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For as long as he could remember, Drew Kincaid knew he was different. Some people called him crazy. Some said he was the luckiest man on the planet. And there were those who wanted to lock him up and throw away the key.
Since the day he turned eighteen, he'd been on the run from a faceless, nameless enemy. Today, ten years later, his luck might have run out.
Before dawn, he slipped through the back door of the rustic, seaside hotel outside Naples, Italy. Making his way toward the south end of town, he hid in the shadows on narrow streets. Light shone through some of the windows; the fishermen awakened early.
Behind a stucco house with a painted orange door, he found the bicycle he'd stashed yesterday. He would have preferred an Italian, carbon-frame racing bike like the ones used for the Giro d'Italia, but this three-speed was serviceable. It would do.
His tires hummed on the cobblestone road. As he rode toward the edge of town, he heard the pitched barking of a dog, the cries of gulls, the slamming of a car door. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw no one on the road behind him.
Within a half hour, he was in open countryside, climbing a steep, curving road that led to the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. He pedaled hard, sweating under his thermal windbreaker. His backpack held only the essentials: a change of clothes, bottled water and his laptop. He kept his flash drive, passport and cell phone in his pockets.
His stories for this assignment had already been filed electronically with World Sport Magazine, the New York-based publication that financed this three-week trip to Europe to cover the extreme skiing competition in the Alps and the bicycle marathons in Spain and Italy—an incredible range of sports, considering that it was only March.
Drew wasn't employed by World Sport. Though he remained doggedly freelance, he sure as hell wasn't opposed to taking an assignment like this one. An expenses-paid trip to Europe? An insider's pass to interview elite athletes? A chance to try his hand at extreme skiing? Oh, yeah, he loved his work.
A week ago in Verbier—a ski resort in the Swiss Alps—he noticed that he was being followed. In spite of his evasive maneuvers, they'd been coming closer. Drew needed to get back to Sioux Falls. When he came face-to-face with these guys, he wanted home field advantage.
The problem was getting out of Europe in one piece. He arranged to meet up with a Cessna pilot in Sorrento. From there, they'd fly to Rome, where Drew would make his connections back to the States.
At a high point on the Amalfi cliffs, he pulled onto the shoulder. This seemed like a good place for cell phone reception, and he wanted to check with his pilot. Standing beside a cypress tree at the edge of a forty-foot precipice, he looked down at the sea. White froth roiled and rushed against the jagged rocks below him. In the opposite direction, the sun was rising over Mount Vesuvius.
There was a text message from Melinda Winston.
As soon as he saw her name, he grinned. Though Drew never had a place he considered home, being with Melinda gave him a warm, cozy, comfortable feeling. He liked almost everything about her—from the way her auburn curls fell softly past her shoulders to the slender curve of her waist to her delicate ankles and pink toes. She was always quick to laugh at his jokes, and he never had the sense that she was playing games or trying to manipulate him. There was nothing phony about her. A librarian, she was a solid, Midwestern woman with solid, Midwestern values. Except when they made love. He'd been lucky to find her, living in the apartment directly under his.
Her text said, "Home on Wed? Dinner at my place?"
His first impulse was to call her back so he could hear her voice, but the time difference meant it would be the middle of the night where she was. He texted: "I'm there. Six p.m."
He almost added the word love, but it wouldn't be right. As soon as he returned to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, he needed to move. Now that his enemies knew his identity, they'd be coming after him. His dinner with Melinda might be the last time he saw her. Regret tugged at his heart. If his life hadn't been so damned crazy, there might have been a chance for something more between them.
He called the pilot and verified that he'd be there within half an hour.
Back on the bike, he rode steadily on the cliff-side road. Thoughts of Melinda occupied his mind. He'd bought her a present while he was in Switzerland—a souvenir to remember him by when he left her.
He heard the engine of a car behind him, turned his head to look. A black sedan. Coming right at him. He veered off the road. The car followed.
Nowhere to go. They were too close. This bike wasn't made for off-road maneuvers.
The car aimed directly at him. Abandoning the bike, he ran through the shrubs and grasses that separated him from the brink of the steep, white cliff.
Car doors slammed. He heard yelling. Two voices. Two of them and one of him.
No time for finesse.
Running as hard and fast as he could, he leaped over the edge. For a moment, he flew. His arms churned, grabbing at the air, fighting for distance. He hoped to jump wide of the rocks at the base of the cliff. He almost made it.
Feet first, he landed on a sharp outcropping. His left leg crumbled, and he sprawled. His left arm jolted. His hands scraped against the jagged stone. Pain shot through him.
Still, he managed to push himself into the sea. The temperate Mediterranean waters were cold against his overheated body. He swam underwater as far as he could.
When his head broke the surface, he saw two men standing on the cliff. Even at this distance, he recognized something familiar about the shorter man with white hair. The other had a shaved head. He was holding binoculars.
Drew dove under the water again. His left leg was virtually useless, but he managed to get beyond a spit of land, out of sight from the cliff. He climbed onto the rocks.
Ignoring the pain, he inspected the injury to his leg. The bone wasn't visibly broken, but there was already swelling around his ankle. His hands looked worse, as thick blood oozed from the abrasions. The little finger on his left hand bent at a weird angle.
He closed his eyes and concentrated, listening to the steady, strong beat of his heart. Injuries never stopped him.
As a kid, he'd been quick to heal. As he got older, he learned to focus the healing. His body needed little direction or encouragement. His blood surged toward his injuries. His muscles repaired themselves at a cellular level. His torn flesh knitted.
In a matter of minutes, he was healed.
His head throbbed from the strain. Later, he'd need a long nap. Exhaustion and a headache were the downside to his miraculous talent—the ability that made him a freak.
Melinda Winston stared at the big, round, old-fashioned clock that hung on the kitchen wall in her one-bedroom apartment. In slow motion, the second hand ticked down. Four minutes and forty-five seconds until six o'clock.
She knew that Drew was home from his travels; she'd heard him climbing the stairs to the third-floor apartment just above hers. Though he'd texted an acceptance to her dinner invitation, she halfway expected him to call and cancel. Any normal person would need a rest after a three-week assignment in Europe. As if Drew Kincaid was normal? Not hardly!
His job as a freelance reporter for sporting events had to be the most fantastic occupation she could imagine. On a moment's notice, he'd be on a plane to Aspen or Hawaii or Alaska. She'd never even heard of some of the extreme sports he covered; most of them weren't available on basic cable. All of which made it rather bizarre that he chose Sioux Falls as his home base. Even more strange was the fact that he was living here in a plain, old, three-story brick apartment building not far from the Au-gustana College campus where she worked in the library. Most preposterous of all? They were dating.
Why would an exciting, handsome, incredible man like Drew be interested in her? Not that she suffered from low self-esteem, not much anyway. But Melinda faced facts. She wasn't stylish, gorgeous or even athletic. From the first time he'd kissed her, she'd told herself that this relationship wouldn't last. When they'd fallen into bed together after watching an evening performance by the Augustana Madrigal Choir, she allowed herself to be swept away by fierce passions unlike anything she'd experienced in her twenty-six years. He'd made her feel like a truly exotic creature, elevated far above the realm of dull reality. Golly darn, it was amazing. She'd felt beautiful and remarkable, capable of conquering the world, climbing Mount Everest, racing a Ferrari.
When the afterglow had faded, she'd put on her glasses and looked in the mirror. Other than her thick, curly, light auburn hair, which was definitely her best feature, she considered herself to be pretty much average. Her mouth was too big, but her teeth were straight and white. Drew said that when she laughed, it looked as if she was taking a bite out of life. A very tactful compliment because she tended to snort when she really got to chuckling.
Nobody in their right mind would confuse her with a fashionista jet-setter. She'd never even been to Manhattan, much less Paris or Madrid. Her only major travel came when she was in junior high and made it to the finals of the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., where she'd bombed out in the third round after misspelling cataclysm.
The wall clock ticked down to one minute and fifteen seconds. Hoping to quiet the excited thumping of her heart, she inhaled a deep breath and smelled the aromas of roast beef, mashed rutabaga and a freshly baked apple pie. She never attempted fancy cuisine when she cooked for Drew. He'd tasted the real thing.
She centered the silver candlesticks that had once belonged to her grandmother on the small round table in the dining area adjacent to the kitchen. Was this the atmosphere she wanted? Candlelit romance? Probably not. She had important news for Drew. She took the candlesticks back to their place of honor on her knickknack shelves.
Maybe she could wait to tell him after they'd made love. Just one more time. It was possible that she'd misjudged his probable reaction. He might be happy. He might surprise her and—
She heard his knock on the door and ran to open it. He looked even better than she remembered. The light from an antique-looking sconce in the wainscoted hallway picked out sunny highlights in his light brown hair. His complexion was tanned from being outdoors, and his deep-set green eyes shone with a warm, sexy light. Though he was wearing a simple black sweater and jeans, he had an air of casual elegance and absolute confidence.
He held out a bottle of wine. "I'd like to say that I bought this in Naples, but it's from the duty-free shop at JFK."
"That's fancy enough for me."
When he entered her apartment, the plain white walls and bland Scandinavian furniture seemed special and dramatic. The glow of his personal charisma lit up her boring bookshelves, making her collection of mysteries and spy thrillers look like esoteric tomes.
He set down the wine bottle on the table, caught hold of her hand and gave a tug. Offering zero resistance, she flowed into his embrace. Her body fit perfectly with his. She was a little over average height at five feet nine inches, but he stood over six feet and easily dominated her. Her head tilted back, welcoming his kiss. When his lips pressed firmly against hers, her internal temperature shot up to a thousand degrees. Her blood was hotter than molten lava.
No one had ever affected her like this. She hated to think of what her life would be like without him.
He ended the kiss with a gentle caress that slid down her back and finished with a light swat on her bottom.
"I brought you a present," he said. "Direct from Switzerland."
"You didn't have to."
"I didn't have wrapping paper." He reached into his back pocket and held up a wristwatch. "There was a bit of an accident. It got wet but seems to be working okay."
She held the watch in her hand. A plain beige leather band and a silvery face with the red Swiss cross as a logo. "It's beautiful. And practical."
"I think I'll take that as a compliment."
"It was this or a Swiss Army knife. I liked the watch better."
She peeled off her old watch, replaced it with his gift and held up her wrist. "I'll never be tardy again."
He sniffed the air. "Do I smell pot roast?"
"And potatoes and buttery rutabaga. We can start with a salad."
"I'd rather start with the meat."
Not surprising. Drew was definitely a carnivore. He trailed her into the kitchen, opened the drawer beside the sink and found the corkscrew. It pleased her that he knew his way around her apartment.
"Tell me about Switzerland," she said.
"I was covering competitions in extreme skiing. Off-piste is what they call it. These skiers go way out of bounds on glacier ridges with sheer vertical drops. I gave it a try on a snowboard and almost got caught in an avalanche."
"Geez Louise, Drew." She gaped. "Why would you take that kind of risk? Why would anybody?"
"For the rush." He pulled the cork out of the wine. "And the views are pretty damn spectacular. Nothing but snow and sky and mountains. In Zermatt, I could see the Matterhorn."
"I'd be just as happy to look at a postcard," she said as she served up the salad.
"That's because you haven't tried the real thing. There's a thrill that comes from challenging yourself, pushing the limits."
While she set the salad plates on the table, he went back into the kitchen. She watched as he reached up to the top shelf in her cabinet for the wineglasses. His broad shoulders tapered to a lean torso and a tight butt. Talk about a spectacular view!
"The way you live," she said, "it's like you're on a continuous roller coaster. I'm more of a carousel person."
He poured two glasses and handed one to her. His head cocked to one side as he studied her. "There's something different about you. New hairstyle?"
She shrugged. "Nope."
"Your glasses," he said. "You aren't wearing your glasses."
She reached up to adjust the frames that weren't there. "I guess I'm not. That's odd. My vision seems okay without them."