He hated being bored. When Remy Stuart felt bored, he had the tendency to do rash things like…steal million-dollar necklaces. Screw over the CIA team that mistakenly thought he was some sort of reformed bad guy who they had on a leash. Or maybe, just for the hell of it…being bored made him want to forge a few new pieces of artwork that he could then sell to unfortunate fools who needed to be parted with their wealth.
Remy sat in the corner of the rundown bar, not touching his beer. He’d made the mistake of sipping it earlier and was pretty sure the beer had to be modeled after battery acid. The beer bottle—and beer inside said bottle—grew warmer, his mood took a sour turn, and Remy decided that being on the right side of the law just was not for him. Being good was simply too boring.
The bar’s door opened with a creak. He’d picked his spot deliberately so that he would be able to see every single person who entered and left the bar. A personality quirk, he liked to look at faces. He actually never forgot a face. A talent Remy possessed. As soon as he saw someone, he did a mental sketch in his mind. The image stayed with him.
So as the door opened, he tilted his head and…
Wrong bar, sweetness. Wrong man. Wrong night.
The woman who peeked inside didn’t belong in the bar. Her face was all angelic grace and ethereal beauty, with dark, arched brows over the deepest, greenest eyes he’d ever seen. Even across the room, her eyes were stunning. Her lips were unpainted, a pale pink, but lush. And her hair was a tangled tumble of darkness.
His eyes narrowed. Was that a leaf in the darkness of her hair?
No music played in the bar. Not exactly that kind of place. The floors were dusty, the service was nonexistent, and a flickering light bounced over the one pool table in the joint. Remy had spent plenty of time in places one hell of a lot better.
He’d also spent too much time in places that were worse.
The lost angel stood in the doorway, one delicate hand gripping the edge of the door far too tightly. Probably trying to decide if she should come fully inside or turn away and run.
Turn away and run. That would be the smart choice.
Instead, her emerald eyes locked on him. She swallowed. Her whole body trembled, as if the woman was utterly terrified. But she let go of the door and stepped toward him.
Such a poor life choice. But Remy arched a brow. His gaze also slid down her body. She wore a white dress. Long and flowing, it hid entirely too much of her body. The bottom of her dress was dark and spattered with what appeared to be mud. The dress was spattered and so were her bare feet.
Remy straightened. She had cute toes. Red toenail polish adorned them. So did a great deal of dirt, as if the angel had just walked—or run—through the muddy woods in order to reach the bar at the edge of town.
Halfway, Georgia, wasn’t exactly a tourist mecca. Sure, it was nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the views were phenomenal, but this town wasn’t like the others in the area. It was more of a pitstop—thus, the name. The few locals in the area liked to joke that when you reached the town, you were halfway to one of the more entertaining cities.
No one ever stayed in Halfway. Nothing ever happened in the small speck of a town. So, yes, it had seemed like the perfect hiding place for Remy.
The woman in white had almost reached his table. He could feel a frown pulling at his brows. He would have turned to look around the bar to see if maybe she’d confused him with someone else, but, other than the bartender, he was the only other person in the bar. Well, he had been. Now she was there so—
She stopped right at the edge of his wobbly, wooden table. “I need your help.”
Remy smiled at her. “Sweetness, you obviously have me confused with someone else.”
“No, I-I understand that you don’t know me…”
He leaned forward. Studied her. Did the usual mental sketch in his mind. Oh, how I could paint the hell out of her. “Your eyes are quite spectacular. A very strong, vivid shade of green.” He’d seen a meadow in Ireland that shade once.
“What?” Even as she asked the confused question, she darted a look back toward the bar’s entrance. Her thick hair trailed over her shoulder.
He saw a second leaf. His lips pursed. Someone had definitely spent time in the woods. And that white dress of hers—though dirty—was certainly interesting. If he didn’t know better, Remy might think he was staring at a runaway bride.
But I don’t know better, do I? His night had certainly perked up.
Her head jerked back toward him.
He studied her face. The angles. The softness. The slopes. In his mind, Remy continued his sketch. “Great nose. Very elegant. Heart-shaped face. Bow lips. And your skin has a golden tint. I’m thinking…Italian? Maybe Italian on one side of the family and either Irish or English on the other?”
Her bow lips parted. She blinked.
Remy shrugged. “It’s okay to say I’m right. I’m really good at things like this.”
She slapped her hands down on the table. At the sudden movement, his bottle of beer shook and began to topple. Casually, Remy reached out his hand and caught it before the beer could do anything fortunate like shatter and spill all over the floor.
“Please.” Her voice was nice. Husky. Warm. “I need your help.”
Again with the H-word. Tragic. Remy released the beer and rose. He tossed a twenty onto the table. The bartender was staring at a football game on a miniscule TV, not paying them any attention. “This is where I think the confusion originates. You seem to believe I am someone who helps. I’m not.” But, well, he could give her helpful advice. He edged around the table toward her.
The angel backed up a quick step and sucked in a breath.
Average height. Maybe five-foot-six or so. She tilted her head back to look up at him.
“Rodney over there follows the rules of most local establishments.” Remy pointed to the bartender.
Her gaze flew toward the back of Rodney’s gleaming head. Rodney made a habit of shaving his head clean every three days. Like clockwork.
“What rules?” she whispered.
“No shirt, no shoes, no service.” Remy pointed downward at her adorable, though dirty, toes. “Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you appear to have lost something.”
She grabbed his shirtfront. Fisted the fabric beneath her hands. “I need to get out of here!”
Remy raised his hand and plucked a leaf from her hair. “Did you run through the woods?”
“Yes.” She shivered. Clutched his shirt even tighter. “I saw the big, black truck outside. Tell me it’s yours.”
Technically, it wasn’t, but he lied all the time so… “It’s mine.”
“Take me away in it.”
Now Remy realized that he was going to say words that he never, ever had thought he would say, especially given his previous type of work. “You seem to be having some sort of incident.”
“What?” Her glorious eyes doubled in size.
“Your clothes are muddy. You have leaves in your hair. You’ve lost your shoes.” He shrugged. “And you’re approaching a complete stranger for help. I’m assuming all of this means you’re in some sort of danger.”
And here were the words. The ones he couldn’t believe he was about to utter but… “I would suggest calling the cops. The local sheriff is surprisingly adequate.” He reached for her hands. Closed his fingers around her wrists and…
Heat slid up from his fingertips. He frowned but didn’t pry her hands from his shirt.
“Don’t turn me over to the cops!”
Interesting word choice from his mystery lady.
“Please…” She looked over her shoulder once more. She kept doing that, as if she feared that someone had followed her. But no one else had entered the bar. “I just need a ride. Take me out of here. Act like—act like we’re together.”
A sigh slipped from Remy. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you that strangers can be dangerous? You should not approach them. You should not ask for rides from them.” He considered the matter. “I think you’re also not supposed to take candy from them.”
Her head whipped back toward him. Those deep, deep green eyes locked on him. Such big eyes.
“I don’t have candy,” he murmured. “Sorry to disappoint.”
“Are you dangerous?” she squeaked.
Ah, well, at least she’d paid attention to that part of his little speech. “In so many wonderful ways, yes.” A thousand times, yes.
The mystery lady immediately freed him. She stepped back. Shoved her hands behind her body.
Fabulous. Now they were making real progress. He pointed to the oblivious Rodney. “He has a phone behind the counter. Call the sheriff.” There. Remy had done his due diligence. Time to be on his merry way back to his cabin in the woods. Except…
He plucked the second leaf from her hair and put it on the table. He also didn’t leave.
She swallowed and made no move to approach Rodney as he continued to watch his game. “Please.” Barely a breath. “I just need to disappear for tonight. Just one night, that’s all I’m asking.”
Do not do this… “And you want to disappear with me?” Her skin was truly lovely, and she had amazing bone structure. Not conventionally pretty, but something so much more. Arresting. No, entrancing. There was something about the way her features flowed together…
I want to paint her. No, more than that. I need to paint her.
Remy stiffened as the thought registered.
“Look, it’s not like I have a whole lot of choice.” Now she sounded disgruntled. “You’re the only guy with a ride.”
Not true. “I’m sure Rodney has a vehicle out back.” It was actually a bicycle, but that still counted as a vehicle, didn’t it?
Her lush lips pressed into a line. Then, she said, “If I ask for his help, your friend Rodney will probably call the sheriff you keep talking about.”
“Oh, that’s quite possible. Especially since they’re brothers. And he’s not my friend. We’re barely acquaintances.” He liked Rodney’s bar because Rodney didn’t give a shit about him. Rodney didn’t ask questions, and Remy didn’t have to deal with a crowd when he came to the bar.
A gasp tore from her. “Brothers?” She turned to run—
But he caught her hand. Easily, casually, he pulled her back toward him. Remy also noticed that she didn’t try to resist his pull at all. “Have we been involved in something illegal tonight? Not judging, mind you. I’m just vaguely curious.” More than vaguely.
“I haven’t done anything illegal!”
“That’s disappointing.” Until that low but passionate response, she’d been livening up his night. At her frown, Remy continued, “Oh, sorry, I guess I was judging.” A little illegal fun would have amped up the stakes.
A furrow lingered between her delicate brows even as she wet her lips. A quick, nervous swipe of her pink tongue. “I really, really need a ride.” She trembled again. “I can’t be found. I can’t.”
Fear seemed to roll from her. He could feel her pulse racing beneath his touch as his fingers circled her wrist. A delicate wrist. Fragile. Too easily broken. As were so many things in this world. “What’s your name?” Why had he asked? He didn’t care.
“Jacqueline.” A slow exhale. “Jacqueline Peters.”
He liked her name. Jacqueline. Elegant. Classic. Remy peered down at her bare feet.
“It’s been an incredibly bad night,” she confessed as her shoulders hunched. “I hitchhiked almost to town, but the truck driver wasn’t coming to Halfway, so he had to let me out.”
“You hitchhiked…” His lips wanted to curl. “In a wedding dress?”
“Guessing it looked better before you ripped the hem out of it and lost nearly all the pearls that had been around the front?” He could still see one or two pearls dangling, as if they were holding on for dear life.
Her lower lip trembled. Her eyes filled with tears.
Shocked, oddly horrified, Remy immediately dropped his hold on her hand. “Don’t do that.”
“What?” Jacqueline sniffed.
Cry. Do not cry. “Get all watery.”
“What?” She swiped her hand over her cheek where—sure enough, she’d teared up. “Do you mean cry? Did you just tell me not to cry?”
“I did, yet you are.” He snagged an ancient napkin from the middle of his table and stuffed it into her hand. “I would appreciate it if you would stop doing that.” Because now his chest felt uncomfortably tight, and surely that was not a conscience trying to rear its head inside of him?
Usually, his conscience was dead quiet on most things. But, with her…
I don’t like her tears.
“It’s been an incredibly stressful forty-eight hours for me, okay? I can’t help it.” She dabbed at her eyes.
“Fuck.” There was no choice. He was going to do this…
She peeked at him from beneath the napkin.
“I will give you a ride,” Remy heard himself say.
She hurtled herself at him. Remy grunted at the impact because he had not been expecting her to hit him with the force of a mini tornado. For someone seemingly so delicate, she had a very strong grip.
“Thank you.” A heartfelt sigh of gratitude. “You have saved my life.”
His hands hovered in the air. Was he supposed to hug her in return? Give her a reassuring pat on the back?
Grab her tight and not let go?
Whoa. That last thought had come out of nowhere and was absolutely not the right response in this situation. So Remy went with option two. His left hand awkwardly patted her on the back. “There, there.” That seemed appropriate enough. “Though, I hardly think a ride equals a life-saving deed.”
Her head lifted. Tear drops clung to her long lashes. “It does to me.”
Uh, huh. “Were you this grateful to the truck driver?”
She still held him. Still gazed up at Remy with her desperate gaze. “Even more so. He got me out of—” Jacqueline stopped. Didn’t tell him exactly what she’d gotten out of, before adding, “So I paid him with the ring. I didn’t want it, and he’d been so kind that it was the least I could do.” She swallowed and seemed to finally realize that she was gripping Remy too tightly. That her body had pressed closely to his.
He could feel all her curves. Her lush breasts. Her warmth. He could—
She jerked back. “The ring was the only thing of value I had on me. I-I can’t offer you anything else as payment.” Her hands twisted in front of her.
“Sure, the ring was the only thing. Totally makes sense to me.” He headed past her but paused long enough to reach out to capture her hand once again. Remy had discovered something rather odd. He liked touching her. His fingers threaded with hers as if it was the most natural act in the world. It wasn’t. He wasn’t normally big on touching. But, well, he needed to pull her along, didn’t he? If he was being the big hero of the night, they should get moving.
Before whoever was chasing the lost bride came running in after her.
They were almost at the door—Rodney still hadn’t glanced their way—when she suddenly dug in her bare heels. “Wait!”
Sighing, he swung his head toward her. “Wait for what?”
Jacqueline bit her lower lip. Released it. Bit it again. Didn’t speak.
“Ahem.” He gave an encouraging nod. “There something you need to say?”
“I’m not going to sleep with you in order to pay for a ride.” The words were so low that he almost missed them.
Almost, but not quite, and laughter erupted from Remy.
Red flashed in her cheeks.
Because the laughter was ever so booming, it even caught Rodney’s attention. He spun toward them. “Hey!” Rodney called. “What’s going on over there?”
She shuddered and pushed close to Remy once more. He realized that her back was to Rodney, and Jacqueline had just positioned herself so that her face was tucked toward Remy’s body. Other than seeing the white dress and dark hair, Rodney wouldn’t be able to say much about the woman if he were to be questioned by someone later.
Remy rolled one shoulder in a shrug. “My lady came to get me tonight. Made a joke about me being late for our date.” It was close to midnight, so, yeah, that had to count as late. “See you around, Rodney.”
Grunting, Rodney focused on his screen once more.
Remy took a still-blushing Jacqueline outside. He unlocked the truck and hoisted her up into the high seat because the vehicle had some very big-ass tires. Big-ass everything, come to think of it.
Perched in the passenger seat, she looked down at him as the vehicle’s interior light illuminated the scene. “I’m sorry if I assumed the wrong thing inside.” Now she sounded miserable. “You’re obviously a good guy—”
More laughter. Damn. She was cracking him up. Very unusual. He had some acquaintances who would swear he never laughed. “Watch the foot. Don’t want those toes getting banged when I close the door.”
Her foot whipped away from the door. He slammed it, and, whistling, made his way around the vehicle. But before he climbed inside…Remy paused to glance around the area. The road appeared deserted. No other vehicles. No people at all. The main street in Halfway seemed as deserted as always.
But appearances could be deceiving. Remy knew that. So he took a moment. Looked for anything out of the ordinary.
The night was still, tinted with a hint of a growing fall chill. The cold came faster in the mountains. You could always hear better in these quiet spaces. Sound could travel for miles and—
A growling engine. Coming closer. His head tilted as Remy tried to decide just what was approaching. Nodding, he opened his door. Jumped inside. “Did you marry him?”
Jacqueline stopped tugging on the seatbelt that she’d been positioning across her chest. “Excuse me?”
He sighed once more and hooked the belt for her.
“Thank you.” A breath from Jacqueline as he leaned over her. The breath blew lightly over the shell of his ear, and once more, Remy felt a flood of awareness course through him. His head lifted, and he stared at her. The interior light had gone dark since he hadn’t cranked the vehicle but had shut all the doors.
“Did you marry him?” Remy repeated. “Is that why he’s chasing you? You said yes and then cut out on the bastard?”
“Good to know.” He eased back into his seat. “You ran before the ‘I do’ part, huh?”
“I don’t know why you think I was marrying…” Her words trailed off. “It was an engagement. Sort of.”
How did one have a “sort of” engagement?
“Everything was a total mistake. I never wanted to marry him. You don’t know what was involved.”
Nope. He didn’t know. They were strangers. He was just giving her a lift. Playing his hand at being a Good Samaritan. Trying to understand why some people enjoyed doing random good deeds. So far, the good deed bit seemed like a pain in the ass. “Most people don’t run from an ex—at least, not as fast and as desperately as you seem to be running.” His hand moved toward the ignition.
Her fingers touched his. “Most people don’t have the trouble after them that I do.”
When she touched him, his skin heated. A definite attraction burned between them. Or at least, it burned on his end. Did she feel it, too? He’d be finding out. “Where am I taking you?”
“I…” Jacqueline stopped.
He started the engine. “We’ve got a motorcycle heading this way. Probably want to be moving soon because something tells me the rider is searching for your sweet ass.”
“OhGod.” She immediately started looking all around for a motorcycle.
“So…about that destination?” There had to be some sort of karmic gold stars coming his way for this night. But then, considering his past, he could probably do a million good deeds and never balance the scales.
And that is why sweet beauties like her shouldn’t walk up to me in a bar and ask me for a ride…
“Please drive. Please. Like, drive super, super fast.”
He reversed the vehicle. “Driving ‘super, super fast’ isn’t safe on these narrow mountain roads.” Someone should probably tell that to the motorcycle driver. “You don’t have a destination in mind, do you?”
She peered through the passenger side window. “No.”
“Didn’t think so. There’s a motel at the edge of Halfway. It looks like a hole in the wall, but it’s got clean rooms, so don’t be fooled by its exterior.”
“He’ll look there. I-I can’t stay in a motel.” Jacqueline swung toward him.
Oh, no. Nope. “Don’t say it.” He began driving. Slowly. “My newfound goodwill only goes so far.”
“Do you…happen to have a spare room?”
She’d said it.
His hands tightened around the steering wheel. “Do you have any self-preservation instincts at all? Like, a single one?”
A fast slant her way showed that Jacqueline had lifted her chin.
“It’s why I got away from him and why I’m with you now,” she continued as a determined edge entered her husky voice.
He hated to shatter her illusions but… “Yeah, sweetness, for all you know, I could be a serial killer. One who has lured you into my ride. I could have fixed the locks so you can’t get out, and now that you’re trapped, I’ll take you away to my home in the woods where you will never, ever be seen again.”
Silence. The kind of stark, uncomfortable silence that told Remy he’d probably just scared his runaway bride nearly to death.
“I think I’d like to be let out,” she stated, her voice incredibly polite. She also reached for the door. Grabbed the handle and yanked—
He laughed again. Shit. He probably shouldn’t have laughed but… “I wouldn’t tell you my plans in advance. That would make me a shitty killer.”
“Oh, God. Are you a killer?”
Remy didn’t plan to touch that one. “Not tonight, I’m not. Tonight, I’m playing the role of the hero. Uh, want to do me a favor and shut the door?” He could see the headlight from the motorcycle up ahead. It barreled straight toward them.
“Tell me you aren’t going to kill me.”
“I am not going to kill you.” An easy enough statement to give. But he couldn’t resist adding, “I only kill pretty would-be brides on Tuesdays, and, as you clearly know, today is—”
Okay. He should stop playing with her. “My name is Remy,” he told her, tone deepening because there had been real fear shaking in her words. “I have no intention of hurting you. I actually have a younger sister, and if she showed up in the middle of the night, desperate and afraid, in a rundown bar, I would want someone to help her.” Absolute truth. “You are safe with me.” He had no intention of hurting the woman beside him.
Jacqueline shut the door.
“And, sweetness, if you don’t mind, how about you put the screwdriver that you are clutching in your left hand—how about you put it back in the glove compartment? Don’t want to be worrying that you’re going to stab me with it while I’m driving.”
Her hand moved, sliding from beneath the loose fabric of her dress. “How did you know I had it?”
A simple enough deduction. “Because you don’t trust me. Smart not to since we just met. And it made sense that you’d want a weapon in case you needed to defend yourself. I knew the screwdriver was in the glove box, you had access to it…” He let his words trail off. “It would have been my move, too.”
She hadn’t put up the screwdriver.
He considered the matter as the motorcycle’s headlight kept barreling closer. “You know what? If it makes you feel better, keep it.”
“It does make me feel better.”
The motorcycle light seemed brighter.
“Just promise not to stab me with it,” Remy added as his eyes narrowed against the approaching glare.
“I promise.” Soft.
“Good.” But even if she tried to come at him, Remy had no doubt that he could disarm her. Not that he’d share that bit of info with her. If the screwdriver made her feel better, he’d let her have that moment of peace. “I’m thinking you should slide into the floorboard, at least until we pass our friend.”
She unhooked the seatbelt and slid down with a whisper of her dress.
The motorcycle roared toward him and—
The sonofabitch driving it suddenly turned his bike into the middle of the road. Drove into Remy’s path and braked with a squeal of his tires.
Remy had three choices.
He could drive around the dumbass, but that would just make the guy follow him.
He could hit the dumbass, but then there would be blood. And death. And he was trying to avoid that lifestyle. The whole murder scene really wasn’t his gig.
Or three, he could stop.
“No, please,” Jacqueline begged from her crouched position in the floorboard. “Don’t—don’t let him take me! I will do anything just—”
“Yeah, hold the thought.” He rolled down his window with a press of a button. He also turned on his bright lights to blind the bastard. “Hey, asshole!” Remy shouted. “You’ve got ten seconds to get that piece-of-shit ride out of my way, or I’ll be rolling over it and you!” There. He’d issued a fair warning.
The man kept straddling his bike. He wore a battered jacket and had a black helmet—with the face shield down—on his head. “I’m looking for someone,” the guy shouted back.
“Like I give a shit. You have five seconds.” Remy gunned his engine.
“Let me search your ride—”
“Fuck you!” Remy called back cheerfully. “Gonna be a shame to total that bike, but a man has to do what a man has to do!”
The motorcycle driver craned his head to peer into the truck. Remy turned on the interior lights to show that he was the only person in the cab of the vehicle. He also counted down, loudly, “Five, four, three, two…”
The motorcycle blasted away, zooming in the direction of Rodney’s bar—and the motel that was a few blocks away from the bar. Nice. Exactly what Remy had thought the jerk would do. “Stay down a bit longer,” he told his damsel in distress, “just in case.” They only had a bit to go before their first series of turns. A few turns, and the SOB wouldn’t be able to find them, not once they started snaking through the old roads that twisted through the mountains.
Remy rolled his window back up. Turned on his radio. And drove slowly back to his cabin.
Jacqueline stayed in the floorboard. Curled all in tightly around herself. Still clutching that screwdriver and that pissed him off. Jacqueline was well and truly afraid.
He began to sing along to the song on the radio, wanting to put her at ease, and he kept glancing back to make sure they weren’t being followed. That was the thing about this particular cabin, unless you knew exactly where you were going—and you had a powerful ride with four-wheel drive to get you to the destination—you’d miss it. Especially in the dark.
He pulled into the twisting drive. Took the truck around to the back of the cabin in order to hide it and then… “Okay, it’s time to get out.”
She didn’t move. Frowning, he leaned over her. “Jacqueline?”
Her head had tipped forward. Her hair fanned over her shoulders, and she was…
He touched her lightly. She didn’t move—because she was out cold. Sonofabitch. She’d fallen asleep on him. Remy exited the ride and went around to her side. Carefully, he opened her door. Not like he wanted her spilling out onto the ground. When she slid back, he caught her in his arms. Hoisted her up against his chest.
“Wh-what…” A sleep-slurred whisper.
“Don’t stab me with the screwdriver,” he warned, but it was an unnecessary warning because he saw she’d dropped it. He snagged it, slid it into the back of his waistband, then focused on her. Sleeping Beauty. He lifted her up, cradled her against him, and carried her toward the cabin.
She felt good against him. Almost right which was freaking ridiculous. He was obviously spending way too much time alone in the mountains if this stranger felt right to him. No one had ever felt right. His life was a lie. Half the time, he was surrounded by criminals, and he should not be carrying this woman into his home.
But he was.
Into his home, up the stairs, and all the way into his bedroom. As he carried her, the light scent of vanilla cream teased him even as the loose fabric of her dress trailed down his arms. Whatever else his lost bride had been through, she still managed to smell absolutely delicious. A wondrous feat. She smelled delicious. She looked beautiful. And…
Because when he put her down, Jacqueline just cuddled into the covers of his bed. Didn’t even open her eyes again. Sure, she’d been running for forty-eight hours by her own account, so she had to be exhausted but…
He brushed back a lock of hair that had fallen over her brow. Remy straightened and left a small present on the nightstand. If his friends—and enemies—could see him now, they would probably be stunned. After all, Rembrandt “Remy” Stuart was hardly known for his good deeds.
This wasn’t actually a good deed, though.
What he’d done…
He’d just stolen someone else’s bride. Not a bad night’s work for a thief. Smiling, he headed for the door. “Good night, sweetness.”
Best thief ever.