“I am a wildlife biologist, but three years ago, I accidentally ran into drug traffickers who’d captured two agents. They were in the process of torturing them. I couldn’t walk away.”
“You saved them?” Stella slid her cardboard cup back and forth between her hands.
“I set the place on fire. When the traffickers left the men inside to burn, I went in after them.”
“I was outnumbered twelve machine guns to my machete. Not good odds.” Mac traced a scar in his oak table. Even if he’d failed and the agents had burned, a quick death by fire would have been better than an entire night of having their bits and pieces lopped off one by one. Mac had known from personal experience that drug traffickers were the bane of humanity, but seeing them in action had flipped a switch inside him. Before that night, he’d never taken a life. But he’d killed three men, easily, almost automatically, as the Colonel’s training and Mac’s muscle memory had taken over his body.
Respect crossed Stella’s face, and maybe a little shock, as if the true risk of his job was just sinking in. Was that why he’d told her? To impress a pretty girl? She wasn’t just a pretty girl, he reasoned. She was a cop. They were on the same side. Maybe it was time he gave up being the Lone Ranger.
“So the DEA recruited you?”
“It felt good to strike back at the people who flood our country with the poison that ruins lives.”
“Yes. Like mine.” And everyone else in his family who’d been affected by his bad choices.
Stella nodded. “What happened to the rest of your team?”
“My guide conveniently disappeared, and my partner was killed.” In his mind’s eye, Cheryl reached out to him through the rain. He blinked it away. In his heart, he knew the bureaucrat who’d assigned an inexperienced field agent to his team was to blame, but that knowledge didn’t ease his conscience.
“I’m sorry.” She digested that tidbit for a minute. “Was your cover compromised?”
“I don’t know.”
“If it was, going back there would be suicide.”
And it wouldn’t be a pleasant way to go. The drug cartels liked to make examples of people who crossed them. Mac was attached to all his bits and pieces. “I haven’t decided yet. But I’m pretty tough. Thanks to the Colonel, I could probably survive a zombie apocalypse.”
But his joke didn’t erase her worried frown.
“I don’t want anything to happen to you,” she said.
Mac tapped his bandaged side with his fingertips. “I have at least eight weeks to think about it.”
“Don’t take any stupid risks. No job is worth that.”
Three years ago, Mac had thought making a dent in the drug trade was worth his life. But two things had changed since then. His efforts had very little effect on drug trafficking, and Lee’s death had made him feel new connections with his remaining family.
“You could always go back to being a biologist—a badass biologist,” she corrected, her eyes teasing.
Had a woman ever made him blush? No. Stella was definitely an original.
But Mac couldn’t think about his future. Not yet. “So you’ll look for the woman?”
“I told you I was already looking for her.” Irritation sharpened her voice. She clasped her hands on the table. “Earlier today I caught the case of a missing woman. Thin. Short dark hair. Possibly taken from her house while she was showering. We’ve had a BOLO alert out since this afternoon.”
The relief that swept over Mac was staggering. He hadn’t imagined Cheryl’s body was lying across a dark, rainy road. He hadn’t gone crazy. The woman he’d seen was real. “I want to help.” The offer was out of his mouth before his brain had a chance to consider it. “Please. I need to.”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to clear it with my boss. In order to do that, I’ll have to tell him everything. Brody, too. And I’m sure he’ll tell Hannah . . .”
Hannah would tell Grant. The only question remaining was how early all the fan-hitting would happen and could he get out of bed and escape into the forest before the family drama ensued. And there he went again, trying to avoid the people in his life who cared about him. No more running. Tomorrow he was going to be straight with his siblings. He owed that to Lee. He owed it to all of them.
“I’m tired of secrets,” he said. “You know I’m going to look for this woman with or without your help.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything else. You are a Barrett.” She yawned. “I’ll call you in the morning.”
“My cell is in my Jeep, and I don’t have a landline.” He ducked back into the kitchen for a notepad but settled for the back of an envelope. “If you give me your number, I’ll call you when I get my phone back.”
“You’ll be stranded here.” She wrote down her number.
“I have a bike in the shed. I can ride into town. But I plan to be unconscious for the next eight hours.” He rolled his shoulder. His body ached from the accident and everything else he’d put it through over the last two days.
Stella reached into her pocket and pulled out the vial of pills from the hospital. She set it on the table. “In case you want a decent night’s sleep.”
The woman could read his mind. Her gaze lingered on his face. Would it be too rude to ask her to come and wrap him in plastic again tomorrow? Probably.
“Get some rest,” she said.
Walking out onto the porch, he watched her get into her car and then drive away. The forest loomed deep and dark around his cabin. An owl hooted. A few seconds later, the high-pitched death squeal of a small creature pierced the humid air. Isolation closed around him. Usually, he considered solitude his best friend, but not tonight.
His back ached, and he studied the prescription bottle. Maybe he should stop punishing himself. He filled a glass with water and swallowed one tablet. Then he put fresh sheets on his bed and checked under the bed and behind the headboard in case any brown recluses had decided to make a new home. He respected spiders, but he didn’t want to sleep with one. Stripping off his clothes, he stretched out on the cool sheets. Warm night air and forest sounds drifted over him.
He must have fallen asleep because when he opened his eyes, pale gray light brightened the room. A scratching sound in the front of his cabin sent a burst of adrenaline into his veins. He raised his head, reaching for the knife he kept in his nightstand, just as his bedroom door squeaked open and a hulking figure shadowed the doorway.
The smell of rubber—and the balled up piece of cloth he’d shoved into her mouth—gagged her. Pain roared through her neck, hot and sharp, blotting out the minor aches in the rest of her body and the sting of the glass cuts on her hands and feet. Not even the adrenaline of terror could dull its force.
Running away had been a very bad idea.
With her hands bound behind her back, Dena curled on her side in the trunk of a car, her shoulder pressed into the thin carpet that covered the spare tire well. She breathed through her nose, the thin fabric of the hood he’d fastened around her neck flattening against her face. It was soft and smelled of fabric softener. A pillowcase?
The trunk was hot, nearly suffocating, but a full-body shiver quaked her bones. She breathed through a wave of terror, but fear seized her by the lungs. Despair cut off her next breath. Lightheaded, her mind spun.
The car lurched, and Dena bounced. The delicate skin of her breast rubbed as her body slid on the scratchy carpet. The sudden movement jarred her out of her paralysis. Her lungs expelled stale air in a whoosh, and she gasped around her gag to refill them. Tears leaked from her eyes and ran hot over her skin.
She couldn’t give up. But fighting wasn’t an option; she was trussed like a suckling pig. She had to survive. Bide her time. Wait for an opportunity.
An opportunity to do what? Escape again? She was naked, blindfolded, gagged, and bound in the trunk of a car. How the hell could she possibly save herself?
He couldn’t keep her in here forever. Eventually, he’d need to stop. Of course, he’d be more careful this time. She’d lost the element of surprise when she’d leaped from the trunk at a stop sign. He’d removed the trunk release lever, but she’d had a lucky find of the cable. Unfortunately, she’d been in the middle of nowhere and hadn’t been fast or clever enough to get away. But running barefoot through the woods in the driving rain for hours had been hopeless. With clothes and boots and a flashlight, he’d tracked her down like an animal.
Surely, after all he’d gone through to kidnap and keep her, he wouldn’t just kill her quickly. He must have a plan. She’d have time.
Please, let there be time.
Irony nearly made her giddy. Laughter that bordered on insanity stirred in her chest.
She should have left last week. She’d been planning for months, hiding money, researching bus and train schedules, recruiting a trusted friend to help her disappear, friends Adam didn’t even know existed. But she’d waited too long. If she had left when she’d originally planned, she’d be in the Keys by now, sipping a margarita and digging her toes into the sand.
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