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It was a crack house.
Andi was sure of it.
Her jaw tight, she stood at the bedroom window of the house she'd rented sight unseen in the small community of Gulf Springs, on northwest Florida's Santa Rosa Island. Tipping the miniblinds, she peered at the property next door. It was late, well past midnight, but cars had been coming and going ever since Andi lugged her suitcases upstairs an hour ago.
The shadowy figures she'd spotted slipping in and out of the house had first alerted her to possible suspicious activity. The second clue was the unkempt front yard sprouting tall, thorny weeds that glinted like silver in the moonlight. Shuttered windows blocked any view of the interior, but Andi had caught a glimpse of what looked liked piles of trash in the foyer when the front door had opened to admit yet another late arrival.
Dammit! She should have known better than to rent this place without flying down from D.C. to check it out first. The realtor had assured her this beach community was quiet and upscale and more than seventy percent military. Not surprising, given the sprawling Air Force base located just across the Inland Waterway from Gulf Springs. The eager Realtor had insisted Andi would fit right in with the other military retirees populating the area.
Her mouth twisted. She hadn't gotten used to the label yet. Also not surprising, since she'd shed her uniform for the last time all of sixteen and a half hours ago. Then she'd tossed her bags into her car, turned over the keys to her D.C. condo to the new owners and made the drive to the Florida panhandle.
She hadn't planned to arrive until tomorrow, but once on the interstateshe'd simply kept going. So here she was, eyes gritty from lack of sleep, surrounded by as yet unpacked suitcases and retired at the ripe old age of forty-one. Who woulda thunk it?
Certainly not Colonel Andrea Armstrong.
Until four months ago, retirement had been only a hazy notion on the horizon. Andi had never really given it much thought. The Air Force was her life, the only life she'd ever known.
Her dad had also been career military. Andi and her sister had grown up at bases all over the world. Carol had rebelled against constant moves and being forced to leave friends behind, but Andi had thrived on their family's gypsy life. She'd joined the Air Force herself right out of college and loved every minute of her military career. Well, almost every minute. She could have done without that tour in Iraq.
Her mouth grim, she fingered the tiny scar on the right side of her chin. She'd been all the way across the square when the IED went off. The explosion had knocked her flat and detonated an accompanying burst of shock and adrenaline. She hadn't even felt the shrapnel slice into her chin. Lunging to her feet, Andi had raced across the square to take charge of rescue-and-recovery efforts.
Sometime during those chaotic hours she'd managed to pick up a desert-borne bacterium that stumped the docs and proved irritatingly resistant to antibiotics. Andi didn't realize she'd been infected until almost six months after she'd rotated back to the States and a high-stress job with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. By then the bug had burrowed into her heart muscle. Next thing Andi knew, she'd been evaluated by a medical board and landed on the Temporary Disability Retirement list.
Except she didn't feel disabled, temporary or otherwise. So she had to pace herself, have regular blood tests and echocardiograms? So she was taking a regular cocktail of antibiotics? Big deal.
The eval board had indicated she could apply to return to active duty in a year or so, assuming she beat the bug. The trick was figuring out what the heck to do with herself in the meantime. Without the regimen that had shaped her life, she felt lost, cut adrift, alone.
Disgusted, she shook her head. Okay! All right! Cut the self-pity, Armstrong. Focus on the suspicious activities next door.
Andi knew the signs of a crack house. She should. She'd dragged her sister out of enough of them during those awful years of Carol's worst anger and rebellion. Thank God her teenaged sister had finally hit bottom, gotten professional help and kicked her habit.
Despite its prime beachfront location, the house next door fit all the criteria. The late-night comings and goings. The shuttered windows. The untended yard. The half-constructed deck at the side of the houseas if its owner had been juiced up and eager to start the project but crashed before finishing it.
Common sense said Andi should call the sheriff's office, report her suspicions and wait for them to investigate. Grim experience told her she needed more than vague suspicion to precipitate action. She needed an up-close-and-personal look at what was going on inside the house.
She had an excuse ready, assuming she needed one: she'd just arrived, didn't know how to turn on the hot-water heater, saw the lights in her neighbor's window and decided to ask for help.
Abandoning her observation post, she shoved her feet into the flip-flops she'd kicked off earlier and headed for the stairs. A detour through the garage retrieved a lethal little collapsible baton from the side pocket of her cherry-red Tahoe. Tucking the weapon into the back pocket of her jeans, Andi slipped out the garage door.
The humid night slapped her in the face the moment she stepped outside. So much for the cooling ocean breezes the Realtor claimed blew in off the Gulf of Mexico! he'd also neglected to mention the mosquitoes. Andi had forgotten how big and ornery they grew in these parts.
Swatting at a particularly vicious kamikaze dive-bomber, she crunched across the crushed-shell driveway separating her yard from her neighbor's. When she gained the front stoop, she leaned on the doorbell until an irritated bellow sounded from inside.
"Okay, okay! I'm coming."
That was followed by a crash and a curse. Slipping the baton out of her back pocket, Andi palmed it in her right hand. She was ready when someone yanked the front door open. Or thought she was.
The naked chest took her by surprise. Mostly because it was so damned big and broad. It was also roped with muscles and topped by shoulders that blocked any view of the interior of the house.
The bad-tempered growl wrenched Andi's gaze upward. She had one startled second to take in the instantly recognizable facethe cheeks and chin stubbled with dark whiskers, the nose flattened at the bridge, the electric-blue eyesbefore those eyes went wide.
An arm whipped around her waist. A swift tug toppled her into that acre or so of bare chest. The mouth that came down on hers was hard and hot and achingly familiar.
Time seemed to reverse itself. For a crazy instant Andi was back in New Mexico, wrapped in a dark sky ablaze with millions of stars, flattened against Dave Armstrong's chest.
They'd been so hungry for each other that night, so damned greedy. They'd left the Kirtland AFB Officers' Club in a haze of desire and had been popping the buttons on each other's dress uniforms before they'd screeched into the parking lot of Dave's apartment complex.
Another hard kiss returned her to the present. Dave didn't release her. If anything, his hold tightened as he buried his face in her hair.
"Lord, I needed you to show up on my doorstep tonight."
"Dave!" Wiggling, she managed to wedge her arms against his chest. "I can't breathe."
His head lifted, and one corner of his mouth tipped into the lazy grin that had melted Andi's bones more times than she cared to remember.
"Just the way I like my women," he drawled, his eyes glinting. "Breathless and eager."
"How about breathless and ribless?, she gasped.
Still grinning, he eased his hold. While Andi gulped in air, he curled a knuckle under her chin. His expression turned serious as he tipped her face to the light spilling over his shoulders.
"I heard about the medical evaluation board. That sucks, babe."
"Yeah, well, you know how it goes."
"Come on in." Looping his arm over her shoulders, he propelled her into the foyer. "We'll kick my team out and talk about it."
Understanding dawned. Those shadowy figures Andi had spotted slipping in and out of the house were members of his Special Ops unit. And the black bags she'd mistaken for garbage sacks contained Dave's gear. The bags were stacked here in the front hall, enough for a one-man army. Judging by that pile and the bristles on his cheeks and chin, he'd just returned from a mission. The weeds in the front yard and the windows she belatedly realized were boarded against the hurricanes that battered the gulf suggested his mission had lasted several months.
The old hurts came crashing back. Andi had gone down this road once before with Dave. She couldn't do it again. Especially not now.
"I didn't just show up on your doorstep," she said, shrugging out of his hold. "And I'm not looking for a shoulder to cry on."
He hooked his hands on his hips above the waistband of his low-riding jeans. "Then what?"
"I've rented the house next door. Trust me," she added when his brows soared, " I had no idea you lived on this street. Or that you were still in Florida, for that matter. Last I heard, you were on tap to take command of Joint Task Force Six."
"The Navy made an end run. They're going to fill that slot with one of their own." Regret flickered in his blue eyes, so vivid against his tanned skin. "We haven't exactly kept in touch since the divorce, have we?"
"No, we haven't."
"You said that's how you wanted it."