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The electricity to the building had been cut, but the emergency lights were enough for Kelly Evans to see as she moved toward the exit sign on the sixth floor. Her pulse raced and her hands trembled. Every step brought her closer to danger, but she didn't have a choice. She had to save the other hostages.
Carefully, she opened the door below the exit sign and held it ajar. When she closed the door, it would lock behind her, and there would be no escape from the stairwell.
Holding her breath, she listened. Had they posted a guard in here? Was she walking into a trap? Smoke from the earlier explosion that closed off the stairwell at the ground floor tainted the air and irritated her throat. She pinched her lips together, stifling a cough that might betray her position.
She eased the door closed with an almost imperceptible click. Stepping away from the wall, she leaned forward, gripped the metal banister and peered upward. Each floor had a lighted exit sign, but the peripheral shadows created an optical illusion, making it appear that the winding flights of stairs disappeared into infinity like Jacob's ladder. Kelly started her climb.
Halfway between the seventh and eighth floors, she paused to catch her breath. The ninth floor was the most dangerous. Trask was there, and the men with the guns. If she got beyond that point, she could make it to the roof.
From below, she heard a door crash open. A rough male voice echoed against the concrete walls. "Is she in here?"
"Shut up and listen. If she's close, we'll hear her breathing."
How long can I hold my breath?
After a few impatient seconds, the first voice said, "I don't hear a damn thing."
"We're out of time. Head back to the ninth floor."
The soles of their boots scraped against the stairs as they climbed. They were coming toward her. She had to move and to breathe. She gasped, quietly. On tiptoe, she tried to glide with perfect stealth from stair to stairan impossible task. Don't let them hear me, please, don't let them hear
She stumbled, catching herself with her hands. From below, she heard a shout. "Hey, she's up there!" Darting past the ninth floor, Kelly stayed as close to the wall as possible. Only one more floor "Do you see her?"
Their voices sounded close. A burst of gunfire from an automatic rifle echoed against the concrete walls.
She took the last flight of stairs two at a time. At the roof, she hit the crash bar and dashed outside into a cold, starry night. There was no way to lock the door behind her. All she could do was run.
Dodging around air vents and solar panels, she crossed the roof and peered over the waist-high parapet. The street below was filled with dozens of emergency vehicles, their red-and-blue lights flashing. This was the wrong side of the building. She needed to be facing west, toward the foothills. She ran to the corner of the building, made the turn and found what she was looking for.
Behind her shoulder, she heard the door open. Gunfire erupted.
She climbed onto the parapet. Looking down, she saw the roof of a four-story building far below. She wasn't afraid of heights, but vertigo washed over her in a dizzying wave.
She crouched into position and went over the edge.
One week earlier. Sunday, 6:07p.m.
Five very pregnant women in loose-fitting workout clothes sat in a semicircle on exercise mats facing Kelly Evans. Behind each lady was her mate, except for Lauren Spencer, who was unaccompanied. Lauren craned her neck and stared at the glass double doors leading into the gym.
"Typical," she muttered. "He's always late."
"It's okay," Kelly assured her. "You can fill your partner in on anything he misses. We should get started."
Kelly tried to keep her Lamaze classes convenient, non-threatening and on schedule. Each of the six sessions in this two-week period was supposed to be an hour and a half, and she'd do everything she could to honor that time commitment. If couples wanted to stay later, they were welcome to do so, but she knew these people had places to go and things to do, even on a Sunday night.
"Before we get into the exercises," she said, "I want to take a few minutes to introduce ourselves and give you a chance to ask questions."
"You start," Lauren said. "The rest of us have met before. Valiant is a pretty small town."
Clearly, Lauren was the leader of the pack. Not only was she nearly six feet tall and built like an Amazon, but she'd married into the Spencer family, which granted her instant status. From what Kelly knew about this town in the foothills between Boulder and Fort Collins, the Spencers were among the earliest residents. The main office for their property and construction business was based in Valiant. In fact, this class was taking place in one of the classrooms attached to the gym on the second floor of the Spencer building, a ten-story structure in a small office park.
"I'm a certified nurse-midwife," Kelly said. "I've been in practice for about three years in Austin, but I used to live in Denver. And I'm happy to be back in Colorado."
Actually, she was far happier than she'd expected. While driving here, her first glimpse of the Rockies had lifted her spirits and started her yodeling an impromptu concert of old John Denver songs. The dry air tasted fresh. The skies glowed with a brighter shade of blue. She couldn't think of why she'd ever moved. What was it again? Oh, yeah, the divorce.
When she'd left her husband five years ago, she'd gone back to nursing school in Texas. Though she and her ex never discussed location, he had taken custody of Colorado. It made sense. In addition to being a lawyer, he was a representative to the state legislature. With his new wife and baby in tow, he'd recently started making political moves toward running for national office. She hadn't contacted him but was sorely tempted to leave a phone message: "I'm ba-a-a-ack."
One of the women asked, "How did you meet Serena?"
"We've known each other for years and years. By the way, she sends her best wishes for you all." Serena Bellows, the local midwife, had called Kelly to fill in with her clients while she took a brief maternity leave. "I'm staying with her at the farm."
"With the llamas?"
"And the goats and the chickens and the horses and the mules," Kelly said with a grin. "And the children. I assisted with the birth of number four last weeka daughter who weighed in at nine pounds, three ounces. We used an underwater technique. Is anybody interested in that?"
There was a chorus of "no."
"Any other questions?"
A petite brunette with asymmetrical bangs said, "I love your blond highlights."
"Thanks." Kelly smoothed her straight brown bob with the sunny streaks around her face.
"I'm a stylist," the brunette said. "My shop is named after meRoxanne. If you decide to stick around in Valiant, I'd love to do your hair."
"I appreciate the offer, Roxanne." Kelly transitioned from talking about herself, which was always a bit uncomfortable, to talking about her clients. "When's your due date?"
"Next week. March twenty-first, the first day of Aries, and I can't wait. My belly gets in the way when I'm cutting hair, and I've been avoiding the chemicals used in perms and dyes."
A fresh-faced young woman whose name was, appropriately, Daisy piped up, "From what I heard, you aren't even supposed to be in the same room with those chemicals."
"If you use gloves," Kelly said, "you should be safe. It's not recommended to color your hair when you're pregnant, but the amount of dye absorbed through the scalp is negligible."
"The smell nauseates me," Roxanne said. "Whenever anybody gets a perm, I have to leave the shop, go next door to the cafe and have a cup of coffee."
"Caffeine," said Daisy with a shudder of horror. "That's another no-no."
"Yeah, yeah," said Roxanne. "I know I said coffee but I meant tea, herbal-freaking-tea. I can't wait to have this baby so I can get back to my espresso."
"You might want to hold off after the birth," Kelly advised. "When you're breast-feeding, the caffeine goes through you to the baby. Trust me, the last thing you want is a wide-awake infant."
After a few more minutes' discussion about the trials and tribulations of pregnancy, Kelly sensed that the men were growing restless. She switched the topic to teamwork and how they would be the coaches, helping their partners through childbirth. "We'll start with massage. Gentlemen, lie facedown on the mats."
The glass door to the gym swung open, framing a very tall, broad-shouldered man in a tuxedo. At a glance, she could tell that this wasn't a rental tux. His clothing was designer and definitely tailored to accommodate his height, which had to be at least six feet, four inches. His thick black hair was mussed, and he'd opened the collar on his pleated white shirt.
"About time," Lauren snapped.
Kelly bounced upright on her bare feet and greeted him with her hand outstretched. "Pleased to meet you."
"Nick Spencer." His giant paw engulfed her hand. "The pleasure is mine."
As if the tux wasn't enough to jump-start her libido, his smile was pure charm. His blue eyes were rimmed with the kind of thick black lashes that a woman would kill for. Kelly shouldn't be thinking what she was thinking. Nick Spencer was a married man.
"You haven't missed much," she said. "Take off your shoes and lie down on the mat."
"Yes, ma'am." His voice was a low rumble. "I guess you like to get right down to business."
His eye contact lasted a bit longer than necessary. If she hadn't known better, Kelly might have thought he was flirting with her. With his blond Amazon wife sitting right there? Did this guy have a death wish?
As she instructed the women in the class about how to massage their partners, she subtly used the men as dummies to illustrate the musculature of the back, spine and hips. When these women were in labor, it would be useful for them to specifically tell where it hurt.
Another benefit to this part of the exercises was that the men loved the attention. In the teamwork approach to childbirth, it was important for them to feel included. Just as she was about to tell the couples to switch positions, a thin blonde woman in a strictly tailored pantsuit opened the door a crack and peeked inside.
"Excuse me." Her voice was thin and angry. "Nick, I need to speak with you. Now, Nick."
As he headed toward the exit, he leaned close to Kelly's ear and whispered, "Keep going. I'll be right back."
His warm breath on her neck sent a purely sensual shiver down her spine. With an inadvertent gasp, she fought to control the sensation. Nothing good could come from being attracted to a married man.
The men were now massaging the women, and Kelly took Nick's place to rub Lauren's back. As soon as she touched the knotted muscles and tendons near the neck, Lauren winced and groaned. She was carrying a lot of tensionnot a surprise, given the way her husband behaved.
Through the glass doors leading from the gym, Kelly watched as he hugged the rigid-looking blonde. She quickly shoved him away. Though Kelly couldn't hear what they were saying, the blonde seemed to be chastising himglaring and shaking her finger in his face.
"She's the company accountant," Lauren mumbled. "Marian Whitman has the reputation of being an ice princessforty-two and never married. The only thing that arouses her is numbers."
Kelly didn't see it that way. Marian's cheeks were flushed, and her eyelashes fluttered as she looked up at Nick. Was this a personal conversation? Something strange was going on here.
As the class moved into another position, Nick rushed back through the door. Passing Kelly, he leaned close again and said, "Did you miss me?"
Okay, this was definite flirting, and she didn't like it. For the duration of the class, she kept her distance from him, ignoring the way he moved and the sexy timbre of his voice when he asked questions. She hid behind a mask of professionalism, suppressed her smiles and avoided friendly banter with him.
When the class was over and everyone else had left, Nick and Lauren approached her. "I'm really sorry I was late," he said. "I had to attend a charity benefit."
"The Spencer Academic Awards," Lauren said. "It's a scholarship program for Colorado students going to Colorado colleges. Since the Spencers made their fortune during the Colorado gold rush, we feel like we should give something back."
"The Spencers were gold prospectors? That's so interesting."
"Is it really?" Nick said drily.
"Family histories fascinate me." She tried not to look at him. "Especially when they deal with the Old West."
"It was 1862 when my ancestors hit one of the biggest gold strikes on the front range of the Rockies. Our mine, the Valiant Mine, was bigger than the Glory Hole near Central City."
Lauren patted her belly. "My baby is going to be born into an impressive family tradition. In this very building, on the ninth floor, we have fifty kilobars of gold from the Valiant Mine."
"Actual gold?" Kelly couldn't believe it. That much gold would be worth a small fortune.
"Processed and smelted right here in Colorado. Every bar is stamped with a Vfor Valiant." She beamed proudly. "Anyway, Nick has promised he wouldn't be late, and my real partner will be here for the session on Sunday night."
Kelly was confused. She was beginning to feel like Alice in Wonderland, talking to people who spoke only in riddles. "Excuse me, did you say your real partner?"
"My husband, Jared. He's out of town, wrapping up some important business in Singapore."
"So Nick isn't "
"My husband?" She laughed. "No way would I marry this big ox. Nick is my brother-in-law."
He bent down to look directly into her eyes. At six feet four inches, he was probably a foot taller than she was. "Since you're interested in family history, I'd like to take you upstairs and show you my gold."
Embarrassed that she'd jumped to the wrong conclusion and regretful that she'd treated him coolly for most of the evening, Kelly dared to gaze directly into those gorgeous blue eyes. "That's quite a pick-up line."
"Did it work?"
Indeed, it did.