Read Roan Online

Authors: Jennifer Blake

Roan

“You shot me.”

Amazement threaded Tory's whispered accusation.

“What the hell did you expect when you came at me with this?” The sheriff hefted the pistol he'd been holding, the one she'd dropped as she was hit. Apparently he'd stopped to pick it up before he approached her. It was what he was trained to do, she supposed, the logical reaction, but that cautious lack of haste about discovering whether she was alive or dead added to her sense of ill usage.

“I didn't,” she said, biting off the words before her voice could betray her by wobbling.

If he heard, he paid no attention. He tilted his head and spoke into a microphone attached to his sleeve. “Dispatch? Request ambulance for downed suspect. Gunshot wound…”

It seemed he had some small amount of consideration, after all. She tried again to make her position clear. “I'm not…not a suspect.” Then a feeling of lightness drifted over her. She allowed her eyelids to close. She was passing out. She knew it and didn't care.

Pain brought her back. The sheriff loomed above her, his hands on her shoulder as he applied firm pressure.

“Stay with me,” he commanded in the inelastic tone of those used to immediate obedience. “You're not getting out of this that easy.”

“Out of what?” She forced the question through set teeth as her nausea eased.

“Armed robbery, resisting arrest, endangering the life of an officer. You've got a long list to answer for.”

“Jennifer Blake demonstrates why she is one of the most highly regarded romance writers of all times.”

—
Painted Rock Reviews
on
Luke

Also available from MIRA Books and
JENNIFER BLAKE

GARDEN OF SCANDAL

SOUTHERN GENTLEMEN

(with Emilie Richards)

The Louisiana Gentlemen Series

KANE

LUKE

CLAY

 

Roan
is the third book in the LOUISIANA GENTLEMEN series by Jennifer Blake. The stories feature Turn-Coupe's Benedict clan—a family whose history dates back to the earliest days of the Sugar State. Using what Jennifer Blake—herself a seventh-generation Louisianan—calls “the rich blend of cultures that is so vital an aspect of modern Louisiana,” these stories superbly capture the magic that is the lush and steamy state.

JENNIFER BLAKE
ROAN

For my daughter, Lindy,
with loving appreciation
for her generous gifts of insight and inspiration.

1

T
he chance Victoria Molina-Vandergraff was waiting for came on the third night. She was ready, primed with rage, disgust, and a tentative plan. Still, she almost missed it.

One minute, she was trussed up on the floor of the stolen panel van as it careened around a curve on the dark dirt road, silently cursing the two jerks in the front bucket seats and cheering the cop who was hot on their tail. The next, she was tumbling over the gritty carpeting as they slid on rain-wet gravel. The vehicle left the roadway and bounced across what felt like a shallow ditch. For a breathless instant it was airborne. Then it slammed into a tree.

The screeching crunch of folding metal filled the air. Safety glass rained with a musical tinkling. Tory slid helplessly, scraping dirt from the carpet with her cheekbone before she hit a side panel. The van jolted back, shuddering. The engine died.

Headlights stabbed the darkness as the police car rounded the bend behind them. Brakes screamed and gravel flew as it slued to a halt. Seconds later, the officer's amplified voice, deep and edged with anger, blared from the unit's loudspeaker.

“Out of the vehicle! Hands in plain sight. Move!”

“Holy shit! What we s'pose to do now?”

The kidnapper that she'd dubbed Zits long miles back along the road from Florida growled the question as he glared at his pal behind the wheel. Big Ears whined an excuse as usual, even as he started the van and slammed it into reverse, spinning its wheels in the mud.

Zits let fly a string of curses as uninspired as they were virulent. Craning his neck to see out the window, he said, “Christ, if it ain't the sheriff of that hick town back there. Says so on his car hood.”

“All I see is his big-ass gun,” Big Ears moaned. He gunned the van hard, hunching in his seat at the same time as if he could make the vehicle move with his body. “We gonna die. I told you ripping off that convenience store was a dumb idea. ‘Nah,' you said. ‘They're backward as hell in a little old place like Turn-Coupe, Louisiana. Won't be no security camera,' you said, ‘No alarm, no cops this time of night…”'

“How the hell was I to know?”

“You're the brains, ain't you? Now we're screwed. Backcountry sheriff like that don't give a shit who he shoots.”

“It ain't gonna be me!”

Zits hit the glove compartment latch with his fist and reached inside for his pistol. Then he heaved from under the mangled dashboard and crawled between the seats into the cargo area.

“Where you going?” Big Ears demanded, even as he gunned the van again, gaining a few inches.

“To fix us a way out.”

“And how the hell you gonna manage that?”

Zits, going to one knee beside Tory on the canted floor of the van, didn't answer.

She could see his teeth glinting in the glare from the
police cruiser's headlights. She pressed back against the side panel as he shoved the pistol into his waistband and pulled a knife from his boot. Before she could draw breath to scream, he slashed the duct tape around her ankles. Jerking her upright, he cut the tape at her wrists, then ripped it off along with several centimeters of skin.

“There now,” he drawled in vicious sarcasm. “Looks like it's your lucky day.”

“What are you going to—”

Zits didn't let her finish. He hauled her around and gave her a hard shove toward the rear cargo doors, even as he pulled his pistol free again with his other hand.

In that instant, Big Ears shifted the van into drive and stomped the accelerator. It roared and bucked forward into the tree again. Tory plunged toward the back door. Zits crashed into her. His shoulder hit her head, smacking her into the door glass. Her brain jarred in her skull. She was blind for a second as a red haze appeared before her eyes and pain surged in her head. Still, somewhere in her mind was the memory of the hollow thud made by Zit's pistol as it fell to the floorboard.

Zits cursed. Shoving away from Tory, he scrambled for the lost gun.

“Out of the vehicle! Now!”

“Damn lawman's coming after us,” Big Ears gabbled in panic. “We got to rock this heap free, get her moving.”

Suddenly, everything was surreal to Tory. The deep, vibrant voice of the sheriff coming out of the night was like that of some hero in an action movie. She dragged herself upright in slow motion. Through the back door glass, she could see the sheriff as a dark silhouette against the glare of the patrol car's headlamps. He stepped forward, and his shadow stretched across the road as tall and wide as that of some legendary giant. Behind her, Big Ears rammed the
van's engine into reverse again, spinning the wheels until the stench of burning rubber filled the air and double sprays of mud spewed from the ditch to plop across the gravel road like small explosions.

“Yeah, we'll get out, but our gorgeous rich bitch is going first.” Zits reached past her to shove open the rear door.

He meant to use her for a shield. It worked in the movies, using the victim to gain safe conduct, but Tory wasn't so sure the hick sheriff out there would cooperate. He had no idea she'd been kidnapped, didn't know her from Adam's Eve.

“Wait a minute!” Big Ears yelled as the van plunged forward again, rocking in its ruts. “We moved, feel it? We're 'bout outta here!”

She wasn't going with them.

Tory surged to her feet as Zits turned his head to measure their chance of escape, but the lurch of the van sent her sprawling. Her elbow came down on the missing pistol. Instantly, she shifted position, scooped it up.

Zits swung around. She saw the flash of the knife in his hand.

“Stop!” Tory leveled the pistol, tightened her finger on the trigger. She could use the weapon, thanks to private lessons in self-defense before she went off to college. And she would if it was her only choice.

Zits wrenched to a halt. They hovered in a stand off.

“I got it, Chris!” Big Ears yelled. “We're gone!”

The van was moving. She had to get out. There was no time to think, no time to plan. Lunging away from Zits, she scrambled for the open back door. She grabbed the frame and staggered upright, wavering an instant to gain balance. Then she jumped.

It was sheer instinct, what happened next; the results of years of adolescent gymnastic lessons and demonstrations
from a skydiving team captain on how to hit the ground without breaking your neck. Tory rolled with her forward momentum, letting it carry her toward the sheriff, away from her kidnappers. At the maneuver's peak, she found her feet and came erect with wobbly grace and the heavy pistol still in her hand. She faced the sheriff, threw the heavy ponytail of her hair behind her back to clear her vision as she searched his dark features for some sign, any sign, of safety.

Then Tory knew. She felt it coming even before she saw the tall man in front of her steady his weapon, before she saw red-orange fire streak from its bore.

The single shot exploded like a cannon's roar. It punched her backward like a hard blow to the upper chest and shoulder. Her ponytail whipped over her shoulder and across her face. The pistol flew out of her hand. The gravel roadbed rose up and slammed into her. She lay too stunned to breathe, staring into the night sky while at the periphery of her vision the dark stain of blood spread across the dirty silk of her once-white jogging suit top like some night-blooming flower.

She heard the van's engine revving in the distance, felt the jolt in the roadbed beneath her as the vehicle spun free in a hail of mud and gravel. The lawman shouted an order, fired again. She flinched at the sound, a muscular reaction without meaning. But the van with Zits and Big Ears inside didn't stop. It hurtled forward with a clash of gears and the screech of dragging metal. Then it roared away into the night.

The pain hit Tory in a silent eruption. It tore at her shoulder and chest, a living thing clawing under her collarbone. She wanted to cry out, needed to fight it or get away from it. She couldn't. Her lips parted in a gasp of silent agony.
Tears gathered at the corners of her eyes and ran in hot tracks into her hair.

The crunch of gravel came as footsteps neared. A shadow loomed across her, then the sheriff crouched at her side. He hesitated, then stretched out his hand and felt the side of her neck where the blood throbbed under her skin. That touch was warm, impersonal yet expert. After a second, he released its exploratory pressure, trailed his fingertips across the gentle rise of her breasts under their silk covering. He whispered a soft curse and sat back on his heels.

She blinked to clear her vision, then fastened her gaze on the face of the man above her. His features were stern in the yellow-gold of the police car's headlights, though handsome in a rugged fashion. The silver glint of a star-shaped badge pinned to his shirt pocket was both the symbol of his supreme authority and a threat. The pressed, unsullied perfection of his uniform struck her as obscene compared to her muddy and blood-splattered grunge. She despised him on sight.

“You shot me.” Amazement threaded her whispered accusation.

“What the hell did you expect when you came at me with this?”

He hefted the pistol he'd been holding against his bent knee, the one she'd dropped as she was hit. Apparently, he'd stopped to pick it up before he approached her. It was what he was trained to do, she supposed, the logical and safe reaction, but that cautious lack of haste about discovering whether she was alive or dead added to her sense of ill usage.

“I didn't,” she said, biting off the words before her voice could betray her by wobbling.

If he heard, he paid no attention. He tilted his head and
spoke into what appeared to be a minimicrophone attached to his shirtsleeve. “Dispatch? Request ambulance for downed suspect. Gunshot wound. Location, Gunter's Road, two miles south of the intersection with Highway 34.”

“On its way, Sheriff.” That response came in the gruff tones of an older woman.

It seemed he had some small amount of consideration, after all. She tried again to make her position clear. “I'm not…not a suspect.”

His gaze flickered over her face, but his expression didn't change. He angled the pistol, a handkerchief wrapped around it to preserve fingerprints, toward the light to inspect the chamber, then ejected the shells into his hand. He pocketed them before he glanced down at her again. Voice deliberate, he said, “Hold on. I'll be back.”

Unreasoning panic swept over her. “Where…where are you going?”

“After the emergency kit from the unit. As I said, I'll be back.”

A man of few words, or so it seemed. He hadn't bothered to ask how she felt, who she was, or what she was doing in the van. Certainly, there'd been no remorse for shooting her, not even a simple, “Sorry, ma'am,” in that deep, molasses rich drawl.

Tory watched him walk away. His movements held assurance and rangy grace; they covered ground without making it appear as if he were in any hurry. His tall frame seemed to waver and blend with the shadows until he disappeared around the end of the patrol car and she was left to wonder if he'd been there at all.

By degrees, the stabbing pain in her shoulder began miraculously to ease though she could still feel the warm slide of blood under her armpit. A feeling of lightness drifted over her. She was so tired. She allowed her eyelids to close.

She was passing out. She knew it and didn't care. Oblivion beckoned with such sweet promise of escape from everything that had gone wrong that she didn't even want to resist.

Pain brought her back. The sheriff loomed above her once more, his hands on her shoulder as he applied firm pressure. She shuddered under his grasp, and was surprised by a wave of nausea. Immediately, she froze into stillness and lifted her uninjured arm to clap her hand to her mouth.

“Stay with me, honey,” he commanded in the inelastic tone of those used to immediate obedience. “You're not getting out of this that easy.”

“Out of what?” She forced the question through set teeth as her nausea eased.

“Robbing a convenience store, for a start.”

“I…didn't.” There was so little firmness in the words that she wasn't surprise when he appeared less than impressed.

“Betsy doesn't lie. Neither does her surveillance camera.”

The implication was that she did, had, and he wasn't surprised. She frowned as she thought that over. Her brain felt as if it were too big for her skull and was pounding against the bone above her eye in order to make more room. With careful fingers, she reached higher to explore the bump on her forehead.

He reached to catch her hand and lift it away while he studied the head injury. Deciding, apparently, that it could wait, he placed her hand at her side and began to tear open a couple of packages that must have come from his emergency supplies. She watched through her lashes as he moved with easy competence, placing the items taken from them on the only spot available that was both out of the dirt and free of the wetness of blood, her abdomen. It
seemed he'd tended gunshot wounds before. She wondered in light-headed cynicism if he'd been the cause of them as well.

Tory was still exploring that idea when he picked up a pair of sterile scissors and began to cut away her silk top from the wound, exposing her shoulder to the cool night air. She parted her lips, breathing in strained gasps until she could find the strength to form words. “Don't,” she managed finally. “Don't touch…”

He gave her a tight glance. “I won't ram the scissors into you if I can help it.”

“I didn't mean…”

“Didn't you?”

He saw a great deal more than it appeared, she thought as she focused on his set features. There was intelligence in his eyes behind the shields of his long, dark lashes.

He dropped a compress bandage onto her shoulder then leaned over her once more, using his weight to hold it in place. She jerked, inhaling on a whistling moan, then clutched at him with a desperate grip of her free hand. Her nails sank into the muscles of his shoulder.

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