When disaster strikes, a Colton comes to the rescue!
When an earthquake hits Mustang Valley, first responder Grayson Colton finds an abandoned truck—and a fugitive in need of help. Savannah Oliver claims she’s been falsely accused of her husband’s murder. Grayson’s protective instincts come out in full force as he helps Savannah prove her innocence. But as Savannah’s past comes back to haunt her, Grayson must use every survival tactic he knows to keep them both alive.
The Coltons of Mustang Valley series:
Colton Baby Conspiracy by Marie Ferrarella
Colton’s Lethal Reunion by Tara Taylor Quinn
Colton Family Bodyguard by Jennifer Morey
Colton First Responder by Linda O. Johnston
In Colton’s Custody by Dana Nussio
Colton Manhunt by Jane Godman
Colton’s Deadly Disguise by Geri Krotow
Colton Cowboy Jeopardy by Regan Black
Colton’s Undercover Reunion by Lara Lacombe
Deadly Colton Search by Addison Fox
Hunting the Colton Fugitive by Colleen Thompson
Colton’s Last Stand by Karen Whiddon
From Harlequin Romantic Suspense: Danger. Drama. Passion.
About the Author
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The word kept reverberating through Savannah Oliver's mind, and not only now. It had done so for days. Even longer.
That wasn't surprising. This couldn't be happening.
But of course she knew it was.
She looked around the bland — yet terrifying — enclosed back area of the ugly transport van that was returning her to the Arizona Prison Complex in Phoenix. From where she sat strapped onto a bench — not particularly for her safety — with her back against the partition leading to the driver's area, she glanced up toward the high, wire-meshed rear windows of the van. No way could she get out of the vehicle through those and onto the rural road, in the middle of nowhere, that they now traversed. The windows were too small — and besides, cuffs kept her hands shackled together behind her.
She couldn't brush any of her hair away from her face. It was shoulder length and blond — and disheveled, she assumed, as it so often was these days.
She couldn't even secure it with one of the pretty hair clips she loved. She couldn't brush away any tears, either, but fortunately those had nearly stopped — though they threatened to begin again any moment.
Without meaning to, she looked down at her legs as she sat there — and nearly smiled in irony. At least she had been allowed to dress in brown slacks and a beige shirt for this outing, instead of the bright orange prison jumpsuit that was her usual attire these days. Her shoes were the same ones she wore every day now — casual black slip-ons.
She had just been in court. Not only had she been arraigned, but she had been denied bail. She would remain in prison — and not just the local jail because of the severity of her alleged crime — until her trial, and who knew when that would be?
But did it matter? Her lawyer, Ian Wright, had promised he'd try for bail, but he had warned her in advance that it was unlikely. She had already been labeled a flight risk, and the charges against her were serious. Very serious.
He had also told her that, notwithstanding the solid defense he would mount for her, she was likely to be convicted.
Now she sat on one of the few seats in this area of the van as it continued forward, attempting futilely once more to pull her hands out of the cuffs.
Wishing she had some way to get out of there, even if it involved somehow shoving open one of those windows and squeezing through. Better yet, if she could open one of the doors where the windows were located, and leap down onto the road.
Of course, she'd get badly injured, or worse.
But what could be worse than being incarcerated, possibly forever, for a crime she didn't commit?
A crime that might not have been committed at all, since no body had been found.
She was accused of murdering her ex-husband, Zane Oliver. Good old Zane.
Horrible, disgusting, appalling Zane.
His body hadn't been found, and she felt certain he wasn't really dead.
No, more likely he was hanging out somewhere, laughing at setting her up this way. He'd learn about this hearing, confirm that she wasn't permitted bail. And he'd smile and smile ...
She needed to get her mind off this somehow. She needed a shoulder to cry on, but for the moment, at least, she was all alone.
Except for the driver in the cab of the van. He'd been the same one who'd driven her to court.
His name was Ari. They'd been introduced as she was led into the van at the prison and strapped in before heading to the courthouse. Not that he'd said a word to her then. He was young and skinny, with dark hair and a constant frown, dressed in a police uniform.
Of course they'd send a cop to ensure that vicious, murderous Savannah wouldn't harm anyone else.
She cringed at the irony her own mind presented.
Outside the courthouse, all Ari had done was to open the back door and unhook her when they'd arrived. Then he'd handed her over to another uniformed cop, who had led her inside to the courtroom where her attorney waited, as did the District Attorney, Karly Fitzpatrick. She'd been shown where to sit — as if that was a surprise. Right up front, facing the judge. The procedure had gone forward, with its terrible result, not even any bail, and she had been led back outside, handcuffed again and strapped once more into this van.
Ari had acknowledged her only with a nod of his head.
But now — well, she could at least try to get his attention. She turned as much as she could to face the closed window that led into the van's cab.
"Ari?" she called. "Ari, I know we're still a distance from the prison, and ... well, I have a bit of an emergency back here."
She had many emergencies, but she was making up the one she would tell him about.
He didn't respond, or at least she didn't hear him.
"Ari, could we please stop at a gas station or something? I really need to use the restroom."
She concentrated to hear beyond the vehicle's rumble and the road noise beneath it in case Ari was mumbling, but she heard nothing.
Not that she was surprised. Even if she did have that kind of emergency, he probably wouldn't care. She'd either have to tough it out or just go — Bam!
The van shook horribly at the same time Savannah experienced a shocking, deafening sound that lasted several seconds, maybe the loudest noise she had ever heard. She screamed, wishing yet again that her hands were free, this time so she could cover her ears.
Better yet, she wished she could use them to brace herself, since the van was careening from side to side. She hurtled back and forth despite being strapped in. She had to protect herself.
What had happened? What was that noise? Why hadn't the van stopped? Had it hit something? Had something hit it?
But no. The vehicle skidded and finally stopped with Savannah still attached to the seat, and even then the ground continued to shake beneath it.
Noises of other kinds abounded, too — as if trees were thudding to the ground. Savannah added to the noise, calling for help, unsure what to do.
She hadn't wanted to return to prison — but was she instead going to die?
She finally realized the likely source of the shaking, the bumping and the sounds.
No time to think about it — though she'd been in a few smaller quakes and tremors here in Arizona. She hadn't had her life endangered then.
And now — what could she do?
Before any ideas came to her, the worst noise and movement of all occurred — a smashing metallic sound, abrupt. The van had hit something ... hard. Or been hit. Something must have crashed down onto the front of the stopped van, behind where Savannah now lay side-ways on the bench, her back sore from where it had hit the partition.
She screamed for help again. But she realized in a moment that one good thing — maybe — had come out of it. Her seat belt had loosened.
The van finally stopped moving. Whatever had happened, it remained upright. And Savannah tried to stand, wondering if the vehicle would begin shifting again.
Slowly, crouching, ignoring her soreness, which was fortunately not too bad, she made her way to the door. She had to go backward. The only way she had a chance of opening that door would be to use her hands, and they remained cuffed behind her.
At least the van wasn't moving any longer. She thought about calling out to Ari again but decided to wait, to try to get outside and find him, and maybe they could get to safety together.
Better yet, maybe she could somehow sneak away.
She wished she could see better. But the fact that the evening was already growing darker didn't help. Even so, she managed to find the door with her bound hands behind her, as well as the handle on one side that opened it. Was it locked from the outside? She hoped not.
She pushed down the handle — and the door opened! She felt like shouting in triumph, but this was only a small step in the right direction.
Speaking of steps, could she find the ones at the back of the van and get down without falling? She wouldn't be able to hold on with her hands behind her.
She shoved the door open as well as she could, still moving backward, then very slowly lowered her right leg till her foot touched a step. She glanced down but could see very little in the darkness. She carefully allowed her left foot to join the right one, and then remained on that step for a few seconds, half expecting the ground to roll again beneath her — or for Ari to show up and shove her back inside.
Neither happened. And after a short while she went down to the next step. The one below that was the ground, and she soon stood there, outside the van, breathing fast and allowing herself to smile, if only a little.
She had beaten one hurdle but there could be plenty more to follow.
She turned and looked at the road behind her. It was narrow, and there was some light shining on it from a few dim electric streetlights spaced long distances apart, probably put there for safety since the road was so rural. Yikes. It seemed amazing that any of the light poles had survived. Most of the trees around there hadn't.
Uprooted, they splayed onto the concrete, and one even blocked part of the road.
Had it been one of them that hit the van? Savannah assumed so, so she started walking carefully around the vehicle on the driver's side.
Sure enough, a large tree had obliterated that part of the cab, crushing the car from the hood all the way to the passenger area. Savannah swallowed hard as she drew closer, looking at the smashed area where Ari had sat to drive.
How amazing that the tree had only crushed the front of the van, and not where she had been sitting. Despite all that had been happening to her, she had actually experienced a little bit of luck.
But what about Ari? Had he been hit by the tree?
She hoped he'd had time to slide over to the other side, assuming it was less destroyed.
As she got closer, she even called out his name. "Ari?
Ari, are you okay?"
She heard nothing — and as she got to the huge tree branch that stuck out past the crumpled van door, she managed to look inside.
And backed up fast.
Ari was there ... what was left of him. She couldn't see everything with those branches there, but she did see part of his body. What she could make out was covered with blood.
She gasped. "Ari?" she said again. No response. No movement. Since the window was broken, she made herself turn and carefully reach inside, her hands still behind her, and managed to touch Ari's neck. No indication of a pulse — and considering what he looked like, she knew he was dead.
She felt tears stream down her face. Okay, she hadn't liked the guy, and he clearly had felt no compassion toward her. It wasn't his job to give a damn about her. But no matter who he was, she didn't wish this on anyone. She moved away — but what could she do now? She had only the slightest idea where they were, since she really didn't know the route from the courthouse to the prison, and this was way off in the middle of nowhere. And even if she wasn't hit by a falling tree, how long could she survive out here in the elements, after an awful earthquake — and unable to free or use her hands?
Ari had secured her in the back of the van, remembering to check her handcuffs before they'd left. Was there any possibility he'd kept the keys?
Surely so. He'd need to unlock the cuffs when they reached the prison. Of course there might be a separate set there, but just in case he had one, she moved toward the passenger side of the van's front cab, going around the back of the truck since the tree blocked her from the front.
As she walked, she listened. No more loud sounds like those caused by the quake but there were plenty of calls of animals and birds in the surrounding area. No sound of other vehicles — or people — that she could hear. Nothing else suggesting further tremors — or worse.
At least not at the moment.
Reaching the passenger door, she turned around and used her bound hands to try to open it.
And amazingly, there was a key ring attached to the console between the two seats. Not only that, but there was a small leather suitcase on the floor — and it had her name on it. She'd seen it before. It contained some of her personal possessions that the cops had seized upon her arrest and kept at the prison — and would have been given back to her in the event she was released from court that day.
Well, that hadn't happened, but those were still her things.
She tried not to look at Ari any more than she had to as she entered the van — although she did see his bleeding arm and grasped his wrist, again hoping for some sign of life, but there was none. She then turned so she could grab the keys. She got out and laid the keys on the seat. Contorting with a lot of effort, she tried to un- lock the cuffs.
No luck, damn it. Not at first, at least. But somehow she managed to succeed after five minutes of trying over and over.
There! She shook her hands free and dropped the cuffs on the ground. She wouldn't need them and didn't want to see them ever again. Next, she grabbed her bag from the floor.
She couldn't help glancing once more at Ari. He hadn't moved. No surprise.
"I'm so sorry, Ari," she said, meaning it. He'd just been doing his job — and that probably included ignoring requests and pleas from suspects he was transporting.
She looked around at what she could see of the road, the surrounding forest, the downed trees and more. She still had no idea where she was — but she nevertheless got moving, running for her life.
She was free! At least for now. And somehow, she needed to use this opportunity to clear her name, though she'd no idea how yet.
She only knew she had to find her rat of an ex. Unless he'd actually stayed around this area and had been killed in the quake.
Under other circumstances, she would cheer at that idea — but she had to find him, to make him confess to his lies, so she would be able to show the world that she was no murderer, no matter how much she detested the creep.
So now she ran into the vaguely illuminated night, carrying her bag, having no idea where she was going — but hoping she would find some kind of shelter ... and somehow survive.
After the initial earthquake more than an hour ago, Grayson Colton had foreseen that the drive along this rural yet usually well-traveled road leading out of Mustang Valley, Arizona, would be a battle against nature. But after his initial assistance and communications, he had chosen this part of town and beyond to search for people who needed help after the highly disturbing tremors the area had experienced.
And was still experiencing to some extent, since the ground continued to rock now and then with aftershocks.
Grayson slowly drove his specially equipped company SUV along what was left of the road as well as he could, avoiding, where possible, the cracks and cavities in the formerly well-paved surface — as well as some downed trees. It was dark out, so his headlights helped him see what he was coming up against. So did the few but helpful lights on remaining poles along the roadside. That moderate quake, reported so far as 5.9 in magnitude, had been centered around here, so he had taken it upon himself to head this way. He knew what he was doing — although his staff members did, too, or they wouldn't be working for him.
Right now, he had to traverse what was left of this minor highway as best he could. It was who he was, his responsibility, his calling.
And more. He had founded, and continued to run, First Hand First Responders. His small but significant agency employed dedicated first responders who assisted official responders in the police and fire departments, hospitals and other formal emergency organizations in Mustang Valley. And FHFR members helped out often, since the authorized organizations were understaffed in this area.
Grayson had been at his company headquarters when the quake struck that evening. Not much damage had been done to the three-story building he owned in town, fortunately, although the walls had swayed around him and some items on top of desks and shelves had been thrown to the floor.
Calls and police radio communications had immediately started coming in to the office from the Mustang Valley Police Department, including its primary 911 dispatcher and other agencies.
Apparently the structures housing the police and fire departments and even the local hospital hadn't been damaged significantly, a good thing. Same thing with local schools, from what he'd heard. But quite a few buildings in town had suffered damage, sometimes significant, particularly in older areas. As had a bunch of homes, And who knew what people were out and about and might be in danger?
That took first responders to find out. And the authorities who called had requested their help — extensively and immediately.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Colton First Responder"
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