Careful to keep her low-slung convertible on her side of the road, Tess Marsh stared up at the starry night sky. Spread out endlessly before her, the ebony heavens twinkled, flaunting their diamond-encrusted landscape.
Diamonds. Yes! Hundreds of them, very small, less than one point, perhaps even a half-point, but still a girl’s best friend.
Drawing a deep breath, she envisioned a diamond brooch replicating the free-form pattern of star constellations. It would be an eye-catcher, brilliant, with first-quality diamonds, set in platinum, with minute amounts of delicate, angel-breath, filigree.
And she’d call the line of jewelry Sky Fire.
“That’s it!” Now she couldn’t wait to find a motel room and start sketching the designs dancing in her head.
This new line would be fabulous.
Maybe even fabulous enough to quiet once and for all the critics who wondered aloud whether her jewelry-design work received praise on its own merit or because she was the daughter of John Winston Marsh III.
Well, they hadn’t seen anything yet.
She was determined to succeed and knew exactly where she was heading. Besides, she’d just hooked her wagon to a star!
Forcing her concentration back to the road, she shivered from excitement as well as the cool night air. She glanced at the digital clock on her dashboard. Holy crow, it was almost two! Where had the time gone? Three hours had disappeared in a creative fugue.
She had undoubtedly missed her turn. Slowing, she started looking in earnest for a place to turn around and double back.
The attendant at the last gas station warned her this was a desolate stretch of highway — the reason she’d chosen it. She did her most creative thinking behind the wheel. In fact, the majority of her top-selling jewelry designs had been conceived driving at night.
Of course, that driving had usually been done within a few hours of Boston, which she knew like the inside of her own closet, not half-the-country away, on a deserted highway in northeast Montana. She pressed down on the accelerator.
But instead of picking up speed her car sputtered and jerked, coughing itself to death as it slowed. Alarmed, Tess steered onto the shoulder. The car was only a few months old and had never given her trouble. She eased the car out of gear before trying to start it again. The ignition whirred, but the engine didn’t turn over.
Her eyes drifted across the dash to the gas gauge and it’s blinking caution light. The one that warned you were almost out…of…gas. She sighed. How long had it been blinking?
She drew her jacket closer. All of a sudden she felt cold. Even though it was the first week of July, this far north the lows could drop into the forties. Reaching behind the seat for her backpack, she dug out her cellular phone and opened it.
Then wished she hadn’t. The phone’s LED message read “no signal.”
Leaning forward, she dropped her head against the steering wheel. Moments ago she soared on a jet stream of optimism. Now she’d crashed and burned.
Tess climbed out of her car and slammed the door. Then she started swearing. Now what?
She stared dubiously east, in the direction she’d been headed. How far to the next town? Or even a farmhouse? She squinted. For that matter, did the road even go any farther than this?
She stuck out her arm, unable to see anything beyond her hand. Now she realized why the stars seemed bigger than life tonight. There was no moon, no ambient light. Just lots and lots of dark. The really black kind.
As far as she could see.
The cold closed in. She zipped her jacket and crammed her hands in her pockets. She stepped back toward the car, her foot kicking up loose gravel. The noise seemed to intensify in the stillness. Then it grew quiet.
Very, very, quiet.
She swallowed, senses alert.
A different noise sounded on the far side of the road. A stick-broken-underfoot type of noise. Apprehension pressed a hand to her lower back. If she were stranded on a deserted road, in the middle of the night in Massachusetts, she might have worried about muggers. But here in Montana — God’s country — the first thought that came to mind: wild animal.
Tess scrambled for her car and jumped back inside. Twisting the key to ON, she jabbed the power buttons to close the windows and raise the convertible top. Thankfully, the car had a strong battery.
When the top was secure and the doors locked, she leaned forward and listened. No noise reached her from outside.
What had caused the noise? A grizzly? She eyed the convertible top, realizing how little protection it offered. The claws of a strong bear could easily rip through the canvas exposing her like a can of sardines. She winced, imagining herself on a cracker.
She scanned the car’s interior. Anything that qualified as a weapon was locked in the trunk. She’d even abandoned her key-chain pepper spray once she left Boston, lulled by the West’s pervasive sense of small-town security.
She squirmed, watching the windows fog as ten minutes stretched to twenty. Finally, her curiosity got the better of her. Rubbing the moisture from the glass, she peered out at the dark highway.
And started laughing.
Two gigantic elk, one with an impressive rack of antlers, the other without, drifted in and out of the darkness just beyond her car. They stared at her, their steamy breath looking like smoke as it left their large nostrils.
She studied the unmoving animals, trying to recall what she’d heard about elk. Something about forest fires driving them from their normal habitat in search of food. That wasn’t much.
Were they an aggressive species? Did they eat meat? She watched the big one shake his head furiously. She gulped, keeping an eye on the wide swath his antlers cut.
To her horror, the animal stepped closer, neck extended, and started scraping at the asphalt with a front hoof. She suddenly remembered that other thing she’d heard about elk, gruesome stories about rutting and aggression. Surely, the elk wouldn’t… It wasn’t even that time of year, was it?
The second elk moved in. She sank lower in her seat, spooked.
Their deliberate disregard eroded her relief — and dissolved what little bravery she’d mustered. So much for taking care of herself, like she promised her mother. Madeline would pass out if she knew of Tess’ present predicament. But at least her mother would call out the cavalry before she fainted.
And even though Tess rarely agreed with her mother on anything, now would be a good time for the cavalry to come by and rescue her.
* * *
Engine wide open, the Harley-Davidson ate up the miles of deserted highway.
Dallas Haynes stared above the horizon, catching sight of a falling star. An omen, he thought. Good or bad? Of course, out here falling stars seemed commonplace. There was a reason this was called Big Sky Country. Nights like this proved it.
He shifted on his motorcycle, glancing at the odometer. Another thirty miles to go. Compared to the last eight hundred, it would be a piece of cake. He’d been riding for nearly twelve hours, crossing over from Canada at the Michigan border. He couldn’t wait to pry this bike off his ass.
He glanced at the dark highway, ever watchful for deer and antelope grazing along the side of the road. They could wreak havoc on an unsuspecting driver.
It seemed strange to be riding alone. Bogen’s men usually traveled in pairs. Or packs. However, this wasn’t the usual trip. He was on a special mission, with a special message for Bogen from Sanchez. A message Sanchez wouldn’t trust with just anyone. That trust acknowledged Dallas’ status. He was one of Bogen’s lead men, and Sanchez’s action seeded him for the top position. Which was exactly the spot Dallas sought.
Reaching the crest of what he recognized as one of the final hills before his turnoff, he sat forward, hand easing off the throttle. Below him, in the valley, on the opposite side of the road, he saw the blinking yellow flashers of a disabled vehicle. He slowed. Probably some damn farmer’s kid had run out of gas while out driving and drinking on a Saturday night.
Well, he wasn’t about to stop. The kid was probably long gone anyway, not wanting to get busted for DUI if a deputy cruised by. Gunning his engine, he picked up speed.
As he drew closer, a glimmer of movement on the highway caught his eye. A pair of elk bounded from around the vehicle!
Braking hard, he skidded. Tires screeched as he fought to hold the bike steady without laying it down. Acrid smoke billowed thickly in the night as he careened sideways to a stop, just beyond the car. The elk disappeared, leaving the highway clear.
Revving his engine, he looked over his shoulder at the car that had distracted him in the first place. To his surprise, the car’s interior light came on as the door swung open. He started swearing as soon as he caught sight of the driver’s slight frame. A woman. Of all the rotten luck. Turning his motorcycle around, he headed toward her.
Make that a gorgeous woman, he corrected as he pulled in behind her car, his headlight capturing her. That was even worse. She had apparently started to come after him, as if afraid he’d drive past without stopping. Now she hovered in the middle of the highway, reminding him of a doe caught in the lights. Or a damn elk!
He switched off his engine, leaving the headlight on and taking advantage of her temporary blindness. She was one neat package, he admitted begrudgingly. The wolf in him wanted to whistle at the long lines of her legs and the obvious curves beneath her jacket. Her eyes had been huge, making him curious to know their color. Blue? Green? A light breeze carried her scent. Roses. God, she even smelled alluring.
Several strands of windblown, light-colored hair had escaped the neat knot atop her head, framing a delicate oval face. He’d bet she’d been cruising with the top down. Tourist style.
She wasn’t from around here. He’d known that even before he’d seen her out-of-state plates. Massachusetts. He would have guessed that. Or New York. She looked like old, East Coast money.
He sized up the situation: a beautiful woman, alone on the side of the highway with a brand-new, broken down BMW. Damn it! Did she have any idea how much trouble she could be in? He climbed off the motorcycle and strode toward her.
Tess stared at the dark silhouette of the lone rider as he dismounted. When she’d first spotted him and realized he was speeding up but hadn’t seen the elk, she had scrambled to get out of the car and scare the animals. She hadn’t been quick enough, but fortunately, he had still managed to avoid an accident.
The concern she felt for his safety evaporated as the man stepped out of the glare and strode toward her.
Every Hollywood stereotype of a motorcycle gang member came to mind. He wore boots, wickedly tight jeans, ripped at both knees, and a worn leather jacket — black of course. He wore no helmet, his dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. A Fu-Manchu mustache and an abbreviated V-shaped goatee completed the bad-boy picture.
She started to wave him on, tell him she was okay, that help was on the way, but he was already in front of her. Self-conscious, she backed up toward the safety of her open car door. The man was tall, probably six-two, which gave him eight inches over her, and added to the menacing figure he cut.
When he stepped closer, into the narrow band of light spilling from the car, she gasped, the stereotype crumbling. The man was incredibly handsome. From his chiseled jaw to his bedroom eyes, his face was perfect. The day’s stubble on his cheeks only enhanced his dark good looks.
If you liked that type, she amended quickly, which she didn’t. He looked like trouble cruising for a place to land.
She backed up another step and bumped into her car, but still the man approached, crowding her, not stopping until he was almost on top of her. He stretched out an arm, resting his hand on the edge of the car’s roof, mere inches from her head, and leaned in close, bowing his head slightly so he controlled the eye contact.
She held her breath and stared up at him, catching a glimpse of icy silver eyes. Unusual eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but he cut her off.
“You got any idea how dangerous this is? Stuck in the middle of nowhere, on a deserted highway?”
A woman alone was implied.
“I — I ran out of gas,” she grasped for an excuse. “Besides, I’m not alone.” She looked up noticing that the elk were moving in once more, no longer frightened now that the motorcycle’s engine had shut off. They were a big help.
“My… friend…is walking to the gas station,” she went on. “And should return any moment.”
The man pushed away from the car and backed up slightly. Just enough so she could breathe.
“Back that way?” He pointed in the direction from which Tess had come.
A lousy liar, she nodded. She couldn’t very well say the direction he’d driven in from! She wrapped her arms across her chest in an effort to warm herself. And to bolster her courage.
He smiled, revealing white, even teeth. And a deep, sexy, dimple not quite hidden by his mustache. “Then you know there’s no gas station in that direction for forty miles. And Jeb’s won’t open till seven.”
She closed her eyes in disbelief, opening them again just as quickly. The man hadn’t moved, watching her expectantly. What did she do now? Admit she lied and ask for his help? Or stick to her story?
She looked at him again, trying to size him up. He didn’t seem nearly as threatening now that he’d backed off. The smile had helped. So had the dimple. Surely if he had meant her harm, he wouldn’t have stepped away.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” he asked, his tone softening. His voice was low, masculine.
She met his gaze, suppressing another shiver that had nothing to do with the cold. She’d bet he could ooze charisma. When he chose.
She angled her head, deciding to be forthright. Everyone she’d met out West thus far had been open and honest, expecting the same in return.
“I’m from Boston. I guess I got lost in thought.”
He nodded. “You’re lost all right. Look lady–”
“Tess.” She held out her hand. “Tess Marsh. And you are?”
“Dallas.” He stepped close once again, grasped her hand briefly, then released it, but didn’t step away. “Look, Tess.” The way he said her name was a verbal caress. “Here’s your options. The closest gas station is twenty miles that way, in Jordan.” He pointed in the direction from which he’d approached. “But it won’t open till daybreak. There’s a small motel in town. You and your imaginary friend –” he winked, letting her know he knew — “can stay there and get help in the morning.”
His words took a moment to sink in. “You’re going to give me a ride?” She pointed to his Harley, fighting to keep the squeak from her voice. “On that?”
He chuckled. She wore indignation like a rose wore thorns. A ravishing rose. Little Miss Priss with a steel spine. In a different life he’d be all over this woman. “You’ve never been on a motorcycle?”
He shrugged. “The choice is yours. Stay or go.” He wasn’t about to leave her out here alone, but he could sense her hesitation and hoped that by giving her an option she’d decide to go on her own free will. It was a hell of a lot easier than using force.
Stay or go, Tess thought. Both held risks. The thought of being left held little appeal. It grew colder by the minute, and it wouldn’t be light for hours. And even then, who knew when another car would come by? Or worse, who would be in that car.
She looked Dallas directly in the eyes, searching, considering, deciding. She’d never made a faulty evaluation when she judged someone by his or her eyes. And her instincts approved. She’d be safe with this man. His eyes were trustworthy. They were also sinfully sensual, but she decided not to hold that against him.
She sighed. Well, she’d wanted to have an adventurous summer, hadn’t she? This would certainly be a start.
“I’ve got a duffel bag in the trunk. Can we strap it on the back?” She pointed to the vertical back bar on his motorcycle.
He grunted, doubtful. “How big is it?”
“See for yourself.” Tess led the way to the rear of the vehicle.
Dallas whistled when he saw the contents of her trunk. It was crammed with boxes and tool cases. He pointed to a worn pickax. “Don’t tell me. Your great-great-granddaddy left you a map to his gold mine and you’re out here looking for the mother lode.” His voice held a gentle ribbing quality.
She laughed. Maybe she’d been too quick to pigeonhole this man because of his appearance. There was definitely more to him than met the eye. Hadn’t she recently read a magazine article about the increasing number of young professionals — lawyers, doctors, and bankers — who rode motorcycles, complete with the grunge look? Weekend warriors?
This man had confidence. He had finesse. Yes, she could picture him in a three-piece suit, in a courtroom. But as her doctor…never!
She glanced to where his hands rested on the car, taking in his long, thick fingers. The artist in her had a thing for strong hands. And his were definitely a ten.
She shoved the pickax to one side and scrambled to divert her line of thinking. “Actually, I design jewelry. I did a short internship at a mine in Idaho to get a first hand look at gems and stones in their natural environment.”
“Near Coeur d’Alene? Rough country.” Dallas’ eyes swept over her, trying to reconcile her polished fingertips and porcelain skin with the sweat and grime he knew it took to swing a pickax. His image of miners encompassed decrepit old men. Not dazzling blondes. Or stacked blondes. Or his favorite kind: adventurous blondes. His pulse stepped up.
His eyes flickered briefly over her hands. No rings adorned her fingers, engagement or wedding. He’d wager she was uninvolved. What man in his right mind would let a woman like her wander freely about the countryside? He damn sure wouldn’t.
“So where are you headed now?”
“The Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Their big arts and crafts festival is this weekend, and there are two silversmiths I want to meet.”
“Planning to intern with one of them?”
“No. Actually, I’m hoping to buy inventory for my store in Boston. I’ll be following the summer craft show circuit for a few weeks, looking for new talent.” A note of pride crept into her voice. “I can’t keep up with demand by myself anymore. And my clients want variety.”
Dallas frowned, thoughtful. “You must have trustworthy help to be able to leave for weeks at a time.”
She shrugged. “The shop is closed from Memorial Day to Labor Day, which gives me time to build up stock for Christmas.”
“And probably heightens demand.” He studied the two necklaces she wore. One was an antique silver choker. Old and valuable. A family heirloom, he’d bet. The other piece looked newer and vaguely familiar.
Giving in to the temptation to touch, Dallas reached forward, picking up the small medallion nestled below the hollow of her throat. The delicate silver crescent was heavier then it looked.
“Did you design this?” he asked. “It reminds me of one of the symbols favored by the Cuna Indians.”
Tess smiled, her skin tingling where the pads of his fingers had brushed. The Cuna Indians lived on islands in the San Blas archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama. They were a matriarchal society, rare in today’s male-dominated world. Few people had ever heard of them and even fewer were familiar with their art. Dallas was either well traveled or well educated. Perhaps both. Which hopefully explained the growing attraction she felt toward this man.
She relaxed, warmed by his genuine interest. “Yes, I designed it. In fact I have a whole line of jewelry inspired by the art of the Cuna tribe.”
“You exploit indigenous people?”
Warmth flared. To fire. She tugged the medallion from his grasp. “Yes. And small children.”
“I didn’t mean–”
She cut him off. “You insulted them, not me. The tribal elders negotiated the deal. One of them has a law degree from Harvard. They’re pretty savvy. A healthy portion of the sales goes back to the tribe in the form of royalties to help preserve their heritage.”
Dallas laughed, throwing his hands up in mock surrender. The rose had thorns. Sharp ones. “Easy! I take it back. You obviously have talent and a sense of fair play. Plus your work is beautiful.”
Tess glanced at him, embarrassed that she nearly lost her temper. She usually wasn’t so easily riled. “Uh-huh. Trying to flatter me now?”
“Yeah. Is it working?”
Too well, she thought. Ignoring his question, she grabbed a compact nylon duffel bag and closed the trunk.
Dallas reached out, his fingers purposely skimming hers. One touch hadn’t been enough after all. “This is it? You travel light.”
“For a woman?”
“Touché.” He could enjoy spending time with this lively lady. It had been too damn long since he’d been around someone like her.
Taking the bag, he quickly strapped it on the back of his bike, beside his own, then turned to ask if she was ready. A distant sound caught his ear. Low, rumbling; barely there.
Motorcycle engines. Heading this way. He knew instantly who the riders were. Shit! How much time had he wasted making small talk? Five minutes? A mistake he wouldn’t make again.
Moving quickly, he started to rush her. “Lock ‘er up and let’s go.”
Tess had climbed back in her car. “Just a minute,” she called over her shoulder. “There’s some stuff I’ve got to get out of the backseat. It’ll only take a sec.”
The engines grew louder. They’d clear the hill any moment. Grabbing the waistband of her jeans, Dallas tugged her out of the car. “Now!”
Tess whirled about, dropping her backpack at his feet, shocked that he had pulled her out of the car. Knocking his hands free she tried to step away but found the way blocked. “What do you think you’re doing?” she lashed out.
The roar of motorcycle engines caught her attention just then. She looked up as headlights began spilling over the hill. There must have been at least a dozen bikes. And they were all slowing down.
Her mouth went dry. She stared at Dallas as if seeing him for the first time. Gone was the easy smile that hinted at an educated humor. In its place was the steely-eyed look of a seasoned hoodlum. “What’s happening?” she whispered hoarsely.
Dallas moved close, backing her up against the car, forcing her into his arms and against his chest. “Stay by me and you won’t get hurt,” he ordered. “I’m going to kiss you, Tess, and to make this look good, you need to kiss me back.”
Then his mouth swooped down on hers, capturing her lips in a rough, forceful kiss. She felt his fingers slide through her hair, loosening it, drawing her closer as his tongue swept unexpectedly into her mouth.
It was like kissing fire.
His actions stunned her even as he branded her with his possession, robbing her senses, making her his. She melted against him, defenseless against such a fierce assault. His mustache felt silky smooth against her lip while in contrast his unshaved cheek chafed hers, sensitizing the tender skin. Her pulse leapt beneath the blunt tips of his fingers as they skimmed down her neck.
He smelled of the night, a powerful male scent. A small moan started low in her throat as desire mingled with arousal. Dear God, she had never been kissed like this. With heat, with passion. With promise. And she had never imagined anything this pleasurable.
Or this forbidden.
What was she doing letting this man kiss her? All at once desperate to end the kiss, she shoved her hands against his chest. It was like pushing granite.
When he didn’t budge she tried to kick his shin. He moved closer still, forcing his legs way too intimately between hers before catching her hands and lacing her fingers between his. Lifting her arms he pulled her hands around his neck and held them tight. Then he slanted his mouth and deepened the kiss, using the full length of his body to pin her in place.
To anyone observing them it probably looked like she was an active participant in a crude act. Too late she realized he had her neatly immobilized. She couldn’t even knee him in the groin. She tried to shout, but his mouth effectively cut off all sound.
The motorcycles came to a stop, encircling them in a dusty halo of blinding headlights and reverberating engines.
Dallas drew back only slightly, breaking the kiss. The move brought his lower body into even closer contact with hers, emphasizing her vulnerability. He made a low, “ssshhh” noise in her ear, as if warning her to remain quiet, then pressed his lips to her temple, forcing her attention back to him. “Trust me.”
The words were whispered so low Tess thought she had imagined them. Trust him? Why? She sensed danger. It hung thick in the air, noxious, choking her. Her fingers tightened over his knuckles.
She trembled, shifting indiscernibly closer, not knowing which was worse: the feeling that Dallas would protect her or the perception that she needed protection. The temptation to hide her face on his shoulder was strong. Except she knew that burying her head in the sand wouldn’t get her out of the situation. She needed to stay alert.
Several of the men dismounted and walked up behind Dallas. Never taking his eyes from her, Dallas addressed one of them. “Get lost, Snake. I’m busy.”
“Just waiting my turn, amigo.” The man named Snake moved beside Dallas. Wearing an eye patch and sporting a mouthful of rotten teeth, Snake looked like he had stepped out of a B movie. As tall as Dallas, Snake had a soft, paunchy gut hanging over his jeans. Tess involuntarily leaned away. Though she’d never admit it aloud, she did feel safer with Dallas.
When Snake bent closer, inspecting her, Tess got a whiff of cheap bourbon. She tried once more to free her arms, but Dallas only tightened his grip, pulling her closer. Terrified, she ceased struggling and arched into Dallas, seeking to get as far from Snake as possible. Hadn’t Dallas said she wouldn’t be hurt if she stayed by him? Right now she desperately needed to believe that.
Snake reached out a finger, angling to catch her chin. “Here, kitty, kitty. Nice kitty.” Raucous laughter echoed from the men with him.
Dallas’ hand shot out, grasping Snake’s wrist before he touched her. “I said, get lost.” He nuzzled his chin against Tess’ hair, gentling her. “You know I don’t share.”
Snake snatched his hand back and began laughing. “Fine. I’ll wait and get her when we’re back at camp.” He leered at Tess. “I think she’ll be worth waiting for.”
Dallas bared his teeth, his voice a dangerous growl. “Who says I’m taking her back? You know the rules.”
“No locals,” Snake said, still grinning. “And she ain’t local. The car tag says Massachusetts. Hell, she’s got outsider written all over her. If you don’t take her, I will.”
Tess’ mind reeled, her knees weakening. Take her? What did he mean? Kidnap? Or rape? She couldn’t handle either. Bile rose in her throat. While the thought of being “taken” by anyone repulsed Tess, she’d rather die than have Snake touch her. She looked away, her mind refusing to contemplate the horrors Snake had in mind.
She stared up at Dallas, silently imploring his help. He obviously knew these men. He also had to know he was her only hope against them. She searched his face for a veiled reassurance, but his silver eyes revealed none of his thoughts. Or intentions. Could she really trust him?
“She’s mine.” Dallas addressed the crowd at large.
Tess opened her mouth to protest. Dallas’ grip tightened painfully, drawing her eyes back to his. Don’t say a word, his look commanded. He waited until the grumbling quieted before continuing. “Nobody touches her.”
Snake spat on the ground before backing away. “Oh yeah?” he challenged. “We’ll see what Bogen has to say about that.”
Grabbing a beer from the closest rider, Snake drained the can and tossed it over his shoulder, sending the can ricocheting noisily into the brush. Stepping around Dallas, Snake ran his hand over the hood of her car, whistling. “A beemer. This’ll bring in a nice piece of change, too.”
“Only if you’re a fish. The car’s going for a swim,” Dallas said.
Tess listened in cold trepidation as the conversation made grim sense. These men were going to sink her car — probably in a lake — after abducting her and doing God knew what. She felt her stomach lurch.
“No,” she began softly, addressing Dallas. Her voice cracked as she fought not to cry, her throat wanting to close. “I’ve got money, jewelry. I can get more. Please don’t do this.”
“Please don’t do this,” Snake mimicked in a high-pitched voice. Several of the others laughed and hooted. Encouraged, Snake moved closer. “Let’s see you beg, darlin’. Exactly what are you willing to do to earn your freedom?”
Ignoring Snake, Dallas reached down and snatched her backpack from where she’d dropped it at their feet. “Frankie, get some gas in this tank and take it up to Lake Summer. Then let’s get out of here before someone comes along.”
The laughter ceased immediately as two men dismounted and headed toward her car. Tess noticed no one questioned Dallas’ authority, which increased her unease. They’d do anything he said.
Well, these men might be accustomed to taking orders from him, but damn it, she wasn’t.
Burying her heels in the ground, she resisted when he pulled her toward his motorcycle. The thought of what these men had in mind for her was numbing. She would not go willingly, she would not make it easy for them. She’d fight to her last breath.
When Dallas yanked her arm, she held back, then lost her footing and stumbled forward. He caught her, hauling her up against his chest once more to steady her.
She tried to move away and was reminded immediately who had the superior physical strength. As if there’d been any doubt.
He pulled her the last few steps to his motorcycle, then abruptly released her. “Climb on,” he ordered as he fastened her backpack alongside her duffel bag.
Behind them two men used a small section of rubber hose to siphon gas into her car. There were several thousand dollars’ worth of tools and jewels in the car, besides the value of the car itself. And these men were going to sink it. Obviously they cared little for money.
Which meant they’d probably care even less about her life. She thought of her family and friends, a sharp pain erupting in her chest at the thought of never seeing them again. She couldn’t — wouldn’t — let that happen.
She bolted toward the road, frantic, twisting to dodge past Dallas. Her escape was short-lived. He came up behind her quickly and easily, locking his arms over her chest and swinging her back to stand beside his motorcycle. She screamed. Catcalls arose from Snake and the others.
“Get on.” Dallas’ voice was clipped, low. Deadly.
“No.” Tess stepped back, ignoring the feral gleam in his eyes. “I am not going anywhere with you. You can’t do this! It’s illegal. It’s kidnapping.”
Dallas knew Snake was watching, waiting, wanting. And listening. He grasped her shoulders, overpowering her, his fingers biting into soft flesh as he shook her harshly, getting her full attention.
“It’s over, Tess, and you’re making this harder then it has to be. You can climb on yourself, or I’ll get Snake to help. Your choice.” Dallas disliked using her fears to force compliance, but he wasn’t in the mood to argue.
His threat and rough handling deflated her ire. In spite of what he’d just said, there was no choice. She was ridiculously outnumbered. Once again fear swamped her, leaving her cowering pathetically in his arms as silent tears tracked down her cheeks.
At her nod, Dallas relaxed his punishing grip, releasing her. Biting her lip to keep from crying out, she started to turn toward his motorcycle only to stop when Dallas laid a hand on her shoulder.
He leaned close, whispering quickly in her ear. “I won’t hurt you, Tess. Just climb on.”
His words gave her a small amount of hope. Perhaps he did intend to help her.
Still, when she swung one leg over the leather seat and mounted the bike, she was careful to lean as far back as possible, away from him when he swung on in front of her. If she kept a wide enough space between them, she’d have a better opportunity to leap from the bike once they were under way.
Whether she believed Dallas would protect her or not was a moot point with this crowd. There was only one of him and how many of them?
Dallas started the engine, gunned it to life. “Wrap your arms around me,” he yelled over his shoulder.
“I’m fine like I am,” she shouted in his ear.
“You don’t listen, do you?”
To her consternation, Dallas leaned back and grabbed her wrists, pulling her forward. The move forced her closer, pressing her fully and intimately against his back, her thighs spread almost painfully to encompass his hips.
Tess began struggling, but he didn’t release her. Damn him, he had no right–
Then she heard a ratcheting sound and felt cold metal snap around her wrists. Too late she realized he’d handcuffed her!
“No,” she screamed. “Don’t do this!” She tried to pull back but found her arms locked snugly around Dallas’ waist.
Fresh tears crept into her eyes as a crippling paralysis settled into her limbs. He hadn’t meant a word he’d said. In fact he’d taken advantage of her trust and used it against her. She was a fool.
As the sordid reality of her situation hit her, every imaginable depravity came to her mind. They’d kill her. Of that she had no doubt. But equally frightening was the thought of what came before that. Rape? Torture?
Snake pulled up beside them, revving his engine. “Boomer’s gonna help Frankie ditch the car,” Snake shouted. “Duke and Eddie are gonna follow you back to camp to make sure Bogen knows I consider this matter still open.”
“Where are you going?” Dallas demanded.
“I’ve got some business in town.” Snake winked at Tess and grinned. “Don’t worry, darlin’. It ain’t over between us. Bogen will see to that.”
“Back off, Snake,” Dallas warned. “Or we’ll settle this here and now.”
Snake stared at Dallas, coldly, like a rattlesnake, before wheeling his bike in a big circle and riding off into the night.
Their posturing left Tess feeling like she was no more than a bone for a couple of dogs to fight over. And the biggest, baddest dog won. How perfectly horrid.
Her throat burned, and she buried her face against the back of Dallas’ jacket, unable to stop sobbing. She felt one of his hands close over hers, squeezing lightly.
“I meant what I said earlier,” he whispered. “You’re safe with me.”
But his words gave her no comfort as they sped off into the night.