Former military and ex-FBI agent Ethan Worth is searching for a new way to serve and protect. On a break in Beaufort, North Carolina, he just may have found it. It starts with saving a tipsy damsel in distress from a shady troublemaker. But it ends with the surprisingly sober beauty outraged by his rescue. That’s all Ethan needs for his expert instincts to kick into high gear . . .
Riley Jones is back in Beaufort for one reason only: to find her missing best friend, Hanna. If that means using herself as bait for the kind of guy who’d prey on a vulnerable young woman, so be it. She doesn’t need a rugged knight in shining armor like Ethan distracting her, and she doesn’t want his help. But it turns out she needs it. And together, as the heat between them rises, so does the danger. Until both their lives are on the line . . .
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Lord Jesus, it was her. She hadn't seen him yet, thank god.
Ethan pulled his baseball cap low over his eyes and rounded his shoulders over his glass of rum and Coke.
He kept his head low, but his eyes trained on her. Riley wore denim cut-off shorts and a white lace crop top that revealed her flat, lightly tanned stomach. The man beside her passed her another shot. She tossed it back expertly. Ethan slid his thumb over the cool glass in his hand. That's two now, and before the shots she'd been sipping on a brightly colored cocktail. That was a lot of alcohol for someone her size.
She passed the man her empty shot glass. He slid an arm around her back, inching closer to her. For a flicker of an instant, her face changed. Her eyes grew small and her jaw tensed. A shaky smile returned when he touched her chin and turned her face toward him. Her fingers toyed with a long tendril of her hair that fell in soft waves around her breasts.
The man tucked her hair over her shoulder and whispered something in her ear. She bit her lip.
Ethan tightened his hand on the sweating glass. She didn't know the dude. All he had to go by was instinct and his experience on reading people. One thing was for sure, the asshole was all over her. If he was her boyfriend, he wouldn't be trying so damn hard.
Dammit, he shouldn't care. She wasn't his problem. Since he'd moved in next door to her a couple weeks ago, she'd been friendly but completely disinterested in his attempts at small talk. Not that he'd done anything but be polite to her.
Riley had a wall of ice behind her green eyes and tight smile. No one was getting beyond that guard ... except the douchebag that kept touching her.
The man trailed a finger over Riley's collarbone, his face tucked closely to her ear. Her cheeks turned a ripe shade of pink. She ducked her chin away from his face, but the man brought his hand to her jaw and turned it sharply toward him. The planes of the dude's face turned hard and his fingertips held her face inches from his. Even at this distance, Ethan could see that he dug his grip too deep, making her soft skin pucker around his fingertips. His hold demanded her obedience.
Who the hell did this guy think he was handling a woman like that? And more importantly, why was she standing for it?
He lowered his hand to her bicep and rotated her body into him. With Riley's back to Ethan, he watched as the predator smoothed his hands over her ass. She grabbed his wrists, shifting his hands to rest on her hips.
The guy put them right back on the rump of her shorts.
An iron fist of disgust gripped Ethan's lungs. The prick was insistent and downright rough. His instincts went to war. Getting involved wouldn't do him any good, but something wasn't right.
"Mind if I have a seat?" A tall woman in a tight red dress blocked his view. He lifted his eyes to her face and then dragged them away. On any other night, he'd be game. Hell, he'd be more than game. But tonight, he couldn't take his eyes off the blonde across the room.
"I'm waiting for someone, but you're welcome to have a seat." Manners forced the words from his mouth. He shifted his gaze around her full, sexy hips to locate the woman across the bar. His disinterest didn't sway the woman in red. She pulled out a chair and sat. Her legs crossed and uncrossed.
"You've been waiting an awful long time." She rested her chin on her palm. Warm, olive eyes met his. God, she was beautiful. Her lips were full and painted in a warm neutral tone, her dark hair curled around her exposed cleavage.
Every male hormone in his body screamed at him for not taking an interest. But he couldn't. Not when his sixth sense was on high alert. He couldn't pretend that he didn't have any clue as to what the slimy bastard was planning on doing with Riley. He forced his attention to the woman in front of him. "I'm sorry, I'm distracted tonight and not in the mood for conversation."
A slow smile crept over her face. "I'm not in the mood for conversation either."
Jesus, she was direct. He liked direct, he liked women who knew what they wanted and took it. Sex in particular. He was here on vacation to clear his head and figure out his next steps and he wanted to enjoy it. And that meant sex. Lots of it. Of course, this would happen tonight, when he wouldn't be able to act. Because of Riley. Just his luck.
The waitress stepped up to his visitor, and propped a tray on her hip. "What can I get you?"
"I'll have a mojito, please."
Now he was buying her a drink? How in the hell had that happened? He craned his neck around the two women. A new couple stood in the same spot where Riley and the asshole had stood only seconds before.
"And for you?"
He waved his glass at her. "Rum and Coke."
His eyes scanned the crowd. The waitress took the empty glass and sidled around the table. He leaned in his seat, not caring if he was being inconspicuous or not. Women gyrated on the dance floor, the thumping of the bass vibrated through the soles of his shoes, racking up his pulse.
The top of Riley's blond head passed through a gap in the throng of bodies. The man she'd been with had his fingers circled around her elbow, leading her to the exit.
Ethan leapt to his feet, opened his wallet, and slapped some bills on the table. "Have a good night." He moved his way through the crowd, keeping his eyes on his target. The woman he'd left behind scoffed and made a rude remark.
He didn't care.
People loitered near the exit. Without slowing down, he parted the crowd. The warm night air hit him in the face. The late July humidity made his shirt cling to his chest when he stepped outside.
His eyes zeroed in on them. They were halfway across the parking lot. The dude's hand curled possessively around her elbow as he dragged her across the gravel. Much too quick for Riley's staggered footsteps. She didn't appear to be putting up a fight, but with the drunken wobble of her legs, that didn't reassure him. Distaste swirled over Ethan's tongue.
Don't overreact. This is none of your business.
It wasn't his business, but goddammit, he couldn't stand around and let her leave with the douchebag. The reasonable part of his brain that still worked shouted at him to remain cool. He had to give him the benefit of the doubt. For all he knew the guy was going to put her in a cab. He wouldn't step in unless it appeared otherwise. Any man that took an intoxicated woman home from the bar had only one thing in mind. She threw her head back and cackled, her steps wavered, and she slouched against the man's side.
The guy's hand extended in the air. A soft beep-beep sounded through the night, and the headlights of his red Ford Mustang flashed. Every muscle in Ethan's body tensed.
She laughed again at something he'd said. Her cowboy-booted toe caught the gravel and she pitched forward. She landed on her hands and knees, and then rolled to sit on her ass, her giggles erupting through the night. She was plastered.
His feet crunched over the gravel as he approached. The man slid his hands under her arms and hauled her to her feet.
"I want smum more alcohol." The thundering of blood through his skull drowned out the soft slurs of her voice.
"Come on girl, I have tequila at my house."
"Let her go." Ethan's voice boomed through the wall of humidity. The screeching cicadas around them silenced before beginning their symphony again. His movements didn't slow. The man lifted his bent head, the salacious smile evaporated from his face. He took a step back. He was of medium-build, but next to Ethan, he lacked size and mass.
Riley reeled to face him. Her eyes widened on his face. "What are you doing here?"
Fire shot from her green eyes, enough to sear him to the spot. Huh. Two minutes ago, she'd been drunk and on her ass. Now she didn't slur a single syllable. There was no way she'd sobered up that quickly. What the hell was she trying to pull?
Ethan stopped inches from her. "Hello to you too, Riley."
"Do you know him?" the man's voice wavered, his eyes racked over Ethan.
Riley's gaze never left his. "No, I don't." She turned, but Ethan stopped her. The skin above her elbow was smooth beneath the rough pads of his fingers. When the prick reached for her, Ethan stepped between them. With his back to him, Ethan's senses sparked. The muscles in his back bunched anticipating an attack. His training still deeply ingrained in his psyche.
"You're drunk, and I'm not letting you leave with this douchebag, all right? I'll call you a cab."
Her brow snapped down. She was so short next to him, her eyes were level with his sternum. She yanked her arm out of his grasp. "I'm fine. Mind your own business."
She stepped around him. "Come on, Ryan." Her eyes burned into Ethan's. "Let's go."
The man snickered and welcomed her to his extended arm. "See ya later, bro."
He should back away. He should let her do whatever the hell she wanted.
He cracked his knuckles. Not happening. In one swoop, he caught the man's shirt collar and yanked him backward. Ryan stumbled and flopped across the loose stones on his ass. Ethan stepped over top of him, his hand fisted at the throat of his shirt.
"Let him go, you maniac." Riley shrieked behind him. She pulled on the back of his shirt with the strength of a squirrel. He ignored her.
"You want to tell me what the hell you're doing getting a young woman plastered and taking her home?" Ethan gave him a shake when he didn't answer. The man's hat flew off revealing dark, close-cropped hair.
"She came on to me, man," he wailed. "I didn't know she was with anyone."
Riley swatted at him. Ethan's grip tightened. He shifted his eyes to her. She had come onto him? Ethan shook his head. He may not know her well, but he was a damn good judge of character. It didn't ring true.
"I don't believe you. But even if that's true, you should know better. If I ever catch you feeding shots to a young woman and trying to take her home, Ryan," he emphasized his name for good measure. "I'll break every bone in your face, understood?"
Sweat broke out on Ryan's brow. He nodded. Ethan stood and Riley dropped to her knee next to Ryan.
"Don't listen to him. We're not together, honest." She whipped her head over her shoulder and glared at him. "Go away."
Ethan's head pounded. What in the hell was the matter with her? Did she not know what this idiot had in mind? Ryan rose to his feet and brushed off his pants.
"I have to go."
Riley's hands fell away from him. He skulked the rest of the way to his Mustang and got in. His tires screeched as he peeled out of the lot.
She reeled on him. "You idiot. I don't know who the hell you think you are, but you need to mind your own goddamn business." The tip of her index finger stabbed into his pec muscle. He brushed her hand away, annoyance gnawed at him.
He rested his hand on the back of his neck. The tension had turned into an angry ache. He worked his jaw.
"Are you kidding me right now? Are you completely unaware what that guy was planning to do once he got you back to his house?"
"This is insane." Her voice raised an octave. "I barely even know you." Her arms waved in the air between them. "And for the record, I didn't ask for your help."
"You fell on your ass for god's sake." He crossed his arms over his chest. "Didn't anyone teach you what happens to young women in bars? I feel like you need some education on the subject."
Her eyes sharpened on him. A deep blush stained her cheeks. If smoke could billow from her ears, it would have.
"I'm not stupid," she hissed. "And if you come near me again, I will punch your lights out. Got it?"
A laugh bubbled in his throat. He couldn't stop it and didn't try to. He was easily two times her size. Not to mention her fist could fit in his palm. She seethed. Her foot stomped in the dirt, kicking up a small cloud of dust. A growl gurgled from her throat before she spun on her heel.
Her hair fanned out behind her as she stormed away.
The laughter gone from his voice, he jogged after her. "Riley, come on. Let me give you a ride home, you're drunk."
She whirled around so fast he had to catch himself from barrelling into her. This close he could see the rise and fall of her chest. Her breasts overflowed the top of her skimpy shirt. Her sweet-smelling perfume permeated the air around them.
"Are you deaf? Or are you really that stupid?" She flung her hair over her shoulder and rested her hands on her hips to stare him down.
His temper crackled in his ears. "You're calling me stupid?" He shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "I can't believe I have to spell this out. That guy was going to rape you, Riley. I just saved you."
Something flashed in her eyes. She took a step closer to him, the toe of her boot stepped on his loafer. She didn't back down.
"Did it ever occur to you that I wanted him to take me home? That maybe I was looking for sex?"
The muscles in his face went lax. Holy shit. He pulled his hat off to scratch his head. Damn, this was uncomfortable. He stared at the fiery little blonde. She may be dressed the part and her actions now added up to her words ... but something didn't fit.
Her eyebrows bobbed at him waiting for a response. She was accusing him of cock blocking. Unbelievable. Or would it even be called that? He didn't want to explore the female version.
She was trying to make him squirm. For a heartbeat, she'd succeeded. Now he was going to knock some sense into her stubborn head.
"And I ruined it for you, is that it?"
Her lips spread into a smirk. "Obviously."
"And that's the kind of guy you want to fit the bill? Someone who drags you across the parking lot? C'mon, Riley you're not fooling anyone." He opened and closed his hands, hesitation built in his chest at the questions screaming in his head. "Are you against nice guys or something?"
She widened her eyes and her teeth scraped over her bottom lip. "You mean guys like you?"
Hell yeah, he meant guys like him. He hadn't pursued her. Not once. But he always sparked conversation with her hoping to crack the dark cloud that she carried over her head.
She shook her head. A flash of something in her green flared eyes alerted his senses. Regret?
She let out a low breath. "There's no nice way to say this ... I'm not interested." She shrugged and moved to turn away. He held his hand out and she stopped.
Her words sunk slowly through his eardrums. He wasn't arrogant enough to accuse her of lying. Hell, based on her distance with their every conversation, he had no doubt she meant it. But that didn't make the pull toward her that started in his chest any less. He should have listened to his head and stayed out of her business. She was complicated as hell and every time he walked away from her, his head ached with confusion.
The fact that she'd flat-out faked being drunk hadn't escaped his attention. But it did set an alarm bell in his head. And no matter how much she pushed him away, the FBI agent in him needed to know why she'd put on that act tonight.
"I get that," he said evenly. "But try to exercise some common sense. I might not be around next time."
She snorted. "You're an asshole."
He lifted his shoulders. "Funny that you're not interested then, isn't it?"
"Don't come near me again," she said barely above a whisper, her voice shaking. She pushed past him, but not before he'd caught the tears glimmering in her eyes. His anger deflated like air releasing from a balloon.
A knot formed in his chest. Guilt burned through his stomach. His fingers clenched on the ball cap in his hands, crushing its bill. He'd let his anger get the best of him. It wasn't like him to lose his cool. But Riley did something to him. Her aloof attitude had been driving him crazy since he'd arrived in the small town of Beaufort, North Carolina. Living next door, they bumped into each other almost every day, and even more frequently when he visited the restaurant she worked at. The harder he tried to talk to her, the more distant she'd become.
And for what? Because he'd talked about the weather or asked for his coffee to be topped up? Or left her a nice sized tip?
His eyes followed her as she reached the sidewalk and headed down the road. He couldn't let her walk home alone, but he couldn't approach her again. If he followed her, no doubt she'd call the cops.
If something happened to her, he'd be responsible. He walked the rest of the way to his truck, pulled the keys from his pocket, and slid in. His hands tightened on the steering wheel.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
If she didn't like him before tonight, she downright despised him now. He waited fifteen minutes before pulling out of the parking lot. If the lights were on in her house, he'd at least be able to sleep easy that she'd made it home.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bait"
Copyright © 2018 Samantha Keith.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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