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Nothing seemed off, yet everything felt wrong.
There were no eerie noises. No flashes of color. No lightning bolts to give her a clue. Still, Clare Chandler's instincts told her this funky Houston bus station was about to be the end of their road.
But she refused to give up. Frustration warred with determination as she clutched her sleeping son in her arms and slinked backward into the shadows. So, they would miss this bus. There would be another in a couple of hours.
The danger she'd felt had been coming from those two men there by the bus benches, the ones in the suits and ties. They looked legit, but slightly out of place. Had they come for her and Jimmy?
She'd been so careful. Hadn't used a credit card or a phone. Hadn't slipped up and called Jimmy by that hard-to-spell name his father had given him.
Clare and her son had only just arrived in this country on the private plane her old boss had helped to charter. There could not have been time for anyone to locate them.
Clare was sure she hadn't made any mistakes.
Nevertheless, her gut was telling her the worst had happened. She'd known her ex-husband, Ramzi, would come after them. After Jimmy. But she had hoped to reach the safety of her old college roommate's Missouri home first.
Trying to stand perfectly still so they wouldn't be spotted, Clare almost missed her two-year-old's muffled cry. She settled him higher against her shoulder. In her head she began clicking off the possibilities for his distress, wanting to be the best mother ever.
"Are you wet, Jimmy?" she asked and checked his diaper.
Her baby squirmed in her arms, wide-awake now. "No!" He didn't have many words in his vocabulary yet, but he knew what changing his diaper meant. She had very nearly managed to potty train Jimmy before it had been time to take her son and sneak away from the country of Abu Fujarah.
Ramzi had once said he thought she made a good mother, though that hadn't seemed good enough to make him want to let her raise her own son. Clare let out a beleaguered breath, then stiffened her spine, determined to do everything right.
Jimmy crammed his fist into his mouth and whined. Ah, he was hungry again. And he was tired. If she didn't do something about the hunger soon, he would start making a fuss. The last thing she needed was for Jimmy to throw a terrible-twos tantrum and draw the attention of everyone in the bus station.
Clare would never give up her son. Never. So she couldn't simply walk into the busy restaurant in the station and let those goons take him away. There had to be someplace else nearby where they could eat.
Murmuring to soothe Jimmy, she inched along the wall in an attempt to stay away from the harsh fluorescent lights of the station's main waiting room. She slipped out the side door into the starlight-spangled night.
Taking a breath of good ol' Texas airthe pungent, hit-you-in-the-face-with-gas-wells-and-feed-lots kind of airClare thought of her home. Maybe she should try calling her father in West Texas for help. She'd already rejected that plan once, knowing it would be the first place Ramzi would look for Jimmy. But right now, being home sounded so safe.
No, she didn't dare show up on her father's doorstep. Sticking with her plan to go to her old roommate's home would be for the best. She'd never mentioned Brenna to Ramzi and had hoped going in that direction would be the smartest idea for losing him and his men.
Clare checked the local neighborhood right outside the bus station's door and was dismayed at the sight of such a blighted area. This wasn't the kind of place for a woman and her child to go wandering after dark. But even going out there seemed a lot smarter than simply hanging around here waiting to be jumped.
Still holding tightly to Jimmy, Clare walked to the corner and checked in both directions. What looked like a roadhouse was down about a block from where she stood. Cars and trucks sat parked on every available inch of the parking lot, which seemed well lit and busy. If it was anything like the roadhouses and truck stops she remembered from West Texas, the place would at least serve food.
She knew joints like that usually served their share of hard liquor, too. But she would much rather take her chances with Texas drunks than with Ramzi's henchmen.
Josh Ryan wished he was well on his way to getting blitzed. He toyed with the idea of ordering a bottle of tequila, but managed to reject the thought. Just barely.
It wasn't only that he'd totally sworn off liquor sixty-three days, fourteen hours and twenty minutes ago. His grandfather had also recently died, and he was supposedly on his way to the funeral. It was a good five-hour drive there, and Josh had never been one for drinking and driving.
So what the hell was he even doing in this seedy bar, with its smell of burned ribs, cheap beer and fries cooking in lard? Twice so far he'd been approached by women in skimpy leather outfits who looked hungry and suggestive in a cheap way. Both times he'd sent them about their business with cold, dismissive looks.
If he'd been searching for oblivion tonight, he'd have found it by downing RedEye by the gallon and not with nameless, drugging sex.
But if it wasn't for booze or women, then why was he here? Apparently he was giving himself a test. Just to see if his new resolutions could stand up to the stress of the upcoming funeral. His life had become one big trial.
So far, the civilian world hadn't been what he'd hoped. Though he never would've re-uppedeven if the army docs had said it would be all right. He wasn't all right. In Afghanistan, his concentration had deteriorated to a point where he had managed to get a buddy blown to hell and himself shot up bad. Once or twice in the heat of battle, he'd even come to the point of considering the use of one of his grandmother's so-called gifts. Amazing.
The white coats in the evac-hospital had eventually given his mental state some medical-sounding nonsense of a name and DX'd him out of the Rangers, sending him stateside. But Josh knew better. Post-traumatic stress disorder, hell. He'd just stopped giving a crap whether he lived or died. His own life wasn't worth another bullet. And he refused to be put back into a place where what he did or didn't do meant someone else's life.
He stared down at the remnants of his brisket sandwich just as the jarring sound of a cue hitting a nest of pool balls cracked through the smoky air. A couple of cowpokes in the corner began to argue, while the laugh of an apparently very drunk woman tittered through the beer-soaked night.
It was time to go.
He paid the bill and shoved out the door into the parking lot. Even outside the night air was hard to take. Exhaust fumes and mesquite smoke mixed with the sulfur smell from nearby refineries over on the bayou. For the first time in many years, Josh was glad to be heading to deep south Texas.
There were a million things wrong with the south Texas town of Zavala Springs and the Delgado Ranch. But bad air had never been one of them.
The roadhouse parking lot was traffic central tonight. Pickup trucks of every size roared over the gravel. Giggly young girls squealed as their desperate-eyed oil-jockey dates grabbed their bottoms on the way to the bar's door. There weren't many like him who were leaving. But one or two Resistol-hatted twentysomethings stumbled out the door on their way to the edge of the lot to puke their guts out.
God, he was so tired. This was no night for anything but a long, careful drive back to the Delgado.
Making his way to his old truck, Josh found he'd been blocked in by a brand-new Cadillac Escalade. He took a moment to wonder what the dude would do if he just backed into all that shiny black metal and made his own exit. Josh felt almost tired enough to give his family's gifts a shot in order to free his pickup.
Drawing in a breath instead, Josh went around the front of his truck and checked for another way out. It might be possibleif he went over an eight-inch-high curb stop. Then he'd be forced to drive over the next-door empty lot with all its broken glass and weeds growing upward through the old concrete. But damned if he didn't know his fifteen-year-old Ford F-150 could get through much worse.
He climbed into the pickup and started the engine. Rolling his front tires up and over the curb with minimum effort, he slowed as he realized he would have to gun it to get the back tires over, too.
Sitting at idle, Josh opened his side window and double-checked the position of his wheels. Yeah, it should work.
A high-pitched scream suddenly tore through the night air. The cry jolted him. Definitely coming from a female, it wasn't at all like the flirty shrieks those young girls made when their dates groped them in the dark.
No, this scream sounded like someone in trouble. Narrowing his lips in a frown, Josh figured it was none of his business. He had plenty of his own problems.
He shrugged a shoulder and jammed his foot down on the gas pedal, praying the old tread would hold together. A few seconds later he'd crossed the barrier and was slowing down on the other side in order to pick his way through the trash and glass scattered around the vacant lot.
Another scream, this time closer, captured his attention. He stepped on the brakes and searched the dark lot for any signs of trouble.
A figure appeared, illuminated in the distance by his headlights. It was a female, all right. For a spilt second he saw a curvy form with a flash of blond hair. She seemed to be carrying something heavy. The vision dashed in and out of the beams.
Right on her tail were two greaseballs, dressed in suits with short haircuts. Their looks made Josh wonder if the FBI might be after this babe. But when he saw their drawn pistols, something in his brain snapped.
The picture was all wrong. No lawmen would run with guns out in the open like that, especially not when chasing an obviously unarmed woman.
Without another thought, Josh gunned his truck again and began chasing down the men. He used the Ford like he had his old mare back in the bronc-cutting days of his youth on the Delgado. But rounding up the two thugs turned out to be easier to manage than wild broncs had ever been.
Rooster-tailing it on the loose gravel as one of the men turned and tried to aim his pistol toward the truck, Josh sent a spray of caliche toward both guys, and they bolted. The two dudes headed away in the opposite direction as he nudged his bumper up close behind them. If they'd spilt up, one of them might've stood a chance at getting off a shot at him. But it turned out that neither of them was as bright as any year-old colt.
He wore the two creeps slick and left them panting and limping off the lot as they slithered back into the darkness behind the roadhouse. Then Josh spun his pickup and went after the girl.
With no clue as to what kind of trouble she was in, Josh should've just let it be. If he'd had a lick of sense, he would've been long gone down the road toward home by now. But nobody had ever referred to Josh Ryan as the most brilliant SOB in the world.
And besides he'd become downright curious.
Clare slowed, trying to catch her breath. She couldn't believe her bad luck. She'd almost made it to the relative safety of the roadhouse when Ramzi's two goons spotted them.
They would've overtaken her and Jimmy, too, if it hadn't been for whoever it was in that old pickup. The fellow behind the wheel had driven like a maniac, but he'd done a fine job of blowing off the two thugs. It made her curious who her knight in scratched and dented armor might have been.
Now how was she going to get back to the bus station in time for the next bus? She couldn't get past the roadhouse without being seen by those men again.
With a cramp nagging at her side, she gulped for air and tried to think of a way out. Jimmy hadn't made a sound while she'd been running with him in her arms. But after she'd stopped, he began to squirm.
"Down, Mommy," he whined as he kicked at her stomach.
"Not here, honey," she said with a breathless gasp.
Her no didn't get through to the two-year-old. He kicked again, harder. At that same time the lifesaving pickup turned and came roaring up beside her.
She should have been frightened. Maybe she should have run in the other direction. Instead, her curiosity about what the fancy driver looked like had her standing on tiptoe and staring into the pickup's cab.
The guy leaned over and opened the passenger door. "Get in." All she caught of his face in the flash of the overhead light was a stubbled jaw and the brim of a beat-up Stetson pulled low over his eyes.
"What?" Belatedly she found her caution. "No."
"Look. Those dudes will be back here any second. And if you didn't notice, they have big, frigging guns. Get the hell in."
He was right. She was in no position to argue. Still "I can't. But we should be okay thanks to you."