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Katherine Harper pushed up on all fours and spit dirt. "Don't take him. I'll do whatever you say."
The tangle of barbed wire squeezed around her calf. Pain seared her leg.
"She got herself caught." The man glared down at her. He glanced toward the thicket, sized up the situation and turned to his partner. "She's not going anywhere."
The first man whirled around. His lip curled. Hate filled his eyes. "Leave her. We have the boy."
"Kane won't like it. He wants them both."
"No. Please. My nephew has nothing to do with any of this." She kicked. Burning, throbbing flames scorched her ankle to her thigh. "I'll give you whatever you want. I'll find the file."
"We know you will. Involve the police and he's dead," the second man warned. "We'll be in touch."
Noah screamed for her. She heard the terror in his voice. A wave of hopelessness crashed through her as she struggled against the barbs, watching the men disappear into the woods with her nephew. Oh. God. No.
"He's sick. He needs medicine," she screamed through burning lungs.
They disappeared without looking back.
Shards of pain shot up her leg. Fear seized her. The thick trees closed in on her. Noah had been kidnapped, and she was trapped and helpless. "Please. Somebody."
The thunder of hooves roared from somewhere in the distance. She sucked in a quick breath and scanned the area. Were more men out there?
Everything had happened so fast. How long had they been dragging her? How far into the woods was she?
All visual reminders of the pumpkin patch were long gone. No open fields or bales of hay. No bursts of orange dotting the landscape. No smells of animal fur and warmth. There was nothing familiar in her surroundings now.
Judging from the amount of blood and the relentless razor-sharp barbs digging into her flesh, she would bleed to death.
No. She wouldn't die. Noah needed her to stay alive. Noah.
Anger boiled inside her, heating her skin to flames. Katherine had to save him. He had no one else. He was probably terrified, which could bring on an asthma attack. Without his inhaler or medication, the episode could be fatal.
Forcing herself to her feet, she balanced on her good side and hopped. Her foot was slick with blood. Her shoe squished. Her knees buckled. The cold, hard ground punished her shoulder on impact.
She scrambled on all fours and tried to crawl. The barbed wire tightened like a coil. The ache in her leg was nothing compared to the agony in her heart.
Exertion wasn't good. Could she unwrap the mangled wire? Could she free herself? Could she catch up?
Panic pounded her chest. Her heartbeat echoed in her ears.
The hooves came closer. Had the men sent company? Had her screaming backfired, pinpointing her location?
Autumn foliage blanketed the ground, making it difficult to see if there was anything useful to use against another attacker. She could hide. But where?
The sounds of hooves pounding the unforgiving earth slowed. Near. She swallowed a sob. He could do whatever he wanted to her while she was trapped. Why had she made all that noise?
She fanned her hands across the ground. Was there anything she could use as a weapon? The best one encased her leg, causing a slow bleed. She needed to think. Come up with a plan. Could she use a sharp branch?
Biting back the pain, she scooted behind a tree and palmed a splintered stick.
The thunderous drumming came to a stop. The horse's labored breath broke through the quiet.
An imposing figure dismounted, muttering a curse. His low rumble of a voice sent chills up her neck.
Her pulse raced.
His boots firmly planted on the ground, Katherine got a good look at him. He was nothing like her attackers. They'd worn dark suits and sunglasses when they'd ambushed her and Noah. Everything about this man was different.
He wore jeans, a button-down shirt and a black cowboy hat. He had broad shoulders and lean hips. At his full height, he had to be at least six foot two, maybe more.
A man who looked genuine and strong like him couldn't be there for the wrong reasons, could he? Still, who could she trust? Couldn't murderers be magnetic?
"What in hell is going on?" A shiver raced up her spine as he followed the line of blood that would lead him right to her.
He took a menacing step toward her. Friend or enemy, she was about to come face-to-face with him.
Katherine said a silent protection prayer.
Her equilibrium was off. Her head light. She closed her fingers around the tree trunk tighter. Could she hold on long enough to make her move?
A dimpled chin on a carved-from-granite face leaned toward her. Brown eyes stared at her. She faltered.
Nope. Not a hallucination. This cowboy was real, and she was getting weak. Her vision blurred. She had to act fast.
With a final push, Katherine stepped forward. Her knees buckled and she stumbled.
In one quick motion Caleb Snow seized the stick being jabbed at his ribs and pinned the woman to the ground.
She was gorgeous in her lacy white shirt. Her sea-green skirt hiked up her thigh far enough to reveal a peek of her panties. Pale blue. He swallowed hard. Tried not to think about his favorite color caressing her sweet little bottom as he wrestled to keep her from stabbing him. The rest of her was golden skin and long legs. She had just enough curves to make her feel like a real woman, sensual and soft. "What's wrong with you?"
The tangle of chestnut hair and limbs didn't speak.
Was she afraid? Of him? Hell no. He took the stick and tossed it. She kicked and punched.
"Hold still. I'm trying to help."
"No. You're not."
"I will as soon as I'm sure you won't try to poke me with that stick."
He'd turned his horse the moment he'd heard the screams that sounded half wild banshee, half horror-film victim expecting to help, not be attacked.
"You're hurting me," she yelped.
The tremor in her voice sliced through his frustration. Her admission tore through him. The thought he added to her pain hit him hard. "Stop trying to slap me, and I'll get up."
Her lips trembled. She looked at him-all big fearful eyes and cherry lips-and his heart squeezed.
Those violet eyes stared up at him, sending a painful recollection splintering through his chest. She had the same look of terror his mother always had right before his father'd raised a hand to her. Caleb buried the memory before it could take hold.
"Listen to me. I'm not going to hurt you." Her almond-shaped face, olive skin and soft features stirred an inappropriate sexual reaction. Skin-to-skin contact was a bad idea. He shifted more of his weight onto his bent knee.
Her breaths came out in short gasps. "Then let me go. I have to find him before they get away."
"As soon as I know you're not gonna do something stupid, I will. You're not going anywhere until I get this off your leg. You want to tell me what the hell's going on? Who's getting away?" Her actions were that of a wounded animal, not a crazed murderer. He eased more weight off her, scanning her for other injuries.
She recoiled. "Who are you?"
"Caleb Snow and this is my ranch." He picked up the wire to untangle her. Her pained cry pierced right through him. "Sorry about that." He eased the cable down carefully. "Didn't mean to hurt you."
She'd seriously tangled her long, silky leg in barbed wire. She'd lost a lot of blood. He couldn't have her going into shock. "The more you fight, the worse it'll get. You've done a number on yourself already."
Her eyelids fluttered.
Based on her pallor, she could lose consciousness if she didn't hold still. He stood and muttered a curse.
Her wild eyes looked up at him, pleading. "Some men took my nephew. I don't know who. They went that way." She motioned toward the McGrath ranch. Her voice cracked and he could see she was struggling not to cry. Tears fell anyway.
"The wire has to come off first. Then we'll take a look. Don't watch me. It'll only hurt worse. Tell me your name." A stab of guilt pierced him at the pain he was about to cause. The weight of her body had impaled the rusty steel barbs deep into her flesh.
Her head tilted back as she winced. She gasped but didn't scream, her eyes still radiating distrust.
"Hold on. I have something that can help." He pulled wire cutters and antibiotic wipes from his saddlebag. He tied a handkerchief below her knee to stem the bleeding.
"Promise you won't leave me here?"
"Now why would I do that?" One by one, he pulled the barbs out of her skin, giving her time to breathe in between. "Tell me more about the men."
"They. Were. Big." The words came through quick bursts of breath.
He pulled the last barb and stuck his hand out, offering a help up.
Hers felt soft and small. A jolt of electricity shot up Caleb's arm. Normally he'd enjoy feeling a sexual spark. This wasn't the time or place.
"I need to go that way." She pointed north, grasping at the tree.
"You're hurt. On my property, that means you don't go anywhere until I know you're okay. Besides, you still haven't told me why you're out here to begin with."
"Where is here?" she asked, dodging his question.
"The TorJake Ranch." How did she not know where she was? A dozen scenarios came to mind. None he liked. He took a step toward her. She was too weak to put up a fight. He wrapped his arm around her waist for support. "You aren't going anywhere like this. Start talking and I might be able to help. I have medical supplies at the house. But you'll explain why you're on my land or I'll call the sheriff. We clear?"
"Please. Don't. I'll tell you everything." He'd struck a nerve.
He should call Sheriff Coleman. No good ever came from a woman caught in a situation like this. But something about her made Caleb wait.
"My name is Katherine Harper. I took my nephew to a pumpkin patch." She glanced around. "I'm not sure which way."
"The Reynolds' place." Was it the fear in her eyes, or the tremble to her lips that hit him somewhere deep? He didn't care. He was intrigued.
"Sounds right. Anyway, two men in suits came from nowhere and grabbed us. They dragged us through the woods here until I got caught up. Then "
Tears streaked her cheeks. "They took off with him."
The barbed wire had been cut. The McGrath ranch was on the other side of the fence. He'd have to ask about that. Of course, he preferred to deal with creatures of the four-legged variety or something with a motor.
"We'll figure this out."
Caleb assessed her carefully.
Her vulnerable state had his instincts sounding alarm bells.
* * *
Noah was gone. Katherine was hurt. Her only chance to see her nephew again stood next to her. The cowboy's actions showed he wanted to help. He needed to know the truth. She couldn't pinpoint the other reason she felt an undeniable urge to confide in the cowboy. But she did.
"My nephew was kidnapped for a reason." Oh. God. It was almost unbearable to say those words out loud.
His thick brow arched. "Do you know these men?"
She shook her head. "They wanted me to give them a file. Said they knew I had it, but I don't. I have no idea what they're talking about."
The cowboy's comforting arm tightened around her. Could he really help? Noah was gone and she was desperate.
He pulled out his cell phone.
"I'm calling my foreman, then the sheriff. We'll cover more ground that way."
"No police. They insisted. Besides, there's no time. Let's use your horse. We might be able to catch them. Noah needs medicine." She moved to step forward. Pain nearly buckled her knees. Her vision blurred.
"Hold on there," he said, righting her again with a firm hand. "We'll find him, but I'm bringing in the law."
"I doubt it. Think about it. They'd say anything to back you off. There's no chance to find him otherwise." He turned to his call. "Matt, grab a few men and some horses. We have a situation. A boy's been taken. Looks like they might've crossed over to the McGrath place with him. I want every square inch of both properties scoured. And call the sheriff." His gaze met Katherine's, and her heart clutched. He was right. They were most likely bluffing.
"There are two men dressed in suits. Could be dangerous." His attention shifted to her. "How old is your nephew?"
"Four." With reinforcements on the way, she dared to think she could get Noah back safely before the sun went down.
A muscle in the cowboy's jaw ticked. "You heard that, right?" A beat later came, "Somebody cut the fence on the north corner. Jimmy's been running this side. Ask him how things were the other day when he came this way."
Katherine looked at the barbed wire. The last bit of hope this could have been a bad dream shriveled and died.
"Tell the men to be careful." Caleb took more of her weight as he pocketed his phone. "I've got you."
"I'm fine." Katherine struggled to break free from his grip. Her brain was scrambled. She'd been dragged through this area thinking it had been a random trail, but how could it be? They'd cut the fence in advance. Everything about them seemed professional and planned. But what kind of file could she possibly have for men like them?
The cowboy's strong grip tightened around her as she fought another wave of nausea. "I think I'll be fine once I get on your horse."
"My men are all over this. Matt's phoning the sheriff as we speak. I need to get you home where I can take care of your injuries. The sheriff will need to speak to you for his report."
"The longer I wait, the farther away Noah will be." She had no purse, no ID and no money. Those had been discarded along with his medicine. Everything she'd had with her was scattered between here and the pumpkin patch.
His brow arched. "You won't make it a mile in your condition."
"I can. I have to." Katherine tried to put weight on her foot. Her knee buckled. He pulled her upright again with strong arms. He was powerful, male and looked as though he could handle himself against just about any threat.
Caleb shook his head. "Hell, I'd move heaven and earth if I were in your situation. But you're hurt."
"He needs me. He's little and scared. You can't possibly understand." Her voice hitched.
The lines in the cowboy's forehead deepened. "We'll cut through the McGraths' on the way to the house. How's that?"
His arms banded around her hips. Arms like his would be capable of handling anyone or anything they came across. He lifted her onto the saddle with no effort and then swung up behind her.
"I need to make sure you're going to be around long enough to greet him. You let infection set in and that leg will be no use to you anymore."
She didn't argue. Fatigue weighted her limbs, drained her energy. If he could fix her leg, she could find Noah.
Taking the long way around didn't unearth any clues about Noah's whereabouts. The sky was darkening. Night would fall soon.
The house coming into view was a white two-story Colonial with a wraparound porch and dark green shutters. An impressive set of barns sat behind the house. There was a detached garage with a basketball hoop off to the side. This was a great place for kids.
Katherine hadn't stopped once to realize this man probably had a family of his own. The image of him cradling a baby edged its way into her thoughts. The contrast between something so tiny and vulnerable against his bare steel chest brought shivers up her arms.
Did he have a son? His reaction to Noah's age made more sense.
She prayed Noah would be home in bed before the sun vanished. Was he still panicked? Could he breathe? Did he have time before the next attack? Did she?
What would happen when the men came after her again if she couldn't produce the file?