"I could not put this book down...Once again Dianna
has thrilled my suspense taste buds."
Lightning crackled nearby. Close, but not close enough.
Escape tonight or ... there was no second option.
“Come on, God, please.” Angel whispered the desperate prayer for the hundredth time since midnight. But lights still burned through Mason Lorde’s opulent compound where she’d been imprisoned for the last ten days.
She had to get over this compulsion about being honest. The last time she’d done the right thing, she’d landed in a real prison with a warden and crazy female inmates threatening her life. That had been thanks to her father.
One more thing she had to get over. Trusting any man.
Wind howled across the beveled panes, rattling the French doors and sounding cold when August weather was anything but.
“I should have asked for a hurricane instead of a thunderstorm,” she muttered under her breath. But hurricanes weren’t as prevalent along the North Carolina coast as lightning storms. All she needed was a brief power outage. Not that she had any reason to believe in divine intervention at this point in her life.
A short life if she didn’t get out of this place now.
She rolled a golf-ball-shaped compass in her hand, a dangerous stress reliever. She’d stolen it from his office, and to hell with any guilt she felt.
It would get her fingers snapped like twigs if Mason caught her with his solid gold desk toy.
No chance he’d let her off easy.
She’d learned that the hard way. Just like everything else in her life.
Mason Lorde, her dream employer. The bastard had turned into her worst nightmare. But with a conviction in her past, who could blame her for jumping at a chance for a job with a highly reputed firm? Assisting the manager in one of the warehouses for Lorde’s revered import enterprise beat cleaning toilets or scavenging aluminum cans any day.
Brilliant light flashed across the heavens, illuminating the edges of the brass bed at her shoulder. She glanced at the burgundy silk duvet covering the lump she’d built with pillows. Would that gain her an extra minute?
Maybe. She hated maybe. Reminded her how often her worthless court-appointed attorney had spouted that word.
Maybe you’ll receive leniency for a first offense.
Maybe you’ll get out early on good behavior.
Maybe men would stop screwing her over at some point, but she wasn’t counting on that, either.
Angel consulted her black plastic sports watch.
In sixteen minutes Kenner would begin his two a.m. round.
On the dot.
Unlike the rest of the security, the knuckle-dragging commander now in charge of Mason’s thirty-room mansion lacked any tolerance. Kenner had been brought in from another of Mason’s locations to replace Jeff, who’d overseen the property for the past ten years, according to his last screaming words.
He’d pleaded for his life.
Then Mason had ... nausea rolled through her stomach.
Another glance at her timepiece. Fifteen minutes, forty-eight seconds left.
She reached for the doorknob, desperate to flee, but paused short of touching it. She had no allies beyond patience. It wasn’t as if Kenner would repeat Jeff’s mistake. Poor Jeff, too slow on the uptake to be hanging with a bunch of killers. He’d smoked one too many cigarettes a week ago while she’d scurried down the Italian marble hallways in a fevered attempt to escape.
One of the other guards had caught her.
Mason didn’t tolerate mistakes. He’d ordered everyone to witness Jeff’s punishment. Angel, in particular. She still had bruises from where she’d been dragged outside and shoved up front for the show being performed for her benefit.
The citizens of nearby Raleigh would never believe what went on inside this private compound belonging to one of their most prominent city businessmen.
Just over six feet tall, with thick golden hair and a champion’s physique, Mason, the Nordic antichrist, had calmly raised his .357 magnum revolver to Jeff’s head and squeezed the trigger.
A deafening explosion. Then blood. So much blood.
She clenched her fists. The horror lived on, burned on the insides of her eyelids.
And the smell. Who could forget the god-awful coppery stench of fresh blood? Her stomach roiled again.
Hard to believe a week had passed. Seemed like just minutes ago. She squeezed her eyes shut and saw it all again. The hole in Jeff’s forehead. His eyes locked open in horror. The back of his head ... she swallowed and took a breath. She’d carry that brutal image for as long as she lived.
Along with the responsibility for his death.
And all because of a job she’d thought was a godsend. What had she done so wrong in her life to have ended up involved with a criminal again?
The first time, she’d been eighteen. And naïve to the point of being clueless about drugs. That had cost her.
She’d had no reason to think her own father would take advantage of her job as a city courier and use her to mule drugs without her knowledge.
Then throw her under the judge’s gavel to save his own hide.
This time, she was not going down without a fight.
If she got out of here tonight, she had the hammer that would bring down Mason. And prove her own innocence. She patted the heavy band wrapped around her waist like a money belt. The strip of plastic held a fortune in gold coins that would bring her salvation.
Or the end of her life.
Twelve minutes, forty-two seconds until room check.
Jagged sparks flashed across the eerie sky, nearer, but still too far away. Her heart pounded against her breastbone.
Come on, God. Don’t I deserve one break?
Thunder rumbled through the black heavens, longer than it had during the two power outages earlier in the week. They were common occurrences at the estate, cured each time temporarily by generators. She’d timed the last two blackouts. Should the Almighty-in-charge-of-weather deign to knock out the main electrical feed once more, she’d have nine minutes until three thousand volts surged through the chain link fence again.
Three thousand volts or face Mason when he returned tomorrow morning – not much of a choice.
The goal was simple. Escape or die trying.
She still nursed wounds from her penance for that first attempt. Her hand unconsciously went to her sore ribs and she licked her cut lip. The guards hadn’t harmed her beyond bruising, but Mason enjoyed doling out his personal brand of punishment.
The psycho had actually gotten aroused, as he’d beaten her.
In the dignified tone of a pompous professor, Mason had explained his actions. “Consider this step one in teaching you compliance and submission, Angelina.”
He’d wasted his time.
There would be no step two.
Thunder barreled across the sky, directly overhead this time, rattling the delicate glass panels between her and the storm.
Ten minutes, eighteen seconds left.
Her restless fingers worried the cold silver band Mason had locked on her wrist. He’d smiled when he assured her the tracking device was for her own protection. That had been right before he promised to return by the time she’d healed.
Cracked bones and bruises weren’t major concerns, but living to see her twenty-sixth birthday had become questionable.
The guards had breathed a collective sigh of relief after her beating, sure that she would stay put.
Only a crazy person would try to escape again.
“We’ll see who’s crazy,” she whispered. “You son-of-a – ”
Lightning exploded in a clap of thunder, so close her arm hairs stood on end.
The entire compound fell dark.
Angel hit the self-timer on her watch and dropped the compass down the front of her Lycra running top beneath a butter-yellow T-shirt. Mason’s choice of color. Not hers. Combined with matching shorts, she’d stand out like a beacon when the first lights popped back on.
She pushed the French doors open and rushed into a cool rain that battered the second floor private balcony. She nudged the doors shut behind her. A worn navy blue ball cap shielded her eyes from the downpour and hid shoulder-length auburn hair she’d fastened into a ponytail.
No going back now. Guards would enter the empty bedroom by the time lights flicked on.
Feeling blindly in the dark for the rail that enclosed the balcony, she gripped the ledge, climbed over then locked her legs around the ten-inch thick center column. Her arms strained to hold her body’s dead weight. Tremors shook her at the fear of falling twenty feet. Wet polished marble offered no traction to slow her descent.
She slid down the soaked surface. Friction burned both her hands and exposed legs in seconds. Tears, mixed with rain, poured down her face from the searing pain.
She lost her grip ... and clenched her muscles, waiting for the impact. She plummeted through a black vortex. Sharp points stabbed into her shoulders and hips when she landed, but no excruciating pain from a broken bone.
She’d been spared by a boxwood hedge.
Like a turtle on its back in a bed of nails, she lay still, panting hard against the pain in her ribs. The insides of her legs throbbed and wet bullets of rain pelted her face. Drawing a deep breath, she kicked both feet and rolled to her side, dropping into a crouch to listen.
No thud of heavy footsteps – yet.
Time to get moving. Through the darkness, she counted memorized steps across the lawn. Lightning crackled and fingered through the dark sky. When grass changed to concrete, she sidestepped around the Olympic-size pool. Raindrops slapped the chlorinated water.
Her feet met grass again exactly on count. She picked up the pace. Her shoulder bumped against a stone arbor strangled by jasmine vines. She tripped on a thick stem and went down hard, scraping her palms.
She gulped a deep breath. Listened for shouts, boots splashing across wet ground, any sound of being hunted.
Jumping up, she lunged into the blackness, running hard, fighting the panic exploding in her chest.
Heel to toe, heel to toe. Don’t smack the ground.
Finally, the big elm came into view during a quick flash of lightning. She stepped around the tree, sucking in short gasps of air. Running a marathon was easier than racing a hundred feet through the dark, expecting to get shot. Her heart hammered with terrified beats. She had to calm down and stick to her plan. Her hand shook violently as she made two stabs to press the button that illuminated her watch face.
Four minutes and twelve seconds.
Plenty of time if everything stayed status quo.
For the past ten days she’d pretended to be afraid of her shadow. Maybe the ruse had paid off. As long as no one rushed to be Mr. Efficient and cranked the generators ahead of schedule.
She sprinted eight big steps forward and stopped. Drenched to the bone, trembling from fear, she reached out in the darkness to grasp the ten-foot-tall security fence. Survival instincts stayed her hand at the last second, but there was only one way to know if the electricity was activated.
She stuck a finger on it.
She glanced up at the angry heavens. Thank you.
The current normally surging through the steel mesh could toss a grown man like a discarded rag doll. She grabbed a handhold on the fence.
Kenner’s roar of anger from the balcony reached her.
He’d found her empty bed.
Clenching one handhold then another as fast as she could, she struggled up the fence.
Freedom was only a foot away. She hauled herself over the top. Her hand slipped. Soft flesh tore on the twisted ends of the chain link. She bit down hard to swallow a cry of pain. No sense giving Kenner a tip on which direction she’d run. He’d find out soon enough anyway. She slipped, kicking frantically for any foothold. Falling from this height could mean a snapped ankle, and speed was her best weapon right now. She caught a toehold, scrambled down the other side, and leaped away from the fence.
Lights blazed on across the compound. Two minutes early.
She froze. Wet chain link sizzled with renewed power.
Every survival instinct she had screamed at her to tear through the woods like a madwoman. But hitting a tree might knock her out or daze her. Instant capture. Instead, she backed away from the fence, her feet on autopilot when she turned and plowed forward. Every time lightning streaked across the sky and lit up the woods, she raced ahead, dodging trees. Thick underbrush clawed at her arms. Pain from the cuts burning her skin demanded attention.
She pushed harder.
Sheets of rain blasted through breaks in the trees. Thunder boomed overhead.
How far could Mason’s men track her?
Would the storm interfere with the bracelet’s signal? She hoped for that miracle since God had been accommodating so far.
A jagged branch snagged the edge of her thin shorts and ripped a searing gash across her thigh. An adrenaline spike masked the pain, but her lungs begged for oxygen.
She was an endurance runner, not a sprinter.
At an unexpected opening in the brush, she stumbled to a stop, sucking air. Snatching the gold paperweight from between her breasts, she flipped it to the compass embedded in the top. She got her bearings during the next brilliant lightning display.
The small airfield she’d seen on a map in Mason’s office should be dead ahead.
Tucking away the compass, she started to move then jerked around at a noise.
Distant barking and howls broke through the deluge. Mason’s dogs trained by expert trackers. Between the animals and the stupid bracelet, they were on her trail. She pushed on with one thought – surely someone at the airfield would help her.
What if they knew Mason? What if someone at the airport worked for Mason? At the very least, he flew in there and might be a client who paid for hangar space.
“What ifs” would get her killed if she slowed down.
She ran her fingers compulsively over the band of coins strapped around her waist. Those eight rare coins were as important as her next breath.
She’d sworn once that she would never go to jail again. Her one and only conviction had not been her fault. The police hadn’t believed her story then.
They’d laugh in her face this time – right before they handcuffed her.
Taking Mason’s Saint-Gauden’s Double Eagle coins had stamped her death warrant. But they didn’t belong to Mason either. He’d stolen the rare pieces from a museum to trade for what he called a once-in-a-lifetime find. Some panel made out of amber from back in the fifteenth century.
She smiled in spite of her pain.
Mason would be empty handed when it came time to deliver the coins on Sunday.
One more way to pay that bastard back. If she didn’t get caught by Mason or the FBI first.
The FBI should be thrilled to have the stolen coins returned, and her testimony on Mason’s international crime ring. But no one would listen to her until she could prove she had no part in the original theft.
Mason claimed he had evidence that would implicate her in the theft. And who would the authorities believe? A local dignitary or a nobody ex-con?
As if someone had thrown a switch, the downpour fizzled into a steady shower. She burst through a break in the trees and slowed while her eyes adjusted, but moved forward steadily.
The ground fell away. She stumbled down a short drop into a ditch, landing on her knees. No pain because adrenaline still rushed through her, but she’d have bruises on bruises after this. She climbed up and touched pavement.
The good news? No fence around this airport. She scrambled to stand and drew a quaking breath. Freedom got closer by the minute.
The bays of pursuit dogs pierced the night. They were closing in.
A fence at this point might’ve had merits.
Searching past the runway, she spotted the bright glow of an open hangar a quarter of a mile away. With no time to waste, she sprinted toward the illuminated area.
Running felt good in spite of how her thigh throbbed. Blood trickled from the deep gash. Forcing her heart to pump harder only made her bleed more, but she’d survived worse.
She softened her steps as she neared the hangar then crept to the edge of the building. A tall, lanky man in mechanic’s coveralls loaded boxes into a sleek twin-prop cargo plane.
When the worker finished, he walked across the spotless floor toward a brightly lit office.
She could just make out two men on the other side of a glass door. The mechanic pushed the door open and announced the airplane was ready to go.
Angel hesitated. She’d always obeyed the law before. Now, the “slightly illegal things” she never would have done in the past just kept stacking up. Clenching her jaw against the unavoidable twinge of guilt, she made her decision.
That was the old Angel.
The new one wanted to survive and accepted that she’d never outrun those dogs on the ground.
One way or another, she was leaving on that plane.