Cole Leighton can barely believe his eyes. A woman on his bus has just been abducted—in an exact reflection of a scene from the bestselling novel he's reading. Someone is bringing the book to life…and isn't above forcing an innocent woman to follow the story to its tragic end. Using the novel as his playbook, Cole catches up with the beautiful victim—but rescuing Kenzie Jacobs doesn't keep her safe for long. The killer is writing his own ending, and none of the twists and turns lead to happily ever after.
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If her car hadn't died that morning, Monique might not have, either. But the car died. Monique boarded a bus. And the fight for her life began.
Cole Leighton shifted on the bench and closed Obsession to study the cover. Surely the author hadn't given away the ending already. He'd never read a Warren Flint thriller, but this one caught his attention for some reason. Maybe because of the high praise or the blurb on the back. More likely because of the cover model. He glanced at her one more time: back pressed against a wall, delicate fingers splayed against the concrete block, slim figure silhouetted by a streetlight. But it was her face that held him. The wide eyes, the fear-laced expression partially hidden by dark hair blowing in a slight breeze. She drew him in.
Heels clicked against the sidewalk. A woman advanced toward the bus stop, gesturing with one hand while holding a phone to her ear.
"Mom, I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do about it…" Exaggerated patience sounded in her tone. "Yes, I know this is your last day in town, but my car just gave up the ghost. I'll be there, but I'm running late. Okay?"
So much for some quiet reading time. Cole gazed at the road, watching for the bus as she snapped her phone closed and sat down beside him.
She broke an awkward pause with a polite "How are you?"
He was in the middle of Atlanta. Smelling diesel fumes, fighting crowds and wishing for the hot Texas air. But he nodded and said, "Fine."
Her cell phone rang again. She groaned and silenced the ring. "Ever had one of those days where everything goes wrong?" she asked.
A wry smile tugged at Cole's lips, and he nodded. He finally turned to look her full in the face, then blinked. She looked hauntingly familiar. Where…?
She gave him a small smile.
Sucking in a breath, he tilted his head and studied her. Dark hair fell in shiny waves past her shoulders. A pale face with wide, sad eyes—
Those eyes narrowed. "Something wrong?"
Heat swept his face. Cole shook his head and looked away, down at Obsession's cover again. She could be the model's twin.
"Oh, good. Here it comes."
His bench partner pointed to a bus with orange stripes and a turquoise MARTA sign as it rounded the corner. Cole gathered his things and walked to the curb as the bus arrived. But hesitated before following her up the bus steps.
She chose a seat near the front, but, face still burning, Cole strode down the aisle. About halfway back, he dropped into an empty seat beside a James Earl Jones look-alike. His chest abnormally tight, Cole reached for the novel again.
She sat near the front and crossed her legs. One of her shoelaces dangled in the aisle, swinging like a slow pendulum as other passengers walked by. She studied the pedestrians outside the window, the way sunlight played off the apartment windows, the angle of the bus driver's hat, the warm leather of a passenger's jacket. She thought she should take a picture to help her remember this day for the rest of her life, every part of it.
But she would remember anyway.
The bus lurched forward, and Monique braced her hand against the seat in front of her. The gray fabric itched, but she held on, leaning into a curve. When the tree-lined road wound out of the commercial area—
Cole looked up from the page and stared at the gray fabric on the seat in front of him. Maybe he shouldn't be reading this. Not right here, right now, on a bus with the heroine's twin sitting in the second-row aisle seat. It was kind of like watching an in-flight movie with a plane crash somewhere in its plotline.
When Cole didn't settle back into the book, his seatmate took that as a cue to talk. "Beautiful day, ain't it, son? Makes me glad to be alive."
Cole followed the man's gaze to the window as the bus rounded a corner. Rays of sunlight spread through thick tree-cover, dancing over the grass of an undeveloped area.
The hair on the back of his neck prickled.
"Reminds me of home." A soft smile transformed the old man's face. "Back when my wife was alive, we used to—"
The bus swerved off the main road and ground to a halt. Out of the corner of his eye, Cole caught a flash of light— the sun glinting off metal.
This could not be happening.
But it was.
"Put your hands on the seat in front of you," a man's voice grated out. "Everyone! Hands on the seat where I can see them."
Cole spotted a second masked gunman just as a bullet tore through the roof of the bus. Someone screamed.
"I said now!"
"Do it, son." His seatmate sounded calm, but his withered hands trembled as he placed them on the top of the seat.
Cole obeyed, hot anger competing with cold chills.
"This is a holdup," the second man said, walking to the rear of the bus. "We don't want to hurt anyone. We just want your valuables."
Someone whimpered as a bag's contents hit the floor. A cheap pen rolled by, stopping near Cole's feet. He stared at the label and narrowed his eyes.
Why would someone hold up a bus? And why did he feel almost as if he'd known something like this was coming?
It felt like some crazy Western movie gone awry. Kenzie Jacobs gripped the seat in front of her and wished she could disappear. Her life seemed to be a series of bad days. Just when she didn't think things could get any worse…
She winced as the first gunman—the one with the leather jacket, the one who had been sitting right in front of her— shoved his weapon into the bus driver's face again.
"Get away from the radio!"
"Yes, sir," the driver said, holding his hands high.
The gunman jerked the driver to his feet, then marched him up the aisle with a gun pressed to the back of the man's head. Kenzie didn't watch. She couldn't. She closed her eyes and prayed that she wouldn't hear more gunfire, more screams, the sound of the driver's body hitting the floor.
"Keep your hands on the seats!" the second man yelled from the rear. "Heads down. No looking around. The faster we get your valuables, the faster you can get off this bus."
No shots. The driver would live another few minutes, at least.
Kenzie wished she could pull a Hollywood stunt and save the world… or at least this bus full of people. But she was never any good at saving people. So she lowered her head and closed her eyes and tried to keep the tears from pushing past her eyelids.
She didn't have anything of value with her. No jewelry. Little cash. One credit card. Even her shoes were inexpensive.
Something bumped her foot. Her eyes cracked open and she saw a gloved hand snatch her purse from the floor. The gunman breathed heavily near her ear. She could feel the heat radiating from him as he dumped her belongings. Her pocket knife hit the floor with a clatter. Lip gloss rolled to the front and thunked down the steps. A package of tissues landed near her shoes. She was glad they hadn't been open. She might need them today, if she ever made it to lunch with her mom.
When cold metal pressed against her temple, she was pretty sure she wouldn't.
The second gunman stood just in front of Cole. He could kick the thug's knees and throw his backpack over the man's face, if someone else could just go for the gun.
But the gun would go off before anyone could get it. Someone would die. And the bad guys would have to be together, or he'd have to take out the second man when the first one's back was turned. But how could he know, when he had to keep his head down? Peeking into the aisle gave him a full-on view of the man's camouflage jacket, Wolverine work boots and nothing else.
Maybe it would be all right. If everyone just relaxed, they could take the money and go, and everyone would be okay. Maybe heroics would be the wrong thing to do—would hurt people more than help.
He winced. Yeah, he was good at doing that. His gaze fell on Obsession—still open on his lap—and he skimmed down to where he'd left off. Where two gunmen told the bus passengers to put their heads down, their hands up, and robbed them.
Where they put a gun to Monique's head. Where the bad guys jerked her to her feet, marched her down the steps. His eyes jumped to the first line again.
If her car hadn't died that morning, Monique might not have, either.
Someone was going to die.
No. It was just a crazy book. One he didn't want to read anymore. He moved his leg, jostling the book closed.
Then he was the one with the business end of a pistol pointing at his head.
Cole settled his foot flat on the floor again and tried to slow his breathing, but his heart raced faster. He could feel the blood pulsing in his neck as he tried to remain motionless, to fight the urge to jerk away from the weapon, to not give the gunman the wrong idea.
"Thank you for your cooperation," the man in the front finally shouted.
The gun shifted, but remained inches away from Cole's ear. With it so close, he could grab the gun first, if he got lucky. Duck and grab, then drop the guy while the seat still protected him from the first man's gaze… and weapon.
The one he could use to fire at Cole anyway. Hitting the kid in front of him, or the man next to him. His seatmate met his eyes, blinked, mouthed, "No, son."
"Don't move! Keep your hands on the seats, your heads down."
Something rustled near the front. Cole's eyes settled on the book cover, with Monique gazing up at him. Frightened. Haunted.
"We're taking one of you with us."
The whimpers grew louder.
"If you move before five minutes, if someone calls the cops, if we don't get away clean, she's dead. But if you cooperate as well as you have so far, she'll be deposited somewhere, unharmed, for the police to find."
Monique's face merged with the girl from the bench, and Cole's heart lurched.
Kenzie stood in the aisle after being jerked to her feet. Numb, she looked toward the back of the bus. The man from the bus stop met her gaze for a split second as the guy in the camo jacket held a gun to his head. Then, nothing but a sea of hands. No faces except the two men leering at her with their eyes. No one to come to her rescue.
"Come on," said the man with the leather jacket, tugging on her arm. The other guy moved toward her and pointed his weapon at a nearby child. The message was clear: Struggle, and she'd take more down with her.
She walked with leaden feet, slowly descending the stairs. Her shoe touched the tube of lip gloss, and she watched dully as it fell to the ground beside the front tire. It was her favorite kind—discontinued. Her purse lay on the dusty floorboard. Maybe when it was all over she could pick up her things. Maybe the bus driver would hold them for her.
Maybe she'd no longer need them.
Her breath hitched as she was led to the road. Her captor gripped her arm, keeping a watchful eye on the bus. The other man disappeared from view. Moments later, a black van skidded to a halt, and the side door popped open.
"Your chariot, pet."
Just before they shoved her inside, she glanced back at the bus. Something crashed against her head.
Then everything went black.
* * *
Cole strained his ears but couldn't hear over the rumbling engine and crying passengers. Had the gunmen left on foot or in a getaway car?
The crying grew louder. One man raised his voice, shaky with fear. "Don't move. Don't want nobody hurt. They said five minutes. Still got four left."
Cole ignored the timekeeper, inching his head up high enough so he could see out the window. The street appeared empty except for a black van. It disappeared around the corner before he could get the license number. He felt under the seat for his belongings. The book was there. His cell phone, gone. They needed to get help fast, get the Atlanta PD looking for that vehicle before Moni—no, the girl from the bench— wound up dead.
Cole half stood, then jerked his gaze to the side as the old man gasped. His hands clutched his chest, and his mouth hung open as sweat trickled down the side of his face.
"Anyone still have a phone?" Cole yelled, leaping to his feet. "This man's having a heart attack!"
"Are you crazy?" the shaky voice yelled again. "Sit down before you get us all killed!"
A woman rose from the last seat and strode forward as the old man's head slumped against the window. "I'm an LPN."
"Good." Cole shoved her into his seat. "Someone help her." He ran up the aisle, but another man beat him to the driver's radio. Cole stared out the windshield. The van was long gone.
"The radio's busted," the man said. "And they took the keys."
"All right. Let's go."
The timekeeper raised his voice from halfway back. "Still got two minutes left, man. You go, you kill that girl."
Cole stiffened, trying to block the image of the girl's face—her sad eyes, her lips white with fear. If her car hadn't died that morning… "I stay, and this man dies."
Sirens blared. First a patrol car, then a fire truck, with an ambulance not far behind. Cole blew out a breath, glanced down the aisle where the nurse still hovered. It was out of his hands now. He could tell his story and go. The Atlanta Police Department and emergency response teams would take care of everything.
When the first policeman stepped from the car, the subdued silence on the bus gave way to controlled chaos. In a blur of movement, paramedics whisked the heart attack victim away, the bus was emptied and roped off and a staging area was set up farther down the blocked-off section of street.
Cole sat on the curb and mulled over his statement as emergency personnel began weaving through the crowd, treating injuries and checking those with medical conditions. He played the scene in his head, his pen flying over the paper as he jotted down what had happened, filling in as many details as he could remember.
Two men with black ski masks—he hadn't noticed their faces before the masks went on. Probably should have, because one had been seated right behind him. He should have known, somehow. Should have been able to—
Clenching the pencil tighter, he continued to write. The gun. The boots. Their clothes. The black van. James's heart attack. The search for a phone…
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