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A storm was coming.
Alyssa Wells slowed and glanced across the road at waves angrily pounding the deserted Oregon beach. A sudden movement on the jogging path below caught her attention. Nearly finished with her run, she looked down at a clearing where hikers often stopped to gaze over the ocean.
But not at this time of night. Not with ominous clouds building over the horizon.
Angry voices swirled out of the soupy fog that had rolled in with the setting sun. The harsh words cut through the night and wound their way up the hill. She stopped in surprise when she recognized one of the voices as that of Nolan Saunders, her neighbor and her deceased husband's partner on the Pacific Bay police force.
What was Nolan doing out here with a storm on its way?
She recalled that he was on duty tonighthe must have responded to a call here. No mattershe needed to get home to her twins before the clouds burst. She continued ahead on the trail, grateful for tiny solar lights mounted on wooden landscape beams that cast a dull light over her feet and kept her path unobscured.
"You're in too deep to walk away, Gibson." Nolan's raised voice, now sharp and clear, sent a whisper of unease down her back, and she came to a stop directly above them. She could make out the shadows of three men. The "Gibson" Nolan talked to must be fellow officer Frank Gibson, but who was the third guy?
"C'mon, Saunders, I have to get out," Frank said, sounding desperate.
Nolan stepped closer, and Alyssa saw him stab his finger into Frank's chest. "That's not gonna happen, pal. Once a meth dealer, always a meth dealer."
Meth? Her husband, Todd, had died on the job from a fatal gunshot to the chest, but the resulting investigation found meth in his blood. They also linked him to a meth distribution ring, and he'd been branded a dirty cop.
Had Todd worked with Nolan and Frank to distribute drugs? Was the whole Pacific Bay police force dirty?
"You came to me, remember?" Nolan continued. "Said you needed the money."
"That's because Danny was sick." Alyssa had been praying for Frank's son in his battle with leukemia. "Now that he's in remission we're caught up on our bills and I want out."
"See, here's the problem." Nolan moved closer to Frank. "There was no time limit on our association. You said you were with us for the long haul. Now a few of our dealers are busted and you want to run home to mama. Too bad. You belong to me now."
"Just let me walk away, man," Frank pleaded. "I don't want to go to jail, but I can't live with the guilt anymore. I'll turn you in if that's my only way out."
"What makes you think I'll let you rat us out?" Nolan's volume had dropped, but it held twice the threat. "There're other options if you decide to bail."
"Like what?" Frank paused, and she could imagine him glaring at Nolan. "Fine. You're too chicken to say it so I will.
I'll end up a homicide statistic and framed as a drug dealer just like Todd."
"Just like Todd. Dead and buried," Nolan answered. "But in your case there won't be a need to frame you."
Oh my goodness, Todd!
Nolan said "framed." Maybe her husband hadn't been dirty. Maybe he'd found out about the meth operation and threatened to report Nolan. Then Nolan had killed Todd and framed him.
Nausea rose up her throat followed by a rush of anger. She considered Nolan a friend. He'd been there for her since Todd was murdered. Had let her and her seven-year-old twins live in one side of his duplex rent free. Helped her care for the children, becoming like a brother to her and an uncle to them.
She wanted to climb down the hill and confront him. She took a step.
No. She couldn't. If what Nolan said was true, he was dangerous. A murderer! She had to get out of here before he discovered her. Once she was away from him, she could take her time to figure out what to do.
The men continued to argue as she set off slowly for fear of making any noise. She made it a few feet when a blustery wind pummeled her body, knocking her off balance. She tried to right herself, but her foot caught on a rock, and she tumbled onto her hands and knees, smacking into the path with an audible thud.
"Someone's here," Nolan said in that deadly calm voice. "On the upper path."
"You think they heard us?" the third man asked.
"I don't know, but we're not taking any chances," Nolan said. "Get 'em."
Barely able to see through the thickening fog, Alyssa pushed to her feet. With the tiny landscape lights as her only guide, she ran. Hard and fast. Each step sent her heart beating faster. Powerful winds threatened to take her down, but she kept her footing and continued.
She heard heavy footfalls pounding on the path below her. They were heading in the same directiontoward the downtown parking lot holding her car. They were a bit behind her, but Nolan's long legs would catch her in no time.
She picked up speed. Sharp pellets of rain assaulted her face, soaking her lightweight running jacket and weighing her down.
The storm was upon them. Full force now. Raging and angry. She was struggling to get through the wind gusts and driving rain but took comfort from the knowledge that they would be struggling, too.
She heard footfalls growing closer. Thud, thud, thudthey pounded on the soft soil that sucked at her feet. She fought hard to stay on course for the main road.
No. Don't go there. That's where they'd have parked their cars.
She had to think defensively. It would be too easy for them to catch her on the open road.
She took a leap and plunged into the ditch ahead of them. She slogged through waist high grass, the sharp blades slicing into her hands. She raised them high.
"He's in the ditch. Get him," Nolan called out to his buddies.
Good, he thought she was a man, which meant her identity was safe. If she managed to outrun them.
She kept going, her side hitching and her body begging to stop. Her pace faltered, and she slowed. The faces of her precious twins flashed in her mind. She had to make it out of here for them. She moaned with pain but pumped her legs harder. Her muscles burned but the ground disappeared behind her and the sound of her assailants finally fell off.
Stopping, she filled her lungs with air and listened.
Silence. Nothing but blessed silence, save the howling wind and brutal rain.
They wouldn't have given up. They'd probably gone to get their cars.
If she kept going while they backtracked, she had a chance to escape before they figured out her identity. But where should she go?
She searched the area. The beach.
Yes, that's it.
They couldn't follow her there in their cars.
Lungs still screaming for air, she kicked into gear again. When she saw no traffic, she crossed the road, barreling down the hill and onto the sand. She heard sirens swirling closer and then stopping on the road behind her.
No! They must have seen the direction she'd headed. She was too far away for them to identify her for now, but they would soon be tracking her on foot again. Her worst nightmare was coming true. They'd catch her and her children would be orphans.
She wouldn't let that happen. She raced toward the icy water and paralleled the shore, letting pounding waves erase her footprints. She hoped by the time they parked their car and made it down to the water that she'd be far enough away and they wouldn't be able to see the direction she'd run.
Cold sliced up her legs and tightened her muscles. She wanted to crumple onto the sand, but her only hope was to take shelter in her favorite spot. She often took her morning run along the softly flowing tides then sat on an outcropping of rocks and watched the waves, wishing for things that could never be. Things she thought she'd attain by the time she turned thirty-two but had remained elusive in her life.
Tonight, instead of wishing, she could rest there and make a plan. Very few people knew about her spot, and she would be safe.
She heard raised male voices behind her, and she wrenched around to look. She couldn't see the men yet but feared they'd found her.
"Father, please let me make it. For the children." Her words evaporated in the swirling storm that was picking up in intensity.
She had to reach the rocks. Just had to, before they tracked her down and fired a bullet in her heart as they'd done to Todd.
Cole Justice pushed away hair plastered against his forehead and looked over the pounding surf. A big storm was on its way in from the Pacific, and he'd climbed a large boulderthe highest point on the beachto watch. Foolhardy move, he was sure. The rocks were slippery and the night dark, but he liked it best in the dark these days. Away from the concerned stares of his family. Away from the constant self-recriminations.
As he stared at the angry sea, the clouds parted and the moon highlighted the beach. He saw someone moving in the hazy mist. Odd. He'd figured he was the only one foolish enough to brave the spitting rain in a winter storm on the Oregon coast.
The tall figure raced along the water's edge, glancing back every so often as if someone was in pursuit. The "danger" instincts, honed during his second tour of duty in Iraq, sprang into full alert and he felt apprehensive, as if a threat waited in the wings to take him down.
He tried to squelch it, but there it was, burning in his gut. He'd been home for two years now and it still lingered.
Always on alert. Always watchful. Always uneasy.
He checked to make sure his weapon was still tucked in the back of his jeans and ready if he needed it. Even if he wasn't a private investigator, he was a former deputy marshal and like most former law enforcement officers, he carried all the time. Right now, he was glad he did. Something wasn't right about the figure moving closer.
Long, lithe, agile. A woman? Out here tonight?
He lifted his hand against the driving rain and stared. Yeah, it was a woman. She raced toward him with graceful strides, but he lost sight of her at the base of his rocky fortress jutting into the water. Though he didn't have a visual on her, his sniper training taught him to be still and pay attention. The sixth sense warned him that she was climbing up the face toward him.
Man, was she in for a surprise when she found him up here.
Question was, when did he let her know of his presence? If he called out to her now she could lose her focus and fall. If he waited until she got to the top and she startled backward, the fall would be fatal.
Her head popped over the rock and even in the rain, he could see her concentration. He needed to wait before saying anything.
She pulled up and fell on her stomach, dragging in huge gulps of air.
"Not a good night for a run," he said as calmly as he could, bracing his legs against the rocks should she decide to attack and dislodge him from his perch.
She rolled and came to her knees, her arms outstretched in a defensive posture.
"Relax," he added. "I'm not here to hurt you."
She didn't move. Didn't speak.
"You can trust me," he said from his position on the ledge. "I'm not here to hurt you. I'm renting a house up the beach, and I came out to watch the storm."
She still didn't back away, but she glanced to her right before flattening herself on the rock again. He looked down the beach in the direction she'd checked and spotted two bulky figures heading their way. She was being chased. And now she'd put him in danger, too.
He slowly eased to his knees, keeping his head low and sliding onto the rock next to her. She turned her head and locked eyes with him.
"What're you doing?" she hissed.
"I was a sitting duck on that ledge," he whispered back. With no more than twelve inches between them, he could finally get a good look at her face. Fine boned. High cheeks and forehead. Went well with the lithe figure he saw running. And despite her mad dash down the beach, a hint of her sweet perfume lingered. So sweet he almost forgot that two men were coming after her. Almost.
"Care to fill me in on what's going on here?" he asked.
She lay motionless for a moment before she took in a deep breath. "No time. The men after me are killers."
"Are they trying to kill you?"
"Maybe. I'm not sure." She sounded so sad that it broke his heart. Something he didn't think it was capable of doing anymore. "I overheard them talking about illegal activities they're involved in. Now I think they want to kill me so I can't tell anyone what I heard."
Male voices mixed with the wind. They were coming closer. He held his finger to his lips but took the time to search her face for any duplicity. All he saw besides large eyes ringed with long lashes was fear. Raw and fresh. Even if she wasn't telling him the truth about what had happened, it was clear she was afraid of these men.
"I don't see anyone, Gibson," a deep voice rumbled from below. "We don't even know if the person came down to the beach. It's freaking cold out here, and we should call it quits."
"Quit being such a baby." The second man's voice was higher, more nasal.
The woman started shivering, and her lips quivered. Cole wore a slicker over a thick parka, but her lightweight jacket was plastered against her body. He wanted to draw her against him for warmth, but he couldn't risk her decking him and signaling their location to the men below.
"Maybe Saunders was wrong and no one heard us."
"You want to be the one to tell him that?" That high voice went even higher.
The other guy snorted. "Not if I want to live."
"That's what I figured. C'mon. We'll keep going. If we don't find someone in thirty minutes we'll quit."