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Abby Bauman believed in real forever love. Until she got married.
That's when fantasy and reality collided like a chemistry experiment gone awry, stinking up the room and blowing out windows. That described her two-year marriage. It stunk. And blew all her dreams to hell.
Douglas Bauman, her ex-husband, did not know the meaning of the words forever and monogamy. Nor did he grasp the concept of the word divorce. After a year, he was still trying to weasel his way back into her life by manipulation, using their three-year-old daughter as leverage.
She swerved in and out of traffic like a Formula One driver, which she wasn't. If she got one more ticket she wouldn't be able to afford insurance. But thanks to her conniving ex, she was late.
Doug had Chloe every other weekend, and this was his weekend. As per his pattern, something had come up and he couldn't pick up their daughter until noon. She told him to forget it and that she would be talking to her lawyer on Monday to change the custody agreement. Hanging up before he could respond gave her little satisfaction. Once again, she had to call her father to ask him to babysit, which took a strip off her pride because she did not get along with her stepmom, who was a Sue Sylvester of Glee double. Gayle shouldn't be allowed around children.
Since Abby had to be at work at 8:15 a.m. and Doug had called at 7:15, she had few options. And it was a Saturday. Her friends had other plans or liked to sleep in on the weekends. As did Gayle.
Her dad lived twenty-five minutes away in Barton Springs, while she lived near downtown Austin, Texas. She had to ask him to pick up Chloe because there was no other way if she was to make it to work on time. As usual, he agreed. He was a sweetheart. She just hated to cause friction in his marriage. But frantically looking for a babysitter would change once she spoke to her lawyer on Monday. She wasn't putting up with any more of Doug's crap.
The light ahead was yellow. She pressed on the gas, zooming through, hoping no cops were in sight. This wasn't the first time Doug had bailed on keeping Chloe. It would be his last, though.
Her cell on the console buzzed and she pushed speaker phone. "Hi, Hol."
"Hey, girl. You ready for tonight? Wear something low-cut and short."
"I can't go." Since Doug had Chloe for the weekend, she and her friend had planned a girl's night out. She'd known Holly all her life. They'd met in kindergarten.
"Don't tell me he did it to you again?"
"Yes. I wish I had known you were up this early. I'd have dropped Chloe at your apartment. I had to call Dad again and you know how that goes."
"Sorry. You need a better lawyer, that's all. Someone who is not intimidated by the wealthy Baumans."
"I was thinking the same thing. Since you're a cop, maybe you can get me the name of a good lawyer just in case the one I have gives me any flak."
"Come over this afternoon and we'll take Chloe swimming in the apartment complex pool. Bring your rubber duckie."
"Oh, gee, I can hardly contain my excitement."
"I missed my turn." Without thinking, she slammed on the brakes. A loud thump followed that jarred her car.
"What's going on?"
"Someone just rearended me. I'll call you later." She jumped out into traffic to see a man inspecting the damage to the front of his truck. He turned to glare at her.
"Why the hell did you stop?"
The early-morning August sun beamed down on them, but more heat seemed to be emanating from the stranger, rolling off his tall, lean body in waves of controlled anger. And it was directed at her.
"I missed my turn and "
"So you just stopped on a busy highway?" She could almost read stupid woman in his narrowed dark eyes. He flung a hand toward his truck. "You're going to pay for this. This thing is new and you've scratched my bumper with your insane driving."
"Your bumper? Look at my trunk!" She lost her cool for a second but she quickly corralled her rising temper. Glancing at her watch, she realized she had eight minutes to get to work. That put everything into perspective. She needed her job. "Follow me to that bank." She pointed across the freeway. "I work there, and we can exchange information." Turning on her heel, she marched to her car.
In her rearview mirror she saw the what-the-hell look on his etched-in-granite face. His dark hair was slicked back and wet as if he'd just gotten out of the shower or had an early-morning swim. He was dressed for the heat in cargo shorts, Crocs and a white T-shirt that had Don't Mess With Me emblazoned on it. Yeah, she got the message. Jerk.
A slight clang echoed as she pulled away. She probably wouldn't be able to open her trunk now and she'd have to ask her dad for help. She really needed to find a handy boyfriend, but these days she viewed most guys as jerks. Good guys were out there and she wasn't giving up on finding one. But lately, that feeling of hope needed a resurrection. Maybe she could talk Holly into taking a mechanics class. Then she could fix her own vehicle. No man required.
She pulled into the parking lot of one of the branch convenient banks scattered across Austin. Mr. Harmon, the manager, pulled in beside her in his Buick. No sign of the big silver truck or the furious stranger. Had she lost him? That would be a stroke of luck, but luck was more inclined to slap her in the face.
"It's going to be another scorcher today, Abby," Mr. Harmon said as they walked to a side door. The man was in his sixties and after over thirty years in banking, he planned to retire in October and move to Florida to be near his daughter. He was easy to work for, and she would miss him.
"The weatherman said one hundred and two for the high today," she replied.
"Oh, heavens. It's a good thing we have air-conditioning."
The silver truck pulled into the parking area and the stranger strolled toward them with long, sure strides. He exuded strength, power and control. From his sun-kissed skin to his amazing biceps, he was obviously a man of action and loved the outdoors. Or maybe he spent a lot of time in a gym and a tanning salon. Either way, the arrogant Neanderthal was not her type.
As the stranger approached, Mr. Harmon said, "I'm sorry, sir. Only the drive-through is available on Saturdays. It will be opened shortly and you."
"Oh, sorry." Abby hurried to explain. "I had a minor accident on the way here and I just needed to give him my insurance information." She dug in her purse for her business card, found a pen and scribbled the info on the back. Handing him the card, she said, "Call me Monday and we'll get everything straight." And fix your itty-bitty scratch, she added as an afterthought in her head. She didn't even want to think about her insurance rate going up.
He nodded and turned to walk away. The screech of tires drew their attention. A battered white van swerved into the lot and backed to the curb. The double doors flew open and two guys in Halloween masks holding handguns jumped out and ran to them.
"Open the door. Open the door!" they shouted.
Abby's heart jackknifed into her throat. Mr. Harmon's hand shook as he punched in the code and used his key to open the door. The robbers pushed them all inside.
The one wearing a gorilla mask pointed a gun at Mr. Harmon. "Open the vault. Now!"
Mr. Harmon's fair skin turned even paler, but he managed to open the vault. The bank didn't carry large amounts. Just enough to cash payroll checks, but it was probably more than the two would see in a lifetime.
The robber shoved Walmart bags at her. "Fill these up. Fast. And don't push any alarms and no color bombs. You got it?"
Abby nodded, entered the vault and threw wrapped twenties into the bag. Her hands shook and she kept repeating what she'd learned in classes for just this type of situation. Stay calm. Do as asked. Do not risk your life.
The last one stuck in her mind as she pushed the silent alarm. It was hard to detect and she flicked her hand across it as she pulled out stacks of twenties. She handed the guy two bags and just then a siren wailed in the distance.
The gorilla-masked guy shoved a gun in her face. She trembled. "Did you push an alarm?"
"N-o, no. You watched me the whole time."
He pressed the end of the barrel against her temple. The cold steel on her skin propelled rolls of shivers through her.
"If you did, bitch, it'll be the last thing you do." The odor of sweat mixed with marijuana clogged her nostrils.
"O-oh. Oh." Mr. Harmon clutched his chest and crumpled to the floor.
"Mr. Harmon!" She fell down by him to see if he was okay. He was so still. She wasn't sure he was breathing.
"Man, we gotta go," the one with the clown mask shouted. "The cops are coming."
The other robber grabbed her arm and yanked her to her feet. "We'll take her as a hostage. If she set off the alarm, she's gonna pay for it."
"Let's go! Let's go!"
The guy dragged her out of the vault. She couldn't think. Her mind was wrapped around a cold ball of fear.
"Come on, man," the stranger spoke up, cool as ice water. "She's a woman. She'll only slow you down. Take me."
"C'mon," the clown guy at the door yelled. "We're losing time. The cops will be here any second."
"We're taking both of them," the other robber decided, pushing them toward the door and to the van.
Never get into a van. Never get into a van. The warning ran through her mind and she dug in her heels. "I'm not getting in."
The gorilla guy slapped her hard across the face and knocked her halfway into the van. The stranger jumped him but was stopped when the man shoved a gun into his ribs.
"Get her into the van," the guy growled. "I'll deal with you later."
The stranger lifted her inside. He was gentle. That was the only thing that registered besides the sense of doom clogging her lungs. The doors slammed shut and they roared away onto the freeway.
The clown guy drove and the other one sat in the back with them. The van was dark. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust. A piece of dirty, stained carpet was on the floor and heat rose up from the hot highway, warming her backside. That was the least of her worries. Her jaw ached and she couldn't think clearly. Chloe. Her precious baby. Would she ever see her again?
Suddenly, the siren was closer and the wail was deafening. "Lookie there, Rudy, it's an ambulance. She didn't alert the cops."
"Shut up, you idiot. Now they know my name."
"So? Dead people don't talk."
The stranger moved beside her. "Stay calm," he whispered.
"What did you say to her?" Rudy demanded.
"It's damn hot in here," the stranger retorted. "Doesn't this thing have air-conditioning?"
Rudy waved the gun. "Shut your trap." He reached behind him and pulled out a roll of duct tape. "Tape his wrists together," he said to her.
She didn't move. The heat and gas fumes hampered her breathing.
"Now!" he screamed.
She dragged in air and reached for the tape. The stranger held his wrists together and she nervously wounded the tape around them. His hands were strong, his fingers lean.
"Tighter," Rudy yelled.
She pulled until her arms hurt and then she used her teeth to rip into it. The stranger's dark eyes watched her. There was something in them she couldn't define. A message, maybe. Trust me. Or was she reading what she wanted to see?
"Holy shit, Rudy," the driver called. "There go four police cars and a SWAT van. The old man must have woken up and called them. Too bad, suckers. We're long gone."
The van rolled to a stop.
"What the hell you stopping for?"
"Red light, dude."
"Watch the man so I can tie up the woman."
The vehicle was basically a shell with two seats. The driver pointed a gun at them and Rudy whipped the tape around her wrists. He still had on the mask and all she could see were his dull green eyes staring at her from behind a gorilla face. Goose bumps popped up on her skin.
"Hey, dude, we got a looker here. I might keep her." He ran his hand up her arm and she jerked away. "She's feisty, too."
"Leave her alone," the stranger snapped
"Shut up," Rudy hissed, "or I'll tape your mouth."
"There's a cop car behind us," the driver said as they moved through the light.
"What the frickin' hell?" Rudy looked out the small back windows. "His light's blinking. Don't stop."
"No way. I can lose him," the driver bragged.
"He's going around us."
"Yeah, Rudy. He's turning around up ahead. Must be heading to the bank to give assistance. Sucker! Cops are idiots."
"Turn off this damn highway," Rudy ordered. "And follow the route I told you."
The van swerved onto another road and then another and Abby knew they were miles away from the bank away from safety. Suddenly they turned onto a dirt road and bounced along on uneven ground, knocking her against the stranger, except he didn't feel like a stranger anymore.
He watched the gunman as if waiting to catch him off guard. But what could he do? His hands were tied, literally.
The van hit a pothole and her body slammed against the stranger's. Her shoulder pressed into his and her thigh molded to his tight muscles. His strength radiated to her and her grip of fear lessened. She wasn't in this alone. He was her ally. Her prince? Oh, God, had the heat twisted her brain? But he would be her only hope in the hours ahead.
And she didn't even know his name.
Ethan James watched the robber, reading him like he had so many other criminals. His teeth were yellow, his fingertips yellower and his eyes were dull and bloodshot. A drug-head.
Which meant he was capable of anythingand he was dangerous. Ethan had to be careful.
The woman was holding up well. No crying, screaming or panic attacks. She had to stay calm if they were going to make it out of this ordeal alive. The odds were against them. Two armed druggies, and one of them had his eye on her. This was a highly volatile situation, and there was nothing he could do but try to protect her.
Would he risk his life for hers? He had a daughter at home to think abouta kid who was a stranger to him and seemed to hate him. But since he'd won full custody, he was trying to be a good father. He'd never had that chance before.