The sun blazed hot as Sloane walked the three or so miles back to the farmhouse. By mile two her knee felt like it was on fire and her cheek throbbed in time with her pulse. A couple passersby gave her curious stares, but nobody stopped. A minor miracle in a town where you could throw a stick and hit someone you knew or were related to. Courtship might seem like an odd place for someone to hide, but that was exactly why she’d chosen it. That, and the fact that the farmhouse she’d rented was remote enough that she didn’t have to worry about anyone coming to her door with a basket of muffins to welcome her to the neighborhood. Though, Sloane had to admit that right then, a muffin sounded pretty damn good.
She heaved a sigh of relief when the farmhouse finally came into view. It was old, and falling apart, but she hadn’t rented it for comfort. She’d rented it because the owner had thrown in use of the ramshackle barn at the rear of the house which was exactly the kind of space Sloane needed. He hadn’t asked questions when she handed over a year’s worth of rent in cash. Not even the one she knew he wanted to ask, about why a single woman wanted to live out in the middle of nowhere all by herself, which only reaffirmed Sloane’s decision to move in right away.
It only took the screen door slamming behind her for Sloane to realize she wasn’t alone. She didn’t stop or slow down as she made her way to the kitchen. Opening the cabinet to the left of the stove, she reached inside and touched nothing but air.
“Still hiding your piece next to the peanut butter, Bullet?”
For the second time that day, Sloane froze at the sound of a voice she knew almost as well as her own. Slowly, she turned and walked into the living room.
Cade West sat in the armchair, her favorite chair, closest to the window. The shades were drawn, though a slant of light from the fading sun shone through, illuminating Cade’s lap and her Glock 19 resting on his knee. He lifted the gun, holding it up as he released the clip, its contents emptying on the area rug. Sloane’s gaze slanted to the antique writing desk in the corner, and she lunged for it.
“Eh, eh, eh,” Cade tsked. He stood, placed her unloaded gun on the coffee table and pulled the switchblade she normally kept taped to the underside of the desk from his back pocket. “Should I be offended that the first time we see each other in months, you’re reaching for weapons?”
Without taking his eyes off her, Cade reached behind his back and pulled out the 32-caliber pistol she kept under her pillow. He disengaged that gun like he had the other and put it down next to the rest. Sloane stared longingly at the arsenal and then glared at Cade.
“I’m offended that you went through my things.”
Cade looked around at the ratty wood furniture and old-world furnishings that had come with the farmhouse, his gaze pausing on the decorative rug beneath their feet. “Didn’t realize paisley was your thing.”
“So, what if it is?”
“Clarissa would be so proud.”
Sloane stiffened at the mention of her mother whom she doubted would be proud of her, even if she had chosen the decor. “She’d be prouder if I threw you out on your ass.”
“Is that any way to welcome a guest?”
“You’re not a guest.”
“Sure, I am.”
“I didn’t invite you.”
Cade stepped forward, angling himself to move past her, but then stopped. His eyes, the same coal black as his leather jacket and boots, traveled the length of her, lingering on her injured cheek. “Didn’t you?”
Sloane fought against the desire to knee Cade in the groin and met his gaze. “I think I’d remember letting in a stray.” Cade smirked and moved past her into the kitchen, leaving her no choice but to follow. He went right for the fridge, opening it like he owned the place.
“I want you to leave.”
Cade ignored her and frowned at the contents of her refrigerator which, if Sloane remembered correctly was a jar of pickles, a half loaf of moldy bread and a jar of grape jelly. The sliver of triumph that shot through her was short-lived when Cade pulled out a beer, her last beer, and popped the top on the counter. He brought it to his lips and took a long pull, his eyes never leaving hers. Cade rarely drank alcohol, which meant he was doing it just to piss her off.
It was working.
“What are you doing here?”
Cade leaned against the fridge, dangling the bottle between two fingers at his side. “I thought you wanted me to leave.”
“Which is it?”
Sloane squeezed her eyes shut, taking a breath. Cade wanted to rattle her, to throw her off balance. Something, Sloane reluctantly admitted, he’d already done by showing up unannounced. But she could rally. The quickest way, to get rid of Cade was to be direct. He had something to say. Once he said it, he’d leave. If she didn’t get to the heart of it now, they’d be on this merry-go-round all night.
Once she felt more centered, Sloane opened her eyes. “I want you to tell me why you broke into my house. Then, I want you to leave.”
“It’s not considered breaking and entering if the door is unlocked.”
She rarely, if ever, locked the door. What did she care if someone broke in? There was nothing in here that she cared about. The barn was a different story. She moved to the other side of the kitchen, giving Cade a wide berth, and stopped with her back to the door leading to the yard.
“If I didn’t know you were a trained professional in a house stocked with weapons, I’d be concerned.”
“No need. As you can see, I’m fine.”
He scanned her body again, his gaze halting first on her injured knee and then her face again, which was still throbbing, and no doubt swelling, after her brisk three mile walk down Country Road 63 in the heat. He cocked an eyebrow, and she cleared her throat.
“I mean, you can tell Powell I’m fine.”
“Is that why you think I’m here?”
“Since you won’t tell me why you are here, I can only assume he sent you to check up on me.”
“How could he do that if he has no idea where you are?”
Sloane frowned and she dipped her chin to stare down at her grimy, dirt-stained feet. “I…don’t know.”
“Maybe the better question is why he would bother, seeing as how you’ve already decided to play for the other team.”
Sloane’s head shot up. “What?”
He smirked again. Cade had a different smirk for every day of the week, and he changed them as frequently as people changed their underwear. But this was the one Sloane dreaded the most. This was the smirk he used when he wanted her to know she’d been bested.
“Did you think that Powell was just going to let you disappear?”
Shock rendered her temporarily speechless. The truth was, Sloane had thought exactly that. But just because she’d disappeared, didn’t mean…
“There’s no way Powell believes I’d defect,” she said, lifting her chin. Not after everything she’d given to the agency. No way in hell.
Cade began to open and close the kitchen cabinets, checking every one before opening the oven door.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for the drugs.”
“The ones you’ve been smoking that have fucked with your mind enough to forget that we don’t actually work for Powell.” Cade slammed the silverware drawer closed and faced her. “We work for Uncle Sam, as does Powell, and everyone else we’ve partnered with over the last ten years. And, even though Uncle Sam is drunk off his ass at family parties enough to forget we exist most of the time, he always wakes up the next morning ready to clean house.”
Sloane let out a shaky breath. God, was he right? Was that what Cade had meant when he’d implied that she’d invited him here? Even if Powell didn’t think she’d betrayed her country, he would have no choice but to report her to the authorities. It was so obvious to her now that Sloane couldn’t imagine how she’d missed it. Was it possible that by not checking in with their handler and following protocol she’d jeopardized her entire operation? She couldn’t let that happen, not when she was so close. Her mind whirred like the gears under Rusty’s hood.
“Stop,” Cade said.
“Planning your great escape.”
“I’m not planning anything,” Sloane said, the picture of innocence.
“If you run, I’ll find you.”
Sloane ignored her hammering heart and rolled her eyes. “Creepy, much?”
“It’s in the job description.”
“So, you’re here to take me in?”
“If I was, we’d be halfway to D.C. by now.”
A distinct sense of unease rippled through her. “Why doesn’t that make me feel better?”
Cade put down the beer and stalked toward her, another smirk playing at the corners of his mouth. She’d been wrong. This was the smirk she hated the most because it was the one that all but guaranteed he knew something she didn’t.
He didn’t slow as he neared her, and she had no choice but to back away from the door or risk him crashing into her. He opened the door and slid into the space between it and her, causing her to back up even further.
“I’ve got some things to take care of.”
“I wasn’t asking,” Sloane said, even though she desperately wanted to know what business Cade had in town that didn’t involve her.
Cade paused, his gaze landing this time on the dark crop of hair on her head. She lifted her chin, daring him to say something about it, but all he said was, “I’ll see you later,” before walking out the door.
“No, you won’t,” she blurted through the screen, as the door slammed shut between them.
He turned, a wide grin replacing his earlier smirk. “I wasn’t asking,” he repeated, throwing her words back at her before disappearing down the drive.