An animal’s scream pierced the moist North Carolina air.
As she’d heard all manner of screeches, cries, chirps, ribbits, and howls, Riley Kingston’s radar barely blipped at the minor disturbance. She swiped at a bead of sweat on her nose before entering the GPS coordinates for the precious patch of Panax quinquefolius she’d located.
American ginseng, also known as seng, thrived in shaded, moist, well-drained slopes located across the middle and eastern United States. Many believed the root, resembling a windblown parsnip, cured diabetes, boosted energy, and managed sexual dysfunction, making it a coveted commodity across the globe, especially in Asian cultures.
Kneeling, Riley concentrated as her fingers wended their way between the compound prongs in search of the thick sympodium rising out of the rich black soil. “One, two, three…” She counted each plant with painstaking precision, careful not to miss a single one. In the growing shadows, she relied more on touch than sight.
Although she still had quite a bit of the Steele Conservation Area to survey, she was growing concerned about the scarcity of Panaxshe’d logged so far.
“Riley, you there?” barked a familiar, staticky voice.
She closed her eyes and drew in a deep, frustrated breath before resuming her counting. “Four, five, six, seven—”
“Riley, it’s Britt.”
“Eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve—”
“Answer the damn radio, Riley, or I’m coming out there to find your scrawny ass.”
“Gahrrr!” She dug into one of the many pockets of her field vest. “Can’t a girl get some freaking alone time?” Being a female in the Kingston-Steele family was a royal pain in the butt sometimes.
Walkie-talkie in hand, she asked in her calmest voice, “What can I do for you, boss?”
After her Costa Rican research trip abruptly ended, she’d returned home in utter misery. Noticing her struggle, her cousin Britt offered her a much-needed distraction. A job.
At first she’d refused his offer, unable to bear the possibility of another failure, especially one where her strong, got-it-together cousin was concerned. But Britt’s annoying and persistent texts and the enticement of getting back into the field lured her into acceptance.
“Are you headed back?” Britt asked.
“Not yet. I want to finish this transect first.”
“Look around, Riley.”
“Okay.” She scanned her immediate surroundings. Patches of jewelweed intermingled with sprigs of Solomon’s seal and mayapples on the forest floor. Great canopies of oak, hickory, and maple darkened the landscape above. “Am I searching for anything specific?”
A very male, very big sigh preceded, “Daylight—or lack of it. You need to get out of there before nightfall.”
Riley blinked several times, only now realizing she’d been squinting into the shadows. “Um, right. I’m on my way.”
“Straight back,” he warned. “No distractions.”
“Did you miss the part where I grew up and became an adult?”
“No, but I think you did. Hurry up. Randi’s taking me out to dinner.”
“You don’t have to wait—”
The whole alpha-male thing was downright suffocating. So much testosterone surrounded her that it was a wonder she hadn’t grown a set of balls yet.
Clenching her teeth, Riley dropped her walkie-talkie back into her vest and stowed away her handheld GPS unit. With the coordinates marked, she would be able to return tomorrow and finish inventorying Panax.
If she didn’t love Britt so much, she would’ve taken the long way back just to piss him off. But no matter how much she’d like to kick his shins, he’d saved her in ways even she didn’t comprehend when he offered her this job.
Following her internal compass, she set off for where Britt awaited her at the wildlife research center. Rather than retrace her steps, she made a sharp ninety-degree turn, opting for a shortcut. She knew this land better than anyone. Well, maybe not Britt, but she was gaining ground on her cousin.
She’d spent hours traipsing these hills, conducting vegetative surveys and observing Britt’s beloved red wolves. Watching the emergence of a new pack of pups this spring had been amazing. Calypso and Apollo demonstrated as much tolerance of their babies’ antics as Ross and Sandy Kingston showed their five children.
The importance of the survey and the knowledge that Britt trusted her to do a good job went a long way in repairing her battered ego. But lately a restlessness had settled into her bones, scrambling her thoughts and feelings into a million different directions.
She needed… something more.
Another scream arrowed through the trees, sending ice shards down her spine.
“That was no animal.”
Riley sprang forward before her brain could catch up. Ascending a steep rise, she grasped small tree trunks as the toes of her hiking boots dug into the loamy earth.
Once she reached the crest, she spotted a creek cutting along the hollow, creating a shimmering dark ribbon in the gloom. Stands of towering silver-barked beech trees and glossy-leaved rhododendrons fanned out from the rushing water. Not a single bird fussed at her nor did a mosquito buzz at her ear. Every creature in the vicinity held its breath, anticipating.
Another scream, more guttural, more wounded, barreled into her, stripping away her breath and shoving against her heart.
Sweat snaked down her temple as she stalked the ridgeline, searching for the source of so much torment, so much pain.
Time slogged by, though her pulse ticked away each nerve-racking second.
Another scream. No. A man’s roar of anguish and hatred and fear.
This time she caught movement up ahead. She sprinted the short distance, her chest near to bursting with anxiety. Below, a small two-person tent, the color of muddy grass, sat amid a blanket of ferns. The domed structure shook as if it straddled a seismic fault line.
Her instincts urged her to rush down the hill. But her too-stupid-to-live meter was clicking off the charts. What if someone was being attacked? Or murdered? Or…
Riley threw her imagination in neutral and reached for her walkie-talkie.
That’s when the tent’s occupant flung himself out of his shelter and clambered to his feet.
His hair disheveled.
And body buck-ass naked.