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I squint at the sun hanging high in the sky, blinding me even through my Ray-Bans, and check my Patek Philippe for the dozenth time, swearing under my breath.
According to my calculations, my hitchhiker running late just cost me an extra night on the road.
I would have taken off already, but due to an unfortunate car crash I was in last year, I’m forbidden from driving long distances alone for business. Since flying is out of the question, I’m forced to take a babysitter along for the ride.
On top of this unexpected setback, I didn’t make any progress in finding Daniel Harlow, the dangerous criminal who shot one of my closest friends, Commander Sawyer Abernathy.
Sawyer is family, and at Peak Securities we take care of our family, so I guess I feel I owe a man who is still laying comatose in the hospital after almost bleeding out to death for the woman he loves more than a wild goose chase to San Francisco.
It’s only been two weeks since we embarked on the mission to find Harlow, and already it’s feeling like we reached the end of the road.
Another five minutes pass.
“God damn it.” I pace the left length of the car, checking my watch again.
Five more minutes, then I’m leaving. No sooner does the thought cross my mind, and a lanky girl with vibrant teal hair hurries towards me.
“Micah?” she asks, opening the passenger side door and sliding into the seat without even waiting for an answer, slamming the door shut and clutching her backpack for dear life, her haunted gaze enough to make me forget the lecture I had all planned out in my head.
I take my place behind the wheel. “That’s me.” Then turn the key in the ignition, getting the distinct feeling she’s itching to put some distance between herself and the campus as quickly as humanly possible. “Mildred, right?”
“Milly.” Her bright green eyes are darting around nervously, the bags under them indicating she hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep for a few days at least. “Can we go, please?”
“Sure.” I kick into gear and drive off, wondering who or what she’s running away from.
She’s just a minute over twenty, according to her info on the university’s hitchhikers online board, so my best guess is a boyfriend.
I’m sneaking glances her way, assessing her while trying not to cause her more duress by being a creep. Her college sweatshirt swallows her skinny frame, reaching so low down her slender legs it’s almost at her knees. The only other item of clothing I can see is a pair of red AllStar sneakers with checkered laces.
She’s pretty, even with the thick layer of makeup and overabundance of black eyeliner, and even with the bad dye job that’s faded into a murky kind of blue. But by the death grip on her bag that’s slowly loosening the farther we get from the city, pretty or not, she’s a girl in trouble.
Milly’s posture relaxes with every mile the car advances, and when we hit the ‘You are now leaving San Francisco’ sign, she turns her head, peering through the rear window to check if we’re being followed. Her bow-shaped lips, painted in dark gray, part with a relieved sigh as she slumps back in the chair, rubbing her eyes.
“You can take a nap, if you want.” My offer is met with a suspicious glare. “Or we could stop at the next gas station and get coffee.”
“Option number two, please.” Despite the politeness of her reply, her tone is brusque, and she proceeds to turn her head to look at the passing scenery, signaling she isn’t in the mood to talk.
“You in the habit of taking road trips with strangers in the middle of fall semester?” I ask. Milly just shrugs in response. “Why’d you only start college at twenty? I bet that’s an interesting story.”
“Look,” she finally warrants me a glance, pulling the black backpack closer to her chest, “I appreciate the ride, but that’s all this is going to be.”
I ponder how to react to this clearly guarded girl who I’m stuck with for the next three days, realizing I really don’t have much to do either than try to convey that I’m not a threat.
“Dang, I knew I should have given you a fair warning.” I let out a heavy sigh. “I lovethe sound of my own voice, it’s one of my very few shortcomings.” A hint of amusement creeps into Milly’s wary gaze. “So, whether you choose to be part of the conversations inevitably going to happen on the way to Columbus is entirely up to you.” I signal to exit the highway into an upcoming gas station. “I do, however, promise to shut up and listen if you decide to pitch in.”
“How kind of you,” she quips, her body language screaming full alert as we pull up to the consignment store.
“You prefer to stay in the car or come with?” I wait as she mulls over the question, picking at the white strands of her cut-up daisy dukes I now notice sticking out from under her hoodie.
“If I stay, could you leave the keys in the ignition?”
“You kind of seem like a flight risk.” I make sure to maintain eye contact, hoping she can tell I’m not trying to offend her or make the situation more stressful on purpose, my pulse kicking up a notch when I meet that terrified gaze. Her eyes are an interesting shade of milky jade that I’ve never seen before, slightly slanting at the corners, but I know it’s the fear that has me riled up, the need to protect this fragile looking girl from anything and everything.
“I…” she starts to protest, then stops, slumping back in her seat. “I won’t steal your car.”
“Look, I work in security. In fact, I own a security company with my brothers.” I turn to her full body, my voice taking on a serious tone that I hope will help her feel safer. “I want to trust you. My instincts tell me I can, but my job, my training, the voice of my older brother who forced me to carpool? They’re all telling me I’m an idiot if I do.”
Milly perks up, relief and hope gleaming in her eyes. “What training do you have?”
“Well, I’ve never been armed forces. That was never my thing. I went to business school.”
“Oh.” She slumps back in her seat in disappointment, and I admit my ego took a blow from her reaction, but I push the feeling aside. My self-worth is neither fragile nor the issue.
“The three lugs I share my genetics with all ran off to serve and protect, someone had to hang back and take care of our mom, and I was always more of a go to college, work in an air-conditioned environment kind of guy.” I wait for Milly to lift her disappointed gaze back to me. “But since I work in security and am very passionate about learning new things, I have weapons training, basic surveillance skills and self-defense.” I tap the windows for effect before continuing. “And Peak Security cars are pimped for protection, bullet proof windows and a custom-made frame with bomb and bug detectors. I even have a mini-cooler.”
“Really?” Milly’s eyes grow wide at my every word, and I nod, lifting the top off the compartment between the front seats and showing her the chilled bottles. “This is a company car?”
“It’s my car.” I run a hand over the dashboard. “Perks of being CEO.”
Milly looks around the cabin, thinking, before her jade eyes turn back to me. “Okay, I’ll come with.”
“Okay.” I smile and kill the engine. “Coffee and some snacks, and then we hit the road.”
“Thank you, Micah.” Milly smiles at me, a real smile full of gratitude, and it pulls at my cords.
I’ve always been in tune with my emotions, I’m man enough to cry in sad movies and have no qualms about sharing my favorite chick-lit and romance reads. I’m a goddamn pillar of the Golden Glow retirement community book club in Glassmont Grove. Those old ladies dig me and my male insights to Nora Roberts and Sylvia Day.
And this willowy girl with her crazy hair and spring break clothes in the middle of February, whose eyes are so full of terror that she’s staying much too close to a stranger just in attempt to feel safe from whatever it is she left behind? Let’s just say she’s pushing my protective caveman buttons and my sensitive caregiver buttons all at once. Hard. Repeatedly. Jabbing at them with those slender long fingers clutching to her bag as if her life depends on it.
“Any preferred snacks?” I ask as I pick up a bag of off-brand cheese puffs and turn my head to look at Milly when I don’t get any reaction. “Uh, Milly?”
Her eyes snap up to my face and a hint of pink climbs up her neck when she realizes I caught her staring at my ass. Despite the coloring of her face, she holds my gaze, unwavering and full of unnerving intensity, as if she’s trying to see into my head, read my mind.
“Any preferred snacks?” I ask again, and Milly slowly shakes her head.
“Nothing sour,” she says. “I’m going to the toiletries section. Need anything?”
“Toothpaste.” She gives me a two-finger wave over her head as she passes me. “The minty kind.”
“Yep, minty toothpaste,” she calls over her shoulder, and I shake my head, not sure what to make of Milly checking me out or of the intense interaction that followed.
A twenty-year-old on the run stuck in a car for three days with an almost thirty-one-year-old who works in security. What could go wrong?
“Stupid,” I hiss quietly as I rummage through the shelves at the toiletries section, trying to find makeup removal wipes.
He thought I was checking him out. It’s the last thing I need, mister hot-shot CEO thinking I’m interested in him for more than his set of wheels taking me from point A to point B. Or worse, for him to take interest in me, thinking it’s mutual.
What I was doing was trying to figure out why, out of all the people going to Ohio, the agency would choose Micah. He has zero skills to handle high octane situations, even if he did play around with guns in between suited up board meetings.
Then again, that may be the exact reason he was picked. His car came with all the defenses while Micah himself held no real threat to a trained detective.
The more I think about it, the more I realize it’s a good thing for Micah to think I’m a silly little girl with a crush. I don’t need him looking deeper, realizing I’m not who I say I am and ditch me because of the danger following me, or worse – try to help me.
I finally find what I’m looking for and turn back to the snack aisle, finding Micah crouched down to the lowest shelf, staring at an array of colorful chip bags.
It really is a shame that we met under these circumstances. Any other time I’d have been more than happy to be stuck with a man like Micah for three days in a car. The visible ripple of muscles starting at his forearm before moving up to his shoulders and back, flexing all the way to his slightly narrowed waist when he reaches out for a red bag of chips is taken straight out of my wettest dreams.
Also, the man has startlingly full lips for a guy, and the way they curl into a knowing smirk is sexy to a fault.
I take a deep breath, reinstating the meek Mildred Twine act before stepping away from my vantage point. Micah watches me approach with a curiosity, his deep espresso eyes a well of questions that I can’t afford him asking.
Usually, I’d be swooning over his curious and clever gaze, but not today, not when my mission is to stay in my undercover persona at all costs. I need a plan to keep his mind off my problems for the next few days.
“All set?” he asks when I stand next to him at the refrigerators.
“Let’s hit the road.” I throw my loot into the basket and grab a couple of chicken salad sandwiches and a bottle of OJ for good measure.
Ten minutes later and I surmise that the sandwiches were a stroke of genius, seeing it’s been over twenty-four hours since I’ve eaten, and I basically hoovered them both down once we hit the road.
“You good there, Zotz?” Micah asks with a bemused grin, and I nod, gulping down the last of my juice and already feeling exponentially better than I was fifteen minutes ago.
“Wait.” I scrunch my nose and turn my gaze to Micah. “Zotz?”
“Yeah, I finally figured out what your hair reminds me of.” He turns that grin on me, the one that says I’ve got a secret to tell you, and it’s sinfully delicious, and there’s a tug in my stomach that sends a warm tingle through my body, heat climbing up my neck.
I clear my throat, directing my gaze at the road.
“I don’t get it,” I say, playing with the strands of my jeans. I hate these stupid short-shorts.
“Blue Raspberry Zotz?” he asks, and I shake my head. “It’s a type of hard candy with a fizzy middle.”
“I wasn’t allowed candy growing up.”
“In that case, I’m getting you some next stop.”
“You don’t have to.”
“But I want to,” he says in a casual tone, winking at me when I look at him again before returning his gaze to the road.
We fall into silence, and while all I want is to sleep, I can’t let my guard down.
Micah’s taking the big brother approach, which is both a blessing and a curse. I’m glad he isn’t showing any romantic interest in me, but the underlying worry in his eyes every time he looks at me is discerning.
He works in security, protecting people is what he does, and I assume he can sense I’m running. The sentiment in itself is sweet, but I don’t need anyone to protect me. I just need to make sure my undercover persona holds up for the next three days.
I flip the visor down, seeing Mildred Twine stare back at me through the small rectangular mirror. I hate everything about being Mildred – the thick layer of makeup, the clothes, the all-around smallness of her.
The hair kind of grew on me, I admit, but I miss myself.
I sneak a glance at Micah, overwhelmed by uncertainty and a crushing fatigue, then pull out the pack of cheap generic makeup removal wipes I bought at the station, using them to scrub off the horrid makeup. I’ll reapply the mask tomorrow, but right now I need to remember I’m not really a scared college girl.
“Dammit,” I hiss when the burn in my eyes signals the wipes probably aren’t meant to be used on that specific area.
“You okay?” Micah asks without taking his eyes off the road.
“Nothing I haven’t gone through before.” I wipe off the lipstick as well, feeling more like myself with every bit of monochrome color that comes off my face.
“Natural suits you.” He smiles, this soft and genuine smile that tells me he isn’t trying to flirt, just trying to make me feel comfortable, tell me this is a safe space to be myself. If only…
“Thank you,” I answer with a small smile and nod, barely resisting the temptation of soaking in some of the protectiveness he’s offering.
No matter how appealing it is to allow myself a degree of relaxation in the confinement of the car, and even though I know Micah Peak is he’s exactly who he says he is, I have to stay vigilant.
I keep working to remove the two-shades too bright foundation meant to make me seem more like a reclusive loner, someone you don’t really notice. So much good that did me.
My heartrate spikes at the thought and my stomach knots, my head snapping back, making sure I’m still in the clear, my eyes squeezing shut with a trembling exhale when I realize I’m safe. I got out.
“Hey.” Micah reaches over, waiting a beat before placing his hand over mine reassuringly. His palm is warm and smooth, the contact meant for comfort and, while the unknotting of my insides indicates it’s having the desired effect, the corresponding warmth taking the place of the fear isn’t part of my plan. I suspect it isn’t part of Micah’s, either. “Nothing’s going to hurt you while you’re with me, Milly. I promise.”
“Okay.” His hand returns to the wheel but the flame in my body lingers. This spells trouble, but there isn’t much I can do about it right now.
“So, why are you being forced to carpool?” I ask, digging through the bag of snacks for something to nibble on.
“Last year I was in a minor accident on the way back from a meeting in New York, dozed off while driving,” Micah answers, side-glancing at me when I tear open a bag of chips, the tip of his tongue licking over his top lip. “Isaiah, Zee, my eldest brother and the co-CEO of our firm set an ultimatum – fly or carpool.”
“And you aren’t flying because…?”
“I was in a crash when I was a teen.” He shoves his hand into the bag I offer him and pulls out a handful of crisps. “I fly if I really have to, but I’d rather avoid the experience.”
“Was it bad?”
“No one died, if that’s what you mean.” Micah tosses a single chip into his mouth, and for a few seconds the only sound filling the car is of crunchiness. “We landed in the Pacific, slid down on the inflatable slide, and were rescued within the hour.”
I nod, fighting back a yawn and sneaking glances at Micah as he drives.
He’s a handsome man who’s sporting a slick style with a rugged edge, the trimmed beard giving his jawline a bit of gruffness that, despite his mellow and good-hearted nature, somehow seems to fit him perfectly.
His dark brown hair is naturally wavy and slightly disheveled, espresso eyes full of kindness and warmth with just a hint of sexy teasing in them and something deeper I don’t entirely understand. I can also make out a fit body under his chafed jeans and navy hoodie, and despite his carefree and playful spirit, I sense the protectiveness and solid nature of him.
If it weren’t for my training I would have laughed at my own presumptuousness, but my well-honed instincts combined with the information I’ve collected when his name popped up on my phone are a clear indication that I can trust this man.
But trust or not, I can’t let Micah get involved in the threat chasing me, and I can’t allow myself to become distracted and vulnerable. Not when a man as dangerous as Daniel Harlow has me on his radar.