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Maverick: A Rough Romance by Piper Stone – Sample

Chapter One

Amelie

My bad day just turned into a nightmare.

I’d found my piece of shit ex in my bed with my now ex-best friend.

I’d had a flat tire.

I’d lost my waitressing job.

Now this.

Being summoned to my father’s house was never for a happy reason.

And it wasn’t about giving me a Christmas gift.

We didn’t live a Hallmark card kind of life complete with festive celebrations and heartfelt emotions. There was nothing but animosity between us, which had been the only thing I’d felt for as long as I could remember. He’d made it perfectly clear from an early age that I was nothing but a nuisance in his life and that he was doing me a favor in allowing me to grow up near him.

While most children would crumble from his harsh words and prison-like rules, I’d grown strong and wise, capable of ignoring his rants and demands. Once I’d turned eighteen, he’d ignored me altogether other than the required twice a year dinners where nothing but business was handled. Checks written for tuition. Doling out an allowance like I was a five-year-old asking for money for candy. And the same lecture on how I was wasting my life giving a shit about animals.

But today was entirely different.

I sensed it in my bones.

The meeting had to do with the release of my trust fund, money he hadn’t been able to get his grubby hands on. My mother had done her best to protect me, even while falling under his spell. The executor was an attorney, a friend of my mother’s family. I was certain the man who’d professed to love my mother had conned her into marrying him, funding his unprofitable company. I’d been too young to remember anything but arguments. How many times had I heard their harsh words, screaming battles that had lasted for hours? My mother had taken me on a special trip to get away.

I’d returned alone, my mother killed in a crash. But I’d never believed the reports. My gut told me he had something to do with her death. As hard as I’d tried, I hadn’t been able to pin her murder on him. But one day I would. So help me God. I was still alive for a reason, and I was determined to find out what that was.

He’d rarely talked about her, finally acting as if she’d never existed. One day I would learn the truth.

I doubted that would happen today. This was a turning point. I was certain of it.

Something was very wrong.

Carmine Rathbone didn’t have a decent bone in his body as far as I was concerned. He was a con man, someone not to be trusted. Today, he wore a smile as if he’d just won the Mega-millions lottery, only he’d consider that chump change given his worth was well over two hundred million dollars. But he’d been antsy, his stock dropping. I was no business major, but it was obvious he’d lost millions.

I’d continued to dig and would do so until I found justice for my mother.

He needed my cash. I was certain of it. Without interference, it would be in my hands in three months. By the look on his face alone, I could tell he was worried.

I was leery, on edge, which hopefully I’d find the opportunity to take out on my father.

Be smart about this.

“Come. Have a seat,” he told me the moment he ushered me into his office.

As I usually did when I arrived at the house I’d grown up in, I wrapped my fingers around my locket, sliding it back and forth on the gold chain. Almost instantly, my father noticed my actions, scowling as he did every time I toyed with my only piece of jewelry that had ever mattered.

He hissed in disgust, and I was surprised I didn’t get my usual sermon about my nervous tic. Little did he know I’d been doing it on purpose for years because it reminded him of what we’d lost. No, what he’d tossed aside like garbage.

Who he’d murdered.

That was something I could never forgive him for. After I’d gotten older, I’d searched for years for evidence, finding nothing useful. At least until recently. A trip to the mountains would be my present after graduation, to find the source of a gift I received a few years before. The postmark had been from Missoula, Montana with no return address. The answers were there.

Even if it meant derailing my career for a little while, I wouldn’t find peace until I knew exactly what happened and why I’d been sent her picture and a locket.

“Sit down, Amelie. I don’t want to tell you again.” My, how his slightly pleasant tone had crashed into darkness, and in record time.

I hadn’t changed before racing over. I was painfully aware he was annoyed with my attire, holey jeans and a worn tee shirt. If he had his way, I’d be living the glamorous life of the vice president of his company, a single suit costing more than what I’d paid for my economy car. That would allow him to have full control over me, which would never happen.

My friends asked why I continued to endure his stranglehold over me. The answer was as screwed up as my life had become. The money he handed over was barely enough to get by, the soaring costs of surviving in Chicago getting outrageous. He held the key to a fortune that he’d dangled over my head since I understood the meaning of the words ‘trust fund.’ Did that make me greedy? Maybe so, but in my mind, I was owed the millions of dollars for having to put up with his bullshit.

And because technically, it belonged to my mother.

“What is it, Daddy dearest?”

He gritted his teeth, another sign my ugliness was already wearing on him.

I eased into a seat opposite his Herman Miller desk, offering a sweet smile, but I had more butterflies than usual.

My father had something up his sleeve. I was certain of it.

It was barely two o’clock in the afternoon yet he took the time to pour a single finger of scotch, of course not bothering to ask me if I’d care to join him. Then again, this wasn’t a social call.

When he finally sat down, his actions were more formal than usual. He took a sip, swirling the liquor in his glass as he studied me, amusement replacing aggravation.

His stall tactic put me further on the edge. In response I crossed my legs, placing my ankle on my knee, a gesture that always got on his nerves. I was twenty-five, a semester shy of graduating with honors from the University of Illinois, becoming a doctor of veterinary medicine and I was acting like an impetuous ten-year-old.

However, it was the only way I could tolerate his holier than thou attitude.

“Amelie. I’ve tolerated your childish desires for as long as possible.”

“My childish desires?” Other than working my butt off between classes and waiting on drunks, the only hobby I had was my photography. I’d won a few awards, which had driven another wedge between us. He believed the hobby to be frivolous, a detriment to the Rathbone name.

He drummed his fingers on the wooden surface, never blinking as he stared at me. While he always made me uncomfortable, today my skin itched from head to toe. Why did I have a feeling two of his security guards were planning on carting me off to some unknown location, forcing me to disappear just like my mother had so long ago?

A lump formed in my throat when he leaned forward, a smirk crawling across his face. “I thought I should be the one to tell you that you won’t be returning to college this spring.”

I glared at him for a few seconds then started to laugh. “What the hell are you talking about?” In my mind, I started doing the calculations regarding the remaining fees. At minimum without money for my apartment and food, I’d need at least eighteen thousand dollars. He never paid more than a semester at a time, and it hadn’t dawned on me why until now.

He’d planned on using it as a bargaining chip.

The fucking son of a bitch.

I bit back a combination of anger and tears, hiding behind the same mask I’d learned to portray so well.

“What the hell am I talking about,” he repeated then rubbed his jaw. “I must admit, I lost track of how many years you’ve spent wasting your life. I’m grateful to my accountant for bringing it to my attention.” He continued to drum his fingers on the desk, every sound echoing in my ears. “Your particular skills are needed elsewhere.”

He glanced down at my attire for a second time and I was ready to jump out of my skin.

“What do you want, Carmine?” We’d never been close, which is why I’d chosen to call him by his first name after I’d turned eighteen. He wasn’t fond of me either. But since he’d been responsible for me after my mother had… disappeared, he hadn’t been able to toss me aside.

But that didn’t mean he couldn’t use me for something else altogether. I was no fool. He was the kind of man who did nothing without getting something in return.

“Your cooperation, of course. In truth, you have no choice. Your apartment is being cleaned out as we speak.”

Shock tore through me, my throat immediately starting to close. Whoa. He must have found out I was investigating him. “What did you say?”

“Yes, I took the liberty of contacting the cheap college you’ve been going to, explaining that you won’t be returning.”

I jerked to a standing position, backing away as the horror of what he’d done began to settle. “I am returning to school. I’ll find a way even if you don’t pay for it.”

“I happen to know exactly how much money you have in your bank account, Amelie. Does eight hundred ten dollars sound about right?”

He’d gotten into my bank account. I was sick inside, my skin clammy.

My God. He couldn’t have picked a worse time to toss me out on the street. With asshole Tommy out of my life, my options were limited, but I knew I could stay with Monica until I figured this out. She’d been a good friend over the years. I hadn’t realized I was pressing my fingers across the bulge in my jeans pocket where I’d placed my keys until he laughed.

“If you’d like to take a look out that window, you’ll see your car is being impounded.”

I flew toward the window, smashing my hand on the glass as I peered outside. Oh, my God. A moment of fear swept through me, becoming crippling within seconds.

Get your shit together. He can’t steal from you.

Knowing the great Carmine Rathbone, he could do anything he wanted. With a multibillion-dollar corporation under his control, and his cunning and power in controlling his influential friends, I had no doubt he had certain members of Chicago’s finest under his thumb. He’d positioned himself extremely well over the years, gathering a circle of friends who would do his bidding without question.

I folded my arms and walked closer to his desk. If he thought he could intimidate me, he was wrong. “What do you want, Carmine? That is the truth, isn’t it? You need something from me so you’re going to punish me in the only way you know will matter.” I had to find out every detail about what he was trying to do in order to nail his ass to the wall. I’d stop at nothing to do so.

“I’m still your father, Amelie. I deserve your respect if nothing else.”

“You haven’t been my father. You couldn’t care less about me. What. Do. You. Want? Depending on what it is, I’ll see if it’s acceptable or not. One way or the other, I will have my life back.”

The smug look on his face remained. Seeing the twinkle in his eyes created a level of rage that I hadn’t known existed.

“That won’t be up to me, Amelie.” As he pushed a file across his desk, I did what I could to keep from shivering visibly.

I glanced at the plain manila folder and a wash of anxiety settled into my system.

“Open it. Time is running short.”

My glare remained as I pulled it into my fingers. The moment I flipped it open, I sensed he was ready to laugh.

Then I realized why.

Three months later

Maverick

“Yo. Wolfman. What’s shakin’?”

I bristled, hearing the moniker that I couldn’t shake. I’d been called that after preventing an ambush on a secure compound during my stint in the Marines. The asshole who’d coined the phrase hadn’t intended it as a compliment. I had a feeling it would be on my tombstone.

Sooner versus later.

Hissing, I didn’t bother turning my head toward Gage Beckham, a local sheriff in Missoula. We’d known each other for two decades, running with the same crowd of bad boys who’d once terrorized Missoula. When my buddy tracked me down, usually inside a bar, that meant he needed something. “Whatever you’re selling, I ain’t buyin’.”

“Who said I needed anything?”

“Cause I know you. Remember?”

He slid next to me, immediately reaching for the bowl of peanuts I had in front of me. I concentrated on my bottle of Bud, taking another swig. I’d had a rough few days, tracking down a family of tourists who had no business being on the mountain. The fuckers had almost gotten me killed.

Twice.

“Come on. Why can’t I say hello to a friend?”

Exhaling, I shifted toward him, lifting an eyebrow. “Because you’re coming to me on official duty, which means you need my expertise.”

“I just need your brawn.”

“Fine. Go ahead and tell me. You’re not going to leave me in peace until you do. And stop eating all my freaking nuts.” I yanked the bowl away, only to have him tug it again, grinning like he’d just won a victory.

“Okay. I received a rather frantic call from old man Washington over at the Yellowstone hotel.”

“You mean motel. That’s a rat trap.”

“Yeah, maybe,” he admitted, “but he still draws in the tourists since he can pontificate with the best of them.”

The aging former firefighter had somehow managed to get his crappy motel registered as a historical location, thereby making it virtually impossible for any developer to snag the property out from under him. And he had dozens breathing down his neck. “So what does he want?”

“He says a girl took off hours ago up the mountain and hasn’t returned.”

“That’s my issue why?”

“He thinks she’s lost. She took off using one of his maps.”

“Then she could be hopelessly lost,” I grumbled. Mr. Washington had a knack for sending people in the wrong direction, map or no map.

“Yeah, but you are the best tracker in the business. Hell, in the country.”

I finished off the beer in one swig, twirling the bottle after doing so. My reputation for being able to locate anything in the wilderness had allowed me to pad my bank account, but I was getting too old for the shit. Especially when tourists didn’t pay any attention to the weather.

“Nice try, buddy. I couldn’t give a shit about compliments. Besides, it’s going to snow,” I told him.

“Not in the forecast.”

“The forecast is wrong.”

“Then you better get going.”

“Are you asking me all official like?” I asked through clenched teeth, giving him a hard, cold stare.

He shrugged, keeping the same grin on his face. “You owe me.”

“Bullshit.”

“She’s young and pretty.”

“Very funny. You’re not fixing me up. How much do I have to go on?” The last thing I needed was some caustic connection with a tourist no matter how beautiful. I was off women forever.

“Her license plate.” I could swear Gage’s eyes were twinkling. “You can find a needle in a haystack, buddy. But maybe you should get going if you’re going to make it back before dark and before this mysterious snowstorm sets in.”

I stood to my full height, yanking out my wallet. “Now, you owe me big.”

“And I’m certain you’ll collect.”

After tossing the two twenties, I grabbed my keys, expecting him to follow. I was right.

As I usually was.

“Did you hear Houston got on with the Zullies and he’s moving back?” he asked, trailing behind me as I walked toward the truck.

“Why come back? I thought he liked Washington State.” The man was a wildland firefighter, now coming home to work with the smokejumpers in Missoula. He’d been the one out of the six Missoula Bad Boys who’d stated dozens of times that he would never return. It was funny how the group of us who’d been considered rebels in high school were slowly coming home.

“Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe he was homesick. Anyway, Phoenix is having a big party for him in a few days. You could drop by. You’ve been a freaking hermit for months.”

“Saving all those pretty tourists from being eaten by bears. Text me the information. I’ll stop by and see Mr. Washington on the way. This had better be quick and it will be at my going rate.”

“Yeah. Yeah. I heard you.”

I glanced at the sky before jumping in my truck. While it was still partially sunny, my bones told me the storm was going to be a doozy. I’d wanted a beer, to grab a few groceries, some dog food and to head to the cabin, where I’d had plans to hole up for a solid week. Looked like that wasn’t going to happen.

At least I had the dog food or Sam might chew my arm off. If I’d known I was going to be waylaid, I’d have brought him with me. He’d become my tracking buddy the last few months, one big galoot that went with me almost everywhere. At least I always carried a gear bag or the little lady on the mountain would need to wait.

I hauled ass toward the motel, ignoring speed limits like I always did. When I pulled up in front, it was only thirty minutes later, but the second I stepped out, I hissed. I had a knack for telling the weather, and not just from my aching joints given all the abuse over the years. I could smell a storm brewing two days before.

A whopper was headed toward the mountains.

As I headed inside the small lobby, the various neon signs and colorful banners he’d installed in the tiny space assaulted my senses. He was nowhere to be seen, which prompted me to slam my hand on the old-fashioned ringer more than once.

“Hold your fuckin’ horses,” he said gruffly as he sauntered out from the back, grinning when he saw me. “Ain’t you that famous tracker?”

“You know who I am, Bubba. Just tell me about the girl.”

“She’s a real looker. You know the kind with hair the color of a freshly minted penny and when the sun shines across it, every strand sparkles in the light?”

I glared at him, doing everything I could not to punch him in the mouth.

“Oh, yeah. You want to know which trail she took. Right?”

“That would be helpful. And her name as well.”

“Lily Sanborn and she sure reminds me of a flower, but I don’t think that’s her real name.” He scratched his head.

Now he was playing detective. “Why do you say that?”

“You know, you get a feeling. Plus, she paid in cash. I tried to tell her that a storm is brewing but she didn’t seem to care. She had a purpose. You know? Taking a camera with her and all. Those nature lovers.”

That was interesting but we got all kinds in Missoula, including nature lovers who made Montana a destination. Tourists kept me in business, even though I’d been trained for something else altogether. “The hike?”

“Getting there.” As he gave me the information, I quickly realized she wasn’t a typical hiker. She’d left with a camera and light clothing. Time was of the essence. “Thanks, Bubba.”

“She was asking about some woman too,” he said in passing.

“Some woman?”

“Yeah, didn’t know her name but showed me an old photograph.” He scratched his jaw, looking at the ceiling.

“I need to know this why?”

Shrugging, he shuffled behind the counter. “Just seemed odd. You know?”

“Sure.” I started to turn away when he coughed.

“Wait. Do you want a picture of her?” he asked, his grin almost repulsive.

“You took a picture?”

He looked sheepish then reached into a box, shifting through at least four dozen photographs, finally tossing me one. A freaking Polaroid picture. I didn’t even know they made the instant processing cameras any longer. It had been my father’s favorite. He never left home without it.

“I’m not going to ask why you took it but it’s mine now.” I slipped it into my jacket pocket, shaking my head. There were weirdos everywhere.

“Hey, bring it back if you find her.”

If.

That didn’t bode well for my reputation.

Or my mood.

Chapter Two

A few hours earlier…

Lily

A historical treasure, huh?

The lobby looked like a treasure box from the nineteen eighties had exploded in the middle of the teensy-tiny room, splatter-fucking the walls with vibrant neon and provocative posters from God knows what. Did the old dude who owned the place really think he was attracting tourists?

Exhaling, I tried not to overhear his conversation but the way he was depicting the motel from hell to an unknown party almost made me laugh.

Or throw up a little in my mouth.

“I’ll be happy to pencil you in for a reservation. Six nights? Fantastic!” He was like a kid in a candy store, scratching down information on a notepad instead of using what appeared to be a computer positioned right in front of him. Then again, it had seen better days, likely at least ten plus years old.

I grabbed one of the maps in the cracked acrylic magazine racks, studying the artwork used on the cover. Whoever had designed it had thought using cartoon characters was the way to go. Whatever. As long as it got me to a gorgeous destination for a few photographs of the mountains, I couldn’t care less.

“I’ll see you then.” He snorted as he ended the call, fingering the sheet he’d written on before bothering to look in my direction. “Can I help you with something?”

“I’m in room six? Remember me, Lily Sanborn?”

Amelie Rathbone was dead, Lily Sanborn taking her place. I liked the name. It was softer, like a brush with velvet or a whispered kiss on a spring day. I’d known some people, getting a fake ID before leaving Chicago but under close scrutiny, I knew it wouldn’t pass the fake test. Still, it made it real, something I could stand behind.

I’d spent four days in Missoula, venturing out several times in my search for answers. It had been worse than looking for a needle in a haystack. No one had heard of Elizabeth Rathbone or her maiden name of Robinson. It was as if she hadn’t existed and with how little I remembered, my search was becoming abysmal.

I was stressed, fearful of being found and determined to bring my father to his knees. I needed a break, to pretend my life hadn’t been destroyed. Maybe a hike in the mountains, taking a few pictures would ease the tension.

“How could I forget a pretty face? What do you need, little lady?”

The guy was creepy, but at least the crappy room had a decent lock. “Is this the best trail to see wildlife?”

He lifted his sunglasses, peering at the map. “Yup. It’s right behind the motel too. I’d hiked it many a time but if you want to go further up the mountain, I’d take your truck part of the way.”

At least I wouldn’t have to walk up the steep incline. And if the man had been hiking recently, I’d been transformed into Cinderella.

“Perfect. What do I owe you for the map?”

“Just a picture will do.”

I narrowed my eyes then opened them wide in horror when he pulled out some contraption. Oh, shit. It was an old Polaroid camera. I hadn’t seen one of those in years. I doubted they made the cartridges for it any longer. Before I could object, he snapped a shot. The dude wasn’t just creepy. He’d shifted into the stalker category. Ordinarily, I would have ripped it from his hand then punched him in the nose, but I sensed he meant no harm. It was just some crazy trinket to add to a collection.

Still, that gave me the shivers. I didn’t want anyone owning a photograph of me. If it got into the wrong hands, I’d be hunted down like a dog.

The outcome wouldn’t be pretty.

“Thank you.”

“Sure thing but be careful. There’s a storm brewing.”

I glanced out the window and smirked. The sun was waning but high in the sky. “I’ll be careful.” I was at the door, my hand on the glass when I took a chance, tugging the single photograph I had with me into my hand. “By any chance, do you know this woman?”

He was spending far too much time leering at me until I gave him a harsh glare, shoving the photograph in his face. After scrunching his brow, he shook his head. “Kinda looks familiar but my memory ain’t too good. Sorry.”

“Thanks anyway.”

Grousing, I headed to my truck, yanking off my jacket and shoving the picture into my back pocket before climbing inside. At least it wasn’t freezing cold. I’d yet to purchase a heavy jacket. Someone in this town had to know who she was. If my mother was still alive, I was determined to find her. I had little to go on besides the memories I’d held dear as a young girl, and the clues that had festered inside since then.

As I started along the trail, I was struck by just how beautiful everything was. The forest was pristine, untouched by man. I could see why people flocked to God’s country. Maybe it was a place I could find my center. Maybe I could eventually feel at peace. I fingered the locket I always wore, wondering if there was a possibility that she was still alive. Somehow, I’d find out.

Fifteen minutes later, the trail started to narrow. There’d been several turnoffs, small parking areas designed with picnicking in mind. I wanted to find an area where most tourists didn’t go.

So I continued on.

Another twenty or so minutes and the trees were thick, their canopy darkening the sky. Snow covered the ground, but it wasn’t too deep, the truck easily maneuvering the few inches, the tires crunching on the frozen substance. Finally, I noticed a small clearing and decided this was the spot. As I eased the truck through the clump of trees, I was offered an incredible surprise. There was a picturesque view of the snowcapped mountains, the limited sun providing a halo that was majestic.

I found a spot to park, still taking in the view behind the wheel for a few seconds before climbing out. As I grabbed my camera, I noticed the temperature difference, cursing myself that I hadn’t worn thick layers. I wouldn’t be up here long, but maybe I could grab a few perfect shots.

I’d always taken photographs, capturing moments of happiness during celebrations as well as the heartache of existing. Grabbing the perfect shot of life and love had provided a respite from my studies, a hobby that had allowed me to experience love and adventures vicariously. I’d been able to pretend I had a wonderful family during the worst times of my life. Even after three months, I still found it impossible to believe my father had tossed everything that had belonged to me into the trash, including the items I’d left from my childhood inside his home.

It was as if I hadn’t existed, sold to a monster. At least I’d gotten away before being forced into marriage.

But the ugliness of my experience, the terror of escape, and the consequences if found were never far from my mind. I’d thought of going to the police, but I was one woman against what felt like an army. Even with what I’d managed to photograph, I’d doubted it would be enough. However, if I found out what happened to my mother, maybe, just maybe someone in law enforcement would listen to me.

Stop thinking about it. Just stop.

Taking a few pictures might provide some peace, if only for a little while. I couldn’t stand to sit inside a cheap motel room by myself any longer or combing the town in search of clues I wasn’t certain existed.

The camera had been a gift to myself, a treat I’d hidden away from the bastard who’d purchased me. If Giovanni had any clue what I’d captured during my stay with him, he’d put a bullet in my brain.

I’d endured three months, earning the man’s trust in order to escape. At some point, I’d need to talk to an attorney, but I needed distance more than getting my hands on my trust fund.

Truth would set me free.

Maybe.

With what little money I’d managed to squirrel away, including stealing some from Giovanni, I’d purchased a truck while on the run, although I was beginning to wonder how long the rust bucket would last in Montana’s harsher conditions.

One step at a time, baby. This is your new life.

I’d yet to work out all the details of maintaining my new life, but no one was going to stop me from achieving my goals. I shoved the keys into my pocket, taking a deep breath and forging forward. There was nothing like fresh mountain air, the crispness yet to find its way to my bones. I took several photographs, venturing across the rocky terrain, careful where I stepped.

The ugliness continued festering in the back of my mind. I’d been so blindsided that when two of his security guards had appeared from the shadows, driving me to my new home, I hadn’t resisted. What I’d yet to figure out was why the deal had been made in the first place.

One thing had been perfectly clear. I’d become a possession to be used and nothing more.

Now I wondered if I could resurrect my dream of being a veterinarian. At this point, it would take a miracle. I wouldn’t be able to finish school while keeping my earned credits unless I used my real name. That would be a red flag flashing on my father’s screen within seconds.

I shook it off, taking another deep breath. Montana was a world away from Chicago.

As I trudged through the snow, my breathing more labored than I was used to, I felt exhilarated for the first time in months. Years. This was what pure freedom was all about and I planned on taking full advantage of it.

There were so many splendid aspects of nature that I’d never seen before, this part of the country dazzling in color even in the cold early spring months. I took a chance, moving further up the mountainside, resting only a few times. I hadn’t bothered to pay attention to what time I’d started, but at least an hour had passed, maybe more. When I headed into another clearing, I realized there was no sun in the sky, the clouds thickening.

I couldn’t stop, fascinated by everything around me, the sounds of nature echoing in my ears. From somewhere, I heard the flow of water. When I found the source, a gorgeous river tumbling over rocks, my breath was taken away.

I’d taken at least sixty photographs and I was eager to see how they’d turned out. When I rested against a massive oak, I was finally able to smile. Maybe my life had taken a turn for the better.

Seconds later, I heard a noise, a crackling sound. Instantly, hairs raised on the back of my neck, terror racing through, chilling me to the core. Oh, God. What if I’d already been found? With the kind of people who worked for Giovanni, I knew they could track almost anyone down.

Stop it. Breathe. Think of the chances of anything finding you.

At least my rational side was making some sense.

Gasping, I closed my eyes, trying to control my breathing. There was no way possible that I’d been found. Neither Giovanni nor Carmine would have any idea where to look. I’d been very careful not to tell anyone about what I’d suspected over the years, learning early on that my father was a slug. He’d put listening devices in my room, which I’d found prior to leaving for undergraduate school.

The source of the noise had to be from something else, a natural occurrence. Crouching lower, I moved through the trees, trying to keep from making any noise. When I found the reason, I held my breath. There were six deer, all of them attempting to find nourishment through the fallen snow. I hunkered down, taking several photographs, leaving them undisturbed. They were incredible animals, the buck watching carefully over his family, the two fawns so tiny that I wondered when they’d been born.

When the buck finally noticed me, there was no reaction at first, more curiosity than anything. Sadly, only seconds later he shooed his family away from harm, the creatures bounding deeper into the woods. Perhaps against my better judgment, I followed, able to capture a few more pictures before they faded into the distance.

That’s when I realized I had no idea where I was. Disorientation flooded my mind, my throat threatening to close. What was wrong with me? I knew better than to get off track. I moved in a full circle, another rush of adrenaline prickling my skin. I was shivering, but only partially from the cold. Even worse, snow had started to fall.

As I tried to figure out which direction I’d come from, I shut down the emotions, concentrating on the area around me. Then I started walking. Nothing seemed familiar and I couldn’t see any footsteps in the snow. This was bad, so very bad.

I walked another hundred yards, shifting directions as panic rushed to the surface. Terrible visions of what could happen filtered into my mind. This had been a ridiculous idea. I had no business hiking let alone in the middle of a storm. Trudging through the mean streets of Chicago in the middle of a snowstorm was entirely different.

As the snowfall picked up in intensity, I yanked my coat around me, unable to stop shivering. Then I heard another noise, louder this time. As I turned slowly, I could swear there was someone only yards away, a man. Was it possible? I almost screamed for help, but my instinct told me otherwise. I moved closer, cautious in my steps. Then my first fears came to realization.

There was a man carrying a gun, acting as if he was searching for something or someone in the woods. Oh, God. Oh, God. No. By instinct, I took several photographs of him, zooming in to get as close up of a photograph as I could. Then I thought about how much danger I could be in. This couldn’t happen. I turned and raced in the opposite direction, jumping over fallen limbs, sidestepping debris while praying I could get away. If I could just make it back to the truck everything would be okay.

How could it be alright? I had no weapon, no way of defending myself. This was crazy. I was going to die. Die. Die!

Breathe. Don’t panic. Don’t you dare panic.

Something broke inside of me, my survival instinct kicking in and I kept going, fueled by anger and petrified at the thought of losing my life to not one monster but two. I’d found a way out. I’d risked everything to escape.

And I’d done it.

Now I was going to be captured in the mountains? No one would hear me scream. No one would come to my rescue.

I threw a look over my shoulder, unable to see anything in the haze of snow as it blanketed the area. When I jerked back toward where I was going, my foot caught something. As I was pitched into the air, all I could think about was the bastard was right behind me. I began to fall and my entire life flashed in front of my eyes. I’d never believed the theory, all those people on the verge of death reliving every moment of their past, but they’d been right.

Yet sadly, the vivid images floating through my mind were all filled with violence and bloodshed.

“No!” I screamed as he wrapped his hand around my throat, slamming me against the wall. As he lowered his head, baring his teeth, he dug his fingers into my neck.

“You belong to me, my beautiful bride. Don’t you dare forget that. I bought you. Remember?”

When I didn’t say anything, just continued to stare at him with defiant eyes, he backhanded me with his other hand. The sting was harsh, but I refused to allow the bastard to see me cry. I was finished with accepting his rage, cowering as if I had no self-worth. He’d made me this way, but I’d grown stronger.

“Fuck you. One day I’ll escape but I’ll return so I can cut out your heart,” I hissed, ignoring the anguish as he tightened his grip.

A flash of fury sparked in his eyes, and he tightened his hold until I could no longer breathe. “Go ahead and try but know this. I will hunt you down. Then the fun will really begin.”

The memory of his words echoed, adding another layer of terror.

As Giovanni’s face rushed into the forefront of my mind, I tumbled again. Going down. Down. Down. Then I hit a hard surface with a thud, stars floating in front of my eyes and…

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