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Nice ass, Mick Chivers thought, staring at one of the multiple pictures he'd been given of his target. His reaction was hardly appropriate given the circum-stancesfirst assignment, new job at Ranger Security, chance to start over, yada yada yadabut he'd never given a second thought to propriety before and wasn't about to start now. He absently rubbed his temple and slouched lower in his chair, seemingly unconcerned, confident and unaware of the four pairs of eyes currently trained on him. He smothered a snort.
But Sarah Jane Walker did have a nice ass. Even in this out-of-focus sorry excuse for a photograph. Who'd taken it? he wondered, irritated. A monkey? Granted, Mick was only a hobby photographer, but he knew his way around a camera well enough to do better. His moody gaze slid back to her face. She had a nice mouth, too. And that hair. Long, thick and wavy, falling well below the back of her bra, a pretty dark blond with caramel highlights. He almost smiled.
And he had to admit, the tool belt was a nice touch.
"An architectural salvage expert, eh?" he asked no one in particular. "What exactly is it that she does?"
Though he didn't look up, Mick could feel Brian Payne's intense blue gaze. Good construction prevented the noisy downtown Atlanta sounds from seeping into the room, but Mick imagined he heard the occasional honk of a horn.
The other three men in the lounge area of their office had taken chairs around a big coffee table laden with a variety of snacks. Jamie Flanagan nursed a high-energy drink. Guy McCann idly flipped through a sports magazine. Hands dangling between his knees, Lucas "Huck" FinnMick's good friend, former unit mate and no small reason he'd been offered this job after his hasty exit from the militaryleaned forward and studied him closely, those keen gray eyes probing for answers Mick was disinclined to give.
What was there to say, really, other than he'd screwed up and nearly cost another soldier his life?
It was Payne who finally answered. "In a nutshell, she goes into old housesusually ones that are slated for demolitionand saves everything of value. Mantels, crown molding, built-ins, stained glass, doors. Those sorts of things." He leaned against the back of Flanagan's chair. "Interesting work for a woman, but our research says she's very good at what she does. Her father was in the construction business. Apparently, she apprenticed under him."
So she learned her trade from her father, Mick thought. How novel. The only thing he'd ever learned from his old man was how to leave. His mother, too, for that matter. He'd certainly gotten used to watching their taillights disappear every time they dropped him off at Mars Hill Academy, a rigorous old military school located in the beautiful hills of North Carolina. Far enough from their eastern Kentucky home to put distance between them, but drivable in the event of an emergency. Or so he'd overheard his mother say once to a friend.
Deemed "a problem child" at an early age, Mick had been shipped off to military school after the sixth gradeit probably would have been sooner if his parents could have found a facility to accept himand had only been allowed home over the Christmas holidays and summer break.
And since he'd spent the latter with his paternal grandfather, Charlieusually repairing the barn or building a new addition onto the old houseinstead of his parents, Mick could honestly say that he'd typically spent two weeks out of the year at what other people actually called "home." He inwardly shuddered at those awkward holiday memories. The forced smiles, the fake happiness, when it was all too plain they couldn't wait to send him back, to be rid of him, as though his being born and screwing up their lives had been his fault. Mick passed a hand over his face and swallowed the bitter taste in his mouth.
It was no damned wonder he hated Christmas.
Water under the bridge, he told himself, releasing a shallow breath. Hell, they'd actually done him a favor. Despite the somewhat harsh and überstructured formatand the occasional thrashing for mischief he'd thrived at military school. He'd learned to love his country, to revere the men who'd founded it and, more importantly, to honor the soldiers who'd died for it by becoming a U.S. Army Ranger and taking up their cause. He'd learned that honor was rewarded, deceit punished, that hard work tested the measure of a man and boundaries were meant to be pushed. Another half smile flirted with his lips. Actually, if you asked any of his former instructors, they'd probably say he'd learned that lesson best of all. He hadn't been nicknamed The Hell-raiser for nothing.
One of these days you're going to go too far, Chivers.
Regret and disgrace formed an enormous ball in his gut. The one-of-these-days warning had come true recently, much to his shame and horror, and was the main reason he'd left the military. A vision of Carson Wells's agonized face rose in Mick's mind's eye, tormenting him with an image he'd never forget. If that bullet had been an inch higher and to the left, it would've surely killed him. Too close, Mick thought, because as predicted, he'd gone too far.
He'd made the call and the mistake.
Fortunatelyor at least that's what he was telling himselfColonel Carl Garrett had referred him to Ranger Security. Landing a job with the elite agency of former Rangersmen from his backgroundwas a coup, one he was certain he would celebrate when he was less inclined to hate himself. At the moment, it was all he could do to sit here and pretend he wasn't losing his mind right along with his life and career. That he wasn't the eternal screwup his father had always claimed.
Furthermore, he honestly didn't have any idea why they'd hired him. He'd made a monumental error. He'd almost cost another soldier his life because of his reckless judgment. How could they possibly think he deserved this job? Could he do it? Certainly. But he imagined the only reason he'd scored the hire was because Huck had gone to bat for him. And at the moment, that little bit of knowledge was the only thing that would ensure that he did a good job.
He'd be damned before he let another friend down.
Speaking of friends, he should really call Levi, Mick thought, ashamed that he'd avoided contact with his unit mate. Mick had met both Lucas Finn and Levi McPherson during Jump School. Somewhere between the grueling training and commiserating beers, the three had become especially close friends. Having been in an all-guy environment for most of his life, one that by its very nature fostered a unique blend of competition and camaraderie, Mick had made some great buddies over the years. But the dynamic among the three of them had always been more like that of brothers.
Other than his grandfather, they were the closest thing to a family he'd ever had.
When things had gone south recently, it was Huck who'd helped him find a job, but Levi had had his back, as well. He'd actually been a member of the team on that ill-fated mission, and Mick was having a harder time facing him. Hell, even talking to him. Levi had personally witnessed his mistake, and knowing that made it too damned hard for Mick to look him in the eye. In short, he was ashamed, and until he figured out how to cope with the screwup, he was better off avoiding his friend. Cowardly? No doubt. But necessary to his questionable sanity at the moment.
Rather than linger on things he couldn't change, Mick exhaled a short sigh and mentally reviewed the mess of his first case. And it was a convoluted quagmire of personal crap he'd just as soon stay out of. Unfortunately, staying out of it wasn't in his new job description.
"So let me get this straight. We've been hired by Chastity Walker"
"Sarah Jane's stepmother," McCann interjected.
"Who is also Sarah Jane's age and most hated enemy," Flanagan added with a wry look.
"to catch Sarah Jane trying to steal some of her deceased father's possessions."
"Possessions that Sarah Jane claims are part of her inheritance," Payne added.
Mick frowned. "There's no will?"
Payne shrugged. "Not according to Chastity, and with the absence of a will, everything goes to the next of kin. As the wife, that's her."
"What about according to Sarah Jane?" Mick asked, smelling a rat. Something about this didn't feel right. Why would Chastity go to the trouble of hiring their services for something so small? So petty? He knew women could be like that, of course, and it certainly didn't seem like there was any love lost between these two, but He was picking up a weird vibe on this one.
"Sarah Jane insists there was a will, but neither Chastity nor the attorney who supposedly drafted it has produced it." Payne grimaced. "Like I said, I'm not sure about this one, and we won't be a party to anything illegal. Right now, we have the facts according to our client. If she's lying, then naturally that will change things, and you can respond however you see fit." He paused. "As it stands, we know that Sarah Jane, in particular, is after a pipe that belonged to her father, and her mother's antique wedding dress." Payne shrugged, looking uncomfortably skeptical. "Chastity will not give up the pipe and insists that she donated the dress to a local historical society after it had been part of an exhibit."
Mick shot him a questioning glance. "And you believe her?"
"Not particularly. Right now though, operating on what we know from our client, our job is to keep an eye on Sarah Jane. If she does anything illegal, document the evidence and turn it over to Chastity so that she can do with it what she will."
Flanagan snorted. "Hell, Payne, she's already had Sarah Jane arrested once for assault and battery. You know what she's going to do with it."
Mick felt his lips twitch, and he flipped to the back of the file, where Sarah Jane's mutinous mug shot stared up at him. She had wide, compelling, pale brown eyesthe shade of his favorite toffee candy, Mick thoughtwhich were ringed in a darker hue, making them all the more interesting. A single green leaf had gotten tangled up in those long tresses and a smudge of dirt shadowed one rather plump cheek. Her chin was tilted up in a defiant little angle, seemingly daring the person behind the camera to say a word. The fight might have been broken up, but it hadn't yet left herevery line of her body seemed tensed and ready for action. Mick recognized that look, that particular brand of energy. God knows he'd felt it often enough, more so than was prudent. It was no small part of the reason his nickname had actually fit.
It was also the reason one hell-raiser typically recognized another. And Sarah Jane Walker looked like she didn't need a stick to stir shit with the best of them. Unbelievably, a current of heat snaked through Mick's groin, and his palms tingled, itching to wipe that curiously sexy bit of dirt from her cheek. Slip the pad of his thumb over that ripe bottom lip.
Aw, hell. This can't be good.
McCann chuckled. "According to the police report I read, Sarah Jane mopped the deck with her," he said. "It's no wonder Chastity is out for blood."
"From the looks of things, the woman has got her home and her inheritance. Shouldn't that be enough?" Mick asked, secretly pleased that Sarah Jane had gotten the better of his temporary employer. Why? Who knew? Because she was hot? Possibly. Because it sounded as if Sarah Jane was the underdog here? That, too. Not that he should care, because it wasn't his problem and he had enough of his own to deal with. Still, he'd always been a sucker for both, and when he factored in the tool belt and hellcat attitude Well, he couldn't deny it made her all the more appealing.
He had a sneaking suspicion he wasn't supposed to find his target appealing. Some of that keen Ranger training rearing its head, Mick thought, stifling the ridiculous urge to laugh.
"I know that it's a bit dodgy," Payne admitted. "This isn't a typical kind of case for us, so use discretion, Mick. If, in your observations, you discover that your mission conflicts with justice, then act accordingly."
Mick nodded, then looked down at the folder in his hand, flipping back to the front page. Where was he headed again? Monarch Grove, Georgia. Population 2,478. He smothered another laugh. It was a damned good thing they'd developed a decent cover for him, because blending into a town that small sure as hell wouldn't be easy.
"So I'm with Designing Weekly, an architectural magazine based out of Atlanta?"
"Right. You're the photographer and you've been sent ahead to shoot the spread." Flanagan slid several issues as well as a couple of books on architecture across the coffee table. "You're new, which explains your lack of bylines or photo credits. We've contacted her and set everything up. You'll be able to follow her around without any problem, which will enable you to learn her routine." He shrugged. "Naturally, we expect her to make her move at night, provided she's going to. So you'll want to pay particular attention to her then."
"There aren't any motels in Monarch Grove, so we've booked you into a B and B near the town square," Payne added. "Luckily, it's only a couple of blocks from Sarah Jane's place and it seems to be the morning hot spot for breakfast."
Mick felt a sardonic smile slide over his lips. "It sounds very Norman Rockwell."
"And just think," McCann said, grinning broadly. "You'll be there during the Fried Pie Festival."
Flanagan sighed contentedly. "Apple is a personal favorite of mine. Be sure and bring back a few, would you?"
Mick stared. It took a moment for him to realize Flanagan was serious. "Sure," he said, for lack of anything better.