Jane Thornton, Book 1
“Do you see her?”
Sucking in a breath, I held it as I stared at the pair of dirty tan work boots that stopped only inches from my face. They stepped sideways as the owner turned in a circle.
My heart beat erratically, and my head swam from lack of oxygen. Please say no, please say no, I chanted over and over in my head.
Another pair of boots, these black, military like appeared next to the others, and I had to swallow a gasp of air. “No,” another man said, his voice more of a grunt than anything.
Instead of sighing with relief, I let out my breath slow and even. I couldn’t afford to make a sound. From the tone of the second man’s voice, deep and unforgiving, I wouldn’t like it if they found me.
I’d spotted the two men a few days before. They were walking down the center of a two-lane road, out in the open, where anyone could see them. One tall and built like a linebacker, the other not as tall, but just as big. Just as muscular. Just as dangerous.
At first, I’d been so surprised to see actual living human beings, I’d frozen. The shorter man had laughed at something the other had said, though his friend only grimaced. Whatever the joke, it must not have been too funny. Still, the sound had carried on the wind to where I stood only a few feet away. My lips had tugged up into something akin to a smile. I hadn’t smiled or laughed in so long, I wasn’t sure I still knew how.
However, the moment was short-lived. A glint of light had caught my attention and my eyes followed to the gun strapped on the taller man’s belt. Yes, we lived in a world where guns were most definitely needed. I’d have had one myself if I hadn’t run out of bullets weeks before. But I didn’t trust people… Didn’t trust men… Especially men with guns.
I’d seen with my own eyes what had happened when the world went nuts. Murder and rape… Out in the open, and no one stopped them. I saw it all from a tiny window in my basement. Where I’d stayed until there were no more people.
Ducking out of sight, I’d waddled down the center of a ditch until I came to a drainage pipe. Having been there before, I knew where it led and thought nothing of crawling inside. I followed the small stream of water to the other side and ran.
I thought I’d hidden in time. Thought they were just passing through and had never noticed me. I’d been wrong.
Every once in a while, I’d catch a glimpse of them, and before long realized it was me they were searching for. Sometimes, I’d catch one of their voices, asking the other if they’d seen the girl. I was the only girl here. The only living soul in this whole damn town. It had been almost a year since the beginning of the end, and I’d been here the entire time. It was my hometown, where I’d grown up. And where I thought I would die. Eventually. But I wasn’t ready. Not yet.
I’d believed they would get tired of searching and move on. No such luck. They weren’t going to give up. And if they weren’t going to leave, then I had to.
“I saw her run behind that trailer. Where could she have gone?” The lower tone of the man’s voice was soft, almost, but not quite a whisper.
The other grunted again. “I don’t know. Maybe she ran off into woods.”
“We would have seen her.”
A spider crawled across the top of my hand, tickling the skin. I had to get out of there. The cool dirt beneath me caused my body to tremble with chills. And though I wasn’t afraid of spiders or bugs, getting bit could cause me to itch. Between the shivers and the itching, I’d give myself up in a heartbeat.
“If she were smart, she’d be inside one of these, warming up.”
“You’re right. Let’s check one out.”
As the boots moved out of sight, I stretched my neck, keeping an eye on my stalkers. They continued straight to the mobile home in front of this one. It was the best chance I was going to get.
Using my forearms, I wiggled backward until my legs reached the open air. I’d only gotten halfway out when the sickening sound of chattering teeth caused me to still. But only for a second. I scrambled to get back under the trailer and hadn’t been quick enough.
Cold, hard fingers clamped down just above my ankle and yanked. I dug my nails into the dirt and kicked out, hoping it would be enough to keep those clicking teeth from reaching my flesh.
This was it. I would die. Or worse yet, become one of them.
No! No giving up. Not, yet, Jane.
Gritting my teeth, I kicked it again. Its grip loosened. But not enough. It held on tight, nails digging into my flesh as I pulled with all my strength. I did everything in my power to keep my leg away from its teeth.
I flipped onto my back, twisting my legs crisscross, the position giving me more flexibility. Yet the sight of the hideous creature’s snapping teeth so close to my skin had me hesitating in horror. I jerked back as his mouth descended. That hesitation had cost me. The thing was able to drag me farther out from under the trailer. I struggled to crawl backward once again, but my strength waned. It had been so long since I’d had to fight one, I’d forgotten just how strong they could be.
The tug of war continued, and as I pulled back one more time, I reached for the knife strapped to my leg. It would be impossible to stab the flesh eater from my position. But if I wiggled just enough to pull him closer…
The grip on my leg was ripped away as the flesh eater disappeared. I leaned up, my scalp prickling with unease. I pulled my legs under the trailer and listened, hearing nothing but my own heart pounding.
The cool dirt met my chest as I ducked down enough to see out. More dirt, grass, a dead flesh eater with its brains decorating the ground, and two sets of boots. I gasped, and got up on my hands and knees, ready to make a run for it. My heart racing, I began crawling backward, as slow and soundless as I could.
“Come on out.”
Ice slid down my spine, and I froze.
“We just want to help. You can’t stay under there forever.”
My lips pressed together. Want to bet?
After a deep grunt, the different voice whispered, “Shut it, Kaden.” Then louder, he said, “Come on, sweetheart. We need to get somewhere safe.”
I looked to my left. If I crawled out that way, would I have enough time to run before they noticed?
A gasp escaped my lips when a cold hand settled on my ankle. Then a face appeared up under the trailer. Warm brown eyes met mine. “Hi,” he said. “We won’t hurt you. Promise.” He smiled, and it was a charming smile, a nice smile. A smile that said, trust me. I couldn’t, though. I couldn’t trust anyone.
Tugging my leg did no good. He held on. Not tight, but enough to let me know he wasn’t going anywhere.
Heart in my throat, I nodded and started crawling out behind him. My gaze landed on those boots, both pairs, and I shivered. I flicked a glance at the dead thing next to them and the shiver turned almost violent. I had a feeling I might have been better off with the flesh eater. The living could be much more dangerous.
“Here you go,” the brown eyed man said as he grasped my arm to help me stand.
Clutching the strap of my bag to my shoulder, I looked at the two men who’d followed me. The one who’d spoken, the brown eyed guy, smiled his nice smile again. He had a couple of days’ worth of growth on his chin and cheeks, brown, like his eyes and his shaggy hair. He was maybe three or four inches taller than me and twice as wide. Not an ounce of a fat, though. He was all muscle, broad shoulders, and chest that narrowed down into thinner hips. Still wider than mine.
Over the course of the last few months, I’d lost so much weight, I’d become nothing but skin and bones. I tried not to starve myself, but I had to ration my supplies. He looked like he’d been eating well, and taking care of himself if that white smile was any indication.
“Hi, I’m Mason,” he said as he held out a hand. “But you can call me Mace. Everyone does.”
I looked at it, then back at his face as I hitched my bag higher on my shoulder. When I didn’t respond, or give him my own hand, his smile wilted. I kind of hated that. But not enough to touch him.
He dropped his hand and cleared his throat. “This is Kaden,” he gestured to the other guy I hadn’t yet even glanced at. And boy when I did, I wished I hadn’t. I’d thought Mason was big. He had nothing on Kaden. The guy stood another five inches or so taller than Mason, and just as broad. Tilting my head to get a good look at his face was a bad idea. As I took a step backward, his scowl deepened and his blue eyes narrowed.
“Stop scaring her, Kaden—”
Before Mason could finish his sentence, I took off. A curse sounded behind me as I pumped my legs as hard as I could. My breathing was already ragged from my ordeal under the trailer, and my backpack weighed a ton. I almost threw it off to gain more speed, but my life was in that pack.
As my shoulders slumped, I thought, the hell with it! I yanked off the damn bag, letting it tumble behind me. If I could just reach the trees, I’d be safe. If there was one thing I was good at, it was hiding.
My legs flew across the grass as I forced a burst of speed from my tired body. Close now. Only maybe a yard away.
My knees buckled and I came crashing down, face first onto the grass. I scrambled to get back on my feet, but before I could stand, I was crushed flat. I’d been caught.
The man on top of me grunted, his hot breath blowing across my neck. Laying on my stomach made maneuvering impossible. I wiggled, using my shoulders to push him. He only groaned and put more of his weight on me until no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move a muscle.
“Be still,” he grumbled.
Sitting up, he flipped me over onto my back. Eyes wide, I stared up at my captor with pursed lips, my emotions jumping from fear to anger and back again. The fine lines around his mouth and eyes tightened the longer he stared at me. I held my ground, narrowing my own eyes right back at him.
Then the realization that a man straddled my waist sent a cold chill down my spine. Swinging my arms, I aimed to punch him in the face, but I was no match for him. With hands that were twice as big as mine, he captured my wrists, pinning them to the ground on either side of my head. The move brought his face inches away from mine, causing me to tense.
“Mace said we wouldn’t hurt you,” he grunted.
When I didn’t reply, his eyes tightened into narrow slits. Then he sighed and looked away as Mason jogged toward us.
Without the intensity of his eyes on me it was easier to look at him. He had a square jaw that jumped when he ground his teeth together. Like he was doing now. And his nose wasn’t too straight. It had a small bump in the center. His face was lean with high cheekbones that I could see even though he wasn’t smiling. I got the impression he didn’t smile often.
Feeling my eyes on him, his gaze flickered back to mine. When I looked away, he grumbled something under his breath. Then he shifted on top of me. The move caused his arousal to press against my belly. Panic clawed up my throat and I jerked against his hold.
He cursed under his breath and pressed down on my wrists. It took a moment for me to register that, though he could have, he wasn’t causing me any pain.
“Ignore it. I am,” he ground out through clenched teeth.
Ignore it? How could I?
He pulled his hips back, but the memory of his thick length seared into my brain. I refused to be played with like some freaking sex doll they found in the midst of a world where living females were rare. But I’d gone a long time without physical or emotional intimacy. I couldn’t help but appreciate the stunning man above me. He and his friend could have been plucked right out of any one of my wet dreams. Good thing I’d never let my hormones rule over my brain cells, or I would have been in big trouble.
Bringing his nose almost touching distance from mine, he stared at me, his gaze intent. “We will not hurt you. Trust us.”
Easy for him to say. He was the one holding me down.
“Kaden!” Mason said as he approached. “Get off of her.”
Kaden stared into my eyes for a split second. Then he let go of my wrists and stood, his expression daring me to run again.
I rolled over to stand and saw Mason’s hand dangling in front of me. “Here, let me help—” I batted his hand away, cutting him off as I stood on my own.
“Fine, here,” he said as he handed me my pack.
Yanking it out of his hand, I slipped it over my shoulders. He handed Kaden his rifle back. He must have dropped it to chase after me.
I looked back and forth between the men. They stood on either side of me, blocking my route to the trees. Now what?
“I’m sorry we scared you.” Mason ran a hand through his messy hair and blew out a breath. “We didn’t mean for that to happen. We haven’t run across anyone in so long, we just wanted to talk to you, see that you were okay. How long have you been out here alone? You shouldn’t be. It’s safer in pairs. Three’s better, though. Think of how safe you’d be with us.”
I cast a furtive glance at Kaden while his attention was solely on our surroundings. A gust of wind blew through his hair, sending a few dirty blond strands falling over his forehead. Mason continued to talk, but I had no clue what about. I’d stopped listening as I took stock of them both. Mason’s expression was the complete opposite of Kaden’s. Animated and with a slight tinge of pink on his cheeks, Mason’s hands gestured as he spoke. Clearly the social one of the two.
Kaden never stopped frowning as he gripped his rifle, barrel pointed up. Both men had plenty of weapons. I counted at least three knives each, a couple of handguns, and the rifle. Each also had a backpack. These men weren’t playing. I couldn’t blame them. Times were tough.
“So, are you hungry? We have a little food,” Mason was saying, just as my ears picked up the sharp chattering sound. At the same time, I saw Kaden stiffen. “We have to go,” he snapped.
He reached for my arm but I yanked it back as I turned to see what he had. A group of flesh eaters, at least a dozen, were heading straight for us, their hands reaching out, ready to grab the nearest thing to feed on.
“Come on,” Mason said.
He grabbed my arm right above the elbow and dragged me toward the trees I’d just been chasing after. I went with them. Nothing else I could do. There was no way I could fight off so many flesh eaters on my own.
As soon as we started running, Mason took the lead as Kaden hung back, leaving me in the middle of our little group. A means to keep me from running off, no doubt. Lucky for them, I was too pumped with adrenaline to care about that right now. The flesh eaters didn’t have much speed, but it was amazing how fast they were when they got right up on you. The further away we got, the better. Yet as we scrambled uphill through dense woods, I thought of nothing but my escape.