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Mask Of A Hunter
By Sylvie Kurtz
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFelicia Cates hesitated at the doorway of the cabin along the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River while her eyes adjusted to the darkness inside. Wind rustled through the winter-dead grass behind her like termites feeding on wood. The breeze was warm for April, but Felicia shivered anyway. Prickly burrs of doubts itched her skin as she searched the cabin's one room. One last time, Felicia. For Hannah. You can do it.
A voice rumbled from deep inside the room. "Come on in, Felicia."
"So this is the place you found for us?"
"What's the matter?" Meanness weighted his voice.
"You don't like it?"
"No, it's not that." Heart revving like the Vulcan she'd pushed to the limit to get here, Felicia crooked one knee, then the other. She wanted to feel that V-twin engine roaring under her, taking her far from the nightmare she'd pitched into. "The baby. She's waiting for me. I need to hurry."
"Well, then, don't just stand there."
Eyes darting all around, she slowly crossed the threshold to the dusty floorboards in the empty room. Her daughter shouldn't pay for her mistakes. "We'll need a table, chairs, a bed."
"It needs a good cleaning." Swiping at the spider leg skitter of hair bristling the back of her neck, she pretended to see the possibilities the cabin offered. Dust cloaked every surface. The small windows were caked with the soot of neglect. Only a braided rug of indistinct color furnished the room. "I'll need supplies."
The floor creaked under his weight as he materialized from the shadows. His eyes were narrow slits that sparked with hatred. How could she have ever thought that flat mouth was sexy?
"When I say come here ..." His voice was as hard as the muscles he honed every day at the gym. "I mean come here."
His bulging fist snaked out and clamped around her biceps. She gasped as he yanked her off balance and jerked her close against his body. The wire she wore cut into the skin of her stomach. She hoped he couldn't feel the micro-cassette at her waistband through his leather jacket. Please let him think it's the buckle of my chaps.
Swallowing hard, she forced her gaze to latch on to the cold jade of his eyes. She'd always thought that the stories he spun were just for show, but she could see now why people were afraid of him. He didn't have an inch of give. Not when it didn't suit him. And always before she'd made sure to suit him. Until it threatened Hannah. He'd never wanted the baby. But he had to understand. Even a hard man like him had to see that she couldn't keep on doing what she was doing and raise a child.
"I want to take Hannah to my sister's." She ratcheted her spine straight. "Then I'll be all yours again."
"I'll take care of you."
"I know you will." But his eyes didn't soften, and looking into them was like looking into an open steel trap. Did he know her secret? She thought of the agent waiting for her at the rest stop and felt her limbs turn to wood. She had to leave. Today. She couldn't do this anymore. Any of it. If this case was as important as Glasser said, why had the ATF sent an agent fresh out of the academy to coach her? Why had they let her come so far off the main road with no backup? Glasser couldn't protect her. No one could. She saw that now. She'd have to take care of herself.
"They won't find us here," he said, as if he'd read her mind. "You won't have to testify against me."
"I just need to see Hannah settled."
He let her go, and she stumbled backwards, rubbing the arm that was numb from his tight hold. He pulled a wad of bills from his pocket and peeled off ten hundreds. "Is that enough for the trip?"
She nodded and reached for the bills. He held on to them, pinning her with his needle gaze. "Look at me. I want to see your eyes."
She forced a smile and a flirty shake of her hair. He'd always loved her hair, the way it flowed like fire. "Windows to the soul?"
"Something like that." He let go of the bills.
They felt like greasy eels as she slid them into the back pocket of her jeans. "Thank you."
She took a step back, then pivoted toward the door. The smell of spring was in the air, but the feel of winter was still in her bones.
Her heart took a roller-coaster ride to her feet. Pulse chugging, she looked at him over her shoulder. "What?"
"If you cross me, I'll kill you." The scorpion sting of his words burned down her spine.
If she was going to start fresh, she had to make sure her past couldn't follow her into the future. That meant leaving now before his suspicions were rewarded. It meant leaving Hannah with Candace. If she disappeared, then Candace would call her sister, and Aurora would come fetch Hannah and keep her safe. The ATF already had enough to bring him in and make it stick. And once he was in jail, she would collect Hannah and get on with the rest of their lives. All she had to do was stay out of sight for a while and everything would work out. "I'll be back."
Sweat trickled between her breasts and loosened the tape holding the wire. Slowly so he wouldn't think it was anything but zipping up for the ride home on the bike, so he wouldn't see how shaky her fingers were, she reached for the zipper pull on her leather jacket. The catch of tooth gripping tooth sounded like a machine gun in the empty room. As she headed for the door, her boots rattled the wood floor, causing mini quakes. Puffs of dirt blasted up, stuck to her sweat and coated her throat until it was dry.
His suspicion writhed toward her, black-adder toxic. Or was it her guilt? Stop it, Felicia. Her knees quaked, but she willed herself to keep walking. Keep cool. Don't give him a reason to get mad.
Once she reached the doorstep sunshine hit her face. "Give me two days," she lied - for Hannah, for herself, for their future, "and I'll be back."
"Two days," he said, and a wave of relief trickled through her. He didn't know.
Chrome winked in the sunshine. The red metallic paint of the fender sparkled like wet nail polish. She could almost feel the wind numb her cheeks. Seven more steps.
The river ran hard with snowmelt, and she wished she could ride it all the way to the Long Island Sound. Five more steps.
Don't rush. Take it slow and easy. Tossing him a smile and a wave, she looked back. "Why don't you get a couple of steaks, and we'll celebrate our first night in our new home with your favorite meal?"
Three more steps to the bike. Three more steps to freedom.
"Where can I find a book on pioneers?" asked the girl standing in front of Aurora Cates's station at the Maple-wood Library reference desk. The girl's face was a pincushion of hoops and small steel balls. Her tangerine T-shirt seemed two sizes too small - probably to show off the belly-button jewel. A henna tattoo decorated the wrist of the hand that pulled at short brown hair. People let their kids out of the house dressed like this?
Then she thought of Felicia and knew exactly how it could happen.
"What do you need to know?" Rory typed in the subject title, Pioneers, into the computer while the girl frowned at her blue assignment sheet.
"Uh. What they wore. How long they lived. Things like that."
A selection of titles popped up on the screen. "Try the 978 section."
"Okay." The girl blinked at her. She didn't have a clue where to go.
Rory walked her over to the section, selected three books and handed them to her. "That should get you started."
"If that doesn't do it, let me know and I'll drag out the book of historical statistics."
Excerpted from Mask Of A Hunter by Sylvie Kurtz Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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