BY: PEPPER O’NEAL
Trusting a stranger may prove to be her only means of escape…but at what cost?
Abandoned as a child and desperate for the love of a family, Salt Lake City costume designer Tess Horton refuses to believe her newly discovered relatives are part of the Mafia—until they try to kill her. Plagued by assassins, and prophetic dreams she doesn’t understand, Tess flees to Mexico only to stumble upon CIA field officer, Max Maxwell, who washes up on her beach, wounded, unconscious, and Tess’s only hope.
Is he willing to betray her trust…if it means stopping an attack on America?
Max is chasing terrorists during a storm on the Sea of Cortez when he runs into an ambush. Knocked out cold he awakens without any memory of who he is and what he is doing in Baja. When assassins arrive, Max follows his instincts and helps his rescuer escape. Tess has no choice but to trust him as danger closes in on all sides. With every step they take together Max is drawn closer to his brave companion only to discover when his memories return that betraying her is the only way to stop the worst terrorist attack in US history.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: Black Ops Chronicles: Dead Run by Pepper O’Neal wasn’t quite what I expected. Not that I was disappointed because I wasn’t. But while it has a paranormal angle, in that the heroine has prophetic dreams, it doesn’t have shifters or vampires. What it does have is lots of action, adventure, and suspense. And two—count them, two—gorgeous hunks! Honestly, I had a great deal of trouble deciding which one I liked best. But that’s the best kind of trouble to have. Our heroine, Tess, is stubborn, spunky, and doesn’t take orders from anyone, as both our hunk heroes soon discover. I liked Tess, I just really liked her. She didn’t give up, no matter how bad it got, even though she was severely tempted at times. And she didn’t depend on a man to rescue her when the going got tough, although considering how much I liked both the hunks, I probably would’ve told her she was foolish for trying to take care of herself. The main hero, Max, was fun. He was a “go-to, get the job done” kind of guy with a great sense of humor. Levi, the other hero, was more intense. The kind of doesn’t talk much, just an “accomplishes the mission when no one is looking” kind of guy. Since they both wanted Tess, I spent most of the book trying to figure out which one she’d pick, though she really couldn’t go wrong with either one. Both were alphas and both had their hands full with Tess.
As always, O’Neal’s characters are so well developed and feel so real, it’s hard to believe it’s fiction, and the dialogue makes you feel like you’re right there in the scene with them. The stuff about the CIA and the Mormons also had a ring of truth that tells me O’Neal did her homework. Black Ops Chronicles: Dead Run is one you’ll want to read again and again.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Black Ops Chronicles: Dead Run by Pepper O’Neal is a first rate thriller. The plot revolves around a woman on the run from a killer, who just happens to be part of the Mormon Mafia. Tess, the heroine, has prophetic dreams. Not that they do her much good. I loved the fact that she couldn’t understand what they meant until they happened. Kind of like trying to interpret Nostradamus. When she finds the hero Max washed up on the beach after a storm, she takes him in, even though it puts her in danger. And who can blame her? Hell, if I found a hunk on my beach, I’d take him home, too. The story had some interesting twists, complicated by the fact that the main hero Max had a head injury at the start of the book and so for the first 24 hours, he had amnesia. I thought that part was very well done. O’Neal gave some good rationale for the amnesia, other than just the injury, like the fact that Max’s partner had been killed in the ambush where Max was injured, so Max didn’t want to remember, giving some added dimension to it. I liked the relationships between the characters, and I adored Levi, the secondary hero. He was really cool. I see on O’Neal’s website that this will be a series, so I am really hoping that the next book is about him.
The characters were very well done, the action extremely fast paced. Throw in a few terrorists, the CIA, and organized crime, and I was riveted from the very first paragraph. I kept waiting for a good place to stop, but there just wasn’t one, so I ended up reading until 3 am. My kind of book!
Tuesday, February 12th, 5:53 p.m., Mexico’s Sea of Cortez:
They were sooo screwed. Max didn’t need the roar of the automatic-weapons fire chasing the boat through the storm to tell him that. The howling wind and bellowing sea had already clued him in. Alone at the helm of the CIA’s forty-foot Bayliner, Bold Venture, he tightened his grip on the wheel, cursed, and braced himself.
Venture slammed into a wall of steel-gray water then shuddered as the force of the impact echoed through her hull and rattled the deck. Fuck. The word reverberated in Max’s head as the vessel trembled beneath his feet.
Creaking like a rusty hinge, the cruiser lumbered up the crest of the swell, plunged down the backside, and plowed into another wave. Max cursed again as the portside running lights were ripped off their stanchions and hurled into the sea. Jesus, baby, don’t fall apart on me now.
A sick shade of pale green, David staggered topside and sank onto a bench facing the captain’s chair. He started to say something then suddenly grabbed hold of the rail, his eyes widening, his breath hissing out between his teeth. “Shit! Bogies closing on our six!”
Max shot a glance behind him. Fuck! No matter what he did, the damn terrorists kept gaining. Now their bullets nearly encroached on Venture’s wake.
Stifling a wince, he hollered over the screams of the storm, “Don’t panic, kid. All they’re doing’s wasting ammo.”
“Maybe so,” David yelled back. “But knowing them, they’ve got plenty to spare.” He drummed his feet on the deck while repeatedly clenching and releasing his hands. “We’re not gonna make it out of this, are we?”
Max hesitated. Mission SOPs demanded complete honesty between partners, and he believed in playing by the rules. But the terror etched on David’s young face made him reconsider. If an innocent white lie or two eased the kid’s mind, what the hell could it hurt? “Sure, we will. We just have to stay ahead of their bullets.”
“We can’t. Not at the rate they’re gaining.” His eyes bleak, David stopped clenching his hands long enough to adjust a strap on his life vest. “Can’t you make this fucking tub go any faster?”
“Bad idea. Engines are redlined. Running hot.” Max checked his gauges then his six again. Jesus, the kid was right. Their lead just kept shrinking. On second thought…Shoving both throttles to the stops, he coaxed another half-knot from the boat’s tired diesels. Venture protested with each new wave.
A spear of lightning illuminated the sea, making him curse again. Why now, for Christ’s sake? It wasn’t light he needed at the moment, but more of the red-rimmed, black clouds currently spewing out across the storm-bruised sky. Resembling a blood-soaked blanket, they smothered the glow of the dying sunset and cut visibility to less than a quarter-mile. He rolled his eyes heavenward. Look, I don’t expect you to bail us out of this fucking mess, but can’t you at least hold off the damn lightning another fifteen minutes?
Venture shuddered. David trembled.
“We’ve only got to outrun them a little longer,” Max yelled—unsure which one he was trying to console—and jerked his chin toward a slight break in the shoreline. “As soon as it’s dark enough, we’ll jump in the dinghy and haul ass for that cove.”
David shot a glance at the coastline, looked back at the terrorists, and shook his head. “They’re too damn close. Without a diversion, they’re bound to see the dinghy.”
“We’ll have to scuttle Venture.” Sorry, baby, no choice. Max’s fingers ached from their death grip on the wheel, but he didn’t dare relax them—not with Venture fighting the helm so hard. “We can fire the fuel tanks. Blow her up. With any luck they’ll think we went down with her.”
David blanched. “You’re serious?”
“Yeah. Since I don’t feel much like dying today.”
Swallowing hard, the kid shifted on his bench. “Almasi knew we were coming, didn’t he? Those bastards were waiting for us. Had their ambush all set up.”
“Sure looks that way.”
“Murphy’s Law? Or a mole?”
“Feels like a mole. Mission was blown before we ever got to Baja.” Which meant the terrorist leader had known way too much for it to be a coincidence. A dark, feral rage seared Max’s gut, the bile bubbling up to scorch his throat. Gritting his teeth, he swallowed, forcing down both the vomit and the anger. Deal with one FUBAR at a time, he reminded himself as they climbed another swell. Retribution would keep until he found out who the traitor was.
The wind died down a little and Venture began to make some headway. He sighed in relief. Maybe, they’d get out of this yet.
“At least now we know for sure the woman’s a part of it,” David mused. “She’s got to be. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have walked into an ambush the minute we got close to where she’s supposed to be hiding.”
Though it was the only logical conclusion, Max shook his head. “Maybe. Maybe not. She could be just an innocent bystander with shit for luck.”
“Oh, come on, Max. No one’s luck is that bad. If the bitch really is a psychic like her file says, she knows we’re after her. I’d lay odds she’s on a yacht in the Persian Gulf right now, sipping margaritas and laughing her ass off.”
“Jesus, kid, you don’t really believe all that psychic bullshit, do you?”
“Then how do you explain the note in her file?”
“She probably made a lucky guess on something or other, so somebody started spreading nonsense.” Max shrugged. “I imagine the Company investigator included it just to cover his ass. But I didn’t see anywhere in the file that she claims to be a psychic. Trust me, kid, she’s just what she seems—a small-time costume designer.”
Max didn’t know why the hell he was defending the woman. Other than a grainy photo in her dossier, he’d never set eyes on Tess Horton and didn’t know her from Adam. But her file didn’t read like that of someone involved with terrorists. She had no religious affiliation or criminal record, not even an overdue library book. What possible reason could she have for throwing in with a bunch of Middle Eastern radicals?
Still, she had run from FBI custody—to the very area where Almasi and his goons were reported to be hiding out, planning an attack on the US. And, as David had pointed out, the timing of the ambush was highly suspicious, coming just as Venture neared the stretch of the coastline where Horton’s cottage was said to be hidden.
So why did his instincts insist things weren’t as they appeared? Frustrated and annoyed by the conflict between what the evidence suggested and what his gut told him, he shoved the problem aside and forced himself to focus on their current clusterfuck.
He muscled the wheel back to port, struggling to keep the boat upright while maintaining the highest possible speed. The whole scenario sucked, he decided as the wind picked up again and Venture lost ground. Not only was he numb with fatigue, his life vest, clothes, and hair—soaked with saltwater—felt thick and gummy. His skin, gritty. Chilled to the marrow, he could only cringe as another wave crashed over the gunwale and exploded in his face. Jesus H. Christ. Enough already!
“God, that’s foul shit,” he growled. The water tasted like diesel-flavored salt. It stung his eyes, blurred his vision. Blinking his sight clear, he spit out what he could then rubbed his mouth on his shoulder to wipe the brine off his lips—and caught a quick glimpse behind him.
“Son of a bitch!” With their larger, faster Gulf Craft, the terrorists had gained another twenty feet.
“Feel sick.” Clutching the guardrail, David retched over the side.
Max winced in sympathy, knowing the kid’s stomach rebelled as much from the danger as it did from the heaving sea.
David collapsed back onto his bench and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Not much good to you, am I?”
“Don’t sweat it, kid. Been there, done that, and got the T-shirt myself.” But his fourteen years as a CIA field officer had hardened both Max’s stomach and his nerves. He had no doubt David, too, would toughen with time. If I can just keep him alive.
Gunfire barked over the wail of the storm. A hail of lead slammed into the waves off the port side, amidships. Too close. Way too close.
“Return fire,” he ordered, jerking the wheel as far to starboard as he dared while measuring the deepening dusk. Almost there. “Keep them busy. Buy us some time.”
“I’m on it. Just get us the hell out of here.”
David wrenched an AK-47 assault rifle from its cradle under the bench. He flipped the selector switch to auto and jammed the gun against his shoulder. Taking barely a second to aim, the kid squeezed the trigger and discharged a full clip, adding the burnt-sulfur smell of gunpowder to the scent of diesel and saltwater. He yanked out the empty magazine, spun it around, and rammed in the full one duct-taped beside it. “Christ, this wind’s a bitch. I can’t hit a fucking thing.”
“Adjust your aim to compensate, goddamn it.” Max torqued the wheel again as enemy bullets tore through the transom. “Come on, kid, focus for Christ’s sake. Remember your fucking training.”
David aimed, fired. “I’m trying, damn it. But just in case, tell my folks—”
The side of David’s head exploded. His body crumpled to the deck in a heap.
“No!” His mind hazed with grief and guilt, Max abandoned the wheel, rushed to David’s side, and checked his pulse.
“Goddamn it, no!” The boy was only twenty-three—too damn young to die. “Jesus, kid, I’m sorry.”
Left to herself, Venture started to founder. Max lunged for the wheel again. He lost his footing on the flooded deck, landed on his ass, and bit his tongue. Spitting out the blood, he glared at the Gulf Craft bearing down on him. “I am not dying like this. The fucking mission’s not over.”
He struggled to his feet. This time he managed to grab hold of the wheel. Another round of slugs shredded the stern. Impotent—for the moment—he could only shake his fist. “You bastards won’t get away with this. I swear I’ll see you in hell first.”
Bracing himself against the captain’s chair, he yanked the wheel around as far as it would go. “Come on, baby, back to port now. Stay afloat just a little longer.”
Venture shuddered and listed to starboard, resisting the helm.
“Goddamn it, I said, ‘back to port,’ you worthless piece of shit!”
She bucked, pitching David’s body into the sea.
“Christ, kid, I’m so sorry,” Max whispered. Someday, somehow, he vowed, he’d avenge the boy.
Before he could steady her, Venture yawed broadside on the crest of a violent wave, heeled hard to starboard, and capsized. Catapulting across the deck, Max remembered his parents had wanted him to be a doctor. Maybe he should’ve listened.
As he plummeted toward the sea, his head struck the gunwale with the force of a pile driver. Intense pain ripped through his skull and bright lights exploded behind his eyes. Then the world dimmed to black.
Wednesday, February 13th, 7:41 a.m., two miles outside the village of El Nopal, just north of La Paz, on the coast of the Sea of Cortez, Baja California Sur:
With a blast of alarm, Tess jolted out of the dream and snatched the snub nose .38 revolver from under her pillow. Eyes closed, ears straining, she held her breath and listened but heard only the surf kissing the shores of the cove. Must’ve dreamed the noises. As the terror faded, she exhaled and waited for her heart to stop slamming against her ribcage.
Sunlight filtered through the tattered curtains. Looks like the storm’s over. Thank God. Off in the distance, a rooster crowed. She glanced at the clock on her nightstand. Shit! She’d overslept again. Tossing aside the covers, she sat up on the edge of the rickety bed, reached over to put the gun back under her pillow, and—froze.
Muffled thumps came from somewhere in the cottage. She hadn’t dreamed them after all, she realized, as icy fingers of dread skittered up her spine. It was too late to run. If Nick’s men had gotten this close, she’d have to fight. Struggling not to panic, she cocked the gun, eased off the bed, and crept from the room.
Cold sweat crawled over her skin and she shivered, imagining the pain of a bullet smashing into her body. Did shock and adrenalin really keep it from hurting too much? God, she hoped so. Stop it. Don’t think about that now.
Her throat bone dry, she swallowed before easing into the shadows of the bathroom—shadows that could hide assassins. Her stomach churned at the thought. Pulse racing, her breath coming in soft gasps, she checked out the room but found nothing. No one. She took one deep, steadying inhalation and moved on.
Her footsteps made no sound. Nine months of living a nightmare had honed her survival skills, and she slipped through the cottage like a ghost.
Another soft thud. There! They must be searching the kitchen. The door between it and the living room stood ajar. Terrified, but determined not to go down without a fight, she straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and gripped the revolver with both hands. She might not be able to stop Nick’s thugs from killing her, but she could damn sure send a few of them to hell before she died.
Balancing on one foot, she used her other one to send the door crashing inward, hoping to catch the intruders by surprise.
A startled orange cat launched himself off the counter where he’d been feasting on an open jar of peanut butter. The jar went flying. So did a half-full bottle of Pepsi. And the dirty dishes from last night’s supper. The tabby crash-landed on the wobbly kitchen table. It toppled on impact, sending Tess’s notes and sketches—along with the cat—skittering across the floor.
“Damn it, Griffin.” Weak with relief, she slumped against the doorjamb.
Griffin picked himself up, sauntered with indignant grace to his bed in the corner, and began licking peanut butter off his fur.
She glared at him. “When are you going to learn to stay off the counter?”
He ignored her outburst. Like always. She surveyed the mess and swore—more pissed at herself than at Griffin. If she’d cleaned the kitchen before she went to bed—or at the very least put the lid back on the peanut butter—this wouldn’t have happened. She closed her eyes briefly and sighed. If. “Yeah, and if wishes were horses, we’d all be up to our ears in horseshit.” But she’d been more depressed than usual last night. Perhaps it was the storm.
Returning to the bedroom, she restored the gun to its hiding place then pulled off the boxer shorts and tank top she used as pajamas. She dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, ignoring the sneakers that stuck out from under the bed. If God had meant her to wear shoes, he shouldn’t have made going barefoot so much more comfortable.
Back in the kitchen, she made coffee before tackling Griffin’s fiasco. No, scratch that. It was hardly fair to blame it on him when it was her own damn fault. If she hadn’t been so freaked out by the dream and gone all Rambo—if she’d just taken a moment to think—she’d have realized it was probably Griffin making the noises, and she wouldn’t have come barging into the kitchen and scared the shit out of him.
Besides, she was only kidding herself if she thought she could stay pissed at him. In the weeks since she’d found him on her doorstep, he’d been such an unexpected comfort in her terrible loneliness that, despite his frequent messes, he’d wrapped her firmly around his paw.
Her breath suddenly hitched, and she crouched down to nuzzle him. God, she was tired of running. If only she could stay here in this cove with Griffin, she’d never ask God for anything again. Not that He ever heard her prayers anyway.
Tears threatened but she shook her head, forcing them back. Crying did nothing to solve her problems.
Crossing to the window, she stared out at the little bay where turquoise waves caressed a long, unbroken stretch of white sand. This isolated cove was her sanctuary. Separated from the desert by a fringe of pale green palm trees and dappled with vibrant splashes of pink, purple, and red bougainvillea, it was the most picturesque and tranquil place she’d ever been. The first hideaway, in all the long months of running, where she’d found some peace of mind.
The palm trees, cacti, dwarf palmetto, and Joshua trees that speckled the landscape would provide excellent cover if—when—she needed it. Plus, they hid her cottage from the road, making her feel safe.
But it couldn’t last. Nick would find her. He always did. Which was why she seldom stayed anywhere longer than a month. Yet, here she was, almost two months in the same location. She sighed and shook her head. It was just so damn hard to move on this time.
She’d had very little peace since she fled Salt Lake City, and she feared when she left the cove, she’d never find sanctuary again. But now that the dreams had started once more—
“Señorita. Señorita,” called an eager young voice.
Tess peeked through the curtains on the back door and saw Pablo, a nine-year-old boy from a neighboring farm, running across the sand. She glanced at the clock. He was later than usual this morning.
Pablo and his family had befriended her during her first week in the cottage. When he found out she designed costumes, he’d confessed how much he wanted one to wear in the village parades for Carnival week. Realizing that his parents could never afford something so frivolous, Tess had decided to help him make one. It cost her little more than time and eased some of her gut-wrenching homesickness.
Her mind flashed back to the tiny costume shop she’d owned in Salt Lake City. She missed it. Missed her old life. But she’d get it all back someday, she promised herself as her chin shot up. She refused to let Nick destroy her.
Heading for the door, she tossed Griffin a smile. “You missed a spot of peanut butter on the top of your head, brat.”
He looked up, blinked, yawned, and went back to his bath.
Pablo banged on the door. “Señorita!”
Such a waste, she mused. Bright and eager to learn, the boy should be in school. But his parents had no money for shoes or books. Besides, they needed him at home to help with the endless chores on their meager farm.
His costume lay draped over the back of a chair. They’d finish it this morning and his daily visits would end. With a resigned sigh, she opened the door.
Already hot and ripe with the smell of the ocean, the early morning air assaulted her skin. Sweat dampened her neck as she stepped back to let Pablo in. “No need to rush. Carnival doesn’t start until tomorrow, ah, that’s…er…mañana. Yeah, mañana.”
Although his English was poor and her Spanish worse, between them they spoke enough of each other’s language to communicate. After a fashion.
“Men!” Eyes wide, the boy bounced up and down on her doorstep. “Come rapido.”
She tensed. “Men? Where? How many? Do they have guns?”
He shook his head and pointed back toward the beach, his small brown body quivering with his need to make her understand. “Dead, me thinks. Come rapido, Señorita.”
“Dead? How? No, Pablo, wait.”
But he was already scurrying away, beckoning for her to follow. Damn it! She couldn’t let him fall into a trap meant for her. Dashing into the bedroom, she retrieved her gun, shoved it into the waistband of her jeans, and rushed out after him.
“Wait for me,” she shouted as she raced barefoot across the sand, cursing the soft, warm granules that oozed between her toes and slowed her down. “Pablo!”
He slowed to a stop at last. When she came up beside him, he pointed at a man sprawled on his side at the edge of the surf. “Men, sí?”
The tattered life vest on the body indicated he’d come from a yacht. Either he’d fallen overboard, or his boat had gone down in yesterday’s storm.
Pulling out the revolver, she scanned the beach for any hint of trouble, but saw nothing.
“No need shoot,” Pablo said. “Him dead mucho.”
The matter-of-fact tone of his voice tore at her heart. Death was just a fact of life for most of Mexico’s poor from the moment they were born. Tess had recently learned that three of Pablo’s twelve brothers and sisters had died from malnutrition and disease before the age of two. A fierce protectiveness seized her, and she wrapped him in a hug. He squirmed. She released him but couldn’t resist ruffling his hair.
“Run home and get the burro. We’ll need him to carry the body.”
As he dashed off, she checked the beach again for signs of an ambush. Still nothing. Holding the gun at her side, she walked toward the man. She’d almost reached him when he raised his head and moaned. With a small gasp of dismay, she shoved the pistol back in her waistband and rolled him over on his back. “It’s okay. Just take it easy.”
He looked American, mid-thirties, with a couple of days’ worth of stubble on his face and a nasty gash on his forehead. Squinting in the brutal Mexican sun, he tried to cover his eyes. When she leaned over him to block the light, he lowered his hands and gazed up at her with hazel eyes that would’ve been striking—if they hadn’t been so bloodshot.
“Who? Where?” His words crackled with urgency and pain.
“Shush. Don’t try to talk. I’ll get help.”
She patted his arm, trying to reassure him. “It’s okay. You’re safe now. I’ll get you a doctor.”
“Don’t,” he repeated. “Please.”
His hand closed on her wrist. Though obviously weak and injured, he had an impressive grip—strong enough to hurt. She couldn’t break free.
“Not safe,” he said, his eyes locking on hers.
Even if she hadn’t understood his words, she would’ve recognized the fear in his voice. Alarm bells rang in her head. This man was running from someone.
Now, what? He needed medical attention, but if she took him to the village, his enemies might find him. You’ve got your own problems, said a small, frightened voice in the back of her mind. You can’t afford to get tangled up in his. But his eyes burned with anger and confusion. And wariness. It was like seeing her own reflection in a mirror.
He’s in trouble. Just like me. Against her better judgment, she nodded. “It’ll be all right. I promise.”
Much to her relief, he let go of her wrist. As she rubbed her arm and flexed her fingers, he moaned again. Then his eyes rolled back in his head. She gave him a small nudge, but he didn’t stir.
“Out cold. Terrific.”
Irritated that he couldn’t stay conscious at least long enough to tell her who he was and what kind of trouble he was in, she searched him. Nothing but empty pockets. Her only clue to his identity came from a tattoo on his forearm: a snake coiled around a knife with the word “MAX” beneath it.
“Max, huh? Well, Max, I guess I’m stuck with you.”
She heard a shout and whipped around. Pablo and his thirteen-year-old brother Juan ran toward her, dragging Taco, their family’s scrawny, uncooperative burro.
“He’s still alive,” she yelled. “Help me take him to my cottage.”
They struggled under Max’s unconscious weight, but finally managed to drape him over Taco. Then she pulled the balking animal up the beach while Juan and Pablo pushed from behind. When they finally reached the cottage, she and Juan carried Max to the bedroom and laid him on her bed. Pablo fetched bottled water from the kitchen and the first aid kit from the bathroom.
Tess brushed Max’s sun-streaked, light-brown hair back from his forehead, cleaned and bandaged his wound, then dribbled water between his chapped lips. Okay, now what? How the hell was she supposed to take care of him? She wasn’t a nurse.
His clothes reeked of diesel and salt water. As good a place as any to start, she supposed. “Help me get him undressed.”
The boys attacked his pants and tennis shoes while she tackled his torn shirt and life vest. In a couple of minutes they had stripped him down to his Jockeys. The guy was certainly a hunk. Tess bit back a whimper when Juan grabbed hold of the waistband of Max’s briefs. “No, don’t,” she gasped. “I think we’d better leave those on him.”
She stared at Max. She knew it was rude but, damn it, she was only human. And with six feet of tanned, hard male stretched out on her bed, resisting a good, long look required will power she just didn’t have.
Besides, there was something familiar about him, and she wondered if he could be the man her dreams had foretold—the one who invoked both a sense of trust and betrayal. But she had no way of knowing as she always woke up before she saw his face—just as she was fleeing down a hallway filled with locked doors while cartoonish numbers chased her with knives. She hated the damn dreams and had all her life. Yes, they seemed to foretell the future, but she never understood them until what they predicted had already past. And what the hell good was that? They hadn’t saved her from becoming involved with Nick or helped her prevent the murders—
The stranger groaned, dragging her thoughts back to him. She studied him. His rangy body would fit the man in her dreams. Close enough, anyway. He had the same well-defined muscles, broad shoulders, and trim waist. And although she’d never seen the dream guy’s face, this man had a good one—chiseled and strong, with knife-edged cheekbones and full, sculpted lips. Still, she didn’t remember any scars on the dream guy, and this man had several.
One ran up his jaw and bisected his chin. Two more that looked like they came from gunshot wounds decorated his torso. They kept him from being “drop-dead” gorgeous and made him appear reckless. And dangerous. Like a warrior. Just the kind of man a woman had trouble resisting.
Desires she’d thought long buried sprang to the surface with surprising speed. She hadn’t been this close to a man in months and had to clench her hands at her sides to keep her fingers from stroking his chest. Shit, what the hell have I gotten myself into? Dreams or no dreams, she should take him straight to the village and be done with him.
“Señorita?” Juan whispered.
Tess jumped, looked around to find the boys watching her, and blushed.
“Yes.” Ashamed of herself, she pulled the sheet over Max, gathered up his shirt and pants, and herded the two boys into the kitchen. “But you can’t tell anyone he’s here.”
From the disappointment on their faces, she had no problem imagining the stories they’d planned to tell their friends. “I think he’s in trouble,” she continued. “Bad people are looking for him, so no one can know where he is.” She looked each boy in the eye. “Promise?”
Juan and Pablo exchanged glances then nodded. In spite of her anxiety, Tess had to swallow a laugh at the lost glory reflected in their solemn expressions.
They’d tell. No question. But she hoped their promise would make it later rather than sooner, giving Max a couple of days to recover before word got out. Struck with an idea, she dumped his clothes on the counter and reached for her backpack.
“Give your friends ice cream instead of stories,” she said in compromise, handing them the last of the money in her wallet.
The boys grabbed the cash with whoops of delight and raced out the door.
After stuffing her gun in the backpack, Tess washed Max’s pants and shirt in the sink, hung them outside to dry, then went back to the bedroom to check on him. Still out cold. As far as she could tell, he was okay, though his breathing sounded a bit labored.
Remembering the arousal he’d stirred up, she grimaced. I’m pathetic if an unconscious stranger makes me horny. A small sigh escaped as she shoved a hand through her hair. Christ, I need therapy.
She decided she’d better refill her wallet before she forgot, so she headed back to the kitchen and dug her envelope of money out of the cupboard. She counted the cash and groaned, appalled at how little remained. Must’ve gone through it faster than I thought. Shit. What was left wouldn’t last more than two or three weeks.
Only one thing to do—call Karl Parks, her attorney friend in Salt Lake. He’d handled the sale of her costume shop while she was on the run. She’d called him for money before and gotten away with it, though the danger became greater every time. The smallest clue could lead Nick right to her. But what choice did she have?
She shuddered, overwhelmed by an onslaught of panic and despair. Chills rippled down her spine, sprouting goosebumps on her skin. Leaning against the kitchen counter, she fought to control the surge of ice-cold terror in her gut by taking slow, deep breaths and forcing herself to consider her situation logically.
Obviously, she’d been here too long. No matter how precious the cove, it had been foolish to stay. Once she made the call to Karl, she’d have to get out of here. Fast.
So she needed a plan.
Okay, she decided with another deep breath. She’d tell Karl to send the money to the marina. If she hid out in La Paz until it came, she could take the ferry back to the Mexican mainland. Yeah, that should work. Reassured and comforted, she pushed away from the counter—then choked back a scream as someone banged on her front door.