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Regina Williams rolled over and stared up at the peeling paint on the ceiling of her bedroom and smiled.
Two weeks. That was how long she and Zack had been living in the little bungalow on Cherry Street. Even with the endless projects to do, and the sparse furnishings, they'd found joy moving into their very first home.
Of course, there were thirty years of payments ahead, even with Lori's help as co-signer and a good interest rate. That was as far as Gina would let her wealthy big sister go. She had to do this on her own. She had to prove to herself and her son they could be independent.
She had a good start, with her staging business and thrift shop and new friends and now, a wonderful place to live. Destiny, Colorado, was a great small town to raise her seven-year-old son. Zack was thriving in school and he was making friends. He was finally coming out of his shell, and maybe putting their old life where it belonged. In the past.
She climbed out of bed, slipped on her robe as she walked into the hall. She hesitated at Zack's door, then decided to put on coffee first. In the kitchen, she drew back the curtains at the French doors that overlooked the backyard.
This was the view that had sold her on the housealso the acre of land out back. Springtime in Colorado was an array of color and she had already planned out her flower garden in her head.
Right now she'd better get her busy day started. Coffee made, she walked down the hall, knocked on her son's door and opened it. "Rise and shine, kiddo." No response. Zack had always been a slow starter. She went across the hall to the bathroom and turned on the light, then the shower.
"Come on, Zack," she called. "I need to get to work and you have school." She walked back to the bunk beds, to find the top bunk empty. So she glanced under to the lower bed, but no child.
"Zack," she called, and pushed around the blankets. "Honey, we don't have time to play around. So come out of hiding."
Fear began to build as she glanced around the room. That was when she saw the curtains blowing from the open window. She rushed over to find the screen missing.
"No, God. No!" Her heart stopped then started racing as she frantically checked the closet, then under the bed, calling her son.
"Zack. Oh, God. Where are you? Please come out." Even as she pleaded, something in the back of her mind told her that her worst nightmare had come true. She returned to the bed, jerked back the blankets and found the proof. A crumpled piece of paper.
A familiar feeling of helplessness hit her. Hard. Instinctively Gina knew it was a note from her ex-husband. A shiver ran through her as she picked it up and read, "I found you, babe. Now I got what you want. You'll be hearing from me."
Grady Fletcher parked his truck in front of Destiny's sheriff's office and glanced up and down First Street. Mid-morning and the main street was busy with people going about their business, paying no attention to him. Just how he liked it.
He pulled up the collar of his coat and climbed out. He checked the area once again. Although he knew he was safe, old habits died hard. "Stay," he said to his trusted companion.
The German shepherd, Scout, sat in his spot in the backseat. The retired military working dog's ears perked up, waiting for his command. Grady gave a hand signal and the animal lay down. "Be right back, boy."
Grady was adjusting to his new life, too. Suddenly becoming a civilian after twenty years in the army wasn't an easy transition, especially after his last tour of duty. So temporarily living at his grandfather's old cabin was a good thing. It gave him time to heal physically and think about the future. He'd loved the solitude he found in the San Juan Mountains until he found there was a trespasser on his land.
He was going to let the sheriff handle it.
Grady walked through the front door and the room was a buzz of activity. He removed his cowboy hat and looked around. He could sense something was wrong. That was when he caught sight of the small dark-haired woman seated next to the desk. Worry was evident on her face, along with her tears. He decided his business could wait and started to leave when Reed Larkin came out of his office.
The woman stood and hurried to the sheriff. "Please, Reed, we need to start looking for Zack right now."
"And we will, Gina. First, I had to issue an Amber Alert on the boy, and find a description of Eric's lastknown vehicle." He glanced over the paper. "That was a 1998 primer-gray Ford truck, Colorado license." He read off the numbers. "I have all the state agencies involved in the search, Gina."
That description sparked Grady's interest. He walked up to the twosome. "Maybe I can help."
They both turned to him, but his attention went to the pretty brunette with the wide green eyes. Grady quickly turned to the sheriff, shielding his injured side.
"Hey, Grady, I haven't seen you in town for a while."
"There's been no need, until today. You're looking for a gray truck? I might know where you can find it."
Gina forced herself to draw in her next breath as she looked up at the giant of a man. He had a head full of sandy-brown hair that curled in thick waves. His dark eyes were deep-set and edged with tiny lines. His chiseled jaw was firm and clean-shaved. She caught a glimpse of an angry red scar on the side of his neck.
Gina gasped. "Where?"
Suddenly the man turned his intense gaze on her. Her first instinct was to back away from the intimidating man, but she forced herself to listen to what he had to say.
She forced herself to move closer. "Did you see a little boy, Mr ?"
"It's Fletcher, ma'am. Grady Fletcher. There's a truck with that description on my grandfather's property. But I haven't seen anyone."
The sheriff spoke up. "This is Gina Williams, Grady. Her seven-year-old son has been taken by his father. Eric Lowell was recently released from prison for drug possession and abuse. He kidnapped the boy from his home sometime during the night. We believe he's dangerous, so any help would be appreciated. Where did you see the vehicle?"
Grady nodded. "On the northeast section of my grandfather's property," he told them. "The truck is partly hidden off the road just below Rocky Top Ridge."
Reed Larkin frowned. "Where your granddad's old mines are?"
The man nodded. "As far as I can tell the truck has been there a few days. I came in to report it. I figured they were thinking the mine is abandoned, or they're trying to jump Fletch's old claim."
"Oh, God," Gina gasped and turned to the sheriff. "Eric's been in town that long, stalking us?"
"It's okay, Gina. We're going to get him." He looked back at Grady. "When was the last time you saw the truck?"
"At dawn this morning," the man said.
Reed nodded. "Did he see you?"
"Not unless he was out walking around early. There wasn't anyone in the truck when I found it."
"Good, we have a possible location," the sheriff said. "My bet is he's holed up in one of the old mines. Can you take us there, Grady?"
He shrugged. "It's pretty rough terrain, but my dog might be able to pick up the trail. Are you and your men experienced hikers?"
Larkin nodded. "We've all had survival training. I hope the weather holds out today."
They started to walk away. Gina went after them. "Wait," she called. "Please, take me with you."
Reed went to her. "Gina, no. You can't handle the climb."
She blinked. "You have no idea what I can handle, Reed. My son is up there with a man who swore he'd get even with me. I'm not going to stand by and wait while he takes his revenge out on Zack."
The sheriff shook his head. "It's not safe."
"I can do this. And I know Eric. I know what pushes his buttons. Besides, he doesn't want Zack, or he'd be on the road heading for parts unknown."
She exchanged a glance with Grady Fletcher. "He wants me." She stood straight. "And as long as my son is safe, I'm willing to make a trade."
Minutes later, Grady stood out of the way as the sheriff made arrangements to leave. It hadn't taken long for Reed to give in to the mother's plea. Grady didn't like this plan, not one bit. Take this woman with them. No way.
He shook his head. He didn't need this problem. All he had to do was take them up to the mine, then leave the sheriff to handle the rest. Right. He wasn't made that way. In the army he'd become a take-charge-guy as a means of survival. But that was before the explosion, before he gave up his career. He shoved the memory aside and turned his thoughts to the problem at hand.
This Lowell must be a crazy bastard to come in and steal his own kid. It definitely could turn out badly.
Just then Gina Williams came out of Reed Larkin's office. She'd changed into hiking boots laced up at the bottom of her jeans. A sweatshirt under a quilted down vest would keep her warm against the cool day. She had her hair pulled back into a ponytail and a wide-brimmed hat to protect her from the elements. Springtime in Colorado was unpredictable. It could mean anything from rain to a full-blown snowstorm.
A blonde woman walked out behind the boy's mother. He recognized her as Lorelei Hutchinson Yeager. She'd pretty much owned this town since her father's death last year. Grady knew about the Hutchinsons only because of his grandfather's stories. Old Fletch had a strong dislike for any members of the town's founding family. It had something to do with disagreements over land rights.
Grady stood straighter when the two women walked his way. Ms. Williams had a stuffed toy in her hand.
"Mr. Fletcher, this is my sister, Lori Yeager. Lori, Grady Fletcher."
He nodded. "Mrs. Yeager."
She managed a smile. "It's Lori. And I can't tell you how much I appreciate your help finding my nephew. Zack means the world to us. If there's anything you need, let Reed know."
Gina looked at Grady. "The sheriff said you have a dog who can track."
He wasn't about to explain that he'd been through hell and back. "Scout was a military working dog. We're both retired now."
Gina held up a floppy-eared rabbit. "This belongs to Zack. Do you think he could pick up his scent?"
Since Scout's injury, he hadn't been put to the test.
"It's worth a try."
She hugged her sister and they all walked outside. The sheriff and his two men had loaded up the white four-wheel drive SUV. After instruction to lead, Grady climbed in his own truck and Scout greeted him.
"Looks like we got some work to do. You up to it, fella?"
Surprisingly the animal let out a bark as the passenger-side door opened and the pretty Gina Williams peered in. "The other car is full. Would you mind if I rode with you?"
It seemed to take forever to get to their destination. The longest twenty minutes in Gina's life, but thanks to Grady Fletcher she now had hope of finding Zack.
She tried to calm herself as she stole a glance at the beautiful scenery along the gravel road leading to the dotting of tall pines in the distance. A stream ran alongside the winding path. She thought of Zack. Was he warm enough? Had Eric hurt him? She tensed. He'd better not have.
Suddenly she felt a nudge on her arm. She started to pull away, then discovered it was Mr. Fletcher's dog.
She looked at the man who filled up the truck cab, making Gina very aware of his presence. "Is it okay if I pet him?"
He gave her a curt nod. "It seems Scout wants the attention."
She ran her hand over the shepherd's soft, nearly black coat. "He's a beautiful dog. You said he's a military dog?"
"Yes. He served overseas until last year."
"Were you with him?"
Another curt nod.
Gina continued to rub the dog's fur. She found it gave her comfort, but nothing could stop the fear she felt for her son. She'd thought she'd been so careful. That Eric would never find them.
Out of the blue, Mr. Fletcher said, "Tell me about your about Eric. How experienced is he with survival skills?"
"Really good. Every year, he'd go with his brothers during hunting season." She had been glad when he was away because it had meant she was safe from his abuse. "Don't put anything past him, Mr. Fletcher."
She couldn't forget the times she had, and he had made her pay. Oh, God, Zack, she cried silently. "Eric wasn't supposed to find us here. Destiny was our safe place." She worked to hold it together, but wasn't doing well. "We didn't tell a soul that we'd moved here. We changed our names while he was in prison." She released a sigh. "Why can't he leave us alone?"
For a long time the man didn't say anything, then added, "The sheriff will get him and he'll go back to prison."
"I pray that happens. Right now, all I'm concerned about is my son's safety."
Grady went across the stream, then drove several yards off-road, coming to a stop under a tree, next to some large boulders at the base of hillside. Before he could shut off the engine, Gina jumped out of the truck and had started up the hillside when she felt his hand on her arm.
"Hey, you just can't go running off half-cocked. At least wait for the others."
Before she could argue, a rifle shot rang out, and something hit the tree above their heads.
With a curse, Grady pushed Gina to the ground and covered her body with his. He had to get her out of there. He grabbed her close, hearing her gasp, then rolled them over and over until they were behind the tree.
Gina landed on her back and was swiftly aware of this large man. He braced his arms on either side of her head so his full weight wasn't on her. Still, she was very mindful of the fact of his powerful size. Oddly, she didn't feel panicked or threatened. She had her son to worry about.
He raised his head and those dark brooding eyes locked on hers. "You okay?"
She managed a nod. Again she caught sight of the scarred skin covering the side of his neck.
Another series of shots rang out over their heads. He moved her just as the sheriff's vehicle pulled up and parked in front of them as a shield.
Reed climbed out of the truck. His men scrambled to find cover behind large boulders. The sheriff reached them. "You two okay?"
Grady moved off the woman, trying to forget the awareness he felt. Their gaze connected for an instant before she sat up. This was trouble in more ways than he could count.
"I'm fine, but my son isn't. So I need to go up there."
She started to stand and Grady pulled her back down. "Lady, I know you aren't thinking clearly right now," he growled. "And running up there isn't going to get your son back. That maniac is holding a high-powered rife on us, and he wants you to pay."
Before Grady could stand, Gina Williams gripped his arm. "I don't care how you do it, Mr. Fletcherjust get my son out safely. Please." Tears filled those mesmerizing green eyes. "My life doesn't matter without Zack."
"We'll do whatever it takes to get the boy out of there." Grady moved away, praying he could keep his promise.