When Victoria Bradford got engaged, she told herself to give love a chance. Six months later, she's on the run from her angry, abusive ex-fiancé with her four-year-old daughter and nowhere to go.
Seventy miles north of Dallas, the Iron River Ranch is pretty much nowhere. That’s what its new owner, Josh Cain, wanted when he came back from Afghanistan. Big skies, quiet nights, no trouble.
One look tells Josh the pretty redhead with the adorable little girl will give him trouble of the most personal kind. But he’s seen trouble before, and he doesn't scare easy. Not when “accidents” start happening around the ranch. Not when Tory’s best friend back in Phoenix is abducted and brutalized. Not even when it looks like their current problems are only the tip of the iceberg.
But if he gets too close to fierce, determined Tory, Josh knows his nights are going to be anything but quiet. And that’s one possibility no amount of training can prepare him for . . .
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About the Author
A resident of Missoula, Montana, Kat is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she majored in Anthropology and also studied History. She and her author husband, L.J. Martin, spend their winters in Ventura, California. She is currently writing her next Romantic Suspense. Visit Kat at www.katmartin.com. Or join her Facebook page. (www.facebook.com/pages/Kat-Martin).
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Dear God, he was supposed to be gone! The sound of the front door opening and closing, familiar heavy footfalls in the entry sent shock waves through her body. It was almost midnight. Damon should have been in Los Angeles attending a three-day business conference with his father.
Tory glanced wildly around the bedroom. She had nearly finished packing, just a couple more boxes to fill, then first thing in the morning she was leaving. She had rented an apartment on the other side of Phoenix, a fresh start for her and Ivy, her four-year-old daughter.
A noise, Damon bumping into the coffee table in the living room, pushed her nerves up another notch. Her heart set up a murderous clatter as a chair tipped over and crashed to the floor. Damon swore foully.
He was drunk. Again. Her heart jerked, speeded. Lord, what was he doing here? Why was he still in Phoenix?
She swallowed, tried to focus, think what to do. He must have missed his flight, had probably gone out with his sycophant buddies, guys who enjoyed the free booze and the women, the expensive nightclubs and strip joints, all paid for by Damon Bridger from the trust fund his father provided.
Four months ago, when she had first met him, he had been different. They had crossed paths at a nightclub called the Peacock, a loud sort of place she rarely frequented, a place she had gone with her best friend, Lisa Shane, to celebrate Lisa's birthday.
With his jet-black hair and golden brown eyes, Damon was amazingly handsome, like Johnny Depp, Lisa had said. The attraction had been instant and amazing, or at least so it seemed.
He'd called the next day and immediately begun his pursuit. Back then, his gifts had been simple but expensive presents for her and Ivy. Presents chosen especially for the two of them, a tiny hummingbird pendant because she loved birds. A small silver princess ring for Ivy with the little girl's name engraved on it.
She'd thought he was special, that he would make the perfect father for her daughter, someone to end the last four lonely years since her husband had died.
She had lulled herself into believing the handsome man who was courting her would make her happy.
Tory glanced at the glowing red numbers on the clock on the nightstand: 12:01 A.M. Ivy was asleep in her room at the opposite end of the hall. Damon had changed so much that lately she had begun to worry he might hurt her little girl.
She swallowed. The tread of heavy, uneven footfalls coming down the hall sent a trickle of fear down her spine. Week after week, he'd grown more and more antagonistic, and more and more violent. He had pushed her, had slapped her once, but each time he had apologized and begged her forgiveness. Last week he had hit her with his fist.
It was the end, as far as Tory was concerned. She was moving out, the sooner the better. His trip to LA should have provided the perfect opportunity.
Tory closed her eyes as the door swung open and Damon staggered into the bedroom. A cold smile stretched over his handsome face. "Nice of you to wait up," he said.
She forced herself not to run, to keep her spine straight and not flinch. "I thought you were in LA with your dad."
Instead of answering, his gaze swept around the bedroom, taking in the open suitcases, the boxes she hadn't yet loaded into the trunk of her car. "Where do you think you're going?"
She took a deep breath. No way to avoid a confrontation now. "I'm leaving, Damon. I'm taking Ivy and moving out. I told you it wasn't working. I've got a place of my own." There was no waiting till morning now. She had to leave before something bad happened. "I'll come back and pick up the rest of my things over the weekend."
The beautiful diamond engagement ring he'd bought her glittered in its blue velvet box on the dresser. She had planned to leave a note with the ring when she moved out of his condo.
She started for the door, praying he wouldn't try to stop her, but Damon stepped in front of her, blocking her way. His mouth thinned into a hard, unforgiving line.
"You aren't going anywhere. You're staying right here where you belong. You're mine, Tory. I keep what belongs to me. Surely you know that by now."
She kept her chin high, though she was trembling inside. "I'm going, Damon. I'm taking Ivy and leaving. Get out of my way." She took a step forward, but he shoved her back, hard enough she stumbled.
"You're my fiancée. You're not leaving this house." He gripped her wrist and dragged her over to the big king-size bed. "Take off your clothes. You're gonna put out. I gave you that fancy diamond — now you're gonna pay for it."
Fury swamped her, making her reckless. With her red hair and fair complexion, there was no way to hide the angry color in her cheeks. "What, you didn't get laid while you were out with your friends?"
Damon backhanded her across the face, splitting her lip, sending her sprawling onto the mattress. A spray of blood flew across the pillow and she bit back a moan.
"What I do or don't do is none of your business. Not since you slept with that guy in your office — what was his name? Oh yeah, Clark."
She wiped the blood from her mouth with a trembling hand. "I didn't sleep with Clark. I told you, it was raining. My car wouldn't start so he gave me a ride home. That's all it was." But his jealousy had grown along with his temper.
"You're a slut, just like the rest of them. For a while you had me fooled, but not anymore."
"Fine, if that's what you think, just let me leave and you'll be rid of me." She came up from the bed and started for the door, but Damon shoved her back against the wall.
"You'll leave when I say, not before." He caught her wrist and dragged her forward. She cried out as he slapped her again, hard enough to knock her to the floor. When he kicked her, Tory drew herself into a ball and put her arms over her head. She didn't dare fight him, not with Ivy just down the hall.
"You little bitch." Damon grabbed a handful of her T-shirt and hauled her to her feet. "You need a lesson on how to behave and I'm gonna give you one."
Tory muffled a cry as he drew back his fist and punched her, her jaw exploding in pain as she hit the floor.
She put her hand up to protect herself. "Stop it, Damon! I'll do whatever you want!"
"Oh, you're gonna do what I want, all right, you little whore." He dragged her up by the hair and slapped her, punched her again, knocking her into the dresser, banging her head so hard she saw stars and landed on the floor.
He was leaving her no choice; she had to fight back or he was going to kill her.
Tory shot to her feet and charged forward, punching him with her fists, kicking him, doing her best to hurt him. He was over six feet tall and muscular, an invincible wall of meanness and determination.
The last thing she remembered was trying to dodge the blow as his fist shot toward her, her body flying backward, slamming into the wall. His boot crashed into her ribs and pain shot through her. Then she felt nothing at all.
Victoria Bradford woke up the following morning in a Scottsdale Memorial hospital bed, one of her eyes swollen shut, with a concussion, four broken ribs, a punctured lung, and her entire body black-and-blue and covered with cuts and abrasions.
Through her one good eye, she spotted a nurse walking into the room. "My ... my daughter ..." She moistened her lips. "Where's ... Ivy?"
The nurse looked at her with pity. "Your little girl is fine. She's staying with your friend Lisa."
Relief filtered through her. Lisa. Thank God. Lisa would take care of Ivy. Tory didn't ask about Damon. She didn't want to know. She was simply grateful to be alive. At least she and Ivy were safe.
Then the unwanted thought occurred. They were safe. But for exactly how long?CHAPTER 2
Iron River Ranch, Iron Springs, Texas,Four Months Later
Joshua Cain shoved back his chair and rose from the round oak table in his kitchen. Next to the empty plate of overcooked eggs and slightly burned toast, the Iron Springs Gazette lay open on the table.
The headline read Lone Wolf Terror Attack in Austin. Below was the story of an Islamic extremist who had attacked a man with a butcher knife. Fortunately, the victim, a former police officer, had fought off the attacker and killed him. According to Homeland Security, the threat was over.
Josh didn't read more. He'd left the war behind when he'd left the Middle East. He had come home to Texas to forget about fighting and terrorism and good men dying, and that was exactly what he intended to do.
Crossing the living room, he pushed open the front door and stepped out on the porch beneath the overhanging roof that ran the length of the two-story ranch house.
The sun was out this early April morning, the temperature warm, the sky a clear robin's-egg blue. The year was beginning to heat up, but the Texas temperatures wouldn't be unbearable for at least another two months.
Josh didn't mind the heat. He'd spent the last four years fighting in the blistering deserts of Iraq and the barren mountains of Afghanistan. The hot, damp climate on this side of Texas, along with the wide-open spaces and deep green grasslands, suited him just fine.
Refusing to think of the war, Josh tugged his battered straw cowboy hat a little lower across his forehead and started across the open space between the forty-year-old house he was remodeling and the barn he had just finished rebuilding. A dilapidated old cow barn sat in the field beyond, one of his next projects.
He'd been back in Texas since December when he'd officially left the marines, two months after he'd run into enemy gunfire, been shot three times, taken a load of shrapnel, and nearly died.
He'd spent the following months in the hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, before returning to Texas to live in a double-wide trailer on his brother Linc's twenty-five-hundred-acre property seventy miles east of Dallas, Blackland Ranch.
Linc had insisted he take some time, finish healing, try to figure out what the hell he wanted to do with his life. Grateful for his half brother's help, Josh had accepted the offer, then been surprised to discover that finding out what he wanted didn't take as long as he'd thought.
As a kid, he'd loved country living, loved horses, wrangled cattle every summer and dreamed of owning his own place someday. But he'd had to work from the age of twelve to help support himself and his mother, living barely above subsistence level; it had been little more than a pipe dream back then.
Now he was the proud owner — along with the bank that held the mortgage — of the Iron River Ranch, a two-thousand-acre spread along the northern boundary of his brother's property.
The ranch had come with fifteen head of Black Angus cattle and thirty head of horses. He had kept seven geldings — good, reliable cow ponies — sold and traded the rest for broodmares and colts he chose himself. He was looking to buy a stallion, had his eye on a registered quarter horse named Handley's Pride.
He'd always had a way with animals, planned to raise a few cows but focus on breeding, training, and selling horses.
He glanced up at a noise in the barn, the sound of hooves pounding against the stall. Satan was at it again. He started walking. Damned horse would be the death of him — or somebody else.
The animal probably should have been put down, and he might have done it if it hadn't been for his sixty-seven-year-old neighbor, Clara Thompson. The woman was convinced Josh could save the stallion if he was patient enough, and he was dumb enough to give it a try.
"Señor Cain! Señor Cain!" His latest hire came racing out of the barn, the jet- black stallion hard on his heels. Josh ran toward them, flapping his hat and shouting, driving the great black beast off in another direction.
"I quit!" Ramirez stomped toward him. "I am through with this place and that crazy horse!"
"Take it easy, Diego. I'll take care of the stallion."
"He nearly killed me! I am finished. I have a better job offer, one where I do not have to risk my life."
Josh didn't try to talk him out of it. He had a feeling the stable hand was partly to blame for the animal's foul temper, at least this morning. He had a hunch Ramirez had been antagonizing the stallion. There were guys who liked the control, liked lording it over what they considered a dumb beast, and Josh had a feeling Ramirez was one of them.
Josh watched the man grab his rope, halter, saddle, and bridle and toss them into the back of his old brown pickup. The engine fired up and the pickup shot backward, spun, and roared off down the dirt road toward the two-lane highway that led to Iron Springs.
Josh sighed as he crossed the stable yard and went into the barn for a bucket of grain. When he came out, the big black stallion tossed its head and snorted as it trotted back and forth along the fence line.
Sonofabitch. Another half hour shot to hell trying to coax the horse into the pasture. And now he'd have to drive into town, post some notices, and put an ad in the paper for another stable hand.
He had two full-time ranch hands lined up, due to start in a couple of days, but they would be mending fences, helping him rebuild the cow barn, and doing deferred maintenance the property desperately needed, the reason he had bought it for such a reasonable sum.
The life of a rancher was never easy, and yet Josh loved every minute. He relished the solitude, the time it gave him to deal with the past and come to grips with the present, think a little about the future.
Grabbing the bucket of oats, he went after the cantankerous horse.
* * *
It was hard to believe four months had passed since Tory had left Phoenix. After the attack, she had moved to Houston, taken a high-paying job as an executive secretary, assistant to the president of Huntley Drilling, a small oil company. She'd liked the work, which paid well and was less stressful than her former job as an advertising executive with the Elwin Davis Group, the top marketing agency in Phoenix.
But she had gone to a headhunter to find the job so it hadn't taken Damon long to track her down. The harassment had started right away, with him showing up at her apartment, at work, making threats, scaring Ivy. Demanding Tory return with him to Phoenix.
She'd called the police and they had done their best to help, but in Texas, the restraining order she'd gotten in Phoenix had to be updated to be valid. That meant her abuser had to be notified and given a chance to argue his side of the case in court.
She didn't have the money for more attorney fees, and the restraining order she'd gotten after the attack hadn't really done any good. In Houston, when the neighbor's kitten had turned up with a wire around its neck, strangled and bloody, dead in front of her apartment door, it had been time to move on.
New Mexico sounded good. She'd taken an interim job at a dry-cleaning store in Albuquerque just to earn some money. But the first day of work, the owner had cornered her in the garment racks and suggested her job could be a lot easier if she provided a few fringe benefits. She had quit the same day.
She'd been lucky. By the end of the week, she'd found a job over the Internet, office manager of Dominion Potash, a potassium mining company in Carlsbad. She'd liked the challenge of organizing the office and keeping the company running; she'd liked the small, high desert community famous for its world- famous caverns.
After two months with no sign of Damon, she had finally begun to settle in. She'd even allowed herself to make a few friends, relax enough to leave Ivy with a sitter once in a while and go out to a show or dinner in the evenings.
But every day she worried.
Every night, she lay awake, straining to hear the sound of an intruder. Tonight, as she lay in the darkness and listened to the heavy footfalls outside her bedroom door, she knew Damon had found her again.
Cold fear slid through her. It was as if her worst nightmare had come to life and she had to live it all over again.
Only this time, she was prepared.
Her heart slammed like a hammer against the wall of her chest as he shoved open the bedroom door. She had no idea how he had gotten inside, but she knew him well enough to know if he wanted in, nothing was going to stop him.
There was no time to pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1. Help wouldn't arrive in time if she did. Instead she summoned her courage and forced down her fear.
"What are you doing here, Damon?" Glad for the white cotton nightgown she'd started wearing after the beating, she sat up in bed, her eyes on the man who had just stepped into her bedroom.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Beyond Control"
Copyright © 2018 Kat Martin.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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