Bad boys, cowboys, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.
We’d been labeled delinquents, incapable of redemption.
And we’d gone our separate ways.
Heroes. Monsters. Sinners and saints.
Above all we were men honoring our country even while a terrible secret loomed just below the surface.
There were those who would never forget, praying we’d never return.
Others would stop at nothing to prevent us from doing so.
We were intent on finding salvation by protecting those we loved.
But demons from a single act would never allow us to forget.
Six men determined to right the wrongs from our past.
Six men prepared to do what it took.
No matter the cost.
Together in life.
Together in death.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Maverick’s voice was muffled, the sound lost completely as an explosion of fire erupted in the forest.
“We’re surrounded on all sides!” Gage yelled from behind.
Fuck my life.
I stood staring at the fire as wind carried embers high over the thick canopy of trees. I’d always been mesmerized by fire, the beautiful blue hue mesmerizing. Even now, the heat oppressive, I couldn’t break away from the intensity of sensations rocketing through me.
“Riggs. We have to get the hell out of here.” Houston snapped as he flanked my side, holding his arm over his face as the thick, acrid smoke rolled in billowing clouds. When I said nothing, he grabbed my arm, trying to lure me away.
“No fucking way.” I jerked from his hold, anger burrowing deep inside. “No one will be left on this mountain. Do you fucking hear me?” I lunged forward through the wall of flames, a furnace blast of heat stealing my breath. After jumping over several fallen limbs, I glanced up at the canopy of trees as the fire exploded all around us. How the fuck had this happened? There was no sense calling out, the bellow of my voice unable to filter through the raging fire.
Already disoriented, I turned in a full circle, struggling to concentrate. Where the hell did you go? Why? Why had this happened?
I heard another sound behind me and ducked seconds before another limb fell from thirty feet above. I jerked to the right, but it wasn’t fast enough, the limb crashing down on me. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Scrambling, I crawled away, slapping my smoldering jeans. When I noticed a figure just ahead, I bolted forward, tackling Colt to the ground.
“Jesus. We’re can’t get through this,” he yelled, panting as I rolled him over, dousing the flames as he kicked out, almost frantic.
“Stop. Breathe. I got you,” I told him, pitching him over one last time.
“This is crazy. We can’t do this,” Colt moaned.
“Yeah, we can.” I was no longer so certain.
Ricardo appeared from the shadows, struggling to move forward. Wheezing, he dropped to his knees. “I can’t… I tried… No. Use.”
I was frozen for a few seconds, agony tearing through me. “We have to. I can’t. I won’t.”
“Fuck, no. Get out of here. I’m not coming back until Belle is found. Do you fucking hear me?” Before I had a chance to head deeper into the forest, Maverick tackled me from behind.
“No! We’re not losing you too. We’re getting the fuck out of here.”
Gasping, a crackling sound dragged my attention. I blinked furiously, shoving the horrible memory aside. I couldn’t do this. Not now. Not here. Fuck. Fuck…
Get your head out of your ass, Riggs Wentworth. That’s what my father would say. Shaking, I allowed anger to sweep through me as wild as the fire raging in the distance. Fuck the images.
Fuck the past.
The anger burned deep inside, my muscles aching from tension and self-hatred.
I hoisted the ax, slamming it against the fallen limbs. Then again.
I moved from one broken limb to another, the remnants tumbling in the wide ditch we’d created.
Still, there was no relief from the pain, an anguish that had haunted me for years. Being a helicopter pilot, chasing down insurgents hadn’t dulled the heartache. Being shot down then tortured for four full months, every inch of my body electrocuted, beaten, or whipped hadn’t eased the guilt. Facing infernos had done nothing but feed the beast.
So I swung the ax several more times, one brutal swing coming after the other.
“Jesus, Phoenix. I think that’s enough.”
I took a deep breath, turning my head in the hotshot’s direction. They called him the Firecracker because of his explosive nature. I called him asshole. When he started to laugh, my grip on the ax tightened, daring the son of a bitch to take a single step closer.
A sharp crack drew my attention, dozens of massive limbs falling off several of the trees, spearing the ground as if digging their way to the center of the earth. Another vision flashed in front of my mind and every sight and sound was dragged from me, sucked into a dark abyss.
“The entire top of the mountain is on fire, Riggs. Listen to me. We did everything we could do,” Ricardo implored, the wild look in his eyes exactly the way I felt.
I turned and stared as the fire consumed everything in its path, flames licking up to the heavens. As I lifted my fist toward the sky, the others did the same. Together in life. Together in death.
I took a deep breath, drifting back from the fog.
The crown fire had burned hotter than any of us had expected, and I had no doubt the damn fire had been purposely set, an accelerant used. The stench was godawful and nothing created by nature.
“Time for a burnout. Let’s get this fucking fire under control,” Captain Zephyr called from behind the line of jumpers.
After wiping soot from my face, I turned in a full circle. We’d done a damn good job of steering the raging inferno from the campsite, but if the winds continued to change, we’d lose control again.
“Wentworth. I need you,” the captain called. At this point, I was considered the explosions expert, something I’d learned during my time in the Marines. However, I was on loan, my expertise meant for a seminar, not facing the beast hundreds of miles away from my team.
I lumbered forward, this acrid smoke getting thicker. As soon as I approached, there was something about the position of the trees that sparked another memory. For a few seconds, I shut down, trying to control my breathing.
“Help me. Help…”
Fuck. I closed my eyes briefly, only able to hear the rapid beating of my heart.
“You okay, buddy?” Zephyr called.
His loud voice cut through the fog, and I shook my head. “Just dandy, Captain. Let’s get this shit controlled.” I barreled forward, grabbing the bag of explosives and several fusees, handing the rest to two other jumpers. Hopefully, the railroad flares would be enough.
As I barreled into the woods, I could hear the captain screaming that I was supposed to wait for backup. That wasn’t my style. I was a loner, damn good at what I did, and no one was going to tell me what to do at this point in my career.
I turned in a full circle, determining the direction of the wind then shifted to the right. As I jumped over a fallen long, I tripped on debris on the other side. After tumbling forward, the fusee popped free of my hand and I immediately scrambled to grab it. As I jerked to my feet and turned around, all the breath was sucked out of me.
Two men lay face down on the ground. As I walked closer, the stench of blood and brain matter mixed with the smoke, bile immediately forming in my throat.
The two victims had been bludgeoned to death but only after they’d been shot several times.
“Ask any woman in an arranged marriage. Love is the least stressful way out.”
“You have a date for the wedding. Mother won’t take no for an answer.”
That was the way my sister started our conversation. A date? Over my dead body.
“Then I’m not coming,” I told my baby sister, even if that wasn’t an option. I would never disappoint her. She’d been through far too much in her life and deserved all the happiness karma could provide.
“You’re my maid of honor.”
“You can find another.” I knew this was going to happen. Goddamn it, I hated my parents. They’d been trying to rule both our lives since birth. And they’d been far too effective.
It was Cammie’s wedding, but I was the one being fixed up, likely with the intention of pushing me into marrying the selected choice. I had no doubt the candidate of choice was a man of wealth, capable of providing me with a huge house and all the amenities while I provided a passel of kids.
I wasn’t mother material. I wasn’t interested in marriage either. To hell with my parents.
How could anyone stand to get hitched? Being stuck to one person the rest of my life wasn’t on my bucket list. Now, if the union was more like a lease on a car, allowing someone the capability of getting out in seven years, then maybe. However, my little sister was a romantic. She’d been the little girl to believe in fairytales, her pink room and pretty little white canopy bed suiting her personality. Meanwhile, I was the girl who shoved her long hair under a ball cap, insisting on playing outside with the boys. My skills playing baseball along with being a late bloomer had allowed me to fit right in.
Much to the chagrin of my parents.
Then I’d developed curves and suddenly, not one of the boys wanted to play those kinds of games.
“Very funny, big sis. You can handle it,” Cammie told me. “You’re superwoman.”
Uh-huh. I’d lived on my own since college, but my parents still treated me as if I was their possession. My sister had called a superhero for as long as I could remember. I hated it because most of the time I felt as if I was a complete failure. Even though I’d found the courage to move away from my home to another state, I’d still followed the Tillman family rules as if they were gospel.
Sighing, I stared out the windshield into the darkness as the snow began to pick up in intensity. Then I quickly glanced at the GPS on my phone, cursing the fact I’d taken advice from someone I didn’t know who’d ensured me that this road was a shortcut. It seemed I was driving into the middle of nowhere. And where had the storm come from?
“Are you still there?” Cammie asked. Even the lilt of her voice screamed she was in love. Wait until after the honeymoon when all the romance was tossed out the window and reality set in.
“I’m here. Just watching the snow coming down.”
“That’s why you should have flown.”
“I wanted to see the countryside.”
“That’s a lie. You just don’t want to spend any extra time with Marcus and me,” Cammie retorted.
No, I didn’t. To see them fawning over each other, making out at the table when I’d been stupid enough to come back for their huge engagement soiree had been enough to turn my stomach. “I had some time that I needed to take off and thought, why not. It’s been a wonderful few days.”
Like hell it had been. I’d driven through thunderstorms, hail, now ice and snow.
“What are you driving?”
“My car,” I snapped, instantly hating my terse tone.
“You mean the sports car that shouldn’t be on snowy mountain roads?”
“I like my Trans Am.”
She snorted. “You could buy anything in the world, yet you drive an old Trans Am. Why?”
Because I adored muscle cars and always had, even tinkering under their hoods from time to time. “Relax, Cammie. I’ll be there before you know it. Is everything ready to go?”
“You know how Mother is, always making a change here and there.”
Our mother had a penchant for detail, especially when she threw one of her lavish parties, which had been far too often considering our father required maintaining a certain image. He was a United States Congressman, after all. How many times had he reminded us of that fact?
“It’ll be over soon. Where’s the honeymoon?” While I realized that avoiding the subject couldn’t last for long, my mind was already conjuring up how I could avoid being forced to endure the unwanted attention. As I gritted my teeth, I turned up the defroster. The scenic route had taken me through Billings, Montana, which had seemed like a good idea at the time.
“Italy. A whole month. Can you believe it?” she squealed.
I knew my father had checked out her fiancé top to bottom, likely hiring a private investigator to ensure he was the right man for his precious daughter. Marcus Owens was from a very wealthy, powerful family out of Texas. Since I worked in Dallas, I knew just how influential they were. The coupling would allow both families to become even more powerful, owning dozens of corporations in the west. Their meeting had been arranged, Cammie encouraged to accept his marriage proposal, even if she didn’t want to admit to it. “Good for you.”
“He’s not bad.”
“The guy Daddy set you up with.”
She was baiting me, which Cammie was good at doing. “Who is he?”
“Lincoln Daniels? Are you freaking kidding me? He’s fifty years old.” Dear God, my father had dropped to the bottom of the barrel. Lincoln had also made one too many passes at me, acting as if I’d be lucky to get him. The thought of spending a single minute of time with him made my stomach turn.
“But he’s rich.”
“I don’t care about money.” Even as I said the words, I knew they sounded ridiculous. I had a trust fund worth millions of dollars that I could access either when I married or the day I turned twenty-eight. That was over three years away and good ole Mom and Dad were insistent I find a husband before then. Perfect.
“Well, I don’t think you can avoid it unless…” She laughed, the tone changing into her conniving tone. We’d both learned to be little deviants when necessary.
“What are you thinking?”
“Bring a date. Maybe he could be your fiancé. Fake dating is all the rage. Find a hunk with huge muscles and absolute sex appeal. He doesn’t have to talk, just…”
She laughed hysterically.
Oh. My. God. I’d been reduced down to finding a fake date? My life was obviously in shambles.
Huffing, I almost retched just thinking about her idea. “What am I supposed to do, call one eight hundred rent a date?”
“I’m certain there are male escort services. At least it would get Daddy off your back for a little while.”
As much as I hated the idea, she had a point. Seeing my father twisting in his greed and pompousness would make me as happy as a little bird. It could work. Maybe I could find a glorious movie star or a famous racecar driver. No, what if I found a regular guy who was down on his luck? Wouldn’t that turn my father’s stomach? Ugh. I had two days to come up with somebody. The problem was that he’d need to be a stranger since Mother and Father knew every family in town. “I’ll think about it.”
“I just thought I’d warn you.” Her voice now sounded like a soft drink commercial.
When she sighed, I knew she was about to drop another bomb and it always involved our parents and a new rule that had to be followed.
“Incidentally, you’ve been asked to stay at the house over the weekend.”
“I rented a cabin not too far away.”
“That’s not good enough. It’s not a request,” she continued.
“It’s a requirement for the good of the family,” we both repeated in unison. I groaned and felt the tires losing traction. The conditions were getting worse. “I’ll deal with it.” I’d rented the cabin specifically to allow myself some peace and quiet, taking a full three weeks of vacation to relax, maybe start writing the book I’d always talked about doing. The truth was I hated my career, the pressure starting to get to me. Being a financial advisor meant I worked long, arduous hours and my client list included members of the Fortune 100 club.
Translation. They were arrogant as hell, demanding I take their calls at all hours of the day and night, always a pain in my ass.
Shuddering, I turned up the heat and continued on, praying I wouldn’t get stuck. Mile after mile I’d seen nothing but trees and hillsides, the road so narrow I was terrified I’d careen off a cliff. That’s what they had in Montana, right? I tried to keep myself awake, but the exhaustion was starting to get to me. I wouldn’t be doing a cross-country trip by myself again.
“I’ll see what I can do, but don’t you mention a word to either one of them,” I told her.
“Who, me?” Cammie giggled. “I can’t wait to see the hunk you find. That will take the pressure off of me.”
“Uh-huh. You just go back to your little snookums or whatever you’re calling him now.”
Oh, dear God. I was going to be sick. “I’ll call you when I get into town.”
“Be careful. The roads up here are getting slick.”
While I didn’t want to stop for the night, I might have no other choice. “Stop worrying.”
“You’re my sister. I’ll always worry about you.”
I tossed the phone on the seat, my entire body tense from anticipation. The last phone conversation I’d had with Mother should have been a red flag warning.
“You aren’t getting any younger, Wren. You need to settle down.” I was twenty-four, for God’s sake. I wouldn’t call that being a spinster in any language.
I chuckled and turned the wipers onto high. Now the snow was really coming down. Shit. I had several hours to go. I had to face the fact that if I came to a small town, finding a hotel for the night was the best choice.
Maybe my only choice.
My mind started to wander, creating the perfect hunky date in my mind. He had to be tall, buff, and rugged. I didn’t care if he could barely put a coherent sentence together. As long as he looked good in a suit, I could go with that.
Stop thinking about it.
How could I? Maybe there was a service I could use. I certainly had the money to pay for an escort. Ugh. What would he want in return? Hell, no. There wouldn’t be any touching, no kissing. Well, maybe a peck or two to convince my parents, and they’d be watching closely.
I rounded another corner, a shadow crossing in front of me, which forced me to put on my brakes. Shit. As the car started to swerve back and forth, I almost panicked.
Hold it together. Foot off the brake.
Even though I followed the little voice, the tires couldn’t maintain traction, ice pellets hitting the windshield a good indication of why.
Breathe. You’ll be fine.
This was supposed to be a celebration and all I could think about was finding a good-looking man who could walk and talk just like my father. Did that man even exist?
There wasn’t a perfect man in the universe. None.
Forced to pull the car to the right, the windshield starting to fog, I realized I was losing control. As the car spun around in a full circle, I kept both hands crushed around the steering wheel. At the least the car was slowing but…
Oh. No. No!
“In order to rise from its own ashes, a phoenix first must burn.”
—Octavia E. Butler
“Fuck!” I slammed my hand on the steering wheel, cursing Mother Nature. “What are the road conditions in Missoula?” I should never have agreed to the bullshit assignment in the first place.
Gage Beckham laughed. He’d been known as the Iceman while serving in the military, but for some reason he’d refrained from using it since his return. Somehow, I couldn’t stand the thought of using my real name any longer. “Borderline dangerous.”
“Great.” Just fucking great. I was in no mood to screw with a snowstorm. I had shit to get done back home.
Yeah, like what?
By his tone alone, I knew I was in for a shitstorm if I attempted to make it all the way home. “Hunker down, bud. The storm came in early. From what I can tell on the radar, it’ll be out of range in six hours, but it’s gonna pack a wallop. The roads are already getting icy. Even that big four-wheel drive you have won’t get you here.”
I was afraid that would be his answer. My buddy should know given he was the sheriff of Missoula. “Fine. I’ll get a motel for the night.” Yeah, in bumfuck Montana, which was where I was headed. ‘I know a shortcut,’ one of the smokejumpers from Billings had told me. I’d bought it, exhausted from the unexpected firestorm I’d been forced to help fight. If I had to guess, I’d say the son of a bitch had purposely led me on a wild goose chase.
“I heard about the fire,” Gage added.
“Purposely set. Burned almost four hundred acres before we were able to contain it.” I couldn’t get the images of the two unknown men out of my mind. After dragging them away from the burnout zone, the captain had made a calculated call to go ahead with the controlled fire, which meant destroying any evidence. There’d been no other choice or the fire would have consumed the campsite on its way toward the city limits. To think I’d been a guest speaker for a workshop hosted by Billings’ elite smokejumping team, who the Zullies considered their rivals. Then all hell had broken loose.
“We’ve had too many of those lately,” Gage said with a grumpy sigh. He’d been called out on several of them over the last few months.
“Yeah, I know. At least the blaze didn’t torch any buildings, but two lives were lost.”
There was a quiet tension between us, the reason personal. However, we both knew better than to drag up the past, a conversation that had been forbidden to surface ever again.
“I don’t know how you do it,” he commented.
“Cause it’s my damn job.”
He snickered. We’d been friends for years, my return to the area as if I hadn’t bailed from Missoula for years in search of something I’d never be able to find.
He’d stayed, fighting the good fight against criminal activity. “You’re a damn good Zullie. No wonder they call you Phoenix.”
Exhaling, I turned the wipers on high. I loved being a smokejumper, but the long days had started to take a toll. “Not according to my captain.” Stoker Hansen was a tough son of a bitch, one of the best smokejumpers in the business, but the man had it in for me. I was too old, according to some of the guys, but I’d tested out just fine, top of the list. That had pissed a lot of other jumpers off. Fuck them. Staring into the eye of the beast as it threatened to consume everything around it was all I was meant to do. The rest had been nothing but a placeholder until I’d gotten my shit together.
“You do love to break all the rules. Look, the roads will be clear late tomorrow. Consider it a vacation,” Gage said then laughed.
Some freaking vacation. I hadn’t gone on one in more years than I could count. In my mind, I didn’t deserve days off. That didn’t mean I wasn’t feeling the effects of exhaustion. While I loved my job, the rugged danger I faced almost every day, I hated the politics I’d been required to play. At least volunteering to be a mentor would get me off the shit list.
Or so I’d been told.
“Yeah. Yeah. I hear you. Keep warm by a fire while I suffer in a bedbug motel,” I told him.
“Jesus. All doom and gloom as usual. Find a woman. That will improve your mood at least, you insufferable bastard,” he chortled.
“Women are the bane of my existence.” I had reason to think that way. I’d sworn off women. Forever.
“I’m not talking about a relationship, dude. Just find one you can fuck.”
“There are always strings attached.”
“After one night?”
“Especially after one night.”
“Fine. Go sulk in your whiskey.” His laugh was a reminder of all the things I was missing, but women weren’t on my radar.
He ended the call, and I immediately dialed another number. The smart thing to do was to hunker down for the night.
At least there was some small town I’d already forgotten the name of only ten miles away. After turning up the heat in my truck, I slowly made it around a curve. The Ram could usually get through anything, but the icy mixture made for treacherous driving for anyone. At least she answered on the first ring. “Betty. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m going to get back tonight.”
I could tell she was irritated, but she knew the time spent for my job wasn’t controllable.
“The roads are getting slick. Don’t worry. Everything is fine here.”
Sighing, I had a sense of relief. “How did tonight go?”
“As well as can be expected. Stop worrying. I’ll be right here until you get back,” Betty said, obviously trying to convince me.
“You’re an amazing woman.”
“I know,” she said, half laughing just before ending the call. At least one thing was under control.
With the snow falling rapidly, it was tough to see outside the windshield. God help anyone in a small car. Huffing, I was determined to make the best of it. Maybe I could finally get a good night’s sleep. I rounded another bend on the hilly road, the headlights illuminating a car up ahead. I slowed to a crawl as I neared, craning my neck to determine the problem. What in the hell was some idiot doing out in an old Trans Am in this kind of weather? They were either a danger junkie with a death wish, or a damn tourist who’d underestimated the ever-changing weather conditions.
I rolled down my window as I slowed to a stop. There was no one nearby. Maybe they’d realized the error of their ways. Snickering, I continued on, traveling about a mile and a half when I noticed a blip in the distance. “You have to be kidding me?” As I looked closer, I realized I was witnessing a train wreck, the idiot from the muscle car making an insane attempt to seek help.
Oh, fuck me. The driver was obviously trying to make it to a house or a commercial business to get help. The guy would need to walk another eight miles to find a single soul. While the last thing I wanted to do was have this kind of interruption on top of dealing with the icy conditions, I couldn’t allow the poor soul to continue walking.
Whoever was walking noticed my headlights and turned around. Just as I caught a single glimpse of the guy’s face, he collapsed onto the pavement. “Shit.” I glanced into the rearview mirror, passing the poor guy then pulling to a stop just a few feet away. I was no damn hero, but I couldn’t in good conscience let a man die on the side of the road.
As I climbed out, grabbing my flashlight from my gear bag, ice pellets hitting me in the face, I cursed Mother Nature for a second time. Damn, I didn’t like the cold. I yanked the hood of my jacket over my head then trudged through the snow, the crunching sound another reminder the late winter blast was perilous.
As I approached, shining the light just off to the side, I realized there was no movement, not a single sound or flinch. Jesus. If the guy had died on me, it was really going to fuck up things. I crouched down, slowly rolling him over and shining the low beam over his face.
Only the person with a death wish wasn’t a man.
The lone figure who’d fallen into unconsciousness was a woman, her face reminding me of an angel. I was momentarily mesmerized until I realized her lips were already turning blue. What the hell? She was dressed in jeans, a light parka with a thin hood, certainly not attire meant for this kind of weather. She wore no gloves and instead of boots she wore shoes without socks. What in God’s name had this girl been thinking? I pressed my fingers against her pulse. It was thready. I had to get her warmed up or she’d go into hypothermia. She was already unconscious.
What in the hell was she doing all the way out here? The road wasn’t a thoroughfare for a single major tourist destination, and it was clear she wasn’t a local.
There was no way I could leave her here to die in the wilderness. Grumbling, I scooped her up into my arms, holding her tightly against me. She seemed so frail, as if the life was draining from her small body. When she moaned, her eyes opening briefly, I cursed the day I’d returned to Montana. I preferred sun and surf, not mountains and snowstorms. At least that’s what I’d kept telling myself. As I eased her into the passenger seat, I shook my head. This was going to turn out to be a very interesting night.
When she moaned again, her fingers falling across my hand, a rocket fire of electricity shot through me. I shifted my gaze, once against captured by her eyes. While the light on the cab was dingy as hell, there was no doubt she was staring back at me with stunning lavender eyes. My cock twitched, a stark ache appearing out of nowhere. I could easily fuck her.
What the hell are you thinking?
“You’re going to be just fine,” I told her, driving my raging libido back into the darkness, as I grabbed the fire blanket from my bag. Maybe it would help keep her warm until I found a place to land. I shoved it around her shivering body, taking a few seconds to brush wet hair from her face. When my cock hardened even more, I chastised my body’s reaction. So she was beautiful. So the hell what? I had no room for romance, especially from a wayward stray on the side of the road.
As I eased onto the driver’s seat, I took a deep breath, shooting her one last look before pulling onto the road. She had no idea how lucky she was I’d found her.
She remained still, her breathing ragged as I continued on the road, the conditions becoming more treacherous with every mile. When I finally saw lights up ahead, all I could do was hope there was some sign of life, a single motel in the small town. After driving another mile, I noticed a half-lit neon sign just up ahead. The marquis reminded me of the old ones that I used to see when my parents had driven through whatever secluded location they had to get through in order to fulfill their need for adventure.
As I pulled in, I debated getting two rooms. Nah. I’d need to watch over her for a few hours to make certain her condition didn’t worsen. There was something ominous about the crackling sound the sign made as my boots hit the snow-laden pavement.
Half laughing, as I walked directly under it, I half expected the damn piece of glass tubing, metal, and plastic to come crashing down, shattering all around my feet. When I reached the door of the small office, I threw another look toward the truck, shaking my head.
The dude behind the counter was obviously surprised to see anyone in this weather. I’d been forced to rouse him from snoozing in front of whatever game show he was watching on Nickelodeon.
Then I had no choice but to carry her plus my gear bag up two flights, struggling to slide the old-fashioned key into the lock given her dead weight pushed against my chest. Before I walked inside, I gathered another whiff of her perfume, which turned my balls hard as rocks. It had been a long time since I’d held a woman in my arms. I kicked in the door, struggling to turn on a light.
The room was nothing special, but it appeared clean, and the heat was working. That’s all I gave a damn about. After yanking down the sheet and tattered comforter, I put her down. She was still trembling, the wet clothes part of the problem. Christ. The last thing I wanted to do was invade her privacy, but I had to get the wet clothes off her body, or she’d never start to warm up.
There were about a dozen reasons I hesitated, including the fact I wasn’t used to undressing helpless women for any reason. I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off her face, furious with myself for finding her attractive while she could be close to death. I yanked off my coat and gloves, tossing them aside and raking my hands through my hair. Right now, there couldn’t be a worse scenario.
“Get a grip,” I hissed then turned away abruptly, yanking my gear bag onto the dresser, riffling through it until I found what I was looking for. As I held the bottle of bourbon in the dingy light, I shook my head. I could make all the excuses in the book for needing a hit of liquor, but the truth was I was terrified of having her die right in front of me. The ugly, helpless feeling was overpowering, more so than a single moment since arriving in Montana. I’d returned home to start afresh, refusing to fall into the demons that had kept me in a stranglehold.
I took a huge swig as I listened to the sound of the howling wind. I’d left my job as a damn EMT because it hadn’t soothed the beast crawling inside. I preferred the danger and rugged terrain where I usually didn’t need to deal with people other than my smokejumping team.
Much to the chagrin of my father, who was waiting with bated breath for me to accept the vice president position that had been on the table since I’d been ten years old. I hated the corporate world, but Pops had been pushing hard for years. With him being in bad health, my mother was now calling me once a week.
He had no understanding of why I needed to do this and there was no way of explaining it to him even after all these years.
When the mystery girl’s body started to shiver uncontrollably, I was forced back into reality. The girl needed my help. I took another mouthful, slamming the open bottle onto the scarred surface before moving toward her. As soon as I touched her, a moan slipped past her lips, her eyelids fluttering open again.
“Don’t fight me, sweetheart. I need to do this.” I wasn’t known as a gentle man, but I did what I could to be one as I peeled her jacket from around her, carefully pulling her arms from the sleeves then tugging it from under her. After easing off her shoes, I still couldn’t believe she wasn’t at least wearing any socks.
The fact she remained unresponsive troubled the hell out of me. It was time to stop acting like some teenager and get the rest of her wet things off. I held her head in my palm as I pulled the sweater over her stomach, stopping just before lifting the material over her breasts. This was getting ridiculous. I’d seen dozens of people in the worst possible light, sometimes forced to remove their clothing in order to provide medical assistance. Why was this any different?
Because you’re a hungry, lonely asshole.
That might be the truth, but for all I knew she was married with six kids. I tried to remind myself what I was doing then pulled the sweater over her head. When my eyes drifted to her red lace bra, I almost lost it. Every muscle inside my body was tense, blood coursing through my veins like wildfire.
I sat down on the bed, rubbing my sweaty palms on my jeans before unfastening the top button on hers. Because they were wet, I had to struggle to get them past her hips, concerned when she didn’t moan or cry out from my rough actions. When I finally wrangled them away, tossing them onto the floor, I immediately yanked the covers over her, avoiding gazing at her long legs or matching crimson panties.
You’re a very bad man, Phoenix. You’re never going to rise from the ashes.
That was certainly my reputation. I’d been called everything under the sun over the years.
Including a killer.
I searched the small closet, finding another blanket. The damn ratty pieces were far too thin to matter. Given her condition, she might need more help than I was capable of providing, but God only knew if there was a hospital or urgent care within fifty miles. If only I’d brought my emergency kit I kept at the house. After she was tucked in, I stood staring at her for a full minute before returning to the bottle of booze. At this point, I needed something to calm my nerves.
I hadn’t been this anxious in as long as I could remember. The slight burn from the cheap liquor as it slid down my throat was justified, punishment for my waves of desire. I had no idea how long I stood staring at her but when her breathing became less fitful, I finally took a deep breath. Still, she wasn’t out of the woods yet.
After a few seconds, I checked the pockets on her jacket finding nothing. There’d been no bag or purse I’d seen. Not only had she driven into the middle of a snowstorm, but she’d also walked into what would soon become whiteout conditions without any identification or money. What had she been thinking? She’d been better off staying in her car.
Yeah, but for how long?
I rubbed my eyes, finally noticing I stunk to high heaven. I hadn’t bothered showering at the fire depot, preferring to jump into my truck heading back home. I certainly hadn’t planned on seeing anybody in the dead of night. I took another belt of bourbon, realizing she would be out for several hours. At least I could take the time to grab a hot shower.
Another moan slipped past her lips, and I walked closer, unable to stop myself from brushing hair from her face, rolling the tip of my finger down her cheek. She was still so cold, but her temperature had improved slightly. That meant she’d made damn good time walking through the four inches of snow to where I’d found her. That could mean the difference in the poor girl getting frostbite.
I took a few minutes to rub each of her hands, checking on her feet before backing away. She’d had a guardian angel looking after her.
And that certainly wasn’t the wretched bastard who’d carried her from the snow. No, that man could only be considered a devil.
As I headed toward the bathroom, I released a long, exaggerated breath. Maybe fate had finally decided to come back and bite my ass.
Warmth and softness.
Shifting, I slipped my arm to the side, trying to make sense of what I was feeling beneath my fingers. I tried to open my eyes, but they were heavy, as if I’d had too much to drink, only I knew that wasn’t the case. But what… Mmm… I rolled on my other side, inhaling slowly, uncertain what scent was filtering into my nostrils. Then I realized what it was, the stench of smoke. Moaning, I tried to sit up, willing my eyes to open. A rush of images slammed into my mind.
Snow and ice pelting against the windshield.
Darkness so dense and ominous the headlights did nothing to mark the road.
Trees so thick I couldn’t make out anything else.
Oh, God. Where was I?
I blinked several times, trying to focus, swimming up from the pit of blackness that had held me down. As my eyes slowly began to focus, I finally managed to ease to a sitting position, every muscle aching. Where the hell am I? I scanned the location, finally realizing I was in a hotel room. Wait a minute. Hold on. How had I gotten here?
And why was I under the covers?
When my eyes fell onto a pile of clothes on the floor, I jerked the covers against my chest as if that was going to do me any good. I was almost completely naked. Oh, God. What had I done? As I took shallow breaths, I realized my pulse was racing. Why had my clothes been removed? Fear slipped into my system, and it almost became crippling. There was nothing worse in my mind than waking up in a hotel room and having no idea how I’d gotten here.
I closed my eyes, trying to bring back the last memory. The storm had come in so fast. One minute it had been dry, some sun in the sky. Then the clouds had rolled over, suffocating the light. Within minutes, it had started snowing. That’s right. I… my car. Oh, no. The car had skidded on the ice and I’d driven into a ditch.
Then I’d started walking.
Then headlights and… nothing.
But as the scent of smoke filtered into my system once again, my skin began to tingle. I freed my arms from the covers, staring down at the goosebumps covering both as I remembered something else.
A man’s strong arms holding me against his chest.
A husky voice telling me it was going to be okay.
And imploring eyes the color of the Aegean Sea.
When I heard a noise, I turned my head. That’s when I knew I was in deep trouble.
A pile of clothes was on the floor near the bathroom. Men’s clothes. Oh. My. God. Please don’t tell me I’d fallen into the hands of a twisted man who’d taken advantage of me when I’d been unconscious.
Don’t panic. There must be an explanation.
This couldn’t be happening to me. I was a good girl, well, at least for the most part. I obeyed all the rules, tried to be kind to strangers, and gave to charities. Why this?
Stop thinking so irrationally.
How could I?
Maybe I had been a silly girl to drive my sports car. Montana weather was unpredictable in March. I knew better. Even though I’d tried to erase most memories from living in Missoula, I wasn’t stupid. Or maybe I had been. Wrecking the car served me right. Panic reared its ugly head, enough so I couldn’t breathe for a few seconds.
I threw back the covers and an instant bite of cold rushed into my arms and legs. Shuddering, I peered down in a strange combination of horror and relief. At least I was still wearing my underwear. A benefit. And I didn’t smell like sex. A definite benefit. Whoever the son of a bitch was, he hadn’t fucked me like some wild animal.
Oh, I was definitely lost in the fog from before. There was no other explanation for my crazy thoughts. One thing was certain. I had to get out of this room before he came out of the bathroom. I immediately reached for my clothes, so lightheaded I almost tumbled to the floor. Whew. It took me three tries to grab my jeans. They were soaking wet.
Okay, maybe that was why mystery man had removed them. I tried to remember even a glimpse of his face. Unable to do so, I envisioned him as a monstrous man with wild hair and an unruly beard, capable of ripping a man apart with his bare hands. And to think the gruff bastard had brought me to a cheap motel like this one? I certainly deserved a lot better than to be treated like a whore.
When I took a single step, it was too quickly and I felt back on the bed, gasping for air. How far had I managed to walk? I could barely remember anything but the bitter cold, winds whipping through my jacket. I’d been so stupid to try to make it the rest of the way. It wasn’t like I’d been dying to return.
When my heart stopped thudding against my ribcage, I carefully rose to my feet, still wobbly but stronger than before. While I could tell the heat from the unit under the window was on full blast, a burst of cold skittered into me, icy tentacles sliding through every muscle. My underwear was damp, so cold against my skin that I couldn’t breathe. I had to find something to wear.
A bag. I noticed whoever the predator was had brought in a bag. I carefully made my way toward it, determined to snatch a shirt. Are you crazy? You’re going to put on something that belongs to a crazed killer? My inner voice wasn’t helping in the least. I certainly wasn’t going to stand in a flaming red thong and lace bra while Mr. Serial Arsonist cleaned soot and grime from his body after burning down someone’s house.
Yes, you are.
No, I wasn’t.
There’s no other way to try to get out of his clutches.
There were times my inner voice did make some sense. Tonight was one of those nights. I was a strong woman. I’d left my comfy home for Texas all by myself. I could certainly wear clothes I had no business wearing.
My rational brain had yet to be thawed.
As I started riffling through his bag, I could swear I heard the shower being cut off. Shit. I didn’t have much time. I tossed various items onto the floor. Rope. A flashlight. Protective eye goggles. No clothes yet. A small ax. A mallet. A…
A moan escaped my lips, and I immediately slapped my hand over it as I tumbled backwards. This was a gear bag of a mass murderer. Get a grip. You can do this. Do it! I walked closer, staring down at the sharp blade, horrible thoughts and disgusting visions filling what was left of my mind. I was shocked it wasn’t covered in blood.
I just knew I was going to die.
Sucking in my breath, I threw a look toward the bathroom, fear now turning to terror. I had to find the courage to get the hell out of the room.
I reached in again, finding something soft. When I managed to pull out a huge tee shirt, I almost cried with relief. Wet underwear or not, I didn’t have time to lose. He’d be coming out the door any minute. I threw on the shirt, spinning in a full circle, noticing a thick, fur-lined parka. Oh, thank God. I grabbed it, noticing Killer Boy had worn boots. I jammed my feet inside, not bothering to tie them, then stumbled toward the door.
Why weren’t my legs working right?
No, hold on. The ax would come in handy.
I flipped around, losing my balance and crashing into the dresser. Pain tore through my hip, my mind almost returning to the wretched fog from before. Oh, no. I wasn’t going to lose it. Not now. I could do this. Panting, I fought my way back to the duffle bag, grabbing the handle of the ax.
All I had to do was get to one of the hotel staff and they’d call the police. When I tried to unlock the door, I realized I couldn’t feel my fingers. Door. Did I just hear the creaking sound of hinges from the monster opening the bathroom door? Maybe he’d taken another weapon inside with him. Now he was going to carve me up for dessert.
I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath until I finally managed to throw open the door.
Then I heard his voice, the deep husky tone shattering the last of the polished steel armor.
“You’re not going anywhere, sweetheart.”