Book one in an emotional, erotic, dramatic trilogy about a world gone to hell, and the hell we hold inside…
The human race has been all but wiped out, along with our best traits: compassion, empathy, and generosity.
Euan is a survivor. In a dystopian wasteland infused with violence and cruelty, he protects something invaluable. His love for Nick and the solace that comes with the connection keeps him from destruction, and offers him that most elusive and dangerous emotion of all –
But happiness comes at a price and a hunting trip leaves Nick vulnerable to the evil that still infects the world. When Euan returns, he finds Nick broken and bloody, irrevocably damaged in both body and soul.
Now Euan's only goal is to find a place for Nick to heal, a safe place, a refuge where they can rest, recover and repair their love. When they risk a raid on an abandoned house, they discover the unthinkable, the rarest treasure of all. A woman.
About the Author
From the age of sixteen, Annabelle lived in a youth refuge while she remained committed to her education. She spent two years
within a section of society that most overlook.
Her experiences are the foundations that drive her stories and her characters. They fight for their freedoms, have courage in the
face of adversity and always aspire for greatness.
Annabelle is privileged to live in a small rural town in country New South Wales. She writes to a distinctive Australian backdrop with
its captivating change of seasons. Outside of her love for reading, she spends her time with her husband, son and poodle named
Serendipity. She drinks her Whisky neat and can often be found at the local market hunting for blue cheese and artisan bread.
To find out more, visit Annabelle on her website.
You can also follow Annabelle on:
Read an Excerpt
Euan waited, his body held rigid in a state of hiatus. His muscles burned, quivering involuntarily from remaining immobile for so long. The warm breeze rustled the tussocks that surrounded him, and the seedpods tickled his ears as he crouched among the native grasses. The morning sky above him was a vibrant blue, marred only by sparse clouds that meandered across the unlimited expanse with little concern for the struggle for survival that went on down below. Only his chest moved as he took each slow inhalation of breath, his eyes remaining focused on the net that stretched out in front of him.
There was a movement to his right. A ripple in the stillness. The dry grass stirred and the brittle stalks crackled in the silence. There was a patter, a lull, a dislodged stone on the dry earth, and then all was quiet once again.
He dragged in a breath and forced his broad shoulders to relax. Each fist was clasped around a rusted tin can, their contents long gone, but the casing still served his purpose. His large hands held the round metal objects easily, the alloy cool as it pressed against his calloused skin.
His nose itched but he ignored it. He narrowed his eyes as the sound to his right reoccurred. This time, the rustling was prolonged, the animal gaining confidence in its terrain. Just a few more minutes and then he could pounce.
He cursed when there was a shout and a clattering of plastic. The creature to his right bolted in the opposite direction to the snare, disappearing into its underground shelter. Euan's hunting partner Lenny had reacted early, scaring the animals off before he was ready to act.
Sabotaging his attempts to gather enough food for them to return to camp.
He had no choice but to jump up from his prone position and beat the tin cans together. The combined noise created by the empty plastic bottles and Euan's cans frightened the game they were trying to catch. A number of long-eared hares bounded before him, headed towards the net they'd pulled against the boughs of two oak trees and the pit they'd dug immediately before the mesh to ensure their bait would be caught.
The two men moved forward as one. Lenny was exuberant, his movements excessive and unnecessary. Euan was resigned and his unease grew with every step, until two rabbits were caught, clouds of dust rising like smoke in their wake.
Euan quickly discarded his tins and knelt at the edge of the pit. It was an easy thing to capture the frightened animals by the elongated ears and snap their delicate necks. Two substantial hares were nothing to scorn, and these were especially fat from the lack of human and domesticated animal encroachment. But it could have been more. It should have been more.
Euan rose but said nothing as he watched Lenny approach the pit. He couldn't help curling his lip at stink of old sweat that clung to filthy, threadbare clothing as he reluctantly handed his prize over to the outstretched hand.
A shudder of uneasiness was beginning to crawl up his spine. That was the third time his effort to capture their prey had been foiled. That didn't take even into account that the day before Lenny had dragged his heels the entire journey, keeping their pace deliberately leisurely, despite Euan's attempt to get this provisions trip over and done with as quickly as possible.
This last attempt to undermine his hunting efforts was shining as brightly as a neon sign in an apocalyptic-induced darkness.
Lenny had thwarted him on purpose.
Euan watched with growing trepidation as Lenny tied the rabbits to his backpack with indifference. They were meant to be hunting to feed six people, themselves included.
Neither of them had eaten since yesterday. His reluctance made no sense.
'I thought we were waiting for my signal,' Euan stated, watching with a keen eye for any indication of ulterior motives.
Lenny blinked. 'You didn't make it?' After a weighted pause, Euan murmured 'No.'
The lean man shrugged, his gaze averted, before he re-shouldered his backpack, the dead rabbits swinging from their colourful twine.
Euan pulled himself up to his full height. It had been three years since the collapse of mankind. Three years of fighting for survival, living off the land, trying to escape the mayhem of what was left of civilisation. Since then, Euan had lived his life attuned to his senses, the prickle on his nape and the lead ball that rolled around in the pit of his stomach.
That lead ball was now dissolving, morphing into mercury that was poisoning his insides. Something was wrong, and he knew that the man in front of him, fiddling with the frayed shoulder strap of his backpack with suddenly shaking fingers, was the cause.
He took the two steps needed to stand in Lenny's personal space. His voice was quiet, questioning. 'You do that on purpose?' He didn't miss the flinch. Lenny took a cautious step back. 'Don't know what you're talking about,' he equivocated.
Euan was quick. He didn't hesitate. With reflexes born from necessity and training, he reached out and snatched the lousy clothes at Lenny's chest. His grip was unbreakable.
'Not gonna ask again,' he growled.
There was a moment between them. A separation in time when neither man spoke. Their eyes locked and held. The wind picked up, and Euan felt the cool breeze brush against his scalp, the flutter of the tattered edge of his cotton t-shirt at his hip. The chill on his upper lip where his sweat began to bead.
'It's your own fault,' the man in his grip stated flatly as he shifted in a reluctant struggle to break free. 'You wouldn't share.'
Euan froze, realising the significance of the statement. Understanding slammed through his chest like a flash of lightning, directly striking at his heart. The shock was paralysing, and he had to force himself to breathe through the devastating burn.
Oh, Christ. Nick.
Euan shook himself free of his momentarily suspended state and tightened his fist. He squeezed his eyes closed for a brief moment to prepare himself for the horror that would result from his next demand.
Lenny's gaze reflected his dread. His head tipped back to accommodate Euan's excessive height. He licked his lips before he spoke. 'He's so pretty. All that hair. Reminds them of a woman. They haven't seen one in years, let alone touched one. They wanted him.'
Euan didn't let the internal howl free. His Nick. His beautiful, beloved Nick. The love of his life was alone with three men who meant to hurt him. He'd left him there, assuming his hunting trip would be quick and effortless and they'd be apart for no more than twelve hours.
When in fact, it had been close to two days.
What had he done?
The world around him dissolved. There was no sea of dry grass heads that swayed in the mid-morning breeze. There was no blinding sunshine that heralded a new, glorious day. There was no plague, apocalypse or anarchy. There was just one man between him, and saving Nick.
Euan held those frightened grey eyes and let the tremor of fury ripple through his body.
'What did you agree?' he demanded, one fist moving to the eleven-inch sawback bowie knife at his belt.
'It wasn't my idea,' Lenny entreated. 'They just told me to go along with it. I'm not into men. But they wanted him. Said they were gonna take their time with him, so I had to keep you occupied for as long as possible.'
'Why?' The question was out before Euan could take it back. He sounded desperate even to his own ears, the word uttered almost like a plea. They'd travelled with these men for weeks. Euan trusted them, trusted them enough to leave Nick behind in their company. Alone.
Lenny didn't hesitate in his reply. His expression was resolved, and his attempts at escape had ceased. His mercurial eyes, buried in hollowed sockets, were vacant, hope long having bled out from his soul. 'There's nothing left for us, any of us. Without women, without a future, we're just walking corpses, bound for hell.'
'You knew the price for this.' It wasn't a question.
Lenny held Euan's uncompromising gaze. 'I knew the price,' he agreed.
Euan broke their almost visceral connection and closed his eyes. The rage consumed him and eviscerated any semblance of sanity. Lenny's confession was the catalyst to the implosion of Euan's soul. It swirled down the vortex of depravity to land naked and vulnerable on the scorched earth of the underworld.
To take a life was to sell himself. Trade his essence, hawk his humanity, destroy the last vestige of civility that he had carried since the lights went dark. To save Nick, he would raze everything that made him man and pay his due to the Lord of Darkness and allow the devil to brand him his.
As his morality dissolved, he thought it a worthy price to ensure his next action would be completed without hesitation. In that moment, he had no reservations. He thought nothing of Lenny, his desires and his own role in them. His sole purpose was to finish this, and get back to Nick.
Euan scrunched his fist tighter into Lenny's clothing and pulled the man towards him. Lenny lurched forward, his small frame falling easily against the broad expanse of Euan's chest. Using one hand to turn Lenny in his arms, Euan wrapped the other around the man's throat, locking his head in the crook of his elbow, and squeezed. When he secured his second arm behind Lenny's head, it didn't matter how he thrashed, kicked, bucked or scratched. He was not getting free.
It took only moments, as Euan's resolve was ruthless. He held on as Lenny's struggles began to wane, tightening his grip when saliva began to drip down his forearm. Finally, as each breath Lenny took become weaker than the last, Euan lowered his lips to the man's ear and whispered the last words he would ever hear.
'You'll die here. You'll be eaten by dogs here. The remains of your carcass will rot here. Because of that, I'll hold this place sacred.'
Lenny could only croak, his last breath wheezing out of his twitching body. Euan contracted his hold and, after one final kick, Lenny's body went limp in his arms.
He let the unconscious man fall to a crumpled foul heap at his feet. Without remorse, he unsheathed his knife and bent. The blade was kept sharp for hunting purposes, so it was with little effort that he was able to pull the man's head back by his greasy hair and deftly run the blade across the exposed jugular.
After wiping his knife clean on Lenny's chest, Euan kicked the reeking body over with the heel of his boot to its stomach, where the backpack was now visible. He crouched, unzipped it and rummaged through the meagre belongings Lenny had taken with him.
He wasn't shocked when among the ratty clothes and useless hundred-dollar bills, he found a 9mm Glock handgun — it made sense that Lenny had obviously meant to have killed him. The snapping jaws of fury nipped at his core. Lenny's cowardice towards taking his own life meant that Euan now bore the brand of murderer on his heart, and the loss of his soul as payment for the deed.
Despite the injustice, the weapon was now his. He swallowed the bile that crawled up his throat and opened the magazine. One bullet. One solitary bullet and his knife at his disposal to save Nick and liberate him from the three beasts that kept him.
There was nothing else of use other than a half-full bottle of water. Euan pulled off his own backpack and threw it inside. He'd need his strength if he was going to get Nick back. He'd also need everything at his disposal to get him over whatever those bastards had done to him. He wouldn't even entertain the thought that something more sinister had happened to him. After he was safe, he'd do everything in his power to see those who hurt him pay.
He had nothing left to lose.
And if Nick was dead, then he'd do what Lenny couldn't, and use that single bullet for himself.
The area was devoid of life as Euan ascended the hill to the dilapidated farmhouse. Its highpitched tin roof and slatted, rotting wooden exterior, shattered window panes and waterlogged gutters was a stark contrast against the dew-covered pasture that grew long without domesticated animals or machinery to consume it. He took the Glock from the waistband of his pants and palmed the grip as he climbed the sun-bleached steps up to the front door.
All was silent. Not even the faint morning breeze could be heard from the small porch. The quiet was deafening, it screamed a thousand warnings and the stillness spoke its own language, one Euan could understand.
Nobody was here.
They'd all gone. Euan could only hope they'd left Nick's body behind.
He took a deep breath, maybe the last he'd take with his heart intact, and pushed open the rotting door with his free hand. He inwardly cringed as the loud squeak wrought havoc on his already shot nerves.
Euan stepped straight into a living room. The weak morning light filtered through the gaps in the tin sheeting where the roof panels had fallen to the floor from the weather. Dust motes glinted gold in the sunlight, the stink of decay and fear stung his nose. In the shadows it was cold, but he didn't think of that, he couldn't.
Battered furniture had been pushed to the walls to give space for a macabre performance, a play where cruelty was the drawcard and pain was its allure. Boot prints of black and brown, blood and earth was evidence of an audience. A destroyed dining table, torn carpet and scorched floorboards were proof they stayed for a show.
In the centre of the amateur stage, the star of the entertainment lay motionless.
Nick was as still as death, a lifeless participant surrounded by destruction.
Euan's nightmares were confirmed.
The bile in his stomach rose up to burn his throat. He scrunched his eyes closed in devastation at what was before him. It took everything he had not to cover his face with his shaking hands and cry into the silence.
The man who had given his life meaning, given him a sense of purpose, of worth. A man who held Euan's heart in his hands and likely didn't even know it.
A man who now lay in a lifeless ball on the floor before him.
Dark patches of dried blood and other bodily fluids could be seen in various shapes and formations around him, testament to his struggles. He lay on his side with his knees bent towards his body, and his wrists and forearms were bound around and under his thighs, effectively restricting any movement. His craven attackers hadn't even bothered to remove his boots and pants, which were pulled down to his ankles, becoming a perfect substitute for bindings to keep his feet immobile.
His shirt was in tatters, ripped from his body in some places and clinging to others from the sweat or blood caused by his exertions and torment. Nick's shoulder-length blonde hair was a tangled mess, fused together from where he had bled profusely, the knotted waves shielding his face from Euan's view.
From the angle that Nick lay in, Euan could not see his backside, but he knew it would be a tragic wreck, one he feared Nick could not come back from. If he were even alive.
Please God, let him be alive.
As Euan viewed the chaos, the anarchy, the evidence of the utter violence that had occurred here, the man on the floor took a shuddering breath, his upper torso rising and falling in a painful inhale.
Nick was alive! His Nicky was hurt, damaged, but alive.
Euan slipped inside the room and approached him cautiously, his booted feet almost silent on the rotting carpet. It was then he realised that Nick was blindfolded; the dirty cloth had been lost in the mass of bloody blonde curls. Nick would have had to experience his torture blind, not knowing when the next blow would come, or when he'd have to endure the next violation.
As he approached, he could see Nick tense. All the muscles in his back pulled taut in stark relief against the growing light. His breath hitched and his purple fingers flinched. Euan could see they'd stuffed a rag in his mouth and he watched as Nick's jaw tightened in preparation for what he thought was to come.
Euan's chest ached. His muscles burned. His hands shook. He approached cautiously, and when he was in whispering distance he quietly shushed the man, knelt and reached out to touch Nick's now-quivering shoulder, absorbing the flinch.
'Easy now,' Euan crooned softly in reassurance. 'It's me. I've come back.'
A cry of inarticulate anguish and relief was his answer. Nick convulsed almost violently under his palm and Euan had to swallow his own emotion as it threatened to break through his internal barricades.
Excerpted from "True Refuge"
Copyright © 2017 Annabelle McInnes.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises (Australia) Pty Ltd..
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