Living Nightmare

Page 23


The farther he went, the more that feeling in his gut nagged at him.
He scanned the road ahead, but couldn’t see far. Someone had come this way recently, judging by the tracks in the snow that had only started to fill up again. Then, suddenly, the tracks he was following swerved into a full circle and ended as they left the road.
John brought his Jeep to a slow stop a few feet in front of the crashed vehicle. The headlights of the other car were still on, the windshield wipers still keeping their frantic pace. He flipped on his hazard lights, grabbed a flashlight, zipped up his coat, and got out to see if the driver needed help.
A gust of wind sucked the air from his lungs as he hurried back down the road. Now that he was close enough, he could see that the car was angled in a shallow ditch. A layer of snow had already begun to build up on the car’s roof and the driver’s-side window.
He used the sleeve of his coat to wipe away the snow and shone his flashlight inside. The beam landed on the curve of a woman’s cheek and John had the oddest sense of recognition flow through him. It was as if he should know her, though he had no idea from where.
Rather than waste time worrying about it, he opened the car door, praying she was still alive.
Her eyes were closed and a dark bruise had formed along the left side of her forehead. Her lips were parted, but it was too warm in the car to see her breath. As John stripped off his glove to feel for a pulse, his eyes traveled down to see if her chest was moving.
It was, and all he could do was stare. She had fantastic breasts, and he was sure he could see just the barest hint of lace peeking out from the edge of her shirt.
John scolded himself for being a pig and pressed his fingers against the side of her neck. Her pulse seemed strong and steady.
Her eyes fluttered open, likely from the chill contact of his touch, and she sucked in a pained breath.
“Easy,” he said in a quiet voice. “You’ve had an accident.”
A deep frown creased her brow and she lifted her hand to her head, looking at her fingers as if she expected to see blood.
“What happened?”
“You slid off the road.”
“There was a man in the road,” she said in a confused tone; then fear widened her brown eyes. “Did I hit him?”
She tried to push herself upright, but John held her still, pressing her shoulders back against the seat. “Hold on and stay put. I’ll check.”
John couldn’t imagine anyone walking around outside on a night like this. Chances were she saw a deer, but better safe than sorry. The idea of someone lying in a snowy ditch was too scary to ignore.
He shut her door to help her stay warm, then went to the road, looking for signs of deer or man. It took longer than he would have liked, since visibility was so low, but he trudged over at least a hundred yards in both directions, just to be sure. There had been nothing but pristine snow.
When he went back to her, she was standing outside, weaving unsteadily on her feet as she brushed snow off the front of her car.
“I didn’t see anything,” he told her.
Relief made her voice faint. “I don’t see any blood or dents on the car, either.”
“It was probably just a deer.”
She shook her head as if to clear it. “I was sure it was a man.”
“Could you have fallen asleep at the wheel?”
“Maybe,” she said, though she sounded uncertain. “Maybe I’m not remembering right from that bump on my head.”
John’s breath curled out in a silvery plume. “Whatever happened, we need to get you checked out. I’ll drive you to the hospital. It’ll be faster than waiting for an ambulance.”
“No. I’m fine. I don’t need to go to the hospital.”
“You could have internal injuries. A concussion.”
“It wasn’t that bad. I just need to report the accident.”
John wasn’t convinced that skipping a hospital was a very smart idea, but she seemed okay and was getting steadier by the second. Besides, she was a grown woman, capable of making up her own mind. “I’ll stay with you until the police show. Just in case.”
“My cell phone won’t work out here. I already tried. Can I use yours?”
John had intentionally left his at the office, knowing that his vacation would be useless if his employees knew they could reach him. Without it, they had to solve their own problems, since none of them knew the number of his cabin. “Sorry. Don’t have one. You can use my landline. I don’t live far from here.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I should probably stay with my car.”
“Not in this storm. It’s too dangerous. We’ll report the accident from in front of a fire.” John took her arm and gently pulled her back onto the road. The fact that she leaned on a stranger for support showed just how unsteady she was. Her sneakers were caked with snow and the legs of her jeans were wet up to her knees. “We need to get you warmed up and make sure you’re okay.”
“Are you sure there’s no one lying out here in the snow?”
“I didn’t see any footprints, and you hadn’t been here long enough for your car to be covered, so if you’d hit someone, I think I would have seen them.”
She nodded, looking so weary and confused it made John want to hug her. Instead, he pulled her up against his side to support her over the slick ground, feeling the slim curve of her waist beneath her jacket. His fingers tightened slightly and itched to slide down onto her hip.
Instead, he kept his hand firmly off her body as they made their way to his Jeep.
“I’m John Hawthorne,” he told her as he opened the Jeep’s door for her to get in.
“I’m Meghan Clark. Thank you so much for stopping to help me.”
She looked up at him from the passenger’s seat. Her dark eyes were shadowed with worry, and the need to erase that worry was so intense, all he could do for a long moment was gawk at her, speechless.
Something deep inside John flipped over and stretched as if waking from a long sleep. He had no idea who this woman was or why she was out here, but the need to take her home and get her warm and dry seemed more important than any of those details.
John had never allowed anyone to visit his vacation cabin before. He preferred to leave it sacred in its isolation—just for him and him alone. But now, he couldn’t think of anything he wanted more than to get Meghan tucked away, safe and sound. Isolation be damned.
Meghan could not get warm. She tried to hide her shivering body and chattering teeth from her rescuer. He’d turned the heat up as high as it would go on the drive here, and was now crouched in front of the stone hearth, working to light a fire.
The small cabin was clearly some kind of masculine retreat. Fishing gear was stacked in one corner. A fully stocked gun rack hung on the wall by the door. The couch was big and worn, obviously chosen for comfort rather than style. A sturdy wooden coffee table was scuffed and scratched.
Meghan looked to John’s booted feet, figuring he’d likely propped them up there more often than not.
A small kitchen filled the other side of the open space. The counters were mostly bare. There were a couple of dishes drying in a rack. Through an open door, she could see a bed with the covers rumpled on one side.
She wondered how it was that a man like John slept alone. She’d met him less than an hour ago and had already considered asking him if he was married.
She hadn’t. Her unusual lapse in judgment—getting into the car with a stranger and letting him take her home—was likely a result of her head injury. Not that she could turn back now. She was stuck here until the police came to get her.
John stood and turned to her. “There. That’ll warm the place up soon.”
Firelight flickered behind him, outlining his legs. Meghan’s eyes traveled up his body, and oddly, she wished he’d take off his coat so she could get a better look.
Drawn by the warmth, Meghan stepped forward, extending her hands to the fire to warm them. A sigh of satisfaction rose up from her, and John’s jaw clenched.
He cleared his throat. “How are you feeling? I can still take you to the hospital.”
“No. I’m better. Fine. Really.”
“You sure?”
He nodded. “Let me know if you change your mind.”
“I will.”
“I’ll go make us some hot cocoa. You should probably get out of those wet jeans. I have some sweats you could wear while they dry.”
Meghan opened her mouth to refuse his offer, but instead said, “That would be nice.”
John went through the open door, leaving Meghan to sort out what the hell she thought she was doing.
Getting into a car with a stranger was bad enough. Letting him drive her to his home was worse. Getting undressed in his house crossed the line.
It had to be the head injury. That was the only explanation she could find.
He came back out. “I laid some clothes on the bed. Feel free to get a shower if you think it will help you warm up.”
“I shouldn’t—” she started to say, when John reached for her. His fingers brushed featherlight over her forehead, outlining the bruise.
“You’re safe here. I promise,” he said, and Meghan believed him.
She knew she didn’t know this man, but she felt like she did. She felt like she’d always known him. “Thanks.”
He nodded. “I’ll call the sheriff. We’ll get you back on your way as soon as possible.”
“Okay,” she said, but at that moment she realized that the urge to go, to move, had left her. Whatever it was that had been driving her was gone now, as if she’d reached her destination.
Looking at John’s face, at the gentle care shining in his hazel eyes, Meghan wondered if perhaps she’d found whatever it was she’d been sent to find.
Before she could dwell on that bizarre idea too long, she went into his bedroom, grabbed the clothes, and locked herself in the bathroom.
When she came out fifteen minutes later, rosy and warm from her hot shower, and saw John’s face, she knew the news wasn’t good.
“The sheriff said his men are busy dealing with accidents all over the county and that if you’re safe, you should just stay put. Looks like we’ll be spending the night together.”
Joseph didn’t think his night could get any worse.
Grace hadn’t shown up for work and was apparently missing. Some of the human teens had gotten into a fight and several of them had needed stitches. The Indonesian Theronai wanted to know where Nika was. Two more Theronai from Australia were due in tomorrow. Nika had left and gotten herself into a mess with Madoc that was taking valuable resources away from their objectives. Iain hadn’t reported in for weeks, so Joseph had no idea how Iain’s hunt for the Synestryn offspring was progressing. They still hadn’t caught the saboteur he knew in his gut still lived among them. And to make matters worse, Carmen was refusing to speak to him. She’d skipped practice, which was the one bright spot in his day.
He didn’t see what the big deal was. What the hell was so wrong with him that she didn’t want to claim him as her adoptive father? She’d been taking his advice and learning from him for months. He’d taken care of her basic needs—given her a place to live, food. He’d even convinced her to take a couple of online classes from a nearby community college.