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From the top of a sandy berm skirting the beach, the man barely noticed the bitter cold or the churning surf of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Oregon. His focus remained on his target.
A feral smile curved his scarred mouth. He couldn't have planned their reunion better. Seemed fate was on his side. Finally. His prey, who'd ruined his life, was alone and vulnerable. Just how he liked his women.
She was just up ahead, walking down the deserted beach with a sketch pad tucked under her arm. Her dark hair whipped about her head in the chilling December wind.
Time was of the essence. It would only be a matter of hours before his ruse was discovered.
His pulse sped up as he shuffled through the tall scrub grass, keeping his gaze fixed on her. On Lauren.
The burning need to avenge his pain seethed white-hot in his veins. Patience, he cautioned himself. He had to capture her quickly and carefully in case some nosy busybody looking out the window of their insulated, Christmas-festooned little home decided to interfere.
He stuck his hand inside the pocket of his long, black leather coat and fingered the syringe of ketamine he'd stolen from a veterinarian clinic outside Burbank. He'd intended to use it on Lauren's mother. Unfortunately, the old bat hadn't been home when he'd broken in. But he'd learned where to find Lauren just the same while tossing the place. He'd then stolen a motorcycle and had ridden straight through from L.A. to this sleepy little Oregon town.
And now Lauren was only a hundred yards away from him, totally unaware that her life was about to end in a drawn-out masterpiece of torture. The familiar thrill of the kill rushed through his body. His breath quickened and the sound of it mingled with the roar of the surf.
Rushing water greedily devoured the beach. The rising tide ebbed and flowed, closer and closer to where she walked. Like him. Closer and closer.
A hulking rock loomed ahead with barnacle crusted tide pools at its base visible in the waning evening light. The waves swelled as the wind picked up. The salty air dampened his clothes and filled his nostrils. The man reached the flat sand of the beach, his scarred legs protesting the excursion. He ignored the pain as he pushed himself to move faster.
Soon, very soon, the plans he'd meticulously plotted over the past five years would come to fruition. Revenge would taste sweet.
As sweet as Lauren's tears.
A woman's sharp, desperate cry broke through Sean Matthews's jogger's trance.
His heart lurched and beach sand sprayed, stinging his shins as his long stride shortened abruptly. Mind racing through possible emergencies, he swung his attention toward the bluff above him.
In the twilight of dusk, it was difficult to spot anything beyond the interior lights that randomly dotted the windows and the strings of colored Christmas lights decorating the eaves of the resorts and cottages of the small town of Cannon Beach. High berms covered with tall grass provided a barrier between the buildings and the ocean. He didn't see anyone.
His gaze scanned the coastline, taking in Haystack Rock, a 235-foot monolith jutting out of the surf. The rising tide stirred the cold swells into white, foam-capped waves that rushed up toward the dryer sand and then quickly retreated, leaving wet, dark patterns in their wake. Mist blowing in on the evening breeze dampened Sean's hair and cooled his sweat until a chill chased down his spine.
Overhead, a gull's caw echoed the scream he'd heard.
He frowned. He hadn't imagined the cry, had he?
He scanned the area once again.
His gaze snagged on two figures up ahead. A woman ran through the tide pools toward Sean. A man, dressed in a long black coat with a black beanie covering his head and a scarf wrapped around most of his face, was chasing her. The woman slipped, landing hard on rocks. She cried out.
As the man lunged for the woman, something glinted in his hand. She swung her arms, trying to fend him off. She lifted her head, her gaze seeming to bore right into Sean.
"Help! Help me!" she cried.
Sean's gut clenched. This was no couple romping through wavelets. The woman was in trouble. Reflex-ively, he reached inside his sweatshirt pocket for his cell phone but came up empty. Frustration spiraled through him. He'd left the thing in his truck parked at the edge of the public access road.
Knowing he was the only help available, Sean sprang into action, his feet thwacking against the sand as he ran toward the man. "Hey, hey! Leave her alone."
The man paused and swung his head toward Sean. Though Sean couldn't make out the attacker's features, there was no mistaking the malice in his dark eyes before he scrambled away and ran in the opposite direction, moving with an odd but fast gait toward the sandbank. He quickly disappeared into the tall grass.
Sean navigated a slippery, algae-covered tide pool to where the woman, seated in a puddle, was violently struggling to yank her pinned ankle from a rock crevice. She was petite with delicate features and brunette hair falling past her shoulders. She visibly shivered in her wet pink sport jacket and sweatpants.
Lord, show me how to help this woman.
Sean knelt down next to her and met her gaze. Her toffee-colored eyes brimmed with panic and wariness. "It's going to be okay," he said. "Do you have a cell phone with you?"
"I do." She reached into her jacket pocket and came up empty. "It must have fallen out." Panic echoed in her words as she continued to wrestle with her trapped foot.
Calling 911 would have to wait until they reached his truck.
"Let me try to get your foot out."
"Did you see him?" She stopped struggling and braced her hands against the mussel-encrusted lava rock.
Sean searched her face. "That man who attacked you? Yes."
She lifted a hand to her forehead. "I didn't imagine him."
Okay, that was weird. "He was real. Do you know him?"
She shook her head, her dark bangs sticking to her high forehead. Even wet and bedraggled, she was pretty in a natural, girl-next-door way. "No. I mean, yes. No. It just couldn't be." She glanced over her shoulder. "Please, tell me he's gone. Of course he's gone. He's in prison. No way could he have gotten out." She started to rock slightly.
She wasn't making sense; maybe the trauma of being attacked had been too much for her. The need to take care of her rose sharply in Sean. He fought the inclination. He'd come to this small community so he wouldn't have to take responsibility for anyone ever again, but he couldn't fight who he was any more than he could have let that man attack her without stepping in.
Sean had to set her free and get her help. Turning his focus to her foot, he noticed that her ankle was trapped between a deep red starfish, jagged black rock and white barnacles. Using his fingers for leverage, he pried at one of the prickly limbs of the starfish, his nose filling with the pungent scent of decay and brine as he pulled. The sharp, pointy bumps of the outer body bit into his cold fingers as he tugged and twisted, but the creature wouldn't budge.
Frustration and disappointment chomped through him. He contemplated his next move. Water crashed over the bed of lava rock, filling the various pools as the tide rolled in. Soon the whole area would be completely under water. He wrested a mussel shell free from the rock and sharpened its edge against the coarse stone.
The chatter of the woman's teeth echoed in his ears. He paused before pulling off the sweatshirt covering his running T-shirt. "Take off your wet jacket and put this on."
Her pale hand, the fingertips smudged black, clutched at the neck of her fleece jacket. "I can't."
"I'll help you." He leaned toward her and reached for the zipper.
She drew back with a squawk.
He held up his hands. "Look, I'm not going to hurt you. I promise. Do you have something on under your jacket?"
"A tank top. But that doesn't mean I'm going to take off my jacket." Her brown eyes flashed with warning.
Sean sighed, a mixture of empathy and irritation running hot in his veins. Modesty shouldn't be a priority at a time like this. "You're soaked and freezing. A prime candidate for hypothermia. Here." He pushed his sweatshirt into her hands. "Put this on while I try to get this starfish to let go."
He turned away from her and quickly forced the sharpened edge of the shell beneath one of the rays. He needed to hurry. The sun had begun its descent beneath the horizon. Soon it would be dark and he'd be working blind.
Next to him, he could hear her struggling. The frustrated exhales. The sharp gasps of air.
"You okay?" he asked.
She huffed. "No. I guess I'll need your help." Resignation echoed in her words. "The zipper's well, stuck."
He turned toward her again, fiddling with the zipper until it gave way. Her right hand braced against the rock, she lifted her left arm so Sean could yank off the jacket. As he moved to pull the rest of the light coat away, she grabbed his sweatshirt from her lap and held it against the bright yellow tank top.
Why was she so modest, especially in the midst of an emergency?
Sean quickly pulled the wet jacket from her right arm.
Then he knew.
Red, puckered flesh marred the skin running from her forearm to the top of her shoulder and disappeared into her sleeveless shirt. He sucked in a quick breath.
Please, Father, not again.
Lauren Curtis dropped her gaze to the dark, porous lava rock.
She couldn't stand to see the pity and revulsion her scars always generated. And this big, thoughtful man was no different from everyone else. Precisely why no one, save her doctors, was allowed to see her ugliness.
Oh, Lord, why did this have to happen?
As she had a thousand times before, she sent the question upward. But for the first time in five years, she wasn't referring to the horrible nightmare that had derailed her life and killed her dreams. Now she referred to this moment in time.
When her nightmare had reappeared.
She bit her lip. But it just couldn't be.
Once again she glanced over her shoulder, unsurprised that no one was there. The man who had attacked her wasn't Adrian. Adrian was locked up for the rest of his life. She'd been reassured of that over and over again, every time she called the police in a panic, when she'd thought she was being followed or that someone had broken into her home. She'd called so many times in the last five years that it was embarrassing, but their reply never changed. Adrian was in jail. She was safe. So why didn't she feel safe?
She trembled and quickly pulled her rescuer's sweatshirt over her head, then tugged it down to her waist, out of the water's reach. His scent wafted from the well-worn material. Spicy and very, very masculine. She snuggled into the too-large sweatshirt, the fleece inside soft and warm against her cold skin, and prayed he could help her.
"Thank you for giving up your sweatshirt," she whispered, glancing up. She met his clear blue gaze, so like a summer sky. He regarded her with cautious kindness.
"No problem. I'm Sean Matthews."
She liked his name almost as much as she liked his deep baritone voice. "I'm Lauren. Lauren Curtis."
"Hi, Lauren." He held her gaze for a moment before turning his attention back to her predicament.
In the waning light, she watched his arms bunch and flex as his large, capable hands worked at freeing her ankle. She couldn't even feel pain, her flesh was so numb from the frigid water.
"What were you doing out here?" he asked.
"I wanted to sketch the sunset. Then Ad" She couldn't bring herself to say his name. "That man came charging down the beach at me."
"I saw something in his hand. What was it?"
Lauren thought for a moment. "I'm not sure. I didn't get a good look. I think it may have been a knife."
Sean's jaw tightened. "Do you live around here?"
"Yes. My house is just up the way."
"That guy may have seen you walking alone and followed you," Sean said. "We'll need to report the attack as soon as possible."
Did her assailant know where she lived? Fresh fear congealed in her limbs, turning her blood to ice.
The starfish shifted. Involuntarily, she cried out as her ankle throbbed. To keep her mind from the pain and fear, she asked, "Do you live around here?"
He nodded. "Recently moved."
So he wasn't a longtime local or tourist. A transplant, like herself. "Where are you from?"
He hesitated. His lips pressed together for a moment. "Portland."
"It was a blessing that you were out jogging," Lauren stated.
Was he the type who believed in fate, or did he believe, as she did, that God was the only one in control? Either way, he gave no reply.
The pressure on her ankle eased up the second time the starfish moved.
Sean sat back on his haunches. "Better?"
"Can you move your foot at all?"
Pushing her hands against the rocks, she tried to pull herself free. She let out a guttural groan of pain. Her foot remained wedged in the crevice. "I I can't." She was tired and cold, and frustration beat a steady rhythm at her temple.
Sean nodded. "Relax. I'll keep trying." He continued to pry at the starfish.
Chilled to the core, Lauren realized parts of her were numb. What she wouldn't do for a nice warm shower and her big down comforter.
Startled, she blinked and realized she'd rested back onto the rock. Propping herself up on her elbows, she said, "I'm sorry. I'm getting your sweatshirt dirty."
The corner of Sean's mouth lifted in a half smile. "Forget the shirt. Just concentrate on staying upright. I know you're probably in shock, but I really need you to stay focused here."
Lauren studied him as he worked to release her ankle. He was exceptionally handsome with his windblown, thick, dark auburn hair shorn close to his ears, and his strong jaw shadowed by a late-day beard.
Snap out of it, Lauren. He wasn't Prince Charming and she wasn't a damsel in distress. She stifled a scoff. Okay, maybe she was in distressor more likely hypothermiabut this was no fairy tale. She'd stopped believing in fairy tales a long time ago.
Her eyes met Sean's raised brow. "It's getting dark," she said inanely.
The sun had disappeared over the horizon and dusk was rapidly turning into night. The roar of the waves echoed across the shore. Normally, Lauren loved the beach at night. She'd found that was the time when she felt most connected to God. Being attacked and then trapped in a tide pool had put a damper on things, however.