A sizzling story of a woman who risks her life and her heart to find a wealthy man’s missing sister—the first novel in a sexy new romantic suspense series.
When Caleb Devereaux’s younger sister is kidnapped, this scion of a powerful and wealthy family turns to an unlikely source for help: a beautiful and sensitive woman with a gift for finding answers others cannot. While Ramie can connect to victims and locate them by feeling their pain, her ability comes with a price. Every time she uses it, it costs her a piece of herself. Helping the infuriatingly attractive and impatient Caleb successfully find his sister nearly destroys her. Even though his sexual intensity draws her like a magnet, she needs to get as far away from him as she can.
Deeply remorseful for the pain he’s caused, Caleb is determined to make things right. But just when he thinks Ramie’s vanished forever, she reappears. She’s in trouble and she needs his help. Now, Caleb will do risk everything to protect her— including his heart. . .
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This excerpt is from the unedited, unproofed and not final copy of Keep Me Safe and may differ slightly from the final printed edition.
Ramie roused violently, bolting upright in the bed, fear surging, adrenaline racing through her veins when she heard the firm knock at her door. For a long moment she sat up in bed, covers pulled tightly to her chin, staring at the door as if expecting it to burst in at any moment. What if he had found her?
Her mouth went dry and she couldn’t swallow the burgeoning knot in her throat.
It took her a moment to gain her bearings, to remember where she was and that Caleb had said he’d be here as soon as possible. Was it him? Or was it the man she’d narrowly escaped just hours before?
Her hands shook causing the covers to tremble like rolling ocean waves. She couldn’t think for the roar in her ears. She did not want to answer the door not knowing what awaited her on the outside.
A peephole. She didn’t have to unbolt her door to check the peephole.
She scrambled out of bed just as another knock sounded. And then she heard his voice through the door.
“Ramie? Ramie, it’s me, Caleb Devereaux. You can open the door. You’re safe now.”
Logically she registered who it was, that she recognized his voice, but his assurance that she was safe now didn’t provide any comfort because she knew she wasn’t safe. Maybe she’d never be safe. Even though she’d recognized his voice she still approached the door with caution and rose up on tiptoe to check the peep hole.
In the hallway she saw Caleb, his expression grim, his hair looking unkempt as though he’d been dragged out of bed to fly hundreds of miles to where she was. She glanced at the bedside clock and realized that he hadn’t slept at all. It was in the early A.M. hours and she’d called him just hours before. He truly must have flown out the instant they’d rung off.
She frowned, her brow furrowing. Why would he have dropped everything to come to her? Yes, she’d said he owed her. She would have said anything at all to get him to help her. But that didn’t mean he’d actually do as she’d asked. Or rather begged in her desperation.
And yet here he was. Standing outside her door. Waiting for her to open it. If only she could make herself get rid of the one thing that gave her the illusion of safety. A dead bolted solid door. One that would be extremely difficult for one man to break down if he wanted inside.
For a moment she simply couldn’t get her hands to cooperate. They trembled as she lifted one to unlock the deadbolt. She fumbled with it for several long seconds, unable to get it to work properly for her.
Her palms were sweaty. Even her knees shook. She recognized the signs for what they were. Panic attacks certainly weren’t alien to her, even if they’d only begun eighteen long months ago when a killer had escaped the grasp of the police and then single-mindedly began his hunt for her.
By the time she managed to finally free the door, her breaths were coming in rapid bursts. Her chest constricted painfully as she tried to suck in air but it was as though there was a solid barrier preventing oxygen from reaching her lungs.
She hastily took a step back when Caleb filled the open doorway. She kept backing away, her vision growing hazy, her hands fluttering wildly in her panic.
Caleb took one look at her and swore long and hard. He reached back only long enough to once again secure the door but when he turned his attention back to her, she felt her legs give way and she sank like a deflated balloon to her knees.
Her hands flew out in front of her, slapping noiselessly against the carpeted floor in an effort to prevent her fall. Caleb was beside her in an instant his strong hands hooking underneath her armpits. He lifted her effortlessly and before she could muster any panic over her proximity to him he plopped her gently down on the edge of the bed but was careful to keep one hand on her shoulder to steady her.
“Breathe, Ramie,” he said in a soothing, even tone. “Breathe before you pass out.”
She closed her eyes, tears stinging the lids. She hated the helplessness that seemed to grip her with growing frequency. Control was something she valued, was something she needed in an effort to maintain her sanity. But over the past months she was anything but in control. She could feel herself gradually sliding away with each passing day. When would it end? Would it ever truly end for her? Peace was an elusive, taunting desire. Just one night where she slept free of the monsters she’d helped imprison and the torment they caused—still caused in her shattered mind.
“Ramie, look at me.”
Startled by the firmness of his command and his terse tone, her eyelids fluttered open and her gaze lifted falteringly to his. Then he lowered himself to one knee in front of her so she didn’t have to crane her neck to look upward at him. He gathered her hands in his, ignoring her visible flinch at his touch.
She braced herself for the tide of emotion to swamp her. To be filled with whatever darkness he hid from the rest of the world. Her gift was a sick twist of fate. As though fate was playing a cruel joke and laughing at her expense. Because she could only sense the bad in people. Underlying evil. Malevolence or bad intentions. She was never able to share the good. People’s happiness, their joy, their celebration of life. Only what they tried to hide, what they never wanted others to know about them.
She could ferret out people’s deepest, darkest secrets as though she was somehow responsible for being the judge and jury over their conscience. It wasn’t a gift she wanted. Certainly wasn’t something she’d ever asked for. She wasn’t qualified to cast judgment. She only wanted to survive, to live. To enjoy something as simple as an ordinary day without the oppressive weight of so much evil bearing down on her. Was that so much to ask? At times she felt as though Ramie St. Clair no longer existed, that she’d become they very evil she tried so hard to extinguish.
But as Caleb’s hands tightened around hers, all she could feel was unwavering resolve. No blackness, no evil taint on his soul. And it wasn’t as though she picked up on his resolve because her mind had touched his. It was clear in his eyes, his expression. Any idiot could see that he was determined, but then she’d never thought him anything else. After all, he’d tracked her down, ruthlessly forcing her to help find and save his sister.
She should be furious. She should be screaming at him for the ultimate betrayal. He’d sent her back to hell. And yet she couldn’t summon anything but the yawning numbness overtaking her with every passing day that her own death approached. Because the man hunting her would find her. It wasn’t a matter of if but when. She was only delaying the inevitable. Fighting for each new day and hoping it wasn’t her last. And it was no way to live. So much fear. And…resignation. It should fill her with self-loathing that she’d accepted the inevitability of her death. It made her weak. Like she’d given up. But if she’d truly given up all hope, she wouldn’t have called Caleb in her desperation. She wouldn’t have reached out for help and protection.
What if… What if he truly could keep her safe? What if he could prevent her agonizing death at the hands of a madman? She was afraid to hope, to let herself be lulled into a false sense of security. And yet she couldn’t quite prevent the fledgling glimmer of hope from unfurling in the deepest part of her soul.
“Look at me. Watch me. Breathe deep. In through your nose and out your mouth. You can do this.”
Her pulse was a rapid staccato against her skin. She stared helplessly back at him, a single tear trailing warmly down her cheek, a contradiction to the icy chill that held her in its grip.
“Don’t cry, Ramie,” he said in a gentle voice. “You’re safe now, I swear it. But you have to breathe for me. Like this.”
She watched as he demonstrated sucking in deep breaths, his nostrils flaring, and then expelling, the warmth of his breath on her chin. Some of the terrible panic began to ease. Slowly, her lungs opened up and allowed a shaky intake. She shuddered violently, shaking off the chokehold anxiety had on her.
“Nice and easy,” he soothed. “You need to slow it down.” He glanced down at one of the hands he still held, his fingers circled gently around her wrist. “Your pulse is way too fast.”
She had yet to say a word to him. He’d done all the talking. And now that her panic attack was abating, she had no idea what to say at all. He was here. He’d come. He’d responded to her plea for help. What could she tell him? Would he even believe her?
His expression grew dark, his eyes flaring with anger. It was instinctive for her to recoil when he lifted a hand toward her face. He frowned even harder at her reaction.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Ramie,” he murmured.
He touched the corner of her mouth where the bruise and dried blood she still hadn’t washed away was on her skin. His touch was infinitely gentle and once more she marveled at the fact that her mind wasn’t thrown into the instant turmoil that was usually the result when people touched her.
Oh, she sensed anger. Deep, seething rage. But she knew it was directed at the man who’d struck her. The man who wanted to kill her. She could sense nothing from him, which meant he had no dark secrets. No violent tendencies. All she could feel was hatred toward the man who’d struck her.
“Now, tell me what you can,” Caleb said, no hint of impatience in his voice. “You said someone was trying to kill you. I need to know every single detail if I’m going to be able to protect you.”
It was the way in which he said protect you that struck a chord inside her. He hadn’t said help her. He’d said protect in a possessive tone, one she found comforting. The first time in over a year she’d enjoyed one brief moment of comfort and…peace. The peace she was so desperate to achieve.
They sat there in silence, Caleb’s fingers still a gentle caress on her face, when she realized he was waiting for her response. For her to say something instead of numbly staring at him like a brainless idiot.
God, where to start? At least she didn’t have to contend with disbelief over her abilities. He’d been certain of her before he’d ever met her. He’d sought her out for precisely what she could do. Find his sister.
Weariness assailed her. Fatigue crashed into her like the surf against a rocky coast. She felt more battered and bruised in her heart and soul than she did from her stalker’s physical attack hours before.
“I don’t know where to start,” she whispered. “It all sounds so…crazy. I wouldn’t even believe my story coming from someone else.”
His fingers fell from her face and back to her hand, rubbing over the top in a circular pattern meant to soothe and calm. Then he simply laced his fingers with hers and gave them a gentle squeeze.
“Start wherever you like. I’ll listen. And I’ll damn sure believe you.”
She sucked in a steadying breath and then let it out, her shoulders sagging with the effort.
“A yeah and a half ago I helped locate a kidnapping victim. What that poor girl went through was horrifying.”
She shivered just saying the words. No matter how hard she tried to block it from her mind it was there, image after image of blood, pain and impending death thick in her memory. It was as fresh as if it had happened yesterday and not eighteen months ago.
“And what you went through as well,” he murmured.
Regret was stark in his eyes. Sincere remorse was etched into his features.
“Yes,” she whispered. “What I endured as well.”
“Go on,” Caleb encouraged.
“The killer was never apprehended. And I say killer because though he didn’t kill the victim I located, there were others. So many others. I was only able to save the one.”
She squeezed her eyes shut as grief welled to the surface, threatening to completely consume her. Then she reopened her eyes and focused her gaze on Caleb.
“He’s the one trying to kill me. He’s been hunting me for months. He’s why I tried to hide where no one could find me. And yet he somehow manages to find me no matter where I go. He’s always there. I think…”
She broke off and lowered her gaze because this is where it got crazy. Caleb may well think she’d lost what remaining sanity she possessed.
“You think what?” he asked softly.
“I think he has psychic abilities himself. I think it’s why he’s obsessed with me. It has to be why he keeps finding me. Why I’m constantly having to look over my shoulder. I swear at times I can feel his breath on my neck. He was waiting inside my hotel room today. But I knew when I touched the knob that he’d been there but before I could run, he yanked the door open and grabbed me.”
Caleb’s eyes grew murderous, murky like a thundercloud.
“So you’ve been running for a year and a half?” he demanded.
She shook her head slowly. “No. He waited. Just when I thought I had moved on and somewhat made peace with the ordeal of locating his victim he contacted me. He called me. And I don’t know how he got my number. At the time I had a stable residence but no landline. Just a cell phone. And he began taunting me. Telling me what he would do to me and how my death wouldn’t be slow and that in the end I’d beg him to kill me and end my pain and misery.”
“Son of a bitch!” Caleb swore.
He pushed to his feet and began pacing back and forth at the foot of her bed. He paused briefly and turned, facing her again. He ran a hand raggedly through his hair and then gripped his nape in a gesture of frustration.
“I forced you out of hiding,” he said in a grim voice. “You left because of me. Because you were afraid if I found you then others could too.”
Ramie wouldn’t lie, even to make him feel better. Her tone had no anger or resentment. Just matter of factness. “It was the longest I’d ever remained in one place. I think it was the only time he didn’t find me or at least he didn’t make his presence known. But if I’m right and he’s psychic then he would have known. He enjoys the thrill of the hunt. It’s a high for him. He’s a trophy hunter. You know, like hunters or fishermen have their own record books and when someone breaks the old record, there’s this sense of glory, an adrenaline rush that is nothing to compare it to before then. He lives to taunt me. He’d like to lull me into believing I’d escaped him and when I don’t expect him there he is. He wants me to suffer. I’m his trophy kill,” she whispered. “The kind hunters have preserved and mounted on their walls, the one that gets the special place above the fireplace mantel.”
He knelt back in front of her like before. He took both of her hands, drawing them together in his clasp. Then he stared her directly in the eyes, remorse brimming in his gaze.
“I’m sorry,” he said hoarsely. “God, I’m sorry, Ramie. I didn’t know. I couldn’t have known what it does to you. Or that I’d lead you back into the hands of a killer.”
“Can you honestly say you wouldn’t have done the exact same thing even if you had known?”
Her voice reminded him of cracking ice after a winter storm, though rare this far south, and the sound of the tree branches splintering away, their burden to great to bear any longer. He refused to allow her to slide away from him, like water through his fingers. He curled those fingers into tight fists as if to prevent that very thing from happening.
He closed his eyes and lowered his head. “No. God forgive me, but no, I would have done anything to save my sister. I know you hate me. You have every right to. But as you said I owe you and I fully intend to repay my debt to you.”
“I don’t hate you,” she said in a low voice. “I don’t even blame you. In your shoes I would have done the same for a loved one.”
“How can you not hate me when I damn near caused your death? When I forced you to endure being brutalized by a psychopath? You may not hate me, Ramie, but I damn sure hate myself for what I did.”
She reached out her hand and slid it gently down his cheekbone before cupping his jaw. He visibly flinched and his breath caught. He went so still that she couldn’t even detect his breaths.
Warmth spread through her hand and up her arm before spreading through her chest like a wildfire. She yanked her hand away, appalled by the familiar way she’d touched him. But he caught her hand and carefully put it back to his cheek, keeping his hand over hers so it was trapped.
“Desperation makes us do the unthinkable. How can you hate yourself for being able to save your sister? How does it help your sister that you hate yourself? Never let her sense you regret your actions because those actions saved her from certain death. I’m sure she’s very grateful to you for her life.”
“She’s grateful to you,” Caleb said gruffly. “You are the one she owes her life to.”
“You providing me sanctuary is payment enough if you feel you’re in my debt.”
“Count on it,” he vowed. “You’re coming home with me, Ramie. I formed a security firm with my brothers after Tori’s abduction. I swore never to be without the right tools to ensure the safety of my family. We hire only the best.”
“I need the best,” she said in a low voice filled with conviction. “Because he’s always only a footstep behind me. No matter where I go. No matter what I do.”
This time Caleb slid his hand underneath her chin, framing it between his thumb and the rest of his fingers. His gaze bore into her unwaveringly.
“I will protect you, Ramie. I don’t make promises I can’t keep.”
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