Breaking the Rules
IN TOO DEEP
Mattie O’Neal was on the run. She’d stolen a car, cut off her hair, changed her name and was slinging hash in a small Arizona town. She thought she was safe–until Zeke Shephard walked through the door.
His rugged, muscled body set every woman’s heart aflutter–but his probing questions made Mattie weak for another reason.
Still, when the bad guys caught up with her, it was Zeke who rescued Mattie and took her to his own retreat. Zeke who comforted her… protected her …and loved her. Although Zeke insisted he was just a guy for the moment, could Mattie persuade him to make that moment last a lifetime?
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She drove all night. Fast and hard through the emptiness of the Kansas plains, dotted with silos and water towers silhouetted against the clear, starry sky. In Emporia, she clutched her coat around herself and bought a cup of coffee and filled the gas tank.
By morning, she reached Pueblo. Leaving the technically stolen car in the parking lot of a huge discount store where it would eventually attract notice, she fastened her coat around her again and went inside the store. She bought a pair of soft desert boots, jeans and a handful of T-shirts, trying to ignore the collection of stares she received over her wild and incongruous appearance.
From the discount store, she crossed the street on foot to a convenience store that sold gas and food. In the bathroom there, she ripped the tags off the new things and threw her tattered dress in the waste bin. For a moment, she stared at the royal blue taffeta, bloodstained on the side and at the hem. A wave of dizzy nausea washed through her.
Once changed, she assessed herself in the fly-specked mirror. This was the hard part. With trembling hands, she braided her hip-length hair, secured it at the top and bottom, then lifted the shears she’d bought with the jeans.
“Do it, Mattie,” she said to the white-faced woman in the mirror. She did, but resolve and necessity didn’t keep her from weeping as she did so. Her pride and joy. Her hair.
When it was done, she held the three-foot braid in her hand, then looked at herself. The cut was ragged, but not bad, considering. With surprise, she touched her neck and shoulders.
Taking a deep breath, she coiled the braid and nestled it into her bag. No one would recognize her now. No one.
She left the car with its Kansas plates in the sprawling parking lot and hopped on a city bus that took her downtown. At the Greyhound station, she scanned the lists of destinations and impulsively bought a ticket for a little town she’d never heard of because she liked the name.
They would never find her there.
In the middle of the morning bustle, with country music playing in the kitchen of the café, and coffee perking and the noise of a dozen men buzzing around the room, Mattie realized that somehow or other, the job she’d taken out of desperation three weeks before was one she had learned to like. No, love.
“Order up!” called the cook. Mattie grabbed the thick porcelain plates filled with greasy eggs and strips of bacon and good white toast. Piling them on her arms, she hurried toward the table of road workers who would gulp the food down and tip her a dollar, no matter how well or poorly she did her job, as long as she kept their coffee cups filled. Bustling back toward the counter, she grabbed the coffeepot and swung through in a circle, touching up every cup along the route, except Joe Harriday’s, who liked to get all the way to the bottom before he started again.
There was a buzz in her muscles and heat in her chest. Her hair fell in her eyes and she brushed it back, feeling the pleasant grime of hard work on her skin.
As the breakfast crowd thinned, leaving behind only a single pair of tourists who’d wandered in off the highway, Mattie made a fresh pot of coffee, mainly for the crew to drink as they cleaned up breakfast and got ready for lunch.
“A woman after my own heart,” said Roxanne, the other waitress, breathing deeply of the scented steam rising from the pot. “You want to take a break first?”
“Go ahead, Roxanne. I can wait awhile.”
“Thanks.” She touched her stomach. “I’m starving.”
The low, precise grumbling of a motorcycle cut through the post-rush quiet. Mattie turned to watch a bike roar up in front of the café. Through the plate-glass windows, the waitresses watched as a man parked a sleek, midnight blue machine. Chrome shone all over it. The man driving settled it easily and limberly dismounted.
Mattie stared, a prickling in her nerves.
For a minute, he stood beside the bike, looking out toward the canyon. She’d learned the hard way to be careful about men, careful about even looking too hard at one for fear she might start to want again what she couldn’t have.
But it was impossible not to stare. Standing there against the backdrop of rough red sandstone cliffs and thick ponderosa pine, he looked like one of the outlaws that had hidden in the canyon long ago. Or maybe, Mattie thought, he was more like the eagles she sometimes saw on her dawn trips to the canyon—there was in his stance the same wary alertness; in his size she felt the same sense of leashed power.
He wore a plain white cotton shirt, the long sleeves rolled to the elbows, tucked at the narrow waist into a pair of jeans. His hair, the color of coffee and tangled from his ride in the wind, was long. Very long. Casually, he finger-combed it away from his face and headed for the restaurant.
Roxanne made a low, approving sound in her throat.
The bell rang over the door and the man came in, his walk graceful and controlled. He glanced around the room, making a clean sweep, and Mattie was sure those eyes missed nothing. After the initial scope, the pale gaze swiveled back and settled on Mattie.
Mattie told herself she ought to do something with the bar towel in her hand, and managed to swipe it nervously over the counter, but she found it nearly impossible not to look up again—as if he carried with him some secret magnetic force. Even the old lady in the corner had paused with her hand on the sugar bowl, to stare.
The face was hard, made of planes carved into high, sharp arches of cheekbone, a powerful nose and harsh, clean jaw. The eyes—maybe it was his eyes—were a pale green, like water in the forest, and the color was all the more startling in contrast to the deeply suntanned skin.
When Mattie finally realized she was gaping like a child in the presence of a star quarterback, she realized he was staring at her. No smile or softness of expression marred the implacable planes of that face. Mattie shifted, but found it hard to look away.
“Hey, Zeke,” Roxanne said with a purr. “Don’t stand there letting the flies in. Come on in.”
He settled on a stool. “Hi,” he said to Mattie. “Don’t believe I’ve seen you around here before.”
The voice matched the face, for it was deep and rough as a midnight canyon, the words drawl-thickened with the sound of the South. Louisiana, at least—maybe even Mississippi.
She gathered her breath and her defenses. “No, you haven’t,” she said, and was pleased at the cool, even sound of her voice.
“What’s your name?”
“Mary.” She shifted uncomfortably and crossed her arms.
His gaze moved over her face, lingered on her mouth, slipped up to her eyes again.
“Who’s gonna wait on me this morning?”
Roxanne nudged Mattie with a sideways grin. “He thinks we’re going to fight over the privilege.” To the man, she said, “Mary’ll take care of you. I’m going on break.”
The wary expression on his face eased ever so slightly as he winked at Roxanne. “My heart is broken, baby.”
Mattie quelled an impulse to roll her eyes. It was obvious he thought he was the Lord’s gift to women—and while that same Lord had done a fine job of packaging, she wouldn’t argue with that—arrogant men of this sort were not her style. “Don’t let me interfere,” she said wryly. “I’ll take my break.”
Roxanne shook her head. “He won’t bite,” she said, scribbling on a ticket for her breakfast order. “And I’m famished.” She ducked into the kitchen. Mattie heard her call out her order to the cook.
The man at the counter lazily pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. “Guess you’re stuck with me.”
“What can I get you?”
Mattie could feel his gaze as she took a heavy white mug from the rack, settled it before him and poured coffee. “Would you like cream?” she asked formally.
He shook his head.
Lifting the pot, she inclined her head. “You know, in most places, it’s considered rude to stare.”
He moistened his lips and drew on the cigarette. “Is that right?”
She lowered her eyes. In the brief pause, she felt within her a strange psychic disturbance. A warning, like the shriek of a blue jay when a cat wanders by: Danger! Danger! Danger!
“Where you from, Mary?” he asked.
Mattie turned to precisely place the coffeepot on the burner. “Here and there,” she said with a shrug. Nervously, she smoothed a wisp of hair from her face. “Do you want to look at a menu?”
He took his time pouring sugar into his cup. “No, I know what I want.” Slowly, he stirred. Even such a small act rippled the rounds of muscle in his arms, and at the collar of his shirt she could see the chest, too, was powerfully muscled.
He was deeply tanned. Probably, she thought disdainfully, some body-builder type who hung out in gyms striking poses.
The light green eyes accepted and deflected her examination—and made her revise that last conclusion. No way this man played pretty boy for anyone. Maybe he’d been born well endowed or his work gave him muscles, but she knew without doubt that he didn’t spend time on weight machines to satisfy any vanity on his part.
“Sir?” she prompted. “Would you like to order?”
“Sir?” he echoed ironically. “Call me Zeke.” He grinned at her. “I’m not that old yet.”
The grin was her undoing. His mouth was wide with full, rich lips, and he had good teeth, though a trifle crooked. But that grin was full of knowledge, full of all the things Mattie had wondered about and wanted to learn in that secret, dark part of herself.
She knocked over a ketchup bottle.
He caught it with a deft movement. In his gaze, amusement danced. “Don’t get all flustered, now, Miss Mary.”
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“No, ma’am.” The grin lingered at the edges of that fine mouth. He sipped his coffee. “Get me a couple eggs, over easy, some toast and bacon and hash browns.”
Relieved, Mattie scribbled down the order, slapped it to the ring and spun it around, then escaped into the kitchen.
* * *
Zeke smoked and drank coffee idly, waiting for his food. A newspaper sat on the counter, but he didn’t pick it up.
Through the open door to the kitchen, he watched the waitress collecting plates from the dish machine. He’d been on one of his periodic restless road trips the past few weeks—this one down to the Gulf for the hell of it, and the new waitress had been hired in his absence. Not from around here, but he’d swear he knew her from somewhere.
She was hiding something, that much was sure. His eyes narrowed. Mary. If he asked her last name, she’d probably say Smith. Mary Smith from Peoria.
And he was John Doe.
He watched her as she put the plates away. A nice-looking woman if you liked the type, which he ordinarily didn’t. He preferred blondes, generally. Tall blondes, with lean bodies and hard eyes. This one was smaller, with tawny skin and dark hair. She tried to hide her figure under the loose-fitting uniform, but the curves were a tad too generous to be well hidden. Round breasts and naturally swaying hips. Her hair was short, but thick and silky-looking and he couldn’t help but admire the graceful turn of her neck above the white collar.
Nice-looking, with the emphasis on the nice. Probably Catholic school and the whole nine yards; a woman didn’t keep skin like that living hard.
Which meant she wasn’t someone he’d tangled with and forgotten. Zeke didn’t bother with good girls, sweet girls like this one. They were looking for things he just didn’t ever intend to provide for anyone.
He continued to watch her through the door to the kitchen. For a good girl, she sure had one hell of a mouth. Generous, with plump lips and a certain slanting curve at the corners that hinted the doe eyes might light with mischief when she wasn’t scared.
Maybe that’s what he remembered—a kissable mouth was his particular downfall, as he’d told himself more than once.
He wondered what a good girl had to hide, what she was running from.
And swore. A pretty mouth and a woman in trouble. Bad combination, especially in some sweet stranger he don’t know a damned thing about. An alarm bell triggered in his mind.
It would come to him. He’d figure out where he knew her from. In the meantime, he had troubles of his own.
The cook smacked a bell and slid Zeke’s order under the heat lamp. Mary wiped her palms on her apron and headed out to pick it up. Zeke caught her nervous glance in his direction, and taking the chance, frankly watched her breasts move under her blouse. It would irritate her. Push her away.
She pretended not to notice, but he could see by the flush in her cheeks that she had. “Would you like anything else to go with that?” she asked, slamming the thick plate down in front of him.
He looked at her. Big, big brown eyes, snapping now with both desire and fury. The unwilling desire sent a spiral of response through his nether regions, and he almost taunted her, just to see if he could kindle that flame a little bit. He almost said, “Yeah, I want you, nothing on it.”
But along with the desire and wariness in those enormous brown eyes, he saw innocence. It was one thing to play with a woman who understood the stakes, who didn’t expect a man to call back in the morning. Zeke had rules about virgins and innocents. “That’ll be it,” he said. “Thanks.”
She slapped the check on the counter and automatically refilled his coffee cup. Zeke pretended to ignore her, but as she turned back toward the coffee machine, he spied her hands. Burns. It triggered another sense of déjà vu. He frowned. “Mary. Where do I know you from?”
Her face went abruptly, sickeningly white. “You must have somebody else in mind,” she said, and hurried away.
Zeke felt a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. She was lying. And she was in trouble. Mary Smith from Peoria.
* * *
In the kitchen, over the roar of the dishwasher, Roxanne met Mattie. “Figures,” Roxanne said matter-of-factly. “I’ve been trying to catch Zeke Shephard’s eye since he showed up in Kismet. He walks in and takes one look at you and it’s fire.” She leaned over and sniffed Mattie’s neck. “Nope. No perfume.”
Mattie slapped her arm. “Just tell him if you want him. He doesn’t look like the type who’d say no.” She looked at Roxanne. Long blond hair and a lean body, with big blue eyes. “I can’t see too many men that would say no to you, anyway.”
Roxanne grinned. “Thanks.” She folded her arms across her chest and glanced out the kitchen door. “He wouldn’t say no, but I couldn’t catch him like that, either.”
“Yeah.” She lifted a shoulder with a coquettish smile. “One taste would never be enough. I’d want to hang on to him—at least for a little while. The woman that can tame him permanently probably hasn’t been born, but he could be coaxed to light for a few months, maybe.”
Mattie stared at her. In her other life, the women didn’t talk about taming men. They talked about engagement rings and weddings and finding a house. She licked her lips, curious. “Wouldn’t you fall in love?”
Roxanne nodded with a slight, one shouldered shrug. “Probably.”
“So how could you just sleep with him, knowing he would leave you?”
“Oh, honey. I pegged you for naïve, but I didn’t think you were stupid.” Roxanne tugged Mattie’s sleeve, pulling her over to look out the door to where Zeke sat, eating heartily. Against the backlight of the window, his hair gleamed around the edges with a deep, burnished halo. In a low voice, Roxanne said, “I want you to think about that man in your bed, with nothing on except maybe a sheet.”
Mattie shot her an alarmed glance.
Roxanne smiled. “Just try it.”
Slowly, Mattie turned to look at him. Her heart shimmered in anticipation, a strange danger, but the old ways of living had landed her in more trouble than she could fathom. Maybe Roxanne was right.
She inclined her head and let her eyes wash over the broad shoulders and lean waist, and she called up a picture—his arms bare, with that hair tangling over his shoulders, his skin dark against the white sheet.
“You see?” Roxanne said quietly. “It would be worth it.”
He blotted his lips with a paper napkin, and Mattie noticed his hands were as enormous as the rest of him. For one single minute, she indulged in her first experience with pure lust and let herself imagine what that hand might feel like, gliding over her body.
As if he felt her gaze, he looked up suddenly. Caught in the forbidden thoughts. Mattie didn’t immediately look away. He met her gaze levelly, without emotion, acknowledging her stare without revealing anything of his own. His lips pursed as if in thought and still Mattie couldn’t stop staring.
He winked and blew her a kiss.
Mortified, she turned around and ran into Roxanne’s shoulder. “Oh, I’m so embarrassed,” she said, covering her eyes. “What a jerk.”
Roxanne laughed. “He’s cocky, all right. But that’s part of the game.”
A wisp of her heated imaginings brushed through her. Mattie shifted uncomfortably. “That’s not a game I want to play.”
“Too late, honey,” Roxanne said with a slow smile. “You already made the first move.”