Pure adrenaline spurred me to jump into the foliage. I sprinted over roots, swerved around boulders, and stumbled to the ground, still damp from the torrent of rain last week. I didn’t remember getting up, though mud caked my bare knees. The ground became especially treacherous. I lost my balance and hurtled down an embankment, a victim of gravity, rolling over rocks, gouged by sticks, and grunting with each strike. I smashed into the trunk of a tree, finally coming to a stop. Stars burst in my vision, and the night narrowed until blinding light battled the dizziness.
His voice seared the air, my name a furious epithet bleeding from his lips. He sounded too close, but in the darkness, disoriented as my head throbbed from striking the tree, I couldn’t tell if he was three inches or three yards away.
Clenching my teeth against the pain, I pushed to my hands and knees, key still tightly wedged between my knuckles, and peeked around the massive tree trunk. Without the luminescence of moonlight, visibility was a bitch out here, which turned out to be a blessing and a curse. If I couldn’t see him, then he couldn’t see me. That also meant I couldn’t see my way out of there.
Who was I kidding? I wasn’t getting out of this. Even if he wasn’t waiting, hunting me like prey, I didn’t have the skills to make it out. Not on foot. Not without proper clothing, food and water, a compass at the least. I closed my eyes and brought a fist to my mouth to keep from totally losing it.
Don’t you dare give up. If you don’t get out of here, then Rafe’s dea— A sob ached in my throat, but I forced myself to finish the thought. Then Rafe’s death was for nothing.
He died protecting me. Oh God. I was going to get sick. My pulse quickened, and my chest squeezed as every last memory of him edged into my soul. Not just the way he’d made me feel, but the gentleness that lingered inside him. The spark of compassion I’d seen in his eyes years ago, before I’d ruined his life. What I’d felt for him back then was real, was still as real as the scent of pine teasing my nostrils.
I wanted to lay down and give up, let the wilderness claim me. How could I fight knowing he was gone?
“Game’s over!” Zach shouted. “Your ass is going to pay for this stunt.”
I sucked in a breath, counted to five, then jumped to my feet. I’d find a way to survive. I’d do it for Rafe. I took off running again, and the forest whirled around me in a kaleidoscope of doom—every way I looked seemed the same. A huge boulder blocked my path straight ahead, and I was pretty certain going right would take me too close to the road. The easier way, for sure, but also the one that would expose me the most. I made a sharp left and bumped into another tree.
A warm tree. An angry tree with arms that reached out and folded me in a crushing and possessive embrace. “Stupid, stupid girl.”
His hand gripped the back of my neck. I lashed out with the keys, screaming, and did little more than swipe the air until his fingers banded around my wrist painfully. My grip loosened, allowing him to apprehend my makeshift weapon. He turned me around and propelled me forward, back in the direction I’d come.
“Let me go!”
“Sure thing, love.” He forced me to my knees and backed away. “I find it interesting you’re trying to run. Didn’t you tell me we’d get far away from the island, just the two of us?” Breathing hard, I angled my head and watched as he tested the branches. He paused long enough to glower at me. “Or were you lying?”
“Shut your deceitful mouth, or I’ll shut it for you.”
I pressed my lips closed, and dread coiled in my belly, intensifying after he broke off a switch. With a cruel growl, he hefted me up by the back of my shirt. “Zach—”
“I said shut up! Not another fucking word.”
I was familiar enough with that tone to know when to give in. A deep ache tore through my chest. I held my fists to my breasts, as if I could keep my heart from beating through my ribcage. We cleared the last of the trees, and I realized I hadn’t run as far as I thought. I stumbled toward the cabin on trembling legs. Adrenaline seeped from my bones, leaving behind a coward who nearly sank to the ground with each step. Once we reached the porch, I fell to my filthy knees. Zach pulled me to my feet, dragged me up the stairs, and kicked the door open. He shoved me toward the bedroom and left me in the middle of the floor where I turned to a puddle of skin, bones, and a heart that beat too rapidly.
“Don’t you fucking move. If I have to chase you through those woods again, I’ll beat you unconscious.” He dropped the stick, as if to taunt me with its promise and the reminder of how little of a threat I posed to him.
After he left the room, another surge of adrenaline fueled my veins, and I crawled to the stick. But it was flimsy, barely thick enough to pass as a branch. What was I going to do? Whip him to death with it?
“Playing with your implement of punishment?”
I pushed to my feet and wielded the switch as if I could cause real damage. “Stay away from me.”
In one hand, he fisted a coil of rope. In the other, he gripped a bottle of what looked like cheap whiskey. He brought it to his lips, took a long swig as if his life depended on it, and placed the bottle precariously on the edge of the dresser. Reaching out a hand, he appeared unworried as he gestured toward me. “Hand it over and I’ll go easy on you.”
“You call whipping me going easy?”
He launched himself across the room, grabbed my arms, and the stick fell to the floor as he slammed me against the bedpost, facing outward.
“Zach!” I pleaded as he wrapped the rope around my wrists, tightening the knots with quick and jerky movements. He secured my hands to the post above my head, and the smile that graced his face was so cruel, I flinched from its impact alone. He withdrew a knife from his pocket and snapped open the blade.
“Zach, no!” I recoiled, but the sharp edge didn’t sear my flesh. Instead, the rip of fabric slashed through my ears. He slit my tee down to the navel, parted the material, and slapped my breasts once they swung free.
“God, I love your tits.” With a moan, he rubbed his rough cheek against them. Retrieving the switch from the floor, he took a step back, and we exchanged a moment of understanding, of silent communication between punisher and punished. Still, I wasn’t ready.
He’d hurt me before, with his hands, his teeth, but when he swung that stick down on my breasts, the point of contact served as an epicenter, and every muscle in my body spasmed from the deep ache. I clenched my teeth to keep silent.