New York Times Bestselling Author

Shielding Aspen

Desperate to ditch her ex once and for all, when Aspen Mesmer asks a complete stranger to kiss her, she never expects to feel an immediate connection. Despite already dealing with one soldier she can’t shake, Aspen would be a fool to ignore the intense chemistry she shares with the Delta Force operative. Even better, he shows her the respect few others offer in her male-dominated profession. It’s clear she’ll never have the camaraderie she craves with her own platoon, but maybe…just maybe…she’ll find it with Kane and his team.

Kane “Brain” Temple isn’t the kind of man most women look at twice, so when Aspen makes her interest clear after their impulsive, explosive kiss, he’s thrilled. As a combat medic attached to a Ranger team, Aspen is pretty impressive in her own right. She might be one of the few women who can not only handle Brain’s frequent deployments, but understand exactly how dangerous his missions can be. Bonus: she’s not turned off by his nerdy tendencies. It’s as if Aspen was made just for him.

Her ex disagrees. He’s not handling Aspen’s rejection well, or her deepening relationship with Brain. Being thrown over for a Delta is humiliating, and he’ll do anything to make her regret it.

Anything…

Chapter One


Brain sat back in his chair in the bar and watched as Aspen Mesmer completely charmed his friends. He hadn’t wanted to come out tonight. He’d wanted to wallow in self-pity about his lack of a love life. Thank God he’d dragged himself to the bar at the last minute.

If he hadn’t, he would’ve missed meeting Aspen. And what a first meeting it was.

 
After walking into the bar, one second he’d been looking around for the guys, and the next, a woman was walking straight toward him with a nervous yet determined look on her face. He had time to appreciate the fact that she was almost as tall as he was—about five-nine or so—and probably around his same age as well. She wore a pair of black jeans that clung to her body in intriguing ways, Converse sneakers, and a T-shirt that said, “Will give medical advice for tacos.”

Brain was shocked when she walked right into his personal space and put her arms around his shoulders.

“I’ll give you twenty bucks if you kiss me right now like you mean it.”

Her voice was husky, and Brain could swear he heard desperation. He didn’t have time to say he’d happily kiss her, but not for money, when she put her hand on the back of his head and moved in.

At first their kiss had been awkward, merely a mashing together of their lips. But then Brain wrapped an arm around the woman’s waist and took a step forward, bending her backward. She gasped in surprise and switched her hold from around his neck to latch onto his biceps.

Brain took advantage of her mouth opening, changed the angle of their lips just slightly and kissed her as he hadn’t kissed a woman in a very long time. Long, slow, and deep. The little moans she made weren’t helping him stop anytime soon either. He could tell she was muscular and strong, but at the moment, tilted backward, she was completely helpless in his arms. And he liked it a hell of a lot.

“All you had to do was tell me you’d moved on, Aspen,” an irritated voice said from behind her.

The woman licked her lips and sighed in frustration. Brain saw her mouth “sorry” to him before she cleared the emotion from her face and turned to confront the man behind her. She wrapped an arm around Brain’s waist, and he had no problem tugging her against his side.

“I did tell you, Derek. I told you a month ago when I broke up with you. I told you at least three times over texts. And I told you again tonight when you showed up here, begging me to get back together. I’ve moved on. It’s time you do the same.”

The man looked to be in his mid-thirties, and the pout on his face definitely wasn’t doing him any favors. But it was the glimmer of pure, unadulterated anger in his eyes that made Brain nervous.

“When did you meet him? I mean, you’re training with the Rangers every day.”

“We’ve known each other a while,” Aspen lied.

Knowing things could get awkward very quickly, Brain held out his hand toward the other man. “Name’s Kane Temple. But people call me Brain.”

Derek looked in disgust at the hand Brain was holding out to him then frowned at Aspen. “Brain? Seriously?”

She merely shrugged.

“Fine. I hope you aren’t going to come crawling back to me when he breaks your heart,” Derek bit out.

“I won’t,” Aspen told him perkily.

“I think it’s time you run along,” Brain told the other man, annoyed he wasn’t taking the hint.

When Derek opened his mouth to say something he’d probably regret, Brain was done. He wrapped an arm around Aspen’s shoulders and tugged her closer. “Come on, baby, I see my friends. I’m sure they’ve saved us some seats.” Then he walked away from the heartbroken—and pissed—man and steered Aspen toward his teammates.

“Thank you so much, and I’m so sorry for involving you in that,” she said. “But he wouldn’t leave me alone and the only thing I could think to do was give him concrete evidence that I’d moved on.” She started to reach for the small purse strung across her body.

“If you even try to pay me for that kiss, I’m gonna be pissed,” Brain told her.

She froze and looked at him with wide eyes.

“How about we start over?” Brain asked. He took a step back and held out his hand. “I’m Brain.”

“Aspen Mesmer,” she said, grasping his hand with her own.

Brain shook it, then brought it up to his lips and kissed the back.

“You really don’t have to hang out with me, I’m sure he’s gone,” Aspen said.

“Don’t be scared of me,” Brain ordered, not liking the nervous look in her eyes.

Her shoulders straightened and she stood taller. “I’m not scared of you.”



Brain had liked that answer.

He hadn’t expected to walk into the bar and have a beautiful woman beg him to kiss her. Even if it was only to get an ex-boyfriend off her back, it wasn’t a hardship. The woman was lovely.

Aspen had light brown shoulder-length hair and chocolate-brown eyes. She wasn’t wearing much makeup, maybe some lip gloss and something on her eyes. Brain wasn’t an expert in women’s cosmetics, but he knew he didn’t like it when it looked like a chick’s face was caked in the stuff. Since they were similar heights, he loved that he could look her in the eyes, and he even liked the slight wrinkles at their edges, letting him know she probably smiled and laughed a lot.

Overall, Aspen looked like the girl next door…which Brain loved.

He’d brought her over to his friends not only for show, in case her ex hadn’t actually left the bar and instead was watching her, but also because he was genuinely interested in getting to know the intriguing woman. She’d been bold and confident, but also nervous and wary when she’d approached him. The contradiction was captivating. She’d gotten his attention for sure.

“So you’re a combat medic?” Trigger asked Aspen. He had his arm around Gillian and, for the first time in a very long time, Brain didn’t get a twinge of jealousy when he saw them together. It wasn’t that he wanted Gillian for himself; she and Trigger were made for each other. It was more that he wanted what his teammate had. Someone who looked at him as if he were the sun in her sky.

“Yup,” Aspen said with a nod. “For the last several years I’ve been attached to various Ranger units.”

Oz whistled low. “Not an easy job,” he observed.

Aspen smiled. “No, it’s not.”

Kinley leaned forward, and Brain saw Lefty’s hand resting on the small of her back, keeping that small connection between them. “Forgive my ignorance, but you’re a Ranger?” she asked.

Aspen shook her head. “No. I haven’t been through Ranger School, but I have participated in training sessions with them.”

Brain had already been impressed with the woman, but upon hearing that, he was even more so. He could tell by the looks on his teammates’ faces that they were too. Gillian and Kinley probably weren’t sure what Aspen meant, though. He decided to enlighten them.

“What she means is she probably could be a Ranger if she wanted. Their training sessions aren’t as long as Ranger school, but they’re just as intense. Days without food, crawling through forests and rivers trying to stay undetected. And I’m assuming, as their medic, you were tasked along the way with making sure your team stayed hydrated, that any blisters or other minor wounds were taken care of, and generally had to keep them operating at one hundred percent, all while attempting to take care of yourself at the same time, yeah?”

Aspen blushed and simply shrugged. “All part of the job.”

The more Brain got to know the attractive medic, the more he liked her. He could still remember how she’d trembled in his arms when he’d taken the kiss deeper, and how she’d looked at him afterward. Not in awe that he was a Delta operative. But as a woman looked at a man she wanted.

Knowing he wasn’t exactly being nonchalant, Brain reached out and intertwined his fingers with hers. She looked at him and raised an eyebrow, but didn’t pull away.

Taking that as a win, Brain simply smiled at her and reached out with his free hand to take a sip of the water he’d started drinking after finishing a beer. He wanted to be completely clearheaded tonight. Wanted to remember every second.

“Is it hard being a woman and working with such a traditionally male-dominated group like the Rangers?” Gillian asked.

Aspen sighed. “Yes and no. I mean, I take my share of ribbing, but for the most part, it’s done in jest. There are, of course, those men who don’t think I should be attached to the Rangers in any way, shape, or form, but when the shit hits the fan, bullets are flying, and people are dying, no one seems to care much about the fact I’m a woman.”

“Who are you working with now?” Brain asked.

Aspen turned to him again, and when her brown eyes met his, he saw slight distress there. It was only for an instant because she hid it quickly, but even that quick glimpse made Brain want to seriously hurt anyone who dared make Aspen’s life uncomfortable. He didn’t know why he felt so protective of her, but he did.

“I’m attached to a team of about eight guys. Derek is best friends with the sergeant in charge of my team.”

“Derek, the asshole who can’t take a hint?” Brain asked.

Aspen winced. “Yeah. It was stupid to go out with him in the first place, especially considering how close he is to the guys I work with, but he was pretty insistent, and he’d stuck up for me when some of the other guys were giving me crap. In a moment of weakness, I said yes. But within two dates, I realized we weren’t compatible.”

“And he didn’t realize the same thing?” Kinley asked. “I mean, generally the spark is either there or it isn’t.” She glanced at Lefty and gave him a small smile.

“I guess not,” Aspen said with a shrug. “I tried to be clear that I wanted to keep him as a friend but anything more was off the table, and he didn’t exactly take the hint…until tonight. Hopefully.”

The more Brain thought about why she’d had to walk up to a complete stranger and beg for a kiss, the angrier he got. No woman should have to resort to that sort of thing just to get a guy off her back. No meant no, and this Derek was a grade-A asshole to keep harassing her after she’d said she just wanted to be friends.

Brain tuned back into the conversation around him when Aspen said, “And he was the kind of guy who always had to be right.”

“Oh my God!” Gillian exclaimed. “I know exactly what you mean!”

Brain sat back listening to the women chat, trying to rein in his anger. It was surprising; he’d never really had much of a temper before, but the thought of someone being a dick to Aspen ticked him off. She could very obviously take care of herself, but the feeling was still there.

“Like, if you say it’ll take two hours to get somewhere, he has to disagree and say it’ll take two hours and fifteen minutes,” Gillian went on.

“Or if I suggested he cook something for twenty minutes, he’d tell me I was wrong and it’s actually seventeen and a half minutes, otherwise it’s overdone,” Aspen agreed.

“Or a show’s on at eight-thirty, not eight,” Kinley chimed in.

“Or when I say a twenty-milligram slow IV push of ketamine over one minute is the proper protocol, he has to contradict me and say that fifty milligrams is correct, when I know for a fact that’s only if it’s being given intranasally,” Aspen said with a laugh.

When everyone simply looked at her in confusion, she blushed, but laughed even harder. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. I forget that not everyone is as into narcotics as I am. I mean, not into them as in doing them recreationally, but as interested in them…uh… Shit. Um…or when I say that Mayor Larry Kline in the show Stranger Things was the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride, and he tells me I’m wrong.”

At that, everyone laughed.

Brain thought Aspen was fucking adorable. He made a mental note to try not to contradict her under any circumstances. He watched as she, Gillian, and Kinley laughed and joked together, and it made him feel good that they were getting along. Despite just meeting Aspen a few hours ago, he felt more comfortable with her than he had with any woman in a long time.

He still held her hand in his, and every now and then rubbed his thumb over the back of it, just to let her know he was still there. And every time, a small smile formed on her face, even if she didn’t acknowledge him in any other way.

Looking up, Brain caught Trigger’s eye. The other man gave him a small chin lift and lifted his glass in a subtle salute. Brain rolled his eyes and shook his head, but Trigger simply smiled.

It was hard to believe a few hours ago, Brain was trying to think of reasonable excuses to leave early, and now he dreaded every tick of the minute hand on the clock because it meant he was another minute closer to having to say goodbye to Aspen. He was enjoying getting to know her and watching her interact with the people who were closest to him.

After another hour or so, Lefty and Kinley were the first ones to call it a night. Trigger and Gillian weren’t too far behind. Then Oz and Lucky headed out. And Doc. Until it was just Grover, Brain, and Aspen left.

“So…” Aspen said. “Grover? Brain?”

“My last name is Groves,” Grover explained.

“So it has nothing to do with the little blue Muppet?” Aspen teased.

“No,” Grover said with a shake of his head. “Do I really look like a Muppet? Or sound like one?”

She giggled. “No, but I know there’s always a story behind nicknames. Besides, Grover is the coolest Muppet there is. He doesn’t get enough press time or enough toys and shit made in his likeness. And you could be named Elmo, now that would be embarrassing.”

They all chuckled.

“And you, Kane? Brain?”

He shrugged, not sure he wanted to tell her the reason behind his nickname. He wasn’t exactly embarrassed about it, but for once in his life, he wanted to not be the nerd. Wanted to be a badass Delta Force soldier.

But of course, Grover was more than happy to explain.

“He’s a fucking genius,” Grover said, oblivious to the frown Brain was shooting his way. “He knows over two dozen languages. He’s some kind of language savant. And I swear to God, he can hear someone say something once and he understands it. Comes in very handy in our line of work, I can tell you that.”

Brain took another sip of water and refused to meet Aspen’s gaze. Inevitably, when he met people and they learned what he could do, they either wanted a demonstration—meaning, they wanted him to rattle off all sorts of things in different languages—or they mentally backed off, thinking he was out of their league.

He tried to loosen his fingers from hers, but she tightened her grip, not letting go. In surprise, he finally looked over at her.

“That’s cool,” she said quietly.

Grover kept talking, oblivious to Brain’s discomfort with the topic.

“He graduated from high school at age fifteen. Went to college right after that and got his first degree in two years. His parents were pissed that he joined the Army; they wanted him to be a rocket scientist or something.”

“Grover?” Aspen said without looking away from Brain.

“Yeah?”

“Shut up.”

Brain couldn’t help it. He laughed.

Grover was silent for about twenty seconds, then he clued into the fact that his going on and on had made Brain uncomfortable. “I mean, Brain’s smart, but he’s also cool. And he’s quite the ladies’ man. He’s loyal and down-to-earth too.”

“I think it’s about time for you to go, Grover,” Brain said, shaking his head. “You’re not helping.”

“Right. Sorry. I’m leaving. I need to go over to my sister’s place tomorrow. She’s been avoiding me for some reason, and that shit needs to stop. So…I’ll just go then. See you at PT tomorrow, Brain.”

“Later,” Brain told his teammate. Grover was clueless sometimes, but because he never meant anything maliciously, Brain and the rest of the team put up with his chatter.

After he left, Brain took a breath and looked at Aspen. “So,” he said.

“So,” she echoed.

“Grover’s not exactly subtle,” Brain told her.

Aspen chuckled. “No, he’s not. But he means well.”

“He does.” Brain mentally smacked himself in the forehead. This wasn’t exactly how he’d wanted their first one-on-one conversation to go. No matter what Grover had said, Brain wasn’t a “ladies’ man.” He wasn’t “cool.” He was the brain. The smart guy. The one everyone turned to when they had a mystery that needed solving.

He was thirty years old, and he hadn’t even lost his virginity until he was twenty-four. He’d been out of his depth, socially; going to college so young meant most of the women avoided him like the plague. It wasn’t until he’d joined the Army and had gotten some independence that he’d managed to figure out how to fit in with men his own age a little better.

“I’m embarrassed that I didn’t ask earlier, but you and your friends…you aren’t Rangers, are you? Because if you are, I totally put my foot in my mouth earlier.”

Brain quickly shook his head. “No, we aren’t Rangers.”

“Thank God,” she breathed.

Brain continued before thinking. “We’re Delta.”

Aspen went completely still and stared at him with wide eyes. “Please tell me you’re kidding.”

“Nope. And I know you know this, but please don’t share that with anyone.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t. No way. And…oh, shit, I’m such a dork.”

“No, you aren’t,” Brain told her immediately. She was anything but a dork.

“I am! You were going on and on about how hard Ranger training is, and I know you guys have been through much worse.”

“It’s not a competition,” Brain told her.

She tilted her head as she studied him.

“What?” Brain asked.

“You aren’t like most men in special forces I’ve met. Neither are your friends, for that matter.”

“In what way?”

Aspen shrugged. “It’s just that…you’re so down-to-earth.”

“You’ve been hanging around those asshole Rangers too long,” Brain retorted.

She grinned. “They’re not all assholes.”

“Derek is,” Brain told her.

Her grin widened. “True. Thank you for helping me earlier. I’m usually not so forward, but—”

“But he was being a dick, and you were desperate,” Brain finished for her.

“Maybe not desperate,” Aspen countered. Then she dipped her head and raised her eyes shyly. “Maybe I took one look at you and liked what I saw, and figured I could kill two birds with one stone.”

It took a minute for her words to sink in, and when they did, Brain was shocked.

Women weren’t attracted to him. Not like she was insinuating. He knew he wasn’t hideous or anything. He had nice eyes…at least that’s what others had told him. But he frequently forgot to comb his hair so it was usually in disarray. And he had a beard because he was too lazy to shave every day. It worked well when they were on a mission, but when they came home, he kept it simply because it was easier.

But to have this amazing, smart woman tag him from the moment he’d walked in the door was a heady feeling…and confusing at the same time.

“You’re not used to compliments, are you?” she asked, uncannily accurately.

“I’m the brain,” he said with a shrug, as if that explained everything.

Aspen actually rolled her eyes. But then she turned in her chair and looked him right in the eyes. “Yes, I wanted Derek off my back. I fucked up when I went out with him and now I’m paying for it. I have to see him all the time because he’s very close with my platoon sergeant, our teams train together, and we actually participate in quite a few joint missions, but hopefully after tonight, he’ll realize that we’re just not compatible and things will go back to normal. But more importantly, I picked you to help me because I was attracted to you the second I saw you.”

Brain noticed the blush on her cheeks, but she kept going.

“You walked in and looked like you wanted to be anywhere but here. And you might think you’re ‘only’ the brain on your team, but it’s more than obvious how much your friends admire you. If they only cared about you because of what you know, they wouldn’t joke so easily with you. And Gillian and Kinley wouldn’t have spoken so highly of you when we all went to the restroom.

“I don’t know you, and I’m probably overstepping, but I’ve learned that life is too short to not say what I’m thinking…and I think you’re pretty amazing, Kane, and I’ve only known you for a few hours. I haven’t even heard you speak anything but English.” She grinned.  “You’ve already saved me from a very uncomfortable situation too, and the fact that you don’t have a girlfriend is both confusing as hell and pretty damn lucky for me.”

Her words echoed in Brain’s mind, and he knew that he wanted—no, needed—to get to know this woman better. “Want to go out sometime?”

He promptly winced at the abruptness of his request.

But Aspen didn’t laugh at him. “Yes,” she said simply.

“Tomorrow?”

Now she did chuckle. “Yes,” she said again.

Brain narrowed his eyes. “You aren’t just saying yes because of Derek, are you? Because as much as I like you, I’m not into pity dates.”

Her grin faded. “Seriously?”

He nodded.

Aspen rolled her eyes. “Kane, I’ve sat next to you all night holding your hand. I just told you that I picked you out of all the men who’d entered this bar tonight. Hell, I offered you twenty bucks if you would kiss me.” She leaned forward and poked him in the chest as she said her next words. “I haven’t met a man who intrigues me like you do in a very long time. I spend every day of my life living and working with men, and frankly, it’s almost turned me off the opposite sex altogether. But the second you bent me backward over your arm tonight, I was putty in your hands.” Then she straightened. “Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” she mumbled.

Brain panicked. He couldn’t let her pull back now. Somewhere deep inside, the confidence he’d seemed to be missing when it came to the opposite sex roared to the forefront. He wasn’t letting the most interesting woman he’d met in ages get away so easily.

He reached out and grabbed the finger she’d been poking him with and shook his head. “Nope. You already said yes. Twice. I’m not letting you go back on your word now. Since we don’t know each other, I’m happy to meet you somewhere if that will make you more comfortable, or you can trust me to pick you up tomorrow evening around six.”

“Are you really Delta Force?” she asked.

Confused, Brain nodded. “I wouldn’t lie about that.”

She snorted. “Other people would. And I guess if the Army and our government can trust you with their secrets, I can probably tell you where I live.”

Brain relaxed a fraction.

“Can I have my finger back now?” Aspen asked.

Brain grinned. “Depends on if you’re going to use it to poke me some more.”

“Are you going to continue to say stupid shit?” she retorted.

“Probably,” Brain said honestly. “I seem to do that a lot. I might be smart, but I do seem to have a bad habit of saying stupid shit around pretty women.”

Aspen pulled on her hand and Brain immediately let it go. But instead of pulling away from him, she rested her palm on his chest and leaned closer.

“You smell so good,” Brain blurted—then mentally chastised himself. He was supposed to be suave, not spewing out shit like that.

“Thanks,” she said without seeming to miss a beat. “I don’t wear perfume a lot because I roll around in the mud and work with guys all the time, but every now and then I break it out. It’s gardenias. They remind me of Hawaii. I’ve only been there once, but I loved the scent of the flowers. And…shit…now I’m going on and on about something that you probably don’t care about.”

“I care,” Brain told her immediately. He made a mental note about the gardenias.

“Anyway,” Aspen said, leaning even farther into his personal space, “I was going to thank you for not thinking I was a crazy person tonight when I approached you.”

“You’re welcome,” Brain told her, his eyes on her lips.

“I want to kiss you again,” she whispered.

Inwardly, Brain was jumping up and down and screaming yes at the top of his lungs, but he simply reached out and palmed the side of Aspen’s face. She was near enough that all he had to do was lean forward a fraction of an inch and their lips would be touching…but for some reason, he wanted to wait.

“I want to get to know you,” he told her. “And I want you to get to know me. I’m attracted to you, that’s no secret. But I’m old enough to know that what I’m feeling for you is different. Special. And the last thing I want is to demean what I’m feeling by making out with you in the corner of a bar on the first night we met.”

Brain was afraid he’d proven himself the most idiotic male alive by turning her down, but when he saw her face soften as she nodded, he breathed a sigh of relief.

“You’re very different,” she said softly.

Brain shrugged. “I am,” he agreed.

“I like different,” she said, then straightened.

Brain let go of her reluctantly and stood when she did. She reached into her purse and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and held it out to him. “I really do owe you.”

Brain scowled at the money, and at her. “I’m not taking your money,” he told her gruffly. “Put it away.”

“I need to pay for my drinks at least,” she argued.

Brain took the money then reached for her purse and stuffed it into an outside pocket. “Your drinks are already paid for. And you’ll never pay for that kind of shit when you’re with me.”

She frowned. “Why not?”

“Because.”

“Because you’re a guy and I’m a girl?” she huffed.

“No. Because it’s disrespectful. It has nothing to do with gender or because I don’t think you can’t pay your own way.”

“Then why?”

Brain hesitated. “You’re going to think it’s stupid.”

“I’m not,” Aspen told him.

“Fine, but you asked,” he said. “It’s because I want to spoil you. When I take a woman out, I don’t want her to have to worry about anything. You need a ride? I’ll take you. You prefer a taxi? I’ll call one for you. You want to order the most expensive shit on the menu, fine. Do it. When I’m dating someone, I want them to know how special I think they are. And being special doesn’t include worrying about paying the bill, the tip, dealing with assholes harassing them, or figuring out how they’re going to get home. It’s just how I’m wired.”

He braced for her reaction. In the past, he’d had women flat-out tell him how crazy his idea of chivalry was, or that he was misogynistic. But it was how he felt, and he’d learned to make it clear up front so there wouldn’t be issues later.

But Aspen wasn’t laughing at him, or scowling. “If we’re out together, and I see something that I want to buy for you, are you going to lose your mind?”

“No. It’s your money, you can do what you want with it. But, as a caveat, don’t think you can buy me a car or something and call it a ‘gift.’”

Aspen burst out laughing. Threw her head back and guffawed so hard, Brain wrapped an arm around her waist to keep her from falling over. When she had herself under control, she looked him in the eye and nodded. “Deal. No buying you cars. Got it.”

Brain smiled back at her. “Good. Tell me your number.”

She didn’t bat an eye at the abrupt change of topic. He also liked that she didn’t ask if he was going to write it down or put it into his phone. She simply rattled it off as if she had no doubt he’d be able to remember it.

“I’ll text you later so you’ll have mine, and so you can send me your address,” Brain told her.

“Sounds good.”

They walked toward the door to the bar. Brain didn’t feel the need to remove his arm from around her waist, and Aspen actually leaned into him as they walked. Her fingers curled into the belt loop at the back of his jeans and the small weight made Brain shiver in anticipation. None of the women he’d dated had ever done that, and it felt sorta like she was claiming him. He liked it. A hell of a lot.

As they exited the bar, Brain gave the bouncer a chin lift. When he looked at Aspen, she was smiling.

“What?” he asked.

“It’s just that chin lift thing. It’s such a guy thing to do.”

Brain frowned. “And?”

“Nothing,” she told him.

But he heard her mumble under her breath, “It’s sexy as hell.”

He smiled. He’d never really been called sexy. He liked that too.

Brain walked Aspen to her car, a very sensible white Hyundai Elantra GT. Looking around, he didn’t see Derek or anyone else lurking about.

“Drive safe,” he told her as he held the door open for her. Aspen paused before she climbed inside and nodded. “You too,” she told him.

“See you tomorrow night,” Brain told her.

“I’m looking forward to it.”

Having nothing else to say to prolong their evening, Brain closed her door and stood back. Before he’d thought about it, he’d given her a chin lift, and smiled when she grinned at him through the windshield. She lifted two fingers, waving at him before she pulled out of her parking space.

Looking down at his watch, Brain realized that he’d been at the bar with Aspen for hours. He hadn’t stayed out this late, when not on a mission, in a very long time. There was something about her that made him forget he was the nerd. The smart guy. She made him feel…normal. For maybe the first time in his life.

After he got into his Challenger, he took the time to program her name and number into his phone. Then he sent a short text.


Brain: This is Brain. Looking forward to tomorrow. Let me know where to pick you up. Sleep well.


She didn’t respond, but he didn’t expect her to since she was driving. He threw his phone onto the passenger seat and headed for his house, smiling all the way.