Ever since he rescued her from a dangerous kidnapper, Mystery Mullins has wanted Axel Dillon. When he returned her to her Hollywood father and tabloid life, she was grateful…and a little in love. Mystery wasn’t ready to let Axel go, even after the soldier gently turned her away because, at nineteen, she was too young.
Now, six years later, Mystery is grown, with a flourishing career and a full life—but she’s still stuck on Axel. Disguised, she propositions him in a bar, and the night they spend together is beyond her wildest dreams. Mystery steels herself to walk away—except the sheets are barely cold when her past comes back to haunt her.
Once he realizes Mystery isn’t the stranger he thought, Axel is incensed and intrigued. But when it’s clear she’s in danger, he doesn’t hesitate to become her protector—and her lover—again. And as the two uncover a secret someone is willing to kill for, Axel is determined to claim Mystery’s heart before a murderer silences her for good.
*Maya Banks, #1 New York Times bestselling author
About the Author
Raised an only child, Shayla occupied herself with lots of daydreaming, much to the chagrin of her teachers. In college, she found her love for reading and realized that she could have a career publishing the stories spinning in her imagination. Though she graduated with a degree in Marketing/Advertising and embarked on a stint in corporate America to pay the bills, her heart has always been with her characters. She’s thrilled that she’s been living her dream as a full-time author for the past seven years.
Shayla currently lives in North Texas with her wonderfully supportive husband, her teenage daughter, and a very spoiled cat. In her “free” time, she enjoys reality TV, reading, and listening to an eclectic blend of music.
Read an Excerpt
MYSTERY Mullins had finally had enough. After six and a half years of carrying this burning torch, she intended to snuff it out tonight.
The door to the run-down beer bar creaked when she opened it. As soon as she looked inside, she truly wished she hadn’t. The late-afternoon sunlight cast rays into the dark room, highlighting dingy checkerboard floors, a crack in the plastic face of the old jukebox, and a faded wooden bar. Pictures of beaches, bikini babes, and motorcycles lined the walls. In faded aqua paint on driftwood, a framed piece of “art” proclaimed IT’S FIVE O’CLOCK SOMEWHERE.
In front of her, a bank of TVs hung from the ceiling, some facing the door, others away to serve the patrons on the far side of the U-shaped bar. She scanned the room, glancing over the two dozen loners, mostly male, nursing their beers. Between the dimness and the obstruction of the various flat-screens, she couldn’t see all their faces.
She’d never stepped foot in a place like this. Trendy hot spots where one’s name had to be on the list, sure—when someone twisted her arm. But a dive? She winced. The reality was, if she wanted to scratch her itch for the one man she couldn’t seem to purge from her system so she could move on, this was where she needed to be.
Because he was here.
A gust of hot wind assaulted her through the still-open door. The heat already felt like the worst of a London summer, despite the fact that May in Dallas had barely begun. Or maybe she was just flushed and nervous.
An ineffectual swamp cooler clattered as it tried to adjust the temperature inside to something bearable but failed. Mystery wiped at the fine film of perspiration at her temple, flipped the faux hair out of her face, and hoped like hell this scheme worked.
The patrons in the bar were beginning to stare, not as if they recognized her, thank goodness. But what if he did? Utter, humiliating disaster. She’d planned this disguise so he’d never know her identity. The auburn wig with bangs cloaked her dark hair. Color contacts morphed hazel eyes into a stunning blue. A makeup artist Mystery knew from one of her father’s previous movies had worked his magic to make her cheekbones appear rounder, her jaw softer. During her brief time with her crush, she’d never had the luxury of wearing a shred of makeup. If he’d seen pictures of her since they’d gone their separate ways, he knew she usually dolled up and wore Chanel or Prada for the cameras. Today, she’d donned ratty jeans left over from her few days in college, a tight Hooters tank top, and a pair of wedged flip flops. The press had never photographed her this dressed down. Everything about her should appear different. He couldn’t possibly recognize her now.
But what if he did?
Mystery shook her head and told herself to stop dithering. She hadn’t stepped foot on U.S. soil in over a half dozen years, and he had no reason to suspect she’d come to his home turf now. Appointments back in London meant she could only be here for a week. The private investigator she’d hired had sworn he was still single and had just entered the bar alone a few minutes ago. It was now or never.
Because she’d never moved on from her teenage crush. She’d ten times rather write off her feelings as gratitude and stupid hero worship. After all, he’d saved her life. But if that’s all she felt, the ache for him should have worn off long before now. She would have stopped comparing him to other men she dated. Since he wasn’t going to fall desperately in love with her, she simply had to get him out of her system and move on, leaving him none the wiser.
“You need some help or you just want to let all the hot air in?” As she stood frozen in the doorway, the young bartender looked at her as if she must be on the stupid side.
“Sorry,” Mystery murmured, easing farther into the joint and scanning the room once more.
A couple of Duck Dynasty wannabes occupied the booth in the corner. A woman in a skimpy halter top sat with them, pouring tequila into a shot glass shoved into her artificially enhanced cleavage. More than one dived for the booze. Mystery halted in her tracks.
This place certainly underscored the fact that she and the man she yearned for hailed from different walks of life. But that didn’t matter. She’d only have him for a night.
She prayed that was all she needed.
Mystery’s stomach knotted. Though she hadn’t seen him since that last fateful night years ago, her nerves seriously annoyed her. She tried not to allow anything to faze her anymore. Not paparazzi, not walking the red carpet at the BAFTA awards with her A-list father, not even appearing on TV.
But Axel Dillon . . . Even the thought of him turned her inside out.
Mystery glanced around again, easing farther inside. Some biker types in the far corner playing pool eyed her. The bartender still stared down his pierced nose at her. Three cops huddled together all turned and focused on her. Did they think she was casing the place for a robbery? She had to stop standing in the middle of the room like an idiot. Take a seat and order a drink.
Finally, her head forced her body to obey, and she eased into a little booth near the back. Once she’d seated herself, everyone around her started talking again. And from her new vantage point, she could see the back half of the bar, previously obscured by the wall of televisions.
There he sat, absently staring at ESPN and sipping a beer, his profile strong. As usual, his rugged face was unreadable. He still kept his dark-blond hair military short. And he still looked like the side of a mountain. Somewhere around six foot five, he’d always been built big, but in the last few years, she’d swear he’d put on another slab of muscle. His tight black T-shirt hugged every hard swell and lean dip, tapering past a flat belly to narrow hips. She had to hold in a sigh. Even a single glance of him made her heart knock against her ribs and everything below her waist tingle. Mystery swallowed.
He didn’t once look her way. Somehow, she’d hoped their stares would lock. He would approach her, want her, and whisk her away for a spectacular night of unbridled sex that would blow away both her panties and her mind. But right now, he clearly had no idea she existed.
On shaky knees, she stood again and headed in his direction. She tried not to stare. A glance up at the television proved he watched a recap of a pro basketball game. With a grunt, he glanced down into the neck of his beer bottle as she slid onto the empty stool beside him.
Now that he was so near, Mystery could feel his body heat, smell him—rugged earth, cut wood, musk. Damn, being this close made her feel both safe and weak.
“Something on your mind?” He turned to her, his stare expectant.
She searched his expression and didn’t see a hint of recognition on his large, blunt face. What a relief. But the cleft in his chin and his bright blue eyes still made her feel weak and wanting. The instant chemical attraction she’d felt years ago hadn’t waned in the least.
“There is.” She mimicked the British accents she’d been surrounded with since she’d fled the U.S.—and him—over six years ago.
Her assertion obviously surprised him. Though he narrowed his eyes, they pierced her.
“I’ll bite. Lay it on me.”
The bartender chose that moment to come around and plunk a napkin in front of her. “Now that you found a seat, you want a drink?”
A glass of vino sounded heavenly. “Do you have a wine list, please?”
He snorted. “No. I got three types: red, white, and pink.”
Mystery paused. She hadn’t expected anything private label, but surely more of a selection than that.
“Is the white a pinot grigio?”
The bartender looked as if he was losing patience. “I don’t know what kind that is, but the jug of white I have is as close as I’ve got. You want some or not?”
That could be seriously terrible.
“Then I’ll have a glass of water, please.” Better to keep a clear head, anyway. “Thank you.”
As he turned and grabbed a glass, the bartender shook his head and muttered something to himself. Mystery really didn’t want to know what.
“I’m not sure what threw him off more, your accent or your request.” The corner of Axel’s mouth lifted in amusement, giving her a flash of dimples.
She’d forgotten the way his smile could soften his harsh face. She grinned back. “He seemed quite ruffled.”
A moment later, the young, pierced guy set a glass in front of her with lots of ice and a bit of water, sans lemon. She blinked, and her colored contacts jabbed her eyes with a reminder of their existence. Or maybe it was a warning that her plan would fail spectacularly.
“So do you,” Axel said. “I won’t point out that I’ve never seen you here, but I’ll guess you’ve never been to a place like this.”
“Never,” she admitted. “What gave me away?”
He chuffed. “Leaving the door open so you could gape with barely disguised horror was a start. I particularly liked the way you turned slightly green when you stared at the guys about to do body shots with Trina.” He nodded to the corner where the bearded men and the woman in the halter top all laughed. “So why are you here?”
She’d forgotten how observant he could be and how accurately he could draw conclusions. He did it in an instant, as if nothing in the world shocked him anymore. The world still shocked her all the time.
She hadn’t, however, forgotten how direct he was.
“Curious,” she lied and held in a wince at her lame answer.
He shrugged. “Let me try another way: The place is more than half empty, so why did you sit next to me?”
Brutally direct, she mentally corrected.
Mystery gaped for an answer. “Why not?”
In retrospect, she could have been a little less obvious and a little more coy in choosing a seat. Maybe she should have sat a few stools away, ordered some terrible wine, and seen if he struck up a conversation. But she’d taken one look at him, and any thought of careful or logical had flown out the window.
He leveled her with a disbelieving stare. “That’s all you’ve got? You couldn’t even have come up with a good lie?”
Not really. She could have gone the “You look familiar” route, but that would have been too close to the truth. As far as she could see, that only left her one tactic.
“You’re very attractive. Pardon me for being interested.”
A little smile lit up his eyes before he took another swig of beer. “I didn’t say you being close upset me. You’re attractive yourself.” He stared a moment longer, then glanced down at his empty beer before he shifted his attention to her untouched glass. “You sure I can’t get you something stronger to drink? I can’t believe a girl like you would risk life and limb to come to this dive for a swig of water.”
Truth was, drinking didn’t hold a lot of appeal for her. In the past, she’d pretended otherwise, but . . . “While I appreciate the offer, I’m actually not interested in alcohol.” She forced herself to meet his inquisitive stare. “Would you like to find somewhere more private to . . .”
“Talk?” He gave her an ironic curl of his lips.
“No.” She sucked in a shaking breath. “To fuck. Would you be interested?”
* * *
AXEL sat back in his stool. Surprise pinged through him—which didn’t happen often. He’d thought she’d strike up a conversation, maybe flirt. He certainly hadn’t expected a sex invite. It happened, but he hadn’t seen it coming from little Miss Prim. Sure, she’d dressed sexy and vamped herself up, but he’d bet his right nut the woman didn’t know much about sex. And that she’d enjoyed even less of it.
Interesting turn of events . . .
Why would she proposition a complete stranger? Though he didn’t know a stacked redhead like her or even a British female, something about her looked slightly familiar. He couldn’t put his finger on it.
The one fact that was obvious? She was decidedly nervous. And she’d zeroed in on him immediately. If he had anything worth stealing, he’d worry she was a scam artist. But she would have to be a different sort of woman for that, one with a less perfect manicure, who picked up a stranger with ease.
But offering sex to a man she’d just met in a bar was something she’d clearly never done.
The whole situation begged him to question why, but he didn’t want to kill the mood and pry the information out of her . . . yet. A beautiful woman wanted to get naked with him. Normally, he didn’t do one-night stands. Casual fucks didn’t go well with his kink of choice, which required more than passing trust. Vanilla sex usually wasn’t his thing, either. But this woman was the first to raise more than mild interest in a long time. There was something about her . . . At this point, everything, really. She was not only one gorgeous package but an interesting riddle he’d like to solve. She had a reason for lowering herself to come to his favorite dive and pick him up. In an hour or two, he’d figure her out.
“Never mind.” She scrambled out of her stool, looking at the floor. “You’re not interested. I understand. It was foolish. I’m sorry.”
“Sit,” he barked automatically, then bit back a curse.
She wasn’t a sub at Club Dominion, had no idea he was a Dominant who expected to be obeyed and would paddle her lovely ass if she didn’t.
Axel opened his mouth to apologize, but she’d already complied. Suddenly, more than his interest rose. “I didn’t say I wanted you to leave. You just surprised me.”
A pretty little flush crawled up her cheeks. “I suppose I was a bit forward.”
“Do you regularly proposition men?” He couldn’t resist baiting her.
She cast her gaze down at her lap, and he drew in a steadying breath, beating back a sudden jolt of lust. Did she have any idea how many submissive signals she was giving off? His cock was every bit as piqued as his interest.
“No,” she mumbled.
Though he probably should, Axel didn’t stop himself from curling his finger under her chin and lifting her gaze to meet his. Vivid blue eyes with thick, black lashes. A full, bowed mouth. An air of unawakened sensuality he hadn’t seen in years.
She wasn’t the sort of woman he usually went for. He liked brunettes, especially if they sucked cock well and craved bondage. This red was absolutely the sort who would have sex with more than her hormones. She’d bring her heart and get it all tangled up in the man who gave her pleasure. Definitely, he should walk away.
“Where do you want to go?” Axel asked.
“I—I . . .” She blinked as if she hadn’t thought this part through. Or maybe she was just nervous. Either way, she really was terrible at casual hookups. Axel found that oddly endearing.
“My place?” he offered. “Or would you rather have a hotel?”
“Y-your place.” She frowned. “You’re saying yes?”
“I’m saying yes.” He took her hand. “Let’s get out of here.”
With his free hand, he slapped a ten-dollar bill down for his beer and guided her toward the door.
“What’s your name?” he asked as they approached the exit.
“It’s, um . . .”
“Bye, Ax,” the trio of cops in the corner called.
He waved in greeting. “See you. And enjoy your beers with the boys now, Matt. As soon as that baby comes, it’s going to be dirty diapers and exhaustion for you.”
The other regulars laughed while Matt flipped him the finger.
With a hearty grin, Axel opened the door. As soon as they stepped out to the surprising spring heat, he stopped on the sidewalk and raised a brow at her. “Name?”
“I’m . . . Elise.”
So Elise wasn’t her name. He didn’t know what it actually was and he didn’t like being lied to, but there was some reason she’d chosen this bar and him with casual sex on her mind. In good time, he’d unravel the why and learn the truth, along with her real name. Maybe he shouldn’t take someone unwilling to be honest to bed, but he’d already mentally undressed and started fucking her in his head. He wanted to do more than imagine.
“And you’re Ax? That’s unusual.”
“Axel.” He nodded. “It’s not my given name, but it’s what everyone calls me, so we’ll leave it at that. You come here in your car?”
“No. I was in the area and saw this bar and . . . popped in.”
The joint was off a side street, halfway down an alley, in a grungy part of town. No one just “popped in” unexpectedly, especially someone like her. Though her approach wasn’t practiced, it had definitely been premeditated. Hmm. And how had she gotten here without a car? How had she expected to leave without transportation of her own?
Axel scowled. Two and two wasn’t adding up. But he was a big boy. She wasn’t going to roll him. Not that she gave off the vibe that she planned to. No doubt, however, that she wanted him for something.
Not-Elise was getting more interesting by the minute. Not only was she the first woman he’d wanted in a while, but she’d be the first he’d take to bed in way too long strictly because he wanted her, not because she needed him.
The thought nagged him with a sludge of guilt, and he shoved it away.
“Popped in, huh?” he drawled.
Her flush deepened. “Shall we call a taxi?”
Like it would be simple getting one in this part of town? “My bike is over there, if that works for you.”
She followed his gaze and found his gleaming silver and black Ducati. “Can we?”
Had she never been on a motorcycle? Axel couldn’t figure this woman out and he kind of liked that. The way her face lit up made him eager to explore her. The thought that he’d be able to see her climb to orgasm in those pretty eyes turned him on even more.
Within minutes, they were settled on the bike. He’d fastened his too-big helmet on her head and given her a few basic instructions. She seemed fascinated, excited for this clearly new experience. As he started the bike and she settled behind him, wrapping her arms around his waist, he smiled. If new experiences turned her on, he had all kinds he could unleash on his little enigma.
* * *
AS the wind whipped around her, Mystery clung to Axel’s lean waist, actually able to feel the muscles of his abdomen and back as she pressed herself against him and held on for dear life. After thirty seconds, she decided that she needed one of these when she got home. Her father—if he wasn’t on location somewhere—would have a conniption. But wow, the freedom of feeling the air on her skin and the motor beneath her body exhilarated her.
She looked up, her gaze snared by the back of Axel’s thick neck. Maybe she should resist the urge . . . but she didn’t. Instead, she straightened a bit and braced her hands on his waist. It was a reach, but she pressed her lips to his skin. The moment she did, Mystery tasted a mild tang of salt, smelled clean soap blending with his rich, manly scent. Her head swam. Her body tightened.
God, this was going to be the best night of her life.
When she moaned and nipped at his nape, he tensed slightly, but she didn’t get the impression he disliked what she’d done. On the contrary, he shuddered and reached back with one hand to grip her thigh.
She gasped and found Axel glancing at her over his shoulder, his blue eyes penetrating. The look he shot her told her that she was in for something fiery, fast, and irresistible. Mystery flashed hot all over. Finally, she’d know what he felt like as a lover. The years of fantasizing had only left her wanting.
A few turns later, he pulled up to an older house, something faintly art deco that had probably been built in the thirties, given the purity of the big rectangular windows, the flat roof, and the huge trees lining the quiet street. The rest of the elements looked traditional—brick accents and flagstone walkways. The landscape was sparse but healthy. Everything looked meticulously maintained. But that didn’t surprise her. He’d always been methodical and precise.
“It’s beautiful,” she murmured as she lifted his helmet away, thanking the heavens it was way too big to pull her wig off.
He took it from her outstretched hand and hung it on the rearview mirror. “Thanks. It’s peaceful. I like it here. Let me put this away.” He reached into a saddlebag attached to the side and pulled out a garage door opener. With a press of a button, the big door raised, and he pushed the gleaming bike into the garage that, aside from a few organized tools, was otherwise empty.
Task completed, he hit the button to close the garage door and jumped over the sensor before returning to her side and taking her hand. “You sure about this?”
“Yes.” Mystery didn’t hesitate.
A smile broke out across his face, the kind of grin that told her that she was in way over her head. She knew all too well that she was—and she didn’t care. Her pulse skittered. Breathing took a backseat to staring at him. He’d never know how long she’d waited for him to do his worst.
“Then come with me.”
He unlocked the front door and opened it for her. She stepped over the threshold, into a gorgeous space with tall ceilings, pale honey floors, and a beautifully restored antique art deco dining room table. Through a big opening that likely wasn’t original to the house, she peeked into the expansive kitchen. Their gray cabinets, white quartz counters, and a whole wall of windows invited her in. She could picture him cooking in here, sipping beer, and relaxing.
“Thanks.” He led her into the domestic space. “I restored it myself. Drink?”
It seemed a bit odd to be pondering seduction late in the afternoon, as sunlight slanted through the bare windows. She’d pictured nightfall and champagne and elegance. But this was somehow quieter, more intimate. Perfect.
“No, thank you.”
Axel prowled toward her, so big and intent, so male that she instinctively retreated a step. Her belly tightened. Her back met the kitchen counter. He kept coming, and her stare tangled with his. The wry smile he wore revved her heart.
“I might have better wine than the bar.”
She wanted a completely clear head for this, wanted to remember every moment—and not dull her wits or risk blowing her cover. He’d been the first to teach her that booze had a time and a place, but not when one had a purpose. Her goal was to have incredible, orgasmic sex with the man she’d pined after and leave before he figured out exactly who he’d hit the sheets with.
“I’m sure you do, but no, thank you.”
Nodding slowly, he leaned in to brace his hands on the counter, on either side of her body. The last few inches he left between them tortured her. Her ache to erase the distance between them writhed like a physical thing. The years of fantasies about him collided in her head and zoomed down to converge between her legs until she throbbed.
And Axel hadn’t even touched her yet.
“Something to eat?”
Mystery got the distinct impression that he had no intention of cooking for her. He just toyed with her because he knew she wanted him so badly. If he’d figured that out and had no idea who she was, why not be brazen and ask for exactly what she wanted?
“I appreciate the offer, but if you’re taking requests, I’d rather you show me to your bedroom and take off your clothes.” Mystery didn’t demand; she knew better.
He chuckled. “Eager, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” Why hide the truth?
He cocked his head and studied her. “I owe you some torment for kissing the back of my neck on my bike. And truthfully, once I get you to my bedroom, I’m going to be all over you and so far inside you, I’m likely to shock your sheltered sensibilities.”
Her entire body jolted at his words. With a sharp gasp, she sucked in her next breath. “I want that.”
“In good time. Let’s . . . make our way to the couch.”
More waiting sounded awful. More waiting would make her go mad.
Mystery surged forward, planting herself against his chest and bracing her hands on his massive shoulders. He didn’t move as she brushed her lips over his and stole a kiss.
At first contact, fire sparked through her body. Another wave of heat zipped through her. She moaned and wrapped her arms around him.
Until she realized that, other than puckering up, Axel wasn’t participating.
Horrified, she leaned back. “I’m sorry. I . . .” Am mortified that I can’t seem to control myself.
She tried to duck out of his embrace, but he kept her caged between his body and the slab of quartz, then eased her back against the counter.
Mystery couldn’t meet his gaze. “Please don’t. I’m embarrassed enough.”
He shook his head. “You shouldn’t be. It’s not that I don’t want you kissing me, so if you’re feeding yourself a ration of insecurity about that, you can stop. You’re new at this whole seduction business, and I’m flattered you chose me.”
God, he had her pegged, and Mystery wanted to crawl into a hole because she could hear the “but” in his speech. She’d heard him give her such a speech before.
“It’s all right. You don’t have to explain. If you’ve decided you’re not interested, I can call a taxi and—”
Axel cut her off by wrapping his beefy hands around her waist and lifting her onto the counter. He used his big body to pry her knees apart and stepped between them. As he wrapped thick arms around her, he yanked her flush against him. “Look at me.”
Hot and cold, bewilderment and need, shock and excitement—everything clashed in her bloodstream. Scarcely daring to breathe, she peeked up at him, lashes fluttering, until she found the gumption to meet his stare head-on. “What?”
“You’re misunderstanding. I just want our first kiss to be something you remember, so scratch that last peck from your memory bank.”
Their first kiss had been unforgettable. Not a day since had gone by that Mystery hadn’t thought of it—and him—with longing. No man had ever made her ache more with his whole body than Axel had with just his mouth.
“Let’s do it right,” he murmured, cupping her face in his big hands.
All too eager to experience him again, Mystery met him halfway as he swooped down and captured her lips in a hard press. Instantly, the jolt of need she’d only ever experienced with him shocked her entire system. Every cell turned electric, glowed, pinging and lighting up. After the initial spark went through her, she threw her arms around him, more than happy to lose herself in the burn of his passion.
He was everything she’d waited to feel for six and a half long, lonely years.
As he pulled back and stared down at her, his big chest rising and falling faster than before, she lost herself in his blue eyes and remembered the first time she’d seen him.
Six and a half years earlier
SO cold. Mystery huddled into her blinged-out crop jacket and curled into the corner of the run-down shack. Her shoulders ached. She felt as if a furry creature had taken up residence in her mouth.
The wind howled, and she was thankful for the rickety wooden structure around her. As gusty as the weather had become, she worried the little hut—her only shelter—would blow over.
Closing her eyes, she tried to still her throbbing head. As groggy as she was, as much as sleep lured her to blissful oblivion, every time Mystery closed her eyes, she kept remembering the moments she’d walked out of the bar that she’d bribed and blustered her way into. At nineteen, she shouldn’t have been there—and she wished now that she’d gone home, as she’d promised her father. But no. A few of her friends had had luck at this swanky, A-list bar with both booze and hot guys, so she’d decided to be daring and give it a try.
Being the Marshall Mullins’s daughter had gotten her in immediately, no questions asked. No one in Hollywood hadn’t heard of the Oscar-winning actor-director. He was as famous for his epic talent as he was for his romantic exploits over the last two decades.
But the scene in the bar hadn’t been her thing. Loud. Lots of drugs and random hookups and pretty, heartless people. At just before midnight, she’d pleaded a headache and let herself outside, fishing in her purse for her car keys and thinking of things she could tell her father about where she’d been.
Mystery absolutely hadn’t been expecting the burlap hood over her head or the rough hands pulling her into a vehicle, then speeding off into the night.
She hadn’t struggled for long before she’d felt a needle in her arm. When she’d awakened, the hood had been removed. It looked like midmorning. Her purse, car keys, and cell phone were gone. She’d been handcuffed but was blessedly alone. A glance out a grungy window revealed nothing but miles and miles of desert.
It still seemed surreal that she’d been kidnapped. Did someone mean to ransom her? Rape her? Kill her? Mystery had no idea, and the not knowing sent panic skittering through her system. It was one of the few things keeping her awake.
She wished she could open her eyes and find this had been a nightmare, that she’d made different choices, that she could just run to her father’s open arms and that he’d make everything all right again. But none of that was going to happen. She’d have to find her own way out of this mess.
The door to the shack opened, and a man wearing a ski mask and head-to-toe black entered, heading straight for her. She tried to shrink back, scanning the shack for another door. Nothing.
The masked man grabbed her by her arm and hauled her roughly to her feet. Mystery thought of kicking him and running but he was twice her size. Menace rolled off him like a thundercloud. He wore some sort of assault rifle strapped over his shoulder and a hideously large knife from a sheath, attached to his belt . . . right near his hand. She shrank back. Please, God, don’t let him use either on me.
He grabbed the edges of her light jacket and shoved it down her arms.
“Don’t,” she pleaded—and hated herself for doing it. But she’d never been in danger. Hell, she’d hardly ever been out of Beverly Hills. She didn’t want to die here now. She had so much life in front of her.
And after her mother’s high-profile death, if she died violently, it would kill her father.
He didn’t acknowledge her pleading, just whirled her around until she faced the wall. “Hold still.”
A moment later, he reached for her wrists and gripped one tightly.
Mystery stared at the dilapidated wood, her thoughts racing. What was he doing? Waiting for? Did he plan on stabbing her? Strangling her?
A second later, she felt a prick at her wrist, like a needle penetrating her skin, invasive in her vein.
“No!” She couldn’t handle more drugs. Already she felt weak and shaky, vaguely sick to her stomach. Another round of that . . . The thought made her dry heave.
“Shut up!” he commanded. “Hold the fuck still.”
“What are you doing?” She wanted to struggle but didn’t dare, especially with the needle still stuck in her skin. She just wanted to get out alive, see her father again, be a normal teenager. If she could, she’d be so good, never do anything wrong again. “Stop!”
“I told you to shut up. I’m not hurting you, but if you keep flapping your mouth, it will be my pleasure.”
Mystery pressed her lips together tightly. Long, terrible seconds passed as she waited for the drowsy lethargy to overpower her again. Instead, nothing broke the terrible silence except his rough breathing. God, she hoped that holding her captive wasn’t sexually exciting him.
Finally, he withdrew the needle from her vein. He slapped something over the spot, then she heard a clanking sound, a bit like small gears grinding.
Suddenly, her arms were free. Mystery stretched them at her sides, then crossed them in front of her as she whirled to face her attacker. He’d already stepped away and now hovered by the door.
“There’s a bathroom in the next room. I left food and water in the sack on the workbench.” He nodded in the direction of the rickety table shoved against the wall. Sure enough, a paper sack sat there, bulging with what she hoped would be edible. She was starving and no doubt dehydrated. At least it seemed he didn’t mean for her to die right this instant. Later . . . she had no idea.
“The sun will be setting in the next two hours. There are over ten thousand square miles of virtually uninhabited desert all around us. It’s over ninety degrees now. It will be in the thirties tonight. I don’t think you’ll get far in stilettos, a mini dress, and that flimsy jacket. But you’re welcome to try. You might be saving me something messy in the future.”
When he turned for the door, Mystery panicked. “Wait! What do you want? Why am I here?”
He scoffed. “Now you ask, you stupid bitch . . .” He fingered the knife at his belt, silently reminding her that he held the power. “I’m just following orders. Someone wanted you here. I don’t ask questions; I just do jobs. I don’t really give a shit what happens next.”
Then he was gone, slamming the wobbly door behind him. Mystery stared out the window, watching him go. He walked away with a purposeful stride, toward an ATV. He mounted it, sent her a mocking salute, then disappeared.
The moment he rolled out of sight, she released the breath she’d been holding. Adrenaline bled out. She shook all over. What was she going to do? Her pampered life hadn’t prepared her for this. She knew how to shop, how to play hostess for a party, how to pose when the paparazzi showed up. She didn’t have a single survival skill. Did she want to run through the desert with no footwear, huddled in a coat meant purely for decoration, and carrying limited water, hoping she’d encounter a Good Samaritan? It didn’t sound like a fantastic idea. Then again, hanging around here, waiting for that asshole to come back and end her didn’t sound smart, either.
The probably slow death or the almost-certain quick one?
The quandary filled Mystery with icy-sharp dread.
She paced over to the food and ate every bite of the ham sandwich and the accompanying apple, then she downed one of her two bottles of water. God knew how long she’d been without hydration.
The sustenance helped her to think, to realize that she’d be best off to set out shortly before sunrise and walk all day, even if she’d do it barefoot, and try to find civilization. She’d hang onto this second bottle of water. It might be all she had to see her through a hot day.
She found the little bathroom next. It was tiny and disgusting and she refused to actually sit on the toilet, but it flushed. The dilapidated shower worked, but on second thought, did she really want to get naked when her captor could come back at any moment?
Then it became a waiting game. A couple of hours slid by. The sun brushed the horizon, and Mystery realized there wasn’t a single light in this little shack. She’d pass the whole night in utter darkness, unable to see if dangerous critters—or the asshole who’d taken her—sneaked up on her. The thought added a whole different layer of fear.
Just before darkness fell, the door opened again, and Mr. Ski Mask appeared.
“What?” she demanded. Had he come to kill her now? Who’s orders was he following?
“Change of plans. Boss doesn’t want you going anywhere.” He grabbed her and jabbed another needle in her arm. “Nighty night.”
The last sound she heard was his chuckle as he shut the door and the world went black.
* * *
FOR the next two days, her routine fell into exactly the same pattern. By day three, Mystery knew she’d have to break it. Her captor didn’t touch her—thank goodness for small miracles—but he liked to scare her with knives. When he’d brought her yesterday’s meal, he’d hinted that he should soon know her fate. Every attempt to question him about why he’d drawn her blood and why he was holding her hostage he countered with threats or silence. She didn’t know who was paying him or if they’d even made a ransom demand to her father. Poor Daddy had to be going insane, wondering where she was and if she was alive. She almost hated her captor as much for worrying her parent as she did for scaring the hell out of her.
Mystery watched out the window for her nemesis. He’d soon be coming with her food and hydration for the day. She’d consumed the water he’d given her and saved the bottles, refilling them in the bathroom sink. Amongst the junk in this little shack, she’d found an old duffel bag. It was small enough that she could fashion it into a backpack of sorts. She still wasn’t sure what to do about shoes—a must in the desert—but she’d rather take her chances with the elements.
Finally, as the sun began heading for the horizon, Mystery saw the asshole who kept her prisoner climb off his ATV and stroll toward the shack. With a jaunty step, he opened the door and let himself in, plunking the paper bag with her usual sandwich, fruit, and water on the table.
“Well, the boss wants to see me when I’m done here. Maybe that means our ‘special’ time together is over.” He sidled closer, leering in her direction. “If he tells me to end you, I promise I’ll give you a wild fuck before I do.”
When he cupped her breast and pinned her to the wall, Mystery screamed and struggled, kicking him. He just laughed and adjusted the bulge in his crotch before heading out and slamming the door behind him. She watched out the little window, waiting for him to straddle his ATV and roll away so she could make her final preparations to start her trek through the desert.
Suddenly, the sound of gunshots exploded through the air. Her captor froze, then ran for the ATV, rolling to the ground and using the big metal frame to shield his body. He poked his head up and aimed over the vehicle, shooting toward a target Mystery couldn’t see. More bullets flew, some ricocheting off the metal of the four-wheeler, others kicking up sand.
Someone was shooting at her captor. Who would be out here in the middle of nowhere, trying to kill him? Had his enemies hunted him down? Or was she being rescued? Her head raced. She didn’t know what to think and didn’t want to reveal her presence in the event the guys shooting now were badder than the criminal who’d taken her. Still, she had to be prepared in case they killed her captor and she was forced to walk through the desert to find civilization.
She gathered the duffel with water bottles and a canvas she’d found on the old vinyl floor yesterday, hoping the scrap of sturdy cloth could serve as footwear or covering for her head as needed, since she didn’t have any sunscreen, either.
After looping her arms through the handles, she peeked out the window to see two men in camo running toward the ATV, guns blazing. One of them ducked behind the vehicle, then inched up to shoot at her assailant at the other end of the rolling tin can. That was all the time her captor needed. He shot one of the new arrivals, and the man jolted, jerking with the impact before crumpling to the ground, unmoving.
Mystery gasped, then slapped a hand to her mouth. She doubted anyone would hear her over the wind and the din of the shots being exchanged, but if they did . . . she wouldn’t come out of this alive.
The second of the two combatants she’d seen grabbed a big rifle from his fallen comrade’s back, shoved in a new magazine, then quietly sneaked toward the front of the ATV.
Her captor obviously didn’t trust the silence. He leaned around the front of the vehicle, and when he spotted the enemy, they exchanged another hail of gunfire.
To her right, the door to the shack burst open. The wood slammed against the wall, making the whole structure shake.
Then a big, dark shadow fell across the threshold, blocking most of the sun slanting behind his huge form. Mystery shrieked and scrambled back, looking for a way to escape whatever he’d come to do to her. But she already knew from her days of captivity here that no other path to freedom existed. The shack had only two small windows, which he obstructed, and no other doors.
The huge man stepped into the beams of light streaming through the window, gripping an assault rifle, ready to shoot. A small pack hung around his beefy shoulders. A tight khaki T-shirt stretched over a powerful chest. His hair was so short, she could barely discern the color, but it was something with a golden tint, glinting under the waning sun. His sharp blue gaze zeroed in on her immediately. She shrank back.
“Don’t be afraid. We’re here to rescue you. Your father hired us.”
Jubilant relief poured through Mystery. She trembled so hard, she couldn’t quite stand steady. She’d known that Marshall Mullins wouldn’t wait for the police to rescue her. Doing nothing had never been his style. On the other hand, this man was a total stranger. Why should she believe him?
“Wh-who are you?”
“Axel Dillon. I served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and now I’m private hire. Your father contacted my CO day before yesterday. We’ve been looking for you since. Are you hurt?”
Mystery wasn’t one hundred percent sure she believed him. And she could still hear gunshots pinging outside at a furious, fatal rate.
“For fuck’s sake,” Axel roared. “Stay here and hidden. I’m going to end this son of a bitch.”
He turned around and marched out of the shack. She watched the retreat of his wide shoulders and narrow hips. Everything about him shouted that he was a soldier, just as he’d claimed. But did that mean he was her father’s soldier-for-hire? Mystery didn’t know, and after being abducted, then threatened with murder and rape, her trust was admittedly thin. Exhaustion and hunger were wreaking havoc with her logic.
She ran to the window again, watching as he raised his rifle, peered through the scope, and fired. Her captor feinted just as he pulled the trigger, but the shot still managed to hit the asshole. He slapped a hand to his side and tried to climb the hood of the ATV and scramble into the driver’s seat.
Axel’s sidekick leapt onto the vehicle and fired his handgun. Her assailant must have seen or sensed trouble coming because he rolled out, back to the hard sand, then took off on foot, heading away from the shack. He fired off a shot every few steps over his shoulder at the other man in camo.
Where did her captor think he was going? He’d said himself there was nothing but desert for miles. Had that been a lie? Or was he simply hoping to escape into the expansive landscape as night fell, then limp his way to safety?
Axel darted toward the dueling pair, but the other soldier was closer, scrambling into the driver’s seat of the vehicle so he could head off in hot pursuit of her captor.
Mystery watched, her stomach twisting. The bastard who’d ripped apart her world . . . he wouldn’t get far. She wasn’t a mean or violent person, but sudden death was too good for that thug. She kind of wanted to watch someone beat the shit out of him or drive the ATV over him again and again until the life left his body.
As the other soldier started the mini four-wheeler, it leapt forward, kicking up sand behind it. Her captor looked over his shoulder, then tried to run faster. But he was no match at all.
As if he’d figured that out, he stopped dead in his tracks and faced the oncoming vehicle as it ate up ground, on a collision course to run him over in seconds. Instead of fleeing in another direction, he reached into his pocket and withdrew something, then aimed it at the vehicle, almost like a remote control.
The ATV and Axel’s fellow soldier burst into a big orange ball of flames, instantly consumed in a conflagration. She gasped in horror.
Her captor laughed beneath his ski mask as he palmed his gun again and pointed it at Axel, now running toward the killer who had already murdered his two brothers in arms. Both Axel and her captor aimed and pulled the trigger, but the bastard who had abducted her didn’t have a weapon made for long shots. The handgun was no match for the high-powered rifle at that distance.
The asshole who had taken and tormented her jackknifed back, then fell to the ground. He didn’t move again.
Now she was alone with Axel, a man who could save her life—or end it.
She swallowed, her heart racing, her veins running with pure adrenaline, as he jogged toward the first of his fallen peers. He checked the pulse at the man’s neck, then sighed heavily and rose to his feet. Bypassing the burning remains of the ATV, he aimed his rifle at the unmoving form of her captor, cautiously approaching as he checked for signs of life. Apparently, he found none because he began searching the asshole’s pockets.
Slinging his rifle onto his back, Axel turned and made his way toward her, his gaze sharp and focused.
Mystery trembled. God, she hoped he was one of the good guys, sent by her father, as he claimed. Because if it was a lie to win her trust, he could do whatever he wanted to her out in this godforsaken desert. Cut her, rape her, strangle her . . . Snapshots of all the hideous ways he could murder her flashed through her brain. He could leave her bones to bleach out in the potent sun and walk away without anyone the wiser. This gun battle certainly had no other survivors who might rescue her—if they’d ever intended to.
Tears rolled down her cheeks. On the one hand, she realized that she was probably being overly dramatic and the odds of three men hunting down someone else’s captive to brutally murder her made very little sense. Why would he try to trick her into trusting him just for that? On the other hand, some small part of her mind realized that after everything she’d been through in the last few days, she wasn’t exactly prepared to be rational. Thoughts raced. Terror clung. She just wanted to go home, feel her father’s arms around her, get back to normalcy, which seemed a million miles away right now.
Axel turned and headed her way. She screamed.
He took off at a dead run for her. Mystery panicked and sprinted out of the shack. The wind whipped through her hair, kicking dust onto her skin. The sand felt hot on the bare soles of her feet, and she knew right away that days of being undernourished and afraid to sleep would catch up with her quickly. Axel’s pounding footsteps behind her drew closer and closer, and she felt powerless to keep him from capturing her.
It seemed as if mere seconds had passed before his arm snaked around her waist and he hauled her against his big, solid body.
“Don’t run. I’ve got you. I know you’re scared, but I’m going to save you.”
He panted against her neck, and she felt his chest rising and falling with every breath. She couldn’t seem to suck in enough air, either. Her heart beat furiously. Fear spiked her veins.
“Let me go. I just want to go home.”
“I know,” he assured, his voice surprisingly soft for someone who looked—and felt—all soldier. “I’ll take care of you. But you can’t charge through the desert without shoes. It may look dead around here, but I assure you, the land is very much alive, and you’d be no match.”
In her head, Mystery knew that. At the age of nine, she’d been with her dad on their way to Palm Springs for some celebrity event when their car had broken down. Even being stranded on the roadside for a few hours had been hot and harrowing. She’d never been so aware of the harsh elements and her inability to survive them.
The fight left her muscles, and she nodded miserably.
Gently, Axel set her back on her feet and turned her to face him. She was almost afraid to look at him, worried she’d see cruel glee on his face just before he ended her. Instead, she saw a well of patience. He knew she’d had it tough and he empathized. The human kindness Axel showed her was the first she’d seen in seemingly forever.
Mystery burst into tears again.
“Hey. Hey!” He cupped her face and thumbed tears from her cheeks. “Shh. I know you’re on emotional overload, but we can’t do this now. Breathe with me.” He fused her gaze to his and demonstrated by dragging in a long breath, then letting it out. He did it again, waiting patiently until she followed suit.
Calm slowly made its way through her panic. With each breath and every second she looked into his eyes, she relaxed a bit more. Her mind wasn’t a constant explosion of chaos and terror.
As soon as the adrenaline dissipated, she felt incredibly weak. Her muscles no longer seemed able to support her, and she sagged against his chest.
“That’s it,” he crooned. “Nothing to be afraid of. I need some quick information, all right? Tell me if the man holding you hostage had any help? Anyone else who assisted him in keeping you captive?”
She shook her head. “H-he talked about someone who hired him, but I . . . I never saw him.”
“So it was just the two of you?”
“Good. That gives us some breathing room. Come with me. We’ll go back to the shack and map out a plan.”
Plan? “I don’t want to go back. He kept me there. He—”
“I know.” Axel took her hand and slowly led her back to the place of her captivity.
She tried to dig in her heels, but he was far stronger. In fact, her legs gave out from under her, and without breaking stride, he bent and carried her against his chest, taking huge, ground-eating steps until the shade of the little outbuilding sheltered them again.
Gingerly, he set her on her feet, then kicked the door shut. “There. Now, another deep breath. Let’s talk this out rationally, okay?”
His deep voice soothed her. Mystery felt herself sliding slowly off the pinnacle of panic. She nodded at him.
“Listen to me. I was an army medic, sent as part of this rescue crew in case you need medical attention. But you have to be honest with me. I can’t help you to the best of my ability if you’re not. Understand?”
Again, she nodded.
“I need you to be verbal with me. We don’t have room for misunderstanding here. Say ‘Yes, Axel.’”
She swallowed and stared at a spot of smudged dirt on his T-shirt. “Yes, Axel.”
“Good. Did your captor beat you? Tie you, restrain you, or otherwise put you in any position that might have caused injury?”
“I was cuffed with my hands behind my back when he first brought me here. My shoulders ached for a bit. I’m all right now. He never struck me or restrained me again.”
Axel nodded. “Did you hurt your feet running outside barefoot just now?”
Her soles smarted, but nothing more serious than when she’d played barefoot in the backyard as a kid. “No.”
“When did you last drink water? Eat? Did he feed you regularly?”
“He gave me one meal and two bottles of water a day. I haven’t eaten yet today.”
“So he provided enough to keep you alive but not well hydrated.” Axel cursed, then let out a deep breath. “We can work with that.”
“Well, I drank the bottles then refilled them in the little bathroom sink. It’s disgusting, but I knew that if I tried to escape alone through the desert that I’d need to stay hydrated.”
He grabbed her shoulders. “Good thinking. You have to use your head to survive this climate.”
She nodded, every muscle in her body weak, even those in her neck. She felt like a bobble head. Then she remembered that he wanted a verbal response. “Yes, Axel.”
“He drugged me every night so I couldn’t escape.”
Axel tensed. “Any idea what he gave you?”
“No. He injected it. It made me sleep for half the day, sometimes more.”
“Any side effects?”
It wasn’t what he said or even how he said it, but something about the tight set of his mouth told her that everything her captor had done to her had really pissed him off. That made her feel better. If he was indignant on her behalf and concerned about her health, maybe he really was one of the good guys.
“No. I mean, I’d wake up groggy, but it would wear off eventually.”
“No drug cravings?”
That hadn’t occurred to Mystery, but she was damn glad the asshole hadn’t given her anything she might become addicted to. She shook her head. “No.”
“I don’t want to hurt or scare you, but I need to give you a quick medical exam.”
She frowned. “Why wouldn’t we just call the authorities now? Get away from here and let them take me to the hospital?”
“I wish it were that simple. Let me check you over, then I’ll explain.”
There wasn’t a hospital, some police, an explanation—and her father—in her immediate future? Based on what he’d said, she didn’t think so. That filled her with anxiety again. “What do you mean, not that simple?”
“Hey, no need to worry. Let’s tackle one issue at a time. The first thing I need to know is if you’re all right.”
“I’m conscious. I’m talking. I’m walking. And I want to go home.”
“I know, Mystery. I’d love to take you there. But with my two teammates dead, that presents some complications.”
Oh, wow. She hadn’t stopped to think of that. And what must Axel be feeling, losing two people he considered his . . . what? Coworkers? Friends? To help a woman he didn’t even know. “I’m sorry. W-were you close?”
His jaw tightened and he looked away. “It’s not important right this minute. I need to focus on you.”
Her father had once starred in and directed a military film about soldiers in Vietnam in a harrowing situation, against almost impossible odds. He’d actually interviewed a bunch of soldiers at her house, and she’d eavesdropped. She remembered them talking about the necessity of compartmentalizing until they dealt with the situation that needed immediate attention. Once everything was secure and they were alone, they would deal with whatever they’d shoved to the recesses of their mind . . . hopefully. Some never did; they simply locked their grief or stress away in a mental box tightly and threw away the key. It was why things like PTSD and suicides cropped up in the military community so often. Even those who dealt with it or got help sometimes still found it too overwhelming and couldn’t cope.
“If you were close to them and you’re upset, I . . . I know you don’t know me, but I’m willing to listen and help.”
Something in his face changed. A faint surprise registered. Apparently, he was used to being the hero. Didn’t anyone ever try to save him?
“That’s very kind, but the first thing I need to do is my job. You’re my primary responsibility. The other two soldiers were both my backup and provided essential elements to the rescue. Carr, the one in the exploding ATV, was our comm officer. When everything went up in flames, so did our ability to communicate with the outside world.”
Meaning that he didn’t have a way to just call the police to come out and whisk them back to Beverly Hills? He didn’t have a way to ask her father to come get her?
“You don’t have a cell phone?”
“Sure, I do. But there isn’t a nearby town or even a highway. In terms of mobile communication, this is all a dead zone.”
“So . . . I guess we’re walking to your jeep or chopper or whatever you came here in?”
His entire body tightened as he shook his head. Mystery got the distinct impression that he was doing his best to remain calm and not show any fear. That worried her more than anything.
“Alvarez, Carr, and I came in on a HALO jump. We didn’t leave behind a vehicle in case it could be detected.”
Sure, she’d heard the word, but she had no idea what it meant. “HALO?”
“High altitude, low opening.” When she frowned at him in confusion, he rubbed at the back of his neck. “We jumped out of a plane at thirty thousand feet. A plane at that altitude mimics a jetliner. By keeping the opening low, we don’t make waves on the radar. So just in case anyone is monitoring the airspace around here, it wouldn’t look out of the ordinary.”
She’d never thought of that. It had never occurred to her they wouldn’t just drive in with a small cache of weapons and do their thing. “Oh.”
“So the downside is, we have no vehicle. And since we lost our comm gear in the explosion, we’re going to have to hike our way to civilization.”
“The asshole holding me prisoner told me we’re surrounded by miles and miles of desert.”
“We’re smack in the middle of the Mojave. This is Death Valley.”
It was some of the most unforgiving land in all of North America. She remembered learning that in school after one of her classmates in high school had gone on a camping trip with some buddies and their rock climbing equipment had given out, leaving him stranded in a ravine. He’d dehydrated in the desert in less than twenty-four hours.
She tried to swallow back panic. “Do you know the fastest way to civilization?”
“Yeah. We’re looking at a fifteen- or twenty-mile trek southwest. But we have to be prepared for the conditions of the desert and to climb a few mountains. So the first thing I need to do is to examine you.” He took her hand. “Because I’ve got to be honest. Your skin is a little clammy.” He pressed two fingers to her carotid artery. “And your pulse is a little fast and weak. I need to make sure you’re just emotionally distraught rather than going into shock because of an injury. Will you let me check you out?”
Mystery understood clearly that if she wanted to see her father and home again, she was going to have to walk her way out. “Yes, Axel.”
He shrugged the pack off his back and took out a stethoscope, taking a quick listen to her heart and lungs. After a moment, he nodded as if satisfied before checking her blood pressure.
“One-forty over ninety-five. It’s high.”
Was he actually surprised by that? He stared as if he expected a reply. She just shrugged.
With quick efficiency, he attached a little device to her finger next.
“What is that?” Mystery frowned.
“A pulse oximeter, which measures the saturation of the oxygen level in your blood. I can also see your pulse rate.” He held her wrist in his enormous hand and stared down at the device. A frown wrinkled his brow before he smoothed it away. “Your oxygenation is on the low side, your pulse a bit high.”
“I’m more than a little freaked out.”
“Fair enough. I’ll check you again in a few minutes. Have you come into contact with any rusty metal or anything that might cause tetanus?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Any deep cuts that might need stitching or scrapes that need dressing? Infection isn’t your friend in the wild.”
In silence, she showed him a scrape on her elbow and one on her thigh, just above the hemline of her fraying dress. Without a word, he doctored them with some antibiotic ointment and covered them with gauze, his hands surprisingly gentle, despite their size. Then he paused and looked directly into her eyes. “The police equipped me with a rape kit. I need you to be honest with me. Should I administer it?”
“No.” She swallowed and shook her head. “Thank God, no. H-he threatened but didn’t . . .”
“That’s good,” he said in a soothing voice. “That’s really good. So you’ve prepared bottles of water?”
She showed him the canvas duffel and the eight full bottles she’d stashed inside. “Two of these are fresh.”
“That’s good thinking. Any food?”
“Just before you came, he left me a ham sandwich and an apple in a paper bag.”
“We’ll grab it. Do you have any shoes?”
“Stilettos.” She winced, then looked to the shoes she’d long ago discarded in the corner. Prada wasn’t doing her any good in the desert. “But I found this.” She held up the scrap of burlap. “I thought if I could find a rope, maybe I could rip this in half somehow and tie one around each of my ankles and—”
“It’s a good thought, but that’s not enough protection. Stay here.”
Axel stood and grabbed his rifle, positioning it for action as he slipped out the door of the shack. On shaking legs, Mystery stood and watched him creep across the desert to the body of his first fallen comrade. He knelt, keeping the rifle directly beside him, and snagged the man’s backpack, slinging it over one shoulder. Moments later, he lifted Alvarez in a fireman’s carry and headed back for the shack.
What was he doing?
She had her answer moments later when Axel stepped through the front door and eased the body of the fallen soldier onto the floor. Blood stained the man’s T-shirt around the fatal wound open in his chest. Axel’s face looked tight, his jaw clenched. Mystery’s heart went out to him.
With methodical precision, he stripped off his friend’s boots and tossed them her direction. The man’s socks came off next and followed in an arc across the shack. “Put them on.”
“They’ll be too big,” she blurted.
He zipped a stare in her direction, his blue eyes cool and demanding. “They’ll protect you from the hot sand and possible snake bite.”
Mystery hadn’t even thought of that possibility and she felt so stupid. She’d been completely unprepared to survive in the desert. Maybe not a surprise since she’d been dressed for nightclubbing, not roughing it. But the fact that she didn’t have the first clue how to take care of herself out here, that she had to rely so totally on this stranger who had just lost two of his fellow soldiers, that she had no idea how to shoulder some of his burden, disturbed her.
Rather than argue or squirm at putting on boots that had just come off a dead man, she drew the socks over her bare feet. They were still warm.
Beside her, Axel removed Alvarez’s jacket and set it aside, then grabbed the old duffel she’d stuffed. He dragged out the burlap scrap and gripped both ends in his meaty hands. His biceps bulged and his chest bunched, his strength obvious. The heavy fabric tore in half. She swallowed. Her heart skipped at the realization he could squash her like a bug. Again, she had to hope that in her desperation to be rescued, she wasn’t trusting the wrong man. But her instincts said he’d do what it took to get her to safety.
Without missing a beat, he tore one of the scraps in half again and shoved a piece in the toe of each boot. “Now put them on. They’ll still be too big, but walking through the sand will be exhausting enough. The more easily you’re able to walk, the less taxing it will be.”
She nodded, then remembered his request. “Yes, Axel.”
“Good.” He watched her, his gaze hawkish, missing nothing.
No doubt he saw her hands shaking because as soon as she’d slipped her foot into the first boot, he took her ankle in his big hands and straightened her leg, lacing it up with a few twists of his fingers and a couple of firm tugs. Mystery watched, fascinated. He moved so quickly and economically for such a huge man. No lumbering or fumbling. Axel was incredibly proficient, and she was so grateful in that moment.
He repeated the process with the other boot, then looked her way. “How do those feel?”
“Fine,” she said hoarsely.
With a satisfied nod, he got to his feet and offered her his hand. “Stand for me.”
Mystery stared, looking up his forearms roped with muscle, his strong biceps, his huge chest, up to a face that could have looked so harsh. But the understanding there made her tear up again.
She brushed the wetness from her chapped cheeks, sniffed her reaction away, then took his hand. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. Adrenaline crash. We’ve all done it. That’s probably why you’re shaking, too. If you feel faint, let me know.”
“I’ll be fine.” She had to be. Mystery was determined not to let him down.
Without another word, he helped her to her feet. Her legs shook, and she felt as if she stood on wet noodles. But she drew in a deep breath. She’d suck it up and pull her weight. If they wanted to survive, she didn’t have a choice. Two innocent men had already died to save her, and she’d carry that guilt forever. She didn’t want Axel to suffer any more.
After another check of her blood pressure, pulse-ox, and pupils, he nodded. “Better. You good to go?”
He re-stashed his medical equipment, then picked up Alvarez’s pack, shoving in the water bottles she’d saved before he tested its weight in his hand. With a frown, he drew his own off and handed it to her. “This one is lighter. Carry this as long as you can. If it gets to be too much, I’ll take it back. Let’s go.”
Mystery gaped at him, looked back to Alvarez’s fallen body, then out the shack’s little window. “We’re not . . .” Burying him? Where? With what shovel? Yeah, stupid question, so she swallowed it down. “Shouldn’t we wait until morning?”
“You said your captor worked alone, but he admitted that someone hired him?”
She nodded. “He never said who.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the novels of Shayla Black
“A Shayla Black story never disappoints!”—#1 New York Times Bestselling Author Sylvia Day
“Shayla Black creates emotional, searingly sexy stories.”—#1 New York Times Bestselling Author Maya Banks
“Scorching, wrenching, suspenseful, Shayla Black’s books are a must-read.”—#1 New York Times Bestselling Author Lora Leigh
“Wickedly seductive from start to finish.”—New York Times Bestselling Author Jaci Burton
“[Shayla Black] always delivers strong characters, great stories and plenty of heat.”—USA Today
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It seems like I've been waiting forever to read this story, and Shayla Black did not disappoint! Weather you are a fan of the Wicked Lovers series or are finding her work for the first time, you'll love it. The main character, Axel Dillon has been whispered about in previous novels, giving us just a taste of what was to come! We get a look into what helped make Axel the man he is today. When the one that got away walks back into his life,he is blindside by the "Mystery" woman who rocked his world. When her life is in danger, he'll do whatever if takes to keep her safe and by his side. Has a true fan of the Wicked Lovers series, I have to say this story is her best one yet!
Loved Axel and Mystery. Action packed and steamy love scenes all in one fantastic story!!! Can't wait for the next in this series.
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Shayla always has great characters that you develop an intense desire to see happy and she delivers the best happy endings with a lot of great, zippy dialog and lots of action and suspense! One of my top authors always!
Loved it!! Her best so far.
Omg I loved Axel and Mystery story. Exciting, frustrating, sweet, sad, sexy and smoking hot!!!! Loved this and love this series Fantastic
I don't know how she does it, but Shayla Black has written another AH-MAZING installment in her Wicked Lovers series. For those that have read the previous stories, we have met Axel and gotten snippets of his character throughout the series. I was excited to find out his real name and get to know him so much deeper. He's a tough guy but completely in touch with his issues and emotions. I mean- can this guy exist in real life? Mystery is not my fave heroine of the books- she's a little to meek in my opinion. However, I can definitely see how these two fit together. I love that Shayla gives us just enough to question the mystery but not quite complete the whole puzzle. This was an excellent book. It can be read as a stand alone but some of the secondary characters make a little more sense if you read the other books first.
This was one of my favorites in he series. I couldn't put it down and it had me from the start. Loved the emotions and they were relatable
4.5 star I was pulled right into this story. The story has laughs, kidnapping, murder, suspense, twist & turns, seduction, secrets, lies, betrayal, and heartbreak. This is Mystery and Axel’s story. Mystery was kidnapped years ago and Axel with the help of two of his friends were hired to find and bring her home. While in the process of getting home Mystery comes on Axel and he rejects her. She has since moved overseas and has been there for years. Now years Mystery needs one night with Axel so she can finally move on with her life. She travels back to the US in order to get her one night. She goes to him with a fake name and a disguise and gets her one night. She flees after she has him once. Then her world comes crashing down on her. She is threaten but she is not sure why. Axel figures out just who seduced him. Now he has to figure out what he is going to do about it. Once he finds out about the threat they must work together to figure it out. But misunderstandings and hurt feeling might just be the thing that gets them in more trouble. Can they figure out the threat before it takes one of them out? I felt I was able to connect with the characters and the story was a great read. I highly recommend this book and can’t wait for the next story from this author.
Wicked for You is another delicious Wicked Lovers novel by Shayla Black. Mystery Mullins, daughter of a famous Hollywood actor/director and Axel Dillon, her hero rescuer, are the focus of this book 10 in the Wicked Lovers series. The characters were well developed and grew along with the story. There were a couple surprises along the way that I wasn't expecting, which were great! Axel is a large and extremely sexy man/Dom. His attitude toward what he is, is very serious. I was surprised to see that even he has insecurities. As serious as he is about being a Dom, his feelings for Mystery are so deep that he finds it a constant struggle to keep a scene going instead of just making love to her. What ever they're doing, it's done with plenty of steam rolling off the pages! Mystery strikes me as not having a great deal of common sense. Not exactly an airhead but close. Of course, that could be from being raised as a teenager with all the Hollywood glitz and glamour. As an adult, she's more grounded in the real world. Heath is the one I really feel bad for. Unrequited love is a horrible thing to have to deal with. Maybe we'll see him with his own story in the future. The story had a natural flow along with some backstory to make you understand why things were happening the way they were. This was another great read from an author who NEVER disappoints! I can't wait for the next one. I was not compensated for my review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinion expressed is my own.
✦Review: Wicked for You: Wicked Lovers Series by Shayla Black http://wp.me/p3d0RZ-37B Publication Date: October 6, 2015 Genre: Erotica/ Contemporary Romance Reviewed by: Reading in Pajamas/ Donna Rated: 5 Stars Wow this was a fun read! I loved how Ms. Black melded the BDSM romance seamlessly into the exciting story. I never once felt that anything was forced. Her characters had a nice depth to them so that you cared and became vested into the dangerous mystery. And that mystery kept me guessing through the whole book. I’ll add that I’m not always a fan of the ‘go back in time reminiscing’ but that was a great story in itself that added so much to the book. This book had it all; scorching hot romance, danger, intrigue and mystery. It covered all my wants. *Review copy provided by Penguin in exchange for an honest review.