Jake Duquesne was on that razor-thin edge between consciousness and sleep. He could almost feel himself about to fall on the side of the latter. Just a few more moments and he would be dead to the world.
He shifted lazily on the bed, enjoying the cool breeze that wafted in through the open window just above him and moved over his bare skin. He was holed up in a cabin nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with civilization, in the form of a small North Carolina town of a few thousand or so inhabitants, some twenty miles away. The most strenuous thing he had done since arriving yesterday morning was scale the side of a cliff.
He was going to enjoy the peace while it lasted.
He exhaled audibly, feeling a wonderfully relaxing sensation settle over him. There was nothing here but Mother Nature and himself.
Jake hastily corrected himself about two seconds later when instinct snapped him to instant alertness. From years of practice, his entire frame was tense but utterly still as he waited patiently for that sound that didn’t fit in with the rest.
It was several long, silent moments before he heard it again—footsteps. Someone was outside, taking slow, measured steps toward the front of the cabin. A well-meaning stranger would not be taking such care to be quiet.
Without a second thought, Jake grabbed the Beretta under his pillow and rolled noiselessly over the side of the bed and onto the floor. He landed on his palm and toes and quickly rolled again onto his back. Jake put the gun down beside him and blindly groped for the faded blue jeans he had discarded earlier on a nearby chair. His palm passed over something rough and he closed his fingers around it. Thankful he didn’t have a penchant for skin-tight clothing, Jake pulled on his jeans and zipped them up. The footsteps stopped, but he wasn’t taking any chances. His unexpected visitor was probably just standing outside, weighing his options.
Knowing he didn’t have time to pull on his hiking boots and lace them up, Jake snagged the thick socks from inside the boots and pulled them on. His heart thudding heavily in his chest, he retrieved his gun, flicked off the safety and started bear-crawling on his hands and toes toward the back of the five-room cabin. He hoped and prayed his unknown visitor didn’t have a partner lying in wait for him to leave through the back door. Since the door was relatively well hidden by overgrown shrubs and bushes, Jake knew it was a good probability someone unfamiliar with the cabin would miss it.
Still flat on the floor and lengthwise against the wall, he reached out and carefully, quietly eased the back door open an inch. When no stirring from outside met his movement, Jake got up into a low crouch, widened the opening and scanned about. Satisfied an ambush wasn’t waiting for him, he gingerly pushed some of the vegetation out of the way and slipped stealthily out into the darkness.
The moonlight was filtered by wisps of clouds, but Jake was thankful for even that much light. Heart working madly to pump adrenaline through his veins, he swiftly made his way around to the front of the cabin, taking care not to snap any twigs or branches on the ground, unmindful of the nicks and scratches from the rough exterior walls of the cabin on his back and arms.
Jake, pressed flat against the side of the cabin, his breathing low and even, peered around the corner and into the night. His pupils had adjusted to the darkness and he could just make out the shadowy outline of the intruder as he stepped onto the porch. Wood squeaked. The intruder froze. Something glinted dully in the moonlight.
Fuck, who the hell was after him? He nearly snorted. Now that was a stupid question. After a decade in his previous line of work, it was safer to ask who wasn’t after him. Retirement or not. His enemies didn’t forgive just because he’d decided to take himself out of the field.
He stayed there for a few moments, wanting to make doubly sure his uninvited guest didn’t have a partner before he made his move.
Seconds passed, seeming like an eternity, but Jake couldn’t pick out any more forms in the dark stillness. Slowly, ever so slowly, he flicked on the safety of the Beretta and tucked it securely in the back of his jeans.
The intruder pushed open the door, the well-oiled hinges silent, and made to step inside the cabin. Thankful the front porch didn’t have a railing, Jake fished a coin out of his front pocket and tossed it into the bushes on the other side of the front porch. A split second later, he launched into a low dive, catching his target’s knees with his right shoulder and knocking him down like a bowling pin. Jake heard a dull thud, followed by muffled swearing. He hoped the other guy had one hell of a concussion. Not giving his opponent a chance to recover, he moved up and manacled the surprisingly small wrist of the hand holding the gun and pounded it into the wooden porch floor. Jake flinched when an explosion went off in his ear, but he continued tightening his grip and kept on pounding the captured hand until the gun clattered onto the floor and skidded away. Relentless, Jake soon had his exhausted assailant pinned under his own barely heaving frame.
And he nearly jumped back up again when he felt the unmistakable softness of round, female breasts crushed beneath his naked chest.
“Fuck! You’re a woman!”
His surprised exclamation only seemed to enrage her even more and she renewed her struggles. Jake, however, was a good deal heavier and much, much stronger. With little effort, he had both her arms stretched above her head with one hand. The other he plunged into her hair to hold her head still so he could see her face.
“Lady, stop it!”
Useless. Jake released her hair, drew back his arm and cuffed her on the jaw. A soft sound escaped her and she was out cold.
* * * * *
“Katarzyna Delaney,” Jake read off the authentic-looking police identification card and the accompanying gold badge. Supposedly, she was a homicide detective. If the ID was real, she was well out of her jurisdiction. Was it just a coincidence she was from his hometown?
He glanced at the unconscious woman handcuffed to his bed.
“Wonderful, just fucking wonderful,” he muttered, but there was no real heat in the words.
Jake blew out a breath and fell into the wooden chair at the foot of the bed. He closed the wallet with an audible snap. There wasn’t much he could do until Katarzyna Delaney regained consciousness and shared with him the reason she had been trespassing on his property in the dead of night with her gun drawn and cocked.
Noting the fashionably worn blue jeans and long-sleeved V-neck shirt, Jake wondered if she had acted upon impulse. She had worn a tan corduroy jacket over the green shirt, but it still wouldn’t have been his first choice for a covert mission. And the thin-soled sneakers that were neatly arranged at the foot of the bed were not made for mountainous terrain.
Her little operation hadn’t been planned in advance.
That thought did little to mollify him.
Calling the local law enforcement and reporting the attempt on his life had occurred to him and been summarily dismissed. He was used to handling these sorts of issues personally.
A soft moan drew his attention. His clear gaze returned to the figure shifting on the bed. Katarzyna Delaney, according to her North Carolina driver’s license, was five-eight and one hundred thirty-five pounds. She didn’t look like she was one hundred thirty-five pounds. She looked trim and athletic. But what woman added extra pounds when lying about her weight?
“How are you feeling?”
A low groan answered him, but her lashes remained resting on her pale cheeks. She gingerly turned her head this way and that, as if testing to see if it was still on her shoulders. Jake frowned. He didn’t think he had hit her that hard. Then again, the bruise darkening her jaw was ugly. And he couldn’t forget how she’d banged her head on the porch when he’d tackled her. Thick, dark lashes fluttered and lifted, and Jake was pinned by whiskey-colored eyes. She blinked once, seeming to clear her head. “Who are you?”
Her voice was low and a little rough with sleep, and Jake’s body responded accordingly. It had been a while since he’d been with a woman, which was understandable since the last one he’d slept with had tried to kill him, scarring him for life. Literally.
He muttered something unintelligible under his breath and inhaled deeply through his nostrils, as if it would help the sudden tightness in his jeans.
Her eyes widened and Jake knew she’d just discovered the lovely bracelets shackling her to the headboard and the climbing rope that fastened her feet together and kept them tethered to the footboard.
“What—” She pulled and jerked on the handcuffs and the rope, but the bed frame was surprisingly sturdy. Her gaze narrowed on him and shot off sparks. “What the hell is going on?” she demanded furiously.
Jake leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, his expression closed. She had tried to sneak up on him last night and now was trying to play innocent? She was either one hell of an actress or—
“You don’t remember what happened?”
Confusion swamped her features. “What happened when?”
Jake lifted a brow, his expression sardonic. “When you were attempting to enter this cabin,” he reminded her dryly. Then, with emphasis, he added, “Illegally.”
The confusion didn’t disappear.
“As in, without the owner’s consent.”
“But…” Her voice trailed off as realization dawned. “Oh God.” She squeezed her eyes shut and sucked in a breath. “That can’t be right.”
He mentally crossed out amnesia and drawled very sarcastically, “Oh, it’s very right. I assure you, Katarzyna Delaney.”
Her eyes flew open at his harsh, humorless tone, or maybe it was his pronunciation of her name. KAHT-ah-ZHEE-nah. Perhaps she wasn’t used to people who didn’t butcher her name on the first attempt. Luckily, he’d had plenty of practice with non-Anglicized names. All part and parcel of his previous job.
“My cabin has the bullet hole and the bullet from your weapon to prove it.” Even with the faint Southern accent softening his words, they still had bite.
His captive looked as if she hoped the bed would open up and put her out of her misery. “Your cabin?” Her lashes lowered as she bit down on the corner of her lip. “That can’t be right,” she murmured, more to herself than to him.
“Technically, it’s my cousin’s.”
Her eyes flew to his. “Your cousin’s? Who’s your cousin?”
He eyed her warily. “I’m the one who should be asking the questions.”
Frustration crossed her features. “Just tell me if your cousin is Ella Willis.”
“Ella Willis,” Jake echoed, neither confirming nor denying her statement.
“A close friend,” Katarzyna explained hurriedly. “She offered me the use of her cabin for the next two weeks. Her husband is my lieutenant.”
Jake stared at her. She looked earnest enough, but the people in his world lied for a living. He dismissed the police ID—those could be forged. And Ella knew he was here. She wouldn’t have offered the cabin to someone else without warning him first.
“Listen, you have to believe me. Please.”
There was only one way to settle this. He crossed the room, snatched the cell phone lying on top of the highboy, flipped it open and powered it on. The reception wasn’t great and he had to move to the window before a single bar appeared in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. He punched in ten digits and waited. The third ring was cut short.
“Hello?” a voice mumbled sleepily.
“Ella, it’s Jake.”
He heard sheets rustling and imagined Ella was pushing herself into a sitting position.
“What’s wrong?” his cousin demanded, all traces of sleepiness gone from her voice.
“I’m at the cabin and I have an unexpected guest. She claims you sent her.”
Ella took the telephone away from her ear and murmured something he couldn’t make out. He assumed she was telling her husband to go back to sleep. Then she sighed into the telephone, confirming his worst suspicion. “Is she a tall, good-looking redhead?”
It was his turn to sigh. “Yes.”
“Answers to Katarzyna Delaney?”
“Yes, I sent her.”
He muttered an expletive, cast a hard look at the woman handcuffed to his bed—who was unashamedly listening to his conversation—and would’ve stalked from the room had he not been worried about the cellular reception. He settled for turning his back on the bed and the woman bound to it.
“You could’ve warned me.”
“Yes, I could have,” Ella agreed in a disconcertingly reasonable tone, “if you hadn’t shut off your cell phone. Sometimes you take that whole loner thing too far. It’s not healthy. Ted Kaczynski was a loner.”
A low growl rumbled from his chest.
Ella blew out a breath. “You can get mad at me and yell at me all you want, but don’t take your temper out on Katarzyna. She’s been through enough.” When the growl didn’t cease, she added, “She needed to get away for a bit, so I offered her the cabin.”
“While I’m still here,” he pointed out between gritted teeth.
“So?” she drawled, using that careless tone of voice that always set off warning bells in his head. After a beat, she said, “She’s attractive. You’re available.”
He was glad his interfering cousin wasn’t in the same room because he might’ve strangled her. Then her husband would’ve arrested him. It wasn’t worth the hassle.
Still, his voice lowered dangerously, as much to keep his captive from listening in as from temper. “Are you setting me up?”
“Dear God in heaven, no! She’s sworn off relationships with men, so you’re safe. Besides, I don’t think anything permanent would work with you.” She paused. “I was thinking more along the lines of a fling.”
“Jesus Christ,” Jake muttered, running a hand down his face. “You’re pimping me out.”
Ella had the audacity to laugh. “Look, if you’re not interested, you can spend the next two weeks ignoring her. There are two bedrooms in that cabin. Katarzyna planned on cutting herself off from civilization, so she doesn’t need you to entertain her.”
“She obviously didn’t know about me being here.”
“Well, no. I thought she’d turn down my offer if I mentioned anything about you.” There was a trace of concern in her voice. “What happened?”
Jake told her.
“Oh crap,” Ella muttered. “Tell her I’m sorry.”
“What about me?” he exclaimed, a tad incredulous.
“You’re not the one with a possible concussion and handcuffed to a bed, are you?”
He grunted. Ella just had to poke at his guilt. He sighed when his cousin was unable to bite back a yawn. “Go back to sleep. We’ll talk later.”
Ella mumbled something through another yawn then hung up. Jake snapped the cell phone closed and turned around to face his captive, his fists propped on his hips, frustration and annoyance coursing through him.
Katarzyna was slumped back on the thin mattress. She looked exhausted and overcome, especially with her hands still cuffed to the headboard. Despite himself, Jake felt a trace of pity for her. She had been manipulated by Ella as much as he.
Jake sighed and retrieved the tiny key to the handcuffs from the front pocket of his jeans. The mattress dipped under his weight as he sat down on the bed beside her limp form. Katarzyna’s eyes flew open and she jerked as far back from him as the handcuffs allowed. Jake lifted his hands, palms facing outward. He held up the key between his thumb and forefinger. “I was only going to remove the cuffs.”
Katarzyna’s head fell onto her arm. “I’m sorry, but the look on your face…” Her voice trailed off and her right shoulder hitched up in an uneasy shrug.
Jake slowly rose to his feet, checking a half-smile that threatened. He didn’t think she was in the mood to appreciate the fantasy that was teasing the edge of his consciousness. “However, if you want to stay like that…”
She shook her head. “No, no. Please. So I assume Ella cleared everything up?”
He nodded as he sat back down and reached for the handcuffs once more. “They’re yours, by the way.”
“The cuffs. I took them off you.”
She flushed. “Oh.”
“I’m Jake Duquesne, Ella’s cousin. She says to tell you she’s sorry.” He removed the restraints and winced when he saw the angry red bands encircling her wrists. “I’ll get you something for that,” he said and got up to go to the bathroom.
He returned moments later with a washcloth he’d run under water and wrung out. Having undone the ropes securing her feet, she sat cross-legged on the bed—warm auburn hair the color of autumn leaves falling past her shoulders and curtaining her face—flexing her fingers and gingerly massaging each of her wrists in turn. “Here.” He reached out and caught her right hand. “Let me.”
She didn’t protest but sat docilely as he wrapped the damp washcloth around her wrists. Katarzyna closed her eyes and sighed.
Her lashes lifted. “Much. What time is it?”
“Just after three in the morning,” he replied after a glance at the stainless steel watch encircling his wrist. “You’ve been out for almost an hour.” He nodded at her jaw, shifting uneasily. “You have a bruise on your jaw. I, uh, had to hit you.”
Katarzyna cautiously felt her jaw. She winced. “I remember.”
“It’ll fade in a couple days,” he assured her, feeling guilt nip at him annoyingly. In his defense, he’d hit her to stop her from forcing him to hurt her even more. “And you banged your head on the porch as well, but I couldn’t find any lumps or swelling on your head.”
“It’s a small enough punishment, considering.”
Jake grunted and carefully peeled back the washcloth. The marks were not as angry as they had been earlier, but her skin still looked very tender. “Does it hurt?”
Katarzyna examined her wrists. “A little, but I’ll live. Just hand me that, please.”
He handed her the washcloth. “How about your hand? I was pretty rough on it.”
She glanced down at the cuts and bruises. “It’s okay,” she reassured him after a moment. “I’ve taken worse hits.”
“So,” he drawled, “Ella says you’re staying for two weeks, but you don’t have any luggage and I don’t see a car outside.”
Her cheeks reddened. Then she paid an inordinate amount of attention to the injuries that hadn’t concerned her just moments ago. Jake folded his arms across his chest and patiently waited.
Finally she looked up and met his steady gaze. “I, uh, drove here straight from Somerset, but I wasn’t paying attention to the gas gauge and ran out of gas about a mile away and my cell phone battery died. I decided to leave the car and hoof it the rest of the way. I figured I’d get some sleep then see if I could recharge the phone and call for someone to swing by with fuel.”
“Then you got here, noticed that the cabin was occupied and decided to pull out your gun and go in alone.”
“I thought you were a squatter,” she muttered crossly. “How was I supposed to know you’re Ella’s cousin? I didn’t know who was in here.” Something darkened her eyes then she blinked it away. “And you tackled me before I could question you!”
“When people try to sneak up on me with a firearm, I’m not going to wait around quietly for them to finish their job.”
“When you’re ready, we’ll go and get your car.”
“Thanks,” she mumbled. Then she expelled a long breath. “And I’ll get out of your hair tomorrow.”
Jake scowled. She sounded dejected and that pricked at what passed for his conscience these days. Damn it, he wasn’t an ogre. “You can stay.”
“I heard you talking with Ella.”
“This cabin has two bedrooms. You can take the other one.”
“Look,” she began a little heatedly, “I’m not up to dealing with people right now, especially not of the male variety, so I’d rather leave you to your solitude and find my own. I’m sure someone in town has an empty cabin they can rent to me.”
“Look,” he mimicked in a snarky tone, “this cabin’s big enough for two people. If you ignore me and I ignore you, we’ll be fine. You’re not going to find a vacancy in this area, so unless you plan on driving back to Somerset, you’re stuck here with me.”
“Then I’ll drive back to Somerset and make other arrangements.”
He almost rolled his eyes. Instead, Jake brought his face to hers until they were nose to nose. “You. Will. Stay. Here.” He drew back an inch. “Don’t be stubborn.”
She scowled at him and, sarcasm dripping from every word, drawled, “Gee, aren’t you touching me in all my nice places.”
Jake froze, the idea of touching her in all her nice places making his body harden and his blood heat and thicken. He balled his hands into fists to keep from unceremoniously shoving her back on the bed and undoing her clothes. Just enough so he could lick the full breasts gathered in the bra outlined against the thin cotton, taunting him. Then slip his hand inside her jeans and find her really nice place.
Read more on Rules of Engagement.
Copyright © 2008 by Ann Bruce. All rights reserved.