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Kat Edwards didn't recognize the men, but she knew why they were there.
She hadn't heard them enter the barn, not above the whir of the horse clipper and jangle of country music on the radio. If she had, she could have run. She could have hidden in one of the stalls. Something. Now all she could do was watch them stride toward her, grim expressions on coarse-featured faces. Their hands swung empty by their sides, but the telltale bulges under their shirttails said it all.
They'd come to kill her baby.
She brought her free hand to her round abdomen, as if she could shield her little prince from trouble with mere flesh and bone. She needed to do something. But what? She couldn't scream for help. She was the only groom still in the barn. The only one who'd had to take a nap this afternoon and as a result hadn't yet finished her work. No one would venture back into the barn until it was time for night check. Hours away. She was on her own.
She couldn't make a run for it, could she? She was as big as the barn itself, nearly nine months along. Even if they gave her an opening, how fast could she move?
She needed a weapon.
She turned off the clipper, and concentrated on its weight in her hand, the sharp teeth of the blades. It wouldn't do much damage beyond giving her assailant a nasty scratch. She had to find something better or she didn't stand a chance.
"Katherine Edwards?" the bigger one said, his thick accent slicing into her name. Not the Rasnovian lilt she'd been expecting. Something more brutal. Maybe German.
She gave the men the most blasé expression she could muster. "Katherine? You missed her. Sorry."
As if sensing tension in the air, the sorrel colt she'dbeen clipping tossed his head, rattling the cross ties that held him.
She smoothed a hand over his slick coat and took mental inventory of the other grooming tools around her. The hoof pick was metal, but not terribly sharp. And not useful unless she was close enough to sink the end into an eye. The brushes were no good. Neither was the horse vac. She could hardly lift that. If only she'd been cleaning stalls when they found her. At least then she'd have a manure fork.
The men's steps slowed as they drew nearer. The shorter one focused a stare on her belly. His eyes drilled into her, cold and hard, like the bullet that would probably follow.
She splayed her hands out in front of her. "Look, I don't know why you're here, and I don't know what kind of trouble Katherine has gotten herself in. But I'm telling you, I'm not her."
They stopped fifteen feet away and watched her through narrowed eyes.
Maybe all the lying practice she'd gotten in her rebellious teen years was paying off. At least enough to buy her some time. Give her a chance to figure a way out of this mess. "Listen, she's probably in her apartment. Just go out the way you came and take a left. I'd bring you there myself, but I can't leave this colt standing in cross ties."
"Put him in a stall." The taller one stepped closer. The other one drifted to one side, as if positioning himself to cut off any possible escape route.
So much for buying time. And she still hadn't come up with an answer. Soon it would be all over. She and her baby would be dead. She needed to think.
The colt jigged in place, then pawed the thick rubber mat under his feet. He sensed something was going on, and he didn't like it one bit. Powerful muscles coiled under his satin coat, ready to explode.
Her gaze landed on a soft cotton lead rope with a heavy steel snap on one end. Not the greatest of weapons, but she could no longer afford to be picky. She set down the clipper and picked up the rope. "All right. I'll put him away and show you to the apartments." She clipped the lead rope to the colt's halter and reached for a cross tie.
She wasn't ready for the pain.
It ignited in her back, a spark like the strike of a match. Tendons tightened. Muscles contracted. Fingers of pressure wrapped around her middle, centering low in her belly.
She fought the urge to groan, to lean forward and rest her hands on her thighs. She needed to stay focused on the men. She needed to find a way out.
The tall one's hand hovered closer to the bulge under his shirttail. "What are you waiting for?"
"Nothing." Gritting her teeth against the contraction, she reached the cross tie on one side and released the snap. Then she reached for the other. She turned the colt, positioning his body between her and the men. The two-year-old tossed his head, yanking at the rope, eager to return to his stall on the other side of the men.
The pain around her middle started to withdraw, pulling back until a cramp in her lower back was all that was left.
It was now or never.
She grasped the lead rope's snap, her sweaty fingers slick on the cool metal. She pulled it open and let the colt do the rest.
He launched off the rubber mat. Steel shoes clattered on concrete. Swerving to the side, he headed for the open door of his stall. The men scrambled to get out of his way. His hip plowed into the taller man, sending him sprawling to his knees.
Kat whirled and ran.
She focused on the double door at the end of the barn's long corridor and raced straight for it. Her leg muscles pumped. Her abdominal muscles strained with each stride. She clamped one hand over her belly, trying to hold some of the weight, willing her legs to move faster.
Her pulse drummed in her ears, but over the frantic beat she could hear the shorter man, still on his feet, boots thundering behind. Drawing closer.
She wasn't going to make it.
His breath rasped over her shoulder. His hand closed around her arm. Brutal fingers dug into her flesh.
She stopped and spun. The lead rope flew around her in an arc. The heavy steel snap smacked into the side of his head.
Curses flew from his lips. American.
Kat didn't wait to listen. She wrenched her arm away and pushed the last few yards.
He was after her before she made it. His footfalls slapped heavy on the concrete. Another set joined in. The taller man, up and running.
She clawed at the sliding door. Throwing her weight to the side, she yanked with all her strength. It inched open. Slowly. Too slowly.
A shout echoed through the barn behind her. A crack of gunfire shattered the air. The blast bounced off concrete. Loud, so loud. Horses thumped against the walls of their stalls and shrieked in panic.
She pushed herself through the opening, bracing herself, sure she'd feel a bullet tearing through her or a hand gripping her arm. She burst outside and ran for all she was worth. Gravel crunched and skittered under her boots. Behind her, another shot fired and another, sounding more like the loud pop of a cap gun now that she was outside.
She kept her legs moving. She had to get away, to hide. But where? The driveway and a small parking area for horse trailers stretched straight in front of her. Steel pipe turnout pens flanked either side of the drive. There was no way she'd fit between the rails, and as big as she was, she doubted she could climb over.
Another shot. And another. Panicked whinnies reached a crescendo.
She raced for the two horse trailers she and others had spent the afternoon readying for the trip to Akeem's auction house. It wouldn't be hard for the men to guess where she'd gone, but if she could arm herself and be ready for them, maybe she'd have a fighting chance.
She passed the first trailer, a small model built for four, and moved on to the six-horse slant. She knew the tack compartment was filled with bales of alfalfa and bags of rolled oats. No room to hide. Bypassing it, she climbed the steps to the larger dressing room and let herself inside.
Still, muggy air closed around her. Darkness swam in front of her. She groped in the narrow space, willing her eyes to adjust. Even though she had organized the grooming supplies, tack and other equipment jamming the space just hours ago, she struggled to remember what was what in the dark.
Outside the trailer, the shooting seemed to have stopped. All she could hear were a few frightened screams from the horses and the occasional thunk of hooves on the wooden stalls.
She didn't know who the men had been shooting at, but the silence could only mean one thing. Whoever had won the firefight would be coming after her. She could only pray it wasn't the men who wanted her baby dead.
She squinted in the darkness. She could make out the silhouettes of silver halters, bridles and saddles that would be used to show off the horses to prospective bidders. The tack trunk hulked at the back of the dressing room, and next to it leaned a large, two-wheeled cart.
Heart thumping, she tipped the cart back and groped for the manure fork she knew was tucked underneath. Her fingers closed around the slick, wood handle. The angled fork was made of plastic. Not the best of weapons, but at least she wasn't empty-handed. They weren't going to get her and her baby without a fight.
The whoosh of the barn door sliding along its track filtered into the trailer.
She gripped the fork and pulled it free. She needed to find the high ground. A place where she wouldn't be spotted right away. A place she could lash out with the fork. One side of the dressing room rose to a long shelf formed by the portion called the gooseneck that reached out over the pickup bed and hitched truck to trailer.
That would do.
She shoved piles of gear aside and placed her palms on the prickly indoor/outdoor carpeting lining the space. Using all her strength, she jumped. Her arms shook as she pulled her belly over the edge and hefted herself up onto the shelf. Winded from the effort, she crouched next to the wall and tried to blend in with a pile of extra horse blankets.
Sweat slicked her skin and stung her eyes. Her back tightened.
Once again, the contraction wrapped around her from back to front. Gripping. Seizing. She gasped in a breath. She leaned forward, pressing the fork down on her thighs.
The crunch of a boot on dry gravel pricked her spine. She could hear the tack compartment squeak open, then close. The dressing room's door latch rattled.
Pressing back farther into the gooseneck, she tried to quiet her breathing, but her rapid pant roared in her ears, nearly as loud as her pulse. Gripping the wooden handle in moist palms, she steeled herself against the squeeze in her lower belly as bit by bit, it started to fade.
The door inched open. The yard light streamed into the trailer, casting a hulking shadow across a silver-trimmed saddle. A man, tall and broad-shouldered.
She lifted the fork. She had to focus. She'd only get one shot.
A foot mounted the metal step. A dark figure pushed inside. He turned slowly, scanning the jumble of equipment, searching for her. The glow from outside illuminated the side of his face.
The face of a ghost.
A whimper lodged deep in Kat's throat. Shivers shook her to the core and fanned out over her skin. The sandy-brown hair. The strong jaw. The piercing blue eyes. It couldn't be. It wasn't possible.
"Kat." His British-tinged accent washed over her.
Taking the fork from her hand, he guided her down to him. He pulled her against his solid chest and encircled her in strong arms.
She almost cried out at the feel of him. She drew in his scent, a mix of leather and sandalwood. Long lost emotions balled in her chest, squeezing her heart, making it difficult to breathe.
His embrace lasted only a second. Hands on her arms, he pushed her back a few inches and stared into her eyes. "There's no time. We have to get out of here. Now."
Kat shook her head. She felt dizzy. Like she was in a dream. Yet the man touching her was real. His scent, his voice, they were no memories this time. Viktor. Real. Here.
None of this made sense. "I thought you were dead . I felt "
He grasped her hand and pulled her toward the dressing room's door. "Don't think. Don't feel. Just run."
God, he'd missed her.
Viktor pulled Kat across the gravel parking area and toward the pipe-fenced corral. He needed to get her away from the barn and the men inside. He had to focus on getting her to safety. But all his mind could absorb was the feel of the fine bones of her fingers gripping his, her gentle floral scent, blended with the scent of horse and Show Sheen, so light and sweet in the humid night and the full sway of her belly as she ran.
She'd told him she was pregnant in Rasnovia, before the rebellion, before the coup, before the explosion that killed nearly everyone he loved. He'd been happy. Delirious, really. But on some level he hadn't quite believed it was real. And now
Don't think. Don't feel. Just run.
He half lifted her, helping her scale the fence. Once on the other side, they continued running, heading for the fence on the far side and the lights twinkling beyond.
"Those men " She cupped her free arm across her belly. "They want to kill the baby, don't they? Just like they killed your family. Just like they killed y" Her voice hiccuped in a sob. "God, Viktor, I thought you were dead."
"I know." His throat felt thick, his chest tight. He'd known the report of his death would hit her hard. He'd wanted to tell her he survived. He'd wanted to explain. But he couldn't. Not then, and not yet. "We'll talk later. When there's time. I'll tell you everything. Now we need to get out of here."
She glanced back, as if expecting to find the men hot on their heels.
"They aren't following. But there will be others. We need help."
"How did you get here?"
"I hitchhiked." He knew he'd regret not having a vehicle, but he hadn't exactly been able to walk up to a car dealership and buy one. Not without so much as a driver's license. And with the soldiers closing in on Kat, he hadn't a second to lose procuring false identification. He'd barely made it in time as it was.
At least he knew where he could get transportation now.