RESCUED BY THE MARINE
Copyright ©2018 by Julie Miller
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
On sale September 18 in print; October 1st in digital
(available earlier to Harlequin subscribers and on the Harlequin website)
RESCUED BY THE MARINE Excerpt…
She couldn’t find her mother. Her tears had frozen on her cheeks. Her pajamas itched against her skin, and every desperate step she took hurt. She was trapped in the darkness. Trapped with monsters, alone and afraid. A cold hand closed around her arm, but she shook it off. Ran. “I can’t find you, Mama. Help me.”
And then she found a door with light blazing outward from every crack around it. Someone was awake. Someone was alive. She wasn’t alone.
“Mama!” Samantha ran, raw nerves stabbing her frozen feet with every step. But hands reached for her from the shadows. Fingers, gnarled like tree limbs, crawled against her skin and tangled in her broken hair. Large hands, strong and unforgiving, closed around her arms and dragged her back into the darkness. “No!”
She fought against the hands. Shoved. Twisted.
The darkness exploded with a loud crash and Samantha screamed. Only the sound stopped up her ears and rang against her skull. She fought to get to the light. Fought to get to her mother. To warmth. To safety.
The shadows closed in all around her, suffocated her. The terrible hands pulled her down, down, snatching at her, grasping her, burying her in the darkness.
“Mama!” she cried out, the timbre of her voice sounding wrong. Older. Deeper. Hoarser.
“Quiet.” Not a sound of comfort. Something deeper. More dangerous. A warning.
Too many hands, reaching, grabbing, wanting a piece of a little girl who’d already lost the most precious thing in her life.
False hands, pretending to love her, but offering pain and betrayal, using her.
Rough hands, lifting her off her feet, pushing her inside a van, stealing her ability to see. Hands that didn’t care if she was hurt or cold or tired or afraid. Too many hands.
Samantha squirmed and twisted and kicked against the nightmare.
The monster cursed.
“Damn it, woman. I’m not hurting you.”
She fought through the dark fog of her brain. She fought for her mama, fought for her freedom. Fought against her kidnappers.
She was trapped, pinned beneath the heavy weight of all that she had lost, of everything she feared, everything that controlled her. Samantha battled the hands in her dream, wrestling with monsters as she came awake, screaming.
Her eyes opened to the reality of two granite-colored eyes inches above her face, eyes that seemed to capture the haze of moonlight reflecting off the snow outside and glow in the dusty air of the cabin. Such mysterious, masculine eyes.
A man was on top of her. A very large man, with shoulders that filled up the limits of her vision, and hips that pinned her to the floor in the most intimate of positions. A long, muscular thigh was wedged between hers, and something cold and hard poked against her hip. Her arms were splayed over her head on the twisted rag rug where she must have struggled with him. He needed only one hand to pin her cinched-up wrists in place. The other hand had a hard grip on her mouth, cheeks and jaw, absorbing every sound she made. He used the rest of his body to keep her still. It was an effective tool. His chest was as solid and unforgiving as the thick wood planks of the cabin floor.
Her nostrils flared with shock, but her lungs refused to expand. What was happening? Was she still dreaming? Was this a side effect of the drug-induced sleep she’d slipped in and out of for the past several hours?
One of the monsters from her nightmare had caught her.
Samantha squeezed her eyes shut, then blinked them open again. He was still there. This monster was real, pinning her to the floor, his warm breath brushing across her cheek. Clarity rushed in along with fear and the awareness of just how completely vulnerable she was, crushed beneath the weight of the big man’s body. His muscular thigh pressed with humiliating familiarity against the most feminine part of her, igniting sensations she didn’t want to feel.
Don’t hurt me. Please don’t hurt me. She tried to speak, but her mouth and jaw were anchored shut by his hard, leather-gloved hand.
Was this some new torture her kidnappers were playing on her? Was rape now on the list of assaults that included threats, guns and drugs?
Only, her kidnappers didn’t have faces. They all wore masks. And this man very definitely had a face. Not a handsome one. But taut, compelling, dangerous. Even the dusting of a dark brown beard across his jaw and neck didn’t soften the rugged contours of the facade that could have been carved from the same granite that colored his eyes.
A grizzly bear of a man.
“You’re awake. No more kicking. And do not scream again,” he warned. Her kidnappers didn’t have hushed, deep-pitched voices that vibrated from their chests into hers, either.
Samantha nodded her compliance, inhaling a shallow breath as he removed his hand and propped it on the braided rug beside her head. When he released her arms, she pulled her hands beneath her chin, trying to wedge some space between her body and his. The fact that his hips and chest still pressed into hers indicated that he didn’t entirely trust her.
The feeling is mutual, buddy.
She nodded again.
“You hurt? Concussion? Broken bones? Internal injuries?”
She tapped her fingers against the sandpapery stubble of beard that darkened his chin, the only part of him she could reach in this position. “Can’t breathe.”
He did a push-up, shifting his weight off her, and she sucked in a much-needed breath of air, filling her nose with the scents of pine and cold coming off his clothes and skin. “Scrapes and bruises as far as I can tell.” Her voice came out in a crackly rasp. “A little dizzy from the sedatives. Sore throat.”
In a surprisingly graceful movement for such a large man, he grasped the hand she’d touched him with and helped her sit up as he shoved aside a limp body that lay on the rug beside her.
The moment he released her, Samantha scooted away on her bottom, retreating until her back hit the log-and-plaster wall. Whether she was fleeing him or the lump of man at her feet, though, she wasn’t sure. She dragged her knees up to her chest, making sure her bare toes didn’t touch the lifeless man.
“Who are you? Is he dead? Did you kill him? Did you kill the other guard? There were two of them.” But she couldn't hear either one of them now. A chill of absolute panic shivered across her skin, despite the lightweight coat that covered her arms. Had she just switched one kind of terror for something new? Where had this mountain man come from, and what did he want with her? “Are you going to kill me?”
“No,” he answered, tucking a gag into the limp man’s mouth and dragging him into the shadows beyond her line of sight.
The kidnappers must not be dead. There’d be no reason to muzzle a dead man. A knocker-outer was better than waking up to a murderer lying on top of her. Good.
Samantha shook her head, clearing her wandering thoughts. There was nothing good about her situation. She’d been bound and drugged and held hostage in the rickety old cabin in the wilderness somewhere up above Teton Canyon. She was freezing, hungry. And now a new threat had entered the cabin and crushed her beneath every inch of his hard, muscular body.
Why was it so dark in here? The men who’d stayed with her this time had been playing poker on the chipped enamel kitchen table, with a battery-powered lantern illuminating their cards. There was no lantern now, only the glow of the small heating stove that barely reached her corner, and the moonlight streaming in through the window. Samantha hugged her bound arms around her legs, unable to decide which was more frightening—having the big scary man in her face where she could see him, or knowing he was lurking somewhere in the darkness around her. “What do you want from me?” Her throat was raw from too much screaming and trying to reason with unreasonable men. She coughed, swallowed against the irritated rasp of her throat and spoke again. “Who are you?”
His deep voice was an ominous growl from the blur of shadows. “I’m not one of them.”
“And I’m just supposed to believe that?” Fear and confusion still rattled around her brain. “They leave two men with me all the time, but they’ve changed shifts three times, so there are at least six of them. These two aren’t the ones who took me from the lodge, so that makes a minimum of seven. I can tell because their body shapes and voices are different. There’s the bully with the gun and the slimy one with all the lewd comments who thinks he’s funny and the little guy who compensates by being extra physical.” Samantha gently prodded the bruises on her knees. When her numb feet hadn’t been able to keep up with the brisk walk from the SUV to the cabin’s front door, he’d dragged her up the porch steps. “They go on patrols outside. They talk about sleeping in the truck because it’s warmer. And there’s some guy named Buck they keep saying has called, or they need to call, or he’s coming here or…” Lord, she was rattling on like a crazy woman. She pressed her parched lips together to stop the flow of words long enough to make her point. “Are you Buck? Are you the man they answer to?”
She heard a groan from the darkness and soft ratcheting noises she could now identify as the sound of zip ties binding someone into place. She looked at the raw skin beneath the plastic tying her wrists together, but quickly glanced up when the man reemerged from the shadows. A flitting image from her nightmare dissipated with the click of a flashlight. The small beam of light brought hope to her world as he knelt beside her. He unzipped a pocket in his dark gray cargo pants and pulled out a silver chain. “I don’t know who Buck is. I don’t know who either of these two men are, or the guy in the SUV out front. I’m Captain Jason Hunt. United States Marines. I’m one of the good guys.”
Leave it to her father to hire the Marines to come after her. She squinted the coffee-colored hair hanging over his collar into focus. “You don’t look like a Marine.”
His grim expression turned grimmer. “Former Marine. I work search and rescue now.”
“Oh.” Recognizing the engraved locket he dangled from the end of the chain, Samantha snatched the necklace from his hand. “This was my mother’s. Where did you get it?”
“A token from your father. He sent me to find you and bring you home. Said you’d understand why he wasn’t paying to get you back.”
She ran her thumb over the initials ME and WE etched into the sterling silver, then opened the latch to study the faded images of her parents, taking comfort in the item that had been so precious to her mother, and therefore to Samantha and her father. Remembrance and relief surged through her system with such force that tears stung her eyes. “I do.”
“I need you to do exactly as I say. And no crying. You’ll dehydrate.” What the man lacked in reassuring comfort, he made up for in concise practicality. He handed her a water bottle from the backpack looped over his shoulders. “Drink.”
After swiping at the tears trailing down her cheeks, she opened the bottle and took several long swallows. Feeling slightly better after having addressed that basic need, Samantha dredged up a smile of gratitude for her rescuer. But he was no longer there to see it. Captain Jason Hunt knew her father. Jason Hunt was here to get her out of this nightmare. Jason Hunt had found her in a remote cabin on the western edge of the Tetons and single-handedly subdued two of her kidnappers. Possibly three, if the man who’d talked about sleeping in the truck was still out there. And now she was alone with him.
Was the man with ghostly gray eyes supposed to make her feel safe?