"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Anton Chekhov


Thursday, May 21, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Fourteen

Kate closed her eyes, unexpected rescue warring with sick apprehension.  What was Mitch doing here?  Damn the man, he just couldn’t listen.  And thank god for that.  She tried to twist toward him, to see him, but could only catch a glimpse from the corner of her eye before her captor yanked her to her feet, pulling her against his chest like a shield as he turned to face Mitch, the knife tip pressing into her throat.

There was a long, tense silence, then Mitch drawled, “Well, if it isn’t Dumbass Boudreaux.”

Hissing between clenched teeth, the man barked, “It’s Dumas, asshole.”

Ignoring him, Mitch turned his gaze to the other man, eyes skimming quickly over Kate’s body in passing.  “And I see you brought little brother, Roach.”

“My brother’s name is Roche,” the man called Dumas snarled, “and ‘bout time you showed some respect, all things considered.”  His grip tightened in Kate’s hair.

 Mitch had had enough.  His head was pounding, his shoulder was on fire and if he hadn’t locked his knees, he’d already be on the ground.  His power play was all bluster and he was going to lose the game if he didn’t finish this quick.  “Get your hands off the woman and step back, Boudreaux.  I’ll give you half a second then it’s a bullet to the brain.  Mood I’m in, this cluster fuck could go south in a heartbeat with two dead Cajuns laying in the dirt.  You think I’m kidding, try me. Please.”

Roche piped up from somewhere to Kate’s right.  “She fucking stabbed me, Cartwright and kicked my nuts bad.  I get a piece of her,” he whined.

Mitch sighed, deep and long, then shook his head.  “Time’s up.”  Dumas had pulled her head back so far she didn’t see Mitch’s movement, but when the pressure of the knife eased on her throat and Roche suddenly yelled, “No, wait!”  she didn’t hesitate and slammed her head back, catching Dumas hard on the chin.  Twisting out of his grasp, she spun and kicked out, hitting him behind one knee.  As he staggered, she wrenched her knife out of his hand as he fell and before anyone could do much more than blink, Kate had reversed their positions, the knife now pressing into the man’s neck as she jammed her knee between his shoulder blades and yanked his head back with a hard grip under his chin.

Roche slid off the log, one hand gripping his bloody thigh, the other raised, holding her pistol. “Tell her to let go of my brother or I’ll shoot you both dead.”  His threat might have been more effective if the gun hadn't been shaking in his hand. “She kicked me in the balls,” he complained again.

Kate’s eyes had locked on to Mitch the second she had Boudreaux under her blade.  He held the Sig Sauer like an old friend, easy and controlled in his grip.  But he was a mess, all wild-eyed and flushed.  Even his three-day scruff of beard couldn’t hide the deepening grooves of pain furrowing beside his mouth.  His blue eyes were molten, heat like an inferno raging in the depths, growing hotter as they stared, each assessing the damage to the other.  She didn’t like the feverish glint, or the way he kept clenching his jaw like he was holding on by sheer will power alone.  He was getting sick, in deep pain, and yet ready to drop, he’d come for her.  

No one had ever done such a thing, not once in her entire life. 

One sharp, knowing moment, and her heart burst right out of her chest, flew across the space between them, and fell at his feet.  While she straddled Boudreaux, still stunned at the significance of what Mitch had done and what it meant to her, she heard a sound, so familiar, her head snapped around and a wide, welcoming smile crossed her face as she took in the force of nature that was her boy, Menace.  All was right with her world now.  She flashed a glance at Mitch, including him in that world.  He saw the look, basked for a moment in the warmth, then saw her smile fade into a scowl as she glared at him.  Anger, worry, and a deeper emotion that Mitch wanted to explore at his leisure in a big bed with room service and a Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob, washed over Kate’s face before she turned back to watch Ace prowling toward them.

Mitch needed this to be over now.  Feeling hazy and unsteady, he wanted Kate’s hands on him, cooling the heat fogging his head, burning the marrow out of his bones. And he needed to tend to her injuries, because she had them.  He could tell by the way she was leaning over Boudreaux, slightly favoring one side, and her neck was bleeding, the narrow trickle of blood curling down into her shirt, soaking the collar.  She had dirt on her face, pine needles and debris stuck in her hair and she looked tough and beautiful and he just wanted to lay down with her somewhere, wrap her up tight in his arms and have a nice, long nap.  So, yeah.  He was done here.

“You don’t shut up about your balls, Roach, I’m going to hand them to you myself.  And you’d better drop the gun or that pissed off dog behind you is gonna take you apart.”  Mitch shook his head as Roche spun around, took one look at Ace’s snarling fangs as he padded closer and tossed the gun aside like it was too hot to hold before scrambling on top of the log.

Then Mitch eyed Boudreaux.  “Okay, here’s how it’s going down.  First, you and Roach leave your weapons here and go back to the swamp and the gators.  You pass along to anyone you might bump into that any interest in this woman means messing in my business.”  He smiled, eyes cold as the heart of a glacier.  Softly, he murmured, “I don’t like people in my business, Dumbass, don’t like it at all.”  Mitch lowered his gun as he advanced.  Kate still had her knife at the man’s throat, so Mitch crouched on the opposite side and said close to his ear, “You need to find a new line of work, asshole.  You fucking shot at me and were going to murder a contract.  You’re done.”  He straightened, held the other man’s gaze.  “And brother, you'd best go deep into that bayou of yours because I hear a mention of you or your kin and I’m the next knock on your door.”  He nodded to Kate and she pulled back the knife, stood up and went to retrieve her gun from the ground where Roche had thrown it.  Mitch’s voice was a whispered hiss. “Tried to kill me, Boudreaux.  Even if I could let that slide—which I can’t—my brother won’t.”  He eased back, stared down at the man, his features hard.  “For now, you spread the word this woman is my business and only my business and get the fuck back to the swamp.  In the meantime, I’ll try working on my anger issues.”

“Back off, Cartwright,”  Boudreaux snapped as he got to his feet. “You know how much this bitch is worth, you saw the contract and I hear there’s more on the table than just the retrieval...”  Boudreaux drifted to a halt as if something monumental had just occurred to him.  His eyes darted back and forth between Mitch and Kate, then he smiled, nasty and vile, and bobbed his head several times.  “Ah, mon ami, I should have known.  You are a clever, clever man.”  He looked over at Kate, Ace at her side and shook his head, reluctant approval in his mean eyes. “Beautiful woman to heat the blood, nice bonus, my friend.”

Mitch growled. “Dumbass, you and I have never been friends and never will be.  I’m damn sure you’d sell your grandmother for a dollar.  I don’t like you and unless you’re looking to die, don’t ever want to see you again.  We’re done.  Take your brother and idiot cousins—I’m guessing the other two morons you brought are Dwayne and Cletis—and get the fuck gone, all of you.”  His voice was steadily rising.  “I’m fucking tired, hungry and done with this shit. Go. The. Fuck. Away!”  The roar at the end of Mitch’s rant rolled out of the trees and down the valley. It was clear to everyone that the bear had been poked.

Several minutes later Kate sat with her back to a tree, Ace pressed into her side, purposefully keeping her distance from the three men arguing across the clearing. Beside her was a jumble of weaponry, the cause of the argument.  Mitch had confiscated everything from the two men except their compass and now, as she watched his gestures, listened to the low, deep tone of his voice barking orders, she was amazed he was still on his feet, though she didn’t think that would last much longer.  She didn’t want to interfere, or meddle in how Mitch handled the situation, but he was about ready to drop and she knew he would die standing up before he’d show any weakness in front of the Cajuns; they still didn’t know how badly he was hurt.  She’d give it another minute, then step in, wave a cookie under his nose or something.  The thought made her smile and he turned his head just then, caught the look on her face and lost track of everything for a moment as his focus locked on her. Abruptly he interrupted Boudreaux, who was yammering on about something Mitch didn’t give a shit about and bluntly said, “Go.”  He narrowed his eyes at the two men.  “I’m sending the dog along for the first leg of your hike, so step lively.  He has less patience than I do.”

“No!  Not the dog!”  Roche began to back away as Mitch again looked over at Kate.  She was on her feet, hand on the dog’s head as she met Mitch’s eyes.  There was a silent tug-of-war for a moment, but Kate backed off, not willing to usurp Mitch’s authority in front of the men, or stop them from leaving, and though she wasn’t happy to lose Ace again so soon, she lifted her hand when Mitch whistled for the dog.

“Use this.”  Boudreaux handed his brother a large, twisted branch to use as a crutch.  “I'm not waiting, so keep up or the dog gets you.”

Boudreaux walked away without a backward glance, Roche stumbling down the slope after him, their peevish, argumentative voices growing fainter as they went out of sight.  Mitch kept his hand on the dog’s head until it was quiet, then he lifted Ace’s chin, snapped his fingers once, said “One klick,” and sent Ace after them.  He watched Ace weave silently between the trees, staying above the trail to shadow the men like a ghost.  If all went okay, Ace should be back in under an hour.  It would be full dark by then and Mitch didn’t know where they were going to make camp, or how much longer he’d be able to hold out before falling on his face.  His head was thumping erratically, in sync with his stuttering heartbeats, blood from the bullet wound was seeping out the bandage and down his chest, sticking his tee shirt to his skin in a soggy, unpleasant mess. And damn, he was tired.

He turned slowly toward Kate.  She was still standing by the tree, but now she stalked toward him, fire blazing in her eyes, so pissed heat was rolling off her body like a blast furnace as she came in close.  And damn if, battered, seeing double and bleeding like a stuck pig, he didn’t go hard as a rock just watching her.  Long legs eating up the ground, she came at him.  “You stupid, stupid man!  Why aren’t you two miles away, far from here and safe, instead of weaving on your feet, covered in blood…”  She stopped talking when the toes of her boots rammed into his and she wrapped a hand around his neck and pulled him in, her tongue in his mouth before he could draw breath.  The kiss was wet and hot and filled with a whole lot of thank god you’re alive.  Panting, Kate broke the kiss, looked up at him, her hand still at his nape, and in the next moment showed him the future.

Holding his gaze, she finished her sentence as if they hadn’t just swallowed tongues and chewed lips. “…and saving my ass just in the nick of time.”  Then she threw her head back and laughed, throaty and wild.  And yeah, there it was. His future.  She was dauntless and brave.  He knew she’d been scared, had seen the look on her face just before he stopped the Cajuns from doing worse to her than the threat of slitting her throat.  Yet, even afraid, she’d been determined, would have fought to the bitter end.  Strong, dangerous, beautiful. So passionate and willing, he’d pretty much had a nonstop erection since the beginning. And she made the best damned cookies he’d ever tasted.

Another laugh, softer, gentle, her fingers sliding from his neck, knuckles skimming the scruff on his cheek as she raised her eyes.  They gleamed like green jewels in the setting sun, a new awareness lurking behind the glow, a mix of relief that he’d come, elation that they were both still alive, and a heat meant just for him.  She grinned at him, shook her head.  “Outmanned, outgunned, my head in the noose.”   On her toes, kissing him sweet.  “And my man saves the day.  It doesn’t get much better than that.”  She sighed happily, then realized what she’d just blurted out and went still for a second before ducking her head.  But Mitch wasn’t having any part of that and took the opening.  Putting his good arm around her waist, he hauled her in. “Your man?  You thinking of me that way, baby?”  Low, smooth. Whiskey neat.

Kate opened her mouth to deny it, because crap, what if she said what she really felt and he wasn’t feeling it the same?  She shut her mouth.  Then opened.  Shut.  Opened again. Shut.

“Honey, you’re creating your own weather system.”  When she opened again, he leaned in and helped himself.  Tongues and lips, slow and soft, they were both breathless when he lifted his head.  “Nothing you can’t say to me.”  But before she could reply, he suddenly swayed, over-compensated, then tipped too far the other direction and had to stagger to balance himself.  Kate grabbed a handful of leather jacket to steady him.

“Ah, Kate,” he said softly, “I’m sorry about this.”

“About what?”

      His eyes rolled back and Mitch sank to his knees, forehead resting gently against her stomach as he blacked out.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Thirteen

Kate stood in the deep shadows and silently watched Mitch and Ace walk out of sight. She had to grit her teeth and force herself not to go after them, even more so when Mitch tripped and would have fallen if not for Ace.  Turning away before she did something stupid, she made her way through the forest until she was far enough beyond where the men had last been seen before angling back toward the trail.

It hadn’t taken long to halt the progress of the two guys still trying to climb up the ridge.  A pile of large, loose stones, a strong branch and a little fulcrum action had sent them frantically scrambling to avoid the sharp projectiles. She smiled at the howls and curses, grinned in the silent aftermath, then eased out from behind a boulder and cautiously peered over the edge of the trail.  Dusty plumes followed the rocky debris hurling down the mountain in a bone-breaking landslide. She took a minute to study the area for the sniper, but after seeing no one, slipped back into the forest and headed after Mitch. By the time the men regrouped, she would be long gone.

Walking fast, her mind on Mitch, worried that he was in worse shape than he’d let on, she stumbled on a root and fell to her knees with a grunt.  Cursing under her breath, thankful her fall was cushioned by the pine needles, she was just getting to her feet when the low drone of a male voice wafted toward her.  She couldn’t understand the words, but knew if one man was speaking, there had to be another listening. Crawling behind the closest tree, she shrugged off her pack, jerked the rifle off her shoulder and sighted down the barrel, eyes narrowed as she looked through the scope.  Slowly scanning, taking her time, Kate was rewarded by a slight movement in the underbrush about sixty yards to her left.

Was this the sniper?  She knew the other two were still below, city boys lost in an unfamiliar environment being chased by rocks, but if the sniper had made it up the mountain so quickly, he obviously had more experience.  Her mouth went dry at her next thought.  Or were there more men that the three she'd initially spotted?

The sound of a twig snapping to her right dropped Kate to her belly behind an enormous fallen log, half-rotted and covered with moss and lichen.  She breathed easy through her mouth, not moving a muscle as she listened to the forest, searching for what didn’t belong.  Several minutes ticked by, then faintly, above and behind her, the soft snick of a pebble glancing off other small stones sent a chill down her spine.  Behind her?  Mitch and Ace were back that way.  Her heart began to pound, but she forced herself to stay still, all her senses focused on the sounds around her before she slowly turned to look over her shoulder.

Another man, several yards away, muttered a few words into a headset, his voice so low she wouldn’t have known he was speaking if she hadn’t seen the slight movement of his lips before he turned his back and stealthily began making his way north, eyes on the ground, tracking, searching.  Kate remained motionless and watched him stop, crouch down and shuffle a handful of pine needles between his fingers like he was reading a coded message. Then he straightened, tipped his head back and inhaled deep like Ace would, scenting his prey, reading the air.  Her stomach clenched.  He could find Mitch. All he had to do was follow the signs, and the rich, coppery scent of fresh blood.

She had a perfect shot at the guy, could take him out in a heartbeat.  She was skilled and proficient, more than capable, but to shoot someone in the back, in cold blood?  Murder wasn’t really something she wanted on her resume.
Change of plan then.  She needed to get to Mitch.  In the shape he’d been in, this guy could knock him over with a feather.  Or shoot first, who cares about later.  Move, you bastard.  She couldn’t go until he did and with all his sniffing and pine needle reading, she was getting tired of waiting for him to get on with it.

But then he did the most unexpected thing, catching her so off guard, she froze like a deer in headlights in what felt like the longest moment of her life.  He abruptly turned, the smile on his face thin and cruel as he raised his rifle and aimed it right at her. With no time to think, Kate rolled to her back and fired, the recoil slamming the rifle butt into the ground at her hip.  The man returned fire, but as his shots rang out, sending splinters of rotten wood and chunks of wet moss into the air, she was already scrambling around the log.  After a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure the other guy hadnt seen her yet, she adjusted her rifle and risked a look up the slope, prepared now to shoot, the hell with her resume, but the man had disappeared, vanished like smoke into thin air.

Frowning, her eyes flew around the area, searching for anything that would reveal his whereabouts.  With two men this close, she had to get away, now.  Fear tightened her stomach but she ignored it, her mind racing as she weighed the risks and the danger.  She took a couple of strong, even breaths, tensed her muscles and prepared to make a run for it. 

Her heart jammed in her throat when she rolled away from the log to stand up and saw a man less than three feet away, grinning down at her, rifle casually pointed at her chest.

“Pretty good with that rifle.”  He nodded, all chatty, like neighbors over the fence.  “And that shooting from the hip thing?  Like a Lara Croft movie.”  He laughed, showing that what little teeth he had were stained dark brown, no doubt from the tobacco stuffed into the side of his cheek.  His beady eyes darted from her face, to her hands still gripping her rifle, to her chest, though the draw there might not have been her breasts, but the sight of Mitch’s blood smeared all over her jacket and shirt. He talked with a strange southern drawl and looked like a ferret, skinny and sly.

She had to get on her feet.  Not only was she at a disadvantage on the ground, but her pistol was at her back, knife in the sheath at her side.  Dressed for hiking, her thick shirt and jacket were blocking access to her weapons.  She kept her eyes on him and slowly began to rise.

He let her sit up, but when she made to stand, he scowled and bent to snatch the rifle out of her hands.  “You just sit right there, girl.  No quick-like moves.”

“Can I just sit on the log?  I’m tired and cold.  I’ll stand up, but then sit right back down again, okay?”  She smiled like a Barbie doll, head tilt and all.

After giving it way more thought than the simple yes or no required, he finally jerked his chin once and she wasted no time standing.  She turned, as if inspecting the log for a place to sit, though in truth was studying the area, looking for the other man, because this guy wasn’t the true threat.  She’d fucked up.  At least four guys, not the three she’d figured. Looked like she might have to pay for that mistake.

She picked a spot near one end of the log and sat.  “So,” she said, unbuttoning her jacket, “what happened to the other guy?”

Ferret smiled wide.  Kate had reached a total count of seven teeth when she felt the hard press of a muzzle at the base of her skull.  Taking a slow, deep breath, she said calmly, though her heart had nearly reached critical mass, “Ah, there you are.”  Silence for a minute, then Ferret started to laugh, shaking his head as he walked closer. 

“Shut the fuck up,” growled a cold, mean voice at her back.  It was him all right, the boss who meant business.  He jabbed the pistol in her nape hard enough to make her head snap forward.  Now or never, she thought, kicking a leg out and nailing Ferret so hard in the balls with her steel-toed boot, his eyes nearly popped out of his head as he collapsed, moaning and writhing to the forest floor.  Before he hit the ground, she had already twisted over the log and hammered a solid fist into the boss guy’s throat, reaching out to grab his wrist with her other hand.  His head snapped back as he choked for breath, but he still managed to keep his grip on the pistol, livid eyes locked on her face as they grappled.  She plowed a fist into his belly then hopped back to avoid his reach.

So many ways to play the next few minutes, Kate’s mind boggled at the choices.  Ferret was out for the count, crying and sniveling, his knees drawn up tight to his chest, hands in his crotch as he blubbered. But this one, rubbing his throat, gun unwavering from a spot right between her eyes, he was a different.  Lean and wiry, he stood a few inches taller than her, bald head glistening with sweat, an obvious family connection to Ferret with his thin lips and long, sharp nose.  She could see in his dark rattlesnake eyes this wasn’t going to end well for somebody.

“Why’d you shoot Mitch?” she asked, stalling for time.  Knife or pistol, pistol or knife. “He’s the one who tracked me, has the contract.  What are you doing?  Poaching?  That won’t sit well once word gets out.”

“He was in the way and word ain’t getting out.”  Poor guy, his voice sounded funny, like he’d just been throat punched.

  “Oh, come on.”  She couldn’t stop the burst of laughter. “You thought taking down a man like Mitch Cartwright was a good idea?”   She snorted.  “Even if you did manage to do the impossible, somebody will get word to his brother.”  Kate shrugged, letting her jacket slide off one shoulder. “Your funeral.”

“But I did the manage the impossible,” the guy sneered.  “Not here now, is he?  I got him, saw him drop.”  He stepped close and hissed in her face, “Like I said, word ain’t getting out.”

Finally, close enough.  She leaned in, eyes locked with his as she edged a hand to the small of her back.  When her arm was suddenly wrenched up between her shoulder blades, forcing her up onto her toes, the pain was so unexpected and excruciating she couldn’t register what was happening at first. Her gun was yanked out of her waistband and Ferret’s tobacco breath slid hot into her ear, oily and rancid.  “You gonna be sorry for that kick, bitch.”  He yanked hard on her arm.  She was powerless to stop the shriek as pain tore through her shoulder.  Panting through the agony, she was vaguely pleased that her voice wasn’t as impaired as the rest of her.  “You guys don’t seem to understand the concept of bounty hunting.  You’re supposed to catch the runner, then return them for compensation.  Torture and murder aren’t usually on the table this early in the game.”

Boss stepped close, pushing his chest into her, forcing her back against Ferret, pinning her between their bodies.  Her arm throbbed with the unbearable pressure and her calves were screaming.  En pointe in hiking boots wasn’t exactly the prescribed ballet movement.  She let herself fall hard into Ferret’s chest, biting her lip against the pain as it tore through her, but it was worth the agony when he stumbled, lost his grip and fell. Her arm flopped like a piece of dead meat, razor-sharp pain ripping from her neck to her finger tips as muscle and tendon uncoiled.  Right arm numb and worthless, she stretched across her belly with her left hand, jerked the knife out of its sheath and without a second’s pause, stabbed it into the boss guy’s shoulder. The blade was sharp, her aim true and it went deep.  Her grip tight on the hilt, she jammed it in harder and twisted.  He roared, shoved her back and raised the butt of the pistol to strike her, his face contorted with rage.  “You’re fucking dead.”

Shifting her feet, she prepared to strike again when he came closer, but Ferret, like the fucking Energizer Bunny, was back on his feet and had moved in behind her, pinning her arms in a forceful embrace.  Going limp, she let her weight throw him off balance again, this time they fell back onto the log and she used his tight grip as a brace, pulling her feet up to her chest then kicking out, making solid contact with Boss man’s stomach.  As he staggered back, she stabbed her knife into Ferret’s thigh.  He surged up so fast, she tumbled off his body and landed on hands and knees, jarring her injured shoulder as she fell. Bellowing, Ferret slumped back onto the log, hands clutched around his thigh as blood welled like little fountains between his fingers.

Before Kate could get to her feet, Boss kicked her in the side, the blow rolling her five feet down the slope.  Sucking in a shaky breath as her ribs burst into flame, she dodged the second kick, but he caught her in the injured shoulder with the third and she did a face plant, her breath wheezing from the pain, the arid scent of old pine filling her nose.

He ground his boot heel into her wrist until she released the knife, then bent down and grabbed a handful of hair, yanking her head back to expose her throat. “Time we had us some fun, little girl.”  Kate felt the blade dig into the skin just below her chin when she swallowed.     

     A snarl rolled like thunder across the forest floor, followed by a deep, rough voice filled with hell-to-pay fury.  “And I can’t wait to get the party started.”

Saturday, March 28, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Twelve

Kate crawled beside Ace where he hunkered at the edge of the trail.  His growl was a low, continuous rumble as she stared down into the trees.  Mitch quietly asked, “Can you see them?”

Shifting back, she crouched beside him. “I spotted two on foot, the sniper makes three.  Let’s get your jacket on, I’ll tell you where to go, then you and Ace head out and I’ll be right behind you.”

“Not a chance.  I’m staying and you’re going—”

Her hand shot out and clamped over his mouth.  She leaned in, fire in her eyes. “I understand you’re finding this hard to accept, Cartwright, but try to focus on the facts here. You’re hurt, I’m not.  You need medical attention, I don’t.”  She glared and tightened her fingers when he tried to pull away.  “I know you’re used to doing things your way, controlling every situation, but that is not happening right now.”  She dropped her hand, grabbed his jacket and began to carefully work his arms through the sleeves as she spoke.  “I have to be lead dog on this one, Mitch, and you’re going to accept it.  I’m not going to die on this mountain today because you’re too stubborn to let someone else take charge.”  Adjusting the jacket across his shoulders, she said impatiently, “And if I have to order Ace to drag you out of here by your hair, believe me, I will.”

He stared, enthralled.  She was so damn hot when she got riled.  “Is it totally wrong that I want you right now, hard and fast and deep?” he growled.

Kate blinked, then one side of her mouth curled up and she shook her head, anger dissipating as fast as it had come. “Not wrong, just bad timing,” she said with a grin.  Grabbing the rifle, she moved back to the bluff and carefully scanned the lower terrain through the scope.  She could see two men trying to make their way toward the ridge, the attempt more one step forward, two back as they fought against the landscape of fallen trees, loose shale and underbrush.  “Where are you?” she whispered, panning through the trees for the sniper.  “Remember the muzzle flash,” Mitch murmured. “Start there and work out.”

Picturing the spark of light that had gleamed for an instant in the dark forest below, she aimed the rifle down the ridge and within moments had located the tree and the shooter, who was slowly making his way to the ground.  Kate carefully gauged his descent, took a deep breath and fired.  The branch shattered under the man’s feet, his rifle flying as he lost his grip and abruptly dropped out of sight.

Scuttling back from the edge, she met Mitch’s gaze.  “You get him?”  He hated that she had to do this, he didn’t want another monster haunting her nightmares, but they had no choice now.  Still, when she smiled and said, “Killed the branch he was standing on,” Mitch grinned back at her with relief.

Setting the rifle aside, Kate called Ace to her, strapped his saddlebags around his bulk, then quickly secured the two packs she and Mitch were carrying.  When his felt too heavy, she bent to switch some items to her own pack, but he took it from her.  “It’s okay, the weight won’t matter.  I’ll carry it over my good shoulder.”

“I’m more worried about your head.  You could get disoriented, lose your balance, compromise your vision.”  A memory teased.  Mitch riding the Harley up her drive, his aviators an irritating impediment.  “Where are your sunglasses?”

Using the boulder to steady himself, Mitch slowly got to his feet, though he swayed for a second, then held a hand over his eyes while he fought to stay upright. “Sunglasses?  I don’t remember.”  He frowned.  “Was I wearing them?”

“No, not this morning.”  She bent to her pack.  “Mine will work, if they fit.”  After rummaging in a side pocket, she found the case, snapped it open and handed him a pair of Ray-Bans.  “The lenses are really dark and should help with your light sensitivity.”  She polished them with the hem of her tee shirt, then stood in front of him and slipped them on. “Better?”

He groaned at the soothing absence of harsh sunlight.  “Much better.”  Then he pulled her against his uninjured side and held her tight for a moment before saying, “Okay, what’s our next move?”

“Use Ace, for balance and support.  Stay on this trail until you come to a large tree on your right that was struck by lightning.  It’s split down the middle and burnt to a crisp on one side.  That’s your signpost.”  Turning to face him, she met his eyes. “I won’t lie, the hike is short, but it’s a bitch.  There’s a narrow track behind the tree, follow it until you reach a fork, go left and hike until you get to the top.”  She paused, eyes roaming over his face, noting the flush on his cheeks, the tight clench of his jaw muscles. “Ace and I have easily done it in under an hour, but you’re hurt so take your time, go slow, stop and rest.  I’ll meet you at the summit.”

Mitch put his hands on her shoulders and scowled down at her.  “You fucking promise that you’ll be right behind us, and I’ll go.”  His fingers griped hard.  “Otherwise, you’re coming with me now, no arguments.”

“We need to know what we’re dealing with.  I know these woods, they don’t.” She raised her hand to stop him when his mouth opened to argue.  “It’s simple surveillance, Mitch.  I’ll be careful, find out where we stand, and muddy our trail.  When I’m done, I’ll be right behind you.”

He tried to shake his head, but a bolt of pain shot through his temples, stabbing into his brain. The best he could do was growl, “Hell no.”  His voice sounded raw, like the words had scraped his throat on the way out.  “I thought you were just going to bring up the rear, watch our backs or something.  No way you’re stalking a hit team by yourself.”

She moved away from him without speaking and knelt beside Ace, wrapped her arms around his neck and whispered in his ear, “You keep our guy safe, okay?  Don’t take any chances or try to be the hero, Ace.”  After a quick hug, she straightened, picked up Mitch’s pack and slid it up his arm to hang over his good shoulder. Eyes burning a path across her face, fueled by anger and helplessness, he snarled, “Im not going to let you do it, Kate.”

Smiling ruefully, she shook her head.  “Still trying to boss me."  When his scowl deepened, she said, Look, Mitch, I know what I’m doing. Four years on the run, dodging death at every turn, remember?  I got this.”

“But you shouldn’t do it on your own, and definitely not without me at your back.”

She gave him a searching look, then said softly, “Would you question anyone on your team, Mitch?  Ever have this conversation with Mike?  And when did I give you the impression I can’t handle myself?”

He scowled, opened his mouth, snapped it shut, then hissed angrily, “Just because you can handle yourself, doesn’t mean you should do this.”

“You’ve made it clear we’re in this together, Mitch, so prove it.  Trust me to do this while you go with Ace.”  She shrugged into her pack, adjusted the rifle strap over her shoulder and ran a quick scan around the area to make certain they weren’t leaving anything behind, then lifted her eyes to meet his.  Was he looking feverish, or just furious?  “Stop and rest every fifteen minutes or so and drink plenty of water.  If you feel sick or faint, find a place to lay low and I’ll find you.  Just don’t deviate too far off the route, I don’t want to lose you in the wilderness.”  She gave him a small smile.  “And be sure to stay under the pines as much as possible so you can’t be tracked.”

“For fuck’s sake, Kate.  You know what I do for a living, right?”

“Sorry,” she snorted, “until you, I’ve been used to a male who actually listens to me. I tell Ace what to do,” she shrugged, “and he does it, no arguing, no debate.”

There was a moment of silence, then he laughed, low and deep and her breath caught.  She wanted that sound to belong to her, wanted to surround herself in the warmth and never be cold or afraid again.  If only.

“Kate, I…”  He swallowed, then tipped sideways when Ace bumped into his leg.  Putting out a hand to steady him, Kate said softly, “Hold that thought.  We’ll talk tonight when we’re far away from here and not dodging bullets and bad guys.”

“I swear, woman, if you’re not wrapped around me tonight, safe and sound, I will tear this fucking forest down, tree by tree until I find you.”  Pain carving deep furrows beside his mouth, he barked, “You understand me?”

“Yes, sir.”  After a mock salute, she moved closer and got serious.  “And if you aren’t at the summit when I get there?  Same goes.”

He pulled her hard against him and she knew it had to hurt, also knew he wouldn’t care. His kiss was intense, almost brutal as he took her mouth, heat and power rolling off him.  He smelled of spice and sweat, blood and fury.  Lifting his head, he murmured against her lips, “We’ve got things to settle between us, baby.”  Forcing himself to step back, he said soberly, “I’d better see you soon.”

“You will.”  She took a deep breath to clear her head, hitched her pack and readjusted the rifle.  “Now go.  At this rate, I’ll get there before the two of you.”  Reaching up, she cupped his cheek. “Stay safe,” she whispered, then quickly turned away and moved silently into the trees before the haunted look on his face changed her mind.

Mitch waited until she was out of sight before gesturing to Ace.  The dog walked beside him on the left, his body between Mitch and the rugged drop-off, every so often lightly nudging Mitch back on track when he stumbled.  Several minutes later, however, Mitch dropped his pack and rushed behind a tree to throw up everything he’d ever eaten since the day he was born.  At least that’s how it felt when he found himself on hands and knees, weak and exhausted, head pounding, shoulder throbbing and his gut aching.

When he could move, he crawled several yards away and collapsed on his back with a low moan.  Ace sat next to him, whining softly.  “I’m okay, boy.  Just need a minute.”  Christ, he sounded like he needed last rites.  Without opening his eyes, he fumbled in Ace’s saddlebag for water.  Slowly, carefully sitting up, he took a long pull on the bottle and swished out his mouth before taking a drink. He had a queasy urge to retch when the water hit his empty stomach but with slow even breaths, the moment passed.

He had to get his shit together.  For some reason he couldn’t quite remember, he’d actually agreed to Kate’s stupid plan.  It was almost impossible to think around the piercing headache, but that was no excuse for letting her take charge, and no way was he leaving her to deal with three men, possibly more, who’s only objective was killing or capturing her.  He had to get back in the fucking game. In tiny increments, he cautiously raised his eyelids, thankful the intense pain he’d experienced earlier had been lessened by the sunglasses.  It seemed his sight had improved, too.  Maybe barfing helped, because he’d gone from a nauseating vision of fours, to just doubles now.  It was pure dumb luck that he’d managed to kiss Kate on the mouth instead of her ear; a fluke that he’d picked the real Kate from the four weaving in front of him after he’d cracked his head. He took another drink of water, feeling slightly better.  All he needed now was a minute to recuperate and he’d be ready to go after her.

Gunfire erupted in the distance, bringing Mitch to his feet. Too fast, head spinning, he fell back against a tree and fought the gathering shadows, his sight narrowing to a pinpoint focus of two enormous dogs, two narrow, dusty trails, two bright orbs dancing over two jagged peaks in the hazy distance.  Mitch slid down the rough bark and sank into the darkness.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Eleven

An hour later, taking a break beside the trail on a huge boulder overlooking a long, narrow valley that cut a brilliant green swath through a sea of pines, Mitch leaned back against the stone and sighed contentedly.  Before Kate, he honestly couldn’t remember when he’d had such a feeling, but finding her three days ago had altered his world, filling it with colors and flavors and scents he’d never imagined.

Since leaving the cabin, she had tormented and badgered him to explain his plan. Hed turned it into a game, responding to her endless questions with foolish and ridiculous answers until she was either scowling or trying to hide her laughter.  He bit into a protein bar and watched her twist the cap off a bottle of water, the early morning sun lighting up strands of her hair in a striking fusion of reddish hues.  He loved her hair, the texture, the color, the way it felt tangled in his fingers

“So,” Mitch said hoarsely.  He cleared his throat, tried again.  “So, when’s your birthday?”

Kate froze, the water bottle halfway to her mouth.  “What?”  She looked over at him, a troubled unease in her gaze, her distrust at the question was immediate.

“Looking forward to the day I can just ask a simple question and it won’t freak you out.” He bumped her shoulder with his own.  “It was just an innocent question, Kate.  I want to know about you.”  He had to tread lightly, too bad that wasn’t one of his skills.  “Just wondering if I’m robbing the cradle,” he smiled wide, “or you are.”

Her smile was small, tense, then she met his gaze, her eyes searching for hidden motives, hoping for sincerity. He could almost see the analytical gears grinding in her head, hear them weighing his words, probing the meaning behind his question, judging his reason for asking it. He was disappointed when she looked away.

Okay, that didn’t work for him.  Time to lay it out and hope he wasn’t about to step on his dick.  “Kate,” he said quietly, “we need to get a few things straight between us.”  He grabbed her hand, rubbing his thumb gently over her knuckles in a gesture he hoped was soothing.  “I took this job as a favor for my brother.  I didn’t want it, had things at home to deal with, but I did it, for Mike.  I expected to find a woman willing to listen, to accept the help.  I figured I’d locate you then hand you over to Mike and Lisa and it would be back to business as usual.”  He tugged on her hand until she raised her head and met his eyes.  He grinned down at her.  “But instead, I find a wild woman, gorgeous and tough, holding me at gunpoint, never once showing an ounce of weakness, and I know how my size can intimidate.  Being a gorilla helps in my line of work.”

“Gorilla,” she snorted.  “When you climbed off that Harley, I saw Kodiak bear.”  A small corner of her mouth curved up.  “Kodiak trumps gorilla any day.”

He chuckled.  “Either way, it helps that I’m a big, scary guy with few regrets and zero tolerance for fucked up losers.  My point is, I’ve never met a woman like you.  You’re brave and audacious and skilled, and you had me at ‘you speak English?’  Which I gotta tell you, baby, was the funniest thing I ever heard.”

“You didn’t laugh,” she said softly.

“How could I laugh?  You’d just handed me my balls.  I’m a guy, I had to save face.”

Her laughter was a thing of beauty.  It animated her face, gave her eyes a bright gleam, chased away the fucking shadows that haunted her…and him.  He flung an arm around her shoulders and yanked her close.  “You owned me.  Right then, in the blink of an eye, and you didn’t even realize it.”  He kissed the top of her head and murmured into her hair, “I don’t think you understand yet how far down the rabbit hole I’ve fallen, baby.  I’m still reeling, if you want the truth of it.”

She looked up at him.  He was either a consummate actor, or he meant every word.  She thought of Mike and Lisa—good, decent people who’d been kind to her—and the bond Ace had with Mitch, something that wouldn’t be possible if he were a cruel man. 

“Just before Thanksgiving,” she murmured, “I’ll be 32.”

He squeezed her tight for a moment.  “See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?  And just so you know, I’ll be 36 in January.”  Quietly, his words like soft kisses against her skin, he murmured at her temple, “I want so much to make things right for you.”  He sighed with reluctance and shifted so she could stand.  “And that means, we need to get moving.”  He kissed her quickly, not allowing himself to linger, then stood and turned to gather his pack and the rifle, resting against a boulder.

She bent to her own pack and was stuffing the empty water bottles into an outer pocket when Ace suddenly growled.  Her head spun, eyes zeroing in on her dog, rigid and quivering with tension as he stared down the ridge.

“What do you see, boy?”  She knelt down beside him and put an arm around his neck, lining her face up with his as she tried to gauge the distance and direction of his line of sight.  Was that something there, off to the left, glinting in a beam of— “Mitch,” she shouted, “get down!”

The reverberation from the shot cracked down the valley, but she’d already seen the muzzle flash and dropped to her belly, tugging Ace down beside her.  “Mitch!  Hand me the rifle, I know where the shooter is!”  Expecting to find Mitch armed and dangerous beside her before the words had left her mouth, she turned toward him and snapped, “Give me the damn—”  Kate froze in disbelief and rising horror to see him lying motionless on his side next to the boulders.

“Oh god, oh god, oh god,” she babbled, scrambling on her hands and knees toward him.  Everything around her fell away, sounds died, leaving behind a silence that was so crushing, her heart faltered.  “Mitch?”  Gently rolling him to his back, her hands darted frantically over his face, his neck, down his chest.  She couldn’t see an injury at first, then a dark stain began to spread across his tee shirt and her breathing accelerated into a thick, painful rhythm that nearly choked her.

Yanking open his jacket, she saw the bloody hole, high on his left shoulder. Cursing, she grabbed the wide lapel on his leather jacket and carefully pulled, raising his shoulder just enough to slide her hand beneath it.  She found the ragged exit hole, relief making her head swim.  Straight through, and from a bullet that didn’t tumble and tear, shred or mangle.

“Ace,” she ground out, “stay low.  Guard.”  She didn’t spare him a glance, knew he’d dropped flat to the ground and would warn her instantly if there was movement from any direction.  Shaking with her need to hurry, she reached for her pack, tore the first aid kit out of a large side pocket, opened it and grabbed a thick wad of gauze pads.  Up on her knees and using both hands, she pressed them hard into Mitch’s shoulder, incredibly pleased to hear his low moan. “Hey, big guy, need to see those eyes. Come on, Mitch.”

His eyelids fluttered, his gaze unfocused.  She needed him to wake up, needed to get the bleeding stopped, needed to make sure he was all right. Needed him.  A sob broke through her control, making her bite down hard on her bottom lip.  Digging deeper into her pack, she found a tee shirt, folded it several times and applied more pressure against his wound.  This time he hissed and slapped at her hands as he tried to sit up.  “Mitch, honey, lay still.”  He settled at the sound of her voice and slowly lifted his eyes, met hers.  “What the fuck…” he croaked, his voice weak and confused.

“Mitch, I need to get your jacket off.  Can you help me?”

Dazed, he stared at her for a long, anxious moment, eyes racing across her face.  His body spiked with a violent rush of adrenaline when he saw the blood on her hands, smeared on her jacket.  He jackknifed straight up, dragging his gun out of its holster on autopilot.  Then, “Jesus,” he hissed, falling back, the pistol limp in his grasp.  Eyes closed tight, he took several deep breaths against the pain, then rasped, “Blood on you.  Hurt?  Ace?”

“No.  Ace and I were down, but you, you’re a really big target.”  She helped him sit up when he tried again.  Leaning back against the boulder, he winced as she gently pulled one arm then the other out of his jacket sleeves.  “The bullet went clean.  I can bandage you, slow the bleeding, but we need a doctor.”  She cut his tee shirt open with her knife, grimaced at the wound. 

“Who did this, Mitch?  Is it the men from my house?” She gave him a bleak look, one he didn’t like seeing. “So, the bounty isn’t to find me, it’s to kill me?”

“Nobody’s going to fucking kill you,” he said heatedly, “but somebody’s for sure gonna die after this shit.”  He glanced at the first aid kit, met her eyes again.  “Fix me up, but do it quick, we have to get out of here.”

“You’re not looking so good, Mitch.”

“I can make it.  Been shot before, been in worse shape.”  He jerked when she applied a stinging ointment, then hissed as agony roared through his brain.  “Though don’t remember a bullet splitting my head in two.”

Kate stopped taping a thick gauze pad over the entry wound and palmed his jaw, lifting his face to meet her eyes.  She narrowed them when he threw up a hand to block the weak morning sun.  “Look at me, Mitch.”

“Can’t. Too bright.”

“Shade your eyes and look at me,” she ordered.  His eyes were dilated.  Damn.  “Close your eyes now and let me feel around your head.”  Calmly, tenderly, she ran her fingers lightly over the back of his skull until she found the gash.  He groaned as the pain lanced like a blade through his head. Her stomach clenched.

“Mitch, we’re kind of in trouble here.  Bullet wound is one thing, but you hit your head when you fell and I think you have a concussion, maybe even a fracture.”  She finished taping the second gauze pad at his back, then began to wrap his whole shoulder with a long roll of gauze.  “You can’t hike with a concussion.  You’ll be dizzy and nauseous and you could pass out, fall down and I won’t be able to get you up.”  Tying off the gauze, she turned to dig in his pack and pulled out a heavy wool shirt.  Using her knife, she cut off his tee and carefully got him into the new shirt, fingers flying as she quickly buttoned it.

He kept his eyes on her, soaking in every nuance, every beautiful inch of her face. “Is there anything you can’t do?” he asked softly.

“Yes, resist you.  Now hold still and let me finish.”

A smile touched his mouth before a look of resignation, followed by a deep regret crossed Mitch’s face.  “Leave me,” he ordered.  “You can make it to Bear Claw, get the car and hightail it straight to Montana.  Mike will keep you safe and I’ll catch up when I can.”

She didn’t even acknowledge his ridiculous words.  “We’ve got two choices,” she mumbled, more to herself than to him.  “Hour back to the cabin, hour ahead into town.”  Her eyes roamed over Mitch, assessing.  “I’m not sure either option will work, not with a head injury on top of your shoulder wound.”

“Goddamn it, Kate.  You will grab your pack and the dog and get the fuck away from here.  Right fucking now.”

Kate frowned at him.  “Are you done being an insufferable, overprotective ass?” she snapped.

“Am I dead?” he growled, his glare fierce.

She glared back, but before she could speak, he barked, “Then no, I’m not done.”

Ignoring him, she looked back the way they’d come then turned to look further along the path in the other direction.  Narrowing her eyes, she surveyed the landscape above the trail.  “There’s another place, closer, though the hike will be harder.”  She folded a smaller piece of gauze and pressed it to the back of Mitch’s head, instructing him to hold it while she tore off strips of tape.  When he started to argue again, she leaned close, met his eyes and said with a sharp edge, “If our positions were reversed, if it were me hurt, would you leave me behind?”

“Of course not.” Outrage flashed in his eyes. “I would carry you out.  Keep you safe.”

“Which is exactly what I intend to do,” she said, stowing the first aid kit in her pack.  “Minus the carrying you part.”

When he started in again, she pressed two fingers against his lips. “Stop arguing.  We stick together.  Drink this water, take these aspirin and rest for a minute while I get things sorted.”  She gently touched his face, then leaned in and softly kissed him.  “I’ll keep you safe, Mitch.  I swear it.

Behind her, Ace began to growl.  The sound rumbling up his throat was so dangerous, the hairs on the back of her neck rose in primal warning.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Ten

Dawn was just easing into the cabin when Kate woke to the soft tickle of several strands of her hair wafting gently against her cheek from Mitch’s deep, even breaths.  His arm was draped over her waist, a large hand tucked under her side, holding her body tight against his.  She stayed still and quiet, not wanting to lose the moment or the feel of Mitch wrapped around her like a blanket, legs tangled, arms enclosing her in his heat.  Taking your back.  She didn’t know what to think about how deep those words had gone or how much they meant.  Her eyes wandered around the cabin, the early morning light casting the space in a mellow glow, disguising the worn, aged reality of the rundown building.  Ace was watching her from his place by the door, only his eyes moving as his head rested on huge paws.  Kate smiled to herself, thinking he and Mitch shared that feature as the man stirred at her back, sliding his big hand over her stomach before resting it on her hip.

“Morning, baby,” he muttered, voice rough with sleep.  “I could get used to this, waking up with you all warm and soft.”  He nestled his face into her neck and breathed deep, sending goose bumps down her body.  Kate felt his chuckle rumble against her back when she shivered. “Can’t wait to have you in my bed, be inside you.”  His splayed hand moved down, tightened on her thigh.  “Kiss you to sleep, kiss you awake.”  He made a low humming sound and rocked his hips into her.

Before she could decide what to do, Mitch rolled to his back, taking her with him.  Stretched out on top of him, her head tucked under his chin, she was drawn into his warmth, her traitorous body overruling her head with alarming ease.  When a long sigh of resignation drifted across his chest, he smiled and languidly ran his fingers up and down her spine, repeating the seductive gesture over and over until she was boneless and limp, happy to never leave the perfect cushion of his body or the cozy comfort of the little cabin.  The heady thrill in not looking over her shoulder in fear for the first time in years washed over her.  And that brought her straight out of tranquility and into hardwired tension.  What was she thinking? 

“Stop thinking,” he murmured, lifting a hand to the side of her head, tangling his fingers in her long silken hair.  “Let me have just a few more minutes to savor the best morning I’ve ever woken up to.”  He grinned when she snorted, then laid a hand on her head to keep her still, safe and warm against him.  His.  At least in his mind she was, though he suffered no illusions she’d fall at his feet without a fight.  No, not her.  Winning this woman was going to be the biggest challenge of his life.  Mitch stroked her hair as visions of the myriad ways he was going to convince her there was something truly good happening between them swirled through his head.

Kate fidgeted against his hold, then trembled at the feel of his semi-hard erection rising temptingly under her belly.  Mitch rubbed both hands up and down her back.  “Be still, honey.  Give me one more minute of you being quiet and biddable before we have to get up.”

“Biddable?  In your dreams, Cartwright.”  He chuckled, then abruptly rolled her to her back, taking his weight on his forearms as he made himself at home in the cradle of her body.  Staring down at her, absorbing the feel of her under him, he was imbued with a potent confusion of deep hunger and intense satisfaction.  Eyes wide, Kate skimmed over his features, studied the look on his face, tried not to read the serious undercurrent of his gaze.

Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, Mitch lowered his head to her mouth.  Kate wrapped her arms around his neck and returned his kiss with heat and need and utter recklessness.  She didn’t want to look at that serious look on his face, didn’t want anything to ruin this time with more questions or painful decisions.  She just wanted to pretend for a little while longer.

He raised his head, met her eyes, then crooned, “’The wheels on the bus go round and round,’” as he tapped lightly on her forehead.  She grinned, the child’s rhyme so unexpected coming from him.

“How in the world do you know those words?”

“Rug rat, otherwise known as my nephew.  It’s his favorite book.”

Kate blinked.  “Are you saying Mike and Lisa had a baby?”  She stared up at him, shocked and thrilled at the news.  She pushed against his chest and sat up when he shifted.  “When?  How old is he? What’s his name?”  The questions flew out of her mouth, excitement sparkling in her eyes.

Crawling off the bed and getting to his feet, Mitch pulled on his jeans and walked to the fireplace to stir the coals before tossing on the last few pieces of wood.  As he worked, he said, “Yeah, Mike and Lisa had a babe.  He’s a few months over a year, his name is Jake and he’s just as handsome as his uncle.”  He grinned over his shoulder at her. “That would be me, of course.”

“Lisa wanted a baby so much,” she murmured.  “We talked about it many times.  There seemed to be some kind of problem, though whatever it was, it obviously got worked out.  I’m so happy for them.”

“What worked out is I sent them to Hawaii for a month,” Mitch laughed as he started a fire in the stove and filled the kettle. “Not long after you’d left Montana, I suppose.  I came home after finishing a job in Australia and overheard them talking one night.  Lisa was pretty upset about not getting pregnant and I knew being worried wasn't helping matters.  So, as a thank you for taking care of my dogs whenever I need it, I gave them a nice, long vacation.”  He met her gaze across the room.  “She was pregnant before they even made it home.”  His smile was so irresistible, her breath caught and butterflies began to flap wildly in her stomach.

“What a wonderful thing to do,” she said softly, “and doubly wonderful that it gave them such a gift.”  She felt the prickle burn in her nose and quickly crossed the room toward her pack, trying to navigate through the tears shimmering over her vision.  And bumped straight into Mitch’s hard chest and enveloping arms as he stepped into her path.

He nuzzled, nipped the soft place where her neck met her shoulder, then wound his fingers in her hair and pulled her head back.  He held her tearful gaze, then kissed her hard and hot.  When she was breathless and weak-kneed, he lifted his head. “No wonder Mike and Lisa befriended you.  Does everyone fall under your spell?”  She closed her eyes and shook her head, whispered, “I need to go out, and so does Ace.”

Mitch released her and grabbed a tee shirt, pulling it over his head before settling the heavy weight of his leather jacket over her shoulders.  “This will keep you warm,” he said, and as she opened the door, he added, “Don’t go far and keep the cabin in sight.”

She gave him a two-fingered salute and followed Ace around the house and into the forest.  Standing under the thick canopy, night had yet to give way to dawn, though Kate could see the shadows retreating with every passing minute as she looked toward the cabin.  She took a deep breath of the cold mountain air, flavored with the sharp, heady aroma from the pines and in the quiet, away from Mitch and his force field, her thoughts broke free and began to unravel.

Three days ago her life had been simple, uneventful and solitary.  She’d actually thought maybe the threat was over, she was at last forgotten, lost in the shadows.  But then, out of nowhere, the soft, throaty rumble of a Harley had changed everything,

Mitch had barged in, knocked her off her feet with his wit and humor, then enticed and teased with a skill and intensity she could never hope to withstand.  He was smart and tough, resilient and effective.  He’d gotten under her skin, burrowed right in and laid claim to her while her head was still spinning.  In just three frigging days. 

Maybe she had lost her edge.  Not once in four years had she allowed anyone in—other than those brief weeks spent in Montana with Mike and Lisa—and yet now, here was Mitch, melting her resolve with his kisses, igniting a need in her she couldn’t resist even as she struggled to deny it.  The intimacy he’d shown her, the glimpse of what could be, made her want to rage against that tiny seed of hope because it was going to cripple her when she had to walk away. 

Shaking her head to dislodge the worst of her thoughts, she walked around the house to the front, calling Ace as she made her way to the door.  It opened just as she put a hand out for the rusty knob, a beaming Mitch grabbing her arm and hauling her inside.  He whistled for Ace, then shut the door when the dog was over the threshold.  Pulling his jacket off her shoulders, he tossed it in the general direction of his pack and said, “Open wide.”  When she just stared, Mitch raised a dark brow and waited, one hand hidden behind his back.  “Okay then, if you won’t cooperate,” he said impatiently and yanked her against him, his tongue licking between her lips until she opened for him, then abruptly, between one thrust of his tongue and the next, he pulled away and stuck a half-eaten cookie in her open mouth.

Laughing at the look of surprise on her face, he turned to the stove, lifted a mug and handed it to her with a slight bow.  “Your tea, Madam.”  Still chewing, she took the steaming mug and smiled at him; he looked so pleased with himself, she couldn’t help it.  “Thank you,” she murmured, “though first I have to give Ace—”

“Done.”  She looked over to see Ace near the front door happily munching his dog food. “All you have to do is sit down with me while we drink our tea and have a little something to eat while we figure out the game plan.”

“Mitch,” she began, trying her best to put some distance between them.

He stepped closer.  With a finger under her chin, he lifted her head to face him.  Their eyes connected and held, then he murmured, “Wheels on the bus, baby.”  Grazing his knuckles down her cheek, blue eyes vivid as a summer sky, he said gently, “I know what you were doing outside, Kate.  You were plotting your escape, figuring out how to ditch me—for my own good, of course, and maybe try to convince yourself theres no hope for us.”  He grinned at her scowl, leaned in and kissed the twin furrows on her forehead.  “Three days ago, everything changed.  For both of us.”  He took her elbow and maneuvered her over to the bed, gently pushing her down.  “We need to talk.”  When she opened her mouth, he shook his head and sat down beside her.  “While you’ve been out there thinking, I’ve been in here thinking.  Within the next half hoursooner if possiblewe’re leaving, no discussion, no debate.”

Wrong.  Plenty of discussion and debate.  Years of answering to no one fired up Kate’s temper.  “As we already know, Cartwright, you don’t listen well.”  She glared up at him. “I’ve made it very clear that you aren’t the boss of me.”

Mitch laughed, then bent into her glare. “You've dealt with this on your own long enough.”  He kissed the soft skin behind her ear. “It's time you had help.”  He bit her lobe, then sucked gently to remove the sting before murmuring, low and rough, “Don’t know what this is between us, but it’s something big and I want more.”  His lips burned up her throat, found her mouth and nibbled at her bottom lip. “I’m not looking to be your boss, baby, just your man, so don’t fight me on this, it’s too important.”  He kissed her, spoke against her lips, “Let me in.  I’ll keep you safe, slay your dragons, work your body till the only thing you’ll ever know or want is me.”  He pulled back, held her gaze.  “I’ll do anything for you.”  Then he smiled, eyes hot with promise. “Except let you go.”

They stared at each other for a long time, then Mitch nodded his head in that way she understood meant he'd made his point and there wasn't anything more to be said.  The look that made her want to reach for her pistol.  But since she was trying desperately to hide the fact his words had left her speechless, she could only silently watch him walk purposefully across the cabin to his pack. “We have to get out of here, Kate.  I’ve got a feeling.”

She cleared her throat, moved to crouch at Ace's saddlebags and began to sort and arrange the contents.  “A feeling?”

“Yeah,” he muttered, “I’ve been getting a lot of those lately.”  Taking a pair of socks from his pack, Mitch propped himself against the wall to pull them on, then stomped his feet into his boots and bent to lace them up.  “What was your escape plan, before I showed up?  You walking to…wherever?”

Kate shook her head.  “No. Along this ridge and down the other side is a little hamlet called Bear Claw.  It's a fairly easy hike, under two hours. I rent a small garage unit there, with an old beater car, some weapons and a few supplies.  My back-up.”  She met his gaze. “I haven’t been there in a few months, not since I made my yearly rent payment, but everything was okay then.”  She sighed. “I almost gave the unit up, thought I wouldn’t need it anymore.”  She gave him a forlorn little smile.  “Good thing I didn’t.”

“Proving how brilliant you are, honey, because we need to get gone and an old beater will do us just fine.  We get out of these mountains and over the border into Nevada, I’ll take it from there.”

Frowning, she said, “Nevada?  Why are we going east?  Shouldn’t we be going north toward Montana instead?”

Wagging his brows, he smiled.  “I’ve got a plan.”  One he was going to have to convince the most stubborn and self-reliant woman he’d ever known to get behind, though how he was going to accomplish it was pretty sketchy at the moment.

“Care to elaborate?” she asked, glancing up at him, a bag of dog bones in her hand that she hadn’t packed yet.  Ace came over and leaned into her, nearly tipping her over as he locked onto the bag.  Smiling, Kate gave him one, though her eyes stayed fixed on Mitch.  “So, the guy with all the answers suddenly doesn't have anything to say?”  She cocked her head.  “If you're not playing boss man, Mitch, then share the plan.”

“I don't have all the details worked out yet.”

“Oh, so you really don't have a plan.”

“I have a damn plan,” he snapped, “it just needs some tweaking.”  When she laughed at him with easy amusement, he smiled in surprise at the rare sound, then knelt to pack his gear.  “So, quick hike to town, get into the garage without being noticed, and we can be on our way before anyone’s the wiser.  Works for me.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Mitch, just so you know?  I can recognize a diversion when I see one, so don’t think this is over.  We’ve got two hours ahead of us with nothing to do but talk.” She smiled sweetly.  And to tweak those plans of yours.  She went to the bed and began folding the blankets. “The garage is behind a gas station off the highway.  Not many people around, even during the day.  I have the key, rent’s paid, car started right up the last time I was there. We shouldn’t have any problems.”

“Good,” he said, “then let’s roll, baby.”  Now that gears were turning, things falling into place, he was eager to get moving.  His preferred method was fast and light so he grinned with approval when Kate immediately finished packing and within fifteen minutes had everything taken care of and was ready to walk out the door. Christ, talk about a pro. She was fucking made for him.  He paused for a moment to wonder just exactly how hard she was going to fight him tonight when he explained his idea.  His grin widened in anticipation.