Home > The Defender (Aces Book 5)(12)

The Defender (Aces Book 5)(12)
Author: Cristin Harber

But now . . . He scowled as Vanka pulled into an empty driveway. “This is home?”

“Don’t look so disappointed.” She killed the ignition and stepped out of the Audi.

By the time Spiker stepped out of the car, Vanka had rounded the hood and walked from the driveway on the side of her house to her front door. She had no garage or doorman or anything that remotely screamed fashionista from New York City.

The house looked like the others in the neighborhood. Hers sat on a corner lot. Strategically advantageous, he noted, but at first glance, nothing that reached the level of security that she needed. Her car simply sat in the driveway overnight . . . Spiker heard the way he sounded in his head. He couldn’t tell if that voice was acting like a snob or overprotective. It was just . . . this place was so very normal.

Vanka had city-issued trash receptacles sitting in her driveway. He couldn’t imagine her rolling bins to the sidewalk on trash night. He couldn't have imagined any of this.

Hesitantly, he followed a slate stone path that led from the driveway to the front porch. The house had several decades on it. Colonial in style. Red door. Black shutters. Brick façade. And the mulch beds teemed with flowers as though someone regularly tended to them with Vitamin Water.

If Spiker had had Vanka’s well-aimed sniper sight aimed at his head, he would’ve described his partner as professionally unemotional and resolutely unmoving, rigid when it suited her—or, rather the job, which was synonymous—and polished in every circumstance. This house did not meet those criteria. It was comfortable and homey. Lived-in without looking worn down. The woman he entrusted his life to . . . lived her off-time like a normal person.

Spiker climbed the front steps. The mailbox matched the house number. Both hung under a single-shaded lamp by the door. With every step closer to the inside of her house, he reminded himself that Vanka was an expertly crafted machine. Trained, flawless, and precise. All of this had to be for a reason. Or she was screwing with him in some major way.

She’d left the glass storm door unlocked and the painted wood door partially open. He let himself in. “I thought you said that we were going to your house.”

“What?” she called from up a long flight of stairs that split the house in half.

A cozy dining room opened on his right, the living room on his left. The walls were painted in a way he might have expected. Shades of grays with accent walls and bright, white trim. Art hung on her dining room wall; a nest of black-and-white photographs were mounted in matching black frames with double-layered white mat. A similar set hung on the far side of her living room. A sculpture rested on a stand in the corner by a large mirror. The remaining walls housed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Bright light flooded in from lightly draped windows. The floorboards creaked as Spiker walked. He circled from the dining room to a small kitchen to the living room and returned to the front door. Other than the deadbolts on the doors, he couldn’t spot a hint of any security devices. Where the hell were they?

Spiker peeked out the kitchen window. A deck led to a backyard filled with gardens. The view would make a real estate agent salivate. He, on the other hand, felt something closer to indigestion.

The stairs groaned under her slight weight. He turned and met her in the dining room.

“Make yourself at home?” she asked.

Spiker shifted the duffel bag from his shoulders, not knowing what to say. “Are your windows bulletproof?”

Stupid question. They clearly weren’t. Vanka casually rested on a dining chair. “What kind of question is that?”

Seriously. His head was spinning like a tornado. He shrugged and retreated, needing to continue his inspection.

“Did you expect something more serious and boring?” The corners of her lips quirked. “The opposite of your lake house?”

He pivoted as though her granite counter required inspection. “No. Just more . . .”

“Cold?” Vanka volleyed. “Extravagant?”

He literally had no idea—truthfully, it got under his skin. What the hell was happening here? First, he couldn’t take his well-earned vacation and now he was wrong about everything when it came to Vanka outside of work.

She tucked her foot under her, leaned back, and waved her hand in front of her like a game show hostess on break. “Welcome to unvarnished Vanka.”

Spiker picked up a bottle of nail polish left on the pass-through bar between the kitchen and dining room. The color was “Lavender Lava.” That made as much sense as where he stood.

Her brow furrowed. “Are you feeling alright?”

He set the bottle down and mimicked her game show moves. “None of this makes sense, Vanka.”

She smiled. “I don’t know what to tell you, Sherlock.”

“I’m not stepping a foot farther into this place until you explain what the hell is going on.”

“Fantastic.” She stood and pushed in her chair. “You’ve returned to acting like a first-class asshole. Today gets better and better.”

“Vanka…” Spiker dropped his duffel bag at his feet. “This is where you live?”

Laughter and confusion mixed in her like a dangerous concoction. “Not that I get home enough.”

Tension pricked at the nape of his neck. He wasn’t wrong often, and when he was, it wasn’t a catastrophic miscalculation. He kneaded his knuckles into his chest, feeling his rising heartburn.

“But,” she continued, “but you know how that goes.”

For the first time ever, he didn’t know a damn thing. Spiker turned toward the front door and wanted to know how to start over. He noticed that she’d changed clothes. She was barefoot, too. Her toenails were the same color as the polish he’d inspected. She’d come home from their last job and painted her toes. He’d called a trusted contractor and requested his house be demolished. They weren’t orbiting in the same universe.

“Spiker?” Her honest smile faltered, and her face hardened into tight, closed-lipped scrutiny. “What’s wrong with you?”

He had no idea.

Vanka crossed her arms, slightly lifting the curve of her breasts—he’d noticed her breasts? Heat burned the back of his neck. Of course she had them. He’d seen them up close and personal before. Spiker had seen nearly every part of his partner. That came with years of work in third-world dive bars and glamorous high-society fundraisers, buried in the dirt on the side of a mountain, and packed close enough that they had to share the same oxygen supply. Every part of her had been pressed, packed, and pushed against him before.

Well, almost every part of her… Hell.

His mouth went dry. He swallowed hard. A reminder that tits were a dime a dozen did nothing to pull his attention away from the ones that had his attention now.

Vanka seemed not to notice as she breezed out of the dining room. Spiker ran a hand over his face and pinched the bridge of his nose. All he needed was a deep breath. And maybe a walk. Or a shot of whiskey. Something that would clear his mind.

She poked her head around the corner. “Did you hear me?”

No, ma’am. Not a damn thing.

Vanka scowled. “Are you going to stand there? Or put your bag upstairs.”

Standing in place was probably the best idea until he could regulate his heartbeat. She approached. Spiker stepped back, needing to keep an eye on her proximity. Vanka laughed again—playful, almost sweet—as the corners of her eyes tightened, scrutinizing him in a way that he’d never seen from her before.

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