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Brandi Doyle glanced back over her shoulder. Panic pelted against her face, stinging her skin. Had she managed to elude her pursuer? The stalker everyone kept telling her didn't exist? The person who was only a figment of her imagination?
The very real man who just a few hours ago had abducted her?
She dug her shoes into the slippery mud as she fought to maintain her footing in the drenching downpour. Her heart pounded. Her chest heaved with each gulp of air she sucked into her lungs, but she didn't dare slow down.
It seemed as if it had been hours since she'd managed to escape from her abductor's car when he'd stopped for gas at the small service station on the mountain roadhours that she had been running through the woods. But a quick glance at her watch told her it had only been thirty minutes. Intellectually, she knew the rain would obscure any trace of her tracks, but she couldn't shake the feeling that her abductor was only a few feet behind her and closing in.
She headed in the direction where she thought the lake and some cabins were, a place where she might be able to get some help. It was an area where she had done a lot of photography. If only she could be sure of her exact location. If only she hadn't been blindfolded. A chill. She was soaked to the skin without even a jacket to provide a modicum of warmth.
It would be dark soon and she needed to find some sort of shelter. She forced herself onward, ignoring the ache in her legs. She had to put as much distance as she could between her and her abductorand as quickly as pos-sible.
Another hundred feet she came to a fire road. She ran parallel to the road, staying in the woods, hidden from view. Shrubbery attacked her legs and arms. Bushes scratched her face and hands, but she knew she didn't dare venture out into the openshe didn't dare expose herself to her abductor.
Then she spotted it through the treesa cabin at the edge of the fire road. A little tremor of excitement tried to take hold. It was the off season, too early for summer vacationers. There was a good chance the cabin would be vacant. It would provide her shelter from the storm, a means of hiding from her pursuer and a place to gather her thoughts and make a plan of action.
The carport was emptya good sign. She knocked on the door and received no response. She tried the door but found it locked. She circled the cabin, checking the windows until she found an unlocked one that opened into the kitchen. Once inside, she breathed a sigh of relief. She was out of the wind and rain and no longer visible to anyone looking for her.
Brandi took a quick look around, making sure the cabin was empty. It wasfor the moment. The rumpled sheets and blanket on the unmade bed in the bedroom left her with an uneasy feeling. She paused in the bathroom long enough to towel-dry her dripping wet hair. She studied her face in the mirror. The scratches weren't too bad, but they needed to be cleaned. She washed her face, then found some antiseptic in a bathroom cupboard.
She returned to the kitchen. The refrigerator was mostly emptynothing perishable, such as fresh meat, vegetables or even a quart of orange juice. Hopefully the owner only used the cabin on weekends in spite of the evidence of the unmade bed. The shelves contained canned goods. She opened a can of soup. It wasn't much, but it eased her hunger pangs.
Her guilt, however, wasn't as easily appeased. She had broken into someone's cabin and stolen food. Not a very admirable thing to do, even though it had been necessary. Her fears quickly overruled her guilt.
She made a quick trip through the cabin again, looking out each of the windows. She satisfied herself that she had not been followed, that there wasn't anyone lurking outside. She also noticed that there wasn't a phone. She slumped into a large, comfortable chair. For the first time in several hours she drew in an easy breath. She pulled the strap from across her chest and over her head, then set the small, attached purse on the end table. She had been wearing the purse when her abductor had grabbed her, and she had managed to hang on to itan almost involuntary action of clinging to something she owned.
She needed to think, to make sense of what had happened, to figure out what to do next. Her eyelids grew heavy. She could not fight off the exhaustion, as much emotional as it was physical. A moment later darkness descended around her, and she slipped into an uneasy sleep.
REECE COVINGTON PULLED HIS four-wheel-drive SUV
off the fire road, parking in the carport attached to his cabin. He had intended to enclose the carport, making it a garage and cutting a door from the garage directly into the cabin. Stormy days like today made him wish he had finished the project.
He dashed through the rain to the covered front porch while juggling a sack of groceries. He had been hiding out in his cabin in the Cascade Mountains for three months, ever since his release from prison. Two years of his life taken away from him for something he didn't do. Two years spent building up resentment toward the woman who had set him up and the rogue cop who had framed him.
He unlocked the door and stepped inside, then came to an abrupt halt. His heart jumped a beat and his senses went on full alert as his experienced gaze made a quick yet expert sweep of the room. Everything seemed to be in order, everything where it belonged.
Everything except for the woman asleep in the chair. He moved quietly to the kitchen, searching for anything that looked out of place. He spotted the window where she had entered. He noted the empty soup can. He set the bag of groceries in the refrigera-tor, then moved stealthily toward the bedroom. He did not want to wake the intruder nor did he want to alert anyone else who might be with her.
He made a quick search of the bedroom. It was exactly the way he left it. So was the bathroom, except for the wet washcloth, the towel and the bottle of anti-septic on the counter.
He returned to the living room. He took in everything about the strangerthe wet clothes clinging to her the beautiful face with the numerous scratches. A face that even in sleep was covered in turmoil. He felt a definite tug on his reality, a strange combination of lust and concern. He steeled himself against the unwanted and unexpected feelingsboth of them.
He had been down that path before with a beautiful stranger who had claimed to need his help. It had ended up costing him two years of his life and his career. And before that there was his travesty of an engagement to a woman who had jilted him at the altar and gone back to her former boyfriend.
Yes, indeed. It would be a cold day in hell before he made the mistake of being suckered in by another beau-tiful woman, no matter how vulnerable she appeared to be or how much she professed to need his help.
He continued to stare at the stranger as he turned the situation over in his mind. She didn't seem to pose an immediate threat to him. Should he wake her and demand to know what she was doing in his cabin or wait until she woke on her own? He spotted her purse on the end table. As he reached for it she stirred, opened her eyes, then jerked to attention.
Her eyes went wide with fright as her gaze landed on him.
Her voice was anything but firm as she eased her way out of the chair. She moved behind it in an obvious attempt to put a barricade between them. "Who, who are you? What are you doing here?"
His reply was succinct, his voice carrying all the au-thority of someone in charge. "Well, Goldilocks, I'm Papa Bear and this is my cabin. I want to know why you've been eating my soup and sleeping in my chair." He raked his gaze slowly over the obviously frightened woman, but was totally unprepared for her next move.
She bolted for the door of the cabin and ran blindly out into the rain, fear propelling her every step. Reece followed close on her heels, catching up with her about ten feet from the porch. He picked her up and threw her over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. She struggled, twisting and turning in an attempt to get loose. His tight hold thwarted her attempts to free herself from his control.
"Lady, calm down. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm bigger than you are. I'm stronger than you. I don't like being out here in the mud and rain. Stop struggling because whether you like it or not, we're going back inside. You're going to tell me who you are and why you broke into my cabin."
She pounded her fists against his back. "You put me down this second." Even to her own ears her demands sounded weak and ineffectual. Her mind raced, darting frantically from one fear to another as he carried her inside the cabin. Panic continued to rampage through been tenaciously clinging to her reality. The moment he set her down, she dashed for the door again.
With a speed that truly shocked her, he lunged forward and tackled her around the waist. In one smooth motion he shoved her to the floor and pinned her down
She had never been as frightened as she was at that moment, not even when her abductor had grabbed her. The bitter taste of adrenaline filled her mouth. Her heart pounded wildly, pushing her fear to every part of her several times, but it did nothing to stop the sick churning in the pit of her stomach. It felt as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the air. She gasped for breath. She lashed out at him in panic, scratching the side of his face.
"Damn!" He grabbed both her wrists and held them above her head. "Settle down, you little hellcat. I told you I'm not going to hurt you. Now, calm down. Will you stay put and stop struggling if I let go of your wrists?"
The tears welled in her eyes. She tried to blink them away. A sob caught in her throat. She barely managed to force out the words. "Please don't hurt me."
His breathing quickened as he continued to struggle with her. She was obviously very frightened, but he also knew that she was hysterical and in danger of injuring herself if she tried to run again. He could not let her up from the floor before she regained control of her emotions. He forced a calm to his voice, one he didn't feel but one he hoped would have an effect on her.
"I told you, I'm not going to hurt you." He held both of her wrists in one of his hands and with the other one he grabbed both sides of her jaw and held her head still. He fixed her with a steady gaze. "Listen to me. I'm not going to hurt you. Do you hear me? Are you listening to me? Answer me."
He saw her eyes focus on him. They were still filled with fear, but he knew he finally had her attention. He dropped his voice to what he hoped was a soothing level. "Quiet down. Be still. I'm not going to hurt you. Do you understand me?"
She nodded her head. "Say it. I want to hear the words. Do you understand what I'm saying? I'm not going to hurt you."
Her voice trembled, but the words finally came out. "I, I hear you."
"Okay. Now, take a deep breath, then another one. You're going to be all right. Take another breath." He muscles relaxed a bit. When her breathing smoothed out until it was steady, he let go of her face. "I'm going to turn your wrists loose now, then we'll get up from the floor. I want you to sit on the sofa. Do you understand?"
She took a deep breath. Her voice still contained a slight quaver as she spoke, but she had better control of it. "Yes."
His face was so close to hers that he could feel her breath against his skin. Even disheveled, dirty and scratched, she still radiated a beauty and desirability that pushed his testosterone to the limit. And having his situation. He had to break the physical contact before she had a valid reason to be concerned about what could happen.