“Jason?” Birdie prompts me. “Can she coach me?”

It’s obvious that this woman on my couch is qualified to show Birdie the pageant ropes. Maybe overqualified. But I can’t ignore the fact that she changed in the back seat of her car. Where did she come from? Why couldn’t she change before leaving for the meeting? This is not a woman who leaves getting dressed until the last second. There’s something not quite right about the situation. Before I make a decision, I need to know every detail of the landscape.

It’s definitely not because I personally want to know more about her.

“Can we have a few minutes alone, Birdie?”

*

Naomi loses some of her careful composure when Birdie leaves the room. Her knees have zero blood left in them, she’s pressing them together so tight, and if she clings to that notebook any tighter, she’ll rip it straight down the middle. Her nerves are unsurprising—I’m an intimidating motherfucker. In my line of work, my size and general air of go fuck yourself have served me well. And I don’t turn it off for anyone. Even if her fresh, fragile appearance is making me wish I’d at least rinsed off for the interview.

“Coffee?”

She opens her mouth to decline. I can tell. “No, thank you—”

Her stomach growls loud enough that I hear it clear across the room. She claps both hands over her mouth and turns the color of a pink sunset. “Oh sweet lord,” she says. Or something like it, since the words come out muffled. “I’d be grateful if you could go ahead and pretend you didn’t hear that.”

“They heard it in St. Louis. Let’s go.” I jerk my thumb over my shoulder. “Kitchen.”

“No, thank you—”

“Kitchen, beauty queen.”

I’m inside the room for a full minute before she inches in behind me, chin up, arms folded over her middle. “I’m guessing you haven’t been out of the military long, Blackbeard. Ordering people around seems to come naturally.”

My lips twitch at the nickname. “Bossing everyone around came naturally before the military. You like pie?”

“Of course I do.” A line appears between her brows. “But I haven’t eaten a meal yet.”

When I open the refrigerator, I’m grateful for the waft of cool air against my skin. It’s the next best thing to a cold shower, and after my impromptu fantasy of separating her thighs, I’m in desperate need of one. What the hell is it about this woman? I don’t know if I necessarily have a type when it comes to women, but I know this pretty princess with the Southern twang is not it. If I came across her in a bar, I would assume she’d gotten lost on the way to a church picnic and stopped to ask for directions. I would absolutely assume she was already married. Naomi is the marrying type.

That certainty has my hand pausing before it can reach the half-eaten apple pie on the second shelf. Changing in her car, starving, looking for employment and most definitely not in South Carolina where the pageant bio said she belongs. Is she running away from a man?

It’s a good thing my hands are out of view. She’d probably have questions about the plastic ketchup bottle I’m suddenly squeezing in my fist. I suddenly wish I’d been nicer to her.

At least a little.

“So, what’s the story?” I ask in a strained voice. “You’ve never eaten dessert before dinner?”

She slides onto a stool on the other side of the island, folding her grease-covered hands neatly in front of her. “Do Funyuns count?”

“Maybe on a technicality.”

Her whole face brightens, and a hot shiver blows down my back. “Then, yes. I have.” She gets more comfortable in the stool. “A bite or two of pie won’t hurt.”

I slide the pie tin and a fork across the island and lean forward on my forearms. “Have at it.”

With a suspicious expression, she picks up the fork. “Why do I get the feeling you’re lulling me into a false sense of security? Is this your equivalent of bringing an interrogation suspect coffee and cigarettes before asking the hard questions?”

A laugh tries to build in my belly, but I squash it. “You’re pretty perceptive.”

Naomi rears back with a gasp. “Did you just pay me a compliment?”

“Don’t get used to it.”

“Wouldn’t dream of being so bold,” she whispers, finally finding a spot to dig into the pie and holding a forkful in front of her full, pink mouth. Our gazes connect over the bite and my groin tightens up. So hard I have to turn away. But in my periphery, I can see her guiding the pie home and chewing. “Oh my word,” she moans. “This is incredible. Did you make this?”

“Bakery.”

I can’t help it. Needing to look, I turn back to face her. Her arm has gone limp on the counter, her head tipped back as she chews. She’s damn near having an orgasm in my kitchen. And somehow she manages to look innocent and sweet as shit while doing it. Beautiful, too. “You’ve probably heard enough compliments to see you through the next decade, haven’t you?” I don’t realize I’ve said it out loud until her eyes pop open and she lets the fork go on the counter with a clatter. Goddammit, I don’t like the way she puts me off-center. “It’s a good thing I only care about your ability to coach Birdie.”

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