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Jaci Williams hadn't always been a party girl, but after a night of body shots and now puking her guts out in the alley behind Ricochet, who would believe her?
The truth was, sometimes a girl would do anything to blot out a memory—including killing multiple brain cells with tequila and lime.
"Hold on, there, chica," her best friend and partner in crime slurred as she tried to keep Jaci from falling into the muddy muck that reeked of bad decisions and too many free drinks from guys hoping to get lucky. "If you go face-first in that garbage, you're on your own," Sonia warned, trying to keep Jaci steady. "You done? Or do you need to go another round?"
Jaci wiped her mouth and offered a sloppy grin. "I'm good. Where's the cab? I'm ready to go to bed."
"Not down this creepy alley, that's for sure," Sonia managed to quip as they helped each other down the uneven pavement, stumbling a few times. "We should've left through the front door. They have cabs lined up, ready to go. But no, you wanted to go out the back door so no one saw you throw up. Jaci, I swear to God, if I get jumped or raped, I'm going to kick your ass."
Jaci smiled, feeling somewhat better, if not totally steady on her feet after unloading an excess of liquor onto the dirty ground. Ricochet was their favorite club and Fridays it was always hopping. Both Jaci and Sonia loved to dance and drink, two activities that Ricochet honored with plenty of loud music and even more alcohol.
"Did you see that guy totally checking you out?" Sonia said as they walked arm in arm down the dark path. The lights from the street glittered in the pale moonlight as the nightlife dwindled to nothing in the early-morning hours. The Los Angeles heat was still oppressive, causing Jaci's skin to prickle with sweat. She pushed her hair from her eyes and tried to remember who Sonia was talking about. She simply shrugged when she couldn't recall.
Sonia nudged her in the arm. "Come on, you can't tell me you didn't notice him. Tall, dark and a little dangerous-looking, actually," Sonia said with a happy shiver. "The kind who'll at least buy you dinner before having his way with you."
Jaci kept her thoughts to herself on that score. She'd known a man like that and while the sex had been incredible, he'd snapped her heart in two and left it a bloody mess without once looking back. Sonia exhaled, adding, "Well, I thought for sure he was going to buy you a drink but he left about an hour ago. Sorry, kid. He might've been The One."
Doubtful, Jaci thought, but smiled anyway. "Stop trying to find my Mr. Right," she murmured on a hiccup. "There are no Mr. Rights, only Mr. Right Nows and Mr. You'll Do For the Nights. Remember?"
"Right," Sonia said with mock seriousness. "Whatever you say."
They giggled, their laughter echoing in the still, closed-in heat, with Jaci's thoughts happily soaked in tequila, drowning anything that resembled regret or sadness. This was the way to get over a broken heart, she thought giddily. Who needed therapy when you had good friends and even better liquor?
They were nearly to the curb when a form stepped out from the shadow. Jaci and Sonia startled at the hulking man's sudden appearance. The alcohol in Jaci's stomach curdled with apprehension, something setting off her internal sensors to be wary. Sonia, however, suffered from no similar sense of caution and before Jaci could shoot her a warning look, Sonia reacted with irritation.
"Hey, you're blocking the way," Sonia said, motioning for him to let them pass. When he didn't budge, she yelled, "Hey, stupido, get out of the way. Are you deaf or something?"
"Let's just go around," Jaci muttered, pulling on Sonia's arm. "This feels weird."
"Weird is right," Sonia agreed with a glower as she pulled her pepper spray free. "You see this? It's called pepper spray and you're about to get an eyeful if you don't get the hell out of our way."
"Jaci Williams.. " The man's voice was rough and sounded as if he gargled with gravel. Then he grinned, and Jaci's blood chilled. Who the hell was he? Why did he know her name? Nothing good could come of this little tableau in the making.
Sonia sucked in a sharp gasp and her hand tightened around Jaci's as he pulled a 9 mm gun with a silencer screwed onto the top. Oh, God. Adrenaline chased away the remnants of her intoxication and she struggled to breathe.
"You can have our money, our credit cards, whatever you want. Just let us go," Jaci pleaded, swallowing a bubble of fear burning her throat and tasting like tequila shooters. "Please " Seconds later a tight popping sound ripped through the air and Sonia's grip on Jaci's hand loosened as she toppled to the filthy alley floor without a sound, a single bullet wound still sizzling around the torn flesh of her forehead. Her sightless eyes gazed up at the stars as blood dribbled from the wound, and it took a full second for Jaci to realize her best friend had just been shot and killed right beside her.
Jaci opened her mouth to scream as the man switched his aim and pointed the gun directly at her own head. I'm going to die in this dirty alley. The cops would find two corpses in the morning, stiff and gray, and that would be the end of things. Tears welled in Jaci's eyes right before she squeezed them shut. She didn't want to see the bullet coming at her. She hoped it didn't hurt too much
Her eyes snapped open when, instead of a bullet burying itself in her brain, she heard a grunt and the distinct sound of bodies hitting the ground. Two men—the man who'd shot Sonia and another man—grappled for the gun. The other stranger landed a clean upper-cut, smashing the man's jaw and shattering teeth as they clattered against each other. It was all he needed to gain the upper hand. With a quick and deadly motion, he pistol-whipped the man unconscious, and then wasted little time in splattering his brains all over the pavement.
Jaci jumped, torn between her desire to run and her need to stay with Sonia's body at least until the authorities arrived, but her savior didn't give her the choice. "Come with me," he ordered tersely and she could only stare.
"Who are you?" she asked, scared out of her mind. "What's going on? Did you know this man? Are you a cop? He just stood in our way and then he shot Sonia," she babbled, her gaze dropping to her friend's lifeless body. She cried out in shocked agony at the sheer senselessness of the crime and lowered herself to Sonia's side, clinging to the only protocol that seemed appropriate for such a horrifying situation. "We have to call 911," she said, crying openly. "We have to make a statement we—"
"There's nothing we can do for your friend. We have to leave now," he cut in, jerking her to her feet. "That man was hired to kill you. Your friend was collateral damage. They will send another as soon as they discover this one failed. We have to take cover. Now."
"What are you talking about?" Jaci asked, wiping at her tears and staring at the man shrouded in the shadows. "Who are you? And what people are trying to kill me? I'm no one. I swear it. This is a terrible mistake. I've never even had a parking ticket."
The man stepped out of the shadow and the street lamp revealed the angled, achingly familiar and devas-tatingly handsome face of the man who'd ruined her for all other men and had set her on the path of destruction without a care. "Jaci come with me, now."
"Nathan?" The name slipped from her lips like the lyrics of a song she'd never forgotten, from shock at coming face-to-face with the man who'd broken her heart so callously two months ago. "What are you doing here?"
"There's no time to explain," he answered brusquely, motioning her with a curt movement. "Let's move."
New tears burned her eyes, but these weren't tears of grief and horror. Those would come again later. The tears beginning to course down her cheeks were of pain and anger, hatred and humiliation. She'd rather die than accept a finger's worth of help from him.
"Screw you, Nathan." She didn't want him to save her. Anyone but him. "I'll take my chances."
His mouth firmed in a tight line, plainly displeased with her answer. "Not an option," he said, shocking her. Quick as a snake, he twisted her into his arms and plunged something sharp into her neck.
Then there was nothing.
Nathan Isaacs never wasted time weighing the means against the ends. The situation was simple: he wasn't leaving without Jaci, no matter if she agreed or not.
Which is why he'd come prepared with a syringe filled with a heavy sedative.
He hefted Jaci's limp body and ignored the way her tight skirt rode her thighs and exposed entirely too much leg. His grip tightened on her body, but otherwise, he kept his gaze sharp and wary. His only intent was getting her to safety. Besides, he didn't need to see what he could plainly remember.
Nathan had no trouble recalling those long legs or those full breasts. Hell, they were imprinted on his brain, likely seared into his soul. He remembered with painful clarity the way her green eyes lit up with laughter and how she had a tendency to chew her lip when worried. He'd memorized every line of her body, every frown line in her forehead.
He flashed back to the taste of her flesh in his mouth, the sound of her breathy cries when she'd reached her climax.
Oh, yes, Nathan's recollection was crystal clear in that regard.
The memories of their time together fueled his nightmares and teased his dreams.
He hadn't left her behind because he'd lost interest; he'd left her behind to save her.
And yet trouble had gone looking for her just the same.
Someone wanted her dead. Because of him.
"I'm sorry, Jase," he muttered, laying her gently in the backseat of his car. "I never wanted my life to come after you. It wasn't supposed to be like this."
Fat lot of good his apologies and grand gestures did them both now. An innocent woman was dead and Nathan was going to have to convince Jaci to let him protect her until he could find other means.
Well, by the time the sedative wore off, they'd be long gone, deep into the Los Padres high country.
And there wasn't much she'd be able to do about that by then.
She was going to be pissed—but alive.
That's all that mattered.
Jaci's head throbbed in time with the beat of her heart and her mouth tasted as if someone had stuffed it with an oily rag. She dragged her hand across her lips, still a bit sluggish in the brain, and tried to get her bearings.
She could hear the shrill chatter of birds somewhere. She struggled to open her eyes and when she managed to peer blearily about at her surroundings, she realized with a frightening start that she had absolutely no idea where the hell she was.
Bright morning sunlight streamed in through a dusty window and the air in the room smelled musty, as if the place had been closed up for a while and only recently reopened.
Her neck ached as if someone had pinched her and as she rubbed at the sore flesh, she recalled bits and pieces of the previous night with horrifying detail. Sonia. Dead.
Her hand flew to her mouth and she sucked back a wild sob. How had the evening taken such a devastating turn? One minute they'd been enjoying a nice buzz from too many drinks sent their way and the next her best friend since junior high was dead. It was all too much to take in without dissolving into a moaning, sobbing mess. She wasn't the kind of woman to break into hysterics under most circumstances but she was fairly certain she was about to have a grand-level freak-out any moment as the last thread holding her nerves together frayed in spectacular fashion.
Jaci blindly fumbled around her, searching for her cell phone. She had to call the police and report it. What time was it? Likely they'd already found Sonia's body, left behind in that alley like trash. God forgive her, she'd left her best friend alone. Where the hell was her damn phone?
"If you're looking for your cell, I tossed it," came Nathan's voice from the doorway, his tone matter-of-fact and brooking no argument. He held two steaming coffee mugs in his hands but even as his gesture may have appeared kind given the circumstance, Jaci didn't know how to accept his offer considering their history.
She stared, unable to process everything at once, as Nathan walked into the room, bare to the waist, wearing faded jeans, offering a short explanation. "Your phone has a GPS and is traceable. Sorry, but I had no choice but to ditch it. Besides, you shouldn't be contacting anyone until I know it's safe to do so. In the meantime you are going off the grid."
"What the hell is going on?" she whispered, scooting away from him, rejecting his offer of coffee, though she sorely needed it. She clutched a pillow to her chest, as if that would protect her from him, and glared through a sheen of tears. "Someone shot my best friend and he was going to shoot me. You show up and k-kill that man and then kidnap me for some reason when two months ago, you couldn't stand to be near me another second. I don't understand what is happening," she couldn't help but cry with a pathetic mewl that would've embarrassed her if she hadn't been suffering from shock. "I'm in a nightmare and I can't wake up. God, help me," she said, sniffing back tears. "She's dead. Sonia is dead." Even as she murmured the words and knew it to be true, the reality felt forced.
"I'm sorry about your friend," Nathan said with genuine remorse that confused her. "I hadn't realized that the two of you had slipped out the back into the alley or else I would've been there sooner."
She regarded him slowly, recalling a snippet of Sonia's bawdy comments from that night. Why hadn't she realized it earlier? The classic jawline, the hard body built with layer upon layer of muscle "You were the one watching us?"
He offered a curt nod but didn't deign to explain, which only made her want to throw something at his damnably handsome face.