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Wherever Nick Blacksheep went, trouble usually followed. That's the way it had been since he'd taken his first breath back on the Navajo rez thirty-three years ago.
Travis, Nick's younger brother, held the punching bag steady as Nick continued to channel his anger into the inert mass. "Work out on this, then we'll go a few rounds," Travis said.
"Wear me down first? Won't work. Right now you couldn't handle me, little brother," Nick growled, and continued to pound the heavy bag.
"Anger destroys focus. I can take you."
"In your dreams," Nick retorted, sinking his taped fists into the thick leather with a lightning-fast combination.
"Have an Enemy Way Sing done. Release the past and the memories of war you still carry inside you and you'll be able to sleep again at night."
"The old ways have no part in my life," Nick said, pounding the body bag with an intense flurry of jabs.
"You need to restore the balance. The path of harmony that allows a man to walk in beauty, the hózho, will elude you until you put your ghosts to rest."
"It's the present that's the problem. There's no reason for me to have been put on disciplinary suspension. We've had eight domestic disturbance calls this month alone from that address.
The lowlife there can't keep his fists off his wife. I responded to the last call, and when he tried to slip by me to go whack his wife, I threw him across the hood of his sports car."
"I agree that you did the right thing. But nothing will change until the guy's wife leaves him for good."
Nick slammed his fist into the bag one last time, then stepped back. "I better hit the shower. I've got a meeting with the chief and the review board tonight."
"Everyone in the department knows you're a good cop, and there's enough evidence to clear you. Providing you don't screw up tonight, you'll be fine," Travis said. "Things have hit bottom so they have nowhere to go but up."
"I have my own saying. Just when you think it's really bad, it gets worse."
"Your main problem, bro, is that you substitute attitude for patience."
"I'd rather push things to get them rolling than play nice," Nick said, removing the tape from his knuckles.
Travis shook his head. "A little patience gets better results. Remember how it was for us."
Nick met his brother's eyes. They'd been watching each other's backs since the day their father told them he was going for a walk in the desert and never returned. To this day, they never figured out if he'd meant to abandon them, or had been trying to do them a favor. On the rez, when a man knew that he was dying, he'd sometimes walk off like that. That last act was considered a gift to his family, since a death in the house meant that the building would have to be abandoned. The Navajo Way taught that the chindi, the evil in a man, would never be able to merge with Universal Harmony, so it remained behind, posing a threat to the living.
"I'll let you know how things go," Nick said.
When Nick stepped into the shower, he could hear Travis punching the heavy bag. Travis had lightning-fast reflexes.
Nick lacked his brother's speed and agility, but he packed more power and could slug it out toe-to-toe with anyone.
Fifteen minutes later, Nick was dressed and ready to leave. Tugging on his boots, he stood and automatically reached for the detective's badge he normally kept on the dresser. The empty gesture made him curse. Suspension meant no department firearm or badge.
As Nick walked down the hall he saw his brother still working out in the gym they built. They'd worked hard to make what had once been a "fixer-upper" in the middle of nowhere into the perfect home for two bachelors. Marriage wasn't in the cards for either of them. They'd already seen too much of life to settle down with a wife and become a role model for rug rats.
The ride into town was open road, most of it down a river valley flanked by wide mesas. Nick pressed on the accelerator and felt the Jeep respond. He liked speed and the edge of danger it brought.
Before long, he entered a west side, high-end housing development, complete with a six-foot wall opposite a private golf course.
His thoughts were focused on tonight's meeting when he came upon an apparent TA, a traffic accident, just ahead in the right-hand lane. Two vehicles, an old sedan and a big van, were side by side, contact point at the front end, just off the road. Their headlights and taillights were still on. Closing in, he noted the fresh grooves on the driver's side of the sedan. From the looks of it, it appeared that the van had cut off the sedan and made contact—not that uncommon. At least neither vehicle had rolled or had plowed into the fence.
Nick stopped, and as he switched on his driver's-side spotlight, he heard a blood-curdling scream. Two large figures wearing hoods were gripping a woman by the arms, trying to drag her around the rear of the sedan.
Fighting like a wildcat, she suddenly broke free. She slammed her clenched fist into the face of the man on her right, swung and kicked his partner in the groin, then raced along the fence line toward Nick.
Giving her room to pass by on his right, Nick pressed down on the accelerator. Intent on scattering her assailants, he drove right at them, giving them two choices—jump out of the way or become a hood ornament.
Drew Simmons raced down the roadside drainage ditch. The man in the Jeep who'd gone after the ones chasing her had probably just saved her life, but there was no time to thank him.
Tires squealed behind her, but she didn't dare look back. The men chasing her were armed, and the greater the distance between them, the more difficult the shot. Drew struggled to reach the cell phone in her jacket pocket, but it had slipped down beneath where she'd stowed her glove.
As the sound of the vehicle approaching from behind grew louder, Drew swerved to her left, out of the ditch, and leaped onto the fence, grabbing the wire as high up as she could.
The black Jeep came to a screeching stop beside the curb, the acrid scent of burning rubber filling the air.
"Get in," the man yelled. He threw open the passenger's side door. "Hurry."
She dropped to the ground and climbed in. The man she'd kicked was now sprinting down the road, heading straight for them, waving a pistol. The other was in the van, whipping around in the street, tires screaming. They'd catch up in seconds.
"One of them has a gun," she said.
"Fasten your seat belt and hang on," her rescuer said.
He pressed down on the accelerator, and she was thrown
back against the seat. Drew felt around for the seat belt, snapping the shoulder strap in place. A determined look settled on her benefactor's hard features. There was something vaguely familiar about the Navajo man, but she didn't have time to give it much thought.
"There's a shotgun on the rack behind us. The number for the safety lock is two-six-zero-zero. Get it loose before they catch up," he ordered.
Having been raised around guns and taught about safety, she was familiar with the lock and storage rack. Within a few seconds she'd freed the long weapon, swung the barrel up around in front of her, and pumped a round into the chamber.
He looked at her, surprised but happy with her knowledge of guns. "Cool under pressure. And you can fight. That's probably what saved you."
"I know where to kick."
"That's good enough."
The van had stopped to pick up the running man, but was now closing in on them.
"The police station isn't far. Head there," she said, looking back in the side mirror and seeing the dark van less than two car lengths behind.
"If I do, they'll figure out what we're doing and take off. We need another plan. There's no time to call for backup, either."
"You sound like a cop."
"Detective Nick Blacksheep at your service," he said.
"I'm Drew Simmons," she answered. "I'm not an officer, but we work at the same place. So how do we sucker them in?"
"I like the way you think, Drew Simmons," Nick said, and grinned. "Hang on. I'm going to pull into the golf course entrance. It's a dead end. Once I stop, jump out on your side and use the Jeep for cover. I'll take the shotgun. If they start shooting, make sure you stay behind the engine block."
Nick pulled into the dead-end street. Quickly swerving to his left, he took the Jeep into a slow skid, stopping sideways to the street entrance.
Nick took aim with the shotgun, bracing it across the hood. "Stay down," he yelled.
The van's brakes squealed as the driver skidded to a stop, the lights illuminating the Jeep.
"Police officer. Out of the van, hands where I can see them," Nick yelled, averting his eyes to avoid looking directly into the lights.
The van's engine roared as the driver slammed the vehicle into Reverse, burning rubber.
Nick stepped out from behind the Jeep, and squeezed off a round of number four buckshot at the van's driver-side front tire. Sparks flew from the ground as the vehicle fish-tailed violently.
"Stop! Police!" He fired and struck the front of the van just above the bumper.
The van continued in Reverse, then the driver hit the brakes hard. The van whipped around a full hundred and eighty degrees and raced away from them.
Nick switched the shotgun to his left hand and reached into his pocket for his cell phone. "I think I holed their radiator. They won't get far—I hope," he said, watching the taillights disappear into the darkness.
Drew heard him calling in his report as she joined him. "Why weren't you carrying your service handgun? Because you're off duty?" she asked. "No, never mind. I remember now. You're the Blacksheep brother who tossed Ray Owens over the hood of his car. Speaking for most of the women in the PD, we stand ready to buy you the best dinner in town."
"You said you worked for the PD, but I don't think I've seen you before," Nick said, his gaze taking her in slowly and very thoroughly.
She suppressed the shiver that ran up her spine. He was every bit as good-looking as everyone had said, but it was that intense look he was giving her, as if he could see directly into her soul, that made her tingle all the way down to her toes. "I was supposed to take over as head librarian here in town, but the hiring freeze has me doing temp work for city government instead. Right now I'm training to take over for Beth Michaels, the department's record clerk."
"The library's loss is our department's gain," he said, giving her a steamy smile.
Her brain suddenly went into neutral and she didn't know what to say. Horrified by her own reaction, she cleared her throat and tried to appear calm and collected. "Thanks for helping me out," Drew said. "I'm glad I met you, Detective Blacksheep." Drew extended her hand, then quickly pulled it back. "I'm sorry. I just remembered that people from your tribe don't like to shake hands."
"Not with an enemy, or a stranger, but you and I are now connected," Nick told her.
His hand felt calloused and hard as it enveloped hers. Everything about him looked tough and unyielding—and incredibly and irresistibly male. No wonder half the women in the department had fantasies about him. Nick and Travis Blacksheep were the hot, number-one topic on the clerical staff's minds.
As Nick answered a call and walked away for privacy, she gazed at him. He was wearing a brown leather jacket, so she couldn't see much about his upper body, except for his wide shoulders. The dark slacks he wore fit him closely and revealed the best buns in the county.
Drew sighed and tried to remember everything she'd heard about Nick Blacksheep. Word had it that getting him interested in anything more than a one-night stand was like trying to capture the wind. The only person he was close to was his brother, Travis.
Nick slipped the phone back into his jacket pocket and joined her once more. "Why were those men after you?"
"I have no idea. By the time I noticed the van, it was too late to do anything but react. They sideswiped my car, forcing me into the ditch. I got out of the car and ran, but I didn't get far. They were dragging me back to their van when you came up. The rest you saw." Drew swallowed hard. She'd come through it alive and unhurt, and that was the important thing. "It's over," she said, for her own benefit.
"I know you don't want to think about what happened anymore, but I need to you stay focused and remember as many of the details as you can," he said.
He was right. She took an unsteady breath. "For a minute or two I wasn't sure what was going to happen to me. Then…" Her voice suddenly broke and she forced herself to swallow, determined not to cry. She wouldn't fall apart, not now.
Nick came closer to her, almost touching, yet not. "You're all right now, Drew. No one's going to hurt you."
He stood just inches away, and for one brief moment she became aware of everything about him. His scent was earthy and male, and called to her wordlessly, sparking her imagination and teasing her senses.
"You handled yourself well and showed a lot of courage tonight," he said, his voice soothing, even as danger gleamed in his eyes.
"Fear gives you the ability to do things you never dreamed possible," she said.
He nodded, understanding. "Yes, it does." He glanced over at the ditch bank. "Now let's go back to your car and check out the damage."
They were back at the original scene a few minutes later and Nick parked about fifty feet away from the rear of her sedan. The right front tire, resting at the bottom of the shallow drainage ditch, was stuck in soft ground. The dome light was still on, and her passenger-side door was ajar.
They climbed out to look, standing in the dim glow of the streetlight. When it appeared that she intended on moving closer, he grabbed her arm. "Better stay on the pavement. We have to preserve evidence, like those shoe prints in the soft sand. This wasn't an ordinary carjacking."
"What makes you say that?"
"Your car…isn't new," he said after a beat. "There's no market for it, intact or stripped for parts."
She gave him a weak smile. "Translation—it was a rolling wreck even before I got forced into the ditch."