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Bounty Hunter Ransom
By Kara Lennox
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Just please hurry home. I need you real bad."
Aubrey Schuyler stared at her cell phone. What now? Ever since her cousin Patti had come to live with Aubrey, life had been full of surprises, most of them unpleasant. But today was worse than usual. The phone call had interrupted a faculty meeting, and Patti's voice had sounded desperate.
Aubrey dared not ignore her cousin's summons, not when a little baby was involved. Patti tried to be a good mother to six-month-old Sara, but, bless her heart, she had the common sense God gave a squirrel.
As Aubrey pulled up to her sturdy, prairie-style home, she noted that Patti's battered Escort wasn't in the driveway. Why on earth would her cousin call Aubrey home, then leave before she arrived? Had the car been stolen? Was that the big crisis?
Aubrey's bare legs stuck to the vinyl seat as she exited her Jeep Wrangler, and the back of her pale blue T-shirt was damp. She pulled her heavy mass of curly auburn hair off her neck for a few moments, hoping in vain for a slight breeze. But there was none. She dropped her hair, grabbed her keys and headed resolutely for the front door.
It turned out a key wasn't necessary. Patti had left the front door unlocked again, though Aubrey had asked her many times to be more careful. Payton, Texas, wasn't the safe little burg it had been during their childhood. The university where Aubrey taught chemistry had grown quickly over the last decade, and the town's population had exploded.
Aubrey pushed the front door open. "Patti?"
No answer. She headed upstairs and into Patti's bedroom, which was in its usual state of disarray. Drawers were half-open, clothing strewn over the unmade bed.
Aubrey peeked into the nursery. Sara's car seat was gone.
Had Aubrey misunderstood the call? As she pondered the puzzle a crawling sensation wiggled up her spine. Something was wrong. Was it an item out of place? A strange odor in the air?
She scarcely had time to think about getting out of the house when the closet door behind her burst open and someone grabbed her with an arm around the neck. She screamed and kicked as panic took over. But her assailant was strong, abetted by his own burst of adrenaline. The arm wedged around her neck was hard and unyielding. She kicked backward, but her attacker avoided the worst of her blows, not that her sneakers would do much damage anyway. His other arm was wrapped around her body, pinning her arms to her sides. He was not a large man, but he knew how to fight. He smelled of unwashed male.
The man was trying to drag her out of the nursery - but to where? Aubrey thought frantically back to a self-defense course she'd taken at the University years ago. Use whatever you have at hand as a weapon. Keys, fingernails, teeth.
That was it. Counting on the element of surprise, Aubrey struck like a snake, clamping her mouth down hard on the man's forearm, the only part of his anatomy she could reach. She tasted sweat and blood. He rewarded her with a grunt of pain, and his hold on her loosened fractionally. She bent her knees and tried to slide downward, at the same time pushing him off balance.
For a brief, exultant moment, she thought she was going to escape. She lunged for the door just as something whacked her on the head. The first blow merely stunned her. She started to turn so she would ward off the next blow, but she was too slow. The next slam to her head knocked her down, and she was out.
When next Aubrey opened her eyes, she knew some time had passed, but not how much. Her head pounded and her stomach roiled with nausea. She was still on the floor of the nursery. She reached for her face and found it covered with sticky blood.
Oh, God, was she badly hurt? Was he still here? She listened, but all was quiet.
It seemed to take forever for her to sit up and get her bearings. She wasn't seriously injured, at least she didn't think so. Just a bump on the head and a lot of blood. A broken lamp on the floor appeared to be her attacker's weapon. The phone. She needed to call the cops. Where were Patti and Sara? Had they fled from danger, or had some more sinister fate befallen them?
Aubrey pulled herself to her feet and walked unsteadily to her own bedroom. It was trashed. Her jewelry box was empty, her portable TV gone.
And her phone. The bastard had stolen her cordless phone.
Outrage gave her strength. She turned and headed down the hall, down the stairs, still a little dizzy but better with each step. He couldn't steal the oldfashioned wall phone from the kitchen. She grabbed the receiver and dialed 911. After reporting the incident as calmly and clearly as she could, she stumbled to the sink and threw up. She rinsed her mouth, washed the blood off her face. She probed her scalp and found the source of the blood, a goose egg swelling with a small cut. It felt as if the cut had stopped bleeding, so she went to sit on her front porch and wait for the police. Her older brother, Gavin, had been a cop, and she knew enough to not further pollute the crime scene.
She'd hardly sat down when she heard the low rumble of a car engine approaching. She thought it was the police, until the vehicle pulled into view. It was a souped-up black Mustang convertible, and the darkhaired driver didn't appear the least bit coplike.
When the car pulled into her driveway she jumped to her feet, heart pounding, and wondered whether to find a weapon or dart inside and lock the door. Then something about the man behind the wheel tugged at her memory. The shape of his broad shoulders, the way he gripped the steering wheel ...
She froze, her hand on the doorknob as the man got out of the car and she realized who it was. She relaxed only a fraction. Beau Maddox. What the hell was that son of a bitch doing here?
Her palms went damp and her mouth felt full of cotton as he headed toward her, his motorcycle boots crunching against the gravel. Even as her fury rose, another emotion battled it. The sight of his tall, muscular frame had once made her adolescent heart flutter with anticipation. The hard lines of his face, the eyes like chips of ice, the charcoal hair he was forever pushing out of his face, the gesture remaining even when he cut his hair short for the police academy. All of those things had been burned into her brain with the branding iron of young love.
Well, she didn't love him now, she reminded herself. She hated him. And her silly physiological reactions were nothing but memory, a bunch of misguided chemicals racing around in her body looking for a neuro-receptor to grab on to.
Her hand dropped from the doorknob and she turned to face him. "What are you doing here?"
"Damn, Aubrey, are you all right? I heard the call go out on the police scanner -"
Excerpted from Bounty Hunter Ransom by Kara Lennox Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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