At least, Jack Miller hoped she wasn't his sister. Because that would make things really complicated, and he had more than enough complications in his life already.
Concealed in the shadow of trees outside the militia's compound, he watched as the woman's head followed the rest of her over a ten foot wall of rough-cut pine. The sunlight fired her short blond curls.
Nope. Definitely not his sister. His sister Sally wore her hair in a long dark braid. Or she had the last time he saw her, what was it now, seven years ago? Eight?
Ignoring the familiar twinge of guilt, Jack narrowed his gaze on the blonde. Okay, so the hair was wrong. But the getup was right, the long skirt and sandals, sort of a hippie sister wife. She must be one of them. The Holy Rollers. The Disciples of Freedom or whatever the hell they called themselves. But if Blondie there was a member of God's little army, why was she tearing up her clothes and her hands going over the wall?
So far, none of the compound's sentries had noticed her break for freedom. Lax of them, Jack thought. But then, what did they have to worry about out here? Bears? Timber snakes? They were in the middle of the Nantahala national forest, eight and a half miles of rough backcountry from the nearest access point and a long day's hike from the nearest town. The deep gorges and steep hills all around probably made even paranoid militia men feel safe from intrusion.
At least, that's what Jack was counting on.
But the blonde wasn't taking advantage of the guards' inattention to make a run for it. Scared? Jack wondered. He was too far away to see her face or her knuckles, but she sure seemed reluctant to let go of that wall. His muscles tensed. Come on, sweetheart, he urged silently. It's not that far. Three feet. Four, tops.
Her sandal dropped. And then Blondie did, too, crumpling as her feet hit the hard-packed ground. There were no bushes to break her fall. The Disciples had cleared the area around the compound of brush, which explained why Jack had set up his stakeout thirty yards away, outside the perimeter of trees.
He watched as the woman lurched to her feet. Was she hurt, or just jarred? Jarred, he decided, as she stooped for her sandal. At least she had the sense not to stop to put it on.
She hopped toward the tree line, her shoe clutched in her hand, angling for the thick laurels on Jack's right. Good. So she wouldn't lead her pursuers straight to him. Assuming she attracted pursuit. As long as Jack didn't do anything stupid to call attention to himself, like offer her shelter or help. . .
But he wouldn't.
He had to think of Sally.
His blood pumped. Adrenaline flooded his body. He had no ties to the mystery blonde, no stake in her escape. But he caught himself rooting for her as she stumbled for cover, ungainly as a mother partridge distracting a fox from her nest. He sure hoped she had some goal, some thought, some plan beyond making it to the bushes.
She didn't carry a bundle. No sleeping bag or supplies. What was she going to do tonight when the sun went down and the temperature dropped thirty degrees? Spring was beautiful in these North Carolina mountains, but fickle. And cold. Kind of like his ex-wife.
Yep, the blonde definitely needed a plan to survive.
A shout sounded from inside the compound.
Jack stiffened. Shit.
The blonde's head jerked up like a startled deer's. At this distance, Jack could see she was young. Cute, too. Under her loose pink top, her breasts were nice and round. No wonder somebody didn't want to let her go.
After that one frozen second, the woman dropped her chin and ran like hell over the rocky ground. Her skirt snagged behind her as she plunged into the bushes, a flag to watching eyes, and then it, too, disappeared.
Jack released his breath. Time for him to do the same, before Locke sent his thugs out after the pretty fugitive.
He withdrew silently through the trees, grateful for his drab jacket and camouflage pants. Poor Blondie. Her pink shirt and full, flowered skirt would show up against the browns and greens of the forest like tracer bullets in the night sky. He heard her crashing through the woods on his right and scowled. She'd be better off lying low until her pursuers had passed. Plenty of hiding places in this wilderness.
Like that oak over there. . .
Jack's gaze narrowed. The forest giant had toppled many seasons ago. Its leaves were gone, its branches broken, its roots raised in a broad wedge of crumbled clay and rock. The gaping hole left behind was an obvious hiding spot; the depression under the trunk, sheltered by a tangle of brush and leaves, made a much better one.
Jack was no Daniel Boone. He'd gone camping with his old man exactly once, and the trip, like most of their attempts at father-son bonding, had been a disaster. But he'd picked up some basic survival skills, at Uncle Sam's insistence and taxpayer expense.
Squatting, he poked under the log with a stick. The hollow appeared dry and snake-free. He'd need to squeeze his shoulders through the narrow opening, but beyond that the ground fell away. He wasn't crazy about being stuck in a hole in the ground, but this one had plenty of room to move and breathe.
Jack tossed the stick away. Shrugging out of his pack, he shoved it out of sight, under the trunk, and crawled in after it.
Lexie ran, blind with pain and panic.
Her ankle jarred with every step. Her breath grunted and whistled. Branches lashed her arms, tree roots tripped her feet.
She snatched at a sapling, keeping herself upright through sheer luck and force of will. Her heart hammered. She had to get away. She couldn't let herself be captured, wouldn't let herself be used again. . .
The ground heaved, and a man rose up practically under her feet.
Oh, God. She was caught.
He was massive as the mountain, dusted in dirt and leaves and dressed like a nightmare out of a video game. Call of Duty. Killzone.
Whirling, she bolted.
He grabbed her from behind, yanked her against his large, hard body, and covered her mouth with his hand.
She bit him.
"Shit." His breath hissed against the side of her face as she kicked and clawed his arm. "Hold still, will you? They'll hear us."
His voice penetrated her panic. He didn't sound angry. Exasperated, maybe, but Lexie exasperated lots of people. Typical male reaction, really.
And that us . . . They'll hear us . . . Wasn't he one of them, then?
She stopped struggling.
"You okay?" he growled close to her ear.
She was not okay. She was scared out of her wits. Her side ached, her ankle throbbed, and she had Locke the Lunatic and his band of baddies hot on her trail.
But she nodded. At least, she tried. It was hard to signal agreement with that big hand clamping her jaw.
The hand relaxed slightly. "You won't scream?" His breath was hot against her cheek.
Why would she scream? Nobody would hear. No one who would help, anyway.
She nodded again. And then, fearing he'd misunderstand her response, she shook her head.
Those fingers eased their grip. Slowly, as if her captor was as suspicious, as reluctant, as she, he released her.
Lexie twisted in his arms and took a step back. Pain shot to her knee. She staggered.
Oh, dear Lord.
Lexie had seen enough militia-style getups in the past few days to recognize trouble. And this man, with his slouch hat pulled over burning eyes and his stubbled jaw, would look dangerous with or without the uniform. Dangerous, disreputable and--despite his intimidating attitude and the three days' growth of beard--very, very hot.
Lexie licked her dry lips. She didn't do intimidating men, she reminded herself. Growing up with an over-protective, ultra-controlling father had put her off tall, dark and dangerous for life. And if her upbringing hadn't already convinced her to steer clear of macho males, the past couple of days surely would have.
She should never have trusted Ralph.
Just because this guy wasn't one of the crazies inside the compound didn't mean she could trust him, either. As much as she'd railed and rebelled against her father's paranoid view of the world, she had to admit now there were some seriously bad people out there. Man Mountain could be anyone. Anything. A hunter. A hillbilly. An escaped convict.
She shivered. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"
He looked at her as if she was the crazy one. "At the moment, I'm saving your ass. Get in."
Lexie blinked. The drugs they'd forced on her were out of her system, but she still felt woozy. Get in what? Get in where?
The woods crackled behind her.
The big man swore. Grabbing her elbow, he dragged her toward a fallen log and shoved her to the ground. Lexie caught herself with her hands. A hole gaped in the earth, dark and spidery and uninviting.
Her stomach quailed. In there?
But she had no choice. Anyway, the man behind her wasn't offering her one. He nudged her into the crack, crawling and sliding in after her. Lexie fought a burst of panic. How could they fit? There was no room, no air. . .
And then he levered his body somehow, bracing himself on his hands and his toes, and stretched out on top of her.
That was better. And worse. His thighs trapped hers. His chest flattened hers. His arms were heavy with muscle. She could feel the tension in them as he splayed above her.
He weighed a ton.
"They're coming." His voice was a vibration at the back of her neck. "Don't talk."
Talk? Lexie wasn't sure she could breathe.
She turned her cheek against the cool, decaying leaves and inhaled carefully through her mouth. Her ankle throbbed in time with her pulse.
The man on top of her moved his lips to her ear, his jaw rough against the side of her face. "Dogs?"
Lexie's heart lurched to her throat. Oh, God. If her pursuers were hunting with dogs, their hiding place was worse than useless. They'd be caught. Trapped.
She swallowed her panic. She hadn't seen any dogs within the compound. Of course, drugged, tied, and confined, there was a lot she hadn't seen. And some of the things she had . . . She shivered.
Don't think about that now, she ordered herself. There's nothing you can do about that now.
"No dogs," she said.
He grunted, apparently satisfied. The sound, low and intimate in her ear, made something inside her clench and then soften. She lay still, her senses straining. No shouts. No gunfire. Only the pounding of her heart and the slow, steady breathing of the stranger above her and--
There. He must have heard it too, because he stiffened. A stealthy disturbance of the forest floor, too loud to be a bird and too deliberate to be a squirrel, moving away to their right. Footsteps? Someone was after them. After her.
Lexie squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath. She was acutely aware of the man pinning her to the soft, damp ground. His size. His strength. His. . .
Oh, my goodness. Her eyes popped open. He was aroused. That wasn't his belt buckle pressed hard against her bottom. It was too long, too hot, too thick, to be mistaken for anything but, well, what it was.
Lexie exhaled. Now what?
Under normal circumstances, she would have made a joke and moved away.
But things had slid from normal to nightmare three days ago.
And nothing in her past experience, none of her father's dire warnings or her mother's frank instructions, offered a clue on what to do when you were being hunted through the woods by armed religious zealots and a significant portion of your rescuer's anatomy was poking your backside.
Lexie's hands fisted against the cool, soft earth.
Well, fine. If he could endure it, if he could ignore it, then so could she.
Lexie bit her lip. Anyway, she could try.