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Safe With a Stranger

June 2008
Silhouette Romantic Suspense
ISBN # 978-0373275878

Rule # 1: Stay out of it

Josh Ryan knew he wasn’t going to heed his own warning. A single mom and a baby on the run? Two men in hot pursuit? Josh’s ranger training and his Texas roots left him no choice—he was hardwired to help.

Rule # 2: Do anything to save her

But the battle-scarred ex-soldier didn’t want to be a hero. And now the very worst had happened—he had fallen in too deep. Clare had gotten under his skin, and her little son was looking at him with adoring eyes. He’d broken the unwritten code, making Clare even more of a target in the process. To save her, he would have to do the unthinkable. He’d have to make her go…

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Safe With a Stranger

 

“We don’t have a lot of extra time before we have to catch the plane,” Josh said without taking his eyes from the road ahead. “Don’t forget the schedule.”

“If we have any chance at all of making this act work at the airport or anywhere else,” Clare said with a snap in her voice. “Then we need to buy you some new clothes and something more...uh...suburban in the way of luggage.”

“What? What’s wrong with what I’ve got?”

She tried to hide her smile. “Well, I personally like the big, bad Ranger/slash/cowboy look on you. It’s...sexy. But I don’t think it goes along well with the idea of a man bringing his wife with him to D.C. on business. Do you?”

“Sexy?” Josh darted her a dark look. “What do you suggest instead?”

“Maggie and I stopped at that discount store earlier today when we bought the cell phone for you to carry. I got myself this nice plain pants suit and a small carry-on. I’m sure we can find something for you that’s a little less edgy than what you have.”

Josh’s jaw tightened but he calmly turned into the parking lot. “Less edgy, huh? I can hardly wait.”

A few moments later, Josh reluctantly climbed out of the truck, jammed the Stetson lower on his forehead and followed a sprightly Clare as she marched in through the automatic sliding doors. She headed straight to the men’s clothes and began checking out the racks of pants. The first pair she put her hand on were navy polyester and Josh’s stomach turned.

“What size do you wear?” she asked without turning from the rack.

God save him. The woman had gotten him all tangled up, and he could barely utter a sound. It would be one thing for them to playact as husband and wife on an airplane, but to have her choosing his clothes felt much too intimate.

He stood silently swearing at himself for his own foolishness at ever agreeing to this crazy plan in the first place. But the more he watched her diligently searching the racks, the more he found himself captivated by the curve of her shoulder and the way her hair curled down her neck.

And so, in spite of his efforts not to, Josh lost control of the situation.

She turned to stare at him, while her fingers tapped lightly on the hanger in her hand. “Earth to Josh. I thought we’d agreed you need to look like someone who’s going to a business meeting. Quit staring at me. Just which one of us will make us late now?”

Lord have mercy. “There’s only one way any kind of businessman coming from Texas would dress,” he muttered. “Leave it to me. You go round up whatever luggage you think looks better than my duffle.”

Clare bristled, but shut her mouth and went to look at the luggage. She wondered if this whole idea had been smart after all. Josh had been touchy ever since he’d gone to see his father. So touchy, yet so damned sexy she could barely concentrate. Swallowing down the wave of lust she felt every time he was nearby, she decided that for right now, she would act instead of think.

Not long afterward, she rolled a super light, upright carry-on bag in a tasteful shade of dark gray toward the check-out cashiers at the front of the store. From the corner of her eye she saw Josh with his back to her as he stood peering into a glass-fronted counter. He was wearing a pair of dress jeans, a long-sleeved dress shirt in a muted denim shade of blue. And when he turned, she saw he had on an impressive red-striped tie. Clare was touched by his quick change and nearly dumbfounded with the picture he made of the clean-cut Texas business man.

She made a u-turn in the middle of the aisle and walked up beside him just as his gaze seemed to be searching the store aisles.

“There you are, darlin’,” he said when he spotted her. He reached out and drew her close. “I want your opinion on something.”

It pleased her to think he’d been looking for her. Maybe it pleased her a little bit too much. She didn’t want to let him keep getting to her like this. Their situation was difficult enough.

When she got close enough to see, she discovered the glass case was the jewelry counter. Then she noticed the expression on the face of the woman behind it, and Clare was floored. The woman was giving her a “you-got-it-made, girl” kind of look. A look that clearly said the middle-aged woman wished she’d hooked a man like Josh.

Josh picked up a braided silver band and held it out to her. “This ring isn’t that fancy, but it made me somehow think of you. You can’t be married without rings, you know.” He secretly winked at her as if to let her know this was all just part of the act.

But Clare didn’t feel like acting. Torn between pulse spiking desire and total disbelief, she could only give him a weak smile.

His grin faltered as she silently stood there staring down at the ring in his hand as if it were a bomb. “You don’t like it. My fault. But I was just trying to do the right thing. If you would rather have one of those platinum and diamond rings, that’ll be fine.”

“Nn…no,” she sputtered, feeling as though her insides were sliding into a pool of warm chocolate. “I wouldn’t trade it for… Um. I mean, nothing wrong with this one.”

Her knees knocked together as she tried the plain band on her ring finger. It fit perfectly. In fact, the way the ring fit and looked after she’d put it on her finger quickly turned in her mind to a fairy tale. The story of a solid man who had picked it out, and of how much he truly loved the woman who would wear his promise on her hand for life.

If only that story wasn’t just all lies in their case.

“Fits just right,” she said weakly. “We’ll take it.”

Fifteen minutes later, they were through the check-out line and back beside Lucille, the pickup. Clare’s head was spinning. She couldn’t stop sneaking peeks at her left hand. Cripes. She’d been the one who’d started this whole impossible journey, but now things were moving beyond her control.

Out beside Lucille once again, Josh tore the tags off the new piece of luggage and crammed a few of his things inside, then turned to her. Sunlight gleamed in his rich dark brown hair. His coffee-colored eyes darkened to ebony and filled with something she would swear seemed like passion.

He touched her cheek. “You were right. About the clothes and the bag. They make us look right together. A better picture for our act.”

“And thank you for the rings.” Only rudimentarily aware of the change in her breathing, Clare let hormones rule, stood on tiptoes and touched her lips to his with a feather-light kiss of gratitude.

But when he gasped, she let herself fall into the fantasy and deepened the kiss. Josh didn’t take long to respond in kind. With lightning speed, he dug his hands in her hair and hauled her closer, wedging her body between his thighs. He cruised his mouth over hers, promising heaven with his touch and driving her wild with the primal thrust of his tongue.

The thrumming pulse ran from him to her, creating one hell of an incredibly female earthquake to curse through her body. Catching her chin with gentle fingers and holding her fast, he crushed his mouth to hers, sensually exploring and tasting until the tiny quakes growing inside her turned to huge, 9.0 on the Richter Scale tremors.

“Josh?”

Through the haze in his head, Josh heard her say his name. It slipped off her tongue easily. Like something she said all the time without giving it a second thought. As though she’d spoken his name in hundreds of moments of companionable reflection– or in the heat of passion.

His pulse picked up speed as she clung to him. Rubbing his hands up and down her ribcage and lightly rolling his thumbs up under her breasts, he discovered something wonderful. The tiny mewling sounds she made as he stroked her body were turning him hot, hard and wild. Lost and becoming more and more impatient to be rid of the layers of clothes separating his fingers from her warmth, Josh nearly quit thinking altogether.

But while whatever was left of his brain focused on Clare, a car came up the parking lot aisle toward them, revving its engine. Josh heard the sound in the back of his mind and actually processed what it meant. Managing to find a shred of survival instinct still intact, he dropped his hands and set her back just as the car rumbled past.

Frustration shimmied along every nerve ending. He exhaled hard, and fought to bring down the fire.

“What just happened?” Clare asked as she swayed on her feet, clearly dazed.

The bruised look of her swollen lips and the slightly mussed look of her long, blond hair shocked him and knocked him flat. He should’ve kept his damn hands off her.

“You kissed me.” Josh heard the annoyance in his voice and managed to pull himself into the moment by letting that irritation have its way. “Why’d you do it?”

“I...” She looked up into his face and the prettiest shade of blush colored her cheeks. “It’s not my fault. You turn my head around with your darlins’ and your winks and your rings...and with your whole damn act.”

“Aren’t we supposed to be acting?” he asked wickedly. “I thought that’s what this was all about.”

She bristled, then apparently found her backbone and straightened up. “You’re too good at acting. I lose track. From now on, don’t improvise. Just follow your sister’s plan. Okay?”

Without answering, he gritted his teeth, sucked in a breath and hustled her into the pickup. They were late enough already.


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