Read an Excerpt
Racing the Hunter's Moon
An Under the Hood Novella
By Sally Clements, Lewis Pollak
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Sally Clements
All rights reserved.
At the deep voice behind her, Betty Smith swung around, practically colliding with a wide expanse of navy-blue T-shirt stretched over an impressive chest. Her gaze tracked upward, over muscles skimmed by light cotton, to a strong column of neck and a superhero jawline, barely covered by a hint of five o'clock shadow. Was it soft to the touch or would it tickle against her cheek? Looking higher, her gaze collided with midnight-blue eyes staring into hers with an intensity that stole the air from her lungs.
He was crazy hot. The straight nose, pronounced cheekbones, and those eyes might in another face have combined to handsome, but the intense physicality of the stranger and the way his eyes blazed through her made him devastating.
"Yes?" The odds of coming face-to-face with a gorgeous stranger on Meadowsweet's Main Street were pretty low. She thought she knew everyone in this town, but she'd certainly never seen him before. If only she didn't have something else to do ... She glanced up the alley. Her quarry was escaping.
"Don't even think about it." The stranger's black eyebrows pulled together in a scowl.
The romantic daydream dissolved instantly. Betty took a step back. "Don't even think about what?" Every minute she stood here, Charmers was getting away. A chance sighting of him from the window of the bakery had made her abandon her aim of buying pastries and hurry out to follow him. He'd been walking down Main Street, and moments ago had ducked into the alley between the bank and the dry cleaner's. She had to know where he was going — if he was meeting anyone.
"You're about to blow it." The stranger's mouth tightened.
Betty brought her hands up, palm out. "Listen, I don't know what you're talking about, but ..."
"If you follow Charmers down there" — he gestured in the direction of the alley — "you're playing right into his hands. There is nothing down there, no store entrances. The alley is a dead end. You've been creeping along after him for ten minutes, and I reckon he wants to confirm his suspicion that you're following him. He's going to turn around and walk back, and if he finds you following him, the game is up."
Adrenaline raced through Betty's veins. Who is this guy? And how does he know I'm following Charmers? Her fingers curled into fists. The con man who cheated her mother had been working alone — at least she'd always presumed he'd been working alone. What if she was wrong; what if this was his accomplice?
"Look, I'm not the bad guy here. Just walk away." The stranger jerked his head back in the direction she'd come from.
"I will not." Betty squared her shoulders.
The stranger glanced up the alley. "Shit." He grabbed her arm and tried to tug her away, huffing out a frustrated breath when she refused to move. "He's coming back, goddammit."
Before she had a chance to react, he forced her up against the dry cleaner's window and pressed his mouth onto hers. Eyes wide, she tried to jerk her head back, but couldn't, as the wall was behind her.
His mouth was closed, and his eyes stared into hers, flashing anger. He'd positioned himself to hide her from view, with one arm around her as if they were a loving couple, while his other grasped her upper arm.
Betty pushed both hands against his chest, but he refused to budge. "Wait," he hissed against her mouth.
"Just wait a minute," he whispered. His blue eyes gazed into hers, in them, a plea for her compliance. He was trying to stop her from being caught in the act, following Charmers. She breathed in his scent, masculine with a hint of something woodsy, and let her lips rest against his. For a crazy moment she was totally aware of him — the breadth of his shoulders, the warmth of his mouth, the feel of his chest beneath her palms.
Then he glanced to the side, and tracking his gaze, she saw Charmers walking down the street away from them. The stranger released her the moment Charmers disappeared from view.
"Just stay away from him."
Before she had a chance to protest or question him, he strode across the road, climbed into a battered pickup and drove away.
Betty stood on the sidewalk for a long moment after he'd gone, chest heaving as she fought to pull in air. Her heart was pounding and her legs felt wobbly, as though she'd been sprinting. She pressed her fingers to lips tingling from the imprint of the stranger's mouth. It was a bright, clear fall morning. Normally, the sight of the morning haze over the mountains would calm her, center her. The unexpected, close-up-and-personal encounter now made that impossible.
She made her way into work in a daze, only realizing she'd forgotten to buy pastries when she pushed open the door of the garage she was the part owner of, Under the Hood. Even though she was late, it was still early morning and the garage was quiet.
Her fingers shook as she peeled off her coat and hung it up. There was a noise from the back, and the smell of coffee hung in the air. Tracking across reception, she went in search of Alice.
The door creaked as she pushed it open.
"Hey," Alice turned from the coffee machine, clutching a cup. Her smile faded at one look at Betty's face. "What's happened?"
"Am I that transparent?" Betty sank into the nearest chair, put her head in her hands, and closed her eyes. Her mouth was dry and her body shook with residual tremors. She'd kept it together all the way here, but now ...
Alice's hand landed on her shoulder. "To me, yes you are. Come on, out with it."
"I saw Charmers this morning from the window of the bakery. I dashed out after him — I had to find out where he was going so early in the morning, had to see if he was meeting someone."
"Oh God, you didn't confront him, did you?" Alice pushed back her white-blond hair, pulled a chair up and perched on it. Alice had been with her two weeks ago when they'd bumped into their customer Leonora De Witt and her new boyfriend in the weekly farmers' market. He'd introduced himself as Alexander Charmers, but Betty knew him as Alex Carlisle, the man she'd just about given up on ever finding.
In the three years since he conned her mother out of a sizable chunk of her savings, he'd barely changed at all. Face-to-face, he was smaller than she'd expected, less attractive. In fact, he looked much like any man in his late fifties would. Reasonably fit, with a touch of gray in his dark hair, especially above his ears. Moderately well dressed, but nothing to write home about.
Initially, there had only been the photographs of him with her mother, Christine, to go on, but a year later, with the help of a private investigator, she'd found a few more, culled from newspaper accounts.
"There would be no point in confronting him. He'd just deny it." Betty twisted her fingers together. "He's clever. A year after he conned my mother the FBI caught him, but he walked, and as my mother refuses to go public, I haven't got a leg to stand on. Not without evidence."
"I wish you'd go to the cops." It was a familiar plea. "You're becoming obsessed with catching this guy."
Betty straightened. Stared into her friend's eyes. "I can't let it go. That weasel stole from my mother. He even took the engagement ring my father gave her. I can't hand over responsibility to another group of men who are going to mess up catching him — I have to find some evidence that they can use to nail him." She gritted her teeth. "He's trying to do the same to Leonora, you know he is. How many other women have to suffer at the hands of this man?"
Alice nodded. "I know, I know. I just worry about you, that's all. So if you didn't confront him, what happened this morning?"
He happened. "I was following him. Discreetly, as always. There was no way he had any idea I was behind him on the street. And I saw him walk down between the dry cleaner's and the bank, so I was just about to follow him —"
Alice grimaced. "There are no shops to duck into down there, no cover."
"I didn't get that far. This guy just arrived out of nowhere and warned me off."
Alice's eyes widened. "A guy? Oh no, one of Charmers's men? Do you think he's onto you?
Betty shook her head. "I don't know who he is. But he's definitely not working with Charmers. I think he's after him too. He refused to let me follow, tried to get me to walk away because he was sure Charmers would come back." She rubbed her head. And he'd been right, hadn't he? If she'd followed, Charmers would have known she was following him.
Alice blew out a breath. "I imagine him telling you to walk away didn't go down well." Her mouth twitched. "I wouldn't even want to tell you what to do."
"Huh." She wouldn't compromise for anyone, or anything. Three years ago she'd been in what had seemed like a serious relationship. But Jason hadn't understood her need to bring Charmers to justice — had wanted her to leave it to the professionals, to step back. He'd disagreed with her decision to hire a private investigator to try to find Charmers. Had told her it was a waste of time and money. Her money. When she'd discovered he'd gone behind her back and fired the private investigator, saying that she'd become obsessed in her search and branding her an amateur sleuth who didn't know what she was doing — she'd been beyond furious.
He'd insisted that as her man, he had the right to act in her best interests. Had told her it was time to let the past go, settle down, marry him, and have kids.
Faced with an ultimatum, she'd made the only choice possible. Had fired Jason from her life, and reinstated the private investigator.
"Well, you're right. I didn't take it well. I refused."
Alice nodded. "Called it."
"But then Charmers did turn around. And the stranger saw him coming back."
"So he backed me up against the wall and kissed me."
"He what?" Alice shrieked. "Some grubby, nasty stranger kissed you? Urgh, I just ... urgh!"
"Well, to be honest, he wasn't exactly grubby or nasty. I mean, it wasn't that bad, and he didn't exactly, you know, slip me tongue or anything. He just pressed his mouth on mine, and shielded me from view. And the moment Charmers turned the corner, he let me go."
"What did he say?"
"He just told me to stay away. Then he walked off."
Alice shook her head. Stood up, and paced the floor. "Well, that sure beats my morning."
I've been so selfish focusing on my own problems. Alice had been up since five taking Mel, the third partner in the garage, to the airport ... "Of course, I'm sorry, I didn't even ask you. Did everything go okay?"
"Yup. I got Mel and Heath to the airport in plenty of time to catch their flight. They were so excited."
"I'm not surprised. If I was off to explore the Amazon for a month, I'd be excited too." An envious ache burned in Betty's chest, not for the trip, but for the fact that Mel had found the perfect person to share both the trip and a lifetime with, Alice's brother.
Alice pulled a bunch of keys from her pocket and handed them over. "Mel asked me to give you these. And I know she already told you, but she insisted I tell you again that Joe Carter is arriving at their house at six with the bed, and you're to be there to let him in."
"Yup. Got it." Mel had told her multiple times, and left her a text message as well. It wasn't personal, it was just the way Mel was, so organized she even color-coded her sock drawer.
* * *
Where is he? Betty checked her watch. It was almost quarter to eight, and there was no sign of the man. The morning's excitement had been followed by a day from hell where she hadn't even had time to stop for lunch. Again and again, her thoughts returned to the stranger she'd met that morning — wondering who he was and what he was doing in Meadowsweet. She shouldn't have had any reaction to his kiss, shouldn't have softened, but the remembered plea in his eyes and the warmth that had curled in her stomach as they'd stood so close had scattered her thoughts — disoriented her.
She'd been so distracted she was late leaving the garage to head out to Mel's house and had missed the chance to grab something to eat. Now, her stomach growled like a wild, angry bear. All she'd wanted was to let this guy in, wait while he reassembled the bed, and get to the store to replenish her empty pantry. By now, every store in Meadowsweet would be closed, and she'd have to resort to takeout.
Takeout was so unhealthy. Laden with too much oil, salt, and additives. Her stomach growled again. Betty stalked into the kitchen and threw open the refrigerator.
The interior light glowed bright. Every shelf was bare, except for a jar of capers and a sealed packet of beets. Betty pulled open the door to the freezer compartment. Bingo. Stacks of color-coded plastic boxes were lined up like miniature buildings. Green on the right, clear in the middle, and red on the left. She took out a green one and read the label on the top. "Vegetarian lasagna." A quick check confirmed that the green boxes were all vegetable-related. Vegetables were the angelic, low-calorie option, but Betty was in the mood for meat. Her growling stomach agreed.
She took a stack of red boxes out and laid them on the kitchen table, arranging them so she could easily read the labels. Beef casserole, spicy meatballs, barbecue pork. Which to choose?
Betty's heart pounded hard enough to burst. She swung around, and her startled gaze shot to the man who filled the doorway. A man with midnight-blue eyes.
Her hand fluttered at her throat. What on earth was the stranger from this morning doing here? Had he followed her?
"You're Betty?" His eyes scanned her face with an I-don't-believe-it look. He took a step forward, then another.
Everything in Betty rioted with the urge to escape. She eyed the doorway behind him and edged farther behind the table, putting solid pine between them. Her mouth was so dry it was as if she'd spent days crawling through the desert. He knows my name. She swallowed. "What are you doing here?"
"Calm down." As if realizing her agitation, he stopped. Held up his hands palms-out. "I'm Joe Carter."
"You're Joe Carter?"
"Is there an echo in here?" His hands lowered to his sides. The tension seemed to leave his shoulders and the corners of his mouth lifted in a smile.
Smoothing a hand over her hair, she glanced down at the table. A funny, fluttery feeling on seeing that smile replaced the panic she'd felt moments earlier. Unwanted awareness of him chased the tension from her body and filled it with warmth.
She rubbed the ache blooming at her temple. "Very funny." To her annoyance, her words came out husky-soft, rather than sarcasm-laced. "I've been waiting here for almost two hours for a carpenter to show up, and now you? If you're Joe, what were you doing grabbing me this morning?"
He avoided the question and looked past her at the open freezer door. "Looks like you were keeping yourself busy. Raiding the freezer, were you?"
Huh. "I was hungry. Someone kept me waiting." The only reason she would ever break into someone else's freezer was under desperate circumstances. "What are you, carpenter or ..."
"It's complicated." He smiled, and once again attraction grabbed her insides with both hands and twisted. "But I have got a job to do this evening before we talk. I'm hungry too." A black eyebrow arched. "Maybe you and I could have dinner after I've assembled the bed?"
Faded jeans rode low on his lean hips and clung to his thighs. Above them, he wore a chunky navy sweater under a battered black leather jacket. Average, everyday clothing. But the breadth of his shoulders, the glimpse of tanned collarbone evident in the dip of the sweater's crew neck, were far from average or everyday. She scanned down. Work boots. Big work boots. Big feet, big ... Cutting that thought off at the pass, Betty's gaze shot up to collide with his.
Amusement danced in his eyes. "Well? Like what you see?"
Betty put her hands on her hips. Raised an eyebrow of her own. This flirtation was getting out of hand — fast. She glanced behind him through the hallway to the front door he'd left open. The sky was darkening.
Excerpted from Racing the Hunter's Moon by Sally Clements, Lewis Pollak. Copyright © 2014 Sally Clements. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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