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  New York Times Bestselling Author Tara Janzen  

Excerpt: Crazy Hot

There was no sound, no warning, but in that instant she knew she wasn’t alone.

The fact no sooner registered than a steely arm wrapped around her waist; at the same time, a large hand clamped over her mouth. Before she could kick or scream, he pressed her up against the shack’s wall – pressed hard, his whole body flat against her back, immobilizing her.

“I’m not going to hurt you, but I can’t vouch for the guys in the four-by-four.” His voice was soft and gravelly, and very close to her ear, his breath blowing across her skin as he spoke. “We’re going to stay just like this for now. Real quiet, until they leave. Got it?”

She managed a sharp, terrified nod.

"Good. Now take a breath, then tell me if you locked your car before you went into the gas station.”

She had to think for a second before she nodded.

Yes, she’d locked her car. It was a careful city-girl’s habit.“Are you lost? Is that why you stopped?”

She debated her answer for a second, but then shook her head no.

Then I guess that leads us to the obvious question.” He spoke so quietly, she had to strain to hear him. She had to focus on him, focus on his breathing and slow down her own. “Did you come here looking for me?”

The slight loosening of his hand over her mouth gave her just enough leeway to turn her head. He was close, and she was so scared, it took a couple of seconds for his face to register. When it did, she slowly nodded. Yes, she’d come all the way hell out to Cisco, Utah and had the holy crap scared out of her just so she could find him. He was unmistakable, his eyes dark green and deep set beneath black lashes and the straight dark lines of his eyebrows. His hair was longer than on the framed Newsweek cover her grandfather kept at home, the lines of his face more defined by the intervening years, but it was him – Quinn Younger, and if her grandfather had thought him an outlaw at sixteen, Wilson should see him now.

Chapter One

Nothing moved in the shimmering heat.

Good God, Regan McKinney thought, staring over the top of her steering wheel at the most desolate, dust-blown, fly-bit excuse for a town she’d ever seen. The place looked deserted. She hadn’t seen another car since she’d left the interstate near the Utah, Colorado border, and that had been a long, hot hour ago.

“Cisco,” the sign at the side of the road said, confirming her worst fear: she’d found the place she’d been looking for, and there wasn’t a damn thing in it. Unless a person was willing to count a broken-down gas station with ancient, dried out pumps, five run-down shacks with their windows blown out, and one dilapidated barn as “something.”

She wasn’t sure if she should or not. Neither was she sure she wanted to meet anybody who might be living in such a place, but that was exactly what she’d come to do – to find a man named Quinn Younger and drag him back to Boulder, Colorado.

He was the only lead she had left in her grandfather’s disappearance, and if he knew anything, she was going to make damn sure he told the Boulder Police. The police were definitely tired of listening to her. In fact, she was pretty sure they’d stopped listening to her days ago. They never had believed that Dr. Wilson McKinney had disappeared. Since his retirement from the University of Colorado in Boulder, he’d made a habit of spending his summers moseying around the badlands of the western United States, and according to the results of their investigation, this year was no different.

But it was different. This year he hadn’t checked in with her from Vernal, or Grand Junction, the way he always did, and he hadn’t arrived in Casper, Wyoming on schedule. It was true he was a bit absent-minded, but he’d never gone two weeks without calling home, and he would never, ever have missed his speaking engagement at the Tate Museum in Casper.

Never.

He loved nothing better than to rattle on about dinosaur fossil beds to a captive audience and get paid for doing it. At seventy-two, nothing could have kept him from his moment of glory – nothing except some kind of trouble.

Quinn Younger, she mused, looking over the small collection of broken-down buildings clustered at the side of the road. Sheets of tarpaper flapped on every outside wall, loosened by the wind. Half the shingles on the roofs had been blown off. The two vehicles parked in front of the gas station were ancient. Over fifty years old, she’d bet, a pickup truck with four flat tires, and some kind of rusted out black sedan up on blocks.

If Quinn Younger did live in Cisco, he was stuck there, and nothing could have made less sense. He was a former Air Force pilot, for God’s sake, a national hero. He’d been shot down over Serbia a few years back and made the covers of TIME magazine, NEWSWEEK, and the front page of every major newspaper in America. His survival behind enemy lines and daring rescue by the Marines had become the stuff of contemporary legend. He was a one-man recruitment poster for the United States military.

Not a bad turnabout for someone who at sixteen had been on a fast track to juvenile hall and probably the state penitentiary, until a judge had put him in her grandfather’s field crew for a summer dinosaur dig on Colorado’s western slope. Wilson had been damn proud of the young man, one of the first to be pulled off the streets and out of the courts of Denver and given a second chance with him. Outlaws all, Wilson had called that first crew of boys, but over the long, hot summer, he’d begun the process of turning outlaws into men – and at least in Quinn Younger’s instance, he’d felt he’d succeeded.

Regan wasn’t so sure. Not anymore. She’d met Quinn Younger once that summer, if one awkward encounter constituted a meeting, and despite his subsequent rise to fame and glory, the image of him as a shaggy-haired, sixteen-year-old car thief with coolly assessing eyes and a slyly artful grin was the image lodged in her brain. Looking at Cisco did little to change the impression. Neither did the cryptic message she’d found written on her grandfather’s desk calendar, the message that had sent her halfway across Colorado to this nowhere spot in the road in Utah.

“Hell.” She didn’t know what to think. She looked over her shoulder, back the way she’d come. There was nothing but desert scrub all the way to the horizon.

With an exasperated sigh, she returned her attention to the buildings. The town was eerie, damned eerie, but she’d come a long way, and the least she had to do was check the place out. If Wilson or Quinn Younger were there, or had been there, she was going to know it before she left.

Ignoring her unease and a good portion of her common sense, she put the car in gear and pulled back onto the road, heading for the gas station.

#

“She’s stopped in front of Burt’s old place,” Peter “Kid” Chronopolous said, looking through his scope.

Quinn glanced up from under the hood of the ’69 Camaro parked in the barn and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Stopped?”

All kinds of people drove by Cisco. Every now and then somebody pulled over to the side of the road and got out their map to figure out where in the hell they’d gone wrong. Damn few people pulled into town and stopped – with good reason. Out of the seven buildings still standing, not a one of them looked anything less than forbiddingly deserted. Other than the shop and living space built into the barn, they were deserted.

“Yep,” Kid said, his gaze still trained on the gas station through the scope. “And now she’s getting out and going in.” The younger man’s voice stayed calm and steady, but Quinn sensed his heightened sense of readiness. Most lost tourists, especially lost women tourists, would not go wandering into Burt’s place. Most, however, wasn’t all, and Quinn wasn’t inclined to jump to conclusions. Not one damn thing had happened in Cisco in the two weeks he and Kid had been stuck there. A woman in Burt’s didn’t mean their luck was changing or that the action was picking up, not by his standards.

“Take her picture and send it through the computer,” he said, returning his attention to the Camaro’s engine. The car was barely street legal as it was. Finishing up the nitrous oxide system pushed it over the edge. Speed and torque, that’s what he’d wanted, and that’s what he’d bolted into the ride – in spades. Kid could have his fancy Porsche. Quinn was putting his quarter-mile money on the Chevy.

“I’m on it, but I think you better take a look,” Kid warned.

Quinn lifted his head again, looking over the engine at the twenty-three-year-old ex-Marine. Kid – who for numerous reasons was also known as ‘Kid Chaos’ - was definitely jazzed. His eye was glued to the scope; his body was tense and alert. Of course, the boy had been roughing it with Quinn since the middle of June. Possibly, it was merely the sight of a woman, any woman, that had gotten his juices going.

Or maybe the bad guys had tracked them down.

Setting aside his wrench, he straightened up from under the hood. As had become habit over the last few weeks, he tested his left leg before trusting it to completely hold his weight. When it held, he limped across the shop floor and turned on the laptop Kid had rigged up to half a dozen cameras around Cisco.

Despite a serious addiction to fast cars, extreme sports, and general mayhem, Kid was a certifiable electronics wizard. He’d wired the ghost town to within an inch of its life for twenty-four/seven surveillance. In their line of work, taking a little time off was a slippery concept. Getting hurt in that line of work came with a few interesting consequences, the least of which was Kid watching over him like a mother hen, and if lately Quinn had been feeling like he’d washed up on the wrong side of thirty with not much to show for it but a friggin’ barn to live in and a busted leg, well, he had no one but himself to blame. He’d made some bad choices - especially that last damn choice he’d made in the rail yards on the west side of Denver.

Quinn typed in a couple of commands, activating the cameras in the buildings. When the camera in Burt’s came on, the image of a woman filled the screen.

His brow furrowed. The only female assassin he’d ever seen had been sleekly fit and buffed on steroids. She’d also moved with the prowling gait of a hungry panther. Not this woman. She was randomly picking her way through the dust and the tumbleweeds inside the gas station, peering over countertops and around half-fallen beams. A broken chair caught her unawares in the shin, and she swore under her breath.

Colorful, he thought, his lips twitching in a brief grin. Definitely lost tourist material. No trained hunter would swear because of a measly shin hit. No truly trained hunter would have run into the chair in the first place. After rubbing her leg, she continued on, looking around with curiosity and caution, but not with deadly focus – and not with a weapon in her hand or visible anywhere on her body.

In short, she did not look like a killing machine. What she looked like was a schoolteacher – the luxury model. And oddly, for someone who didn’t know many schoolteacher types, she looked faintly familiar.

Her honey blond hair was piled into a ponytail on the top of her head, but a lot of silky swaths had tumbled back down, giving her a mussed up, just out of bed look. She wore a soft-looking lavender shirt and a pair of jeans, both of which appeared to be standard mall issue, and both of which revealed a perfectly average, if decidedly nice, and very nicely endowed female form.

Plenty there for Kid to get excited about, he thought. Maybe even something there for him to get excited about, if he’d been in the market for that kind of excitement, which he wasn’t. Lost tourists did not turn into lovers, ever, not in his game book. The only female in Cisco Quinn was interested in fooling around with was the one he’d named Jeanette, she with the supercharged 383 LT1 stroker under her hood, and the smartest move the woman in Burt’s could make would be to get back in her car and get out of town, an option specifically denied him by his boss, Dylan Hart – his soon to be ex-boss, if things didn’t start shaking loose. Going AWOL out of Utah was starting to take up way too much of his creative thinking.

“Yeah, right,” he muttered under his breath. The chances of him burning rubber out of Cisco and leaving Kid to take the heat were damn slim, at least today. If nothing broke by tomorrow, though, he wasn’t making any guarantees.

“Have you got that picture yet?” he asked Kid, who had moved to the computer in the back of the shop.

“Running it through now, Captain.”

Quinn let the rank slide, though he hadn’t been a captain since a surface-to-air missile had taken him and his F-16 out over Serbia. Still, he had been a captain in the United States Air Force for a hell of a lot longer than he’d been a cripple holed up in Cisco.

Two weeks. Shit.

Dylan couldn’t expect him to lay low forever. He could only take so much sitting around listening to the wind blow through this nowhere town – and what he could take could be measured in hours, not days. Roper Jones was still out there, and Quinn needed to be out there too. He needed to be back in the game.

He rolled his shoulder. It was healing. His leg half-worked. And he had a fucking vendetta with Roper Jones’s name written all over it.

On the screen, the woman picked up a dusty pile of papers and looked them over, giving him a better view of her face. She was fine featured with a dusting of freckles across her nose, pretty in a quirky way, not elegant, but cute, her eyebrows surprisingly dark in contrast with her hair. Her chin was delicately angled, but definitely set with determination. Her eyes were light, the color indiscernible on the screen. At odds with her all American looks, her mouth was lush, exotically full, and covered with a smooth layer of plum-colored lipstick.

Okay. She was nice. Very nice.

The whole package was nice.

“Not a known felon,” Kid said from the back of the shop.

Quinn absently nodded. He would have been damned surprised if the woman’s picture had matched that of a known criminal, especially given the kind of wiseguys in Kid’s current files.

“Try the official data base,” he said, knowing it was another long shot. Despite his niggling sense of familiarity, the chances of the woman in Burt’s being part of an officially sanctioned United States government service were exceedingly damn low, and she sure as hell didn’t belong to Steele Street, the quasi-governmental agency housed in Denver that wrote his and Kid’s paychecks.

“Already on it,” Kid confirmed.

Quinn kept his gaze glued to the woman. Where in the hell, he wondered, had he seen her? He didn’t forget faces. He didn’t dare, and he knew hers.

Or had known her.

Son of a bitch,” Kid swore behind him, showing more emotion in the one small phrase than he had in the whole two weeks they’d been camped out in the desert.

“You’ve got a match?” Quinn asked, looking over his shoulder in disbelief.

“No, but it looks like we’ve got more company,” Kid said, striding back toward the scope.

Quinn looked through the far window and saw what Kid had seen, a blue sport vehicle coming off the top of a rise in the highway – and slowing down, way down.

Son of a bitch was right.

“Two men, no visible weapons, but they don’t look happy,” Kid said from his position at the scope. Quinn watched him quickly scan the rest of the horizon and come back to the SUV. “They’re checking out the woman’s Ford...and...they’re...well, hell. They’re heading out of Cisco. What do you make of that?”

“A coincidence? Or maybe Cisco has just gotten real friggin’ popular.” Quinn limped back to the Camaro and picked up the 9-mm Beretta he always kept close by.

“Maybe,” was all the ex-Marine conceded as he checked the load on his rifle, a highly “accurized,” sniper’s M40.

He and Kid weren’t getting paid to take chances. Not today. Keep your heads down and don’t get your asses shot off had been Dylan’s orders. A couple of weeks ago, when his body had still been pretty messed up, Quinn had been willing to follow orders. But he was mobile now. His stitches were out, and he was ready to do the job he was getting paid to do – take Roper Jones down. If the unhappy guys in the four-wheel drive were part of that job, great. He just had to get little-miss-tourist out of the way, if she was a tourist – and the odds on that were dropping dramatically, despite the lack of a match in their files.

Damn. In about five minutes, if she was an innocent civilian looking for ghost town junk, she was going to wish she’d driven right on by Burt’s old place and Cisco. What he didn’t like to think about was that niggling sense of familiarity and the possibility that what she was looking for was him – though God knew how a woman could have tracked him down in Cisco. Or why. He’d stopped attracting the groupie set years ago, about six months after he’d been rescued out of Serbia. Funny how that had worked out. It was about the exact same time his publicity value had dropped back to normal, which was zilch.

“Call Denver,” he said to Kid. “Tell them we’ve got company. I’ll go get the woman.”

“No,” Kid insisted, quickly coming around the desk at the back of the shop. “I’ll go get her. You...uh, should be the one to call.”

Quinn narrowed his gaze at the younger man and was gratified to see him falter just a bit. It took a lot to make Kid Chaos falter.

“What I mean is, Dylan would rather hear the...uh, details of the operation from you. I’m sure,” Kid added the last bit at the end after a short pause, though he didn’t sound too damn sure to Quinn.

“Dylan’s in Washington D.C. Skeeter is manning Steele Street, and we don’t have an operation yet,” he explained.

“Well, see, there you have it.” Kid kept moving toward the door, each step slower than the last, until he finally came to a complete stop under Quinn’s unwavering gaze.

Quinn knew the distance between the barn and the gas station. A hundred yards. “I can handle it.”

Kid didn’t look convinced. “Maybe she’s a decoy. Roper Jones is not going to give up, Quinn. Not until you’re dead, or Hawkins gets him.”

“Roper Jones is not stumbling around in Burt’s Gas Emporium. A woman is, and I’m pretty damn sure we better find out why.”

With a reluctant nod, Kid finally agreed.

Quinn turned toward the door, slipping the Beretta under his shirt and into the waistband of his jeans. Hell. He wasn’t making it easy for Kid to play bodyguard.

Bodyguard. Christ. He’d always been his own damn bodyguard, and done a damn good job of it - up until two weeks ago in the Denver rail yards.

The memory gave him an instant’s pause.

Okay, he admitted. The Roper Jones heist had gone down bad, real bad, and Hawkins had literally had to scrape him off that friggin’ back alley where he’d ended up, but he’d gotten what he’d been after that night and was healed now. He was ready to get back in the game. More than ready.

He slanted the computer screen a quick glance as he passed by. Plum lipstick. Lavender shirt. Golden ponytail.

Hell. She didn’t look like she was ready to get in the game. She didn’t look like she’d

ever even heard of the game – but ready or not, she was about to get her first taste.