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


Saturday, February 28, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Ten

Dawn was just easing into the cabin when Kate woke to the soft tickle of several strands of her hair wafting gently against her cheek from Mitch’s deep, even breaths.  His arm was draped over her waist, a large hand tucked under her side, holding her body tight against his.  She stayed still and quiet, not wanting to lose the moment or the feel of Mitch wrapped around her like a blanket, legs tangled, arms enclosing her in his heat.  Taking your back.  She didn’t know what to think about how deep those words had gone or how much they meant.  Her eyes wandered around the cabin, the early morning light casting the space in a mellow glow, disguising the worn, aged reality of the rundown building.  Ace was watching her from his place by the door, only his eyes moving as his head rested on huge paws.  Kate smiled to herself, thinking he and Mitch shared that feature as the man stirred at her back, sliding his big hand over her stomach before resting it on her hip.

“Morning, baby,” he muttered, voice rough with sleep.  “I could get used to this, waking up with you all warm and soft.”  He nestled his face into her neck and breathed deep, sending goose bumps down her body.  Kate felt his chuckle rumble against her back when she shivered. “Can’t wait to have you in my bed, be inside you.”  His splayed hand moved down, tightened on her thigh.  “Kiss you to sleep, kiss you awake.”  He made a low humming sound and rocked his hips into her.

Before she could decide what to do, Mitch rolled to his back, taking her with him.  Stretched out on top of him, her head tucked under his chin, she was drawn into his warmth, her traitorous body overruling her head with alarming ease.  When a long sigh of resignation drifted across his chest, he smiled and languidly ran his fingers up and down her spine, repeating the seductive gesture over and over until she was boneless and limp, happy to never leave the perfect cushion of his body or the cozy comfort of the little cabin.  The heady thrill in not looking over her shoulder in fear for the first time in years washed over her.  And that brought her straight out of tranquility and into hardwired tension.  What was she thinking? 

“Stop thinking,” he murmured, lifting a hand to the side of her head, tangling his fingers in her long silken hair.  “Let me have just a few more minutes to savor the best morning I’ve ever woken up to.”  He grinned when she snorted, then laid a hand on her head to keep her still, safe and warm against him.  His.  At least in his mind she was, though he suffered no illusions she’d fall at his feet without a fight.  No, not her.  Winning this woman was going to be the biggest challenge of his life.  Mitch stroked her hair as visions of the myriad ways he was going to convince her there was something truly good happening between them swirled through his head.

Kate fidgeted against his hold, then trembled at the feel of his semi-hard erection rising temptingly under her belly.  Mitch rubbed both hands up and down her back.  “Be still, honey.  Give me one more minute of you being quiet and biddable before we have to get up.”

“Biddable?  In your dreams, Cartwright.”  He chuckled, then abruptly rolled her to her back, taking his weight on his forearms as he made himself at home in the cradle of her body.  Staring down at her, absorbing the feel of her under him, he was imbued with a potent confusion of deep hunger and intense satisfaction.  Eyes wide, Kate skimmed over his features, studied the look on his face, tried not to read the serious undercurrent of his gaze.

Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, Mitch lowered his head to her mouth.  Kate wrapped her arms around his neck and returned his kiss with heat and need and utter recklessness.  She didn’t want to look at that serious look on his face, didn’t want anything to ruin this time with more questions or painful decisions.  She just wanted to pretend for a little while longer.

He raised his head, met her eyes, then crooned, “’The wheels on the bus go round and round,’” as he tapped lightly on her forehead.  She grinned, the child’s rhyme so unexpected coming from him.

“How in the world do you know those words?”

“Rug rat, otherwise known as my nephew.  It’s his favorite book.”

Kate blinked.  “Are you saying Mike and Lisa had a baby?”  She stared up at him, shocked and thrilled at the news.  She pushed against his chest and sat up when he shifted.  “When?  How old is he? What’s his name?”  The questions flew out of her mouth, excitement sparkling in her eyes.

Crawling off the bed and getting to his feet, Mitch pulled on his jeans and walked to the fireplace to stir the coals before tossing on the last few pieces of wood.  As he worked, he said, “Yeah, Mike and Lisa had a babe.  He’s a few months over a year, his name is Jake and he’s just as handsome as his uncle.”  He grinned over his shoulder at her. “That would be me, of course.”

“Lisa wanted a baby so much,” she murmured.  “We talked about it many times.  There seemed to be some kind of problem, though whatever it was, it obviously got worked out.  I’m so happy for them.”

“What worked out is I sent them to Hawaii for a month,” Mitch laughed as he started a fire in the stove and filled the kettle. “Not long after you’d left Montana, I suppose.  I came home after finishing a job in Australia and overheard them talking one night.  Lisa was pretty upset about not getting pregnant and I knew being worried wasn't helping matters.  So, as a thank you for taking care of my dogs whenever I need it, I gave them a nice, long vacation.”  He met her gaze across the room.  “She was pregnant before they even made it home.”  His smile was so irresistible, her breath caught and butterflies began to flap wildly in her stomach.

“What a wonderful thing to do,” she said softly, “and doubly wonderful that it gave them such a gift.”  She felt the prickle burn in her nose and quickly crossed the room toward her pack, trying to navigate through the tears shimmering over her vision.  And bumped straight into Mitch’s hard chest and enveloping arms as he stepped into her path.

He nuzzled, nipped the soft place where her neck met her shoulder, then wound his fingers in her hair and pulled her head back.  He held her tearful gaze, then kissed her hard and hot.  When she was breathless and weak-kneed, he lifted his head. “No wonder Mike and Lisa befriended you.  Does everyone fall under your spell?”  She closed her eyes and shook her head, whispered, “I need to go out, and so does Ace.”

Mitch released her and grabbed a tee shirt, pulling it over his head before settling the heavy weight of his leather jacket over her shoulders.  “This will keep you warm,” he said, and as she opened the door, he added, “Don’t go far and keep the cabin in sight.”

She gave him a two-fingered salute and followed Ace around the house and into the forest.  Standing under the thick canopy, night had yet to give way to dawn, though Kate could see the shadows retreating with every passing minute as she looked toward the cabin.  She took a deep breath of the cold mountain air, flavored with the sharp, heady aroma from the pines and in the quiet, away from Mitch and his force field, her thoughts broke free and began to unravel.

Three days ago her life had been simple, uneventful and solitary.  She’d actually thought maybe the threat was over, she was at last forgotten, lost in the shadows.  But then, out of nowhere, the soft, throaty rumble of a Harley had changed everything,

Mitch had barged in, knocked her off her feet with his wit and humor, then enticed and teased with a skill and intensity she could never hope to withstand.  He was smart and tough, resilient and effective.  He’d gotten under her skin, burrowed right in and laid claim to her while her head was still spinning.  In just three frigging days. 

Maybe she had lost her edge.  Not once in four years had she allowed anyone in—other than those brief weeks spent in Montana with Mike and Lisa—and yet now, here was Mitch, melting her resolve with his kisses, igniting a need in her she couldn’t resist even as she struggled to deny it.  The intimacy he’d shown her, the glimpse of what could be, made her want to rage against that tiny seed of hope because it was going to cripple her when she had to walk away. 

Shaking her head to dislodge the worst of her thoughts, she walked around the house to the front, calling Ace as she made her way to the door.  It opened just as she put a hand out for the rusty knob, a beaming Mitch grabbing her arm and hauling her inside.  He whistled for Ace, then shut the door when the dog was over the threshold.  Pulling his jacket off her shoulders, he tossed it in the general direction of his pack and said, “Open wide.”  When she just stared, Mitch raised a dark brow and waited, one hand hidden behind his back.  “Okay then, if you won’t cooperate,” he said impatiently and yanked her against him, his tongue licking between her lips until she opened for him, then abruptly, between one thrust of his tongue and the next, he pulled away and stuck a half-eaten cookie in her open mouth.

Laughing at the look of surprise on her face, he turned to the stove, lifted a mug and handed it to her with a slight bow.  “Your tea, Madam.”  Still chewing, she took the steaming mug and smiled at him; he looked so pleased with himself, she couldn’t help it.  “Thank you,” she murmured, “though first I have to give Ace—”

“Done.”  She looked over to see Ace near the front door happily munching his dog food. “All you have to do is sit down with me while we drink our tea and have a little something to eat while we figure out the game plan.”

“Mitch,” she began, trying her best to put some distance between them.

He stepped closer.  With a finger under her chin, he lifted her head to face him.  Their eyes connected and held, then he murmured, “Wheels on the bus, baby.”  Grazing his knuckles down her cheek, blue eyes vivid as a summer sky, he said gently, “I know what you were doing outside, Kate.  You were plotting your escape, figuring out how to ditch me—for my own good, of course, and maybe try to convince yourself theres no hope for us.”  He grinned at her scowl, leaned in and kissed the twin furrows on her forehead.  “Three days ago, everything changed.  For both of us.”  He took her elbow and maneuvered her over to the bed, gently pushing her down.  “We need to talk.”  When she opened her mouth, he shook his head and sat down beside her.  “While you’ve been out there thinking, I’ve been in here thinking.  Within the next half hoursooner if possiblewe’re leaving, no discussion, no debate.”

Wrong.  Plenty of discussion and debate.  Years of answering to no one fired up Kate’s temper.  “As we already know, Cartwright, you don’t listen well.”  She glared up at him. “I’ve made it very clear that you aren’t the boss of me.”

Mitch laughed, then bent into her glare. “You've dealt with this on your own long enough.”  He kissed the soft skin behind her ear. “It's time you had help.”  He bit her lobe, then sucked gently to remove the sting before murmuring, low and rough, “Don’t know what this is between us, but it’s something big and I want more.”  His lips burned up her throat, found her mouth and nibbled at her bottom lip. “I’m not looking to be your boss, baby, just your man, so don’t fight me on this, it’s too important.”  He kissed her, spoke against her lips, “Let me in.  I’ll keep you safe, slay your dragons, work your body till the only thing you’ll ever know or want is me.”  He pulled back, held her gaze.  “I’ll do anything for you.”  Then he smiled, eyes hot with promise. “Except let you go.”

They stared at each other for a long time, then Mitch nodded his head in that way she understood meant he'd made his point and there wasn't anything more to be said.  The look that made her want to reach for her pistol.  But since she was trying desperately to hide the fact his words had left her speechless, she could only silently watch him walk purposefully across the cabin to his pack. “We have to get out of here, Kate.  I’ve got a feeling.”

She cleared her throat, moved to crouch at Ace's saddlebags and began to sort and arrange the contents.  “A feeling?”

“Yeah,” he muttered, “I’ve been getting a lot of those lately.”  Taking a pair of socks from his pack, Mitch propped himself against the wall to pull them on, then stomped his feet into his boots and bent to lace them up.  “What was your escape plan, before I showed up?  You walking to…wherever?”

Kate shook her head.  “No. Along this ridge and down the other side is a little hamlet called Bear Claw.  It's a fairly easy hike, under two hours. I rent a small garage unit there, with an old beater car, some weapons and a few supplies.  My back-up.”  She met his gaze. “I haven’t been there in a few months, not since I made my yearly rent payment, but everything was okay then.”  She sighed. “I almost gave the unit up, thought I wouldn’t need it anymore.”  She gave him a forlorn little smile.  “Good thing I didn’t.”

“Proving how brilliant you are, honey, because we need to get gone and an old beater will do us just fine.  We get out of these mountains and over the border into Nevada, I’ll take it from there.”

Frowning, she said, “Nevada?  Why are we going east?  Shouldn’t we be going north toward Montana instead?”

Wagging his brows, he smiled.  “I’ve got a plan.”  One he was going to have to convince the most stubborn and self-reliant woman he’d ever known to get behind, though how he was going to accomplish it was pretty sketchy at the moment.

“Care to elaborate?” she asked, glancing up at him, a bag of dog bones in her hand that she hadn’t packed yet.  Ace came over and leaned into her, nearly tipping her over as he locked onto the bag.  Smiling, Kate gave him one, though her eyes stayed fixed on Mitch.  “So, the guy with all the answers suddenly doesn't have anything to say?”  She cocked her head.  “If you're not playing boss man, Mitch, then share the plan.”

“I don't have all the details worked out yet.”

“Oh, so you really don't have a plan.”

“I have a damn plan,” he snapped, “it just needs some tweaking.”  When she laughed at him with easy amusement, he smiled in surprise at the rare sound, then knelt to pack his gear.  “So, quick hike to town, get into the garage without being noticed, and we can be on our way before anyone’s the wiser.  Works for me.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Mitch, just so you know?  I can recognize a diversion when I see one, so don’t think this is over.  We’ve got two hours ahead of us with nothing to do but talk.” She smiled sweetly.  And to tweak those plans of yours.  She went to the bed and began folding the blankets. “The garage is behind a gas station off the highway.  Not many people around, even during the day.  I have the key, rent’s paid, car started right up the last time I was there. We shouldn’t have any problems.”

“Good,” he said, “then let’s roll, baby.”  Now that gears were turning, things falling into place, he was eager to get moving.  His preferred method was fast and light so he grinned with approval when Kate immediately finished packing and within fifteen minutes had everything taken care of and was ready to walk out the door. Christ, talk about a pro. She was fucking made for him.  He paused for a moment to wonder just exactly how hard she was going to fight him tonight when he explained his idea.  His grin widened in anticipation.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Nine

His kiss was sweet, gentle, though when he raised his head and they stared at each other, she saw something in his eyes, something serious and irrevocable.  Concerned, she frowned up at him, but he just smiled, rubbed his thumb over the crease marring her forehead and murmured, “What did I say about the frown, baby?”  Nudging her toward the cabin, he added, “Can’t wait to get cleaned up, settle in for the night.”

Walking around the little building to the front door, his hand felt warm and familiar on the nape of her neck, his heat seeping into her skin like sunshine after a long, cold winter.  She tried to marshal her thoughts, ignore the heat.  She couldn’t let Mitch burrow deeper, but she didn’t know how to stop him, or how to fight the way he made her feel. 

As they walked into the cabin, Mitch dropped his canteen near his pack, the mesh bag of bottles by the stove and strode to the fireplace while Kate wrestled with how quickly he was taking charge—exactly what she knew he would do.  It was in his DNA to be a bossy, do it my way, kind of guy.  So she gave him a wide berth, clicked on her LED lantern and knelt to dig in the saddlebags for Ace’s kibbles. Filling his bowl, she set it on the floor then went to the door, needing distance from the man and her thoughts.

Standing at the threshold, she caught the first tiny flickers of light above the dark silhouette of the mountains. It was quiet and beautiful, so when he came up behind her, enveloping her in his solid warmth, she didn’t pull away, knowing he’d just yank her back against him anyway. They stood together for several minutes watching the stars twinkle across the night sky, then Mitch broke the spell when he lifted a hand to her hair and gently tugged, tipping her head back until their eyes connected.  “Listen, there’s something I wanted to ask you and I should have done it sooner.”  Grinning down at her, he said, “I meant to do it at the pool, but, well…you’re very distracting.”  Then he frowned slightly and murmured, “I don’t want you to think sex is the only draw here because believe me, it isn’t.  I'm going for the whole package.”  He ignored her scowl.  “Earlier today I wanted to know two things: your name, and the reason you were crying this morning.” 

Why did he have to know everything?  She didn’t owe him an explanation. It was bad enough he was chipping away at her mile-high brick walls, but that didn’t mean she had to like it, or spill her guts.  She shrugged. “Nothing that concerns you, so—”

“Kate.”  She sighed, recognizing Badass Biker Dude was back as he growled her name like an irate bear.  “All right, damn it,” she snapped, “I was upset because I let my guard down.  I wasn’t cautious enough and you just came in, took my weapons and made yourself at home.”  She swallowed, her voice rough as she whispered, “While I was asleep and completely vulnerable.”

“Oh, honey,” he said, “I’m sorry about that.  I was trying to make a point.”  His words were soft with regret, “It was an asshole thing to do, though in my defense, I didn’t mean to scare you, and you must know I'd never hurt you.”  His eyes held a hint of amusement when he said, “I expected you to shoot me, that’s why I took your weapons, but I wanted you to get me, to show you that I’m here for you, want to keep you safe.”

“Know what you really showed me?  That I’ve lost my edge.  What if it hadn’t been you, what if it had been those other guys, the ones at my house?”  She took a shuddering breath and said solemnly, “If I don’t take care of myself, Mitch, I’m dead.  Literally.  And today you clearly proved that I can’t.”

He turned her around, pulled her into his chest and squeezed tight.  “Kate, let me explain something.”  She raised her head, met his eyes.  “This is not a boast.  I’m not looking for ego hits or back slaps.  Just facts and truth now, okay?”  When she nodded, he continued, “I’m good at what I do.  Really, really good.  It’s a gift, one honed in conflict, shaped by instinct and feared by anyone with a brain who knows I’m coming for them.”  He kissed her, just a brief touch of lips, wanted more than anything to take away the look of defeat in her eyes.  “You haven’t lost your edge, baby.  Come on, you drove me off your property with no problem and

“But you got in here, while I was sleeping—”

“Wait, let me finish. Only I could have done that. Just me.  No one else could have found your home, let alone followed you here.  I’m the only person on the planet who could and it’s not because of skill or talent, but because of the GPS.”  He smiled down at her.  “And that, my sweet woman, is the only way I found your house and was able to follow you.  Without Ace’s chip and that device?  My ass would still be blowing in the wind like everybody else who’s tried to find you.”

“Still, you got in and I never even heard you.”  She narrowed her eyes.  “And I don’t have a clue how you did it.”

He chuckled.  “Part of Ace’s training was removing obstacles.  To him, it’s just a more complicated game of fetch.  When I got here this morning, I looked through the window, saw your brace against the door, gave the command and let Ace do his thing.”  He pulled her close with a laugh. “No one else could have done that either, Kate. You haven’t lost a thing.”

She gave him a long, serious look.  “So then, from the hunter’s perspective, you think I’ve done okay?”

“Okay?  You kidding me?  Way better than okay.  You’ve been on your own, kept yourself safe, for a long time.”  When her head dropped to his chest, he said softly, “This mean we’re all right, baby?”  He grinned as he felt her head nod in assent, liked being able to reassure her.

“Thanks for making me feel better,” she mumbled into his jacket.

“You’re welcome.” He bent to kiss the top of her head then stepped outside.  “Going for wood, then we’ll clean up, have some food, and get some sleep.  I want an early start in the morning.”

“Mitch, wait.”  She watched him walk away without a word, a man on a mission.  He was like a bulldozer, barreling into her life, shaking the ground under her feet, leveling the playing field until it was his ball game.  And it didn’t help any that in a small corner of her mind she wanted him to help her, wanted to believe he actually could.  

But no, she sighed with regret, somehow it never worked out that way.  Reaching into the mesh bag for a bottle, she filled Ace’s bowl with fresh water. He took a long drink, then bumped her leg for attention.  She gave him a good scratch before bending to the wood stove and throwing in a bundle of kindling and lighting it, the crackle and pop making a cheerful sound in the quiet cabin.  Setting the kettle and a large pot on the stove, she filled them with water too, ready to heat when Mitch got back.

Just as she was pulling a thermal shirt, sweats and a pair of wool socks from her pack, Mitch came through the door with a stack of wood.  She helped him unload, then took two pieces to the stove and laid them over the kindling.  “Water shouldn’t take long to boil.  Do you want to eat now or later?”

Mitch stirred the embers in the fireplace with a long stick, then tossed in some wood and as the fire quickly began to blaze, he turned and walked toward her.  His eyes roamed over her body, her face, then held her gaze as he said, “I could eat.  You hungry?”  He ran his fingertips lightly down her neck, smiling to himself when her skin flushed.

Hungry took on a whole new meaning as she studied him.  Traveling across his cheeks, down his jaw, her eyes settled on his mouth.  Kate knew just how soft those lips were, and at the thought, her belly went hollow, like she hadn’t eaten in a month. She tried to swallow, couldn’t find her voice, so she just nodded like a bobble-headed doll stuck on the dashboard of an old Buick.

While he’d been outside gathering wood, Mitch had also been mulling things over.  It killed him to admit he had to step back.  Right now Kate was too wary, had been alone far too long, didn’t trust anyone except Ace.  If—when—she let him in, he was going in one hundred percent and wanted the same from her.  So, yeah, much as his dick wanted to cast a different vote, it was too soon, her trust too fragile.

“I came to a decision when I was out,” he said quietly.”  She stared up at him, waiting, suddenly nervous.  “No telling what’s going on out there,” he nodded toward the mountains, “but I want you out of this wilderness and out of danger.”  Then he paused, eyes sweeping over her before he took a very deep breath, threw back his head and exhaled at the ceiling.  “What I'm saying is, I can wait for it—not for long—but I can wait until we get off this mountain, maybe even until Montana though I’m not sure—”

“Montana?” she blurted, her head banging into his chin as she reared up.  “Are you crazy?  I can’t go back to Montana.  I’m on the run, Mitch, there are rules.  Keep your head down, no paper trail, cash only, and never stay in the same place twice.”

He smiled indulgently.  “Going to Montana, honey.  She glared at his arrogance. Tomorrow.”

Pushing against his hold, she replied angrily, “Damn it, Mitch, you can’t just order me around.”  Frustrated, she twisted out of his grasp and moved back.  “You presume much, Cartwright.  I don't recall having a conversation about doing it, or how long you'll now be waiting for it. She glared. And just to be clear, you do not get to tell me what to do.  I won’t go to Montana and you can’t make me,” she hissed between clenched teeth, not caring that she sounded like a toddler on the verge of an epic meltdown.

When he laughed, her hand slid behind her back and settled around the Ruger’s familiar grip.  Damn him.  One minute she wanted to jump his bones and ride him into next week, then all she wanted to do was shoot him full of holes.  She glared when he leaned close and said, “Don’t be thinking about pointing a weapon at me, Kate.  You know what happens when you do that.” 

She held his gaze and quietly thumbed off the safety.  He heard the soft snick and cocked his head, a wide grin spreading over his face, blue eyes twinkling as he murmured, “You want to dance, baby?”  Curling his fingers, he made a gesture that said bring it on.  

Staring up at him, his confident power wrapping sinuously around her, she doubted there were many who could hold their own against this man, but she certainly couldn’t, no matter how hard she tried.  Her shoulders slumped at the realization, and her head dropped to his chest again.  She wondered for a second what her head used to do before his chest was there to catch it.  And that made her say in a low, pained whisper, “I can't work this, Mitch. It scares me how weak I am around you.  I cant afford weak.”

Cupping her face with his large hands, he drew her eyes to his and whispered back, “What you’re feeling isn’t weakness, Kate.”  He leaned in until their foreheads touched. “I make you feel safe and you don’t know how to deal with it.”  He pulled her close, but just for a moment, his will power slipping with every touch. “Nothing about you is weak, honey.”  Stepping back, he said gruffly, “Come on, let’s see what we can rustle up for dinner.”

Mitch dug in his pack and handed Kate a bag with a variety of freeze-dried meal packets, the portion of cheese Ace hadn’t eaten and more protein bars.  She shared her own supplies and between them managed to put together a decent meal that they ate sitting comfortably together on a folded blanket in front of the roaring fire.

When they were finished, Mitch got to his feet and held out a hand to help her rise.  “I’ll take Ace out now, if you want to clean up,” he said.  She nodded, “I’ll just need fifteen minutes or so.”  He put on his jacket and whistled for Ace, who bounded out before the door had barely opened.

By the time Mitch and Ace came back, she was clean, cozy in her thermal and sweats, and tucked into bed watching the flames dance in the fire.  He walked over, ran a long finger down her cheek and smiled at her sleepy murmur, “Plenty of hot water left…mix it with the cold though…don’t burn yourself.”  He bent over, kissed the corner of her mouth and said, “Get some sleep.  I’m here, Ace is here.  No worries.”

She vaguely heard sounds of water splashing, Ace crunching one of his bones, then she knew nothing until much later when the fire had been banked, the lantern turned off and in the darkness the sleeping bag shifted and she felt Mitch begin to crawl into bed with her.  “What are you doing?” she asked, rolling over.

“You’ve got my word I’ll behave, but I’m taking your back, baby.”  When she didn’t move, he said, “Shove over,” and slid under the covers, filling most of the bed.  She tried to scoot away but a large hand shot out, covered her belly and pulled her back, spooning his body around hers. Nestling his face into her neck, he murmured, “Go to sleep, Kate.  We’ve got to leave at first light.  I need to make contact with my team and—

“Your team?  What are you, Rambo?”

She felt his grin against her skin,  “Yeah.  Only better looking.”  Her giggle made her butt wiggle against his groin and he sucked in a breath.  “Don’t wake the minion, baby,” he growled.

“The minion?”  He bucked his hips into her once to make his point, then murmured low, “Sleep now.  Talk tomorrow.”

He was such a Neanderthal, she thought, but fell asleep with a smile on her face and the first, tiny glimmer of a future she’d never dared hope for.

Mitch slept with Kate’s fresh, sugary scent wafting around him, the feel of her in his arms and the way they fit together deepening his certainty. He snuggled closer, knew he would fight hard to keep this, keep her.

Ace stretched out by the door and closed his eyes, content that his two favorite humans were in the same place. That made it much easier to guard them.  He drifted to sleep, visions of a world filled with mountains of dog bones flitting through his mind.

Friday, February 13, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Eight

She’d taken a deep breath, her decision balanced on the tip of her tongue, but for the second time Ace interrupted, butting his head between them, forcing Mitch to release her.  When he laughed and bent to fuss over Ace, she used the disruption for what it was: a chance to step away, clear her head, try to think past his overwhelming pull.  Of course she wanted him, what woman in her right mind wouldn’t?  But being involved with a man like Mitch meant exposing her secrets, relinquishing the control she needed to keep herself safe. She would snap like a cheap rubber band if she let go.

Mitch glanced up at her with a smile, then abruptly frowned and stood, reaching out for her.  His frown deepened when she staggered a few feet back.  “What’s wrong?” he asked, moving closer, running his eyes down her body, searching her pale face for clues.  “Why are you upset?”

When he was near enough she could feel his heat, she threw her hands up to ward him off.  “Stop.  Don’t touch me.”  His glare was fierce as he ignored her, stepping into her space until his body was just a hair’s breadth from contact.  “Talk to me,” he growled.

She stared up at him.  “You’re like that frog, the one in South America,” sounding puzzled, as if she’d just learned something startling and was trying to understand what it meant.  “It has venom on its skin, she murmured, that causes confusion and hallucinations.”

“So, you think I’m a frog that isn’t real?”  Just his luck, he finds the woman of his dreams and she’s a nut bar.

“No,” she snapped, impatiently, “you’re real, too real.  That’s the problem.”  She took another step back.  “Every time you touch me, my brain disconnects, I forget what I’m doing, my judgment just…fails.”  Her words were whisper-soft when she said, “Lust venom.”

Mitch made an odd sound, half choke, half stifled laughter.  “Lust venom,” he repeated.  And then he smiled, so open and true, her heart stuttered.  His blue eyes sparked with amusement, his dimple flashed, and for a moment she saw the boy behind the man, mischievous and playful.

Her eyelids slammed shut as she fought not to sway into that smile. “And no more smiling at me.”  Under her breath, she muttered, “Definitely no smiling.”

“Sweetheart,” he said, biting back his laughter, “look at me.”  When she shook her head, he leaned close.  “Eyes open or closed, you can’t hide from me, honey.  You need to get that.”  She felt him move away, heard his quiet, “lust venom,” followed by a low rumbling laugh.

Risking a quick peek, she watched him cross the room and crouch to rummage in his pack.  Glancing over his shoulder, he caught her looking and said easily, “How about we take Ace for a walk?  It’s too late in the day to head out now, so we might as well kick back for tonight.” 

She nodded, then seeing her gun and knife on the small table where Mitch must have left them, she grabbed her weapons and crossed the room to sit on the edge of the bed.  “There’s a small pool not far from here,” she murmured, shoving her boots on, “filled by run-off from higher up the mountain.  It’s where I usually refill my water bottles.”  Boots laced, she stood, slid the Ruger into the back of her waistband and fastened the knife in its sheath. Briskly now, keeping it all business, she said, “Since we’re here for the night, we’ll need the water.”

Mitch watched her round up the empty bottles and stuff them into a mesh bag she took from her backpack.  He smiled that she was always prepared for anything, then his brow furrowed, wondering at the secrets driving her and how long before she’d trust him enough to share them.  Eyes on her, he shrugged into his jacket and adjusted the canteen strap over his shoulder.  When the time was right, she would talk.  And he’d be there to listen.

The trail was narrow and uneven, forcing them to walk single file for the first twenty minutes of the hike, an exuberant Ace leading the way up the ridge behind the cabin, but deeper into the forest there was more room so Mitch moved in and took her hand.  She resisted, tried to pull away, but he held fast.  When she scowled at him, he grinned, made frog noises and kept walking.  She should have tried harder to untangle their hands, but there was no resisting the way his fingers wrapped around hers like a glove, covering her whole hand in warmth.
Needing something to take her mind off him, she casually said, “I’ve washed, brushed, scratched and wrestled with Ace too many times to count over the past couple years.”  She paused, watching Mitch out of the corner of her eye.  “So, where’s the tracking device?”

His hand tightened around hers for a second, then he sighed. There went his advantage, but no use denying it.  “How’d you figure it out?”

“You might be really good at your job, Mitch, but nobody can follow a trail that isn’t there.”  She shrugged.  “It had to be Ace, though I don’t understand why.”  When he tensed, she looked up at him, just in time to see something flash across his face.  Pain?  Regret?  “What is it?”  When he didn’t answer, she let the silence go on, giving him time to decide if he wanted to talk or not. 

“After the military,” he finally said, “I couldn’t settle, didn’t know what to do with myself.  Mike was doing some work for a private detective out of LA and he came to see me in Montana, convinced me that together we could do it better.”  He steered her around a fallen log. “Mike set up the survival school, we both worked investigations, and I started my kennels.

“About six years ago, I had a Rottweiler puppy.  Leda was my star, beautiful, strong, smart as a whip.  When she was old enough, I found her an equally solid male.  They were going to be the foundation of Cartwright Kennels.  Her first pregnancy, she had one big ass puppy, healthy and solid.” 

She could almost hear his back teeth grinding when he paused. “One day this guy came to the ranch, representing some eastern European asshole who’d heard about my dogs.  The guy was too slick, pushy rude, thought his boss’s money could buy anything or anyone.  He saw my girl, offered me more than I could make in a year.  I said no.  Several times. Then we had a slight…disagreement and I threw him off the property.”

This wasn't going to end well, she knew it, the tension pouring off him was too strong, but she’d asked for an explanation and all she could do now was hang on and hear him out.  “What happened?” she asked gently.

“The bastard waited until the time was right, broke into the kennel and took her.”  His words fell heavy in the quiet. “I made it my mission to get her back, no matter who stood in my way or what I had to do.”  Bitter words hissed between clenched teeth. “She was used as a fucking fight dog at one of the boss man’s clubs, then he lost her to a Bulgarian warlord, who gave her up to pay off a debt to the owner of an exclusive underground fighting ring in Germany.”  He took a deep breath, let it out long and slow.  Regret burned in his throat when Mitch said quietly, “By the time I found her, it was too late.”

“Oh, Mitch.”  Her stomach churned as tears clogged her throat. “Did you find that man, the one who took her?  And the others?”

“I worked with a few government agencies in Europe, and some animal rights groups. We managed to rescue some animals, shut down the fight rings, though it was just the tip of a very large, very powerful iceberg.”  He glanced at her, eyes shadowed. “I’m still after that slimy bastard and his boss and I’ll get them, one way or another.”

They walked together in silence for a while, then Mitch said, “Back to your original question.  After what happened to Leda, I had to find a way to always track my dogs, so I developed a way to do that, starting with her big ass puppy.”  Nodding toward Ace as he came bounding out of the woods with a large branch between his teeth, he smiled. “Meet big ass puppy.”    

“Ace?  Ace was her baby?  Oh no,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry, Mitch.”  Then her anger flared. “But why did Mike let me have him?  Knowing how you would feel?  Why would he do that?”

“I won’t lie, I was so pissed at Mike I came real close to forgetting he was my brother.  I wanted his head on a pole until Lisa stepped in.  They tried to convince me this woman they'd befriended needed Ace, and not just for protection, that I had to trust that Mike had made the right call.”  Mitch snorted.  “I called bullshit.  I wanted my dog and was ready to head out the next morning to track him down, but funny thing.”  He reached into his jacket, pulled out a small electronic gadget and thumbed it on before turning the display toward her so she could see a red dot moving across a green background.  “The GPS had gone missing and I had no way to trace him.”  He smiled, eyes hot, as he said sarcastically, “Imagine my surprise when Mike told me a few weeks back that their friend Jane might be in trouble, and oh, by the way, look what turned up.”

He tipped his head, met her anxious gaze.  “But you,” he murmured, “you have nothing to be sorry about.  This isn’t on you in any way.”  He kissed her with just a bare touch of lips.  “You’re now one of a handful of people who know about the tracker.  I’m trusting you with that secret and the welfare of my dogs.”  He held her gaze for a long moment, hoping his point was being made.  When she didn’t react or say anything, he tapped a finger on the end of her nose and said, “But right now, we’re going to take it easy, let things ride until tomorrow.”

His smile dimmed when she said, “I don’t have the option to let anything ride, Mitch. And even less time to take it easy.”

“You have all the time in the world because you have me and we’ll get it figured, whatever it is.”  Pulling her into his arms, he rested his chin on the top of her head and gave her a little shake before he whispered, “You can count on me.”

She pushed out of his arms.  “I can only count on myself and Ace.  Don’t take this personally—if this were another time and place things might be different—but I don’t have the luxury of trust, so this, between us?  It can’t happen because Ace and I are gone in the morning.”

Annoyingly, he laughed. Cupping her face in his large hands, he kissed her again, not with heat, but with tenderness and care.  Then he lifted his head, eyes drifting over her features for a long moment before he grinned and tucked a long strand of hair behind her ear.  “Christ, you are so adorable.”  Taking her hand again, he tugged her along.  “But honey,” he said, “just so you know?  You aren’t going anywhere without me.”  He caught the look on her face.  “And stop frowning.  What if your face freezes like that?”  When her frown deepened, his laugh echoed around the forest and damned if the lunatic didn’t start cheerfully swinging their clasped hands like they were two lovers on a stroll in the park.

Before she could disabuse him of a multitude of wrong-thinking ideas, Ace came charging out of the trees, bounded in a circle around them, and ran off again.  A rush of insight washed through her.  Ace was exactly who he was because of the man walking beside her.  “Mitch?”  When he looked down, brow raised in question at the tremble in her voice, she said softly, “Thank you for raising Ace like you have, for making him strong.  He’s the best dog ever.”

He stared at her, throat working as he tried to swallow the strange lump lodged halfway down.  Or up.  He didn’t know which, had never felt such a thing in his life.  It was so girly, he almost flushed with embarrassment, which would have killed him on the spot.  “You’re welcome,” he managed, his voice rough, even to his own ears.  “He loves you, and that has nothing to do with training and everything to do with you.”

Her sweet smile went straight to his dick and he ached to have her, to take her right now in this forest, just lay her down under the trees and be inside her in a heartbeat.  He buried the low moan that threatened, searching frantically for something to distract his thoughts before he fucked things up.  And that brought him up short.  He’d imagined them wrapped around each other tonight, sated and content, but was he being a total ass here?  Should he wait until they were off the mountain and in a hotel?  Or until he got her back to his place in Montana?  She didn’t know it yet, but that’s where they were going.  He needed access to his contacts, network, even his brother and there was no way he was letting her out of his sight.  But damn, Montana was a long wait away.

Trying to clear his head, he concentrated on the two questions he wanted to ask, two things he needed to know.  He started to ask her the first, when she dropped his hand and pointed.  “Look.  Isn’t this just the most beautiful place?  I love the moss and the waterfall and the light glittering on the water as it tumbles over the rocks.”  She went to the edge and bent to stick her fingers in the icy pool.  Gasping, she looked over her shoulder at him with a big smile that dropped the blood from his head to his groin so fast his head spun.  “Beautiful, yeah,” he muttered, transfixed. Fuck. He was so screwed. She owned him with that smile.

“I take it the water’s going to be torture?”  Was that his voice, growling like a man who drank whiskey in dark, seedy bars and smoked three packs a day?

“Well, I for one won’t be stripping down and jumping in, that’s for sure.”

“So sorry to hear that,” he muttered, clearing his throat.  “Though I should get in, cool down.”

Straightening, she walked toward him, concern in her eyes. “That's not a good idea, it's far too cold.  What are you thinking?”

He knew he shouldn’t do it, knew it was crude, uncalled for, wrong in a dozen ways, but he couldn’t stop himself, he wanted to feel her hands on him, needed her to understand what she did to him.  Reaching for her, he splayed her hand over his erection and pressed her palm against the hard length.  He closed his eyes, absorbing her warmth as the moan he’d shut down earlier rolled up his throat, long and low.  When her hand trembled under his, he said softly, “That’s what I’m thinking.”

Raising her head with a knuckle under her chin, he smiled at the dazed look on her face.  “What you do to me, woman.  Not legal in some parts of the world, I’m pretty sure.”  As her hand eased away, she laughed softly, the sound resonating in his belly, filling his head with possibilities.

Ace appeared at the top of the waterfall, his tongue lolling.  Mitch chuckled up at the silly mutt, then bent to kiss her, just a quick one because his dick was still too eager and night was coming.  “Time to hustle,” he murmured against her mouth before reluctantly letting her go.

They knelt at the edge of the pool and filled the canteen and the bottles. “Can’t wait to have hot water from the wood stove later,” he said when they were done, “be nice to clean up.”  He swung the canteen and the mesh bag over one shoulder before taking her hand, pleased she didn’t try to remove it from his grasp.  He whistled for Ace, who vaulted out of the trees with another large limb in his mouth, leading the way home as the gloaming painted the sky in shades of orange, purple and red.

They walked in companionable silence, hands clasped tight until his questions resurfaced. Taking a deep breath, hoping he wasn’t making a mistake, pushing too fast, too soon, he said quietly, “Would you tell me your name?  Your real name, not one of your fakes.”  He felt her withdraw immediately.  She went still and he could actually feel her fingers go icy before she tried to pull away from him.

“No, I’m not letting go.  You don’t trust me, I get that, but know this.” He put a large hand on her back and tugged her close.  Lowering his head, he whispered, breath warm against her cheek, “I intend to have you, in every sense, on every level. That includes dealing with your nightmares and who gave them to you.”  He touched his forehead to hers.  “I’m not asking for much, just give me something. A nickname, the name of your childhood doll, make up a name, I don’t care.”  But then he straightened, looked down into her face and slowly shook his head.  “No, that’s not what I want.”  He paused, choosing his words. “I want real.”  Her head dropped, thunked into his chest, and he waited long moments for her to speak until disappointment edged out hope.  Sighing, he took her hand again and they moved down the trail.

When they came out of the trees at the back of the cabin, she hesitated, then stepped in front of him, searching his eyes, taking his measure.  She opened her mouth, snapped it shut, looked at the ground, took a deep shaky breath. And reached up to grab the lapels of his jacket, drawing him close, fear and apprehension making her voice waver. “Kate,” she murmured into his ear, “my real name is Kate.”

He pulled back to look into her face.  She was terrified that she’d just made a fatal error, her eyes huge and filled with dread at what she’d done.  He understood with a piercing clarity that she had just taken a giant leap of faith.  In him.  Suddenly he felt too many things at once burning hot in his chest.  Running his fingers down the velvety contours of her cheek, he traced the shape of her bottom lip with his thumb before meeting her eyes.

“Hey, Kate,” he murmured softly, bending to kiss her, sealing a vow she didn’t know he’d just made.  It might only be a scrap of trust, but she’d given it to him and he was more than ready to earn the rest.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Slight Glitch

My goal has been to post a chapter of No Place To Hide every Friday and I was doing really well on that schedule until this week.  Even with the chaos of having a new kitchen floor installed, I was making headway on the story and still thought I would get the chapter finished yesterday.  But I didn't factor in a quick eye appointment for new glasses in the afternoon that turned my world into a hazy blur after the eye drop stuff...blurry vision that lasted late into the evening.

Stay tuned.  I'll be posting next Friday, for sure.

Just for fun:  Here's what the main characters look like to me, except Mitch has longer hair. And Ace, of course, handsome scene-stealing boy that he is...