“Dawson,” the dispatcher’s voice crackled through the radio, “the fire jumped the line. Get to safety, now.”
“I’m evacuating the two mountain bikers as we speak. We’ll be in Happy Camp in about twenty minutes.” Officer Addy Dawson raced her Ford Expedition through the tight turns and narrow roads of Klamath National Forest.
In her rear view mirror, an orange beast raged in the distance. It devoured the mountain. Its smoky tongue licked the night’s sky clean of stars and moon.
Wildfires were commonplace in California, especially during hot, dry summers that turned her world into a giant tinderbox. Unfortunately just as commonplace were recreationists who didn’t respect Mother Nature’s awesome power. Case in point: the two shaken teenage boys in the backseat who had ignored the evacuation so they could record the inferno for YouTube.
And were still recording it.
Thank God she had found them before the wind shifted. They never would have survived.
Addy turned north onto Bigfoot Scenic Byway–the main road that ran along the Klamath River–and rounded one of its many bends. Her headlights caught a large hunched-over body darting across the road.
She swerved to avoid hitting it, slammed on the brakes. Pain ripped through her chest as the seatbelt tightened, crushing her between it and the boy hurled against the cage behind the driver’s seatback. After catching her breath she asked, “Everyone okay?”
“What happened?” It was the kid with the “Beam me up, Scotty” T-shirt. She guessed he was about fifteen.
“Dude, we almost hit Bigfoot,” the older one said.
“That wasn’t a Sasquatch.” Addy reached for the flashlight in her glove compartment. “It was a man. And by the way he was limping, I’d say he’s hurt.”
“Hey, lady. Where you going?”
She tossed her hat onto the front seat. “To save him, of course.”
“Are you tripping? Newsflash. There’s a big ass fire headed this way.”
“Guys, I need you to calm down. We’re a mile ahead of the fire, which gives us ten minutes. I only need two. Sit tight.”
She shut the door, muffling their hollers of protest, and aimed the flashlight into the trees whipping angrily in the blazing wind. The pungent smell of burned and scorched earth made her nose crinkle.
“Hello?” she called. “Sir, can you hear me? You must evacuate the forest immediately. I can drive you to safety.”
She entered the woods where the injured hiker had run. What did he do, vanish? She called out again, flashed the light through the trees and brush, climbed deeper into the forest.
“Sir, you ‘re putting yourself in grave danger out here. You must come with me. Now.”
The wind gathered strength. Branches struck and scratched her arms and cheek. Powerful gusts of hot air blew her French braid back off her neck. The air tasted of ash. The conflagration was approaching fast.
She’d better get those boys to safety.
Her heart wrenched. She hated leaving the hiker behind, but what choice was there? She couldn’t risk four lives when she could save three. Addy pushed through the undergrowth, making a quick retreat back to her vehicle.
A motor revved. Tires squealed on the pavement.
“Oh, no you don’t!” She sprinted out of the forest in time to see the Expedition’s taillights disappearing into the darkness. “Come back here.” She chased after it, waving her flashlight until she was alone on the empty road.
How the hell did the boys escape from a locked backseat? They couldn’t have. The hiker must have stolen her vehicle. Dammit. Happy Camp Ranger District was as deep in the wilderness and as far from civilization as anyone could get…and eight miles away. The chance of rescue was less than slim. And there was no outrunning a forest fire.
“Dawson to dispatch. My vehicle has been hijacked and is heading your way. I’m stranded on Bigfoot Scenic Byway.”
“Dispatch received. Stand by.”
“Addy, It’s Pierce.” Her ex-boyfriend was the last voice she expected to hear on her radio. He sounded breathless, like he was running. “Head south. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
Great. He’d be there five minutes too late.
Above her, white lights blinked through the smoky haze billowing and swirling in the sky. It had to be smoke jumpers or a water plane. Her heart raced with hope. “I’m here! Down here!” She waved her arms and flashlight, but there was no sign they noticed her on the ground.
“Dispatch, I can see lights overhead. Inform the craft I’m directly below them.”
“I’m sorry, Officer Dawson, there is no aircraft–.”
Her smoke induced coughing fit and the crackling radio static drowned out the dispatcher’s reply. “Repeat,” she said.
“Dispatch received. There is no aircraft in your vicinity.”
“Then what are these lights hovering above me?” Ash and blackened material fell around her. Sticky residue landed on her arms and caught in her eyelashes. Thick, acrid smoke enveloped her, made her eyes water, choked her. The firestorm raged forward with the speed and shrieking sounds of war bombers.
Adrenalin exploded in her veins.
Addy raced down the embankment of the Klamath River, slipping on the steep slope, riding an avalanche of pebbles. She had been born to the wilderness and always knew she’d die there.
But not today.
She’d escape in the current. Assuming she could survive the rapids.
She splashed into the river and dove beneath the cool water. Her belt was a twenty-pound weight, sinking her, pulling her deeper and deeper down. When she finally managed to get it off and swim to the surface, she gulped a breath of smoke and ash. Coughed.
Swept backwards in the current, she watched the inferno tear down the mountain like a fiery tornado. Or a blood red beast, ripping apart the Earth, consuming everything in its path. Huge trees silhouetted against the blaze spontaneously combusted as superheated air hit them. The explosions screamed in her ears.
Or maybe it was terror.
Rapids broke over her head as she struggled to keep above the whitewater. She couldn’t stop swallowing water, sucking in charcoal air. Coughing. Gagging. Hacking.
Smashing into stone, pain ripped through her shoulder. Her leg. Whitewater pummeled her eyes, ears, mouth. She was turned around. Submerged into the silence beneath the water. Re-emerged into thunderous chaos. Pitched into unseen obstacles as she tumbled through a rock garden. Chaos. Silence. Chaos. Silence.
Can’t breathe. Lungs on fire.
It seemed like forever before she broke to the surface again. The forest crackled behind her in the distance. She had escaped the fire. Now to escape the rapids. Fatigued, she willed her aching body to swim for the bank. Water crashed over her again. And again.
A huge, shadowy figure stretched out an arm to her. Pierce? She reached for him.
Addy bolted upright and gasped a deep breath of fresh air. She opened her eyes. The orange, dying glow of embers from three fireplaces spun before her. A few blinks later, the images converged into one.
A woodpecker drilled for breakfast inside her skull.
Lifting weak and heavy hands to massage her temples took way more effort than it should have. Odd. She felt no abrasion or pain from being pitched headfirst into the rocks. She checked her shoulder. No bruise. But the light was dim and her eyes kept pulsing in and out of focus.
Checking her legs, Addy hiked the blanket past her ankles, shins, and–. Wait. Where had the blanket come from? Where was she? Besides sitting on long body pillows on the floor. Naked.
Pierce. Of course the guy would take off her sodden clothes after rescuing her, but you’d think he’d have the decency to give her something to wear. It’s not like they were dating anymore.
She tried calling his name but no sound came out. She licked dry lips and peered into the room’s darkness. Her vision wavered and her head spun as if in the aftermath of one god-awful hangover. She closed her eyes, waited for the dizziness to pass. When she finally opened them, a thick, white fog clouded her vision. Before she could wave it away, the fog crackled as it dissipated revealing a sleeping man.
A very large, very naked, sleeping man.
There must have been some potent wacky weeds burning in that forest. Men with chiseled bare chests and six-pack abs did not materialize in her bed. Not even in her dreams. She was too practical for that kind of fantasy. Well if she had to hallucinate, a hot hunk was a better pick than pink elephants on parade.
A dark line of hair trailed down his belly and under a strategically positioned royal blue satin sheet. One hip and a well-defined thigh were bared. Still asleep, he rolled toward her onto his side.
His heavy leg draped over her thigh. Warm breath tickled the hair on her arm.
Every muscle in her body froze. Every muscle except her heart. That was beating double time. This stranger was no hallucination.
As quietly as she could, Addy eased out from beneath his leg then rolled off the pillows comprising her bed on the floor. She snatched her discarded blanket and–despite the weakness in her body and fumbling fingers–managed to wrap it around her in strapless toga fashion. Her heart now rapped in time with the woodpecker in her skull.
She held her pounding head and stared at the stranger. His black lashes rested peacefully above sharp cheekbones. He had a clean-shaven, square jaw line, thick lips that appeared a bit chapped, and a dainty, silver necklace that was way too effeminate to be on this guy.
Nothing about him jogged her memory. Who was he? Had he pulled her from the river? Had he stripped off their wet clothes believing their body heat might prevent hypothermia?
Or had he believed their body heat might prevent a lonely night?
Well, he’d be in for a disappointment. She had three rules about sex. It was never casual, never used as a weapon, and never, ever given as a thank you gift. That’s what fruit baskets were for.
She’d send him one as soon as she got out of there.
Addy glanced around the dimly lit room–if you could call it a room. Actually, it looked more like a ten-foot box. There were no doors. No windows. Nothing.
Except for a miniature fireplace and logs centered on one wall, the body pillow bed in one corner and a large terracotta flowerpot in the opposite corner, the room appeared empty.
She crept to a wall and drew her hand up, down and across it, searching for a hidden doorknob or lever.
“If you’re looking for me, I’m over here.”
She jumped and spun to face the stranger but was tripped up by her hangover and stumbled into the wall. Righting herself, she tried for a casual smile but knew it didn’t pass for anything more than a nervous tic.
When the room stopped spinning, she noticed he had propped himself up on one elbow. His dark, shoulder length hair and sleepy eyes enhanced his wicked attractiveness. He made no attempt to move closer. Of course, he made no attempt to cover himself either, and his sheet had slid further down.
She forced herself to look at his eyes. Eyes that shone eerily in the dark like a cat’s. Eyes that appeared emerald.
Odd choice for colored contacts.
“Come here.” He lifted the sheet with one hand and patted the pillow bedding with the other.
Her heart rate revved as she stared at the parts of him beneath the sheet. “I…uh…I…umm.”
“Skittish little thing, aren’t you?”
The only way to stop gawking was to squeeze her eyes shut. “Who are you?”
“You don’t know?” His voice oozed disappointment.
Apparently they had gone through this already. So why couldn’t she remember? What else couldn’t she remember? “Did I–? Did you–? Did we–?” There was no polite way to ask if a) she’d given herself to him under duress or b) he’d violated her while unconscious.
Okay, that was one way. Odd word choice but it sufficed. She nodded.
“Not yet.” There was no menace or presumption in his words. He spoke them casually, matter-of-factly as if they’d already discussed sex and concluded they’d sleep together. When had she given him that idea? Her head ached trying to remember.
“I’m sorry. You seem like a nice guy, but I can’t…you know…do this.”
“Oh. First time, huh?”
“Though judging your age, I wouldn’t have pegged you for a virgin.”
“Relax.” The sleep in his voice gave the word a husky sexiness. “I’ll make sure you enjoy it too.” He got up and strode toward her, eyes hungry and body very ready to make good on his word.
If her pulse was a car, the turbo just kicked in. “Stop right there,” she said, and he did. The surprise was evident on his face. With a body like his, he probably wasn’t used to rejection.
“Woman, this won’t work unless we’re closer. Much closer.” He winked.
She turned back to the wall, frantically feeling for that doorknob. But it was too late. He was behind her, towering over her. Sweeping the hair off her shoulder. Brushing his lips down the side of her neck.
A tingling sensation slid down her spine. “Stop it. I’m warning you.”
“I understand your hesitation,” he said between kisses. “But it’s going to happen sooner or later.”
Like hell it is. She pivoted around and kneed him in the groin. Swearing, the man grabbed himself and fell to his knees as she ran to the other side of the tiny space.
Ready to defend herself, she looked over her shoulder, expecting to see him lunging at her. He hadn’t moved from his spot on the floor.
“Hell, woman, what’s wrong with you?” Pain and confusion filled his eyes.
He’d obviously expected her to be a willing participant. Probably figured it was the least she could do after he’d saved her life.
Her head lolled, amplifying the drone in her ears. She wrapped both hands around her skull to make the pounding stop. “God, I need extra-strength aspirin.”
“You and me both.” He slowly got to his feet. “If you needed some time after reawakening, you should have just said so.”
“Don’t tell me it’s your first time for that, too.”
“You mean resuscitation?”
The lines of his forehead wrinkled. He stared at her in puzzlement, as if trying to figure her out. “You don’t have a clue what reawakening is, do you?”
She shook her head no. “Should I?”
“What Yard are you from?”
“Yard?” What was he talking about? “You mean Ranger District?”
He didn’t answer. And he didn’t bother to get dressed or cover himself. It’s not that she didn’t care for the view, but it was one more thing compounding her inability to focus.
“Did you pull me from the river? Did you give me CPR? I can’t remember anything that happened after hitting my head.”
The man paced, seemingly lost in thought. Maybe she shouldn’t have told him she didn’t remember his heroism. Bruising his ego only moments after bruising his manhood couldn’t be good.
“Look.” Addy tried hard to ignore the muscular definition in his legs and butt as he strode back and forth across the floor. “I’m really very grateful that you saved my life. Resuscitated me. Whatever. But if I said or did anything to lead you on while I was in shock, I apologize. So how about you give me my clothes and show me the door.”
“Where are you from?” he asked.
Why should that matter? What did he want to do, track her down? Well, she wasn’t about to give him a Google map to her front door. “Northern California,” she answered as unspecific as she could without appearing to be unspecific.
“You live there. Right now. That’s where you live.”
“Son of a bitch.”
The hair on her body bristled. “Where are my clothes? I want to leave.”
He rubbed his eyes with his fingers and thumb, the same way her patrol captain did when agitated. Though this man was a foot taller than her captain, twice as broad and three times as menacing.
“I said I want to leave. Now.”
He stopped, made a show of looking around the empty room, and with palms up in front of him, shrugged. “You can’t.”
Addy clutched her toga and yanked it higher. “Why not? Where am I? Who are you?”
“You don’t remember how you got here?”
What was wrong with this guy? Didn’t she just tell him that? Did he expect her to give him a reward or something? Or maybe he wanted a ransom. Great. That’s another thing her mom could blame her for. She could hear her mother now. Some cop you are, Addy, getting yourself kidnapped. Now we have to waste our retirement money getting you back.
“Are you holding me for ransom? What kind of single-celled pond scum takes advantage of the person he saved? You did save me, right?”
“Son of a–,” he whispered, then shouted at the wall, “how the hell do I explain this?”
Addy stepped back.
He drew out a long sigh then locked his eyes on hers. “I didn’t save you and I didn’t kidnap you.”
“Then how did I end up trapped in this…this box with you? Who are you?” Please don’t be a serial killer…please don’t be a serial killer…please don’t be a serial killer.
He stepped toward her then stopped when she flinched. Raising his hands in front of him, he pointed to the fireplace. “I’m going to throw a log on the fire. Okay?”
She hesitated. Brighter light would make it easier to see him. That way she could give a more detailed description to the police artist. And if it was a trick, she was ready to fight. Her fingers curled into a fist. She nodded.
The man moved to the small woodpile next to the fire. The three identical logs, about one foot in length and four inches in diameter, appeared way too cylindrical to be real. Damn. If she could have identified the tree from which they’d been cut, she might have gotten a clue as to where she was.
He tossed a log on the embers and the fire sprang to life.
Addy stepped sideways–back sliding against the cool wall and bare feet squishing into soft pillows still warm from where he had slept–until she stood behind him. She stuck out her chin. “Okay, the log’s on. I want answers.”
“My name’s Max,” he said, still watching the fire. “They took me, what, fifteen years ago maybe? I don’t know. I lost count.”
“Took you where?”
He turned to face her and searched her eyes. “You really have no idea, do you?”
She resisted the urge to shake her head. She’d do the interrogating, thank you very much. “You said they took you. Who’s they?”
“Who are the Hyboreans? A cult? What do they want?” When he didn’t answer, she started to ask again.
“Babies,” he said. “They want us to make babies.”
His reply was so preposterous, she laughed. “What is this, some kind of prank? Am I on some reality TV show? Pierce put you up to this, didn’t he? Where is he?” She searched the wall for a hidden camera. Any minute the crew would open the door and they’d all have a good laugh.
“If it is a joke, it’s on me. This is the first time I’ve been with a female who didn’t understand her role. Why would they throw you in here without bringing you to the Yard first?” he asked the question more to himself. “Well, hell. The only obvious reason is because you’re ovulating.”
“Excuse me?” The smoke from the fire reached her. Its odd scent seeped into her head, making her dizzy again. Warm. Flushed.
“You can’t get pregnant unless you’re ovulating. They probably examined you, realized you were ready and didn’t want to waste an opportunity.”
“Y–you’re not an actor. You’re psychotic.” Oh my god, maybe he escaped from an insane asylum. She pounded her fists on the wall. “Let me out of here,” she hollered. “Let me out.”
“Whoa.” Max jumped up and grabbed her hands. “Settle down. Don’t make them angry.”
His words sent shivers through her and a new fear exploded inside. She pulled her arms free, hit and punched him. “Don’t touch me.”
“Hell, woman, control yourself!”
Was that anger or panic flashing in his unnatural green eyes? What would he do to her? Was he capable of murder? She unleashed frightened fury on him in blow after blow, striking him with anything she could–fists, feet, fingernails.
He tried muscling her but couldn’t get a solid grip on her limbs spinning wildly.
Pain like a bolt of lightning struck her neck and ricocheted through her body. She screamed and collapsed to the ground, every muscle spastic from the jolt.
Get up, Dawson. Weak and heavy, as if her body had been magnetized and stuck to a metal floor, she couldn’t move. Max knelt next to her, keeping some distance between them. His lips moved, but she couldn’t hear him.
An instant later, the spasms stopped. As she rubbed the pain from her neck, her pinky got caught in a…necklace? Where did that come from? She wasn’t wearing one last night. She rolled the thin, light chain between her fingers. Did it match his? Did he give it to her?
Hot anger pulsed through her veins, and she jerked the chain. The damn thing didn’t break. Obviously, her strength hadn’t returned.
“Don’t.” His word sounded more like a warning than a command.
Locking a defiant gaze on his eyes, she slid four fingers between the necklace and her throat and yanked hard. The chain dug into the back of her neck. It still didn’t break. What was it made out of, steel? She yanked again and again, each time harder than the last.
“Stop,” he shouted. “Listen, woman, before they–”
Another jolt of electricity pierced her neck and shot through her body. She curled onto her side.
“Are you okay?” He moved closer, but still didn’t touch her.
Addy’s forehead slid back and forth on the floor, as she shook her head no. “What’s happened to me?”
“It’s the Hyboreans. Are you hurt? Can you see?” She must have given him an odd look because he explained, “Too much voltage can blind you. Or worse. Hell, woman, for your own safety, don’t anger the Hyboreans.”
It wasn’t until he wrapped the blanket around her that she realized it had fallen off–at what point that actually happened, she had no idea and, quite frankly, was too beat to care.
He scooped her up into his arms.
“I don’t understand what happened,” she said, unable to stop the trembling.
“Shock collar. It’s their way of keeping us in line.”
“No, I mean how did I end up here? Kidnapped. Into white slavery. Where on Earth am I?” She could have sworn his face paled but couldn’t be sure through her tears threatening to escape.
He eased her onto the pillows. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
Drained, but too scared to shut her eyes, she fought heavy lids. It was no use. Exhaustion owned her. A hot tear slipped from the corner of her eye, making its way to her ear.
The feathery weight of another blanket covered her. A finger brushed across her wet temple.
“I won’t hurt you,” Max whispered.
She drifted into darkness.
She was beautiful. Hell, what naked woman wasn’t? Though this one didn’t have the large breasts, and wide hips typical of the women they had brought him in the past. This one was muscular, strong, and a ball of fire.
She definitely could hold her own, with that knee to the groin and the kicking and clawing. He examined the stinging marks on his chest and knew he’d find the rest of his skin under her fingernails. The woman could draw blood. He’d give her that. But she’d never hurt someone if she didn’t learn how to throw some weight behind her punches.
He watched her fight exhaustion…and lose.
She looked vulnerable lying in his bed with her reddish-blonde hair spilled around her. He imagined her sweeping that long hair down his chest, and could almost feel the tickle. Blood pumped through him, bringing him to readiness.
He could take her right now. She wouldn’t fight. She couldn’t.
Their mating would please the Hyboreans. And happy Hyboreans didn’t punish people.
Her breasts rose and fell with each fast and shallow breath. A tear slid across her face.
Ah, hell. Only a beast would take a defenseless woman.
Inhaling deeply and then letting it out slowly, he commanded his body to relax. With a gentleness he forced himself to control, he pulled the blanket over her and then wiped away her teardrop.
“I won’t hurt you,” he whispered.
It wasn’t long before her breathing slowed and its rhythm steadied. Her face relaxed and the lines of tension disappeared making her appear younger than he originally guessed. Early twenties, probably.
Poor kid. She had no idea what had happened.
It’d been so long, he’d forgotten what it felt like to wake up in a strange world. But it had all come back to him when he’d glimpsed the terror in her eyes. His gut tightened as he remembered the range of emotions that had crossed her face in a matter of minutes; confusion, fear, anger, helplessness, pain, and finally defeat.
There was only one thing worse than defeat. Accepting it.
Pulling the blanket over himself, he settled onto his side with head propped in his hand. He studied the curves of her face and the handful of freckles on her tanned cheeks. What would he do with her?
Besides impregnate her, of course.
Maybe he should explain where they were. No. She’d never believe him. The truth would only frighten her more.
Just keep your mouth shut, and do your job.
“How can I do my job,” he whispered to her, “when you’re so damn feisty?” He drummed his fingers on his head.
The other women had known their role and greeted him with open legs. Okay, so maybe one or two weren’t quite ready at first, but they always responded favorably after a little coaxing and the aphrodisiac fire.
What if this one refused? Her spirit was strong. She was a fighter. Dread surged through his veins.
He hadn’t been at stud in a year. And the year prior to that he’d only been in twice. He had to face facts. At thirty-five, he was no longer the young strapping alpha the Hyboreans wanted. Any noncompliance on the woman’s part was sure to be viewed as his failure. And failure equaled torture.
Only at his age, he doubted he’d suffer a beating. Or starvation. This time he’d be sold on the black market.
Shit. That was a death sentence.
His head fell to the pillow and he stared at the ceiling. “You bastards,” he kept his voice low, “why didn’t you take her to the Yard first? I can’t afford complications at my age.”
He knew of other studs who forced themselves on the females. His stomach turned and dropped into his bowels.
You’re not an animal.
He cringed at his lie.
Not a complete animal, anyway. That’s why rape could never be an option.
The breeding box was the only safe place he could act like a man. If he lost that last bit of humanity, he lost everything.
The heat of her body warmed his side. Rolling to face her again, he traced her soft lips with a gentle finger. There was only one thing to do.
“Woman,” he said. “Prepare to be seduced.”
© 2013 K.M. Fawcett