Jared & Libby
Black's Bandits, Book 4
She doesn’t know who she is… or why someone’s trying to kill her.
When hardened mercenary Jared Fraser finds a woman bleeding in the snow outside his remote cabin, he takes her in and patches her up, intending to get her back to her life and out of his as quickly as possible.
But Liberty King is a special case. She shows signs of recent abuse, and she can’t remember who she is – the only hint is a necklace with a name engraved on it.
When three men track her down with hunting dogs, Jared will do whatever it takes to protect her. Then he’ll move mountains to find out what’s locked away inside her head. What he won’t do is fall for her, no matter how much her innocent eyes and sweet smile make him want more.
But when a new danger strikes, Jared realizes that some choices were never his to make…
She needs a knight in shining armor. He is one.
Read an Excerpt
“What the hell?”
Jared Fraser swore as he drove up the private drive to the mountain cabin where he intended to spend the next few days getting the heat, blood, and dust of the latest mission out of his head. He wanted solitude after the violence. Craved time to reset his brain.
But it looked as if someone was intent on interrupting his retreat before it began. A woman stood in the center of the driveway a few yards from the cabin. She blinked as his headlights hit her, lifting her arm to shield her eyes, but she didn’t move away.
The truck jerked to a stop and Jared shoved the gearshift into park before popping open the door to stand on the running board. “I’m good, thanks,” he called out. “I got the key from the management office in town. I don’t need anything else.”
He’d told the woman in the office that he didn’t want to be bothered, but apparently listening wasn’t big on her list of skills. She’d probably sent someone to make sure the bedding was turned down before he arrived, or to leave a welcome gift.
He didn’t want either of those things.
The woman in the road lowered her arm a little, blinking at the light. Blood streamed down her temple and over her cheek. Jared swore and grabbed his Glock off the seat as he stepped onto the ground. He kept the gun at his side as he flipped the headlights off, letting the parking lights illuminate the area instead. It was more light than he wanted, but he needed to see her so he could assess her condition.
As he approached, her arm dropped and she frowned. She wore a light jacket, not at all what she needed for the dipping temperatures tonight.
Alarm buzzed in his brain. Something definitely wasn’t right about this situation.
“Hey,” he said softly, scanning their surroundings like he was back in the war zone. He’d learned to never underestimate a situation over the years. “Where’s your car? Did you run off the road?”
It was possible since the ground was covered in six inches of snow. The roads were being cleared, but with the temps dropping, ice was a danger. Perhaps she’d hit an icy patch somewhere, though he hadn’t come across any cars that had skidded off the road on the way up the mountain. She could have been coming from the opposite direction, though.
“I… I don’t know,” she said, her voice scratchy, as if she didn’t know how to use it. She lifted a hand to her head, then looked at the blood staining her fingers. “I feel….”
She started to swoon and Jared tucked the weapon in its holster and caught her before she could fall. Her body was solid in his arms, but there wasn’t much warmth. How long had she been outside? Too long if the way she shivered was any indication.
She made a sound of distress as Jared picked her up. He left his truck running and carried her the short distance to the cabin. He’d put the keys in his pocket at the management office. He fished them out as he stepped onto the porch and then fumbled with the lock. Once the door was open, he flicked on a light and carried the woman over to one of the couches that perched on either side of a big rock fireplace.
She moaned as he set her on it. She wasn’t unconscious, but he wasn’t sure if she’d stay that way. He did a quick check of her vitals and then probed her head wound. She flinched and gasped, but he was relieved to find there was nothing more than a deep scrape making her bleed. She also had a small lump near the wound, as if she’d knocked into something. There was another cut on her throat, right below her jaw. It was a clean cut, like she’d had an encounter with something sharp. Glass maybe. It wasn’t deep, but blood trickled from the part of the wound that hadn’t dried up yet.
“Does it hurt anywhere else?”
“I don’t know,” she said on a whisper. “I’m too cold.”
“What about a headache?”
She shook her head slightly. “I don’t think so. It only hurts in one spot, but not terribly.”
He took the lack of excruciating pain as a good sign. Cold wouldn’t stop her from feeling broken bones, and it definitely wouldn’t stop her from feeling a headache that was unlike any she’d ever had before. If there was a brain bleed, her head would pound from the pressure. Her eyes stayed closed, dark lashes fanning over wind-reddened cheeks. She had dirty blond hair scraped back in a ponytail that was coming undone, and two indents on the bridge of her nose where she’d worn glasses. He expected she’d lost them somewhere since they didn’t appear to be at hand. Maybe that was the source of the cut on her throat.
Aside from the light jacket, she had on black yoga pants that exposed her ankles and tennis shoes that weren’t any protection from the snow. She looked like she’d gone out for a jog in suburbia rather than for a snowy mountain hike.
If she’d run off the road, had she been alone? Or was someone else out there, perhaps unconscious?
Jared straightened and grabbed a blanket from a wicker basket by the couch, draping it over the woman. He needed to get his truck and gear, then clean her wound and build a fire. The woman’s lashes fluttered. She gazed up at him with brown eyes that weren’t having any trouble focusing. Another good sign.
He knelt and took out his phone, turning on the light. Then he shined it in her eyes. Though she gasped, her pupils instantly shrank. He held her chin and looked into both eyes, then shut the light off when he was satisfied.
“What did you do that for?” she asked.
“Checking for concussion. You don’t appear to have one, which is probably a miracle considering the shape you’re in.”
“I feel like I went three rounds with a prize fighter.”
Jared’s gut tightened. He knew what that looked like. What it felt like as a child watching his mother cry after she’d been punched and kicked for nothing more than serving the wrong brand of baked beans with his father’s fucking hot dogs. Anger swirled deep inside. It was an old anger that he was used to, but he still hated it.
He had to consider that this woman could be the victim of domestic assault rather than a car accident. He’d experienced that kind of assault firsthand and he knew how irrational men like that were. How cruel. If her asshole boyfriend or husband was angry enough, he could have dumped her off in the snow just to teach her a lesson.
“Did someone leave you on the road?”
Her brow furrowed. “I don’t remember.” She blinked at him, frowning harder. “Maybe I’m dead.”
He frowned. Maybe she was hurt worse than he thought. He’d have to take her back down the mountain, find the nearest hospital. It would be slow going in this weather, but it might be necessary. “You aren’t dead.”
“Oh.” She waved a hand around as if that explained everything. “I’m glad. I just thought…”
“I could be dreaming,” she muttered. “Though why would I dream up a man who looks like an angel and then make myself sick in the dream? Cruel and unusual punishment if you ask me.”
Jared didn’t know whether to laugh or be concerned. “You aren’t dreaming either. You’re very much alive and awake.”
“Well, there’s that.”
She closed her eyes again and huddled under the blanket.
“Can you tell me what happened? Are you alone?”
“I-I don’t know. I don’t remember anything.” The corners of her mouth were white.
It wasn’t unusual to forget the details of trauma when it had just happened, but it wasn’t helpful either. He’d have to go see if he could find a car. If someone else was out there, unconscious, he needed to get them to safety. He wasn’t discounting the idea she could be abused, but a car accident was equally likely and he needed to verify.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he told her. “Don’t go anywhere.”
“Nowhere to go,” she said. She didn’t open her eyes.
He went outside and got into his truck, reversing in the yard and then backtracking to the road. He drove two miles farther up the road from the cabin. The snow was coming down heavier now, but there was no sign of an accident. No cars on the side of the road, no busted guardrails, no skid marks in the snow. There’d been none on his way up the mountain either, which meant there was no evidence in either direction.
He needed to find out who she was and get the truth out of her. In his experience, abuse victims often didn’t want to name their abusers out of fear something worse would happen. His mother would never go to the police over his father. She’d also never gone to his Air Force commander. Jared had been too young to realize that was something she could have done, or he might have done it for her. It probably would have gotten her a worse beating though. And him. His dad’s fists were most often for his mother, but he’d hit Jared too.
Jared returned to the cabin with a hard knot in his gut. He pulled up beneath the carport next to the house, retrieved his duffel and grocery bags from the backseat, then went inside. The woman was where he’d left her. Her eyes opened as he walked in, her gaze seeking his.
“I was beginning to wonder.” The relief in her expression was evident.
“I told you I’d be back,” he said gently.
“I know, but I thought maybe you’d changed your mind.”
“Nope.” He put the grocery bags on the counter and tossed his big duffel onto the floor beside it. “I drove up the road a bit. I didn’t see a car or any sign of an accident.”
“Oh.” Blood streaked the side of her face and throat in scarlet, contrasting vibrantly with the Snow White paleness of her features. Her cheeks were no longer red and she shivered under the blanket.
Logs had been laid in the fireplace by whomever had prepped the cabin for the next visitor. Jared grabbed the lighter from the mantel and touched it to the firestarter beneath the grate. The paper and kindling crackled to life. Once the fire was going, he retrieved the medicine kit from his duffel and got out the antiseptic and gauze along with the clotting agent. He put them on the coffee table and sat down beside the woman.
She watched him curiously as he dripped some antiseptic onto the gauze. He was glad to see she was alert and interested in what he was doing. She didn’t ask him any questions, which he found slightly odd. Some people didn’t, though. Some people observed first.
“This is going to sting,” he said as he turned to her.
She looked at him with those big brown eyes. Her pupils weren’t dilated, which was good. She took a deep breath. “Okay.”
He touched the antiseptic to the scrape on her head.
She flinched. “Ouch!”
Her eyes opened again. This time they were filled with tears. His heart twisted at the look on her face. He was used to tending wounds, but they were usually combat wounds. Warriors didn’t look at him in wide-eyed panic, nor did they look as lost as this woman did. He’d wanted medical training because of the way he’d grown up, the times he’d had to watch his mother try and fix up her scrapes and bruises and couldn’t help. He’d tended a lot of combat wounds over the years, a lot of physical trauma, but there was something about a woman with injuries consistent with domestic violence that got to him more than he cared to admit.
If someone had done this to her, he wanted to find the asshole and give him a taste of his own medicine. Not that he knew she’d been abused, but something had happened to her. And it wasn’t a car accident, or at least not that he could see. So what was it?
He had to consider the possibility she was here on purpose. Sent by someone with a grudge against him and the organization he worked for. He didn’t think it the most likely reason she’d been alone and injured outside his cabin, but he’d have to be on his guard just in case it was a setup.
“Can you tell me how you got here?” he asked as he gently cleaned her wound.
“I—I don’t know. I don’t know where I am. What happened to me?”
“You’re in Shenandoah National Park. Closest town is Hall Green.”
He chose this place because it was remote. Not too near the city, not so far he couldn’t get back within a few hours, though that was on a normal day when the snow wasn’t piling up outside. Jared dabbed at her scrape until he was satisfied, then moved on to the cut on her throat. When that was finished, he swiped a wet wipe over the blood until it was gone.
She kept her eyes downcast while he worked. “Do you think I was in an accident?”
“I don’t know.”
Before he’d gone looking for a car, he would have thought that’s precisely what’d happened. And maybe it was. Maybe she’d managed to walk farther in the snow than he’d thought she could. He’d prefer that option over the one that seemed most likely to him. The one that made him want to kill any miserable motherfucker who’d dared to hurt her.
He prepared to apply a clotting agent to her wounds. “This is going to sting again, but it should stop the bleeding.”
She nodded and clamped her jaw tight while he applied the powder. Her jaw worked but she didn’t make a sound. He’d fully expected her to cuss him out this time but she didn’t. He finished by taping small bandages over the wounds and sat back. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Do you know what today is?”
She pursed her lips. “Um, Thursday?”
“Yes. Who’s the president?”
“President Campbell. I think.”
He smiled to reassure her. “Right so far. I’m Jared, by the way.”
He stuck his hand out like they were being properly introduced. He wanted her to know she could trust him. If she had been abused by someone, she might tell him about it if she felt confident he wasn’t a threat. He intended to make sure she knew he was safe.
She gave his hand a quick squeeze and then tucked both hers beneath the blanket again as he moved away from her, giving her space. She drew it up to her chin as she stared at the fire. She appeared to be concentrating, the line between her brows growing more pronounced as she frowned. She was pretty in a girl-next-door kind of way, with creamy skin, long lashes, and a full lower lip that she seemed to be chewing on.
“Why don’t you tell me your name and we’ll try to figure out what happened,” Jared prodded gently. If he could get her talking, maybe she’d spill the truth about how she’d ended up hurt and alone in the snow.
Knowing who she was would be a start. He could call the police, but he preferred to use his own connections. It’d get done faster and they’d dig deeper than a local police force might. Someone at Black Defense International could run a background check on her. Find out everything about her, including what kind of car she drove and whether or not she had a man in her life. If she did, then they’d check the dude out too. And if he was the type who had priors for domestic abuse, or if there’d been calls about domestic situations between him and this woman, then Jared would get a couple of the guys to pay the man a visit. After that, he’d do everything he could to make sure she got a new life and stayed safe from retaliation.
Not that every woman wanted a new life. That thought twisted inside him, but he’d seen it before. Battered women were often mentally abused as well, and too many of them went back to their abuser because he had such a tight control over their emotional state.
Jared prayed that wasn’t the case with her, but he wouldn’t know it until he got more out of her.
She kept staring into the fire. Her lip quivered and a tear spilled down her cheek. He didn’t want her to cry, but he refrained from gathering her in his arms and comforting her. If she was going to tell him anything, he couldn’t interfere before she found the strength.
Liquid brown eyes met his. “I-I don’t know my name. I can’t remember.”
H.O.T. Publishing, LLC
May 11, 2021
The Book Depository