Client Evasion 101. She could teach that course.
If she lived long enough.
Hiding her rental car between a truck and a shaggy evergreen tree, McKinley Frasier huddled against the steering wheel and fumbled to find the switch for the headlights, determination to outsmart this creep outweighing the fear churning in her belly. For now.
Her gaze darted to the road in front of the hotel. No sign of him yet. She turned the knob one more time and the lights flickered off. Sliding a hand into her purse, she pulled out her cell phone, her palm slick against the cold plastic case.
A car slithered past, stealthy, stalking. Malcolm Brugman, this week’s client. At least she thought it was him. She’d only gotten a glimpse of his profile at the stoplight. McKinley held her breath, waiting, not moving, in case he changed directions and doubled back.
She’d bought some time. Was it enough to get checked in and out of sight? She couldn’t waste another second. She exhaled and escaped the tight confines of the car, her legs and hands shaking as she opened the trunk.
Keeping her eyes glued to the road, McKinley hoisted her suitcase and laptop case from the trunk, hand still clutching her cell phone. She pushed the remote lock once and scurried towards the lobby, wincing at the noise her suitcase made bouncing along the pavement.
The dampness left over from the chilly rain misted around her head and swirled about her feet. Shadows cut through the heavy fog and flickered underneath the pale glow cast by the streetlight.
Dark. Eerie. Just like the week spent working in Brugman’s office.
McKinley shivered and glanced at the hotel sign. Renner said he’d be here tonight. Her pulse rate kicked up a notch; her temper flared. Not that she had any plans to see him. She’d only tortured herself by working late so she wouldn’t have to leave her daughter to fly back to Charlotte next week. Right? McKinley nodded once, her neck stiff with tension.
Why was she thinking about Renner Crossman now anyway? She hadn’t thought of him in what? Two days? Not since his totally off-the-radar phone message. Yeah, well, that apology was about ten years too late, buddy. Did he really think she’d come running to accept his face-to-face apology? Why hadn’t she changed her cell phone number when she moved? She should have tied up that loose end and knotted it tight. If she had, she wouldn’t be dreaming about the magical evening they spent here—
A car engine rattled. Quickening her pace across the parking lot, she wrenched her neck over a shoulder. A van. Not him. She blew out a breath and bunched her sweater tighter, her nerves unsettled, and palms damp with fear.
What was wrong with her? She’d audited plenty of fraud cases. Where was her backbone tonight? Chalk it up to the week spent with Brugman. The guy gave her the creeps, always looking over her shoulder and following her around the office asking questions. She still couldn’t shake the threatening look on his face during their exit conference. She shuddered and heard her teeth chatter.
OK. Maybe she’d admit that she felt a teensy bit safer knowing Renner was here. Renner carried a gun, wore a badge. Not that it mattered. She didn’t intend to see him.
McKinley tugged open the door and stepped into the hotel lobby. The warmth settled around her shoulders like a blanket, the tension seeping from her taut muscles only slightly. She wouldn’t feel safe until she turned the deadbolt in her room.
“I need a room for tonight, please.” Yowzie. Was that croak hers? Good thing she’d called Tessa earlier. Before the fear stole her voice.
McKinley turned around from the counter and stared at the murky darkness outside, waiting for the clerk to find her a room on his computer. She didn’t see any movement.
She shook her head slightly, disgusted with herself. Yep. Paranoid. That’s what she was. Add tired, stressed, and past ready to feel her daughter’s sweet arms around her neck.
Whatever. That wasn’t happening tonight. All she could hope for was a long, hot shower and to feel the pillow beneath her head. And the king-sized bag of chocolate-covered peanuts stashed inside her laptop bag.
“I’ll just need your credit card, ma’am.”
The clerk’s voice startled her. She whirled around. “Oh. Sure.” She pulled out her wallet and handed him her credit card. Should she ask?
“Now if you could sign this, please.” The clerk slid the registration form across the counter.
She signed the form and slid it back to him, studying his name badge while he finished the transaction. It wouldn’t hurt to ask, would it? She didn’t have to do anything with that information, right? “James, can you tell me if Renner Crossman made it here tonight?”
James pecked at his computer keys a few more times and smiled. “Yes, he did.” The smile slipped; the corners of his lips turned down. “But, I’m sorry. I can’t give out any information other than that.”
“That’s OK.” So, Renner was here. Just like he said he’d be. Surprise. Surprise. “Thank you, James.”
“Would you like me to call his room for you?”
McKinley sucked in a breath. Would she? Her gaze darted around the lobby. Nobody had entered, and as far as she could see, nobody lurked outside near the entrance.
Nah. She didn’t need Renner. Or his gun.
She did need a good night’s sleep, so she could get back to Tampa, to her daughter. And she needed to write and file her audit report. Her boss would be breathing down her neck for it. “No, that’s all right. It’s late. I’ll meet up with him later. Thanks, James.”
He nodded while he jotted down a number on her key card. “Here you go, then. Room 219. Breakfast will be served from seven until ten tomorrow morning. Have a nice evening.” He glanced at his watch and smiled. “What’s left of it, anyway.”
“Thanks.” She accepted the key folder and glanced at the lobby clock. Almost midnight.
OK, then. She’d take a quick shower to relieve her aching muscles from the stressful week, to quiet the drum roll going on in her head. Her quick snack would help her feel halfway alive again.
Tapping her heel against the floor tile, she pressed the elevator button and waited for its descent from the third floor. Exhaustion seeped through her in waves. McKinley stepped in the elevator and slipped her heels off, linking them between two fingers.
“Mmm.” She closed her eyes, savoring the feel of the soft carpet beneath bare feet.
The elevator doors opened. She grabbed the suitcase handle and padded down the hushed, narrow hall.
McKinley stopped at the door to her room and inserted the card into the lock. The red light flashed.
A door closed farther down the hall. McKinley glanced over her shoulder. A man stepped from the stairwell into the hallway, his head turned in the opposite direction.
But she recognized the suit.
The same suit she had stared at all day. Malcolm Brugman, so-called insurance agent. Also know as thief, slime ball.
Her pulse raced, and a giant clump of fear lodged in her throat. How did he find her? What did he want? Whatever the reason, it couldn’t be good, and she wasn’t sticking around to find out.
She yanked the card out of the slot, inserted it again.
Still the red light. Come on. Come on.
With shaking fingers, she jerked the card out and tried again, pressing her body against the door. The door swung open. McKinley lunged into the room.
Her face plowed into an expansive, muscular chest. Strong hands grabbed McKinley’s upper arms. A vague, familiar smell permeated the man’s torso, a citrus and woodsy scent mingled with masculine deodorant. She heard the door close behind her and felt legs wimp out on her. Good thing this guy held her up or she would have sank straight to the floor like a pile of spaghetti. She angled a hand to eject chest hair from her tongue, trying not to make a face.
“Honey, if you’re looking for that kind of action, you’ve got the wrong room.”
“What?” McKinley gasped. She knew that voice, that rich timbre with just a hint of teasing. Always teasing, forever flirting.
Oh, no! What kind of twisted sense of humor did James suffer from? She didn’t want to see Renner. She only wanted to know that he was in the hotel.
McKinley tilted her head back, inching her line of vision up to Renner’s face. Just to be sure. A lot could change after ten years. Look at her. She was a prime example.
She heard his deep intake of breath. Shock? Yeah, well, she could relate.
Ten years faded into yesterday. Those espresso-colored eyes still gleamed with mischief. Or was it something else? Maybe he hadn’t changed that much.
His hands tightened around her arms, pulling her against him. She closed her eyes and leaned into his chest.
His heart thumped a tune with hers. His breath whispered against her hair. And the scent of his aftershave was like a dear friend. She sighed. What was it about him that latched on to her innermost dreams and desires and wouldn’t let go? His grin? His have-no-cares-in-the-world style against her organized, have-to-know-everything-beforehand outlook?
He looped his arms around her back and pressed his forehead to hers, just like he used to do. When he’d made her feel loved and cherished. Protected. Special.
A clamp tightened around her stomach, cut off air, and she almost tossed the cookies she’d scarfed down in place of dinner. Gag.
Yeah, right. More like used and abused. Thrown away with the trash.
She wasn’t safe in here, either. She braced her hands against his chest and jerked a step back, telling her brain to reject his familiar, comforting scent. She would take her chances in the hall.
He dug his hands into his jeans pockets. “It’s good to see you, Kinny. Thanks for coming.” His words carried only a hint of teasing, more the weight of sadness.
“I didn’t come here to see you.” Liar. Why didn’t you check into the Sheraton right down the street? She shook her head to mute that mocking inner voice.
“But…you’re here. I’m glad.”
“Yeah. So am I.” Oooh, what was she saying? She pressed fingertips against her forehead. “Not the glad part. The here part.”
One corner of his lips curved. She glanced away from him, away from the power he still apparently held over her, taking in the male clothes strewn over the back of the couch. Still a slob. But was he alone?
Her fingers tightened their grip on her shoes. “What are you doing in my hotel room?”
“I was here first, sweetheart.”
McKinley wrenched her head back to face him and gave him her best glare. “Don’t call me sweetheart. You lost that right ten years ago.”
“Relinquished.” Pain etched the corners of his eyes.
She preferred to believe they were age wrinkles. “Semantics, Renner, semantics. So…”
“Why are you here? In my room?” McKinley closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. All she wanted was rest, a few minutes of peace, of not looking over her shoulder for Brugman. A hotel room with a good deadbolt, a scalding hot shower, and a comfortable bed should fit the bill.
Not Renner Crossman. No. Definitely. Not.
“Am I in the middle of a nightmare?” she ground through her teeth.
She cracked her eyelids open in time to see his pincher fingers hovering around her arm. She swatted his hand away.
He only grinned. “Yep, I was afraid I was dreaming about you, myself. I don’t know how it’s possible, Kinny, but you are even more beautiful.”
Her mouth gaped open. What was happening here? “Renner, you are so not flirting with me right now.”
“Well.” He glanced meaningfully at the heels she held in her hand, the same tender expression she remembered so well on his face. “If the shoe fits—”
She shoved the offending shoes on top of her suitcase. “The shoe doesn’t fit. At least not your foot, anyway. I missed my flight—” A noise in the hall stole her attention, and she cocked an ear in that direction. Heavy footsteps sounded outside. Fast, then slow, like they stopped right outside the door.
Renner raised one dark eyebrow and rolled his gaze towards the door, then back to her, ignoring the commotion in the hall. “So…you missed your flight? Where do you live now?”
The heavy steps continued down the hall. Her shoulders sagged with relief. Now if only she could feel the hot water pulsating against her back. She needed to wrap up this conversation. Get Renner to vacate her room. “Hmm? Oh, yes. I missed my flight. I worked later than I should have—” She stopped at his narrowed eyebrows. “What?”
“Nothing unusual about that.”
She pressed lips together to avoid saying something she’d regret. He didn’t need to know that she rarely worked late anymore. Then he would ask questions. Questions related to Tessa. Best not to go there.
“I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”
She couldn’t take any more apologies. She needed to stay mad, or she’d be bawling against that hairy chest. “Listen, Renner. I’m exhausted.” She dragged hair away from her face. “I just want to catch some sleep before my flight in the morning. My key didn’t work.” She waved the key card in front of his face.
“Let me see your folder.”
“The folder your key came in. Let’s make sure you’re trying the door to the right room.”
“Oh.” Duh. Why hadn’t she thought of that? And here she blamed poor James.
She dug into the pocket of her laptop bag and pulled out the folder. “The hotel clerk said room 219. See?”
She handed it over. With his head bent, she studied him. He wore his hair shorter, but her fingers still itched to glide through his thick, wavy hair. She clenched her hands. Her gaze slid down to the muscles that rippled in his arms. His bare chest. Jeans slung over lean hips. She closed her eyes. That was far enough. She took another step back.
“Hmm.” His head came back up. “I see why you thought this was your room. The clerk’s number seven and nine look about the same. The folder says room 217. I’m in room 219. Your room is next door.”
“That explains why you’re in my room.” Had she misunderstood James? Hadn’t he said room 219?
That slow lazy slant took over his lips, making her well-ordered world go out of balance. Her stomach began to perform somersaults.
Yeah. He was dangerous all right. If she weren’t careful, she’d drop her guard and remember all the good times they’d shared, forget the way he’d broken her heart. She’d better scram. “Listen, Renner. I would love to stay and catch up on old times, but I have to get to my real room and get some sleep. Sorry I bothered you.” Her words rushed out while one hand grasped for the door.
McKinley cracked the door open and peered into the hallway, first one direction, then the other. The coast was clear. She clasped the suitcase handle.
One of Renner’s hands gently tugged her backwards; the other reached around her and pushed the door closed.
“What?” she asked. A groan escaped from her throat before she could stop it.
1 Renner's have-no-cares-in-the-world attitude often collided with Kinny's organized, have-to-know-everything-beforehand outlook. Would you describe yourself as one of these personalities? How do you relate to someone with the opposite trait?
Q2 Kinny and Renner reconnected in an unusual way after ten years apart. Do you have any unusual experiences meeting someone again after such a long time? Tell me about it.
Q3 After a ten-year separation, Kinny felt like the years slipped away, and the old Renner was back in front of her. But Renner was a changed man, and he took pains to show that to her. Do you have a difficult time seeing changes in a person after you haven't seen them in a long time? Why or why not?
Q4 Renner had broken Kinny's heart by breaking up with her one month before their wedding. Kinny was reluctant to allow Renner close for fear he would leave her again. How do you deal with people who have hurt you?
Q5 Renner described Kinny as "everything good about life: beautiful, wholesome, pristine. Like springtime opening her arms wide after a long, harsh winter; new blossoms popping out to embrace the sun; animals frolicking in the fresh air after being holed up all winter. Thatâ€™s what Kinny looked like. Fresh. Like the springtime." Thatâ€™s how Godâ€™s forgiveness made Renner feel. "Like heâ€™d crawled out of a dark hole, thirty-four years deep, into the light." You can have this forgiveness, this peace about your past. Do you want to know how?
A5 Accept that God loves you. "This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." 1 John 4:10
Admit that you need Christ, that you have sinned. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Romans 3:23.
Believe Jesus. "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" Acts 16:31
Turn away from your sins, or repent, and confess them to God. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." I John 1:9
Ask Jesus into your life, your heart. "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." Romans 10:13
Q6 As a new Christian, Renner still struggled with temptation and desire. His wise friend counseled that Renner wasn't made of steel, but that God had given him the power to fight this battle through prayer. Do you have Christian friends that offer wise counsel?
Q7 Renner didn't complain about the trouble Kinny's job caused him. While theyâ€™d been engaged, Kinny always felt that his job inconvenienced her and sheâ€™d complained plenty. Are you in a relationship where your partner's job inconveniences you? Do you complain? Why or why not? How do you cope with the struggles of your partner's job?
Q8 Kinny grew up with a controlling father who spent little time with her and as an adult, she sought his favor, even to the point of becoming a CPA like her father. Unwilling to let him make the choice of whether she kept her daughter or not, she severed that connection by moving away. When Renner heard that Kinny moved to escape her father's controlling ways, he responded, â€œGod made you just the way you are for a reason. Itâ€™s not His plan for you to always be second guessing yourself.â€ Did you grow up in a controlling environment? How have you handled that relationship?