Sword of the Raven (Morrigan's Legacy ~ Warriors of the Light) Book 1
Delaney Morgan didn’t find an unconscious naked guy on the beach every afternoon.
The wild Oregon Pacific had spilled out shells, driftwood, sand dollars…and at sunset last night, a Celtic pewter and garnet triadic knot pendant she’d hung on a chain as a good luck charm.
But a nude man was a first.
She lowered the high-powered binoculars, then slid a hand into her coat pocket to touch the cold steel of her borrowed—okay, technically stolen—gun. A ribbon of suspicion snaked through her. If the guy was a player in the deadly game she was investigating, he was in a lot more danger than exposure to the brutal October weather.
Delaney cautiously approached the big man sprawled face down in storm-etched dunes. He lay oblivious to the salty gale, head to one side, right arm flung out as if he’d crawled from the water’s icy grasp. Wind-whipped ebony shoulder-length hair obscured his profile. His muscular torso was gritted with sand…and mottled by bruises and scrapes. Her throat tightened. Naked Dude had taken a savage beating.
Hugging her sheepskin-lined suede jacket against the wind, she hastily assessed his visible wounds. No tan lines marred the smooth expanse of tawny skin from the strong column of his neck to his long, shapely feet. If he’d been bronzing his birthday suit on a boat, he’d drifted far from a forgiving climate. She scanned the secluded beach. No other people. No debris from a boating accident. The punishing waves had spit him out and left him to die. Her pulse thundered in sync with the ocean’s roar.
Was he dead?
Roiling black clouds dimmed the meager daylight, and Delaney squinted in the gloom. He had to be alive. His complexion didn’t look blue like the prop corpses on CSI. “H-hey. Can you hear me?”
He didn’t respond.
Delaney dug her cell out of her jeans, but couldn’t get a signal on the cheap-assed prepaid phone. She stuffed it back in her pocket, shoved tangled copper curls from her face and sank to her knees beside the stranger’s head. The binoculars around her neck nearly hit him, so she tugged them off and balanced them on a chunk of driftwood.
Fierce gusts slammed into her and the sea lashed at the man’s feet, trying to reclaim its sacrifice. Crouched over to shelter him, she brushed aside his hair. Mystery Man possessed beautiful, rugged masculine features. Dark brows tilted in an intriguingly wicked slant, and sooty lashes bracketed high, stubbled cheekbones. His nose was long and straight, his sculpted lips slightly parted. The set of his bold, square chin hinted at a stubborn streak.
His gorgeous face hadn’t escaped injury. Purple bruises blossomed near his temple, and a sand-encrusted gash over his right eyebrow oozed blood into his hairline and down his face.
“Please don’t be dead,” she whispered. She tentatively touched his cheek, rough bristle over cool skin.
An unexpected burst of energy jolted her body, as hot and jarring as if she’d grabbed a downed power line. Fog swirled, obliterating her vision. Vertigo spun her senses as wailing bagpipes, Celtic war cries, and clanging swords rang in her ears.
Yanking her hand away, she fell backward. The haunting sounds vanished and the beach reappeared. Temples pounding, body shaking, she lay panting for breath as nausea churned in her stomach.
When she finally got her about-to-be-tossed cookies under control, she eased upright. What the hell had just happened? She didn’t normally have seizures or hallucinogenic space-outs. And as far as she knew, the mushrooms in her breakfast omelet had been the non-magic variety.
Delaney knelt at the man’s side again. After a freaky trip on the woo-woo train, she didn’t quite trust herself to touch him. But her next course of action depended on whether she had a live nude male on her hands or a stiff one. Swallowing apprehension, she braced herself and gingerly pressed two fingers to his throat.
A steady pulse throbbed beneath her fingertips. Thank God. She retrieved the pistol from her coat pocket and tucked it into the waistband of her jeans beneath her bulky fisherman’s sweater. Then she yanked off her coat and draped it over his back. The jacket barely covered him from wide shoulders to his admittedly excellent butt, but was better than leaving him bared to the harsh weather. “Hey, buddy, can you hear me? Wake up.”
Though his eyes remained closed, he uttered a low groan.
She rechecked her cell and swore, tempted to hurl the worthless piece of crap into the ocean. Should she run for help? Her borrowed cabin didn’t have a phone. By the time she scrambled back up the bluff and drove ten miles to the sheriff’s office, the storm would’ve blasted in full-force. The rural four-officer department had their hands full battening the hatches against the incoming gale, and locating a cop would take a while.
Mr. Tall, Dark and Naked might die before she returned.
Not to mention that she didn’t want to attract attention. Especially from the cops.
Delaney leaned closer, afraid to move him until she knew the full extent of his injuries. “C’mon,” she demanded. “Open your eyes.”
He groaned. The thicket of black lashes fluttered, drifted upward.
“There you are,” she said. “Welcome back.”
He slowly raised his head, and her gaze collided with eyes the same crystal gray as the hungry sea thrashing behind him. Despite his beat-up condition, it was a warrior’s stare—calculating, unafraid, and sharply intelligent. That laser look jolted her as strongly as touching him had.
His silent question rang clearly inside her head. Who are you?
Even weirder, she felt compelled to answer. “I’m Delaney Morgan. Are you all right?”
His glance flicked to her pendant. “The Morrigan,” he murmured in a husky, rolling Highland burr. “So…’tis dead I am.” He blinked. “Come to guide me to the Otherworld, have you?”
The stranger’s lyrical speech slid through her like a long-forgotten memory, the odd familiarity warming her insides more insidiously than potent Scottish whisky.
She preferred pomegranate mojitos.
“Delaney Morgan. If you believe I’m some kind of angelic escort to Heaven, you whacked your skull way harder than it appears, pal.”
“I ken.” His eyes narrowed. “I’m thinking the temperature should be far warmer, then.”
A smile sneaked out. “You’re not in Heaven or Hell, you’re lying on a beach near Cape Hope. How badly are you hurt?”
“From the neck up, it’s foggy.” He went silent for several beats. “But I’m fair certain everything else works fine.”
Cutting him slack because of the head injury, she let that ride. “What’s your name, and what happened to you?”
“I…I’m…” Another, longer, pause. “Rowan…” An uncertain frown. “Rowan…MacLachlan. And a wee bit…murky on details.”
He abruptly rolled over and levered to a sitting position, draping her coat across his lap. Delaney jerked backward, sprawling in the damp sand.
“No need to run away, Morrigan,” his low voice soothed.
Maybe. Ted Bundy had reportedly been good looking and charming, too. “Morgan. I wasn’t running away. I tripped.”
His frown deepened. “I’m not a serial killer, lass.”
How did he know exactly what she’d been thinking? Then again, lurching away the moment he moved was hardly subtle. “That could be one of your missing details. If you were a psycho, I’m sure you’d out yourself, right?” She stood and slapped sand off her pants. “You have a cut on your forehead.”
He touched the wound. Shrugged. “It won’t kill me.” His teeth started to chatter, and he swayed.
She admired the effort he exerted to hold himself steady. This determined man probably went after everything he wanted, no-holds-barred. And probably didn’t often lose. Her scalp prickled with foreboding. “Can you stand?”
“Aye. In a minute.”
Dangerous strength pulsed from his huge frame, but the energy radiating around him didn’t feel malevolent. When it came to evil, Delaney possessed 20/20 hindsight. And the Glock she was teaching herself to use. She’d often watched her big brother load the magazine, slap it into the gun, chamber a round, and fire.
But unlike Connor, she wasn’t sure she could shoot a human being.
She looked away from the rise and fall of Rowan MacLachlan’s broad, dark-hair-dusted chest, toward the raging ocean. Her instincts insisted she was safe with him. From physical harm, anyway. Not so much the assault on her libido. “Better make it thirty seconds.”
“Not a patient wench, are you?”
Wench? The wind slashed icy fingers through her sweater, making her shiver. “Get a move on. That storm is about to kick our butts.”
“And I’m betting you don’t let anything—man nor nature—defeat you, Delaney Morgan.” He shakily maneuvered to his feet, tying her coat around his waist. She figured he did it more for her comfort, because other than looking flash frozen, he seemed perfectly at home buck naked. “I’d return your jacket…however…”
“Keep it. I like the coat exactly where it is.”
His mouth slanted. “‘Tis warmer.”
She tilted her chin to look up at him. Well over six feet, a foot taller than her own five-five. And totally jacked. From the stunning width of his shoulders tapering into sinewed arms, broad, capable hands, and all the way down his hard torso to the coiled muscles in his solid thighs and long calves, this was one huge Scottish hunk.
Unease slithered up her spine. If he tried anything…
But she couldn’t leave him at the storm’s mercy. Prolonged exposure would kill him. Her fingertips brushed the reassuring bulge beneath her sweater. If she let fear rule her actions, she’d have crawled into a cave two decades ago. Delaney retrieved her binoculars. “We need to go.”
MacLachlan arched a brow at the binocs, then winced. “Sodding bad day for bird watching.”
“I’ve seen several ravens, but they were watching us. Are you able to walk?”
He swayed again. “Aye.”
He didn’t appear steady enough to stay upright, much less hurt anyone. Her innate empathy toward victims of violence kicked in. She and her brother wouldn’t have survived if a stranger hadn’t cared enough to gamble on them. “My cabin is on top of the bluff, and you’re not up to the hike. Lean on me.”
“I’ll manage.” He staggered several wobbly steps.
“I’m stronger than I look. I run, do yoga, and kick-boxing.” Delaney scowled into the wind’s tangy bite. “Let me help you.”
“Testosterone poisoning can be fatal, Braveheart.”
His husky chuckle rumbled in tandem with a peal of thunder as he doggedly shuffled forward. “If I can’t die with my boots on, I’m not going.”
“You were a lot more cooperative when you thought I was a guardian angel.”
“Not an angel, nay. A Celtic goddess with North Sea eyes and a waterfall of sunset curls. Wearing the Eye of Eternity around your neck.”
Her hand closed around the pendant. Who would’ve thought beneath all his macho stubbornness, the big guy possessed a poet’s soul? Delaney fingered the charm’s intricate knots. She’d been thrilled at the unusual find, but the necklace hadn’t seemed significant. Yet, suddenly she was collecting stray Scotsmen and hallucinating Highland battles.
Trepidation wormed inside her as she led the way up the incline, her hiking boots slipping on damp pine needles. “Save your energy for climbing, laddie. I’m not interested in men.”
“Bloody shame, that.”
Delaney rolled her eyes. “Don’t sprain anything jumping to conclusions. I just meant I’m…discerning.”
“Discernment.” His ragged breaths were almost as loud as the ocean crashing behind them. “Wise policy.” He patted her shoulder.
She flinched, breaking contact. “You can touch me for help. No other reason.”
“Don’t get yourself into a swither, lass.” His voice sounded fainter behind her, revealing how much the steep ascent was costing him. “I won’t be harming you.”
She crested the bluff and hurried toward the cabin. Evergreen trees flanking the dirt path trembled in the wind, perfuming sea-damp air with sharp pine. “You’re dead on, there. I can handle myself.”
A jagged streak of lightning scalded the black clouds. Ozone supercharged the air, thunder cannoned again and the sky split open and dropped a cold, drenching curtain. Delaney broke into a run, digging in her pocket for keys. Rain hammered the roof of the old cabin’s front porch as she unlocked the door. Shoving it open, she scurried into the sturdy warmth of the 1940’s forest green and ruby living room.
She turned, watching her exhausted, uninvited visitor labor to catch up. He tottered over the threshold, and she ruffled her wet curls, scattering raindrops on the braided entry rug and knotty pine floors. “If you have any hinky ideas, MacLachlan—for your own good, don’t go there.”
“No plans to.” Panting, he leaned against the jamb, his face paler than the watery daylight shimmering around him. “Otherwise, I’d have confiscated your gun the moment you turned your back on me.”
Then his eyes rolled back and he crashed to the floor.
Well, balls. Wasn’t that just like a man? The obstinate Scot could spot a concealed weapon at twenty paces, but refused to admit his limitations and ask for help. If he weren’t already unconscious, she’d smack him upside his Stonehenge skull.
Her cell, fifty percent reliable from the cabin, remained signal-free. She couldn’t leave Sleeping Braveheart in the open doorway, and he weighed a freaking ton. Pushing and shoving, she wrangled him far enough inside to slam the door. She blew a soggy strand of stray hair off her face. Getting him to the couch—much less on it—would take all night.
She finally rolled him onto the braided entry rug and dragged it toward the stone fireplace, where embers still glowed. After pitching in more logs, she sprinted to the bedroom for blankets and pillows.
Her best friend Vanessa had stuck out nursing courses for six semesters before incurable sympathetic vomiting had scuttled those career plans. As Van’s college study buddy, Delaney had absorbed basic first aid. MacLachlan’s injuries didn’t appear fatal, but he might have a concussion. Shock combined with hypothermia could kill him.
Delaney covered him with blankets and a quilt, cushioned his head on one pillow and propped his feet on two more. The fact that he’d managed to bully himself up the bluff in such battered condition was a miracle. She looked at his haggard face. No, it was a testament to MacLachlan’s steely will. A chill shivered over her.
A warning lurked there somewhere.
He seemed to be resting comfortably, his breathing normal. She collected the first aid kit, a bowl of warm water, and a washcloth.
Delaney knelt and touched his head wound with the damp cloth, and the wracking, foggy vertigo clobbered her again. This time, ancient war cries magnified the sight of slashed tartans and hideous gaping wounds. Terrified women…children…running, screaming. She smelled blood and fear.
The fog evaporated, along with the horrible visions. She bolted to the bathroom and lost her lunch.
Trembling, she huddled on the cold tile floor. What was wrong with her? Unlike Mommy Dearest, she’d never done drugs. Drank only moderately. If stress was going to unhinge her, she’d have flipped her lid long before today. Raw breaths sawed in her throat. Oh, God, maybe she had a brain tumor. Brain tumors caused hallucinations, nausea, and phantom odors.
Delaney inhaled slowly. Exhaled. Chill. She shoved to her feet and rinsed out her mouth, then brushed her teeth. It was food poisoning, or a virus. She
couldn’t afford to be out of commission. She was her brother’s last chance for rescue.
Delaney returned to kneel at MacLachlan’s side again. The spook-fest hit only when she touched him. And was it coincidence that she’d seen and heard Scottish weirdness? She studied his closed eyes and slightly parted lips. “If you’re pulling some kind of mind-freak on me, knock it off. Or I swear, I will get in my car and leave you to fend for yourself.”
Steeling herself, Delaney picked up the washcloth and cautiously dabbed his cut. Nothing happened. The tension eased from her shoulders. She cleaned and bandaged the wound, touching him as little as possible. Since none of his other scrapes were actively bleeding, she left well enough alone and kept him covered.
She sat cross-legged on the floor, watching Rowan MacLachlan. Even lost in unconsciousness, his face revealed strength of character. The man had a sex-god mouth…the bottom lip sensually full, the top lip chiseled into a fine arch. That luscious mouth could tempt angels into carnal sin.
And her past proved she wasn’t even casually acquainted with sainthood.
Delaney got up and stalked into the bedroom. She wasn’t in the market for a man. Especially not a hunk of prime Highland real estate. She changed into dry jeans and a lime green T-shirt, and then zipped on a turquoise hoodie, secreting the heavy Glock inside the front pocket.
If Connor found out she was packing his gun, he’d blow a gasket. Three years her senior, her brother had always looked out for her. Though just a kid himself when their dad had died, it was Connor who’d fed her when she was hungry, Connor who’d bandaged skinned knees and scared away bad dreams. He’d helped her solve math problems and conjugate verbs while their mother drifted through their childhood in depressed apathy.
Her brother had given up his life to save her.
And Delaney would give anything—everything—to save him. Nobody was going to hijack her mission.
Thunder rattled sturdy pine-paneled walls, and rain assaulted the roof and streamed down the windows as Delaney paced the living room, eyeing the still oblivious man on the hearth. She was stuck in a tiny cabin with a huge problem. But trouble had become her specialty.
Especially this past year.
She strode across the open space into the adjoining red-accented kitchen where her laptop sat on the scarred tabletop. Sliding into a chair, she booted up the computer. No cell service, but the local wireless connection worked. She couldn’t call 9-1-1, but could surf eBay. Technology. Go figure.
Her job had taught her how to access classified intel, and she was equipped with a photographic memory. “Time to cough it up, MacLachlan.” She used every resource, searched everywhere. And found nothing.
Delaney dug deeper, nationally and internationally. Nada.
She had the time, the tools, and tenacity. And found zilch on Rowan MacLachlan. As if he didn’t exist.
Though she’d shielded her information, anyone with ‘Net savvy could dig up basic stats on her own obscure existence. Despite her vigilance, too much info and speculation was floating around about her and Connor’s “situation.”
And if the wrong person saw it… Her chest constricted as her hand again sought the comforting weapon. Exactly why she was packing Glock insurance.
Yanking her thoughts from what-ifs, she Googled Celtic knots. Many designs symbolized eternity, but she couldn’t find anything like her knotted charm with its four garnets. A search of Morrigan turned up myriad legends about a Celtic goddess of prophecy and war who could transform into a gigantic raven.
Delaney snapped her laptop shut. Well, that was helpful.
Restlessness drove her to the vintage stove. By the time MacLachlan stirred two hours later, beef stew simmered in a cast iron pot, and cornbread muffins and a marionberry cobbler wafted fragrant steam from the oven.
Rowan’s guttural groan sent her rushing to where he lay beside the fire. The vivid flush that stained his cheekbones made her stomach jump. That couldn’t be good. “Rowan? How do you feel?”
Wary diamond eyes glittered. “Like I could quaff the whole of Loch Fyne,” he croaked.
“I’ll get you some water.” Anxiety gnawing at her heels, she sprinted to the kitchen, filled a glass, and then hurried to kneel beside his head. “You look feverish.”
“‘Tis no wonder.” The strapping Scot propped himself on one elbow, the blanket sliding off rock-hard biceps to his tapered waist. “You’ve swaddled me like a wee bairn.”
Delaney kept her eyes locked on his as she handed him the tumbler. Well, as focused as possible with acres of hard, tanned pecs and a washboard eight-pack staring her in the face. “I didn’t want you to get hypothermic.”
His too-bright gaze cruised down her body, then slowly up again, spiking her temperature into the stratosphere. “Nary a chance of that, is there, now?” His hand wasn’t quite steady as he tipped the glass and gulped.
She did not watch his mouth greedily cup the rim, or the glittering trickle of water slide over his chin and trail down the strongly working column of his throat. Instead, she forced her attention to the crackling red-orange flames. He had a point. The cabin was plenty warm. “Who are you? What are you?”
“Odd question, Delaney Morgan.” The way her name rolled off his tongue in that low, melodic purr made goosebumps shiver over her skin. “Considering you’ve seen all my worldly goods.”
Not quite. Another mental podcast attacked her…of MacLachlan’s impressive bod sprawled face down in the sand. Not one of the new weird whirl and spew visions. More like frustrated fantasies. Yeah, she’d admit to having had a couple of those in the past few years.
Blatant assessment smoldered in his intent gaze and his sensual lips curved, as if he knew exactly where her thoughts had wandered. She snatched back the empty cup. Rowan MacLachlan should have “flammable” stamped on his hard-muscled ass. “I know it’s an oxymoron, but you are an exceptionally exasperating man.”
His attention wavered over her shoulder. “Delaney—”
“No more evasions. Look at me. I want answers, and I want them now.”
“Right.” One brawny shoulder lifted. “But you may also want to know your kitchen’s on fire.”
“Oh, hell!” Delaney bolted across the room. On fire was an exaggeration, though not by much. She snatched the smoking pot off the burner, then dropped the pan into the sink and cranked on the cold water faucet. Choking, swearing, she flung aside red gingham curtains and shoved open the window to let in storm-drenched air. Peering into the oven, she flipped the dial to off. The stew was charcoal, but at least she’d salvaged the muffins and cobbler.
“You’ve quite an impressive vocabulary, lass. Are you burned?” Suddenly directly behind her, Rowan grasped her hand, and she yelped in surprise.
How had he moved so fast? Pulse pounding, she turned and yanked her fingers from his grip, which was warmer than the overheated cookware. Her attempt was successful only because he willingly released her. “N-no.”
Mere seconds ago, he’d been flat on the floor, fevered and sick. Now he was too close, looking too dangerous, too capable—even wearing just a blanket slung low on angular hipbones. Delaney swallowed. Gun or not, this man could easily snap her neck. In a heartbeat. Surrendering, and hating herself for it, she retreated from the heat that radiated from his big body.
“Sure you’re all right?”
“Yep.” Sort of. Unless totally freaked-out counted.
His focused scrutiny didn’t waver. “While I was unconscious, did you ring the police?”
“I—” Lose/lose. If she said yes and he was avoiding the cops, he might get agitated. If she admitted she had no phone service, he’d know she was vulnerable, with no access to help. “They’re busy handling fallout from the storm.”
Was that disguised relief flickering in Rowan’s expression…or just a lightning flash through the windows? “We won’t bother them with a non-emergency just yet, then.”
“As soon as the weather eases up, I’ll call. So, about how you got here...”
“Sit down at the table.” Thunderclouds overhead rolled an eerie hypnotic echo to his deep brogue. Thick, suffocating power seemed to emanate from him, and an odd trick of the shifting light shaded his irises from gray to sea green. “Tell me about yourself.”
The fine hairs on Delaney’s body stood on end and she couldn’t breathe. I don’t want to. Denial jammed in her throat, she edged farther away.
“Delaney?” He offered his hand. “Don’t be afraid.”
Penetrating green eyes pierced clear to her soul, sent her staggering backward. She should not, would not touch him.
Rowan’s brows lowered. “Look into my eyes, Delaney.” Her temples throbbed with pain as his voice pulled at her will, compelled her to obey. Uncanny knowledge glinted in those endless jade pools. “Just take my hand. ‘Tis easy.”
Her back hit the sink. She couldn’t run any farther.
Both body and mind aching from the onslaught, she fought to force her gaze downward, to reject the intimate invasion. “No,” she finally managed to choke out, flinging her hands up as if to deflect a punch. “Stop it!”
The smothering power lifted. “Stop what?” Rowan’s even tone sounded as careful as if he were juggling live grenades. “Delaney? Are you all right?”
She risked a glance at his face. His puzzled eyes were a lovely shade of silver-gray. Oh, man. He probably thought she was Looney Tunes.
She swallowed again. Reality check. She normally kept her feet planted solidly on terra firma. Stress must be frying her brain cells. Or maybe she was PMSing. Sci-fi and fantasy were her brother’s thing, not hers.
Connor. Like a lifeline, she clung to thoughts of her brother. She could almost hear his warning. I taught you better, Lanie. Letting an opponent know you’re scared gives him the advantage. Get a handle on it.
“Nothing. I’m not—” She turned around, fumbled to shut off the cascading water. “You must be starving.”
“Aye. I’m a mite peckish.”
“The stew’s a goner, but there’s sturgeon in the freezer and a six-pack of Henry Weinhard’s in the fridge. I’ll whip up beer batter and fry fish and chips to go with the muffins.” She’d veered from mute to a raging case of runaway mouth.
“Sounds brilliant. But first, would you have a shower?”
She stopped on her way to the freezer for a startled moment before she processed his request. Singular, not plural. “Sure. Yeah, you should clean your other wounds. I’ll get you something of Connor’s to wear. He stashes extra clothes here. We both do.” Connor was a 6’2” former high school quarterback who’d kept in peak physical condition. Though Rowan was nearly three inches taller and twice as muscular, Connor’s jogging clothes should stretch enough.
“Connor?” Barely perceptible tension edged his tone.
“Ah. Where would this brother be, and how is it that he lets you stay in such a harsh, remote area alone?”
“Bathroom’s the first door on the left.” Scowling, she gestured at Rowan to precede her down the hallway. She wasn’t about to turn her back on him a second time. Or tell him the truth. “Wait here, outside the bedroom.” She blustered past him—past the painful half of his question—as she stalked inside to open the bedroom closet. “Newsflash, Braveheart, this is the twenty-first century. We wenches do whatever we want.”
“What do you want, Delaney?”
That compelling power pressed against her again. The harder she resisted, the worse her head pounded.
She concentrated, gave the intrusion a hard mental shove. Back off!
From the doorway, Rowan grunted.
She gritted her teeth. Coincidence. On top of the fever, he must have a mother of a headache. Probably why he was acting so…strange.
What was her excuse?
She pulled out black jogging pants and a faded yellow and green University of Oregon Ducks sweatshirt and hugged them to her chest. Just last fall, which seemed like an eternity ago, she’d tackled her brother during her traditional birthday picnic football game in the park with their friends. Connor had toppled into crisp autumn leaves, laughing while his best bud Zack had swept Delaney up, kissed her, and wisecracked about her ball-handling ability.
She buried her face in the worn fleece as scalding sorrow fought for release. Sometimes a photographic memory was a blessing…and other times a curse. Zack was nothing but a bad memory, and Connor seemed beyond her help.
I want my life back. I want my brother safe.
“Delaney?” Concern warmed Rowan’s soft brogue. “What’s wrong?”
She cleared her throat. Tears never solved anything. Marching to the doorway, she handed him the pants and sweatshirt, then gestured at her concealed pistol. “Be straight with me. You’re not under the delusion that you’re some sort of…uh…vampire or something, are you?”
His lips twitched. “I’m sky-clad and battered, not barmy.”
“Do you believe you’ve traveled here from another time?”
“Points for imagination, but no.”
“An alien scout on an earthbound mission?”
“An immortal 16th century Highlander who believes ‘there can be only One?’”
He snorted. “Bloody hell, lass, you watch too much Syfy Network.”
Desire and deep regret twisted inside. How could she be so attracted to this enigmatic Scot…while at the same time so very afraid of him?
Delaney studied the sincerity stamped on Rowan’s striking features, and every instinct clamored in warning.
Despite his protests to the contrary, Rowan MacLachlan was no ordinary man.
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Deal with the Devil (Devilish Devlins) Book 1
“Hold it right there, Frat Boy!”
The pissed-off feminine contralto froze Rory Devlin bent over with his Levi-clad arse in the air. One bare foot planted on the lawn, one precariously balanced on the curb, he gripped the rolled newspaper as he cautiously turned his head.
A slender brunette dressed in white capris and a tank top the color of lemon meringue pie stalked through dappled June sunshine from the house next door. Radiating the fury of an avenging faerie, dainty raven brows slanted in a glower and golden sparks fired in wide brown eyes.
Definitely not his type. So the lightning strike that seared his spine surprised the bloody hell out of him.
He straightened. Shite, when he’d yanked on his jeans this morning, why hadn’t he also put on a shirt?
Ms. Sexy-As-Hell-When-Mad jerked to a stop and glared up at him, apparently unfazed that he towered over her willowy five-five frame by nearly a foot. Her fingers tugged at the tangled crown of her wispy, chin-length hair. “Explain this.”
Shiny black strands twined around a neon green Giant Chewy Pop like an amorous octopus, the white lollipop stick poking out at an odd angle.
Rory suppressed a grin. “‘Mornin’, lass. I’m Rory Devlin, and you must be my new neighbor. Jared said you’d be borrowing his house while he was away.”
Her fists convulsed. “Look, Dory—”
“Rory,” he enunciated. “Sometimes the Dubliner accent throws people off.”
She shot him such a blazing glare he needed asbestos boxer shorts…and the heat arrowed straight through the center of his body. To his dick. Which sprang to alert.
What. The. Bloody. Hell?
He liked curvaceous blondes. Curvy, easy-going blondes.
“Fine...Rory,” she gritted. “I was sitting in the backyard with my laptop, when this,” she gestured at the lime lollipop, “sailed out of your tree and into my hair. And it won’t come loose! Jared told me a friendly, quiet, dependable bachelor lived next door. I don’t know what kind of candy-tossing freak-fest you’re having over here, but I’m trying to work!”
Rory coughed to disguise his snicker. “Aye, and I’m sorry about that. I can get it out for you.”
The brunette regarded him with all the enthusiasm of a cockroach she’d found swimming in her soup. “Let me guess, you’re a hair stylist, and this is how you drum up business.”
She had a sassy mouth—and a sexy one at that. And he could think of far more interesting things for her to do with it. He scooped up the newspaper, using it to cover the telltale bulge at his fly. “Come inside, then, and I’ll take care of you.” He turned and strode up the driveway to his two-story red and white Cape Cod.
Reaching the porch, he looked back to see her standing motionless with her hands on her hips. Staring.
Roses blossomed on her finely-etched cheekbones and she ducked her head.
His lips twitched. Ha. Caught ya ogling my arse. Having a new neighbor for the next few weeks could be highly entertaining. “Lass? You want the sucker out of your hair or not?”
She huffed out a sigh as she stomped up the driveway. “I want you out of my hair,” she muttered beneath her breath.
Inside his sunny sage-green kitchen, Rory offered her a chair and then headed for the refrigerator. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Hello, Cyn. Are you from Oregon, or did you travel from out of state for the summer?”
“Cynthia. And I’m a native Portlander.”
A plaintive wail erupted from the bedroom, and he swiveled into an about-face. “Hang tight, I’ll be right back.”
When he reentered with the baby propped on one hip, she stared at him like he’d suddenly grown two heads. “You have a baby?” she asked in the same tone reserved for mass murderers. “Jared assured me this was a peaceful block—with no children.”
Rory stroked the baby’s downy strawberry blonde curls. “Kelsey isn’t my—”
A loud clatter preceded a grubby, pint-sized, carrot-topped tornado that flew into the kitchen.
Cyn’s face stiffened in startled horror at the little boy who skidded to a stop in front of her. “Don’t deny this one belongs to you—those distinctive blue-green irises are mirror images of yours.”
“She looks mean,” the child blurted. “I don’t like her.”
“Dylan! That’s rude, lad. Please apologize to the lady.”
The small freckled face scrunched. “I’m sorry you’re a mean lady,” he muttered before tearing out of the room.
“I apologize for my nephew, Cyn. We’re still adjusting. My brother heads up the local Red Cross response team. His wife is a nurse and they’ve left for Florida with the Hurricane Natalie disaster relief effort. I’m pinch-hitting for a few weeks.”
She frowned. “My name is Cynthia. And I need peace and quiet. I have a vital project due in less than three weeks, and I can’t have yelling children running around wreaking havoc.”
“I assure you, they’re terrific kids. You’ll hardly know they’re here.”
Her brows arched, and she yanked on the Chewy Pop cemented to her head. “Yes, I’ve barely noticed.”
“Ah, let’s remove that wee nuisance for you, shall we?” Rory settled Kelsey into her highchair, but her face crumpled and she started to whimper. He poured Cheerios onto the plastic tray. A grin creased Kelsey’s face as she chased the morsels with chubby fingers, poking cereal into her mouth.
He opened the pantry to rummage inside. His reluctant guest uttered a strangled exclamation, and he looked up just in time to see Kelsey fling a second handful of chewed wet Cheerios onto Cyn’s shirt. “Kelsey!” Rory rushed to the highchair. “No, darlin’, don’t be tossing your cereal.”
Kelsey regarded Cyn with innocent baby blues and then puckered up and blew a cereal-spewed raspberry.
“Ugh!” Cyn swiped her hand down her tank top, scattering soggy clumps over her capris.
In instant response, the kids’ short-legged, chubby black and tan mutt galloped into the kitchen, hurtled onto her lap and started gobbling up the cereal scraps.
“Bridget!” Rory scolded. “Bad dog!”
Bridget rolled her eyes at him, jumped onto the table, scrabbled across the slick wooden surface to make a flying leap off Kelsey’s highchair tray, and then flew out the door, yapping wildly.
Kelsey giggled and banged goopy hands on the plastic tray. “Goggie!”
Moaning, Cyn dropped her head in her hands. “A dog, too.”
“Aye, she belongs to the kids.” Rory strode toward her while unscrewing the lid off a jar of peanut butter. “The situation’s not as dire as it seems. Everybody will settle down in a day or two after they get used to being here.”
Cyn glanced up when he reached for her hair with a fistful of peanut butter. “What are you—?” She leapt out of the chair and backed toward the doorway. “Okay, it’s official, the inmates are running the asylum. Going home now. Bye.”
“Hey, it’s all right. Chewy Pops have gum in the center, which is what’s stuck in your hair. Peanut butter gets gum out of almost anything. I’m a teacher and have plenty of experience with sticky messes. Trust me, Cyn.”
Wide fawn’s eyes flickered warily. “Cynthia.”
“If you prefer, I could cut the gunk out. But since I’m not a stylist, your hair might end up a bit choppy.”
She flung her arms up and covered her head. “No cutting!”
“Then sit down and I’ll have that sucker out before you know it. The procedure is painless, I swear.”
Frowning, she edged back onto the chair.
“Sorry.” Rory smeared a handful into the crown of her head around the lollipop. Beneath the peanut butter, she smelled like jasmine and warm, soft woman…re-inspiring his hard-on to full salute. “Unfortunately, all I have is chunky style. It’s just as effective, but leaves more of a mess, I’m afraid.”
“Why am I not surprised?” She sighed.
Rory massaged the glop through her silken locks. “So, what kind of work do you do?”
“I design software.”
“Sounds interesting. Most students, even the youngest, are scarily technologically literate.”
“How do you know Jared?” He slid out a lump of green, peanut butter-covered gum and plopped it in the garbage.
“We met in college.”
“He told me a friend would be borrowing his house while he’s on the dig in Egypt. I teach at-risk junior highers, and they’re fairly jaded. But the kids in my class go nutters over his classroom visits—his artifacts fascinate them.”
Another big chunk of gum slipped loose.
Cyn winced, but remained silent.
Rory breathed her in, the floral feminine scent awakening disconcerting, poignant longing. Up close, she was thinner than he’d realized, the small bones in the back of her neck as fragile as a baby bird’s. Purple shadows smudged the tender skin beneath those intriguing brown eyes, and tension radiated from every pore. She wasn’t eating or sleeping well.
He was hit with the inexplicable urge to sweep her up and kiss away her anxiety. To feed her a hearty meal, make love to her until she was relaxed and satisfied and the tension evaporated from her slight body…and then hold her while she slept soundly in his arms.
But that would be insane, wouldn’t it?
* * *
Cynthia climbed out of the shower and grabbed a fluffy white towel. Four scrubbings of her white tea and jasmine shampoo to eliminate greasy peanut butter and gritty candy particles.
Too bad she couldn’t wash the Devlins out of her hair. She groaned. Stuck in the Suburbs of the Damned with Mr. Mom and his wild menagerie—just what she didn’t need at the most critical moment of her life. This project was her last chance. Her future rested on her ability to complete the job.
And if she failed, her mother would leap at the opportunity to push her personal agenda.
With the worst possible timing on the planet, Cynthia’s landlord was remodeling the ground floor apartment and staircase leading to her converted old downtown Portland loft. Otherwise, she’d be safely and quietly ensconced in her own silent apartment, her project done by now.
Heaving a weary sigh, she began to dress. Not true, Wagner. You’re in trouble and you know it.
She’d drawn a blank with the game prototype she’d been assigned to conceptualize. Usually her mind overflowed with ideas, but so far, all her go-to methods for sparking creativity had failed.
The massive corporate machine Executec, known for swallowing smaller companies whole and spitting out the pieces, had recently purchased the company she worked for. Giving them a monopoly in the Pacific Northwest. They had their own software designers and were keeping only one development position, with four people competing for the spot. Three of them male. In an industry dominated by men, if she didn’t think up something exceptional, she was out of a job. And the nearest decent employment opportunity in her field was in Denver—1,300 miles away.
Living next door to a loony bin wouldn’t get her creative juices flowing.
Cynthia combed her wet locks, the memory of Rory’s warm, capable hands feathering through her hair flooding her mind. A shiver whispered over her. For such a big man, he had a surprisingly gentle touch.
That magic touch came packaged in a six-foot-four sculpted bod…and it was one yummy special delivery. She’d almost drooled on her shirt at the sight of Rory Devlin bent over at the curb wearing nothing but snug jeans faded in all the right places. And when he’d straightened to his full height… Hoo, baby.
Even furious, she’d noticed her broad-shouldered, washboard-stomached, muscled-butt neighbor was jacked, chiseled, and sixty-nine kinds of sexy.
Parts of her were still damp…and not from the shower. Her belly clenched. Hell, she’d have to be dead not to appreciate Devlin’s thick, collar-length sable hair with honeyed sun streaks, his succulent mouth that curved so easily into a lady-killer grin, and those compelling, intelligent, Celtic Sea eyes. Up close and personal, he smelled like paradise—hot, clean man and fresh ocean breezes—and his husky Irish baritone could talk the knickers off a nun.
She’d strip for him, in a heartbeat. The sharp throb between her thighs admonished her it had been a very, very long time since she’d taken off her knickers for anyone.
But at the memory of those eyes, her heart sank. The redheaded imp with the look-alike eyes wasn’t his, but he loved kids. After the disaster with Arthur last year, she’d realized children were out of the question for her. Pain squeezed her chest. The only thing she had was her career.
And that meant staying far away from men like Rory Devlin.
Getting involved with anyone right now would be supremely stupid, anyway. She had enough stress at the moment.
Cynthia shoved Rory and his sea-god eyes firmly out of her mind and headed for her laptop.
* * *
The next morning, Cynthia sat at the kitchen table with her fourth coffee, watching the blinking cursor on the computer screen. She’d been wrapping up another project when Executec swooped in with their coup, and her new boss had requested she finish it. Only then was she informed he was cutting all but one position, giving the other three programmers a two-and-a-half week head start. Cynthia had taken unpaid personal leave to develop this prototype. If she ended up unemployed, only her anemic savings awaited.
You have nineteen days to get brilliant.
A rose-scented breeze stirred the curtains, and birds’ musical twitters floated through the open door screens. The brilliant cerulean sky promised a picture-perfect summer day.
Contrary to her worst expectations, she hadn’t heard a peep from her neighbors since the Chewy Pop Missile Crisis twenty-four hours ago. Maybe the disruption wouldn’t be as bad as she’d feared.
Her optimism shattered amid frantic pounding, suspicious thumps, and a metallic clang from the backyard next door. What now?
Cynthia hurried out to the poolside patio to peer in the direction of the racket. Next door, the huge oak tree shook with the force of a herd of stampeding elephants. Branches swayed and leaves rustled. A long rope swung in the breeze. Boards and poles stuck out at odd angles and leaned drunkenly over the waist-high cedar fence that separated the two lawns.
She squinted against the sunlight, shading her eyes with her hand. “What are you doing?” she shouted. The pounding and rustling stopped.
A moment later, a curly red head poked out of the leaves and a pair of suspicious blue-green eyes studied her. “Makin’ a tree fort.”
Cynthia walked closer to the construction zone. “That doesn’t look very safe.”
“Uncle Rory said it was okay.”
“Well do you have to build the fort right now? Don’t you have anything quieter to do?” She forced her suggestion to sound friendly. “Maybe you could go to a friend’s house and play.”
The eyes narrowed and the short, freckled nose crinkled. “Don’t wanna.” The head disappeared. The pounding resumed.
Just freakin’ perfect. Cynthia stalked into the house and slammed all the windows shut, then the front door. So much for the sweet summer breeze.
As she sat back down at her computer, the thumping stopped. Ah, blessed silence. Maybe the little gremlin liked her idea after all and had gone to torment someone else.
An ear splitting clatter, from the front yard this time, caused her to jump out of her chair and run to the living room picture window. Dylan’s short legs straddled a pile of gigantic nails he’d spilled all over the adjoined driveways. As she watched, he squatted and began to pick them up, one by one. Hmmm, that ought to keep him busy—and quiet—for at least an hour. Cynthia returned to work.
Not more than eight seconds passed before chaos again erupted from the backyard. Puzzled, she leaped up and looked out the back door. How had he managed to get from the driveway to the backyard and up the tree so fast?
Probably possessed. She stalked into the bedroom and grabbed her earbuds. Once more, she plopped down in front of her computer.
Three hours later, she still sat there—looking at a blank screen. Squeezing her eyelids shut, Cynthia propped her elbow on the table and rested her head on her palm, listening to slapping ocean waves through her headset.
Her cell phone rang and she jerked upright, snatching it off the tabletop. “Hello? What? Oh, just a sec.” She plucked the earbud out. “Sorry, hello?”
“Miss Wagner, this is Lisa D’Arcy, Mr. Maxwell’s Executive Administrative Assistant.”
Great. A personal message from her new boss, Brannigan Maxwell. His lengthy, pompous emails usually pinged into her inbox several times a day, signed with his bold initials. Cynthia swallowed. “Yes, Ms. D’Arcy, what can I do for you?”
“Mr. Maxwell has set a firm appointment time for the presentations,” Lisa’s clear voice said. “He’s sending an email this afternoon, but wanted you personally informed, since you’re on leave. You’re expected in Mr. Maxwell’s office with your new prototype at 8:55 a.m. on July 5th. He wants everyone’s products ready for the beta testing group at that time. The developer who scores highest with the beta testers will win the position and the funding, and their game concept will be pre-marketed to buyers at the industry convention that week.”
“Fine,” Cynthia managed to croak.
“Don’t be even one minute late. Anyone not in the conference room by nine o’clock will be locked out, per Mr. Maxwell’s orders.”
“I’ll be there.” Cynthia hung up the phone, nausea cramping her stomach. It was common knowledge in their field that Brannigan thought men were superior, but he walked the technical legal line. Jaw tight, she accessed her phone calendar, typed in the meeting time and highlighted July 5th in blood red.
Holy Crap. Her deadline had just shrunk by five days.
Brannigan was setting her up for failure. But come hell or high water, she would make it.
Devil May Care
“Flynn!” The familiar, desperate male voice rang hollowly through the cheap throwaway cell phone. “I’m begging you. Help me!”
Squinting at the sun-dappled stone church across the street from the park, Flynn Devlin edged behind a tree. “I don’t know how in the sodding hell you talked me into coming here this morning, especially after I emailed you snapshots from the rehearsal dinner last night. Even from a distance, you can bloody well see this one’s not your bride.”
“Could’ve been a decoy, or a stand-in. I need to be absolutely, a hundred percent sure. I heard a rumor she’s interested in using this company, but she’s keeping everything on the down-low. I have to talk to her before she marries him.”
Flynn sighed. “Look, mate—”
“You owe me, Devlin.”
He clenched his jaw so tight it hurt. “Aye.” When the shite had hit the fan three years ago, the frantic man on the other end of the line was the only client who hadn’t immediately bolted and threatened to sue and/or dismember him in disturbingly creative ways. “So what do you want from me, then?”
“Hang around a while, keep your eyes and ears open.” A snort echoed in his ear. “Hell, ever since we were high school, babes have flocked to you like you wear chocolate-scented aftershave. Go charm it out of Ms. Matheson.”
Flynn frowned. “From what I’ve seen so far, Marisa Matheson is more likely to take my charm and shove it up my arse.”
“Then do what you do best—work that unfailing sixth sense and Irish blarney. Devlin, you’re the luckiest sonofabitch, and the best con artist I’ve ever known…and coming from me, that means something.”
Queasiness churned in his gut. “Lady Luck hightailed it out on me.” Along with everyone else. “I don’t play the odds anymore.”
“I’ll pay you. A hundred grand.”
“One hundred thousand dollars. In cash. She’s worth it to me. Just find out where and when…and it’s all yours.”
He swallowed hard. That much money would buy the freedom he’d been longing for. Buy the dream he’d thought forever out of his reach. He hesitated.
“I’m not asking you to break any laws, or do anything unethical. Just find out where and when.” His friend choked. “I love her, man. All I want is a second chance.”
Flynn’s lungs constricted, squeezing the breath out of him. “Aye.” He dragged in a stinging inhale. “I’ll help you, then.”
Because didn’t everyone crave a second chance?
* * *
Observing from the back of the flower-laden church, Marisa Matheson watched the groom tenderly kiss his new bride. One more minute…then she could sneak out unnoticed.
Beside her, Nate Hyatt, her best friend and business partner, leaned down with sentiment sheening his kind hazel eyes. “They’re so happy,” he murmured into the mic of his headset. “Marriages are made in heaven.”
Marisa wrinkled her nose, careful to whisper into her own mic for his ears only. “So are cyclones.”
“Cynical, much?” Nate’s luminous smile transformed his face from handsome to stunning. “Especially for a wedding planner.”
“I’m good at the job because I don’t get emotionally involved.” She reached into her oversize taupe leather bag for her twenty-page list. She always made printouts in case of technology-fail on her phone apps. “And this event better come off without any screw-ups—or you, Travis, and I will be living in a cardboard box under the I-205 overpass.”
“If anybody can haul us out of the red, it’s you, Marisa. Scoring the wedding of the mayor’s daughter was a strategic coup.”
Marisa glanced at her watch as the newlyweds turned to face six-hundred guests, who greeted them with enthusiastic applause. First kiss: check. Next: Intro from the clergyman. More applause. Then a beaming promenade as man-and-wife.
Despite the flower girl’s earlier freak-out before the bride walked down the aisle—because she was scared she’d get in trouble for scattering flower petals on the church carpet—they were on schedule to the second.
She slipped out of the sanctuary, Nate following. The heavy oak doors swooped closed behind them. “In order to edge out every other planner vying for the gig, I had to slash our profits to the slimmest margin. Our rivals were not happy, and we’ll barely cover expenses. But if we thrill Mama Mayor, hopefully she’ll refer enough clients whose deposits will pay our overdue loans. And you know what else is riding on this. Our entire future is on the line.”
“Yeah, I do. And it is.” Nate’s glance lingered on the closed doors. “But in the end, today is all about two people who care about one another enough to pledge a lifetime commitment.”
She re-tucked a springy auburn curl that had escaped the antique pearl stickpins wedged into her tight bun, then paused in the vestibule to triple-check her lists. “After almost a year in this cutthroat industry, how can you still get sentimental over every bride? They’re all the same. Poofy dresses, psycho mothers, prolific checkbooks.”
“Everybody has a soul mate out there.” He rotated a vase overflowing with apricot roses, creamy hydrangeas, and ferns. “Someone who completes them, makes them whole.”
“Gack. You’re hopeless, Hyatt. ‘Happily Ever After’ is a fairy tale. Just like these weddings we put together. An illusion of romance. All primroses and promises—with no substance.”
Strong arms pulled her into one of his all-encompassing hugs, which she tolerated because she loved him. They’d become best friends almost the moment he’d moved into the trailer next door during their final year of junior high. Mutual misfit status had drawn them together, and years of sharing secrets and dreams—and comforting each other’s heartaches—had fostered deep love and respect. “Ah, Mar, I know you’ve had a rocky landing. But don’t let a couple of asshats skew your perspective.”
“I’m not skewed. I’m a realist.”
His grin shone again. “One of these days, the right man will show up and light your fire.”
“I think not. I have my extinguisher set on stun.” She returned his grin. “Except for—”
“Steve Thomas.” Rolling his eyes, Nate finished her sentence.
“You got it, baby. For him, I’d break my man moratorium.”
“I suspect it’s safely intact.” Nate snorted. “Not likely Thomas will abandon his Hollywood Golden Boy status and ride into P-Town in his silver Jag convertible to sweep you away to eternal bliss.”
“Never know…lots of movies are filmed in Portland. And he went to high school here. I feel for the guy. That skanky bitch shattered his heart. You can see the pain in those big, wounded cerulean eyes in every magazine photo.”
“Damn, you’ve been crushing on Thomas ever since we went to see his first teen heartthrob movie when you were fourteen. Are you ever gonna get tired of him?” Nate shook his head. “Because unfortunately, that skanky bitch is—”
“Marisa.” Their photographer, Daryl Morris, bounded down the stairs from the church balcony to join them. “My damned headset is on the fritz again.”
“Sorry, Daryl. We’ll get new ones as soon as we can afford them.”
“Yeah, well, in the meantime, I need to know how the hell I’m supposed to snap saleable pictures of a bride who doesn’t have a good side?”
“Hey,” Nate said. “The poor girl is a bit...unfortunate. But she has a lovely personality. Unlike some of our Zillas, it’s been a pleasure helping her plan her big day.”
“Try photographing a personality, dude.” Daryl groaned. “I’ll have to stand clear across the street to get a decent shot.”
Marisa ruthlessly shoved her stubborn curl into submission again. “Don’t dis the client, Daryl. Airbrushed models aside, everyone has flaws.” Like her wildly curly auburn mane. Worn short, Marisa’s hair resembled a mutant shrub. So she kept it shoulder length, making it easier to wrestle into a submissive chignon.
As for her other flaws, she didn’t even want to discuss her butt. “Jeannette Yardley is the most influential customer we’ve signed so far, and every detail has to be perfect. Including exceptional pictures.”
“Shit, female is going to take some creative angles. ‘Exceptional’ will require mass audience hypnosis…and I’m no Criss Angel.”
Nate’s chestnut brows furrowed. “Our motto at Picture Perfect Bridals is ‘Every bride is beautiful.’”
“The fantasy sells.” Daryl shuddered. “But this chick looks like Jay Leno in a wedding gown.”
“Failure isn’t an option.” Marisa slid her list into her bag and slung the straps over her shoulder. “Smear Vaseline on your lens, stand on your head…do whatever it takes. And I mean whatever. Everything depends on today’s outcome.”
The photographer sighed. “Wish me luck. I’m gonna need it.”
“No way.” Marisa smiled at him. “Bad Karma. Go break a leg.”
Muttering, Daryl slipped into the sanctuary. Nate stayed to manage the wedding party’s transition from ceremony to reception, while Marisa hurried out into the late afternoon sunshine and jogged across the street to the world-famous Portland Rose Gardens.
She strode inside a lofty white tent sheltering seventy-six tables dressed with coral and cream linens and elegant floral centerpieces. “Travis,” she said into her mic. “Are you in here?”
“Is that a trick question?” Travis Ross, Marisa’s other partner and second-best friend appeared from behind the curtained serving area, tying a chef’s apron over his tux. Tall, fit, and sporting close-cropped sandy hair and misty gray eyes, Travis could have earned a fortune as a model. He greeted her with a warm smile, flashing his dimple. “What do you think of Nate’s décor?”
“Looks amazing.” She fingered a velvety apricot rose tucked into the bountiful flower basket near the bandstand. Jeanette’s theme featured Marisa’s favorite color, but Marisa preferred tulips’ clean lines over showy roses. Her tailored apricot suit matched the theme and provided the camouflage that enabled her to unobtrusively perform her duties.
Only she would know she’d snagged her designer outfit and Ferragamo pumps for a pittance at a consignment shop. She’d discovered no matter when disaster struck, or how scared or insecure she felt…projecting confident capability inspired trust in hysterical brides and their Mafioso mothers. Her temples might pound with tension, her stomach might riot in panic, but nobody ever guessed.
Marisa rolled tight shoulders. She’d developed her defenses early. Growing up as the only child of a single mom who made a living cleaning rich people’s houses, she’d donned a steely cloak of false bravado when the other kids mocked her thrift store clothes and odd, meager lunches.
Fake it ‘til you make it.
Travis waved at the tent’s arched opening. “The weather’s holding, thank God. You’d think the mayor of all people would know better than to book an outdoor May Day reception in Portland, Oregon.”
“I researched the online almanac when we scheduled, and it’s only rained eight out of the past twenty years on this date, with none predicted this year. But it’s another stroke of luck we can sure use.”
His dimple deepened. “Even Mother Nature wouldn’t dare bitch-slap you.”
She laughed. “Don’t tempt Fate, Travis. Is the orchestra setting up? How’s the food progressing? Did the cake arrive in good condition?”
He whipped a frosty bottle of vanilla Frappuccino from behind his back. “Ah… You’re going to need this, Caffeine Woman. All systems go…except the bakery. They had a problem with their van this morning—but are supposedly en route.”
Her laughter died. “Crap! If anything happens to Jeanette’s cake, that baker is toast. I’m going out front to wait for it.”
“You can’t will them here any faster, you know.”
“If I have to, I’ll hunt down and hijack the van.”
She marched out to the main parking lot. Tapping her foot, she stabbed the speed dial on her cell for Winston’s Bakery. Listened to it ring. And ring.
“Winston’s Bakery, Fred Winston speaking.”
“This is Marisa Matheson. What happened to my cake?”
“Sorry, Ms. Matheson.” The portly baker’s gulp echoed across the line. “Unavoidable delay. We’re headed your direction now.”
“Don’t blow sunshine up my skirt, Fred. Is it actually on the way, or is the van sitting alongside the road somewhere?”
“We’ll be there any second, I promise.”
“Five minutes, then I’m coming after it. And I believe we’re looking at a sizeable discount on this order, for the hassle.”
Smart man didn’t argue.
She disconnected and took grateful swigs of ice-cold, vanilla-flavored coffee. The caffeine hit surged through her, bringing a burst of renewed energy. I love you, Travis.
She was blessed to work with her two closest friends. She and Nate had met Travis in college and the trio soon grew inseparable. Big-hearted Nate was trustworthy and compassionate, always there with a kind shoulder or helpful advice—whether it was wanted or not. Travis was the group’s incurable optimist. He saw humor in the most hopeless situations, never failed to make them laugh at life’s curveballs, and never let them give up. Marisa contributed practicality, infallible organizational skills, and loyal-unto-death dependability.
The guys viewed themselves as her brothers and liked to think they took care of her. She let them harbor that illusion because it made them happy. Truth was, Marisa took care of herself.
She’d learned the hard way not to depend on anyone.
She stared down the sunny tree-lined street. Come on, van. She gulped coffee and paced, using the opportunity to examine and re-review every detail.
Across from her, the reception tent’s pristine white folds swooped in a graceful bridal curtsey beneath the cloudless azure sky. Maple and dogwood trees arched a canopy of green leaves and lacy petals overhead, while lavender, fuchsia, and pale pink azaleas promenaded beside the gravel walkways like rows of fluffy bridesmaids. Four-and-a-half acres of roses wove multicolored ribbons around them.
She shaded her eyes with her hand to scan beyond the roped off reception perimeter. The only other people in the park were some distance away. A young couple pushed a baby stroller along a winding path, an elderly man walked a golden retriever around the pond, and a guy napped on the grass beneath a white-flowered dogwood tree.
When guests started to spill out of the church and trickle across the street to the tent, she rolled her wrist to consult her watch. Dammit. Daryl would be done with the church pictures before long. The bride and groom would arrive and expect to see their cake—the glorious centerpiece of every reception.
As she again reached for her phone, the van chugged into the lot. Hallelujah! Murdering your baker was bad for business.
Four bakery employees jumped out and began the tricky choreography required to maneuver the tiered confection out of the van and into the tent.
“Marisa!” The panic in Nate’s voice spun her around—though Nate in a panic was hardly a news flash.
He ran across the parking lot.
Nate, running? Nate might panic, but he didn’t run.
Beads of sweat dotted his forehead and upper lip. Meticulous Nate, sweating?
Her stomach pitched. Uh oh.
She sprinted the remaining ten yards to meet him. “What’s wrong?”
“Couldn’t reach you on the headset!” he panted. “Critical crisis mode!”
Gasping, Nate rested his palms on his knees. “Daryl was trying to get a good angle on the bride and took a swan dive off the upper balcony.”
“Oh no! Is he all right?”
“We’re pretty sure his arm is broken, but he’s coherent…and swearing like a sailor on shore-leave.”
“Did you call an ambulance?”
“The minister’s wife was dialing 9-1-1 before he hit the carpet.”
“Okay, once he’s taken care of, is there anybody else who can operate his equipment?”
“His camera’s not exactly a point-and-shoot. Besides, he landed on it. It’s trashed.” Nate shook his head. “Looks like Daryl is out of the picture.”
“And we can laugh all the way to file Chapter Eleven.” She tapped pursed lips with her index finger. “Parents who lay out forty grand for their daughter’s big day expect photographic proof of their generosity. What about Richard Ryan? His studio isn’t far from here. We could stall until he arrived.”
“He’s shooting the Clark wedding today.”
“To the seventh level.” Nate grimaced. “The church pictures Daryl took are ruined along with his camera, and there won’t be any reception photos. Face it, Mar, we’re screwed, blued and tattooed.”
“No.” She took a deep breath. “Absolutely no panicking. There’s a solution. Think.”
“Sorry, my brain shuts down in the grip of full-blown terror. Disaster management is your department.”
“Sure, me and the Red Cross.” Her desperate gaze raked the parking lot, catching on a powerful black Harley. And on the front of the motorcycle... “Aha. Catastrophe potentially averted.”
Nate didn’t waste time with questions. “What do you want me to do?”
“Stall the wedding party at the church. I’ll be there with another photographer ASAP.”
“You got it.”
Nate departed, and she studied the object dangling by a strap from the motorbike’s right handlebar. A fancy digital camera. Daryl had been drooling over glossy brochures of a similar model lately and rhapsodizing its virtues to anyone unlucky enough to get within earshot. A couple grand, give or take a few hundred, sporting obscenely high pixels. Not something a vacationing amateur would drag around to snap shots of the Goonie’s movie set house at Astoria Beach.
She frowned. To leave such an expensive camera out in the open, the bike’s owner had to be either a moron or supremely arrogant. Didn’t matter. She needed to hire him.
She hurried across the lot to size up the park’s occupants. Young couple with the baby? Not likely, unless they bolted the stroller to the motorcycle like a sidecar.
Elderly gentleman with the golden retriever? A dog on a Harley…nope, only on YouTube.
The bike—and the camera—could belong to just one person. The dark-haired napper lounging under the dogwood tree.
Marisa marched across the lawn, low heels sinking into the close-cropped turf. The piquant scent of fresh grass wafted up with each footstep, but she didn’t have time to stop and smell springtime today. Or any day for that matter.
She halted several feet from her potential employee. His six-foot-plus length was stretched out on his back, big hands folded beneath his head. A wadded brown leather jacket pillowed tousled raven collar-length waves. Thick, dark lashes fanned over high cheekbones, and several days’ worth of beard scruff shadowed a square jaw, full, sensual lips, and a determined chin.
She sidled closer. The distinctive, beautifully chiseled masculine features were tanned, a sure sign he was from out of town. A black T-shirt defined every ridge of his muscled torso, the right sleeve revealing the edge of an emerald and gold Celtic knot shamrock tattoo on a big bicep. Worn denim hugged a trim waist, the faded creases below cupping… Yowza.
Marisa swallowed. A brain-boggling male package.
She quickly skimmed her gaze down long, lean thighs and legs crossed at the ankles over scuffed black boots. Even with his eyes closed, he emanated dangerous animal magnetism. One hundred and eighty pounds of sin on the prowl.
Her stomach flipped. And he wasn’t asleep.
His breathing was slow and even, and he didn’t stir. But the odd tingling across her skin told her Bad Biker Boy was alert and fully aware. She bent over him.
She hadn’t made it this far in the brutal bridal trade by being easily daunted. “Hey.” She nudged his thigh with the toe of her pump. His rock-hard muscles didn’t give an inch. “I’m talking to you.”
“Naff off,” he growled without opening his eyes.
His low Irish brogue glided over her, raising goosebumps. Her brows drew together. Why? She wasn’t the least bit afraid of him. Any woman in her right mind probably should be. Instead, she was—reluctantly—intrigued. “Listen, I need you—”
“Sorry, darlin’.” The flavor of Ireland warmed every syllable of his lyrical drawl with the same slow burn as fine whiskey. “You’re not my type.”
He still hadn’t opened his eyes. Her fists clenched against the reflex to slap his gorgeous face. “Oh, you mean not inflatable?”
Thickets of black lashes drifted up to reveal mischievous brown eyes as deep and dark as fresh-brewed espresso, glinting with golden highlights…and razor-sharp intelligence. No moron, this guy. But her other guess was dead-on target. Self-assured male arrogance fit him as well as his faded 501’s. The man could handle just about anything life threw at him.
She swallowed again as her mouth went dry and her panties got damp.
His smoldering gaze roamed lazily down her body, starting with the top of her tightly cinched bun and ending at the tips of her sensible taupe pumps. Then it traveled upward again, just as slowly, just as thoroughly, scorching her skin as if he’d touched her. “You’re a looker, to be sure.” Naughtiness sparkled in his gilded irises as they clashed with hers. Daring her. Tempting her. Seducing her. “Wanting a walk on the wild side, are you?”
Fighting the desire to fan herself, she took two steps back, into the shade. “Listen, Bono, I don’t have time for games. Can you actually operate that impressive apparatus, or is it just for show?”
A wicked grin flashed, shooting the temperature up another twenty degrees. “I assure you, lass, I have complete mastery over all my equipment.”
“Well you really should at least make an attempt at concealment. Openly displaying something that tempting practically screams, ‘Take me.’”
His grin widened. “Pays to advertise.”
“It worked, you got my attention. If you’re any good, I’ll pay you well for your time and effort. A small deposit down, and the rest when you’re finished and
I’m satisfied. How does two-hundred dollars for four hours sound?”
“Four hours?” Every movement infused with lazy masculine grace, he propped himself on his elbows. One glossy brow quirked. “I admire a lass with stamina.”
Her foot twitched with the urge to kick him. “Four hours is the norm. The clock is ticking. Yes, or no?” When his smoldering brown gaze continued to hold her captive, she yielded much more quickly than she normally would have. “Okay, make it three-hundred dollars.”
“In a bad way, then, eh?”
“It’s three-hundred bucks, for something you obviously already enjoy.” She pointed to the white peak, barely visible over the treetops. “I have a tent set up right over there.”
“Isn’t that a wee bit public?”
“The public is roped out of our area of the park. Only invited guests are allowed. Make up your mind…this is a rush job.”
He made a tsking sound. “You buttoned up types have the kinkiest fantasies.”
Fantasies? Marisa blinked. For the first time in her life, she was struck dumb. Utterly robbed of speech. Surely the obnoxious hottie didn’t actually believe she was coming on to him? For money?
Going to bed with him hadn’t even crossed her mind.
Okay, only briefly.
Like she had time for dangerous liaisons. She had a wedding to run. A career to build. Men tripped your progress on the ladder of success. They were an unnecessary distraction, and caused way more problems than they were worth. Another lesson she’d learned too late, but learned well.
He winked at her. “I’m flattered, but I’m just not that type of lad.”
“Ha, and I’m the Queen Mum.” She shook her head. This walking, talking pheromone factory had completely blown her concentration with his wicked grin and take-me-now eyes. He’d played her, and she’d walked right into his teasing trap. She snorted. “I wasn’t talking about erotic fantasies, and you know it. Sex with you is nowhere near my top ten fantasy list.”
Amusement sparkled in his expressive irises and danced across his sensual mouth. “So, what is, then?”
“I— I beg your pardon?”
“What’s number one on your fantasy list?”
Like a DVD on fast forward, a series of x-rated pictures scrolled unbidden through her thoughts—all starring the dark, sexy, and annoying Irishman in front of her. Her hormones were practically River Dancing. Which ticked her off. “I don’t have time to play games.”
The corners of his succulent mouth curved in an impish smile. “Now that’s a bloody shame, luv.”
Her heart was pounding, her stomach muscles were clenched, and her knees shaking like she’d run a marathon. Holy hell.
Quashing her unruly reaction, she forced herself to casually check her watch. Seven point three minutes until nuclear bridal detonation.
“Look, I’ll keep it simple for you. I’m a wedding coordinator, with six-hundred guests and the mayor’s daughter depending on me. My photographer is injured, and I need you to shoot reception pictures with that upmarket camera hanging off your handlebars. Do you think you can manage that…without propositioning the bride?”
“Ah, photography. Why didn’t you just come right out and say so?”
“You understood exactly what I was asking.”
He cocked his head. “Always get what you want, do you, lass?”
“I go after what I want, and I don’t apologize for it.”
“A philosophy I can get behind.” His grin flashed again, and awareness buzzed through her veins and loop-de-looped in her belly.
Note to self: no more Frappuccinos on an empty stomach.
He looked up at her from his leisurely perch on his elbows. “Make it five-hundred.”
“Five— Geez, why don’t you just whip out a pistol and hold me up?”
He shrugged. “Short supply, big demand.”
“For five-hundred bucks, you’d better be damned excellent. Do you have any work I can see?”
“Aye. I do, that.” In one easy movement, he surged to his feet and offered a callused, long-fingered hand. “Flynn Devlin, at your service. And I’ve never had any complaints. Inside the darkroom or out.”
Devlin? It figured. Not many men came with such a clear warning label. She sighed. Pact with the devil, maybe, but he was her only option. “Marisa Matheson. You can call me Ms. Matheson.”
Hot, hard fingers closed around hers, swallowing her hand in a strong but gentle grip. Startling electricity zinged her nerve endings, like the time her hair straightener had shorted out.
He released her to scoop up his leather jacket. Then he turned and strode across the grass. “Follow me, darlin’, and I’ll show you what you’re paying for.”
The sight of his—okay, admit it—tightly muscled ass lovingly molded by faded denim held her immobile for several seconds. Then she gave herself a mental slap and hurried to keep pace with his long-legged stride.
She hit the parking lot more than forty paces behind him. Which also ticked her off. She didn’t follow anyone, anywhere.
Marisa broke into a jog. She wasn’t about to start now.
Laws of Attraction
Mia Linden didn’t park in deserted garages, or sneak to the basement at midnight in her undies to investigate suspicious serial-killer-type noises. She always checked the peephole before answering a knock.
And she never, ever, picked up hitchhikers.
But her foot lifted from the gas pedal as her ancient orange Volkswagen Bug chugged past the dark-haired man hunkered in tall ferns lining the twisting forest road. He looked like he might be hurt.
She didn’t have a cell phone—couldn’t afford one since she’d been chopped from Grayson & Associates Law Firm four months ago. No other vehicles were traveling the lonely wooded highway to Portland, Oregon from the secluded Mt. Hood ski lodge she’d been spying on. She hadn’t seen another car the entire trip. The foreboding April afternoon was wet and cold at this altitude, sleet casting an icy shroud over the windshield.
If she left him there, he could die.
Mia pressed the gas pedal again and glanced at the dwindling figure in her rearview mirror. The man hadn’t moved. She gripped the wheel so hard her knuckles whitened. Was he one of Esteban’s goons?
Or another of his casualties?
MYOB, Mia. You already have enough disaster in your life. The Beetle trundled around a hairpin curve, losing visual contact. Just keep going. Out of sight, but definitely not out of mind. When she reached civilization she’d call 911.
Two hours from now.
Then it’d be at least several more hours before EMS reached him.
Dammit. Her hiking boots slammed down the clutch and brake. Gears whined in protest as she downshifted, then coaxed the valiant little car into a U-turn. She slowed, staring at his still form as she passed in the opposite direction. He was dressed in a long-sleeved, rain-soaked denim shirt and faded black Levi’s, his back propped against a massive fallen log. His legs were drawn up, arms wrapped tightly around his waist, forehead resting on his knees. No surprise, he was shivering violently.
Her staunch need to defend the wounded kicked in. Mia Linden, champion for the defenseless, to the rescue.
Mia made another U-ie and parked on the shoulder. She switched off One Republic blaring from the radio but kept the engine fluttering in a spastic idle to facilitate escape. Even with a Taekwondo black belt, a gal could never be too prepared. She fumbled in her hunter’s camouflage coat pocket for her ever-ready pepper spray.
She climbed out of the Bug, leaving the door open in case she had to run for it.
Frigid wind tossed her wispy brunette bob into disarray and sleet stung her face as she cautiously approached the man. Finger on the canister’s trigger, she stopped well out of his reach. “Do you need help?”
He didn’t respond.
“Hello!” she shouted. “Can I help you?”
He slowly lifted his head. Glossy thick raven waves tumbled around rugged masculine features and curled at the back of a powerful, corded neck. Dark stubble dusted his square jaw and obstinate chin, framing a full, sensual mouth created for carnal pleasure. Black lashes framed dazed indigo eyes as deep, brilliant, and alluring as the Gulf Ocean.
Goosebumps prickled her skin and her nipples pebbled. Okay, so it was cold out here. Although she didn’t feel particularly cold.
Those incredible eyes focused, locked on hers. Gladiator’s eyes, glowing with determination and piercing intelligence.
A shock of premonition slammed into Mia, making her shake. She’d hit an unmarked pothole in her resolutely mapped road to redemption. “Hey,” she called unsteadily. “Are you hurt?”
He blinked. “Afraid so, ma’am.” The husky baritone mellowed with a rich Texas drawl slid through her, as sweet as maple syrup and silky as sin.
Hell. She needed more trouble like Microsoft needed another million. “How badly?”
He carefully eased down those long, lean legs, and she saw he was clutching his ribs. Scarlet stained his fingers, leaking through his shirt and spreading across the thigh of his faded denims. “Nothing too serious. But I could use a ride to the city, if you don’t mind.”
Her heartbeat jumped into double-time. “I’d hate to see what you consider serious.” Mia shoved the pepper spray into her jeans pocket, then tore off her cammo coat and draped it over his broad shoulders. “Hold on.”
She dashed for the car, grabbed the emergency blankets and first-aid kit from the trunk, then raced back. She wrapped both blankets around him before kneeling at his side. “What happened?”
“Fishing accident down by the creek. This was as far as I could get.”
Mia flung open the first-aid kit. “What the hell were you fishing for…Jaws?”
His gorgeous mouth tilted, the movement making the square-cut ruby stud in his left ear sparkle. “My boning tool slipped.”
Right. She might have known. From the masculine promise in his midnight velvet gaze to the sexy curve of his generous lips, and all the long way down to the pointed toes of his well-worn brown cowboy boots, Tex here was every woman’s fantasy.
Every woman but her.
She shot him a frown. “You’re in dire circumstances, and I don’t play games. You read me, cowboy?”
“Yes, ma’am. I believe I do.” His grin flickered again, though his handsome face was paling at an alarming rate. “Name’s McQuade. Dallas McQuade.”
“I’m Mia.” She purposefully omitted her surname. “We need to stop that bleeding.” Her fingers trembled as she unbuttoned his shirt to reveal sculpted pecs and an eight-pack so sharply delineated she could scrub her entire lingerie collection on it. A wicked gash blazed a bloody swath over his left ribcage.
“Don’t look so scared, darlin’. It’s only a scratch. I’ll live.”
“Isn’t that supposed to be my line of BS?” Mia swallowed. “This will hurt.” She poured peroxide over the cut.
Dallas flinched, hissed.
“Sorry. God, I’m so sorry.”
“No big deal. Just tape ‘er up and I’ll be right as rain.”
He’d stopped trembling. Not good. Lack of shivering combined with slowing movements and slurred speech warned of encroaching hypothermia. She folded gauze into a thick pad and pressed it to the gash, then finished taping the pressure bandage as quickly, but gently, as possible. “You need heat, in a hurry. Can you stand?”
“You have a coat somewhere nearby?”
“A cell phone?”
“Jaws ate it. No reception here, anyway.”
“Uh, huh. I recognize a knife wound when I see it. Is there anybody we need to be worried about coming after you?”
She really didn’t want to cross-examine those implications. “Then let’s head to the car.”
McQuade’s tall, lean-muscled body had to weigh at least two-hundred pounds, and wrestling him to his feet was a nightmare. By the time she got him upright he was ghost-white and swaying drunkenly. Leaning on her shoulders, he staggered several steps, then sucked in a sharp breath between his teeth.
“Come on, cowboy. You can make it.”
“Damned straight. Texans never surrender.” Dallas doggedly stumbled forward. “To quote Travis at the Alamo, ‘Victory or death.’”
“Oh, no. You’re one of those.”
“Testosterone jockey. I recognize the symptoms, my best friend Valerie is engaged to one.”
“Guilty as charged.”
Brutal wind slashed through her fuchsia turtleneck, and Mia shuddered. Dallas McQuade was lurking in the vicinity of her arch enemy’s ski lodge, suffering from an obvious knife attack.
What else was he guilty of?
She shook her head. One crisis at a time.
When they finally struggled to the car, they were both drenched and freezing. She wrangled Dallas into the passenger seat and leaned it back as far as it would go, then covered him with the driest blanket. Clambering behind the wheel, she cranked the temperature lever and wipers on high. Asthmatic warmth wheezed from the vents, barely penetrating the cold as she sped down the road.
She glanced over at her unwanted passenger. His eyes were closed, his face waxen, his breathing shallow and rapid. “Dallas?” The word plumed out in misty vapor. “McQuade, wake up!”
“‘M…wake,” he mumbled.
Her pulse tripped. He was severely hypothermic and in shock. He wouldn’t last two hours.
She’d been roaming these woods, stalking her quarry for weeks. There was a small hunting/fishing cabin several miles down one of these side roads…but which one? Mia peered through lashing rain. “Dallas, talk to me.”
Hanging out with her BFF Valerie and Valerie’s cop fiancé Jared had given Mia new insight into the alpha male mindset. “Dallas, wake up,” she demanded. “I need your help.”
Dark blue eyes slitted open, glinted in the gloom. “Atcher service.”
“Look for a road that goes into the forest on the right. There’s a deer crossing warning sign at the turnoff.”
Amazingly, he spotted it first. “Turn here,” he whispered.
Mia wrenched the wheel, bumping up the rutted dirt lane. Dallas groaned.
“Sorry,” she repeated.
“‘S alright. I’m. Good.”
“Yeah? Once again, I’d hate to see your idea of bad.”
“You like…” He was obviously struggling to stay conscious. “Bad boys, Mia?”
She scowled. “I don’t particularly care for the male species, period.”
He managed a raspy whistle. “Some sidewinder do a number on you, sugar?”
Yeah, 666. The snakes had done more than he could possibly imagine. They’d smashed her morale, mutilated her self-confidence, and massacred her hopes and dreams.
But she was hanging on—by her fingernails.
Mia parked beside the battered shanty and scanned the woods. Nothing stirred except storm-whipped evergreens. Looked like they were on their own. Maybe not so terrible, considering the alternatives.
She used her tire iron to break a rear window and clear the sill, then hoisted herself through to unlock the front door. She hurried back to Dallas. “Up and at ‘em, McQuade. You’re minutes away from a nice comfy bed.”
His chin angled up, and his smoldering gaze held hers. “You surely do know how to rally the troops.”
“Whatever it takes to bribe you into the cabin.” She wrestled him out and semi-upright.
Panting, he stumbled, inadvertently making her support most of his weight. “You…writing me IOU’s…you can’t make good on, darlin’?”
“The name’s Mia. And you can’t afford me.” Hauling around a guy who was at least a foot taller than her own petite 5’4” wasn’t the easiest thing she’d ever done. Exertion stole all her oxygen as she wrapped her arm around his waist. That’s the story she told herself, anyway. “Now hustle your ass, before you freeze to death and I have to leave your carcass for wolf chow.”
A low chuckle rumbled in his throat. “There’s incentive.”
She maneuvered him inside and into a rickety camping chair. The tiny shack was shabby and minimally supplied, but would shelter them from April’s capricious tantrum. Mia started a blaze crackling in the fireplace before dragging a thin mattress off the bunk and to the hearth.
Her mouth was dry, her nerves tap-dancing as she helped Dallas onto the makeshift cot beside the fire and propped his head on the pillows. She dreaded what came next. “Okay, cowboy. Let’s get you out of those wet clothes.”
He gave her a crooked grin brimming with naughtiness. “Best idea I’ve heard…all damned week.”
Faking confidence she was far from feeling, she arched a brow. “Now who’s kiting IOU’s?”
“I don’t…make promises…I can’t keep.”
Only the fact that McQuade was weak as a newborn sublimated Mia’s screaming panic while she parted his shirtfront and eased the garment off those solid, imposing shoulders. No blood had seeped through the bandage. One relief.
She removed his boots and socks, studiously avoiding his gaze as her quivering fingers brushed the soft treasure-trail of dark hair around his navel before fumbling with the waistband of his Levi’s. Naturally, the man would choose button fly. Unfastening the wet denim button by stubborn button took way too long…and was jarringly intimate.
“Lift your hips.” Crap, her voice was shakier than her hands.
She tugged down his pants, awkward at the unfamiliar task. Mia’s gaze cruised up the length of Dallas’ sinewed calves and solid thighs, and her belly clenched. He had on tight black boxer briefs…and even cold as he was, that package was one awesome special delivery.
She’d hit her limit. Wearing damp skivvies wouldn’t kill the guy. She got up and snatched pillows and worn, red plaid blankets from where she’d dumped them off the bunk mattress, then covered him. His teeth were chattering and his violent shivers had returned. An improvement or a setback? “How do you feel?”
“B-been w-worse. Y-you’re soaked, t-too. T-trembling. S-should und-dress.”
Too much of her unsteadiness had nothing to do with the cold. But she wasn’t about to admit it. “Stay awake. I’m going to brew something hot to drink.”
“Mia.” His glance caressed her. “I w-won’t hurt y-ou.”
As crazy as it seemed, she sensed she’d be safe with him. Mia touched the lump in her pocket that was the canister of pepper spray. Besides, she could handle herself, and the testosterone rodeo. She was proficient in self-defense. Armed with the wisdom of hindsight.
She’d never again be vulnerable to an ambush.
She strode to the kitchenette, rummaged through cupboards. “Dallas is an unusual name.”
“My t-three sisters, Victoria, C-Christie and Tyler-Anne, w-were also named after Texas t-towns.”
Against her will, her attention gravitated back to his virile pirate’s face. “Good thing your parents never visited Amarillo.”
He laughed hoarsely, his mischievous white smile a startling contrast with the dusky stubble on his cheeks and chin. The ruby in his earlobe twinkled in the firelight. “O-or Waxahachie.”
The shanty didn’t boast a fridge, stove, or any electricity. Mia located a pan, stirred canned chicken noodle soup into tap water, then carried it to the fireplace and set it in the glowing embers.
The sky blackened, the temperature dropped. Wind and sleet howled through the broken window. Using an unopened can of soup as a hammer, she nailed the blankets from her car over the breach with barbed fishhooks from a tackle box. Her limbs ached with numbness by the time she’d finished, her shivers as fierce as his.
She tottered to Dallas carrying a mug of steaming soup, her tremors sloshing it over the rim. He scowled. “Y-you don’t s-strike me as a stupid woman.”
She fed him another wobbly sip. “Perceptive of you.”
“Then y-ou know as w-well as I do…you n-need to shuck your wet c-clothes and get into bed with me.”
She jerked, barely avoided spilling the broth down his chest. “No.”
“Admit it. W-we’re colder t-than brass monkeys. H-hypothermia wipes y-you out, then what happens t-to both of us?”
His argument made an awful kind of sense. But the idea iced her blood colder than the sleet. He stayed silent, letting her decide while she fed him the rest of the soup.
Mia rescued her bulky purse from the car and set it on the metal folding table in the kitchenette. She fixed herself a mug of soup she didn’t want, then drank it. Mostly to postpone the inevitable.
She stoked the fire. Dragged the camping chair near it to hang up Dallas’ clothes while chills wracked her.
Her teeth sank into her lower lip. You know what you have to do. It was practical. Necessary for survival.
She’d survived much worse.
Nevertheless, trepidation crawled up her backbone as she drew her wet turtleneck over her head…with Dallas’ warm sea-god eyes watching every move. Mia clumsily toed out of her boots and socks. Unzipped her damp jeans. Like ripping off a bandage, she yanked them down and off. She quickly hung her pants beside his. Hiding the can of pepper spray in one hand, she turned and raised the blanket with the other.
Mirth danced through Dallas’ gaze and a smile flirted around his mouth. He chuckled.
He was laughing at her? Humiliated, Mia crossed defensive arms over her not-so-ample breasts. She looked down.
She was wearing her Bugs Bunny “What’s up, Doc?” panties and complementing demi-bra printed with tiny carrots. An early birthday gift from Valerie.
The humorous moment helped ease the thick tension as she slipped beneath the covers with him.
They lay face-to-face, gazes linked in the flickering firelight. She tucked the canister beneath her pillow as she breathed in Dallas’ scent…warm man and subtle, earthy pine. His languid smile slid across his mouth, flooding her veins with lava. Damn, the erotic images his scrumptious lips conjured up…
Get a grip, Mia!
She did not need a man. Not now, not ever. She would never give up her independence for some guy, and lose herself.
Already too cynical for her years at age six, with both her heart and her body broken, Mia had vowed never to fall in love. So far, she’d managed to keep that promise with no hassles from Cupid. And the little imp with the bow and arrows had better stay away, or she’d drop-kick his diapered butt right back to Olympus.
Besides, nothing was going to sidetrack her fight for redemption. Especially not a yummy hunk of man candy.
A steely forearm encircled her waist, urged her nearer, and she stiffened. Dallas’ palm stroked her rigid spine. “Easy, darlin’. You’re gonna have to come closer to share body heat. I won’t bite.” He winked. “Unless you ask me to.”
She gritted her teeth. “If you have any desire to father children in the future, you’d better keep your hands—and your fantasies—under control.”
A deep chuckle vibrated his chest, now far too close for comfort. “You know, you remind me of a hunting hound I used to have.”
“Gee, thanks. You really know how to wow a girl.”
“Named her Dirty Harriet, after Eastwood.”
Mia rolled her eyes. “Why am I not surprised?”
“She was the snappiest critter in three counties. Couldn’t get near her without getting bit. But once I’d earned her trust, she—”
“Fetched your slippers and gazed up adoringly from between your feet?”
“Harriet became my best friend. And my most loyal companion.”
“Sorry to disappoint, cowboy. I flunked obedience school.”
“Why am I not surprised?” He continued to rub her back in slow, soothing strokes. “You’re safe. Trust me, Mia. Go to sleep.”
The wind’s gnashing teeth grabbed the cabin and shook it, rattling boards and shingles. But the storm outside was trivial compared to the emotional typhoon whirling inside her.
Buffeted by the confusing tempest of attraction and wariness, Mia studied the intriguing man in her bed.
She’d give Dallas McQuade temporary shelter. Give him her body heat. Give him transport to the city tomorrow.
But she wasn’t about to give anybody her trust.
* * *
When dawn’s watery gray light crept through the windows, Dallas snapped to awareness with stiff muscles, throbbing ribs…and a raging boner.
He was wrapped around a warm, curvy woman who smelled enticingly like his family’s rose garden in Tyler, Texas. A surge of desire detonated inside him, and he blinked away the sensual daze.
Hellfire. He’d thought his libido had perished along with his other emotions. Now was a fine time for it to rise from the dead and distract him—when he was finally in position to settle the long overdue score.
The sexy little Samaritan was a complication he hadn’t expected. A wild card in the lethal long-con he was running. No problem, he could bluff with the best. In his line of work, a player who couldn’t think on his feet had a short life expectancy.
But all things considered, he preferred chess, where he could strategically plan every move to his advantage.
Mia’s delicate heart-shaped face had a pixie’s impish smile, but the eyes of an old soul—someone on intimate terms with pain. Her appearance so close to the scene of the latest assassination attempt on his new boss might be a coincidence.
His chest tightened. He’d learned—the worst way possible—that life rarely slotted into neat coincidences.
Mia stirring against him scattered his thoughts before they could wind down the familiar torturous path. Her silky thigh glided along his, her soft cotton panties brushing his hard-on. His dick twitched in response, and she jolted. Her eyelids shot open, instant terror striking her lovely features.
He swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. He was well aware she’d slept clutching a canister of mace. Someone had mistreated Mia very badly.
“Morning.” Dallas offered a reassuring smile as he eased back to give her space. Those wide, deep amber eyes caught and held him spellbound. Intoxicating. Beguiling. Tempting a man to drink her up in one long swallow, until he forgot all the sorrow. Forgot the pain.
He licked his lower lip, almost imagining he could taste her there. “Your eyes are the exact color of Southern Comfort.”
She scrambled out of bed like the blankets were on fire. “I’m leaving in ten minutes.” Her voice was husky with fatigue…and fear. “If you’re not ready, you can thumb it home.” Then she stalked into the bathroom and slammed the door.
Dallas wanted to kick his own ass clear back to Portland. Why the fuck had he blurted that? Smooth, McQuade.
He got up as fast as his injuries allowed—and headed straight for Mia’s bulging purse.
Expensive, professional field glasses. Digital camera with a zoom lens, and dozens of pictures of a certain ski lodge he recognized. A long-distance listening device disguised as a laser pointer. Small notebook detailing way too much of Esteban Montoya’s personal information and whereabouts the past few weeks.
Interesting. Dallas frowned. If he searched her car, would he find guns and ammo? Explosives?
He’d already nearly bought the farm on this new job protecting Montoya from an unknown assassin, and he wanted answers.
The driver’s license was issued to Mia Elaine Linden. He noted her last name and memorized the license number and address. One credit card, debit card, library card, discount warehouse membership. No social security number, but he could find that easily enough and run a thorough background check when he reached the city. Dallas quickly assessed the remaining contents. Nothing but the usual female paraphernalia. The lone prescription was a plastic compact containing birth-control pills.
For inexplicable reasons he didn’t care to question, the image of his sloe-eyed rescuer cuddled up with another man made the chilled ache return…and he felt more alone than ever.
Do not go there.
He limped to the fireplace and laboriously dressed, remembering the long-ago morning he’d stabbed a needle through his left earlobe, wiped away the blood and thrust in the antique ruby. The sting in his ear had been minor compared to the agony in his heart.
Even after all this time, not a day went by without acid failure gnawing at his guts. Not a night passed that he didn’t climb from his sleepless bed to pour his anguish into hours of mind-numbing Jeet Kune Do. He rolled his shoulders, relishing the sharp stab of discomfort in his ribs.
Stay on target.
If everything went according to plan, his ten years on the warpath would pay off soon. Very soon.
Dallas clenched his jaw. And if Mia Linden got in his way…he’d just have to deal with her.
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