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


Friday, January 30, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Seven

Waking to the sharp crackle of a fire and the heavenly aroma of coffee, she yawned and rolled to her back, stretching muscles stiff from sleeping on the hard wooden platform.  Covering her eyes with a forearm against a beam of sunlight slanting through the window next to the bed, she dropped a hand over the side and murmured for Ace.  “Hey, buddy, how did—”  Her eyes flew open, panic slamming through her. Fire?  Coffee?  Frantically groping under the pillow for her pistol, not finding it, she leaped off the bed, slapping a hand to her hip. The sheath was empty.

“Looking for this?”  Her nemesis was sitting cross-legged on the floor by the fireplace using a small whetstone to sharpen her knife, her gun lying beside him.  And on his other side, happy as could be, sprawled her dog, chewing on the sturdy tree limb she’d used to wedge the door closed.

She opened her mouth to call Ace, eyes darting around the cabin, her mind racing with avenues of escape, places to hide, seizing her pistol, but before she could form the words or get her body in motion, Mitch gave her a look, then quietly said, “Don’t.”  That was it.  One word.  His eyes were dark, his tone implacable as he held her captive with just his raptor gaze.  Here was the bounty hunter, ruthless, cold.  There wasn’t a hint of the teasing man who joked about weapons and hard-ons.  They stared at each other for several long moments, then he nodded his head once—like she’d agreed to his arrogant command—and calmly went back to honing her blade.

Anger erupted like lava, racing through her veins, burning away her initial shock that he was here, had her weapons.  She stomped toward him.  “Do I have to kill you to stop this?  Why can’t you just fuck off?  I’m sure there are dozens of criminals out there that you could be chasing besides me—”

“You admit you’re a criminal?” he asked softly, not bothering to raise his head as she loomed over him.

“Of course not,” she snapped.  “Why are you always twisting my words?”

“I can’t help but wonder.  You seem pretty violent, always threating me and—”

“It’s you!  You bring out the worst in me.  It’s not my fault that I want to shoot you, or stab you, or jump on you and punch your brains out!”

He finally looked up, a wicked gleam in his eye and a seductive smile that would make a nun want to dance with the devil.  “You want to jump me?”

“Seriously?”  Her hands fisted at her sides. “Do you only function in one gear? Everything I said and all you heard was ‘jump on you?’”

Chuckling, he said, “Sit down, honey.  I’m just giving you a hard time.  Have a cup of coffee and something to eat. You’re sure not a morning person, so let’s call a truce, then we’ll talk.”

Without a word she walked past him and out the door, barely registering that it was not morning at all, but already late afternoon.  Her mind was in turmoil at the thought he had somehow gotten into the cabin, taken her gun out from under the pillow and removed the knife from her sheath...while she slept.

When had she lost her edge?  Always vigilant, prepared for the slightest danger, and she hadn’t even heard him, let alone felt him strip her of weapons.  Horrified at her vulnerability, she staggered behind the building and dropped onto an old log, mossy and slightly damp, the rich scent of the pines wafting in the cool mountain air.  Tears began to clog the back of her throat as frustration and anxiety swept over her.  She clenched her teeth and fought against the burn in her eyes, the sharp pinch in her nose.  

But between one shaky breath and the next, she lost the fight.  Hunching over, she propped elbows on knees and covered her face with trembling hands as the tears began to fall in silent rivulets down her cheeks.  Her stomach felt hollow and her head too full.  Memories, choices, decisions, swirled in a maelstrom through her mind, circling around the biggest mistake she’d ever made.

A moment in time.  That’s all it took.  One tiny little cluster of seconds.  If she’d spent one minute longer in the shower that day.  Got stuck in traffic.  Stopped to buy coffee at the Starbucks around the corner from work.  Any number of things could have prevented her from walking into that room at precisely the wrong moment, destroying her life forever.

God, she was so tired, of the running, hiding, being alone, never able to just be herself, even if she didn’t know who that was anymore.  Maybe she should just give up, accept that it was over, let Mitch earn his money.  A sob broke through her clenched teeth.  She bit the inside of her cheek, hoped the pain would help her get control.

“Baby, come back inside.”  She jerked at the sound of his soft voice.  How did such a big man move like a wraith?  He gently ran his hand over her bowed head.  “It’ll be all right.  Whatever it is, I’ll make it right.”  He came around behind her and sat on the log, positioning her body between his long legs, wrapping his arms around her.  The sudden warmth of his chest heating her back, the solid strength in his legs, the intimacy of his body surrounding hers was more than she could stand.

“Perfect,” she whispered through her fingers, “a witness to my humiliation.”  Wiping her cheeks, she muttered, “Can’t you just forget about me and go away?”

He softly pressed a kiss behind her ear, then returned the whisper, “No. I can’t forget about you.”  Nuzzling his face into her neck, he murmured, “I’m not going away and neither are you.  I’ll help you, I swear it.”

Dropping her hands, she straightened and tried to move away, but he just tightened his grip. “Let it go, Mitch.  I can figure things out for myself.”  Her voice hitched on the last word, he heard the resignation, could feel the defeat as her body slumped. Without responding, he surged up, swinging her into his arms and striding to the house in one smooth, effortless motion.

She didn’t object or struggle as he carried her which he was thankful for, although her passivity bothered him.  She never gave up, was always ready to do battle, accepting help absolutely not in her playbook.  This sudden acquiescence bothered him more than finding her a few minutes ago, dejected and alone, silently crying her eyes out.

Mitch walked into the house and set her down by the fireplace.  “Stay,” he murmured, walking to the bed and gathering up blankets and the sleeping bag.  Worried when she just stood there shivering, he quickly folded a couple of blankets into a long rectangle and settled her on the floor before tucking the sleeping bag around her.  After stoking the fire, he filled a mug with hot coffee, added two packets of sugar and handed it to her. Her quiet thank you was almost lost beneath the roar of the fire, but he heard, grateful that she seemed more composed now.

Sitting on one side of her, he gestured for Ace to take the other side so between them and the fire, she would warm up faster.  Then he gave her a small plate of cheese, a protein bar and one chocolate chip cookie.  She set the coffee down in front of her and rested the plate on her lap, taking a small bite of cheese as she glanced at his dish.

“Why do you get four cookies?” she asked, staring at the thick wedge of cheese, two protein bars and the cookies piled on his plate.

“Because I’m a growing boy and need the extra nourishment.”  He took a huge bite of cookie.  “Plus, pretty sure I’m addicted and need the fix.”

“If you grew any bigger, villagers would chase you with pitchforks.”  She hid a smile behind her piece of cheese when he laughed, the sound warm and easy, touching deep.

“You don’t realize this yet,” he murmured casually, “but now that I need your cookies to make my life worth living, that means we’re bound together for all time.”  He gave her a pathetic look, then sighed deeply.  “I can’t survive without them.”

“I’ll give you the recipe,” she retorted.

“No, that won’t do at all.  They must be made by you.”  He lightly gripped her chin, raised her face to meet his eyes.  “And just for me.”  He held her gaze, conveying something with his look that she didn’t want to decipher.  To avoid it, she lowered her eyes to his mouth, which was a mistake.  His lips were full and soft and, well, mouth-watering.  Her tongue ran back and forth across her bottom lip as if she could still taste him from yesterday’s kiss in her kitchen.  His slight groan brought her eyes up.

He was focused on her mouth, but then he raised his head and when their eyes locked, she drew in a shuddering breath at his intense look.  “Mitch,” she whispered, as a rush of heat swept through her.  “Why are you doing this?”  His smile was slow, rife with promise as he carefully reached for her plate, setting it next to his on the floor.

“Sweet Jesus, woman.”  Leaning closer, he nuzzled her hair out of the way, the scruff of his whiskers giving her goose bumps as he kissed his way up the curve of her neck.  “I want you, that's why.”  His voice was a low, deep rumble in her ear.  “About two seconds after you walked out on your porch and faced me down, I’ve wanted you.”  He ran his tongue along her bottom lip, tracing the contour, relishing her taste.  “And that was before the cookies.”  He groaned when she opened her mouth, didn’t hesitate to slide his tongue between her lips, delving and exploring, learning and savoring.  She clung to the sleeping bag for dear life, her fingers tight in the fabric as he kissed her breathless.  With another groan, he pulled away, but only far enough to meet her eyes.  “Please say yes,” he said, lightly kissing the corners of her mouth, her nose, her temples, as he waited for her answer.

“Does anyone ever say no to you?” she asked softly.

“Your answer is the only one that’s ever mattered.”

Solemnly, she stared at him.  Was she really thinking of doing this?  Okay, she had to admit there was some kind of weird connection between them, and yes, it had been so long since she’d been with anyone her judgment had to be impaired.  And damn, he was hot and he wanted her.  No one had wanted her like this, ever.  But none of that made it the right thing to do.  He was here now because he’d hunted her down, threatened her, chased her and had used Ace against her.  Her eyes roamed over his face, taking him in, seeing him clearly, without the distortion of anger or fear to cloud things.  Mitch was also funny, strong, and confident; kind and sweet and loyal. 

He shifted slightly when her eyes settled on his mouth, then she met his gaze and saw the need, could feel how still he held himself under her scrutiny.  She could also see that behind the hope of yes, was also the man who would accept no.  He was truly leaving the decision to her. 

She took a deep breath, a different kind of fear making butterflies dance wildly in her stomach as she tried to weigh the consequences between those two small words, yes or no. He gave her a crooked little smile, his dimple flashing and she was lost.  Even if this was the biggest mistake of her life—or the second biggest—even if it was just for tonight, she didn’t care.  At least she’d have some memories that weren’t filled with blood and terror. 

But as she opened her mouth to tell him, the sound of a metal plate rattling across the wooden floor startled them both.  Ace had eaten all the cheese and was just carefully picking up a cookie with his enormous teeth when they both shouted, “No!”  Surprised at being yelled at, the cookie dropped out of his mouth and fell to the floor.  

Mitch rose, gathered the remaining food, mugs and plates, setting everything in the kitchen sink out of reach.  He walked back, held out a hand to help her rise, then wrapped his arms around her, his arousal pressing full and hard into her belly, making her almost dizzy with nervous tension.

“You feel how much I want you?” he said roughly into her ear.  She nodded, too breathless to answer.

When she dropped her head to his chest, he gently stroked a large hand up and down her back, soothing her as he whispered, Im thinking maybe the better question here might be...do you want me?

Friday, January 23, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Six

Stumbling in the dark, she bumped into Ace and would have fallen if not for his solid bulk. “Thanks, buddy,” she muttered, voice rough with exhaustion.  God, what a freaking long day and night it had been, bouncing from one adrenaline-spiked moment to the next.  Scrubbing her face with cold hands, she leaned into the nearest tree and took her bearings.

They stood at the edge of an alpine meadow, one last climb to the old forest service cabin and she’d be warm and safe.  With a yawn that almost cracked her jaw, she surveyed the meadow in the waning moonlight.  Hungry, beyond tired, she needed food and a long, dead-to-the-damn-world sleep to recharge.

“’Member last time we were here, Ace?”  She smiled when he looked up at her.  “The meadow was full of flowers.”  Scratching behind one of his ears, she chuckled.  “And butterflies.  You ran like a goofy puppy, jumping and pouncing, chasing them all over the field.”  They leaned into each other in companionable silence, his heat warming her thigh.  When she lifted her hand, he nudged her for more and she obliged for a moment, then said softly, “Time to go, boy.  We both need a time out.”

Instead of taking the shorter route—straight across the meadow—she skirted the large, circular clearing, staying beneath the shelter of towering Ponderosa pines.  She didn’t expect Mitch to be following her now, but he’d surprised her twice already. Besides, crossing the meadow would leave traces of their passing and she was all about staying under the radar.

As they made their way around the perimeter, she wondered about that radar. Unless Mitch had super powers or talents beyond mortal man, how had he unearthed the information on her false identities, tracked her to this wilderness?  Her gaze settled on Ace, walking at a steady pace slightly in front of her.  Frowning, her eyes skimmed over his large body as a thought began to niggle. Two thoughts actually, and both were troubling.

First, how had he located her cabin?  It’s not like it was right next to the road, or in the middle of some mountain hamlet with nosy neighbors and busy-bodies.  She purposely lived in seclusion, shopped in different towns miles removed from the one closest to home, never talked to people unless it was absolutely necessary, paid cash for everything.  She'd made cautious an art form.

But most worrying was the relationship between Mitch and Ace.  He's trained Ace and clearly they had a bond, a history. When Ace had become hers, she’d had him micro-chipped and always made sure his immunizations were up to date. There wasn’t a way to track a dog through that little chip, was there?  No, it required the dog’s presence and a gadget for scanning the chip.  It wasn’t a homing beacon or tracking device.  Damn it.  Maybe she should have questioned Mitch before leaving in such a hurry.

Or not. Getting as far away from him as possible was the only way to stay safe.  Not only was he a threat, but he messed with her head, something she really didn’t need.  So what if he could kiss like nobody’s business, and really, what did that mean except he was a man very adept at manipulation. Her cheeks flushed just thinking how easily she’d been taken in, barely putting up a token resistance to his charms. Still, was it her fault his lips were as soft as velvet, or that his scent was a narcotic blend of leather and spice and hot male?

Making their way around the clearing, she tried to forget his mouth, ignore the way his blue eyes had darkened when he pressed himself into her belly, erase how he sounded moaning over her cookies.  She shook her head, hard, angry at herself for letting even the memory of him seduce her.  Breathing deep to clear her head, she stopped for a minute, tired eyes narrowing to quickly scan the trees before heading up to the cabin.  It was more difficult to see now, the moon edging slowly behind one of the mountain peaks, bringing the eerie shadows that grew between dark and dawn.

Nudging Ace, they moved deeper into the forest, coming to an intersection where a network of trails converged, the wildlife leaving dusty furrows in crushed pine needles like the worn tread on an old carpet. Unerringly, Ace took the third left and began to climb.  On their many hikes, they’d taken each trail at one time or another to see where they led and if Mitch managed to get this far, it would take him too long to find the right route; by the time he figured it out, she and Ace would be long gone. 

     Except...there was his uncanny ability to find her.  Had he slipped a device into one of the packs at her house?  She liked that idea until she remembered he'd found her cabin before ever coming inside.  Her stomach churned with the need to know if Ace was the source, which meant she had to get to Maggie, the local veterinarian, as quickly as possible.  Because as much as she understood Mitch had the skills and experience needed for a bounty hunter, there was no way he was that good.  Unless he had an Ace up his sleeve.  She didn’t appreciate the irony.

And deep down it hurt that he'd used her dog as a means to an end.  Didn't he understand what being found would mean for her?  But maybe that worked for him.  He delivers on the contract and not only gets paid, but has his dog back too.  Win-win for him.  Dead for her.

With a low woof, Ace dashed through a small opening in a jungle of undergrowth and tangled shrubbery that covered the majority of a little dwelling. When she’d first set eyes on the place, she’d been fairly certain that vegetation was the only thing saving the house from collapse. Two massive rhododendrons nearly enveloped the entire structure.  Someone long ago must have planted them beside the house, but over the years they’d grown into trees with broad, tough branches that hugged the sides and snaked over the roof.  A climbing rose at the back had gone feral, crawling up and over the walls, razor-sharp thorns merging with the rhododendrons, burying the cabin like a well-kept secret.

After another glance down the trail and around the perimeter, she sidled between two branches that had grown together into a thick, twisted arch, guarding the front door like wooden sentinels, and followed Ace onto the dilapidated porch.  Months ago when she’d found the cabin and managed to push the door open, screeching over the warped threshold, she’d been surprised and charmed by the place.

Just one room, cozy and dry, with a narrow window beside the door, another next to the platform bed built into the wall on the right, both with glass so thick it was impossible to see anything outside except distorted shapes.  A rough stone fireplace was directly opposite the door, and an ancient pot-bellied stove, three makeshift shelves and a stained, cast iron sink set into a handmade wooden frame made up the kitchen area to the left.  A small, scarred table was pushed against the wall near the stove where she'd found a handful of faded forest service maps and an old calendar that went back nearly 70 years.

After several visits, she had also discovered the remnants of an outhouse, a dilapidated shed and the jagged, rocky outline of what might have once been a garden enclosure.  She thought perhaps a trapper had originally built the house before the forest service had claimed it, but even their presence was long gone, the cabin forgotten.  And she was very grateful for that, because right now she desperately needed a place to stop and catch her breath where no one could find her.

Dropping her pack, she knelt to dig out the small LED lantern and set it on the table, then rolled her shoulders and heaved a deep sigh of relief to be rid of the weight and the worry.  She hung her jacket on a nail beside the door and bent to unfasten Ace’s saddlebags, laughing when he immediately threw himself on the floor, rolled to his back and with legs flailing in the air, wiggled back and forth like he had a serious itch between his shoulder blades.  “I know just how you feel, big guy.”  Flopping to his belly, tongue lolling, he beamed a big toothy grin at her.

She filled bowls with bottled water and food for him and as Ace dug in, she pulled the small camp stove and more water from her pack.  Several times, when they'd hiked up here to stay overnight or for a long weekend, she’d cooked on the old wood stove, enjoying the primitive feel of being alone in the true wilderness.  Over time the place began to feel like a haven, a safe place away from home, so whenever she and Ace made trips to the cabin, she’d brought a few extra things to leave behind. Now there was a spare sleeping bag, some ready-to-eat meals, cans of soup, old towels and blankets, a few dishes, a dented second-hand tea kettle and a large plastic container filled with a variety of tea bags and sugar packets.  She would be okay here, at least long enough to eat and sleep.

 Firing up the camp stove, she poured water into the kettle and had tea made in no time.  Folding one of the blankets into a thick pad, she sat on the floor and leaned against the wall, Ace tucked next to her munching on a dog biscuit. Taking a sip of the hot brew, she sighed with a mixture of relief and utter exhaustion.  She was hungry, but for the moment all she wanted was to sit with her dog and not move again until sometime next week. Then her stomach rumbled, loud enough to make Ace cock his head at the noise.

Smiling at his curious look, she scratched under his chin, set her mug on the floor and with a groan got to her feet to snag his saddlebags. Settled back on the blanket, she opened one side, pushing Ace’s inquisitive nose out of the way as she burrowed for the bag of cookies.

She ate two, sharing chocolate-free pieces with Ace while the night began edging toward dawn.  Dusting off the crumbs, she was taking a last swallow of tea, her body finally starting to unwind, when an overwhelming lassitude washed over her.  Suddenly weak and trembling, she knew this was a reaction to adrenalin overload; to a fear and panic she hadn't felt since her early days on the run; to belated sorrow at losing her cabin, and the conflict in her mind from those blasted kisses. Her body was letting her know in no uncertain terms that she was on borrowed time and ready to drop.  If her eyes closed right now, she’d be dead asleep on the floor in an instant, and far too vulnerable.

Fighting the urge to just give in to the enervating weakness, she forced herself to stand, grabbed the lantern and went outside with Ace.  As he made a circuit of the cabin, she searched the back near the trees until she found a thick, sturdy branch lying on the ground.  Back inside, she jammed it between the rusty door handle and the floor, wedging it tight. She knew this wouldn’t actually keep anyone out—certainly not someone like Mitch—but another layer of security never hurt. 

Picking the blanket up off the floor where she’d been sitting, she refolded it for Ace and laid it by the front door.  She spent a few quiet minutes with him, murmuring nonsense words as he settled, until her eyelids began to droop.  Weaving toward the bed, she spread a blanket on the wooden platform, folded another for a pillow and sat to take off her boots. Falling back onto the makeshift mattress, she covered herself with a sleeping bag, but just as exhaustion began to drag her down, the Ruger bit into her back.  With a soft sound, too close to a whimper to be comfortable, she shifted to one side, pulled the gun out of her waistband and slid it under her pillow.  She had a vague thought about removing her knife and sheath, but the maneuver just seemed far too complicated at the moment.

     Weary to her bones, she was asleep between one breath and the next, too deep to hear the soft scrape of a boot on the porch or the low growl rumbling from Ace's throat.

Friday, January 16, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Five

She was on her feet, gun in hand, before the hiss of angry words had faded.  In the darkness she couldn’t see much more than a large shape backlit in moonlight looming in front of her, but there was no question Mitch had somehow found her.

“Why the hell did you run?”  His voice was rough, more than annoyed as he stepped toward her.  "You understand English?"

No way.  He didn't really just say that to her.  Rage boiled as her own words were thrown back in her face.  “Stop right there,” she ordered. “Don’t come one inch closer.  I’m just mad enough to do something I won't regret, you lying bastard.”

Ignoring her, he moved closer and lifted a hand toward her. “What are you talking about?”  Whatever he might have said next died in his throat when he heard the slight click of the safety on her pistol being thumbed off.  Hands up in surrender, he eased back a step.

“You can either hike back the way you came, or stay here until daylight, I don’t care either way.  I just want you to leave me alone.”

“Sweetheart, he murmured, you know I can’t do that.  I managed to throw Solares and his goons off your scent and they’ll spread the word that I’m involved which will eliminate half the idiots who think they’re trackers.  But there will be others, and they won't care that I've got this. They’ll come looking for that target on your back faster than you can run.”

“You managed to throw them off?”  She snorted. “That's not what I heard. I know I’m nothing more than a contract, a payment for services rendered.”

“Jesus, would you just hold on a sec and let me explain?”

“I’ve wasted enough time listening to you.  Drop whatever weapon I'm sure you’re carrying and move over by that tree, she said, gesturing behind him.

Crossing his arms over his chest, she had no trouble reading his belligerent stance or the scowl he was broadcasting that gave new meaning to bad attitude. “Hear me out,” he said between clenched teeth.

“Not interested.”  Slowly backing up, she reached down for her pack and shrugged the strap over one shoulder.  When Ace stood next to her, she grabbed his collar.  “Stay away from us.”

She moved into the trees, hoping to lose him in the solid darkness off the main trail, but before she’d gone more than a few yards, a soft series of low whistles brought Ace to a sudden stop next to her.  He looked over his shoulder toward the dark silhouette that stood at the edge of the trees, then back at her, a low whine loud in the silence.  Mitch's voice slid like ice down her spine, ruthless and cold.  “You leave?  It will be alone.  The dog stays with me.”

There had never been a time, not through four years of running, when she thought she'd actually have to shoot someone.  She knew she couldand woulddefend herself and protect Ace if it came down to a choice, but to actually feel it, relish it, savor the compelling urge?  Not until this man, in this moment, when she wanted him writhing at her feet more than she wanted her next breath.

She dug deep for control before saying in a cool, almost casual tone, “You really don’t listen well, do you Mitch?”  Shifting, she tightened her hold on Ace’s collar. “I’m struggling not to shoot you where you stand for that threat.”  She bent to whisper in Ace’s ear, then murmured, “But what you don’t know, smart guy?  I can stop anyoneincluding youfrom taking control of my dog.”  Before he could digest that news, or the fact his brother was the only one who could have set up a fail-safe and given it to her, she unsnapped the strap on the saddlebags. Before they'd hit the ground, she was snarling, “Strike!”

In an odd, slow-motion flash of disbelief, Mitch watched as his favorite dog, all one hundred and thirty pounds of him, leaped into the air and hit him dead-center in the chest, knocking him backwards with the impact of a head-on collision.  He hit the ground hard enough to painfully jar his spine, followed by the air whooshing out of his lungs in a loud burst when the weight of an intensely focused predator landed on his upper body.

Wrapping his arms around the dog, Mitch rolled, straining to contain the brute, though really he only hoped to survive long enough for the annoyingly clever woman to call the dog off before he lost some vital piece of his anatomy.  She kept surprising him, throwing him off-balance.  His threat had been nothing more than bluster to stop her from leaving before he could explain himself, but she hadn’t hesitated to counter with her own, more effective move.  If he wasn’t in danger of having his throat ripped out, he’d be laughing at being bested by her.  Christ, she was amazing and there was no doubt in his mind that he was going to have her.

“Hold,” she said, voice clear and commanding.  Man and dog both stopped wrangling and without much effort, Ace again had him pinned on his back. The only thing keeping teeth from his neck was the sheer strength in his arms as Mitch pushed against the dog’s chest.  She was very tempted to let Ace have him, but it didn’t feel right.  Not that she didn’t want the bastard brought down a peg or twenty, but she didn’t want Ace to be the one to do it. Setting her pack on the ground, she walked over and plucked his gun off the ground where it had fallen in all the rolling and grappling.  Ace didn’t move, intent on holding Mitch down.

Arms shaking from the effort to keep the dog away from his face, Mitch wheezed, “Please, baby, let me explain.  It’s not what you think.  None of this is what you think.”

“What should I be thinking instead, Cartwright?  You clearly threatened to take my dog! I told you what he means to me and you didn't hesitate to use that against me.”  She threw his gun as hard as she could into the underbrush then tucked her own into the small of her back before retrieving the saddlebags.  Reaching into a pocket, she quickly pulled out a thick roll of duct tape.

“Come on, honey.  Let me up.  He was having trouble breathing, his words gasped out in a staccato rush.  I was desperate.  Just trying to stop you.  From leaving.  Already told you.  I’d never really.  Take him away—”

“Save your breath.  You don’t have anything to say that I want to hear.”  She crouched down at his feet and began to wrap the tape in tight bands around his ankles.

Mitch tried to shift Ace off to one side just far enough so he could take deeper breaths.  “Duct tape?”  He grunted when the dog moved, though breathing was easier now. “What are you thinking?  That won’t work, though I’m pretty impressed that you carry a roll in your gear.”  When she paid no attention, he went on.  “But I should point out.  Unless you plan on letting Ace eat me for dinner like a trussed turkey, I’ll be loose five minutes after you’re done taping me up.”

“Five minutes is more than enough time.”  He almost missed what she muttered under her breath, “I’ve had lots of practice being a ghost.”  A tiny nugget of information to mull over later, he thought, feeling the tape wind around his boots and partially up his legs.

Once he was secured, she stored what was left of the roll in the saddlebag, called Ace to her and fastened the pack around him.  Then she stood for a minute, her hand on the dog’s head as they both looked down at Mitch.  Taking in great lungfuls of air, he stayed flat on his back, rubbing the tremors out of his arms from pushing against the force that was Ace, beads of sweat glistening across his face in the moonlight.  Even dirty, disheveled, and on the losing end of a bad day, he was still handsome, strong.  She scowled, reined in thoughts that had no business being in her head. He was nothing more than a lying ass out for the money.

After struggling for a moment, he sat up though didn’t make any attempt to free himself, instead rolling his shoulders, then shaking out his arms.  “Damn, that dog is powerful,” he muttered as he reached down toward his boots.  Then he froze, staring at the complicated loops and twists that bound his legs.  He raised his head and locked eyes with her, frustration mixed with respect as he realized what she'd done.  He made a last attempt to convince her to wait, to listen.  “Come on, give me a minute.  I can help if you'll just

She laughed.  Even under the circumstances, he liked the sound, husky and warm.  “Let’s see, you’re on the ground, big ass dog just sat on you, and your legs are duct taped.”  Smiling, amusement in her voice, she said, “While I, on the other hand, am standing here, in control of said big ass dog, legs free to take me anywhere I care to go. Huh. Seems like you’re the one in need of help.”

Bending to reclaim her pack, she settled it over her shoulders, made a slight adjustment in the straps and stepped back under the dark canopy of trees.  “Ace, to me,” she said softly.  After a long look at Mitch, the dog trotted quickly to her side.  Resting a hand on the back of his thick, muscled neck, she watched Mitch begin to pick and pull at the layers of sticky tape. 

“Good luck getting that blade out of your boot," she said, her laughter like salt in a wound.  "And stay away from me, Cartwright.  I’m done with this crap.  Go home.”

He looked up, mouth open to snarl a reply, but she was gone.  Silently, both woman and dog had vanished into thin air.  Mitch wrenched at the bindings, but damn, as with her other skills, apparently she was also proficient at wrapping fucking tape.  It took several long, pissed off minutes before he finally managed to make a decent enough hole in the tape to pull his knife out of his boot, then he hacked savagely through the remaining bands, luckily without shredding his jeans or stabbing himself.  His admiration for her had morphed into deep irritation by the time he was able to get to his feet and brush off the dirt and debris.  Walking a short distance back down the trail, he retrieved his pack and her rifle, stashed behind a tree, glad now he’d had that foresight.  What she didn’t know made it easier on him, and obviously he needed every advantage he could get.

Opening a side pocket in the pack, he drew out a bottle of water and downed it in one long, continuous swallow.  Then he looked up at the moon and smiled.  She was going to be spitting mad when he showed up again, something he was anticipating with an eagerness that should have been embarrassing, though he didn’t give a fuck that it wasn’t.  His only real concern was the dog.  And damn, it would have been nice if his brother had given him a heads up on the fail-safe deal, at the very least shared the damn word with him.  Still, he'd get around Ace and he’d figure a way around her, too.

He’d marked the general direction where she’d tossed his gun and spent some time getting scratched and more irritated while he searched in the brush for it.  Finally, gun in place at the small of his back, he returned to his gear and sat down.  He’d give her a little more time, let her cool down, then maybe by the time he caught up she’d be ready to hear him out.

Rummaging in the pack until he found a trail mix bar, he ripped the paper off and sat munching contentedly as he stared up at the sky, his thoughts bouncing from her to the dog to his brother.  He wanted more of that mouth and her sweet sugar scent. All over him.  He wanted to hug Ace and praise him for protecting her, even from him.  He wanted to beat the shit out of his brother because…well, the list was growing longer by the hour.

     But he also had to get out of these mountains and connect with Mike, get an update and more details about the woman—for starters, her real name and who she was running from. And he wanted to check on things at the compound.  Mike was in charge when he was out working, but Mitch had two litters due within the next week or so and always tried to be there for the new arrivals.

Although his career was hardcore and sometimes sucked him dry, once he was back home with his dogs, he found solace and a refuge.  Proud of his kennels, his dogs were trained in security and as body guards; they excelled in law and drug enforcement.  People might not know his face from the next guy, but most of the criminal element knew a Cartwright dog just by looking…usually moments before the dog ripped them a new one.

Ready to go, he dug into his jacket, taking out a small GPS device and thumbed it on. A little red dot flickered against the green glow of the map on the screen.  He got to his feet, put an arm through one strap of the pack and carried it loosely over his left shoulder; in his right he hefted the rifle and walked into the dense forest, his steps soundless on the pine needles.  Less than a handful of people knew that he didn’t trust anyone with his precious dogs and that each one had a tiny, almost microscopic device—one he’d developed himself—implanted in the bottom edge of the left ear.  He could track the location of every dog he’d trained.

Mitch smiled. Oh yeah, she was definitely going to be bent when he turned up out of the blue again.  His chuckle, quiet and soft, followed him into the trees.

Friday, January 9, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Four

In the moment between one heartbeat and the next, Mitch pushed her down behind the kitchen counter with a tight grip on her shoulder.  She struggled against the pressure, freeing herself for a moment only to have him crouch beside her and growl like a rabid dog, his eyes feral and dangerous.

“Get away from me,” she snarled, scooting across the floor on her butt.  “If you didn’t bring them here, then they followed you.”  She narrowed her eyes and snapped, “Some bounty hunter you are!”  Reaching out, Mitch grabbed her ankle before she made it around the counter and dragged her toward him.  Squirming on her back, she kicked out to loosen his grip, hitting him hard in the upper arm.  His eyes blazed and lightning quick, he twisted her leg in a move that spun her onto her stomach, then he threw himself on top of her, pinning her to the floor as he wrenched the gun out of her hand.

Breath rasping, his furious whisper scorched her ear.  “You want to die? For fuck’s sake, woman, calm down.  I’m trying to help you!”  His weight was crushing, forcing her to gasp for what little air she could pull into her lungs.  “Get off,” she panted, the words almost lost in the commotion coming from the front as the two men began to kick at the door.  Mitch rolled off her body, but kept her down with a large hand in the middle of her back.  They could hear the deep growls escalating in the hallway.  Ace could handle most situations, but he was just as vulnerable to a bullet as anyone else. She fought to break away from Mitch’s hold, hissing low and furious, “Ace.”

He rolled her over, one arm tightening around her waist before whistling a soft bird-like trill that brought Ace charging into the kitchen and skidding around the counter where he dropped to his belly and wedged himself beside her, his massive body vibrating with the need to protect her.  Flinging Mitch’s arm off, she rolled toward Ace and buried a hand in his ruff, grateful to have him close.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Mitch muttered as he popped the clip out of her gun, checked it was stacked, then slammed it home.  “This is my punishment for messing around, losing sight of the objective.”  He made to stand and move toward the door, but she grabbed the back of his jacket and yanked hard.  “You’re not leaving me without a weapon.”  He shook her loose, his words sharp with authority.  “You will stay here while I take care of this.”

If her house wasn’t currently being attacked by unknown assailants , she would have shrieked with frustration and made every effort to beat the crap out of the arrogant jerk to get her gun back.  Years—four long, bitter years—she’d taken care of herself, prepared, trained, expecting the worst while she stayed off the grid, flew under the radar.  She might not have a love life, friends or family, but by god she’d had her dog, her weapons, and the intelligence to keep the devil from her door.

Until today.  And this man.  This pushy, overbearing ass had not only brought the devil right to her, but left her weaponless and trapped in her own damned kitchen.  She unfastened the strap on her knife sheath and went after him.

It was quiet.  Too quiet, Mitch considered as he crouched at the edge of the kitchen doorway and risked a quick look down the hall just as the front door burst open, smashing roughly into the wall.  Fury rose as he watched the door swing wildly back and forth, the thought of her dealing with this on her own adding fuel to his rage.  What if he hadn’t gotten here first?  His head snapped around when she dropped down next to him, and he fumed that she hadn’t listened to him. Again.  Her face was a blank, emotionless mask of cold detachment, then they locked eyes and he saw the truth.  She burned, her anger red-hot and palpable.  He wasn’t at all sure at that moment, looking down at her fingers white-knuckled around the hilt of her knife, if she wanted to stick him first or the intruders.

“Give me my gun.”


Her glower could have shattered concrete.  “Hand over the weapon.”  When he ignored her, she had her knife under his jacket and pressed against his body before he could draw another breath.

“Goddamn it, can you just hold on a fucking minute?”

“Not without a weapon.”  She pressed the blade.

Mitch snorted.  “You’ve got a weapon, it’s sticking into my ribs.”

“I have to be close to use it.  I don’t like close.”

Dipping low, he spoke in her ear, quiet and soft.  “Use your head, honey.  We can’t fight what we don’t know.  Judging by the shouting, breaking in the door, we’ve got at least two guys who don’t care about being polite and friendly.”

“I’m not feeling too polite myself right now.” 

He shook his head.  “I’m not putting you in the line of fire.”

Her turn for a head shake, anger flaring hotter as she whispered sharply, “I’m not your business, Cartwright.”  She gave the knife a slight twist.  “If you hadn’t come back, I would be long gone by now instead of trapped in my own fucking house,” she grated.  “Enough. I want my gun.”

Mitch edged back a step, relieved as she sheathed her blade, but it was relief short-lived when she held out a hand, her glare assuring him she wasn’t going to back off without a fight.  He had no idea what had happened to hone her into the woman facing him down, though he fully intended to find out.  Unfortunately, that would have to wait as the hushed murmur of voices refocused his attention on the front porch. 

Trying to resist the need to keep her safe, he slapped the Ruger into her waiting hand.  “Back to Ace.  Now.”  Mitch expected her to start shooting, but she spun away without an argument and disappeared behind the counter.  He shot a quick glance down the hall before following her to the kitchen.  Striding toward the door, he grabbed the rifle propped beside it, twisted the knob and quietly eased the door open.  Glancing over his shoulder, he watched as she checked her pistol before wrapping her free hand firmly in Ace’s collar.  Both woman and dog stared fixedly at him.  The moment was significant in ways he didn’t understand.

The sound of boots treading closer jerked him back to reality.  Pointing a finger at her, he mouthed, “wait here” and slid out the door.

The second it was shut, she was throwing on her jacket.  Pulling both packs off the counter, she quickly adjusted the saddlebags over Ace’s back, strapping them securely around his girth before moving to the back door with her own gear.  Slipping out, she signaled Ace to guard, dropped her pack beside him and followed Mitch.

Moving silently, her back against the side of the house, she clutched her gun and edged toward the front.  She could hear men talking, one voice agitated, one sounding furious, another laughing.  She froze when Mitch said in a cold, hard voice, “What the fuck, Solares. You know this is a Cartwright retrieval. What kind of bullshit move is this?”  At his next words, the rush of disbelief and anger that roiled in her belly convinced her she’d not only been an utter fool to think of trusting this man, but it was well past time to escape.  “You maybe thinking to fuck up my contract?”  Someone began a heated reply in a rapid-fire Hispanic accent.

She didn’t wait to hear more.  He’d played her like a banjo.  Pluck, pluck here and twang, twang there.  She’d fallen for every move, every sincere look and hot kiss.  Her cheeks flamed and if she hadn’t been outgunned, she would have shot him where he stood, talking to his cronies, no doubt fellow bounty hunters, or contract killers, or whoever the bloody damn hell they all were. Shit!  If not for her determination to get her Ruger back, she’d have been virtually weaponless. He even had her rifle now. The bastard had disarmed her on every level.

Moving back to Ace, she gave him the command gesture for stealth, slid both arms into her pack and they quickly walked down the back steps, circled the garden and entered the thick forest behind the house.  Her feet glided over the heavy bed of pine needles, leaving no trace of their passing, one of the main reasons she’d bought the cabin in the first place.  Falling for centuries, covering the ground nearly a foot deep with fragrant, durable needles, not even the best tracker would be able to follow their trail.

At first her outrage and fury kept her moving, then embarrassment and humiliation fueled her for another hour as she followed Ace through the dark wilderness, guided by the little beacon affixed to his pack, until the three-quarter moon rose over the mountains. 

Calmer now, anger and shame just a bitter taste in her mouth, she softly whispered to Ace.  He stopped immediately, turned and pressed into her thigh as if he knew she needed comfort.  Crouching, she wrapped her arms around him, burrowing her face into the soft fur at his neck.  Ace.  Her one and only, a true friend, her family.  Tears burned at the back of her throat but she wasn’t about to let them fall.  Screw that.  She’d learned a valuable, painful lesson today, one she wouldn’t forget any time soon.

Unzipping one of the pockets on Ace’s saddlebags, she dug out a bottle of water and filled his travel container.  He eagerly lapped it up, then crunched a large dog biscuit as she shrugged off her backpack and sat down, resting against the trunk of a tall pine.  The late September air was chilly in the mountains though the hike—and her mortification—had helped to keep her warm.  It was getting cold, but they were nearing the forest service cabin now and she wanted to stop for a break, make sure no one was following before the last push, just one more mile, then she could settle in for the night. After taking a long drink of water, she rubbed a hand over her face, fatigue washing over her. It had all happened so fast today.  One minute she was making cookies, the next her life was in tatters at her feet.  She should be used to the feeling, it certainly wasn’t new after four years on the run, but each time felt like she'd dropped one level deeper in her own personal hell.

Sighing, she finished off the water and tucked the empty bottle back into the saddlebag.  She was tired, like really tired.  And not just from the hike tonight, but from everything.  She needed time, to think, plan, figure out what to do next.  Tipping her head back, she caught the bright twinkle of stars between the long branches, the sight jamming her throat with a raw, aching pain.  Oh, if only wishing on a star could change things.  It hurt so much to remember that once she’d had a home, happiness, a life.

Ace stirred at her side, looking into the trees. She held her breath, closed her eyes to concentrate on the night sounds, but other than a soft, throaty rumble from Ace, nothing in the forest seemed alarming.  “Silly boy,” she murmured, scratching behind his ear.  “You’re hearing ghosts.”

“No ghosts.  Just a very pissed off guy who told you to wait,” the voice growled out of the darkness.

Friday, January 2, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Three

“What—” She stopped, swallowed the shock as her brain tried to wrap around the fact that somehow this man had done the impossible.  “What have you done to my dog?” she hissed.  Visions of leaping across the distance between them and pounding him into a bloody pulp made her smile, though it was more a baring of teeth and must have conveyed a small measure of her fury because his irritating grin abruptly turned to a scowl.

“I haven’t done anything.”

“He’s been trained to—”

Shoving the huge dog off his lap, the guy got to his feet.  “I know what he’s been trained to do.”  He put a large hand on the dog’s head, her anger rising as she watched Ace lean into the man’s hip like it was an everyday occurrence.  “I’m the one who trained him.  He’s my dog.”

She blinked.  Shaking her head, she growled, “What are you talking about?  I bought Ace from Mike two years ago in Montana, and I've got the papers to prove it.”  Her eyes were lit with fire.  “You don’t know who you’re dealing with if you think for one single goddamn minute you’re going to take my dog.”  Raising the Ruger, she thumbed off the safety and aimed.

The bastard laughed, completely unfazed by her gun pointed at his chest.  “He was my dog first and Mike shouldn't have sold him without my okay, but I’m willing to discuss terms of ownership.”

“Really?  You think this is funny?”  She took a step toward him, almost against her will, but the urge to do some damage was overtaking her smarts.  “He’s my dog!  Mine!”  She really would shoot him if he tried to take her boy.  “Ace! To me!”  And damn if her dog didn’t first look to the man for permission before trotting to her.  Once he was sitting at her side, she wrapped a tight fist in his collar and focused on the guy.  Leaning casually against the house, arms crossed over his chest, he returned the scrutiny, his eyes covering her body, her face, settling on her mouth.  She felt a wave of heat rise from her neck to flame across her cheeks. She knew he saw it, couldn't mistake the satisfied gleam in his eyes.

“Good,” he murmured, “glad it’s not just me.”

Who was this jerk?  It didn’t matter, she’d had enough.  With a calm she definitely didn’t feel, she said quietly, “Can’t read, doesn’t understand English, and now plays the sex card.”  She shook her head.  “Neanderthal isn’t on my list of desirable assets in a man.”

Cocking his head, he ignored her sarcasm, an intent look of interest on his face.  “You have a list of desires?”

“That’s not what I meant!” she snapped, then scowled when he smiled.  Taking a deep breath, she tried a rational approach.  “Look, I don’t know how you tracked me down, but really, I don’t want or need your help. I do just fine on my own.  So for the last time, go away.”  Her eyes narrowed.  “I’m seriously warning you now.  Get off my property and stay off.  If I see you again, I won’t hesitate to take action.”

As if his brain hadn’t heard a word she’d just said, his voice deepened as he asked, “What kind of desires?”

“Oh my god!”  She stepped to the screen door, opened it and shooed Ace through before shutting him inside.  Ignoring his whine, she turned back to the man and was startled to find he had moved right behind her.  Standing so near, she had to tip her head back to look at him.  Up close, his eyes were magnetic, sucking her in, trying to drown her in the blue depths of his gaze.  Fighting the pull, she barked, “I’m about one second from kicking your ass, buddy, so I’d advise you to get going while you can still walk out of here with functioning man parts.”

He smiled, and against her will tremors flowed down her body, a low, almost painful stab of need awakening deep inside her.  What was wrong with her?  Okay, so it had been a while since she’d been with a man—a really, really long while—but this wasn’t happening, and sure as hell wasn’t happening with him.

Lazily, voice deep and rumbling. “Think you can take me?”  He waggled his eyebrows, swept his eyes over her body, then lifted his hands and beckoned her with his fingers in a come-on gesture.

She returned the head to toe appraisal, taking her time, scanning from his scuffed boots to his tousled dark hair before meeting his eyes again.  “Let me count the ways.”  Wait. Did that come out wrong?

His laugh was as big as he was, boisterous and loud.  Genuine.  And against her will, she felt a smile tug at her lips.  When his gaze settled on her smile, or more accurately her mouth, heat flared between them like static electricity.  She tried to step back, break the unwanted connection, but he reached out and with a large hand snared her upper arm.  “You can take me any way you want, beautiful, but unfortunately, not right now.  We really need to motivate.”

She tried to wrench out of his grasp.  “How many times do I have to say this?  I’m not going anywhere with you, you damn lunatic!”

He pulled her close, wrapping large fingers around her pistol hand before pointing the weapon at the ground. Drawing her against his body, he held her with a strong arm around her lower back, then said softly when she glared up at him, “Name’s Mitch, Mitch Cartwright.  And yeah, honey, you are going with me. We’ve wasted enough time, should have taken you out of here earlier.”

Struggling, she realized, was pointless.  He just tightened his hold.  Now she was pressed so close, she could feel the zipper on his jacket pressing down the length of her torso, ending in what was either a very substantial weapon tucked in his jeans or an incredible erection.  Maybe one and the same.  Gulping, she tipped her pelvis away from the contact.  “Let me go.”  Her voice wobbled.

“I don’t want to,” he murmured, dropping his head into her neck.  She felt the slow inhale as he breathed in her scent, sending shivers down her spine.  “God, you smell like cookies.”  Brain disconnected from mouth, she whispered inanely, “I baked some today.”

He chuckled into her ear and said softly, “I’m thinking you smell this good even on days you don’t bake.”  He pulled her close again, his arousal straining as he rode the shiver that coursed down her body.  Teeth gently nibbled her ear lobe, then he paused just a breath from her mouth and said, “And I can’t wait to test that theory.”  He sighed and stepped back.  “But not now.  Now we leave.”

Slightly dazed, she felt like she’d just staggered off a ship after a turbulent voyage when he released her.  The ground didn’t seem steady under her feet and neither did her thoughts.  He turned her toward the front door, opened the screen and propelled her through, coming up behind her, closing and locking both doors.  With a low, two-note whistle, he instantly had Ace standing at attention guarding the front.  His actions abruptly reminded her that somehow he’d taken control, not just over her, but also her dog.  In a heartbeat she was clear-headed and angry.  Losing Ace just wasn’t going to happen, no matter what steps she had to take to ensure that.

When he tried to move down the hallway, she stepped in front of him, gun again lifted in his direction.  Eyes burning with resolve, she said fiercely, “You can’t have me, and you sure as hell can’t have my dog.”  She narrowed her eyes, then hissed, “And stop bossing me around.” 

Moving right into her, he put big hands on her shoulders, ignored the pistol and backed her into the kitchen.  “I should maybe warn you, baby, that every time you get all pissed and point that thing at me, I get hard.”  Without thinking, her eyes immediately dropped to his groin and yeah, there it was.  “I never knew I was into bloodthirsty women,” he grinned.  “I’ll probably need therapy when this is over,” he muttered, “won’t be able to get it up unless you point weapons at me.”

“I’ll quit pointing my pistol at you,” she dropped her gaze to his crotch for a moment, then raised her eyes to meet his, “if you stop pointing yours at me.”  Ignoring his burst of laughter, she glared. “You need to back off.  I don’t want any part of you or your…arsenal.”

Grinning, he leaned in and whispered, “I bet there’s at least one part of you that does.” 

“Don’t be stupid,” she said, her tart reply ruined by the breathless way the words came out of her mouth even as she thumbed the safety and tucked the pistol at the small of her back.

“I’m not being stupid.”  He held her gaze, his tone slightly puzzled.  “Honestly, I don’t know what this is, he said, waving a hand between them.  It could be your sweet sugar scent, or your temper, or maybe,” he paused, looking down at her bare feet, “it could be your red toes.”  Staring at her for a moment, he said thoughtfully, “Though, I suspect it’s just…you.”

“What does that even mean?  You never met me before today!”  She glared as a new thought crossed her mind.  “Is this some kind of ploy to steal Ace?”

He reached out a hand, ran the back of his fingers down her cheek and smiled.  “How do you feel about sharing?” he teased.

“I don’t share,” she retorted.  “He’s mine.”

Suddenly, he wasn’t playing anymore. “Good to know.  I don’t share what’s mine either.”  His eyes were hot, intense and focused on her.  She felt like she was missing something, an important something, but he was talking in man-code and she didn’t understand it.

“I can’t lose Ace.”  Just the thought hurt, making her voice hoarse as she forced words past the painful lump in her throat.  “He’s all I have, Cartwright.  He’s just…all I have.”

Her admission made something shift in his chest.  Who was she, this strong, yet oddly vulnerable woman?  How had she come to be here, alone in the wilderness with just a dog for company—albeit a seriously badass dog.  “Sweetheart,” he said gently, pulling her into his arms, “you’re not going to lose Ace.”  He hugged her for a moment, then lifted her chin until she was looking up at him.  “Though we'll have to discuss visitation rights.”  He leaned down and kissed the tip of her nose when she frowned.  “And at the risk of going lightheaded if you point a weapon at me again, we really have to go, whether you want to come with me or not.”

She stared at him for a long moment, eyes shadowed with loss and fear.  Again he felt something shift, this time in his gut.  He decided at that moment on a new mission, one that would utterly change his world as he knew it, and strangely he didn’t care, actually looked forward to it with a rush of anticipation that he hadn’t felt in a very long time.  What he wanted to see in her eyes was burning passion as he moved inside her, the feel of her breath on his skin as she moaned his name, the afterglow of satisfaction when he held her safe in his arms.  He ached to tell her these things, take her out of harm’s way, assure her of his protection, but it was way too soon and her cautions ran deep.  As did his.  He didn’t understand what was going on between them, but this clearly wasn’t the time or place to find out.

“Get your shoes on, baby.  Tell me what needs doing, then we’re gone.”  He waited for her to move, but she stood frozen in place, staring at him with a look of bewilderment on her face.  Frowning, he said impatiently, “What?”

She blinked, shook her head, then said tersely, “How can I trust you?  You’ve commandeered my dog and now you’re just…just taking over like that’s supposed to be okay with me.”  Her eyes narrowed.  “I’d be a fool to go anywhere with a man like you.”

Quietly he asked, “Do you trust Menace?  Trust him to know good from bad?” 

“I did until you came along.”

“You trust that dog?”  He snapped the question.  Her face softened as she looked down the hall where Ace stood on high alert, then jerked her chin once.  “Okay then, get your damn shoes on woman, and tell me how you want to shut down the house.”  He gave her a long look.  “You might not be back for a while.”

Her eyes searched his implacable face, then resigned, she sat in a chair at the kitchen table and pulled on warm wool socks as she told him to lock all the windows and close the curtains, then dump the compost bucket in the garden at the back of the house. Once he was gone and she had her boots laced, she rechecked her gear, redistributed the weight a bit, and after a moment’s reflection, took two chocolate chip cookies out of one saddlebag and set them on the counter.  She was turning to close the curtains over the kitchen sink when he came in from the garden.

“Chores done.  Are we ready to...”  His voice drifted to a halt.  She looked over her shoulder and couldn’t help the smile, or the warmth that bloomed in her stomach.  He was staring at the cookies like a kid ready to die of hunger.  His eyes met hers, then a devilish grin curled his lips. “I hope those are for me,” he murmured, “otherwise there might be bloodshed.”  He reached for a cookie and took a bite that demolished half of it.  He closed his eyes while chewing and moaned.  Flushed, she turned back to the window and whisked the curtains closed, his sounds filling her head with thoughts and images she couldn't afford to dwell on.

When he’d finished the last bite, he came up behind her and bent to her ear. “Those were the best cookies I’ve ever eaten,” he murmured, his breath warm against her cheek.  “I love those big chunky bits of chocolate.”  He slowly turned her around.  His kiss started slow and soft, just a touch, the flavor of cookie on his lips adding an extra sweetness.  The sensation of his tongue running along her bottom lip made her gasp for breath, but he took it as invitation and with a low groan yanked her hard against his body and plundered her mouth, his tongue tasting and savoring.

Before she could think how many ways this was a bad idea, his hands were under her shirt, one large palm spread over her breast, his arousal pressing hard into her belly.  She was just sliding her arms around his neck when a deep warning growl came rolling down the hall, followed immediately by a loud pounding at the front door and two threatening male voices demanding entrance.  Shocked at the unexpected intrusion, they both went still, then she pushed him away with all her strength—a move that never would have worked if Mitch’s brain hadn't been taken over by his dick—and had her gun out in an instant.

She was furious, tense and trembling with rage—at herself, at him, at whoever was trying to beat in her door.  “You led them here?”

“No," he hissed, shoving her behind him, "I just got here first.”