After crossing a mob lawyer, Olivia Dillon knows she has to run for her life. But on the way to her great-aunt's remote Arizona ranch, she's forced off the road. The message is clear. She can run, she can hide but she'll never be safe again. So with Elijah Moralesthe rancher next doorby her side, she's determined to face the danger head-on. The former Army Ranger and natural-born protector promises to end the attacks against her. Even if helping her puts him directly in harm's way. Staying means risking his life, but can Olivia leave to confront her enemiesand the futurewithout Elijah?
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Olivia Dillon gripped the steering wheel of her sedan tighter and pressed the accelerator a little harder. She didn't want to drive recklessly, but Las Vegas, Nevada, and the threat to her life were only two hundred and fifty miles behind her.
She'd left the busy interstate twenty minutes ago, turning onto a quieter county highway that snaked gradually upward through scrubby Arizona high desert. To her right and left, shadowy rust-colored mesas towered like thunderheads in the distance. Straight ahead, the crumbly strip of asphalt angled sharply upward.
When summoning the courage to leave Vegas, she'd promised herself she would be at her great-aunt's ranch in Painted Rock, Arizona, before dark. That wasn't going to happen. Jamming the last few items from the apartment she'd just vacated into her rented storage space had taken longer than expected. Now the sun barely clung above the horizon to the west and she still had several more miles to go.
"It will be okay," she told herself for probably the hundredth time today. Not that she believed it.
She continued on, covering another twenty miles and gaining close to a thousand feet in elevation. The sun dropped off the edge of the world and the surrounding purple dusk took on a darker tinge.
She arrived at the edge of the tree line marking the start of rich northern Arizona forest, so she must be on the right track. A few more miles and the highway would intersect with the turnoff for Painted Rock, the only town for miles.
A flicker of light in the rearview mirror drew her attention to a set of car headlights in the gray distance behind her. It was the first car she'd seen since leaving the interstate.
She turned her gaze back to the road in front of her.
A few minutes later, a flicker of light in the mirror caught her eye again. She was startled to see the car had covered half the distance between them. That wasn't possible. Not unless the driver was going over a hundred miles an hour.
Well, she'd just get out of the way. The guy was probably drunk. She scanned the side of the road up ahead, looking for a place to pull over. But she'd just entered the forest and there was nowhere she could go. No breakdown lane. No service roads.
Nervous, fluttery fear shifted anxiously in her chest. What if the driver didn't see her? What if he glanced at a text message just as he came upon her? Her life could be over in an instant. Here, in the middle of nowhere instead of in Las Vegas. How ironic that would be.
She glanced in the mirror to see how close the car was now.
Bright white high-beam headlights suddenly flashed on just inches behind her rear window. She jumped in surprise. The fluttery fear in her chest was now a frantic, clawing animal.
It had to be a truck or an SUV behind her. The headlights were high enough to bore through her back window and blind her to the road ahead. Terrified she'd careen off the road, she tapped her brakes. The vehicle behind her smacked her bumper hard and her head snapped back against her headrest. Then the vehicle backed off.
Eerie, constantly shifting shadows danced through the inside of her sedan before her car interior suddenly lit up again. Another hard smack to her bumper jolted her. The light suddenly shifted to the side. Now what?
The tormenting vehicle passed her and shot off toward the darkness ahead only to stop suddenly, the tail-lights glaring at her like a pair of angry red eyes. The truck made a quick U-turn and headed back toward her.
This wasn't some random jerk who was drunk or high. This was someone deliberately out to hurt her. It had to be Ted Kurtz. The man who had promised to kill her. She let go a sound that was halfway between hysterical laughter and a terrified sob.
Just three weeks ago he'd warned her that her life wasn't worth much.
"It will be okay," she whispered, tired of the whole thing, drained by weeks of fear and exhausted by the sheer will it had taken to leave the safety of her apartment and take this trip.
The headlights grew nearer, and then suddenly they were right in front of her, in her lane and bearing down fast. Blinded again by the bright light, she didn't know what to do.
At the last second before impact, Olivia wrenched her steering wheel hard to the right. For the span of a couple of heartbeats she felt an odd, peaceful silence. Then her car was spinning sideways, careening over thick grass, scraping its undercarriage over chunks of rock, snapping the branches off pine trees and tossing up dirt in an arc all around her.
When she finally came to a stop, she continued to clutch the steering wheel for a long time. She was still alive. Thank You, Lord. Thank You. Thank You. The words tumbled over and over in her mind. Not a prayer, exactly, but the closest she'd come to one in a while.
The dirt she'd stirred up slowly settled. She was facing the direction she'd just come from. Her engine had cut off, but both her headlights were still working.
She sat for a moment in the stillness, frozen in place. Images of what could have happened, what might still happen, flashed through her mind. Jagged, twisted metal. An explosion flaring into a fireball in the night sky. Herself just, well, gone.
The sound of her own shallow, uneven breaths brought her back to the moment. All too familiar with how controlling fear could be, she forced herself to move her arms a little and turn her head. Her muscles felt watery. The heavy, thudding pulse in the pit of her stomach made it hard to take a deep breath. But she forced herself to do it.
Her foot was jammed against the brake pedal. She lifted it and flexed it. Sore, but not sprained.
She looked around, able to see for a few car lengths directly in front of her but for only a foot or two to each side and behind.
Her attacker could still be out there. Ted Kurtz or maybe some crackhead thug he'd hired to kill her. She needed to get out of here before he came back.
With shaking hands she turned the key. The engine groaned but wouldn't restart.
She checked her phone. No service.
The heavy pulse in the center of her gut thumped harder. And faster.
What options did she have? Get out of her car and hike down the road until she picked up a phone signal? That didn't sound very appealing.
Or she could stay in her car and wait for help. A sitting duck. An easy target for someone wanting to come back and finish the job.
Hiking down the road was starting to sound like the better option. She could run if she saw someone coming or hide in the woods. Not an ideal situation, but it beat cowering in her car.
She'd been so shocked and terrified on that sidewalk back in Las Vegas, when Kurtz suddenly appeared at her side, smiling snidely while promising to catch her alone and kill her someday. Too stunned to collect herself in time to call out for help from the people passing by. After he walked away she could only take a few fumbling steps around the corner before her knees buckled and she'd slid to the concrete. Helpless. All she'd done was whimper.
Afterward, she'd promised herself she would never let fear do that to her again.
Now she summoned up what little bit of stubborn courage she had left and tucked her phone into her front pocket. She grabbed her wallet from her purse and shoved it in her back pocket. Then she set a couple unopened cans of soda in the center of her jacket and twisted it. Not the best weapon in the world, but better than nothing.
She shoved hard against the dented, protesting door, climbed out and crouched down low, pressing against the side of the car and balancing on the balls of her feet. Just in case. If that had been Kurtz driving, he could be watching her every movement right now. He was a crack shot. He'd mentioned that in his testimony in court.
A deep breath, and then She heard something. The sound of an engine. In the distance, lights flickered between the trees. But something didn't look right. They weren't car headlights.
A motorcycle appeared at the turn in the highway. Then another, and another. In the illumination spilling from their headlights she could see the riders wore leather vests with some sort of patches. Colors, she'd heard them called. Gangs wore them.
A biker gang? Seriously? Someone drove by when she desperately needed help and it was these guys? She stayed crouched down low.
The first rider roared past her. A dozen more filed by after him. Should she ask them for help?
The decision was made for her. The rider in the front slowed, made a U-turn across the highway, and then headed back. He rode up closer to her and stopped. Then he put his hand down to the side and made a backing motion. The other riders came to a stop a few yards away. He killed his engine.
Now what? There was no point in hiding, so she stood. Her calf muscles registered a cramped, painful protest.
He pulled off his helmet and rested it on his thigh. "Need some help?" He stayed seated on his chopper. His hair was dark and short, almost a military cut. His eyes were hidden in the shadows cast by the other riders' headlights.
He didn't smile, but his tone was friendly enough. The fact that he wasn't trying to charm her made him seem somewhat more trustworthy.
At this point, what did she have to lose? "I had a little trouble," she said.
He nodded. "I can see that."
"And I can't get reception on my phone."
He kicked out the kickstand on his motorcycle and stood up. Medium height. Medium build. Not a huge guy, but there was something imposing about the way he moved, nevertheless. He swung a leg over his bike and started toward her, his heavy boots crunching atop the loose gravel on the road. She was already pressed up against her car or she would have backed up. He finally stopped a couple of paces away from her, reached a leather-gloved hand into his pocket and pulled out a small satellite phone. He glanced at the screen. "Here, my phone's working."
She hesitated to close the gap between them. But if he meant her harm, why would he go through such an elaborate act? She reached for the phone, her trembling hand betraying her fear. "Thanks." The wallpaper on the screen was a black oval with a silver sword in the middle. Beneath it were the words Vanquish the Darkness. Olivia had no idea what that meant. She wasn't about to ask.
The woman was in trouble and Elijah could tell it went well beyond her battered car. He'd spotted her crouched by the car, eyes wide with fear, looking like a cornered coyote ready to bolt.
Elijah continually scanned his surroundings, paid attention to small details and saw a lot of things other people never noticed. "Head on a swivel" was the term they'd used over in the sandbox. The practice of looking everywhere, all the time, was a skill he'd first learned in Iraq and later used in Afghanistan. A habit that had kept him alive, and one he didn't plan to ever lose.
The woman watched him warily while she looked up a contact on her own phone and then punched the numbers into his. He didn't mean her harm, but she didn't know that. He'd left his phone on speaker and she didn't change the setting, so a few seconds later he was surprised to hear a familiar voice say, "Elijah, honey, is that you?"
The woman stared at him, eyes widened. Her jaw dropped slightly. "Aunt Claudia?" she finally said into the phone. "Is that you?"
There was a pause, and then, "Olivia?"
Elijah could practically see relief cascading over Olivia as her shoulders relaxed.
Olivia. So this was the grandniece Claudia Sweeney had been telling everyone in town about for the past two weeks. The first blood relative to come visit the eighty-year-old woman in as long as Elijah could remember. Of course she was bringing trouble with her. She hadn't seen fit to visit her great-aunt in the past, which meant she was probably here now because she wanted something.
He watched her shift her weight back and forth, nervously glancing up and down the highway. She was trying to outrun some kind of trouble, which meant she was bringing it to the doorstep of a woman who'd always treated Elijah like family. If her problems caused harm to Claudia, she was going to find herself moving on a lot sooner than she thought.
"Are you already here in town?" Claudia asked.
"Not yet," Olivia answered. "I'm still on the highway." She glanced back toward her car. "I've had some trouble."
"What kind of trouble?" Concern was evident in the way Claudia carefully spoke each word. "And why are you calling on Elijah Morales's phone?"
Olivia turned back to face Elijah and moved the phone slightly away from her face. "Is your name Elijah Morales?"
He nodded once.
"Do you know my great-aunt Claudia?"
"Claudia Sweeney? Yes."
She knit her brows together. "How do you know her?"
"We're neighbors. And we go to church together."
She stared at him, and then turned her gaze to his buddies before finally turning back to him.
"Do all of you guys go to church with my aunt?" She strung out the words, hesitating between each one, as if they didn't quite make sense when she put them together.
Elijah felt one corner of his mouth twitch slightly upward with the hint of a half smile. Yes, he was well aware that they didn't look like your typical church group. For himself, he certainly wasn't pretty as a picture. The scars on his face were small, but people noticed them. Some of his fellow riders looked a little rough, too. He chose his friends based on their character and gave no thought to how they looked to anyone else. But how do you explain that in a few quick seconds to a woman who looks as if she's on the verge of panic?
He glanced at her car jammed up against a sapling that had nearly snapped in half, and then he looked back at her. "It's a crazy world."
She actually laughed. Only once, but it seemed to help calm her. Eventually he would press her a little harder for details on what had happened. Right now he just wanted to help her hold it together, assist her with her car and get her someplace safe.
"Olivia!" Through the phone, Claudia was trying to get her attention.
"I'm here," Olivia mumbled, sounding dazed.
"Why don't you hand the phone back to Elijah? Let me talk to him and find out where you are so I can figure out what we need to do."