LobsterTrails

Run! But there was no escape from the small room. The shooter, the mean, dark muzzle of his gun trained on her, stood in the doorway to the kitchen, blocking the only exit. He must have broken the lock on the back door.

She scrambled for cover, but there wasn’t much of that either.

The sound of her panicked breath didn’t quite drown out the newscaster’s voice saying her name.

It was the distraction she needed. When the shooter glanced up toward the TV, she surged forward, staying low and driving her shoulder through his knees.

She heard the boom of another shot, but didn’t feel any pain. She had him on the floor, belatedly realizing the tang of copper in the air was his blood, not hers, where it seeped out of his body. For a few more seconds she couldn’t move. When her instincts kicked in, she reached out to check his pulse. Nothing. The man was dead. Nothing in her public relations experience trained her to put a positive spin on being shot at or dealing with a dead intruder.

She stared down at the shooter, dressed in black with a black ski mask over his face. Working up the courage, she reached for the mask. She only knew of one man who might want her dead. Her boss, Bradley Roberts. She couldn’t picture him getting his hands dirty behind a loaded weapon. Then again, desperation was a mighty motivator. As she reached for the mask again, a shadow blocked the light. She looked up into a face she never thought to see again.

“Time to go.”

“Ross?” Her stomach pitched as her eyes roamed over the face that had once been so dear to her. She must be hallucinating, not even her luck could be this bad.

“The same.” His voice was deeper and all too real. “Pack a bag while I call this in.”

Over a dead body had to be the worst place to run into an old flame.

“Where did you come from?” She glanced behind him, but couldn’t see anything. His broad shoulders blocked more of the doorway than the shooter had. Maybe it was her angle, but he seemed taller than she remembered. She was clearly addled if his height was her primary concern in this horrible moment. She dropped her gaze back to the dead man.

“Go pack, Allie.”

“No.” She sat back on her heels, not trusting her legs to support her, and let out a sigh of defeat. “This is my fault.”

“I know.” He knelt down on the other side of the body, his brown eyes hard and intense on her. “This is a crime scene now. They won’t let you stay here.”

She stood up, retrieved her small backpack, and did an odd sort of two-step to get around him and out of the room. In the kitchen, she picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1.

Ross spun around when he heard her calling it in. The stubborn girl hadn’t changed much beyond the new hair and new knack for serious trouble. He shrugged it off. Probably better if the sheriff’s office heard it from her first anyway.

It would give his heart more time to return to its rightful place. It had leaped up and lodged in his throat when he’d heard the gun shot.

Everyone on her side of the equation would be mad as hell when they learned he was not only in town, but now irrevocably involved in her downfall. Whatever happened, it wouldn’t be a stretch if the town blamed him for her problems. Which only proved things never changed.

He peeled away the shooter’s ski mask, took a picture with his cell phone, and emailed the photo to his office. Eva would wake up when her laptop chimed an alert and they could start the search for an identity to go with the ugly face.

To expedite matters he took a thumbprint and patted the guy down, not surprised to come up empty.

“What are you doing?”

“My job.” He glanced up at her, grateful to see she’d covered those fine, long legs with jeans.

“I meant what are you doing here?”

“Sheriff Cochran had reports of a prowler in the area. I was helping with patrols. What are you doing here?”

“They, um, told me to wait here.”

Which meant sirens would be waking up the whole damned neighborhood any minute now. “Do you recognize this guy?”

She shook her head and looked away from the body. “How did you get in?”

“Getting where I need to be is part of the job.”

“Oh.”

He probably shouldn’t feel so relieved that the weak explanation satisfied her. It was clear by her wide eyes that shock would set in soon if he didn’t do something to divert it. He caught sight of the little backpack he’d been searching for upstairs, and the larger duffel slung over her shoulder. Standing, he reached into his jacket pocket for the rental car key. “Go put whatever isn’t essential for your identification and right to be here in the house out in my trunk.”

She gripped the backpack tighter, telling him without words exactly what he needed to know. What he’d been hired to recover was in there.

“Or you can let the cops have at it,” he added.

“They won’t let me stay here?”

“Not until they clear the crime scene.”

“Do you know who he was?”

“Nope. You?” he repeated, hoping she’d slip up this time.

She shook her head again, her lips clamped in a thin line against the emotion swimming in her eyes.

He believed her. Unfortunately for the progress of his case. “Go on. It’ll be safe in the trunk. I promise I won’t mess with it.”

He amended that promise with all sorts of conditions in his mind, but he knew he wouldn’t violate her privacy unless he had to. At this point he felt sure he could bring her and the stolen data in without much more trouble. She looked to be in a pretty cooperative mood. Being on the wrong end of a gun could do that.

Still, she had run away from her life. “The car isn’t quite your style and I guarantee you won’t get more than a mile down the road if you try to run.” Her eyes narrowed at the insult. He admired that. She’d always been tenacious. “Or you can keep this guy company and I’ll take it out there for you.”

“I’ve got it.” She fisted her hand around the strap of the backpack. “And I would never steal your car.”

Until her name hit his desk he’d believed her wild streak only went wide enough to date a guy like him. Now he knew better. Knew he had to be ready for anything.

 

* * *

 

Dawn was a whisper teasing the horizon and the water birds were barely stirring on the lake behind her aunt’s home when Sheriff Cochran finally released her.

“Stay in town, Allie. I’m sure we’ll have more questions.”

Of course they would. As soon as someone contacted her office and discovered ‘leave of absence’ had been her pretty way of saying she’d been blamed for stealing proprietary – incriminating – data about the company’s new product. It would only get worse if they learned about the money.

Not if, when. Dread turned her stomach inside out.

She didn’t care to lie to a man who’d played church league softball with her father for years, but she couldn’t afford to volunteer any real information. Not yet. Not when her boss had been playing fast and loose with the charity fund he’d told her to set up a few months ago.

She stared up at her aunt’s house, the windows glowing in the stone facade like so many eyes. The sight had always been comforting, but now worry, and tears, muddied the feeling.

Inside, the crime team examined the minutiae of the scene. The coroner, another of her dad’s buddies, had paused to hug her as he’d escorted the body away. She was home, but what kind of trouble had she brought with her?

Where could she turn? Her superiors didn’t want to know what she knew about the product and with stolen data in her possession, the authorities would never believe she wasn’t behind those fishy bank transactions. Certainly not when another chunk of it had landed in her account last week.

“Come on.” Ross pressed the key fob and the lights flashed on his car. “Sheriff says I can drive you to the motel.”

That would have tongues wagging in three counties before noon. Local rumors weren’t anything to ignore, but her thoughts kept circling back to how and why he just happened to be right here in the lakeside neighborhood of a town he’d left as soon as possible after high school.

“Fine.” She didn’t have much choice since the data on her hard drive, her few remaining possessions, and the last of her dwindling cash were in his trunk.

The sheriff had separated them to take statements, so she had no idea what Ross had told him, or how if he’d offered a decent explanation for his presence in her aunt’s home.

“Why were you there?” she demanded as he put the car into gear and pulled away from the curb. “Why are you even here?”

“To save your life, apparently.”

That much she’d figured out on her own and she was grateful. It had finally clicked that Ross had fired even as she was charging the wannabe assassin. She knew he hadn’t been there just to save her, and even if he was helping with random patrols, he hadn’t answered her about getting into the house.

As she tried to voice the question, the dead man’s lifeless face flashed through her mind and she suddenly worried Ross might be in serious trouble for helping her. “Will they arrest you for…?” She couldn’t finish the question.

“Doubtful. Justified force and I’m licensed to carry. Besides, around here they like you enough to appreciate how my actions kept you alive.”

“That won’t last,” she muttered.

“Pardon?”

She felt the glance he slid her way like a warm touch on her cheek even as he rounded the curve. In a minute they’d be crossing the bridge and two minutes after that they’d be parked again on Main Street.

“What’s going on that has people shooting at you?”

She wanted to tell him, but couldn’t bring herself to put him in the line of fire. No matter how they’d parted, what they’d shared was a sweet spot in her heart that she preferred to keep tucked away.

“I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding. Probably a robbery that went bad. Everyone knows my aunt is out of town and she has plenty of valuables.”

“True. That explains her absence but not why you’re here.”

“You first.” She shifted in her seat, watching his face in the improving light. “No one’s seen you since the summer we graduated and you miraculously turn up at the right moment tonight?”

“More of my well documented bad luck?” He winked at her, but she wasn’t buying the careless routine. He was up to something.

“Stop with the bull. Don’t think I missed the fact that you were in the house.” She gulped as a new possibility occurred to her. There were rumors he’d joined Special Forces and been dealing with covert missions around the world. She didn’t give the gossip much credit and yet she’d read enough to know that Special Forces personnel often found work as bodyguards or private investigators. Sometimes even as hired muscle. Since she hadn’t hired him… “Oh. God. Let me out.”

“What?”

“Let me out. Let me go. Please, Ross.” Why hadn’t she put it together before now? She fought back the rising panic. He’d been in the house. He’d said he was doing his job. She might have asked precisely what that meant…if she hadn’t just been shot at.

“Allie, calm down.”

“I’m so stupid.” She wrestled with the door handle before she remembered the proof she needed was still in the trunk. “You’re with them aren’t you? You shot him so he couldn’t tell me you were working together.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

His voice, dark and flat as the lake in the early morning, sent a chill over her. “Is it?” She reached into her bag but the sheriff had confiscated the bottle of mace she kept on her key ring. She dropped her head back on the headrest and closed her eyes, defeated. “Whatever you’re going to do, please be quick about it.” Surely he could do that for old time’s sake.

His answer was to slam on the brakes and stop the car with an obnoxious squeal.

“I’m not going to kill you.” He shoved the gear shift to park. “I don’t go around killing people to shut them up.”

She opened her eyes just a crack, enough to take in the full heat of his infuriated stare. She did a mental replay and realized what she’d said, how he’d taken it. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Isn’t it?”

Again she hit rewind, tamping down the panic. “Fine. It is. Sort of. But you won’t answer my questions. Why shouldn’t I think the worst?”

His inhale was loud, the exhale louder. He’d always stopped to take a breath like this when he was irritated or otherwise stressed out. She’d admired that control even when they were kids in the back seat of his old Chevy Camaro…

No Allie, don’t go there. “It’s been a tough road lately. I don’t have much faith in anyone.” Not even herself.

“Allie. You are safe.” His voice was low, each word deliberate. She could practically hear his teeth grinding together. “I don’t know who you think I’m working for. I’m doing a favor for Sheriff Cochran, ” he said. “That’s all there is to it.”

“Right. Okay.” His answer soothed her frayed nerves. She reached again, but the door was still locked. “You can let me out. I won’t go screaming into the night.” She glanced up and down her side of the deserted street for anyone else who might be pointing a gun at her. Surely no one would take a shot at her in front of witnesses. She wanted to look at the motel, to see if anyone was in the office, but that meant looking in Ross’ direction again. Not worth it, not when she felt this fragile.

“You are staying in town.”

“Not much choice,” she agreed.

“Nope.” He punched the button and the doors unlocked with a loud clack. “I’ll get your bag.”

“I’ve got it.” She scrambled out of the car, sliding the back pack over her shoulder and racing to reach the trunk first. She wanted to trust someone, but she couldn’t. No one else should be hurt because she’d been naive and foolish.

They reached for the bag at the same time, fingers brushing where they met on the handles. He was as warm as he’d ever been, but his hand was harder, stronger than before. She studied it, saw a new, white scar slicing across his knuckles. This wasn’t the hand of the boy she’d loved, this was solid proof of how much she didn’t know about the man he’d become.

“Let me carry the damn bag, Allie.”

She let go. Southern style chivalry was probably the root of it, but he was cagey now, so unlike the open book he’d been in high school. He was up to something. She didn’t know how he fit into her problem, but she didn’t believe in coincidence or perfect timing.

“Thank you,” she said as he dropped the trunk lid back into place.

He grunted, but otherwise all was silent as they crossed the street to the motel.

When the night clerk turned away from the computer monitor, he did a double take. “Why Allie Williams, you look wonderful. So glad to have you back in town.”

“Hi, Tim.” She tried to return his bright smile and offer more of her rehearsed explanation when Ross butted in.

“We need a room.”

We? What was he doing? She could never share a space as small as a motel room with Ross. They needed two rooms, preferably on opposite ends of the establishment, and only if he didn’t have somewhere better to be.

“Yup, I’m all ready for you. Sheriff called and gave me a head’s up. Terrible what happened up at your aunt’s place tonight. Are you okay, honey?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Such good timing.” Tim winked at Ross with conspiratorial speculation. “Always said the two of you were something for the long haul.”

“That’s –”

Ross halted her protest with a tug on her hand below the counter. “Thanks. We’ll take that room for a week if possible.” He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and withdrew a credit card.

Oh, this went way beyond chivalry. Why would he encourage Tim’s notion that they were together? After the way they parted after high school, Ross couldn’t possibly want to restart those rumors any more than she did. And why would the sheriff make Ross stay with her?

She fumed behind a brittle smile as the transaction completed. Her manners were flawless as she’d been raised to be polite, kind, and never make a scene in public. But, oh, was she lining up her arguments for the moment they were behind closed doors. She was going to make him tell her the truth.

 

The Thief  released October 4, 2012 on Buy The Thief at Amazon.com.

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