The Coltons of Roaring Springs #9
September 3, 2019
Harlequin Romantic Suspense
Available in: Paperback, e-Book
Colton on the Run
Where is Skye Colton?
One woman’s disappearance rocks Roaring Springs
When he finds a half-dead woman stranded in his barn, rancher Leo Slattery feels his blood run cold. Though she can’t remember who she is, she insists someone is trying to kill her. With his strong protective streak, Leo brings her into the fold and helps her heal. As they begin to solve the mystery of Jane Doe’s identity, a would-be killer works to eliminate her—forever.
A thin beam of sunlight streamed against her aching, heavy lids.
She blinked. The simple, ordinary action sent blades of pain slicing through her head. Her stomach churned as bile rose in her throat. She cried out, but the sound barely reached her own ears, caught behind the taut tape stretched across her mouth. Her eyes widened before blurring against the dim light. She tried to tug her arms forward, but they wouldn’t move. Her wrists strained against the rough rope wrapped so tight she couldn’t feel her fingers.
Her mind cleared, but in stages, slowed by the pain and confusion coursing through her. Her ears buzzed. Her head throbbed. Gray tinged the edge of her vision as she tried to hold on to consciousness.
Something harsh and scratchy scraped against the side of her face as she rolled from her side onto her back. The smell of rotting, moldy hay and old dirt made her choke and lose her breath. Above the ringing in her ears, she heard the chill-inducing scrapings of tiny paws and claws skittering as creatures darted back to their hiding places.
Other than that… She took a deep breath and held it. The world pounded in silence.
Her heart vibrated like a jackhammer against her chest, competing with the earsplitting thudding in her head. Long tendrils of hair caught across her sweaty face and obscured her vision as she winced up at the gaping, worn holes of what must have once been a shed.
She turned her head, scanning the room in the dimming light. Old, warped slats of wood sagged against one another as if about to surrender. Rough, uneven, knotted planks gouged splinters into the sides of her hands, through the fabric of her shirt and deep into the skin on her back as she shifted position. The more she moved, the more every inch of her body ached and burned. Angry, frightened tears she couldn’t hold back trailed down her cheeks. She closed her eyes, desperately searching her memory for how she’d gotten here. What had happened? Where was she? Who had done this to her?
A new tendril of fear curled up from her toes, twining through her body, choking the air from her lungs.
She didn’t know. She had no answers for any of those questions. She had…nothing. A sob escaped her control. Her mind was empty. Don’t cry. She squeezed her eyes tighter until all she could feel was the pain in her head. Can’t cry. Crying won’t help. Nothing would help except getting out of wherever she was and maybe, hopefully, finding someone to help her.
Help. There was no help to be found here. She had only herself to rely on. Stop panicking! Giving in to hysteria would only muddle her brain and make it even more difficult to breathe. Breathe. In. Out. In…out.
It took minutes, each passing second echoing in her skull like a sledgehammer against her brain, but she was able to force herself to relax. Muscle by muscle, extremity by extremity. She took a long, shaky breath and turned her head one way, then the other, attempting to get her bearings. A small, square, grime-covered window was situated above a forlorn rider mower with a deflated tire. A table saw, tools and equipment that looked to have been stashed there back at the turn of the century sat against the wall. Ropes, twine and tools hung suspended from rotting cords and blackened or rusted nails. She pushed herself up, dragged her sore legs under her, her bare feet scraping against the raw wood.
Bare feet. She didn’t even have on shoes. She squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t want to think where they might be.
Breath heavy in her chest, she pushed forward onto her knees. Her legs trembled as she stood, pulling first one foot, then the other, under her. She swayed. Her head spun and her stomach churned as nausea rolled deep and strong. She braced her feet apart, took long, deliberate breaths. She couldn’t afford to vomit. She’d suffocate for sure.
Turning in slow, determined circles, she squinted into the growing darkness to scope out her surroundings. To memorize every detail.
The sun was dipping fast, taking with it her only chance at visibility. She needed to escape before whoever had left her here came back. And they were coming back. They knew she was still alive; why else would they have tied her up and gagged her? They didn’t want her making noise, didn’t want her bringing attention to herself. Which meant she couldn’t be too far from civilization. Right?
Curling her bare, polish-chipped toes into the dirt-caked floorboards, she took a step forward and focused on walking. One step, two. Her legs burned. Another step and then another. The thin thread of light caught against a metal circle with rusted, razor-sharp edges. A quick survey of the shovels, spades and trowels gave her little hope by comparison. She tugged at her arms again, hoping the rope digging into her wrists had given way, but they remained as tight as before.
She arched her back, shook her head to whip her hair behind her shoulders and took a cautious step, angling her bound hands toward the exposed blade of the table saw. Slowly, even as her fear screamed at her to hurry, she attempted to stretch out her numb fingers until she felt the blade against her skin. Her shoulders strained and her thighs burned as she stooped to press the rope solidly against the jagged edges of the saw blade.
Forward, back, up, down. She kept a steady rhythm, increasing her speed when she heard the rope begin to rip. Her hands slipped and the blade sliced against the newly exposed skin. Ouch! She sucked in a breath, choked, but kept cutting. The dizziness was getting worse. Her stomach hurt as it clenched around the rising nausea and panicked pressure.
When her hands finally broke free, she nearly face-planted on the floor. She caught herself on the wall with one hand, digging her broken nails into the soft wood, then tugged at the corner of the tape across her mouth.
She whimpered as the adhesive clung to her cheeks and lips, then, irritated with herself, she ripped it off in one violent yank. This time she surrendered to the urge to bend over, retching even as she gripped the splintering stud of the wall and dragged in lung-expanding air.
Pushing her hair out of her face, she looked down and then caught her shirt between blood-caked fingers. The white silk shirt and linen pants were covered in dirt, grime and now her blood. Her left pant leg was shredded, as if she’d encountered a wild animal at some point. A circular bruise around one ankle began to throb.
Darkness wouldn’t be her friend. She needed to get out, away from here, and put as much distance as she could between herself and this place. She spun back to the stash of tools that would have been of benefit to a gardener or farmer, but certainly not a woman in need of aid and defense.
She bit her lip and lifted a pair of shears free of their hook. After a few attempts, she managed to get the rusted blades open, then headed for the rickety door across the room. She pressed down on the latch and pulled.
Nothing happened. The wood creaked. She tried again, more forcefully. Her entire body shook as she desperately willed the latch to yield. The metal hinges strained, but the door didn’t budge. Anger swamped the frustration mounting inside her, and she pounded a fist against the door before turning to brace her back against it. She hit it again, this time with two fists, as she turned her attention to the shadowy window above the forgotten equipment.
Ignoring the pain in her feet and pushing the garden shears into the back waistband of her pants, she darted across the room again and grabbed hold of the table saw and pulled it out of the way so she could get to the mower. She could feel the rough metal of the shears pressing against her lower spine and shivered. Pulling a long-handled shovel free of its fellow tools, she plowed it through the window and shattered most of the glass. Then she circled the shovel around to clear the opening before tossing it aside and brushing shards of glass off the ripped seat of the mower. A second later, she stepped onto the cushion. Cooler air burst through the window like a slap, a slap she welcomed as it cleared her head. She pulled the shears free and threw them outside before pushing herself through and dropping to the ground.
She hit harder than expected, hard enough to make her head spin, but she didn’t stop. She couldn’t stop. She rolled and shoved herself to her feet, grabbed the shears and, after taking a moment to get her bearings, dived into the shrubs. Trees lurched up and around, shielding her both from the elements but also the dwindling light. Branches and overgrown shrubs obscured just how dense and deep the wooded area around the shed was. Heart pounding, she circled to the front of the cabin, where she found fresh tire tracks heading down the unpaved, dirt road.
There, in the distance, a dilapidated cabin erupted from the tree line, made of the same rotting wood as the shed. The out-of-control flora told her the land was uninhabited. Or at least appeared to be. She couldn’t take a chance. Whoever had left her in that shed might be inside. She needed to move!
She was already shivering as the temperature seemed to drop by the second. Her feet and toes had gone numb, either from cold or from pain. There had to be some kind of road that would lead her to civilization or at the very least help. Her head aching, her wrists still burning, she quickly tied her hair in a knot at the base of her neck and headed into the woods beside the road. She’d follow it. And hope she’d find safety at the end
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“… a new Harlequin Romantic Suspense that I could not stop reading. Ms. Stewart had me completely engrossed in Skye Colton’s story and the strong rancher who will do anything to protect her.”
~5 Stars, The Romance Reviews (click here for full review)
“My first impression of the author’s writing was how vivid and ‘in the moment’ it put this reader. I like that and honestly look for it writers that I might want to read again in the future. This story has a steady pace and the right mix of action, mystery and romance.
~4 Stars, LAS Reviews (Read the full review here)