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Emma St. James drove down the lane that led to her brother's cabin on an Illinois lake. The overhanging oak and maple trees shaded the road, heightening the dark-ness beginning to creep over the landscape with the approach of dusk. When she pulled up to the side of the large log cabin, she parked in the back next to Derek's black Ford truck and rested her forehead on the steering wheel for a moment. Exhaustion clung to her like a sec-ond skin.
The past few weeks had been frantic, nonstop work, one photo shoot after another, that had left her little time even to sleep. She'd been thankful when her older broth-er had insisted she spend a few days with him during a brief pause in her work schedule. Derek could always make her feel better, even if his invitation had seemed strange to her. He needed to talk to her about something important and hadn't wanted to do it over the phone.
Climbing from her yellow Thunderbird convertible, Emma stretched her aching muscles and rolled her head in a slow circle. The long drive from New York had fi-nally caught up with her, and all she wanted to do was take a hot shower and go to bed. She didn't think she could put two coherent sentences together. She and her brother would have to catch up in the morning.
She reached behind the driver's seat and plucked her red leather purse from the back, then headed for the front porch. That was when she spied the white Firebird on the other side of the cabin, partially hidden behind some large honeysuckle bushes, their scent perfuming the cooling spring air. Strains of classical music wafted from the cabin. Company? That was the last thing she wanted at the moment. She moved toward the window near the door to see who was visiting her brother. After the past week of avoiding the press who wanted to ver-ify yet another false story about her, she wanted to make sure it wasn't a reporter who had somehow found out where she would be for the next few days.
Peering into the cabin, she noticed two men, one vaguely familiar, hovering over her brother, who sat in a straight-backed lattice chair, his wide eyes fixed on the taller of the pair.
I've seen that man somewhere. But where?
With fear stamped on his features, Derek was talk-ing and shaking his head. That was when she noticed her brother's hands were tied behind his back. Emma opened her purse and stuck her hand inside, fumbling in the depths. Lipstick. Compact. Wallet. She looked down. Where was her cell phone? A slapping sound brought her attention back to the men in the cabin. The tall, thin man struck her brother across the mouth a second time, his head jerking back. Blood gushed from between his lips and rolled down his chin. Emma gasped, starting for the door.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the flash of metal in the short, bulky man's hand as he came for-ward. Paralyzed, she stopped.
What in the world was going on? Was that a gun? Again she delved into her oversized purse, trying to find her cell phone. She needed help and hoped she could get some before
The sound of a gunshot rocketed through her. As if hit, she staggered back, dropping her bag.
Through the window she saw her brother slump over. A scream welled up inside her. Her hand over her mouth, she backed away, desperate to keep the scream inside.
She blinked as though that would erase the horror she saw through the window. Taking another step back, her gaze glued to the scene inside the cabin, she bit down on her hand. The ropes about her brother's chest held him up, but the bright red of his blood filled her vision. Tears sprang to her eyes. She had to get help.
Please let Derek still be alive.
She spun around to flee and bumped into a bench, sending it flying off the porch. The crashing sound re-verberated through her mind. She glanced over her shoulder. The tall man looked up, his cold, dark eyes fixed on her. She shuddered.
Run! her mind shouted.
She leaped off the porch and started for her car. Half-way there she realized she had no keys. They were in her purse on the porch! Frantic, she slowed a few paces, scanning the terrain.
No time to get the keys. Where could she hide? The woods? The shed? Behind the cabin?
The banging of the door against the logs of the wall sent her racing toward the woods. The report of a gun pierced the air at the same time a bullet hit a tree trunk a few feet to her left, pieces of bark flying outward. With pounding feet that matched the racing of her heart, she tore into the forest, praying the dark shadows enveloped her and hid her from their view. Gasping for air, she kept running, afraid to stop and find a place to hide for fear they would find her. and fell to her knees. Pain shot up her legs. Pushing her-self to her feet, she clawed her way up a small ridge, littered with underbrush and stubby trees. One of her sandals caught on a limb. She tugged, the shoe coming off and tumbling down the incline. Emma stared at the bright red leather that reminded her so much of the blood she'd seen on Derek. She shoved that image away. She couldn't think about that now. She had to get him help. She had to stay alive.
She started back down the ridge. In the distance she heard the two men tearing through the woods. Not far away. No time to get her shoe. Spinning back around, she looked about her to see which way she should go. Deeper into the woods? Or toward the highway?
The crashing sound of the men tracking her, who ob-viously didn't care if she heard them, dominated her thoughts as she tried to decide. The closer the sound came, the more frenzied her heart beat. Panting, she headed for the darkness of the denser trees on the other side of the ridge, away from the highway.
Deeper and deeper she pushed into the forest. Some-thing sharp cut the bottom of her bare foot. She didn't stop to see what it was. She kept going, an ache in her side intensifying and rivaling the pain from the wound on her heel.
The farther she went, the darker it became until she could barely make out the area ten feet in front of her. Her lungs burned. Her eyes stung from the tears that loomed just beneath the surface. Holding her side, she stopped by a large trunk, leaning into it for support as she drew in large gulps of air. Her legs quivering, she listened.
For a few seconds silence tantalized her with visions of a successful escape. Then the sound of breaking twigs and a muffled voice resonated through the trees. They had followed her into the woods. They weren't far behind.
Scanning the black curtain around her, she glimpsed the faint outline of some large bushes. She dove toward them, seeking their shelter. Darkness and leaves cocooned her in safety. The scent of earth and vegeta-tion peppered the air. She waited.
An eternity later, she heard plodding footsteps ap-proaching. Every muscle tensed to the point of pain. She waited, not even daring to breathe much.
"Ouch! Watch it, will you?"
The rough voice pierced the quiet and sent Emma's heart racing even more. Not far away. She squinted and peered out into the gloom. Nothing but faint shapes of trees surrounded by blackness.
"We ain't gonna find her. Let's get back and check her out. Probably Derek's latest girlfriend. Fancy car means she has to have money."
"Will you shut up? I can't hear a thing over your con-stant chattering."
The man who belonged to the rough voice must be the leader, Emma thought and decided it was the tall man she'd seen at the cabin, the one with the cold, black eyes. She'd never forget those eyes as he'd stared at her through the window, Derek's limp form next to him. Again she pictured the man with the chilling eyes. The niggling sensation she'd seen him before wouldn't loosen its grip on her thoughts.
Where have I seen him? Who is he? Why did they shoot my brother?
Oh, Derek. Tears crowded her throat. What if her brother was still alive? She needed to get him help, and time was against her.
"What's the point? It's too dark anyway," the other one said, his voice higher. It riveted Emma back to the problem at hand.
If she was right, that was the man who'd shot her brother. Throat tightening, she squeezed her eyes closed, trying to keep the tears inside. She didn't have time to think beyond getting to safety. She'd fall apart later.
"We need some flashlights. I have one in the car and I bet there's one at the cabin."
The voices were nearby. Emma shrank back deeper into the underbrush. Her heartbeat roared in her ears so loud she couldn't make out what the short, bulky man replied.
She tried to run through a relaxation technique she used when stressed, but nothing took the edge off. Even taking deeper breaths didn't calm the loud thumping of her heart. She clamped her hands over her ears, her eyes scrunched closed. Like a child playing peekaboo, she hoped since she couldn't see them, they couldn't see her.
Minutes ticked away. She waited. Slowly, she opened her eyes and dropped her hands to the damp ground.
Nothing, but the wind rustling the leaves on the bush, a curtain of black shrouding her.
She crawled forward from the depths of the thick un-derbrush and scanned the darkness. Still, silence greeted her. No sound other than nature's. A bird chirped. A frog croaked. Crickets trilled. The normal sounds of a forest.
She inched farther out of her shelter. She needed to get to the highway for help. Thankfully, she knew the woods surrounding the family cabin and realized if she circled around to the right she could reach the highway, flag down a car and escape the two menand maybe, just maybe, help her brother.
With her eyes adjusted to the dark, she picked her way through the maze of trees toward what she believed would be the highway. The continual hammering of her heart and the shallow gulps of air made each step diffi-cult. The trembling in her legs spread upward to encom-through her defenses.
Again a sharp object pierced the bottom of her foot. It was too dark even to see where she was stepping. Can't stop. She focused all her concentration on lifting one foot and placing it in front of her. Not far, she was sure. She was now glad of all those times she anda lump lodged in her throat when she thought of her brother. She and Derek had loved to play hide-and-seek in these very woods as children.
The memory produced a tear. It leaked out of her tight restraints and rolled down her cheek. She brushed it away. No time. Later. Have to keep going. Get help.
In the distance she heard a car zoom by. She wanted to quicken her pace, but her legs felt as though she wore cement blocks for shoes. Through the trees she saw headlights arc across the terrain and disappear. A hun-dred feet. Safety. The highway was the only way into town. Her best chance to escape.
Then behind her she heard the two men and saw the beams from their flashlights circling the area in front of them. Her gaze was drawn toward their lights. She was amazed at how fast they had returned. She plowed ahead, forcing herself to go faster. Blocking from her mind the searing pain in her legs and lungs, she limped toward the sounds of passing cars. Fifty feet.
The ribbon of asphalt cut through the forest. Slicing lights illuminated the trees on the edge of the highway. She pushed herself harder. Thirty feet.
The noises behind her grew louder.A light touched the area to the side of her. Then it swept over her as though icy fingers scraped across her.A shout slashed through her thundering heartbeat and sent terror straight to her core.
"There! She's almost to the highway."
"Get her," the rough voice commanded off to the right. Suddenly Emma didn't see any more headlights on the highway. Darkness surrounded her. Then the beam behind her found her again. She darted to the left, trying to evade the brightness. Ten feet.
In the distance the sound of a car filled the night with hope. She plunged from the cover of the trees and headed toward the headlights barreling down upon her.
A shot rang out from the forest. Panicked, she raced forward.