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Alyssa Roth pulled the hood of her sweatshirt up to cover her newly cropped blond hair as she cautiously approached her town house. She couldn't imagine why her twin sister might have come to her place, but she'd searched all Mallory's usual spots over the past few hours, without success. She'd called and left messages at Mallory's condo and on her cell. She was feeling desperate. She had to find her twin and warn her of the danger.
The hour was close to midnight, so there weren't many people out and about, but that didn't stop her from casting a worried glance over her shoulder. She'd taken a bus from a park-and-ride close to the motel and walked the rest of the way. Using her key, she opened the door and quickly crossed the threshold, locking the door behind her.
The interior was dark so if Mallory was there, she must be sleeping. She pulled a small penlight out of her pocket, unwilling to risk the overhead lights that would effectively broadcast her presence to anyone who might be watching.
Holding the light low at her side, she walked through the kitchen into the living room. She caught an unexpected flash of glitter, and relief washed over her as she realized Mallory's hair clip was on the table beside the sofa.
"Mallory," she whispered loudly as she headed down the hall toward her bedroom. "Wake up. You can't stay here! I'm in danger. I'm being followed and believe it or not, a cop actually tried to kill me!"
There was no response, and when she pushed open the door to her bedroom, her burst of hope faded when she saw the bed was empty. She took two steps into the room before she noticed the dark puddle staining the floor. She stared at it, slowly realizing it was blood.
Too much blood.
Dread sucked the oxygen from her lungs and she stumbled backward, hitting the door frame hard in her effort to get away. What had happened here? Every instinct she possessed screamed at her to run, but she forced herself to stay long enough to sweep her light over the room, half-afraid she'd find Mallory's body. She even went as far as to check the closet and under the bed. Nothing. The only item out of place was a bright yellow blouse, lying crumpled in the far corner, darkly stained with blood.
The hair clip and yellow blouse proved Mallory had been here recently. Alyssa swayed. Nausea threatened to erupt from her stomach in a violent heave. As a nurse, she knew there was too much blood to believe Mallory had escaped unscathed. She stared at the yellow blouse, a sinking realization making her knees weak.
The blouse wasn't Mallory's. It was the blouse she'd bought for herself last week. Her blouse. Her town house. Both full of blood.
She sagged against the door for support as her mind whirled with possibilities. The night before, Councilman Schaefer had gripped her hand and whispered that he'd been stabbed by a hired thug working for Hugh Jefferson. Stunned, she'd gone straight to the authorities, but Officer Crane had brushed aside her concern.
She thought his response was odd, but one minute they were preparing Schaefer for surgery, the next he was dead. Later that night, after her shift at the hospital, a dark blue van tried to run her car off the road and she'd caught a glimpse of Officer Crane's ruddy face before she managed to avoid the crash.
Fearing for her life, she hadn't gone home. She'd checked into a run-down motel and spent the next twelve hours changing her appearance so she looked like Mallory, buying tight clothing and a gaudy purse. She went to the DMV for a new ID and obtained a fake tattoo above her collarbone to match her twin's.
Now she realized her efforts were in vain. She couldn't tear her gaze from the yellow blouse, feeling sick as she realized what must have transpired. Mallory probably had another fight with her ex and had come here to find Alyssa for support. Only, Crane or Jefferson must have been watching her town house and killed Mallory by mistake.
Alyssa was the one who knew how Jefferson had killed Schaefer. She was the one Crane had tried to run off the road. She was the one they wanted to silence.
Her fault. Her stomach twisted and she shoved a fist in her mouth to silence the scream building in her chest. This was all her fault. Mallory was the only family she had left in the world. And now her twin was gone. Likely dead. Brutally murdered.
Bands of self-reproach tightened around her throat, squeezing tight. Sheer desperation had forced her to break her cardinal rule by borrowing Mallory's identity. But she shouldn't have rested until she found a way to warn Mallory. Now it was too late.
Dear Lord, forgive me. Please forgive me!
A shrill whine of police sirens split the night air. Guilt surrendered to fear. She didn't know who had called the police, possibly a neighbor. Had they heard Mallory's scream? She didn't want to think about how her twin must have struggled, fighting for her life. With an effort, she focused on the present. She had to get out of there. Now. She couldn't trust anyone. Especially not the police.
Run! Run! One last glance over her shoulder at the blood-stained blouse ripped her heart in two. She didn't want to leave. But nothing good would come of staying here. She imagined if Mallory was here, her sister would be shouting at her to run. Don't let them find you, Alyssa. Go! Run!
Tears streamed down her face, blurring her vision. Galvanized by self-preservation, Alyssa clicked off the penlight and ran down the hall, through the open kitchen and living area, pausing only long enough to snatch the glittery hair clip from the table, stuffing it in her purse as she headed to the front door. Her hand clutched the doorknob. She paused, her heart thundering in her chest. The sirens grew louder. Closer. Too close. The back door?
Spinning on her heel, she retraced her steps, crossing the room toward the kitchen door. She stumbled against the table, unable to see. She swiped at her tears, finally finding the door. Sirens continued to echo outside. Did the police know she was here? Was Officer Crane right now trying to find her?
She left the town house, sprinting into the darkness. The windows in her neighbor's houses were darkno one was up this late. So who'd called the police? Frantic, she stopped between buildings, trying to think. Indecision held her captive. Finally she ran to the right, through the darkness of her neighbor's backyard.
She ran as fast as she dared. Her heart thundered in her ears. Panic swelled, choking her. The need to move quietly battled a savage desperation to put as much distance between her and the bloody town house as possible.
Don't stop. Don't let them find you. Run!
Where should she go? What should she do? Whom should she trust?
Gage. She needed to find Gage. Her ex-fiance hadn't believed her when she'd claimed Hugh Jefferson was dangerous. She didn't know why Jefferson had killed Schaefer, but she was convinced everything was related to the hotly contested condos Gage had been hired to build. After Schaefer's claims, she'd called Gage, warned him to stay away from Hugh Jefferson but he'd waved off her concerns. Surely Gage would believe her now. Besides, whom else could she trust?
No one. Only Gage.
She'd broken off their engagement because of Gage's lackluster faith and his overprotective ways. But right now, she longed for his protection, to feel the strength of his arms around her. To bury her face in the safe haven of his chest.
Her breath scissored from her lungs as she ran through alley after alley, backyard after backyard. Shadows in the normally innocuous Milwaukee suburb loomed ominously. She ducked beneath a low-hanging tree branch, its green leaves rustling in the summer night. The sirens went abruptly and eerily silent. Had they arrived at her town house? Did they discover they'd killed the wrong twin? Identical twins didn't have the same fingerprints, so it wouldn't be long before they discovered the truth. Were they out searching for her now? She was too scared to turn around and look.
Dear Lord, help me! Guide me! Keep me safe!
Her breath burned in her chest, threatening to give out for good. She ran for what seemed like forever, but what was probably only thirty to forty minutes. She was in a neighborhood she didn't recognize, but she was too afraid to slow down. The ground beneath her feet abruptly sloped downward. She missed a step. Her ankle twisted sharply under her weight. Pain knifed up her leg. She gasped and fell hard.
The world somersaulted as she rolled down the steep hill, momentum carrying her faster and faster until she smacked bottom. Her skull met the concrete sidewalk with a hard crack. Fireworks of pain exploded in her head.
A velvet shroud of darkness surrounded her.
"Alyssa? Are you there? Pick up the phone!" Gage Drummond scowled as he paused, then added in a calmer tone, "Alyssa, please, please call me as soon as you get this message." He flipped the phone shut, hating the feeling of helplessness.
Where was she? The hospital had called him to pick up Mallory because they couldn't reach Alyssa. One of Alyssa's coworkers had assumed he and Alyssa were still engaged and instead of correcting her, he'd agreed to come and get Mallory, hoping to get back into Alyssa's good graces.
Unfortunately, his good deed backfired, because he couldn't get in touch with Alyssa, either. He slipped his phone into his pocket and propped one shoulder against the dingy waiting room wall of Trinity Medical Center's emergency department.
Exhaustion weighed his eyelids. He considered borrowing a cup of the E.D.'s special coma coffee reserved for the graveyard shift. Strong enough to bring you out of a coma, or so Alyssa had claimed.
The memory hurt. He dug his thumbs into his eye sockets in an attempt to ease the pain. Bitter failure coated his tongue. He knew it was his fault she'd left him. But he didn't know how to fix their broken relationship.
Heaving a deep sigh, he opened his eyes and glanced around the waiting room. Surprisingly quiet for a Friday night, or rather early Saturday morning. A homeless man rocked in the corner, keeping a tight hold on his paper sack. One kid within a group of threeall looking like candidates for a Milwaukee gang with spiked hair dyed garish colors and rows of heavy silver chains encircling their necksheld a bloody bandage over his arm. An elderly woman coughed into a tissue and huddled in her seat, as far from the gang wannabes as she could get.
Gage ground his teeth together, detesting the idea of Alyssa working in this place every day. Shortly after she'd agreed to marry him, a junkie strung out on drugs had swung at her, knocking her to the ground and nearly breaking her jaw. He'd been appalled and angrybut even then, she'd refused to quit. Despite some serious arm-twisting on his part. He'd wanted her to stay home, to be safe. Or at the very least, to find a different type of nursing job. What was wrong with working in a nice clinic somewhere? His construction company was doing well enough that he could support both of them, but she wouldn't even discuss the possibility. She'd claimed she liked her job, even the part that required her to care for patients who threatened to harm her.
Gage willed the painful memories away. He was here because he needed to find a way to win Alyssa back. Getting up at two-thirty in the morning and picking up Mallory after her accident should win him some extra credit points, right?
"Gage?" Jennifer, the nurse who'd thought he and Alyssa were still engaged, poked her head into the waiting room. "You can see Mallory now."
Relieved to put the depressing sight of the waiting room behind him, he straightened and followed Jennifer into the arena, an open area surrounded by cubicles. His steel-toed construction boots clunked loudly against the shiny linoleum floor. A sweeping glance at the various employees clustered around the center workstation made him wonder if any of them knew where Alyssa might be. He frowned. He'd dialed her town house at least twenty times since the hospital called. Why hadn't she answered?
Another man? Gage stumbled, managing to catch himself even though his gut twisted painfully. Logically, he knew Alyssa's personal life wasn't any of his business, since she'd broken off their engagement two months ago. A spear of pain stabbed his heart. When she'd given him the ring back, Alyssa's reasons were that he was too overprotective and that he didn't have a close relationship with God. He couldn't figure out what she'd meant. After all, he'd done everything she'd asked of him.
He went to church with her, hadn't he? And he'd joined her Bible study group. It wasn't his fault that he had to work late, missing most of the sessions. He owned his own business and couldn't just switch shifts to get off work the way she did.
After she'd walked out, he'd wondered if maybe the basic truth was simply that Alyssa hadn't loved him. A possibility that had hurt, more than he'd ever imagined it could.
He scowled, pushing the pain aside, and walked into the doorway of the small cubicle. His gaze rested on his ex-fiancée's twin sister. He didn't particularly care for Mallory. She was so completely different from Alyssa. But since she was Alyssa's sister, he made an effort.
"Hey, Mallory," he greeted her with forced politeness. "What happened? How are you feeling?"
She opened her eyes and turned her head toward him. A square white bandage partially covered a large abrasion on her forehead. Gage sucked in a quick breath; the physical resemblance shouldn't have caught him off guard, but it did. Mallory's blond hair was shoulder length and wavy, whereas Alyssa wore hers much longer and straight. Blue eyes, identical to Alyssa's, stared suspiciously into his.
He'd subtly avoided his fiancée's twin because he hadn't appreciated the way Mallory had flirted with him before they'd gotten engaged. Alyssa had brushed it off as Mallory's way of protecting her twin, making sure he would be true to Alyssa, but he didn't buy that theory. He suspected Mallory either wanted to get rid of him, because she was jealous of his relationship with Alyssa, or that she'd wanted to steal him away for herself.
He could have saved her the trouble, because despite their broken engagement, his heart belonged to Alyssa.