Ryan gripped his knife, knowing that the professional killer he stalked in the forest had a gun. But that man didn’t have the determination that burned in Ryan, his rage, because these men were here to hurt Dani. No matter what had happened between Ryan and Dani to split them up, no matter what this meant moving forward, he wasn’t going to stop until she was safe.
Her barrage of rocks continued up the hill, creating an excellent facsimile of a hurried escape through the underbrush. He used the noise to cover his own tracks while angling toward where he’d seen the dark figure that had blocked their path to the house.
Footsteps trudged up the hill in the direction of Dani’s diversion. Ryan paralleled them, staying low and peering into the forest for any sign of the man. He hadn’t been lying when he told Dani that he’d been shot at before, but it certainly wasn’t an everyday occurrence. Next time —if there was a next time—he was sitting down with his police force friends, he’d have to pick their brains on how to handle this kind of situation.
For now, he had to make it up as he went and try not to die.
Dani’s rock diversion stopped, as if the two of them had run up the hill for a bit then taken cover. The movement near Ryan continued and he zeroed in on it. Each of his footsteps took an eternity as he tested the forest floor beneath him for anything that would make too much noise. Ahead of him, just up the hill, a man crept with his arm outstretched. The angular lines of his pistol stood out against the natural shadows of the forest.
He was clearly looking in the direction of the ruse and stepped carefully, craning his neck to peer through the darkness. Ten yards between him and Ryan. Rushing him would give Ryan’s position away in three steps. From this distance, the professional killer would surely hit Ryan with at least one bullet. Ryan couldn’t let Dani alone out here with them.
And for all he knew, the man who’d been talking to them was closing in on her while Ryan was creeping up the hill.
The electric urge to run at the man before him shot through Ryan’s legs. Not yet, he convinced himself, and hated thinking of someone else stalking Dani at the same time. Five yards to go. The forest was silent except for a cool breeze of early-morning air shivering the leaves. It seemed so calm. Three yards. The calm was about to break.
“I get it!” The other man started taunting again, from higher on the hill. “You like to think you can win. But you can’t.” The man in front of Ryan stood still, gun poised. The night was too dark to pick out his features, but he was clearly wide and strong. The talking man spit out, “Pat Sylvester didn’t win. He had a chance to live and he didn’t take it. Just like you.”
While the first man spoke, Ryan stalked closer to the silent one. Striking distance. Short breaths barely moved Ryan as his mind spun with how to take on an armed man. But he had weapons, too: his rescue knife and surprise.
As soon as the man turned his back to peer farther up the hill, Ryan leaped at him. He clubbed the man across the back with his left elbow while he drove his knife into the back of the man’s thigh. The man screamed out and buckled to one side. Ryan tried to reach across him to grab the gun, but the man fired a series of shots and started to turn his body toward Ryan.
If the man came around too far, Ryan would be hit point-blank, then Dani would be in the line of fire. With his knife still in his fist, Ryan punched the man in the ribs, then the side of the head. The blows jarred through Ryan, making his feet slide on the uneven terrain.
The man still fired his pistol, but the blasts went uphill as he staggered forward.
“Lou!” The other man called out and could be heard crashing through the forest toward Ryan. “Lou!”
Lou gritted out a curse and fell away from Ryan, landing on his hands and knees. The killer wheezed, “Get your ass over here, Harris.” Then Lou swung the pistol out toward Ryan.
Acting on instinct, Ryan slashed forward with his knife, catching the man at the top of the biceps. Lou swallowed a harsh gasp and lowered the gun as he gripped the wound with his opposite hand. In the dim light, Ryan could see the rage in the man’s pale blue eyes while he bared his teeth in a grimace of pain.
Harris sped closer with a reckless pace. Lou wasn’t completely down for the count and jerked his wounded arm up to transfer the pistol to his good hand. Time to run.
Ryan sprinted down the hill, chased by Lou screaming, “He’s there! He’s there!”
“Where?” Harris stopped his approach.
Gunshots blasted behind Ryan and bullets struck trees far to his left. The killers couldn’t see him. But they could still get lucky. He pushed his way through scrub and managed to close his knife before falling to a roll. Scrambling to his feet, he pushed his pace as fast as he could toward the edge of the forest.
Bullets continued to streak to his left when he reached the flats. A ragged breath of relief filled his lungs when Dani slipped quickly from the shadows. He joined her behind a tree and ran his hands over her shoulders, down her arms.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
“No.” She touched his face, the front of his chest. “Are you?”
“I’m fine.” He had no idea if he was or not. “I got to one of them. He won’t be chasing us.”
“Dead?” She shuddered.
“Incapacitated.” Another bullet bit into a tree to the east of them. “But they’re cutting off our way to the house.”
“We’ve got to get to town.” Dani’s gaze turned from the dark forest to the open field before them. “Olive grove’s that way.”
Dani secured her grip on the briefcase and started her run across the lower fire road and into the fields. Ryan was right next to her. And behind them, paid killers. One of which scrambled from the forest and sent two shots in their direction. The bullets buzzed wide.
“Ditch.” Dani pointed at the eight-foot-deep irrigation trench a dozen yards ahead. Two more shots chased them to dive into the ditch. She hooked her thumb to the right. “He won’t see us for a while, then we can pop up near the olive trees.”
“I knew you were the right one to lead.” They splashed off, soaking his jeans to above the knees. It didn’t matter what time of the night it was, or how far they had to go, he rallied all the strength in his body to push on. To get Dani to safety. Because the killer was still coming for her.
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