Skylar couldn’t help it; her hand began to stroke his chest again. She could feel Nash’s anguish emanating from him, and now regretted asking the seemingly simple question.
What would she do if she ever lost one of her parents? Not her biological father, because she’d barely seen him since she was seven years old. But what if she lost Steve, who was like a father to her? Or heaven forbid, Daniella? She and her mother had a volatile relationship, but she also understood that Daniella’s tough love had helped shape Skylar into the woman she was today.
“I went off the rails after dad died. My poor mother, she had three young daughters to look after, and a teenage son who was spiralling out of control. I couldn’t see it then, because I was too caught up in my grief. But I can’t apologize enough to my mother now.”
“I’m sure she understands.” And it was probably true. Mothers had such a capacity for forgiveness. She tried to imagine what Nash’s mother looked like. And he had threesisters, too. She was finding out more about Nash in this last five minutes than she’d known about him in the past two years.
“I’m sure she does, but that didn’t help at the time. Anyway, you asked how I became a policeman. I was driving my friend’s car, a hot rod I helped him build. He was in the passenger seat. We were racing another car, out on the back roads of Brisbane, and I was winning. Then I lost control and crashed into a tree.”
“Holy Jesus,” Skylar murmured. This story was going from bad to worse. Her heart was beating like a drum, and she wanted to take him in her arms. First his father died, then suffering from grief he didn’t know how to control, he’d taken up with the wrong crowd. She moved in closer, hoping to offer him comfort with her presence. She wrapped her arm across his waist and lay her head on his shoulder.
“The car burst into flames. That’s how I got the scars on my legs.” Nash’s voice took on a faraway edge. “But I got out. And then I tried to get my friend out of the passenger seat. I wrapped my hands in my T-shirt to drag him out of the burning car. But he was stuck. Right then, a police cruiser pulled up, and this constable grabbed the shirt from my hands and pulled Mic out. He saved his life when I couldn’t help him. That was the moment I decided I wanted to be like that constable. I didn’t want to keep going in my downward spiral and end up dead.”
Skylar had no words. She hadn’t been expecting such a heart-rending story. Nash had survived the crash, but what a terrible thing to happen. He’d been through hell. But it’d made him a stronger person. Had her own personal hell made her a stronger person, as well?
“That’s quite an amazing story.” Skylar didn’t know where to start first. Nash had suffered so much trauma at such a young age. But he’d pulled through, and at least on the surface, he seemed fine. Those kinds of mental scars often ran deep. She knew that from experience. Nash had clearly coped with most ofthe emotional damage by channelling it into becoming the best cop he could possibly be.
“I’m sorry you had to go through all that.” She tilted her head up so she could see his eyes, and he stared down at her. In the dark, it was hard to make out his expression, but his face was close to hers now. A trickle of heat ran through her belly.
He gave a slight shrug underneath her ear. “It was bad at the time. And I was pretty messed up for a few months. You know, wracked with guilt over Mic’s injuries.” Nash’s hand came up to stroke her cheek. It felt so natural, so nice. She had no inclination to flinch away from him. Nash would never hurt her. In fact, she wanted more, and so she leaned into his touch. “But when Mic eventually got out of hospital, and I knew he was going to be okay, that’s when I applied to join the police force,” Nash continued, his fingers finding their way to the side of her face, tugging on a strand of her hair. “And it was the right choice for me. I love being a cop. And just think, I wouldn’t be here with you right now, if I’d followed a different path.” His thumb moved to her chin, slowly caressing it. What had he meant about being here with her? Could he feel this thing…this electricity…zinging between them? Was he going to kiss her? He was staring into her eyes, and she could see the stars reflected in his.
It was almost as if he was asking a question, not wanting to scare her, merely waiting for her to make a choice. She could pull away if she wanted to. He was so close, the heat of his breath touched her lips. He smelled good, too. All musky and manly.
She was attracted to Nash, there was no doubt about it. It was one of the reasons she’d turned down his offer of a date, because she knew if she’d gone out with him even once that he’d be dangerous to her state of mind. He might’ve convinced her to go on a second date, and perhaps a third. He was hot. Just ask any woman in the area. Those crystal-blue eyes, that curly, blond hair, and killer smile, he was a hard package to resist. But shehad to ask herself, was her body reacting like this because she was feeling sorry for him? Wanting to help ease his heartache?
She couldn’t take that chance.
Withdrawing her face a smidgen, she said, “So, out of tragedy, you managed to find your true calling.”
It was enough to break the spell. He tipped his head, so it was leaning against the rock face, and gazed up at the sky. “Yes, I did.” he agreed.
If he was disappointed in her rejection, he didn’t show it. He certainly didn’t push her away. Almost the opposite. Instead, he settled his arm around her shoulder and tucked her head against his chest. If only she could tell him why she was like this. Why she trusted no one, especially not men. But she’d made a vow to bury that piece of her past. It was the only way she knew how to cope. If she told anyone now about how Craig had abused her—had raped her when she tried to leave him—they’d want her to tell the police. Nash most certainly would advocate that. But she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t go through the whole burden of a trial. Rehashing all the terrible things Craig had done to her. Dredging up memories she just wanted to forget. No one would truly understand her motives. In some way, seeing Dan Sanders go to jail was almost a form of therapy for Skylar.
“Try and get some sleep,” he suggested. “I’ll keep a lookout.” She snuggled in closer, deciding to enjoy the luxury of lying next to Nash. To soak in his presence, absorb the benefit from having a warm, human body next to hers, rather than a cold, empty bed for once, and not second-guess herself for this one night only.
NASH WASN’T SURE what had woken him. To anyone watching, he might’ve looked like he was still asleep. He never moved a muscle, but he was suddenly very aware of his surroundings. He opened his eyes just a slit. The earth was cold and hard beneath him, but Skylar was warm and soft, draped over his left side. His neck ached from sleeping half-propped up, and there was a dull throb coming from his injured thigh. He’d slept fitfully, keeping one ear open for any unusual sounds.
And that was perhaps what’d woken him now. Dawn couldn’t be too far away; a pink glow lit the sky above the ravine.
There it was again. A faint sound that didn’t belong to the early-morning bush. The snap of a twig coming from somewhere above.
Very gently, he shook Skylar awake, placing a finger against her lips to make sure she remained quiet. She looked up at him, confusion and growing concern in her sleepy gaze. He shook his head, and then slowly drew his legs up, pointing at Skylar to do the same. His leg spasmed with every movement, but he ignored it.
If someone was looking down from directly above, the overhanging rock overhead might just give them enough cover so as not to be seen. Nash thought about the boning knife in the backpack. But he dared not move to retrieve it.
They sat like that for many minutes, arms entwined, staying as still as possible, barely daring to breathe. If there was someone up there, it was highly unlikely they’d even found theravine. Nash had only stumbled upon it by sheer luck. The thick shrubbery running along the top edge acted as camouflage. If someone had broken through those bushes, surely they would’ve heard it.
Just as Nash was about to release Skylar, another sound reached their ears. Someone was definitely stalking stealthily through the bush above them. There was so much dry leaf litter, and so many small twigs on the forest floor, it’d be impossible to move noiselessly. This guy was taking care, but they could still hear the occasional crunch of a booted foot in the undergrowth. Nash listened intently, but it seemed that the person was heading uphill, away from them. The noises grew fainter and fainter, and Nash finally let out a gusting breath of relief.
Skylar’s eyes were wide. Last night, she almost scoffed at the idea they were still being hunted. Given her choice, she would’ve returned to the top of the hill. At least she now believed him. They had proof the gunman was still in the area and posed an immediate threat. It meant they had to keep moving. They couldn’t stay here any longer. If only one of their phones had survived the crash. His cell phone was probably lying in the tangle of debris below the copter, but it was impossible to go back and retrieve it. They had only one option; to try and walk out.
Without a word, he stood, using the rock face to help him up. His body protested, all the little cuts and bruises making themselves known in that instant. His muscles were stiff from sleeping on the ground. But he shouldered the backpack and extended his hand to Skylar. She hesitated for a second, then nodded in consent, taking his help to stand up.
They may as well follow the ravine. It was heading downhill, in the opposite direction to which their hunter had just disappeared. They walked in silence, Nash hobbling along as best he could.
As the light grew, they began to hear activity in the sky above. The buzzing of a helicopter, or the drone of a fixed-wing aircraft flying overhead. It was so frustrating. Rescue was so close, yet so far away. The canopy above was too dense, they’d never be spotted down here. If they could only find their way to a cleared area, then they could perhaps signal for rescue. But the ravine offered them protection from unfriendly eyes. He couldn’t take the chance that the gunman was still around. The guy might just be desperate enough to take a shot at them, even with search and rescue flying above. Nash kept alert, constantly stopping to check behind them, and listening for any sound that might give away that someone was following them.