Oh, God. Where was she? Desperation clutched at her throat.
She struggled to move, but her arms were numb. Something held her as if she were encased in a straitjacket. Frantic, she lifted her head, and her face bumped up against what felt like cheap shag carpet. She clawed her fingers beneath her and identified the distinctive weave. This couldn't be happening.
Instinctively she gasped for air, the darkness pressing down like a vise clamped on her chest.
Was she buried alive?
Her stomach rolled, and bile rose in her throat. She couldn't get sick. She had to escape.
She twisted and turned, struggling against the suffocating prison, scratching at the rough fabric. It was above her, below her, around her. She fought to free herself, panic mounting from deep within.
She rocked back and forth. Dirt and dust shook free. She sucked in a breath, and her lungs seized on the foul air. She had to get out.
"Help," she tried to scream, then fell to coughing as if she'd used up the meager air supply.
Worse, the rug had muffled the sound of her voice. Wherever she was buried, would anyone hear her cries? "Oh, God. Someone help me. Please," she croaked in a voice she didn't recognize.
Her breathing turned shallow. The air had thinned.
She sucked in one more desperate breath and froze, aware of a new scent, far more subtle than the rest. It penetrated her mind. Sweet, familiar, and so very, very wrong. Baby lotion.
Nausea suddenly churned, and her dread escalated. Strange visions stirred through her. A pink blanket. A tiny crib. But along with the images came stabbing pain in her head that nearly shattered her.
Her thoughts grew fuzzy, and she fought to hold on to reality. Somehow she knew, if she closed her eyes, she would never wake up. She couldn't pass out. She had to find…
A name flitted at the dark edges of her memory, then slipped away, leaving despair and terror. She turned toward the sweet scent again and breathed deeper. More flashes. Pain. Fear.
A stranger's voice screaming, "No!"
Lights exploded behind her eyelids and darkness engulfed her, closing around one wisp of memory.
The last sound she heard was a baby's terrified cry.
The afternoon sun beat down on Daniel Adams from a bright West Texas sky. He adjusted his dusty brown Stetson to block the back of his neck and stood at a fork in the road, not a cloud in sight, not a car to be seen, nothing to tempt him to travel one way more than the other. He could choose a twisting blacktop leading into the Guadalupe Mountains or the county road veering east.
The dirt road headed in the general direction of Carder, Texas. He had friends there who'd made it clear he had a place waiting at Covert Technology Confidential. Staffed with former Special Forces, CIA and FBI operatives, CTC helped people in big trouble with nowhere to turn. The only rule they followed: justice.
Daniel wanted to be there, but he couldn't put himself back into the battle.
He was still too screwed up from his imprisonment and torture in the small European country of Bellevaux. Right now all he wanted was to find his way back to normal from the PTSD and not eat a bullet like his old man had done to deal with the same thing.
Daniel looked around again, frustrated he couldn't even decide which way to go next.
He normally made split-second, lifeor-death decisions, but that was before. Before he'd been thrown in a dungeon, before the bastards had taken a whip to every inch of his body, an iron bar to his legs, and so flayed his mind with lies and threats that he'd almost broken.
For what seemed like an eternity, he'd fought every damn day with every ounce of strength to stay alive, to not give the interrogator the information he'd wanted.
In the end, Daniel had prayed for death.
Like his old man.
But Daniel was still alive. He'd been found, then stuck full of tubes and even now had more metal holding him together than Wolverine. Against the odds the doctors had given him, he'd healed, then stood and, after six months of recovery in the States, had walked again.
Daniel was broken. He knew it; the CTC operatives knew it. Only his family and his therapist held out hope. Talk about delusional. Daniel knew better.
What other reason would a man sleep outside and walk the highways and dirt roads from Langley, Virginia, ending up in Texas months later? A bit Forrest Gump, but Daniel couldn't face his team till he knew his PTSD didn't endanger anyone, until the memories and flashbacks no longer turned him into a terrified beast, striking out at everyone. So here he was, facing miles of desert plateaus, prickly pears and the occasional rattler.
Trouble tilted his head and sat on his haunches, his expression all but saying, Move back, stupid. You know how this works.
Daniel sighed and retreated. "Fine. But one of these days, you're going to have to come closer than ten feet."
As soon as Daniel reached the required distance, the mutt bounded to the water, burying his face in the cool liquid.
Daniel had found the fuzz face lying on the side of the road with his leg and hip scraped up after losing a onesided battle with a car. Since Trouble wouldn't let Daniel touch him, Daniel had been forced to rig a makeshift tra-vois and drag the miserable canine five miles to a vet's office. The doc tranquilized the dog and patched up his injuries, but the moment the vet had given him the opportunity, Trouble had hightailed it out the front door and down a back alley.
A couple miles later, the animal had taken up residence parallel to Daniel, walking along the highway, never again getting close enough for even a scratch behind the ears. They'd passed a road sign, listing Trouble, Texas, three hundred miles away, and the dog instantly had a name.
That was a couple of weeks ago. The dog limped less now, Daniel a bit more.
Yesterday they'd made it to the small Texas town bearing the dog's name. Daniel had stood in the cramped, dark foyer of a B and B, testing his body's reaction to it, but knew he still couldn't sleep inside. Nothing to do but move on.
The waitress at the diner had told him there was nothing but lost dreams for miles around. She hadn't been lying. The beat-up sign he now leaned against—Cottonwood Creek Copper Mine—could've come from the 1950s.
He really had traveled west of hell to end up a few miles east of nowhere.
Trouble finished his water, nosed the empty bowl toward Daniel, then moved away.
"We're a pair, aren't we, boy?" Daniel said softly. "Too damaged to do anyone any good."
As Daniel repacked the dish, the dog's ears perked up, and he growled low in his throat.
"What's the matter with you?" Daniel turned to see what had upset Trouble and noticed a black vulture circling nearby. "Relax. It's probably eyeing the carcass of a cow that wandered away from the herd."
The dog's hackles rose as he focused his attention on a hill jutting up from the desert. Without a backward glance, Trouble bolted toward the mound. And that vulture.
What the hell? The dog hadn't left Daniel's sight since they'd become traveling companions. "Trouble!" The hairs on the back of Daniel's neck rose, and a warning chill ran through him. He started after the dog that had disappeared from view.
Within a minute the mutt bounded toward Daniel, skidding to a halt a few feet away. Trouble barked urgently several times, ran back a short distance, then turned and barked again.
"What's going on, boy? Show me."
Trouble whined and yipped, then ran. Daniel, his gait uneven, took off after the dog.
The vulture still circled but lower now.
He followed Trouble over the small rise, past a dead rabbit, then came to an abrupt halt.
Trouble circled in front of the dilapidated opening to an old mine, the mouth leading into the dark interior of the mountain. When he saw Daniel, the dog barked again and raced into the tunnel.
A mine shaft. Complete with a condemned sign and evidence of a partial cave-in. Rock walls, claustrophobic darkness. He couldn't go in there. Daniel sucked in a panicked breath, trying to quell his racing heart and the terror that bubbled up from his gut.
The dog didn't come out of the mine.
While Daniel watched, more loose stones fell from the mine's ceiling. "Trouble!"
The dog appeared several feet inside the opening and barked furiously.
Perspiration slid down Daniel's temple. He couldn't do it. Not now. Not ever. The dog growled, racing back and forth, entreating Daniel to follow.
Bracing himself, Daniel stepped barely into the opening, kicking something metal that clanged off the rocks, like the slamming of iron prison bars. A medieval dungeon. Memories assaulted him. The darkness echoing with screams. No, he was in a mine shaft. Still, he heard the footsteps of his captor. The crack of the bastard's whip.
Daniel fell to his knees, fighting to stay present, to escape the horrific memories, until Trouble dropped something in front of Daniel and bit his sleeve. Daniel broke free, panting, and his hand landed on a woman's shoe. Daniel's gut clenched. High heels weren't exactly appropriate for trudging around the Texas desert.
Hell. Was there a woman in here?
Trouble grabbed his shirt again and tugged hard. Daniel snagged a small but powerful flashlight clipped to his belt and shone the beam into the tunnel. The crumbling shaft veered left, debris and broken supports everywhere. Trouble bolted ahead and waited at the bend.
Grasping at his primary PTSD tool, Daniel focused on the grounding techniques he'd learned in therapy and forced himself forward into the shadows. An all-too-familiar panic squeezed his lungs. The walls pressed in until the cave morphed into a stone cell.
Pain level, eight.
Fighting to stay in the present, Daniel clutched the flashlight in a white-knuckled grip. He stared at the illuminated circle, narrowing his gaze. Sounds still reverberated. Trouble's barks morphed into sadistic laughter. The dirt seemed to hold the scent of torture and blood.
He fought against every survival instinct that raged within, that urged him to run. Struggling for control, Daniel moved forward. He wasn't in Bellevaux, he was in Texas. Broken, but free.
"Anyone here?" he shouted.
His words echoed in the darkness, but only silence answered him.
A sprinkling of dirt fell on his head, and the timbers creaked. He froze. The flashlight's beam hit a large heap of rocks, filling half the tunnel.
"Trouble?" Where the hell had the dog gone?
Suddenly he heard an odd moan coming from around the tunnel bend. Was that Trouble…or a human?
"Hello? Is someone there?"
Trouble barked, then reappeared to tug on Daniel's pant leg, frantic now.
Daniel followed the dog into the blackness, concentrating on the small beam of light that helped him keep the nightmares at bay.
The dog rounded the debris and led Daniel to a six-foot-long pile of rocks and dirt, hidden behind the mound from a cave-in. The dog scrabbled among the rocks, desperately trying to dig through them.
Daniel knelt down just as several stones fell away, revealing a bloodstained patch of multicolored carpet and silvery-gray tape.
Another high-heeled shoe lay a few feet from the mound, and a quiet wail sounded again from beneath the rocks.
Trouble whined and pawed at the carpet.
A steely calm came over Daniel, not complete, but closer than he'd felt in almost a year. Someone was alive and needed him.
His damn freak-out would have to wait until later. He needed to keep it together now.
After propping the flashlight so he could see, he shoved several rocks to the side. The smell of blood hit him, nearly slamming him into a flashback, but he fought for control.
Daniel swept aside the small rocks that covered the carpet, then threw the larger ones to the side.
"Help me…" The voice faded to silence.
He grabbed the Bowie from his leg sheath and slashed through the two taped areas with the knife, then rolled the carpet open. A woman, beaten and bloody, lay half-comatose on the filthy carpet.
Daniel pressed his fingers against her throat and felt the thread of a pulse.
She was chilled and in rough shape, but alive.
Relief loosened some of Daniel's tenuous hold on his emotions, so he quickly ran his hands over her arms and legs, knowing he needed to get them both out of this death trap fast. His examination didn't reveal any broken bones or severe lacerations on her body, but blood caked one side of her face and hair. The rest of her long hair spread across the carpet like a raven's wings.
He'd seen enough of the birds growing up in Texas, and he'd befriended one in Bellevaux while on surveillance. Sitting in the tree above his hideout, for the price of a few breadcrumbs the damn bird had kept Daniel from going insane while he'd been stuck in one location for weeks. After being forced into that godforsaken dungeon, Daniel had imagined the raven's life. Outside his cell. Outside the prison. Free. Daniel would imagine being free someday like the raven, and used the memory as a lifeline when the world had seemed hopeless.
Maybe this was a sign?
Or maybe he had totally lost his mind, and it was just dawning on him now.
The ground trembled slightly.
Daniel cursed, then scooped her into his arms and stood. "Let's go, Trouble."
The woman's eyes opened, gorgeous, fear-filled eyes, the color of cinnamon. "Who are you? Did I come here with you?"
"I'm not the one who put you here," he said. A rumble sounded from somewhere overhead. He let out a curse. "We're in an unstable mine, and we have to get out. Now."
Her eyes widened. He clutched her close against his chest and took off toward the bend.
The mountain shook again, then a spray of dirt and debris showered over both of them before one of the ceiling supports gave way with a loud crack.
"Cave-in!" Daniel curled her beneath him and covered her with his body, hoping she wasn't bleeding internally. And hoping to hell the roaring panic slamming through his mind didn't make him explode. They were being buried alive, and he was losing it fast.
HAVE YOU EVER HAD TO FORCE YOURSELF TO DO SOMETHING?