I reached out to touch the word, vivid against the worn wood of the door, but pulled back before I could smear them through the paint—the yellow spray was so fresh that it was still dripping.
“I don’t understand.” Stepping back, I looked over my shoulder, as though the person who had done this would still be standing there. Instead, the hall was empty, silent except for the quiet drone of a vacuum somewhere in the distance.
This… Surely this wasn’t meant for me.
My stomach clenched as I pulled away from the nastygram. Wanting it out of my sight, I took one step, then two, then almost ran back to the lobby.
“Dr. Dunn?” The girl behind the desk—I thought her name was Madison—stood up with alarm as I stopped in front of her desk, panting. “Is everything all right?”
Clutching a hand to my chest, I shook my head, holding up a finger to ask for a moment. I was tired to my bones from the day in the sun, and my short sprint had winded me.
When I could breathe, I looked at her anxious face. “Can you tell me who has passed through here in the last half hour or so? Someone painted ‘bitch’ on my door.”
The paint was wet. Whoever had done it must still be close by.
She crossed her arms over her chest, looking down at her computer. When she looked up again, her face was impassive—deliberately blank.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Dunn, but the only people I’ve seen come in are members of your own team.” She bit her lip. “But couldn’t it have been someone already inside the motel?”
“Shit.” That hadn’t occurred to me at all. Still, the way that Madison was looking at anything but me…
There was something she wasn’t telling me. Had she seen something?
“I just wish I knew what I’d done to make someone so angry,” I choked out, watching her face. I didn’t like confrontations, so I had no way of dragging it out of her, but maybe I could poke a little. “Being called names hurts, especially when I don’t understand why.”
No, I didn’t know for sure, but I wasn’t an idiot. Not everybody in this town had been welcoming to the show. We were outsiders, and though we meant well, not everybody saw it that way. I had two guesses as to the culprit. One guess was that I had a fan, someone a bit star-struck, who I had inadvertently blown off.
Door number two was, to me, more likely. Before the discovery of the artifacts, the site had already been a hotly contested piece of land. Technically it belonged to Russ Daly, who’d had plans to sell to a development company out of Augusta. That sale had been halted when a group of Native Americans had laid claim to it as well, wanting it preserved as a historic site.
Me? I just wanted to dig. If I had to guess who had painted my door, though, I’d say Russ Daly or one of his minions. As head of the project and the most recognizable face of the show, I’d had more than one run-in with the man.
I hated run-ins. I hated confrontation. But Daly had tested even my temper when he’d shared his opinion that I should be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen instead of pretending to be a scientist. He’d even offered up his own kitchen.
Remembering the conversation, I clenched my fists, my nails digging into my palm, just as they had done then. I was an expert in tamping things down, but he’d very nearly goaded me into punching him in the nose.
The yellow paint dripping on my door made me wish I had. Maybe if I stopped being so freaking nice, he’d leave me alone. Madison had busied herself on the phone. Catching my eye, she covered the mouthpiece. “I’ve just got our custodian on the line. He’s off-duty, but he’s going to come clean your door right away.”
I could hear the mumble of someone on the other end of the line. Madison grimaced. “Yes, I’ll ask.”
Turning to me again, she offered a hesitant smile. “He’s wondering if you could sign one of our motel brochures for him. He’ll pick it up when he’s done cleaning.”
I was freaking exhausted, I needed a shower quite desperately, and someone had just vandalized my room…and he wanted an autograph.
Part of me wanted to tell him to shove it.
The rest of me? It knew that he was being nice enough to come clean my door when he was off the clock. It knew that meeting a reality TV star was a once in a lifetime thing for most people, even though a Kardashian I certainly was not.
Forcing my lips into yet another smile, I held out a hand for the brochure that Madison was clutching.
“If you could please personalize that for Gus and Rita,” she added as she slid a black Sharpie across the counter. “His wife won’t even know what to do with herself.”
“Of course.” A scream was building inside. I didn’t want to sign a brochure for Gus and Rita, I wanted to retreat into the quiet of my room and have a shower. I wanted to be alone. I wanted silence.
“I’ll leave this here for Gus, then.” I tossed the brochure, now with Sharpie scrawled over it, back to Madison. “I’m going to be in my room, and… I’m going to be in my room.”
I’d wanted to say that I didn’t want to be disturbed—I didn’t want Gus knocking on my door when he was done, hoping for a selfie to go along with his autograph.
I couldn’t. I sucked at standing up for myself. I’d just put the Do Not Disturb sign out and hide.
“Thank you for your help, Madison.” I offered up a tired smile. Her grin wavered, and to my horror, her pale blue eyes started to water.
“Oh, Dr. Dunn, I just have to tell you!” Reaching across the counter, she pulled my sweaty hand into hers. I stiffened but could think of no way to extricate myself from the hold. “They said I’m not supposed to tell you, so you won’t worry, but I really think you should know. You know…so you can watch out.”
“Madison.” She was still talking but stopped when I tapped my free hand lightly on the counter. She looked up at me with sad-kitty eyes. “What aren’t you supposed to tell me?”
There was a long pause as she hesitated, and then the words came out in a rush. “This isn’t the first time there’s been vandalism on your door. It’s happened twice before. Nobody’s supposed to tell you about it because you’re not supposed to worry, because when you worry you can’t work.”
Oh, for the love of…
One time. One time in five years had I been unable to do my show, and it was because… Okay, it was because I’d had some anxiety. We’d been waiting to hear if the show was going to be renewed beyond the first year. I’d given up a really good teaching job at a university to get it off the ground, and yes, I’d had some anxiety. One day—one!—I’d had a bit of a meltdown on set. I was still mortified by the memory.
“Who told you I wasn’t supposed to know?” I asked gently.
“I’ve said enough.” Madison winced.
“You’re not going to get in trouble.” That thread of temper that I tended to bury deep down was sparking. I was the one being threatened, but I wasn’t allowed to know what was going on? To hell with that.
“Your producer. The lady who wears…ah…” Madison’s skin flushed pink.
The producer. The lady who wears very little. Margot.
“Thank you, Madison.” This time my smile was genuine. I hesitated, feeling the need to give her something more. “Listen, after I’ve cleaned up, if you want to take a picture together, that would be fine.”
“Really?” The way her eyes widened, it looked as though I’d just told her she was going to meet Harry Styles. “Wait until I show my friends! I have to touch up my makeup!”
She was already grabbing a makeup bag from beneath the desk. She didn’t even notice when I left, crossing the lobby to the hallway where Margot’s room was.
A picture—some days it seemed like that was all anybody wanted from me. Five years ago, people had been interested in talking to me, learning about the show and how I’d gotten into archaeology.
Now? They wanted a picture for their friends to like on Instagram. I got it, but that didn’t mean I had to be happy about it.
“Cari?” My hand was raised to knock on Margot’s door when I heard my name. I turned, finding Nolan Smith, one of the graduate students working on the dig. In his hand he held my water bottle, freshly filled with cold tea and ice. “You left this at the site, and I thought you might want it. Everything okay?”
“Did you know about the vandalism?” He blanched, guilt written all over his face. “You did. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”
“How did you find out?” he asked carefully.
“Because there’s more on my door right now.” I arched an eyebrow. “And I can’t believe you kept this from me.”
“We just didn’t want to worry you.” He studied me, sincerity radiating from insanely blue eyes. “You know I only want the best for you.”
“Right.” Oh, this was awkward. “Um. Thanks for filling up my tea.”
When I took the bottle from him, our fingers brushed, and I couldn’t help but feel a little flip-flop in my belly.
Nolan was hot. A handful of years younger than me, he was tall and leanly muscled, looking exactly like the former high school basketball star that he was—golden-brown hair that flopped boyishly into those blue eyes, and a panty-dropping smile meant that he had more than one of the undergrads at the dig sighing over him.
He’d made me sigh a time or ten, as well. One night a couple of months ago, after a few too many rounds of beer at the bar attached to the crappy motel where we’d been staying, I’d let him kiss me. Okay, okay, I’d had a tequila shooter on top of the beer, been feeling uncharacteristically bold, and I’d kissed him. There might have been a bit of tipsy groping, too. What can I say? I hadn’t been immune to him any more than the undergrads.
Except when we’d kissed… I can’t say I felt nothing. But there hadn’t been any chemistry, either. You know…that inexplicable, stomach-churning, toe-curling, indescribable something that randomly brings two people together?
Nothing. Nada. Nyet.
For the most part now, we pretended that those kisses had never happened, that he’d never pulled my breast from the cup of its bra and thumbed its nipple while we leaned against the wall in the hallway outside my room. But once in a while, he’d cast me that sexy little smirk again, making me think that he might have felt a bit more of that chemistry than I had.
“Going to see Margot?” The moment passed, and Nolan leaned against the wall.
“Yeah. About the vandalism.” Irritation snaked through me again. I didn’t like that I’d been left in the dark. It must have shown on my face, because he pushed back off the wall.
“Well, I think I’m going to go fill my bathtub with ice and sit in it for about an hour.” He slid his hands into the pockets of his cargo shorts, though I thought I caught a flash of disappointment in his eyes. “See you at the bar later?”
“Maybe.” I smiled tightly. “Enjoy your ice bath, you wild thing.”
He laughed, sauntering back down the hall. I sighed, then knocked on Margot’s door. “It’s unlocked!” The producer of Digging Discoveries with Dr. Dunn had a voice that sounded like she smoked a pack a day, even though she’d quit smoking two years earlier. I pushed into her room—what the motel laughingly called a suite—and found her seated at the desk, dressed in what she considered business attire—a short, tight skirt that wouldn’t cover a thing if she sneezed, and a camisole that she wore with nothing underneath.
In her early forties, with cherry-red lips and long black hair, she looked pretty good. But the combination of the air-conditioning and her thin top meant that I didn’t quite know where to look. Madison would have been speechless. “Someone vandalized my door. Would you happen to know anything about it?”
Margot and I weren’t alone in the room. There was a man standing against the wall, a man so massive I wasn’t sure how my eyes hadn’t immediately been drawn to him. I knew that I’d never seen him before.
He stood with his boots planted shoulder-width apart, hands behind his back, his bearing rigid. He was easily a foot over my own five-three, but it wasn’t his height that made him seem so gigantic. He was just big, a huge mass of rock-solid muscle.
Really hot rock-solid muscle. Simply dressed in jeans and a plain white T-shirt, he had biceps roughly the size of my head. Tawny skin stretched tightly over those muscles, daring my fingers to find out if he was hard or soft to the touch.
His hair was closely cropped and black as night, and the eyes that flicked a steely gaze my way were a pale, ethereal green and surrounded by dark lashes. The eyes seemed at odds with the rest of him, too beautiful to match the solid flesh everywhere else.
“This her?” He barely moved, cocking his head the tiniest bit at Margot, who nodded.
“Sit down, Cari.” With a wave of her hand, she indicated that should I sit on the ratty couch against the wall. I did, watching the man warily.
“Margot, what’s going on?” My producer often played the part of a Southern belle, ratcheting up the drama, especially in the presence of an attractive man. Right now, though, she simply removed her reading glasses and sighed.
“What’s this about paint on your door?”
“Spray paint. Nice and fresh.” I fidgeted, crossing my legs before uncrossing them again. “Apparently someone thinks I’m a bitch. And apparently, this hasn’t been the first time.”
I pursed my lips as I stared her down. No, I didn’t care for confrontation, but I knew Margot better than I knew myself most days. I wasn’t afraid to let her know how unhappy I was to be left out of this.
“Shit.” Margot looked at the man. I don’t think he moved, but something in that exchange seemed to answer her question. “Cari, I haven’t been honest with you. It’s not just your door here at the motel. There have been threats.”
“What are you talking about?” She had my full attention now, dragging it away from the massive man.
“Well. Since someone’s lips have been flapping…this isn’t the first act of vandalism. Someone painted some other choice words on your truck while you were at the site one day.”
“What?” I’d felt a little bit nauseous when I’d first seen the damage done to my door. Now I fought against the bile that wanted to coat my throat. “What words?”
“I believe you were called a slut and a cock tease.” She tapped her glasses on the desk and cast me a sympathetic glance. “Nolan washed the paint off before it could dry.”
“Nolan knew about this?” Temper made the words sound like lashes of a whip. “And no one thought I needed to know?”
“Well, the paint was annoying but not harmful, honey. Given the wording, I thought it was Russ Daly. You know, since you turned down that delightful offer to…what was it? Knock you up and keep you that way?”
Cock tease. Next time I saw him, maybe I’d punch him in the nose after all.
“So why are you telling me now?” I was more than a little pissed that both Margot and Nolan, and hell, probably other members of my team, had known about this and said nothing.
“Yesterday someone sent me one of our promo posters. They’d drawn in some, ah, bodily harm and some more choice names.” Margot rubbed her fingers over her lips. The massive man remained silent. “We’ve notified the local police, but the network decided they’d feel better if you had some protection.”
“Protection?” I echoed, staring dumbly at her. This was surreal. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. “I’m not carrying a gun. You know I hate them.”
“You won’t be the one with the gun.” The words were a deep rumble, whiskey and steel. Looking up, I found myself on the receiving end of a stare from those insanely gorgeous eyes set in that badass face.
Something inside of me came alive as he watched me quietly—my skin became sensitized, my flesh felt warm.
“Margot, who the hell is this?” I ran my tongue over suddenly dry lips. I didn’t know how to deal with this…whatever the hell it was. My pulse was thundering, and I felt short of breath.
“Cari, this is Jasper Benjamin.” The man tilted his head, the classic guy nod, but he didn’t take his eyes off me. How could he be so stoic when all of these feelings were racing around inside of me? Didn’t he feel it, too?
“He’s your new bodyguard.”