Kate closed her eyes, unexpected rescue warring with sick apprehension. What was Mitch doing here? Damn the man, he just couldn’t listen. And thank god for that. She tried to twist toward him, to see him, but could only catch a glimpse from the corner of her eye before her captor yanked her to her feet, pulling her against his chest like a shield as he turned to face Mitch, the knife tip pressing into her throat.
There was a long, tense silence, then Mitch drawled, “Well, if it isn’t Dumbass Boudreaux.”
Hissing between clenched teeth, the man barked, “It’s Dumas, asshole.”
Ignoring him, Mitch turned his gaze to the other man, eyes skimming quickly over Kate’s body in passing. “And I see you brought little brother, Roach.”
“My brother’s name is Roche,” the man called Dumas snarled, “and ‘bout time you showed some respect, all things considered.” His grip tightened in Kate’s hair.
Mitch had had enough. His head was pounding, his shoulder was on fire and if he hadn’t locked his knees, he’d already be on the ground. His power play was all bluster and he was going to lose the game if he didn’t finish this quick. “Get your hands off the woman and step back, Boudreaux. I’ll give you half a second then it’s a bullet to the brain. Mood I’m in, this cluster fuck could go south in a heartbeat with two dead Cajuns laying in the dirt. You think I’m kidding, try me. Please.”
Roche piped up from somewhere to Kate’s right. “She fucking stabbed me, Cartwright and kicked my nuts bad. I get a piece of her,” he whined.
Mitch sighed, deep and long, then shook his head. “Time’s up.” Dumas had pulled her head back so far she didn’t see Mitch’s movement, but when the pressure of the knife eased on her throat and Roche suddenly yelled, “No, wait!” she didn’t hesitate and slammed her head back, catching Dumas hard on the chin. Twisting out of his grasp, she spun and kicked out, hitting him behind one knee. As he staggered, she wrenched her knife out of his hand as he fell and before anyone could do much more than blink, Kate had reversed their positions, the knife now pressing into the man’s neck as she jammed her knee between his shoulder blades and yanked his head back with a hard grip under his chin.
Roche slid off the log, one hand gripping his bloody thigh, the other raised, holding her pistol. “Tell her to let go of my brother or I’ll shoot you both dead.” His threat might have been more effective if the gun hadn't been shaking in his hand. “She kicked me in the balls,” he complained again.
Kate’s eyes had locked on to Mitch the second she had Boudreaux under her blade. He held the Sig Sauer like an old friend, easy and controlled in his grip. But he was a mess, all wild-eyed and flushed. Even his three-day scruff of beard couldn’t hide the deepening grooves of pain furrowing beside his mouth. His blue eyes were molten, heat like an inferno raging in the depths, growing hotter as they stared, each assessing the damage to the other. She didn’t like the feverish glint, or the way he kept clenching his jaw like he was holding on by sheer will power alone. He was getting sick, in deep pain, and yet ready to drop, he’d come for her.
No one had ever done such a thing, not once in her entire life.
One sharp, knowing moment, and her heart burst right out of her chest, flew across the space between them, and fell at his feet. While she straddled Boudreaux, still stunned at the significance of what Mitch had done and what it meant to her, she heard a sound, so familiar, her head snapped around and a wide, welcoming smile crossed her face as she took in the force of nature that was her boy, Menace. All was right with her world now. She flashed a glance at Mitch, including him in that world. He saw the look, basked for a moment in the warmth, then saw her smile fade into a scowl as she glared at him. Anger, worry, and a deeper emotion that Mitch wanted to explore at his leisure in a big bed with room service and a Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob, washed over Kate’s face before she turned back to watch Ace prowling toward them.
Mitch needed this to be over now. Feeling hazy and unsteady, he wanted Kate’s hands on him, cooling the heat fogging his head, burning the marrow out of his bones. And he needed to tend to her injuries, because she had them. He could tell by the way she was leaning over Boudreaux, slightly favoring one side, and her neck was bleeding, the narrow trickle of blood curling down into her shirt, soaking the collar. She had dirt on her face, pine needles and debris stuck in her hair and she looked tough and beautiful and he just wanted to lay down with her somewhere, wrap her up tight in his arms and have a nice, long nap. So, yeah. He was done here.
“You don’t shut up about your balls, Roach, I’m going to hand them to you myself. And you’d better drop the gun or that pissed off dog behind you is gonna take you apart.” Mitch shook his head as Roche spun around, took one look at Ace’s snarling fangs as he padded closer and tossed the gun aside like it was too hot to hold before scrambling on top of the log.
Then Mitch eyed Boudreaux. “Okay, here’s how it’s going down. First, you and Roach leave your weapons here and go back to the swamp and the gators. You pass along to anyone you might bump into that any interest in this woman means messing in my business.” He smiled, eyes cold as the heart of a glacier. Softly, he murmured, “I don’t like people in my business, Dumbass, don’t like it at all.” Mitch lowered his gun as he advanced. Kate still had her knife at the man’s throat, so Mitch crouched on the opposite side and said close to his ear, “You need to find a new line of work, asshole. You fucking shot at me and were going to murder a contract. You’re done.” He straightened, held the other man’s gaze. “And brother, you'd best go deep into that bayou of yours because I hear a mention of you or your kin and I’m the next knock on your door.” He nodded to Kate and she pulled back the knife, stood up and went to retrieve her gun from the ground where Roche had thrown it. Mitch’s voice was a whispered hiss. “Tried to kill me, Boudreaux. Even if I could let that slide—which I can’t—my brother won’t.” He eased back, stared down at the man, his features hard. “For now, you spread the word this woman is my business and only my business and get the fuck back to the swamp. In the meantime, I’ll try working on my anger issues.”
“Back off, Cartwright,” Boudreaux snapped as he got to his feet. “You know how much this bitch is worth, you saw the contract and I hear there’s more on the table than just the retrieval...” Boudreaux drifted to a halt as if something monumental had just occurred to him. His eyes darted back and forth between Mitch and Kate, then he smiled, nasty and vile, and bobbed his head several times. “Ah, mon ami, I should have known. You are a clever, clever man.” He looked over at Kate, Ace at her side and shook his head, reluctant approval in his mean eyes. “Beautiful woman to heat the blood, nice bonus, my friend.”
Mitch growled. “Dumbass, you and I have never been friends and never will be. I’m damn sure you’d sell your grandmother for a dollar. I don’t like you and unless you’re looking to die, don’t ever want to see you again. We’re done. Take your brother and idiot cousins—I’m guessing the other two morons you brought are Dwayne and Cletis—and get the fuck gone, all of you.” His voice was steadily rising. “I’m fucking tired, hungry and done with this shit. Go. The. Fuck. Away!” The roar at the end of Mitch’s rant rolled out of the trees and down the valley. It was clear to everyone that the bear had been poked.
Several minutes later Kate sat with her back to a tree, Ace pressed into her side, purposefully keeping her distance from the three men arguing across the clearing. Beside her was a jumble of weaponry, the cause of the argument. Mitch had confiscated everything from the two men except their compass and now, as she watched his gestures, listened to the low, deep tone of his voice barking orders, she was amazed he was still on his feet, though she didn’t think that would last much longer. She didn’t want to interfere, or meddle in how Mitch handled the situation, but he was about ready to drop and she knew he would die standing up before he’d show any weakness in front of the Cajuns; they still didn’t know how badly he was hurt. She’d give it another minute, then step in, wave a cookie under his nose or something. The thought made her smile and he turned his head just then, caught the look on her face and lost track of everything for a moment as his focus locked on her. Abruptly he interrupted Boudreaux, who was yammering on about something Mitch didn’t give a shit about and bluntly said, “Go.” He narrowed his eyes at the two men. “I’m sending the dog along for the first leg of your hike, so step lively. He has less patience than I do.”
“No! Not the dog!” Roche began to back away as Mitch again looked over at Kate. She was on her feet, hand on the dog’s head as she met Mitch’s eyes. There was a silent tug-of-war for a moment, but Kate backed off, not willing to usurp Mitch’s authority in front of the men, or stop them from leaving, and though she wasn’t happy to lose Ace again so soon, she lifted her hand when Mitch whistled for the dog.
“Use this.” Boudreaux handed his brother a large, twisted branch to use as a crutch. “I'm not waiting, so keep up or the dog gets you.”
Boudreaux walked away without a backward glance, Roche stumbling down the slope after him, their peevish, argumentative voices growing fainter as they went out of sight. Mitch kept his hand on the dog’s head until it was quiet, then he lifted Ace’s chin, snapped his fingers once, said “One klick,” and sent Ace after them. He watched Ace weave silently between the trees, staying above the trail to shadow the men like a ghost. If all went okay, Ace should be back in under an hour. It would be full dark by then and Mitch didn’t know where they were going to make camp, or how much longer he’d be able to hold out before falling on his face. His head was thumping erratically, in sync with his stuttering heartbeats, blood from the bullet wound was seeping out the bandage and down his chest, sticking his tee shirt to his skin in a soggy, unpleasant mess. And damn, he was tired.
He turned slowly toward Kate. She was still standing by the tree, but now she stalked toward him, fire blazing in her eyes, so pissed heat was rolling off her body like a blast furnace as she came in close. And damn if, battered, seeing double and bleeding like a stuck pig, he didn’t go hard as a rock just watching her. Long legs eating up the ground, she came at him. “You stupid, stupid man! Why aren’t you two miles away, far from here and safe, instead of weaving on your feet, covered in blood…” She stopped talking when the toes of her boots rammed into his and she wrapped a hand around his neck and pulled him in, her tongue in his mouth before he could draw breath. The kiss was wet and hot and filled with a whole lot of thank god you’re alive. Panting, Kate broke the kiss, looked up at him, her hand still at his nape, and in the next moment showed him the future.
Holding his gaze, she finished her sentence as if they hadn’t just swallowed tongues and chewed lips. “…and saving my ass just in the nick of time.” Then she threw her head back and laughed, throaty and wild. And yeah, there it was. His future. She was dauntless and brave. He knew she’d been scared, had seen the look on her face just before he stopped the Cajuns from doing worse to her than the threat of slitting her throat. Yet, even afraid, she’d been determined, would have fought to the bitter end. Strong, dangerous, beautiful. So passionate and willing, he’d pretty much had a nonstop erection since the beginning. And she made the best damned cookies he’d ever tasted.
Another laugh, softer, gentle, her fingers sliding from his neck, knuckles skimming the scruff on his cheek as she raised her eyes. They gleamed like green jewels in the setting sun, a new awareness lurking behind the glow, a mix of relief that he’d come, elation that they were both still alive, and a heat meant just for him. She grinned at him, shook her head. “Outmanned, outgunned, my head in the noose.” On her toes, kissing him sweet. “And my man saves the day. It doesn’t get much better than that.” She sighed happily, then realized what she’d just blurted out and went still for a second before ducking her head. But Mitch wasn’t having any part of that and took the opening. Putting his good arm around her waist, he hauled her in. “Your man? You thinking of me that way, baby?” Low, smooth. Whiskey neat.
Kate opened her mouth to deny it, because crap, what if she said what she really felt and he wasn’t feeling it the same? She shut her mouth. Then opened. Shut. Opened again. Shut.
“Honey, you’re creating your own weather system.” When she opened again, he leaned in and helped himself. Tongues and lips, slow and soft, they were both breathless when he lifted his head. “Nothing you can’t say to me.” But before she could reply, he suddenly swayed, over-compensated, then tipped too far the other direction and had to stagger to balance himself. Kate grabbed a handful of leather jacket to steady him.
“Ah, Kate,” he said softly, “I’m sorry about this.”