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 can’t 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.