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Ignoring the burning in her thighs and tears stinging her eyes, Mia Landers ran. Her arms pumped up and down, propelling her through the thick woods. She had to reach her car before he caught her.
Dead leaves crunched under her feet, drowning out the pounding heartbeat in her ears. When stray branches scratched against her face, she pushed them out of the way and concentrated on staying steady on the patches of dirt beneath her.
The path had been lost to time and the night was pure black, but she refused to give up. Not when she could hear him screaming her name in a crazed frenzy behind her.
She blocked that out. Slam the door, shove the key in and drive away as fast as possible. That was the plan. She just had to make it to the car alive first.
His angry voice boomed around her, bouncing through the trees in this open area of Virginia
. Were they even in Virginia anymore? She had no idea.
The past hour played in her mind like a movie gone wrong. Her boss had said to drive and she did. Lost in spitting anger, he had rapid-fired commands at her and she followed them. They left the safety of her car, got out and walked.
Then he lost his mind.
Everything that came after moved in a blur. He had lunged, his face twisted and red with fury. She kicked and punched. The second he fell to his knees she took off. Problem was hitting him in the side of the head with her purse had only slowed him down.
Even now thudding steps rang out behind her, gaining and threatening, as his heavy breathing drew closer. She tried to pick up speed but the heels of her sensible pumps slid, throwing her off balance every time her foot struck the muddy ground. The only good news was that she wore a pantsuit that day. If she had picked out her usual pencil skirt that morning, she'd be dead.
The cold air burned as she forced it down her rough throat. Not that she could feel the chill on her skin. It didn't matter that she'd taken off her blazer. Her body had gone numb. But she could see the car. It sat about a hundred feet away.
The death grip on her keys pressed indentations into her palms, but she refused to let go. She'd already lost her cell phone when she dropped her purse. Scrambling around in the dark for the keys was not an option.
Just when she thought she'd never be free of the claustrophobic woods, she broke into the clearing and sprinted across the grass to the parked car. Unable to stop her momentum, her midsection slammed into the side of the sedan with a loud thump. The air rushed out of her lungs on impact. She doubled over, gasping as she struggled for breath.
Then she saw him standing there. Staring. Blood clumped on the side of his head and eyes wild with rage. The rip in the shoulder of his black suit jacket and scratches on his cheek gave testimony to the battle she'd fought before struggling out of his grasp.
Her key chain jangled in her hand, breaking through her stupor. She fumbled as her heart galloped, glancing away from him only long enough to hit the button for the automatic locks to throw the door open.
Her whole body trembled as she fell into the seat and locked her body in. Blood raced through her veins as the sound of her heavy breathing filled the car.
Like a vicious demon, dark and evil, he descended on her, roaring as he came. The heels of his hands slammed against her window. "Get out!"
She flinched at the mix of pounding and yelling, fearing every minute that he would break through the glass and grab her.
She didn't wait. The key turned just as he struck his fists against the hood of the car. Banging crashed in around her. Ducking, she waited for the metal to cave in. When it held, she swallowed back the panic building in her throat.
Fingers wrapped around the steering wheel, back hunched over, she hit the gas. The engine revved and tires spun.
Still he wouldn't let up. He beat his fists against the car. With the pedal pressed hard into the floor, the back end finally swung around and knocked right into him. His eyes grew huge just before he yelped. His fingernails screeched against her window as he went down.
She didn't check to see if he got up again.
To gain traction she lifted her foot off the gas and forced her thigh to ease back down again. With control restored, she took a quick look around for the nearest exit through the trees. Her memory jumbled. She saw only a dirt area and surrounding woods.
Blinking, she tried to remember how she got in there. When she focused again, he stood right in front of her car.
Warped anger rolled off of him in waves. An arm hung loose at his side. His face screwed up in a mask of insane fury.
She ran the car right into him. Aimed for his stomach and gunned it.
His body disappeared under the front of her car. To avoid rolling over him, she backed up and then maneuvered the vehicle around in a circle. Dust kicked up around the shaking metal as her tires squealed. With a quick glance in her rearview window at his crumpled and unmoving form, she took off, refusing to feel a second's guilt.
She drove without a destination, fueled by adrenaline and terror and little else. Blackness enveloped her from all sides. The area lacked street signs and lights. Nothing marked the way or pointed toward civilization.
Why did he bring her out here? She turned the question over in her mind. The possibilities raced by her.
To keep from crashing, she forced her brain back to the task at hand. She needed to concentrate on the escape and the Y in the dirt road in front of her. Nothing felt familiar. Anxiety bubbled up in her stomach. Biting her lower lip, she closed her eyes and chose the right branch at random.
About a half mile in, her car rattled and dipped as she drove over rocks and through divots. She didn't remember the road being this rough. She didn't remember anything except her heart pulsing hard enough to set off a knocking in her head.
The steering wheel shifted from side to side and she clenched her fists tighter in a futile attempt to keep control. On the verge of giving up hope, she made out the shadow of a building in the distance. Lights. If it was a hallucination, it was a welcome one.
Holding on tighter, she aimed for a driveway, anything to indicate life, a phone and the policeany order would do so long as she got help and found safety. Her shoulders relaxed and her breaths came more easily.
The clunk took her by surprise. The back end of her car went one way and the front another. The bleak night hid the pattern of the road. She didn't know what she ran over, but it was something. Something big that had her back tires bouncing against the ground and the steering wheel slipping further out of her sure grasp.
The structure, a small house, came up fast. One minute it loomed in the distance. The next she was on top of it. Before she could hit the brakes she smashed through a wooden fence. And kept right on going.
She pumped the brakes. The car slowed but refused to stop. She hit the pedal and slid her fingers over the console in search of the emergency brake. But it was too late. She glanced up in time to see the cabin's front door crash right into the hood.
Holden Price leaned his head back against his couch and threw his baseball in the air for what felt like the hundredth time. Much more of this and his catching hand would go numb.
Being on paid leave was not his idea of a good time. More like torture.
Up until two months ago he'd worked undercover with the Recovery Project, an off-the-books government agency fronting as an antiques salvage operation. He found missing people for a living, those on the run who didn't want to be found and those who were desperate for rescue.
One case gone wrong and pencil-pushing higher-ups disbanded the Project and subpoenaed his boss, Rod Lehman, to Capitol Hill for top-secret congressional subcommittee hearings. It all sounded like a load of bureaucratic crap to Holden.
He'd spent his twenties in the army and the first four years of his thirties at the Project. Without the routine of work the past few weeks dragged. He couldn't remember ever being this bored.
The ball thumped against his palm before he whipped it into the air again. The seam turned end over end as it traveled halfway to his family-room ceiling. It ran out of oomph and began falling back down just as the lights on his outside alarm system flickered to life on the panel next to the door.
Shrill beeps filled the room and kept right on cycling. When tires squealed outside the large double window across from him, Holden lifted his head and saw the blinding headlights weaving and shifting straight up his lawn.
The sights and sounds refused to register in his brain. By design, his cabin sat in the middle of nowhere. He dealt with dangerous people and life-threatening situations. The unsettling mix had convinced him long ago to set up a sanctuary, a place of peace known only to a few friends who also happened to be gun-carrying colleagues.
And now someone was violating the safety zone he'd created, using more than three thousand pounds of automobile as a weapon to do it.
He scrambled off the cushion and grabbed for the gun in his side table. He hit the floor on his right shoulder just as the sedan smacked through his front door. The crashing boom rattled the cabin's foundation.
The wood creaked and splintered. Studs crumbled. The lights dimmed as the exposed wires fell from the smashed ceiling panels and pushed the electricity nearly to the breaking point.
With dust flying and pieces of furniture scattered everywhere, Holden sat still, his back to what was left of the couch and his gun aimed at the bowed head in the front seat of the car. Long blond hair mixed with the broken windshield glass even as the white-knuckled grip continued its hold on the steering wheel.
His attacker was a she.
And possibly dead.
She also didn't have an air bag, which he found odd. Not that any part of the past two minutes had been normal.
Slow and as quiet as a man of his size could manage, he jumped to his feet. The muzzle didn't waver. Neither did his stare. If she moved, he'd be ready to shoot.
Glass crunched under his feet as he approached the front of the car. The house alarm blared, but Holden tuned it out. His focus centered on her. Whoever "her" was.
"Lift your head." He issued the order in his best you're a dead woman tone. Nothing.
To keep from going deaf, he headed for the alarm. Shifting around the side of the car and keeping his body square with the mystery driver, he reached out to disarm the thing. He lifted his hand and felt nothing but the cool March night air.
Snow hadn't fallen in Northern Virginia this week, but the crisp smell signaled what could be a final winter blast. Now that he lacked a front wall, that was going to be a problem.
Glancing down, he traced his foot through the debris littering what was once a shiny hardwood floor. No sign of the panel, but he did spy his keys. As he leaned down to grab the chain, the driver's head popped up.
She screamed loud enough to make his ears shrivel.
The shriek echoed inside his brain, drowning out the annoying sound of the alarm. In two seconds, he hit the code on his key chain to stop the electronic screeching. At the same time, he leveled the gun at the woman's forehead in an attempt to quiet her.
"Stop," he ordered.
"Do not move." When she tried to open her door, he lifted his foot and kicked it shut on her again. "Hey!"
"You're not listening. Stay right there." Her hand shook as she pressed it to her forehead. "What are you doing?"
"Setting the ground rules." The skin at corners of her eyes wrinkled.
"This is my house."
She shook her head and then grabbed it. "I don't understand," she said in a voice rough with what sounded like pain.
He didn't know what to believe. Hard to trust a woman who used his family room as a parking lot.
"Yeah, we'll see about that," he mumbled.
Her gaze shot to the gun and then back at his face. "Who are you?"
The look of wild-eyed panic had him thinking she might actually not know, but he wasn't taking the chance. "We're going to focus on my questions first. What are you doing here? "
" Turning her head with a careful slowness that suggested an injury, she looked around the inside of the car. She glanced up and over the wheel as if noticing for the first time the damage around her. "Did I crash?"
The stuttering tone and dropped jaw were nice touches. Added to the sham.
Holden didn't buy any of it. "Uh, yeah. That's one way of putting it."
"Where am I?"
"In the middle of my family room. Now, tell me your name."
"Mia Landers." She shifted her upper body and winced.
His elbows locked. "Stay right there."
"I need to get up."
"Are you hurt, Mia? "
She bit her lower lip. "I don't know."
Not exactly the answer he expected. "It's a simple question. Yes or no?"
He gave her two options and she picked a third. Interesting. "What does that mean?"
"I'm kind of numb."
Shock. Assassin or bad driver, he still wasn't sure but he did know she probably needed medical attention. "Open the door nice and slow."
She stared down at her lap. "I can't
From the glassy stare it looked as if his unwanted guest was losing it and fast. He stepped closer and followed her gaze to her legs. Minimal blood and room to move around under the dash, as far as he could tell. Just in case the stunned unblinking stare was a ruse, he didn't let up.