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Stinging cold rain ran off the brim of his hat and dripped down the back of U.S. Marshal Sam Chance's neck.
Shrugging deeper into his lambskin coat, Sam felt chilled through and bone weary. So flipping bone weary, in fact, that he figured sleeping for a hundred years would make a great way to spend his next time offwhenever that might happen.
But as he stood on the pavement in the rough March drizzle staring through the smudged front window of a run-down highway cafe, his body got a shot of much-needed adrenaline. And suddenly he had no need for sleep anytime soon.
She was there. Bending over to wipe down an empty table. After searching for the past six weeks, he'd finally found his woman.
The information he'd obtained from those truck drivers a few days ago had been the key to finding her. They'd said she was working as a waitress in this dingy joint. And there she was.
But look at how fragile she seemed from this distance. He'd never known her to be so thin. And she'd changed her hair color again. He had grown rather partial to the bright red, but he supposed honey-blond was not all badif what you needed the most from your hair color was a temporary disguise.
Where was her baby? Did she bring him to work with her? Was the child in the back room of the cafe?
Wanting to go to her, to hear her voice again, he fisted his hands at his sides instead and tried to clear his mind.
But he didn't move. He didn't as much as blink an eyelash. Focusing his eyes past the leftover Christmas decorations on the window, that were by now looking pretty ratty, he simply gazed at her.
He shouldn't be here. Never should have started this quest to find her in the first place. He'd taken a leave from his job in order to begin the search. But now that he'd found her, he couldn't take his eyes off her. That she was still well and breathing free air felt like such a relief he could barely think.
It had been days since he'd gotten any sleep. What would he have done if something had happened to her? If she'd died or disappeared for good? It would have killed him, too, knowing it had been his duty to protect her and her child from harm, but that he'd let them slip away.
Yeah, his boss had been right when he'd said it was her own problem. Once witnesses leave the Security Program, the safety of their very lives lands back in their own hands. But those rules didn't seem to matter to Sam. His boss even went so far as to suggest that he had taken too much of a personal interest.
Nonsense. He just felt a responsibility for her. Though she was a beautiful woman, and he wasn't dead
But dang, it had been fairly easy for him to find her. That meant the bad guys wouldn't have much problem locating her, either. She was in mortal danger, that's all there was to it.
Just as that thought crossed his mind, the hairs on the back of his neck stood straight up. Something felt wrong. He absently touched the weapon in the holster inside his jacket and turned to look around. Except for a couple of old pickups the parking lot seemed empty in the early evening drizzle. The West Texas wind howled down the highway out in front like a train's horn blaring through a tunnel.
Not a fit night for man or beast. His father's words from long ago rang in his memory.
He figured it must be the familiar, yet unhappy, atmosphere of this West Texas town and the surrounding area that was making him feel so jittery all of a sudden. Or maybe it was the guilt of knowing he shouldn't have come on this rescue at all. Being here could easily cost him his job.
Turning back to the cafe, he forced himself to move toward the front door. With one more quick glance over his shoulder he assured himself he was alone and pushed at the door handle.
It was time to make Ms. Grace Baker see the light. She couldn't manage this all on her own. And he was just the right man to convince her of that fact.
Grace hauled her last load of dishes into the kitchen, trying her best to put one foot in front of the other. The feet that were killing her. Ten more minutes until closing time. Charlie the cook, also her boss, had left five minutes ago and she was supposed to lock up. She could make it.
She'd never done much manual labor, not until the past six months when her whole life had been tossed in the air like a salad. But this was good, honest work. And it almost provided a living for her and her baby. Grace was proud of what she'd accomplished so far.
And she didn't mind living here in Fort Stockton. The kind couple who ran the cafe had given her a job and a temporary place to live, hadn't they? Even the customers weren't too bad. The long-haul drivers left great tips and the locals spoke to her as if they'd known her all their lives.
Knowing she couldn't linger in this town indefinitely, there were still times when Grace wished she could stay. Stay somewhere. Anywhere where she and the baby would be safe.
She'd better stop wishing for the impossible and finish off her shift. Pushing back through the swinging kitchen door into the dining room, she noticed the cafe had a new customer and he was standing with his back to the door. As she opened her mouth to tell him the cafe was almost closed, he lifted his chin and their eyes met. Her breath caught in her throat.
Only one pair of sky-blue eyes in the whole world could affect her that way. Brooding and unreadable, those eyes stared at her from beneath the brim of a soaked white Stetson. They belonged to a man she recognized all too well.
Sam Chance. Marshal Sam Chance. She froze in place, not knowing whether to feel relief or to turn and run. He'd found herafter all her efforts to stay lost.
"Evening, Grace. We need to talk." Sam's voice still carried that slow, deep, sensual tone that had hypnotized her from the beginning.
Her mouth went dry. Her skin tingled. She was torn with indecision.
Sam represented security and a chance for a real life. But it was also possible that he posed a huge threat to her well-being and to the safety of her son. Much as she didn't want to think it, Sam may have been the leak, the one that had brought danger ever closer to her and Mikey six weeks ago.
Just at that moment the door at Sam's back opened and her worst nightmare stepped inside. Two dark men holding big menacing-looking guns. And they were definitely coming in her direction.
Sam had led the wolves right to her door!
Sam watched carefully as Grace noticed him. At first that wary look in her eyes seemed to soften when she realized who he was. But then her eyes widened, darkened. And sudden fear pulled at the corners of her lips, turning her mouth down into a grimace.
By the time he'd felt the air shift as the door opened behind him, Sam was already reaching for his weapon. He gave the cafe a quick visual check and found it empty save for him and Graceand whatever danger lurked at his back.
The situation called for a couple of fast and lethal maneuvers if they were going to walk away from this, and he didn't want any innocent bystanders getting hurt. Grace couldn't be hurt, either. But that would take a bit more finesse.
Springing toward her, he body blocked her out of the line of fire. "Run! Out the back."
The first bullet zipped past his ear as he skidded across the tile floor and crashed headfirst into chairs then a table. He righted himself and reached for cover. Overturning the table to use as a shield, he dropped to one knee just as he caught sight of Grace ducking through the door to what must be the kitchen.
Sam knew the kitchen had a back way out because he'd parked his SUV in the alley and had seen the door. He didn't want her going outside without his protection. But for now he needed to stop the threat right here before he caught up to her.
Another thump hit the wall behind his head with no discernable roar of a discharged weapon, telling Sam that the bullet had come from a silenced handgun. He aimed his own forty-five and blasted off a couple of shots. The noise of gunfire reverberated through the cafe, and the flash from his muzzle as he fired his first shot gave away his position.
He needed a lucky break. And then he got one.
One of the shooters stepped away from his cover to take better aim. Sam stared down the barrel at him and fired, catching the man in the chest. The fellow yelped and slumped to his knees.
The injured man's partner turned to see how badly his buddy had been hit, and Sam used the lull from the other side of the room to fire the rest of the bullets in his magazine. Ducking, the uninjured partner crawled to his comrade instead of returning fire. As Sam reloaded, he spotted the one assailant hugging the walls while he struggled to drag his partner toward the front door.
Good enough. Sam used the opportunity to sprint in the opposite direction toward the kitchen. Protecting Grace was his first priority.
Barging through the swinging door, he looked around, expecting to find Grace and her baby huddled in a corner. But the tiny kitchen was empty. Damn it, Grace. You can't do this on your own.
He vaulted over a couple of counters and scrambled to the door under the exit sign. Flattening himself to the wall just inside, he used the threshold as cover while he turned the knob and pushed open the door. He glanced out at an angle and saw Grace tugging frantically at the door handle of his SUV. It was the only thing within view that she could use as a cover, but he'd locked it before coming inside.
Only a matter of fifty feet lay between them, but Sam wasn't sure his heart could take the beating before he reached her. As he ran he heard another engine starting up nearby. He hoped to hell their assailants were heading off to find a hospital, but he wasn't ready to stake his life on that possibility.
He hit the SUV's remote door-unlock button while making a dash for it. By the time he reached the vehicle, Grace already had one leg inside. He launched himself at the open door and carried her with him as he dove into the driver's seat.
They landed in a jumble of arms and legs and it took him a second to straighten out and shove her into the passenger seat. "Where's the baby?"
Grace worked to fasten her seat belt, but she narrowed her lips and remained silent.
"Where is Mikey, Grace?"
"My son is safe. You stay away from him." She folded her arms over her chest and stared out the window.
The bitterness and fear in her voice ripped at his gut. But he didn't have time to argue with her. She had good reason not to trust too easily. He would ask again when he was sure he could keep both of them alive.
He cranked the key and the SUV's engine roared to life. "Hang on, they haven't given up yet."
In his side mirror he caught sight of a four-door pickup with oversize tires as it swung around in the street out front and headed their way. Ramming the SUV in gear, he locked his jaw, hit the gas and took off.
Two seconds later he downshifted around a corner in a screeching, careening, two-wheeled turn. Punching the accelerator once again and shifting straight into fourth gear, he sent them flying down a short city block.
"Are you trying to kill us?" Grace gasped as she clutched at the inside door handle.
"I can lose 'em. Just keep holding tight."
Buildings flew by in a fuzzy blur, but Sam made the SUV scream while he raced down the straightaway. The next four corners were exercises in steel nerves as he ran stoplights, dodged cars and took another ninety-degree turn into a narrow alley.
Breathing hard, he sandwiched the SUV into a small slot behind two garbage Dumpsters and idled the engine. With his eyes glued on both the rearview mirror and the street out the windshield, he gave it a tense five minutes before he took a deep breath and said anything.
"That pickup had Mexican plates. You know what it means, don't you, Grace?"
Her only acknowledgment for a full moment was a slight nod of her head. "He found me. Or " Shifting in her seat, she glared straight at him. "You led him to me."
A tiny niggle of guilt ran down Sam's spine. It was possible he'd been followed. But he was so sure he'd covered his trail.
"No. Think about it for a moment. If I could find you so could someone with as much power as Jose Serrano. You're not trained in putting the details together for a total disappearance. You're no match for the biggest drug lord along the Mexican-American border."
She turned her head away and a shaft of light from the nearby streetlamp caught her in its glow. "Don't tell me about matching wits with that bastard. I'm the one who managed to escape him and then testified at his trial and conviction. It's you and your people who can't seem to keep one step ahead of him."
Taking another cleansing breath, Sam ignored the silky sheen of her hair and the haunting smell of strawberries he had always loved about her, and tried another tactic. "Come on, Grace. You're a single mother with a child. You can't do this alone. Let me help you. Two people can better protect Mikey. I won't let Serrano get to him, I swear it."
She swung around again and narrowed her eyes. "I'm not going back to L.A. or anywhere else the government wants to put me. Not until Jose is safely returned to his prison cell. Someone in your agency must be helping him."