In this world you will have trouble.
But take heart! I have overcome the world. John 16:33
Just three more miles.
Tabitha Beaumont struggled with each new step. After swimming a mile through a cold mountain lake then biking twenty-six more through the Carolina Blue Ridge, her legs felt more like weighted anchors than lean stretches of muscle. Still, she trudged on.
For miles, she’d emulated the long, steady strides of two seasoned competitors – just as her brother, Max, had coached her. But when passing the little crowd on Hendersonville’s Main Street, she hit “the wall.” Her body could no longer maintain the unvarying clip of the other runners. When they started up the final mountain trail to the finish, she slowed and watched as the two runners pulled further and further ahead, leaving her to battle the mountain alone.
Just three more miles.
She needed to focus. But her mind refused. Every muscle in her body screamed to stop. Her lungs ached for air. Her heart pounded against her chest. Her legs felt limp and numb. The dark, steep path loomed ahead invincibly.
Come on, Tabby. You can do this.
Following a sharp rise in the path as it curved around patches of evergreens, she continued to grind her way upward. The August air lay dense under the canopy of foliage. Sweat dripped from every strand of her hair, down into her eyes, down the back of her neck, and down the front of her chest. Slowly, she progressed.
The whisper jump-started her tired senses. There was no one around. She had to have imagined her name being called. Her eyes sifted nervously through the thick forest. But she was alone. Her legs continued to churn over the mulched trail.
A gruff male voice sent a chill through her body. She could not have imagined that. Crunching leaves and snapping twigs confirmed someone was near.
Again, she glanced back. Two men dressed in camouflage ran less than ten feet behind her. Where they’d come from or how they knew her name, she had no idea. But they didn’t belong on this mountain. No one but competitors were allowed on the trails. Today, all the entrances had been roped off and guarded by event officials. And, who in their right mind would run a triathlon in full camouflage?
Fear zipped through Tabitha’s tired body. It fired up her overworked adrenal glands and she doubled her speed, trying desperately to outrun them. But the men were not shaken. They stayed close, nearly flanking her and mumbling to one another.
“Number forty-seven,” one of them said.
Tabitha glanced down at the black writing on her left arm. Her entry number. Forty-seven. How did they know that? Why did they know that? She didn’t want to imagine. Instead, she ground her heels into the mulched path with what little energy remained and pressed on.
The men continued to close in. One of them reached for her elbow. As his fingers grazed her arm, her fear transformed to utter panic. Her mouth opened. She tried to scream. But only a tiny gasp escaped. Still, she jerked forward, slipping from the man’s loose grasp as his giant paw fell away from her sweaty arm.
Nothing less than blind terror moved Tabitha now. She bounded into a full sprint. Her head spun from the forced exertion. Her breathing fell short and shallow.
“Come on, lady. Stop. You know what we need.” The evil in his voice churned Tabitha’s stomach.
“Yeah,” the other man said. “Hand it over.”
Hand what over? Her mind clouded at their words. What were they talking about?
Forget it. She needed help. Frantically, she searched for other competitors, but she’d lost the two runners ahead and there seemed to be no one behind. How was that? How in a race with over one hundred participants had she managed to find a gap? How could she have put herself in this position?
All she could do now was pray and run. As fast as possible, she propelled herself onward. The thud of her pulse drummed in her ears. She had to get away. And still, they closed in.
“Come on lady! What Max gave you…we need it.”
Max? Did they say Max? They knew her brother?
Tabitha pushed on. Every step more painful than the last. In her fear and exhaustion the trail began to blur beneath her. A protruding root caught her heel. Her ankle twisted and she went down on hands and knees. Rolling to her back, she kicked out blindly, sending one of the men back a few feet. The other grabbed her by the wrists.
Oh Lord, please help me.
Battling some kind of flu or major dehydration, Rory Farrell was having the worst race of his life. Bent over at the waist, he veered off the path to wait for the cramps and nausea to die away. A few racers passed. If he weren’t so spent, he might have cared that this would be the first time in five years he wouldn’t win the Hendersonville Triathlon.
Instead, he collapsed his large figure down the side of a birch tree and tried to relax his aching body. He focused on steady breathing, taking a moment to soak in the beauty of his native Smokey Mountains. His gaze floated lazily down the steep bank of the mountainside, until it stopped at a most bizarre sight.
Two hunters carried a racer toward the foot of the mountain. A woman. Was she injured? It seemed unlikely considering the way she flailed around between them.
Rory stood then launched himself down the rocky incline to investigate, grumbling over the thought of retracing his steps. But something strange was happening and he had a gut feeling that he needed to interfere.
“Hey! What’s going on?” he shouted.
The men paused to locate his position. The larger of the two turned, revealing a nice shiny handgun. A shot rang out and Rory’s trained responses kicked in. He dashed for cover behind a tree. The bullet whizzed by, striking a nearby leaf as it passed.
Well, no doubt about it now. He was definitely going to interfere.
In fact, Rory no longer felt sick. Other, stronger emotions had driven that from his system. His veins pulsed with heated energy and his own innate sense of justice.
The men descended swiftly, dragging the female racer between them. She struggled violently. Another shot echoed across the mountain.
Rory continued to slide closer. Steadily, he gained on them, now close enough to hear her muffled cries and catch a glimpse of her frightened face. A face he recognized. It was the racer he’d noticed at the start – the one with the big brown eyes and great smile. The men had gagged her, further fueling his anger. He pressed on, forgetting the dangers he faced as he drew near.
Rory crept as close as he could, using large trees for cover. Then, he charged at the armed man, yelling at the top of his lungs. A Rebel attack. It worked too. They dropped the girl and stood a full second before taking action. Rory moved in and grabbed the man’s wrist. He pointed the 9mm down. With his other hand, he struck hard below the ribs. The big guy went down and so did his weapon.
Rory kicked the gun out of reach and spun around as the second man took a swing. Pain riveted through his body as the man’s knuckles made contact with his face. Rory took repeated blows before landing a right hook. The little guy stumbled to the side. Rory retrieved the gun from under the brush. He aimed fast, but the men had already fled. Rory started to follow but hearing the woman moan reminded him to resist his natural instinct to pursue.
In a thick patch of fern, he found the woman, trembling on her back. She had removed the gag but made no attempt to sit up.
He knelt beside her. “Ma’am, are you okay? Did they hurt you?”
Instead of answering, she closed her eyes while her body shuddered through another violent tremor. He reached a hand to her forearm to steady her, but she tucked away, every muscle tensed and rigid.
“It’s okay.” He softened his tone. “They’re gone. They’re not coming back. I got their gun. See?” She looked up, with large, unfocused eyes. Her face so pale he feared she would pass out. “Really, ma’am. You’re safe now. But…you’re kind of scaring me. Can you talk? Can you hear me?”
With a sudden jerk, she spun around on all fours and was sick. The sight brought Rory a renewed wave of his own gastric unease. A discomfort he squashed with a quick exhale.
“Feel better?” he asked her.
She turned back and nodded slowly. “I—I didn’t…” Her eyes lifted to his face and widened. “Your nose!”
Rory wiped his face with his forearm and glanced down at the blood. “Oh. That’s nothing,” he said. Although judging from the pain when he moved his head, it was probably broken. That little guy had given it to him good. “Don’t worry about me. What about you? What happened?”
“Those men…They—They said I…” She shook her head and shifted her eyes away. Her lips pressed together tight and flat.
Rory let the questions go. They needed to move. Her story could come later. “You think you can get up?”
She stared back at him and shrugged.
Rory straightened, offering a hand to her. As her palm settled into his, a warm sensation rippled through him – not unlike the pleasant jolt he suffered when he’d spotted her on the lake shore earlier that morning.
She pulled up and applied weight to both feet then collapsed. Rory shot his arms out and pulled her to his chest. No jolt this time, but he couldn’t pretend he didn’t notice her soft curves brushing against him.
“Okay. Take it easy. Where’s the damage?”
“Right ankle. I turned it. That’s how they got me.”
Already she seemed calmer, her speech more steady. She hobbled back and pushed his hand away as if she didn’t need his help.
He grinned at her determined efforts. “Now Ms.-”
“Tabitha Beaumont,” she said softly. “And thank you. Thank you for helping me.”
“Tabitha.” He grinned. “I like that. A good strong name.” He put his hand on her elbow, again offering his support. “Rory Farrell and it’s my pleasure. Now, the closest place for us to get help is at the inn, just up the hill here. I’ll piggy-back you.”
“Piggy-back? No. I’m alright.” She stared up the steep slope and again slid her elbow from his grasp.
“Look ma’am, I’m a Marine. Trust me. I won’t drop you. I’ve this sort of thing plenty of times.”
She gave him a funny look then began scanning the area below. “You know, there’s another path down there. We could go down instead of up.”
Rory narrowed his eyes and flattened his lips. He wasn’t used to people questioning his authority, especially in this kind of situation. “That trail leads to the falls. We need to go up.”
Tabitha folded her arms across her chest–a stance, which he supposed was meant to look defiant. The movement threw her off balance. Rory had to grab her arms again to keep her from toppling over.
“I promise it’s better to go up.” He pulled her close, forcing her weight into his arms, to take the pressure off her bad ankle. Her face scrunched up with disapproval, but he didn’t release her. “Trust me. Let me help you.”
For one moment, she quit struggling and steadied her eyes into his. “I’m sorry. I’m just nervous. I know I need your help.”
A little too quickly, Rory lost himself in her large chocolate eyes. The urge to brush his knuckles across her cheek where some errant curls stuck to her soft olive skin overwhelmed him and he shook his head to clear his mind. He should have been too focused for such a senseless thought.
“You’re sure there’s not another way?” she asked.
“Positive.” He released her long enough to reclaim the 9mm Berretta from the ground and engaged its safety. “We’ll need to give this to the police.”
“Police?” She blinked.
“Of course. As soon as we get back we have to report this.”
“Yes. Right. I’m not thinking clearly. Sorry.”
“Understandable.” He looked at the gun and then down at his flimsy bike shorts. “Could you—”
She turned a shoulder. “Back of my top?”
He tucked the gun snuggly into the back of her jog-bra. Then he squatted for her to climb on his back. A hand came down to his right shoulder blade. It retreated just as quickly.
“No time to be shy.” Urging her bad leg forward, Rory knocked her weight onto his back and felt her slide into position. Two long legs wrapped around his torso. Her hands went to his shoulders. She left as much space as possible between their bodies.
It wasn’t ideal for balance but he lifted her easily enough and started up the mountain. Planting each foot securely, banking every step, he clung to tree trunks and slowly advanced upward.
“You okay?” He grunted, feeling the lactic acid burn in his thighs.
“Peachy,” she answered.
“Well, I’ve got you. Just relax.”
“Relax? You’re kidding?”
“Your hands. Relax your hands.”
To his relief, she extracted her nails from his flesh. “Oh no. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. You must regret—”
He heard that familiar hitch in a voice trying to fight off a good cry.
“I don’t regret a thing,” he said between exerted breaths. “Now, put your arms across my chest and pull closer.”
Tabitha didn’t budge. But she didn’t cry. Strong, stubborn, shy. He respected her responses, although the timidity surprised him.
“Don’t think about it. Do it.”
Once she did, Rory decided that despite his own exhaustion he could have carried her all day. She felt light and for the first time in months so did he.
The Marine moved with amazing agility even with her hanging onto his back like a frightened kitten. When he’d come out of the woods screaming like a wild man, she’d thanked God that very instant for sending him. She could only imagine what would have happened to her if he hadn’t come.
Getting up the last part of the slope proved tricky, but Rory managed until they reached the runner’s trail. He put her down nice and easy then folded over at the waist struggling for his breath. The way he pinched at his side she could only imagine the cramping he suffered.
In less than a minute, a small group of racers passed. Rory stood and joined them.
“Got an injured runner here,” he said. “Could one of you send a golf cart for us?”
“Sure,” one of them answered. A couple of them looked back at her.
Tabitha glanced at Rory. “Go on,” she said. “I’ll be fine. You should finish the race.”
He ignored her and whispered something else to the others. Again, they glanced back then moved on.
“Really. Go on. I’ll be fine,” she repeated, as he walked toward the tree that she leaned against.
“Are you kidding?” He smirked, wiping the beads of sweat from his forehead. “I’m done. I seriously doubt I could make it to the finish. Anyway, I’d have to be one lousy rescuer, if I upped and left you here.”
Tabitha frowned, but truly she was relieved. She didn’t want to be alone. Even though he was a stranger and she hated needing so much help, the fact he’d risked his own life for her made her feel safe and connected to him.
“Did you tell them about the attack?”
“Not in so many words. But I wanted them to get some policemen looking around. Those men could still be on the mountain.”
Rory turned and stretched his back with a few twists. He dripped with sweat and his nose trickled a bit of blood. Regardless, Tabitha could see that he was an attractive man. The blue of his eyes reminded her of the ocean, deep and expressive. She saw something in them, in him, which gave her a warm, peaceful feeling she’d not sensed from many men.
“You should sit.” He came to her. Putting an arm around her shoulder, he led her to a smooth boulder near the trail’s edge.
She tried not to, but her back went rigid at his touch.
“Are you in pain?” he asked.
She shook her head then scooted back on the large rock. He moved in beside her, so close she could feel strength and heat coursing through him. She wished she could relax enough to lean on him and borrow some of that power. Instead, she trembled and blinked back the stinging tears that formed in her eyes.
A strong arm wrapped around her and pulled her into a cozy hug. Tabitha wished she weren’t so stiff and unnatural because it felt wonderful – like a life force surrounding and filling her with energy and hope.
“Tabitha Beaumont.” His slow southern drawl, full of confidence and warmth, spread her name over an extra syllable or two. “You just rest easy. You’ve had quite a morning.”
She nodded, barely able to keep back the tears. “What should I do when we get back? You said something about the police.” Tabitha wanted to do this right. This time, she would report the crime.
“You see that cart coming?” he said softly.
She looked up and nodded again.
“Well, we’re going to ride to the inn in it. Then we’ll call a detective and when he arrives, you’ll tell him what happened. While we wait, there’ll be lots for you to eat and drink. And I’m sure you’d like to call your family. Husband, maybe? How does that sound?”
“Too easy.” She tried hard to conceal the fear from her voice. But the sympathetic look he gave her showed she hadn’t quite managed.
“I’m going to help you. I’ll be right there.”
“Thank you.” She forced a smile. “I appreciate it.”
He smiled and started to help her up.
“You know,” Tabitha added. “We can probably scratch eating and calling husbands from that list.”
“Not married either.”
Tabitha suspected a smile hid in those mysterious blue eyes.