Dallas toted another bag of fertilizer over his shoulder to stack on top of the rest of the new shipment. The delivery truck had arrived and all of them were unloading the large order to fill out the inventory for a weekend sale.
It would run in conjunction with a festival that would be held on the beach, with fireworks later at night. It seemed like this village always came up with excuses to hold parties complete with pyrotechnics but he planned to attend.
Clover asked him twice if he'd go with her and he agreed, thinking a night relaxing at a beach picnic might be what he needed. He'd had a headache after trying to warn REESE. at her house that she was currently being auctioned off by Rodrigo even though he hadn't caught up to her.
Not yet anyway.
But if he went to the party, she would have to as well if only so he could keep an eye on her. She had arrived late to work this morning more subdued but looking good as ever in faded jeans that molded to every inch of her legs and hips and a soft peach shirt with the emblem of the nursery on it. She and Clover had been lining up the seed packets in their rows inside the shop. Starter kits would be next including the ever popular window shelf herbs that would sell like hotcakes at the nursery sale that would run just before everyone headed to the beach.
She caught his eye when she came back out to the truck several times but she moved her eyes quickly away from him. He wondered if his warning this morning sunk in because she really needed to take it seriously. After all, with a body which curved in all the right places, and with long legs and a beautiful face, the bidding to own her would turn fast and furious soon enough.
And then Rodrigo and his men would hunt her down in earnest.
She crossed his path again and kept her eyes down as she stacked a couple of boxes containing starter kits before heading back in the shop. Clover followed on her heels and looked up at Dallas.
"God she's been like this all morning," she said, "Must have woken up on the wrong side of bed…or maybe the wrong bed."
Dallas bristled at Clover's offhanded suggestion that Reese had been out with the construction guy or someone else.
He did know that he needed to keep his eyes focused on the scenery around them to look for anything or anyone who didn't belong there.
But the nursery looked like it always did filling up with a busy day of customers.
Reese rubbed her shoulders this morning after Dallas left. What he told her left her so tense, she'd gone out on a seven mile run to get away from it. She hadn't been running away from him of course but the fear that consumed her at the images he had painted for her about what Rodrigo would do to her if he found her.
As if she hadn't been thinking about that a lot lately…but she couldn't live looking over her shoulders for him. She had given enough energy to him already, and thinking about it just made her close her eyes because she didn't want the images to return again.
Of course she'd never tell him. She'd never tell anyone. Well except for Miranda who she had been seeing twice a week after work. Luke had recommended her before she left San Francisco where he'd been transferred to do rehab to get his legs back.
She stacked the starter kits and Clover walked on over to help her.
"So you are going to the beach party?"
Reese looked up at her.
"There's one every weekend it seems," she said, "but then this is a tourist spot isn't it?"
"I'm going with Dallas," she said, "You should come with us. It should be a lot of fun."
Reese shook her head.
"No really…or you can go with Duke," Clover said, "You know him…he works for the saddle shop and just broke up with his wife."
No, she didn't want a guy on the rebound either…unless.
"I'll think about it," she said, "Do you have his number?"
Because Reese had seen the guy once, and what she had seen had impressed her. He had been tall, broad shouldered like Dallas but carried a heavier muscled frame. He seemed to be attracted to her, asking her out for drinks but she'd demurred that time.
Clover wrote it down and handed it to Reese.
"Give him a call," she said, "He's probably horny as hell right now too so during the fireworks, you can sneak off…"
Reese thought, not likely but it might be nice to hang out with someone at the party, to keep her mind off of her own problems, to get away from the intrusion of her old life.
Dallas had looked over at her while she'd been talking to Clover, wondering what was going on between the two women. He hadn't gone for it with Clover because even though he liked her, his mind was focused on making sure that Reese didn't wind up back with Rodrigo.
He stacked up more fertilizer and wondered if she'd be going to the festival alone or would she be going with one of the local men. That was going to make it trickier to keep an eye on her to make sure nothing happened…meaning that no one would jump out of the woodwork to kidnap her.
His phone vibrated and putting the bag down, he answered it.
"Hi Stu, what's up?"
"We're doing what we told you," he said, "We're trying to track that covert auction involving Reese.."
"Bidding's at half a million dollars and rising…some people out there have plans for her."
Dallas didn't want to think about that, he just wanted to make sure it didn't come to that.
"Rodrigo surfaced yet?"
"Negative…but there was a sighting of his second in command, Milan at a meeting in Miami."
"That must be where his team is holing up," Dallas said, "Doing any surveillance there?"
"Well yeah Dallas," Stu said, "We do have it covered."
"You'd better because one wrong move and it'll be your ass if he gets her."
"That's not going to happen if you bring her back to L.A. to the safe house," Stu reminded him, "how close are you to doing that?"
Dallas rubbed the back of his neck.
"Not much, she's not willing to budge," he said, "So I'm trying to keep an eye on her here."
"You can't do it by yourself," Stu said, "You need reinforcements and we just can't spare them."
"I'll do without them," Dallas said, "and keep an eye on everything. It's a small town so anytime a stranger shows up in the mix, it's noticed."
"Well you've got your work cut out for you," Stu said, "Keep in touch."
Dallas cursed as he closed his phone. What he needed was more reinforcements to protect her especially if anything did go down quickly but he wasn't getting him which meant only he could keep her safe.
A difficult thing to do when she didn't seem to want any man let alone him trying to protect her.
Reese sat down and sipped the iced cola carefully, the day had heated up, with more than a hint of humidity and the bugs had begun flying around her. She'd finished the loading and had eaten her lunch so she just sat back and tried to relax. But her nerves danced inside of her and her eyes looked for shadows among the rows of fruit trees.
If Rodrigo caught up to her, she'd run but if he caught her, she knew her window of escape would be very narrow. He'd proven to be very formidable in every area of his business including the nasty parts of it where he didn't pause to point a gun at a traitor and pull the trigger. Not that he wasn't strong enough to snap a man's neck but he left that for special occasions.
But he had his more genteel, suave side that showed his cultural upbringing had offered him some of the finest things in life. The finest parties, restaurants and a degree from one of the top universities in the world…and when he required it, the finest women on his arm and his bed.
But as it turned out she had impressed him too much, with her beauty. He had flirted with her in ways that were flattering at first at the party or would have been if she'd not know how dangerous he was. But she had a role to play as a guest at the party.
So she thought, good, she'd use his attraction to her body to get what she needed from him which was more information and she'd done that quite well. After all, it's not like a woman ever forgot how to flirt.
Dallas hadn't been as happy as she thought he'd be when she slipped him the information, documents that she had pilfered and copied and a flash drive that had been encrypted but might provide useful information. She played the role that she had been assigned to play with him at the gala.
But as it turned out, she hadn't been the only one changing it. Rodrigo had his own plans for her as well. He had his own plans for all of them.
She closed her eyes as she remembered, forcing the images back where they belonged, where they'd be as lost to her as she hoped to remain to Rodrigo.
The plant sale at the nursery had been an enormous success and got the celebratory weekend off to a great start. Adela had held the fort and had been very pleased with the revenues they collected while selling off most of the old inventory and a lot of what they had just gotten.
Dallas and Reese along with Clover had manned the nursery stationed at different venues as hundreds of people including many tourists stopped to check out the plants, trees and everything else including a collection of ceramic pots that had been handmade by a local artist in town.
The sale broke at noon on Saturday so that people could head on down to the beach where the festival and barbecue had just been set up. Dallas and Clover had taken off to the beach and Reese waited for Duke to pick her up. Clover had spent all her time with Dallas even during the sales and by the time they left, Reese had gotten tired of watching her flirt with him endlessly. For all the concern that Dallas had expressed about his need to keep an eye on her, he seemed to be enjoying himself.
That was fine with Reese really because she had planned to put the moves on Duke at some point during the holiday because she needed a man's hands on her under her own terms. Duke was one sexy looking guy, physically imposing enough to look like he could defend himself and yet he'd been very attentive to her since they started meeting up.
He picked her up and handed her a ginger ale that she sipped gratefully during the drive to the beach. She felt grubby all over and her throat parched but between the drink he'd given her and the swim she planned to take in the ocean, she'd be feeling a lot better soon.
Looking at him sideways, she decided a whole lot better.
When they arrived, she didn't see any signs of Dallas and Clover there but saw the last trays of all kinds of picnic food being put on the tables, with plenty of barbecue pits being manned by cooks.
She grabbed his hand as they headed towards the sand.
"I want to take a walk."
"Okay, I know a place by the sand dunes…"
She grinned, thinking Duke to be one astute guy when it came to figuring out what she wanted.
"You're safe right?"
She looked over at him.
He smiled back at her and slipped his arm around her. Right past Dallas and Clover who had pulled into the lot just after they did and had also headed to the beach.
"They make an interesting couple," Clover noted.
Dallas just frowned, not liking this at all. If she left the beach, how could he ever keep an eye on her?
And how well did she know the guy who had his arm around her now? REESE. had to learn to be careful or she'd be snatched up by one of Rodrigo's men soon enough. He had heard that the trafficker had discretely hired two more experts in tracking to look for her.
"Want to go for a walk?"
Clover looked over at him and shrugged.
"Sure why not…it's a beautiful day don't you think?"
They started walking not too far behind Reese and Duke. He didn't want to lose sight of them even as they wove among the dozens of people walking down the beach but after about 200 yards, the crowds began to thin out and by the time he saw the sand dunes in the distance, they were pretty much alone.
Suddenly Clover grabbed hold of his hand and pulled him close to her. She kissed him softly at first and then deepened it, catching him completely by surprise. His hormones heightened his enthusiasm but his professionalism pulled him away.
She frowned at him.
"What's wrong Dallas?"
He shook his head.
"Clover I don't think…"
But as he looked around, he could no longer see Reese or Duke anywhere. Somehow while Clover had grabbed his attention with that kiss, they had slipped out of sight.
Dallas continued down the beach with Clover who kept pointing out different sights including sail boats and jetties where men fished. Her chatter didn't bother him but he tried to keep his focus on locating Reese. Where could she have gone with this Duke character?
What if he wasn't what he appeared to be? What if she'd already been lured into a trap and was on her way back to Rodrigo to complete the auction? It never failed to unnerve him that there were powerful men in the world who bought and sold human flesh including sex slaves.
But it chilled him to the bone that they were auctioning off Reese with the winner getting to use her however he saw fit, to make large sums of money for his operation or by keeping her for his personal use.
She had just disappeared on the beach because he hadn't been watching her every second. But then he saw her up ahead near a sand dune standing next to Duke who clearly looked attracted to her. Irritation and much more basal emotions filled him at the realization that while he'd been searching for her, she'd slipped away for an interlude with Duke.
Clover looked over at where Duke and Reese stood by the dune, and then holding hands headed back towards them.
"Wow, I guess they couldn't wait until after the party to get together…"
Reese and Duke approached them and by then, Reese had her arm slung around Duke's waist.
"We just went on a walk," Duke said, "We're heading back to get some lunch."
"So are we…we'll walk back with you."
" Reese I'll need to talk to you later okay?"
She just looked at him .
"There's nothing to talk about Dallas," she said, "I know the score already and I make my own decisions."
He gritted his teeth.
"Still there are a few things we need to discuss."
She just didn't respond to that except to nod her head. There was no putting him off sometimes and he wanted to ram rod this need to watch her closely and keep her safe through her head.
But when she'd needed someone to keep her safe, no one had been there. He hadn't been there and she learned that no one could do that for her.
It was all up to her to do the very best she could to protect herself. But she didn't tell him that because if she did, he wouldn't listen anyway just as he hadn't back then. They reached the party and went their separate ways to get some food but Dallas' eyes remained on Reese and Duke the rest of the day.
Even as he got a text that he needed to call the team because the auction bid for Reese had just reached $1 million and came from somewhere in Eastern Europe. Probably a private collector but that would mean that Rodrigo would increase his efforts to find her.
Rodrigo got off the phone, smiling at the fact that the bids for Reese had crossed the seven figure mark with the most serious offers yet to come. The guy who bid the cool million had a list of underground brothels and party houses throughout Europe.
As long as you use drugs to control her, Rodrigo counseled him that Luke work well. After all, he knew that'd be a perfect niche for a woman like her.
But other bids would be coming soon including from a French politician who wanted a sub to keep in his basement dungeon and a pair of famous athletes who wanted a woman to share on road trips.
Reese would go to the highest bidder and as soon as he located her, she'd be heading off to her new life. A fitting end to her, he thought as he poured himself another Vodka and tonic.
When Clover invited Dallas into her house for a nightcap after the celebration, he nodded his head and went inside with her.
"That party was awesome," she said, as she walked to her kitchen to pour them both some Scotch. He glanced at the art deco paintings on the wall and the posh furniture. Clover had an expensive eye for decorating her home.
"Sit on the couch and make yourself comfortable."
He did that and she walked back into the living room with drinks, handing him his glass. He sipped it down while she did the same, sitting next to him on the sofa. Sitting very close to him and leaning slightly against his body while she drank from her glass.
"So what's a guy like you want from a woman anyway?"
She looked at him in the face when she asked that question and he tugged at his shirt. He knew what he wanted and he'd received many such invitations from women he'd just met but as she smiled flirtatiously at him, he prepared his response.
"Clover…you're very pretty and you're a nice woman…"
She put her glass down, obviously reading what came next.
"But…and I hear that but, you're not in to me right?"
He paused, watching the disappointment flash on her face right before she hid it with a wide smile.
"Well that's okay…we don't have to be boyfriend, girlfriend or anything serious but it doesn't mean we can't have some fun."
He just looked at her and shook his head.
"I'm sorry Clover but I've just gotten out of a relationship with someone else."
She looked at him for a long moment.
"With her right," he said, "the woman who went out and probably went home with some other guy tonight."
"That might be but what I've figured out about myself is that I'm not interested in anything casual."
She digested that and then she nodded.
"Well that's noble of you," he said, "Now I like Reese just fine but she seems to want to be on the opposite end of the state from you."
He picked up his Scotch and sipped it again.
"I can see that…but why bother with complications?"
Dallas couldn't answer that but continued to sip his Scotch, the only one he'd be drinking on her sofa before heading back home to try to figure out an answer to her question.
Rodrigo checked the figures on the auction, happy that another bidder had entered into the fray bumping up the price on Reese to over $1million. He knew already she was worth every penny.
The man had been from Brazil, running a string of brothels near Rio and the capitol, Brasilia.
"I need some fresh whores," he explained, "for some of my special clients."
Rodrigo knew that was code for those who had a more sadistic bent towards women. Those who thrived on dominance and pain, two elements Reese definitely needed in her future.
"Oh this one loves it when a strong man controls her," he said, "It makes her beg for it."
"Good then…I have a couple of customers who'd like to try her out," he said, "How fast can you ship the merchandise after the auction?"
"A couple of days," Rodrigo said, "I have to prepare her for the transition to departure."
"Ah yes of course, as long as you don't mark her," the man said, "and she's everything you promised."
"Oh she's all that and more. But the bidding's just getting started so if you want her in your stable, you'd better be prepared to bid much more."
He clicked off the phone and thought that the auction had been going very well so far, the bids rolling in and so would the money be when he approved the final sale.
He knew what would make it even more perfect is if he could find her boyfriend and put him in chains to if only so he could witness his plans for Reese …
Then after Reese was dragged away to be shipped to her new home, Rodrigo could end Dallas' life with one bullet to the head and his problems would be solved.
Reese felt her muscles aching in the morning while she went to the grocery store to get some food to stock in her cabinets and refrigerator. She didn't have to work today so she thought she might get some shopping done and then head to do some hiking in the nearby foothills.
There were some pretty challenging dirt trails that wound through the terrain chock full of redwood trees and plenty of other lush plants including ferns and horsetails. It would do her good to get some vigorous exercise and be surrounded by nature so she could do some serious thinking.
She had the store for some food shopping first.
She arrived in the produce section and added to her cart there. She saw Clover by herself looking at peaches dressed in overalls and a tee-shirt underneath which surprised her because she thought she'd still be in the sack with Dallas who after all loved to extend lovemaking sessions in the late morning hours. She should at least be crawling right now.
But here she was shopping, unless she'd ducked out to head to the store while he slept off their last round.
"Hey I didn't see you," Clover said looking up suddenly.
Reese headed towards her.
"I'm just hitting the store before I do some hiking."
Clover flipped her hair back.
"Yeah I thought about doing that but I'm too tired from the festivities and well, Dallas had to leave early to do something so I thought it'd be a good time to stock up."
Reese tried not to react to that news. So Dallas hadn't stayed with Clover but had gone off to do other things? Probably to get more information on where Rodrigo was hiding out as he plotted against them or maybe they'd run into some of his hired men. Hopefully not anywhere near here.
"That was some party last night," Clover said, "I see you hit it off with Duke."
"We hung out together for a while," she said, "He's an interesting guy."
Clover put some peaches in a bag.
"Yeah, he's made his way through the female population since he's been back but he's got a more serious side."
"He's pretty lively but I kept it simple for the first date."
"He's a pretty patient guy up to a point."
Reese shrugged and reached for some plums.
"Maybe we could double up, "Clover suggested, "You and Duke and me and Dallas…go do dinner or drinks."
Reese didn't think so. It would prove much too volatile and she didn't want to rehash her history in front of Clover to explain why. So she just looked noncommittal.
"I don't know how he'd feel about that," she said, "We get along now but we didn't exactly part on the best of terms."
"Well you get along enough for dinner and drinks," Clover said, "I mean you work together every day."
Yeah, and they wind up wanting to kill each other more often than not ,but Clover was probably right in that they could probably survive spending some casual time together especially if they weren't alone.
"Okay I'll think about it but I don't know if I'll be seeing Duke anymore."
Clover waved a hand.
"Then you can bring someone else," she said, "See you later."
Reese thought about the invite and realized not for the first time that most of the people in the village didn't know how complicated her life had been, didn't know that she'd been out to bust a major drug trafficker or that she'd nearly paid the highest price.
They didn't know that she was in that man's crosshairs right now. Better for no one but she and Dallas to know and another secret they would share and keep from those around them. She hated being bound to him in that way since they'd split up in a way that would never be mended.
She left the store after paying for her groceries and went home to unpack them before making herself an easy lunch of a sandwich, apple and some water to take with her on her hike.
She got into her car and drove up to the parking lot before getting out and doing some stretches before hiking. Her wardrobe had remained simple, with cutoff denim shorts, a tee-shirt and a light jacket wrapped around her waist. She had her lunch and some basic first aid in a knapsack and after looking around her into the empty lot, she took off towards the nearest trail.
As she came up the first hill and saw the scenery out to the ocean spread out before her, she knew she'd come to the right place.
Dallas woke up after he crashed in his own bed after leaving Clover's, unable to spend the night there. He'd made some calls, checked out information on his computer but nothing had emerged about Rodrigo and his plan of attack except that he'd put Reese up for auction which was old news. What the lowlife didn't know was that he'd never let him get away with his plans.
No, Rodrigo was not getting his hands on her, he'd make sure of that and do whatever he needed to do to keep her safe. Not that she appreciated his efforts but tough, he had a job to do even if she weren't his lover anymore.
He sighed when he thought of last night with Clover when he'd rejected her invitation, but thoughts of Reese and her luscious body spilled into his actions. It had been her full lips that he'd kissed and her smooth skin that smelled of vanilla and strawberries that he'd stroked.
He couldn't think about what was past but right now he needed some fresh air so he changed into some casual clothes and decided to take off and do some serious running up and down the mountain trails, hoping he'd be so exhausted that every other thought including about REESE. wouldn't linger on his mind.
She loved looking at the ocean no matter where she stood. Whether it had been atop a rocky cliff that oversaw a tropical lagoon or up on top of a wooded mountain that allowed her to look out into the water breaking on a sandy beach. She had climbed quickly up the last few winding switchbacks so that when she reached the top, she had to catch her breath.
Not too long ago she had climbed up a steep flight of stairs to meet the man she had thought she had loved at the top so they could tuck themselves behind a sheet of rock while looking out across the expansive sea to catch the sunset. They had held each other close, their lips brushing at first before she really started to taste him. She'd been wearing a swim suit covered by a thin robe that tie loosely in front and a scarf in her hair while he'd been wearing shorts and a tee-shirt.
One that she had pulled off of him at some point while exploring his mouth with her tongue…thinking god, how much she'd wanted him after they had spent another day with Brock and Enrique planning the surveillance operation.
After she'd traced every inch of his mouth with her tongue, he'd pressed her against the wall and they'd fumbled with each other's clothing until he lifted her slightly off the ground and started kissing her more passionately She had kissed him back when she felt like crying out overwhelmed by the feelings that rushed through her.
She bent over to catch her breath when she caught a stitch and then sipped from her water bottle. Her guard hadn't lowered but she felt like she'd traveled the mountain trails alone. Her thoughts had wandered back to last night at the beach with Duke. It'd been a nice reprieve from her life but she didn't think she'd be seeing him again soon.
There'd be other men of course, but none long enough for her to get close to them, to weaken in her resolve to never open her heart up to anyone again. When she checked out the clear sky resting onto of the restless ocean, she thought it beautiful and in a way it brought some peace. She'd loved the village when she had arrived and had warmed to it in ways since that she hadn't anticipated. It had seemed the perfect place to fit in and to hide from anyone who might come looking for her.
Only Dallas had found her anyway and had disrupted that peace. He had wanted her to return with him to L.A. but when she refused, he'd become a fixture here. Even working alongside her at the nursery, which drove her nuts, though not enough to bolt.
It'd been like when they worked together before only without the high stakes. He'd found himself a woman to share his bed in Clover who would keep him happy for a while.
Reese didn't understand why that knowledge irritated her. It shouldn't because whatever she had once felt for him had died.
It had been taken from her.
Dallas hiked up the trail pausing to sip his water a couple of times. The day had turned hot with just enough humidity in the air carried by the breeze from the ocean. His muscles burned from the steep hike but he'd enjoyed the workout.
Clover had called him to ask him to come over for dinner and he considered it. But he didn't want her to have any misunderstandings that they would have any kind of meaningful relationship outside of friendship. He wasn't looking for anything else.
He pushed the pace even harder up the mountain as the trail wound around where it had been carved by time.
Nearing the top, he whipped his shirt off to wipe his face with it and then sipping his water again. The birds sang in the trees and he heard animals scurrying around in the brush.
Damn, it was so peaceful here, a guy could almost relax and he couldn't afford that. If he did it at the wrong moment, then he could lose REESE. to Rodrigo's men who were out looking for her.
He walked up the bend and there he saw her looking out into the horizon her back to him.
She turned around to look at him.
Then she put her hands on her hips as if she might believe he'd followed her.
"Are you keeping tabs on me?"
He shook his head.
"No, not now," he said, "I came here to get a workout."
She relaxed and smiled at him.
"Me too, and to check out the gorgeous scenery," she said, "It's so beautiful here."
"Yes it is…but you can't leave yourself exposed like this…"
"I can handle myself."
He knew the edge in her voice had been because of him. She hadn't said that but she didn't need to do that. Well tough, there was no way in hell he'd be walking away from her and exposing her to what Rodrigo had planned. She could hate him all she wanted but he'd never do that.
" Reese, don't even ask."
She sighed, wrapping her arms around herself while looking at him.
"I wouldn't…I know why you came here. It's just not easy you know?"
So she had decided not to rip off his head today, he noticed but he knew she hadn't forgiven him.
"It's not for me either."
She leaned against a tree and folded her arms.
"I can't go back and you know why."
He stepped closer to her.
"I know but if Rodrigo finds you, you'll know what he'll do."
She nodded. She knew about the auction that took place and that if Rodrigo found her, he'd hand her off to whoever bid the highest for her body. Then she'd be dragged away to work as someone's whore with no escape. The nausea that welled up when she imagined that threatened to overwhelm her.
"I'm never going to let that happen Reese.."
She heard the firm resolve in his voice and she trusted it, even though she didn't trust him in other ways. He'd always been good at protecting her physically even if she needed protection from him for her heart.
"I believe you but I've got my life to live and you're not a part of it."
His jaw clenched.
"You mean like Duke."
"I mean at all," she said, "I can't forget that you thought I was responsible for what happened to Luke and what you said to me."
He rubbed the back of his neck.
"I just want you to be safe," he said, "even if that includes from me."
She heard what sounded like resignation in his voice and she dropped what she planned to say. She just bowed her head looking at her hands.
"Dallas, there's just so much you don't know about me at all," she said, "or what happened."
She thought he might protest and not believe any differently about her than how he'd already chosen. But his eyes sought out hers.
"Then why don't you tell me?"
His voice had softened but her heart had hardened again. There would be no way she'd ever share that with him. In many ways, it was just safer for him to be left in the dark than to know what had really happened to her.
"I can't…maybe I should just go."
She started to walk past him but he reached out and grabbed her arm, holding her fast.