Audralynn Maddox heard her own soft cry, but the pain exploding inside her head made everything else surreal, distanced somehow by the realization that someone had made a mistake.
A terrible mistake.
He caught her wrists, pinning them behind her and shoved her, face first, against the van. “Nobody double crosses J.B., bitch. Nobody!”
His attack had come so unexpectedly that Audralynn hadn’t seen his face. His voice didn’t sound familiar, yet she delved into the depths of her subconscious, trying to pin a name to the voice. She jerked and heaved against his grip, trying to gain her freedom, but he was far too strong.
“I don’t know any J.B.,” she whimpered. She wanted to scream the words, but her head pounded. Tears of pain stung her eyes and ran down her cheeks.
He laughed. The hateful sound mocked her growing terror. Her pitiful struggles only increased his cruelty, but she dared not stop.
“Thought you could go back on the bargain, did you? We’ve been watching your place. Your friend didn’t want to cooperate, either. Too bad she put up such a fight.”
“Vikki? What did you do to Vikki?”
He shoved her face against the door. “She didn’t cooperate. Stupid bitch. I only wanted the photos.”
The man’s hot, rancid breath assaulted her senses as he grabbed her by the shoulders to still her struggles. “Now, you’re a smart little piece,” he hissed. “Don’t cause me any more trouble and maybe I’ll let you go. Where’d you stash the photos?”
“Photos? I don’t know what you’re talking about!” She wept with rage and renewed her struggles until she jerked one hand free.
“Don’t lie to me. I know you have them!”
The coarse fabric of his denim shirt rasped against her silk blouse and bile burned Audralynn’s throat. She jerked her face away from him and tried to focus her thoughts. The warehouse district was deserted this time of night. Audralynn knew she had to keep her wits about her if she wanted to escape.
“Let me go,” she pleaded, her heart battering against her ribcage. “I won’t tell anyone what you did.”
He laughed again—a sick, hollow sound.
Using her free hand, she struggled to turn around and face her attacker.
A heavy, knitted ski mask covered his features, but Audralynn could see his smile. That’s when she knew he’d killed Vikki.
And he was going to kill her too.
Desperation added strength to her efforts. Whirling around at the same moment he stepped back to open the door to the gray van, she grabbed at the ski mask and raked her fingernails across his neck.
He lunged for her. She kicked him in the shin, and smashed her booted foot against his kneecap. He cried out.
She turned to run, but he grabbed a handful of her hair and thrust her into the van. Before she could recover, he jumped inside, shoving her to the metal floor. He slammed the door shut and was on top of her before she could scramble away.
She screamed while he bound her.
She screamed while he backhanded her.
She screamed and screamed until he knocked her unconscious.
Thunder rumbled across the remote New Mexico sky as an unforgiving wind shoved somber gray clouds against a craggy mountaintop. Brede Kristensen tugged the brim of his Stetson lower on his forehead. The threat of a storm didn’t faze him; nothing fazed him anymore. The worst had already happened.
He thought of the austere chapel on the northeast side of town. It had rained that day, too. The day they’d held the memorial service for his wife and infant son. He steeled himself against the lance of pain that remembering brought.
It had been three years since the car crash. Three years of trying to run a ranch and raise a daughter on his own. When was he going to stop feeling as if each step forward cost him two steps back?
Lightning forked across the sky and thunder rolled again, closer and louder. Brede yanked the rain poncho tighter around his throat as he walked to his truck, his boot heels cutting sharp impressions in the rich soil. It was a good idea he’d planned to move the sheep nearer to the ranch house. Glancing at the clouds, he knew the rain wouldn’t let up for the next couple of days. If his luck held, maybe the bridge wouldn’t wash out until after he crossed the creek.
Miles from his nearest neighbor and even further to the nearest small town, no buildings cluttered the landscape except for the ones housing his workers. Three generations of Kristensen men had worked this land and passed it on to their sons. Brede loved this fertile green valley, but wondered what the future held. Would the dreams for the ranch end with him?
He didn’t have time to ponder that disheartening thought for long because two of his Queensland Heelers raced toward him, barking. He held out his hands palms-forward, signaling them to calm down, but they continued to bark, racing back and forth from the base of the dirt road to the gully and back again. Obedient dogs, they had always heeded his commands. This time they were trying to tell him something.
Assuming the dogs had located an injured sheep, Brede climbed into the cab of his battered pick-up truck and followed the dogs.
The rain changed from a gentle mist to fast, heavy drops as Brede drove the truck with the dogs running ahead of him. Crisscrossing the edge of the gully, the dogs continued to bark and look over their shoulders to make sure he was still following them. “This had better not be some gopher flooded out of his hole that you’re after,” he muttered as the truck bounced over the narrow dirt road that paralleled the two-lane highway leading to Santa Fe. “I need to get those ewes to the lambing pens.”
Brede pulled the truck to the edge of the gully. The dogs had stopped barking and were circling an object below. He shined a flashlight on the gully floor. The object was the approximate size of a three-year old sheep. He jumped out of the cab of the truck and climbed down the side of the steep gully.
The dogs’ soft growling echoed against the gully walls. It was the sound they made when locating a lost or injured sheep.
This was not a sheep, he realized. Disbelief held him immobile for several seconds. The curled-up creature with matted hair, torn clothing and mud-spattered skin was human!
Brede knelt on the wet ground and felt for a pulse. It was faint and erratic. He turned the prone figure over. A sharp breath whistled through his teeth. It was a woman! She was limp with shock and cold, but she was alive.
“Can you hear me?” he asked. She didn’t reply, but he hadn’t expected her to.
Brede felt an eerie chill slide down his spine as he yanked off his rain poncho and wrapped it around her. If this woman was to survive, she needed to get warm.
He lifted the woman, cradled her against his chest, and struggled to climb out of the gully. She gave a faint moan. He increased his stride as much as he was able on the wet, muddy ground, “Don’t go and die on me now.”
The rain was coming down in angry torrents when he laid her down on the leather seat. After signaling the dogs jump into the bed of the pick-up, he gunned the engine. The elements didn’t allow for a frantic rate of speed, but Brede drove as fast and as hard as he dared.
The high beams picked out a water crossing ahead of them where the muddy water swirled and churned. He shifted gears in anticipation, If he could make through this crossing and then over the bridge, he could get her to the clinic.
In the middle of the crossing, the markers signaled the water was over the three-foot mark. Brede’s blood turned to ice. The swift current swayed the truck. Ignoring the slide of his tires against the slick, muddy soil, he gritted his teeth and ground the gears, gunning the engine. After several failed attempts at gaining traction, they arrived at the other side of the crossing.
Knowing the floorboards now carried an inch of water and his engine was only a prayer away from dying out, Brede let out pent-up breath. They’d never make it to the bridge in time. He had no choice but to take her to his ranch.
Her face was pallid and her lips nearly purple when he fishtailed to a stop at the back of the ranch house. Snagging the woman from the pick-up, he took her into the bathroom. While still holding her in his arms, he leaned over and turned on the faucets to the claw-footed tub. Tepid water would help stabilize her body temperature. However, Brede had no way of knowing if she had internal injuries. Death from shock and cold was still a likely possibility.
Tugging off her torn slacks and blouse, he gazed at her body with a clinical eye, searching for obvious injuries, or broken bones. “It’s time to get you warm,” he told her before placing her into the tub.
Once he was certain she wouldn’t drown if he released his hold on her, Brede let out an uneven breath. He felt as if the marrow of his bones was encased in dry ice and he’d only been outside for a couple of hours. He yanked off his shirt and tossed it on top of her wet clothing on the tile floor before kneeling beside the tub.
Her hair wasn’t the dark, muddy brown he’d imagined, but a rich, shimmering shade of auburn. He ran a hand through the strands removing clumps of twigs and dirt. He probed the area near her hairline where he found a gash. Once he was certain the gash was closed, he cleaned the caked blood away with a washcloth and focused his attention on the swelling above her brow line.
Brede swallowed, trying to ignore the thick, tight feeling wedged in his throat. He didn’t welcome the onslaught of emotion that filled his chest and caused him to stroke her jaw with an unsteady finger tip. He reminded himself that he didn’t need to be involved in her problems; he had enough of his own. As soon as the roads were passable, he’d get her to a doctor and the police could take care of the rest.
Still, no matter how hard he tried to remove himself from the situation, he kept remembering how fragile she’d seemed when he held her in his arms. He felt as if he’d carried a sparrow, all feathers and tiny bones, out of that gully.
He cradled one of her hands in his as he watched her desperate attempt to cling to life. He prayed he knew what he was doing. He was a rancher, not a doctor.
Her long slender fingers brushed across his callused hands. Was she strong enough to fight off the cold and shock?
Closing his hand around hers in a gentle grip, he willed some of his strength into her. He’d had enough of death and dying. Too many people in his world had died from harshness and neglect.
* * *
“My head hurts,” she whispered. A sharp, throbbing pain embedded itself in the center of her left temple. She touched her fingertips to the tender area, and tried to grasp a fleeting memory. . .of what, she wasn’t certain.
At that moment, a man leaned over her. His eyes reminded her of the ocean; soft blue water reflecting through frosted crystal—sad, lonely eyes.
The warmth from the blankets seeped into her chilled body, but the sound of the pounding rain sent terror crawling through her. She bolted upright, her heart thumping so hard she couldn’t catch her breath.
“Lie back down,” the man instructed. “You’ve had some sort of accident.”
Pain shot through her body and her head. Through the wave of pain, she heard the concern in is deep voice, and pressed an unsteady hand to her forehead. “Accident?” Her fear receded, but didn’t go away completely. An accident explained the sharp, throbbing pain that was embedded in her left temple and radiated down the side of her jaw, but it didn’t explain what she was doing here. Here? Where was she? And who was this man standing over her.
“I found you in a gully.”
A groan trembled against her dry lips, and the room spun around. But the tall man didn’t move.
“Where am I?” she whispered.
“On my ranch,” he replied. “North section of my spread. . .how do you feel?”
How did she feel? She wanted to laugh at his question. Every place on her body hurt, but she didn’t want to admit to the overwhelming discomfort. The man looked worried enough. She tried to swallow; her mouth felt as if someone had filled it with gravel.
“I have a headache,” she confessed.
He frowned. “You probably have a concussion.”
Confusion closed in on her. A concussion? How had she gotten a concussion?
She watched the man walk to the dresser and pull a quilt from the bottom drawer. He was tall, six-foot-three or more, and he was powerful looking. She could tell by his tanned face and sun-bleached hair that he spent long hours working in the elements.
“What do you remember?” he asked.
“Nothing. Everything seems surreal,” she said as he placed the quilt across the foot of the bed. She glanced around the large bedroom. In the distance, she heard the rattle of thunder and tried not to cringe. “I remember the rain, and being cold, unbearably cold. I remember waking up and seeing you.”
From the expectant way he stood over her, he was waiting for her to provide him with more answers.
“What’s your name?”
“My name?” Of course, she knew her name. Everyone did. She thought for a moment, waiting for it to pop into her head. It would come in a minute. All she had to do was settle down and relax. Instead, fear coiled in her chest as it dawned on her that she didn’t have a clue.“I don’t know,” she admitted, hearing panic sharpen her voice. “I can’t remember.”
She couldn’t recall a thing—not her name, how she got here, or even what she looked like. How could a person forget what she looked like?
She blinked back the hot tears gathering in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “You’ve been very kind to me and,” her voice caught and broke on the last word. “I don’t remember anything,” she whispered. “Not my name. Not what happened. I can’t remember.”
The clouds vanquished what remained of the daylight, and he reached over and flicked on the bedside lamp. “Surely, you must remember something.”
She caught the sympathy in his voice and clung to it. His words willed her with warmth and his eyes held such kindness that her breath lodged in her throat. The soft light made his features seem gentler.
“No.” She looked up at him, and sucked in a trembling breath. “How can that be possible? How can a person forget…everything?”
He glanced at her, as if weighing the truth of her statement. He was close enough for her to catch the scent of rain and wind in his hair. She hoped desperately that he believed her.
“Your memory will come back,” he assured her.
Images of this man plucking her from the clutches of the unforgiving ravine entered her mind. She remembered vividly how safe she’d felt in his arms, the solid feel of his body against hers, the softness of his voice, the whisper of his breath against her cheek when he’d murmured gentle words to ease her terror.
“You saved my life,” she said.
He raised a hand to her hair and stroked its softness.
“Do you realize how close you came to dying?”
“No,” she whispered. Yet she did know how close she’d come to death—she saw the truth in the stark expression on his face.
She’d felt his strength, his determination. He’d been the one who’d pulled her back from the edge of death and willed her to survive.
“The roads will be passable in a couple of days,” he was telling her. “When the doctor says it’s safe for you to travel, I’ll take you to town.”
She nodded. “I understand.” Even though she was sore and felt terrible, she knew her life wasn’t in immediate danger. She didn’t want to risk being out on a flooded road in order to get to a hospital.
“I found something in the pocket of your slacks I thought it might be important.” He reached into the pocket of his jeans, pulled out a silver key, and handed it to her.
She ran her fingertip along the notches in the key, as if she was expecting it to unlock her memory. Only it didn’t. There was no flash of recall, no clue as to what the key unlocked, or what secret was hidden away.
“Ring any bells?”
“No.” The lance of disappointment had her dragging in a painful breath. She wanted to remember; she needed to remember, but her mind was blank.
“Did I have any identification on me? A wallet?”
He shook his head. “No wallet. No cell phone. Just the clothes you were wearing. I’m sorry.”
Her mind raced in circles. She looked at him, knowing her emotions were visible on her face. She wanted desperately to remember something.
“It’s been a long day,” he told her. “I think we both need to eat.”
“I am hungry,” she said, knowing he was trying to put her mind at ease.
“That’s good because I’m not much of a cook. How about a bowl of soup?”
“I’d like that.” She shifted on the bed, intent on getting up.
“Stay in bed and rest. Everything will be all right.”
“Will it be?” she whispered.
She looked into the startling blue of his eyes, and she almost believed him. She wasn’t sure why, but this man made her feel safe.
“I’ll leave the door open. Call if you need anything.”
Her first instinct was to argue. The last thing she wanted was to be alone, but then she realized he was right. She needed to rest.
“You haven’t told me your name.”
He paused in the doorway. “Brede Kristensen.”
While Brede was in the kitchen, she pushed back the blanket and crawled out of bed. She dressed in a faded blue flannel shirt and socks, compliments of her host. She glanced toward the doorway as she rocked on her unsteady legs. She might not know anything about her past, but she sensed that she had determination. Right now, she was determined to make her way to the bathroom unaided.
Were there rules of etiquette about this type of situation? Since Brede Kristensen had undressed and bathed her, she guessed they were past the formal introduction stage. She grasped the wall for support and stumbled to the oak dresser. Of course, since she didn’t know who she was, well, the point was moot.
Perhaps she should volunteer to leave.
She gave a snort of amazement. And go where? She didn’t know where she was, who she was, and she certainly didn’t have the funds to survive on her own.
“First things, first,” she mumbled her voice a painful rasp. “Remember your name and everything else should fall back in place.” Her head pounded and her chest felt tight. Physical excursion brought on a coughing spell and she wondered if crawling across the room might not have been the better course of action.
All of her discomfort receded into the background when she found herself standing in front of the bathroom mirror.
She was staring at a woman’s reflection. She touched the cold glass with her fingertips, as if the contact could trigger a forgotten memory.
Surely, the tall, thin woman sporting a nasty purple bruise on the side of her face had a name.
She ran her trembling fingers through her shoulder-length, dark red hair and then traced the cut above her left eyebrow.
Funny, she never imagined she’d be so attractive. She swallowed and did a second take.
How could it possibly be real?
If this was really happening to her, she’d be short and average looking; that was how fate was, fickle and capricious.
Instead, she found the woman before her possessed an almost hypnotic beauty, intense and alluring. Was it also the type of beauty that kept women at arms’ distance? She glanced at the bruise that marked cheek and jaw. But what about the men? Did her looks bring out the best or the worst in the men she encountered in life, or had a jealous boyfriend been the one who’d injured her?
She looked into the green eyes shadowed with fatigue, and her entire being filled with sorrow and hopelessness. Something terrible had happened to her. She didn’t know how, or why it had happened, but she was terrified that the perpetrator would come back and hurt her again. Or maybe, this next time, he’d succeed in killing her.
She rested her forehead against the mirror and drew in a shaky breath. The glass was cool against her heated flesh, but instead of finding comfort, the chill encased her until the icy feeling reached down and touched her soul. She bit her lower lip and swallowed a whimper. She closed her eyes, and allowed the hot tears to flow.
Her chest hurt and her body ached.
And she was scared.
So very scared.
What was she going to do if he came back?
How would she recognize him, if he did?
* * *
“Dammit, Caldwell!” Brede barked into the phone. “I need some help out here. What do you mean you broke your arm and your ankle? You were taking a couple of days off, remember, not going on a prolonged vacation. The shearing crew’s coming in from Texas on Monday. If I don’t keep the crew, they’ll head on up to Santa Fe and I won’t see them again until the next shearing season.”
“Don’t go swallowing your tongue over this, son. I’ve been cooking at the ranch since your Daddy was in short pants,” Caldwell shot back.
“You can’t cook with a broken arm. Hell, Caldwell, you can’t even cook with two good arms!”
The old man gave a crackling, wheezing laugh. “Getting het up isn’t going to solve nothin’ either! You can manage for a couple of days.”
“I’ve got a ranch to run. Now you expect me to cook for the shearing crew, too?”
“The cast’ll be sawed off soon enough,” Caldwell reminded his employer.
“Yeah, but not by Monday,” Brede snapped.
Caldwell was mumbling something about frozen entrées, but Brede stopped listening. He had an invalid in the bedroom, a shearing crew coming who expected to be fed, a cook who’d broken his arm, and the other two hired hands were probably stranded in town waiting for supplies. The only thing left to go wrong was the roof falling in!
He hung up the phone with a terse good-bye, never mentioning the woman upstairs, and got back to business.
Brede thumped around the kitchen and tried to form some system of order. He located a medium saucepan and a metal can opener, and then he pawed through the pantry, searching for the promised meal.
All the while he worked, his mind flashed an instant replay of the failed relationships in his life.
He’d learned a long time ago about the cost of personal involvement, and it came at a price he was no longer willing to pay. He just wished the nagging little voice in the back of his head would stop telling him that this time it was going to be different.
Who was he trying to fool? He was a lot more interested in this woman than he cared to admit. A hell of a lot more than was wise. He understood the dynamics of adrenaline and danger, but this was different. He couldn’t explain it, but something had happened between him and this woman when he’d kept vigil over her. Something that didn’t have anything to do with the fact she appealed to him on a physical level. Somehow, and as unlikely as it seemed, he’d connected with her in a way that went against everything he believed about himself.
Brede found half-a-dozen cans of soup stashed in the back of the narrow pantry behind the dried beans and five-pound sack of rice. It was a good idea to think about the meal. Deciding wonton was the least threatening, and most likely to be consumed, he opened the can. After he dumped the contents into the saucepan, he placed it on the stove and cranked up the burner. He watched the doughy triangles of wonton drift through the thin, dark broth and hoped for the best.
He located a wooden tray, added a napkin, teaspoon, and small plate of crackers to the offering, before ladling the steaming soup into a bowl.
“I’m glad I don’t have to eat this,” he said, eyeing the liquid in the white bowl. He placed the bowl in the center of the tray, ignoring the slosh of liquid that burned the side of his hand.
He tried to sort out his feelings as he headed down the hallway. He was annoyed with her because he couldn’t tell if she was lying, and annoyed with himself because he should have more sense than to be concerned with anything other than getting her well enough to travel.
Still, he knew he was in trouble the moment he’d brought her out of that gully, because even now his thoughts kept going back to the way her eyes held such mixture of sorrow and sweetness.
* * *
She had just finished in the bathroom when Brede returned. She kept her gaze averted as she made her way across the room. By the time, she reached the bed she was trembling with fatigue and perspiration dotted her forehead.
“I thought I told you to stay put,” he said, holding back a groan at the creamy expanse of thigh displayed before him as she gingerly slid under the covers. She rolled up the sleeves of his flannel shirt to her elbow, and his gut clenched. She looked good in his old work shirt.
She glanced at him with irritation. Her eyes weren’t the color of late spring he realized, but hot, fiery emeralds. “I’m capable of going to the bathroom without assistance.”
He watched her smooth silky strands of hair from her face. Somehow, she’d managed to tame her wild tangle of hair into a cascade of thick waves. “Maybe, but you don’t have any strength. I think it would have been more practical to tie your hair back, rather than stand in the middle of the cold bathroom struggling to get the tangles out with a plastic comb.”
She started to speak then snapped her jaw shut. He was right. She glanced out the window for several seconds before knotting the edge of the blanket beneath her hands. “I guess I have a stubborn streak.”
“So it would appear.” He placed the wooden tray across her lap.
She reached for a soda cracker. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful—”
She cut her gaze up to his face, her green eyes sparkled with mischief, “But I think I’m use to getting my way.” She brushed the cracker crumbs from the front of her shirt.
“So am I,” Brede confided. “We should get along just fine.”
“Like two cats trapped in a sack,” she ventured to guess as a tentative smile touched the corners of her mouth.
He grunted a response. He didn’t trust himself to speak. Something went liquid and warm in Brede’s chest at her smile. It was an unwanted sensation he should have shied away from, but he didn’t.
Brede knew his self-control was going to shatter—it was simply a matter of when. Looking at the beautiful woman lying in his bed, he found his thoughts focusing on the lushness of her lips, the fiery passion for life that shone though her fatigue and flashed in her eyes, allowing him glimpses into her moods. He sensed her fear, but he also sensed her determination.
“Thank you for the soup.” She swallowed a spoonful of broth and bit into a second cracker.
He stared at the delicate features of her face. Not even the bruises and cuts could disguise her beauty. Desire flared in him, warming his blood, and he fought to return his attention to reality. She was a complication in his already complicated life. She didn’t belong in his life, or on his ranch.
“I’ve got livestock to care for.” He pulled a fresh set of gloves from a drawer. “While I’m out I’ll check the water line. I’m going to be gone for several hours. Will you be all right on your own?”
She blew at the spoonful of soup she held. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be okay. After lunch, I’ll take a nap.”
The innocent seduction of her words made his body tingle and he drew in a steadying breath. He must have a death wish, he realized. Knowing she was lying half-naked in his bed would be slow torture when he was out in the rain, thinking of her.
“I’m sorry for being so much trouble.” She looked down at the soup. “I don’t think I can eat anymore.”
He lifted the tray from her lap, mentally counting the number of strides it would take him to get out of the room, but he didn’t move. He couldn’t.
She didn’t look like she could handle the burden of his attraction right now. She looked pale and vulnerable. It took most of his discipline just to head out the door. “I’ll look in on you when I get back.”
It was late afternoon when the sky boiled with dark gray clouds heavy with rain. Brede felt the wind snap around through the craggy hillsides, debating a direction. He secured the lambing pens and fed the rest of his livestock. One of the newborn lambs wasn’t gaining weight. He moved the animal and its mother into the barn for additional warmth, but he doubted it would be enough. He’d come back in a couple of hours and check on them.
Brede pulled his collar up against the wind, and swore beneath his breath as he headed for the stables. He’d often dealt with sick livestock, but combined with taking care of an injured houseguest, and knowing they’d be alone in the house for yet another night, he found himself bad-tempered and exhausted.
He turned on his heel, and headed along the gravel walkway and up to the ranch house.
Was the rain ever going to let up? He pushed his Stetson back from his forehead and looked upward, allowing the first drops of cold, hard rain to pepper his face.
A part of him wasn’t sure he wanted to know the woman’s story. He already had enough unwanted memories haunting his nightmares. He should have never allowed himself to get emotionally involved with the woman. Yeah, right. No matter how much she might need his help, he should have stuck to business.
Instead, he’d hung around like a fool.