Excerpt: Going Commando

 

Chapter One

 

Elizabeth never had time to scream. One moment she was mopping the last toilet stall, looking forward to collapsing on her cot. The next instant strong hands seized her and slammed her back against a wide chest—a wall of hot, breathing steel. A huge gloved hand smothered half her face before she could catch her breath, much less get to her weapon.

She jabbed the mop handle at her unseen assailant, only to have it wrenched from her rubber-gloved hands and plopped into the commode she’d just scrubbed.

She’d known the risks from the moment she joined the Avalon Collective, but she never thought it would happen this soon. Or quite this way.

Now she was going to end up like David.

A strip of duct tape replaced the hand over her mouth. Elizabeth struggled wildly, but the arms pinning her were pure sinew beneath the black sweater sleeves, unyielding as iron bands.

He jerked her arms behind her and tore off her rubber gloves. She felt the shock of cold steel on her wrists, heard the distinctive ratchety sound of handcuffs tightening.

She twisted violently, kicking him with her bare feet, hoping to throw him off balance, make him lose his footing on the wet floor. No good. He was as immovable as granite.

The tiled room spun crazily as he hoisted her over his massive shoulder. Her forehead collided with the small of his back—and a hard lump she had no trouble identifying as a concealed, holstered firearm.

He placed a hand on the back of her thigh to steady her… and froze. She groaned under her gag, knowing her last hope had just evaporated. She felt him yank off a leather glove. Warm, callused fingers swept under her long, Indian-print skirt and over her bare legs… and between them, despite her efforts to squeeze them together. She felt a chuckle rumble deep in his massive torso as those fingers closed over her holster, strapped to her inner thigh.

“Well, I’ll be damned…” It was a baritone whisper, half amazed, half amused.

He flipped her skirt up. All the way up. She felt cool air on her bottom, hatefully displayed in her little pink bikini panties. He drew her slim semiautomatic out of the thigh holster. In the process his knuckles fleetingly brushed between her legs, creating a charge of electric heat that made her breath snag. She sensed him checking the safety and examining the gun briefly before pocketing it.

The doorknob to the outer hallway jiggled and Elizabeth whipped her head up, her screams muffled by the duct tape, her long brown hair falling around her face, obscuring her view.

Knocks and irate voices sounded at the closed door. “Who locked this door? Beth, are you still in there?”

He’d locked the door! How had it been possible for a man this size to skulk around a mirrored, tiled room invisibly… soundlessly… while she’d swabbed out the toilets?

Who was this guy? She couldn’t recall anyone this big and muscular at Avalon—he had to be at least six four—but then perhaps Lugh hired outsiders for nasty little jobs like this.

Shouts came from the other side of the door, more frantic now. “Someone get the key! Where’s the key?”

The big guy didn’t seem overly concerned. He must have jammed the lock somehow. She heard the grating sound of more duct tape peeling off a roll. He wound it about her ankles, several layers, good and tight. More around her legs, just above her knees, stealing any last remnants of mobility.

Only then did her skirt come back down. After a proprietary pat to her rump.

Ironically, that mild little pat only magnified her horror. She choked back a sob as she realized for the first time that this man might have more in store for her than simple murder.

Now he was on the move, replacing his glove and heading for the window, which must have been how he’d gotten in—past the heavy-duty locks and a state-of-the-art electronic security system. But then she recalled that this was almost certainly an inside job. He eased through the window and leaped several feet to the ground, never once losing his balance, despite his burden.

The damp chill of the October night swallowed them up as he sprinted across the grounds of the Avalon Collective, a sixties-style commune in upstate New York, heading for the tree line. He was as swift and graceful as a big cat, but Elizabeth still jounced painfully, her breath coming in harsh little grunts.

He charged into the cover of the woods, dodging and ducking unseen obstacles like some feral beast of the night. Thin tree branches snagged her skirt and scratched her lower legs. Draped over him as she was, Elizabeth could clearly feel his deep, controlled breaths, his steady, powerful heartbeat. The guy wasn’t even winded!

At last they squeezed through a fresh gash in the tall chain-link fence—his handiwork, no doubt—and emerged onto a gravel road. The world tilted once more as he righted her and propped her against a vehicle, some big four-wheel-drive thing. She was shaking so hard she could barely stay upright. Her toes curled into the sharp gravel as she struggled to keep her balance.

It was about one a.m., and the gibbous moon had not yet set. The fact that he hadn’t blindfolded her only reinforced her certainty that she wouldn’t live out the night. Clearly he wasn’t worried about being identified.

For the first time, she faced her captor, a darker shadow among a landscape of shadows. Cool moonlight hinted at a face of strong planes and angles. What her eyes failed to register, her other senses made up for. The waves of body heat radiating from him carried his masculine scent—one part healthy, vigorous male, two parts arrogance.

The shadow form loomed larger… closer. She heard him remove his gloves. They sailed past her to land on the roof of the vehicle. Her bound legs wobbled, threatening to spill her into the gravel. His low voice broke the silence.

“You have any more surprises for me, Lizzie?”

Suddenly his hands were on her. Sliding over her hips and under the waistband of her skirt. Around her midriff and up her sides to her armpits. All the places a gun might be concealed in a hidden pocket or holster. As brisk and impersonal as this search was, there was a shocking intimacy to it that Elizabeth couldn’t ignore. She felt violated. How would she be able to stand whatever else he had in mind?

Finally he yanked her tie-dyed blouse out of her skirt and reached under it. She held her breath and squeezed her eyes shut for the few seconds it took him to ascertain there was no small firearm tucked into her cleavage, no holster attached to her bra—convenient hiding places for an ample-breasted woman like Elizabeth Lancaster.

A sob tore through her chest as she tried to compose herself. Hysteria wouldn’t solve anything, but dammit, she didn’t want to die! Damn David for doing this to her. And damn her for not being able to ignore his final, terrified plea for help.

She opened her eyes and sensed her captor watching her. He was close, but not touching her. Tears streamed down her face as she wept convulsively. His dim, moonlit visage seemed to shift subtly. She almost missed his quiet words.

“Don’t do that.”

Her confusion must have registered. Slowly he lifted a hand to her face. The rough pad of his thumb swiped at her tears as he said, “Don’t cry. You have to breathe through your nose. The tape’s not coming off.” His tone was subdued, matter-of-fact.

The hand left her face and came back with a tissue, which he held to her nose. “Blow.”

The shock of this command was enough to stop her tears cold. That and the need to breathe. “Blow,” he repeated, and she did. He wiped her nose as if she were a toddler and dropped the tissue.

She supposed it wasn’t hard to make the leap from kidnapper, rapist, and murderer to full-fledged litterbug.

He opened the rear door of the vehicle, then lifted her into his arms and laid her on the cold back seat, on her side facing the front. Elizabeth closed her eyes against the harsh interior car lights and kept them closed, afraid to look her attacker in the eye. He latched the seat belts snugly around her shoulders and hips, then tossed a light blanket over her, covering her from head to foot.

In moments they were moving, to the accompaniment of gravel ricocheting around the undercarriage, followed by the lulling hum of smooth asphalt as they got on the highway. She could tell he was keeping under the speed limit. No point getting stopped in the middle of a felony, even if your back-seat baggage looked like nothing more incriminating than a pile of laundry.

After a few minutes her abductor reached back and briefly slipped his hand under the blanket at her head. He touched her face lightly and slid his knuckles under her nose, obviously to make sure she was still breathing. His fingers smelled faintly of glove leather.

Eventually she felt her ear pressure change and knew they were rising in elevation. Considering New York State’s wealth of mountainous terrain, that alone didn’t provide a clue as to what direction they were heading.

She wondered whether Lugh had given specific instructions or had left the details of her disposal to his hired thug. At the very least he must have demanded it happen far away. After David, it wouldn’t do to have any more corpses popping up at Avalon.

Finally, after what felt like two hours, the vehicle rolled to a stop. Car doors opened and closed. Again Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut as he hauled her out into the cool night air and slung her over his shoulder.

He unlocked a door and made his way through rooms in the dark. She could just make out plank flooring and a braided rug before he carried her up a flight of stairs and down a long hall. Abruptly he flipped her off his shoulder. She braced herself and landed hard on a bed, the wind forced from her lungs with a grunt. She blinked at the surrounding shadows, only to snap her eyes shut when he reached to the night table and flicked on a lamp.

Tremors racked her during the long silence that followed. A silence he broke with the commandment, “Open your eyes, Lizzie.”

She forced herself to obey, but averted her face, staring at the cream-colored wall next to the bed. She felt his fingers on her chin, forcing her to finally look at him.

Silver eyes skewered her. It was a gaze devoid of warmth… or hope. She tried to swallow the hard knot of terror threatening to close her throat. Moonlight had only hinted at the intensity of his features: a strong, straight nose; firm, whisker-studded jaw; a wide, full mouth set in a forbidding line. His thick, light brown hair was sun-streaked and nearly brushed his shoulders. It was pushed straight back off his face, revealing a long scar on his temple. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties, about a decade older than she.

A niggling sense of recognition made her nape prickle. There was something disturbingly familiar about this man. Was it the eyes? She was sure she’d never met him before, despite his use of her name. God knew she’d have remembered.

He scrutinized her with equal intensity, that cold, unforgiving gaze burning into hers. There was no mistaking his hatred. She could almost touch it. Hatred and disgust, tempered by a hint of resignation as he unhooked a large jackknife from his belt.

Numbly Elizabeth watched the blade flip into view. I’m going to die now. That fact rushed to her gut with sickening force, obliterating all else. Without a thought to pride, she screamed and sobbed behind the tape and shook her head frantically, pleading with tear-filled eyes.

Don’t kill me. Please. Don’t do this!

Her response seemed to catch him off guard, before he blinked with sudden comprehension and some other, unidentifiable emotion. Just for an instant she saw something close to… remorse?

Then grim resolution returned as he tossed her skirt above her knees and slit the tape binding her ankles and legs.

She’d barely absorbed this latest development before he reached up and ripped the tape off her mouth. She screeched and bit her lip against the stinging pain. “You son of a—”

He started to retape her mouth and she shrank back, clamping her lips shut. A little lesson in who’s in charge. Brusquely he rolled her onto her side and unlocked the handcuffs.

Slowly Elizabeth pulled her stiff, sore arms in front of her and massaged her reddened wrists. She hazarded a glance over her shoulder. He stood there with his arms crossed over his chest, staring at her. With trembling, half-numb fingers she managed to pull the rest of the tape off, vowing, if she lived through this night, never to have her legs waxed. At last she sat facing him, hugging her knees to her chest.

The fierce expression was back as he folded the knife against his palm. “Don’t think I wasn’t tempted,” he said as he hooked it back on his belt.

“What—what are you going to do to me?” she asked, trying to keep her voice from quavering.

He didn’t answer, just crossed to a corner occupied by a few open cardboard boxes. He hefted one of them and dumped the contents on the floor. After a few seconds, Elizabeth’s jaw dropped.

“My clothes!”

The big man pawed through her things and selected a nightgown. He tossed it at her. “Put this on.”

She crushed the yellow silk in her fingers to keep them from shaking. “Who are you?”

He loomed over her. “You gonna do it by yourself or do you need some help?”

Those were her storage boxes in the corner. She recognized them now. The boxes she’d left in her landlord’s basement after giving up the little apartment she’d rented in his Brooklyn home for the past three years. Her heart drummed painfully. “How did you get this stuff?”

The man took a step closer. “I told you to—”

“What did you do to Hal?” Fear for her elderly landlord made her reckless.

Her captor stared at her analytically, as if she were a specimen to be studied. Finally he said, “I doubt the old man even knows all this crap is missing. Now, I’m not a patient sort when I’m in a good mood. I’ll give you precisely thirty seconds to change into that thing or I’m going to do it for you.”

When she could find her voice, she said, “Well, give me some privacy.”

“No. You gave up the right to privacy when I found this.” He drew her semiautomatic out of his pocket and examined it with maddening casualness, ejecting the magazine, racking the slide and peering into the chamber. “I’d say it’s a better-than-even chance you’ve got more surprises up your sleeve.” He treated her to a slow once-over, concentrating on her chest. “Or somewhere. A little penknife, perhaps?”

He must know her bra contained nothing but her, after the way he’d groped her. She swallowed hard and licked her bloodless lips. “I… can’t. I can’t get undressed with you watching me.”

“Touching modesty for a girl who spent the last three weeks playing house with Lugh,” he sneered, correctly pronouncing the name Loo.

“It wasn’t like that.”

“Save it. You think I don’t know what goes on at the Avalon Collective? It isn’t all peace, love, and compost, sweetheart. Well, maybe it is for most of the poor chumps who end up there. But not for your esteemed leader, am I right?”

He was right, damn it.

He continued, “As I understand it, Lugh has more… compelling needs. Needs that can only be met by the more nubile members of the commune.”

“Not me. I didn’t do that.”

He snorted in disbelief. “Yeah, right. A hot piece like you? My guess is you’ve been keeping the guy’s bed warm since the day you joined. So do us both a favor and drop the quivering-virgin routine.” He slipped her gun back into his pocket. “Your dubious acting ability is wasted on me. You’re just not believable as a blushing ingénue. Stick to those late-night phone-sex commercials. That’s more your speed. What is it… one-nine-hundred-JIGGLE?”

She repressed a groan of embarrassment. So he’d caught those sleazy 1-900 commercials. That was sure to elevate her credibility.

Lord, how she’d despised that role—purring into a foggy camera lens while caressing a phone receiver. She’d resisted auditioning for the part, but financial desperation and her agent’s hectoring had eventually won out. Acting jobs were scarce, and Elizabeth had rent to pay. And it was only commercials, after all. She would never actually work for a phone-sex business.

Of course, this hateful creep knew that. His point was merely to add insult to enormous injury. But how did he know so much about her? And why did he talk about Lugh—the former Graham Hoyt-Gaines turned commune leader—as if he himself weren’t the man’s hireling? If he wasn’t working for Lugh, then why had he…

Her captor closed the distance between them and lifted the nightgown from her stiff fingers. His voice was as smooth as the silk he caressed. “Then again, maybe you want me to undress you. Is that why you’re dawdling, Lizzie? So I’ll get impatient and—”

She lurched to her knees and snatched the gown out of his hands. “Go to hell!” Her temples throbbed with the force of her sudden fury. “You’re a goddamn bully! Does it get you hot to terrorize a helpless woman? Does it? Maybe that’s the only way you can—” She stopped abruptly, her heart slamming, her heaving breaths like fire in her chest. “And don’t call me Lizzie,” she rasped. “I hate it.”

Her little tirade left him, if not speechless, at least subdued. A strange disquiet lurked behind those icy silver eyes now, as if he’d just completed a jigsaw puzzle only to find a leftover piece that had no slot. He said, “I thought everyone called you Lizzie.”

She drew in a quick breath. Not everyone.

But whoever sicced this maniac on her must have.

“I prefer to be called Elizabeth.” Not that anyone had ever given a damn about her preferences. She dragged her fingers through her disheveled hair, pushing it off her face. She felt deflated, drained. “Can’t you just turn around while I change?”

The lines of his face hardened. “No. You could be hiding a—”

“I’m not! I swear.” She spread her arms wide as if to demonstrate the truth of her words. “That gun was all I had.”

“I didn’t realize Lugh was arming his people. What is it, a little paranoid survivalism mixed in with the hippie-era warm-and-fuzzy crap? Lemme ask you, do you even know how to use that thing?”

She sighed raggedly. “Look. You know I don’t have any other weapons. You’ve searched me thoroughly.” She still felt the imprint of his hands on her body.

He laughed. “Sweetheart, if you think that was a thorough search, you don’t have much of an imagination. I’d be happy to demonstrate precisely how thorough a search can be.”

His words hit her like a pail of cold water. She wouldn’t put it past him. Her eyes stung. She swallowed the tears clogging her throat and dropped her gaze to the buttons of her blouse. And watched her frigid fingers rise mechanically to slip a button through a buttonhole. And tried to pretend this was happening to someone else. Another button free. And another.

A low, raw oath broke her concentration. She looked up to see her abductor’s broad back. “You have thirty seconds,” he growled, and made a show of checking his watch. “Starting now.”

Twenty-nine seconds later she pulled the gown down over her knees as he turned to face her. She used to love this old-fashioned, sleeveless nightie, made of heavy, slippery satin with delicate lace detail on the fitted, low-cut bodice. This gown used to make her feel pretty. Now it just made her feel more wretchedly vulnerable.

She forced herself to sit primly on the edge of the bed with her hands folded in her lap. He was looking at her. She stared straight ahead at an antique, marble-topped washstand. Her breasts pushed against the silk, and every breath reminded her how well she filled out this gown.

He stepped closer and she held her breath, but he merely lifted her tie-dyed blouse and long skirt—regulation garments for female members of Avalon—and the decidedly nonregulation neoprene thigh holster connected to a supporting waist strap.

“I’m going to burn all this,” he said, rolling the clothes into a bundle. “From now on, you wear only your normal stuff.” He indicated the mound of clothing on the floor.

From now on? There was going to be a from now on?

She held his ruthless stare as she came to her feet. She’d been kidnapped. Pawed. Humiliated. Known terror beyond anything she’d ever experienced. It was time for some answers. In slow, modulated tones she muttered, “Who are you and what the hell is going on here?”

“We’ll talk tomorrow. Get back on the bed.”

She looked at the double bed. And at him. His sneer of distaste answered her unvoiced fear.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” he said. “I figure you’re due for a rest.”

Rationally she was grateful he considered her too sullied to consort with, but that didn’t keep her from feeling small and cheap under his condemning stare.

“Come on,” he said, pushing none too gently on her shoulders until she fell back on the bed. “There’s time for a couple hours of shut-eye before reveille.” He tucked her clothes under his arm and lifted the handcuffs from the night table.

“No!” She tried to rise, but he pushed her down easily and seized her left wrist, shackling it to the decorative wrought-iron headboard. “You don’t have to use these,” she argued. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“No kidding.” He dragged the bedcovers over her, tucking her in like a child. “I’ll be right next door.” He turned off the lamp and started to leave. He paused in the doorway, his teeth gleaming in the dark. “And I’m a light sleeper, Lizzie.”

Then she was alone, with nothing but her disordered thoughts for company.

Lizzie. Only one other person had insisted on calling her that even when she’d asked him not to. But David couldn’t have any connection with this psychopath.

David was dead.

She hadn’t even been allowed to go to the funeral. She’d gotten that phone call…

That horrible phone call. Asking her—no, ordering her—to stay away from the church and the cemetery. You’ve done enough damage. The family doesn’t want you there. That disembodied voice had haunted her for weeks until she’d half believed the ugly accusation.

He’s dead because of you.

Elizabeth stopped breathing.

That voice!

She lurched up, only to be jerked back down by the handcuffs.

She was right, she had seen those eyes before. In photographs, anyway. Her mouth went dry. Perhaps she’d been better off not knowing. Now only one question remained.

What was the mighty commando going to do to her?


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