Her gaze bore into the man’s. “I’m afraid I’ll have to reschedule with you. Something’s come up.” She tried to run to the door, but he stretched out his arm and grabbed her, stopping her flat.
“You’re not leaving until I have the box.” His tone was no longer gentle, but strong, demanding. “I paid you. I want it.”
Automatically, her fingers wrapped around the dart gun at her waist. She didn’t aim. Yet. But her blood pounded through her veins at full speed. A gloss of sweat beaded over her skin. “I’m afraid that’s impossible at the moment. The box stays with me until my boy is safe. And right now, he’s being followed.”
The man hesitated for a long while. Finally, he said, “Go to him. Help him. But I expect to hear from you before morning. If I do not…” His voice trailed off. Then he added calmly, “I do not want to, Farrah, but I will hunt you down and kill you. Your friend River will be next. Neither death will be quick or easy. Feel me?”
He knew their names. She’d never told him; none of her other clients knew. She’d gone to great lengths to keep them hidden. Lightheaded, Farrah nodded.
The man released her. She spun on her heel and ran. Just ran, shoving people out of the way in her haste. I’m in way over my head this time, she thought, as she flung open the front door and sprinted into the night. This was not exciting.
Breath burning in her lungs, she hastily searched the cars. When she found an older, unlocked vehicle, she tossed her bag in the passenger seat and jumped inside. She quickly jerked off the dash cover and rerouted the wires. The engine roared to life.
“River,” she said, “you still good?”
Her ear was suddenly filled with the sound of screeching tires, then a muttered curse. “I can’t shake my shadows, Farr, and they’ve stopped taking turns. They’re both on my ass now.”
Who the hell was following him? She bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood. Danger directed at herself, she enjoyed. Danger directed at River…different story. She stomped her foot on the gas and sped from the parking lot. “Where are you headed? Maybe I can cut them off.”
He rattled off his location and described the cars.
“Slow down, okay, and let them stay close to you. Just not close enough to take a shot if that’s their goal.” She made the drive in seven minutes, each one ticking slower than the last. She finally spotted River; he was several cars ahead of her. She also spotted his shadows. Black, nondescript sedans, just like River drove. Their windows were tinted, so she couldn’t make out the drivers. “I’m here,” she said. “I see them.”
“What do you want me to do?” There was an edge to the words, a quiet desperation.
I got him into this. I have to get him out. No matter what. “When I tell you, make a sharp one-eighty and hop into the opposite lane. Don’t look back, just gas it.” Farrah increased her speed, sidling up to one of the cars. “Now,” she said, and rammed it. One sedan slammed into the other, and her own car was knocked off course, swerving left and right.
As she fought for control, she heard the squeal of tires, saw River doing as she’d instructed, and felt a wave of relief. The sedans tried to turn, tried to follow him, but she rammed them until they collided with other vehicles, the sound of crunching metal blasting across the highway.
Farrah didn’t take her foot off the gas, even whiplashed as she was, but continued north. She was panting, her fingers throbbing from gripping the wheel so tightly, and her skin felt too tight on her bones.
“Farrah? Farrah, are you okay?”
“All’s well,” she managed to say without any hint of emotion. “Shadows are gone, and I’m on my way home.”
At first, he didn’t respond. Then he expelled a shaky breath. “What was that about?”
“I don’t know. Maybe the box, maybe not. Let’s worry about it tomorrow. Right now, I’m wiped.”
“Just…ditch the car as soon as you can, and I’ll do the same.”
“Will do. See you in thirty, Riv.”
“Yeah, see you in thirty.”
He was upset, she could tell. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and they’d done many, many jobs together. Maybe it was time to get out of the business, go somewhere sunny and safe and relax for the first time in her life. River could “bag the babes” he was always talking about. He could work a normal job, maybe start his own computer business.
Farrah sighed. Yeah, it was time. Past time, probably. She’d miss the rushes, the danger, the excitement, but River was more important. Tomorrow, she’d deliver the box to its new owner—his death threat still rang in her ears—then she’d begin planning a new life for herself and River.
WHEN FARRAH ENTERED the motel room, she was happy to see that River was already there. He lounged on the bed, flipping channels on the TV. He looked so young, lying there, the stained red comforter fluffed around him, big white pillows under his feet.
The door snicked shut behind her. Their eyes met, his a worried green, hers a relieved blue. Without the contacts, her gaze would have been a relieved brown.
“I’m sorry,” she said, locking the door behind her. “So very sorry.”
Frowning, he dropped the remote and sat up. “Why? You did nothing wrong.”
“I introduced you to this lifestyle. I—”
“Saved me,” he interjected. “Time and time again.”
She opened her mouth to respond, but he cut her off with a quick shake of his head. “Nope. Not another word on the subject. You’re going to relax, catch some Zs, and I’m going to decompress. There’s a bar about a block over. They’ve got pool and loose women, and as you know, that’s my favorite combination.”
Her lips pursed as she crossed her arms over her chest. “You aren’t old enough to get in to a bar.”
He hopped from the bed and slipped his feet into his boots, shooting her a wicked grin and suddenly appearing much older than his nineteen years. “My I.D. says otherwise.”
True. She’d forged the I.D. herself. But he did not need to be drinking beer, which fogged his brain and made him giggly; he’d proposition everything breathing and—wait. Up close, she could see the lines of tension around his eyes, the tight pull of his lips. She lost her steam. He really did need to decompress.
“Just be careful, okay. Phone if there’s any trouble.”
She anchored her hands on her hips. “Whoever chased you is still out there, smarty.”
He nodded, his expression growing fierce. “That’s why you’re not going to open the door for anyone, no matter who they claim to be.”
“Yes, Daddy,” she mimicked.
Chuckling, he tossed a pillow at her. She easily ducked, the foam bouncing off the door. River was in front of her in the next flash, kissing her cheek.
“If I’m not back by morning, it’s because I’ve finally found the easy woman of my dreams.”
“At least pick one who’s had all her shots.”
He didn’t respond, but whistled under his breath as he left. “Incorrigible,” Farrah muttered, bolting the door again. No wonder she loved him so much.
With a sigh, she trekked past the bed and—stopped abruptly. Her gaze had snagged on the mound of black velvet perched atop one of the pillows. Pandora’s box. Just seeing it made her tingle, made her blood heat and her stomach flutter. But she forced herself to look away, to pad into the bathroom.
She needed to text the buyer. Should do so now. But…not yet, she thought. There was still time.
After removing her contacts, she stripped and showered, the steamy water washing away the dark tint she’d applied to her skin. All the while, she thought of the box. What would the voice—her subconscious—say if she touched it again?
Would only silence greet her?
Maybe she was crazy, but she wanted to know. Had to know. She wanted to hear that deep, sensual timbre again. Yes, she had to hear it.
Farrah shut off the water and wrapped herself in a stiff white towel. The long length of her hair dripped down her back. Chewing her bottom lip, she exited the bathroom on a cloud of steam and approached the bed. For a long while, she simply stared at the dark bundle. How innocent it looked…how beguiling…
Practically in a trance, she stepped forward. She was reaching down…down…but her toe stubbed on—she tore her gaze away and glanced to the floor—her overnight bag. She and River had stored their belongings here early this morning, having moved from their previous location in preparation for the job.
In and out she breathed. Dress first, and get your silly compulsion under control. This need is ridiculous. Still eyeing the box, she dressed in a pink tank and matching sleep pants. Her desire to hear the voice was a little frightening. Adrenaline was rushing through her as if she was about to break into a heavily armed fortress.
While a gunfight played on the TV behind her, she reached out once more and clasped the velvet. Slowly she unwound the soft material, inch by agonizing inch. The dark wood finally came into view, and her mouth flooded with moisture.
Open it, woman. I have lost patience with you.
Hearing that, her nerve endings electrified. He hadn’t abandoned her. He was still here. But he was no longer seductive, he was now commanding. Wait, she thought, frowning. She was thinking of the voice as a real man now, not a figment of her long-ignored hormones.
Open it! Do not make me tell you again.
“The owner will—”
Not know. I promise you.
How tempting…irresistible. “Fine,” she found herself saying. God, she was having a conversation with a nonexistent person. Crazy did not begin to describe her. “I’ll open it, but the guy threatened to kill me and the only person in the world that I love. If he realizes what I’ve done, he’ll be pissed and might just try to kill us anyway.”