a way, it makes you feel like less of a hero when you think ill of your own good deeds?”
“Damn, are you sure you’re only twenty?” He means it as a joke, I’m sure, but the second the words come out of his mouth realization lights up his eyes.
“I’m twenty with the soul of an old croon.” I lean closer to him, purposefully lowering my voice and placing a hand over his scar. “I don’t need anyone to save me, Mic, but if you want to, I don’t mind being saved by you.”
Micah’s gaze turns hot, his fingers closing around my wrist, and I find myself wishing my snap decision to use his weakness against him as a diversion tactic wasn’t the only way, wishing my words didn’t hold so much truth.
“Don’t do that,” he whispers in a gravelly voice.
I lean an inch closer, matching his hushed tone. “Do what?”
“You’re too smart to play dumb with me, Milly.” His hold on my wrist tightens, but he still hasn’t moved my hand from his chest. “And you’re too young to play this game with me.”
“Who says I’m playing?”
Micah shakes his head, squeezing his eyes shut with a huff that almost sounds like laughter. When his eyes open again, something darker is settled in them, like an acceptance of the grim inevitable.
“I really want to kiss you.” Micah weaves his thick fingers through my hair and pulls me close. “I shouldn’t want to,” he whispers before bowing his head and pressing his lips to the corner of my mouth, the gentle gesture sprouting awareness through every cell in my body. “But I really need to kiss you.”
It’s a terrible idea, unprofessional and risky. I know it’s going to end badly but his proximity is over-powering my sensibility, the need he’s talking about so very present in my own mind and body.
My face turns to his with a trembling breath. “Then kiss me.”
Micah’s mouth covers mine, slow at first, soft. My palm slides up his neck, fingers delving into his rich locks, and his tongue prods at my lips.
I open for him, eagerly accepting the invasion of his tongue, the bitter-sweet taste of his coffee flooding my senses and weakening my knees. Micah breaks away with a groan, pressing his forehead to mine with his eyes still closed.
“Damn it, Milly,” he growls in near pain before claiming my mouth in another deep kiss, hot and consuming and everything I’ve ever wanted and needed a kiss to be. It’s over all too soon, Micah pulling away, putting space between us and rubbing his forehead with a shaky exhale.
“That was…” I huff out a long breath for lack of a proper adjective.
“Inappropriate on so many levels,” Micah says, not meeting my eyes. “I’m sorry, I never should have kissed you in the first place. It was selfish and stupid.”
“It was good.”
His eyes lift to mine, regret written all over his face. “I never should have found out how good.”
“No, Milly, there are too many years between us for this to be okay.”
“Eleven years?” I tilt my head to the side. “That’s not a real age gap.”
Micah raises a skeptical eyebrow, clearly not sold on my statement. “It’s not?”
“Nope. It’s only too large of a difference if you’re old enough to be my dad.” I slide closer to him, my mouth at his ear. “You’re not old enough to be my daddy, Micah.”
Micah leans back so fast I nearly topple into his lap, his eyes wide and heat climbing up his neck, then he quickly stands and walks away.
Yes, it was a cheap trick, but I needed Micah to get up and leave and never, ever try to kiss me again, because that kiss was a curveball I wasn’t expecting, the sheer magnitude of it still has me rattled.
Falling for Micah is a complication I can’t afford but neither is having him poke deeper into my life, putting both my job and his well-being in jeopardy.
I just hope that my overboard teasing will keep him at bay on both accounts.
There’s something calming about an old-farm-turned-inn located in the Wyoming wilderness when you live your life in a city center high-rise. It’s why I love Mama’s Barn B&B. This place is as simple and straightforward as its name.
Usually, I’d fall asleep smiling and content to the sound of hooting, my belly full of one of Mama’s epic homecooked dinners, then wake up to the sun shining and the birds chirping, and sit with my book on the patio out back while I drink my coffee.
But the owls keep startling me awake every time I finally doze off, my brain is in hyper mode, every little thing shaking it back into another round of my private guessing game.
I don’t know why, but no matter how many times I tell myself It’s crazy, I just know I hit the mark with Milly being older than she claims to be.
Nothing makes sense. What is she running from, why is she lying?
Part of me knows I should call Isaiah, share my suspicions. But I also know they’re founded purely on gut feeling, and considering everything going on with Harlow, I don’t want to rattle the cage too much based on a hunch.
Before I know it, light is slowly infiltrating through the window, the birds are waking up to a new day, and I have to face Milly and pretend I don’t have doubts about her. Which will be easier than pretending I don’t want her with every fiber of my being.
God, that kiss…
“Good morning,” Milly greets me. I can’t tell if she’s also after a sleepless night, the heavy makeup hiding any indication of tiredness. “You look worse today than you did yesterday.”
“I didn’t sleep well.” Milly looks up at me with those curious eyes. She seems to want to say something but then presses her lips together.
We start making our way to the dining area, a few other people already seated around the square wooden tables covered in red and white checkered cloth. Milly pauses, her stance going into full alert as she scans her surroundings.
“Everything okay, Milly?”
“Yes.” She shakes it off and turns towards the breakfast buffet. “Oooooh, it’s like heaven on a long table.”
I can’t help but smile at her excitement, watching her pile pancakes, jam, fruit, and yogurt onto her plate as I get us coffee.
“Sugary goodness for breakfast?” I ask when she finally reaches the table where I’m sat, two large plates stacked with sweet pastries and the works in toppings in her hands.
“It’s homemade, totally allowed.” She plunks down on her chair with a grin, going to work on her breakfast, sighing in content with each bite. “How can you resist this?”
I pull my shoulders, watching as she tucks another fork into her mouth. She doesn’t have as much makeup on today, like she couldn’t be bothered this morning. Or maybe the calm nature of this place got to her. Either way, she’s beautiful when she doesn’t try to hide.
I’m fascinated by this girl who I suspect, maybe even hope, isn’t a girl at all.
I remind myself, again, that this is purely my screwed-up brain seeing a damsel. A funny, vivacious, smart, and resilient damsel who may be in trouble, but I doubt she’s in distress.
Milly swallows the bite of waffles she’d shoveled into her mouth and leans back with her coffee in hand. “What kept you up last night?”
“Wow.” She gently places her fork down and wipes her mouth off with a napkin. “Mister loves the sound of his own voice is being awfully concise this morning.”
I raise an eyebrow, sipping on my coffee as she patiently waits for a reaction. We sit there in silence, not an uncomfortable one but there’s an underlying current of tension. People around us are laughing and talking softly, silverware clinking against porcelain and newspapers rustling as their owners flip a page.
Eventually, I run out of patience. “What answer are you looking for here, Milly?”
“I’m not looking for a specific answer, it just seems out of character for you.”
“How would you know?” I finish the last sip of my coffee and lean forward on the table. “You’ve known me for two days. What qualifies you to judge my character?”
“I guess I’m not qualified.” Milly leans her arms on the table as well, staring at me intently. “Are you bothered about everything happened yesterday at the gas stop and then here? Because I’m not.”
“You should be.”
She tilts her head to the side, dare written all over her face. “Why’s that?”
“For fuck’s sake, Milly, you know why.” I lean back with a sigh and rub my forehead. Whatever she’s running from, she’s intent on keeping it and her identity a secret. I don’t know if all this flirting is real or part of her cover, I can’t even tell what’s real and what’s fake in my own head, let alone Milly’s. “I can’t do this right now, I need more coffee.”
I get up and take my mug with me for a refill, Milly’s eyes following me. Rather than go back to the table, I cut to the porch and plop into my favorite wicker chair, pulling my book out of my back pocket, hoping it’ll offer a smidge of escape.
Ten minutes later, Milly wanders out and takes the seat next to mine, a beat-up copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in her hand.
We sit there reading silently for almost an hour, well beyond the time we were planning to leave, and I don’t care. Even if it results in another night on the road, I need this time to shut out the real world for a bit. My hopes for a peaceful morning are brutally slayed with an incoming email from Isaiah about a meeting with a potential client in Vegas three days from today.
“Everything okay?” Milly asks, indicating the phone clutched in my hand.
“Unfortunately, we have to go.”
“Oh.” She seems disappointed, and it makes me kind of happy that she was enjoying this little break from real life as much as I was. “Can I drive today as well?”
“Awesome.” She takes the last sip of her coffee before standing. “Not a lot of men like it when I drive.”
“Did we not agree last night that I’m unique?” Milly laughs softly and nods.
“Yeah, we did.”
After returning our mugs to the dining area and checking out, we head to the car. Milly stops at the stairs and presses the remote ignition, but nothing happens. A small frown crinkles at the bridge of her nose, and she tries again.
“Maybe you left the light on, and the battery ran out?” I suggest, taking the first step down, only to have her fingers grip my arm and tug me back.
“I didn’t.” She says it with so much conviction I can’t even argue. “Someone sabotaged the car.”
“Micah, call your brother,” Milly orders in a calm and authoritative voice. “Now.”
I back up the one stair I descended, turning to face Milly and waiting for her to look up at me. This may not be about her, considering who I’m trying to find. It’s more likely someone is after me, though no one is supposed to know we’re looking for Harlow. But I sense an opportunity to dig a bit deeper, try to pull more information out of Milly.
“How bad is this thing you’re caught up in?”
A shadow of fear crosses behind her bright eyes. “However bad you’re thinking – it’s worse.”
“I can’t, I can’t tell you.” Her gaze drops to the floor and she shakes her head. “I’ve already put you in enough danger, Mic, so call Isaiah and have him send someone to pick you up. I’ll find my own way back to Ohio.”
“Not a chance.” I sift my fingers through her hair, tilting her head up so her gaze is back on mine.
“Stop being so damn decent all the time.” She taps my chest lightly with her fists, leaving her balled up hands where they landed. “I told you, I don’t need saving.”
“You also said that if I want to, you wouldn’t mind being saved by me,” I remind her. “I am getting you to Ohio, in person.” I run a thumb over her soft cheek, taking a step closer and brining my free hand to cup her face. “Understood?”
Milly leans into my touch, her fists unfurling against my chest, gaze both begging me to step back but also to step closer. “You’re so damn stubborn.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” I swipe my knuckles against her soft cheek before removing my hand from her face and pulling out my phone. “I’m going to call for backup and figure out a safe place for us to stay until it gets here.”
She nods, smoothing a palm over my hoodie before dropping her hand and turning back into the inn.
“I was just about to call you,” Jonah says when he answers the phone.
“We have a problem.” I cast a gaze to the car, pressing the remote ignition one last time just to make sure the red light on the remote flickers and it isn’t a battery issue. “My car won’t start, and my ride’s convinced it’s been tampered with.”
“That’s not good.” I can’t tell what Jonah’s thinking, his tone is always calculated, almost flat. I know he cares but he isn’t extremely expressive about his emotions and after his injury he seems to have shut them down completely. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know, Joe, it’s hard not to listen to her with the way she reacted, so composed and take charge, almost as if she’s trained for these situations.” And that’s when it clicks, the holes in her story, the discrepancies, the thought that she’s older than what she led me to believe.
“Are you sure you can trust her?”
“What do you mean?”
Jonah takes a few moments, probably calculating the next words out of his mouth, before explaining himself. “It’s what I was going to call you about. We looked into Milly, her story was tight, a bit too tight, so we did some more digging. She isn’t who she says she is, Mic.”
“I know.” I let out a heavy sigh. “I think she’s undercover and on the run, but it’s just a hunch.”
“I trust your gut.” His unhesitant words carry a lot of weight. “I have a buddy from training who works at his family’s guest ranch around where you are, Tony Beliani, I’ll give him a call and he’ll make sure you have somewhere safe to stay until we get there.”
“I remember him, he came to visit you at the hospital, good guy.” Jonah grunts his agreement. “How long until one of you gets down here?”
“About four days.”
“That’s a long time.”
“Eli’s out of state on an assignment and Levi’s still at home.” Jonah’s tone has a certain edge to it that makes it easy to guess why he’s insisting on staying in Ohio, and despite the danger I’m sporting a giant grin, knowing my little brother is about to say something I’m going to tease him endlessly about. “I’m not leaving Effie alone here; you’ll be fine at Beliani’s for a few days.”
“Will you manage a few days alone with Effie without getting murdered?” Or fucked, it could go either way.
“Funny,” he says in a dry tone, and I laugh. At least one thing in this world still gets a rise out of my little brother.
“There’s a meeting in Vegas in three days, someone’s going to have to cover for me.”
“I’ll pass that on to Zee and Effie, they’ll figure it out.” Jonah’s back to his usual nonchalant tone, and the thought of how long it’s been since I’ve heard him laugh settles like cement in my gut. “Keep your phone close, Beliani will call you to arrange a pickup.”
“Will do. Thanks, Joe.”
I stare at the phone for a few more minutes, wondering if Milly will stick around for four days, hoping she won’t bail the second she can. Hoping that Joe’s right, and my gut instinct is trustworthy, rather than skewed by misguided feelings for a woman who may only be playing with me.