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Authors: Jackie Ashenden

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BOOK: Take Me Deeper
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She'd tried to escape out the back instead.

Christ, he should have known something was up. He'd gotten that feeling in his gut—the only one he never questioned, a soldier's instinct that something wasn't quite right—the moment she'd disappeared out the back. He should have followed her right then and there, but he'd given her the benefit of the doubt, waiting a couple of minutes.

Until the old guy behind the bar had looked around and muttered, “Where the fuck is Iris?”

And Zane had realized his mistake.

He'd gotten into the bathroom just in time to see her trying to push herself through that goddamn window.

Zane tightened his hand around her ankle, swearing as she kicked out violently at him, nearly catching his nose.

The little bitch.

He growled and pulled, jerking her back through the window hard enough to grab her by the thighs. She struggled, twisting and turning in his grip like a catfish. She'd seemed a small thing back there in the bar, nothing much to her, yet there was no denying the lithe strength he felt now as she tried to kick him again.

“Stop it,” he said tersely, gripping her tighter, trying to pull her down from the window in one firm yank.

She made a little sound, like she was in pain, and began to struggle even harder.

Zane had a lot of patience—as a sniper, he'd needed it. But the long journey home, the tense interaction he'd had with his brothers, and the need to get the hell out of Dodge as quickly as possible had all chipped away at it until there was virtually nothing left.

Struggling with this wildcat blew the remains of it to smithereens.

Jerking her down from the window, Zane pushed her face-first against the wall and pinned her there with a hand on the back of her neck. “Move,” he said clearly, coldly, “and I'll put a fucking bullet through you.”

She went still instantly, her breathing short and fast. “Asshole.” Her voice was soft, husky and breathless, and for some reason it seemed to reach right inside him and grab on tight.

He frowned. Her skin beneath his hand was very warm, and he was suddenly aware that he couldn't remember the last time he'd actually been this close to a woman. He'd had some leave in Germany awhile back and had gone with some of his buddies to a strip club in Frankfurt. One of them had paid for a lap dance for him, which he'd hated every second of. Jesus. That had been months ago, six months at least.

The muscles of her neck were tense, he could feel them beneath his fingertips, and she was shaking very slightly. She smelled of a flower of some kind, he couldn't place it, but it was sweet and feminine and not at all unpleasant. In fact, it reminded him of his mother's garden, back when she was still alive, and he used to sit and watch her as she bent over the flowers she'd lovingly drawn from the hard Texas soil…

Iris Callahan chose that moment to move, pulling violently out of his hold, her foot lashing out to kick him squarely in the nuts.

But Zane was Special Forces and no one kicked him in the nuts if he didn't want them to, still less a violent little wildcat of a skip. He grabbed her foot before it could connect with anything valuable and pulled her neatly off balance. She gave a startled cry, her arms going wide as she tried to stop herself from falling backward, but he whipped an arm around her waist, catching her, turning her, and pushing her back up against the wall again. And this time he caged her there with his body so she couldn't move.

“About that bullet,” he said harshly. “Try that again and you can choose which kneecap it goes through before I shoot you in the head.”

She was panting, the warmth of her small body somehow becoming distracting.

“Go to hell, prick.” There was anger in her voice and something else he recognized. The thin edge of fear.

“Been there. Done that. Got the fucking T-shirt.” He glanced down. The top of her head was just below his chin, the black hair still in her ponytail tickling his mouth. The rest of it was falling down her back in long, glossy lengths like streaks of oil. “Now, do as you're told like a good girl and I won't use my handcuffs.”

“Awww. Spoilsport.” A thread of sarcasm wound through her voice. “Handcuffs are fun.”

Snarky little witch. Christ, she'd almost gotten away on him and he knew what would happen if he didn't manage to keep hold of her. Quinn would laugh him into the next state, and Rush would give him shit from now until doomsday. Then they'd probably kill him for spoiling the old man's perfect record, because Redmonds always got their man.

His mood, already foul, took a turn for fouler. “Are you going to do that again?”

“What? Kick you in the balls? Sure.”

“Then you must really like handcuffs.”

“Oh yeah, some of my best moments have been in handcuffs.” She shoved back at him. “Get the fuck off me, dick. I can't breathe.”

He really should move. Yet he didn't. After all, she could be a secret black belt or something and it was better to be sure. He didn't like taking chances if he didn't have to and it was part of why he'd survived a number of apparently unsurvivable missions.

“Only if you do as you're told,” he said shortly.

“Fuck you.” She shoved back at him again.

He remained unshoved.

“You asshole!” She pushed back a third time, her spine pressing hard against his chest. “Get off me!”

But he didn't budge.

Right. Because she's a black belt and you're afraid she might actually manage to kick you in the nuts.

Yeah, well, of course. Nothing to do with the heat of her body or that tantalizing, flowery scent. Or the fact that he was rather enjoying being this close to a woman again. Even if said woman was a hellcat intent on damaging his ability to have children.

“Call me all the names you want,” he said, shutting all those thoughts right down. “I'm not moving until you do as you're told.”

She went quiet for a long moment. “Fine.” The word was laden with sulky reluctance and frustration. “I'll do whatever you want. Just get the hell away from me.”

Ignoring his own weird sense of reluctance, Zane finally stepped back from her, giving her some room. Slowly, she turned around to face him.

He blinked as he became aware of two very important facts: that her T-shirt had a massive rip right down the middle of it, revealing a lacy red bra and the round curves of a beautiful pair of tits, and that there was a long scratch down the pale, vulnerable skin of her stomach and it was bleeding, the blood almost the same color as her bra.

He didn't know which thing hit him harder: the sight of her bare skin or the fact that in pulling her back through the window, he'd obviously hurt her. Whatever, it rapidly became a moot point when the door of the bathroom banged open and some guy came in, holding something in his hand.

It took Zane only a moment to recognize that the guy held a gun and that the gun was pointed at the woman behind him, and that if he didn't take action immediately, someone was going to die.

Well, it wasn't going to be him. Or her for that matter. Not today.

Following a reflex instilled by years of training, he moved without hesitation, grabbing the hand holding that gun and twisting it hard. The man grunted, falling forward. Zane brought up his knee into the guy's stomach, then hit him hard over the back of his head with the stock of his own gun.

The guy dropped to the ground unconscious.

And Iris Callahan tore right past him and out the door.

Chapter 3

It was probably her only chance of escape and Iris took it without a second thought. As Zane Redmond hit the Dallas asshole over the back of the head, she dodged past him and dashed out the door, heading straight down the hallway and through the door to the bar.

Her heart was thumping hard, fear coiling like a snake in her gut. Dimly she knew that her T-shirt was sagging open and the scratch down her front was hurting like a bastard, but the pain seemed diffuse somehow, masked by the adrenaline pumping through her.

She could still feel the incredible heat of Zane's body up against her back and she had no idea at all why she kept thinking about it. Not when getting out of here in neither handcuffs or a body bag seemed far more important. Yet the memory of it stuck stubbornly in her head as she stepped back out into the bar, her skin strangely sensitive, as if she'd brushed up against a too-hot stove or stayed out sunbathing too long.

It was weird. She'd never had a reaction to a man like that before and it disturbed the hell out of her, especially given the fact that said man wanted to handcuff her and haul her ass back to Dallas.

Iris swallowed, shoving the thought of him away as she folded her arms across her chest and walked back into the bar, making a beeline for the exit. Every part of her wanted to run, but she didn't want to draw attention to herself. Thank God she'd put her car keys in her pocket and not left them in her purse.

She was halfway across the room when Frank spotted her. “Hey!” he yelled. “Where the hell do you think you're going?”

Iris didn't pause, and she didn't look in his direction. Just kept heading straight toward the exit.

“Hey, Callahan! I'm talking to you!”

She ignored him, finally reaching the exit and shoving open the door. She paused to look behind her to check where Zane was, and her heart clenched in her chest as she saw him come through the door that led to the bathrooms, his startling blue eyes cold and intent.

Jesus, he looked like the freaking Terminator.

Iris didn't waste another moment, turning and stepping outside. She began to run toward the parking lot outside the bar where she'd parked her battered Toyota, grabbing the keys from her back pocket as she went.

Fear had her by the throat and she didn't want to think about the guy unconscious in the bathroom or the ease with which Zane had taken him down. Didn't want to think about Zane hot on her heels, taking her down with the same ease.

She didn't dare look behind her again, sprinting toward her car. There was no one around, which was a shame because she might have screamed and maybe someone would have helped her. Then again, maybe not. He had a badge and she'd skipped bail after all.

There was no sound behind her but she didn't slow down, racing around a massive Dodge to where her little car was parked. Aiming the fob of her keys toward the car, she pushed the button, hoping like hell the touchy central locking mechanism would work. Obligingly the car beeped.

Thank God.

Iris flung herself at the driver's side door, reaching for the handle.

Only to have a heavy hand land on the back of her neck, grip her tightly, then shove her up hard against the side of the car.

Fuck.
Fuck.

“Going somewhere?” the asshole asked softly in that cold voice of his.

Iris was horrified to find tears of anger and frustration pricking the backs of her eyes. Stupid. She never cried. Never.

She wanted to shove him away, stamp on his foot, kick him hard in the balls the way she'd tried to in the bathroom, but she knew that wasn't going to work. He'd moved so fast, grabbing her ankle and neatly tipping her off balance. Then there was the way he'd knocked out that guy. No, fighting him off wasn't going to work and she knew it.

As if to illustrate the fact, the hand on the back of her neck tightened. “I asked you a question.” His voice was at her ear, his breath feathering across her skin. And it was strange how warm it felt when his voice was so cold.

A helpless shiver went through her, which in turn made her furious. “I was getting the hell away from you, what does it look like?” She tried to turn, but the grip on the back of her neck only tightened even more, holding her in place.

He must have been standing close because she could feel him there behind her, the heat of his body hotter than the sun overhead.

She swallowed, staring at the cracked red paintwork on her car, trying to make herself relax, maybe lull him into letting her go so she could make another dash for freedom. Because really, what other choice did she have? She couldn't go to jail, she just couldn't. The cartel would find some way to kill her and then she'd never see Jamie again…

“Bad idea, little girl.” The pressure on her neck vanished only for the iron grip of his fingers to close around her wrists, jerking them behind her back. Then came the distinctive sound of handcuffs snapping closed.

Her heart sank, her throat closing up. This was it. The end of the road. There would be no escaping, not now that the fucking Terminator had her. He was going to return her to Dallas and she'd have to testify—if she was lucky to survive that long. And even if she did, she wouldn't survive much longer after that, not if Shaw had anything to do with it.

Strong fingers gripped her arm, spinning her around, and she found herself staring up into those intense eyes. They were so cold, scanning her with purely clinical interest. Then they dropped further down to where her T-shirt hung in shreds and stayed there. Something flared deep in the icy sapphire depths, a burst of heat…

Her breath caught. Hell. She knew a man's interest when she saw it and that was definitely interest right there. So, he wasn't so cold after all. Good to know.

Before her mother had taken off to Los Angeles, leaving her kids to fend for themselves because apparently a man was more important to her than her daughters, she'd given Iris only one piece of advice that was worth anything, and that had been to use other people before they used you. Iris could definitely use that interest, oh yes, she could. Sex was a tool like everything else, especially when it concerned survival. And hey, it wasn't like this was the first time she'd used it, right?

“Are you going to keep staring at me, perv, or are you actually going to arrest me?” She made no move to cover herself. Not that she could anyway, given her hands were cuffed behind her back.

He ignored her, his gaze moving further down, to where the long scratch extended over her stomach. He had straight, slightly winged brows and they tilted as he frowned. “That from the window?”

“What do you think?”

His frown deepened. “We should get it cleaned up.”

Oh great, so he was one of
those
. The guy with the protective instincts who tried to help yet only ended up making things worse. Dylan had started out as one of those and look at what had happened with him.

She was wary about that kind of shit nowadays.

“Look, just put me in your goddamn car and take me wherever the hell you need to take me,” she said impatiently. “I don't need cleaning up. I don't need anything, okay?”

Slowly, he lifted his gaze back to hers, his expression absolutely impassive. “Who was that guy in the bathroom? The one with the gun?”

Oh shit. She'd nearly forgotten.

“How would I know?” she lied, glancing over to the door of the bar. No way in hell was she going to explain that whole crappy situation to him. At least not here and not now. “But maybe we should get out of here just in case he comes after us.”

Zane opened his mouth to say something, but at that moment the door of the bar banged open and Shaw's paid heavy came out, rubbing the back of his head and looking murderous.

Her heart leapt into her throat. “Dammit. Can we go now, do you think?”

Zane turned around, saw the guy, and muttered a curse. “Come on.” He gripped her arm and pulled her away from her car, hustling her toward a truck on the other side of the lot.

There was a sharp report and something fast and hot whizzed by her ear. This time her heart didn't bother with her throat and tried to launch itself out the front of her chest instead.

Zane cursed again and pulled her over to the truck, jerking open the back door. Then there was a moment of dizzying helplessness as he picked her up and threw her inside before slamming the door shut behind her.

For a second Iris could only lie there on the backseat, blinking at the roof above her, hearing the crack of another gunshot as the driver's side door opened and Zane got in. “Hold on,” he ordered sharply, the truck roaring to life.

But there wasn't anything to hold on to since her hands were cuffed behind her back, and she almost fell off the seat entirely as Zane planted his foot, the truck taking off in a squeal of tires and a clatter of loose gravel.

Squirming around, she managed to sit up, turning to look out the back window. Luckily it seemed that no one was coming after them. For now at least.

“You know who that was.” Zane's voice was flat and it was definitely not a question.

Iris stared at the back of his head, mainly because that was easier to look at than the flash of brilliant sapphire she kept catching in the rearview mirror.

She really didn't want to get into it. But he probably wasn't going to let her sit there in silence, and most especially not after he'd been shot at.

“Yeah,” she said at last, slumping against the back of the seat. “Kind of.”

“Tell me.” It was an order, no mistake.

Iris leaned her head back. The adrenaline that had propelled her, first into the bathroom and almost through the window, then out into the parking lot, was receding, leaving her cold and shaky. She hadn't been sleeping that well for the past month either—not with being constantly worried about Jamie and whether Shaw would find out where she was—and now it felt like she couldn't move for exhaustion.

She should have been fighting. She should have been trying to unlock the door and throwing herself from the moving vehicle. Or something.

Except what was the point? Either the douchebag back at the bar would find her or the T-1000 in the front would, and then she'd be dead either way.

You've got nothing more to lose.

No, she had one thing. Jamie. But then she'd already lost her, hadn't she?

Iris closed her eyes. “What do you want to know?”

“You can start by telling me why that bastard was trying to kill you.”

“Perhaps it wasn't me he was trying to kill. Perhaps he was trying to kill you for being such an asshole.”

A chilly silence greeted her.

Okay, so he had no sense of humor as well as being a giant douchebag. Lucky her.

You're not going to make any friends by being a dick, Callahan.

Well, geez, she knew that. But really, why make nice? Zane Redmond was either one of those protector guys or the kind who followed the rules to the letter, and whichever he was, one thing was certain. She was screwed.

When men were involved, she always was.

Keeping her eyes closed, she allowed herself to relax a bit. “If you've seen my record, then you'll know who he is.”

There was another silence, this time less chilly.

“I've seen it.” The words were crisp and full of disapproval. “So let me guess, the cartel you were running drugs for doesn't want you to testify against them?”

It was almost a relief to have someone else know. To not have to explain. Not that she generally told everyone her business. In fact, it was usually the opposite; she didn't tell
anyone
about
anything
if she could help it.

She said nothing, letting him work it out for himself, and he must have because then he said, “That's why you skipped bail.” Again, not a question.

“One hundred points to the douchebag in the front of the truck,” she murmured.

The hum of the engine was vaguely calming, the gentle movement as Zane drove lulling her. He had the air-con on, but it wasn't too cold, and she could feel a beam of sunshine lying warmly over her face.

God, she was tired.

“What happened?” Another harsh order. “Why the hell were you running drugs for the cartels?”

But she didn't want to answer him. Didn't want to talk about Jamie or what she'd done to lose her. Didn't want to talk about how the hell she was going to get her back. What she really wanted to do was sleep.

“I'll tell you,” she muttered. “Just give me five minutes.”

Five minutes later she was asleep.

—

She was asleep. Jesus Christ. The damn woman had tried to escape through a bathroom window, attempted to kick him in the balls, been cuffed and shot at, and now she was fast asleep.

No wonder she was tired.

Zane took another glance at her in the rearview mirror.

Her head was turned to the side and she was half slumped down the back of the seat. It looked like a hideously uncomfortable position and yet she seemed to be sleeping like a baby. Her ponytail had come out, black hair tumbling all over her narrow, delicately pointed face. God, she looked young. What the hell was someone so young doing running drugs for the southern cartels?

Why the hell are you so interested?

Zane scowled and pulled his gaze back to the road.

There was a reason he was interested. A very good reason. He didn't like being nearly killed on what was supposed to be a standard pickup, and he wanted to know what the fuck was going on. That she was being pursued by her former bosses wasn't a big surprise, all things considered, but he would have appreciated a heads-up from Quinn at the very least.

Well, he could chew that bastard out later. Right now, he needed to get her back to Lone Star in one piece and preferably himself too.

He glanced in the mirror again, because apparently the fact that he needed to keep a massive truck from crashing into other cars wasn't enough to keep his attention on the road. Not when he had a feral little bail-jumper in the back.

BOOK: Take Me Deeper
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