NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE ONCE WROTE in the preface of The Marble Faun that “Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens, and wallflowers, need ruin to make them grow.” Hiding behind a flowering lilac bush near my aunts’ back garden, frozen in place as my new neighbor worked out in their courtyard, I stared at a single wisteria vine reflecting on Hawthorne’s words. The vine had worked its way down the side of their wooden pergola then through the cobblestone path to break free from its prison. It had been trained carefully over time to flower in one spot, but this single branch had defied its current state sprouting through the crumbled ruins, just as Hawthorne had written.
I envied that vine’s courage. It had fought against what life had dealt it, searching for a better one outside the confines of the pergola—unlike me . . .
The doorbell ringing.
An officer speaking in hushed tones.
The wailing sound of a child screaming for her parents.
I closed my eyes against the echoes of my past and tried to block them out.
The sound of male exertion resonated throughout the courtyard, so I opened my eyes and turned my head, shaking off the memory that had held me hostage my whole life.
An unexpected spark of excitement bubbled in my chest, working its way down to settle in my gut as I watched the black-haired stranger. The sensation was foreign to me—unsettling. I’d spent so much time avoiding life that the immediate attraction for this unknown man caught me off guard. But I couldn’t deny the truth. The evidence was in the racing of my heart and the moisture collecting in my palms as my mouth ran dry. All my carefully laid plans to protect my heart seemed childish now; and in that moment of sexual awareness, I wondered what it would be like to be in love.
Peeling my eyes off the stranger, I looked back at the vine growing through the crack in the path and wondered if I could take a chance like it had and change the course of my life.
I knew if I wanted a life outside my books, a life that also included a man like the one currently shirtless in my aunts’ back garden, I, too, would have to break down the walls I’d hid behind so I could grow from the rubble of my past . . . to bloom.
Just like those wallflowers.
However, as much as I wanted a different course for my life at that moment, I wondered if I could truly let someone in? Let someone scale the walls I’d built?
Looking up from the courageous root, I scanned the private flower-covered courtyard that abutted my aunt’s three-story building—which sat in the heart of historic Savannah, Georgia—until my eyes once again landed on the black-haired man. This courtyard was my favorite place in or out of Savannah. My aunts had spent years cultivating the area until it was a oasis from the world. Flowers of every color bordered the fence while overgrown lilac bushes scented the air. Pink and purple wisteria wound tightly around the pergola providing shade from the Georgia heat, as a water garden with a replica of the Bird Girl—a statue made famous by the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”—sat in the center. The trickling cascade, combined with the heady scent of flowers, always relaxed me, focused my thoughts, and helped transport me into the worlds of the books I read.
Today, like every Saturday of my adult life, I’d decided to read. So I’d picked up one of my well-read copies of “Devil’s Bride” by Stephanie Laurens and headed downstairs to the courtyard to relax before heading to a mandatory company picnic. But the flowers and historical romance were immediately forgotten the moment I walked out the back door and I’d laid eyes on my new neighbor.
Still hiding behind a flowering lilac bush, I watched each descent and ascent as the new tenant in 2B lifted his hard body with ease. Captivated, I tracked the sweat that dripped down his brow in tiny droplets with fascination. I was completely transfixed by the graceful movements of this black-haired stranger as his biceps contracted with each rise. But none more so than when he lifted his head and looked up. Eyes the color of brilliant blue topaz glowed in the morning sun, blazing with crystalline fire like a diamond, yet holding the coolness of ice.
He’d moved in the day before while I was at work, and all I knew about my new neighbor was that he was a man—though the common term used for the opposite sex wasn’t strong enough for this particular male since there was nothing generic about him—who liked to listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd late at night. No, he was no ordinary man, this one held an air of danger that smoldered just beneath the surface, and every inch of me approved.
When he looked my direction, I inched back further to avoid detection, bumping into a familiar warm body, one liberally doused with Calvin Klein Obsession.
“He’s a fine specimen, isn’t he?” I jumped at my Aunt Bernice’s whispered voice and nodded slowly as I continued to stare. “And, I might add, from what I’ve seen of the gentleman in question, you could do a far sight worse.”
“Bernice, I’m just . . . I’m not . . .” I stopped and gave up. She knew what I was doing, so it was a waste of time to argue.
“Of course, you are, butterbean. You’ve been livin’ a half-life, barely breathin’ except for your books since your family died,” she whispered low. “You and I know better than most that life is a fleetin’ moment in time, every moment extraordinary and priceless. So don’t waste it because you’re scared to let people in.”
“Are you readin’ my mind?” I asked back, turning to look at her.
“So you agree you’ve hidden from the world long enough?”
“It may have crossed my mind,” I whispered, crossing my arms.
“I’ll bet,” she snorted. “If I were you and knew I had a man like that livin’ right next door, I’d take a breath and start livin’ pretty dern quick.”
“I’m not sure dating my neighbor is a good idea,” I replied, jerking my head in 2B’s direction.
Bernice’s eyebrows shot skyward, and she laid me out with a look of pure disbelief.
“Sorry?” she replied dumbfounded. “Did you just say you don’t think a man who’s as gorgeous as the devil himself, seems like a Southern gentleman, and has a body that would tempt the purest of virgins isn’t a good idea ’cause he lives next door?”
I snorted at my fifty-six-year-old aunt then threw my hand over my mouth and looked back at 2B to see if he’d heard.
Nope, just up and down and up and down.
Lord, that man was strong.
“Since when does being a Southern gentleman garner points in your book?” I asked quietly, not taking my eyes off the perfection that was 2B. “You preferred being single your whole life.”
“Since your Daddy would have wanted that for you.”
I froze at the mention of my father and curled my hands into fists, nails biting into my skin.
“You know I loved my brother somethin’ fierce,” she continued, “so I plan to honor his wishes. He instructed us in his trust to make sure you were happy, and you’re not. Don’t follow in my footsteps, sugar. What I wanted for my life is entirely different than what you want for yourself,” she lilted with a drawl, but with an edge of sophistication that would have put Scarlett O’Hara to shame. “So go on now. Take the first step.” She nudged me forward, but I locked my knees, shaking my head. “Lord you’re stubborn,” she huffed. “Calla, if you don’t introduce yourself I’ll do it for you, and you won’t like it.”
“I need a minute.”
“Well, make it quick. There’s a truck comin’ soon with a load of clothes we bought at an estate sale and we’ll need your help to unpack it,” she ordered before turning to leave.
I nodded again, ignoring her parting comment. My focus was on 2B’s hair. It was longer than most men wore, and the bangs had fallen into his eyes, creating a frame around the brilliant blue.
“Calla Lily!” Bernice shouted out my given name. I started at the sound as 2B looked in our direction. Jumping back further so he wouldn’t see me gawking through the lilacs, I turned to find Bernice standing at the back door of Frock You, the vintage clothing store she and her sister Eunice had owned since 1984.
“Ma’am?” 2B asked in a gravelly Southern drawl that was smooth as molasses and just as dark and delicious. The deep timbre of his voice was like an aphrodisiac, so I turned back to soak in the sound of it.
“Don’t pay me any mind, Mr. Hawthorne. I was just tellin’ my dear sister we needed more Calla Lilies in the garden. You just keep workin’ those fine muscles of yours as if I wasn’t here.”
He’d paused mid-pushup and began again, grinning wickedly at my aunt as he dropped down.
Turning back, I waved her on, shushing her with a look that begged her to stay quiet, then turned back and watched who I now knew was Mr. Hawthorne finish his pushups.
The fact I’d just been thinking about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s quote seemed like a sign from above.
“Maybe I should introduce myself,” I whispered.
I looked down at my worn-out jeans, flip flops, and light blue vintage peasant top I’d grabbed in the last haul my aunts had bought for their store. It wasn’t an outfit that encouraged men to look once, let alone twice. I would need help with my wardrobe if I was going to venture forth into the world of dating.
Just as I had with my books, I’d used clothing to hide from men. The loss of my family in a car accident when I was six was the reason why. I’d purposely avoided the opposite sex and intimate friendships as a way to insulate myself from further heartache and loss. If I didn’t put myself out there, I couldn’t be hurt. At least that’s what the child inside me reasoned any time someone tried to get close. Of course, she was silent in the face of 2B’s presence, instead, she’d turned into a hormone driven adolescent.
Mr. Hawthorne grunted low with exertion, so I peeked through the bushes again. Framed in the morning sun he stood and began stretching an arm across his chest, tugging with his other hand to loosen the muscles he’d just worked. I watched in silence as he repeated the action with the other arm and then bent at the waist to stretch out his legs. He was the finest looking man I’d encountered in my twenty-seven years. Well over six feet, his proportions were perfectly symmetrical, perfectly muscled—perfectly male. All the way down to the deep V in his lower abdomen. He was, in my mind, Devil Cynster come to life from the pages of Devil’s Bride.
“Be bold, Cali,” I whispered, moving forward a step. “It’s time to start livin’.”
Besides needing to take the first step towards shattering the walls I’d built up and move forward into a brave new world, he was my neighbor. It was only polite to introduce myself. The fact I’d watched his body rise and fall like a lover in the heat of passion shouldn’t affect my manners in the least.
Taking another step toward revealing myself to him, determined that the ruins of my past should be felled that very instant, I stopped short when the gate that opened to the side alley swung wide and an attractive blonde dressed to the nines walked into the courtyard. I watched as my Devil come to life, turned, leveled a sinister smile at her, and then wrapped her in a hug that spoke of affection and love for the woman.
“Well?” Bernice asked with humor laced in her voice. “Are you gonna take the plunge and talk to the man or let another woman have first dibs?”
Frozen like a statue, I watched as Mr. Hawthorne and the blonde conversed with each other, completely absorbed and unaware of my presence.
Turning away from the couple, I marched toward Bernice, brushing past her, and kept walking through the back door of Frock You.
“There are other fish in the sea,” I mumbled as I passed.
“True enough, sugar. But I’m not sure the other fish would taste as good as Devin does.”
I stopped in my tracks and looked back at her. “Devin?”
“Devin Hawthorne,” she confirmed. “Former Atlanta police detective. He’s hangin’ up his badge to become a private investigator and moved to Savannah for a change of pace. He also rented the office space next to the store, so I imagine we’ll be seein’ plenty of him,” she explained. “You sure you don’t wanna go back out there and introduce yourself, butterbean?”
The twinkle in her eyes as she relayed this information was as infuriating as a mosquito in search of blood.
“I’ll pass. I’m not so desperate for a man as to make a ninny of myself.”
“Spoken like a true Southern lady. A gentleman should always do the pursuin’ anyhow.”
I rolled my eyes. “Bernice, since when do you hold to the ways of the South?” I asked while heading for the store’s kitchen and a cup of coffee and biscone. “You fought Granddaddy at every turn when it came to me bein’ raised by him and grandmother so I wouldn’t turn into some snooty debutante.”
“True, but my daddy raised a lady to begin with, butterbean. I may have thumbed my nose at borin’ cotillions and charity events, but that doesn’t mean I don’t hold to the ways of the South when it comes to my dearest niece and men. I raised you, wanted what was best for you just like any mother would, because you, my dear sweet girl, are magnificent. You deserve a man who knows how to treat her.” She ran her fingers gently across my cheek as her eyes softened. “So don’t jump at the first chance you have with any ole man. Hold out for a true gentleman, hold out for someone like Mr. Hawthorne.”
“Bernie,” I whispered, grabbing hold of her hand as it cupped my cheek.
“No tears, sugar. We’re Armstrong’s, not bleedin’ heart liberals. Suck it up,” Bernice admonished with a wink.
As I tried to hold back the tears, my Aunt Eunice came rushing in with a look of sheer delight plastered across her face, dragging her longtime friend Odis Lee Wilder in her wake.
My aunts were two years apart in age. Eunice was the older of the two. Both were Southern beauties with shoulder length, blond hair—they kept that way thanks to Miss Clairol—with bright blue eyes and peaches and cream complexions.
They were rebels from what I liked to refer to as the Madonna generation. My aunts believed in doing whatever the hell they wanted whenever they wanted. And they’d done it with gusto for years until it all came to a screeching halt when my family died and they took me in.
Much to my grandparents chagrin, both were named as my guardians. Because of this, they’d stopped their wild ways and settled down to raise me for their beloved older brother.
At the time of my parents’ death, Frock You had been more of a hobby for them, but when they found themselves with a child to raise they settled into the store and turned it into an upscale boutique the rich and famous frequently visited.
It was situated at street level of the three-story building that fronts the Savannah River on River Street. They’d bought the old building with inheritance they received when their grandfather died, back when historic Savannah didn’t have the price tag it does now. They renovated the top floor into a spacious three-bedroom apartment and converted the office spaces on the second floor into two one-bedroom apartments. I lived on the second floor, right next door to 2B.
This old building with its aged brown brick, private flower-covered courtyard, and cobblestone pathed street was the only home I remembered, and I loved every inch of it.
“Sister, it finally happened!” Eunice exploded as she entered the kitchen.
“Calm yourself, Neecy,” Odis Lee chuckled with a gleam in his eyes. “Mornin’, Calla Lily. Mornin’, Bernie.”
Odis Lee was a cross between Colonel Sanders and Sonny Crockett. His dark blond hair was speckled with grey which he wore too long and slicked back. His moustache ran long and thick down the sides of his mouth and he paired it with a petite goatee on his chin. Odis also dressed like he had just stepped off a plane from Miami, Florida, during the 1980’s. Light blue linen pants showed off tan loafers worn without socks, topped off with a white T-shirt and a tan linen jacket. His entire ensemble had been put together by Aunt Eunice with vintage pieces they’d purchased for the store.
Like Bernice, Eunice—or Neecy as she likes to be called—never married. Unlike Bernice, Eunice still entertained gentlemen when she felt like it. Odis Lee has held the position of friend for the past fifteen years.
“Hush, Odis Lee. This is far too good not to be excited about,” Eunice scolded.
“For goodness sake, Neecy. I don’t want to hear about you and Odis Lee’s sex life,” Bernice said, holding up her hands in protest.
Eunice gasped and I rolled my lips between my teeth to keep from laughing.
“Don’t be crass, Bernie,” Eunice admonished. “I’m talkin’ about Billy Ray Stutter.”
“All right, I’ll bite. What’s that horse’s patootie done now?”
“That jackass has finally left his shrew of a wife, and she is dumpin’ everythin’ of his on the front lawn in a hissy fit to end all hissy fits. Odis and I saw it with our own two eyes.”
“Wouldn’t that be your own four eyes, Aunt Neecy?”
Bernice turned and looked at me, grinning. “Smartass becomes you, butterbean,” she chuckled and then grabbed her purse off the counter.
“We’ll get coffee to go at Blends,” Bernice announced as she brushed past Eunice and Odis Lee. “Do we still have the foldaway chairs in the back of the Wagoneer? If the park benches are all taken by rubberneckers, I don’t wanna stand all day long. The way that woman carries on, it could take her hours before she’s done makin’ a spectacle of herself.”
“Y’all are horrible, vile snoops,” I shouted as they made their way to the front of the store. “I heard Billy Ray hasn’t been seen in a days. What if somethin’s happened to him?”
“Nonsense, Calla Lily,” Aunt Eunice hollered back. “Only the good die young. Just ask Billy Joel. Billy Ray Stutter has been a blight on Savannah since he was a teen. The man is a no good scoundrel. I guarantee he’s off whorin’ around up near Atlanta and he’ll haul his sorry ass back when he’s done. Then we’ll have another show to watch when he finds out all his stuff is gone.”
Bernice ripped open the door at that announcement, hooting with excitement. Clearly, she was looking forward to that showdown as well.
“Call Shelly and have her mind the store while we’re gone,” Eunice shouted as the door closed behind them, leaving behind a perfumed haze of Calvin Klein Obsession.
I’d followed them to the door, so I watched out the side window as they turned the corner and climbed into Eunice’s Jeep, then drove up the cobblestone ramp that took you up to Bay Street. It must be noted that all three had varying degrees of giddiness on their faces.
Giggling in amusement, I checked the clock and saw I had two hours to kill before Poe Publishing’s company picnic, so I called Shelly then went to the stock room to grab a ladder and an outfit I’d put aside to dress the front of the store.
The oversized picture window where I created the vignettes was enclosed with walls like the high-end boutiques so we could change out the clothes to go with the seasons. Since it was springtime now and summer was fast approaching, I wanted to create a beach theme with straw bags and beach balls.
Unlocking the door, I pulled it open but paused before entering when I heard footsteps upstairs in apartment 2B. Moaning in frustration, I grabbed the ladder I’d set to the side and walked into the staging area hell bent on forgetting about my new neighbor.
Savannah could be hotter than Hades, and the huge picture window brought in the sun, heating the small space like an oven. Sweat dampened my skin within minutes, making my hands slippery as I replaced clothing on the mannequin. Twinkle lights needed to be taken down and replaced with raffia, so I climbed the ladder and began disassembling each section. With slick hands and my arms full of lights, I threw loose strands around my neck so I could reach the last section. I was leaning too far to the right when the front door opened, causing the bell to ring loudly in my ear. Startled, I jumped and lost my grip, squeaking out, “Oh shit,” as the ladder came out from underneath me.
Squeezing my eyes shut as I fell, I landed hard on the ground with a thud as the twinkle lights scattered and tangled in my hair.
Opening my eyes at the sound of Bobby Jones’ humored voice, I groaned. Bobby was as an old friend of the family who worked for my grandfather, one who’d like to be more than just a friend. But the chemistry had never been there on my end. That, and the fact I’d always kept my distance from entanglements, meant I treated him more like a distant relative than relationship material. Which also meant Bobby catching me with my proverbial drawers around my ankles pissed me off.
“Help me up, will you?”
He leaned over and grabbed me under the arms, hauling me from the floor. Then, per usual, he pulled me into a hug once he had me on my feet, holding me a little longer than was comfortable.
“You can let me go now,” I sighed.
“Where’s the fun in that, sugar?”
I tried to push back, but he didn’t budge.
“Bobby, we are standin’ in the window. All of Savannah can see us. Please, let go.”
A deep chuckle rolled through his chest as he let go and stepped back. When I turned to pick up the ladder, I found Devin Hawthorne standing in front of the window with his girlfriend. He’d changed his clothes and was now wearing a tight white T-shirt, equally tight jeans that accentuated his powerful legs, and scuffed motorcycle boots instead of the customary Roper’s most men wore. He’d rendered me breathless without his shirt on, but the whole package, down to the scuffed boots, left me speechless and unmoving as a scarecrow guarding corn.
I locked eyes with his and my reaction was immediate. My body hummed with attraction and my nipples hardened in response. Devin’s gaze dropped to my body as my face flushed with embarrassment, scanning me slowly from head to toe.
“You’re a mess, sugar,” Bobby chuckled from behind me.
When Devin’s girlfriend looked at him and began to laugh, I came unstuck and stepped back, crashing into Bobby, scooting around him as I rushed out of the window.
Kill. Me. Now.
I’d just made an utter ninny of myself in front of 2B.
Grabbing hold of my arm as I made my escape, Bobby crooned, “Hold still while I get the lights out of your hair.”
I paused reluctantly.
I heard Devin open and close his office door, then a low murmur of voices reached through the wall.
“Did your aunts rent the office space next door?”
“Mmm,” I answered distracted as I tried to hear what was being said through the walls.
“I came by to take you to breakfast,” Bobby announced once he’d removed the lights from my hair. When he put his hands on both my shoulders and squeezed, I stepped forward out of his reach.
Bobby came from a prominent Savannah family. One that had been friends with my grandparents for years. I may not have grown up in high society like most of the young women from wealthy families, thanks to my aunts, but that didn’t stop some of their eligible sons from pursuing me. They’d like nothing more than to tie their family to mine since an Armstrong had been in Savannah since, well, forever. There was no doubt in my mind that having one as your wife would be a crowning achievement for anyone who cared about keeping Savannah bloodlines pure. Unfortunately, for Bobby, and the other eligible founding sons, I would rather eat mud than marry one. My aunts and I didn’t care about bloodlines. None of us. If I got married it would be for love. Nothing more, nothing less. Be it with a farmer, a mechanic, or a police officer turned private investigator. But definitely not with someone like Bobby Jones.
With blond hair and squinty green eyes to go along with an unimpressive chin, Bobby wasn’t as stuck up as some of the other men of supposed good breeding in town, but he was boring as hell in that upper crust, entitlement way some prominent families could be. He wasn’t bad looking, but he lacked that certain something that set him apart from other men. He also got weekly manicures and played golf entirely too much for my taste. Bobby was, quite literally, the prototypical antagonist in a romance novel not the muscle-bound hero to the damsel in distress. And though I may look like a Georgia peach, with blond hair and ivory skin, my taste in men ran darker, maybe even a little dangerous.
Female laughter reached through the walls. Annoyed by the perky sound, I closed my eyes and envisioned them as Devin showed off his new office space. His touch would be whisper soft as he led her through the rooms, heightening her awareness of him. He’d also smile that wicked smile of his as she flirted and giggled in her increasingly irritating tone.
When the low rumble of a male voice filtered through the wall, causing my heart to accelerate, my eyes popped open as a revelation broke to the surface. He’d eat me alive and leave me in a puddle of unrequited love.
Devin Hawthorne may have been the prototypical protagonist in my personal romance novel. But I knew with certainty, as I listened to his sexy timber through the walls, I was not experienced enough to handle a man like that.
“Did you hear me, sugar? I said I came to take you to breakfast.”
Turning to reply to Bobby’s invitation, I shook my head. “I have to wait for a shipment then I have a company picnic to attend.”
Bobby’s mouth pulled into a half-assed grin. “Sugar, if you’d just marry me you could stop editin’ books for a livin’ and spend your days shoppin’ to your heart’s content.”
Do nothing but shop? The thought caused a shiver.
“Temptin’, Bobby, but I have bigger dreams for my life than spendin’ it shoppin’ for the perfect outfit.”
He raised a surprised brow I had no doubt had been manscaped and tsked at me. “Calla Lily, you’re an Armstrong. You were born to shop.”
“Don’t call me Calla Lily,” I bit out. “As for the ‘born to shop,’ that particular gene must have skipped a generation. Now, run along, Bobby. Go find yourself a perfect princess who doesn’t mind spendin’ her days in high heels, ‘cause you and I both know you’re only interested in me for my money.”
Bobby threw a hand dramatically over his heart and stumbled back as if he’d been shot. “You wound me, Calla. I’m not just after your money. I would dearly love to get inside your pretty panties, too.”
“Scoundrel! Reprobate,” I gasped, laughing. “Out!” Then I pointed toward the door.
He bowed elegantly, grinning at my mock outrage, then sneaked a quick kiss on my cheek before leaving.
“Spend my days shoppin’? No, thank you,” I grumbled as I watched him turn the corner to the alley and slide into his Mercedes coupé. “I’d rather roll around in the mud.”
At that moment Devin walked past the window with his girlfriend in tow as I watched Bobby drive away. When they climbed onto the back of a black Harley parked at the curb, I bit my lip to keep from groaning.
The dreams I’d had over the years about that very scenario could fill a book.
Baby steps, you ninny. Learn to walk before you run for your life.
“You know, Devin, when you said you were movin’ to Savannah, I didn’t think you’d do it. You’ve always been an adrenaline junkie, so I figured the slower pace here wouldn’t appeal to you,” Megan teased as she climbed off his bike.
“Just because I dove from cliffs when we were kids doesn’t mean I’m an adrenaline junkie,” Devin chuckled low.
Megan Hawthorne Pierce turned back and looked at his Harley and raised a brow. “You, dear cousin, are the epitome of an adrenaline junkie. Fast cars in high school. Faster bikes as an adult. Not to mention carryin’ a gun and huntin’ bad guys for a livin’,” she chuckled. “Though, that bein’ said, I don’t think you’re prepared for what’s about to hit you. For once in your life you may not be able to handle what’s comin’ your way.”
Climbing off his Harley, Devin leaned against his cousin’s car and crossed his arms as a slow, devilish grin pulled across his mouth.
“All right, I’ll bite. Tell me what’s comin’ my way you don’t think I can handle.”
“Oh, no. I think it will be more entertainin’ to watch it unfold.”
Shaking his head slowly, Devin pushed off her Lexus. “I think after ten years on the force, four of those as a homicide detective, I can handle whatever Savannah throws my way.”
Born and raised in a small town just outside of Atlanta, Devin was a typical Southern man who played hard and lived his life on his own terms. Those terms included taking risks that some wouldn’t.
Growing up poor, Devin’s parents counted pennies to keep food on the table for their kids. He knew if he wanted more out of his life than a job at the tire factory like his father, he needed a degree. So he’d concentrated on his studies instead of chasing girls and was awarded a scholarship to the University of Georgia, where he earned a degree in criminal justice. But after years of dealing with bureaucratic red tape and watching criminals walk free, Devin had had enough and turned in his badge, opting for another way to help people find justice.
He’d chosen Savannah to start over for two reasons. One, his best friend from college and his cousin lived here. And two, he could make a healthy living as a PI. Atlanta may have their rich and famous, but Savannah had their old money and secrets. Secrets they wanted to keep buried. And uncovering secrets was his specialty. So, after careful consideration, he’d decided Savannah was the perfect compromise to Atlanta. He had a friend and family here, and enough secrets to keep him gainfully employed for the rest of his life.
“Oh, I’m sure you can handle the criminals, but they’ve got nothin’ on the women of Savannah when a handsome man comes to town.”
Devin’s blue eyes lit up with laughter, and he rolled his teeth between his lips.
“Laugh it up, but you’ll be callin’ me for advice soon enough.”
“I appreciate the offer to run interference. But I’ve got it covered.”
“Hmm, maybe so,” she replied, tilting her head and eyeing him thoroughly. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m thinkin’ from the way you reacted to the blonde in the boutique window the women of Savannah are too late.”
Devin feigned innocence with a shrug. “I’m not lookin’ for a woman right now,” he replied in deflection. “My life is in upheaval, and the last thing I need is one complicatin’ it more,” he lied. He wasn’t about to admit anything to his cousin because she’d keep at him like a bloodhound after a rabbit. But she wasn’t wrong. When they’d rounded the corner and he’d seen the blonde balanced awkwardly on a ladder, something about her seemed familiar. He’d paused, intrigued by the beauty as a man entered the store, then watched with concern as shop girl lost her balance and fell. His immediate reaction had been to rush in, but her man had stepped in before he could move, pulling her into his arms.
Then she turned around.
When their eyes locked and held, a subtle current of attraction passed between them before her cat-like blue eyes shied away from his in surprise. Unable to stop himself, he’d scanned her body from head to toe, biting his lip to keep from swearing in frustration. She was an adorable, sexy mess in faded jeans and flip flops. The kind of mess that would have sent him straight into the store if she weren’t already taken by another man.
“Earth to Devin.”
Megan’s laughter-filled voice broke through his thoughts and he asked, “What?”
“I said, how about lettin’ me decorate your new office?”
“I’ll think about it. But it’s the least of my worries right now.”
“I already know exactly what it needs,” Megan carried on, ignoring him.
Devin grabbed hold of her driver’s side door handle and opened it while she rattled on about leather chairs and antique oak desks. He kept his opinion to himself as she slid into her leather seat and buckled up. When she opened her mouth to continue, he’d heard enough. Pointing a finger at her, he ordered, “No antique desk.”
“But they’re all the rage right now.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass. Do I look like a man who would sit behind one?”
“Devin, this is Savannah. We embrace that which is old.”
“Jesus, Meg. What did I say?”
Sighing, her lips twitched before she conceded. “I suppose Harley posters are more your style.”
He grinned slowly with just a hint of cocky mixed in. “Now you’re talkin’.”
“You’re impossible,” she chuckled as she closed her door then rolled down her window before leaving. “Will you be at Nate’s later? I’ll bring Greg by to say hi if you are.”
Nate Jacobs was his best friend in college, and they’d stayed close after graduating. Like Devin, Nat had had a drive to make something more out of his life after growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Savannah. They’d hit it off immediately.
While Devin had studied criminal justice with a minor in forensics, Nate had studied business management with dreams of converting one of the old historical buildings into a gambling hall once the State of Georgia legalized the sport. Devin had made detective within six years of joining Atlanta PD, and Nate had his investors lined up and ready, waiting for gambling to be legalized. But for now, while he bided his time, he owned a sports bar.
Jacobs’ Ladder sat in the heart of River Street, just down from his new office and apartment. The close locale to Nate was one of the reasons Devin had chosen the location.
“I plan on it.” Devin answered. “I haven’t met Gertrude yet.”
“Oh, Dev, you’ll adore her. She’s just the right mix of bull and princess,” Megan laughed as she started her car and shifted into drive. “See you later.”
Megan blew him a kiss before pulling out of her parking spot, her fingers wiggling an excited good-bye as she left.
Devin looked down the hill at the old brick building that was now his home and place of business. It was time to get on with the next chapter of his life. The first thirty years had been in or near Atlanta; so he was curious to see what Savannah brought to the table.
Office first, he thought, climbing back on his bike and driving the short distance back down the ramp towards River Street. After securing his bike in the alley behind the building, he made his way around to the crowded street and took in the river. The location of his office was perfect. In the heart of the historic district, he’d get plenty of foot traffic passing by. Free advertising was a boon for a man on a budget. And there were worse views. He could be stuck in an alley staring at a brick wall. Instead, he had a waterfront view with steamboats and cargo ships passing by on their way out to sea.
Directing his attention down the street, he stopped in his tracks before he could take another step. In front of Frock You was the woman from the window. Shop girl was bent at the waist, digging through a boxes next to a delivery truck with her ass on display.
Peeling his eyes off temptation, he moved to his office and unlocked the door.
Looking back one last time before he entered, he caught her turned at the waist, watching him. Jerking his head in greeting, he pushed through the door and shut it firmly behind him.
Then he bit out, “Fuckin’ hell.”
She had the face of an angel, the lips of a seductress, but an innocent quality that called to his baser needs. His needs to pursue, to claim—to fucking protect.
And she was taken by another man.