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From the darkness, he heard the sound of high heels tapping quickly along the pavement, heading in his direction, and smiled. This could be the one.
If not, he would have to give it up for the night, something he couldn't bear doing. For days his need had been growing. He'd come here tonight because he couldn't put it off any longerno matter how dangerous it was to hunt this close to home.
Since it had gotten dark, he'd been looking. He hated to think of the women he'd let get away, women in their tight skirts and low-cut blouses, women who'd just been asking for it.
But waiting for the right woman, he'd learned, was the smart thing to do. It took patience. Tonight, though, he found himself running short of it. He'd picked his favorite spot, the favorite spot of men like himself: a grocery-store parking lot at night. Once he'd parked next to her carhe knew it was a woman's car because she'd left her sunglasses on the dash and there was one of those cute air fresheners hanging from the mirrorhe'd broken the bright light she'd parked under.
Now the area was cast in dark shadowjust the way he loved it. He doubted she would notice the lack of lightor him with his head down, pretending to be packing his groceries into the trunk of his large, expensive vehicle. Women were less afraid of a man who appeared to have money, he'd discovered.
At the sound of her approaching footfalls, he found it hard not to sneak a peek at her. Patience. This would be the one, he told himself. He already felt as if he knew her and could easily guess her story. She would have worked late, which was why she was still dressed as she had been this morning, in high heels. She wasn't pushing a cart so she wasn't shopping for her large family.
Instead, he guessed she was single and lived alone, probably in a nice condo since she drove a newer, pricier carthe kind independent, successful single women drove. By the sound of her footfalls, she carried only one small bag of groceries. He could already imagine his hands around her throat.
The footfalls grew closer.
He'd learned a long time ago not to act on impulse. Snatch the first one he saw and bad things happened. He had a scar to prove it. That run-in had almost cost him dearly. Not that she'd gotten away. He'd made sure of that. But she'd wounded him in more ways than one. It was why he'd come up with a set of rigorous guidelines he now followed to the letter. It was the reason, he told himself, that he'd never been caught.
He closed his eyes for a moment, imagining the look in her eyes when she realized she was about to die. This woman had to be the right one because his need had grown to the point of urgency. He went over his guidelines, the memory of his only mistake still haunting him.
He wouldn't let himself be swayed by an alluring whiff of perfume. Nor would he risk a woman carrying anything that could be used as a weapon at a distance like an umbrella.
Then there was her hair and attire. It would surprise most women to know that what made her his target was her hairstyle. There was a reason women with short hair were not common prey of men like him. Give him a woman with a ponytaila recent trend that filled him with joyor a braid or even a bunanything he could bury his fingers in and hold on for dear life.
Clothing was equally as important. She had to be wearing an outfit that would come off easily and quickly because he often didn't have a lot of time. Of course, he always carried a pair of sharp scissors, but a woman in a blouse and a skirt made his life so much easier, even with a blade handy.
Now as the sound of the high heels grew closer, he readied himself with growing anticipation. He was betting this one was wearing a nice short skirt and a button-up blouse. Tonight, he could even handle a matching jacket with the skirt. No blue jeans, though. They were such a pain to get off.
Her cell phone rang. She stopped walking. He groaned since if she'd been just a little closer, she would have already been in his trunk, her mouth duct taped as well as her wrists and ankles.
He cursed her cell phone even though it often made things easier for him. Women who were distractedeither digging in their purses for their keys or talking on their cell phones or unloading their grocerieswere oblivious to the fact that he was already breathing down their necks.
He silently urged her phone call to end. Just a few more steps and he would grab her by the hair, overpower her and have her in the trunk of his car before she even knew what was happening. Once he got her to the place he had picked out down by the river well, that was when the real fun would begin.
His next victim was still on the phone. She sounded upset, so upset that she'd stopped walking to take the call. She would be thinking about the callnot him right next to her car.
The call ended. She began to walk again, right toward him. He doubted she'd even noticed him bent over his car trunk, pretending to be taking care of his groceries.
He heard her vehicle beep as she unlocked it. Any moment she would walk within a few feet of him on his right. He would have only an instant to make his decision. An instant to see what she had in her hands, what she was wearing, how long her hair was. Even with his meticulous planning, there was always the chance that this could be the one woman who would surprise him. The one who would fight back. The one who would get away and ruin his perfect record.
His heart began to pound with excitement. He loved this part. None had ever gotten awayeven the one who'd scarred him. He was too smart for them. They were like sheep coming down a chute to slaughter, he thought, as he looked up and saw her start past him.
McKenzie Sheldon came out of the grocery store thinking about work. Not work, exactly, but one of the men at her office.
She was going to have to do something about Gus Thompson. The warnings she'd given him had fallen on deaf ears. The man had reached the point where he was daring her to fire him.
Shifting the single bag of groceries to her other arm, she began to dig for her keys when her cell phone rang. She stopped and pulled out her phone, saw it was her receptionist and said, "What's up, Cynthia?"
"You told me to call you if I was having any more problems."
McKenzie let out an angry breath. "Let me guess. Gus. What has he done now?" she asked with a disgusted sigh.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Sheldon, but he won't leave me alone. If I work late, he works late. He always insists on walking me to my car. I've told him that I'm not interested, but it seems to make him even more determined. I make excuses to avoid him, but"
"I know. Trust me. It isn't anything you're doing."
"He scares me," she said, her voice breaking. "Tonight I looked out and he was waiting by my car. I'm afraid to try to go home."
She started to tell Cynthia that she didn't think Gus was dangerous, but what did she know? "Is he still out there?"
"I don't know." Her receptionist sounded close to tears.
"Call the police. Or if you want to wait, I can swing by"
"I don't want you to have to do that. I'll call the police. I wanted to talk to you first. I didn't want to make any trouble."
"Don't worry about that. Gus is the one making the trouble. I promise you I'll take care of this tomorrow." She heard her receptionist make a scared sound. "Don't worry. I won't mention your name." She thought of the night she'd looked out her window at her condo. Gus had been sitting in his car across the street. He'd seen her and sped off, but she'd wondered how many other nights he'd been out there watching her house. "I should have fired him a long time ago."
"But he's your best salesman."
McKenzie let out a humorless laugh. "Hard to believe, isn't it?"
"Still, I wouldn't want to be blamed for him losing his job."
"You won't. Trust me. I have my own issues with him." She snapped the phone shut, angry with herself for letting things go on this long.
She had talked to Gus after that incident outside her house. He'd shrugged it off, made an excuse and she hadn't seen him again near her place. But that didn't mean he hadn't been more careful the next time. There was just no reining Gus in, she thought as she found her keys and started toward her car.
She wasn't looking forward to tomorrow. Gus wouldn't take being fired well. There would be a scene. She really hated scenes. But this was her responsibility as the owner of the agency. Maybe she should call him tonight and hire security until she could get Gus Thompson's desk cleaned out and the locks changed on the doors at the agency.
With a sigh, she hit the door lock on her key fob. The door on her SUV beeped. Out of the corner of her eye, she barely noticed the man parked next to her, loading his groceries. His back to her, he bent over the bags of groceries he'd put in his trunk as she walked past him.
She was thinking about Gus Thompson when the man grabbed her ponytail and jerked her off her feet. Shocked, she didn't make a sound. She didn't even drop her groceries as his arm clamped around her throat. Her only thought was: this isn't happening.
Hayes Cardwell felt his stomach growl as he walked down the grocery-store aisle. The place was empty at this hour of the night with just one clerk at the front, who'd barely noticed him when he walked in. The grocery was out of the way and it was late enough that most people had done their shopping, cooking and eating by now.
His plane had been delayed in Denver, putting him down in the Gallatin Valley much later than he'd hopedand without any food for hours. He still had the drive to Big Sky tonight, one he wasn't looking forward to since he didn't know the highway.
Being from Texas, he wasn't used to mountainslet alone mountain roads. He was debating calling his brother Tag and telling him he would just get a motel tonight down here in the valley and drive up tomorrow in the daylight.
He snagged a bottle of wine to take to his cousin Dana Savage tomorrow and debated what he could grab to eat. The thought of going to a restaurant at this hourand eating alonehad no appeal.
In the back of the store, he found a deli with premade items, picked himself up a sandwich and headed for the checkout. His Western boot soles echoed through the empty store. He couldn't imagine a grocery being this empty any hour of the day where he lived in Houston.
The checker was an elderly woman who looked as tired as he felt. He gave her a smile and two twenties. Her return smile was weak as she handed him his change.
"Have a nice night," she said in a monotone. "Is there a motel close around here?" She pointed down the highway to the south. "There's several." She named off some familiar chains. He smiled, thanked her and started for the door.
McKenzie had taken a self-defense class years ago. Living in Montana, she'd thought she would never need the training. A friend had talked her into it. The highlight of the course was that they'd always gone out afterward for hot-fudge sundaes.
That's all she remembered in the split second the man grabbed her.
He tightened his viselike grip on her, lifting her off her feet as he dragged her backward toward the trunk of his car. The man had one hand buried in her hair, his arm clamped around her throat. He was so much taller, she dangled like a rag doll from the hold he had on her.
She felt one shoe drop to the pavement as she tried to make sense of what was happening.
Her mind seemed to have gone numb with her thoughts ricocheting back and forth from sheer panic to disbelief. Everything was happening too fast. She opened her mouth and tried to scream, but little sound came out with his arm pressed against her throat. Who would hear, anyway? There was no one.
Realization hit her like a lightning bolt. The parking lot was empty with only one other car at the opposite end of the lot. With such an empty lot, the man who'd grabbed her had parked right next to her. Also the light she'd parked under was now out. Why hadn't she noticed? Because she'd been thinking about Gus Thompson.
She saw out of the corner of her eye that the man had moved his few bags of groceries to one side of the trunk, making room for her. The realization that he'd been planning this sent a rush of adrenaline through her.
If there was one thing she remembered from the defense class it was: never let anyone take you to a second location.
McKenzie drove an elbow into the man's side. She heard the air rush out of him. He bent forward, letting her feet touch the ground. She teetered on her one high heel for a moment then dropped to her bare foot to kick back and drive her shoe heel into his instep.
He let out a curse and, his hand still buried in her long hair, slammed her head into the side of his car. The blow nearly knocked her out. Tiny lights danced before her eyes. If she'd had any doubt before, she now knew that she was fighting for her life.
She swung the bag of groceries, glad she'd decided to cook from scratch rather than buy something quick. Sweet-and-sour chicken, her favorite from her mother's recipe, called for a large can of pineapple. It struck him in the side of the head. She heard the impact and the man's cry of pain and surprise. His arm around her neck loosened just enough that she could turn partway around.
McKenzie swung again, but this time, he let go of her hair long enough to block the blow with his arm. She went for his fingers, blindly grabbing two and bending them back as hard as she could.
The man let out a howl behind her, both of them stumbling forward. As she fell against the side of his car, she tried to turn and go for his groin. She still hadn't seen his face. Maybe if she saw his face, he would take off. Or would he feel he had to kill her?
But as she turned all she saw was the top of his baseball cap before he punched her. His fist connected with her temple. She felt herself sway then the grocery-store parking lot was coming up fast. She heard the twenty-ounce pineapple can hit and roll an instant before she joined it on the pavement.
From the moment he'd grabbed her, it had all happened in only a matter of seconds.