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Just three more miles.
Tabitha Beaumont struggled with each new step. After swimming one mile through a cold mountain lake then biking twenty-six through the Carolina Blue Ridge, her legs felt more like weighted anchors than lean stretches of muscle. Still, she trudged on.
For over three miles, she'd emulated the long, steady strides of the two seasoned competitors beside herjust as her brother, Max, had coached her. But when passing the little crowd on Hendersonville's Main Street, she hit "the wall." Her body could no longer maintain the unvarying clip of the other runners. When they started up the final mountain trail to the finish, she slowed and watched as the two runners pulled farther and farther ahead, leaving her to battle the mountain alone.
Just three more miles.
She needed to focus. But her mind refused. Every muscle in her body screamed to stop. Her lungs ached for air. Her heart pounded against her chest. Her legs felt limp and numb. The dark, steep path loomed ahead invincibly.
Come on, Tabby. You can do this.
Following a sharp rise in the path as it curved around patches of evergreens, she continued to grind her way upward. The August air lay dense under the canopy of foliage. Sweat dripped from every strand of her hair, down into her eyes, the back of her neck and the front of her chest. Slowly, she progressed.
The whisper jump-started her tired senses. She looked around, but there was no one in sight. She must have imagined her name being called. Her eyes sifted nervously through the thick forest. Her legs continued to churn over the mulched trail.
A gruff male voice sent a chill through her body.She could not have imagined that. Crunching leaves and snapping twigs confirmed someone was near.
Again, she glanced back. Two men dressed in camouflage ran less than ten feet behind her. Where they'd come from or how they knew her name, she had no idea. But they didn't belong on this mountain. Only competitors were allowed on the trails. Today, all the entrances had been roped off and guarded by event officials. And who in their right mind would run a triathlon in full fatigues?
Fear zipped through Tabitha's tired body. Her overworked adrenal glands fired up and she doubled her speed, trying desperately to outrun them. But the men were not shaken. They stayed close, nearly flanking her and mumbling to one another.
"Number forty-seven," one of them said.
Tabitha glanced down at the black writing on her left arm. Her entry number. Forty-seven. Why did they know that? She didn't want to imagine. Instead, she ground her heels into the mountain path with what little energy remained and pressed on.
The men continued to close in. One of them reached for her elbow. As his fingers grazed her arm, her fear transformed to utter panic. Her mouth opened. She tried to scream. But only a tiny gasp escaped. Still, she jerked forward, slipping from the man's loose grasp as his giant paw fell away from her sweaty arm.
Nothing less than blind terror moved Tabitha now. She bounded into a full sprint. Her head spun from the forced exertion. Her breathing fell short and shallow.
"Come on, lady. Stop. You know what we need." The evil in his voice churned Tabitha's stomach.
"Yeah," the other man echoed. "Hand it over."
Hand what over? Her mind clouded at their words. What were they talking about?
Forget it. She needed help. Frantically, she searched for other competitors, but she'd lost the two runners ahead and there seemed to be no one behind. How in a race with over one hundred participants had she found a gap? How could she have put herself in this position?
All she could do now was pray and run. As fast as possible, she propelled herself onward. The thud of her pulse drummed in her ears. She had to get away. And still, they closed in.
"Come on, lady! What Max gave you we need it."
Max? Did they say Max? They knew her brother?
Tabitha pushed on. Every step more painful than the last. In her fear and exhaustion the trail began to blur beneath her. A protruding root caught her heel. Her ankle twisted and she went down on hands and knees. Rolling to her back, she kicked out blindly, sending one of the men back a few feet. The other grabbed her by the wrists.
Oh, Lord, please help me.
Battling some kind of flu or major dehydration, Rory Farrell was having the worst race of his life. Bent over at the waist, he veered off the path to wait for the cramps and nausea to die away. A few racers passed. If he weren't so spent, he might have cared that this would be the first time in five years he wouldn't win the Hendersonville Triathlon.
Instead, he collapsed his large figure down the side of a birch tree and tried to relax his aching body. He focused on steady breathing, taking a moment to soak in the beauty of his native Smoky Mountains. His gaze floated lazily down the steep bank of the mountainside, until it stopped at a most bizarre sight.
Two hunters carried a racer toward the foot of the mountain. A woman. Was she injured? It seemed unlikely considering the way she flailed around between them.
Rory stood then launched himself down the rocky incline to investigate. Something strange was happening and he had a gut feeling that he needed to interfere.
"Hey! What's going on?" he shouted.
The men paused to locate his position. The larger of the two turned, revealing a nice shiny handgun. A shot rang out and Rory's trained responses kicked in. He dashed for cover behind a tree. The bullet whizzed by, striking a nearby leaf as it passed.
Well, no doubt about it now. He was definitely going to interfere.
In fact, Rory no longer felt sick. Other, stronger emotions had driven that from his system. His veins pulsed with heated energy and his own innate sense of justice.
The men descended swiftly, dragging the female racer between them. She struggled violently. Another shot echoed across the mountain.
Rory continued to slide closer. Steadily, he gained on them, now close enough to hear her muffled cries and catch a glimpse of her frightened face. A face he recognized. It was the racer he'd noticed at the startthe one with the big brown eyes and great smile. The men had gagged her, further fueling his anger. He pressed on, forgetting the dangers he faced as he drew near.
Rory crept as close as he could, using large trees for cover. Then, he charged at the armed man, yelling at the top of his lungs. A rebel-yell attack. It worked, too. They dropped the girl and stood still for a full second before taking action. Rory moved in and grabbed the armed man's wrist. Rory pointed the 9 mm down. With his other hand, he struck hard below the ribs. The big guy went down and so did his weapon.
Rory kicked the gun out of reach and spun around as the second man took a swing. Pain riveted through his body as the man's knuckles made contact with his face. Rory took repeated blows before landing a right hook. The little guy stumbled to the side. Rory retrieved the gun from under the brush. He aimed fast, but the men had already fled. Rory started to follow but hearing the woman moan stopped him in his tracks.
In a thick patch of fern, she lay trembling on her back. She had removed the gag but made no attempt to sit up.
He knelt beside her. "Ma'am, are you okay? Did they hurt you?"
Instead of answering, she closed her eyes while her body shuddered through another violent tremor. He reached a hand to her forearm to steady her, but she tucked away, every muscle tensed and rigid.
"It's okay." He softened his tone. "They're gone. They're not coming back. I got their gun. See?" She looked up, with large, unfocused eyes. Her face was so pale he feared she would pass out. "Really, ma'am. You're safe now. But you're kind of scaring me. Can you talk? Can you hear me?"
With a sudden jerk, she spun around on all fours and was sick. The sight brought Rory a renewed wave of his own gastric unease. A discomfort he squashed with a quick exhale.
"Feel better?" he asked her.
She turned back and nodded slowly. "II didn't " Her eyes lifted to his face and widened. "Your nose!"
Rory wiped his face with his forearm and glanced down at the blood. "Oh. That's nothing," he said. Although judging from the pain when he moved his head, it was probably broken. That little guy had given it to him good. "Don't worry about me. What about you? What happened?"
"Those men Theythey said I " She shook her head and shifted her eyes away. Her lips pressed together tight and flat.
Rory let the questions go. They needed to move. Her story could come later. "You think you can get up?"
She stared back at him and shrugged.
Rory straightened, offering a hand to her. As her palm settled into his, a warm sensation rippled through himnot unlike the pleasant jolt he suffered when he'd spotted her on the lakeshore earlier that morning.
She pulled up and applied weight to both feet then collapsed. Rory shot his arms out and pulled her to his chest. No jolt this time, but he couldn't pretend he didn't notice her soft curves brushing against him.
"Okay. Take it easy. Where's the damage?"
"Right ankle. I turned it. That's how they got me."
Already she seemed calmer, her speech more steady. She hobbled back and pushed his hand away as if she didn't need his help.
He grinned at her determined efforts. "Ms."
"Tabitha Beaumont," she said softly. "And thank you. Thank you for helping me."
"Tabitha." He grinned. "I like that. A good strong name." He put his hand on her elbow, again offering his support. "Rory Farrell and it's my pleasure. Now, the closest place for us to get help is at the inn, just up the hill here. I'll piggyback you."
"Piggyback? No. I'm all right." She stared up the steep slope and again slid her elbow from his grasp.
"Look, ma'am, I'm a marine. Trust me. I won't drop you. I've done this sort of thing plenty of times."
She gave him a funny look then began scanning the area below. "You know, there's another path down there. We could go down instead of up."
Rory narrowed his eyes and flattened his lips. He wasn't used to people questioning his authority, especially in this kind of situation. "That trail leads to the falls. We need to go up."
Tabitha folded her arms across her chesta stance which he supposed was meant to look defiant. The movement threw her off balance. Rory had to grab her arms again to keep her from toppling over.
"I promise it's better to go up." He pulled her close, forcing her weight into his arms, taking the pressure off her bad ankle. Her face scrunched up with disapproval, but he didn't release her. "Trust me. Let me help you."
For one moment, she quit struggling and steadied her eyes into his. "I'm sorry. I'm just nervous. I know I need your help."
A little too quickly, Rory lost himself in her large chocolate eyes. The urge to brush his knuckles across her cheek where some errant curls stuck to her smooth olive skin overwhelmed him and he shook his head to clear his mind. He should have been too focused for such a senseless thought.
"You're sure there's not another way?" she asked.
"Positive." He released her long enough to reclaim the 9 mm Beretta from the ground and engaged its safety. "We'll need to give this to the police."
"Police?" She blinked.
"Of course. As soon as we get back, we have to report this."
"Yes. Right. I'm not thinking clearly. Sorry."
"Understandable." He looked at the gun and then down at his flimsy bike shorts. "Could you"
She turned a shoulder. "Here?"
He tucked the gun snugly into the back of her jogging top. Then he squatted for her to climb aboard. Her hand tentatively came down to his right shoulder blade. It retreated just as quickly.
"No time to be shy." Urging her bad leg forward, Rory knocked her weight onto his back and felt her slide into position. Two long legs wrapped around his torso. Her hands went to his shoulders. She left as much space as possible between their bodies.
The balance wasn't ideal but he lifted her easily enough and started up the mountain. Planting each foot securely, banking every step, he clung to tree trunks and slowly advanced.
"You okay?" he grunted, feeling the lactic acid burn in his thighs.
"Peachy," she answered.
"Well, I've got you. Just relax."
"Relax? You're kidding?"
"Your hands. Relax your hands."
To his relief, she extracted her nails from his flesh. "Oh, no. I'm sorry. I didn't realize. You must regret"
He heard that familiar hitch in a voice trying to fight off a good cry.
"I don't regret a thing," he said between exerted breaths. "Now, put your arms across my chest and pull closer."
Tabitha didn't budge. But she didn't cry. Strong, stubborn, shy. He respected her responses, although the timidity surprised him.
"Don't think about it. Do it."
Once she did, Rory decided that despite his own exhaustion, he could have carried her all day. She felt light and for the first time in months, so did he.
The marine moved with amazing agility even with her hanging on to his back like a frightened kitten. When he'd come out of the woods screaming like a wild man, she'd thanked God that very instant for sending him. What would have happened if he hadn't come?
Getting up the last part of the slope proved tricky, but Rory managed until they reached the runner's trail. He put her down nice and easy then folded over at the waist struggling for his breath. The way he pinched at his side, she could only imagine the cramping he had suffered.
In less than a minute, a small group of racers passed. Rory stood and joined them.
"Got an injured runner here," he announced. "Could one of you send a golf cart for us?"
"Sure," one of them answered. A couple of them looked at her.
Tabitha glanced at Rory. "Go on," she said. "I'll be fine. You should finish the race."
He ignored her and whispered something else to the others. Again, they glanced back then moved on.
"Really. Go on. I'll be fine," she repeated, as he walked toward the tree that she leaned against.
"Are you kidding?" He smirked, wiping the beads of sweat from his forehead. "I'm done. I seriously doubt I could make it to the finish. Anyway, I'd be one lousy rescuer if I upped and left you here."
Tabitha frowned, but truly she was relieved. She didn't want to be alone. Even though he was a stranger and she hated needing so much help, the fact that he'd risked his own life for her made her feel safe and connected to him.