She loved the way the wind blew through her loose hair when riding a fast horse across an endless meadow.
While she molded her body to the sinewy perfection of her buckskin mare, she felt as if she could leave the whole world behind her.
At least for a little while…until the real world intruded once again. The one that she couldn't entirely shut out for long, the one that threatened to tighten its grip on her even as she put more miles between her and the place she'd called home.
Her life had seemed perfect not too long ago. She loved her career, the exciting new directions that the business she ran with her best friend had taken them. She treasured most the moment that she and her childhood friend had looked at each other one night and realized that what they'd been looking forward their entire lives was right in front of them.
That had been the most special time of all until…
She reined the horse in and headed back across the meadow not needing to nudge its girth with her legs to get it to take off at a full gallop.
Taking her away from the world once she wished to forget once again…
The flowers that grew wildly in that corner of the nursery were the ones that made REESE smile.
Not something she did very often these days. But something about the way the vines pushed their way through the labyrinth of the old growth and intertwined with the wire fencing, a test in perseverance and strength.
She had been working at the garden place for a couple of months in a small town just an hour's drive from San Francisco up the winding coast to a beautiful village. She had rented a Victorian style cottage just 200 feet away from the beach and she had left the lease open ended.
After all, Reese had no idea what she planned to do with the rest of her life. She had left Los Angeles in the dead of night, packing a small bag and getting in her truck to speed away moments before they arrived to get her.
She had ducked as she had driven past her house to the intersection to a larger thoroughfare, because the dark sedan with the two men inside, she knew had been hired to look for her.
And she most definitely didn't want to be found which was why she had just taken off from her life in the big city.
Away from those she worked with, including the one she had loved, and the other who had betrayed her. She had just returned to her home late at night after watching out for cars tailing her and decided she didn't want to die.
She certainly didn't want to be tortured first.
But it hadn't been just her enemies that she wanted to avoid; it had also been those closest to her most of all.
Reese sighed, pushing all those thoughts out of her mind to focus on her job, arrange the potted herbs on the shelves below where the wild flowers, in a plethora of different hues arranged themselves through nature's design.
Basil, rosemary, Summer Savory and oregano, their scents intermingling in the warm and damp afternoon air in a way that made her heady. She grew her own herbs in a plot on the sides of the cottage and even or maybe because of the salt that wafted in with the breezes to the shore, they had grown heartily. She had dug up a cook book inside the storage shed behind the cottage and had picked out a couple of recipes to try out once they were ready to be harvested.
That is, if she remained here that long…because after all, she had no definite plans. She didn't know if anyone would come looking for her up here but she kept her eyes and ears tuned to any hints that someone would appear.
"Hey, you are going to the beach party later?"
Reese looked up and saw Clover, an older woman with blonde hair and fine lines near her eyes. She dressed like Reese in denim overalls and a cotton shirt. She spent most of her time in the rose section. But Reese shrugged at her, not having made any decisions.
"I don't think so…I think I'll just head home today…"
"Oh come on…there's going to be barbecue and you know Dave's been dying to show off his harmonica skills again."
Reese had to smile at that. She had seen him practicing once in the area that housed the fruit trees, and had followed the melody through the rows of oranges, lemons, peaches and figs. He had sounded pretty good actually but really, she would just go home and curl up on the veranda swing with a good book and some purplish plums to eat from the tree in front of the cottage.
"Well you're going to miss out on the bonfire later on…and the fish fry."
Reese sighed, the woman's pitch wearing her down a bit. It might be good to get out once in a while and forget about everything just for a little while. She had grown up near enough to the coast to vacation at the beach while growing up and she had great memories of swimming in the warm ocean, lying on the sand while a breeze softly blew her dry and of dancing underneath tike lamps and of long walks down the coast looking out at the sail boats bobbing on the water.
So...she finally sighed.
"Okay…maybe I'll think about it."
A smile lit up Clover's face.
"Great…I'll pencil you in…you bringing a date?"
Reese just looked at her, suddenly speechless. That question hadn't intended to be a loaded one but there was no way for the other woman to know.
She shook her head, an easy enough answer to the question.
"Well…there's going to be plenty of single guys and you're pretty enough to attract a crowd."
Reese wanted to roll her eyes at that, though she had been told often enough that she had been beautiful and with her dark curly hair that framed her strongly lined face, she had turned a head or two. She kept her body toned with exercise, from running to yoga to kick boxing, but soft enough to hone the edges down into nice curves.
But she wasn't out looking for complications in her life right now and bringing a guy into what was complicated enough, no that wouldn't be an option. Besides, nothing could make up for what she missed…and what she had run away from at the same time.
She knew that the man she loved and the one who betrayed her were both looking for her. And then there had been the people she had trusted who had let her down when she had needed them most.
No, best to keep life as simple as possible and to keep herself as separate from the world around her as much as she could do…but surely going to one party would be harmless enough.
So she just shook her head bemusedly at Clover as she left and returned to her garden work. It kept her grimy most of the day, it messed up her nails something awful and her muscles ached at the end of the day but she felt content…happiness wasn't exactly in her present or future. She had been lucky enough to find herself a job that she could bury herself in, as long as she needed.
The wheelbarrow she needed to go get the next batch of plants to place on the shelves for sale awaited so she got up, brushed her pants and went to push it back to the inventory section.
The man that had been silently watching her from behind the labyrinth of wild flowers followed her, stealth enough to not attract her attention.
Reese walked to gather some more pots of herbs to place in the wheelbarrow to take back when suddenly her body stiffened.
The breeze wafted in the usual saltiness of the ocean, intermingled with flowers of different kinds but now…she detected a man's cologne. She looked around her carefully but all she saw where the leaves on the azalea bushes stirring and saw orange butterflies lighting on flowers.
But damn for a moment there, she had been taken back in time, to where she had been lying on a blanket on the beach in some far off place, while in his arms. He had been on top of her, his mouth kissing hers while they lay there together. They had told each other they would take their new relationship slowly. But they hadn't been able to help themselves, finally surrendering to what had been building up between them for so long…every time they had looked at each other had been highly charged…like the air before a summer storm.
And when they touched…she licked her lips just thinking about how it had felt to be with him, not like anyone else.
But it hadn't been real and by the time they had gotten that last assignment everything had come crashing down.
She felt her eyes sting and when she smelled the air again, it simply felt fresh and fragrant with its usual scents to be found in a coastal village. The cologne…a fragment of an old memory popping up for some reason….because the man in these memories that she kept hidden was separated from her in greater ways than distance.
He watched her as she stood still and he wondered if he had given himself away…because the look in her eyes just then had been for him back when they were lovers during a turbulent time, both the best and worst possible window in their lives to give into what they had held back from one another.
Dallas sighed as he watched her resume her collection of some plants to put in a wheelbarrow and knew the time for watching her had passed. He had to talk to her, to warn her even if she pushed him away. He suspected that she'd be less than happy to see him again…but her life meant too much to him not to come. He needed to know the truth.
He reproached himself silently, knowing that the reasons he gave himself for hunting her down were only partly unselfish. It had been several months since he'd seen her and during that time…he had driven himself crazy trying not to think about her. The last words they had spoken between them…had been harsh but he didn't want them to stand between them forever. If his life were taken…he didn't want her to remember that last conversation as his legacy.
No, he had traveled all this way and he intended to do what he set out to do which was to warn her about the man they thought they had just put away. And if he looked at her, and his first instinct was to press her against a wall and kiss that lovely mouth of hers again while he stroked her silky skin beneath those overalls, he would have to keep that to himself.
He knew enough and remembered enough to know she was in no mood for any of that. She might slap him just for showing up again but he had to take that chance because she meant more to him than anything.
Even his own life, he'd decided.
He watched her curl her hair back behind her ears almost absently as she began to push the wheelbarrow back to where he'd seen her earlier. He took a deep breath to prepare for the moment he was to show himself to her. There was so much to say to her but he had to focus on the words she needed to hear to save her life.
Reese settled in to place the potted herbs in the lower shelves and the coolness of the bricks she sat on, contrasted with the afternoon heat. It was early summer in these parts and the days had been hotter than usual, with a hint of humidity…still comfortable because the oceanic breezes were reliable this time of year. She smelled some of the herbs before she put them on the shelf and made a mental note to add English Thyme and global basil to her collection.
Thyme had been potted in a ceramic shelf outside the bungalow where they'd gone during the times they had needed to get away from their hectic lives. She would snip off some bits of the plants to spice up dishes that he cooked during the quiet times they spent together within the boundaries of their life-long friendship. Before everything had begun to change, to set a new course one that excited them both until…
God, she wished she had known what would happen when the toughest decision in her life had to be made in the aftermath. But thinking about it now couldn't change the past.
She had to focus on the present and not think too much about the future either. That was what she was thinking when a man stepped out of the shadows of the wild flowers and she saw him as if he'd never been gone.
"Hi Reese …"
She just stared at him, her heart beating quickly…wondering if it were just a daydream.
When she first laid eyes on Dallas, she didn't know whether she wanted to run into his arms or slap his face.
But then again he had often stirred conflicting emotions in her even in all the years they had known each other.
She knew he expected her to answer his greeting but she didn't feel like giving him what he wanted. Too much had happened between them when they last shared space to just be casual about him finding her.
Because she had been so damned careful to cover her tracks and yet he had found her which mean that others might also as well. Not to mention that if he'd found her then he'd certainly been looking and she hadn't wanted him to expend that energy.
"Well aren't you going to answer me?"
She hedged, nibbling on her lip. She shifted the weight of her posture and got up on her feet, brushing her hands as much of a challenge as to clean them.
"Why…I already said everything I had to say…and so did you."
He looked around her at her surroundings.
"So when did you get into gardening"
She lifted her chin up.
'It's work and it doesn't put me on the front page of the newspaper or even on the map."
He smiled at that, even though she hadn't meant to be funny. She studied him standing there in his dark pants and his button up shirt. He had probably flown into San Francisco and then rented a car to drive up to find her.
"Why did you leave?"
She had expected that question and she had her answer.
"You know why…I told you or I tried to but you cut me off at every point. If you didn't want the answers to those questions, you shouldn't have asked."
"Rodrigo's out on bail…"
She widened her eyes at that and tried not to react.
"But he wasn't supposed to be given bail."
"He got another high priced lawyer to his ticket and the judge bent, and gave him $2 million to post which of course he did the same day."
She folded her arms.
"So is that why you came to find me to tell me that?"
"He's back with his crew and he doesn't have to do or say much to get any one of them to take you out."
She took a deep breath.
"He'd have to find me first."
"I found you, didn't I?"
Oh he had her there most definitely. Because he was right, if he could find her, so could Rodrigo.
"Why do you care Dallas…why don't you talk to your buddy Brock on why he's out of jail."
She saw him wince at those words probably without realizing it but he'd been the one to throw that in her face before she left…before she could tell him. Now he could go straight to hell as far as she cared.
"Brock's not why I'm here Reese."
She glared at him feeling so many emotions fill her at once, she didn't know how to separate them.
"Get out….go back to L.A"
He didn't budge.
"I can't…not unless you come with me."
She just looked at him as if he'd gone out of his mind.
"Go to hell Dallas," she said, turning around to leave.
He moved to grab her arm and she flinched.
"Get your hands off of me."
He backed away and she just stood there, her body rigid before him.
"They're off Reese …"
She just stared at him because there had been a time when she loved having his callused hands running over her body, cupping her breasts as he kissed the back of her neck, sliding in between her thighs, wanting him to caress her where it would make her want to scream…just the memory of how it felt to be touched by him made her body tingle in the places most ready for him. But she bit her lip to push those sensations, those stirrings of want away from her.
All they had brought her in the end was heartache and another part of her remembered that part of it. A pang hit her deep inside her chest and settled in the pit of her stomach at how his words thrown out in anger had torn up inside of her.
It had robbed her of the words she had wanted to tell him and so she had left him instead.
"Okay…you said your piece…I get it…I'll have to keep looking over my shoulder for longer. I've been doing that anyway."
Dallas shook his head.
"No that's not enough…If you don't come with me, I'm staying here with you…until they find some way to revoke his bail and lock him up until the trial."
God, she had tried to forget about when Rodrigo and his band of thugs would get their day in court. The defense attorney no doubt would be searching for ways to get his clients acquitted…and might in fact be using her to help him. If he could prove that she in her capacity as a freelancing agent for the federal government had entrapped him by luring him into bed.
Brock had warned her about that before she'd taken off…in that way of his that she hadn't trusted because he knew the truth…and she knew that but he hadn't shared it with anyone else. Certainly not the man standing in front of her now who had idolized him. Because then it would put his ass in a sling with his bosses, and he had been looking at a promotion into the management ranks with this assignment.
"When Luke that be?"
She knew that they would be talking about weeks or months rather than days because nothing proceeded quickly in the federal justice system, certainly not justice.
He shook his head.
"Could be a while…he's got contacts everywhere and they'll be giving him a place to disappear under the radar and still look for you."
"Maybe he wants to bust your ass Dallas."
He narrowed his eyes.
"That'd be easier than him being after yours but then after what Brock told me."
She flashed him a dangerous look.
"What did Brock tell you?"
Dallas paused rubbing the back of his neck.
"About you and Rodrigo…"
She almost flinched at his terminology describing her and Rodrigo but she wasn't about to let him see that he had gotten underneath her skin. They had worked together for years in investigations and had been pretty close friends…until he had decided to deliver on Brock's request for a favor to borrow their skills because Rodrigo and his men had breached a database and had gotten access to the files of their undercover operatives in narcotics and trafficking.
They had proven that by slicing the throat of a female operative that had been in deep cover with Rodrigo's inner circle and her body turned up in the truck of a burned out car with that of another agent who had been driving the car after a clandestine meeting with her that had been anything but that.
So Brock had gone outside his agency to look for some people foolish enough to participate in an undercover surveillance job involving a party thrown by a millionaire. He's gotten intelligence that Rodrigo and his gang had planned for some type of double cross involving that millionaire and that his A-list party might have him showing up with his crew.
For once, the intelligence had paid off but after that, it'd all gone to hell.
"I don't need your help," she said, "You need to get your ass back to L.A. because you've got a cousin there who's trying to get out of a damn wheel chair. ."
He planted his feet firmly and had no intention of doing that.
"You'd be signing off your life if you did that," Dallas said, "I can't let you do that. We've been friends for so long."
She had to choke back the laughter that comment had drawn, which wasn't based on finding it humorous.
"Dallas…It wasn't enough in the end was it?"
No, because she had submitted her resignation papers from his firm and she had meant every word and hadn't hesitated when she had signed them. He'd heard about that from Chris because he hadn't been in town when she submitted them.
Then she walked right out of the building for the last time just before she packed up and left later that night to get the hell as far away as she could from her old life.
"I still care about you and I'm not leaving you up here to get picked off by Rodrigo or his men…so I'm staying if you won't come back with me."
She just sighed, remembering how stubborn he was and how he didn't like to back down from anything and neither did she so this standoff, well it could last except she really had to go back to work.
"I'm not going with you and you're not staying…in fact I've got work to do."
"I talked with Adela, really nice lady, wears that interesting hat…well she's the manager of this place right?"
She looked at him warily.
"Yeah…she is…so what?"
He looked directly at her, and she almost got drawn into his brown eyes but no, she was smarter than he took her for obviously.
"I applied for a job and she's agreed."
Reese 's mouth fell open.
"You didn't just…"
"Oh yes I did…I'm going to be hoisting some bags of manure mix over in the side yard."
She just stood there trying to process that news.
"Fitting really that you should be working with manure," she said.
Dallas' lips quirked slightly.
"You would know darling…"
He just stood there and damn if he didn't look a bit smug. Yeah he was there to watch her back until they roped up Rodrigo on some technicality and put him behind bars until they could do the job permanently but she knew he had ulterior motives…not that she cared.
He watched her, thinking that she looked upset right now but she'd get over it. She had no choice because he wasn't about to let anything happened to her, and he knew she was too stubborn to go back to L.A. with him.
In fact he was counting on it.
He thought it had been all about protecting her but when he had first seen her, an image had flashed in front of him of one lazy night when they'd been staying at a cozy place on the coast, they had returned from a walk out in the moonless night, crossing the grassy expanse of the hill above down the narrow winding staircases to where the bungalow sat.
As soon as he'd opened the door, it was she who had nearly jumped him, wrapping her arms around him and grinding her body against his burgeoning erection sealed by a couple layers of fabric between them. He had taken her right in the living area, after they had ripped off their clothes while locked in a kiss, before sinking onto the rug where she had positioned herself over him and sheathed herself with him, sliding slowly and deliciously down until he had sunken as deep inside her as he could and then she had ridden him. Her breasts, pale and soft, swaying in front of him, their rosy tips tantalizing his mouth…as he settled his hands on her hips to adjust the tempo…where they rode each other.
It had been so hot…so incredibly sensual the way her face looked, as she built to her climax and he approached his own…she grabbed him hungrily and kissed him to seal off herself from screaming as he held her waist when she finally arched her head back, as he branded her with his own heat.
He had held her afterward as she panted against him, their bodies drenched with moisture and remained connected by flesh, for a moment that seemed timeless. Neither wanting to be the first to move away from the other…had it always been like that between them in many different ways?
It had been reckless, he remembered now thinking back because they weren't supposed to cross the lines carefully etched through time and temptations involving their life-long relationship. But what had long simmered between them, hidden by their carefully woven friendship had just exploded and once it did, it seemed as if there was no going back.
Dallas remembered those lazy days and passionate nights when they had embarked on what he'd hoped to be the next phase of their relationship…nothing else would ever fill his life as she had done. But after the assignment, the one that had gone so horribly wrong in a hail of gunfire and then a tense siege had erased what they shared between them as if it hadn't ever existed. It had inflicted damage in other ways as well.
Brock had told him in confidence that she might have been the one who jeopardized the assignment before and during that siege. But Dallas just couldn't believe that though it's not like Reese had been open to talking about what did happen inside the estate during the hours they'd all been held captive, their lives in the balance.
But now she needed his protection, whether she wanted it or not and one way or other she would get it whether he had to drag her kicking and screaming.
Somehow he didn't think it would come to that.