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, “I’m thinking maybe the better question here might be...do you want me?”