The month of April was supposed to be warm. Twenty-year-old Olivia pulled the dirty, oversized flannel shirt a little tighter around her chest in a futile attempt to break the wind but nothing stopped the biting intrusion. Daylight hours were growing longer with the spring season, but the sun had long since set and darkness only exacerbated the bone-chilling effect on her well-tattooed and pierced body.
Cold was not her biggest challenge, however. She desperately needed to put more space between herself and the truck stop in the middle of fucking nowhere, Wyoming. With her head buried low to remain disconnected from the world around her, she walked a little faster in a futile attempt to defeat both the cold and the underlying exhaustion threatening to overtake her reasoning. A dysfunctional past had guaranteed her innate distrust of others, and she’d successfully remained isolated from any real friendships since the catalyst that had forced her from her Pennsylvania roots long before her seventeenth birthday.
Her transient life back in Denver had consisted of a series of homeless shelters, temporary under the table jobs, and random weeks huddled on sketchy friends’ couches. A warm, soaking bath was a distant memory, but fast food restrooms had been handy for a quick wash when she needed it. Her short, cropped black hair had a tinge of vibrant pink thanks to a budding beautician who had needed a practice case, but she tried not to run her hand through the dull, dried effects of the cheap soap she’d used.
Survival in the real world was dependent on taking risks every now and again. With no legal ID or social security card, her life in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains had come to a standstill and the offer of a free trip to Washington State had proven too tempting. Despite the dangers of taking a ride from a strange trucker, he’d seemed like a nice enough guy with dashboard pictures of his smiling kids in front of a brightly lit Christmas tree.
Seattle had been a lifelong dream. When she was a kid, she and her brother had found an old tourist guide about the city in her neighbor’s trash, and she’d guarded the possession for reasons she’d never quite understood. Contrasted by the crisp water of the Puget Sound, the pointy skyscrapers and quaint waterfront communities might provide new opportunities in her dismal life, so she’d packed everything she owned into her old army surplus backpack, said goodbye to the few acquaintances she’d made in Colorado, and got into the man’s truck.
The first two days of traveling down busy highways and quiet two-lane towns had passed without incident. He’d remained a gentleman, offering her food and a warm place to sleep in the back of his cab. When it became apparent that she had no desire to talk beyond expressing her basic needs, he’d left the satellite country music station to do most of the communicating.
After they’d stopped for a quick meal and fuel a few hours outside of Jackson, Wyoming, she’d nodded politely when he offered her a greasy hamburger and a cup of bitter coffee, but before she could take a bite, an evil gleam came to his eyes and his creepy hands moved toward the front of her shirt.
Fueled by a primal need to survive, she shouted her first complete sentence since he’d offered her a ride. “Keep your fucking hands off me, you son of a bitch.”
The verbal protest didn’t even hint at the overwhelming fear and nausea burning in her stomach. Her weaponless five foot frame didn’t weigh a hundred and ten pounds, and she’d have no way to defeat him in such close quarters. She moved toward the door of his semi, but he pulled back on her wrist with enough force to ignite a searing pain accompanied by her scream.
“Where do you think you’re going, you stupid cunt?” Frightening anger radiated from his pale, ugly self. “Payback’s a bitch, and you’ve been milking me for days.”
Without wasting the time to think, she’d flung the cheap Styrofoam cup of coffee at his face. The hot liquid forced his own shrieking retreat, but his backhand had left a throbbing ache and likely a growing bruise on her cheek. She grabbed her backpack and the clunky brown work boots from the floor of the truck and fled, grateful to hold onto the few well-worn possessions representing her entire world.
It took over an hour of walking through dark, rural roads to reach the center of the little town off the main highway. She didn’t think the creep would follow her, but it was still a relief when there was no sign of him, or anyone else for that matter. The horrible day had left her exhausted, but survival depended on a new plan and a warm place to spend the night so she wandered through the small village to explore her options.
Her swollen wrist continued to throb, and she headed toward a twenty-four-hour convenience store at the end of the block where she might have a chance at shoplifting some pain relievers to get through the night. A vacant house could provide much-needed warmth and maybe something to eat until she could regroup. People in little towns like this seldom even locked their doors, and the small crime would go unnoticed unless somebody counted the cans of soup in their pantry.
Firm plans usually sparked her confidence, but Marion, Wyoming only offered spooky shadows exacerbating her already tenuous emotions. Having grown up in a reasonably good-sized town, Olivia was used to the dangers of speeding cars on hilly intersections, not a dark, tiny village hours away from anything worth visiting. The unfamiliar vulnerability left her even more unsettled, and her anxiety grew while her empty stomach grumbled.
A small crowd of powerful-looking men came out of a diner with the enticing smell of fried foods filling the doorway behind them, but she moved into the shadows with her gaze focused on their dusty cowboy boots. Hiding in Denver with over half a million people had been an easy task, but the sudden drop in their voices made it clear they recognized her as a stranger. She walked past without speaking and turned the next corner to get off the main street.
The tiny glitter of silver from the leaf-filled gutter brought her to a grinding halt. Almost afraid to believe her luck, she picked up a set of car keys, and the iconic mustang easily identified the model. Olivia had long since learned to rely on misdemeanor shoplifting and the occasional breaking and entering of unsecured homes, but the cold metal ignited a demonic battle between the morals engrained from childhood and her desperate need to survive.
Still processing her internal conflict, she hit the unlock button on the remote and followed the quiet beep down the street to find a beautiful blue Mustang behind a red SUV. Parked against a curb in front of a seemingly empty storefront, the potential security was a beacon of hope at a dramatically low point in her life.
The twenty dollars and change in her pocket wouldn’t even get her out of the dismal little town much less all the way to Seattle. After a trembling glance up and down the still deserted street, she opened the door and climbed inside. The soft black leather seats enveloped her defeated body, and she took the first deep breath since she’d left the truck stop.
The shout came before she could exhale. “Hey… that’s my car!”
Without warning, the men from the diner had come around the corner with long strides quickly closing the gap. In a blind panic, she pulled the door shut and started the engine, but her misguided attempt to lock the door caused her to roll down the window at the same time the first of the frightening, muscled brutes reached the car. A second angry man appeared at the passenger door to trap her in her stolen cage.
Rushing adrenaline dictated her next move. She put the car in gear, but escape was impossible. With a crunching of metal, she pulled into the SUV in front of her at the same time she was grabbed by a blond monster with perfectly pressed khakis and a black leather jacket. His growl was a frightening mixture of authority and power, and Olivia whimpered as he pulled her out of the car by her left elbow.
Despite his obvious strength, the last four years of living on the streets had taught her a lot, and the fear left by the trucker’s backhand had yet to subside. A forced return to her past would forever end her freedom, so the battle was grounded from an instinctive sense of survival. Pulling her sore wrist toward the relative protection of her stomach, she fought for her life.
Kicking, twisting, and screaming, Olivia remained trapped by the single, powerful grasp on her forearm keeping her at arm’s length from any real target. Looking for a game-changing move, she twisted her head to use her teeth on his wrist when his palm planted firmly on the seat of her jean-clad bottom.
A stern warning accompanied the sting. “Settle down, you little brat. I’m not going to hurt you. But I’m not letting go of somebody who stole my car.”
The childish chastisement had a mortifying effect that tingled along with her hand-printed bottom, and she stopped fighting out of shock. The ironclad grasp lessened with her compliance, but he didn’t let go.
She risked a small pout. “I didn’t steal it… it’s right there. You were the dumbass who dropped his keys.”
The arch of his eyebrow did not settle her nerves. He responded dryly, “I’m not sure ‘dumbass’ is the proper adjective to describe the guy who just spanked your sorry little bottom. Behave yourself and just calm down while we talk.”
With her fighting instinct temporarily subdued, the other men came into focus. None of them were small, but a giant, exotically dark man with curly black hair was the only person who wasn’t scowling. She met his eye briefly, and he winked. His powerful persona was slightly subdued by the gentle movement, and she tried hard to defeat her fears.
“Relax, really,” he said with a true smile. “Nobody’s going to hurt you if you just stop fighting us. My name is Marcus, and that’s Linc who has a hold of you. What’s your name, honey?”
“It’s none of your fucking business,” she snarled with a glare.
Linc grumbled, “Maybe you should stop being a brat and answer the man’s question. What’s your name? And watch your language before I continue what I started.” To make his point, Linc rested his foot on the tire of the Mustang and patted his knee, shooting her a glare that could have melted a glacier. “I asked you a question, and I don’t repeat myself, little girl.”
She needed another plan. “Fine… Olivia,” she mumbled, willing herself to stop fighting his grasp. While the men exchanged unreadable glances, she took deep breaths as though she was calming herself, and he loosened his grip even further with her growing cooperation.
Without warning, she tugged sharply to free herself, but before he could grab her a second time, she nailed him firmly between the legs with her clunky army boot. Surrounded by raucous laughter from his peers, he pulled away with a curse, but a new set of hands caught her by the sore wrist before she could take her second step down the street. The searing pain ignited another wave of nausea to effectively crush her resistance, and she cried out under a new level of agony.
“Jack, wait. Let go of her.” The last of the four men was by her side in an instant. Through the burning tears, she caught a glimpse of shimmery black hair and red t-shirt nestled inside of a soft gray jacket. “Look at her wrist, I think it’s been broken.”
Jack had let go before the sentence was complete, but the sharp pain continued to radiate to her shoulder. Unable to continue, she pulled her arm to her belly and sank to the pavement with fresh tears covering her bruised face. After four years of escaping her past, she’d come to an end, trapped in the middle of nowhere with no place to run.
“I’m sorry, Olivia.” Jack spoke sincerely, kneeling down next to her. His gray eyes remained full of concern. “Are you okay?”
Confronted with kindness, she failed to formulate a viable defense. Cold, tired, hungry, and so far removed from civilization she couldn’t even see a stoplight, she buried her head in her uninjured elbow and collapsed into soulful, choking sobs, fears for her future defeating her thoughts of the present.
There was an awkward silence among the men before her red-shirted advocate sat on the curb next to her. He waited until she looked up, then slipped his arm loosely around her shoulder.
“Don’t cry, honey. I just want to look at your wrist. My name is Dan Garcia, and I’m a doctor here in town. Honestly, I won’t hurt you. Just let me look at it.”
Her gaze met the almond black eyes hinting at a Native American heritage. His dark hair was cut close to his head without a touch of curls or wave. Strong, square shoulders matched his chiseled chin, but his t-shirt and jeans were worn with age to soften his exterior in some comforting way. Even with his gentle appearance, it was the sincerity behind his smile that slowed her tears.
His dark attraction and gentle tone was a sharp contrast to the scowling glare of her previous blond captor. Linc was still hunched over with his hands on his knees catching his breath, but the other two men continued to look anxiously at Olivia’s small frame.
Her fighting instinct, however, was gone. The cold pavement chilled her bruised and battered soul even further, but Dan patted her back a second time. “Come on, little girl. Let me look at it.”
She managed a small whimper, the intense pain slowly giving way to the dull ache that she’d dealt with since the truck stop, but there were no real options. With a last sniffle, she held out her rose-tattooed wrist in a small attempt at peace, and there was an audible sigh among the small group.
“That’s a good girl,” Dan murmured softly.
His voice remained gentle while he slowly moved his hand over the swollen joint. “How did this happen, Olivia?”
Despite her temporary acquiescence, the lies were easy after years of practice. “I fell… that’s all.”
His tone was disbelieving, but he kept his focus on her swollen wrist. “Yeah… is that how you smacked your face too? You’ve got a good size egg coming up on your cheek, and both injuries appear to be new.”
With no obvious response, she shrugged her shoulders, fingering the bruise with her free hand but focusing her gaze on the twisting spider cracks in the pavement to wait out the ominous silence. Linc shuffled his feet with a grumble, and Olivia’s heart pounded out of her chest.
“Not much of a talker, huh?” Dan broke the silence with another hint of his gentle smile. “I guess we can work with that. And how about you, Linc? Are the gonads going to live to see another day?”
Still slightly bent at the waist, Linc exaggerated his response to a high falsetto and exhaled loudly. “I’m fine… good as new.”
“Good. We’re making progress. And how old are you, Olivia?”
“None of your fu—” All Linc had to do was clear his throat, and she shuddered. “Fine, I’m twenty.”
She was greeted by four suspicious looks before she continued with an incredulous scowl. “Why would somebody lie about being twenty? If you want to lie about being young, you’ll say you’re under eighteen. If you want to lie about being old, you’ll say you’re twenty-one. Twenty is like… like middle-aged.”
Despite the tension, an easy laugh passed between the four men. Jack said, “See that, Linc. She’s middle-aged, so you’re retirement bound.”
“That’s old Lincoln Sullivan who had a hold of you,” Dan said, still using the soft, comforting tones that kept her calm. “And the brown-haired guy who looks like him is his little brother, Jack. The tall giant there is Marcus Greene. They all live on a ranch a few miles outside of town.”
All business, he lightly touched her bruised cheek, but she flinched involuntarily. His stern response didn’t allow any room for an argument. “Relax, honey. I just need to make sure that you’re okay. Are you hurt anyplace else?”
She lowered her still trembling chin. “It’s just been a bad day. I’m okay. Really. It’s just my wrist… and my face.”
“I think we should go to my office and get a quick x-ray on the wrist. It won’t hurt, but then we’ll know what we’re up against.”
“I… It’s fine, really.” Olivia pulled her wrist back to her side in a panic. “I don’t have any health insurance and not a lot of cash. Can’t you just bandage it for me?”
“I own the place. We don’t have to talk money right now. Trust me.”
The other men had moved on to examining the bumpers on the two cars. They spoke so quietly that she couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the guilt added to her misery. “I’m sorry about the car. Is… is it going to be expensive to repair?”
Jack ran his hands over the SUV. “There’s a scratch on my bumper and a nice dent on the Mustang. It should cost a few hundred bucks. I don’t suppose you have that kind of money in your backpack?”
Dan tapped her chin to refocus her gaze to his stern expression. “Somebody could have gotten hurt. What were you thinking? Jack could have had the baby in the car.”
The tiny car seat in the back of the SUV increased her guilty tears. “I… I just panicked. I’m really sorry. I promise I’ll pay you back, but it might take me a few months.”
Linc had remained the least friendly of the group, and she cringed when he crossed his massive arms with a threatening scowl. “I think we should just call Gage, guys. He’s the sheriff. Let him handle this.”
“Please…” she pleaded. “Don’t call the cops. I can’t afford that right now. Honestly, I’m not a bad person. I’ve just had a string of bad luck. Give me a chance.” The simple lie had worked for her in the past, and she batted her big, dark eyes in a vain attempt to win their approval.
The men exchanged quiet expressions before Dan took her good hand to help her to her feet. “We aren’t making a decision right now. I’ll take her to the clinic and check her wrist. You guys should just go home. You have guests at the ranch tomorrow, and your women will skin you alive if you don’t get back in time to help.”
There was clearly a joke hidden behind his statement, and laughter broke some of the tension. Only Linc remained serious. “Dan, you aren’t taking home another stray, are you? You’re going to get robbed blind again. Look at her, she’s probably got drugs in that bag. Just call Gage and get it over with.”
Olivia’s anger temporarily blocked her anxiety, but she took a few steps away from him before she snapped, “I said I was sorry. And I’m not on drugs. Why do you have to be so mean?”
In a single stride, Linc closed the gap between them with his finger pointed at her chest. “Because you stole my car and wrecked it into my brother’s. You tried to bite me, then you kicked me in the balls. That’s four—”
“Enough, both of you,” interrupted Dan sternly. “Olivia, if you come with me, I’ll fix your wrist, get you cleaned up and something to eat. I’ll be responsible for the damages to the cars… and for you. The only thing I ask in return is that you behave yourself until we sort all of this out.”
Trust was an asset that she’d lost years ago, but he took that moment to rub his finger along her tearstained cheek before tickling the silver stud nestled near the top of her ear. The kind, human touch felt good, and she briefly closed her eyes to connect to the distant memory.
With a deep breath, she wiped her face with the back of her good hand. “Does that mean you won’t call the cops on me?”
“I think I can take care of any punishment better than a court of law, Olivia,” said Dan.
Jack and Marcus laughed, and a tingly shiver sparked from an inexplicable place buried deep between her legs. The feeling was far from comforting, and she shifted her weight uncomfortably.
“What do you mean by punishment?” she asked warily.
The same hidden message was buried in their laughing response, and she was beginning to realize that she was missing a seriously big piece of the puzzle tying the four of them together.
“I don’t really think I have to spell it out for you,” said Dan. “Linc’s already given you a hint. But if you need the verbal confirmation, here it is. If you’re going to stay with me, I’m in charge. If you give me a hard time, I’ll paddle your little bottom until it’s beet red. We can deal with your felony car theft when your wrist is better. And no more kicking men in the nuts. You have no idea what that does to a guy.”
It took her a second to realize her mouth was hanging open. Blessed with a fairly vivid imagination, she couldn’t stop the backside tingling that inexplicably came from his simple speech. She took a step backward as the four men shifted their positions to block her from bolting.
“That’s fucking insane. I’m not letting any of you touch my ass. I… that’s illegal. I should be calling the cops on him.” She pointed to Linc, hiding a little further behind the relative comfort of Dan’s huge body.
Marcus pointed over her shoulder. “Make up your mind, Olivia. That’s Sheriff Gage Collier coming down the street right now. You can either go with him to meet Judge Sullivan tomorrow, or you can go with Dan. The judge is Linc and Jack’s third cousin or something. She might actually scold him for smacking your ass while he was trying to apprehend you, but she’ll spend more time discussing car theft.”
“Oh…” said Jack. “Before I forget, I should probably mention that Gage is also our cousin. It’s a small town,” he added apologetically.
The shadow of the fifth large man grew closer to collapse her spinning world another level. Trapped in a proverbial corner that was growing smaller with every turn, she muttered under her breath, “Fucking rednecks…”
Linc continued his onerous glare. “Do you really want to have this conversation right now? Because I’m sure we could step into Marcus’ mother’s house down the street for a little privacy.”
Confronted with four unsmiling faces, she looked to Dan for a little comfort, but he shrugged. “Don’t push your luck. You’re facing four men who know how to paddle naughty little girls. What’s it going to be… us or Gage?”
Despite the genetic connection, Gage Collier bore little resemblance to the Sullivan brothers. Stockier than the leaner, muscled cowboys, Gage could have been a linebacker for a professional football team with massive shoulders filling his requisite blue uniform. A touch of gray tickled his temples, but there was nothing feeble-looking about him. His heavy gun, a gold badge with Collier written in bold letters, and even the walkie-talkie attached to his collar brought more undeniable authority to her sidewalk crowd. But her world was way too far out of control for her to fully internalize his rugged handsomeness.
The newest fusion of frightening male testosterone cemented her decision. She slipped her good hand quietly into the doctor’s as he became her only obvious hope for survival. Her voice was barely above a whisper. “I’ll go with you.”
After a small nod of acknowledgement to the crowd, the cop’s tone mixed stern authority and an easy familiarity. “Evening, boys. Sorry I couldn’t make dinner tonight. What’s going on here? Monique called and said she heard a woman screaming.”
Four of the men looked expectantly toward Marcus, who groaned, rubbing his forehead. “My mother has an overactive imagination, Gage. We’re fine.”
“Well, she obviously didn’t know you guys were out here, buddy.” The sheriff’s quiet chuckle was almost a contrast to his stern exterior. “If she did, she and Camille would have come with pitchforks and hedge clippers to protect you.” He eased into the next sentence so smoothly that Olivia barely recognized the transition. “And who do we have here?”
Olivia tensed, but Dan spoke calmly. “This is Olivia. She hurt her wrist, and I’m taking her over to the clinic. Jack bumped it a little bit ago, and she cried. That’s probably what Monique heard.”
The cop didn’t miss a thing and pointed at the Mustang. “What happened to your car, Linc? You take better care of that thing than most people take care of their kids.”
Olivia sucked in her breath while Linc met Gage’s eye. He paused a moment before adding, “Well, I don’t drive a fifteen-year-old piece of crap like some people I know. It ran into the back of Jack’s SUV, Gage. Don’t worry about it. Jack won’t sue me.”
Gage crossed his arms with a thinly veiled edge of suspicion etched on his face. “Hmm… Is that right? Anything else I should know about, gentlemen?”
The four men shifted awkwardly, but the huge policeman cleared his throat until she met his gaze. “Relax, Olivia. I’m not going to hurt you. You can trust me, and you’re in a safe place. I’m just trying to figure out what happened. Is there anything you’d like to add to the boys’ version of the events?”
Despite the soft brown eyes and the tiniest bit of a smile, this guy was still a cop. In Olivia’s world, all strangers needed to be kept at arm’s length. Not a single man had actually lied, but they’d left out some very important details that she had no desire to volunteer. Her voice trembled slightly. “No, sir. I’m fine.”
“What’s your last name, Olivia? Where are you from?”
The two frightening questions had always earned her abject panic, but lies had grown so easy that she didn’t even stutter in her response. “Olivia Baldwin. I’m from Colorado and on my way to visit family in Seattle. I’m really fine, sir.”
Gage thought for a few seconds longer, but stood his ground, his piercing scowl holding her into place like a pair of handcuffs. He called over her shoulder to the small group still standing behind her. “Dan, you’re going to take care of Ms. Baldwin tonight? You’ll be responsible for her?”
“You bet, Gage. Come by my house tomorrow morning, and you can have breakfast with us.”
“I might do just that.” After another second with his piercing glare cutting into her soul, he dismissed her with a nod. “Have a good evening, everybody. Give the baby a kiss for me, Jack.”
As the cop walked down the street, Olivia finally let her breath out. Linc gave her a last glower before he got into his car. “Be careful, Dan. The last time you came home with a stray, she moved in with you.”
“Laura loves me, Linc,” Dan said with a laugh. “You can’t mock true devotion.”
The tiniest bit of jealousy fueled her imagination to create a beautiful blonde model named Laura, but she couldn’t for the life of her figure out why she cared. Convinced that she had been surrounded by way too much male dominance in a single sidewalk confrontation, she kept silent under a confusing combination of trepidation and relief as the other men said goodbye and moved toward the cars.
“Come on, little girl,” said Dan as he held out his hand with a genuine smile. “My office is a few blocks away, but my car’s at my house and it’s even further. Are you okay to walk?”
His eyes sparkled against his dark skin and muscled biceps offered a powerful sense of security from the darkened world still surrounding her. He turned his palm upward, and she hesitated for a long few seconds before she took his hand with the tiniest touch of her fingertips.