By: Stacey Brutger

She felt stupid for voicing her fears. What choice did they have?

“You’ll do fine.”

Her stride hitched at his comment, as if he had every confidence in her ability. She watched him close the distance to the cliff with those long strides of his, intent on finding the clearest path.

Shayla blinked as she drew closer to the giant wall, watching it loom larger and larger with each step. “That’s easy for you to say. You’re fit. Even malnourished, you’re all muscle. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m packing a few extra pounds.”

When he turned, she almost swallowed her tongue. His detached expression grew into a blaze as he scanned her from head to toe and every inch in between. “You’re just a little bit of a thing, but you pack a wallop. You’ll go up first. I’ll follow and guide you the best I can.” He tipped his head from side to side, the bones in his neck cracking. “I won’t let you fall.”

The intimate way he spoke those last words made her breath catch. Shayla shook her head in denial, but there was a softness in his eyes that made her pulse flutter.

The hounds chose that moment to renew their racket, and his face closed down, brutally cutting the tentative connection.

“Give me your bag.” He slung it over his back and seized her arm, hustling her toward the wall. He followed closely, bumping into her with each step, almost as if he needed the touch as much as she did. Knowing she wasn’t alone bolstered her courage.

“They caught our scent. We have to move. Now.”

He grasped her hips and heaved her three feet in the air. She gave an embarrassingly girly squeal, and flailed like a ninny.

“Grab the wall. There is a handhold a foot above your head. Use it to pull yourself up.”

She did as told, clutching the wall like a fabled superhero…only without the cool powers that kept them from falling and breaking their necks. When she turned her head to watch his progress, she saw three dogs race toward them.

“Climb.” Hands landed on her ass, boosting her another two feet.

Those large hands prodded her so intimately she shivered, relishing the way his touch lingered a little too long on her butt. Then cursed herself for being a nitwit. This was not the time or the place. Needing a distraction, Shayla blurted out the first thought that popped in her head.

“If you’re going to grab second base, at least tell me your name.” Her fingers and toes hurt as her weight sagged on them, the cold making them feel brittle as she hauled herself ever upward.

She heard a snort, then a reply. “Aiden.”

She looked behind them. “Shit. You have less than twenty feet between you and those dogs. Get off the ground!”

She reached for another ledge without prompting. She heard rocks tumble as he lunged upward, heaving himself up by his fingertips. Envy made her grit her teeth.

Then there was a deep rumble. Shayla twisted around and saw Lassie race toward the dogs.

“Lassie, no!”

Shayla frantically searched for a way down, but the path she’d taken had vanished completely.

The vicious sounds of dogs fighting assaulted her ears.

“No, you don’t.” Aiden stepped over and pinned her to the wall, leaving her nowhere to go.

“They’ll kill him.”

“And you dying with him will gain us nothing. He’s buying us time. Look.” Aiden eased away from her. “He’s holding his own, but there are too many for him to hold back. The dogs are hunting us, not him.”

Twice the size of the dogs, Lassie tore into them. A distraction that ended too quickly. Two dogs circled around Lassie and raced toward them.

She didn’t need to be prompted and scrambled to get out of reach.

The beasts leapt higher than should have been possible. The large one snapped at her ledge, clawing at the ridge as if he would follow her up the cliff.

Panicked at the sight of the slobbering hounds bearing down on her, she kicked out. And knocked the one paw away. The movement unbalanced her, and she teetered precariously. Her grip on the slick rocks slipped. She would’ve tumbled into their waiting jaws if Aiden hadn’t reached over to steady her. He pushed her higher, waiting for her to reach for the next hold, his arms shaking under the strain.

“I got it.”

A growl came below her. The menace curled into her brain and froze her to the spot.

That did not sound like any dog she’d ever heard.

Unable not to steal a peek at what was chasing them, she twisted her head and discovered the sound had come from Aiden. A little unnerved, she glanced down and saw the same hound had managed to sink its teeth into his leg. “Aiden—”

“Get your ass moving, woman, or I swear I’ll leave you hanging from the side of the cliff.”

Shayla clamped her mouth shut, detesting him in that moment despite knowing that he was correct. If she climbed down to help, she’d be the easier meal. There was nothing she could do to help him.

Or was there?

She eyed the loose rocks, then picked one up and pitched it at the dog.

The beast yipped as it smacked his muzzle and he lost his hold, plummeting into the darkness. Aiden scaled up the sheer face like it was stairs, giving her a hard look.

Of course, a thank you was too much to ask.

Shayla ignored the beastly man and began her own trek. True to his word, Aiden followed her closely, sometimes even placing her feet when she slipped. By the time she reached the top, her arms wouldn’t stop shaking. Wind whipped past, plucking at her like prying fingers.

She glanced up at the slick edge, and shook her head in defeat. “I can’t make that. My strength is shot.” A touch of vertigo tilted the world around her. She clung to the wall, rocks cutting into her frozen fingers and knees. Sand shifted under her grip, and her fingertips tingled under the strain.

Without sparing her a glance, Aiden passed her, effortlessly pulling himself over the ledge and disappearing. If she weren’t so tired, she’d hate him for that casual strength.

A heartbeat passed, then two, and Shayla realized he wasn’t coming back. Anger gave her strength. She gained another foot before her limbs trembled under the strain. Exhaustion flooded her. If she moved another inch, she feared her grip would fail altogether.

Something warm clamped over her wrists.

They found her!

Shayla panicked, instinctively jerking away. Her feet slipped on some gravel, and she lost her two-inch perch. Only her precarious grip on the narrow outcropping and the hold on her wrists kept her from plunging down against the jagged ridges of the cliff.

“Cease, woman, or you’ll drag us both over.” Shayla looked up to see Aiden leaning over the edge, those large hands of his clamped around her wrists. Her body went weak with relief.

Then he began to pull.

Her fingertips slipped, and she dangled over the edge into nothingness. She flailed in the instinctive urge to cling to the safety of the wall until a low rumble emerged deep in his chest, something so primitive that she froze.

Strain shook his arms, and Shayla knew he had reached his limit as well. She used what few footholds she could find to help alleviate her weight.

Her head cleared the ledge. Her shoulders. Her waist.

She expected him to set her aside at any time.

When she would’ve placed her knee on the ground, he refused to release her. Only when she was plastered up against his body did he finally let her go.

“I thought you’d left me.” She leaned against him, not sure she had enough strength to stand on her own, taking comfort from his solid presence. Heat radiated from him, so warm it almost hurt against her cold skin.

Too warm.

Shayla leaned back to touch the side of his face, his beard brushing her palm. “You’re burning up.”

Chapter Six

“Your fingers are like icicles. Why didn’t you say something?” Aiden sounded exasperated, brushing off her concerns and focused just on her. The intensity of it made her feel cherished.

His hands engulfed her fingers, and Shayla shivered at the delicious heat, leaning into him and accepting what he so willingly offered. “Freezing to death is a better alternative than being torn apart by a pack of dogs.” She paused, more uneasy when she noticed that she hadn’t heard them for a while. “Are they gone?”

The man shook his head. “They moved inland. I can still hear them, but they’re some distance off.”

“Circling us?”

Aiden turned and surveyed their surroundings with unreadable eyes. “Most likely.”

“And Lassie?” She hated the tremor in her voice.

Aiden peered over the edge. She gave a startled squeak and clutched the back of his shirt, terrified that he might disappear over the ridge. He straightened so fast, she wrapped her arms around his waist to keep from tumbling on her backside. Her survival depended on keeping him alive, but that didn’t explain why her chest actually hurt at the thought of losing him.

He stiffened in her arms.

She didn’t think he even breathed.

Afraid to find out what he wasn’t telling her, she stepped around him and peered into the abyss. Blackness looked back. Hell, she couldn’t see anything that wasn’t three feet in front of her face.

He cleared his throat, slowly tugging her away from the ledge until she was once again tucked against his side. “He got away.”

She shivered at the rough tone of his voice, wanting to believe him. “How can you tell? I can’t even see the shore.”

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