Dax Cannon never says no to a challenge. But when he discovers a sexy stowaway in the back of his truck, he realizes Annelise Ansel might be more than he bargained for.
An artist, Lissa claims she's leaving New Orleans for a fresh start in Michigan--which just happens to be where he's headed with the pack of rescue dogs he's delivering to the sanctuary he works for. But when three thugs threaten to take lovely Lissa off his hands, he realizes she's in need of a sanctuary, too.
Once Lissa is riding shotgun with her long, lean protector, she's wondering if fate might have something better in store for her than a life in hiding. But when her hijinks threaten to take down the best man she's ever had the pleasure to run away with, Lissa realizes it's time to face her demons. Now it's up to the two of them to fight through the danger to discover the life-and love-waiting on the other side . . .
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Dax Cannon never thought trouble would appear in such an unassuming package. But with his vast experience in stirring it up or sniffing it out, he really should have known better.
She wore a paisley kerchief tank top, the triangle hem fluttering around her waist. Dax didn't see her face as she hurried past, but the cascade of curls tumbling down her back was enough to capture his attention. They looked so soft, Dax's palms itched to reach out and touch them. Her hair was a rich mahogany near the roots, growing lighter until the blond tips disappeared into the sunlight. Her bare, tawny arms were long and slender, and the tips of the fingers on her right hand were stained blue. She had a black backpack tossed over one shoulder, and it bounced off her pert behind with each step she took as she jaywalked across the street.
Reaching the other side, the woman stopped by two young boys tap-dancing on the sidewalk, dug into her pocket, and tossed some bills into an upturned hat. One of the kids gave her a thumbs-up as he spun at lightning speed.
Unbidden, Dax's feet turned to follow. He stepped onto Decatur Street, and a mule brayed a foot from his left ear. Heart thumping, he leaped back onto the sidewalk.
He shook his head and patted the animal's rump as it trotted past. "What a dumb ass," he muttered, and he wasn't talking about the mule. When the tourist carriage passed, the woman with the long curls was gone.
He sighed. Well, no matter. He wasn't in New Orleans for a vacation. He'd left Crook County only two days ago. Two days, one thousand miles, four tanks of gas, and more fast-food restaurants than he could count. And now to make the return trip at the same exhausting pace. But the eight at-risk dogs he'd picked up from the local pound were heading to Forever Friends, the no-kill shelter he volunteered for in Michigan. They were safe, and that made the trip worth every headache.
A gust of wind rippled the green awning of Café du Monde. An elderly woman in front of the café grabbed for her scarf, but it blew off her shoulders. Caught in the breeze, it drifted up and up and wrapped itself around a light post.
Dax jogged over to her. "I'll get that for you, ma'am. If you'll just hold my bags ..." He waited until she cupped the two bags of baked goods with wrinkled fingers.
She drew her eyebrows together. "It's fifteen feet up, young man. You'll never reach it."
"I love when someone says I can't do something." He shook out his arms and shot her a grin. "It makes it that much more satisfying when I succeed." He winked and turned toward his target. The light post had a boxy base that rose two feet from the ground. The lip was an inch wider than the pole, plenty of space for a toehold. He ran for the light, jumped onto the base, and pushed off. He stretched his lanky six-foot-three frame and grabbed the pole close to the horizontal arm the scarf was wrapped around.
Hand over hand, he pulled himself up the last couple of feet and tugged the silk square free. He slid down the pole, hopped off, and presented the scarf to the woman with a flourish. "Madam."
Several patrons from the café's patio clapped, and Dax swept a low bow.
The woman handed him his bags and knotted the scarf around her neck. "Thank you for the dramatic rescue," she said wryly.
Dax opened his mouth to respond, but a group of three beefy men knocked into him as they hurried down the sidewalk.
Dax staggered into the woman and threw out a hand to steady her. "Hey, watch it," he shouted after the jerks. The men ignored him and quickened their pace.
The older woman sniffed. "People today. What are you going to do?"
He shrugged and waved goodbye. His irritation melted away before he'd crossed the street. It was hard to stay annoyed in the Big Easy. With its decadent food, sultry music, and beguiling women — Dax looked up and down Decatur but didn't see any long curls — New Orleans didn't allow a person to stay in a bad mood for long. Maybe he should take a real vacation down here sometime.
He found the Forever Friends van parked a block away in front of a used bookstore. He opened the back doors, and a chorus of barking greeted him.
"I know, I said I wouldn't be long. But it took me a while to find Da Bone Bakery." He opened his second bag and doled out cookies among the eight dogs in their cages. The dog treats smelled as good as his beignets, and if he didn't already have his own snack, Dax would have been tempted. "I'll find a rest stop in a couple of hours, little dudes."
A Bluetick Coonhound scratched at his cage and whined.
"You'll get to run free in a little bit." Through the wire, Dax scratched the white patch on his black head. "Sit tight." He hopped out of the van and closed one of the doors.
The sound of shouting down the street drew his attention. He walked to the front of the van and eyed one of the yahoos who had knocked into him, yelling at a cabbie. Out of his open window, the driver tossed the man a one-fingered response and sped off, narrowly missing the guy's toes. His buddies pulled him off the street. They strode down the sidewalk, peeking into shop windows and down alleys.
Karma was a bitch. Dax was a firm believer that what a person sent out into the world boomeranged back around. Knock into someone one moment, almost get your toes run over the next. One of the men turned, and Dax spun around to hide his grin. He circled to the back of the van and shut the other door. Jumping into the driver's seat, he cranked the engine. The van sputtered, coughed, and, with a little bit of coaxing and pedal-pumping, finally turned over.
Dax eased onto the narrow street and made his way out of Crescent City. He hit the I-10 freeway and headed for home. Rummaging in his bag, he pulled out a beignet and took a bite. Powdered sugar drifted down like snow to dust his cargo pants. Dax moaned. Sweet, lardy goodness.
A dog in the back howled, the sound muffled through the wall between the cab and the cargo area.
"We'll go for a run soon," Dax called around a mouthful of fried dough. Obviously not believing him, the dog howled again. Poor bugger. Dax hated to cage the animals, but it was for their own safety. And Brad, the owner of Forever Friends, would tan Dax's hide if he caught him building a playpen in the back of the van again. As long as Dax worked for other people, he'd do as they asked. But when he had his own business ...
He wiped his hand on his pants and flipped the visor down. A picture of a different van stared back at him. Off-Road Adventures was written in a chunky print across its side. He ran his finger over the picture, and his stomach fluttered.
Dax enjoyed volunteering for Forever Friends, which was lucky because he didn't have a choice about it. Legally enforced servitude, as he liked to call it. But his time there couldn't compare to the thrill of leading a group of people out into the wilderness for a vacation they'd never forget. His probation was almost up, and soon he could return to working at the adventure company full-time. But he wanted to be more than just an employee.
He squeezed the steering wheel. Jesse had agreed to his sale price. Dax still couldn't believe it. In four short months, when Jesse retired, Off-Road Adventures could belong to Dax. If Dax could raise the down payment.
Considering his life savings consisted of a bundled-up roll of fifties in a coffee can under his bed, that might be a challenge. But he loved challenges.
He hit a causeway, a ten-mile stretch of freeway raised above swampland on the left and Lake Pontchartrain on the right.
The howling from the back rose in volume and was joined by a round of barks. The cacophony drowned out the radio set to a country music station. Maybe it was the song, heavy on the fiddle, that was riling up the dogs. Dax turned the radio off, and the ruckus in the back grew louder. Something thumped.
"Shit." It couldn't have been a cage tipping over. He'd checked the tie-downs twice. Something falling from a shelf? The bag of dog food hitting the floor? Water stretched on both sides of the freeway. There was nowhere to pull off to check. None of the barks sounded pained or frightened, but Dax pressed his foot to the accelerator anyway.
It was five more miles before he hit land. Taking the first exit, he pulled over onto a grassy patch lined with beech trees. He cut the engine and hopped out. The barking increased to a fevered pitch. "Guys, I'm coming. Cool your jets."
He stretched his hands to the sky as he stood before the back doors. Now that he'd stopped, he should let the dogs out to stretch their legs, too. It was six hours to Memphis, his goal for the night, and even though their cages were lined with the fluffiest dog beds money could buy, it still wasn't the Hilton back there.
The loudmouth of the group bayed, the mournful cry going on and on. "All right, I'm coming." He unlocked the door and pulled the handle. Reaching around to the latch on the second door, he released it and threw both doors wide. "Now what —"
A wave of fur and slobber charged at him. The front paws of an Akita hit Dax's chest, and he stumbled back. The thick body of a bassett hound knocked into his legs, and Dax went down. All eight dogs leaped from the van and seemed to take pleasure in jumping on top of him. Thirtytwo paws stampeded over his body. His air was forced from his lungs. Small dots of light swam across his vision.
The dog howled again. It was the Bluetick Coonhound, and now Dax recognized the sound for the victorious cry of freedom that it was. The hound stood near the fender, its black-and-white chest puffed out, tan nose pointed to the heavens. The other dogs circled around him before bolting for the parklike area. The Bluetick looked as proud as if he'd freed his friends and led the rebellion himself. Like a smaller, and hairier, version of William Wallace.
Dax assessed his own condition. A slowly spinning head, but nothing severe enough to indicate a concussion. Sore legs and stomach from the dogs bouncing down on him. But all in all, no major damage.
A gorgeous cascade of wild curls popped into view.
Maybe Dax had hit his head harder than he thought. He blinked, but the vision didn't disappear.
The woman underneath the curls stood in the open doorway of the van, chewing on her bottom lip. Her entrancing blue eyes glowed in her light brown face. A small band of tiny, multicolored beads circled her slim throat. She raised her hand to the top of the frame to steady herself, and the triangle hem of her paisley top rose an inch. "Are you okay? Those little guys were really excited to get out of here."
"What ... who ... what ...you!" Dax rose onto one elbow. "Who are you and what are you doing in the back of my van?" He sat up, saw stars again, and held his position.
She hopped down, and the hem of her top fluttered up above the belly button of her toned stomach.
"Hi. I'm Annelise Ansel, but call me Lissa." She reached back into the van and grabbed the bag full of leashes that sat near the door. "We'd better get these guys rounded up. Don't want them to become gator bait."
Dax looked from her, to the now empty van to the dogs rollicking about them. He slowly shook his head. "Where did you come from?"
"The French Quarter. I needed a ride." She shrugged. The small strap of her top slid down her shoulder, and she pushed it back up.
"You needed a ride," he repeated, and pinched the crown of his nose. He'd definitely hit his head harder than he thought. "You needed a ride, so, what? You decided to hitch one in the back of a van moving rescue dogs up to Michigan?"
"Michigan? Is that where we're going?" She unwound one leash from the bunch and chased down a small terrier.
"We're not going anywhere." Dax grabbed the bumper and hefted himself upright. "I'm going home. You're going" — he flapped his hand toward New Orleans — "wherever the heck you belong." He looked at the van's doors and jiggled the lock. It worked. "How did you get in here?"
"On Royal Street, you left the doors open for a moment." She snagged a small mutt and held his squirming body in one arm while trying to attach the leash with the other. "These guys don't like being cooped up. I think on the rest of the drive up to Michigan, we should let them ride outside their cages."
Dax gripped the back of his neck with both hands. "I repeat: We are not going to Michigan. I am. You are going back to ... a psychiatric facility?"
The edges of her pink lips curved up, and she rolled her eyes. Like he was the one with a screw loose.
"A halfway house?" He planted his hands on his hips. "Are you jumping parole?"
"Don't be absurd." She looped the end of the leash around her wrist and grabbed a corgi as it trotted by. "I'm a painter. I was getting tired of New Orleans and decided to try somewhere else." She tilted her head. "Michigan sounds as good a place as any. Does it get really cold there?"
"Freezing." He took a step closer to her and ignored the scent of honeysuckle rolling off her skin. "If you want to move, you call a moving company. Pack more than a backpack's worth of stuff," he said, nodding at her pack wedged in the corner of the van. "You do not, I repeat, do not, hop in the back of a stranger's van full of rescue dogs."
She snapped the leash to the corgi's collar. "All I need are my brushes. Everything else is replaceable. Are we going to Detroit? I hear the music there is almost as good as in New Orleans."
Dax stared at the sky. A puffy white cloud was its sole occupant, aside from the sun. That celestial object had started its descent toward the horizon, a reminder that daylight was burning and he was on a schedule. "Look, I'll call a cab for you. I'll even pay —"
"No, thanks." She shook her head, and the waterfall of curls shimmered in the light. "Besides, why waste money on a taxi when we're going the same way?"
"You must have family who can help you if you want to move." The Bluetick nudged Dax's hand with his cold nose. Dax bent for his collar, but the hound took off at a sprint toward the tree line. Perfect. "Why don't you ask them for a ride?"
"My parents live in a Winnebago. I'm not sure what state they're in today." She handed him the leashes to the dogs she'd captured and took off after the Akita, which was rolling in the dirt nearby.
"Siblings?" he yelled after her.
Dax rubbed his forehead. It was beginning to throb. His dad had taught him to be a gentleman. He couldn't leave a woman alone on the side of an interstate. And it wasn't like he hadn't picked up hitchhikers before. But those people had asked for a ride, not stowed away in the back like fugitives. He was getting a bad vibe from this chick. And no matter how beautiful she was, he couldn't let his hormones override his good sense.
"How about friends?" he shouted. "You must have friends you can call."
She dove for the dog, missed, and landed on her butt. The Akita trotted up to check on her and she snapped on the leash. "Other artists," she called back. "Complete flakes." Standing, she brushed grass off her behind and sauntered back toward the van. Her blue jeans were molded to her hips, and each step she took toward him was a seduction.
He swallowed, trying to bring moisture back to his mouth. Dragging his gaze up to her face, he met her mesmerizing eyes. The irises were an intense blue near the pupils, almost electric, and faded out to a sultry gray. That didn't help his resolve. He gave it one last try. "Look, I'm not a taxi service. I don't pick up strays unless they're of the four-legged variety."
She arched a dark eyebrow and gave him a smile worthy of the Sphinx. "Well, then, consider me your latest rescue."CHAPTER 2
The pounding rhythm vibrated through her veins. Lissa lifted her arms to the ceiling and swung her hips to the rockabilly beat. Aside from painting, there was nothing she loved more than dancing. She spun, her hair swinging over her bare shoulders, and felt a moment of absolute independence.
She was free. Finally. Working for the Sam Morris Gallery on commission had been stifling. Everyone still wanted blue dogs, red cats, yellow birds, or whatever the heck else tourists thought they needed to buy in New Orleans. It had drained her creativity. And her bank account. She still couldn't believe the jerk had been ripping her off.
She pounded the heels of her sandals into the worn wooden floor of the honky-tonk and let the irritation drain away. It didn't matter anymore. She'd reclaimed what had been taken.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Forever Wild"
Copyright © 2019 Allyson Charles.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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