A droplet of perspiration tickled its way along Teal “TJ” Giovanni’s temple to her neck and traced across her collarbone. She stared down, eyes half-hooded, at the woman whose torso she straddled—the very powerful, stunningly gorgeous, and absolutely naked Senator Lauren Abbott.
“You’re so beautiful, TJ, so very beautiful.” Lauren’s sultry alto was as tangible as the stroke of her long fingers that penetrated TJ with each rocking motion. Her touch sent tingles of electricity racing across TJ’s skin. Lauren’s subtle sweet musk perfume filled her every breath. TJ was a tuning fork vibrating to a higher pitch with each whispered encouragement and moan of pleasure. Lauren’s two fingers withdrew and three returned, stretching her as Lauren slid back inside and gently rubbed her thumb against TJ’s straining clit.
“Good. It feels so good.” TJ shifted more upright, arms braced for leverage, and strained to reach that elusive peak. She’d already come three times in the past hour, but Lauren was insatiable.
“Come for me, baby. I want you to come in my hand.” It seemed that each time they were together, she was trying to beat her previous record of how many times she could make TJ climax in one session of sex.
She closed her eyes and rocked faster. “Close. So close. I want to. Don’t know if I can, again.” The droplet of perspiration clinging to her collarbone fattened from her exertions and shook loose to roll a determined path between her breasts. With her eyes closed, she concentrated on the stroke of Lauren’s fingers and willed her orgasm to gather like that droplet of sweat now meandering down the flat plane of her belly.
“Yes, you can. You can do anything I ask you to.”
That was true, wasn’t it? TJ always managed to do whatever Lauren asked. That’s why she’d leap-frogged over a line of more experienced congressional aides to become the senator’s right hand. Screw ’em if they wanted to say it was because she’d slept her way into the job. This wasn’t about the job.
“Look at me, darling.”
TJ obeyed, staring down into eyes as blue as the sky, eyes that gazed back at her with such hunger, and her clit incredibly swelled more and throbbed harder.
“I love being inside you.” Lauren’s hand that gripped TJ’s hip to guide her motion moved to TJ’s breast and pinched her nipple. The jolt made her jerk.
“You like that.” Lauren hummed and smiled at TJ’s whimper, then pinched the tender nipple again. “Now you’re going to come for me.” She curled her fingers inside, added pressure with her thumb, and thrust hard in counterpoint to TJ’s now frantic up-and-down pumping.
“Oh, Lauren…I—” TJ sucked in a breath as the diffused pleasure coalesced into a roiling sphere deep in her belly. Without exhaling, she sucked in a second breath and held it as the sphere exploded and her body bowed in the grip of the most exquisite few seconds of pleasure a woman can experience. Her heart missed a few beats. She didn’t see stars, but she was sure she heard bells ringing.
Then she was instantly pushed onto her back, and Lauren…wait, where did she—“Lauren?” Dazed by her climax and abrupt loss of Lauren’s body heat, TJ struggled to make her arms and legs move, then settled for turning her head toward Lauren’s voice. Lauren was in motion, her cell phone held to her ear. That must have been the ringing she’d heard.
“Fuck. Everything’s in place to get me out of here, right?” Gone was sultry Lauren. This was the tough-talking Senator Lauren Abbott who chaired congressional hearing panels and filibustered until her party got the votes they needed for whatever piece of legislation they were trying to push through. She used the bed sheet to wipe TJ from her hand, then dry between her own legs. “Have you contacted Paul?” She stepped into her panties as she listened to the caller, then pulled on her slacks. “Hold on a minute.”
Lauren dropped the phone onto the bed and picked up her blouse and bra from the floor. She stuffed the bra into her purse and shrugged into the blouse, buttoning it as she walked to a door that led to an adjoining hotel room and unlocked it.
“Lauren?” TJ sat up, her hormone-fogged brain starting to clear. She was beginning to feel very exposed and self-conscious since she was the only one still naked. She looked for the sheet Lauren had left bunched on the king-sized bed after she used it as a towel. “What’s going on?”
TJ reached for the sheet, and Lauren was picking up her phone again when the door she’d unlocked swung open and her number-two congressional aide, Jeff Johansen, stepped into the room. TJ forgot the sheet and lunged for the blanket at her feet, pulling it up to cover her nakedness. “What the hell, Jeff? Get out!”
Jeff ignored her, and Lauren didn’t even glance her way as she searched around the room for her shoes and sat to put them on.
“We’re lucky that Congress is in recess for the long Memorial Day holiday,” Jeff said.
Lauren rose and strode into the bathroom.
Jeff raised his voice to be heard over the water and Lauren brushing her teeth. “Paul’s at the house getting some things together. He said he’d ask your housekeeper to pack for you. I’ve booked you in a private, secluded house on the South Carolina coast.”
Lauren’s voice sounded from the open bathroom door. “God, you know how I hate the beach, Jeff.”
“The mountain alternative we had on retainer wasn’t available. As it was, we had to pay extra to buy off the people who had the beach place booked.”
“I’m sure I’ll hear about that from Paul.” She pointed to her suitcase that was sitting on the floor next to TJ’s, and Jeff picked it up. “He loves to act like I’m spending his money rather than mine.”
TJ’s heart sank. Whatever the crisis, it was clear that their plans were not going to happen. After tonight here in Boston, they were planning to drive to the Cape to spend the weekend with a couple of friends Lauren trusted.
Jeff shouldered Lauren’s bag. “We’ll issue a statement that you and Paul are on a second honeymoon and left orders not to be disturbed unless there’s a world crisis. That should give us a few days for the media frenzy to die down. Maybe something more catastrophic will happen, and you’ll be relegated to the back pages. If not, it will give us time to find out exactly what they have and which scenario we need to deploy to handle this situation.”
“What situation?” TJ scooted to the edge of the bed and stood, the blanket and her anger wrapped tightly around her. Teal Juliette Giovanni had worked her way to the senator’s side by being hard-nosed and indispensable before she’d ever slept with Lauren. She wasn’t going to start being a pushover now. “Tell me what the hell is going on.”
They both turned to her with blank expressions, then to each other. The look that passed between them said a million things, none of which TJ could interpret. The muscle in Lauren’s jaw worked and she drew in a deep breath, then waved Jeff toward the door that led to the other room.
“Go ahead, Jeff. Give us a minute.”
“We don’t have much time, Senator. The media’s been tipped off that you’re here. It’s only a matter of time before they start prowling the place floor by floor or hack into the hotel’s system to get your room number. Nothing’s safe anymore.”
He nodded and left, pulling the door closed. Lauren turned to her.
“What the hell, Lauren?” TJ was used to rolling with schedule changes. She had accepted many interrupted dates they’d arranged over the two years they’d been lovers. But, damn it, she didn’t like being ignored.
Lauren stepped close, cupping TJ’s face in her hands. Her eyes that burned bright with desire only moments before were blue steel now. Her lips were soft but quick. The kiss held no apology. It was more like a handshake on a deal completed.
TJ’s stomach lurched with the sudden realization that something was way off kilter. “Where are you going?” She was Lauren’s right hand. Why did Jeff know about these apparently secret arrangements and she didn’t? Second honeymoon? That was ludicrous. Lauren had told her that Paul didn’t mind her lesbian lovers because he had a stable of male and female lovers. They were careful, and their pseudo marriage benefitted both of their careers.
Lauren dropped her hands to TJ’s shoulders and met her gaze without flinching. “TJ, I want you to listen to me closely. Don’t say anything because I don’t have time to argue or repeat what I’m going to say.” She drew a deep breath. “We’ve been found out. It doesn’t matter how or when. What does matter is that a lesbian lover will undermine everything I’ve worked for my entire career. So, this is where we end.” She smiled ruefully. “You know I always have a back-up plan, and a back-up if that plan fails, too. Jeff knows about the plan because I didn’t want you to know. It would have always been hanging over our heads and ruined our fun because you’d always be waiting for the ax to drop.”
TJ stared at Lauren’s mask of stoic resolve, eyes completely absent of the affection and desire they’d held only moments before. She was stunned. “I don’t understand.”
Lauren released her and stepped back, glancing at the clock on the bedside table. “I know you don’t. Take a shower and get dressed. Jeff will be back with instructions for you. Don’t leave until he returns.” She hesitated. “Please. I tried to be generous with the arrangements.”
TJ’s brain began to thaw and put the pieces together at the super speed that had rocketed her career in the political world. She hadn’t worked this hard to give up so easily. “Are you telling me that you’re not only dumping me, but that I’m also out of a job? What if I don’t want to go quietly?”
Lauren went still, her eyes narrowing. “If you try to make trouble, I’ll make sure you never work in politics again. Not even to get a chicken farmer elected to Podunk City Council. Do what Jeff tells you, disappear for a while, and you’ll still have a future.” She walked away but paused with her hand on the door. She spoke without turning back to face TJ. Her voice was soft now, the hard edge of her threat gone. “Some things are more important than us, TJ. Duty to our country is greater than the pleasure we’ve enjoyed with each other.”
“Enjoyed with each other?”
Lauren had never made promises, but she’d talked many times of whimsical things like finding a wrinkle in time and disappearing together for long periods to be alone without anyone noticing. Lauren often left small, surprise gifts in TJ’s desk or in her messenger bag or had them sent to her apartment. She rarely said “I love you” in the context that a lover would say it, but she’d said it. The first time had been when TJ had convinced Senator Noe to change his position and give Lauren the swing vote she needed to get her education bill approved. Lauren had hugged her in the office, right in front of everybody, and declared, “That’s why I love you.”
Lauren lowered her head, her face shadowed as she stared at her hand where it rested on the door’s handle.
“Look at me, Lauren.”
Lauren straightened and turned to her. Not Lauren, her lover. Senator Lauren Abbott, with her trademark raised eyebrow and penetrating stare.
“I cared for you. I thought…I thought you cared for me.” TJ cursed the break in her voice, but she didn’t cry. She was glad she didn’t cry.
Senator Abbott held her gaze. “Good-bye, TJ.”
The door closed behind her with a loud click.
August Reese rubbed her fingers in a circular motion against the throbbing in her temple and tried to focus once again on the client’s case folder spread across her desk.
Christine hadn’t come home from her business dinner until nearly three in the morning, then refused to even acknowledge her demand for an explanation. She’d simply gathered some clothes from their bedroom and locked herself in the guest suite. Again.
August had barely slept at all. She’d given up trying shortly before dawn and came into the office early. Then she’d stimulated her sluggish brain with too much caffeine and acquiesced to her queasy stomach’s refusal of food. No wonder her head was pounding.
A light knock sounded on her open office door. Her favorite paralegal stood in the doorway.
“Susan, come in.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt. You look busy.” Only a few weeks past her twenty-eighth birthday, Susan dressed and carried herself in a much more mature, professional manner than most of her peers. August attributed that to everything the young woman had survived. Susan’s Army Ranger husband had been killed in an ambush during his second tour in Afghanistan. Only a month before his death, she’d found out she was pregnant. The military survivor benefits were a great supplement to her paralegal salary, but August figured raising twins alone had helped hone Susan’s superior organizational skills.
“I’ve got time if you need something. What’s up?”
Susan glanced quickly down the hallway, then stepped into August’s office and closed the door behind her. She sat in one of the two wingback chairs in front of August’s desk and fingered a decorative upholstery stud that had worked loose. August had bought the two chairs at a yard sale when she and Christine first opened their practice, and she’d reupholstered them herself with a fake leather material. Christine had threatened to throw them out many times since, but August liked keeping a reminder of those early days when they answered their own phones and had one part-time paralegal. They hadn’t had much money, but they were happier.
“I just wanted to tell you that I’m turning in my resignation.” She half rose to lay an envelope on August’s desk, then sank into the chair again. “I’m sorry. I know you have a lot of cases pending, but today is my last day.”
“Is everything okay? I mean—” August rubbed her temple and started over. “You leaving will be a big loss to this firm, Susan. Can I do anything to change your mind?”
Susan’s brow furrowed as she avoided August’s gaze.
“Did someone offer you more money or a more flexible schedule? Give me a chance to match or better whatever they’ve offered.” August opened her desk drawer and dug out her bottle of one hundred aspirins to shake three into her hand. She grabbed the bottle of water sitting on her desk and washed them down before turning her attention back to Susan.
Susan stared down at her lap. “Nothing like that. You’ve been great, August.”
“I can’t believe another firm wouldn’t allow you to give—” She stopped. “The twins are okay, aren’t they? I don’t want to pry into your personal life, but we’ve worked together since they were babies.”
Susan smiled briefly. “The girls are fine.” She shook her head. “Different as night and day. One’s all frills and the other a tomboy.” Susan glanced up at August, then back toward the closed door. August sat forward in her chair. Something was wrong. The pounding in her head ratcheted up a notch and she massaged her forehead.
“Are you okay?” Susan sat forward, her expression worried.
August pinched the bridge of her nose, as if that could shut off the pain. “I woke up with a headache that I can’t seem to shake.” She gestured to the drawer where she kept her pills. “That was my third dose of aspirin. They don’t seem to be helping.”
“Did you eat breakfast?”
“No. My stomach is sort of queasy, too.”
“Let’s go to that new coffee shop down the street. You need some bread in your stomach, some chocolate, and extra caffeine.”
“I don’t think I can drink any more coffee right now.”
“They have bagels, croissants, and the best hot chocolate I’ve tasted. They also sell those chocolate-covered espresso beans you like.” Susan nodded toward the door and mouthed, We’ll talk there.
“Okay. It can’t make me feel any worse.”
Mid-morning translated into few customers at The Infusion, but the staff was busy reloading after the breakfast rush and preparing the few sandwiches they offered for lunch. So, their order was filled quickly, and they sat at a small table in the back corner for privacy and to get August away from the bright sun coming through the windows at the front.
August watched most of the whipped cream melt into her hot chocolate before she took a sip. She could almost feel her sinuses open and the pain lessen as she held the cup close and breathed in the steamy aroma. She stared down at the huge cinnamon roll Susan had insisted she buy, and her stomach growled its approval. She put her cup down, pulled off a small section, and popped it into her mouth. Another sip of cocoa. August felt Susan watching her, so she looked up and smiled. “Thanks. This is making me feel better.”
Susan’s smile was tentative. Then she glanced nervously about the shop.
“I hope you know you can talk to me,” August said gently. “Whatever we discuss in here will be handled with the utmost discretion.”
Susan took a sip of her sparkling water, then looked up at August. “I don’t have another job, but I can’t work there anymore.”
August sat back in surprise at Susan’s blurted words, then took a slow sip from her mug to give her racing mind a chance to digest the implication.
“I know Christine can be a bitch sometimes, but you always seem to handle her. Is one of the other employees bothering you? I can straighten that out pretty quick.”
Susan edged forward, her voice low. “Shady things are going on. I’ve tried to ignore it because I work mainly for you, and your name hasn’t been on any of their paperwork. I told myself that you didn’t know anything about what Christine’s doing, and I’ve held my tongue because that Delgado guy scares the hell out of me.”
August was stunned. Then she was instantly angry. Raphael Delgado, a freshly minted junior attorney Christine had taken under her wing as a law student, was the son of their biggest client, Luis Reyes. Was he using their office for something illegal? “What kind of shady things?” She put her mug down. “I need you to be specific, Susan.”
“I’m talking about making witnesses disappear or go silent, and purposely letting a man go to prison to keep the real culprit on the streets.”
“Those are pretty serious accusations.” They weren’t the kind of things Susan could have read in a case file.
“Did you know that when they put in the new central air, the duct to my office connects right to Christine’s? When the compressor fan clicks off and she’s working in her sitting area rather than at her desk, I can hear every word she and Raphael are saying.”
August stared at her. “Why didn’t you come to me before?”
Susan waved her hand dismissively. “It was nothing I could prove.” She folded her hands in her lap and studied them. “And she’s your lover. I couldn’t expect you to believe me without proof.” She looked up again and met August’s gaze. “But I think I’ve found written proof that she’s been setting up sham businesses and nonprofits to funnel money into offshore bank accounts.”
“To dodge taxes?”
“I think it’s to launder drug money. You know most of the criminal cases she handles for Reyes are drug cases that involve his employees or relatives.” Susan dropped her gaze, and her next words were hesitant. “I’ve heard you guys argue about it.”
August stood and paced toward the condiment table and back to Susan. Reyes was at the core of most of her domestic turmoil. The minor assault or drug possession cases he’d asked them to handle had been a blessing when their practice was new and they were broke, but August had grown uneasy when the incidents grew in number and cases were suddenly major felonies. It seemed clear to her they were representing a major crime lord, and this wasn’t the reputation she wanted for their firm.
Christine disagreed. She thrived on the money and power earned as Reyes’s legal eagle.
They’d argued over the nature of the cases—assaults evolved into murder cases and possession into trafficking—so Christine shifted all Reyes’s work to her caseload.
Then they’d argued about Raphael. His position wasn’t budgeted when Christine hired him without consulting her. A few months later, August had wanted to fire him after several women staffers complained that he’d made inappropriate comments to them. But Christine stepped in, promising he’d be assigned only to her cases and she’d keep a tight rein on him.
Lately, they’d argued mostly over Christine’s increasing late-night meetings with Reyes.
August sighed. The last thing she needed was another fight with Christine, but she couldn’t let this go. She rubbed her temple again. Hot chocolate and a cinnamon roll weren’t going to make this headache go away.
“I have so much respect for you, August. You and Christine gave me a chance and helped me through a really bad time when Matt was killed.” Susan’s eyes filled with tears. “But Christine has changed. And, when I found out what they’re doing now…I have to get out. I have to get my babies away from this.”
August stared at her. “What more are they doing?”
Susan wiped at her eyes, then lifted her chin and met August’s gaze. “They’re putting your name on some of the nonprofit documents so it looks like you’re involved. If they implicate you, then I’ll be sucked in by association. They want leverage, I suppose, when things finally blow up between you and Christine.” Susan abruptly stood and edged toward the door. “I mean, you know, over the Reyes stuff.”
August had learned long ago to read the body language of a witness under questioning. Susan’s sudden need to escape screamed that she had more to tell, something she hadn’t intended to reveal. She stood, too, and rounded the small table to block Susan’s path to the door. “What else, Susan? I want to know.”
Susan’s shoulders slumped and she stared at the floor. “I don’t want to hurt you, August.”
“Keeping me in the dark isn’t helping me. I need to know if I’m going to defend myself.”
Susan chewed on her lower lip, then looked up to meet August’s gaze. “You’re right.” She put a steadying hand on her chair as though she needed support. “I came back late one Friday night after being out to a movie with friends because I’d left my cell phone at work. The light was on in Christine’s office down the hall, but I figured she was just working late. My phone must have dropped out of my coat pocket, because it was on the floor next to the air vent, and when I bent to pick it up…oh, God.” Susan’s face reddened. “I wish I could erase it from my memory.” She covered her face with her hands.
“Just tell me.”
Susan lowered her hands but didn’t raise her eyes. “Christine wasn’t alone. I could hear Luis Reyes, too. They were…there was no mistaking what they were doing on the sofa in her office.”
August felt the blood drain from her, and she slumped back into her chair. She was the one who needed support now. Sure, it’d been months since she and Christine had made love. Actually, longer than that because it’d been more than a year since their couplings felt like more than a simple physical release. But she’d never made the leap to suspect that Christine was actually cheating with another lover, especially a man. Christine had never mentioned being bi-oriented or having male lovers in her past. Her brain pounded painfully in her ears, her stomach twisted, and bile burned the back of her throat. A cool glass bottle—Susan’s sparkling water—was pressed into her hand.
“Drink,” Susan said. “Just a little.”
August sipped at the liquid, if only to soothe the acid in her throat and wash the vile taste from her mouth. Then she closed her eyes and held the glass to her temple for a moment. “I’m okay.” She opened her eyes and wearily met Susan’s worried gaze. “Christine came home around three a.m. last night, and we had another fight. I didn’t sleep at all.” She rubbed her forehead again. “That’s why I have a headache.”
Susan sat again and waited as August held the cold bottle to her temple and gathered her thoughts. The news wasn’t really such a surprise. In the back of August’s mind and deep in her soul, she knew she and Christine were done, but she had refused to acknowledge it or do anything to change it. It was time to get her head out of the sand. Her heart walled off and her lawyer brain kicked in. “Put that resignation letter back in your purse, then go write us down on the schedule as out of the office for the rest of the afternoon to take depositions on a farm-machinery accident.”
“You don’t do those kinds of cases.”
“Christine has been pestering me to branch out and accept cases that generate more money. Ambulance-chasing brings in lots of money.”
Susan frowned. “I really am resigning.”
August looked up at her. “I know. But we both need to make sure our exits from this practice don’t look like we’re leaving because we’re guilty of something.” She grasped Susan’s hand. “Trust me, okay? I want to make sure you and the twins are protected. If Reyes decides to go after somebody when this explodes, I want it to be me.” She stood. “Let’s go back so you can sign us out. I want to grab some things from my office. Then I’m going to follow you to your home to make sure you’re safe. Stay there until I call you. I need to think and set up a meeting with my attorney.”
TJ eyed the temperature gauge on her old Honda Civic.
Not TJ. Teal. She’d left the whip-smart Ivy-league graduate TJ Giovanni behind in the Washington, DC, apartment Lauren had rented for her. She was once again Teal Crawley, the farm girl she’d buried when she’d taken her mother’s maiden name and escaped her ultra-conservative father’s Pennsylvania dairy farm. TJ needed to disappear for a while, so she’d serve a second sentence as that farm girl until she’d paid for her failure in the fast lane.
She watched the gauge’s needle climb as steadily as the record-breaking temperatures currently cooking the Southern states. Was that a wisp of white steam curling from under the hood or just the heat shimmering up from the two-lane blacktop highway that had seemed to go on forever? Damn. She’d refilled the coolant in Missouri. That was several hundred miles ago, but she’d hoped to make it to her cousin’s small ranch in New Mexico without stopping for an expensive repair. The way her luck was running, the problem would be a leaky ten-dollar hose that required removing the entire engine to replace.
Congressional aides didn’t make much money when you deducted the cost of living in DC. She’d never had to worry about money because Lauren paid for everything—hotels, dinners, even a credit card that she insisted TJ use to buy expensive clothes for the events they’d attended. And, while other aides had multiple roommates to defray the excessive rent charged for basic apartments in downtown DC, Teal had lived in an apartment that Lauren’s campaign leased where the building’s owner made his private elevator available for a certain powerful senator’s late-night visits to her most trusted aide.
So, Lauren had sent more than half of her earnings to her sisters. When their time came, she wanted them to have a chance to escape the farm, too. Then, after paying her living expenses like groceries and utilities, she invested the rest of her meager salary. Her nest egg wasn’t huge, but most of it was locked up in short-term, high-yield investments that had two more months to mature. So, her current cash flow was down to a meager few thousand dollars.
Lauren had Jeff deposit a significant “pay-off” in Teal’s account, but Teal had withdrawn it all in cash, put it in a plain brown bag, and donated it anonymously to the Human Rights Commission’s fight to extend the federal law protecting the workers’ rights to all workers, no matter what their sexual or gender orientation. She would have felt like a whore if she kept it.
She debated whether to stop and let the engine cool. The needle appeared to vibrate in the red zone. Hot. Hot. Very hot. Crap. She needed to do something. She should’ve brought a few jugs of water with her. If she stopped and shut off the engine, it might not crank again. Then what would she do?
A loud pop followed by a few clunks under the hood made the decision for her. The engine died, and Teal wrestled the car off the roadway without power steering. She let it roll as far as momentum would carry it. As if a few feet would make a difference.
Fu—No. She hated Washington’s most common curse word. Her granny had said cursing was a sign of coarseness. If America only knew the real personalities of the people they sent to Congress. The majority of those who came from money were scavengers living off the backs of the middle class and poor, and the bootstrap crowd was just a bunch of pigs wearing lipstick. They were the guys you had to avoid standing next to in the elevator or you’d have a hand on your ass for the entire ride. But she’d willingly wallowed in the same political sty. She wouldn’t hesitate to use that hand on the ass as political blackmail down the road. Yet she never indulged in their habit of foul language, afraid of slipping up in front of a media camera if she grew accustomed to speaking those words in private conversation.
Perspiration beaded along her forearm, and she pressed the window button. Nothing happened. She checked the ignition. She hadn’t switched it off when the engine died. She turned the ignition off and on again, then tried the window. No power. Crap. Whatever happened must have shorted the electrical system, too.
Okay. TJ Giovanni had been a problem solver. She solved problems for very high-powered people. Need a reservation at a restaurant that’s been booked for months? She’d take care of it. Need more backers to get your bill out of committee? She’d line them up. Need an evening dress and date for the visiting senator’s teen daughter who decided to fly in at the last minute? No problem.
So, Teal Crawley should at least be able to handle a little engine trouble.
The car’s interior was quickly becoming an oven, and Teal felt a little queasy. She wished she hadn’t eaten that greasy cheeseburger two hours ago. TJ, but not Teal, would have remembered to restock her small cooler with bottled water. Stop it.
One step at a time. She pulled the hood release—thank God it was manually operated—and got out to raise the hood. She was no mechanic, but she’d learned a few basic things while growing up on that dairy farm.
“Shit.” So much for her resolve to avoid profanity, but crap, that hood was hot. She could almost feel her skin bubble into a blister. Although she’d shipped most of her belongings ahead, her small car was packed almost to the top. She found a T-shirt in the basket of dirty laundry and used it to protect her hand as she grabbed the release latch again. She groped for the rod to prop up the hood and coughed as steam poured out. Only this wasn’t just steam. Smoke. Sparks flew at the telltale sound of wires shorting. Wet hoses sizzled when flame erupted near the fuel line. “Holy crap!”
Teal scrambled back to the trunk, hastily dumping her belongings on the ground to dig out the fire extinguisher stored in the spare-tire well, praying it would work and she could extinguish the flame before the car exploded. She’d shipped her Washington life—suits and heels to her cousin’s ranch, but this car held the real Teal—all of her jeans, T-shirts, running shoes, and boots.
She skidded around the front fender, spraying the engine until the small extinguisher sputtered and spit the last of its chemicals. Her heart thumped a loud counterpoint to the soft tick of the subdued engine as she waited a long moment. When no explosion erupted, she sucked in a huge breath and let it out slowly. Then she lurched to the passenger side of the car and vomited the contents of her stomach onto the dirt. She kicked dirt over the masticated pieces of cheeseburger as she spit bile and saliva on top of the mess, then swiped a shaky hand over her mouth. She really wished she had a bottle of water.
The car crisis could have prompted her reaction, but the heat and dehydration more likely caused it. She hadn’t been able to keep much on her nervous stomach since Lauren had walked out of their hotel room and the media scavengers began circling. The legitimate news media lost interest after the initial reporting, but the entertainment and social media bloggers were relentless as long as the public kept lapping it up.
She stumbled back to the trunk and rummaged through her bag for mouthwash. Ah, frosted mint. Better than water. She swigged a mouthful, gargled, swished, and spit. She turned too quickly and braced herself half in, half out of the trunk until a wave of dizziness passed.
“Whoa. Got to watch that.” She closed her eyes until the world stopped spinning around her, then slowly withdrew from the trunk and stood. Her head felt like it was stuffed with cotton.
Okay. Deep breath. List the facts of the problem. Brainstorm options. Evaluate and rank possible solutions.
Option number one: find the problem and fix it. Teal walked back to the front of the car and stared down at the now-white hunk of metal and melted hoses. Not a viable solution.
Option two: call Triple A. She was so glad she hadn’t given in to the temptation to let her membership lapse or opt for the cheaper plan when it had come up for renewal last month. She’d call for a tow. If absolutely necessary, she’d sell the Honda for junk and rent a car. The next town couldn’t be that far away, and her GPS had estimated she was a little more than an hour from her destination.
She ducked into the car and retrieved her cell phone from the front passenger seat. Geez. The faux leather seat was already so hot, she’d have to cover it if she wanted to sit while she waited for a tow truck to arrive. Heat seeped through her cut-off jeans where she propped a hip against the Honda. Teal gathered her long, dark hair and held it off her shoulders, silently praying for a breeze—no matter how hot. She punched in the 800 number and listened…to nothing. She checked the phone. Christ almighty. “What? No signal? How can there be no signal?” As if to answer, a message flashed across the phone in red letters. LOW BATTERY. “Great. Just great. There’s no signal because I don’t have enough power to pick up one.”
She unbuttoned the lower half of her sleeveless blouse and tied the tail ends together to leave her lower back and stomach exposed just in case a whisper of breeze happened. Mama would say she looked like a trailer-park hooker, but when the alternative was heat stroke, who would care? Her father would.
“You can’t come here, Teal. Those television people are pestering us night and day. Your father has put up No Trespassing signs, and he even held two of them at gunpoint until the sheriff could come arrest them. Good Lord. When I took the trash to the dump center yesterday, some fellow jumped in the dumpster and pulled the bags out before I had time to leave. He was going through our trash! I don’t know what he expected to find in it.”
“I’m so sorry, Mama.”
“Give me that phone, woman. You stay away from here, girl.”
“Daddy, I never wanted this to involve you and Mama.”
“You’ve not only disgraced yourself, you’ve disgraced us. We can’t hold our heads up in church. You always wanted to be one of those fancy people. Well, get one of them to help you. We’re just simple, God-fearing people. You’re not one of us anymore. Lose this phone number.”
She didn’t blame them, really. She’d been pretty full of herself as she climbed higher among the inside ranks in Washington. She hadn’t had time to remember birthdays or go home on holidays. When she did visit, it was mostly to see her sisters. Still, she didn’t go often because her visits usually devolved into a political argument with her right-wing father, which made everybody’s holiday miserable.
Trouble was, her “fancy friends” had all disappeared, too—ducking for political cover. Driving to Canada and getting a waitress job some place where nobody knew her face was starting to look like her only option when her phone had rung one evening. Wade, a second cousin she’d met maybe once, was calling. He said Mama had given him her phone number. He had a small ranch in New Mexico and could use some help in the house and around the barn. Yep, he knew about her problem. As long as she didn’t lead the media dogs to his doorstep, they wouldn’t likely be able to find her in the remote area where he lived. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay, he’d said. So, she’d agreed. It wasn’t like she had a better offer.
He’d hesitated. You’ll be welcome here, Teal. Then he hung up.
She wasn’t sure how to interpret his parting remark. She knew nothing about this guy, but he didn’t sound all that old. Geez. Surely Mama wasn’t trying to match her up with a second cousin. If that was the case, she’d have to set him straight, so to speak, right away. She sighed. Suck it up, Giovanni. Okay, she might not be the TJ who’d taken Washington by storm, but she was a Giovanni. She hated the Crawley side of her family, and using the name now was a bitter pill to swallow. But she still had some identification under that name, so it was convenient.
She stared at the reddish-brown dust covering her expensive running shoes, her mind suddenly blank. What had she been doing? She shook her head to clear the confusion. Her split second of panic evaporated when the Honda’s raised hood came into her peripheral vision. Oh, yeah. She rubbed at the pain that had begun pounding her temple and gathered her thoughts.
Option number three: abandon ship.
She looked north, then south. Tufts of long, coarse grass, an occasional cactus or stubborn scrub of a tree dotted the red, sun-baked earth. The distant, jagged outline of mountains shimmered in the east. Not even a coyote in sight, much less a gas station. When was the last time she passed another car? There was that eighteen-wheeler about an hour ago. She’d spent the past six weeks with hordes of media following her every move and prayed for a moment of solitude. Now, when she actually needed another person—preferably one with transportation or a working phone—she seemed to be the only person on the planet.
She drew a shaky breath. She was so screwed.
August lifted the brown Stetson with one hand and glanced into her rearview mirror to adjust it on her head as she steered down the old state highway. She hadn’t worn one of these since she was a kid, showing her grandfather’s calves in the junior livestock show at the county fair each summer. She’d even started French-braiding her hair again, rather than leaving it down to soften her angular face. It was more practical in this heat, and if she wanted to hide in plain sight, she needed to blend in with the rest of the ranchers in the area.
“What do you think, Rio?”
The solid-black border collie watching her from the passenger seat yipped her approval.
“Eh, you’re biased.”
She checked the mirror again. The slight smile that reflected back at her was grim. Under different circumstances, the hat would have been a good look for her. A real chick magnet. Her own hard stare admonished her. Fool. Don’t think about her. Just remember that she’s the reason your law degree and everything else you’ve worked for since you passed the bar might as well be compost now.
She jerked the steering wheel when her right tires kicked up a cloud of dust as the truck drifted off the edge of the roadway. Shit. She checked her mirror again—this time for vehicles behind her, just in case someone saw her driving like a drunk because she was busy lecturing herself.
August relaxed at the sight of empty highway behind her, then tensed when she spotted the car pulled off the road ahead. The driver’s door was open, and two bare legs with sneaker-covered feet extended out to rest on the pavement. She didn’t see any other vehicles ahead or behind her on the long, flat ribbon of highway, which wasn’t unusual. Most traffic had shifted to the newer four-lane bypass that opened up about five years before. Was it a trap? Had Reyes already found her? Was she being stupidly paranoid? Maybe. But being paranoid is better than dead.
She slowed the battered ranch pickup to a crawl as she approached. DC plates. Anyone sent by Reyes should be smart enough to use a vehicle with a local license plate. August pulled her truck over about five yards before reaching the car. She left the engine running, ready to throw the truck in reverse, then execute a three-point turn and burn rubber in the opposite direction.
Rio stood in her seat, ears canted forward to catch any sound.
A dark head popped out of the doorway, and then a woman sprang from the car. If Reyes was setting a trap, this would be the bait August would expect him to use. Right now, most guys would be adjusting their pants and warming up a thousand-kilowatt smile at the sight in front of her.
The woman’s long, dark hair shone in the afternoon sun, and sweat glistened on the long, smooth slope of her exposed belly. Jean shorts hung low on her slim hips and were cut off a little too short for the shapely legs that seemed to go on for days. She was dressed like any of the small-town local girls looking to hook up with somebody holding a one-way ticket to some place more exciting.
But August wasn’t a guy and she saw a different picture.
The DC plate on her car wasn’t the only thing screaming that the woman didn’t belong here. Her teeth were too perfectly straight and a brilliant white. Her hair, which fell just below the top of her shoulders, was professionally cut in the uneven lengths of a full, flowing style. August would put money on those cut-off jeans being a designer brand. They didn’t look like the usual Wrangler or Carhartt clothing brands common in these parts. Also, those weren’t outlet-store sneakers. August recognized the Adizero Adios as a favorite among marathon-race enthusiasts, which explained the shapely legs.
August reached under her seat to grab her 9mm Colt Defender, tucking it in the waistband of her jeans at the small of her back as she opened the door and stepped out. “Stay,” she said. Rio whined and sat but didn’t take her eyes off the stranger.
The woman’s quick smile wavered when August remained standing behind her open door. August watched her duck briefly back into the car. When she reappeared, her shirt was untied and straightened to modestly cover her previously exposed belly, and her right hand was tucked casually into the pocket of her shorts. The woman shaded her eyes with her left hand and squinted against the sun’s glare. She remained next to her open car door and raised her voice to be heard when August didn’t approach either.
“Hi. I’m sort of stranded and my cell phone is dead. Do you have a phone that gets a signal out here so I can call for a tow? I have Triple A.”
August dismissed the idea that the woman also had a gun. There was barely enough room in those shorts for her ass, much less a weapon. She stepped out from behind the truck’s open door. The woman shifted nervously, withdrawing her hand from her pocket. She was palming a small canister. Probably pepper spray.
August relaxed. She’d read the body language of a lot of witnesses, and this woman was afraid of her. She realized then how she must appear. At a bit over six feet tall and with her hair pulled back, August would appear to be a tall, square-jawed person in dusty jeans and a hat pulled low over the eyes—someone the woman surely interpreted as a man. She was all alone with a disabled car, and August’s cautious approach wasn’t exactly friendly. August dropped her hands to her sides, turning them so the woman could see they were empty. Then she pushed her hat back on her head and smiled. “I’ve got a phone, but if you want to go through Triple A, you’ll probably have to wait for a tow truck to come out from Tulia. It could be a while.”
The woman’s posture relaxed, and August swept her hat off for good measure, then started toward her. She held out her hand when the woman met her halfway. “I’m August.”
August cocked her head. “As in the color teal?”
Teal crossed her arms over her chest. “Yeah. My mother fancies herself an interior decorator and viewed children as marriage accessories.”
Ouch. August tried to read the guarded brown eyes. “I hesitated when I stopped because you were acting sort of suspicious, like someone else might be in your car. Then I realized that if you’re from DC like your license plate says, you probably weren’t used to seeing a woman wearing a Stetson. You were sticking close to your car because you probably thought I was a guy.”
Teal shaded her eyes again and licked her dry lips as she peered at August. “I have to admit that being out here alone…well, every crime story I’ve ever seen on television was running through my head.”
August chuckled. “I can’t blame you.” She moved around Teal and pointed toward the Honda as she walked. “Like I said, it will take a while for you to get a tow truck way out here. Maybe there’s a simple fix that can at least get you to the next town.”
“Thanks, but I’ve already checked. If I could just use your phone for a moment, I’ll make the call.”
August waved off her protest and rounded the front fender of the Honda. “It’s no problem. I know a little bit about engines.” She looked down. A small fire extinguisher rested on top of the charred motor. “Well, hell.” She grabbed the fire extinguisher and held it up as she stepped around the car to confront Teal. “You didn’t say the engine was burned to a crisp.”
Teal still stood where they’d met halfway between the vehicles, her hands on her hips and glaring at August. “You didn’t give me a chance. I’m not an idiot. I might have DC plates, but I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, thank you very much. I’ve repaired a tractor engine with nothing but baling wire—” Her face suddenly contorted into a grimace, and she crumpled to the ground.
August raced to her, sliding to a kneeling stop next to her. “What’s wrong?”
“Cramp.” Teal groaned as she frantically massaged her right calf, then whimpered and clutched at her left thigh. “Oh, oh, crap. Oh, man, that hurts.”
August grabbed Teal’s right foot and gently extended her leg while pushing the toes upward toward the knee. “You work on the Charlie horse in your thigh. I’ll focus on your calf.” Teal’s jaw was clamped tight, and her nostrils flared as she breathed through the pain in short, rapid puffs. August massaged the rock-hard muscle for several minutes, flexing the foot more as the calf muscle slowly relaxed and softened. She tried not to think about the smooth, tanned skin of the shapely leg slowly becoming more pliant under her touch. Teal’s hand stopped hers mid-stroke.
“I’m good now. Thanks.”
August looked up into eyes the color of rich chocolate. She realized Teal’s face didn’t match the tan on her legs. She was pale and her skin was clammy. August hoped the overreaction to her checking the engine was out of character, too. It would be a shame for a woman so beautiful to be a total bitch. “Headache?”
Teal blinked at her. “What?”
“Does your head hurt? And are you nauseous?”
Teal visibly swallowed, then nodded. “I might be a little dehydrated.”
August stood. “More than a little. You’re probably suffering from heat exhaustion.” She picked up her new hat and shook the dust from it.
“I’m not having a heat stroke.” Teal tried to stand but cursed when she misjudged the residual soreness from the cramps, lost her balance, and landed on her rear again after August failed in a belated attempt to catch her.
“I said exhaustion, not stroke. But it can be as bad if you don’t take care of it. I have air-conditioning in the truck.” August picked up her hat she’d dropped again and dusted it a second time, then looked at her watch. BJ needed the pump part she’d gone into town to buy. Without it, eighty-five heifers still nursing babies in the west pasture would go thirsty. Their milk wouldn’t dry up in just one day, though. She could go out and fix it at dawn. “I’ll drive you to a clinic in the next town. When you’re better, you can get someone to come out and tow your car.”
“How about while you drive, I’ll call Triple A and find out who they contract. You can drop me there. I promise to buy a huge bottle of water and drink all of it. But no clinic.”
“You should see a doctor.” August extended a hand.
Teal accepted the help and got to her feet, more slowly this time. She avoided August’s gaze. “I don’t have insurance. No clinic. I’ll be okay.”
August pursed her lips. “I can’t just drop you off at some garage. What if you’re not okay?”
Teal straightened her shoulders and raised her chin to look directly into August’s eyes. “I’ll be fine. I managed on my own in Washington for eight years, so I can certainly survive the rural Southwest. My GPS said I was close to Caprock anyway. I can call my cousin who lives there to come get me.”
“Why didn’t you say so? I’m headed that way. My ranch is next to Caprock Canyon. Is your cousin a park ranger?”
“What? No. He’s a rancher. Wade Crawley.” She frowned. “Why did you ask if he was a park ranger?”
“Because Caprock is a state park,” August said.
“Caprock, New Mexico?”
August shook her head, failing in her attempt to hold back a chuckle. “I think your GPS was confused. You’re still in the Texas Panhandle.”
Teal stared at the ground, her shoulders slumping. For the first time since August had stopped, Teal seemed genuinely shaken, and August instantly regretted laughing.
Teal raised a shaky hand to rub her temple again. “How…how far am I from Caprock, New Mexico?” Her face had gone from pale to ghost white.
“I’m not sure, but probably about two hundred and fifty miles.”
Teal closed her eyes. “I don’t feel so good.” Her words were faint, and when her eyes began to roll back in her head, August instinctively squatted to fold Teal over her shoulder as she collapsed. Teal had the trim body of an avid runner but was only a few inches shorter than August and nothing but lean muscle. August grunted under her weight and moved as quickly as she could toward the truck.
Teal groaned from her upside-down position. “Put me down. I’m going to be sick.”
“Almost there.” Just a few more feet. August reached for the door handle on the passenger side. “We’re here.”
Teal struggled weakly. “Down now.”
August tightened her grip on Teal’s long legs. “One more second. I’m opening the door.” She pulled the handle and stepped back to swing the door open when an awful retching sound preceded something warm and wet soaking the back of her jeans. “And, I’m guessing I’m just a little too late.” She gestured for Rio to hop over into the backseat, then bent her knees to quickly but gently deposit Teal where the dog had been. She took a big step back as the poor woman braced against the door’s frame to lean out and finish vomiting what little was left in her stomach onto the ground.
August trotted around to the driver’s side and rummaged behind the seat. BJ kept the jump seat in the extended cab filled with tools and old rags for fixing things he might come upon when patrolling the eight-hundred-acre ranch. She grabbed a couple of rags and cleaned off her backside as best she could. Ugh. She’d just have to ignore the dampness and puke smell until she could get back to the ranch to change. She laid a few more rags on the seat, not that the dirty upholstery would suffer much from her sitting on it. Then she grabbed her melting fountain drink from the cup holder and rounded the truck again.
Teal was no longer gagging but still sat doubled over with her head between her spread knees.
“Hey. I don’t have water, but I have what’s left of the Coke I was drinking. It’s pretty watered down because the ice has melted, but you could at least wash your mouth out.” August took the top off and held out the large cup.
Teal sat up slowly, her eyes bloodshot and watery from retching. She took a mouthful of the diluted soda, swished it around, and spit it on the ground. “I’m so embarrassed,” she said, refusing to look at August. Her hand trembled, and she took hold of the cup with both hands to keep from spilling it.
“Are you ready to go to the clinic now?” August put her hand on the door and motioned for Teal to swing her legs into the truck.
“No clinic. Promise me.” Teal’s protest was barely more than a whisper. She shifted her legs slowly into the truck as though weights were tied to her feet, and August closed the door.
“Lots of people with no insurance go to emergency rooms,” August said as she climbed in on the driver’s side and started the engine. She adjusted the air-conditioning.
“No.” Teal winced at her loud protest. She closed her eyes and covered them with one hand as if too much sunlight were bleeding through her eyelids. “I can’t go to a clinic.” Less emphatic, but still firm. “Can you…get my purse and the blue duffel from the backseat and lock the car? Then just drop me at a motel. Nothing seedy, but something inexpensive. I’ll be fine once I cool off. I’ll worry about the car tomorrow when I’m feeling better.”
August weighed the efficiency of continuing their debate. “Keys?”
Teal’s brow furrowed. Then she dropped the hand covering her eyes and squinted at her car. “Still in the ignition, I think.”
August retrieved the requested items, stowed the boxes Teal had hastily unloaded to retrieve the fire extinguisher, and locked the Honda securely. Not that it would matter. If anyone really wanted anything, they could strip the tires and inside of the car easily before any other motorists came along. Judging from the things stuffed in the backseat, Teal appeared to be relocating. The beat-up, over-packed car and no insurance felt like a recent college graduate…maybe a grad student since Teal appeared a little older than the usual undergrad. But her designer clothing and something else August couldn’t put her finger on didn’t match up with that scenario…or with the junker car, for that matter.
Teal was slumped against the door and appeared to be asleep when she returned. August studied her for a few moments.
She was beautiful—feminine, but not girlish. She had a fine brow, full lips, and long, thick lashes that lay against her smooth cheeks. Even pale from nausea, her complexion hinted of a Mediterranean or Hispanic heritage.
August argued with herself as she nosed the old truck onto the blacktop. Even if she was Hispanic, that didn’t mean Teal was tied to Reyes. Her refusal to go to a clinic, though, was suspicious. Maybe she was wanted for something. Maybe she was in the country illegally. Hell, maybe August had just spent too many years defending criminals and was too suspicious of everyone. Still, she probably should’ve snuck a look in her purse. No way. That went against every moral code ingrained in her. She should just stay alert and ditch her at the first decent motel. But what if she got sicker? Nobody could fake the symptoms she was displaying. She’d be fine. Maybe. Shit. This was a very bad idea.
“Don’t do this. Pierce Walker will piss his pants,” August said softly. She didn’t want to wake Teal, but if she said it aloud, maybe she’d listen and take her own advice for once. Fat chance.
BJ was pacing the wide porch of the house when August rounded the last bend of the long driveway of The White Paw ranch. This couldn’t be good. The ranch’s foreman should still be with the hands checking fences and counting new calves. She slowed the truck to a gentle stop and turned to check her passenger slumped against the door. Teal didn’t stir, even when August gently touched her forearm. Chilled now by the truck’s air-conditioning, her skin was too dry, and it worried August that she didn’t wake. They needed to hydrate her soon.
BJ yanked her door open. “We’ve got trouble. That law fellow—” BJ’s eyebrows shot up, his blue eyes traveling to Teal’s slumped figure, slowing over her bare legs. “Damn, August.”
She held her finger to her lips and slid out of the truck, closing the door quietly behind her.
BJ shook his head. His face was an expressive road map weathered by years in the sun and wind, the deep creases rearranged into a half grin. “You always did bring home the pretty ones.” His smile transformed into a scowl. “But since Julio and your grandpa ain’t here to advise you, I reckon that falls to me. Chasing girls ain’t what you need to be doing right now.”
“I ain’t—” August almost laughed at her immediate step back into her teen years. “I’m not a kid anymore, BJ, and I’m not chasing girls. Her car engine caught fire out on the highway. Her cell phone was dead, and I’m guessing she was sitting out there in the heat for a couple of hours before I came along. She has heat exhaustion. I couldn’t leave her there.”
“Should’ve taken her into town and dropped her at the ER then.”
“She refused. Said she didn’t have insurance.”
“Half the people around here don’t have insurance.”
“I know that, but she absolutely refused. Then she threw up on me and passed out.”
BJ made a show of sniffing the air. “Well, I wasn’t going to mention how you smell.”
August gave him a gentle shove. “Let’s get her in the house.” She circled the truck and carefully opened the passenger door. Teal blinked and struggled weakly when the door gave way and she fell into August’s arms. “I’ve got you.” August shouldered under Teal’s right arm and wrapped an arm around her waist to pull Teal snuggly against her side. “Can you walk a little?”
Teal clumsily moved her feet as August propelled them toward the porch. “Where are we?”
“We’re at my ranch. You can stay here tonight.”
August tightened her hold when Teal stumbled on the two steps up to the porch. “BJ, can you get—” She paused when Rio appeared next to them with Teal’s purse in her mouth. “Can you give Rio a hand and get that duffel out of the back?”
“Damn dog is too smart…hold up and I’ll get the front door for you first.”
“I don’t want to be any trouble,” Teal said softly as they waited for BJ to open the door.
“It’s not a problem. We have a couple of empty guest rooms. Coming here was a lot closer than going all the way back into town.” August maneuvered them through the door BJ held open and turned into the first guest suite on the left, across from her bedroom. “When you’re feeling better tomorrow, you can call someone about your car and we’ll get you into town so you can take care of things.”
August continued through the bedroom to the attached bathroom and lowered Teal to sit on the closed commode. “You should soak in a cool bath for a while. Towels on the rack are clean.” She hesitated. Maybe that wasn’t a good idea. What if she fell asleep and slid down into the water?
BJ appeared with Teal’s duffel and a couple of cold sports drinks. “Here’s your bag and something better than plain water. Drink one of ’em before you get in the tub.”
August stared at him.
He stared back. “What?”
“I didn’t know we had any of that.”
He shrugged. “It’s my private stash. I don’t take the heat as well as I used to. It helps.” He glared at her. “But I ain’t buying it for all them young guys in the bunkhouse. They drink it up like candy water. They’d break our food budget in less than a month.”
She shook her head. Sure, she’d been here only a few weeks, but she’d been so wrapped up in her own problems she hadn’t paid much attention to the things that were different since she’d last been to this ranch as a teen. That was going to change. This was her ranch now. Her new life. She smiled at BJ. “Thanks for sharing.”
He nodded curtly. “Couple more on the table by the bed. She ought to drink ’em all.” He turned to leave, then hesitated. “You get that part for the pump?”
“It’s in the truck.”
He nodded and was gone.
Teal had downed half the first bottle of sports drink when August turned back to her. She was sitting more erect and her eyes appeared more focused. “Feeling better?”
A hoarse croak was her first attempt to answer, so Teal cleared her throat. “Yes, I am.” Clear and fairly strong now. “I think that’s actually going to stay down.” Her face reddened. “Sorry about throwing up on you.”
“Forget it. It’s not nearly as bad as sliding down in a pile of cow poop.” August turned the faucets to start filling the tub. “If you show me you can stand on your own and aren’t too dizzy, I’ll leave you to undress and get in the tub without my assistance.”
Teal’s eyebrows shot up. “And if I can’t?”
August’s brain stuttered at the timbre of Teal’s response—a challenge, yet tinged with a hint of tease. She straightened, and the spark of chemistry was undeniable as they studied each other for a long moment. Teal’s gaze was focused but still undeniably weary. August hooked her thumbs in her jean pockets and shrugged, sheepishly. “If you nearly pass out when you stand, I’m staying.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “The last thing I need is for you to lose consciousness in the tub and drown because you’re in here alone.” Naked Teal wasn’t a picture she wanted in her head but—damn. Her face heated at the image. Still, she refused to look away as Teal’s eyes held hers.
Teal nodded. After another big swallow of the drink, she took a deep breath, placed a bracing hand against the wall, and slowly stood. When she’d straightened to her full height, she dropped her hand from the wall and smiled tentatively at August. “All good. Legs are a little weak and my head’s still throbbing, but no dizziness or nausea.”
August studied her. Teal wasn’t as pale as earlier and even more beautiful now that her natural olive complexion was returning. “Okay then. Make yourself at home. Dinner won’t be for a couple more hours. You should relax and drink as many of those sports drinks as you can. BJ will pester me to death if you don’t.” She stepped backward toward the door. She couldn’t seem to take her eyes from her visitor. “I have some paperwork to do, so I’ll be in my office that’s…well, it’s a pretty big house.” She slapped the side of her leg and Rio appeared in the doorway. “This is Rio. If you need something, just send her to get me.” She pointed, and Rio settled on the rug by the sink.
Teal sat on the side of the large tub and trailed her long fingers in the water, then adjusted the faucets to modify the temperature. “Is she going to watch me the whole time?”
“Rio, turn your head while the lady undresses,” August said, flicking her fingers in a quick signal. Rio lowered her head and covered her eyes with a paw. August liked Teal’s low, throaty chuckle. She smiled. “You let me know if she’s anything but a gentlewoman.”
Teal returned her smile. “Thank you again. I’ll be fine.”
“Right. Okay.” August reluctantly stepped out and closed the bathroom door. She crossed the hall to her own suite and searched the bathroom’s medicine cabinet. Aspirin. The woman had a terrible headache. She was getting her some aspirin. That’s all. So, why was her heart pounding? “Shit.” She scowled at herself in the bathroom mirror and willed her heart to slow, then marched back across the hall and placed the bottle on Teal’s bedside table. She stared at it. She shouldn’t be playing Florence Nightingale. Geez. It was just aspirin. She wheeled and strode out of the room before she talked herself into taking it back.
Still, she shouldn’t be bringing strangers to the ranch. The measures she’d taken after Susan’s revealing visit had put her at the top of both the DEA’s and Luis Reyes’s most-wanted list. So, she’d fled Dallas to the one place they’d never think to look for her. She was being irresponsible to bring this woman here because she could get caught in the crossfire if they found August.
“Hold up there, Grasshopper.”
Immersed in her self-lecture, August was halfway through the spacious den when BJ’s stern command brought her up short. She instinctively responded to his nickname for the active child she’d been. “You don’t have to say it. I was stupid to bring her here.” She slowly turned to face him. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
BJ’s drawl was low and firm. “You were thinking that girl needed help and that’s what Gus raised you to do—offer assistance to a stranded traveler.”
This was true, but she wasn’t that kid dogging her grandfather’s heels any longer. She wasn’t in the mood to reminisce. “I’ll give her a ride into town tomorrow.”
BJ shook his head. “Not sure that’s a good idea.”
“Anybody recognize you when you picked up the pump part?”
August stiffened. “I saw Tank Hansen.”
“Nobody I saw or talked to. Why?”
“Tommy ripped a glove on some barbed wire and radioed in for me to throw his extra pair in the Jeep when I made the rounds with lunch for everybody. Wouldn’t you know that when I went to the bunkhouse to get ’em, Tommy had left the TV on…again. If I’ve told him once, I’ve told him a hundred times—”
“I thought we were talking about why I shouldn’t go back into town tomorrow.” August pushed down her irritation and added a hint of tease to her interruption. She rubbed her face. BJ hadn’t changed. The man could take two hours to answer a yes-or-no question. Ownership of the ranch made her BJ’s boss, but he’d been an uncle figure to her since she was a kid and deserved her respect.
BJ scowled. “That’s what I’m telling you if you’ll just listen.” He squinted one eye and pointed a finger at her. “Big-city living’s made you impatient. Details are important, Grasshopper. Didn’t I teach you anything?”
She pressed her hands together as though praying and bowed slightly. “So sorry, Sensei.”
“Miss Smarty-pants.” He grabbed her hands, his blue gaze boring into her. “Listen to me, August. That TV was tuned to a news program out of Dallas, and they were talking about you.”
This was bad. “What’d they say?”
“Some girlie was reporting about Christine being locked up and you being AWOL, so a judge was complaining that the court schedule was in a huge mess. Then she interviewed that FBI guy—”
“Don’t matter. He’s says you’re a key witness in a big case and possibly kidnapped. He says they’re going to have a press conference in the morning about you going missing.”
“Shit. I don’t need my face all over the television. I’d better call him.” She felt around her pockets until she located the one that held the simple flip phone and pulled it out. “Do you know how hard it is to find a basic phone these days? Everything is a smart phone, but those are too easy to trace.” She dug her wallet out of a back pocket and was thumbing through credit cards to find the scrap of paper with Pierce Walker’s phone number on it when she felt him watching her.
His expression was pensive, but he held out the pump part for her take. “After you make that call, you can go fix the pump for me.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to put that girl’s car onto our flatbed trailer and haul it over to Tank’s garage. While he takes a look, I’ll have a talk with him to make sure he don’t spread it around that you’re back in town.”
August sighed. “Yeah. Okay. That’d be a good idea. Tank’s solid. If you ask, he’ll keep an eye out for anybody asking about me around town, too.”
“I remember him being a little sweet on you when you were teenagers.”
“And I was infatuated with Karen Simpson.”
BJ chuckled. “Joke was on you. She’s married and got three young’uns now.”
She shook her head, smiling a little. “Better her than me.”
He rested a large hand on her shoulder. “I know Gus and Julio aren’t around anymore, but old BJ has your back, Grasshopper.”
August’s throat tightened. In the achingly lonely nights since she’d fled Dallas and taken refuge at the ranch, she felt the absence of her grandfather and his partner, who had been a second grandparent to her. She was like an orphan cast adrift into the cold world. BJ jerked when she surged forward and wrapped her arms around him in a tight embrace. Then he returned her hug, awkwardly patting her back. She wasn’t adrift. BJ was here. The White Paw Ranch was hers. They were a familiar ship and crew. His wiry frame was a little bent and gimpy now, and the ranch sorely needed an infusion of cash and sprucing up. But she’d get past this trial and put Dallas, her law practice, and Christine behind her. She’d find her true north. She was meant to be a rancher. She’d known that since she’d thrown a leg over her first pony and chased her first calf. “Thanks, BJ. I miss both of them so much.”
“Me, too, kid. But I’m sure they’re up there looking out for us.” He pushed her back and moved away, clearing his throat. “Go on and call that guy. You only got a few hours of daylight to get out to that pump. You can take the Gator. The tools are already loaded in the back of it.”
“Sure you can get that car by yourself?”
“No problem. Julio had an automatic winch put on the front of the trailer some years ago so one person could load the tractor if it broke down. I’ll need her keys, though, so I can get inside and put the gearshift in neutral.”
“I’ll get ’em.” August strode back through the spacious ranch house to Teal’s room and knocked lightly on the partially open door. As she expected, Teal was still in the bath. Her duffel of clothes was in the bathroom, too, but her shoulder purse and keys were on the bed. August grabbed the keys and hesitated, glancing at the bathroom door. This would be a perfect opportunity to check Teal’s identification, just to make sure she was who she said she was. Of course, there was no reason to suspect she wasn’t. But then she hadn’t really given out anything more than her first name and her destination, had she?
“August?” BJ stood in the hallway.
“Got ’em right here,” she said quietly, turning away from the purse and leaving the bedroom door ajar for Rio as she exited the room.
Teal jerked awake. Confused for a split second by the slosh of water, she instantly stilled when her memory flooded back. She wasn’t drowning. Intent brown eyes stared at her from little more than a foot away. She’d dozed off and the dog must have nosed her to wake her up before she slipped under the water. Her heart—the less logical of her organs—still beat wildly in sync with the throb in her head. Not as bad as before, but the headache hurt enough to make her squint against the glare of the bathroom’s light. She felt as weak as a newborn calf.
She opened the drain and cautiously levered up to sit on the edge of the tub. The towel August had set out for her was thick and soft. Her legs were shaky, so she dragged her duffel over to the tub and plundered through it until she found underwear, the bottoms of a nylon warm-up suit, and a T-shirt.
“Oh, thank God.” Teal held up her toothbrush and mint paste. She braced against the sink and gave her teeth and tongue a good scrubbing. Her hair was damp, but she didn’t think she could stay upright to dry it. She was struggling just to hold her eyes open long enough to brush out the tangles.
She put down the brush and stared into the mirror. She’d done a good job picking out an over-the-counter hair dye very close to her naturally very dark brunette. You had to be blond to get anywhere in Washington, so Lauren had paid an outrageous amount to have her hairdresser streak Teal’s beautiful dark hair with reddish-blond highlights, then touch up the roots every few weeks.
She narrowed her eyes and growled at the woman in the mirror. She was glad to see the real Teal reflected back at her for a change. She didn’t like Senator Lauren Abbott’s TJ Giovanni anymore. Her shoulders sagged. But who was the woman in the mirror? She didn’t know her either. She could never be that mousy farm girl again. And the chances of her being a player in the political arena now were slim to none. She hadn’t donated that money in Lauren’s name, but the sizable anonymous donation had been widely reported. Lauren had surely figured it out, and Teal could never work in DC again.
She trudged into the bedroom and crawled onto the four-post bed. She tugged one pillow under her head and hugged the other to her chest. She missed her sisters. They’d had to sleep three in one bed when they were girls and complained about it bitterly as they grew older. Their father had grudgingly built triple bunks when Teal hit puberty and her mother whispered that she deserved a bed of her own for a little privacy. But now, sleeping in a stranger’s house with no idea what tomorrow would bring, Teal would have given anything to see the only two people in the world she knew would still love her.
She choked back a sob. Crying was making her head hurt worse. She sat up. A box of tissues sat next to a digital clock on the bedside table. Blowing her nose, she spotted the small bottle of aspirin next to the sports drink BJ had left for her. She shook three capsules out of the bottle and chugged half the drink, then blew her nose again. Her head was beginning to clear with her change of position. She lay on her back this time but hugged the pillow to her chest again and closed her eyes. Damn it. As much as she wanted to hate Lauren, Teal still missed falling asleep with the weight of Lauren’s head on her shoulder and Lauren’s breath warm on her neck.
She was so tired she barely registered the bed’s slight dip and the warm, furry weight that settled against her side.
“Special Agent Walker.”
“It’s August Reese.”
“Where the hell are you?”
“I didn’t ask you that, God damn it. Where are you?”
“There’s a leak in your department, so all you need to know is that I’m safe.”
“Son of a bi—” Pierce Walker stopped and lowered his voice. “Why do you think there’s a leak in the DEA?”
August figured his yelling must have turned the heads of several lesser agents sitting at cubicles outside his office. She sank into the tall back of the thickly padded leather office chair and swung her boots up onto the huge desk. She checked her watch. Thirty seconds. “Because when I visited Christine at the jail, she told me Reyes had a contact in the DEA who was feeding him information.”
“Ah, that would be the Christine who lied and cheated on you, then helped her boyfriend try to frame you for money laundering?”
His barb sank deep into her still-raw wound, and August focused on her watch to ignore the stab of pain. He was angrier than she’d anticipated. “She warned me that he knows I have copies of the computer hard drives your people took from our law offices and wiped clean so there was no evidence on them.”
“We didn’t wipe them, damn it. They somehow had them set up to self-destruct when they were disconnected from your office network. If you don’t turn those copies over to us, I can charge you with impeding an investigation.”
“Are your IT people amateurs? They should have been prepared for booby traps.”
“Word on the street is that Reyes is looking for you. Come in with the copies so we can protect you.”
“You’re too late. I drove home from the jail to find my security system bypassed, the house ransacked, the safe torn out of the wall, and my dog missing. Makes you wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been under your protection.”
“You’re saying they didn’t get the copies?”
So, the son of a bitch already knew about her house. She wondered what else he knew that he wasn’t sharing with her.
“I did find my dog, thanks for asking. She’s a border collie, not a pit bull, and managed to escape before they could hurt her.” If they had harmed Rio, Reyes wouldn’t have had to look for her any longer because she would have found him and beat him within an inch of his life.
“Damn the dog, Reese. What about the computer records? Right now, that’s the only hard evidence we have on him.”
“They weren’t at the house. They’re in a safe place.” August put her feet back on the floor. “The evidence stays where I put it until the trial.”
“I can have you arrested.”
“You’ll have to find me first.” She sighed. “I’m not trying to be difficult, Pierce. I’m just afraid you’ll decide you don’t really need my testimony and get sloppy. If you know where I am, then Reyes’s contact in your office could find out.”
He cursed under his breath. “How can I get in touch with you?”
“You can’t. I’ll be in touch with you every three days.”
“This is my cell phone. It isn’t secure.”
“Neither is your office.”
“God damn it, Reese.”
Two minutes, thirty seconds.
“Gotta go, Walker. Just know that I’m safe. Say that when you hold the news conference tomorrow morning. Better yet, cancel it. Because if you start showing my face all over television, I won’t be safe any longer.”
“Reese, damn it. I can’t protect you if I don’t—”
She flicked the phone closed, ending the call. She smiled. She enjoyed hanging up fifteen seconds short of the three minutes he needed to lock a trace on her. She pictured him throwing things around his office and screaming at a couple of junior agents right now. He really was wound just a little too tight.