From what Marya could glean from the folder, Las Sombras, New Mexico, was as desolate and forbidding a place to live as it was a place to work for a living. There were only two major exports from the tiny town of less than two hundred—snakes and flooring tile. The snakes were caught and shipped out by a local family named Huante who made the next-to-the-highest living by supplying zoos, labs, and meat processing plants, as it was said that the rattlesnake meat from the New Mexican desert was the most succulent. But it was the Carrasco family who practically owned the town, the surrounding twenty thousand acres, and the quarry located six miles to the north.
The town itself was shaped like a cross. The main highway, renamed Main Street, ran north to south, and Verde Street was the “crossbar” going east to west. Two smaller dirt roads intersected Main, running parallel to Verde, and were known as Cordero Lane and Bamilo Road. But they were single lane strips which disappeared into the surround desert after passing a dozen or so houses in either direction. At the furthest end of Bamilo Road, however, was the only other brick building in the town, besides the Carrasco estate. It was the United First American bank.
At the northern-most end of town before exiting was the La Siesta Motel, all six rooms of it. Other than one antique pickup parked in front of room number two, the motel appeared to be empty.
Hawthorne pulled in next to the office and put the car in park. Wordlessly, he climbed out of his seat and strode into the building that Marya assumed hadn’t been renovated since it was originally built in the fifties. He was back less than ten minutes later, and handed her a key attached to a faded orange tag that bore the number five.
He drove around and parked directly between rooms five and six before killing the engine. “Welcome to your temporary home. Morrow has us booked for three nights, but I got the impression the proprietors wouldn’t mind if we stayed longer.”
Marya agreed. They probably didn’t get many guests. Grabbing her suitcase from the trunk, she dragged it up the single porch step and opened her room. Amazingly, the interior didn’t smell of dust or mildew. A quick check of the bathroom revealed fresh towels, and the bed had been made up with laundered sheets. The motel had been anticipating them.
She unpacked her suitcase, putting her things away in the closet and drawers of the short bureau that doubled as a TV stand. The sun had just gone down and she was debating going outside to sit on the short stoop when a shadow blocked the open doorway.
She glanced up where Hawthorne stood outside. His wide shoulders nearly filled the frame. The insane urge to walk over and put her arms around him welled up inside her, but she beat it down with a strong, silent reprimand. This whole physical thing was becoming ridiculous.
“I saw a drink machine back in the office lobby. Want something?”
“Water, if they have it. Otherwise, I’ll take practically anything.”
His brows lowered at her remark, but he said nothing. Instead, he nodded and left. She could hear his footsteps crunching in the gravel as he walked away.
She finished unpacking her laptop, took a quick bathroom break, then went outside to find she’d timed it perfectly. Hawthorne was striding back with a canned drink in each hand.
As he drew closer, the air around her seemed to grow thicker, making it more difficult to breathe. She could feel the hair on her arms and on her head rise as if caught in an electrical current. The current crept underneath her skin, leaving her nerve endings tingling.
Again, he gave off the impression of being bigger and stronger than he appeared. And when her eyes inadvertently dropped to his crotch, there was no denying the fact that the man was fully aroused. Instantly, her womb clenched, and she could feel herself growing wetter. Cursing herself silently, Marya dropped her gaze and hoped he hadn’t noticed her stare.
“Here. They didn’t have water. Hope you like ginger ale.”
“That’s fine. Thanks.”
She reached up to take the drink from him. As their fingers touched, she started slightly from the tiny jolt she received. It zipped straight down to her inner core, awakening a whole new set of feelings and sensations that had lain dormant for months. Months, hell. Years. Habit made her wipe the can lid with the hem of her blouse before popping the top. Thankfully, the act helped to hide the fact that her hands were shaking. Hawthorne appeared not to notice, and sat down next to her a few inches away. This close, the man radiated heat, something she hadn’t been aware of on the drive down.
“You’re not like other women,” he blurted out, and took a sip of his drink.
The remark made her laugh softly. From most men, it would sound like an obvious pick-up line. Coming from him, it was more of an observation.
“What makes you say that?”
“You can’t please most of them. If they say want a Coke, and you get them one, they tell you it’s the wrong kind. They wanted the diet, or something like that. I bet you would have taken anything I handed you, wouldn’t you?”
“When you’re stuck in the desert with little choice, you learn to be grateful for anything that’s cold. Or wet.”
He looked overhead and sighed. “Pretty day. Prettier night.”
“Yeah. It’s better, though, when you can distance yourself from all artificial light. Then you can really see how beautiful the stars are.”
“Is that why you’re out here instead of inside?”
She smiled slightly. “Why would I want to be inside when it’s lovely out here?”
Hawthorne shrugged. “Most women would bar themselves inside their rooms and bury their noses in a book. Or the TV set.”
“I used to, back before I joined the military.” She slurped her drink. It was crisp and cold, and felt wonderful going down. “Of course, most of the time the book I was buried in was a campus textbook.” She belched softly, covering her mouth with her hand. “‘Scuse me.”
He looked at her. “You went to college?”
“Yeah. Florida State. I have a degree in anthropology.”
“It’s the study of humans in the past. Mostly it centers on their behavior, and their social and cultural development.”
“Like archeology? Digging at sites to discover ancient ruins?”
Marya smiled. “Somewhat. Archeology is like this giant umbrella. Studies like paleontology and anthropology fall under that category.”
“What got you interested in stuff like that?”
She sighed loudly. “One summer when I was twelve, my family decided to go see the Grand Canyon, but I was more fascinated by the Indians and their history when we stopped at some of the reservations. I checked out their heritage, and from there I branched out to explore the Mayan and Aztecs.” Rolling her eyes at him, she added, “Some of the stuff I learned would make your hair stand on end.”
“I bet. So you’re from Florida?”
“I’ve lived all over, but I moved to Tallahassee to attend college there.”
“And after you got your degree, you enlisted?”
“Something like that. There’s not many jobs open for people with my kind of degree. My dad was in the army. After I told him of my dilemma, he convinced me to consider a military career. I figured it would be in my best interest to enlist and earn an income while I looked for a way to pursue my field of study.”
“Was he a sharpshooter, too?”
“No. Captain. And he was lucky. He survived long enough to retire without suffering any major debilitating wounds.”
“What made you so good with guns?”
By now Hawthorne had turned part-way to face her, his back against a four-by-four stud that supported the overhang roof. One leg hung off the stoop, boot in the dirt. The other leg was propped up on the wood porch. Marya found she had copied his relaxed position almost identically. Less than a yard separated them. He looked as comfortable as she felt, and that helped to cool the fever inside her for the moment.
“I don’t know. Luck. Good vision. The ability to remain rock steady under pressure.” She took another sip of her drink. Suddenly, Hawthorne let out with a loud belch, surprising them both. Before he could apologize, she gave one of her own, making them both laugh.
Marya tilted her head back to rest it against the post, and closed her eyes. In her mind’s eye, she could see him watching her and smiling that funny little embarrassed or shy smile of his. The memory of it put butterflies in her stomach. He had a very nice mouth for a guy who got it bruised up regularly. Nicely shaped lips.
Can it, girl. Quit teasing yourself.
“All right. Tit for tat. It’s time I got to ask the questions, and my first one is, why a professional kick boxer?”
“It keeps me out of jail.”
His answer took her completely by surprise, and she opened her eyes wide to stare at him. Hawthorne’s grin widened.
“Yeah. I’ve been a bad boy. Like you couldn’t already tell.”
“Guys beating the crap out of each other doesn’t surprise me. It’s the fact that you have to have that outlet to stay out of jail that does.”
“I was always unruly growing up. People said I was a hothead. My mom did her best, but she...died...when I was a teenager. Without her, I kind of went on a downhill slide.” He took a swallow of his drink, tilting the can upside-down to finish it. She waited for him to crush the can like all men would, but instead he set it on the porch next to him. “I tried to hold down a regular job. I did some packing and shipping, manual labor type stuff, but when someone tried to punch my buttons, I’d punch his face. Boom! Hello, lock and key.”
“So who set your feet on the professional tour?”
“Bob Rainey. He worked at the packing company with me. He thought I had the moves to make it as a kick boxer, so I trained at night after work. He got me set up for some amateur bouts. I was sitting at zero losses after twenty-eight confrontations when Carl Barnes contacted us.”
“He manages several fighters. He promised to back me so I could go pro, and, well, here I am.”
“And you like beating the shit out of people?” she grinned, keeping her tone light so he wouldn’t mistake her intent. Hawthorne replied with an even bigger grin.
“Yeah. It does wonders for relieving stress. You ought to try it sometime.”
Marya giggled. “No, thanks. I’d rather shoot ‘em.”
They sat in silence for another minute or two, enjoying the easy camaraderie and the star-filled sky. She realized she could sit here all night and listen to him talk. He had a nice, modulated voice with a slight southern drawl. Between him nearly knocking knees with her, and his gentle baritone, her panties were quickly becoming a seriously wet issue. Reluctantly, Marya checked her watch.
“We’re due to meet with a Mr. Lancer at oh-eight-hundred. Time to call it a night.” Slowly, they both got to their feet, neither of them willing to make the first move toward their rooms. The night was basically young, and the weather temperate. The smell of sage scented the air. A coyote yipped in the far distance. And she was enjoying his company more than she wanted to admit. But she also had to admit to herself that things could quickly get out of hand if someone didn’t make an alternate move. From the way things were progressing, that move might as well come from her. She turned to leave when he stopped her.
“You can see in the dark?” he teased.
She showed him the watch face with the glowing numbers. “Trouper necessity number three. A watch with glow-in-the-dark numbers.”
“Why not have one of those where you punch the stem to light up the face?”
“Yeah, right,” she replied with sarcastic humor. “Give the enemy something to spot you by? No, thanks.”
They remained standing on the porch. There was no denying he was interested in her. And, damn it, there was no way she was going to sleep well tonight, anyway, as revved up as she was at the moment. She’d only made the excuse to call it a night because she feared where this attraction would lead.
And why is that?
Marya started. Good question. Why was she afraid? After all, it wasn’t like this was supposed to be a long-term partnership, was it? At least, that’s how she understood Mr. Morrow. They would be called up once to complete their mission, and that would be the end of it. She’d had one-night stands before. She’d gotten down and dirty with a fellow trooper, then gone on patrol with him the next day. When you’re on tour, relationships weren’t meant to last because the guy you’d fucked the night before could be a casualty the next day.
So what if she was hungry for this man? It was more than apparent he was hungry for her. A night’s roll in the hay would do wonders for them both. Not only would they get their fill of each other, but it would also remove a lot of the awkwardness they were still experiencing, in spite of their initial easiness when talking. With the last of those impediments gone, they would be able to work more smoothly together.
At least, a girl could dream.
But, clearly, he wouldn’t make the deciding step. She watched as Hawthorne mumbled something about having a good night, and turned away.
She jumped him before he had the chance to answer. Grasping his face between her hands, she pressed her lips to his and waited. Waited for him to respond. Waited to be pushed away or kissed back. Something.
Neither happened. Nothing happened.
The breath from his nose tickled her face. He smelled of warm sage and pinion, and his lips were incredibly soft. His chest was a hard wall where her arms rested. His lungs lifted them like giant bellows. He wasn’t that much taller than her, and for that she was grateful. She preferred to kiss her man when she could stand flat-footed next to him, rather than be forced to stretch to try and reach him on tiptoe.
After another moment, Marya pulled away and stared up at him. But before she could say anything, he reached up and removed her hands from his cheeks. Silently, he went into his motel room, closing the door gently but firmly behind him.
Leaving her standing on the porch feeling utterly confused.