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Garrett Skye took his bodyguard job seriously. So when he was accused of taking a life rather than protecting one, he was left with few options but to go on the run. Unfortunately, amateur P.I. Annie Ryder insisted on bringing him to justice. The woman was easy on the eyes, and convincing her of his innocence didn't take much. Especially when she learned about the little girl he'd do anything to protect. Before long they'd uncovered a plot bigger than they'd imagined. But even more worrisome was that Garrett ...
Garrett Skye took his bodyguard job seriously. So when he was accused of taking a life rather than protecting one, he was left with few options but to go on the run. Unfortunately, amateur P.I. Annie Ryder insisted on bringing him to justice. The woman was easy on the eyes, and convincing her of his innocence didn't take much. Especially when she learned about the little girl he'd do anything to protect. Before long they'd uncovered a plot bigger than they'd imagined. But even more worrisome was that Garrett found himself falling for Annie, against every fiber of his ladies' man reputation.
Annie Ryder was ready to call it quits. Two days of lurking around in the cold, snapping pictures of old buildings, old streets and old ranchers had left her stiff and grumpy. Plus, the unfamiliar black-framed glasses rested heavy on the bridge of her nose while the thick brown wig atop her head itched to the point of distraction.
Oh, who was she trying to fool? Or, worse, impress? "You can't impress a dead man," she mumbled to herself.
A badly tuned engine jerked her from her thoughts. She peered down the street in time to spot a beat-up blue truck approaching. She didn't need to consult the photograph in her pocket to know at long last this was the truck—and hopefully the driver—she'd been waiting for. Round bumpers, dented hood, broken antenna, a faded Forty-Niners bumper sticker, California plates. This was it.
Lifting the camera, she flexed numb fingers. "Stop at the grocery store," she whispered as she watched the truck ramble down the road.
For a second, she thought it would pass by and her stomach twisted into a knot that just as quickly unraveled as the truck pulled to the curb no more than ten feet from where she stood concealed in an alley. The driver got out of the truck and without locking his door or glancing back at Annie's location, limped across the road toward the grocery store on the corner. He wore faded blue jeans and a black jacket. Worn leather cowboy boots looked like the real deal.
He reached into his left pocket, emerged with an old fashioned gold watch that he snapped open, glanced at and snapped shut. He dug a few coins from his other pocket.
Annie raised the camera and peered through the lens,zooming in on his face. She found the chiseled features she'd appreciated in his photo, more obvious now that he'd shaved off the mustache he'd worn before. His hair was darker and scruffier though without the facial hair; he looked younger than his thirty-three years.
Garrett Skye, at last.
She zeroed in on his eyes and for a second, he seemed to look right at her. Her breath caught in alarm, but that quickly evaporated. He had amazing deep-brown eyes, warm and sensual, even when viewed through a lens. Eyes that reminded her of the old "windows of the soul" malarkey, eyes that brimmed with self-awareness, eyes that skated on the razor-thin edge of magic.
She lowered the camera a fraction of an inch and stared back at him, unable to move. His gaze should strike fear in the bottom of her heart. It didn't.
This was nuts. Those beautiful eyes belonged to a man who killed without remorse. No doubt his last victim had thought she saw humanity in those deep, dark irises, too. Well, that woman was dead now, thanks to him, so get a grip!
His gaze shifted. Obviously, he was just looking around, being cautious. He slid a few coins into the paper machine and snagged a copy. Annie quickly snapped the first of a dozen photos before he disappeared into the store.
She hurriedly reinvented what she'd seen through the camera lens. Not warmth, not beauty. Cockiness, smugness, vanity, that's what she'd seen. He thought he was safe. He hadn't counted on the dead woman's grown daughter having deep pockets and a vengeful nature. He hadn't counted on Annie's late father's detective skills.
And he hadn't counted on her, Annie Ryder, intrepid preschool teacher/unofficial private eye.
Her job was simple: verify Garrett Skye's presence, learn what name he was using, get an address in Poplar Gulch, tell the client.
She drew only a cursory glance from two women as she stepped out of the alley and snapped a few random pictures of the hay bales in the back of Skye's truck to reinforce her cover story as an out-of-town photographer writing a book on forgotten ranching towns. She paused. Dare she risk frisking the glove box?
A brisk "Good morning" from a passing pedestrian sent Annie's heart leaping into her throat. She settled on taking a few photos of the mail scattered on the front seat while moving past the truck.
She continued walking to the next block where she'd parked her father's white sedan. The weatherman had predicted snow. Annie wanted to be out of Poplar Gulch and headed home to Reno by the time it fell. All she needed now was a physical address for Skye.
She'd just set the camera on the seat beside her when movement in the side mirror drew her attention. Skye limped back across the street, the newspaper tucked beneath his arm, a small plastic grocery bag swinging from the fingers of his left hand. He opened the driver's door, tossed in his purchases and climbed in after them.
She started her own engine, a blast of cold air coming from the heater vent making her shiver. Skye made a U-turn and headed east. Annie waited a few moments before making the same turn and following at a distance. Golden strands of hay floated out of the back of the truck.
Within minutes, it had started to rain, drops icy enough to make patterns on her windshield. With no vehicle between her and the truck, Annie lowered her visor and stayed as far back as possible. Skye had been on the run for almost four months, surely he'd be feeling pretty comfortable by now. On the other hand, the man was former military, former bodyguard and a wanted killer. Plus, he apparently knew a thing or two about explosives.
He drove for a couple of miles before taking a sharp left onto a dirt road that appeared to lead up a heavily forested hillside. Annie drove past the road, making note of the mailbox on which the name B. Miller was printed, pulling off a quarter mile farther along, parking well off the shoulder. Miller. She recognized the name from her father's files. He was connected to Skye in some way. An old army buddy, that was it.
Another tidbit of information floated into her mind. Miller was a professor at Davis University, currently out of the country on a sabbatical. She'd bet big money Garrett Skye was using his old buddy's mountain retreat as a hideout!
Excited, she clicked on her cell phone, relieved when it picked up a signal, disappointed when the client didn't answer. She waited through Shelby Parker's recorded message and left one of her own, embellishing it a little here and there to make it sound better, making sure Parker understood Annie was working with her father. No reason to mention the fact he had died before he could complete this job. No point in admitting she was his proxy.
As she clicked off the phone it dawned on her she should have made sure Skye was living here before alerting the client. She turned off the cell phone and tucked it and her father's nasty-looking black gun in her pockets. She looped the camera strap around her neck. She stuck her purse under the seat and got out of the car, locking it behind her.
The walk in, which she had assumed would be relatively short, turned out to be more than a mile straight up. It seemed to grow colder with each foot she climbed. The rain was still halfhearted, but it had the icy punch of coming trouble.
The road ended so abruptly she stumbled into the open. Quickly dodging behind a gaggle of leafless, wispy trees, she took in the old house across from what appeared to be an even older barn. Tucked between them sat the rusty blue truck, its bed now empty.
Annie took the camera from around her neck. Snapping pictures of anything that didn't move, her bare fingers growing increasingly numb as the temperature continued to plummet, she made her way to the back of the barn where she discovered a two-tiered door, the top of which was open.
She knelt with her head below the door opening, catching her breath, nerves firing up and down her spine. A moment later, a blast of hot air came from above. Annie jumped an inch off the ground, grabbing her wig with one hand while fumbling for the gun with the other. The camera tumbled to the ground in the process. Before she could extract the gun from her pocket, she looked up and came eyeball to muzzle with a big brown horse.
She swallowed what felt like her heart. "Easy does it," she whispered, fear draining out of her as she reached up to shoo away the warm nose nibbling at her wig. The horse tossed its head and whinnied.
"Shh," she said, turning to peer around the side of the barn.
She found two worn leather boots she immediately recognized. The rifle, however, was new.
"Get up nice and easy," Garrett Skye said, his voice as cold as the steel barrel nine inches from her nose.
As distasteful as Annie found carrying a gun, looking up the barrel of one was worse. Way worse.
Scooping the camera from the icy mud, she gained her feet. Up close and without the distancing lens of the camera, the man was big, muscular, powerful and scary. His chiseled good looks were a mere distraction compared to the focused intent in his eyes. There was no appealing warmth or humor in those irises now. There probably never had been.
"Who are you?" he said, his voice deep, softer than she'd expected, and scary. Everything about him was scary. Rip up his clothes a little, tie a bandana around his head and a knife between his teeth and, presto, Rambo in the flesh.
Annie thought frantically. She hadn't had a chance to pull out her dad's gun. Perhaps Skye would overlook it. She babbled, "Is this your place? I'm so sorry to be intrusive, my car broke down on the main road and yours was the nearest driveway. I'm in Poplar Gulch taking pictures of forgotten ranch towns. This place is perfect. Uh, I love your horse. What's its name?"
"Your car broke down?" he said, narrowing his eyes.
"Yes. It's old and—"
"So you didn't follow me out here?"
"Follow you? No. Of course not."
He stared at her for another second or two and then shook his head. "Sorry, not buying it. I'll take your gun."
"I don't have a gun, Mr. Miller, isn't it?"
"You know damn good and well my name isn't Miller and of course you have a gun. Get your hands up. Who sent you here? Klugg?"
"Klugg who?" she muttered.
"I said, get your hands up."
She put her hands up in the air, the camera clenched tight in her right fist, the strap dangling down her arm. With a few swift impersonal strokes he frisked her with his free hand, finding the gun and her cell phone with no trouble. The picture of his truck taken a week or so before rolled out with them.
Even if she could think of a way to explain carrying a gun, there was no way to make this look like an accident now, not with that picture waiting to be unfolded. Icy calm spread through her fear-soaked body. She grew quiet, watchful, waiting
Flipping the gun open, he spun the chamber and a couple of bullets popped out. "No gun, huh?" he quipped, sparing her an uneasy glance. He closed the chamber with his thumb and stuck the gun in his pocket before unfolding the photograph.
In the moment it took him to do this, he was marginally distracted. Annie threw the camera at his face and without waiting for his reaction, took off around the far side of the barn, expecting to hear the sharp retort of his rifle .
But it was his voice that followed her. Loud, angry, ordering her to stop. Sure. The horse whinnied his opinion of the mayhem.
Annie veered toward the truck, hoping Skye was in the habit of leaving his keys in the ignition. He wasn't. Leaping the two feet onto the broad front porch of his house, she tore open the front door and locked it behind her. The small kitchen hosted a back door. As she touched the knob, she heard the tinkle of broken glass coming from the front. Skye would be inside within seconds. She ran outside, circling by the barn again. He'd see her if she took off down the road and there wasn't a doubt in her mind that he could run faster, even with a limp, than she could.
And bullets ran faster than either of them.
That left the horse. She ducked into the barn, faltering for a second as her eyes fought to adjust to the shadows, almost tripping over the bales of hay Skye had apparently unloaded just inside the door. She ran toward the only light, the open half door through which the horse had spotted her. There was no purpose hiding in a dark corner—he'd find her. She could see no handy weapon and doubted she'd be able to throw a pitchfork hard enough to stop him anyway.
She'd take the horse and ride it down the mountain and escape that way. Good Lord, what was she thinking?
She was thinking she didn't want to die.
She approached the animal as slowly as her panic and pounding heart allowed. The big brown horse eyed her suspiciously as she opened his stall door. He was a lot bigger than he'd looked from the outside when the business half of him had been obscured by the lower half of the door. She didn't have time to get to know him or even saddle him. Any minute now, Garrett Skye would erupt through that door wielding his rifle—
She stretched out a hand to touch the horse's glistening neck, surprised at his warmth. He was wearing a halter but his head was a long way from his back even when he twisted around and looked her eyeball to eyeball. She half expected him to ask her what the hell she thought she was doing. She grabbed a handful of fetlock and bounced on her feet to build the momentum to swing herself atop.
As she launched herself upward, Skye limped his way through the barn door, his rifle held at his side. For a second, Annie imagined Skye's shocked expression when she proceeded to gallop the brown horse right over the top of him.
The horse rose up partly on his hind legs, twisted around and thudded back to the earth. Annie went flying as her tenuous grip failed.
Her last conscious thought was irritation with herself, not the horse. Then she hit the wall and slid to the floor, the world eclipsed to a single black dot and then to nothing
Posted January 25, 2010
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Posted August 21, 2010
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