Carly Phillips


© 1999


The car was dead. Samantha Reed climbed out of what the rental company had called their best midsize luxury vehicle without bothering to try the ignition one last time. That final grinding sound had made things perfectly clear. Although she disliked abandoning the car in the desert, she had no choice. Reliable Rentals would just have to send a tow truck for their useless automobile. Too bad no one would be sending a search-and- rescue squad for the driver, she thought.

Drawing in a deep breath of dry air combined with dust, she took one last look behind her. The vehicle looked an awful lot more comfortable than she felt at the moment, but it obviously had no intention of moving any time soon. She had no choice. The Arizona sun had begun dipping below the distant mountains, and if she waited around much longer, she'd be hiking in the dark. Not that she wanted to hike at all. She certainly wasn't dressed for a jaunt through the desert.

What was that saying about the best-laid plans? She grabbed her purse, left her luggage and gave one last tug on the hem of her newly acquired tiered silk skirt. A skirt she'd bought for its coolness and comfort in the dry desert heat. Of course, she hadn't counted on a prolonged excursion while wearing it. This outfit had been a mistake. She hoped she wouldn't say the same for the upcoming week.

If all she had to look forward to was a marriage as dry as this godforsaken desert, she intended to cram a lifetime's worth of fun, lust, passion and excitement into the time she had left. Next weekend, she'd meet her fiance at a seminar on risk management and financial gain at one of Arizona 's exclusive resorts, but first she'd take some calculated risks of her own. She deserved that much, considering she was sacrificing her life, giving up her future happiness, for her father. Years of compliance and acting like the obedient daughter had brought her to this, to the brink of marriage to a man she didn't love. A man nearly fifteen years her senior. A man she scarcely knew.

She got out of the car, wobbled on the heels of her seventies-style shoes and was forced to smooth down her layered miniskirt once more. There may not be another car in sight, but she'd be damned if she'd moon the Arizona wildlife. She glanced over her shoulder at the wide expanse of emptiness behind her. It couldn't be any worse than what her future held.

In one month, she'd kiss her dreams of happily ever after goodbye. But she wanted-no, she needed-some memories to keep her warm on the cold nights ahead. She would never experience what her parents had shared, an all-encompassing love… even to the exclusion of their only daughter. But she could experience passion before she gave up her life on the marital altar. Only now, when it was too late to change things, did Samantha realize she'd spent the past twenty-nine years on a mission-to please her parents and win their love. A futile exercise. They loved her in their own way. It just hadn't been enough for Samantha. And in her search for more, she'd given everything she had in return.

When she'd promised her dying mother that she'd look out for her father, she'd been drawn into her family circle for the first time. Her mother had reached out to her, and she'd given her word freely and unconditionally. She just hadn't counted on how much one promise would change her life. Her stockbroker father had hit a downward turn. As a grieving widower, he'd begun to neglect his business, then to compensate, he'd advised risky ventures for his clients in the hopes of quick gain before he lost their business for good. Things hadn't panned out. To make matters worse, he'd invested personal capital as well. He'd spiraled into debt so deep it threatened his future. And because Samantha had it in her power to fix things, she would.

Tom, her new boss, courtesy of a business buyout, and her father's country club friend, had offered a solution. More like a bribe, Samantha thought. Marriage to Tom would enable her father to pay his creditors, the IRS being the main one, without having to declare bankruptcy. Whether he was capable of starting over again was another question entirely. She'd offered him her savings, but even a financial planner who made more than a decent living couldn't put a dent in his delinquent debts. Not so for a man who bought and sold companies on a whim. Tom's offer had been hard to turn down.

She might not care if the Reeds were the laughingstock of the country club set, but her father would. He had little left, and the club provided his only outlet for socialization since her mother's death. Without it, he'd retreat, living in seclusion and depression. Samantha didn't call that living, and she wouldn't place her already-lonely father in such a position. Not if she could help it. And as Tom, the wealthy wheeler-dealer had informed her, she could.

He'd provide enough money to bail out her father in exchange for a wife, a hostess and a trophy on his arm. Any good-looking woman would fill those needs, but Samantha possessed one extra quality. She understood his business and knew how to deal with both his clients and his competitors. She saved him the time and effort of dating and disqualifying the empty-headed women who lined up to be the wife of a rich entrepreneur. His words, not hers.

With her last hours of freedom flying by, her dreams had come down to a hastily conceived plan to indulge in an erotic interlude with a sexy stranger. She'd even dipped into her savings to help the cause. She'd splurged on everything, including the rental car that lay still behind her. She shot the vehicle a disgusted look. If she wanted to have a no-strings, purely sensual affair with the most desirable man she could find, she had to reach her destination first.

Shielding her eyes with her hand, she glanced down the long stretch of highway. If she could even call Bloody Basin Road a highway to begin with. She'd driven south on a road named Golden Guts after leaving the rental place outside the airport and decided she preferred New York State's numerical monikers to the grizzly images conjured up out West. Which way now, she wondered. If she remembered correctly, there had been a ranch-style establishment back a mile or so…

A slight breeze picked up as she lost track of the sun. Goose bumps prickled on her bare arms, legs and back, and she shivered. Lengthening her stride, she trudged on, forcing down the swell of regret and guilt that threatened each time she thought about her plan. Once she married Tom, she'd be the faithful wife he expected, but she wasn't married yet. This week would have to substitute for the honeymoon she'd never have.

Some beginning she'd made. Frustrated with the slow pace and afraid she'd twist an ankle, fall on the side of the highway and be mistaken for roadkill, she pulled off her shoes before continuing. The pace picked up and so did the pain. Small rocks lodged in the soles of her feet as she walked.

By the time she saw lights in the distance, darkness had fallen. Her feet were raw, her throat parched and tears probably stained her cheeks. Desperate didn't begin to cover how she was feeling. At this point, she'd give her body to the first man who offered her a place to sit, a shoulder to cry on and a cold drink. Not necessarily in that order.

* * *

'Hey, Mac, slumming again?'

Ryan Mackenzie wiped down the glass top of the old wooden bar with a damp rag. 'You know I can't stay away from here,' he told the table of old men who frequented The Hungry Bear.

'I can't believe you'd prefer this joint to that fancy spa you own.'

Mac glanced at the scarred paneled walls, the crooked pictures, the pool table in the corner and the dartboard in the back. He inhaled and smelled a mixture of nachos, tobacco and beer. 'Believe it.'

'Give him a break,' the tallest of the men said to his friends. 'He might have money now, but a boy don't lose his roots.'

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