Aiden Knight should have been studying for finals. Or writing his Psychology 101 paper. Or pounding back a few beers with his roommates while grieving his latest breakup with Daisy. Any or all of those things would be preferable to where he now found himself. Which was so insane he could barely believe it was real.
He was in a rustic cabin somewhere in the Sierras, probably not too far from Jupiter Point. He was being held hostage—or something. The man who had yanked him off his bike and hustled him into an SUV hadn’t exactly explained the point of it all. But he’d been very careful not to hurt Aiden in any way.
That was good, of course. But it only went so far. And now, with his kidnapper off somewhere else, Aiden was gritting his teeth and rubbing his wrists raw trying to free his hands from the rope binding them behind his back. His feet were tied to the legs of a chair. Next to him sat an overturned orange five-gallon bucket. The kidnapper had set a gallon of water with a straw on it, along with a plastic bowl of trail mix. Aiden had stuck his face in that bowl a few times in the hours that he’d been here. He’d also sipped the water, but since the man hadn’t offered any options for urinating, he didn’t want to go overboard with the hydration. Already he felt the need to pee. If only he’d foreseen this problem before the kidnapper took off. But how was he to know the dude would be gone so long?
Aiden had tried talking to the man, since that sort of thing was his strength. Will, his oldest brother, always said he had the most “emotional intelligence” of any of the Knight brothers. He could generally talk to anyone and got along with most people. So naturally he’d tried to form a bond with his kidnapper.
“What’s your name?”
“You’ll know when the time is right,” he’d answered. And those had been the last words Aiden had been able to pry out of him.
Apparently the time wasn’t right yet, because Aiden was still in the dark about what this was all about.
He scanned the cozy little cabin, which was made from rough-hewn logs with gaps that let the brisk mountain air in. The windows were so grimy he could barely see out of them, which was sad because this forest was majestically beautiful—according to his memories of camping out here with his father. A little wood stove sat in the corner, with a box of kindling and a few logs next to it, but the man hadn’t made a fire before he took off. The air was chilling down fast, the way it did at higher elevations. At a guess, Aiden would say he was at least at two thousand feet.
Maybe he was near the Breton Lookout Tower, from which volunteers scanned the wilderness for signs of wildfires in the summer. Was it staffed this early in the season? Probably not. It was only late April. And even if it were, how would he signal that he was being held in this cabin against his will? Smoke signals?
The kidnapper had taken his cell phone, of course. But there was an old radio on a shelf near the woodstove. Maybe he could rig the radio to send out an SOS on an emergency frequency. He knew the frequencies, thanks to his brother Tobias. Tobias had taken him up in one of their prop planes and shown him the basics. But Aiden wasn’t really interested in flying. He was more of a water lover. Surfing, swimming, river-rafting, anything involving water got his vote.
He eyed the plastic jug of water the man had left for him, then looked away. The need to urinate kept getting stronger. Strange how the kidnapper had thought of everything except that. He seemed very well prepared overall. A four-wheeler had been waiting for them near a fire road. No one had seen them during the entire backcountry ride to this remote spot. It was in the middle of nowhere. No one was going to randomly stumble across this little cabin.
What if the kidnapper had gotten lost? What if a bear had eaten him? What if Aiden was stuck in here indefinitely?
Setting his jaw, he got back to work on the rope around his wrists. His idea was that if he built up enough sweat—and maybe blood from the friction—he might be able to slip his hands out of the restraints.
But so far, the pain of rubbing the skin off his wrists hadn’t gotten him anywhere. He needed a new plan.
He eyed his surroundings. The floor of the cabin was unfinished plywood. If he fell onto his side, maybe he could do a kind of “worm” move across the floor and make it to the door. It was locked, of course. But maybe he could bang it open with his feet. Or his head.
He used his body weight to teeter the chair from side to side. When he reached the tipping point, he braced for impact.
Water drenched his legs as he hit the floor with a painful thud. Trail mix skittered across the plywood. Great. He’d knocked over the upside down bucket and all his food and water.
It occurred to Aiden that this might be the low point of his life so far. Dumped by Daisy once again. Stranded in the wilderness. Held hostage. Bladder about to burst. Could things get any worse?
Of course they could. The guy could come back any second. Might as well try to complete his plan. He wriggled across the floor like a snail tipped onto its side. It was like a very stupid-looking dance club move. Maybe if he got lucky and made it out of here, he could get this one trending. Call it “the awkward.”
From his new vantage point, he could see a bit of sky through one of the grimy windows. Night would be falling soon. Progress was ridiculously slow, and probably pointless. Would he be any better off when he reached the door? Even if he got out of this cabin, where would he go? Was he going to do “the awkward” all the way to a road? What direction should he head?
By the time he got close to the door, he was panting and sweating. “Help!” he called, just in case someone happened to be passing by. He tried to kick the door, but since his feet were tied to the legs of the chair, all he could manage was more of a flick. The door hung crooked on its hinges, just as neglected as the rest of the cabin. Did the kidnapper actually intend to come back at all?
For the first time, real fear snaked through him. What the hell was going on here? The guy had worn a bandanna over his face the entire time, and offered no explanation whatsoever. Was it random or was he targeted? If he was the target, why? He had no enemies that he knew of. He was just an ordinary guy, if you called someone whose father had been murdered and who was raised by his older brothers—
He froze as a terrible suspicion struck him.
Did this have to do with Dad’s murder? Will had recently quit his sheriff’s deputy job in order to devote all his time to finally tracking down Robert Knight’s killer, twelve years after the murder. He’d pinpointed a suspect—Matthew Dearborn, who ran an accounting firm and had an obsession with their mother. Will was still trying to actually locate him, however, and the man kept slipping through his fingers.
Aiden hadn’t been following the investigation all that closely, since he’d been dealing with college and heartbreak. He’d only been eight when the murder had happened. He had memories of Dad, of course, but they were pretty fuzzy. He knew Dearborn was still at large. He knew the man was dangerous, obviously. He’d briefly kidnapped another kid in an attempt to scare off a witness—Julie deGaia, who was now engaged to his brother Ben.
Was it Matthew Dearborn who had kidnapped him off the Evergreen campus?
Filled with new determination, he swung his bound feet toward the door once again. Thud.
Except this time, a sound came right back at him.
“Hello?” A young-sounding female voice called cautiously. “Is anyone in there?”
Aiden was so shocked he almost forgot to answer. “Yes! I’m in here and I need some help!”
The woman paused before answering cautiously. “Who are you?”
“What does that matter? I need help! Can you get the door open?” As soon as he heard his impatient voice, he winced. If he pissed this woman off, she might disappear and he’d be stuck here even longer. “Sorry about that. My name’s Aiden Knight. I’m…well, I guess I’m being held captive. I mean, yes. I’m being held prisoner in here. Against my will.”
“Held prisoner?” Her voice went high with incredulity. “Then we should call the police.”
Brilliant idea. Except who knew how long the police would take to get all the way out here. Wherever “here” was, exactly. “Yeah, definitely. Can you call them? The guy took my cell phone and tied me up in here. Do you have phone service out here?”
“No,” she said in a wary tone.
“Then maybe you could just get me out of here?”
She paused before answering. “Here’s the problem. How do I know this isn’t a trick to get me to come in there?”
Aiden’s jaw dropped. He must be really naive about situations like this, because that thought had never crossed his mind. Did that even make sense? “I swear I’m a normal, law-abiding guy. I go to college at Evergreen. I grew up in Jupiter Point. I got one speeding ticket in my whole life. You don’t have to worry about me. Besides, I’m tied up.”
“But you want me to untie you,” she said reasonably.
Yes, he definitely wanted that. His wrists were throbbing and his position, on his side on the hard floor, was supremely uncomfortable. And then there was the call-of-nature issue. “Look, I’m sure you have ways to defend yourself, not that you need to from me. Don’t you have bear spray with you? A Swiss army knife? What are you doing out here anyway? How’d you find this place?”
“You’re asking a lot of questions.”
Okay then. Just his luck that the first person who happened by would be so touchy. “Sorry. I’m a little tense right now, due to being held prisoner and all.”
“You know, I’d feel a lot more comfortable with this whole situation if you weren’t a man.”
Aiden exhaled slowly and focused on the sliver of light shining through the two logs closest to him. Freedom was so close, if he could just reassure this wary stranger that he was no threat to her. “Look, you can keep my hands tied together if you want. Just help me get off the floor. I’m not going to hurt you. That’s not me, you can ask anyone. My brothers, my classmates, my ex-girlfriend. They’d all vouch for me.”
“Your ex-girlfriend would vouch for you?”
“Definitely. Even though we’ve broken up six times, she’s still one of my best friends.”
For the first time, she laughed. The sound lightened the atmosphere like a flashlight in a dark basement. “How’d you manage that?”
Really, they were going to discuss relationships while he was tied up on the floor? Well, whatever it took to make her stop fearing him.
“I’ve known Daisy forever. She lives on a farm near our house and we played together a lot. I want her to be happy, whether she’s my girlfriend or not. We actually get along better when we’re just friends, so there’s that too. Bottom line is, I care about her, whoever she dates.”
“That’s not the way all men think. I know from firsthand experience.” The sadness in her voice made him realize she might have a good reason to fear setting him free.
“I don’t know about all men. But I can tell you whatever you want to know about me.”
“How old are you?”
“Just turned twenty.”
“How do you like college?”
“Other than being homesick, I love it.”
“What do want to do when you graduate?”
“Not sure yet.”
Her rapid-fire questions didn’t seem especially relevant to him, but maybe she didn’t really know what to ask. “Back to that bear spray. You’re supposed to bring some if you’re hiking in this area. If you have a can of that, you’re one up on me. You can always just spray me if you get scared.”
“The last time I used bear spray I nearly blinded myself. But I do have some. And a Swiss army knife.”
“Good.” He hoped that was good. It was always possible that this girl wasn’t trustworthy. But she sounded young and unsure, more fearful than threatening. “Maybe I’m the one who should be scared of you.”
She made a sniffling sound and muttered something that sounded like, “Yeah right.”
“Hey, why don’t you just look through that window? You might be able to see me. You’ll probably laugh at how pathetic I look.”
“Good idea. Hang on.”
He heard the shuffle of footsteps, and then caught a flash of movement at the filthy patch of glass. He had to crane his neck to see her, and even then, he didn’t get much of an impression beyond someone young and wearing a cozy knitted hat.
He tried his best to look non-threatening. Which was pretty easy considering he was tied to a chair and sprawled on his side like a tipped-over tortoise.
“Yikes. So who did this, do you know?” she asked, sounding much more concerned than before.
“Well, I knocked myself over. But I’m here because some strange man snatched me off my bike and brought me here.”
“Who? Mr. Dearborn?” She sounded doubtful.
Dearborn. So it was him! And apparently his potential rescuer knew him. Which was a little scary, honestly.
“You know him?”
“Well, not really. I know that he owns this cabin, at least I think so. My, uh, ex-boyfriend knows him because he’s camped around here a few times. We happened to run into him when we were stocking up for this trip. But I doubt he’s the one who kidnapped you. He seemed okay. Then again, so did…” She trailed off. He wondered if she was referring to this “ex-boyfriend.”
“So, uh…what do you think? Do you trust me enough to at least let me out of here?”
“Hang on.” She disappeared from the window and he heard rustling as she moved toward the front door. “It’s locked.”
“Don’t despair, I’m looking for a spare key.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and focused on dry things. The sand on a beach that has been baking in the sun all day. Laundry right out of the dryer.
“Found it,” she called. “But this lock is so rusty, ugh.”
He heard the sound of metal scraping against metal. Oh thank God. Now that release was in sight, his bladder was going into red-alert mode. “Awesome. Do you think you could…hurry?”
“You’re awfully demanding for a prisoner.”
“Fine. Take your time,” he gritted through clenched teeth. Baby powder. Dandruff.
Finally, he heard the scrape of the door opening.
He opened his eyes to find his rescuer gazing down at him. She wore a fuzzy knitted cap and a puffy down jacket that looked nearly new. Hiking boots with fake fur lining. A backpack slung over her shoulders. Long shiny hair somewhere between brown and black.
“Think you could untie me from this chair?” He wriggled his wrists to show her his dilemma.
“Untie? I don’t think so, those knots are the kind that get tighter the more you work at them.”
That definitely explained a few things. “How would you know that?”
“One of my stepfathers had a sailboat.”
From the clipped way she said that, it didn’t exactly bring back fond memories.
“But I can cut them.” She drew a Swiss army knife from her pocket and crouched next to him. “I’m Mia Grant, by the way. In case you’re wondering who’s wielding a knife this close to your wrists.”
“I was, actually. Thanks. Nice to meet you, Mia. Are you, uh, pretty good with that knife?”
She snorted. “According to my ex, I’m not good at anything camping related. But what does he know, right?” Her voice wavered at the end, making him wonder if she ought to be handling that knife near someone the same gender as her ex.
“Right. He’s an idiot.”
He felt cold steel against his skin, then it stopped. “Maybe don’t move until I’m done?” she suggested. “Just in case Darren was right.”
“Darren wasn’t right. But I’ll hold still.” He didn’t move as she sliced through the rope around his wrists, then the ones around his ankles. He groaned with relief to finally be able to flex his wrists and get the blood moving again. “See? You did it. Thank you, Mia.” He rolled his body away from the chair. He had to get up, get out, find a semi-private spot to take care of business. “There’s something I have to do, but I’ll be right back.”
“Excuse me?” She sat back on her heels, eyes wide with confusion. He didn’t even have time to notice their color, though he did notice that she’d been crying. And that there was a mark on one of her cheekbones.
He clambered to his feet and stumbled his way out of the cabin, his legs numb with pins and needles. Was there an outhouse? No time to figure it out. He probably looked drunk the way he veered across the clearing toward the tall pine woods. But pulling out his dick in front of the woman who had just rescued him—and who had a knife in her hand—didn’t seem like a good move.
When he reached the first tree that would offer shelter, he ducked behind it and emptied his bladder in the most gloriously relieving piss of his life.