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The earth flew under her feet, moving so fast it was nothing but a blur of greens and browns. Her ground-devouring lope felt effortless and, though the sun had long since set, she had no problem making out the landscape around her. Gentle rolling hills gave way to a flat, grassy plain on the left and a steep hill climbing into a dense forest on the right.
She altered her path, heading toward the hill and the safety of the woods. The woods offered protection from predators. The woods offered comfortable places to bed down, safe places to make a den. The woods offered prey.
She ran, but not because she had to. She ran because she loved to, loved feeling the wind rush past, the ground beneath her feet, the freedom of movement and speed.
She loved being free.
The loud report of a gun startled her, interrupting her long, smooth stride. Her ears twitched as the shots sounded again, coming from the direction of the flatlands behind her. She took off again, climbing the hill with ease.
The first strong tree she came to was her refuge, and she ascended into its lower branches with no difficulty. The leaves, aided by the darkness of night, would shield her from the interlopers and their weapons.
She flinched anyway when the gunshots rang out a third time, closer than ever before.
Closer. Always closer...
The shots faded, replaced by the sound of a wailing siren drifting through the thin walls, and Mackenzie Brooks shivered as she bolted upright in the bed, torn from her fitful dreams by the raucous noises outside. The air conditioning didn't work in the aging motel room, and it must have been eighty degrees outside, eventhough the sun had gone down hours ago. Still, goose bumps dotted her arms as she forced herself off the hard mattress and over to the window.
There wasn't much to see, just the cracked pavement of the parking lot and the garish neon sign belonging to the liquor store across the street. So far, Memphis had been ugly and depressing. The only thing the city had going for it was that no one had tried to kidnap her since she'd arrived.
She let the curtain fall and moved back to the bed, rubbing her arms as she considered turning on the television. A brief attempt to find something to watch the night before had revealed only two working channels, but anything had to be better than pacing anxiously from the bed to the window and back for the rest of the night.
A nearby door slammed, the sudden crash enough to make her jump, and she stifled an embarrassing shriek. She sat frozen on the bed, her heart pounding in her chest until she heard the slurred, amused voices of people too far gone on drugs and alcohol to care if everyone else could hear them. It was a common occurrence in the dingy motel, as were the gunshots and the sirens. For someone who had grown up in midwestern suburbia, the motel was a place out of a nightmare.
Mackenzie took deep breaths as she rose and crossed the room, this time retrieving her large duffle bag from the floor and bringing it back to the bed. Inside an inner pocket she found the envelope containing her remaining cash. Her fingers trembled as she sorted through the bills, and she struggled to fight back tears when she realized how little was left. Not enough for a better motel, not even enough for more than another day or two in this one. Tomorrow she'd have to go out and find work, or find a way to leave town.
And she had to do it without running into Marcus or his thugs, all of whom seemed able to find her wherever she ran, no matter how carefully she hid. Everything bad that had happened to her in the past month could be traced back to the day Marcus had shown up on her doorstep with his killer good looks and his Hollywood smile, and proceeded to tear her life apart.
The sound of another door slamming shook Mackenzie out of her reverie. She shivered again and gritted her teeth to keep them from chattering as panic rose from nowhere. With it came the sudden certainty that she needed to get out of town. Now.
Mackenzie caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror, saw her own face staring back at her wide-eyed and panicked. Somehow she knew she couldn't wait until the next day, couldn't waste time looking for a job. She couldn't stay a minute longer.
Listening to that inner prompting had kept her alive and ahead of Marcus. She rose from the bed and reached for her keys, then froze. They had to be tracking her somehow, and her car was the only thing she hadn't abandoned yet.
Leave it. Her motel wasn't far from the interstate, and there was a truck stop right down the road. Maybe, if she was lucky, one of the truckers would be willing to give her a ride, and she could lose Marcus and his goons for good. Wherever she ended up, it had to be better than the last three cities.
It had to be.
"Nicole Peyton, as I live and breathe." Jackson Holt grabbed a stool and flashed the woman behind the bar a grin he knew matched his smooth drawl. "You get prettier every day."
"Can it, Holt," Nick shot back good-naturedly. "Save the flirtatious Georgia-boy act for someone who isn't immune to your dubious charms."
"Hey, there happen to be many, many women who find my charms enticing."
"Mmm, yes." She wiped a glass with a clean white towel and placed it in the plastic rack beside her. "But are they of sound mind, or just body?"
"Don't much check their minds, usually," he admitted with another grin.
"Non compos mentis, I tell you." Nick fixed him with an admonishing glare. "And there you go again with the flirting. I asked you down so we could talk business."
Jackson frowned. Nicole Peyton never wanted to talk business. Despite her family's connections, she kept her nose clean and stayed out of trouble, choosing instead to focus her energies on running her small but popular bar. "You're not in some kind of difficulty, are you, Nicky?"
The petite brunette waved a hand and crinkled her nose. "If that were the case, I wouldn't waste time joking about your endless stream of hot, vapid blondes." She held up a glass. "You working?"
"Yeah. Alec and I are on a case."
She poured him a soda. "I need a favor."
Jackson frowned again. Coming from anyone else, the words might be innocuous. But coming from Nick ... "This isn't going to be like the time during Mardi Gras when I had to explain to that cop why I was carrying a half-naked woman on my back, is it?"
She laughed and shook her head, sending her ponytail swaying. "No. Less nakedness, and hopefully no police involvement."
"Hopefully? Now, that doesn't sound too promising."
Nick leaned forward, her brown eyes and expression serious. "I just hired a new girl, Mackenzie."
"Did someone quit?" Curiosity quirked his brow. "It's off-season."
"No," she admitted, shaking her head again. "Tourism is picking back up this year, but not that much yet. She seemed desperate, though, so I took pity on her. Then she asked me to pay her in cash. Daily."
You didn't have to be in his line of work for that to set off a cascade of warning bells. "You think she's on the run?"
"Maybe, but I don't really get a criminal vibe from her. It's more like..." She trailed off and seemed to be searching for words. "Every time the door opens, she nearly jumps out of her skin. She's skittish as hell."
Jackson pondered her words. "As if she keeps expecting someone to walk through it."
"Someone she doesn't want to see."
Nick nodded. "Exactly."
He tapped a beer mat on the dark, polished wood of the bar. "Has she mentioned a boyfriend or husband? Any other kind of bad situation?"
Nick blew her bangs up and gave him an exasperated look. "Would I be offering to slash yours and Alec's bar tab in half if she seemed willing to regale me with her life story?"
Now she had his full attention. "In half, you say?"
"Uh-huh. All you have to do is follow her home." Nick bit her lip. "She told me she had a decent place to stay, but I don't think I believe her. I just want to make sure."
It seemed easy enough. Too easy, in fact. "What are you not telling me, Nicky?"
The pretty brunette pursed her lips and flashed him a sheepish look. "I think she might be a shapeshifter."
Mackenzie had an excellent memory for faces and had developed an equally good memory for drinks. By the time the tall, well-tanned man slid onto a bar stool in front of her she'd already poured him a pint of the same beer he'd ordered the last two times. She tossed a coaster on the bar, set the beer in front of him and offered him an open, vaguely flirtatious smile. "I'd never forget a man who likes fine imported drafts, but I've forgotten your name again."
"I'm Derek. Derek Gabriel." The man grinned at her, the gesture transforming his face from rugged to handsome. It was nothing unusual for the bar; Mahalia's always seemed to be full of attractive men. Even better, they tipped well, a fact that was refilling that envelope in her duffel bag more quickly than she'd dared to hope.
Mr. Imported Draft Beer--Derek Gabriel, she reminded herself--was no different. He seemed to enjoy flirting with her, though Mackenzie had already discerned he wasn't serious. It didn't take a genius to notice the way his eyes followed Nick whenever she was around.
Mackenzie shifted her gaze to her boss. Nick stood at the other end of the bar, holding a low conversation with a man Mackenzie hadn't seen before. Even if she hadn't had a good memory, his was a face she would've remembered, with a strong jaw, a tiny cleft in his chin and a mouth made to smile. He was laughing when she glanced at them, and she was struck by the bright blue of his eyes as they glinted with amusement. Oh, I'd flirt with you, all right ... if Nick wasn't busy doing it already.
Derek had been joined by a short black woman, who eyed him with a no-nonsense gaze. He didn't notice. He was, predictably, watching Nick. The newcomer snorted in amusement. "He's about as subtle as a kid in a candy store, huh?"
Derek jerked his head back around and glared. "Shut up, Penny, and order a damn beer."
Penny's humor didn't fade as she slid onto the stool next to him, offering her hand to Mackenzie. "You must be the new girl. I'm Penny."
"Hi." The woman's grip was strong, her smile open and friendly. "What can I get you to drink?"
"Just a Coke, thanks. I've got to pick my kids up from soccer practice in a half hour."
"Poor kids," Derek grumbled, and Mackenzie could have sworn he was blushing. "Do they know their mom's a--"
"Oh, finish that sentence. I dare you."
Mackenzie laughed as she poured Penny's soda, mostly at the way Derek's mouth snapped shut. He stood almost a foot taller than Penny, but he didn't look like he was ready to take her dare.
The woman snorted again as she took her drink from Mackenzie. "You gotta watch the men around here, honey. They're all reasonably pleasant to look at, and it makes them uppity. Especially this one."
"Excuse me, I don't think--"
"He's in here all the time," Penny continued as if Derek hadn't spoken. "Rumor has it little Nicole might even be sweet on him. Or she hates his guts. No one can quite tell which."
Mackenzie glanced at Nick again, but her eyes were once more drawn to the man across the bar from her. Something about him appealed to her, something that made her wish life was normal enough for her to consider dating and men. The sudden longing for a life without fear overwhelmed her, and she braced her hands against the bar to hide their shaking.
Penny's sharp eyes saw far too much. Mackenzie could tell she was about to ask if she was all right, but Derek interrupted with another well-timed grumble of protest. "For your information, I was absolutely going to ask Mackenzie out before you came in here and cramped my style."
Mackenzie seized on his words and pulled her public persona back into place. No matter how scared she was, she couldn't afford to let it show. It made people ask questions, ones she could ill afford to answer. So she winked at Derek. "Maybe I would have said yes, but now I know better. I can't take the chance that you'll get me in trouble with my boss."
"Oh, but maybe I'd be worth it." Derek's waggled eyebrows were so absurdly overdone Mackenzie couldn't help but laugh. He obviously flirted for the same reason she did--because people expected it of him. It made it a lot less dangerous to play along.
She leaned across the counter and lowered her voice. "I think you're too much trouble for me to handle, Derek Gabriel. I'm going to listen to your friend's advice and steer clear."
"Anyone who gives pretty women advice to steer clear is not a friend," Derek replied stoutly, making a face at Penny.
Penny just rolled her eyes. "God save me from fools."
It was so fun, so normal. Joking, laughing ... The yearning returned, stronger than ever. Mackenzie could make a life here, with people like this. She could--
She fought sudden tears, blinking them back as she hefted a nearby tub of dirty glasses. "I'll be in the kitchen if you need anything. Anything that won't get me fired."
Penny's laughter followed her. As handsome as he was, it wasn't Derek she found herself thinking of as she stood inside the doors, taking a moment to gather herself. The eyes she couldn't seem to get out of her head were the shockingly blue ones belonging to the stranger who'd been speaking with Nick.
Even though she knew dating was off-limits, she found herself oddly disappointed when she returned to the front several minutes later only to find him gone.