Kade Owen dragged his hand over his stubbled face as he settled into the plastic airport seat while waiting to board the plane he’d be taking to Tucson. He was ready to get out of dreary San Francisco, back to Arizona, and home to his son.
And then catch those damn coyotes, the people-smugglers who’d managed to elude him for far too long. Especially the bastard known as El Torero.
It was dark outside, a slow drizzle rolling down the large panes of glass, and he was looking forward to Arizona sunshine. He pulled his black Stetson low so that he could observe people around him without being obvious. In his line of work as an Intelligence Agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, people-watching was a necessary skill. But now he was doing it to pass time before his plane was scheduled to depart.
Hair at Kade’s nape prickled—he had the distinct feeling he was being watched. He looked casually to his left to see a young woman staring at the screen of a small laptop computer. Something in his gut told him she’d been studying him a fraction of a second earlier.
Kade pushed up the brim of his Stetson and raked his gaze over the woman. She sure was pretty, her shoulder-length hair the golden color of an Arizona sunrise. She had the type of shapely figure he preferred, nicely rounded and sexy as hell.
From a gap in her pink silk blouse he could see a bit of lace covering her generous breasts, beneath the soft material. His gaze traveled down to those long legs beneath the skirt that hit a couple of inches above her knees. Yeah, she sure had terrific legs, and he’d bet she had a great ass—
He broke off his appraisal as the woman glanced up and her gaze met his. She had gorgeous eyes, warm and deep brown. The connection between Kade and the woman, for that fraction of time, was tangible. Like she’d lassoed him with that one look. She immediately blushed a pretty shade of pink and looked back at her computer.
Kade couldn’t help but grin. Damn, she was cute. She might be worth getting to know.
Well, hell. Wasn’t it just last night he’d told his sister, Dara, that he didn’t want a relationship? In the five years since Lorraine’s death, he hadn’t met a single woman he was interested in pursuing. Not one. He’d gone on dates, but few and far between. Yet there he was, fascinated with a stranger in an airport a thousand miles from home.
“Flight twelve-sixteen with nonstop service to Tucson is now boarding everyone with an A card,” announced a voice over the intercom. This particular airline had “cattle call” boarding with no assigned seats.
Kade stood, and he noticed the woman had slipped her laptop into a bag and was already walking toward the gate, giving him a nice view.
Yeah, she definitely had sexy legs, and she had a great ass.
Several passengers crowded in front of Kade, so he had to wait awhile longer for his turn to board. When he finally made it onto the plane, he worked his way back. He noticed the pretty blond in a window seat, staring outside, and no one was sitting in the middle seat next to her.
He took off his Stetson and set it in the overhead compartment. With his big frame, he usually disliked sitting in the middle, but this time it would be just fine. Careful not to bump the woman, he eased into the seat next to her, extended the seat belt, and buckled it.
A flight attendant helped an elderly lady put her bag into the overhead compartment and then the lady sat next to Kade. He nodded to her and said, “Ma’am.”
The woman’s pale blue eyes held a hint of amusement. “You’re too polite to be a Californian.”
“Just spent a week in Frisco with my sister and her twins.” He smiled, wishing he’d been able to spend more time with his niece and nephew. If he hadn’t had to go to that briefing in San Diego beforehand, he could’ve taken his son, Trent, to Dara’s with him. He sure missed the kid and looked forward to getting home.
“I’m visiting my grandchildren in Tucson.” The lady shook her head and sighed. “Hellions, all. Love them, but a weekend is about as much as I can handle. Now those kids could use some lessons in manners.”
She punctuated her statement with a jab of her fist in the air, then began digging through an enormous purse. “In here somewhere, I have pictures their father sent… .”
Kade held back a grin and glanced at the woman in pink on his other side. Her forehead was pressed to the pane, and she was apparently lost in her thoughts. She sure smelled good. Real good. Like honeysuckle and soap, clean and fresh.
The windowpane felt cool against Kelsey’s forehead as she stared into the darkness. She sighed and turned her thoughts back to that gorgeous hunk of man in boots she’d seen in the airport.
She’d been so embarrassed to find him studying her from beneath his black cowboy hat. What incredible blue eyes he had— and that sexy grin could melt a woman’s soul. Thank goodness he hadn’t noticed her watching him a minute before. As a journalist she’d become a people-watcher, and lord, was that man something to watch.
Kelsey groaned. What was wrong with her? She had no interest in men after being married to the biggest creep of the century. Thanks to what her father had put her mother through when she was growing up, Kelsey should have known better. She should never have let Davis Johansen’s lies make her believe in happily-ever- afters.
But as far as that cowboy in the airport, what harm was there in looking? Kind of like window-shopping with no intention of sampling or buying the merchandise.
She was finally free, finally divorced from Davis.
“Good riddance, creep,” she grumbled, her breath fogging the pane.
Kelsey jumped at the sound of the husky voice, so close that a shiver sprinted down her spine. As she whirled in the cramped seat, her elbow rammed hard flesh. Heat crept up her neck when she saw the cowboy’s blue eyes wince.
“I’m so sorry.” Her gaze swept over the tanned face, strong chin, and the chestnut hair that had been hidden under the cowboy hat earlier. “Did I hurt you?”
The man grabbed his side and grimaced as if in mortal pain. “I’m not sure I’ll live.”
That familiar flush spread throughout Kelsey, the telltale blush that would redden her face from the roots of her hair to the tips of her toes. She offered a half-smile and turned back to the window.
Lights flashed on the wing and reflected on the wet asphalt, a steady rhythm in time with her throbbing pulse. She watched as a man on the tarmac guided the plane onto the runway. Her heart rate rocketed, her palms slick with sweat. The scar on her upper thigh ached and she rubbed it through her skirt.
“I’m sorry if I embarrassed you,” the man beside her said, his voice low and disturbingly close.
A thrill rippled in her belly as she forced herself to face the man. “Not at all.”
“Kade Owen.” White teeth flashed against tan skin as he smiled and offered his hand.
Kelsey caught his earthy scent of sun-warmed flesh and apples, and she fought the desire to dry her moist palm on her skirt before his callused hand engulfed hers. His grasp sent tingles throughout her and she quickly pulled away.
“What’s your name, ma’am?” he said in that slow and sexy voice that sent a shiver straight through her.
“Oh.” She swallowed, feeling flustered and on edge. “I’m Kelsey. Kelsey Nichols.”
“Kelsey,” Kade drawled, a slight, almost imperceptible country edge to his voice, and she shivered. “A pretty name for a pretty lady.”
Just the way he was looking at her, the way he said her name, made her want to squirm in her seat. Good lord. If just talking to this man was making her feel like this, what would it feel like to really be with him?
Nope. Not going there. She’d had it with men, and that was that.
The plane started to taxi down the runway, throwing Kelsey into her worst fear. All she could do was close her eyes tight, pray, and try to shove the heart-wrenching memories from her mind. Every muscle in her body tensed, and she gripped the armrests as if the mere act would guide the plane into the air and keep it there.
At least until it was time to land.
“You all right?”
Kelsey heard his voice but refused to open her eyes. Not until they were safely at cruising altitude.
Kade Owen’s hand closed around hers, and he gave her fingers a comforting squeeze. The stranger’s touch startled her, but not enough to make her look at him or speak a word. It surprised her how his warm grasp calmed her nerves, if only for a few minutes.
As the craft lifted, her chest tightened, and her breath rasped out in shallow huffs. The rumble of the plane, the roar of the engines, the smell of burning fuel, the pause in the air-conditioning, the way pressure clamped down on her head … she hated it all.
Ten morbid thoughts later, she felt the plane level out, and in a rush, she released the breath she’d been holding. “I knew I should have driven,” she muttered.
The man gave a low laugh. “All the way to Tucson from San Francisco?”
Kelsey opened one eye and peeked at him. “Yes.”
“Don’t you know flying is safer than driving?” He smiled, and she opened her other eye.
She sighed and allowed her muscles to relax. “Yeah. Right.”
“If it makes you feel better, I’m a pilot.”
“It doesn’t.” Sensation was coming back into Kelsey’s limbs, and she brushed a wisp of hair behind her ear. “You can let go of my hand now.”
“Sure.” A spark of mischief lit his blue eyes. But he didn’t move.
“What’ll you two have to drink?” the flight attendant asked before Kelsey had a chance to tell Kade exactly what she would do if he didn’t release her.
“I’ll have orange juice,” he said, and turned to Kelsey. “What’ll you have, darlin’?”
She’d darlin’ him in a minute.
Kelsey asked the attendant for a diet soda. After the woman had taken their drink orders and moved to the next row, Kade said, “That stuff’ll kill you.”
“When I get my drink, it’s going in your lap if you don’t release my hand, cowboy.” She gave him a dangerous smile. One that could leave no doubt she intended to follow through with her threat.
“I give up.” He raised his hands in mock self-defense, coming within a breath of hitting the woman on the other side of him. He was truly too big for the seat, his broad shoulders and chest spanning the width.
“Excuse me,” he said to the elderly woman, who patted his knee and then returned to showing a stack of photographs to the man across the aisle.
Kelsey reached up to open the air vent, then punched the button for the reading light. Yes, the cowboy was definitely too handsome for his own good.
While she dug in her laptop bag, she felt the intensity of Kade’s presence but avoided looking at him. Where was it? Ah, there. She withdrew the slim laptop computer and slipped on her gold-rimmed reading glasses.
Theresa had loved the idea of the immigration feature. It would be the most comprehensive feature Kelsey had written, and she intended to make it the best series of articles any reporter had done on the subject of illegal immigration along the Mexican border.
Kelsey was looking forward to the experience with desperate enthusiasm. What better way to distance herself from Davis and all the bad memories?
“What’re you working on?” Kade asked as she began jotting down questions for her feature. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“I’m a journalist.” She shifted her attention from her notepad to the cowboy. “I’m making a few notes for an article I’m writing.”
“For a newspaper?” He looked genuinely interested, and Kelsey found herself warming to his friendliness.
“I write for City by the Bay.” She rustled in her bag, pulled out a copy, and handed it to him. “It’s a San Francisco–based magazine that primarily carries local-interest stories, but occasionally runs features on national topics.”
Kade’s fingers brushed hers as he took the magazine. Kelsey caught her breath at the tingle that skittered within her at the contact. Her eyes cut to his, to see if he’d noticed, but he seemed intent on flipping through the magazine.
“That’s the current issue.” She pulled off her glasses and slid them back into their case. “I wrote a feature on single parenting. My pseudonym is Kale C. Nichols.”
He cocked an eyebrow and his gaze met hers. “You’re a single parent?”
“My editor assigned the story.” Her smile faltered. “I don’t have any children. But I wish I did.”
Before Kade could ask her anything more personal, she said, “So, what do you do?”
“Law enforcement,” he replied with a shrug.
Surprised, Kelsey blinked. “And here I thought you were a cowboy.”
He smiled. “Grew up on a ranch, but following in my folks’ footsteps never appealed to me. As a kid I always wanted to be the good guy tracking down the bad guys.”
“I’ll just bet.” Her mouth quirked as she imagined him on a white horse, tracking down desperados.
Lightning flashed outside the plane and her heart dropped. She turned away from Kade to glance out the window. Another flash illuminated the swirling mass of a thunderstorm.
The plane bucked and dropped, then leveled out, shooting her stomach straight to her toes. She gasped and clutched the armrests, her heart pounding so fast she thought it would jump out of her chest and the cowboy next to her could lasso it.
When Kelsey had looked to the window, Kade took the opportunity to study her. What was it about the woman that interested him, more than anyone else he’d met?
Was it her velvety brown eyes? The way she blushed? When he’d embarrassed her, every bit of bare skin that he could see had gone pink, from the V of her blouse to the tips of her ears. He wondered if the rest of her turned that attractive color.
What would it be like to kiss those full lips?
As skittish as she seemed, he’d probably have better luck kissing the old lady on his other side. Kade grimaced at the thought.
Lightning lit the sky outside and Kelsey gasped as the plane dropped and shuddered. She turned from the window to face forward, her eyes scrunched tight, her face as pale as his mom’s lace tablecloth.
Over the intercom a man’s voice drawled, “This is your captain.
Y’all sit tight with your seat belts fastened until we ride out this storm.”
Poor kid, Kade thought as he studied Kelsey.
He couldn’t stop himself. He eased an arm around her and pulled her head to his chest. She remained rigid, trembling. In a few moments, he felt her relax. A bit.
“Everything’ll be fine,” he whispered into her hair, and squeezed her cold fingers within his warm grasp.
His gut tightened at the smell of her and the feel of her soft body in his arms. Somehow he felt like he knew her. That he’d always known her.
The plane bounced and rattled amid the turbulence, and she pressed her face closer. Tears soaked his shirt, and he fought the urge to slip his fingers into her hair.
Why was she so terrified?
He moved his thumb over the back of her hand and noticed a band of pale flesh against her skin, where she must’ve worn a wedding ring. A broken engagement? A divorce?
The rest of the flight to Tucson was one of the roughest he’d taken. The thunderstorm raged and turbulence tossed the plane like a toy caught in a dust devil. But Kade found himself glad for the storm, glad for the excuse to hold the woman that he barely even knew.
Kelsey woke to a whisper in her ear. “We’re here, Kelsey. We made it.”
Disoriented, she blinked, then heat burned through her when she realized she had her head against the cowboy’s chest. When she pulled away from Kade, she couldn’t think of a thing to say.
How could she have let a stranger hold her to begin with? But it
Excerpted from KADE: Armed and Dangerous by Cheyenne McCray
Copyright © 2010 by Cheyenne McCray
Published in 2010 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.