Oh, this is not good. This is sooooo not good.
Heart lurching up into her throat, Kylie Ferrell steered her little nineteen-ninety-three Honda Civic onto the shoulder, the loud metallic clatter that had suddenly erupted in the engine compartment ringing in her ears.
Turning off the engine before the car had even stopped rolling, she just sat there in the dark, gripping the steering wheel in the proper ten-to-two position. Yeah, like that’s going to help anything. Shit! She didn’t need this. She didn’t need any of this. Especially not now. Not when her entire world was falling apart and unraveling around her. In just the space of forty-eight hours she’d lost her job, her boyfriend, her house and her life.
Of course, it was a job she’d hated—bookkeeper for A. J. Moretti, a sleazy, brutish CPA, who had demanded her time as if, by the mere fact of working for him she’d forfeited any right to have a life of her own. He’d worked odd hours and had expected her to do the same. He hadn’t hesitated to call her into the office in the middle of the night, on weekends—she would have quit long before this, except it had taken her so long to find this job after her former boss had retired, she’d practically decimated her small savings account in the interim. So she was determined to stick it out long enough to build it back up. She’d already begun checking the classifieds hoping to have a new job already lined up when she quit this one. And the sooner, the better.
Friday night he had called her into the office at eleven-thirty. She’d muttered to herself the entire way over there, having a heated, imaginary conversation, rehearsing what she planned to say to him, periodically pounding her fists on the steering wheel for emphasis. It was her usual routine, something she indulged in nearly every morning on her way to work. But at least this time she had come to a decision. This time, by God, she was going to take charge of her destiny. This time, new job or no new job, she was going to march into that office and tell him she quit! And if he tried to stiff her on her final paycheck, she would sue him for sexual harassment!
The moment she’d entered the outer office, however, she’d known something was wrong. The place looked like a hurricane had hit it, drawers open, contents strewn all over the desk, the floor, and the cabinets. And Moretti wasn’t yelling out his customary greeting, “About damn time you showed up, Ferrell. Get your ass in here!”
Hearing nothing from the inner office had made her a bit uneasy. So she’d tiptoed to the partially-open door and given it a push. A. J. Moretti was slumped forward over his desk, blood leaking from the neat hole in the middle of his forehead and soaking into his desk blotter.
The police had questioned her for hours—okay, “grilled” was a more appropriate term for how they had treated her—but it wasn’t until she was halfway home around eleven-thirty yesterday morning that Kylie realized that she had actually seen the two men who had most likely killed her boss. As she’d pulled into the parking lot, two non-descript men were getting into a dark, non-descript car. And yet, they had caught her attention, mainly because theirs was the only other car in the garage. She had deliberately remained in her Honda with the doors locked, pretending to be looking for something on the passenger seat, just waiting for them to pull out of the garage and disappear around the corner before even getting out. No point in asking for trouble.
Really, this is beginning to sound like something out of a cheap crime novel.
Maybe so, but that doesn’t make Moretti any less dead, now, does it?
As for her boyfriend…well, he had been her boyfriend until she’d come home after talking to the police to find him in their bed with his new production assistant, Fiona. Brad Sullivan was an up-and-coming professional chef with his own newly opened restaurant and a cooking segment on a local talk show. He was just starting to make a name for himself around the Philadelphia culinary scene.
Kylie’s lips twisted grimly as the memories flooded through her anew. At first she hadn’t been sure what she was seeing. But the naked bodies, the guttural moans and the slap, slap, slap of flesh against flesh were unmistakable. At her horrified gasp, the body on top froze. A female voice had shrieked, “Oh, my God! You said she’d be at work!” Brad had turned and looked at her in horror. “Kylie! What the fuck are you doing here?”
She’d just stared at him. Are you fucking kidding me? I live here!
Brad had scrambled off the bed yelling her name as he ran down the hall after Kylie’s rapidly retreating figure, frantically trying to tuck the sheet around his naked body while also trying not to trip over the trailing ends. “Kylie, wait!” He’d grabbed her arm and turned her around. He’d actually had the unmitigated gall to utter that most clichéd of all clichés, “Kylie, this isn’t what it looks like.”
Seriously? This isn’t what it looks like? What, are you stupid?
She had rolled her eyes as she’d turned to face him, her throat tight with rage, her hands itching to slap his too-handsome-to-be-believed face. It took every ounce of strength she possessed to keep from gouging his eyes out. Or wrapping her hands around his neck and strangling him. “Oh, yeah?” she’d replied, sarcasm dripping from every word. “What is it, then, Brad? What else could possibly look like this without actually being this?”
“It didn’t mean anything! C’mon, Kylie, you know I love you.”
“What?” That particular screech came from Fiona who, by this time, had covered her nakedness with Brad’s shirt and was coming down the hall toward them. “You asshole! You told me you were leaving her!”
“Oh, don’t worry, dear. He is.” Kylie had yanked open the front door. So angry she could barely keep from exploding, she’d rounded on him. “You have exactly thirty seconds to get dressed and get out. Same goes for your little friend.” She lifted her arm and consulted her wristwatch. “Time starts right now.”
“Kylie, be reasonable.”
“Five. Six. Seven. Eight. You’ve already wasted ten seconds, so I suggest you hop to it.” She had stood there, counting out loud as Brad and Fiona scuttled back to the bedroom and dressed so quickly that they were both still buttoning and tucking when they started back down the hall. Fiona’s satin blouse was wrinkled and she’d missed a button. Her bra trailed from her hands, Brad’s tie and belt trailed from his. They both carried their shoes and socks.
Brad stopped in front of her. “Kylie—”
“Shut up. You can pick up the rest of your belongings tomorrow morning. They’ll be out in the back yard. But I strongly suggest you do it by ten o’clock,” she said acidly, not looking at either of them as they sidled past her. “Because whatever is still there at one minute past ten will be set on fire, so I suggest you get here early.” With that, she had closed the door quietly in their flabbergasted faces and turned the deadbolt with a loud, deliberate click.
“Kylie! You can’t mean this!” Brad pounded on the door. “Kylie, listen to me, I can explain! I-I’m sorry! This was all just a big misunderstanding. It meant nothing! She means nothing?”
“Nothing! You fucking prick!” Fiona’s outraged shriek was followed by an aggrieved, “Owwww!” from Brad.
Kylie’s smile lasted for approximately three seconds before she doubled over, sobbing at the deep sense of betrayal Brad’s perfidy had left her with. Not that she’d been madly in love with him. She hadn’t. He’d only been living in her house for the past two months because his condo was being renovated. She had only gotten involved with him in the first place because he’d been charming and funny, openly flirting with her, and she had soaked up the attention. He was the first man who had actually managed to get anywhere near the hidden place deep inside her. The place where, ever since the age of five, when her father had started to “beat the sin out of her”, she had locked her sexuality inside a metal box, wrapped with chains and sealed with a padlock. Even after ten years of intensive psychotherapy it was still buried deep inside her.
Brad had actually seemed attracted to her, and she’d been flattered that such a charming, handsome man didn’t seem to mind that she was a bit on the curvy side. Okay, a lot on the curvy side. He had started out by wooing her, never taking it beyond the heavy petting stage. Until after he had moved in. The first time they’d had sex, there had been very little foreplay. He hadn’t taken the time to arouse her and when he’d encountered resistance, he’d simply accused her of being too dry and had powered through it. Later, seeing the blood on the sheet, he’d been shocked to realize that she’d been a virgin. Shocked and not the least bit happy. He’d accused her of tricking him, insisting that she go to a doctor and get a morning after pill because he hadn’t used a condom. When she’d insisted that that wasn’t necessary, that she was taking birth control, he’d scoffed. “Why would a virgin need to take birth control?” He’d refused to believe that a lot of women actually used them to help regulate their periods. Until she’d showed him her actual pills. Then he’d backed off.
Unfortunately, over the next two months, the sex hadn’t gotten any better. Both encounters had been rough, he’d been drunk and in a hurry, leaving her unsatisfied. Which, he had hastened to assure her, was entirely her fault. Don’t blame him. If she hadn’t had an orgasm it was because she was no good in bed. No wonder she was still a virgin at the age of twenty-eight. Which made her wonder more than once what all the hoopla was about. Sex, she had concluded, was highly over-rated. Which made her father’s virulent opposition to it all the more puzzling.
Yet, in spite of all that logic, her gut-wrenching sobs had continued off and on for the next four hours, the exact amount of time it had taken her to clear all of Brad’s stuff out of her closet, her bathroom, her chest of drawers, and her kitchen cabinets. By the time she finished the latter she was shocked at how much he’d owned in the way of cookery and crockery and appliances and stuff.
Okay, so Brad had been good for at least one thing, his homemade gourmet meals. In the two months they’d lived together, she had eaten better than she’d ever eaten in her life, even at the Goodmans, her adoptive family. Her birth parents’ idea of cooking had consisted of opening cans and heating the contents, so she’d never really learned to cook, preferring instead to just nuke something in the microwave whenever she got hungry. But now, staring at the astonishing array of gadgets Brad had accumulated in order to provide the aforementioned culinary delights, her mind boggled. Her finger reached out to trace the brand name on an appliance she not only didn’t recognize, but had no clue as to what function it performed. No matter. She shrugged and shook her head, forcing herself to pick it up and carry it out onto the back porch. It’s not mine. Out it goes.
Resisting the temptation to hurl it over the bannister onto the pile of Brad’s clothes and other personal belongings she’d already thrown out onto her tiny patch of lawn, she’d carried it down the short flight of stairs and dropped it on top. This was an appliance and, from the looks of it, quite possibly a very expensive appliance. If Brad didn’t pick it up by ten tomorrow morning, she’d put it up on craigslist. Might as well get something out of this…unpleasantness.
Thirteen trips later, she’d briskly brushed her hands over the impressive pile, said, “Good-bye, Brad,” and went back inside to call an emergency locksmith. Brad was gone. Her tears were gone. Her regrets were gone. Good riddance. While George—at least she assumed that was the locksmith’s name, since that’s what was embroidered on his uniform pocket. For all she knew, only his pocket was named George—changed all her locks and the guy from the security company, whose pocket was named John, upgraded her security system, she had cleaned out her refrigerator and pantry, tossing all the uneaten food into garbage bags and hauling them out to the back yard to place on top of the growing pile, thus removing every last vestige of Brad Sullivan from her home and her life.
Oops. Not quite. There was still the bed. Taking a deep breath, she’d gone back to the bedroom and stood looking at the rumpled sheets. They were her nicest set, Egyptian cotton, eight hundred thread count. They had cost her a fortune. Realizing that she could never sleep on them again, she decided Brad should have them. She’d stripped them off the bed and opened the window to toss them onto the pile, inadvertently setting off the new motion sensor John had just installed. When the ear-splitting shrieks had finally been silenced, she’d enlisted the help of the two men to help her carry the queen-size Dura-foam mattress out to the back yard. It had been outrageously expensive, but Brad had insisted that he had to have it for his back. In fact, he’d refused to spend the night with her until she’d replaced her old mattress, so she had decimated her savings account to get it for him. But once George and John had gotten it outside, Kylie’s practicality and common sense had reasserted itself and she’d had to ask them to please carry it back in. They must have thought she was insane. But, what the hell? After all, she’d paid for the damn thing. Why should Brad wind up with it? Let him get his own damn mattress.
But even though the mattress was back on the bed, for some reason, she still hadn’t been able to bring herself to sleep there. Brad’s betrayal was still too fresh. So, last night, she had slept on the sleeper sofa in the living room, not even bothering to open it out, merely removing the back cushions to give herself a little more hip room. She’d been drifting in and out of sleep when the sound of her name being spoken sent her bolt upright. Who? What? Omigod, I’m on the evening news! There’s my picture, plain as day! What the hell? Thumbing up the volume on the remote she’d heard the anchorwoman saying, “…questioned by police as a possible witness to the gangland style murder of suspected mobster A. J. Moretti.”
Mobster A. J. Moretti? Gangland style murder?
Oh. My. God!
She’d known he was shady, but the Mafia? And what about the two men who had most likely killed him? They had seen her in the parking garage and now WTXF had just obligingly handed them her name. Omigod! Her mind had started racing and, as usual, arguing with itself. I should’ve told the police about them! I should tell them about them now!
Are you crazy? They already think you know more than you were telling them. If they find out you actually do know more than you were telling them, they’ll think you had something to do with the murder! They might even arrest you!
Okay, okay. I won’t go to the police. But what am I going to do? I can’t just stay here like a sitting duck, waiting for those men to come sneaking into my house and slit my throat!
You can disappear. Go to a place where no one would even think of looking for you. At least for a while, until you’ve had a chance to think about it. That way if they do come looking for you, they won’t find you. You’ll be safe until you finally decide on a course of action.
Her face had brightened. Disappear. Of course, I’ll disappear. She’d jumped to her feet, ready to go pack her bag and leave. Wait. I need money to disappear. She’d stood there, biting her lips, flapping her hands, shifting her weight from foot to foot. Okay. First thing in the morning, I’ll pack a bag, go to the bank and close out all my accounts, and just…drive off into oblivion.
Ouch. Oblivion? Really? Not the best choice of words, considering the circumstances.
Okay. How about…light out for parts unknown?
Decision make, heart considerably lighter, Kylie had turned off the television and laid back down, falling asleep almost instantly.
That’s why, when her house blew up a little after two A.M., she was able to escape with her life. Because the person or persons who had thrown the incendiary device that destroyed her home, had thrown it through her bedroom window at the back of the house, thus unknowingly giving her a chance to simply walk out her own front door, wearing nothing but a pair of sleep shorts and a scruffy old T-shirt, with a hand-knitted, granny square afghan draped over her shoulders.
That was last night. And now, here she was, out in the middle of Bumfuck, Virginia. On the run in a car that had broken down. And it was raining.
Raining! She snorted. The word “rain” did not even begin to do justice to the deluge that was crashing down all around her. Thunder, lightning, wind gusts so fierce they shook her little car until she feared it would tip over, and a downpour so heavy, she couldn’t see anything beyond her windshield. And so loud, she couldn’t imagine ball bearings beating down on the metal roof would have sounded any louder.
Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!
She smiled thinking of how incensed her father would have been to hear that word coming from her lips. He would have given her thirty strokes with his belt for sure. But let’s face it. There are just times when only the “s” word will do. And this is definitely one of those times. Although she used it fairly often these days just to prove to herself that she was no longer under the sway of her asshole of a father, as a means of defying the man who would have beaten her to a bloody pulp for even thinking that word.
She drew a deep breath and plunked her forehead down on the steering wheel. Tears began to stream down her cheeks. Damn it! She hadn’t cried when she’d discovered her boss bleeding all over his desk from a gunshot to the head. She hadn’t cried when she’d discovered Brad in bed with Fiona. The entire time it had taken her to strip the house of Brad’s possessions, she hadn’t shed a tear. Okay, that was a lie. She’d cried for four hours straight. Not because she’d loved Brad and had been devastated by his unfaithfulness. Oh, sure, Brad had been fun to be with, but she hadn’t loved him. Just the wonderful meals he’d prepared. Those she was going to miss. Brad, not so much.
That four-hour crying jag hadn’t been for him. It had been for her. For all the time and effort she’d wasted on him, thinking he was something he wasn’t. For her inability to recognize that salient fact before she’d given herself to him. And for the seeming impossibility of ever finding someone who could love her just the way she was.
She hadn’t even cried when her house blew up. Okay, that was mostly because she’d been in such a state of shock, she hadn’t known what she was doing. The concussion from the blast had blown the front door wide open and she’d just stumbled through it in a daze, not even realizing that she was walking barefoot over broken glass and pieces of debris. In fact, it wasn’t until she had reached her car, parked on the opposite side of the street halfway down the block, that she’d looked back and seen the flames leaping above her roofline.
That was when she’d looked down at herself and noticed that she was barefoot, nearly naked and bleeding from dozens of little cuts all down her left arm, the only body part that hadn’t been tucked under the afghan. She’d also noticed that, for whatever reason, feminine instinct had kicked in and without even noticing herself doing it, she’d picked up her laptop, purse and keys, all of which she’d set down on the floor in front of the couch when she’d gone to sleep. Otherwise she’d be standing out in the middle of the street with absolutely no options and no place to go. It wasn’t until she’d unlocked the car and started to get in that she realized the blood stains on the asphalt had come from the bottoms of her own feet.
For the first time in her life, instead of castigating herself for being lazy, she was profoundly grateful for it. Thanks to an unfortunate habit she had of never carrying through with her plans to stop by the gym on her way home from work, a habit that had caused her endless rounds of self-recrimination, she had a gym bag in the trunk with clean underwear, shorts and a tank top to wear while working out, a track suit to wear after her shower, and a pair of sneaks and socks. But she could hardly change clothes in the middle of the street. People were already coming out of their homes and beginning to gather to watch the licking flames consume her little house. And the distant ululating sounds of sirens were coming closer and closer. She had to get out of here while she could still do so undetected. Otherwise, she would be back at the police station, seeing the suspicion in their eyes as they hammered her with questions to which there simply were no answers. She had started her car and driven quietly away from her house, turning left at the end of the block, just as the strobing red lights of the fire engines appeared in her rear view mirror.
She’d pulled into an office building parking lot a couple of blocks away and gotten her gym bag out of the trunk. Hoping nobody was watching, she stripped off the sleep shorts and T-shirt and quickly shimmied into a pair of panties, then the pants of her track suit. Not bothering with a bra, she slipped her arms into the sleeves of the jacket and zipped it up. It was late August, and while the days were still hot, evenings were beginning to get much cooler. She’d hobbled over to the concrete steps leading up to the office building and sat down on one of them, using the light from her car’s headlights to see by. Slowly, painstakingly, she began to pull bits of glass out of the bottoms of her feet, managing to cut her fingertips in the process. All the blood made the glass slippery, adding to her frustration. Some of the pieces were embedded so deep, pulling them out caused fresh blood to flow.
Crap. No two ways about it. I’m going to have to go to an Emergency Room somewhere. But I need to get out of Philadelphia first. Hands shaking, she’d used wet wipes to wipe away as much of the blood as she could, wincing and hissing—“Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!”—when the alcohol in the wipes stung her cuts like the very devil. Holy shit! But not even that pain had made her cry. She’d put on her thick, terry socks, then her shoes. Then she had hobbled back to the car and dropped into the driver’s seat, almost numb with shock and fatigue and pure, unadulterated terror.
Somebody just tried to kill me!
Okay. Change of plans. I can’t possibly hang around here until the bank opens. I gotta get as much cash as I can right now and get the hell outta Dodge. Maybe, if whoever blew up my house is checking on such things, they won’t notice that the withdrawal occurred after the explosion and will think I withdrew it before I died in the burning house.
So she’d driven to the nearest ATM machine and withdrawn her allowable maximum—three hundred dollars. It had seemed like a lot, but she had absolutely nothing, so, in the overall scheme of things, it was piddly. This was going to have to go for clothes, food, gas, basic toiletries and stuff she hadn’t even thought of yet. And it was going to have to last long enough for her to find a new place to live and a new job.
Oh, crap! If I’m dead, I can’t use my social security number! How can I get any kind of decent job without my social security number?
And that’s when it really hit her. Somebody had tossed a bomb into her house. Somebody wanted her dead! And for a while everyone would assume that she was. Until they sifted through the debris and realized that there was no body in the smoldering ruins. Then they would come looking for her. Nearly overwhelmed with terror, she had pulled away from the ATM machine and left Philadelphia behind.
And she hadn’t cried, not in all that time. Until now. Until the rain.
Seriously? Her mind began its routine back-and-forth debate. You’re crying now? Because of a little rain?
OMG! You call this a little rain? It’s like fucking Niagara Falls out there! And, no, I’m not crying because of a little rain! I’m crying because it’s raining on top of everything else that’s happened in the last forty-eight hours. And it’s the last straw! Just the absolute, God-damned last straw!
Folding her arms across the top of the steering wheel, she leaned forward and rested her head on them. She cried until she was utterly drained of both tears and energy. Since she was obviously stuck here she might as well make the best of it and try to get some sleep. She released the seat back, pushing it down as far as it would go, curled up on her side, and closed her eyes.
But sleep eluded her. The rain was so loud, it was like being inside a steel drum during a hail storm. And she was cold. She couldn’t turn the car on for heat, so she huddled, shivering, teeth chattering, mentally consigning her asshole of a boss and her faithless lover to the eternal fires of hell.
* * * *
Simon Rafferty drove past the little red Honda, then realized that that dark shape he’d just glimpsed through the driver’s side window was someone’s head. Holy fuck, I hope no one’s hurt! Swerving onto the shoulder, he made an illegal one-eighty and crossed the highway, stopping his Dodge Ram truck nose to nose in front of the little car. He exited his truck and walked around to the driver’s door of the Honda. It was so much smaller than his pick-up, it reminded him of one of those little clown cars that drive into the center ring and disgorge a dozen clowns in full clown regalia. The thought made him smile. He bent to look in the window.
It was a woman and she was asleep. Her hair was the first thing that caught his eye. Long, straight, luxuriant, a dark, silken curtain of liquid chocolate, with rich chestnut highlights. She was lying on her side, facing the window, her mouth open. She appeared to be hiccupping, as though she’d fallen asleep during a crying jag. She’d definitely been crying. The tracks of dried tears were clearly visible on her cheeks. She wore no make-up, but then, she didn’t need it. Her skin was absolutely flawless. Christ, she was so beautiful. The hideous lime-green track suit she was wearing was oversized, but it couldn’t hide her voluptuous figure or the generous curve of her ass, his favorite part of a woman’s anatomy. The thought of baring that ass and taking her there hardened his cock so fast, his vision blurred. Steadying himself by placing one hand on the roof of the car, he rapped on the window with the knuckles of the other.
Knock. Knock. Knock. “Hey. Miss. You all right?” Knock. Knock. Knock. “Miss, wake up!
Blinking groggily, Kylie looked around, disoriented, every muscle in her body stiff and aching. With a deep groan, she pushed herself partially upright, trying to blink the sleep out of her eyes. Wiping the moisture from the corner of her mouth, she reached down and pulled the lever to raise the seat back. It jerked her upright so fast the bottom of the steering wheel dug into her ribs. “Owww!”
“Miss, are you all right? Open the window. Let me help you.”
She twisted awkwardly in her seat, shocked to realize that it was daylight. She had managed to sleep after all. And the rain had stopped.
Another tap on her window had her turning her head and she received another shock as she found herself staring at one of the most ruggedly handsome faces she had ever seen, with thick, unruly black hair, blue eyes, and a two-day growth of beard. Yum! Trying not to drool, she just sat and stared, mesmerized, not wanting to break the spell lest he disappear.
When she still didn’t respond, the man—because all the things that held her in thrall did, indeed, belong to a man, a tall, hard-bodied, very large man—smiled at her and that smile had her heart skipping and leaping and doing somersaults like a demented cheerleader. Oh, my.
“Miss, open the window.” On the off chance she didn’t speak English, he made cranking motions with his hand.
Frowning, she touched the window button. Nothing happened. Oh, right. Electricity. She turned the key to Accessories and the window came down.
The man smiled and leaned his forearms on the open window and she nearly passed out from the lust that swept through her.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I am,” she said, mustering an answering smile. “Herkimer’s not.”
“Herkimer?” He looked puzzled.
“You named your car?”
It took him a second to regroup. “What seems to be the problem? Flat tire?”
Her sigh was wistful. “If only. Loud, clanging noise in the engine.”
“Uh-oh. That’s not good. Pull the hood release.”
She found it and pulled it. She barely had enough time to take in his lean hips and the well-rounded curves of his ass, outlined lovingly by the worn denim of his tight jeans, before all that male deliciousness disappeared behind the open hood.
“Start it for me.”
“Uhhh, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Go ahead. I just need to hear what it’s doing.”
“Ooookay.” Wincing, she turned the key. Clank! Clank! Clank!
‘Okay, okay, that’s enough! Shut it off.” He lowered the hood and came back around. His smile was back in place and now her breathing was doing crazy things. Like stopping. And shuddering. And stopping again.
He hunkered down beside her door. “Sounds like you might have blown the engine,” he said, taking a cell phone from his shirt pocket and punching in a number. “I’m calling Sam Olsen to send his tow truck out here. He owns the local garage.” He put the phone to his ear. “Sam. Simon Rafferty. Got a little Honda out here on County Road Seventy-One. Needs a tow. Might have a blown engine.” He looked directly at her. “What year is this, darlin’?”
She was so flustered she nearly gave him the current year before realizing that he meant the year of her car. “Um, ninety-three.”
He gave her an incredulous look before turning his attention back to the phone. “You hear that, Sam? No, ninety-three. You gonna be able to find parts that old?” While he listened, he tipped back his Stetson with the pad of his thumb, then leaned his elbow on the roof of the car, two moves that placed his crotch right at Kylie’s eye level and sent both her heart and her breathing going absolutely haywire. Holy shit! This man is so drop-dead sexy I’m creaming my panties!
Not that it matters, of course, that prim voice in her head replied. You have no business creaming your panties over anyone, much less a total stranger. You need to avoid total strangers. When are you ever going to learn?
She licked her lips, taking stock of her situation. She had no job, no boyfriend, no home, and now no car. And a dwindling supply of cash. She’d already spent part of it on some cheap clothes and personal items at a Walmart she’d passed some time during the night. Damn it, if only I’d gone ahead and packed my bag the minute I saw that news story last night! I’d have a suitcase full of everything I need and ready access to my money!
Guess again, Ferrell. If you had been in your bedroom packing your suitcase after the news, you’d be dead. So it was probably just as well that she hadn’t done that. But now all she had was a couple hundred bucks, a few cheap T-shirts and shorts, and three changes of underwear.
She’d used Walmart’s rest room to clean up some of the dried blood from all the little cuts she’d sustained on her left arm. She’d had to wet her bloody socks to unstick them from the deeper cuts on the bottoms of her feet. Then she’d applied an antibiotic cream to the worst of those, covered them with Band aids, and put on a new pair of thick socks. Plus she’d stopped at a twenty-four-hour fast food place and splurged on a large burger combo because she was absolutely starving. But now she was hungry again. And she needed to pee really, really bad. Shouldn’t have gotten that humongous soda. And she desperately needed a place to hide out for a while. A place where she could think, plan out her next move, find a job—a place where she felt safe, god damn it! How could the world be so big and yet have not even a tiny little corner for her to shelter in?
Again, the cowboy leaned down into the open window. “Sam says it’ll be at least an hour before he can get the tow truck out here. So get your stuff and I’ll take you into town where you can wait in comfort, get something to eat, and, you know, use the facilities.”
Yes! Yes, please. “Um, no, no, thank you, I wouldn’t dream of troubling you. I’ll just wait here.”
“Nonsense. It’s not safe. My brothers would have my hide for leaving you out here on your own.”
His brothers? Oh, my God! There are more of him? Shouldn’t there be some sort of law against that? “How many brothers do you have?” she asked before she could stop herself.
“Two. We’re triplets. I’m Simon, by the way. Simon Rafferty.” He extended his right hand through the window and Kylie took it.
“Kylie Ferrell,” she replied automatically, her eyes widening in horror the instant the words were out of her mouth. Well, shit! She’d just given him her real name! So much for her plans to go off-grid, she thought grimly. And repairing her car was going to cost more than she had left in cash, which meant she’d have to use her credit card. Shit! She might as well take out a full-page ad in the Philadelphia paper with a map of Virginia, an X over the name of whatever town this was, and the words, “Kylie Ferrell is here. Come and get her.”
Simon Rafferty watched the panic bloom in her eyes and her frantic attempts to tamp it down. This woman was terrified of something. He didn’t think it was him, but at this point he couldn’t be sure of anything. He opened the door for her, watching as she untangled her legs and swung them out. He hated pants on a woman, because they hid his second-most favorite part of a woman’s anatomy. Long, shapely, curvy legs. And he’d bet hers were doozies.
She expected her legs to be stiff from their long confinement in the close quarters of the Honda’s front seat, but she certainly wasn’t expecting them to give out completely. Nor had she anticipated the pain shooting up through the soles of her feet. Her knees buckled and she let out a cry.
Just in time, Simon grabbed her under the arms to keep her from collapsing to the ground.
She whimpered, but not in pain. At the arousal racing through her, so powerful it was nearly as painful as her feet. An arousal that Simon Rafferty also seemed to feel if that rock hard bulge behind his jeans was anything to go by. Oh, my. Lifting her hands to his broad chest, she tried to push herself away from him, but he kept her firmly in place. She could feel his gaze on her like a touch, and she was filled with a vast, restless yearning she couldn’t explain. Come on, Kylie, get a grip.
“Don’t worry, darlin’, I’ve got you. I won’t let you fall.”
She bit her lip. “I-I need to get m-my bags.”
“Just tell me where they are, I’ll get them.”
“They’re in the back seat.”
Simon Rafferty edged around her to pull her keys out of the ignition. Then, without giving her a chance to protest, he bent, thrust an arm behind her knees and picked her up. She let out a shriek at finding herself suddenly airborne, making him chuckle. “Don’t worry, darlin’, I’ve got you, remember?”
And he did. By some miracle he was able to lift her curvy, voluptuous figure and carry her over to the passenger side of the mud-covered Dodge Ram pick-up parked in front of her little Honda. And he wasn’t even panting or straining or saying, “Oof!” with every step, like Brad had done the one and only time he had tried to pick her up.
“No, really,” she insisted, “I’m much too heavy for you. Please put me down, Mr. Rafferty, I can walk.”
“Call me Simon. And you’re not too heavy. You are the perfect size for a man to carry.” He set her down on her feet and opened the door to his old, battered pick-up truck. “Step up.” She lifted one foot onto the running board, but the step was so high, her knee was practically level with her head.
“This has to be what getting on a horse feels like,” she said, grabbing the hand-hold to try and pull herself up. She felt a broad hand shaping her bottom and giving her a firm shove up into the seat. Face crimson with embarrassment, she turned and sat and swung her legs in.
“I’m just gonna go fetch your stuff. I’ll be right back.”
He returned shortly, carrying her nearly empty gym bag, the two plastic Walmart bags, her laptop, and her purse. He gave her a baffled look. “This is it? You came all the way from Philadelphia and this is all you’ve got? Where’s your suitcase?”
“How did you know I came from Philadelphia?” she asked, astonished.
He just laughed. “Pennsylvania license plate. Dealer sticker on the trunk.”
He eyed her speculatively. “Kind of a long way to come for a Sunday jaunt.”
She bit her lip, avoiding his eyes. How could she possibly explain her lack of belongings to him? How could she possibly explain anything to him? And yet he gave the distinct impression that he was fully prepared to just stand there and wait until she gave him one, no matter how long it took. “I-I don’t have a suitcase. Just that. I-there—there was a fire. I managed to get away, but everything else just sort of…burned.” She shrugged, letting her voice trail off, letting him fill in the blanks however he chose.
“Is that how you got hurt? Were you burned in the fire?” He touched her arm, her shoulder, reaching in to lift her hands off her lap, inspecting first one then the other, turning them both over, inspecting her skin, noting all the little cuts on the fingertips of her right hand. “How did you get these?”
“In your hands?”
He lifted her hand to study the cuts more closely. So closely that if he stuck out his tongue, he could actually lick her skin. The heat from his hard, calloused fingers left sparks in their wake. Kylie’s breathing hitched and she had to force herself not to lean into him and beg him to put his arms around her. Her need and longing for comfort was so overwhelming she was shaking with it. And with an arousal so fierce she could feel the liquid heat of it melting her bones and igniting her blood.
“No, no, not there. On my feet. I just…kinda…stepped on some broken glass on my way out the door. Had to pull out a couple of pieces, that’s all.”
One black eyebrow quirked, but he didn’t say anything. Placing her laptop and purse in her lap, he stowed the rest of her meager belongings behind the seat and went around to the driver’s side. With practiced ease and masculine grace he swung himself up into the seat. “Buckle up, sweet thing. You hungry?”
Starving! But she couldn’t afford to eat out. Repairing her car was probably going to cost more than all the rest of the money she had anywhere. Including the bank. No, I’ll just eat one of those English muffins I got at Walmart. Only it would taste so much better if it were toasted and dripping with butter…“Um, no, not really,” she said, her words nearly drowned out by the growling of her tummy.
He grinned. “Yeah, right. Don’t worry, I’m buyin’.”
“Really, Mr. Rafferty—”
“—Simon, that’s not necessary. You don’t have to buy me breakfast.”
“I know I don’t have to, darlin’. But I sure as hell want to.” His voice was low, rough, stroking across her nerve endings like a tiger’s purr. He turned toward her, capturing her with his blue gaze.
She had to look away to keep from drowning. “Uh…okay, sure, whatever you say,” she stammered, her mouth suddenly so dry, she had difficulty maneuvering her tongue around the shapes of the words.
He turned the key in the ignition, put the truck into gear, and pulled out onto the deserted highway. He drove fast, but with consummate skill, as she instinctively knew he would do everything. She studied him surreptitiously from beneath her lashes. His hands were large, his long, lean fingers curving loosely around the steering wheel. His arms rippled with muscles and were corded with deep veins. He was darkly tanned, as if he spent a lot of time outdoors.
Her eyes went back to his hands, trying not to imagine them curving around her, stroking her skin with heat and passion. She tried not to imagine the feel of those soft, perfectly shaped lips covering hers, his tongue seeking entry into her mouth. God, she had to stop thinking like this! How could she be so attracted to this…this…stranger? She knew nothing about him!
But somehow that didn’t seem to matter. Liquid heat gushed between her legs, making her squirm in her seat.
She had never responded so strongly to a man before—not any man. Not even Brad. In fact, now that she thought about Brad, she realized that he had done her a huge favor by cheating on her. When her tears had ended, so had any feelings she had ever had for him. His constant sniping and criticism of her, her messiness, her lack of culinary prowess, her weight, her lack of skills in bed had left her constantly anxious and nervous and pathetically eager to please. And he had taken advantage of that to live in her house rent-free while his condo was being renovated.
Well, no more. She was free from Brad Sullivan and his demeaning words and deeds. Never again would she allow a man to have such control over her. She was in charge of her own destiny, by God—just as soon as she figured out what the hell her destiny was.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To Mansfield’s Diner in a little town named Passion Lake.”
“Never heard of it. Do you live there?”
“Yes. My brothers and I own the Passion Lake Airfield.”
“You’re a pilot?”
“We all are. We have two Gulfstreams that we use for charter flights out of Richmond and D.C., a Cessna, a sightseeing helicopter, and an old Steerman bi-plane that we use for stunt flying at air shows and for dusting a few local farmers’ crops. I run the airport. My brother Caleb is the sheriff, although he handles an occasional flight, and Ash is a professional photographer. We live in a big old restored Victorian house.”
“So none of you is married?” Oh, my God, did I just ask that? Seriously?
“No. We’re waitin’ for the right one.”
Who isn’t? She fell silent, turning her gaze out the window to watch the passing scenery.
“You are now entering Passion Lake,” Simon said around ten minutes later, gesturing with his hand. Straight ahead, perched on top of a hill, surrounded by centuries-old live oak trees, was the most magnificent Victorian mansion Kylie had ever seen. Three stories tall, it was like something out of a fairy tale, with turrets, an enormous tower with a Moorish dome, a Widow’s Walk, and major gingerbread trim.
“It’s beautiful,” she breathed.
“It’s now the Passion Lake Bed and Breakfast. It was moved here from the old town of Porterfield, just about a mile down the road. The town was bankrupt, so a group of us spec ops buddies bought it, along with thirteen square miles of surrounding countryside. The owner of that house was the last holdout. She only signed the deed of sale because all twelve of us agreed to move her house here and restore it.”
“Well, you did a fabulous job. It’s awesome.”
He turned to the right down Main Street. More lovingly-restored Victorian and Queen Anne style houses were on both sides, making Kylie feel as if she’d been transported back in time. Even more lovely old buildings lined the side streets. As they left the residential area, the street widened considerably. It was at least five lanes wide, but only one lane in each direction was actual street. Down the center of the main thoroughfare a walkway meandered through a wide, grassy median with Victorian style wrought iron lamp posts, beds of colorful flowers, and a charming gazebo. The junction of every crosswalk was marked by terra cotta planters containing tall, stately juniper trees rising above even more flowers spilling over the planters’ edges. Crepe myrtle trees in shades of bubblegum pink, fuchsia, lavender, and white marched down the middle of the entire five-block-long median. Enormous hanging baskets filled with pink and white petunias along with some deep purple and yellow flowers Kylie didn’t recognize hung from the lamp posts. Parking spaces angled in toward center of the median on both sides of the street. The sidewalks in front of the store fronts were also wide, with planters and trees and mulched beds full of begonias and tall snapdragons in nearly every color of the rainbow.
“Oh, my God, this is so beautiful,” she said on a note of awe. “Are you telling me a bunch of big, burly, hard-assed, spec ops warriors designed this?”
Simon laughed. “I know. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? But we didn’t design it to fit our own tastes. If we had, Passion Lake would probably be a trailer park full of double-wides. We wanted to build a thrivin’ community that would appeal to a wide variety of people and a broad range of ages. A place where people could come to unwind. Relax. Get away from their every-day cares. We wanted the downtown area to be really special and unique, with an authentic Victorian look and feel that would set it apart from other tourist places. We moved several of the houses we just passed from Porterfield and the surrounding countryside, in order to maintain the overall period look we wanted.”
Kylie indicated the storefronts. “Did you guys move these buildings here, too?”
“No, they were built here, but the period architectural details make them look old and established. They’ve actually been here less than two years. When the architect showed us the mock-up of this street all twelve of us were instantly on board.’
She turned to look at him. “It’s very impressive. But how does one go about buying an entire town? I know spec ops soldiers get paid well, but how can it possibly be enough to buy thirteen square miles of property?”
Simon chuckled. “Our XO’s—that’s Executive Officer, to you civilians—Uncle Joe is a Wall Street genius, who made all of us a great deal of money through shrewd investments. And Passion Lake is actually not a town, it’s a corporation, with a CEO instead of a mayor and a Board of Directors instead of a Town Council. I told you Caleb was the sheriff? His actual title is Head of Security, although he wears a typical sheriff’s uniform, mostly for the tourists.”
“And that actually works?”
His grin widened. “Well, sometimes it feels like we’re gropin’ in the dark and makin’ it up as we go along. But we have an attorney, to make sure everything is at least legal, and a CFO, to make sure we don’t go into the hole. We’ve been talkin’ about it ever since Uncle Joe started makin’ really big money for us. It was in the plannin’ stages for over three years, and when this property became available, we jumped at the chance. We’ve been here nearly two years already and it’s workin’ so far.”
He pulled into an angled parking space and shut off the engine. “What are you in the mood for?” he asked. There’s Katie’s Barbecue, right there, or Mansfield’s Diner across the street. They both do a fabulous breakfast.”
“The diner’s fine. I’m ready to kill for a cup of coffee.”
They crossed the median and walked across the street to Mansfield’s Diner, Kylie doing her best not to limp or wince at the pain from the cuts on the bottoms of her feet. As soon as they opened the doors, the delicious smells made Kylie’s stomach growl loudly enough for Simon to hear.
He laughed. “Looks like we got here just in time. C’mon, let’s grab that empty booth right there,” he said, nodding toward the third booth ahead of them along the storefront windows. He acknowledged several of the other diners with waves or nods of his head as he and Kylie slid onto the padded vinyl seats. He placed his Stetson on the bench beside him. The interior of the diner was all red and yellow and shiny chrome. The waitresses all wore short red skirts, small white aprons, white blouses with red checked cuffs and collars and jaunty little pleated white caps perched on top of their heads.
A perky little blond teenager came right over with their set-ups and menus. “Hi, Mr. Rafferty. Welcome to Mansfield’s Diner. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Two coffees,” Simon said. “And leave the pot.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Rafferty.” She gave Simon a big smile and an almost worshipful look. She gave Kylie the same smile, but the look was a lot less worshipful. Then she bounced off to get their coffee.
Kylie shot him an amused glance. “She’s got a crush on you.”
“Well, since my brothers and I are triplets, I guess technically she has a crush on all three of us. That’s why she just calls us all Mr. Rafferty because she’s never quite sure which one of us she’s actually talkin’ to. Unless Caleb’s in uniform, of course. Then she calls him Sheriff.”
“Sometimes he comes in wearin’ civilian clothes just to throw her off.”
Kylie was still laughing when the teen returned with two large mugs, which she set down in front of Simon and Kylie, and a thermal coffee pot, which she set down in the middle of the table after filling both mugs full of steaming hot brew, making Kylie’s stomach growl again. That’s when she noticed the girl’s name on her shirt pocket. Brandi. With an “I”. She probably dots it with a little heart when she writes it. She had to press her lips between her teeth to keep from smiling.
“Brandi,” Simon said, “this is Ms. Ferrell, a special friend of mine. She will probably be in here several times over the next few days. I want you to give her your special attention, okay?”
“Sure, Mr. Rafferty. Hi, Ms. Ferrell. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too, Brandi.”
“Are you ready to order?” Brandi asked, whipping an order pad out of her apron pocket, her pencil poised in mid-air above it.
Simon looked at Kylie. “Will you trust me to order for you?”
“Sure. You know what’s good here.”
Simon smiled. “Everything’s good here.” To Brandi he said, “Two deluxe breakfast specials.”
She scribbled briefly. “You want your eggs scrambled as usual?”
Simon quirked an eyebrow at Kylie. She nodded and Brandi scampered off to place their order. Kylie emptied two sugar packets and two creamers into her coffee, stirred and took a cautious sip of the steaming brew. “Oh, my God, that is heaven in a cup.” She looked at Simon and started to slide out of the booth. “If you don’t mind, I need to use the ladies’ room.”
He set down his cup. “Gimme a minute and I’ll go with you.”
“To the ladies room?” she asked, bemused.
He hailed Brandi, who was carrying a tray full of plates heaped with food to the next booth over. “Brandi, tell your dad to wait until we come out of the bathroom before he starts to cook our breakfast, okay?”
He laughed. “Just figured out which one I am, huh?”
She just grinned.
“When you’re through deliverin’ that order, could you bring a chair back to the ladies room?”
“Simon, what are you thinking?” Kylie asked, aghast. “Are you crazy? You’re not coming to the ladies room with me.”