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"Oh, God," she mumbled.
It couldn't be the security guard. It just couldn't be. Because if he'd managed to catch up with her, Alana figured this time he would kill her.
She couldn't stop, not even to find a pay phone and call the police. Not that there'd been a pay phone anywhere along the way from the secluded house in the woods where she'd been held captive. Nor was there one along the highway that had taken her nearly an hour to find. Luckily, the car she'd stolen from the front of the house had nearly a full tank of gas.
And thankfully, she'd seen the sign to the town of Willow Ridge.
The guard and a nurse had force-fed her a partial dose of sedatives only hours earlier, so it'd taken Alana a while to fight through dizziness and make the connection. Willow Ridge was just one of those floating memories that she couldn't immediately link to anything or anyone. But then she remembered Jack Whitley, the town's sheriff. He'd helped her.
She couldn't remember what he'd done exactly, but she instinctively knew she could trust him.
Alana couldn't say that about anyone else.
She certainly couldn't trust the guard or nurse. Or her brother. In fact, one of them must have been responsible for her captivity.
But which one?
She didn't know the answer to either question, but Jack Whitley would be able to find out.
Lightning rifled through the night sky. A few seconds later, thunder came, a thick rumbling groan. Shivering, she made the final turn that would take her to Willow Ridge. Even with the rain and her spotty vision, she could see the other vehicle make the turnright along behind her. He stayed close. Too close.
Alana added some pressure to the accelerator and sped through deep puddles that had already collected on the road. The car's wipers slashed over the windshield, smearing the rain on the glass so it was even harder for her to see. Her pulse raced out of control.
She maneuvered the car around a sharp curve. The tires squealed in protest at the excessive speed, and she checked the mirror again. The other vehicle stayed right with her, the high-beam headlights glaring into her eyes.
It certainly wasn't safe to race through a raging summer storm at ten o'clock at night, but she didn't want to face that guard on this deserted road. She had no weapon, no way to defend herself. Worse, she was exhausted and wondered if she'd be able to stand, much less fight.
Ahead of her, she finally saw the town lights. Welcome signs of civilization and help.
Going even faster, she sped toward Main Street, flanked on both sides with shops, a diner, even a white church with a steeple. Letting some vague, fuzzy memories guide her, she drove toward the center of the tiny town and spotted the sheriff's office.
Alana braked to a stop, glanced behind her and saw nothing. No car. No headlights.
Relief flooded through her. Maybe the guard had gotten scared and driven away. Still, she didn't just sit there. He might be lurking on a side street, waiting to grab her and take her back to that house in the woods.
Rain pelted her when she got out of the car. She was already cold and shivering, and the wetness didn't help. Alana ran toward the glass-front door of the sheriff's office. Each step was an effort. Her muscles were stiff, her hands throbbed from where she'd gripped the steering wheel and the dizziness was worse than it had been during her escape.
Why did everything seem out of focus? And wrong. Something was wrong. But what?
She threw open the door, and the burst of air from the AC spilled over her. It was dark in the front section of the building, but there was a light on in a room at the middle of a short narrow hall.
"Sheriff Whitley?" Her voice was barely a whisper.
She saw something move in the shadows, and a moment later, a man stepped out. Alana got just a glimpse of him before another stab of lightning flashed in the sky and the lights went out.
Oh, mercy. Had the guard done this? Was he coming after her?
"Calm down," the man said. It was Jack Whitley's voice. "If you keep breathing like that, you'll hyperventilate and I'm fresh out of paper bags." She heard his footsteps come closer. "You afraid of the dark?"
"No." Her voice still had little sound.
"Well, not to worry," Jack said as if he didn't believe her. "The storm must have knocked out the town's transformer, but we have a generator. It'll kick on in a minute or two."
He came closer still, and she caught his scent. He smelled like coffee and chocolate cake. "Did your car break down?"
Alana's teeth started to chatter. And she glanced back at the door to make sure the guard wasn't there. "Someone was following me."
Even though she couldn't see his reaction, she could feel it. He tensed and hurried past her to go to the door. "I don't see anyone," he said, looking out. "Is that your car parked out front?"
She was about to explain, but something else about him changed. The silence was heavy, making it easier to hear him draw his gun.
"I'm pretty sure the license plate matches a vehicle that was reported stolen just about an hour ago," he informed her. "The owner said the person who stole it— a woman—should be considered armed and dangerous. I'm guessing you're that woman, huh?"
Her heart jolted. Dizziness came again, and she had to lean against the wall to keep from falling.
This was certainly a complication Alana hadn't expected. That guard had some nerve to report his car stolen after he'd held her captive. And better yet—to call her armed and dangerous. The guard had been the one with the gun.
"I did steal the car," she admitted. "But I had to. They were holding me captive."
"They?" It was his cop's voice. Laced with skepticism and authority.
"A guard and a nurse. I don't know their names, but I can describe them." Well, she could if she didn't pass out first. "They held me at a house in the woods for a long time. But I escaped."
"How'd you manage to do that?" He didn't believe that, either. She could tell from his tone.
"I spit out some of the meds they always gave me at night. And I pretended to fall asleep. Then I sneaked out of my bedroom, grabbed the guard's keys and ran. I drove away before he could stop me. But there must have been another car somewhere on the grounds, and he used it to come after me."
Jack Whitley made a sound that could have meant anything. "I need you to turn around and place your hands flat against the wall."
"You're arresting me?" She clamped her teeth over her bottom lip to keep it from shaking. Too bad she couldn't do something to stop the rest of her body from trembling. Mercy, she was freezing.
"I'm placing you in custody," he corrected, "until I can get this straightened out. Go ahead. Hands on the wall. I need to search you."
Alana had no idea what else to do, so she complied. The painted concrete block wall was smooth against her palms, and she rested her head against it, as well, hoping it'd help her think straight.
The overhead fluorescent lights crackled on, and she heard him walk closer. "Legs slightly apart," he ordered. "And don't make any sudden moves."
Alana held her breath while he ran his left hand over her wet cotton nightgown. Down her bare legs, all the way to her equally bare feet. He repeated the process on the inside of her legs and thighs. She made a slight involuntary hitching sound when the back of his hand brushed her there. It was a reminder for her that she wasn't wearing any panties.
The sheriff made a similar sound, but his was more of surprise. Maybe now he'd believe that she had truly escaped with literally just the gown on her back.
"I think you've got a fever," he let her know. "You might be sick."
A fever. That might explain why she felt so horrible.
"Turn around, slowly," he said, his voice a little gentler now. "We'll go into my office, and you can sit down. If you're not feeling better after a few minutes, I can drive you to the hospital and have your temperature checked."
Alana did turn, but she kept her weight against the wall in case her legs gave way. She got her first good look at the man she had thought she could trust. Now she wasn't so sure.
It was Jack Whitley all right.
She recognized that midnight-black hair. Those intense gunmetal-blue eyes. He wore jeans and a white shirt with his badge clipped onto a wide leather belt with a rodeo buckle. Definitely a cowboy cop in both appearance and attitude.
"I told you the truth about being held hostage," Alana insisted.
But if he heard her, there was no indication of it. His eyes widened, then narrowed. "Alana Davis?" he snarled.
"You remember me." The intense look in his eyes was scaring her.
"Yeah. I remember you."
Too bad she couldn't recall exactly what she'd done to rile him. And there was no mistaking that she'd done just that. "You helped me."
He glared at her. "Eight months ago, I pulled you from your car when you went over the bridge at Mill's Creek."
Yes. Images flashed through her mind. Icy water. She couldn't breathe. Trapped in her car. She tried to make the pieces fit and finally nodded. "You saved my life."
He didn't take his eyes off her. "And you ran away from the hospital the first chance you got. You didn't tell anyone why you were leaving or where you were going."
Alana didn't remember that at all. Why would she have done that?
"Look, I don't know what game you're playing, or why you showed up here like this. But it doesn't matter," he stated. "You're not getting Joey back."
"Joey?" She shook her head.
That riled him even more. "Are you saying you don't remember him?"
Alana forced herself to concentrate on that name. Joey. But it meant nothing to her.
"I'm confused about some things. Not about being held captive," she admitted. "Or you rescuing me from my car eight months ago. I know those things happened. But I think this fever's making it hard for me to concentrate."
"Right." That was all he said for several long moments. "I'll call the doctor and see if he's still at the hospital," he grumbled.
Jack shoved his gun back into his shoulder holster, caught her arm and led her to his office. He put her in the chair adjacent to his cluttered desk, and snatched up the phone.
While Jack made a call to the doctor, Alana tried to force herself to think, to assemble the memories that were fragmented in her head.
Had she really left the hospital after Jack saved her?
"My brother," she mumbled. Then she groaned. Maybe her brother, Sean, had heard about her accident and had done what he usually did.
Taken over her life.
If she'd been incapacitated, he would have had her removed from the hospital. And yes, he would have done that without telling anyone, including the sheriff. Sean wouldn't have approved of the medical care, or lack thereof, that she might be getting in a small country hospital.
And had Sean then taken her to the house in the woods?
Alana leaned forward so she could lay her head on Jack's desk. There weren't many bare spots on the scarred oak, but there was plenty of stuff. A flyer showed a picture of a woman with the word missing beneath her name, Kinley Ford. Several old newspapers. An outdated chunky computer monitor, stacks of files, not one but two chipped coffee mugs, a half-eaten slice of chocolate cake on a saucer.
She saw the fax about the car she'd supposedly stolen and would have gotten angry all over again if she hadn't spotted a framed photograph of Jack holding a baby boy. The baby wore denim overalls, a miniature cowboy hat and red boots. Both Jack and the baby were grinning.
Staring at the baby, Alana reached for the picture, but Jack snatched it away from her and put it into his center desk drawer.
"The doctor's on his way here," he relayed the second he hung up the phone.
That was good. But it wasn't the doctor or her fever that had her attention now. It was the little boy in the picture. "Who's Joey?" she asked.
Jack Whitley cursed under his breath. "What the hell's the matter with you?"
She flinched at his hard tone. "The fever, I guess. But you already know that. Please tell me—who's Joey?"
For several long moments, he didn't say anything. Alana was afraid he might not tell her. For reasons she didn't understand, it was suddenly critical that she know.
"Joey's the baby you gave birth to eight months ago," Jack informed her.
Jack leaned in and got right in her face. "Joey's the little boy you abandoned at Willow Ridge Hospital." He stabbed his index fingers at her. "And if you think you can get him back after all this time, then think again. Because Joey is mine."
Posted January 5, 2010
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