Dani fought back blind panic and peeked back up the hill to where the muzzle flashes gave away the position of their attackers. She quickly lost sight, though, when Ryan’s powerful arms dragged her away from the path of the bullets and into deeper cover. She’d always felt the strength of his broad shoulders, but had only experienced it when they were horsing around in the park with a soccer ball—or wrapped up in the sheets together. Never in his professional capacity.
“This definitely isn’t corporate law,” he muttered once they were safely huddled behind a broad pine. The shooting had stopped, for now, but the sound of the attacker’s feet came crunching down from above. She was aware of the forest floor trying to jam its way through the gaps in her jeans and jacket, but didn’t care. As long as it wasn’t a bullet in her flesh.
“Have you ever been shot at before?” She saw his truck sagging on a flat tire, engine dead, and a chill wound around her chest. It was a long run to town.
“When I worked in LA. We were called in to help a gunshot victim, but no one told us the shoot-out was still happening.” Ryan tugged on her arm and pointed to the next tree farther away from the attackers. “Have you?”
He didn’t wait for her answer, instead bringing her with him on a sprint to the tree. A single shot rang out and bark exploded on the tree where they’d just been.
She caught her breath and answered, “No. Corporate law, remember?”
“I wish these guys would just send a nasty email.” He gave her hand a squeeze before tipping his head toward another tree down the line. They were slowly getting closer to the low road. She nodded to him and they sprinted again. This time, no bullet chased them.
“I saw two of them when they were shooting.” She took stock of what she had on her that could be a weapon. Dammit, she didn’t even have her car keys, which had a flashlight and safety whistle on the ring.
“Any chance someone at the edge of town hears the gunfire?” Ryan took out his phone and she could see there was still no signal.
“Maybe.” She hated that word. “But by the time the police get here, we could be history.” The footsteps in the forest grew closer. She pointed at a tree closer to the low road, with enough scrub around its base to obscure them. Ryan nodded and the two of them took off running. The pursuers picked up speed as well, but seemed to be chasing blind.
Once behind cover, Ryan craned his neck to gaze in the direction of town. “Is it all just open fields around here, all the way to town?”
“Matsoukas family olive grove. That way.” She pointed into the darkness on the other side of the low fire road.
“Half mile?” She’d only driven around the foothills and had certainly never considered what it would be like to be on the run from killers in this territory.
“We’ll try for Augustina’s house, due east. There’ll be a phone signal there and we might lose these guys on the way.” He squared himself to run again.
“Sounds good.” She gripped her briefcase to her side.
“Ms. Oliver!” A voice in the forest froze them. Sneering with a laugh, a man barked out again, “You’re in over your head.”
Ryan puffed up to answer, but Dani put her hand on his chest. Despite the anger she felt vibrating through him, he quieted himself.
“One thing I’ve learned from depositions,” she explained in a whisper. “Let them do the talking and they’ll almost always wind up incriminating themselves.”
“You got lucky on that road,” the man continued. Footsteps could be heard coming from the same direction, a few dozen yards away. “But your luck will run out. Believe me, I know. So why don’t you just throw that packet you got in the mail over toward me, and I’m going to let you walk away.”
She and Ryan shared a look, both shaking their heads at the obvious lie.
“That’s the best offer you’re going to get.” The man came even closer. “Trust me. I’m a professional.”
She poked Ryan’s shoulder as she whispered, “Told you he’d implicate himself.”
“Too bad we’re not in a court of law.” He tipped his head and the two of them sped off again, sticking to the trees just at the border of the lower fire road. At this pace, they could make it to the empty house in a few minutes.
“You’re making a mistake, Ms. Oliver!” Frustration snuck into the man’s voice. “It’s a limited time offer.”
As they ran, Ryan took out his phone. One thin bar of signal. A gun cracked and a bullet streaked through the air, forcing them to sprint to another tree and crouch low.
“The offer is off the table!” Footsteps hurried closer.
Ryan pocketed the phone and hissed low, “They can see the glow.”
With silent agreement, she and Ryan broke cover and resumed their run east toward the house. Through the trees she could see glimpses to the south, where the flat fields, irrigation ditches and the country road were all familiar views from the porch of the house. They had to be close.
All they needed was one second of invisibility to call the police.
New footsteps crashed through the forest ahead of them, blocking their eastern path. Ryan and Dani pulled up quickly and and hunched against a tree. A dark figure moved among the trees efficiently, like a predator. Somehow the man had gotten ahead of them.
“I told you we’re professionals.” The man’s voice was still coming from behind. His partner had outpaced Dani and Ryan and now flanked them. “And now that you really understand, you’re going to throw the package out and I’m going to be the good guy here and let you go.”
Cold rage clawed up her back at being trapped. Ryan’s jaw was set, teeth bared, eyes blazing. She’d never seen this much rage in him.
“There’s no way they’re getting to you,” he vowed in a growl. After searching the ground, he picked up a heavy club-like stick and handed it to her.
“This isn’t going to do any good against a gun.” She gripped the club and wished it was as simple as beating the oncoming men away with it.
“Anything it takes.” Ryan snapped open a large folding knife and lifted a rock out of the dirt. He gave her the rock, then found another. “As soon as I throw this, throw yours near it. Keep it going so it sounds like we’re heading back up the hill toward the high road.”
“Bad guys stopped falling for that gag in the 1940s. No way it’ll buy us enough time to get out across the fields.” The closest cover was an irrigation ditch a hundred yards away.
“We’re not heading for the fields yet.” Ryan rolled his shoulders and let out a long hot breath. “I’m going after one of them.”
“Hell, no, you aren’t.” She held the club across his stomach to stop him.
“No choice. Those bastards aren’t going to let us out of here alive.” He hefted the rock, ready to throw. “I’m just going to slow them down. And if I tell you to run, hit the field.”
“I’m not sending you off there alone.” Her palms sweat on the short log and her heart thundered.
“You’re not sending me. I’m going.”
“You stubborn son of a—”
“Just as stubborn as you, baby.” He had to say it that way, like he knew every part of her, in the same way she understood him, and how well they’d fit together.
Without another word Ryan threw the rock high onto the hill. She followed his with hers, then found another to throw in that direction. The shrubs and fallen leaves crunched as if she and Ryan were on the move again. Other movement in the forest gave chase. His plan was working. But things could get ugly in a split second when Ryan tried to take on one of the men. She and Ryan should just make a break for the field now, while they had the chance. She sought out two more rocks on the ground and when she looked up again, Ryan was gone.
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