Her every nerve suddenly on edge, Lindsey Presley stared at the blond man confronting Deputy Jeff Gage.
Reaching behind her, Lindsey double-checked the lock on the front door of her restaurant, then hugged the night deposit bag more tightly. She prayed she was wrong about the stranger. After all, he didn't look all that different from other young people in the area. Clean-shaven, short hair, T-shirt, jeans. Barely more than a kid.
Except for that vintage orange Pontiac GTO that waited behind him, blocking Jeff's patrol cruiser.The GTO's front door stood open, waiting. Its motor idled with the distinctive rumble of a pampered muscle car.
The top step of the Cape Cod–style building gave Lindsey a view of the entire parking lot. Empty, except for the three of them and the two cars. She blinked hard, distracted as the kid shook his left hand out to one side, as if trying to fling a bug from it. His right hand remained hidden behind his hip.
Go back inside. This isn't right. A streetwise instinct honed in her childhood urged Lindsey to flee behind closed doors. There a kitchen bristled with knives she could use for defense. But that instinct fought with her reluctance to leave the sheriff's deputy who stood between her and the young man. Jeff had promised to protect her on the nightly deposit runs to the bank and had done just that since she'd opened the diner six months ago. During those short rides to the bank, they'd become close friends. She didn't want to abandon him. She wouldn't.
Friends don't do that. And the guy still hasn't done anything wrong. Logic told her to wait. Friendship begged her to stay. Her gut told her to run.
Jeff, who had been waiting for her at the foot of the front steps at eight o'clock, also seemed to sense something odd about the way the young man had slid the GTO into the parking lot after closing time. He stood with his back stiff, feet apart and firmly planted, his hand on his gun. On guard and wary.
The man's left hand shook harder, and Lindsey's muscles tensed. Now, she thought. It's going to happen now. What do I do?
Trip the alarm. The thought startled her, but she immediately knew it was a good idea. Turning, she thrust her key in the lock, twisted it and cracked open the door. If she didn't close it or enter the code inside within thirty seconds, the alarm would sound.
"Sir, you need to leave." Jeff's firm command echoed over the empty parking lot. "The restaurant is closed."
Lindsey pivoted back toward the parking lot, eyes fixed on the two men. The younger man shook his head, now holding his left hand high and smiling broadly. "I understand. I understand. I just need directions. I drove all the way from…from Chicago. Trying to find a girl I met online. Just a girl." He stepped forward, as if to go around Jeff.
Jeff blocked his path. He glanced warily up at the kid's left hand. "Where are you going?"
The blond never responded. Instead, he swung his right arm around from behind his back. He ground a stun gun into Jeff's chest. With a stark cry of pain, Jeff dropped to the asphalt, his body twisting in spastic seizures.
"No!" Lindsey screamed. She dashed down the steps toward them, throwing the money bag at the man. "Take it!" She lunged toward Jeff.
She never reached him. Fire shot through her skull as the man grabbed her by the hair, yanking her backwards. He punched her in the solar plexus. Lindsey's breath stopped and spots danced in front of her eyes as she collapsed. Her assailant grabbed her arm and slung her over the hood of the GTO.
The restaurant alarm blared through the night, the sirens radiating off every wall in the neighborhood. The man cursed and pressed his arm on the back of her neck. "Stupid woman!"
Lindsey fought for air as he yanked her arms behind her. Plastic ties cut deep into her skin as he secured her wrists. Finally drawing a raspy gasp, Lindsey tried to scream again, but a sharp blow to her ribs cut it off as she curled up in agony. He snapped her ankles together, wrapping the ties around them. He tossed her over one shoulder, her small frame no burden at all to him.
He bent to scoop up the money, then kicked Jeff twice as he passed the struggling deputy—once in the side, once on the back of Jeff's skull. Jeff went limp.
Lindsey found more breath. "No!" She bucked against the man, but he ignored her, shoving her unceremoniously into the back seat of the GTO. "Scream away, darlin'. No one will hear you over this baby."
The guy got in and gunned the engine. The fine-tuned rumble exploded into a roar that split the night air. The orange car spit loose gravel, and smoke bellowed from beneath its tires as it spun out of the parking lot less than five minutes after it had pulled in.
Lindsey pushed herself around, still fighting to breathe normally, regularly. Not an easy task with the pain throbbing through her ribs and head. She struggled against her bonds without success. Sweat coated her back and legs where they pressed against the vinyl back seat of the car. The fury and adrenaline that seared through her made Lindsey's mind spin. Her muscles trembled, but terror and pain kept her sane and focused as the last few minutes played over and over in her head.
God, how do I get out of this? Help me.
Lindsey twisted until she could see her attacker over the low, split front seat of the GTO. His pasty face glowed in the glare of oncoming headlights, and rivulets of water dripped out of the man's hair and trailed down his cheeks and neck.
He's sweating! Despite the open front windows and light chill of the early fall night, the man's hair remained plastered to his scalp. He fidgeted, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel and squirming in his seat. He pulled a slip of paper from his shirt pocket to check it, mumbling directions to himself. Over the roar of the engine, Lindsey barely caught the words, "Go slow. Careful. Left after three miles." He shoved the paper back in his pocket. He let up on the gas, and the car slowed.
He's going to turn. Leave the main road. Lindsey knew the road he planned to take. It ran deep into an almost impenetrable Tennessee woodland. In that second's realization, Lindsey knew she was about to die.
No! Her mind screamed the word, and in pure desperation, a rough idea formed in her mind. And insane idea.
He'll be focused on the turn, the other cars…
As Lindsey slowly shifted her body into position, her assailant's words repeated over and over.
"Turn, three miles. Turn, three miles."
Lindsey frowned, then blinked the words away. She must get ready, no matter how crazy her plan seemed.
You can do this. You can do this! Pushing over on her back, she ignored the agony in her hands as she braced her shoulders against the middle of the seat and cautiously drew her knees up to her chest. Her short, petite frame let her curl into a tight ball, and Lindsey had never felt so grateful for being so short—or for taking that Pilates class her sister had insisted on.
Still mumbling, the man braked the car suddenly, shouting at an oncoming vehicle to get out of the way. As he stomped on the accelerator again, heading the car into the left turn, Lindsey shrieked with all her might. Startled, the man's head snapped around to glare at her, just as she kicked both legs with as much strength as she had, thrusting her thick-soled, restaurant-durable shoes directly at his face.
His scream matched hers as blood shot from his crushed nose. He jerked, twisting the wheel to the right, veering the car out of the turn and straight toward the corner where the two roads met. He never had a chance to touch the brakes as the orange GTO crashed through the guardrail and soared into the air. The engine howled as the tires left the road. Lindsey felt weightless, her body floating above the seat as the car arced into the ravine. Then the car plowed into the rock and dirt, landing grill down with a deafening sound of sheared metal and shattering glass.
Lindsey plunged forward over the seat. Searing pain sliced through her as her shins hit the man's head, which slammed forward into the steering wheel with a sickening crack. She crashed into the windshield, then down on the dash, as the car rolled over on its right side. It slid another few yards before the weight of the engine pulled it upright again.
Lindsey's head thudded into the dash a second time, and the darkness of unconsciousness consumed her.
Jeff groaned as consciousness returned. Rocks and dirt bit into his cheek, and he tried to raise his head, which throbbed with a deep, unrelenting pain. Lindsey! Oh, dear God, what did he do to Lindsey? The silent air around him deepened his sense of panic. What happened to the alarm?
He heard the crunch of hard soles on gravel and tried to push up, only to have a foot land in the middle of his back, shoving him back to the ground. With quick, efficient moves, the man plucked Jeff's handcuffs off his belt and secured the deputy's hands behind him.
"Relax, boy. She'll be dead before you can get to your feet."
Jeff clawed through his memory, trying to recognize the rough voice, but nothing registered. His brain felt as fried as his muscles. But Lindsey couldn't be dead. She couldn't. An agony laced through Jeff's chest that had nothing to do with his physical injuries. "No." His voice croaked.
The man bent closer but deftly stayed out of Jeff's line of sight. "Oh, yes. You're worthless, boy. If that woman were still alive, she'd hate you for abandoning her. Sheriff Taylor should fire you. And he will by the time we get through with you. We'll be watching and waiting for the next chance to make you fail."
Jeff spit gravel out of his mouth and tried to speak. Then he heard the ominous buzz just before the spears of pain hit his shoulder. Lightning shots of current sheared through him again, and Jeff screamed in rage and despair.
Nothing smells like a wrecked car. Lindsey had been in more than one accident, and the smells always lingered in her memory. Hot oil, burnt rubber, gasoline and stressed metal. Acrid smoke burned her nose. It had startled Lindsey to consciousness, but now she just wanted to get away from it. She tried to move, but her shoulders felt wedged beneath the dash. A low moan escaped her, as each and every inch of her body felt battered and bruised.
It was an old feeling, deep from within her childhood, and she pushed it away, mentally going over her body to survey her injuries. The coppery taste in her mouth and swollen cheek and lips meant a blow to the face, and the slick and sticky liquid coating her hands told her that the plastic ties had cut deep into her skin. Her right shoulder felt twisted. One ankle throbbed with a terrible ache, but nothing felt broken. Her father had dealt her for worse.
While her injuries were excruciating, Lindsey was even more terrified that she stared, face-to-face, at her attacker. Her small, limp frame had crumpled and wedged itself in the passenger floorboard. Unbelted, the man had toppled from behind the wheel when the car went up on its right side. He'd smashed headfirst into the passenger-side window, then slid down in the seat as the car settled back on four wheels. Even unconscious and bleeding from two major head wounds, he felt menacing. Though frightened, Lindsey forced herself to remain still.
Who are you? Ghostly pale, his round face still had a babyish quality to it, like that of a teenager. She'd never seen him before, and from Jeff's reaction back at the restaurant, he hadn't recognized the attacker either. And Lindsey felt pretty certain that Deputy Jeff Gage knew just about everyone in Bell County.
Jeff. Her thoughts flashed back to the restaurant, to the sight of Jeff lying motionless on the ground.
"Please, Lord," she whispered. "Let him be okay." In that moment, Lindsey realized she really wanted Jeff here, to see him, to know he was all right. For him to tell her everything would be all right. "Please. Get us out of this."
Out. I have to get out. Lindsey tried to move, to straighten her legs, but she almost screamed from the pain that shot through her muscles and joints. She gave up, taking comfort in the sound of someone scrambling around in the brush outside the car.
"We're here!" she called out. "Please help us!"
A blinding light hit her face, and Lindsey grimaced, trying to turn away. "Hey!"
"You're supposed to be dead. Again."
Lindsey stilled. "Who are you?"
A gloved hand reached in through the passenger window and fumbled around the body of her unconscious assailant. "Is he dead?"
Fear seized Lindsey now, freezing her tongue. And old memory shot through her, one from her childhood. A voice that had made her stop in her tracks, unable to speak. Words so similar, Lindsey wondered if she were hallucinating. You're supposed to be dead. Is she dead?
She. Not he. Lindsey blinked hard, trying to clear the fog in her mind. Everything felt mixed up, the past and present running together like paint colors. Why can't I remember!
"No matter." The hand kept pulling at the man's clothes until it found the shirt pocket. "If he's not, he will be soon. Stupid…deserves to die for wrecking this car. What a waste. Beautiful machine." Fingers clawed into the pocket, plucking the piece of paper from it. "And for not completing his job with you."
The street-savvy kid who still lived deep inside Lindsey reacted instinctively, and she twisted hard, shoving herself deeper beneath the dash. She screamed just as the light swung in her direction, smashing into the spot where her head had been. The light shattered and went out. The man cursed, condemning her and everything on the planet. He reached through the window and clawed desperately at the glove compartment, but wasn't able to get it open.
Sirens split the night air, and the sound of urgent voices echoed into the ravine. The man cursed again, backing away from the car. "We're not done with you. We're around every corner."
As he crashed away through the brush, Lindsey sobbed.
Another light pierced the car, and Lindsey screamed, terror shooting through her.
"Lindsey! It's okay. We're here to help." This time the warm, soothing tones belonged to Sheriff Ray Taylor, and relief flooded through her as she recognized the baritone voice of her brother-in-law.
"Ray! Please get me out of here."
"As soon as we can, hon. Hang in there with me."
Lindsey closed her eyes, let out a slow, ragged breath, and nodded.