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It pulled Morgan Alexandria from silky blackness, slammed her into reality. She groaned, levering away from cold tile, crimson blood dripping from her lips and staining the white kitchen floor. More blood pooled in her mouth, the metallic taste of it making her gag. She wanted to sink back down, let whatever was going to happen happen. Images flashed through her mind—blond hair, deep blue eyes, chubby cheeks; dark hair and a solemn, thin face. Morgan's sister and brother as they'd been twenty years ago.
What were they like now?
The question drove Morgan to her knees. She blinked, trying to clear her vision and her head. Sounds were coming from the den. Soft thuds and thumps. Rumbling voices. Morgan could wait for the two armed men who'd come into her gallery an hour ago to return to the kitchen or she could run. Either way, she'd probably die.
She staggered to her feet, her jaw and head throbbing in time with her racing heart. Just a few yards and she'd be at the door of the apartment. One flight of stairs down and she'd be in the small gallery she'd opened nearly a year ago when she'd foolishly believed she could cut her ex-husband Cody out of her life forever. She should have known that the trouble and heartache he'd brought to their marriage would follow her.
A loud crash startled her into action, and she ran, broken glass from the upended coffee table crunching under her feet as she raced through the living room. Her fingers brushed the doorknob, her hand closing around cool metal.
Hard fingers dug into her shoulder, yanking her away from the door and escape.
"You don't get to leave until we get the disk. Just tell us where it is, and you can walk out of here." The voice was as hard as the grip on her shoulder, and Morgan knew it was full of lies. There'd be no leaving. Just a slow, painful death or a quick, brutal one. Terror gave her strength, and she swung around, slamming her fist into the man's eye.
He cursed, his grip loosening, and Morgan wrenched her shoulder from his grasp, grabbing the doorknob again and yanking the door open. She took the stairs two at time. Praying. Begging. Hoping God heard.
The gallery at the bottom of the stairs was dark, the room silent. No evidence of the violence that had taken place there in the minutes before Morgan had been dragged up to her apartment.
If she died, how long would it take for anyone to notice she was gone?
Her footsteps echoed through the large room as she raced for the front door, her heart pounding harshly in her ears. Just a few more feet. Just a few more seconds.
Please, please, please. I'm not ready to die.
The prayer caught in her throat, a barely formed scream dying as she was jerked backward. Her sweater tightened around her throat and stars danced in front of her eyes, darkness beckoning again. It would be so easy to give up. To give in. But there were too many things left undone, too many words left unsaid.
Too many regrets.
She clawed at the fabric of the sweater, fighting for air.
"Cool it. You kill her and we'll never get what we came for," a man said.
And suddenly Morgan could breathe again.
She collapsed onto the floor, coughing and gagging as one of the men leaned down, stared into her face. "You shouldn't have punched me. We could have made this easy on you. Now… well, maybe it won't be so easy after all. Come on. Get up. We're going back upstairs and you're going to tell us what you did with the disk."
"I already told you I don't have it," Morgan managed to say, the words as dry and brittle as old bones.
"That's not what your ex-husband said." The man grinned, the hot, ugly look in his eyes making Morgan wish she could sink back into unconsciousness.
"Whatever Cody told you—"
The chime of the doorbell interrupted her, and Morgan froze, her gaze jumping to the gallery door. The sound came again, soft but insistent.
"You expecting a visitor?" Her captor hissed the words as he pressed a gun to her temple.
Morgan nodded, lying. Praying it would save her. Praying that the person on the other side of the door was someone she knew. Someone who would see the fear in her eyes, the bruises on her face and go for help.
"Whoever it is, get rid of him. If you don't, his blood is on your hands." He dragged her to her feet, motioned for the other man to step into the deep shadows of the gallery and then shoved Morgan to the door.
Her hands shook as she cracked it open just enough to see a man standing on the front stoop. Tall and rangy, his face shadowed by darkness, he was a stranger.
Morgan's heart sank. "Yes?"
"I saw a light on and thought you might be open."
"No. I'm sorry, we're not." Morgan forced the response past lips that felt swollen and tight. She wanted to shove the door open and run, but knew she'd be shot before she took half a dozen steps. And she wasn't the only one who'd die.
"Too bad. I saw the closed sign, but hoped since your lights were on you might be willing to make a sale. A friend of mine is getting married in the morning, and I just realized I left his wedding gift at home in New York." Despite the darkness, Morgan could see his easy, charming smile. He didn't know how close he was to death, and Morgan didn't dare try to tell him.
"I wish I could help you, but I've got a wedding to attend tomorrow, too. I've got a lot to do before then, so if you'll excuse me…"
"Really?" He smiled again. "Maybe it's the same one."
"Wedding. Who are the bride and groom?" He shifted as he spoke, easing a little to the left, his gaze focused on a point above Morgan's head. Could he see the man standing deep in the shadows? Or the one right beside Morgan hidden behind the door? Did he sense the danger they were both in?
The hard butt of a gun jammed into Morgan's side, urging her to answer the question and get rid of her visitor. For a moment she couldn't remember what the question was, couldn't think of what the answer would be.
The man at the door took a step forward, his gaze still on the point above Morgan's head. And everything clicked into place. The question. The answer. "Lacey Carmichael and Jude Sinclair are the bride and groom."
"It is the same wedding. I guess we'll see each other there."
The gun jabbed into Morgan's side again, a silent warning she couldn't ignore. "I guess we will." If she lived that long. "Now I really have to go."
"Sure. No problem. What time to do you open in the morning?"
Open? What time did she open?
Morgan's mind was blank, her thoughts scattered.
"Ten. I open at ten."
"I'll see you then," he said, turning to walk away.
No. You won't. I'll be dead, sprawled on the floor of my apartment or wrapped in a plastic bag on the side of a road or lying on the bottom of the lake, cement blocks tied to my ankles.
Morgan wanted to shout the words, wanted to beg for rescue. Instead, she closed the door, her skin crawling as she met the eyes of the man who'd been standing next to her. Mud-brown, they were empty of emotion.
"Good job. That guy has you to thank for his life," he said, shoving his gun into a holster beneath his jacket.
"Come on. We've wasted enough time. Let's finish this," the second man said from the shadows, his voice gravelly and rough. "Let's go back upstairs and get what we came for."
Morgan didn't see him move, but she heard his booted feet on the stairs. Knew he was going back to her apartment.
"Let's go. Maybe a little more convincing will help you remember where you put the disk." The other man grabbed her arm, forced her toward the stairs.
"I told you, the disk isn't here," she protested, tugging against his hold.
"Like I said, that's not what your ex said."
"Cody is a liar."
"Even a liar tells the truth when he's in enough pain."
"Pain? He's in jail." Morgan twisted beneath his grip, hoping to dislodge his fingers, but they dug deep into her flesh until she was sure her bone would break. A few more feet and they'd reach the stairs.
Desperate, she grabbed a clay vase she'd fired just a few days ago, slamming it into her captor's head. He fell back, and Morgan broke away, racing to the door and yanking it open. Cool air stung her bruised face as she closed the door and jumped off the stoop, crashing into something yielding but firm. She tried to scream, but a hand clamped over her mouth, cutting off the sound. Morgan fought, kicking and punching as an arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her tight against a hard chest.
"Calm down, lady. I don't know what's going on here, but I'm not in the mood for trouble, so until I figure things out, let's both lie low." The gruff baritone seemed familiar, but Morgan was too scared to care. She twisted and pulled against his arm as he maneuvered her into the heavy bushes that hugged the foundation of the gallery.
"Someone's coming. You need to keep still and quiet. Understand?" the man whispered, his lips pressed close to Morgan's ear.
She nodded, but wasn't sure she understood anything. Not how a peaceful night at home had turned into a nightmare or how her jailed ex-husband could still be ruining her life or who the man holding her was.
"Good, because Jude won't be happy if I'm a no-show tomorrow." His grip eased, his hand slipping away from Morgan's mouth, his other arm still wrapped tightly around her waist.
Footsteps sounded on pavement, the quick, hard tap of booted feet sending a shiver along Morgan's spine and filling her with terror. Hiding wasn't good enough. They needed to run. She shifted, but was held firmly in place as the footsteps faded. The loamy scent of earth filled her nose, mixing with something subtle and masculine. Morgan should be terrified, should be fighting to free herself and run, but her head throbbed, her ribs ached and the warmth of the man holding her, the darkness that surrounded them, offered a false sense of safety that she wanted desperately to believe in.
The man who held her leaned close to her ear again, his breath ruffling her hair as he spoke. "Who is he? Boyfriend? Husband?"
"Yes. Two of them. They've got guns," she rasped out, the words too loud and harsh.
"Stay here, I'll—"
"No." Morgan grabbed his arm. She didn't know anything about him, but right now having him around was a lot better than being alone.
"We can't sit here waiting to be found."
"Maybe they'll go away."
"No, they won't. Stay down. I'm just going to look and see what direction they're heading." He eased away, moving so silently Morgan heard nothing but the rapid pulse of her blood and the rasping gasp of her breath.
She waited a few seconds, her heart slamming against her ribs. At any moment one of the men who'd held her captive in her own home, who'd beaten her unconscious and left her lying bleeding on the kitchen floor, could find her and it would all be over. All the hard work she'd put into opening her gallery, Clay Treasures, all the years she'd spent dreaming of reuniting with her siblings, all the time she'd spent searching for them, would end on the pavement of a parking lot in a small town she never would have come to if not for her ex-husband. Trusting Cody, letting him into her heart had been the biggest mistake of Morgan's life. She'd vowed after her divorce to rely only on herself, yet here she was, sitting in the darkness, waiting for someone else to save her life.
The air seemed heavy with tension, the night thick with expectancy. Morgan eased up from her hiding place, peeked over the top of the shrubs and saw nothing but darkness. Fear spurring her on, she broke free of the prickly shrubs and ran to the corner of the building. For one brief exhilarating moment, she was sure she'd succeed. That somehow she'd escape the parking lot and make it out onto the street without being seen. There were neighbors who would let her in and call the police for her. All she had to do was make it to one of their doors.
Behind her, someone shouted, the sound breaking through the silence. Morgan dodged to the right, screaming as wood siding splintered inches from her face.
The words barely registered as Morgan was tackled from behind. She landed hard, the breath leaving her lungs in a quick, painful rush.
"Are you crazy, lady? I told you to stay down!" He rolled away, and Morgan stayed put, barely able to breathe, much less move. She turned her head, trying to see what was happening, and saw her would-be rescuer pull something from beneath his jacket.
A gun! He had a gun!
He aimed at something behind him, fired and grabbed Morgan's hand, pulling her up and into a dead run before she had time to realize she was moving. Something exploded inches from her feet, bits of asphalt flying up and hitting her calf. She screamed again and again, her throat raw from it.
"Come on. Faster!" The man beside her nearly yanked her off her feet as he sprinted into the street.
Morgan's lungs burned, her legs shaking as he pulled her up the stairs and to the front door of the nearest house. He banged on the wood, his fists pounding hard enough to shake the door.
Morgan wanted to tell him that the woman who lived inside was eighty-five, hard of hearing and unlikely to open the door even if she heard him banging, but the words wouldn't form. Darkness edged in, blurring her vision and stealing her thoughts. She swayed, knew she was falling but couldn't seem to right herself.
"Whoa! No passing out. I can't hold you and fire a gun at the same time."
The grumbled command was the last thing Morgan heard as she fell into oblivion.
Jackson Sharo pulled the unconscious woman up against his chest, shielding her from the street as best he could. Gun in hand, he shifted his stance, glancing over his shoulder, the hair on the back of his neck standing on end. He'd come to Lakeview, Virginia, for his friend's wedding. He hadn't come for trouble. Unfortunately, trouble had found him.
He scowled, kicking the door.
"Open up. I've got an injured woman out here. We need help," he shouted, wishing he still had the right to call himself a police officer. That was a lot more likely to get a door opened than kicking it and shouting would.
A light in the house went on and a shadow passed in front of the window to the left of the door.
"I've called the police. They'll be here any minute," a shaky voice called out.
"Call an ambulance, too. And open the door. We need help," Jackson responded, tensing as a car passed by on the street behind him. A bullet in the back wasn't the way he planned to end the night.
The woman he was holding stirred, pushing against his chest, her soft hair brushing Jackson's chin as she raised her head and mumbled something he couldn't hear.