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He'd found her.
Roman Black stared at the woman pinning flowered sheets to the clothesline in the yard of a run-down single-level house. The June Louisiana afternoon sun kissed the woman's short dark hair as she bent and stretched to do her work. The red tank top covered her skin but couldn't hide the bony structure of her ribs and shoulder blades.
A skirt, hanging to her ankles, appeared to be gathered at her hip with some sort of clip that made a fabric ponytail stick out. Obviously the skirt was too big.
She turned slightly, giving Roman a better view of her face.
He glanced at the photo in his hand. Yep. Had to be the same woman. Satisfaction spread through him, making him smile. You can run, but you can't hide.
The bounty hunter got out of his late-model SUV, leaving the truck parked crosswise in the dirt drive, just in case she planned on a speedy getaway. He stalked up the drive, his heavy black boots making little noise on the packed dirt and sparse gravel. As he drew closer he heard the woman's soft melodic humming. A tune familiar, yet he couldn't place where he'd heard it before.
"Leah," he said.
The woman spun around with a gasp. Her big brown eyes widened. The fight-or-flight response warred in her frightened expression.
"Leah Farley," he repeated, watching closely to see how she'd play this.
"I I'm sorry. There's no one here by that name. How did you ?" She looked past him down the drive. "I didn't hear you drive in."
So this is the way it was going to go down. "Look, I'm taking you in, Leah Farley."
Without hesitation she turned and fled through the swaying sheets, artfully dodging and weaving.
Roman went after her, not as artfully.After fighting back the damp bedding that clung to him, he burst through to the other side into the backyard that was nothing but a patchy lawn on the edge of a dry field.
A door to his left banged shut. The loud click of a bolt sliding home rang in his ears. He ran up the porch stairs and pounded on the door. "Open up!"
From the other side of the wooden door, he heard shuffling and frantic, whispered chatter.
He pounded his fist on the door again. "Leah Farley, open this door on the count of three or I'll bust it down."
Roman ran a hand through his hair. Man, he hadn't counted on her being so difficult, but then again, she was a murderess.
One, two, three. Using all two hundred twenty pounds of his weight, he rammed his shoulder into the door. The lock popped. The door flew wide-open.
He stumbled inside and quickly regained his balance in a ready-to-fight stance. And found himself staring down the business end of a rifle.
He held up his hands, palms out. "Whoa. Take it easy, now."
His gaze traversed the rusted and ancient-looking double-barrel to the equally ancient-looking woman holding the weapon. Though clouded with age, eyes the color of a stormy sky stared at him from a wrinkled face that the passage of time hadn't been kind to. Even her floral, shapeless housedress looked faded, as if she'd washed and worn it a million times.
Just beyond the old woman's shoulder stood Leah, bracing the rifle-toting granny as if the older woman might topple over.
Roman had two options that he could see. Talk the woman holding the gun into putting it down or take a chance that she wouldn't be quick enough to pull the trigger before he disarmed her.
Forcibly disarming an elderly woman didn't appeal. "Put the gun down and let's talk this out."
"You've got no right to come busting in here like this. Who do you think you are? If you're a police officer, I want to see your badge," the old woman demanded.
"I'm not with the police, ma'am. Name's Roman Black, and I'm here to take Leah Farley back to Loomis to face the consequences of her actions."
"We don't know any Leah Farley. This here is my grandbaby, Abigail."
Granddaughter? No way. He was certain the young woman standing before him was Leah Farley.
She might look a tad different; her long, curly hair had been shorn to a spiky 'do that made her look more like a teen than a woman in her midtwenties. She'd lost weight, which only accentuated her high cheekbones and straight nose.
She looked too much like Clint, Leah's brother, for the woman not to be Leah. He shrugged and pulled out the picture tucked away in the pocket of his T-shirt and held it up for inspection. "Ma'am, your Abigail is a dead ringer for the Leah Farley in this photo. And she looks a lot like her brother, my friend Clint."
The elderly woman glanced at the photo. Doubt entered her cloudy gaze. "You've made a mistake."
"If I have, then the authorities can straighten it out. My job is to bring this woman into custody. If she's really your granddaughter, she'll be set free. But you don't want to be charged with aiding and abetting a known fugitive, do you?"
More doubt crossed the older woman's features, and the barrel of the gun dipped toward the floor.
Pressing the issue, Roman said, "You wouldn't like prison, ma'am. It's very nasty." He stepped forward and slowly, gently, so as not to startle her into firing, wrapped his hand around the barrel.
"She's my granddaughter," the old woman insisted as she relinquished her hold.
"Then everything will be just fine." Roman checked the rifle. No shells. "An unloaded gun isn't much protection," he muttered as he stood the weapon on its butt against the doorjamb. He moved past the grandmother and secured Leah by the arm.
She winced and drew back. "Please, my name is Abigail Lang and this is my grandmother, Colleen. She needs me. You can't take me away."
"I'm sure there are social services that can help her. You are my only concern."
He pulled her toward the door.
She dug in her heels. "How come? How come you are doing this? You said you weren't a cop. So how come?"
"You can't just take her," Colleen said, her hunched shoulders shaking and her breathing coming fast as she kept pace with them while he propelled Leah forward.
"You should go take a rest, Ms. Lang," Roman suggested, worried that with so much exertion the woman would collapse and then he'd have to take her with him. "I've got a job to do. I'm sure if I'm wrong, she'll be back in no time."
"Let me at least make her comfortable," Leah cried.
"Sorry, no can do. I'm not going to risk losing you again. The authorities have been searching for you since January."
"You didn't answer me. How come?" she pressed, and made a grab for the door frame.
Blocking her access, he stated, "I'm a bounty hunter hired by Dennis Farley to find his brother, Earl Farley's, murderer. That would be you. The late Earl Farley's widow."
Shaking her head, she said, "No, I didn't kill him. I didn't kill anyone."
"Look, lady, I don't care if you're guilty or innocent.
That's for the courts to decide." He propelled her down the porch stairs even as she reached out for the railing. "Don't make me handcuff you."
She stopped struggling, but the fire of determination didn't leave her eyes. "I still don't understand why you have to do this."
"I'm repaying my client a debt owed and will get a nice bounty out of the deal, as well. It's just too bad you turned out to be my friend Clint's little sister."
"I don't know a Clint. I don't have a brother."
"How come you killed him?" he asked, curious why Clint's baby sister resorted to murder.
"I don't know what you're talking about. My name's Abigail Lang. I live here. I care for my disabled grandmother. You've made a mistake."
She actually sounded like she believed what she was saying. Whatever. He'd been hired to find her, not determine her mental status. He led her through the drying sheets and out to the front drive.
"Grandmother!" Abigail cried out.
The old woman was slowly working her way down the front porch stairs, gripping the hand railing. She'd left her walker at the top of the stairs. She teetered and tottered and looked as if at any moment she'd tumble head over heels down the steps.
"Oh, for crying out loud," Roman growled, and headed in Colleen's direction while still holding firmly to Leah's upper arm.
When they reached Colleen, Roman and Leah steadied the old woman and helped her down the last of the stairs.
"The walker," Leah stated with a plea in her gaze.
With a roll of his eyes, Roman momentarily released Leah to grab the walker. He set the thing in front of Colleen and then took Leah by the arm again.
"If you're fixin'on taking her, you're taking me, too," the grandmother declared, her expression determinedly stubborn. Obviously, the prospect of prison hadn't deterred her.
Great. Why not? The more the merrier. Yeah, right. Brother, could this job get any more complicated? "Okay, ladies, this is how we're going to do this. I take Grams along on one condition."
"What condition?" Leah asked, her brown eyes wary.
"You don't try to escape. If you're really who you think you are, then you'll be home before supper."
Colleen huffed. "Of course, we will. I have a roast we need to cook."
Leah stayed silent, her mysterious dark eyes holding secrets. He didn't want to know what they were. He was just the retrieval service, not the investigator. He'd left that part behind years ago. "Agreed?"
She slowly nodded.
With Leah on his right and Colleen on his left, Roman marched the two ladies very slowly and carefully toward his vehicle baking in the hot June sun.
At the SUV, he maneuvered the women around the back and to the passenger side. Opening the back door, he helped Colleen inside and buckled her up. When Leah moved to go around to the other side, he caught her hand, keenly aware of how slight she was and how easily he could crush her delicate bones. He steered her to the front passenger seat. "I want you where I can see you."
The sharp ping of metal hitting metal sent Roman's adrenal glands into hyperdrive. A bullet shattered the window in the passenger door, barely missing Leah's head. She screamed and ducked.
"Get in, get in," Roman commanded. Leah climbed into the seat. "Stay down," he ordered.
Just as Roman slammed the door shut, another bullet hit the door inches from him. One second sooner and that bullet would have been embedded in Leah.
In a crouch, he ran around the front of the SUV to the driver's side. Thankfully, he'd left his keys in the ignition, though he hadn't anticipated a gunfight or a car chase.
He started up the SUV and spun the tires as he turned the wheel and pressed the gas, shooting them forward down the drive to the two-lane highway.
Right or left? He didn't know where the shots had come from, so he could only choose a direction and pray they didn't run into an ambush. Right took them toward Loomis. The logical choice would be to take her in and collect his money.
He turned left, because obviously someone wanted Leah dead, not returned.
A dead bounty meant no money.
But a dead Leah also meant not finding out the truth for Clint, and justice wouldn't be served.
Why would someone not want Earl Farley and Dylan Renault's murderer brought in?
The deeply ingrained need to bring the bad guys to justice wouldn't allow Roman to abandon this woman, especially since he wasn't sure she was the bad guy.
Roman drove at breakneck speed down the highway, heading into the swamplands of the Louisiana bayou. Tall, bald cypress trees silver-green with moss loomed, their ancient branches hanging like spidery fingers reaching out to capture the unsuspecting.
The woman beside him gripped the dash with both hands.
The old woman repeatedly gasped, "Oh, my!"
In the rearview mirror, a small red car gained on them. Roman pressed harder on the gas, pushing the SUV to the limit. The huge engine wound out with a roar. Up ahead, the road curved.
Behind them, the car closed the gap. A sports car. Go figure.
Roman cranked the wheel, tires squealing as they took the curve. For a moment the car behind them wasn't visible.
Roman's gaze snagged on a dirt road to the right. Without hesitation, he turned the vehicle down the un-paved path, which was full of potholes. The SUV bumped along, leaving a trail of dust in its wake.
Behind them the little sports car turned onto the dirt road and came to a sliding halt. Roman smiled and kept driving until he couldn't see the car anymore. He didn't have any idea where they were headed, but the road had to lead somewhere. He slowed to a more reasonable speed.
Wanting to figure out just what was going on, he asked, "How come someone wants you dead, Leah?"
"I don't know. I honestly don't know," she whispered.
Roman stepped on the brake and brought the car to a grinding halt. "Are you Leah Farley?"
Leah sank back against the door, her shoulders slumped. "I don't know. I can't remember anything before the day I woke up in a ditch and found my grandmother's house."
"You woke up in a ditch?" Roman asked, his voice rife with doubt.
"I know it sounds far-fetched, but it's true. One day last January I awoke alongside the road. My head was bleeding and I was all scraped up."
"You should have seen her," Colleen interjected. "I declare. Such a mess. Her hair was matted and her clothes torn and caked with dirt. Couldn't even remember me, her own grandmother."
"I honestly have no memories before that day." Tears slipped silently down Leah's cheeks. The heartbreaking agony on her face twisted a knot the size of the state of Louisiana in Roman's chest.
Not sure whether to believe her or not, Roman steeled himself against any softening. He couldn't let emotions sway him. The story seemed too convenient, yet she sounded sincere.
Six months ago she'd dropped her daughter off at her brother Clint's and disappeared. If what she said was true, it sounded as if she'd been taken against her will. Who took her? Why?
Plus, obviously someone wanted her dead.
Until he knew who and why, he wasn't taking her back to Loomis.