HOT soldier Ryder “Muffin” Hanson didn’t plan on diving into a frigid lake on a freezing day, but finding an unconscious woman in the water leaves him no choice.

Single mom Alaina Montgomery does the best she can to take care of her six-year old son, working as a cleaner in a women’s crisis center. It doesn’t pay a lot, but it’s enough to keep them going.

Until someone brutally attacks her and leaves her for dead.

Now, Alaina is terrified to be alone and fearful for her son’s safety. When Ryder offers her a place to stay, she can’t refuse. He’ll protect her and her child, plus he’s the kind of man her little boy can look up to. As the feelings between her and Ryder grow, she finally lets herself believe the future looks bright.

But the danger isn’t over yet. Someone is watching and waiting. And when the time is right, they’ll strike again…

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Ryder Hanson had no desire to dive into a frigid lake on a cold, windy, gray-ass day, but he was gonna do it anyway. The woman floating face down, arms spread out, body bobbing in the choppy water, made the choice for him.

Ry peeled his sweatshirt over his head, toed off his hiking boots, and swore a blue streak as he got a running start down the dock. He had no idea how long she’d been there. He’d noticed her from the kitchen window just moments ago. He’d gone to get a cup of coffee and there she was. Like a piece of driftwood. He’d thought he was seeing things at first, but fuck all if she wasn’t real.

Ry dove into the water, arms out in front of him, body arcing the way he’d been taught during all the brutal hours of combat swim training. The lake wasn’t deep, no more than four feet at his dock, but he knew how to dive into much shallower water if need be.

The water was cold enough to shrivel his balls and make him scream like a little girl if he let it. He wasn’t about to let it. He’d bobbed in colder water than this waiting for a pickup after a mission, and he’d trained in colder water too.

He just hadn’t expected to go in today.

Ry powered through the water until he reached her. He flipped her over so her face was no longer submerged. There were cuts and bruises on her skin. She was deathly pale and her lips were blue, but there was a pulse. Shallow and thready.

Fuck. She wasn’t even wearing a coat. Probably lucky since that would have weighed her down.

Ry turned her head to the side so water could drain from her nose and mouth and then put his mouth over hers and breathed. He did it four times and waited. Her chest moved, thank fuck.

He put everything he had into swimming for the dock again, one arm wrapped around her and the other stroking for all he was worth. He’d been so damned happy and proud when he’d put an offer on this place just last month. He’d been saving, looking for the right property, and he’d found it near the town of Mystic Cove where one of his teammates lived. One of the pluses about it was how remote it was for being within fifty miles of DC.

Where the fuck had this woman come from then?

Ry reached the dock, managed to push the woman onto the weathered wood, and followed her up. Her chest was still moving and her pulse was stronger. He turned her to the side again. When she started to cough, he breathed a little easier. Not that she was entirely out of the woods yet, but it was better than a few moments ago.

He needed to get her warm, and he needed to get her to a hospital. He had medical training, so he wasn’t entirely clueless about what to do, but he didn’t want responsibility for her any longer than he had to have it.

He scooped her into his arms and carried her inside, kicking the door closed and heading straight for the bathroom. He lay her on the floor and started the water running in the bathtub. He hadn’t even used the tub yet. Funny this would be the first time.

Once the water was the right temperature, he put her in the tub and let it keep filling. She lay back against the rim, her eyes still closed, her chest moving. She started to whimper as he peeled his jeans and T-shirt off. He grabbed a towel and scrubbed himself dry, then hooked it around his hips. He couldn’t leave her to get more clothes, and he couldn’t shower yet either. Not until he had her warmed up and out of the water.

He wouldn’t take a chance of her slipping beneath the surface while his back was turned. He took the time he had now to study her. She looked to be in her twenties, with dark brown hair slicked against her skull. It fell to just below her shoulders.

There was a cut on her left cheekbone, some scrapes on her chin and cheek, and a bruise beneath her left eye. She had finger marks on her collar bone and at the base of her throat. Her fingernails were torn and ragged, and one had ripped partially off. It was starting to bleed again now that the water was warming her.

“Jesus, sweetheart, what happened to you?”

She wore what looked like leggings and a sweatshirt with Princess Leia on it. She had no shoes or socks, and nowhere to stash any ID. He wouldn’t know who she was until she woke. He could do a search for missing persons, maybe that’d turn something up. He could also snap a pic and send it to Sky “Hacker” Kelley, see if maybe Hack could find something.

But that seemed to be a bit too intrusive just now. If she didn’t wake after he got her warm and dry, maybe he’d do it then. Except he’d be taking her to the hospital by then, so maybe he’d just wash his hands of the whole thing. Let them figure it out.

She was still whimpering, only now he could understand words. Words that tore his heart in two.

“No, please, no…”

He hunkered down beside the tub and frowned. “It’s okay, you’re safe. I’ve got you. No one’s going to hurt you.”

She shuddered, her head moving back and forth as if denying what he was saying. He thought she might be convulsing and he reached for her to stop her sinking under the water.

Her eyes snapped open. The terror he saw there stunned him at first. Then it angered him.

“It’s okay,” he said again. “You’re okay.”

She opened her mouth. And then she screamed.

* * *

All she could remember was the feeling of suffocating. Of hands wrapped around her throat, choking her. There was a bag too, or maybe it’d been a blanket. Then there’d been nothing, except ice. She’d been colder than she’d ever been, and now she wasn’t.

The pain in her body was like needles stabbing her over and over. Like she was a piece of fabric being flattened beneath a cosmic sewing machine. Everything hurt.

Then there was the man. He was big, and naked. Mostly naked, she amended. He had a towel around his waist and he was too close. Had he grabbed her? Was he the one who’d choked her? Who’d brought her here and submerged her in a warm bath?

A warm bath? Alaina struggled to draw breath, to get control of her shivering, shaking, terrified body. Why was she in a warm bath? And why did she have all her clothes on?

“Hey, hey,” the man said, holding out both hands. He knelt, not too close, but close enough he could shove her under if he got annoyed enough. “It’s okay. Nobody’s going to hurt you. I promise. Tell me who you are, and I’ll get you home again.”

Alaina sobbed. She couldn’t seem to stop herself, no matter that she wanted to find her voice and tell him — beg him — not to hurt her. He said he wouldn’t, but she knew better. She’d been around men like him before. Big, strong, handsome. Sweet words hid dark thoughts. She’d seen it more than once.

“I found you,” he said, his voice soft and soothing. “In the water. Near my dock. You were unresponsive, so I brought you inside and put you in the warm bath to help regulate your body temperature. I’m sorry you’re scared, but I mean you no harm.”

Her throat was raw from screaming, and her eyes stung with tears. Worse, they would swell soon, and then it’d be hard to see. She fought to stop crying so that didn’t happen, to find her voice, but everything hurt and fear rode her hard.

An image popped into her head and made her tears choke off like someone had turned a tap. A little boy. He had blond hair and blue eyes, and he was the sweetest thing. “Everett,” she gasped. Memories flooded her then. She’d dropped him off at school this morning—

Alaina tried to claw herself to her feet as the fear closed in on her again. Fear for her little boy this time, not for herself. Alarm crossed the man’s features as she struggled. He held his hands out again.

“Hey, hey. Calm down. Who is Everett? Did he do this to you?”

“N-no,” she managed, her teeth chattering. “I h-have to go. Get him.”

“You almost drowned, honey. You can’t go charging out of here looking for this Everett. Tell me where to find him. I’ll get him for you.”

Her heart was a hammering lump in her mouth. Dizziness closed in on the edges of her vision. “No, please,” she whispered as nausea clogged her throat.

The man took a couple of steps away, then picked up a pair of sodden pants and fished out a wallet. He dropped the pants and return to her, opening the two sides of the wallet to reveal a driver’s license and a military ID card. “My name is Ryder Hanson. I’m in the Army. I just moved here, and this is my house. I found you in the water, and I gave you CPR and brought you here to warm your body temperature. I’m going to take you to the hospital, but I needed to stabilize you first. You’re safe, and I won’t hurt you.”

Alaina was still shivering, still finding it hard to say the words she wanted to say. She could find the thoughts, and then they floated away like wispy clouds on a breeze. She tried to gather them back, but they would not come.

“Alaina,” she managed. “My name is Alaina.”

Alaina what? She was drawing a blank, though she knew it was there. Just beyond the tip of her tongue. She knew who she was, knew she had a six-year-old son named Everett, but grabbing the information from her brain and saying it aloud was more taxing than it should have been.

The pain in her skin was easing as her body warmed, but there were other pains. Deep pains, like someone had kicked and punched her. Her cheek stung and her throat hurt. Her side. Ribs?

“I want to help you, Alaina. I’m going to get you to a hospital, and I’ll find Everett for you, too. Is there anything else you can tell me? Do you know who did this to you?”

Alaina’s eyes filled with tears. She shook her head, then wished she hadn’t when the pain split her skull in two. “Hurts. Everything.”

“I know, Alaina. I’m sorry.”

She closed her eyes against the pain, tried to concentrate on his voice as he started to speak to someone on the phone. She didn’t know him, had never seen him before, but there was something trustworthy in that voice. She believed him when he said he wanted to help. Then again, she’d believed before and been wrong.

She didn’t want to live that way, mistrusting everyone, but maybe she had to. Maybe there was no such thing as a good life for her. No such thing as a good man. For Everett’s sake, she hoped that wasn’t true. But how could she ever know?

She felt the prick in her arm too late. Her eyes snapped open, meeting Ryder Hanson’s. He was frowning at her as he held a needle in one hand. She hadn’t heard him approach. Stupid for closing her eyes. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

That’s how you end up dead, girlfriend.

“I gave you a painkiller. It should help. I need to get you out of that tub, Alaina, and it’s going to hurt.”

She stared up at him until his face began to grow fuzzy. Her head lolled onto the rim of the tub and the ceiling blurred. She drifted, though a part of her was fighting inside. She needed to stay alive. What would Everett do without her? Who would take him if she died? Who would love him?

There was no one but her.

Water drained from the tub, leaving her cold where it no longer touched. She felt the brush of Ryder’s hands against her shoulders, beneath her knees. She tried to struggle, but she couldn’t seem to control her muscles.

“It’s okay,” he said softly, lifting her up and carrying her somewhere. He set her down again, and then she was wrapped in a blanket like a baby. “I need to throw on some clothes, then I’m taking you to the hospital.”

Alaina drifted again. She didn’t know for how long, but then he was back, lifting her. Her body protested but all she could manage was a whimper. She had the feeling it didn’t hurt as much as it could have. She could feel her wet clothes, but the blanket seemed thick and warm.

Ryder put her down again, talking to her as he settled her. She forced her eyes open, took in the interior of a vehicle. Panic flared again, and she began to struggle. Or did she? Because Ryder didn’t blink at her efforts. He belted her in place then went around to the driver’s side of the car. She fumbled at her side, trying to undo the buckle so she could escape, but nothing happened. Her limbs weren’t obeying any of her commands.

She tried to stay alert, but it was impossible with the drug flowing through her system. She had an impression of moving, of stops and turns, and speed, and she wanted to scream. He’d said he was taking her to the hospital, but what if it was a lie? What if he was the one who’d attacked her? What if he was sadistic and this was simply part of his torture? Making her think he was helping, then finishing what he’d started.

Alaina squeezed her eyes shut. If this was it, if this was her end, she prayed Everett would end up with a family who loved him. She could almost accept death if she knew he’d be loved.