They’re going to finish me this time.
Her face plowed into the soft, moist dirt. Leaves and twigs scraped her cheek, stinging, but seemed no more painful than a mosquito bite compared to the rest of her body. As quickly as she was pushed down face-first, her attacker flipped her over and slapped a large hand over her mouth. He straddled her while gathering her flailing arms easily with his other hand.
Please, she prayed, make it quick.
It was unlikely she’d survive another round of “persuasion.”
Tears rolled down her cheeks as she gave up the struggle. Every move she made increased her pain quotient a thousand times. If they were going to kill her, she wouldn’t fight. Hair, dirt and leaves were flung across her face, blocking any sight of her attacker.
Good. She didn’t want to see him anyway.
She waited for a blow. Nothing came. Instead of giving her false hope, it made her sob louder. This sorry piece of work was playing with her. Making her wait.
“Shut up,” the man growled.
She couldn’t. No power on earth could make her stop crying. Pain and fear melded into an ugly cold instrument of torment.
He pushed down harder on her mouth. “Shut the fuck up.”
Tears flowed in earnest as she tried to shake the punishing hand off her mouth. She screamed through her throat. Agony invaded every molecule of her battered being, taking her beyond caring what was going to happen.
The man shifted his weight to sit more squarely on her chest while yanking her hands tighter in his. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
A bone moved. She jerked. Tortuous misery flashed across her chest and blessed darkness engulfed her.
“What? What the…” She had gone limp and stopped moving. “Hey.” He shook her hands to wake her. They fell to the side when he let go. She was out. The question was why. He hadn’t hurt her although he could have quite easily. For a burglar, she sucked.
Curiosity drove him to brush the tangled wad of leaves and hair off her face. He pulled the flashlight out of his pocket to get more light than what the measly porch light offered. He wanted a better look at his burglar. What he discovered shocked the hell out of him.
This girl looked more like an angel than a wood-clubbing thief. He pulled on his beard while he mulled over her finely arched eyebrows, high delicate cheekbones, skin like his mother’s porcelain china and soft, plump lips that begged to be kissed.
Whoa, Foster. Get your head off that track and back on to what you’re going to do with her.
A quick threat assessment told him she wasn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Why had she passed out? The way she screamed suggested pain and a lot of it. He knew he hadn’t caused it so the next step was to find the source. Everything checked out until he got to her stomach and rubbed against something rough underneath her shirt. He unbuttoned the cotton blouse and pushed it back.
Someone or something had used this sweet little body as the end point of a wrecking ball and had beat the shit out of her. Purple and blue bruises bled out from under her makeshift bandage and bra. Her shoulder was swollen with four oval bruises, about an inch apart, covering the space beneath her clavicle.
Duct tape held her together. He’d seen some of the guys do this in the field to support busted ribs until they could get back to base and pain meds.
Confident she was no threat to his safety, he gently lifted her off the ground and headed into the house.
Even unconscious, her face tightened in a grimace as he jostled her in his arms. It must hurt like a motherf*)ker. Her head rolled into his chest making him catch his breath. She was…a woman. A good-looking woman. One, despite her condition and what she had been about to do, made him think about things he had no business thinking.
It had been far too long.
He shouldered open the front door and brought her straight to the couch, where he stretched her out. Before he called Todd to come haul her ass to jail, he wanted to find out what she thought she was doing. It was clear as a bell she wasn’t a career criminal and she had no survival skills to speak of. So why does a woman like this go sneaking around a house in the middle of a forest if she wasn’t looking to do a heist?
And why do it all banged up?
Too many questions and he wanted answers.
Roark took the stairs two at a time to snatch up his first aid kit. He grabbed the ammonia ampoule and headed back down. Maybe she had been in a car accident. Whatever happened, it did an ugly number on her.
He crushed the small container and waved it under her nose. She jerked her head back and forth to escape the noxious odor, but he followed so there was nothing she could do but breathe in the sharp chemical.
“No. Get away from me.” She slapped half-heartedly at his hand, a southern accent thick and slurry.
Once she came into contact with his body, her eyes flew open and there was no doubt of the message. Pure terror. Instead of struggling, she went still as if she were positioned to take a punch. Shallow pants increased in speed.
Broken ribs and abject fear were not a good combination.
“If you’re going to kill me, do it quickly. Please.” She stared at the screen door, refusing to look back at him.
“Kill you? What the hell?” He pulled on his beard. It was hard to decide where she fell on the crazy meter. “Did you escape from a hospital? Are you lost? Because if you’re a burglar, that was an epic failure.”
That did the trick. After a pause, she turned her head to look at him. “What are you talking about? Aren’t you here to kill me?”
“Okay. That’s it. You’ve got to be batshit crazy.” He headed to the phone to make the call he kicked himself for not making sooner. “Lady, you were the one sneaking around my mother’s house.” He punched in Todd Hutchins’s number, the new sheriff in Esterloch.
“Your mother’s…wait a minute. Are you Roark?”
“How do you know my name?” The phone buzzed in his ear with each unanswered ring.
“I’m Monica Peterson.”