Read an Excerpt
Water? Protein bars? Check. Check.
Chocolate? More chocolate? Tissues? Triple check.
Not that Martha Gabler was going to need the tissues. She wasn't. She was over her crying jag and done feeling sorry for herself. It was time to move on, to embrace singleness with the same joyful excitement with which she'd embraced being a part of a couple.
The fact that in one year and three months she'd hit the magical age that separated young-enough-to-hope from too-old-to-keep-looking didn't matter at all. So what if women in Lakeview, Virginia, married young? So what if reaching thirty without heading down the aisle was tantamount to walking around town wearing a placard that read Past My Prime?
Did Martha care?
She sighed, zipping her backpack and shoving a baseball cap over her unruly curls. She'd come to the mountains to put the past behind her. She didn't plan to spend time dwelling on things that couldn't be changed.
Like her newly single status.
Outside Martha's Jeep, the day was as gray and gloomy as her mood, the deep oranges and brilliant reds of the fall foliage muted in the dreary morning light. Maybe visiting her father's hunting cabin could wait another week, another month. Another year.
No. It couldn't.
She hadn't been to the cabin since she started dating Brian two years ago. Now that he was out of her life, it was time to enjoy the things she'd loved before Brian had pulled her into his high-society world. Time to start fresh, to look with excitement at the new horizons stretching out before her.
Martha snorted and shoved open the Jeep door, stepping out into cool mountain air. Gravel crunched beneath her feet as she hoisted her pack onto her back and turned to survey her surroundings. The old gravel road she'd parked on dead-ended a hundred yards up. Beyond that, a dirt path wound its way up into the mountains. A steep and difficult climb led to the cabin, but Martha didn't mind. Some good hard labor would get her mind off Brian-the-jerk.
She started to close the Jeep door and jumped as her cell phone rang.
For a split second she considered ignoring the call, but the thought of seventy-year-old Jesse Gabler hiking up to the cabin was enough to convince her otherwise.
She pressed the phone to her ear, hoping her voice wouldn't give away her emotions. More than anything else, she hated to worry her father, and if he thought she was upset, worried was exactly what he'd be. "I'm fine, Dad."
"Who said that's why I was calling?" Gravelly and gruff, his voice reminded her of all the triumphs and losses they'd faced together since her mother walked out when Martha was five.
"Dad, it's ten o'clock on a Friday morning. Why else would you be calling except to check up on me?"
"Maybe I'm just calling to say hi."
"Right. You can't stand it that I'm going to the cabin alone. Admit it."
"Marti, the cabin has been closed up for two years. It might not be habitable anymore."
"As long as it's still got a roof and four walls, I'll be fine. I don't need more than that."
"Need more for what? Grieving in private over that scumbag doctor? I knew he was no good the minute I met him. Wishywashy, wimpy kid with a head too big for his scrawny little neck. If I'd had my way you would never have " His voice trailed off and Marti could almost see his hazel eyes going dark with worry and regret. "Sorry, baby doll.You know how I am."
"Yeah, I know." Which was why she'd had to escape to the mountains. Between her father, her friends, her church and her community, Martha had nearly drowned in the outpouring of sympathy since she'd called off her engagement three days ago. That was the problem with living in a small town. Everyone knew everyone's business. Most of the time, Martha didn't mind, but right now she needed space.
She needed time.
She did not need to be smothered by well-meaning people who all claimed to have believed her relationship with Brian was doomed, but who hadn't bothered to tell her that.
Her father cleared his throat the way he always did when he wasn't sure what to say, then launched into a safer topic. "It's supposed to storm tonight. You know that, right? The creek might flood its banks. You might get stranded for a few days."
"A few days isn't going to kill me. Besides, I know how to handle myself out here. I was taught by the best."
"Glad to know I taught you something." Since I obviously didn't teach you how to protect your heart from smooth-talking men.
Martha could almost hear the words, though her father loved her too much to say them. "You taught me plenty, Dad. So, listen, you take Sue out this weekend, okay? Somewhere fancy."
"Why would I go and do a thing like that?"
"Because tomorrow is the three-year anniversary of your first date and she expects it."
"Three-year anniversary of our first date? Who keeps track of that kind of stuff?" As Martha had hoped, mention of his wife of eight months was enough to distract her father.
"Sue. She's been talking about it nonstop for two weeks. I'd have thought you'd have gotten the hint by now."
"You know I'm no good with hints. You could have given me a heads-up before now."
"Sorry, Dad. I just figured you knew."
"I guess I'd better get to work planning something. You be careful, you hear? And if you're not back by Sunday noon, I'm coming to get you. Love you, baby doll."
"Love you, too, Dad."
She started to shove the phone in her pocket, then thought better of it and tossed it into the glove compartment. Reception was poor in the mountains. Besides, she'd lost three phones in the past two years. A fact her ex-fiancé, Brian McMath, hadn't let her forget.
Not that she was going to think about Brian. Or their relationship. Or why she'd tried so hard to fulfill his definition of what a doctor's future wife should be.
Sleek. Slim. Beautiful.
Martha stomped up the gravel road, forcing her mind away from her ex-fiancé. He'd been an arrogant jerk. She'd been too focused on trying to build the kind of family she'd always dreamed of to notice.
Rain began to fall, but she ignored it as she moved up the trail toward the hunting cabin. She would put her disastrous relationship with Brian behind her, and she would enjoy her weekend alone. Just Martha and the great outdoors. What could be better?
Forty minutes later, she was thinking there were plenty of things better than walking soaking wet through thick foliage, with chilly air cutting through her jacket and jeans. Panting hard, her heels burning with blisters from new boots, she splashed across a creek and muscled her way up a bank. All the physical exertion should have forced thoughts of Brian out of her mind, but they were still there.
Frustrated, she stomped up the cabin steps, pulled the key from her pocket and swung the door open. The place hadn't been used in a while, and watery light danced on dust motes as she hurried across the room to pull the curtains open. She'd barely touched the thick material, when she heard something behind her. Or maybe felt it. A subtle shifting in the air, a whisper of danger that electrified the room, made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end.
She wasn't alone.
Her heart pounded, her hand froze in place, her mind screamed directions that she couldn't quite follow.
No! Never run from a predator.
Walk back out the open door. Pretend you don't know someone is here with you. Go. Go, go, go!
Her legs were lead, the pack ten tons of brick as she started toward the door. She'd barely taken a step when the door swung closed, cutting off light, sealing her in. It was like a nightmare, like a horror movie come to life. Dead silence. Pitch-blackness. Someone waiting in the darkness. Her heart thudded as terror pooled in her belly.
Please, God, I don't want to die like some clueless victim in a horror film.
She stepped backward, bumping into something hard, tall.
A scream ripped from her throat, but died abruptly as a hand slammed over her mouth.
"You don't want to do that." The growl rumbled in her ear; a warning, a threat. "Do you?"
Martha shook her head. Anything to get his hand off her mouth and give her another chance to scream. Not that it would do any good. There was no one around to hear. The cabin was miles from civilization.
"Good. Just keep quiet, do what I say and everything will be okay." As he spoke he moved backward, pulling her away from the door and farther into the darkness.
Don't just let yourself be accosted. Fight!
She slammed her elbow into his stomach, but his grip didn't loosen. "That wasn't smart, lady."
Maybe not, but she tried again anyway. This time slamming her foot down on his instep. He grunted, his grip loosening just enough for her to jerk from his hold. She lunged forward, yanking open the door, racing outside and slamming into a short, wiry man.
"Goin' somewhere, darlin'?" His eyes were pale, clear green, his lips thin and tilted up in a sneer. Freckles dotted his face, but they didn't make him look any less like a coldhearted killer. If death had a look, it was in his gaze. Martha shuddered, stepping back.
"Nowhere without me. Right, Sunshine?" A hand dropped onto her shoulder and hard fingers urged her around to face the man who had followed her from the cabin.
Over six feet tall. Light hair. Hard features. Icy blue eyes filled with a message Martha couldn't decipher. He seemed to want her to agree, but Martha had no intention of going anywhere with him or his friend.
"No" was on the tip of her tongue, but before she could say it, the guy behind her spoke. "She's with you?"
"Buddy won't like it."
"I don't see why he should care, but if it's going to be a problem, maybe I'll take my business elsewhere." He grabbed Martha's hand and pulled her down the porch steps, tension seeping through his palm and into hers. That only added to her anxiety and fear. Whatever was going on couldn't be good, and the sooner she escaped, the better.
"Hey, now wait just a minute." The smaller man hurried up beside Martha, his eyes darting from her to her captor and back again. "I didn't say Buddy would care. I said he might not like it. But that's your problem. My problem is getting you to the meeting place. So let's go."
"Ready, Sunshine?" Her captor cupped Martha's chin, nudging her head up, gently but firmly forcing her to look into his eyes. Silvery-blue eyes that flashed with anger and something else, something softer, but just as fierce. Concern?
Martha blinked. No. That couldn't be right.
"I said, are you ready?" There was an edge to his voice, a warning, and Marti nodded because at the moment, she didn't have a choice. Eventually though, she would. And when she did, she'd take it.
Her gaze jumped away from his fierce intensity, landing on the thin man standing a few feet away.
He was still as stone, his empty eyes locked on Martha. Dead eyes. She wasn't sure how she knew that. Maybe some primal instinct kicking in, warning her. Whatever the case, she was sure the guy would kill her in a heartbeat if she gave him a reason. As if he sensed her thoughts, he smiled, his thin lips twisting up into something that should have been friendly but wasn't.
She looked away, meeting the other man's eyes, her heart beating so fast she thought it would leap from her chest. "Where are we going?"
"For a walk. Just relax and enjoy the scenery." He tightened his grip on her hand until it was just short of painful. He clearly didn't plan to let her go, but Martha didn't get the same sense of danger from him that she got from his friend.
She resisted the urge to pull away from his hold and make a run for it. After all, the key to winning a battle didn't lie in acting quickly. It lay in weighing the enemy's strengths, finding his weaknesses and exploiting them. Her father had told her that a hundred times, and she'd rolled her eyes just as many. Now what had seemed like useless information had value. She'd have to thank her father when she saw him again.
If she saw him again.
She shied away from the grim thought and focused her attention on the shorter of the two men. He had a cigarette pack sticking out of his pocket and was panting for breath as he hurried them toward a dirt road. Obviously out of shape, probably smoker's lungs. Martha figured she could beat him in a footrace.
The man holding her hand was another story. Tall, well muscled, long-legged, he was not even breathing deeply let alone panting. From where Martha was standing, he didn't seem to have any weaknesses. That could be a problem.
She stumbled over a root, rain slashing against her face and stinging her eyes as her captor's grip loosened a fraction, his hand sliding against hers.
Forget about looking for his weakness. Run!
She didn't consider the odds of success. As soon as she regained her footing, she yanked hard, her wet skin slipping from his grip, and ran toward the trees.