If the alarm on his cell phone hadn’t gone off, Dexter “Dex” Wright would’ve woken up on time anyway, thanks to the living, breathing, feathered alarm sitting on a perch in the large cage in the corner of his friend’s living room. “Rise and shine, Princess. Wakey, wakey. C’mon, get up, ya lazy bum,” the umbrella cockatoo repeated for the third time in the past minute. “Need food…gonna die.” Smiling, Dex stretched before sitting up on the couch that was his bed for one more night while his buddy, Carter, and his buddy’s girlfriend, Mel, were on vacation in Mexico. “You’re not going to die, Lex.” His offer to birdsit included staying at Mel’s, rather than uprooting the parrot during their fourday weekend getaway. It was hilarious how the cockatoo got so dramatic when hungry or thirsty. “Want an apple? Yum…yum…yummy.” The bird turned his head to the left then the right, flexing the feathers around his neck and crown. “Want yogurt. I like apples. Want breakfast?” “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do,” he replied, rising to his feet to open the cage. Lex hopped onto Dex’s outstretched arm and bobbed his head up and down.
“Here we go. Get your harness. Wanna go out, Lex? Wanna go outside?” “Sorry, buddy.” He shook his head. “I’m meeting the guys for breakfast.” Once a week, he and his former D-Force coworkers had breakfast with a former Navy SEAL buddy of theirs. With Carter out of town, it was just the three of them today. But soon there would be more. “Need food. Gonna die.
” He chuckled, scratching behind Lex’s neck. “You’re not going to die. I’ve got you covered.” Dex had learned early on how intelligent, demanding, vocal, and funny these birds could be. One of the happier times in his childhood was the four years he’d lived with his uncle and his uncle’s cockatoo. Marilyn had been young and full of “piss and vinegar,” as his uncle used to say. At eight years old, Dex had been completely enthralled by the talking bird. Her antics had helped him while he’d grieved over the loss of his mother. “Morning, sunshine. Here, want a carrot? Hi, Lex.
How ya doing?” Lex continued to spout random phrases, as Dex transferred him to the table perch. Smiling, he grabbed an apple from the fridge and began to cut it up, knowing it was one of Lex’s favorite foods. Even though there was a lot he remembered about taking care of a cockatoo, he welcomed the written instructions Mel had left in a note on the fridge. Like humans, every animal had its likes and dislikes, and Lex was no different. He liked apples, not oranges. “How’s it going, Lex? Love you. Oh, Carter, yeaaah…more.” Dex’s hand slipped on that last phrase and the knife nearly cut his finger. His laughter bounced off the walls of the small, open concept, one-bedroom cottage, and he shook his head, wondering if the couple knew the bird had overheard things he shouldn’t have and now had a new phrase. “Ah, Lex, man, you’re too much.
” He dropped a few apple slices in the food dish attached to the perch. “I hope you don’t repeat that when Mel takes you to work.” The woman owned a tattoo parlor and had a special tree perch set up for Lex in the back. Dex highly doubted she’d appreciate her bird repeating such an intimate phrase, especially in public. “Mel’s the best. I love apples. Yum…yum…yummy,” Lex said, nibbling on an apple slice he clutched in the toes of one of his feet. Since Mel had bird-proofed the place and told him she let Lex eat in the kitchen while she got ready in the mornings, he tried to keep to their regular routine. With all the windows and doors closed, including the bedroom door, no small spaces or crevices visible that could pose a threat, and Lex busy eating or he was going to die, Dex jumped in the shower to get ready for his breakfast meeting. Twenty-five minutes later, the bird was back in his cage, and Dex was walking into the small restaurant down the street.
Of the few restaurants in Harland County, Annie’s Diner served the best breakfast. His other favorite restaurant, Texas Republic—Tex Pub—didn’t open until lunchtime. The owners of that bar and grill were related to his boss and their food was amazing as well. He was addicted to their cheeseburgers. Damn things melted in his mouth. So did Annie’s biscuits and gravy. They had the right amount of sausage and the perfect consistency to keep him coming back several times a week. “The usual?” Annie grinned at him from behind the counter, her gray hair piled on top of her head with a pencil sticking out of the bun. Returning her smile, he nodded. “Yes, ma’am.
” “The sheriff just got here, but your handsome boss has yet to arrive,” she told him, nodding her head toward their favorite table along the back wall. “I’ll be over with coffees in just a sec.” After thanking her, he headed toward his friend already seated with his cell phone on the table next to his opened newspaper. The guy was completely oblivious to the four women watching on with interest from a nearby booth. Some things never changed. Dex and his Delta Force unit had participated in several ops with Chief Petty Officer Gabriel Bryson and his Navy SEAL team. At times, they were even stationed at the same base, and Dex had often witnessed women vying for Gabe’s attention…and the guy completely ignoring it. Like now. Holding back a grin, Dex pulled out a chair and sat across from the black haired, green eyed —dreamboat—a nickname women had often called his friend. “Mornin’, Sherif .
” Glancing up from the paper, Gabe lifted a brow, his gaze matching the sardonic twist to his lips. “Dex.” Before joining the Navy, his friend used to be a cop, and although he’d originally arrived in town to work with Dex and his buddies at ESI—Eagle Security and Investigations—he’d ended up as the local sheriff. It was actually a great fit. The former SEAL was a by-the-rules kind of guy, a born leader, rigid, determined, reliable, trustworthy…attributes that made a good sheriff. Dex smiled. “Are we going to take bets to see if you get to finish all of your breakfast this week before you get a call?” “Ah, hell.” Gabe sat back with a sigh. “Hope you didn’t just jinx it.” Not hardly.
He laughed. “You and I both know whether I said that or not, you’re going to leave here without finishing your food.” The on-call status of the job usually cut the poor guy’s breakfast short. “Then it’s a good thing I already put in your orders,” Annie said, arriving with their coffees. “I’ll do the same with Mac’s when he gets here.” “Thank you, Annie,” Dex said. Gabe smiled at her. “You’re a doll.” “I know.” She winked and walked away.
Dex sipped his coffee and nodded to Mac McCall who entered the diner and headed their way. His former commanding officer and now his boss, Mac owned ESI. The majority of their jobs were providing security to visiting dignitaries, celebrities, and businessmen, but sometimes they investigated insurance fraud or corporate fraud, too. It was a far cry from Delta, but also a welcome change. Mac’s easy stride and commanding presence drew the female attention away from Gabe and from him. He wasn’t blind. He’d caught a few of those admiring looks directed at him, but like Gabe, Dex wasn’t interested either. Getting involved with a woman in the same town where he resided topped his “don’t do” list. Besides, he didn’t get involved. He hooked up.
And that was usually only after a job, when he had excess adrenaline to burn off. It wasn’t often, but it was always out of town. A round of soft, feminine whispers met his ears as Mac passed the women’s table. His boss always did have a knack for bringing a blush to woman’s face. But they were wasting their time. His former Delta Force buddy was head-over-heels in love with his live-in girlfriend. Stefanie was the owner of a graphic arts shop in a strip mall next to their building. She was also the sister of Mac’s brother’s wife, and possessed a strong will, which she needed in order to put up with his boss. “Sorry I’m late,” Mac said, settling into the empty chair by Dex. The relaxed set of Mac’s shoulders and just-got-laid grin on the guy’s face said otherwise.
Dex smirked. “No, you’re not.” “I’m with Dex on this one,” Gabe said, a slight twitch to his lips. “Glad you could untangle yourself from Stef’s arms long enough to join us.” His boss’s grin widened with his shrug. “I needed sustenance.” “Then I’ve got you covered, handsome,” Annie said, appearing with a cup of coffee for Mac. “I already put in your order.” “Thanks, Annie.” Mac winked.
“You’re the best.” “I know.” She nodded. “And a doll.” Dex’s laughter joined the others as the owner walked away. “You know, Mac,” Gabe said, reaching for his coffee, “all joking aside, it’s nice to see you not so rigid. Stefanie’s good for you.” Grinning from ear to ear, Mac leaned forward. “I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I’m going to ask her to marry me,” he said in a hushed tone.
“Congratulations,” Dex said in a matching quiet tone, while he slapped his buddy on the back. “Yeah, man. That’s great.” Gabe glanced around the restaurant then met Mac’s gaze with a lift to his brow. “Why are we whispering?” Mac snorted. “Because Stef has a way of finding things out.” Understatement of the year. That woman was psychic the way she knew things. Last month, Stef knew Mel was going on vacation this week…before Mel even knew. “So, I’m guessing Carter doesn’t know,” Dex murmured.
His boss nodded. “No. I can’t risk his girlfriend or his sister finding out and it getting back to Stefanie before I have the chance to actually pop the question.” Mel’s tattoo parlor was in between Stef’s shop and Abby’s hair salon in the strip mall. The three women had become fast friends, and Mac was right, it would be hard for them to keep such a secret from their friend. “When, exactly, will that be?” Gabe asked. “Next weekend, when we go visit our niece.” Mac sat back in his chair and smiled at the approaching Annie. “Mmm…I’m starved.” The owner smirked.
“Not for long.” She set down three plates loaded with scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy, always their unanimous choice. “I’ll be right back with more coffee.” And she was always on target with her service. It was as exceptional as her food. Without wasting a second, Dex and his buddies dug into their food as if they hadn’t been stateside in months. Devouring American cuisine—a skillset they excelled at due to many deployments to countries with tasteless food or missions to the middle of nowhere with nutrient bars as sustenance. “How’s my sister doing?” Gabe asked between bites. Dex prided himself on keeping his cool. Hell, his life sometimes depended on it.
But damn, none of that training ever worked for him where Rylee was concerned. The interruption in his pulse just now at the mere mention of the woman’s name was proof that hadn’t changed, either. Until five short weeks ago, he hadn’t seen her in over two years. But it had taken less than onepoint-two seconds for a familiar, albeit unwelcome, awareness to shoot down his spine the instant she’d stepped into the boardroom at ESI. “She’s a godsend,” Mac said with a grin. “And a bona fide miracle worker. It took her less than a week to straighten out our filing system.” Dex grunted. “You mean mess.” Only Carter was equipped to handle that task and even he fell short of Rylee’s standards.
Mac laughed. “Yeah, mess. But it isn’t anymore. Same goes for our billing system. She whipped that into shape, too. Hell, she’s got everything so efficient, the office could practically run itself.” A smile twitched Gabe’s lips. “She’s very observant and has a great attention to detail. It’s why the lawyers loved her.” “And we do, too,” Mac said, stabbing his fork into his eggs before glancing at him.
“Isn’t that right, Dex?” Shit. He didn’t want to be drawn into any conversation that dealt with his thoughts about Rylee. Nodding, he shoved another forkful of biscuit into his mouth. Silence was definitely golden in this situation. Ever since the woman had arrived in Harland County, he’d made it his mission to stay out of her way—a mission she seemed to carry out toward him as well. It worked out perfectly and kept his mind from straying to thoughts he should not entertain. Mostly. There were times, in the middle of the night, when his subconscious didn’t give a damn about his moral code. Rylee was the only girl in the Bryson family, and thanks to a car accident when she was a teenager, the poor girl’s relatives jumped into overprotective overdrive. The dark haired, green eyed beauty had always gotten under Dex’s skin, and he’d learned a long time ago that distance was his best course of action with his buddy’s gorgeous kid sister.
His moral code clicked on. Promising to keep an eye on her when Gabe was deployed, and he wasn’t, had been torture. At first, though, there wasn’t an issue because she’d been engaged and completely off his radar. In fact, she probably still would be if he hadn’t caught her piece-of-shit fiancé cheating on her. That was bad enough, but it was the asshole’s explanation as to why he’d cheated that sent Dex over the edge…and the bastard to the emergency room. Even now, four years later, just thinking about it knotted his gut and interfered with the enjoyment of his biscuits and gravy. He should’ve broken more than the prick’s nose. Not losing his shit had been tough, but he’d promised the jerk a bigger beating when Gabe got back if he didn’t break off the engagement. And in case that promise hadn’t been enough, Dex had warned the bastard to break it off nicely—to take pains to make sure Rylee understood it wasn’t anything she’d done—or everything that had transpired would be brought to Rylee’s father’s attention. Commander Bryson.
The asshole’s superior. “Any updates on your brothers?” Mac asked Gabe between bites. “Are any of them looking for a job?” “Brothers?” Gabe’s brows rose. “Or do you mean my brotherhood brothers?” His boss shrugged. “All of them.” “Well, as for my brothers, Josh and Tyler, you can forget about them,” Gabe said, reaching for his coffee. “They’re career military. Navy lifers. Sorry.” Mac blew out a breath.
“I know, but I’d be damn happy to have them if they ever changed their minds.” Dex couldn’t see either of the sheriff’s brothers dropping their packets to work in the civilian world. One was a year younger than Dex, and the other a year older, and both lived and breathed Navy. “As for my team brothers,” Gabe continued, setting his cup back on the table, “you’ve already got Coop signed on to start next week, right?” Cooper Thompson was part of Gabe’s former SEAL team, set to join ESI after he finished outprocessing. Dex looked forward to shooting pool with the squid again. It’d been a few years, but the two of them had made an unbeatable team with cue sticks in hand. “Yeah.” Mac nodded. “He arrives on Wednesday, which is good, because I got a call this morning from one of our VIP clients who needs a detail next week, and I’ve already got another one lined up, so I could use an extra body.” Dex turned to his boss.
“Mr. Nakamori’s coming back?” The tycoon from Japan was a regular client of ESI. They provided security for the man whenever he was in the states. “Yes,” Mac replied. “He has some kind of upcoming emergency meeting in Houston.” “So there’s enough time to get Cooper vetted,” Dex said. Mac nodded. “Rylee’s already on it.” Of course, she was. That woman was nothing, if not efficient…and she was a hell of a lot more than that.
But he wasn’t going there. “Business is picking up,” Gabe observed, and once again, Mac nodded. “Then you’ll be glad to hear Dean is out-processing.” “No way?” Dex stared at Gabe, that knot in his stomach reappearing. He’d pegged Dean as a Navy lifer, too. No way would the frogman willingly leave the teams. The injuries from his last op must’ve been more serious than they thought. Mac’s gaze rounded. “What happened?” Apprehension skittered through Gabe’s eyes. “Doctors can’t guarantee he’ll regain full use of his arm.
” “Damn.” Dex exhaled. Mac pushed away his empty plate and shook his head. “That’s rough. I know he loved being a SEAL.” “Yeah.” Gabe sat back in his chair and shook his head, disgust tightening his jaw. “It’s going to be a rough adjustment. That’s why I was hoping you might be able to help.” “Absolutely,” Mac said without hesitation.
“There’s always a place at ESI for your men. I just hope Dean understands his doctor will have to refer him to one here in Harland County, and that I’ll have to follow that doctor’s orders. I won’t put any of my employees in danger, including him if he’s not up to par. And I also won’t allow him to do anything he’s not cleared to do. I won’t be responsible for hindering his healing process.” Gabe nodded. “Understood. I wouldn’t either. I also know Dean won’t like it, but he’ll do it.” “Good.
” Mac grinned. “Text me his contact information and I’ll get the ball rolling.” “Roger that.” Gabe reached for his phone while Mac rose to his feet. “Hate to eat and run, but I’ve got a consult in Houston,” his boss said. “Enjoy the rest of your breakfast. It’s my treat today.” Dex nodded, sipping his coffee as he watched Mac pay their bill on his way out. Normally, the prospect of being alone with Rylee for several hours at work would make his eye twitch, but thankfully, he had some routine maintenance to perform on one of the SUVs in their garage. No contact with Rylee necessary.
His body relaxed at that thought, and he finished the last mouthful of his breakfast right when Gabe’s phone started to ring. Dex glanced at the sheriff’s half-eaten plate of food and snorted. Knew he wouldn’t get to finish it. His buddy sighed and met his gaze. “Don’t say it.” Chuckling, he held up his hands. “Wouldn’t dream of it. But, if you’re leaving, can I finish your biscuits and gravy?” Gabe glanced at his phone and grinned. “Looks like I’ll be finishing my own breakfast, grunt. This is my sister.
” He waved the ringing phone at Dex before answering. Damn. He was looking forward to a second helping of Annie’s food. “Hey, Rylee,” Gabe said, making a show of shoving a forkful of food in his mouth while holding Dex’s gaze. Idiot. Dex laughed. That was why they got on so well. “No. Don’t do anything else.” Gabe set his fork down and frowned.
“I’ll fix it. I’m at Annie’s having breakfast. I’ll be right over.” “Everything okay?” he felt compelled to ask once his buddy hung up. “Yeah. I—” The phone rang again. Gabe glanced down and sighed, before answering. “Sheriff Bryson. He got lose again? Okay. I’m on my way.
” Dex scratched the bridge of his nose, trying to keep his smile reined in. “Charlie?” he asked when Gabe hung up. “Yeah.” His buddy shook his head. “I swear that horse is Houdini reincarnated.” The old boy was older than sin and just as mischievous. “He’s probably visiting Napoleon,” Dex said. It was no secret the horse and mini donkey were buddies. Charlie belonged to the older man who lived next to Dex’s, and the horse was often spotted lumbering across Dex’s land, then Mac’s, on his way to the ranch on the other side. It was owned by the local veterinarian who also owned the donkey.
“No rest for the weary,” Dex said. Gabe stood and shoved the phone in his pocket. “True, and you’re one of them.” “How so?” “I need you to go help my sister fix her leaky kitchen faucet before she messes up her shoulder.” His stomach hit the floor. Damn. He’d rather go find Charlie. The old horse was ornery. Rylee was worse.