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He knew three things. His name was Jack Maddox. There was somewhere urgent he needed to be. And the woman had to be saved.
Beyond that, he only felt. The icy rain pricking his face. The heaviness of his fatigued muscles. The pervasive fear that chilled him to the bone. Not so much for himself, but for the woman.
Whoever she was. Wherever she was.
He had to find her before they did.
Whoever they were.
His sodden clothing was like a lead weight as he stumbled through the dripping forest. He didn't know how much longer he could keep going. He needed rest, food, sleep. It seemed as if he'd been running forever. Running from something and to someone.
But who? Who?
Keep going. Don't stop until you get there. You'll know it when you see it. You'll know her.
The picture in his mind was that of a tall, slender brunette with wide, knowing eyes. But it was only a vague impression. Her features were indistinct because his mental photograph kept changing. The one thing that remained the same, however, was the aura of danger that surrounded her. If he didn't find her in time, they would kill her.
Whoever they were.
He slowed for a moment to catch his breath, and that was a mistake because exhaustion swooped down like a vulture, picking away at the last of his resolve. He could lie down right there in the freezing rain and fall asleep. Maybe sleep forever.
The temptation was a little too seductive so he forced himself to push on.
But in that brief respite, he'd allowed other images to seep into his numb brain. Dark, endless passageways. Metal bars blocking every exit. The sting of a thousand needles.
As the hazy memories bombarded him, he tripped andfell to one knee, then sprang up with a renewed sense of purpose. He would never go back there. Never.
Wherever there was.
He had no idea how long he'd been on the run, but judging by his fear and urgency, freedom was a new experience. So new that when a thunderbolt cracked overhead, he flinched and ducked, then braced himself for the red-hot sear of a bullet ripping through his flesh. Instead, he smelled burning wood and ozone where lightning had struck a nearby tree.
He kept moving.
On and on through the woods until up ahead, in a flash of lightning, he saw the glimmer of wet pavement. He'd found the road. He had no real recollection of it, but he recognized it just the same. He also knew that he'd never physically been there before.
Winding like a silver ribbon through the craggy hills, the glistening pavement beckoned. With an almost hypnotic obedience, he came out of the trees and stood gazing in first one direction, then the other.
Over the pounding rain and roaring thunder, another sound penetrated. A car engine coming up on his left.
He turned his head to watch the road as he huddled inside his wet clothing. He was so cold. He couldn't remember a time when he hadn't been chilled. He could barely even imagine what it must be like to feel warm and safe. Had he ever experienced either of those things?
Had he ever experienced… anything?
He felt curiously empty. Blank, like a chalkboard that had been erased, leaving only faint traces of what had been there before. And even those blurred markings would soon disappear as new information was imprinted upon the surface.
Had his memory been erased? Had new information been imprinted over the images of his past? Was that why everything in his mind was so muddled?
What about the woman? Did she even exist outside his head?
She had to exist because at that moment she seemed to be his only reason for being.
The hum of the engine grew louder and now he could see a faint glow from the headlights, but the vehicle was still hidden by a sharp curve in the road.
Some instinct told him he should step away from the shoulder, but he didn't. Couldn't. He was glued to that very spot by destiny, fate or perhaps by something he didn't yet understand. All he knew was that he could not have moved if his life depended on it.
Rain slashed across his face as the drum rolls of thunder drew nearer. Like a celestial portent, streamers of lightning exploded across the midnight blue sky, and the wind in the trees behind him began to howl. The night was wet, cold, electric. And yet something inside him had gone still and pensive, his senses on hyper-alert, as if waiting for a silent command, an unheard voice assuring him that all would be well.
"Where are you?" he whispered to the wind.
No answer. No command. No warning. No anything. He was on his own.
The vehicle rounded the curve, and suddenly the cold and fear vanished, overridden by a keen sense of excitement and a certainty of what he now had to do.
As the headlights cut a swath through the blurry darkness, he walked into the middle of the road and turning, put up his hands to halt the oncoming vehicle.
The road was a narrow tunnel carved between two black walls of spruce and cedar. Even on clear nights, the light was all but shut out by the overhanging branches, limiting visibility to the reach of the high beams. Tonight, except for the flashes of lightning that penetrated the evergreen canopy, it was like motoring through a deep canyon.
Even so, Claudia Reynolds wasn't particularly concerned. She'd driven under much poorer conditions and there wasn't another soul on the road. In another twenty minutes, she'd be home, safe and sound, sipping a cup of tea in front of a toasty fire—
The shadow that darted onto the road in front of her took her by surprise, and she reacted on pure instinct. Her foot came down hard on the brake pedal as she swallowed a scream. The car went into a mad skid as the rear careened wildly.
For what seemed an eternity, Claudia pumped the brakes and fought the wheel as the vehicle skated uncontrollably across the wet pavement toward the row of trees at the shoulder.
Somehow she got the vehicle straightened and stopped, and in the silent aftermath of near catastrophe, her heartbeat sounded as loud as the thunder.
She sat for a moment, still gripping the wheel, paralyzed with dread as her racing pulse kept time with the windshield wipers. Had she hit him?
No! She couldn't have. There would have been an impact.
Oh, God, maybe there had been an impact. Maybe in all the excitement, she hadn't noticed. Or maybe she just didn't want to believe it.
She closed her eyes and drew a shuddering breath as she sat there listening to the tick of the cooling engine. She would have to get out and look.
Her heart dropped to her stomach because it was the exact scenario that would have had her screaming at the ill-fated characters in the scary movies she used to devour. Now that her own life had become such a horror show, Claudia didn't enjoy the classic slasher flicks nearly as much as she once had.
She could almost hear herself yelling at the hapless heroine: Don't get out of the car, you idiot! He's only pretending to be hurt!
For all she knew, he could be one of them. The men who hunted her so ruthlessly.
Claudia knew only one by sight, the sadist who had brutally tortured and murdered her mentor in Chicago two years ago. She'd caught nothing more than a glimpse of his face a split second before the elevator doors closed, but his red hair, so incongruent with such a dark visage, and those cold, soulless eyes still haunted her sleep.
That nameless killer and the covert organization he worked for were the reasons she'd fled her home in the middle of the night and sought refuge deep in the heart of the Black Hills of South Dakota.
On good days, she almost managed to forget they were still out there somewhere looking for her, but then something like this would bring it back and she would be reminded all over again of their evil objective. She would be bombarded by the images of their brutality and the gruesome knowledge of how horribly Dr. Lasher had suffered before he died. How she would suffer if they ever found her.
What if the man in the road had been sent by that deadly cabal to find her? What if his intent was to torture her for information and then kill her? After all her meticulous preparations, she'd be a fool to fall into such an obvious trap.
Why, oh why had he run out in front of her like that? Hadn't he seen her headlights?
Leave him! Just drive away and don't look back!
But what if he was just an unlucky motorist whose car had broken down in the middle of a storm and he'd been trying to flag her down for assistance? Maybe he was hurt or sick and that was why he'd acted so erratically.
Not your problem. What kind of lunatic would deliberately step in front of an oncoming car, especially at night in a hard, driving rain?
The dangerous kind, Claudia's brain kept insisting.
All of this flashed through her head in the space of a heartbeat. Already she was reaching for her bag.
First, she checked her cell phone even though she knew she wouldn't get a signal. She rarely got one so far from town, which was why she'd also had a land line installed in the cabin.
Next, she grabbed a flashlight from the glove box and removed the small Ruger she kept hidden beneath her front seat.
As she felt the weight of the stainless-steel revolver in her hand, she registered the irony even as she expertly checked the chamber. She'd always hated guns. Even in her dangerous neighborhood back in Chicago, she'd never once contemplated arming herself because the gun culture mentality was abhorrent to her.
But finding Dr. Lasher's mutilated body had changed and toughened her after she'd had time to get over the shock. She'd been forced to open her eyes to the brutal reality of her situation. On the run, she'd quickly come to the realization that if she were to survive, she'd have to learn to take care of herself because she had no one else in her life who could protect her. No one.
Her keenly hewn survival instinct should have kept her at home this night, but when she'd left the house earlier, the dark clouds hovering over the hills had still seemed a long way off. With supplies running low and a bad case of cabin fever, she'd ignored the warnings, braved the weather and driven into Rapid City where she'd seen a movie, had an early dinner and stocked up on enough groceries to last her a couple of weeks.
As she'd driven out of town, the storm still hadn't unduly concerned her. Her small SUV had four-wheel drive, the road to the cabin was in good shape and her night vision was excellent. Nothing at all to worry about except for a man running out into the middle of the road in front of her.
Bracing herself, Claudia opened the door and climbed out, then went wide so that she would have a clear view of the front of the vehicle. She could see the silent form in front of the headlights. He lay right beneath her left bumper. And he wasn't moving. At all.
Rain pummeled her face as she eased toward him. Tightening her fingers around the grip of the revolver, she stood over him for a moment, gathering her courage before kneeling beside him to check for a pulse. He was alive. Unconscious but most definitely alive.
She ran the flashlight beam over him. She couldn't tell if he'd been hit, but she saw no evidence of gushing wounds or broken limbs. Thank goodness for that. Still, there could be internal injuries or a head wound that might not reveal itself until later… until it was too late.
Shuddering at the possibilities, she bent lower. His wet face was turned toward her and she could see raindrops shimmering on his lashes and in his dark hair. He looked young, probably not much older than her own twenty-four years. His angular face was shadowed but unlined, and Claudia found something heart-tuggingly innocent about his features, about his present vulnerability.
Tearing her gaze from the unconscious man, she rose and glanced around. They were miles from anywhere. What on earth was she supposed to do with him?
She wouldn't be able to call the police or an ambulance until she got back to the cabin, and maybe not even then if the storm had knocked out the phone lines. It could be hours or even days before service was restored. She could go for help, but with the temperature dropping, he might freeze to death before she made it back.
Pulling her parka tightly around her, she shifted indecisively in the cold rain. She hated to admit it, but there really was only one thing she could do. She had to drive him back to Rapid City. Self-preservation had consumed her for two whole years, but even she wasn't single-minded enough to leave an unconscious man stranded in a rainstorm.
Yet when she thought about the trail of gore that had led her to Dr. Lasher's mutilated body in the lab, her heart started to flail even harder. She didn't like this setup. It seemed too staged. Like an ambush.
That notion caused her to glance around anxiously, her eyes peering through the wet darkness for any sign of movement as she listened for the slightest sound.