Laws of Attraction
Marriage & Mayhem! Book 1
He's a Texas lawman carrying a badge...and a grudge.
And he could die protecting his unintended bride.
They're a perfect pair, both tough, wary, and the walking wounded. When their quests for vengeance collide, Undercover DEA Agent Dallas McQuade and Mia Linden, a disbarred lawyer whose personal life has been destroyed by drug lord Esteban Montoya, are forced into a reluctant partnership—and a quickie Las Vegas wedding.
Dallas vows to protect his temporary wife, but Mia has plans of her own, and they don't include leaving all the heavy lifting—or bullet-dodging—to Dallas.
Neither of them planned on falling in lust, let alone love. But they can’t fight the passion…and emotions…ricocheting between them.
Will they choose vengeance—or love?
Maybe they can heal each other. And their make-believe marriage can become real.
If they survive.
Mia Linden didn’t park in deserted garages, or sneak to the basement at midnight in her undies to investigate suspicious serial-killer-type noises. She always checked the peephole before answering a knock.
And she never, ever, picked up hitchhikers.
But her foot lifted from the gas pedal as her ancient orange Volkswagen Bug chugged past the dark-haired man hunkered in tall ferns lining the twisting forest road. He looked like he might be hurt.
She didn’t have a cell phone—couldn’t afford one since she’d been chopped from Grayson & Associates Law Firm four months ago. No other vehicles were traveling the lonely wooded highway to Portland, Oregon from the secluded Mt. Hood ski lodge she’d been spying on. She hadn’t seen another car the entire trip. The foreboding April afternoon was wet and cold at this altitude, sleet casting an icy shroud over the windshield.
If she left him there, he could die.
Mia pressed the gas pedal again and glanced at the dwindling figure in her rearview mirror. The man hadn’t moved. She gripped the wheel so hard her knuckles whitened. Was he one of Esteban’s goons?
Or another of his casualties?
MYOB, Mia. You already have enough disaster in your life. The Beetle trundled around a hairpin curve, losing visual contact. Just keep going. Out of sight, but definitely not out of mind. When she reached civilization she’d call 911.
Two hours from now.
Then it’d be at least several more hours before EMS reached him.
Dammit. Her hiking boots slammed down the clutch and brake. Gears whined in protest as she downshifted, then coaxed the valiant little car into a U-turn. She slowed, staring at his still form as she passed in the opposite direction. He was dressed in a long-sleeved, rain-soaked denim shirt and faded black Levi’s, his back propped against a massive fallen log. His legs were drawn up, arms wrapped tightly around his waist, forehead resting on his knees.
No surprise, he was shivering violently.
Her staunch need to defend the wounded kicked in. Mia Linden, champion for the defenseless, to the rescue.
Mia made another U-ie and parked on the shoulder. She switched off One Republic blaring from the radio but kept the engine fluttering in a spastic idle to facilitate escape. Even with a Taekwondo black belt, a gal could never be too prepared. She fumbled in her hunter’s camouflage coat pocket for her ever-ready pepper spray.
She climbed out of the Bug, leaving the door open in case she had to run for it.
Frigid wind tossed her wispy brunette bob into disarray and sleet stung her face as she cautiously approached the man. Finger on the canister’s trigger, she stopped well out of his reach. “Do you need help?”
He didn’t respond.
“Hello!” she shouted. “Can I help you?”
He slowly lifted his head. Glossy thick raven waves tumbled around rugged masculine features and curled at the back of a powerful, corded neck. Dark stubble dusted his square jaw and obstinate chin, framing a full, sensual mouth created for carnal pleasure. Black lashes framed dazed indigo eyes as deep, brilliant, and alluring as the Gulf Ocean.
Goosebumps prickled her skin and her nipples pebbled. Okay, so it was cold out here. Although she didn’t feel particularly cold.
Those incredible eyes focused, locked on hers. Gladiator’s eyes, glowing with determination and piercing intelligence.
A shock of premonition slammed into Mia, making her shake. She’d hit an unmarked pothole in her resolutely mapped road to redemption. “Hey,” she called unsteadily. “Are you hurt?”
He blinked. “Afraid so, ma’am.” The husky baritone mellowed with a rich Texas drawl slid through her, sweet as maple syrup and silky as sin.
Hell. She needed more trouble like Microsoft needed another million. “How badly?”
He carefully eased down those long, lean legs, and she saw he was clutching his ribs. Scarlet stained his fingers, leaking through his shirt and spreading across the thigh of his faded denims. “Nothing too serious. But I could use a ride to the city, if you don’t mind.”
Her heartbeat jumped into double-time. “I’d hate to see what you consider serious.” Mia shoved the pepper spray into her jeans pocket, then tore off her cammo coat and draped it over his broad shoulders. “Hold on.”
She dashed for the car, grabbed the emergency blankets and first-aid kit from the trunk, then raced back. She wrapped both blankets around him before kneeling at his side. “What happened?”
“Fishing accident down by the creek. This was as far as I could get.”
Mia flung open the first-aid kit. “What the hell were you fishing for…Jaws?”
His gorgeous mouth tilted, the movement making the square-cut ruby stud in his left ear sparkle. “My boning tool slipped.”
Right. She might have known. From the masculine promise in his midnight velvet gaze to the sexy curve of his generous lips, and all the long way down to the pointed toes of his well-worn brown cowboy boots, Tex here was every woman’s fantasy.
Every woman but her.
She shot him a frown. “You’re in dire circumstances, and I don’t play games. You read me, cowboy?”
“Yes, ma’am. I believe I do.” His grin flickered again, though his handsome face was paling at an alarming rate. “Name’s McQuade. Dallas McQuade.”
“I’m Mia.” She purposefully omitted her surname. “We need to stop that bleeding.” Her fingers trembled as she unbuttoned his shirt to reveal sculpted pecs and an eight-pack so sharply delineated she could scrub her entire lingerie collection on it. A wicked gash blazed a bloody swath over his left ribcage.
“Don’t look so scared, darlin’. It’s only a scratch. I’ll live.”
“Isn’t that supposed to be my line of BS?” Mia swallowed. “This will hurt.” She poured peroxide over the cut.
Dallas flinched, hissed.
“Sorry. God, I’m so sorry.”
“No big deal. Just tape ‘er up and I’ll be right as rain.”
He’d stopped trembling. Not good. Lack of shivering combined with slowing movements and slurred speech warned of encroaching hypothermia. She folded gauze into a thick pad and pressed it to the gash, then finished taping the pressure bandage as quickly, but gently, as possible. “You need heat, in a hurry. Can you stand?”
“You have a coat somewhere nearby?”
“A cell phone?”
“Jaws ate it. No reception here, anyway.”
“Uh, huh. I recognize a knife wound when I see it. Do we need to be worried about someone coming after you?”
She really didn’t want to cross-examine those implications. “Then let’s head to the car.”
McQuade’s tall, lean-muscled body had to weigh at least two-hundred pounds, and wrestling him to his feet was a nightmare. By the time she got him upright he was ghost-white and swaying drunkenly. Leaning on her shoulders,
he staggered several steps, then sucked in a sharp breath between his teeth.
“Come on, cowboy. You can make it.”
“Damned straight. Texans never surrender.” Dallas doggedly stumbled forward. “To quote Travis at the Alamo, ‘Victory or death.’”
“Oh, no. You’re one of those.”
“Testosterone jockey. I recognize the symptoms, my best friend Valerie is engaged to one.”
“Guilty as charged.”
Brutal wind slashed through her fuchsia turtleneck, and Mia shuddered. Dallas McQuade was lurking in the vicinity of her arch enemy’s ski lodge, suffering from an obvious knife attack.
What else was he guilty of?
She shook her head. One crisis at a time.
When they finally struggled to the car, they were both drenched and freezing. She wrangled Dallas into the passenger seat and leaned it back as far as it would go, then covered him with the driest blanket. Clambering behind the wheel, she cranked the temperature lever and wipers on high. Asthmatic warmth wheezed from the vents, barely penetrating the cold as she sped down the road.
She glanced over at her unwanted passenger. His eyes were closed, his face waxen, his breathing shallow and rapid. “Dallas?” The word plumed out in misty vapor. “McQuade, wake up!”
“‘M…wake,” he mumbled.
Her pulse tripped. He was severely hypothermic and in shock. He wouldn’t last two hours.
She’d been roaming these woods, stalking her quarry for weeks. There was a small hunting/fishing cabin several miles down one of these side roads…but which one? Mia peered through lashing rain. “Dallas, talk to me.”
Hanging out with her BFF Valerie and Valerie’s cop fiancé Jared had given Mia new insight into the alpha male mindset. “Dallas, wake up,” she demanded. “I need your help.”
Dark blue eyes slitted open, glinted in the gloom. “Atcher service.”
“Look for a road that goes into the forest on the right. There’s a deer crossing warning sign at the turnoff.”
Amazingly, he spotted it first. “Turn here,” he whispered.
Mia wrenched the wheel, bumping up the rutted dirt lane. Dallas groaned.
“Sorry,” she repeated.
“S'alright. I’m. Good.”
“Yeah? Once again, I’d hate to see your idea of bad.”
“You like…” He was obviously struggling to stay conscious. “Bad boys, Mia?”
She scowled. “I don’t particularly care for the male species, period.”
He managed a raspy whistle. “Some sidewinder do a number on you, sugar?”
Yeah, 666. The snakes had done more than he could possibly imagine. They’d smashed her morale, mutilated her self-confidence, and massacred her hopes and dreams.
But she was hanging on—by her fingernails.
Mia parked beside the battered shanty and scanned the woods. Nothing stirred except storm-whipped evergreens. Looked like they were on their own. Maybe not so terrible, considering the alternatives.
She used her tire iron to break a rear window and clear the sill, then hoisted herself through to unlock the front door. She hurried back to Dallas. “Up and at ‘em, McQuade. You’re minutes away from a nice comfy bed.”
His chin angled up, and his smoldering gaze held hers. “You surely do know how to rally the troops.”
“Whatever it takes to bribe you into the cabin.” She wrestled him out and semi-upright.
Panting, he stumbled, inadvertently making her support most of his weight. “You…writing me IOU’s…you can’t make good on, darlin’?”
“The name’s Mia. And you can’t afford me.” Hauling around a guy who was at least a foot taller than her own petite 5’4” wasn’t the easiest thing she’d ever done. Exertion stole all her oxygen as she wrapped her arm around his waist. That’s the story she told herself, anyway. “Now hustle your ass, before you freeze to death and I have to leave your carcass for wolf chow.”
A low chuckle rumbled in his throat. “There’s incentive.”
She maneuvered him inside and into a rickety camping chair. The tiny shack was shabby and minimally supplied, but would shelter them from April’s capricious tantrum. Mia started a blaze crackling in the fireplace before dragging a thin mattress off the bunk and to the hearth.
Her mouth was dry, her nerves tap-dancing as she helped Dallas onto the makeshift cot beside the fire and propped his head on the pillows. She dreaded what came next. “Okay, cowboy. Let’s get you out of those wet clothes.”
He gave her a crooked grin brimming with naughtiness. “Best idea I’ve heard…all damned week.”
Faking confidence she was far from feeling, she arched a brow. “Now who’s kiting IOU’s?”
“I don’t…make promises…I can’t keep.”
Only the fact that McQuade was weak as a newborn sublimated Mia’s screaming panic while she parted his shirtfront and eased the garment off those solid, imposing shoulders. No blood had seeped through the bandage. One relief.
She removed his boots and socks, studiously avoiding his gaze as her quivering fingers brushed the soft treasure-trail of dark hair around his navel before fumbling with the waistband of his Levi’s. Naturally, the man would choose button fly. Unfastening the wet denim button by stubborn button took way too long…and was jarringly intimate.
“Lift your hips.” Crap, her voice was shakier than her hands.
She tugged down his pants, awkward at the unfamiliar task. Mia’s gaze cruised up the length of Dallas’ sinewed calves and solid thighs, and her belly clenched. He had on tight black boxer briefs…and even cold as he was, that package was one awesome special delivery.
She’d hit her limit. Wearing damp skivvies wouldn’t kill the guy. She got up and snatched pillows and worn, red plaid blankets from where she’d dumped them off the bunk mattress, then covered him. His teeth were chattering and his violent shivers had returned. An improvement or a setback? “How do you feel?”
“B-been w-worse. Y-you’re soaked, t-too. T-trembling. S-should und-dress.”
Too much of her unsteadiness had nothing to do with the cold. But she wasn’t about to admit it. “Stay awake. I’m going to brew something hot to drink.”
“Mia.” His glance caressed her. “I w-won’t hurt y-ou.”
As crazy as it seemed, she sensed she’d be safe with him. Mia touched the lump in her pocket that was the canister of pepper spray. Besides, she could handle herself, and the testosterone rodeo. She was proficient in self-defense. Armed with the wisdom of hindsight.
She’d never again be vulnerable to an ambush.
She strode to the kitchenette, rummaged through cupboards. “Dallas is an unusual name.”
“My t-three sisters, Victoria, C-Christie and Tyler-Anne, w-were also named after Texas t-towns.”
Against her will, her attention gravitated back to his virile pirate’s face. “Good thing your parents never visited Amarillo.”
He laughed hoarsely, his mischievous white smile a startling contrast with the dusky stubble on his cheeks and chin. The ruby in his earlobe twinkled in the firelight. “O-or Waxahachie.”
The shanty didn’t boast a fridge, stove, or any electricity. Mia located a pan, stirred canned chicken noodle soup into tap water, then carried it to the fireplace and set it in the glowing embers.
The sky blackened, the temperature dropped. Wind and sleet howled through the broken window. Using an unopened can of soup as a hammer, she nailed the blankets from her car over the breach with barbed fishhooks from a tackle box. Her limbs ached with numbness by the time she’d finished, her shivers as fierce as his.
She tottered to Dallas carrying a mug of steaming soup, her tremors sloshing it over the rim. He scowled. “Y-you don’t s-strike me as a stupid woman.”
She fed him another wobbly sip. “Perceptive of you.”
“Then y-ou know as w-well as I do…you n-need to shuck your wet c-clothes and get into bed with me.”
She jerked, barely avoided spilling the broth down his chest. “No.”
“Admit it. W-we’re colder t-than brass monkeys. H-hypothermia wipes y-you out, then what happens t-to both of us?”
His argument made an awful kind of sense. But the idea iced her blood colder than the sleet. He stayed silent, letting her decide while she fed him the rest of the soup.
Mia rescued her bulky purse from the car and set it on the metal folding table in the kitchenette. She fixed herself a mug of soup she didn’t want, then drank it. Mostly to postpone the inevitable.
She stoked the fire. Dragged the camping chair near it to hang up Dallas’ clothes while chills wracked her.
Her teeth sank into her lower lip. You know what you have to do. It was practical. Necessary for survival.
She’d survived much worse.
Nevertheless, trepidation crawled up her backbone as she drew her wet turtleneck over her head…with Dallas’ warm sea-god eyes watching every move. Mia clumsily toed out of her boots and socks. Unzipped her damp jeans. Like ripping off a bandage, she yanked them down and off. She quickly hung her pants beside his. Hiding the can of pepper spray in one hand, she turned and raised the blanket with the other.
Mirth danced through Dallas’ gaze and a smile flirted around his mouth. He chuckled.
He was laughing at her? Humiliated, Mia crossed defensive arms over her not-so-ample breasts. She looked down.
She was wearing her Bugs Bunny “What’s up, Doc?” panties and complementing demi-bra printed with tiny carrots. An early birthday gift from Valerie.
The humorous moment helped ease the thick tension as she slipped beneath the covers with him.
They lay face-to-face, gazes linked in the flickering firelight. She tucked the canister beneath her pillow as she breathed in Dallas’ scent…warm man and subtle, earthy pine. His languid smile slid across his mouth, flooding her veins with lava. Damn, the erotic images his scrumptious lips conjured up…
Get a grip, Mia!
She did not need a man. Not now, not ever. She would never give up her independence for some guy, and lose herself.
Already too cynical for her years at age six, with both her heart and her body broken, Mia had vowed never to fall in love. So far, she’d managed to keep that promise with no hassles from Cupid. And the little imp with the bow and arrows had better stay away, or she’d drop-kick his diapered butt right back to Olympus.
Besides, nothing was going to sidetrack her fight for redemption. Especially not a yummy hunk of man candy.
A steely forearm encircled her waist, urged her nearer, and she stiffened. Dallas’ palm stroked her rigid spine. “Easy, darlin’. You’re gonna have to come closer to share body heat. I won’t bite.” He winked. “Unless you ask me to.”
She gritted her teeth. “If you have any desire to father children in the future, you’d better keep your hands—and your fantasies—under control.”
A deep chuckle vibrated his chest, now far too close for comfort. “You know, you remind me of a hunting hound I used to have.”
“Gee, thanks. You really know how to wow a girl.”
“Named her Dirty Harriet, after Eastwood.”
Mia rolled her eyes. “Why am I not surprised?”
“She was the snappiest critter in three counties. Couldn’t get near her without getting bit. But once I’d earned her trust, she—”
“Fetched your slippers and gazed up adoringly from between your feet?”
“Harriet became my best friend. And my most loyal companion.”
“Sorry to disappoint, cowboy. I flunked obedience school.”
“Why am I not surprised?” He continued to rub her back in slow, soothing strokes. “You’re safe. Trust me, Mia. Go to sleep.”
The wind’s gnashing teeth grabbed the cabin and shook it, rattling boards and shingles. But the storm outside was trivial compared to the emotional typhoon whirling inside her.
Buffeted by the confusing tempest of attraction and wariness, Mia studied the intriguing man in her bed.
She’d give Dallas McQuade temporary shelter. Give him her body heat. Give him transport to the city tomorrow.
But she wasn’t about to give anybody her trust.
* * *
When dawn’s watery gray light crept through the windows, Dallas snapped to awareness with stiff muscles, throbbing ribs…and a raging boner.
He was wrapped around a warm, curvy woman who smelled enticingly like his family’s rose garden in Tyler, Texas.
A surge of desire detonated inside him, and he blinked away the sensual daze.
Hellfire. He’d thought his libido had perished along with his other emotions. Now was a fine time for it to rise from the dead and distract him—when he was finally in position to settle the long overdue score.
The sexy little Samaritan was a complication he hadn’t expected. A wild card in the lethal long-con he was running. No problem, he could bluff with the best. In his line of work, a player who couldn’t think on his feet had a short life expectancy.
But all things considered, he preferred chess, where he could strategically plan every move to his advantage.
Mia’s delicate heart-shaped face had a pixie’s impish smile, but the eyes of an old soul—someone on intimate terms with pain. Her appearance so close to the scene of the latest assassination attempt on his new boss might be a coincidence.
His chest tightened. He’d learned—the worst way possible—that life rarely slotted into neat coincidences.
Mia stirring against him scattered his thoughts before they could wind down the familiar torturous path. Her silky thigh glided along his, her soft cotton panties brushing his hard-on. His dick twitched in response, and she jolted. Her eyelids shot open, instant terror striking her lovely features.
He swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. He was well aware she’d slept clutching a canister of mace. Someone had mistreated Mia very badly.
“Morning.” Dallas offered a reassuring smile as he eased back to give her space. Those wide, deep amber eyes caught and held him spellbound. Intoxicating. Beguiling. Tempting a man to drink her up in one long swallow, until
he forgot all the sorrow. Forgot the pain.
He licked his lower lip, almost imagining he could taste her there. “Your eyes are the exact color of Southern Comfort.”
She scrambled out of bed like the blankets were on fire. “I’m leaving in ten minutes.” Her voice was husky with fatigue…and fear. “If you’re not ready, you can thumb it home.” Then she stalked into the bathroom and slammed
Dallas wanted to kick his own ass clear back to Portland. Why the fuck had he blurted that? Smooth, McQuade.
He got up as fast as his injuries allowed—and headed straight for Mia’s bulging purse.
Expensive, professional field glasses. Digital camera with a zoom lens, and dozens of pictures of a certain ski lodge he recognized. A long-distance listening device disguised as a laser pointer. Small notebook detailing way too much of Esteban Montoya’s personal information and whereabouts the past few weeks.
Interesting. Dallas frowned. If he searched her car, would he find guns and ammo? Explosives?
He’d already nearly bought the farm on this new job protecting Montoya from an unknown assassin, and he wanted answers.
The driver’s license was issued to Mia Elaine Linden. He noted her last name and memorized the license number and address. One credit card, debit card, library card, discount warehouse membership. No social security number, but he could find that easily enough and run a thorough background check when he reached the city. Dallas quickly assessed the remaining contents. Nothing but the usual female paraphernalia. The lone prescription was a plastic compact containing birth-control pills.
For inexplicable reasons he didn’t care to question, the image of his sloe-eyed rescuer cuddled up with another man made the chilled ache return…and he felt more alone than ever.
Do not go there.
He limped to the fireplace and laboriously dressed, remembering the long-ago morning he’d stabbed a needle through his left earlobe, wiped away the blood and thrust in the antique ruby. The sting in his ear had been minor compared to the agony in his heart.
Even after all this time, not a day went by without acid failure gnawing at his guts. Not a night passed that he didn’t climb from his sleepless bed to pour his anguish into hours of mind-numbing Jeet Kune Do. He rolled his shoulders, relishing the sharp stab of discomfort in his ribs.
Stay on target.
If everything went according to plan, his ten years on the warpath would pay off soon. Very soon.
Dallas clenched his jaw. And if Mia Linden got in his way…he’d just have to deal with her.