Hell on Wheels by Karen Kelley

Wednesday, September 6, 2006 9:45

Hell on Wheels by Karen Kelley

No doubt about it: Cody Carlyle is the hottest bounty hunter around with a well-deserved reputation for bringing in the toughest skips. If she’s learned one motto in this business-and in life-it’s this: never turn your back. Never give an inch. And never, ever offer your heart.

Fellow bounty hunter Josh Pierce has had his eye on Cody’s every luscious curve for quite some time. The hunky ex-undercover cop would love to show her that some things are worth believing in, things like the kind of ecstasy he’d happily show her in bed. Hey, fighting this kind of white-hot attraction is just wrong. So why not give in to a little Josh Pierce temptation? Why not share one amazing, toe-curling night of indescribable, head-scrambling passion and then walk away, no hard feelings? But the night they spend together is beyond amazing. It’s sheer bliss. Not that it could ever happen again. Could it?

What was supposed to be a one-time deal is quickly becoming a very tempting habit—one they could stop at any time, of course. Like after the next time. Or maybe next week—no rush. Suddenly, two bounty hunters who never believed in anything are open to everything, scared of it all, and ready to discover what happens when you go after the biggest catch out there… true love…

Chapter One!

Cody Carlyle knew there were just some days when she wished she’d stayed in bed. She had a gut feeling today was going to be one of them.

She cautiously moved forward, hugging the alley wall, weaving between the large, dirty brown dumpsters. The cold seeped into her skin like a damp blanket thrown on top of her.

Staying in bed would’ve been nice. A second cup of coffee, maybe read the paper. Instead, she’d tugged on ratty, knee torn jeans, a second chance vest, faded black t-shirt and steel-toed boots. She’d slipped her gun inside the holster of her leather halter, tied back her dark hair, and pulled on a light jacket, effectively concealing her weapon. Her uniform of the day was complete.

She blended well with the riff-raff on Ft. Worth’s seedier side.

A hell of a way to spend one’s life.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t all bad. On most days, she liked being a bounty hunter. There was nothing better than the adrenaline rush when she nailed a skip and brought him to justice, and picking up fat checks from desperate bail bondsmen didn’t hurt, either.

They figured paying out part of the money was better than losing it all. That’s why they called her or another bounty hunter to drag the skip back into custody…by whatever means available as long as the culprit was still kicking.

That’s where the problem lay.

The law frowned on dead or alive and had removed the dead part. It made her job a little harder.

And today she had a bad feeling. Sometimes all she had to go on was what her gut told her. She’d learned in the past to listen.

Except maybe today.

She’d gotten a tip the skip was in the area and she wasn’t about to let him slip through her fingers. Leonard Morgan, a mean son-of-a-bitch. He’d jumped bail…twenty-five hundred dollars at stake. Not a lot by the time she got her ten percent considering what she’d had to go through, but the bastard liked to hit women. He’d broken his wife’s jaw during their last fight. She really hated men who resorted to their fists, especially on a woman.

She’d been hunting Leonard for a week now. Into sleazy bars, flea-ridden motels—anywhere the dregs of society slithered off to. So far, all her leads had fizzled out, and none of his relatives were talking.
Probably scared.

Then she’d gotten this tip.

She straightened her spine and narrowed her eyes, moving farther into the alley with its myriad of twists and turns, the concrete and brick walls a musty tomb that seemed to press against her. A cold shiver whipped down her spine sending goose bumps over her arms.

God, she had to quit watching late night television. Pure escapism, that’s all it was. There was nothing even remotely real about what she watched. Last night had been The Vampire From Hell. The vampire was a good-looking sucker, though.

She inwardly chuckled at her pun—until a rat as big as an overweight Chihuahua ran in front of her. For a moment, she couldn’t move. Her gaze fixed on the creature as it stopped, glared at her with its beady little eyes, then scurried behind one of the dumpsters.

Yuck! She hugged her middle. Yuck! Yuck! Yuck!

She hated rats. Hated them worse than anything. They were right up there with roaches on her list of things to avoid. She couldn’t stand them. What she wouldn’t give for her own apartment and a hot shower right now.

Maybe she should’ve kept to the streets, but then, she didn’t want to attract attention. Besides, if you were looking for a maggot sometimes you had to wallow in the garbage.

Just so long as the rats kept their distance!

“Hasn’t anyone ever told you it’s dangerous to walk the alleys at night?” A gruff voice spoke from behind her.

Damn it, she should’ve been paying attention. Shit, crap, damn!

You’re a professional. Get hold of yourself.

She sniffed. Foul body odor, stale cigarettes and rotgut whiskey. “Hasn’t anyone ever told you that you won’t die if you take an occasional bath?” She eased her hand upward, patting her gun to make sure it was within easy reach should she need it, then swallowed past the bile that rose in her throat before turning around. The light of the full moon made it easy to make out his features.

There was no doubt in her mind this was her man. Damn, he was built like a diesel truck…and looked like he’d been run over by one. What had the bail bondsman done? Airbrushed the fucking picture? The man out-weighed her by at least two hundred pounds and had a face not even a mother could love. A big, hulking mass of ugly refuse.

She shrugged. What was a girl to do? She had to make a living.

“Hey,” he grinned, showing yellowed teeth. “You’re pretty.”

She slapped a hand to her chest. “Oh, thank you! I’ve been waiting all day for someone to give me a compliment. Damn, now I can sleep tonight without worrying.”

“You’re makin’ fun of me,” he growled, plodding close enough to clamp a beefy hand on her arm.

“Ya think?” She pointedly looked down. “Remove your hand.”

“I’d rather fuck you.” A feral gleam shined in his dull eyes.

Like that would happen in his lifetime. “How about I fuck you instead?” she purred.

His brow wrinkled, then her words apparently sank into his feeble brain and he smiled again. “I like that idea even better.”

She motioned for him to lean down and when he did, she drew his head closer, then jerked her knee toward his groin with all she had. He grunted and doubled over, barfing up his supper. She brought her palm up, slamming it into his nose and felt the crunch of bone and ligament. A well-aimed stomach-punch took him to his knees.

Breathing hard, she shoved him face down on the filthy ground. His head thudded hard against the rotting earth. She quickly cuffed him before stepping away and scrubbing her hands on her jeans.

One eyebrow cocked upward. “Okay, you’re fucked.” No one could say she wasn’t obliging.

“Hey, what’re you doing to Leonard?”

Damn, who’d have thought Leonard had a friend. But then, maybe he had a bounty on his head, too. Her eyes filled with visions of a tropical paradise away from the smothering heat of Ft. Worth in the middle of August.

This morning’s rain made it feel like a sauna, rather than dropping the temperature to something she could live with. The second chance vest didn’t help, but better safe than sorry.

Still, she wanted to go somewhere she could actually see the sun instead of a haze of gray smog. A vacation would be wonderful. She hoped Leonard’s buddy had a really nice bounty.

She slowly turned, her gaze sweeping over him. Only half his friend’s size, and not quite as ugly or as mean looking. She could take him…no problem.

He pulled a gun.

Or maybe not.

Damn, she hated guns. They left really nasty holes, besides hurting like hell when you were shot, and she had a feeling he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot if she reached for hers.
Plan B. She thrust her shoulders back, and her chest forward, wishing for D cups rather than a small C. She’d have to take that matter up with her mother when she saw her next. If her mother was sober—and she doubted Pearl would be.

She’d have to hope the vest made her look better endowed. Okay, act two.

Cody batted her eyes. “Haven’t you ever heard of kinky sex? Leonard and I were just about to have a little fun.”

“It doesn’t look like he’s moving to me.”

Leonard groaned.

Plan B wasn’t working. “Of course he isn’t. He’s just waiting for you to leave so we can get it on.”

Leonard tried getting to his feet but his bulk was too large to manage more than a belly-rock. He gave new meaning to the words: beached whale.

“God damned bitch, unlock these cuffs,” he growled in a nasally voice, kind of like someone with a bad cold…or a busted nose.

Okay, so maybe Leonard’s buddy wasn’t going to believe her if she told him that was only love talk.

The gunman squared his shoulders and narrowed his eyes. “Unfasten the cuffs.”

After all the work she’d had to go through getting them on him? She didn’t think so, but on the other hand, she didn’t want to get shot, either.

Stall.

She turned, bending down as if she planned to do exactly as he ordered. If ever she needed to keep her wits about her, it was now. A little luck wouldn’t be amiss, either.

Reaching into her boot, she slipped her knife out of the case. As she came back up, she threw it. The knife landed with a sickening clunk against the brick wall at the same time the little man jumped to the side.

“You bitch, you tried to kill me.”

What little luck she had took a flying leap right out the window as he raised his gun. He wouldn’t believe her if she told him that she was aiming to wound, not kill.

Damn, maybe she should’ve tried for her gun, but the knife was easier to get to, and she rarely missed. Now it was too late.

Nowhere to run. She wasn’t supposed to die like this. Not in a dirty alley behind Tex’s Bar and Grill. Her life flashed before her eyes. She blocked out the past. Hell, her life hadn’t been anything to brag about and she damn sure didn’t want to relive it.

What the hell. She didn’t have anything to lose. She grabbed for her gun.

A shot rang out.

Too late. She closed her eyes.

Was this what it felt like to die? No pain?

Her forehead wrinkled. If she were dead, why did the jerk with the gun scream?

She opened one eye. Said jerk was sitting on his ass, holding his hand, the gun on the ground. She opened her other eye.

Josh Pierce stepped from the shadows, a wicked 9mm in his hand. Her insides tingled with awareness as her gaze swept over him. As always, he looked pretty damn hot. Thick, blond hair brushed his collar, just long enough she could run her hands through it or use it to tug his head closer to her mouth so she could taste his lips. He had the look of a surfer: tanned and muscled, as if he lived for the next wave to carry him into shore.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, reining in her thoughts, wondering if he noted the tremble in her voice. She could only hope he would think it was her reaction to almost getting shot and not the fact she’d been ogling him.

Damn, what was he doing here anyway? He was the last person she wanted to see her screw up. On the other hand, she guessed him witnessing her blunder and coming to her rescue was better than being dead.

He glanced her way and grinned. “Saving your ass—even though you nabbed my skip. Been after the bastard for three days now.” His gaze slowly moved over her, pausing on her derriere. “But it’s a very sweet ass if I do say so myself, and I don’t mind a bit saving it.”

“Funny. You’re a regular fuckin’ comedian. And I’ve been looking for him, too. Looks like the agency is mixing up their skips again. Turbo and I were after the same guy last week.”

A bitter taste rose inside her mouth. There was no love loss between her and Turbo. Even less since she’d been the first one to nab the skip. Ahh, but seeing the look on his face when he slipped around the corner, gun drawn, and saw she already had the skip in cuffs—that had been priceless.

“Changing offices and getting married always wrecks havoc on a business,” Josh continued. “Erik will eventually get his shit together.”

Good point.

What he’d said finally sunk in.

He’d only been after Leonard three days? Not a bad turn around time. Maybe she was getting rusty.

Her attention returned to the situation at hand when Josh strolled over, kicked the gun away, and knelt beside the man who was moaning and holding his hand. He looked him in the eye, but addressed his question at her. “Want your knife back?” He casually picked up the knife and examined the blade.

Apparently, the wounded man didn’t like the tone of Josh’s voice because he screamed and backed up as far as he could, which was against the alley wall.

“Stay away,” the man croaked.

“Tell us your name and I might even call an ambulance.” His words held no sympathy.

The man hesitated. Josh tossed the knife, deftly catching it, point aimed menacingly toward the other man.

“It’s Ralph Carter.”

Cody never forgot a name or a bounty. Her ears perked up. “Ralph Carter, the CPA turned embezzler?”

“I didn’t embezzle! They fired me so I just took what was mine.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Retirement plan?”

“Yeah.” Ralph quickly agreed.

Josh glanced her way. “Bounty?”

She nodded. A little nicer than Leonard’s. She’d read about Ralph on the fugitive recovery network about a month ago. The info had said he might be headed back to his home state of Mississippi so she hadn’t pursued it.

Her gaze moved between the two skips. She expelled a long, deep breath. “You can have him, I’ll take Leonard.”

“Deal.” Josh grinned, a lopsided smile that sent a flash of heat over her body.

When he looked at her like that, how could she not think about sex? He had the most intense, clear blue eyes she’d ever seen. He had a way of making women feel special.

And that was his problem. He could pick and choose his women. They never lasted more than a month before he moved on to the next.

Even though he’d hinted broadly they’d be good together, she wasn’t about to become another notch on his bedpost. His bed probably looked like termites were devouring it from all his slash marks.

Her gaze swept over his broad shoulders, past narrow hips—a sigh escaped. She’d been tempted, though. Hell, she’d have to be made of ice not to have a few fantasies involving him.

And if she didn’t want it to go past the drool stage, she’d better get her mind on something else. Like maybe cold, hard steel rather than hot, hard flesh.

The cold, hard steel was a sweet, restored nineteen sixty-four, competition orange Mustang. His car made her thighs tremble every time she saw it. He had the motor tuned until it purred like a cat with a belly full of cream.

Sheesh, sex, cars and bail jumpers. What was her life coming to?

“You bring the Mustang?” she asked.

“I’m in the clunker,” he said, referring to a beat-up, battle weary Chevy he usually drove when he thought he was getting close to nailing a skip. He’d apparently thought his tip was a good one, and he’d been right…but a little too late to nab Leonard.

“You?” he asked.

“My bike. I was going to call a unit to haul him in if I got lucky. The cops owe me one or two favors. Since you’re here, mind if my skip rides with your skip?” The situation suddenly struck her as being funny and she chuckled.

He smiled and something passed between them. The air sizzled and crackled. Their gazes locked. Her laughter died, his smile vanished.

He was doing it again. Looking at her in that way he had. As if he slowly stripped her clothes away from her body, tugged her jeans over her hips, pressed his body against hers.

Her nipples hardened as the ache inside her grew. She leaned toward him, wanting more, needing his touch.

“I thought you were going to call an ambulance for me? I’ve been shot,” Ralph whined.

Sweat beaded Josh’s upper lip before he turned back to the skip, pulling a red bandana from his pocket. It was nice to know he wasn’t unaffected by her any more than she was him. He tied the bandana around Ralph’s hand and knotted it.

“You won’t die from a graze. Hell, it’s barely bleeding.” He slapped a pair of cuffs on him and tugged him to his feet.

“Come on, big guy.” She pulled on Leonard’s arm. He lumbered to his feet. Man, he stunk. Josh would have to fumigate his rattletrap after he unloaded these two.

“God damned, bitch,” Leonard spat. “I catch you alone I’m gonna make you sorry we ever crossed paths.”

She looked over her shoulder at Josh and winked before turning back to her skip. “Leonard, I hate to tell you, but we’ve already been alone and I kicked your sorry ass. But if you want me to kick it again go ahead and jump bail and I’ll be happy to oblige.”

He grumbled something under his breath, but she didn’t catch his words.

They walked the short distance to Josh’s car and loaded the two men in the backseat before he shut the door. Josh had removed the door handles from the inside making it almost impossible to escape, and the back was sectioned off from the front with wire mesh.

“So, I’ll follow you to the station,” she said.

In no hurry to leave, he leaned against the side of the car and crossed his arms in front of him. “You did a good job taking down Leonard.”

Inwardly she smiled. Josh was an ex-cop…undercover. One of the best. She’d heard he’d gotten tired of all the bullshit and struck out on his own. He was one tough bastard. He didn’t take crap from anyone. And he was damn good to have around when you needed him. Like tonight.

“Thanks for saving my ass.”

His grin was slow, the kind that started in his eyes and worked down to his mouth, then only lifted one side.

“Like I said, it’s a pretty nice ass. I’d have missed seeing it around.”

“Well, don’t get any ideas because you aren’t getting a piece of it.” She jutted her chin out, but he caught hold of it, rubbing his thumb across her jaw line. She drew in a sharp breath as the heat of his touch caused a friction further down her body.

“So you say.”

“So I mean.” She forced herself to move away from him and went to her bike, which wasn’t that far from his car. When she straddled her Harley, she wished for a split second she straddled something else.

Thinking like that could get her into serious trouble. Josh was a heartbreaker and her heart couldn’t stand another crack in it.

She inserted the key and turned. The bike roared to life. A surge of adrenaline rushed through her as she forced thoughts of Josh to the back of her mind. She liked having this much power nestled between her legs.

The bike was her baby. When the wind whipped through her hair, she felt renewed, as if the air cleansed her of the filth she dealt with each day. There was nothing better than flying down the highway. It was the only time she felt truly free from the harsh reality that was never very far away. She needed that escape to feel whole again…or at least as whole as she could ever get.

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