“Surveillance,” the man answered without hesitation.
“In the dark? Alone? Where's your partner? There was no unmarked car out front.”
“We wouldn't be very good at our jobs if you spotted the car, would we?” The edges of the man's smile curled downward a fraction.
Payton looked up at Adriano and realized he'd known from the beginning what she was just now seeing. This man was not there to take her into protective custody. “Sherman sent you.”
“Beautiful and smart!” the man exclaimed. “Now get over here.”
“You're going to kill me.”
“Sherman wants to see you. He needs to talk. That's all.”
Adriano spoke to her, keeping his eyes on the man with the gun. “Please tell me Sherman is a jealous ex-boyfriend who doesn't understand what it means to end a relationship.”
“Muscle-bound and dumb,” the man answered. “Get over here, Payton.”
If she went with the corrupt FBI man, she'd be killedâor worseâwhen Sherman got his hands on her. Refusing meant placing Adriano in danger. Either way, more innocents were going to be dragged into the middle of this mess. She wouldn't jeopardize Adriano, but she wouldn't go without a fight. “Let Adriano go.”
“What?” Adriano and the FBI man asked simultaneously.
“You let a woman fight for you, Superman?” The FBI man laughed, directing the gun to the newspaper logo stretched across Adriano's chest.
“What are you doing?” Adriano asked her.
“My problem. My fight. Leave while you can.”
“He's not going anywhere.”
Adriano ignored the man and spoke to her. “Heroism is an admirable quality, but stupidity isn't.”
“You're calling me stupid?” Indignation rang loudly in her voice.
“If you plan on giving yourself up, yes.” He dropped his hands and turned to her, engaging her in a full-blown argument. “What makes you think I'd leave you here with this nut anyway?”
“Hey!” the FBI agent shouted.
Payton ignored the man and answered Adriano. “Thanks for the ride, but this doesn't involve you.”
“It involved me the second you carjacked me.”
“Melodramatic! You were never in any danger from me, and you knew it. If you hadn't been so distracted by staring at my breasts, you could have gotten me here before this man even showed up.”
“Now this is my fault?”
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” the crooked FBI agent shouted.
“What's with you two?
got the gun.”
Payton and Adriano lifted their hands in perfect synchronicity.
“If you've been stuck with her mouth for more than ten minutes, it seems you'd be happy to have me shoot her.”
“Listenâ” Payton started.
“No. You listen. It's time to go.”
“Where are we going?” Payton asked, stalling for time, hoping an idea would come to her.
Keep him talking.
She could feel Adriano's body coil as he hunted for a solution.
“You're going to see Sherman. I already told you.”
“What are you going to do with Adriano?”
“It doesn't matter. Last time.
Get over here.
“No?” the FBI agent repeated. “I have a gun!”
“I won't go until you tell me what you're going to do with Adriano. I'm responsible for getting him mixed up in this mess. He has no idea what's going on. I can't let him get hurt because of me.”
“And what do you suggest I do with Superman here?” the man asked sarcastically.
“You could tie him up so he can't follow us.”
“I could, but it would take too long.” He tapped his temple with the butt of the gun. “How about I just shoot him?”
When the FBI agent aimed the gun at Adriano, Payton saw the bloody policemen, dead at the Adam's Mark Hotel. She heard the frantic pleas of the female detective who had sacrificed her life for the safety of the witness. Propelled by the emotions this evoked, Payton charged the corrupt agent, kinetic energy building with every step until she gathered enough momentum to crash into the surprised agent. He staggered backward, losing the gun when he tried to break his fall. They landed hard on the floor, with Payton's full weight landing on his chest. She didn't weigh enough to break anything, but it did knock the wind out of him long enough for Adriano to jump into action.
Adriano crossed the room, shoved her aside and smashed the man in the face with her giant duffel bag. Two sickening thuds later, the man lay unconscious.
Her first trip to Miami hadn't only been about business. The bag was stuffed with souvenirs, including a stone replica of the Miami Beach coastal skyline.
Adriano drove down Providence Road and made a right turn onto Tyvola. He fired questions at Payton, trying to slowly gather pieces of the mystery she refused to tell him. Minutes later, when he reached I-77, she had lapsed into complete silence.
“The less you know, the safer you'll be,” she told him.
He studied her as she rested against the glass of her window, watching the scenery pass in the darkness. When he caught her eye, he saw a startling fear that made him want to take her in his arms. He stopped pushing for information. He was an investigative reporter, and one of the reasons he was successful was because he knew when to apply pressure and when to back off. As strong as Payton tried to appear, she was frightened. She had admitted it earlier, although he'd probably never get her to confess to it again.
“Head south,” she said when the interstate signs appeared.
He worried about the force of storms coming from the south, but he complied without protest. When the weather changed, they needed to be inside.
“Take the first exit you see with hotels.”
He cranked up the heat when he noticed Payton's body shiver. After knocking the FBI agent unconsciousâpossibly committing several feloniesâthey had fled her apartment without stopping for her to dress.
He drove by Carowinds Amusement Park before passing the sign marking their entrance into South Carolina. With the Confederate flag flying at the state capital, South Carolina was no place for a black man to be with a woman dressed in a ripped nightgown. He veered to the right and exited the freeway. Not far down the road he found a closed used-car lot. The tires of the Land Cruiser spat gravel as it came to a stop.
“Talk,” he demanded.
She turned away, staring out the window into the darkness.
“That man was going to kill me back there. Tell me what's going on.”
She tried the door handle, but it was locked. “Let me out.”
He gawked at her. “You want to get out in the middle of nowhere? Clearly, the stress of today has been too much on you.”
“The sign said there's a hotel just down the road.”
“You'd rather walk down a dark, deserted road dressed in your nightgown than answer my questions?”
He couldn't figure this woman out. The women he knew would have been draped all over him, begging him to help and crying for him to save them. Payton Vaughn was so stubborn, she didn't even want to explain what this night had been all about.
What had her so afraid?
What could be scarier than what he'd already experienced tonight?
“The door,” she said, refusing to look at him. “Please.”
He handed her the bills from his wallet. “It's all I have.” Two hundred dollars wouldn't get her very far. He never traveled with cash.
paid all his expenses.
Payton looked out into the darkness. Apprehension covered her face. “I wish I could tell you how sorry I am about all of this.”
“You don't have to do this alone. Talk to me, angel. I'll help you in every way I can, but you have to tell me what I'm getting into.”
She shook her head adamantly. “I can't.” She was involved in something serious, and he couldn't jump into the middle of it when he didn't know what was going on.
“I was almost shot tonightâtwice. I won't go into this blindly.”
She found the correct button to release the locks. Her fingers wrapped around the door handle. Her knuckles were white. “I understand.”
Adriano nodded, curious about whether she would actually step out into the deserted road. He had never questioned fear providing the motivation for her desperate getaway. She wasn't a vicious street thug out to “jack” him for the SUV. While she played the tough role, her voice trembled with fear.
She took in a huge breath that made her cleavage heave before pulling on the door handle. He watched as she started to jog away from the SUV. The gravel underneath her bare feet slowed her down to a hop-run-hop. Soon the darkness swallowed her, leaving only the outline of her cream nightgown to be seen moving down the road.
Jake would never believe this. Adriano didn't believe it himself. A gorgeous woman jumps into the SUV and takes him hostage, they're attacked by a crooked FBI agent, and then the woman demands to be let out on the side of a deserted road in backwoods South Carolina.
A woman without any money or clothes.
A woman so desperate to save herself she takes a man two times her size hostage with a flashlight.
She probably didn't even have any idea where she would go after tonight.
He stared after Payton. His headlights illuminated the cream-colored gown in the pitch-black darkness.
Police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks, racing to the Adam's Mark Hotel.
Hit men trying to run them off the road with gunfire.
A crazy FBI agent threatening to take her at gunpoint to see “Sherman.”
Adriano knew of only one notable “Sherman,” and there was no way in hell an angel like Payton would be mixed up with him.
He could no longer see the flashes of cream. As beautiful as she wasâbig brown eyes, pink puckered lipsâa man would come along and help her out of her jam.
Or take advantage of a stranded woman wandering down the side of the road. He remembered the way she tackled the crooked FBI agent. She wasn't completely helpless. She could take care of herself. Or could she? He could have ended her siege within minutes if he had chosen to. Another man might not be as kind as he had been.
He pulled the SUV out onto the road.
Just call the police and let them handle it. Walk away,
he told himself. His gut said,
The lady is trouble.
The kind of trouble many men have died because of.
couldn't be the
he knew; her Sherman must be an angry old flame. He could understand an ex-someone not wanting to let her pack and walk away. Payton Vaughn was prime real estate. Even as he tried to convince himself, he knew no ordinary ex-boyfriend would have the means to corrupt an FBI agent.
. . . where did he know the name from?
The remembered sensation of her near-nude body trapped underneath his in a carnal struggle of wills when he wrestled her to the seat made him press down on the accelerator. He could picture night after night of wrestling her into submission. Hellcat that she was, she would be even more rambunctious with his unrestrained penetration. In the light of day, her beauty would make him the envy of every man who laid eyes on her pretty face and gorgeous body.
Temptation made him glance in the rearview mirror. The angelic creature in the cream nightgown had vanished. The surreal night was over for him. Why did he feel suddenly alone? He'd met Payton only a few hours ago, yet he felt the void of her not being there.
Back to the hotel. On the plane in the morning. Life back to normal.
He recited the mantra over and over, believing it a little less each time. Somehow he knew his life would never be the same after meeting Payton.
he told himself as the SUV crept toward the highway.
He was back at the interstate sign when a clap of thunder announced the arrival of tiny raindrops.
Payton began to cry when the first streak of lightning illuminated the sky. A fine mist of rain coated her as she hurried down the dark road, praying to find the motel advertised on the interstate directional sign. Thank goodness she had held it together in front of Adriano. She hated women who cried.
Thunder rumbled, and another streak of lightning followed. Suddenly, the fine mist of rain changed into a downpour. After a few minutes, her bare feet were splashing in mud puddles.
What am I going to do?
Headlights slashed through the sheets of falling rain.
Startled, Payton ducked down behind the gray guardrail.
Adriano's Land Cruiser pulled up to her hiding place. “Get in.”
Relieved he had not left her stranded, but knowing getting back into the SUV would pull him into the middle of her troubles, she hesitated. “I can't.”
“Why not?” he shouted over the rumblings of thunder.
“I can't put you in any more danger.”
“I'll take care of myself. You can't walk down a deserted road half-dressed in this storm. If the wrong person comes along, you'll have more on your hands than you can handle.”
She glanced down at her soaking-wet nightgown. She began to shiver again. Her feet were battered from jogging across rocks and slivers of glass. The downpour caused her hair to mat against her face. She looked as bad as she felt.
“I'll take you to a hotel,” he offered.
She considered her options. Stay hidden behind the guardrail until the storm passed. Walk along the road until she found the motel. Hitchhike a ride to . . . where?
“Hurry up,” Adriano prodded, his voice less harsh. “You're soaking wet.” He threw the door open.
She climbed over the guardrail, telling herself she'd accept the ride but have him drop her off at the motel and never see him again. She climbed up into the Land Cruiser, and Adriano sped off.
“Thank you,” she said. She felt embarrassed, scared, and stupid. She had taken this innocent man hostage with a flashlight and almost gotten him shot, but he had still returned to help her. Any other stranger would have scuffled with her before tossing her out into the street and having her arrested.
“I'm sorry for what I did earlier.”
“You said that,” he replied stiffly.
“You didn't have to come back . . .” She wanted to ask why he had done such a rash thing but decided not to push her luck.
A long moment passed in which she hoped he would forgive her. The last thing she wanted was for anyone else to be hurt because of her.
“Are you hungry?” Adriano hiked his thumb toward the backseat.
“You stopped for food before you came back for me?” Should she be insulted that he left her in the rain to stop for food?
He grinned, obliterating any annoyance she might have. “I hope you like burgers and fries.”
She recalled the half-eaten steak dinner next to her bed at the Adam's Mark Hotel . . . the desperation on the female detective's face . . . the dead policemen . . . She fell back against the seat in a knot of tension. “What am I going to do?”
Adriano raised his fairy-kissed brow.
“Aren't you hungry?” He returned his concentration to the road.
“After what I've seen . . .”
He pounced. “What did you see?”
She turned to the window.
Adriano persisted. “You have to keep up your strength. From what I've witnessed tonight, you're going to need it.”
He didn't know the half of it. She shivered, an involuntary response to the cold, wet nightgown sticking to her skin.
“You're drenched. You must be freezing.” He reached out to adjust the heat setting. “Can you hand me a burger and fries?”
She climbed to her knees and rummaged around in the backseat. “Here you go.”
She caught him eyeing the curves of her behind. The sheer fabric of the wet nightgown left nothing to the imagination. She was cold, and her nipples were puckered and dark against the silky material. She plopped down in the seat, smoothing the gown over her thighs and using her hands to cover as much of herself as possible.
Even being in mortal danger didn't shield her from his attractive pull. He demanded her hormones focus all their attention on him. It wasn't only his looks, which were near movie-star perfect. His fearlessly confident, masculine but protective demeanor was the ultimate turn-on for a woman who was tired of hearing the female we-don't-need-a-man-in-our-lives battle cry. He could be leaned on, would demand to be counted on, and he'd fulfill every promise he made. In all her interactions with the big stars frequenting Skye, Adriano Norwood was the first real man she had ever encountered.
Adriano took a large bite out of his hamburger. “Ketchup, please.”
She leaned over the seat again.
“Man, oh man.”
She snapped around. “What?”
Had she forgotten to add arrogant, relentless, and exasperating to her descriptive list of his qualities?
She added ketchup to his fries and held them within his reach.
“How about mustard for my burger?” The corner of his mouth lifted in a grin.
“Forget it. No more peep shows.”
Adriano ate in silence until he came upon the motel advertised on the highway sign. He pulled his shirt up to cover his head against the rain and ran inside. If a ripped chest, tight abs, and a tantalizing navel could wipe away her troubles, she'd be in heaven. No man had ever affected her this way. She lived in the world of the beautiful people. Movie stars, television personalities, models, and professional athletes made up her social circle. Working with those people tarnished “beauty,” and its novelty had eventually worn off. At Skye she could walk right past the hottest adult film star without sparing him a glance. Adriano was impossible to ignore.
It's a hormone thing,
she told herself.
Fight-or-flight response gone wild.
Within minutes, Adriano jogged back to the SUV. “They're full, but the desk clerk says there are a bunch of hotels in the next town.”
Payton nodded, uneasiness playing on the arch of her brow.