Matt & Evie
H.O.T. Strike Team 1, Book 0.5
Matt Girard is the guy every girl wants. Rich, handsome, and popular, his future is brighter than the sun. Evie Baker comes from the wrong side of town. She loves Matt desperately, but he only sees her as his tomboy best friend instead of the young woman she’s blossomed into.
Until one fateful night when a reckless dare changes everything…
This is the prequel story to Hot Pursuit, Book 1 in the Hostile Operations Team Series.
Read an Excerpt
Ten years before the events of Hot Pursuit…
I’ve been in love with Matt Girard since I was eleven and he cried on my shoulder after his mama’s funeral. That’s the first moment I realized that what I felt for him has the ability to rock my world to its foundation. I knew then that we were meant to be together.
Matt doesn’t know what’s going to happen yet, but I’ve always believed he’ll realize the truth in time. Except I just heard a rumor he’s leaving town after graduation. For good.
My stomach is tight, my heart is pounding, and I feel light-headed as I walk down the halls of Rochambeau High, searching for him.
I met Matt when I was six and he was seven. My mama is a hairdresser and she’d been driving out to Reynier’s Retreat, Matt’s family home, to fix his mother’s hair once a week. Margaret Anne Girard was very sick, though I didn’t understand it at the time. She wanted her hair done, and Mama made the trip out there to style it for her.
One day Mama took me with her. The Girards are wealthy, so Matt and his sister Christina didn’t go to public school like I did. I’d never talked to them before.
Seeing that big house up close awed me. It was the grandest house I’d ever seen, and I was certain the people in it would be different from me. Better, I guess. Perfectly groomed and gleaming like they were made of gold.
But then Matt appeared on the veranda. His hair was sticking up, he was dirty and disheveled, and he held a worm in his hand. He marched over to me and tried to scare me by waving it in my face. When I didn’t scream or run, he dropped it down my shirt. He thought I was going to lose my shit then, but of course I didn’t. I just fished the worm out and said it was a waste of good bait.
He grinned at me—and that’s the moment we became best friends. Since then, we’ve gotten dirty together, gone skinny-dipping, dared each other to do things that would horrify our parents (like the summer he turned fourteen and stole his daddy’s car for a joyride to Baton Rouge. Thank God we didn’t get caught!), and generally been inseparable for much of our childhood.
But then I got breasts and hips, and Matt didn’t even notice. I thought maybe he was pretending not to at first, but I never once caught him looking at me like I was a girl rather than one of the guys.
When he finally started going to public school, I thought that would be the perfect chance for us to see each other more often. He couldn’t help but realize I was a girl then, right?
Wrong-o. We hung out less and less as he made other friends—and started seeing other girls. I was stunned. What do they have that I don’t? I have boobs. I have hips. I even wear makeup! My hair is long and thick and shiny, not boyish at all.
But no, he’s never noticed me that way. Instead, Matt has girlfriends—lots of girlfriends. I watch them together with a combination of hurt and jealousy and bewilderment—seriously, what is it the deal? Why are they different?
I haven’t a clue, and I’ve cried into my pillow more nights than I remember.
But one thing gives me hope. Matt always moves on. He never stays with any of them. I think, deep down, he must know that none of those girls are the one for him. They can’t be, because I’m the one. He just hasn’t figured it out yet.
Now I don’t know if he ever will.
I find him near his locker. Jeanine Jackson is there, giggling and flirting with him. She has her hands behind her and she’s leaning back against the lockers, arching her back so her breasts thrust forward.
She’s cute in a perky blonde way, and Matt is clearly interested. They dated last summer for a short time. He brought her out to Charlie’s Diner one night when I was waiting tables, and she had the nerve to tell me not to talk to her boyfriend unless I was taking his order.
Like she was anything more than the flavor of the week. Matt told her to chill out, but that didn’t stop her from glaring daggers at me. I might have accidentally dumped a pitcher of sweet tea on her a few minutes later. That chilled her the fuck out for sure.
And now Matt’s ogling her breasts and looking like he might take her out again. Fucking hell, I can’t get a break where this boy is concerned. My life feels like it’s falling apart, and he doesn’t have the first clue.
“Hey, Matt,” I say, and he looks up, meeting my gaze. He doesn’t smile, and that tightens the ball in my stomach even more. My throat is dry and my head feels like it might explode.
“Hey, Evie,” he says, but he takes a step back from Jeanine. She’s glaring at me, of course.
“Could I, uh, talk to you for a second? Alone,” I add when Jeanine’s mouth tightens.
It’s bold of me, and I have no idea if he’ll agree, but really, what do I have to lose? If he’s truly leaving town, then everything’s going sideways and I don’t give a fuck about anything else.
“Sure.” He reaches into his locker and grabs his backpack, then shuts it and turns to Jeanine. “See you later, cher.”
Jeanine clutches his arm. “I was hoping you could give me a ride home,” she purrs.
“Can’t today, babe. Not going your way.”
He turns away, dismissing her that easily, and heads for my side. If looks could kill, I’d be dead, because Jeanine clearly hates me right this second.
I resist the urge to stick my tongue out, but barely. I settle for an arched eyebrow and a slight smirk instead. Jeanine gets it because her eyes promise retribution.
“Whatcha want, Evie-girl?” Matt asks as he starts down the hallway.
I walk alongside him, my throat still tight, and wonder how to get the words out. We’re almost to the doors when I finally manage it. “I, uh, heard you were leaving town.”
He stops and turns to me. My heart skips a beat. He’s so handsome, so tall and beautiful. I love his face, the strong lines of his jaw and nose. His eyes are silvery gray. His black hair is cut tight lately, but I know it curls when it’s longer. I want to touch it, but I don’t dare.
“That’s right,” he says, and my heart practically stops before it starts galloping again. I’m his oldest friend, dammit, and he didn’t even tell me. “I got an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.”
“West Point.” I say it dully because I’m stunned. I thought he was going to LSU. He used to talk about being a Tiger when we were younger, about playing football and studying something that would enable him to help people.
But West Point? The military?
His eyes are bleak, and it breaks my heart. I want to hug him. I don’t feel like I have that right, so I don’t.
“Wow,” I finally force out. “Not what I expected.”
“Not what a lot of people expected, I imagine.”
I’m pretty sure he’s talking about his father now. Matt and his dad have never gotten along well. I know his dad drinks a bit, and I was there once when he yelled at Matt and told him to get the fuck out of the house. I also know Matt wasn’t happy that his dad remarried less than a year after his mother died. Matt didn’t like his first stepmother—and who could blame him?
Senator Girard—he’s a Louisiana state senator, not a United States senator—married a woman that Mama said came straight from the strip club. Then he divorced that one and married another one. He divorced the second one about a year ago now.
I don’t think Senator Girard’s second and third wives were very motherly toward his children. What makes me think that? Well, Christina is a sad girl who doesn’t talk a lot, and Matt has grown a bit reckless over the years.
He might party a bit much, and of course he drinks beer and stuff—but who doesn’t? So far as I know, he only stole his daddy’s car that one time, so I don’t think he takes crazy risks. He definitely goes out with the wrong girls, which I hate, but he never stays with them long.
He’s not a delinquent by any stretch. He’s just rich and maybe a bit spoiled in ways, but I trust that he knows how far he can go before he crosses the line.
“Maaatttt,” a voice calls, and I turn to see Tiffany Blessing coming our way.
Matt swears under his breath and heads for the doors without acknowledging her. He throws a look over his shoulder right before he bangs through the doors. I’m still standing in place like a deer in headlights. Still processing what he said about West Point.
“You coming or what?”
Of course I’m going with him. My feet start to move, carrying me out the doors and into the parking lot. Matt unlocks his shiny red Corvette and jumps inside. I do the same. I don’t know where we’re going, and I don’t care. We’re together, just us. Just like old times.
He revs the engine and peels out of the lot like there’s a monster on our tail. Students stop to watch us go by. The girls look longingly at us. The boys don’t see anything but the car.
Elation swells inside me, but I know it won’t last. Matt whips the car onto the highway and heads in the opposite direction from town. He turns up the radio as it blasts Green Day. It’s too loud to speak, so I don’t even try.
I glance at Matt, at the way he grips the wheel, his fingers long and sure. His jaw is set in a stubborn line, and his eyebrows are two sharp slashes on his forehead. He’s irritated, but I don’t know why.
Eventually he turns onto a dirt road I recognize. It’s not far from Reynier’s Retreat, and it heads down a forest road, emerging on a small bluff over the bayou. It’s a breathtaking sight and one I haven’t seen in a few years now.
The afternoon sunshine is slanting through the trees, highlighting the bugs that swirl in the light. When we reach the small clearing, Matt pulls the car up a couple of feet near the edge, powers the windows down, and cuts the engine.
He puts his wrists on top of the wheel and sits there, staring out. He makes no move to open the door. So I don’t either. I watch the bugs and the shadowy form of a gator sliding through the murky swamp beneath the cypresses.
“I love this place,” Matt says, startling me. “It’s peaceful.”
“It is.” It’s also filled with memories. We used to sneak off down here in his little motorboat, long before I was in the accident this past summer that made me scared of boats and water, and we used to lie on this bank in the sun, eating the snacks we’d brought and making up tricks to play on Christina.
Life was simple back then. It wasn’t simple anymore.
“We had some good times here, didn’t we?”
He sighs and turns his head to look at me. His arms are still draped over the wheel, and his biceps flex as he clenches a fist over and over. “I won’t ever forget you, Evie.”
My heart thumps. It sounds like good-bye. I don’t like it. “I hope not.”
“I’ll stay in touch when I can. And I’ll be back on breaks.”
I latch onto that single thought and let the joy inside me peek out of the box it’s trapped in. I need something positive to hold on to while my heart’s breaking. “You will?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“I don’t know… I heard you were leaving for good.”
I’d be happier if he looked surprised, but he doesn’t. He looks… guilty? Confused? I don’t know, but it squashes the joy and replaces it with anxiety.
“I’m not leaving for good,” he says, looking at the bayou again. “But I doubt I’ll ever move back to Rochambeau. There’s nothing I want here.”
Of course that hurts. Why wouldn’t it? I love him, and it’s clear he doesn’t feel the same.
And why would he? We’ve never even kissed. He doesn’t look at me that way, though I keep hoping. But I’m just not as pretty as the other girls. I don’t have buckteeth anymore, but I’m not petite and cute like Jeanine or even my cousin Julie. I’m tall and awkward. I tower over many of the girls in my class.
And Matt’s not interested. He doesn’t see me that way and never has. I’m beginning to fear he never will.
I sniff and turn my head to look at the water glinting in the sunlight. What can I say? I can’t tell him how much those words hurt me. I damn sure can’t tell him how I feel about him. He won’t laugh at me. Definitely not.
He’ll pity me, and that would be infinitely worse.
“I miss this,” I say instead. “Coming out here with you. Talking about stuff. It’s been a long time.”
He heaves a sigh. “It has been. I’m sorry about that.”
“You’ve been busy.”
He reaches over then and takes my hand, and I think I might come unglued. Every touch from Matt Girard is one to be savored, treasured, taken out and reexamined when I’m lonely or sad.
And this is the first one in a long, long time.
“You’ve been a good friend, Evie. The best. You’ll always be a part of my life no matter where I go.”
I squeeze his hand as emotion flows through me. I’m not ready to let him go yet, but what choice do I have?
Unless I think up something quick, something that will change his mind or make him see me as more than a friend, I have none.
“That’s good,” I say, my throat tight.