something. But all I knew was that I had to hide. It’s the only thing I know. I may not know my name or what happened to me, but I know that I can’t let anyone know about me.”

Her tone was pleading, like she was begging him to agree with her, like she didn’t want him exposing her to anyone else in any way.

He pushed himself upward, his gut tied in knots from all the clenching. Hell, he was ready to put his fist through a wall, but he had to be careful to be ultra sensitive and non-threatening. She was maintaining control by the thinnest of threads, and he didn’t want to do anything to send her plummeting over the edge.

The problem was, he wasn’t a sensitive guy. He used his fists and his body to make his living. How the hell was he going to know what to do with one tiny woman who needed care and understanding?

“I’ll be right back,” he muttered. “You need clothes and blankets. Cade’s going to get you something to eat.”

He went to Cade’s bedroom since Cade was smaller in build than Merrick. He confiscated a warm sweatshirt that was bulky enough it shouldn’t hurt her shoulder. He also snagged a pair of sweats with a drawstring waist so she could keep them on.

After rummaging in Cade’s drawers, he went to his own room to get a pair of thick, warm socks she could wear on her feet.

When he returned to the living room, Cade came out of the kitchen wearing a frown.

“We don’t have shit here that’s suitable for her to eat. I need to go out and get the prescriptions filled anyway. Dallas wrote them in my name, so I’ll get them filled and pick up something hot for her to eat. I’ll only be gone half an hour provided the meds don’t take too long. I’d hope at this hour there isn’t a high demand.”

Merrick nodded. “I’ll get her changed and warmed up. But hurry. It’s likely been three days since she’s eaten.”

Cade glanced at the woman and swore. He snagged his coat from the chair and stalked out of the living room. A moment later, the kitchen door banged, leaving Merrick to stand in silence with the woman staring nervously up at him.

Merrick sighed. “Look, there’s no easy way to do this. I don’t want to frighten you, but the chances of you being able to get into these clothes without my help are zero. I swear to you I won’t hurt you. I’ll try not to look. I’ll be as quick as possible so it’s over with and you can rest and be comfortable.”

She curved her arms over her stomach, her hands gripping her arms. He could see the distress radiating from her. Her pupils widened. Her pulse rate kicked up, as did her breathing, and sweat beaded her forehead.

Hell, she was on the verge of a full-scale panic attack, and he had no idea how to offer her more reassurance than he already had.

“You can turn your back. I can untie the hospital gown from the back, and it will slip right over your arms, and then we’ll try to get this zip-up sweatshirt on you without hurting you.”

She licked her lips and swallowed hard, almost as if she was battling her fear and anxiety. That she was making such an effort not to melt down made Merrick respect her resiliency all the more.

She may be fragile-looking, seemingly helpless and in need of a lot of TLC, but a weaker woman would have likely already died. She certainly wouldn’t have broken into a gun shop to try to find a place to sleep and hide for the night. Nor would she be holding her ground against someone as big and scary-looking as Merrick.

Slowly she sat up and then turned so her back was presented to Merrick. She let the blanket slide down and immediately began to shiver.

Cursing, he hurried forward and began to work the wet gown off her. But it was soaked through and sticking to her skin like glue. Hell, it was ruined anyway.

He pulled a pocketknife from his jeans, flipped it open and then cut through the tough knot at her neck. Once it loosened, he gently pushed the gown forward, baring her slender back.

The growl rumbled in his throat before he could call it back. There was a huge bruise covering her lower back, and damn if it wasn’t in the shape of a shoe. A damn big shoe. Someone had kicked her.

Blanking his mind to his rage, he worked instead on getting the dry sweatshirt over her upper body. Then he got down on the floor at her feet and pulled the sweatpants up her legs, careful to keep his gaze averted.

When she was dressed, she immediately leaned back, pulling the blanket protectively over her body. She was still shivering, and Merrick turned with a frown toward the fire.

Deciding she was too far away and not wanting her to move, he got up and simply started sliding the couch forward until she was close enough to feel the warmth of the flames.

“Better?” he asked.

Only the tiniest curve to her mouth hinted at a smile. “Better.”

He eased onto the couch beside her, careful not to touch her or get too close. Even though her expression didn’t change, her eyes cut over to him, her gaze never leaving him.

The silence was awkward. He felt like a moron. He had no idea what to do in a situation like this. Females in distress weren’t exactly something he came across a lot in his line of work. And frankly, if asked, he would have said they were something he would have avoided at all costs. They just seemed more trouble than they were worth.

But this one… There was something about her that had captured his entire attention from the moment he’d first laid eyes on her.

His protective instincts had been riled until they were a roar in his gut.

Nothing or no one was going to touch her. Not when she was with him. No one would ever hurt her again.

Even as he had the thought, he knew how ridiculous it sounded. It was as if he was making a permanent claim on her, like he’d always be there to protect her and watch over her. And hell, if he were honest, he knew it was more than that.

It shamed him. It disgusted him. But he wanted to hold her. Touch her. He wanted to shelter her from everything bad. He wanted to kiss her and show her how gentle he could be.

This was a woman who may never want to be touched by a man again. She’d been brutalized and violated. That knowledge sent his thoughts into a black rage.

He wanted to be someone she could turn to, who she could trust. No matter how ludicrous the thought was, given they’d only been acquainted a few hours.

“Is there nothing you remember?” he asked quietly.

Her brow furrowed, and her lips turned down into an unhappy grimace. He was immediately sorry for putting that look on her face.

“When I close my eyes and I concentrate, I can almost touch things. Does that make sense? It probably sounds stupid.”

“No,” he denied. “Not at all.”

“It’s like everything is cloaked in shadows, and I keep thinking if I could only get a little light there that I could see all I’ve forgotten. But it’s scary because at the same time I know if I do shine light on the shadows that very bad things could be revealed.”

Her lips drooped even farther.

“I’m scared.”

She whispered the admission in a voice that ached with vulnerability.

No longer willing to keep the distance between them, he reached over and carefully pulled her into his arms. She stiffened at first and remained stock-still, almost as if she were battling her fear, but then she relaxed and melted into his embrace.

He shifted his body so he was closer to her, so she would benefit from his warmth, and he cradled her against his chest.

“I know it’s scary,” he said. “But I want you to know that you’re safe with me and Cade. We aren’t going to let anything bad happen to you. Everything that frightens you is currently in your mind and in your memories. Those things can’t hurt you. Only real people can, and I’ll kick anyone’s ass who tries to get close to you.”

She turned her face upward so their gazes connected. A small smile pulled at her lips. “Do you know I believe you? There’s something in your voice. I don’t understand it. It’s probably stupid of me, but maybe I’m desperate to trust someone. I feel so…” Her voice choked off in a near sob. “I feel so

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