The killer was on their trail. Ryan had told her while they were sloshing through the irrigation ditch that he’d been identified as Harris by the other man. Always good to have a name during negotiations, if it came to that. She ran through her memory to see if there was any connection between her and Harris, but knew that there was nothing personal here. Strictly a man being paid to hunt her down and get the evidence back at any cost.
Maybe it was personal now, though. Ryan had taken one of them out. Her heart still thundered the way it had when he’d slipped off into the forest alone. She just wanted to hold him against her now and be convinced that he was safe and unhurt. But the two of them wound through a dark olive grove, never losing contact as they used the gnarled trees to cover their movement. The touch of his hand laced with hers gave a glimmer of hope that they could make it through this.
Even though she knew they were hidden during their run through the trees, Harris didn’t relent. His shadowy shape was over a hundred yards behind them. He must’ve understood they were closer to the town’s population and hadn’t taken a shot since they’d all moved out of the forest.
The deeper they pressed through the olive trees, the less she could see of Harris’s pursuit. This flight could end in a split second. She held Ryan’s hand tighter.
“I’ll bet I have bars out here,” he whispered. “But the phone’s light will give us away.”
“Once we’re through these trees, there’s another road.” She mapped territory that was usually reserved for innocent wine tasting and apple-picking forays. “We make a right, then a left. That’ll take us straight into town.”
“Let’s stick to the edges, in case he spots us and we have to ditch the road.” His voice remained quiet and steely. Together they continued through the grove. The black lines of the trees receded ahead and soon there was no longer any cover around them. Glancing back only revealed tangles of shadows, no indication of Harris. The knot of fear in the pit of her stomach told her he was still out there.
She and Ryan kicked up the gravel on the side of the road, running through the early-morning hours. Sunrise could be minutes away for all she knew. Right now, the only goal was to get to town and find a safe spot to contact the police.
They were on the straight shot to Manzana now. Farmland gave way to homes on large plots of land. Some structures over a hundred years old and as natural as the tall trees surrounding them, others gigantic new estates of cultivated stone. Calling on them for help would just imperil everyone. Harris would get there before the police, and he’d already proven he was more than ready to pull the trigger.
And in the face of that, Ryan had gone into the forest to take them on.
“I still can’t believe what you did.” She and Ryan couldn’t flat out run any longer and hurried forward.
“What did I do?” he asked honestly.
“Going up that hill, alone. Going after them.”
“I wasn’t alone. None of it would’ve worked without you.” Their hands had separated, and he reached over to squeeze her shoulder. “You know I’d do anything for you.”
“Except move to the city.” She spoke without thinking, triggered into a conversation they’d started a hundred times, not truly listening to each other and always locking it away before finishing.
“And hate it there.” He fell right into the same groove. “I’ve done cities. LA, Sacramento, San Francisco. Put me back in there now, I’d be bad for us both.”
They’d broken up over this issue, but if she’d forced him, or if he’d compromised himself to make a change he didn’t want, it would’ve been much worse. Spite and anger would be poison. No coming back from that.
“I only want you to be good,” she told him.
“I want the same for you.” He watched the road behind them as they progressed forward. “First of all, live through this. Then we can both go back to finding what makes us happy.”
It sounded so final. But nothing felt finished. The word happy continued to echo through her head. Strange thing to be considering while fleeing through the night with a briefcase full of evidence. Pat Sylvester wasn’t even her client, and she was willing to see this through because it was right, and Stanley Miller and Harris couldn’t be allowed to hurt anyone they wanted. This wasn’t her job. Most of the time the most perilous thing she had to deal with at her law firm was the wait for the elevator during lunch hour. But was she happy there? Was she doing the work she needed to be doing?
“That’s town.” She pointed to the far end of the road they were on, where streetlights and a traffic signal glowed, electric. They picked up their pace and soon found themselves passing the auto shops and farm supply stores that marked the border of Manzana.
There was no sign of Harris behind them, but they still stayed close to the shadows at the edges of buildings. An alley provided deeper cover, a brick wall on one side and a cyclone fence on the other. About midway through, against the fence, was a pile of empty plastic barrels that smelled of inexpensive wine. Ryan and Dani edged into the collection of barrels. She watched the mouth of the alley where they’d come from as he took out his phone and dialed 911.
“Ryan Kimura.” He kept his voice low. “With Dani Oliver. We’re in the alley parallel to Hacienda. There’s a man with a gun trying to find us. He already tried to kill us… Seriously. They ran Dani off the road up in the north hills and shot up my truck. Another guy is still up there…” His frustration grew. “You can buy us a drink and we’ll tell you all about it once we’re safe…” He hung up the phone and turned to Dani. “They’re coming.”
The small solace made her breathe deeper. There was still no hint of Harris at the opening of the alley. Ryan rested his hand on Dani’s shoulder, his palm warm as he held her. She pressed her cheek against his thumb.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“Whatever happened, all the stuff that got between us.…” His words resonated with emotion. “It’s not a switch I can flip. You’ve still got me.”
“We get through tonight, then we go our separate ways to ‘find what makes us happy’?” She reached back and found the side of his hip with her hand. “What happens if you make me happy?”
He brought his chest against her back and the two of them leaned against each other, balanced. His lips an inch from her ear. His voice only for her.
“I’m not happy when you’re gone,” he said.
“I didn’t like this year,” she confessed. “I’m going to do something about that.”
“Like what?” The spark of a sultry challenge came with his simple question.
There were a thousand possibilities, all of them more real now that he was so close to her. If they were behind closed doors. Safe. Just a kiss could start it all again. She swallowed hard and began to answer him, but was cut off when a car rolled into the alley behind them.
A bright searchlight swept through the blue barrels and illuminated the scratches, dirt and blood on Ryan’s face, and how his usually sleek black hair was mussed. He still smiled.
“The police.” Ryan put up his hand to shade his face from the light and moved forward from the shelter of the barrels. She followed, so much closer to safety.
The feeling burned away in the instant that Ryan backed quickly into her and turned, commanding, “Run!”
She didn’t question him and sped off in the opposite direction from the car. As Ryan sprinted, he knocked the barrels over to block the alley in the path of the oncoming car. It wasn’t the police. It was another dark SUV. A shadowed man leaned out the side window and swept a handheld searchlight through the alley.
The SUV plowed through the barrels and surged toward Ryan and Dani.
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