“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.”