From the New York Times bestselling author who brought you Damien Stark comes a sexy and suspenseful romance between a woman in jeopardy and the reluctant hero determined to save the girl but not lose his heart.
What’s more dangerous—a killer attraction that breaks all the rules, or the true killer who’s closing in?
Rising fashion designer Brandy Bradshaw is on top of the world after closing a major deal. Then she returns home to find her landlord dead in her living room, shot with a single bullet to the head.
What starts as a mystery quickly turns into something far more deadly when it becomes clear that Brandy is trapped in a case of mistaken identity—and the killer has chosen her as his next target.
Security consultant Ronan Thorne likes risk and excitement in his work, but he keeps his personal life drama-free. He never allows a woman to get close. Not even Brandy, a friend who could maybe be more than that were it not for his unbreakable code to stay far away from emotional entanglements.
But when the killer makes his move, Ronan has no choice: he’ll keep Brandy safe, even if he must betray his own heart to do it.
This story is part of the Saints & Sinners series, but can be read entirely on its own.
Sinner’s Game is Story # 4 in the Saints and Sinners series.
Sinner’s Game - Buy Now
About this StoryPublication Date 02/15/2022 Story Type Book Series Saints and Sinners Place in Series Story #4 Genre Contemporary Romance Romantic Suspense
I didn’t expect it. The way he looked at me from across the room. All heat and lust and need. The way he cut a path through the crowd, ignoring greetings from friends and waiters offering him champagne on silver trays, his long legs closing the distance between us. And with each step he took, my heart pounded harder, my mouth growing dry with anticipation.
I’d slipped away from the buzz of the reception for a few moments of peace in the small alcove beneath the stairs. Three walls forming an indentation with a phone table and a chair.
But it didn’t feel peaceful here now. Instead, it seemed fraught with the kind of danger I craved, even if that was something I didn’t care to admit.
His gaze locked on me, and I reached back to steady myself, my knees going weak.
“Brandy,” he said, stopping only inches from me, so close I caught the scent of his cologne, woodsy and masculine. My heart pounded against the thin material of my fitted maid of honor gown. My entire body tingled, desperate for his touch, and the strength of my desire made me want to race from the room.
But I stayed. Despite my flushed cheeks, I stayed in place. More than that, I looked straight at him, then drew in a shaky breath when I found him looking right back at me, too.
I swallowed, my pulse picking up tempo as Ronan leaned forward, one hand on the wall behind me, just above my shoulder, caging me between him and the small table next to me.
“I’ve been looking for you.”
His eyes skimmed over me, and the tingle on my skin ramped up, making me feel edgy and shy.
“Because you look stunning,” he said in that rough, sexy voice that was like music to me. “And I’ve drunk just enough that I decided to tell you so.”
My stupid cheeks went even hotter, and I bit my lip as I smiled, praying that I didn’t sink so low as to actually giggle.
I cleared my throat. “I—um, thank you.”
“I’m doing good,” I said, hating the lie. I was about a million miles from good.
I flashed him another quick smile. I miss you.
That last part, I didn’t say. But I wanted to. Instead, I cleared my throat again. “Um, so except for Ellie’s pre-book launch party, I haven’t seen much of you.”
“Work,” he said without elaborating. “But no way could I miss today, what with being the best man.” He paused, his eyes on my face. “You made me look good, standing up there,” he added, his gravelly voice going soft.
My blush came back. “I doubt that.” I’d had an excellent view of him from where I’d stood by my best friend, Ellie. And he’d glanced at me nine times. Not that I was counting.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here now.” I sounded like an idiot. Like I didn’t even know this man who had once held me close in the protection of his arms. But that was months ago, and our lives were back to normal. Now we’re back to just being friends.
I blinked, realizing with horror that I was about to cry. That’s what I got for drinking champagne and getting sentimental. But it wasn’t just the wedding. It was the loss of something I never even had.
It was the fact that our friends’ wedding was over, and the magical lights that filled this room would be gone tomorrow. Everything would. Including the fantasy that Ronan could be something more to me than a friend. Because despite the way my heart had flipped when he’d carried me so gently to safety, I was certain that was all he’d ever be. All he wanted to be.
“I—I should go check in with Ellie,” I said. “Maid of honor duty is a heavy burden.”
His broad shoulders filled the space, blocking my exit from the tiny alcove. I moved to step around him, suddenly uncomfortable in this small, cramped space. His hand pressed to my shoulder, and I looked up, thinking he was going to move out of my way and say goodbye. Instead, I saw a wild heat in his eyes. A fire that had the power to strip away reason and completely destroy me.
That was all he said, but I heard the question. Everything in me said I should run. Everything but my heart. Foolishly, I stayed. Even more foolishly, I whispered, “Yes.”
The sound had barely left my lips when his mouth closed over mine and his arms pulled me close. We stumbled together until my back was against the wall, our lips locked, our tongues lost in exploration. His hand cupped my head, holding me close as he kissed me wilder and deeper than I’d ever been kissed.
Time stopped. I melted.
I’d had only one real boyfriend, and God knows that didn’t end well. But even when things were good between us, I’d never once felt like this. Like my body was molten. Like I was a part of this man in my arms.
Like nothing could ever hurt me again.
I was wrong, of course.
What hurt me the most was him.
“I’m one day home from my honeymoon, about to turn right back around to go to New York, and you’re telling me this now?” Devlin said. “Christ, Ronan. This isn’t a good time for a vacation. I need you here. We talked about this a month ago. I need you on deck keeping an eye on things.”
Devlin Saint leaned back in his desk chair in his huge office at the Devlin Saint Foundation. His green eyes stayed locked on Ronan as he waited for an answer.
With his Brioni suit and regal bearing, Devlin was the epitome of power and control. A man whose public façade hid a much more lethal version of the man.
Another man might be intimidated, but not Ronan Thorne. Devlin was a dangerous man, but no more than Ronan himself. They’d been as close as brothers since their days in the military, and they knew each other’s secrets. Most of them, anyway.
“Do you honestly think I’m taking this lightly?” Ronan had been standing, but now he took a seat in one of the guest chairs that fronted Devlin’s desk. He leaned back, stretching out his legs, as casual as you please.
A muscle in Devlin’s cheek twitched, but he said nothing.
“Things are quiet right now,” Ronan continued. “Tamra’s more than capable of handling things on both the public side and behind the scenes. And there’s not a damn thing on my active docket.”
“Tamra’s a capable woman,” Devlin agreed, referring to the woman who’d been like a mother to both of them for years, and who now ran Devlin’s businesses like a general. “But we have active teams spread out over five countries. And while I’m away, it’s your job to be on deck.”
“From which I’m taking a week of leave. Task someone else to handle it.” He noted the way his friend scowled. Not so much with irritation, but with curiosity. “I’m sorry, man. This is my line in the sand. It’s non-negotiable. Either I take temporary leave, or I leave for good.”
Devlin’s brows rose. “It’s as important as that?”
“Do you think I’d be sitting here if it wasn’t?”
His friend drew in a breath, his shoulders rising and falling. “No, of course you wouldn’t. Take as much time as you need.”
Ronan nodded, accepting the words as an apology. “Appreciate it. If all goes well, I’ll be back in just a couple of days. But this is time sensitive. I’ve got a lead. If I don’t jump now, who knows if I’ll get the chance again.”
Devlin studied him. “We can get the team on it. Whatever support you need.”
“No. This is personal.”
“Everything’s personal,” Devlin said.
“I’m handling it.” The words came out sharper than Ronan intended. “Appreciate the offer, but it’s not necessary.”
Silence hung in the air, and for a moment, Ronan feared he’d have to make good on his threat. Then his friend nodded. “Fair enough. So long as you know I’ll always have your back.”
“Same.” That was the kind of friendship they had, which was probably why guilt was stabbing away at his insides, because he’d never once told Devlin about Sheldon Cartwright or Michelle or anything about what went down all those long years ago.
He caught Devlin’s eyes, saw the question brewing on his friend’s face, and quickly schooled his expression into blank professionalism. Then he grinned. “Still happily married? Not tired of Ellie yet?”
“Ass,” his friend shot back, but the retort was without heat. They both knew that Devlin was blissfully happy. Hell, he practically glowed.
When Ellie had first returned to Devlin’s life, Ronan had feared the worst. The woman was a former cop turned reporter, after all. And that was all kinds of danger, especially since Devlin was the central figure in a web of secrets involving dozens of people. To the world, Devlin was nothing more than the multi-billionaire behind the humanitarian Devlin Saint Foundation. The foundation was real enough, its mission important to Devlin and all the staff.
But another organization lurked in the shadows behind the foundation. Devlin had created Saint’s Angels to do good in a way that a humanitarian foundation couldn’t. The SA was Devlin’s passion and Ronan’s, too. And he’d worked as Devlin’s right hand from the beginning, taking the lead on numerous projects since Devlin had to be the front man for the legitimate foundation that worked hand-in-secret-hand with the shadowy one.
Where the Devlin Saint Foundation could finance rehabilitation programs for victims of trafficking, the ultra-secret Saint’s Angels could go after the criminals themselves. Could hunt them down. Could take them out. Could rid the world of its vermin in a way that sanctioned law enforcement could not.
Only a select few knew about the organization, or that Devlin himself was a billionaire vigilante who lived in the shadows, his gun as much of a weapon as his checkbook. Ronan was right there beside him, the Angels’ mission as important to him as it was to Devlin or anyone else on the worldwide, secret team.
Secret being the operative word.
Which was why Ronan had been less than enthusiastic when Devlin trusted Ellie and her two closest friends—Brandy and Lamar—with the secret.
Nowadays, Ronan would trust Ellie with his life. More than that, Ronan had to admit that he was a bit jealous of his friend. Not that Ronan was attracted to Ellie; he wasn’t. But he couldn’t deny the tug at his heart when he saw how happy the two of them were together.
He’d felt that kind of connection to a woman only twice in his life. The first in a past he’d worked hard to bury under a heart that had turned to stone. Or so he thought. Because recently, something dead inside him had started to bloom. Equal parts wonderful and terrifying.
But not something that he could or would cultivate.
Brandy Bradshaw might be temptation personified, but he knew better than to risk everything again. What was that saying? Once burned, twice shy.
He could rejoice in the fact that she’d become a friend. That he genuinely cared for her. That he’d always watch out for her.
But more than that?
Not now. Not ever.
And certainly not while Sheldon Cartwright was alive.
He realized he was looking at his hands, imagining Cartwright’s neck in his grip. He lowered them, then shifted his gaze up to meet Devlin’s curious eyes.
He cleared his throat. “Anyway, thanks again. I know it’s inconvenient. But like I said, everything’s taken care of. We’re pretty light right now.”
“Run me through it.”
“A few things we’re monitoring, but I don’t expect them to pop for at least a month. We’re still gathering intel.” He took Devlin through most of the list, addressing the details of missions from Texas to Nigeria to Bangladesh without missing a beat.
“All sounds good. That everything?”
“Not quite,” Ronan said. “I closed the matter for Colonel Seagrave.” He hoped he sounded casual. That mission had gone off without a hitch. But it had also changed everything.
Alexander Seagrave was the commander of the Western Division of the ultra-secret SOC, or Sensitive Operations Command, and he often used black ops money to hire Saint’s Angels for specific missions. This one had come in while Devlin was touring Europe with his bride. Identify and terminate the leader of a terrorist cell that was bankrolling their weapon purchases by kidnapping teenage girls to sell as sex slaves. Sadly, an all too familiar story.
Ronan had found him, followed him, and assassinated him. A sanctioned hit, but one that would blow back on Ronan if his finger on the trigger was ever known. The agency damn sure wouldn’t claim knowledge.
He wasn’t concerned about the risk. None of Saint’s Angels were. They’d joined the organization because they believed in its mission to make the world a better place despite going directly against the establishment’s rules.
Devlin had never shied away from telling Ronan about the horrors in his life that had led up to the decision to create the SA. His vile father and the people he’d hurt or killed. The empire in which Devlin had been raised. The lies he’d lived with.
Ronan knew all of Devlin’s shit; it was only fair that Ronan should tell Devlin what he’d learned on the Seagrave mission and why he had to take time off.
And yet he couldn’t say the horrible truth out loud. Because to do that would be to admit his role in Michelle’s death all those years ago. Not to mention his own shame in not avenging her back when he’d had the chance.
Later. After he’d made it right—at least as right as it could be with Michelle long in a grave. Later he’d tell his friend everything, but right now, he needed to focus. Because Sheldon Cartwright had resurfaced. And no way was Ronan missing the opportunity to hunt the son-of-a-bitch down and put a bullet through his brain.
He drew in a breath. “Like I said, everything’s running smoothly. And I won’t be gone long.”
“Good. And take as much time as you need. I was an ass earlier. I’d say it won’t happen again, but I hate lying to my best friend.”
Ronan managed a chuckle despite feeling that kick in the gut again. “Yeah, well, maybe one day I’ll tell you.”
“Or maybe you won’t.”
Some of the tension left his body. It was good to have a friend who understood him. He pushed up out of the chair.
“Heading out now?” Devlin asked, also rising.
“No. Flight’s at eight tonight. You?”
“Los Angeles tonight, then heading to New York at the crack of dawn tomorrow. And why don’t you just take one of the jets?” Devlin asked, referring to the charter fleet he personally owned, which was sometimes utilized by the Angels.
“Appreciate it, but I’m good.” Sheldon Cartwright was part of a different life. The final piece before Ronan could put the past behind him. Now wasn’t the time to start commingling his two worlds.
Devlin nodded slowly, clearly trying to figure Ronan out. “Fair enough, but if there is anything you need, don’t hesitate.”
“I know that, too.”
He stood almost at attention as Devlin’s steely gaze studied him, but Ronan knew he wouldn’t find his answers. Ronan was too damn good at hiding them.
After a moment, Devlin’s shoulders relaxed. “Want to come over later for a quick drink before you head to the airport? Ellie’d love to see you.”
“Can’t. I promised Brandy I’d fix her sink.”
“Oh?” The pitch of Devlin’s voice rose. “How interesting.”
“Mind out of the gutter, Saint,” Ronan said, wishing his own thoughts hadn’t gone in that direction, too. “She’s got a drip.”
Devlin grinned, and Ronan scowled. “No.” He said the word firmly, as much for himself as for Devlin.
“No to the gutter humor? Or no to Brandy?” Devlin asked.
Devlin circled his desk, curiosity in his eyes. “That’s another explanation you owe me.”
“Another thing I’m curious about,” Devlin amended.
“What’s that?” Ronan asked, though he knew perfectly well.
Devlin tilted his head, almost as if he was surprised that Ronan was opening that door. Honestly, Ronan was too.
“All right,” Devlin said. “I want to know why, in all the time I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you date.”
“Sure you have.”
“No. I’ve seen you pick up women in bars. I’ve seen you leave with them. I’m pretty damn certain you fuck them, and I know you have a membership at Masque,” Devlin added, referring to an LA-based sex club where Ronan went when he needed to blow off steam. “But I’ve never seen you in a relationship.”
“I already knew you were observant. But what’s your point?”
“One, I’m curious as to why, but that’s my problem.” Devlin leaned against his desk. “You hardly owe me an explanation. But on the side that does touch me, Ellie and I both thought there might be something going on between you and Brandy.”
“You thought wrong.” Brandy Bradshaw might have wormed her way into his fantasies, but she wasn’t the kind of woman who could decorate his bed with no strings attached. She deserved a hell of a lot more than that.
The word stuck with him, dredging up buried fantasies from his subconscious. That innocent, scarred woman bound and begging for him. And Ronan teasing her mercilessly, letting the pleasure build until she pleaded with him to please, please, please let her come.
Not her. Never her.
She was better than that. Better than him, a man who found pleasure in a string of women who could make him forget. Women he paid handsomely in order to ensure both obedience and discretion. Women he could push, who understood his need to face all those dark places. To go right up to the edge of their limits.
But actually getting close to a woman? Opening his heart and settling into a relationship? Not happening. As far as Ronan was concerned, that was the hardest limit of all.
“Like you said, Devlin. You know me, even if you don’t know the why of it.”
“Fair enough. But I also know what I saw at the wedding.”
Ronan felt his chest tighten. He hadn’t realized anyone had seen them in the alcove. Those few blissful moments he desperately wanted to regret but didn’t.
“Yeah, well, it was a mistake. Weddings and wine. A bad combination.”
“I’ll never regret my wedding,” Devlin said. “But I will regret my wedding day if it sets off a chain reaction that hurts that woman. Brandy is like a sister to Ellie. She’s family. We’re friends, you and I, and nothing will ever change that. Hell, you’re like a brother. But I promise you, Ronan, if you hurt her, we’re going to have a problem.”
“You think I don’t know that? I already told you it was a mistake. It’s not going to happen again. There’s nothing between us, and there never will be.” He met his friend’s eyes. “We both know that a woman like Brandy deserves a hell of a lot better than a man like me.”
I come to a stop at the sound of my name, then almost fall on my face as Jake, my thirteen-year-old Labrador who’s convinced he’s still a puppy, continues to gambol down the street. I tug on his leash, then turn to find Inez Santos waving at me from across Pacific Avenue, the main east-west street in the Laguna Cortez Arts District.
She’s standing in the doorway of her boutique, The Escape, and we wait for a gap in the light traffic, then hurry to meet her.
“Hey, Jake,” she says, crouching down and ruffling his fur. He flops on the ground, licks her hand, and generally acts like he’s in heaven. “I don’t mean to waylay you if you’re in a hurry, but I wasn’t sure if you’d seen the new display.”
She rises as she speaks, then gestures to the store’s huge display window. I gasp, one hand going to my mouth as I take in the absolutely breathtaking sight. “Inez, it’s incredible.”
“Not it. You. Those bags are all you.”
The window is entirely devoted to BB Bags, my somewhat eponymous handbag business since it’s named after me, Brandy Bradshaw. Or my initials, anyway.
She has all my styles on their own pedestals—the waxed canvas bags that are my original design, the crossbody bags, even the fancy cocktail bags I’ve recently added. Those she has in the center, and the lighting is set to hit them so that the shimmery material sparkles.
“I love it,” I tell her. “You make me look good.”
“Please. These bags sell themselves. Stock’s already getting low.” She grins, her pale blue eyes crinkling as she pulls me in for a motherly hug. “I’m so proud. And did I hear you’ve got a booth at the Expo?”
I nod happily, and she squeals.
“That is amazing. And coming up fast,” she adds. “You must be so excited.”
“I am. And slightly terrified.”
“Nonsense. The Southern California Fashion Expo has launched so many careers. You’re going to be the next big thing.” Inez is about twenty years older than me and in incredible shape, with close-cropped short hair that would look horrible on me, but which she totally rocks. Inez was the first storeowner to stock my bags, and her belief that I’ll be a huge success has never faltered. Which is a heck of a lot more than I can say about my parents.
“Thank you so much for everything,” I tell her sincerely. “You’ve been my fairy godmother.”
“I like the sound of that.” She cocks her head toward the door to her boutique. “Time for a coffee? I bought an espresso machine for the store. Oh, wait. I forgot you don’t do coffee. Well, I still have a kettle for tea.”
“Thanks anyway, but I can’t stay. I want to get home and wash off the beach.” I gesture to my capris, my exposed calves covered in sand. “I’m supposed to meet Ronan at four. He’s going to fix my sink.”
Her mouth tugs into a grin. “Is he?”
I roll my eyes. “You’re not original. Ellie said the same thing when we had drinks earlier.”
“I’m sorry I missed her. I want to hear all about her honeymoon.”
“Blissful,” I say. “I’m pretty sure she’s still floating on a cloud.”
“As she should be. Devlin’s a wonderful man. Easy on the eyes, too.”
I laugh. That’s for sure. And Devlin is wonderful. But I can’t help but wonder if Inez would think so if she knew his secrets. His and Ronan’s and the rest of Saint’s Angels.
As if she’s reading my mind, she asks, “And Ronan?”
I pretend not to understand. “He took pity on me. I tried to fix it myself, but the stupid leak keeps coming back.”
“I was asking about the two of you. He’s easy on the eyes, too, and I saw you chatting at the wedding. Did I see sparks?”
“No sparks,” I lie, grateful that she didn’t see us in the alcove. If she had, she’d know that there were so many sparks we could have burned the place down. At the very least, I’d thought we’d ignited a fire. But apparently, I was dead wrong.
“Really? There’s nothing between the two of you?”
I shake my head, smiling like everything is peachy keen. “We’re just friends. Honestly, I’m surprised you think there’s more. Sparks? Not even.” I hope I sound fascinated and surprised. But since my acting skills are nil, I probably sound cornered.
If she notices my discomfort, she doesn’t mention it. Just tells me we’ll do tea and espresso some other time, then promises to tell me how customers react to the window display before waving me on my way.
Jake’s already with the program, and he starts trotting east toward home. I shoot Inez a final smile, then let him tug me along, my canine escort leading me past all the cute boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, and gift stores that line this well-traveled street that forms the heart of our town.
The shopping area ends where Pacific Avenue terminates at Sunset Parkway. But across the street, Copper Canyon Drive continues to wind up into the hills toward my house. We head that direction, Jake leading the way. At our lazy pace, it takes about fifteen minutes to reach my street, and we pick up speed as we turn the corner, because now Jake’s eager to get home.
We’re four houses away when I notice the Range Rover parked in my drive. I frown, then check my watch. I’m not supposed to meet Ronan for another thirty minutes, and yet I’m positive that’s him. Which means that instead of grabbing a quick shower and putting on fresh makeup, he gets to see me shiny and sweaty.
For a moment, I consider calling him and telling him that I’m still out running errands and asking if we can push our sink repair appointment by an hour. Then I can linger in the bushes so that he doesn’t see me when he drives away. Because seeing Ronan while I look this scrungy is really not high on my list.
Which, of course, is stupid. We’re only friends. He’s certainly made that clear enough. Heck, it wasn’t that long ago I saw him with that redhead in the alley, and wasn’t that a hard dose of reality?
I scowl at the memory—her with her back to the brick wall, and him with his arms caging her in. And—
The word fills my head, final and resolute. I nod with corresponding firmness. I’m going to unsee that moment. I’m going to completely forget about it. Ronan Thorne with that woman is not a topic I need to think about, because there’s absolutely nothing between us, no matter how much I might have hoped there would be. And, dang it, I really had hoped there would be.
Except no, I didn’t.
Because every time I get involved with a guy, it all goes to hell. And I really don’t want to lose Ronan’s friendship.
But I do want more.
I draw a calming breath, then sternly tell myself that want is not the issue. I want to eat massive amounts of chocolate on a daily basis. I don’t because I know it’s not good for me.
Except, okay, yeah, some days I do.
Even so, the concept still applies. I may want Ronan in theory, but I also know that anything between us will end badly. It always does with men. I’ll freeze up and be all weird about sex because that’s who I am. He’ll hurt me somehow. Maybe not physically, but there will be pain. Because that’s what always happens. And it only gets worse.
After all, things went wrong with my last boyfriend, and I almost ended up dead.
For my own safety, I should probably just stay celibate.
And yet there’s still that lingering want hiding deep in my soul. A craving that I can’t shake but have to ignore. Because at the end of the day, I’m not a stupid woman. I’m also not a masochist. But getting involved with Ronan would mean getting hurt. That’s the pattern, and there’s no reason to expect it would change. Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result?
And besides, all of my musings are moot anyway. Because despite that blissful night in the alcove, Ronan has never, ever made even a hint of a suggestion of a repeat. It was a one-off. A drunken wedding kiss. And a harsh reminder of why I need to keep my distance from men. Nothing good comes of getting close.
Well, nothing except the feel of his lips on mine and his arm around my waist and his large hand cupping the back of my head.
I close my eyes and sigh, lost in this memory that I want to forget. Because no matter how much I tell myself I shouldn’t want—don’t want—anything to happen with Ronan, that is all a big, fat lie.
I jump, then open my eyes to find the man in question standing in front of me, Jake’s leash in his hand and Jake himself curled up at Ronan’s feet.
“Are you okay?” His blue eyes are focused right on me, and for a moment, I lose myself in them.
“Brandy?” he repeats. His golden blond hair is just long enough to curl a bit, and his beard stubble tempts my fingers.
I can’t seem to stop staring.
I shake myself, my self-issued order ringing in my head as my cheeks go hot. “Sorry. What? Oh, yes. I’m fine. I was just thinking.”
“Thinking?” His brows rise as the corner of his mouth twitches, and darn it, I actually swoon a bit. There’s just something about this man. Not his looks—although they definitely don’t hurt. He’s tall and broad-shouldered with a chiseled face that’s not too perfect, and all the better for his rough edges.
Ellie once described him as a Nordic god, and that sounds about right to me. Either that or an action hero.
Then again, considering his day job as an independent security consultant and his secret vocation as one of Saint’s Angels, he truly is the latter. Just in real life and not on a movie screen.
Bottom line is that although Ronan is very, very easy on the eyes, what I find most attractive is that underneath all that dangerous muscle is a guy with a genuinely good heart and a very sweet demeanor. The guy who so gently carried me out of that horrible underground chamber, then tended my wounds and promised that everything would be okay. The man who whispered that I was beautiful at Ellie and Devlin’s wedding, and that all he could think about was kissing me.
The guy who makes my heart flutter and my fingers ache to touch him even though I know I shouldn’t.
The guy who right now is silently grinning at me, as if he knows exactly what I’m thinking. And, yeah, he probably does.
I clear my throat. “Yeah. Just thinking. About work.” I expect him to call me on it. Want him to, even. Because despite the very long lectures I keep giving myself, deep down I still want to kindle this attraction. And I’m certain he wants the same.
Which is why I’m ridiculously disappointed when all he says is, “I guess that means work’s going well. Congratulations. I saw the new display in the window at The Escape earlier today.”
“Thanks.” I swallow as I readjust my fantasies, reminding myself that this is good. I don’t actually want anything to happen between me and Ronan. Didn’t I just give myself that lecture? Am I really that wishy-washy?
Apparently, yes, I am.
I force myself to smile at him. “You’re early.”
“A little. I have a plane to catch soon.”
“Oh. So you’re going to fix my sink and run? I was thinking about making cookies.”
“I’d love that. Raincheck?”
I force myself not to be disappointed. “Sure. And thanks for grabbing Jake. I didn’t realize I’d dropped the leash.”
“Well, you were deep in thought. About work,” he adds. What I hear is about me.
I manage a little shrug. “Lots on my mind. Oh! I saw Mr. Big,” I say, referring to my mysterious landlord.
“Yeah?” he asks as we fall in step together, heading the short distance to the house. “How did you know it was him? I thought you’d never met the man.”
He’s right. I have a unique deal in that in exchange for ridiculously cheap rent, I act as a house manager. The only downside is that on the few occasions he comes to town and wants the house, I get a call from the property manager and have to vacate for up to a week.
It’s all very mysterious and weird, but I assume he’s some sort of celebrity and really wants his privacy. Considering the fab house, minuscule rent, great view, and South Orange County location, it’s a small price to pay.
“I was outside Pacific Property earlier, and some guy came out. I didn’t think anything of it until he started staring at me, then asked what I was doing there. He was almost yelling. It was freaky.”
I reach for Jake’s leash, and when he passes it to me, our hands brush. And right then I wish I’d paid more attention when my dad did repairs around the house. Because then I could fix my own stupid sink and not have to spend the next hour or so feeling like an awkward thirteen-year-old girl, tongue-tied around the cute guy.
I realize he’s no longer beside me, and I pause, then turn around to find his eyes on me, a curious expression on his face. My cheeks go warm even as my whole body gets all shivery. This is it. This is when he finally says something about that kiss. That strange and wonderful kiss that has occupied too much of my brain space lately.
“Ronan?” I ask when he continues to just stand there.
“Where did you go?”
I blink, totally confused. “Go? We’re going to the house.”
He chuckles, the sound low and sexy, and I hate myself because I cannot shut this attraction off. “I meant in your head. You wandered off somewhere, but you were telling me about Mr. Big.”
“Oh. Right.” Stupid, stupid. “Had an idea for a new bag design. Got distracted. Anyway,” I rush on before he can challenge my crappy excuse, “after chewing me out, he just walked away. And since he’d come from the property manager’s office, I walked over and asked Gail who the weird guy was. She told me that he’s my landlord.”
I cringe. “Honestly, I think I liked it better not knowing how weird the guy is. I mean, why was he yelling at me?”
“Probably thought you were someone else. He doesn’t know you any more than you know him, right?”
I shrug. “I guess that’s true. Honestly, I never thought about it.”
“Odd, though,” he says, his brow furrowed.
I snort. “Which part exactly?”
“Just wondering why he’s even in town. Were you supposed to have vacated so he has the house?”
“No.” I frown because he has a point. “At least, I never got told that I needed to vacate.” I’m actually a bit surprised that Ronan knows the details of how my rental agreement works. Yes, Ellie and Devlin know. And Devlin is Ronan’s closest friend. But there’s no reason that my living arrangement would come up in casual conversation.
Which makes me wonder if Ronan asked. And that makes me wonder why he would ask. And that makes me wonder about things I have no business wondering about.
I clear my throat, clearing my random thoughts in the process. “For all I know, he has other rental properties here. Or he was just driving through town and thought he’d check in. I don’t even know why I’m thinking about it. I mean, if I hadn’t asked Gail, I wouldn’t have even known it was him.”
“True enough,” he says. We’ve reached the house, and now he stands off to the side as I fumble with the keypad lock. I push the door open, and once Jake’s bolted through, I put my back against the siding so Ronan can enter first. He hesitates, though, and I think that he’s letting me go first. So I step over the threshold at the same moment he does.
Our shoulders brush, and I stumble over my own feet. He catches me by the elbow to steady me, pulling me close as he does. For a moment, I’m mere inches from him, his hand pressed against my lower back as I regain my balance.
I’m tall, but I still have to look up to meet his eyes. When I do, I find him looking down at me, his ocean-blue eyes seeming to reflect my own desire right back at me.
I want to say something. To ask. I want to know what happened. Or, more accurately, why nothing happened after that kiss. But even though I open my mouth to speak, all I say is, “Ronan?”
A flurry of expressions crosses his face as he releases my arms, but I don’t have the skill to interpret them. Frustration, maybe. Lust, definitely. Sadness, too, I think. But I’m not certain. How can I be certain?
“We should talk.” His voice is low, as if we were in a sacred place. That’s good, I think. Because surely that means we’ll get to the truth. My fear, though, is that it’s the truth that’s going to hurt me.
I say none of that; I just nod as he gestures for me to go ahead. I do, moving down the entrance hall that opens onto the large living area. I shift to the left, walking alongside the pass-through bar that separates the large kitchen from the living area. My plan is to go grab a couple of water bottles, but before I manage another step, Jake bounds by, then starts barking and low-growling at something on the floor in front of the sofa.
From where I’m standing, I can’t see what it is, as the floor is blocked by the sofa back. But I immediately recoil as my eyes go to Ronan. “We had mice last year,” I say. “If it’s another dead mouse, please tell me you’ll pick it up.”
He chuckles, and that breaks the tension a little. He brushes past me toward Jake, who’s completely losing his mind, and I follow. Then Ronan stops on a dime. “Brandy, don’t—”
“What?” I ask as I start to step around him. He grabs me, but it’s too late. I’ve seen it. The man. The body. “That’s Mr. Big,” I whisper. And he’s sprawled out dead in front of my couch, a bullet hole right between his eyes.