Alex Westhaven
Horror & Suspense

Alex Westhaven, Author

Serial Story: When She Cries, Part 19

This serial story is posted weekly on Fridays in draft (unedited) format. 


When She Cries
Part 19

A crackling warmth woke Nicole from a sound slumber, and she opened her eyes only to squeeze them shut against the brilliant orange of a nearby fire. Confused, she rolled to her back, groaning at the pain shooting through various parts of her body at the simple movement.

Flashes of her tumble down the river played in her mind, bringing with them the panic and fear she’d fought as she struggled to keep breathing and stay at the surface of the water. She’d never felt so helpless in her life, tossed through the currents like a damn rag doll with nothing to do but try to endure.

She didn’t remember how she got to shore, or even crawling out, but she was certain she hadn’t had the strength to gather wood, much less build a fire. Bracing herself for the pain, she pushed up to a sitting position and squinted to see in the dark though the firelight made it impossible to focus.
Patrick. He had to be close, and she wondered why he hadn’t killed her, or just let her die. Was he just waiting for her to wake up? Had he just stepped away for a few minutes? Should she try to escape?

Wincing with each flex, she tested her joints and miraculously found everything in working order. She started to work her way to her knees when her gaze fell on a basket sitting about a foot away from the fire. Crawling over, she peered inside, surprised to see bread, jerky, some bottles of water and a few other small packets along with what appeared to be a card.

Somewhere overhead, there was an electronic whirr and she turned to look, but didn’t see anything. Her imagination, probably. Opening the envelope, she pulled out a single square note card with writing on the back.

Dearest Nicole,

After your recent run-in with the river rapids, I’ve awarded you a temporary truce and these supplies, with my respect for your survival thus far. At dawn, we will resume the game, at which time you are free to run, or to meet me at the cabin to discuss an ongoing partnership with yours truly.

You were wonderful today.

Patrick


She tucked the note and envelope back into the basket and grabbed the bread, her stomach rumbling hard at the sight of food. Tearing off chunks to swallow as she sat by the fire, she tried to make sense of his words.

If he saw this as a game, then she was no better off than she’d been the night before. Her objective was to get away from him, but what was his? Did he want to kill her? Find her? Seduce her? Or just watch her flounder around his land until she eventually died from exposure or injuries?

Whatever it was, she didn’t want to play anymore. But she wasn’t going to meet him at the cabin either - the man had to be delusional if he thought she’d ever be interested in any kind of partnership with a freak like him.

None of which explained why he’d left her food and water, and built her a fire as well. He could just as easily have let her die, or dragged her back to his cabin while she was out cold.

None of it made any sense at all, but one thing was certain. She had to stay out of his grasp if she wanted to survive.

Looking up, she couldn’t see the moon at all, and she wondered just how late - or how early - it was. He’d given her until dawn, so the smartest thing would be to start moving as quickly as she could, to get as far away as possible before the deadline.

He could still be watching, of course. But if that was the case, she’d be dead at first light no matter where she was.

Swallowing the last bite of bread and washing it down with one of the bottles of water, she kicked dirt over the fire, picked up the basket and set off walking downstream with the river, every muscle in her body protesting and her head hurting like crazy. She’d floated this far. She might as well follow it back down and try her luck the other way. 


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Serial Story: When She Cries, Part 18

This serial story is posted weekly on Fridays in draft (unedited) format. 


When She Cries
Part 18

“Dammit.” Patrick watched Nicole tumble away from the boulder and out into the main river current. He pulled a tablet computer out of his pack and quickly navigated to the live feed, knowing the automated cameras could keep up with her better than he could. He had to decide whether to save her quickly - she’d clearly been worn out when she found one of the cables, and at the rate the river was flowing, she’d probably drown in less than five minutes.

Sprinting toward the bank, he watched the numbers just below the broadcast twirl faster and faster as Nicole was tossed through the rocks and rapids. The cameras, programmed to follow anything that resembled a human face switched flawlessly between views with far more precision than any manual operator could have.

Patrick stopped as viewer numbers continued to climb higher, faster. The audience was speaking, and it seemed like an unfavorable verdict for Nicole.

So be it.

He took a seat on a large fallen log to watch the final minutes, torn between disappointment that this particular hunt would end so soon, and satisfaction at such a large turnout to watch Nicole’s episode. She’d been particularly popular, and a longer run would have been extraordinarily lucrative.

It looked like she was unconscious now, her body buffeted between white caps as the rapids slowed into a more peaceful portion of the river. His cameras followed, and he was surprised when she didn’t immediately start to sink once the current settled down. Viewer numbers started to drop, though slowly, and his finger hovered over the button that would end the live feed and thank everyone for watching. Only the disappointment of letting such a worthy opponent go held him back.

The camera trained on her lifeless body zoomed in, and he frowned, moving his hand away from the screen. He’d written the program to analyze even the smallest movements from a human form, and the only reason a camera would zoom in was if it detected...

Nicole’s feet sank and her head rose from the water in one frantic motion. The camera framed her wide-eyed gasp perfectly as she sucked in air and began to tread water, blood running down the side of her face. She turned a circle, still drifting with the current, and then began to swim diagonally with it toward the shore.

Patrick grinned, staring hungrily at the screen as viewer numbers started rising again. When it hit six figures, he laughed out loud.

She was the one, he thought as she reached the shore and climbed out of the water, collapsing on a bed of tall grass. Not just the woman who would make him more money than he could ever hope to spend, but a worthy partner in his survival game.

He stowed the tablet in his pack after making note of her position, and started down the riverbank to a crossing just upstream. He’d make sure there were supplies available when she recovered - she deserved it after that river stunt. And the audience always appreciated an act of mercy or two on his part. 

He pictured her in his mind as he walked - that long, lean body, the high, tight breasts, and those hips that curved just right. Maybe after they were done showing the folks at home a good time, he’d tame her down, keep her for his own. He’d been alone for a long time, and it would be nice to have a partner. Someone to come home to and cuddle up next to the fire with.

He might like that. If she survived... 


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Serial Story: When She Cries, Part 17

This serial story is posted weekly on Fridays in draft (unedited) format. 


When She Cries
Part 17

Nicole stopped twice more for water, every noise making her jump, every breeze across her neck making her certain he was right behind her. Her feet were caked with mud, her muscles ached where they didn’t burn, and as light started to break over the mountain, her feet started to drag with each step.

Her toes were bloody and bruised from hitting rocks, trees and roots, her legs scratched and bleeding from the whip-like twigs and thorny branches that seemed to seek her out for punishment. She was weak, and tired, and she wasn’t sure where she was, how far she’d gone, or how far she had left to go.

Stopping again, she picked her way over the rocky beach to the river, not bothering to look for cover or hide her tracks. If Patrick found her now, he could just kill her and be done with it. At least then she could rest.

Balancing precariously with her feet in an inch of mud and silt, she reached out with a cupped hand to get a drink of water. Some tiny little fish darted around her hand, and she watched them in the dim early morning light as she slurped the cool liquid. The water was still in that spot, and she stared at the gravel at the bottom and a single, smooth root of some sort that had somehow found its way into the drink like a living straw.

Except...she frowned, and then sat back on her heels, taking a closer look at her surroundings. There were plenty of trees, but none within at least twenty feet of the shore. Peering into the water again, she couldn’t see any plants growing under the surface either, and in her tired state she fixated on finding the source of that lone root.

Reaching down deeper than she’d expected, she grasped the root and tugged. It was smooth and perfectly tubular. When she pulled, it didn’t want to come up, clinging tightly to the riverbed. She stepped into the water for better leverage and used both hands, finally raising a section of it up to the surface of the water, still anchored on either end.

Examining it closely, she confirmed that it wasn’t a root at all, but rather a thick black cable that appeared to go across the river. Turning to look behind her, she wondered where it went. Patrick’s cabin should be a long ways off by now, and as far as she knew, there wasn’t anything in the opposite direction...

Looking back across the river, she wondered if she could find the other end on the far bank and follow it. She couldn’t go backwards with Patrick somewhere behind her, but it might not be a bad idea to cross the river anyways, maybe slow him up a little if he wasn’t close by when her tracks disappeared.

Dropping the cable, she watched the water flow by for a minute, noting the strong current. Out past the still tidepool she was standing in, the moving waterway was narrow, only about ten feet. But the main current would undoubtedly drag her downstream as she swam, so she needed to mark the spot where the cable was, if she wanted to find it again.

A voice in the back of her head warned that she was too weak, too tired to even try to cross, but she ignored it. Stacking up a few rocks to mark the spot, she waded further out into the tidepool, her muscles tightening in the freezing liquid until she couldn’t stand any longer. There was a large boulder in the middle of the river about four feet downstream - she’d aim for that first, and then go from there to the shore.

She took a few shallow breaths and then one deep gulp of air before pushing out into the current and swimming as hard as she could for her target. Pulling her head up to avoid hitting it, she let her legs sink as she let the current carry her and prepared to brace herself against the rock.

Her shoulder hit first, and she rolled toward the center of the boulder just as a whitecap crashed into it just beside her, bouncing her away from the rock and out into the current again.
   

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Serial Story: When She Cries, Part 16

This serial story is posted weekly on Fridays in draft (unedited) format. 


When She Cries
Part 16

The moon had passed its apex hours ago, and Nicole knew that she needed to be farther away before daylight hit. Patrick’s cabin had to be somewhere close, considering this was the only water she’d seen or heard since they’d started up the mountain. Chances were good that he was already on her trail, but hopefully her excursion up the cold creek would hold him off at least a little while longer.

She took a long drink, and washed out her wounds as well as she could, any pain numbed temporarily by the icy water. Looking around, she knew she didn’t have many options for which way to go next. Patrick’s cabin would be on the left, so she needed to keep the water to her left. And she hadn’t worried about covering her tracks until she reached the stream, so he’d be following her - no going back the way she’d come. The only options left were to follow the river higher, or veer off and walk in the same general direction, but leave the river for a more diagonal path across the mountains.

He’d expect her to follow the water. It was the smart thing to do, considering she didn’t have anything to carry extra with her, and she was unfamiliar with the area. Still, she’d seen a glimpse of a map in Evan’s car while they were driving up, and the property really wasn’t all that large, comparatively speaking. If she went diagonal and could hold that position, she’d make it out by nightfall.

Or she could find somewhere to hole up until dark, instead of risking being seen during the day.
Weariness crept into her bones and pain slowly throbbed to the surface as her skin warmed. She’d have to move again soon, if for no other reason than to keep her muscles working.

Reluctant, she got to her feet and walked around the small lake to where the waterfall roared down over jagged boulders. Tired as she was, she would follow it until daylight, at least. She’d reassess then, and hopefully find a spot to get some sleep eventually.

The hill was steep, and there was no way she could climb straight up. So she turned away and followed the hill around until she found an easier way up. It was still more challenging than she’d thought it would be, and by the time she reached the top, she simply rolled over on her back and gazed up at the night sky.

So beautiful. So peaceful. If only she weren’t running for her life.

Nicole took one deep breath and let it out slowly. Then she rolled over, got to her hands and knees and pushed to her feet, turning to look down the slope she’d just climbed. Everything was quiet, peaceful, and she started to walk away, but something - a noise? A shadow? Made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. 

Narrowing her eyes, she looked again, focusing on the dark areas, as if she could will whatever watched out of hiding.

A tiny spot of bright green flashed in the distance, but that was all. The hillside was still.
Probably just an animal, she told herself. But she knew better. Patrick was out there, and he was hunting her. It was only a matter of time, and not much, if he was already so close on her tail.

Setting off at as fast a clip as she could in bare feet, she found the water again and hiked along the bank, determined to stay ahead of him for as long as she could...
 

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Serial Story: When She Cries, Part 15

This serial story is posted weekly on Fridays in draft (unedited) format. 


When She Cries
Part 15

Patrick stood at the top of the rise, watching his prey through night vision goggles that were set to record as she hesitated, and then decided to go upstream. He grinned. She was too much of a thinker for her own good - which is exactly what made her the perfect opponent. It was the same thing that would eventually drive her into his arms, but there was no rush.

He’d known the minute he saw her get out of Evan’s car that she was perfect for his needs. The others hadn’t liked it when he told them, but that had been the deal from the start. They could use his land, have their fun until he picked a subject from the pool of applicants they brought to him. After that, it was all over until he was finished filming.

He’d enjoyed giving them the good news tonight, right after he cut Amy’s throat. It was a mercy killing, after what they’d done to the last girl. And he probably should’ve let them have their fun, since it had been part of the agreement, but he’d been in a good mood. They’d get over it once they sobered up. Considering they’d been well-paid for their part, they really had no cause to complain. 

Slipping quietly along the ridge, he followed Nicole as she waded through the shallow creek, struggling to get past some of the larger boulders that had fallen during the last big storm. She fell a few times, and he waited anxiously for her to get up, not wanting the game to end so soon. She was strong though, and tough. The farther he followed her, the more he knew he’d made the right decision.

The creek bed originated in a small lake that marked the end of a chain that went further up into the hills. A small waterfall fed the lake, the white water sparkling in dappled moonlight as it spilled into the little reservoir. Nicole stopped when she saw it, just staring for a long moment before she went to a quiet spot at the edge and bent down for a drink, and to bathe her wounds.

He lowered himself to the ground, wondering how long she’d stay. She couldn’t know that the small river that fed this lake was close to the cabin - the valley it sat in kept the sound subtle. But she’d guess, no doubt, that he got water from one of the two places. He’d have to haze her back around to the path he wanted her to find eventually, but for the next few hours, he was content to let her choose her own way.

There was something rather satisfying in watching, like an sociologist studying a subject. Would she be able to find food? Would she risk a fire? Would she break down in tears, drawing predators with her despair?

The viewers always liked it when the subjects did that, but he suspected it would take a lot to bring this one to her knees. It would happen though, and more than once if he had his way.

And he always did.


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Serial Story: When She Cries, Part 14

This serial story is posted weekly on Fridays in draft (unedited) format. 


When She Cries
Part 14

“Suit yourself.” Patrick shrugged as if her decision meant nothing to him, holding out his plate for her to take. “There’s a bucket of rainwater outside that window there.” He inclined his head toward a low frosted glass pane near the corner of the cabin where his food supply sat. “You can clean the dishes with that, and put ‘em away. I’m gonna take a quick nap.”

Nicole did as she was told, surprised to hear an even snore coming from the cot within just a few minutes. What she wouldn’t give to be able to sleep on cue like that. Unfortunately, he could probably wake on cue too. He was probably so in tune to the normal noises in the cabin that anything out of the ordinary would wake him up as well.

If she was going to escape, she’d have to find a way that wouldn’t make any noises he wasn’t familiar with. Or she’d have to move fast enough to catch him off guard. Not likely, considering her leg.

He shifted on the cot, rolling away from her, as if mocking her predicament. She sighed, turning to put the water bucket back outside the window.

And realized the opening was large enough to crawl through, if she was careful.

Knowing if she took time to think, she’d do something to tip him off, she lifted the bucket out and then stepped lightly up on the food crate and hoisted herself out after it. A quick glance inside before she closed the window showed Patrick still sleeping with his back to the room, and she hoped he would stay that way long enough to give her a good head start.

She stood beside the cabin for a long moment, trying to decide which direction to go. Then she realized it didn’t really matter - Patrick would track her anyway. She just needed to get as far away as possible by the time he woke up. That was the only way she’d have a fighting chance at getting down the mountain before he found her.

The alcove the cabin sat in was protected on two sides by gentle inclines, and the other two sides sloped down and away. She picked the decline at the back of the cabin and started picking her way down through the thick forest. She tried not to touch any more plant life than she had to, tried to step lightly, and zig-zagged in a sort-of random pattern, hoping it would at least slow him down.

When she neared the bottom of the slope, she realized the error of striking out without a clear knowledge of the topography. The last six feet were too steep to remain upright on, so she scooted down on her butt.

And found herself at the bottom of a narrow ravine, with two sides too steep to climb out of and a shallow creek running through from left to right.

She stood by the water for a few minutes, trying to decide which way to go. Against the current would take her higher, possibly to the source of the water, but also farther away from civilization. With the current would be the faster way to get out, but it was also the way he’d expect her to go, and there was no doubt he’d be able to track her this far.

It was more a choice of survival strategy than efficiency. She knew what she had to do.
Wincing at the freezing temperature, she stepped into the stream and walked with the current for several feet. Then she turned and went upstream, hoping the water would be shallow enough for her to follow for a good long ways to hide her tracks.

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Serial Story: When She Cries, Part 13

This serial story is posted weekly on Fridays in draft (unedited) format. 


When She Cries
Part 13

A noise pulled Nicole out of sleep, and she jerked upright on the cot, blinking her eyes as she tried to make sense of her surroundings as well as whatever woke her up. Another noise, like the scraping of wood on wood drew her attention towards the door. It opened, and Patrick stepped inside and pulled it closed behind him.

As he came closer, she could see the weariness in his face, and something akin to maternal instinct made her want to get him something to eat. Something to drink. Make sure he got some rest. Do what she could to ease whatever pain he might have.

The image of Patricia falling to the ground, blood pooling beneath her body killed the urge for the moment.

“Amy?” she asked, her throat dry making her voice raspy.

He put his pack down by the table and sat in the lone chair.

“Beyond their reach.”

Nicole frowned, and nearly asked him to clarify, but realized she really didn’t want to know. Now that the others thought she was dead, she needed to focus on how to get away from Patrick, and then back to civilization. Nothing else mattered until she was safe.

“Get me a bottle of water.”

She eased off the cot, surprised at how sore her muscles had gotten during her nap. Retrieving the water from his stash across the room, she took it to the table, setting it on the hard surface rather than risking a touch of his hand.

He grinned, as if he knew what she was doing.

“No need to be skittish. I told you I wouldn’t touch you until you come to me, and that’s one-hundred percent true. I’ve never forced a woman in my life, and I don’t intend to start now.”

She took a few steps back. “What if I don’t?”

He shrugged, taking a long swig off the bottle. “You will.”

Sensing there was no point in arguing, Nicole just stood there, not sure what to do next.

“Can you cook?”

Cooperation was the key for now, she reminded herself silently.

“Yes.”

Patrick pointed to the cooler in the corner. “Make us a meal. After we eat and I get a nap, I’ll take you off the mountain. It should be light by then.”

If only she could actually believe that.

She found flour, sugar, baking powder, butter and a few fresh eggs, so she mixed up a lumpy batter and soon had a very plain batch of pancakes cooking over the fire in a cast iron skillet that she planned to keep track of.

When the pancakes were done, she melted a little more butter and sugar together for a syrup of sorts, and set a plate of pancakes in front of Patrick, keeping one for herself. He picked his up and moved to the cot, so she took the seat he’d vacated.

“They’re good,” he mumbled around a too-big bite. Nicole somehow refrained from cringing at the show. He nodded, finishing the bite before speaking again.

“Maybe I should keep you. It would be nice having someone to cook and clean around here. Waddaya say?” He wiggled his eyebrows in a move she would have found boyishly charming if circumstances were different.

“That wasn’t the deal.” She shook her head, finishing the last of her pancake and pushing the plate aside. “I need to go home.”    


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Serial Story: When She Cries, Part 12

This serial story is posted weekly on Fridays in draft (unedited) format. 


When She Cries
Part 12

Nicole frantically tried to think of a way to avoid going into Patrick’s cabin. There was nothing to stop him from keeping her there indefinitely, and they were far enough away from...anything that no one would hear her scream. But given his grip on her arm and the gash in her leg, even if she could get free she had no chance of outrunning him, so she followed him through the door and down a set of stairs to the dirt floor several feet below ground level.

“It’s easier to moderate the temperature down here,” he commented as he finally released her wrist. “Do you know how to build a fire?”

She nodded as a match flared to life, and a moment later an oil lamp illuminated the surprisingly spacious room. Patrick set the lamp on a wooden table against one wall and pointed to a stone fireplace built into the wall at the far end of the dwelling.

“I need to go tell those guys you’re dead, and do what I can to make sure Amy stays alive. Build us a fire while I’m gone. If you look in that chest over there,” he pointed to an old wooden steamer trunk beside a narrow cot to one side of the fireplace. “You’ll find bandages and first aid supplies for your leg. I won’t be gone long.”

Without another glance, he went up the stairs and out the door. She heard the thick wooden bar she’d seen sitting just inside the wall slide into the metal brackets on the outside of the door shortly after.

What kind of a man makes it so anyone could lock the door from the outside? Wasn’t he afraid someone would lock him in and torch the place?

Shivering, she rubbed her arms and limped to the fireplace, laying in some pine cones and wax bits she found in a box to the side, and then piling on some logs sitting in a metal stand. Finding the matchbook on the table by the oil lamp, she struck one on the stone hearth and tossed it in. Then another, and another until finally one of the wax chunks started to burn and took a few pine cones with it.

Loathe to move from the growing heat, she forced herself to go look in the trunk. She spent more time than she’d have liked cleaning out the gash in her leg as well as possible, sewing it together bandaging it with clean cotton pads and gauze.

It seemed like forever since Patrick had left her, and the warmth from the fire coupled with an overall weariness made her eyelids heavy as she sat on the cot. Falling asleep was a bad idea. There had to be another way out besides the door, and she needed to find a weapon for when he came back. Surely there was something she could use in one of the cupboards - even a cast iron skillet would work.

Her eyes closed as she envisioned herself swinging a skillet at Patrick’s head. Could she hit him hard enough to knock him out? Or would it just make him mad? Would his skull burst open like a melon, splattering his brains all over the wall?

She grimaced at the mental image, and wondered how much force it would take to just knock him out verses splitting his skull open. She needed to get the skillet, feel the weight in her hands. But her arms were so tired. Maybe just a quick rest...


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New Release: Canvas (A Holiday Pact Story)




Some of you may have read along with the holiday serial stories last year - a tale of a woman who uses human skin as her canvas. Preferably after it's been removed and properly tanned...

I'm happy to announce that Canvas is now polished up and ready for sale - you can get it for .99 cents at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords, or for this weekend only, you can download whichever format you'd like for free from the Brazen Snake Books store! It doesn't get much better than free, right? Here's the blurb:

Melanie Donner has certain...urges. Bad urges. Urges she knows she needs to get control of, or she's going to end up either in prison or dead. When her two best friends decide to make a pact to each pick up a guy to spend the night with on every major holiday, she figures it's a good way to set a few boundaries for her little "hobby". 
 
But right from the start, things get weird when a would-be student of her work shows up and won't take no for an answer... 

Pick up your copy today...and let me know what you think!




Brazen Snake Books is also offering my flash collection, No Hazard Pay free today only, for Valentine's Day...so grab that one while you're there!

Wishing you a very freaky Valentine's Day...

Serial Story: When She Cries, Part 11

This serial story is posted weekly on Fridays in draft (unedited) format. 


When She Cries
Part 11

As rough as the trail was on her bare feet, the terrain Patrick pulled her through was nearly impassible in her current state. She tugged on his hand a few times, trying to either slow him down or get free so she could follow at her own pace, but he merely tightened his grip and tugged her with him. The hadn’t gone far when she stubbed her toe on a rock and fell forward, feeling the same rock split her shin even as she landed hard on her side.

The momentum wrenched her hand from his grip, twisting her wrist as she went down. Staying silent wasn’t an option, though she managed to negotiate the cry down to a whimper by the time it left her lips.

“We have to keep moving,” Patrick said, coming back and squatting down by her side. “Can you walk? They’ll know we’re gone any minute now.”

Staring up at him in disbelief, she scooted up to a sitting position, and brought her leg up to show him the gash.

“I need to wrap this up before we go anywhere. I’m bleeding.” She eyed the flannel shirt he had on over a plain white tee. “Give me a strip from your shirt. I’ll tie it up with that.”

He shook his head. “Sorry, no can do. I have to see those guys again tonight, and I don’t have extra clothes handy. Can’t you just tie your pant leg around it somehow?”

She considered it, looking over the torn denim. “Yeah, I can do that. But I need a knife. Or scissors. Something to cut with. I can’t tear the seam out.”

He wasn’t going to give her a knife, of course, but wishful thinking made her ask anyway. For a moment she thought maybe she’d been wrong, when he pulled a good-sized hunting knife out of a leather sheath on his belt.

“Tell me where you want it cut.”

She put her fingers around the piece she needed, and held it out from her leg as he ripped through the fabric, the blade close enough to her skin she could almost feel it. When he finished, she wrapped the thick fabric around her leg, tying it as tight as she could over the cut.

He sheathed the knife and held out a hand to help her up. When she stood, a trickle of blood ran down her leg from underneath the makeshift bandage, but he was already pulling her forward again, every step sending shooting pains up through her leg and down through her toes.
 
But his grasp on her hand and the tugging at her almost certainly sprained wrist created a counterpoint to the sensations in her leg, and soon her body went numb to the pain as she stumbled behind him through the dark forest.

She lost track of time, focusing only on staying upright, and avoiding the worst of the branches that slid past the bare skin on her torso. The material of her sports bra was thick, but below the band and above her jeans the soft skin over her middle was taking a beating from thin branches Patrick slid by and let whip back without thinking.

For a guy who liked her, he sure didn’t seem to care much about her safety. Except he didn’t actually like her, she reminded herself. He just wanted in her pants.

She stumbled a few more times as they went down a short slope and across a narrow creek, then up the other bank. A few more minutes hiking and they finally stopped in front of what looked like half a small cabin sitting on the ground, surrounded by trees.

“Where are we?” she asked, thankful he’d stopped, and on soft grass, too.

He turned and smiled at her. “Home sweet home. Come on in.”


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