An animal’s scream pierced the moist North Carolina air.
As she’d heard all manner of screeches, cries, chirps, ribbits, and howls, Riley Kingston’s radar barely blipped at the minor disturbance. She swiped at a bead of sweat on her nose before entering the GPS coordinates for the precious patch of Panax quinquefolius she’d located.
American ginseng, also known as seng, thrived in shaded, moist, well-drained slopes located across the middle and eastern United States. Many believed the root, resembling a windblown parsnip, cured diabetes, boosted energy, and managed sexual dysfunction, making it a coveted commodity across the globe, especially in Asian cultures.
Kneeling, Riley concentrated as her fingers wended their way between the compound prongs in search of the thick sympodium rising out of the rich black soil. “One, two, three…” She counted each plant with painstaking precision, careful not to miss a single one. In the growing shadows, she relied more on touch than sight.
Although she still had quite a bit of the Steele Conservation Area to survey, she was growing concerned about the scarcity of Panaxshe’d logged so far.
“Riley, you there?” barked a familiar, staticky voice.
She closed her eyes and drew in a deep, frustrated breath before resuming her counting. “Four, five, six, seven—”
“Riley, it’s Britt.”
“Eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve—”
“Answer the damn radio, Riley, or I’m coming out there to find your scrawny ass.”
“Gahrrr!” She dug into one of the many pockets of her field vest. “Can’t a girl get some freaking alone time?” Being a female in the Kingston-Steele family was a royal pain in the butt sometimes.
Walkie-talkie in hand, she asked in her calmest voice, “What can I do for you, boss?”
After her Costa Rican research trip abruptly ended, she’d returned home in utter misery. Noticing her struggle, her cousin Britt offered her a much-needed distraction. A job.
At first she’d refused his offer, unable to bear the possibility of another failure, especially one where her strong, got-it-together cousin was concerned. But Britt’s annoying and persistent texts and the enticement of getting back into the field lured her into acceptance.
“Are you headed back?” Britt asked.
“Not yet. I want to finish this transect first.”
“Look around, Riley.”
“Okay.” She scanned her immediate surroundings. Patches of jewelweed intermingled with sprigs of Solomon’s seal and mayapples on the forest floor. Great canopies of oak, hickory, and maple darkened the landscape above. “Am I searching for anything specific?”
A very male, very big sigh preceded, “Daylight—or lack of it. You need to get out of there before nightfall.”
Riley blinked several times, only now realizing she’d been squinting into the shadows. “Um, right. I’m on my way.”
“Straight back,” he warned. “No distractions.”
“Did you miss the part where I grew up and became an adult?”
“No, but I think you did. Hurry up. Randi’s taking me out to dinner.”
“You don’t have to wait—”
The whole alpha-male thing was downright suffocating. So much testosterone surrounded her that it was a wonder she hadn’t grown a set of balls yet.
Clenching her teeth, Riley dropped her walkie-talkie back into her vest and stowed away her handheld GPS unit. With the coordinates marked, she would be able to return tomorrow and finish inventorying Panax.
If she didn’t love Britt so much, she would’ve taken the long way back just to piss him off. But no matter how much she’d like to kick his shins, he’d saved her in ways even she didn’t comprehend when he offered her this job.
Following her internal compass, she set off for where Britt awaited her at the wildlife research center. Rather than retrace her steps, she made a sharp ninety-degree turn, opting for a shortcut. She knew this land better than anyone. Well, maybe not Britt, but she was gaining ground on her cousin.
She’d spent hours traipsing these hills, conducting vegetative surveys and observing Britt’s beloved red wolves. Watching the emergence of a new pack of pups this spring had been amazing. Calypso and Apollo demonstrated as much tolerance of their babies’ antics as Ross and Sandy Kingston showed their five children.
The importance of the survey and the knowledge that Britt trusted her to do a good job went a long way in repairing her battered ego. But lately a restlessness had settled into her bones, scrambling her thoughts and feelings into a million different directions.
She needed… something more.
Another scream arrowed through the trees, sending ice shards down her spine.
“That was no animal.”
Riley sprang forward before her brain could catch up. Ascending a steep rise, she grasped small tree trunks as the toes of her hiking boots dug into the loamy earth.
Once she reached the crest, she spotted a creek cutting along the hollow, creating a shimmering dark ribbon in the gloom. Stands of towering silver-barked beech trees and glossy-leaved rhododendrons fanned out from the rushing water. Not a single bird fussed at her nor did a mosquito buzz at her ear. Every creature in the vicinity held its breath, anticipating.
Another scream, more guttural, more wounded, barreled into her, stripping away her breath and shoving against her heart.
Sweat snaked down her temple as she stalked the ridgeline, searching for the source of so much torment, so much pain.
Time slogged by, though her pulse ticked away each nerve-racking second.
Another scream. No. A man’s roar of anguish and hatred and fear.
This time she caught movement up ahead. She sprinted the short distance, her chest near to bursting with anxiety. Below, a small two-person tent, the color of muddy grass, sat amid a blanket of ferns. The domed structure shook as if it straddled a seismic fault line.
Her instincts urged her to rush down the hill. But her too-stupid-to-live meter was clicking off the charts. What if someone was being attacked? Or murdered? Or…
Riley threw her imagination in neutral and reached for her walkie-talkie.
That’s when the tent’s occupant flung himself out of his shelter and clambered to his feet.
His hair disheveled.
And body buck-ass naked.
Riley’s thumb hovered over the Talk button on her walkie-talkie. All thoughts of calling Britt had been obliterated by the panting, sweat-slicked brickhouse of a man below.
His short, military-cut dark brown hair stood out in direct contrast to the several days of growth covering his square jawline.
Lord, have mercy. His body could rival any gladiator’s physique. Broad shoulders rolled down to thick, rippling biceps. The slope and depth of his pectorals gave a whole new definition to the term man chest, and the deep ridges of his abs could send even the most enthusiastic thrill seeker into a bout of motion sickness.
A line of sleek, dark hair arrowed downward from his navel to his groin. She stared in astonishment at the sight of him until something began to stir deep in her core. When heat crept up her neck, she forced her attention to the thick muscles that stretched across his thighs to the tops of his bare feet.
Even through the deepening gloom, she could make out every bunching muscle, every laboring breath, every shaking limb.
When she zoomed out and took in the whole of him, she noticed him scanning the area while he rubbed the back of his neck. He appeared… vulnerable. How could someone so powerfully built seem so lost?
Had he awoken from a nightmare?
Surely not. The sun was only now setting.
She assessed his campsite, his naked body, his physical reaction to whatever emotion he was riding. Riley’s stomach slowly folded into itself, clenching and squeezing and then roiling as realization stretched to the surface.
Had the guy been… masturbating?
She craned her neck forward, squinting at the area between his legs. “Oh God,” she whispered.
The universe couldn’t be that cruel.
Well, at least no one had been murdered.
Shaking off the last tentacles of panic, she gave the camper one final disgusted look before turning away—and that’s when her walkie-talkie crackled to life.
“Riley,” Britt called in an exasperated voice. “Where the hell are you?”
She fumbled with the device, stuffing the speaker into her armpit. With slow, precise movements, she peered down at the naked man, praying he hadn’t heard her cousin, and found his gaze zeroed in on her.
His eyes were no longer wild and disoriented.
They were savage.
Coen Monroe blinked hard. Images from his nightmare faded in and out, overlaying the woman on the bluff. His pulse hammered against his skull, making his vision blur.
Who was she? What was she doing here? Spying on him? Or passing by?
Looking beyond her at the rapidly darkening sky, his heart sank. She could get off course, lose her way. Fall into enemy hands. Be tortured. Be bru—
He shook his head. Focus, Monroe. Focus.
He forced himself to concentrate on a pair of wide, wary eyes outlined by dark frames. She had her hair pulled back in a ponytail, revealing a pale, heart-shaped face. It glowed on the ridge like an angelic beacon. A beacon he ached to follow, to touch, to protect.
A white T-shirt beneath an open, long-sleeved beige shirt and matching cargo pants hugged her tall, slender body. Binoculars and something small and round hung from her neck. She wore an encased Leatherman or some other multi-tool on her belt.
A lost birder? An Indiana Jones wannabe? Her bold assessment of him didn’t waver. Someone from his past?
Intent on getting some answers, he ripped a pair of underwear off the line, slipped them on, and stalked toward her. But like Indy, she recognized danger and bolted.
Something primal flipped on in his head, and he gave chase.
He charged up the hill, his bare feet digging into the leaf-littered ground. By the time he hit the crest, Little Miss Indy had melted into the forest. Quieting his breathing, he cocked his head, listening until he caught the distinctive sound of desperate feet crashing through the underbrush.
If he’d been in a rational state of mind, he would’ve allowed her to flee and not have given her a second thought. But he was far from rational. Kendra’s screams still hollowed out his mind, and Paul’s, Freddy’s, and Miller’s mutilated bodies still burned his eyes.
Bloodlust fired into his veins, and a deep-seated compulsion forced his pursuit. Like a dog chasing a cat, he acted on instinct. Every cell in his body commanded him to seize.
Even with night full upon them now, her undisciplined flight left a highway full of clues for him to follow. He increased his speed, his night vision clear.
Red wolves prowled these woods. Although they would more likely scurry out of the woman’s way, they were still wild and unpredictable. Like him.
Brambles soon tore into his unprotected thighs, signaling the forest’s edge was close. Slowing his pace, he picked his way through wild raspberry vines until he broke through the tree line. And froze.
A short grass meadow opened before him. Trees and dense shrubs lined the entire perimeter, providing a thousand shadowed places where a sniper could hide to pick off his target.
He eased back until the prick of thorns halted his retreat. She was two-thirds of the way across the field when he spotted her.
Arms pumping, ponytail swinging, the woman sprinted toward a large glass structure. A greenhouse sat in the distance with a metal storage shed at its rear and a utility cart parked in the front. A gravel service drive cut through the trees, toward safety.
He scanned the meadow’s edge again. With a new moon in the sky, he had no hope of catching the glint of moonlight on a scope lens. But the flash from a muzzle would be unmistakable. And he’d be too late.
A cool breeze kicked up, buffeting his bare flesh, chilling the sweat on his body. Something clicked in his brain like a light switch. On, off. Black, white.
What the hell was he doing chasing a woman who’d wandered upon his campsite? Almost fucking nude, no less. If anyone saw and reported him, he’d have far more things to worry about than a hiker’s safety and a sniper’s bullet.
Despite his newfound clearheadedness, he couldn’t leave. Not yet. The fleeing woman jumped into the cart and flew down a service drive.
Who was she? He shoved the question away as soon as it surfaced. He wasn’t in Steele Ridge to make friends—or to get entangled with a too-curious, too-reckless woman. No matter how beautiful she might be.
He was here to purge his demons.
Something he was doing a shit-ass job at so far.
With one last sweep of the meadow, he melted into the darkness, into solitude.
Into the emptiness of his life.