I’m still alive!
I blink. Disbelieving. Stare up at the ceiling that seems to dance and spin above me.
My body tremors on the floor
But they didn’t kill me.
At least not yet.
But the twin burn marks on my neck are painful. They remind me that I could well be dead, that if the nose of a pistol had been pressed to my skin, rather than the cold metal tips of a stun gun, I’d be lying in a pool of my own blood, dead to the world.
It’s only a matter of time, my fragmented mind warns.
I try to focus, blinking as I moan and twitch uncontrollably feeling the hardwood of the tiny house against the back of my head. The vaulted ceiling seems higher than usual as it stretched over a small living area. It reels as my eyes try to focus, but they still jiggle in their sockets, my vision fragmented.
I notice the built-in couch with its vibrant throw pillows, then spy the ladder leading to the loft, but everything in my vision pitches and weaves, refuses to stay steady. I try to focus on one item: the door leading outside, my only chance of escape, but it’s closed down and appears to shift and sway.
God help me.
For just a second I close my eyes, try to stop the shaking and failing to gain control of my body again.
Click, click, click.
Footsteps! The floorboards vibrating with boot heels striking the hardwood to remind me I’m not alone.
With effort I twist my trembling neck and roll my head to one side to see my captor slipping something into the small refrigerator.
“Why?” I try to say, but nothing but a garbled groan reaches my ears. “Why?” I try again but the person who’s trapped me doesn’t respond, just slams the refrigerator door shut and with a disparaging glance at my shaking body, steps over me to the single door of this cabin, and opens the door.
A blast of wintry air rushes inside, a few flakes of snow following. No, I try to scream. “Nnnnnneeeeeooo.” Again, the sound is a cry of despair, the single word unclear.
But my captor understands.
Pauses for the briefest of seconds.
Then, with one final disgusted look cast in my direction, my cruel jailor steps through the door and yanks it shut.
I try to crawl toward it.
The lock’s engaged.
Don’t leave me, I silently scream my mouth opening and shutting like a just-landed bass gasping for air. How can you do this? You, who swore you loved me? How can you leave me again?
This isn’t the first time my abductor has visited. Nor will it be the last. I hate to think how many days I’ve been here, how many weeks . . .now months . . .
The betrayal is gut-wrenching, sitting sour in my stomach as I make another attempt to stop my muscles from shaking. Pull yourself together! Do it!
Trying to stand, I managed get my feet under me, but they slide and my body flops to the floor again. All I can do is scoot, limbs palsied as I push my way to the door.
Over the frantic beating of my heart I hear boots crunching on icy snow and the inevitable beep of vehicle’s keyless lock responding to a push of a button on a remote.
Don’t do this!
I reach up, take a swipe at the door handle and fail to clutch it.
With all the effort I can muster, I try again, this time connecting, my muscles finally responding. Groaning I haul myself to my feet and I stumble against the doorframe.
An engine revs as I reach for the door handle again, grasp it and find it locked. Unmoving. As it always is. Locked tight.
Tears spring to my eyes as I hurl my body to the ladder and teeter for a second. My muscles quiver and I grit my teeth, make a false start, and slide a bit. Gritting my chattering teeth, I grip harder, then slowly, rung by rung, climb until I can just peer over the window sill of one of the five twelve-inch square windows strung near the ceiling of the wall with the door.
Through the glass I see outside. The snowy landscape is stark in the small clearing, rimmed by tall firs, branches heavy and laden with ice and snow. In the clearing I see the SUV, headlights glowing, cones of light illuminating the lane.
My heart sinks.
Don’t let it! They don’t deserve your sadness. Get mad, damn it. They did this to you! They made you a captive! They are using you!
As the trembling in my body eases, I feel a swell of anger slowly rising. My fingers grip the upper rung on the ladder so hard my knuckles show bone white. The sound of the engine fades.
“I’ll get you,” I vow, my words hoarse but at least intelligible as glare at the retreating vehicle, taillights blinking red through the trees, reflecting blood-like on the snow. “You’ll never get away with this.”
And I mean it.
Two months Earlier
“You prick!” Fighting tears, Megan pounded the steering wheel of her Toyota then hit the gas. The tires spun, snow and gravel spraying as she backed up, threw the car into gear, then, the beams of her headlights splashing on snowy landscape, tore down the long lane leading away from James Fucking Cahill’s farmhouse. And then, as if he were seated in the passenger seat, kept ranting. “How could you? How the hell could you?”
She shouldn’t have been surprised.
Once a cheater, always a cheater.
So why had she expected him to be her boyfriend, the man she thought was the love of her life her soul mate the goddamned “one”, if you believe that rot? Of course he’d shown his true colors and had turned out to be a two-timing dick.
She blinked hard, tears beginning to slide down her cheeks as she reached the county road, cut in front of a snow plow clearing the roadway and sped through the night toward town. Angrily, she dashed the offensive tears away while fence posts and fields of white passed by in a blur. At the stop sign, she slowed, then cranked the wheel and headed west, circumventing the heart of Rigg’s Crossing and speeding through the near-empty side streets of this little backwater town that purported itself to be an honest-to-God-year ‘round Christmas village. But then she knew as well as anyone how appearances could be deceiving, didn’t she?
Out of the corner of her eye she spied an elderly woman walking a little black Scottie dog in a sweater. Gray curls poking out from a red beret, the woman, in the glow of a street lamp shook her head and wagged a finger before making a “slow down” gesture by patting the air.
Megan didn’t care. It was all she could do not to make her own gesture by flipping the woman off. But she didn’t.
Other than her heart was broken, her mind mush.
Why, why, why had she been such an idiot as to fall in love with frickin’ James Cahill? She should have known better. “Crap.” She had known better. In her rearview she saw the old lady now on her cell phone, probably dialing 9-1-1 and reporting an erratic driver terrorizing the usually serene, almost bucolic streets of this little town tucked into the mountains of Washington state.
But she eased off the accelerator.
Didn’t want or need a ticket.
It wasn’t as if she was blind, for God’s sake! She’d seen how James had been looking at that new girl in the restaurant, the way he’d once looked at her. But what had she expected? Didn’t she know from personal experience how easily James’s head had been turned? And women were always throwing themselves at him, a tall, handsome man with a cowboy attitude and a get-ready-for-the-ride-of-your-life smile that could turn even the most wary heart. They didn’t even have to know that he was rich, or would be, to fall for him.
“You’re an idiot,” she said, not for the first time.
Oh, she couldn’t wait to get to Seattle and her sister! Once in Rebecca’s condo she’d pour herself into a bottle of vodka and forget frickin’ James Cahill.
“Lying, cheating prick,” she grumbled.
He belonged to her!
Didn’t he get that?
Probably not now.
But he would. She’d see to it.
You know what?
She should just disappear on him.
Make him miss her.
Make him regret to the depths of his soul for ever cheating on her!
Yeah, that’s what she’d do.
Sniffing, she brushing the tears from her eyes with a gloved hand, then gripped the wheel so hard her fingers ached as she headed out of town and into the surrounding mountains. Then, as the snowfall increased, flipped on her wipers.
Rebecca was expecting her.
Her sister. Oh, God. It was almost impossible to accept that James had been interested in Rebecca first. And, damn it, Rebecca, the ice queen had fallen for him. Nearly. As much as Rebecca would allow herself to fall for a man like James–a sexy bad boy with a reputation . . .
That was the trouble with James! He was handsome as hell and enough of a bad boy that women found him attractive without even realizing he was rich. Or . . . would be, once he inherited the rest of his share of the Cahill fortune. Even without that knowledge women were continually flinging themselves at him, and he, prick that he was, didn’t exactly discourage them.
Fortunately in Rebecca’s case, she’d put all that behind her.
Her sister was long over James.
Didn’t matter, Megan told herself, chin jutting as she squinted through the windshield, snowflakes swirling and dancing in the glow of her headlights.
Rebecca would know what to do.
She always did. Rock steady, determined Rebecca Travers would help Megan set things right. Despite any latent feelings Rebecca might harbor.
Megan’s conscience twinged a bit. How many times had she relied on her sister? How often had she run crying back to her older sibling who always helped? Even when . . . ?
She felt a small stab of guilt, which, probably should have been sharper. Deeper. She glanced at her reflection in the rearview mirror.
The blue eyes in the reflection were red-rimmed, but not because of remorse. If she had the chance to do it all over again, to right that wrong . . . she bit her lip and pushed the thought out of her mind as her car struggled against the incline. She wasn’t a bad person. Not really. And James . . . Oh, dear God, James . . .
A lump filled her throat as the Corolla nosed upward, snow now covering the pavement and piling along the sides of the road where the plow had been through earlier. She fiddled with the defrost as the windshield was beginning to fog and cranked the temperature to the highest level.
The fan was broken. Had been for weeks.
“Shit.” She grabbed a used napkin from the coffee shop that had been wedged into a cup holder. Lump in her throat, she swiped away the film as best she could, then she squinted through the windshield.
What little traffic there had been had thinned to sparse and finally, as the car climbed, engine whining, she found herself alone on this stretch of road winding through the night-dark peaks of the Cascades. She pressed harder on the gas. “Come on. Come on.” Visibility was hampered by the ever-increasing snowfall and, of course, the useless defroster. Once more, she wiped a spot clear above her steering wheel to see that now, in the mountains, the snowstorm was nearly a white-out.
She thought of James and her heart crumbled. A wash of memories slipped through her mind and tears threatened again. She hit the gas and at the next sharp turn.
Her wheels shifted.
She eased off. “Get a grip,” she told herself as the car straightened out, the beams of her headlights reflecting in a million swirling flakes, the engine lugging down with the steep incline.
Their last fight had been their worst. Never before had anger and nasty words turned physical, but tonight her rage had been mercurial.
Blinding her, just as rage had blinded her earlier.
Gritting her teeth she floored the accelerator, snagged the wet, wadded napkin and took another swipe at the fogged windshield as the road dipped suddenly.
Her heart froze.
Another corner loomed, this one hairpin sharp.
Automatically, she hit the brakes.
The back tires spun as she turned the steering wheel with her free hand.
The carolla hit ice and began a slow, steady swirl.
“No . . .no, no, no!” She was high in the mountains, the tops of eighty-foot fir trees level with the road, their icy branches laden with snow, the canyon below invisible. “Oh, God.” She let her foot off the brakes and the gas . . .that was what she was supposed to do. Right? Drive into the spin or some such crap? Her heart pounded in her ears.
In slow motion she saw the edge of the road, the piles of snow, hiding the guard rail, if there was one, and beyond the darkness.
Fear crystalized her blood.
Don’t panic, Megan! Do NOT panic!
But a scream started to form in her throat.
Suddenly all four wheels found traction and she had control again.
Heart thudding, nerves jangled, she licked her lips. That was close. So damn close. She let out her breath slowly, concentrated on what she had to do, pushed the fight with James far from her mind and drove, every upward, meeting no cars which seemed weird even with the blizzard-like conditions here, near the summit. A few more miles and she’d be heading downward.
Over the summit, the car sped up.
She eased on the brakes, hands holding the steering wheel in a death grip. Around one corner. Faster and faster.
Slow it down!
But the car raced forward, gravity pulling her downward, the foggy windshield nearly opaque.
She tapped the brakes a little harder, back-end of the car sliding around a corner, her breath tight in her lungs. She swallowed as she guided the car down the narrowing road, snow piled high on either side.
Just a few miles and-- Oh, shit, what’s that? Something in the middle of the road? At the next turn? No!
Her heart a jackhammer she squinted through a thin patch of clear glass.
On the road ahead something moved.
Something tall and dark against the white.
A deer? Elk? Some other creature?
The steady snow masked its shape as it darted to the side.
A man? Woman? Goddamned Sasquatch?
The shadowy image stepped into the middle of the damned road.
A person. Definitely a person.
What the hell?
“Hey!” she yelled, slamming on the brakes. “You idiot!”
The car shuddered.
It began to rotate.
Faster and faster.
She rammed the gearshift into low.
But it was too late. The Toyota slid, spinning out of control. Through the windshield she caught glimpses of the sheer cliff face on one side of the road and the steep canyon on the other. I the middle of it all, a person. A brainless, idiotic freak. “Shit, shit, shit!” She tried to steer, failed, the Toyota spinning wildly careening to the mountainous side of the road, her bumper sheering ice off the cliff only to send it bak across the lanes, rushing toward the ravine, the scenery a snowy blur.
It was all over.
She knew it.
Through the foggy glass, she caught a glimpse of the snowy tree tops in the thin beams of the headlights and beyond the tree line, the vast darkness of the canyon.
This was how she would die, her car hurtling over the edge, crashing through the trees in the yawning darkness, plummeting hundreds of feet to the icy, snaking river far below.
She stood on the brakes.
The crevasse beyond the tree tops loomed.
One wheel found pavement.
The back end of the Toyota shimmied.
Heart hammering, adrenaline firing her blood, she ignored everything she’d ever heard and cranked hard on the steering wheel, away from the ravine.
The car twisted. The carolla’s hood pointed directly at the massive wall of stone. No person on the road between.
What had happened to that shadowy image?
She didn’t have time to think about it. Just tried like hell, to right the car, turning the wheel gently, her heart pounding wildly, her mind spinning.
She bit her lip.
The front wheels found traction and she hit the gas, propelling the car forward, away from the canyon.
And straight at the wall of ice and stone.
She stood on the brakes.
Wheels locked, the car skated faster.
Megan braced herself.
The Toyota collided with the mountain.
Her seat belt jerked tight.
Her eyes squeezed shut.
Its front bumper crumpled, the hood damaged in a horrific groan of twisting metal and shattered plastic. The windshield cracked.
Something flew forward, launched straight into the mirror, shattering the reflective glass.
She expected the impact from the air-bag as it burst out of the steering wheel.
Her car jolted to a stop.
No sudden burst of pressure or mass of air shot at her, no balloon trapped her against her seat.
Instead there was silence.
Sudden and deafening.
And she was alive.
Disbelieving she stared at her gloved fingers clenched in a death grip over the wheel. Then slowly let go as she let out her breath. Her hands were trembling, her entire body quivering.
Get hold of yourself. You’re okay.
Glancing through the cracked window, she tried to calm her wildly racing heartbeat, to focus.
The car. Can you drive it?
Could she get that lucky?
What were the chances?
She twisted the key, heard the starter grind. “Come on. Come on.” If she could just get the car going, backed up so that it wasn’t crosswise in the road, she could nearly put the car in neutral if she had to and drive downhill, riding the brakes, right? Until she was in civilization . . . or until she could call . . . Her thoughts were interrupted. Her phone? Where the hell was her phone? She searched the interior quickly, then remembered something flying into the rear-view mirror. Was that her cell, Desperately she patted the seat next to her, wet from her coffee spilling, filled with books and her backpack, anything she could just toss into the car.
Quickly she scoured the floor of the passenger area but it had a trash basket and two pairs of shoes and . . .
Oh, screw it!
It doesn’t matter! Just get the car out of the road so you don’t get T-boned.
She twisted on the ignition. The starter scraped but nothing happened.
“Oh, come on!”
Another try and the engine turned over but . . . a movement caught her attention. Something dark in the shards of glass in the rearview. From the corner of her eye, she saw something move, a dark and skittering image in the spider-webbing of the rear-view mirror.
The back of her throat went bone dry.
Oh, God. The person she’d seen moments before.
The cause of the accident.
She glared into the mirror, tried to make out the idiot who had caused this wreck. The damned moron–was behind her car, barely visible but definitely there. And now moving to the center of the road.
As if to block her path again.
Still risking both their lives.
What the fuck? Megan’s temper spiked. What kind of a Cretin would--
She threw open the door just as a cautionary be careful cut through her mind. “Are you out of your mind?” she yelled, craning her neck for a better view. “Get out of the way! What the hell’s wrong with you?”
Nothing but bitter cold air.
And the silent white-out.
Just the unseemly quiet only broken by the rasp of the Corolla’s engine.
The warning hairs on the back of her neck raised.
Had it all been her imagination?
No, of course not.
She pulled the door shut and was about to back up when she saw the figure again. Right in the middle of the road. Almost taunting her.
What the hell was this?
It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s weird as hell. Not good. Get out. Get out now!.
She swallowed back her rising fear.
What if the person needs a ride? What if they’re stranded?
“Who cares?” she muttered. It wasn’t as if the jerk-wad was waving her down, trying to get help. No, this was something else.
Something very wrong.
She hit the gas again.
Her damaged car struggled, wheels spinning.
“Don’t do this,” she whispered, her panic rising. She had to get out of here now. Her phone, where the hell was her phone? No time to search for it. “Let’s go,” she said to the car as the engine ground, the wheels spun and she went nowhere. Let’s go, lets--”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw movement in the side view mirror.
Her heart nearly stopped.
The person in black was approaching.
Again she trod on the accelerator. “Come on!”
Closer. Through the curtain of snow, a person dressed in ski gear head to toe–mask and hat to boots made his or her way along the side of the whining car.
Megan let up on the gas, then hit it hard. The back end of the car shifted a bit, but the tires found no traction.
The person was right outside the door and Megan was ready to yell at the Cretin, to read the brain-dead idiot the riot act when she noticed the gun, a black pistol in one gloved had.
She began shaking her head, still trying to drive off until the barrel of the gun was level with her head.
Megan’s heart dropped.
Fear curdled through her blood.
Panic jettisoned through her and she started to turn. To run.
Leave here. Now!
“Get out!” the attacker growled.
Did she know this person? This nut-case?
She couldn’t tell. All she could focus on was the barrel of the gun.
Aimed straight at her heart.