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Amanda Stowe sprinted past the evergreen garlands tucked around the doorways of the bed-and-breakfast. Who would have believed that a building that stretched the length of two city blocks could be found out here smack-dab in the middle of nowhere? The grand and imposing hotel had been at least an hour's drive north of Fairbanks. But the isolation was probably its biggest draw—Alaskan wilderness the safe way.
Amanda didn't feel very safe at the moment.
She barely registered the fresh scent of pine that tickled her nose as she raced on, ducking down one hall, running as fast as she could down another. Turning the last corner, her eyes widened as she spied the gaily decorated Christmas tree standing like a sentinel at the top of the stairs and prayed she'd be able to stop before she slid into it like a baseball player stealing home plate.
Slow down. Get control of yourself.
She heeded the stern voice in her head and stopped running before she drew unwanted attention to herself or, worse, crashed into the tree looming now only a couple dozen yards ahead.
She stole a moment to check behind her. She was still safe. The hall was empty.
Panting heavily, she tried to catch her breath and continued to move forward. This time instead of an all-out run, she chose what others might call "a purposeful stride." If anyone saw her hurry by, they'd probably think she was late for breakfast or, maybe, for one of the many Alaskan tours the facility offered.
She clenched her sweaty palms and forced herself to try and breathe normally. She could do this. She just had to stay composed and think things through calmly and logically.
Amanda groaned aloud when she realized she was subconsciously humming under her breath to the piped-in Christmas music in spite of her high level of anxiety.
Christmas was the last thing that should be on her mind. She was running for her life.
She threw another nervous glance over her shoulder. She paused in the hallway just long enough to turn a doorknob in search of the impossible—an unlocked door.
She couldn't believe her luck when the knob twisted beneath her grasp and the door eased open. She thanked the good Lord that this bed-and-breakfast was tucked away in a remote area of Alaska. She'd never have found sanctuary without a magnetic key card back in "civilization."
She ducked into the dimly lit room and crouched in a ball at the foot of the bed. Pulling her coat over her head, she hoped if the man following her did happen to glance inside that he'd mistake her for nothing more than a discarded blanket in the darkness.
Agonizing seconds beat past as she stared with one eye out of a buttonhole, never taking her attention from the door.
A wave of hope washed over her, and a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. She counted silently to herself. One one hundred. Two one hundred. Three one hundred. Still nothing.
She'd given him the slip. She was sure of it. Or not.
Before she dared to celebrate, she heard footsteps pause outside the room.
Seconds felt like hours as she held her breath. She wished she could just close her eyes and disappear. She didn't dare move or even blink.
Go away. Please, Lord, don't let him find me.
The doorknob turned.
Amanda's shoulders sagged with defeat. This couldn't be happening. She couldn't be this close and have to watch it all slip right through her fingers.
Backlit from the light in the hall, the man's shadow preceded him into the room, stretching so far across the floor in front of her that she swore he must be a giant. Her heart skipped a beat—maybe two.
When she dared to glance his way, she was certain her heart ceased beating all together. He was huge. His body filled the doorway so completely she figured he had to be at least six foot four or more. His shoulders, enclosed in a heavy, thick coat actually brushed the sides of the door frame. His cowboy hat rode low over his face masking his features in the room's darkness.
"Please…" The sound of her voice whispered in the air between them. Please, what? Please turn around and go away? Please pretend you didn't find me? Please don't take my only chance at freedom away from me?
The man flipped a switch, and the sudden light made Amanda squeeze her eyes closed.
"Mrs. Stowe, I don't appreciate having to chase you up the stairs and through the halls before I've even had my morning coffee. Why don't you just settle down and come to grips with the fact that your running days are over."
The weary, steel tone in his voice gave credence to his words. Now that she could see him in the light, her gaze flew to his face. The dark eyes glaring back at her confirmed her fears that there would be no room for negotiations, but still she had to try.
"Please, you're making a mistake. I didn't kill my husband."
Chance Walker studied the petite woman. Slowly she rose from her ridiculous crouched position by the bed and now stood in front of him. She was five-two, maybe five-three, and probably weighed one hundred pounds soaking wet. Had she really believed he wouldn't see her curled up in a ball? Was that jacket supposed to be an invisible cloak or something? He shook his head. He was tired—dog tired. Hide-and-seek with criminals didn't do it for him anymore.
Dressed in layers of clothing—a turtleneck beneath a heavy leather jacket, designer jeans and boots—with thick, chestnut hair gathered in a ponytail and brown eyes pleading with him beneath long, curled lashes, she looked like a model on a shoot instead of the bail jumper that she was.
"Put your arms behind your back." He released the handcuffs from his belt.
Amanda held her palms out and took a step back. "Please, you don't understand. You can't take me back. Not yet. I know who killed Edward. I just need a day or two to prove it."
"That so?" He adjusted his cowboy hat, let out a weary-sounding sigh and took a step toward her. "Tell it to the judge."
"Give me a day. Only one day," she pleaded, backing up a little more. "You can come with me. You can keep an eye on me the entire time. After we get the evidence I need, I'll go with you—without protest or problems. I promise."
"Lady, you're going with me now. And I can guarantee you that no matter how much you protest there won't be any problems. Now turn around and put your hands behind your back."
Amanda paled and froze in place.
She looked at him like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming car, and a wave of pity washed over him. Instead of endearing him to the woman, though, the empathetic feelings angered him. Feelings had no place in this business—especially ones that painted a criminal as anything other than a lying, manipulative lowlife. It was past time that he got out of this business. He was burned out. He couldn't trust his judgment anymore.
He lifted his hat, raked a hand through his hair and lowered it back on his head. This was the last time. He was leaving the bounty hunter business for good and opening his own security firm. He'd be happier telling individuals and corporations how to keep themselves safe and prevent crimes rather than chasing the bad guys—or gals—after the fact.
He'd almost turned this job down. But the money was too good to pass up—four times his normal finder's fee. Combined with what he'd already saved, he'd have enough money to leave this life behind and get his security business off the ground.
"Please…" Her word was a mere whisper, almost as if she knew it carried no weight but couldn't resist trying anyway.
Who was she kidding? The daughter-in-law of a Supreme Court judge nominee, Amanda Stowe undoubtedly knew she was front page news. There was a national warrant out for her arrest. He couldn't afford to give her the day or two she requested. With the dollar signs on her head, every professional lawenforcement officer, every detective—amateur and otherwise—and even news hounds would be looking for her. If any of them got a whiff of her location, they would be descending on them in a heartbeat. He had to get her out of Alaska and back to the Virginia courts, and he had to do it fast.
"Look, lady, you can do this under your own power or not. It's your choice." He lowered his voice and made it as stern as possible. "Turn around. Now."
The fight went out of her. Her shoulders slumped. Her head lowered and she turned around slowly. She winced when he pulled her hands behind her back and clamped the cuffs in place but didn't try to resist.
"Let's go." He held on to her arm and steered her toward the door.
The bail bondsman had arranged their transportation. Chance knew that leasing a private plane was a lot cheaper than forfeiting the quarter of a million dollars the bondsman stood to lose if she didn't show up in court.
Chance mentally calculated the time it would take them to grab a quick bite to eat in the hotel dining room versus leaving right away and then figured it was worth the risk. If they grabbed a quick bite to eat now, they wouldn't have to stop later. He'd have her returned to custody and he'd be on his way home by nightfall.
It didn't matter if the tiny woman didn't look like she could hurt a fly let alone murder her husband. It didn't matter if her eyes reached in and tugged at his heartstrings, confusing him, making him want to hear her story and maybe even help.
He clenched his teeth and almost let out a low growl.
Knock it off. What's got into you?
Amanda Stowe had jumped bail. Period. He had never let a bail jumper get away—and he wasn't about to start now.
Amanda twisted her wrists in a futile attempt to loosen the handcuffs, but the effort only resulted in chafing and more discomfort. Now she knew how a wolf felt with its leg caught in a steel trap. The only thing on her mind was escape. But how?
Her eyes fixed on her captor. His longish black hair brushed against the collar of his thick, heavy coat. Darkened stubble covered the lower half of his face. Coal-black eyes stared back at her. If the situation wasn't so tragic, she'd find it humorous. Here was the hero she'd read about in many of her romance books—tall, dark and dangerous.
Only now she wasn't reading a book, and there was nothing funny about the situation.
His large hand wrapped itself in a firm grip around her arm. He stood so close that the warmth of his breath fanned her face. Amanda knew her life couldn't be more threatened if she'd come face-to-face with a grizzly bear.
"We'll stop by your room and get your things before we go downstairs." He gently pushed her toward the door.
"I…I don't have a room here. I only came here to meet someone. My belongings are at a hotel in Fairbanks. We need to go there to pick them up."
The man tipped his hat back with his free hand and stared at her with a look of astonishment on his face. A chuckle escaped his lips.
"You think I'm stupid, don't you? You're stalling. Hoping when we reach a more populated area that somehow you'll be able to give me the slip."
His sudden forward momentum forced her to back up against the door frame. He came threateningly close.
"Don't mess with me, Mrs. Stowe. I'm not in the mood."
"Amanda." She winced at how the word croaked out of her throat in a whimper instead of the firm declaration of power she'd hoped to portray. Her legs trembled with fear and she couldn't seem to catch her breath, but no way was she going to let him know how terrified she was. She straightened as tall as her five-two frame would allow and stared back at him.
"My name is Amanda." She'd read somewhere once that if you were faced with a violent enemy you should personalize yourself. You should get them to see you as an individual instead of a means to an end.
His eyebrow arched. Walker stared at her like she was an unknown species that intrigued him and annoyed him simultaneously.
"Okay. I'll call you anything you want me to call you…Amanda. Just move. Now."
Gently but firmly he propelled her into the hallway. Without any input from her, in less than a minute he had steered them directly to her room, opened the door and ushered her inside.
Her stomach twisted in knots. No wonder he'd laughed when she tried to get him to take her to Fairbanks. He'd done his homework. He knew she'd been lying about not being a guest at the lodge. He arrived at her room as if he'd been there before. He probably had. After they entered, he made her stand in the far corner, placing himself between her and freedom.