Maxi opened her eyes to a black velvet sky pierced with shimmering stars. A balmy breeze drifted over her skin. She frowned, her head aching horribly, her mouth as dry as cotton, her body heavy… every part of her hurt in one way or another. She stared at the sky, trying to make sense of it.
It took an extreme amount of effort, but she lifted up and winced at the sharp pain in her elbow and back. A strange sense of dread crawled over her.
What the hell? Gravel?
How was she on gravel? In dirt and clumps of dried grass… With her head now swimming and her stomach trying to revolt, she paused, closed her eyes and concentrated on not throwing up. When everything somewhat settled, she pried her eyes open again and slowly looked around.
Realization doused her in ice, followed by a wave of prickling heat.
Good God, she was outside, lying in a dry, rocky field.
Her heart rapped painfully hard, confusion gripping her so tightly that she couldn’t think. She didn’t know the time; she didn’t even know the day.
Where am I and why?
Past the confusion, expanding fear brought a sob up her throat. But sobbing would require sound, and she was too scared to make any noise.
Forcing her sluggish body to move, she shifted slightly and peered around. She recognized a tree, a fence… Okay, so she was on the farm that she’d inherited from her grandmother. The hard earth, dry from a long August drought, sent bristly weeds sticking into her skin.
She looked down at herself and recognized the sleep shirt and cutoff shorts she’d changed into after her shower. Each minuscule movement made her head throb in agony and sent acid burning through her stomach. She put a hand over her mouth to stave off the sickness.
Off to the side, something moved in the encircling darkness.
Frozen, her eyes wide in an effort to see, Maxi held her breath and waited. Another breeze moved the branches of the tree, allowing a splinter of moonlight to penetrate.
Yellow eyes came her way—and she realized it was a black cat strolling cautiously toward her.
Relief brought a rush of hot tears to her eyes. “Oh, baby, you scared
me.” The cat, recognizing her voice, sat beside her. The moonlight slid away, but the cat’s yellow eyes remained visible, unblinking.
Because she needed to feel something real, Maxi pulled him into her lap and stroked his long back. “What am I doing out here?”
No answer. She heard only the rustling of the wind and a rumbling purr from the cat.
What should I do? How far away was she from the farmhouse? Trying to figure it out left her more frustrated. Tears spilled over to her cheeks and she dashed them away. Crying now wouldn’t help her.
She had to move.
With an effort, still clutching the cat, she got to her feet and turned a slow, clumsy circle. Once she moved away from the tree, the scant moonlight helped orient her. She was near the two-acre pond. Judging by the tall reeds that grew at the back of the pond, she needed to circle around to the dock, then go up the hill.
Tunnel vision distorted what the night didn’t hide, forcing her to feel her way in near blindness. It seemed every third step she found a rock or thistle that cut into her heel or tender arch. Once, she tripped and almost fell. She did drop the cat, but the dear thing didn’t leave her. In fact, she used him as a guide, following close behind as he meandered up the slight incline to the back porch. He, at least, had no problem seeing his way.
The house, dark inside and out, appeared as a looming gray structure that left her decidedly uneasy. She felt as if she approached danger rather than shelter.
The darkness didn’t make sense. She always left on the outside lights in the evening. A power outage? Maybe during a storm, but they hadn’t had one of those in a good long while.
Besides, an outage couldn’t explain why she’d awakened outside.
Nervousness and fear coalesced into real terror. While she gulped in the clear evening air, she belatedly realized why.
Someone did something to me.
How, she didn’t know. Thinking made her head hurt worse. She summoned only a vague memory of drinking a glass of wine on her sofa while reading a book. That had to have been hours ago. What had happened after that? Folding her arms around her stomach, she again fought the sickness.
Could there be an intruder in her house? Oh God, oh God, oh God.
Pausing near the back porch, she strained to listen for unfamiliar sounds, steadying her shaky limbs with a hand planted on the outer wall. More cats joined her. The isolated farmhouse her grandmother had left her came with too many cats to count—and a distinct lack of nearby neighbors. At about eight miles away, Mr. Barstow would be the closest, but at seventy-nine, he wouldn’t be much help if a threat remained.
She was too far from town to walk anywhere, and her car keys were in the house.
What to do?
Desperation decided for her.
Her chest tight with dread, she crept up the porch, carefully turned the doorknob and found the back door unlocked, then slipped inside while making sure to keep the cats out. The last thing she needed was to try to distinguish their movements from any other sound.
Her heartbeat pounded in her ears and her blood rushed, making her dizzy.
The back of the house opened into a short hall. Stairs to her right led up to the bedroom she used, a small study and a bathroom. To her left was the main floor bedroom, but it had been her grandmother’s, and other than packing up the belongings and keeping it clean of dust, she didn’t intrude into that room.
Her keys hung in the kitchen straight ahead, but her purse, which had her wallet, would be in the living room on the desk. She couldn’t leave without money.
Each creeping step sharpened her nervousness until a scream built in her throat. Gasping each silent breath, she lacked her usual grace, moving like someone suffering a killer hangover. In the dark, she groped around, being as silent as possible. She didn’t dare turn on a light; what if she did and she found someone standing there? She shuddered at the thought.
When she finally located her purse, her knees almost gave out. She hooked the strap over her head and across her body to ensure she wouldn’t drop it. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness so that now she could make out vague shadows.
Somehow that seemed even eerier.
Anxious to escape, she made her way back through to the kitchen. Praying she wouldn’t drop them, or even rattle them, she grabbed the keys in her fist. Next, she slipped her feet into the rubber boots she wore when going to the barn and, because she couldn’t stop shaking, she snagged the flannel shirt off the hook. She felt sick with trepidation by the time she got back out the door.
And she still didn’t feel safe.
Dawn cast a gray hue over the horizon, telling her it was almost morning. How long had she been outside? No, she wouldn’t tax herself by thinking about that now. Her number one priority was getting away until she could figure out what had happened.
She wanted to run to her car, but not only was she unsteady on her feet, she feared that once she started to run, hysteria would set in. She needed to stay calm, so she took one deliberate step after another, constantly checking her surroundings.
At her car, she hesitated. If anyone was watching for her, the light when she opened her door would give her away.
As to that, what if someone was in the car?
She dug out her cell phone and, willing to risk it, used the softer light to look into the front and back seat.
All but diving into the driver’s seat and then locking the doors, she fumbled until she got the key in the lock and started the engine.
Breath held, she turned on the headlights.
A dozen sets of cat eyes reflected back at her, but she saw nothing more sinister than that. She quickly looked behind her, too, but saw only shifting shadows that further intimidated her.
She put the car in Drive and, because she remained a little muddled, carefully pressed on the gas. Down the long drive to the main gravel road, she drove slowly, well aware that the cats often showed up out of nowhere.
As she cleared the property line, she knew what she had to do.
He might not appreciate seeing her again, not after such a long absence without a single word from her, but she could explain that if necessary.
She knew where he worked. She knew he was more than capable of helping.
And thanks to her recent inheritance, she could even afford him.
Miles Dartman, heavyweight MMA fighter turned bodyguard, the sexiest, and most sexual, man she’d ever known, was about to be in her employ.
It was the only upside to a very rough two months.
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