Excerpt: Riley's Rules
Book 2: The Bounty Hunters
Flames licked high into the inky black night sky.
Storm Weatherly crouched down, cradling the crying child close. His heart thumped against her chest. His sobs ripped her in two.
“Shhh! It’s all right, Timmy. I’m here. We’re safe.” For now.
Heat fanned out from the fire consuming the house they’d just escaped. The crackling of burning wood snapped and popped. The smoke-filled air stung her nose. Her eyes watered.
Taking one last look, Storm vowed she’d find her family. The kidnapper had taken them and left her and Timmy to die, locked in a closet.
With her feet still throbbing from kicking out the door, she turned and fled.
The sling he was in shifted as he squirmed.
Grasping him tighter, she said, “Playtime. Treasure hunt.”
His hands, greedy for her, opened and closed. His little nails scratched her neck. “Pla…play?”
The light from the fire spread, guiding her way. She picked out the familiar landmarks. The route Murphy had her memorize nearly two years ago rushed back to her now.
He’d planned for this day.
She just never thought it would happen.
“First the weapons,” she whispered in a soothing voice. “The crank flashlight sits with them. Yards to go. To the left. To the right.”
It worked. The little one calmed down.
The farther she jogged, the dark closed in, swallowing them up. And the chilly air seeped into her thin blouse.
Blocking out the brutal rugged course of dirt, rocks, hills and valleys, Storm pressed on. If she was lucky, she might cover the four grueling miles by sunrise.
Then where would she go?
“Next the buried canteens. Then the MREs. You and me. Some money for my honey. That’s you. Gas and a motorcycle for us to go, go, go.” She made it into a little song.
He giggled. It struck a chord; he sounded so much like her twin, Echo, when they were babies.
“I’m going to find her and Murph. Oh, yes I am,” she cooed.
And then I’m going to kill the son-of-a-bitch who took my family.
She knew exactly who could help her search for them, too.
But would he even talk to her after what she’d done to him?
She was hot as hell and tough as nails.
Jackson Riley froze. What the eff was she doing here?
“Storm,” he said between gritted teeth, knowing the outline of the woman as if he’d moved his hands over her body, tracing her curves. Again.
She walked to him from out of the shelter of the stand of trees nearby. Stopping less than ten feet away, she met his stare.
How could he not know her? She haunted him.
God, the way she said his name, dark and smoky, sent shivers through him. He bit back on a groan. “Didn’t think I’d ever see you again. Much less in a cemetery.”
She nodded to the gravestone he faced. “Murph said you’d be here. Seven every morning.”
“He should know, shouldn’t he? He got my father killed.”
An awkward silence descended. A soft whimper caught his attention. It came from the wrap she wore around her.
“A baby? You?” Shock raced down his spine. Who the hell had she been with?
Clutching the bundle closer to her, she straightened, standing a little taller. That invisible wall had gone up, swift and solid.
He didn’t have a right to cross the barriers she erected years ago and apparently he didn’t have any more today.
In the early morning light, slowly whisking away the morning shadows, he looked closer.
Dark, long black hair, those blue eyes that could look right through him—piercing him every time, even now—and the stance, as if she were bracing herself for something to come: he noted each detail.
Storm didn’t answer his direct question. “He’s hungry.”
That’s when he let his gaze linger.
Her clothes were dusty. Her boots had dried mud on them. There was a scrape on her chin that she now lifted a tad higher. And the dark smudges under her eyes told him she hadn’t slept in days.
Something slammed into his gut.
“Who are you running from?” He could barely breathe.
Did it have anything to do with the baby?
Storm Weatherly could kick ass maybe even better than he could. So why would she run? From anything or anyone?
“Didn’t say I was.”
“Cut the crap, Storm.” Be straight with me.
Absently, she soothed the child she held, stroking the baby’s back, drawing his eyes to the length.
This wasn’t a newborn or an infant. How old? More than one. Two? Almost as long as she’d been away…
He raised his eyebrow. “Did Murphy send you? Can’t fight his own battles?” What was it going to take for her to react? For him to get some answers?
She jerked slightly, but just enough for him to know he’d gotten under her skin. A sliver of satisfaction whipped through him and then disappeared.
Her silence pissed him off.
“You came to see me.” He pointed out. “You’re wasting my time.” Again.
Riley looked down at the engraving on the headstone. His heart clutched. Jackson Riley Sr. was etched in the charcoal gray stone.
He refused to look at the dates under it; it rankled him at how he’d gotten robbed of his father at such a young age.
All because of Murphy.
The guy he used to call his best friend.
He wanted answers. No, he needed them.
Apparently, Riley wasn’t going to get any from her today. Or any other day. Why should he? It had only been two long years since his father was murdered. None had come then or since. But he’d be damned if he didn’t keep trying.
Shooting her one last look, he turned on his heel and marched to his truck.
“You can’t leave.” Her footsteps followed him.
“You see my back, don’t you?”
“Timmy needs food. And water.”
That was his name. Timmy. Shock raced through him. He stopped in his tracks, still not turning around. “That was Murphy’s grandfather’s name.”
“He’s Murph’s kid?”
“And Echo’s.” Her whispered words reached him.
He could breathe again. “Your twin sister.” Relief throbbed in his voice. Confusion rushed through him. “She was pregnant.”
“We hid it.”
“Before and after the heist.” He was wrong; he was getting some answers. Just not the ones he could do anything with. Except realize why she’d gone into hiding after his father’s murder, the bank robbery… “Did you steal the gold and hide that, too?”
She was closer than he assumed; he heard her swallow hard. “Riley.”
Closing his eyes, he tried to shake off the way her voice rippled through him.
The minute she put her hand on his arm, he felt the heat searing him there. “You should know not to touch me,” he warned.
Instead of letting go, she held tighter. “We had something. Once.”
“Using that to get your way?”
Her nails bit into him now. “The hell I would, Riley,” she hissed. “You should know me better than that.” She pulled away.
Turning to face her, he saw the fire in her eyes, liquid blue fire.
There were only a few times he’d seen it.
When she’d been effing pissed off. Or when she was on top of him, staring at him as he clutched her hips in his hands and held her tight while they’d come together.
This time he’d bet good money she wasn’t turned on. Not by a long shot.
His body reacted nonetheless.
Storm gripped the cool metal truck door with one hand and Timmy with the other as Riley drove them away and to God knows where. The seatbelt nestled the baby closer and he struggled in her arms, whimpering.
He was sweaty and dried tears streaked down his tiny face.
“It’s all right,” she said softly, brushing back the damp tendrils of hair. She couldn’t count how many times she’d told him that in his short lifetime. It was probably a way for her to soothe them both, facing the unknown, facing danger.
Riley reached down and grabbed the half-empty bottle of water, shoving it toward her.
His wordless gesture spoke volumes. He didn’t want anything to do with her. Not anymore. Not after she hightailed it out of his bedroom and never looked back.
She wasn’t into commitment. Not like that. Not for more than a few tumbles with him. For years, she’d kept her guard up. But one fateful night, her defenses had crumbled. She’d given in. And paid the price ever since.
He’d ruined her. For life.
God, she still wanted him.
“Thanks,” she muttered, taking the water. Her fingers brushed his. It felt like she’d touched a live wire. Jerking away, she avoided his brief, searching stare.
But in her mind’s eye, his face, so rugged and dear to her, rose up. How often, over the last two years, had she wanted to stare into his hazel eyes and run her hands through his sandy brown hair?
She swallowed the lump in her throat and pushed aside the ache that arrowed through her chest.
Tipping the open bottle to Timmy’s mouth, she watched as he grabbed the plastic in both hands and gulped the cool water. “Slow, baby,” she said, knowing he hadn’t had a drop in hours. The last of their provisions had run out before midnight.
“When’s the last time you ate?” Riley’s question shot through the small cab of the truck.
“Protein bar. Late yesterday.” She’d taken a bite and made sure Timmy had the rest.
“When we get to where we’re going, you and I have a lot to talk about.” His warning grated. But she had little choice.
Storm couldn’t and wouldn’t tell him everything; she’d protect him and his family from any more harm. But she’d tell him just enough to get what she needed and set her loose once again.
Stealing a glance at him, she wondered how she was going to walk away from him this time.
He met her stare. “The hell you are,” he said softly, somehow reading her mind.
Storm held back as she followed Riley into the bright, cheery kitchen.
“Gran.” He leaned down and kissed the older woman on her cheek as she stood at the stove, scrambling eggs.
“Riley, honey, I thought you wouldn’t show. That bounty hunter business?” she asked, looking at Storm. “My, what do we have here? Pretty thing, aren’t you—” She stopped short. “Why, I know you. Which twin are you?”
“Gran, this is Storm. And Timmy.”
If the air could ripple with shock, it just did. Storm braced herself.
“A…a baby?” She turned to Riley and raised her eyebrows.
He shook his head no.
Storm wasn’t sure if the older lady sagged with relief or disappointment. Either way, there was a silent exchange between Riley and his grandmother.
“Nice to see you again,” she said, recovering quickly. “Come, let me have a look.”
Not knowing what else to do, Storm took a few steps closer. Timmy peered over the wrap and held out his arms to the woman, opening and closing his hands.
“He’s never done that to anyone,” she said, surprised at him. The little boy had been sheltered for so long, hidden away in a small town and kept far away from the prying eyes of the men who were after his father.
The woman stopped stirring, shut off the stove, and moved the pan off the burner. Wiping her hands on her apron quickly, she reached for Timmy. “Oh, how precious. Don’t you worry, honey. I love babies and they love me. Isn’t that right?” she asked, easing Timmy out of the wrap and into her arms.
Storm stilled, her heart squeezing. Tears smarted her eyes. It had been a frightening few days, especially the last day and a half traveling, when she didn’t know if they were going to live or die. So much had depended on her getting them to safety. Now, he laughed.
She sensed Riley’s stare. Turning to him, she caught the whisper of stunned wonder chasing over his features.
Yes, I do have feelings.
Blinking away the moisture, she jerked her gaze away and focused on his grandmother and her nephew.
“Call me Gran,” she said, apparently to both of them. “Can you eat?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Breakfast. Then you clean up. How’s that, little one?”
“I have a favor to ask you, Gran,” Riley said. His stare drilled into Storm until she looked his way. “Can you babysit Timmy? A few days should do.”
She went to object, but his eyes held her in their grip. I dare you!
“Storm and I have a little business to attend to.”
His grandmother must have felt the undercurrents; she glanced from him to Storm and back again. She bounced Timmy in her arms. “I don’t mind a bit. Why, it will be nice to have a baby around again.”
Jackson Riley wasn’t letting her go. Not now. Not easily.
He heard the shower running just beyond the door. Visions of her wet and naked flared to life. So did his body.
The little piece of gentleman left in him stayed leaning against the doorframe.
But his mind wasn’t that honorable. Or that clean.
And there were other parts not so chivalrous right about now.
The water stopped.
Closing his eyes, he pictured her rubbing the towel over her damp skin. He bit down on a groan.
Why did she, over every other female he’d been to bed with, tie him up and keep a grip on him?
He must have lost track of time or been mesmerized by the thoughts he conjured up in his head about her. The door banged open.
She rushed out, but he held out his arm, grabbing her around her bare shoulders.
The feel of her silky smooth skin sent a river of lust whooshing through him.
The towel she wore barely covered her. His gaze dropped to the less than secure knot keeping the two edges together, or not keeping it covered. Her dusky cleavage had his mouth watering.
If he could just taste her there.
Yeah, Riley, you’d never stop if you ever had the chance again.
“Fire somewhere?” he asked, trying to rein in his humming body and wayward thoughts. It was like fighting a blaze with a teaspoon of water.
“Timmy,” she said, dragging a hand through her long, wet hair. She clutched a knife and a small pistol—SIG 9mm, by his guess—and two bullet magazines to her as she held onto the slipping towel.
“He’s safe.” In the back of his mind, he sized up her weapons. Not her usual choices, he recalled.
“I want to see for myself.”
“When did you stop trusting me, Storm? Before or after we kicked boots?”
She bristled at that. Facing him, she pressed her fisted hand on her hip. The material hardly held up, but it was the woman who caught and held all of his attention.
The mutiny in her eyes was back. Her clenched jaw spoke volumes. Shutting down, bottling up tight, she refused to give him an answer.
Well, hell, if she didn’t start talking and giving up answers, then he’d have to really get tough.
He didn’t want to.
Didn’t think he had to stoop that low.
But by the look of her granite-like features, she wasn’t about to budge.
“I usually don’t tell beautiful women to put their clothes on, but, in your case, I am.”
Regret filled his voice. Storm ducked under his arm and away from him.
They were sitting on the edge of the bed. Her clothes. Freshly laundered.
“I will.” The woman was a saint. She’d softly ordered them to eat, insisted Storm shuck her filthy clothes and handed over one of Riley’s shirts, helped Storm clean up Timmy, and put Timmy down for a nap. Storm had stayed until he dropped off to sleep.
Riley didn’t move. If possible, his stare burned into her back. She did what any self-possessed woman would do in the same situation. She dropped her towel.
His sharp breath sailed through the air.
Still holding dearly to the gun and the knife and ammo, Storm pivoted on her heel, facing him. She met his gaze full on. His eyes were lit from within, churning with desire, and made her knees weak. Heat flashed through her as if he’d touched her.
She bit back on a moan.
Storm reluctantly broke the stare. She gingerly placed the weapons on the mattress. She shimmied into her panties. He never looked away. With each item she put on, he seemed to look even more turned on, if possible.
“Boots?” she asked as she sat on the edge of the bed and tugged on her socks.
He tilted his head toward the door. “Out back. Scraped off the mud.”
She nodded, the words of gratitude sticking in her dry throat. “Owe you,” she said with a huskiness in her voice she wished away. But he always did strange things to her. Still.
Storm jerked her head up, fully meeting his hot, bold stare. “Quick roll?”
His chuckle surprised her, catching her off guard. To shake it off, she picked up her gun and knife and ammo clips, easing them into her pockets. She’d hide them in her boots once she’d retrieved them.
“I’m no fool, Storm.”
Something in her clutched at the way he said her name. “Never took you for one.”
“Good. Now that we’ve got that settled, tell me where Murphy is. Echo? They’d never leave you and the kid high and dry.”
“It’s better that you don’t know. I wouldn’t want you to have to testify.” Not when I commit a half dozen felonies.