ZACH DRUMMED AN IMPATIENT TATTOO AGAINST the top of his Jeep. What the hell was keeping Lily with that address?
He was too edgy just to stand around cooling his jets this way; he had to act before his sister made a mistake it might take her years to recover from. Realizing Lily had wiggled her way into Glynnis’s life had been bad enough. But he didn’t even know how long his sister had been gone, and the lost time that little golddigger had cost him by keeping Glynnis’s news to herself could well make the difference between him getting to Beaumont’s house in time to stop this farce or not.
Considering what a control freak you are, I wasn’t exactly bowled over when Glynnis didn’t tell you her plans, whispered Lily’s voice in his brain, stilling Zach’s fingers on the rooftop. Then, slapping both hands against the hot metal, he pushed away and began to pace.
Bullshit. It had nothing to do with control; he just wanted to protect his little sister. Someone had to prevent her from making the biggest mistake of her life.
Experience was on his side, and this time the situation was even worse than usual. Glynnis was too big-hearted for her own good, but no one had ever brought her to the point where marriage sounded like a good idea. Zach thrust his hands through his hair as he paced. Somehow thisBeaumontguy had gotten her to that stage, though. Somehow he’d convinced her he was the man for her, the one she could trust to supply her with the happily-ever-after she’d always wanted. Zach had to save her from getting her soft, generous heart stomped into paste. For if she’d been crushed in the past when she’d discovered she’d been used by the people she’d trusted, what would it do to her to learn her true love was playing her for a fool?
Love. Zach made a rude noise. As if that was an emotion anyone could trust.
Turning to pace in the other direction, he saw Lily headed his way. “It’s about damn time,” he snarled, so busy trying not to notice the ultra-girly hip-swinging, breast-bouncing walk of hers that it took him a moment to register she was burdened with a purse and train case and was pulling a suitcase in her wake. “What the—”
She sashayed right up to the passenger side of his Jeep, opened the door, and tossed her stuff in the backseat while he stood there with his mouth open. Looking at him across the top of the SUV, she gave the vehicle a slap. “What are you waiting for? Let’s go.” And she climbed into the car.
He ripped open his own door and leaned in to glare at her across the seats. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“I would think that would be obvious even to you.” She gave him a cool look out of those clear blue eyes. “I’ve decided to go with you.”
“Over my cold and rotting corpse, lady.”
“Works for me—that’d save me a trip. But failing that, your sister has a real shot at happiness with David, and I’ve resolved not to let you wreck it for her.”
“You’ve resolved ? he said scornfully. “What, you afraid you’ll lose your meal ticket if I talk some sense into her?” His brain tried to tell him there was a flaw in that logic, but he couldn’t puzzle it out over the roar of his anger. And that made him even more livid, the knowledge that she could make him lose his temper without any effort at all. No one else had ever been able to do that. “Haul your little butt out of my car.”
“Then I’ll haul it for you.” He straightened, fully prepared to follow through on his threat.
“Not if you want David’s address.”
Zach had to remind himself he was disciplined, that a soldier did not react without thinking. He’d already tried calling Rocket, but his friend must be serious about this being a vacation and had turned off his cell phone for the trip up to Coop’s. Zach bent back down and looked at Lily. “I’ll have that address if I have to tear your purse and bags apart to find it,” he said flatly. He gave her a slow up-and-down appraisal. “If I have to strip you naked.”
She didn’t even blink. “Could be fun, I suppose—but it still won’t get you the address.” She tapped her termple. “It’s in here, bud. So unless you’re a mind reader…”
Swearing in defeat, he climbed into the Jeep and slammed the door.
Miguel Escavez raced back to the car he’d won off a soldier yesterday and started the engine. When Master Sergeant Taylor drove away from the opulent ocean-front property a moment later, Miguel patiently waited until the other man reached the bend in the road before pulling away from the shoulder to trail in the black SUV’s wake. His impulse to follow the commander fromCampPendletonthis morning had paid off with even faster results than he’d expected—a sure sign his mission was just.
But then, he’d never doubted that for a moment. He was, after all, Miguel Hector Javier Escavez, only son of the mayor of Bisinlejo. And this was just one more in a series of signs he’d received already. Why, just last night he’d won a fortune from several of the gringo soldiers.
That filled him with satisfaction—and for more reasons than simply the money that enabled him to finance his plans. They thought because he came from a small Colombian village he was dumb, that he was a—how did one of them put it?—a spic. Miguel spit out the car window. Arrogant fools. How many of them spoke two languages? He had learned English from Father Roberto, the mission priest who had also taught him the finer points of five-card stud. If the Norte Americanos were so damn smart, how was it that most of their recently cashed paychecks had ended up in his pocket?
They knew nothing. He was an important man; his life was charmed.
At least it had been until the American soldiers had sent everything spinning out of control. He had admired Taylorwhen the marine had first come to Bisinlejo, but now the master sergeant was his enemy. Pedersen, underTaylor’s command, had sullied Emilita, but it was the master sergeant who had compounded the insult by demeaning him —Miguel Escavez—in front of the entire village. And of the two transgressions, that was the one he couldn’t forgive.
Miguel smiled to himself, for having seen the marine’s eyes go hot when the blond woman had jiggled her breasts and swung her hips crossing the courtyard, he knew what to do. He hadn’t been close enough to hear the conversation inside the car, but clearly the puta was the commander’s woman.
The church preached an eye for an eye, so retribution seemed simple enough to Miguel. He had lost his woman. Emilita may as well be dead for the dishonor she’d shown him, and he held Master Sergeant Taylor directly responsible. He would therefore see to it that the marine lost his woman in exchange.
It was only just.
Lily eyed Zach’s grim profile. They’d been traveling for over two hours, and he hadn’t said a word to her. Not one. Not wanting to be the first to cave, she turned to stare out at the almond groves whizzing past the window. But a few minutes later she found herself turning back to him again. “Are you going to sulk all the way toWashington?”
The glance he spared her before returning his attention to the long, straight stretch of freeway should have singed the eyebrows right off her face. “You blackmailed me into letting you come along. I don’t feel a burning need to entertain you as well.”
“Oh, yeah,” she scoffed. “You being such an entertaining guy and all.” If personalities equaled looks, Zach Taylor would be a dung beetle. It seemed the height of unfairness that instead he could probably get work as an underwear model, darn him.
Being a sociable woman, though, she didn’t think she could bear thirteen hundred miles of the silent treatment. So she wracked her brain for a subject he might respond to. Beauty makeovers were probably out. Politics and religion were risky at the best of times, and the weather had been consistently fair for the past several days—not a lot to discuss there. Food was always a good topic, of course, but Zach struck her as more the let’s-eat type than the you-have-got-to-tell-me-how-you-prepared-this kind of guy. That left just one subject—the relationship between Glynnis and David. And the only thing discussing that was likely to get her was a huge headache.
Heck, silence wasn’t so bad.
Another thirty miles farther on, though, she couldn’t stand it any longer. As they blew past a long row of evenly spaced eucalyptus trees, she shifted in her seat to face him once again. “David Beaumont isn’t the cad you’re making him out to be, you know.”
Lily had never realized such a brief sound could convey so much skepticism. ‘He’s not,” she insisted. “Not unless he’s the best darn actor in the world—and, frankly, I don’t think anyone could sustain an act that good twenty-four hours a day for several days running. Which is what he’d have to do since he and Glynnis planned to take their time and see some of the sights along the way. Don’tcha think in that case Glynnis would figure out for herself he’s not the man for her?” This time she didn’t even get a grunt in response, and she swallowed her sigh. “I doubt it will come to that, though. I know it was a pretty fast decision since they’ve only been dating for a couple of months, but David struck me as simply a decent guy who fell head over heels in love with your sister and thought he was the luckiest man on earth when she returned his feelings.”
“I guess I can just turn right around and go home, then.”
His tone, of course, suggested otherwise, and blowing out a disgusted bream, she gave up. In the silence that followed, she shifted in her seat, trying to restore circulation to her travel-deadened bottom and legs. Gradually she became aware of another discomfort. She looked over at him. “I need to use a restroom.”
He emitted another of those charming sounds and she turned her attention back to the scenery outside the window, determined to hold her tongue for real this time. She would patiently await the next service station if it killed her. She was nevertheless relieved a short while later to see a sign announcing a rest stop at the next exit, for she was beginning to grow uncomfortable.
Zach whizzed right past it.
Lily’s temper climbed into the red zone, and she had to clench her teeth against ranting and railing and telling him exactly what she thought of his crummy tactics. For that’s what this was—a way of letting her know he hadn’t wanted her along in the first place and he wasn’t about to allow her so-called “blackmail” to dictate the terms of the drive. She forced herself to breathe deeply until she found a measure of control. Then she stroked her hand admiringly over the fine leather of her bucket seat. “Nice upholstery,” she murmured. “What a shame my bladder’s about five minutes away from destroying it.”
He looked over at her, and his charcoal-ringed gray eyes seemed to weigh her determination. “Okay, hold your water. I’ll find you a bathroom.”
Service stations were few and far between along this stretch of farm country, however, and Lily was practically dancing in her seat by the time Zach roared off the exit and rolled to a stop in front of a gas pump. She left her door hanging open in her rush to the restroom.
When she came out several minutes later, Zach was just reseating the nozzle in its holder. Pulling his wallet from his back pocket, he headed for the small minimart. “You’d better come in and pick out what you want to eat, because I’m not stopping again.”
Most of the store’s offerings ran toward grease, salt, and sugar, but Lily selected a bottle of water, two apples, an orange, and a small package of presliced cheese. She added a candy bar at the counter. Then she fished through her purse for her wallet, but by the time she’d dug to the bottom and located it, Zach had already paid for everything.
“C’mon,” he said and strode back to the Jeep.
She sighed as she picked her way over the cracked concrete parking lot in her needle-heeled shoes. This was going to be a long trip.
Miguel hurried to pay for his petrol, watching through the market window as the sergeant major drove out of the lot. Where the hell was he headed?
This wasn’t what he’d anticipated. He’d expectedTaylorto take his woman out for a meal in the small beach town where he lived. Or maybe up toLos Angeles. He certainly hadn’t expected him to just keep driving and driving and driving. Miguel had nearly run out of petrol before Taylor had finally pulled in here—and then he’d counted himself lucky that this was America, where gas pumps lined two sides of the small market. In Bisinlejo they had one pump—and the truck to fill that only came once every couple of months or so. Here he was able to fill his car at the same time as the commander and still avoid being seen.
Shoving his change in his pocket, he headed for his car. He didn’t want to letTaylorget too far ahead. If the marine took an exit before Miguel could catch up, this would be a wasted trip, and he’d have to wait for another day to start all over again. He’d just as soon not have to do that. Too bad he hadn’t had the opportunity to talk to the blonde this stop, but Father Roberto used to say that good things came to those who wait.
And he had all the time in the world.
Lily had no idea what time it was when she awoke several hours later to find the Jeep had finally stopped moving. It was pitch dark, and she struggled upright when she heard sounds coming from the back of the vehicle. “What?” she mumbled, trying to shake off the stupor that still had her in its grip. Her bottom was numb, and her neck had a crick in it from falling asleep sitting up.
“We’re stopping for the night,” Zach’s deep voice rumbled from the direction of the cargo space.
“Oh. Okay.” Yawning, she reached for her purse with one hand and the door handle with the other. “I’ll give you some money for my room.”
He gave a short, unamused laugh, and that was when she woke up enough to look around and realize this was no parking lot of a nice hotel, or even a cracked courtyard of the fleabag, motor-court variety. They were in the middle of nowhere.
And it was cold. She shivered as she opened the door and chill air rushed in. Teeth chattering, she closed it again and turned to kneel on the seat, reaching in back for her suitcase. She pulled out a sweater, donned it, then gingerly climbed out of the car. “Where are we?” She heard the back hatch close and squinted to see through the darkness.
“At a campground near Shasta.”
“Shasta, as in the mountain?”
“That would be the one.”
“And we’re staying here?” She took an imprudent step forward, and her heels, not designed for their current surroundings, caught on something underfoot. She went flying.
The free-fall sensation sent her stomach swooping toward her throat, but her tumble to the ground was stopped when her upper arms were suddenly caught in hard-skinned hands. She was jerked upright, and her breasts flattened against rigid muscle with a force that knocked her breath from her lungs. Her chin bounced off Zach’s hard chest, clicking her teeth together.
For a moment she simply dug her fingers into his muscular arms and clung, leaning against the comfortingly solid body propping her up. He smelled of laundry soap and man, and as she ran a quick check to make sure all her parts were still in working order, it occurred to her that being held in his arms this way felt very… safe. And warm—mercy, so blessedly warm.
Then his hands tightened on her arms and he moved her back, holding her steady until she found her balance. “Put on some sneakers before you kill yourself.”
Chilled again, she peered into the darkness, trying to see him as he moved away. “I don’t own any sneakers.” God, he couldn’t be serious about camping here, could he?
“What was I thinking?” He laughed shortly. “Of course you don’t. Do you have any shoes in that bag that don’t have four-inch heels?”
“I have a pair of sandals,” she said with great dignity.
“You might want to put them on, then, so you don’t break your neck.”
She turned to go back to the car, only to realize she’d gotten turned around by her near spill. “Which direction is the Jeep? And how come you can see stuff when I can’t see a blessed thing? Are you wearing a pair of those night goggles or something?”
“No, I’ve just got excellent night vision. Take a half turn to your right; the car’s a few steps in front of you.”
She very carefully made her way to the vehicle and almost wept with relief when she finally located the handle, opened the door, and the dome light came on. She admitted it; she wasn’t a huge nature lover. Sunsets from a deck were about her speed. She could hear a lot of rustling going on out there in the dark, and she didn’t even want to contemplate what type of nocturnal creatures might be causing it. She cast a longing glance to the keys dangling from the ignition before reluctantly giving up the fantasy they inspired of leaving Captain Commando to play soldier by himself while she flew down the highway in search of motels, hot showers, and clean sheets.
After changing her shoes, she rummaged in the glove box, whispering a fervent “thank goodness” when she found a flashlight. She climbed out of the car and went in search of GI Joe.
She found him stretched out on the ground in a sleeping bag and she stopped in her tracks, staring down at him in disbelief. “You’re gonna just go to sleep?”
“Yeah. I’m beat. Get that damn light out of my eyes.”
She ran it down the length of his sleeping bag, thinking how warm it looked. “What about me?”
“I didn’t know you were coming along for the ride when I packed, did I, sugar britches? But you’re welcome to join me in my bag.”
For one heart-stopping instant she was seriously tempted, remembering the heat he’d generated during the brief moment she’d spent in his arms. She was cold , darn it, and he’d been as toasty as a convection oven on baking day.
But she wasn’t so cold that she didn’t know climbing into a sleeping bag built for one with Zach Taylor would be a huge mistake. Against all reason, given his insulting behavior, the man generated some serious chemistry with her. “Is there a blanket I can use?”
“There might be one in the back of the Jeep.”
“You could have said so right away.” Mumbling about inconsiderate men who kept women standing around freezing while they were nice and cozy, she made her way to the back of the vehicle and felt as if she’d struck gold when she located a thick fleece blanket. Wrapping it around her, she went back to stand over Zach. “I need to wash my face.”
“You’ll find a water jug back in the cargo space.”
She shivered at the thought of using cold water. “It needs to be warm .”
His big shoulders moved beneath the bag. “Pans and the camp stove are back there, too. Knock yourself out.”
Blowing out a disgruntled breath, she turned back to the Jeep, stopping on the way to fish a stick out of her sandal. The stove he’d mentioned wasn’t like anything she’d ever seen; a regular camp stove she at least might have figured how to use. This one was little more than a propane canister with a pump and a ring. She gave up on the idea of hot water and slathered her face with moisturizer instead, wiping it off with a tissue in hopes of removing her makeup.
She was returning her toothbrush to her train case when she spotted Zach’s duffel. She reached out and pulled it to her, then guiltily dropped her hand to her side. But guilt didn’t stand up against a skinny little cashmere sweater that wasn’t designed to resist more than a summer evening breeze. She’d bet Mr. Preparedness owned something more appropriate for spring nights in the mountains. She grabbed the duffel bag, slammed the cargo door, then climbed into the backseat of the Jeep. She’d been a good girl who’d played by the rules—and just look where that had gotten her.
The first thing she did after settling in was lock all the doors. She recognized a horror flick situation in the making when she saw one, and she did not intend to be one of those stupid heroines who left herself wide open to a knife-wielding maniac or, worse, some backwoods boy looking to make this city girl squeal like a pig. Then she pulled Zach’s duffel onto her lap and opened it.
At first she tried not to disturb anything as she riffled through it. But that was absurd— he certainly wouldn’t be so forbearing if the situation were reversed. So she upended the bag, and moaned in ecstasy at all the goodies that tumbled out. Oh, man, socks. Warm, woolen socks. She kicked off her sandals and pulled on a pair over her frozen feet. The rest of his underwear didn’t offer much in the way of protection, so she tossed it over her shoulder into the cargo area. His jeans went the same way. But he had some luscious thermal T-shirts, and she peeled off her ineffectual little sweater and pulled one on. Then another. She topped off both with a wonderfully cozy Northface fleece pullover. Feeling a spurt of euphoria as she finally began to thaw, she pushed up the too-long sleeves and bent to check out the rest of his goodies in the weak illumination cast by the dome light.
She found a small zipper bag, but except for a condom whose worn and dented foil packet looked as though it had been rattling around the bottom of the bag for a while, his toiletries were pretty boring. Just a toothbrush and toothpaste, floss, a razor, nail clippers, aspirin, and a small tube of triple antibiotic cream. Oh, and wait. A small pocket knife. She pried open the lat-ter’s various blades and implements.
As she was checking out the tiny corkscrew and wondering where a good bottle of wine was when you really needed it, she grew aware that her finally warm bodv had released Zach’s scent from the clothes she’d donned. Heat that didn’t originate from wearing sufficient clothing crawled through her veins, and she scowled, her momentary pleasure dissipating. Great. Just what she needed to make her day complete—sexual awareness of Gunga Din. She’d never understood women who were drawn to good-looking men who treated them like dirt, so darned if she was cheered by the thought of joining their ranks.
It was late; that was her problem. She needed to call it a day. Grabbing the fleece blanket, she folded the empty duffel to use as a pillow, turned off the overhead light, then wrapped up and stretched out on the backseat.
She couldn’t relax, though. The longer she lay there, the spookier the sounds she heard outside the car. She thought woods were supposed to be quiet . Then, as if the situation wasn’t already about as lousy as it could get, nature called. Well, she wasn’t answering. She’d let her bladder explode before she’d venture into the trees surrounding this small camping spot. Nervous, stiff, and miserable, she tried to talk herself out of jumping at every unexplained noise.
But it was only by thinking of the various ways she could make Zach pay that she eventually lulled herself to sleep.