Severins Bouvier stepped off the military aircraft and looked around the Maimi airport. The sounds of bombs and gunfire still backfiring in his ears as he loads his large-framed body up with Army-issued duffels in order to hurry up and wait for the bus that would take him to SouthCom. The smells of wild animals and fried food comforted him. The ride through Miami nearly overwhelmed him, until he caught the scent of something more intoxicating than the salt water and American culture…a woman.
He leaned over Michaels, the soldier next to him, as a redheaded woman stepped out of a squat gray building. Her bangs slanted into her bright, smoke-lined eyes before her fingers brushed them away. His heart struck his sternum at the scent of her patchouli and orange soap. The bus turned onto the highway as she slowly disappeared from his view. Severins noted every marker he could on his way out to the base.
With a single room and no chance for a roommate, Severins lay back on his bed with a sigh, not bothering to strip out of his uniform. Closing his eyes, he was grateful for the new and familiar scents in his room—lemon and bleach cleaner, the greasy smell of man and Old Spice, and fresh grass and ocean. He hadn’t often been around the ocean, but as he breathed deeply, he couldn’t fathom being anywhere else after thirteen months of hot desert.
The image of the redheaded woman played behind his dark eyelids in circles, making his heart beat in odd rhythms until he could no longer lay still. Stripping from his uniform quickly, he laid out his boots and jacket for later wear and threw the rest of his clothes in the dingy brown chair by the window. A cheap, fat wooden desk squatted beside it, a sink and mirror to the right, smashed between the reading area and the closet. Dressed in shorts and shower sandals, Severins trudged down the concrete steps of the barracks and into the blue-tiled bathroom, washed and shaved with the luxury of a full five-minutes of hot water. He craved to be in the American wilderness, to be in his other form, running with bare paws and the breeze pushing at his fur.
Shaking like a pup, he dried himself with the towel before wrapping it around his waist and returning to his room where he dressed in civilian clothes for the first time in over a year. A shiver ran through him again as the faded scent of the redhead filtered into his senses again.
He should call his parents back, like he said he would, but he wasn’t able to sit still any longer. It would take him a few hours to get his Jeep out of storage and that would be agonizing enough. Severins had to go back to Miami to find that woman.
The civilian workday had almost ended when Severins found the corner he’d glimpsed the woman. A sign overhead read Skarin and Co. Bookkeeping. Bookkeeping? He’d need a real reason to enter, and his lack of one didn’t stop him in time.
A stout blonde sat at the dark red wooden desk, computer angled to the side, a receptionist’s phone beside it, and a nameplate that read, Linda Sweet. Her brown eyes widened a little as her gaze swept up to him, never truly meeting his own. She smoothed the front of her blouse and sat a little straighter. “Welcome to Skarin and Co., what can I do you for, handsome?”
He smiled, and her red painted lips spread further apart. Linda’s smile wasn’t unappealing, but she wasn’t the redhead he was looking for. “Well, Linda, I was looking for a bookkeeper. Friend of mine sent me in here with a name, but all be damned, I forgot it.”
The soft southern twang he’d accumulated since living in the States seemed to do a number on Linda. Red smeared over her front teeth as she pulled at her bottom lip. “All of our bookkeepers are more than qualified. What type of business would you need them for?”
Severins smiled down at her, leaning one hand on the edge of her desk. He hated using tactics such as these, but he wasn’t prepared to answer these kinds of questions. “He was real particular when he told me who to see. Mentioned to watch out for her, something about redheads…”
The resignation registered in her brown eyes, and she nodded, lip falling from her teeth as she looked past him, down a hallway as if her dream had just run off. “You mean Kaia Skarin. I think she’s still in.” Linda held up a finger as she brought the phone receiver to her ear and typed out 631.
Severins straightened, seeing her crestfallen. Has she lost men to the other woman?
“You’ve got something tall and spicy out here, and if you don’t come out, I’m drinking it.” Linda winked at him.
Severins smiled in appreciation as the woman went back to her computer.
A door opened at the end of the hall, revealing the redheaded woman; she held a canvas bag in her hand and scribbled something onto it as she walked. Placing the bag in Linda’s box, she smiled at the woman. Linda gestured her to Severins, causing the redhead’s eyes to widen slightly before a little pink filled out her cheeks. She stepped forward with her arm extended. “Hi, I’m Kaia. You’re interested in using our bookkeeping services?”
Her voice was sweet and swept through him like electricity; the hair on the nap of his neck tingled. He cleared his throat. “That’s right. I didn’t realize how late it was, though. You must be on your way out.”
Kaia and Linda exchanged glances; Kaia’s cheeks flaming a little brighter. “Non-sense. Come back to my office, and we can look over a few different types of accounts.” She gestured back to her office.
“Please, after you.” Severins stepped forward, ready to follow her. She moved into the hallway, and he winked at Linda, who giggled softly.
The citrus smell of her was more potent in the smaller space, and it rode his every animalitic instinct to claim her. He clenched his fists to keep himself in check until she rounded her desk. The room was done in dark reds, black, and gold. She gestured to the two seats beside the door for him to sit. “Well, I have several options I can discuss with you, Mr…”
Kaia almost slipped as she sat in her office chair. “Sergeant.” A small smile flickered at the edge of her lips. “Ah, anything a Miami native might have an easier time with?”
“Afraid not. First name’s Severins.”
“Really?” She fumbled with the bottom drawer of her desk and pulled out a file. “I don’t think I can get a grasp of either of those in one meeting. Would Sev be okay?”
Sev… “Suits me fine, Ms. Skarin.”
That smile—her bright red lips spreading to reveal her perfect teeth. “Kaia.”
“Well, Kaia. It’s officially five.” He points to the wall clock behind her, but she doesn’t look. “Since it’s also officially after hours, how about I treat you to some grub to make up for barging in here so late.”
She leaned forward, her forearms covering the file on her desk. “I tell you what. You treat me to a grilled cheese down the street, and I will bring the paperwork. Then we’ll call it even.”
This man was build like a brick shit house, blond, and beautiful. He sat low, so that he had to look up to meet Kaia’s gaze, and his eyes did something that made her bold. Men often tried to court her, a good deal of them nice looking, but this man…Sev did things to her insides that she’d only experienced once before.
“You’ve got yourself a deal, beautiful.” Sev stood and offered his hand.
Shaking her head, she stood on her own, gathering the file she had pulled and putting it in her purse. He took his hand back, but didn’t seem at all uneasy with her assertion. He was actually smiling as he took the hint and led the way out of her office.
And he has a great butt…Kaia, girl, what are you getting yourself into here?
Once out of her office, she took the lead, heading straight for Five Guys and their fabulous grilled cheese. “So, Sergeant, were you stationed over seas?”
He didn’t skip a step. “Two tours. Afghanistan.”
“What branch of the military?” Her fingers threaded through the straps on her purse. God he was big. She glanced up at him, her gaze catching on the V of his collar where it showed the dimple of muscle. Kaia tried to refrain from biting her lip as she looked ahead of her again. This man had to be made of pheromones.
“All Army, baby.” His voice dipped, and she folded her arms across her chest to fight off the chill, even through the balmy Miami heat.
“You on some kind of leave? Planning on going back?”
“Am I completing the screening interview, beautiful?” Sev’s sharp blue gaze hit her and dislodged the shiver she had been trying to suppress.
Dropping her arms, Kaia straightened her back and gave Sev a challenging look that she knew would drive him through a little loop. “Yes. I need to be sure we can meet all of your needs.”
His nostrils flared a little, but it was the only change in him. Still, for her, it was enough. “Well, I just got back. I’ve been in near eight years, so my contract is almost up. And I have a whole three weeks to myself to make sure you meet every one of those needs I’ve got.”
She turned as she chewed on her cheek, glad to have reached Five Guys. The familiar smell of freshly baked sourdough calmed her nerves so that she could remember that this was only business.
Sev bent down to speak in her ear, it rushed over her neck and into her hair, causing her muscles to bunch back up. “What’s good here?”
Kaia pointed at the menu. “Pretty much anything written up there on that board.”
He stood back, and she moved forward to order.
Kaia pulled her bag forward as she smiled at the woman with the apron behind the counter. “Grilled cheese with bacon on a sourdough, please.”
The woman nodded and looked up at Sev. “And for you, sir?”
“Two more of the same, please.” Sev winked at the woman and pulled out his wallet.
Right, this was just business, a fair trade of goods for goods. But Kaia’s hands itched to grab her wallet and pay for her own food, even as he forked over some bills. Was she trading for more than that?
The woman behind the counter flustered over him only a little bit, but it made Kaia move down to grab utensils and napkins as he waited on their food. She chose a spot in the back corner booth and slid in so that her back was to the wall. She could see the whole place, and more specifically, Sev as he smiled, took their order, and started her way. Halfway across the dining room, he paused and seemed to catch someone gaze. His nod was so minute Kaia almost didn’t catch it.
Her gaze shifted to take in a large, dark man with a slicked-back, black ponytail and a hard five o’clock shadow. The darker man made the same gesture as Sev did and watched her potential new client as he sat beside her. Kaia met his yellow gaze for a moment before she looked over at Sev.
“Someone you know?”
“No, but we’re in the same line of work. It’s generally easy to spot each other.” Sev placed a sandwich in front of her as he opened his own.
Kaia looked at the other man again, who had been looking at her this time. He watched her for a moment before he went back to his meal. “I didn’t know they let men have long hair in the military.”
“That wasn’t the line of work I was referring to. Don’t fret about it. Let’s talk about these options you have for me.”
Something about the way Sev sat, close to her, back to the corner as she had positioned herself, but he feigned relaxation with his shoulders pulled forward, no worry lines in his face, but she could feel how tightly coiled he was as she picked up her grilled cheese. “Why do I have a feeling you don’t really care all that much about what I brought from my office?”
The muscles in his shoulders rolled, and his blue eyes slowly lifted to look into hers. “Because I’m not a very good actor?”
“But, since I’ve been ousted, I can skip to the chase and ask you out on a proper date.”
She froze, although she had half been expecting it, her palms grew sweaty. Wiping them quickly, she took a bite from her grilled cheese, the bacon so crisp it fell apart within the cheese. Chewing slowly, she contemplated him. What had brought him to her office? Why the pretense of being a client? And what was the deal with that ponytail guy?
“And what if I say no?”