As I walked to the mangled vehicle, I made sure to tuck the gun I took from the thug back into my belt, because I wasn’t taking any kind of chance when I knew I was the only hope Avett had of getting out of these woods alive. It took a bit of effort to pry open the door, considering the way the front was smashed in; the driver flopped to the side without the metal there to prop him up. He definitely wasn’t going anywhere soon, but I still pulled my tie off of my neck and used it to lash the man’s wrists around the steering wheel several times. The silk pulled tight and I knew it would be impossible for him to work his way free unless he ripped the steering wheel loose and, considering his current state, that seemed highly unlikely.
I shook my head—hard—to get my focus back and cringed as the motion sent blood spattering to either side of me. I looked down at my wingtips and swore I would sell everything I owned to be dressed in jeans and hiking boots. If I’d ever needed a sign that all the expensive and luxurious stuff I surrounded myself with was absolutely useless when it came right down to it, this was it. Right now, I needed to be the man I tried so hard not to be in order to be someone worthy of the girl I was trying to save.
I pulled my dress shirt out of the top of my pants and took off my suit jacket. I was going to have to shred the thing in order to leave a trail of bread crumbs to follow for whatever type of backup that arrived. I was falling back on survival instincts and training that came from both my life lived in this wilderness and the tools Uncle Sam had imparted on me. I’d never thought I would have to use them again after I passed the bar, but at this moment I’d never been so glad to have the kind of knowledge I did at my disposal.
I popped all the buttons off with my teeth. I applied a little muscle and yanked each of the sleeves free and worked at shredding the silk lining. Once I had a decent pile of scraps, I headed off into the woods. I kept my eyes peeled and scanned for any sign of movement since they had evidently left the guy behind to prevent anyone from following. I veered in the direction of the cabin and glanced up at the sky. This close to the end of fall, the night crept into the sky pretty early and there wouldn’t be much daylight left soon. That could work to my advantage if the guys that had Avett weren’t aware that I was coming for them. But if they did know I was on their tail because my pal with the dislocated shoulder or the driver had managed to get a warning sent out, I knew they would randomly fire into the darkness hoping to hit something and that made the situation more dangerous than it already was.
As I dodged trees and slipped on the foliage that was wet and slick with almost-frost, I decided I was never wearing Italian-made shoes with no tread on them again. I made sure to space out the bits of fabric and metal I scavenged from my coat so that even a blind man or the most ill-equipped city slicker could find their way to the cabin. When I got to the clearing where the ramshackle building rested, I breathed a sigh of relief that there wasn’t anyone out front waiting for me with double barrels pointed in my direction.
I worked my way around the outhouse and crouched down low so that I could use the pile of logs that I’d stacked only a few days ago as cover. I pressed my back flat to the rough logs that made up the structure of the cabin and crept my way along the side of the house, careful to make as little sound as possible so that the woodland creatures that were bound to be watching didn’t alert anyone to my presence.
So slowly that I was hardly moving, I inched my way up so that only the top of my head and my eyes were visible as I peered into the grimy window that looked into the vacant cabin. I let out the breath I was holding and lifted myself to my full height so I could get a better look inside. The cabin was empty, completely barren, and it looked as sad and ramshackle as it had when Avett and I left it.
She wasn’t here. She hadn’t been here, which meant the only other place she could have taken them was the waterfall. My girl wasn’t just fearless; she was also clever as hell. The men that had her wouldn’t know about the drop-off or the cabin. She could lead them around the woods for hours, and maybe if she was lucky, she could create an opportunity to catch them unawares so that she could jump.
My girl always jumped. It was one of the things I now realized I loved most about her.
I changed my game plan and my direction and started off for the falls. When I hit the crudely worn path that was barely obvious from our last visit, it was clear that people had recently used it. There were several pairs of footprints in the moist earth, including a set that had to be Avett’s because they were tiny and the tread matched the heavy soles of her ever present combat boots. Plants were bent and hanging askew from impatient bodies moving by them and there was a tuft of dark hair caught in the gnarly bark of one of the pine trees that sat off to the side of the trail.
I rolled my sleeves up even though the temperature seemed to be dropping with each minute that passed. I was so frustrated with the way that my shoes slowed my progress that I kicked them off and pulled off my argyle socks. I hadn’t ran through the woods with bare feet since I was a kid and there was something about having my toes sink into the mud and the undergrowth that immediately took me back to a place that was purely primitive and wholly primal. I wasn’t simply a worried man going after the woman he loved; I was part of the woods, part of the mountains, part of the place I came from and that had formed me.
I made pretty good time considering the cold and the impending darkness. I was used to the altitude and the strain it took on the lungs and the rest of the body, but I doubted the men I was hunting were. Avett wouldn’t have taken them directly to the drop-off either. I figured she would have done her best to wear her captors out, to buy herself some time so that her folks had a fighting chance to get free.
When the roar of the falls hit my ears I slowed my pace and ducked off the trail so that my arrival wouldn’t be as visible to the two men that were standing with Avett right at the edge of the falls. Even in the dwindling light, I could see how pale her face was and the black lines that still marked her cheeks from earlier. She was shaking and had her arms wrapped so tightly around herself that she looked even smaller and younger than she normally did. Her terror and vulnerability was being broadcast loud and clear even through the distance that separated us.
One man was facing her where she had her back to the drop-off. He had a handgun pointed directly at the center of her chest, and he was so close to her that if he pulled the trigger, there was no way he was going to miss a vital part of her. There was another man that was clearly the lookout standing with his back to them as he faced the rapidly blackening woods and scanned the trees. He also had a weapon in his hand, but he was clearly nervous because he kept shifting the gun from hand to hand and his weight from foot to foot. Every time a bird squawked or the squirrels made the trees rustle he looked over his shoulder at his partner and told him to hurry the hell up.