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He could sense the blood leaving his body.
His hand turned sticky where he pressed it against his side and he began to feel dangerously light-headed.
With effort, Zack McIntyre forced himself to focus on his end goal: to get away and find help.
He cursed himself for letting this happen, but who would have expected to be jumped in the alley right behind an Internet café? Especially in an upscale neighborhood. When the man he'd been following had slipped out the back a minute before the owner closed down, Zack had been about a minute behind him.
Once outside, he was jumped. The confrontation and ultimate end resulthad been unavoidable.
The alleyway had been deserted. At eleven o'clock, he had no doubts that most of the people who lived around here were already home, most likely in bed. He'd fled, bleeding, before anyone else showed up.
The shop was located at the tail end of a small strip mall nestled on the corner of a not-so-frequented thoroughfare. Facing the street, it was flanked on three sides by three separate housing developments. Zack had managed to escape into the smallest one, all while doing his best not to pass out. Whimsically named Stonehenge, the development was comprised of tiny, cookie-cutter white brick houses sealed two or three to a package, their backs all turned to a common alley.
It was through this alley that he found himself weaving.
Zack strained to hear the sound of approaching sirens. All he heard were crickets searching for love and companionship. That meant no one had found the body. Yet.
His side felt as if it was on fire.
Looking down, he was surprised there weren't any flames radiating between his fingers as he continued pressing against the wound. Blood kept seeping along his palm.
All attempts at calling this in had failed. There was a radio tower not too far off. That and the power lines crackling along the right-of-way in the damp night air played havoc with cell phone signals, imprisoning them within their phones.
Nothing was coming or going.
Just his luck.
Par for tonight. The car he was using had had two of its tires slashed. No getaway there.
Zack staggered and nearly fell, face forward. It was hard holding on to consciousness when his head was spinning so badly. It felt as if the edges were slipping through his fingers. Everything was exceedingly blurry and out of focus.
He needed help.
Arriving at one door, clutching his side with one hand, he pounded on a door with the other. When that yielded nothing, he tried another door. And another.
No one answered. No one stirred. Either he'd somehow managed to stumble into a ghost development, or people had finally learned not to open their doors after eleven at night.
Good for them, he thought. Bad for him.
"I should have arranged to get shot at noon," Zack muttered to himself. Everything in his head became progressively jumbled.
Damn it, somebody had to be home, someone had to answer their door. He just needed one person, just one. That and a first-aid kit.
Hell, he could do without the person as long as he had the kit. He wasn't Rambo, but he knew enough to be able to stitch up his own wound.
As long as he didn't lose any more blood.
Somehow, he made it to yet another back door. His fist outstretched to try to rouse whoever lived inside, Zack stumbled again, the toe of his boot hitting uneven gravel. This time, he pitched forward as the darkness around him descended, moving in closer until it merged with the growing darkness within.
And then there was nothing.
Kasey eased her small car around the corner, getting off the main drag and weaving in and out of the small, honeycomb-like streets that eventually fed into the area where she lived. As far as houses went, these left a lot to be desired. The small development was filled with either young couples just starting out, or older people who'd gleefully slipped out of the rat race and had only a few basic requirements in their lives: shelter and quiet.
But beggars and their kind couldn't be choosers.
Hers was the smallest model, with only one bedroom, one bath, a tiny living room and an even tinier kitchen. There was no sense pretending a family room or dining room existed. In a practical sense, this suited her purposes just fine. She could almost see everything in one long, sweeping glance as long as the bedroom door was open. No one could hide here. No one could surprise her.
Which was just the way she liked it.
In addition to the condo, she also had a tiny, one-car garage nestled in between two other, slightly bigger garages, each belonging to one of the houses on either side of hers. At a quick glance, it almost looked as if the other two garages were trying to squeeze hers out of existence.
A lot of that going around lately, she mused.
Kasey shook her head as she hit the automatic garage-door opener. That was just her paranoia speaking up. Being tired did that to her. There was no reason to feel paranoid here. She was safe. At least as safe as she could be under the circumstances.
The second she didn't feel that way, she'd move. Again. And God knew, she didn't like the prospect of having to move yet one more time. She'd already moved three times since the incident.
Three times, to three different towns, desperately trying to feel safe again. This last time she'd finally come to the conclusion that there was no such thing as safe, not for her. At least, not completely. This was as good as it got.
She'd been here in Aurora for eight months. So far, so good.
Lining up her vehicle before the opened garage, she was about to pull in, but then something at the last moment stopped her. She didn't want the car inaccessible, even for a moment. What made tonight different from last night and the nights before, she didn't know. Maybe she was more tired tonight, but she'd learned to go with her instincts. It had saved her from a bullet last time.
So, rather than park her car inside the barren garage, she left the vehicle several feet away, sitting beside the curb that bordered the development. It wasn't that far from her back doorif she needed it in a hurry.
Still sitting inside the vehicle, she sighed. "You've got to stop this," she murmured under her breath. "It's been over eight months and no one's come after you."
The fact that no one hadto her knowledgewas a relief, but not enough to put her at ease. There were days that she sincerely doubted she would ever be at ease again, ever allow herself to reclaim the easygoing person she'd once been. Reclaim the life she'd once had. The life she'd worked so hard to achieve.
It could be worse, she thought ruefully, annoyed at the wave of self-pity that had claimed her. She could be dead.
"No," she upbraided herself. "Not tonight."
She couldn't think about Jim tonight. Couldn't think about what happened that awful day her life changed forever. Tonight she just wanted to get out of her clothes and fall into bed. And with any luck, not dream about anything until it was time to get up again.
She wasn't feeling all that lucky.
The next moment, she had good reason not to. As she was about to head toward the back door that faced the alley, the chief feature that sold her on renting the tiny condo, Kasey caught her breath.
There was a form slumped across the single concrete step in front of her back door. She stood frozen, trying to make out the shape even as she tried to convince herself that it was just the moonlight playing tricks on her. That it wasn't what it looked like.
But it was.
It was a man.
Her first instinct was to run back to the car, get inside and lock all the doors. Had she not been who she was, from the shelter of her locked automobile she would have called the police and had them come out to deal with the man on her doorstep.
But she only took a few steps back and she didn't call the police. The police held more terror for her than the man who was slumped across the back entrance to her home.
Holding her breath, Kasey took a tentative step back. Then another. All the while her eyes never left the man on her doorstep. She watched for movement, for any sign of life.
The man didn't move a muscle.
Was he sleeping? Was this some poor, homeless creature who'd just given up the ghost, dying at her back door?
No, he was breathing, she could just barely see that. Staring at him, she noted the barest indication of his shoulders rising and falling.
He didn't look like a homeless man.
Even though the streetlamp lighting was far from the best, she could see that her uninvited guest was clean. Looking closer, she saw that his skin wasn't leathery. If he lived outdoors, it was a relatively new development.
"Hey, mister," she called out, doing her best not to allow her voice to tremble, "are you all right?"
There was no answer. As far as she could see, there wasn't even any indication that he had heard her. But she didn't relax.
He could be one of them. Could be playing "possum" just to get her to come in closer. If she knew what was good for her, she'd make a beeline for her car and head back to the bookstore that she'd just locked up.
Making up her mind, she was about to do exactly that when something on the ground caught her eye. There was a dark pool of liquid forming beside him. Beneath him. Kasey didn't have to guess what it was. She'd been part of this kind of scenario before.
Nerves came to attention as her heart leaped to her throat. Kasey scanned the area, trying to peer into the shadows. Was there someone else out there? Someone who had done this? Someone who was waiting for her?
But there appeared to be nothing to disturb the tranquility of the evening. Not even her neighbor's orange cat was out tonight. Ordinarily, Cymbeline was out, inspecting the area, looking for the occasional mouse that strayed from the right-of-way into the development.
It was almost too quiet.
Kasey wasn't sure if her training or just plain stupidity was to blame for her advancing several steps toward the man. She held her breath as she did so, as if that could somehow give her courage.
"Mister, you have to get up and go." When there was no response from the man, not even a change in his breathing, she tried again. This time, she spoke more authoritatively. And lied. "I've called the police. They'll be here any minute. So if you don't want to do your explaining to them, I suggest you stop playing around and get out of here."
He was really unconscious. And bleeding.
So now what? she wondered, nervously chewing on her lower lip. She couldn't just circle around to the front entrance and forget about him. Pretend he wasn't there. No matter how much she felt she'd lost of herself these last two years, that compassionate part was still there. She wasn't cold-blooded.
She sighed. No, that wasn't what she was like, even though there were times that she felt that everything she'd ever been had died that day with Jim. Gunned down just like him.
Hesitantly, she stretched out her fingers and felt for a pulse at the man's throat. The moment she touched him, his eyes opened and he grabbed her wrist.
Kasey swallowed a scream as she jerked her hand out of his grasp. The fact that she could do so easily told her that the man was definitely weak. Someone that big, that strong-looking would have easily held on to her if he wanted to no matter how hard she pulledif he wasn't being impeded by a debilitating wound.
The entreaty, hardly above a whisper, slipped from his lips and seemed to fade almost immediately into the dark night. But she'd definitely heard it. Heard, too, the desperate note behind the words.
His eyes had closed again.
Kasey blew out a breath, torn. Again she thought about calling the police. But what if he was running from the police? If she got them to come here, she definitely wouldn't be doing this man any favors.
So now you're helping out felons?
The question ricocheted in her head, taunting her. But what if he wasn't a felon? And what if circumstances were such that he didn't want the police? After all, wasn't she in essence running from the police from certain members of the police force? And she certainly wasn't a felon. If anything, she was a victim. Just someone who wanted to live to see another Christmas.
C'mon, make up your mind. Do something. Doing nothing was not an option. If she just turned her back and left him here, this man could very well bleed to death and she would be as guilty of his murder as if she'd pulled a trigger.
There were only two options. She either called the police, or did something for the stranger herself.
Kasey ventured a glance at the stranger's face. He didn't look like a bad guy, she thought. And if he did turn out to be one, well, it wasn't as if she was completely defenseless. There was a gun inside the largest canister on her kitchen counter, right beside the ones containing flour, sugar and tea.
She'd actually practiced getting the weapon out under adverse conditionsjust in case. Jim would have laughed at her if he could have seen her.
But then, she thought ruefully, as sadness strummed through her again, if he could have seen her, there would have been no reason to have a loaded gun hidden in the largest canister on her counter.
The stranger's eyes were still closed.
And he was still bleeding.
Kasey made up her mind. She had the training and she could help him, the way she couldn't help Jim.