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Mist swirled around his feet, obscuring the hard-packed sand as Declan Byrne took his morning walk down the rugged beach. The sun was just beginning to rise, a faint amber glow casting the first golden rays of the day, barely touching the cresting waves of the Pacific Ocean. He loved it here, loved to come when it was still nearly dark, picking his way over the craggy rocks, the piles of driftwood and seaweed, the empty sound of the thundering ocean soothing him.
Liam, his enormous black mastiff, trotted beside him, his only company. Declan preferred it that way. He reveled in the loneliness, the isolation of this place. It was a big part of why he'd come back here six years earlier. He'd needed the quiet. He'd needed to heal. Maybe he still did.
No, don't think about her now. Don't think about her, period. He turned instead to the sea, watched as Liam chased the edge of the incoming waves, sniffing, backing away as the water surged onto the sand. This was their daily ritual. How Declan got his head on straight before beginning work, before he had to interact with other people, something he'd been lousy at the past few years. He much preferred his dog, the ocean, the rough and lonely Mendocino coastline, to people.
His work as a forest ranger didn't require much human contact. This particular job included making sure trails were cleared, keeping order in the campgrounds, the occasional lost hiker, and sometimes training new rangers. But most of the time it was just him and the forest, the lone stretches of beach and rugged cliffs that made up the national park's coastline. Probably the biggest reason why he'd taken the job. That, and something about his father having worked in this area as a ranger most of his life, up until he'd retired a couple of years ago.
Following in the old man's footsteps, no matter how he felt about him. But this place was home to him. His gruff father was home to him, even though they'd barely spoken since his mother died.
Don't think about that, either.
The sun was coming up fast, warming the damp air as he and Liam climbed over the rocks to the next crescent of sand. Declan stopped and looked out to sea, tracking the rising sun, the surge of the gray-and-green water, and felt that brief moment of peace he sought each day. He breathed in the sharp salt air, filling his lungs. Watched as a lone gull flew in low over the water on silent wings, skimming the surface beyond the waves. Peace here, yes. He didn't want to stop to consider why he needed it so desperately.
A hard thump sounded behind him; shocking, how loud it was, how it made the ground shake. Declan spun around, his heart hammering while Liam went off, barking like crazy.
A woman lying on the sand before him. He nearly tripped over her in the half light, had to dig his heels into the rocky beach to steady himself. The crashing of the cold surf faded into the background as he tried to grasp what he was seeing. Liam had stopped barking and was sniffing her limp body, his huge black head dwarfing her.
He grabbed for the mastiff's collar. "Liam, off!"
What the hell?
She was naked, bleeding, one leg caught on the rocks, twisted at an impossible angle. His brain shifted into high gear as he bent over her, adrenaline swamping his veins in a hot, speedy current.
Where the hell had she come from? He looked up, peering through the pale light, his gaze wandering up the ragged cliff side, but he saw nothing, no one.
"Jesus," he muttered as he pulled out his cell phone and dialed 9-1-1.
As the phone rang his gaze roamed her body, trying to assess the damage in the diffused light of the rising sun. Pale, wavy blond hair down to her knees. There were strange symbols painted all over her: her stomach, her thighs, across her bare breasts. They were lush and round, he couldn't help but notice, then cursed himself. The woman was half-dead, for God's sake. He leaned in closer, trying to hear her breathing. He didn't want to touch her. No, he wanted to touch her. He didn't dare.
What the fuck is wrong with you? There. A small, gasping breath rattling in her chest.
An operator finally answered the phone, and he quickly told the man who he was, gave him details, his location.
He hung up to wait for the rescue team, finally dared to reach out and lay his fingertips on her wrist to check her pulse. Bones like a bird, isn't that what the saying was? She was so delicate
She was alive, her breath shallow, but she was taking one after another. There was blood everywhere; he could smell it even over the tangy ocean scent in the air, but beneath the mess he could see a lovely, angelic face. Hard to tell how old she was. Early twenties? Closer inspection showed him bits of twigsherbs, maybe?and small bones woven into her hair. On her upturned palms were pentagrams painted in red.
Who the fuck would have done something like this?
Liam was standing next to him, over the girl, peering into her face as though he were trying to figure it out, too.
Declan had never seen anything like it. He never wanted to again.
He fought back the sense of horror that made bile rise, made his throat want to close up.
So much blood
He pulled off his jacket and covered her, glad it was spring and, although the beach was damp, it wasn't too cold. He had no idea what else he could do for her. He waited, his pulse racing, his jaw grinding hard. And no matter how he fought against it, his mind began to fill with memories, flashing images he couldn't seem to forget.
The heat of Bahrain, the dry, acrid desert scent he'd never smelled anywhere else in the world. He hated that scent. Hated the Middle East. But it was his job to be there.
It was your job to protect them.
Yeah, great job he'd done. The girl was dead and he was mind-fucked for the rest of his life.
His jaw clenched so hard it hurt.
And now this girl.
He reached out and touched his fingertips to her cool cheek, then pulled back, feeling like some kind of asshole for touching her. Some kind of pervert. But he hadn't been able to help himself. She hadn't stirred. He knew enough to realize she would probably die. Who could survive a fall like that? Those cliffs had to be a good fifty, sixty feet high. Her lungs must be compressed, other internal injuries, he was certain. Sadness tied his gut into a knot. And anger.
Who was she? What had happened to her? Someone had pushed her off that cliff. Had done some pretty weird shit to her before that, by the look of it. No one could have done this to themselves. Could they?
Where the fuck was the damn rescue team?
He breathed deeply trying to calm himself.
Liam whined and Declan focused once more on the girl's still figure, her solemn face. He knelt beside her, the damp sand soaking through the knees of his jeans. She was so broken.
He rubbed a hand over his jaw, his fingers automatically finding the ridge of the old scar there. He didn't need this. This
trauma. This horrible sight.
He watched as she drew a rattling sigh into her damaged lungs.
She didn't need it, either.
Liam hadn't taken his eyes off her. Well, neither could he, for more than a few moments. Unbelievably flawless face. If it weren't for the blood matting her hair, the cuts all over her skin, she would almost look as if she were asleep. He reached out and touched her cheek once more. Like cool satin under his fingers.
What was he thinking?
He forced his brain to shut down, to let the thunder of the ocean drown out all thought, and waited.