Dane had no idea who she was. She'd been shot and couldn't even remember who she was hiding from. All she did know was she needed help, and when Julian Stanton found her, he took her to his family.
Brayden Stanton was just tired of everything. It was time to leave Africa and go home to family. He called his dad to tell him that he was fed up with the job and he was on his way home, and he was bringing a fiancée with him. She wasn't his mate, but he was going to make it work. He realized his mistake the moment he proposed.
Danger comes at every turn. The women in Brayden's life are surrounded with it. Both are lethal, but one has Brayden's heart from the beginning. The question is, can the family survive it?
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She sat up, then promptly leaned over and threw up twice. The first time she’d woken up, her head had hurt so badly she was sure something was stabbing her there. But one touch to her head had her fainting away again. Lying back down, she lay there trying to make the sick feeling in her head go away. Touching it gingerly, she felt the blood there again and the slice along her head, but there wasn’t any memory of how it had gotten there. Nor—and this frightened her more than the head wound did—who or where she was. Jane Doe. That’s what she’d been referring to herself as since she’d awoken the second time. It had been dark where she first holed up. Not that the daylight she had now made things any clearer for her. Looking around from her position on the floor, she realized that she might be in some really old building that hadn’t seen a broom or dust rag in a very long time. Slowly she rolled to her back, closing her eyes so she wouldn’t get sick again. “You need help, girl.” She had also started talking to herself, she realized, and wondered if that was new or something she did all the time. Asking herself questions about the things she did know about herself didn’t ring any bells either, but she listed them now. “You’ve been shot and wounded. You’re female, and you’re smart enough to know that hiding out was the best course of action for yourself. And you carry a gun.” She wrapped her fingers around the gun that hadn’t left her side since she woke, and found it tucked tightly against her belly. It didn’t feel foreign to her, but like something that she wore as routinely as she did a shirt or socks. There was a holster for it, but the gun hadn’t been in it like it was now. Leather and steel, it had been strapped to her waist with one full magazine. Searching for any kind of identification hadn’t netted her anything. She had found a wound in her leg that had bothered her for a little bit, but not nearly like her head did. As she lay there, she thought of what could have happened to her and why. What was she that would make someone shoot her? Jane didn’t want to think that someone was out to kill her, not yet at any rate. “Was I a victim of a robbery gone bad? But if someone robbed me, wouldn’t they have taken the gun too?” Her head began to pound again so she left that thought alone for now. “I need to get someone to help me. But who?” Sitting up slowly, she felt her belly lurch again. Whatever had happened to her, it wasn’t going to get any better by just sitting around waiting to have some sort of epiphany. She had a feeling that when she did recall what had gone down, she wasn’t going to be any happier than she was with not remembering. Standing was harder than sitting up, she soon discovered. Hanging onto the walls for support, her knees were weak and her hands shook. She could only hope that she was on a lower floor in the building, because she was sure that she’d never make stairs work for her. And when she saw them, all four flights, she sobbed like a baby. Nothing, she realized, was going to be easy about this. At least there was a handrail.
She had no idea how long it took, but she was on the last level when she heard cars. No people as yet…she’d not encountered anyone on her way down. She had to rest, so crawling behind the stairs, she found a nice cubbyhole and closed her eyes. It might be just a few feet from her, but freedom and perhaps answers were going to have to wait. She was simply too weak to walk even the few feet to the door. What if—and this had bothered her with each landing that she’d encountered—what if they were just waiting for her to come out so they could finish the job? Darkness was coming on once again when she woke. She was getting sicker. Her belly was empty of whatever had been in it before, but it didn’t stop her from throwing up. The bile was hot, and she was getting weaker each time she got sick. Help was going to have to come soon or she knew she’d be dead. Standing this time took her to the floor again. On her knees, all she could think about was that she was going to die, right here, and no one would ever know…if there was anyone to mourn her death. Lying down, Jane closed her eyes and rested. It was nearing light again when she finally made her way out of the building. Her sleep had been fitful and unrestful, but she wasn’t as sick this time when she moved. It was either because she was too far gone or she was getting better, which she doubted. There wasn’t anyone around except for a single truck that was idling nearby. As she staggered to the street, holding onto the walls as she went, she wondered who would be stupid enough to let a nice vehicle like that sit running unattended. Just as she was going to step out of the alley she was in, a slamming door had her turning to look. It was too fast. Her head spun dizzily and she nearly fell again. As she held on to the overturned trash can beside her, she tried breathing in her nose and out of her mouth to slow the pain down, as well as to keep her belly from churning up again. For whatever reason the thought of being caught—at what she had no idea—but being caught or captured terrified her. “Miss? Are you all right?” She wanted to scream at him that she wasn’t fucking all right, but just nodded. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think you are. Did you know that you’re bleeding from your head and leg?” “It won’t stop. Every time I wake up, it’s bleeding again.” He might have said something, but she had to puke again and gagged twice before she laid down. “I think I’m dying.” “I’m going to call an ambulance.” She screamed no at him, but must have blacked out for a bit. When she woke this time, she was in a moving vehicle. “You fainted, so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to get you to someone. But I won’t call the police. I have no idea why I didn’t, but I wanted you to know that.” “I don’t know who I am.” Trust. She didn’t have any clue why she trusted this man, but she did. “I don’t know where I am, how I got here, or how I was hurt. I’m at your mercy, it seems.” “Julian. Julian Stanton.” She asked him who that was. “Sorry. Me. I’m Julian Stanton. I’m taking you to my home…well, to my parents’ home. My father is a doctor. Retired now, but a good surgeon. I let him know what was going on about the wound, as well as that you seemed to be dead set against hospitals. He also knows that you’re carrying.”
She touched her fingers to the gun still in the holster. Touching it, like that man did, it gave her trust. Again, she had no idea why she did, but she laid her head back to rest. The trip didn’t seem to take all that long, but she might have been out for a lot longer than she’d thought. Three men were standing on the front porch when she arrived at the house with Julian. Before he opened the door or they moved, he pointed out who they were. Two brothers and a father. Then when they moved toward her and the truck, she cringed when they started to reach for her. “Let me give you something for the pain.” The elderly man smiled at her. “It’ll take you under for a bit, but that’ll be fine while I exam you for injuries. You can trust us, young lady. We’ll not harm you.” The pinch of the needle didn’t hurt, but almost as soon as he rubbed the cotton ball over where he’d injected her, Jane felt herself floating away. It was the best she’d felt since she’d awoken. Flashes of light moved over her. Strong voices were there, but no words that she could understand. And on top of it all, a woman. Her kind voice made Jane feel like she’d been bathed in sunshine. Then there was nothing. ~~~ Denny waited for his wife, Lucy, to come and assist him while Julian filled him in on what had happened and why he’d brought her to their home. Denny checked the woman’s head injury, and wasn’t surprised to find it was a bullet wound. After cleaning it as gently as he could, he started to cut away her clothing. The gun perplexed him for a few moments, but Colton, his other son who had helped bring the young lady in, removed it from her and said he’d put it in the safe for her. Next, Denny removed her shoes, socks, and another weapon inside those. Whoever she was, she was well armed. “I just heard from a man by the name of Wexton. I believe he runs the grocery store…or perhaps the library. They’re all running together lately. Anyway, I have no idea why he’d think we have anything to do with this, but he said that someone is camping out in one of the buildings in the market district. I said that Julian checked it out today and it’s nothing.” After Lucy pulled on gloves, she stood over the young woman. “Do we know anything?” “Not as yet. At least not much. GSW to the head, but I think there will be more. There is blood on her pant legs as well as her hands. I was just going to take a look now.” She helped him pulled off the tattered clothing he’d cut away. He noted the wounds they found as they took off her shirt. “Bullet on her shoulder. It looks like it might have been done before the other things, superficial. There is some bruising on her belly; boot print, it looks to be.” Denny, with the help of Lucy, rolled the young woman to her side. Her back was covered in scars that looked as if she’d been beaten, and repeatedly. There were a few more markings, none that he could recognize right off the top of his head. But as there was nothing life threatening, he moved to her pants. His wife took over there for him so that he could stitch up her head. He was just starting when he felt Lucy’s fear and stepped back from his patient.
“Denny, what is that?” He looked where she was pointing, careful of his hands. He had to look at it very hard until what it was came to him. He took another step back and tried to think beyond the fear. “Tell me.” “I’ve not see this mark on someone in.... I was a boy and my father had been working with one of the women in the village. He said that she was the devil’s handmaiden. Of course, as a child I believed him. But later, after doing some research, I found out that they’re people marked by another tribe…that they were supposed to be unworthy.” She asked him of what. “I don’t know. That’s all I could find. If she’s been marked like this, Lucy, she might be older than she looks. I mean, as in decades older.” “What is she doing around here?” He said that he didn’t know. “Well, we’ll fix her up, get some answers, and if we don’t like them, we’ll take care of her.” “Take care...what do you mean, take care of her? You’re not suggesting that we murder this poor child, are you?” She just stared at him with that look she reserved for their sons. “Lucy, explain yourself, please.” “Take care of her as in taking care of her. Make sure that she’s safe, well, and fed. Whatever made your mind rush to us killing her off? My goodness, Denny, you need to stop listening to those stories on the television set. Goodness gracious.” He said he didn’t think it was that but a book he’d been reading, and moved to finish her head. “I knew I shouldn’t have gone to bed straight away after reading that book. I swear to you, Lucy, that author has some chilling thoughts going on in his head.” She told him to not read it at all. “It’s good. I want to finish it, but perhaps I’ll read only in the daylight hours. Not so close to bedtime.” They worked on her for over two hours. Under each article of clothing they removed they found more cuts and bruises. Another gunshot wound in her leg had startled him. Denny wondered why the young woman was still alive the way she’d been treated. As he was wrapping up the wound on her leg and setting it in a temporary cast to make sure it wasn’t bumped, the woman looked at him. “Hello.” She nodded, but he thought her too weak to do much more than stare at him. “You’ve lost a lot of blood so I’m giving you some fluids. The wound on your head is stitched up, but I’m concerned at how deep it is. Julian told us you don’t know who you are.” “No.” She closed her eyes and he thought her asleep again. “I don’t know anything. Where am I?” “Stanton Ranch.” She asked him what state. “Ohio. You’re just outside of Zanesville. My family and I have a nice ranch here. Not that we have much in the way of animals any longer, but we did a long time—” “I had a gun. Where...did you take it?” He told her what one of his sons had done with it. “I’d like it back please. It...I have no idea why, but it comforts me.” “All right. But I’d like to wait until you’re a little stronger. I’ve given you something for the pain, and I’d hate for someone to be hurt when you were out of it.” She nodded, then moaned. “I’ve taken care of the wounds on your body. You have one GSW to the head, another to your shoulder, as well as one in your calf. They’re cleaned up and stitched. I’ve saved the bullets for you.”
“I don’t know what I do for a living. I might be a bad guy.” He’d thought of that as well, but had a feeling that wasn’t what had gotten her shot. “The man who brought me here, you said he was your son. Will he tell anyone where I am?” “No. He said you were inflexible about not going to the hospital, so he thought it might be safer for all of us not to tell anyone that we’d found you, nor that you were shot.” She nodded again and Denny thought for sure she was out this time. As he and Julian moved her to the bed he had set up in his offices at home, he asked him about what he thought had happened. He told him what she’d said to him when she woke up. “You think she’s a bad guy? Or anything to do with things that go bump in the night?” Denny told his son that he didn’t. “I don’t either. She could have shot me when I came up to her at the warehouse. Granted she was weak, but I think if she were a corrupt person, she would have done it anyway.” After moving her, he sat down at the little desk that was part of each room. He didn’t use his offices much anymore…just for an occasional bump or two from one of the ranch hands. They only had a couple horses now, having sold them off a while back when he realized that he was just too old for ranching. His sons were off on their own now and Denny was proud of each of them, but he missed them when they weren’t home. He supposed it was a way of life for the elderly. Denny did a search on shootings in the area. A couple had occurred which were, he thought, too far away for the young woman to have traveled from. There was a robbery, but he wrote that off as well, knowing somehow that she might not have been involved in that either. When Lucy brought him lunch on a tray they ate together, talking quietly about the upcoming picnic they were having, as well as Brayden’s birthday. He was a little old for having parties, but it never stopped them from having them for their boys. However, they no longer hired a clown to entertain them. “Do you suppose that he’ll even be home this year? Last year he was two days late coming home.” Brayden hadn’t been home as much as they liked, not for years now. “I miss him more all the time. I know that he’s working, but I’d so much like to have him home again.” “I’ve spoken to him a few times over the last few weeks. I guess things in Africa aren’t going as well as they had thought, and he might be able to get away for a little longer this time. Something about money troubles, as well as supplies coming up missing.” Lucy said that it would be nice to have him home. “I know, but when I talked to him, he sounded so beaten. Like he’s just tired of it.” “Well, he’s been working at building homes all over the world for others for nearly ten years now. I know as well as you that if you don’t take a break now and again, you can’t just pop back like you did before. He needs to come home and be with his family, and let someone else work for a little while. Perhaps he would do better at making money. Not that we need it, but I want him home occasionally.” Denny agreed, but he wouldn’t tell Brayden that. The boy was too stubborn about people telling him what to do. “When did he say he’d be here? Soon?”
“In a week. I had to make him narrow it down so that we could pick him up at the airport when he arrives. But of course, then I had to tell him several times that we didn’t mind going out of our way to get him. I swear, Lucy, I think he does that to make me mad.” She laughed and said they were alike in that. “What’s that supposed to mean? I’m not aggravating.” “If you say so, love. But when you get something in your head, you’re like a dog with a bone. You’ll pick at it to death.” They both looked over at the bed when the woman moaned. “She’s going to make it, isn’t she? I mean, she won’t get weaker from this, correct? Poor thing. I wonder if whoever did this to her even cares.” “No, I don’t think so. I have no idea why, but I think they would be upset to know she’s alive. But we might have some trouble keeping her down until she heals more. And she’s asked for her gun back and said that it’s comforting to her for some reason. She seems stubborn herself, don’t you think?” Lucy pointed out that she’d not spoken to her. “That’s right. I forgot. I’m concerned about the marks on her back. What they might mean to her. Or us.” “I was going to ask you if you looked them up while you were down here, but for some reason I have it in my head for you not to. It might lead someone here.” He nodded, telling her that he’d thought the same thing. “We don’t know anything about her, Denny, but I want to protect her like she’s our own child. Why is that, you suppose?” “I don’t know. But now that you mention it, I feel the same way. And even Julian said that he had this overwhelming need to make sure that she was safe. Not well, but safe. I asked him why and you know what he said? He told me that she needed him, that he felt it.” When she left him again, taking the tray with her, he sat at his computer to play a game. It was silly, he knew, when there were plenty of game systems upstairs, but he loved solitaire and found himself thinking about the game more than what he’d been doing earlier. It was a way to ease his mind…he had been playing games as a way to relieve stress for over a decade. The computer made it so much nicer. When a small ding alerted him that he had an incoming message, he clicked on it to see what his son had to say now. Brayden had better not be changing his mind. He wanted his boy home. When it came up, he read it three times to make sure that he’d not misread it. “I’m coming home, Dad. For good. I’ve had enough.” He started typing a reply when a second message from him came up. “Would you find me a house? Not too big, but nice. With a pool. I find that I want to swim again.” He told him he’d do just that, and smiled as he wrote the rest of his answer. “Are you sure you don’t want to build one? You should be good at it by now.” “I just want to live somewhere that is a nice home without any work on my part.” Denny watched the little icon that said Brayden was still typing paused. When it came up on his end, Denny could only stare at it. “I’m getting married. After I’m home. She’s not my mate, but I need some stability in my life and she can do it, I think. At least I hope so. She’s a little on the.... You’ll understand when you meet her. I’m bringing her home with me so you all can all get to know her too. Don’t tell Mom yet. I want to surprise her.”
He’d certainly do that, Denny thought. Not his mate, yet he was going to marry her? That made his own cat sort of curl around him in fear. It was a feeling, one that had made him become a great surgeon, that had him thinking that his eldest son was about to make the biggest mistake of his life. “We’ll talk when you get here, son. Tell me when you expect to be at the airport and I’ll be there.” He told him he should be in the United States in two days. To pick him up on Wednesday. “All right. Give me times when you get them and I’ll make sure that you and your lovely bride-to-be have a ride home.” Brayden said that he loved him and then the message box told him that he’d logged off. Denny checked on his patient then went to find his Lucy. There wasn’t any way that he was going to keep this from her, and he found that he didn’t want to. He needed someone to tell him he wasn’t nuts for feeling this way. “She’s not his mate? You’re sure that’s what he said.” Denny assured Lucy that he’d read it three times to be sure. “Why would he do a fool thing like that? Doesn’t he know what sort of trouble that can cause him when she does come along?” “He said he needs some stability in his life. And while I can understand that, I wonder if he knows he’s not going to get it. Do you think he gets what he’s doing?” She just huffed, something that she’d done all their married life when she thought he should know the answer to something. “Lucy, he’s bringing her home to meet us. Oh, you’re not supposed to know. He told me not to tell you.” “Well, I’m glad that you did. And no, I don’t think he understands what he’s doing. I can understand living with a woman if you’re lonely. I don’t care for it, but I guess I can understand. But this is at a whole new level of living with someone for sex.” Denny nodded, thinking that his wife was losing her filter more all the time when it came to talking about things. “Denny, you’re going to have to talk to him as soon as he gets home.” “I will, I promise. But I’d like to say something to you, and I don’t want you to get upset. You’ve been a little...how should I say this? You’ve been a lot more outspoken lately. Is it that club you’ve joined? The Women Over Fifty Group?” She kissed him on the cheek as she walked by him. “Lucy, you didn’t answer me. What is it about you lately?” “I’ve decided that I’m too old to be trying to please everyone.” He said that he could understand that. “And I’m not saying what I want, I just have opinions. A great many of them. But I’ve been too shy to say them. I’ve decided that I’m not going to sit in the back row any longer, but voice my opinion.” After she left him in the kitchen, he laid his head on the butcher block they used as an island. Oh Lord, she was going to be the death of him, he just knew it. He smiled as he lifted his head. But she sure was fun now. He thought he liked this new Lucy. Going to the basement again, he sat with his patient. Maybe, he thought, he’d take up this new habit Lucy had adopted. Saying what he wanted might be fun. Yes, sir, he was going to do that from now on instead of what people wanted to hear. He wondered what his sons would think about their new parents.