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Angel Donovan limped home to Ordinary, Montana, on her wounded Honda Gold Wing, pulling to a stop on the shoulder of the highway a couple of miles shy of town. Out of gas.
She'd been gliding on fumes for the past quarter hour.
She tugged off her helmet and brushed sweat-dampened hair from her forehead, then dismounted.
The hot breeze outrunning nightfall across the prairie feathered her hair around her arms and her back, in the space between her vest and the waistband of her jeans. She should cut off every last black inch of it.
With one strong swing of her arm, she heaved the helmet into the closest field where it rolled across dry soil beneath yellow wheat, its red gloss disappearing under the dirt it picked up.
She unhooked her saddlebags and laid them down a few feet away, took out the can of lighter fluid she'd bought in Bozeman and sprinkled it over the bike.
It glowed golden in the horizontal rays of the setting sun, its chemical scent a counterpoint to the dry, earthy aroma of the fields.
When a pickup truck flew past, its rush of air pushed her toward the bike. Farther down the road, it slowed.
Whoever you are, keep moving. I don't need you meddling.
Striking a wooden match on the tight denim across her thigh, she threw it onto the bike and the lighter fluid ignited with a satisfying whoosh.
It crackled and whispered, spoke of things best laid to rest, smoked like a demon and obliterated the scratches and dents on the nearly new bike.
Neil, baby, this is for you.
The heat rising off the burning bike distorted the horizon in shimmering waves.
The pickup reversed down the road and came to a stop ten feet away. A man exited the vehicle with a fire extinguisher in his hand.
"No," Angel screamed, and tried to head him off, but he scooted around her.
He sprayed the bike and the fire sputtered, the flames hissed then died. Acrid smoke swirled into the air, choking her.
"Stop." She threw herself at the man and sent him staggering. His finger slid off the trigger, but not before he sprayed both of them.
Angel coughed. Her eyes watered.
"You want this to burn?" he asked. She didn't recognize him, or care who he was.
"Go away," she cried. "Mind your own business."
"Leave," she ordered. "I have to do this."
"The county's under a fire ban." He pressed the trigger to spray the bike and Angel launched herself at him again. She scratched his neck above the collar of his shirt and slapped his face.
He pushed her away, but she attacked again. His arms busy with her, he dropped the extinguisher and it rolled into the ditch. It could rot there.
"What the hell? Back off, woman."
"You back off," she cried. "You're ruining everything."
"You haven't changed a bit, have you? Still as self-centered as ever." He knew her?
He grabbed her arms, wrapped them across her body and hauled her back against his chest. Her struggles were useless. The guy was stronger than he looked.
"Listen to me," he said close to her ear. "We're in the middle of a heat wave."
He thought she didn't know that, with sweat dripping down her back?
"I don't care why you need to burn a perfectly good bike," he said, "but we're under a fire ban. You think the ranchers want you starting a wildfire, burning up their crops and their homes?"
He was right, damn him. She'd come close to screwing up again.
Timm Franck had always dreamed of holding Angel Donovan, but not like this. Not with anger and frustration. Not as though they were wrestling. She breathed hard.
The full breasts that probably half the men in town had had wet dreams about at one time or another rested on his forearm where he'd wrapped it across her ribs to hold her still. The other hand cupped her stomach and held her steady against him. On her abdomen, above her jeans, his thumb touched a strip of bare skin that felt like velvet.
She squirmed. Air hissed between his teeth. "Stop it."
An erection threatened. Thirty-one-year-old men weren't supposed to behave like randy teenagers. He wasn't a trigger-happy guy. But then, this was Angel.
When enough of the fight left her that he thought he could let her go, he eased his grip and stepped away. There was only so much he could take.
"Come on," he said. "I'll take you home. I assume you're heading to your mother's?"
She nodded, her attention on the foam-covered bike.
For a minute, Timm could only stare.
Disheveled dark hair fell to her waist. Red spots rode on her cheeks. One pale blue vein at her temple beat beneath her translucent skin. The deep V of her black leather top showcased a mile-long neck and the sweetest cleavage this side of the Rockies.
She had always been too pretty for her own good, or for the good of his peace of mind. Damn, she'd been away for four years and he still had it bad.
He reached a hand to her face and she pulled back. "Hold still." He wiped a spot of foam from the corner of her lip. Her peach-soft skin burned beneath his thumb.
There wasn't a square inch of her body he hadn't fantasized about touching over the years. She was even softer than he'd imagined and an urge rose in himto stake his claim on the playground of her body like the worst neighborhood bully.
He shook his head, snapping out of the daze Angel always inspired, disappointed that his reaction to her hadn't changed.
He was supposed to be a smart man. He owned and edited the largest newspaper for miles around. But it seemed that when it came to Angel Donovan, he was as brain-dead as every other man in Ordinary.
Assuming she would want the saddlebags lying on the side of the road, he picked them up and led her to his truck with a hand under her elbow.
"Neil," she whispered. "I'm so sorry." He glanced at her to make sure she hadn't mistaken him for someone else, but she was talking to herself. What was driving her to burn what looked to be a fairly new bike? Any bike, for that matter?
As they approached the truck, she stiffened and resisted his hold.
"Who are you?"
Not one trace of recognition shone in those brilliant eyes. He might as well have been a stranger. It shouldn't bother him. It did.
He'd always suspected he was invisible to Angel. He'd been invisible to everyone in his teens. Since then, he'd become a force to be reckoned with in town, but Angel hadn't been in Ordinary to witness it.
"I'm not getting into a truck with a stranger," she said with a pugnacious jutting of her jaw.
Tough and unafraid, the Angel he'd known could slice the balls off a man with the sharp edge of her tongue. Looked like she hadn't changed.
"I'm not a stranger," he answered. "I grew up in Ordinary."
"Never seen you before in my life."
Like he said, it shouldn't hurt, but it did.
"Get in the truck, Angel. I'm driving you into town."
"I'd rather walk."
"There's a bad element hanging around these days." Beneath his fingers, her pulse thrummed and that heartbeat warmed her perfumepatchouliand it swirled around him, heating his blood. Angel would have made a great hippyfree love and all that.
"I'm not letting you walk two miles into town," he said. "It will be dark by the time you get there."
She stared at him with her full lips pinched into a flat line. "Who are you?"
"Timm Franck," he said, hoping like crazy his name would spark a hint of recognition. It didn't.
"How do I know you?" Her gaze strayed to the top of his shirt, to the collar buttoned to his throat, and her eyes widened. "You're the guy who"
"Yeah," he muttered, resigned to the fact that she remembered him for the wrong reason. "I'm the guy who"
He released her.
"Get in and close the door," he said, quietly.
She blushed and slid into the truck with her eyes averted. Timm wished he didn't have this big sign stuck around his neck that pretty much said, This Guy Isn't Normal. When You Look At Him, Be Embarrassed. Be Very Embarrassed.
He hadn't been treated as normal in nearly twenty years.
He tossed her bags at her feet, left her to close the door and then walked around the front of the truck, in and out of beams of the headlights.
When he climbed into the driver's seat and slammed his door, her face came alive. Her blue eyes widened. Her mouth dropped open.
"Wait a minute," she said, and Timm saw the moment full recognition of exactly who he was hit her.
"You." She lunged out of the truck.
Timm prevented her escape with a hand on her arm.
So she finally remembered what he had written about her mother. It had been more than a dozen years ago, but she'd reacted badly then and she was reacting badly now.
"Stay in the truck, Angel," he said. "I'm driving you into town."
"Over my dead body."
"If I have to."
"I'd rather walk."
"Look, there's a new bar that's attracting bikers. They're tough and itching for trouble."
Her expression was mutinous, but she remained where she was. "Why did you interfere?" she asked, crossing her arms. "What I was doing was none of your business."
"If the gas in that bike's tank had ignited
" Imagining the destruction to the land around them, he shook his head.
Why hadn't life beaten even a modicum of common sense into the brain lurking behind that perfect face, or a soul into that stunning body?
Once a shallow beauty queen, always shallow.
"I ran out of gas," she mumbled, staring out of the open window as they drove past fields fading in the dying light.
That stopped him for a minute. "Why were you burning the bike?"
"Never mind. If I told you, you'd tell your father and he'd publish it in tomorrow's paper."
She did remember him, and his family.
"My father died last year," he said.
"Oh. I'm sorry," she said, her tone laced with sadness uncharacteristic of the Angel he knew. "I hadn't heard."
He nodded, but didn't respond.
"How did he die?" she asked.
Timm falteredhe still couldn't talk about Papa. Finally, he responded to her accusation of a few minutes ago. "I don't publish the Ordinary Citizen on Tuesdays."
"Don't be a smart-ass." In a split second, she reverted to sharp-tongued Angel. "Your paper is a rag full of nothing but gossip and innuendo." Yeah, she remembered him, and definitely for more of the wrong reasons.
"That's not true and you know it," Timm said. "I'm not apologizing for that story I wrote when I was a teenager. If you didn't like it, tough, but it was neither libel nor gossip."
At the time, he couldn't write about Angel without the whole town figuring out he had a crush on her a mile wide, so he'd written about her mother. And what was the difference? They were two peas in a pod.
He watched her stare out the window. One strand of hair had snagged on a silver hoop earring and he wanted to tuck it behind her ear, so he gripped the steering wheel.
"It was a story," he pressed. "Fiction." In his irritation, his foot came down heavily on the accelerator and he picked up speed. He forced himself to relax. It was weird to have Angel in his truck, sexy and smelling of retro perfume.
"Everyone in town knew the story was about Mama."
That's because it was. "I never called her by name."
"You didn't have to. Everyone knew it was Missy Donovan." Her laugh sounded brittle. "You all but called my mother a slut and you were right."
A slut? He shot her a glance. "I did not."
"Yeah? What exactly did 'she can take a man anywhere she wants him to go' mean?"
He smiled. "You can quote my story?"
She paused a moment before saying, "I only ever saw the one written about Mama."
"I meant that she was sexy and knew how to use it to her advantage, that she knew how to get whatever she wanted from men."
She drummed the fingers of one hand on her thigh. Timm wondered how it felt to be the daughter of the town's
for lack of a better word, slut. "Missy brags about how you've changed your life. Your mom is proud of you."
So was he. During his adolescent years, while everyone else had been out doing things, he'd been at home sick, sitting at his bedroom window, watching people, studying human nature, wanting to believe the best of people. They didn't always measure up.
Angel had fascinated him. Most of the time she'd risen only as far as her trailer-trash background would allow, but he'd thought there might be more to her than she let people see.
Then, four years ago, at twenty-four, she'd left for college and Timm had thought, Yes! Surprise us all!
If she had indeed turned her life around, why was she here pulling a stunt like burning a bike on the side of the road?
In the barely visible light, her lips twisted. "Mama needs to get a hobby and stop talking about me."
"In high school, you were voted Most Likely to Succeed."
"I remember," she answered, her tone a trace bitter. "As an exotic dancer."
"No one ever expected you to end up at college, studying math of all things."
She didn't say anything. If silence could be qualified, this one was heavy with significance.
Had he gotten it wrong? He usually had a sharp memory. "You did study math, right?"
What was up? Why wouldn't she look at him or answer his questions?
He flipped on the interior light. She faced him with a stunned expression then, just as quickly, turned away. He noticed a mottled blush on her neck. She was hiding something.
What had happened to her at college?
A sharp flash of disappointment flooded him. He'd thought that, given half a chance, Angel would have used college to break out of the mold fate had pressed her into. Too bad he'd thought too highly of her.
He shut off the light. "You didn't do well at college, did you?"
"I excelled," she snapped.
In some weird way, he thought he knew Angel too well. "You didn't finish, did you?"
With her thumbnail, she worried a hangnail on her index finger. "No," she mumbled almost too low to hear.
The intensity of his reaction took him by surprise.