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Renee Esterhaus peered out of room fourteen of the Flamingo Motor Lodge at the intersection of Highway 37 and the middle of nowhere, shivering a little in the crisp October air. She cast a nervous glance left and right down the sidewalk in front of the other rooms, then turned her gaze to the gravel parking lot and the dense pine forest beyond it. Everything seemed quiet. No suspicious-looking people. No cars she hadn’t seen before. No helicopters circling overhead, ready to drop a SWAT team.
Nothing but the evening breeze rustling through the trees.
She slid out the door, leaving it ajar, then scurried to the snack machine in the breezeway between her room and the motel office, telling herself to calm down, that no matter what she’d done, the SWAT team thing was pretty unlikely.
She plugged two quarters into the machine and was getting ready to insert the third when the skin prickled on the back of her neck. She froze, the quarter poised at the slot, then swallowed hard and glanced over her shoulder.
She let out the breath she’d been holding. Her imagination was getting the better of her.
If only her old Toyota hadn’t chosen the worst possible moment of her life to fall apart, she wouldn’t be stuck overnight in this ratty little motel swearing that someone was looking over her shoulder. She prayed that the mechanic at the Mobil station down the street would keep his promise and have a new fuel pump installed first thing in the morning. Then she’d be back on the road again, one step closer to New Orleans, Louisiana, and one step farther away from Tolosa, Texas.
New Orleans. She didn’tknow why she’d chosen that city, except that it had a lot of restaurants so she could easily get a job, and the dark mystery that surrounded it meant she could probably lose one identity and pick up another. Of course, she had no idea how a person went about becoming someone else, but she couldn’t think about that now. She’d get her car, get on the road, and figure out the rest later.
She shoved the quarter in, pushed a button, and her dinner fell to the bottom of the machine—a package of peanut butter crackers. She leaned over and plucked it out of the slot. As she stood up again, an arm snaked around her waist and something cold and hard jabbed against the underside of her jaw.
“Missed your court date, sweet thing.”
In a blinding rush, she felt herself being spun around and slammed against the snack machine. That cold, hard thing—a gun—now rested against her throat. And right in her face was the biggest, ugliest, most menacing-looking man she’d ever seen. He had to be pushing fifty, but not an ounce of muscle had gone to fat. His clean-shaven head, death-theme tattoos, and single gold earring gave him a sinister look that bordered on the psychotic.
“Wh-who are you?” she stammered.
A cunning smile curled his lips. “Max Leandro. Bond enforcement officer. And your luck just ran out.”
It took a moment for Renee to comprehend his words, and when she did, a huge rush of panic swept through her. She’d been watching out for cops, who she assumed would announce their presence with bullhorns and bloodhounds. The last thing she expected was to be nabbed by a two-ton bounty hunter who looked as if he could bench-press a Buick.
He shoved his gun into the waistband of his jeans, yanked her wrists together in front of her, and snapped on a pair of handcuffs. He half led, half dragged her around the corner to his old Jeep Cherokee parked on the west side of the motel.
“No!” Renee said, trying to pull her arm away. “Please don’t do this! Please!”
“Oh, but I’ve got to. See, they’re holding a party at the county jail, and your name is at the top of the guest list.”
“Wait a minute!” She looked back over her shoulder. “What about my stuff? You can’t just leave—”
“Sure I can.”
He pushed her into the passenger seat through the driver’s door, then slid in beside her. He lit up a Camel, shoved a Metallica tape into the tape player, and peeled out of the motel parking lot.
Renee stared at the dashboard, feeling shock and disbelief and a whole lot of anxiety. In less than two hours she’d be back in the hands of the Tolosa police, and they wouldn’t be letting her out on bail again.
She glared at Leandro. “How did you find me?”
“By being the best, sweet thing.”
Damn. Why couldn’t she have been chased by a bounty hunter who graduated at the bottom of his class?
She tested the handcuffs with a furtive jerk or two, found them unyielding, then took stock of the rest of her situation. The door handle had been removed from the passenger side of the front seat. Glancing over her shoulder, she could see the back doors had gotten the same treatment. It appeared that plan A—leaping out of a moving vehicle—was not going to be an option.
“You’re making a terrible mistake,” she told him, putting plan B into action. “I’m innocent. You don’t want to take an innocent person to jail, do you?”
He made a scoffing noise. “Innocent, my ass. You got caught with the loot and the weapon.”
“The old lady who was robbed said the perp was a blond woman.”
“There are thousands of blondes—”
“She picked you out of a lineup.”
“I don’t know how—”
“Then there’s your record.”
Renee sat up suddenly. “How did you know about that?”
Leandro gave her a smug look. “I have ways.”
“I was a juvenile. Those records are supposed to be sealed!”
“The records are sealed. But cops’ lips aren’t. When you got dragged down to the station on the armed robbery rap, that headful of blond hair of yours spurred a few memories.” Leandro grinned. “Shouldn’t pour beer on a cop’s shoes, Renee. They don’t tend to forget that.”
Oh, God. Renee buried her head in her hands as that nasty little memory came flooding back. She was a bit fuzzy on the details of that night, except that she’d gotten very irate when a certain cop suggested that perhaps she and her friends shouldn’t be wandering around downtown at one in the morning, underage and dead drunk. She’d told him what she thought of his assessment of the situation by upending her Bud Light all over his spit-polished shoes. That had bought her a ticket to the county jail. Again.
“How could he remember that?” Renee said. “It was over eight years ago!”
“I guess you’re unforgettable, sweet thing. Particularly when you add in the rest of your record. Shoplifting, vandalism, joyriding—”
“I’ve been clean since then!”
“Once a criminal, always a criminal.”
She wished she had a nickel for every time she’d heard that, even though she knew it wasn’t true.
When she was seventeen, and had gotten caught riding with her boyfriend in a stolen car, the judge finally decided he’d had enough and tossed her into a juvenile detention center. Her mother had sobered up just long enough to attend the hearing, then went home, pulled out her bottle of Jim Beam, and toasted the judge for finally making somebody else responsible for the daughter she’d barely bothered to raise.
After she’d spent about three months in detention, the pain of incarceration became clear to Renee. But even though she’d seriously started to question the wisdom of a life of crime, she was still way too cool to let them see her sweat.
With her attitude still in question, she’d been invited to spend the day at a “scared straight” program, complete with twelve cussing, hard-core, screaming female convicts whose job it was to convince her and half a dozen other wayward teenage girls that prison was the last place they wanted to be. It had been a lesson Renee had never forgotten, and when they finally released her from the detention center, she promised herself she’d walk through hell if that was what it took to keep from having to go through that experience again.
It had been a long trip up from rock bottom, but she’d managed to make the climb, even when the first step had been a waitress job at Denny’s. Her juvenile record was history—or at least, it had been, until some cop with a savantlike memory decided to open his big mouth.
“There’s no way I could have committed that robbery,” she told Leandro. “I can’t stand the sight of guns. How could I possibly—”
“You’re wasting your breath. I don’t give a damn whether you’re guilty or not. I get paid either way.”
Renee gave a little snort of disgust. “Yeah. Charming profession you’ve got there.”
“It beats robbing convenience stores.”
“I told you I didn’t do it!”
He smiled. “That’s what they all say.”
Renee wanted to beat her head against the dashboard. This guy wouldn’t know innocence if it bit him on the nose. She turned and stared out the passenger window, watching the miles between her and incarceration slip away like sand through her fingers.
On the day the robbery happened, she’d been offered the assistant manager’s job at Renaissance, a four-star Italian restaurant with upscale clientele and an honest-to-God wine cellar. About to burst with excitement, she’d called her best friend Paula Merani to celebrate, only to remember that she was away on one of those weekend-for-two packages at a local hotel with her no-good boyfriend, Tom Garroway. So Renee ordered dinner from China Garden and ate it while she flipped around on the tube and thought about all the things she was going to do as assistant manager to help Renaissance get that elusive fifth star.
Then she decided her wonderful new job entitled her to splurge in the finest way possible—with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia—so she grabbed her purse and headed to the twenty-four-hour Kroger. A cop pulled her over because her taillight was out, and she couldn’t believe it when he extracted twelve hundred dollars and a semiautomatic pistol from the backseat of her car. To her utter amazement and subsequent horror, those items pointed to a convenience store robbery in the area only hours before. She didn’t have a clue how they’d gotten there. The arresting officer had been unmoved by her profession of innocence, and before she knew it, she’d landed in jail.
She met with the best defense attorney her savings could buy, a munchkin of a man who wore a tie wider than his chest and still had a piece of toilet paper stuck to a shaving cut on his neck. When his message seemed to be, “We both know you’re guilty but I have to defend you anyway,” Renee had a flashback to the walk she’d taken down a long row of prison cells with those convicts leering and jeering at her. That eight-hour descent into hell was a big part of the reason she’d built a respectable life, and ironically, it was the reason she was running now. Unfortunately, a big, bad bounty hunter with a heart the size of a pea had tracked her down, and innocent or not, she was going back to jail.
Renee glanced around the Jeep. Being driven to jail in this vehicle was like riding to hell in a New York subway car. A dozen cigarette butts littered the floor of the front seat, mingling with a handful of Milky Way wrappers and a copy of Muscle magazine. In the back, file folders stuffed to overflowing were scattered on the seat, interspersed with piles of crumpled fast-food sacks. It smelled like a Dumpster.
“This car is a pigsty,” she muttered, hating Leandro’s vehicle, hating his music, hating his choice of occupation. Hating him.
Copyright 2001 by Jane Graves