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The small, filthy window beside the locked door allowed a glimpse of fading sunlight. It was the seventh day of her captivity. Nicole Carlisle lay curled up on a bare mattress in the root cellar, staring at the shred of light and shivering in the cold winter air that seeped through the concrete walls. Soon it would snow. They'd have a white Christmas at the ranch.
A sob wrenched through her. The holidays were supposed to be about hope and love. All she had was despair.
Her wrists were fastened in front of her with padded handcuffs that weren't supposed to leave marks. But she'd struggled against the restraints until her forearms were black and blue. That pain blended with many others. Her head throbbed. Her joints were stiff.
Though her legs were unfettered, a length of steel chain fastened with a lock around her waist kept her tethered to an open beam in the ceiling. She could move from the stained, disgusting mattress to the plastic bucket she used as a toilet to the gallon jug of water her kidnapper had so thoughtfully left behind so she wouldn't die from dehydration. Death would have been too easy. The chain leash wasn't long enough for her to reach the rough wooden shelves at the back of the root cellar where Mason jars of preserved peaches, pears, relishes and salsa were stored.
She'd tried to reach those shelves, stretched her legs as far as she could, tried to maneuver the mattress. No luck.
Feeding times were sporadic and unpredictable. Sometimes, he came twice a day with sandwiches and fruit. Today he had appeared once to check on her but hadn't brought food.
Her stomach groaned. I won't beg for food.
She'd given up on talking to him. He wasdeaf to reason. And her threats rang hollow. Nobody was looking for her. Not anymore. Not since she'd been forced to tell her husband that she was safe, that he should call off the search. She'd told him that she was never coming home.
She remembered the pain in Dylan's eyes. They were going through a rough patch in their marriage, and he had believed her when she said she wanted a divorce. Dammit, he should have known better. He should have known that she was being coerced.
Three days ago she'd been escorted to her meeting with Dylan by two armed men on horseback. They flanked her as they rode to the creek on Carlisle property. After being held captive, the fresh air and moonlight had been intoxicating. The mountain breeze caressed her cheeks, and she almost began to hope that her ordeal was over. When Dylan rode toward her, looking every inch the cowboy, her heart nearly exploded with longing. It had taken every ounce of self-control to keep herself from leaping into his arms.
But she knew that two rifles were cocked and aimed at her and Dylan. A tiny microphone in her collar broadcast her words to the kidnappers. If she'd deviated from the script, they would both have been killed. She had no other choice but to tell him that their five-year marriage was over.
He'd turned his back. Accepted her at her word.
And she'd been dragged away, transferred from one miserable dungeon to another. This root cellar was the worst. The dank cold permeated her bones. At night the darkness blinded her. Rows of shelves packed with food mocked her hunger.
Overhead, she heard someone walking across the floor. Pipes rattled as the toilet flushed. She'd give a year of her life for the chance to use a bathroom. To take a shower and wash the grit from her blond hair would be pure heaven.
During the first three days after her kidnapping, she'd been allowed to wash up in a basin, to brush her teeth and comb her hair. He'd given her clean clothing so she'd look okay in videos he shot to prove she was still alive. Now that no one was searching, the kidnapper didn't bother to provide her with creature comforts.
Not that Nicole had ever been interested in makeup, powder and perfume. She was a rancher's wife, a veterinarian who didn't require pampering. But she'd always kept herself clean. The stink of her own body humiliated her.
The footsteps crossed the house above her. Though she didn't know the upstairs floorplan, she could tell when he reached the kitchen, which was directly overhead.
Was he bringing her food? Anticipation raced through her, and she hated herself for being excited. She should be stronger. A day without food wasn't so long. Logically, she ought to be more concerned about her dwindling water supply. She'd die of dehydration before she starved.
No! I don't want to die.
A cry climbed her throat, but there was no point. He'd made sure that no one would hear her. Yesterday… Or was it two days ago? He had prepared her for guests.
He'd said, "We're going to have company, Nicole. I need you to be very quiet. Can you do that?"
"Quiet as a mouse." She'd learned that defiance was futile. Her only chance for survival was to keep him happy.
"If you cooperate, I might let you go."
"Whatever you say." You bastard. I hate you. Despise you. "You can trust me."
"And you'll never tell anyone who I am."
He always wore a black ski mask when he came to her, but she knew him. Nate Miller. If she told him that she was aware of his identity, he'd kill her for sure. So she lied, "I don't even know who you are."
As he came closer, her fingers drew into fists. She'd tried to fight him before. He wasn't a big man. Maybe she could knock him down. She could…
"Hold out your hands." From his fingertips, he dangled a keychain—keys to the handcuffs and to the lock that held the chain around her waist. Was he going to take the cuffs off? Instead of fighting him, she did as he said.
He looped another chain around the cuffs and shoved her down on the mattress. Then he threw the chain over the ceiling beam and yanked her arms up over her head.
She lashed out with her legs, and he pulled her higher. Her feet no longer touched the ground. Her shoulders throbbed. Her bruised wrists burned with fresh pain.
"I don't trust you," he muttered. "You're still one of them. You have to pay for all the wrongs the Carlisle family has done to me. It's only fair."
When her arms were secured above her head, he pulled out a roll of duct tape and tore off a piece.
He'd gagged her before. It was terrible. Her throat clogged and she felt as if she couldn't get enough air. She turned her head away, but he was persistent. He slapped the tape over her mouth and left.
Tears coursed down her cheeks as she'd heard people moving in the house—Nate's guests. She'd struggled to cry out, to make some kind of noise. But they'd left, never knowing she was there.
Nate had waited a long time before he came back to the root cellar. Her suspended body had moved beyond pain into numbness. When he released the chain, she'd been too weak to do anything but collapse onto the mattress.
Today—even without food—was a hundred times better.
Overhead, she heard movement again. Someone running.
Something was happening.
She braced herself. Stared at the tiny window beside the rough, heavy door. Time ticked by slowly, and she counted every second. Please, someone. Please, help me.
She heard other footsteps in the house. Heavy boots. Several people.
"Help." She screamed with all her might. "I'm down here. Help me."
The force of her cries hammered inside her head, but she kept yelling. Someone had to hear her. Someone had to find her. "Dylan, help me."
Pacing across the kitchen floor, Dylan Carlisle sensed that he was near Nicole. He felt her presence. He imagined that he heard her calling his name, calling from the other side of the hell that had started when she was kidnapped.
The rest of the search party had scattered when they got to the Circle M. Some went to the bunkhouse. Others to the horse barn. They were on the wrong track. She's here. Close.
Instinct led him through the back door, down the stairs to the yard. He stood very still, not even breathing, and listened. "Where are you?"
He was answered by a muffled voice. Her voice, calling for help.
A tall, thick spruce stood beside the house. Behind that tree he saw concrete steps leading down to a root cellar. He went to the door. Someone was inside, sobbing. "Nicole?"
"Dylan." Her voice was ragged, but it was her. His wife. "Dylan, get me out of here."
He twisted the door handle. Locked, dammit. He couldn't kick the door open; it opened outward instead of pushing in. He unholstered his handgun and aimed at the lock.
"Stand back, Nicole," he said. "I'm going to shoot the lock." Aware that he was probably destroying evidence, he fired into the old door. The wood splintered. He fired again, for good measure, then tore it open on the rusty hinges.
She stood beside a worn-out mattress. Her arms reached toward him. Her face was streaked with grime and tears. She was the most beautiful sight he'd ever seen.
As soon as his arms closed around her, she collapsed.
Gently he sank onto the mattress, holding his wife against his chest. He kissed her forehead. "You're going to be all right. I've got you now."
Through parched lips she whispered, "I'm sorry."
"So am I."
Her eyelids fluttered closed. "Don't let go."
"I won't. Not ever." He snuggled her more tightly against him, belatedly protecting her from the horrors she'd endured. He'd failed her. As a husband and as a man. He could only hope that she'd give him the chance to make things right, to lift her out of this nightmare.
For seven long days he'd feared the worst. He'd gone through every shade of dread and panic.
Finally it was over. He hoped their life would slip back into a regular routine. That was all he'd ever wanted: a simple life on the ranch with Nicole by his side.
His sister, Carolyn, and other members from the search team responded to his gunshots. They poured into the root cellar, and Dylan held Nicole protectively as they brought bottled water for her to drink. The FBI agent who'd stayed behind to help with the search squatted down beside him and expertly picked the locks that fastened the chains and handcuffs.
All the while, Dylan held her. Even with the door wide-open, there wasn't much light in this root cellar. Only one tiny window. At night it must have been total darkness. She'd been trapped, cold and alone. What kind of bastard could do this to another human being?
Carolyn tapped his shoulder. "Let's get Nicole out of here."
As he lifted her, she stirred. Her eyes opened. "I want to go home."
"That's where we're headed," he assured her. Back to normal. "Back to the ranch."
"Actually," Carolyn said, "we should go to the hospital first. To get you checked out."
Weakly Nicole shook her head. "I want to take a bath first."
"Then that's what we'll do," he said.
A sigh pushed through her chapped lips. Her eyelids drooped shut.
He carried her up the concrete steps into the late-afternoon sunlight. The stairs leading down to the root cellar were well hidden behind the spruce tree. If she hadn't been yelling, they wouldn't have found her so quickly.
The ranch house on the Circle M property wasn't where she'd been kept in the early days of her kidnapping. During their investigation they'd uncovered another hide-out—one that was more pleasant than this filthy dungeon. Apparently Nicole had been shuttled from place to place, always one step ahead of their suspicions.
In the backseat of the SUV, Dylan wrapped her in a wool blanket and arranged her so she was sitting on his lap. She'd lost weight. Her bones felt as fragile as a baby bird's. He whispered, "Don't worry. Everything is going to be fine."
She turned her head to look up at him. Her cheeks were sunken. Smears of grit stood out against her pale skin, and dark circles ringed her eyes. "Do you mean that, Dylan? Everything?"
Before she was abducted, they'd argued. He never wanted to fight with her again. "It's going to be exactly the way you want it."
Carolyn started the engine and pulled up the long drive that led to the main road. "She needs medical attention, Dylan. Does Nicole have a regular doctor I can call?"
Only the specialists at the fertility clinic, and he wasn't about to call those jerks. "I don't know her doctor's name."
"I'll contact Doc Maud."
"Great idea," he muttered. "Except for one thing. Maud is a veterinarian."
"She'll know other doctors. People doctors."
Any old doctor wasn't good enough. He wanted his wife to have the best of care. For too long he'd taken her for granted, hadn't appreciated her.
"I'll make the call," Carolyn said, waving her cell phone.
"Back off. I'll do it." His sister's take-charge attitude irritated him. Though she was only two years older than he was, Carolyn insisted on being the boss, especially after their dad had passed away five years ago. Dylan would be glad when she went back to running the Denver offices of Carlisle Certified Organic Beef. Carolyn belonged in the city.
And he belonged at the ranch where he managed two thousand head of grass-fed, antibiotic-free Black Angus. Before the kidnapping they'd had a pretty good life. A couple of bumps in the road but nothing serious. He and Nicole could be happy again. Maybe even better than before.
Through the window he watched the golden sunset spread above distant snow-capped peaks. Nicole loved these Colorado skies. When they got married, they promised to share every sunset. They'd even engraved that vow on their wedding bands with the words, "My horizon." She was his promise, his hope, his final destination.
He looked down into her eyes. Her lips were unsmiling. "Those things I said, about wanting a divorce…"
"It's okay," he said. "You don't have to explain."
"If I hadn't said that, we both would have been shot." She swallowed hard. "There were two of them with rifles aimed at both of us. And that wasn't all. If I had escaped, Nate said he'd go on a rampage. Kill my horses. The barn cats. Every person connected to Carlisle Ranch would suffer."
In retrospect, Dylan realized that he should have guessed that she'd been forced to say what she did. But Nicole had been damn convincing. Looked him straight in the eye and told him that their marriage was over.
For the past several weeks they'd been arguing. She'd accused him of not listening to her, and that he paid too much attention to running the ranch and not enough to their relationship. She'd been angry at him. That was for damn sure.