The woman who answered the door wasn’t at all what Mitch expected.
Her brown hair was forced into a clip on top of her head, a couple pieces of hay sticking out of it and random strands stuck to her neck. Her face was devoid of makeup and sporting a healthy smear of dirt on her cheek. She clutched the edges of a worn plaid robe close to her neck, her short fingernails showing traces of caked mud. Beneath the hem of the robe stretched sexy bare legs, slender ankles, and Barbie-pink toenails.
Mitch fought to take his eyes off her shapely calves and bring them back up to her face. “Is Dr. Collins home?”
The porch light gave her face a subtle yellow glow. He couldn’t be sure about the color of her eyes. They looked brown one moment, then flashed a hint of green the next as she glanced behind him as if she expected the boogeyman to be in the shadows.
Maybe she did.
“I’m Dr. Collins. What is this about?”
“You’re Emma Collins?”
Those eyes of hers flashed again, but she replied evenly. “Dr. Emma Collins, yes. And you are?”
Damn. Definitely not what he expected a forensic psychologist to look like. Shouldn’t she be…older? More buttoned-up with a bun and glasses? Maybe that was just his librarian fantasy getting in the way.
Mitch flashed his ID and she glanced at it. “Agent Mitch Holden. National Intelligence. Currently on loan to the Southern California Violent Crimes Taskforce. May I come in?”
She was a good six inches shorter than him, her focus swinging up to return to his face. “I’m not in the habit of letting strange men into my house, Agent Holden, so no, you may not. Not until you tell me what this is about.”
Get it together, Holden. Quit analyzing the woman’s eyes and get down to business. “Chris Goodsman escaped a transport out of the Hills today.”
Her face blanched. “What?”
She obviously hadn’t heard the news yet. “Victor Dupé asked me to get you to a safe house. He’s been trying to reach you, but with the wildfires and all, landlines have been overloaded and some of the local cell towers aren’t working.”
The mention of Dupé seemed to wipe away her hesitation about letting a strange man into her house. She stepped back and motioned him in, her pretty eyes once more scanning the shadows over his shoulder.
Two Labs, one black and one white, rushed Mitch, sniffing and wagging their tails.
“Hope you’re not allergic,” Collins said, closing the door behind her.
“Nah.” Cold noses met his fingers. They, too, had a dirt on their faces and hay in their short coats. “My brother and I always had dogs growing up.”
Collins snapped her fingers and the Labs retreated, heads down, tails still wagging. They flanked her, one on each side like bodyguards. She absently petted their heads, the V of her robe falling open enough for him to see tan skin and freckles dancing across her collarbone. “How did Chris escape?”
Chris. Sounded funny for the doctor to refer to the actor—a man she’d labeled a sociopath—by his first name. “The transport van was run off the road. Goodsman escaped, the driver was killed, another guard’s in serious condition. I don’t know all the details, but I’m sure Dupé can fill you in when he meets us at the safe house."
Her nose wrinkled. “Have you been drinking?”
Shit. “Not enough to affect my reasoning or judgment skills, Dr. Collins. I assure you, I can keep you safe."
Pushing off the door, she headed for the kitchen, a brightly lit room off to his left. “I’ll make you some coffee.”
Coffee sounded good. The tone in her voice—like she was reprimanding a kid about skipping school or not washing behind his ears—didn’t. “I had two sips of whiskey, that’s all, before I got the call to come protect you.”
He found himself following her into the kitchen, his gaze drawn to her ass as she reached up to grab a bag of coffee from a rough pine cabinet. “The holidays are hard on all of us,” she said.
So now she was presuming to know he hated Christmas and the emotional shitstorm it brought on? Yeah, maybe he did feel that way, but it was still annoying that within two minutes, she seemed to see right through him.
One of the Labs nuzzled his fingertips. Gritting his teeth, Mitch did his usual trick when someone probed into his personal life—turned the tables on them. “How is it hard on you? Your boyfriend dump you right before Christmas or something?”
She paused in pouring water into the coffee maker, but her face was serene when she glanced over at him. “Touchy subject, I take it?”
Guilt over lashing out at her clawed its way into his chest. Jesus, what was wrong with him? He was here to get her to a safe house, nothing more. Then it was back to a few last hours of vacation filled with moping and a twelve pack. Mac could keep his scotch. “Yes, actually, it is.”
She nodded and finished pouring the water, hit the switch. “Sorry. I’m sure this isn’t what you had planned for your Saturday night.”
It wasn’t what she’d planned either. Once more, he chastised himself for being so defensive over nothing. For being rude. “Look, I appreciate the coffee and the chitchat, but you need to pack a bag so we can get out of here.”
“I’m going to shower and get dressed.” She walked by him toward the living room and the stairs. “Help yourself to the cookies in the Snoopy jar on the counter.”
She was halfway up the stairs when she turned back and caught him ogling her ass. That same serene look crossed her features before she motioned at the door. “There’s a shotgun above the door, locked and loaded. Just in case.”
Huh. Interesting. A handsome Remington rested on hooks over the front door exactly like she claimed. He also noticed for the first time that there wasn’t a Christmas decoration of any kind inside the house. No menorah or kinara either.
Was she atheist or some other religion? Did she simply hate the holidays as much as he did?
He tipped his head at her. “Good to know.”
“FYI, I also have a couple of weapons upstairs.”
Was she warning him or letting him know she didn’t need his protection? Either way, he found it cute. “Do you know how to use them?”
One of her dainty eyebrows arched. “Better help yourself to that coffee, Agent Holden. I’ll be back shortly.”
“We really need to get on the road.”
“If Chris is coming after me, I’d rather not smell like a barn when I have to confront him.”
She did smell. “You have livestock?”
“Horses. My practice involves therapy animals. You ride?”
“Just motorcycles, ma’am.”
She glanced at his black boots. “A similar type of therapy I’m told. No motorcycle tonight, though, huh?”
He hadn’t trusted himself on his bike. Too tempting to flee town, just him and his demons, and ride like hell. “Not tonight.”
She disappeared up the stairs, the Labs on her heels, before he could ask why.