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Shanna felt the sound of the gunshot more than she heard it. The first sharp report jangled her nerves. The second cracked through her ear and jaw, so close she could almost feel the air stirred by the bullet. She released her mare's reins and threw her body to the ground. She hit dirt, neck snapping to the side, air exploding from her lungs. Her horse's hooves pounded the dry earth, the sound fading into the distance.
What had just happened?
Shanna raised her head. Dry brown grass swayed in front of her, sparkling with frost. White caps of mountains rose all around her. Silence hung heavy in the morning air.
Obviously someone in her hunting party had seen deer and taken a shot and she'd let the sound scare the sense out of her.
Her cheeks heated. She'd told Mr. Barstow she was no hunter, but this would make her the laughingstock of not only her hunting party, but also all of Talbot Mining. She could hear her friend Linda's giggle now.
Shaking her head at her own ridiculousness, Shanna stifled a laugh and struggled to her feet. As long as her overreaction to the first rifle shot didn't lose her a promotion, she would laugh along. No one could say Shanna Clarke wasn't a good sport.
Brushing her gloved hands over her orange jacket and insulated pants, she peered in the direction of her fleeing horse. The mare had reached the outfitter's pack mules. The other three members of the hunting party gathered several yards away. Mr. Barstow, the CEO of Talbot, stood on the ground. Behind him, Ron Davis, the chief financial officer, and Sheriff Gable remained astride their horses. Mr. Barstow raised his rifle to his shoulder and took aim.
She fell back to the ground.Didn't he see her? She glanced around, expecting to see a mule deer behind her, hoping to see
Nothing was there.
Panic slammed against her ribs. Her lungs seized, making it hard to breathe. She had to be mistaken.
She raised her head, peering over the long grass once again.
Her boss's rifle was trained on her.
She ducked before the shot cracked through the air. Her heart slammed against her ribs. Barstow was shooting at her. Shooting at her.
Her head swirled. It didn't make sense. None of it made sense.
She tried to rise, tried to move, but her legs were too weak to support her. She had to make them work. She had to get out of here. For her little Emily's sake. For her own sake. She didn't want to die.
Forcing herself to her hands and knees, she started to crawl, moving through the tufted, brown grass. If she remembered correctly, there was a rocky slope in this direction. Once she started down the slope, Barstow wouldn't be able to see her. She'd be able to stand without fear of being shot.
At least until he caught up.
The frozen earth was hard under her knees and hands. Her breath rasped in her throat, making it impossible to hear anything else. She imagined the sound of hooves, pounding across the valley faster than she could ever hope to move. They'd catch up to her in no time.
The ground grew rockier, digging through thick pants and gloves. She tried to move faster, waiting for the pounding hooves, waiting for the crack of gunfire, the impact of the bullet.
A report shattered the air.
Gasping, she glanced behind. Nothing but dry grass moved behind her. She forced herself to keep crawling.
The ground sloped downward. Gray rock replaced the waving grass. Shanna scrambled to her feet, forcing her legs to work. Crouching low, she stumbled over rock. Boots slipping and skidding, she picked her way down the slope. They'd be on her soon. She had to find cover. She needed a place to hide.
Another crack split the air.
She glanced behind, expecting to see horses on the edge of the slope, a rifle barrel pointed at her, but they hadn't reached her. Not yet.
The ground fell out from under her feet.
She rolled and stumbled, trying to right herself. Scrub brush scraped at her face, ripped at her coat. Jumbled sound filled her head. She landed on her hands. Pain shuddered up her arms. She pitched forward onto a shelf of rock.
Shanna gasped. Pain stabbed through her neck. She must have wrenched it. Swallowing a wave of nausea, she focused on breathing. In and out. In and out. She couldn't lie here. She couldn't wait. Barstow was coming. If he caught her
Gritting her teeth, she rolled to her side and struggled to her knees. Her neck screamed. Her legs felt boneless. She forced herself to move, scrambling along the shelf. The rock above tongued outward, creating an overhang. She slipped underneath. Lying on her side, she curled her back into the crevice and pulled her legs in tight.
She could hear them now. The beats of hooves. Or maybe it was her imagination. It didn't matter. She couldn't check. If she peeked out from under the rock, they'd surely see her.
She tensed at the gruff sound of her boss's voice. So it wasn't her imagination. He was there. But where exactly? At the top of the ridge? Or closer? She held her breath.
"I'm sorry I scared you, Shanna. I didn't see you. I wouldn't have fired if I knew you were down range. It was an accident."
An accident? She tried to replay what had happened in her mind. The sound of the shots. The sight of Barstow lining up for shot number two. Could it have been an accident?
"Come on, Shanna. You can't think I was trying to shoot you."
Did she think that? Yes, she had. As soon as she saw that rifle barrel she'd thought exactly that. But did it make any sense? What possible reason could Mr. Barstow have for wanting her dead?
"You're not hurt, are you?"
He sounded worried. Shanna tightened her grip on her legs, hugging them close. She wanted it all to be a mistake. She wanted Mr. Barstow to be telling the truth, to be worried that she was hurt. But was he really? How could she have gotten everything so wrong?
"Shanna? Talk to me, honey. Tell me you're all right. Please? Shanna?"
She opened her mouth and drew in a breath. But she couldn't get the image of him raising the gun out of her head.
She closed her mouth and pressed her lips tightly together. She didn't know what to do, what to think.
"Make a sound so I know where you are. I'll get the others and we'll come down for you."
She wanted to call out. Her throat ached with it. She needed to make this nightmare go away.
The broken hiss of a whisper rode across the wind, too faint for her to catch the words.
Unease prickled all the way up her spine. It was Barstow. She was sure of it. Even in a whisper, she could recognize that commanding, gruff voice. He must be talking to someone. One of the others from the hunting party. But why whisper?
Because he didn't want her to hear.
She stifled the whimper struggling to break from her lips. She had no more time to think. No time to wish things were different. If she wanted to get out of this alive, if she wanted to see her little girl again, she had to move. And she had to do it now.
She tilted her head back. Pain shot through her neck. Sucking in a sharp breath, she blinked the tears from her eyes and tried to take in her surroundings. The shelf of rock stretched at least a hundred yards. If she moved carefully and quietly, maybe she could shuffle her body under the shelf. Maybe she could put some distance between her and the men without them seeing. Maybe she could get away before they found her.
She had to.
A crash sounded from up the slope. Jace Lantry glanced up from the long, clawed footprint in the patch of snow and scanned the rough terrain that rose behind his ranch. Something was running through pine and fir. Maybe the grizzly that left this footprint. Or its prey.
Tilting his hat low, he squinted at the trees, the wide brim shielding his eyes from the morning sun. He didn't have anything against the bears. Hell, the land was theirs long before humans moved in. They'd never messed with his livestock. Grizzlies rarely did. They ate plants, most of the time. But he'd better make sure the fortress he built around his garbage cans would hold. The last thing he wanted was a momma grizzly deciding his cabin would make a nice restaurant. If that happened, there was no telling what she'd assume was on the menu.
A flash of blaze orange bobbed through the clump of trees. Not bear. Hunter.
Oh, hell. When Jace had agreed to lease land to his neighbor for hunting season, he'd specified Roger could only use acreage east of Gusset Ridge. This wasn't the first time this season that a wealthy hunter had wandered past the cutoff point and gotten himself lost. Roger might be a good outfitter, but he was awful when it came to controlling his rich clients. The guy was too damn nice.
Fortunately Jace didn't have any qualms about laying down the law to a straying hunter. He'd bought this ranch in the Wyoming wilderness so he'd never have to look out for anyone but himself again. The last thing he was going to do was provide some kind of hand-holding to a wealthy SOB who didn't think he had to follow the rules.
Wait a second.
The hunter broke from the cover of Engelmann spruce and ran along the forest's edge. Shoulder-length blond hair peeked from under the orange stocking cap. The unmistakable curve of a woman's hip was evident under the boxy orange coat. She stumbled through the dry grass and occasional patch of snow, no rifle, no concern for frightening her game. In fact, she looked like the frightened one.
The crack of rifle fire reverberated through the trees.
The woman ducked. Slipping, she fell to her knees. Thrusting herself back to her feet, she zigged through the edge of the forest, as if certain the gunshot had been meant for her.
Something wasn't right. Not right at all. He didn't have to have been a cop in his previous life in order to figure that out. And judging from the woman's present course, she was running straight for his homestead.
Jace groaned out loud.
An eye on the woman, he headed for his cabin. He'd moved to the mountains to escape trouble. But it appeared she had found him anyway.
SHANNA CROSSED the open slope, running flat out for the small log cabin and outbuildings nestled along a stream. Her boots skidded in a patch of snow. Her breath rasped in her throat, making her ears ache almost as much as her head and neck.
Crawling under the rock shelf and the rough terrain of the slope had given her a head start against the mounted men. But that last crack of gunfire proved Barstow was still on her heels. And it wouldn't take him long to figure out where she was headed.
She had to pray she could find someone to help her, a vehicle she could borrow, or at least a place to hide.
The cabin was closest, separated from the other buildings by split-rail fencing. Shanna could only pray the place had a phone.
She reached the cabin. She sidled up to a mullioned window and peered inside. The place was rustic and simple, with the kitchen, dining area and living room all visible from the side window. She didn't see anyone inside.
She also didn't see a phone.
She closed her eyes for a moment and forced herself to take a long breath. She might be able to break in to a simple little cabin like this. But if there was no phone, that wouldn't get her very far. When she thought about it, she had no clue who to call anyway. The sheriff was with Barstow. He'd watched while her boss had lined up his shot. For all she knew, he was the one Barstow was whispering to on the ridge.
She had to get out of here, and she had to do it now.
She scanned the distance to the other buildings. A pole barn dominated the ranch, surrounded by a fence. Past the corrals and next to the barn, dirt ruts led into a square structure.
She peeked into the cabin again, this time scanning countertops and the area around the front door for anything that looked like car keys. Nothing. But maybe that was a good sign. Maybe whoever owned this place kept his keys in the garage.
Giving the rocky slope behind the cabin a glance, she ran for the garage. She reached the first fence. She stepped over the lowest rail and ducked under the second. Sharp pain shot down her neck. She ignored it and pushed on. If Barstow caught her, a sore neck would be the least of her worries.
She ran across the corral's bare dirt, struggling to hear over her breath rasping in her throat, her heartbeat pounding in her ears. Horses looked up from the round bale they munched on. One spooked and darted through an open gate and into the larger field beyond.
Her nerves stretched taut. She tried to run faster. She had no cover. If Barstow and the others cleared the evergreens while she was still crossing to the garage, she was done for. They wouldn't have any trouble hitting her with their high-powered rifles. And she doubted Barstow would allow himself to miss this time.
She reached the other side of the fenced pen and ducked under and out. She raced to the garage. Grabbing the door-knob, she held her breath and twisted.
It turned under her hand.
She pushed the door open and slipped inside, leaving the door open a crack behind her.
The garage was dark, but with the door cracked, not too dark to see a hulking shadow parked in its center. A truck. A way out. She just had to find a key.
She strained her eyes in the dim light and groped the wall around the door, hoping to find a key hook or nail. Nothing but studs and steel. She crossed to the truck and opened the driver's door. Light shone from the cab. Fear thickening in her throat, she used the extra light to quickly scan the area for any sign of keys. Coming up empty, she climbed into the pickup's cab and closed the door.
Plunged back into darkness, she willed her eyes to adjust. She felt for a key in the ignition switch, then groped under the floor mat. Nothing. Where else might someone hide a car key? She slipped a hand between sun visor and roof.
Her fingers hit metal.
A whimper catching in her throat, she grasped the key. She tried to keep her hand steady, tried to fit key into switch.
The passenger door jerked open. Light flared all around her.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Her whimper turned into a gasp as she looked into the barrel of a shotgun.