Rain was falling from the sky. Thunder accompanied the storm, and its powerful vibrations shook the surrounding room as the rain’s heavy droplets pattered against the roof.
Pain, as sharp as the stabs of a thousand knives, shot through her skull. The excruciating sensation kept her glued to the surface beneath her, and it held her in a swirl of misty darkness. It rendered her unable think, to breathe, or to make out anything distinct in front of her.
Colors danced in the distance ahead. Black and white, mixed with the color of flesh—they took on the shape of a man, and then a second man. The second man was tall and broad-shouldered and a wave of hope swelled within her as he raced toward her. As the grip on her wrist tightened, a wave of fear coursed through her body. She released a bloodcurdling scream just before something hard and cold was smashed against her head. She fell, down, down like a puddle against the wet pavement and the world faded into oblivion as she gave way to an overpowering sensation of agony and pain.
Opening her eyes a moment later, she found she was no longer in the dark place, and her forehead was throbbing like nothing she’d ever known. The sting began at her hairline, and it vibrated within her temples and the sensitive nerves of her eyes. Her shoulders felt as though they had been squeezed between the contours of a conveyor belt, and the rest of her body was extremely weak, making it difficult to do anything but stare, to blink and to lean helplessly back against the mattress beneath her.
Forcing her eyes to tilt downward, she observed that she was wearing a nightgown. The satin garment was sheer, and it did nothing to warm her freezing-cold body. She was shivering, and she willed herself to take hold of the blanket draped across her legs and pull it to her chin.
She clutched the rough material, gazed all around her and took several hard breaths. Had she lain down to go to sleep? She couldn’t seem to remember, or to recall anything prior to being in this bed.
As she attempted to lift her head, she observed that the room she was in was large. An open space surrounded the bed she was lying on, and opposite the bed were a velvet sofa chair and a dresser. The piece of furniture between them—a vanity—had a round mirror atop it and it contained a multitude of drawers. A jewelry box rested beside several glass perfume bottles, each one of which was more colorful and ornate than the last.
The perfume bottles didn’t belong to her. And she had no idea how she’d gotten where she was.
Ignoring the racing of her heart, she sat up the rest of the way, reaffirming the notion that her head didn’t just ache but felt as though it had been whacked with a sledgehammer. She attempted to catch her breath but her pulse was racing a thousand miles an hour and no matter how hard she tried there didn’t seem to be a damn thing she could do to get her breathing rate to slow.
Desperate to be rid of the tremors as well as the pain, she attempted to recall the pieces of her dream in more vivid detail. But as she closed her eyes and tried to return to the place she’d been moments ago, she found that the images surrounding that time were scrambled and any recollection of what they might have meant to her was gone.
Fighting to remain vertical, she lifted her legs and slid them from beneath the warmth of the comforter. A draft settled around her, and the chill in the air increased tenfold as she placed one bare foot against the frigid floor.
As she turned to her left, she discovered that there was a closet next to the bed. Its sliding door was shut, but that wasn’t going to stop her from opening it and finding herself something warm to wear. She forced herself to stand and pushed the heavy wooden door to one side, revealing an expansive row of women’s shirts, pants, and jackets.
Did the clothes belong to her? Or did they belong to the person who’d kidnapped her, one of the men she’d seen in her dream? Deciding that it didn’t matter who the clothes belonged to, that she need to put something on quickly and get the hell out of there, she helped herself to a coat, a hat, and a pair riding boots. Her hair was wet. She became abundantly aware of the fact as she attempted to slide into the floor-length wool coat. After tugging the crocheted cap she’d discovered over her head, she tucked her wet strands beneath it, making sure to be as gentle with her throbbing scalp as possible.
Her reflection caught her attention as she staggered toward the door. As she stared back at two large hazel eyes, freckles, and a single lock of red hair poking its way from beneath her cap, she searched for some part of her face that she recognized. Scratches covered her cheeks and there was an especially deep cut across her forehead. She traced the cut with her finger, only causing the pain in her head to intensify.
As she moved toward the door, she was hit with a series of flashes—a vanity, a bouquet of roses, an envelope. Her brain was so fixated on trying to decipher the images that she barely detected the sound of footsteps outside the room. The door beside her swung open and a shadow spread across the floor. She turned in its direction, almost losing her balance as its owner came forward, blocking the light emanating from the lamp on the table behind him.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the tall, light-haired man demanded.
The man inched closer. His boots were dripping with water and he was dressed in jeans and a black, hooded sweatshirt. Big and broad, he had muscular arms and a hard, powerful chest. Damp strands of thick, dark blond hair covered the top of his head. His faced was sprinkled with lighter traces of that same-colored hair and there was a distinct cleft in his chin. The sight of both it and his dark brown eyes caused her to shudder as he took a couple of steps in her direction.
The man reached for her, almost grabbing her arm. But she sprang back, only to be hit by what was apparently another image—a man’s hand, holding what appeared to be a gun. In her mind the pistol swung at her and the person holding it struck a blow across the top of her head. As the man standing before her attempted to take hold of her, she lifted her knee cap and struck him square in the groin. Her attacker grunted loudly and stumbled back, hitting the dressing table with one of his enormous arms. Half a dozen glass perfume bottles tumbled forward and smashed against the ground.
The man’s eyes darkened as he stood up straight and attempted to take hold of her for the second time. Darting around him before he could get his hands around her waist, she pulled herself through the doorway and stumbled into the hall, making a split-second decision regarding which way to go. There was a staircase nearby that appeared as though it led to the ground floor. She made it look as though she was about to run in the opposite direction, then kicked the blond man’s shin before making a sharp left turn. Her attacker swore loudly and she ignored him as she raced ahead, not stopping until she reached the turn that led to the long, marble staircase.
Taking care not to trip as she made a speedy descent, she darted down the stairs and into what appeared to be the house’s foyer. A wooden floor ten times the size of the one in the bedroom greeted her. Somewhere at the end of it stood a set of French doors. With her heart in her mouth, she made her way toward them. She pried one of them open as hard, angry footsteps closed in on her.
“Alicia!” her abductor’s deep, male voice shouted.
She paused briefly, taking in the name he’d called her by. Then, she charged through the doorframe and raced from the porch, disappearing into the night.
* * * *
“There’s nowhere to run. We’re surrounded by woods on three sides.” Her abductor’s boots squished against the grass as he ran up the hill behind her. He stopped in place, cupped his hands around the sides of his mouth and shouted, “Alicia, stop!”
He’d called her Alicia again. Could that be her name? She couldn’t seem to remember, couldn’t remember anything before waking up in that bed. Her head hurt like hell, and her arms and legs felt as though they had no strength in them whatsoever. She needed to figure out why this man was after her. She needed to make sure he didn’t hurt her again, didn’t get the chance to finish whatever he’d started in that dream.
Drops of water fell from the sky. The drizzle became heavier rain and the clothes she was wearing were soaked through in a matter of seconds. Her coat became heavy and its weight made it difficult to move as she staggered along a wide stretch of grass. Her captor wasn’t far behind her, and when she saw he was getting close she made a quick turn, ducking behind a cluster of pine trees.
Lightning streaked across the sky. Its bright, neon afterglow lit the ground and revealed a tall red structure in the distance. Thinking it might be a barn, she looked to make sure the coast was clear. Her abductor had taken off in the opposite direction and she charged ahead, shuddering as a pearl of thunder crackled in the sky above.
Having made it to the top of the hill where the barn stood, she pried open a large wooden door and brought herself inside a room that smelled of horses and hay. Work benches were scattered about, and, judging by the sounds she heard there were horses, quite a few of them, in fact. Perhaps, she thought as she closed the door behind her, she could steal one of the horses and try to ride away. Though even if she could manage to ride a horse in the dark, she wouldn’t have the slightest clue where she was going, or even what her starting point was.
As she wandered through the dark space, she kept her arms out in front of her. There was a lot to bump into, which provided several fresh bruises along her arms and legs. Not before long, the sounds of breathing and hooves tapping the ground became louder and more consistent.
She reached to touch the outer rim of what appeared to be one of the horse stalls but realized the end of her nightgown was caught. As she tried to pull it free, she heard the distinct sound of a noise behind her.
“Alicia? Are you in here?”
A shadow cascaded through the room. It was the same one she’d seen when her abductor had entered the bedroom, and it faded as he pulled the barn door shut. The man who was chasing her wove his way between the work benches and columns as though he’d done it a thousand times before, as though the darkness didn’t faze him in the slightest. Barely making a sound, he approached the section of the room where she was standing and moved toward the horse stalls.
The man’s gaze circled the surrounding area and Alicia dropped to the ground, crouching behind the table she was caught against. She attempted to tear her pant leg from a rusty nail as an array of random feelings came into her mind. Fear. Terror. Pain. Someone was trying to hurt her—she had to get away, had to get away before it was too late.
The sound of footsteps became louder and a man’s long legs came into her vision. Those legs crept closer and after a moment of pacing they stopped on the opposite side of the table. Realizing she’d been discovered, she tossed her hands over her mouth and tumbled back onto her rear.
“Stay away from me, you son of a bitch!” She fumbled around on the floor and secured what appeared to be a chisel. Springing to her feet, she lunged at her attacker, aiming the weapon at the center of his chest.
But before she could strike him, the man grabbed hold of her wrist. He squeezed her flesh with an iron grip, causing the chisel to slip from her fingers.
“What the hell’s gotten into you, huh?” Fiery, brown eyes tore into her as a crack of thunder shook the barn like a rowboat in the middle of the ocean. “If you never want to speak to me again, that’s fine, but you need to get back into bed. You can walk back to the house, or I can carry you kicking and screaming. It’s your choice, Alicia.”
He believed her name was Alicia. And the more he said it, the more she came to believe it was her name, too. She experienced a strong feeling of familiarity each time he said it. Though she didn’t have a clue in hell as to what her last name might be, or remember anything else about her life prior to waking up in that bed.
Prying her wrist free, she darted forward and crashed into a table covered with tools. Her abductor took her by the waist. He pulled her forcedly against him.
“Enough!” he roared. “I’m taking you back to the house before you get both of us killed!”
He proceeded to push her forward and she had to take gigantic steps to keep from losing her balance. After closing up the barn, her abductor forced her to stand in front of him, as though he didn’t trust that she wouldn’t attempt to run away again if he wasn’t watching her every move. The rain had lightened up during the last couple of minutes and there was only a light mist sprinkling down on them as they trudged across the muddy ground. Her self-appointed prison guard said nothing as they descended the hill but he urged her to keep moving, taking her back through the field toward the enormous house in the distance below.
As they approached an unfamiliar patio, a row of arborvitae bushes and what looked to be a tennis court, she realized there were countless questions she wanted answers to. But as she was guided past the gated section of asphalt, she could only seem to articulate one. “Who are you?”
Confusion darkened her captor’s features. Then, he laughed. “That’s very funny. Come on, I’m taking you back inside before you catch pneumonia.”
“It isn’t funny at all. You’re obviously getting some deranged kick out of all of this, but I don’t have any clue in hell who you are.”
“That’s good,” he said. “That’s really good. Nice to know that even in the middle of a crisis your theatrical skills are still as sharp as ever. But the act is kind of in poor taste even for you, don’t you think?”
He thought she was playing with him. Or else, denying that he had any idea what she was talking about was part of his game, to get her to loosen her defenses. God knew what he was planning on doing with her if he succeeded. She wasn’t sticking around to find out.
Lunging forward, she pried herself free of her attacker’s death grip only to succeed in making her head hurt even more than it already did. She attempted to run, but realizing she didn’t have the strength to do it she placed her fingers against her aching temples and said, “I don’t know what sort of a game you think you’re playing with me, but it ends right now. I don’t know you and your California-blond hair from Adam. Tell me who you are and how I got here, before I decide to rip every last strand of that yellow mop right out of your head.”
Rainwater splashed across her captor’s grim expression. “I’m sure you’d prefer it if you didn’t know me. I don’t really blame you for feeling that way, but unfortunately for you, Leesh, I’m all you’ve got at the moment. Just come back inside with me so we can dry off. Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you!”
She came at him, attempting to punch his face. But as she swung her arm, the pain in her head spiked to a deadly level. Unable to remain standing, she lost her balance and fell sharply forward. Her captor caught her just before she collapsed onto the grass.
The pain in her forehead was making it almost impossible to keep her eyes open. But she forced herself to do it and stared at the unfamiliar face looming above hers. “Tell me who you are and what you want with me, you bastard!”
Bewilderment sparkled about her captor’s eyes. “I brought you here. It’s me, Leesh. It’s Nick.”
She didn’t know anyone by that name. It sounded completely foreign to her, as did everything short of the name Alicia. She couldn’t even be sure that Alicia was her name, though it seemed to ring truer than anything else did. She supposed that might mean something.
Her captor pushed several strands of hair from her face as he studied her through widened eyes. His palm touched her forehead, and for a second the gentle brush of his fingertips was almost comforting. Disturbed that he could have that sort of effect on her, she attempted to turn sideways but found she was too weak to move. Her captor tried to help her stand. When he saw she couldn’t do it herself, he scooped her up as though she weighed no more than a feather and cradled her against his chest.
Pressed against his hard frame, she became aware of how very strong the man holding her was and welcomed the blast furnace of heat that seemed to emanate from his body. He smelled of leather and spice, and she found herself resting more comfortably against him as he carried her toward the house she had escaped from. The mansion was several stories tall. It had a brick exterior and a spacious back porch that was shaded by an even larger awning. A row of lights caused her eyes to sting as she was brought beneath them.
She studied the objects around her, hoping the wooden armchairs or the table beside them might strike a familiar chord. But as they moved beneath a particularly bright bulb, the pain in her forehead made it impossible for her to think at all. She groaned, a sound that became a louder cry as an ache that felt like a knife-stab shot through the center of her skull. Her eyes fell closed. They remained that way, as though they had been welded shut.
Faintly she heard her captor shouting to her, but she no longer had any perception of what he was saying. As her last bit of strength seeped from her body, she went limp against his chest, watching the world around her turn from white, to gray, to black.