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"Stop!" The voice shouted behind her, spurring speed to her already-flying feet. Stop?
Not if she wanted to live.
Rasping breaths escaped Gina Santino's throat as her bare feet pounded hard sand. She squinted into the inky darkness and her heart drummed in her ears, drowning out the sound of the waves crashing onto the beach.
She could almost imagine the breath of her pursuer on the nape of her neck. A hand reaching out to spin her around…
Goose bumps puckered her skin, but fear and adrenaline heated her body; sweat beaded her forehead.
The waves pulsed beside her as she stayed near the edge of the water, desperate to stay out of reach of the lights along the upper end of the sand.
Multicolored lights announcing the fast-approaching Christmas season were strung from the roof of the public beach-access restroom and briefly illuminated part of her path.
Long dark hair whipped into her eyes, blinding her as terror threatened to knock the strength from her legs. Her large antique locket bounced against her throat, matching the frantic beat of her pulse beneath it.
How had they found her? She'd been so careful. Yes, she'd left her house in a rush, but she'd driven a crazy route that had her arriving at the beach house two hours later than the direct approach would have.
And they'd still found her. Her mind cramped at the possibilities as she flung a frantic look over her shoulder.
Was that a shadow? Were they still chasing her?
Of course they were.
Fear-induced adrenaline added wings to her fleeing bare feet.
Oh, Mario, I need you!
But Mario, her fiancé, was dead. Killed six months ago when a bomb exploded during a routine army training exercise.
Or so she'd been told. Who knew what the real story was? And now she was facing the holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, without him.
Of course, that was the least of her worries right now.
Driftwood crowded her path, and she jumped over another fallen piece of debris that had washed in at high tide.
Stumbling, she went to one knee, her momentum propelling her into the sand, rolling her over twice before she could push herself back up. Ignoring her screaming, sand-burned knee and oxygen-deprived lungs, she regained her balance, pumping her legs back up to full speed.
She couldn't keep running, not at this pace.
But she sure couldn't slow down.
He—they?—would kill her this time.
Her eyes darted, desperately seeking a hiding place. Shivers danced on her overheated skin as the freezing wind blew.
Up ahead, a light flickered. Someone walking toward her? She skidded to a halt, gasping, panting, sucking in much-needed oxygen; her knee throbbing a reminder that she needed to find a place to hide.
The light bobbed closer. Friend or foe? Had they surrounded her? Surely they couldn't have gotten in front of her. But then she wouldn't have guessed they would have been able to show up on her doorstep either.
What do I do, God? What do I do?
The safety of her little cottage lay approximately two miles behind her. Thank goodness she'd taken up running every morning for the last year. If not, she'd never have made it this far.
The light flickered, then disappeared.
A split-second decision had her making a sharp right to trudge through the softer sand. She didn't even have a cell phone. But the little diner just up the road would have a phone and she could call for help.
If she could get there.
A gunshot rang out, and Gina flinched when it hit the ground in front of her.
A warning shot.
That told her one thing. They wanted her alive.
And that scared her more than the thought that they might want her dead. She double-timed her struggle through the sand, praying that whoever was chasing her was having the same problems. Finally, her feet hit asphalt.
Another gunshot. She cringed, expecting at any moment to feel the pain of a bullet entering her body. She pressed on.
She needed a phone.
She needed help.
Where was Ian?
Ian Masterson pressed his foot to the gas pedal. He'd promised Gina he'd be there at 9:00 p.m. It was now 11:45 p.m.
and the darkness pressed in on his windshield like dirt on top of a coffin. She'd called him yesterday and asked him to meet her at the beach house. He didn't have to ask for directions. Gina's cousin, Antonio Santino; her late fiancé, Mario Anthony; and he, Ian Masterson, had been the Three Musketeers.
Best friends and fellow U.S. Army Rangers—no three men had a tighter friendship. Until Ian moved away. Then Mario had died and Antonio had flown off to Iraq on a mission. Ian was home for the moment and would be until Gina's troubles were resolved.
But he'd been held up on the way to meet her. He'd had to request emergency personal leave to get out of a last-minute assignment in Pakistan. Fortunately, a buddy with another unit had volunteered to go in his place.
Ian owed him big time.
Only now he was almost three hours later than he'd said he'd be, and Gina wasn't answering her phone.
He didn't like the thoughts crowding his mind.
Punching her speed dial button one more time, he offered up a prayer on her behalf.
Her voice mail clicked on again. He hung up and clenched his teeth. Whatwere you working on, Mario, that's put Gina in danger?
She hadn't told him much when she'd called yesterday morning asking him to meet her. Just that some men had tried to kill her when she'd walked in on them tearing her house apart in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Now, she'd fled to the coast and trouble had followed her.
His gut clenched as he pictured her face. Dark hair, with upturned black eyes that hinted at Asian ancestry somewhere back in the Italian family line. He clearly remembered those eyes, which hid her innermost thoughts but could flash with compassion or laughter at the drop of a hat. The next-to-the-last time he'd seen her had been about eight months ago, when he'd stopped in to see his old commanding officer and had overheard her in the hallway. She'd been moaning about losing weight so she could fit into the wedding dress she wanted. She hadn't known he was there. He'd left as quietly as he'd arrived.
The last time he'd seen her had been at Mario's funeral.
She'd lost the weight.
Ian's fingers clenched the steering wheel. His molars ground together as he remembered Gina's devastation at the funeral. He'd gone to her and offered her a hug, but her stares were like daggers cutting through him, the accusation clear in her liquid-chocolate eyes.
She might as well have shouted the words, "If you'd been here, he wouldn't have died."
But she didn't, just hunched her shoulders against her grief and walked away.
And caused Ian a fresh bout of crippling pain.
Ian had envied Mario for a long time but finally had given up fighting his feelings and had requested a transfer to a different base so he wouldn't run into the two of them together. Not that he begrudged his friend's happiness; Ian just had a hard time controlling the ache in his heart every time he saw Gina's smile. The way she tilted her head to the left when she really listened to what you were saying. Or the way she pulled her hair back into a long ponytail that revealed her slender neck. He'd watched her pulse beat there one time and had to leave the restaurant they were in because of his overwhelming feelings for her.
He'd done the unthinkable.
He'd fallen in love with a committed woman.
His best friend's future wife.
So, Ian had left. Run from it and his feelings, honor and integrity more important than his own selfish desires. It was the only way he'd been able to live with himself.
Now she was calling him for help.
Someone had tried to kill her.
Like she believed someone had killed Mario.
His cell rang and he punched the button. "Hello?"
"Ian?" Short breaths rang over the line, as if she was out of breath. Relief flooded him at the sound of her voice, his protective instinct kicking into high gear at the thought of her in danger. "It's me. Gina."
"I know who you are. Are you all right?" he demanded.
"No," a hitch in her voice clamped hard on his heart. "Someone's still after me. I'm at the diner on 17." She didn't have to explain which one; he'd been there enough times with Mario. "Can you pick me up there? How far away are you?"
"Stay put," he said. "I'm about three minutes from you."
"Oh, thank you," she breathed. He could almost taste the fear flowing from her as she whispered, "Hurry."
His foot pressed the pedal harder. He'd told her he was three minutes away. He'd do his best to make it in ninety seconds.
Gina hung up the pay phone and, ignoring the occasional strange look from the diner patrons, scurried to the window. Her breath still came in pants although she'd recovered from her run. It was the terror still quaking through her that stole the air from her lungs. She'd been so careful. How had they found her?
Probably her cell phone. They'd obviously tracked her with no problem and had, no doubt, laughed all the way up the highway.
Mario, what were you up to? What did you hide? And where did you hide it? Who were you hiding it from? I don't even know if you were one of the good guys now.
Tears clogged her throat at the betraying thought. But she didn't let them fall. She never would have thought he'd do something to put her in danger, and yet by dying, he'd apparently done just that. It had taken six months, but obviously he'd led the trail straight to her.
Headlights flashed in the parking lot.
Bad guys or Ian?
She looked at the clock on the wall. About a minute and a half had passed. The lights flashed once more. Then again.
She bolted out the door into the drizzle, which had started the minute she'd entered the restaurant. Her bare feet slapped the wooden porch, then the steps. The door opened from the inside.
Throwing herself into the passenger seat, she slammed the door just as a bullet pierced the windshield to bury itself in the backseat.
Ian hissed, put a hand on her head and shoved her down in the seat. "Hold on!"
"I'm so sorry I had to drag you into this," she squealed.
"We'll get to that later." He threw the gearshift lever into Reverse and screeched from the parking lot. Another bullet hit the back windshield and shattered it.
It seemed like hours, but in reality, according to the dash clock, only seven minutes had passed since the last bullet.
"I think I lost them." He grunted and turned left.
She pushed herself into a sitting position, brushing stray bits of glass from her legs and hair, careful not to cut herself. Turning to the man beside her, she gasped, "You have perfect timing."
"Actually, I was running late due to an unforeseen circumstance with my commander, but I'm here now and you're in more trouble than you let on."
"When I called you, I didn't know how bad they wanted me."
"Why call me? Why not the cops?"
"Because they'll just turn it over to the army."
"And that's a bad thing?"
"It is if there's a traitor on the base."
That shut him up. Then he asked, "Who?"
"I don't know. All I know is that Mario died during a training exercise. At least that's what I was told. Who really knows what happened?" Sarcasm dripped. "But if that's the case, then someone set him up."
"How do you figure?"
She remained silent for moment.
"I don't have any proof. Just a gut feeling. And I know you'll think that's crazy, but someone has tried to kill me twice, so I'm leaning on trusting my gut at this point in time."
This time he paused as he glanced in the rearview mirror, then the side. "Sometimes your gut's the only thing worth trusting."
Tears flooded her eyes. "Thank you," she whispered. "I don't know what Mario had that these people want. I mean, I'm just a real estate agent from a small town in South Carolina who happened to fall in love with a guy who had a lot of secrets—ones he didn't bother sharing with me. Or couldn't share. Who knows? I don't know anything except that they think I have whatever it is they're after. Which means I need to figure out what it is and find it before they find me. And I think I need your help to do that." The words spilled from her in one breath. She finally paused and drew in some air.
"I would say you're on the right track." He gave her a gentle smile, and for the first time since her mad dash into the car, she noticed his rugged good looks. She'd always thought him a handsome man, had actually been attracted to him, but had been so committed to Mario, she'd ignored those feelings.
Tonight they returned with a rush.
Immediately, she felt guilty. As if she'd just betrayed Mario in some way. It must be the terror-induced adrenaline spiking her senses into hyperawareness. She looked away.
Forcing her thoughts to focus on the important thing— like getting away from a killer—she said, "I had to slip out of a back window at the beach house. I've got nothing on me. I don't know whether to go back to the house and try to get my stuff or have my parents wire me some money. I'm sure they're already worried enough. I don't want to add putting them in any kind of danger."
He placed a hand over hers. "I've got you covered. Let's find a safe place to hole up and hash out what just happened. Then we can worry about other necessities."
Ian found a little out-of-the-way hotel room and asked for two rooms. Gina stood beside him, shivering, her bare feet probably frozen. He had one person in mind to call whom he trusted, no questions asked. Jason Sutton. A man whose skills as a Ranger had saved Ian's hide on more than one occasion. A onetime fellow Ranger in the same unit Ian and Mario had served in and a good friend to them both, Jase would come through for him—he hoped.
Finally, they made it to the rooms. Gina entered hers and Ian followed her in. He chose the desk chair, while Gina sat at the table, hands clasped in front of her. Wild dark curls had found freedom from the pink scrunchy that now encircled the lower portion of a ponytail gone bad. She didn't seem to notice.