Milly’s face is scrunched in concentration as she reads the diner menu with incoherent mumbles and a frown.
“You ready to order, Zotz?” She shakes her head, and another twenty seconds pass without a decision before I give up with a sigh, signaling the waitress.
“What can I get you two sweeties tonight?” The sunny woman with a bright smile and gleaming brown eyes asks with a chipper, filling our cups with steaming hot coffee when we both nod at her gestured offer.
She’s sweet as sugar with a girl-next-door vibe, highlighted bright brown hair in a long ponytail that swishes over her back as she walks around the diner serving customers with a kind smile.
Milly lifts her eyes from the menu to our waitress, Bess, according to her name tag, and one dark eyebrow arches, seemingly pulling the corner of her mouth up with it.
“Sparkling water and a clubhouse.” I smile at Bess, trying to ignore Milly’s amused gaze now fixed on me from across the booth. “Hold the mayo.”
I wink when handing her my menu, and Bess blushes, but it’s the slight shaking of Milly’s shoulder as she bites down on her bottom lip that has my attention. I lean back and stare at her, trying to be serious, but Milly just plops against her own backrest, lip slowly dragging from between her teeth until it’s released with a slight pop and stretches into a smirk.
Milly’s lip is glistening under the neon lights of the diner, her bright green eyes exploding with her suppressed laughter as they stay locked onto mine.
“And for your little sister?” Bess asks me.
“She can order for herself,” I answer, still captured in those smiling eyes. Where was this girl six hours ago when I picked her up in San Fran? What happened to put fear in her eyes instead of this sparkling delight?
“Oh, I’m a picky… eater.” That pause makes it clear she isn’t talking about food. “Unlike my brother over there. He’d eat anything, wouldn’t you?” She asks, and then just for good measure adds, “Bro?”
“Alrighty then.” Bess looks between us, slightly bewildered. “I’ll be back in a jiff.”
“Bro?” I ask once Bess is out of earshot.
“Wouldn’t want to ruin your shot with Bess here by telling her I’m not your sister.”
“Is that why?” I chuckle, leaning forward almost as if we’re conspiring some grand heist rather than exchanging completely inappropriate innuendo. “And for your information, I may not be picky, but there are things I don’t like to… eat.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Milly nods, her gaze back at the menu, but her lips are quirking in the corners.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, Zotz, when I find something I like, you bet I’m going to eat it.” Her eyes snap up to mine, delighted humor lighting up every corner of them while her carefully curated smile turns full-on wicked grin. “I eat it good, Milly.”
“That so?” Her voice drops an octave, becoming hushed and caressing as she matches my forward tilt, bringing our faces that much closer.
“Here’s your sparkly,” Bess jingles as she walks towards our table. “Any decision, little lady?”
It’s almost patronizing, the way she talks to Milly, but Milly herself doesn’t seem to mind so I lean back and shrug. She’s a conundrum of funny and serious, intense and easygoing. Nothing about her adds up. It’s intriguing and sexy as hell.
No, no. There is nothing sexy about a twenty-year-old.
“I’ll take the chicken salad, hold the tomatoes, dressing on the side, and still water, please.” She smiles sweetly at Bess and hands her the menu, and Bess turns to me as if to say something, then blushes and hurries away. “Is it always like this?”
“No, not always.” I screw the cap off my sparkling water and fill my tall glass halfway. “I mean, I’m a good-looking man who oozes charm and charisma.”
“Honest.” I look down at the bubbles popping in my soda, wondering what it is about this girl that makes me want to tell her everything in detail. “In the city it happens but not as often as on the road. It seems to have a special appeal, the hot guy with the shiny big rover walking into a roadside diner, strutting his great ass around.”
That last part has heat racing up Milly’s neck, without all the makeup it licks up to her cheeks with a flare, coloring them in a sexy shade of pink.
What in the blazes is wrong with me?
She’s twenty, on the run and scared, God only knows from who and why. I’m over ten years her senior, I own a security company and offered to keep her safe. Nothing about that scenario should translate in my mind as sexy.
“Here you go, sweeties.” Bess places a bottle of still water and a glass in front of Milly before turning to me with a bright smile, leaning down to rest my club on the table.
“You can go for it, you know,” Milly says casually when Bess walks away, examining the speared piece of chicken on her fork. “It’s not weird.”
Maybe I should spend the night with beautiful, age appropriate, sweet Bess. I would if I were alone, so why should a stranger I met half a day ago who will be gone in two more change that?
“You know what?” Milly signals Bess. “Hey, Bess, I’m so super tired, I can barely keep my eyes open to eat. Could you make my order to-go?”
“Of course, little lady.” Bess takes Milly’s food, swaying her way behind the counter.
“What are you doing?”
“You’re obviously uncomfortable pursuing her while I’m around to watch.” Milly pulls out a couple of bills and tosses them on the table. “So, I’m getting out of the way.”
It isn’t even remotely close to what’s really happening. The truth is, the thought of pursuing Bess lasted all of two seconds, and then this full of humor and life version of Milly burst out of whatever confinement it was in, and all I cared about was spending more time with a girl that had the word teen at the end of her age until a month ago.
So, yes, I’m definitely spending the night with Bess. Because Milly? That’s so off the table that it isn’t even in the damn state.
“Will you be okay?” I ask. “You were pretty freaked when we left San Fran.”
“It’s the motel diner, I don’t even have to walk out to get to my room.” Milly smiles and pats my hand reassuringly. “I’ll put you on speed dial if I need anything, okay?”
“If it’s okay with you, it’s okay with me.”
“Here you go.” Bess hands Milly a doggy bag and Milly thanks her, sliding out of the booth and off to her room, Bess’s eyes following her to the door that connects the diner to the motel reception area. “Are you taking her on college tours?”
“Something like that.” I flash a full-blown grin that I’m not really feeling, and Bess’ smile widens.
“You are so sweet to do that,” Bess coos with an adoring gaze. “Did something happen to your parents?”
I give her a look that I hope doesn’t disclose how disappointed I am that Milly’s gone. The feeling doesn’t sit well with me, and I dig a little deeper, realizing it started with the overwhelming need to protect this fragile looking girl with the haunted eyes.
Knight in shining armor syndrome, I inwardly sigh. One of the traits I’m not particularly fond of and that I’ve been working hard to shake off.
Part of me recognizes that the attraction only started when Milly stopped acting terrified, that the confidence radiating off her when we were flirting was what reeled me in, but I scratch the thought.
I know myself, I’m a sucker for a damsel in distress, only this time the damsel is off limits, which is what prompts the next line out of my mouth.
“How about you tell me when your shift is over, and I’ll tell you all about it over a drink?”
I’m finishing my checkout when Micah strolls out of the elevator with his small stroller dragging behind him on the thick carpet and his Swissgear backpack slung over one shoulder. He really is an attractive man, and he wears the color navy blue extremely well.
“Good morning.” I smile when he reaches the front desk, handing him a coffee and breakfast sandwich from the diner.
“Morning,” he grunts back, making a non-committal sound of gratitude when taking the coffee, leaving the sandwich in my hand, handing his keycard over to the clerk and waiting for approval that he’s been checked out.
“Not a morning person?” I guess, and Micah just grunts again. “Gotcha.” I extend my hand. “I’ll drive while you get caffeinated, and I’m legally obligated to inform you that the sandwich is going up for grabs in five… four… three… two… one…”
Micah just stares at me over his aviators, something akin of amusement creeping into his grumpy morning gaze.
“I’m not big on eating in the morning,” he finally warrants me with a complete sentence, handing me the keys to his car before turning to sign the receipt. “I pretty much live off coffee until eleven.”
“Well, more for me.”
We step out of the motel and into the cool morning air, and I locate Micah’s custom-gray SUV, estimating I’m about sixty-five feet away from it and pressing the remote ignition. The engine roars to life and a rush of adrenaline washes over me. I love a pimped ride.
“I thought I was the only one who did that.” Even through the shield of his aviators, I can feel his gaze roaming over me. I know there’s nothing but pure curiosity in his stare, but it doesn’t stop the tingle pleasantly prickling up my arms and down my spine.
It’s a dangerous feeling, distracting and unacceptable under the circumstances.
“I’ve never been in a car with remote ignition, wanted to see if it worked.” Judging by Micah’s amused glare, my quick excuse did the trick.
I’m curious why Micah would feel the need to always use the remote ignition of his car, though. I didn’t get the impression that Peak Securities dealt with dangerous situations that would require that degree of vigilance, and I make a mental note to try and dig deeper when I have the chance.
“Was it everything you’ve ever imagined?” He’s teasing me. It’s sexy and charming and oh-so tempting to flirt back, even though I sent him Bess’ way last night precisely to save myself the trouble of engaging with Micah on a more than friendly level.
“And then some.” I watch Micah take the passenger seat as I slide into the driver’s seat, his hair slightly disheveled, as if he couldn’t bring himself to tidy it so early in the morning. “This is a nice ride.”
“When you’re good at what you do you can afford nice things.” Micah buckles in and leans back with a tired grunt.
“I noticed.” I shift into gear and press onto the gas pedal, a pleasant shudder climbs up my spine when the motor purrs. It’s been so long since I’ve been behind the wheel of a slick ride. “The watch, the shades, even your jeans are designer.”
“You’re observant.” Micah looks me up and down with that inspecting gaze again, as if he’s trying to solve a puzzle. “Did you grow up money or just a label fan?”
“Neither.” I snort at his non-acute speculation. “Middle class, white collar, tomboy. The only label I was a fan of was All-Stars, I had all the colors and designs, even some limited edition.”
Micah leans over to look at my feet and laughs when he sees the black All-Stars I pulled on this morning with a pair of skinny jeans and a band t-shirt under a checkered flannel. Doing the excessive makeup was the worst part of the getup, but necessary. Until the rendezvous point in Columbus, I’m expected to be Mildred Twine.
“That’s so perfect.” Micah shakes his head, still laughing as he leans back in his seat and sips his coffee. “So, you just happened to notice my top brand choice of wear?”
“It’s what I do.” I stop at a stop sign and signal left. “I drink and I know things.”
“What else do you know?” he asks with a daring grin.
“Well, you aren’t a security guy and you’re co-CEO.” I pretend to think on it, though I know exactly what he does at Peak Securities. “Money guy?”
“CFO.” He tips an imaginary hat. “Your deductive skills are top notch.”
“Maybe I should consider a career as a detective,” I joke and Micah laughs. It’s genuine so I can safely assume that, despite his intuition telling him I’m hiding something, he isn’t suspecting the truth.
“What does Peak Securities do, anyway?” I ask, aiming to sound as much like a clueless post-teen as I can.
“Well, we specialize in structural security, which is a fancy way of saying we’re damn good at securing buildings.”
“Like, houses?” I purposefully crinkle my nose keeping up the naïve act.
“Not so much home security, more commercial real-estate, though we do the occasional private job for big clients.”
“Why commercial real-estate?”
“Before Peak I worked in a big real-estate development company.” I detect a hint of sadness in his voice, a hesitation and rubbing of his forehead before he continues his story. “I pretty much specialized in the business aspect of large-scale real-estate, working at one of the fastest growing real-estate companies on the west coast.”
“But that’s not security,” I say, and Micah nods in agreement.
“Isaiah led a SWAT team, he used to be a hostage negotiator but retired from the force and started Peak Securities when his wife was pregnant.” Micah stares at his coffee for a second, and I wonder what about that sentence made him pause, then he takes a sip before continuing. “Less stress and better hours. He’s the COO and my co-CEO. Elijah and Jonah bring enough MOUT experience to the table to sell us as the leading firm for urban preventive security services.”
I nod, and it takes me a moment to realize why Micah is glaring at me with an expectant gaze.
“MOUT?” I ask with a baffled tone, but Micah keeps staring at me, confusion crinkling at his brow.
“Military Operations in Urban Terrain,” he says slowly, and I make an oh sound as if he revealed some well-kept secret.
There’s a stretch of silence where I concentrate on the feel of the wheel gripped in my palms, telling myself that there’s no way something that small will tip Micah off as to who I really am, all while Micah fiddles with his coffee cup.
Then he sighs and turns to look at me. “I didn’t spend the night with Bess, by the way.”
“Okay,” I reply slowly. Despite the change in subject that tells me I got away with my earlier slip-up, I’m not sure I’m liking where this is headed, especially considering the relief I feel knowing he didn’t sleep with Bess. “No offense, but I don’t really care either way.”
“No, I know, it’s just…” he sighs again. “Your little sister act got this ball of lies rolling, and I didn’t like it. It felt wrong.”
There’s a little flutter in my chest and a giant siren blaring in my head, because this man is either a giant fraud or too good to be true.
“Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I’m not a liar, I don’t manipulate women into sleeping with me.” His head slacks back on the headrest before turning to look at me, a teasing half-smile playing on his lips. “Or do you not care one way or the other about that either?”
I mull over his question, wondering what’s the best way to answer without offending him or giving him the wrong idea about my intentions.
“You’re a good guy, Micah,” I say, keeping my tone friendly but business-like as my eyes stayed glued to the road. “I’ve thought that since I got into this car, and I whatever happened or didn’t happen last night wouldn’t have changed my opinion of you.”
“Good to know, Zotz.” He tries to wink, but a yawn gets in the way.
“You can go back to sleep, I’m all energized and ready to go, go, go!”
“Right, you’re one of those morning people.” He makes a face as I turn onto the interstate. “Like Elijah.”
“Elijah is also your older brother?”
“My twin.” He kicks off his shoes and tilts his backrest a few degrees back. “Not identical.”
“Good, two of you would probably be more than the female population could handle.” I say it with a teasing tone, but I mean it. There’s just something about Micah Peak.
Of course, this may be caused by him being the first age-appropriate man I’ve engaged in casual conversation with for a while. The only people my age I talked to were co-eds that I thought would provide me with useful information, but my assignment was to hang around the college and gather intel. It’s why Mildred Twine was profiled as a loner and an outsider.
Not that the loner act didn’t stop the college boys from approaching. I used to love them back in the days, but fast forward almost a decade and I’m looking at that girl with the raised eyebrow of judgment.
“So, Isaiah, Elijah, and Jonah.” I press the gas a little firmer, enjoying the still empty roads at this hour of the morning. “Tell me more.”
“Well, Elijah is head of field operations. He’s a bit gruffer on the outside than I am but softer on the inside. Like a grizzly bear that’s actually a giant teddy.”
“And you’re all peacock on the outside but dangerous predator within?” I raise an eyebrow with an amused smile, and Micah snorts.
“I’m not sure if I resent that metaphor or love it.” He leans back in his chair and continues without answering my question. “Eli’s former army ranger, decided it was time to discharge when Dad died.”
Something dark passes over Micah’s features when he mentions his dad’s death.
“What did he die from?”
“Pancreatic cancer.” The word cancer sends a dull ache through me, triggering grim memories, but I can’t go there, not now, not here. So, I pull my focus onto the man next to me, his rigid posture, the way his voice turns flat. In the short time I’ve been around Micah, he’s made the impression of an extremely expressive and positive individual. His neutral tone reveals more than words ever could. “It was pretty fast. Symptoms started late, stage four diagnosis, rapid decline. He was gone in less than four months. Jonah, my youngest brother, just barely made it back from a mission to say goodbye, Eli never got to.”
“I’m sorry.” I place a hand on his shoulder, remembering what he said about all his brothers running off to serve and protect while he stayed to take care of their mom. “It was only you and your mom?”
“Pretty much.” He smiles sadly. “Zee was around but he had just founded Peak Securities and had a heavily pregnant wife at home, so I was there most of the time with Nona.”
“Grand matriarch of the Peak family and master kneidel maker.” He holds his hands in front of his face, emphasizing each word with a Broadway style gesture.
“Yes, and I’m going to assume that you inferring that from the word kneidel means so are you.”
“I am Jewish and also a big fan of Matzah balls.” Micah chuckles and shakes his head in a way that almost says figures.
“You can never meet my mom, she’s desperate to marry me off. And if not me, Elijah.”
“She won’t mind the blue hair?” I ask with a smirk, because I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a Jewish mama with a one-track mind to grandkids. And I also know what my mom would do if I brought home someone with blue hair.
“Nah, she’d be captivated by your sunshine personality.” Micah flashes me a dazzling smile and I feel the blush creeping up my neck. “You’ve really got this speed driving under control, by the way.”
“In a different life I would have been a getaway driver for a heist crew, my father always says.”
“I like that.” Micah tips back his coffee, then lowers the cup with a frown. “I need more coffee.”
“I’ll stop at the next station,” I promise. “What about Jonah?”
That same shadow from when he mentioned his dad passes over Micah, and that deeper layer he tries to hide behind his easy-going demeanor slips out.
“Joe…” He sighs this tired sigh that I don’t think has anything to do with the fact that it’s early. “Joe was a combat medic SEAL, got injured on a mission a couple of years ago. He’s head of strategic operations at Peak.”
I wait for him to say more, especially after that detailed picture he drew of his twin, but Micah seems to be done talking about Jonah.
“And Isaiah?” I ask as I signal into a gas station with a roadside diner sign. “What’s he like?”
“He’s the oldest of four brothers, so basically that.” Micah laughs, his affable nature taking front seat again. “He’s responsible and reliable, leader of the pack, level-headed and has the patience of a saint.” Micah perks up and pulls out his phone. “He also makes the cutest kids.”
He waits for me to park before showing me a picture of a boy, about four, with messy brown hair, brown eyes, and a killer smile. “Wow, the Peak genetics are dominant.”
“Yeah.” Micah looks at the picture with a sad smile. “Sometimes I really do think Zee’s Superman, running a business, raising Levi alone.”
“Where’s Levi’s mom?”
“Rina, she was a public relations specialist for the CPD, she was about a month back from her maternity leave when some junkie with a grudge fired an entire clip at the precinct she was working with that day just as she was leaving to get lunch with the captain.” My head snaps to Micah, heart racing, and it takes me a second to find my voice.
“I remember watching that on the evening news.” It was horrendous, six people died, four of which were law enforcement and two innocent bystanders.
“It was just one of those things, you know?” Micah slides his phone back into his pocket. “Wrong place, wrong time.”
“I’m sorry, that must have been hard.” I lightly touch his hand, recalling his bio from the Peak Securities website, the official appointment day of Micah as co-CEO of the firm is on the same month as the shooting that killed his sister-in-law. “Let’s grab a seat in the diner? I’m starving.”
“You sure eat a lot for a picky eater.”
“What can I say?” I turn to him, mustering the most serious face I can muster. “When I find something I like you bet I’m going to eat it.”
Micah laughs, unbuckling and opening the door to jump out.
“You know, Zotz?” He turns and bends forward, hand on the open door and sliding his sunglasses to the tip of his nose so he can look at me with this serious kind of amusement dancing in his eyes. “I think this is going to be one epic road trip.”