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A brutal winter storm was looming.
As she crossed the grocery store parking lot, Chelsea Harris cast a worried gaze to the dark clouds rolling in from New Mexico and quickened her step. She still had to stop for gasoline, or her mother's boat of a car wouldn't make it all the way back to their rural West Texas ranch house. The gas-guzzling 1985 Cadillac Fleetwood had been her father's wedding gift to her mother. Despite the worn seatsheld together by the always-ready duct tape kept in the glove boxthe rusting body and the seemingly monthly repair bills, her mother treasured the car and refused to give it up. Chelsea was babysitting the car, along with her parents' house, while her folks took a well-deserved and overdue three-week cruise to Hawaii.
An icy wind buffeted her as she keyed open the driver's door. Hawaii would be nice right about now.
Shivering, Chelsea brushed her long, wind-blown hair from her face and huddled deeper into her pullover sweater. This morning she'd raced out of her parents' ranch house without a coat, because the temperature had been a balmy sixty-five degrees. But since she'd left for work at the blood center, the temperature had plunged as a cold front moved through town. Thank you, fickle West Texas weather.
Dropping a grocery sack and her purse on the seat beside her, Chelsea cranked the Caddy's engine, coaxing the car with a muttered, "Come on, Ethyl. I know you hate the cold, but we gotta get home before the storm hits."
She breathed a sigh of relief when the engine finally caught, and she backed out of her parking space and headed to the gas station down the block. Her own apartment was only a few blocks from the blood center where she worked as a phlebotomist, so she usually rode her bike to work. But her parents' home, the ranch house she'd grown up in, was twenty-two miles from town, necessitating pressing Ethyl into service. The cost of gasoline to and from town was eating her paycheck for lunch. But how could she refuse her parents' ranch-sitting request after all they'd done for her through the years?
Chelsea pulled up to the gas pump, cut the engine and gritted her teeth, dreading stepping out into the wintery wind again. The sooner you fill up, the sooner you'll be home in a hot bath with a glass of wine. The promise of unwinding sounded heavenly, so Chelsea shouldered open the car door and stepped out into the cold.
As she turned toward the gas pump, she almost collided with a disheveled man in orange coveralls who appeared from nowhere. "Oh! I'm sorry. I didn't see"
"Get in the car!" he growled, jamming something hard in her belly.
She glanced down at the object poking her, and a chill that had nothing to do with the weather raced through her.
A gun. The man had a gun!
Chelsea's throat dried. Her heart rate spiked. "I d-don't have any money. I"
He crowded her, forcing her to step backward, and he opened the driver's door on the Caddy. "Get in!"
She jolted when he barked the command at her. He shoved the gun harder into her ribs, and panic flooded Chelsea's brain. Sheer survival instinct kicked in. With her heart pounding a frantic cadence, she slid back onto the driver's seat.
The gunman climbed in the backseat, moving the muzzle of his weapon to the base of her skull, and grated, "Drive."
"Drive!" His shouted order brooked no resistance.
Hands shaking, Chelsea cranked the engine again and pulled away from the pump. "Wh-where are we going?"
"Just drive! And don't try anything stupid. I've already killed two cops today to make my getaway. I'll shoot you without blinking if you give me trouble."
He leaned over the front seat and snatched her mother's GPS from its mount on the dashboard. After he'd pushed a few buttons, the disembodied voice of the GPS intoned. "Go home?"
He tapped the screen, and the GPS voice said, "Continue west on Highway 244 for one point six miles, then turn left."
Chelsea's stomach pitched. The last thing she wanted was for this cretin to know where her parents lived. She bit her lower lip and met the guy's dark glare in the rearview mirror. Okay, maybe the last thing she wanted was to be raped and tortured to death. But having him know where she was staying ranked near the top.
"You live with anyone?" he asked.
"Wh-what?" Dividing her attention between the road and monitoring the man in her backseat, Chelsea fought the panic swelling in her chest. She needed to keep her head if she was going to survive, but the constant pressure of his gun against her skull made it difficult to think calmly.
"It's an easy question. Do you live with anyone? Will there be anyone else at your house when we get there?"
"It's my parents' house."
He jabbed her again with the gun. "And are Mommy and Daddy home?"
She considered lying for a moment, but the gun poking the base of her skull gave her pause. She wasn't a good liar, and if he guessed she was bluffing "N-no. I'm house-sitting while they're out of town."
A leering grin twisted his mouth. "Perfect."
The lettering stenciled on the breast pocket of his jumpsuit caught her attention. Texas Department of Criminal JusticeInmate. Her pulse spiked, and she sputtered, "Y-you're a prison inmate?"
He leered at her via the rearview mirror. "Not anymore."
Her mouth dried remembering his warning that he'd already killed two cops today. No doubt the gun he wielded had been stolen from one of the cops.
"Wh-who are you? What do you want from me?"
"For now, all I want is a ride out of town, maybe a place to hole up for a little while, until I can plan my next move."
She noticed he didn't give her his name. Not that she really expected him to.
"Then you don't h-have any place in mind you're heading? No one on the outside is helping you?"
"You're helping me now, aren't ya?" Another leer.
Chelsea swallowed hard. Dear God, she was aiding and abetting a criminal. But under duress. They wouldn't convict her for helping a prisoner escape under duress, would they? Her heart stutter-stepped. Lord, she hoped not.
As she approached the turn for the highway to her parents' house, she considered driving straight. The road to her parents' ranch was long and nearly deserted. She had a much greater chance of finding help if she stayed on this road. She accelerated as they neared the turnoff, then cringed when her mother's GPS reminded her to turn left.
"Turn, damn it!" he yelled as they reached the intersection.
Gulping oxygen, she cut the wheel hard, and Ethyl's tires squealed as they whipped a sharp turn at the last second.
The man shot her a dark look and jabbed harder with the gun. "You weren't gonna turn, were ya?" He smacked the back of her head with the butt of his gun, and pain ricocheted through her head.
Narrowing a lethal glare on her, he growled, "I warned you not to pull anything! Drive me to your house, or I will shoot you and drive myself! Got it, girlie?"
Chelsea drew a shuddering breath and nodded. Just do as he says, and you might stay alive, the voice of fear and caution whispered to her.
Tears filled her eyes as a sense of futility and helplessness rushed over her the farther she got from town. She didn't want to die. But she didn't want to go down without at least attempting to save herself either.
As her initial shock and panic settled into an even level of terror, Chelsea mentally raced through her options. Could she crash the car into something and make a run for it?
She glanced around the isolated stretch of ranch-land and saw nothing but miles of flat, empty earth. No trees, no roadside buildings, not even a highway sign substantial enough to make Ethyl undrivable. And if she did crash her mother's Caddy out here, where would she run? Her captor would shoot her before she took three steps.
Despair wrenched her chest, and she blinked back the tears that gathered in her eyes. Could she somehow get the gun away from him? He didn't look all that well muscled, but he was taller and was most likely stronger than she was.
She cut her eyes to her purse, where her cell phone was nestled in a front pocket. If she could distract him, could she dial 9-1-1 before he stopped her?
She met his gaze in the mirror again, and his eyes narrowed with suspicion before darting to her purse.
"Don't even think about it, girlie." He grabbed her purse and dragged it into the backseat with him. "You got a gun in here or something?"
He started rifling through her purse, and Chelsea's skin crawled, seeing him touch her personal things. She squeezed the steering wheel, searching for another plan of escape when Ethyl's engine coughed.
The man's head came up. "What was that?"
The motor sputtered again, and a sinking realization settled over her, as dark as the clouds rolling in from the west.
Ethyl choked again as the man leaned over the front seat to scan the dashboard lights and gauges. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Nothing. But we"
The engine sputtered loudly and cut off. Icy dread shimmied through Chelsea.
Her captor ground the muzzle into her nape and grated, "Don't screw around with me, sister. I'll blow your damn head off!"
Chelsea whimpered fearfully and cleared her throat as she coasted to the side of the road and stopped the car. "It's not me! I swear. W-we're out of gas!"
"A winter storm warning has been issued for the Texas panhandle and parts of New Mexico and Oklahoma, with accumulations of two feet or more of snow and ice possible tonight along with high winds and temperatures dropping into the mid-twenties," the radio announcer droned from the speakers of Jake Connelly's F-150.
"No kidding." Jake leaned forward to peer through his windshield at the line of dark clouds gathered on the horizon. The readout on his truck's thermometer said the temperature outside had dropped ten degrees just in the past thirty minutes. The cold front was closing in fast. He checked his truck's clock and mentally calculated his arrival time at his dad's house near Amarillo. He might just make it before the storm hit, if he hurried.
"In other news, an inmate escaped this afternoon from a Texas work detail, killing two police officers in the process."
Jake turned the radio volume down and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as he sent another considering glance to the clouds and hedged. Maybe he should go straight to the hospital and ride out the storm there. Michelle had said time was of the essence.
"Authorities are still searching for Edward Brady, convicted six years ago for armed robbery and two counts of second-degree murder. The public is warned that Brady is armed with a handgun belonging to one of the fallen officers and should be considered extremely dangerous. Brady is described as having"
Jake snapped off the radio. Even the suggestion that he might not get home in time to see his dad made Jake's chest tighten. Regret and concern sat heavily on his lungs. His dad had been so proud of him for being chosen for the elite black ops team, but the demands of the job kept him away from his family for months at a time. He'd missed last Christmas and hadn't made time to visit his father in more than a year. When Jake had apologized to his dad during their two-days-late Christmas call, his father had dismissed Jake's absence, saying, "The work you're doing is important. You're making a difference. I understand."
But Jake had heard an undertone of disappointment in his dad's voice in that call that knifed his heart now.
Time is of the essence.
Jake nudged the gas pedal, bumping up his speed. He'd never forgive himself if he didn't make it home before his dad died.
Chelsea cringed as the escaped inmate cursed a blue streak, railing in her face. Spittle flew from his mouth as he blasted her with invectives and blamed her for their predicament.
"That's why I'd stopped at the gas station where you hijacked me," she said, frustration and defensive anger battling her fear.
The man's dark eyes narrowed, and he ran a hand over his thinning brown hair. "Are you saying this is my fault?"
Chelsea bit the inside of her cheek. Don't get him angry. Or rather angrier. Her stomach flip-flopped.
"M-maybe someone will stop and help us," she offered, trying to infuse her tone with a note of optimism that would calm her captor. But a glance down the isolated road told her everyone with sense was already hunkered down at home, bracing for the storm.
The inmate's eyebrows beetled, and he shifted restlessly on the seat. "No. No, we can't have that. Can't risk someone calling the cops." He looked down at the orange coveralls he wore, as if realizing his attire screamed his status as an escaped felon. Raising a speculative glance to Chelsea, he waved the gun at her. "Give me your clothes."
She blinked. "What?"
Her captor started peeling off his prison garb, revealing a second weapon he'd tucked in his underwear. Another gun, although this one had a funny shape and was painted with yellow stripes on the wide muzzle. Maybe a stun gun?
He caught her curious stare and grated, "Strip! Now! I want your clothes."
"But it's freezing!"
He gave her a sneer. "That's your problem, girlie, not mine."
A shudder rolled through Chelsea, and she fought down the wave of nausea that churned in her gut. Her brain scrambled for something, anything, that would distract him. Anything that would give her the upper hand and a chance to call for help.
"Come on. Hurry up! Gimme your clothes, damn it!" He waved the gun under her nose. "Don't test me, girlie. I swear I will shoot you and take the clothes off your corpse if you don't get 'em off now!"
Hands shaking, Chelsea grasped the hem of her sweater and tugged it off over her head. Tears filled her eyes as the chilly air nipped her skin.
He snatched the pink pullover from her, then bent to shove the orange coveralls and second gun under the front seat. And Chelsea seized what might be her only chance.
Lunging for her purse, she grappled for her cell phone and thumbed the call button. 9-1
"Bitch!" Her kidnapper yanked the phone from her, jabbed the power button and threw the phone on the floor of the backseat. "That's it," he growled. "Get out."
Fear rippled through her. Heart thundering, gut roiling, Chelsea blinked back tears. "N-no. Please! I won't try it again. I just"
"Damn right you won't try it again." He climbed out of the car, opened the driver's door and poked her with the gun. "Get the hell out of the car!"
Shivering with cold and terror, Chelsea scanned the horizon again, praying for help. No one. Nothing. She struggled for a breath as dread squeezed her lungs. Was this it? Was this how she'd die?
The encroaching storm clouds blotted out the sun and made the afternoon seem more like evening. Despair darkened her hope.
The convict yanked her out of the car by the arm.
"I said get out!"
Chelsea screamed as loud as she could. Maybe someone, somewhere, would hear and
A stunning blow found her cheek.
"Shut up! Give me those jeans now, or I'll do it myself." The man's dark eyes narrowed on her.
Hands shaking, she stripped off her jeans, while humiliation and tears stung her cheeks. Icy wind whipped around her, and she shivered. "You have what you want. Please, just let me go."
"And let you sing to the cops where you saw me and which way I was headed?" He scoffed. "No chance." He reached out and stroked her face, sending a ripple of revulsion to her core. "But because you've been so helpful, I'll let you live. For now."
Chelsea released a breath of relief. .too soon.
After snatching the key from the ignition, the gunman grabbed her arm and dragged her toward the back of the Caddy. He keyed open the trunk and turned to her. "Get in."
Chelsea eyed the trunk, and her knees wobbled. "Please, just.. just let me g"
"Get in!" he roared, pointing the gun at her. "But you said"
The convict grabbed her, his arms pinning hers to her sides, and shoved her toward the open trunk.
"No! Please!" She fought him, fought hard, clawing, biting, struggling. But in the end, all she got for her efforts were another smack on the head from the butt of the gun and scraped legs when he forced her into the trunk.