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Under normal circumstances, Colton Black wouldn't have given the girl a second glance. Tomboys weren't his type, and with her oversize T-shirt, baseball cap and backpack, there wasn't much of her to see anyway. Only the long, honeyed swish of a ponytail poking through the back of the cap, and a sweetly curved ass beneath a pair of faded blue jeans gave any hint of femininity. But it was neither of these that had captured Colton's attention.
Nope, it was definitely the gun.
Colton had barely glanced up from his breakfast when the big Greyhound bus pulled into the gravel parking lot of the diner located on a remote stretch of Interstate 80 in Lovelock, Nevada. Several travelers disembarked, either to refresh themselves before climbing back onto the bus, or to wait for a connecting one. There was a frazzled mother dragging a small, wailing boy in her wake, an elderly couple and the young woman in the baseball cap.
As they entered the diner, Colton had returned his attention to his newspaper and finished eating. Afterward, he wasn't certain what had made him look up again. The girl had paused near the cash register, presumably to check out the array of gum and mints on display there, but the uncanny sixth sense that had saved his hide on numerous occasions was kicking into full gear, demanding his attention.
As he watched, the girl's hand fluttered to the waistband of her jeans beneath the T-shirt. Colton's eyes narrowed as she touched something hidden there. She hesitated, then dropped her arm back to her side, but not before he saw the dull, metallic glint of the weapon concealed beneath the shirt.
She turned toward the cashier, hesitated again, then seemed to change her mind. She moved slightly away, pretending to look at a rack of magazines. As Colton watched, she drew in a deep breath, as if bracing herself, before she turned resolutely back to the cashier. Colton was halfway to his feet when she made a jerky movement and spun abruptly on her heel. She ducked her head and strode past his booth to the rear of the diner, muttering something beneath her breath that sounded suspiciously like "Stupid, stupid, stupid!"
Colton reached into his wallet and tossed several bills onto the table. Cautiously, he made his way toward the back of the small restaurant, where the girl had disappeared. There was a tiny alcove with a public telephone, next to a door that led to the diner's single unisex bathroom, currently occupied by the mother and her small son; Colton could hear the boy still crying plaintively from behind the closed door.
He leaned negligently against the wall as if waiting his turn for the restroom, but he needn't have bothered with the pretense. The girl was completely oblivious to his presence. She stood with her back to him, caught up in rehearsing what sounded suspiciously like a scene from the movie Thelma and Louise.
As Colton watched, she rolled her shoulders, assumed a cocky stance and then started again from the top in a low, husky voice. "All right, ladies and gentlemen, let's see who'll win the prize for keepin' their cool. Simon says everybody lie down on the floor. If nobody loses their head, then nobody loses their head." In the next instant, she gave an audible groan and her shoulders sagged. "I can't do this."
"Well, that's a relief," Colton drawled, startling her. "Because as of oh-five-hundred this morning, I'm on vacation, and I'd sure as hell hate to see it ruined on account of some dumb-ass kid looking to make a quick buck on the wrong side of the law."
At the sound of his voice, the girl whirled around with a sharp cry of surprise. Now she fumbled beneath her shirt and yanked the weapon free with jerky movements. Her hands were unsteady, but she was close enough that if she decided to pull the trigger, she wouldn't miss. Colton went still and raised his hands to show her he meant no harm, but he didn't retreat.
"Stop right there." Her voice was low and strained. "Take another step and I'll be forced to shoot."
Colton kept his eyes on her face, deliberately not looking at the weapon, but he'd already taken note of her stance. She had both hands clutched around the gun, aimed at his midsection, and it looked to him as if the safety lever was in the locked position. In the time it would take her to release the lever, he could easily take the gun from her. There'd be no contest.
He glanced at the patrons in the diner. The elderly couple who had come in on the Greyhound were seated at a booth as the waitress, a tired-looking woman in her fifties, scratched their order on a small pad of paper. The only other patron was an old man seated at the counter, his grizzled head bobbing lightly over his coffee cup.
Colton sighed. It was time to end this. If he did it right, nobody in the diner would be any wiser as to what was transpiring just behind them. The girl wouldn't even realize she'd been overpowered until it was too late. He'd just remove the gun from her hands, spin her around, push her up against the wall and contact the local authorities. And maybe, just maybe, he could still make it to his cabin before nightfall.
Then the girl tipped her head back, and muted light from the dust-covered windows spilled across her features. Colton found himself staring into hazel eyes the color of aged whiskey, fringed by lashes that were incongruously dark by comparison.
Not a girl. A woman.
He guessed her to be in her mid- to late twenties. Her oval face had a delicate bone structure, with high cheekbones and a slim, straight nose. The cleft in her chin suggested a strength or stubbornness that was completely belied by the soft fullness of her lips. But it was her eyes that had him raising his hands in a mute gesture of surrender.
The woman was terrified.
Colton had seen that look just twice before. Once, when he'd cornered a small fox that had found its way into his cabin. He'd thought the animal was going to either attack him outright or die of heart failure while he tried to figure out how to get it outside. In the end, he'd stepped aside, opened the screen door and watched as it bolted for freedom.
The second time well, he just wished his choices then had been as easy as they'd been with the fox. Reluctantly, he recalled the incident at the San Diego federal courthouse six years earlier. A boy of about sixteen entered the courthouse, but as he had passed through the metal detectors, he'd had tripped the security alarm. Colton had been standing guard outside one of the courtrooms, assigned to protect the man on trial behind the closed doors. There had been no doubt that the defendant was complete scum, accused of aggravated kidnapping, rape and murder, but he was under federal protection. Colton was a Deputy U.S. Marshal; his job was to ensure the accused had his day in court.
As the alarm had sounded and the guards had moved forward to detain the boy, he'd broken free and bolted down the corridor, his youthful features twisted in anguish and a kind of fierce determination. Colton thought he'd always remember the sound of the kid's sneakers squeaking against the polished marble floors of the cavernous lobby. He had stepped forward to block him, his weapon drawn. The youth had slid to a stop, arms flung out for balance. When he saw the two guards advancing on him, he'd reached into his denim jacket and pulled out a gun.
The utter despair on his face as he'd weighed his options had caused Colton to hesitate for one fateful second. He'd cried out in denial even as he lunged forward to stay the boy's hand.
But he'd been too late.
The youth had put the gun to his own head, and the sound of a single shot reverberated through the lofty halls. His body had hit the floor before the last echoes faded. Later, Colton learned the boy had intended to kill the defendant he was protecting; the same man who had allegedly kidnapped, raped and then murdered the boy's young girlfriend.
Now Colton could see the same fleeting expressions of despair and steely resolve on this young woman's face as she stood facing him. She compressed her lips and steadied the gun, aimed now at his heart.
"Easy there," he heard himself say. "Why don't you put away the gun? I'm sure there's another way. You don't really want to do this."
Her eyes clung to his for a brief moment before shifting to the parking lot beyond the diner windows.
"Is one of those vehicles yours?"
Colton followed her gaze, sensing the direction of her thoughts. "Yes, ma'am."
Goddamn it to hell. His boss would have his head and maybe even his badge, but suddenly Colton didn't have a choice. Whatever trouble she was in, instinct told him that arresting her wasn't the solution, and could even be the one thing that drove her completely over the edge. He'd be damned if he'd have her on his conscience.
She gestured toward the door with her gun, and it was then that Colton realized he'd been duped. As she waved the weapon, his eyes were drawn to a scratch on the end of the barrel, revealing the bright orange plastic beneath. Only toy guns were equipped with brightly colored tips, as a way to prevent them from being mistaken for the real McCoy. Clearly, the tip of this one had been painted to match the barrel. As toy guns went, it was a damned realistic replica of the real thing.
"Good," the woman was saying. "I need you to drive me somewhere." She tipped her chin up, her eyes narrowing. "And don't try anything foolish, or I might have to use this. I-I'm a good shot, too."
Colton kept his face neutral. "I'm sure you are, ma'am."
He was frankly surprised at how far she was willing to play out this little drama. He'd seen a lot of bizarre and even twisted things in his eleven years as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, but he'd never encountered a situation quite like this one. He knew what he should do, but somehow the idea of exerting his authority over this woman, and destroying whatever small hope she had of getting out of this predicament, held little appeal for him. For now, at least, he'd play it out with her and go along as her "hostage." At least he could ensure she didn't try a similar stunt on some other unsuspecting person. Hell, she could find herself at the wrong end of a shotgun, especially in these rural areas where most business owners kept a loaded weapon behind the counter as a matter of course.
Eventually, he'd have to let her know the game was up. But for the moment, he was intrigued enough to find out what her motives were, what kind of trouble she was in and just how far she might be willing to go. He'd been hoping to make it to his cabin by dinner, but decided his vacation could wait another hour or so.
Concealing the weapon beneath her shirt, the woman stepped behind him, indicating he should precede her out of the diner. "Just walk a little in front of me, okay? Don't turn around. If you do, I'll have no choice but to use the gun. Are we clear?"
Colton's lips twitched, but he nodded solemnly. "Yes, ma'am."
They'd just reached the diner's entrance when the door to the bathrooms opened, and Colton could hear the frazzled mother and her young son, who was still wailing.
"Whatever you left on the bus will still be there when we get back on," the mom was saying, trying to console the boy.
Colton found himself suddenly propelled through the door as his "captor" crowded against him, pushing the gun into the middle of his back. "Hurry." Her voice was low and urgent.
Colton obliged, moving through the door and into the suffocating heat of the sun-baked parking lot. But as the door swung shut behind him, he could just make out the child's reply.
"But, Mommy, I left my gun on the seat! What if someone takes it?"
Then the door closed and it was just the two of them. Colton barely contained his snort of disbelief. He wondered how she'd react if he reached out and yanked the useless weapon from under her shirt.
The woman was looking sharply at him. Colton knew she was trying to determine if he'd heard the boy, and if he had, whether or not he'd made the connection between the child's toy and her weapon.
He kept his face carefully impassive and continued across the dusty parking lot. She hesitated for a moment and Colton glanced back at her. He knew in that moment that she had, indeed, taken the child's toy from where he had left it on the bus. The combination of guilt and consternation on her face had Colton wondering if she might not march back into the diner and return it to the child. Just when he was certain she was going to do exactly that, she composed her features into a mask of steely resolve, and the moment passed.
"Which of these is yours?" She nodded toward the parked vehicles.
"The pickup there." Colton indicated a black truck that dominated the lot. A canvas tarp was stretched across the bed, protecting and concealing the provisions and gear he was bringing with him to the cabin for a two-week fishing vacation.
"Okay, you drive." The woman stood aside as he unlocked the vehicle. "Wait!"
Colton stopped just as he was preparing to climb behind the wheel, and turned to look at her expectantly. Her brow was furrowed.
"This isn't right," she muttered.
"Nope," Colton agreed, "it ain't. Whatever your problem is, it can't be worth the pile of trouble you're getting yourself into by taking me hostage."
The woman waved her hand dismissively. "No, no. I mean this isn't right." She pointed to the open door. "You're supposed to get in on the passenger side and slide over to the driver's seat. Then I slide in after you. That way I can make sure you don't try anything."
"Ah," Colton said. He stepped back and closed the driver's door. "I see you've been watching plenty of crime-time television." He walked around to the passenger side of the truck, aware of her following close behind him. Opening that door, he slid in. The interior was stifling hot, so he started the engine and flipped the air-conditioning to high as the woman climbed onto the bench seat beside him. He suppressed a smile as she pulled the toy gun from her waistband and tried awkwardly to keep it trained on him while negotiating the high seat.
"Okay," she said, closing the door and turning to look at him. "Let's get out of here."
She wrestled her backpack off and let it fall to the floor. Without taking her eyes from him, she pressed herself against the door, keeping as far away from him as she could in the confines of the cab. She kept the gun low but leveled at him nonetheless.
Colton quirked an eyebrow. "Care to tell me where we're going? You might want to make it quick, since I expect we'll have company before too long."