Authors: Renee Burke
To Claim Her
By Renee Burke
Copyright 2014 Renee Burke
Table of Contents
Gretchen was hallucinating. It was the only possibility. Mark had left her years before,
broken hearted and alone, but he seemed to be here now. Holding her. His soft lips caressed her neck. Warmth spread over her as his strong hands stroked her chilled skin.
She could feel his control. It had always been that way as he held her, as if he held himself just in check with barely leashed restraint. She wished he would let go, touch her the way he wanted. She smiled into his dark eyes and scanned his beautiful features, but they morphed, became darker and terrifying in an instant.
He bared his teeth and leaned closer.
Gretchen screamed, thrashing as she tried to get away. This wasn’t her Mark. His hands held her like bands of concrete. Sharp talons bit into her back, and tears rolled down her cheeks. A sound drew her attention, a twig snapping in the distance.
Lifting her heavy eyelids, Gretchen could see the monster was gone. Moonlight streaked through the surrounding trees. The dark shadows dominated, and dreams of Mark’s warm body and soft bed were gone.
She glanced down to see coils of rope stretched across her naked chest and waist, holding her tightly to the rough bark of a tree. Naked. Completely naked in the woods. She shook off the image of the monster and tried to fathom how she had gotten here but came up blank.
Another twig snapped, closer this time. Gretchen squinted into the darkness, searching the shadowy undergrowth for movement. Her heart pounded in her ears. Sweat dotted her cooling skin. Her pulse soared as she imagined the creature stalking her. Dark and hungry, waiting for terror to encompass her before bounding out of the darkness to tear her limb from limb.
She saw it then, the form sliding toward her, moving between the trees. Another one appeared, deeper in the trees. Bright light flashed in her face, and the anxiety seemed to swallow her as she screamed.
Mark scanned the tree line as he hiked through the woods. He swept his flashlight back and forth across the landscape for any sign of Gretchen. She’d disappeared without a trace sometime yesterday just after leaving his house. Her car, deserted near the clinic where she worked, had been found. Police found signs of a struggle nearby and launched a search. Caddo Parish was full of hiding places, woods and water mixed around Shreveport.
He couldn’t believe she was gone. The only trace was her phone signal, tracked to a road near this stretch of woods. Even that hadn’t lasted long.
His chest tightened as he thought about her startled reaction to seeing him the day before. They had history, things to be sorted out, and he hoped to heaven he still had time to make things right. But first he had to find her. He shook off regrets of the past and plowed through the wooded area.
The high beam of his search and rescue light caught a pale reflection in the distance. A form hovered near the ground.
It had to be Gretchen.
She slumped, fighting against cords that stretched across her pale skin and secured her tightly to the tree trunk.
Mark moved left, treading around the perimeter as he read the area and found nothing immediately threatening. He approached from the back, pulling his knife free of his pocket and rounded the tree to free her.
One touch of his hand to her arm and her startled scream pierced the air. He crouched, leaned closer and touched her face to soothe her.
His terse voice halted her screech, lulling her cry into a whine.
Mark reached for his radio. “Subject has been located. Requesting an ambulance to the scene.” He gave his location. They wouldn’t come within reach without his request. They would disturb the area as little as possible until it was processed as a crime scene.
He put his radio away and examined Gretchen’s features. Her eyes were wide, pupils fully dilated even after his light had flashed in her face. Her skin was pale and cold despite the warm Louisiana night.
Her cold skin was a dangerous sign.
He moved his big hand to her face, sliding his fingers around her neck and guiding her gaze up to his own. “Gretchen. It’s Mark. Let me help you.”
Her eyes drooped as her head fell back to rest against the tree. Dirty tear tracks streaked her face. “Cold.”
“I know, darlin. Let me get you loose, and I’ll take care of you.” He slid his denim shirt free and draped it over Gretchen’s chest. “You need to warm up.” The night was moderate, not hot enough to make him sweat, not cold enough to make her shiver, but she was completely naked and as much as she wasn’t his anymore, he didn’t want her exposed when the other searchers came closer. He worked his knife under the cord. He aimed it away from her shivering skin and pushed until it popped through. The ropes loosened, and she slumped forward.
Mark slid his arms around her, lifting her out of bondage. The ropes fell away leaving abrasions behind in a criss-cross pattern across the fair skin of her breasts and stomach. He checked for other injuries as he guided her arms into the denim shirt. She hissed when the fabric slid across her back. She had gouges there. None looked too deep, but she’d been pinned against the rough tree bark, tied tightly enough to tear through her skin. He carefully pulled the shirt on the rest of the way.
“Good, sweetheart. That’s good.” He secured the button across her breasts and moved down to close a few more. She was a tiny thing, so the shirt fell mid-thigh. He was glad she was hidden from the eyes of strangers at least. The deputy approached, giving directions to tape off the area. He took in the sight of Mark holding Gretchen cautiously by her slender shoulders. When the officer made a move toward her, she leaned closer into Mark’s side. Point taken. The deputy backed off.
“Gretchen, we’ve got an ambulance standing by. We need to get you to the turn off since they can’t come in this far.” He turned to Mark. “She shouldn’t walk that far. Her feet will be torn to pieces. We can bring a stretcher in. May take a few minutes.”
Mark shook his head. “I’ll carry her.” Without another word, he tucked his muscled forearm under her bottom and rolled her into his chest, reverse piggyback style. “Come on, sweetheart. Let’s get you out of here.”
Her head lulled on his shoulder as she came in and out of consciousness. Probably drugged. They needed to get her to the hospital and make sure she would come to. He should try talking to her.
Her breasts pressed into the thin fabric of his t-shirt, stroking his pecs as she bounced slightly against him with each step. Her tight bottom sat on his arms. Her face was tucked into his neck, and her hot breath fanned across the skin of his throat. He had some things he could say but none of them seemed appropriate in this situation.
Not after being gone all these years. She’d been nineteen and he’d been twenty-two when he’d left Caddo Parish. Leaving her and his troubles behind. There wasn’t a chance in hell he’d let her get away from him again. He sure wasn’t leaving.
First, he had to get her through this trauma. Had she been raped? The thought made his body tighten with intent to kill. He must have squeezed her in his embrace because she whined into his neck. “Sorry, sweetheart. No, no. Don’t fight me.”
She stilled in his grip. “Eddie?” Her voice was soft.
“No.” His rebuke was forceful and harsh. Who in the hell was Eddie? Whoever he was, he didn’t matter now that Mark was back. She’d know that soon enough. He’d see to it.
Her brow furrowed at his frown. “Oh, Mark.” He felt her lips caress his throat and swallowed hard.
Her slurred speech confirmed his thought that she’d been drugged. She was talking at least. And she recognized him. That was a good sign, even if it did piss him off that she called for another man first.
“We’re going to get you all fixed up. Almost there.” He could see the lights of the ambulance flash through the trees. He strode forward. Not long now. “Then we’re going to spend some time together.”
Her arms tightened across his shoulders, and he felt her shake her head. “No time together. You left me.” Her voice was a tired whisper.
The paramedics met him and guided her down onto the stretcher. He continued to grip her hand as they covered her with a sheet and strapped her in place.
“We’ll see about that, sweetheart.” He watched as they took vitals and started an IV before moving to his truck to follow them to the hospital.
Gretchen felt like she was floating on a rolling wave in the gulf. As it surged, she drifted in and out of pleasant lethargy, but when it dipped into reality, she felt the pain encompassing her battered body.
She wasn’t awake, she knew that. But that discomfort and uncertainty were enough to make her want to ride the wave up again, onto the high of whatever was keeping the pain at bay.
“Gretchen. Ms. Hamilton.”
Was her mother here? Her mind drifted to a childhood memory of her mom’s kitchen, her loving mother cooking dinner as a child version of herself snacked on rolls before dinner. The memory turned darker, and her mom drifted away before her eyes. Almost like real life. The dream morphed, and Eddie stood before her in his footie pajamas, a teddy bear hanging from his grip. Then he was gone, too.
She felt wet splotches on her face being wiped away before a familiar voice echoed low in her ear. “Sweetheart, wake up so we can find out who did this to you.” Mark’s voice.
“That’s it. Come around so we can talk to you.”
She braved the pain and uncertainty and opened her eyes to a dimly lit room. She tried to clear her mind enough to speak. She opened her mouth but her vocal cords seemed stuck. A nurse lifted a cup of water with a straw to her lips and she sipped.
“There she is, now.” A white-haired doctor hovering nearby patted her hand. “Good to see you awake. I’m Dr. Meyers. We need to run some tests on you, Ms. Hamilton, make sure there is nothing more significant than those cuts you have.”
“Do you remember much of anything?”
She searched her mind. “The woods. I thought I was dreaming. Mark was there.” She glanced his way as he stepped away when a police officer gestured from the doorway.
The doctor shook his head. “That was no dream. That young man is here in a big way. Nearly ready to tear the place apart. The paramedics said they had to pry you from him. He’s the protective sort.”
That was new because the last time she’d been close to Mark, he’d up and left without much remorse or compassion at all.
The doctor’s demeanor changed. “We’re trying to get a handle on what happened to you, Gretchen. I think we need to do a rape kit, since you’re missing time and were found in the state you were in.”
Her puckered brow caused him to smile kindly. “What state was I in?”
Her skin paled even further. Unbelievable. She didn’t remember that detail. Was it possible she’d been raped and hadn’t even known it? She remembered going to Mark’s house, really his father’s house, where she helped out every day caring for the aging man. Then she had driven to the clinic where she worked but didn’t recall arriving. There seemed to be only gray fuzz in her memory after that. What was clear, crystal clear, was that Mark had been one of her rescuers. And she’d been naked. It was too embarrassing to bear.
For just this one moment, she was glad she couldn’t remember the series of events. Whatever had happened to her had left a scary dark place over the past day, and as much as she’d love to turn to Mark for comfort from that, the sheer embarrassment of him finding her naked in the woods was the icing on the trauma cake.