Excerpt from Deadly Hunt (part of the series Strong Women, Extraordinary Situations):
Tess Miller pivoted as something thumped against the door. An animal? With the cabin’s isolation in the Arizona mountains, she couldn’t take any chances. She crossed the distance to a combination-locked cabinet and quickly entered the numbers. After withdrawing the shotgun, she checked to make sure it was loaded then started toward the door to bolt it, adrenaline pumping through her veins.
Silence. Had she imagined the noise? Maybe her work was getting to her, making her paranoid. But as she crept toward the entrance, a faint scratching against the wood told her otherwise. Her senses sharpened like they would at work. Only this time, there was no client to protect. Just her own skin. Her heartbeat accelerated as she planted herself firmly. She reached toward the handle to throw the bolt.
The door crashed open before she touched the knob. She scrambled backwards and to the side at the same time steadying the weapon in her grasp. A large man tumbled into the cabin, collapsing face down at her feet. His head rolled to the side. His eyelids fluttered, then closed.
Stunned, Tess froze. She stared at the man’s profile.
Who is he?
The stranger moaned. She knelt next to him to assess what was wrong. Her gaze traveled down his long length. Clotted blood matted his unruly black hair. A plaid flannel shirt, torn in a couple of places, exposed scratches and minor cuts. A rag that had been tied around his leg was soaked with blood. Laying her weapon at her side, she eased the piece of cloth down an inch and discovered a hole in his thigh, still bleeding.
He’s been shot.
Is he alone? She bolted to her feet. Sidestepping his prone body, she snatched up the shotgun again and surveyed the area outside her cabin. All she saw was the sparse, lonely terrain. With little vegetation, hiding places were limited in the immediate vicinity, and she had no time to check further away. She examined the ground to see which direction he’d come from. There weren’t any visible red splotches and only one set of large footprints coming from around the side of the cabin. His fall must have started his bleeding again.
Another groan pierced the early morning quiet. She returned to the man, knelt, and pressed her two fingers into the side of his neck. His pulse was rapid, thready, and his skin was cold with a slight bluish tint.
He was going into shock. Her emergency-care training took over. She jumped to her feet, grabbed her backpack off the wooden table and found her first aid kit. After securing a knife from the shelf next to the fireplace, she hurried back to the man and moved his legs slightly so she could close the door and lock it. She yanked her sleeping bag off the bunk, spread it open, then rolled the stranger onto it. When she’d maneuvered his body face-up, she covered his torso.
For a few seconds she stared at him. He had a day’s growth of beard covering his jaw. Was he running away from someone—the law? What happened to him? From his disheveled look, he’d been out in the elements all night. She patted him down for a wallet but found no identification. Her suspicion skyrocketed.
Her attention fixed again on the side of his head where blood had coagulated. The wound wasn’t bleeding anymore. She would tend that injury later.
As her gaze quickly trekked toward his left leg, her mind registered his features—a strong, square jaw, a cleft in his chin, long, dark eyelashes that fanned the top of his cheeks in stark contrast to the pallor that tinged his tanned skin. Her attention focused on the blood-soaked cloth that had been used to stop the bleeding.
Tess snatched a pair of latex gloves from her first aid kit, then snapped them on and untied the cloth, removing it from his leg. There was a small bullet hole in the front part of his thigh. Was that an exit wound? She prayed it was and checked the back of his leg. She found a larger wound there, which meant the bullet had exited from the front.
Shot from behind. Was he ambushed? A shiver snaked down her spine.
At least she didn’t have to deal with extracting a bullet. What she did have to cope with was bad enough. The very seclusion she’d craved this past week was her enemy now. The closest road was nearly a day’s hike away.
First, stop the bleeding. Trying not to jostle him too much, she cut his left jean leg away to expose the injury more clearly.
She scanned the cabin for something to elevate his lower limbs. A footstool. She used that to raise his legs higher than his heart. Then she put pressure on his wounds to stop the renewed flow of blood from the bullet holes. She cleansed the areas, then bandaging them. After that, she cleaned the injury on his head and covered it with a gauze pad.
When she finished, she sat back and waited to see if indeed the bleeding from the two wounds in his thigh had stopped. From where the holes were, it looked as though the bullet had passed through muscles, missing bone and major blood vessels. But from the condition the man had been in when he’d arrived, he was lucky he’d survived this long. If the bullet had hit an inch over, he would have bled out.
She looked at his face again. “What happened to you?”
Even in his unconscious, unkempt state, his features gave an impression of authority and quiet power. In her line of work, she’d learned to think the worst and question everything. Was he a victim? Was there somebody else out there who’d been injured? Who had pulled the trigger—a criminal or the law?
Then it hit her. She was this man’s lifeline. If she hadn’t been here in this cabin at this time, he would have surely died in these mountains. Civilization was a ten-hour hike from here. From his appearance, he’d already pushed himself beyond most men’s endurance.
Lord, I need Your help. I’ve been responsible for people’s lives before, but this is different. I’m alone up here, except for You.
Her memories of her last assignment inundated Tess. Guarding an eight-year-old girl whose rich parents had received threats had mentally exhausted her. The child had nearly been kidnapped and so frightened when Tess had gone to protect her. It had been the longest month of her life, praying every day that nothing happened to Clare. By the end Tess had hated leaving the girl whose parents were usually too busy for her. This vacation had been paramount to her.
The stranger moaned. His eyelids fluttered, and his uninjured leg moved a few inches.
“Oh, no you don’t. Stay still. I just got you stabilized.” She anchored his shoulders to the floor and prayed even more. Even if he were a criminal, she wouldn’t let him die.
Slowly the stranger’s restlessness abated. Tess exhaled a deep, steadying breath through pursed lips, examining the white bandage for any sign of red. None. She sighed again.
When she’d done all she could, she covered him completely with a blanket and then made her way to the fireplace. The last log burned in the middle of a pile of ashes. Though the days were still warm in October, the temperature would drop into the forties come evening. She’d need more fuel.
Tess crossed the few steps to the kitchen, lifted the coffeepot and poured the last of it into her mug. Her hands shook as she lifted the drink to her lips. She dealt in life and death situations in her work as a bodyguard all the time, but this was different. How often did half-dead bodies crash through her front door? Worse than that, she was all alone up here. This man’s survival depended on her. She was accustomed to protecting people, not doctoring them. The coffee in her stomach mixed with a healthy dose of fear, and she swallowed the sudden nausea.
Turning back, she studied the stranger.
Maybe it was a hunting accident. If so, why didn’t he have identification on him? Where were the other hunters? How did he get shot? All over again, the questions flooded her mind with a pounding intensity, her natural curiosity not appeased.
The crude cabin, with its worn, wooden floor and its walls made of rough old logs, was suddenly no longer the retreat she’d been anticipating for months. Now it was a cage, trapping her here with a man who might not live.
No, he had to. She would make sure of it—somehow.