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It took a lot to frighten Marie Parnellunless the perceived danger affected her five-year-old daughter, Patty. That changed everything.
Trembling, she peered out the front window of her Baton Rouge apartment to see who was pounding on the door and shouting her name. It hadn't been her imagination. Roy Jenkins was back. Her nightmares had come to life.
Marie froze, her brown eyes wide. She could hardly breathe. The tone of Roy's voice had risen until he'd started to sound more afraid than irate. That was puzzling. It wasn't like him to show weakness. Not at all.
She chanced another quick peek out the window, hoping and praying he was alone. The last thing she wanted was to expose Patty to the low-life types who had always been Roy's cohorts.
Keeping her voice as calm as she could, she answered him through the closed door. "Go away."
His fist slammed against the wood so hard it made her jump. "Not this time, Marie. If you don't let me in I'll break this door down. Don't make me do it."
Don't make me do it. The familiar phrase sent chills zinging up her spine and turned her stomach. That was what Roy always used to say before he hit her. As if it were her fault and she deserved being punished. It had taken her a long time to realize that the problem was Roy's temper, not her behavior, and she thanked God daily that she had not been fool enough to marry him, even though she had not been a Christian during the time they were together.
"Hush. You'll wake the neighbors," she warned. In her mind she added, and you'll wake Patty. That mustn't happen. The little girl had finally gotten to the place where she'd stopped asking for him, and Marie didn't want to have to start that healing process all over again.
Outside, Roy pleaded more softly, "Marie, darlin'. You have to listen to me. If you won't let me in, at least talk to me face-to-face."
She knew better than to open the door. Experience had taught her well. Yet, there was something in Roy's tone that tugged at her heart, made her remember the few good times they'd had before he'd turned to crime and begun to physically abuse her when she'd objected.
Twisting the dead bolt, she eased the door open a crack. Roy hit it with his shoulder and shoved her out of the way as he burst in, followed by a gust of humid air.
Marie staggered back, her hands raised in self-defense.
Roy gave a cynical snort. "Simmer down. I got no beef with you. I got worse problems. And so do you. That's why I'm here."
"I don't believe you." She sent a concerned glance toward the hallway leading to the bedroom, then realized immediately that she'd given away Patty's location.
"I came to warn you," Roy insisted. He began trying to edge past her toward the room where his daughter slept.
"Leave her alone," Marie said, standing firmly in his way. "You haven't bothered to even write her or send any support for over two years."
"She's my kid. I got a right to see her."
"You have no rights. We were never legally married, and I have a restraining order against you."
"Yeah, yeah. That piece of paper is only good if I pay attention to it. Tonight, I have other things on my mind." He paused, shaking his head. "If you weren't so stubborn you'd listen to me."
"I stopped listening to you years ago," Marie said.
"I know." Roy began to pace. "Look, Marie, I'm in trouble. I'm going to have to leave town. And after I'm gone, there are some old buddies of mine who're going to be royally teed off."
"What does that have to do with me?"
"Plenty. They're bound to come looking for me. You and the kid are my only ties to this area. If you were them, what would you do?"
She folded her arms and faced him as he continued to walk back and forth. "You don't want to know what I'd like to do," she said candidly. "And I refuse to lie for you, so don't tell me where you're going."
"That's not the problem," he said. "You're dumber than dirt, aren't you? Look. This is serious. You have to leave town, too."
"Not on your life, Roy. Patty and I are finally happy. I have a good job, she's starting school in the fall, and we've even joined a church. We're not going anywhere, especially not with you."
He laughed coarsely. "Not with me, you idiot. That's the last place I'd want my kid to be, considering the jam I'm in. But you can't stay here. It's not safe."
"Sure, Roy. Tell me another fairy tale." She tucked strands of her cinnamon-brown hair behind her ears with trembling fingers. "Patty and I aren't going anywhere. Understand?"
"Yeah, I get it. Just don't say I didn't warn you." He began to back away.
Marie followed him to the door, locked it as soon as he'd stepped outside and leaned her forehead against it. She hadn't wanted Roy to see how deeply his anxiety had affected her, but she was terribly concerned. Could he have been telling the truth for once? He had certainly seemed sincere.
And he hadn't forced her to let him see Patty, either. That, too, was totally out of character for Roy.
She shut off the inside lights so she couldn't be seen as she peered out the window to watch him leave.
Suddenly, two shadowy figures appeared on either side of Roy. They grabbed him and held his arms as he squirmed.
Marie pressed her fingertips to her lips to stifle a gasp. The larger men easily dragged him to a waiting car, shoved him inside and sped away.
Immediately reaching for the phone, Marie dialed 911. The police might not be her ex-boyfriend's first choice for a rescue, but the way she saw it, Roy was out of options. It never occurred to her that her story about his abduction wouldn't be believed.
Seth Whitfield, the thirty-two-year-old garage mechanic who lived and worked in Serenity, Arkansas, didn't exist. At least not in the normal sense.
Stepping out of his weathered barn into the spring sunshine, Seth removed his ball cap and raked his fingers through his thick, prematurely graying hair. Alice had always insisted he keep his hair dyed dark, so he haduntil she'd been taken from him by the same men who had driven him into hiding.
After Alice's death nothing had mattered, least of all his appearance, and with the addition of a bit of necessary plastic surgery and his farmer's tan, he hardly recognized the face he shaved every morning.
He blew out a sigh. Looking across the unspoiled valley always made him a bit wistful. This morning was no exception. He could smell the fresh green grass and appreciate the balmy wind from the west that often brought showers to nourish the groves of oak, hickory and cedar dotting the rocky, gently sloping hills.
Alice would have loved it here, he thought absently, then realized the opposite was true. His late wife had been a city girl. She'd never have agreed to visit the Ozarks, let alone move there to live. That was one of the reasons he had chosen this spot for his relocation. He had had absolutely no ties there.
"And I couldn't have picked a place that I liked better," he told himself.
The black-and-white border collie at his side nudged the leg of his jeans, panting and begging for attention in response to his mellow voice.
He bent to stroke the dog's head. "That's right, Babe, you and I love this place, don't we?"
Excited, she wagged her tail and spun in a circle, making Seth smile in spite of his earlier melancholy. As long as he continued to take one day at a time, the same way this smart dog did, and stop brooding over a past that couldn't be changed, he'd do fine. Regrets were for fools and dreamers, neither of which was an apt description of him. He was intelligent. A survivor. A fighter.
And if he didn't get a move on he'd be late for work, he added, glancing at his watch.
He patted his thigh. "Come on, old girl. Hop in the truck. We're heading to town."
The herding dog took off at a run, bounded through the open window of the cab of the old green pickup and turned to look back at him as if to say, "Hurry up, slow poke."
Seth squared his Serenity Repair Shop ball cap on his head and slid behind the wheel. There were times, like now, when he could almost feel free, almost forget that he was still in jeopardy in spite of his secure niche in the rural community. If the time ever came that his enemies did locate him, he knew it was going to be harder to pack up and leave these friendly folks than it had been to relinquish his highly paid, undercover, security job and abandon his luxurious residence outside Philadelphia.
The one thing that spoiled his fond memories of that house, of the life he had once led, was the image of his late wife, Alice, prostrate on the kitchen floor with a note of warning pinned to her night gown.
Marie had not rested since she'd witnessed Roy's abduction. The police had been no help; nor had they offered to guard her, as she had hoped. Consequently, she had followed Roy's advice, taken Patty and fled.
Before she'd reached the Louisiana border, she was certain she'd spotted a car in pursuit. It was only after night fell again that she'd managed to elude whoever was after her. Then, she'd turned and headed northwest.
If she had been traveling alone, she never would have visited fast-food places or lingered in gas stations and truck stops. Keeping her curious, excited five-year-old cooped up in the car all the time, however, was next to impossible. When Patty wasn't napping, she was wiggling and asking scads of questions.
In response to the child's latest demand for food, Marie pulled into the drive-thru lane of a familiar hamburger chain. "Okay. Here we are. What do you want?"
"That!" Patty said, pointing to the colorful, inside play area.
"I thought you were hungry."
"I am. I'll eat, too. I just wanna have some fun."
"We're on vacation, honey. Seeing all these new places is fun, isn't it?" The pout on the little girl's face made Marie smile. "Okay. You win. I guess I can use a short break, too."
She parked her overloaded blue sedan where she was certain she could watch it through the plate glass windows, then helped Patty unfasten her seatbelt and climb down from her booster seat. "Hold my hand," Marie cautioned.
"I'm a big girl. I can walk by myself."
"I know you can. But Mommy gets worried when there are lots of cars around." Matching coffee-colored gazes met and held in a battle of wills. Marie won by arching her eyebrows and giving her daughter a silent, no-nonsense warning.
"I'll get you a child's meal," Marie said as they entered the fast-food restaurant. "Stay in the play area where I can watch you." She bent down to reinforce her admonition with a serious look. "This is important. If you can see me, then that means I can see you, too. Okay?"
Barely nodding, the child grinned and skipped off toward the play area.
Marie knew there would be a place for her to sit and eat near Patty and the other children. She cringed at the thought of all those sticky little fingers touching the same play surfaces, but this time she'd make an exception. Considering the fact that Patty had been dragged away from home in the middle of the night, the poor little thing was coping pretty well. Too bad her mama was such a nervous wreck.
As usual, it was hard to convince Patty to slow down long enough to eat. Marie had consumed her own meal long before the excited child was half-finished.
Running out of patience, Marie again gazed out the window toward her car. One of those big, boxy, delivery trucks had stopped sideways in the parking lot and was blocking her view.
She immediately got to her feet and started to gather up their trash. Trucks like that were common, yet there was something about the situation that set her nerves on edge. Then again, since Roy had been kidnapped, everything made her nervous.
"Come on, Patty. We're leaving," she called.
"Aw, Mom. Do we have to?"
"Patricia Anne. Now." Marie knew her raised voice was attracting undue attention but she didn't care. As long as she couldn't see her car, there was no guarantee it was all right. Not only was that vehicle their current means of escape, but also practically everything they owned was crammed into it.
Dragging the reluctant little girl by the hand and praying silently, Marie hurried toward the exit. Something made her stop in the small entryway and look up just before she pushed through the glass outer door.
A muscular man in jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt was preparing to climb into the box truck. He had one booted foot planted on the step, his hand on the open driver's door. Nothing about the scene would have bothered Marie if the trucker hadn't paused to stare straight at herand kept on staring.
She stood very still, wondering if she'd be able to make her feet move if she had to. Seconds crept by. A group of noisy, jostling teenagers piled out of a yellow school bus and filed between Marie and the menacing truck driver, temporarily distracting her and blocking her view.
She had to step back and pull Patty close to allow the rowdy teens to squeeze by in the confining space of the entryway. When she looked back at the parking lot, she was relieved to note that the worrisome truck was slowly pulling away.
Her relief was short-lived. As the unmarked vehicle passed, the menace in the driver's piercing gaze gave Marie chills all the way to her toes.
Marie's car didn't begin to run badly until later that afternoon. At first it just stuttered and missed a few times. Then it began to falter as if it wasn't getting enough fuel.
Marie nursed the car into a filling station and garage off Highway 62. Was it was possible she was out of gas? She was trying to figure the distances in her head and make an educated guess when a tall, broad-shouldered man came toward her.
"That engine sounds like you have a problem," he said amiably.