An hour later, taking a break beside the trail on a huge boulder overlooking a long, narrow valley that cut a brilliant green swath through a sea of pines, Mitch leaned back against the stone and sighed contentedly. Before Kate, he honestly couldn’t remember when he’d had such a feeling, but finding her three days ago had altered his world, filling it with colors and flavors and scents he’d never imagined.
Since leaving the cabin, she had tormented and badgered him to explain his plan. He’d turned it into a game, responding to her endless questions with foolish and ridiculous answers until she was either scowling or trying to hide her laughter. He bit into a protein bar and watched her twist the cap off a bottle of water, the early morning sun lighting up strands of her hair in a striking fusion of reddish hues. He loved her hair, the texture, the color, the way it felt tangled in his fingers—
“So,” Mitch said hoarsely. He cleared his throat, tried again. “So, when’s your birthday?”
Kate froze, the water bottle halfway to her mouth. “What?” She looked over at him, a troubled unease in her gaze, her distrust at the question was immediate.
“Looking forward to the day I can just ask a simple question and it won’t freak you out.” He bumped her shoulder with his own. “It was just an innocent question, Kate. I want to know about you.” He had to tread lightly, too bad that wasn’t one of his skills. “Just wondering if I’m robbing the cradle,” he smiled wide, “or you are.”
Her smile was small, tense, then she met his gaze, her eyes searching for hidden motives, hoping for sincerity. He could almost see the analytical gears grinding in her head, hear them weighing his words, probing the meaning behind his question, judging his reason for asking it. He was disappointed when she looked away.
Okay, that didn’t work for him. Time to lay it out and hope he wasn’t about to step on his dick. “Kate,” he said quietly, “we need to get a few things straight between us.” He grabbed her hand, rubbing his thumb gently over her knuckles in a gesture he hoped was soothing. “I took this job as a favor for my brother. I didn’t want it, had things at home to deal with, but I did it, for Mike. I expected to find a woman willing to listen, to accept the help. I figured I’d locate you then hand you over to Mike and Lisa and it would be back to business as usual.” He tugged on her hand until she raised her head and met his eyes. He grinned down at her. “But instead, I find a wild woman, gorgeous and tough, holding me at gunpoint, never once showing an ounce of weakness, and I know how my size can intimidate. Being a gorilla helps in my line of work.”
“Gorilla,” she snorted. “When you climbed off that Harley, I saw Kodiak bear.” A small corner of her mouth curved up. “Kodiak trumps gorilla any day.”
He chuckled. “Either way, it helps that I’m a big, scary guy with few regrets and zero tolerance for fucked up losers. My point is, I’ve never met a woman like you. You’re brave and audacious and skilled, and you had me at ‘you speak English?’ Which I gotta tell you, baby, was the funniest thing I ever heard.”
“You didn’t laugh,” she said softly.
“How could I laugh? You’d just handed me my balls. I’m a guy, I had to save face.”
Her laughter was a thing of beauty. It animated her face, gave her eyes a bright gleam, chased away the fucking shadows that haunted her…and him. He flung an arm around her shoulders and yanked her close. “You owned me. Right then, in the blink of an eye, and you didn’t even realize it.” He kissed the top of her head and murmured into her hair, “I don’t think you understand yet how far down the rabbit hole I’ve fallen, baby. I’m still reeling, if you want the truth of it.”
She looked up at him. He was either a consummate actor, or he meant every word. She thought of Mike and Lisa—good, decent people who’d been kind to her—and the bond Ace had with Mitch, something that wouldn’t be possible if he were a cruel man.
“Just before Thanksgiving,” she murmured, “I’ll be 32.”
He squeezed her tight for a moment. “See? That wasn’t so hard, was it? And just so you know, I’ll be 36 in January.” Quietly, his words like soft kisses against her skin, he murmured at her temple, “I want so much to make things right for you.” He sighed with reluctance and shifted so she could stand. “And that means, we need to get moving.” He kissed her quickly, not allowing himself to linger, then stood and turned to gather his pack and the rifle, resting against a boulder.
She bent to her own pack and was stuffing the empty water bottles into an outer pocket when Ace suddenly growled. Her head spun, eyes zeroing in on her dog, rigid and quivering with tension as he stared down the ridge.
“What do you see, boy?” She knelt down beside him and put an arm around his neck, lining her face up with his as she tried to gauge the distance and direction of his line of sight. Was that something there, off to the left, glinting in a beam of— “Mitch,” she shouted, “get down!”
The reverberation from the shot cracked down the valley, but she’d already seen the muzzle flash and dropped to her belly, tugging Ace down beside her. “Mitch! Hand me the rifle, I know where the shooter is!” Expecting to find Mitch armed and dangerous beside her before the words had left her mouth, she turned toward him and snapped, “Give me the damn—” Kate froze in disbelief and rising horror to see him lying motionless on his side next to the boulders.
“Oh god, oh god, oh god,” she babbled, scrambling on her hands and knees toward him. Everything around her fell away, sounds died, leaving behind a silence that was so crushing, her heart faltered. “Mitch?” Gently rolling him to his back, her hands darted frantically over his face, his neck, down his chest. She couldn’t see an injury at first, then a dark stain began to spread across his tee shirt and her breathing accelerated into a thick, painful rhythm that nearly choked her.
Yanking open his jacket, she saw the bloody hole, high on his left shoulder. Cursing, she grabbed the wide lapel on his leather jacket and carefully pulled, raising his shoulder just enough to slide her hand beneath it. She found the ragged exit hole, relief making her head swim. Straight through, and from a bullet that didn’t tumble and tear, shred or mangle.
“Ace,” she ground out, “stay low. Guard.” She didn’t spare him a glance, knew he’d dropped flat to the ground and would warn her instantly if there was movement from any direction. Shaking with her need to hurry, she reached for her pack, tore the first aid kit out of a large side pocket, opened it and grabbed a thick wad of gauze pads. Up on her knees and using both hands, she pressed them hard into Mitch’s shoulder, incredibly pleased to hear his low moan. “Hey, big guy, need to see those eyes. Come on, Mitch.”
His eyelids fluttered, his gaze unfocused. She needed him to wake up, needed to get the bleeding stopped, needed to make sure he was all right. Needed him. A sob broke through her control, making her bite down hard on her bottom lip. Digging deeper into her pack, she found a tee shirt, folded it several times and applied more pressure against his wound. This time he hissed and slapped at her hands as he tried to sit up. “Mitch, honey, lay still.” He settled at the sound of her voice and slowly lifted his eyes, met hers. “What the fuck…” he croaked, his voice weak and confused.
“Mitch, I need to get your jacket off. Can you help me?”
Dazed, he stared at her for a long, anxious moment, eyes racing across her face. His body spiked with a violent rush of adrenaline when he saw the blood on her hands, smeared on her jacket. He jackknifed straight up, dragging his gun out of its holster on autopilot. Then, “Jesus,” he hissed, falling back, the pistol limp in his grasp. Eyes closed tight, he took several deep breaths against the pain, then rasped, “Blood on you. Hurt? Ace?”
“No. Ace and I were down, but you, you’re a really big target.” She helped him sit up when he tried again. Leaning back against the boulder, he winced as she gently pulled one arm then the other out of his jacket sleeves. “The bullet went clean. I can bandage you, slow the bleeding, but we need a doctor.” She cut his tee shirt open with her knife, grimaced at the wound.
“Who did this, Mitch? Is it the men from my house?” She gave him a bleak look, one he didn’t like seeing. “So, the bounty isn’t to find me, it’s to kill me?”
“Nobody’s going to fucking kill you,” he said heatedly, “but somebody’s for sure gonna die after this shit.” He glanced at the first aid kit, met her eyes again. “Fix me up, but do it quick, we have to get out of here.”
“You’re not looking so good, Mitch.”
“I can make it. Been shot before, been in worse shape.” He jerked when she applied a stinging ointment, then hissed as agony roared through his brain. “Though don’t remember a bullet splitting my head in two.”
Kate stopped taping a thick gauze pad over the entry wound and palmed his jaw, lifting his face to meet her eyes. She narrowed them when he threw up a hand to block the weak morning sun. “Look at me, Mitch.”
“Can’t. Too bright.”
“Shade your eyes and look at me,” she ordered. His eyes were dilated. Damn. “Close your eyes now and let me feel around your head.” Calmly, tenderly, she ran her fingers lightly over the back of his skull until she found the gash. He groaned as the pain lanced like a blade through his head. Her stomach clenched.
“Mitch, we’re kind of in trouble here. Bullet wound is one thing, but you hit your head when you fell and I think you have a concussion, maybe even a fracture.” She finished taping the second gauze pad at his back, then began to wrap his whole shoulder with a long roll of gauze. “You can’t hike with a concussion. You’ll be dizzy and nauseous and you could pass out, fall down and I won’t be able to get you up.” Tying off the gauze, she turned to dig in his pack and pulled out a heavy wool shirt. Using her knife, she cut off his tee and carefully got him into the new shirt, fingers flying as she quickly buttoned it.
He kept his eyes on her, soaking in every nuance, every beautiful inch of her face. “Is there anything you can’t do?” he asked softly.
“Yes, resist you. Now hold still and let me finish.”
A smile touched his mouth before a look of resignation, followed by a deep regret crossed Mitch’s face. “Leave me,” he ordered. “You can make it to Bear Claw, get the car and hightail it straight to Montana. Mike will keep you safe and I’ll catch up when I can.”
She didn’t even acknowledge his ridiculous words. “We’ve got two choices,” she mumbled, more to herself than to him. “Hour back to the cabin, hour ahead into town.” Her eyes roamed over Mitch, assessing. “I’m not sure either option will work, not with a head injury on top of your shoulder wound.”
“Goddamn it, Kate. You will grab your pack and the dog and get the fuck away from here. Right fucking now.”
Kate frowned at him. “Are you done being an insufferable, overprotective ass?” she snapped.
“Am I dead?” he growled, his glare fierce.
She glared back, but before she could speak, he barked, “Then no, I’m not done.”
Ignoring him, she looked back the way they’d come then turned to look further along the path in the other direction. Narrowing her eyes, she surveyed the landscape above the trail. “There’s another place, closer, though the hike will be harder.” She folded a smaller piece of gauze and pressed it to the back of Mitch’s head, instructing him to hold it while she tore off strips of tape. When he started to argue again, she leaned close, met his eyes and said with a sharp edge, “If our positions were reversed, if it were me hurt, would you leave me behind?”
“Of course not.” Outrage flashed in his eyes. “I would carry you out. Keep you safe.”
“Which is exactly what I intend to do,” she said, stowing the first aid kit in her pack. “Minus the carrying you part.”
When he started in again, she pressed two fingers against his lips. “Stop arguing. We stick together. Drink this water, take these aspirin and rest for a minute while I get things sorted.” She gently touched his face, then leaned in and softly kissed him. “I’ll keep you safe, Mitch. I swear it.”
Behind her, Ace began to growl. The sound rumbling up his throat was so dangerous, the hairs on the back of her neck rose in primal warning.