Authors: Dallas Schulze
|Harlequin Books (1986)|
Love cold be the most dangerous game of all
An innocent quest for a friend's watch took Holly Reynolds to Tijuana. Holly didn't recover the memento, but after being subjected to the horrors of multiple propositions, a barroom brawl and a dubious rescue by an unsavory character named Mackenzie Donahue, Holly didn't care about the watch -- she only wanted to get back to Los Angeles, where she'd be safe at last.
But Holly wasn't safe. An unwitting player in a deadly game, Holly was bound to get hurt, one way or another. Mac wanted to prevent that. But would Holly thank him -- or hate him for his interference?
Published June 1986
First printing April 1986
First Australian Paperback Edition October 1986
ISBN 0373 161549
Copyright © 1986 by Dallas Schulze. All rights reserved.
Philippine copyright 1986.
Australian copyright 1986.
New Zealand copyright 1986.
he didn't belong. It was obvious from the moment she walked in the door. That had been almost half an hour ago and this was the fourth time that Mac had found himself watching her.
He pulled his eyes away from the small corner table where the woman was sitting and scanned the room. Long fingers curled around the squat glass in front of him. The liquid that half filled it was a virulent shade of yellow. The one ice cube gracing it seemed to be fighting to stay afloat as if some monster awaited in the murky depths of the glass.
He lifted the glass but the liquid barely touched his lips, though his throat moved as if he were swallowing a hearty gulp. A keen observer might have noticed the faint twist of hand that tilted a thin stream of liquid onto the warped wooden floor before the glass returned to the table, the level of alcohol considerably lowered.
"If Baldwin doesn't show soon, we're going to have a lake under this table. We must have dumped a gallon of this stuff on the floor already."
Mac's eyes slid to the man seated across from him and one dark brow lifted in amusement.
"There's too much dirt on the floor for a lake, but we might manage a small swamp."
"Complete with crocodiles probably."
"Oh, the crocodiles are here already, along with assorted snakes and rodents." A subtle nod of his head indicated the other patrons.
His companion grinned, revealing a black hole where his front teeth should have been. "You're not casting aspersions on the clientele of this luxurious establishment, are you?"
"I'd rather cast a small hand grenade and get rid of all of them. The world would be a healthier place without them." "Not quite all of them, I bet." Mac's brows rose questioningly at his friend's sly comment. Ken jerked his head toward the woman Mac had been watching. "I've noticed the way you've been giving her the eye. I bet you'd want to rescue her before dropping your world-cleansing grenade." "Since she's sitting behind you, how did you know who I was looking at?"
Ken's lean features settled into a superior look that clashed with his unshaven jaw and grubby clothing. "Elementary, Watson. A trained mind can detect these things. It's obvious that you have much to learn." He stopped as Mac's face set in lines of exaggerated boredom. "I can see you're not buying this. Okay, I'll confess. There's a mirror behind the bar and, when your attention kept drifting, it wasn't hard to figure out where it was drifting to."
Mac let his gaze settle on the woman again, aware that Ken was watching her in the mirror. "Not bad." His mouth quirked upward in acknowledgment of Ken's comment, but his gaze didn't waver from the woman.
What was she doing here? She was as out of place as a daisy among thistles. Short dark curls framed a face that was at once womanly and pixieish. Her features were refined but she fell short of classic beauty. Her mouth was too wide and her chin too pointed, but the whole came together in a roguishly appealing package.
He had seen her walk in, her pale yellow sundress standing out against the dingy gray of the cantina's walls. He pegged her as a tourist who had gotten off the beaten track and ventured a little too far into the side streets of Tijuana. She would turn around and leave as soon as she saw what kind of a place she had stumbled into.
She had hesitated a few feet inside the door, and he had seen her swallow hard as she took in the filthy room and its equally filthy inhabitants. Her gaze skimmed over the table where he and Ken sat, and the flicker of contempt in her eyes hadn't changed. Well, at least their disguises looked bad enough to fool an American tourist, he thought with amusement.
His amusement had faded somewhat when, instead of turning around and walking back out into the relative safety of the street, she had continued into the room, the click of her delicate heels loud in the sudden quiet of the bar as every man's eyes turned to watch her progress. Admiration mixed with irritation as she seated herself as calmly as if she were in a quiet cafe in the heart of the Midwest. Either she was too stupid to know what she had gotten herself into or she had more guts than was healthy.
Now, watching her, he decided it was the latter rather than the former. She knew she was in a potentially nasty situation and for whatever reason, she was choosing to stick it out. Her eyes were as restless as his own, searching the bar frequently and glancing at the door every time it opened. She had ordered nothing but a soft drink, which she sipped through a straw.
"She'd never give you a second glance the way you look now."
Mac dragged his eyes back to Ken, meeting the mocking commiseration in his friend's eyes. "What's wrong with the way I look? Do you know how long it took to find a suit like this in my size?"
Ken's eyes slid over the blinding white of Mac's suit jacket. The exaggerated points of the lapels were edged with gold sequins, and the matching pants carried a similar stripe down the outside of the pant leg. A black silk shirt stretched across the width of Mac's chest, the front opened almost to the navel, revealing a mat of dark hair and a multitude of heavy gold chains. A gold ring pierced one ear, lending a rakish air to his strong features. A puckered line of scar tissue ran down the left side of his face from the corner of his eye almost to the bottom of his earlobe, drawing the eye so that the rest of the features seemed blurred. Gold rings studded with jewels adorned every finger of his big hands.
Only the indolent ease of his long body and the sleepy droop to his eyes would have been familiar to anyone who knew him.
Ken finished his inspection and grinned. "You sure do make a great pimp. I don't know many men who could carry off that suit and all that jewelry as well as you do."
"Thank you, I think. Actually I think it's the boots that really make the outfit." He extended his foot out from beneath the table so that Ken could admire his footwear. The other man choked slightly before agreeing that it was definitely the boots that completed the look. "I've always wanted a pair of black patent boots with gold condors on the toes. I suppose I'm going to have to give them back when we're done." Mac sounded so wistful that Ken almost believed him.
"I think those are eagles."
Mac's brows drew together in a frown and he gave the boots considerable attention. "No, I'm sure those are condors. Look how skinny the neck is."
"It's an eagle. The only reason his neck is skinny is that the brush slipped when they were doing the paint-by-numbers design."
Mac's brows rose. "Do you mean I'm wearing one-of-a-kind boots, hand-painted in Hong Kong? Maybe they'd do a custom design."
Ken choked and coughed as he swallowed a laugh. "Careful. You're going to make me fall out of character. A man in your powerful position would hardly be seen laughing with a common junkie."
Mac shrugged, his eyes scanning the bar again. "I don't think Baldwin is going to show. Either he chickened out on making the sale or this was just a trial run to see if we'd show."
"You want to split?"
Mac hesitated, his eyes touching on the woman in the corner, and Ken grinned, revealing the gaping hole in his teeth again. "We can hang around a little longer. Edwards isn't expecting to hear from us fof a while yet."
"Something's got to give soon. Nobody is stupid enough to push his luck forever. Unless she's dumber than she looks, she'll leave before trouble starts."
"I think she's too late already."
At Ken's murmured words, Mac jerked his eyes back to the corner. In the time the woman had been there, two men had approached her. Each time, Mac had tensed, wondering if he was going to be forced to intervene and risk everything he had worked for in order to rescue the stranger. On both occasions, the men had spoken to the woman and she had sent them away with a brief shake of her head. Even in the dimly lit bar, he had been able to see the flush that rose in her cheeks, or perhaps he only assumed that it went with her mortified expression.
Ken's comment that it might be too late referred to the man who now swaggered up to the woman's table. He was a big man, not only tall, but bulky. A huge gut hung over the waist of his faded denims, but the corded muscles in his arms were ample evidence that it would be foolish to dismiss him as harmless.
Mac drew his feet out from under the table. Everyone in the bar was watching the confrontation in the corner, so he was able to openly observe the apparent negotiations without being conspicuous. His gaze barely flickered in answer to Ken's exaggerated sigh.
"I suppose we're going to have to interfere. You know, you really should have picked another line of work. Slaying dragons would have suited you just fine." The woman shook her head violently and there was no mistaking the dark flood of color that rose in her face.
"Look. She's grabbing her purse. Maybe he'll let her leave."
Mac shook his head, pulling himself into a more upright position. "Something tells me that he isn't going to be that obliging. Stop complaining. You couldn't walk away from this any more than I could. Baldwin isn't coming. If we're careful and lucky, we can still get out of this without blowing our cover."
"Complaining! Who's complaining? I'm really looking forward to getting my head beat in by these overgrown gang members. There's nothing I enjoy more than a thoroughly impossible fight. I love the feeling that I can't possibly win. Besides, my last hospital stay wasn't nearly long enough. If I'm lucky, maybe I'll be able to get a permanent room set aside for me after they scrape me off the floor of this bar. Oh, damn! He's definitely not going to be a gentleman about it."
Mac got to his feet in one easy movement, throwing a reckless grin over his shoulder at his friend. "Look at it this way. We've poured enough booze on this floor to sterilize it. You might as well reap the benefits of being scraped off the only sterile floor in Tijuana."
Ken rose to his feet slowly. "I knew I should have listened to my mother when she told me to become a doctor," he muttered. "If I'd listened to her, I could be vacationing in Mazatlan instead of barhopping in Tijuana."
Despite his mumbled complaints, he was following Mac across the small room. Damned if he was going to let the other man have all the fun.
It had been a big mistake. Holly had decided that almost as soon as she had walked into the bar. Sheer stubbornness had made her stay. This was where Jason had told Mary-ann he would meet her. As Maryann's representative, she would wait for him there. But half an hour later, she decided that not even for her best friend was she going to spend another minute in the place.
She had already turned down two advances when the third man approached. The first two men had been particularly unprepossessing, but they had accepted her refusal with reasonably good grace. Something about this man told her he was not going to be so obliging. He swaggered across the room, his small eyes shifting from side to side to confirm that all his cronies were watching him approach the foreign woman.
She picked up her purse hurriedly, but he reached her table before she could rise. He spoke English but he didn't need verbal reinforcements. His gestures were unmistakable. Color surged into her face until she thought she might catch fire from the heat of it. At twenty-eight, Holly thought she'd heard it all, but this was something new to her.
"No, thank you." The polite words echoed ridiculously in her mind as she shook her head quickly, getting to her feet and wishing that she were an imposing five-foot-eight instead of a less-than-threatening five-three. She edged her way around the table, hoping that the cold distaste in her face would conceal the frightened pounding of her heart. When he reached out and put his filthy hand on her bare arm, she felt her stomach knot. She dragged her eyes from the grimy nails that dug shallow indentations into her pale skin to the cold gleam in his narrowed eyes.
His eyes met hers for a long, frightening moment before he turned his head and spit on the floor next to them. Holly's stomach heaved and she swallowed hard, tightening her grip on her purse and wishing that she had thought to put a lead weight in it before she came to Tijuana. She didn't bother to look around for help; she would find none in this place.
She met her captor's gaze head on, refusing to flinch away from the menace in his eyes. "Let go of my arm." The faint tremor in her voice lessened the impact of the demand, and he grinned, revealing a mouth full of broken, rotting teeth.
He drew her rigid frame closer, bending down until his fetid breath wafted across her face. She fought the urge to gag and tried to jerk her arm away, but his hold was unbreakable.
Before she could decide on her next move, a new player entered the game. A long hand, glittering with gold rings, reached between Holly and her tormentor, grasping the man's wrist.
"I think the lady asked you to let her go." Holly's gaze jerked to the newcomer. The flicker of hope that had entered her frightened eyes died. He was an American, but from the looks of him, he was not the type likely to be chosen for a chamber of commerce advertisement. She didn't even want to speculate what he had done to pay for the quantity of jewelry he wore, or how he had acquired the puckered scar that ran down the left side of his face.
He stood next to them casually, his eyelids drooping down over eyes that were a dark, indescribable blue. He looked as if he just might drop off to sleep at any moment.
Her tormentor spat out a short phrase in Spanish and it didn't take an interpreter to know that he was not being complimentary. The other man smiled gently.
"It's possible but I don't think so. Anyway, I didn't plan on discussing my family with you. The lady asked you to let go of her arm." The long, graceful fingers tightened, the smile never leaving his face.
To Holly's surprise, the first man released his hold on her arm. She rubbed at the faint red marks left behind, tightening her already white-knuckled grip on her purse. All she wanted was to get out of the bar before some new disaster arose, but she was hemmed in, caught between the two men and the table at her back.
They faced each other, their respective attitudes a study in contrast. The first man's eyes blazed angrily, his thick body tense. The American was totally relaxed. His arms hung languidly at his sides, and Holly had the distinct impression that he was stifling the urge to yawn. But then, that impression might be deceptive. His eyes never left the other man when he spoke to her.
"Maybe you should leave now, and if you take my advice, you'll avoid this area of Tijuana next time you visit."
She bristled a little at this unasked-for advice but he was too right to argue with. Her thank-you was strangled as she began to edge her way between the two of them, trying very hard to avoid contact with either of the men. She was caught squarely between them when the first man grabbed for her arm. She stiffened but didn't have time for more than that.
The bejeweled man behind her moved faster than she would have thought possible, his hand coming out and catching the grimy fingers before they touched her.
"You don't learn very fast, do you?" The voice was still soft and gentle, but Holly could feel the tension in the arm that skimmed her shoulder. "Why don't you get out of here before all hell breaks loose?" The last words were directed at her.
She dragged her fascinated gaze away from the sight of his long fingers wrapped around the other man's wrist. She took two steps and then stopped. The sound of a pin dropping would have echoed in the unnatural stillness of the bar. All eyes were glued to the sudden confrontation in their midst. Boredom had filled the day for most of the men there. Any diversion would be welcome, but the building tension between the fancy Americano and Paco Ramirez— this diversion offered more possibilities than most.
Holly had no way of knowing exactly what was going on in the minds of the bar's other patrons, but it was obvious that no one was going to try to stop the imminent fight. Common sense told her not to worry about it, to take the stranger's advice and get out of the bar. She didn't like the looks of him any more than of the other man. He could undoubtedly take care of himself. Her conscience rebelled, however.
She turned back reluctantly, her eyes skimming over his scarred face. He had released the man's arm but, other than that, their positions were unchanged.
"What about you?"
His gaze did not flicker away from his opponent. "I'm touched that you care, but I'll be fine. Now get out of here."
Holly Reynolds had never taken orders well. Her family and any of her friends could have told him that. Unfortunately, none of these people were around to give him this piece of information, though it might have saved him some grief.
If he had asked her to leave, she might have taken him up on it and ignored her conscience. But he ordered her to leave and she immediately decided that nothing would get her out of that bar until she was sure that he was unhurt. After all, she reasoned, he had come to her rescue. What kind of a person would she be if she left him all alone?
"I'm not going anywhere until I'm sure you'll be all right." The mulish tone would have warned anyone who knew her.
"For God's sake, lady, have you got a death wish?"
She set her teeth. "I'm not going without you. I couldn't live with myself if I did."
"Oh, great! I don't believe this. You're going to get us both killed." He might have expanded further on the subject but he didn't get a chance. He saw the blow coming, despite trying to watch both the crazy woman he was attempting to help and the man he faced. His left arm came up to block the blow while his right hand shot out to shove the woman farther back, following the motion with an awkwardly angled blow to the other man's stomach.
A ragged shout of excitement went up from the men in the bar. Only the cantina's owner was in disagreement with the opinion that a good fight was just what was needed to liven up the day.
For the next few minutes Mac had his hands full just trying to prevent his thick-set opponent from beating his head in. He and Ken were outnumbered, and Ken's prediction of being scraped off the floor might have come true if most of their would-be opponents hadn't gotten sidetracked into personal battles of their own.
Mac's memories of the fight were stored in brief images: Ken's wild war whoop as he waded into the fray until he and Mac stood back to back, the look of stunned surprise on Paco's square face when Mac's fist connected with his chin, snapping his head back. Without the need for words, he and Ken worked their way slowly toward the door. Mac searched the wild crowd for the woman who had been the cause of all this, and his eyes caught what would remain his favorite image. She stood on a chair near the door, wielding a heavy beer bottle with delicate—if indiscriminate—precision. More than one of the men went home with a headache that night.
"Are you ready?" Ken's voice was breathless with exertion as he dodged another fist and backed a little closer to the door. Mac disposed of his current opponent with a quick uppercut.
The two of them broke for the entry. Mac's longer strides brought him to the door two steps ahead of his friend. The high wail of sirens in the distance added an extra urgency to his steps.
Holly felt as if she were being swept up by a hurricane. She was standing on a chair, trying to visually sort the twisting mass of humanity into something recognizable. It seemed as if her eyes had just located the tall frame of her rescuer near the center of the room when he came surging toward her. She had a brief glimpse of his face and then one arm caught her around the knees, dumping her over his shoulder and knocking her breathless as he continued out the door.
Stars danced in front of her eyes and her ears rang as her lungs struggled to function. It wasn't easy, with the pressure of his wide shoulder knocking the air back out of her with every loping stride he took. She didn't have enough wind to protest his cavalier treatment or to demand that he put her down. She couldn't even be too worried about where he was taking her. Ail she wanted was a chance to draw a breath in comfort. The ringing in her ears gradually merged with a high, incessant sound that she vaguely identified as a siren. Before she had a chance to react to this new information, the sound was cut off as her captor made a quick right and came to a halt next to a high adobe wall.
He bent down and dropped her gently to her feet, and Holly backed away from him as quickly as her shaking legs would allow. The man looked even more disreputable in daylight than he had in the dingy bar. The scar that slashed his lean cheek competed for attention with a rough scrape high on the other cheekbone and an oozing cut on his lower lip. The pristine whiteness of his garish suit was marked by streaks of dirt.
The smile he gave her might have been intended to reassure, but the thick black mustache and horrible scar combined to give him a ferocious look that made her already overworked heart go into double overtime. Only the brilliant blue of his eyes kept her from trying to dart past him. The eyes held her attention, whether she willed it or not. She took another step back and came up hard against the wall. Her wide eyes stayed focused on his face. She tried to maintain an air of calm control while her thoughts whirled madly around.
Holly swallowed hard and began to edge her way to the side. He blocked her path out of the narrow alley, but maybe she could dart around him. She refused to consider that it would be impossible to outrun those incredibly long legs if he chose to recapture her.
"Sorry for the rough transportation. Are you all right?" His voice was a slow drawl. Not a Southern drawl but just a lazy intonation that softened and lengthened his words.
She nodded and managed a tentative smile. "I'm fine," she told him huskily. Maybe he was going to let her go without a fight. "Thank you for coming to my rescue in there." That was the way to do it, remind him of his good deed. Maybe he'd decide he didn't want to spoil his record. She edged a little farther along the wall and sighed with relief when he moved a step or two in the opposite direction. There was plenty of room for her to get around him now and he didn't show any signs of wanting to harm her.
Everything was going to be just fine, and she and Maryann would have a good laugh about this once Holly was safely back in Los Angeles.
"We're all clear. If anybody saw us come this way, they're not telling the local police."
Holly screamed and spun around, almost losing her footing on the loose stones that surfaced the alley. The new voice coming from directly behind her was totally unexpected. The man who had spoken raised his sandy eyebrows, surprised by her reaction. "I didn't mean to startle you, lady. I figured you must have heard me."
She shook her head, realizing even as she did so that she had heard him but had been concentrating so hard on the first man that she hadn't really registered the sound of his approach.
The newcomer grinned at her, and despite the empty space where his front teeth should have been, there was something so boyish in the expression that Holly relaxed slightly.
"Boy, you sure know how to cause trouble, lady. I thought I was going to end up with six broken ribs when Mac decided to play knight in shining armor."
Holly's eyes flickered to the other man, trying to imagine him as a knight in armor. The newcomer grinned again, seeing the doubt in her dark eyes. "Believe it or not, lady, he can't resist a damsel in distress. You wouldn't believe the number of times I've had to fight for my life just because I happened to be with him when he decided someone needed to be rescued."
The alleged knight gave his smaller companion a tolerant smile. "You're exaggerating, Ken. It must be that streak of Irish in you that can't resist embellishing every story you tell."