When a woman running scared runs into the arms of a sexy cowboy, she might lose her fear, but will she also lose her heart?
When a woman on the run hits a town right out of the Wild West, the first cowboy she meets sets his sights on her. Alone, scared, and starting over, Susan will have to decide if the big, bad Russell Ryland, retired Navy SEAL, now rancher, is for real or just using up his down time between missions.
Russell takes one look at the smiling, blue-eyed beauty and realises there's a heck of a lot more after retirement than he'd thought. As he begins to dream of a life with Susan, he fights an unfamiliar battle within himself-doubt. Does she want him, or is she merely out for some fun?
Time for the reluctant couple nearly runs out when the very men Susan is hiding from come to call. Will Russell wake up quickly enough to save her? Or will their doubts get them both killed?
Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of anal sex.
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There has to be some kind of mistake.
The MapQuest directions sat on the truck seat next to Lacey, outlining that this was the right exit. She hadn't accidentally decided to take a wrong turn. Besides, there weren't any decisions in her life right now, only directions. She smiled at the thought. Yeah, her attempts at making colossal, life-changing decisions had landed her here, in the middle of nowhere, with no one and nothing around her.
Well, not exactly nothing. There were mountains everywhere. Huge, monstrous mountains, like the kind you could see on the travel channel seconds before some giant paw-waving, open-mouthed, roaring grizzly ate the cameraman.
Oh, yeah, this had to be some kind of mistake. Lacey needed the beach. And people. At this point, she'd settle for a pizza from her favourite beach shack. To hell with anyone else. She needed out of this truck, she realised, surprising herself with a broken mini-sob.
There wasn't a car in sight when she pulled her truck off the turn lane and stopped a few hundred yards onto the cracked asphalt of the old highway.
Two fumbles at jerking the door handle open, and she jumped down, the map in her hand. Blue sky, a cold November breeze, clean air and mountains filled her senses immediately. One deep breath, two, and half the tension simmering along her skin disappeared. Not the unease, though. The breeze felt different from home. Smelt different. Was different.
This has to be a mistake.
She rubbed her hand through her hair at the thought. Yeah, sure, this had to be a mistake, right? Wrong. Throughout this mess, she'd kept thinking that any time now she'd wake up, that this couldn't be happening, that there had to be some kind of freaking mistake. Life couldn't turn from normal to horrible in the blink of an eye. A decision to go outside a club trying to avoid a creepy guy couldn't destroy everything she'd worked so hard to build.
But, yeah, one look at the rugged, wilderness reminded her that, yeah, one thoughtless decision had ripped her life to shreds.
If she could reverse time, she'd — what? If she'd known that by leaving the bar she'd witness a mob hit, would she have taken her chances with the creepy guy? Probably not.
So here she was, standing on the side of a road on what looked like some crazy Wild West movie set.
Reality sucked. Delusions worked so much better — at least for about ten seconds. Lacey hadn't witnessed a murder. She hadn't been beaten to within an inch of losing her life. She hadn't spent months in a hospital trying to breathe on her own. She hadn't been forced to testify against some of the nastiest criminals in the world. She hadn't been left out to dry like this, forced to move, alone, to a place so remote and far from normal she might as well have been on another planet.
She was used to people, sunshine that smelt like the ocean ... heck, music and noise, for God's sake. She was used to delis filled with adorable little old Italian men, smiling at her and asking about her day. She was used to Jewish bakeries with bagels that she'd get up at seven for on a Sunday morning. She was used to coffee shops brewing wicked espresso by the cup. She was used to nice people. Beaches. Safety.
The landscape facing her she was not used to. Big open grasslands, lined with the brilliant colours of fall foliage. Yellow and burnt cinnamon, deep green pines next to the white bark of some other kind of tree — beech or aspen, she didn't know — all created a wildly beautiful picture.
The view gave her the creeps. Maybe she was afraid of wide-open spaces. Agoraphobia was a possibility.
Humour bubbled up and she rubbed her face with both hands. The map crumpled a little, reminding her of the brutal reality of her new life. She was running scared. Nothing was going to change that. Not standing here, not staring off at the mountains, nothing.
So many regrets washed over her. Tears stung her eyes — she felt like they were clogging her throat. Lacey fought them and ignored the deep hollow pit in her stomach.
She needed a plan. Action washed all the turmoil aside — always had. She'd always filled her life with action. Being forced to sit in a truck for days on end had driven her slightly insane, no doubt.
The real estate office in Troy couldn't be too far. She'd find that, then her home, and see her new address for the next ... Ah, God, who knew how long she'd be here?
And didn't that thought put a huge dollop of pity into her pity-party sundae? Two blinks and the tears held off, so she focused on the mountains. The peaks looked white, possibly ten feet deep in snow by now. She could hike up to that snow; feel the cold on her face, maybe trail run along the ridges and ravines? They would be a challenge. Something to do. Later, maybe, after she'd settled in.
A truck slowed behind her, bringing the heartbeat she'd settled down to normal skyrocketing. What felt like ice water flooded her veins, while goosebumps beaded along her arms and a huge whoosh of adrenaline raced through her veins. The FBI agents had been clear: do not act anything but normal. What that meant, really, after all she'd endured, was a bit unclear. She didn't feel normal in her own skin, let alone here in this wilderness. Besides, she doubted she would look normal to a small western town filled with redneck cowboys. She was a beach babe, had always been one, and didn't think the changes of hair and scenery were going to make a difference.
Truck doors closed and she turned to face two guys — two cowboys, she corrected herself, taking in their jeans, rough looking tan jackets, scuffed boots and dusty black cowboy hats. Both walked over, and she panicked. What was she supposed to say?
They don't look Russian. The thought ran a frantic circle in her mind, followed by, what does a Russian hitman actually look like? God, did he have to be Russian? Or even a he? A humorous hysteria built up, but she took a deep breath and clenched her hand around the map. She steeled herself not to take a step backward as both men walked right up, almost breaking her bubble of personal space.
"Miss, can we help ya out?" The blond guy stopped a few feet from her. At least six feet two, broad shouldered, his face worn with sun and weather, he towered over her five feet three inches. His blue eyes crinkled in a smile that looked genuine enough, but it slowly faded when she didn't respond.
She managed a shaky smile.
He glanced at the other guy and so did she.
The other guy wasn't smiling. She caught a flash of his grey eyes in a lean, tough face set in a stern expression. Dark brows, dark shadow on a square jaw, he reminded her of the FBI agents. With broad shoulders packed with muscles, he was handsome in a rough and rugged sort of way. Her heart skipped around.
Lacey was normally a picky kind of girl. Not picky as in the guy had to be this way or that — she never knew what would attract her — but picky as in not many men drew a second glance. She couldn't pinpoint her attraction to a certain look or background or genetic makeup she could name, but this guy had it, whatever it was. And he had it in a bad way. Her heart fluttered in her chest. Her skin tingled, and not because of the cold air. Suddenly very conscious of the scar along her temple, she forced herself not to brush her hair over her forehead to hide the damage.
She was on the run, starting a new life alone, and now her heart was tripping against her ribs for a guy she hadn't even met. Life was strange.
Suddenly Lacey realised she'd not spoken. With heat hitting her cheeks, she broke eye contact and turned to the first guy, but the other man took a step closer and instantly drew her complete attention.
"Trouble?" the darker-haired guy asked.
Oh, yeah, he was a heartbreaker. He had a deep, kinda rough voice, but crisp and used to authority, which reminded her in an odd way of her father. And made her groan inside her head because, yeah, deep voices like that made her weak in the knees. And from a guy that looked like this? Bad, very bad.
"Trouble?" She backed up a step, stopping when her butt hit the side of the red Chevy. "No, no trouble; just stopped for a quick break."
"Lost, are you?" The first guy shot her a grin again, no doubt trying to reassure her.
"Ah, well, I was on my way to Troy. Rob's Realty?"
The guys exchanged a surprised look before they both stepped closer.
Lacey held her directions up like a shield, hitting Heartbreaker in the chest with them to keep him back. He barely noticed. One quick glance down, and he handed them to his partner. He wasn't threatening, but focused solely on her, his attention packing a powerful punch to her already out of control system.
"Ah, yeah, this works ..." The other guy took the map, checked it over and cleared his throat. "Yeah, this will get ya there."
"Great." When neither moved, she quickly added, "I go straight down this road and I'll reach Libby, and, after that, Troy?"
"After about an hour, yeah."
An hour. She deflated.
An hour? She was ready for this adventure to end now, not in an hour. Still, she was close, and that was good news. "Great. Thanks. That's great."
"You're not from here," Heartbreaker said, then seemed a bit uneasy he'd spoken. He raised one big arm and rubbed the back of his neck, reminding her of when she'd say something that embarrassed her and her neck would heat up. Suddenly, some of her anxiousness settled down a bit. Maybe he wasn't so scary, after all. Heck, he seemed more nervous than she was.
"Yep, you could say that. I bought a place outside of Troy."
The first guy gave a low whistle.
She wasn't quite sure what that meant. Of the two, he was definitely the friendlier, though.
Especially compared to Heartbreaker, who was suddenly scowling. Before she could process the look, he said, "By yourself? From where?"
"Albany." The lie simply flowed from her mouth, but, hey, this was her life now. Lying. Fun, fun. And she was so good at make believe, too, she thought miserably. Her inner sarcasm really sucked.
He didn't blink, but she got the impression that she'd startled him.
Another whistle from the other guy. Elbow on the truck, he leant back, seeming to feel they were going to have a nice long chat. On the side of the road. Highway. Whatever.
"New York? Damn, that's far, ain't it?" His accent sounded southern, low and soothing. He tipped his hat back when she met his eyes. "So, you've come all this way to live here, huh?"
"Yep. I like it here. Came once on a trip and loved it." Lie. She'd never driven a truck before this trip. Never slept in a motel by herself. Never ... done a lot of things. Funny how the possibility of death could make a person appreciate life a bit more. And make one braver. Or too scared to disagree with men in authority, she added in a silent grumble.
Big and Smiling gave her an encouraging nod. Heartbreaker didn't. She sensed disapproval in his serious expression. Didn't that take the cake? Not only did she have the hots for a guy, but he was one of those big, domineering guys who thought he knew what was best for her, so much better than anyone else did.
"How old are you?" Heartbreaker asked.
Lacey blinked at the rapid-fire question. Did she look too young to drive alone?
"Just wondering. Travelling alone and all." He glanced significantly down at her hands and she wanted to groan. God, she should have bought a ring, worn anything that said, yep, I'm taken and he's a huge linebacker who will kick your ass. Not that the man drilling her for questions would have thought that, even if she had worn a ring.
She was alone. Probably looked it, too. Yep. No cat. No dog. No friends. No job.
Still, she wasn't answering his question and she wasn't going to let him intimidate her.
"Yep, it was a long trip. So ..." She trailed off, hoping they'd take the hint.
"If you follow us, we'll show you Rob's. I'm Russ Ryland; this is Tim Brighton. We own the Double R and T Ranch."
"I'm ... S-Susan. Fielding." Shit, that's it, stumble over your own new name. She usually went by her nickname, Lacey, but now she couldn't use that, or Sarah, her real name. So, Susan she was. Gah — she really didn't like the name. It reminded her of a girl back home who had always snubbed her in gym class.
"Ah, nice to meet you, Susan." Big and Smiling sounded like he'd not missed her stumble.
"Brr — cold out here, huh? Well, it's nice to meet you both. I'm off. One hour? Great. One more hour to get there, then deal with the realtor, then I can finally take a nap. Later." Without waiting for a response, she got the truck door open without a fumble and hopped in with a quick wave to the big guys. They hadn't moved, but she dipped her head and strapped on her seatbelt. When she looked in her rearview mirror they were already getting in their white truck.
It was only after she'd started the truck and pulled out after them that she realised Russ Ryland — Mr Handsome and Domineering — how old are you? — had been standing on her right and would have been able to see her scar. Was that why he had stared at her so intently?
Men with scars were hot. Women? Nah, not so much. Even if hers was kinda cool, a starburst kinda thing on her temple. Lighter now, but still pink and slightly swollen. The doctors had said the scar would fade to silver. Soon. But not now.
The memory of getting it? That wasn't fading soon enough.
Russ took a deep breath and shifted in his truck seat.
Not in a million years would he have believed he'd come back from a fucked-up mission in Columbia and run smack into the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. And he'd seen his fair share of women. But none like this one. Small, delicate, soft, and moving into his town.
His neglected dick punched more fully against his Wranglers when he thought about her soft, shy smile. She'd not only looked delicate standing outside her truck, she'd looked scared. He reached up and scratched his cheek. Not scared, maybe — well, yeah, maybe — but vulnerable, too. He'd had to concentrate on her eyes to see the flash of fear, but it'd been there. She'd been brave, too, facing off against two men she didn't know on the side of a highway. Still, something about her had said she was scared, so the bad boy roaring for action below his belt needed to calm down. Susan was new, and, by the look of her, she wasn't a simple romp in the hay. She was a keeper.
He'd not missed the look of a woman who'd seen too much of the nastier side of life and lived through it. He'd seen that look too many times. He'd faced the same expression on a few of his teammates. Every mission, every battle, every assignment held danger. Sometimes life threw some punches you couldn't dodge, and you couldn't handle them when they landed. 'Sucker' had a new meaning when you were suddenly flat on your ass in some desert with several semi-automatics pointed at your head.
He was weary of it. Weary of the chase, the catch, and the kills.
He probably wore the same look she had. It was a starkness, a kind of tired resignation that came on when you knew that one more hit, and you'd not come back up. But he didn't wear fear. And he sure didn't wear that smile.
No, Ace Man didn't smile. Even when he lived up to his nickname, Ace in the Hole, he barely smiled. Not until the mission was done, the fees paid, and the men safe in the barracks. Then he might crack a grin, but not before.
But this woman? She'd been through something. And she'd still smiled softly up at him and he'd known, just known he wasn't smiling down at her. He'd been too focused, too ... pissed off at her for being all alone, he realised. Somehow, her being alone and scared had pissed him off.
On some level, he recognised that she brought out his male instinct to protect, like nothing he'd ever experienced outside of combat. After more than fourteen years of service, ten years of it in the SEALs, he recognised when his body was set for battle. And it wasn't from the fight he'd left behind in the mountains of Columbia. He was primed to protect a woman he'd just met. Simply meeting her eyes and seeing fear there had clicked his brain into that centred, focused level he usually only hit during a mission.
Eagle laughed low next to him, pulling him out of his misery.
"Damn, Ace, you really can sweet-talk the ladies. How old are you?" he mimicked and shook his head. "Why not say, hey, are you old enough for a quick fuck?"
Ace gripped the steering wheel so tight his knuckles cracked. "Shut up. Don't talk about her like that," he tacked on for good measure. He didn't like the idea of Eagle thinking along those lines. Or talking about her like that. Or looking at her.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Running Scared"
Copyright © 2012 Billi Jean.
Excerpted by permission of Totally Entwined Group Limited.
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