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.