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.