June Girls, Book 1
The piercing pain in her chest grew worse, but she couldn’t stop running. A flash of lightning split the darkness once again, temporarily blinding her. Thunder roared in her ears and her racing heart felt as if it would burst. Again, the pounding of the horse’s hooves beat the dirt path behind her. Closer this time. He was closer. A high-pitched scream ahead in the distance, just beyond her in the mist.
“Erin!” she yelled. “I’m coming.”
The cramps in her legs intensified and she stumbled over a rock in the path, but caught herself before she fell. She couldn’t keep up this insane pace much longer. She had to get to Erin before the dark man on the horse caught her again. More lightning, another crash of thunder. Blinded by the rain, she stumbled through the brambles. The wind howled as she struggled forward against its gale force.
She cried out as she tripped over a tree root. And another flash of lightning pierced the night sky.
Dragging herself up, she felt the hot breath of the horse against the back of her neck, as two callused hands lifted her through the air. Out of time. He’d caught her again, the sound of familiar laughter beside her now. Another scream—farther away this time—barely perceptible. She’d failed again.
“Erin!” She kicked out with all her might. “Erin!”
The man beside her laughed harshly, whispering in her ear, familiar, terrifying words. One last scream—this time coming from her own lips—as she tried to drown out his words, his laughter. The rough hands began to shake her so hard her teeth rattled.
“Hayley, wake up! Wake up!”
Hayley opened her eyes, adjusting her vision to the dark room. Bright light from the hallway poured in from the open doorway and she felt disoriented.
“Yes. God, Hayley. Wake up!” Hayley shook slightly as her friend stroked her hair and murmured comforting words. “You’re awake now. You’re safe.”
Hayley sat still for several moments, silently willing the trembling to stop. She hated the look of absolute panic on Tori’s face. “I’m okay. Really.”
“That was a hell of a nightmare. I heard you all the way down the hall.”
Hayley shrugged nonchalantly though her hands shook as she tried to untangle herself from the sweat-soaked sheets.
“I thought you said you didn’t have nightmares anymore. How long have you been having these?”
“Awhile…just since she disappeared.” Hayley’s voice was hoarse from screaming.
Tori looked unconvinced. “You need to talk to someone about them. It’s not good for you to have such violent dreams. You know, I bet my mother knows someone who could help.”
“A shrink?” Hayley felt calmer, her wits were returning to her. “No, thanks, I don’t think a psychiatrist is going to be able to do anything about a silly nightmare. Besides, I tried it before, remember?”
Tori crossed her arms. “Two months, Hayley. You tried it for a total of two months and then you quit when some progress was being made.”
“That doctor was a hack and it was a waste of money. I work hard for my paycheck and I resented giving it to her so she could blame all my problems on Marian. It’s just being here, Tori. It brings everything back.” At Tori’s incredulous look, she deepened her lie. “I’m fine at home.”
“Right, you don’t have these dreams anywhere but here?”
“No, well, maybe a couple of times right after I went home last summer, but not since then.” She hoped her light tone made her lie more convincing. Truth was she had endured bad dreams since she was a child, but the nightmares had become more frequent and frightening since last June. A year. She still couldn’t believe it had been one year. She’d spent the last twelve months in a fog, simply going through the motions of living.
Tomorrow was her best friend Erin’s birthday. It was also one year to the day since Erin had mysteriously disappeared without a trace. The June girls were together again for the summer, minus one very special member. Erin, Hayley and Tori had spent every summer together since they were ten years old. The first ten summers were spent at Camp Spring Rock, then last year here at Tori’s family estate, Fernwood Grange in Dover, England. They had penned themselves the June girls during their first summer at camp as all three of them had June birthdays. They had remained friends through the best and worst times of their lives.
This summer, Hayley was spending a couple weeks at Fernwood Grange with Tori. It was only her second vacation since beginning her job as a counselor in a women’s abuse shelter in St. Louis two years earlier. Tori, an elementary school librarian, was spending her entire summer break at the Grange and Erin, until her disappearance, had traveled the United States with her band, Delancy’s Dreamers.
Tori disrupted her thoughts. “We should have gone somewhere else this year.”
Hayley reached for her friend’s hands. “No. I wanted to come back, to be here with you. Besides, I’ve been thinking perhaps time and distance may help us solve this mystery. There are some things about last year that have been bothering me and I thought we could run down some of the leads that weren’t fully explored.”
“Are you kidding me?” Tori yelled. “Dammit Hayley. I didn’t come back here to start the search up again. There are no leads to track down.”
“I’m just not sure the detectives followed up as much as they should have.”
“Will you just stop it? She’s gone. Erin is gone. I thought coming here might help us heal.”
Hayley knew for a fact that wasn’t going to happen. “Heal?”
“Yes, heal, let go of the past, move on. I know those are pretty radical concepts, but they’re something you might want to try sometime.”
Hayley felt her friend’s words like a blow to the chest. Sure, she had a tendency to carry around her ancient history like well-worn luggage, but Tori, of all people, should understand why she did so.
“I—I don’t think I can do that.”
“Aw, Hayley. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that, but I can’t drudge all of this up again. We have to get past it. We were both in such a daze at the end of last summer. I haven’t been back to this house myself since then. Despite my mother’s nagging, I spent Christmas with my cousins in Liverpool. I couldn’t face the demons here without you.” Tori’s voice broke. “I came back, hoping we could find closure. I miss her so much.”
Hayley reached for her friend, holding her as Tori cried. She didn’t think this trip would help either one of them. They were ghosts of their former selves and although she found solace with her friend, it wasn’t enough to counteract the guilt and pain she felt over losing Erin.
As Tori quietly cried, Hayley realized she hadn’t shed a tear since Erin’s disappearance—not once. Instead, she’d lived in a hollow cocoon, feeling cold and empty all the time. Her childhood with a tyrant father taught her from an early age that emotions showed weakness and—having learned that lesson the hard way many times—she refused to be weak.
Gradually, Tori regained control of her emotions and looked up guiltily. “You had the nightmare and I’m the one who’s falling apart. Isn’t that always the way? Erin was so much a part of us. This last year it’s felt like we were missing a limb, but we’ve gone on. We’ve both been successful in our jobs and we have each other. There are still good times to be had and I really don’t think Erin would want us to wallow in self-pity and misery. Remember the time Tuck Mathews fell into the lake?”
“As I recall, he didn’t fall in. Erin pushed him.” Hayley laughed at the memory.
For the next hour, the two friends reminisced, sharing laughter and tears as they talked about the wild adventures of the June girls at camp.
Finally, Hayley said the words that never completely left her consciousness. “The worst thing is not knowing.”
Tori nodded, clearly understanding what she meant.
“I think that’s what hurts the most. It drives me crazy sometimes, Tori. Just wondering, never knowing for sure she won’t walk through that door any minute with some crazy tale of her lost year.”
“Wouldn’t that be great? Actually, I think deep down inside, I hoped we would come back and find her here. Isn’t that silly?”
Hayley shook her head. “No, it’s not.”
“Sometimes, these past few days, I’ve actually felt like she was here.” Tori shivered. “Maybe I need to see the shrink?”
“No, I’ve felt her too. I thought it was just me.”
Neither of them spoke for several minutes as they considered what it might mean to feel Erin’s presence—her spirit in the house—until Tori, shaking off thoughts of her friend’s possible death, stood quickly. “That’s it. I’m for bed again.”
“Me too. Rough day tomorrow. Her twenty-third birthday.”
Tori paused in the doorway. “Tonight helped me. I’m stronger with you, Hayley. Sweet dreams?”
She listened as Tori returned to her room, then got out of bed and crossed to the window seat. Curling up on the blue brocade cushion, she felt bad for lying to her friend about the nightmares. Erin and Tori were her best and only friends. After Marian, her mother, divorced her alcoholic father, Hayley and her mom moved frequently from one run-down apartment to another, usually trying to escape bill collectors or the latest in a long line of Marian’s seedy boyfriends.
Because of the instability of her home life, Hayley became a loner. Growing up, she watched her mom cower under the demands of her abusive father and then a string of other unsavory men. Determined not to be like Marian, she had difficulty fitting in. She was strong-willed with a quick temper and an independent streak a mile wide. Her tendency to speak her mind tended to make others uncomfortable and she had never trusted anyone until she met the June girls.
Tori and Erin were loners as well, although for different reasons. Erin’s isolation was the result of lifestyle, not choice. She was an only child traveling with her father and a folk music band comprised entirely of adults. Despite the lack of other children, Erin was vivacious, beautiful and made friends easily. Tori, meanwhile, lived a life of privilege with wealthy parents. The problem was, her folks were both extremely successful workaholics who left the rearing of their only daughter to a string of nannies.
Shaking herself back to the present, Hayley decided sleep was beyond her. Looking around the room, she decided to read the romance novel Tori had loaned her earlier that afternoon.
“Damn,” she murmured after ten minutes of searching. “I must have left it outside.”
They’d spent the afternoon under a large oak tree at the edge of the Grange property. It was close enough to the shoreline that they could listen to the sounds of the English Channel as they relaxed. The tree had been a favorite gathering place for all three of the women last year.
However, today, she’d found herself unable to concentrate there. The tree was the last place Erin had been seen and Hayley was the last person who had seen her. The memory of that day served to increase the feelings of guilt she had suffered throughout the year. She’d left her friend alone, unprotected and the fact ate at her insides like a cancer. In her haste to escape the tree this afternoon, she must have forgotten her book as well as several other things, now that she thought about it.
Wide-awake and too antsy to sleep, she decided a brisk walk to retrieve her belongings would do her good. She pulled on the jeans and the green blouse she had worn earlier in the day. Taking a quick peek out the window, she was happy to see it was a clear night. A walk might do the trick. Might drive out the dark thoughts overwhelming her senses and leaving her so restless. Tori didn’t want to continue the search, but Hayley couldn’t give up the idea that perhaps with a bit more effort, this time they could solve the mystery.
Besides, she was simply unwilling to risk sleep again with its terrible images. Lacing up her tennis shoes, she tiptoed past Tori’s bedroom and out the front door. Taking a deep breath of fresh air, she felt a tremor of fear and considered turning back to the house. She shook it off as unwanted weakness and started down the dirt path toward the tree.
She had almost reached the spot when she was startled by the sound of thunder somewhere in the distance.
“Damn, I hope it doesn’t start to rain.”
Glancing at a clear night sky twinkling with stars, she wondered where the thunder had come from. The light of a full moon lit the path ahead and the walk was easy and relaxing. She loved walking at night. While she knew night sounds and eerie shadows frightened others, she took comfort in the darkness, refuge in the peacefulness, and loved the shelter it provided.
Again, she heard a crash of thunder, louder this time. If a storm was blowing in from the direction of the shore, she’d better hurry. Increasing her pace, she cursed herself for being a fool, tramping through the woods for a silly romance novel. As she approached the giant oak, she glanced around the desolate area.
“Erin. Where are you? Why can’t I find you?”
She bent down to load up her forgotten backpack in the darkness. Rushing lest the storm began, she hastily retrieved her book, water bottle and sunglasses, and then started to place the bag on her back.
Suddenly a bright flash of lightning struck the tall oak tree in front of her, throwing her back onto the ground where she lay stunned. Every hair on her body stood straight up and every nerve felt as though it had received an electric shock. Dazed, she looked up at the tree. It had split right down the middle all the way to the ground, yet amazingly, it was still standing. The two halves were pointing outward at sixty-degree angles, but they had not fallen to the earth.
An unexpected movement on the other side of the tree caught her gaze. Through the opening in the oak, a man on a large, dark horse looked back at her. He wore a large cloak with a hat pulled low over his face—rainwater gushing off the brim.
The dark horseman from my dream.
Panic set in. Glancing quickly at her surroundings, she considered running, but realized—as her recurring dream had repeatedly proven—she would never escape him and his horse in the dark. The saying the best defense is a good offense popped into her mind. The only course of action was to stand her ground.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t standing on the ground, but sprawled across it due to the force of the lightning strike. Rising slowly, she tried to get a better look at the man. Occasional flashes of lightning served to cast his face in even darker shadows. The moon had deserted her, leaving a bleak darkness that allowed her to see the outline of his colossal form on the horse, but no more. However, even in the dark, she could feel him staring, his gaze burning into her.
She cautiously approached the split in the tree. The man from her nightmares had been chasing her for years; however, the horse had been a new addition, only appearing since Erin’s absence. She had no idea what that meant.
Am I dreaming again?
Somehow, deep inside, she knew for certain the broken tree, wild storm and strange man were very real this time. Cognizant of the danger he presented, she searched the ground looking for a broken branch or anything else she could use as a weapon. She feigned amazement in the rent the lightning had caused, stepping closer to the tree, hoping to draw him into conversation. She needed to hear his voice. Needed to be sure it wasn’t the same one that laughed in her ear—that whispered those horrible, terrifying things—even though she knew that was impossible.
Her concerns about the man quickly diminished as she sensed a strange stirring around her, like a powerful wind was blowing somewhere nearby, but not touching her. Glancing around, she tried to determine where the sound was coming from. It was eerie and frightening and unlike anything she had ever heard before. It was as if every bee on earth was hovering over her head and she couldn’t resist the urge to swat at them. While the surrounding air was calm, it seemed alive.
Recalling the stranger, she took one more tentative step toward the tree and the world was thrown into utter chaos. She was violently thrust into a whirlwind of vibration and noise, caught up in a tornado. Painful, powerful strokes lashed at her body, while a million high-pitched voices shrieked inside her head. She tried to scream, but couldn’t hear the sound of her own voice over the roaring around her. Her body tossed and turned like a feather in the wind and the world exploded in bright, flashing lights—blinding her—searing her eyes with fire and heat. Desperate to save herself, she reached out to grab something, anything that could pull her back to safety.
Suddenly, she felt large, callused hands grab hers. They pulled her out of the madness, away from the noise and pain, the light and heat. As quickly as the cyclone captured her, it released her to the rough hands that held hers tightly. Silence fell again. Weak and exhausted, she looked up into the concerned eyes of a man she had never seen before.
Then the world went blissfully black.
Jack stared at the unconscious woman in his arms. Her presence had taken him by surprise. Before lightning struck the tree, he was unaware that anyone else had been nearby. Who the hell was she?
I should have stayed on the ship.
Taking in the woman’s strange appearance, he wondered why she would be out alone on such a treacherous night. And dressed in male clothing. Could she be a part of the smuggling ring suspected to be operating in this area?
Alex, the Marquis of Dorset, had written several months ago regarding his concerns about light signals he had observed off the coast. Alex had heard there was a group of smugglers at work and, although smuggling wasn’t new to these parts, he’d been concerned by rumors that it wasn’t goods being brought in, but people.
With the end of the war against Napoleon, there was still a fear that some of the French weren’t happy with the return of their king and would like nothing more than to punish England for its unwanted interference. If French spies were trying to enter the country, Dover would be the perfect place to land. Its close proximity to the French shoreline and many secluded beaches made it an accessible port for such dissidents.
However, it wasn’t the possibility of French spies, but Lady Julia’s disappearance that prompted him to travel to Fernwood Grange. He’d spent the better part of the last three months aboard one of the ships in his shipping company, traveling to Spain and Italy, then back again, only to return home to discover Julia Parker, a ward of his uncle, was missing.
If he’d taken the time to think about his actions, he would never have made such an ill-advised trek at such a poorly chosen time, but he was anxious to discover Julia’s whereabouts. She’d been missing for two days. The Grange, Alex’s home, bordered his uncle’s land. Since Jack was determined to remain in the area until Julia was found, he believed the Grange was the perfect place to begin his search.
He needed to question the woman in his arms. No one at Fernwood Grange expected him—especially not in the middle of the night. Driven by his anger toward his uncle and desperation to see Julia safely recovered, he had traveled first to his uncle’s estate, the Homestead.
The journey there had proven to be an unproductive waste of time as his mad uncle uttered inane threats while providing no insight into where Julia could have gone. Jack had left in a furor. Even though Fernwood Grange was only ten miles away from the Homestead, the trip had taken three times as long as normal due to the unnatural darkness, then the pounding wind and rain.
Looking down at the woman’s still form, her unnaturally pale face stirred him to take immediate action. Carefully, he lifted her onto his horse, then hoisted himself into the saddle. Adjusting her to a secure position, he rode off through the woods in the direction he had just come. There was a small hunting cabin not too far away, deep in the copse. He would take the woman there and question her, as he couldn’t see any reason to wake up the entire Grange household.
If she was involved with the smuggling of French spies, he would get the answers he was seeking and personally deliver her to Alex in the morning. He and Alex could contact the local magistrate and put an end to the criminal activity at once.
Perhaps these smugglers knew of Julia’s whereabouts. That thought prompted him to quicken the pace of his horse, anxious to put the nightmare of these past two days to rest.
Slowed by the continuing storm, they arrived at the cabin a quarter of an hour later. He dismounted carefully and carried the woman through the rain to the shelter. Using the occasional flashes of lightning as his guide, he picked his way across the room and deposited her on a straw pallet. Then he went back out into the storm and led his horse, Lancelot, to a crude stable behind the cabin.
As he cared for the horse, he wondered again who the woman was. Why was she out on such a terrible night by herself? Her presence wasn’t a coincidence. Had the lightning not struck the tree, he would never have known she was there. The god-awful weather had taken away most of the senses he relied on. He hadn’t heard her over the thunder, and the rain was coming down so hard he could barely see a few feet before him. However, she was as shocked by his sudden appearance as he was by hers. The suspicious way she regarded him immediately clued him into the fact she had something to hide.
Returning to the cabin, he threw his saddlebag on a nearby table and used the flint by the fireplace. Fortunately, the last occupant had left a large load of dry firewood inside the cabin. It would last through the night. The room was extremely cold due to the howling winds.
After a few minutes, he had a large fire blazing and two candles lit. From his saddlebag, he produced a dry shirt and breeches. He’d packed a single change of clothing, anxious to make his way to the Homestead. His valet was to meet him tomorrow with his belongings. Glancing quickly at the bed, he confirmed the woman was still asleep, so he peeled off his wet things. Once dressed in dry clothes, he tried to decide how best to question her when she awoke.
Rifling through a battered trunk at the end of the straw pallet, he pulled out three thin, wool blankets. With the light from the candles and fire, he stood at the end of the bed and studied the unconscious woman. She was a stranger to these parts. He’d grown up in the area and had spent many holidays with Alex at the Grange as a youth. He’d never lain eyes on this woman, of that he was certain.
He studied her unusual outfit more closely. Her breeches were not those of a man, but tailor-made for a female figure. Cut low on her waist, they enhanced the curves of her shapely legs and bottom. Her damp green shirt clung to her body, revealing firm, full breasts. She had no coat, leaving him to wonder if perhaps her late night adventure was unplanned. No woman would venture out on a night like this dressed in such inappropriate clothing. As he studied her exquisite form, undeniable desire passed through him.
Shaking off his lustful thoughts, he turned his attention to her face. Her fiery red tresses were unpinned and cut so they just brushed her shoulders. A mass of spiral curls lay loose over the pillow. Before he could stop himself, he walked to the side of the bed and bent down to brush a stray ringlet away from her face.
Her pale complexion didn’t appear to be natural, but a result of the intense pain she suffered under the tree. If he hadn’t seen her walking toward him after the strike, he would have suspected the lightning had hit her. However, she didn’t scream in pain until she approached him, or rather until she approached the tree. He didn’t question the pain had been truly intense. He had seen men wounded in battle too often not to recognize the real thing.
For now, the agony had waned as she rested peacefully. Long lashes hid her deep-set eyes and he felt vaguely curious about their color. With hair that color, perhaps they would be an emerald green or perhaps hazel. She had a few freckles on her delicate nose and cheeks he found endearing. Although her features were not what conventional society would consider beautiful, she was one of the loveliest women he had ever seen.
Jack was disgusted with the direction his thoughts were heading. This woman could be a spy. No doubt his lustful musings were from the lack of female company endured these past few months. While he loved sailing the open seas, it left a man lonely for the comforts of home and a soft, willing woman.
Any soft thoughts about this woman would not help him discover her identity. Picking up one of the threadbare blankets, he cut it into strips. Testing the strength of the material, he put it to the side lest he need to restrain her later. He didn’t want to harm her, but he was determined to get the answers he was seeking. With smugglers in the area and Julia missing, too much was at stake.
She shivered slightly and he noticed a blue tinge around her lips. The fire wasn’t producing much heat in the drafty cabin and her clothing was still wet. Grabbing the two remaining blankets, he covered her, and then pulled a chair over to the corner of the room. He needed a plan and found he couldn’t concentrate when he was so close to this beautiful stranger.
Sitting down heavily, he rubbed his brow. His head was aching from fear and anxiety as he considered his lost friend once again.
“Damn you, Julia Parker!” Where on earth was she? The past three years spent in Jack’s presence had no doubt jaded the girl. Ruined her chances of being a proper young woman. He took credit that—with his grandfather, Sebastian’s help—he had made the young lady impulsive and reckless by allowing her to roam the countryside at will. He should have visited her as soon as he’d returned home rather than journeying straight to London. He’d been three months at sea and the trip to London could have waited. If he had gone to see her first, she wouldn’t have felt the need to run away. Despite her knowledge of the area, an eighteen-year-old girl alone in the woods was prey to all sorts of dangerous things—human or otherwise.
A slight stirring on the bed dragged his attention back to the present. Jack knew the exact moment she woke up. Her soft breathing quickened, becoming shallow.
With some amusement, he watched her take in the room. His initial plan had been to scare her into answering his questions. With his naturally dark features and large build, he could have this woman shaking with fear in a matter of minutes. However, as she conducted her calm evaluation of the room, he realized she was likely intelligent and, by her lack of panic, brave.
He broke the silence. “How nice of you to join me.”
The woman flinched and then slowly turned her head. Her eyes were brown. It was a foolish thing to notice.
“I trust you are comfortable?” He had placed one candle on the table by the pallet so he could see her expressions clearly. The other he’d set on a shelf behind his chair, to cast his face in shadow, hiding his identity and, he hoped, increasing her fear.
“Actually, no.” Her voice was strong and clear. Jack found her confidence slightly infuriating. Although he knew he wouldn’t harm her, she didn’t know that. She should be acting with more caution. “What the hell kind of mattress is this? Straw? Who sleeps on straw these days? It’s scratchy and cutting into my skin.”
He struggled with her accent. It was unusual. He only knew one other person in the area who spoke like her and he found himself questioning her origins even more.
The woman studied him, waiting for a response.
“I beg your pardon if you’re not comfortable, but I have several questions I need answered. Until I discover the information I am seeking, you will have to endure the straw.” Closely observing her features, he sensed hostility, confusion, and then, he thought with some satisfaction, the slightest hint of fear flashed in her eyes before she shuttered the emotion away.
Hayley’s mind reeled as she considered the man’s bizarre behavior. This was the stranger by the tree, she had no doubt about that. What she couldn’t figure out was where she was and what questions he could possibly have for her.
Her first impression was ‘pirate.’ His British accent seemed coarse and he was the very picture of a swashbuckler in his old-fashioned pants, loose fitting shirt and high boots. His dark brown hair, tied neatly at the base of his neck, was touched with natural highlights and his deep tan suggested he spent most of his time outdoors. She couldn’t make out the specific features of his face or eyes, but the strong jawline certainly looked promising.
From what she could see of him, he had a very handsome face, perhaps even worthy to be the hero in one of those romance novels Tori was always reading. Though she should have felt fear, her instincts told her she wasn’t in danger. Despite her current predicament, she truly didn’t believe he would hurt her.
Though he was obviously trying to frighten her with the calculating stare, cool demeanor and dim lighting. Even his distance from her suggested some premeditation. His mistake. She’d lived with the greatest intimidator in all of history for nine long years. Her father had thrived on producing fear in the people around him. She’d learned at a very young age how an abuser’s mind worked. Pirate or not, this man had met his match.
“What on earth could you have to ask me? I don’t even know you.”
Standing slowly, he approached the bed. “Oh no, you don’t understand. I ask the questions and you answer them.” He was beside her, looking down at her on the bed.
She recognized the movement for what it was—yet another means of intimidation. He was using his size to hover over her in a threatening manner. Unwilling to let his towering presence unnerve her, she struggled to rise to a sitting position. Her head swam with the too quick movement as a wave of dizziness consumed her. She fell back against the prickly mattress. What the hell?
Her face flushed with anger and frustration. She hadn’t planned to show weakness, now she’d come off as totally helpless. It pissed her off.
“I won’t answer anything until you back off, buddy. Either sit down or help me up.”
Fury flickered across his face and she silently cursed her tongue.
“You were in pain earlier. I think perhaps it would be best if you continue to lie still.”
“I’m fine. I just need to move a bit slower.” She attempted to push herself up with one hand while she rubbed her forehead with the other.
Strong hands grasped her shoulders and gently helped her. He dragged her to the head of the bed, so she could lean her back against the wall. Then he joined her on the bed, sitting closer than she liked. Although they were more or less on eye level now, his close proximity and sheer size still left her feeling at a disadvantage. His smell was an odd, though not unpleasant, combination of rain and fire.
The closeness also gave her a clear view of his distinctly handsome face. Clear, deep blue eyes, chiseled jaw, and—oh my—dimples. Never one to giggle over the hotties in school, she felt as if she could do just that as she peered into the face of the most gorgeous man she had ever seen. Her giddiness was short-lived, however, when his features darkened even more and he began to scowl. Damn. Somebody woke up in a bad mood.
“What were you doing out on a night like this?” His voice was so deep it was almost a growl.
“I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to take a walk. I left my backpack under the tree earlier today and thought I’d retrieve it.” She paused, glancing around for her bag.
The stranger noticed her look. “Backpack?”
“Bag.” Didn’t people in England use the term backpack?
“I didn’t see a bag. You must have dropped it.”
Shrugging, she recalled putting it down before approaching the tree. She stifled a shudder as she remembered the violent grip of the storm tossing her around like a rag doll.
“Continue.” The man was obviously expecting a more detailed answer to his question.
Never one to take orders lightly, she narrowed her eyes. “The thunderstorm caught me by surprise. I was about to return home when lightning struck that tree. I didn’t see you until it split in two. Why were you riding a horse at night in the rain?”
“I ask the questions.”
“Well, that’s not fair. I have as much right to ask questions as you.” She started to rise from the bed, but he halted her with a strong hand on her shoulder.
“You’re hardly in a position to refuse to answer.” He tightened his grip to accentuate that he was stronger than she.
Something was terribly, terribly wrong, but Hayley couldn’t put her finger on exactly what it was. She needed answers about what was happening as much as this man. Continuing this contest of wills wouldn’t get either one of them the information they were seeking. “I’ll make a deal with you. For every two questions I answer, you have to respond to one of mine.”
“I don’t make deals.”
“Then I don’t answer questions.” She leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes. Damn arrogant, impossible man. What the hell was she supposed to do now?
Overwhelmed with a burning desire to do something to this infuriating woman, Jack seriously debated between shaking her and kissing her. Her mannerisms and speech marked her as an educated lady, although certainly not a gently bred one. She was intelligent, yet her language and behavior was coarse. To his chagrin, she was undaunted by the fact she was in serious danger. Even now as she appeared relaxed, he could see the wheels in her brain frantically working—no doubt assessing him and her situation. He respected her courage, despite the fact she was obviously lying.
Strolling alone in the woods?
The only house within walking distance was Fernwood Grange. A nagging suspicion began to take root in his mind. He couldn’t quite grasp what was wrong, but he was certain she was deceiving him somehow.
“Since it appears you’re unwilling to talk, perhaps we could find something else to do to pass the time.” He leaned closer.
Her eyes flew open. She understood his meaning. Closing the distance, he paused, expecting her to protest his forward actions. When she didn’t, he placed his mouth on hers. He’d intended to give her a simple, chaste kiss to scare her. However, the moment his lips touched hers, his body burst into flame. He raised his hands to her arms and roughly pulled her closer to him.
Her lips remained tight for mere seconds before he felt a gradual softening. Then, she parted her lips, allowing him to delve even deeper into the kiss. Jack had never taken a woman’s lips with such hunger. He pressed closer, shocked, when her tongue swept against his.
His conscience screamed and he broke off the kiss, looking at her flushed face. Her eyes opened slowly and, while her lips were red and slightly swollen, she looked at him with neither contempt nor embarrassment.
She wasn’t a stranger to kisses. That thought thrilled and appalled him. He briefly considered seducing her into answering his questions. The idea of bedding this unconventional beauty appealed to him a great deal. However, her overly cautious mannerisms left him with an overpowering desire to protect her, even though the only thing she needed protection from was him.
He walked toward the fire, keeping his back to her, trying to rein in his conflicting emotions. Bending down, he put two more logs on the fire. The storm had not abated, but grown. The wind was blowing through the cracks in the walls with alarming strength. It sounded as if a hurricane was battering at the cabin. He hoped the structure was strong enough to sustain the pounding.
Bringing her here had been a mistake. He should have questioned her at the Grange. The cold wind and pouring rain guaranteed it would be a long, uncomfortable night. Now there was nothing he could do, but continue the interrogation. Without turning around, he asked, “Who are you?”
“I wondered when you were going to ask me that. My name is Hayley.” No surname. Very well. They had all night. At her casual tone, he concluded his initial plan of intimidation was not the way to go. Her fearlessness and willing response to his kiss led him to believe that charm may work better and he certainly preferred a friendlier course.
He turned to her with a somewhat forced smile. “I believe that was two answers on your part. You may ask a question.”
With a suspicious smile, she acknowledged his concession. “What’s your name?”
“Jack.” No last name or title—two could play that game. “Well, Hayley, it would seem you chose a very bad night to walk outdoors. Do you live around here?”
“No, I’m from America. Guess you can tell from the accent,” she said. “I’m here visiting a friend on vacation.”
“Friend? And why would this friend allow you roam the countryside on such a treacherous night?” He began to suspect, much to his dismay, the friend to whom she was referring was Alex’s wife. She was also an American.
“Oh, Tori’s house is only over the hill a little ways from the tree that was struck by lightning and it wasn’t even threatening rain when I set out.” A confused look crossed her face. “You know, this may sound weird, but it wasn’t raining on my side of the tree. I didn’t think of it until now. I didn’t see you until the lightning struck and when I saw you through the split in the oak, the rain was pouring off your hat, but it wasn’t raining on me. How is that possible?”
He thought back to his first glimpse of her in the storm. The rain was falling so hard he could barely make her out, but she was right. When she began to cry out, he grabbed her. Shocked by her sudden appearance and violent screaming, it didn’t dawn on him until this moment that her clothing was dry. “I cannot explain that. It’s strange. You said your friend Tori lives over the hill? The only home in this area is Fernwood Grange.”
“That’s right,” she said. “My friend Tori Hamilton and her family own it.”
“I know the owners of the Grange and there is no Tori Hamilton there. Why are you lying?”
Her blatantly stupid lie made his anger rise. Julia’s disappearance, the argument with his uncle, the perilous trip through the storm and meeting this unusual woman had worn him down. At the end of his patience, the last straw broke. Hayley was playing him for a fool with her beautiful face and spirited words. He’d had enough of her feminine games. Now it was time to get to the truth. At least one thing he attempted to do tonight would be resolved.
Stalking back to the bed, he grabbed her shoulders and pulled her roughly to her feet. She struggled to stand, still shaken from the pain she’d suffered in the storm, and only his firm hands held her steady. For the first time, he saw true fear in her eyes.
Good, maybe now she will realize that I’m a serious danger to her.
“I’m going to ask you again, for the last time, why were you under that tree?” He shook her slightly. “And I want the truth.”
“I told you the truth!” she yelled. “Let me go!”
Furious, he refused to listen to her continued lies. He was not to be trifled with. He was a soldier, an officer, a sailor, and a fierce businessman. She was playing with fire whether she realized it or not. Julia’s life was at stake and he didn’t have time for her games. Even at this moment, Julia could be outside in this cold, dangerous weather.
Hayley fought in earnest as he gripped her shoulders more roughly. He released her when she unexpectedly kicked his shin, the sharp pain taking him unaware. She followed that blow with a kick to the gut that took his breath away. Good God, she had the strength of a horse. Taking several painful breaths, he struggled to remain upright. He’d never met such a physically powerful woman.
Tackling her, he threw her on the pallet using his entire body to hold her down. “Stop fighting me! Who are you? Where is Julia?”
Gasping for breath, she stilled, her face paler than before. Her exertions were costing her. His flash of fury was immediately replaced with shame. He’d never treated a woman so harshly, yet she had antagonized him to a point where he’d allowed his anger to take over.
He moved away slowly, an apology hovering on his lips until she came at him like a wildcat straight from hell. He had no time to protect himself as she hurtled herself at him.
Jack fell back, with her on top of him, hitting his head hard against the dirt floor. Stars flew behind his eyes, but before he could gather his wits, she managed to punch, scratch, kick, and slap him everywhere while he attempted to grab her flailing limbs. With a Herculean effort, he pressed her onto the floor. Straddling her kicking legs with his strong thighs, he went to work trying to catch her arms, which were still pummeling him with painful blows. Before he could stop her, she landed a smashing punch on one eye. Grasping both her wrists in one hand, he dragged her arms over her head.
She was frustrated and exhausted and the fight seemed to leave her with the realization she was trapped. Any gentle feelings he may have had about her had been driven out by the battle she’d just waged. He tightened his grip on her wrists painfully and pressed his weight more fully onto her legs, taking a perverse pleasure in her gasp of pain.
With his free hand, he took stock of his injuries. She’d left four long gouges from ear to chin on one side of his face and he had a tender spot on his scalp from the handful of hair she’d pulled out. He tasted blood on his lip and felt a sudden swelling underneath his left eye, which was sure to be black by tomorrow morning. On top of all that, his head was throbbing from hitting the floor so hard and he was still seeing spots.
Turning his attention to her, he realized with fury—and a little relief—she’d fared much better. Her hair, a matted, sweaty mess, was clinging to her face and he spotted the beginning of a bruise on her left cheek. Other than that and her flushed face, she appeared to be the picture of health, which caused the anger to again pump through his veins.
What made Hayley think she could fight and win against a pirate who was a foot taller, a hundred pounds heavier and pure muscle? Christ, she’d never met such a strong man and she’d basically broken every rule ever pounded into her head in her self-defense classes. Realizing she wouldn’t be able to escape his hold, she did something she’d never done—she gave in.
“I’m sorry.” She tried to remember the last time she’d said those words. Apologies didn’t come easy to her.
She looked into his eyes and, for the first time, she could see them clearly. They were the most stunning blue she’d ever seen—cerulean blue, her favorite crayon color. Those beautiful, now gentle, eyes comforted her and against her better judgment, she released a long, slow breath and repeated her words. “I’m sorry, Jack.”
Lifting her, he cradled her as her body shook with fatigue, fear and confusion. Something was wrong, but she was too weary to figure it out. With quiet, kind mumblings, he rocked her until the trembling subsided—the motion strangely reminding her of her mother, although she couldn’t recall Marian ever holding her like this. Eventually the stress of the evening drained out of her, leaving her more tired, more exhausted than if she’d run a marathon.
They sat rocking silently until a strong draft blew out the candle behind them. She shivered slightly in the chilly air. Jack carefully stood with her in his arms and carried her to the bed.
He pulled two blankets over her. He hesitated briefly, and then he lay down beside her on the small cot. She immediately tensed up.
“No more fighting,” he whispered. “I won’t hurt you. It’s cold and I want to lie beside you to keep you warm. Nothing more, I promise.”
Gently, he pulled her to his side with his arm around her shoulders. She should rebel against this closeness, but she couldn’t find the energy or desire to fight it. The room truly was freezing. Her clothes were still damp and she worried about the possibility of pneumonia. She wished she had worn a jacket before embarking on the short trip to the tree. Jack was right to join her. She was already beginning to warm up with the addition of his body heat under the thin blankets.
It had been an odd night—one of the strangest of her life. Her entire body ached and her mind screamed something bizarre was happening, but for the moment, simply lying in this handsome man’s arms was comforting and right. She had never felt so at ease with a man and, for once, she didn’t fight the feeling. For now—for this moment—she felt safe and she refused to let her fears, her demons take control. Outside the wild storm continued to rage, but for once, Hayley fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
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