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"Hell's bells, here comes Betty Crocker in a bustier." Tech Sergeant Jacob "Mako" Stone pitched his remote control onto his family's motel check-in counter and took a second look at the walking contradiction in the parking lot.
Washington winter winds whipped sleet and snow sideways, the icy sheet parting before encircling a shivering woman. She stumbled, righted her spiked heels and hobbled toward the main office of the run-down motel where Jacob had grown up.
Now, he only planned to stick around long enough to get his teenageorphanedsister's life in order before he returned to his career as an Air Force in-flight mechanic. Okay, so he was technically on sick leave while his arm recovered from a line-of-duty bullet. But he hoped to be back in his flight suit, tooling around the sky with his C-17 buddies in two more weeks.
Fourteen days certain to be jam-packed settling his sister's lifeand his old man's near-bankrupt "estate."
That alone should be enough for his plate. Pulling his gaze off the woman, Jacob adjusted his healing arm in the sling with a wince and shifted his attention to the Dr. Phil rerun again in hopes the shrink could offer up some insights on how to help a teenager with an infant get her life on track. Fixing his sister's situation seemed harder than keeping a multimillion-dollar military aircraft in smooth working order.
Still, curiosity hauled his gaze right back to the parking lot as the woman's coat flapped open. Her slinky dress, racy-red lingerie peeking free with each stormy gust, just didn't match the Junior League face.
She huddled inside her coat and started up the office steps. She probably needed to call a friend, and thephones were out.
The woman wrapped her arms around her willowy body and tucked her head into the storm. She must be from room sixteen, since his only other customer had been a horse rancher who'd checked out an hour ago. Jacob hadn't seen the woman up close when she'd arrived the night before. She'd been slumped asleep in the car while "Mr. Smith" had paid cash for their room.
Jacob glanced toward the parking spaces. Mr. Smith's white Suburban was long gone, snow already piling in the tire ruts.
Sympathy and frustration stuttered through Jacob like the bullets that had come his way during a simple assignment hauling a congressional entourage around Europe. Apparently this woman's wild night out on the tiny town hadn't unfolded as planned.
Double damn. Already he could feel warrior instincts honed in bloody battle zones stirring to life within him.
Jacob pushed to his feet, snagging his remote control from beside the television. Extending his arm, he thumbed the remote, silencing Dr. Phil.
He might not be wearing his uniform, and the woman may not need his help. But that wouldn't stop him from throwing himself in the middle of her problems when she came through the door. The only way to ensure she went out the door all the faster.
Fear seared her roiling stomach as she clutched the icy doorknob. She gripped the edges of her coat and burrowed inside to protect herself from the punishing winds.
Waking up alone in a run-down motel with nothing but sleazy clothes, a hundred dollars and no memory had been bad enough. Now, she would surely freeze to death before she discovered her name and why she'd had blood on her hands.
Crunching her heels into the ice for traction, she tugged on the door to Clyde's Travel Lodge. She slipped anyway, her hand whipping off the knob. The woozy sensation she hadn't been able to shake since waking threatened her balance. She grappled for the rail. Her sweaty palms bonded to the freezing metal. Or maybe it was blood residue, although she'd scrubbed and scrubbed until her hands were as raw as any Lady Macbeth pivotal moment.
Hang tough. Stay calm. She steadied her feet and breathing. There had to be a logical answer.
Only a couple more steps. She could manage that. The manager or clerk would have some record of her name, all the spark she would need to fire her memories.
The hundred dollars, hotel key and EpiPen on the bedside table hadn't brought any recollections. The telephone book in her room had helped some, even if the phones were out of order. At least she knew she'd awakened in the small town of Rockfish, Washington, and that she could order carryout from Marge's Diner until 9:00 p.m.
Great. Just what she needed, a blue plate special to erase what little she did rememberbloodred dress and hands.
She grasped the gold D initial necklace, the only thing that felt right in her whole insane morning. Inhaling a bracing breath that threatened to freeze her from the inside out, she grabbed the doorknob again and twisted. The wind ripped the door from her, banging it against the wall. She stumbled inside and slammed into a broad male chest.
"Steady there." A strong hand gripped her arm.
"Oh, excuse me." She winced, her own voice still sounding as unfamiliar to her as her face looked in a mirror.
"No harm, no foul."
The deep voice rumbled over her, jarring along her ravaged nerves.
Nausea born of panic roiled again. Had she met this man earlier? If she glanced up, would he recognize her?
She scavenged for a smile and let her gaze travel up the chest in front of her. A T-shirt with an Air Force logo peeked between the parted fabric of unbuttoned blue flannel. His left arm was in a sling, but his large neck bespoke strength that sent a fresh blast of apprehension through her.
Her gaze upward seemed never ending, taking this guy to at least a few inches over six feet. Hmm he had a dimpled chin. She found that reassuring, and she needed reassurance more than she needed an hour in front of that roaring fireplace.
Broad cheekbones stretched just below slate-blue eyes.
Brooding eyes stared without a flicker of recognition.
His hand dropped away. "Come on inside before we heat the whole state."
"Sorry about that." She sidestepped him and studied the breadth of his shoulders as he wrestled the door closed. Heaven help her if he wasn't trustworthy.
He pivoted to face her, scratching a hand along his close-cropped black hair. "What can I do for you, ma'am?"
That was it? All he had to say?
There went any hope of him knowing her. She wanted to pitch all her fears right at his feet, but feared she was more likely to toss her cookies.
That Air Force T-shirt seemed to hint she could trust him, but still. He worked here, so whatever connection he had to the military was over or through a friend. Maybe he was just an air show junkie, and God, her mind was rambling.
Bottom line, she was helpless to anyone who might take advantage of her.
A logical voice urged her to call the police, and she would, as soon as the phone lines were back in working order and she could unscramble her mind enough to think clearly. Meanwhile, she would follow her instincts, instincts being all she had.
Moving on to discovering what the register held. "I'm ready to check out."
"No need.You're already paid up. Just drop off the key."
She stuffed her hand in her pocket and clutched her fingers around the chilly steel beside her wad of cash and the EpiPennot that she even knew what allergies to avoid.
If she passed the key over, she would be officially homeless. So what if her only bed waited in a rustic motel so old it didn't even have key cards?
She stifled a hysterical laugh. She knew about key cards, yet didn't know her own name. "When's checkout time again?"
The ancient Field and Stream wall clock seemed to mock her, ticking away those last twenty-one minutes. She sifted through her muddled concentration for her next question.
His cool eyes settled on her dress. "Uh, but you can stay longer if you need to. I've got a busload of senior citizens due in, but not until this evening, if they can make it through the storm."
At least she could stay a few more hours without using her precious store of cash. "Do you mind printing out a copy of my receipt?"
"For tax purposes."
"Tax purposes?" His eyes slid down her slinky red dress then up again without censure, but with obvious disbelief. "Sure. I gave one to your, uh, husband, but it's no trouble to shoot out another."
Husband. The word surged through her with an odd mixture of hope and the metallic taste of fear. Where was he? "Thanks. He lost his copy. I'm supposed to pick up another one, you know, taxes and all that."
"For your husband." Those brooding eyes shifted from her to the empty parking lot before returning. "He should be back soon." She resisted the urge to fidget like a first-day kindergartner. "Could I see the owner?" Preferably, a much older, grandfatherly kind of guy without piercing eyes that saw too much.
"That would be me."
"Clyde was my father. He's dead. The place belongs to me and my sister now."
He didn't seem to be grieving when he mentioned his dad, so she didn't bother with condolences. "And you are?"
Her nerves began to unravel like a rolling ball of yarn she couldn't quite catch. "May I please have my receipt, Mr. Stone?"
"Just Jacob, ma'am." The man tucked his thumbs in his back pockets, looming over her, compelling, silent and dangerous. With a curt nod, he stepped away. "All right, then, one copy on its way."
Her shoulders slumped with a slow exhale. "Just Jacob," clerk, manager and owner of Clyde's Travel Lodge, circled behind the counter. He tapped through a few keys and set the printer into motion. The clicking sounded unnaturally harsh, echoing the only noise in the sparse room.
She fingered her necklace like a security blanket, tracing the D and looking around for something familiar. She must have seen this place the night before.
A brown artificial leather sofa nestled beneath the picture window overlooking the parking lot. The style was up-to-date, but the cracks in the Naugahyde upholstery showed the toll of weather blasts. Three vending machines lined the paneled wall to the side with a brick fireplace directly across. A cheaply framed landscape poster labeled Mount Rainier hung over the mantel. The television and an office chair behind the registration counter rounded out the sparse decor.
Just Jacob ripped the paper free from the printer. It was all she could do not to jump out of her skin.
"Here you go."
"Thank you." She forced herself to take it from him slowly, casually. Their hands paused, side by side. Hers seemed so small and vulnerable beside his larger, roughened one. The paper rattled in her trembling grasp as she took it from him.
Mr. and Mrs. J. Smith. Her right hand clenched over her bare ring finger. Damn. The guy she must have trysted with hadn't even been original. Tears burned her eyes, then turned icy on her still-chilled skin.
She spun away, paper crumpled in her grip. Not even sure where she was going, only knowing she had to run, she charged out the door. The snowstorm swirled a thick white bubble around the parking lot. She couldn't see a thing past the line of tiny motel units.
Her head hurt. Her whole body hurt. God, her brain was so fogged she couldn't think, much less make decisions while she waited to call the police. She sagged against the railing, mindless of the damp cold seeping through her clothes as she stared out at nothing. A nothingness vast as the void in her mind.
And the only one who could help her fill it was a man with shadows in his eyes that sent fresh shivers along her freezing skin.