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Dying shouldn't be so difficult.
At least, in Skylar Grady's estimation it shouldn't be.
The way she saw it, if it were her time to die, she should be allowed to go quickly. No fuss. No muss. No wandering through the wilderness for days.
Her time to die?
No way did she plan for it to be that. Then again, she hadn't planned to get lost in the Sonoran Desert, but there she was. Lost.
She frowned, forcing herself to keep walking toward the shadowy mesa. A couple more miles and she'd be there. God willing, civilization would be on the other side. It better be, because six days with no food and minimal water had taken its toll. Much as she wanted to deny it, truth was truth. If she didn't find her way out soon, she wouldn't find her way out at all.
And that would be a shame. Not just because Skylar would be dead but because it also meant that the guy who'd drugged her, driven her out into the desert and left her to die would get away with it.
That definitely wasn't how Skylar planned for things to play out.
Unfortunately, she wasn't sure she had much of a choice in the matter.
Desert wilderness stretched out as far as the eye could see. No roads. No buildings. Nothing but an endless landscape of cacti and low-lying desert scrub, with the mesa in the distance. It's all she'd seen since she'd left her jeep, everything she had lived, breathed and felt for six days. She wanted out with a desperation that left her hollow and empty inside.
If there wasn't something or someone on the other side of the mesa .
She pulled her thoughts up short. Going there wouldn't help things. She had to keep walking, keep moving and, above all, keep hoping.
Lightning flashed in the distance, and the quiet rumble of thunder followed. Another storm. Was it the third or fourth since she'd made the decision to leave the rental jeep she'd woken in?
Did it matter?
Another winter storm meant water. Water meant life.
Her foot caught in thick desert scrub, and she fell hard, her breath leaving on a painful gasp. She forced herself up again, shivering as icy wind seeped through her T-shirt. Warm days. Cold nights. Sunburned skin and bone-deep chill. They'd taken their toll, and she wanted to rest more than just about anything.
But not more than she wanted to live.
Not more than she wanted justice.
And she did want that.
Someone had tried to kill her. She was going to find out who, she was going to find out why and she was going to smile when her would-be murderer was thrown in jail. First, though, she had to survive.
One trudging painful step after another to the mesa.
That was the only way to do it.
All around her, the night throbbed with energy and life; creatures moving in the darkness. Slithering, creeping, jumping creatures.
Were there wildcats in the desert?
Skylar didn't know, and she didn't want to find out.
Something shifted in the blackness, a deep shadow against the darkness. She blinked and it was gone, leaving nothing but a stillness that made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. Something was out there. Something that was stalking her through the blackness. Skylar was as sure of that as she was of anything.
Something or someone.
Maybe the guy who'd left her to die had returned to make sure she'd done so.
She crouched low, not taking her eyes off the spot where the shadow had been, her hand skimming the ground. A weapon. Any weapon. That's what she needed.
But there was nothing.
No thick tree branches.
No heavy rocks.
She grabbed a fistful of dirt, her heart thumping a hard irregular beat, the desert pulsing with tension from something she couldn't see, but knew was there. Endless seconds passed, each moment a lifetime.
Please, God, let it be my imagination.
A figure appeared inches from where she crouched, stepping from blackness so suddenly Skylar was sure he'd disappear just as quickly.
She reached out, her fingers brushing a leather boot.
He was real.
"Skylar Grady?" His voice was smooth and deep, and Skylar didn't bother asking what he wanted. No way was this guy part of a search-and-rescue team. If he were, he wouldn't be alone. She jerked back, letting the handful of dirt fly before breaking into a sprint. Endless desert stretched out around her with no hope of rescue or safety. She knew it, but she ran anyway.
Please, Lord, get me out of this alive. Please.
The prayer chanted through her mind, matching pace with the frantic thrum of her pulse. Something snagged her shirt, pulled her back and she went fighting, swinging her fists the same way she had when she'd been a runty freshman in a high school overflowing with drug dealers and gang members.
"Cool it, Grady. I'm not in the mood to have my face beaten in." The command barely registered, and she swung again, her fist connecting with a rock-hard jaw.
"I said cool it." There was no heat in his words, and he grabbed her arm, pulling it behind her back with just enough pressure to hold her still.
"Let me go!" She stepped back, trying to unbalance him and loosen his grip, but he was as solid and unmoving as a mountain.
"I'm thinking your boss wouldn't be happy if I did that. Neither would I. I've lost and found your trail a dozen times these past couple days. I lose it again, and you may be lost for good."
"My boss?" She stilled, her heart beating too rapidly, her breath spilling out in great heaving gasps.
"Kane Dougherty. He's an old college friend. He called me the day before yesterday. Asked me to take part in the search-and-rescue operation that was launched to find you." His grip loosened, his hand smoothing up her arm and resting against her neck. "Take a deep breath, before you keel over."
"I'm not going to keel over." But she inhaled deeply, trying to force her racing heart to slow.
"I'm not sure I believe you. You've been out here for six days. That's a long time." His hand dropped away, and then he was in front of her, his eyes gleaming in the darkness.
"Long enough for people to stop looking for me. I haven't seen a search plane in two days, and then it was too far away to see me. I thought for sure I was going to have to find my own way out of here." She dropped onto the ground, relief making her light-headed.
Maybe she was going to pass out.
"They haven't stopped looking, they've just scaled back."
"Because they're looking for a body?" It made sense, but that didn't mean she wanted to hear it.
"It happens all the time. People drive into the desert to take pictures of the scenery, and they don't realize how unforgiving the terrain is. They get lost or hurt, and they run out of supplies."
"Look, Jonas, I didn't drive myself out here. Someone drove me. I didn't choose to go on a six-day sojourn. Someone else decided to send me on one."
"I don't know, but as soon as I get back to civilization, I plan to find out."
"You didn't see him?"
"I didn't see anything. I was out cold."
"Then, I guess the next question would be, 'Why?'"
"That's another thing I plan to find out once I get back to Cave Creek. So, how about we get in your jeep or truck or whatever you rode in on and get out of here?" She shivered, adrenaline fading and leaving her colder than she'd ever felt before.
"Sorry. No truck. No jeep. I track people on foot. Makes it easier to follow their trail." "You're kidding, right?"
"No. Here." He crouched beside her, slid out of his backpack and pulled a jacket from it. "You'd better put this on. It's going to get a lot colder."
"Thanks." She put on the jacket, tried to zip it closed, but her hands were clumsy from too many days with no food.
"Let me." Jonas brushed her fingers away, his knuckles skimming her jaw as he pulled up the collar around her neck. Warmth lingered where his hands had been, and Skylar could feel it seeping into her.
Surprised, she shifted away, trying to see him through the blackness. Dark hair that was a little long and a little shaggy. High cheekbones. Eyes that could have been any color. He looked like an ancient warrior, and for a moment she wondered if she'd imagined the feel of boot leather, the conversation, even the scent of soap that hung in the air.
She reached toward him, realized what she was about to do and let her hand drop away.
"You okay?" he asked, and she nodded.
"Good. There's a storm blowing in, and we need to find shelter for the night." He offered a hand and pulled her upright.
"Five nights out here was plenty. How about we find shelter in town?"
"There's no way Phoenix Search and Rescue can send a helicopter for us until morning. No way we'll make it out on foot. Like it or not, we're stuck here until dawn."
"Then I guess we'll be walking all night, because there is no way I'm going to bunk down and accept my fate." She started walking, and Jonas pulled her to a stop.
"Even if we walk all night we won't reach the highway before morning, and there's no way you're going to make it that long."
"I've been walking for days. One more night won't hurt me." Her teeth chattered on the last word, and she rubbed her hands up and down her arms. She felt cold to the bone, tired to the core. Every muscle in her body ached, but if it meant a hot meal, dry clothes and a warm bed, she'd walk all night.
"That's what most people probably think before the desert takes them." "Nice, Jonas."
"I'm not nice. I'm realistic. You probably haven't eaten in a week and if you make it another mile, I'll be surprised. So, how about we do things my way? We head to the mesa, find some shelter and hunker down until first light." He handed her a water bottle, and she took a long swallow, letting the lukewarm liquid pour down her parched throat. Her hand shook as she wiped moisture from her lips, her stomach heaving in protest. Empty. That's what she was running on, and as much as she wanted to deny it, Jonas was right.
Her brain might be telling her to keep going, but her body was giving out. Quickly. As much as it aggravated her to depend on anyone, she'd have to follow Jonas's lead in this. "All right. Let's do this your way."
She didn't give him time to respond, just moved toward the mesa, hoping she didn't lose the water that seemed to be sloshing around in her empty stomach.
That's all she needed. Humiliation on top of exhaustion and pain.
"That was quick." His words rumbled through the darkness, a reminder that she might be cold and tired and sick, but she was not alone anymore.
That, at least, was something to be thankful for.
"Convincing you to go along with my plan. Kane said you'd probably fight me tooth and nail on everything." "Kane talks too much."
"That worked out well for you this time. If he hadn't told me that you were too stubborn to die, I wouldn't have agreed to help with the search." He didn't say what he must be thinking, what Skylar knew to be the truth. If not for Kane's intervention, she'd be facing another night alone in the desert. She might even be facing her last night alone in the desert. Her last night period.
She wasn't, though.
That was the important thing. Kane had sent help. Skylar would survive her trip to Arizona and her six-day hike through the desert. One more night. That's all she had to do, then she'd get a hot shower, a warm bed. Food. Her stomach rumbled loudly, the sound spilling out into the darkness.
"What would make you say that?" She'd didn't hold back the snarky response, but maybe she should have. Jonas was, after all, her way out of the mess she was in. No sense getting on his bad side.
"Just a guess." He pulled something out of his pocket, barely breaking stride as he handed it to her. "Eat that, but take it slow. We don't have time to stop while you empty your guts."
"Your concern is touching." She glanced down at the protein bar, her mouth watering. Not a juicy burger, but she'd eat cardboard if it meant easing the gnawing hunger she'd been feeling for days. She tore the wrapper off, took the first bite and the second and the third.
Jonas grabbed the bar from her hand before she could take another.
"I said take it slow. Not inhale it."
"If I were inhaling it, it would already be gone." She snatched the bar back, took another bite, actually managing to taste the nutty flavor before she swallowed. "It's good."
"I have more. I'll get them out when we stop."
"How about we stop now? Because I could eat another dozen of those." She licked crumbs from her fingers, thought about dragging Jonas to a stop and demanding whatever food he was carrying.
"Weren't you just saying you wanted to walk all night?"
"That was before I realized you had food."
"Three more miles and you can eat all the protein bars you want."
"Is that a bribe?"
"Whatever keeps you moving."
"More food would do it."
"Sorry. Everything else is in my pack. Getting it out would slow us down." "Are we in a hurry?" "Only if we want to beat the storm." "I've weathered several storms already. One more won't kill me."
"The storm isn't the only thing I'm worried about." His pace had increased, and Skylar struggled to keep up, her sluggish movements no match for his long, easy stride.
"Please, don't tell me there are mountain lions out here. I really don't want to end up being cat food."
"Mountain lions aren't the worst predator we might run into. I've seen campfires the past couple nights. I thought members of the search party were following my trail, but the search-and-rescue coordinator said none of his people were out here."
"Maybe it's someone enjoying the desert," she offered, but she didn't believe it any more than she believed the person who'd drugged her and left her in the desert hadn't meant her any harm.