Strong Enough

Strong Enough

by M. Leighton

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Overview

From the author of the New York Times bestselling Bad Boys novels comes the first in a dark, sexy contemporary trilogy.

Is she strong enough to trust the most dangerous man she’s ever met? And is he strong enough to let her?

How would I describe myself? Well, I’m Muse Harper. I’m a twenty-something painter who loves red wine, quirky movies, and men with a fatal flaw. But that was before I met Jasper King. He became my fatal flaw. Eight months ago, I had a choice to make—abandon everything I’ve ever known to protect my family, or stay and risk someone getting hurt. I chose the former. My plan was working just fine until I found out my father had gone missing.

That’s when I met Jasper. A bounty hunter with the eyes of a tiger and the nose of a bloodhound, he was supposed to help me find my father. What I didn’t know was that meeting him was no accident. Hunting people isn’t all that Jasper does. And helping me was only part of his plan. I just wish I’d found out sooner, before my heart got involved. But even then, I don’t know if I’d have done things differently.

Now, I have another choice to make—trust the man that I’m falling in love with and hope that he’ll do the right thing, or run as far away from him as I can get.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425279465
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/04/2015
Series: "Tall, Dark, and Dangerous" Series , #1
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Add new author biography.

C. J. Bloom is an actress and voice-over artist. She can be heard on commercials, video games, and promos. C. J. comes to narration with a passion for performance along with the capability to span several genres, from romance to children's literature and thrillers.

Joe Arden's narration has been described as "sensual," "sexy," and "hot." His recordings range from sweet and romantic to steamy and raw. In his spare time, Joe raises and trains rescue pitbulls and restores vintage motorcycles.

Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE

Jasper

Seventeen years ago

“What’s he gonna do, Mom?” I try to wriggle away from her, but she holds me too tight. I feel like something bad’s gonna happen, but I don’t know why. “Maybe I can make him not be mad. Let me go!”

“Shhh, baby. It’ll be okay. You have to stay here with me or he’ll take you, too.”

My heart’s beating so hard it hurts, like it did that time when Mikey Jennings punched me in the chest. Not even my mother’s arms around me makes the pain go away, and her hugs usually make everything better.

My eyes water as I stare out the window. I can’t blink. I’m afraid to. I don’t want to see what Dad’s going to do to my older brother, Jeremy, but I can’t look away either.

The longer I watch, the less I can move, like my feet are glued to the floor and my arms are strapped to my sides. It feels like I can’t even breathe. I can only stare at the cold, gray water and the two shapes moving closer to it.

I see Jeremy’s fingers clawing at my dad’s hand where it pulls him by his hair. It’s not doing him any good, though. Dad isn’t letting go. Jeremy’s feet sometimes drag along the ground, his ratty tennis shoes kicking up mud and grass, but my father never slows down. I can tell by the way his other fist is balled up that he’s mad. Madder than usual, maybe.

Jeremy got in trouble at school again today. They called Dad at work instead of Mom, so she didn’t even know until Dad brought Jeremy home. By then it was too late.

“No kid of mine’s gonna act like a monster. There’s something wrong with you, boy,” Dad was saying when they walked through the door. Jeremy was in front of him. Dad pushed him so hard, my brother fell and slid across the kitchen floor.

There really is something wrong with Jeremy. The doctor said so. He said Jeremy needed medicine, but Dad doesn’t care. It just makes him mad, makes him lose his temper with Jeremy even more.

I was standing at Mom’s side when Dad stopped in front of her. He put his finger in her face until it almost touched her nose. His eyes were that red color all around the edges like they are when he’s getting ready to whip Jeremy. “You’d better hope this little shit doesn’t turn out the same way.” He slapped me in the side of the head when he said it. It made my ear sting like a bee got me, but I didn’t even say “ouch.” I didn’t say anything. I knew better than to open my mouth. “One’s enough.”

Dad went and grabbed Jeremy by the back of his shirt, pulled him up to his feet and threw him out the kitchen door. Jeremy fell again, but that didn’t stop Dad. He followed him into the yard.

“Get up, you worthless little asshole,” he yelled. There was something not good in Jeremy’s eyes when he looked up. Then I saw him spit on Dad’s work boots. I knew he shouldn’t have done that. I knew it even more when Dad kicked him in the ribs. Now we’re watching my older brother get dragged away for punishment.

Rather than stopping at the old stump that he bends Jeremy over to whip him, Dad keeps walking right out into the lake. He doesn’t even stop at the edge.

My eyes hurt while I watch, but I can’t close them. Something about this time looks different. Feels different. Something about the hot tears streaming down my face tells me that this time is different.

Dad’s boots splash through the shallow water. He drags my brother behind him like he does a bag of trash when he’s loading up the truck to go to the dump. Jeremy falls and gets back up, falls and gets back up. He’s fighting for real now. He’s kicking and hitting. I see his mouth open wide like he’s screaming, but I can’t hear it. The only thing I can hear is my heartbeat. It’s like drums in my ears, it’s so loud.

Dad stops when the water is up to his waist. He pulls Jeremy to him. I see his face from the side, my father’s. It’s so red it looks purple. Veins are standing out all down his neck. My brother’s face is almost white, like he’s wearing ghost Halloween makeup. His eyes are dry, though. He stopped crying over the stuff Dad does to him a long time ago.

Dad yells something at Jeremy, his mouth stretching so wide it looks like he could eat him. Like a snake, just swallow him whole. Jeremy just stares up at him with his pale face. Dad shakes my brother hard enough to make his head snap back, and then he dunks him under the water.

I suck in a breath. I’ve never seen Dad do this before, no matter how mad he gets at Jeremy. Something in my chest burns while I watch Dad hold him under, like I can’t breathe either. Like air is stuck in there, burning. Just like I’m stuck in here. Hurting.

I taste salt from my tears. I lick them away, ashamed to be crying. Something starts pecking the top of my head. A wet trail, like snail slime, slides down the side of my face. I wipe it away and look at my hand. It’s just water. Warm water.

Tears. But not my tears. They’re Mom’s.

I count. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. I wonder how long Jeremy can hold his breath. My head feels like it might explode.

Four Mississippi, five Mississippi, six Mississippi.

Air and sound push past my tight throat to make a weird garbled scream. It lands in the quiet room like a crack of thunder. It’s the only noise I make. It’s the only noise I can make.

I watch Jeremy’s hands, beating against my dad’s wrist. Dad never budges, though, never lets up. His arm is straight and ruthless, holding my only brother under the water.

Mom’s arms squeeze me tighter. It’s getting even harder to breathe.

Seven Mississippi, eight Mississippi, nine Mississippi.

I count, even though time stopped moving. When I get to twenty Mississippi, I start over at one, start over for Jeremy, to give him more breath. To give him another chance. But he doesn’t use it. He can’t. His time already ran out. Like his breath did. I know it when I see his hands drop away. They fall into the water and float, like there’s nobody attached to them. Like my brother just . . . left.

Dad lets him go. Sort of pushes him out into the deeper water. Jeremy just drifts there, like he’s playing dead. Like he used to do when Mom took us swimming on summer afternoons when our father was at work.

I don’t watch Dad walk out of the lake. I don’t watch him walk across the yard. I don’t even look up when he walks through the back door. I just watch Jeremy, waiting for him to move, waiting for him to wake up.

“Get your purse. We’re going out to eat. The boys can have a sandwich here.”

Boys? Does that mean Jeremy’s okay?

I start toward the door, but Mom grabs me. “Jasper, be a good boy and get my purse for me, sweetie. It’s beside the front door.”

Her eyes are different. They look scared and they make me scared, so I just go get her purse and bring it to her like she asked. When I hand it to her, she takes it and pulls me against her. I feel her arms shaking and when she lets me go, she’s crying. But she’s smiling, too, like she’s not supposed to cry. None of us are supposed to cry.

“You sit right there in front of the television, okay? Don’t you move a muscle.” Her voice is warning me about something. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m afraid. She’s afraid, too.

“Okay.”

I turn on cartoons and sit on the couch until I hear Dad’s truck start. When I do, I get up and run as fast as I can, through the kitchen, out the back door and across the yard toward the lake.

It’s raining now and the grass is slick. I fall twice before I can get to the edge of the water. When I do, I holler at my brother.

“Jeremy!” He doesn’t move. He just floats on the surface like my green turtle raft does. “Jeremy!”

I look back at the house and then back to my brother. I know nobody can help me. Nobody will stand up to my dad. Not even my mom. If I don’t help Jeremy, he’ll die.

My hands are shaking and my knees feel funny when I step into the water. It’s so cold it stings my skin, like when I fell off my sled last winter and snow went up my pants leg. I couldn’t get it out fast enough. It was so cold it almost burned. But this time, I keep going no matter how much it hurts.

When the water is up to my chin and my teeth are chattering so hard I bite my lip, I think about turning back. Jeremy is so far away, I can barely see him and I can’t catch my breath enough to holler for him.

“J-J-Jer—” I try again.

I paddle out farther. My arms and legs weigh so much I can hardly move them through the water. It’s like trying to run in cold, thick soup. I fight to keep my chin up, gulping down the water that laps into my mouth.

I swim and swim and swim, watching the back of Jeremy’s head until he’s close enough for me to touch. It’s raining harder now. Big, fat drops are splattering on the back of my brother’s neck, and it’s running down my forehead and into my eyes.

I grab a handful of his dark hair and raise Jeremy’s face out of the water. His eyes are open, but they aren’t looking at me. They’re looking at something else, something I can’t see. I take his arm. It’s cold and feels kind of like that fish Dad brought home and made Jeremy skin.

My stomach hurts and my eyes burn. I feel like somebody’s squeezing me around the middle, squeezing me so hard I can’t even cry.

I take my big brother’s hand and I pull him toward me, toward shore. He floats pretty easy, so I swim a little and tug, swim a little and tug.

After a while, it gets harder and harder to move, harder and harder to keep my face above the water. The shore, the grass, the back door of my house . . . they’re all getting farther away, not closer. I’m scareder than I’ve ever been before. Even scareder than that time Jeremy made me watch The Evil Dead.

Jeremy seems heavy now, like he’s trying to drag me down every time I pull on him. “Swim, Jer, swim,” I mumble through a mouthful of water. “Please.”

I go under. When I try to scream for help I know won’t come, water goes down my throat. I try to cough, but I can’t. There’s no air.

I can see light above me and I use my heavy arms and legs to crawl toward it. When I finally get my face out of the water, I grab for my brother’s hand. I hold on to it tighter than I’ve ever held on to anything before, even my favorite G.I. Joe soldier.

I paddle as fast and as hard as I can, pulling Jeremy behind me until I can touch the squishy bottom of the lake. I pull and tug and drag me and Jeremy to the shallowest part of the water and I roll him over.

His lips are blue and his face is still so white. But it’s his eyes that scare me the most. They don’t look like he’s awake. But they don’t look like he’s asleep either. They sorta look like mine feel—scared. Like he saw something that made him want to hide, but he didn’t get away fast enough and now he’s just . . . froze.

I shake his shoulders. I scream my brother’s name. I cry even though I don’t want to.

I give in and pound on his chest. I know that if he gets up, he’ll punch me in the back of the leg until I say “uncle,” but I don’t care. I just want him to get up. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t get up. He doesn’t move at all. He just slides in the mud until he’s back in the water.

I try to reach for him, but my feet slip and I almost fall in. That scares me so bad I scream my head off. I can’t go back in. I won’t come back out if I go in the water again. I just know it.

Don’t make me go back in! Don’t make me go!

But what about Jeremy? What about my brother?

I cry as quiet as I can as he floats away from me again. I watch his white ghost face until the only thing I can see is black. And nothing else.

ONE

Muse

I shake out the three-hundred-dollar sweater I just folded for the third time and I start over. Somehow keeping my fingers busy seems to calm my brain. It gives me something to think about other than the man I’m waiting on and how worried I am about taking this step.

When the icy blue cashmere is folded perfectly—for the fourth time—I lay it on top of the others in the stack and check the time on my phone again.

“It’s almost noon, damn it!” I mutter, as if my friend Tracey Garris can hear me all the way across town. She’s the one who knows this guy. I should’ve gotten more information from her, but she was in a rush this morning and she’s in a meeting now, so I’m stuck waiting. Information-less. I only know what she muttered so briefly before she hung up, something about a guy coming by and his name being Jasper King.

I let out a growl of aggravation and grab another sweater, flicking it open with enough force to cause one sleeve to snap against the table like a soft crack of thunder. For some reason, I feel a little better for having taken out a bit of my frustration on something, even if that something is an innocent piece of very pricey material.

Rather than climbing right back onto a ledge of frustration, I purposely tune out everything except the words of the song playing overhead, “If I Loved You.” It always reminds me of Matt, the guy I left behind. The guy who should’ve hated seeing me leave. The guy who would’ve hated seeing me leave if he’d loved me like I wanted him to. But he didn’t. He let me go. Easily. And now, even after eight long months, it still makes my heart ache to think of him.

I don’t shy away from the pain. In some twisted way, I bask in it. Like most artists, I welcome all kinds of emotions. Good or bad, they inspire me. They color my life and my work like strokes of tinted oil on pristine white canvas. They make me feel alive. Sometimes broken, but still alive.

After I finish the sweater, I move through the store, lost in thoughts of my ex and how much it hurt to say good-bye. I’m straightening a rack of ties when the chime over the door signals the arrival of a customer. I catch movement in my peripheral vision and absently throw a polite greeting in that direction. “Welcome to Mode: Chic,” I say, feeling both resentful and relieved at the interruption.

I get no response, so with a deep sigh I even up the last row of ties and smooth my vest before turning to find my visitor. When my eyes settle on the interloper, all thoughts of Matt and the past and every trouble in the world melt away for the time it takes me to regain my breath.

A man is standing behind me. I didn’t hear him approach, didn’t smell cologne or soap, didn’t sense the stir of the air. He was just coming through the door one second and looming right behind me the next.

He’s tall, very tall, and dressed in black from head to toe. Other than his lean, dramatically V-shaped physique, that’s all I notice about his body. It’s his face that captivates me. From an artist’s standpoint, he reminds me of a bronze sculpture, something strong and ancient that was carved by the talented hands of Michelangelo or Donatello, Bernini or Rodin. From a woman’s standpoint, he’s simply breathtaking.

His face is full of angles and hollows—the ridge of his brow, the slice of his nose, the edge of his cheekbones, the square of his chin. Even his lips are so clearly defined that I find myself wanting to stare at them, to reach up and touch them. Find out if they’re real. If he’s real. But it’s his eyes that I finally get stuck on. Or maybe stuck in. They’re pale, sparkling gold, like a jar of honey when you hold it up to the sun. And they’re just as warm and sticky, trapping me in their delicious depths.

Despite all my worries, worries that have consumed me for several days now, I am only aware of the raw, primal power that radiates from him like heat from a fire. He doesn’t have to say a word, doesn’t have to move a muscle to exude confidence and capability. And danger. Lots and lots of danger.

I don’t know how long I’ve been staring at him when I become aware of his lips twisting into the barest of smiles. It’s minimally polite, but somehow anything more would seem a betrayal of the intensity that oozes from his every pore. The tiny movement is potent, though, and I feel it resonate within every one of my female organs like the echo of a drumbeat in the depths of a hollow cave. God, he’s gorgeous.

As much as I enjoy the rubbery feel of my legs, the tingly fizz in my stomach, I pull myself out of the moment. Not necessarily because I want to, but more because I have to. I’m at work. Men don’t come in here to be ogled. They come in here to be outfitted.

Unless they come here to see me. The thought hits me like a slap. Could this possibly be the bounty hunter Tracey was telling me about?

“Pardon me,” I eventually manage, taking a step back as reality and worry and purpose crash back into my mind in a multi-colored tidal wave. “How may I help you today?”

Dark head tilts. Tiger eyes narrow. Silence stretches long.

I wait, part of me hoping this is the man who will help me, part of me praying he’s not.

When he finally speaks, it’s with a voice that perfectly mirrors what he physically projects—dark intensity, quiet danger. “I need to be measured for a suit.”

I let out a slow breath, oddly more disappointed than relieved. “I can do that for you.” I take yet another step away, clasping my hands together behind me, determined to find some equilibrium in his presence. I glance at Melanie, the other person working the store today. She’s the owner’s daughter and for the fourth hour straight, I find her holding down the chair behind the cash register, typing into her phone. I should probably tell her that I’ll be in the back getting measurements, but I obtusely decide to let her figure that out for herself when she can’t find me. It won’t take her long to realize I’m gone when someone else comes in and I’m not out here to do her job for her. “This way,” I say, turning toward the rear of the store.

All business now, I ask questions as I make my way toward the dressing rooms. Even though his rich, velvety voice warms my belly, I find it easier to concentrate when I can’t see the man following quietly along behind me. He answers all my queries politely, seemingly oblivious to the way he affects me.

I take him to the larger dressing room, the one with a platform that rests in the center of a crescent of mirrors. It has enough space for a desk and computer to one side, so we use this room to measure for tailored clothing. That and for special fittings like bridal parties and other groups.

I glance to my left as we enter the scope of the mirrors. My gaze falls immediately on the figure behind me. I look quickly away, but not before I notice the lithe way he moves. With the fluidity of the jungle cat his eyes remind me of.

Like a tiger. Surefooted. Silent. Deadly.

Without turning, I sweep my arm toward the dais. “If you’ll stand there, I’ll get the tape and be right with you.” I don’t doubt that he’s following my instruction, even though he doesn’t respond. I still can’t hear him, still can’t even detect a disturbance in the air, but now I can feel him, as though my body has become perfectly attuned to his within the five minutes he’s been in the shop. It’s beyond ridiculous, but it’s the absolute truth. I’ve never been more aware of a man before. Ever.

I busy myself gathering the cloth tape, a small notepad and a pencil, doing my best to keep my mind on the task at hand until I’m able to control my thoughts to a small degree. Those wayward thoughts scatter and my mouth goes bone-dry when I turn and see him standing on the platform, muscular arms hanging by his sides, long, thick thighs spread in a casual stance. It’s not his posture that catches me off guard. It’s his eyes. Those intense, penetrating eyes of his. He’s watching me like a hunter watches prey. I feel them stripping me bare, asking all my secrets, exposing all my weaknesses.

“Ready when you are,” he murmurs, startling me from my thoughts.

“Right, right. Okay,” I say, dragging my gaze from his and focusing on his body. As disconcerting as it is to appraise him so openly, it’s not nearly as disturbing as eye contact, so I go with it.

As I take him in, I realize that he’s a magnificent male specimen. I’d wager that his dimensions are perfect for every kind of clothing, from formal to sleepwear. And, dear God, I can only imagine what a striking figure he’d make in a tuxedo. He’d look like a model. For guns, maybe. Or bourbon. Something dangerous and thrilling or smooth and intoxicating.

I clear my throat as I approach, careful of my feet as I step up to stand beside him. I sense his eyes on me as I move, making me feel clumsy and slightly off balance.

I lay the pad of paper on the thin podium to my right and I clamp the pencil between my teeth as I stretch the tape out straight. With movements that I’m relieved to find swift and sure, I measure his neck and over-arm shoulder width, his chest and arm length. I jot down the numbers then make my way to his waist, cursing the fine tremor of my hand when my knuckles brush his hard abdomen.

I note his measurements, mathematical proof of the flawless way he’s put together. What I don’t write down are things that no numbers could convey. I don’t need to. They’ll be seared in my brain for all eternity, I think.

Wide, wide shoulders, the kind a girl can hang on to when she’s scared. Strong, steely arms, the kind that can sweep a woman off her feet. Long, hard legs, the kind that can tirelessly chase down what he wants.

It’s when I get to his inseam that things get . . . tense. Surprisingly, despite all the other worries that hover at the back of my mind, I can’t overlook the heaviness that presses against the back of my hand as I measure. My belly contracts with a pang of desire that rockets through me. Good Lord almighty!

I snap into a standing position, turning away to write down the last of his measurements before he can see the blush that heats my face. Normally, I’d love all these “feels,” but not now. Not today. Not like this. It seems like a betrayal.

Without another word or glance, I take my pad and step off the platform, moving to the computer to enter them into a New Client form. My pulse settles more and more the longer I keep my eyes to myself. “What’s your name, sir? I’ll set up a profile for your order.” Still, I don’t glance back at him. I keep my gaze glued to the lighted screen.

“King,” he replies, his voice so close that I jump involuntarily. I don’t turn when I feel his hulking presence behind me; I just stiffen.

I type in the name. It’s as I’m hitting ENTER that it clicks. King. The last name of the bounty hunter Tracey told me about.

I whirl to face him, ready to pin him with an accusing stare, but I stop dead when I see that he’s not looking at me. He’s looking down at what he’s holding. Between his fingers is the pencil that was stuck between my teeth. I can see the tiny bite marks as he rubs over each one.

I watch him move his thumb over the indentions, gently, slowly. Back and forth, like an intimate caress. It’s hypnotic. Erotic. A fist clenches low in my core, causing me to inhale sharply at the sensation. It feels as though he’s rubbing me with those long fingers. Touching me, arousing me. It’s so physical, so tangible, so real that I have to reach back to steady myself against the edge of the desk.

“What sharp teeth you have,” he says quietly, Big Bad Wolfstyle. When he glances up at me, his eyes are a dark and serious amber. “Do you bite?”

“No,” I whisper. “Do you?”

“Only if you ask nicely.”

TWO

Jasper

I watch her lush lips part, her breathing already shallow. She’s off-kilter. Just the way I like. “Are you Tracey’s friend?” she asks, finding a coherent thought and clinging to it.

“I am,” I reply, reaching around her to lay the pencil on the desk. The action brings my face to within an inch of hers and our arms brush. I hear the soft gasp of her inhalation.

“Why didn’t you just tell me? You didn’t have to pretend to be a customer.”

Anger. It rushes in to clear away the cobwebs. I can see it in the way her sleepy green eyes start to flash like two fiery emeralds.

“I wanted a few minutes alone with you before you went on guard. Like you are now.”

“Why? Am I being interviewed or something? I thought I was the one hiring you.

“You are. But I like to know who I’m working for when I take a job like this.”

While the look on her face says she doesn’t approve of my tactic, she’s too curious to let it go. “And?”

“And what?”

“And what did you find out? What do you think you figured out about me in ten minutes of silence?”

I hold her gaze for long, quiet seconds before I speak. I sense how uncomfortable it makes her. I’m used to it. Such directness makes most people uncomfortable, but that doesn’t stop me. Keeping others off balance is always a benefit to me. “I don’t need to interrogate you to learn things about you. Being with you is enough.”

“Yeah, right,” she scoffs, trying for casual.

“For instance, you’re a hard worker who takes her job seriously, even though I don’t think it’s really the job you want to be working. You’re good at this, but you’re not quite at home here, which tells me that this isn’t permanent. You looked sad and distracted when I came in, like you might be missing someone. Maybe that is where home is. And then there’s the fact that you’re trying to hire me. I’d say that accounts for the worried frown I keep seeing between your eyebrows.”

Her mouth drops open for a few seconds before she snaps it shut. “Is that all?” she asks sarcastically, pulling her vest tighter around her middle like she feels naked. I’m used to that, too. No one likes to feel exposed, like their secrets aren’t theirs to keep anymore.

“No, that’s not all, but I doubt you want to hear the rest.”

She eyes me warily for a few seconds before she raises her chin, eyes locked bravely onto mine. “Of course I do.”

She’s courageous. Ballsy. I like that.

“Well, just off hand you have a good eye for color, which makes me think you’re artistic. Artists are usually very . . . emotional. I’d say that when you’re not consumed with concern you have a tendency to throw yourself into the way you feel regardless of potential outcomes.”

“You can’t possibly know that.”

“I can. And I do. Just like I know you wash your hair in something that contains lilac.” Her eyes widen, but she says nothing so I continue, leaning in ever so slightly. “And then there’s the fact that you’re attracted to me. You don’t want to be. You probably even think that you shouldn’t be, but that’s like catnip for you, isn’t it?”

She’s shaken. Visibly shaken, but I don’t back off. I don’t give her a centimeter of the space I can see that she needs. I want her this way—off balance, uncertain. She’s the kind of woman who would rather feel than think if she has a choice. And that’s good for me. Not only will it serve my purposes very well, it’s also sexy as hell.

Her cheeks blaze with a rush of blood and I think about running my finger over her skin to see if it’s as silky as it looks. But I don’t. At this point that would be too much. I’m nothing if not intuitive. And controlled. In my line of work, I have to be.

I actually smile when she steps out from between the desk and me. I can see by her expression that she’s choosing to ignore my assessment altogether. It’s much easier than trying to deny the truth.

“You, um, you said ‘take a job like this.’ A job like what? I thought this is what you do.”

I cross my arms over my chest. “My jobs aren’t exactly like this, but they’re close enough. The main thing is that I . . . find things. And I’m damn good at it. So tell me, beautiful, what can I find for you?”

THREE

Muse

His voice, his intensity . . . God! Is he really just asking me an innocent question? Because it seems like he’s asking me so much more.

“Uh, it’s not a ‘what.’ It’s a ‘who.’”

He nods once. Slowly. His eyes never leave mine, constantly boring, examining, searching. “Okay, then who can I find for you, Muse?”

Goose bumps spread down my arms as though he touched me when he said my name. He didn’t, of course, but he might as well have.

Who the hell is this guy? And what the hell is wrong with me?

Maybe the stress has finally driven me over the edge. Or maybe it’s just been so long since I’ve connected with someone—really connected—that I’m making more out of this than there actually is. Either way, it’s not a good thing. I can’t be thinking like this, feeling like this. There are more important things I need to focus on.

I clear my throat, mentally shaking off the spell that his eyes are weaving around me. “A man.”

One dark brow shoots up. “A man, huh? Who is he?”

“A . . . friend,” I hedge, not wanting to give him any more information than I absolutely have to. It’s too dangerous.

He nods slowly again. “And does this man know you’re looking for him?”

“Probably.” Surely my father would know that I’d come looking for him when I didn’t get a response.

“And does this man have a . . . significant other that I should know about?”

I frown. “A significant other?” I’m confused.

“Yes. Wife, girlfriend? Boyfriend?”

“No, but why would that matter?”

“Just wondering if I’m likely to run into an angry lover along the way.”

“What?” And then it dawns on me what he must think. “No! God no! It’s not like that.”

“No? Then how is it?”

“This guy is older.”

Jasper raises his hands in surrender. “Hey, I don’t judge.”

“No, no, I mean . . . He—he’s not that kind of a friend.”

He watches me wordlessly, neither refuting nor accepting my explanation. “I’ll need some information, of course. A place to start.”

“Okay. Whatever you need.”

He glances around. “Is now a good time?”

As much as parts of me would like to, I can’t hide in the back forever. Melanie probably still has no idea I’m gone. “Well . . . not really. Can we, uh, can we meet after work?”

Jasper glances down at a chunky black watch. It looks like something a Navy SEAL or someone like that would wear, something that tells time in a million countries and can synchronize with a death squad. “I’ve got some things I need to do. Can I come by your apartment later?”

I find myself frowning. Again. “How do you know I live in an apartment?” Jasper gives me a withering look that says, Really? “Oh, right. I’m sure you . . . looked into me first.” On the one hand, the thought makes me feel a tad violated, like my privacy has been compromised. But, perversely, on the other hand I find it a little thrilling to think that he might’ve been by my place, that he might’ve watched me from afar. Were my blinds not fully closed? Did he see me eating breakfast or getting dressed?

I shiver in response. That’s twisted, but no more twisted than the way I’m reacting to the mere thought of being stalked by the likes of him.

I doubt that’s the case anyway, what with all that information being obtainable via the Internet, but still . . . it’s possible.

“Tonight then?” he prompts.

“Oh, uh, yeah. That would be fine. I’ll be there.”

“I’ll see you later, then.”

I give him a tight, cool smile, anything to belie the jittery, anxious, excited feeling that’s jumping from synapse to synapse.

I watch Jasper as he walks away, noting everything from the liquid way he moves to the way the light gleams off his short, inky-black hair. My entire being seems to slump when he disappears from sight, the absence of him bringing an empty chill over me.

I’ve never met someone more stimulating and handsome and intriguing than Jasper King. I’ve never met someone who makes me want to ask so many questions. And I’ve never met someone who makes me feel like I’ll never get any of the answers.

FOUR

Jasper

Lilac. I smell it as I raise my hand to knock on the closed door of her apartment. It’s like a delicate shroud that surrounds her, permeating the air wherever she is. It reminds me of a small town that I traveled through just outside Paris. It had somehow remained untouched by most things modern, a single white thread in an otherwise dingy, yellowed tapestry.

It takes Muse almost two full minutes to answer the door. She flings it open and glares at me, pulling her flamboyant turquoise and pink robe tighter around her waist. She’s angry again. Not only can I see it in her eyes, it’s there in every rigid line of her body as well.

She starts in without preamble. “You’ll have to excuse the way I’m dressed. Silly me, but I just assumed you’d come by at a decent hour.”

“Are you always like this?” I ask.

Another frown. “Like what?”

“So high-strung.”

Her mouth drops open in aggrieved surprise. “I am not high-strung.”

To this, I say nothing. I like that I throw her off yet she still grapples for control. I like that she’s so rigid around me when everything else about her screams that she’s dying to let go. I like that she fights. I like that a lot. And I like her fire. Everything about my life is cold and calculated. Sometimes fire feels good.

“Well, as to your complaint, I can still be decent at this hour, but if you feel the need to be indecent, don’t let me stop you.”

“I didn’t . . . that’s not what I . . . grrrr. Just come in,” she snips, standing to one side of the opening. When I walk past her, I inhale her clean, floral smell. It’s definitely lilac, but there’s a darker, muskier undertone that takes it from innocent to seductive. I can’t imagine a scent more perfectly suiting a woman, suiting this woman, with her brisk mood swings and complete inability to hide what she’s feeling. She’s hot and cold, fire and ice, sexy and wholesome. She couldn’t be any more different than me if she tried, and I find it oddly refreshing. For the most part, people are predictable, but not this woman. I get the feeling she’s anything but predictable.

I wait for her to shut the door and I follow Muse into a cozy living room. The palate of the room is surprisingly bland with its dark hardwoods and grayish furniture, but it makes her use (and obvious love) of color that much more noticeable. From the bold red throw pillows to the various sizes and shapes of vibrant paintings scattered all over her walls, I’d wager that Muse has bled all over this room, right from the bottom of her soul.

I cross to a fireplace that apparently hasn’t worked in some time. The cool cavern of its interior is clean and holds a couple dozen ivory candles rather than wood. But that’s not what draws me. It’s the painting that rests above it, propped on the mantel to lean against the wall.

The piece depicts a tree, one simple tree, but it’s the way the branches list to one side and hang downward that catches my eye. When I look closer, I see that pale yellow raindrops trickle from the dark leaves like tears, falling into puddles on the ground. Those shallow pools reflect a half-full moon suspended in a midnight sky. The image, while stunning in its use of contrasting color and shadow, is poignant and somehow tragic.

I turn to find Muse watching me. She doesn’t look angry anymore; she looks . . . nervous.

“What’s the matter? Afraid I’ll see too much?”

She raises her chin and tries to act nonchalant. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Do you still feel this way?”

“What way?”

“The way you felt when you painted that?” I ask, nodding toward the mantel.

Her eyes widen and her mouth drops open for a tenth of a second before she snaps it shut. “How . . . how did you know that I . . . ?”

“I’m observant.”

“But . . .” She glances at the canvas behind my head as if searching for what gave the artist away. What she probably can’t see, what probably no artist can see, is that she is all over that painting. All over it and all in it.

“Do you?” I prompt, returning to my question.

Her eyes flick back to mine and she shrugs with one shoulder, her toes digging rhythmically into the plush pile of the area rug. “Sometimes.” Her voice is quiet. Small. She looks quickly away from my eyes.

“What made you feel that way?”

“I miss the people I love.” Her eyes make their way back to mine, a ghost of a frown floating across her forehead. “Doesn’t everyone?”

It’s my turn to shrug. “I guess if you have people you love.” Before she can say anything else, I get down to brass tacks. “So, tell me about this man you’re hoping to find.”

She takes a deep breath. Sighs. “His name is Denton Allen Harper. He lives in Treeborn, South Carolina.”

“Job?”

“He’s retired from the military. He consults for some private security firm now and then, but . . .”

“What is his relationship to you?” Her lips thin. She doesn’t want me to ask personal questions. And that only makes me want to ask them even more. “Look, if you want me to find the guy, you need to be honest with me.” When she still hesitates, I add, “It’s not like I’m a cop or anything, if he’s into something illegal.”

“It’s not that. He’s not a criminal, for God’s sake!” she defends. “He’s a good man.”

“You sure about that?”

“Of course I’m sure. He—he’s my father.”

I nod. “How long has it been since you’ve talked to him?”

“A month. A month ago Friday.”

“Just a month? I take it that’s unusual.”

“Yes. We have a . . . routine, sort of. We talk once a month, like clockwork.”

“A month ago Friday. Obviously you’ve tried calling over the last five days.” She nods. “You’ve tried his friends, associates, people who might know where he is?”

“Ummm, not really. I mean I can’t really . . . I can’t . . . It’s complicated, but I know that if everything was okay, he’d have been there when I called.”

“Been where? At home? On his cell phone? Where?”

“Where he is when we talk.”

“Which is . . . ?” She doesn’t answer. I study her in silence for two full minutes, long enough to make her fidget uncomfortably. “You realize that the more you keep from me, the less likely it is that I’ll find him.”

“I thought you could find anyone. In fact, didn’t you say you were damn good at it?”

“I did. And I am, but I’m not a psychic. I still need something to go on.”

“And I gave you that. I’m telling you everything I know that might help you find him.”

“Where do you call once a month?”

She breathes out noisily, obviously perturbed. “We use pay phones, but they’re all in different places around Treeborn.” Muse shakes her head, her thick hair teasing her shoulders. “Look, that’s not important. What’s important is that he wasn’t there when I called and he always is. Something is wrong and I want you to find him.”

“Why not just call the police? Place a missing persons report? It’s been long enough.”

“I can’t . . . We . . . That’s just not an option. That’s why I’m hiring you. You do this for a living. You should be able to find him, right?”

I pause. “Yes. I can find him. It just might take me a few days.”

“A few days? Is that all?”

“Yeah, I think so. Doesn’t sound too complicated. That’s after I get there, of course.”

“Which will be . . . when? Will you fly out tomorrow?”

“No, I’ll drive.”

“Drive? You’re going to drive from San Diego to South Carolina?”

“Yes. Is that a problem?”

“I . . . No, I don’t suppose. I’m just . . . surprised is all.”

“Does it matter how I get there?”

“No, not really. It’s just that . . . the thing is, I want to go with you.”

This I wasn’t expecting. Maybe she really is unpredictable. “And why is that? If I need something from you, I can call.”

“Because I need to see him, I need to talk to him. Face-to-face.”

I say nothing for a while. I couldn’t be happier with this turn of events, but, obviously, I can’t let Muse know that. Finally, I speak to lay down some ground rules. “I’ll agree to that on a few conditions.”

She arches one smooth brow. “Which are?”

“I work alone. If I let you tag along, don’t expect me to include you in details, conversations, or sources. Don’t expect me to answer a bunch of questions or explain why I do the things I do. Just trust that I’ll find your father. I’ll find him and I’ll take you to him. If you do that, let me do my job, no questions asked, we won’t have any problems.”

I can tell by the expression in her green-green eyes and the twitch of her full-full lips that she wants to say something. Probably argue. But she won’t. I have the upper hand and she knows it. Normally, she’d probably have a lot to say, but she’s controlling herself for the sake of finding her father.

“Okay. I can do that.” A pause. “What about money? How much do you charge?”

“A thousand-dollar retainer. We can talk about the rest when I find him.”

She blanches a little. “Okay. I . . . That’ll be fine.”

I don’t feel guilty for taking her money. It’s not like I’ll be keeping it.

“Look, I know it’s late. Why don’t you jot down the target’s last known address and telephone number so I can get to work and you can get back to . . .” I glance at what’s playing on the television. “Whatever that is.”

“It’s Dirty Dancing.”

“Am I supposed to know what that is?”

“It’s a classic,” she defends weakly.

“By whose standards?”

“Mine. And every other woman, girl and child who has ever seen it.”

“Whatever you say,” I rejoin mildly. “While you’re at it, I’ll need the make and model of his car and where he spent his last vacation. And the names of any companions he spends time with.”

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