Amy Sheridan left her special ops unit after a blown mission, swearing she'd never kill again. But when Joshua Colby's life is endangered, she realizes the man means more to her than keeping her vow. She knows her usually controlled heartbeat is running rampant because of him--not fear. Once a sniper, always a sniper.
From experience, Joshua knows he'll have no chance at love as long as he remains in the dangerous world of special ops. But once he discovers the tempting woman he's been assigned to protect from a traitor is already part of his world, he's more than ready to follow his heart. Now all he has to do is convince the woman who has him in her crosshairs to give love a chance.
Assholes never changed. They just got stupider with age.
Joshua Colby frowned at the assholes in question. The three Wassile brothers didn't even glance his way as he eased his Jeep into the small parking area outside Kyle Fagan's garage. They were too busy harassing some young girl on the other side of the wide mountain stream running next to Kyle's garage.
A fast mover, the stream funneled water nosily down the mountain through a deep cut in the rocks. Someone, probably the county, had installed a metal tube railing along the far bank since he'd been home last. He could see signs of sawed off limbs, stumps, and worn down grass where the thick forest used to meet the steep bank. His eyes ran a quick sweep along the shiny rail to the new pedestrian bridge suspended over the stream about fifty yards south of the garage. The brass plate of a trail marker winked in the late afternoon sun, pointing would-be hikers to the next leg of their journey.
Joshua snorted softly. Every time he came home he found things changed. Not always for the better. People who needed trails and markers had no business in these woods. The mountain forest around Clear Springs was still remote enough to be wild, untamed, and damned unforgiving when it came to fools.
Hooting laughter drew his gaze back to the drama unfolding across the stream. The girl had spunk, he could tell that much from her body language. She was trying to talk her way past the three idiots but didn't appear to be having much luck. Joshua heaved a sigh and shoved open his door. Schooling the Wassiles wasn't on his agenda for the next couple of weeks but no way could he stand by and let them get away with their bullying tactics. If they didn't leave the girl alone, he'd have to step in.
"Back off, Chet!"
Then again, maybe he wouldn't have to.
The shouted command echoing over the sound of the rushing stream brought a faint smile to Joshua's lips. Kyle didn't like bullies any more than he did. It was good to hear his best friend's voice again, even if the absence of an expletive every other word still sounded a bit strange. A wife and kids had really done a number on Kyle's more colorful vocabulary.
The three brothers looked toward the garage. One of them flipped Kyle off, all three laughed, and they quickly turned their attention back to the girl without glancing once in Joshua's direction. Yep, the assholes were definitely getting stupider.
"Damn it, Chet, I'm not kidding, leave her the hell alone!"
And apparently not all of the expletives had been deleted.
Joshua shook his head as another blue-tinged sentence flew over the water. From the sound of things Kyle just might need a little help after all. Joshua got out and went to the back of the Jeep. He took out his compound bow and quiver of arrows just as Kyle appeared from around the side of the garage. Kyle's back was to Joshua, his attention focused on the three men across the stream. Chet, the oldest of the three brothers, took another step closer to the girl and reached for her dark brown hair. She slapped his hand aside and Joshua thought he saw her eyes roll. His lips curved into a half smile of appreciation. Apparently she wasn't impressed by assholes.
Kyle delved into his retired vocabulary again and started limping faster toward the pedestrian bridge. He was almost to the stone steps leading down from the garage to the worn path along the bank when Joshua spoke.
"Hold up," he said, quietly. "Let me get their attention for you."
Kyle spun around, barely catching himself before his bum leg could throw him to the ground. His eyes jumped from Joshua to the Jeep and back again, a wide smile spreading across his face.
"Damn, Joshua, I thought that was Carl Fells pulling in with his Cherokee. Hell, but it's damn good to see you."
"I'm telling Farrah you're cussing again."
"Yeah, you do that. Make trouble between me and my wife and I'll bury your sorry ass under that ratty cabin of yours."
A round of rough, male laughter drifted from across the steam.
Kyle's teasing smile disappeared, replaced by a dark frown. "Shit," he muttered, looking back at the three bullies and their victim. "Give me a minute, Josh. Chet and his brothers need a—"
He broke off as Joshua leaned the quiver of long, black arrows against the side of the garage and began checking the string on the matching black bow. Kyle's frown smoothed into a sly smile. "Oh, hell yeah, that should work."
Joshua smiled back, feeling the old camaraderie between them snap into place. He slipped an arrow out of the quiver and notched the shaft as he appraised the area across the stream. Distance wouldn't be a problem. The wind might, tangled as it was with the rushing water. He gauged the swirls and eddies by the movement of leaves and grass while part of him assessed his targets.
Arney and Franklin Wassile stood a bit behind their older brother, letting him take the lead as usual. Chet, the bastard, appeared to be trying to see just how close he could get to the girl without touching her. The girl didn't look like she was going to back down and seeing Chet lean over her so aggressively kicked Joshua's irritation into anger. Time to put the idiot asshole back in his place.
Sunlight winked wickedly off shiny dark wood as Joshua raised the compound bow and pulled back string and arrow. Maybe a foot of space separated the girl and Chet now, less between their faces. That didn't leave much room for error.
He sighted down the straight length of polished wood, past the razor sharp point, and selected his target. He took a shallow breath, held it, then released his attention-getter. The arrow zinged straight across the stream and struck a tree between the girl and Chet. The feathered fletching quivered close enough to tickle Chet's nose.
Chet stumbled back, rubbing his face. "What the—"
Joshua noted the girl hadn't moved an inch as he sent a second arrow straight at the skinny trunk of a sapling, forcing Chet back further. Was she in shock? Damn, maybe he should have pinned Chet's boots to the ground instead.
All three men stumbled back as the second arrow struck its target. By the time they turned to look across the stream Joshua had a third arrow nocked and aimed in their direction. Chet shoved away from his brothers and stomped to the rail. "Fagan! Are you crazy?"
Kyle leaned casually against a matching rail, ostensibly taking the weight off his leg, and crossed his arms. "You and your brothers leave Amy alone, Chet, or Josh here is going to stop aiming at trees."
"Shit! Shit! Josh Colby, is that you? Damn it, man, this ain't right! We're just trying to be friendly here!"
"Go be friendly somewhere else, Chet," advised Joshua, raising his voice to be heard over the rushing stream.
Kyle yelled again when the brothers didn't show any immediate signs of backing off. "Look, Chet, you've been warned to stay away from Amy. Now back off or I'll call Penwell and have him arrest your asses for harassment."
Joshua stared at Chet over the point of the arrow. The younger man's face flushed so dark with anger he looked like he was going to explode. The possibility made Joshua curse silently. He didn't need this kind of complication, damn it. His orders were to lay low and keep his eyes and ears open, not get arrested his first day home for shooting the local bully.
Then Chet's expression changed. He smiled and held up his hands. "All right, all right, have it your way." He propped a booted foot against the guard rail and leaned on his knee. "Can't blame a man for trying," he said, brushing his hand against his leg as if dusting off his jeans. He was so damn easy to read it was pathetic.
Focused on his target, Joshua's peripheral vision still took in every movement the others made; Arney's hand rubbing against his jeans pocket, Frank shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Even the girl, though he didn't consider her a target, just someone to worry about. She could cause problems if she took two steps in the wrong direction.
Her hand moved. Nothing overt, but the familiar motion automatically registered in Joshua's brain. Surprise shot through him. How did she know the Ranger signal for a concealed weapon? Or did she? The little twist of her hand and flick of her fingers might just be a nervous gesture.
Kyle murmured, "Watch it, Josh, bastard's got a…"
Joshua turned the third arrow loose. Chet's fingers had slid into the top of his boot, making the question of whether or not the girl had signaled moot. The arrow zoomed across the stream and nicked the baseball cap off Chet's head, pinning it to another tree. Chet yelped and ducked, then swung hard, angry eyes back at Joshua who already had another arrow ready to go.
"Damn you, Colby," he shouted, shaking his fist. But apparently he'd had enough. He backed up toward the trees, motioning his brothers to do likewise. Arney and Frank kept their eyes on Joshua and his bow, but Chet stared at the girl as she walked by. His lips moved and she gave a small start. Nothing big, but Joshua noticed. His hand holding the bow tightened, making the wood creak.
"Easy, Josh." Kyle murmured.
A hard smile tugged on Joshua's lips. Kyle knew him too well. He knew that if Chet made a grab for the girl, Joshua wouldn't hesitate to put an arrow into the arrogant bastard. Three warnings were enough for anyone.
He kept the arrow pulled back until the little brunette was on the bridge and the Wassiles had disappeared back into the trees. Their place was just a mile or so through the woods. Or at least one of their places. Rumor was they had another cabin somewhere up the mountain.
He waited while Kyle limped down the last steps to the road to meet the girl. He wanted to make sure the Wassiles didn't decide to be totally stupid and take pot shots at anyone. Apparently though, they weren't quite that stupid. He relaxed the bow, but kept the arrow nocked as he followed after Kyle.
"You okay?" Kyle asked, his hands going to the girl's shoulders.
She smiled, a brilliant flash of teeth that lit up her face. "Of course I am." Joshua watched in surprise as she rose up on her toes and gave Kyle a quick kiss on the cheek. Just how well did Kyle know this girl? Was she local?
Still smiling, her dark blue eyes slid to Joshua.
For about two seconds every instinct he had screamed danger. His heart rate jumped up, the hairs on the back of his neck rose, and his internal alarms rang off the scales. Then she blinked, and the moment was gone, leaving behind only a faint sense of recognition and a faster than normal heart beat.
Joshua did a quick dredge through his memory but came up empty. She wasn't someone he'd met before. He would definitely have remembered. Hell, he had a feeling he wouldn't be able to forget her even if he tried and he didn't even know her full name yet.