Matt & Evie
H.O.T. Strike Team 1, Book 1
A small town, enemies to lovers, second chance military romance from New York Times Bestselling Author Lynn Raye Harris.
Down on her luck and in need of a fresh start, Evangeline Baker rolls into tiny Rochambeau, Louisiana with her tail between her legs and a vague plan to find herself. What she gets instead is a whole lotta trouble when an ex-business partner turns up dead – and she’s next on the list.
Evie needs the kind of help that only a tall, sexy, badass Special Ops soldier can provide. It’s been a lot of years since she worshiped the ground her former best friend walked on and started hating him instead, but now’s not the time to be picky.
Matt Girard’s got trouble—and demons—of his own, but nothing’s gonna stop him from protecting Evie. He owes her that much after what he did. Hell, he owes her more than that, but it’s a start.
He’ll do whatever it takes to eliminate the threat. Then he’ll walk away and save her from the worst threat of all. Him.
**Find out what makes the men of H.O.T. so HOT! Start reading the Hostile Operations Team Series – Strike Team 1 today and enjoy an action-packed, seriously romantic and steamy-good-fun military romantic suspense. Each book can be read as a standalone. No cliffhangers or cheating and a guaranteed happily-ever-after ending!
Read an Excerpt
“Mm-mm, look at that Girard boy, all grown up and better looking than a man ought to be,” said one of the ladies under the row of hairdryers.
Evie Baker’s heart did a somersault. Matt Girard. Dear God. “Careful,” Stella Dupre yelped as warm water sprayed against the side of the sink and hit her in the face.
“Sorry.” Evie shifted the hose.
She was a chef, not a shampoo girl, but she didn’t suppose that distinction mattered anymore since the bank now owned her restaurant. Shampoo girl in her mama’s beauty salon was just about the only job she could get at the moment, in spite of the resumes she’d blasted to every culinary school contact she could think of. The economy was bad and no one was hiring—and she didn’t have the luxury of waiting for something else to come along.
She didn’t think her skills would rust anytime soon, but it hurt not to be cooking right now. She should be playing with recipes, tweaking the flavors, and experimenting with new combinations. Instead, she was rinsing hair for a host of Stella Dupres—and doing it badly, apparently.
Mama glanced over at her, frowning even as the snip-snip of scissors continued unabated. The ladies in the salon swung to look out the picture window as Matt strode along, and the chatter ratcheted up a notch. The odor of perming solution and floral shampoo surrounded Evie like a wet blanket, squeezing her lungs. Her breath stuttered in her chest.
Matt Girard. She hadn’t seen him in ten years. Not since that night when he’d taken her virginity and broken her heart all at once. She’d known he was back in town—hell, the whole town had talked of nothing else since his arrival yesterday. She’d even known this moment was inevitable, except that she’d been doing her best to avoid all the places he might be for as long as possible.
They’d had an easy relationship, once. The kind where he could tug her ponytail, drop a frog in her shirt, or tease her endlessly about her buckteeth—which, thank God, she no longer had. But that had been when they were kids. Then she’d gotten breasts and started blushing whenever he looked her way, and things had changed. Or at least they had for her.
Matt, however, had been determined not to see her as anything other than little Evie Baker, the tomboy he used to play with when her mama went out to Reynier’s Retreat every week to fix his sick mother’s hair. He’d apparently persisted in that belief until the night she’d asked him, after a single shot of whiskey to give her courage, to be her first.
She’d had so many stupid dreams, and he’d crushed them all. But not before he gave her what she’d asked him for.
“Heard he got shot out there in Iraq,” Mrs. Martin said as Evie’s mama rolled a lock of gray hair around a fat pink curler.
“Yes indeed, got a Purple Heart,” Mama said. “The senator was right proud, according to Lucy Greene.”
“That’s not what I heard!” Joely Hinch crowed. “Miss Mildred told me he’s being kicked out of the Army because he didn’t obey orders.”
“Fiddlesticks,” Mrs. Martin said. “That boy bleeds red, white, and blue. Same as his daddy and every last Girard that ever was born up in that big house.”
Joely crossed her arms, looking slightly irritated to be contradicted. “You just wait and see,” she said smugly.
“Shush up, y’all,” Mama said. “I think he’s coming in.”
Evie’s heart sank to her toes. She wasn’t ready for this. Not on top of everything else. She was feeling so bruised and battered after her failure with the restaurant. She did not need Matt Girard swaggering back into her life and making her feel all the chaotic emotions she’d once felt for him.
She finished Stella’s shampoo and wrapped her hair in a towel. “I’m not tipping you, Evangeline.” Stella sniffed. “You have to be more careful than that.”
“I know. And I don’t blame you at all.” Except, of course, she desperately needed every penny she could get if she hoped to escape this town again. It wasn’t that Rochambeau was bad — it’s that it was bad for her. Always had been.
Here, she always felt like the awkward kid who lived in a tiny cottage with her mama and wore secondhand clothes because that’s all they could afford. Didn’t matter that the clothes were no longer secondhand, or that she wasn’t a kid anymore. Or that she didn’t care if the girls who lived in the nice big houses with the manicured lawns didn’t like her; she still felt like that girl who wanted so desperately to fit in.
And the biggest part of fitting in had, at one time, relied on the man striding toward her mama’s salon like he didn’t have a care in the world. Evie’s heart did a somersault as he reached the door.
Magazines snapped open in a flurry as the ladies tried to appear casually disinterested in the six-foot-two hunk of muscle about to open the glass door. More than one pair of eyes peeked over the tops of glossy pages as he stepped up to the sidewalk from the street.
No way in hell was she sticking around for this. It wouldn’t take these ladies more than a few moments to remember the scandalous rumors about her and Matt, and she didn’t want to be here when they did.
“If you’ll excuse me, I have to get some things out of the back.” Without waiting for a reply, she strode toward the stockroom. Rachel Mayhew, Mama’s regular shampoo girl, looked up and smiled as she passed. Rachel was only twenty, so she probably didn’t know about Evie’s disastrous night with Matt. Or maybe she did, considering the way this town talked.
What should have been Evie’s own private shame had all too quickly become common knowledge back then. Part of that was her own fault, and part was Matt’s — but she still wasn’t sticking around to endure the sidelong glances and whispered conversations.
Life had beaten her up enough recently and she wasn’t in the mood to feel like a wounded teenager today.
A month ago, she’d said goodbye to her dream. It still hurt. Her lovely little bistro in Florida was now in the bank’s hands, and all because she’d trusted a man. Or mostly because she’d trusted a man.
Her restaurant, Evangeline’s, hadn’t exactly been doing a booming business, but things had been getting better and growth had been steady. It had, for a time, flourished under David’s management, which was how she’d grown to trust his insistence that he knew what he was doing and that she should spend her time perfecting her recipes instead of worrying over the mundane details.
David was cocky, charming, and utterly confident. She’d found that intriguing. One thing had led to another, and they’d ended up sharing a bed from time to time. She’d liked David, thought they were on the same page. He was an accountant who loved to cook, who knew a lot about social media and advertising, and who increased her profits by a few simple—or so he’d said—marketing tricks.
All of it lies. He’d increased her profits, yes. But then he’d robbed her blind. She’d seen the books on a regular basis and never known anything was out of whack. He hadn’t meant her to know, of course, but it still bugged her that she hadn’t seen through David’s schemes.
No, she’d been so thrilled with the way things were going that she’d spent more time doing what she really loved — cooking and creating recipes for the Cajun fusion dishes she’d become known for in their community. A mistake that she still kicked herself over, even though David had covered his tracks too well for her to see anything amiss.
She’d trusted him. But how had she not known he was bad news? How had she let herself be fooled by a handsome face and charming manners?
She’d learned in the aftermath of the destruction he’d wrought that the authorities thought he had ties to organized crime. He’d been skimming money, along with other more nefarious schemes such as money laundering and extortion. She hated to think about it. Evangeline’s had been everything she’d ever wanted when she’d broken out of her hometown and gone to cooking school a few years ago.
But here she was again, back in Rochambeau and washing hair in her mama’s salon, just like when she’d been in high school. Loser. All she wanted was to get out again at the first opportunity. Before that loser feeling wrapped around her throat and squeezed the rest of her dreams away.
Matt reached for the door, and Evie darted behind the stockroom curtain. Her heart slammed against her ribs as the tinkling bell announced his arrival. She turned to lean against the doorjamb and pushed the rose-print polyester aside with one finger. She was being silly. He wasn’t here because of her. He was here because his sister had sent him on some errand or other for her wedding.
Hell, he probably wouldn’t even blink twice if he ran smack into her.
Evie frowned. Her eyes slid down his body and back up again. He was still something to look at. Something easy on the eyes and hard on the senses.
He’d changed in ten years, but some things were still the same. That cocky swagger as he’d approached the shop. He’d always walked like his daddy owned all the oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Which he damn near did. The Girards had been Rochambeau’s wealthiest family for as long as anyone could remember.
Matt’s dark hair was cut very short, and his shoulders were much broader than when he’d been seventeen. The fabric of his white cotton T-shirt stretched across a wide chest packed with muscle. His bare forearms made her throat go dry.
Something quivered deep inside her, the way it always had from the moment she’d become aware of Matt as more than a boy she played with. Something hot and dark and secret. Evie squashed the feeling ruthlessly.
He pushed a hand through his hair, every muscle of his torso seeming to bunch and flex with the movement. She would have sworn she heard a collective sigh from the ladies in the salon. Rachel absently ran water in her sink, cleaning out the soap bubbles from the last shampoo. When she got too close to the edge, the water sprayed up into her face.
Evie would have laughed if she too weren’t caught up in Matt’s every move. She’d adored him ten years ago and worshipped him until the night she’d given him her virginity.
What a mistake that had been. Not because the sex had been awful. No, it’d been pretty exciting, all things considered. It was what had happened afterward that ruined it for her. The shift in their relationship hadn’t been what she’d expected. And then he’d been such an ass about it.
“Afternoon, ladies.” Matt tipped his head to them.
“Afternoon,” they murmured in unison, voices sugary and lilting, eyes assessing and cataloging him.
“Miz Breaux.” He took her mother’s hand and kissed it like a courtier.
“Oh, shoot.” She smacked him playfully on the shoulder. “What do you want? Don’t you know this is a beauty parlor? Sid’s Barber Shop is on Main Street.”
“Well, ma’am.” He grinned that devil-may-care grin Evie remembered so well. “I figured Old Sid can’t see so well anymore and I’m still fond of my ears. I’d much rather have a lady’s touch, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh my.” Mama giggled. Giggled.
Evie rolled her eyes. No wonder she couldn’t pick a decent man. She came by the defect genetically. Mama had been divorced three times. She’d gone back to using her maiden name after the second one in order to avoid confusion. Evie had her daddy’s last name, her sixteen-year-old sister had a different name, and Mama had yet another one.
“You don’t even look like you need a haircut,” Mama was saying.
He scrubbed a hand over the nape of his neck. “My sister thinks I do. And it’s her wedding.”
Mama giggled again. What was it about that man that turned even the smartest woman into an airhead? “Well, we can’t let Christina be disappointed then, can we? But you’ll have to wait until I finish with Mrs. Martin.”
Mama gestured toward the pink vinyl seats in the front of the shop, and Matt gave her the famous Girard smile that used to melt the female hearts of Rochambeau High School. Evie felt a little hitch in her own heart, in spite of herself.
Why did he still have to be so damn good-looking? Was it too much to ask for him to be balding or growing a potbelly? Apparently so. Mother Nature was cruel.
“Sure thing, Miz Breaux.”
Before he’d taken three steps toward the waiting area, Mama said, “You remember my daughter, Evangeline, don’t you? She was a year behind you in school. Y’all used to play when I’d come out to do your mama’s hair every week.”
Evie’s heart crashed into her ribs. The ladies in the shop grew quiet while they waited for his answer. She knew what they were thinking. What they were waiting for. Why should it bother her what they thought? What any of them thought?
It had been ten years ago, and it didn’t matter anymore. She was grown up. Matt was grown up. Who cared?
Except that’s not how Rochambeau worked, and she knew it. It might have been ten years, but he’d humiliated her. He’d broken her heart and tossed her to the wolves when she wasn’t prepared to deal with the consequences of her actions. Not that anyone knew for sure what had happened, but rumors were usually enough in Rochambeau.
“Yes, ma’am, I sure do. How is she?” He didn’t sound in the least bit remorseful. But why would he? He’d departed for college a week later, and she’d been the one left behind to pick up the pieces.
“Evie’s great,” Mama announced. “Been living in Florida, but she’s home now. Maybe you can talk to her while you wait. Y’all can catch up.”
Evie’s stomach plummeted to her toes. Oh no. No, no, no. What if she went into the bathroom and refused to come out? Or just quietly slipped out the back door and disappeared for a couple of hours? It was time for her lunch break, and—
Coward. Evie stiffened her spine. She wasn’t running away. If it wasn’t now, it’d be some other time. She couldn’t avoid him forever. And far better to get this over with in public, while she could maintain her dignity and show the good people of Rochambeau there was nothing left to talk about.
“That’d be great,” he said in an aw shucks way she didn’t buy for a second. He might talk smooth and act all friendly and gee-whiz ma’am, but she knew better. God, did she know better.
He was nothing more than a self-centered, arrogant jerk with a giant sense of entitlement and no mercy for those he considered beneath him. A little corner of her heart still hurt like it had been yesterday, but she ruthlessly stomped on the feeling until it stopped.
“Good,” her mother said as if it were the best idea in the world, her gaze sweeping the shop. “She was here just a minute ago. Evie? Evie?”
“She went in the back,” Stella offered with what Evie was convinced was a hint of glee. Bitch.
Right. There was nothing Evie could do except face this particular blast from the past. Because there was no way on earth she’d ever let Matt Girard humiliate her again. She’d learned the hard way, but at least she’d learned.
“I’m right here, Mama,” she said, whipping off her smock and pushing back the curtain.
H.O.T. Publishing, LLC
July 17, 2013
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