Jake’s eyes snapped open. At first he had no idea why he was on Harvest’s kitchen floor. Then the memories rushed in.
He had pulled on his jeans when Claire had called his name from the bathroom. Her squeal of delight had captured his attention and he had shuffled down the hallway, pulling his shirt on as he moved. He’d only made it a few steps into the kitchen when the guy slammed into him from behind. The rest still registered as a blur.
An image that came through with clarity though was Claire’s concerned face looking down into his. His heart had lifted at the sight of her. But his spirits had sunk faster than the Titanic when he had spotted his assailant looming behind her tiny frame. And he hadn’t been able to help her.
His body tensed and his pulse went into overdrive. He tried to push himself to a sitting position but dizziness enveloped him and he collapsed onto his back. She needed him. He wouldn’t fail her. Not again. Furious at himself, he jerked into a sitting position. A wave of nausea washed over him. He held his breath until it passed.
He hated himself right now. The guy had beaten the crap out of him and taken Claire. He’d failed her. Disgusted, he realized, he had no idea how long ago that had happened. But he had to find her. He’d promised her she’d be safe with him. Some protector he’d been.
His peripheral vision was for shit. What he could see had a slight halo around it. He shook his head as he pushed himself upright.
Claire’s scream for help echoed through the restaurant, followed by a man’s roar. Jake’s gut constricted. She was still here. He wobbled forward on rubbery legs. He had to get to her. Save her.
Aching, he staggered farther into the kitchen looking for a weapon. A bonanza of choices awaited him.
Jake grabbed a cast-iron skillet and dashed into the dining room, fury feeding his need for vengeance. But he was too late. They weren’t in the dining room. He sped past a set of bloody cutlery. Blood rushing in his ears, he dashed around overturned chairs. From the looks of it, Claire had put up a hell of a fight.
He spotted them in the parking lot.
The assailant tugged Claire toward a black sedan parked near the Dumpster. Jake sped out the door clutching the skillet like a baseball bat. His bare feet had just touched the asphalt parking lot when he saw Claire’s body go limp. His steps faltered.
But half a second later, she slammed her hand into the man’s face. Blood gushed from the attacker’s nose. A proud smile spread across Jake’s face.
That’s my girl.
Too bad the asshole wasn’t hurt enough to let her go. Jake mentally shrugged. Claire’s blow had been enough to distract the intruder from hearing Jake’s approach. That was all the opening he needed. Neither noticed him as he came up behind.
The man pulled Claire’s battered face close to his. “Time to pay.”
“My thoughts exactly.” Jake smashed a cast-iron skillet against the man’s skull.
It made a dull thunk upon impact. The assailant fell to the ground in a heap, silent and unmoving. Jake dropped the skillet and reached for Claire. The pan clanked as it bounced off the asphalt. The goon didn’t flinch. He was out cold.
Pulling her to him, he buried his nose in her auburn hair. Despite everything, the scent of coconut soothed away his anger and worry. Unwilling to take even half a step away from her, he clutched her to his body.
Their lips met in a flurry of unspoken emotions. He wanted it all to come through, all the things he couldn’t find the words to say. The fear that had twisted his insides when he thought he’d been too late. The bone-melting relief when he folded her in his arms. The lust that had somewhere along the way transformed into love. The truth of that reality electrified him.
She broke the kiss. Laid her cheek against his chest. Unsure of what he should say, how he could tell her, his mind went blank. He blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
“Sorry I wasn’t here sooner.”
She tilted her face up. “Yeah, your timing could have been better.” She grinned at him.
He wiped her bloodied nose clean with his thumb. Pain flashed in her eyes.
“Claire, I’m so sorry. I should have—”
“Shh.” She dusted his bruised face with a flutter of small kisses. “We’re quite the pair.”
He grinned down at her. He’d talk to her later, find a way to get her to move to Denver. Now that he’d found her, he wasn’t leaving Dry Creek without her. He glanced down at the unconscious man at their feet.
“We’ve gotta call the cops.”
Claire grabbed the phone and flash drive from where the goon had dropped them. A deep crack split the cellphone’s screen and the buttons didn’t respond to her fingers. “It’s not working.”
“Come on, our phones are inside.”
She wavered a bit. He clasped her hand in his and they hurried to the restaurant. Energy coursed through his body as he planned how to talk Claire into leaving her hometown.
As they mounted the steps, a figure emerged from the shadows. “It seems your services are no longer required, Mr. Warrick.”
A sense of inevitability settled in Jake’s stomach. This case had so many twist and turns, this last one just seemed par for the course. Claire looked up at him. Shock and confusion etched on her pretty but bruised face.
“Claire, let me introduce you to Kendall’s father. This man pointing a Smith and Wesson at us is Charles Burlington.”
Did you miss part of Dangerous Kiss? Catch up here. xoxo, Avery