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Dana was in love with a complete stranger. She could admit it. Or she could have admitted it, if she’d had anyone to admit it to.
She eyed him in the parking lot as she leaned against the lamppost and stretched her quads. Tall, wide shoulders, strong runner’s legs. He had shaggy brown hair that Dana would have once considered sloppy but now seemed sexy beyond belief. She imagined combing her fingers through it, imagined it would feel thick and silky.
The main attraction wasn’t his looks, though. It was his commitment. He was here every day at six a.m. sharp. You could set a watch by it.
He closed the door of his dusty black Jeepone of the old ones that clearly had lots of miles on it. Not a fancy car, and he probably didn’t have a fancy job, either, but Dana didn’t care about that. She’d dated men with money before. They’d burned her life beyond recognition, and she’d made a vow to herself: never again.
It was one of the many vows she’d made over the last year.
He set off on the hike-and-bike trail, and Dana waited a moment to give him a head start. She zipped her phone into the pouch clipped around her waist and then stepped onto the path, taking a deep breath as the soles of her shoes hit gravel. Setting a brisk pace, she felt her muscles start to loosen and warm.
She looked ahead at Blue. That was the name she’d given him the day he glanced up from the drinking fountain and his turquoise eyes hit her like a sucker punch. She’d been so mesmerized she’d hardly noticed the water’s rusty taste as she gulped down a sip and watched him walk away.
Blue was way ahead of her now, and he would stay way ahead of her for the entire six-mile loop. If she was lucky, she’d pass him beside the fountains, and they’d trade nods before she set off on the rest of her morning.
Or maybe not. Maybe this would be the day she summoned the courage to strike up a conversation.
The morning air was already thick with humidity as the sky went from indigo to lavender over the treetops. The trail was almost empty, which was how she liked it. Just the die-hard runners and some power walkers. Dana settled into her rhythm as she passed the boat docks where long red kayaks still were racked and chained. She smelled fresh dew on the reeds by the lake, along with the faint scent of rotting vegetation, which would grow more pungent as the sun climbed higher in the sky. It would hit triple digits today. Again. Dana still wasn’t accustomed to the Texas heat or the way the weather here could turn on a dime.
“On your left,” a voice growled.
Dana’s heart lurched as a cyclist whisked past her. She muttered a curse at him. The guy swerved, barely missing a jogging stroller coming around the bend, pushed by a flush-cheeked woman in yoga pants.
Of everyone on the trail, the manic stroller moms bugged Dana the most, especially at this hour. She couldn’t imagine rousting a child from sleep and driving to the lakefront, then shoving a sippy cup into pudgy little hands to serve as a distraction while Mom squeezed in a workout. Passing the stroller, Dana caught a glimpse of a cherubic toddler with brown curls, not much older than Jillian.
Just thinking of Jillian made Dana’s heart swell. It was something she’d never expected when she’d first taken the nanny job. How could you truly love someone else’s kid? But it turned out you could. Dana would have jumped in front of a bus for that child. Maybe it was human instinct. Protect the innocent. Or maybe it was something else, some deep-rooted impulse that hinted at future motherhood. When Dana had first identified the feeling, she’d felt relieved. It told her she was okay. Mostly. It told her that despite the ugly things she’d seen and done, her moral compass was still intact.
The trail narrowed and wended through the cypress trees. Most people hung a left onto the pedestrian bridge at this point, but not Blue. He did the full loop and crossed the lake at the dam, predictable as clockwork. At first when Dana began shadowing him it had been a struggle, and she’d ended each workout feeling dizzy and depleted. But now she was stronger. Her thighs still ached, and her lungs still burned, but she pushed through, and the heady rush at the end of each run was her reward.
The trail narrowed again, and the woods became thicker. Dana heard the faint crunch of gravel. Her senses perked up, and she glanced over her shoulder.
Her blood chilled.
A man jogged behind her, maybe twenty yards back, and she’d seen him before. Dana focused on the path ahead, listening to the rhythm of his footsteps. Her pulse started to thrum. Where had she seen him? Her brain kicked into gear, retracing her steps over the past twenty-four hours. She’d been to work, the grocery store, home. She tried to recall the faces in the checkout line, or anyone she’d passed in the lobby of her apartment building. She pictured the man without looking back: tall, buzz cut, heavy eyebrows. Where had she seen him before?
You’re being paranoid.
You’re being paranoid.
You’re being paranoid.
The words echoed through her mind as she pounded down the trail. She peered ahead, searching for Blue on the path, but she couldn’t see him anymore, couldn’t see anyone. This section was practically deserted.
The footfalls came faster, and panic spurted through her. Why had he changed his pace?
Dana changed hers, too, trying to catch up to Blueor anyone, at this point. The slap of shoes behind her sounded closer now.
Sweat streamed down her back. She visualized where she was on the trail. About a quarter mile ahead was a nature center. To her right, through a patch of trees and bushes, was a parking lot. Would someone be there now? It wasn’t even six thirty.
Dana’s breath grew ragged. Her skin prickled, and her blood turned icy. With every footfall she knew that the years and the miles and the lies had finally caught up to her. There would be no more running.
And there would be no mercy.
With a trembling hand, she unzipped her pouch and took out her phone. She thumbed in the passcode. Should she really do this? Maybe she was overreacting.
But no. She wasn’t.
She darted another glance over her shoulder.
Eye contact. And Dana knew.
She bolted into the woods, plowing through bushes and darting around trees. Behind her, she heard the distant but unmistakable swish-swish of her pursuer moving through the brush. Dana’s heart thundered as she pressed the contact number. Every swish-swish ratcheted up her terror. Finally, the call connected.
“Tabby, it’s me. It’s happening!” Just saying the words made her stomach clench. “It’s happening!”
Dana hurled the phone into the bushes and cast a frantic glance behind her. She couldn’t see him anymore, but she knew he was back there, felt it in her core. Every nerve ending burned with the certainty of being chased.
Where was the damn parking lot? Through the trees, she glimpsed a patch of asphalt and the red hood of a car. She ran faster, swiping at the branches. Thorns snagged her clothes and sliced her arms, but she clawed through the bushes as fast as she could, sprinting for the red.
A tall figure stepped into her path. Dana gave a squeak and stopped short.
The man moved closer. His eyes bored into hers, and she knew she’d been right. Not paranoid at all, but right.
He took another step forward, and Dana’s gaze landed on the knife in his hand. A silent weapon. Of course.
Terror pierced her heart as he stepped nearer. Tears stung her eyes.
“Please,” she rasped. “I’ll do anything.”
Another step, and she could smell the sweat on his skin now. He was that close. Her heart jackhammered and she knew this was it. Fight-or-flight time.
She let the tears leak out. Let him think he’d won.
“Please . . .”
The man smiled slightly.
Dana turned and ran.