Mitch Cartwright stood under a large Ponderosa pine and silently watched the woman moving about the house. She was preparing to leave. He smiled to himself. Good to know his instincts were still right on point. Because even though she had an impressive poker face and appeared to have no tells that gave anything away, the fact she went stone cold whenever his words hit home was the tell. He grinned outright, looking forward to how pissed she was going to be when he reappeared on her doorstep.
There was no way she was hightailing it out of these woods without him. Whatever was driving her, whoever was after her, didn’t matter anymore because now that he’d gotten a good look at the mysterious woman that Mike had coerced him into finding, he would be keeping her safe, whether she liked it or not. She might be tough, but from what his brother was hearing through his contacts, whoever was looking for her was deadly serious. Emphasis on dead. And he was way too intrigued to let that happen.
She was in the kitchen now, scraping what looked like burnt cookies into the garbage. Her rich, dark auburn hair was probably shoulder-length when it wasn’t piled in a messy heap on top of her head. When she’d come out onto the porch earlier to confront him, the sunlight had shot sparks of fire off the strands, vivid and bright as the anger in her eyes. Mitch grinned. He thought her eyes were some shade of green, but hadn’t gotten close enough to see, although he’d had no trouble spotting those full, sweet lips. She had a cleft in her chin that was tantalizing and yet for some odd reason also made her seem more vulnerable. Slender but with nice curves, she’d been in jeans, a thermal tee and an oversized flannel shirt. With bare feet and painted toes. His grin widened. Red toes, red hair, and a red-hot temper. Add in the weapons—because yeah, he knew she was carrying more than that rifle—and he’d just found the woman of his dreams.
He leaned against the tree trunk, eyes fastened on her movements: efficient, calm, precise. She washed the cookie sheet and other dishes, straightened the kitchen then packaged up cookies she’d obviously baked before he’d shown up. His mouth watered. He hoped they were chocolate chip, with the big chunks. The cookies and other food items went into what looked like saddlebags, along with bottles of water and a large Ziploc bag of dog food. She turned in a wide circle, like she was memorizing the space, then scrubbed her hands over her face a couple of times before shaking her head and walking out of sight.
Wanting to get closer, still trying to work out exactly how to approach her without losing body parts, he straightened away from the tree. The low growl at his back made the hair on his nape rise in primitive awareness. Slowly he turned, then braced as the dog padded silently toward him, head down, fangs bared, eyes filled with hungry promise.
Thumbing through the handful of false identities, a sense of hopelessness swamped her. She’d used them all. Ella Bennett was her current alias, and her last. Four years of running, hiding, endlessly starting over and yet she’d never imagined this moment, never thought there would come a time when she’d be out of options. She’d read once that—just in America alone—over a million people disappeared every year and were never heard from again. How was it possible then that no matter what she did, how many names she’d used, places she’d left behind…here she stood, found in the middle of the freaking wilderness.
Sitting on the edge of her bed, she shuffled through the drivers’ licenses, Social Security cards, birth certificates. Chloe had long blond hair—a wig that had itched like crazy—and blue eyes, contacts that also irritated by the end of each day. Sara had been a brunette, with brown eyes, frumpy clothes and wire rim glasses. Jane, blond again, hair short and spiky, blue-gray contacts. Marissa, long black wig, brown eyes, lots of tats and piercings, all fake. Ella had been as close to her real self as she’d been in years: her own auburn hair and hazel eyes. She raised her head and stared across the bedroom into the mirror above the dresser. Her face was leaner, eyes calculating and sharp, body honed. There was nothing left of fashionable Katherine Lancaster, concierge extraordinaire for the exclusive Fordyce Hotel in Washington, D.C. That woman was well and truly gone.
Stomach churning as she forced the memories away, she shoved her alter egos back into the small zippered pouch, then into the side pocket of a leather pack. Grabbing underwear, socks, another pair of jeans, two sweaters and a thermal shirt, she crammed them into the bag as well, then walked into the bathroom. She filled a small cloth make-up case with bathroom essentials, then grabbing a handful of hair ties, a brush and the first aid kit, she walked to the bed and stuffed everything into the pack with the other items. After another long look around, her heart aching at having to leave a place she’d finally thought would be her home, she went back to the kitchen and dropped the pack next to the saddlebags.
The plan was to leave as soon as it got dark. She wasn’t leaving in her car, or going down the drive to the highway, just in case Scary Biker Dude was out there somewhere on the road waiting for her. In the nearly two years she’d lived in her cabin, she and Ace had hiked, camped and explored the area for miles in every direction. She had an escape route in case of emergency, a safe passage through the forest that she’d never thought would be necessary, not after all this time. So stupid. And stupid would get her killed if she didn’t get her head back in the game.
Opening the hall closet, she punched in the code for the safe and took out three boxes of ammo for her pistol, two extra clips and a box of bullets for the rifle, stashing everything in the pockets of her winter parka along with a small gun cleaning kit she’d found in Montana at a military supply store. Her eyes closed as another glimpse into the past bubbled to the surface.
Missoula. Running on empty, no idea where to go after leaving Wichita two days before, she’d been reading the local newspaper at a diner on the outskirts of town. She always had a book or a paper when she was in a public place. It kept people away and gave her a reason to keep her head down. On that day, eating a piece of very tasty cherry pie, she read an ad for survival training being taught in the Rocky Mountains at a compound close to the Montana/Canadian border; an intensive three-week program, catering to body guards, security personnel and retrieval agents. She finished her pie and drove north.
It had taken some serious convincing, but eventually Mike had let her take the course. It had been a defining moment for her, changing everything. Mike said she was a natural, Lisa argued that it was time women were included in their training program. And she'd learned how to survive in almost any situation. Against her better judgment she’d stayed on for a few weeks after the course finished because she really liked Mike and Lisa and it had been so long since she’d allowed herself to make friends. She helped out around the compound, then one day discovered the kennels. One look shared between her and a two-year-old Rottweiler named Menace and the rest was history. Mike said the dog was promised to someone else, but when he saw the instant connection, he gave in. It took a huge chunk of change, but she didn’t regret a penny. He was the best thing that had ever happened to her.
When Mike and Lisa tried to get her to open up, made overtures that she could stay and work for them, she knew it was time to go. It was hard, almost too hard. She’d made her first friends in years, but she also realized her mistake. Her life had been reduced to a few simple rules: Head down, keep moving, no contact, but for a brief moment in time she'd forgotten all three.
Shaking her head to dislodge the thoughts, she lifted out the last bundle of cash. The twenty thousand would have kept her safe in her forest hideaway for a long time, but now she had to move and with no destination in mind, no ID to cover her ass—which meant finding someone to make a new set—the money was going to be gone before she knew it. With a sigh, she closed the safe and grabbed her jacket, gloves, wool scarf and hat. Dumping them on the kitchen counter next to the rest of the gear, she glanced out the window at the gathering dusk. Almost time to leave. Going to the back door, she whistled for Ace, surprised he wasn’t already waiting on the porch. With a frown when he didn’t come bounding into the house, she paused, trying to think how long it had been since she’s seen him.
Maybe twenty minutes? While cleaning the kitchen she’d watched him chase a squirrel around the side of the house, then before going into the bedroom to pack, she’d seen him stalking something in the woods by the big Ponderosa pine. Still, no matter the temptations, it wasn’t like him not to come running the minute she whistled or called.
She walked to the front door, opened it and pushed the screen. Even in the forest gloom, the bright white card that Scary Biker Guy had flicked at her seemed to glow on the landing. She bent to pick it up, then heard an odd snuffling noise to her right. Her hand whipped to her back, the Ruger out and pointed before she had fully straightened.
The sight before her was so strange and inexplicable, she froze in jaw-dropping astonishment.
Her dog. Her beloved partner was laying on his back, feet in the air, all one hundred and thirty pounds of lethal sprawled across Scary Biker Guy’s lap. The guy who was currently sitting on the porch, lounging with his back against her house, rubbing Ace’s stomach while the dog's tongue hung nearly to the ground in rapturous joy. But it was the man's wicked grin and his expression as he held her gaze that made her finger itch to shoot the smug right off the rat bastard's face.