Stay With Me Sneak Peek
“I found you.”
Shelly Hampton stilled when she heard those low, rough words. A chill slid over her spine. And then…a heavy, warm hand curled around her shoulder.
Clutching her bag tightly to her chest, Shelly turned to face—well, she had no idea who the man was. She had to look up, way up, to see his features. Shelly barely topped five feet, and this giant of a guy with his broad chest and his linebacker shoulders had to be way over six feet tall.
The man was big, but in a muscled, I-Workout-All-The-Time way. His muscles stretched the black t-shirt he wore. A t-shirt? As cold as it is outside? His skin was a soft olive, a faint stubble of black covered his hard jaw, and his dark hair was cut almost brutally short. A military cut.
His eyes—the most piercing blue she’d ever seen—were locked on her. Light, light blue. The guy actually seemed to be staring at her with a bit of…wonder in his gaze? No, no, couldn’t be wonder. That didn’t make any sense. Had to be something else.
“I found you,” he said again, and his hold tightened on her.
Shelly forced a smile. All around her, she could hear voices rising and falling. She was in a bar on the edge of Discovery, a small speck of a town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Locals and tourists had crowded into the little bar for some holiday celebration time, but she’d only come inside for a quick pit stop.
The stranger before her was handsome, if you liked the rough, rugged kind of guy. She did. And normally, Shelly would have been all about some flirtation with him, but… “I’m afraid you have me confused with someone else.” Shelly tucked a lock of her dark hair behind her ear. “I don’t know you.”
He blinked. A slow, almost robotic move. “You…don’t?”
“No, sorry.” She waved vaguely toward the crowd and tried to ignore the fact that his touch was making her stomach knot. “Maybe the woman you’re looking for is sitting at one of the tables. There are lots of women with dark hair in here tonight—”
“I’m not looking for lots of women.” A muscle flexed in his square jaw. His eyes had narrowed, seeming to turn into chips of blue ice. “I’ve been looking for you.”
Okay. Wait. Perhaps he was trying to use some sort of pick-up line on her? If that was the case, well, he needed to work on his technique. Because the guy was totally coming off a bit stalkerish. And with all of the drama she’d had in her life, that kind of thing was a serious turn-off. “I’m not here to hook-up.” Honesty was always supposed to be the best policy. “But I’m sure a guy like you will have no trouble finding plenty of interested partners.” She slid away from his hold and made her way toward the wooden bar that stretched along the back of the building. She didn’t look back over her shoulder, but Shelly could have sworn that she felt the stranger’s eyes on her with every step she took.
Her boots shuffled across the floor until she reached the bar. She leaned over the scarred surface, waving to get the attention of the bartender/owner of the joint. Sammy Wisemore caught her eye and he winked, then he hurried toward her, wiping his hands on the big, white apron that he always wore—an apron that was as white as Sammy’s hair. The guy had to be pushing eighty, but he moved with the energy of a man half his age.
“Shelly!” He gave her hand a warm squeeze. “Got the keys for you. Give me just a minute.”
She smiled at him and hoped she didn’t look nervous. Don’t look over your shoulder. She was not going to peek back at the stranger.
Sammy reached under the bar and a moment later, he was handing her a key ring. “I got the cabin all ready for you yesterday. Stocked with plenty of firewood and food. You’ll be good to go.”
In addition to owning the bar, Sammy was also the caretaker of her family’s cabin. He’d been one of her father’s closest friends, and growing up, she’d enjoyed visiting “Uncle” Sammy.
For just a moment, sadness clouded Sammy’s eyes. “You sure you want to be alone up there? You know I got that apartment right over the bar. You can stay in town, and I can keep you company.”
He was so good to her. Always had been. But this time, being alone was exactly what she wanted. No, it was what she needed. She couldn’t stay over the bar—there were far too many people there. “I’ll be okay.” Now she was the one to give his hand a quick squeeze before she took the keys from him. “Besides, you’ll come visit me on Christmas, won’t you?”
“Hell, yes, I—”
Sammy’s words stopped or at least, she thought they did. She wasn’t sure because suddenly, the stranger was there again. Big, strong, and he was touching her shoulder once more. Only his touch was hesitant. So careful.
And she found herself turning away from Sammy. Staring at the man who dominated the whole place.
“You know me.” There was a hint of desperation in the stranger’s voice.
Shelly licked her lips, and the man’s gaze immediately fell to her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she told him. “But we don’t know each other.”
His hand slid to her cheek. “I…remember.”
“Get your hand off her, buddy.” That was Sammy’s voice. He didn’t sound like his usual, cheerful self. He sounded pissed and angry.
The stranger’s hand fell away. A furrow appeared between his brows.
“Who are you?” Shelly whispered. Because there was just something about him…he looked lost. So alone in that crowd of laughing, happy people.
His thick lashes shielded his eyes. “I thought you knew.”
What? What kind of answer was that?
“Buddy,” Sammy barked at him again. “Are you drunk?”
The stranger’s lashes lifted. He stared at Shelly for a moment, and there was no missing the sadness in his eyes. Her heart ached as she gazed at him.
“I don’t drink,” he told Sammy.
“Then you should probably get your ass out of my bar,” Sammy fired back, not missing a beat. “And stop bothering my customers.” His thick, white brows had beetled over his eyes.
The stranger stiffened.
“Sammy, it’s okay,” Shelly said, her voice soft. “I think he’s confused.” Her head tilted. She actually thought he was a whole lot more than just confused. “What’s your name?”
“Do you know your name?” Shelly pushed. Now she was really worried for him.
His hand clenched into a fist. “My mistake. Don’t…know you. You…don’t know me.” And then he turned and marched away, clearing a path right through the crowd.
“Hey, buddy!” Sammy yelled after him. “Don’t forget your coat!”
Shelly didn’t think the guy had a coat. She watched him, unable to look away, until the bar’s door closed behind him.
“I need to call the sheriff,” Sammy groused. “Something ain’t right with that man.”
Her gaze shot back to Sammy.
Sammy was still staring at the shut door. “Didn’t like the way he looked at you.”
“He looked sad,” Shelly replied. “I felt—”
“Sorry for him?” Sammy cut in with a knowing nod. “Your heart has always been too soft, baby. That man didn’t look sad to me.”
She rolled back her shoulders and clutched the keys tighter. “How did he look?”
“He looked desperate. He stared at you like you were his whole damn world, and I’m telling you right now, that shit ain’t normal.”
She didn’t know him.
He stood in the shadows, the trees surrounding him and the faint music and voices from the bar drifting across the street to reach his ears. He was over fifty feet away from the bar, but if he focused, he could still hear the conversations inside that place. He could hear them all too clearly.
His sense of hearing was enhanced, he knew that. So was his sense of vision. His sense of smell. He wasn’t like other men—he’d realized that fact right after he’d escaped from the lab.
A fucking lab. He’d been kept locked away, hidden from the rest of the world. He’d been an experiment. But he’d gotten loose. He’d escaped.
And he’d found…her.
The woman with the long, dark hair. The woman with the eyes that were pure chocolate. The woman with the silken skin and the slow, sweet smile. The woman who stared at him—
As if she’d never seen him in her life.
It’s a lie. She knows me. She has to know me.
As he watched, the door to the bar opened. She appeared, shivering a bit.
He supposed it was cold. He didn’t really feel the cold, though. It didn’t matter to him.
She wasn’t alone. The old bartender was with her. He was glancing around, looking to the left and right suspiciously.
He’s looking for me.
The bartender wouldn’t see him, though. He was hidden too well. Cloaked. As he watched, the bartender led the woman to her car. She gave the fellow a hug, and then slipped inside her ride. She cranked her engine as the bartender turned away, hunching his shoulders.
She has to know me. He waited in the shadows, absolutely still in his hiding space, until the bartender went back inside. His prey hadn’t left yet. Her car lights were on.
If you wanted to keep her safe, you should have waited until she drove away before you left her. But the cold had driven the old man inside too fast and now…
Now, I can have her.
In an instant, he’d left his hiding space. He cleared the distance between them in mere seconds. He was faster than a normal man.
Because I’m not normal.
He was beside her car before she could even shift gears. He rapped on the window, and she gave a scream.
He stiffened. He didn’t like her scream. He didn’t like her fear. Raising his voice so she could hear him through the glass, he said, “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Her head whipped toward the window. She stared at him with absolute terror clear on her beautiful face.
He needed to think. He had to show her that he wasn’t a threat. That everything was okay. He held up his hands. “I just want to talk with you.” She had to know who he was.
This woman—she had been in his head every single day since he’d woken in the lab. He’d woken up to find himself strapped down on an exam table. He’d been confused as all hell, but the woman in the car—she’d come to him. She’d slipped into his dreams. Walked into his fantasies. She’d possessed him.
His past was gone. He didn’t know his name. Didn’t know where he’d come from. Didn’t know who the hell his family was. The only thing he remembered about his time before that lab…the only thing he remembered was her.
She was the key to his past.
She had to help him.
“Please.” The word was too rough and hard as it burst from him. “I need your help.”
But she was afraid. And there was…
His nostrils flared.
There was a hard, bitter scent in the air. He inhaled again, and his whole body stiffened.
“Get out of the car!” he roared at her.
She didn’t get out. She shoved the car into reverse and it zoomed back, narrowly missing his foot.
He grabbed for the door, holding tightly. “Get out!”
But she wasn’t listening. She’d shifted gears again, and her car lurched forward even as the bitter, acidic scent got stronger. Something was wrong with her vehicle. Very, very wrong. But she wasn’t listening to him. She was driving away, and he was chasing after her. He was fast, but he wasn’t faster than a car. Shit, shit. He glanced around, frantic, and saw a man with a baseball cap jumping out of a black pickup truck. The truck’s engine was still running, so he didn’t hesitate. He shoved the guy with the cap out of his way as he leapt into that truck. Then he raced away, chasing after her small, blue car.
His heart pounded too fast. His hands clenched the steering wheel. His gut was in knots, and he could have sworn that he felt…fear?
Was this what fear felt like? This bitterness on his tongue? The tenseness of his muscles?
He saw her car up ahead. She was going too fast as she headed into a turn. She needed to brake, and her tail lights flashed as if she were trying to brake, but her car didn’t slow down.
She narrowly avoided driving her vehicle right over the edge of the mountain road. And the drop had to be several hundred damn feet.
Her brakes aren’t working. That’s what I smelled. Brake fluid. Oh, fucking hell. He’d traveled that road hours before while he searched for her. While he’d been pulled toward her. He’d hitchhiked his way to the mountain town in order to find her. And he knew an even worse turn waited up the road. If she couldn’t brake, if she lost control because she was going too fast…
He shoved down his gas pedal. He had to stop her. Had to find a way to help her. He passed her car and for an instant, she turned her head to look at him. There was absolute desperation on her face.
He pulled over in front of her. Slowed his vehicle. Her car hit him, plowing into the truck’s bumper. He lurched forward at the impact, but kept his grip steady on the wheel. She hit him again. Bumping hard and his head snapped forward. He clenched his teeth and hit the brakes, going slower, slower, easing up until his truck was stopped…and she was, too.
Until she was safe.
They’d managed to stop right before what he thought of as the death curve. Sonofabitch.
He killed the engine and popped the parking brake. Then he jumped out of the truck. Ran toward her. She threw open her door. She raced out of her car, and her hair flew around her shoulders as she came to a quick halt. “My brakes wouldn’t work! I couldn’t stop—”
“Your brakes were damaged. I could smell brake fluid back at the bar—”
Her breath came in rough, desperate pants. He swore that he could hear the frantic beating of her heart. “Did you do it?” she demanded.
“What? No!” He took a quick step toward her.
She immediately backed away.
“I could smell the brake fluid.” He fought to keep his voice calm. “That’s why I was telling you to get out of the car when we were in the parking lot. I knew something was wrong.”
Her gaze jumped from him to the truck. “How did you do that? How did you stop me?”
He had no real fucking clue. Well, okay, he partially knew. One of his new bonuses was that he had incredibly fast reflexes. He’d leapt into that truck and desperation had taken over. “Figured if I could get in front of you, I could stop us both.”
Her eyes were huge. “You could have been hurt.”
At that, he smiled. “It takes an awful lot to hurt me.”
A faint snap reached his ears. A twig…breaking? His head whipped to the left, and he stared into the darkness of the trees. His body had gone on high alert.
“Get down,” he growled.
A whistle reached him—the sound of air rushing too fast.
He didn’t hesitate. He lunged toward her, threw his body onto hers, and they both slammed into the ground.
She was shaking and she was…warm. Soft. Her scent—sweet, feminine—teased his nostrils.
“Get off me!” She pushed against him.
But he didn’t move. “Sh-shooter…” Why was talking suddenly so hard for him?
“What?” But then she gave a little scream. “You’re bleeding!” Her hands were sliding over his body. “I can feel your blood!”
Because that whistling he’d heard…it had been a bullet. One that was aimed at her. Someone was trying to kill her. Someone was trying to take her from him. “St-stay down…”
In the distance, he could hear a siren. The owner of the truck he’d stolen had probably called in the local cops. They were going to hunt him down. And if they hunted him, they’d find her. Help was coming. She just had to stay safe long enough for it to arrive.
“Shooter…” he whispered. “In the woods…”
“OhmyGod.” Her hands stilled on him. She stared up at him, and even in the dark, he could see her perfectly. “You were just shot protecting me?”
Didn’t she get it? Didn’t she know…?
He forced out the words. “Die…for you.”
She shook her head. “No, you absolutely will not. You don’t even know me. You are not going to die for me. People don’t die for strangers, okay? Haven’t you watched the news? That’s not the way things work. You don’t—”
“Know you…” Talking was too hard. And the cold that he shouldn’t feel? He was feeling it right then. His body had gone numb. “You’re…the only thing…I know.”
“But you don’t know me! You don’t even know my name!” She shoved against him, but he wouldn’t move. He wasn’t going to leave her unprotected. “Help!” Her scream filled his ears. “Someone, we need help!”
And help was coming…help was getting ever closer, he could hear those sirens. But…help wouldn’t arrive soon enough for him.
The bullet had torn through his back. It was lodged inside of him. It was killing him. “Found you…” he whispered. His head turned and his lips feathered over her cheek. “Found you.”
Her scream was the last thing he heard.
“Stay with me!” Shelly grabbed the hand of the man who’d saved her life—the stranger with the dark hair and the piercing blue eyes. The stranger who was still and cold on the stretcher. “Don’t you do this!”
The EMTs shared a long look. “Ma’am, you need to let him go.”
“You have to help him!” A deputy’s car had raced to the scene first. How long ago had that been? Twenty minutes? Half an hour ago? Once he’d arrived, the guy had radioed for help, and the ambulance had come, but the ambulance attendants weren’t helping! “Stop the bleeding! I think the bullet is still inside of him! You need to—”
“He’s gone, Shelly.”
She stiffened. Her gaze jerked to the right. The sheriff stood there, lit by the swirl of lights. His hat was pulled low over his head, and his hands were on his lean hips. His badge gleamed.
“He was dead before the ambulance arrived,” the sheriff added softly, his lips tightening. “I’m sorry.”
She was still clutching the stranger’s hand. She didn’t even know his name. He’d saved her—twice—and he was dead? Just dead? This couldn’t happen! It wasn’t right.
“Let him go,” Sheriff Blane Gallows added. “They need to take him away.”
She didn’t want to let him go. She wanted him to open his eyes. To see her.
“Shelly, I know this isn’t easy, but you have to let the man go now.” The sheriff’s voice was soft, tender. She’d known Blane her whole life. She’d spent many summers and holidays in the mountains, and they’d grown up together. Been friends, even tried a brief period of time being lovers. That hadn’t worked, but they’d remained close.
“I don’t even know his name,” she whispered. He should feel cold, shouldn’t he? He was dead, she was holding onto a dead man, but his skin still felt warm to her.
“He didn’t have ID,” Blane told her, his hand squeezing her shoulder. “But we can get his prints. We’ll figure out who he was. Notify his family. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of him.”
She made herself let him go. Shelly turned her head and met Blane’s green gaze. “He saved my life.”
Determination sharpened his features. “We’re looking for the hunter who fired that shot. Damn fools can’t understand regulations…”
Shelly shivered. She wasn’t so sure the shot had been fired by a reckless hunter. “My brakes didn’t work. He saved me—God, I guess he saved me twice.” She looked back at the stranger, helpless, but he’d just been loaded into the ambulance. His face had been covered, his body covered.
Found you. His rumbling voice echoed in her mind.
“Come on, Shelly, I’ll take you to the cabin,” Blane promised her. “It’s too cold to stay out here.”
Shoulders hunching, Shelly nodded. Blane was right. There was no point in staying out there any longer. The mysterious stranger who’d saved her life—he was gone.
A light dusting of snow began to fall.
And a tear slid down her cheek.
His eyes opened and, at first, he only saw a wall of white. He jerked upright as he realized that some sort of cover was over him—a sheet? What the fuck? He shoved it out of his way and glanced around.
Someone screamed. Over and over again.
A woman. She had a stethoscope around her neck and she wore some kind of blue uniform. She gaped at him, her eyes huge and her face stark white. “You’re dead!” she yelled. “Dead, dead—”
A quick sweep of his gaze revealed that he was in the back of an ambulance. The vehicle gave a sharp swerve to the left, and he knew the driver had heard the woman’s screams.
“Not exactly,” he muttered, and he leapt for the back doors. He shoved those doors open even as the ambulance fish-tailed, and he jumped out, flying right from the rear of the vehicle. He didn’t fall. Didn’t stumble at all. He landed on his feet, and he took off running for the line of trees. He heard the screech of the ambulance braking behind him. And he also heard—
“Dead! He’s dead!” The woman was still screaming.
She was…not wrong.
It wasn’t the first time he’d woken from the dead. And he feared it wouldn’t be his last, either.