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She was barely through the front doorway when a man with a pockmarked face put a gun to her head.
Tara inhaled sharply as her sack of groceries slipped from her grasp and hit the wood plank floor with a thud, its contents scattering: bottle of apple juice, ready-made chicken dinner, bag of lettuce and several oranges—one of which rolled across the woven area rug and landed at the feet of a second man.
This one was tall and rugged looking, wearing blue jeans and a bloodstained denim work shirt. There was a gun tucked into his waistband.
Oh my God, Tara thought. Oh my God.
Her first instinct was to flee, but before she could move, Pockmark grabbed her by the forearm and pressed the barrel of his weapon against her temple.
"Simmer down, now, cutie-pie. You aren't going anywhere."
His grip was strong and Tara winced. Her stomach fluttered and her knees started to tremble as a dozen different questions filled her head, all of them fueled by fear and confusion.
"Who are you? What do you want from me?"
Pockmark kicked the door shut behind her and shoved her toward the couch. It had been several months since she'd last been to the cabin and a cloud of dust billowed as he sat her down. Hard.
"Easy, Carl," the tall one said. "No reason to get so rough."
"You're lucky I didn't shoot her on sight."
Carl ripped the purse from her shoulder and rifled through it, finding her wallet. He quickly removed three twenties, stuffed them into his pocket, then flipped through the card holder, stopping when he saw something he didn't like.
"Well now, ain't this the cherry on top of the ice cream. She's a reporter."
"Not a reporter," Tara said quickly, trying to keep her voice from wavering. "I'm just a segment producer. KWEST Morning News."
Carl tossed the purse and wallet aside. "Same difference, sweetheart. What are you doing up here? You own this place?"
"M-My sister. It belongs to my sister and her husband."
Susan and Kyle had bought the cabin three years ago, when Kyle decided to try the outdoor life. Mountains, fishing reels, hunting rifles, the whole package. Problem was, Kyle had never cast a reel or shot a firearm in his life and spent more time taking afternoon naps than he did hitting the hiking trails.
Tara, on the other hand, thrived in the outdoors and couldn't stand the thought of this place sitting empty. She relished the chance to get away from the studio and the cameras and all of the inflated egos she had to contend with every day, so she took each opportunity she had to spend time up here.
But the last thing she'd expected to walk in on was two strangers with guns.
Her whole body was trembling now and she had difficulty breathing. If she didn't try to calm down and assess this situation, she'd soon be in the middle of a full-blown panic attack.
Breathe, Tara. Breathe. If they really wanted to hurt you, they would have done it already.
Or would they?
"So you expecting sis and her hubby anytime soon?" Carl asked. "Or did you come here alone?"
Tara hesitated. Was that why they were here? Did they know that Kyle had money? Had they been expecting him to show up instead of her?
No, she thought. That didn't fit. This whole scenario had an impromptu feel. They hadn't been expecting anyone.
So who were they? And what did they want?
Tara closed her eyes. This wasn't really happening. It had to be a nightmare.
Please be a nightmare.
"Well?" Carl said, snapping his fingers to get her attention. "I can't read your mind."
"Knock it off, Carl," the tall one told him. "Give her some space. Can't you see she's scared?"
He was about six-two, with green-gray eyes, broad shoulders and a hard, sinewy frame. Under any other circumstances, Tara might have considered him good-looking. More than good-looking. But she was operating with a different set of priorities right now.
He bent down and picked up the stray orange at his feet, then crossed to her grocery bag and began gathering up the spilled items, placing them back inside.
Carl scowled at him. "What the hell is this? You the maid now?"
"This woman didn't ask for our company. The least we can do is be polite."
"Polite? Are you out of your mind? I'm trying to stay alive here."
The tall one placed the bag on the coffee table. "She's no threat to us. Why don't you settle down and go check outside? See if there's any sign of Jimmy yet."
Carl frowned. "You giving the orders now? That it?"
"Just making a suggestion."
Carl stared at his partner a long moment with undisguised hostility, but the tall one didn't back down. Instead, his gaze shot past Carl and settled on Tara, and something flickered in his eyes, as if he were trying to send her a message of some kind.
Tara had no idea what it could be.
Didn't want to know.
Then Carl turned and looked at her again, giving her the slow once-over.
A shiver of revulsion ran through her as that pockmarked face broke into a slow grin. "I get it now. You're just angling for a little alone time with the lady. I can respect that." His grin widened as he addressed Tara. "You'd best be good to my buddy Nick here. He's been waiting for this for a long time."
Her revulsion quickly morphed into dread.
"Go on, Carl. Go wait for Jimmy."
"Sure thing, bro." Carl shoved his gun into his belt and headed for the door, the grin still intact. "You be gentle now. I want her in one piece when it's my turn."
When the door closed behind him, the tall one—Nick—turned to Tara and she instinctively scooted along the sofa, moving away from him. "Touch me and I swear to God I'll hurt you."
Her voice was shaky and high-pitched, but she meant it.
"Relax," he said, holding up his hands. "I just wanted to get that hothead out of the room. You're safe with me."
Tara almost laughed. "Safe? Why do I have a hard time believing that?"
She looked at his bloodstained work shirt. He obviously wasn't a stranger to violence. There was a number stenciled in black above the pocket. The letters below it read WCF.
A slow chill ran through her veins. She knew exactly what this meant. Whitestone Correctional Facility was located just within Whitestone city limits, a good six miles south of the cabin.
"You two escaped from the prison."
"That's right," Nick said. "And things didn't quite go as planned, so we headed for the mountains. We thought this place would be deserted."
It was nearing winter season, and normally the area was a ghost town this time of year. But that was part of the appeal for Tara.
"I guess you thought wrong," she said.
She glanced at the gun in his waistband. It was close enough to grab.
Should she take a chance?
A big part of her said no, but another part wondered what she had to lose. She was, after all, genetically predisposed to recklessness, if her father was any indication.
"That's unfortunate," Nick said. "We don't need any more complications."
She didn't like the sound of that. Her fear kicked up a notch and her body once again began to tremble.
Whatever you do, Tara, don't make it easy for them.
Nick seemed to sense her distress. "Look," he said, "I told you, you're safe with me. I'm not going to hurt you. And I won't let Carl hurt you, either."
"That makes me feel so much better." She didn't bother to hide the sarcasm.
"All you have to do is sit there and be quiet. We've got help coming pretty soon, so we'll be out of your hair before you know it."
She was about to respond when a moan of pain filled the air, coming from the master bedroom.
Tara looked up sharply. "Who's that?"
Nick swiveled his head toward the bedroom doorway. "One of the complications. His name is Rusty. He took a stray bullet."
"Doesn't sound like he's doing too well."
"He'll live. But it won't be—"
Suddenly, Tara lunged forward, ripping the gun from Nick's waistband. Caught off guard, he stumbled back and Tara brought the gun up, pointing it at his chest.
It had been a while since she'd fired a weapon, but her father had been a career cop and he'd trained her well. Tara had never thought much of the man and still harbored a lot of resentment even all these months after his death, but teaching her how to shoot was the one thing he'd gotten right.
She was no longer trembling.
"Don't move," she said. "And don't make a sound."
"Put it down," Nick told her.
"I don't think so."
"Either put it down or pull the trigger. The choice is yours."
Tara had never fired at anything but paper targets before, but there was a first time for everything.
Not that Nick seemed too concerned about it. She could see in those eyes that he wasn't the least bit scared, and his confidence was unnerving.
"Go ahead," he said. "Pull the trigger. It won't do you any good."
"What do you mean?"
"Another one of the complications. There aren't any cartridges in that gun. There aren't any cartridges in any of our weapons. The creep who scored them for us didn't bother to give us any ammunition."
"I don't believe you."
"No reason you should, but it's the truth. This operation has been one foul-up after another."
Tara assessed him carefully. There was something about this man that didn't quite fit here. Something off. He didn't strike her as your typical escaped con. And she'd seen enough on the job to know.
Was he telling the truth?
When she thought about it, the weapon did feel lighter than it should. Concerned now, she glanced down at it.
The moment her eyes left his, Nick shot a hand out and snatched the gun away from her. The move was so quick and effortless, her hands were empty before she even realized he'd taken it.
She stood there, stunned, her brain not quite computing what just happened.
"Don't ever point a weapon at someone unless you intend to use it," he said.
Expecting the worst, Tara was surprised when Nick ejected the magazine and showed her it was empty.
"See? I wasn't lying." He replaced the magazine and shoved the gun back into his waistband. Glancing out the front window, he watched as Carl headed down the drive toward the main road.
Then he moved in close. Too close. She could feel the heat from his body as he invaded her space, keeping his voice low. "I need you to trust me."
Tara tried to back away but was blocked by the couch.
"Trust you?" she scoffed. "You're kidding, right? Why do you need me to—"
He put a finger to her lips, silencing her. "Because I want to know I can trust you, too."
She jerked her head back and frowned at him, but instinctively followed his lead and lowered her own voice. "Why?"
He glanced toward the bedroom doorway now, then looked at her. "I'm not who you think I am. And my name isn't Nick. Not even close."
"What?" Tara was thrown for a loop. She had no clue where he was headed with this. "Then what is it?"
"Matt Hathaway," he said. "Special Agent Hatha-way, to be more precise. I'm with the FBI." Those green-gray eyes were intense. Unwavering. "And if we don't work together from here on out, we could both wind up dead."