Natasha stared out the window, biting on her lower lip, trying to ignore the big brute next to her driving the friggin' car. Her hands clutched at one another like two kittens tumbling together and she kept resisting the urge to shake her foot--a bad habit when she let her nerves get the better of her. Shudders swept through her body and she told herself it was from the cold, knowing it was not. Realizing she was going to chew through her lip if she didn't stop, she pressed her mouth together and made an effort to relax, letting a sigh escape. She forced her fingers to still, her foot to remain static. A large, warm hand enveloped hers. She stared at the fine black hairs, the bronze skin tone, and could not subdue the memory of those hands on her body. Heat traveled through her and her abdomen clenched. She wondered if he would always have this effect on her. She glanced over at Striker, who darted her a reassuring look, his eyes crinkling, his mouth just barely hitting the smile range.
"It'll be all right," he said.
She snatched her hands out of his and, as if of their own will, her fingers went back to clutching at one another. She slid them down her jeans, to her knees and back. "I'm fine." The tremor in her voice irritated her. She didn't want Striker to know how terrified she was. As a bodyguard, she should be able to handle this without having a major breakdown, which seemed to be gathering momentum with each passing second.
"Of course you are."
She threw him a dark look. "Don't patronize me, all right? I'm okay, I can handle this." She shook her head and blew out air. "I don't know why in the world I let Donahue talk me into letting you tag along."
With a screech of tires, Striker pulled his SUV to the shoulder of the road and braked to a stop. Natasha tried to ignore the tug of apprehension in her stomach as he slammed the gear shift into park.
Striker checked the rear and side-view mirrors before releasing his seatbelt and turning to face her. His eyes bore into hers as his hand tightened on the steering wheel.
"Are we going to have to go over this again? I thought we worked this out back at Donahue's office."
Natasha gritted her teeth. "I don't need a freakin' bodyguard. I'm a bodyguard, I know how to protect people, myself included."
"Your being a bodyguard's what got you into this mess in the first place," he said, his voice rising with each word.
Natasha unstrapped her seatbelt and twisted her torso toward his. "That's right. I got myself into this mess. I'll get myself out, thank you very much."
Striker glared at her for a long moment. "Fine. I'll turn around, we'll go back to Donahue's office, and I'll let him put his own bodyguards on you."
Yikes. That wasn't what Natasha wanted. Knowing Donahue, he would lock her up someplace and hold her prisoner until he got this matter resolved.
"But no one's going to protect you as well as I can, and you know it."
Natasha tried to think of a snappy rejoinder to that but he interrupted her before she could come up with one.
"I'd die for you. In a heartbeat. No hesitation at all."
Her body relaxed as her anger dissipated at the soft tone of his voice, the concern in his eyes. That was such a sweet thing to say and she'd been so mean to him. She cleared her throat, determined not to get all teary-eyed.
"I'd do the same for you. You know that, don't you?"
She didn't want to argue but it had to be said. "Listen, I appreciate the fact that y'all think I need protecting, I get that. But I'm not a novice at this, Striker. I can take care of myself."
"Yeah? Is that right? Where will you go? What will you do? And what the hell are you going to do when Langford's guys find you?"
"I think maybe Donahue's overreacting. I mean, come on, just because I stopped Wet Paulie from shooting Donahue doesn't mean Paulie's benefactor or whoever this guy is wants me dead."
"A life for a life, that's what Donahue's informant told him. And you're the target because you interrupted Langford's attempt to take out Donahue and assume control."
"Oh, please. That sounds so Godfatherish."
"This is organized crime, babe. What do you expect, a slap on the wrist, a tweak of the nose?"
"One could always hope," she said, trying for levity.
Striker strapped on his seatbelt. "We need to get moving. What's it going to be? Me or Donahue. Take your pick." He started the SUV and put it in gear.
"You, I guess." She frowned at him. "Although for the record, this is not necessary, I'm a..."
"Yeah, I know. You're a friggin' bodyguard, you can handle this yourself." Striker checked his mirrors then pulled onto the interstate.
"Well, I'm glad you agree."
He shot her an ominous glare. "If you'd listened to me, given up this field and married me, we'd be in a hell of a much better place right now."
"Yeah, right. Me playing wife to big daddy. No thanks."
Striker's jaw clenched.
"For the record, I am never not going to be a bodyguard, so stow that in that huge head of yours and underline it."
"Double negative," he muttered.
"Oh, and are we an English teacher now?"
"From here on out, baby, I am anything and everything to you. Stow that in that wacky head of yours and underline it."
"Oh, for the love of Myrtle. At least come up with your own creative similes. And don't call me baby."
Striker ignored that.
After awhile, Natasha glanced at him. "Who is this guy, anyway? I thought Donahue was the head honcho Mafioso in East Tennessee. I didn't know he had competition."
Striker took time to glance in the mirrors before responding. "In their world, there's always competition and the loser always ends up dead." He reached down and adjusted the thermostat to a warmer temperature.
Natasha watched his long fingers, tried not to think of the ways he had pleasured her body with them.
Striker returned his attention to the road. "His name is Dean Langford. A few years back, a guy named Tony Salvatori ruled the underworld in this part of the country." Striker glanced at her. "And he was a real piece of work, let me tell you. He'd just as soon kill you as look at you, and there's no telling how many people he murdered and buried. Probably over a hundred, if not more, scattered all over East Tennessee." He shook his head.
"At least Brian Donahue has some sense and uses discretion. Anyway, Salvatori was a real psycho who liked to beat up on his wife. When she ran off, he went after her and never came back. I'm hoping if he found her, she put a bullet in his head. When it looked like something happened to Salvatori, a guy named Roland Metzner muscled his way in. Langford was one of Salvatori's top guys but didn't have the backing he needed to challenge Metzner so split and went south to Florida. Not long after that, Metzner ended up dead after he messed with an ATF agent, and now Donahue runs the show. Langford's growing more and more powerful in his neck of the woods and wants back in East Tennessee--that's where his family's from--but Donahue's in the way." Striker shot her a serious look. "This guy's big trouble, Natasha, so don't think he's some namby pamby who's got it in his head he wants to play king of the hill. He wants Donahue out and he'll do anything he can to ensure that happens. In the meantime, if he can't get to Donahue, he'll go on down the line, and it looks like you're number one on his list."
"But I'm not part of Donahue's organization. I don't work for the guy." She clenched her fists. "I just don't understand this."
Striker checked the mirrors, swung into the outside lane, flew past a car driven by a little old lady who just barely cleared the steering wheel. If Natasha weren't so upset, she'd find that image amusing.
"Theirs is a machismo world, Natasha. To him, you, a female, are about as significant in his life as an animal would be and, as such, insulted him by thwarting his attempt to take out Donahue. It's like this: he's been bested by not only a woman but an outsider, and in his mind that is unacceptable. So you've got to be dealt with and soon. The fact that you're under Donahue's protection places a larger target on your back. If Langford can get to you, he's sending an important message to Donahue and his organization."
She stared at him. "How do you know this?"
Striker shrugged. "Let's just say Donahue has his methods for finding things out."
"It wasn't yesterday I stopped Paulie from shooting Donahue, you know. It's been awhile. That's why I'm thinking there can't be much danger. He could have gotten me by now if there were."
"From what I've been told, Langford was out of the country when it happened and didn't learn about you and your connection to Donahue until he arrived back home. But think about it. You were in hiding with Tommy, had the FBI trailing y'all, Pit and Bigun with you most of the time. You weren't that easy to get to."
Natasha shook her head, thinking of Tommy, the defense lawyer who hired her to protect him from Donahue when the crime boss, thinking Tommy a snitch, put out a contract on his life. Natasha met with Donahue to try to convince him to remove the contract, and that's when this whole mess started, with Natasha stopping Wet Paulie from taking out Donahue. Apparently Natasha being shot by Paulie in lieu of Donahue didn't factor into Langford's line of thinking. It was bad enough that one meeting had brought about an injury that was still healing but also the breakup between Natasha and Striker, the love of her life. She was beginning to wish she had never met Tommy James.
Natasha watched the exit ramp leading to Roger's mansion slide by. "Wait a minute. We're not going to Roger's so I can pack some clothes?"
She looked down at her jeans and sweater. "But what am I supposed to wear? And what about Brutus? I can't leave him alone. Roger's still on vacation with Giki and won't be home for at least a week. Striker, we have to go back and get Brutus." Natasha couldn't stand the thought of the Weimaraner alone in her best friend's manse, no one to feed him or give him water.
"I'll have Pit and Bigun bring him to us."
Natasha nodded her acquiescence. Pit and Bigun, two of Striker's best men, were good friends and trustworthy enough to make sure Brutus arrived safely. "How long do you think we'll be gone? Shoot, I've got to call Mom." She picked up her backpack and fished through it, searching for her cell phone. She pulled it out, hesitated. "She's not home. She and Dad left yesterday for that Alaskan cruise."
"How long are they going to be gone?"
"A month." She watched a deer up ahead on a slight slope beside the road, hoping it wouldn't venture onto the interstate but would instead turn and go back into the woods. "Dad thinks if he can get Mom away for awhile maybe she'll give up this bounty hunter thing she's got going with Cameron." Cameron was Natasha's cousin, and Tommy--who Natasha was beginning to think was nothing but a troublemaker; look at all the bad things that had happened in her life since she met him--got the bright idea to hire Cameron and Stevie, Natasha's mom, to track clients on the run. The little runt had gotten Stevie and Cameron bonded and outfitted as bounty hunters and used them exclusively, and now the two were talking about renting an office together and branching out. Shoot.
Striker grinned. "If Stevie's anything like you, that's not gonna happen."
"I don't know who she is anymore. She used to be so, well, normal, a typical mom. Now she's turned into a mix between the Terminator and June Cleaver."
Striker laughed at that image. When he sobered, he said, "They're going to cruise for a month?"
"No. They're driving cross-country to Seattle, where they'll catch a flight. Dad wants to see the Grand Canyon and do a little sight-seeing along the way."
"Good? Why is that good? I'd like to talk to her." Natasha felt like a little kid whose mommy had forgotten to pick her up from school.
"If they're not home, we won't have to worry about them."
"Why do we need to worry about them?" Natasha waited for Striker to answer but he remained silent. Her eyes widened. "You don't think Langford will try to get to me through them, do you?"
Striker's lips tightened into a thin line.
Natasha put her hand on his arm. "Answer me, Striker. Are they in danger?"
"They possibly could be if they were here." His gaze met hers for a brief moment. "Donahue assured me his men would watch them. I need to let him know they're out of town."
Tears tracked down her face and she swiped at her nose. "Oh, shoot, oh, damn, oh, God. I can't believe this."
Striker patted her shoulder in the male's patented awkward way of consoling. "They'll be fine, Natasha."
"What about Cameron? Is he in danger? Or Roger?" Natasha's voice rose with each word.
Striker squeezed her arm. "They're fine. Roger's out of the country and Donahue's got men on all your relatives. Besides, I don't think Langford's too interested in getting to your family. It's you he wants."
"I need to call Mom, make sure they're okay." Natasha's hands shook and she couldn't see the numbers through her blurry vision. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve, tapped the speed dial number, then send, listened to ringing on the other end. Breathed a sigh of relief when her mom answered. Said, "Hey, Mom," and watched in awe as the windshield fragmented in front of her.
Striker swerved in reaction and the SUV crunched gravel on the shoulder. He swore under his breath as he fought the wheel with one hand while punching at the windshield with the other, leaning his head out the window to see. Natasha dropped the phone, drew her legs up, and kicked out with her feet. The windshield flew off the vehicle and into the roadway. Striker barely managed to avoid running over it. Once he had the SUV under control, he put one hand on Natasha's arm, urging her out of her seat. "Get in the back, in the floor."
Natasha moved out of his grasp, jerking her head around, searching. "Where are they? Where did the shot come from? They have to be ahead of us somewhere."
A bullet pinged off the front bumper.
"Get in the back, dammit!"
Natasha spied a black pickup truck ahead of them, a hairy arm extending out the passenger window, gun in hand. She pointed. "There."
"I see them." Striker eyed the side of the road, said, "Hold on," and swerved onto the shoulder and over the edge.
They bumped down a rocky slope onto a pitted meadow. Natasha snatched her gun out of her backpack, turned in her seat and watched the truck above them pull to the side of the road. She debated shooting at it but the SUV was joggling so much, the bullet might go wide and hit another vehicle. She watched the arm holding the gun jerk back with each shot. Was amazed a bullet didn't come blaring through the rear window and into her head.
"Lousy shot." She held her breath when the truck began moving, praying they wouldn't come after them. It backed up on the interstate then stopped. She smiled when she saw a state trooper's brown car fall in line behind it, lights flashing. "Saved by DOT."
"Let's hope he keeps them tied up for awhile."
"Let's hope they're not stupid enough to shoot him."
"Mobsters aren't known for their intellect."