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The darkness was all she knew. It surrounded her, seemed to suffocate her. It bound her as deeply, as securely as the ropes around her wrists.
Fear coiled around Noelle Evers as she waited in the dark. She was waiting for her own death, and she knew it. That certainty was there, filling her mind—that and nothing else. So when the door opened and she heard the squeak of wood, Noelle tensed.
The light spilled forward. The wood squeaked again.
Someone was coming toward her....
The beam of a flashlight slit through her eyes, blinding her because it was such a sharp contrast to the darkness.
“Found her!” A man’s voice called. It was deep and rough, heavy with relief. “She’s alive!”
Noelle squinted as she tried to see past that bright light.
More footsteps thudded toward her. Then hands were on her. Rough, strong hands. They pulled at her ropes then yanked her out of the chair and to her feet.
“It’s all right,” that deep, rumbling voice told her. “You’re safe now.”
She didn’t believe him.
There were more lights then, sweeping into the room. It looked like...a cabin? She was in a cabin? In the darkness, she hadn’t been able to tell anything about her surroundings, but she could now see glimpses of an old, log-lined cabin.
She licked her lips. Her mouth felt so dry. She had to swallow three times before she managed, “H-how did...I g-get here?”
His face was in shadows, but he was tall, with broad shoulders and a gun strapped to his hip.
Noelle backed up when she saw the weapon. Her feet slipped on something. She glanced down and saw a twisting mass of rope near her feet.
“Easy,” he told her, and his grip tightened around her arms. “I’m a deputy. We’re all with the Coleman County Sheriff’s Department, and we’re here to take you home.”
She’d...she’d been at home...sleeping in her bed... Noelle remembered that. She’d gone to sleep—and awoken to darkness.
“Sheriff!” Another voice cried out then, breaking with what sounded like fear.
The deputy pulled Noelle close as he hurried toward that cry.
The flashlights all hit the far left corner of the room. They fell on the man sprawled there. A man who was dead—his throat had been cut. The man stared sightlessly back at them while his blood formed a dark pool beneath him.
The deputy’s hold on Noelle tightened. “Who is that?” he demanded.
Noelle started to shake.
“Ms. Evers...” His voice gentled a bit. “Is he one of the men who took you?”
Tears leaked down her cheeks. “I don’t know!”
Voices rose. Shouted. More men and women came inside the cabin. More lights.
Noelle’s shoulders hunched. She looked down at her wrists. They were bloody and raw. And her hands—her hands were stained with blood. So was her gown. The gown she’d worn to sleep when she climbed into her own bed.
This isn’t my home. But she couldn’t remember how she’d gotten there. Noelle only knew darkness.
The deputy pulled off his coat. Carefully, he put it around her shoulders. “Tell me what happened.” He was leading her from the cabin keeping his fingers around her arm. “Get me a medic!” He called out to another one of the men swarming the area.
Then she was outside. The night air was crisp, but she could still smell blood.
Because it’s on me.
“I want to go home,” Noelle whispered. “I want to see my parents.” Noelle was seventeen. She was a sophomore at Coleman High School. She was cheering at the football game on Friday. She was—
Noelle’s knees gave way and she would’ve hit the ground if the deputy hadn’t grabbed her. He lifted her up against his chest, holding her tightly. “Medic!” the deputy yelled.
She wasn’t just shaking any longer. Noelle’s eyes rolled back in her head as giant shudders jolted through her.
The deputy carried her to a gurney. He and the medic strapped her down. “What the hell is happening?”
“Noelle!” She heard the scream distantly, but she knew that voice. It was her mother’s voice. Noelle tried to respond, but she couldn’t speak.
“She’s seizing,” the medic snapped. “We need to get her stable!”
The darkness seemed to close in again. She didn’t want to go back into the dark.
Something bad waited in the dark.
But Noelle couldn’t fight, and the darkness took her once more.
* * *
THE NEXT TIME Noelle’s eyes opened, she was surrounded by a sea of white. The scent of antiseptic told her she was in the hospital even before the room came into focus.
She blinked a few times then saw her mother’s tear-filled gaze. “You’re okay, baby,” her mom whispered.
Noelle didn’t feel okay.
“We need to ask her some questions.”
Noelle’s gaze darted to the left at those words. Her father stood close by. He looked pale, and...older than she’d ever seen him.
Right next to her father, Sheriff Morris Bartley stood, his stare on her. He leaned toward Noelle.
“She just woke up,” her father gritted out.
“I know.” The sheriff sighed. “But she’s the only one who can tell us what happened. I got a dead body, and I got her and I need to know—”
The darkness waited.
Noelle gave a hard, negative shake of her head.
“Noelle, how did you wind up in that cabin?” the sheriff asked her.
“This needs to wait,” her father barked.
The machines around Noelle began to beep, faster, louder.
“Who was the dead man? Is he the one who took you? Is he—”
“I don’t remember,” Noelle whispered. Her throat hurt. She hurt.
The sheriff exhaled on a rough sigh. His hands gripped his hat. “Start with what you know. Tell me who took you from your house. Tell me how you got to that cabin and how—”
“I don’t remember.” Her voice was even softer now.
The sheriff’s brows shot up. “Did you leave your house willingly? Is that what happened? Did you—?”
He didn’t understand. “I don’t...remember anything.”
Her mother gave a little gasp.
“I was in my room, in my bed.” Noelle’s heart galloped in her chest. The machines raced. “Then I was in the dark.” She blinked away the tears that filled her eyes.
Something happened in the dark. Something bad.
“I don’t remember,” she said again, and it was almost as if...as if the words were a vow.
The machines beeped louder around her. Noelle’s mother pulled Noelle into a tight hug.
And, over her mother’s shoulder, Noelle glanced up and met the eyes of the sheriff. There was concern in his gaze and suspicion.
I don’t remember.
There was only darkness in her mind, and Noelle didn’t know if that was good...or bad.
Fifteen years later...
The plane dipped, hitting another hard patch of turbulence, and Noelle Evers locked her fingers around the armrest on either side of her body. The private plane was currently flying over an area of pure-white land in Alaska, and Noelle was afraid they might be diving right into that snowy landscape at any moment.
“Relax,” a low, gravel-rough voice told her. “We’ll be landing in just a few more minutes.”
The voice—and the guy who went with that voice—pulled Noelle’s attention from the narrow window. She looked at the man seated directly across from her.
Tall, dark, deadly...and, currently, her partner on this assignment. Thomas “Dragon” Anthony was a man who seemed to always put her on edge.
“If you’re going to be working with the EOD,” Thomas murmured as he lifted one dark eyebrow, “rough flights will be the least of your worries.”
Noelle forced herself to take a long, deep breath. She didn’t want to show any weakness in front of Thomas. The man made her far too...nervous. Too aware.
Noelle was new to the EOD—the Elite Operations Division. She’d been recruited by EOD Director Bruce Mercer a few months back. Normally, the agents in that secretive group were all ex-military. They belonged to some of the most elite military units operating in the world. The agents were recruited to join the EOD because of their skills and because they were deadly when it came to their missions.
Noelle wasn’t ex-military. She didn’t specialize in killing or hunting prey. Instead, her specialty was getting inside a killer’s mind. Before Bruce Mercer had used his pull to get Noelle into the EOD, she’d been working as a profiler at the FBI.
But then one of the EOD agents had gone rogue...and Mercer had brought her in to profile the agents there.
To hunt a killer within the division.
“You don’t fit, you know,” Thomas added in that deep, dark voice of his. A voice that made her tense and think of things she really shouldn’t.
The plane bounced again. Noelle swallowed. “You mean because I lack the military training?”
“I mean because when we get into a life-or-death situation—and we will—you won’t be prepared to take the necessary action.”
Her eyes narrowed at those words. Way to insult your partner on the first case. “Look, I might not be an ex–Army Ranger—” as he was “—but I worked at the FBI for five years. I’ve been in plenty of dangerous situations, and I’ve handled myself just fine.”
Thomas’s lips quirked a bit. They were sensual lips, with a faintly cruel edge. Thomas was a handsome man, if you went for the deadly, dangerous type. As a general rule, Noelle definitely did not go for that type. She preferred safe guys, with a capital S.
And everything about Thomas spelled DANGER. From the top of his midnight-black hair down to his well-worn hiking boots, the guy just oozed a threat. Maybe it was because she’d read his file. She knew just what he was capable of doing—what he had done. Thomas didn’t need any weapon when he went after his targets. He could kill—and had—quite easily, with his hands. He’d earned the nickname of Dragon while at the EOD because he was a martial-arts expert—he attacked with brutal control, and his opponents never had a chance against him.
Cold. Hard. Dangerous.
Thomas had a firm, square jaw, a blade-sharp nose and sculpted cheekbones that gave him a strong, fierce appearance. His deep, golden eyes reminded her of a lion’s gaze. Maybe because every time she looked into those eyes, Noelle felt as if he were a predator and she was his prey.
We’re partners. Partners. Mercer had sent them on this trip to Alaska because they were supposed to be hunting a killer. Together.
“You’ve never killed anyone,” Thomas said as he tilted his head to study her. “Death is a way of life for EOD agents.”
“Yes, well, I’m sure this will shock you, but FBI agents see plenty of death, too.” Death was rather her specialty. “I know killers, and you can trust me to do my job.”
Her job... Her job was to question the suspect they were pursuing. To break through the very public façade the man presented and to determine if Alaskan Senator Lawrence Duncan was the man who’d recently plotted the destruction of the EOD.
Thomas’s eyes narrowed just a bit as he gazed at her.
And there it is again. He was looking at her with a touch of familiarity. As if he knew her.
But Noelle hadn’t met Thomas Anthony until she started work at the EOD just a few months before. They were most certainly not intimately acquainted.
No matter how Thomas might glance at her.
“You’re doing it again,” Noelle blurted. Then she could have bitten her tongue when his face tensed. She was normally so much better at controlling her emotions and her responses to people, but Thomas just put her on edge.
“Doing what?” Thomas asked voice totally emotionless.
“Staring at me...as if—as if we’re—” She floundered because what Noelle really wanted to say was...As if we’re lovers. But they weren’t. No way would she have forgotten him.
It was just...the intensity in his eyes...the heat...
“I make you nervous,” he said.
Why lie? “Yes.”
“Because you know what I’ve done.” His gaze slid to the files on the seat beside her. “You read all of our files, right? When you were trying to decide which EOD agent was actually a psychotic killer in disguise.”
That had been her first assignment at the EOD. This outing to Alaska was her second.
“So, what’s the verdict, doc?” The doc was mocking, but Noelle was a doctor, a psychiatrist. She’d been trying for years to understand the demons that chased people.
Ever since she’d woken up in a small, southern hospital with her life shattered around her.
“Tell me...” Thomas continued with his gaze assessing. “Am I dangerous? Am I psychotic? Is that why you tense up every time I get near you?” He leaned forward. “Are you afraid I’ll hurt you?” Then, before she could respond, his jaw hardened even more. “Because that’s not the way things work at the EOD. You trust your partner, or you don’t trust anyone.”
She couldn’t seem to take a deep enough breath. Thomas filled the space around her so completely.
The pilot’s voice floated over the intercom then, announcing their impending landing.
Thomas leaned back.
But Noelle’s hand flew out. She touched his wrist.
“I know you’re not psychotic. You’re a soldier. A damn fine one, at that,” she added because it was true. “And if I seem nervous...” Tell him. “It’s not you, really. I have a...very hard time getting close to people.” Mostly because Noelle had made a habit of putting a wall between herself and others.