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Elise McAlister wouldn't have paid any attention to the sound echoing up from the hills below her if she hadn't felt a sharp sting as something grazed her leg. Even then, putting two and two together took her a moment, because the situation went so far beyond anything she'd experienced flying before—or even heard of anyone experiencing. Nobody would really attempt to shoot down a hang glider, would they?
Pop! There it was again.
A spray of shot punched through the fabric of her right wing. The powered glider listed heavily.
"Lord, help me," Elise began to pray as she looked down, frantically trying to assess her situation. Only mo ments before, she'd been enjoying her Saturday morning flight, soaring peacefully above the scenic Loess Hills of southwestern Iowa, lost in thought and equally detached from any navigational landmarks. Now she was going down and didn't even know where she was.
Elise braced herself for this hit, almost relieved to hear the spray take out her motor instead of what remained of her wings. She could glide without a motor. She couldn't stay aloft without wings.
Her hang glider sagged in the air, and the wind messed with the damaged wing, creating drag. Elise spotted a gravel road in the distance. At the rate she was going, there was no way she'd make it—not with all the treetops she'd have to pass over. She was losing altitude fast enough as it was.
Without the steady purr of the motor behind her, she could hear the wind flapping through the torn fabric of her right wing—and below her, the distinctive chinking of metal on metal as a gunman racked the slide on his shotgun. In her mind's eye, she could picture the empty shell kicking out and falling to the ground as a fresh shell was loaded into place, ready to be shot. Sure, she'd taken her dad's twelve gauge out plenty of times, but she hadn't been shooting at anyone.
A dust cloud rose where the gravel road topped a nearby hill. A vehicle was headed this way. If they saw her go down, maybe they could help her—unless they were with whoever was trying to shoot her down.
They were getting closer. Elise heard the shots rattle through the thick canopy of leaves below her before ripping through her Dacron again, this time tearing through her left wing. Grateful she'd at least begun to level out, Elise felt her stomach dip as the glider sank toward the treetops.
The jagged hills lunged up to meet her. Below, she could hear shouting, scrambling noises as her pursuers crashed through the underbrush. The gentle breeze, which had clocked in at a pristine six miles per hour when she'd checked it that morning, stilled to almost nothing.
The gun cocked again.
"Please, God, please," Elise begged, knowing that, as low in the air as she was now, those shots were going to penetrate deeper. If she was hit again, it would do a lot more than sting a little.
The shots tore through her wings again, and a couple balls slammed into the soles of her feet. Maybe her heavy steel-toe hiking boots hadn't been such a bad choice for her morning flight, after all. She didn't usually wear them for flying, but—
Whap! Trees leaves slapped her toes as she skirted the top of a high hill, causing her body to tilt and her wounded craft to tip unsteadily in the air.
Not good. The drag on her wings increased, sapping her momentum, pulling her down. With her pursuers clambering up the hill behind her, she didn't dare go down in this valley. She'd be a sitting duck. They'd be on her before she ever got unstrapped from her harness.
"Lord, I really need your help now," she whispered, her shoulders tensing as she tried to angle upward for maximum lift. She had nothing. No wind. No updraft. She was going down in this valley, and she could hear the gunmen crashing through the woods on the backside of the hill behind her. They'd be on her in a moment.
The next hill careened toward her, its tree-covered sides a mess of fingerlike branches, ready to grab her out of the air and hold her captive until the gunmen caught up to her. Praying hard, she tried to guide her damaged wings upward.
The trees moved closer. She could see each branch. She could see each leaf. She braced herself.
The updraft hit her face at the same second it caught her wings, lifting her clear from the hilltop. "Thank you, God," she prayed, almost-sobbing, instinctively running through the air as the treetops slapped her feet. Though she knew sudden thermal updrafts often occurred on hillsides, between the timing and her desperation, she felt as though God had reached down from heaven and pulled her up the side of the hill just in time.
A dead branch jutted into the sky, and for a moment she was sure she'd hit it straight on. Lifting her legs, she pulled up her whole body, bracing herself against her speed bar. The sole of her boot made contact with the branch, and she pushed off, effectively propelling herself another ten feet through the air.
After clearing the trees on the hilltop, her wounded glider seemed to crumple right out of the sky as the updraft that had filled her wings dissipated. At least with one more hillside between her and the gunmen, she'd have some chance of escaping, however small.
She went down in the treetops of the next valley in a tangle, her lines, wires and splayed-open fabric wrapping in branches, squeezing her in an unfriendly embrace. She struggled to unhook her harness, but it wouldn't even budge against the overwhelming tension as she dangled from the snarled mess in the treetop.
Elise slapped the side pocket of her parachute pants. Yes, she'd dutifully remembered to bring her hook knife, though she'd never had to use it before. Now she whipped it out and slashed through the nylon restraints, not even regretting destroying the expensive equipment—not if it meant saving her life.
With one arm tightly gripping the wedged speed bar, she tossed the knife uphill where it would be out of her way, looked down and said another quick prayer before dropping the last ten feet to the ground. The soft soil of the Loess Hills felt hard enough when she hit it, meeting the earth with as much of a roll as she could muster, and half sliding, half running down the rest of the hill. She could hear her pursuers shouting as they crashed through the valley behind the hill she'd just crossed over.
She didn't have much time.
Ducking to avoid the jutting branches that jabbed at her from all sides, Elise ran the length of the valley, hoping to skirt the hill and save herself the effort of climbing up the steep, rugged hillside, while at the same time, hopefully, losing her pursuers in the undergrowth.
She ran blindly, fear pushing her as she leaped over fallen logs, swung around saplings and tried to pick her way as quickly as possible over the uneven ground. It would never do to turn an ankle now.
At the side of the hill, the evenly spaced trees gave way to thick bushes, and their sharp briars snagged her as she ran headlong into their midst. About to recoil, she nearly missed seeing the aging fence line that ran through the windbreak. Windbreaks and fence lines didn't just occur randomly. They followed property lines, which usually followed roads.
Elise remembered the road she'd seen from the air. Had she really made it that far? Or would forcing herself into the thick bushes only trap her for the pursuers she could hear topping the last hill behind her?
She threw one arm up in front of her face before ducking headfirst into the briars.
The thorns grabbed relentlessly at her windsuit, tearing through her clothes and snagging her skin. She made it to the barbed-wire fence in one lunge and grabbed the line between the barbs, grateful when it sagged enough to permit her to scramble over. A barb tore at her pants, but she was beyond caring. She could hear the gunmen closing in behind her as she tried to press forward through the unrelenting bramble. She was stuck.
Terror filled her, reminiscent of the nightmares in which she tried to run but couldn't and awoke to find her self tangled in her bedsheets. But this was no dream. She was stuck in the bushes, and the bad guys were clos ing in.
Twisting, turning, pushing, she snapped through branches with desperate force, her eyes stinging with tears as thorns bit through her arms and stiff sticks jabbed her ribs. "Please, God. You didn't bring me this far to let me down now."
Scrambling frantically forward, she fell free of the trees and stumbled out onto the chalky, white gravel road.
Right into the path of an oncoming truck.
Brakes squealed as the vehicle threw up a cloud of dust that powdered her face in the same dirty white as the road. Her outstretched hands slapped against the warm hood as the truck's brakes locked, and it slid another couple feet on the loose gravel, roaring to a stop nose-to nose with her. The instant it came to a stop, she ran around to the passenger side of the vehicle, peeling off her flying goggles as the dust began to settle.
The passenger door opened just as Elise recognized the shade of indigo-blue paint underneath the dust-covered sides of the older Dodge Ram. For a second, she thought about diving back into the bushes.
"Need a lift?"
"No," Elise answered instinctively. No way was she getting into a truck with Henry McCutcheon IV. McCutch-eons were trouble, and Cutch was the worst kind of trouble. He'd broken her heart eight years ago, and she'd never fully recovered. She certainly didn't need a run-in with him today. His blue eyes twinkled at her from underneath a shock of thick black hair as he leaned across the front seat to address her.
"Elise?" Recognition crossed his perfect features. "Were you flying that glider that just crashed?"
Before she could fully answer, another gunshot rang through the woods, spitting gravel and shot around her feet and peppering the sides of the truck.
Cutch's blue eyes widened. "Get in!" he shouted.
Elise dived into the cab, pulling the door shut after her as Cutch took off in a cloud of flying gravel. She ducked down as another shot rang out behind them.
"Is somebody shooting at you?" Cutch asked as he gunned the engine, quickly shifting gears as he accelerated.
"Yes," Elise admitted, keeping her head low and wishing her flying helmet was insulated with more than a shock-absorbing layer of Styrofoam. It wasn't made to block a bullet.
"I don't know." Her trembling fingers fumbled with the seatbelt as she attempted to strap herself in. She'd had just about enough after what was supposed to have been a peaceful morning flight through the hills. Her panting stilled as she began to catch her breath.
Cutch quickly put a few more hills between them and their pursuers. "Those guys on foot?" he asked.
"I think so."
"Anybody else after you?"
"I don't know."
The truck slowed as they reached the top of Rink's Mound, the highest hill in the area. Cutch pulled into the parking area near the Loess Hills scenic viewing tower and the old Dodge rumbled to a stop.
It wasn't until the truck had completely stopped moving that Elise realized she was shaking.
Cutch killed the engine and looked over at her.
She shrank against the door and pinched her eyes shut. It was one thing to be shot out of the clear blue sky. It was another thing entirely to be sitting in a truck with Henry McCutcheon IV. Elise wasn't sure which was worse, exactly, but she sure wished she could stop trembling long enough to get the truck door open. They'd dated for a couple of months eight years ago, and he'd only kissed her once, but ever since he'd purposely humiliated her in front of half of Holyoake, she'd steered plenty clear of him.
"Hey." Cutch reached toward her.
She instantly recoiled. "Stay back," she snapped.
He slumped against his seat. "You're the one who jumped into my truck."
"I wouldn't have if there hadn't been somebody shooting at me."
"You're welcome," he said with sarcasm cutting through his voice. "Who was shooting at you, and why?"
"I told you I don't know."
"They shot you out of the sky?" Cutch clarified.
Elise nodded, her shoulders sagging forward as the rush of fear she'd felt was replaced with exhaustion. She pinched the clasp on her chin strap and let her helmet sink into her hands. Then she ran her fingers back through her short, cropped hair, freeing her loose brown curls before tucking the ends behind her ears with trembling fingers.
"That doesn't make any sense. Why would somebody shoot you out of the sky?"
"I don't know." She sucked in a deep breath and tried to think. Why would somebody shoot her out of the sky?
"Do you think it was some teenagers playing around?"
"They acted pretty serious." Elise inspected the scratches on her hands and arms from her tangle with the thorn bushes. Drying blood wept from the more serious cuts, but that was the worst of it. She stuck a finger through the hole in her pants where she'd been shot and fingered the spot on her calf where the steel ball had grazed her. It had already stopped bleeding.
Thoughtfully, she prodded the fabric where it gathered at the elastic band near her ankle and felt a ball hiding inside. She leaned down, cautiously peeled back the cuff of her pants and plucked it out.
"What were they shooting?" Cutch continued questioning her. "Birdshot? Do you think they were trying to scare you or something?"
Elise held up the hard metal ball. "Not birdshot. Buckshot," she held the steel ball—over a half centimeter in diameter—in the palm of her hand so he could see. Shot that size was meant to deeply penetrate flesh. "They weren't trying to scare me. They were trying to kill me."
Cutch looked into the warm brown eyes of the woman he'd once loved, and the eight years since their romance seemed to melt away. Elise. She was still so attractive, even covered in dust and perched like a frightened bird in the corner of the cab of his truck. So attractive and in spite of the long separation of time, still so familiar to him. What had happened?
"Why would somebody try to kill you?"
"I don't know," she told him again, and he could see from the fear in her eyes that she meant it.
He just couldn't accept it.
"Okay. Help me figure this out. What would you be doing to cause someone to take a shot at you?"
"I was just out flying." Her usually strong voice sounded weak.
"In your powered hang glider?"
She nodded and bit her lower lip.