Authors: Lynn Raye Harris
“We’re going to have to do this in the dark,” he said. “No lights to guide the way.”
She laughed, which surprised him, even if it was nervous laughter. “Bet you say that to all the girls.”
Her answer shocked him. “Honey, no way. I like to look at everything while I’m sampling the buffet.”
It was her turn to be surprised, judging by the silence. In the distance, he could hear the helicopter sweeping overhead. They had to get out of here before Androv’s men figured out where they were. They were most likely thugs, not Special Operators like he was, so he definitely had the advantage. But he had to use it while he had it.
“Follow my voice, Sophie, and come to my side.”
He heard the rustle of bushes in the dark and then a curse. But a moment later she made it around the car. His vision had adjusted and he could see her. He wished like hell he had his night vision goggles, but that was part of his gear back at HOT. No taking those home for fun.
“Can you see?” he asked her.
“Do I look like a cat?” she grumbled.
She sighed. “Sorry. No, I can’t see well. I can tell that the big shape in front of me is you, and that’s about it.”
He set the bag on the roof of the car and rummaged through for a T-shirt. Then he pulled it over his head and zipped the bag again. It was chilly, but as soon as they started moving, he’d heat up.
“Keep your eyes on my shape and follow me. If you feel like you can’t keep up, for God’s sake let me know. I’ll be finding a trail and I can’t look back and make sure you’re there every ten seconds.”
“Chase,” she said as he turned away.
“Thanks for helping me.”
no idea how long they had walked, but she was utterly miserable. It was dark and dank in the woods, and her mind began to conjure up all kinds of critters hiding in the gloom: snakes, bears, foxes, wildcats. Bigfoot. She stayed on Chase’s heels, as close as she could get, and prayed nothing would get her.
She kept listening for the sounds of pursuit—cars, motorcycles, horses maybe—but she heard nothing. The helicopter had stopped flying overhead about an hour ago. But that didn’t mean Grigori had given up or that she was safe. She knew that.
For the first time in hours, she could think about everything that had happened tonight and just how close she’d come to dying. New York City was big, and she’d thought it would take Grigori quite some time to realize she’d left the city instead of hiding out at a friend’s. But his men had been so close on her tail that it was impossible to believe they hadn’t been tracking her through her phone. Chase was right and she’d been a fool to keep it.
When they’d found her, they’d set Chase’s apartment on fire. With her and Chase in it. Sophie shivered.
Eventually, Chase stopped and she walked right into him, colliding with his hard body and bouncing backward. Somehow he turned and caught one of her flailing arms before she fell. Her heart skittered as he tugged her up and she hit him again, only this time she hit softer—and she felt the impression of all that hard muscle against her body.
He was a temple of muscle. A monument to working out, with taut peaks and hard planes in all the right places, a rippling fantasy man come to life. She practically moaned, except that would be weird.
Weird because they were running from men intent on killing her and weird because he was technically her stepbrother. Though in the few visits he’d ever made to California, all she’d done was think how intriguing he was. Her thoughts had not been sisterly in the least.
“Steady,” he said, and she nearly laughed. Steady? Oh no, she was anything but steady.
“Why have we stopped?”
He tilted his head up, and she realized that she could see him much better now. The shadowy outlines of his face had coalesced into a beautiful portrait.
“It’ll be light soon. We need to stop.”
“But shouldn’t we keep going? Keep distance between us and them?”
He shook his head. “Are you ready to do that, Sophie? How much farther can you go? Another hour? Two? Ten?”
It hit her then that he was stopping for her. If he’d been on his own, he’d have kept going.
“I… No, not much farther. My feet hurt and my back aches.”
Not that she hadn’t felt worse after a day at work, but that was different somehow. She could go home and soak her feet or get a massage from her massage-therapist roommate.
There would be no massages tonight. She looked at the pinkening sky.
“All right, we’re going up this tree here,” he said, placing his palm against the side of the tree he was standing near.
Sophie tilted her head back to look up into the thick tangle of branches. “Uh, I don’t think I’m much of a climber, Chase. Unless you have a ladder.”
“Actually, I do. There’s a deer stand in this tree. And there’s a ladder up there. Just have to go up and get it.”
She peered into the tree but didn’t see anything. “How do you know that?”
He was scowling, but even his scowl made her heart skip. “I’m from Tennessee, darlin’. We like to hunt—and I know the guy who owns this land. He put a stand in this tree, and I’ve used it a few times.”
He dropped his bag on the ground and eyed the tree. Then he started to climb. She watched him—and realized with a start there was a small wooden structure up there. It was camouflaged so well that it wasn’t easy to see at first.
“Better step back,” he called down. “Don’t want to get hit by the ladder.”
She did as he said and then a rope ladder unfurled and slapped the side of the tree. Chase came back down and dropped to the ground.
“You first,” he told her.
She looked at the rope ladder doubtfully. But it had held him when he shimmied back down on it, so she gripped the rope and put her foot on the first rung. It was a shaky climb, but she made it up. She pulled herself into the stand and looked around. It wasn’t quite what she’d expected—in fact, it was more like a tree house than a deer stand. It was dark inside, but there were windows with screens and what appeared to be a twin-sized Army cot. In one corner, there was a stack of bottled water and some boxes that she hoped contained food.
She stepped into the little room, wary for the sensation of swaying with the tree, but nothing happened. The room was solid. And surprising as hell.
She turned as Chase came through the opening. He threw his bag and it slid across the floor, hitting the bed. Then he turned and pulled the ladder up, rolling it and leaving it near the entrance. He tugged a door down and latched it, then faced her.
That’s when she realized he could stand up in this darned thing.
“Who in the hell builds a tree house and calls it a deer stand?” she asked.
Chase laughed. “Guy who owns the land is kind of a doomsday prepper, but on a smaller scale. I don’t think he really expects doomsday—but he likes being ready for anything. He stockpiles supplies, weapons, and ammo in various locations on his property. Kinda nutty, but a nice enough guy.”
Sophie turned around to look at the space. With Chase inside, it was suddenly a whole lot smaller than it had been. And the only surface to sit on besides the floor was the cot.
“Now what?” she asked, chafing her arms as if she were cold. She wasn’t, but her skin prickled from the circumstances. Or maybe it was just Chase’s nearness.
He shrugged and retrieved his pack. “We eat and rest. Tonight we’ll head out again.”
“Where are we going?”
He speared her with a look. “Somewhere safe.”
She hated the way he was so cryptic with her, but she knew it was no good to press him. She rubbed her arms again. His gaze followed the motion, and then he turned away and went over to the boxes in the corner. He ripped one open and started rummaging through it.
“I need to let my mom and Tyler know I’m okay,” she said and then immediately regretted it when he stiffened. She knew that any mention of Tyler made him angry.
But when he came back over to her with a pack of peanut butter crackers and a bottle of water, he looked cool, at ease. He thrust the food and drink at her and she took it.
“No can do, sweetheart. No contact with anyone outside. It’s too dangerous.”
She wanted to protest, but there was no point in arguing. She didn’t have a phone anymore, and she doubted there was a pay phone on a tree trunk somewhere. Besides, she’d asked for his help and she had to trust that he knew what he was doing.
She sank onto the edge of the bed and ripped open the crackers. She was usually so careful with food, but she was starving right now. Chase retrieved crackers and water for himself, then reached into a dark corner and produced a folding chair. He proceeded to sit down and tear into his food.
“How will we get to Paris?” she asked when the silence stretched uncomfortably.
“The usual way, I’d imagine.”
“My passport is in my apartment and my ID was in my purse.” She spared a pained thought for the Louis Vuitton bag that was nothing but ash by now. “I lost the tracking number for the package as well.”
She’d had the receipt with the number on it. She hadn’t sent it signature required, but she’d been comforted by the fact she could track its progress if she needed to.
“Doesn’t matter. You know when it’s getting there. That’s enough.”
She finished a cracker and blew out a frustrated breath. “You’re becoming very terse, Chase. Am I bothering you or something?”
“Are you bothering me? Hell yeah, you’re bothering me. I was asleep when you woke me. If you’d been a waitress wanting to fuck, that would have been far better than what we’ve got going on now.”
She really wanted to throw something at him. Surly asshole.
Surly asshole who saved your life…
And she wasn’t even touching that comment about fucking. Though God help her, she had a moment of picturing him naked. Picturing them together naked.
She shook her head to rid herself of that much-too-hot image. “I
a waitress, asswipe.”
He snorted. “Sure you are.”
“No, really. I am. I want to be an actress, so I decided to wait tables for a while, study people. You’d be surprised what you learn when you wait on people.”
He was sitting back in the chair now, long legs sprawled out in front of him, bottle of water held casually in one hand. And she knew he was dismissing her. Scoffing at her. “You decided to wait tables for the
of it. How noble and self-sacrificing of you. Most people who wait tables do it because they need the money.”
She sniffed, but a wave of heat washed over her at his words. All right, maybe it did sound silly. “It’s still work, and I still did it.
doing it. It’s not a lark.”
“Yeah, but you don’t need the money.”
“What makes you think that? For all you know, I’ve been paying my own way in New York.”
“Maybe. But I doubt it. Tyler lowered himself enough to call my mother and ask for my address—if he’d do that, he wouldn’t make you fend for yourself in the big city.”
She was glad it wasn’t bright in this room because he’d see how red her face was. Naturally, he was spot-on in his assessment—but not for the reason he thought. It had always been her mother’s policy to throw money at Sophie as if that was all she needed to be happy. Sophie wasn’t sure her mother was capable of guilt, but if she was, money was how she made up for her lack of involvement in Sophie’s life when she’d been growing up.
And Sophie spent it too. Why not?
“Fine, I don’t need the money to live. But if you think I’m living in a Park Avenue penthouse, then you’d be wrong. I live in a nice brownstone in the theater district, I have a roommate, and I work hard at my craft and my job. I have an audition next week, by the way.”
She was proud of that because she’d gotten it all on her own. Through hard work and not giving up. It was only a small off-Broadway production, but it was a start. And not one that anyone else had helped her to get.
“I’ll try to have you back in time, princess.” His tone dripped with sarcasm.
Far from wounding her this time, it made her angry. “You know, no matter what you think, I’m a good person. I don’t deserve your attitude. If you don’t like me, fine. But you don’t have to be an asshole about it.”
He didn’t say anything for a long moment. “All right, you’re a good person. A good person with poor judgment. Sorry if it offends you, princess, but I
be pissed at you for that. Your lack of judgment has so far cost me a place to live and a car I loved, so forgive me if I’m not feeling all cuddly toward you at the moment.”
Guilt pricked her. “I’ll pay you back, Chase.”
“With your waitressing money, of course.”
“Of course,” she said, returning his sarcasm.
He downed half his water and then looked straight at her, his dark eyes boring into hers. “If you think I’m going to turn down Tyler’s money because I hate him, you’d be wrong. The least the fucker can do is replace my shit if I get you out of this in one piece.”
Her heart thumped. “You will. That’s why I came. You’re the only one who can.”