The Forbidden Mountain Man
I’m a mafia princess running from our rival family. A mafia lawyer in protective custody hiding in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest saves me and doesn’t realize it.
If we don’t work together, we’ll share a watery grave.
I’m Stephenie Rossi and I’m involved in a deal gone bad. In a desperate attempt to escape the repercussions of my actions, I ditch my car and flee into the woods. I need to hide information on an informant – me – but I might not make it through the night.
Carter Johnson is promised safety and peace, but only if he reports on the illegal activities of his clients in Seattle. With only three weeks left until he’s set to testify, Carter is sure they’re after him. When I show up in his woods, Carter takes it as a sign that he has to run. Now.
When Carter finds out I’m a key to the investigation and could exonerate him, he has to decide between doing what is right and/or staying safe. Only one will of his choices will save me. But I can’t guarantee that Carter feels the same way about me that I do him. I’ve fallen for him and if I don’t play this right, one wrong step could shatter my heart.
Be careful, Stephenie Rossi, this is one game you’re not equipped to win.
Seattle’s rain was legendary. Too bad I couldn’t appreciate it like it probably deserved. Sometimes there were rainbows. Sometimes…
Peeking out the side window next to the front door at my father’s house, I shook my head. “Well, Papa, I better get home. The rain…” I fluttered my hand, certain he would figure out that my nervousness had nothing to do with the rain and everything to do with the fact that I carried a folder full of information on him and the rest of the Rossi organization in my purse. Okay, not completely about them, but enough about them and other Italian families in the business I would be labeled a traitor.
What would happen when he found out I was the informant he’d warned everyone about?
Even my father’s tolerance would be tested. My stomach clenched as I realized – not for the first time – just how dangerous my situation was.
“Si, Steph, let me know you made it home alright.” He watched me with more intent than normal. I was used to being mostly ignored by Giovanni Rossi or The Rossi as he was known throughout the Italian community in Little Italy and more. I was his third child but the first with his second wife, Stephanie de Borgi. They’d spelled my name with an e and shortened it to keep it from being confusing since I had essentially the same name as my mother.
According to my mother, before she passed, that had been Giovanni’s idea. Everything was his idea.
I smiled through my rising bitterness and leaned over, kissing his rough cheek. “I’ll call you when I get home.” The tradition had started sometime after my mom had died. I wouldn’t call him directly. I would ring the soldier phone in the main meeting office and they would let my father know I’d made it home. Or they wouldn’t. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how much he really cared.
He nodded, but there was something in his eyes that made my stomach feel like it was going to implode. What did he know?
I wiggled my fingers over my shoulder, gripping my keys like I could use them as a shield to protect me. If The Rossi found out what I was up to, he’d never let me leave. I just had to make it to the car.
As I got closer to the vehicle, my nerves didn’t lessen. Instead, they seemed to come alive, tingling and zinging in the most unpleasant ways. My father wasn’t a direct killer, but he’d been connected to a few car explosions and a few road runoffs in his day. Family wasn’t off-limits since all the traitors to the Rossi name would be family members. All Rossis were related.
Disloyalty wasn’t tolerated. Not much was.
Climbing into the car, I took a deep breath and felt under my seat for my over-sized purse. Everything I would ever need was in that thing. It was probably more of a bag than a purse with its multiple pockets and comparable sizing to a small duffel bag. Even the two-inch-thick crossbody strap left little doubt that its sole purpose was to keep that bag attached to me no matter what.
Lifting the keys toward the ignition, my hands shook. There was a noticeable point in time where I would have to acknowledge that my actions weren’t loyal to the Italian families in Little Italy. I deserved whatever happened to me. I hoped karma wasn’t working right then.
Sliding the metal key into the slot, I took another deep breath. If it was my time, it was my time. I couldn’t blame my dad. I did the things I had with the complete knowledge of the things he did. Taking care of traitors was one of those things.
I turned the key, squeezing my eyes shut and hoping I didn’t wet my pants. When the engine turned over and purred softly while it slipped into idle, I exhaled on a whoosh. I’d made it that far. I’m not sure what I was nervous about there in front of his house, anyway. He wouldn’t draw attention to his home. He would blow up my car in front of a business or in an alleyway.
Slipping the transmission into reverse, I pulled out of his driveway and onto the sleepy street. Rain drizzled with annoying persistence and I flipped on the wipers to an intermittent pace. I slowed to a stop at the red sign and leaned over, messing with the heat knobs. I wouldn’t get home for another thirty minutes as I drove around the base of Rattlesnake Mountain Area. With the weather like it was, it would most likely take longer.
Heat blasted from the vents and I finally relaxed into my seat. Tapping my steering wheel, I turned off the main highway, blinking as my headlight beams fought for something to shine on, only catching the rain breaking up the light directly in front of the car.
The sun had dipped below the horizon an hour or so ago and there was just enough lingering light to remind me of what I had left. As I climbed higher into the mountains, the number of cars lessened. Most people would be at home getting ready for their week. Wasn’t that what I should be doing?
Instead, I needed to figure out a way to arrange a meeting with the agent I’d been supplying information to. The sooner I got that file out of my possession, the sooner I could breathe easier. He wouldn’t be happy when he saw what was in it.
Suddenly, I laughed at myself in the empty cab of my car. “Stephenie, you’re never going to breathe easy again.” My chuckle morphed into a sob as I accepted the truth of what I’d started. Giving information to the Federal Bureau of Investigations wasn’t something you could say sorry, I didn’t know and hope everything worked out.
My tears started anew as my internal warring continued over the things I was doing. Part of me was Rossi and balked at the thought that I was tearing my family apart. The other part of me was De Borgi and righteously angry at the way The Rossi had disrespected my mother with his infidelity and then left her behind like trash.
One demanded forgiveness while the other deserved vengeance.
Bright headlights appeared in my rearview mirror and I blinked. They were most likely just trying to see in the dark as well. I wiped my cheeks when they didn’t lessen the beam as they got closer and closer to my vehicle.
I drove a Subaru Impreza and the car was naturally lower to the ground. The vehicle coming up fast behind me had to be an SUV of some kind with the headlights closer to the same height as my rear window.
They moved in close behind me, riding my rear as we climbed higher into the mountains on a four-lane highway. He or she could pass me at any time.
Why weren’t they passing me?
But I knew. One way or the other, a Rossi, a Capone, or a Bianchi had found out what I was doing and they were going to intimidate me. I gripped the steering wheel with a white-knuckled hold.
Trees lined the roadway, climbing into the cloudy sky with a determination to reach the heavens. Their trunks disappeared behind the guardrails and plunged into the earth a good twenty feet or so below the level of the road. The cliffside of the mountains was nothing to mess with.
In case the people behind me were just trying to get me out of the inner lane, I turned on my blinker and moved to the outside lane. No big deal. I wasn’t a fan of riding that close to the edge of the shoulder, but it wasn’t like there were a lot of accidents up that high. Most people were overly cautious. I was one of them.
The car followed me, almost bumper to bumper as we careened through the winding road. My breathing increased and I whimpered. I couldn’t kid myself any longer. They were after me. They knew what I knew and what I did. They would hound me until they believed I wouldn’t be able to talk. I would have to somehow destroy the evidence, but how? That wasn’t easy to do in a car being chased while driving in the rain on a mountain-road.
I leaned forward, pulling my bag out from under the seat and hooking the strap across my chest. I draped it to my left, closest to the door so it wouldn’t chance catching on anything when I tried to get out of the car.
Reaching down, I disconnected the seatbelt. There was no way, I was staying in that car. I’d seen a movie once where a man had driven his car toward a cliff and at the last minute, he’d jumped. I could do that. Either I jumped and lived or I wouldn’t and I’d die.
All I could do was hope that the darkness and rain would help me hide as I tried to escape.
My chest filled with fear. This was the only chance I would have. In about a hundred yards there would be a split in the guardrail. A semi-truck had plowed through that section just a month ago, the remains of the truck had fallen a hundred yards or so to crash along the edge of the mountain. In the newspaper photos I remembered seeing a slight outcropping just past the edge of the road before it shot downward.
If I were careful, maybe I could hit that shelf when I jumped.
The car behind me hit me from behind and I shrieked. This was happening and I had no other way out. I only had about twenty yards left. I unlocked the door, taking another shaking breath. Could I do this?
Blinding lights from the opposite direction bore down on me. I was in the far lane over and they still headed straight for me.
Ten yards became five and my time was up. If I didn’t turn that wheel right at that moment, I wouldn’t have another chance to try. The car coming at me was determined to cause a head-on collision. They had to be working together.
Before I could change my mind, I yanked the wheel to the right and my car responded, spinning toward the twenty-foot opening. Twisted metal defined the edges of the railings and I pushed the door open when the tires hit gravel.
I jumped too soon, hitting the shoulder of the road and rolling under and behind the pieces of the guardrail still intact as the car drove off the side of the mountain. Tucking the bag under me, I lay there in the thick grasses growing up around the edge of the roadway, rain pouring down like someone had punched holes in the clouds overhead.
A loud bang as my car hit the rocks below was muffled by more rain. I curled my fingers into my palms. My car. I loved that thing. Now it was gone.
I couldn’t focus on that point. Was I safe?
The lights of the cars moved into place, highlighting the area above me and to the side where the grass rose the highest but blocked me from being seen. My chest rose and fell as I struggled to breathe normally instead of the huffing and puffing my panic caused.
A door opened and the footsteps of a heavier man crunched the gravel toward me and then to the side. The whir of a window opening and a deep voice calling out broke up the incessant pattering of the rain. “Do you see anything?”
“Nah, if she jumped, she didn’t do it in time. There’s no one on that ledge. The car is at the bottom. I can see the lights.” The man turned again, his footsteps carrying him past me and back to his car.
Someone had been watching out for me, placing me by the guardrail and not on the ledge. I hadn’t thought that they might check it for survivors. Instead, I’d jumped too early.
“I’ll report the job as complete. Go get us a table at the bar so we have an alibi. I’ll meet you there.” His voice was rough with a slight garbling on the end of his R sounds. I didn’t recognize him, but that didn’t mean much. I was only in The Rossi’s presence most of the time. Not many of the grunt soldiers were allowed in to see him, let alone talk with such an informal cadence.
As their cars pulled back and then back onto the highway and out of sight, I gasped in shock. My adrenaline faded, leaving behind a surprising amount of pain in my knees, hips, and shoulders where I’d landed and then rolled. Even my palms were scraped raw. I couldn’t see the damage, but I had to be bleeding and I had nowhere to go.
It wouldn’t be safe to try to hitchhike out of there. I couldn’t use my phone, either. It would have to be a couple days before I could attempt that one. They would be waiting for something to emerge about me in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours. I had to lay low and stay away from my house and my life and the rest of society, if I wanted to survive.
If I couldn’t find some place to hole up, they wouldn’t have anything to worry about. I’d die in the cold rain, wishing the entire time that I had stayed in the car.
Pushing myself to my feet, I ignored the aches and burning sensations all over my body and turned toward the edge of the mountain. My tennis shoes would have to do to get me down. Someone had to have a hunting cabin or something similar out there. I wasn’t sure where, but I would find something.
I had to. Survival was the name of the game and my Rossi side reared up, refusing to quit.
No matter what, I had to make it. I didn’t have any other options, if my father would ever get the punishment he deserved.
Thud. Thud. Bang.
I rolled over in bed, blinking into the dark. Pulling myself from sleep, I tried to remember where I was.
A split second later, I jolted upright in bed as my present situation crashed over me.
I was in a cabin in the woods and I had no phone, no internet, no way to connect with the outside world. In essence, I was off-grid, holed up in protective custody while I waited for my day in court.
What had woken me? Another thud from outside grabbed my attention. I jumped from the sheets, pushing against the wall beside the door. If someone opened the panel, they wouldn’t see me first as the door would swing in front of me. I’d have a split second to identify them before I’d be forced to defend myself.
With what? I looked around. I’d forgotten to grab my gun or anything else. To be fair, I was still trying to wake up from sleeping, rubbing and blinking my eyes.
A slight chill in the air suggested the fire had gone out. Rain striking the metal roof overhead added to the cacophony of sounds and I realized the thudding and banging might just be the wind outside. Wind would be rare since the cabin I was in was low in a valley, but I couldn’t discount it as impossible, either.
Neither could I discount the possibility that the families I would testify against could have found me. They’d come out in any weather, determined to silence me forever.
I took a breath, closing my eyes to eek out a minute amount of sound. As far as I could tell, there was no one in the three-room cabin besides myself.
A soft rapping on the door reached me through the rain on the roof. Was that knocking? Someone knocked on the door. Then a weak voice carried through the log cabin. “Help. Please, is anyone in there?”
Someone needed help. Before I could second-guess my actions, I reached down and jerked my jeans from the floor, pulling them on. Still cautious, but aware that any hitman wouldn’t knock on the door and sound like a young woman, I made my way out into the big collective room that made up half the house.
At the door, I paused. This could be my undoing. If I opened this door, there would be no going back. If they were genuinely hurt or needed help, I would have to provide it. If they were out to find me, kill me or bring me back, they would be able to succeed.
All I had to do was leave the door shut or open it. Two simple choices, both with huge consequences.
However, I wasn’t the type to turn my back on someone else in need. That just wasn’t me and I wasn’t willing to lose my integrity or myself to fear. I reached out and pulled open the door.
A cold wind splattered me with rain and I looked onto the dark porch. I’d left all the lights off as I’d made my way to the entryway. My eyes slowly adjusted to the lack of light and I scanned the shadows of the covered porch.
Huddled against the wall beside the door, a small woman had wrapped her arms around her legs in an attempt to stay warm. What I knew about the Italian families in that area, they would never involve their women in the business side of things.
She’d be safe.
I knelt beside her, reaching out to wrap my arms under her knees and behind her back. As I stood with her in my arms, I shot one searching glance out into the rain-shrouded forest around the cabin. I wasn’t sure where she’d come from, but at that point, I hoped she’d survive to tell me. The elements could be brutal and hypothermia wasn’t a joke.
Closing the door behind us, I sank on the couch with the unconscious woman still in my arms. She had definitely passed out. I’m not sure how she found the energy she did to make it to my cabin, but whatever she’d done, it had exhausted her.
Setting her to the side and resting her head on a throw pillow, I grabbed up some blankets and wrapped them around her. I wasn’t worried about her being wet since it was the cold that would kill her first.
Moving to the wood box beside the fireplace, I stacked four or five logs into the mouth under the mantel, adding kindling and paper to take advantage of any coals that might still be there. Lighting the paper, I waited for it to take. The wood in the house and stacked against the side of the house on the porch were dry and would burn well for a few weeks, hopefully getting me through the day of the trial. I wasn’t interested in being out there to chop more wood later.
After the flames caught and heat poured from the fireplace, I turned back to the woman. Her features were easier to discern in the light from the flames and I couldn’t help the unbidden desire to reach out and smooth the hair from the side of her face. Her soft skin was chilly to my touch.
I had to get her warmer faster.
Standing, I moved around the back of the couch, pushing it closer to the fire. Pulling the blankets from her, I scanned her form. Was there clothing I could take off or anything that might impede her warming up?
I removed a large bag from her torso, leaning her up as I pulled the strap from her shoulder and back. It hit the floor with a soft plop. A jacket clung to her form as well, soaked through with rain. Peeling it from her arms was easier than pulling the cuffs over her hands. I removed her muddy shoes, setting them on the floor in front of the fire.
Her dark hair tumbled about her shoulders in a wild array of unbound curls and as I pulled her onto my lap to get my body warmth working on part of her, I noticed the dark lashes resting on her cheeks and the curve of her lips above a strong but feminine chin. Her skin appeared pale but that wasn’t just from being cold. She had the obvious coloring of a member of an Italian family and she could have been from Little Italy or she could have been a random woman.
The last thing I needed was to be distracted by a beautiful woman who smelled of cinnamon and rain.
Heat bombarded us from the front while my body warmed hers. I cradled her like a large child across my lap and held the blanket in place to help keep the heat up.
After a good fifteen minutes, her lashes fluttered and she moaned. Turning her head to the side, she slowly opened her eyes and looked up at me. Fear turned her lips down. “Can you hide me?” After searching my face for an answer, she succumbed to whatever had dragged her under in the first place.
Could I hide her? Whatever she was running from was enough to terrify her and send her crashing through the raining forests of the dark and dangerous mountains.
If her question was would I hide her, then yeah, I could assure her I would do my best.
But could I hide her? I wasn’t even sure I could hide myself.
I wasn’t sure what woke me up. The warmth all around me, the steady rhythm of rain on a roof, or the fact that I was still alive were all distinct possibilities to having pulled me from a deathlike state.
No. They would have contributed to waking me, but as I became more aware of my surroundings and myself, I could clearly define what woke me. The numbing chill had completely dissipated and all of the scrapes, bruises, and pain were willingly making themselves known.
I groaned, as a tenderness in my palms and shins reminded me what I’d gone through only a few hours before.
In all honesty, I had no idea what time frame I was looking at. Had it only been a few hours I’d thrown myself from my beloved Subaru and sacrificed it over the side of a cliff? How much later had I looked into the blue eyes of a man who could have been anyone and begged him to help me?
How long had it taken for my body to recover enough from the exposure to the weather as well as the pain of my injuries to actually let me wake up?
More importantly, as I became more aware of my situation, I looked around the inside of the building I was in. Where was I?
Judging by the light from the flames in the fireplace, what I could see was the inside of a small log cabin. I’d been tucked into blankets on a well-stuffed leather couch with a throw pillow under my head. A kitchen area took up a third of the large room and a small card table with three chairs separated the kitchen and the living room from each other.
Speaking to a masculine occupant, the furnishings were either leather or wood. Deer and elk head mounts adorned the walls and I avoided staring directly into their glass eyes. My nonnina had once said that you could see the soul of a creature through its eyes and when the eyes were fake, the soul was trapped.
How many souls were trapped in that cabin, mine included?
A small dampness clung to my clothing and I burrowed deeper into the blanket I’d been given. My bare arms were… wait, my bare arms? I was in a jacket when I slumped against the door to the cabin.
Yanking the blanket down I sat up, staring at my appearance. Okay, my clothes were still on me except my coat and my shoes were gone. My socks were still in place. I suddenly felt like I couldn’t breathe. If they’d gotten my coat off, then they’d handled the bag.
I patted my chest as if the strap might be hiding or something and I just couldn’t feel it, but it wasn’t there. Nothing made it appear. Nothing!
My breathing went from fast to jagged. I looked around the room, searching for the tan leather bag I valued with my life. Maybe even my blue jacket would be draped over the bag and covering it, fine, I didn’t care. I just needed to find my bag.
Dropping my feet to the floor, I swiveled my head side to side trying to see something, anything, that would tell me where I was, who had helped me, and where my bag was. What if whoever it was had my bag and knew who I was? What if they knew what I was going to do?
I must have made a small sound because suddenly a very large, very attractive man stood at the end of the couch watching me with a mixture of curiosity and worry. His dark almost-amber hair had been cut close to his head with a slightly longer length toward his forehead. A strong jawline enhanced the angles of his face and set off the blue of his eyes like the perfect frame. Even his nose, while straight and noble, didn’t detract from the blue of his gaze but rather enhanced the sharpness to the aquamarine appearance.
Why was I staring? I couldn’t stop staring and that calmed my breathing.
“Are you okay?” His husky voice was like smooth whiskey poured over lava rocks. I blinked more at the appealing tone than the question.
Once I realized he waited for an answer, I shook my head and swallowed. “I’m sorry, I… do you… I mean, did you take off my coat and shoes?” Rather than ask him directly where the bag was, lest I give him a clue to the bag’s importance, I opted for an indirect line of questioning. If he’d taken off my coat, then he would have had to take off the bag first.
A slight smile curved his lips. “Yes, I did. At least I know you’re awake enough to talk. You had me worried there a bit when you wouldn’t warm up.” His face was familiar.
“Do I know you? You look so familiar.” I studied him, narrowing his eyes as I tried to think of where that could have been.
“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. Do you remember waking up last night to ask me for help?” He arched a well-defined eyebrow and I glanced to the side, trying to remember if that’s where I had seen him before.
After a moment of searching my memory, I shrugged. “It must be that. Thank you.” I glanced around the modest cabin interior and wrapped my arms around my knees, still not sure I was comfortable with being there with him, but grateful to have a place to lay low. After a minute, I nodded toward the door. “Do you know where my bag is? I have a cell in there I can use to get help.” I didn’t care about the phone. It probably wouldn’t even work out there, wherever there was.
He hadn’t stopped staring at me and he cocked his head to the side. “Cells won’t work out here. I didn’t see a bag, are you sure you had one?” Was he testing me? Of course, there had been a bag. If he didn’t take it, then who had?
Was he lying to me? He had no reason for that. He had no idea who I was or what was in that bag.
I held my hands out in front of me, wincing at the scraped version of my palms. Nodding, I pushed myself to my feet and glanced at him. “Where are my shoes? I need to get back out there.” Before he could answer, I spied my tennis shoes by the fire. I’d never been a huge fan of heels and as I bent down to claim the dry shoes, I’d never been more relieved for my practical foot wear.
“Go back out there? You barely survived the last time you were out there.” He moved closer to me, reaching out like he meant to corral me inside and not let me out.
An image crossed my mind of me lying on his lap and gazing up at him, begging him to hide me. A warmth rose in my chest and I realized this man had done more than just take off my coat. He’d saved me.
Gratitude toward him warred with my need to get back outside. He’d saved me. I didn’t want to be rude or disrespectful toward him. I pressed the back of my hand against my mouth and closed my eyes, trying not to cry.
“What’s wrong? Tell me. Maybe I can help you.” He reached my side, his nearness warmer than the fire a few feet from me.
I dropped my hand and looked up at him, unable to come up with anything but the truth. “I need that bag. What’s in it could save my life.” I didn’t add that the information inside it could also get me killed. Why add on more stress to an already stressful moment? Nobody had time for that.
He glanced at the fire and then back at me as if considering something that was more important than life or death. Was there something more important? I couldn’t think of anything. After a moment, he shook his head. “I’m not sure you’re ready to go back out in that. Is this thing that you need in the bag insulin or some other life-saving medication?”
Closing my eyes, I tried to ignore the pull of his magnetism. It wasn’t fair for a man to be that good-looking in the wilds of Washington State. Why was he out there in the first place? Maybe he was a killer himself and now he wanted to keep me in the cabin to finish what the rain and those men in the cars started.
Shaking my head, I turned back to the fire, intent on suffocating the pain in my shins and hands. If I pretended long enough, maybe the pain would go away. Or maybe I could wish it all away. “No. There’s no medication in there, although, there might be some Neosporin or bandages I could use.” I sighed and slumped back to the couch I’d temporarily claimed as mine.
“Well, wherever the bag is at this moment, it’s not going to get up and disappear. You have some time to treat your wounds and get something to eat. Maybe the rain will let up a bit before we head outside to look for the bag. Does that sound good? How about some bacon and eggs?” He was so calm, so logical and he delivered the argument with such sound rationalism I couldn’t help but chuckle.
“You’re so convinced your idea is the better one, you must be a lawyer.” I stood again, certain my legs were sore from all the walking and falling I’d done the night before.
My host stiffened, staring at me as he tilted his head to the side. His hands clenched into fists.
Was it something I’d said?