Ashley Taylor's world is thrown into turmoil when her brother is killed and his murderers show up at her front door. Fearing for her life, she goes on the run. Soon, however, an unexpected diversion in the form of sexy and infuriating Dominic Jackson has her running scared for an entirely different reason.
Ex-cop Dominic is fighting demons of his own, and when Ashley crashes, literally, into his life, arousing dark reminders of his past, he is tempted to ignore her plight. But his fierce sense of justice and an intense, red-hot attraction to the intriguing beauty won't let him...
Groverfield, Texas. A long way away from New York. She’d been driving for more than twenty-four hours, terrified and more alone than she’d ever been. With no particular destination in mind, she’d ended up here, in this town. Tucked away in the belly of the state as it was, the town was small, quiet, inconspicuous. It seemed a good place for someone who wanted to disappear.
There were a few ordinary-looking buildings scattered here and there—an antique shop, a bank, a fast food restaurant. Ashley turned toward the restaurant, Pam’s Diner. She was tired and miserable and, most importantly right now, hungry.
Sitting in the parking lot, she looked into the rear-view mirror at her reflection, one that continued to take her by surprise, even now. Her chocolate complexion was still smooth and flawless and her large, dark-brown eyes, although reflecting shadows of sadness now, were still striking. But she’d cut off her thick, shoulder-length hair, which was now barely six inches long and dyed a light brown. A change in her appearance she’d made back at Maurice’s cabin.
With a small sigh, she finger-combed the short strands at the front, then undid her seatbelt and turned to unlock her door. Her glance landed on the pair of glasses that lay at the front of the car. An additional attempt at disguising herself. Should she bother with those? Can’t be too careful, she decided, picking them up.
It was late Friday night, approaching ten o’clock, and only a few people were in the streets. There were even fewer inside the diner, she noted as she entered, looking warily around. It had become second nature, this need to scour her surroundings. Every place, every building she visited was given an extra amount of precautionary attention. A car pulling up beside her suddenly would always get a second look.
Satisfied that all was well, she joined the short line to the cashier. She ordered a chicken sandwich and pineapple juice, and then went to sit toward the back where she had a sweeping view of the outside.
Putting the straw in her drink to her lips, she took a sip of the sweet and sour liquid. Unwrapping the sandwich, she bit off a piece and discovered she wasn’t as hungry as she had at first imagined. Depression was robbing her of her appetite. And her spirit.
Ashley sighed deeply, pushing the sandwich away as her eyes misted over. Her brother’s funeral was tomorrow, Maurice had informed her. And she’d not be there, would not get the chance to tell him good-bye.
She removed her glasses and covered her face with her hands. She tried to hold back the tears. It was no use. Her eyes overflowed and she cried silently for her sibling, her dear, sweet brother who wouldn’t have hurt a fly.
“Are you all right, young lady?”
Ashley looked up and saw a woman somewhere in her sixties standing beside her. Ashley quickly wiped the tears away with the back of her sleeve, and slid the glasses back on her face.
“Yes, I’m fine, thank you,” she said, turning her head away.
“Well, you don’t seem fine to me,” the woman answered. “You’re not from around these parts, are you? I don’t remember seeing you before.” Without seeking permission, she sat down in the seat across from Ashley. Her warm, black eyes were full of questions as she placed her laden plastic bag on the table between them.
“No, I’m not from here,” said Ashley.
“So where’re you from?”
“A long way from home, eh? Visiting relatives?”
“No.” She had no relatives now to visit.
The woman got up, perhaps sensing Ashley’s reticence. “Well, take care now,” she said, placing a gentle hand on Ashley’s shoulder. “And dry those beautiful eyes of yours. Whatever it is that’s bothering you, I hope you’ll find some peace soon.” She took up her bag and stepped away. “I’m Madge, by the way. Madge Jackson.”
“I’m Ash… Joan Brown,” Ashley stuttered, giving her a small smile in an attempt to cover up her blunder. She really had to be more careful. She just couldn’t afford to have any slip-ups.
“It was good meeting you, Joan,” Mrs. Jackson replied, smiling back at her before heading for the door.
Nice lady, Ashley thought. If she was any indication of the type of people who inhabited the town, maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to hang around here for a while, after all. Ashley only hoped the others weren’t going to be half as interested in her affairs as Madge Jackson had been.
She sat staring for a few more seconds at the gathering dusk outside, then decided she’d better get a move on. The first order of business was to find accommodation for the night.
After dumping the remnants of her meal into the nearest bin, she went out into the darkening night. The July air had become perceptibly cooler, cutting through her thin cotton blouse. She stood looking around her for a moment. Muted, yellowish light filled the glass doors and windows of some buildings, but the darkened interior of most of the stores suggested that they had closed for the evening.
Wrapping her arms protectively across her middle, she walked over to her car. She got in and pulled the glasses from her face, tossing them carelessly onto the passenger seat. She didn’t remember passing a hotel when she came in earlier, so her best bet for finding one would be to continue going forward. She had to stop several minutes later, however, when she came to the edge of town and no hotel. She pulled up in front of the town’s Post Office. A young girl stood nearby on the sidewalk outside.
“Where’s the nearest hotel? Or motel?” she asked her.
“You’re gonna have to go to the next town to find one,” the girl replied.
“You’re joking, right?” Ashley asked.
“ ‘Fraid I ain’t. The next town is just up the road. If you continue along here you’ll get to it right quick.” She pointed straight ahead.
Ashley nodded her thanks, sank into the driver’s seat, and cursed her luck. Tired, in a foul mood, she sat forward and re-started the car, fighting back tears that were ready to fill up her eyes again. God alone knew how far she had to drive now. To small town folks “up the road” very rarely meant that, so it was quite probable she’d be driving around for the next hour or two.
She was about ten minutes into the journey when she realized that something was very wrong. She must have made a wrong turn somewhere because she seemed to have left the main road. Bringing the vehicle to a stop, she looked around her. The area was wooded, dark, deserted. There was no one to ask any questions. Frustrated, she slammed her hands against the steering wheel before jamming her foot angrily on the accelerator. This just wasn’t her day; it wasn’t even her damn week!
Not sure where the road was taking her, but hoping to come across someone who could give her some information, she continued on. She came to a corner, rounded it without cutting her speed, and gasped in horror when she spotted a man and a woman standing directly in her path. She hit the brakes hard, but it was too late. Left with no other alternative, she frantically swung her vehicle in the opposite direction, only to spot a car parked a short distance away. With a lurch of her stomach, Ashley realized there was no way she was going to miss it. Letting out a shrill cry, she closed her eyes tightly, and braced for impact. There was the horrifying sound of metal crashing into metal.
Her head slammed forward, then flopped backward as her car came to an abrupt stop. Some moments later, her body weak, her hands shaking uncontrollably, she slowly opened her eyes—stunned. Alive.
No airbag had deployed. It being an old car, it was probable one wasn’t even installed. Miraculously, her windshield had remained intact, so she was spared injury from flying broken glass. Her heart thumping madly inside her chest, she turned and unhitched her seatbelt with trembling hands. As she turned back around, a figure appeared at her door.
“Are you okay?”
Through her haze, Ashley recognized the face immediately—the lady from the restaurant.
“I think so,” Ashley answered, a quiver in her voice. Heart galloping, hands still shaking, she managed to jerk open the door of her wrecked vehicle. On weak, wobbly legs she stood up, but they buckled beneath her. Before she hit the ground, however, a pair of strong male hands grasped her, and she was surprised to find herself being hoisted up and held against the broad, rock-hard wall of a chest.
“Take her to the house,” the woman said.
Ashley’s surprise soon gave way to curiosity. As her rescuer walked off with her, she tried to make out what he looked like, but in the dim light, it was futile.
It felt good, though, and safe, being in his arms. The tangy smell of his cologne filled her nostrils and Ashley snuggled closer, burying her face into the stranger’s neck. His body tensed at her action, and he paused for a second before continuing on his way.
He mounted some steps, and then there was the sound of a door being opened. He stopped long enough to flick on a light switch and soon after, she was carefully set down on a sofa in the living room.
“Are you hurt?” her rescuer asked with apparent concern, stooping beside her.
Hearing the deep, velvety voice Ashley looked up and found herself staring at the most incredible-looking male she’d ever seen. For a moment, she was speechless. He was in his mid-thirties, with low-cut black hair capping a head with facial features that had been molded by the gods themselves. The dark skin was smooth, cool. A prominent nose held together sharply defined cheeks that gave way to strong, masculine jaws shadowed with just a hint of a beard. His lips were full, even sensual, but it was his eyes that captivated her. Set under jet-black brows, they were gorgeous, the color of a summer’s night. The man was gazing at her with silent worry.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, this time with a tad more urgency. “Maybe I should take you to the hospital.”
“No,” she heard herself answer breathlessly, and she wasn’t quite sure whether this reaction was a result of her ordeal or the man, whose face was only inches away from her own. “I’m fine, really.”
He surveyed her for a few more penetrating seconds, his glance roving over her face, to fall to her lips. His gaze stayed there for a moment before his eyes met hers again. Awareness shot through Ashley’s body.
He stood up abruptly, eyes darkening. “What happened?” he asked, resting his hands on his hips.
She folded her lips and didn’t answer immediately. “I was upset, wasn’t thinking straight. The next thing I know…”
“You could have seriously injured yourself, and us. Maybe worse. Do you realize you’re on private property?”
The eyes that had only moments before reflected concern were locked onto Ashley so aggressively now she stuttered her answer. “N-no, no I didn’t. I…I think I took a wrong turn...”
“You’re new to the area, so it’s quite understandable, Joan dear,” the hitherto
unnoticed third occupant of the room said.
“You know her?” the man asked, his brows rising in surprise as he looked over at Mrs. Jackson standing beside him.
“We met in town earlier today,” she told him. She turned to Ashley, who had eased herself up with an elbow and was now sitting upright. “This is my son, Dominic.”
He was a big man, Ashley noted silently, her gaze slowly taking him in. The long-sleeved white shirt he wore had the top buttons undone. It seemed to cover nothing but solid muscle. He was tall, too. Over six feet.
“Where were you heading?” he asked, crossing his arms over his substantial chest as he pinned Ashley with an unwavering gaze.
“I wasn’t really sure,” she mumbled.
“You certainly seemed to be in a lot of hurry for someone who wasn’t sure about where she was going,” he said.
“Nic, really!” Mrs. Jackson interjected. She took a seat beside Ashley.
Dominic Jackson was making her out to be an idiot, and under normal circumstances, Ashley would have had a few choice words for him. But these were far from normal circumstances. She decided his demeanor was understandable, maybe even justifiable. She still couldn’t help glaring at him.
“What I meant to say was that I was on my way to the next town to find a place to spend the night, but I wasn’t quite sure where,” she explained, realizing with a twinge of discontentment that that particular task remained to be accomplished.
“That still doesn’t excuse the speed at which you were traveling,” Dominic said, his hands falling to his sides, “which I don’t need to tell you was excessive. What were you thinking, anyway?”
“I was upset and just wanted to get to my destination.” If he only knew how truly senseless her life had become the last few days he wouldn’t be harassing her like this. She turned to his mother in an attempt to change the subject. “Was it your car I hit?”
“No, it was Nic’s. Mine was on the other side.”
Lord, no wonder he was so upset. Ashley grimaced. “I don’t know what to say.” She looked at him. “I truly am so sorry.” She was sure her misery showed in her face, which was probably why she detected a slight softening of the gaze that held hers.
“We’ll sort everything out in the morning,” Mrs. Jackson answered before
Dominic did, getting to her feet. “Right now, child, you need to get upstairs to bed.”
Upstairs to…? “I beg your pardon?” Ashley said.
“You need a place to stay, right?” Mrs. Jackson asked.
“Yes,” Ashley replied slowly, “but I can’t stay here!”
“Why on earth not? There’s plenty of room here.”
“Oh, but I couldn’t.” Ashley glanced over at Dominic. Surely he would have a problem with her hanging around. But he had moved off and was dialing a cell phone, apparently having no interest in this part of the conversation.
“I don’t see where you have a choice in the matter,” his mother was saying. “Neither you nor your car is in any condition to go anywhere.”
That was entirely true. And on top of that, she was in the middle of nowhere, in a strange town, at night, so it would really be foolish of her not to take up the offer. “Well, thank you,” Ashley relented, standing up on stronger legs. “You’re being very kind, considering.”
“Come this way.” Her hostess walked toward the staircase across the room. Ashley followed her, but as they passed Dominic, his mother paused. “Dear, do you have bags in your car? Nic, go and get her bags while I show her to her room.”
As she went by, Ashley glanced over at Dominic, who returned her look with an unreadable expression on his face. She could feel his gaze burning into her back as she went up the stairs.
“Nic wasn’t at home when I dropped by, but I saw him driving in when I was leaving, so I stopped to speak to him about a project he’s working on for me,” Mrs. Jackson explained as they climbed the gleaming oak staircase. “That’s when you came along.”
That was putting it mildly, Ashley thought. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, she felt the need to apologize again. “I really am sorry about what happened.”
Her companion brushed aside the apology with a wave of her hand. “Ah, don’t worry about it. I’m just glad no one got hurt.” They reached the top and Mrs. Jackson turned left, stopping at a white door. “Here we are.”
It was a large room, beautifully furnished, though a bit dark, but to Ashley’s trained gaze it was nothing that a lighter shade of paint and a change in drapes couldn’t remedy.
“You should be comfortable here,” Mrs. Jackson said.
“Oh, I’m sure I will be. It’s lovely,” Ashley responded graciously, turning to smile at her.
“Well, I have to get home now. I’ll see you tomorrow,” the older woman stated, about to move away.
Ashley was taken aback. “You mean, you don’t live here?”
Mrs. Jackson paused after taking a few steps. “No, this is Nic’s house. Mine is further into town. His life is in New York, though. He’s only here for a few days to help me with a construction project.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize you weren’t going to be here,” Ashley said slowly, her brows knitted.
“Are you afraid of staying here alone with Nic?”
The question caught Ashley off guard. She tried to analyze her emotions. What exactly was she feeling? There was no fear there, she concluded—there was nothing about him that led her believe he’d have her heading for the hills in terror. But she was definitely anxious, which was understandable. And she was excited. That emotion she found more than a little curious.
“There really is no need, you know,” his mother stated when she remained silent. “He won’t be coming to your room in the middle of the night, if that’s what you’re thinking. You couldn’t be in safer hands, right Nic?”
Mortified, Ashley swung around and saw Dominic standing at the door, her handbag and black traveling bag in his hand. Just how long had he been there? God, she hoped he hadn’t overheard the conversation. It was all she needed right now, for him to believe that she considered him some kind of sexual deviant. Great.
“There’s food in the fridge that I dropped off for Nic earlier,” Mrs. Jackson said as she headed to the door. “You didn’t seem to be eating much when I saw you at the restaurant, so I suggest you get something into that stomach.”
“Thanks again for everything,” Ashley murmured, smiling at Mrs. Jackson who, after a brief nod, disappeared through the door.
“Where do you want me to put these?” Dominic asked.
“Uh, on the bed, thank you,” Ashley said, not quite meeting his eyes.
He dropped the bags where he was told. “I’ll be downstairs if you need me.”
Left alone, Ashley sank down onto the double bed draped in a rose-colored cotton and polyester sheet. She sat up abruptly seconds later, reached for her handbag, and dug out her cell phone. She’d only been separated from it for a few minutes, but Maurice could have called.
Nothing. She placed the phone on the bedside table and laid back down, disappointment and misery warring for superiority in her breast. She sighed deeply, and rubbed her hands over her face. It had been a god-awful day. A long, god-awful day.
What she needed was a nice, warm bath to help ease some of the tension from her weary bones, but she would settle for a shower instead. She shed her clothes, and walked in panties and bra to the bathroom. As she bathed, her thoughts wandered to Dominic. He was from New York, like her. He was probably the head honcho of some large corporation. She got the impression he would be comfortable in an Armani suit. Was he married? Did he have a girlfriend? More than likely. A guy like that would not be running around unattached. There were probably a couple of kids tucked away somewhere as well...
Lord, what the hell was she doing? Dominic Jackson’s love life was really none of her concern. What she ought to do was concentrate on how she was going to get herself out of her current predicament, not waste her time on something that she had no business even thinking about.
She came out of the shower and wrapped a fluffy white towel around her curvaceous body as she went back into the bedroom.
She’d left her house with only the clothes on her back, but had managed to pick up a couple jeans and tops along the way. Unzipping her traveling bag, she drew out a T-shirt, a fresh pair of jeans, and underwear. She hadn’t bothered to try on the T-shirt before she’d bought it, and now found that it fit her a bit snugly around the chest. Well, there was nothing she could do about that, she thought, reaching for her jeans. As she stuck a shapely leg into them, her stomach growled. She had barely eaten anything the entire day; it would probably be a good idea to take Mrs. Jackson’s advice, she decided.
Fully clothed, she went to the dresser and ran her comb through her hair. Then, for some inexplicable reason, she went back to her handbag and took out her favorite lipstick. This has nothing to do with the man downstairs, she tried to convince herself, although a strange nervousness was creeping through her body.
Tucking the cell phone securely in her pocket, she descended the staircase a moment later. Dominic was standing across the room, rolling up what looked like construction papers. He glanced up when she entered and then looked away, but not before his eyes had lowered to her breasts and lingered for a second.
“Do you need something?’ he asked, standing the long roll of papers in a corner.
“I...yes. I wanted to get something to eat, if you don’t mind,” Ashley replied.
“Feel free,” Dominic said with a shrug of his broad shoulders. He made his way over to the living room sofa. When Ashley remained stationary, he looked around again. “The kitchen’s to your right.”
The kitchen was beautiful, outfitted with all the latest stainless steel appliances. Mr. Jackson appeared to have done really well for himself, Ashley thought. She’d been in the decorating business long enough to recognize quality when she saw it.
A few minutes’ search yielded whole-wheat bread and fried chicken. As Ashley sat at the small glass-top table in a corner and ate, she couldn’t help thinking about what lay ahead. What was she going to do? She hadn’t seen the damage that had been done to Dominic’s vehicle, or hers, for that matter. She prayed it wasn’t too bad. All the money she had was what Maurice had given her. Maybe she could work something out with Dominic, but she was having a hard time determining what.
When she went back into the living room, the television was on, but Dominic was closing a window. Ashley walked over to him.
“About the repairs to your car—” she began.
“Your insurance should take care of things, right? I wouldn’t worry about it.” He turned around to face her and stuck his hands into the pockets of his jeans.
“I’d prefer if we didn’t involve the insurance companies.” Or the police, she added silently.
Dominic’s dark eyes narrowed suspiciously for a moment. His hands fell to his sides.
“Why?” he asked finally, his gaze sweeping over her face.
Ashley squirmed under his scrutiny. “Well, it’s a long story,” she said, as memories of the last few days resurfaced with fierce intensity. “Can we talk about it in the morning? I want to go to bed.”
Almost out of habit now, she went over to the front door to make sure that it was securely locked. She started toward the stairs, but Dominic’s voice stopped her.
“I can keep it unlocked, if you like.”
“No, no,” Ashley said quickly as she turned back around, panic rising in her chest. She took a deep, calming breath. “Why would I want that?”
“In case you need to escape,” he said, his voice cool, his expression deadpan. “Just so you know, there’s a key in your bedroom door. You can use it to lock yourself in, if you prefer.”
Ashley stood quietly for a second, processing the significance of his words. Had he overheard the discussion between her and his mother?
“Why would I need to do that?” she asked.
“To protect yourself from me, of course.”
“I don’t need to lock myself in,” Ashley declared emphatically. “I don’t need to be protected from you.”
Dominic studied her a moment, folded his arms across his broad chest. “Oh?” he returned, the dark eyes reflective. “You didn’t seem to be too sure before.”
“Well, I’m…I’m sure that women find you attractive and… and so you’d have no need to…to force yourself on anyone, that’s all.” Good lord, what on earth was she saying? She’d had a lot to deal with today and so her poor brain was just having a hard time coping.
Dominic lowered his arms and his lips curled in a faint smile. “And do you, Joan?” he replied softly, a devilish gleam emerging in the black eyes.
He looked quite dangerous now. Maybe she’d reached her conclusions too quickly. After all, what did she really know about the man, except for what his mother had told her?
“Do I what?” Ashley asked nervously, the beat of her heart accelerating. He might very well be dangerous, and she should probably be afraid, but she wasn’t. She was…excited. Her pulses pounded as she stared into eyes that were making her suddenly weak in the knees.
“Find me attractive.”
She did. Extremely so. But she couldn’t answer his question because she’d be revealing far more than she wanted to. In any event, she suspected he was only toying with her.
Suddenly, a gunshot rang out. Ashley’s body flooded with fear. She jumped and dashed over to Dominic, throwing herself at his chest. His large arms encircled her as she clung to him, trembling.
“It was only the TV,” his voice came softly from above her head as he embraced her.
Feeling a bit foolish, Ashley stepped away from him, inhaling deeply as she tried to regain control over her emotions.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her head bowed.
“You don’t hear me complaining,” Dominic replied.
She raised her head. “It’s just that, the shot…it sounded so real.”
Dominic frowned. “Are you okay?” He placed his hands lightly on her shoulders.
“Yes, I’m fine.” She gave him a small, crooked smile.
“Are you sure? You seemed very upset.”
There it was again, that gentle, caring look glimmering in the gorgeous dark eyes. It unraveled her control, dismantled her defenses, inducing her to open up to him.
“I just thought...” She stopped herself. She was so tempted to unburden, to confess her plight, but it was a risk she just couldn’t take. Too much was at stake.
“Goodnight,” she murmured, lowering her lashes before pivoting sharply and stumbling up the stairs.
As she lay in bed, she decided she had to get away from Dominic Jackson as soon as possible. She’d take the first opportunity tomorrow to find her way to the next town and put some distance between them. He got to her, making her feel things she hadn’t felt for a man in years. She needed to focus her mind elsewhere. Her life was in turmoil and she needed to figure it out. Dominic Jackson would only be a distraction, one she could ill afford.