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“I can take care of myself,” she said reminded him quietly.

Yeah, and that’s exactly what Molly said all those years ago, right before the nightmare that had followed. He looked into Kylie’s fierce, adventure-seeking face and swore to himself. Maybe she could take care of herself, but he still wasn’t going to take that chance. “Stick close.”

“Of course,” she said with a bright smile in spite of the fact that he’d practically growled the two words at her. “I’ll do whatever you say.”

And with that, she pierced his fierce concentration, making him laugh. “If only that was really true,” he said and had the pleasure of seeing her blush again.

Chapter 9

#LoveTheSmellOfNapalmInTheMorning

Kylie put on a good face for Joe, but she was no fool. The neighborhood around them was clearly a rough one, the streets dark and dank and not exactly welcoming.

So stick close? No problem.

There was a storm coming and the wind kicked up dust and debris, further masking their surroundings. It was like being in her own personal horror flick. She reached out and put a hand on Joe, fisting her fingers in the back of his shirt. “Close enough?” she murmured.

He stilled at the touch and she felt him turn to look down at her in surprise. Whatever he saw, he laughed at. Quietly, but his amusement was genuine and deep as he bowed his head, shoulders shaking.

“What?”

“Your . . .” He swiveled a finger at her head and she put a hand on it.

Her wig was crooked. “Dammit.”

“Give up on the wig, Kylie,” he said, still grinning. “It’s not a disguise.”

“It’s not?”

“No. I’d know you anywhere.”

She tried really hard not to think about why that gave her a tingle. Leaving the wig in place, she demanded, “Are we doing this or not?”

His eyes darkened.

Oh boy. “You know what I mean!” She started walking toward one end of the warehouse only to be caught up by the back of her shirt.

“This way, Slick,” he said, redirecting her to the other end of the warehouse.

“Right,” she said, but then hesitated at all the shadows.

“Just wait in the car with Vinnie,” he said. “I’ll lock it and—”

“No. I’m fine with you.” And wasn’t that just the shocking truth. She was more than fine with him. With him, she felt like Wonder Woman.

When they got close, she eyed the gate surrounding the building. “Locked,” she whispered, looking it over. “And no simple lock either. This one’s keyless.”

“With a side bolt,” he agreed and pulled a tool from his pocket to tackle the bolt first.

“Nice,” she whispered as he opened it. “I wouldn’t mind learning a skill like that. Maybe you’ll teach me sometime.”

“Sure.” He cocked an ear to the lock, spinning the dial before cursing to himself.

“Problem?” she asked.

“More like problem-esque.” He ran a finger over her wig.

“What are you doing?” she whispered.

“I’m having a hard time concentrating. You look so different and yet the same.”

Because his voice combined with his touch was turning her on, she waved her finger in front of her face. “I’m really hot in this thing.”

“You’re right on that.”

She huffed out a laugh. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” he murmured, voice an octave lower now and sexy as hell, as was the heated look in his eyes.

And she realized that there was something incredibly liberating about wearing a costume or disguise and pretending to be someone else. It allowed her to be more . . . free than she’d be otherwise. And even the knowledge that she was acting like her mom wasn’t enough to stop her. “You really think I’m hot in this wig?”

“Actually, I think you’re hot in anything,” he said as he went at the lock. “Your work aprons, the kick-ass steel-toed boots, the ripped jeans, the dark hair, your own hair . . . it’s all hot to me.”

She shook her head. “Men are weird.”

He stopped working and stepped in to her, nudging their bodies together, lining them up. “You telling me you don’t think it’s kinda hot to pretend to be someone else?”

She bit her lower lip and he laughed. “You do,” he said in naughty accusation and made her laugh too.

But then he suddenly froze before turning around, using an arm to keep her behind him as a guy strode down the dark street their way. Though at first they’d appeared to be alone, Kylie could see more than a few shadows behind him. The shadows stayed back as the guy came forward, his hands out of his pockets and loose at his sides.

“Don’t shoot, jefe,” he said to Joe.

If she hadn’t known Joe, she’d say he appeared to be perfectly relaxed. But she did know him and knew he wasn’t relaxed at all, but . . . ready. He didn’t speak.

“Been a long time,” the stranger said, coming to a stop in front of them while his shadows remained back.

Joe still didn’t move or say a word.

The guy smiled without showing his teeth. “Been so long that maybe you forgot how to greet an old friend.”

Kylie’s knees got a little wobbly and her palms began to sweat.

“I’ve forgotten nothing,” Joe said.

“Good.” The man paused, slid a gaze over Kylie, then concentrated on Joe again. “So you know I owe you more than I can ever repay. You’re safe here.”

Joe smiled then, also without showing his teeth. “And I should believe you, why?”

“Because you’re not the only one who can make changes.”

The two men, both lean and tough and built in a way that said a fight might be terrifyingly equal, stared at each other and then suddenly they were doing some complicated male handshake.

Kylie sucked in some badly needed air as the guy stepped back and nodded. “You’re safe here,” he repeated and then vanished into the dark, his shadows on his heels.

Joe took Kylie’s hand. He’d gotten the locks open. “This way,” he said, taking her around to the back of the warehouse, where they could peek in the dark windows.

Kylie was still processing the conversation she’d just heard. Joe had done something to help that guy. Something so big that he’d risk himself to help keep her and Joe safe. Whatever Joe had done had stuck, and she wondered what it might have been.

But he wasn’t much for talking, which of course made him very different from anyone else she’d ever met. Especially her own mother, who liked to make sure everyone knew her positive attributes at all times.

But not Joe. He was trying to do something good. His job wasn’t just a paycheck to him. It was so much more. “Why does that guy owe you?”

“Five minutes,” he said.

“What?”

“You’ve been trying not to ask me that question for five whole minutes. I’m impressed.”

She rolled her eyes and waited.

He said nothing.

“So . . . ?” she pressed.

“It was a lifetime ago.” He flashed a penlight through the dark warehouse windows. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

The clearly handmade, high-end furniture was beautiful, but not in the same style as her grandpa’s, not even close. Nothing here even remotely resembled the table in the pic she’d received, the one she had thirteen days left to authenticate or lose her grandpa’s penguin forever. “I don’t think it’s them,” she whispered.

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