Jake West chose duty over love once before. He doesn’t plan to make the same mistake twice. But will he get the chance for a do-over with Chelsea?
Jake’s long-buried feelings for Chelsea bubbled to the surface when they were trapped in the woods together, and, in the moment, she felt the same. But now that they’re back to their ordinary lives, she wants to take things slowly. He’ll proceed at any speed she wants. The problem is, Chelsea’s not returning his calls.
She’s not returning any calls, because she’s been abducted.
What Jake and Chelsea discovered in the wilderness stirred a hornet’s nest, and now she’s in grave danger. While Jake’s trusted team and Chelsea’s closest friends hunt for her, Chelsea herself plays a high-stakes game with her captor to stay alive.
The slow-burn romance and fast-paced action continue in the fifth book in USA Today bestselling author Melissa F. Miller’s Shenandoah Shadows series.
Release date: January 26, 2022
Publisher: Brown Street Books
Print pages: 154
Reader says this book is...: entertaining story (1) escapist/easy read (1)
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Melissa F. Miller
She was underground. She had to be. Chelsea had determined she was being held captive in a basement. The lack of windows was the first clue. The persistent background scent of soil and the damp cold that seeped through the paneled walls confirmed it. Along with the chill, the realization that her friend and employee had betrayed her was finally sinking in.
She’d known Vance Asher for years. She’d liked him. She’d trusted him. Relied on him.
She snorted at the absurdity of her situation. First, he’d gotten her business mixed up with a money-laundering ring. Then he’d managed to lose a client in the woods. And, finally, he’d assaulted and abducted her in a misguided effort to get her to give him a flash drive that she didn’t even have.
Some judge of character you are.
She pressed her palm against the paneling. On the other side of this wall was the outdoors. Dirt and rock. Above that, grass, trees, water, sunlight. All things she desperately wanted to touch, smell, and see again.
Calm down. You’ve been in here, what, not even ten hours? You’re going to get out of here.
She took a steadying breath. She would get out. She had to.
She checked her watch—just past eight o’clock in the morning. Vance had left over an hour ago, after tossing her an energy bar and a lukewarm bottle of water. She’d devoured the bar but had nursed the water. She hoped to avoid availing herself of the porcelain chamber pot as long as possible.
She trailed her hand along the cold paneling, then sank into the rocking chair in the corner of the small room. She rocked back and forth, back and forth, as she ran through her options for escaping the basement. None of them were great.
She could surprise Vance when he returned—overpower him and scramble upstairs, then get the hell out of his house. But she didn’t have a weapon. And, between choking her out and backhanding her hard enough to draw blood, he’d already shown he was perfectly willing to resort to physical violence. She wasn’t sure how far he’d go, and she didn’t want to find out.
She could bust through the paneling and try to dig her way out. But she didn’t have any tools. And most homes in the region were constructed on fieldstone foundations. Even if she could find something to use to break through the paneling and access the stone wall, it’d take ages to tunnel out—like, a life sentence/Shawshank Redemption amount of time. Time she didn’t have.
She could wait to be rescued. But there was an excellent chance nobody knew she was missing. Unless he was very, very stupid, Vance had moved her car from the parking lot and opened the store for business as usual. There was a real chance nobody would realize she was missing until next week, when she failed to keep her appointment for a dental cleaning.
No, her best—and, possibly, only—shot at getting out of here alive was to give Vance what he wanted. All she had to do was tell him where he could find the flash drive he wanted so badly. It was too bad she didn’t have the faintest idea what he was talking about.
* * *
Jake strolled through the parking lot, a travel mug of breakfast blend in one hand and his mind on his upcoming day. Then he heard the footsteps behind him. He kept walking but listened hard. The footsteps sped up. His pursuer kept up a determined clip. Headed straight for him.
He tensed and turned, acutely aware of the handgun strapped to his ankle. Old habits died hard. Even in the middle of nowhere, even on his own campus—in a location that appeared on no maps.
As he rotated, he caught a glimpse of bouncy, blonde hair and his brain registered the height and weight of his pursuer. He exhaled and raised his coffee mug in the universal gesture of commuters the world over to greet one of his newest hires—Olivia Santos.
“Morning, Olivia.” He scanned the lot behind her. “Where’s Trent?”
She closed the distance between them with several quick strides and raised her own mug to return his greeting. “We drove in separately. He’s probably already inside.”
He squinted and studied her face. Her blue eyes were clear and her forehead was smooth, but there was a slight, almost imperceptible, tightness around her eyes. He recognized the signs from his time serving as her security consultant. Olivia might hide it well, but she was this close to jumping out of her skin.
She blinked, started to shake her head as if she might deny that she was upset, but then laughed. “Nothing gets by you, huh? I stopped by the outfitters to check on Chelsea.”
She fell into step beside him.
His pulse thumped in the side of his throat at the mention of Chelsea. “Is she okay?”
Chelsea Bishop was one of the toughest women he’d ever met—and that included all the female military officers and law enforcement agents he’d worked with over the years. She didn’t look especially formidable. In fact, she looked the exact opposite. With her long hair hanging down her back in plaits, her smattering of freckles, and her makeup-free face, she looked like what she was on the surface: a fresh-faced outdoor guide in a tiny town.
That easygoing, all-natural exterior hid a core of pure steel. Even so, she was a civilian. And she’d been through one hell of an ordeal. They’d been ambushed in the Shenandoah wilderness by desperate, armed men. She’d stabbed one of them and probably saved Jake’s life in the process. Not to mention having to rescue her guide, Vance, and the fact that her client was still missing. In light of all that had happened, Jake wouldn’t be surprised to hear Olivia say the emotional and physical toll of the past two days had caught up with her cousin.
What if that’s not the emotional toll that’s hit her? What if your insistence on dredging up the past has pushed her away? What if she’s moved on?
He dismissed the thought and absently reached into his pocket, where the ring he intended to give Chelsea when the time was right sat, waiting.
No. She’d felt it, too. All the water under the bridge hadn’t washed away the connection between them. She’d said as much. She just wanted to take it slowly, and he’d honor that. He had to.
Olivia snapped her fingers close to his face. “Hello? Did you hear me?”
He blinked and cleared his throat. “Sorry. One more time?”
She arched an eyebrow and studied him for an uncomfortably long moment before repeating herself. “I said, I don’t know if she’s okay. She wasn’t at her shop.”
“Oh?” Her voice vibrated with suppressed emotion. What was he missing?
“Yeah, oh. Maybe she slept in. You know, we didn’t exactly get a good night’s sleep in that cave.”
He hadn’t, at least. How could he? Not while sharing a sleeping bag with Chelsea. Not with her warm body curved into his. Not with her lavender-scented hair tickling his neck. He shook his head to dislodge the memory and forced himself to focus on Oliva, who was frowning at him.
“She didn’t sleep in. She’s not at her place. She’s not answering her phone.”
His stomach twisted. “That’s … odd.”
“It is. And Vance was completely unhelpful. He said—”
He paused to pass his security fob in front of the door reader and turned toward her. “You saw Vance? Where?”
“At the outfitters. Why?”
The door clicked open. Olivia waved her fob at the reader so her arrival would also be recorded, and he ushered her inside the building ahead of him.
“He’s supposed to be at the hospital. I thought they wanted to observe him for at least twenty-four hours.”
“Well, he was at work, and he claimed to have no idea where Chelsea was,” she informed him as they headed down the deserted hallway.
He searched her face. “How concerned about this are you?”
She stared back at him, no longer bothering to hide the tension in her face. “How concerned are you? I know I’m not the only one who cares about Chelsea. My sixth sense is tingling. I don’t know why, but I know something’s wrong.”
Jake checked his gut. He didn’t like the idea of not knowing where Chelsea was, of not knowing if she was safe and healthy. At the same time, he had to respect her wishes. Just last night, she told him she’d call him when she was ready to take the next step. And he told her he’d wait. So he couldn’t very well bust down her door or put a trace on her car or phone or do whatever it was Olivia was expecting him to do. Even if he desperately wanted to do exactly that.
He stopped in front of his office door and placed his free hand on her shoulder.
“I’m not concerned,” he lied. He locked eyes with her and lowered his chin. “Your cousin’s fine.”
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