Everly Clarke is a loner, a title she very much enjoys. Two years of being on her own means two years of avoiding any further disappointment from her failed marriage. Two years of only relying on herself. The reading of her estranged husband’s Will is the final closure she needs to move on.
Until the day finally arrives.
Coming home to find her house burglarized and trashed was terrible enough. Suddenly having her husband’s former bodyguard show up on her doorstep makes it worse.
The bossy Englishman who either doesn’t understand her desire to be alone…or doesn’t care. Even with muscles galore and an accent that definitely ramps her attraction up another notch, admiring him from a distance is where it ends. It’s not that she doesn’t want help. She just doesn’t want his help.
Until the bad guys return…for her.
Finnian Hayes has one job to do: help Everly and leave her alone.
He’s never met his former boss’s wife, but his mental image of her doesn’t match the skittish, stubborn, gorgeous woman who slams the door in his face. Twice. But she needs his help. This is his chance at redemption. A chance to atone for his past failures. He won’t fail her.
Because it is evident that someone is after Everly Clarke. Someone that related to her husband’s past, a past he’s all too familiar with. Finnian’s first priority is to keep her safe. An impossible accomplishment when she pushes back at every turn.
The second…find out who is after her.
But in keeping her safe, Finnian falls hard. He suddenly wants more in his life. He wants Everly and is willing to give her everything he can, including his life.
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“Everything is just fine.”
Everly Clarke popped the bubble gum colored nail polish against her palm, taking out her frustration. Her house was her safe place, away from strangers and useless social conversations. This was her sanctuary after her husband left. But today changed that. It didn’t matter how many times she told herself that she’d be fine, nothing was fine.
She’d been robbed. Wait. Burglarized was the right term according to the middle-aged, overweight police officer who’d corrected her a half-dozen times. Too bad using the proper word choice didn’t catch the idiots responsible for kicking in her door and tossing everything she owned onto the floor like an enraged toddler looking for candy.
There wasn’t even a damn piece of candy in the house.
Everly rolled back in the computer chair until a wheel caught on the pile of pens and rubber bands littering the ground, stopping her movement.
“What the hell ever,” she muttered to the mess around her. She didn’t have the brainpower to deal with it today. Not after that same policeman had set his hand on her shoulder, turning her already stressful afternoon into a full-blown panic attack. After spending two years absolutely alone, anyone’s hands on her body made everything inside lock up tight.
She hiked her foot on her desk and proceeded to paint each toe with excessive precision. This she could control.
Her bookcase stood bare, every book thrown onto the floor. Two dining room chairs lay on their sides. The curtains were piled in a heap on the floor. Shards of glass from a shattered vase covered the kitchen table and ground. Both desk drawers were dumped out entirely on the carpet around her. If there was a silver lining, she’d taken her laptop with her to the meeting.
Overall, the first floor was a damn mess thanks to whatever dipshit decided her house was a good location to find nothing of value.
She sat back and smiled. At least her toes were pretty.
Four loud beeps sounded from her cell phone. She jumped with the noise. There wasn’t a single person she wanted to speak with today. Or any day, really, but especially not after the meeting-from-hell this morning and the break-in once she arrived home.
Tripp Wellington’s name filled her screen.
Definitely wasn’t talking to that jerk. She canceled the call, sending him to voice mail for a fourth time that afternoon. The man wouldn’t give up. She hadn’t heard a damn thing from Tripp since her husband’s death six months ago.
“I’m just fine,” she repeated, wishing she believed it.
Everly painted on a second coat. The longer her nails took to dry, the better. The house wouldn’t look so bad tomorrow. She fanned her toes with an old magazine, scanning the room.
Yes, it would.
A pounding on her door made the magazine fly from her hand as she screamed “shit!” and jumped up from the chair.
Her foot stepped on a pile of pens. The pile rolled out from under her, and she sat back down with enough momentum that both she and the computer chair tipped backward.
Everly waved her arms around, trying to gain balance, but flapping like a bird didn’t help.
She fell, ending with both legs sticking up in the air. Her head landed on a pile of rubber bands and scattered printer paper. Not the softest pillow but better than the stapler her shoulder hit.
She closed her eyes, containing the moan of mixed embarrassment and pain. “This is so not fine.”
“Mrs. Clarke?” A loud, male voice shouted through the door. “Are you okay? Open up.” He thumped again.
Everly rolled to her side and stood. She moved to the door. “Go—” Her foot hit the upside-down glass bowl that she’d used to hold her keys. With the force of a soccer player, the bowl flew across the carpet, clanged on the hardwood floor, before breaking against the wall.
The front door sailed open. “Mrs. Clarke!”
A huge man loomed in the doorway. A shadow obscured his face as his body blocked out most of the late afternoon sunlight. He held a big, black gun with both hands.
Continuing her forward motion, she shoved one hand on the man’s rock-hard chest, knocking him back, outside and slamming the door closed.
Her unsteady hands didn’t cooperate with the doorknob.
Just lock, damn it.
After a few fumbles, the doorknob locked. She grabbed her phone off the desk as the man shouted again, “Mrs. Clarke?” He knocked in rapid secession. “Please open the door.”
“No.” It’d come out with a whisper, her blood pounding too hard to yell.
“I’m here to help you.”
Bullshit. And whoever broke into her house just wanted to redecorate. She hit ‘9’ on her phone.
“He sent me to check on you. Are you alright?” The doorknob jiggled. “Call Tripp if you don’t believe me.”
Her finger paused after the first ‘1.’ Tripp? Is that why he’d tried to call her all afternoon? She bit her lip and flipped over to her text messages. With wobbly fingers, she managed to type out a text to Tripp.
His reply was immediate.
That’s my bodyguard. I sent him to make sure you are okay. Don’t be difficult. Let him in to help.
Well, that concern was fundamentally unlike Tripp. Her edge of fear disappeared but suspicion took its place. Since when did Tripp have a bodyguard? And why did he even care about her at this point? He made it perfectly clear at the lawyer’s office that he wanted nothing to do with her. He only wanted the stock certificate to the business which she didn’t have.
Whoever owned the other fifty percent of ATLighting, Inc at this point could have it. Good luck dealing with a shady moron like Tripp.
Right then, she had a bigger problem: the gun-waving man standing outside her home. She crept across the floor and grabbed the umbrella leaning next to the door. After a quick second of weighing the cheap, plastic handle in her hand, she tossed it to the side. “Stupid,” she muttered. It wasn’t like she had some insane ninja skills and could do more than swing it at someone’s head and hoped it hurt.
Tripp sent him. Everly brushed her hair back from her face. Her exhaustion sucked the away the last of her energy. This day would never end. She balled her hands into tight fists and pulled in a deep breath through her nose. Face-to-face interactions turned her anxiety up to the max.
She relaxed her hands, pleased that the shaking had eased slightly. Talk. That’s all she had to do. As long as he didn’t touch her, she could keep her shit together.
With fake confidence, Everly opened the door, cool air brushing over her warm cheeks. The gun had disappeared, but the man’s broad shoulders cast her in his shadow. He shifted to the side, crossing his arms and leaning against her doorjamb like a man who had all day and wasn’t hiding a gun somewhere.
His shortish, dark hair looked purposefully messy. Intense but friendly brown eyes pinned her in place as a mesmerizing smile spread so slowly it twisted her stomach into a thousand more knots.
The man was insanely gorgeous.
All the air in her lungs vanished.
She slammed the door in his face.
That was . . . crazy. She blinked, clearing the haze. For a moment, his smile seemed more lethal than the gun.
He said something unintelligible before knocking lightly. “Please open back up, Mrs. Clarke,” he said, softer than before.
Breathe. Tripp sent him over to check on the situation. It was rude to leave him standing on her front porch. He didn’t have anything to do with the tension between her and Tripp. Nor did was he at fault for her stupid response to his good looks. Besides, polite manners should be afforded to gorgeous men as well as ugly ones.
She opened the door. That stomach-twisting smile had vanished, but he still propped himself against the side of her door frame.
“I texted Tripp.” She cleared her throat. “He said he sent his bodyguard. I presume that’s you?” Everly leaned to the side, scanning his waist for a holster. “What happened to the gun you waved in the air?”
He frowned. “I didn’t wave a gun—”
Her focus shot back to his face. “Yes, you did.” She demonstrated his actions. Maybe slightly exaggerated. “You barged into my house, brandishing a gun around. I think that’s illegal. Do you have a permit?”
His eyes widened, and he straightened from his relaxed position. “Yes, I have a permit and you’re wrong. I was not brandishing it—”
“Yes, you were,” Everly snapped back, setting her hands on her hips to keep him from seeing her hands tremble. She could do this. Talking to another person wasn’t so difficult. She was just out of practice. As long as he stayed on his side of the door, she was good.
He took a breath, the air escaping through his clenched teeth. “I’m sorry if I scared you, Mrs. Clarke. I heard a loud bang and thought you might be in danger after the break-in. Hazard of the job, I suppose.”
God, she hated her married name. “Well,” she said, crossing her arms, trying to ignore the way his English accent made her want to trust him for no other reason than it made him sound extraordinarily polite. “As you can see, I’m perfectly alright.”
She was alright when he wasn’t smiling. When her brain managed to think logically. The intense reaction to him confused her as much as Tripp sending over someone to check on her. If the bodyguard could keep his dimples under control, then she could reassure him of her safety and send him away.
“What was the bang?”
She flicked her hand over her shoulder. “I accidentally knocked a chair over.” Not that anyone could tell with the mess.
His eyes searched the house behind her. She partway closed the door. He didn’t need to know that she’d been in the chair when it fell over.
“And the glass breaking?”
“Tripped on a bowl.”
He ran a hand over his hair, his bicep straining against his fitted blue short-sleeved shirt. She swallowed and snapped her focus to his feet. At one normal point in her life, a cute guy wouldn’t rattle her this much.
“Cute” was such a damn understatement. A new word should be invented just to describe him. That smile and accent made a deadly combination. Regardless of the unexpected attraction, he needed to leave. If the world would leave her alone, aside from the occasional food delivery service, she’d be happy.
“Your house is a wreck.”
“I’ll be sure to send your compliments to the maid.” Jerk.
He smiled again, flashing those stupidly adorable dimples. “Can I come in?”
Indecision and nervousness flickered over Mrs. Clarke’s face. Americans amused him. Back home, showing up unexpectedly at a house usually led to an afternoon visit and an invitation for supper. Instead, she’d slammed the door in his face. Twice.
Granted, he wouldn’t have drawn his weapon while going on a friendly visit, but this was different. Someone had destroyed her house. When he’d heard the crash from behind the closed door, every ounce of his past training ignited in his gut. And for a damn good reason.
Finnian Hayes glanced at the mess in her home. It was a wreck.
She shifted her petite body, attempting to block the doorway again. Her action didn’t hide anything since he could see clearly over her head and into the house, but he refocused on her.
“Why did Tripp send you here?” she asked, the question full of suspicion. He appreciated her caution. Now, he had to find a way past it to help her.
Finnian plastered an easy smile on his face. He didn’t have anywhere to be. If she wanted to keep him outside, he wouldn’t push. Working in undercover investigations for the drug squad taught him that patience is critical when entering a hostile environment. And he considered her to be a hostile environment.
“A friend of Tripp’s on the police force let him know your house was broken into this morning while you were at the meeting. Tripp tried to call, but when you didn’t answer all day, he sent me to check on you.” Finnian rubbed the back of his neck, thinking of how to put her at ease. “I’m to look over your doors and windows for any security concerns. Make sure you’re safe. Fix anything I can. I’m not sure how they entered your home, but I can install a new deadbolt, if necessary.” He motioned to the bag beside him. “I brought tools.”
Not exactly in his usual job description, but Tripp had requested it, and he cut the check. A check his family needed back home.
“Oh,” she said, still looking at the ground. “I still don’t see why Tripp cares, but regardless of why he sent you over here, I don’t need your help.” She didn’t move to let him inside. The longer she stood, the smaller she appeared. Her head barely reached his shoulders.
A few golden strands intermixed with her light brown hair where it sat in a haphazard knot on top of her head. A car drove past the house, and she tracked the movement with concern. Based on her earlier reaction, the break-in had rattled her more than she let on.
Mrs. Clarke locked eyes with him for a brief second before looking down again. For the first time, he got a clear view of her blue eyes that made her look innocent of every sin ever committed.
How had a scumbag like Charles Clarke managed to marry such a sweet-looking woman? A busty blonde with heavy makeup and tight clothing fit Charles’s style when he lived in Miami.
Finnian leaned down a little, trying to see her face. “It’ll be a little difficult to help standing outside,” he said with more patience than he genuinely felt.
Her head snapped up. Those crystal blue eyes flashed with determination. “I don’t need your help.”
He tried not to smile. Not such a little mouse anymore, was she? He liked that better, but she still needed his assistance. “I hate to contradict you, but yes, you do. Tripp said you lived alone and didn’t have family nearby. Please, let me help.” He held his arms out to the side. “I’m already here.”
She stood straight, not moving an inch from the doorway. “I’m perfectly safe.”
“Until today.” When she didn’t respond right away, he took it as an opening. “I’ll be out of your way in ten minutes. Just let me double-check the locks and windows. I’ll do a test on your alarm system.”
She ran a hand over her messy hair, mumbling something he didn’t catch.
“Don’t.” Her body stiffened. She held up her hands as if to block him. “I’ll let you in to poke around at my windows and doors, but don’t call me that.” She stepped back from guarding the doorway. “Everly. Please, call me Everly.”
Everly needed more help than his security assessment. How had a lady like this survived being married to a domineering, womanizing man with a drug habit? It made sense why Finnian never saw Everly around Charles in the years he guarded him. She was better off in Atlanta, distanced from the world her husband had created for himself.
Finnian stepped cautiously inside the house. Keeping ample distance between them, he walked at her slow pace into the living room.
He paused, setting his hands on his hips and surveying the damage. He hadn’t read the police report. Electronics and jewelry were the typical targets, and that’s what he’d assumed the thieves wanted.
Not this time. That much was obvious. An expensive, flat-screen still sat above her fireplace. Her computer still sat on her desk. It was clear that the criminals searched her house for something in particular.
“Did they take any money? Jewelry?” he asked.
“No. They didn’t take anything that I can tell.” Everly wrung her hands together as she paced barefooted back and forth on the tan carpet. Pink toes. That explained the smell. Had she sat and painted her toenails instead of straightening up her house?
He caught himself before a laugh escaped. Women never ceased to amaze him.
She paused and studied him for a moment. “Did you know Charles? My husband? I know you’re Tripp’s bodyguard, but you had to be around Charles at some point? Or are you newer than that?”
Finnian’s muscles froze. Tripp has specifically told him not to discuss Charles with Everly, but he wouldn’t lie to her. “Yes. I knew your husband.”
“Were you in Miami with him?”
He nodded, hesitant to answer her direct question. How much did she know of her husband’s activities? A little? Nothing? Everything?
“Sorry. I know it must seem strange that I hate my last name. But you were in Miami. I don’t think it’s any secret that my husband and I weren’t”—she held out her hands and shrugged, looking as though she needed to apologize to Finnian—“very close the last eighteen months of our marriage before he died.”
Anger lit him from the inside out. She’d done nothing wrong and didn’t need to act as though she had. No woman deserved their husband abandoning them the way Charles had. Not for that lifestyle. Not for that woman. He tightened his fists, remembering it was partly his fault.
She stared down at the floor, her fingers twisting the bottom edge of her white shirt.
“Everly?” She didn’t seem to hear him. “Everly?” he asked louder. Would she cry at her husband’s memory? He may have died only six months ago, but the bastard wasn’t worth it in Finnian’s opinion.
Her lips twitched. “My name sounds nice when you say it.” She met his eyes again, the fear or grief he’d seen moments earlier now gone. Her small smile became a little playful, and her eyes brightened the way he imagined they did before her husband ruined her life. “Are you from England?”
Focus. Concentrate on the job, not on her eyes. “Yes.” He moved to the closest window. Nothing looked out of place. The lock secure. How had they come into the house? The front door looked intact.
Blowing out a harsh breath, like his presence forced her to clean, she bent down and shelved the books scattered around. “Don’t be offended if I ask if you’re from London. It’s the only place I can think of right now.”
Finnian shook his head and began rehanging her curtains. “I lived there for a time, but I grew up in the country, two hours outside of London.” Working at his family’s goat farm that needed even more money this month. As soon as Tripp paid him, he’d forward the funds home.
“I’m sure it’s beautiful. I don’t think you’ve told me your name.”
Finnian turned at her lighter tone, catching a hint of female interest in her eyes.
She snapped her head down and pretended to look at the book in her hand.
The movement caused a strand of hair to brush across her soft cheek. For the first time in a while, that familiar trickle of temptation to flirt with a woman shot through his blood. Of all the women in Atlanta . . .
But he wanted to make her smile again.
“Finnian James Hayes.” His English accent came through thicker than it had since he’d left home. When she looked up, he grinned. It was the way his sisters teased him made girls faint in his wake.
Everly didn’t reward him with a smile or faint, but a light blush crawled up her neck to her cheeks. “Nice to meet you, Finnian James Hayes,” she said, a little stiffer than he’d hoped, before shoving the last few books onto the shelf and turning to leave the living room. “Let me know when you’re done.”
He turned back to the window, pretending to inspect it again to ease off the quick thump of his heart. Everly wasn’t so immune, after all. And it appeared neither was he.