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Hooper: ZACH'S LAW
Theodora Suzanne Jessica Tyler realized she’d made a mistake. Not a big one, really, except that it now looked as though she’d landed herself in a first-class mess. She was miles away from civilization, it was after midnight, and her beloved old Impala had just given up the ghost.
Swearing, Teddy got out of the car and slammed the door, annoyed at herself rather than the Impala. She’d been warned, after all, that the car probably wouldn’t be able to stand the trip across the Rockies. And the poor thing had groaned and wheezed when she’d started the engine hours ago in that little town.
“So what if their only hotel was a crummy one?” she told the car in disgust. “At least it had a roof. And there was a telephone. I could have put you in for repairs in that garage for a couple of days. I should have. Then we wouldn’t be stuck halfway down a mountain and miles from everything.” She glanced around at total darkness, adding a bit louder, “And on a deserted road, dammit. Except for us, there’s been no traffic for fifty miles.”
Dispiritedly, she kicked a tire gently and began to swear in a steady voice. It made her feel better. Her voice was a rational sound in the utter quiet of a deserted night, and comforting for that reason.
Teddy was accustomed to being alone, but she didn’t like being this alone. And since panic was alien to her nature, she began to get angrier.
“There must be somebody in this godforsaken wilderness. Maybe if I blew the horn—”
There was somebody in the wilderness.
When he reached out, the last thing Zach expected to gather to his massive chest was a small, soft, decidedly feminine armful with a fine talent for creative cursing and great survival instincts. He’d heard a woman speak, but she’d sounded taller somehow, and it was too dark to see clearly.
He clamped one big hand over her mouth, cutting off the loud and colorful swearing, and tried not to hurt her while also trying to protect vulnerable parts of his anatomy from her rage.
“Hold it!” he growled hastily. “I’m not going to hurt you!”
She chose not to believe him. She also chose to bring her small, booted heel down squarely on his left foot, and since he wasn’t wear- ing boots himself, the contact was definitely painful. She also bit him.
“Dammit!” He grunted with pain, shifting his feet and momentarily releasing her mouth.
“Let go of me, you big oaf!” she said, then drew a deep breath.
Since he couldn’t afford to let her scream, Zach covered her mouth again. Her response was a series of indignant kicks and a few violent and improbable wiggles. A bit indignant himself, he lifted her completely off her feet and tightened his grasp with the care of a large and powerful man who knew his own vast strength to the last ounce; he was still hoping he wouldn’t hurt her.
Speaking in a soft voice near her ear, he said, “I’ll uncover your mouth if you won’t scream—and if you do scream, I swear I’ll deck a woman for the first time in my life!”
She bit him again.
Hampered by having to hold her and desperately determined that she make no sound, Zach briefly considered his options. They weren’t promising. The last thing he wanted to do was knock her out. She was reacting fairly reasonably to her situation as she saw it, and had done nothing to deserve a forced nap. Besides, if Zach had any soft spot at all, it was for little women with more courage and temper than sense. Like her.
“I won’t hurt you,” he repeated, switching to a soothing tone and managing to set her on her feet just long enough to pull a handkerchief from his pocket. Before she could start kicking again, he distracted her by removing his hand from her mouth and quickly replacing it with the handkerchief. He had her gagged in just a few seconds and had her back off her feet before she could give vent to her renewed rage.
The sounds she made now were muffled and unintelligible, which was all he could hope for; he was silently praying the noises reached no more than a few yards in any direction. He had to work quickly and quietly, and his mind was racing over those few options.
He couldn’t let her go even if he could get the car running again. In her mood, she was sure to drive straight to the nearest town—a scant ten miles away—and report her encounter with a murderous fiend on the roadside. Even if he could explain his behavior, which he couldn’t, he didn’t dare attract attention. He couldn’t tie her up and leave her in the car; if anyone found her, it would likely be the wrong people. And if he kept her with him, she was sure as hell going to prove a royal pain in the rear—whether or not he could convince her he was on the side of the angels.
Swearing softly and being unconsciously fierce about it, Zach finally managed to wrestle her over to a slender tree and used his belt to bind her wrists together behind it. Then, ignoring the blue-tinted noises coming from behind the gag, he approached the car and used his pencil flashlight to check it out. The rusting Impala was over twenty years old; it didn’t take Zach five minutes to realize the car had died and that its resurrection depended on nothing less than a new engine.
He stood beside it for a moment, gazing thoughtfully in the dark down the straight stretch of road. Finally, with a philosophical shrug, he reached inside and got the keys. The unlocked trunk revealed a couple of swollen suitcases, which he retrieved and put by the side of the road. Then he got in and methodically went through the car, gathering every shred of paper he could find and stuffing them into the pocket of his flannel jacket.
There was a large leather handbag inside, as well as a thermos and a tote bag filled with various snacks, and he put those by the side of the road. Just to be sure, he also searched beneath the seats and under the floor mats. He found a roll of electrician’s tape in the glove compartment and used that to lock the steering wheel in place, then knocked the car out of gear and released the emergency brake.
He got out and went around to the rear of the car, standing still for a long moment as he listened. Sound carried in the mountains, and he knew he’d hear if another car was within miles. There was no sound. Bending, he pushed hard, his considerable muscles bunching with the effort. The car began rolling, and thirty seconds later Zach watched the last faint glint of it disappear silently into the darkness.
This stretch of road ended, he knew, in a gentle curve overlooking a small lake. The car wouldn’t make the turn. Several minutes passed before Zach heard the distant splash of something heavy finishing off a high dive into the lake in grand style.
A muffled wail came from behind him, and Zach sighed as he loaded up the woman’s stuff and carried it into the woods. It didn’t take long to get the bags to his place. Minutes later, he was back at the tree, gazing at her. Despite highly developed night vision, he couldn’t see much, but judging by her movements, the lady was still furious.
He couldn’t really blame her.
He was more worried at the moment, however, by their proximity to the house. He glanced in that direction, relieved to find no light shining through the trees. With any luck at all, he decided, they hadn’t made enough commotion to attract attention.
Wondering what in heaven’s name he was going to do with her, Zach unfastened the lady’s wrists, avoiding her kicking and managing to get her away from the tree. He bound her wrists behind her back again, then hoisted her easily over one shoulder. It was simple to hold both her tiny ankles and prevent her from kicking him, but her struggles slightly upset his balance. He slapped her smartly on the rear with his free hand, muttering softly, “Be still!” Not that she did; an indignant note was now added to the furious sounds still emanating from behind the gag.
He carried her through the woods and away from the house and road. Within moments they were deep into the forest. Zach could move quickly and quietly, especially for a man of his size and weight. He slowed at last, pushing his way through a tangle of undergrowth, ivy, and brambles that hid a small rickety cabin. He opened the surprisingly well-fitted door and carried her inside, closing the door behind them.
It was pitch dark inside, but he moved unerringly across the small room and dropped her gently onto a wide, sturdy cot. Then he double-checked to make certain the heavy shades still guarded the two small windows before he turned on a large, battery-powered lamp. The light was strong, and Zach turned with a great many misgivings to contemplate his unexpected—and unwelcome—guest.
The first thing he noticed was her hair. There seemed to be a great deal of it for so tiny a woman, and it was such a bright red as to seem unreal. Above the strip of white linen guarding her mouth was a delicate nose sprinkled with freckles and large, spaniel-brown eyes. Her eyes dominated her face, giving her a waiflike appearance. Her skin was the creamy white of a true redhead, and though she was certainly a small woman, Zach knew there were quite a few eye-catching curves beneath her heavy sweater and jeans. He’d felt them.
She wasn’t beautiful, but there was something endearingly sweet and fresh about her face. Cute. She was cute, he decided judiciously. She was also, he realized, staring at him in alarm. Fear.
He didn’t have to ask what had altered the rage to fear even as he’d turned to face her. The scar. He never quite forgot he bore that scar, even though he wasn’t self-conscious about it. The thin silver mark ran from the corner of his left eye to his jaw, and though it wasn’t disfiguring, he knew it lent his face a look of menace, perhaps even cruelty.
Especially in a situation like this.