Her muscles trembled with the effort of lying still against the hard cot. She curled into a ball, hugging her knees to her chest, hoping it would sooth her. A loud whack against the wall made her jump. Savannah sat up in bed as the pain in her chest built. She drew a slow shaky breath and said a silent prayer. She tried not to break down again, but before she knew it, hot tears were freely streaming down her cheeks and she was wishing that Cole hadn’t left. The only times she’d felt safe during the past week of this ordeal was when he was near.
She grabbed his card from the window sill and clutched it, crushing it to her heart. She wished she was stronger, that she didn’t break down so easily. But after another loud thump against the wall, she let out a whimper and clamored under the blankets. She glanced at the door knob, the deadbolt still vertical, needing reassurance that the door was still locked.
She didn’t want to leave the safety of her bedroom—and wouldn’t have—had it not been for her insistent bladder urging her on. There were two bathrooms on the second floor, one was for women, the other for men. She’d come to learn over the past few days, tenants used whichever was closest, and since she had the bad fortune of being surrounded on both sides by male tenants, she knew the so-called ladies room was filthy and reeked of urine. The other bathroom was probably no better.
Still clutching Cole’s card, Savannah cracked open the door and peeked both ways before tiptoeing towards the bathroom.
She made sure the toilet seat was clean before she relieved herself. As she stood washing her hands in the sink, she startled at the pale haunted-looking girl watching her from the mirror before realizing it was her own reflection.
The bulb above her flickered then died. Darkness made her head swim. She sucked in a deep breath and held it as her hands fumbled blindly in front of her, searching out the door. She’d hated the dark. Always had. Her hands still flailing in front of her, she begged herself not to panic.
Savannah swayed on her feet, blinking wildly against the darkness. Before she knew what was happening, she crashed against the wall, and felt a sharp blow ache through the back of her skull as she collapsed to the ground.
Cole pulled into his underground parking garage just as the storm lit up the sky. An angry crack of lightning pierced the night, followed by a low rumble of thunder. It had been steadily raining his entire drive home, but the storm seemed to double its force within a matter of seconds, sheets of water pouring from the sky.
He was maneuvering into his assigned parking space when the call came in. His phone had been eerily silent all weekend, not even Marissa had been in touch. And at this late hour on Sunday, he didn’t know who it could be. Fishing the phone from his center console, he noted the Dallas area code, but didn’t recognize the number.
He couldn’t understand her at first, her voice was high with tension, and barely above a whisper, but he soon realized it was Savannah. And she was asking him to come back. He pulled a u-turn and gunned the engine before her words even registered.
Keeping her on the line as he drove, he wanted to bombard her with questions, to find out if something had happened, but he resisted. Even as all that flashed through his mind, he’d found himself calming her, saying he would be right there, and flooring the gas pedal to get back to her. After ending the call, he slammed a fist against the dash. Damn, he shouldn’t have left her at that place. But what choice did he have?
He thumbed the steering wheel, waiting for the light to change. He had to get her out of that house; probably check her into a hotel for the night. That would be the right thing to do, yet he knew with absolute certainty what he really wanted to do. He wanted to bring her home with him, where he could have her under the same roof and ensure she was safe.
When Cole arrived, he pressed the buzzer at the front door for the after-hours entrance. He was greeted by an older man, the night guard, he presumed.
“Where’s Savannah?” He stormed past the man, following the sounds of soft sobs toward the back of the house. Entering an office, he found an older woman seated behind a desk, and Savannah crumpled in a ball on the chair across from her. “Savannah,” his voice rasped.
She looked up and Cole nearly staggered a step back. Christ. It looked like someone had used her face as a punching bag. Her swollen and busted lip was encrusted with blood and her left eye was already darkening with a bruise. When she met his eyes she let out a soft sigh, seemingly comforted by his presence.
“Shh. I’m here.” He weaved his fingers under her hair to cradle the back of her neck. Then he turned his attention to the woman behind the desk. “What the hell happened here?”
“Have a seat, Mr.….?”
“Cole Fletcher.” He took the chair next to Savannah.
She crawled into his lap, burying her face in his neck as little sobs racked her chest. His arms, working of their own accord, wound themselves around Savannah and shifted her to a more comfortable position on his lap.
Once Savannah was settled, his training kicked in and he began firing questions at the facility coordinator. She explained they’d briefly lost power in the storm, and when they went upstairs to check and make sure everyone was secure, they found Savannah unconscious on the bathroom floor, where she’d apparently fainted and smacked her head on the porcelain sink on her way down. His fingers automatically threaded into her hair, smoothing the bump he found on the back of her head.
The coordinator seemed unconcerned, like she’d dealt with these situations too many times. But he hadn’t, and neither had Savannah. Vacant eyes stared at the wall across from him. He was worried that shock was beginning to set in. He soothed a hand up and down her back, not quite sure what to do to comfort her.
The woman behind the desk looked over the top of her glasses, mouth twisted into a disapproving frown. Cole could tell the woman was wondering exactly what kind of relationship he shared with Savannah.
His tone and questions were professional, yet Savannah’s body currently wrapped around his said it was something else entirely. He chose not to identify himself as an agent, and let the woman think what she wanted.
Once in situated in his lap, Savannah’s breathing returned to normal, and the steady thump of her heartbeat against his chest told him she was recovering. She was alright. Thank f**king God. He didn’t understand why his presence calmed her – not like he had a lot to offer – but he wasn’t about to question it. Not when she was so fragile.
The woman held up a hand. “Listen, I know this isn’t the Ritz, but if she wants to stay here, she can. If she wants to leave, fine. It’s up to her.”
Savannah lifted her head from his chest and met Cole’s eyes. “Can you take me away from here?”
She couldn’t understand what she was asking for. Of course Cole wanted to take her far away from this place, from the first time he’d laid eyes on the rundown house. But protocol and not crossing professional boundaries stirred in the back of his head. He resisted the urge to smooth the tangled strands of hair from her face, but kept his arms locked around her middle. Savannah’s bloodied lip, swollen face, and the exhaustion he could read on her features told him now might not be the time to argue. “Okay. We can go.”
Tomorrow they’d figure everything out.
He lifted Savannah from the chair and held her like he had at the compound. And just as strong as before, the need to protect her flared up inside of him.
Carrying her out into the night, Cole opened the passenger door and helped her inside. He reached across her to buckle her seat belt. When his hands brushed her ribs, she startled, sucking in a shaky breath. He should probably check her over for injuries, assuming that she’d likely sustained some bumps and bruises, but his first priority was getting her out of here.
She was silent on the drive to his condo, not even asking where they were going. She implicitly trusted him. The feeling was heady.
He kept the radio low, he left Savannah to her thoughts, looking out the window as he drove. He snuck glances her way, wondering what she could possibly be thinking about. The awkward silence dug into his brain like a dripping faucet.
“This your first time in the city?” he asked.
Savannah kept her eyes on the passing buildings. “We didn’t leave the compound much.”
Of course. Stupid question. He tried again. “Does your head hurt? How about your ribs?”
She ran her fingers through her matted hair, checking the bump. “I think it’s okay now.”
At least she’d stopped crying. Nothing made him panic more than a woman crying.
When he parked in his assigned parking space and turned off the engine, a hushed silence fell over them in the confined space. His heart rate ramped up in sudden awareness of her. The light, feminine scent that clung to her skin, her petite frame, and the overwhelming desire to protect her— he couldn’t deny the possessive ache that raced through his system.
“Why did you pass out, Savannah?”
She swallowed heavily. “That place scared me. There were too many people…too many strange men…”
He nodded. It wasn’t lost on him that he was a strange man to her, yet here she was alone with him too. “This is where I live,” he said finally.
Her eyes widened. “You brought me home with you?”
“Is that okay?”
She studied him, her expression weary and unsure and squirmed in her seat.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t know where else to take you. Come inside, and if you decide not to stay, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.”
Seemingly satisfied, she climbed from the car.
Savannah insisted she could walk, but Cole secured an arm around her waist and helped her inside. He tossed his keys onto the breakfast bar, retaining his hold on her.
He knew he shouldn’t keep her here. God, Norm and the guys would have a f**king field day with this one. Sure, he brought his work home most nights, but this was a hell of a lot different. She could sleep in his guest room tonight, and then he’d have to take her to another safe house in the morning. For now, he just wanted her to feel safe. If he needed to install a bigger lock on her bedroom door to help her feel safe, so be it. They could pick up some pepper spray too.
Cole took a deep breath, trying to calm his nerves. The panic in her voice when she called had him wondering what exactly had happened once he left, but he didn’t want to push her. He had a good enough idea from the facility coordinator. She’d likely panicked at the thought of being alone. If the living conditions of the compound were any indication, she’d grown up surrounded by people at all times. He had half a mind to tuck Savannah safely into his bed and forget protocol.
Her eyes darted around his condo, seeming to take in her surroundings. “Come on.” He guided her down the hall. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
He passed by the guest bath, knowing it wasn’t stocked with what he needed. At his bedroom door, she paused briefly, her feet stopping at the threshold, her eyes trained on the massive bed. “It’s okay,” he urged. “We’re just going into the master bath.”
Her eyes drifted to the open door across the room, and she gave a nod, allowing him to urge her forward. The muscles in her face tensed, but her feet started moving again.
He flipped on the light, and cursed his lack of cleanliness. Various bottles and jars littered the counter — shaving cream, aftershave, deodorant, toothpaste — everything within his grasp since he got ready for work on autopilot. He cleared a spot on the counter by sweeping everything into a drawer and then lifted Savannah onto the counter in front of him.
He wet a washcloth and carefully washed her face, wiping away the traces of dried blood. Her br**sts rose and fell with each shallow breath, and her wide green eyes watched his every move. They were inquisitive and bright with determination. He found himself drawn to her, wanting to discover all he could about the mysterious, beautiful girl who had grown up in a cult. She rubbed her hands up and down her arms in an effort to calm herself and regain some control over the situation. He could sense the desperation she felt, her outlook suddenly seeming quite bleak. He struggled to find words to soothe her, to reassure her, but came up short and instead just silently treated her injuries as best he could.
Once she was clean, he dabbed the cut above her eye with a cotton swab covered in ointment.
“How do you know how to do this?” she asked.
His eyes flicked to hers. They were so close that he could lean in and kiss her. “Hmm? Oh, I’ve certainly been knocked around before. It’s no big deal. You’ll be good as new in a few days.”
She frowned. “Knocked around? Because your job is dangerous?”
He recapped the ointment and considered her question. “Yes, sometimes. Other times not. But actually I was thinking about my teen years. I was a bit of a trouble maker. My parents sent me to military school my last two years of high school.”
“Oh.” Her eyes were big and inquisitive, as if she wanted to ask more, but instead she looked down at her hands. “How old are you now?”
“Twenty-seven,” he answered. Too old for you.
His eyes caught their reflection in the mirror and the serious expression in his features distracted him. His brow was knotted in concentration, and his mouth a tight line. He did his best to relax the tense set of his shoulders, knowing he needed to be calm if he wanted Savannah to relax too.
A few heartbeats later she visibly relaxed, her breathing smoothing out, and her hands uncurling in her lap. Her features were entirely feminine, from her long dark hair that curled at the ends, to her almond-shaped eyes fringed in dark lashes, to her smooth, soft skin. Savannah was a natural beauty.
Catching his own reflection in the mirror, Cole, in contrast, was all male. His jaw was shadowed in dark stubble and his body lean and sculpted with muscle, which he worked hard to maintain. Compared to Savannah, he was hard plains and jagged edges, all except for his full sensuous mouth. More than one ex-girlfriend had complimented his lips, and what he could do with his mouth. When he was with a woman, he used every weapon in his seduction arsenal — his mouth, tongue, hands, even his strength—often liking the feel of power, the crude masculinity of picking up a woman and holding her weight as he f**ked her. It had been several months though since he’d taken a lover, and his body was growing restless with pent-up desire.