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This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons--living or dead--is entirely coincidental. Biker’s Plaything copyright @ 2016 by Kathryn Thomas. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of SUBSCRIBE TO MY MAILING LIST To receive a free copy of an exclusive short, join my mailing list by clicking on the link or the banner below



CHAPTER ONE The rustic roads making their way through the San Gabriel Mountains were a bit too vague. Blanche Herrera was a ways off of Little Tujunga Canyon Road, which was the last closest thing to a civilized road she had ridden on. According to her GPS, she was just a few miles from her destination, a boarding house on Main Street in what had been a booming town a hundred or so years prior when some lucky miner found a couple nuggets of gold. She stopped when she came to a bridge that crossed a tree-crowded gully at the base of the mountain foothill. It appeared there had been a creek that ran through it. The gully was lined with smooth river rock. To the one side was the bridge; there was no rail or wall; it was long since missing from what she could tell, but it wasn't closed – not officially. It was plenty wide enough. The fall wouldn't be that great. Not that she would fall. Mudslides from down the mountain slope had begun to swallow up the bridge, but on a bike, a driver could cross, no problem. Luckily, Blanche – a shooter, also known as El Salvador, hired by the Norte Mexicali to take out the captain of the Seven Devils Motorcycle Club – was riding her Harley Sportster. With the bridge right there in front of her and the very long ride behind her, she was suddenly too lazy to go the couple hundred yards on the road around the gully to the other side. The real question for her was not how was she to navigate across the bridge, but how the hell was the nothing-town of Gold Creek, California a threat to the most powerful drug cartel in Central America? Was it because Norte Mexicali wanted Gold Creek's drug business? They were such a small town, how could it make any difference one way or the other? It made no sense. Blanche never got involved in the where's or whys, so long as the cash was good. It was way too much commitment and took away from her number one priority: herself. She was about her own gratification, no matter what that might be. She liked cash, beauty, really hot sex... and adventure. She had no time for other people's politics, but when she heard that there was a gringo motorcycle captain who dared to make rules about who could use the drugs in this town, it was too much for her. It was one thing to make a personal choice about whether or not to indulge in recreational pleasures, but to forbid an entire town struck a negative chord with Blanche. She hated, absolutely hated, oppressive, bossy types. Blanche was the type that hated chains of any kind. Rules were the worst kind of chain, as far she could see. She loved her freedom. She loved not answering to anyone and, ultimately, it made no difference to her what the deal was, but this one she would enjoy. It was a long ride from Escondido, where she kept a house in the hills, to Gold Creek. The Santa Ana winds were whipping around and driving everyone loco. Blanche was no stranger to the Santa Anas, but they were getting to her, she feared. The air was hot and bothersome. Blanche shed her jacket down to her camisole once she got off the highway to the side roads towards town.

The neckline of her tank was modest, but her petite body was voluptuous. Her cleavage was endless and her breasts all but spilled over. Her necklace, from which hung a secret weapon she used when on the job, dangled precariously at the curve of her bosom. She was done with the back roads. She planned on taking take the shortcut across the defunct bridge and get to the other side and be done with it. The long way around, the smarter, sensible way, was not happening at this point. The length of the bridge was probably like sixty yards. She couldn't figure out why Gold Creek let it go to pot except that the population of the area was so scant, it probably didn't matter one way or the other. Blanche was about half way across the bridge when she heard the distinct sound of something giving. Oh no, she thought. Her heart was electrified with adrenalin. She had made a bad decision and it could very well cost her her life. She was out in the middle of nowhere chasing down the closest thing to a grudge she allowed herself to have. *** Blanche remained as still as she could. She disregarded the annoyance that the perspiration trickling between her breasts and down the small of her back posed. The fall was one thing but the thought of caving in through an abandoned bridge was overwhelming and she couldn't move. She closed her eyes. Sweat drenched her and the salt stung beneath her eyelids. "Don't move," came an ominous warning. "I'm going to get you off." It was not exactly the moment to be thinking in double entendres, but it sounded almost like the smoldering voice just promised to give her pleasure. Hopefully it would be after he saved her life. Maybe she was hallucinating. Blanche was scared and that almost never happened‌not if she could help it. She kept her eyes shut through the whole thing. She could hear him somehow managing to make his way to the railing and, light as a cat and as quick, he was on her bike with her riding bitch. They flew to the end of the bridge safely reaching solid ground just in time to have the section behind them give. Blanche dismounted and darted a few feet before collapsing to the ground. She heard herself sobbing hysterically. "Hey," he said placing a warm hand on the small of her back as she bent over. He hovered with her as if to shelter her. His energy was positively soothing. He was like standing next to a spa; there was something very disarming about him that made her unwind and relax and lazy. Blanche realized he was somehow getting the better of her. Alert with alarm, she stood up straight and raged, "What is the idea of having a bridge like? Someone could get killed!" She punched his very solid arm. For the first time since their encounter, Blanche got a glimpse of the stranger's face. She staggered backward, overcome by his handsomeness. In the barrage of shock from the bridge and his sudden

appearance and now his overwhelming good looks, Blanche struggled to place him. She had seen him before, but how... Oh no. She shook her head. Jason Fowler? Gold Creek had just gotten ridiculously smaller. Again, she couldn’t figure how this small strip of nothing real estate could be a thorn in the side of the Norte Mexicali Cartel, but who was she to question?

CHAPTER TWO Blanche Herrera knew her sweet face that made her look about seventeen was her cover. More often than not, it disarmed her foe. Jason Fowler was no exception. He was both her target and caught unaware, for little did he know that she was in his one-horse town on business. She was a hired shooter for the Norte Mexicali Cartel and they didn’t like him, and because he was against what they stood for, neither did she. Jason Fowler saw Blanche as a helpless damsel in distress, which suited her fine. He embraced her almost lovingly. Certainly warmly. This man had just about the finest touch she had ever felt and it had been just simple contact. Involuntarily, she wondered what that touch might be like if she felt it... everywhere. Maybe it was the excitement, but it seemed like an almost electric heat radiated from his fingers as they guided her to steadiness in such a nurturing way. “Are you okay?” he asked. He was kind, but patronizing. He completely disregarded that she took a swing at him, but she didn’t. He was fine. His body was hard as a rock. “I am fine,” she replied. The day was clear as a bell in Gold Creek. The trees that rose up the hill behind them filtered golden sunlight. “So how did you happen to get on the bridge?” he questioned in gentle tones. “I was cutting across –” she began, trying to affect a girlish quality to her voice. “Oh,” his words were instantly stern and scolding. “You went across on purpose. Did you not see the hill over there swallowing half of it up? See how the road goes straight? Not even connected to the bridge? Note how there is no railing on the one side? What exactly were you thinking?” Blanche got the distinct impression that if he could, he would take her across his knee. She might consent to such a submission to him if the conditions were right but he would have to catch her first. She wanted to give him her actual tough girl answer like “you’ve never ridden off road before? Who’s the little girl now?” But she had a cover to maintain. “I thought it would be quicker,” she answered plainly. “I only weigh 115 pounds. I thought it would hold.” Blanche was devious in mentioning her weight. It was the undoing for men. They say they like their women with a little meat on their bones – and she had it in all the right places – but she watched them shiver when she said how much. Or how little. He was trying to be a good boy, but she had to hold back a laugh. He flinched. He liked them lean and now she knew. “Well it’s done,” he replied practically, “and I am going to chalk your wailing on my arm up to the heat of the moment, but we don’t hit around here, not for any reason except to defend yourself and there is no need for that. You are safe with me.” Jason Fowler was as square as they came, Blanche thought. No wonder the Norte Mexicali couldn’t abide by him. How could he be a part of a group called the Seven Devils if he was as pure as the

driven snow? Rules about being polite. Rules about driving only on pavement. Rules about no drugs, no drug sales. Blanche even heard that he was a bit of a health ninny. He was into juicing – veggies, not heroin – and working out. “Where are you headed?” he asked her, like he was her guardian. “Excuse me?” she smiled sweetly, though pressed with patience. “A simple question. Where are you headed?” he repeated. Now that Blanche was on the safe side of the bridge, she wasn’t going to play nice anymore. Not for now. Not until she absolutely had to. She was going to head to the rooming house that she had a reservation at and sleep for a couple of hours after she took a very long, hot, steamy bubble bath. She may be a woman mercenary; she was still a woman. “Thank you for your help,” she cooed. Jason Fowler stood toe to toe with her. A hot little smirk curled his lips. “You know, don’t think I didn’t notice a few things about you, like the way you are really good at dodging a direct question. Are you going to be in town for a while or are you just passing through?” “You sound like you are sheriff of Gold Creek, Mr. Fowler?” Blanche froze. Jason froze. She slipped big time. “How do you know my name?” he demanded. His demeanor was that of a predator and not of the Good Samaritan anymore. “You told me,” she stuttered. She was going to have to be awfully cute to get out of this one. “No I didn’t,” he answered, blocking her path to her transportation away from the scene. He hadn’t told her. It wasn’t like her to make such a sloppy error and it made her nervous to have to spend energy on fixing it. “Yes you did," she lied, “Unless some angel whispered in my ear when I was about to die. It’s been known to happen,” she said, affecting a Tijuana accent on her English syllables. Jason Fowler crowded her so his lips touched her ear. "Do they whisper like this?" His voice sent wetness to her legs. "Listen to me, missy, don't fuck with me." Blanche shivered at his dark advice. For one, she found him scary and for two, she found him so hot. As a last ditch to throw him off, she changed the subject completely and disclosed where she was staying. “I am on my way to Cranston’s Boarding House. I’ve never been here, so I am not sure where that is. Is it near?” Blanche did her best to will herself to look sweet and innocent. She flipped a lock of her

satiny coal black hair. She knew that when it caught the sunlight, its shine was as white as a diamond. Blanche’s hair was spectacular and it usually proved to be yet another source of a man’s weakness. It worked. She could tell that he didn’t know what to make of her, but because he found her cute, he was still willing to be civil. “I can show you, sure. I would just give you directions, but I’m not sure if there are any more danger zones that you might not have the sense to avoid. Let me get my bike. I am just down the way.” Blanche had to contain herself from reacting to his snarky remark. “Do you live under the bridge? Are you a handsome troll?” Just when Blanche thought she had him, he answered, “How about you ask the angel who whispered my name, little girl?” She watched him stride down the cement roadway that bent around the gully. Had she just taken that road around instead of crossing the old bridge, she might have seen a house embedded in the canyon. His house. She took great pleasure viewing his form, his musculature that rendered an ordinary pair of jeans and T-shirt into a living work of art. Blanche heard the unmistakable churn of a Harley fire up and soon enough, Jason appeared. She mounted her bike and they were off.

CHAPTER THREE The ancient mining town, now charmingly restored, of Gold Creek was not more than a couple miles down. Many of the buildings were built right into the rise of the mountains that had been mined long ago for treasures. The township was situated on a cool running waterway that was about as blue green as Jason Fowler’s eyes. It was a tiny body of water, big enough to enjoy, formed in a cup cut out of the San Gabriel Mountains from mountain run off. Blanche had not spotted it on the map. It was simply called by locals as the Gold Creek Bay. Gold Creek was a beautiful little town. Rustic and slow moving, but it certainly had its appeal. Blanche kept going back to the nagging question about why the heck would this place or anyone who lived here be so important to the people who hired her, hired her to take out the man showing her around? Jason Fowler. Very handsome and delicious looking Jason Fowler. They parked their bikes. He insisted on escorting her to the owner of the house. He was super polite that way. Just about an hour ago, that might be something that bothered Blanche to no end. Now, it had just the opposite effect. It was causing her to melt. He took her bags and noted, “Not much. You sure pack light. Where are you from? What brings you here?” Blanche answered his question with a question as they entered the front of the house, “Is this where we go in?” A woman, who Blanche estimated must be the owner, started to greet them but Jason sidestepped her. “Excuse us,” he said. Jason dropped the bags and swept Blanche at the waist, hoisting her into the dining area. “Now, missy. For the last time, I have asked you a direct question and you have evaded me. You did know my name and I did not tell you. I have asked you twice now why are you here. We don’t get a lot of traffic through here of folks we don’t know. Gold Creek is not exactly on the beaten path.” Blanche’s trick now was to be on the verge of tears. She was great at crying at the drop of a hat and, while it was not a tactic she liked to pull early in the game, it was warranted. She just let her lip tremble a little as she spoke. “I asked you are you the sheriff? I am sorry I went on the bridge. I probably ought to report it – ” That was as far as she got. It was just her luck that, for the first time ever, the waterworks were not coming. She tried again. “Stop it,” he said. She had mucked this job up completely. “I can see what you’re doing. Maybe I ought to get the sheriff out here.” Blanche shed all of her act and was her cold, professional self. “What for? If I owe you something for

helping me out back there, let me know and I will pony up. I didn’t ask you to be my personal escort; I just asked you to point me in the direction of this place and, really, I was just being polite. Call the sheriff if you’d like. Maybe you can answer what you were doing creeping in the woods by the roadside waiting for victims.” Jason smiled. Damn, he was gorgeous. He had absolutely perfect teeth. That was fortunate, because they went well with the symmetry of his face, the balance of size and placement of each feature. He was also wonderfully cursed with super thick eyelashes, so he almost looked as though he borrowed someone’s mascara. His eyes really were the color of a luscious body of water just beyond the roadside. “Somehow, I hardly think you are anyone’s victim,” he said. No, she thought. It was usually the other way around, but this man made her lose her edge. She was off her game, off focus. Blanche never let herself have any time off. Never let herself have any sort of personal life. This stranger, who she was hired to put down, stirred ideas of a quiet drink at a café, maybe a tavern here in Gold Creek. She would have to force herself to be his enemy. As the situation threatened to get her kicked out of her spot at the boarding house, Blanche looked at Jason, searching, trying to affect her sweet and innocent look while she tried to quickly formulate a game. It worked. He grabbed her and kissed her firmly, full on the mouth. Without a care that the landlady was watching, Jason penetrated Blanche's mouth with his tongue. He tasted so sweet. It had been such a long time since a man kissed her. It had been such a long time, indeed. Jason had figured out Blanche's angle for her. He pulled apart from the kiss, his eyes twinkling into hers, "No, Denise. We just had kind of a scare there. I think we’re both just worked up." "I can see that," the landlady murmured. She bashfully left them alone. Jason took her face in his hands and whispered softly as his eyes looked so intently into hers, "I don't know who you are or where you came from, or," he chuckled, "why the hell it was me who ran into you. I don't go around kissing strange women." "I am not so strange," Blanche whispered. "Bewitched. That's kind of a dumb word, but it's the only word for it. This has been a strange couple of hours, indeed." Blanche studied him. At his core, Jason Fowler was not a guy who deviated from his schedule of morals, let alone his straight-laced little life. She was sure a woman like her could throw him and did, but he kissed her and she was thrown, as well. "I think you were right when you said we had quite a shock," she said.

"I said quite a ‘scare,’" he teased. She smiled, "I stand corrected, Mr. Fowler." "I'm going to find out how you knew my name, too," he threatened. The chemistry between them kept her from fully realizing any fear of him. “Now,” he said, “to your room.” “I can find my way from here, thank you,” she said. “Oh no, little lady. I completely insist,” he said with swagger. “If we don’t come down shortly, Denise, do not send out any search parties.” With that, Jason whisked her up into his arms and took the steps on the curving staircase up to the second floor. He carried her across the threshold like she was a blushing bride. In fact, this handsome modern knight on a hot-as-shit Harley Davidson did bring heat to her face. As she lay flat on the quilt-covered bed, she stared up into Jason Fowler's gorgeous blue-green eyes. She could imagine him being her husband and he was positioned to do so many things: kiss her good morning, kiss her goodnight, tell her something quick, talk slow and dirty to her. She could not get enough of looking at that great face. "Now that you have found the place, my little mystery, are you going to need something else?" Blanche was tempted to ask him to join her, but she did not. "No," she said nearly choking on her words. Jason left and Blanche collapsed in her room after a quick bath. It was a hot and steamy bath. She was so worked up from her intense encounter with her target, Jason Fowler, she locked herself in the bathroom. She immersed herself under the running water and pleasured herself to a quick and powerful orgasm. Sated, she wrapped up in a heavy towel and thick robe. Jason was right in that she did pack light. She packed a robe, a teddy, and a hot little dress. Depending on how long she would stay, she didn't need much. As she reclined against her extraordinarily plush mattress, she had no idea what it was she was going to need. What was bothering her was she pretty certain as to what she wanted.

CHAPTER FOUR Blanche slept much more soundly than she had expected, but it was a delicious nap. She woke and forced herself to get up and move, so she could go to bed at the usual hour and not get off her sleep schedule. She was dressing for dinner when she heard the sirens of a fire engine racing up Main Street. She peered out the lace curtains of her window to see if she could see anything. A small crowd had gathered up on the corner. A motorcyclist was down and there were a few men hovering over him protectively and Jason Fowler holding others at bay. The Seven Devils. Rescue workers rushed off the vehicle. Soon an ambulance and a sheriff’s car met them. Blanche could not tell from where she stood how serious the guy's injuries were, but it was obvious Jason wanted on the ambulance with him and the answer was no. He is head strong, thought Blanche. She felt cold-blooded changing out her attire to a short jean skirt and a close fitting cotton T-shirt. She nonchalantly went down to the street and crossed to the San Juan Café across the way, gambling that would attract some attention despite the accident. It worked. She walked really slowly, able to eavesdrop on the very loud conversation Jason was having with the sheriff. "You will only get in our way," said the sheriff. "Let us do our job." Blanche could tell from the corner of her eye that Jason and some of the guys were heading in the same direction as she was, towards the café. She went in, pretending to be oblivious to the drama. There were at least three men coming with him. They were four of the same guys in the Seven Devils Motorcycle Club. The Norte Mexicali Cartel would give her a bonus if she could somehow kill all of those birds in one trip to Gold Creek. Blanche attracted more attention as she entered the San Juan Café. Although predictable, it was nice to see that the place had a pool table. She liked to enjoy a game now and then. She ordered a drink and pulled out her credit card to pay, but the bartender made it on the house. As was her habit, she tucked her card in her bra. "Someone looks as good as you, they ought to pay you to drink here," he flirted. "Maybe that's what's she's doing here," growled Jason Fowler. Blanche was a big girl, but still, the insult stung. She backed away from the bar without a word, without acknowledging Jason, leaving the drink on its napkin on the bar. She went over to the rack of pool cues to select one. Jason was up next to her in an instant. "I don't know why I said that," he said quickly. He had brought her the drink, "Here." His remark had knocked any soft feelings she had had for him earlier and now she was all business. In fact, she was completely without feeling and was officially back on the job. With the cops and fire

and rescue occupied with the injured biker, this might be an opportunity to take them all out and set Gold Creek on its ear. The Norte Mexicali would be more than pleased. She never drank while she was working. "I am not thirsty." She stepped forward, but he blocked her. "I hope you will at least accept my apology," he said, making a face she was supposed to be charmed by. She wasn't going to let him off the hook. "You've made it no secret, from the second we met, that, for whatever reason, you don't approve of me," Blanche kicked herself. She sounded like she was sulking. He stood very close to her, speaking low and intimately with her. Warmth rushed through her as though she were standing next to the love of her life instead of the guy who had just slammed her in front of a room full of strangers, instead of the man she was hired to kill. "Now did that kiss we shared earlier feel as though I didn't like you very much? I admit, we got off on the wrong foot-" "That kiss was random and it meant nothing," she lied. "Besides, you forced me. You have a strange notion of showing someone you like them, then, and that's your problem, Jason. Don't make it mine or you will regret it." He raised his eyebrows and almost laughed, "Are you threatening me? You know, I take it all back. Your sudden appearance in our little town is rather sinister. I think you still have some questions to answer." "I saw your friend got hurt out there. I think you have more to worry about than my business," she retorted. "Someone tampered with his bike. Someone would have to know something about a motorcycle. Someone like say‌you?" he challenged. "I know you just got here, but I would swear you're drunk already," she hissed. "You left me at the boarding house and Mrs. Cranston can probably attest that I showered and took a cat nap. I didn't go jack up someone's bike in my spare time." "You're pretty sneaky," he replied. "Jason, come on man," one of the Devils pleaded. "That makes no sense. We were there. Or just outside Mason's." That was the name of the gas station that Blanche had noted beyond the accident scene. "Believe me, if she had been anywhere near us, I would have noticed. Look at her." Jason's eyes took a walk all over her. She could swear she saw him shiver. He shook his head, "I don't know what I’m saying. I am upset. You don't have to come over here pretending like you're going to play pool just to avoid me." Blanche snorted, "Don't flatter yourself. I was going to play."

No sooner had she said those words when two guys came in, just short of bursting in. They were members of the Norte Mexicali Cartel. Blanche had her answer as to what happened to the injured motorcycle rider. The men made quick eye contact with Blanche to signal they knew her, too, but they proceeded as though they did not. "You're not playing right now, sweetheart. The table's ours." The burly men waltzed over to the rack for cues. Blanche blurted out, "You can play me for the table if you like, but right now, it's mine." The first of them whipped around at her with a look of confusion on his face. Blanche stood her ground. Jason wagged his head. She racked up the balls, "I’ll even let you have the first shot." "What does it matter," replied the man she challenged, "now or a minute from now?" He charged over to the table, but she blocked him with her cue as though keeping him at bay with the tip of a sword. "Your name please," she said. "Lady, it's a good thing you're smokin' hot," Jason interjected. "If you were a dude-" "She's pressing her luck as a beautiful woman," replied her opponent. "The name is Hawk." "I am Blanche. After you, Hawk," she said confidently. As the man lined up to take his shot, she turned her back to him, jutting out her butt ever so slightly. "Jesus," he cursed and he scratched on break. He lost and was none too happy about it. In a fury, he stormed for Blanche, but Jason and his guys surrounded her just as they had the fallen rider. "Hey," Jason counseled. "Life sucks, but she won." "That's okay," said Blanche. "Two out of three. I don't mind if Hawk doesn't mind." "Boy, you don't know when to quit, do you?" Jason glared at her. Now it was she who took his face into her hands and kissed him. "Move out of my way," she whispered. She put the rack on the triangle of balls to re-set them and took her place at the head of the table. She looked at Hawk, "My turn." Blanche drove the cue between her fingers and putting her hips behind it, shoved. The cue ball crashed and scattered the arrangement of stripes and solids. She sunk one of each. "I'll let you call 'em, just so you don't think I'm cheatin'," she said to Hawk. She had the room mesmerized. "Whatever," Hawk murmured. "Last chance," she said and threw his own words back in his face. "Now or a minute from now, it won't make any difference." Hawk didn’t speak up, so Blanche ran the table, calling each one until

she depleted all the high balls before sinking the eight ball. "I gotta go," she announced. "She's all yours." She was just about to put her cue away when Hawk said, “Better be able to do that again, little lady, or you and I will make this pool table our wedding bed." "What?" Blanche asked rhetorically retaining the cue after all. "No, I don't feel like it. I’m leaving, but feel free to play with yourself," she said, her double meaning clear. She boldly crossed the room towards the exit. She would have to pass him to leave. Usually on the job, she carried a knife, but the only things she had on her at the moment were her cellphone and her bank card. They would have to do. Hawk made a grab for her and, quick as a flash, Blanche pulled out her card and sliced the soft topside of his hand. He seized, gripping his injured hand with his good one, bracing it on the table. It would only be a second before he was grabbing her again with dangerous vehemence. Before he could recover, she hammered his hands, one on top of the other, with her cellphone. He cried out in agony. Jason Fowler swept her up and rushed her out of the café. They both hopped onto his bike and flew. Her tiny denim skirt hiked up her hips as she clutched Jason with everything she had.

CHAPTER FIVE Soon enough, Blanche found herself taking the curves of the road around the gully where she had foolishly tried to cross the abandoned bridge. They came upon Jason's house, embedded in the side of the mountain that rose out of the road. It looked magical in the falling dark. It was cloaked among the trees and other elements of the forest. It was a wood and lead structure, lit with the buttery lights of a dozen or so lanterns. The garage door rose, remote controlled, and Jason and Blanche wheeled cautiously inside as the door slowly closed behind them. The lights inside the garage were motion-censored. The interior was bright in an instant. Jason said little as he led them both inside of the house. There, he turned on her in lecture. "What were you thinking back there?" he demanded. "Do you know who you were messing with?" Blanche made a conscious effort to not let her face register even the least little bit that she did, in fact, know. She knew that members of Norte Mexicali had moved into town ahead of her, trying to take it over, but Jason not-a-town-official was nothing more than one of Gold Creek's beloved citizens, even as the president of a motorcycle club, the Seven Devils, had posed their biggest opposition. That was why they sent her in. She was a little nervous that she went up against a guy who was supposedly on the same side, but she had no choice. Despite his being in the wrong, she couldn't guess who it would go bad for, Hawk or her. It might not matter to her employer that she had been at risk. She was pretty sure she broke his hand. She might have crossed a line. Blanche looked down suddenly and realized in the melee, either by the scuffle or the quick getaway, she had gotten a friction burn across her thigh. Its contact with the air caused it to sting. "Come," Jason shook his head. Possessively, he guided her into the house. The decor of the home was rich and warm. The natural elements of stone and wood were sensual. They had a mood altering effect on Blanche as did the very nearness to Jason. He sat her down on a very luxurious overstuffed sofa and fetched a first aid kit. "It's not that bad," she protested, but he didn't pay any attention. He popped open a jar of ointment and applied it to the area. He was on his knees, situated between hers, touching her intimately as silvered moonlight filtered into the room. They were alone now, two people with intense chemistry, having endured yet another hair-raising moment. Opportunity and passion turned their heads and they regarded each other, slowly coming together. Jason's hand traveled higher up her leg towards her center as they joined in a kiss. Blanche just naturally reclined, backing up and over to make room for him as he drew up next to her. They kissed each other with everything they had, as though they had been starving the entire time up to

that moment. He deftly skimmed the cotton fabric from her skin and cupped her firm and round breast, which fit so perfectly within the palm of his powerful but gentle hand. He smelled so wonderful with such an intoxicating blend of masculinity and spice. The tendrils of his hair brushed her forehead as his tongue languidly mated with hers. Blanche wanted this man so. The entrance of her body was dripping wet and ready for him and quickly, her head was screaming for him to be inside her. To wait and endure the pleasure of his touches and teasing might be too much. She could feel him hard against the soft flesh of her thigh. He was ready, too. It would be over so fast if she could not savor it and make it last. Blanche reached up and under to his chest, so hard and chiseled and amazing. In the moonlit shadows that set the room aglow, he looked like a magician forest-entity about to take her. She slid her finger along the waist of his jeans and awkwardly fumbled with the buttons. He rose to kick them off and peeled off the shirt, as well. He was magnificent. The light from outside caught her curves, cascading onto her skin. Her complexion between the sun and her heritage was creamy brown, but in the silver of the moon, appeared white. He leaned down and gingerly kissed the sensitive dip between her breasts. Blanche's nipples were hardened at his touch. Jason touched the tip of his tongue to their erect tips with whisper pressure, sending erotic currents throughout her body. She twitched. She needed to be filled. Instinctively, she reached to his full length, rigid in her grip. She yearned to touch her tongue to him, as well. She scooted and he moved, and soon her mouth was on him. His skin was so smooth, so sweet, and he filled her mouth completely. Blanche toyed with him, drawing the sides of her cheeks tight around him, working up hot, wet saliva for his pleasure. She gripped him so firmly, moving her hand up and down in that eternal carnal rhythm. He swiftly put his hand to hers and steadied it, urging her up and off of him. "I will be done, for sure," he said. He pressed her back and spread her legs. He gave her pleasure in kind. His mouth was so hot and commanding as his tongue explored the folds of her salty flesh. Arousal encompassed her entirely and the slightest touch promised to set her off. He penetrated her eager entrance, tonguing her feverishly. Blanche reached down between her legs and made little circles of pleasure to urge herself towards that ultimate peak. She was almost there. She begged him to get inside her, "Now, please," she whimpered. "Now." Jason slid his cock into her slick body. He was hot and hard, and she was aching for him. She raised her hips to fit snuggly against his pounding, urgent rhythm. It was going to be fast after all. "Oh, baby," he prayed. "Oh, baby."

After a few thrusts, Blanche felt the first tremors of an orgasm. The ripples began to grow and soon, her body was thundering around his. Jason pounded into her; her breasts bobbed in counterpoint as he reached his own climax. Their voices filled the room to the height of its cathedral ceiling. They collapsed, their flesh still throbbing against one another. After a moment, he spoke, "My god. I can't understand our connection but it is an unmistakable one. You are an amazing woman." You're an amazing man, she thought, but could hardly say a word. Sleeping with him was most definitely the wrong thing to do. If she betrayed the Norte Mexicali Cartel, she might as well put a price on her head, as well. "One thing is for certain. Until Hawk and his guys are out of Gold Creek, you should probably stay here with me. You can't stay at Mrs. Cranston's." "You don't even know me," Blanche exclaimed. "I think I know you pretty well after that. It’s still a mystery about you knowing my name and all. I don't buy into angels or devils or fairies." She stroked his face, "I heard you calling to some supernatural entity a few minutes ago." "I was at that," he replied, a smoky look in his eye. He leaned into her and kissed her again. He was hard for her once more.

CHAPTER SIX Their union this time was slow and deliberate, but very electric. Every cell in their flesh was orgasmsensitive and the slightest bit of contact was a jolt of pleasure. He slid in and out of her in a calculated grind, the edge of bliss nowhere in sight until it turned for them finally. They began that ascent to the age-old summit. Blanche pumped against him mindlessly, powerfully. Her orgasm came back to life tenfold as she clamped against his extraordinarily stiff and generous erection. They were both writhing with the ultimate pleasure and crumpling, drained from the same. They dozed. The urgent ringing of his landline telephone awakened Jason. It was one of his guys, a member of the Seven Devils. The injured motorcyclist needed a blood transfusion and all of the guys were going down to donate. Jason got up to do the same. "Are you going to just leave me here?" Blanche asked in disbelief. "I realize your friend-" "He needs me right now. You're fine," Jason decided. "I am fine for now, but you don't realize my whole life is at the boarding house. My bike is there. Give me a ride. I can check out in the morning if we still feel like I should be here. I can join you in the morning," she said. Jason's eyes narrowed, "I will take you back over if you promise to get your stuff and come right back. I am not going to sleep knowing you are at the boarding house while Norte Mexicalis are pissed off at you." Blanche put a hand on him, moved by his concern. "I will be fine. You go take care of your friend." They showered and instead of lying down to sleep for the night, they dressed and went their separate ways. With great reservation and in total silence, they rode together over to Mrs. Cranston's place. Jason parked and walked her to her room. He inspected every inch. He checked under the bed and in the closet. He kissed her forehead. Despite their very intense sex, Blanche had the feeling that whatever went on between them was over as quickly as it began. It was good that it went this way, because she needed distance from this whirlwind encounter to get her head right. She was at serious risk of going back on a deal with a powerful group of people. She knew their business and changing her mind at this point, which would be so easy for her to do, was not acceptable. They were very vulnerable and wanted her to have as much risk at they did. You didn't just back down after being halfway in. She most definitely had to think hard. She didn't want to kill this man, but she didn't want to put her own life at risk either. Because there was a real possibility that the Norte Mexicali members she riled could bother her in the night and because she was technically on the job, Blanche dressed in street clothes to sleep in, albeit shorts and a tank top. She was exhausted. She reclined on her bed and was just about to drift off

to sleep when she heard a tremendous commotion at the entrance of the boarding house. It sounded like a herd of wild horses were trampling up the stairs. Mrs. Cranston protested, "What the hell?" "Move it, lady," said a male voice. Hawk. With the lights out, Blanche deftly rolled off the top of her bed and crouched to the side. She pulled her piece out of her bag and got ready. Her door was locked and, thankfully, it was solid mahogany, as were pretty much all of the vintage constructions in the historic town. It took Hawk several tries to bust in before he had to resort to threats. "I know who you are!" he shouted. He was drunk. He was going to blow her cover and Mrs. Cranston was now going to be a liability. "You better calm down," Blanche warned calmly. "You remember what happened the last time we tangled." "You best open the door or it will be worse when I do make my way in," he hollered. Blanche double-checked the window and the distance down to the ground. Then she saw a feature she had not noticed before: a neat little box containing a coiled rope ladder. She began chattering a false apology to cover up the sound of her raising the window. Down she climbed, with gun in hand and bags over her shoulder. She dashed to her bike, which she hoped was not sabotaged in any way, and sped off leaving Hawk screaming at the door. If Hawk was worth his weight in salt to the Norte Mexicali, he knew by now who Blanche had left the San Juan CafĂŠ with and he would find out his address. It would be unfair to bring this kind of danger back to Jason's, but it was really the only place she could go. As fast as she could, she sped to his house, ditched her bike in the gully where she had caused the bridge to cave, and hid, not inside the house, but around back under the porch until Jason got home. Hawk would have heard her bike. If he had figured things out, he would be there. Blanche's conscience was working overtime, as she now worried about Mrs. Cranston. She should have just killed Jason the second she saw him on that bridge. Looking back, she would have made it off in time as he had. But then she would have never experienced the most intimate, amazing encounter she had ever experienced in her life with a man. Or probably ever would. Dancing with him sexually would be one of the best memories she would ever have. Hopefully she would live long enough to truly enjoy it. She was so, so tired. It was tempting to put her head down and sleep. Blanche saw a flicker of white like a lantern's reflection, but heard no sound. She was certain it was definitely Norte Mexicali sneaking up. As she predicted, they followed her to Jason's. She crossed her fingers that he would

safely remain at the hospital until they left or she took care of them. She was in such a mess now. If she had to take these guys out, she couldn't go back. She would have to jump ship, for sure. Blanche heard a rustle of footsteps kicking through the shrubs around the house. Footsteps clunked on the deck above her, but they seemed awfully light. There was the distinct clink of keys. Unless Hawk was tiptoeing or had the keys to Jason's place, it was not him. She tried to spy through the slats of wood. Nope, whoever it was it was not a man. There was no other woman in the Norte Mexicali that would be sent here for her, but a lady friend of Jason's who had the keys to his place would explain why no engine noise. She was surprising him. Jason had a visitor. Little did the visitor realize, she was surprising Blanche, too. So now, Blanche was underneath the porch of the man she slept with on a whim, like an idiot. She was armed and exhausted, and now a major third wheel. God, she just wanted to sleep. She would do just that. She slept in many a hairy place on stakeout for her targets. She couldn't sleep out on the bare damp earth; it was dangerous. She knew the temperature in the foothills would cool considerably. She had to sleep in the grass. She rolled out silently from underneath the porch with the intention of finding a place to camp when she heard the brazen engine sound of bikes around the gully. Blanche stood on the side of Jason's house and spied. It was Jason and two other riders. She sucked in her breath at the wondrous spectacle of his handsome shadowy figure in the moonlight. He was coming home after a show of loyalty to his friend and he would find his woman there. That would be that. The only thing she knew was that she wasn't going to kill this man. She had feelings for him. She would camp out and, after a little bit of rest, she would leave. Leave him behind. She looked over her shoulder to the deck and mercifully spied a blanket on a lounge chair. She quickly darted to retrieve it and planned to head for the brush, but so many things rolled through her mind. Blanche wept and fell asleep.

CHAPTER SEVEN She must have slept hard. She woke up well after the sun. Something seemed to wake her, not just the fact that she slept long. She could smell coffee. Instinctively, she looked around. There, sitting on the ground not too far from her, was Jason. He was just watching her, with a question on his face. She was so embarrassed, but when he held up her gun, she was alarmed. He wasn't going to take a bullshit answer for that. "Yours?" he asked with a scold on his face. "Can I have a sip of your coffee?" she asked quietly. Jason snapped, "Dammit! Do not evade me any further! I want answers now!" he growled. A man and a woman stepped out onto the deck. Blanche saw that it was probably the woman who had let herself into the house. Clearly they were a couple. As she realized that, she also realized that she had been jealous of the woman. She naturally assumed that she had been there to see Jason and she was completely wrong. "Tell me why you are outside in my yard like this?" he hissed. The two on the deck had stopped their chitchat and were gawking. Blanche tried to skirt around the issue before saying, "Hawk broke into the boarding house. I got away and I came back here. I know this is not going to make sense-" she found herself struggling with emotion. "Okay," Jason said, obviously sympathetic. "I got scared and I was hiding," she said. "Okay," he said again and he handed her his coffee for a sip. "You're filthy," he scolded gently. "Come," he said, "take a bath." "I don't feel comfortable with your friends here. I am going to hop on my bike and go. I don't think Hawk is going to be a problem." She reached for her gun, but he retracted it. "No, ma'am," he said sternly. "If you want to go back and get your things, me and the guys will go with. Get yourself together. I am not letting you go off by yourself." He stood up and took the gun with him. Now, besides feeling foolish, Blanche felt ashamed. He was taking care of her no matter what and if he only knew what brought her to Gold Creek, he definitely wouldn't be trying to shelter her. She walked into the house formulating a bunch of different scenarios as to how she could explain herself without hurting him and with as much damage control as possible between the two them. No

way could she figure would leave them still even friends, but her agenda took a back seat as soon as she stepped inside. They were discussing the fallen biker. They were talking Norte Mexicali cartel. Then there was the dreaded mention of El Salvador. Jason and the Seven Devils were talking plans to guard against the arrival of El Salvador. "Dump his body in Gold Creek Bay," said one rider. "Then have a town picnic. I know I will have a huge appetite after one less evil incarnate is gone from our lives." Every once in a while, Jason would look over to her and send her a scolding glare. It was as if he knew she was affiliated with the Cartel. Maybe it was her imagination. She was sure he didn't know that she was, in fact, El Salvador. Finally, she walked briskly across the room to go upstairs to take a bath as he suggested. Jason excused himself and followed her. "Hey," he said. Blanche picked up the pace away from him. She tried her best to quickly get in behind the bathroom door and close it behind her. "Hey," he said as he looked at her again with a mixture of compassion and disappointment. Blanche was overrun with emotion; she was choking on it, "I can't talk right now." Jason gently lifted her shirt over her head and leaned towards the tub to draw a bath. He spilled soap bubbles into the steaming water. Blanche felt guilty to join the pleasures of his warm and gentle services, but they were scrumptious. Despite being outside, she had been so exhausted and she was accustomed to sleeping in odd places, she had slept fairly soundly, but as she moved around, she felt a little stiff. The tub was delicious and soothing as she sunk in. She leaned back, following his lead, letting him wash her hair. His fingers in her hair, stroking her scalp as her body lazed against the porcelain. The tips of her glistening breasts hardened. In an almost out of body experience, she heard herself moan. He reached between her legs and penetrated her with his fingers. Any shred of shame or guilt for being sent to kill him vanquished and was taken over by a pure animalistic drive to be taken by him. Jason lowered his mouth to hers, his lips were sweet and soft and his tongue firm and hot. She opened her mouth to receive him as his fingers pleasured her erotically. She gripped his shoulder as her arousal shook her so. "I need you," she said. Instead of lifting her to his bed as she had hoped, he kissed her on the top of her head, chastely. He took her head in his hands. "I will give you some privacy," he said softly.

"But- " she pleaded. "Take your bath," he said and he left her. Blanche quickly did that. She released the standing water and rinsed off under the showerhead. She dressed and opted to say as little as possible as she rejoined everyone else downstairs. Despite withholding his affections to her, he had set a place at the table for her. A yogurt parfait with fruit and a crumble of oatmeal cookie waited. He poured her a cup of piping hot coffee. It was delicious and, despite her sadness that they could not have met under different circumstances, the meal brought a faint smile to her. They talked around her about Seven Devils business and the rider who had been injured. The injured rider's name was named Barry and his bike was notoriously customized. It was easy to pick his off of a lot, which is what the Norte Mexicali had done. They cut the break line and eventually the bike failed. Blanche got to hear the other side of the story about Norte Mexicali's interaction with Gold Creek. And she got her answer to their interest in the sleepy town. There was gold. The small population had decided, legally, that no matter how the gold was obtained, they would split the proceeds. They basically formed a legal entity listing all the residents at the time as part of the "company." Norte Mexicali members learned about the gold when one of the townsfolk, a hopeless addict trying to save his own neck after coming up short for the drug money he owed, threw the town under the proverbial bus. Norte Mexicali wanted Gold Creek's gold. Jason Fowler, the unofficial mayor and captain of the Seven Devils Motorcycle Club – basically the militia that protected the town against the unwanted interest – had been one step ahead of the Cartel's malice. Malice that Blanche Herrera had been sent to finish, but not anymore. After she heard the whole thing, she made a personal vow to now work against the people who hired her, no matter what the cost. Then if she lived, she was getting out of the business for good. One of the Seven Devils remarked about her gun, "Wow," he said to Jason. "Not mine," Jason said in a short answer. "Our guest's." All eyes were uncomfortably on Blanche. Most difficult to take was Jason's. "Hey, let's go take a ride over to Denise Cranston's and check on the whereabouts of the other visitors. I think Dana and Rick should have picked them up by now." Blanche guessed that those were the names of the sheriff and/or deputy. "If they had trouble, we definitely would have heard." Jason's statement made her wonder. "Did you hear about what went down at the boarding house last night?" she asked. "I did. Denise was able to lock herself away and place the call," he said, with that now permanent

look of disappointment on his face. "So you knew before I told you, then," she said. "Yes," he said sparingly. "I was just very worried because I didn't know where you were. After our friend has been hospitalized and then our other very good friend terrorized and then you-" he censored himself. "It wasn't great looking out and seeing you laying in the rough, but I was glad that everything turned out okay. I mean that you are unharmed. Where's your bike?"

CHAPTER EIGHT Her bike. Blanche had let it roll down into the gully. It was the only way she could think to conceal it. If the Norte Mexicali had come to Jason's house, they would have eventually seen it and Blanche couldn't take that chance. In her mind, she had been thinking of Jason, but now she was confused. And now she had to confess she might have damaged her own bike. "I need to talk to you," she said feebly. He was cold. "I've been trying to get a conversation started with you since the moment we met. Like hi, what brings you here? And how is it you knew my name, Ms. Herrera?" She had never given her last name to him, but he knew it just the same, because that was how she registered at the boarding house. She quickly took a mental inventory to see if there was anything in the few possessions she brought with her that would tip her identity as El Salvador. "I don’t think my bike is working anymore. I'm going to have to catch a ride with one of you," she said. "Fine. Show me the bike. We'll see about it," he answered. All the riders including the woman, whom Blanche had been jealous of, were dressed in full jeans. She felt ridiculous in her hot little jean shorts and her ballerina tank top and sandals. She knew she looked smoking, because that's how she always planned it, but she wasn't dressed for riding. She walked out in front of Jason to show him where she had ditched her bike. She had not let it roll very carefully. There it was, precariously resting atop of the canopy of some low-lying shrubs. Blanche was going to inch down the incline of the gully and walk it up. The dirt on the ground was loose and the way down was steep. The slick soles of her sandals skated. She looked dumb. She felt dumb. She slid down through the branches and landed on her butt. She just folded her arms around her knees and tried very hard not to cry. Jason stepped carefully, quietly behind her. He sat, with one leg astride her hips so she fit snuggly into him as he basically spooned around her. "Who are you and why are you here? And why does a little bitty woman like you have no fear taking on a huge man like Hawk?" "I came here," she started, but choked. "I was just going to stay a few days," she tried to make up a story, one which incorporated elements of the truth but one that wasn't too damning. It couldn't be done. "It is true," she said lamely. "I can defend myself." Jason softly chuckled, "That might be the understatement of the century. So why are you here in my little town right about a week after Hawk shows up? I heard that he's in a lot of hot water because he misbehaved at the cafÊ. How about you? Did you get in any trouble with anyone for raising hell yesterday?" Blanche's heart sank. He knew something, but how much, she wasn't sure. "I don't have my phone, Jason. I left everything behind last night."

"Everything?" he asked, his words tickled as he whispered against her face. "I can't go back to where I came from," she started to say. "We probably should get back to your friends. Help me up with my bike. If it needs work-" "We'll take care of it. We'll see what to do about the rest of your life after we check in with Denise Cranston." Blanche and Jason untangled her bike from the fine lace of the branches. It wouldn't start. Jason looked it over, but couldn't figure out what the problem might be. "I barely pushed it," Blanche said. "It doesn't make sense." "My mechanic will know. He’s over at The Motorcycle Place," he said. And the bike was left out back of Jason's as everyone took off. Norte Mexicali's Hawk and his buddies were temporarily in the Gold Creek jail and the boarding house fix-it guy was already working on the repairs to the place. Hawk mercifully left Denise Cranston unscathed, but she was shaken and she was clear that Blanche was no longer welcomed to stay. The rent she paid would go to the damage. Blanche wanted to protest, but she decided against it. "I'll just get my things, then," Blanche said. "Well you had so few things to begin with, so your friend, Hawk, gathered them up and took them." Blanche felt the blood drain from her face. "But my wallet, my cash. My ID. You let him-� she bit her tongue. "I'm stuck. No place to live and no money." Jason placed a hand on her shoulder. "Once again, we will handle it. Maybe the sheriff has your stuff down at the station. Let's not get upset before we have to." "It's a beautiful day," Denise said to Jason. "I'm setting out food. A picnic. There's plenty for everyone. A bunch of us are going to go swimming." "I'm bringing Blanche. I understand your feelings," he said with a charming, sympathetic smile, "but she has no place to go." Denise Cranston rolled her eyes. Blanche had had it with her brief landlady's attitude. "What is your problem?" she demanded. "I am sorry if my defending myself caused trouble for you. I didn't invite that man to come your house." "I have a feeling you invite trouble wherever you go," Mrs. Cranston countered.

Blanche took a menacing step forward and was about to curse her when Jason intervened. He wrapped his big and powerful arms around her, which spurred her on to kick and yell. "Let me at her!" she hollered. Jason pressed his face to her hair after pinning her close to him, rendering her unable to move. "Behave or I swear, I will spank you." Blanche relaxed, having little doubt he wouldn't. He directed one of his guys to go check in at the sheriff. The Seven Devils couple helped Denise Cranston with the picnic and Jason took Blanche by the hand. "You are trying to convince me you wouldn't be upset if you were stranded in a strange place all alone?" Blanche asked. He stopped and regarded her. "Really? Does it really feel like you are without friends right now?" She didn't know what to feel. He was her only lifeline at the moment to food, water, shelter and safety. And hot, hot, hot sex if she could work it. She could not help but gawk as he walked ahead of her, his muscles ripped beneath his tank top, the curl of his hair at the nape of his neck. He was a magnificent man. She liked everything about him. The things she hated about him - the rules, the concern and sticking his nose into other people's business, she just about adored it now. "I'm sorry, but I asked you a question. If you weren't so damn cute-" Jason stopped short. Blanche felt it too. Overcome by the power of their own chemistry. She had never experienced anything remotely like it. She had liked a man pretty quickly before, but not like this. Not so fast. Well, not ever. He didn't give her a hint as to where they were going. He walked her over to a sweet little consignment shop. He was going to take her shopping. The storeowner was friendly. It seemed everyone in Gold Creek knew everyone by first name. Why not? They were sitting on their retirement in gold and they were all sharing. "I have a few dresses that would be perfect for her. They are small sized and perfect for her." The shop keep pulled romantic, simple dresses out that were perfect for the summery California weather. He bought her a bathing suit. They were set for the picnic. Next, he took her a few doors down and got a watermelon for the party and a couple of glasses of iced tea to go. Jason and Blanche headed down to the water where picnic tables, a couple of grills, and blankets were spread on the banks of Gold Creek Bay, whose water was unbelievably cool and inviting. A couple of the Seven Devils bikers were setting up a band. This town did just about everything together. For a moment, Blanche had to admit she wanted to belong. Sooner or later, though, the truth would be out that she had come to Gold Creek to kill him. She hated her choices so bad at the

moment. She wondered if there was a way out. The music sounded pretty good. Blanche was something of a singer and she was tempted to ask to join in. If things were different... Jason set the watermelon on the picnic table with the instructions that it was a community watermelon. She took a seat and watched him slice it. She found it hot that he knew what to do and played with the idea he was probably a great cook. She already knew he was a great caretaker. He picked up a chunk and rimmed her lips with it. She seized with arousal. It was involuntary. She could not help but react so strongly to him. He leaned down and whispered, "I want to eat this off of every part of your body." He fed her and moaned. He teased her with the sugary fruit. "I'll bet you are the only thing that could make this taste sweeter." After fawning over each other, he said, "Come. Let's go for a swim." Jason and Blanche went hand in hand for a walk around the area. It was a magnificent place, Gold Creek. She was heavy with regret that it couldn't be her home. It was all she could think about. That and the fact that Jason Fowler could not be her man. Or couldn't he? The breeze was light and the water glittered. It made a lapping sound as tiny waves broke against the shore. Jason blocked the view of Blanche from the picnic. He gently reached around and unzipped her new dress. Beneath the dress was her new bathing suit. Blanche was a petite yet voluptuous woman. The simple swimwear was extraordinarily flattering. She knew it was judging from the look on his face. Jason was a little paralyzed, overwhelmed by her appearance. She could not help herself. She stood on tiptoes and kissed him. Slowly. "I want to make love to you," she said to him. "Let's go into the water. Take me."

CHAPTER NINE Jason's eyes were wolfish. In an almost trancelike state, he slowly stepped towards the Bay. He stripped down to a pair of shorts and then waded into azure green pool. He turned and floated on his back, eyeing her. The chill of the water as she tried to find the courage to dunk under once and for all had her nipples hardened to a rigid point. He reached up and tweezed on while an unmistakable look on his face signaled his intent. His hand dropped and found the space between her legs. He wantonly explored while they remained locked, gazing into each other's eyes. They were some distance from the picnickers who did not seem to have the same interest that they did of being in the water. As she had her back to them and faced Jason, she slipped the triangle fabric of each side of her bathing suit top and exposed her brown, glistening breasts to him. It was so bold and erotic to be basically naked for his eyes only out in the broad daylight. Jason stood, making a great rushing sound in the water. He cupped her breast before embracing her fully. They swam a few feet, stopped to kiss, and swam until finally they waded back to shore about half of a mile from the picnickers, around the bend of a grassy mountain side that rose right out of the pool of water. In their total privacy, Jason pressed Blanche's body to the wall of earth and got inside of her. The gentle breeze brushing their wet bodies was cooling, almost chilled in comparison to the heat of searing hot flesh that pumped into her. Jason was huddled into her, the both of them bracing against the mountain to maintain their footing and stay entangled standing up. Blanche was scrunched, half squatting and, from that position, was able to reach between them to toy with his testicles. The jolt of surprise to him was his undoing. His eyes rolled back from the wonderful sensation she knew she was giving him and his eyelids fluttered. His rhythm quickened and became empowered. Blanche spiced it up by telling him very graphically how much she liked what he was doing. "I love the way you drive into me," she whispered. "I'm so, so wet for you." She clamped her mouth like a vampiress, tantalizing the sensitive curve at the base of his neck, as he had done for her, to drive him crazy. He made a noise like weeping. Blanche showed him mercy and thrust her hips to agitate him completely to his climax. He peaked and slumped in sated contentment. "My goodness," he uttered finally. "Your turn." Blanche perched up on the rock ledge and wantonly pulled her knees back. The position tightened her body, antagonizing every cell of her enervated flesh. The sun's heat on that part of the body that never so boldly saw out doors was nothing short of wicked. She had never been one for public displays of affection, but they were secluded yet exposed, and an opportunity like this might never come again.

She wanted to come for her beautiful man. Blanche touched herself. Her flesh was slicked with both arousal and perspiration. She was alive with the pleasure he had given her. She lay back, fully displayed and put on a show for him. With her legs parted, her went down on her. Jason's tongue darted in and out, lapping and teasing as she worked herself. The gentle breeze coming off the water was incredibly sensual. It caressed her whole body as her ecstasy built. Blanche came against Jason's mouth. He hummed, making a vibrator with his mouth so that her pleasure would be heightened. He was so, so masterful. Mentally and physically, she had never been so satisfied. She murmured. "Let's go join the others. I'm starved." She was hungry despite the charming breakfast he had prepared for her. They made their way to shore and walked the little way towards the Seven Devils and a few other citizens of Gold Creek. It had turned into an impromptu festival. The simple band had turned into a little orchestra. Someone brought a guitar, which then turned into an amp and a microphone, to another electric guitar and a bass. The cafĂŠ had sent over a tub of ice stocked with beer. Blanche rarely indulged and especially not while on the job. She desperately wanted to be off the job. She cracked a beer and sipped. As warm and friendly as it all seemed, Blanche knew it was not going to be all smooth sailing. It was apparent that some of the people didn't welcome her. There was an unmistakable chill that traveled through as Jason and Blanche appeared from the beach and rejoined the party. Rick and Dana, the deputy and sheriff were there. Mrs. Cranston was there. And the reception was stiff.

CHAPTER TEN "Hey there," said Dana The Sheriff. "You are Blanche Herrera, correct?" he asked. “I believe these are yours.� He handed her her bags and inside was her wallet, no cash missing, bank card and her ID. Blanche was relieved. "I am," she answered tentatively. A calm came over her like she knew she was at the end of the little true warmth and pleasure she had known. "How about you and I take a walk," he said. "It will be a different one than the one you just took," Denise Cranston snorted. "Hey," said Jason. "That was uncalled for." "She's one of them. You are the president of the Seven Devils. You cannot betray your club for a little piece of ass. She has been counting on you, letting your little head do the thinking." "Wow," Jason protested. "Maybe we should turn this into a lunch meeting. I call to order an emergency meeting of the Gold Creek Chapter of the Seven Devils. Second?" An aye could be heard. "Does anyone else doubt my judgment?" he asked. "Not at all, cap'n," said one man. "But we are thinking that a plan of action against El Salvador should be discussed seriously. Not just bar room talk. I want to start running these dirt bags out of town." That remark drew cheers and the entire party raised a glass. Then all eyes fell on Blanche. "Mrs. Cranston has already asked me to go," said Blanche. "Oh, boo hoo," said Denise Cranston. Blanche charged, but Jason blocked her. He cocked his brow playfully, "I warned you." "Warn her," said Blanche. "I don't want to warn her," he grinned. "Oh, will you two get a room," Denise Cranston scoffed. "We can't. You kicked me out," Blanche remarked and much to Mrs. Cranston's chagrin, the party erupted in laughter. Besides meeting and being with Jason, it was the first positive moment she experienced since arriving. The biker raised the issue again, "What do we do about El Salvador?"

Jason looked Dana in the eye. He said nothing. "Shoot him." Blanche's blood ran cold. That was her. He was talking about her. She had little to say. Dana pressed her again. "I don't want to ruin your gathering by having you interrogating me in front of the world," said Blanche. "If you have any questions for me, I'll answer them." "I'm coming with you," Jason insisted. Blanche touched him lightly. "Stay here." "No," he argued. He was so tall and powerful, and a dominating pain – all the things she thought she would hate about him were quite the opposite. She turned to Dana, trying to hide the tears that suddenly wanted to burst forth. "Tell him he can't come." Dana hemmed. He was clearly uncomfortable about standing up to Jason, but he did. "This is going to be just us two for now." The apprehension Blanche felt only confirmed her decision that she was through with the Cartel. "It was a wise decision to say what I am going to say in private," said Dana. "The Norte Mexicali gangsters we have in custody are making the wild claim you know El Salvador." Blanche knew it was only a matter of time before her identity unraveled. She tried to dodge the accusation. "Well I am glad you didn't say that in front of everyone. I would have been drawn and quartered." "Not if Jason Fowler could help it," Dana's eyes narrowed. "That sounds like an accusation," Blanche chuckled trying not to sound nervous. "You are charming. I'll give you that, but, still, if I lay out the facts as I see them, they back the Norte Mexicali's freaky allegation. That might explain why you got all your valuables back and then some.” “What do you mean?” she asked with confusion. "And then some?" “Did you happen to count your cash?” he asked incredulously. “No, it looks like it’s all there,” she replied.

“Well it would be the first time cash came into the jail at one amount and then multiplied by ten on the way out. You started out with four hundred in cash. I know. I counted it myself. If you look again, those are thousand dollar bills in there.” Blanche had no answer. “So as far as we can figure, the only 'mujer' that could do damage the way you did with little more than her bare hands has to be connected with El Salvador. And we here in town are on the lookout for this El Salvador character, because he is rumored to come here to do some damage." “My last name is Herrera. I am not going to deny I have heard the urban legends about El Salvador. He rides a ghost motorcycle. He stands seven feet tall. He gives money to little children like a Mexican Robin Hood. The legend is you will know El Salvador by the scream, but I have heard of this character. He is said to split the air with a blood curdling sound-effect that makes his opponents freeze with fright." It was difficult answering questions about herself in such a ridiculous way. She knitted her brow to look confused. She licked her lips to give them gloss and began to twirl her hair. It was obvious to anyone that she was all woman, but she was practiced at looking coy and innocent. It had worked with Jason; it would work with this guy. "Back to the subject, how is it a tiny woman like you outwit a huge guy like that not once, but twice?" "I make it no secret I can defend myself. You are in law enforcement. Surely you know you can make a weapon from anything in reach." Blanche tried her tactic of changing the subject somewhat. "I see. Are you in law enforcement?" he asked sternly. "No, but I am a petite woman who took advice about learning to defend myself. I have taken some training." "Well, I'd like to shake the hand of your instructor, because Hawk Melendez is not only a hundred pounds bigger than you, he is psycho. It took Rick, me, and two other men to get him in that cell. But you-" he scratched his head. "The problem is that he will make bail, because, whether we know you're a Norte Mexicali or not, we know he is. He has unlimited access to resources. Hell, he is probably out as we speak. He will come gunning for you. He has as much as said that." Although he was on to her, his point made her mad. "I didn't know him, Sheriff. I just knew he threatened to rape me and I didn't see anyone stepping up. You tell me how brave you would get." She was mad, but she deliberately used it to throw him off. "Not a single guy was intervening. I don't even know why I'm with-" She tried to storm off but the sheriff grabbed her. "See that concerns me, too. You and Jason struck up a friendship awful fast. Didn't he ‘rescue’ you on the collapsed bridge by his place? You didn't know where he lived?" his question delivered on steely tones.

"No, I didn't, but this is a real small town I'm finding, so anywhere I landed here, I would have been near his house." He didn't accept that. "And so why did you come to Gold Creek? ‘Cause I have to tell you, the only new folk we have had lately have been Norte Mexicali. Are you saying that you’re an exception?" "I see, because I'm Hispanic and my name is Herrera." The sheriff was dead on about his insinuations but she didn’t like them. “Surely you have other people here in Gold Creek with native heritage…Or did you push them out as well?” “Little lady, I don’t like what you’re getting at. If you want to come straight out and say I am off base and you have no Norte Mexicali connections, I will drop it, but so far, you have thrown everything at me but the truth. Now why is that?” “Whatever connections I had before I arrived here,” Blanche answered truthfully, “I left behind. If there is something I can do for you and the kind people of Gold Creek, I am at your service. I didn’t realize it until I got here, Sheriff, but I came looking for a place to call home.” Dana studied her for some time. “Okay. If you mean that. And you can make any choices you want and that includes to tell the truth or not tell the truth, but remember all of those choices, good and bad, have consequences. We may seem like we are a bunch of knuckleheads that are at the mercy of a ruthless gang of cutthroat drug dealers, but we’re not. And just because I am talking to you nice and civil like, I’ll kick your ass same as I would a man if I thought you crossed me. I can speak for Jason, too, when I say that.” Blanche deadened with anger. “Got the message, Officer. I am going to leave now, unless there was some specific charge you wanted to hold me with?” Dana just stared at her. “Well then, what I am going to do, just so you are in the know, is I am going find out the status of my bike and then I’ll collect my things and move on to the next town. If my bike is ready, can you give me a lift over there? I would rather Jason was not the one to do it.” He agreed. In fact, he called over to The Motorcycle Place where anyone in town, certainly the Seven Devils, had their bikes fixed and, sure enough, her bike was up and running. Since it was a minor repair, there wasn’t a charge. “Let’s go,” she said. The sheriff looked a little ashamed, like he had pushed her into making this choice. “You aren’t going to say goodbye to him?” Blanche Herrera shoved her two fingers into his surprisingly hard chest and backed him up a step. “You just gave me the ‘watch it, lady’ speech followed up with the ‘we don’t like your kind here’ talk. I know that’s your pal over there. You know and I know that he’ll get over it if I up and leave and you made it clear that you and the whole town has my vote if I go, so why don’t you stop putting any lack

of consideration in this situation on me. I am doing what you asked. If anyone isn’t thinking of Jason’s feelings here, maybe it is his concerned friend. Now, if you don’t mind, I have to go pick up my bike.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN Unfortunately, the only way to the shop was through town on Main Street, so with Blanche riding in the cop car, even if it was in the front seat, it looked funny. Sure enough, everyone at the picnic was watching, including Jason, who ran a few steps trying to stop them. The sheriff’s cellphone started ringing immediately after. It was Jason. She could hear his voice, he was animated, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. She could only figure out his questions by Dana’s responses. “She wants it this way. I am just doing what the lady asks,” he said. “Liar,” she whispered. She didn't just not trust Dana because he lied now to Jason. She also didn’t trust him because there was something else… like he didn't like women. And then she heard clearly Jason say, “I think I love her, man. Don’t let her go.” Then he asked another question that Blanche guessed was “where are you taking her?” “We’re going over to the jail for a minute,” Dana lied. Blanche gave him the OK sign to let him know that was a good move. Now she could go pick up her bike and make a clean cut without having to face him. Only Jason was as smart as the two of them combined and he figured it was a lie. For as soon as they had gotten to pick up the bike and the guy gave her the keys, the sound of Jason’s Harley filled the air. Blanche would never forget the image of him framed by the garage door opening, his longish hair glinting in the sunlight, whipping in the wind, his bare, brown arms so powerful and ripped as he commanded the bike. He rode into the shop like he owned the place, like he owned the universe. It was checkmate for her. She could not navigate either side of him. He would thwart her passage somehow. Plus, she just didn’t have the heart. Her feelings, although fast, were strong. She just didn’t come across men like him often in her lifetime and she wasn’t so sure she wanted to take a chance on having to find another. He was so hot. So beautiful. He peeled of his chromed glasses. “Why?” he asked simply. Blanche took a deep breath. “I’ve caused too much trouble already. I understand Hawk is going to pay me back for my ill treatment of him. I have to go. I can get myself out of trouble and distract it away from you." Jason chuckled, “Well that might be the first straight answer you’ve given me since you got here. How have you caused trouble?” “I pissed off the Norte Mexicali, for one. I pissed off Hawk and he was the reason Mrs. Cranston had to fix her house.” “She’ll be fine,” he said dismissively.

Blanche leaned into him. “Have you forgotten she asked me to leave? Were you there when she called me a whore?" As she leaned over, her neckline dropped. He stared down at what lie beneath and returned her gaze with a smoky, hungry look. “Then you’ll stay with me,” he replied. “No. I have decided to move on. If after whatever you’re dealing with here in town blows over and you’re still interested in me, I’ll be in touch.” Jason smiled. “That makes no sense. I would have to be in touch with you…“ he stopped. He got it. She had intentionally said it backwards. “Tell me,” he asked sarcastically, “are you the type who asked for two tens for a five?” Blanche wondered if she ever had, but that was her tactic. She didn’t answer him. “I still have your gun,” he said. That got Dana’s attention. “Gun?” Blanche rolled her eyes. If he asked for a permit, she was cooked. That gun was not registered. “Did you bring a firearm into Gold Creek?” Jason smiled, “Why yes she did. Are you going to lock her up?” “You didn’t see that sign as you were coming in? You have to check your weapons with my office.” “Oh, come on. You know what’s been going on since I got here,” she protested. Dana broke out his handcuffs. “Sorry, rules are rules. You do have a license to carry, don’t you? I will have to see that, too.” Jason interjected. “May I please?” He didn’t wait for an answer and took over the task of restraining Blanche. Dana was kind enough to go into the garage office. They were alone. Jason got up behind her. She could smell his sweet scent, feel the heat from his body, the electricity of his touch. He was slow and seductive as he closed the metal on her wrists. “You are enjoying this aren’t you?” she asked. “Aren’t you?” he snickered. He body covertly grazed hers. “I can’t stay,” she answered. “You are going to, Ms. Herrera,” he replied “and in jail where I know you are safe and sound. It is for your own good. Where I can keep an eye on you." "Jason, what if Hawk is El Salvador? How safe are you going to be with me in your house? No." “They just released Hawk and his associates. Do you really think I am going to let you go knowing

those animals are out there with an axe to grind with you?” “Well, I guess I would rather be in jail than at your house,” she said. “At least I know I won’t be bringing danger to your house.” "Ooh, a costume," he teased. She glared. “We are going to take care of these pains in the ass, so Gold Creek’s citizens can back to their peaceful little ways and that goes for its newest citizen, too.” He lightly rimmed her ear with his hot, wet tongue. He held her wrists tight, so she had to stand there and take the pleasure that he gave her. Immediately she ached to be filled by him. She wanted – no, needed – about a week alone in a honeymoon suite somewhere to get the craziness that he filled her with out of her system. Jason was just about to get completely carried away with taking sweet advantage of her in her helpless state when Dana’s radio started making noise. A lot of noise. There was a shootout on Main Street involving a couple of Norte Mexicali members. Dana and the other Seven Devil, the mechanic, came flying out of the office and they grabbed Jason. The two of them jumped in the car and tore out of the garage, leaving Blanche cuffed and bewildered. But just for a second. She carefully lowered the cuffs behind her back and stepped through them so they were now in front of her. She pulled from her pocket something she carried with her always: a universal handcuff key. Blanche quickly scanned the garage for projectile and sauntered over to the pegboard to load up with arsenal. It was an oversight on her part. She slid in a clear slick of lubricant and her entire body jerked. She felt something rip, a muscle maybe, but she had to ignore it. It was a freak injury that would probably hurt really badly in the morning. She took a deep breath and continued to arm herself. She didn’t need her gun, but it would be really nice to have it at a time like this. She was an expert knife thrower. Metal rasps made wonderful makeshift ninja stars. Blanche rode and as she came up on the scene, she saw that, to her horror, it was more than just a few Norte Mexicali against the Seven Devils and the town of Gold Coast. She had her work cut out. It was time to give up her identity. For a fleeting second, she hesitated, knowing her next move would ostracize her from Jason for good. She pulled the bauble that dangled from her necklace and released a screech that relaxed the standoff. It was the screech that she had just described to Dana. The Norte Mexicali among the crowd knew it to be exactly what it was: a signal that El Salvador had arrived. The Seven Devils and Gold Creek citizens were bewildered. Especially Jason. In her own shadows, as the sun beat down on her, she could see her wild hair playing in the breeze, the lines of her voluptuous body that were not protected in her usual armor of jeans and leather. She must have looked a little ridiculous, not quite formidable, but she was armed so no matter, she would have the last laugh.

And the last tear. She would take the wounded look on Jason’s face as he put two and two together. The Norte Mexicali thought she was there to bolster their forces and the town feared the same. Hawk raised his hand to do damage to his foe and with the flick of her wrist, she literally disarmed him. She punctured the suicide side of his wrist with a shop tool, missing the bridge of Hawk’s opponent’s nose by a hair. He dropped to avoid the blood spurting from the wounded man’s body. She hit an artery. His comrades rushed to keep the pressure on to keep him from bleeding out as the huge man sank to the ground. Blanche spoke proudly. “Sheriff, deputies, make all the arrests that you need to and those who are graciously allowed to leave, leave. And don’t come back.” As quickly as it began, the threat was over. The bullying Norte Mexicali were subdued. Blanche could feel Jason’s eyes bore down on her. She waited as he made his way towards her. If his look could slap her, it would. He was so angry with her. “Well Ms. Herrera, or El Salvador, I see you had no problem with the handcuffs. Years of practice, in and out of bed?” he said to punish her. “I would thank you, but then I don’t usually give thanks to the person who has come to town to carry out a hit on me. Tell me, do you fuck all the people you intend to kill or did I somehow rate?" “Obviously–” she started to say that she wasn’t going to carry that out. “Obviously?” he cut her off with demand. “Obviously? There is nothing obvious about you except that, from the start, you have been a goddamned liar. I guess I finally got my answer as to how you knew my name. I’d ask you how much you agreed to kill someone like me for. Do you know that Mrs. Cranston’s husband died on the front lawn of the boarding house, before it was a boarding house, and she wouldn’t eat for a week? Her husband was best friends with my older brother and, because of the connection, she let me feed her. She let us split up her house and bring it up to code so she could rent it out to the likes of you. She didn’t like you from before you got here.” Blanche butted in, “That’s because she is a bigot. She hated me from the start for no reason." "Well we know she has reason now," he scoffed. "Maybe she is sensitive. Am I a bigot? I guess I am little prejudiced towards total honesty,” he continued in his sarcastic line. “But you fucked me anyway,” she said bitingly. "Multiple times." Jason slapped her and recoiled in horror. Tears streamed down her face. Jason stepped away and Blanche drove slowly away.

She only got so far when Dana called out to her. “I want your ass in my jail or I will hunt you down!� he shouted.

CHAPTER TWELVE Blanche was whipped. Beaten. She had no fight left in her. This was not any scenario she would have figured for herself when she decided to take the shortcut across the bridge what seemed now a million years ago. She could very easily ride out of town. She had no problem traveling off rode or on. Her versatility and her usual cold lack of feeling made her a formidable foe. She had forgotten to leave her heart behind. As she rode towards the jail, Jason and Dana were behind her. They were tailing her. Dana was in the police car with two hulking Norte Mexicali. Hawk rode off in an ambulance. Blanche waited in the very small lobby of the sheriff’s department for the men to file in. Jason assumed Dana’s duties and frisked her. “Hold your arms out,” he ordered abruptly. She lifted, slowly. She was in a good deal of pain. He mistook her slowness for resistance and he lost his temper. He grabbed her and shook her. Blanche cried out and her voice filled the room. “What happened? Did you get poked by one of your weapons?” Jason asked glibly. He would never believe a single thing about her again except that he could never trust her. “I ought to bust her on burglary charges,” said Dana. “In fact, I will.” Blanche couldn’t react to their threats and teasing; her body was throbbing. She had most definitely torn something. A fine perspiration wet her forehead. Jason was way gentler when he investigated her. “What is it? Although I am not sure why I am asking you since you don’t tell the truth.” “I am sore. I pulled something," she complained. "Yeah, like my leg," he snapped. Blanche was in no mood whether she deserved it or not. "If you’re going to arrest me,” she rasped, “please do it. I need to lie down. Please.” She could hardly speak but added, “If I can, I need to have an ibuprofen.” “Wait,” he said. She stood while he felt her pockets very thoroughly. At first, he frisked her. Then his exploration became more intimate. His fingers grazed the soft, sensitive flesh of her abdomen as pulled potential projectile from her. He reached into her shorts and groped her for more, even though she thought that was a bit overkill. He pulled her neckline away from her body and put his hand under her bra to check out every potential hiding place. She was so mixed up, tired, and overloaded; she didn’t know whether she should acknowledge, even to herself, that she liked his touching her. She wanted to collapse into his arms and make the rest of the world go away. He gave her one more inspection before being satisfied that she was not armed. “Just lock her up. I can’t get to her right now. I have to secure the hospital. Word gets back to that filthy, hounding drug cartel that we have injured one of theirs–" Dana said gruffly.

“Wait,” pleaded Blanche. “If you leave me here, I am a sitting duck. I need to at least be able to talk to my employer. I am the only one who can keep them from raining down on you.” Then she swallowed hard to admit, "And in my heart I am not longer one of them." "What heart!" Jason exclaimed. Her head spun and she wasn’t even sure if she was even making sense. She thought she was going to make another point but, instead, she passed out in Jason’s arms.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN Blanche came to and she was sure she was in a dream. She was naked beneath cool, luxurious sheets. A beautiful plantation fan circled above. Unless she was suffering from delusion, she was not in any jail cell. She propped herself up on her elbows and immediately regretted it. She wrenched with pain. Of all the physical activities that she had endured, it figured that a simple walk across a garage would incapacitate her. This was major pain, a serious injury. It felt like her rotator cuff. She took a deep breath and saw that Jason Fowler was in a plush chair, watching her. “How did I get here?” she asked. She had absolutely no idea. “It seems you were dehydrated. You were feverish there for a while. We thought you would be safer here,” he answered. “Who thought I would be safer completely naked?” she could not help tease. She could feel, in the near darkness, across the room from him, that that was not the right thing to do. He was pissed. “Your guys threatened our town. We thought, because my house is built out of the mountain, this would be the safest place–” “Because you would have less to defend,” she finished for him. She threw the sheet back and got out of bed. “Where is my gun?” The sight of her nude body in the moonlight threw him, she could see. She had forgotten herself for a moment. She went into all business mode, “I am not trying to be cute. I got you guys into this mess. I will help get you out. If I can’t have my gun, at least let me get dressed.” “Get back in bed,” he growled. “You are going to get well and then you are leaving.” "You're exhausted. You can't stand guard of me for the rest of my life." It hurt to hear him so angry with her. Finally she said, “Understood. But I am not going to stand by and let stuff happen when I know I can make it better.” He got out of his chair in a flash and stood toe to toe with her naked body. His breathing was labored and she knew he could go either way. Punish her or make love to her. “You’ll do what I say, when I say it as long as you are in my house, in my town. They are after our gold and you were here when we were discussing that, so you know now they don't want to deal drugs to us. "They came in here to do business with an ex-town member who ran off at the mouth. They tried to lure a few of us with drugs. I guess that didn't work, so they sent you and tried to weaken us with pussy." Blanche flinched. She loved it when he talked dirty to her, but not like that. It was cold referring to their magnificent chemistry that way. "So," he continued, "I would rather you did not communicate with your boss. I am your boss from now on, got that?”

“Yes,” she replied and then added, to be fresh, “sir. Whatever you say, sir.” She riled him. “I ought to beat you,” he hissed. "Have you been listening?" “Loud and clear and you already slapped me. Why don’t you get off your high horse and admit we are all imperfect. I am trying to right a wrong,” she refused to cry. She wanted to. She wanted to get drunk and reckless and spend a week in bed with him. “Coming into town to murder someone is not a mistake. Adding two and two together and getting five is a mistake," he said coldly. “But not adding one and one to get an even better one,” she said to melt his heart. “I came into town to do something I didn’t think I would care if I did it. But then I met you and not only did I find out I was wrong, I found out I wanted out for good.” “Spare me,” he snapped. “How many people have you killed?” “El Salvador is just one name to apply to anyone who works for Norte Mexicali. Sometimes we are women; sometimes we are men. We mix it up so no one can figure who is the El Salvador. I, personally, have never killed anyone.” “But you were willing to,” he scoffed. She shook her head. "I had no idea. Their pressure turned me around. You don't say no to the Norte Mexicali drug cartel. And they made sure. The price was right. At first. But then I met you –” she started. Once she began pouring her heart out, she knew she wasn’t going to be able to stop. “Give me a break and, please, shut your mouth,” he said. She could tell from the slight falter in his voice, he wasn’t so sure of himself. “It seems so easy for you to treat me like shit, Mr. Fowler. There are Norte Mexicalis who wouldn’t even treat me the way you have treated me. There are some who would never strike a woman.” “Whatever. So I am worse than the people you work for, is that what you are trying to tell me?” “No, I think you are finer than that,” she cried. “I –“ “Shut,” he said emphatically. “Up. Or I will shut you up. Now back to bed.” “No,” said Blanche. “No. I want my clothes and I want to stay up and wait.” Jason overruled her. He swept her naked body up with the intention of tossing her onto the plush mattress. She wailed with everything she had. It had to be a rotator cuff. Her entire back was twisting, it seemed, and the pain was excruciating.

Reflexively, he crawled up over her, straddling her hips as she writhed on the bed. “Baby,” he said before he could think, “I am so sorry, let me see.” They both stopped in their tracks and stared. So much for hating her. He was on top of her, his hips placed with hers. She was sprawled naked in the light of the night’s sky and atop a bed. Jason leaned down and kissed her lips so tenderly. It was the moment she had yearned for since forever. She kissed him back, reaching gently up to run her fingers through his beautiful hair, to run her fingers down his magnificent physique. She managed to roll over on to her belly as he kissed her all over the sensitive surface of her back. He was kissing to make her feel better. On her stomach, the injured muscle didn’t seem to be agitated. She jutted out her butt, offering herself to him. He leaned to kiss her curves there, as well. He stalked over her as she writhed, this time, in pleasure for him. He licked her ear before whispering, “Damn you.” From that moment, it was a frenzy. His hands took hold of her, finding the hot, wet entrance of her body. Touching, exploring, possessing. He unfastened his clothes. She felt the graze of the soft skin encasing a hard-as-oak erection. And it was for her. Soon, they would be joined. Her mind raced with anticipation. “Please,” she heard herself begging. “Please.” Soon enough, he was buried inside of her, as deeply as he could go. She released a heavy sigh as she finally got what she wanted…what she needed. Jason felt different at this joining. He was definitely less sweet and more animal. He wasn’t rough, but more commanding, manipulating her body to his whim. He hiked her knees up towards her to push her butt upward. He pumped her steadily, working her body up into an erotic lather. She was slick. He took her moisture and lubricated yet another opening. Blanche knew what he was going to do. “I need your ass,” he whispered. He gently situated her to her side so they were spooning and he entered her again. To feel him there was beyond exquisite. It brought their passion to an instant culmination. There was something intensely powerful about finding pleasure while being taken this way. For her, it was a rare but exquisite experience. Jason was the perfect partner for it. He was so wickedly well endowed; their chemistry was hypnotic and his technique, so masterful. In a few thrusts, she was clenching hard. The passion was so intoxicating that she was in and out of consciousness. It was like sex with him was a drug. Surreal.

He was right behind her in his pleasure, crying out with the same sweet agony that she had known before. Quickly, Blanche dashed for the bathroom to wash up. Her body was sore and she boldly helped herself to a hot shower. Jason silently joined her. Despite their awful history, they were so amazing together. They spoke each other’s language, countered each other’s rhythm, and had the same, lustful appetite. They washed completely in the soothing hot water, but it was only a matter of moments before they were kissing again. Their passion was almost like an illness that was sated, but only briefly. The heat from the water warmed his body nicely. Blanche grabbed a towel resting on a hook and threw it to the shower floor, so she could comfortably rest her knees. She needed to take him into her mouth. He was hard for her as her movement signaled her intent. The taste of him was wondrous in the rushing water of the shower. She ran her hands over the planes of his spectacular muscles, his firm ass. He was just a beautiful man. She let her hands travel from the sumptuous curves of his backside down to the soft and tender structures nestled beneath. He moaned. He liked being touched there. She dared to drag her tongue along them and up the length of his shaft. “Oh God,” he cried out. He was going to come. Blanche thrust him into her mouth, guiding him to the soft, warm flesh of her cheek as she drew against his length. He pounded steadily as she agitated him. And soon she could taste the salty, hot liquid of his semen. Blanche flicked her tongue about his head mercilessly while kneading his testicles. He was in heaven. She stood, covertly rinsing her mouth with the still hot shower water. They dried off. He offered her a towel. The warm water coupled with the sexual adrenaline seemed to alleviate her soreness for the time being. Blanche was certain she could sleep. Blanche and Jason had only known each other for a short while, but each knew of the other long before they met. In the wee hours of the morning, just before the dawn, Blanche reflected that she loved him. He made her body tremble and her heart warm. She loved him more than money and security. By openly betraying the Norte Mexicali, she had risked her life for him, for the town she wanted to be a part of, but would never be.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN Blanche lied in the shadows reliving every searing moment of blistering sex with him. From the moment she laid eyes on him and it was the two of them in the middle of nowhere in the rustic gully just beyond his home, her mercenary heart wanted to own him. She fantasized, played out the scenario of how that would go. It was a way in which she could make the connection between them give it more history. She played the scenario out so many different ways. She rewound time, to that moment when she came to the broken down bridge, the sun baking her golden, brown sugar skin. She imagined she begins to cross when Jason pulls up on his bike, his wild, wonderfully unruly hair romantically framing his gorgeous face. A T nicely showcases his powerful build with the sleeves cut off. The whole scene progressed as if in slow motion. He crooks his finger. She thinks, who me? He tilts his head like come on, who else is here? Somehow the sweat-bedraggled clothing she sported at the real first meeting has been replaced by ultra-cute apparel. She has on a shell pink eyelet lace top and a smoking, little faded denim skirt and espadrille stacks that make her legs look like she just walked out of the gym. In this scenario, her skin is shimmering with honey dust, whose light scent wafts about her. As she approaches him, this half stranger/half soul mate, he catches a whiff of this delectable scent. He pulls her close and buries his nose in the crook of her neck. Their embrace revs up the magnetic forces that pull them in so tightly whenever they are near. Being this close, seeing him, touching him, Blanche’s old brain kicks in and everything inside of her screams she needs to mate with this man. If she does not have him, she will die of a kind of starvation. He knows what she needs. There is no one around, he assures her and, besides, she has placed herself in danger by foolishly crossing the bridge, which is clearly closed for use. He gently guides her to safety. She mounts his bike with him and they ride to a secluded section of the Bay. There is excitement and fear in allowing him to take her to a place where it is just the two of them. The risk rushes her body with adrenaline and she is completely enervated, fully aroused. As soon as they come to a surface that is suitable, he takes her into his arms and lays her back. It is a flat, rocky surface, soothingly warmed by the clear Californian sun. The sun hits all points of her body and she is warmed from the back and from the front, making her feel positively wanton. The second the soft skin of his hot rigid erection comes into contact with her wet and hungry flesh, Blanche feels her body begin to tremor. She is going to orgasm that quickly. He penetrates her and immediately she is helplessly writhing around his hardness. She whimpers and writhes, so pleasuresensitive that every stroke is sweet torture, a torture that he makes her take. He lasts such a long time. One orgasm ebbs; she waits a few seconds. She reaches between her legs and greedily brings it back to life. She comes again on him and this time he joins her, crashing into a pool of pure erotic bliss. Blanche must have fallen asleep and her daydreams morphed into actual dreams. Jason was over her

trying to wake her. “Are you okay?” he asked. “Is it your back?” It took her a moment that she had climaxed in her sleep and she must have cried out. She smiled, her body still awash with pleasure. “Yes,” she answered softly. “I think I am fine.”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN It seemed that Jason had the same idea she had whenever the two of them had opportunity. She felt his erection against her thigh and parted her legs for him. She was aching and in need and so readied for him. He got inside of her and her body was still sparkling from coming. She savored every wonderful stroke of his generous length. She began telling him about her dream and that they had been outside in a nook of Gold Creek Bay, fucking and he made her come. “Really?” he whispered, to beg for more. “Yes,” she rasped. “Can’t you feel how wet and hot I am for you?” “Yes,” he said, “and so tight.” “That’s for you. You did that to me in a dream. You are doing that now.” Jason broke off into his own little world. His strokes became wicked and powerful. Blanche levered her leg over his muscle-ripped shoulder and then the next until her ankles were around his neck and she was taking him in as deeply as possible. He had a clear shot at what she was doing when she reached between to touch her throbbing clitoris to bring herself back to climax. With their bodies hardly moving to and fro, they each found the pinnacle of sexual pleasure, grinding together. The day was breaking and the sun would be up in the sky full blast. Blanche and Jason showered again – this time separately – and dressed. She was sore again. Her body managed to stiffen up. She put on one of the sweet dresses he had bought for her. She was light on small bills so she placed one of the thousand dollar bills that Hawk had slipped her under Jason’s pillow for him to find later. There was little to say. They were not talking too much to each other, though he poured her coffee and diced up a bowl of fruit for her. As soon as she was able to, she would get on her bike and ride. She would contact her employers and offer herself to them if they promised to leave the town alone. Leave Jason alone. Her bike was in his garage. It was a bittersweet decision, but as soon as his back was turned, she would leave Jason Fowler forever. Blanche took her plates to the kitchen sink the moment Jason’s phone rang and he was taken away from the table. “Okay,” she heard him say. “I will be right there.” It was kind of perfect, although sad. Jason flew out of the house, hopped on his bike, and was gone. It was the last time she expected to ever see him after what she was about to do. She was going to go against his wishes and leave. It would be seen as a total act of betrayal on her part.

As soon as she knew she was alone, she took a breath and contacted the Norte Mexicali. She was directed to go see Hawk. Hawk had been released from the hospital. His hand was in a cast. She brought all of the cash that he had given her. She would give him her body if she had to. She was shaken. “Hola, mujer,” he laughed. “I take it you got the word. You come to me and we will see how we can come to an understanding.” Hawk gave her directions to the restored mining shack that he and the others were staying at. She started to tell him to just give him the address and she would find it on GPS. He laughed. “Mujer, you are not going to find this place by GPS. You will be lucky if you find it by my guidance. I am not stupid enough to send pings to any towers, besides. As a trained assassin, though she had never killed a person yet, the response Hawk gave her said so many ominous things to her. Still, she rode. Her trek took her even farther, up to a higher elevation in the San Gabriel Mountains, to a more remote location. Hawk advised her that at one point, she would have to park the bike and complete the journey by foot. He half joked her to beware of bears, but he was not joking when he told her not to come armed. No guns. And no credit cards. She had sliced his cheek wide open with her bank card. His hand was already smashed from her phone. He would require surgery. The throw of the drill bit that impaled his wrist was the killer; he was in a cast now for at least two months. Maybe he knew, maybe he didn’t know, but as he fed her the details of the injuries she had caused him, he set the wheels in motion to formulate a plan. If he didn’t know he was doing that, if it was just because he couldn’t resist trying to make her feel bad – which she did not – she was ahead of his game. If he had done so strategically, she maintained a healthy level of fear.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN The longest part of the journey was the hike to the front door. She ditched her riding shoes in a place where she could find them later and switched them out for spiked heels. There was a method to her madness, but they were ridiculous to walk in. He was correct in that, because of the foliage on the trees – the San Gabriel Mountains had some gorgeous plant life – the place was bit difficult to detect at first; the structure used so many natural elements. A person could get lost in these mountains awfully quickly. Immediately as Blanche neared the door, she inventoried her surroundings for potential weapons. She could have carried a gun anyway, but he would have found it. When she was some fifty yards away, Hawk opened the door and shoved forward a person whose head was covered in a pillowcase. Jason. She would know him any way. Blanche’s heart beat with fury in her chest. She was about to kill her first person ever if she hadn’t already signed the death sentence for the man she loved. This would have to be fast. She had to distract Hawk. “I think I need to show you I have come unarmed,” she said in a sweet and pleasant voice. One of the reasons she was selected to be El Salvador was because of her sweet face. Looking girlish created weakness in her foe. It probably wouldn’t work with Hawk, but Blanche had everything to gain in trying. She raised the hem of her shirt up to expose her sculpted stomach and amazing breasts. “I will decide when and what you do,” he said, stopping her mid motion. So Blanche began to lower her shirt. “I didn’t tell you to do that. Continue. I want you to strip.” Blanche had hoped he would do say that. She began to strip, removing her shirt as quickly as possible so that she could see and have her hands free as soon as possible. She was about to remove her shoes when he hollered, “Leave ‘em on.” “I will if you make him watch,” Blanche said. She stood on a soft pine need carpet, in spike heeled shoes, wearing a bra and lace thong. Hawk laughed. “You want him to watch me as I fuck you?” Blanche shrugged and smiled. “Sure, why not?” He roughly yanked the tape from around Jason’s throat. She died inside at the pain he must have caused, but at least she could see his beautiful face. She watched as he blinked to adjust to the light. Hawk had beaten him. Hawk was going to die. She began to knead her breast lasciviously. “That looks nice, mujer, but don’t think for a second I am

going to be enticed,” said Hawk. “If I am going to get it, I might as well make it fun, no?” Blanche asked. Now Hawk shrugged. “I like it when people watch. I like to perform,” he said. “Come perform for me, big man,” Blanche replied, strutting towards him like an alley cat. “Where am I going to get it?” What she meant was indoors or out but he answered, “In the mouth, in the pussy, and in the ass, mujer.” And Blanche thought, and you’re getting it right between the eyes, vaquero. They closed the distance between them and she asked, “Are you going to fuck me on the ground right here before God and Jason Fowler?” “I thought I would, for starters,” he answered. “Your friends aren’t here are they? Are they next or do I only service you?” she said trying to throw in as much sensuality into her voice as she could stand. “No,” he said abruptly. “You are mine. And mine alone.” Well that’s a relief, she thought. He was almost close enough. Almost. Almost. Blanche had to make sure that her next few moves were surgeon-precise. Just as the huge and dangerous Hawk was in touching distance, stooping to come in for a kiss, she did a little kick behind her butt and flung her shoe into her hand. In a flash, she drove the spiked heel of her shoe into his forehead. With a follow through, she had the other shoe in her hand like a mitten, impaling the soft area of the side of his head. He collapsed, with her three hundred dollar Cole Hahn shoes embedded in his head. Jason. In bare feet and no clothing, she rushed to his aid. He was disoriented. Maybe drugged, maybe injured, but he was not fully comprehending where he was or what was happening to him. She let him stand where he was while she checked out the insides of the house. If it was empty, it might be the safest place for them. It would be too great a distance for her to travel with a disabled man. The place was, in fact, empty. She was sure it wouldn’t be for long. She would have to try to get a signal and then gather up as many weapons as she could. She was in the fight of their lives. She set Jason on the couch and then raced out to Hawk to make sure he had no weapons. It was hard to do, but she continued to work on him to make sure he was dead. She took his cellphone, his keys

and his cash. She put her clothes back on and then went back into the house to secure it. She called 911 and then she tried to call Dana directly on Hawk’s phone. She searched around to see if there was a stash of Jason’s stuff. She looked for his phone, his cash, and his keys. She was in the kitchen when she saw that Hawk, she guessed, had his laptop up and that it got internet somehow. She emailed a message to the sheriff’s, to Mrs. Cranston, to the San Juan Café, and to The Motorcycle Place. She needed help. Jason needed help. Completely armed, she went back over to Jason to examine him. She noted an injection site on his neck. It looked as though he had been drugged. While that was not good, it gave her hope that Jason was not out of it due to injury. Still, she needed to get him to the hospital. He started to laugh. “Goddamn, you are beautiful,” he said. “You went on that bridge. The look on your face when you realized you were stuck.” Jason was clearly high. “I was by the bridge. That’s where we keep our gold and I heard you like a Billy goat. You know that story? Billy Goats Gruff? I saw you and oh my gosh. I knew you were one of them, though, and it broke my heart. Every time one of them came in to town, I was like is this the one? Is this the one who’s going to kill me? ’Cause there was a rumor and then it was a straight-up fact.” Jason’s words were slurred. It was strange to see him screwed up. “I have called an ambulance. Help is on the way,” she said to him. He frowned and his personality turned. “Don’t give me your bullshit, girl. You were sent here to kill me. You. You were the one. You got in my bed. You made me fall head over heels in love with you and then you ripped the rug out from under me. Then this bastard said he was going to hurt you, so naturally, I jumped like the fool I am.” “I am the same fool,” she said, “because I came to him thinking I was going to protect you.” “You were naked out there. You were going to fuck him in front of me. I don’t want to hear any more,” he said. “Goddamn, you’re beautiful. I am so in love with you.” “I am in love with you, too,” she said with little fear he would remember. She was a little worried that his repetition might have something to do with a concussion, though without question, he was intoxicated. Blanche and Jason could hear a rustle outside. It was either Norte Mexicali members or the Seven Devils Motorcycle Club. Blanche cocked her weapon and took cover. She spied out the window and stood down. It was the good guys.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN She opened the window to tell them that Jason was in there, he was probably okay, but that he needed medical attention. She opened the door with the gun in her hand, though not drawn. A shot sailed into the house and winged her. She dropped her weapon and it went off; fortunately it didn’t hit anyone outside. She fell and evaded a second round. Had she not dropped, they later determined she would have died. Jason had the wherewithal to shout, “Hold your fire!” Upon his words, they rushed into the house, all but trampling over Blanche. In his slurred speech, he explained that she had rescued him, but their reception of her was complete ice. They humanely attended to her. Dana hefted her body over his shoulder, not to ease her burden, but because he wasn’t patient enough to guide her through the woods. A squad of club members secured the route as they made it to the main road where emergency response could access them. Blanche was bleeding pretty heavily even though Dana had performed first aid on her. After the stress of the situation, she was hard-pressed to stay conscious. Her arm was killing her. Still, she used every ounce of her awareness to determine whether or not Jason was okay. She did hear that they couldn’t give him anything at all until they figured out what the Norte Mexicali had injected him with. Dana made a point of riding with her in the ambulance. They were going to Los Angeles, that much she knew. She could feel the sheriff's cold hard stare press into her spirit. Blanche finally passed out. The mercy of slipping into unconsciousness was that she got to dream. It seemed the most time she spent with Jason was in her imagination. As she peeked out of an eyelid every once in a while to check out the EMTs, she could swear she was seeing Jason in uniform, riding with her in the ambulance. She smiled. "I'm so in love with you," she professed. She heard Dana say, "I think she thinks you're Jason, man. Tell her you hate her and you want nothing to do with her." The pain in Blanche's body and spirit were immense. "I can hear you say that," she said. Dana reached over and pressed her arm. Blanche screamed. "Hey," the EMT protested. "She brought this shit here. I didn't hurt her." "I am not going sit here and let you do that to a patient of mine." "She's a prisoner of mine and as soon as she gets the all-clear, I am arresting her. She's a murderer." "The way I heard it, she saved Jason's life. Maybe if you had had the balls to take care of that menace-"

Dana rushed the EMT and didn't let him finish that sentence. They tussled and crashed into Blanche. The driver pulled over to the side. Perhaps the largest of the Seven Devils opened up the doors of the ambulance that he had been driving. "What the fuck's going on back here?" He stared at Dana. "You ride up front with me." Blanche ventured another peek at the EMT. It was Jason and as he smiled back at her, it was all better. She was reassured. She fell asleep and gave into her dreams, which were fevered. The EMT Jason transformed and he was now long-haired in the dress of her ancient people, long before the Spanish mixed with them. She was a nearly naked princess on the cool earth floor of their dwelling. Her graceful, exquisite body was strung with fine turquoise-colored beading, but she was bare chested. She saw herself looking down at her body, calm and trusting. Her breasts were sweet and perky. Her pale-skinned nipples were relaxed. Jason was her husband, her conqueror, her master, blowing healing smoke towards her, placing a large, powerful brown hand on her flat abdomen. Jason made an awesomelooking warrior. Her chief. His chest was bare, as well. The powerful definition of his muscles - shoulders, chest, the cut of his stomach - erupted from his body like the San Gabriel Mountains. The proud features of his face, his serious steely eyes that were softened with the suggestion of mischief, the perfect rise of his nose, and the ultra-lusciousness of his mouth, gazed upon her, letting her know he was in charge. She was in his care. In her fevered dream, the smoke was working on her. She was high and horny. It worked on her head, but it went straight between her legs. She ached and needed him. He had to know. He took a stone from a small tidy pile to the side of them and placed it between her breasts. It was nicely warm. He placed another slightly down and continued making a row of them towards her thighs. The heat sent lascivious waves throughout her lower body and she was ripe with arousal. He parted her legs and placed a warmed stone at the apex of her entrance, on her clit, and then one slightly in the opening. He moved the rock on her tiny swollen nub of bliss in small, pressured circles. Any self-consciousness she had about pleasured this way vanished as she felt her body click and she was well on her way towards a luscious orgasm. The warmth of the stone partially inside of her made for intense, unspeakable sensations. The combination of temperature, shape, and weight with Blanche's overwhelming attraction for Jason delivered perhaps her most unforgettable climax. Part of her knew this was just some weird hallucination and yet this was real. She could feel every speck of sensation electrify her from her head to her toes. She could feel her clit pulse and reverberate down through the channels of her entrance. She was soaked with ecstasy. Her chief came round and stood between her legs hot with pleasure and the warmth of the tools that he had used, and he penetrated her. Blanche's eyes fluttered as she struggled to comprehend the

wondrous feeling of his huge cock inside her. He pumped her steadily, her breasts bobbling against his rhythm as he held her gaze steady. She looked away for a second, as she got lost in the erotic plane he cast her on. "Look at me," he commanded. And she struggled in her wavering consciousness to obey. He was such a beautiful man. The look on his face as he drove into her unforgettable. "Come for me again," he said. "Come with me inside you." Her head thrashed to and fro, that much more turned on with just a hint of graphic talk. It was her guilty secret to take pleasure in dirty talk. His was such a honeyed voice; it was all the more erotic. She reached between them and brought her waning orgasm back to life. Her flesh clenched against his in a furious frenzy. He cried out, as if in battle with passion and possession.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Blanche slept. She spent untold time in blackness. Then she came to with her uninjured arm cuffed to a cot in the Gold Creek jail. "She's awake," she heard Jason say. She lifted her eyes cautiously. His facial injuries were fading, but still obvious. The purple around his eye looked like a war mask, but he was not the warm and reassuring man who had found his way into the ambulance to hold her hand. “What’s going on?” she managed to say. Her shoulder that had been hurt before the big blow up was super painful now. Unfortunately, it was attached at the arm and cuffed to the bed. The casted arm was horrendously sore. She hurt, inside and out. “What’s going on, El Salvador, is you are under arrest for the death of one Hortensio Jiminez, a.k.a. Hawk, and conspiracy to commit murder, against namely me,” Jason replied. “I have to tell you, I don’t know what to do with my anger looking at all the documentation against you. I know you said you never killed before, but I don’t think poor Hawk had a chance. I know I for sure didn’t.” “Poor Hawk?” she tried to bolt upright but was soundly reminded of her limitation. She cried at the torturous pain that vibrated through her. When she could finally speak, she said, ”May I remind you he walked you into a trap that almost cost you your life.” “Which you helped bait. I mean you were sticking it in my face the entire time I knew you. You look so sweet and innocent. Who could resist?” His words were completely void of feeling. “I want you to know that if I could applaud for you for finding a way to hurt me more than I am at this moment, I would. You are breaking my heart right now. I want you to be completely satisfied at a job well done.” Blanche wanted to throw up. “Is that supposed to make me feel sorry for you? Are you trying to flip this around?” he scoffed. “No. I am not. I came here to kill you. There is no way around that. For the record, you fucked me after you knew I was El Salvador. And as I said, there is more than one of us. They recruit a bunch of people so that no one quite knows what to look for, but I gave that up and I vowed to defend Gold Creek. I went to Hawk to distract him from you. From Gold Creek. I killed him to save you!” she pleaded. “Something that would not have needed doing if it hadn’t been for you,” he responded coldly. “Got it. Now leave,” she said. Her temperature was up and she was uncomfortable. She would just wait for sleep. Jason hovered over her so that their faces were but a breath apart. “I am in charge. I think I read

somewhere that you hated that. That the fact that I played by the rules irked you the most. Well here I am to irk you. Dana has had a lot to contend with thanks to the Norte Mexicali and you. In case you didn’t know, the biker whose bike Hawk sabotaged was Dana’s cousin.” “Was?” Blanche choked. “I thought he was stable?” “He is, but he’s not quite right. He hit his head in the fall. He’s scrambled. Dana is taking time off to regroup.” Jason was almost civilized to her. “I am sorry about all of it,” she said. He responded with total ice. “I don’t care. Now,” he said unlocking her cuff, “up. It is time to shit, shower, and shave, as they say.” “I want a lady deputy,” Blanche scowled. “No,” he answered shortly. “Then I can tell you those charges aren’t going to stick. No jury in the world will convict me when they find out the acting sheriff refused me inappropriately.” She struggled to even sit upright and cried out; it was that excruciating. “Fine,” Jason complained. “I will get you a nurse.”

CHAPTER NINETEEN They ended up draping a curtain around the holding cell and allowed a nurse to give her a sponge bath to change the dressing on her arm. When it was all done, she could see the interest in Jason’s face was more than a passing interest; he was concerned. Before leaving, the nurse had already taken her vitals and reported that Blanche was running a slight temperature. If it got higher, she would have to be re-admitted to the hospital. “Don’t hesitate,” the nurse warned. “It’s kind of a drive into L.A.” “I am not sure how,” Jason scoffed, “but you are probably faking that fever.” He shook out the thermometer. “She just took it,” said Blanche of her temperature and pulled away. “Open your mouth,” he scowled. She obeyed. He pressed his palm to her forehead to feel. His hand felt amazing. So cool. Blanche could go to sleep now. “You are warm. We ought to go dunk you in the Bay is what we ought to do.” He lifted a lidded glass of ice water to her lips. “Sip.” Blanche winced as he handed her the water. “Where did she leave the pain meds?” he said absently. “I didn’t get any,” Blanche answered. “What?” he shook his head. “I refused them.” “Why in the hell would you do something like that?” he demanded. “Because I don’t deserve them,” she answered stoically. Jason telephoned the nurse. “Hey there. Can you come back here? I understand she isn’t on any pain meds? She’s changed her mind. She would like some. I don’t know if you know that she has an injured rotator cuff. She needs them.” When he hung up the phone Blanche cursed him. “Thanks. That was my choice. You say you hate me, that I am a murderer, and now you insist I don’t suffer? What’s the problem? I agree with you? So if I fought and insisted on the medication, what? You would deny me? Let me know how it works here.” The nurse was back in the sheriff station. “I’ll just tell her. I don’t want the medication.” He arched his eyebrow, “Do it and see what happens,” he hissed. The nurse approached them. “You changed your mind?” she asked confusedly. Blanche was about to tell her no when Jason shoved her. She screamed out with pain with gutwrenching cries. “Give me something fast!” she hollered and the nurse produced a hypodermic from

her bag and stuck Blanche in the hip. The nurse explained to Jason when her next dose would be because she would not be able to administer it. “Fine,” said Jason. The medicine kicked in pretty quickly, rendering Blanche’s throbbing to a dull drumbeat of pain. Once again, the nurse left them alone, for the night apparently. “You’re a prick. You set me up just so you could shove me. God! You are as bad as the Norte Mexicali.” “I am nothing like them!” he insisted. “You are. Do you think I just fell into my line of work? No. They saw a young woman with no family who had a single asset – that I looked like a kid for longer than I should have – and they made use of it. And when they didn’t get what they wanted, they shoved me just like you did now.” “I see the devil made you do it. You’re a killer because it suits you,” Jason replied. “And I shoved you for your own good. You need the pain medication.” She laughed. “That’s so dumb. What does it matter? You hate me!” Jason was quiet. He didn’t answer to that. He switched the subject. “How old?” he asked. “How old what?” Blanche was now feeling really good. It took a bit, but she felt almost no pain. “How old were you when the Norte Mexicali recruited you?” There was a definite shift in his tone. “I was eighteen years old,” she answered quietly. “Where was your family?” He was staring at her; she could see it out of the corner of her eyes, but she looked to the ceiling. He had her handcuffed, but she was not on her back as before. “That’s a long story. I don’t want to get into it.” “Get into it,” he growled. Blanche sighed. “My mother died when I was about seven and my dad left immediately. I lived with my grandmother. An aunt moved in with my grandmother and shortly after, my grandmother died. It turned out that the lady wasn’t my aunt and she kicked me out. I was about fourteen and I have been on my own ever since. I got involved with a community center and started picking up self-defense. The self-defense guy tried to pick up me. I was like sixteen by then. I was pretty good. So anyway, the self-defense guy tried to force me.” Blanche could feel herself growing numb recounting the story. “I fought him off. The police got involved. Anyway, this lawyer for the Norte Mexicali jumped in and fixed everything. That’s when they took notice of me. They put me on the payroll.” Jason was quiet still. “Whatever,” he said finally. “It’s getting late. I should feed you before I go.”

“You’re going to leave me in this jail like this with a handcuff on?” she pleaded. “You got out of the handcuffs before. I am afraid you will bust out of the jail.” “Then take me to your place!” Blanche panicked. “Oh no, I am not doing that again,” Jason chuckled. “You will be fine. I am not leaving you alone. Someone will be here.” “I don’t trust just anyone. Don’t leave me cuffed, Jason. Don’t,” she said with a threat in her voice. “Or what?” he stood up and dared her to finish that. “I will break out and you will never see me again,” she said. “What made me think I want to see you again,” he said. He might as well have punched her. But she continued, “Then you will never see me punished for what you think I did.” “I think I am good on that. We have an armed guard here who has an order to shoot you dead if you misbehave. Goodnight. Sleep well, Ms. Herrera.” “Goodnight back at you, Mr. Fowler. You want to be an asshole to me; I will be one back at you. You do not want me for an enemy.” “I think you were an asshole first, Ms. Herrera. You came here to kill me.” “Yeah, well I’ll bet I can make nice with my employer and deliver him his product. If I am of value, they won’t care about one stupid little man. Now you sleep well. And don’t forget to look over your shoulder.” Just to bother him, Blanche pretended to be working her handcuff. Jason rushed her. “Stop that now!” He only meant to stop her from tugging at the handcuff. But instead he found himself grabbing her on impulse and kissing her hard. She kissed him back. It was, indeed, all she wanted. He broke away and recoiled. “Damn you,” he rasped. He pulled a gun from a drawer and inspected it before putting it in a holster at his hip. It was her gun. He made sure the next-on-shift knew she hadn’t eaten; she could hear him doing so. Then he left. He walked out of the sheriff’s department, leaving her to fend for herself and walking out of her life for good. Or so he hoped.

CHAPTER TWENTY The night's quiet, thought Jason Fowler. He drank his fresh, hot, black coffee on the deck as the sun was beginning to rise. He had expected at least one incident, but nothing. In fact, when he called over to the jail, no one answered. That was not a good sign, because either everyone had fallen asleep or Blanche was up to no good. He took his time, though. If she was gone as promised, a few more minutes wasn’t going to do him any good. If they were asleep, there was no rush. Finally his phone rang but it was not the call he expected. It was Dana and Rick, the sheriff and deputy who were supposed to be getting some rest. They had received word that a few Norte Mexicali were arrested in Victorville. They had caused a huge scene and were extremely difficult to subdue. They found a woman’s body on the roadside, a rubber tire around her neck lit on fire. They were waiting for the autopsy report to see if they could identify the body. Jason nearly passed out. No. “Jason, have you been to the jail? We are on our way over. We can’t get anyone to answer,” said Dana. “I figured he’s asleep. She can’t get to the phone. I have her cuffed to the bed.” “Jason, it doesn’t work that way. Get over there. You will be there before I will. Report back,” he ordered. Jason was in total fear mode. He had no taste for coffee or relaxation now. It was a funny thing, the thought of her potentially dying that way knocked his resentment completely from his consciousness. Now he was driven for a need to know she was safe. She had been just a kid. She wasn’t much older than one now. Not really. She did her best to do the right thing in an awful situation. He all but flew to the station. He was somewhat relieved when, contrary to what Rick said, the deputy was asleep. But his worst fears were realized when he got to the cell and Blanche was gone. She hadn’t broken out, though. Her cuffs were cut and she went out kicking and screaming. Jason would have to follow the trail of blood to find her.

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE If she started a fire, she would be spotted for sure. The chill of the mountains felt good on her fever. She drank her fill of cool running water from a small, rushing creek, but her body was fatigued and she might, indeed, have an infection. A bullet grazed her arm and she was sore. For all Blanche Herrera knew, she had gone around in circles. Bits and pieces of that night in the jail when big hulking men came to get her while the deputy on duty slept like a baby flashed in her mind. She was a trained assassin for the Norte Mexicali, a ruthless cartel of drug dealers and cut throats so she knew her situation very well. Caught off guard, she realized she could take one but not two. These men were Norte Mexicali--the very people who trained her to kill someone with the slice of a credit card if she had to. She only killed once…to save the man she loved. He would never believe she wasn't on the run. He would think she was a willing accomplice to the escape. Eventually, that was what her captors believed, too. That was how she got away and ran deep into the mountains. She felt ill. She was weak from hunger and wounded by gunfire and heartache. She slept. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe she was dead and she didn't know it. Blanche felt her body being lifted. She peeked through a lid to see what was what but all she could see was the mountain forest ground. She was being hefted by a man. So, little mattered. She just went with it. He carried her into a sweet, rustic cabin. She still had not looked at him. If he left her right now and she was later asked to describe him, she couldn't. He carefully set her down on a feather mattress. She was ailing, for sure, but she had to note to herself that it was a cool bed. The frame was of oiled redwood logs bound together by hemp rope. It was set upon wide, planked floors and a rough-cut stone fireplace. She heard the creak of a chair fashioned liked the bed. He had taken a seat, casually. Peacefully. She summoned her courage to look at him. She collapsed. She didn't know if she should laugh or cry. A giddiness overcame her. Perhaps she was crazy. She looked again. "Took you long enough," said Jason Fowler. He had a cup of something hot in his hand. She couldn't read him. He appeared neither angry nor glad to see her. “Why?” she asked. Why would the man whom she came to town to kill--a man whom she betrayed-rescue her? “Why not just leave me for dead? That was probably my fate.” “Because El Salvador,” he said, emphasizing each syllable, “You have the Norte Mexicali drug cartel, the Gold Creek sheriff’s department, and the Seven Devils Motorcycle Club on your tail.” “I see,” said Blanche, enjoying the view of his beautiful self. Jason Fowler was extremely good looking. She loved his dark, disheveled hair that wisped around his face. It was like he was trying to

have a haircut, a style, but he couldn’t quite conform. His perfectly proportioned frame, with its godlike musculature was positively mouth-watering. The vision of him, the notion of him made her entire spirit bright. She decided she would play the “best of” their sexual encounters while they talked. She could not help but smile. “Something funny?” he was at a loss. “No, I am listening. Go on. You were saying I was a wanted woman,” she curled up. That was a mistake. She started in pain. Real. Horrible. Shooting pain. She was so happy to see him that she forgot she was ill. He was up on his feet immediately to attend to her. “I think we better get me to a hospital. I think this bullet graze is not doing so well, not to mention my shoulder tear…or whatever it is.” Blanche had slipped and jerked her body when she was dashing to the aid of the town of Gold Creek when it was under attack from the Norte Mexicali. She was also nicked by a bullet. He reached for her arm. She pulled it away. He glared at her sternly and demanded, “Let me see.” She complied and he removed the tape from her arm. “It actually looks okay,” he said. “Okay, Dr. Fowler,” she scoffed. He met her eyes with yet another scolding gaze. He raised his brow, “You have no idea what I am, do you?” He got up from the bed to retrieve a satchel, a first aid kit. He poured something onto a cotton press and dabbed the wound. “How’s that?” he asked. The relief was instant and amazing. Whatever he put on her arm radiated cooling comfort throughout her. “Good. Thanks.” “Don’t thank me yet,” he said ominously. “Let’s take off your clothes.” “No,” she said curtly. “We are not like that anymore.” It killed her to say that but she had to stay strong. He stalked over her like a panther. She was completely caged in by his shoulders and arms. “Listen to me. You were injured. You’ve been on the run and, no doubt, not taking care of yourself. I will bet you’re dehydrated –” “I drank water,” she interrupted. “And good for you,” he said sarcastically. “They had bottled water out there in the wilds of the San Gabriel Mountains?” “No, but they have the stuff that they put in the bottled water. Ever hear of a cool mountain stream?” she challenged. “Ever hear of giardia?” he rebutted. “Know what that is?”

She cringed. She did, indeed. With it came horrible, incapacitated stomach issues as a result of water-born bacteria. It could be a completely unflattering, humiliating experience. She was quiet. She let him remove her clothes. She had locked up and there was no way she could refuse. He stepped into that same room where he got the first aid kit and turned on some bath water. She also heard what sounded like the rush of flames inside a fireplace. She was looking at a fireplace in the main room, which was also her bedroom, and it was still. “Up,” he ordered as he returned. It was more a word to let her know what he was going to do next. He lifted her grimy, naked form into the side room that was the bathroom and set her into a deep, claw-foot tub, bellowing with the sound of water crashing into it. There was, indeed, a fireplace in the bathroom. Between the luscious hot water and the flames, Blanche’s chills were finally gone. She leaned back against the generous back of the tub and nodded off. Jason reached for a pitcher and spilled water through her hair. He was washing it. He picked up a bottle and poured almond scented shampoo in his palms, rubbed them together, and, with the most magical touch, massaged her scalp and long ebony locks into a rich lather. Blanche hummed from head to toe with complete relaxation. It was so soothing. So healing. As he let the foam sit in her hair, he spilled contents from another bottle into the water. It turned the surface of her skin to silk. “I don’t know why you’re doing all this for me. Why not turn me in?” she said meekly. “Turn you into what?” he regarded her sternly. “Turn me into the police. I did kill a man,” she said. She touched her hand to her forehead and cried. But then it morphed into full-blown sobbing. She craved a sympathetic touch from him, but it did not come. It was a lot that she was in this neutral zone of a magical cottage…for now, at least. When the wave of emotion passed, she took in a deep breath and dunked her head. She was going to get out of the tub. It was, without a doubt, the most comfort she had had in quite some time, but she wasn’t going to get used to it. She was clean for all intents and purposes. I'm done, she thought, and gripped the sides of the tub. “What are you doing?” he asked plainly. “I am getting out. When the tub is dry, I will scrub it.” Blanche stood, completely naked, the light of the fire glistening on the curves of her body. “Knock it off,” he scoffed. “Get back in the tub. I am not asking you. I am telling you.” “What is your reason for holding me here? I would like to know that,” she demanded, still standing. Jason was clearly disturbed by the sight of her. His face was tortured and smoky. “I am counting to three and if you don’t do as you are told, you will be punished,” he said.

Blanche flinched, “Okay that sounds a little freaky. I am sitting down now.” She could kill a person about ten different ways – at least do some serious damage. But she was drained. She had no fight in her. He chastised her, “Don’t get up again until I say.” He didn’t put an “or else” on that. He walked around behind her and leaned her forward. If the fireplace hadn’t been going, she might be shivering. As it was, the warmth on her back was like a blanket. He began kneading her flesh, not in a sexy way but as though he was feeling for something. “May I ask what your intentions are right now? What are you doing?” His touch sent tendrils of erotic electricity throughout her body, lighting her up from deep inside of her to the tips of her nipples, which were erect. He turned her on so intensely that her arousal knocked her in and out of consciousness. It took away her pain for the time being. She floated in the deep tub-water, aroused from his touch and aching to be filled as he prodded clinically in places he used to caress. She took deep breaths to try to contain the emotion that filled her. A tear trickled down her face. “Is that where it hurts?” he asked. “No. That is not where it hurts,” she could barely speak. “I really want to get out of the tub, please.” He took her head into his hands, gently, firmly and looked at her directly, “Tell me why. Please.” “Because I am going to lose if it I don’t get out of this tub,” she said through gritted teeth. His voice was smooth and even, “I need you to be more specific,” he said. “I have feelings for you and I am having a tough time being here and being touched by you,” she cried out, gushing now with emotion. “Thank you,” he said in a cold sterile voice and he assisted her to her feet.

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO As she quietly cried, Jason lifted her limp body up and over his shoulder. The passive weight of her body as it hung over him actually relieved her injury. And the warm soothing contact of her nakedness to his hard muscled back was salve to her bruised soul. She greedily basked in their chemistry. He brought out the animal in her. With him, she was base, wanton and graphic. She wanted to spread her legs and let him exploit her fully. She wanted to cup her breasts and play with them for him. As a trained killer for perhaps one of the most powerful drug cartels, Norte Mexicali, Blanche never once considered having a life other than the materialistic one that being on the payroll provided. She never thought ahead to the consequences until now. She was so close to her life's passion and yet so far away. Jason Fowler wanted her once as much as she wanted him still, but not now. Maybe it was because she was injured and tired of being so powerless. So tired of being on the run, but Blanche was heartbroken for the first time ever. Jason carefully let her weight roll off him. She was sulking for sure. His face was sympathetic. He drew his lips up and tisked her, "Shhh," he said. Jason toweled her body off. "Why don't you settle in for a nap? I am going to put your clothes in the wash. I'll cut up some fresh fruit. If you are still awake in a few minutes, we will share some." "Come lay down with me," she whispered. "You are what I need," she said. Blanche reached up and pulled on him. He was resistant but then he seemed like he would cave. "Lie back," he said. The fire was still a blaze in the bathroom fireplace and it made her turned on body hum. Jason stroked the dewy folds of her sex teasingly. She lasciviously rocked against the gentle pressure of his hands. She moaned. She never craved anything so much in her life. She could see him like he had been so often before, above her, feel him settle between her legs. She wanted to hold him completely. Wrap her legs around him, pulling him into her as deeply as he could go. Binding him with the vice of her thighs so he had to basically grind into her. But he did not rise above her, or encourage her over on her belly. He pinned her inner thigh gently while he worked her to powerful climax. When the pleasured waves washed through her, he penetrated her with two fingers, twirling, teasing, and intensifying her bliss. Then he waited until that moment when the climax had fully subsided, to minister to her all over again. Her body was readied, still so sweetly sexually stimulated that he brought to life another orgasm quickly, this one more powerful and pleasurable than the last. So intense. So consuming. So complete. Physically, anyway. She felt so empty that he was not really with her. She wanted him inside of her, their bodies touching

either from behind or on top of her. To the side of her. With her legs splayed out wide, making a super tight entrance for him to create the most sensual friction ever for her. She needed his beauty. His masculinity. She needed him. So the exquisite pleasure that he gave her was coupled with this distance that she could not figure out. He tucked her body with light cotton spread. Finally she blurted out, "Why are you doing this? You have already expressed your dislike of me and yet you are caring for me, pleasuring me? What is up with this?" Jason took his time in answering. His movement was slow and casual. He stepped into the next room and turned the fire off. He sat back down in the overstuffed chair. hey regarded each other for some time, he with his steely piercing scolding gaze. "You have no thoughts as to what I am doing?" "No. I am completely confused," she said sitting upright quickly in her bed without care of her nudity. She was completely comfortable and oblivious of it. The light cotton drape covered her from the waist down but her round full breasts were exposed. She thought she looked a little like a mermaid in bed. "Well Blanche, simply put, you are my captive. I mean to keep you here until the dust of the damage you caused settles. While I don't like liars or women who mean to kill me, you did kill Hortensio Jimenez, Hawk, and therefore saved me. I owe you. "But I believe you need to be punished and punish you, I will. I will also give the district attorney time to sort out the facts. They wanted to indict you on first-degree murder since you are a trained assassin and all. I wasn't forthcoming on your behalf, but since they asked, I did tell the truth. "You did save my life. It does appear that you did not break out of the jail, but rather you were kidnapped, so I am willing to take care of your every need until it's time to turn you over. "I am hoping that the facts that you were just a misguided, brainwashed member of the Norte Mexicali who showed intentions on fighting for the good guys will at least take the bounty on your head placed by my guys, the Seven Devils Motor Cycle Club. And then once they cool off, they can offer you protection against the employer whom you also betrayed." "Good thing I did," she said quietly. As soon as she said that she felt him stiffen. "Let me explain to you how this works. I am in charge. I call the shots. If you want to be snide with me, like you were just now, you can forget about any conversation from me. Now, have I answered your question sufficiently?" "No. I have more," she answered, now angry and less in love with him. "So if I leave?" "There is the door. Let me re-cap that you are wanted by two groups and the law. You may succumb to a life ending ooopsie at the hand of two of them. But good luck all the way around, because you don't get your clothes back. I am keeping them."

"So I have to say naked indefinitely? That's just creepy. And another thing, the difference between us is that I realized killing was wrong; you think it's justified. The thing that motivated me in the first place was that they built you up as this smarmy, self-righteous guy and after I got to know you, I thought they were wrong." She sat up a little straighter. "The very things I love- liked about you were that you were caring and protective. You get your ego bruised and you seem to be okay with killing," she stared at him, wondering if she had him all wrong when she fell in love with him. "Let me ask you a question. Are you comfortable?" he asked matter-of-factly. "Is that bed better than the mountainside? Do you feel a little safer?" "Yes," she said, but that wasn't the point and she wanted to tell him so. He didn't let her. "Focus on that. And I will try to remember you saved my life," he said curtly. Blanche could not just leave it. As much as she hated giving up the rustic luxury, she would suffer the harsher elements of the San Gabriel Mountains if she had to just to make a point. She stood up in a flash, floundering momentarily under the pain. She was seized by it. Stupid shoulder. Who knew that so many muscles and movements were connected to a seemingly single body part? She took a deep breath. A bead of sweat formed on her upper lip. She believed her shoulder hurt worse than the gunshot graze did at times. Recovered, she marched into the bathroom and searched drawers and cabinets for her clothing. He seemed unmoved. He didn't even react to her flash of pain. She went into the kitchen and did the same. The kitchen had all essential appliances, both kitchen and laundry. She lifted the doors for the washer and the dryer. Then she stopped and thought to check out the kitchen window where she spied a laundry-line on which hung her clothing. He had washed them. She sauntered into the living room/bedroom, grabbed the cotton spread, made a makeshift toga out of it, and went outside the door. By this time, Jason caught on that she found her clothing and was after her. Blanche was quicker and sprinted around the shack cottage away from him. Oh. she knew he would catch her soon, but she was going for it anyway. "Come back here," he said. "Come back here." Blanche grabbed her clothes from the vinyl line that strung across the trees and, with them in her grip, he swooped her up at the waist. "No," he said. "Oh my God," she said; the activity way too much for her, especially after having been relaxed. She collapsed against his broad shoulders. "Nice try,� he said. “I am not buying it." But Blanche submitted, staying motionless against his shoulder as he carried her. He walked her into the cabin and set her down in one of the overstuffed chairs this time. He lifted her feet and draped

them over the arms. The position did wonders to alleviate the discomfort of her body. He sat on a wooden foot locked at the foot of the bed and lifted her chin so that they could regard one another directly. He took the clothing from her clutches and she offered no resistance. "Want to try something else?" Without waiting for a response, he added, "Have you ever injured your rotator cuff before?" She had, actually. Her aunt had beaten her once so badly she thought she was going to die. Instead, she came to with aches and pains for about two weeks, but she didn't want to tell him that. It would seem like she was trying to get his pity and she would be damned before that happened. She turned her head defiantly. "I see," he said calmly. "Do you need a gentle reminder of who is in charge?" She was unnerved. His behavior bordered on kinky and she didn't know if he was just playing with her or not. He had her all turned around. "No." "Well, when you feel like answering my questions when I ask them...," he said and raised his eyebrows. "No," she said shortly, lying. "This is the first time I've been injured like this. So I keep thinking it's going to go away. You happy?" "Not yet," he said. "Sleep." She wanted to resist but as soon as he said that, the room swirled. She had jet lag once in her life and this felt just like that. She let the weight of her head drop back against the decadent plump of the down pillows and slept. She stirred once in the middle of the night and felt his arms around her. He was bare-chested and though she was naked and beneath the cotton throw and he atop of it beneath his own cover, they slept together.

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE The sound of chopping awoke her. She had slept wickedly soundly. She saw her clothes folded in neat little squares at the foot of the bed. Blanche craned to look out of the window to see if she could spot him. He was out in a cut out of cleared space, chopping wood. She didn't understand what in the house required wood burning, because, from what she gathered, the stove and the fireplace operated on gas heat. She grabbed her clothes and went into the bathroom for a quick shower. Blanche hit the faucet and pulled the lever. After a minute of standing under ice-cold water that seemed to get colder, not warmer the longer she waited, she abandoned the effort. She stepped out onto an alpaca rug and toweled. There was a tin of floral-scented body powder to which she helped herself. Hmm, she thought. Another woman has been here. Though the last few hours turned things in her heart for him, she was jealous. The inviting aroma of coffee alerted her. She grabbed a cup and padded out on to the modest front porch. When he saw her, he stopped and gave her a punishing gaze, "So how was your shower?" he asked rhetorically. "Cold, much like the owner of this house," she answered. She smiled, which was the closest thing to a laugh that she experienced since she couldn't remember when. Jason stood the ax against the stump that he had been chopping wood on and leaned on it. "It was kind of funny, you have to admit." "Were you not clear about the clothes?" he answered with a deadpan expression. "I got it, okay?" she answered. "I am better off here than anywhere else. But I am not going to waltz around naked." She sipped her coffee. Her stomach was empty and the coffee was hard on it. "Is there anything to eat?" she asked urgently. "Yes. Right away, princess," he glared as he gathered up an armful of wood. She stepped off the porch onto the forest floor barefooted to do the same. He said, "No" clearly meaning she was not to help with the wood. She scurried in after him waiting for him to be available so she could let him have it. "For the last time, Jason Fowler. I get that you hate me for what I was hired to do. And if you want me to be here while things settle down, done. Agreed. But leave. I would rather be left alone here without you and your amazing orgasms than have you mean-mug me all day long. I am not taking it. I grew up with a-" She cut herself off. She was not going to share something personal with him. "What," he said. "Finish what you were about to say and I'll back off. For one day." Blanche shook her head, "So this is a game," she said incredulously. "So how do you know if what I am saying is true or not? You just want an answer."

"Take it or leave it. The offer evaporates in about two seconds. So start talking," he said coldly. "What do you want me to say, Jason? I've been through some shit before? There I said it. After my mother died and my grandmother died, the lady I thought was my aunt turned on me. Did a major head trip." "Where was your dad?" he asked. He took her cup and sipped from it. He made a face like he didn't like the way it tasted and got up to the kitchen to remedy that. "I don't know. Okay?" The subject built up a pressure within her that made her feel like she was going to burst. She heard chopping again, only it was his chopping against a cutting board. He brought a bowl of fruits that had been chilled and cut into chunks. In one hand, he held two cups of coffee. He put the cups on the chest and took one. Blanche had no appetite. "Eat," he ordered. While his tone was stiff she detected as slight bit of softness. "I was hungry, but now I am not," she said. She drew her legs up to her hips and wrapped her arms around herself. "Can I please have some privacy? Just for five minutes." He got up and lumbered over to her, "Too much?" he asked, though he wasn't expecting an answer. He spun her around so that her back was to him. He climbed up on to the bed next to her. He plucked a chunk of fruit the bowl, icy honey dew and held it to her lips. She refused. "Open for me please," he said. His voice was low and soothing though she wasn't sure he intended that. Why did he have to say that? He knew that all he had to do was get next to her and she was weak-willed. She parted her lips and he put a piece inside. Jason turned and put a leg to either side of her so he ensconced her. "Stop," she ordered faintly, but the warmth of his fingers as he began kneading the muscles of her shoulders might as well have been fingers that were inside of her massaging and teasing her as if to coax a climax. "Do you really want me to?" Jason's voice was low and seductive and raw like just before he got inside her. His mouth was next to her ears and her body buzzed at his warm breath washing over her skin. "I am so mad at you," she countered. To which he just clicked his tongue and encouraged her back against him so he could have access to the hem of her shirt. He massaged her breasts with lascivious slowness. "I think that goes both ways," he said patronizing her, "but I promised a truce if you answered me. And you did. You don't want a truce?" His voice was still yet seductive. "Hmm?" He didn't wait for her to answer.

He unfastened the waist of her jeans. He now had her half naked with her shirt up and over her breasts which had been covered only by the sheer cotton of a black T-shirt with a motorcycle emblem, and her belly bared with her pants down around her hips. Though she didn't respond, she didn't protest and he kept talking to her in the way, though she never said so out loud, that was like an erotic drug for her. "You want me to fuck you?" he asked in a super sweet compliant voice. Blanche was drugged with arousal. The chemistry that she had with this man may have caused heartache, but it cured a lot of ills, as well. The radiating sexuality that corded through her relaxed all tension immediately. It opened up her body and made her crave to be filled with him. Blanche was launched. The only focus in her mind, body, and spirit was to have sex with him. She played pictures of his beautiful body, naked and shadowy, with his magnificent cock erect and eager for her. Blanche leaned down toward the feather bolster so she could offer herself to him. Blanche wavered in and out of an erotic trip that was like it was psychedelically induced. She started playing a ‘best of’ slide show of memories of him above her about to be inside of her. Her body recalled the nearness of him, the feeling of his large powerful hands gliding up her back, over her breasts, over her thighs and ultimately between them. She relaxed against his broad and powerful body. Jason kissed her ever so gingerly on the sensitive curve of her neck, an act that made Blanch fiercely wet and ache with a delicious emptiness. Despite the drama that stewed between them, they seemed to always connect through passion. As soon as that erotic chemistry revved up, that current that was always underlying, they seemed to be able to set aside their differences and fuse together in a blistering fire of pure sensuality. To Blanche, he was the ultimate man, even with his infuriating, selfrighteousness and his controlling nature. In her heart, she told herself that he was understandably pissed off at her and for her past, but that he felt the same for her that she did for him. As she relaxed to the bed and submitted to him, it was just the two of them and their heat. He was above her, his hair falling about him in such a romantic image; her beautiful man. She could feel his soft-skinned erection graze her thigh with intent. Her hips jutted up with age-old instinct to receive him. It was all she could think about to have him inside her. She reached between them to grip him but he propped upon one elbow and caught her hand. "What is it you want?" he teased. An irresistible smile bent his lips. "I need you," she rasped. She could hardly formulate a clear thought let alone a sentence. "Oh," he responded with a soft scold, "you can do better than that." He guided her hand over his amazing cock. They were lightly working him together. He was so commanding. "Is this what you want?" He encouraged her hand to grip him firmly. She shivered and catapulted into sensual insanity. She was pretty sure she moaned. “It is,” she said.

He rolled her to her side and spooned with her. He guided her leg over his until they were entwined. It was the perfect position for her to receive him. It was all she could think of, his being inside of her, the feeling, the wonder as he slid into her. Together they reached between, she to give herself pleasure and he to stop her. “No,” he said firmly. “Not yet. I want you to savor this.” She was super wet for him and he pumped her gently in short, slow but powerful motions. It was just about the most erotic experience ever. The newness of it floored her. So wanton. So carnal. He lifted the thigh that rested upon him and manipulated it to adjust the tension of her body so as to vary the sensations that he gave her. He levered it up and down, causing her to pump against him. The result was that she had an intensely building climax. If he kept that up, she was going to come. “Tell me when you're going to come,” he whispered into her hair. “Don't come without letting me know you are about to.” Blanche wanted to say something but he took her ability to think away from her for the moment. All she could is make animalistic noises in response. Jason laughed softly, watching as he rocked her. “Is that a yes, hmm?” he stroked her. She nodded. He proceeded to his best to bring on that climax. Once again, as was her habit, she reached between her legs to touch herself. Again, he pushed her hand away, gently pinning it to the mattress by threading his hands through hers. “We will let it happen this way,” he murmured. He continued talking to her, coaxing her, creating just needed extra exhilaration to push her over the edge. Her pleasure clicked and transitioned so quickly she had only enough time to proclaim it rather than announce it. Jason had her crying out, her voice filling every nook and cranny of the rustic cabin that she was having orgasm. The waves racking her flesh against his did not make him lose his cool or, if they did, he was a powerhouse against them. While she was suffering incredibly sweet agony, he was so cool, pumping into her, torturing her plight to intense finish. When she finally succumbed and crumpled against the plushness of the feather bed his body tensed as a telltale of his own climb to that ultimate summit. Jason was so, so erotic when he came. He was so powerful. His muscles flexed into lines of perfection as he braced himself to ride her through. Now he was in his wonderful agony. Blanche nudged him back and she was astride him. He wailed as she let her body sink atop him, taking him as deeply as she possibly could go. The combination of pressure and electricity was at the same time salty, sweet, and delicious. It awoke her orgasm and she

was coming with him, chasing that erotic high together. Together, as one, they came and tumbled on top of the comfort of the feather mattress. They pressed and rested against the warmth of each other’s bodies.

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR The mountain forest created a natural air conditioning. The temperatures up the slope upon which the cabin was situated were considerably cooler than they were at the base. He cracked the windows set in the walls directly across from each other to create the perfect flow of cross-ventilation. A sumptuous breeze cooled their perspiration of an exhausting work out. It was a good kind of exhausting. Blanche lazed and sank into an intense nap. It wasn’t a long nap, but she had been out cold and when she awoke, Jason was gone. She sat up and just like him, he left a note in plain view where she could easily find it. She sprawled on her stomach towards the end of the bed near the note propped up on a chair, so she could read it better. He was going down to the base of the mountain to get mail and some supplies and please keep activity to a minimum. He said they would go for a walk when he got back. She noticed that the shades were drawn and the doors were barred. She hopped off the bed to use the bathroom and she discovered a fact that was really upsetting to her. It infuriated her in a way she had not been in quite some time. It was one of the characteristics about her that made her such a great candidate as an assassin for the Norte Mexicalis--her white hot rage. Jason Fowler had tethered her ankle to the bedframe. He put her on a leash. He gave her enough room to use the bathroom, shower, and get something to eat. She could probably step outside the front door but she noted that he took her clothes. Way to leave me vulnerable, she thought. What puzzled her was how he got out of the cabin with the doors completely latched, unless there was another way in or out. There must be an easy, probably hidden access to the cabin, one that would allow him to lock the front and the back doors with heavy, solid wooden latches and escape. A window was the first obvious thought, but those were also locked from the inside. It didn’t matter. The quickest way out the cabin was to cut the leash off. Oh, she shuddered. That was going way too far. She rinsed off in the shower. She took what her aunt used to call a “whore’s bath.” That was just about all she was allowed to take after her grandmother died. Blanche’s sleek black silk of hair skated around her naked back. She knotted it up to avoid as much contact with the water as she could and just rinsed the sex from her body. She toweled off. What to do for clothes? She thought for a second. He couldn't have thrown them away. Hopefully they were not outside. She could not believe the lengths that he went to. She could accept a lot of things about him, but this was just plain weird. She made a toga with the towel, went into the kitchen to find something to hack off the tether that was a band of flexible steel wires coated with vinyl. She thought she could saw through one strand at a time and at the same time, work out the clothing issue. Blanche managed to break the vinyl and work on raw steel. It sounded like she was making progress. It felt like she was getting somewhere, but the only thing she was succeeding in doing was wrecking

the serrated edge of the blade. "Fuck!" she shrieked. She made a personal vow right then and there; she was going to get him for putting her in this humiliating situation. Inspiration told her to check the kitchen draws farther away from the knife drawer. And there she found a collection of tools. A pair of snips that might just do it. Her hand strength alone wasn't doing it, but she was able to finally do some damage. She tweezed the cord between the blades of the snips and, with a hammer this time, squeezed the handles. Two or three strikes and there it was. She had something of a cuff with a jagged piece sticking out, but she was free. Her clothes were under a box of garbage bags below the sink. Her anger subsided slightly. At lease he had the decency to fold them. As far as she was concerned, she couldn't lift the wood to unlock the door, but a window she could do. The problem was that she would have to destroy a screen to get out because they weren't popping out. She looked up at the ceiling for something like a trap door. She was standing in the bathroom, looking and looking, trying to make it come to her and then she honed in on what she thought was a towel cupboard. She popped the door and there it was: a camouflaged exit. She stepped into a closet-way that led to an outside door and she was outside. There was no obvious way to the road she knew was at the base of the mountain. Her plan was to get to that road and hitch somewhere. All of this really to teach Jason Fowler a huge lesson. Put me on a leash! Are you serious? She stomped down the hill; she may have even been cursing him out loud for anyone to hear, though she was confident no one could, when she felt she was not alone at all. There was a rustle. If it were Jason, why didn't he say? Blanche estimated that she was too far from the cabin now to just dash back. She was sort of committed. Climbing a tree might be an option unless a bear was tailing her‌or a mountain lion. Now, she thought she should have just taken the tether off and just waited for him in the cabin. Slowly, casually, she turned her direction back around to toward Jason's house. Blanche crouched behind the trunk of a sequoia, taking cover as she scoped. If it was an animal stalking her, her stillness was a good thing. If it were a human, the tree was a good base. In times where self-defense was a possibility, Blanche was always on the prowl for weapons, though she, herself, was one. She held a black belt in a style of full-contact, offensive karate. At the least if someone were after her, it would cost them a broken nose. She crouched to pick up a good-sized branch that she spied from the ground. She tested it to make sure it was sturdy and not brittle with rot. She stood back up to be on the lookout when company joined her. She faltered, losing it to a partial faint. Jason Fowler appeared and was leaning against the tree behind her. Standing up to her full height, Blanche was nearly a foot shorter than he. She let herself waver to the safety of his body. The stick she chose lingered in her grip. "Oh good," he said in a low and scolding voice. "I was going to tell you to pick a switch. Now I don't

have to." "What are you...?" she struggled to ask, but couldn't finish. He rubbed her shoulders. "Breathe," he coached her. "Come." He took a step forward and offered her his hand. When she did not respond he said, "That’s not a request. That's an order. Now come." She was scared that he had gotten the jump on her. It was a good thing she got away from the Norte Mexicali drug cartel. Money or no, she might not have what it took, after all, to be a hit man. El Salvador. It was a past that seemed ancient and, yet, it would never leave her. She was realizing that if she had actually made Jason her target, she very well could have lost. She wasn't exactly winning now. As they climbed the curving ground up in the direction of his place, he said nothing. He merely looked over his shoulder to chastise her with his gaze. Finally she had had enough. She jerked her hand from his hold. Before she could launch into a tirade on how she felt about his treatment of her, he grinned, raising an eyebrow as he did. "Is this where you announce that you are going to go it alone?" His light-hearted response morphed immediately. He snatched her up, "Knock off this bullshit and let's get back inside where we will be safe. That is, if you haven't left the place completely unsecured." They entered the cabin the way Blanche left it. Jason insisted on scoping it out first, making her wait in the little closet area just outside the false cabinet door. When he was satisfied, he appeared again and took hold of her arm. "Come," he said again. He guided her to the kitchen to a chair and sat across from her. He flared his eyes at her before scanning her. He reached over and took her ankle cuffed with the remains of the lease he had created for her to examine it. “And so when I left you like this, all locked up, why do you think I did that?” he began. Blanche gave her response no thought. She blurted out, “Well for one, you are an arrogant asshole –” What he did next, she would never have imagined. He found the thing that would make her cry ‘uncle’ instantly. He tickled her. He imprisoned her ankle and tickled her foot mercilessly. She would have spazzed off the chair if it were not for his lifting his leg and catching her. He continued his wicked torture. “You going to give me a straight answer?” he asked. “I’ll let you tumble. Your ass will be straight up in the air. Now why do you think I did what I did?” “Because you didn’t want me to leave!” she shouted and Jason relented. “That’s right,” he said sarcastically. “I didn’t want you to leave. Because for one, you’ve been a very bad girl. And bad girls get punished, if I have anything to say about it. And for two, we are in a little sticky situation. I am sticking my neck out on a limb until you are off the hook for the murder and I can convince my men that you were saving their captain’s life, not just serving your own interests.” “If you wanted me safe, you wouldn’t have tied me to the bed naked like an animal. It was degrading.

I can’t even tell you –” she choked on a rush of emotion that came up out of nowhere. “What if there was a fire?” she asked him. He shook his head. “Blanche, was there a fire?” “No –” she said. He jumped on her sentence. “No. There was not a fire,” he browbeat her. “I ought to tie you up again. I really ought to.” “You know what?” she growled. The assassin in her came out to the fore, “You ever put your hands on me in a sexual way again and I will break every fucking bone in your hand.” The rage that he made her feel tensed her. Her body was like steel, wrenching with fury. “You will not tie me up like an animal. And just for the record, I am not fucking you ever again.” A silence fell between them. His eyes twinkled. He was not taking her seriously. “You just said that, I believe. Who are you trying to convince?” She didn’t answer. She didn’t look at him. And she didn’t protest his lingering touches on her leg that still rested on his thigh. “I am sorry I got freaky with you without your consent,” he said softly. “Maybe I pushed you into doing the wrong thing.” “Maybe?” she scoffed. “So we can consider us even,” he continued softly. “I’m still not fucking you,” she blurted. “Fine. You can lay back and let me do all the work. I don’t mind,” he winked at her. “I left the stuff I brought back on the hill. I will be right back and then I will take this off of you. We’ll have dinner. Come.” “No,” she retorted. He tilted his head. “Excuse me?” “I am not getting tied up again,” she folded her arms across her chest defiantly. “No,” he said, “I wanted you to take a walk with me to help me with the groceries before the bears get to them.” He stood up and, once again, he took her hand. He held her hand and like that, they walked down to where he set the supplies he brought. The mention of wild mountain creatures worked on her. “Do you really see a lot of bears around here?” she asked. “Yes. Bears, lions a couple of times, bobcats, wolves. Sure,” he said casually.

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE As they approached the bags, it appeared everything was untouched, but that was because the enormous trunk of a giant Sequoia was blocking their view of an adolescent black bear that had dragged one of Jason’s bags away to feast. Blanche screeched and startled the creature. Jason put a hand over her mouth and ordered her to be still and quiet. He spoke to her low and deliberately, “I am going to give you some of the food and I going to take some, as well, but I want you to start walking while I stay here.” Blanche, in a full-blown panic, shook her head defiantly. His brace on her grew tighter and his tone fierce. Jason Fowler was not the white bread boy that the Norte Mexicali drug cartel took him for. He scared her about as badly as the bear did. “You do as I say or I will do worse to you than tie a rope around your ankle. I am not playing. Do exactly as I say.” Against her better judgment, Blanche followed the orders. She cautiously picked up some of the bags; the bear went back to eating his stolen food. She walked by herself up the hill, not wanting to leave him. Oh this man who made her feel a million different things from one minute to the next! She looked over her shoulder to see him walking backwards with all the bags in one hand and a can of something in the other. It looked like everything was going okay. She had mindlessly stopped walking up the hill; she let herself get caught up in observing the situation. She zoned out and Jason bumped right into her. This time the bear growled at them. “Walk now,” he ordered. Having him knock into her was bit like having a car tap her. He was solid and she was sore from her prior injury. It was so difficult to comply with the blood of abject terror rushing to her ears. She could hardly think straight. It felt as though she was walking in pudding. Her heart beat. She was faint, but not in the good way that Jason made her world spin. She had to make a concerted effort to think so she could put one foot in front of the other. The earth shook. There was such a tremendous rush that her heart was pounding…or they were having an earthquake. Or mudslide. Every possible disaster went through her mind but the one that was actually happening. A bear was charging them. Jason sprayed the bear and then he pulled out what apparently was his gun and shot him multiple times. As loud and thunderous as it had been, the bear was dead silent now. Blanche collected her wits and turned around. Jason was on one knee, inspecting the bear that lolled around on the ground before coming to a complete stop. He collected what was left of the groceries and marched silently up the hill. He dumped the bags on the kitchen table and fished around for something. He pulled out a bottle. Wine. Like a surgeon, he sliced the sealing and plunged into the cork to decant it. He drank from the bottle. He paused, not quite guzzling. He cut his eyes at her fiercely. He was pissed at her. Blanche made sure the cabin was locked up. She sidestepped him as he quietly did his thing.

She busied herself by putting away the groceries. He bought raw vegetables including lettuce, fruit, and steak. Oatmeal. Two bottles of wine. As she checked out the pantry, she saw a bag of flour, soda, a stash of warm beer and assorted liquor. He was pretty well-stocked for the essentials. She put the perishables in the fridge and she saw a jar of yeast. Blanche was going to make white bread. "So what did the bear get?" she asked finally. "Fish. I keep some hooks baited in a creek halfway down." "I'm sure it was upsetting to kill him. What exactly did he eat? I mean -" she said softly but he tromped on her. And he was clearly on his way to drunk already. "Don't even suggest this is about the bear wrecking the best part of our meal," he scathed. "This is about you once again going off and doing whatever the fuck you want without consideration to how it affects other people." "I was in a scary situation. I was frozen with fear. I am sorry you had to kill that bear. I am upset about it, too," she protested. She couldn't believe he was blaming her about the bear. "I am not upset about dinner," he blurted sarcastically. "And the bear is not dead. That was a tranq gun I used. If you hadn't left the cabin in the first place, we wouldn't have had the whole scene," he said. "You tied me up," she reminded him bitterly. You admitted yourself that you might as well have shown me the door." His face brightened, but facetiously, "That's right, because you have huge impulse control issues and hey, you can' be held accountable. I ought to stick your ass out there like you wanted and let you fend for yourself. I have put my neck on the line for you, lady. But I actually had some news for you. That's why I bought this,� he tapped the wine bottle. "You are in the clear. You have to talk to the police, but the charges against you are not horrible anymore." She started, "Why the hell didn't you tell that to me in the first place?" she demanded. "I wanted to tell you over dinner," he replied sarcastically. "Then take you in. They were letting me bring you in." "God you're an ass," she muttered. Between the bondage stunt and now, she was pretty disgusted with him. "Pardon me while I come down off of being scared out of my mind a bear was going to kill me. Damn," he cursed and sipped the wine. Blanche took the bottle from him and helped herself. "You had that spray and the gun," she said

casually. He regarded her and retorted, "We were very lucky that even worked. So lucky." Blanche took a good look at him. Somewhere among her anger, she found a little sympathy. He was terrified and though he blamed her, she could see, he felt responsible. She sipped the wine again. It was really good. It was probably sacrilegious, but it would probably be even better over ice. She went to the cupboard, got out two glasses and filled them to the brim with ice cubes from the freezer. She split the remaining contents of the bottle between them. "What are you doing?" he asked in horror. "It's delicious. Try it," she said and reached for the second bottle. It was a good night to be drunk. He swiped it as if to rescue it, "Don’t you dare. This shit is thirty bucks a bottle and we do not make spritzers out of it." Blanche knitted her brows in disbelief, "You are so ridiculous sometimes." He wasn't budging. "Jason, you just chugged it." He smiled at himself. Then he chuckled. Then he laughed. Then he was hysterical. Blanche couldn't help but join in. She eased into him, straddling him as she sat in the chair. She picked up one of the icy drinks and held it to his lips.

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX He sipped and then they kissed. The chill of the wine and the heat of his mouth were delicious on her tongue. When all was said and done, she did so like kissing him. She liked the feel of his sexy hair in against her fingertips, the fact that she had carte blanche to touch him anywhere she wanted. The way she fit on his lap. Jason was the consummate mix of masculinity, muscle, and hardness. The sweet scent of his breath now tinged with wine. Everything about him physically turned her on. Jason explored her, his large hands roaming up beneath her shirt to find the curves of her breasts. Whatever animosity or negative tension that was between them evaporated and was replaced by passionate magnetism. Every cell in her body was drawn to him, screamed for him. She could feel his erection through the thick faded denim of his jeans. It was hard in the soft hollow of the center of her body. Just enough tease to make her body grind hungrily against him. Just as they were hot and heavy, the rustling sound of traffic in the forest litter stopped them cold. They broke their kiss and both craned their necks. "What's that?" she asked. Jason tapped her a couple times for her to get off of him. He reached on top of the refrigerator for a weapon. Blanche was certain this was not tranquilizer gun this time. "Do you think it's another bear?" she asked. It turned out that the gun he was loading was for her to use. He drew open a box that was inside the pantry and loaded another gun. "I know you know how to kick ass. How is your shot?" "Good. It's my nerve that's not so good. And we have both been drinking," she said. "Have some more and find your nerve," he said. "I think we have company. And it's not any cuddly wuddly bear. I think your Norte Mexicali brethren followed me." "Followed you from where?" Blanche almost growled her question. "From in town," he answered, spying outside as best he could. "Why didn't you tell me?" she nearly shouted. His eyes flared at her to be quiet. Blanche completely forgot herself. As far as her cutthroat skills, she was rusty, but she was focusing now. She moved independent of his direction, did the things the she would if she were casing a target. She brought a kitchen chair under the crawl space and went up into the roof to spy out covertly. There, around the chopping stump, stood a man, scouting the property. It looked like a Norte Mexicali, but, for all she knew, it could have been one of Jason's crew, one of the Seven Devils Motorcycle Club. There was no way of confirming that without her voice being amplified by the echo in the crawl space. The intruding man was a huge, Hispanic man with boisterous hair. It was a shame, but she was going to shoot him. There was the slight chance he was turncoat and he was coming to warn them. In that case, she would hit him and make him worthless. She would hit him somewhere that would put him in

enough pain to make him talk but that would not jeopardize his life. Hopefully. She had to be careful. She had to make sure he was alone. Her questions were answered. Jason fired his gun and down the man went. He was not a Seven Devils and Jason, with the same idea that Blanche had had, appeared to have wounded him just enough to put him in a lot of agony. Blanche covered him while Jason went out to interrogate him. He was on the phone immediately for an ambulance. She knew that it was hugely selfish on her part, but the idea that the outside world would be here in short order frightened her. If Jason was correct and the charges were something she could handle, she could handle them. But now, with the EMTs, the police would be here and the likelihood of them just taking her in on the spot was great. She would be facing whatever charges on their time instead of being able to get herself ready for them. She had to put those thoughts aside and go down to help Jason who was now tying the man up. "What are you doing at my house? How did you know to find me?" Jason asked. The man did not respond and Blanche sensed that it might be because he spoke no English, so she repeated the question in Spanish and while she did, she agitated his wound a little. He reluctantly answered. Jason turned to her and remarked with a twinkle in his eye, "You are vicious." But it worked. She got the answer he needed: El Salvador, an urban legend whose description was never quite agreed upon. El Salvador was sometimes described as a huge man, a small woman, a blonde, a brunette. The truth was, El Salvador was a squad of hit people working for one of the most fierce drug cartels in Central America, Texas, and California: the Norte Mexicali. Blanche and Jason just bagged an El Salvador. He was assigned to track Jason and make him tell them where Blanche was. The only way the Norte Mexicali would consider the debt paid for Blanche's betrayal was with a body. Hers. And they wanted it. Now that this El Salvador was bested, he was in a very similar position as Blanche. His best option now was to join forces with them‌after he recovered from a pretty painful bullet wound. The EMTs found their way up to Jason's cabin. Blanche felt pretty vulnerable and Jason was decidedly protective of her. A couple of Gold Creek deputies came out along with the deputy District Attorney, Tim Paisley. His presence really unnerved Jason and Blanche, but he seemed really to be in favor of working with them to work against the Norte Mexicali. He was cordial to Blanche in a way that the sheriff of Gold Creek, Dana Levington, had not been to Blanche. Gold Creek meant Seven Devils Motorcycle Club and that group felt betrayed by Blanche. As a former hit person for Norte Mexicali, she had come to town to kill their captain. But that was before she fell in love with him.

After they loaded the wounded Norte Mexicali member up into the ambulance and the police cleared out, Jason got Tim to agree that it was best for Blanche to stay with him, at least for the night, because they had both been drinking. The best he could promise was a day-by-day reprieve. Blanche wanted to blurt out that, for even one more night with Jason Fowler, she would take it. As quickly as everything was loud and chaotic, crawling with people and drama, it was quiet. Everyone receded back down the hill and the forest was once again still. The day was gone and the air got a slight chill. The sunlight was leaving the cabin itself. Jason turned on the gas-burning fireplace and broke out the liquor. The second round of excitement restored Jason's appetite with a vengeance. The bear had eaten their fish, but the steak he carted up had been spared and Jason cooked them up with a bourbon glazing. Blanche mixed dough to rise overnight for the morning and tossed a salad for dinner. They worked in silence, but as they finally sat for their meal, they spoke. It was more like an eruption. "Jesus," Jason burst forth. He cracked a little from the shock of two unbelievable events in one night. Blanche felt a heavy shame that all of this was her fault. When her face knitted up with emotion, he read her loud and clear. "Listen," he reached gently at the nape of her neck. "I know you came to town to kill me," he said making a dark joke about it. "It's not funny," Blanche chastised, a dam of emotion just about to gush forth. "Baby, there are gazillion El Salvadors. You said so yourself. I haven't worked it out completely, but you were a kid when you got involved with these people. My guys are coming around to understand that. The Seven Devils are the good guys. Now we don't like to be threatened, but you made good. You have now backed me several times over." He spilled a little bourbon into her glass and lifted it to her lips. "Here. For medicinal purposes." She turned her head, now sulking. "Oh, don't do that. This is a beautiful dinner and I will not have my cooking go unappreciated." He was flirting with her and the chemistry between them was so strong, so narcotic, and was, indeed, good medicine. Jason speared a chunk of perfectly flavored, juicy grilled steak and put it to her lips. "Open," he said. Blanche did as she was told. "As long as the word is out that our little town is sitting on gold, we will attract attention from all kinds of people. You weren't the first Norte Mexicali who tried to cut me down; you obviously weren't the last." "Why don't you put the gold somewhere where they can't get it, so they know it's ridiculous to even try?" Blanche asked. Jason flashed a huge, warm smile. Blanche thought he had perhaps the most handsome face she had ever seen. His teeth were so even and white, perfectly cut. His lips had just the amount of fullness. He was in need of a shave, but the growth was becoming. Blanche wanted to stick her tongue in his mouth.

"We do have some we mined, but the gold is in the ground. It's in the real estate. They want the town. And it would be easy to do that. Just spread their drug business around and the town people would sign over everything they had. "That's how they found out about the gold in the first place. A dope fiend, a friend of Denise Cranston's ex-husband, was high and started rambling off at the mouth. When we first discovered the gold, we worked it so that each person in the town had an equal interest. We had to tell him to get clean or get out. He was in treatment when he was murdered. And, as we both know, she was widowed in much the same way. Her husband got it in the back when he was running for his front door." Blanche offered quietly, "Norte Mexicali." "Yep. They thought they could squeeze something out the two men they hadn't already turned over." Jason's anger seemed to subside and was replaced by a philosophical attitude. "You know, Dana may be the sheriff of Gold Creek, but you're like the mayor," Blanche observed. Jason reached under the table and lifted her legs over his lap, affectionately. "Mayor, hmm? You know, we have had a crazy day to say the least. I kinda lost it there after the bear thing. How are you doing?" He fed her another bite of food.

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN They ate slowly until it was gone. They made slow, quiet love on the rustic luxury of the feather mattress. In the morning, they had a light breakfast. Jason filled a thermos of coffee and packed up some water and granola to lead them on a modest hike. The San Gabriel Mountains were so spectacular as the buttery light of the sun sprayed down through the treetops. He led them to the bottom of the hill to a secured enclosure painted barn red. It was where Jason kept his bike. He got them each a helmet and fired it up. Blanche thought there was just about nothing sexier than the sound of a Harley engine‌except for when the rider was so romantically handsome as Jason was. His unkempt hair spilled around his head. His sun-tanned biceps bulged beneath the faded T and burst in the crisp black jeans that he wore. Blanche's jeans were peg-legged and snug fitting, almost like denim tights. She spooned her legs against him as closely as she could with the Harley engine wickedly vibrating the both of them. She wrenched her arms around his magnificent torso. It was heaven to hold him this way. Blanche was more than a little nervous to basically turn herself in. She had killed a man. It was either kill him or let him kill Jason. It was a no-brainer, but finally, the authorities agreed that there had been no crime. After getting the formalities of that out of the way, she would ultimately have to face the Seven Devils. Jason summoned a meeting of his club. Usually he held important meetings at the Motorcycle Place, which was the garage where everyone with a bike went for repairs, but this was more than just a meeting of his club. This was a town meeting. All the members of the Gold Creek Corporation would be there, everyone who had ownership in the gold that the Norte Mexicali was after. Jason was going to give them a status update: another of the so-called El Salvador hit men had done their best to get him, but, thanks to Blanche, was unsuccessful. Of all the situations where Blanche should have been filled with fear and was not, facing the possible reaction of Gold Creek and the Seven Devils was perhaps the hardest thing she ever had to do ever. Their reception was chilly. Jason reminded them that the law had decided she was exonerated of all charges and that she acted in self-defense. The good part of having Blanche in town was that she knew the Norte Mexicali better than anyone else and she could serve as critical security for them. There was also the possibility of having the second El Salvador doing the same. The Seven Devils wanted some assurance of her loyalty. There was a heavy pause. Jason didn't have an answer for them as to how they could be certain that Blanche or the other assassin wouldn't play for the team that paid the highest bidder. A pressure pent up within her and while they had been talking about her as though she wasn't even there, she blurted out, "Because I love him!"

The room quieted and they collectively turned their head towards her, all pretty much gape-jawed, including Jason. The admission made her sick to her stomach. She finally realized what it was that had been driving her moods, making her unsure of herself. She had fallen in love with Jason Fowler, the man her former employer hired her to kill. As soon as she said those words out loud, she knew she fell in love with him for good. The entire room looked at her as though she had just pulled a stunt, but she was instantly fevered. A film of perspiration formed on her brow and she was bombarded with hot flashes. She looked to Jason, silently pleading with him to just accept what she was saying and to leave it. "I don't blame you for not liking me, not wanting me around, not trusting me. It is asking a lot to ask you to let me stay here in your wonderful town. I am not grandstanding. I mean what I say. I do love Jason and I don’t want anyone harm here. Jason, I don't feel well." Jason addressed his motorcycle club, "I invite you to talk to each other and I will honor whatever you decide. But for now, I am taking her to my place. I would like it if I could get a couple of guys to come with us. We definitely have to stick together until we nail this thing down." Watching him, Blanche could see why he was the captain of the Seven Devils Motorcycle Club. He had such a genuine, calm approach over such a touchy matter. While he seemed to be there for his club members, he was really putting it all on the line for her. She was somber and composed as he took her to his home. The one thing that made Blanche feel better about the situation was that Jason could be in his own home at long last. The cabin, though rustic, was wonderful and cozy, but she knew that there was something about being at home. She could not remember when she had a home of her own, and so it was something she really appreciated. Even though she had spent such a little time in Jason's Gold Creek home, she liked returning to it. Secretly, she wished it were hers.

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT As she expected, Jason drew a bath for her. He tenderly washed her hair and let her alone to relax against a bath pillow so she could soak in the warm, lavender scented water that was up around her neck. He returned eventually, just as she was pruning, to let the water out. He gently exfoliated her feet and toes and coaxed her up to a standing position so that he could rub her down with a special botanical blended lotion. The effect was so sensual. She was relaxed from head to toe, inside and out. It made her feel positively lazy. The blast of illness had, at least for the time, passed. Jason guided her to his bed. She laid her towel-dried body, still heated from the hot tub, on the bed. The temperature of the fresh clean bed linen was a luscious contrast to her own. There was something wicked and wanton about being so openly naked in the wide-open room. The vaulted ceiling, the stone hearth fir place, the wide-planked flooring all made the room feel as rustic as the cabin had been, but it was so much more civilized and more luxurious. The night was bit too warm for a fire, though, and Blanche yearned to experience the bed in the wintertime. There would be snow outside for sure. As she lay back on the bed, she peered out the sliding glass door, whose curtain was pulled back so that it was almost like being naked outside. Jason gently took hold of her thighs bearing the soft delicate flesh between. He crouched, his shoulders working like a wild beast slowly moving in to feast on his prize. Though still as electric, still as arousing, there was something different in his touch. Almost as though he knew she was his, like a barrier between them had been lifted. He plunged his pointed tongue into her, pressing against the wet and pliant walls of her eroticallycharged entrance. He stroked and stroked her then touched the tip of her engorged bud at the apex of her sex with the lightest brush. His tongue was just firm enough, but also featherweight and the combination undid her. Her body gushed with arousal as little tremors overtook her. They gathered as they traveled until they consumed her. They racked and they rocked her, but Jason was unrelenting. He licked, coaxing every spasm until the wild, intense orgasm was at its peak all the way through to the end. When she was finally calmed, he entered her. It was as though he were claiming her. He quietly pumped into her, savoring her body as they gazed into each other's eyes. The shadows of night began to settle outside, taking the light of the room as it did. He continued for a long time, roaming his hands on her buttocks, impelling himself deeply into her in a position that was less adventure and more about connecting. Every part of him pressed against every part of her. Blanche shifted to her side so they were rocking against one another side by side. She took the spice up a notch and raised a leg up and under his armpit. She arched back and cupped her bobbling breasts. He groaned or growled and his pace picked up considerably. Jason was no longer in quiet control. The sight of her body enslaved him. She was attuned to the fact that he was soaking her up, watching

her every move so she played on it, writhing lasciviously for his pleasure and sweet agony. She pursed her lips and let her eyes go slack like she was in the throes of coming to really accentuate how much she liked it when he was inside of her. She thrust her hips aggressively and asked him if it felt good. She was killing him in a good way. He was just about paralyzed with the intensity of it all. She rolled him, mounted him, and took him over the edge. Blanche gripped the headboard, her body leaning over him, nearly smothering him, but he handled it well. He tickled her by licking her belly causing her to jerk and jolt with tremendous results. He was seizing with the ultimate pleasure beneath her, “Oh God, oh God,� he prayed, his hips thrusting into her with a fury. She kept right up with him as they weathered the fabulous storm together. Finally, he was still, his body milking it to the last contraction while the rest of him was wasted and relaxed. She kissed him on the head, feeling a little bit proud of herself as she dismounted. They scurried under the covers to enjoy the comfort of his generous and plush bed. Jason was quiet for a bit. Just when she thought he was going to drift off to sleep, he scrambled off to the kitchen and rustled up dessert, crumbles of granola on ice cream, raspberries, and chocolate sauce. She wanted all of it but she had to share. Even better yet, he fed it to her. here was something intensely erotic about having him put the spoon in her mouth and maneuvering it around. She found herself whimpering. He dosed her with the ice cream and then leaned in to taste it from her lips. The chill and the heat made his lips that much more sensuous. He dipped his tongue in the ice cream and then licked her nipples. She arched up against him. He lifted the spoon to her lips and mimicked a sexual motion into her mouth. From reflex, she wrapped her legs around his hips. He was hard for her again. This time there was no cat and mouse. They fucked with a fury and a passion, with such an intense need for each other that never seemed to go away or get satisfied for very long. This was a quick, sweet union that had Blanche wildly pleasuring herself. In a few pressured strokes, she was gripping his hardness with a wonderfully powerful climax. They supped on what remained on the dessert, now completely melted, and crashed.

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE The Seven Devils had several holds throughout Gold Creek and the surrounding areas. Everyone who was in on the gold-find owned their houses and businesses outright and completely. They had a few properties like the cabin where Blanche and Jason stayed and they tended to circulate residency that way. Now that Jason was back at his house, a couple of the club members were at the cabin. Despite their reluctance to accept Blanche into their folds, they did come together as an organization and were on high alert. They were going to best the Norte Mexicali once and for all. It was going pretty well, especially when it looked like the recently-captured El Salvador who Jason wounded was going to join forces. Unfortunately, he did not and Deputy District Attorney Tim Paisley had to release him. Since he was shot just outside the strange property line surrounding the cabin and Gold Creek didn’t actually own the land he was standing on, he wasn’t actually trespassing. So he disappeared. The problem was that, in addition, someone else from the town also disappeared. The sheriff of the town who was on something of a sabbatical, nursing a family member injured by the Norte Mexicali, was also missing: Dana Levington, the sheriff in charge when Blanche first came to town as an El Salvador assassin, had simply went off the radar. No one had heard from him in days, just about the time Jason and Blanche showed up from the cabin. Dana made no effort to disguise the fact that he just about hated Blanche. If it weren’t for her and her kind, Norte Mexicali that is, his family would not be suffering the way that it was. While the town bustled around trying to address the safety of one of their own, Blanche couldn’t help but feel responsible. It didn’t help that as she sat in the Café San Juan eating scrambled eggs and drinking coffee, she could feel the collective disapproval of everyone in the place. She didn’t dare ask for more coffee. If she were to get it, she wouldn’t dare drink it. This was an awful situation. Jason dropped her off to take care of a few things and told her to stay put until he got back. They had ridden into town together, so she couldn’t really just go for a ride. After paying her bill and over-tipping, Blanche went next door to a convenience store to indulge in a terrible habit. When she was stressed like she was, she liked to smoke. She had just eaten. She had her coffee. And now she thought at least, I want to light up. Most of California, in general, was uppity when it came to smoking, but in a biker town, it was pretty well accepted. That and hard drinking, like in most biker communities. But then Gold Creek, a biker town in many ways, was not ordinary. The town folk had to be physically and mentally fit and couldn’t make themselves vulnerable to bad habits, or they would risk their precious gold. Still, a few of the Seven Devils did smoke. Blanche unzipped the cellophane wrapper and removed the foil. She held a cigarette between her teeth and lit it up. It was one thing to have the idea of smoking, remembering it fondly, and quite another to take that first hit after having not smoked in a while. Blanche launched into a choking fit on the first drag. She felt

really stupid as she struggled to regain her breathing. She dashed back into the Café San Juan for a glass of water, barely able to speak. The waitress was extraordinarily cold. “Put that cigarette out. There is no smoking in here,” she hissed. Blanche raced outside to mash out the cigarette. She returned, still hacking. The waitress scolded, “Did you just litter? This is Gold Creek, honey. Maybe that human trash you ran with is okay with making a trashcan out of the place they live, but we got standards. Go pick it up.” Blanche was barely able to hear what she was saying. She would have loved to go out and pick up a cigarette butt, but she was now consumed with what felt like might be an asthma attack. She could not be having one of those, because she was not asthmatic. When she heard the clink of the ice water on the bar, she grappled for it and spilled it. The waitress cursed and Blanche blacked out. The white unfiltered light of the California sun pierced Blanche’s eyes as she came to on the sidewalk out in front of Café San Juan. The waitress and a few others stooped over her and stared, but did not offer anything to comfort her in any way. The sidewalk was warm and felt good on her muscles. She really just wanted to sleep. If everyone would just leave her alone, she could sleep where she was, for just a little while, but she felt her pocket buzzing. It must be her phone. Some part of her wanted to get it, but, mostly, she wanted to sleep. She would get it later. The problem with having come to town on a motorcycle was that the guy who showed up to take you to the doctor’s couldn’t really give you a ride there and the EMTs were taking their sweet time about getting to her. Blanche was barely conscious. It felt like something more than a dream, but she believed Jason was finally there. She was awake enough to hear someone say, “Why not take her into County General so that she can be safely out of our hair?” “I’m not letting her out of my sight! And I am damn sure not leaving until I know which one of you did this to her!” It really was the first time that she had heard him yell like that. “We didn’t do anything to her,” snipped the waitress. “Good lord. You make us put up with her. Have her in our face and we are pretty polite, considering. No. She was smoking a cigarette and went into a fit. Serves her right.” Blanche tried to speak. She believed she was saying she wanted to go to ‘County General.’ Finally, after struggling to be clear, Jason got it. “Okay,” he said. She could tell he wasn’t happy about the decision. They decided to transport her without lights and sirens and took her the back way. En route, she picked up the EMTs saying they would take her to a trauma unit, a private care facility. Whoever they were talking to, it was apparently their boss, because the guy on the phone kept saying, “Okay boss. Okay.” The trauma unit. Blanche thought that made perfect sense to her.

CHAPTER THIRTY It was awfully cool in the room as she awoke. Despite the fact that she had a room to herself, there was a curtain track from which loosely hung a green curtain. She was pretty sore. To move pained her, so she kept as still as possible. Perhaps it was the injury, for she knew she had banged her head pretty good, though, for the life of her, she could not remember when or how, but she had a strange sense of inner peace, like there was no fear or rage within. When the doctor entered the room, she was glad to see him. He didn't seem to return the sentiment. His face was stern and cold. "I see you're awake," he said. "Yes," she answered. "Do you remember being awake before?" he asked. "No I don't," she replied. Worry began to creep in. "And I suppose you don't remember your name still; do you?" "No," she said. "Well I am going to fill you in. You are a prisoner of the town of Gold Creek. I am Sheriff Dana Levington. You are my prisoner. Your name is Mirna Mercado." "Mirna Mercado?" she parroted, trembling involuntarily. "Yes. You banged your head trying to escape," he lied. "What was I arrested for?" she asked. "Prostitution, I am afraid," he answered. "You are in the infirmary right now." Blanche was struck with a question, "If you're a sheriff, where is your badge?" Dana reached beneath his neckline and pulled out a badge. He let Blanche inspect it. She was unable to read. The writing on the badge didn't make much sense to her. She just accepted it was what he said it was. "Do you think I could call my lawyer?" she asked. Dana crooked a brow. "Your lawyer?" he asked sarcastically. "Sure. You can talk to him. Do you even remember his name?" He was cruel, she decided. It seemed as though she did, indeed, remember having someone. She struggled to recollect the lawyer's name but she drew a blank. A big fat empty blank. "No?" he asked. "Nothing?" "Jason!" Blanche blurted out from nowhere. The alarm on Dana's face was visible. "Your lawyer's name is Jason? Does he have a last name?" "No," said Blanche. "I don't remember." The emotion that rose within her made her head hurt. "If I can't see my lawyer, can I please see the doctor? Or a nurse? I don't feel so good." There was a knock on the door. The man who entered regarded Dana gravely. "Dana, she could be really hurt. She doesn't remember anything. I think this has gone on long enough." Dana didn't like the man's advice. His eyes flared with threat. "I'll handle this." The man sidestepped Dana. "You okay, Blanche?" he asked. "You need anything?" "Blanche?" she was confused. "I thought my name is Mirna." "I was for this, but I think we have done enough," said the second man. "I'm as upset about Kevin as anyone, but I am not about being cruel." "Well with that kind of compassion, she ought to be in good hands," Dana growled. "Dana, they are going to come looking for her. They found her once before and they'll find her again."

"Wait," said Blanche. "Did I or did I not commit a crime?" The man and Dana answered simultaneously. Dana said yes but the man said no. "And are you a nurse?" she asked the man. "Because I am really hurt." Dana glared at the man who, Blanche could see, struggled to answer, "I was a medic in the service. It's been a while." "You're a dick," Dana cursed him. "She is injured and she's causing division." "If you give this up, whatever it is," said Blanche, "no one need ever know." Dana laughed. A broad smile painted his face. "Are you offering to let me off? It's the other way around, I think." Blanche studied him. He looked cornered. His buddy was not on his side. Dana was outnumbered, except that he had a gun. And she was in bad shape. She closed her eyes, deciding she would suffer as comfortably as she could, hoping for the best. Blanche could hear them arguing. Dana was working with the Norte Mexicali. She pricked up her ears as soon as she heard that term. Blanche. Norte Mexicali. Gold Creek. Jason. It felt like it was all coming back to her, the fragments of her life, but still not connecting well. From what she gathered, she had offended Dana so badly that he joined forces with the town enemy to destroy her. The second man kept trying to reason with him that his plan was crazy, that he would be the one who would be ostracized from town, not her. He asked Dana, "Do you really want her to be more welcomed than you?" Blanche determined the man was getting to Dana. Dana shouted, "Leave me alone! I know what I'm doing!" In Blanche’s estimation, Dana was tormented, pressured. The only thing she could do now was bide her time and hope, like the other guy had said, someone would find her. Alive. The pain at the back of her head was awful. She felt as though she had been hit by a car. As she lay still, bits and pieces were fluttering through her mind. She remembered that she had been in a restaurant. She could see the bar with its hunter green painted interior and a woman with loosely upswept hair. Blanche felt like she had been at the restaurant for some reason, waiting for someone and that the woman with the upswept hair worked there. When Blanche tried to force more revelation, it seemed to pain her, so she stopped. She listened. The discussion began again. The other man was, again, trying to convince Dana to bring her to the hospital, because, he said, she was really injured. “You don’t want this to turn into a murder rap,” he said.

Dana answered, “She’s fine. You’ve seen her.” “Yes, but she has a major head injury. Things can change with that at any time. Look at Kevin.” Dana’s voice took on an intense tone, “Do not bring him up again. If you expect me to have the same sympathy for her as I do for him –“ “Of course not. But you said, yourself, she wrecked your life. She wrecked his life. Your entire family’s lives. She will do it again if anything happens to her. No one is going to say this is justified, like it or not. Just think about it.” Blanche could hear someone get up. “Where are you going?” Dana demanded. “To check on her,” he answered. Their discussion gave Blanche an idea. When the other fellow entered the room, she began to complain mildly, “I don’t feel so well.” “I know you’re hurt,” he said. “Can you be more specific?” “Just weird. I can’t describe it,” she replied, making her voice faint and shrill. The man felt her forehead. He waved a penlight in front of her eyes. First the one, then the other. When the light hit the second, she was decided to do it. She faked a seizure. She wasn’t quite sure how it should go, but she did her best. The ruckus caused Dana to rush into the room. “What is going on?” he demanded. “I think she is seizing,” the man said. The fact that he didn’t have enough medical experience to know she was faking it sort of scared her. What if there was something wrong with her and they couldn’t tell? Her head was not good. Blanche made choking noises like she was swallowing her own tongue. Dana panicked. “Stop her, man! Can’t you do something?” “I can’t. If she is okay, she will just pass out. If she’s not –” said the man. “Then what?” Dana grabbed him. “What?!” “You gotta keep your voice down,” the man said in a hushed voice. “You are not helping her.” “Fine,” Dana said. “Take her in.” “Me? This is your deal. I just came over because you said you had a sick friend. Get the guys who

dropped her off.” Dana was hesitant. “Those were just some guys who owed me a favor.” “Like what kind?” the guy demanded. Dana was shamefully quiet. “What do you mean, Dana? Did you let someone off that should be arrested?” “I might have. Look, I will fix it. We have to get her to the hospital. I want this bitch well so I can kill her.” Blanche could feel him thinking. “Fuck it. Put her in my car. We will drop her off at County General. I will cover my tracks if I have to.” Part of her was afraid of being moved in any way except by ambulance, but part of her still had that strange inner calm. She told herself she would suffer through whatever if it meant she was away from the man who hated her so much. When they brought her out into the sunlight, Blanche felt nauseous. The air was fresh and cool, but the light bothered her greatly and the combination of the sensations made her vomit. Dana was annoyed by it. The man defended her. “Come on. You’re the sheriff in a biker town. I know we are pretty straight as far as that goes, but it’s not like you haven’t had someone puke on you before. It’s not her fault. She is ill. Come on, Dana. She’s just a little bitty thang. Word is she is sorry. How old you figure she is? She can’t be over twenty-five.” In her utter agony, the man’s question jarred her memory. Blanche Herrera. She was an assassin for Norte Mexicali. And she had super sweet, innocent looks that were her weapon. They made people trust her enough to get way too close until it was way too late. That’s who she was. That’s why Dana was so mad at her. She must have hurt his cousin…Kevin or whatever his name was. The recollection that she was an assassin seemed to fortify her. She felt herself fill will a sense of power. Her injury didn’t seem as significant, like she could ignore it if she had to, at least for the moment. She was no longer the pliant victim at Dana’s mercy and, in fact, felt like getting even with him for his treatment of her. She may be weak, but she had the element of surprise on her side. And boy would he be surprised. Blanche sat in the back while Dana and the man drove and rode shotgun. The adrenalin of knowing who she was and what she was going to do made her sit up straight instead of resting her body against the seat like she would have done before her memory came back. Well partially, anyway. It was a mistake she found, because weakness rolled across her and she had to close her eyes, nearly in sleep mode. She was not really well enough to make this trip, but it wasn’t too far away. She vomited again. Dana cursed again. “Chill, man,” the guy counseled. “She just left DNA all over my car,” Dana freaked. “Yeah. People do that. It will be okay. We just had a momentary lapse; we will get through this. Just

get her to the hospital.” “I feel like I am driving a crowning pregnant woman.” Dana retorted. “You’re too much, man,” the man said. The car pulled into the emergency room lot. There was some back and forth about cameras. Dana was still the sheriff of Gold Creek and he didn’t want to get caught dumping Blanche, so the man pulled his shirt up over his head and guided her to the curb. He made her lay down on the cement so that someone would come and get her. The car sped away. The cement was so warm. Blanche slept.

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE In her sketchy consciousness, Blanche knew she was helped up and into the hospital. She remembered that she kept saying she could pay cash for everything, but they said not to worry; it was covered. It was all a haze, but slowly her memory was coming back to her. Her biggest complaint was that her head hurt and she was just plain tired. The hospital ran her through scans and EEGs and determined she just had a concussion. She would be over it in about a week, but they said she could go home anytime. Home. For Blanche, that was one of those ever-vague notions she wished she could peg once and for all. It was really clear to her that, no matter how the mess with Jason, Dana, and Norte Mexicali worked out, she wanted to find a home and settle down. One of the nurses took the time to sit with her once she was fully wide awake. She told Blanche that when she was in and out of it and called for Jason. The nurse figured that since Blanche told her she was from Gold Creek, the 'Jason' she was talking about had to be the captain of the Motorcycle Club. The nurse knew Jason through the hospital since he had been a fireman, now retired. Since Blanche was unable to report a next of kin to notify, the nurse called him. He was on his way to come see her. But Jason didn't come alone. He brought with him a man he said was the deputy district attorney, Tim Paisley. It was reassuring to her that when she saw the two men, she knew them and remembered them clearly. Even though she was aware that she and Jason had a relationship, that it had been intense and she thought she loved him, something was different. She couldn't quite connect with those feelings. Jason Fowler was an extraordinarily handsome man -breathtaking and tall, with a perfectly proportioned, powerful physique with muscles that seemed to want to burst through his clothes. His hair whispered in rugged waves, sort of longish, like a grown out version of a shorter style. It was very becoming and framed his symmetrical features romantically. He looked like he could be a hero in a movie. He was pretty, but she just couldn't muster a thrill to see him. Whatever there had been between them, Blanche couldn't feel it. Jason smiled at her and kissed her on the forehead before sitting next to her. "What is it with us?" he kidded her warmly. "So much drama. From the first time we met when I had to rescue off of that bridge, it seems like we are always in the midst of or recovering from something. It might be kind of nice to see how we do in a calm, serene situation." Blanche felt uneasy. She might have welcomed his affection at one time. She was sure that was the case, because he looked at her like he was ga-ga for her. She remembered, with graphic detail, the sex they had. She remembered she really liked it, but she couldn't remember the feelings she had for him. In fact, it was agitating her to have him near. And he must have picked up on that. He cocked his head, "Baby? Are you okay?"

"Yes," she answered stiffly. "I didn't mean to joke about what you've been through. We will be brief. You've been gone for quite a while," he began, but Blanche quickly cut him off. "'Gone for quite a while'? You make it sound like I was on vacation. I was abducted," she protested indignantly. Jason hushed her. "Yes, baby," he agreed very softly. "I didn't mean to suggest anything, but I was just trying to be gentle in my approach. I didn't mean to upset you. I was just trying to find out whether you are able to tell us what happened." "I am not sure," she replied and proceeded to fill them in. She was getting worn out. She turned her head away from him. Tim Paisley interjected. He thanked her for her help and assured her of her safety. He promised her that Dana wouldn't be a threat to her. Blanche shook her head but said nothing. "Baby," Jason said again. Reluctantly she looked at him, "You don't love me anymore?" Blanche didn't say anything but she felt herself sulking. "Hmm?" he gently brushed her hair back across her head. "I was going to bring you home with me, but if you don't like me anymore," his voice was soft and seductive, but still she couldn't be stirred. "I don't know what it is," she said, her voice breaking a little. "That's okay," he said patiently. "If you aren't comfortable coming home with me, I guess we'll keep you here. Tim, here, has you under police guard, so you will be safe." "That's right," Tim stepped up. "All you have to do from here on out is get better. We need your help to get the Norte Mexicali." Blanche hesitated. "Blanche," Jason asked her frankly. "Something is going through your mind. We need to know what it is." "I'm tired," Blanche replied. She just wanted to forget about everything. Forget she ever stepped foot in Gold Creek. She wished she felt differently, but that was the best she could do. The police guard knocked on the door and stepped in before being asked, "Mr. Paisley?" "Yes," Tim answered. "County cops have been called to back up a situation over in El Monte. It's all hands on deck except for a small skeleton crew. We aren't available for guard duty," the cop said and closed the door.

Jason knitted his eyebrows and remarked to Tim, "That's weird." "Very," said Tim. "Think our friends, the Norte Mexicali, have deep pockets and have folks in County on the dole?" Jason asked. Tim raked his fingers through his hair. "I think we need some help with this thing. One thing is for sure, if she is medically able, I think she ought to move." The nurse entered the room next to check Blanche's vitals. Blanche pushed her away. "I am fine," she protested bluntly. She felt like she was going to burst from the whole situation. "Hey," Jason scolded gently, "she's just trying to do her job. It's for your own good." “I really need you to mind your own business. I’m fine. In fact, all of you leave.” Blanche's mood had officially soured. "Can you please go? I need a break from all this before she can get an accurate reading. I am liable to break the meter." “I need to check your eyes and listen to your heart, not just take your blood pressure,” the nurse said. She was stymied and Jason was clearly frustrated. In a bold move, he took the stethoscope from the nurse and put it on. He pressed Blanche down firmly with one hand while with the other, he fished the disc end of the stethoscope on the inside of her gown. “I think I hate you,” Blanche blurted out, not realizing she was going to do that. Jason squinted at her and then looked to the nurse for an answer. The nurse picked up on his question right away. "Sometimes people have a little personality change with head injuries. Could be just from being injured. Cranky." "I have a head injury, but I am not deaf," said Blanche. "Don't talk to him like my health is his business or like I am not here." Tim Paisley leaned over her, "Listen here," he said. "I've given you a considerable break because this guy here convinced me that you were just a poor kid mixed up with the wrong people and you were trying to make good. These people you worked for have people everywhere. They had our own sheriff doing their dirty work. You are not safe. I'm ordering you to go with Jason so he can keep an eye on you. The nurse interjected, “She isn’t moving anywhere until the doctor says so.” Jason replied, “I thought you said she was fine.”

“The doctor has to do a final exam and sign the papers. It’s a formality. And that will be in a little while.” “Fine,” he said to Blanche very sternly. “But I am coming back for you and you are coming with me. Aside from the fact that Norte Mexicali regards you as a traitor, I won’t sleep a wink unless I know you are being cared for.” “Oh,” said Blanche. “My recovery here is about you. Maybe we should switch places.” She began to get out of bed, but Jason stopped her. “Knock it off,” he said as though he was going to add “Or I will put you over my knee.” He shook his head and then looked to the ceiling. “Come on, Tim. Let’s go.”

CHAPTER THIRTY TWO The room was cleared. Even though her sudden rush of anger towards Jason worked her up, she was wiped out and so she nodded off. The next visitor was, indeed the doctor. She was going to find out whether or not she had to be in care after she was released, or whether she could be on her own. She was going to move on from the little town of Gold Creek. With the doctor, Blanche was cooperative. That aggressive drive she experienced when she remembered she had been an assassin for the Norte Mexicali had come back. She felt charged with darkness. She did have a few questions for him now that her mind felt clearer. “So, how can just a small knock on the head throw me like it has?” Blanche asked him. “Head injuries are crap shoots. We never know what can come of them, but, from what I know about your case, you were choking, lost consciousness, and slammed onto the concrete with dead weight. It was a serious accident.” “Oh,“ replied Blanche. She thought the doctor was handsome. He was a tall Hispanic man, built like a football player. When he grazed her lightly to flash a penlight in her eyes, she liked the faint smell of his cologne. “Cual es tu nombre?” she asked him. He was concerned. He pointed to his badge and replied in Spanish, “Are you able to read” “Yes,” she flushed. “I can…I just.” He put his instruments aside. He hovered into her and spoke so that only the two of them could hear. “So I know that you are El Salvador…Or were.” What might have made her blood run cold made her smile. “You know about the Norte Mexicali?” “Who do you think put me through school?” he replied coolly. Blanche sat up, attentively. “Why have you turned your back on such a generous brotherhood? They took you in when you were a little orphan, gave you a good income, and worldliness beyond your comprehension. You turned on them and for what? An uptight white boy who is sitting on a pile of gold somewhere. I understand why Gold Creek doesn’t like you very much.” Blanche laughed, “Well I was supposed to kill their motorcycle captain. He is like their mayor.” The doctor’s face darkened. “Do you think this is funny, woman?” “No I don’t,” Blanche answered feeling completely shamed. “You threw all of that opportunity away for what? Lust?” Blanche was beginning to get nervous. He could kill her right now and probably get away with it. She had a head injury that was way more complicated than she thought it should be. It perplexed her,

despite his explanation, how a simple fall can cause so much trouble. Either way, she was in a vulnerable position. She wasn’t physically together and she was lying prone. She was at his mercy. “What if I atone for the error of my ways?” she suggested. “Such as? Not that I can make any promises,” he said. “Well I came to town to kill someone. Let me kill someone,” she said. The doctor regarded her, “I can take the message back to base but –” Blanche didn’t trust him at all. “I can do the same. I don’t need to trouble you. But I do appreciate the wake-up call.” “I am not entirely convinced,” the burly physician said. He stood up and Blanche was aware at just how formidable of a person he was. He was positively huge. “But it does sound as though that injury knocked some sense into you.” It occurred to Blanche that she could make any deal with Norte Mexicali and there was no guarantee that she would live much beyond that. Her only option was to stick by the one person whom she knew cared about her, even though whatever she felt for him seemed to be lost to the past. Vanished in time. She could hardly stand the guy now, but right as rain, just even thinking about him, he appeared at the door. It might not be recognizable to just anyone, because it looked like the doctor was vaguely smiling at Jason, but Blanche could see the doctor regard him with hatred. Jason shook his hand. Blanche could see he was an honorable man through and through. “So you’ve decided?” the physician asked her. “I am to release you to him?” “Only if you think it’s okay,” Jason said. He genuinely cared about her. “Say, listen. In a perfect world, she would be in bed, not moving around until she was a hundred percent mended, but from what I understand, she should be moved. So, go. Be well and take care. I would not let her go if I didn’t think it was in her best interest. Ms. Herrera, you have my contact information and I have yours. We have a few minor lab results pending, merely routine and none of which will interfere with my decision here today. I am obligated to discuss them with you and so I will give you a call later in the week.”

CHAPTER THIRTY THREE Once they were alone together in the room Jason remarked, “Nice guy. Sounds like you had a great doctor.” A pang of guilt actually sank within her. One minute she was a cold-blooded killer and the next she had a conscience. It was very confusing to her. The one thing she was sure of, whether she could kill him or not, he was her best bet. “I have to get dressed still. If you would go get the nurse,” she said, thinking she was being cooperative. “Nurse?” he asked as though he were baffled. A barrage of memories of the two of them naked many times started to play through her mind. A blush that took her off guard consumed her. “I’ll get her if you want me to, but I can help you.” If she was going to use him for her personal safety, she might as well force herself to tolerate him. “Sure. I don’t know what I was thinking.” “Seriously, Blanche, I can’t pretend I like what’s happened here. I miss you like crazy and you’re standing right in front of me, but I am not trying to pressure you, so if you feel more comfortable with the nurse helping you with your clothes on…” “Do I even have clothes?” she asked. “Yes,” he said. “I brought them earlier.” He pulled opened a drawer from dresser in the room. “See?” There they were. Clothes for her, neatly folded and put away. He cared for her. He cleared out the drawers and put all but one set in a bag. He motioned for her to raise her arms. That was really hard to do. She had to move super slowly. She did need his help she admitted to herself, though she wouldn’t say so out loud. The first thing she noted was that his touch was healing. Soothing wands of electricity radiated through her, caressing her whole body. It was perhaps the best medicine she had experienced yet. His touch was like none other. Even the doctor, whom Blanche found attractive, didn’t have this kind of energy. She was confused. It seemed like in her present condition, she was impressionable. If she was around the doctor, she was pro Norte Mexicali and, given long enough time alone with Jason, she wasn’t so sure. She had to remember, whatever her choice, it was just about her. And that way, there would be no confusion. Unless he made her weak. The strands of her hair, mercifully spared in the head injury ordeal – there was talk of surgery at one point – got caught in her shirt; he gently loosened them for her. The warmth of his fingers at her neck combined with the soft tickling of her hair climbing up and out of her clothing was overwhelmingly sensual. She wondered if he was doing it on purpose.

He guided her off the bed and carried all of her bags. He opened the door to let the nurse know that they were ready to leave. The nurse brought over a wheelchair for her. Once again, Blanche felt very vulnerable being in a position lower than everyone else. As though he had nothing else to do, the doctor appeared to escort her to the exit. Now Blanche was nervous. To everyone else, it looked like he was the caring, attentive physician, but she knew otherwise. He was reminding her to behave. Jason was a big and powerful man, himself, with not an ounce of fat on him. Whereas the doctor was built more like a bulldozer…a football player and he did carry extra weight. Blanche could not estimate which of the two would best the other, except that she had a feeling it would be the doctor. She also realized there was an inkling of protectiveness for Jason. Surprising to both Blanche and the doctor, there was a squad of motorcycle club members, The Seven Devils, waiting for them, though there were even more waiting to ride along-side Jason and Blanche as they went to their destination, which she assumed was his house. Jason shook the doctor’s hand and said goodbye to him. He helped Blanche get into his car, a Porsche 911. It would not have been the car she would have picked for him. That made her have to admit that somewhere inside of her, she knew she cared. She just couldn’t quite connect to it. He leaned over her from the driver’s side and buckled her in. He didn’t ask; he just did it. Blanche knew Jason was a big guy, but sitting beside him the sports car made it even more obvious. His back and shoulders filled the backrest of the seat. He didn’t say much to her as they pulled out of the lot, leading the swarm of bikers. About fifteen miles away from the hospital, Jason veered off and the bikers kept going. Blanche was alarmed, but curious, and she remained silent as she waited to see if she could figure him out. He pulled up to a curve, shrouded with shrubs where a car was there waiting for them. The driver of that car helped him help her out of the Porche into a white Ford pickup. A lone Seven Devils biker zoomed around the bend to pick up the guy who had been driving the truck. He stripped off his club coat and tossed it into the truck. “Don't lose that,” he kidded. Jason grabbed Blanche’s cellphone and tossed it to him. “Here, I’ll trade you.” She had no time to protest. “Throw that thing off the nearest cliff.” The men pushed the Porsche into the bushes more, completely off of the road. Everyone dispersed with their new rides. They drove for quite some time. It was pleasant and peaceful and quiet. Blanche nodded off every now and again, but she woke up in time to see signs that they were crossing into Nevada. Finally he spoke to her, “Reach under your legs for a blanket. For some reason, even though it’s

summer, it gets cold up in through here,” he said very practically. There was no affection in his voice at all. She wondered if the stuff before, back at the hospital, had been just an act. It could have been. All these people were a lot smarter than she initially gave them credit for. The idea that he might not feel those things made her feel a little empty. “We will take a break pretty soon. Get some food.”

CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR What she envisioned was that they would be going to a rest stop or a restaurant but, instead, they cut into a narrow, winding driveway camouflaged by the forest, and stopped at a little house, glowing with the lights on inside. It might be hard to even know the house was there with the way it was situated among nature. Blanche expected that it would be just the two of them. It was a little unsettling that a beautiful woman met them at the door. She and Jason embraced warmly, clearly fond of one another. Their intimacy irked her in her growing observations about how she cared for him. What bothered her more was that the woman was so friendly to her, as well. There was little to not like about her. She was down-toearth, beautiful and sweet. Her name was Gretchen. Blanche even liked her name better than her own. Blanche was encouraged to sit while the few things that were in the truck were carried into the house. Finally Jason sat next to her. "How are you feeling?" he asked evenly. There was no particular warmth in his voice. "I think I am fine. The doctor said I just had a concussion. It's only really sore when I lay back on it, but only for a second. I feel pretty good overall." "The doctor, huh?" he asked cryptically. "So what else did you and the good doctor talk about besides your health?" The look on his face was indicting. Blanche knew exactly what he was driving at and she didn't have the nerve to answer. He knew. Whether he knew about the doctor beforehand and was playing along or whether he tapped the room and found out that way, she didn’t know. When he said, "I am going to chalk up this change in you to getting your head slammed on the ground," she knew. He must have had some kind of listening device planted in her hospital room. Or a spy. The nurse? "But for the time being, until we know what is what, you are to be a good little guest, am I understood? I find you make contact with Norte Mexicali or anyone without my say so and you will deal with me. Now," he stood up, "I've taken away your phone. That ought to be clear indication I don't want you to use a phone, nor do I want anyone but us to know where you are. Is there any question?" "No," said Blanche. "You won't have any trouble from me," she wanted to say, but she realized acting on every impulse to open her mouth got her where she was with him. It did confuse her as to why he was helping her now when he was clearly onto the fact that she was willing to betray him again. Still not connecting to her old feelings, she could sense new ones in their place. He was such a handsome, forthright guy. Hot too--there was something about a guy on a motorcycle. Why was he alone anyway? Perhaps he was not. There seemed to be affection between the host and him.

Maybe he wasn't alone. Maybe she didn't lose it when she hit her head, but when she first laid eyes on him appearing out of nowhere on the hanging-by-a-thread bridge when she stupidly decided to make that shortcut. She lost all objectivity when she met him. On the spot forfeited her validity with the very dangerous, brutal Norte Mexicali. They paid her a lot of money to kill Jason Fowler. But she saw him and felt his body near hers, and, from that second, was chasing the promise chemistry like theirs brought. “Everything seems to be okay here,” he said. “Are you sore?” “Not really,” Blanche replied, filled with a general regret. She was most definitely beginning to feel what she had felt before. “Gretchen has food for us. I am going to eat and then go to bed. I have a long day ahead of me tomorrow.” “What’s happening tomorrow?” she asked. “I’m leaving. Don’t worry. You’re safe here. Some of the other guys will be here by the time I leave,” he answered in his pleasant but neutral tone. “Leaving for where?” she asked, trickling with panic. She didn’t want him to go just as she was getting to be her old self. He regarded her sternly, “You’re safe Blanche. That’s all that should concern you. Come,” he stood and helped her up even though she really didn’t need it. “Let’s eat. You should do what you can to help with the clean up. You have been really sedentary for the past few weeks. You need to start moving around. And plus,” he began, but hesitated. “What?” she asked. “Well, I think it’s time you started giving back a little.” Blanche sounded him, “I have to ask you something,” she said. “What?” he replied. “All that back at the hospital, where you were like ‘you don’t like me anymore?’ Was that all crap or did you mean it?” “It was a question,” Jason glared. “It didn’t mean anything then,” Blanche felt her lower lip start to quiver. He hovered over her, crowding her. This time she soaked up the feel of his body. “What did you want

it to mean, Miss Herrera?” “Honestly? That you care,” she folded her arms around herself. “Well, at the time I said it, it meant I cared. I loved you. I am in love with you still, but I am working real hard to fix that. Because in the process of keeping you safe, I heard things I really didn’t want to hear you say...namely bargaining with that really bad excuse for a doctor about which of my friends you should kill to prove your loyalty.” “I’ve been through a lot –” she began. “I get that. But that seems to be the song you sing for everything. I liked it for a while, but then it got really old,” he answered. “My head –” she replied. “Does it bother you?” he asked. “Not half as much as my heart does,” she said. “I want all of this behind us. Please.” “For once we agree. My generous friend has made us dinner. I don’t care what you’ve been through; please do your best to be gracious.” He waved his hand, “After you.”

CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE During dinner, Blanche felt like odd man out. Jason sat across from her, adjacent to Gretchen. She was so jumbled emotionally. Her sadness over what their current status was was like an avalanche and it was hard to contain herself. Staring down at her food, a beautiful dinner of whole green beans, wild rice, and prawns, the last thing she had was an appetite. But she didn’t want to rock the boat. In her head, she told herself if she just went along to get along, he would set aside his anger towards her. She almost laughed at that thought, because he was angry that he had heard her talk about picking up her old trade. Blanche was jealous of Gretchen. Blanche was pretty secure in her own looks. She had a smoking hot body, though she was a bit out of shape from all the rest she had been getting; he was right about that. That just meant she was perfect, not absolute perfection. She had a usual routine of kickboxing, weights, and yoga and she hadn’t gotten to it in a while. And Blanche had a sweet girlish face: big dark eyes with thick, feathery lashes. She had nothing to complain about, but Gretchen looked like the All-American cheerleader. She had the perfect simple hair that didn’t need work. She had the perfect yoga body; Blanche could spot them. She probably never had to watch her weight. She kept her house just so. Cooked. And Jason adored her. Yes; Blanche was jealous. It was super hard to eat and super hard to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Gretchen as they washed dishes. She had a dishwasher, but she didn’t believe in using it. To top it all off, Blanche had to withstand Gretchen trying to make small talk with her. “So, how long have you known Jason?” she asked Blanche. Blanche wanted to say, “You know very well how long I’ve known him; he filled you in.” But what she said was, “I think I’ve lost track. A little while now.” “How do you like Gold Creek?” she asked. Blanche could hardly stand the questions, but she remained polite. “I like it fine. It’s a nice place. It would have been nice to settle there.” “Oh?” Gretchen asked. “You’re not settling there?” That was more than Blanche could bear. She slammed the silverware into the sink water. “What do you want me to say? Am I after him? For the record, I am in love with him! But he doesn’t like me. He likes you. So no I am not staying in Gold Creek and I will be out of your hair forever just as soon as he says I can go.” It was Blanche’s intention to make a grand, dramatic exit, but as she spun on her heel, she stopped dead in her track. There lazing against the wall was Jason, eavesdropping, casual as he pleased. Blanche nearly choked. “Is that what you did in the hospital?” He didn’t rise to her bait. “Blanche, let’s take a walk.” Blanche didn’t even go to argue with him. She was embarrassed and upset as it was. “Sis, we’ll be back in a few. Don’t go falling in love with

anyone while I am gone,” he teased. Blanche couldn’t look at him. She got it. She had been jealous of Gretchen and Gretchen was his sister. She was practically marching in the direction she assumed he would walk. “Hey,” he said. “Not so fast.” His tone was lighter, but still ambiguous. Blanche wanted him to love her. Night was beginning to fall and mountain elevation made for chilly temperature. Blanche needed a hoodie. Jason caught up with her. “We need to come to an understanding. We are going to be hanging out with each other for a little while longer, if things keep going the way they are going.” “I thought you were leaving in the morning,” she said, sulking. “I am, but I will see you again. I have things I need to take care of. And I am not going to have sex with you anymore.” Blanche stopped. “Yes you are! I am not myself. I know I say that all the time but damn, we are in a weird situation. You have a town full of millionaires, because you are sitting on gold. How can that be normal? You guys are all wanted by a greedy drug cartel. Come on.” “A greedy drug cartel that pays you very well, I might add,” he said. “I didn’t take the last draw. I’ve been living on bare bones,” she answered. Jason scanned her body. “That’s a major commodity, if you ask me,” he answered flirtatiously. “See? You can’t go saying things like that right after saying you aren’t going to fuck me,” she whined. “Well, I am sorry. I am not,” he arched a brow. “You are, too,” she insisted and she reached up and kissed him. She wrapped her arms around his neck, stood on her toes and kissed him. And he didn’t resist. At least not at first. He responded with a fierce hunger. It was as though the contact flipped a switch in him and he was now ravenous, trying to devour her. Standing perfectly still, they swayed in the dance of passion in the falling night, reminded of how they were together. They were completely electrified by their own chemistry. His moans filled her ears. He had missed her as much as she had missed him. Blanche’s hands swum around the huge expanse of his back. He felt like a Greek sculpture arching and bowing towards her to have just one more taste. Their tongues were furiously playing, straining and twirling to make as much contact – to touch as much as possible. But when she boldly dipped and reached between his legs, he backed up. He broke the kiss. He stopped it all cold. “What?” she searched. “Why?” “You know why,” he answered.

“But we belong together,” she pleaded. “I need you to fuck me.” “We are sick together. This,” he pointed to both of them. “I thought this was passion. I thought this was love, but I realize now that it is pure craziness.” “It’s crazy. Love is crazy,” she argued. “Come on. Who have you ever felt this with anyone before?” His face was somber. “Yeah, until you get another bump on the head? Jesus, talk about your true colors.” “I was injured. I didn’t ask to pass out on the street and I didn’t ask for just about the coldest blooded woman to be there when I did. For Christ’s sakes, Jason. Whether he is a monster or not, he still is a doctor and he explained to me some of the reasons why I went so bonkers over hitting my head. And besides, he said there is no telling what happens with head injuries. He told me about this one time when a patient –” “Stop,” Jason ordered. “Just stop. This is not like a cartoon where the character hits her head and forgets who she is and then hits her head again to remember. We don’t work.” “I have to prove myself. That’s all there is to it.” It was dark now and there were no streetlights in the mountains. Save for a few spotlights in Gretchen’s actual yard, outside was black as pitch. Blanche was emotional and exhausted and overwhelmed, but she was going to find a way to prove herself to this man, once and for all, so they could get to normal and live happily ever after. But he would have none of it. “Knock it off and come back here. In the house with you. Off to bed. No more drama. Save your strength.” “You don’t understand,” she rasped. And in a rare moment, he let his emotion get the better of him. “I do understand,” his voice was strained. “I do. Right now, above all else, we have to stop this nonsense and keep a clear head. We have people wanting to murder us. Me, because I am rich and you, because you are nothing but pure trouble.” That hurt her to the core. If Blanche heard that once, she heard that a thousand times. Her aunt who tossed her out on the street said things like that to her and worse. “Please take that back. I can’t live knowing you think I am so awful.” That moved him. “Blanche. Baby. I don’t think you’re awful. I think you need a spanking once in a while. We have to take a break. I can’t fuck you right now.” “But you will again. I know you will. Right?” she craned her neck and brushed his lips with hers.

“God help me, yes. I probably will,� he said and succumbed. They stood for minutes, making out in the light of a moon that rose up over the trees and lit their way home.

CHAPTER THIRTY SIX It was no small gift from the universe that Blanche was able to sleep soundly through the night despite her bed being so empty. When she and Gretchen stirred, Jason was gone, but coffee was brewing. Gretchen was moved by Blanche’s moping. “If you didn’t have a bump on your head, I would douse your coffee with some Kentucky bourbon. You poor thing.” She rubbed Blanche’s shoulders. She whispered in her ear, “If it makes you feel any better, my brother had the same look on his face when he told me about you. Let all this horrible mess pass and see what comes your way.” Blanche felt just a little ashamed for being jealous of this woman on any level. She was a truly kind person and beautiful woman. Gretchen encouraged her to put on a pair of her hiking boots and to take a real walk with her. She promised they would stop when she got tired. Gretchen had a surprise that she thought Blanche would enjoy. Blanche fantasized that it was Jason waiting for her somewhere, but only for a second. Blanche agreed, but said only on the condition that Gretchen let them tote a gun. She explained by telling her the How the Bear Ate the Groceries story. Gretchen said if it made Blanche feel better and only because she was pretty sure as an assassin for a drug cartel, she knew how to shoot. “Okay, that was funny,” Blanche said, “but let’s not make jokes about it. I am not that person any more. I promise.” “I think we all are that person just a little bit. But know that I believe you,” she handed her a 44. Now Blanche laughed, “You can’t tell me Jason wasn’t used to women being a little feisty.” “I live up in the mountains pretty much by myself,” said Gretchen. “I live by a shoot first, ask questions later policy. So you carry the weapon and I carry the radiophone. There. I think we are set for our serene walk in the woods.” The women laughed. It was nice to be with someone without so much wreckage. They hadn’t taken but a few steps away from the front door when they were confronted. “Freeze,” ordered a grim voice. The man was wearing a ski mask, but Blanche knew that voice. She had heard it recently, but she couldn’t place it. On high alert, she felt that familiar charge of adrenalin that she experienced when she was on the job for the Norte Mexicali. “Hands where I can see them,” he ordered. “You,” he said meaning Gretchen, “get behind me.” Blanche nodded to her to do as she was told and as Gretchen got near the masked gunman; he slapped Gretchen hard so she fell to the ground. Gretchen stomped the top of his foot with the ball of her own; a very good move, thought Blanche. It worked well enough to distract him. With everything she had, Blanche roundhouse-kicked the man in the skull. She had already killed a man earlier. She was not about to do it again, if she could avoid it. The man fell to the ground almost on top of Gretchen.

Blanche pinned the gunman with her own weapon. She took his gun away from him. But he got up to his knees and Blanche knew that he could take off and charge her in the mid-section. She was going to have to shoot for sure, but Gretchen threw a fistful of dirt in his eyes. Even with the ski mask on, he was disabled. While Blanche held the gun, she directed Gretchen to grab the shaft of a butter churn that was on her porch and the ribbon from around the dried floral wreath. The gunman tried to lumber even though he was pretty much blind. Blanche knew the acidic forest grit had to be killing his eyes. “Better stay still or I will shoot your feet off,� Blanche warned. He stayed still while Gretchen twisted his fists together with the ribbon and the churn stick. Gretchen radioed for help and within what seemed like an eternity, the local police took the gunman away. They were saddened to find they were arresting one of their own. Dana Levington. The women went back into the house and packed up a proper picnic basket. Gretchen was determined they would have their hike. She led them down to a beautiful mountain pool and, even though the water freezing in spots, it was surprisingly warm.

CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN The weather during the day was considerably warmer than it had been by night. And on the banks of the pool, where it was clear, the sun baked them. They skinny-dipped, letting the crisp water bathe their fit, firm bodies deliciously. And even though it was against better judgment, they swam with a glass or so of wine apiece. They were feeling nothing but peace and tranquility. Until, once again, unexpected guests joined them. But welcomed ones, except that they were buck-naked. Jason Fowler and Tim Paisley pulled up to the watering hole on Harleys. The word had reached Gold Creek since it was Tim’s jurisdiction and he and Jason had to come to see for themselves that everyone was okay. Shaken already, the fact that the women were swimming without a stitch on them didn’t calm them any. The women, slightly drunk, howled. Jason ordered them to get out and get dressed. He didn’t approve of their swimming while drinking. The men turned their heads while the women struggled to dress their wet bodies. They packed their stuff up and started up towards the guys. When Blanche stepped near Jason he threw his arms around her. “Are you okay?” he asked, his voice heavy with emotion. She kissed him. “I’m fine,” she assured. “What about me?” Gretchen teased. “Oh yeah, Tim,” Jason said. “This is my sister, Gretchen Fowler. Gretchen, Tim. Tim Paisley, deputy district attorney for Gold Creek and beyond.” “Sounds like a super hero,” flirted Gretchen. “Okay, I like your sister, Jason,” Tim said. “Gretchen, I need to talk to Blanche, so if you guys want to go back to the house or whatever, we will be right along,” said Jason. When Jason said that, it seemed like the entire world disappeared and it was just the two of them standing in the middle of a forest paradise. He held her hand so tightly, as though he never wanted to let her go. Blanche was sure she never wanted him to. He guided her to the most pastoral meadow setting. He closed in behind her. The heat that emanated from his body hummed throughout her own, arousing her immediately. “Are you sure you are okay?” he asked huskily. She twirled to face him, resting her arms atop his hard shoulders. “You feel so, so good,” she murmured. “That doesn’t answer my question,” he said, but gave himself over when she plied him for a kiss. His

tongue swept her mouth. “Goodness, but that wine is delicious on you. I wonder if it would taste as good on other parts of you.” “Promise you will taste it for yourself?” she asked in a sweet voice, erotically drugged. “Everywhere?” he played along. “Everywhere, yes,” she took his hand and showed him. “Here,” she held his powerful paw of a hand to her breast, then in between. “Here,” she grazed her nipples with his rough skin and then guided his hand between her legs. “Here.” “Here, huh?” he asked. “Yes,” she cooed. “Way deep inside?” Jason inquired, his movements getting lankier and more suggestive. “Hold on,” he counseled. He braced her while she held tight and, with a gentle motion, tapped the soft backs of her knees so that she would lose balance. He tumbled them into the grassy clearing that made a perfect bed for them. Sun spilled on him as he rose above her, making him positively glitter. He was so magnificent. He leaned down and gently traced her lips with his tongue, teasing her, making her ache to the deepest hollow of her body. She needed him. She craved to have his hardness inside, stroking her, filling her so completely. Instinct parted her knees as far apart as they could go, inviting him to lie between them. He rolled her to the side, which was way more comfortable for her still tender head, and encouraged her thighs to hitch up to his hips as he penetrated her deeply. He pushed her buttocks against him so that he could take her so entirely. The depth and the pressure and the excitement had an immediate effect. Blanche came hard; her whole body shook with the most stunning pleasure. It was a torrential climax that wracked every muscle powerfully as he stroked her through it. She cried to the gods, praying and begging as he penetrated into her wet body. “So amazing, so amazing,” she muttered as he rocked her through a magnificent carnal storm. “My turn,” he nuzzled into the dip of her neck, a powerful erogenous spot for her. She was so fully charged and the spot so fully sensitive that it caused her to cry out. His eyes rolling back into his head with his own pleasure, he managed to laugh and shush her. He hushed her with a kiss as she could feel the signs of his orgasm. She reached between and gripped his cock as it pushed in and out of her. Now he was begging. She told him how utterly hot he was when he was coming in her. What a powerful man he was pumping her so furiously. She sung praises to his amazing cock and the way he made love to her. He landed her with a long, deep and lasting kiss as he rode out his climax, crying against her lips.

They relaxed their weight as their pleasure subsided and they came back to earth. They remained entwined, exposed somewhat to Mother Nature. The breeze against their bodies was fabulous in their sated state. Jason made Blanche recount the thing with Dana. “Dana is bi-polar,” he told her. “I guess he has gone off his meds. We had him in a semi-secured facility, but I guess he talked his way out. He is a well-loved guy. It breaks my heart.” “I see. So I guess I have to forgive him,” she said, quietly suggesting that he might do the same. He took her meaning. “I have tried every way but the right way to make you and I work best. When all this is behind us, and I have a feeling it will be soon, I think we can come to an understanding that will make us both extremely happy. And calm. And peaceful. And this…” he closed in for a slow, sensual kiss. After a lingering moment of mating their tongues together, he stopped. “I cannot get enough of you.” “I don’t think I can get enough of you either.” “Let’s go check in with Gretchen. She and Tim don’t know each other. I am kind of an ass to ditch her like that, but I just had to have you.” They dressed in their clothes. They kissed again with the threat of giving into the powerful bond between them, but chose, instead, to walk up the hill to Jason's bike. Such a beautiful instrument, Blanche thought. She opted to ride a bike since she was able, always loving the freedom of connecting to the natural elements, the simple yet thrilling transportation. She marveled at his bike while he started it up. The Harley sound combined with the spectacle of Jason's long powerful leg swinging over was an incredible sight. He was a breathtakingly handsome man. Blanche climbed on. He made her wear his helmet, which she accepted. It was like using his shirt as a nightie or borrowing his boxers; well, if he wore them. She could not get enough of him. Maybe it was the injury or the exhaustion and being on the run just days before that kept her from fully experiencing that, but she now knew it to her core. As they came up on Gretchen's house, Blanche had expectations of a meal between the four of them. Tim Paisley, Gretchen, Jason and her. No Norte Mexicali crap. No Gold Creek animosity, though strangely Blanche was feeling confident at the moment she could win them over. When she moved passed her thoughts, Blanche sensed something. The house, itself, appeared totally normal. Nothing seemed broken or battered. There was no evidence that there had been a struggle with poor Dana Levington. But it was as if they had hit an invisible force field. Jason reacted to it to. It had them both spooked, whatever it was. Jason rushed off the bike, parking it haphazardly, not helping her off a bit the way he usually did. He dashed into the house. It was empty. Blanche checked the perimeter as she heard Jason panicking, rushing from room to room, searching for his sister. Blanche called to him. “Hey! Hey,” she smiled as she caught his attention. He was standing at the top of the stairs, not wishing to abandon his search. “Maybe they went for a walk.”

“Did you see his bike?” he almost snapped at her. “No. I didn’t,” she offered as calmly as she possible could. “Perhaps they went for a ride.” “Baby, we were on the main road. You can’t miss the sound of his bike. He had to roll it out of the way until we couldn’t hear it,” Jason calculated. “Sweetheart, do you think Tim did something with Gretchen?” Blanche asked, even though that was what she was beginning to think herself. Many of the people who enjoyed Gold Creek but who didn’t actually live in the town proper and were not part of the corporation felt somewhat slighted they didn’t enjoy the same prosperity the town people enjoyed when gold was found in one of the mines. Norte Mexicali was pushing to take over Gold Creek, so it could access its wealth while people associated with the town, friends of residents for years, felt as though they could have been invited to be part of the corporation. They would never quite admit it. Lately, these people had made easy targets for Norte Mexicali who got under their skin. Paying them off to turn against people they had been friends with all their lives over money. It was no secret to the town and those just outside it that that was an option. Tim Paisley was a deputy district attorney and he got paid well as an employee of Orange County, and an attorney. He seemed to be about getting the bad guys…But with Gretchen gone, it was looking like everyone was fooled. “We can call her on her radio,” Blanche suggested and immediately rummaged around for it just to be certain it had not been left behind. How could the moment go from terror with Dana, to warm and fuzzy with Jason, back to full blown drama once again? “Yeah you do that. You tell me if you find the radio,” Jason said bitterly. His mood had turned and he was ultra-sarcastic. “Where’s your radio? She said she talked to you that way,” Blanche continued, trying to remain hopeful. “I have it right here, genius,” he scowled, wiggling the phone in his fingers. “She’s not answering. He took her. He took her because Dana was here and you clobbered him. Dana was here because of you and you were here because of the drug cartel of Norte Mexicali. My sister, who never hurt anyone or did a thing wrong in her life, is gone. He’s probably defiling her as we speak.” Blanche swallowed hard, “I am going to ignore that just like you ignored all that I have ever done wrong. You must love her very much to be so brutal to me.” Jason laughed, “Man, you are just hitting all cylinders now.” “Jason, I liked her a lot. I will do whatever it takes to bring her back.”

“Bring her back?” he asked rhetorically. “Well hopefully by that you mean home and not ‘from the dead.’” He came down the stairs and shoved passed her, “Move.” Jason mounted his bike, donning his helmet. Blanche knew that meant he wasn’t taking her with him. She wasn’t going to push it. She would stay at Gretchen’s with all the supplies she needed to formulate a plan to bring down the Norte Mexicali drug cartel. Jason reached into his bag and put on his Seven Devils Motorcycle Club bomber jacket. The day was closing even though there was plenty of light and the mountain air was decidedly chilled. Standing on the threshold of the house, Blanche just soaked up what might be the last time she looked upon the man who was the love of her life. The traces of the intense pleasure he had just given her still lingered in her body. He looked so gallant upon his chrome steed, roaring to his sister’s rescue. “Good-bye,” he said plainly and rode off.

CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT A few square miles might as well be the entire world if you were looking for someone. It could also be a crowded room if you were trying to get away from someone. Either way it was an uncomfortable place to be if things weren't going your way. That was what Gold Creek was for Blanche Herrera. Jason Fowler was pissed, but not at her. He only thought he was mad at her. They had been through so much mud together, some of it treacherous, lots of it hot and steamy, that Blanche saw this current status as yet another turn in their long and winding road. His sister was missing and though she had nothing to do with it--they knew who took her--it somehow made sense to pin it on her. Despite their current differences, however, the best wisdom dictated they work together. They shared the same space until they could nail down and execute a plan to bring her back, which Jason was going to do right after he blew off some steam at Gold Creek's cantina, the CafĂŠ San Juan. She was just going to hunt down the ruggedly handsome bastard when he spilled through the door, dumped there by well-meaning club members. It was a relief in their majorly inebriated state that the Seven Devils Motorcycle club members drove Jason's truck instead of riding their motorcycles. The other guys scurried as best as drunk men could to their various bunks. Jason spied Blanche and headed straight for her. She was a little defensive though smiling at the comical situation. She leaned on the mantel. "What are you awake for? What time is it?" he asked her. He got a smoky look on his face. Jason was a straight drunk. It was just the occasional stumble --sometimes good ones--that gave him away. He reached for a bottle of Kentucky bourbon behind her, a calculated maneuver to put his arm around her. He held the bottle embracing the back of her head with his arm as he unscrewed the cap and drank. The move drew her in close to him like a hug. Blanche loved this man. Her nose temporarily pressed into the masculine scented surface of hard muscled chest. She loved everything about him: the way he smelled, the way he felt, the way he looked, the way he was in bed, in the shower, outside under the stars and any place else the mood hit them, which was often and hard. Jason pulled back and offered her a sip. She accepted. She took a small sip. The liquor was smooth and warm. As soon as she lifted her mouth from that of the bottle's, he captured her lips with a possessive kiss, claiming every bit of surface with sweeping strokes of his tongue. He reached up to the buttons of her blouse and delicately unfastened them, exploring the full curves of her breasts with his powerful fingers. "My beautiful Blanche," he murmured against her lips. "I am going to fuck you so sweetly," he promised. His grip tangled in her thick, lustrous hair. "You are?" she smiled at his drunken presumptuousness. He handed her the bottle for another drink. She took a taste only. She didn't need to be intoxicated to sleep with Jason Fowler. She would join with him for eternity if he would but ask. She was a little unsure when he hiked her up to his hips. He was surprisingly steady. Still she was crazy to trust him like this. After a couple of steps she said, "Here," she laughed and stepped down. She took his hand and led him to his room. He stumbled, their feet tangled as they tumbled on to his generous lush mattress. Every ounce of

attraction she had for him surged. Their chemistry ignited. She ached to the very center of her so empty core, wet and ready for him, with an eternal need. Instinctively she splayed her thighs, arched up her hips in invitation. He was positioned in counterpart to her. His erection crazed her fabriccovered, innervated clitoris causing her insides to clutch with telltale pleasure. Though Jason had been drinking and his mouth tasted of bourbon, the mix of it with the hot wetness of his flesh was wildly erotic. He may have spent a little too much time at the bar, but it did not impede his sexual faculties. Jason Fowler was a pure carnal force enveloping, saturating her, driving her to join him. She unfastened her blouse and cupped her breasts, pushing them up to him in offer. His face was smoky the way it had been that day on the bridge when they first met when she had impulsively taken a shortcut on a washed out connector over a gully and he just happened to be there. Like a ninja, he appeared out of nowhere to rush her and her Sportster to safety. It had been rushes, drama and passion ever since. A week or so ago when Jason's sister was abducted right under their very noses, Blanche wouldn’t have thought he would be above her now, about to get inside her. Nothing felt as right as when they were like this, engaged and entwined. Blanche took his hands and placed them so they could feel her wetness. He grinned, flashing perfect white teeth and deep dimples. "Mmm," he growled. "For me?" He lowered his head and pressed his sweet, soft lips to hers and licked inside of her lasciviously while his hands worked to free his cock for her. Blanche knew it was coming. She squirmed in eager anticipation with greedy impatience. "Now!" she begged. "Now!" And he was inside of her, his massive hardness buried deep within in a single stroke. The warmth that surged throughout her entire being was unspeakably delicious. Blanche never got enough of the hotness they shared. They practically lit the bed on fire. She splayed her fingers across his magnificent chest, cut to picture perfection. He was such a beautiful man. Blanche extended her foot up the height of his back to press her body as closely to his to impel him as deep into her as he possible could go. She wrenched her body around, deftly so that now the soft firm curves of her buttocks grazed his six-pack. She offered herself to him from this position. Jason bent down to her and kissed the round, muscled cheeks. Blanche dropped her upper body low to the incredibly soft cotton of his bed linen that felt so amazing against her naked skin. Hugging the bed this way, her bottom flexed up in the air for his pleasure. She knew this position showcased her body at its best. He was lovingly grinding into her, rotating his hips so as to sweetly agitate her. Blanche lazily lay and took it. On a whim she sat back against his impaling member guiding Jason to his haunches and she upon his lap. He spread her thighs and braced her with his powerful arms so she was locked upon him. He reached between to her vulnerable center and pleasured her. Being so totally penetrated and spread as tautly as she could be made for the ultimate friction, her body spasmed upon him. Jason was not so drunk that he could not enjoy his power over her.

Turnabout was fair play, however. As soon as she regained herself enough to think and move, Blanche reached between them and stroked him as he moved in and out of her. She felt his body tighten and shift into the unmistakable climb to an orgasm. He was at her mercy now. She held that position, applying mild constriction on his shaft as he exploded within her. The two withered on to the bed, their bodies humming with such a total satisfaction. Jason fell right to sleep.

CHAPTER THIRTY NINE The sun rose and filled the room. The stress of the past few weeks had taken their toll. After intense sex, Blanche slept sounder and longer than usual. Jason, who was an early riser, was sleeping off the night before himself. As she stirred, he peeked cautiously through an opened eyelid. She could feel his regret. The mood in the room shifted. The last thing she wanted to hear was Jason say that sleeping with her was a mistake. She thought that offering him coffee would avoid that. His response was stiff, "I know where the kitchen is." "Okay," Blanche raised her brows. She slid off the bed with a sheet wrapped around her naked body to the shower. Part of her knew that their passion, though hot and intense from the moment they met, was probably a one-time thing, but still his coldness hurt. She stepped under the warm running water to wash and soothe her body. Jason bluntly entered the bathroom and said, "knock, knock" to announce his presence. He planned to share the shower. Given the circumstances, Blanche shielded her modesty. He made a face to scold her for her move. "Come on," Jason admonished. "We are hardly strangers." "That doesn't mean you can just bash boundaries. This is my shower. This is private," she said. "Then lock the door," he said, splashing water around his chest. "You feel like things were private last night when you lured me into bed?" Blanche was shocked. "Are you kidding me?" she protested. She thought better of shoving him the way she wanted to as they were in the slipped bath. "You were all over me the second you walked in the door." "You could see I was drinking," Jason replied. "Right and I am just the evil awful temptress. Well you just stepped into my shower stone-cold sober‌or should I say bitter cold sober, you big baby." She reached for a towel and just as she expected, she lost her footing and slipped against the shower wall. Fortunately, holding the towel anchored on the hook, she was able to freeze a moment and gain her balance. Jason reflexively grabbed her. "Are you okay?" he asked. He had reached out for her, his hands on her naked, shower slick body. Her heavy breast lobbing atop his fingers splayed, both of them frozen as she paused to brace from falling and to get her footing. She stood up straight. She looked down at his hands and then looked at him. "I am fine. You can let go of me. And lock or no, you can assume that we aren't to share this room under any circumstances again." Blanche lifted the sheet towel from the hook and knotted it up around herself. She padded to her own room to dress. She had gotten as far as putting on her bra and underwear, a set she had selected as a pick-me-up because she felt so crappy about what was going on between Jason and her, when he ignored what she had just said and barged in the room. He was in a pair of jeans and no

shirt. His massive, chiseled chest and powerful biceps were still damp and hot from the shower. His wet hair was slicked back away from his face. He was a gorgeous man. Still she had to ask him, "What are you doing in here?" "I want to make sure you are okay?" he announced intently. "Okay?" she repeated. "You just slipped," he replied. "I didn't even fall down," she answered. She pulled out a drawer to take out some clothes when he lifted her like she was fluff, hoisting with a big powerful arm. "What the hell?" she demanded. She kicked semi-furiously; more out of protest than anything. He placed her on the bed on her belly. "You slipped in the garage a while back and had a pretty good shoulder tear. You are prone to injury," he explained, pressing her body to the bed as he kneaded her back. "This is none of your business," she fired. "You have lost it. First you accuse me of seducing you. Then you hop in the shower with me and now you're in my room. Out!" He leaned over her so they were face to face. "Not really in the position to make such demands are you?" Blanche imagined the camera-view from the ceiling looking down on them. She had on a thong that had a tufting lacy skirt at the hips. She knew the position she was in and that her amazing body was displayed in such a way as to make her assets more accentuated and she was adorned with some of her prettier underwear. She imagined Jason's magnificent expanse of a back erupting from his wicked jeans, beautifully, hotly as he explored her form on the bed. It crossed her mind to worm around and wrap his delicious denim-clad thighs with her naked legs and seduce him for real. They were in the perfect setting for her to do that, although their adventurous sex life never required a bed. It would serve him right for all the things he said to her and for the way he acted. He raised her arm and placed it above her head, obviously testing to see if her shoulder injury were reactivated. She had twisted her shoulder in a freak move some months back and it was a bear of an injury, but she was fine now, as far as she knew. Still, when he moved her, she moaned wickedly. "Does your shoulder hurt?" he asked. "No that's not where it hurts," she conned him. "Where?" She felt kind of bad for how easy it was to fool him. She rolled over onto her back, writhed lasciviously on the bed top, her body showcased like a siren with the ultra-push up of the bra and the sexy cut of her lacy thong. She took his hand and guided it between her legs. "Right here," she

whispered. She could see his face cloud with frustration. He yanked his hand away. She sat up. "Serves you right. Now out." "If there is something wrong with your back, I am going to spank you for this," he hissed. She looked at him like he was foolish. The look on his face for what he just said told her he felt foolish. "Should I dress up like a school girl first?" He said nothing. "Why don't you go and finish dressing. We need to focus on getting your sister back. I have an idea." "What is your idea?" he demanded, still not leaving. "I will discuss it at the breakfast table but it involves me going undercover with the Norte Mexicali and getting next to their leader to ultimately destroy him." Blanche disregarded his presence and simply moved around his gigantic form to get her clothes from the dresser and the closet as she needed them. "And how are you going to do that?" he asked. "I am seductress, remember? I will go back in as Elena Gonzales and get next to him. It's the oldest trick in the book. It's biblical. Beautiful woman gets next to the king and takes him down. Now out." She was dressed now. She gently prodded him out of her room, but he grabbed her hands. "No," he scolded her. Blanche relaxed, "I was just playing. Jesus. We're here in the same house. We have the same objective. We both want your sister back. Can we please find a way to get along?" "No. I mean no on the king things and the Norte Mexicali. You aren't going in undercover. The Seven Devils will handle it." "I am responsible for her disappearance, remember? Besides I am a trained assassin – trained by them. Who better than me?" she asked. "But they know you," he reminded her. "They do. But when I was a Norte Mexicali, I couldn't have named too many people. I would only recognize whether someone was a member or not. I didn't know them by name. They will know I am one of them, one of them named Elena Gonzales.� "No Elena and no Blanche. End of discussion," he strode across the living room to his room. "I have to get going. I want you to stay. I have to gather up the remaining trustworthy members of my motorcycle brethren. I have a plan of action of my own." Jason knocked on the door of one of the Seven Devils' bedroom door to counsel him that Blanche Herrera or Elena Gonzales was not to leave the house. Blanche could see the oily sweat of a

hangover film on Jason's face. She grinned. He had more to drink than his body let on and he was now paying for it. Poor baby. She couldn’t help but release a chuckle at the absolute wrong time. Jason mistook her for not taking him seriously. He tossed her into his bedroom and locked it from the outside like a jail cell. "Your door locks on the outside? Do all your bedrooms?" she taunted. She had no doubt she would get out so her badgering was just to get under his skin more than anything. "That's kind of creepy. Do you have a history of locking women in your room?" It worked. She could hear it in his voice. She bent over and silent laughed. She didn't dare let him hear her laughing this time. "It's just a feature...that I... never mind! I don't have time to stand around and get into it with you." She waited some time after she heard him leave with a couple of the guys before she set her escape in motion. She hid under the bed and called out to the Seven Devils Motorcycle Club member appointed to watch her. "Mick?" she called. "Are you still there?" Blanche pretended to have a panic attack. She made a racket bemoaning her situation. Being left high and dry. After a good dose of noise, she pretended to hyperventilate. Poor, unaware Mick rushed in, probably doubting her but bound to investigate. By the time he looked for her in the master bath, Blanche scurried out from under the bed, out of Jason's room and locking Mick in it. "Son of a - Blanche? Let me out. Do not do this. Blanche?" Mick knew it was futile so his string of curses sounded more like he was having a discussion with himself rather than chewing her out. Blanche knew she couldn't really leave him locked up like that because he could be a sitting duck. Things were on high alert with the recent kidnapping of Jason's sister. The diabolical Norte Mexicali drug cartel that had long been pressuring the sleepy mining town of Gold Creek to cave to their authority had chosen another tactic. One by one, it enticed key members of the sheriff's department and even the county government to divide and conquer. Jason Fowler as the captain of the Seven Devils Motorcycle Club and beloved son of Gold Creek was Norte Mexicali’s biggest threat. The old gold mining town had a recent freakish lucky streak. Gold was discovered and the very small town formed a corporate pack splitting the proceeds. The little unassuming town was comprised of very wealthy people. Norte Mexicali wanted that wealth. They wanted the land. They had been dogging Jason from the moment the news of the gold find was out. They had sent Blanche there to kill him for it. With Jason in Gold Creek, California, Norte Mexicali had no chance. Coming to Gold Creek was Blanche’s biggest regret and blessing. She could never take back what she used to be before she met Jason Fowler, and that was a legion of hit men known collectively as El Salvador, but she kissed the ground and thanked the stars for meeting him. He was the love of her life. The Norte Mexicali were none too pleased that one of their own turned against them and joined the enemy. They would stop at nothing to make an innocent victim of Mick, so Blanche had to do what she was going to do: give Mick enough slack so he could free himself but allow herself enough of a head

start. It was time she went undercover as Elena Gonzales and foiled Norte Mexicali. She was going to get Jason’s sister back and get on with her life. She had a stash tucked away in the back of the linen closet of key pieces of clothing. The most important was a body-hugging lycra tank dress that had had a slight sheen to it so it gave the appearance of being leather. Blanche tousled her hair and then, for the ride, put it up in a single, high braid. The second bag she pulled out was a bit more critical. Her firearm, she carried in her saddlebag but her other weapons she packed and tucked strategically inside her neckline and hem. She put on her mirrored Costa Del Mars. She didn’t let Mick know she was letting him out. She was just going to leave it to him to figure out. She unlatched him and then booked it out of the house. If Jason had the time, Blanche was sure he would have made it impossible for her to use her bike, but he didn't and so she was riding. As she rode the frontage road out of town, she was Elena Gonzales, an asesina for Norte Mexicali.

CHAPTER FORTY With her skirt hiked up, her thigh muscles flexed as Blanche planted her feet to balance the bike as she paused waiting for the light. She was passing through, stopped in the little beach town of Cardiff by the Sea on the coast about two or so hours south of Gold Creek. She had to make it to San Diego, which was now just about forty minutes away. She knew some of the key players of Norte Mexicali hung out at the southern beach areas of San Diego, particularly liking to frequent the Hotel del Coronado. Her sense of power was high. She knew she looked amazing. She knew she had little to fear for, as she was on her game and she had weapons to protect her. Blanche pulled into the parking lot of Mystics, a house converted to a coffee shop for a break. She parked her bike, a Dyna Low Rider, black with pearl-pink ghost flames, subtle not too much and just one skull. It was low with eleven-inch rear shocks and had Thunderheader 2 into 1 exhaust that gave it premium performance with that deep rumble that was just enough as to not be obnoxious. Blanche’s bike had a solo seat that was black stingray upholstered; Jason said something about that white spot and barb making them the “ultimate girl seat.” She had a set of throw over saddlebags that complimented the seat. It was in those bags that she kept her engraved pearl-handled, gold embellished, six shot revolver. She parked right near the entrance on purpose. She wanted to be seen. She wanted to be a presence. Being dressed in a hot little biker dress to enter a sandal-footed yuppie surfer place certainly raised a murmur. The town right on the ocean in southern California had no shortage of hot bodies. Blanche, who had a personal portable daily regimen of yoga and jumping rope, had a spectacular body. It was nothing for her to fill up her tank and get an offer of on the house just because she was smoking hot. At Mystics, the story was the same. She ordered an iced coffee crush and the barista gave it to her with his compliments. She accepted his offer reluctantly. She needed a chance to use a credit card with her assumed name, Elena Gonzales. She was working hard on being a buzz around town. The coffee shop had wall-to-wall picture windows so Blanche could see both the street and the beach action. Just as she had hoped, her bike attracted some attention and soon a couple more bikers pulled in. Two burly Hispanic men in black wearing Ray-Bans ambled in, the heels of their books sounding heavy on the floor of Mystics. Blanche watched as the barista shrank from them. They were formidable. It was easy to understand. The mischief in her rose within her like smoke from a powerful fire. She welcomed any trouble that came her way. One of the men glanced over the other’s shoulders at her. His eyes were smoky. His companion glanced her way to see what his friend found so appealing. Blanche crossed and uncrossed her legs. She felt very sure of herself. Her phone buzzed. She glanced down. Jason was calling her. She texted him that she was fine. She couldn’t write anything more than that. She had wiped out her phone history to delete any ties temporarily to her Gold Creek life, but he would not quit calling. She took the call with a smile on her face as though he were calling to tell her he was hot for her. “Where…are…you?” he demanded in controlled syllables. Blanche was pretty sure if Jason could

reach through the telephone, he would throttle her. “I am having coffee,” she answered and then affected a sultry whisper, “alone.” The two bikers set their coffees on her table and joined her. “Oops,” she said. “I do have to go now. It has been really nice talking to you.” She disconnected the call. Jason was shouting pretty loudly and she didn’t want him to say something that would tip anyone off. Blanche had a tattoo on the inside of the tip of her pinky finger. As the men were sitting, she splayed her fingers so that if either guy were associated or familiar with Norte Mexicali, they would pick right up on it. The bigger man was quick. He gripped her hand, very dainty in his hold and pulled her fingers apart. He wanted to see the mark. He examined it without question and then looked her straight in the eye. "Interesting," he remarked. With a strange wiggle, she got her hand away. The other guy inquired, "How did you do that?" as though what Blanche did were a magic trick. "I think I know. Diego Escobar, and my friend here is Raoul Gutierrez. And you are?" "I am a woman who is minding her own business," she smiled flirtatiously. "Are you now? I guess we could not help but intrude. You are so beautiful. And I am curious, how is it that I have never seen you here before?" Blanche laughed, "I have been here before. What is on your mind?" "You at the moment," he replied. "I'll say," said Raoul. The barista approached the table and handed Blanche his cellphone. "Are you Elena?" Blanche patted the table as the two men pointed at her and gently mocked her. "Yes," she sighed and took the phone. She said hello covertly but it was of no use; she had an audience. She excused herself and slowly rose from the table knowing the tongues of the two men were wagging. Jason again. Adrenaline bloomed in her as she had underestimated him. It gave her pause. "Yes," she said submissively. "I know where you are and I am coming for you," he said plainly. "Nothing I can do to stop whatever you're doing except to ask you to turn around and come back. You have divided my focus from my sister." Not taking any chances the men could hear Blanche spoke coyly, "I am on my way to see your sister. That's my whole reason for coming to San Diego. I am trying to hook up with her."

"Have it your way. I am going to blister your ass. I'm about an hour outside of where you are now," he said. "No matter where you are, the boys and I will be hooking up with you soon." "Looking forward to it," she answered. "See you, Elena," he said sarcastically and hung up. Blanche thought. She should have checked her bike for tracking. Indeed, the righteous white man who Norte Mexicali had hired to take out, who put a cramp in their agenda, whom she ultimately fell in love with, was more sophisticated in her game than she had calculated. She found it intensely erotic. And in the rustic beachside café, in the company of two huge men with an apparent dark side, Blanche was flushed with arousal. Then she had the distinct feeling someone was watching her. Up close, not from across the room where she had left Diego and Raoul. Diego lurked like a big, dark cloud. Had Blanche not turned over a new leaf, had she continued to be an asesina known as El Salvador for Norte Mexicali, she would have given herself over to Diego. He had everything she had ever wanted in a man. He was big and powerful. He was intensely goodlooking with shiny straight black hair falling on glowing brown skin. His smile when he parted his lips in sly grins showed beautiful teeth. He could do a toothpaste ad…a very dark one. But Blanche loved Jason. He filled her head right now. It was as if Diego were near but Jason was behind her, enveloping her. "Elena?" he asked. "One of my favorite names. Elena, we are on our way to a cookout at a friend’s house on the beach. We were wondering if you would join us. Very informal. You can mind your own business to your heart’s content.” Diego was charming, she thought, but his nature was becoming just a little too pushy. “That is a lovely invitation, but I am now awaiting the arrival of a friend,” she replied. “But I am a friend. We are both,” Diego motioned to Raoul and him, “friends.” “No,” Blanche bowed. “Thank you again.” “Ah,” Diego replied. “You don’t know us. That’s understandable. What a shame. I feel we would get along very well, El Salvador.” The huge man’s demeanor went from charming to sober like that. Blanche could see that Raoul had no idea what was going on. Diego stared her down. “So,” he began again with the same politeness as before, “Please join us?” “I have my bike out front,” Blanche replied. “And a lovely bike it is. You will ride with me,” said Diego. Blanche stood on the first rung of her chair and with the motion of a snake, wrapped her arms around his neck. She pretended he was Jason Fowler and took his mouth in a slow, sensual kiss. “I need to get my bags, if that is not too much to ask,” she murmured against his lips.

“I will have to inspect those bags,” he replied, drugged from her maneuver. “I expected as much,” she rolled her eyes. “If I run into any tricks, mujer, there will be consequences,” he warned. “You already know what I am. I am not sure what taking me with you will accomplish,” Blanche smiled. “But look in my bags and let’s get this shit over with. I have a job to do.” “What job would that be?” Diego asked intently. “That I can’t discuss. Can we go?” Blanche asked. She had some pictures of the Deputy District Attorney who had joined forces with the Norte Mexicali and absconded with Jason’s sister Gretchen. Blanche wanted to see if Diego recognized him. If he did, then she was going with him for sure, because that would mean he was Norte Mexicali, something she would not come out and ask. Blanche very cooperatively led Diego to her bike and gave him full access to her bags. He would find her gun, but that was no matter. She was ready. Diego's face told Blanche all she needed to know when he pulled out the captor of Jason's sister. "A friend of yours?" she challenged. "This is your job?" he asked understandably confused. "Yes. They found pictures of children on his computer. We have her. We don't need him. There is zero tolerance for his type." "I know where he is," said Diego. "Let's go. I'll do him myself." "Okay thanks for the willingness, caballero. Where is he then?" "He is a guest of an acquaintance of mine in Del Mar. The woman is there. They have a weekly poker game. It happens to be tonight. It is usually the middle-of-the-week type thing but they decided to piggyback it to this barbecue that you just so happen to be going to." "Will he be there?" Blanche inquired. "Yes, in all likelihood," Diego replied. She shook her head. "No good. I won’t do it at a family setting. A personal rule." "So do it after," Diego answered. In Blanche's estimation, Diego's size wasn't a problem for her as much as his attitude. There was a possibility that he was El Salvador himself, an assassin for Norte Mexicali. They didn't know each

other, but they almost knew one when they saw one. Blanche looked at her phone. Jason was going to be rolling into town pretty soon. "Okay. Let's ride. Let me take my bike," she said despite his having said they would ride together. "I ain’t going nowhere." "Ain't you?" Blanche knew that no matter what, he wasn't quite buying her. He didn't trust her any more than she trusted him. "Better not," he said half playfully. "It's my bike," she said. "Look at it. Come on. I can't leave her here. Besides, I am on the job," she patted his face. "Can't be by your rules." She brought her phone. "Give me the address. I will program it. Better yet, text it to me. That way I can put you in my phone." Diego looked at her and leaned down to kiss her slowly. It wasn't a bad kiss, but the thought of Jason filled her head. She felt as though she was betraying him by even enjoying Diego's kiss even the least little bit. She was bound and determined to bring his sister home and foil the Norte Mexicali once and for all. At least make them crawl. She kissed Diego back for real and, when they broke, she staggered a little pretending to be overcome with the passion, but nothing was like the passion she felt when she kissed Jason Fowler. He lit her up like no one else could. In her mind, she could see him, his beautiful hair flicking in the wind as he sliced down the highway on his bike. As handsome as Diego was, he did nothing for her, but he believing otherwise gave her flexibility. She now had her wheels back and didn't have to ride with him. They rode the Coast Highway down through to La Jolla. The house where the barbeque was set up on the cliff looked over the sea. The private road up the cluster of mansions on the hill was quite a steep climb. Even coming down would take caution, Blanche noted. They pulled into the drive of an extraordinary home.

CHAPTER FORTY ONE The house they arrived to was painted bright white and its front was wall-to-wall windows looking out over the cliffs to sea. It was beautiful and romantic, and in another situation Blanche would adore spending a hot couple of days with Jason. For her, any place had great potential for blistering sex with him and with just the thought of that, she launched into a daydream. It is just the two of them alone in the sprawling home with its French doors opening out to nature. Because of its position, the entire property is private so there isn’t a need for anything more than decorative drapery. If they wanted, they could walk stark naked out onto the patio that was furnished with upholstered chaises as wide as double beds. Blanche is sitting in a spaghetti strapped dress, cut low to show off her luscious breasts. She loves pleasure, both giving and receiving. Sensuality for her is a play on all senses. She plays upon her appearance to heighten the experience between Jason and her. She sends him little teases, hot clothes, beautiful hair. She sits on the corner of the chaise with her knees apart, her neckline draping dangerously, sipping crisp Chardonnay. Jason enters the patio searching for her and stops. He finds her and he likes what he sees. He is so tall, so broad. His hair cut shaggy and longish, wisps around his neck and features romantically. His chest and arms erupt from the snug cotton fabric of shirt. His muscled thighs are obvious beneath his black jeans. He looks like a handsome knight rather than a modern day captain of a motorcycle club. He regards her with his crystalline eyes with erotic invitation. Blanche returns his gaze, playfully toying with the lip of her glass. He strolls over and lifts the wine from her hand and sips it. Then he lowers himself, holding her with smoldering eyes as he captures her mouth. Jason plunges his tongue into her, making her lift up her hips, legs parted and up in the air offering her very aching center to him. She needs him so much to fill her. The urge is so immediate that there is no time to go indoors. Blanche wantonly draws her panties to the side, sending a signal for Jason to come into her, but Jason teases her, asks her what she wants though he knows. Blanche grabs for the center of his legs but he dodges her in torment. He asks her graphically if she wants him to fuck her and she says yes. Are you sure? he asks. Blanche raises her dress up over her head until she is naked save for the lace that trims her hips. She was going to do to him what he was doing to her. Blanche cups her full, round breast and teases her nipple. "Okay," he relents and moves towards her. But she inches back up the chaise. "That's okay," she says. "I know you're busy. So am I.� She is far enough from him that he can just grasp her ankles. She touches herself. Jason takes hold of her ankles and drags her down in one motion so that her legs wrap around his

legs. In a dominant but playful move, he glides into her, burying himself as deeply as he can go. He pumps, with steady, frequent strides while she makes little pressured circles on her arousal slick flesh. Although she can, she does not let herself come quickly. She drags it out, savoring the pleasure that was imminent. She doesn’t want it to be over. She doesn’t want it to end. Through half-lidded eyes she looks at him. She cannot hold off any longer. "Come for me," he encourages. "Come for me." Blanche's flesh clenches on Jason's hard length while it strokes her relentlessly. She was so fully innervated that his movement was total bliss. Blanche lies back, paralyzed with utter pleasure. From his vantage, Blanche knows Jason can see every bit of her as he drove into her. She feels so decadent, so hedonistic. To excite him more, she draws back her knees against her chest. Jason is so overcome with arousal, his eyes rolled upward as Blanche can feel his body make that unmistakable switch, the ascent to a powerful climax. He cries out, jerking mindlessly within her, coming as hard as she had. In the fresh open air, the unfiltered California sun is warm on their naked bodies. Jason crawls up beside her body on the patio bed. One more time, with the heat of the sun beaming down on her sexually sensitive flesh, Blanche relives her climax. In great outdoors, with an amazing vista that overlooked the sea, the delicious electric ripples wash over her body. Blanche shook her head. She had to snap out of her erotic dream. She must have really tuned out, for when she came back to earth from her sweet dream, Diego’s handsome face was so close to hers. "Are you okay there, Elena? You look a little flushed." "I've been traveling a lot today," she lied. The thoughts of Jason left her aching. She took a deep breath and continued with Diego to the party. Blanche surveyed the scattered attendees cautiously. She had to brace herself in case the Deputy District Attorney recognized her. He wasn't there. She didn't press Diego for where he was.

CHAPTER FORTY TWO The patio was sort of like she had fantasized just before and she smiled. She sat in an available chair. When Diego offered her a drink, she cited the travel again and took an iced soda water with lime. She was hungry. She ate her fill of sweet potato sushi. The day wore on and Blanche bided her time with no plans of shelter for the evening. Her intent was to get to that poker game Diego said would be taking place after the food and drink. They had the sister at the house, but Tim Paisley, the rogue D.A. who kidnapped her, was at another location. Blanche had fun scoping him but she was growing impatient for his arrival. Finally she thought the time was right to press Diego as to where he was. He tipped her that there was now a bounty on the D.A.'s head. He informed her that Jason was playing cards for his sister and that D.A. was not going to show after all. Blanche got bitchy. Diego gave her a quick, private lecture, "Are you getting an attitude with me, mujer?" "If my job isn't here, I am leaving," she said. "You'll stay," said Diego. "And you will be a good girl. Just remember, when good girls are bad girls, they get punished. Now be patient." Blanche didn't want to create waves. She would wait out the party for as long as possible but she was already planning her exit. "Diego you are wasting my time. I am not kidding when I say I have a job." "Relax, mujer. He isn't going anywhere. I have my own business to attend to. Besides, I wanted to spend time with you." For the second time, Diego imposed upon her an engulfing kiss for which she felt nothing. She tried not to let her body betray her intense physical repulsion to him. She couldn't even enjoy it for what it was while she was so completely in love with another. She checked her phone, which was intentionally put on silent, to see if Jason had left her any messages. He hadn’t. According to what he had said, he should have been in town by now. As the party drew to close, even though the game was approaching, Blanche was frustrated. She had such an intense connection to Jason--theirs was a volatile chemistry--that she physically craved him. She missed him so when they were apart. It derailed her from her focus. Her yearning rendered into reality for when Diego informed her the game was on, Jason Fowler and three other Seven Devils arrived. As he appeared on the scene, Blanche thought he was just magnificent. She never tired at looking at him. Diego and Raoul were big guys and because Jason was more proportionate, she had thought of them as being slightly larger, but next to them she was reminded of his own large stature. His body was big and powerful. When he walked across the threshold into the room where the poker game was to take place, his head dipped reflexively even though he cleared it. Jason and three members of the motorcycle club, including Mick whom she locked up, were attending the game. They obviously had the same strategy that she had: use the game to get next to the Deputy District Attorney and to get Gretchen back. Jason played off their introduction and did not reveal he knew her. He politely shook her hand. The contact sent erotic shivers throughout her. She had to

struggle not to let her face tell on her. She seized ever so slightly and Diego notice it for sure. Diego and two other men, clearly Norte Mexicali, were playing against Jason and two other Seven Devils. Blanche saw Mick, but he went out with Raoul. The games were in rounds like a tournament. Blanche had to consciously suppress a full-blown smile at how cool she found Jason. He sat at the game table as the cards were dealt. The deal was if Jason won, he got his sister back. If he lost, he could get his sister back but he had to sign over rights to a small fortune that he had as a member of an unusual corporation formed in his town of Gold Creek, California. Diego hooked his burly arm around Blanche’s slight waist and coaxed her onto his knee. The change in Jason's face was perceptible to her. She extended her leg under the table and stroked his leg with her toes ever so cautiously so that only the two of them knew. His eyebrow arched with warning. A promising pain traveled up to her hip, followed by a pleasant stroking of her arch. Jason was giving her a dose of her own medicine. Only he knew what the mere contact between the two of them meant. Theirs was such an intense chemistry that a graze of skin made her absolutely wet. She was sitting on a handsome man's lap and felt nothing. The thought of Jason Fowler filled Blanche's head with sex. His touching her foot made her crave him inside of her. Her brain went right between her legs and she was aching to the core. She was clouded with thoughts of his intensely generous cock moving in and out of her. It was a wild proposition that she was so sexually lit up while having to remain perfectly still on another man's hold, a man who might do serious harm to them both if he knew they were flirting with each other right in front of him. "I didn't know we were bringing dates," Jason said aloofly. "I'm going to take a walk while you play," she said casually to appear like she knew when she was a third wheel so as to disguise her intent on finding Gretchen, but Diego gripped her firmly. "Stay put, baby. You're fine," he assured her. He kissed her on the cheek. Blanche affected some swagger, her words tinged with a street accent, "I know I'm fine. I'm bored. I wanna smoke a cigarette." That remark got both men's attention. Jason's dominant nature could not be filtered undercover. She could see he did not approve of her smoking for anyone reason. Diego laughed, "You don't smoke." "Yes I do," she said in her cutesy voice. "Just as soon as I bum one. Every once in a while. It hits my spot, guapo. It’s so beautiful here. Quiet. Overlooking the sea. The weather is perfect. I would smoke a cigar but I don’t like them." "The weather is always perfect," quipped Jason in deadpan. He glared at Diego. "Are we going to have focus here? I would like to take this seriously." She sat, struggling with the tension that sitting across from him created. Everything in her wanted her to be on his lap, not Diego’s. He had ruined her. She was no longer the mercenary that Norte Mexicali created.

"I don't care, but if things don't go your way, that's on you." Diego lost the first game to Jason and instead of trading off to the next player as was the rules, he insisted on playing the next hand. Diego dismissed Blanche, "Elena, go tell Raoul that I said to find you a cigarette." "No problem," she said and was off. She went out front as directed but seeing Raoul was engaged in discussion she slid covertly around to the poolside to a pool house that teed off the main house. It was a hunch that if Gretchen were on the property that was where she was. As cool as she could, she tried the knobs on the obvious entrances; there were two. And then she tried the windows. The thought to break window glass crossed her mind but a structure like this on a property like this could very well be wired with an alarm. She didn't want to set anything off. Blanche crept. She tapped the window to see if it created a reaction. To see if it would either get the captive sister to make a sound for help or to get her guardian to come out. If that happened, Blanche would clobber them with a surprise attack. She threw a couple slow warm up roundhouses while she could, since no one was in sight. Or so she thought. As Blanche inspected the windows, one last time contemplating breaking and entering, a firm hand gripped her hair and guided her back. "I ought to blister your ass right here and now," said Jason. Blanche knew he would never raise a hand to her or any woman. Although Jason did lose his mind for a few days and did freaky things to her with a rope, he snapped out of that. She relaxed against his body. It was so much to her to be able to feel him. She completely disregarded his mood. And as usual, despite his temper, he nuzzled the base of her neck and gripped her full breasts beneath the fabric of her dress, pushing them up over her neckline just about completely. She reached behind herself to touch him. “What are you doing out here?” “Your boyfriend in there is losing and he’s not happy about it. I am giving him some space while my guy kicks his ass. I have about ten minutes before I better go find Mick or your boyfriend will get suspicious.” Blanche knew he was being facetious but she could hardly stand him calling Diego that. As far as she was concerned, Jason was her boyfriend, but so much had happened between them. Things had rocked the boat of their relationship, so it was difficult to know what he felt for her. When things were tense, he was off. She probably shouldn’t let him steal touches the way she did but she could not resist. She pressed the tips of her fingers to his hard abdomen. “He is not my boyfriend. My heart belongs to only one,” she began. “This is not the time or the place,” he averted his eyes. “Whatever, Jason. I am here to help. To make good whatever you think I have done. To put my bad connections to good,” she proclaimed. “Jason, I think your sister is in there,” she said, motioning to the pool house. He released her and moved over to check for himself. She saw that he started to give the door a kick when she stopped him. “No!” she said in a rasped whisper. “There could be an alarm

and we don’t know for sure. You don’t want to tip your hand until you are ready. I have an idea. Now you go back,” she tiptoed to kiss him, “In the house. I am going to find out if she is in there. I will come back in and signal you Then we will split up again. Divide and conquer.” Jason stood intently, obviously contemplating everything she was saying. Finding the wisdom of it he said, “Agreed.” And then she took their conversation in their usual direction. “I could fuck you so quietly so quickly and send you back into Diego and only we would know.” Jason’s gleaming eyes were alert with the possibility. She took his hand and placed it beneath the hem of her dress. She slid the lace of her nothing underwear aside so that he could feel her bare flesh. He inserted a finger and kissed her mouth. “Let’s make it quick then, shall we?” he said devilishly. Beyond the pool was a gently sloping hill covered with wild flowers. Jason and Blanche covertly waded into the field and made themselves as flat as they possibly could. “We are crazy,” he murmured. “It’s so worth it,” Blanche proclaimed as she spread her legs to receive him.

CHAPTER FORTY THREE Their bodies locked and grinded furiously. The excitement that was always present and the thrill of the moment rushed their pleasure to climax quickly. Jason covered her mouth with his powerful hand. Within a few short, certain pumps, they were both coming on the naturally terraced lawn. As soon as they found their pleasure, they were scrambling to correct their clothes and to get back to the pool patio to act as if nothing had happened. “Be good. Find out what you can,” he murmured, his lips so sweet and warm against hers. “I’ll see you in there.” Once Jason vanished around the corner of the sprawling house, she jogged slowly back to the front of the house to Raoul. “Hey,” she said. “I didn’t want to interrupt you but Diego said you knew where I could get a cigarette?” Blanche turned to the man Raoul was talking to. “Sorry for interrupting.” The man took a step back and smiled flirtatiously. “Careful bro,” Raoul cautioned. He pulled out two cigarettes and lit them both. One for himself and one for her. “That is Diego’s woman.” He handed her a smoke. “Here you go.” “Gracias,” she said. “Hey, do you know if that pool is heated?” “Don’t know,” Raoul answered patiently. Blanche was not fooled by his ultra-politeness. The men were gentlemen when they wanted to be and bloodless killers when they had to be. They certainly were gorgeous, though. Their dark hair and glittering eyes were set off spectacularly by the cascading night. “I am thinking of taking a dip. Can you just make sure no one comes back there? I don’t want to get my dress wet,” she said. She was going to trick him into telling her whether there was anyone in that pool house. “Sure,” Raoul said. “I will go with you. I will turn my back.” “That’s fine. I will be quick,” she said. As they approached the walk around the pool she said, “Oh hey. They probably have something I can borrow in there.” “No,” Raoul said sharply. “Elena,” he ordered, “Come. No swimming. Finish up your cigarette and go back in with Diego.” Raoul pretty much gave her the answer she needed. He didn’t want her near the pool house. He might as well have said that was where Gretchen was. She was all too eager to go back to the card game, but she played it off like she was not. She put on a good act. “Raoul,” she chastised ultra-softly. She chucked the cigarette. “You know what? Whatever. I am going inside.” She could feel the tension just entering the house. Diego was not having a good run and though she had just met him, she knew his type. He was one who would not fall easily. The Norte Mexicali had probably picked him, too, from broken beginnings. Losing made him vulnerable and Norte Mexicali cartel members didn’t do

vulnerable so well. If Diego felt humiliated, he would be like a bull in the living room: volatile, tricky, dangerous. She walked into his bargaining with Jason, “Dude, one more hand.” He grabbed Blanche as she was creeping awkwardly now not welcomed outside or inside. “Here, I will throw her into the mix.” “You’re giving me your girlfriend?” Jason asked dryly. “She is not my girlfriend. She is a piece of I picked up. I don’t even know her. We were going to pass her around later on tonight, but you can have her,” he said desperately. “Seriously, she's just a bitch." “Well since you put it that way, why do I need her?” Jason asked. Blanche cursed him in Spanish. "Elena," Diego snapped. "Whatever," Blanche retorted. Jason grinned, "I think your bitch needs a spanking, Diego." "Yeah," Diego replied wanly and gave Blanche's buttocks a smart slap. Jason asked gravely, “Do I need a marker? Maybe you don’t have Gretchen? Is that what this is all about? Perhaps you thought you would win and not have to face the fact that you don’t have my sister.” Diego was clearly nervous. Maybe Jason was on to something. Tim Paisley, the turncoat District Attorney who kidnapped Gretchen Fowler, wasn’t present at the last minute when he was supposed to be. Maybe they were both dead and in the poolroom. “I have your sister. I was just trying to make things interesting,” Diego tugged the neckline of Blanche’s pliant dress and cupped her breast to entice Jason. “Fine,” said Jason quickly. "I will take that last game off the books in exchange for your bitch. Now next game is for my sister and I am out of here." Diego laughed. "That game never happened? You understand if I win next hand, the bitch is mine again and my guys own you.” “Not the deal, Rodenas. The deal is I get my sister and you get gold,” Jason clarified. “This one is mine if I am taking a game off the books. Do we agree? Let me know or I will just call the game and collect my winnings.” Diego erupted. "Get off me!" he blurted to Blanche. “Go take a walk." As Blanche stood up, pulled the hem of her Lycra dress that had crept up, down her thigh, Jason

ordered Blanche, "Stay where you are." She froze. “Come here,” he said and patted his thigh. Blanche sat down quietly. “You'll excuse me if I am cynical about any sudden moves. The lady stays until I say otherwise." If Blanche’s face looked the way she felt, then it would have served to convince Diego she felt awkward on the lap of the man who just won her. There was something intensely erotic about playing this secret game during the obvious one. Sitting on Jason’s lap, pretending they were strangers and that he won her had Blanche shaking. Diego laughed. “I don’t think she likes you, dude. She has a weird look on her face.” He stroked her back gently, slightly. “She’ll be fine,” he said studying his hand. When his cards were finally arranged, it was clearly a winning one. Jason dismissed her. “Go outside now.” Blanche obeyed, walked to the door, and he added. “Let my guy know you are going home with us.” Blanche acted offended. “Diego this was not part of--I’m calling my boss. I want to get on the road.” She pulled her cell phone from her the cup of her bra. “Elena,” Diego chastised. “Put it away until the game is over,” Jason ordered. His tone was calm and even, not jangled like Diego’s, but it clearly meant business. Blanche stomped out of the house, pouting. “What’s your problem?” Raoul demanded. “Your boss just lost me in a card game!” Blanche announced. Mick, Raoul, and the other men cackled at her. Even though she was putting them on, it sort of bothered her to be laughed at. “Poor baby,” Raoul consoled. “I was just about to go in and get some drinks. Help with me that,” he said. “I am not allowed back in until I am called in,” said Blanche. This made the men laugh even harder. “Oh,” she said to Mick. “I am supposed to tell you I am going home with you guys.” Although that was not particularly funny, the men laughed one more time. Blanche thought it was getting old. “Can you get me a drink, though? Would a beer be too much trouble? And a shot of tequila?” Raoul smiled. “No. No trouble.” He enlisted one of the Norte Mexicali to get drinks with him in Blanche’s place, leaving one guy alone and oh so vulnerable. Blanche could see the guy left behind had a firearm. As soon as Raoul and the other Norte Mexicali was out of sight, she would take him and take his gun. When Raoul came out, she would get him, too, and while the game was playing, Blanche would hit the pool house. She counted, the second Raoul entered the house, she put her plan in play.

“Bug!” she shrieked. “Bug! Bug!” She slapped her chest that was hardly draped by her tank dress. Mick was confused and helpless, but the Norte Mexicali member was all too happy to come to her aid. Blanche’s generous breasts mesmerized him. “¿Dónde?” he asked. “Right here,” she said and she grabbed the sides of his head by his hair, jerking his head to her rising knee. In a single blow, he was out cold. He fell to the ground. Blanche took his gun. She rolled him into the shadows. “Jesus Christ, Blanche. What are you doing?” Mick demanded in strained whispers. “Go to the side of the house,” she directed. “You take one. I take the other.” She thought instead of waiting until Raoul and the other Norte Mexicali came out with drinks, she would just wait in the shadows with the down man and charge with a flying kick. Raoul might be hard to take down, but she would shoot him if she had to. Mick could take his opponent by surprise. It was pretty dark now. There was a blaring spotlight shining from the side of the house, but it didn’t cast too far. Just beyond its scope, the grounds were black as pitch. The fact that no one was standing outside should have been a clue to both men as they carted out drinks for everyone. Instead he asked, “Where did everyone go?” On that note, Blanche flew and landed his face with the ball of her foot. Mick felled the second man. As the glassware hit the asphalt of the drive and created quite a crash, Blanche realized the quiet way to go would have been to take the drink first. No matter. It was done. They weren’t stunned like their friend, but Raoul and his helper went down. Three Norte Mexicali were down and silent outside the cutthroat poker game and no one but Mick and Blanche were the wiser. She took weapons and cellphones and darted to the pool house. She picked up a potted plant and busted out a window to access the lock. It took her a couple tries but she found Gretchen sitting quietly in a room. Her wrists were handcuffed together and she was cowed. Blanche knew that look. It meant her captors were not good to her and that they probably had their way. With a gun in each hand, Blanche assessed her. She wondered if Gretchen was in shock or drugged, for she was awfully docile. "Hey, Gretchen," she said trying to reach her. Gretchen raised her eyes slowly. "Take me home," she said simply. "Okay," said Blanche. Mick and a few other Seven Devils were behind her and they tended to her while Blanche went back into the house. She entered the house cautiously not knowing what to expect. She gave a slight nod to Jason that only he could see to indicate that they found his sister. She winked to let him know that she was okay. She could not detect what signaled the next sequence of events, but Jason, the Seven Devils, and a few other members of the household who had been undercover at the barbeque at the luxurious home drew weapons on Diego and his remaining men. "The deal is off,” he announced. With a wolf-like scowl,

Jason ordered Blanche next to him. "Come here now." Blanche played along, acting defeated as she complied with his order. Diego had nothing but hatred for her. "Not very good at what you do are you, mujer?" he said. Then he turned to Jason. "You'll never get your sister this way." "I already have her," Jason countered triumphantly. "She as good as home. You better leave now while I am in a good mood. If I find that asshole who took her, you folks might not be so lucky. Of course you are welcome to join our team. I make that offer to everyone," he chuckled. When Jason said that, Diego's face changed completely. "You," he hissed at Blanche. "You are not Elena Gonzales. You are Blanche Herrera the El Salvador who is now one of them." In a rush of rage, Diego stood, tossing the game table but remembered he was staring down armed opposition. More Seven Devils entered the house and took the two Norte Mexicalis away. “I’ll kill you,” Blanche drew a weapon. "Don't make her any promises you can’t keep, mujer," Diego counseled darkly. She knew he had a gun. "Good advice, guapo," she replied. "I thought you wanted the Deputy District Attorney?" Diego inquired. "I want him bad," said Blanche. Diego laughed a deep rich laugh. "You may have him yet, or he you after I am through with you." "You may not wish to share," she kidded. "It will not be for pleasure," Diego answered. Blanche taunted him to purposely bait him. "I have to be honest. I can’t imagine there would be any." Insulting his prowess made Diego flip his lid. He charged and she shot. So many things occurred to her in the aftermath. It was hugely risky the way things went. Blanche was so grateful it paid off. Diego was not dead, but he passed out and needed medical attention. She turned to her side and threw up. "Baby," Jason took off his vest and then his shirt and wiped her face with it. He rubbed her back. Blanche could hear him direct the guys to take Diego off to the hospital. After all the scrambling ceased and Diego and the other injured men were attended to and removed, the house was empty. He made sure, telling the straggler to go. "I would like some privacy." That was all he needed to say and his guys left. Blanche took a step to go with them when she was seized. Jason enveloped her with his powerful arms and embraced her. "Not you, silly." He poured her a

drink of bourbon and nursed her with it. She took some sips. "Diego is going to be fine. I think his blood pressure is probably kicking his ass more than anything. I think I have the same problem. Do you know how worried I was about you? Making me crazy at a time like this. I told you to -" Urges cut him off mid-sentence. He pulled her up and kissed her passionately. His fingers tangled in her long hair. It was as though he could not pull her close enough to him.

CHAPTER FORTY FOUR The house was theirs. With Gretchen safely recovered and a few Norte Mexicali drug cartel members disabled, the magnificent home overlooking the cliff was theirs. Blanche's daydream was about to become a sweet, living reality. The instant he kissed her, Blanche was completely excited. Every part of her tingled. Her nipples were erect and she was wet and readied. As they entwined, dancing the room in an attempt to completely devour each other, his erection grazed her. She wanted him. She wanted him bad. Blanche leaned against the stone hearth of the fireplace that took up an entire wall and propped up one leg, inviting him. She took his hand to let him feel for himself how much she wanted him. Jason gripped her buttocks and steadied her as he entered. He claimed her in a single move, filling her completely. Their bodies tightly joined, he made a circular grinding motion to tantalize her to no end. It drove her quickly up that delicious climb. Blanche was already worked up, having thought about Jason all day. The drama and excitement of trying to rescue Gretchen Fowler and living on the edge also got her blood going. Just a few thrusts and Blanche was filled by tremors of pleasure. "Oh God," she prayed. "Does that feel good, Elena?" Jason teased, calling her by her alias. "Amazing!" she cried out. Jason showed her no mercy, pumping back and forth this way and that. Blanche maneuvered herself around. Her buttocks jutted out, flexing her backside muscles to perfection. They were nearly hard and displayed at their best. Jason gave her a playful spank. "Hey," she warned. He stroked her soothingly. His finger delicately traced her other entrance, drawing up moisture from her pleasure up to lubricate her. The effort became more foreplay to a new act for them. Blanche moaned in anticipation. Jason obliged her, withdrawing from her and entering again, a bit higher. He was so gentle, so sure. It was intensely exhilarating and, before penetrating her completely, she was writhing with a second orgasm. Being filled this way was one of the most exquisite sensations that Blanche had ever endured. Jason was quickly pleasured, as well. He canted over her, bracing himself against the stone front of the fireplace as he ejaculated within her. Neither of them could move moments afterwards. The poker game was originally slated for the Hotel Del Coronado. Jason and Blanche freshened and rode down to the hotel and spent the night together. The morning came soon enough. The sun rose and gilded the ocean. Despite having slept so soundly in the grand room in which she and Jason now cuddled, Blanche’s body was made heavy with tranquility and laze as the waves crashed outside their window. She lay and regarded her handsome bed partner. His giant form sprawled had been draped with the ultra-soft linens like a Roman god. Her fingers crept softly on his muscle-gridded abs like she was eyeing a feast about to be had. She lifted the sheets from the ultimate work of art and took hold of his magnificent cock. She awoke him and took the hardening member in her grip and circled its soft-skinned tip with her firm, pointed tongue. The slumbering giant, with eyes still closed, threaded his fingers through her hair to encourage

more. Blanche called forth moisture within her hot mouth and enveloped him with it, swallowing him as deeply as she could. She directed the tip to plunge into the pliant flesh of her cheek while she applied strategic pressure on the shaft. She broke from the rhythm and dragged her ultra-wet tongue down to the base to tease his testicles with it. A flutter of little moans escaped him. His hips worked up towards her with increasing power. Blanche knew he was on the climb to the height of arousal and would soon come. She took delight in tormenting him at this phase. She rolled her eyes up towards him, looking at him with a sultry doe-like gaze and made a noise to tell him he was absolutely delicious. Every glide of her tongue made him shiver as she was relentless until his movement was almost automatic, a steady, strong pumping which she countered with a tight handwork until she tasted his pleasure. Blanche abandoned him in bed to wash up and fix them coffee, freshly made at the coffee maker timed automatically for the morning. She doused their cups with the half and half and set them on the nightstand. She drew back the drapery and cracked the ocean-side slider to let in the fresh salt air. It was a glorious morning. And yet she knew that Jason was anxious to get home. To see her. To make sure she was okay. To find out if anything had happened that would require killing the former Deputy District Attorney. Jason was on edge even with all the intense sex that they had – a night of passion that began against the stone fireplace in La Jolla to a midnight poolside escapade at the hotel, just Jason, Blanche, the sky, and the sea, once more before actual bedtime and now this morning. Jason had participated fully and yet now he seemed somewhat distant. Blanche wondered if it was that he simply could not stay away from the electricity that happened between them when they were near. She wondered where she now stood with him and if she still belonged. "Jason," she began with a heavy heart, trying to end it with him before he ended it with her, "You have Gretchen safely back. I am pretty sure you don't need me anymore." Her statement had the opposite effect. He made an almost cartoonish face. He took her into his arms possessively. She could feel the bulge and power of his muscled biceps against the slight waist. "You will that sweet little butt of yours on that tricked-out bike of yours and you will come back with me to see this thing out. Now do you need to have more sex?" The thought warmed her. She had had just about all the sex she could take for the moment but she knew that feeling wouldn't last very long. She would be aching for it soon enough. "Maybe in a little while I will," she replied coyly. "In a little while," he replied playfully and looked at his watch. "Let's see. Maybe we should stay here and enjoy a honeymoon weekend," he braced her still; his voice was syrup, "So I can fuck you on every piece of furniture, every little cover and corner," he suggested. He traced her ear with the lightest touch of his finger. "Hm? Is that what needs to happen?" "Don't you have to get back to Gretchen? She needs us." "She does need us," he agreed. "But she is being taken care of. She needs the kind of help I can't give

her at the moment." He kissed her lightly on the side of her neck in a way that drove her absolutely crazy. "I think you and I need a little R and R. Once we have recouped a little then maybe we will be better able to help her." His hands held her more firmly. He nuzzled a little closer. "Is it a little while yet?" He swept her up in his arms. He strolled over to an upholstered sleigh bed. "How about you lie back and let me do all the work," he said. Jason laid Blanche back and slid the panties off her hips. He lowered to his knees, grabbing a pillow from the bed and placing it under his knees. He traced the soft, petal like flesh between her legs with a firm and pointed tongue. He pressed her thighs apart and penetrated her, plunging his tongue deep within her. He stroked her pleasure-sugared walls as deeply as he could, lapping and titillating the opening of her body. She felt positively wanton and lazy. Her body completely relaxed into the plushness of the sofa bed, melting against the pleasure he gave her. And then, she hitched up her knees, drawing them back into her chest, to create a tension that coaxed her excitement along. She worked her limbs back and forth, rocking against the fevered lapping of his tongue. The aching built up until she could not take it anymore. Finally, Blanche exploded, her powerful orgasm seizing while Jason continued to dart in and out of her. She moaned and she wailed. His long and tender fingers stroked the insides of her thighs while wave after wave washed over her.

CHAPTER FORTY FIVE As the morning melted into noon hour, Blanche and Jason put on their bathing suits and flip-flops, grabbed a couple of sheet towels, and headed to the beach. It was the middle of the week and while there were some sunbathers, the beach was sparse. They reclined, listened to the crash of the waves to lull them to a relaxed state. The sun filtered through Blanche's lids and yet she managed to feel really sleepy. She was worn out. Without notice of any kind, she felt the ultra-warm spill of almond oil on her belly. Jason decided it was time she was oiled for her sunbathing. And because it was him and she trusted him, she flinched only a little and immediately let the amusement of delicious anticipation fill her with a smile. Her body was still innervated from her last orgasm. She was easily teased as his knowing fingers glided the scape of her body. He very slyly dipped beneath the waist of her bikini bottoms. "Spread your legs for me," he whispered. Blanche complied. Jason very clinically dipped and resurfaced, just stealing daring touches before rolling her over onto her belly to oil her back. He began talking to her in a soft, syrupy voice, asking it felt good which morphed quickly into a graphic discussion about what a beautiful body she had. "Does this feel good?" he asked her, his hands pressing as they moved towards the small of her back. "Yes,” she murmured into the towel. He seemed so vivacious for someone who had been through all that they had been through. His fingers traveled downward over the firm curves of her buttocks. He left no surface or crevice unexplored. His well-lubricated finger rimmed a forbidden place. "I like fucking you here," he said so softly. The mere words electrified her sexually. She was aching and drenched and in complete need. She needed to have him inside of her. "Jason," she pleaded softly. "Yes?" he asked innocently. Blanche moaned to send her message. "Use your words," he whispered lasciviously. "Tell me in detail what you want and need so I can give it to you." Blanche was not one to be at a loss of nerve but suddenly she was bashful. She was slow in responding but he was generous and patient in coaxing her, erotically rubbing her but only so that she would know. Were any onlooker able to see, it would look like he was merely rubbing lotion on to her. She shyly answered him, telling him that she wanted and need him to let her come on him. Jason pressed her for details. “Do you want me to be hard inside of you?” he asked. “Oh yes,” she answered, agonizing blissfully. “Did you like it when I licked you this morning?” he pressed. “Oh my goodness yes,” she moaned. “Are you bothered?” he chuckled.

“I hope you are, too,” she said. “I am enjoying this immensely. I want you to stew in this state awhile. Can you do that for me?” he asked. She was incredibly frustrated and she said as much. “Why?” she demanded. He laughed, “Baby we are so used to doing it when the mood hits us we have never really waited. I want you to wait at least a little bit. Let’s see how that goes.” “You just want me to beg you,” she half-whined. “I don’t mind hearing how much you want it from me,” he said with a smile. She rolled back onto her back. The hot southern California sun even proved to be an erotic tease, seemingly hitting her most in places of her body that were particularly worked up. She was visibly pouting. He took sympathy. “Oh my gosh, poor baby.” “I will live,” she answered playfully, “But I may be the one holding out when you want it.” Jason loomed over her, with a huge smile on his face. “Oh really? Is that so? You’re going to deny me to teach me a lesson?” “No,” she laughed. “I am not that strong.” Blanche closed the gap between them and kissed him intently. She loved sweeping his sweet mouth with her tongue. She never tired of the taste or the feeling or the scent of him. Still fully worked up, they rose, rinsed off at the public shower and dressed. They sat in the outdoor seating of the hotel. A sensual breeze washed over them. All was perfect. One or two other diners were outside with them, as well. One was a woman with sort of a masculine air to her. Jason caught Blanche looking at her. “Is someone attracted?” he asked. The excitement and shame of having been caught burned within her. Blanche evaded the question, but she couldn’t deny it. “Yes, I guess. I mean she stirs something in me.” Jason reached over and knocked Blanche’s ice water onto her lap. Blanche shot up from the table gasping and causing a huge commotion. Her dress was soaked. She reached for napkins but he had removed them all. “Ask her,” Jason directed. “Excuse us,” he said to the woman that Blanche admitted finding attractive, “May we borrow one of those place settings?” The woman was chuckling as she unrolled the dinner napkin. “Certainly,” she obliged.

Jason took it and wiped up the seat of the chair Blanche had been in. “Thanks,” said Blanche. “What about me?” “Here take another one,” the woman said and was actually sort of bold, thought Blanche, in her assistance, blotting the lap of her dress. Blanche felt awkward. She saw the waitress with their hors d’oeuvres coming. “I’m coming. I mean,” she announced, burning at her mistake, “I mean the food is coming. Thank you,” she said to the woman to stop her. “Thank you.” She requested more place settings for both tables and everything settled down. She sat absorbing the quiet, bracing herself before she transitioned from what just happened, to eating. Slowly she looked at him. With a smirk, he was waiting for her to finally look him in the eye. “You’re a bastard, you know that?” she said. She leaned over and kissed him quickly on the lips. “Oh I would be very nice to me if I were you,” Jason teased back. “I have more than one idea, you know.” Blanche stiffened, “No, no, no. You’ve done enough.” “So,” he began, spearing a slice of strawberry and putting it to her lips. “Have you ever been with a woman before?” The fragrance and taste of the strawberry was so sensual, especially in combination with the effect of the conversation. She paused not because she didn’t want to answer his question so much as she was overwhelmed with the barrage of feelings he was able to stir within her. Her hesitation, though, told him what he wanted to know. “You have,” he smiled. “Did you enjoy yourself? Was it a whole thing or just a flirtation?” “It was kind of a whole thing,” she answered bashfully. “Oh my goodness,” he responded. “Did you come?” “She did,” Blanche replied. “Was she older, younger?” he asked. “She was older. She was a person in my neighborhood. We saw each other because I would walk to the bus. There was a huge storm, knocked out the electricity in half the neighborhood. We chatted because when something like that happens neighbors do tend to speak to each other a little bit more. And I was like, ‘yeah, I lost electricity.’ That meant I had no hot water. She was like, ‘well if you need to take a shower, you can come by; it’s just me and my roommate. But all women.’” Jason interrupted, “Tell me you did not have a threesome.” “No,” Blanche laughed.

“How old?” he asked. “I was like 18. Definitely an adult. She was in her late 30s. So anyway, I had come home from work; I was cleaning houses right before I got involved with Norte Mexicali. And I need a bath bad. So I knocked on her door and said I wanted to take her up on her offer.” Blanche nodded. Jason shook his head, “That is not the end of the story. Finish it.” “Well, she was drinking wine. She ran the bath water for me, set out a towel. So I am naked in the bath and she comes in with a glass of wine. She took the ‘we’re all girls’ attitude and that I didn’t have anything she hadn’t seen before, but I got startled. I was obviously shocked and she was like, ‘oh did I frighten you?’ And she laughed. She started rubbing me to soothe me and I couldn’t help it.” Blanche looked at Jason. He was stoned with arousal. “More,” he said. “Well she seduced me. She washed my hair and then soaped up my body. She ran the water and tried to get me to come underneath, but I was too nervous and I didn’t really know myself that well. She got in the bath with me. It was this huge, deep tub. She bathed and then she sat up on the edge of the tub and had me go down on her.” Jason flinched, “You went down on her?” “Yes,” Blanche blushed. “Okay, I have to stop. This is too rich for me. I can’t talk about it anymore.” They both took a deep breath and ate in silence. Afterwards, their interaction had calmed down. It was no longer a barrage of sexual skits but calm, loving and tender. They went for a short run and finished up at the gym. Then they took a few hours to themselves. Jason had business he wanted to tend to himself alone and Blanche shopped. It wasn’t something she did often. Though she earned an income that allowed her to buy whatever she wanted, she was not by nature a shopper. The shops were so beautiful; she took pleasure in just seeing what they offered. She peered at jewelry displays and at dresses. There was a really tasteful lingerie shop that she checked out. She must have got lost in daydreaming about herself in some of the items for she hadn’t noticed that Jason returned. He had found her and he had moved right behind her, his face next to hers. “Like it?” he asked of one of the teddies. “It’s pretty,” she said. “Why don’t we get it?” he asked. She turned to him with a smile, “Because it would only stay on my body for a few seconds. I don’t need to make the investment.” “I would love to see it on you,” he replied with a smoky gaze. The shop assistant appeared. “We

would like to buy a few things. Can we get her measurements to make sure we are buying the right sizes?” Blanche began to protest that she already knew her size but he put a finger to her lips. He stepped back and watched as the shop employee guided Blanche to the correct position. Then she came up behind her and drew a tape measure around her chest and underneath and around various points of her breasts, her ribs, and her waist. She gripped Blanche’s hips and with her own foot, spread her legs apart so she could measure her thighs. Blanche wasn’t sure what she needed to do that for but she suspected it was for Jason’s benefit. While Blanche waited, Jason discussed something with the shop employee. In a matter of minutes, the employee was boxing and bagging things up and they were on their way. “I got you a spa appointment. I thought you would enjoy it,” he said. “Mani, pedi, facial, and massage.” “You are going to spoil me,” she said. “What about you? Are you going to get your nails done?” He lowered his mouth to hers and said darkly, “I might.”

CHAPTER FORTY SIX He escorted her to the appointment and sat aloofly, guarding her packages while she got her hair and feet done. While her nails were drying, the technician asked if she wanted an eyebrow wax. Jason answered on her behalf, “Sure why not?”. The tech invited them both “to come on back.” She guided them to a private area where Blanche could lie on a table, get her brows done and they could transition into the facial. The tech consulted a clipboard. “You’re getting a massage, too, so why don’t you go ahead and undress?” Blanche hesitated and looked to Jason confused. “Go ahead,” Jason encouraged. The shop technician helped her remove her clothing, down to her panties only and then draped her with a soft sheet as she lay back on a very comfortable table. Something about the feel of her naked skin on the soft fabric made her feel all lazy inside. Blanche was immersed in total comfort. The tech put forms around her brows and smeared the warm wax accordingly. Once she pulled, Blanche had perfect brows. She wrapped Blanche’s face with a soothing, moist, slightly heated towel and then went to the foot of the lounge and rolled up the cover without any request for permission from Blanche. She shifted Blanche’s thighs and applied wax to the interior, in the soft concave of her pelvic sockets. The warmth of the wax so close to such a sensitive area while she felt so shockingly exposed gave Blanche a rush. As soon as she was finished with that area, the tech very clinically covered her. Leaving her face spun around with the heated towel, the tech very gently informed Blanche that the masseuse would soon be in. She departed the room, leaving Blanche and Jason alone. “How do you feel?” Jason asked in a low tone. Blanche knew exactly what he was getting at. She didn’t answer. She just waited for more. “Did she touch you at all?” “I will reenact it tonight,” Blanche replied boldly. “Good,” Jason said just as the masseuse entered the room. “Hello,” she said. Blanche could not see her face but she knew that voice from somewhere. “I understand you have something for me?” she said. Jason responded, “Yes.” Blanche could hear Jason fishing around in one of their bags. “Here it is,” he said. The masseuse placed her hands on Blanche’s back. “Hi, I am Jack and I am going to be your masseuse today.” Blanche said hi, muffled by the towels. “I think we can remove this by now,” said the masseuse who was leaning almost immediately over her face when the towel was lifted. Blanche was stunned. It was her – the woman from lunch earlier that day. She smiled at Blanche. “Surprise,” she said with a smile in her voice. “Close your eyes. Relax.”

The woman started at the top of Blanche’s head and worked down her neck, shoulders, and tops of her arms. Then, when she rolled back the cover, Blanche braced herself, but went with it. Much like Jason had done earlier that day, the masseuse oiled her up. Only she was naked and Jason could watch as the woman worked Blanche’s body, making her bountiful breasts bobble as she was coated with sweet scented oil. The masseuse spread Blanche’s legs letting Jason see everything. Her hands skimmed the surface of her belly down between her legs. Her fingers delved, stroking her firmly a couple of times basically feeling her up before pinning back the hood of her clitoris. Blanche’s heart raced. She heard a buzz and felt the application of a tiny vibrator against her. It was small but exhilarating. Blanche was going to come quickly. She gripped the wrist of the masseuse quickly and firmly. Blanche was not ready to cross the boundary. “No thank you,” she said softly. The masseuse nodded, rolled her over onto her belly and finished her work. Jason and Blanche went to their room to shower, eat some more and sleep.

CHAPTER FORTY SEVEN For the first time since she met Jason, Blanche was full. She had suffered chronically of needing him, of experiencing such a transformative desire to touch him that set on her shortly after being with him, but now, after their honeymoon day or two, she felt complete. She rode to Gold Creek with him a whole woman. The apprehension of facing the town that didn’t like her was not even a discomfort to her. Their first stop in Gold Creek was to Denise Jensen's boarding house where Gretchen was taking it easy under Mick's protective guard. Denise Jensen did not care for Blanche. Blanche believed it was an understandable dislike given the reason why Blanche came to town in the first place. It was hard to live down that she had been an asesina for the enemy to kill a favorite town member. But part of it was that, Blanche believed, she was Latina. While Denise was civil to her, the tension was almost unbearable. It wasn’t good for Gretchen. Jason leaned over and kissed Blanche. “Why don’t you go downstairs to the Café San Juan and get us a table,” he said dismissing her. Unlike the other times that Blanche was in Gold Creek, the show of Seven Devils was unavoidable. They were always one or two of them around at any given time, enough to figure out this was their headquarters, but now they were everywhere. There were bikes and the vests and shirts with club emblems like they were a militia for the town. She walked into the Café to order coffee, holding off on ordering until Jason joined her. “You,” scowled the waitress. “Last time I saw you were being taken away in an ambulance.” “Yes,” said Blanche. “Too bad you didn’t die,” said the waitress. “In case you didn’t know this, we here in Gold Creek don’t care for Norte Mexicalis. You can get your ass out of here.” “She stays,” came Mick’s decisive voice. “She is not Norte Mexicali. She is a Seven Devils.” Blanche rushed up and threw her arms around Mick to give him a huge hug. “I see how it is,” said the waitress. “Well you can keep your club whore out of here.” Without thinking, Blanche swept the waitress knocking her onto her rear. It had been a long time since that happened where she whipped out her special training in a moment of anger instead of for work. Mick scolded her. “I know she was in the wrong, but you can’t go around doing that sort of thing.” He bent down to help the waitress. “I am suing,” said the waitress. “Whatever now. You badgered her into doing that. You two better come to some kind of truce because Blanche is here to stay,” said Mick.

“We haven’t taken a vote,” said the waitress. She cursed as she rose to her feet. “I am not sure if I can work now.” Blanche pulled two one hundred dollar bills from her purse. “Here. This will cover your losses for today. Give me your apron. I will take your shift.” The waitress eyeballed her. Blanche could see she wanted the money really badly. She had an intensely greedy look in her eye. The waitress eventually snatched the cash from Blanche and tucked into her shirt. “Doesn’t mean I’m not going to sue.” She removed her apron and handed it over to Blanche who was able to wrap herself about two and a half times over. “Go sit unless you want Mick to take you in to get checked. You can tell me what to do,” said Blanche. “You’ve just been riding for hours. Are you sure you are up to it?” Mick asked. “You go check on Gretchen. I am fine,” said Blanche. She could see Mick wanted to go. “Okay, but call me if you need anything. I am sure Jason will be here shortly,” he said. The waitress moved to the barstool. Blanche went in the back to see if she could find a smaller apron while it was slow. This was the time of the day when the waitress was all by herself. The cook would be in for the dinner rush. Blanche had been in the place when it was hopping. It was feast or famine, and at the moment they were at a lull. While she was in the back she heard someone come in. She heard the waitress tell them they had no change. Then she heard the waitress shriek. “Gun!” she screamed. Blanche darted to just inside the threshold of the door between the kitchen and the dining area. She squatted so the man who had come in could not see her. She duck walked. With the large apron still in hand, in one move, she kicked the barstool with the waitress on it and threw the apron over the head of the man like a net. She twisted it tight so he could not breathe. He dropped the gun, which discharged. By this time the waitress scrambled, hollering. Blanche wasn’t going to be able to hold him long. He reached around and his hand was on her face like a squid. He could break her jaw if he got the leverage. He could do a lot of things because she no longer had surprise working for her. She couldn’t shout orders to the waitress because her face was clamped shut with his hand. And the waitress didn’t seem to be showing any initiative. Miraculously, the weight of the man fell away from her. There was a thud and then he was down. The cook had arrived for work. Blanche went outside to the curb, parked herself, and sobbed. Mick was right. She was tired and as fun as the time she had just spent with Jason had been, she needed some space. Maybe Gold Creek wasn’t the place for her. She suddenly didn’t feel like staying at Jason’s, which was where he expected her to stay, and no one else in town that she knew of was renting or would rent to her. To top it off, she heard the waitress shouting.

“There she is! That’s her!” Just as Blanche was about to curse the waitress, the waitress continued, “She saved my life.” “She did,” Jason asked coyly. He lifted her to her feet. “Hey, Mick is going to ride your bike over and I am going to take you home. I can cook. We don’t need to eat here, if you are even hungry. Just a little bit and we will be home.” Blanche didn’t have the heart to tell him, she just wanted to be alone. “What happened?” The cook answered, “Looks like robbery. Plain and simple. Guy must have known when Cheryl here would be alone. If you guys want to give yourself a minute or two to settle down, I would sure like to make you dinner. You can take it to go if you like.” Blanche remembered the two bills she had given the waitress and suddenly she felt really stupid. It was right at the time, but now she regretted it. As if she was reading her mind, the waitress pulled the money from her bra. “Here, I think we’re more than even.” At the same time the cook and Jason realized that Blanche had on an apron. “Are you looking for a job?” asked the cook. “Hey,” said the waitress. “I can fit you in the schedule if you want to work,” said the cook. “I’ll think about it,” said Blanche, suddenly kind of down. “Thanks, Bart, Cheryl. We’ll see you.” It was only a couple miles to Jason’s from town. She wanted to go home and decompress. She didn’t have the nerve to tell him she wanted to sleep alone that night, but he knew something was up. He fed her ice cream after they set their bags down. They ate out on his back deck. “I know you’re tired, Blanche. What’s on your mind?” he asked softly. “I just think I need a few days,” she said meekly. He smiled, “I understand that.” She wasn’t so sure if she liked how readily he agreed with her. “Does that mean you’re getting tired of me?” she asked. He tilted his head. “Are you tired of me?” he asked, knowing the answer was no before he asked. “We have been through a crazy lot. We do need a little break. I have turned our troubles over to the authorities and I don’t have to worry about them anymore. You have had quite an adjustment to make,” he said pulling her feet up onto his legs. “Now that you aren’t going to kill people for a living,” he winked. “Why don’t you think about taking that job over at Bart’s? It would be a real good way for

people to get to know you.” Blanche burst into tears. “Ah. What?” “They’re never going to like me,” she said. “And I don’t have any place to go.” Jason was real quiet for a time. “Baby, do you want to go?” “No. It’s like I said. I just want a break. And I don’t think anyone will rent to me,” she wiped her tears. “We can take care of that. And barring that, you can wear that apron and play renter with me,” he joked. The joke only sort of went over. “Okay. We’ll work on it. Together. You don’t have to worry about anything. From this moment on, normal, and by normal, I mean a steadier, surer pace. Come and go as you please. Separate rooms. Clean slate.” “You mean it? I can stay here until I can get a place of my own?” she asked. “Silly. Of course you can stay here until you find a place of your own. You can stay here even if you find a place of your own.

CHAPTER FORTY EIGHT Just like that, Blanche had a place to stay and a job. She rented an apartment space over the Café San Juan and worked part time there, as well. From 6 AM to 11 AM a couple days a week, she became a familiar face with a positive association in Gold Creek, but something was happening to her that she had not expected. She was having nightmares. She was waking in the dead of night cold and clammy and scared out of her mind. She was told when she was training as an asesina that this might happen, so here it was. When there was no sex or drama taking her mind off of things, all the tension of the past few months came out of her. Sideways. Jason came in with Mick often and though they had taken a break she loved seeing him. There was talk of making Mick the new sheriff. The town wanted Jason unanimously, but he wasn't into it. He did, however, make a compromise to act temporarily until Mick made up his mind. Mick was thinking about it, but he liked Gretchen and she didn't live in town. Today, a day following a particularly bad dream, she wasn't having any of it. She and Cheryl had been getting along but today she snapped at her co-worker. It turned heads. "You okay?" Jason asked. "Yeah. I'm fine," Blanche snipped. Jason put a hand on her wrist and steadied it and the coffee pot. "Maybe I should wait to ask you when you don't have a loaded coffee pot in your hand," he joked. Blanche rolled her eyes and smacked his bill down on the tabletop. "See ya," she said. She thought she would explode. Jason was patient and quiet. He and Mick paid their bill and got up to leave. He waited until she had a break in duties to come over and do his Jason hover. "Hey," he said, "If you have a problem you must come to me, okay?" "Yes. I know," she said through a strained voice. The ever-present images of people she had hurt and those who had hurt her were scrolling through her mind. She had no idea she was going to say what she was going to say. It just came out of her mouth, "So until then, I would really appreciate it if you backed off a little." "Nice," said Denise Jensen sarcastically. She had been standing behind them. "After all you have done for her. Cheryl, can I get a table? I guess she’s not going to get arrested if she is banging the sheriff.” “Hey!” Jason admonished sharply. Rage welled within Blanche. Part of her knew she had kind of lost it, but part of her fixated on hating her. She hated Denise Jensen. She knew, too, in a move that she could kill her. She could walk out and

with all that she knew about being an asesina for the Norte Mexicali drug cartel, she could go anywhere she wanted and not get caught. She gave Denise the death stare. Mick's eyebrows went up and Jason grabbed her firmly. "Hey," he said half-heartedly, "What is up?" "Did you see how she looked at me? She is loca," said Denise. That was it. As though she were rabid, she launched into a fury, spewing curses in Spanish as Denise. "Okay," Jason proclaimed "Bart? We have a situation. I'm taking Alice here for a time out." “My name is Blanche not Alice –“ she started to shout. Jason steadied her. “It was a joke,” he said calmly. “Alice was, I thought anyway, a famous restaurant. Come. I am taking you outside.” "No you're-" She didn't get the rest of the sentence out. Jason stooped down and put her over his shoulder. When he set her down she threw a punch. She didn't know she was, but she did. He was quick to block it. He merely stopped it with the palm of his hand. She would never forget the look of shock on his face. She waited a second and swung again. "Back down, Blanche. Now," he admonished sternly. She knew he was being tough but most of him was so soft on her that she could detect his affection for her behind the scolding. “I can arrest you, you know.” “You would be so into that,” Blanche scowled. “You tied me up once like an animal. I am sure you would love to see me in cuffs.” He gently pushed the sides of her hair back with his hands. "If I never said I am sorry enough for that, I will say it again, but this is here and now. I am very concerned about you and I think we need to get you checked out by someone. You have been through a lot and we have kind of skirted that until now." "I don't need to see anyone," she dismissed, though she did. She wondered if a prescription of some kind would help her cope. The nightmares were the worst. "You killed a man a little while ago and though it was ruled self-defense, you never had a moment to contend with that," he argued. "Why do I have a feeling this is not a suggestion but an announcement that you're taking me to a shrink? Do I even get a say in this? Because the reality here is that Cheryl and I tolerate each other. She was largely responsible for me getting hurt a while back and Denise Jensen is racist, I think. She has always been awful to me. Anyone would go off." Jason stood in front of her, blinking. While her heart went out to him for trying to be the good guy, her brain was causing trouble. "I'm done for the day," Blanche told him. "I'm going up to my room and chill."

CHAPTER FORTY NINE Jason reluctantly left her, but she knew the matter was not settled by a long shot. It wouldn’t be settled until he decided it was. Blanche crashed. She slept hard but since her shift had ended by noon, it was early evening when she awoke. She was wide-awake and restless. She went downstairs to the restaurant and bought herself what she thought would be one drink. There were a couple of pool tables off to the side and one was not being used. Blanche took her drink and racked up a game. She was a pretty good player and while she meant to only play by herself, she attracted attention like her shooting usually did. A man, whom Blanche recognized as a Seven Devils, approached her and invited her to a game. She wasn’t really in any mood but she thought that if she was ever going to shake whatever was going on with her she would have to start off by being sociable. “Sure,” she said. “I’ll rack, you break.” The motorcycle club member smiled and said ultra-charmingly, “Well the way you’ve been shooting, I’d say you’ve earned the honors. Ladies first.” Blanche shrugged. It did kind of bother her that he was being so friendly. She wondered at first if it wasn’t just her crankiness but no, her instinct said there was more to it. She cocked the stick and followed through. The place was quiet so the crack of the balls was pretty loud. “Nice shot,” he complimented her. “What is your name?” she asked curtly. “David,” he replied. “And you are Jason’s girl. Or, rather, were Jason’s girl.” Blanche didn’t respond to that at all and focused on the game. Now she was going to waste this guy. She didn’t like him – new leaf or no. She didn’t want to interact with this guy. She would run the table and get rid of him. She was doing pretty well, but then he said something else that threw her off. “I was thinking now that you and aren’t together, maybe you and I could hook up,” he said. Blanche blinked rapidly almost involuntarily, the rush of anger that pulsed through her was so fierce. She was tense but still civil. “What do you mean ‘hook up’?” David grinned. “I think just about everyone knows what that means. Hook up. You know, have sex, spend the night together.” “David, get out of here before I kill you,” she said. The words came out of her mouth before they registered but now she didn’t care. “I am going to count to three and if you aren’t moving away from me, I am going to take this cue stick and I am going crack your skull. Don’t you ever talk to me like that again.” “Whatever. It was just an offer. You aren’t that good looking anyway,” he said, resting his cue on the

table. “People aren’t going like you much now that you aren’t with Jason so I expect you should just get your ass moving along.” Blanche continued to blink trying to filter everything, “You know what, David? For a stupid man, you just made a lot of sense. I think I will be moving along.” She set her cue down. “You live another day, dumb man.” She knocked back her drink. “Maybe you should watch who you are calling dumb, Blanche,” said David. Despite her warning, he crowded her. Blanche elbowed him in the gut and fought very hard to resist a follow through. He was stopped. She could easily strike again and break his nose with the heel of her hand. With much effort he said, “Jason won’t be able to take you after this for sure. Go.” She just left him. She went up to her room and threw together what she could. She took a moment to sob. It felt like years and years of grief were coming out of her eyes. She didn’t really want to hurt that man the way she did just now, but part of her believed that was who she was. No, the town would never accept her. Jason would probably take her in a heartbeat, but the more she stuck around, the less that would be true. Blanche was overwhelmed and she continued to make a mess of things. She packed up her bags and loaded them onto her bike. She had left Bart, the cook, a note and some cash and thanked him for the job. She was sobbing as she straddled her bike. Images of every painful situation she had ever endured went through her mind. It was better that she left. She rode. She rode on the access road that took her out of Gold Creek. It wound around the Gold Creek Bay. Blanche could see the glimmer of the lights of what she thought had been a beautiful town. She couldn’t fault the people for not wanting her there. She had come to do bad things to them. She wished like hell she could take it back. She tried like hell to, but the nicest thing she could do for them was go. And so she was.

CHAPTER FIFTY There was a small motel on the way out just past County General. It was right before a cluster of apartments and a residential area, where Tim Paisley, the rogue Deputy District Attorney, had lived. The motel looked both barren and cozy at the same time. Blanche pulled in. She booked a room and just slept for a week. She went out onto the flats before the rise of the San Gabriel Mountains and did yoga and some Karate moves to connect to her strength, to ground herself, and to cleanse herself of negative thoughts and energy. She wanted to move forward. Running in the high desert was awesome. It definitely rejuvenated her spirit. She was almost feeling healed being in the high desert. She didn't think so much of getting back to Jason until she got arrested. She had not caused trouble. She hadn't had sparred with anyone or injured them. She paid her motel bill and was on her way out on a beautiful California night, maybe towards Hollywood, when she was pulled over, lights and sirens blaring. Maybe her taillight or something was out. She didn't think so, not the way the cops reacted. She planted her feet to steady the bike and removed her helmet. Her hair whipped as she shook her head. "Nice," said the cop. It was Jason. When Blanche saw Jason it was as though she had been asleep for a while and now she was awake. When she saw him ever part of her needed him. "Where you heading to?" he asked her. "Aren't you supposed to ask me for license and registration?" She wanted to be funny but she couldn't quite determine if he was mad at her or if he was playing. "I asked the question I wanted to ask," he said looking her in the eye. "I was going on my way out to start over," she replied. She looked out into the mountains so he couldn't see her tears. "I see. Can you put your bike up on its stand and get off." His voice was very cop-like, so she still couldn't tell, but she did what she was told. He gently but firmly took her hands behind her back and cuffed her. Just in case he was teasing, she jutted her chest out so that he had a clear shot down her shirt. "What are you doing?" he asked. "What?" she asked innocently. "Stand normal," he ordered her. "I will if you tell me what this is about," she replied. He didn't answer. As he led her to his police

car, Blanche strategically stumbled. Jason caught her. She clowned around, pretended to not be able to stand up. He swept her up out of frustration. "My hero," she teased. "So what is this about, Jason? Did I do something I need to account for or is it that I was skipping without checking in on you?" She asked him frankly. He turned and eyeballed her on the second part. "I'm sorry if I offended you. And it seems like every time I do, you get kinky. Now it's handcuffs, last time it rope. I really bring out the Dom in you," she chuckled. "You know you’re doing this police thing all wrong. I am pretty sure you are supposed to frisk me." Jason put her in the back of the squad car and he got in the driver seat. "You like this stuff, don't you? Are you going to take me to the station and interrogate me?" she asked with double entendre. That made Jason laugh, "You are going to jabber this entire time, aren't you?" He couldn’t keep up the tough act. "Well that's more like it," she said. She smiled at him through the rear view mirror. He shook his head. He pulled off the main road to a little side road. He stopped the car, opened the back door and let her out while she was still cuffed. To Blanche, Jason looked as though he were going to eat her. He was gentle as he guided her. She was literally one step ahead of him and bent over the hood of his car. She tipped up on her toes and flexed her buttocks. "Come on. I will bet this was the first thing that crossed your mind when you stepped into that uniform. Wanna play good cop/bad girl?" Jason rushed her. His big warm hands cupped her, spanning the curves of her backside. He banged against her gently in phantom pumping to suggest to her what he wanted to do. "Oh my God, woman, you drive me crazy. I am about to do something that could get me arrested." "Make it quick," Blanche whispered. And he did. Jason slid her pants down. With his foot, he spread her legs. He slid into her with a very hard and generous cock. And he grinded up to her as closely as he could, swerving within her snug flesh. Blanche could hardly withstand the overload of the pure eroticism of their little role-playing. "Oh you feel so amazing," she gasped. "Are you going to be good," he asked her. "Or do I have to re-arrest you?" "Oh I want to be good," she said, "But I think you might have to be very hard on me. Like in the jail cell."

CHAPTER FIFTY ONE The suggestion seemed to push Jason over the edge. He pumped in Blanche with a hungry fury. He needed so badly to come within her; she could feel it. He was all animal, motion and moaning. She raised and lowered her toes to create a counter pressure against his rhythm. She quickened her pace to keep up with his and inadvertently set herself off. She felt that shift onto that unmistakable climb to orgasm. She was flooded with intense arousal but to have a climax strike her so suddenly was in itself amazing. Blanche wavered in and out of consciousness, overcome with pure pleasure. Her pleasure finished his. He was convulsing insanely, stroking her in jerking motions, praying to the gods as he drove into to the last one. They were both slumped over the hood of the car. "What have you done to me?" he asked rhetorically. "I just had you and I can feel it; I could do it again." He took the handcuffs off and fixed her clothes for her. He drew her into his arms and kissed her hard. "Let's go check out that jail cell," he murmured against her lips. "I am sorry I ditched you. I just had to get my head straight. I went through something awful," she told him. "I know," he replied with a slight scold in his voice, "I could see that. You went through it without me." "I didn't want to hurt you any more than I already have. I couldn't seem to control. I hit one of your guys," she said emotionally. "Yes, I know. You punched Foley. But Foley is a dick. My problem is that you had a problem and you wouldn't share it with me. That can't happen again," he said. "I got overwhelmed with the idea of people accepting me here. And what was best for you." Jason arched an eyebrow. "So I guess I'm not the only who takes what is best for us in my own hands. Baby, if you want a relationship as badly as I do, we have to do things together." "Yes, but I wasn't really right," she began. "I never want to go back to that place again," she said. "I don't want you to ever go there alone," said Jason. He pulled her close so they were nose to nose. “If you ever go through something without me, you are going across my knee.” “Got it,” she said and kissed him softly and slowly. As naughty as it was, Jason and Blanche went back to the Gold Creek sheriff's station, relieved the deputy on duty and had sex in every possible configuration in each of the holding cells and across Jason's desk. They awoke on the cot in his office, to a rumble, more like the buzz of a hornet's swarm. It was a band of motorcycle riders ominously dressed in black-on-black gear with Norte Mexicali drug cartel insignia. Gold Creek was being invaded.

Jason scrambled and radioed to his deputies. In the melee, he went into action and left Blanche to stay in the office, but she was not about to let him handle Norte Mexicali by himself. In minutes, Jason had managed to rally Seven Devils Motorcycle Club members who were dressed in their colors and riding, or they emerged from their street units and manned the sidewalks and storefronts to prevent any looting. Jason's sister, Gretchen, had been moved from Denise Jensen's boarding house to her own place so she was not in immediate danger. Blanche waited until the swarm of black bikes had passed before she got on her bike and followed. She rode up onto the shoulder of the road alongside the riders from behind and with an automatic air gun fired intensely sharp metal clusters onto their path. Bikes were going down causing other bikes to go down. Unfortunately, one of the adversary bikers caught onto her and began to chase her. Blanche figured that out and abandoned her sabotage. She rode like a demon into the town, avoiding collision like an expert stuntwoman. It was like a scene from the ultimate guy flick. She was up on the sidewalk, dodging people, taking the tight corners of the closely situated buildings and narrow alleys. She managed to get around a building and lose him long enough to put her bike down and dash into the nearest door. She took the flight of stairs immediately inside the door and ran up to the next floor. It took her a moment to realize that she had run up into Denise Jensen’s boarding house. It was an awkward feeling. Her intention was to simply leave through the front door and seek the safety of the scrambling town. By now, all of Gold Creek was in an uproar defending itself against the invading bikers. Blanche heard sirens that were no doubt addressing the state of emergency and the bikers she had caused to crash. She was just about out the door when she heard the unmistakable cock of a gun. She turned around slowly to face her captor. There was Denise Jensen pointing a shotgun at her. “Don’t move,” said Jensen. “There is a man coming up behind me. He will kill us both if you don’t let me leave. I suggest you save your ammo for him,” counseled Blanche. She acted cool but the inside of her chest was beating like crazy. Denise Jensen hated Blanche from the moment she came to town. “I will have a bullet for him, as well,” she said coolly. The anger in her voice made her words tight and ominous. The situation was perfect for justifiable homicide. Blanche could be murdered and, though some might argue, Jensen’s defense was as good as sealed. She would get away with it. “We don’t have time for this. This man could kill you as easily as he could kill me,” said Blanche. But as she spoke, he was already in the building, climbing the stairs towards them. Denise Jensen took one look at the size of the man and froze. The gun was no use to her. Blanche gripped the handrail for dear life and flew with both feet out to the side, kicking him. She sent him tumbling downward. Blanche turned to Denise. “I suggest you leave the house because this guy may get up. Unless you want to shoot us both now.” Denise was in a state of shock. Blanche gently removed the gun from her clutches and guided her out of the boarding house. The top of the stairs closed off with a heavy wooden door. She shut it, locked

it, and joined the skirmish outside. There were only a few little fires between Seven Devils and Norte Mexicali. As paddy wagons invaded with lights and sirens, it seemed the whole incident was well under control. Jason immediately found Blanche as she guarded a stunned Denise Jensen. “What happened?” Jason asked Blanche cautiously. “A bad guy came up the stairs at us and it put her in a spin,” said Blanche. “She had a very bad experience with one of these guys before. Lost a husband because of it. I will get her in an ambulance.”

CHAPTER FIFTY TWO And that was the last of Norte Mexicali that Gold Creek saw. It took about two months to drive in the last nail of repair to the damage the fight had done. Jason Fowler, as acting sheriff and captain of the Seven Devils Motorcycle Club and president of the Gold Creek Corporation that held the gold that Norte Mexicali wanted so badly, sat down and hammered out a negotiation with key members of the drug cartel. No one knew exactly what the terms of the negotiation were. They just knew it didn’t cost the town a penny and it stuck. Not even Blanche knew, but for him to be able to get such a powerful drug cartel to behave really spoke to her as to why they wanted him dead. He was so smart, so powerful. He was the man she loved. When the town fully recovered, it had one of its traditional celebrations at the picnic area around the Gold Creek Bay. Jason made a few announcements, one being that if no one objected to it, Mick would be taking over for him as sheriff after all. He and Gretchen had gotten serious and were getting married. Married, thought Blanche. It was nice and it was sweet the way the story ended so nicely for them. If they could get a second candidate, Mick and Gretchen could split their time between homes. But for now, they agreed to stay in town so that issue was resolved. Jason said he would be stepping down as of the next business day. “So you’ll be going back to doing nothing for a living?” kidded one of the Seven Devils. The crowd laughed. Blanche thought it was a weird situation to live in a town where everyone was rich because an old gold mine owned by the town had a couple weeks of really good luck. Only the people who didn’t have the good fortune of living within town limits had to actually work for a living, but the good news was prices were pretty cheap in terms of goods and services and rent. Blanche still had Norte Mexicali money, but Bart was good enough to give her her job back. She liked working. Though the town was warming up to her, she felt more secure in being there by contributing, by being a part of. She still had not moved back in with Jason though they had gotten past the obstacles of whatever emotional trauma had bubbled up for her. The threat of Norte Mexicali drug cartel was also not an issue. Part of the mysterious deal that Jason made also took the bounty off of her head. She knew it would be naïve to think that turning on the people who hired her and keeping their money would not come at a price. She figured she would have to look over her shoulder for the rest of her life, but between the time she actually did turn on them and now, there was so much distraction that she didn’t have any time to be afraid. When Jason sat her down to actually explain that she wouldn’t have to worry, she was filled with terror at the thought. She had been a marked woman for a while. She broke down when he told her. “Baby,” he rubbed her back, “I didn’t mean to upset you. I wanted to give you good news. I figured you had considered what you might risk if you went a certain way. I am just here to tell you that you don’t have to be afraid. It’s done. It’s over.”

“What did you do to get them to get off your back?” Blanche asked. He didn’t answer. He took her face in his hands and with his thumbs, brushed away the tears of her fright away and kissed her sensually. “The good news is it is all behind us. We can get back to normal.” So standing at the picnic area, Blanche, as just one of the town folk, was listening to Jason tell everyone that things were back to normal. “That’s right,” he said. “I am going to get back to doing nothing for a living. Blanche,” he called to her. “Come up?” Blanche could take on a man twice her size without batting an eyelash but going before these people, she was afraid. She timidly did as he asked. Jason took her hand. “This is how I am going to be spending my time. I know that we have had some interesting times these past few months. I want to thank each and every one of you for giving Blanche a chance.” “I’ll give her a try,” shouted Foley, who had apparently had too much to drink. “I can still arrest you, so I would be quiet if I were you,” warned Jason. Blanche’s stomach was doing butterflies as she scanned the crowd and spied Denise Jensen in the crowd. Despite the fact that Blanche saved her life, there was a pretty good chance that Blanche had made an enemy for life in Denise. The crowd was silent until Mick spoke, “Welcome.” Gretchen echoed him, “Welcome.” Finally Denise Jensen did speak up, “You mean to say she gets a share of our money just because you are getting it with her?” Jason ignored the woman’s bitterness. “No. That’s not what that means. The terms of that deal are safe. I, alone, can’t change any of that, nor would I. I am just saying Blanche is here to stay. I will be splitting my time between my place and my sister’s place until we find a person to share the sheriff duties with Mick.” With that, Jason concluded his little speech in front of the town and the party kicked into high-gear. Blanche didn’t feel like a party. She was jealous that Mick and Gretchen were getting married. She was bummed at the cracks some of the town people made. Part of her felt like he could have defended her more. She did some bad things or was supposed to do some bad things, but she didn’t. And she was there when the town needed her. When Jason needed her, she gave her all and risked her life to defend him. He could see that she was upset. “You know,” he said softly into her hair. “Not every one of these

people likes me either. Most of them do. Same as you. And that’s what you have to focus on.” “I know,” she said, not telling him what was really on her mind. “You wanna come camp out at Gretchen’s with me one of these nights?” he asked. For some reason that made her boil. “No!” she shouted. “I don’t want to camp out!” Her raised voice stopped the crowd. Blanche was embarrassed and she made her escape to her room above the Café San Juan. Jason was close behind her. She didn’t care. She knew he was coming up the stairs and wanted to come into her room, but she closed the door on him anyway. “Hey!” he exclaimed and busted through the door. The room was built over a hundred years before and so the clearance was a little short. He had to duck to fit his wonderfully tall frame through. “Behave yourself,” he admonished. “Bite me,” she hissed. He raised his brows. “Oh, I will bite you. Come here right now.” He chased her but she evaded him. “Stay away from me. And I changed my mind. I am leaving!” she snapped. He stopped. “Blanche Herrera, this is getting old. You can’t take off or even threaten to take off anytime you don’t know how to handle your feelings and you’re too chicken to tell me what is going on.” “Well how about you?” she countered. “You get kinky when you’re mad at me!” “Kinky?” he protested. “How the hell am I kinky? I have been fun, maybe. Interesting. But when have I been kinky?” She folded her arms. “You don’t remember tying me up? Putting a leash on me in the cabin in the mountains?” “Blanche, I was out of my head. I was wrong. I will say it again and again, because I am sorry. If I can forgive the fact that you came to this town to kill me, Jesus, you can surely forgive the mistakes I have made.” Blanche cuffed her mouth. “Oh my gosh,” she said. “I never even thought of it that way.” He nodded. “Well yeah,” he said softly. “I am so sorry,” she said and she kissed him quickly, moving closer into him. “Please forgive me.” “I think that can be arranged. Unfortunately, I did tell you before that if you ever had a problem and

tried to handle it without me there would be consequences.” Blanche searched her memory bank, “What?” “I said if you ever had a problem and didn’t come clean with me about it, if you acted out on it without being straight out with it, you would be punished. I am, after all, kinky.” “Okay you are hardly kinky,” she said as though she knew what kinky really was. “Oh really?” he teased her. “What does that mean? I don’t compare?” She smiled, “Baby doll, no you don’t compare except to say that you are the very absolute best in the whole world.” “I am. That might get you off the hook,” he said. “So spill it. What set you off? And be specific.” Blanche didn’t know if she had the courage to tell him that of all the things, like Foley’s and Denise’s cracks, to be upset about she was annoyed that his sister was getting married and she was not. “I just miss you, that’s all,” she lied. His face looked like it was going to pop. He clearly did not buy it. “No,” he said. “Try again.” “All right, but then if I tell you and you say okay it won’t be like you wanted it,” she said. He blinked. “That made absolutely no sense whatsoever.” “I want to marry you!” she blurted. And felt really vulnerable. He smiled a wide, shit-eating-grin smile. Blanche knew he was not going to show her any mercy on this. “I see,” he began. She stomped her foot. “I knew you would act this way.” He wrapped her with his powerful arms. “And what way would that be?” He nuzzled her so his voice was vibrating in her ear. “You’re making fun of me,” she whined. “What for wanting the same thing that I wanted, my little impatient lady? I have been trying to route you in the right direction for some time now but you have all the little moves you make because you are trying not to be honest about what you really want.” “Now you’re not making sense,” she accused. “Oh yeah? For instance, ” he looked around. “Nice little place you got here.” The room was cute. As

the building was an extremely old storefront, it had very nicely kept but rustic detail and charm. “What about it?” she asked. “It’s really cute but did you really want to be here? Did you really hope and pray you could get your job and your place back. I mean I understand that you wanted it at one time when you were going through some stuff . . . alone . . . but after the night on the police car and after the Norte Mexicali were dealt with once and for all, did you think hmm, I hope I can spend my nights here in this tiny haunted place?” “Haunted?” Blanche flinched. “Oh, you didn’t know? Very haunted,” he said. The one thing Blanche carried with her from her childhood was a superstitious nature handed down to her from her grandmother. She believed in ghosts. She clutched at Jason. “Really? Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” “Be honest with me,” he said seriously. He looked her right in the eye. “Did you want to come back here? Or did you want to come back with me?” “I wanted to come back with you. I always want you. I am so afraid that I want you too much,” she exclaimed. “So how long has it been since the day of the big fight here and settlement all the rest of it? A couple of months? And you have been here all this time not wanting to be?” he scolded. “I am not kidding, Blanche. Maybe you should take a trip across my knee.” He scanned the room and spotted an oak table chair in the corner. There really wasn’t much furniture or room for any, for that matter. There was a couch that pulled out into a bed, a little coffee table that she took some of her meals on and the table chair that sat in the corner. Jason pulled the chair out to the center of the small room and sat down. He lifted her across his lap. She giggled. “What if I promise to be supersonic good?” she asked. “I hope that you would be good no matter what,” he played along. “Please don’t spank me. I promise I will not ever be apart from you a second longer than I have to.” “Are you sure? Do you swear?” he asked. “If you want, we can seal the deal with hot sex,” she said. She reached under her belly and began fondling. “Hey, no fair trying to bribe the disciplinarian with groping,” he said. “Oh okay, I won’t,” she said demurely. He flipped her around with lightning speed. In a couple of

moves, she was straddling him. “My gosh but you are good at that. Is that how you got the bad guys to surrender? You out maneuvered them?” “I might have,” he teased. “I am not at liberty to say.” “You know we have never had sex in this room. Might be nice to leave a few nice memories behind to sort of give the ghosts something to think about,” she said. “I think that would be a nice idea,” he said as he took her mouth. While his tongue penetrated her mouth, his fingers were fast at work feeling beneath her neckline to the soft, plushness of her huge breasts. Even a modestly cut neckline revealed cleavage on her small frame. Jason moaned as he kneaded her. She stood up a little, straightening her knees so that she could rise enough to unfasten the waist of his pants. She freed his long, hard erection. She was wet and ready for him and she let the weight of her body sink onto him. She took him as deeply as was possible. She gripped the back of the oak chair and hooked her feet around the legs and rocked on him. Jason was praying in no time. “You feel so good. I don’t know how long I am going to be.” She teased him. “Should I go slow?” And with that question, she moved lasciviously slowly on his hardness. She also wasn’t sure how long she would last, but she did a little trick used to pleasure herself a few seconds after she had her first orgasm and so she was able to come at least three times if she wanted to, maybe even more, though three was good. She could bring her orgasms back to life. She had saved the little vibrator that he bought her at the spa. She had carried it in the cup of her bra though he had not detected it. She reached inside and palmed it so it would be a surprise. The small but awfully powerful tool was perfect on her aroused, wet, sensitive nub. It had a buzz that could not be hidden. So when he heard the noise and knew what it was, his excitement kicked up to the next level. “Can you feel that?” she asked of the vibrations. “Yes,” he rasped. In just a couple of trusts with the little tiny vibrator working, Blanche came and Jason followed. Their boisterous rocking threatened to break the antique chair that they were joined upon. The weight of their bodies and the way they were locked upon one another made their movements succinct, but not as free as if they were on the bed. It seemed to make their pleasure that much more intense. Blanche’s orgasm was so incredibly intense, pulsing on his hardness that filled every part of her. She collapsed in his arms as endless waves washed over her. Jason was slack with his own pleasure, slumped against the chair. Finally he said, “I think we gave the ghosts an eyeful.” “I’ll say,” she replied and kissed him for a long time.

CHAPTER FIFTY THREE Blanche moved in with Jason and they were officially engaged, but she kept working at the Café San Juan. She liked working there and Bart, the cook, seemed to like having her there. It was already decided that Gretchen and Mick would have their reception there. They had a bikers’ wedding where the entire town went on a ride to the cabin in the San Gabriel Mountains. Gretchen and Mick said their vows hillside before an audience of Seven Devils and their friends and families. While everyone went back to town, Blanche and Jason stayed behind. They looked at each other with lingering passion during the entire ceremony. They had had a lot of steamy sex and near misadventure in that cabin. The ceremony and memories worked them up. But then again a breakfast at the Café San Juan worked them up. When the last of the Seven Devils and wedding party was safely out of sight, Jason took Blanche right then and there. His appetite would not wait. She shed her dress and lay on the ground. He took her under the canopy of trees on the mountains. Her body ground into the soft grass that was as soft as any mattress. He pumped into her slowly, telling her how much she meant to him, how much he needed her. She spread her legs out and up and wrenched them up around his giant shoulders to submit to him as fully as she possibly could. Without warning, a gentle rain began to sprinkle them. The water was cooling and soothing to their sexually heated bodies. The contrast of temperatures caused Blanche to seize up, to clutch and it was just the push she needed to send her spiraling in an erotic tumble. She came on Jason hard. She moaned and she writhed as he pumped into her. Just before a great deluge of rain fell on them, Jason came, as well. He was like a god, giant above her with the trees and the sky as his backdrop, crying out with the ultimate pleasure as he spilled into her. It took but a second for them to come back to their senses as heavy rain pounded on them. They laughed and scurried half naked into the cabin. Once inside the cabin, Jason busted up in a belly laugh. Blanche’s backside was filthy. Once he could breathe, he was romantic again. “Oh my gosh, you’re so dirty,” he teased. He posed her, hands bracing on the mantle of the fireplace and snapped a picture. “Private collection,” he murmured and gave her buttocks a playful spank. They drew a bath in the deep claw-footed tub. The bathroom had its own fireplace that stoked the room with comforting warmth. They reclined in great rising bath bubbles, each washing the other’s feet with decadent scented oil soap. The perfume was rich but not overwhelming and the combination of sensual pleasures made Blanche positively lazy. They wrapped up in plush terry robes and cuddled on the feather bed that filled the living space of the cabin. They dozed. He woke her with a bottle of champagne. She felt her robe being parted and his warm powerful hand on her naked, flat belly. He spilled the champagne in her delicate belly button. She started and then cooed, realizing what he was up to. He licked the drink from her and licked her belly. He filled a glass for her to sip while he lowered himself and put his mouth between her legs. Now that was wicked combination – the cool crisp sensation of ultra-expensive champagne and Jason’s hot tongue. It seemed that with him, she was always on the verge of arousal. Her body was still sensitive from the powerful orgasm she had had earlier in that day so it was nothing for her to be on that wonderful path to coming.

She drew back her knees and worked them to and fro and sure enough, she was pulsing on his tongue. He stuck his fingers inside her and stroked her rigorously through the pleasure. It was not enough. It was never ever enough for her. She returned the ecstasy. She took a swallow of the champagne and glided her tongue down the length of his erection. She took him into her mouth as deeply as she could. She relaxed the back of her throat and calmed it, for he was a very large man. She knew the idea of her taking him into her mouth that far was a charge for him. She tightened the constriction of her lips around him and with her hand worked him until he was spurting. Blanche swallowed. They lay back in the heat of the fireplace and sipped the champagne. Finally he laced his fingers into her and said, “So I know we mentioned it, but I wanted to talk about something seriously.” Blanche braced herself. It was almost never good when he wanted to talk to her seriously about anything. There had been so much drama in their lives up until this point, some of it thrilling, some of it dangerous, some of heartbreaking, and some of it incredibly erotic. “I am asking you to be my wife. My mate for life.” Without hesitation she straddled him. He grinned. “I will take that as a yes,” he said. “I was going to ask you on the mountainside, but then you fucked my brains out.” She gave him a pretend slap. “You fucked me back.” “Yes I did and I have a feeling I am about to do it again,” he paused. “Do you think it’s always going to be this way between us?” “I think we are made this way. I can’t imagine not feeling this way about you,” she said thoughtfully. He smiled a wicked smile. “And what way would that be?” he asked. She took her hand and guided him to feel her. She was wet for him again. She lowered to kiss him slowly and sensually. “This way,” she said. THE END


CHAPTER ONE Holly Springford was trapped. She didn’t think she was the only one in the world to be in such an unfortunate predicament, of course, but she sure was the only one in her world. Everyone else seemed quite content with the place they had been assigned—either by destiny or by the circumstances…or, in more than one case, by somebody else. Everyone seemed happy with the rules and the routine and the expectations. Not Holly. More and more every day, Holly felt like she was choking, like her already limited air supply was being cut off just a little bit more with the ticking of every hour. Not even riding her beloved horses could give her the sense of freedom that it used to. With each passing day, she felt more and more like bridles had been put on her and someone else was trying to steer her life in a particular direction. She always had the suspicion that her life had already been decided and planned out for her, but she always thought that she would be able to find some wriggling room in there somewhere, a crack to push her ideas through. Her intentions. Her own plans for herself. Lately, however, it was becoming more and more clear to her that she had only been fooling herself. She wouldn’t be able to say what had made her snap exactly, but that evening, Holly decided she’d had enough. She would be the one to decide what to do with her life, and her parents and everyone else better make peace with it. Holly was feeling confident and determined…and oh-so-very nervous. Her knees got a little weaker with every step that brought her closer to her father’s studio in the big house on their family ranch. She paused in front of the sturdy mahogany door and took a few deep breaths. Behind the closed door, her father was speaking, but it was hard to make out the words through the thick wood. Still, Holly thought she could catch the word “wedding” among the string of unidentified sounds. Her stomach clenched.

Oh, hell, no! She thought furiously. The sudden wave of anger that washed over her gave her the strength to push the door open and walk in unannounced. She all but burst into the room, her delicate nostrils all but flaring. Harry Springford looked up in surprise at the interruption. His gray eyes scanned his daughter’s figure carefully. “Ed, I’ll have to call you back.” Holly’s already tight stomach spasmed into such tight knots that for a fearful moment she thought she might throw up on the precious carpets that littered the floor of her father’s studio. “Was that Edward Sutherland?” She asked, hoping against hope that she may be wrong. Her father looked unfazed. “Yes. We were discussing a few details.” “What kind of details?” “Engagement details.” Shit. Holly took a steadying breath. She needed to play this well, and she needed to play this cool. “Dad, we need to talk.”

CHAPTER TWO Private Matthew Ramirez wasn’t a grunt anymore. In fact, he wasn’t sure what he was—or who he was, for that matter. To say that he had lost the way would be the understatement of the century. Sometimes, when he sat alone in his room at night, or early in the morning at the kitchen’s table while the rest of the household slept, he would stop and try to think of a time when he’d had his bearings. He could not remember that time anymore, nor could he remember what it had felt like. Truth be told, he wasn’t even sure that time had ever existed. Life sure had thrown him a few curve balls. For a while there, Matt thought he had learned to take them. For a while there, he thought he may have become a professional batter. Admittedly, it had been a short while, but it had been glorious. How foolish he had been. How delusional. He was never a batter. Hell, he was never good enough to even just sit on the bleachers. The sole fact that he had willingly served not one, not two, not three, but multiple tours in hot, deadly zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan should have been indication enough of his scattered state of being. They had tried to spare him a few of those tours. “Rest up, Private,” they had told him. “You’ve done enough, son,” they had said. “Find peace, Matthew,” they had insisted. But Matt couldn’t find peace. In fact, he couldn’t even bring himself to seek it out. War, by contrast, was an entirely different matter. Matt sought out war; it was the only way he knew to silence the war within himself. Actual battlefields forced him away from the battlefields of his broken mind—his broken emotions, his broken self. So broken… Matt shook his head, trying to push those thoughts away. As always, he did not succeed. He had spent the whole day working underneath cars at the garage in town. He worked hard, until he was drenched with sweat and the whole of his muscles was shaking in protest. Working himself into exhaustion was the only way he could sleep at night. Manual work suited and soothed him, gave him a sense of purpose he could not find sitting at a desk behind a computer screen. It was a temporary sense of fulfilment, but it was there nonetheless. It was usually gone by the end of the day, when the work was done and the thoughts had free rein and came rushing back. Matt had tried to find help from time to time. He had tried therapy, but he could never stick with it long enough for it to bring along any real improvements. Besides, they tended to give him pills, and he hated that. He didn’t believe in the power of pharmaceuticals. He knew the roots to his disquiet, this being uncomfortable in his own skin, ran deep. He knew pills couldn’t help. Prolonged psychological therapy might, but he could never bring himself to carry it out. He would go to a few sessions, and that would be it. Life had been awful to him, but he had the feeling that he had been awful in return. He had become

standoffish and closed-off, and the war (wars) surely had not helped in that regard. Most days, Matt could hardly bring himself to feel anything. He felt, of course. He felt deeply and possibly too much, but he could never force himself to accept and elaborate on those feelings. He would let the emotions bubble to the surface only briefly, and then he would suppress them, pretending that they weren’t there. It had been his coping mechanism—if one could really call it that—for a very long time now, and he had no idea how to stop. Truth be told, he wasn’t entirely sure he even wanted to stop. Emotions were dangerous things, and he’d had enough danger to last him a lifetime. Presently, Matt let the hot spray of the shower hit his back and wash the thoughts away. The water wasn’t warm—it was scorching hot, just the way he liked it—and it pounded on his flesh like a thousand fists. He let it pound the thoughts and emotions away, patiently awaiting for it all to dissolve and evaporate among the shower steam. Matt washed the grease and oil off his skin and the thoughts out of his brain, and when his body was clean and his mind was empty, he finally stepped out of the shower stall. He toweled himself dry with slow, mindless movements. Mundanity also helped, sometimes. Ordinary gestures. Everyday acts. Little bits of normal that he could incorporate into his life in order to pretend that normality actually belonged to him. He dressed quickly in simple jeans and an even simpler T-shirt and walked downstairs. He set out the “Welcome Home” decorations in the living room, but there was no heart in it. Every move was mechanic, like it wasn’t really him that was moving around hanging banners and balloons. “Welcome home, Becky!” The largest, brightest banner said. Matt tried to rehearse those words. “Welcome home, Becky,” he muttered as he worked. He sloshed the words around in his mouth, trying to get a feel and a taste for them, trying to make them his. “Welcome home, Becky!” The banner said, but Matt couldn’t for the life of him find that exclamation mark in his voice. He tried again, in a little louder tone of voice this time. “Welcome home, Becky.” Nothing. It still came out flat. “Welcome home, Becky.” Even at its very best, it sounded fake. Matt exhaled a sharp puff of breath in frustration. Life had thrown him a few curve balls, sure, but there had been the occasional straight one in there. There had been good days. There had been victories.

Today, for example, was one of those victories. His little sister was coming home from the hospital. She was being released after the last round of chemo, and the doctors were hopeful. They said there were good chances of remission. It was too soon to celebrate properly, of course, but still a little celebration was in order. Matt hung the “Welcome Home” decorations like instructed by Becky’s husband, Joe, but he didn’t feel anything while he did so. He didn’t feel happiness or anticipation. He didn’t feel like the wait was too long as he waited for the front door to open and for Becky to walk in. He didn’t feel hopeful. He liked to think that it was all because he didn’t dare to hope; after all, God knew he had lost enough family and loved ones over the years, and he was probably entitled a little wariness when it came to miracles, but he had the sinking, horrible feeling that it had nothing to do with such understandable reasons. Matt couldn’t bring himself to feel joy or hope at Becky’s return because he simply didn’t know how to feel any positive feeling anymore. He told himself that maybe he would feel different when he finally saw Becky. It would be different to see her standing on her own two legs in her house and walking about rather than laying on a hospital bed. But when the front door finally opened a half hour later and Becky walked in, supported by her faithful husband, Matt still didn’t feel overjoyed. All he could feel was a sense of emptiness. As far as he was concerned, miracles did not exist, and Becky’s smile would probably be short-lived. So why smile at all? He thought. He sighed at himself and his Charlie Brown attitude. He covered it all up with the biggest and brightest smile he could muster, and he took his frail sister in his arms and hugged her fiercely. Joe watched them like a hawk from a couple of feet nearby, his eyes never leaving his wife. Matt knew Joe didn’t trust him, but he didn’t hold that against the man. Hell, in fact, he could hardly blame him; on a good day, Matt didn’t quite trust himself either. “Matt, you’re squeezing me,” Becky breathed from where her face was squashed against his shoulder. Matt released her immediately and stepped back. “Sorry,” he said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other in embarrassment. “I just got a little overexcited.” It wasn’t true, of course, but he had indeed felt like holding his sister close—at the very least, his hugs were genuine. “The doctors said she’s doing really good, considering,” Joe informed him. “They’re going to run a few tests over the next few weeks and keep her condition monitored, but they don’t see why we can’t hope for the best.” Joe was beaming. He was a simple man who wore his heart on his sleeve, and his happiness was palpable. His hazel eyes shone as he watched his wife take a seat on the couch. Matt forced out a smile for both of their sakes. “That’s great news, Becks,” he said. And it was. He just couldn’t bring himself to rely on it.

“It is,” Becky confirmed. She looked tired, but happy. “I feel so much better already.” Matt bit his lip. He disappeared into the kitchen and emerged with a few snacks—cucumber sandwiches just as Becky liked and chips and peanuts just as he and Joe liked. “You, on the other hand, don’t look so good,” his sister informed him after a few minutes of companionable silence. Matt rolled his eyes. “Geez, thanks.” “No, I mean it. Joe tells me you’ve been busting your ass at the garage again.” Matt couldn’t help sending a glare in the direction of his brother-in-law, who had the good grace to look somewhat contrite. “It’s no big deal, Becks.” “Yes, it is,” she insisted. “You work too much. You should take a break. Why don’t you take a vacation or something?” Matt shuddered at the mere thought. He could only imagine what might happen if he was left to his own means for days on end, with nothing else to do but think. “It’s fine, Becky,” he said again. “Really. You know I enjoy working there.” His sister studied him carefully with her penetrating dark eyes. “Fine,” she finally sighed. “I’m too tired to argue.” The rest of the celebration consisted in a quick catch-up on each other’s lives (mostly Joe’s, since Matt didn’t have much going on in his life, and Becky had spent the past month cooped up in a hospital room). Matt zoned out quickly and eventually stood up to leave the other two to it, also imagining that they would be grateful for some privacy in their own home. “I’m going to go for a run,” he announced. The other two nodded. They didn’t comment on the fact that Matt stepped out of the house dressed like he was, in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. They never did. All of them knew that Matt’s “runs” were nonexistent and were actually just an excuse for him to be alone with his gloomy thoughts. Becky and Joe, bless them, never said a word and pretended to believe him. Every single time. Matt had not been running in ages. He thought he might pick it up again someday, but he had not felt the urge yet. He had not felt any kind of urge in a very long time, and “someday” had become his go-to word for pretty much anything and everything in his life. Someday, he would tell himself from time to time, I’ll be alive again. He didn’t quite believe it.

CHAPTER THREE Harry Springford arched a dark eyebrow, and Holly did her best not to squirm. He was an intimidating man, her father. He was the kind of man who could make another man sweat rivers just by looking at him with those iron-gray eyes of his. Harry Springford was a hard, determined man. Holly supposed one had to be in order to run and manage a business as thriving as theirs. Holly’s grandfather, Ronald Springford, had built the farm with his own bare hands, and then proceeded to break his back in order to make it thrive. He succeeded, and soon enough, the farm was becoming a ranch and the Springfords were becoming one of the most successful horse breeders in the State. When Harry stepped in after his father’s retirement, he worked hard and well enough that the Springfords were now one of the most successful and sought-after horse breeders in the whole country. They were now one of the richest families living outside of Austin, Texas. Holly could understand why her father had taken on this strict demeanor of his, but she wished he was a little softer around the edges. She wished the Sutherlands had not fit in so well with the elite, highclass world that the business had plummeted them into. But they had, and as a result, her parents had expectations. Holly was twenty-one years old, but unlike most twenty-one year-olds, she did not have her whole life splayed out in front of her in the common sense. The world wasn’t hers; it was being shaped for her. That evening, Holly had finally mustered up the courage to come tell her father that she had a design of her own in mind, but now that she was under the scrutiny of those gray eyes, she found that it was harder than she had anticipated. “Well?” Harry Springford prompted, leaning back in his leather chair. He crossed his hands over his belly, which was still remarkably flat for a man of fifty-something. Holly swallowed past her suddenly dry throat and took a deep breath. It’s now or never, she thought, and she knew that it really was. She had to take her chance now or meekly accept whatever choices her parents would make for her. “Sit down, Holly,” her father said, nodding towards the chair across the massive mahogany desk (Harry Sutherland sure had a soft spot for mahogany). “No, thank you, I’d rather do this standing.” She couldn’t bring herself to sit; she was too nervous. Harry Springford’s gray eyes flashed dangerously. “Do what, exactly?” Holly took yet another steadying breath. She could feel her heart thundering away within her chest. Her palms were sweaty. “Dad, I don’t want to marry Tim Sutherland.”

Her father’s dark eyebrows shot up, so further up his forehead that they seemed to threaten to disappear within his graying hairline. “Excuse me?” “You heard me. You’re sitting here discussing ‘engagement details’ behind my back, but you didn’t even have the courtesy to let me know you were considering Tim as a candidate to be my future husband.” “Does it really surprise you?” Holly bit her bottom lip as hard as she could in order to keep in the insults that sprung to her mouth. No, it did not surprise her. Of late, Timothy Sutherland had been coming to the ranch more often than usual with some improbable excuses. Holly sure never thought it was to look at the horses, but she didn’t think her and Timothy’s fathers would go so far as to start making plans without discussing it with either of them first. “Does Tim know?” “Of course he knows,” her father huffed impatiently. “He’s been courting you for months.” It was Holly’s turn to raise an eyebrow now. “Seriously? That was courting?” All she could remember were a few awkward talks from the pompous twenty-five year old Sutherland heir. She shook her head, dismissing her astonishment. “Regardless, I don’t want to marry him. And I don’t appreciate being kept in the dark when it comes to my own future.” “I would’ve told you after I had worked out the details with Ed,” her father said. “Unfortunately, you interrupted us while we were doing just that.” Holly did her best not to comment on the remark. “Dad,” she said again, as patiently as she could, “You need to listen to me. I don’t want to marry Tim Sutherland.” “Well, who do you want to marry, then?” Holly stared at the man sitting in the chair at that mahogany desk and wondered if it was really her father. Could a father really be asking that question? In the year 2015, could a father really be asking her twenty-one year old daughter to choose a man to marry? Apparently, he could. Harry Springford was staring at her with genuine curiosity written all over his angular, stern face. “No one!” Holly snapped, appalled. “I don’t want to marry anyone!” Harry Springford sat up a little straighter in his fancy leather chair. “Holly, what are you talking about?” He asked, his voice dropping to a dangerous low tone. “I’m talking about the fact that I’m twenty-one years old, Dad! I’m too young to be marrying

anybody.” “No, you’re not. Your mother was nineteen years old when she married me, and I myself was only twenty-two.” “Those were different times.” “Not so different,” Harry Springford argued. “Not in our kind of society, anyway.” You mean the elite kind? Holly thought bitterly, but she refrained from saying it out loud, although she had no idea where she found the restraint. “It doesn’t matter, Dad,” she said. “I don’t want to marry right now. Maybe someday.” That seemed to set her father off on a whole other level—a deeper level, a more demanding level. A scarier level. “What do you mean, ‘maybe someday’?” Harry Springford all but growled. “Holly, marriage is not an option for you. It’s a duty. You’ll be the one running the business when I’m gone, and—” “Exactly,” Holly cut him off, unable to keep her tongue any longer. “I’ll be running the business. Me, not my future husband. So what difference does it really make whether I marry or not?” “You know what difference it makes.” Her father didn’t say any more, but he didn’t need to. He was right; Holly knew exactly what difference it made. In their high-end social circles, a “spinster” was not well received. If Holly did not marry, the Springfords would lose some powerful alliances indeed. It wasn’t that she was adverse to the idea of marriage per se; it was just that she didn’t want to marry because social rules dictated that she did. And she sure as hell did not want to marry someone that had been chosen for her by somebody else. “Whatever,” she finally said. “I still don’t want to marry Tim Sutherland, of all people. I’ll be marrying for love, and I’ll be marrying somebody I choose.” “Holly—” “Listen, Dad!” Holly snapped again. This wasn’t going well. She had rehearsed the whole speech for days, and it was supposed to sound nothing like this. It was supposed to sound calm and mature, cool and collected. Presently, she was just all over the place and blinded by rage at the unfairness of it all. “I’ve made a decision. I know you love me and that you want the best for me…” She wasn’t entirely sure, not anymore, but she said it anyway. “…but I have to live my own life. I have to choose my own path. This is not what I want. I don’t want to marry at twenty-one, and I don’t want to run the family business.” Harry Springford’s sun-tanned and weather-marked skin paled gradually. “What did you just say to

me?” He asked, his voice almost breaking. Holly swallowed hard. She had expressed her wishes of a different life to her parents from time to time, but never so directly…and never in such a way that implied she would indeed not be taking the reins of the ranch in a near future—or in any future, for that matter. “I love you,” Holly said, and that much was true. “But I’m not you. I don’t want to be stuck here for the rest of my life. I want to see the world and work as an artist.” “Oh, Holly, for God’s sake!” Her father finally snapped, slamming a fist down on the desk. “Not this again!” “Yes, Dad, this again,” Holly replied, unfazed. “I know you thought it was a phase, but it’s not. I want to paint. Which is why I came here tonight to tell you that I’ve made a decision to apply to art school in New York.” “No, you will not.” Harry Springford stood up and walked around the desk. He didn’t advance upon his daughter, however, merely standing by the desk like a towering figure of barely contained fury. “I forbid you to actively chase such nonsense. You will stay here, and you will do what you were born to do. You will marry, and you will have children, and I will teach you everything you’ll need to know about running our family’s business. Is that understood?” Holly gulped. She clenched her jaws together so hard that she could hear her own teeth screeching against each other. “No,” she heard herself say, surprising even herself with this refusal to be intimidated. “It’s not. I will not marry, Dad, not right now. I sure as hell won’t marry Tim Sutherland. I won’t take over the family business. It’s not what I want.” “Holly, you’re my only child,” Harry Springford said, his voice hard. “You’re the only one who can take over.” “No, I’m not, Dad,” Holly tried to reason. “You can hire someone. You can nurture them and make them grow, professionally. You can teach them.” “I won’t have a stranger managing what my father built with his own bare hands,” Harry Springford said, all but spitting out the words. “How dare you even suggest that?” “How dare you suggest that I marry some idiot you hand-picked for me? How dare you plan out my life for me?” “Holly, enough.” Harry Springford did not yell. He didn’t need to. There was an authority of steel in his voice, and he knew he would be heard whether he screamed his throat raw or not. In fact, his not screaming made it so that he was heard even better. “You are going to marry Tim Sutherland, and you are going to take over the ranch. You will make sure that this business continues to thrive, just as I have. You will respect the horses, just as I and my father before me have, and you will respect the livelihood they bring us. You will have children, and you will teach them how to take over once you

have to step aside.” Holly could feel tears spring to her eyes. She somehow managed not to let them fall, although that was all she would have wanted—to cry and scream and throw a tantrum the way she did when she was a toddler. But she wasn’t a baby anymore, as her father seemed to have so keenly noticed when he decided she was old enough to be married off. She lifted her chin a fraction and swallowed the enormous lump in her throat. “You can be sure of one thing, Dad,” she said, relived when her voice did not shake or break. “If I ever have children, I won’t be choosing their path for them. I won’t trap them somewhere they don’t want to be. I will not kill their spirit. I will never, ever insult them the way you are doing to me.” She didn’t wait for her father to say anything—not that she thought her father would; he had said plenty already. She turned on her heels and walked out.

CHAPTER FOUR It wasn’t until the next morning at the very crack of dawn that the realization of what had really happened the previous day hit him in full force. Matt sat bolt upright in bed, heart hammering in his chest. He looked around in dismay, barely taking in the room bathed in the soft the gray/blue-ish light of pre-dawn. His sister had come home after spending one month in the hospital undergoing yet another round of chemotherapy. As if that wasn’t cause enough of celebration, she had also brought good news with her. And Matt had not felt a thing. He sneaked out of the house before anyone could get up, although he suspected it wouldn’t be for another few hours—Becky would be worn out, and Joe had taken a few days off work to be with her —and he proceeded to wander aimlessly through the town. He spent the rest of the hours that separated him from the beginning of his work day in a diner, nursing one single cup of black coffee and not giving a damn that the staff was giving him the stink eye. He went to work in a daze, and he worked in a daze all day. Ironically enough, however, his thoughts were clearer than they had been in weeks. His five a.m. “a-ah!” moment stuck with him throughout the hours, and the more he thought about it, the more he convinced himself that he had found the very source of all of his suffering past and present. He was a terrible person. There was no other explanation for what was going on. His sister was home from the hospital, and the odds of her battle against brain cancer ending with a victory on her part were looking good for the first time since the diagnosis. And Matt could not feel anything. He could not give in to hope or joy or even a hint of relief. He felt nothing. Either he was a horrible person, or he was even more fucked up than he thought which would be saying a lot. Whichever the case, he had the sinking feeling that his time at his sister’s house was coming to an end. He couldn’t even contemplate the thought of looking her in the eye tonight. Becky had no idea that her brother couldn’t even bring himself to rejoice at her coming home. Becky thought her brother was normal…a little damaged, perhaps, but generally normal. Matt was just becoming to realize that she was wrong. His reaction—or lack thereof—to the recent events was anything but normal. Matt spent the whole day trying to find a solution. The first thought that popped into his head was that he should give therapy another shot, but he quickly dismissed the notion; he and the local psychologists and psychiatrists had told each other all there was to say. The second thought was that he should leave town. He should pack his military rucksack, give his sister a kiss, and drive out of her life. The more he thought about it, the more it sounded like the only sensible thing left to do.

CHAPTER FIVE Holly did not go downstairs for dinner that evening. In fact, in pure distressed princess fashion, she refused any food. Nobody came to hunt her down for it, something she suspected was probably her father’s idea. She could almost hear him: “She can come when she’s hungry,” Harry Springford would say, stern and adamant as always. Well, Holly would not come. Not tonight. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. The more she thought about what had happened, the more she felt like a fool. It still felt surreal to her. She had always known her parents had fully bought into the socialite kind of lifestyle—after all, that was how they had met. Although Harry Springford was mainly responsible for bringing the Springford Ranch’s fame to a nationwide level, the family was still well-known, wealthy, and respected by the time Harry was born. When her father was born, Holly’s grandparents were already active members of the high-end social circles of the town of Lincoln, Texas. It came natural to her father to think within that box, a tight box made up of strict social rules and traditional expectations. Still, Holly had always nurtured a glimmer of hope—a delusion, perhaps—that her father may be a slightly more modern man. He was a worldly man, after all. He traveled for business, he had seen… …what had he seen, really? Other ranchers. Other small-minded realities. Holly should have known better. She should have known just how to-the-bone traditional her father really was. She should have known he wouldn’t have understood. In fact, she had somehow expected it. She had expected Harry Springford to refuse to believe that being an artist could be a serious path for anyone, let alone for his beloved and only daughter. What Holly had not expected was the adamancy. The utter refusal to listen. The wall between them. The dead end. Harry Springford had refused to listen to reason or to any word she might have to say, and she had the feeling that would not change anytime soon. Holly rolled off her bed, where she had been laying for the past hour and a half, staring angrily at the ceiling. She walked to the window and sat on the small bench underneath the windowsill. Outside, the night sky was lit with too many stars to count. That was something of Texas that she would miss—the bottomless, endless night sky. Holly almost started when she realized where her train of thoughts had taken her. Leave, no matter what her father say. She simply could not spend any more time in this dead-end town. Or could she? Could she really leave, turn her back on her family? Could she leave everything and everyone she had ever known behind? And to do what? She couldn’t apply to any school without her father’s economic support.

A knock at her door stole her away from her reverie. “Who is it?” she called out, making no move to leave her spot. “It’s your mother.” Holly sighed. She shouldn’t really be surprised about this, either. Whenever her father went a little too far, her mother always came along to smooth the edges. This time, however, Holly didn’t think even Eleanor Springford could breach the riff that her father had created between them. “Mom, I’d rather not see anyone right now.” “Come on, Holly. Let me talk to you.” Holly hesitated. There really would be no point in sending her mother away; she would just come back later. Besides, if anyone could calm Holly down, it was her mother. “Fine,” she said, reluctantly. “Come on in.” Eleanor Springford was a petite but impressive woman. She had reached her fifties, but she didn’t look it. Her skin was smooth and pale as alabaster. She was tall and elegant, almost elf-like in the grace of her every move. She had long, almost-white blond hair that cascaded straight and breathtaking down her back and chocolate brown eyes that were said to be able to take a man’s soul away if one stared into them too long. She was just too beautiful to be real. Holly had taken a few features from her—the blond hair, the petite figure. Her skin was tanned like her father’s, and her eyes were as gray as Harry’s. Holly herself, while not as outlandishly beautiful as her mother, was quite a sight, and she had lost count of her suitors since she had come of age. Of course, she wasn’t interested in any of them. She wasn’t interested in anything that had to do with her parents’ world—except horseback riding. But that one passion of hers wasn’t anywhere near strong enough to prompt her to stay and do her father’s bidding. Holly watched warily as her mother walked up and sat next to her on the bench by the windowsill. “Your father told me what happened,” Eleanor began carefully. “Did he tell you he plans to marry me off to Tim Sutherland?” “He did.” Holly stared at her mother. She didn’t think she could handle another betrayal for the day, but she had to ask. “Did you know?” Eleanor sighed. “I did.”

“And you didn’t think it might be worth mentioning it to me?” Holly cried in disbelief. “Not yet,” Eleanor said. “Not until everything was sorted out. We would’ve told you then.” “You sound just like Dad,” Holly said, appalled. “Don’t either of you care what I want?” “Holly, Timothy is a good man. He could make you very happy.” “No, Mom, he could not,” Holly said forcefully. “I don’t want to marry him.” Eleanor sighed. “Yes, your father has mentioned that. I’m afraid you don’t have much choice.” Holly stared at her mother in open dismay. She could hardly believe her ears. “What are you talking about? You can’t possibly agree with Dad on this. You can’t want me to marry somebody I don’t love.” Eleanor smiled bitterly. “Honey, surely you don’t think your father and I married for love?” Holly blinked. It had never occurred to her to ask herself whether or not her parents had an arranged marriage. She had somehow always assumed that it was not, that they had met within those sterile elite circles and fallen in love. How naïve she had been. “I thought you loved Dad…” she murmured, trying to wrap her mind around the revelation. “I do,” her mother said quickly. “Now. Not so much when we got married. He was always kind to me, of course, but I didn’t love him. I learned to.” “Mom, that’s crazy,” Holly said after a moment where she let her mother’s words sink in. “Come on, you can’t possibly believe this is the way things should be done.” “What do you mean?” There was genuine puzzlement on Eleanor’s face, and that drove Holly mad. “It’s 2015, mother!” She cried, feeling the anger come back in a rush. “We can’t possibly be really talking about arranged marriages!” “Why not? It works.” “Well, it doesn’t work for me!” Holly snapped. She took a few steadying breaths. She didn’t want another dead-end fight. She wanted her mother to see her point, to understand. She wanted her mother to be on her side. “Mom, I want to be an artist.” Eleanor visibly cringed. “Yes, your father has mentioned that, too.”

“What’s so wrong with it?” “It’s not practical, honey. And even if it were, we need you here.” “Why? I don’t want anything to do with the business. I couldn’t care less about managing a ranch.” Eleanor grimaced. “Holly, this place has provided us with an amazing livelihood. It’s the product of your grandfather’s sweat and tears. We can’t just let it rot.” “Who said anything about letting it rot? I told Dad he should hire somebody and groom them into becoming the right person to step in when he retires.” Eleanor made a noise that wasn’t really a snort—she was too proper for that—but that very much resembled it. “Don’t be ridiculous, Holly, your father would never give this ranch to a stranger.” Holly’s jaw clenched. “Well, that’s Dad’s problem, isn’t it?” “No,” Eleanor said, her voice hardening. “It’s yours, too. You need to come into your own and take on your responsibilities.” “I don’t have any responsibilities, Mom. I didn’t ask for any of this.” “But you have it. It’s time to step up.” Holly stared at her mother, at the determined glint in those brown eyes, and realization finally hit. She was alone. She was utterly, completely alone. She had no allies in this, and she never would have any. In her twenty-one years of life, her mother had always been the one to, if not fully support her in her choices, at least not act as an obstacle to them. Now, for the first time when it came to their daughter, Eleanor Springford was siding with her husband, and she had chosen the worst time to do it. “I’m sorry, Holly,” Eleanor said. “But that’s the way it’s got to be. It doesn’t have to be all bad. Timothy is a good man,” she said again, “Your father and I would never give you to someone who wouldn’t treat you like a queen.” You don’t get to ‘give me,’ Holly thought dejectedly. I’m someone, not something. She didn’t utter those words out loud, however; she didn’t have the strength to. Eleanor reached out to push errand strands of white-blond hair behind her daughter’s ear, then she leaned in and pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Sleep on it, honey. You’ll feel better in the morning.” Holly wasn’t so sure. In fact, she had never felt less sure of anything in her life. She watched as her mother walked out of her room, and as the door clicked shut, she realized that she really couldn’t stay. In a moment of stark clarity, she realized that she would never feel better again so long as she remained in Lincoln.

Nonetheless, she decided to sleep on it. She didn’t want to act rashly; she knew nobody made good decisions when angry. So Holly went to bed and closed her eyes, and she prayed for wisdom.

CHAPTER SIX Matt lost his job at the garage three days later. He had begun to do what he always did whenever his feelings of inadequacy to everyday life kicked in; he began to avoid it. He would shut down completely and push away all responsibilities—from his job to his family. When he didn’t show up for work on the third day with no explanation whatsoever, Mr. Riggs called him on his cell phone. Matt ignored the shrill ringing, but he listened to the message that the man left on his answering machine. “Matt, you can’t do this to me again,” the gruff voice of Mike Riggs all but growled in his ear. “We’re swamped here, and you know it. Call me back.” Matt didn’t. He had pulled his disappearing act on Mr. Riggs a couple of times before and the man had been, if not completely understanding of a veteran’s issues, at least tolerant. He wasn’t hoping for another chance; he wasn’t even sure he wanted it. Mr. Riggs called again that day, and then again, and then one more time. Finally, towards evening, he left one final message. “Matt, I understand you have issues, but this can’t go on. We all have our problems, but I need employees I can count on. You’re a good mechanic, but you’re completely unreliable. I hate to have to do this, but if you don’t show up tomorrow, don’t bother coming back at all.” And that was that. Matt didn’t show up the next day, and he kissed his job goodbye. He didn’t tell Becky for another week. He would leave the house at his usual time and come back at his usual time. In-between, he just wandered about, feeling lost and foolish. He didn’t want to prove to his sister once again just how big of a screw-up he was, so he kept his mouth shut. It was only a matter of time before she either figured it out herself or found out on her own anyway. Indeed, a week later, he was pretending to read a book in the living room when Joe and Becky both walked into the room. They looked tense and worried—well, Becky, at least. Joe mostly looked angry, and Matt figured he couldn’t really blame him. He put the book down and readied himself for an intervention that would solve nothing. “Matt, we need to talk,” his sister said, her voice oozing tension. “What is it?” He asked, as carefully as he could. “Cut the crap,” Joe snapped. “You know exactly what this is about.” “Joe,” Becky said sternly, turning briefly to her husband. “Please.”

Joe bit his lip. Sitting on the armchair, Matt watched warily as they both took a seat on the couch. “We ran into Mrs. Riggs at the grocery store today,” Becky began carefully. “She told us her husband is very upset about what happened. We asked her what it was that happened exactly.” She stared at him with dark eyes darkened even further by worry and disappointment. “Why did you do that, Matt? It was a good job.” “It wasn’t for me.” “Yes, it was,” Becky insisted. “Mr. Riggs always said you were an excellent mechanic. Perhaps, if you would only go to the garage and apologize, he would give you your job back.” “I don’t want my job back.” That much was true. Matt wasn’t sure what it was that he wanted anymore, but he knew that it wasn’t to spend his days at a garage. Becky sighed. “And why not?” Matt hesitated. Why not? He couldn’t say. Or rather, he could, but he knew for a fact his sister wouldn’t like to hear it. “I don’t feel like myself there, trying to fit in to an ordinary life.” Becky looked at him like she had been expecting that answer, but still hoping for something different. “Matt, you’re never going to feel like yourself again if you don’t try a little harder. I told you before, you are normal. You’ve just forgotten how to live a normal life. But you’re not going to remember how to pedal if you refuse to climb back in the saddle.” Matt smiled fondly. Trust his sister to come up with some clever metaphor even during the darkest times. “I’m not going to find that normality again by working at Mr. Riggs’ garage.” “How, then?” It was Joe who spoke now. He was glaring daggers into Matt, his whole frame taut as he sat beside his wife and listened to the exchange. “How are you going to do it? Are you even going to? Do you even want to?” “Joe!” Becky snapped. “No, Becky, this has to stop,” Joe said. “This is the third job he can’t hold on to in almost a year. How long are we going to allow him to keep this up? He’s living in our house—” “And contributing,” Matt cut him off, a hint of pride pushing through the mud of his dumbed down emotions. “I’m not mooching off of you, Joe. My army pension is more than enough for me to chip in.” “I’m not saying you’re taking advantage of us,” Joe clarified, calming down a little. “But I haven’t had any privacy with my wife in almost a whole year, and frankly, I’m getting a little tired of it.”

“I see.” Again, Matt didn’t quite feel like blaming the man, but that did not mean the words did not sting. “You want me gone, is that it?” “No, that’s not it,” Becky said quickly. She turned towards her husband, watching him carefully. “That’s not it, is it, Joe?” Joe sighed heavily. “It is,” he admitted. “I’m sorry, but it is. Matt, I’ve got nothing against you personally, you know that, but I haven’t been completely free in my own house for almost a year now.” Matt nodded slowly. “I hear you,” he said. “Still, we can’t exactly kick you out,” Joe continued. “I for one don’t want that. But I do want you to get your shit together. Find a job and keep it. Find a place of your own. Get back on your feet. How much longer are you going to drift?” Matt thought about it. He couldn’t answer that question. He had been drifting for most of his life, and even more so since he came back from his latest tour in Afghanistan almost a year ago (eleven months, two weeks, and three days, but who was counting?). “Joe is right.” Becky’s quiet voice took him away from his reverie. Matt looked up at his sister in surprise, and she paled. “I’m sorry!” She all but squealed. “But it’s true, you can’t keep this up much longer. It’s going to kill you. Frankly, it’s killing me to see you throw away your life like this. You need to d,o something, Matt. Go back to therapy, get your act together. Stop making excuses and get help.” Matt was silent for a few moments, letting his sister and brother-in-law’s words sink in. “I’ll think about it,” he finally said. Becky smiled sadly at him. “You and I both know that you won’t.” She shook her head and stood, too weak and disappointed to actually get angry. She left the room without another word, and Joe followed her a few minutes later. Matt watched them go and felt nothing. *** As it turned out, his sister was wrong; Matt did think about it. He thought about it for the next two days. For forty-eight hours, he did nothing but think about it. He thought about the spot he was putting his sister in, having to justify her no-good brother to the good townsfolk of Cartridge, Texas. He thought about all the worry he was causing her. He thought about that normality that kept eluding him and that perhaps always would. Finally, after two days of thinking, he came to a decision. He decided that enough was enough. He

couldn’t keep doing this to his sister any longer. He may not be mooching off of her physically, but he sure was being an emotional vampire in his own way—and that was about the last thing Becky needed. He didn’t made the choice easily or rashly. He thought it over, and at the end he was sure there was simply no way around it. He had to go, for Becky’s sake. He wasn’t sure where he would go or if the journey would even help him find his lost bearings, but he knew for a fact he wasn’t going to find him in Cartridge. On the morning of the third day after his discussion with Joe and Becky, Matt packed his rucksack. He did it at dawn, before anyone else woke up. He wrote a note to his sister, thanking her for all she had done for him and letting her know he would always love her, but that he needed to do this and put distance between them for both of their sakes. He walked downstairs and left the note taped to the coffee maker, knowing that was a sure place to leave it if he wanted it to be seen right away. He shouldered his rucksack and walked to the bus stop in the deserted streets of the small town. He took the first bus out and rode it for almost an hour to Austin’s bus station. The heat in Austin was scorching, but Matt hardly felt it as he grabbed his rucksack and walked off the bus, into the busy station, and to the ticket counter. He asked the woman there when the first bus out of the city was due to leave, and where it was going. She told him it was going somewhere in Oregon. Matt had never heard of the town the woman mentioned before, but he didn’t care; anywhere was better than here, and Oregon was far enough to begin with. He bought a ticket, walked to the platform, and waited. When the bus finally arrived, Matt didn’t get on it right away. For a few moments he struggled with his decision. Should he really turn his back on his sister? Should he really just walk away? He should, he decided. It was the best thing he could do for her. By the time he finally brought himself to climb onto the bus, the thing was packed, so much so that when the bus lurched into motion, Matt hadn’t found a seat for himself yet. He took a moment to look out the window and watch as they pulled out of Austin’s bus station and then out of the city proper. He felt a shiver run down his spine. He had left for so many travels in his life that he had lost count, but this was different. This had a finality to it that he wasn’t sure he liked, but that he knew was necessary. Matt knew this was his last chance—he would either find himself again, or he would be lost forever. Running again, he thought dejectedly. He could only hope that, for once in his life, he was running towards himself.

CHAPTER SEVEN In the morning, she wasn’t feeling better. That was no surprise, really. What was surprising was that her intentions had not changed from the night before; now more than ever, she knew that she couldn’t stay in Lincoln. Holly had never been one for dramatic actions, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized she truly had no choice. Simply put, it was fight or flight. Holly had tried fighting, and that had not worked. Her only choice now was flight. If she stayed, she would die. She wanted to choose life instead. So Holly packed a bag. She went downstairs. She had breakfast with her parents, both of whom greeted her as though nothing had happened. She went along with it, because something was about to happen, and that knowledge made the pretense bearable. She finished her meal. She got up. She kissed her mother on the cheek and then her father. She went outside to the garage. She got into her car and checked that the bag she had hidden earlier was still in the backseat. She drove the car out of her father’s ranch and then out of the town of Lincoln. She left it in the parking lot of Austin’s bus station. Holly shouldered her duffel back and walked up to the counter. She asked the woman there when the first bus out of the city was due to leave, and where it was going. She was told it was going somewhere in Oregon—in fact, the woman said a specific name, but Holly didn’t know the town, and she didn’t care; Oregon was far enough to start. Holly bought a ticket. She climbed onto the bus and found herself a seat, and then she settled down to wait for the bus to take off. All the while, her heart was hammering within her chest. She sneaked looks out of the window, terrified that somebody might be coming for her. When she finally realized that nobody had realized what had happened and nobody would be coming after her just yet, she didn’t know whether she felt more relieved or disappointed. Finally, after what felt like hours, the bus lurched into motion. Holly watched as they pulled out of the station and then out of Austin. She couldn’t suppress a sense of elation mixed with a good dose of panic. She had traveled before, of course, but never alone—and certainly never by bus. Besides, what really mattered was the nature of the voyage. This wasn’t a holiday. It wasn’t even a leisurely trip. Holly was running away. She felt a shiver run all the way down her spine at the realization. I’m running away, she thought, repeating the words over and over in her mind in order to make them sink in. She could hardly believe what she was doing. “Anyone sitting here?” Holly looked up. A young man with a rucksack slung over his shoulder was standing over her, eyeing the seat next to her hopefully. She threw a quick look around and realized for the first time that the bus was indeed packed.

“I won’t bite,” he said. “Oh, it’s not that,” Holly said quickly, not wanting to be rude. There was a lost look on his rugged but handsome face that told her he had seen enough rude to last him a lifetime. “I just hadn’t realized the bus was so full. Please, sit down,” she said, motioning to the empty seat beside her. The young man sighed in relief and flashed her a smile. It was a pleasant smile, if strained. “Thanks,” he said. He tossed the rucksack in the luggage compartment above and took his seat. Their journey had just started, but he looked exhausted already. “You look like you need some sleep,” Holly blurted out. She didn’t know why she was actually saying that out loud, but she couldn’t stop herself. The young man gave her a tired smile. “I do, huh? Well, I guess you’re right, I could use some sleep.” “Rough night?” “Rough year.” Holly cringed. Everything about the man spelled out the word, “jaded.” “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.” She hesitated visibly, and then said, “My name is Holly.” Matt nodded. “Pleased to meet you,” he said. “I’m Matt.” They shook hands and then lapsed into the silence of two strangers each headed out on their own paths. After a moment, Matt asked. “Where you headed?” Holly eyed him carefully. He didn’t look like the stalking kind—then again, she thought, they never do. Still, despite his rugged and disheveled appearance, there was something about him that told her she could trust him with information. “Nowhere,” she admitted. He arched an eyebrow in surprise. “Seriously?” “Yeah,” she said. “Seriously.” She thought it would feel foolish to admit that out loud, but she found that wasn’t the case at all. It just felt a little bit desperate. “Well, that’s a coincidence. I’m headed nowhere, too.”

CHAPTER EIGHT He was an interesting man, Matt. No last names were exchanged, and he didn’t seem to mind—in fact, it seemed to come naturally to him. Holly wondered if maybe he wasn’t running away, too. Except of course he was; no one who wasn’t running would ever give “nowhere” as their destination. One day and half into the journey, Holly was still feeling very much out of her depth. She didn’t feel like she belonged with these people on the bus, who either knew exactly where they were going or had absolutely no idea. Holly was somewhere in the middle. She knew where she wanted to go, she just wasn’t sure how to get there. New York, she thought, was no longer an option; both the art schools and the city living itself were too expensive to even begin to contemplate without the financial support of her family. But maybe there were other valid art schools somewhere in the country that she could afford. Maybe there was some place where she could find a job and make a decent living while she pursued those dreams she had never been allowed to even have. She considered buying a map of the U.S.A. and begin figuring out some sort of pattern. She resolved to do that once they’d get to Oregon. In the meanwhile, she would just have to do her best not to panic. Matt’s presence was helping her with that. He didn’t talk much, but he gave her a sense of safety that she just couldn’t shake. She couldn’t quite explain it. She just felt like she could trust him implicitly. He was very rough around the edges and looked like life might have dealt him some very ugly cards, but there was a strong hint of kindness in his green eyes that just couldn’t be ignored. He read a lot, picking up a paperback at pretty much every gas station the bus stopped at. He was currently engrossed in the pages of a thick Stephen King tome. Nightmares and Dreamscapes it was called. Holly tried very hard not to read over his shoulder—something she thought was an incredibly rude thing to do to someone—but it was pitch black out, she couldn’t sleep, and Arizona was boring at night. Matt read under the dim light of the small overhead light. He looked up, and Holly started. She had thought he wouldn’t notice her, taken as he was by whatever story was claiming his focus. “Sorry,” she muttered, looking away in embarrassment. “I’m bored, that’s all.” “Would you like one of my paperbacks?” He didn’t seem to be teasing her; he was genuinely asking her. “No, thank you,” she refused politely. “I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.” She hesitated, reluctant to disturb him any further, but then she decided that she really was too bored for pleasantries. “You, on the other hand, seem to read a lot. You’ve bought his yesterday and you’re already halfway through, and we’re talking about a tome of…how many pages?”

“Nine hundred and twenty-three,” he said. Holly cringed. “Yikes.” “You don’t like big books?” “I do. I just don’t think I could stomach nine hundred pages worth of horrors. There’s enough of those in real life.” Matt smiled. “Ah, but these are fictional. That’s the beauty of them. They’re make believe horrors; you close the book and they’re gone. It’s not that easy with real life terrors.” Holly bit her lip thoughtfully. “I suppose,” she said. “You’ve seen plenty of those, haven’t you?” Her eyes widened as soon as she realized what she had said. “Oh my God!” She cried. “I’m so sorry! That was very nosy of me. Please, don’t mind me.” Matt, however, looked unfazed. “It’s all right,” he said. “I don’t mind. And to answer your question, yes, I’ve seen plenty of horrors in my time.” He seemed to battle with a decision, and finally he said, “Would you like me to tell you about some of them?” Holly stared at him. She really had not meant to pry, and she sure didn’t meant to force him to recount some of those real life horrors. But there was something in his eyes, some ancestral need to tell about those monstrosities to a living soul, for a change. Holly had the feeling he didn’t get to do that very often at all. “Sure,” she heard herself say, despite her reservations. “As long as you promise to hear my horror story after.” She had no idea where that had come from, but once she had said the words, she realized that she needed to talk to somebody almost as bad as Matt seemed to. Surprise flashed briefly across his handsome features, but then he nodded with a smile. “Deal.” They shook hands on it. Holly settled more comfortably in her seat and prepared to listen. “Are you sure you want to hear this?” Matt asked after a moment. “You won’t be able to close the book on this one, you know?” “I know,” Holly said. She caught his green-eyed gaze and held it. “Hit me.” And he did.

CHAPTER NINE Matt’s story was truly a horror story. It began in a simple enough way, like quite a few stories begin. “I’m running,” he said simply. “Yesterday I packed my bag and left my sister and her husband behind. I left her a note pinned to the coffee maker. She has brain cancer, you see. My sister, I mean. She came home from the hospital a couple of weeks ago, after she finished her last round of chemo. The doctors are hopeful that the cancer may enter remission.” “That’s good,” Holly said. “Isn’t it?” “I guess. I don’t really feel like getting carried away just yet, just in case something goes wrong.” Holly nodded. “I understand. What are you running from?” “I don’t know,” Matt said after a moment. “Myself, probably. I was becoming a burden to my sister, and I really didn’t want that. I need to get my shit together before I can have a shot at normality. It’s just…after my latest tour, everything is a little bit harder than it used to.” Holly frowned. “Tour?” “I’m a veteran.” Matt reached underneath his T-shirt and pulled out a chain from which dangled five military plates. Holly eyed them in disbelief. “Five?” she said, stunned. “You’ve done five tours?” Matt nodded. “Two in Iraq, three in Afghanistan.” “How old are you?” “Twenty-five.” Holly stared at him. “How old were you when you left?” “Eighteen.” “Are you kidding me?” Matt smiled bitterly. “Believe me, I wish I were.” “I don’t understand,” Holly said after a moment. “How could anyone willingly go back there?” Matt shrugged. “There’s something about warfare that keeps my demons at bay.”

Holly said nothing. It was the strangest sentence she had ever heard, and yet it oddly made sense. “When I fight, I’m fighting my demons too,” Matt explained, “while not having the time to think about them.” “So you’re not some kind of war fanatic?” Matt laughed. “No. I’m just somebody who’s been at war too long and has no idea how to function in the peaceful world anymore.” “And that’s why you ran?” Holly asked. “To figure out how to function?” “Exactly.” “It must have driven your parents insane to have you off to war for seven years,” Holly mused. She couldn’t even begin to imagine the anguish that Matt’s family must have experienced to have him overseas, knowing that even once he came home he would want to go back. Matt’s handsome face darkened horribly. “My parents ceased to have a say on my life a long time ago. My father ran off when I was just a baby, and I later learned he died in a car crash. My mother spent the better part of my childhood giving all of her attentions to heroine. She eventually died from an overdose. My older brother inherited her addiction and died in the very same way. It’s just my sister and me. Well…half-sister. Mom remarried. He left, too. My sister and I were passed around from foster home to foster home. I don’t know how she grew up to be so well adjusted.” Holly took the words in one by one like white-hot bullets. Her eyes had widened gradually throughout the tale. Matt had not turned his back on his family, like she had begun to think based on what he was telling her; in fact, quite the opposite happened. “I’m sorry,” she said when she could find her voice. She didn’t say anything else, because really, what could she have come up with? There weren’t any words. Matt shrugged. “She did splendidly for herself. Becky, I mean, my sister. She teaches fourth grade and married a college professor who treats her like a queen. She’s very happy. I just hope she can win this final battle.” Without thinking, Holly reached out to cover Matt’s hand with hers. He looked down in surprise, but he didn’t recoil from her touch. “I’m sure she’ll be fine,” she offered. “Your sister sounds like a strong woman.” “She is,” Matt confirmed. “She’s the strongest person I know.” “I’m sure she misses you, though,” Holly said after a moment. “You need to find your bearings so you can get back to her.”

Matt stared at her. For a moment, Holly thought she might have gone too far, but then he broke into a full smile. He had dimples, which she had not noticed before—mainly because he had never smiled like that in all the almost forty-eight hours they had been together. “I’ll make sure to do that.” “Good,” Holly said. And then she realized her hand was still on his, and she retreated quickly. She flashed him a shy smile, hoping that the barely-there light in the bus wasn’t enough to show that she was blushing. Silence fell over them, and it was a companionable kind of silence, the kind that disconcerted her to find with a man she barely knew. “What about you?” Matt asked after quite a few minutes. “What’s your story?” Holly cringed. “Really, I don’t think it can compare.” She felt foolish to even have referred to her own personal background as to a “horror story.” Compared to Matt’s, hers was a fairytale. “It’s not about comparison,” Matt said. “It’s about getting these loads off our chests.” Holly hesitated. She did feel the need to confide in someone. She just felt very ridiculous doing so with Matt, who knew the ugly side of the world in ways Holly couldn’t even come close to understand. “You’ll laugh,” she said. “No, I won’t.” Matt’s green eyes were staring at her very seriously. “A problem is a problem, Holly. And whatever problem prompts someone to run off is a problem indeed.” Holly gave him a small smile. “All right then,” she said after a moment. She took a deep breath. “My father wants me to get married. “

CHAPTER TEN Matt prepared to listen to Holly’s story very carefully. She had given him something he had not been given in a very long time—genuine understanding. Even his sister didn’t seem to comprehend his need to actually be off on his own and push those who knew him away. Becky didn’t understand that, in order to find himself, he needed to alienate himself from the people who attempted to reach out to him. Holly not only had not judged his pathetic background and cowardly choices, but she had even appeared to understand them, or support them at the very least. It was kindness from a stranger, and it was a favor Matt intended to return in full. “My father wants me to get married,” Holly said. “I’m guessing you don’t mean in a far-off future,” Matt ventured. Holly gave him the bitter shadow of a smile. “I mean now, at twenty-one years of age. He wants me to get married and have children and take over the family business.” “And you don’t want any of that?” “No,” Holly admitted. “Starting from the man he’s chosen for me.” Matt’s eyes widened. “Hang on a second,” he said. “Let me get this straight. Your father has arranged a marriage for you?” “Yes. I caught him discussing ‘engagement details,’ as he called them, with the guy’s father on the phone the other night.” “I’m sorry, Holly, I mean no disrespect, but that’s fucked up.” Holly laughed a little. It was a bitter, gut-wrenching sound. “Tell me about it.” “Is that why you ran?” “In a nutshell, yes,” Holly said. “I tried talking to him. I told him I didn’t want to get married now and that I certainly didn’t want to marry Timothy Sutherland, of all people. The guy is the single most boring person I have ever met. Matt snorted out a laugh. “With a name like that, I have no trouble believing it.” “I told him I want to decide for myself, that I wasn’t interested in the family business.” Holly sighed heavily, her petite figure slumping with the weight of her burden. “I always knew he would want me

to take over one day and that he would do everything in his power to steer me in his direction. But I was naïve enough to believe I still would have a say in the matter.” “You do,” Matt said immediately. “Of course you do. It’s your life.” “My father is not convinced,” Holly said, sadness washing over her beautiful delicate features. “I want to be an artist, you see. I tried telling him that the other night. I tried telling him it was not a phase and that’s really what I want to do with my life. I told him I would only marry for love, someday into the future, and that he should find someone to groom into becoming the perfect fit to take over once he retires.” Matt cringed. “I’m guessing he did not take that well?” Holly snorted. “That’s an understatement. He left me with no choice, no options whatsoever. It was either his way or the highway. Well, he didn’t exactly say that,” she added as an afterthought. “But it was the only options I was left with after our conversation…if you can even call it that.” “So you ran.” Holly nodded. “What about your mother? What does she say about all this?” Holly shrugged. The movement seemed painful. “She agrees with him. She says it’s tradition and that I would learn to love my husband like she has learned to love hers.” “That’s bullshit!” Matt said hotly. He couldn’t help himself. It sounded too absurd to him to even contemplate. “It is,” Holly agreed readily. “It became clear to me that if I really want to have a choice in my life, I have to be away from them. As long as I’m under their roof, they can dictate the rules. This was the only way.” Matt took the story in and carefully mulled it over. He couldn’t even begin to imagine what it must feel like to be trapped into a life that someone else has planned out for you. Life may not have given him much, but he had always had a choice. “I understand why you ran,” he said, and he made sure his gaze had locked with Holly’s before he said it. He wanted the words to reach her and sink in. He had the feeling that she needed to hear it. She needed someone to tell her that her reaction had not been the whim of a spoiled brat, but the conscious choice of a woman coming into her own. “I would’ve run, too.” “Really?” Holly asked, her gray eyes shining with hope. She needed so bad to be understood. Matt could relate to that need, a craving for human empathy.

“Really,” he said immediately, sincerely. “No one should be allowed to decide what you should do with your life but yourself. And besides, married at twenty-one? Come on!” He winked at her to let her know he was purposefully downplaying the situation. He was rewarded with a weak but genuine smile. “Thank you, Matt,” Holly said. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that from somebody else.” “I think I do,” he admitted after a moment’s hesitation. Then again, he had shared so much already… what was one more admission? “You needed it just as bad as I needed to find some understanding. I needed for someone to tell me I’m not abandoning my sister.” “You’re not,” Holly said immediately. Matt smiled. “I hope you’re right.” The silence came back then. Matt relished it. He couldn’t remember a time when he had found such a companionable silence. Holly got him in ways that most people didn’t. It was a rare blessing, and he intended to make the best of it for as long as they would travel together. They barely had a day left of traveling before the bus would get to Oregon, and then their ways would part. Matt did his best to ignore the pang that thought brought along. He didn’t want to say goodbye to Holly, but he feared he had no choice. They shared one last smile before he went back to his book and she went back to staring out the window. She fell asleep a few minutes later, and Matt took the chance to really look at her. She looked more innocent when she slept, more helpless. She looked as lost as she must feel, although she did her best to hide it when she was away. Matt tried to picture the situation. A young woman who had never set foot in the real world, on her own or with anybody else. She must be terrified, and Matt silently and secretly applauded her all the more for her brave choice; anyone with a lesser character would have given in to her father’s demands, albeit begrudgingly. Not Holly. Holly was fighting, for herself and for her dreams. Matt only hoped the ugly side of the world would steer clear away from her a little bit longer.

CHAPTER ELEVEN Holly awoke in the middle of the night. Everything around her was silent. The bus kept rolling along the highway at a steady pace, determinedly shooting for Oregon. Most of the passengers seemed to be asleep. Even Matt. Holly turned a little in her seat to sneak a better look at him. He didn’t lose his rough edges when he slept. Contrary to what happened to most people, Matt’s features did not relax with sleep. Holly figured he couldn’t really be blamed. She didn’t think Matt was ever relaxed, and she thought she wouldn’t be either, if she were in his shoes. The more Holly thought about Matt’s story, the more she felt shivers run down the whole length of her spine. She was anything but worldly, but even she could figure out that Matt was a good man. He was kind and considerate, and he listened in a full way that Holly had never experienced before. Usually, her problems were dismissed as the non-existent worries of a spoiled rich girl. Matt had not dismissed her. Matt had listened, and he had understood. She would always be grateful to him for his understanding. Holly watched Matt, and she wondered. She wondered how someone who had led that kind of life and suffered those kind of blows still managed to remain a good person at heart. It was a mystery to her, and one that she felt privileged to have been a witness to. They would have to part ways, but Holly was glad she had got to meet someone like him. Holly liked to freeze moments in time. Some people did that with pictures, but Holly did it with paper and pencil. She got her sketchbook out of her purse and began to draw Matt’s sleeping features. There was something perfect about him, even in the way that the tension didn’t completely leave his body while he slept. He had a guarded way about him that, in turn, made Holly want to protect him forever. He certainly had suffered enough, and Holly hated that she could do nothing to ensure that he would not suffer anymore. Holly patiently drew every feature of Matt’s. She drew his curly, disheveled black hair. She drew his perfect chiseled jaw and the stubble that covered it. She drew his high cheekbones. She drew his long eyelashes, the straight bridge of his nose. She drew for quite some time, and once she was finished with the portrait, she turned the page and began a new drawing. She tried to imagine what Matt would look like if he were happy. She tried to imagine what he would look like if only he’d had an easier life. She drew a softer Matt, an at-ease Matt. Then she tore the page off the sketchbook and hid it in Matt’s rucksack that lay at his feet, as a sort of parting gift. She tried to imagine his face when he would find the drawing. She hoped it would be a happy face. She was almost drifting off to sleep when Matt began to toss and moan softly beside her. Holly sat up straight. She threw a quick look around, glad to find that no one seemed to have noticed anything out of the ordinary. She waited, uncertain as to what to do. Should she wake him? Should she wait for

him to settle down on her own? Was this PTSD or just a regular nightmare? In the first case, she thought she had read somewhere that it wasn’t a god idea to wake a PTSD sufferer from a nightmare. She waited some more, and finally Matt awoke on his own. He sat bolt upright, eyes wide and skin clammy with sweat. “It’s all right,” Holly said quickly, trying to calm him down. “It’s okay. You’re safe. You’re on a bus to Oregon.” Matt stared at her uncomprehendingly for a few never ending moments, and then, gradually, his gaze began to focus. He slumped back against the seat and blew out a slow breath, staring up at the now dark overhead light in frustration. “Would you like some water?” Holly said, offering him her half-empty bottle. Matt nodded and reached out to grasp it with a shaking hand. He downed a few gulps and then gave her the bottle back. “Thank you,” he said, his voice slightly raspy. He cleared his throat. “Are you okay?” “I’m fine.” Holly studied him carefully. He didn’t look fine in the least. “Whatever you say,” she said, deciding that it was probably best not to pry any further. Matt flashed her a grateful smile, having probably caught her intentions. “I’m okay, really,” he said. “I’m used to nightmares. I’m just not a fan of them happening when I’m in a public place.” “Nobody noticed anything,” Holly said, casting one more look around to make sure no inquiring gazes were on them. Just like a few moments ago, all the other passengers seemed to be either asleep or minding their own business, and they were far back enough that the driver couldn’t possibly have caught any signs of Matt’s discomfort. “Just me, and I don’t mind.” She smiled reassuringly. “I hope I didn’t scare you.” “You didn’t. You just tossed around a little, that’s all.” Matt nodded. “Good.” “Were you dreaming of war?” Holly’s eyes widened. She could not believe she had just asked him out loud. “Oh God,” she groaned. “I’m hopeless. I’m sorry, that was very insensitive of me.” “It’s all right,” Matt said, waving her apology away with a dismissive gesture of his hand. “No, I wasn’t dreaming of war. I was dreaming of finding my older brother dead from an overdose in the bathroom when I was twelve.”

Holly cringed. Matt wasn’t trying to make her feel bad; he was just honest, an abrasive kind of honesty. “I’m sorry,” she said again, and she didn’t know whether she was apologizing for being nosy or expressing her sorrow at Matt’s tough childhood. Matt shrugged. “It was a long time ago,” he said. “For the most part, I deal…sort of. But sometimes I still dream about it.” “It’s understandable,” Holly said. “I think I’d have nightmares, too.” He noticed the sketchbook then, which was still in her lap. “You were drawing?” Holly felt herself blush furiously. “Earlier,” she said. “Nothing major, just a few doodles to keep myself occupied.” “Mind if I take a look?” Holly hesitated. She really didn’t want him to see the portrait of himself asleep in the bus seat, but she also couldn’t think of a reason to refuse to show him. “I guess not,” she said, handing over the sketchbook hesitantly. Matt took it carefully and opened it, scanning the drawings that he found in there. His portrait wasn’t the only drawing that occupied the book’s pages, of course. There were others before that one. There were landscapes and animals—mostly horses—and people. “These are truly remarkable, Holly,” he said, impressed, without lifting his gaze off the page. Holly flushed, pleased. “Thank you.” She waited with trepidation for him to reach the end of the drawn-on pages. When he did, Matt looked up so sharply that for a heart-stopping moment Holly thought he might be angry. Instead, Matt’s green eyes were wide with wonder and surprise. “When did you draw this?” “Earlier, when you were sleeping,” Holly said, doing her best not to squirm in embarrassment. “It’s unbelievable.” Matt looked back down at the drawing, unable to tear his gaze off the paper. Holly smiled. She felt almost overwhelmed with emotions, and she blamed her particularly vulnerable state for the intensity of it all. She knew, however, that there was more to it than that. No one had ever acknowledged her dreams of becoming an artist, let alone her genuine passion for drawing and art. No one had ever noticed or nurtured her talent. There was always a voice in the

back of her mind telling her that she was good enough and that she had what it took to pursue her dream seriously, but she never had any validation from other people. Until now. Until Matt. When he finally looked up again, his eyes were shining. “Thank you,” he said. “I never thought I was interesting enough to be drawn by an artist.” Holly flushed again, just when the heat was beginning to subside in her cheeks. “I’m hardly an artist yet,” she said, modestly. “And you are one of the most interesting people I have ever met.” She hesitated, wondering if she should ruin the surprise, and then she decided that she might as well tell him. “There’s another drawing. I put it in your rucksack, I wanted to give you a parting gift.” Matt looked at her quizzically. He bent down and rummaged around his rucksack until he found what he was looking for—a loose piece of paper. He took it out and unfolded the page. He didn’t say anything for what might as well have been hours, his eyes scanning the paper with a mixture of curiosity and disbelief. “This is me?” He said, finally looking up at her again. “Yes. I wanted to capture what you would look like if…” Holly trailed off, suddenly feeling foolish. Matt frowned. “If what?” he prompted. “If you’d had it easier in life,” Holly finally said after a moment’s hesitation. “If you could relax a little. If you were less guarded.” Matt blinked. He seemed to genuinely not get it. “Less guarded?” “Yes,” Holly said again. “Most people tend to look more innocent while they sleep, more relaxed. More at ease, if you will. Not you.” “No?” Matt asked, curiously. “No. You look almost just as tense.” Mat shrugged. “I suppose it comes from my military training.” “Maybe,” Holly conceded. “But the kind of sorrows you’ve had to deal with in life surely have not helped, either.” Matt cringed. “Am I that pathetic?” “What?” Holly stared at him, horrified. “God, no! Not at all. That’s not what I meant, really. All I meant was that you’ve had it rough, and it shows.” Matt studied her for a few moments. Finally he seemed to be satisfied with her explanation, because

he nodded. “All right then.” He folded the page carefully again. “Thank you so much for this. It was very sweet.” He put the page in-between the pages of one of the paperbacks he had bought on the road and then put the book back in the rucksack. “You’re welcome,” Holly said. “I hope you didn’t think I was too bold.” “Not at all.” He smiled brightly at her. They lapsed into what was now becoming a very familiar kind of silence between them. Each of them soon got lost in their own thoughts, but they never felt alone as long as they were sitting next to each other. Almost without either of them realizing it, their hands began to gravitate towards one another, until their fingers were intertwined. Neither Holly nor Matt said a word; neither of them commented on it. They simply sat there, holding hands, relishing that surreal feeling that Holly suspected could only be found on a crazy journey such as this. They didn’t look at each other. They didn’t need to. Holly leaned her head back against the headrest and looked absently out the window. Outside, the sky was beginning to take on the gray and blue tones of the pre-dawn hour. It was her favorite time, a time that was neither night nor day. A time where it felt like anything could happen. Holly closed her eyes and fell asleep, lulled by the steady motion of the bus. Her hand remained in Matt’s.

CHAPTER TWELVE It took them two days and a half to reach Oregon, but as far as Holly was concerned, the trip was over way too soon. The town the bus stopped into was called Clarksonville, a few miles away from Portland. The little station left a lot to be desired in terms of destination options, so Holly and Matt decided to board yet another bus that would take them to Portland and to a broader selection of places to go. Holly was happy with that choice, mostly because it gave her a few extra miles to spend in Matt’s company. It was only 45 minutes worth of traveling time, but she was hoping to make it count. “Where will you go after we get to Portland?” Matt asked as they watched the Oregon countryside whiz by the bus windows. “I don’t know,” Holly admitted. “I will probably just close my eyes and see where my finger lands on the map. What about you?” She asked the question more out of politeness than anything else. She wasn’t really interested in the answer. All she was interested in was the fact that wherever Matt would go next, it wouldn’t be on her path, and that knowledge was making her sadder than she probably had a right to be. “I don’t know,” he said. “Seattle, maybe. But I won’t go anywhere until tomorrow morning. Tonight I just want to check in to a motel, have a decent meal, and a decent good night’s sleep.” He hesitated visibly. “Would you care to join me?” Holly arched a blond eyebrow. “Excuse me?” For the first time, it was Matt’s turn to blush. He went scarlet, panicking. “I meant for dinner!” He croaked. "Not for the rest!” “Oh.” Holly grinned, amused by Matt’s embarrassment. “Sure. I’d like that.” “Really?” “You sound surprised.” Matt shrugged and gave her a shy smile. “I’m always surprised when a pretty woman wants to go out with me.” Holly stared at him. Maybe she had been all wrong about him; maybe he did have a softer side. He sure looked soft enough now, acting so shy and insecure. And then something he had said finally registered.

Go out? Holly felt her heart pick up the pace. “Hold on,” she said. “When you say ‘go out’, you mean…like a date?” “Yes. I mean, we don’t have that much time left or that much to lose if things go wrong. We can just have a nice evening with no strings attached.” He cleared his throat. “Unless you don’t want to, of course.” “Oh no, I want to,” Holly said quickly. And she really did. She had not realized just how badly she was crushing on this man until now. Oh God, listen to me. I haven’t used the word ‘crush’ since I was fifteen. “I’d love to go out with you.” Matt smiled and visibly relaxed. He found her hand again and held it all the way to Portland.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN They checked in to a motel not very far off the bus station. Neither of them had any idea what would happen the next morning or where they would be traveling the next day. All they knew was that right here, right now, they wanted to be with each other. Holly had never done this before—she had never gone on a date with a perfect stranger, that is. She didn’t go on many dates to begin with; it was just such a hassle to sneak around her parents, who of course didn’t like the idea of her dating anyone they hadn’t pre-approved, if not chosen themselves. She felt abuzz with a pleasant sense of nervous anticipation she had not felt in a long time, if ever. Besides, this wasn’t just some cute guy who had picked her up. This was a very special man she had met on the bravest, craziest journey of her life. She took her time to shower, washing away the dirt from two and half days on the road as well as the last remaining doubts. Now more than ever, she felt like she had made the right decision. Matt’s confidence and firm beliefs on the free will of people had finally convinced her that to follow her own path was truly the only option. What kind of life would it be otherwise? By the time Holly stepped out of the shower stall, she felt energized and self-confident. She truly could do this. It wouldn’t be easy, but she could do it. She could learn to rely only on herself and her own means. Everyone else did, after all. She could do it, too. She had to do it. Failure, Holly decided right then and there, was simply not an option. She donned a simple, 60’s-inspired dress for dinner, sky blue and sporting a full skirt that made her feel pretty and incredibly feminine. After two days and a half stuck on a bus and only relying on quick wash-ups in gas station bathrooms, Holly felt like she could use as much feminine as she could possibly get. She put on her sneakers, which were the only pair of shoes she had brought with her. Admittedly, they were not the perfect accessory in this case, but at least they were black; they went with everything. She didn’t put on any makeup—mostly because she had none with her, but also because she felt makeup would be at odds on a date with Matt. With Matt, she felt no need to hide or make herself any more appealing than necessary. She could just be herself, and he would still listen and give her his undivided attention. She loved that about him. Holly shook her head, pushing the word “love” out of her thoughts. It was a dangerous word that had to remain forbidden for the time being. It was only a crush for now, but she could easily see herself falling for Matt…and it was about the last thing she could afford at this precarious moment of her life. She was halfway out the door when the shrill ringing of a phone stopped her. It took her a few moments to realize it was her own cell phone. Holly cursed softly. She had misplaced an old cell phone months ago, and now she had a pretty good idea of where she had left it—at the bottom of her duffel bag, after her latest trip to Paris. She raced to the duffel bag and rummaged through it, retrieving the shrieking object. The word

“Mom” flashed on the display. Holly debated with herself for quite some time, but eventually she picked up; old habits die hard. “Mom?” she called, tentatively. “Holly! Thank God! Are you all right? Where are you? What happened?” Holly took a deep, steadying breath. She was already regretting picking up the call. “I’m fine, Mom.” “Where are you?” Eleanor Springford asked again, her voice almost as shrill as the ringing of the phone had been. “On a trip,” Holly answered vaguely. There were a few seconds of silence from the other end of the line. “Are you serious?” Her mother said. “We thought something had happened to you. I was afraid somebody might have kidnapped you.” Holly made a conscious effort not to roll her eyes…and then she remembered her mother couldn’t see her, so she gave her awaiting eye roll all that she had. “Who would kidnap me, mother?” “You never know. Our family is wealthy.” “Yeah,” Holly said bitterly, “I was made very aware of that.” “What’s gotten into you, Holly? Where are you? Why didn’t you leave a note?” “I told you, I’m on a trip.” “Holly, we were worried sick!” Her mother snapped. “When are you coming home?” “I’m not coming home, Mom.” Strange. Holly always thought it would be much harder to say it out loud, especially to her parents. As it turned out, however, speaking those words was quite freeing. “What are you talking about?” Finally, Eleanor’s voice had dropped in decibels. Now it was almost a near-whisper. Holly almost felt sorry for the shock she could hear in her mother’s voice. “I can’t do it, Mom,” she said, sitting down on the bed and readying herself for what was probably

going to be the hardest conversation of her life. “I can’t live a life I did not choose.” “Holly, we’re only trying to do what’s best for you…” “Well, you’re doing it all wrong,” Holly said, with no heat in her voice. “I need to focus on my own path, and I can’t do it in Lincoln. I can’t do it while dodging marriage proposals and forced engagements.” “Holly—” “No, Mom,” Holly cut her off firmly. “I’m not coming back. I’m just not doing it.” “Do you want to send me spiraling back into depression? Is that what you want?” Holly cringed. She had not seen that coming. She had not seen her mother playing the depression card. “Mom, come on…” “I’m serious, Holly. How do you think this is going to affect me, my only daughter running away? I’ll be back on Xanax and white wine cocktails in no time.” “No, you won’t.” “I’ll try not to,” Eleanor said. “But it’s what I do when my heart gets broken. I can’t help it, you know that.” Holly pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger. She could feel tears coming on, and she hated that. She hated that her family still held so much power over her. She took a deep, shaky breath. “I have to go, Mom,” she said, willing her voice not to break. If she continued talking to her mother, she would surely end up caving. “I’m okay. I love you.” She quickly disconnected the call before her mother could say anything else, and then she proceeded to take the phone apart. She took out the battery and she threw all the pieces against the nearest wall, listening to the smashing sounds with a certain satisfaction. Tears were streaming down her face by then, but she didn’t care. She fell on her back on the mattress and stared up at the ceiling fan. It wasn’t fair, damn it. Why couldn’t she have a shot at life as she wanted it? Why was she being forced to run from everything and everyone she had ever known? Why was she being pulled back once she had finally found the strength to be true to herself? More importantly, why was she even considering going back? Her mother just had to play that card. She had been more or less fine for a couple of years now, but Holly knew a relapse was always around the corner. And Eleanor knew that she knew. Now Holly

was faced with yet another important decision in the span of hardly three days—she could either keep on this path she had just begun to create for herself…or she could go back and rescue her mother from herself. Again. Just like she had done for most of her puberty years, cleaning up vomit from the luxury bathroom in her parents’ bedroom because her mother was too embarrassed to let the hired help do it. It just wasn’t fair. She didn’t know how long she lay there, staring up at the ceiling, her head a jumble of thoughts and her chest a swirl of emotions. It must have been a while, however, because eventually she was startled out of her reverie by someone knocking on her door. Holly jumped up. Shit! she thought, as the fact that she had someplace she was supposed to be resurfaced in her mind. Matt! She all but rushed to open the door, and sure enough Matt was standing in the doorway, looking warily at her. “Are you okay?” He asked. “I…what time is it?” He arched a dark eyebrow at her. “It’s ten thirty.” Fuck. She was two hours late. “Matt, I’m so sorry…I lost track of time.” He stared at her, unconvinced. “You know, if you’ve changed your mind you could’ve just canceled.” “That’s not it,” Holly said quickly. “I promise, Matt. I didn’t change my mind.” He studied her carefully, still obviously skeptical. “Well, what happened, then?” “I…” Holly hesitated. “My mother called.” Matt cringed visibly. “What did she want?” “She wanted to know where I am. And she wants me to go back.” “But you’re not, are you?” Holly didn’t say anything. She couldn’t; she didn’t have an answer at the moment. “Holly, please,” Matt said, “tell me you’re not going back to those godawful people.”

Holly scowled. “Those ‘godawful people’ are my parents.” Matt shrugged. “So? You can’t honestly tell me they’re shining examples of good parenting.” Holly sighed. “I suppose not. Would you like to come in?” Matt nodded, and she stepped aside to let him in. “So what happened? What did she say exactly?” He asked. Holly didn’t particularly feel like talking about it, but still she found herself spilling her beans and telling Matt everything that went down during her conversation with her mother—including Eleanor holding her depression over her head like a Damocles’ sword. She told him about her mother’s past struggle and how she had been there to take care of her. Matt listened closely, as usual, and then he sighed heavily. “Holly,” he began, carefully choosing his words, “I understand how you worried you must be, but you can’t allow your mother to threaten you in such a way. She’s counting on your guilt to make you run back to her and to that life you told me about, the one that doesn’t belong to you. Is that really what you want? To let yourself be trapped?” “No,” Holly said softly. “It’s not what I want. But if anything happens, it’ll be on me.” “Nothing’s going to happen, I can guarantee that,” Matt said. “Your mother is just exploiting what she knows to be your weakness. She’s not going to do anything stupid, believe me. It’s a guilt trip, a mind game. Nothing more and nothing less.” Holly bit her bottom lip, still uncertain. Surprisingly, Matt reached out. Ever so gently, he touched her mouth with his thumb and pulled her lip out from between her teeth. “Nothing’s going to happen to your mom,” he said again, his green eyes staring deep into hers to make sure she was really listening. “You need to live your life now, the one you’ve chosen for yourself. Everything else will fall into place, and everyone else will just have to deal with it.” Holly felt herself tremble. It didn’t really matter that Matt had a point; as long as he looked at her like that, he might as well be trying to buy her soul, and she would have gladly sold it to him. There was an electric buzz in the air. Holly could feel it traveling all over her body. Apparently, Matt felt it too, because he gently cupped the back of her neck and pulled her to him.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN Matt kissed slow, and he kissed tender. He kissed like he cared, and whether or not that was the case, Holly wouldn’t have minded in that moment. In that moment, nothing mattered but the fact that Matt was kissing her, touching her. He pulled back just enough to catch her gaze. “Stop me if you don’t want this.” Holly didn’t respond immediately, her brain having short-circuited on her the moment Matt had started kissing her. When she finally regained her faculty of thought and speech, she said, I want this. But you should know…I’ve never…” She let the rest of the sentence hang in the air, knowing he would hear the words even if she didn’t speak them out loud. Matt pulled back further, eyes widening slightly in surprise. “Never?” he repeated. Holly shrugged. “It’s hard to sneak around when you have parents like mine.” Matt nodded. “I understand. Are sure you want to…?” He let the words hang, too. “Yes,” Holly said immediately. “Please. Just…you know…be gentle.” Matt smiled. “I’ll be very gentle.” He kissed her again, as if to prove his point, and then he did it again. And again. For what felt like hours—hot, blissful hours—they did nothing but kissing. By the end, Holly was out of breath and aroused as she had never been. Hands came into play then, wandering underneath the fabric of their clothes, setting out on the most exciting exploration to get to know each other’s body. Holly soon discovered that underneath Matt’s baggy clothes was a body that might have been on the cover of a magazine. Once they had all but ripped the clothes off each other, Holly could appreciate Matt’s figure in all its impressive glory. He had a lithe body with well-defined muscles and tanned skin. His erection was powerful, and Holly could not help but eye it timidly. “Don’t worry,” Matt said, following her gaze and guessing her thoughts, “I’ll be gentle.” “How about I blow you first?” Holly blurted out. She could hardly believe those words had come out of her mouth, but now that they had, she found they made lots of sense. She may never have had a man inside of her, but she was not a complete stranger to sexual practices. She masturbated regularly, and she had given the occasional blow jobs to her equally occasional partners. It made her feel confident and in control, something of which she felt

she had great need at the moment. Matt looked at her in surprise. “I thought you were…” He trailed off, embarrassed. “I’m a virgin, I’m not completely clueless,” she said. Matt smirked. “I have a feeling I’m going to like what’s in store.” Holly grinned. “Well, honey,” she purred as she put a hand to his chest and pushed him gently to lay down on the sheets, “I have a feeling you’re going to like it too.” Matt quivered in anticipation underneath her, and that in turn sent an electric jolt down her spine. She realized right then and there that she was already in charge. Holly wasted no time; she had been wasting time all her life, and she was done with it. She ran her hands up Matt’s naked sides, smirking when she felt him shiver at the contact. She captured his lips in a brief but thorough kiss before she began to map out his entire body with her mouth. She worshiped and ravished him at the same time, alternating her passionate but tender exploration with teasing bites and playful licks. She lingered on his nipples until they became as hard as his cock. Speaking of which… Holly wanted nothing more than to give that glorious erection of his her undivided attention, but she decided not to do it just yet. First, she was going to drive him mad. She ran her fingers down his torso and pelvis, teasing his shaft with her nails. She caressed him for minutes, never once letting him know the sweetness that were her lips wrapped around his dick. She kissed his chest. His sides. His flat stomach. She kissed his hipbones, dragging her teeth lightly over the protruding bones, scraping the skin. Matt shivered. She kissed his balls. “I like the way you taste,” she murmured. Matt mumbled something incoherent in response. “What’s that?” Holly teased. Matt groaned. “Oh God…” Holly’s smirk widened. She felt powerful, feminine, in control. She leaned down and let her mouth finally come in contact with Matt’s awaiting erection. Holly took her time to savor him. Her tongue moved in slow, languid strokes that she could feel were already driving him wild. She ran her tongue all over his length, from head to base and vice versa. She felt him get even harder under her ministrations, something which she had not thought possible. Oh God…how am I going to take him in?

She shook her head, pushing her worries and fears away. Matt said he would be gentle, and she trusted him. Holly got a rein on her emotions and self-doubt and brought her focus back to the matter at hand. She began dancing an alternating dance, changing the rhythm and cadence, moving between slow and fast. She made sure that her lips always touched his skin as she sucked him. Matt gasped and curled his fists into the sheets. Out of the corner of her eye, Holly could see that the grip of his hands was white-knuckled. It filled her with a sense of immense satisfaction. Never once stopping her motions, Holly let her hand come into play, her thumb and forefinger circling the base of Matt’s cock and following the path of her mouth to heighten the sensation. Matt’s breathing had become labored, and he would let out a moan every now and then, which was almost enough to send Holly into a spiral of pleasure of her own. Still, she managed to keep control of herself. She increased the rhythm and the motion, and she heard Matt’s breathing quicken in response. It wouldn’t be long now. Holly had never asked him to, but Matt reached down and stroked her hair, gently pushing her away just in time to give in to his climax. She watched in fascination as he was caught in the throes of his pleasure. Matt lay there panting for a few minutes, then, without warning, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her down to him. Holly yelped in surprise and laughed as he crushed their mouths together. “You are a godsend,” he said when they pulled apart. Holly flushed scarlet. “It’s your turn now,” Matt said. She looked down and, to her surprise, he was getting hard again. Rather than scaring her, his sexual appetite turned her on even more. She let him maneuver her so that she was lying underneath him on her back. “I’ll be gentle,” he said. “So you’ve said.” Holly smiled. “I believe you.” “God, I want you,” Matt confessed in a breathless whisper. Holly felt her cheeks grow even hotter with renewed flames. He leaned over her and found the side of her throat with his mouth, sucking a bite in the sensitive skin. Mimicking her earlier actions, he too began to trace patterns with his lips all over her naked body. He, too, sucked, licked, and teased her nipples until they were hard and turgid. It was a few minutes

before Holly realized that Matt’s hips had begun to move. He was drawing circles with his pelvis against her, creating friction and anticipation. “I don’t suppose…” Matt said, already breathing hard, “…I don’t suppose you have a condom somewhere?” “I’m on the pill,” Holly said, all the while cursing herself for not having thought about protection. “Are you clean?” “As a whistle.” “Me too.” “Well, you would be.” Holly blushed, feeling stupid. “Yeah, you’re right.” Matt smiled and reached out to caress her cheek with one hand. His fingers soon left her face and traveled down her body all the way to her vagina. Holly barely had the time to ask herself what would come next before Matt began to work his magic. She had no idea how long it had been since he’d had sex, but he sure as hell had not lost his touch. In fact, his touch was almost all she needed to come. She pushed down her orgasm, not wanting to ruin it all in case it would be the only orgasm of the night. Matt teased her whole area—from the clitoris to her lips and mons. He knew what he was doing, and he was doing something wonderful that nobody had ever done to her before. It didn’t take long for Holly to get slick and wet enough that Matt could attempt to slide inside her. He stopped completely and looked down at her, catching her gaze. “Are you sure you want to do this with me?” “I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather do it with,” Holly said sincerely. “And I promise it’s not just my arousal talking.” Matt flashed her that shy smile of his that she had already begun to fall for. He began to slide in, and soon—too soon—the pleasure Holly had been feeling turned into pain. She hissed sharply, her whole body tensing up. Matt froze immediately. “Shit,” he muttered quietly under his breath. “It’s okay,” Holly said. “It’s all right. Just go slow.” “Are you sure?” “I’m sure,” Holly said, and she really was. She knew that the pain would pass, she only had to get

past the first stage. She shifted a little to get into a more comfortable position and spread her legs wider to grant him easier access. Matt’s hand found hers above her head, and Holly clutched at him like she would a lifeline. He kept on his penetrating motion, inch by inch. Holly breathed through the pain and cried out when she felt something tear. He stopped again. “Jesus, Holly…” “I’m fine,” she hurried to reassure. “You act like you’ve never taken a woman’s virginity before.” He looked away, embarrassed, and Holly’s eyes widened as realization hit. “Oh my God! You haven’t?” “Uh…no, not really.” Holly stared at him. “Are you sure you want to do this?” She felt compelled to ask. “I’m sure,” Matt said after a moment. “If you are.” “I’m sure,” Holly said. She smirked. “Now, back to business, mister.” Matt grinned down at her. He resumed his movement and slowly, gradually, slid all the way in. He began to dance a slow, careful dance. He had not lied; he was gentle. He was gentle enough that soon Holly’s pain began to subside and transform into the pleasure she had been promised. She gasped when he managed to find her sweet spot, and she arched up against him, desperate to prolong that blissful sensation. The more they went on and the more they moved together, the more Holly asked herself what she had been so nervous about. Her brain may not know what to do, but her body did. They kept on dancing for a long while, Matt’s hips thrusting long and deep. Eventually he once again fell prey to his pleasure. Holly could see that it was taking him all he had to keep his climax at bay. “Don’t hold it in, Matt,” Holly said. “Please, come.” Matt stared down at her. “But…you…” “There is no way I’m going to come on my first time,” she said with a knowing smile. He was hovering too close near the edge to show his disappointment. He did as instructed and let go, giving in to a powerful orgasm. Holly wrapped her arms around him and held him through the aftershocks. Eventually he pulled back and carefully slid out of her. Holly bit her lip to stifle a cry. The pain was coming back, although it was nothing more than a dull ache now. Matt lay down next to her and watched her intently. “Are you all right?”

Holly turned her head to stare at him. “Me? Are you kidding? I’m great.” “Are you sure? I’m sorry you couldn’t come.” Holly smiled fondly. “Matt, nobody comes during their first time. Anyone who says they did is lying." “Really?” “Really. I promise.” Matt grinned. “All right then. How’s the pain?” he asked after a moment. “Manageable and not nearly as intense as the pleasure.” Matt turned on his side and wrapped an arm around her. “I’m glad to hear you say that.” Holly smiled. She tucked her head in the crook of his neck. They slipped into that intimate, comfortable silence of theirs, and they fell asleep.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN Holly awoke the next morning with a strange feeling in her belly. It was contentment, she realized after a few moments. For maybe the very first time in her life, she was perfectly content. She turned languidly in the bed and smiled when she saw Matt lying asleep next to her. The soft light of the morning sun was streaking through the beige curtains of the motel, and Holly was happy. She didn’t mind that the motel was cheap or that she could detect a faint smell of something deep fried wafting through the air from the diner across the street. Right now, for all she cared, an asteroid could hit the Earth, and she would be happy. She stretched lazily, yawned, and climbed out of bed. She didn’t check her watch. For the first time in her life, she didn’t care about time at all; she felt like she had all the time in the world. She walked into the bathroom and into the shower stall, and she let the warm spray hit her back and wake her up, washing the last remnants of sleep away. She took her time, because she knew she wouldn’t need to rush today. Today, she felt like the world was hers. The wonderful, blissful sensation evaporated quickly, however. As Holly toweled herself dry and put on some clean clothes, she came to the realization that all of this was about to end. Her connection with Matt was as strong and intense as ever, but she knew their time together was at an end. There goes Time again. What a bitch. Holly sighed heavily. No matter what happened to her in the future, she knew she would treasure her time with Matt for the rest of her life. She hoped their paths would cross again someday, but she wasn’t about to delude herself; she knew the chances were very slim. “Holly?” She startled when she heard Matt’s voice come from the other room. Holly pulled herself together and walked out of the bathroom, finishing to button her shirt as she did. “Good morning,” she greeted. She had to smile at the sight. There it was, that innocence she had thought Matt had lost forever. It didn’t show up when he slept; it showed up when he was barely awake, first thing in the morning. His dark hair was all tousled from sleep and his eyes were almost at half-mast. He was rubbing his eyes with a heel of one hand as he sat up in bed. Holly walked up to the bed and knelt on the mattress with one knee, leaning down to press a swift but heartfelt kiss to his lips. He still tasted like sleep and afterglow. She knew, even though she had just found it, she would miss that taste dearly. Matt stretched languidly, like a cat. He gave her a sleepy smile and stumbled out of bed and into the

bathroom. When he emerged twenty minutes later, he was back to his alert self. “Wanna grab some breakfast from the diner across the street?” he asked. “Sure,” Holly said immediately, desperate to have as much more time with him as she could. “I had a thought,” Matt said as they walked across the street and into the small but cozy diner. Holly looked at him quizzically. “What about?” “I’ll tell you in a minute, in front of coffee and food,” he said with a grin. Holly shrugged. They found themselves a table near one of the large windows and placed their orders with the steadfast waitress that came to greet them. They waited in silence for the food to arrive. Holly would miss that silence, too. She would miss everything about Matt and being near him. They didn’t have to wait long. Soon enough, Amy, the middle-aged waitress, was placing plates of steaming food in front of them. Holly inhaled the smell and her stomach promptly grumbled. She had not realized how hungry she was. Then again, she had forgotten all about skipping dinner the night before. She snatched the maple syrup and poured a generous amount on her French toast before digging in. Across the table, Matt was happily setting out on the mission of devouring his eggs, bacon, sausage, and toast. “I love diner food,” he said with his mouth full. Holly had to laugh at the delighted expression on his face. “I can see that. You look like you’ve just found Nirvana.” “I might as well have.” Holly shook her head fondly and took a hearty sip of her black coffee. “So what were you thinking?” “Huh?” Matt said. She rolled her eyes. Why was it that men forgot about everything else the minute they had a fork in their hand? “Before, you said you had a thought.” “Oh, that. Yes.” Matt swallowed a mouthful and wiped his mouth hastily with his paper napkin. “I have a question for you, but please don’t feel obligated to say yes.” Holly’s heart began to hammer loudly in her chest. She did her best to cover up her trepidation. “What is it?” she asked. “Are you still going to wander aimlessly for a while?”

“I guess…” she said, uncertain. “Why?” “Because as you know I’m headed nowhere, too,” Matt said. “Or rather, hopefully I’m headed somewhere, I just don’t know where yet. So I was wondering if…uh…I was wondering if you would like to head nowhere together, travel together for a bit. You know, until our paths become a little clearer.” Holly stared at him. She had not expected that. She had thought Matt would want to keep going on his own, to better find himself. She said as such. Matt shrugged. “It’s easier to be lost together rather than alone,” he said. “But please, like I said, don’t feel like you have to say yes. I’d understand if you wanted to go off on your own instead.” Holly smiled. “I don’t want to go off on my own,” she said. “I’d much rather get lost with you.” He lit up instantly. “Really?” “Really,” she said. “I’ve been dreading saying goodbye to you. I’ve been trying to find a painless way to do it since I got up this morning. I couldn’t come up with anything.” Matt smiled brightly. He reached out across the table and took her hand in his. “It makes me really happy to hear you say that.” Holly smiled. “And it makes me really happy to say it.” Matt leaned in and she met him halfway. They kissed tenderly, but passionately. When they pulled back, Matt was smirking. “What?” Holly asked. “I like the thought of you in the shower.” Holly laughed and let go of his hand. “Shut up!” She squealed playfully. They spent the rest of their meal trying to figure out where they should go next. At the end they decided they would just show up at the bus station, point at a random spot on the map, and go from there. Despite their best intentions, however, they didn’t move for another hour or so—they merely sat, drinking coffee and enjoying each other’s company, talking about everything and nothing at the same time. Holly felt light. She felt lighter than she had ever felt, and she wondered if maybe she had been wrong all along—maybe there was a God, and He had sent Matt on her path to help her find her bearings, and He had sent her on Matt’s path for the very same purpose. They were both lost, but together they knew where to go and what they were doing.

The peace was only interrupted when Matt’s cell phone went off. The sound startled Holly; she had not expected him to have brought a phone with him, just like she had not expect to find her old—and now destroyed—one in her duffel bag. Matt sighed. “It was too good to be true. I should’ve known someone would reach out to me sooner or later,” he said with a bitter smile. He dug his hand in his jeans pocket and took out an outdated flip phone. He groaned out loud at the number and name flashing on the display. Holly frowned worriedly. “Who is it?” “It’s my sister.” Holly cringed. “You should probably answer it.” “I’m not sure I want to…” “I get that, but what if something has happened?” Matt blew out a frustrated puff of breath. “You’re right.” He flipped the phone open and brought it close to his ear. “Hi, Becky.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN “Don’t you fucking dare ‘Hi, Becky’-ing me, you son of a bitch,” his sister voice all but hissed in his ear. Matt cringed. She sounded a lot madder than he would have expected. “Becky, just let me explain—” “You left.” She cut him off sharply as though she hadn’t heard him. “You ran. And you left me one single, lousy post-it note on the coffee maker. Are you fucking kidding me, Matt?” Matt sighed. “I had to get out of there.” “And by ‘there’ you mean my house? Was it too terrible for you over here? Was it that awful for you to share your space with someone who loves you?” “I had overstayed my welcome, Becks. You know that.” There were a few seconds of silence from the other end of the line. When she spoke again, her sister sounded somewhat calmer. “Oh, Matt,” she said, in a regretful tone that made him feel like the biggest asshole in the world. Was he really making her feel bad? “You know Joe didn’t mean it. He loves you. He was just frustrated because you had been doing so good lately, and now you were sending everything down the drain again.” Matt did his best not to hear the disappointment in his sister’s voice, which he was sure she was also doing her best to hide. “But that’s the thing,” he said. “I had not been doing so good. I had just gotten better at hiding it, that’s all.” Becky was silent for a moment. “What are you saying?” “I’m saying I’ve been a mess, Becks. I’ve been a mess and I’ve been a burden, and I don’t want to be either anymore.” Matt was horrified to feel tears spring to his eyes. He forcefully pushed them back and turned in his chair, hoping that Holly hadn’t seen. “You’re not a burden,” Becky said softly. “You’ve never been a burden and you never will.” Matt sighed. “You have other things to worry about, Becks, more important and pressing things to focus on.” “Don’t you dare make this about my cancer, Matt,” she snapped. “You and I both know it’s got nothing to do with it. This is about you being a coward and running. Again.”

Matt clenched his jaw so hard that he could almost hear his teeth creak. He was getting angry now. “I’m not being a coward,” he said. He made a conscious effort to keep his anger in check; he knew a fight with Becky over the phone was about the last thing they both needed. “For the first time in my life, I’m actually doing something to resolve my issues.” “And how exactly are you planning to do that?” “I don’t know yet,” he said. “But I know I’m not going to find out in Clarksonville, in your house. I appreciate all that you and Joe have done for me, Becks, I really do. You’ll never know just how grateful I am to the both of you for not giving up on me. But it’s time I stand on my own two feet, and I can’t do it in Texas.” He paused to take a deep, steadying breath. Luckily, for maybe the first time ever, his sister didn’t take advantage of that pause to sneak in her opinion again. “I’m sorry, Becky,” he said sincerely. “But I need to do this. Please, try to understand.” Becky was silent for so long that for an oddly terrifying moment he feared she might have hung up on him. “I don’t,” she said quietly. “I don’t understand—” “Becky—” “Let me finish.” She cut him off, firmly but not unkindly. “I don’t understand,” she said again, “but if it this is what you need to do to begin a serious healing process, then so be it.” Matt let out a huge, relieved sigh. “It is. It really is, Becks. I’m really on my way this time.” “I hope so,” she said. “Look, I’m not even going to ask where you are, just…get in touch every once in a while? Even just a text to let me know you’re doing okay.” “Fair enough,” Matt said after a moment’s reflection. “I’ll do that.” “And promise you’ll come back once you have it all figured out?” “I promise.” Of that, Matt had no doubt. He wasn’t about to say goodbye to his sister. “Will you let me know if there’s any news on…well…you know,” he finished lamely. No matter how hard he tried, he still couldn’t bring himself to say the word “cancer”. “I’ll call you if there’s any news,” Becky promised. “Thank you.” There was another moment of silence. “Stay safe, okay?” Becky all but pleaded.

“I promise.” Matt wanted to tell her more. He wanted to tell her that he was sorry for being such a failure as a big brother. He wanted to tell her that he was sorry for worrying her and being one more thing on her mind when she already had so much on her plate. He wanted to tell her that he was sorry for scaring her, for making her feel like she might lose him too, when they had already lost so many people they loved and cared about. “Bye, Matty. I love you.” Matt’s heart jumped to his throat and a knot came to squeeze his vocal chords. She had not called him with her childhood nickname for him in years. He swallowed hard in order to be able to speak. “Bye, Becks,” he said. They both disconnected the call at the same time. Matt took a shaky breath and pushed the phone back in his pants’ pocket. A few moments passed before he was able to bring himself to look up at Holly. Predictably, she was watching him, but there was no trace on her face or in her eyes of the judgment he had feared would be there. “Is she all right?” she asked. “She will be,” Matt said, after a moment’s reflection over the question. “She just needs to make peace with the fact that this is not me running away and that I really need to do this right now.” Holly nodded. “Are you all right?” she asked after a moment. Matt thought this question over, too. “I will be,” he finally said. “Eventually. At least, I hope so.” He reached out and took Holly’s hand again, bringing it up to his lips to press a kiss to her palm. He didn’t say so to her, of course, but she made him feel invincible. Next to Holly, Matt felt like he could conquer anything. They paid for their breakfast, splitting the check. He was impressed with her, with the way she handled herself. She may come from a rich family, but she didn’t expect everything to be owed to her. Matt took her hand as they walked out, and he kept holding it on the way to the bus station. It made him feel good to hold Holly’s hand. There was a sense of belonging to the gesture, the same kind that spread through his entire being whenever he was around her. He couldn’t explain it. He had never met anyone like her. No one had ever made him feel like Holly did—she made him feel like the man he wanted to be. Put together. Whole. Unbroken. Not damaged. She made him feel like himself. They stopped in front of the large map of the United States that hung in the bus station’s waiting room. They looked at it for a while, and when neither of them could decide where to go next, Matt took Holly’s hand, lay his forefinger over hers, and told her to close her eyes and point. He did the same. Their joint fingers laid in New Orleans, Louisiana.

“Ever been?” Matt asked. “No,” Holly said. “You?” “No.” He smiled and spun her around to face him. “What do you say? Feel like a little jazz?” Holly lit up. “Always.” Matt pulled her to him and kissed her passionately. God, but he couldn’t get enough of her. It wasn’t just about her body, either; her very presence in his life was intoxicating. He knew he wouldn’t be able to keep her with him for very long, that sooner or later—and probably sooner rather than later, because that was just his lack—their paths would take them in two separate directions. For the time being, however, Holly was there with him, and Matt intended to make the very most of it.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN That time arrived much too soon for Matt’s liking. They traveled the country for another three weeks before it happened. They explored New Orleans and then the rest of Louisiana, because they fell in love with it. They were dangerously close to Texas, but they didn’t mind much; the fact that they were so close also meant that no one would probably go looking for them there. Then one day, in Baton Rouge, as they were getting ready to go to the bus station and head over to Boston, Holly burst into the motel room they were sharing. She was red in the face with excitement, and her grey eyes danced. “You’re not going to believe this!” she cried. Her voice rose of a couple of octaves. Matt had never seen her this over the moon before. “What is it?” he asked, intrigued. “I was taking a look at the newspapers in the motel lobby, and look what I found!” She thrust the newspaper she was clutching at him. Matt took it awkwardly and spread it open. “What am I looking at?” “There!” Holly all but squealed. She flipped the pages over his shoulder and pointed at one small article on a left column. Matt looked down. He read the title. He skimmed through the article. He looked back up at her again. “What am I looking at?” he repeated. Holly huffed. “Do you know who Katarina Prezsinova is?” “I think it’s pretty obvious that I have no clue.” “She’s one of the major artists of our time, probably the brightest star of her generation.” “Oh?” It meant pretty much nothing to Matt, but he had the feeling it meant pretty much everything to Holly. “She has just joined the staff of Boston’s most prestigious arts school, and they’re offering scholarships to celebrate the occasion. Provided that one is deserving, of course.” Matt stared at her. He had a sinking, cold feeling in his stomach. He did his best to cover it up. “And you’re thinking of applying?” “I couldn’t afford to get in any other way,” Holly said. “And this is Katarina Prezsinova. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.” You’re a once in a lifetime opportunity, Matt thought, but he didn’t voice it. Aloud, he just said, “I

see.” And then, because he realized he was not being very supportive, he added, “Í’m happy for you.” He forced out a smile that would not fool a stranger, let alone Holly, who in a little over three weeks had learned to know him in ways no one else except his sister did. Indeed, Holly wasn’t fooled. She sighed, her beautiful features darkening. “I’m sorry, Matt,” she said. “I’ve got to do this.” “I know. It doesn’t mean I have to like it, does it?” He asked gently, placing the newspaper aside on the still unmade bed. “I suppose not,” Holly said after a moment. “You understand leaving you won’t be easy for me either, right?” She looked at him with trepidation in her gray eyes. Matt nodded. “I know,” he said, because he did. He knew she cared about him, but he also knew she had things she needed to do. Just like he did. “We always knew this moment would come eventually. I had just hoped it wouldn’t be so soon.” “Me too,” Holly said quietly. “Truly. You believe me, don’t you?” Matt gave her a reassuring smile and cupped her cheek tenderly with one hand. “I believe you,” he said, leaning in to kiss her gently. She leaned into his touch, but he stepped back. She looked quizzically at him. “I think it’s best we say goodbye now.” Holly’s face fell. “Now?” she asked, her voice already breaking. “You’re not coming to Boston?” “No. Why would I? I would just have to say goodbye the minute we set foot in it. I’d rather say goodbye now.” Holly’s features hardened. “Very well, then.” Matt sighed. “Don’t be like that, Holly.” “Like what?” She asked, in a cool tone of voice that chilled him to the bone. “I’m only trying to go for some self-preservation.” “Fine. Do it. Self-preserve.” “You’re impossible.” Holly shrugged. She walked over to where her duffel bag lay and picked it up, shouldering it with one smooth movement. She had gotten stronger over the past three weeks of travel. She walked to the door

and then stopped. She turned around “Are you really going to do this?” She said. “Are you really going to let me go?” Matt let out another heavy sigh. “What else am I supposed to do?” “You could come with me. We could take one more travel together. We could make the best of the little time we have left together.” “Our time together is over, Holly,” Matt said, as gently as he could. “Please, don’t drag this out. Saying goodbye is hard enough.” There it came again, that stone cold expression on Holly’s delicate features. “All right then,” she said. “Be safe, Matt.” “You too.” Matt watched her go. She didn’t slam the door, but he winced anyway when it clicked shut; it felt like cannon fire to his ears. He sat down slowly, his legs gradually buckling underneath him until his ass hit the mattress—that same mattress where he and Holly had made mad, passionate love to each other for the past two nights. Matt hunched forward and took his head in his hands. His mind began to reel as the enormity of what had just happened began to really sink in. It was over. It was done. He had lost her. Holly had walked out of his life with the grace with which she had walked in—more or less silently, discreetly. He rubbed his hands over his face. Had he just made the biggest mistake of his life? Should he have gone with her? Should he have done all he could to make every day count? Every minute, every hour? It all was precious as long as it was spent with Holly, after all. But no, he decided after a moment. He had made the right call. He couldn’t bring himself to run one more mile with her knowing that there would be a goodbye waiting at the end of the journey. He simply couldn’t. Holly, Matt reflected, was the best thing that had ever happened to him. In the span of a little over three short weeks, she had taught him more than he had learned in twenty-five years of life and five tours in two of the hottest war zones on the planet. He had thought the time spent with her would be some sort of intermission, a breathing space before he plunged into the dark waters of the journey that lay ahead and that would ultimately—hopefully—bring him to find himself. Instead he now realized that Holly had been a crucial, vital part of that journey all along. Next to her, he had already begun to discover himself again. Little by little, while he was with Holly, he learned something new or relearned something long forgotten about himself every day. He had to tell her, he realized suddenly. If nothing else, he at the very least owed her to let her know just what a crucial, major role she had played in his healing process. He wished he could also tell her about his feelings for her. It had been days since he realized he was in love with her, but he had never dared to say anything, and he wouldn’t now either; they both had too much important things to do now

that would require their undivided attention. There was no room for the distraction of love. Matt rushed outside, forgetting everything about his rucksack still in the room and not bothering to lock the door behind him. He sprinted towards the bus station. Conveniently, they never checked in to motels that were too far away from the town or city’s station, but it still felt like an insurmountable distance to him as he ran in the streets and through the Baton Rouge traffic. Cars honked and drivers cursed at him, but he didn’t care. He sped through it all. He felt like he was in a Nicholas Sparks movie, the kind his sister always forced him to watch while he was staying at her house in Clarksonville. In those movies, however, he would have found the heroine waiting for him at the station, having changed her mind. Or he would have caught her bus just in time, and he would have been able to yell the words at her while she leaned out the window and watched his figure get smaller and smaller as the bus pulled out of the station. But this was no movie, and when Matt finally arrived at the Baton Rouge bus station, Holly wasn’t there. Neither was her bus.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Holly sat in the bus seat, fuming and hurting and not knowing whether she wanted to cry or scream— in an ideal world, she would be doing both. How could he let her walk away like that? How could he give up some precious extra time together? How could he not want to push the awful goodbye moment as far ahead in the future as possible? In retrospect, Holly figured she couldn’t blame him. Matt didn’t think in the same way she did. If it were up to her, they would be sitting side by side right now, enjoying each other’s company for as long as they could. She would make the most of every second, even if she knew there was a painful conclusion lying ahead. Matt, she had learned over the weeks they had spent together, wasn’t like that. If he knew there was pain ahead, he did the best to avoid it. It was just his way. Then again, he had known enough pain to last him a lifetime, whether Holly herself had never experienced real pain. Until now. The searing ache that had begun to torment her chest ever since she had stepped out of the motel room wouldn’t let go. Holly knew what it was. She had known for weeks now that she had fallen in love with Matt. She hadn’t said anything, because she knew neither of them needed the distraction at this point of their lives—they had too much to do now, too much urgent matters demanding their total, undivided attention. So Holly had kept quiet, knowing that the moment to say goodbye to the man she loved would come soon enough, and knowing that it would hurt like a bitch. Still, nothing she could have expected even remotely compared to the sorrow she was experiencing right now. It was gut-wrenching. She hunched forward in her seat and took her head in her hands. Her mind was reeling from the enormity of it all—the art school, her curt goodbye to Matt. It was beginning to really sink in now that it was done. It was over. She had lost him. She had walked out of Matt’s life, and Matt had let her. Holly blew out a slow, shaky breath. Was she making a mistake? Should she go back to him? Should she try to convince him again to make every day count? Should she let him know that every hour, every second was precious as long as she spent it with him? No, she decided after a moment. She was making the right choice. She had things to do, after all, and so did he. What were a couple more days spent together? That painful goodbye would still be waiting for them at the end of the journey. It was best to get it out of the way now. Matt was the best thing that had ever happened to her. In the span of a little over three short weeks, he had taught her more about herself and the world than she had learned in twenty-one years of life. She used to think that the time they spent together would be an intermission, a breathing space before they plunged, separately, into the dark waters of their individual journeys to discover themselves. But Holly knew now that wasn’t the case. She knew now that Matt was meant to be a crucial, vital part of her journey all along. Next to him, Holly had already begun to discover herself. Little by little, day by day, Matt unknowingly helped her to get to know herself in a way she never did. She had to tell him, Holly realized suddenly. If nothing else, she at the very least owed it to him to let

him know just what a major role he had played in her life. Holly got up, said “Excuse me” as she all but trampled over the feet of the unfortunate woman sitting next to her, grabbed her duffel bag from the luggage compartment overhead, and all but ran out of the bus. She hoped he would still be at the motel. Holly ran through the walls and rivers of people crowding the Baton Rouge bus station. She felt like she was in a Nicholas Sparks movie, the kind that she loved so dearly. She managed to avoid slamming into anyone for most of the way, only to come to a full-frontal when she was nearly out of the station. “Shit!” She cursed loudly. “I’m sorry! Please move!” “Holly?” Holly froze. She looked up. But this was a Nicholas Sparks movie after all! Matt was standing there with a bemused expression on his face that probably mirrored the one on Holly’s own features. “Matt?” she said, astonished. “What are you doing here?” “I came looking for you. What are you doing?” “I came to find you.” Matt blinked. “Why? “I didn’t want to leave things like that,” she said, her heart hammering in her chest. “And I wanted to tell you…well…I love you.” Her eyes widened. That most definitely was not what she had intended to say. Matt stared at her, eyes equally wide. “You what?” Holly swallowed. The cat was out of the bag, she might as well roll with it. “I love you,” she said. “I don’t want to go to Boston without you, or anywhere else for that matter.” “But…what about the art school? And Katarina Whatever Her Name Is?” Holly was so taken up by the moment that she didn’t even bother to supply her favorite artist’s last name. “They’ll both still be there. For now, I want to travel with you for a little while longer. If you’ll have me, that is.” Matt was looking at her in disbelief. “I’ll have you,” he said after moments of silence that seemed never ending. “Of course I’ll have you. I love you, too.” Holly sighed. The relief was so strong that she almost passed out from it. “You do?”

“I do. Otherwise why would I be chasing after you?” Holly smiled. She fisted his T-shirt with one hand and pulled him to her for another passionate kiss, which she hoped would be one of a very long string. “So where to?” she asked when they finally pulled back, both of them breathless and deliriously happy. Matt grinned. “I don’t know,” he said. “Let’s find a map.”

CHAPTER NINETEEN There was something to be said for wandering aimlessly through the country. Suddenly all those romantic feelings about the open road inspired by the likes of one Jack Kerouac made sense. One could truly find themselves on the open road. Holly Springford and Matthew Ramirez had not managed to succeed in that one mission just yet, but they liked to think they were on the right track. Holly especially had never been away from Texas for longer than two weeks at a time in all of her twenty-one years of life, and she was thrilled to find out that the world was even bigger and much weirder than she had imagined. She was even happier to be able to share that weirdness with someone who understood some of what she was going through. Matt may not have any idea what it felt like to be stuck with an arranged engagement hanging over your neck like Damocles’ sword, but he still seemed to get her. He understood Holly’s struggle for freedom and for discovering her true self out of her parents’ house. Holly, in turn, while not having any hope to grasp the full extent of Matt’s suffering, understood his need to come to terms with his demons and find out what kind of man he was underneath the pain. As far as Holly was concerned, Matt was the best man she had ever met. He was kind and considerate. He was a serious kind of guy, but every now and then, he would surprise her with a gentle sense of humor. He could be honest to the point of brutality at times, but there were always some good intentions even behind his harshest words. He had a big heart. He was a great listener and an even better lover. In fact, he was so unbelievable under the sheets that Holly found herself having vividly erotic dreams about him more often than not. On those occasions when she would wake up wet and ready from whatever sexually charged images her subconscious had concocted, she would begin to kiss Matt’s sleep-warm body all over, her butterfly touches gently coaxing him out of his slumber and into her waiting arms. He never seemed to mind—in fact, he was always more than ready to satisfy her awakened libido. Matt was one of a kind, and it really was no wonder that Holly had fallen for him as fast and as hard as she did. She had come to view him as her guardian angel. Despite her decision to hit the road and break the chains that kept her trapped within her family’s property in Lincoln, Texas, Holly had never been on her own. She didn’t want to imagine what might have happened to her if she hadn’t run into Matt. He may be fragile on an emotional level, but she was fragile on a practical one—and she was painfully aware of it. She had no clue how to survive on her own, and she knew she had been extremely lucky to find someone like Matt who had decided to take her under his wing. Holly still had no idea what he saw in her. She was unworldly and inexperienced and had pretty much nothing to offer him as far as advice went. How did you help a twenty-five year old war veteran who had seen too much find himself again? Holly had no clue, although she tried her best to be there for him the same way that he was for her.

She was still thinking about how lucky she was when an ominous beeping brought her sharply back to the here and now. The cashier at the mini-market she had walked into to get some basic groceries for Matt and herself looked up at her with a contrite expression on her plump face. “I’m sorry, Miss,” the girl said, making to hand back her debit card. “It was declined.” “That’s impossible,” Holy said. “Can you please try it again?” The girl shrugged and did as she was told. She swiped the debit card, and a few seconds later, the beeping sound could be heard again. The cashier stared pointedly at her. Holly cringed inwardly and tried not to squirm. Shit. Out of funds already? To the girl, she offered her best casual smile. “That’s all right. Try this one instead,” she said, rummaging through her wallet for a different card, which she offered to the skeptical cashier. This time she was able to pay for her purchases, but her stomach was still in knots when she finally walked out of the store with a bag of groceries in each hand. Could her checking account be tapped out already? She had only been on the road for a little less than two months… Thankfully she still had her savings account to rely upon, but she had the sinking feeling that wouldn’t last her for very long either. Truth be told, Holly had no idea how much she had on it in the first place. She had rushed out of her parents’ house so quickly and impulsively that it had never occurred to her to do a check-up on her financial status first. She decided that now would be a very good time for it. On her way back to the motel they were staying at in this sleepy Iowa town, she decided to stop at the coffee shop she had already eyed earlier that morning. She ordered a vanilla latte and sat down at a table in a quiet corner, away from prying eyes but still central enough that she would see Matt if by any chance he also decided to make a coffee run. It probably wasn’t a good idea for her to splurge on an unnecessary cup of coffee, considering what had just happened to the store, but she couldn’t very well check her finances in front of Matt. She took out her smartphone (whose GPS tracking she had carefully deactivated) and logged into her bank’s app. She inputted all the codes that she thankfully had memorized and took a deep breath as she was taken to the main screen. She clicked on her checking account page and could barely contain a shocked gasp when she saw that her balance was of $4.95 Shit, Holly thought, feeling the grips of panic beginning to squeeze her gut. Shit, shit, shit. She took yet another calming breath. All right, she told herself. Calm down. No need to panic just yet. You still have your savings account. When she got to that page within her account, however, it turned out that she barely had a quarter of her savings left. She blinked, dumbfounded. Impossible, she thought. She had not withdrawn one single dollar from her savings since she had left Texas. How could this happen? Holly wrestled with her shock and her questions for a few moments, and then it hit her. Her father, of

course! He must have taken must of her funds out of her savings, leaving her with enough to survive for a little while longer before she would be forced to go home. Well, he can forget it! She thought furiously. Except that it wasn’t such a remote possibility after all. What choice would she have when her funds ran out? The bell hanging over the door of the coffee shop rang shrilly, bringing her out of her gloomy reverie. She looked up just in time to see Matt walking towards her. Fucking perfect. Hastily, Holly closed the app and shoved the phone back into her purse. “There you are,” Mat said. “I was beginning to think you’d run off on me.” Holly forced out a smile. “Never,” she said, and she really meant it. She would never willingly leave Matt behind, but the dire situation of her finances might mean that she would have to do it soon. Matt didn’t seem to notice anything might be wrong. He cupped her nape with one hand and bent down to kiss her—thoroughly. Matt always kissed her thoroughly, even when he was being sweet and gentle. There was a passion running in his veins that simply could not be put out. Holly knew she was the one that passion burned for, and she felt more honored with each passing day. “Medium americano!” The barista behind the counter called out pointedly. Matt didn’t even flinch. He pulled away slowly and gave Holly that sexy, cheeky wink of his that never failed to make her weak at the knees. She watched as he walked to the counter to pick up his order. It was impossible not to appreciate the way his jeans hugged his perfect, firm ass. Holly flushed scarlet. Come on, girl, keep it in your pants! You’ve got bigger things to worry about. She really did, but there was something about Matt that made her forget all of her troubles almost instantly. His presence alone was enough for her to feel like she could take on the world. When Matt was by her side, she felt invincible, like there was nothing she couldn’t do and no obstacle she couldn’t overcome… …except for her father, she thought sadly. Her father had left her alone long enough and was now beginning to play the game. He was a huge, formidable obstacle that Holly wasn’t quite sure how to take on. Harry Springford had been playing games all his life, while Holly was just a greenhorn kid fresh out of her parents’ house. She sighed heavily, staring down at her paper cup as though the vanilla latte could hold all the answers.

“Are you okay?” Holly winced. Of course she had no hope of fooling Matt for very long. The man had served five terms in some of the most dangerous war zones on the planet; he could read a situation at a glance, even when it came to Holly herself. “Just a little tired,” she lied as casually as she could. “It’s been a long stretch from Baltimore to here.” Matt nodded. “Fair enough.” He took a long sip of his coffee and sighed in contentment. He always seemed very satisfied to have access to a cup of java. “I was thinking we could reward ourselves after such a long journey.” Holly watched him, intrigued. “What do you have in mind?” “You know that nice French restaurant we saw on Main Street?” Holly cringed inwardly. “Yes…?” “I thought we could have a nice dinner there tonight. Just a little treat for ourselves.” Holly was silent for a few moments, her mind working furiously to find a good excuse to say no. Matt liked to indulge from time to time, and usually Holly was more than happy to humor him…but that was before she had found out about the precarious situation of her finances. “I don’t really like French cuisine,” she finally blurted out. Matt looked at her, surprised. “Really? I thought someone who came from such a fancy background would be all about French cuisine.” Holly glared at him, her gray eyes flashing. “Well, I don’t. We’re not all walking clichés and stereotypes, you know.” “Sorry,” Matt said immediately. “I didn’t mean anything by it.” He looked stunned by her outburst, and so was Holly. “No, I’m sorry,” she said, dragging a hand nervously through her long blond hair. “I’m just a little tired, that’s all. I was kind of hoping we could stay in tonight.” “Of course,” Matt agreed instantly. It made Holly feel bad, the way Matt was always ready to do whatever it took to make her feel better. He never asked for anything…except for right now, when he had asked for a nice dinner at a nice restaurant. And Holly had said no. For a dangerous moment, she was tempted to change her mind and

give in, but she stopped herself just in time to prevent the words from falling out of her mouth. Her priority was to stay with Matt for as long as possible, and she knew that her time would have to be cut even shorter if she didn’t watch herself and her wallet from now on. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “Maybe we could go tomorrow.” Matt smiled. “Sounds like a plan.” Way to go, Holly, she reprimanded herself. Now you’re stuck with a dinner date you can’t afford. What is wrong with you? “You really do look tired,” Matt said after a moment. “It might be a good idea to go back to the motel and just rest the day away.” Holly smiled in relief. They rarely got to do that; usually, the urge to explore was too much. They both felt guilty to remain idle during this search of theirs. Today, however, Holly felt like that was exactly what she needed—to just close her eyes and not think about anything. “I’d like that,” she said. They finished their beverages and left the coffee shop hand in hand. After nearly two months on the road traveling side by side, Holly was still surprised at how natural it felt for her fingers to be intertwined with Matt’s. It felt as though that gesture was second nature. She smiled to herself as she remembered the first time they had held hands, on the first bus they had boarded together that one fateful day. It had felt natural back then, too. It was simple to them to reach for each other, to protect and support each other. It felt natural, logical. Easy. Being with Matt was the easiest thing Holly had ever done. Leaving him, however… She shuddered at the thought. Her mind was working a mile a minute all the way back to the motel. She briefly contemplated the thought of admitting her troubles to Matt, but she quickly discarded it. She knew what he would do if he found out; he would cover all expenses from then on. Holly didn’t want that. The last thing she wanted was for Matt to have any reason to suspect she might be using him. Besides, she was done depending on people. Her stomach churned as she realized she might soon be back to depending on her parents if she couldn’t find a solution fast. “I’m going to take a shower,” she announced when they were back in their motel room. Matt looked at her curiously. “Didn’t you take one earlier this morning?” “There’s something on my mind,” Holly said. After all, she could admit to that much. “The hot spray helps me think.” “Anything I can help with?” Matt asked. Holly forced out a smile. “Nah. Sometimes the whole mess with my family catches up to me, that’s

all.” Matt nodded. “I understand.” Holly felt a pang of guilt from lying to him. She gave him one more smile and a quick kiss, and she disappeared into the privacy of the bathroom.

CHAPTER TWENTY Holly took her time under the shower. She wished the hot water could wash away all the doubts and the fear that had taken such a strong hold of her. She had no idea where to go from here. The looming shadow of the prospect of circumstances forcing her to go back to her family house and—God forbid —marry a guy her father had chosen for her was too horrific to even consider. And yet, she knew she might not have much choice. She had thought she would have some more time before she had to figure out what to do, but her father had seen to it that her time was cut as short as possible. Holly clenched her jaw at the renewed wave of anger that washed over her. How dare he? Why must he decide about her life in such a stubborn, arrogant way? She turned off the water and climbed out of the bathtub, already reaching for the towel to dry herself. She froze halfway through an energetic friction movement to dry her long blond hair. A sound she had never heard before was reaching her ears, and it took her a few moments to realize that it was really happening. On the other side of the door, in the room, Matt was singing. Holly had never heard him sing in all of the weeks they had spent together. She was surprised to hear that it was a very pleasant sound. Matt had a clear and husky singing voice, and it was already doing all sorts of things to Holly’s body. She could feel her desire stir within her pelvis. She walked closer to the door, careful not to make any sound. She knew Matt would stop singing immediately if he realized she was listening in, and she really didn’t want him to stop anytime soon. “You came to me, and I started to feel that my senses had left me to die.” Holly blinked when she recognized the song. Andru Donalds? Really? She had to stifle a giggle behind her hand. Never in a million years would she have pictured Matt for a fan of pop-rock and soul. “Where is my strength when I need it the most? Tell me, what have you done with my mind?” Unable to wipe the smirk off her face, Holly settled in to listen to the whole performance. She could only imagine Matt’s face if he were to realize that he had an audience. The image was so comical that she almost burst out laughing, and she had to bite down on her lip in order to force herself not to make a sound. “Save me now from the depth of my infatuation. I could drown in the sea of love and isolation. I’ll take you down if you just save me now. All the time that I gave away, I’ll give to you. And all the love that I never made, I’ll make to you…” The more the song progressed, the more Holly wondered if it was a casual choice. How much of it reflected what Matt felt, really?

“Nothing could be more electric to me than to give you a taste of the love that I hide. But in my condition I’m totally lost…tell me, what have you done with my pride?” There was a raw, painful note to Matt’s singing, like to everything else about Matt. Holly wondered if that was how she really made him feel, like he didn’t have much control over himself and his intentions when it came to her. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? They had said the “L” word before, but only once. Theirs was a tentative kind of love, born between two lost, lonely strangers. How much of it was true love? How much of it was only loneliness? Holly shook her head. She didn’t want to think about that. In fact, she didn’t want to think at all. She finished drying off and wrapped the towel securely about herself before finally walking out of the bathroom. Matt lay sprawled on the king-sized bed, flipping distractedly through an old issue of National Geographic some previous guests had left behind. He looked up. His green eyes immediately twinkled maliciously as he ran his appreciative gaze up and down Holly’s figure. Holly felt herself blush. Almost two months in, and she had yet to get used to the way Matt looked at her whenever his desire was aroused. “You look good in a towel,” he said with a teasing grin and a predatory glint in his emerald-green eyes. Holly briefly looked away, embarrassed. “I mean it,” he said again. “Why don’t you come sit next to me?” He patted the empty mattress next to him. Holly thought about refusing. She thought about getting dressed and taking the longest nap of her life, but it was truly impossible to resist him. Matt was wearing no shirt, and the well-defined muscles of his naked back were enough of a siren’s call to entice even the strongest of sailors—and Holly was anything but strong when it came to Matt’s advances. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, I can resist anything but temptation, she thought resignedly. The fire was already stirring within her, and she knew there was no way she could walk away from him right now. Holly walked over to the bed and knelt on the mattress. Matt met her in the same exact position. He reached out and gently undid the half-knot that kept the towel wrapped around her body. He took a moment to openly admire her nakedness. “God, you have no idea how beautiful you are,” he breathed. Holly felt a surge of emotions wash over her. She smiled shyly. “I guess I don’t,” she admitted quietly. Matt reached out. He framed her delicate features with his hands and pulled her in for a kiss. Despite

his evident desire, it was a slow, soft kiss. That was one of the things Holly liked best about Matt— his willingness to show tenderness even when his whole body was on fire with lust. They kissed for a long time. It was Holly’s favorite kind of foreplay, and Matt knew it. It wasn’t long before they both felt the urge for more. Holly’s tongue pushed past the soft barrier of Matt’s full, very kissable lips, demanding more access and, most important, more fire. Matt didn’t need any further encouragement. He placed his palms on her naked thighs and tugged. Next thing Holly knew, she was lying on her back and Matt was on top of her. He descended on her for a ravaging kiss before he pulled away only long enough to get rid of his jeans and boxers. A moment later, he was back on top of her, holding himself up with his arms, his hands by each side of Holly’s head. Holly responded automatically, arching her hips so that they went to grind against Matt’s. Already she was looking forward to that magic friction that would eventually lead to a mind-blowing orgasm, but more than that, she was looking for contact. She was looking for touch. The intoxicating warmth of Matt’s skin against her own. There was nothing that could drive Holly wilder than the feeling of Matt’s firm body against hers. She longed for the moments where their bodies were pressed tightly together, so tight that not even a breath of air would have been able to push through. To Holly, those moments felt like the two of them were trying to melt into each other. They would clutch at each other desperately, almost as though letting go would mean letting go of all that they were. As though by letting go, they would lose themselves and each other forever. Holly wrapped her arms around Matt’s shoulders and dug her fingertips into the strong muscles of his back as his lips began to trace a scalding path down her body. He sucked a love-bite into the side of her throat, and Holly gasped in pleasure. She tilted her head back to grant him better access. One of Matt’s hands found her breast, while the other remained on her hipbone, clutching at her as if he were afraid to ever let her go. He began stroking her nipple with his thumb, a gentle pressure that soon had the desired turgid effect. Holly could feel Matt’s powerful erection pressing against her pelvis from where their hips touched, and the insistent sensation of his cock against her inner thighs was making her impatient. Matt’s mouth continued its exploration of her body. He traced a hot path from her throat down to her belly. Holly shivered underneath his scorching touch. By now, after two months spent together, Matt knew exactly what she wanted. He took his time to kiss every inch of her most sensitive area, making sure that he was lighting a fire that would be impossible to tame but with the wild waters of sex. When Holly was wet enough—admittedly, that did not take long—he slipped two fingers inside of her. She gasped, her whole body tensing with pleasure. She pressed her head back into the pillow and bit down hard on her lip to keep herself from screaming out her ecstasy. Matt’s fingers inside of her were able to dance a kind of dexterous dance that Holly had never even suspected could exist before meeting him. For a soldier and a generally hardened man, Matt’s fingers were surprisingly and exquisitely nimble. They scissored and swirled within her, finding wonderfully sensitive spots that Holly herself had

been the only one able to find before her path crossed with his. The man was almost inhumanly skilled. Granted, Holly did not have that much sexual experience as to be able to come with valid comparisons, but still she thought he was one of a kind and, possibly, one in a million. And still, for all that, she was so lost into the pleasure he was giving her that she no longer knew where was down and where was up, Holly did not orgasm. Matt didn’t seem to think anything of it, and when he could feel she was good and ready, he slipped out his fingers. He cupped her face with his dry hand and kissed her passionately. “I want to be inside you now,” he whispered against her mouth. Holly shivered in anticipation. “I want you to be inside me too,” she murmured right back. Matt flashed her a satisfied smile. He reached for the nightstand’s drawer and took out a condom, which he then slipped on with practiced ease. All the while, his emerald green eyes never left Holly’s gaze, locking her in place. Holly could feel her heart beating at a mile a minute within her chest. The dark light in Matt’s green irises was a promise that she couldn’t wait for him to keep. She spread her legs further apart to grant him more access, and he settled in between them. “I’ll be gentle,” he said. He always said that, and he always was. Holly had discovered that she was a little tender and slightly oversensitive to penetration, so Matt was always extra careful to slide in as gently as he could. Holly appreciated his consideration to no end, although she constantly amazed at his self-control; there were times when she would have wanted nothing more than for him to take her with that electric eagerness of his from the beginning, no matter how much it would hurt at first. Then again, she was probably still able to enjoy that instinct because of Matt’s gentle ministrations. Once again, he entered her as gingerly as he had promised. Holly gritted her teeth past the familiar discomfort, and soon enough that mild pain turned itself into mind-numbing pleasure. Her hips began to follow the rhythm set by Matt’s own pelvis, meeting him halfway through the movement. Soon Matt’s wild passion came into play, and Holly was more than happy to go along for the ride. As it turned out, it was an especially intense one. Matt’s desire was a strong, palpable, overwhelming thing that washed over the both of them in untamed, formidable waves. He wanted her. He wanted her now, and he couldn’t get enough of her. Holly wrapped her arms around his strong shoulders and fully gave herself to him. It wasn’t long before Matt’s passion began to threaten to get the best of it. As it always happened, his body tensed up as he tried to hold back. “Don’t,” Holly said, feeling his titanic effort. “Don’t hold back this time. Just let go, baby.” Matt hesitated.

“Let go,” Holly whispered in his ear, nibbling playfully at his earlobe. She knew that would push him over the edge. Sure enough, a few moments later, Matt finally complied and gave in to his climax. Holly arched up against him, overwhelmed by her own pleasure. Once she got her bearings back, she held Matt through the aftershocks, until he finally lay spent on top of her. They were both still for some time, Holly stroking Matt’s disheveled mass of black curls and laying with his face half hidden against Holly’s neck. Eventually, he stirred. He pulled himself up and out of her, and he leaned down to kiss her deeply before he got up to toss the used condom. A moment later, he was settling back next to her on the sweat-dampened sheets. He turned his head to look at her. “You didn’t come,” he said. “Did I do something wrong?” Holly grimaced inwardly. Apparently, he had not noticed her performance. “I came when you did,” she lied. “I guess you were too busy to notice.” He watched her skeptically. “Really?” “Really,” Holly promised. It was disconcerting just how easily the lie flew out of her mouth. Matt smiled, relaxing visibly. “Good,” he said. He sighed contentedly and looked up at the ceiling with a smile on his face. Holly tried her best to ignore the pang of guilt that hit her. She scooted closer to Matt and lay her head over his chest. He immediately encircled her shoulders with one arm. She couldn’t believe she had gone as far as faking an orgasm. Lying was one thing, but this…if Matt found out, his self-esteem would probably take a hard blow. Holly closed her eyes and listened to the steady beat of his heart. His breath evened out soon enough, and Holly lay there quietly, listening to him sleep. She thought about the song Matt had been singing earlier. She thought about what an exceptional man he was. And then she thought about how the last thing in the world she ever wanted to do was to hurt him, and about how she might be forced to do just that. Saying goodbye to Matt would hurt them both, she knew that. But she also knew that if she couldn’t find a solution, she would be forced to go back to Texas. And that, Holly thought, was truly the last thing she ever wanted to do.

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE It didn’t take Matt very long to realize that something was wrong. Over the next few days, Holly became more and more distant, to the point where there were times when he just wasn’t sure how to reach her. Whenever he tried to talk to her about it, she would say that nothing was wrong. By now, however, Matt was sure that was a lie. Holly seemed to always find a reason not to do something. Before, she had been eager to explore the places they traveled through, whether it was a big city or a small town. Now she never seemed to want to do much. She would turn down dinner dates, movie dates, and pretty much any activity that would get them out and about. Or rather, any activity that would get her out and about with Matt. She sure seemed happy enough to go on long walks by herself. Before long, Matt had convinced himself that he was the problem. After all, it was his suggestions that Holly repeatedly turned down—and dinner and movies weren’t the only invitations she was throwing down. Holly used to be driven by a kind of sexual energy Matt had rarely encountered before. He didn’t know whether it was because she had still been a virgin when they met and she was now making up for lost time, or if she was just that much into him (a notion which left him stunned), but he had never had such steady sex as he had since Holly had walked into his life. They would make love every other night, and sometimes even in the mornings. But that was before. Over the past couple of weeks, Holly had barely expressed any sexual desire at all. Matt gave her space, of course, but he would be lying if he said he didn’t miss it or that the sudden drop in Holly’s libido didn’t worry him. Yes, something was definitely up with her. If all the other factors weren’t indicators enough, Matt had the ultimate confirmation earlier that afternoon, when they arrived in San Diego and he suggested they go check out some of the art museums. Holly had said she didn’t feel like being cooped up in a museum. Matt had stared at her. He had tried to cover up his sudden alarm with a shrug and a smile, but that refusal really set him on edge. If Holly, whose ultimate aspiration in life was to become an accomplished artist, refused to check out the San Diego Museum of Art, something was definitely, horribly wrong. He had let her go off on one of her walks in San Diego’s Balboa Park, while he sat in their rented motel room and did what he did best—overthink. Matt was prone to overthink pretty much anything and everything, which was one of the many reasons why he had not minded his five tours in the war zones that much. Warfare left no time for overthinking. Hell, most of the times, it didn’t leave time for any thinking at all. Warfare was all about instincts. You followed your gut, and you prayed to get out of there alive. Matt had. Five times. It seemed almost miraculous to him. He had seen far better men than himself succumb to bombs and bullets, and every time he had thought it was not fair. He raised his head sharply as those thoughts came to him. Was that why he had kept on going back?

Was he trying to get himself killed? He realized now that maybe he was. The epiphany shook him to his core. His heart began to beat very fast in his chest, and blood pumped very loud in his ears. Fuck, he thought, stunned. Was that really what his Iraq and his Afghanistan had been about? Was he trying to take the easy way out? More important, was he hoping someone would do it for him? A bomb, a bullet…a desert dog. Fuck. Matt sat back on the bed and stared ahead in shock. I wasn’t even ballsy enough to take my own life. I was hoping someone would take it for me. Fucking coward. He realized that his hands were shaking. In fact, he was shaking all over. He had always known that his going to war was a form of running, but he had never realized his motivations had been that extreme. And, at the very least, no matter his reasons, he had always thought he had been doing something good and useful for his country. Now he was not so sure. It seemed more and more to him like he had been trying to do something for himself, something cowardly that would leave his sister completely orphaned. Matt shuddered. His sister. Becky. He had not heard from her in a while. He should probably give her a call, or at the very least text her. He jumped when, as if on cue, his cell phone beeped. He dragged himself up onto shaky legs and took a few steps over to the table. He picked up his ancient Nokia pone. Sure enough, there was a text from Becky waiting for her. What, is she psychic or something? He opened it with shaking fingers, his stomach in knots. What if it was bad news? What if the cancer was back? What if she had to undergo more chemo treatments? What if she was in the hospital, right now? What if she had taken a turn for the worst? What if she were dying, and he wasn’t there? Matt took a deep breath and swallowed hard. His throat was completely dry. He forced himself to calm down and somehow found the courage to read the text. “Went to the doctor’s today,” Becky wrote. Oh God. Matt exhaled slowly. He told himself he had to keep on reading, no matter how badly he wanted to

hurl the phone out the window. “Everything’s okay.” Matt almost passed out from relief. He had to make a wild grab for the edge of the table in order not to crash to the floor when his legs almost gave out from under him. “Just thought you’d want to know. I miss you, big brother. When are you coming home? Love, Becky.” The steel grip on his stomach this time wasn’t worry or apprehension—it was guilt. “When are you coming home?” Those words kept flashing in front of his eyes long before Matt had put the phone back down on the table. What was he doing? He should be on a journey to find himself. He should be doing everything in his power to get himself together once and for all. This should be a journey of discovery. So far, all he had discovered was Holly’s body and what a wonderful person Holly was. Matt sat down heavily on one of the chairs gathered around the room’s Spartan table when he was hit with the second epiphany in the span of a few, eventful minutes. Holly Springford was the best encounter he had ever made in his twenty-five years of life, but she was also a distraction. As long as Matt was with her, he would always be putting her first. He would always fret that she was all right. He would always put all of his focus into spending as much time with this unbelievable woman as humanly possible. He should be focusing on something very different. He should be focusing on sorting himself out. He should be focusing on getting his emotional strength back. He should be focusing on battling his demons, those awful devils that had very little to do with his warfare experiences after all. He should be focusing on becoming a fully functional adult, one who could finally raise to the challenge, go home, and take care of his sister. Becky needed him. Sure she had a devoted husband by her side, but Matt had made her a forever promise long before Joe did. When they were children, Matt had sworn to his little sister that he would always look out for her. He had sworn that he would protect her. He had sworn that he would always be there for her. God knew he had broken that promise, and it was time to make up for it. Matt ran his hands across his face and exhaled slowly. His mind was getting clearer by the minute, and the clearer his mind got, the heavier his heart became. He was faced with an impossible choice, and he knew it was no choice at all. He had to get back to Becky, and he had to be whole again when he did. And in order for him to find the missing pieces of himself, he had to turn his back on the most wonderful person that had ever entered his life. Matt swallowed past the sudden lump in his throat. Man, but he hated this! Why couldn’t anything

ever come easy for him? He took yet another deep breath and did his best to pull himself together. Don’t go there, he sternly reprimanded himself. Enough with your bullshit, Matthew. Don’t play the victim. He stood and stretched, trying to get the feeling back in his muscles, numbed by these little insightful moments. He felt resolute, determined. It would be the hardest thing he had ever had to do—and God knew he’d had to make some pretty hard choices in his life—but it needed to be done. Tonight, he would take Holly out to dinner whether she wanted to or not. He would treat her like a queen. And then he would break up with her—because it was the right thing to do. Well, Matthew, aren’t you an asshole, a little voice in one corner of his mind whispered to him. Matt did his best to silence it.

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO Matt’s resolve went pretty much out the window as soon as he saw Holly that evening. She had asked him to get ready separately and meet at the restaurant. Matt did his best not to think about the fact those kinds of tricks were normally used by couples who had been together for a while and needed to rekindle their passion—not by two people who up until a couple weeks prior couldn’t seem to get enough of each other. He tried not to think about the negative and just enjoy the evening because God knew it would be the last evening he would ever get with Holly. There had been a hole in his stomach ever since he had made his decision, and that hole filled with butterflies when he saw her. She was wearing a simple jade green dress. It was simply cut, with two thin straps and a flowing structure. It reached just below Holly’s knees, and in its simplicity was the sexiest thing Matt had ever seen. Holly wore no jewelry and had let her white-blond hair down. It cascaded down her slim shoulders like spun gold. She wore no makeup, but still her gray eyes stood out, and her tanned skin seemed to glow. She wore a pair of plain leather sandals that encircled her slender ankles to perfection. Matt swallowed. His throat had gone very dry. He was still in a haze as the waiter led them to the table he had reserved on the restaurant’s terrace overlooking the ocean. It was a gorgeous, magical location, but still Matt had little eyes for the view; all of his attention was focused on Holly. He had been surprised when she had accepted his invitation. Perhaps she had sensed that this was important to him. Nevertheless, now that she was here, she seemed lighter, as if the burden that had been weighing her down over the past couple of weeks had suddenly lifted. She now resembled the fresh, carefree, somewhat naive Holly that he had first fallen for. Her rejuvenating energy was contagious and radiated off of her like a beacon. Oh God. How am I ever going to say goodbye to this woman? “This is a very fancy place,” she said, looking around in amazement. “I know. I thought you would like it.” “I do.” Holly smiled. “Thank you.” Matt had made it very clear that the evening would be entirely on him. He wanted to truly spoil her, for once. He watched as she gradually relaxed. Matt, on the other hand, was growing more and more nervous by the minute. Yes, this was a very fancy place—perhaps too fancy. He cast a lost look at the cutlery in front of him. What was he thinking bringing her here? He had absolutely no idea how to behave in a place like this. He would only end up making a fool of himself, and that definitely was not how he

wanted her to remember him. “You start from the outside,” Holly said, pointing at the external knife and fork. Matt felt himself flush. “Right,” he said. He cleared his throat. “Thank you.” Holly grinned. “Relax.” Right. Relax. As if it could ever be that easy. Matt took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not really used to this kind of super fancy settings.” “That’s okay. I am.” Holly winked. She meant it as a joke, but Matt’s heart sank. She was so straightforward and outspoken that he had completely forgotten about her background. Now, he was being painfully reminded of it. In that moment, Matt had the third epiphany of his day—they came from two completely different worlds. How had he not seen it before? He took a deep breath and forced himself to get a grip. It didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered right now was to enjoy the precious little time they had left together. He let her choose the wine, which the waiter seemed quite surprised about…and which earned him a dirty glare from Holly’s sharp gray eyes. It was as if she was daring him to be sexist. Why couldn’t the woman pick the wine? Predictably, the waiter seemed to wither away under the cutting scrutiny and, once he was back with the bottle, was far more polite. “I’m guessing the poor fella just cut his tip in half?” Matt asked with a smirk. “Damn straight he has.” Matt smiled fondly. He was almost overcome by a sudden wave of affection for this woman. Holly seemed to sense his odd behavior because she looked at him curiously. “Are you okay? What is it?” “I’m fine. I was just thinking that I love you.” Matt surprised even himself with the admission. So far for keeping the distance. Holly blushed furiously in that cute way that she had. “I love you, too,” she said. Matt’s heart began to beat too fast for comfort. This was only the second time they admitted it out loud to each other, and it felt even more magical than the first. He reached out across the table and took Holly’s hand. He looked deep into those green eyes of hers, and the more he looked, the deeper he fell.

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE “I heard you, you know?” Holly’s cheeks were slightly flushed thanks to a couple extra glasses of wine. She wasn’t drunk so much as happily buzzed, which was making her cheerful and giggly. Matt loved her like this. In fact, Matt loved her. Period. “You heard what?” He asked as they walked back to the motel hand in hand. The San Diego night air was clean and fresh. It smelled of salt, and it rejuvenated him. For the first time in a very long time, he felt content. “I heard you sing. Earlier today.” If Matt were a blusher, he would have flushed scarlet. He stared at her and cleared his throat in embarrassment. “I’m sorry you had to endure that,” he said. “Are you kidding?” Holly said. “You have a great singing voice. I loved it.” “You did?” Matt asked, uncertain. Was her hearing impaired somehow? “I did,” she confirmed. “You should sing more often.” Matt smiled. “Maybe I will.” He had no intention to, of course, and from now on he would be extra careful to only burst into song when he was truly alone in the room. But he would have said and done anything to keep that light in Holly’s gray eyes shining. By the time they arrived at their motel room, the fresh night air of San Diego had sobered Holly up. Still, she wasn’t any less happy, which to Matt was a big relief, considering the mood swings she had been going through lately. They walked in, and she immediately went to open both windows, letting that lovely night air in. She turned around, and there was a different light in her eyes now. A darker light, a malicious light. A longing light. Matt instantly felt his cock respond to that look. He swallowed hard and watched as Holly walked up to him, hips swaying in that graceful walk of hers. She got closer and closer, and finally she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pulled him in for a kiss. Matt wasn’t much for faith and God and heaven and all that jazz, but he figured that if angels existed, they would kiss like Holly. She kissed him softly, languidly, and gradually brought the kiss to a deeper and hungrier level without Matt even realizing it. It was a smooth, intoxicating transition. Matt could kiss her for hours. When they finally pulled apart, Holly’s cheeks were flushed with something that had absolutely nothing to do with wine.

“I want you to make love to me,” she whispered softly. Matt’s brain short-circuited on him for a few second. She was still very close to him, her body pressed against his. He could feel his erection stir from the contact of her pelvis against his hips. Holly had not taken the initiative for weeks, and all thoughts Matt might have had about trying to push her away and force himself to walk out of her life disappeared. In that moment, there was only Holly and the fact that he loved her and longed for her in ways he had never loved and longed for anyone. “I very much want to make love to you, too,” he said quietly. Holly smiled, pleased. She took him by the hand and led him over to the bed. She reached up and let one strap slide down one shoulder, and then the other. She freed her arms and let the dress fall to her feet in a heap of flowing jade green fabric. Matt could do nothing but stare as she took off her panties and gracefully stepped out of them. She unhooked her bra and tossed it carelessly on top of the dress. Matt let his gaze roam over her nakedness. He took in the perfect curves of her body, the smooth expanse of her tanned skin. He drank in the image of her breasts, small and delicate but round and perfect, her nipples already hard and turgid from desire. She wanted him. She really wanted him. The realization sent an electric jolt shooting from his spine straight down to his cock. Impatiently, he reached down to unzip his jeans. He kicked them off along with his boxers, freeing his erection. He took off his T-shirt, and when he emerged from the fabric, he found that Holly had walked up to him and was standing once again very close to him. He let the T-shirt fall to the floor. Holly reached out and ran her fingertips down the well-defined lines of his torso. “You are so damn perfect,” she breathed softly. Matt’s mouth went dry. He swallowed hard and licked his lips. “I hardly think so,” he said, unable to censor his thoughts. Holly smiled up at him. “Well, I do. And trust me, right now that’s all that matters.” She kissed his chest, the warm, wet touch of her puckered lips making him shiver. “I want you, Matt.” Good God. Matt felt dazed, drunk with the sensations she awakened within him. He reached out and wrapped one arm around her waist, tugging her even closer to him, until their bodies were pressing one against the others—skin to skin, flesh to flesh. He never wanted to let her go, and it now seemed foolish to him that he had even considered the possibility. He kissed her deeply, his tongue roaming around her mouth to taste her fully. God, but he couldn’t get enough of her! He wanted to eat her up and drink her in. He wanted to be one with her. He wanted to make love to her until they were both breathless and content and neither of them could form single coherent thought in their minds. Overwhelmed with passion, Matt slid his other arm underneath her thighs and picked her up. He tossed her playfully and unceremoniously onto the mattress. Holly squealed in the delight.

A moment later, he was on top of her, his mouth ravishing her body with kisses. “Stop!” Holly breathed. “Matt, stop!” Matt froze. He looked up in confusion. Had she changed her mind? But Holly’s gray eyes were still dark with lust. She grinned as she sat up, and she kissed him briefly to reassure him. “It’s my turn,” she purred. She placed one hand to his chest and gently led him to lay down on his back. She straddled him between her knees, and Matt’s heart picked up the pace at the anticipation of what was to come. Holly bent down and carded her fingers through his black curls. She smiled and kissed him again, thoroughly, her fist closing around his dark locks. She pulled back, leaving him breathless. She gave him no time to recover from the kiss as her lips began an exploration of his body. She kissed the side of his neck, sucking a mark on it that he would wear as proudly the next day as he wore his battle scars. She kissed his collarbones. She kissed his torso, lingering over the nipples to lick and nibble. Matt hissed with pleasure. She kissed his sides and his abdomen, her hands following on the wake of her mouth, running down the smooth expanse of his skin. She kissed her hipbones, teeth grazing lightly over them, the friction making him arch in ecstasy. Finally, finally, she kissed all along his shaft—butterfly kisses that drove him insane. “God, Holly,” he breathed, already lost in the throes of pleasure. “Please.” She looked up, smirking. “Please what?” “Please, just suck me.” “Ah.” Holly’s grin widened. She surged forward to capture his mouth in yet another heated kiss. “Is that what you want?” she murmured when she pulled back. “Yes,” Matt moaned. “God, yes. That’s what I want.” Holly’s darkened gray eyes seemed to bore holes into him as they captured his gaze. “As you wish,” she whispered. He could have come from that whisper alone. When her mouth closed around his engorged cock, Matt’s world became a white-hot explosion. And when Holly’s lips began to slide up and down his length, puckered in a ring of fire, Matt all but writhed underneath her touch. Every sensation that came from Holly’s careful, mind-blowing administrations seemed to shoot straight to every single nerve of his body. Soon enough, Matt found himself hovering over the edge, and it was only by some formidable act of willpower that he was able to somewhat steady himself enough not to explode without warning.

“Holly…” he choked out. She let him go in one smooth stroke. “It’s okay,” she said. “I want you.” That was all the warning she gave him before she took him in her mouth once again. She was giving him permission, Matt realized. Unable to control himself any longer, he shuddered under her fiery touch as he gave in to his release. Holly’s hands guided him through the aftershocks, caressing his torso and his face. When he was finally able to regain his bearings, she was still sitting on top of him, but her mouth was no longer close to his cock. He already missed it. She smiled down at him and licked her lips. “I love the way you taste.” Matt shuddered, this time from the words alone. Holly settled on top of him, laying the length of her body along his. “I want you to take me now,” she instructed in a hoarse whisper. Matt swallowed hard. He reached out to bury his fingers into the golden cascade of her hair and pulled her down for a soft kiss. He could taste himself on her tongue, but he didn’t mind. Holly sat up, straddling him once again. Matt put his hands on her hips and looked up at her. God, but she was beautiful! She was ready to ride him, and Matt had never been more ready to give himself to someone. He lifted her gently, and she followed his movement, lowering herself onto his erection. Holly began to swing her hips up and down and sideways, and every time she moved, Matt moved with her. He lifted his hips enough to meet her every movement halfway in perfect synchrony. This was true harmony, he realized. Their bodies were dancing together, a dance their nerves and bones and muscles knew by heart. Holly knew how to drive him crazy. She alternated long, languid movements to hungry, urgent shoves. In turn, Matt rewarded with slow strokes and frantic thrusts. Soon enough, he found himself no longer knowing where was up and where was down. That was the power of Holly—she could make him lose himself and find himself all at the same time. That was the irresistible, inescapable hold she had on him. The rhythm soon became more frantic, until both of their breathing were completely erratic, and they were both at the mercy of their bodies. There was no more room for words or thoughts. There was just this—two bodies moving in unison, suspended between space and time. Matt held on for as long as he could, but finally his world exploded once again. Dimly, through the haze of his own climax, he felt her clench around him and shudder on top of him. They cried out in unison. Matt wrapped his arms around her and guided her to lie down on his chest as they both rode the highs of their pleasure. Finally, Matt lay spent. Holly still shuddered on top of him from time to time, and he stroked her hair.

Eventually, she also lay still. She moved after a moment, gently disentangling from his embrace and climbing off of him. Matt couldn’t avoid feeling a slight sense of loss as his now limp cock slid out of her warm embrace. Holly lay down next to him on her side, and Matt mimicked the move in order to face her. Her beautiful face was alight with the afterglow. He imagined he must look just as content, because she smirked at him. “You liked that, didn’t you?” Matt grinned right back. “You have no idea.” Holly chuckled. “I think I do.” Matt reached out to lay an arm across her waist. His fingertips gently caressed her naked back. “Why did you do this?” Holly frowned. “What do you mean?” Matt licked his lips. He felt suddenly nervous. “You haven’t been very…uh…well…you didn’t seem to be much into me lately.” Holly smiled. “Oh, Matt,” she said. “I’m always into you.” She leaned him to kiss him. It was a chaste kiss, but it stirred the latent butterfly in his stomach anyway. “Sometimes the things we’re running from catch up with me, that’s all.” Matt nodded. “Fair enough,” he conceded. “But we’re not running. We’re just taking some time off to search for ourselves.” It was his favorite lie to himself, and he thought it was as right a moment as any to share it. Holly gave him a gentle smile. She shook her head. “We’re running, Matt. It might not sound pretty, but that’s what we’re doing.” Matt didn’t say anything. It most definitely did not sound pretty. “Do you think we should stop?” he asked after a moment. “Running, I mean. Do you think we should go back and face our fates?” Holly seemed to think about it for a moment. “I’m not ready to do that just yet,” she finally said. “Are you?” “No,” Matt said. “I’m not. I think I’d much rather stay with you for a little while longer.” “Me too.” He pulled her to him and wrapped his arms around her. He dropped a soft kiss to the top of her head.

Her hair smelled like sex and strawberries. It was an intoxicating kind of smell. He listened as her breath evened out and she fell asleep against him. He looked past her into the dark. So much for being strong, he thought. So much for facing his responsibilities. So much for pushing her away. Matt had never felt so confused in his life—and that was saying a lot, because God knew he had faced some confusing times in the past. Suddenly he wasn’t so sure Holly was a distraction after all. Perhaps she was the key. Perhaps she was the only one who could really help him find himself, and he would only get more lost if he pushed her away. Perhaps there was a reason why their paths had crossed. Matt closed his eyes. There were too many questions, too many thoughts swirling around in his head. He wondered what Holly thought about their situation. Did she see him as a distraction? Or did she see him as a vital part of her journey? Could he help her find herself? He sighed heavily. Leaving Texas and his sister behind had been hard enough, but he figured the hardest thing he would have to do on this journey would be to come to terms with his own demons. As it turned out, the hardest thing he would have to do was dealing with the fact that he had fallen wholly, unexpectedly in love.

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR Holly’s funds were dwindling more and more with each passing day, so much so that she had eventually decided to resign herself to the only, awful choice she had. She would go back. She would face her parents. She would do all that was in her power to convince her father to change his mind about her future, and if she couldn’t she would learn to do what her mother had done—she would learn to love the man someone else had chosen for her. Never mind that her love—a word she had recently discovered she had never truly known the meaning of until this mind-blowing, roller coaster experience on the road—was all for someone else. The memories from the previous night were still very much vivid in her mind and on her body. She didn’t even need to close her eyes to find herself back in those moments; all she needed to do was to allow her mind to go there. And the more the day progressed, the more she found that her mind was very much inclined to go back there. She didn’t know what had possessed her. There she was, resolute and determined to keep Matt at a distance until she could finally find the nerve to say goodbye…and yet she had somehow managed to end up in bed with him, touching him and being touched all over. She had meant to keep pushing him away the way she had done over the past couple of weeks, and instead she had found herself inviting him in, in the most intimate of ways. There was just something about Matt. Holly had never quite grasped the meaning of the sentence, “I don’t know how to quit you”…until now. She had no clue how to quit Matt. She knew she had to, and soon, for both their sakes, and yet…and yet, she couldn’t bring herself to. No matter how much she tried to convince herself that she needed to put his handsome face and smoking body in the her metaphorical rear-view mirror as soon as possible, she just couldn’t do it. No matter how hard Holly tried to distance herself, she always ended up gravitating towards him. She had woken up that morning feeling anything but proud about the night of fireworks that she herself had initiated. If anything, she felt guilty about it. What was she doing, pulling Matt in like that? What was she doing, responding to his “I love you” when she very well knew she would leave him soon? She should never have accepted his invitation to dinner in the first place. She should have made up yet another excuse. But Matt’s green eyes had lit up at the thought of being able to do something like that for her and with her, and Holly had not had the heart to say no. Besides, she had told herself, even though they had very little time left together, there was no written rule that they shouldn’t enjoy it to the fullest. Matt was trying to do something special for her, and in turn she tried to make the evening extra special for him by setting it up like a real date—complete with getting ready separately and meeting at the selected place. To Holly’s own surprise, by the time she had gotten to the restaurant, she felt lighter than she had in days. This was a real date with the man she loved, and despite all the dark clouds hovering over them, she couldn’t help but be happy. Add to that elatedness a couple extra glasses of wine and Matt’s breathtaking appearance, and it was a wonder Holly had not taken him right then and there on the restaurant table.

She couldn’t keep doing this. She had woken up with all of her determination gone and with confused thoughts once again swirling around in her head. She had to make up her mind somehow. Stay with Matt and beg him for help, or go back to her parents and the choices they had made for her? It was an impossible decision. The day had gone on more or less without a glitch. They walked around San Diego hand in hand, and Holly felt as though Matt’s hand burned in hers. She was so hopelessly in love with him that she didn’t know how to handle it. Conversation flew easily, until that evening Matt came up with yet another plan. “I was thinking,” he said as they walked in to their motel room after a solid eight hours of walking around the city. “Perhaps we could go to the movies tonight.” Holly cringed. She did a quick calculation in her head. They were supposed to leave the next day. Buses were expensive. So were movies. “Sorry, Matt,” she said, as casually as she could. “I’m beat. You go ahead without me if you’d like.” Matt stared at her. His green eyes searched carefully, and she did her best not to squirm. “Would you mind telling me what’s going on with you?” Holly frowned. “What do you mean?” “You’ve been very distant lately.” Shit. “I wouldn’t call what we did that night ‘being distant’,” she said with a grin. She walked up to the small fridge in the tiny kitchen and took out two of the beers they had bought the previous day. She opened one for herself and handed the other to Matt. He took the bottle automatically, but he didn’t open it. Instead, he worried it with his hands, making it twirl between his palms. “Don’t give me that,” he said sharply. “I mean, last night was great,” he amended. “More than that, it was fantastic. But you know that’s not what I’m talking about.” Holly took a sip of beer and watched him from over the neck of the bottle. “Well than, what are you talking about?” she asked. “You know,” he said again. “You’ve been strange lately.” Holly let out a rude snort. “How would you know when I’m being strange? You’ve only known me two months.” Whoa. Where had that come from, that bitterness? Holly knew these were her defense mechanisms fully snapping into action over being questioned.

Matt stared at her. “Touché,” he admitted. “Still, I think I know you well enough to realize something’s up.” “You don’t know me at all,” Holly snapped. He took a step forward. His green eyes were burning. “Holly,” he said pointedly. “What’s going on?” “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Holly cried, letting out a very uncharacteristic curse. She rarely cursed aloud. She all but slammed the bottle down on the table. “What makes you think something’s going on?” “Oh, I don’t know,” Matt retorted. “Perhaps the fact that you don’t want to do anything anymore and that you keep making excuses. It’s like you don’t want to spend time with me.” Holly froze. Was that how he perceived it? Nothing was farther from the truth. “That’s not it,” she said quietly, her anger all but dissipating. “I promise, Matt. That’s not it at all.” “Well, then, what is it?” Matt asked, exasperated. “Because I’ve been going over this for days, Holly, and I couldn’t come up with any other answer than the fact that you’ve grown tired of me.” “But I haven’t,” Holly blurted out quickly. “I really haven’t.” She closed the distance between them and reached up to cup his cheek with one hand. She captured his green-eyed gaze and held it. “I haven’t grown tired of you,” she said. “In fact, quite the opposite. If possible, the more time I spend with you, the more I want to be with you.” Matt seemed to deflate. He was somewhat mollified by her words, but clearly not completely satisfied just yet. He took her hand and gently pulled it away from his face. “Then explain it to me, please,” he said calmly. “I’m really at a loss here. I can see that something is bothering you and that you’re trying to push me away. Why?” Damn. It didn’t look like he was going to let himself be derailed from the subject this time. Holly sighed heavily. “I just need some time,” she said. Matt frowned. “Time for what?” “To think.” Matt exhaled slowly, clearly making an effort to keep his temper in check. He was usually a very patient man, but being put in the condition of not understanding the situation clearly did not sit well with him. “It’s been weeks, Holly,” he said, as gently as he could given his frustration. “Surely you must have it figured out at this point?” “Well, I don’t,” Holly snapped, pulling back sharply. “I don’t, okay? Back off, Matt.” She needed room to breathe. She grabbed the purse she had abandoned on the table when they had

returned from their never ending walk and stalked past him. She was out the room like a shot, slamming the door loudly behind her.

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE The more Holly thought about her behavior, the more ashamed she felt. She had stormed out. Actually stormed out. She had left Matt standing there in the middle of an argument, putting the most abrupt end to the conversation. What was she, sixteen? Shouldn’t her drama queen days be over? Holly didn’t know whether she needed to think or not to think at all. All she knew was that she needed to be alone without really being alone. So she did a thing she had never done; she walked into a bar, sat down at the counter, ordered herself a bourbon, and started drinking. On her own. A little voice in a corner of her mind told her that she was being ridiculous, childish, and more than a little pathetic. Holly silenced it by downing a second glass of bourbon. The expensive liquid felt good as it burned its way down her throat. She couldn’t believe she had done that to Matt. She also couldn’t believe he had questioned her like that. Who did he think he was, her father? Holly downed another half glass. He was just worried about her, she realized. And he was worried about himself, too, about their situation. He thought she had grown tired of him. Holly snorted. How could he even think that? Didn’t he know he was the most wonderful man she had ever met in her twenty-one years of life? But that was the thing about Matt; he had absolutely no idea how amazing he was. He thought he was nothing more than a depressed loser—his own words on a drunken night under the stars of New Mexico—but Holly knew better. What am I doing? She thought, appalled at her own behavior. Holly knew better. She knew exactly what kind of wonderful person Matt was, and she should be helping him see it. She should most definitely not be running out on him. She toyed with the glass for a few moments before she downed what was left. She had kept drinking as she thought, and by now she had lost track of her progress. She waved the bartender over. He was a thirty-something man with sharp features. “Another, sweetheart?” he drawled in a Texas twang. Holly grimaced. She hated to hear the Texan lilt; it hit too close to home—literally. “No,” she said. “Just the check, please.” She handed the man her debit card. She had gotten rid of her credit cards at the beginning of her journey, to avoid her father being able to track her down based on her spendings. She might not have much time left to spend with Matt, but she knew now that she couldn’t just abandon him. She couldn’t just push him away. She had to make him see what an amazing man he was

first. She needed him to see it. After all, wasn’t that all that their journeying together was about? To help each other see that they were worth so much more than they thought? “I’m sorry, darlin’. Your card was declined.” The bartender’s apologetic voice brought her out of her drunken reverie. Of course it was, she thought bitterly. The man frowned at her. “You were expecting trouble?” Holly realized then that she had spoken out loud. “Do you have other means to pay?” The bartender asked, not unkindly. “Cash? Credit card?” “No…” Holly’s mind worked furiously. How could she be so stupid? What she thinking, buying God only knew how many glasses of one of the most expensive whiskeys in the country? “We’ll cover that for her.” Holly turned around. Two men had somehow materialized beside her at the counter. They looked sharp and well-dressed; even in her drunken state, she could recognize the labels of their simple but stylish clothes. Before she had the chance to protest, money had already exchanged hands. She figured the bartender had seen enough unpaid tabs in his day and had jumped at the chance to make sure hers wouldn’t be one of them. Still, she felt uncomfortable having strangers pay for her drinks. “Thank you,” she said politely. “Not at all,” the tallest of the men said. He was young, probably in his late twenties. He had blond hair and blue eyes, and he looked like he belonged on the cover of a magazine. His friend was no less striking, with cropped black hair, chocolate-brown eyes, and a styled stubble on his chiseled features. “You look upset,” he said. “Would you like to sit down with us?” Despite the haze of the alcohol, an alarm bell went off in Holly’s brain. At first glance, there was nothing wrong with these two—they were just nice guys helping out a girl in distress. And yet, Holly couldn’t shake the feeling that something was dangerously off. “No, thank you,” she said. “I’m just going to walk back to the motel.” Oh fuck. How stupid was she to let it slip that she was staying in a motel, and within walking distance from the bar? Now, if they so wished, they could easily track her down. “Nonsense,” the blond guy said. “A pretty little thing like you should not walk alone at night.”

Holly’s eyes flashed. Even in her drunkenness, she did not appreciate the tone nor the words. She lifted her chin a fraction, defiantly. “I’m not a ‘thing’,” she all but hissed out. “Hey, I meant no disrespect. I’m just saying, it’s dangerous out there.” The young man put his hands up in a placating gesture, but there was an amused grin on his face that infuriated her. “It seems to be dangerous in here, too,” Holly said coolly. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll take my leave now.” She went to step past them, but the dark-haired man moved in front of her, effectively blocking her way. She stared at him, appalled. “Are you serious?” she said. She glanced over her shoulder towards the counter, but the barman was nowhere to be seen. There were few other patrons in the bar, and everyone seemed intent on minding their own business. “We’re tourists ourselves,” the blond guy said. “Why don’t you come back to our hotel with us? It’s certainly nicer than a motel.” “No, thank you,” Holly said. She kept throwing glances around, hoping someone would notice that she was in trouble. If anyone did, however, it didn’t look like they were going to help. Why isn’t anyone doing anything? She thought desperately. She took a deep breath and tried to remain calm and focused past the bourbon-induced haze and her mounting fear. What was she thinking, coming to a bar alone? “Look, I don’t want any trouble,” she said. “Just leave me alone.” “We don’t want any trouble either,” the black-haired man said. “We just want to show you a good time.” Holly tried once again to step away, but she froze in fear when the blond-haired man grabbed her arm. The men were standing in such a way that they were both blocking the view for any prying eyes and leaving her without ways of escape. Fuck. I’m so screwed.

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX Foreigner’s Hot Blooded was playing on the bar radio. And that was exactly how Matt’s blood felt— hot, boiling. But not from desire or sexual energy, like in the song. It was rage that ran in his veins. It taken him a little while to get over Holly’s unexpected reaction, and when he had, he had followed her. He didn’t expect to find her in a bar, but something had told him to walk in when he found himself passing by the one near their motel. The scene that presented itself to him immediately made him see red with anger. Holly was backed up against the counter, trying to disengage herself by the insistent advances of two young men. She looked scared and uncomfortable, and they looked leery and arrogant. If any of the patrons in the bar had noticed anything was amiss, they sure didn’t look like they were going to do something about, which only served to piss Matt off even more. Still, army training plus three tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan had taught him to maintain a level head even when extreme emotions threatened to take over. Matt took one deep breath and put himself into a focused, cool, killer state of mind. He was ready to act and react, but he wouldn’t let his fury dictate his moves. He strode up just in time to hear Holly ask the men to leave her alone…and to hear the black-haired guy’s response. He clenched and unclenched his fists at his side. He needed to stay calm. He was trained in combat; if he didn’t keep control, he could seriously hurt these two, and he was pretty sure that being charged with assault was the last thing he needed. “Is there a problem here?” He said, fully knowing that indeed, there was. The men turned as one to stare at him. Holly’s frightened gaze snapped over to him. He could read the relief in her eyes. “No problem,” the blond-haired guy said, flashing him a nauseating smile. “The lady seems to think there is,” Matt argued coolly. The blond-haired man sighed, exasperated. “Look, man,” he said, “this is none of your business. There’s nothing to see. Move along.” “Oh, but it is my business.” “Why?” The black-haired man snorted. “You her boyfriend or something?” “Or something,” Matt said. Next thing anyone knew, his fist was connecting powerfully with the black-haired guy’s jaw. He crashed to the ground like a rock and was out as a light.

“Don’t worry,” Matt said to the blond-haired guy, who was looking in shock at his fallen friend. “He’ll be fine, he’ll just have to deal with a killer headache when he wakes up.” “You son of a—” The man lunged at him, but Matt was quicker. In the blink of an eye, he had the guy immobilized with an arm twisted painfully behind his back and his face squished against the counter top. “You were saying?” Matt twisted his arm further and the man cried out. “If I ever see you so much as looking in her direction again, I’ll break every single one of your bones. Same thing if you’re ever an asshole again to any other woman. Understood?” He gave the guy a shove. “Understood!” The man cried, his voice having risen an octave or two. The bartender picked that moment to rush out from the back of the bar. “What’s going on here?” Matt impaled him with one look. “What’s going on is that you allow scum in your bar. You should look out for your customers.” The man had the good grace to look halfway between embarrassed and terrified of the fury he could read on Matt’s tense features. “I…I was in the back…I didn’t notice…” Matt’s eyes flashed at the stammering excuse. “You noticed. You knew. You were just too much of a coward to do anything.” The bartender swallowed visibly. “What…uh…what about the other guy?” he asked in a scratchy voice, nodding towards the man sprawled unconscious on the floor. “He’ll be all right,” Matt drawled. “Give him some ice and an aspirin when he wakes up.” The bartender nodded numbly. “As for you,” Matt said, giving his blond-haired victim one more shake. “I’m going to let you go now. I don’t want any trouble, all right?” “All right,” the guy said immediately. “I won’t give you any, I swear.” Matt nodded. He released the man brusquely and watched his satisfaction as the bastard sank to his knees. Satisfied that the situation had been taken care of, he turned his attention back to Holly. “Are you okay?” He asked, walking up to her and scanning her figure for any bruise or other sign of physical distress. Holly nodded. She stared at him with wide gray eyes. “I…that…that was very badass of you,” she

proclaimed. Matt stared at her. Given the terrified state in which she had been when he had walked in, that was definitely not the kind of answer he would have expected. He watched her closely for a few moments, and that was when he finally noticed her slightly glazed-over stare, her flushed cheeks, and her general unsteadiness on her feet. He all but gaped at her. “Are you drunk?” He asked in shock. “I think so,” Holly said. She giggled. Matt stared at her some more, stunned. “Just how much did you have to drink?” Holly shrugged. “I don’t know. A bit.” “Four glasses of bourbon,” the bartender helpfully put in. Matt’s eyes widened. “Four?” He had never seen Holly drink anything but beer. She must be wasted. He shook his head and couldn’t help an amused grin. “Let’s get you home.” “Home?” Fear immediately washed over Holly’s features, and Matt mentally kicked himself at the poor choice of words. “I mean to the motel,” he clarified quickly. Holly relaxed instantly. “Oh,” she said. “Yes. Okay.” She stumbled over to him. Matt caught her easily and snatched up her purse, which lay forgotten on a stool. He wrapped his free arm around her waist and led her out. He threw one last look behind his shoulder. The bar had emptied, the patrons probably having scattered when he began throwing punches. The bartender was staring at him with a mixture of amazement and fear, while the blondhaired man watched him leave with a still terrified look on his face. As for the black-haired guy, he was just beginning to stir.

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN Somehow, Matt managed to maneuver a very drunk Holly into the room. He kicked the door shut behind him and tossed her purse on the floor, his whole attention focused on keeping her upright. During the walk from the bar to the motel, the alcohol she had ingested seemed to have caught up with her completely. She was very unsteady on her feet, and her emotions were raw. So far, however, she seemed to only want to giggle at pretty much anything that was said or done. Calling upon all of his patience, Matt led her to the bed and had her sit down on the mattress. He began to unzip her jeans. Holly stared at him with an amused grin on her flushed face. “Really, Matthew? You’re going to take advantage of a drunk woman?” Oh, God. Again, if Matt had been prone to blushing, he would have. “No, I’m not,” he said immediately. “I’m just going to put you to bed.” “And then what are you going to do to me?” Her gray eyes clouded over with something that had nothing to do with alcoholic gaze. Matt swallowed hard. He could feel his cock stirring within the confinement of his pants, and he willed it to behave. “Nothing,” he said again. “You’re going to sleep it off.” “I don’t need to sleep it off,” Holly said. She reached out to tug at the V-neck of his T-shirt. “I only need you.” Oh, good God. Matt swallowed past his suddenly dry throat. He licked his lips. “You’ve no idea what you do to me,” Holly whispered. Her face was very close to his. He could smell the liquor on her breath, but he still wanted her. Appealing to whatever strength of character he had left, Matt took her hand and gently pulled it away from his neck. She had begun to toy with his hair, and it was driving him mad in a very positive way. “I really don’t,” he admitted. “But this isn’t a good time to find out.” Holly pouted. “Oh, Matt. What’s the matter?” Matt sighed. “The matter is that you’re drunk.” “So? I still want you. Don’t you want me?” Fuck. Matt exhaled slowly through his nose. “I want you, Holly,” he said sincerely. “I want you very

much. In fact, I want you all the time. But it wouldn’t be right to do this now. You were very upset when you left earlier, remember?” Holly stared at him. To his utter dismay, her eyes lost their playful twinkle and filled with tears at record speed. “I’m sorry,” she said, sniffling audibly. “I’m so sorry I stormed out like that. I just needed some time to myself.” “I understand,” Matt said immediately, trying to avoid the crisis that having a drunk woman sobbing uncontrollably in his arms would bring. “It’s all right, really. Don’t worry about it.” “No, but I do,” Holly said. “I do worry about it. You’ve been nothing but wonderful to me, and I’ve been a bitch.” Matt blinked. Holly rarely cursed out loud, and every time was a bit of a shock to him. He smiled in amusement. “Seriously, it’s okay,” he said. “Don’t think about that right now. We’ll talk about it in the morning.” “In the morning, I may be too hungover to have a decent conversation,” she confessed. Matt laughed. “Maybe,” he conceded. “But if we talk about it now, in the morning you won’t remember a thing.” Holly laughed, too. “Touché,” she said. He sighed in relief. Crisis averted…for now. “Listen, why don’t you finish taking off your pants, and I’ll get you some water?” “Are you sure you don’t want to have sex with me right now?” Holly asked, casually enough that he did a double take. “Seriously, Holly,” he said after a moment in which he had to regain his composure. She looked so damn inviting, sitting on the mattress and looking up at him like that. “I’m good. You, on the other hand, are not.” He winked. “Get yourself into that bed. To sleep,” he emphasized. Holly huffed. “You’re no fun.” Matt shook his head and walked to the tiny kitchen. He grabbed the biggest cup he could find and filled it up with water from the tap. By the time he got back to the main area of the room, Holly was snoring softly. She had managed to take off her jeans and sandals and was laying sprawled on the sheets. Matt sighed heavily. He put the cup on her nightstand and then gently maneuvered so that she was snuggled up under the thin sheet. He gently pushed the hair off of her face. He let his fingertips linger over her cheek for a moment before he pulled back. Unable to even think about sleeping, he retreated to the kitchen area and made himself some coffee, which he later nursed as he sat at the tiny table. The warm feeling of the hot mug nestled between his

palms was oddly comforting. It was a clear night, and the air was slightly chilly. Matt inhaled the fresh scent coming from the ocean and was very grateful that the kitchen’s table had been conveniently placed by one of the room’s two windows. From where he was sitting, he watched Holly sleep. He wondered what had gotten into her. Holly was normally a level headed woman. Despite her sheltered background, she was responsible and down-to-earth. It wasn’t like her to storm off like she had done earlier that evening, and it sure as hell wasn’t like her to go off to a bar and get drunk alone. He shuddered as he thought of what might have happened if he hadn’t walked in when he did. He curled his hands tighter around the mug as a renewed wave of anger washed over him. He watched as his knuckles turned white. All in all, he figured he should be proud of himself tonight. He had showed incredible levels of self-control—first by somehow managing to avoid killing or, at the very least, inflicting serious damage to those two asshole at the bar, and then by finding the strength to refuse Holly’s advances. I deserve a fucking medal, he thought. Holly was irresistible. She did things to him no woman had ever done before. And it wasn’t just about her body, her…although it was a damn fine body indeed. It was about her mind. It was about her, all of her. Matt sighed and shook his head. He had lost his determination to push her away. He simply loved her too much to make concrete steps in that lonely direction. His sister needed him; that was true. But after tonight, he realized that maybe, just maybe, Holly needed him too. He still had no clue what was bothering her, but whatever it was, it must be something serious indeed. She had reacted like a wounded animal to his earlier prying, lashing out in order to push him as far away from her as possible and be left alone to lick her wounds. Matt had no intention of leaving her alone. Whatever her wounds were, he would tend to them. He took a long sip of coffee and relished the sensation of the dark bitter liquid sliding down his throat. He knew it was all just temporary. He knew that, sooner or later, reality would come aknocking again and he would have to answer the call. Before he did that, however, he had to make sure Holly was all right. At the very least, he had to make sure she would never do something as stupid as what she had done tonight. It had been too much of a close call, and it had made him realize just how inexperienced Holly was. She was so carefree that he tended to forget that she had absolutely no life experience at all. She didn’t know how the world outside of her parents’ house worked. Matt knew only too well, and he resolved right then and there to provide her with some survival skills before he said goodbye. Provided that he would ever work up the nerve to let her go. Eventually, Matt forced himself to go to bed, but he did not sleep. Still, he pretended to be doing just that when Holly got up in the middle of the night to throw up noisily in the bathroom. Matt cringed, but he never said a word and pretended to be snoring softly when she stumbled back to bed. He figured

she must be embarrassed enough.

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT When Holly awoke the next morning, she wasn’t embarrassed. She was mortified. She had gone up to retch in the middle of the night twice. Every time she returned to bed, Matt lay apparently asleep, but she knew that he was just pretending. She was extremely grateful to him for that—and for everything he had done for her the previous night. The more awake and aware Holly got, the more the memories came rushing back. She had gotten awfully drunk, but not drunk enough that she suffered from blissful blackouts. She remembered everything, and she shuddered to think of what might have happened to her if Matt had not found her and rescued her. How could she have been so stupid? Holly turned her head. She was almost afraid to look at Matt, terrified that he may be already awake and be staring at her with the unforgiving light of judgment shining in his green eyes. Instead, he was snoring softly, and this time it was no act. Holly sighed in relief. She would have to face him sooner or later, of course, but wasn’t yet ready for it, and she would much prefer to do it when she didn’t smell like an entire pub had thrown up on her. She rolled out of bed, careful not to wake him. She picked up the cup on her nightstand, which she had drained during the night, and went to fill it up again. She felt a little better once she had chugged down some more water. She rummaged through her duffel bag and popped one aspirin. Then she padded quietly to the bathroom, closed the door behind her, and proceeded to take the most appreciated shower of her young life. She already felt like a whole new person by the time she turned off the water and stepped out of the tub. She toweled herself dry, climbed into some clean clothes, and walked out of the bathroom. She decided to let the San Diego sunshine dry her long blond hair. Matt was still asleep, and she decided right then and there that he deserved some sort of reward—and one hell of an apology. She found her purse on the floor by the door. She picked it up, checked that she still had her wallet, and walked out. The sun hit her like a thousand knives being thrown in her eyes. Holly groaned and quickly scrambled for her sunglasses. She waited for the pain in her temples to abide and for her eyes to adjust before resuming her walk. It was seven in the morning, and everything was quiet. The air was clear and crisp, and Holly inhaled deeply, letting the breath of the ocean refresh and restore her. She walked to the nearby coffee shop. Today, she decided, she would ignore her financial trouble in favor of a good breakfast for Matt. She picked up two black coffees—she felt like the last thing she needed right now was a sugar high from her usual vanilla latte, coupled with her hungover—and two egg sandwiches to go, and she made her way back to the motel. This time, when she entered the room, it was to find that Matt was wide awake. He was sitting up in bed, and he had a slightly panicked expression on his face. He relaxed immediately when he saw her. “Oh, there you are,” he said. “I was afraid you might have run off on me or something might have

happened to you.” Holly cringed as she realized that she had probably also given him quite a scare the previous night. “Nah,” she said, as casually as he could. “I just stepped outside to get breakfast.” She held up the paper tray with the mugs for him to see before she set everything down on the table. “Wow,” Matt said, smiling at the prospect of caffeine in his near future. “Thank you. Let me just brush my teeth, and I’ll be right back.” “Take your time,” Holly said, and she meant it. She still wasn’t looking forward to facing him. She took a seat at the table and, sure enough, Matt was back far too soon for her likings. He bent down to kiss her swiftly on her lips before he, too, settled down to enjoy his breakfast. “This is awesome,” he said as he sank his teeth into his egg sandwich. “Thanks.” Holly licked her lips. She might as well get it over with. “I’m the one who should say thank you,” she began. “You saved my ass last night.” “Yeah, about that.” Matt swallowed a mouthful and washed it down with a hearty sip of black coffee. “What the hell were you thinking? You could’ve gotten yourself into some serious trouble.” He didn’t look mad, just genuinely worried. Holly grimaced. “As far as I recall, I did get myself into trouble.” She took a deep breath. “Thank you for being there.” Matt shrugged, dismissing the apologies. “Don’t worry about it.” He stared intently at her. “Are you ready to tell me what’s going on now? I don’t want to fight,” he added quickly. “I just need to understand. Because, frankly, Holly, none of your behavior from last night is even remotely like you. And yes, I may not know you very well, but I know that much.” Holly cringed as the things she had said before storming out the previous night rushed back to her. “I’m sorry about that,” she said sincerely. “I didn’t mean it. You know me better than most people. Hell, sometimes I think you know me better than anyone.” She sighed heavily. “I’m sorry about everything. Really, I am.” She caught his gaze and held it to make sure that she was really conveying her message. Matt nodded. “I told you,” he said sincerely, “it’s okay. I’m just worried about you, that’s all. What’s going on?” Holly bit her lip nervously. The fact that he was so quick and ready to forgive her made her feel even worse about the whole situation. She couldn’t tell him about her finances. She couldn’t tell him that she was terrified to check her savings account after buying breakfast that morning. But she could maybe tell him about what she was feeling. She owed him that much, at least.

She took a deep breath and a hearty sip of the coffee. It was bitter, and she relished the harsh sensation, hoping it would clear her mind enough to say all that she needed to say in the least hurtful way. “I’ve been doing some thinking,” she began carefully. Matt stared intently at her. “Okay…” he said. “What are you thinking about?” Holly ran a hand through her long hair, a gesture she often went back to whenever she was nervous or agitated—in this case, she was both. “I’ve begun to realize that maybe I have been too rash, too naive. Running away made sense at the time, but now I’m not so sure.” She paused, letting this first admission sink in. She watched Matt carefully for any sign of reaction, but he gave her none. He was probably waiting to have all the facts before he let her catch a glimpse of what he was thinking or feeling. Fair enough, Holly thought. She prepared herself to continue. “I’m starting to think continuing this journey may not be the solution,” she said, the words tasting bitter on her tongue. “I mean, there is no way I can afford to apply to any decent art school without my father’s support. And I sure as hell am not skilled enough to support myself. I hardly know what a resume is. I don’t know the world or the ways of the world, and I think what happened last night really proved that. I’m thinking maybe this was all a mistake. Maybe the best thing to do would be to go back to Texas and stand up to my parents and their decisions on my future.” Matt was silent for a few, nerve-racking moments. “And then what?” he said then. Holly blinked. “What do you mean?” “I mean, you go back, you tell your parents there’s no way in hell you’re marrying someone they have chosen for you. And then what? They’ll just ignore your feelings like they have done before.” Holly sighed. He was right, of course. But it really was beginning to look more and more like she didn’t have much choice. “Maybe,” she conceded. “But I think I should at least try. I haven’t quite decided yet,” she added quickly. “It’s just…it’s been on my mind. The more I think about it, the more I realize I’m in over my head.” Matt watched her. Once again, he remained silent. “Matt, say something,” Holly said when that silence became unbearable. “Please.” “What about us?” Matt said. Holly swallowed. There it was, the question. “I care about you, Matt,” she said quietly. “I care about you more than you can even imagine.” His green eyes rooted her to the spot. “You care about me, or you love me?” he asked. “Which is it,

Holly?” Holly looked away only briefly before she forced herself to meet his gaze straight on. “I love you,” she said. “I love you. So much. But we both know this isn’t…well, ideal.” “Ideal,” Matt repeated, arching an eyebrow. Holly felt small enough to disappear. “Look,” she said, taking yet another deep breath. “I told you, I haven’t decided yet. I’m confused and lost and more than a little scared,” she confessed. That much was the truth. “I’m trying to figure out the best course of actions. I know you may not approve, but please, Matt…let do this. Let me think about it in my own time, on my own terms.” Matt stared at her. Finally, he nodded. “All right,” he said. He downed the rest of his coffee and stood. His egg sandwich was only half eaten. “Where are you going?” Holly asked. “Out. To clear my head.” “I love you,” Holly said, because she felt like it begged to be repeated. Matt gave her a small, bitter smile. “So you said.” To Holly, those three little words felt like a punch in the gut. “So I’ve said,” she repeated. “And I meant it.” Matt nodded. “I know.” He ran a hand across his face in evident frustration. “I need to think. I’ll be back.” Holly watched him go. The door closed with a soft click behind, but it might as well have been an explosion. She sat back in the chair and sighed heavily. Perhaps she shouldn’t have said anything. She should have continued with her charade, even though Matt had made it very clear that she wasn’t fooling him. Perhaps it had been a mistake to open up to him. Holly had hoped that talking to him about what was going through her head—or at least, the gist of it —might help her make sense of it all. Instead, now that the conversation was had and done and over with, she felt more confused than ever. She wanted nothing more than to tell Matt the truth, but he was already doubting her. What would he think if she told him she was basically broke and would need him to support her if he wanted to continue traveling together? Holly shook her head as soon as the thought entered her mind. Regardless of what Matt’s reaction would be, telling him was out of the discussion. Say that he would understand and not think less of her or suspect her of using him for money and sustenance. The alternative was that he would offer to support her, and that was almost worse than the first option. Holly could not depend on him. She simply could not continue depending on others forever.

Her family…well, that was another matter entirely. They had raised her to depend on their means. She was meant to administer the family funds and business. The more Holly thought about it, the more she realized it was the only money she had any idea how to handle—and quite possibly the only money she had any realistic access to. Finding a job was the most obvious solution to her current predicament, but it would be foolish of her to think that she could actually find one. She may be naive, but she wasn’t that naive. Who would hire her? She had no skills or experience and no time to acquire either. Holly groaned and buried her face in her hands. She breathed deeply and evenly, in and out, trying to calm down. How had she gotten herself into this mess? She realized then that if it hadn’t been for Matt, she would probably barely have made it out of Texas. Could she continue to be a burden for him? She felt tears come prickle at her eyes, and she stubbornly forced them back. No matter where she looked, she could see no exits. No matter how hard she tried to examine her difficult situation from any and all angles, she just couldn’t find a way out. She tried to imagine what her parents’ reaction would be to see her come back. Would they be happy, at least? Relieved? Would her father force her to skip the engagement and courting process and push her into immediate marriage just to get back at her for what she had done? After all, she wasn’t sure what else a man who had all but drained his daughter’s bank account in order to leave her stranded and panicked somewhere might be capable of. She thought about the man her father had chosen for her. Timothy Sutherland. A well-mannered, nice enough young man that would undoubtedly treat her with respect…which probably wasn’t something to be taken for granted when it came to arranged marriages. The words elicited a loud snort from her. “Arranged marriage.” It was ridiculous to even be thinking in those terms in the year 2015. And yet, both her parents still thought along those lines, and they seemed to believe that it should come natural to her to follow the same thought process. But it didn’t, and even less so now that she had fallen in love with someone else. Holly cringed as she remembered the flash of pain and confusion across Matt’s green eyes before he left—he had not been able to hide that. The last thing she ever wanted to do was to hurt the most wonderful person she had ever known, but then again, it couldn’t be helped. Matt deserved to know what was happening, if only in part. Fear washed over her then. Would he hate her from now on? Or would he come to understand? Would he still love her even through the confusion they were both feeling? Holly sighed heavily and finally emerged from behind the palms of her hands. She had heard and read about turbulent relationships and tormented loves, but this was just too much.

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE Holly’s words spun over and over within Matt’s head, bouncing off the walls of his skull in a mad rush. He had noticed something was wrong, and he had been harboring his own doubts, but nothing could have prepared him for this. Now that he knew for a fact that Holly was thinking of leaving him behind, all of his doubts dissipated. He knew now that he didn’t want to lose her. And he knew now that there was no way around it. The more he listened to Holly talk, the more he realized just how different they were. On the open road, it was easy to forget who you were, and it was even easier to forget who the person traveling with you really was. The road made everyone equal, but in the end that was just a temporary illusion, a false perception with an expiration date attached to it. Holly came from an entirely different world. He had been unbelievably stupid to forget about it, and even more stupid to ever think that fact could be overlooked. It could not. It would not. Holly was so incredibly out of her league that it wasn’t even funny. She was literally out of reach. Her world was miles above his. They had nothing in common, except for the fear and confusion that came from having lost themselves. Matt realized now that they couldn’t help each other. He had thought so, maybe convinced himself of it, but the harsh, almost unbearable reality was that they couldn’t. Fate had thrown them together for a very brief period of time, and they had long overstayed their welcome in each other’s lives. It was time to leave. It was time to move on. It was time to say goodbye. They had no future together; Matt knew that now. He had always known, on some level, but he had kept telling himself that maybe, just maybe, they could find some common ground. Maybe, just maybe, there was a way for them to be together. He knew now he had only been deluding himself. He spent a couple of hours sitting on a bench by the ocean, looking out the endless expanse of water. The time for overthinking was over. Now it was time to act, even if it broke him inside. Matt ran both hands across his face and sighed heavily. He had not felt this tired in ages, not since his last tour in Afghanistan. Then again, he supposed love was a little like warfare. Someone had said that once, and he had never quite grasped the full meaning of it until now. You fight to have love, and then you fight to find the strength to let it go. Matt found it, somehow, and he stood up and turned his back on the ocean, and he walked back to the motel before he lost his nerve again.

CHAPTER THIRTY He found Holly right where he left her, sitting at the table in the small kitchen area in the motel room. She jumped up as soon as he entered. Matt held up a hand, stopping her movements. “Please, sit down,” he said. “We need to talk.” Holly obliged, although it looked more like she fell into the chair rather than ease herself back down onto it. She had gone a shade paler. Obviously, she could tell what was coming. “That doesn’t sound good,” she said, her voice already a little hoarser. Matt felt a knife twist in his gut, but he forced himself to go through with this. He remained standing, walking up to the kitchen counter and leaning back against it. Holly followed him with her gaze. She looked positively terrified. “I thought about all that you said,” he began, desperately searching for the right words in his mind. Were there even right words for this kind of situation? “And I understand your confusion and the difficulty of your choices. I want you to know, I’ve been very confused too, lately. I’ve been pondering choices, too.” Holly swallowed visibly. She pulled herself together, trying to be brave. Matt loved her all the more for that. “What kind of choices?” She asked, and this time her voice was clear and it did not tremble. “I thought about leaving, too,” he said. There was no way to cushion the blow. “I was very confused and unclear at first, but what you said today made me realize that I was right.” “Right about what?” Holly was staring intently at him, and the weight of her gray-eyed gaze almost brought him to his knees. Almost. Matt stood his ground, grateful for the solid support of the wooden counter at his back. “Holly, I love you,” he said sincerely, because he did. He loved her so much he almost didn’t know how to handle the overwhelming intensity of his own feelings. “But I don’t think we’re doing each other any favors by staying together.” Holly looked at him with a mixture of horror, confusion, and anger on her face. God, but she was beautiful! She was so glorious when her emotions danced on her features like that. “What are you talking about?” she asked. Matt sighed. Did she really not see what he saw? Couldn’t she tell that they were an obstacle to each other’s search? “We are two very different people. It didn’t feel like that for a long time, because the open road will do that. It cancels pasts and backgrounds. But eventually, they always catch up. We

come from two entirely different worlds. I can’t help you, and you can’t help me.” “You have helped me,” Holly said. “I’m glad to hear that,” Matt said, flashing her a smile. “But I haven’t been helping you for a while now. I’m only causing more confusion in your head, and frankly, you’re doing the same to me. Being around you…I lose track of everything and everyone else, and I just can’t let that happen anymore.” Holly stared at him. She was silent for so long that Matt almost begged her to say something, anything, but eventually she spoke. “Is that really how you feel?” All right, here comes the hard part. Don’t falter now. Matt took a deep breath. “Yes,” he said. “It’s really how I feel. And you obviously have some doubts about us.” Holly swallowed. “I guess I do,” she said quietly. “But not enough that I want us to part ways just yet.” “And that’s the problem,” Matt said. “‘Just yet’. Don’t you see? It has to happen sooner or later. Isn’t it better for it to happen now, before we fall in even deeper? Before it’s even harder than this?” God knew it was hard enough as it was. Matt felt like he was being torn apart. Holly watched him. “I don’t know,” she finally said. “Fuck, I don’t know anything anymore.” Matt’s heart broke all over. He made a monumental effort not to walk up to her and envelop her in his arms. “I do,” he said, as gently as he possibly could. “It’s better this way, Holly. Trust me. We can’t go on like this.” Holly sat still for a few moments. Eventually, she nodded. “I guess you’re right.” Matt stared at her. He had not expected that. He had not expected her to give in just yet. And there go those damned two words again. ‘Just yet.’ Fuck it. Fuck it all. He should feel relieved, but he didn’t. He felt nothing but emptiness. He looked out the window and noticed that the morning light was turning into afternoon. “I guess I should go now,” he mused aloud. “Maybe,” Holly conceded after a moment. “Or maybe you could stay and leave at dawn. Just one more night.” She wasn’t talking about sex; he could tell. She was talking about a few more hours together, the last they would ever spend in each other’s company. The sensible voice in his head told him that he should leave right now, before he lost his resolve again. It told him there was no sense in prolonging this. It told him he should just walk away now and never look back. But Matt had never been good at listening to that sensible voice in his mind. Before he knew it, he

was nodding. “What do you want to do? For the rest of the day, I mean,” he added quickly. Holly shrugged. “I don’t know,” she admitted. In the end, what they did was make love. All afternoon. They spent the hours committing each other’s body to memory. By the time night rolled along, they were both spent—physically and emotionally. They ordered pizza, they ate it in bed, and once they were done eating, Holly snuggled into his arms and Matt held her tight. Neither of them slept that night, and neither of them said another word until the morning. Words weren’t necessary. Words weren’t welcome. Matt still couldn’t believe he was really leaving. He still couldn’t believe this had come to an end, this wonderful, crazy journey they had shared. Truth be told, no matter what he had said, he had no idea where to go from here. He knew it was necessary for them to cut the cord, but that did not mean he felt at all confident about how he would deal with the path ahead. He thought about Becky. She needed him. And Holly, he realized now, didn’t. At least, she didn’t need him anymore. He had meant it when he said they could no longer help each other. He loved her deeply, but she was a constant source of confusion in his life, and he knew now that he couldn’t afford any more chaos in his existence. He needed to let her go, for both their sakes. He just really, really hated being the one to take that step. Why must he be the strong one? Then again, he thought as he watched dawn come in and strongly wished night would win over day for once, perhaps he wasn’t being strong at all. Perhaps he was just being cowardly. No alarm clock went off that morning. They didn’t need it. When the sun began to shine, they disentangled from each other’s embrace without a word. They sat up and stared at each other. Again, no one spoke. Matt got out of bed and got dressed in the early morning light. Holly watched him quietly, and her silence broke his heart just as much as he knew his silence must be breaking hers. When he was ready, he stood awkwardly in the middle of the room. “I don’t know how to leave,” he said, speaking the first words in hours. He spoke quietly, but his voice still sounded like cannon fire in a room that had been immersed in silence for so long. Holly stared at him. She hesitated. Then she spoke, “Then don’t.” Matt did his best not to cry. “I can’t,” he said quietly. “You know I can’t.” Holly gave him a sad smile. “I don’t know anything anymore.” “I can’t say goodbye twice, Holly.” “Then say it only once. In a while from now.”

He was already shaking his head before she had finished the sentence. “I can’t,” he said again. “I’m sorry.” He hesitated. “I love you.” Holly’s eyes filled with tears, but to his utter relief she didn’t let them fall. “I love you, too.” He made to step forward, and she stopped him with her voice. “Don’t,” she said, sharply but not unkindly. “Please. If you touch me, I won’t be able to let you go.” Matt nodded. She had a point. He wasn’t sure he would be able to let her go either if he were to take her in her arms again. He hauled his battered military rucksack over his shoulder. “Goodbye, Holly,” he said. “Goodbye,” she replied. Matt turned his back on her. He walked out of the room and closed the door quietly behind him. It took him a few moments to find the strength to actually walk away from that door and into the street. This time, the clear, crisp San Diego air did nothing to soothe him. Matt walked on, but it didn’t feel like he was going anywhere. His legs were moving on their own accord, responding to some automatic impulse from his brain. His body followed his head. His heart…well, his heart was giving him completely different impulses, the kind that he could not respond to. He wanted nothing but to turn on his heels and retrace his steps, but he knew he was doing the right thing. He reached the nearest bus station and bought a ticket for the next bus out. He couldn’t wait. If he waited, the time would eat away at his resolve. If he waited, he would lose his nerves. If he waited, he would never leave Holly behind. Matt walked onto the bus and looked around. There were no pretty women this time, no one to draw sketches of him as he slept. He pushed his rucksack in the luggage compartment and sat down next to a middle-aged man that had absolutely nothing to say to him.

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE Holly remained still for minutes, sitting alone on the empty bed that suddenly seemed so huge. She felt empty, numb. Lost. Matt had been gone ten minutes, and she already felt utterly at a loss without him. What was she supposed to do now? She took a shaky breath. Slowly, her head cleared, even though she still felt like she was moving through a haze. She knew what she needed to do. She needed to pull herself together, take a shower, and get the hell out of San Diego. She needed to go home. Whatever that might bring. She stood up and was surprised to find that her legs were steady. She walked into the bathroom and under the hot spray of the shower. The water didn’t wash way the emotions that were threatening to overwhelm her. Holly pushed them all down. She wanted to prolong this moment of blissful numbness, where the reality of what had just happened had yet to truly sink in. She was alone, Holly realized. She was truly, utterly, completely alone. And she knew that going home would not change that. She knew she would be alone there, too. But she also knew that she couldn’t run forever. She could only hope she was strong enough to convince her father to let her marry whomever she pleased. Which, for the record, was no one, because she didn’t feel like she would ever love anyone the way she had loved—and still loved, damn him—Matt. Holly turned off the shower. She stepped out of the tub and toweled herself dry. She went back into the room and got dressed. She moved automatically, her brain giving her body the impulses it needed to get on with life. She could only hope her heart would catch up soon. *** As it turned out, Holly didn’t go very far. When she went to withdraw the money for a bus ticket out of San Diego, she discovered that her father had bled her almost dry. She had $55 bucks to her name. It was barely enough for three more nights at the motel. Which was exactly how Holly spent it. At this point, she didn’t have much choice except to find herself a job. She knew it would be near to impossible, but she had no other alternative. She paid for the nights, and for the nights only. She didn’t have any money left for food. By the time the evening of the second day rolled along, her stomach was grumbling furiously and she felt exhausted. She had found no job, which really did not come as a surprise. Holly sat at the table in the tiny, sad kitchen that she had nothing to cook in. She stared absently at the white surface of the table. She had no money, no food, no experience, no job…and in a little over twenty-four hours she would also have no roof. To say that she was in trouble would be an understatement.

Holly racked her brain for a solution, but she couldn’t see any. Besides, she was too hungry and exhausted to think straight. She jumped when a knock at the door startled her out of the reverie. She did not move. She didn’t want to see anybody. Besides, she didn’t know anyone in this city; whoever was on the other side of the door could have nothing of interest to say to her. The knocking came again, louder and more insistent. Again, Holly did not move. Another series of knocks, and this time the knocking was accompanied by a voice. “Holly? Holly, are you in there?” Holly jumped up and nearly stumbled when her world spun for a moment. She grabbed the edge of the table for support. Surely the hunger and exhaustion were playing tricks on her. “Holly? Open up, I know you’re here. The receptionist told me you’ve booked three more nights, and I can see the lights are on. Holly!” “Matt?” Holly mouthed the name to herself, incredulous. “Holly, goddammit! So help me God, I’ll kick this door in!” Holly flew to the door. She fumbled with the chain and the lock and threw it open. It was Matt. It was really Matt. He was standing in front of him wearing a hoodie and a faded pair of blue jeans with that beat-up rucksack of his slung over his shoulder. Holly stared at him. “Are you…are you real?” It was a stupid thing to say, but she couldn’t help it. She just couldn’t believe her eyes. Matt huffed. “Yeah, I’m real. Can I come in?” Holly stepped aside numbly and let him pass. He closed the door behind him and turned around to face her. He looked very stern. “Don’t you have anything to say to me?” he demanded. “Uh…” Holly said, intelligently. “What’s this?” He shoved a hand in his pocket and handed a piece of paper over to her. Holly paled. It was the receipt from one of her latest withdrawals, which also indicated her remaining balance—a glorious sum of $65.90. “What…where…?” she stammered.

“I found it in the pocket of this hoodie,” Matt said, gesturing to the black garment he was wearing. “Remember? I’d lent it to you one evening when you were cold.” The memory flashed back. Holly couldn’t believe she had been so stupid as to leave the receipt in there. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Matt asked. He lost his sternness now and looked at her in concern and perhaps a hint of hurt. Holly shrugged. She turned her back on him and went to sit at one of the kitchen’s chairs. She looked up at him and saw him watch her carefully. In fact, he was so intent that she had to wonder if he could read the hunger on her face or, perhaps, in her body language. “Holly,” Matt said again, gently. “What’s the story with that receipt?” Holly sighed. There was no really no point in continuing to hide it from him. “My father has been taking away money from my accounts. He emptied my checking account first, and then he went on to do the same with my savings account. I guess he’s trying to force me to go home. Trouble is, he didn’t leave me with enough money for a ticket to Texas. He must have miscalculated.” The $55 she had been left with were definitely not enough to go back to Lincoln. Matt stared at her in shock. “That son of a bitch!” he hissed. He let the rucksack fall to the floor. “Is that why you kept making excuses not to do anything with me?” Holly grimaced. “Yes. I’m sorry.” “I don’t understand,” he said. “Why didn’t you say anything? Why didn’t you tell me? I could have helped you.” “I didn’t want you to think I was only sticking around to get a free ride.” Matt looked dumbfounded. “Holly…I would never think that!” The vehemence with which he said it brought tears to her eyes. “Really?” “Really. I thought…I thought you didn’t want me anymore. I thought you didn’t want us anymore.” “But I did. I do,” Holly said. She felt the tears slide down her cheeks, and she made no attempt to stop them; she was simply too tired to care. “I love you. I love us, what we had…even if it’s just for a short period of time in our lives.” Matt closed the distance between them. He knelt on the floor to be eye-level with her—man, but he was tall! He put a hand on her knees. It was warm, gentle, and Holly cried a little harder as she

realized just how much she had missed her touch. “Is this what your talk about going back to your parents really was about?” Holly sniffled audibly. “Yes,” she confessed. “I saw no other options. I still don’t. After you left, I tried looking for a job, but so far no one will hire me. I have no experience.” Matt reached out and wiped away her tears with one gentle hand. “Holly,” he said, gently but firmly. He caught her gaze and held her to assure himself that he had her undivided attention. “I’m here now. We’ll figure this out.” Holly stared at him. “I don’t understand…I thought you wanted to leave?” “I didn’t really. I thought you didn’t want me anymore, so I convinced myself that it was the right thing to do.” He gave her an embarrassed smile. “Pretty stupid, huh?” Holly smiled shakily. “I guess we both were.” Matt pulled her in for a kiss. He kissed her thoroughly and passionately, uncaring of the salt he must be tasting from her tears. He enveloped her in his arms and held her tight. Holly lay her head on his shoulder. A moment later, a grumbling sound could be heard loud as thunder in the relatively quiet room. Holly blushed furiously. Matt pushed her gently away from him and stared at her. “Have you eaten?” Holly licked her lips nervously. “I’ve got $55 bucks to my name,” she confessed. “I used it to pay for the room. I’m broke now.” Matt’s eyes widened. “You haven’t eaten since I left?” “Not really.” “Holly, what the fuck?” Holly winced. “Sorry. What was I supposed to do?” “Get your ass into a 7 Eleven and shoplift, that’s what you do!” Holly stared at him in shock and horror. “Shoplift? Are you serious?” Matt chuckled fondly. “All right, princess. You stay put, I’m going to get us some groceries and I’m going to cook you one hell of a meal.”

“But—” Matt silenced her with a finger to her lips. “I don’t want to hear a peep out of you until you’ve gotten some food into that gorgeous body of yours.” He kissed her swiftly. “I’ll be right back.” Holly watched him go, stunned. For a terrifying while, she wondered whether he had just been a beautiful dream, but twenty minutes later he came back with the food. He kept his promise, cooking a to-die-for pasta dish that filled the hole in her stomach. Still, what Matt really filled that night was the hole in her heart.

CHAPTER THIRTY TWO Matt rented out the motel room for another week, during which they did all that Holly had been forced to turn down. They explored the city thoroughly. Holly felt bad about Matt paying for everything, but she promised herself she would pay him back as soon as possible. Now that the week was drawing to an end, she experienced once again the fear and confusion that had been her horrific companions for such a long time. She packed her duffel bag and did her best not to panic, but her tension must have been written all over her body, because Matt stopped short when he walked out of the bathroom after his shower. “What is it?” he asked. Holly was so preoccupied that she almost didn’t notice how gorgeous he looked with only a towel wrapped around his waist to cover his nakedness. Almost. She was scared, not blind, and she stored the image away in her memory. She shrugged. “I’m just worried, I guess.” “About what?” “About what’s going to come. I still don’t know if I’ll be able to find a job in the next town.” “Then we’ll go to the next one. And the next one after that. We’ll keep going until you find one.” That was the plan. Holly couldn’t bear the thought of going back to Texas, and neither could Matt. More importantly, neither of them could bear the thought of parting ways again. So they would have kept going until Holly could find a job. And then they would attempt to settle in. At least for a while. “Are you sure about this?” Holly asked. “I’m positive.” Matt walked up to her and gently reached out to push an errant lock of long hair behind her ear. “I love you, Holly. I want to be with you. Let’s find a place to call home.” He didn’t add “for a while” this time, and Holly blinked. She had the feeling he was talking about something different. Something bigger. “What…” She cleared her throat and tried again. “Matt, what are you saying?” Matt smiled. “Wait here,” he said. He kissed her cheek and then walked over to where his rucksack lay next to the table in the kitchen. He rummaged in it for a bit and came back to her holding a sketchbook, brushes, colors, and pencils. He held it all out to her. “This is for you.”

She took it numbly, looking down at the painting supplies in confusion. She looked back up at him, quizzically. “I don’t understand.” “I want to be with you,” he said again. “And I’m not talking just about traveling aimlessly through the country. I want to really be with you. I want us to be a couple. So here’s my proposal…” He took a deep breath. “We find a good place to settle down. We find you a job. We find a house to call home and we try and build a life there. I’m not talking marriage,” he hurried to reassure. “Just…a couple living together. We try to build our lives as they were supposed to be built. You work, you go to school. You become an artist. Me…I’ll keep looking for myself, for a while at least. Maybe I’ll find myself through building a life somewhere. I’ve no doubt I’ll find myself if you’re by my side.” Once he was done talking, he took a deep, shaky breath. “What do you say, Holly?” Holly stared at him. It took a while for his words to sink in. It took a while for the wonderful enormity of what Matt was suggesting to reach her. “Matt…are you sure?” she asked again. “Yes,” he said immediately. His green eyes were shining. “I love you, Holly.” Holly melted. She carefully put the painting supplies on the bed, and then she all but threw herself at him. “I love you, too,” she said, pulling him in for a long, passionate kiss. Matt held her tightly. “I take it as a yes?” He laughed once they pulled back just enough to catch their breath. Holly laughed, too. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, yes, yes.” She punctuated each “yes” with a kiss. Then she froze as a thought entered her mind. “But…what about your sister?” “I’ll go visit her,” Matt said. “And she can visit us. If that’s okay with you.” Holly beamed. She liked that word, “us.” It made her feel complete, content. At peace. “Of course it’s okay with me,” she said. “In fact, I would like that very much.” Matt smiled brightly at her. “Yeah?” “Yeah.” He kissed her again, and as he kissed her he pushed her gently down onto the bed, where they proceeded to make love, kicking the painting supplies off the mattress. It was intense and tender, unlike any other time they’d had together so far. Because this time was different. Because this time they had a plan, a real plan. Because this time there was an “us”. Matt fell asleep in Holly’s arms that night, and Holly held him protectively. She could not believe her luck. Life was strange that way, she realized. One day you were drowning, and the next you were soaring.

She held Matt a little tighter. Her mind began to wander as she allowed herself to imagine what the future would look like. She tried to imagine the house they would turn into a home. She tried to imagine the town. She hoped it would be a seaside town, because God knew she had gotten used to and had become very fond of the smell of the ocean. She imagined the life Matt had described and realized that she wanted it badly. She promised herself she would do all that was in her power to make that dream of theirs come true. They had a plan now. They were no longer lost. The sensation was exhilarating. Holly had no idea what was waiting for them. She didn’t know what time they would pick or what job she would find. All she knew was that she would make it happen. All she knew was that she wanted nothing more than to have the chance to take care of Matt the way he had been taking care of her from day one. The unknown waited for them out there, and for the first time, it wasn’t scary.

CHAPTER THIRTY THREE San Francisco was every bit as vibrant as Holly had ever imagined it. There was just something to it. The air itself seemed alive with that very same energy that pervaded the city, as if the whole place was constantly involved in a dance. It didn’t take very long for Matt and herself to decide this was where they wanted to stay. There was something peaceful about the ocean and the fogs that just seeped into their skin and soothed their aching nerves. Ever since they had arrived, Matt had been more relaxed than Holly had ever seen him. They had the conversation three weeks after coming into town, one evening as they sat at a table in what had rapidly become one of their favorite dining places in the city. In the Mood for Sushi was a cozy little place hidden away in a secondary street. It was quaint and yet modern, with white wooden furniture, sleek dish plates, and enormous windows overlooking a luscious green park. The owner, strangely enough, was Italian, but the chef was Japanese…and he made the best sushi Holly had ever tasted. Presently, she was halfway through her spicy tuna roll when something overcame her—an urge to finally voice her growing love for the Golden City. “I think we should stay.” Matt looked up from his Philadelphia roll and watched her curiously. “Huh?” he said, eloquently. Holly swallowed hard past the increased pace of her heartbeat. It always happened when she looked into Matt’s green eyes, and tonight was no exception. The soft light of the candle shining between them on the table made those emerald irises all the more alluring. “In San Francisco,” she clarified. “I think we should stay here.” Matt blinked. He clearly had not been expecting her to blurt out such an important thought in between a plate of maki and a tray of onigiri. “Oh,” he said. “What do you think?” Holly bit her lip nervously. She really wanted them to take their shot at happiness in this city, but she had pretty much no clue what Matt thought about it. Although… “I mean, three weeks is the longest we’ve ever stopped anywhere,” she added, and she realized she was just now being hit with that particular realization. This city really was the place where they had stayed the longest since they had met and begun their journey together. “I think it’s a great idea.”

Holly stared at Matt. He was smiling from ear to ear in that goofy way he did whenever he was truly happy about something. “Really?” she said. “Really. It seems like the perfect place for us.” Holly relaxed instantly. “It really is.” “Are there any good art schools here?” Matt asked. He was hell-bent on Holly following her dreams. He always said that wherever they ended up stopping, it would have to be a place that could offer her the means to pursue her art. “Some of the best,” Holly said. Matt relaxed instantly. “Good.” Holly felt a renewed rush of warmth. She had never met anyone who believed in her the way Matt did. It was as if he strived to allow her talent to emerge. It felt as though Holly’s dream was his dream. Sometimes, it even felt like Matt’s dream was for Holly to achieve hers. She had never known that kind of support, and it blew her mind every time. “Tomorrow we’ll start looking for a place,” Matt said. At Holly’s surprised look, he added, “It makes no sense to stay at the motel much longer.” “I guess not,” Holly conceded. “I just didn’t expect you to be so enthusiastic about it.” “We’ve been looking for our place for quite some time now, Holly,” Matt said. “Now that we’ve found it, I think we should get to it right away.” Holly’s heart was beating loud and fast in her chest. They were really doing this. It was scary and exciting all at the same time. “Are you scared?” Matt asked, as if reading her mind. Holly swallowed hard. “Yes,” she admitted. Matt took her hand on the cool surface of the table and entwined their fingers together. “Good,” he said. Holly blinked. “Good?” “Well, it’s a good kind of fear.” Holly knew if there was one thing Matt was an expert about, it was fear, so she trusted his judgment.

She gave his hand one final squeeze and gently disentangled her fingers. The rest of the meal had a richer taste to it. Every morsel seemed enriched with the flavor of a new life coming their way. By the time they walked out of the restaurant, Holly still felt dizzy with anticipation. It was a cool, chilly night in San Francisco. Matt was wearing the gray hoodie that Holly loved so much, the one that seemed to take away a few of his years and make him look much younger. Holly zipped up her faux leather jacket against the cold breeze blowing in from the ocean. The cold didn’t bother her; in fact, she found it invigorating. Everything about this city seemed to speak her language, and the chilly nights were no exception. Over the past three weeks, Holly had come to relish these nightly walks. In fact, on the rare occasions where they had not taken them, she had been left feeling unsatisfied, like the day wasn’t really complete. There was something magical about walking hand in hand with the man you loved in the ocean fogs under the Golden Gate Bridge. “I think we’re going to be very happy here, Holly,” Matt said as he looked up at the dazzling landmark. His green eyes were sparkling. Holly’s heart swelled. She tugged at his hand and pulled him in for a kiss. As always, Matt responded readily. He wrapped one arm around her waist and pulled her impossibly close, until not even a breath of air could pass between their bodies. His other hand instantly found the back of her head, his fingers losing themselves in her long blonde locks. Matt’s tongue was warm, and he tasted like the mint tea they had at the end of their meal. Holly all but melted against him, as she always did. No matter how hard she tried, she simply couldn’t resist this man—not that she was trying that hard; in fact, she didn’t try at all. Why would she? This was the man who had swept her off her feet and had turned her world upside down in quite the literal sense. In the six months since they had met, Matt had managed to overturn all that Holly had ever thought of knowing. Up was down and left was right, and the rules she had abided by all her life suddenly did not matter anymore. Matt had freed her from herself and allowed her to discover what she really was all about. Holly wrapped her arms around his strong shoulders. Matt’s body spoke of love and passion, and it filled Holly with emotions and excitement. She could feel his erection pressing against her thigh through his jeans, and her brain responded by sending an electric jolt down the whole length of her body. God, the things this man did to her… She felt him stiffen all of a sudden, and she smirked. He was probably trying to find his composure again and rein in his lust—at least, for as long as they were in a public place. She pulled back to look at him, but the witty remark died on her lips when she took in the expression on Matt’s face. He had gone very pale, and he was staring past her with wide eyes. He looked like he had just seen a ghost.

“What?” Holly asked. “What is it?” She turned around to follow his gaze, but she saw nothing but a few passersby—mostly couples. Matt’s arms freed her from their embrace and fell limply at his sides. “Matt?” Holly called, worried. “Are you okay?” Matt didn’t reply. Holly was growing alarmed now. She grabbed his hand and shook it vigorously. “Matt!” she called again, more sharply this time. He jumped. His wide eyes finally focused on her, and he seemed as to wake up from a state of trance. “Yeah,” he said. He cleared his throat; his voice had gone very hoarse. “Yes, I…I’m here.” He kept glancing past her, as if he was seeing something that only existed in his mind. Holly turned around again, just in case, but again, she saw nothing out of the ordinary. She turned back to face him, scanning his face thoroughly. “What is it?” she asked again. “I…I thought I saw someone…” He shook his head. “Never mind,” he said, and he visibly pulled himself together. “Let’s go back to the motel.” When he took her hand, Holly could feel that his was cold and slightly clammy. “Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked as they started to retrace their steps. “I’m fine,” Matt said. “Just my mind playing tricks, that’s all.” Holly frowned. It didn’t sound like something worth dismissing so easily, but she refrained from asking questions; she knew by now that pushing Matt into talking about something unfailingly had counterproductive effects. It was best to let him come on his own to the decision of opening up. They walked past other kissing couples, and then past a lone man standing by the shore, looking out into the horizon. He wore a black overcoat, and his dark blond hair was currently being tousled by the wind. Matt froze. He stared long and hard at the man’s profile—it was a sharp profile, as if someone had carved the man’s features with a hatchet. “No way,” Matt muttered to himself. Holly watched him curiously. “What?” she asked for what felt like the hundredth time in the span of a few minutes. Matt ignored her. “No fucking way,” he muttered again. He let go of her hand. “Erik Schneider!”

Who? Holly barely had the chance to ask herself the question when the man in the black overcoat turned around. His features were haggard but still handsome, and he wore a beard that made him look like a dark dream out of a European midnight street. The man stared at Matt with the sharpest blue eyes Holly had ever seen. “Matt?” he said. “Matt Ramirez?” He walked briskly up to them, but Matt seemed frozen in place, unable to move. The stranger covered their distance between them in a couple long strides, and next thing Holly knew, he was wrapping Matt up in a fierce hug. “You son of a bitch!” the man cried, laughing heartily. He had a deep, powerful voice. His laugh boomed. “What on Earth are you doing in San Francisco?” Matt did not reply. In fact, he did not move for a few more seconds. Finally, he seemed to snap out of it. He wrapped his arms strongly around the man and held on. He didn’t say anything, just held on to the man as if he were a drowning man and the stranger were a rock. It felt like an eternity before the two finally pulled apart. Even then, they held each other at arm’s length and stared into each other’s features as if they weren’t quite sure that what they were seeing was real. “What are you doing here?” the man finally asked again, breaking the spell of stunned silence that had fallen upon them. “Me?” Matt retorted. His voice was rough with barely contained emotion, a fact which intrigued Holly to no end. “What are you doing here? I thought…” He trailed off, unable to go on. Holly stared between them. Just who was this man who was able to elicit such an emotional response from Matt, who was usually so guarded with his emotions? “I know,” the man said. “It’s a long story.” “Well, tell it, for fuck’s sake!” A small smirk appeared on the stranger’s thin lips. “Not here.” “Shit, name the place, I’ll be there.” Holly arched an eyebrow. She had never heard Matt swear this much in such a short span of time. The man laughed. “Why don’t you come with me to my house? I’ll explain everything then. Your girl

is invited too, of course,” he added when Matt cast an uncertain look at Holly. Holly jumped, surprised to having been called into it. “Oh, that’s all right,” she said quickly. “I don’t want to intrude.” She had absolutely no clue who this man was, but it was all too clear that he and Matt had history that they needed to discuss. If there was one thing she had learned over the past six months, it was to be very discreet whenever it came to Matt’s private life. “Nonsense,” the stranger said, flashing her a pearly-white smile. “I would love to get to know the woman who was able to snatch this one up.” “You should come, Holly,” Matt said. “This guy saved my life. I would love for you to get to know him.” Holly stared between the two of them in surprise. It seemed she was going to be introduced to one of Matt’s military pals. “Then I’d be happy to come along,” she said, smiling politely. Matt wrapped one arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “Lead the way, Erik,” he said. Erik nodded, beaming. They followed him as he walked back the way they had come and led them to a nearby parking lot. “I’ll just have to feed the meter,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” Matt watched him go. He still sported an awed expression on his face. “So…you guys went to war together?” Holly asked. It sounded like too much of a real question to ask. It sounded raw. It sounded brutal. Just like war. “Yes,” Matt said. His eyes followed his friend’s figure. “I thought…” He trailed off again. Holly wrapped an arm around his waist in support. “You thought what?” she prompted gently. Matt swallowed visibly. “I thought he was dead.”

CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR Erik Schneider’s house was in fact a lovely cottage in the hilly area just outside the city. It stood on top of a hill overlooking the ocean, allowing for the most breathtaking view Holly had ever seen— and she had seen some special views since her journey with Matt had started. There was a small vineyard behind the house, which even in the dark revealed itself to be thriving. Inside, the cottage was just as lovely as from the outside. Spacious rooms, large windows, hardwood floors, and wooden furniture. Presently, Erik made way for them to enter the kitchen, a triumphant room with exposed brick walls painted white and marble surfaces pretty much everywhere. The whole house was exquisitely furnished, and yet it was all done in great taste. They sat at the round white wooden table in the kitchen while Erik busied himself preparing coffee. “So let me get this straight,” Matt began as he looked around with a kind of dazed expression on his face. “All this time I thought you were dead, and instead you were playing winemaker in the Californian countryside?” While his surprise was genuine, there was a grin on his face that indicated that he wasn’t really resentful. Erik flashed him a matching smirk over his shoulder as he fussed with the coffee maker. “This was my parents’ place. They bought it when they retired, in order to fulfil the dream of a lifetime. The vineyard is small, but the wine that comes from it does pretty well in the local area. They died while I was imprisoned.” He had his back to him, but Holly could see his shoulders tense up and his whole body stiffen. “I took over when I got back. I couldn’t stand the idea of this place being sold.” “I’m sorry, Erik,” Matt said quietly. “So they never knew you were alive?” “No,” Erik said. “It’s my biggest regret, not having been able to let them know I was okay.” Holly’s stomach twisted. She could only imagine what Erik must have gone through. “What did happen, Erik?” Matt asked after a few minutes of silence. “We all thought we’d lost you in the explosion.” “You almost did.” Erik finished pouring the coffee and brought a tray over. On it, he had placed the steaming mugs, along with cream and sugar. “Thank you,” Holly said. Erik nodded. He took his seat and a long sip of coffee, which he drank black, before he spoke again.

“I nearly bled out, but I was alive. Some Iraqi soldiers found me and brought me back to their camp. They nursed me back to health and then kept me as a prisoner. It was another three years before a Marine squad swarmed the place. I got lucky.” Holly almost choked on her coffee. “Lucky” wasn’t the word that had sprung to her mind. “I’m so sorry, Erik,” Matt said, his features having gone impossibly dark. “If only we had known…” “You couldn’t have known,” Erik said. “I remember the operation, it was a mess. You guys had to get out of there fast, otherwise you would have all been killed.” “We really thought you were dead,” Matt said again. “We would’ve come back for you if only we’d known…” Once again, he was unable to finish the sentence. Erik reached out to squeeze his arm reassuringly. “I know, Matt,” he said. He caught Matt’s gaze and held it, making sure his words sunk in. “I know.” Matt nodded, but the dark look did not leave his green eyes. “How long have you been back?” he asked. “A couple of years. I’ve tried to reach you, but the letter I sent to the address the Army had for you bounced back.” “Yeah, I…uh…I moved around for a bit before settling in with my sister in Texas. I didn’t stay too long there, either.” “Running, huh?” Erik gave the bitter smile of the knowing. “It never works out well, Mattie.” “Oh, I don’t know. Seems to have worked out well enough for me.” Matt smiled at Holly. She did her best not to blush in front of this stranger, but her stomach did a somersault. Six months in, Matt still gave her butterflies. Erik’s sharp blue eyes gazed between the two of them. “What’s the story here?” Matt told him. Holly filled in the blanks and tossed in a few anecdotes here and there, but for the most part she remained silent and just observed these two. There was a bond there, she could tell—and a strong one at that. And yet, for some reason, she found herself being wary of Erik. He was being very courteous, and it was clear that he cared deeply about Matt, but she still couldn’t shake the feeling that she should not let her guard down around him. “…San Francisco has won us over,” Matt was saying. “We want to start anew from here.” “Really?” Erik was smiling from ear to ear. He seemed genuinely happy for them. “Have you found a place yet?”

“Not yet,” Matt admitted. “We’re staying at a motel for now, while we look.” “Nonsense,” Erik said immediately. “You can stay here.” Holly looked at him in surprise. “Here?” “Of course. The cottage is big enough, I’ve got two spare bedrooms, one of which has a king-size bed in it.” “Are you sure we wouldn’t be imposing?” Matt asked, uncertain. “Are you kidding? Look, it’s a win-win for everybody. You could use a place to stay, and I could use some company.” “You don’t even know me,” Holly said. “Are you sure you want me to stay at your house?” Erik smiled kindly at her. “I can tell you make Matt happy. You are most welcome in my house.” Despite her best efforts and her reservations towards the man, Holly blushed. “We’ll be happy to stay with you then,” Matt said, after exchanging a look with Holly to make sure that she was on the same page. “We’ll be out of your hair as soon as possible.” Erik was already waving the words away before Matt could finish the sentence. “You can stay as long as you like. I mean it. In fact, why don’t you stay tonight? I think I have some spare toothbrushes somewhere.” Holly was about to protest, but she caught the way Matt lit up at the proposal, and she didn’t have the heart to take him away from his long lost friend. “It’s very kind of you, Erik,” she said, because it really was. “Thank you.” “It’s my pleasure.” He smiled again, and Holly’s stomach clenched in a very unpleasant way.

CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE Eventually, Holly left the two men to their much-needed catching up and went to bed. The spare bedroom they had been assigned was just as gorgeous and yet cozy as the rest of the house. There was something soothing to the way Erik’s parents had furnished their home—it was impeccably stylish, yes, but also warm and welcoming. When Holly imagined furnishing the place she would share with Matt, she imagined something like this. Despite the peace exuding from inside and outside the house—the hill was quiet, the only sound that of night cicadas and birds—Holly didn’t fall asleep. Two hours and half later (according to the alarm clock on the nightstand), she was still staring up at the darkened ceiling. Everything seemed to be working out perfectly. For once, all seemed to be going in the same direction of hers and Matt’s plans, as if the universe itself was trying to tell them they had made the right call by deciding to stay in San Francisco. They were in love. They wanted the same things. They had found a gorgeous, comfortable place to rest while they searched for a house of their own. Matt had found a brother in arms he had thought was lost to him forever, and that same man had revealed himself to be willing to be a friend to them both. Everything indicated that the wheel was finally turning and luck would finally be on their side for a change. So why couldn’t Holly be happy? Why couldn’t she bask in the brightness of the situation? Why couldn’t she sink into the embrace of those clean sheet and that snug bed and close her eyes? Every time she thought about Eric, that pang in the pit of her stomach returned. She didn’t trust him, Holly realized. No matter how warmly he smiled at her or how welcoming he appeared to be, alarm bells kept going off in Holly’s head. She couldn’t explain it. After all, the man had given her no reason to justify her mistrust of him; in fact, he had done quite the opposite. Then why couldn’t she shake this awful feeling of foreboding? She was right in the middle of yet another dead-end string of thoughts when the door opened and Matt walked in. For a moment, she debated feigning sleep, but she quickly discarded the idea; he would see right through it. “Had a good talk with your friend?” Matt froze in surprise in the dark. “You’re awake.” “Yeah.” Holly sat up in bed and leaned over to turn on the lamp on the nightstand. The room was instantly flooded with warm light. She watched as Matt stripped—it was always a glorious sight. Her gaze ran over his muscular figure,

but this time it also lingered on the military plates he wore around his neck. “It must have been quite a shock for you, finding out that he’s alive and well,” she ventured carefully. She wasn’t sure how much Matt would want to talk about it. To her surprise, he was smiling happily and looked quite open as he walked up to the bed and slid under the covers next to her. “I’m still reeling from it,” he admitted. “This whole thing, about us staying here…” Holly said after a moment, biting her lip nervously. “Are you sure it’s a good idea?” Matt arched a dark eyebrow at her. “What do you mean?” “Well, he doesn’t know me…” “So?” Matt leaned in to press a swift, reassuring kiss to her lips. “He can tell how much you mean to me. He’s happy to help us both.” Holly hesitated. Should she voice her doubts about Erik? She quickly discarded the thought. After all, what could she say? She didn’t have any actual reasons to be wary of the guy; hers was just a hunch, and Matt would not understand it—she barely understood it herself. “This is a good thing, Holly. For once, things are working out for us,” Matt said, unknowingly echoing her earlier thoughts. Holly nodded. She forced out a smile and tried her best to push all of her doubts out of her mind. This was a good thing. Perhaps she would be doing them all a favor if she ignored her paranoia and just tried to enjoy the fact that for once life was dealing them a friendly hand. She leaned in and kissed Matt thoroughly, but oddly chastely—it wasn’t a sexual kiss; it was a sweet kiss, a connection kiss. When she pulled back, she cupped his cheek with one hand. “I’m glad your friend is okay,” she said sincerely. Matt relaxed instantly. “Me too,” he said. Holly turned off the light again, and a minute later they were nestled together under the covers, Matt’s arm around her shoulders and her head on his chest. She listened to the sound of him falling asleep, and she had to wonder at just how fast that process was. Usually, even at his most relaxed, it took Matt a very long time to finally drift off into slumber. This time, he was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. Could it be Erik’s influence, Holly wondered? Could that man really mean so much to Matt that

finding him again had finally brought some peace to his troubled soul? If that were the case, maybe she had best reconsider her first impression of Erik Schneider. After all, no one who had that effect on Matt could be bad. She snuggled a little closer to Matt and tried to close her eyes and go to sleep. It didn’t quite work. It had been a very exciting evening, and no matter what she did, Holly couldn’t unplug her brain. Eventually, she gave up. She gently disentangled herself from Matt’s embrace. He didn’t stir, which was one more testament to just how peaceful he was. Holly walked out onto the room’s balcony. The view was breathtaking. This side of the house faced away from the ocean and towards the hills, which were tranquil and glorious with a full moon shining overhead. The moon was big and yellow, and Holly could look at it forever. The air was even chillier here than it was in the city, and she burrowed deeper into the robe that had been Erik’s mother’s, along with the white T-shirt and pajama pants she was wearing. It felt weird to be wearing the clothes of a dead woman. Then again, she figured it was still better than to sleep in her jeans and shirt. This place was really something else, Holly mused. She tried to picture getting a house in the countryside. It was a nice picture. To her surprise, there were children and a dog involved. She shook her head. What was she doing, thinking about kids? She wasn’t even sure Matt wanted to get married; it was a topic they had never discussed. Holly smirked as she imagined the look of utter horror on her father’s face if he were to find out that she was engaged to a jobless lost soul—at least, that’s how her father would certainly see Matt. As for Holly, all she saw was a young man with a heart of gold, smoldering looks, and far more potential that he himself even realized. She wondered if Erik had a dog. The property certainly seemed big enough to have one. She shook her head as she realized that her thoughts were rambling. She breathed in the night air for a few more minutes before she finally resorted to going back to bed. She climbed back under the covers and found Matt’s eyes watching her in the dark. “Are you okay?” he asked in a whisper. Matt always whispered whenever he spoke in the darkness, even if it was just the two of them. Holly wondered if it came from his military training and years of night stakeouts in war zones. “I’m fine,” Holly said. “Just having some trouble sleeping. It was an exciting night.” “Yeah, it was,” Matt agreed easily. He kissed her briefly. “But you should really try to get some sleep. We begin our search tomorrow, and you need to be sharp.” There was a smile in his voice, and Holly couldn’t help returning it. “All right,” she said. She kissed his cheek and turned on her side. Matt wrapped both arms around her and pressed close to her, spooning her from behind. Holly sighed in contentment, relaxing instantly; it always put her at peace with the whole wide world, Matt holding

her like that. Before long, sleep was tugging at her. Perhaps she was overreacting, she reflected as she began to drift off. She didn’t know Erik, and if facts were worth more than words, he certainly had already showed her that he could be a very loyal friend indeed, someone they could truly rely upon. And was it really any wonder that he would come off as somewhat cold and brittle? The man had spent three years in an Iraqi prison; he probably could be forgiven a few quirks. Holly burrowed closer to Matt and sighed. Tomorrow, she was sure, Erik Schneider would appear to her as the kindest, most trustworthy person on the planet.

CHAPTER THIRTY SIX It did not happen. The next morning, when they sat down for breakfast, something about Erik Schneider still put Holly on edge. Things didn’t change the morning after either, or the one after that. Now, three weeks in, things still had not changed. No matter how much Holly tried to tell herself that she was being paranoid and that there must be one hell of a good reason why Matt loved and trusted this man, she still found herself walking on eggshells around him. The same, of course, could not be said about Matt’s attitude. To say that he was overjoyed would have been an understatement. Erik had offered him a job in his vineyard, which counted few but competent and trusted personnel. Since then, Matt seemed to be reborn. There was something about working outside all day that agreed with him to the point that he seemed to walk about with a perpetual aura of radiance around him. Matt was walking on air, and as a result, they were not walking anywhere at all. Three weeks in, they had barely looked at two places in the city, and it didn’t look like the search for their own place would intensify anytime soon. Holly knew why that was. Matt was stuck in a happy rut, one that would be very hard to get him out of. Holly tried to be as lenient as possible. She knew they would have to go sooner or later, but she had never seen Matt this happy, and she was reluctant to break the spell for him based on some irrational bad feelings she had about his friend. So she tried to focus on her painting. There was one art school in particular in San Francisco that she wanted to apply to, and they of course required samples. For the time being, Holly decided to focus on creating the best ones she could and on her search for a job. She had been unable to find anything yet, but she was hopeful that something would turn up soon enough. All in all, if she put aside her feelings towards their host, she had to admit that life in the California hills wasn’t so bad at all. It was quite out here. For the first time in a very long time, she felt like she could hear herself think. When the breeze blew in from the Pacific Ocean, she could smell the salty waters on it, and it always had a rejuvenating effect on her. The nights were hotter too—not so much in terms of weather, but in what Matt did to her behind the privacy of their closed door. His renewed energy and passion made for fireworks beneath the sheets. He took her pretty much every other night, which Holly was most definitely not complaining about. He took her with his customary sweetness, but also with a rekindled love for life that she had never seen in him before. It was beautiful, and it unfailingly left her happily spent and fully sated, like there was nothing else in the world she could possibly want or need. It was after one of these intense, fiery sessions that Holly slid out of bed one night and padded downstairs to the kitchen. Matt had been explosive as a supernova that night, and her whole body was still tingling with electricity—there was simply no way she could go to sleep now. To her surprise, when she got downstairs, she saw that the kitchen’s light was already on. She briefly debated going

back to their room, but she knew Erik must have heard her approach; ex-military men tended to have very keen senses. Holly took a deep breath, tightened the belt of her robe, and walked on. Erik was sitting at the kitchen’s table, reading a book and nursing a cup of tea. Holly blinked. There was something about seeing the man lounging about in his pajamas that suddenly made him seem a lot less threatening. Then he looked up with his razor-sharp blue eyes, and that annoying feeling of foreboding came to squeeze her stomach again. “I don’t mean to intrude,” she said. “I didn’t think anyone else was up.” “You’re not intruding at all.” Erik flashed her that smile of his that would have been quite pleasant if only it didn’t give her the creeps for some unknown reason. “Please, join me.” Holly hesitated, then she walked over to the cupboard and took out a mug for herself. She poured the water, which was still hot in the kettle, and chose a bag of herbal tea to dip in. She took the steaming mug and walked over to the table, choosing a seat that was far enough from Erik to grant her personal space, but not enough to suggest that she didn’t want to be around him. “Can’t sleep?” Erik asked. Holly shrugged. “Not really, no.” A smirk appeared on his haggard face. “The boy keeps you up?” Holly felt herself blush furiously, and she hated herself for not being able to contain that reaction in front of him. Erik laughed. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. It’s just…I’m very happy for Matt. I thought about him often over these past few years. I wondered if he had finally outrun his demons.” “He’s well on his way,” Holly said. And really, he was. Over the past few months, Matt had made enormous progress—and, she had to admit, much of it was made over the past few weeks. Erik nodded. “I can tell. You’re good for him, Holly.” Holly had to smile at that. “I try to be.” Silence descended upon them, and Holly was surprised to realize that it wasn’t entirely uncomfortable…at least, until Erik began to watch her closely. She fought the urge to squirm under the intense scrutiny of his razor-sharp blue eyes. “What?” She eventually asked, trying to keep the exasperation out of her voice.

“You don’t like me very much, do you?” He didn’t seem offended. He seemed to just be stating a fact. Still, Holly felt guilty. After all, this man was giving them some huge help. In fact, Erik Schneider was the first helping hand that they had encountered in over six months. Holly suddenly felt very ashamed of her resentful feelings towards the man. “It’s not that,” she tried to amend. “I don’t really know you, that’s all. The past few months have taught me not to trust the kindness of strangers.” As she spoke, Holly realized just how true that was, and she wondered if perhaps that was really all that her mistrust of Erik’s good intentions was about. Erik nodded. “I think I can relate. But you should know, I don’t mean you any harm, if only for the fact that I would never do anything to hurt Matt.” “He said you saved his life.” Matt had not gone into details, but the gratitude was palpable in his words as he told her. There was also a dark light in his green eyes, which Holly recognized as survivor’s guilt. In that moment, she realized that she could now read Matt like a book. For some reason, that knowledge filled her with a renewed surge of affection towards the man she loved. “I did,” Erik admitted. “What happened?” Holly asked, intrigued. Erik was shaking his head even before she had finished the question. “I don’t share war stories, Holly.” Holly swallowed. Erik’s blue eyes had gone very dark, very fast. That abrupt change in his demeanor scared her. “Sorry,” she said quickly. He shrugged, dismissing the incident. Holly, however, knew she would carry that feeling of fright in the pit of her stomach for a while. She finished her tea as quickly as she could without burning her tongue and then set her mug down. “I think I’d better try to get some sleep now.” “I made you uncomfortable,” Erik said. It wasn’t a question. Holly cringed inwardly. “Yes,” she finally admitted. There was no point in lying to him. “You know, we should probably try to get along. For Matt’s sake. Perhaps we could spend some time together, get to know each other.”

Holly stared at him. It sounded like a thoughtful suggestion, but for some reason the prospect of hanging out alone with this man chilled her to the bone. “Perhaps,” she conceded warily. “We could go to the art museum.” Holly watched him in surprise. She was being ridiculous, she decided. This was Matt’s friend. This man had saved the life of the man she loved. Surely he deserved a chance? She gave him the first genuine smile since she had met him. “I would like that,” she said sincerely. “Good night, Erik.” “Goodnight, Holly.” Holly rinsed out her mug at the sink and left the room. Maybe the trouble really was that she didn’t know Erik all that well—or at all, for that matter. Maybe the key to get rid of her feeling of uneasiness towards the man was really to spend some alone time with him. Yes, she decided as she climbed back under the covers next to Matt’s sleeping form. She would give Erik Schneider a chance. After all, he had given her one by offering her a place to stay. It was only fair that she returned the favor. Holly had visited the San Francisco Museum of Art twice since coming to the city. This was the third visit for her, and it was just as magical. Erik, she discovered, was almost as passionate about art as she was, although he admittedly knew a lot less about it than she did. Still, he was eager to listen and learn, and Holly was happy to explain to him what it was that they were seeing. As the day progressed, Holly felt her feelings of uneasiness towards the man slowly dissipate. Erik Schneider was pleasant, courteous, and kind. His wit and tongue were as sharp as his blue eyes, and Holly often found herself laughing at some remark or another. It was refreshing to find out that she had been wrong about him. Currently they were sitting in the patio of the museum’s cafeteria, enjoying two lattes and the evening breeze. Holly couldn’t wait to go back to the house and tell Matt everything about the day. She couldn’t wait to tell him that she, too, was rapidly growing quite fond of his friend. “Thank you for today,” she said as she took a hearty sip of her mocha cappuccino. “It was lovely.” And she was surprised to realized that she meant every word. Erik smiled brightly at her. Underneath his scruff and the haunted look in his blue eyes, he was an attractive man. “I had a great time too.” “I was thinking we could stop and pick up some Chinese food for dinner,” Holly suggested after a moment. “Matt loves it.” “Sounds good to me.”

A far-off, distant expression had suddenly appeared on Erik’s features. Over the day, Holly had grown accustomed to his slight mood swings. He was prone to pensive moods, she had noticed. But this was different. This was dark and brooding, and it made her slightly uncomfortable. “Are you okay?” She eventually asked when minutes passed by without his saying a word. Erik looked away from the view of the luscious green garden and turned to stare at her. There was a haunted look in his blue eyes that tore at her heart. He sighed heavily. “I guess I might as well tell you.” Holly frowned, worried. “Tell me what?” “I’m moving away.” Holly blinked. Surely she’d heard him wrong? “Excuse me?” “You heard me,” Erik said. “I can’t stay here anymore. I can’t take it.” “What are you talking about? What about your parents’ vineyard?” “That’s just it,” Erik said. “I can’t…I don’t…” He took a deep, shaky breath. “I can’t stand to take care of it anymore. Everywhere I look I see a reminder of their dying thinking their son had died at war. They died thinking I had died some horrible death. Hell, maybe that’s what killed them too. Pain can do that to a person.” Holly took in Erik’s sorrow as if it were her own. He ached deeply, she could see that. “I really thought I could do it, you know,” Erik continued after a moment. “I thought I could take care of their house and their vineyards and keep the place that had meant so much to them alive and thriving. I thought I could do at least that for them. But I can’t. I can’t take it anymore. It’s too painful.” Holly bit her lip. She could see his point, but she also couldn’t imagine that abandoning his parents’ place in the hands of strangers was going to make Erik feel any better. “So you’re just going to sell it?” she asked. “I don’t mean to judge,” she added quickly when his eyes flashed. “Really, I don’t. But are you sure that turning your back on the place is going to help you?” Erik smiled. “That’s the thing,” he said. “I’m not turning my back on it. I’m going to give it to someone I trust, someone I know will care for it as lovingly as my parents did.” Holly frowned. With the exception of the few workers who took care of the vineyard, she had not seen anyone stop by the house in the three weeks that she had spent there. It didn’t look like Erik had many friends or trusted people in his life, at least not in San Francisco.

“Like who?” she asked curiously. “Like Matt. And you.” Holly stared at him in shock. She couldn’t quite wrap her mind around what he had just said. “Uh…what?” she finally spluttered. “Why not?” Erik said. “Matt has clearly fallen in love with vineyard work, and the cottage is the perfect place for an artist to work.” Holly continued to stare. Erik spoke in careless tones, like entrusting his parents’ lifelong dream into her and Matt’s hands was the most natural choice in the world. She could see how he would trust Matt, but how could he just give the place over to someone he had only met three weeks ago? “You hardly know me,” she said pointedly. “True,” Erik admitted. “But what I know is enough. I trust you, Holly. And I think it goes without saying that I trust Matt with my life. You’re looking for a place to start a life, I’m looking for a way out. Why shouldn’t we help each other?” “I…” Holly trailed off. Why, indeed? Still, she felt overwhelmed with the enormity of his gesture. “I’m speechless,” she admitted. “I don’t know what to say.” “Just say yes. Say you’re on board if Matt is.” Holly frowned. “Have you talked to him about this already?” “No,” Erik said quickly. “Not yet. I’ll do it tonight if you tell me you’re in.” Holly thought about it…and then she wondered why on Earth she was even questioning this. “Yes,” she said. “I’m in. I…God, Erik. Thank you.” Erik smiled, relieved. He reached out to squeeze her hand warmly. “No. Thank you.” Holly laughed happily as huge amounts of tension she didn’t even know she was holding suddenly whooshed out of her body. “I can’t wait to tell Matt! He’ll be thrilled.”

CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN “I can’t.” Holly blinked. She had imagined a number of different responses from Matt, but they had all been of the positive kind, and they most definitely involved a can-do kind of attitude. Erik and her had just walked through the door with a bag of Chinese food and Erik’s proposal. Holly had known the minute she had laid eyes on Matt that something was off, but she had chalked it up to tiredness from working in the vineyard—working outside was rewarding, but it could also be exhausting. Now, halfway through servings of moo shu pork and wonton dumplings, Erik had made his proposition, and Matt had said, “I can’t.” Both Erik and Holly stared at him in shocked surprise. “I don’t understand,” Erik said. Holly secretly agreed. Matt sighed. “I said, I can’t.” “But why not? I thought you liked working in the vineyard.” “I do. But I can’t take over. Not now, at least.” He hesitated. “I have to go back.” He shot a quick look at Holly, and then he swiftly looked away, avoiding eye contact. Holly’s stomach clenched accordingly. She had the feeling something horrible was going on. “Go back where?” Erik said. His blue eyes widened. “Texas?” Matt nodded guiltily. He looked down at his plate. Holly suddenly felt like throwing up. There were a million questions she wanted to ask, but it was as if though a rock had taken residence in her throat. She couldn’t get any sounds out. “What the fuck are you talking about?” Once again, Erik voiced her exact thought. “I thought you hated that place.” “I do,” Matt said. His voice had gone very soft. “Then what are you doing?”

“It’s Becky.” Holly could have kicked herself. She cursed her insecurities that, after more than six months and after all they had been through together, still led her to believe that Matt could one day just up and leave her with no warning whatsoever. Of course this was about his sister. She was the only one he would ever go back to Texas for. “What happened, Matt?” she asked apprehensively. Matt licked his lips nervously. “Joe called. She’s back in the hospital. She took a turn for the worse. She’s asking about me.” He looked up at her, and the pain shining naked and raw in his green eyes cut her like a knife. “I have to go see her.” Holly was nodding even before he had finished his sentence. She reached out across the table to grasp his hand. “Of course you do. Do you want me to come with you?” Matt shook his head. “It’s something I have to do on my own.” Holly nodded. She understood. “I’m sorry, Matt,” Erik said. “I had no idea things were so bad. I thought she was doing much better.” “She was. I don’t know what happened. I guess cancer is just unpredictable…” Matt took a shaky breath. It was clearly taking all that he had to keep himself together. “Joe called earlier today. I’ve booked a flight out for tomorrow at noon. When I get back, we can discuss your offer. Right now, however, I can’t deal with anything else. Becky needs me.” “I understand,” Erik said immediately. “Go be with your sister, we’ll wait for you.” Holly felt an inexplicable surge of annoyance at his use of the “we” pronoun. She was sure he had not meant anything by it, and yet that one little word scraped like sandpaper across her nerves and left her skin crawling. The rest of the meal was a somber affair. Matt ate way less than his usual and eventually excused himself. Holly watched as he walked out of the kitchen’s back door and disappeared outside. She sighed heavily. She was only able to let a few minutes pass by before she stood as well. “I’m going to go check on him.” The night air was humid and chilly, and Holly briefly wished she had the chance to run back into the house and grab a sweater. However, there were more pressing matters at hand. She found Matt walking amongst the green aisles of the vineyard, a lone figure with slumped shoulders and bowed head. She could feel his sorrow like a physical thing. She caught up quickly with him and took his hand. He froze and turned to look at her, and in the light cast by the full moon, Holly was shocked to see that he had been crying. She didn’t think she had ever saw him in cry in all of the almost seven

months that they had spent together. There were a thousand words she wanted to say, but even in her young age of twenty-one years, she was wise enough to know that none of them would be appropriate. So she didn’t say anything. She merely wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close. Matt’s knees buckled underneath him, and Holly followed him to the ground. The soil was moist, but she didn’t care. They sat in the light of the full moon and the shadow of the grapevines for minutes, Matt crying silently and Holly quite literally holding him together. It took a while for him to finally calm down enough that he was able to pull back and wipe his tears from his face. He gave her a tremulous, embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry,” he said, sniffling audibly. “What are you sorry about?” “Well…this,” he gestured to his tears-streaked face. “It’s not exactly manly.” Holly snorted. “I don’t buy into that bullshit,” she said vehemently. “If you need to cry, you cry, and to hell with your gender.” Matt chuckled weakly. He sat back more comfortably on the wet ground and looked up at the clear sky with its full moon and millions of stars. “It sure is beautiful out here,” he said quietly. “Yeah, it is,” Holly agreed easily, finding a comfortable position of her own. Matt cast a sideways glance at her. “What do you think of Erik’s proposal?” Holly blinked, surprised that he was willing to discuss it now. “I think it’s a great idea,” she said honestly. “What do you think?” Matt was silent for a few moments. Then he turned to look at her, and he smiled a peaceful smile despite what was currently going on in his life. “I think I really like the idea of you and me settling down here. I like imagining you painting in those rooms, and I like to imagine me working in this vineyard for a very long time to come.” Holly stared at her. She had not expected this kind of involvement or that kind of passion in his voice. “It’s a nice image,” she agreed quietly. “I love you, Holly.” Matt’s green eyes were dark in the moonlight, and they were staring impossibly deep into her own irises. Holly swallowed past the sudden rush of emotion. “I love you, too.”

He reached out to cup her nape, and he pulled her close for a long, slow kiss. He tasted like tears and promises. Holly could only hope that all those promises would be kept. “Are you going to be okay here while I’m gone?” He asked once they pulled apart. Holly smiled. “I’ll be all right. I’ll have Erik to look after me.” For some reason, that prospect didn’t fill her with as much reassurance as it probably was supposed to, but she felt like it was something Matt needed to hear. Sure enough, he relaxed visibly. “Good. I’m glad you guys are getting along.” “Yeah.” Holly wasn’t so sure. All that positive feelings she had gained towards Erik during their day at the museum had rapidly dissipated over dinner, and she had no clue whatsoever as to how or why. She dismissed those thoughts however, and she forced herself to focus on Matt. “We should go to bed now,” she said. “You’ll need to get up early tomorrow in order to get ready for your trip.” She hesitated. “Promise you’ll call me while you’re away? I know you have to, but I don’t like the idea of you going back to that place by yourself.” Matt smiled fondly. He reached out to lovingly tuck an errant strand of white-blond hair behind her ear. “I promise. I’ll call you every day.” Holly smiled, slightly relieved to know that she would be hearing from him on a steady basis. “Good. Thank you.” “You don’t have to thank me. I’ll be needing to hear your voice too.” He kissed her swiftly, then he got to his feet and held out a hand to her. Holly took it and let herself be hauled upward. Back in the house, in their room, she watched with a heavy heart as Matt packed his rucksack. She didn’t like the thought of watching him leave, even if she knew he had to go. It wasn’t just the awful circumstances that were taking him away from her to make her uncomfortable; for some reason, she also felt quite uneasy about spending an indefinite amount of time alone with Erik in the same house. She kept her doubts to herself, of course. Not only did Matt not need to hear about her paranoia at the moment, she also wouldn’t know where to begin to explain it. After all, she hardly understood it herself. How could she possibly talk about it to anyone else, especially Matt, who adored and worshipped Erik? Holly pushed all of her doubts and fears away. When Matt was done packing, they got ready for bed and slid together underneath the cool sheets and warm covers. They turned off the lights, and Holly held Matt close in the dark. She knew it would take him even longer than usual to fall asleep tonight, but she was determined to stay awake and alert until he did. She didn’t want to leave him alone even for a minute, even if it was just by drifting off to dreamland.

She stroked his nape, her fingers trailing through his tousled black hair. Slowly, gradually, she felt him relax against her. She wished she could spare him this new sorrow that had come into his life. Hadn’t the man been through enough? And just when he was finally finding some peace after years of suffering. Holly shuddered to think of what would happen to Matt if Becky did not make it. She was the only family he had left. She was his everything, long before Holly came along. She knew that if Becky lost her battle against brain cancer, Matt would be destroyed. She knew the Matt she had come to know and love would disappear, maybe for good. She knew he would lose himself, and there would be nothing she or anyone else could to bring him back. That prospect was too awful to contemplate. Holly pushed those gloomy thoughts away and tried to focus on emitting as many positive vibes as she could. From the little Matt had told her about her, Becky was a strong woman. She had survived an abusive childhood, a drug addict mother, foster homes. She had survived the never ending agony of having her brother shipped off to some of the hottest war zones on the planet, never knowing if she would hear from him from one day to the next or even see him again. Holly could not believe all of Becky’s struggles for a better life were meant to end in a hospital bed at the age of thirty-one. She just could not, would not believe it. Becky would make it, and Matt would come back to her, and everything would be all right. She tried to do what Matt had done earlier that night and picture their life in this cottage in the hills outside of San Francisco. It was a wonderful picture indeed. Holly spent the rest of the night struggling with sleep, tossing and turning even while she managed to get some shuteye, only to wake up a relatively short time later. Eventually, around five-thirty in the morning, she decided enough was enough; there was no way she was getting any rest. She checked on Matt to make sure he was sound asleep, knowing that he would need all the rest he could get now as he probably would get none later, and then she slid noiselessly out of bed. She grabbed her robe and put it on, and she padded quietly out of the room, carefully closing the door behind her. The house was silent. The sky was pink with the light of the upcoming dawn. It would have been a beautiful morning if it weren’t for what she knew the day had in store. Sighing, Holly made a quick stop to the bathroom to brush her teeth and splash her face, which always served to wake her up and make her feel human again whenever she’d had a restless night. She walked downstairs, and she was surprised to see that the door to the kitchen was ajar. Great. Erik was up. Holly didn’t like the idea of dealing with him so early in the morning, but she knew she had little choice; this was still his house, after all. She took a deep breath and walked closer, but she froze with her hand in mid-air, and she did not push the door open any further. Erik was talking to someone, probably on the phone as Holly couldn’t hear any other voices. She

didn’t know what prompted her to stay and listen rather than just turn around and leave the man to the privacy of his early morning conversations. But listen she did, and the more she overheard, the more her stomach clenched, painfully and inexplicably. “Yes, she’s here. I’ve waited because there was no way you could get to her as long as he was around. But he’s leaving today, which gives us the perfect chance.” Holly swallowed hard. Her heart was thumping furiously against her ribcage. Could Erik really be talking about her? And to whom? “No, of course she doesn’t suspect anything, I’m a professional.” Pause. “I think it’s best not to alarm her. The best course of action would be for you to just hop on a plane and come get your daughter. I’ll make sure she doesn’t leave San Francisco in the meanwhile.” Pause. “Perfect. See you in two days, Mr. Springford.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT Holly’s heart was beating a mile a minute. Her head spun. She felt dizzy and nauseated. She backed away silently from the door, and she was relieved to hear that Erik was still talking to her father by the time she reached the stairs, which meant he had not heard her and had not been alerted to her presence. He didn’t know that she knew. That gave her some small advantage, at least. She took the steps two at a time, never so glad about her habit of walking around barefooted, which gave her step a precious silent quality. Everything made sense now. She finally knew why she had never liked Erik; it was her subconscious’ way of warning her against him. She should have listened to her intuition rather than stifle her feelings of foreboding. If she had, she wouldn’t be finding herself in the lion’s den now. She had no idea how Erik knew her father or why he was helping him destroy her life, but she had no intention of stopping to ask. She had to get out of there, and she had to get out of there fast. She rushed into the bedroom, and she stopped cold when she saw that Matt was up and dressed. His rucksack was slung across his shoulder. She stared at him in shock. “What are you doing?” “I can’t wait, Holly,” he said. “I keep thinking something might happen to Becky before I get there. What if she…” He trailed off, unable to finish the thought. He shook his head. “I have to go now and catch the first plane out.” No, no, no! “Matt, wait—” “I can’t,” Matt said again. He walked up to her and kissed her quickly. “I’ll call you as soon as I land. I promise I’ll be back as soon as I can.” It’s not going to be soon enough. Holly felt panic bubble to the surface. She barely fought the urge to fall at Matt’s feet and grab on to his legs to prevent him from moving even one step away from her. “Matt, please, listen to me—” “Holly,” Matt said firmly. “I have to go.” He was beyond listening, Holly knew that. She watched helplessly as he walked out of the room and down the stairs. What was she supposed to do? Blurt out that his lifelong friend had set her up? Yes! a voice in her head screamed. That’s exactly what you should do! Do anything that’ll get you out of here!

Holly’s brain finally worked past the shock of the situation and kicked into motion. She ran after him, down the stairs and to the front door… …where she found him saying goodbye to Erik. Shit! Shitshitshitshit… Holly froze. She couldn’t say anything to him now, not with Erik standing there. Not if she didn’t want to blow what little cover she had left. Matt looked up to her. He smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry, Holly,” he said, mistaking her griefstricken expression for apprehension towards him. “I’ll be fine.” “Why don’t you let me accompany you to the airport?” she asked. “I’ll change in a heartbeat.” “That’s not necessary. Really, Holly, I appreciate it, but…I need to be by myself right now. You understand, right?” He was looking at her with wide green eyes, and Holly didn’t have the heart to say anything other than, “Of course. I understand.” He smiled. He walked past Erik and up to her, and he kissed her one more time. “I’ll call you,” he promised again. “Take good care of her, will you?” he said to Erik. The man smiled. “Of course.” They exchanged a handshake and a one-armed hug, and then, just like that, Matt was gone. Holly watched helplessly as the cab he must have called while she was downstairs having the worst eavesdropping experience of her life took him away. He turned to wave at her, and her arm felt as heavy as lead as she lifted it to wave back. Erik turned to her and gave her a smile. “He’ll be all right, Holly,” he said. “You’ll see.” It’s not him I’m worried about, you lying piece of trash, Holly thought ferociously, but of course she didn’t voice any of it. She found it chilling just how genuine Erik’s smile seemed. Then again, his pleasant ways towards her always had. She suppressed a shudder and forced out a tight smile of her own. “I hope so,” she said. “You should try to get back to sleep,” Erik said after a moment. “You look exhausted.” Holly shrugged. “I’ll be fine.” “How about some breakfast?” Holly wanted nothing more than to punch the man in the face. She wanted to yell at him, scream, hit

him with all of her strength…which, she knew, would be no match for an ex-military man such as Erik. So she did her best to keep her mask in place. “Sure,” she said, and she followed him back inside and to the kitchen. Her brain was working furiously as she busied herself with preparing the coffee while Erik handled the food. According to what she had overheard, her father was coming in two days. That gave her a little time to work on an escape plan. She knew her best bet for now was to keep a low profile and act as normally as she could, so as not to arouse any suspicions. If Erik so much as thought she might know something, she was doomed. She would lay low, she decided. She would work on escaping his and her family’s clutches. She would get out of there and out of San Francisco. She would find Matt. She would be safe again. She felt a pang of sorrow as she realized that all their dreams of starting over in California had just gone up in a puff of smoke. There was no way they could remain within the state or ever come back. She thought about Matt and his undying admiration for Erik. How would he react when Holly told him what his friend had done? He would be crushed, for sure. She sighed heavily. It was all so damn unfair. Erik turned around from where he was scrambling the eggs. “Cheer up, Holly,” he said. “I’m sure Becky will pull through. I’ve never met her, but she sounds like a tough chick.” “I’m sure you’re right,” Holly said, as casually as she could. The bastard had no idea what tough chicks were capable of. Holly was determined to make sure that he would find out soon enough.

CHAPTER THIRTY NINE Holly waited two whole days and—almost—a whole night. She knew that if she were to disappear on the very same day that Matt had left, Erik would be on her trail immediately. Instead, she waited. She went grocery shopping. She came back to the cottage. She made dinner. She made small talk. She waited for Matt’s call from Cartridge, Texas. The call never came. She would have been worried out of her mind if only she didn’t have huge troubles of her own to get out of. She snuck out of the house in the dead of the night between the first day after Matt left and the second. It was risky, she knew that. Her father was due to arrive the very next day, and by leaving now, she was giving him the advantage of being near her. But she was also gifting herself with the element of surprise. She knew for a fact Erik did not suspect her because he wasn’t keeping track of her movements at all. It was three-thirty in the morning. Everything was very, very still. Holly stoke a bike from Erik’s garage, fully knowing that a car would make way too much noise, and she carried it by hand down the trail that sneaked from the cottage around the hill. Once she was far enough from the house that it was out of view and the turning of the bicycle’s wheels could not be heard, she jumped on the saddle. She biked her way to the nearest bus stop, and she passed it by. She only hit the brakes at the third bus stop, knowing that the first one would be the place where Erik would look if he were to realize she was missing—which he hopefully would not realize until morning, but one could never be too careful. Night buses were rare to come by, but Holly had studied the schedule carefully, and she only had to wait a short five minutes until the bus showed up. It was the longest five minutes of her life. She climbed aboard and found herself a quiet seat to burrow into. She missed Matt fiercely. Her heart was pounding so loud in her ears that she had to wonder whether the other passengers could hear it. It was a forty-minute ride to San Francisco’s bus station, and as she stepped off the vehicle, she was hit with the irrational fear that Erik might have beat her and might be waiting for her, ready to drag her kicking her screaming back to her family and the arranged marriage she wanted nothing to do with. But Erik wasn’t at the bus station. Holly found a twenty-four hour diner far away from the station and waited the rest of the night out. She hit the car rental as soon as it opened. Over the past six months, she had been able to find a few jobs here and there during her wanderings with Matt. Small stuff, mostly connected to waitressing. But she had saved up a few hundred bucks, and she was able to use a good part of the sum to rent a car that she had absolutely no intention of returning. She gave a fake name and a fake ID, and she hit the road just as the sun was coming up. If circumstances were any different, Holly would have felt elated with herself. Six months on the road truly had taught her how to take care of herself, it seemed. A few months earlier, she would have been completely helpless and at the mercy of Erik and her family. Now, she had a fighting chance. If circumstances were any different, she would have felt empowered. Then again, had circumstances

been any different, she wouldn’t have found herself driving on nameless roads in a car that she had basically stolen, running for her life. She took a deep, steadying breath as panic threatened to overcome her. She tightened her hands around the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white, relishing the concrete feel of something solid between her hands. What the fuck do I do now? She really had no clue. She had bought herself a little time, but she would have to be delusional to believe that she had done any more than that. Erik would catch up. Her family would catch up. Unless she could get to Matt before they got to her. Except that Matt seemed to have gone MIA. Holly had left her cell phone at the house. Once she felt like she was far enough out of San Francisco to allow herself a break, she made a quick stop at a gas station, where she filled the car’s tank (just in case) and bought herself the breakfast of champions (bottled orange juice and a couple snickers bars) and a pre-paid cell phone that would be completely untraceable that she could get rid of whenever she felt like it. She jumped back into the car, flipped the phone open, and punched in Matt’s number—which she thankfully knew by heart—as she drove. It immediately went to voicemail. Holly cursed and did her best to keep a renewed surge of dread at bay. She knew that, without Matt’s help, she had absolutely no hope of outrunning Erik and her family for very long. Holly drove for most of the day, only stopping for brief rests when she felt like she could hardly see straight anymore. Erik must have noticed she was missing by now. She wondered if he had waited for her father to get there before he set out on her trail or if he threw himself into the chase right away. Deep down, she knew the answer; after all, as he had told her father on the phone, he was a professional. He had probably left the cottage the very instant he realized she had run. Ever since running away from her parents’ house in Lincoln, Texas, Holly had had quite a few encounters with fear. She knew dread. She knew helplessness. And yet she couldn’t remember a time when she had been as afraid as she was now. She knew that if her family caught up with her and managed to bring her back “home”—there was no way she could ever truly think of that place as home—that would be it for her. She would not get a chance to run away again. Images of her potential future life in Lincoln flashed before her eyes as she drove. She saw herself stuck taking care of a family business she could not care less about, her painting supplies lying forgotten in the attic alongside her dreams. She pictured herself married to Timothy Sutherland. Good-hearted, but plain, simple, bland Timothy Sutherland. She pictured herself raising his children. Holly did not care for motherhood. She never had any desire to become a mother, and she had yet to change her mind on the subject. The only children she could see herself mothering were Matt’s… She almost swerved off the road as the realization hit her. Having Matt’s babies and raising a family

with him didn’t seem like such a horrible idea. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more she liked the possibility. She took a steadying breath as she was hit with this new realization of just how deeply Matt had touched her. That man had done things to her nobody had ever done or would ever do. He was the one. Holly was sure of it just as she was sure that she needed air to breathe. She pulled in to a motel on a half-forgotten part of the highway. She paid for her room with cash and signed in under yet another fake name. Once inside, she went straight to the bed and collapsed face down on the mattress. She was too exhausted to move, let alone shower. She fell asleep dreaming of unanswered phone calls and unborn babies. When she woke up the next morning, it was to find a man sitting in a chair by the wall, facing the bed. Holly shot bolt upright on the mattress, her heart in her throat. Erik Schneider smiled. “Good morning, sunshine.�

CHAPTER FORTY Matt felt sick. It wasn’t just his stomach, which had been in a vice ever since he’d gotten that godawful call from Joe. It was his heart, too. He felt heartsick about leaving Holly, and he felt heartsick about leaving his sister. If anything had happened to her while he was getting here, he knew he would never forgive himself. Despite his promise to Holly to call her the minute he landed in Texas, Matt didn’t even bother to turn his cell phone back on once he stepped off the plane. He simply couldn’t stand the idea of being reachable at this time. At this time, the only person he should and could be there for was Becky. He only hoped it wouldn’t be too little, too late. He had rented a car in Austin and was now driving at breakneck speed on the interstate separating him from Cartridge and his sister. When he finally arrived at the hospital’s parking lot, he jumped out of the car almost before it had stopped running. He rushed into the building, took the elevator up to the oncology department, and all but marched up to the information desk. “Rebecca Ramirez,” he all but barked in the nurse’s face. The nurse, a pretty woman in her early thirties, jumped and blinked at him. “Excuse me?” “Rebecca Ramirez,” Matt repeated through gritted teeth. “Is she here?” “One moment,” the nurse said. She clicked around on the computer and scanned the screen with huge brown eyes behind pink-rimmed spectacles. It felt like an eternity had passed before she finally looked up at Matt again. “I’m sorry, sir. She isn’t here.” “What do you mean, she isn’t here?” Matt almost screamed. The nurse winced. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to keep your voice down,” she said urgently. Matt took a deep breath and tried to keep his mounting dread and flaring temper in check. “Look, she’s got to be here. I received a call yesterday that she had been admitted.” The nurse gave him a sympathetic look. “Let me check again,” she said, clearly more out of politeness than of any real chance that she might have missed a name. Still, she did check. And once again, she shook her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t have any Rebecca Ramirez admitted here.” “How about Rebecca Smith?” Matt said, hoping that Becky might have registered herself under her husband’s name.

Once again, the nurse checked thoroughly. And once again, her response was a negative one. “No Rebecca Smith, either. I’m sorry.” Matt was at a loss. He couldn’t have gotten the wrong hospital; Cartridge was a small town and it only had one. “I don’t understand—” “Matt?” Matt turned around so fast he almost tripped on his own two feet. Becky was standing there, right outside the door of a doctor’s office. Instead of a hospital gown, she wore a pair of blue jeans and a gray T-shirt. Her long black hair was collected in a braid that fell on the side, onto her right shoulder. Her skin was not pale, but glowing. There were no dark circles under her amber eyes. “Becky?” Matt stared at her with wide eyes. He couldn’t wrap his head around what he was seeing. He was no doctor, of course, but she didn’t look at all like a cancer patient who had taken a turn for the worse. “Oh my God!” Becky cried happily. She all but flew into her brother’s arms and held him tight. “I am so happy to see you!” Matt held her back just as strongly. He inhaled deeply, relishing the fruity smell of her freshly shampooed hair. A couple of minutes went by before they finally disentangled from each other’s embrace, but it still felt like way too soon for Matt. “What are you doing here?” Becky said. Matt blinked at her. “What do you mean, what am I doing here? I came to see you.” “Yes, okay. I meant, what are you doing at the hospital?” Matt stared at her uncomprehendingly. “Again, I came to see you.” “How did you know I had my checkup today?” “What? Your checkup?” Matt felt more and more confused with each passing minute. “I don’t understand…” “Neither do I,” Becky admitted. She led him to a row of chairs a few feet away from the reception desk and pushed him down into one of them, taking a seat next to him. “Why don’t you tell me what happened?” “I…” Matt opened and closed his mouth a few times. He didn’t get it. He really didn’t get what this was all about. Why was he here? Why had he been called here? “Joe called yesterday,” he said when

he could finally find his voice again. “He said you had taken a turn for the worse and that I needed to come quick.” Becky’s amber eyes widened. “He what?” “You…uh…you haven’t taken a turn for the worse, have you?” Matt felt like an idiot for asking. Becky arched a dark eyebrow at him. “Do I look like I’m on death’s door to you?” Matt shuddered. “God, don’t even say that…” Becky cringed and reached out to stroke his arm reassuringly. “Sorry,” she offered. “But I’m fine, really. I had my checkup today, and guess what? I’m actually in remission.” Matt looked up sharply at that. He didn’t dare to believe his ears. “Come again?” Becky was beaming. “You heard me.” “Becky, that’s so wonderful!” He enveloped his sister in yet another fierce hug. Just as he was doing so, Joe appeared through the floor’s doors. He froze when he saw Matt, and Matt froze when he saw him. He felt his gaze harden, and he pulled away slowly from Becky. She turned around to see what it was that he was looking at, and she sighed. “Joe, what have you done?” she said. Joe walked over. He was biting his bottom lip guiltily. “I had to. I’m sorry, Matt. I never wanted to lie to you, but it was the only way.” “The only way to do what?” Becky asked. “To make him come back.” Matt stood with ominous, deliberate movements. “You better have a damn good explanation for this, Joe.” Becky also got up quickly. She all but stepped in between the two men. “Not here,” she hissed under her breath. “Let’s go home.” “I’m in a rental,” Matt said, keeping his eyes trained on Joe’s features. “I’ll follow you.” Matt was fuming by the time he stepped into Becky and Joe’s house. He strode past the hallway and into the living room, and he rounded on Joe as soon as the front door had been shut behind all of them.

“What the fuck is the meaning of this?” he exploded. It was all he could do not to physically hurt the guy. In fact, it took all of his restraint not to grab the man’s collar and push him into the nearest wall. Joe had the good grace to look embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I had to do it.” “What is that supposed to mean?” “Joe, seriously,” Becky said, in a calmer but stern voice. “What possessed you?” “You,” Joe snapped. “You possessed me.” Becky blinked, taken aback. “Me?” “Yes. You. Your wellbeing.” Matt looked at his sister in utter confusion. “What’s he talking about?” Becky shook his head. “I’ve no idea.” “Aren’t you doing well?” Matt asked. “Yes.” “But she could do better,” Joe said. Becky huffed in exasperation. “Joe, I’m in remission,” she finally blurted out. “Dr. Parker told me today.” Joe stared at her. It was all too clear that he was trying to wrap his mind around what he had just heard. He let out a sob, and he marched up to his wife and kissed her passionately. Becky melted against him for a few moments, and then she gently pushed him away. “Joe, I don’t understand,” she said. “Why have you called Matt?” Joe hesitated. “Because his being away was worrying you. I didn’t want you to worry about him anymore. I was afraid that the stress might make you sick again.” Becky sighed, her tense features softening. “Oh, Joe…” She shook his head. “That was very sweet of you, but it was also very stupid. I’m fine. And Matt needs to do his own thing right now.” “Matt needs to learn how to be a brother,” Joe snapped. Becky’s eyes widened. “Joe!”

“No,” Matt said. All the anger had gone out of him as Joe’s explanation for his actions hit him like a punch in the gut. “He’s right. I’ve been selfish. It’s just…I can’t be of support to anybody if I don’t sort myself out first.” He looked at Becky, willing his sister to understand. As always, she did. She smiled gently and nodded. “I understand,” she said. “I told you when we spoke on the phone shortly after you left, Matt. I do understand.” “I don’t,” Joe admitted quietly. “But I guess I could,” he said after a moment. “I’m sorry, Matt. I panicked.” Matt nodded. “I understand,” he said, and he really did. When he thought about it, he supposed that, if roles were reversed, he might have done something very similar. “And I’m sorry.” An uncomfortable but not tense silence fell upon them. Then Becky cleared her throat. “Are you staying for a bit?” she asked. Matt nodded. “Maybe for a few days,” he said. He figured he owed them at least that. “If you’ll have me.” “Of course,” his sister said immediately. “How about we all go out for lunch and bury the hatchet?” she suggested after a moment. “I’d like that,” Joe admitted. “Matt?” Matt smiled. He didn’t always understand his brother in law, but he could tell he loved his sister with every fiber of his being—and that was more than enough for Matt to like him. “Sure,” he said. “I just need to make a phone call.” “Holly?” Becky winked. If Matt were a blusher, he would have flushed right then and there. He had written a few letters to his sister, a habit he had picked up during his time on war zones, and he had told her all about Holly. He cleared his throat in embarrassment. “Yes.” Becky grinned. “Go ahead. We’ll wait for you.” Matt nodded gruffly and disappeared into the kitchen, seeking privacy. He dug his cell phone out of his jacket and hit the speed dial for Holly. He was surprised when he got her voicemail. Could she be mad enough at him to dodge his calls? He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He could feel the beginnings of a headache coming on. “Holly, it’s me,” he spoke after the beeping tone. “I’m sorry I haven’t called when I said I would. Things have been…well, I’ve been pretty out of sorts. But everything is fine. It was a false alarm.

Becky is okay. In fact, she’s in remission.” He found himself smiling from ear to ear as he said the words; speaking them out loud made them real, and it made him giddy with happiness and relief. “I’m going to stay here for a few days, spend some time with her and Joe. Call me when you get this, all right? I’m sorry I went MIA on you.” He hesitated. “I love you. Bye.” He disconnected the call and put the phone back in his pocket with a sigh. He really had not meant to make Holly mad. It was just that he needed to deal with the situation on his own, away from the rest of the world—even from her. He hoped Holly could understand that, although he had his doubts. She wasn’t like him. She wasn’t a loner. She wasn’t used to counting only on herself. Although she had grown up a lot since he had first met her, Matt had to smile as he thought of the woman Holly had become. When he had met her, she was a scared, lonely girl running away from her rich parents. Now she was a self-confident woman going after her dreams. Matt loved the girl, but it was the woman that he had fallen in love with. Holly was irresistible, and he couldn’t wait to get back to her and the life they were just starting in San Francisco. First, however, he had celebrations to attend. The lunch was a simple but happy affair. They ate at Becky’s favorite diner. They all ate with a wolflike appetite, as if the good news had finally lifted some old tension from their bodies and their stomach had finally gotten unclenched for the first time in ages. Coming to think of it, Matt thought, that was probably the case. He filled his sister and Joe in on the new details of his life. He told them about his intention to settle down in San Francisco, and they were very happy about the prospect of having someone in California to go visit regularly. He told them about finding Erik again after he had believed his friend to be lost forever, and they all marveled at the quirky way life worked sometimes. He told them about Erik’s cottage and the vineyard, and he told them about Erik’s proposal to give it all over to him and Holly. “Are you going to say yes?” Becky asked. She was clearly trying to keep her question as neutral as possible so as not to influence his answer, but her amber eyes were sparkling with excitement. “I think so,” Matt admitted after a moment. Becky broke out into a wide, bright smile. “I think you should too.” “It certainly sounds like a great opportunity,” Joe said. “If you don’t mind me saying, you and Holly would be fools to turn it down.” Matt smiled. “I don’t mind you saying at all,” he said. “I feel the same way. Holly is very excited about the idea too.” “I don’t blame her,” Becky said. “Speaking of Holly…” Matt groaned. There was a smirk forming on his sister’s lips that he did not like at all. “What?” he

asked with a long-suffering sigh. “Are you thinking of marrying her?” Matt almost choked on the beer bottle he was taking a sip from. “What?” “I’m just saying,” Becky said, innocently, “You’re obviously madly in love with this girl, and you’re already making big plans. So, are you going to marry her?” Matt swallowed convulsively. He had not thought about that. He thought about it now, and the idea didn’t seem so bad at all. Still, he didn’t think it was time to discuss it just yet. “I don’t know,” he said cautiously. “Maybe. Someday.” “Ah.” Becky grinned. “You are so going to marry her.” Matt groaned again. Joe laughed. “Becky, leave the guy alone. He’ll ask her when he asks her.” Matt glared at him but didn’t say anything. All of a sudden, he felt like asking her right now. If only she would return his calls.

CHAPTER FORTY ONE There were many things that Holly hated, many things that annoyed her and got on her nerves or that simply rubbed her the wrong way. But being tied to a chair as Erik Schneider made a phone call to her father to tell him that he would be delivering her the next day surely topped the list. Holly watched the man with burning gray eyes. She couldn’t believe he had found her so quickly. She couldn’t believe her bad, horrible luck. And to think that she had thought her and Matt were finally on their way to finding their place in the world… Erik disconnected the call and turned to look at her. He crossed his arms over his chest and studied her carefully. “You gave me a good chase for a while there, I’ll have to admit,” he said. “Better than anyone in your position has given me in quite some time.” Holly felt her cheeks flush with anger. “So you’ve done this before?” “Oh, yes.” He sat on the edge of the bed in the motel room she had rented. “You won’t believe how many spoiled brats such as yourself feel like fleeing their golden domes, and how much the parents are willing to pay for them to be returned home.” “So that’s what you do now? Bring home runaway kids?” Holly snorted in disgust. Erik shrugged. “Don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it,” he said. “It’s good money, and I need it. Or did you think the costs of a vineyard could be sustained with an army pension?” “Your parents would be proud,” Holly taunted. Erik’s sharp blue eyes flashed dangerously, and for a moment she feared she might have made a mistake and he might strike her, but he visibly pulled himself together and reined his anger in. “Look, I don’t like this any more than you do,” he said after a moment. “But I don’t have much choice.” Holly frowned, narrowing her eyes in suspicion. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “I can’t keep a job,” Erik admitted. “My PTSD makes sure of that. I’m good at tracking down people; it’s what I did in the army. It’s what I do. I’m a tracker. So why not put that to good use?” “Good use?” Holly stared at him incredulously. “Do you know what’s going to happen to me once you deliver me back to my daddy dearest?”

“Oh, I’m sure it’ll be quite horrible for you to manage to family wealth and live your rich life, will it?” Holly clenched her jaw. She lifted her chin a fraction and impaled the man with her eyes, glad when she saw him flinch a little under her hard stare. “He’s going to marry me off to a guy named Timothy Sutherland.” Erik stared at her. “He a violent man?” “No,” Holly said after a moment. “He’s a good man,” she had to admit. “But I don’t love him.” Infuriatingly enough, Erik just shrugged. “Could be worse, then.” “I’m in love with Matt,” Holly said. “Matt, remember him? Your friend? Your ‘brother in arms’? Don’t you care about him at all?” Erik glared warningly at her. “I care about him more than you’ll ever be able to understand,” he said. “But this isn’t about him. It doesn’t concern him.” Holly stared at him. Did he really believe that? Could he really not see what it was that he was doing? Could he really not realize how bad he was hurting his friend? “‘It doesn’t concern him’?” she repeated, stunned. “In case you haven’t noticed, Matt loves me, too. We are planning a life together. You’re taking that away.” You’re taking me away. Please, don’t take me away, Holly thought desperately, but she wouldn’t be caught dead voicing those thoughts aloud. Erik shook his head. “I’m sorry, Holly,” he said. “You’re a nice girl, but I can’t just let you go. I can’t lose this money.” Holly looked at him. She could tell that he was genuinely sorry to have to do this, but the sincerity of his feelings only made her hate him all the more. “How many lives have you ruined for your precious money?” she spat. “How many dreams have you crushed just so that you could keep producing your precious wine?” “It’s not about the wine,” Erik said. “Don’t you see? It’s about my parents. I owe them. I owe it to them to make sure the place they called home keeps thriving.” Holly shook her head in disdain. “You keep telling yourself whatever you need to sleep at night, Erik,” she said, holding his gaze firmly. “You’re betraying me. Worse than that, you’re betraying Matt. See how understanding he will be when he comes back and he can’t find me, and you tell him you’ve handled me back to my father.” Erik snorted a little. He shook his head. “I’m not telling him that. He’d hate me.”

A cold sense of fear spread within Holly’s belly. “What are you going to tell him?” she asked quietly. “I’m going to tell him you’ve changed your mind and that you’ve gone back to your family.” Holly’s eyes widened. “You can’t tell him that! He’ll think I don’t love him anymore!” “And isn’t that best for everybody?” Erik said. “He’ll get over you much faster if he thinks you’ve abandoned him.” “Erik, please—” “That’s enough, Holly,” Erik snapped. “I’m going to get some sleep now, and when I wake up, we’re going back to San Francisco. Your father is meeting us there. Don’t make me gag you,” he added when he saw that she was opening her mouth to protest. “I don’t want to hear another word from you until I wake.” Holly snapped her mouth shut. She watched as Erik lay down on the mattress and turned his back to her. It was only a few minutes before he was asleep, the exhaustion from the chase having caught up with him. Holly looked around frantically for something, anything that might help her cut through the bonds, but she knew even as she cast panicked glances all over the room that she would find nothing. She tugged at the thick rope, but of course it didn’t budge. She had not expected it to, either. Erik was an exmilitary man who had served multiple tours on some of the hottest war zones on the planet. He would leave nothing to chance, and there was no way in hell his knots would be anything but iron strong. Holly sighed dejectedly and sank against the back of the hard wooden chair. She was trapped. There really was no escaping this time. She was going back to the life she had run away from. She was going to marry someone she did not love. She was going to bear his children. She was going to manage a family business she had no interest in. She was going to spend the rest of her life trapped somewhere she didn’t want to be. She was going to die in the small town of Lincoln, Texas—the same town she had done all within her power to get as far away from as possible. Tears came to blur her eyesight, and she forcefully pushed them back. Crying always gave her a splitting headache, and she knew she needed to stay sharp. She couldn’t believe this was the end of it all. She couldn’t believe she had come so far, only to be sent back now and for all of her efforts to be nullified. She stared at Erik’s sleeping form, and she felt a surge of hate so strong that it almost overwhelmed her. She had been so stupid not to voice her doubts about the man to Matt. She had been so stupid to ignore her gut feeling that told her to get far away from this man as fast as she could. She had tried to respect Matt’s feelings and to honor the friendship he shared with Erik, and look where that had gotten her—tied to a chair in a motel room in the middle of nowhere. But it was Erik’s intention not to tell Matt the truth that was really, truly killing her. She couldn’t think

of anything worse than Matt believing she had willingly turned her back on him. Pretty much everyone had walked out on Matt at some point or another, from his heroin addict mother to the father who had abandoned him, to the brother who had killed himself with an overdose. Holly hated the thought of Matt adding her to that list. The list of people who had left him behind. Holly tugged some more on the ropes, in an attempt that she knew would be vain. She could not believe this was really happening to her. It felt surreal, like something out of a bad novel. Instead, it was real life. She was really going to be shipped back to her father like she was nothing more than a parcel. It certainly felt like everyone thought she had the same will, too. Her father surely didn’t seem to think like whatever she might think or feel mattered squat. Holly sat in that chair in the motel room, and she despaired. This was it. It was really over. She would never see Matt again. From then on, she would wake up next to a man she knew she could never learn to love. *** Erik emerged from the fogs of sleep about three hours later. He sat bolt upright in bed, his skin clammy with the cold sweat brought on by nightmares. His sharp blue eyes had a dull look to them as he looked around the room with a lost expression on his face. Finally, after a few moments, he seemed to get his bearings back. He stared at Holly, who was watching him quietly from her chair. If he were at all embarrassed that she had witnessed his vulnerability, he didn’t show it. He ran a hand across his face and stood. He disappeared into the bathroom, and when he emerged a few minutes later, he was as cool and confident as always. “Let’s go, princess,” he said. He walked up to her and cut through the ropes with an army knife he kept in his boot. Instinctively, Holly lashed out. Her punch connected with the man’s chin, making his head snap back, and she launched herself out of the chair and made a mad dash for the door. She had not taken three steps when she was knocked out from behind. She crashed to the floor, and everything was a blur as Erik bent down to grab her arm and hauled her up harshly. Things spun for a moment, and she didn’t have time to get her bearings back before the back of his hand collided with her cheek. Holly’s head snapped to the side and a burning pain flared up all over her face and head. It was a few moments before her ears stopped ringing. She could taste blood on her tongue from where the slap had split her lip. “Don’t you ever do that again,” Erik growled in her face. “I don’t take kindly to tricks. Is that understood?” There was a wild light in his blue eyes, and Holly was suddenly very afraid. Unable to speak, she nodded vehemently.

“Good.” Erik tugged roughly at her arm and manhandled her out of the room and to his car, a beat-up ’94 Cherokee jeep. “Get in.” He pushed her into the passenger seat and secured her seat belt. “If you run, I won’t be so gentle. Got it?” Again, Holly nodded. Her heart was slamming so hard against her ribcage that it actually hurt. Erik climbed in behind the wheel and took off. Holly watched as the landscape sped by the dirty windows of the car. She felt as helpless as she had never felt before in her life. She wanted to cry, but she still had enough pride that she refused to do it in front of him, the man who was taking her life away from her before it even got the chance to start. She swallowed past the lump in her throat. Her voice was weak when she spoke, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that it was loud enough to be heard, and it was. “Matt will figure it out eventually, you know?” she said. “Maybe not right away. Maybe not after a month, or even a year. But he will, and he’ll hate you forever.” “I don’t think so,” Erik said after a moment. “In fact, I think Matt will thank me.” Holly frowned. This guy was a madman. She didn’t say anything and continued to stare out the window… …And that was when she realized, they were not going to San Francisco. In fact, they were continuing on in the same direction she had been running. She turned her head sharply to look at Erik. “Where are you taking me?” she asked, her voice cracking with fear. Just what on Earth was going on now? Erik didn’t look away from the empty road ahead as he replied, “I’m taking you to the nearest airport.” Holly stared at him. “I don’t understand. I thought my father was meeting us in San Francisco?” “I’m afraid your father will only meet me.” Holly continued to stare, uncomprehendingly. Erik sighed. “The minute I slapped you, I saw myself. I mean, I really saw myself. And I didn’t recognize me. This isn’t me. My parents did not raise me this way, to hit women and kidnap kids who are looking to do something with their lives.” Holly’s heart leapt to her throat. She did not dare to hope, and yet… “Are you saying…?” She licked her lips nervously. “What are you saying?” “I’m saying I’m sorry, Holly.” Erik turned to look at her, then. His sharp eyes were dulled by pain and

remorse. “I’m so, so sorry. I was lost there for a while, I guess I still am. But no more. I’m not doing this anymore.” “So you’re…?” “I’m taking you to the nearest airport,” Erik said again. “You’re going to hop on the first flight to Austin. Then you’re going to take the first bus out and you’re going to Cartridge. You’re going to find Matt, and you’re not going to ever leave him. Got it?” Holly felt her blood rush to her head in excitement and incredulity. “You’re not fucking with me, are you?” she said. Erik laughed. “No,” he said. “I’m not ‘fucking’ with you.” Holly hesitated. “What are you going to do with my father?” “You let me handle him. I’ll buy you some time. But I’m afraid there’ll be others after me.” Holly nodded. “I figured as much. I’ll manage.” Somehow. Truth was, she had absolutely no idea how to convince her father to just let her be. But that was an issue she could deal with later. Right now, all that mattered was that she was on her way to see Matt. And she would never, ever leave him.

CHAPTER FORTY TWO Holly drove like a maniac. She heard more than a few honks on her way, and it was probably a wonder no police car stopped her and forced her to pull over, but she couldn’t help it. She couldn’t wait to get to Matt and put the events of the past forty-eight hours behind her. She still couldn’t believe her luck. She had no idea what had possessed Erik to change his mind and set her free. She didn’t even know what had possessed him to do what he had had done in the first place. She knew he was desperate, but to betray Matt’s trust like that… Oh God, Matt. She would have to be the one to tell him that one of the people he trusted most in the world had kidnapped his girlfriend and almost shipped her back to her parents to be married off to someone else. She would have to be the one to tell him that the man he considered a brother had almost destroyed his happiness. Willingly. Holly shuddered at the thought. She thought about Matt’s sister. She wondered how she was doing. She hoped it wasn’t as bad as it had sounded. She didn’t think she would be able to hold Matt together if Becky died. Thoughts ran around in circles in Holly’s head. She didn’t know what to do. She knew Erik was right; her father would hire someone else to find her sooner or later, perhaps he had already done it. That someone would find her, just like Erik had. Her father only hired the best professionals around; she knew that. What would Holly do then? How could she escape? She took a deep, calming breath. She couldn’t think along those lines, not now. Before he had left, Matt had given her his sister’s address in Cartridge, “just in case”. Holly was grateful beyond words for that little big blessing. She found the place without difficulty, a modest but cozy, pretty house with a white picket fence outside, not far from the downtown area of the small Texas town. She pulled in and stopped the car, and she took a few steadying breaths before she climbed out of the vehicle and covered the distance that separated her from the front door. She rang the doorbell and waited. She didn’t like the idea of dropping by unannounced, particularly at a time like this, but she had no choice. She was beginning to think she should maybe have gone to the hospital and no one was home, when the door finally opened. Matt stood in the doorway and stared at her in disbelief. “Holly?” Holly was so overwhelmed with emotion that she didn’t say anything. Instead, she threw herself into

his arms and held on for dear life. Matt stiffened in surprise for a moment, but then she felt him hug her back. Eventually, he gently pushed her away and scanned her face worriedly. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “Has something happened?” Holly let out a laugh that bordered on the hysterical. Now that she was finally safe, she found that all of the adrenaline was rushing out of her body. “You don’t know the half of it.” His eyes caught the bruise around her mouth. He reached out to gently run his thumb across the cut on her bottom lip. “What happened here?” Holly had not intended to start crying, but it was exactly what she did. Out of the blue, she found herself sobbing. Alarmed, Matt ushered her inside. “I’m so sorry,” Holly gasped out between sobs. “I didn’t mean to be such a mess…” “Shhh.” Matt wrapped an arm around her shoulders and led her to the living room, where he gently had her sit down on the couch. He took a seat next to her and held her until the tears passed. Eventually, Holly was finally calm enough to pull away from him. She wiped at her face hastily and gladly accepted the tissue box he was offering. She blew her nose noisily, uncaring of how unattractive that probably was. In fact, she felt too emotional to care much about anything at all, let alone appearances. Shakily, she told him about everything that had happened. She told him about what she had overheard in the kitchen, when Erik was talking to her father on the phone. She told him about her running away and Erik tracking her down. She told him about Erik’s betrayal and his later change of heart. “I’m sorry I came here,” she said when the tale was finally finished. “I just didn’t know where else to go.” “Sorry?” Matt said, incredulous. “Don’t be sorry. Fuck, I’m sorry. I should’ve listened to you the morning I left, when you were trying to tell me. And I shouldn’t have turned my phone off. I just… fuck.” He ran a hand through his tousled black hair. “I needed time on my own to deal with Becky. If only I had known…” “You couldn’t have known,” Holly said gently. “How could you have known?” Matt sighed. “I’m so sorry, Holly,” he said again. “I’m so glad you’re safe.” He pulled her to her and held her tight. Holly melted into his embrace. “How’s your sister?” she asked after a few minutes of blissful silence and physical contact.

“Oh.” Matt pushed her away just enough to stare into her eyes. He had the biggest smile on his face. “She’s doing great. She’s in remission.” Holly blinked. “What? I mean, I’m so happy to hear she’s okay, but…what?” Matt laughed. “I know.” He told her his own tale about Joe’s little deceit. “Well, that was a very dumb thing of him to do,” Holly said honestly. Matt smiled. “It was. But what matters is that she’s fine. And that you’re all right. I…” He trailed off. A lost expression bloomed on his handsome features. “Fuck, Holly. I can’t believe Erik would ever do such a thing.” Holly cringed. She couldn’t imagine what Matt was feeling, finding out that a man he thought of as a brother would ever hurt him like that. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” she said, because it really didn’t. “What matters is that he’s come to his senses.” Matt nodded numbly. “I guess you’re right. It’s just…I thought I could trust him.” “I’m sorry,” Holly said, reaching out to stroke his thigh in support. Matt looked up at her. He pulled her close again and kissed her passionately, with the passion of one who had come very close to losing the person he loved most. When he pulled away, his green eyes had darkened of that dangerous, delicious light that always made her shiver. “Let me make love to you, Holly,” he said. Holly blinked. “Here?” she said, despite the fact that all of her instincts screamed at her to lay Matt flat on the nearest horizontal surface. “In your sister’s house?” She looked around as if though she expected Becky and her husband to pop out from behind the couch. “They’re out,” Matt said, reading her thoughts. “They won’t be home for a couple of hours.” “Oh.” Holly relaxed instantly. “Well, in that case…” She grinned and fisted the front of his T-shirt, pulling him in for yet another hungry kiss. They kissed for a long time, barely breaking away to breathe. They kissed while they all but tore the clothes off of each other, and they kissed while they lay naked on the couch. Matt’s kisses were the most powerful aphrodisiac Holly knew of.

They kissed and touched each other like there was no tomorrow, both of them painfully aware and conscious of the fact that their tomorrow had come very close to being extinguished. Holly’s fingertips traveled along the well-defined lines of Matt’s muscles, committing every inch of gloriously naked skin to memory. She stroked his powerful erection, teasing him. He groaned in response. “Shall I…?” she smirked against his hear, biting at his lobe. Matt moaned. “God, yes…” he gasped. “Yes, please.” Holly didn’t need to be told twice. Blowing Matt was one of her most secret, most guilty, most delicious pleasures. She felt him shiver in anticipation, and she gently pushed him to lie down on the couch. As always when she did this, she felt a surge of empowerment at knowing she was in full charge of the situation and he was at her complete mercy. She leaned down and began to trace a scalding pattern down his naked chest. She felt her heart beat fast and furious with anticipation of her own. She could already taste Matt in her mouth, could already hear his moans. She could already fell him tense up underneath her scorching touch. She could already see his fists curl around the fabric of the couch’s cushions until his knuckles turned white. She could already— “Uh…what exactly is going on here?” Oh God! Holly jumped off Matt so fast that she almost fell off the couch, and only his prompt grasping of her arm to stop her momentum prevented that from happening. Two figures that she could only identify as Matt’s sister and Matt’s brother in law stood just inside the room, watching them in disbelief. Holly scrambled for her clothes and covered herself up as best as she could, given the circumstances. She burrowed into the cushions, fervently wishing that the couch would just open up and swallow her forever. She had never seen Matt blush once in the seven months that she had known him, but his cheeks were scarlet as he stood and picked up his clothes and dressed himself up quickly. Holly, on her part, was too petrified to move. She sat on the couch, her T-shirt spread out over her to cover herself up, her legs tucked firmly underneath her buttocks. She was only glad that she had yet to take her panties off. It was a small mercy, but it still provided her with some extra cover-up. “Matt, I can’t fucking believe you!” the woman who was presumably Becky exploded. Matt had the good grace to look mortified. “I’m sorry, Becks,” he stammered. “I just—” “You are such an asshole!” his sister shrieked. “What about Holly?”

Holly blinked in surprise. And here she thought the woman was furious because she had caught her brother have sex with a perfect stranger on her couch. Instead, she was indignant on her behalf. If she weren’t half naked, Holly would have gotten up and hugged her. “Becks, this is Holly,” Matt said. “What?” his sister barked. Her beautiful, flaming amber eyes shifted over to the couch where Holly still sat. Her husband was also staring at the strange woman in his living room. Holly swallowed hard and lifted a hand, waving timidly. “Hi.” To her utter amazement, the two burst out laughing.

CHAPTER FORTY THREE Getting over the embarrassment of being caught having sex in Matt’s sister’s house wasn’t easy, but once Holly eventually managed, she discovered that Becky was one of the best persons she had ever met. They immediately got along, and she was surprised to find that they had many interests in common. For example, Becky was an artist. She taught English and Art in high school, and her drawings were in a style that Holly immediately fell in love with. When Becky insisted that she also drew something to show her, Holly was reluctant. She didn’t feel like she could compete. But eventually she got over her insecurities and created a drawing, and she was surprised that Becky was as awed by her work as Holly was by hers. Joe was also a person worthy of admiration, Holly decided. She mistrusted him at first, due to the way he had played with Matt’s strong feelings for his sister and tricked him into rushing back to Texas, but the more she got to know him, the more she realized that all of Joe’s actions were dictated by love. Therefore, one couldn’t really fault him for any of them, no matter how stupid or absurd they may seem. Joe was a simple, loyal man with a kind sense of humor, and soon Holly was charmed. She spent a lovely couple of days in Cartridge with Matt and his small but oh-so impressive family. She had such a great time that she finally, truly relaxed for the first time in six months, so much so that there were times when she even stopped thinking about her father and the stunt he had pulled—and that he was likely to pull again. The thought entered her mind one night, as she sat on the porch with Matt. The house’s backyard was tidy and tranquil. It was a clear night, and there were a million stars in the Texas sky. It would have been a perfect moment if not for the nasty thought that hit her. Matt picked up on her shift immediately. “What is it?” he asked, reaching out to take her hand and stroke his thumb reassuringly along the inside of her wrist. Holly sighed. “I was just thinking about my father.” Matt grimaced. “Don’t,” he said. “He’s got no place here.” “Maybe,” Holly conceded. “But it’s an issue I’ll have to deal with, probably sooner rather than later. Erik was right; there’ll be others after him, and chances are they won’t get a case of guilty conscience right before they get the job done” Matt winced visibly. “Holly, don’t say that,” he said, gently but firmly. “I don’t like to think of the

possibility.” “Neither do I,” Holly admitted. “But we have to. It’s a very real possibility. You know that. My father won’t stop until he gets me back and marries me off to the Sutherland boy.” “Then marry me.” Holly looked sharply over at Matt. Surely she’d heard him wrong? “Excuse me?” she said, appalled. “Yeah. You heard me.” Matt sat up straighter and squeezed her hand. “Marry me. That way, your father will be rendered powerless. He can’t have you marry someone while you’re married with someone else, and if you’re not married to the one he sees fit to run his fortune, you’re also not fit to run the family business.” He was grinning like a maniac, or like a man who’d just had the most brilliant idea of all time—which were really the same person. “It’s perfect.” Holly slowly pulled her hand away. She stared at him. “Are you out of your mind?” Matt’s face fell. “I…I thought you’d be happy about me asking…” He trailed off, lost. “Not if the reason why you’re doing it is just so my father won’t bother us anymore. I don’t want to get married like this.” Matt’s features regained some color, and his eyes sparkled with renewed hope. “But if the reason was another…?” Holly stared at him. “Matt, what are you saying?” Matt took a deep breath. “I’m saying I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Don’t you?” “I…” Holly was speechless. Her head was spinning. This was all happening too fast. She couldn’t wrap her head around it. Matt left the swing’s seat and knelt down at her feet. She watched him, paralyzed. “Holly Springford,” he said, “will you marry me?” Holly stared. Her brain had short-circuited on her. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing and hearing. And then her brain finally began to communicate with her tongue again, and she was able to string words and sentences together. “Matt,” she began carefully, “are you sure about this?” He didn’t waver as he stared deep into her eyes from his kneeling position. “I’m sure,” he said firmly. “Will you marry me?” he asked again.

Holly felt a wave of relief and love so overwhelming that she almost fell down, and she was never so happy that she was sitting down. “Yes,” she breathed, her heard hammering within her chest. “Yes, Matt Ramirez. I will marry you.” She let out a surprised yelp when he grabbed her by the hand and pulled her down onto his lap. He kissed her passionately, and it was as if time had stopped for them. Holly clung to him and kissed him back with the same passion, feeling like she was walking on air. When they finally pulled apart, it wasn’t just lack of oxygen that forced her to breathe heavily. Her emotions felt just too strong to contain. “I…oh, God,” she choked out. She did her best to push back the happy tears that sprang to her eyes. “Matt…what are we going to do?” “What do you mean, ‘what are we going to do’?” he repeated, grinning from ear to ear. “We’re going to get married. And fast, before your father sweeps in with a freaking SWAT team.” Holly couldn’t help it. She laughed. She had never been giddier in her life.

CHAPTER FORTY FOUR To say that the wedding was a small affair would have been a huge understatement. The only people present were Becky, Joe, and the vicar, a kindly elderly man from the local parish. Holly wouldn’t have had it any other way. She didn’t care about anything that wasn’t becoming Matt’s wife. She didn’t care about anything that didn’t involve making this incredible man the promise to love and cherish him for the rest of her life. It all felt surreal in the most positive of ways. Holly had never once thought she could ever get to know such happiness. She felt as though she might burst from it at any given moment. The rings were also simple—two plain silver bangs. It was the most beautiful piece of jewelry Holly ever remembered possessing. They all went out to celebrate that night. It was a nice restaurant, with a large patio set up in a field of wild grass. It was rustic and beautiful and unexpected. Just like Matt. Holly still could not believe her luck. She still could not believe she had met someone like him. She still could not believe he had fallen for her just as fast and hard and helpless as she had fallen for him. “I love you, you know that?” he whispered in her ear later that night, when they were laying in bed in the spare bedroom. Holly grinned in the dark. “I should hope so, you’ve married me.” Matt laughed. He made love to her that night, and it was unlike anything else he had ever done and they had ever shared. It was passionate and tender, and it tasted and felt like promises. The whole day felt like a promise, and Holly would do everything within her power to make sure those promises were kept on both ends. “I’m going to make sure I never break your heart,” she whispered when they were laying naked and sated underneath the sheets. Matt held her closer still. “I trust you with it.” Holly swallowed against the sudden lump those beautiful words brought to her throat. She burrowed closer to him, as close as humanly possible. Her husband. It still felt too good to be true. “I want to call my parents tomorrow,” she said out of the blue. She decided it the minute she said it. It felt like the most sensible thing to do. Matt tensed up against her. “Why?” he asked carefully. “I want to tell them what we did today. I want to tell my father that all his little schemes amounted to

nothing.” “Oh.” She could hear the smile in Matt’s voice. “I’m on board with them.” Holly hesitated. “I also want to tell them they still have a chance to get their daughter back.” Predictably, the tension came back to Matt’s body at record speed. “Now, that I’m not sure I’m so happy about.” “They’re still my parents, Matt,” Holly said. “I know it must sound crazy to you know, but I still want them in my life. But in order for that to happen, they’re going to have to change their views. They’re going to have to accept me for what I am. They’re going to have to accept me.” Matt was silent for a few moments. “Do you really see that happening?” he asked after a moment, his voice cautious and his words careful. “No,” Holly admitted. “Not right now. But maybe someday. I want them to at least know that the door is open, and that it’s up to them to walk through.” Matt sighed. It was all too clear that he did not agree with this in the least, but to his credit he didn’t say anything against it either. “Whatever you think is best, Holly,” he said, kissing the top of her head lovingly. “Just be careful, all right? I don’t trust your dad.” Holly chuckled in the darkness. “Believe me, I don’t trust him either. But you’ve said it yourself, now that we’re married, what can he do?” “I don’t know,” Matt admitted. “But I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that he still has some aces up his sleeve.” Holly shuddered. “God, I hope not.” Matt squeezed her tight in reply. It wasn’t long before his breath evened out and he was asleep. Holly turned onto her back and stared up at the darkened ceiling. It had been a crazy few days. So much had happened, she could barely keep track of it all. She couldn’t help thinking about Erik. She wondered where he was now. She wondered what had caused his abrupt change of heart. She wondered what had led him to do what he had done in the first place. Desperation, most likely. He had shown his true colors to her, and she had seen a very desperate, very lonely man. She felt sorry for him. She could tell he had been a good man once, and she hoped he could find his peace again. Holly certainly had found hers. She turned her head to spy Matt’s sleeping features in the darkness,

and she smiled. How had she gotten so lucky?

CHAPTER FORTY FIVE Holly had to try three times before she was finally able to get a hold of someone on the other end of the line. Every time she hung up and had to dial the number again, she almost didn’t do it. Eventually, however, she always managed to muster up enough courage to go through with it. Her father finally picked up on the fifth ring of the third attempt. “This is Harry Springford,” he all but growled into the phone. It was clear that he wasn’t happy, which gave Holly a pang of satisfaction that made her feel instantly guilty. “Dad, it’s me.” There was a beat of silence on the other end of the line. “Holly?” “Yes.” “Holly! Where are you? Are you okay?” Holly almost snorted out loud. “Funny you should ask,” she said icily, “considering that you sent a fucking mercenary on my trail.” “Young lady, I do not appreciate that language!” her father snapped. “And I don’t appreciate being hunted down like a dog!” Holly snapped back. She took a deep, steadying breath. She couldn’t afford to lose her temper now; it would accomplish nothing, and she meant to indeed accomplish something. “Is mom there?” Her father hesitated. “She’s entertaining.” “Get her.” “Holly, I can’t just pull her away from—” “Get.her.” Something in her voice must have gotten her father’s attention, because after a moment’s hesitation Harry said, “Very well. Hold on.” Holly did. She held on to her emotions with an iron grip, fully knowing that she had to be rational for

this. A good ten minutes later, her father finally came back on the line. “We’re both here,” he said. “You’re on speaker.” “Good.” “Holly?” her mother’s voice. “Holly, is that you?” “It’s me, mother.” “Oh my God! Are you okay?” Holly was barely able to refrain from rolling her eyes. And then she remembered that they couldn’t see her, so she rolled away. “Spare me,” she said. “Mom, Dad, this has got to stop,” she began. “I can’t believe you would have a professional chasing me down.” “We didn’t know what else to do,” Eleanor Springford said. “You had gone completely off the grid. We didn’t know how to find you.” “You weren’t supposed to find me,” Holly said. “That was the whole point. I need to make a life for myself away from you. Away from your plans for me.” “Holly, this is ridiculous,” Harry Springford exploded. “You’re our daughter—” “Am I?” Holly cut him off firmly. “Because you certainly haven’t treated me as such in the past seven months, Dad.” That finally shut them up. Good, Holly thought, satisfied. “Look,” she said, “despite everything, I still love you. You’re still my parents, and you have given me all that you could. I still want you in my life,” she admitted, echoing the sentiments she had expressed to Matt the night before. “But not like this. Never like this. If you want me to still be your daughter, you need to start respecting me and accepting me for who I am. You need to accept me and my choices.” “Such as…?” Harry Springford asked cautiously after a moment. The hesitation in her father’s voice filled Holly with hope. Perhaps they still loved her too. Perhaps they were willing to work on this too. Perhaps they also wanted to be a part of her life after all. “Well, the first thing you should know is that I got married.”

It was a brutal way to deliver the news, she knew that, but she also knew there would be no point in tiptoeing around it. There was a stunned silence from the other end of the line. It went on for what felt like an eternity. “You what?” her father finally said in a shocked whisper. “You heard me.” “Holly…to whom?” Eleanor Springford asked in a murmure as appalled as her husband’s. “His name is Matthew Ramirez. He’s an ex-army man. He served five tours, three in Iraq, two in Afghanistan.” “And what does Mr. Ramirez do now?” Harry Springford asked. “He’s currently looking for a job.” Holly would have wanted nothing more than to tell them that Matt worked in a vineyard in California, but that had been shot to hell. She heard her mother’s choked gasp and her father’s muttered curse. “Holly, be serious,” Eleanor said. “If you’re trying to give us a heart attack, this isn’t funny, missy,” Harry Springford said. “This is not a joke, Dad,” Holly said. “I married Matt yesterday. He loves me, and I love him. He makes me very happy. I would like for you to meet him someday, when you can get past whatever it is that makes it impossible for you to approve of me having a life of my own.” “Holly, please, think about this,” her mother pleaded with her. “I don’t need to think about it, Mom,” Holly said. “We’re in love. He asked me to marry him. I said yes. That’s final.” “Fine,” Harry Springford said after a few moments, and that one little word shocked Holly to no end. “Suppose we approve of this. Suppose we’re happy for you. What are your plans now? What are you going to do?” “I don’t know,” Holly admitted. “The plan was to settle down in San Francisco, but now you’ve gone and fucked that up for us.” Eleanor gasped audibly. “Holly!” she cried. “Language!” “Mother, I’m so way past good matters that it’s not even funny.” She sighed. “Think about this, please.

Think about the chance of coming to your senses and realize you have a daughter, if you’ll have her. I’ll fax you my phone number so you’ll know how to reach me should you ever come off your high horse.” She hesitated. “I love you both.” She disconnected the call before they could say anything else. Holly slumped against the back of the couch in Becky and Joe’s living room and sighed heavily. After that phone call, she felt utterly drained. At least she had gotten her point across. Now the ball was in her parents’ court. She could only hope they would pick it up. She looked up when she heard footsteps. Matt entered the room and went to sit down next to her. “How did it go?” he asked. Holly shrugged. “I have no idea,” she admitted. “I said my piece, at least. I can’t do anything else.” “You’ve done more than enough, if you ask me,” Matt muttered. Holly arched a warning eyebrow at him. “Sorry,” he mumbled. He leaned in and kissed her, briefly but thoroughly. “Something came for us,” he said, holding up an opened brown parcel. “What is it?” Holly asked, intrigued. “It’s a letter,” Matt said. “From Erik.” Holly winced. No matter the fact that he had changed his mind and saved her in the end, she still couldn’t hear Erik’s name without feeling a surge of resentment towards the man that bordered dangerously on hate “What does he want?” she said. Matt shrugged. “I don’t know. I haven’t read it yet. Would you like to read it with me?” Holly hesitated. She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear anything Erik had to say; after all, did he deserve to be heard out? He probably didn’t, but, she realized, Matt needed to do it, and as far as she concerned, Matt deserved to have everything he needed. She sighed and nodded. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s read it.” In the letter, Erik apologized profusely. He said pretty much what he had said to her, which was that he had been a very desperate man who had lost his way, and that he didn’t know where was up and where was down anymore.

Erik wrote that there were no excuses for what he had done, and Holly had to agree wholeheartedly with him. He wrote about his PTSD, and he wrote about his time as a war prisoner. It was the first even Matt heard of it. They had known about it, of course; Erik had told them as much when they had met him underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, but he had never gone into details even with Matt. It was a hard read. Those were raw, hard words to hear, even from a sheet of paper. There was so much dread, pain, and suffering in them that Holly almost had to stop reading, but she braved the tale and read on. There was horror in Erik’s words, such as she couldn’t even begin to imagine and that even Matt realized and admitted he had only known a glimpse of. By the time the sordid tale was done, Holly had to consider that it was a wonder Erik was so welladjusted after all. It was a wonder he had any conscience left. It was a wonder he had any bits of himself left. Erik wrote that his demons were too big for him to fight. He wrote that he had tried to seek help, but that in the end he always ended up running. Relieving everything was too painful, and yet it was a necessary step for any trained specialist to truly be able to help him. But he couldn’t do it, no matter how many times or how hard he tried. He couldn’t bring himself to talk about it. He wrote that even putting those few and yet very vivid details down on paper for Matt and Holly’s eyes was excruciating. Holly had no trouble believing him. She found herself almost admiring him, for having kept his humanity through all of this. She wished she could help him, but she knew he was well beyond her help—or anyone else’s, for that matter. She knew that until Erik was ready to help himself, no one else would be able to do anything for him. Not really. Erik wrote that he knew about them getting married, and that they shouldn’t be surprised that he knew, because it was his job to keep track. Holly suppressed a shudder at those words, but she knew they were meant to be kind and not as creepy as they ended up coming across. Erik wrote that he was deliriously happy for them. He wrote that he couldn’t imagine Matt ending up with anyone better suited for him. He wrote that he would always sleep soundly knowing that his brother in arms was in the good care of someone as special as Holly. Holly felt oddly touched by those declarations. Erik wrote that he was moving away and leaving California. He wrote that maybe he would even leave the States. He wrote that he wanted his parents’ house and vineyard to continue to thrive and know life amongst their walls and green aisles. He wrote that he wanted them to carry on the dream. Holly and Matt exchanged bewildered looks. Erik wrote that he had enclosed the deeds to the house and the land, and that they were theirs if they so much as wished. All they needed to do was to show up at a meeting he had already set up with a trusted notary that following Monday, and put their signatures where it was required of them. He wrote that they would have a home and place to start their life together if they so wished.

Erik wrote that he loved them and that he was sorry. He wrote not to worry about him. He wrote that he would be all right in the end. When they finished reading, they both had tears in their eyes—even Holly, despite all of her hard feelings towards the man, which she found had dissipated by the time she reached the last line of the letter. Matt pulled the deeds out of the envelope. “It’s all here,” he said, leafing through them. “It’s like he said.” He stared at her in disbelief. “What do you want to do?” Holly licked her lips. “I…” She thought about it for a minute or two, but the truth was that she didn’t really need to. “I think I want to go back,” she said. “I think I want to start that life we had imagined with you.” She looked into Matt’s green eyes. “What do you think?” Matt smiled. “I think I want the same.” He kissed her then. He tasted like renewed dreams and rekindled hope.

EPILOGUE The California sun beat down on the flourishing vineyard. The vines’ branches were heavy with fruit that would have to be picked and transformed into the wine whose fame had gone past the local borders and spread throughout California, and even reached a few States beyond. The vineyard wasn’t the only thing to be thriving. Holly was, too. She was thriving within her new life which had turned out to be so much more amazing than she had ever imagined. Presently, she was finishing setting up the long table in the patio. Dishes were neatly arranged, and a delicious meal was waiting to be served, the alluring smell drifting out from the open French doors of the kitchen. She looked up as a high-pitched squeal caught her attention. “Erik!” Holly called out. “Stop running around! Go wash up, it’s almost time for dinner!” The three-year old froze mid-run in the green grass of the backyard, coming to a halt so suddenly that Becky, who had been chasing him, almost slammed into him. The practiced aunt was only able to avoid disaster by sweeping the child up in her arms, which elicited more delighted giggles. “You’ve heard your mother, young man. Let’s go wash up!” Becky cried. She winked at Holly as she walked by with a still-laughing child in her arms. Holly smiled fondly. Without thinking, she reached down to place a hand upon her pregnant belly. Not long now, she thought in excitement and trepidation. According to the doctors, she only had about five more weeks to go. They had told her it would be a girl this time. After some debating, she and Matt decided that they would name her Rebecca. Becky had cried when they had given her the news. Holly watched as Matt came out from inside the house. He was chatting animatedly with Joe and her father. It still felt very surreal to see Harry Springford get along so well with her husband and brother in law, but after the first mutual resistances, they had truly hit it off. Holly’s parents eventually came around when they had learned she was pregnant with Erik. Apparently, the prospect of a grandchild to love and spoil was all that was needed to finally have them come to their senses. Harry and Eleanor had apologized in every possible way, and since they had all agreed to bury the hatchet, they had proven to have learned their lesson. Now, three years down the road, they learned to not only respect Holly’s life choices, but to love them, even. It was way more than Holly would have dared to hope for on her parents’ part. Over the past three years, Holly and Matt had also been able to take great care of the house. They had

fixed what needed to be fixed and added a few touches here and there to make it their home. They had replaced the plumbing with modern, better functioning pipes, and they had taken care of a few more repairs that begged to be addressed as soon as possible. Holly’s dreams were slowly but surely morphing into a reality. Inside, the walls of the house were scattered with Holly’s art. She was making headway, and her paintings and drawings were getting more and more requests. While she worked to make it as an artist, she also taught Art at the San Francisco Art Institute. Both careers were incredibly accomplishing and filled her with so much pride that she could burst, particularly when she stopped to consider the fact that she had done it all by herself. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Holly knew she couldn’t have done any of it without Matt’s love and support. He walked up to her now and kissed her, deeply and passionately as he always did, no matter how brief or long the kiss was. As always, Eleanor pretended to clear her throat and appear embarrassed by the sight of their passion when she came upon them kissing while she carried a large bowl of mashed potatoes outside. Holly felt Matt smirk against her lips. He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her closer, deepening the kiss still. Ten minutes later, they were all sitting around the table, eating and chatting amiably. Holly sat back and considered her life. She watched them all, the smooth, comfortable way of their interactions, and she felt loved and fulfilled in ways she had never thought possible. To think there had been a time when she had thought that giving in to her instincts of running away from her parents’ house in Lincoln, Texas would be the death of her! As it turned out, it had been the life of her. She found Matt’s hand underneath the table and grasped it, entwining their fingers together. He returned her hold immediately, squeezing her hand in response. He turned to look at her and smiled, and he winked in that cute, sexy way of his, like he always did when he wanted to let her know that he loved her and was feeling every bit as happy as she did. Holly ran her thumb lovingly over the back of his hand, and she was hit with yet another wave of humbling gratitude. She knew she had gotten quite close to losing Matt once or twice during their wanderings together, back when he was still painfully lost. Back when he was a ticking time bomb that could go off at any minute. Back when he thought he wasn’t worthy of love and did not deserve anything good in this world. Mercifully, those days were long gone. Matt had found himself in the end. He had found himself in his work in the vineyard under the Californian sun, where nature’s ways took care of his mangled soul and restored his battered spirit. He had found himself in house repairs, where working with his hands to fix something had allowed him to fix pieces of himself in the process. He had found himself in Holly and their love and their marriage, where he had learned about strength and courage and about loving himself. He had found himself in their son, where he had learned that he still had some innocence left within him.

And he would, no doubt, find himself in their daughter. Holly could not believe how lucky they had gotten. Some mornings, when she woke up, she would pinch herself sharply to make sure that it had not all been just a dream. A few days back, they had gotten word from Erik. Holly often thought of the man who had come so close to taking everything away from them and who eventually had ended up giving them everything. According to the letter, he was doing all right—or as all right as he could, given his painful circumstances. He wrote that he was in Scotland, somewhere in the Orkney Islands. He wrote that there was something about the Atlantic Ocean and its chilly waters that spoke to him, and that gave him something akin to peace. He was far from healed, of course, but he was doing better. He still felt like he was in pieces, he wrote, but the Scottish Isles gifted him with fleeting, precious moments where he thought he was almost whole again. He wrote that he thought of them often, and that he hoped they could be reunited someday. Holly found herself hoping the same. Her lingering feelings of resentment towards the man who had almost delivered her as a prisoner to a life she did not want, were long gone. Now she only thought of Erik Schneider as the man who had given her and Matt the chance they so desperately needed. Now she only thought of him as a man she would always owe an enormous debt to. She hoped Erik could truly find his healing someday. She hoped he could one day say that he was doing well and truly mean it. She hoped he would find the love she knew he, too, deserved. She hoped he would find himself again. She hoped he would meet someone who helped him with that, someone who would show him the way to his true self in the same way that Matt had showed her, and that, she liked to think, she had showed Matt. “I love you.” Holly jumped out of her reverie at Matt’s sweet whisper in her ear. She turned to look at him. She didn’t think there would ever come a day when she couldn’t get lost in the green of his eyes. “I love you too,” she said. “So much, you have no idea.” Matt grinned. “I think I might have a clue or two.” He kissed her, uncaring of the fact that they were still at the table and surrounded by people. Nothing else seemed to matter to him in those moments— nothing else but the two of them. When they pulled apart, Holly cast a quick glance around the table. No one seemed to have noticed their display. Then again, everyone was quite used to the fact that they would kiss whenever the mood struck, uncaring of where they were or what was going on around them. Harry, Eleanor, Joe, and Becky were engrossed in a conversation amongst themselves. Holly caught the words “granddaughter” and “niece,” and she knew they were making plans for the almost fully grown baby in her belly. She smiled.

“I hope your parents are not thinking of marrying her off,” Matt joked. Holly snorted. “If they are, we’ll just give her a bus ticket and tell her to go find love.” She smiled. “It worked pretty well for us, after all. Didn’t it?” Matt smiled. “Yeah, it did.” Erik picked that moment to walk over and climb into his father’s lap. He didn’t say anything; he never did, not when he just wanted to stay close to his dad. Matt wrapped his arms around him and watched as the child snuggled up contently. Erik was asleep within minutes. Holly watched the two most important men in her life. Once again, she had to consider how happy she was that she had taken that final opportunity to board a bus to the life she deserved over three years ago. THE END ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Growing up the youngest daughter in a family of three, I had always been the baby of the family. That meant I was pretty much left to learn things either on my own or from my two older sisters. They were the ones who got me interested in writing and I owe so much of my accomplishments to them. Megan and Raissa, I couldn’t have done it without y’all! I like stories with alpha males who can show a surprising streak of passion, even in stories as dark as Night After Night. Characters like that allow us to jump into and explore their world—even if only for a short while! If you liked my books, I would love it if you RECOMMEND it, LEND it, or REVIEW it. I always look for feedback from my readers to help me develop better as a writer. If you want to stay up to date on my latest releases--please sign up for my mailing list. In fact, you will receive a FREE steamy short story that I wrote just for my fans! Short story description: She's the law and he's the lawbreaker

As a cop, Detective Flora Daunt meets the worst types but Terry Brandt is unique. And it's not just Terry Brandt's offbeat looks. His deep set blue eyes, the chiseled body, the stride, that awesome cockiness - and that smoldering, inviting look... Each time they speak, it seems like their roles are reversed. As he plies her with question after question that leaves her feverishly looking forward to the next session, it's only a matter of time before he asks her the one question she's been waiting to hear this entire time...

Other books by Kathryn Thomas

HE’LL DO WHATEVER HE HAS TO AND I’LL BEG HIM FOR MORE ERIS My life had been innocent and naïve… and then I met him. Now I’m hurtling towards something I can’t predict. Something I never want to stop. When he puts me on the back of his motorcycle, scarred hands on my curves. When he tells me how he’ll handle me. Possess me… There’s one thing I’m certain of: The devil has me in his lap. And he won’t stop until he makes me his. DAMIAN I live for speed, scars, and danger. I never thought I’d want to slow down until I met Eris. There have been others, but not like her No one has ever made me rev harder. I want to consume her, surround her, show her that she’ll always be mine. And teach her exactly what it means to lose control. ***

I’M EVERYTHING SHE SHOULDN’T TRUST. KADE Everything I do, I do for my club. F*** love and relationships, they just distract me from what really matters. Then fate dumped Winter on my lap: a sassy corporate heiress with legs that go for miles, curves begging to be touched, and a target on her back. I saved her life. I should have stopped there, but I didn’t. Because once I got a taste, I couldn’t stay away. Not until I tame those curves Hear her scream my name And make her MINE.

Kathryn thomas biker's plaything, seven devils mc  
Kathryn thomas biker's plaything, seven devils mc