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Dressed in a courier's uniform, newly minted security agent Judd Willingham made the short walk up the cracked sidewalk to the small front porch of the nondescript brick house. Twinkling Christmas lights with more burnt-out bulbs than working ones sagged from the eaves and a sad-looking wreath hung from a door in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint. Dead weeds, their crispy skeletons all that remained from a robust summer, pushed up between the evergreen shrubs, crowding the flower beds on either side of the entrance, and a rusty mailbox hung drunkenly from a lone nail which was dangerously close to slipping from the mortar. Judd grimaced. This was the safe house? Really?
Granted he hadn't expected a mansionthe little town of Mossy Ridge, Mississippi, could barely afford its five-man police force, let alone a state-of-the-art safe housebut surely something a little more sound could have been made available. Considering this was the third time his target, Noelle Montgomery, had been evacuated due to another failed attempt on her life, no doubt their choices were dwindling.
Honestly, when he'd been briefed on his first assignment for Ranger Security, Judd had expected something a little less grave than protecting a key witness to a murder trial. After all, Jeb, his twin brotherolder by two minutes and his exact mirror oppositehad merely had to find a jewel thief burgling a highend retirement community. No lifeor-death situation there. In fact, other than potentially getting run over by a motorized scooter, he hadn't been in any danger at all. At least physically, anyway. Judd inwardly grinned. His heart was another matter altogether. Much to their equal astonishment, Jeb had found himself married at the end of his assignment.
Having always enjoyed an almost supernatural twin connection, making sense of his brother's feelings had been a little disconcerting. He'd picked up on a lot of awe, wonder, confusion and frustration. It wasn't until Jeb's, er, physical releaseorgasms had never been a secret, a fact that had been quite embarrassing in their teensthat Judd had realized that his brother had fallen head over heels in love. Though he didn't experience the sensations as strongly as Jebmore shadowed and less profound than the originalhe'd found himself a little envious of his twin.
Not envious enough to want to permanently shackle himself to a member of the opposite sex though. He'd come damned close to that in his last year at West Point, a mistake he didn't ever intend to make again. He smothered a dark chuckle.
Fool me once
was enough. Lesson learned.
Naturally he knew that all women weren't faithless money-grubbing connivers, like the one who'd almost tricked him into an until-death-do-you-part, but knowing it and having it make a difference were two different things.
Heather had studied him, understood his weaknesses and knew exactly what to say and do to appeal to his "hero" complex. In the end, his "damaged fragile flower in need of a protector" had been a two-time divorcee with multiple aliases and a rap sheet longer than the damned Declaration of Independence. And he'd nearly brought that viper into their family? His lips quirked.
They already had one of those, thank you very muchhis grandmother.
The matriarch of the family and the formidable head of Anderson Enterprises, Twila Anderson was notoriously hard and could hold a grudge and her own opinion longer than anyone he'd ever known. She no longer had the ability to scare the hell out of him, but if he'd wanted to continue taking orders he would have stayed in the military. Though he could have gone to work for her, or any one of the company's holdings, Judd had ultimately, once again, decided to follow in his brother's footsteps.
Contrary to popular belief, he did have an original thought and they didn't share a mind, but they were so closely tied to one another that living independently of the other was simply
unpleasant. They were more than brothers, they were best friends. And while Jeb had left the military after that horrible disaster in Mosul, Judd had actually been considering it before his brother had.
A sniper who couldn't pull the trigger was essentially useless and, given that it had gotten increasingly more difficult with every target.
And the hell of it? He had no earthly idea why.
Judd had always prided himself on being able to do the hard jobmaking the conscious decision to end another person's life was not easy, even if it was justified. Men who intentionally killed, mutilated and maimed innocent women and children were lower than pond scum and didn't deserve to live, dammit.
For every one of those people he finished off, he'd always congratulated himself with the lives he'd saved.
The end justified the means, the greater good and all of that. And he still believed ithe really didbut doing it. Putting a man in the crosshairs, making the kill shot. That was out of reach. He couldn't do it anymore.
Not that he'd confided that to anyoneeven Jeb. It was too galling, too shameful. Better that they thought he missed his twin than the truth.
Initially, he'd chalked his hesitation up to burnoutit happened. He'd taken a short leave to Cretehe hadn't had time to come home and wouldn't have even if he couldbut even the island paradise, lots of good sex, good food and good wine hadn't made a difference.
He was done. His career in the military was over.
Luckily, Jeb had paved the way with Ranger Security and Judd couldn't have been any more thankful. Owners and legendary Rangers Jamie Flanagan, Brian Payne and Guy McCann were the collective best of what Uncle Sam had to offer. Coolly efficient with an unmatched attention to detail, Payne had been nicknamed The Specialist and the moniker more than fit. With a rumored genius IQ and enough brawn to strike fear into the bravest of men, Flanagan had met and married Colonel Carl Garrett's granddaughter, which was proof enough of his courage. And McCann's mystical ability to surf the fine line between brilliance and stupidity and always land in hero territory had made him locker room lore.
Added to the fact that these men were former soldiersand more significantly, Rangersit made this job the perfect fit. Because he'd never been stateside long enough to outfit a permanent residence, Judd was thankful for the furnished apartment that came with his generous employment package and looked forward to finding a place of his own.
His new sister-in-law, Sophie, had even offered to deed him off some acreage from her farm, where she and Jeb had made their home. Admittedly, it was tempting, if for no other reason than it would make his brother his neighbor. And since he suspected that a little Sophie or Jeb wouldn't be too long in the making, being the "fun uncle" held immense appeal.
A tinkle of low, feminine laughter sounded through the door, ringing an internal hum of awareness along his nerve endings. An unfamiliar prickling tightened the skin on the tops of his fingers, made his stomach clench. He frowned, shaking the bizarre sensation off, and focused on the job at hand. A quick glance along both ends of the street confirmed that he wasn't being watched and that all was well. Judd pretended to check the address on the package he carried against the house number, then knocked on the door.
Utter silence. The laughing stopped as though a switch had been thrown.
He heard the soft shuffle of a heavy foot across carpet, could feel someone staring at him through the peephole and held up the box. "Bluebird Services. I'm here to deliver a package."
"Perishable or non-perishable?" a voice asked, verifying the security question.
"Perishable," he confirmed.
Judd listened as a series of locks disengaged, then the door opened to reveal a rangy officer with more hair on his face than his head. His eyes were guarded, a little regretful and mildly relieved. No doubt keeping this key witness out of harm's way was the most exciting bit of police work Officer ZZ Top had ever done, Judd thought, following him inside the house.
In keeping with the generally shabby appearance of the outside, the interior was equally depressed. Stained brown carpet covered the floors, dated brown paneling lined the walls and bare bulbs hung from the dingy water-stainedokay, fine, brownceiling. Wearing uniforms the color of ditch water, the three officers matched the bleak decor.
Which was probably what made the woman standing in the middle of them all the more remarkable.
She stood out like a flamingo in a flock of cow-birds.
His heart began to pound, pushing the blood through his veins so fast that his mouth parched. A peculiar feeling fluttered through his chest, not altogether unpleasant, and the centers of his palms tingled with heat. He couldn't have been any more surprised if fireballs emerged from them. Though he knew it hadn't, the floor felt like it shifted beneath his feet and his stomach suddenly floated inside his belly with breathless anticipation, the same way it did the instant he jumped out of a plane. He swallowed, shaken.
Tall and willowy with long, blazing red hair that gleamed with vitality despite the lack of proper lighting, she practically glowed from within, bathing the rest of the world around her with her illumination. Her skin was pale and peachy-looking, her mouth a small but ripe raspberry pink that immediately put him in mind of sex, and delicate brows arched over a pair of particularly startling green eyes. They were light, the color of antique glass, and heavily fringed with dark auburn lashes. She wore a long multicolored skirt which clung to an especially nice ass, a white tunic with billowy sleeves, lots of noisy jewelryit jingled with every move she madeand a pair of fuzzy pink bunny slippers on her feet. The scent of meat loaf and apple pie hung in the air and a small candle burned on the battered coffee table.
What was more startling was what she was doingcutting one of the officers' hair, of all things. While she worked, she did a lot of humming under her breath, biting her distracting lips and frowning critically. She didn't look the least bit concerned that someone was trying to kill her. In fact, she just looked
busy. A quick glance revealed that everyone but ZZ Top had gotten a fresh trim and shave.
"I'm almost done," she said, without looking up. Snip, snip, snip. Frown. Snip, snip, snip. "See, Roy, the trick is to condition regularly. Hair is hair. Just because you're a man doesn't mean your hair doesn't need a decent moisturizer, especially with all this curl," she said, pushing her hands through it with a little groan of delight that made his balls tighten.
Roy's, too, by the look of him.
A fair baby-faced blonde with more than a spare tire hanging over his belt, dear old Roy blushed to the roots of the hair she presently worked on.
"I bet the girls just can't get enough of those curls, can they?" she continued, smiling as she tweaked a few more strands. "It's a good thing you don't have any dimples, Roy, because dimples and curls would have made you downright irresistible, and that's hardly fair to any of the rest of the men in this town, is it?"
"Right," one of the men drawled. "'Cause he beats them off with a stick now, doesn't he?"
She looked up and sent the offender a scowl that managed to be as quelling as it was disappointed. "Clark."
Clark's smug smile instantly fell and he reached down and popped a rubber band against his wrist. "Sarcasm isn't a weapon," he said, seemingly by rote. "I can be clever without being cruel."
Judd blinked, stunned. What the hell
She beamed approvingly at Clark, her pale green eyes lighting with pleasure. "Intelligence is attractive, but only when it's put to good use. Wouldn't it be a shame to waste that fine mind, Clark? Have you given any more thought to going back to school, pursuing that dream of architecture we talked about?"
Clark glanced at the floor and sheepishly shuffled his feet. "I'm still thinking about it."
"Thinking is good, but taking action is better. Make the choice and commit to it." She smiled indulgently. "You know you can do it."
What was she? Judd wondered. Some sort of life coach? A daytime TV junkie? Both?
"You're determined to make sure that I'm an officer short on my police force, aren't you?" ZZ Top scolded with a good-natured grimace.