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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.
Zane peered through the dull glass office door into the pristine hangar where Hack’s man loaded the last box into Zane’s Cessna 404 Titan. He moved over to the pot of strong coffee always ready for pilots and filled his thermos.
“You ain’t listenin’, son.”
“I have to make this run,” Zane answered Hack absently, then shifted around to face the terminal manager.
“You cain’t be serious ‘bout flyin’ in this mess.” Hack laid a dog-eared queen of spades down, completing another game of solitaire.
Oh, yeah, dead serious. He had five days left to prove he deserved the charter contract High Vision Enterprises had up for grabs. The other two charter groups had enough equipment and personnel to cover deliveries anywhere in the continental US. Zane was already at a disadvantage in that he only wanted the southeastern region, but he’d impressed High Vision last week by delivering a shipment the other two carriers had turned down. This was another opportunity Zane wouldn’t pass up.
Couldn’t pass up.
Zane’s skills as a pilot had given him a reputation across the business for doing what couldn’t be done. His roster of clients had grown steadily since he’d opened for his first cargo flight. But he had other reasons for going after High Vision’s business. He had a deal on the side nobody knew about. That deal hinged on getting contracts with companies like High Vision – companies of interest to the DEA.
The money he made on the side as an undercover informant would save his baby sister’s life. He’d almost lost her to her demons once.
He’d unintentionally abandoned her when he went into the military. Not again.
“I’ll be fine,” Zane said. Genetically engineered white mice, packed in the six cases being loaded on his plane, had to arrive alive and on time. He didn’t give a rat’s ass about the mice. No pun intended. But he also didn’t plan to blow the best chance he had at cinching the deal with High Vision.
“H-o-o-wee!” Hack raised one gray eyebrow at the weather radar on the huge, outdated CRT computer monitor to his left. The dial-up connection was deadly slow, and the animated radar loop crept across the screen. “Nobody oughta fly in a front like this. Don’t be fooled none by that little break out there. It’s a comin’ in hard.”
Zane grunted just to give the old guy a response.
Hack shifted his bulk to lean forward, and the vinyl office chair squeaked in protest. “You hear ‘bout that fella down in Montgomery? Told his wife he had ta fly in that bad squall come off the Gulf. Said he’d lose his contract with Shoreline Delivery if he didn’t. They used a bag to pick up parts of that man. He was scattered plumb across Alabama.”
Zane shrugged. Life was a gamble.
Odds were no worse now than when he’d put everything on the line for his brothers in arms, which he’d do again in a minute.
It would take more than lousy weather to make him pass up a chance to get one step closer to security for him and his sister.
Everyone vied for High Vision’s business. If he didn’t meet the delivery deadline, somebody else would the next time.
“Don’t you git it?” Hack continued. “That pilot didn’t keep the contract noways. He shoulda just stayed home. If he had, he’d be alive an’ flyin’ today.”
Sure, bad weather upped the potential for a problem, but compared to Zane’s combat flight experience, making Jacksonville tonight would warrant only a little more attention than usual. Of course, his military record, training, and background appeared nowhere on the credentials for Black Jack Charters.
And neither did his real last name, Jackson.
As Zane Black, he kept his personal life separate from work, and from the sometimes-rough characters he encountered. People who wanted him to fly cargo that was illegal at best, a danger to American citizens at worst. His alter-identity had been part of the deal he’d cut with the DEA when they’d become his partner in the charter business.
They bought the plane and set him up. He busted ass to get contracts of his own – and contracts that interested them.
Damned lucrative work that was filling up a bank account for his sister’s business scary fast.
Beyond that, doing this for his country was work he believed in. Something that made hauling around smelly vermin a little easier.
He’d flown more than his share of dangerous missions in his career as a pilot. On the last one, he’d barely walked away. In the Air Force, he’d been a respected fighter pilot instead of humping commercial cargo for a living.
But that was three years ago and this was today.
Hack’s police scanner crackled with a short conversation in law enforcement code.
“Slow night for the boys in blue,” Hack declared.
“What happened now?” Zane asked with feigned confusion over the cryptic announcements. He’d spoken 10-codes like a native language in his former life. Police agency codes were different than military, but since he’d been doing the side work for his friends in the DEA, he’d learned the police agency usage. He knew exactly what the codes squawking on that radio meant, and what had transpired.
“Got a couple hotheads havin’ at it in a beer joint parkin’ lot down the road.”
Hack’s man loading the Titan shoved the office door open and announced, “All fueled and loaded. Ready to go. You got to feed those critters if you’re late?”
Zane lifted a shoulder. “Beats me. Vision doesn’t make allowances for late. Thanks, Tyler. I’ll close it up.” He preferred to shut the cargo hatch himself and know for sure everything was buttoned up tight.
With a nod, Tyler pulled the door closed, strolled across the hangar, and disappeared into the maintenance shop.
Rain drummed against the metal roof.
“H-o-o-wee. Listen to it come down out there. You hang around and we’ll have us a couple hands o’ poker.”
Zane ignored Hack. A blur of yellow in the hangar caught his attention.
He couldn’t believe his eyes.
Had a woman just slipped into his airplane?
Was she nuts?
And where in the hell had she come from?
Zane snatched up the thermos. “Thanks for the coffee.” He left before Hack could offer one more warning about aeronautic suicide. The last thing he needed tonight was trouble, even if it came in a long-legged package.
When he stepped outside, an odd sound carried on the swirling wind. Misting rain drifted through the haze of light beyond the hangar.
He stopped to listen.
Dogs bayed in the distance. Bobbing lights flashed near the woods at the far side of the runway. It didn’t take a detective to figure out they were hunting something – or someone.
His stowaway was sadly mistaken if she thought he’d help a fugitive.
A fugitive on the run from the law would be all over Hack’s police scanner, but the only alert sent out in the last thirty minutes had been the parking lot bar brawl.
Concern tapped along his spine.
He stuck his head inside the cargo door of the Titan and scanned the secured load. The tie-down straps were cinched tight, as they should be. Hundreds of tiny toenails scratched frantically against the aerated crates. A faint putrid smell accompanied the chattering racket.
In the shadows at the rear, he spotted a bruised leg. Blood trickled from deep scratches. His vision adjusted. Two enormous, terrified, whiskey-dark eyes came into focus between a break in the crates.
Who was she and why were they after her?
And if the police weren’t the ones chasing her, who had turned dogs loose to track her?
Amplified barks and howls echoed louder across the airfield. The bleeding leg disappeared and the two eyes ducked away. A memory crashed into him of his younger sister, battered and bleeding, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
No one had lifted a finger to help her.
Three years of buried guilt roared to the surface. He’d cursed the spineless men who’d turned deaf ears to his sister’s screams.
He’d cursed himself worse for not being there to save her.
Zane climbed inside, slammed the cargo door behind him, then tossed the thermos into a bag on the floor. He moved forward into the left seat, cranked the engines, and jerked on his headset.
As he pulled out to taxi, he passed two black Land Rovers screaming into the airport, sliding to a stop on the taxiway to his left. Out jumped five men in dark suits with bodies the size of refrigerators.
Static crackled in his ear. He keyed the radio to activate the automatic runway lights then spoke into his headset microphone. “November Zero Niner Niner Five Papa preparing for takeoff.”
Two trackers with dogs appeared in his headlights, further down the runway. The ensemble raced toward him. Both men struggled to keep up with hounds charging against their leashes, amped up on the scent of the hunt.
Zane gunned the engine, taxied straight ahead.
Hack’s excited voice burst inside his headset. “Zane, come on back. Got some men here want to see you.”
What if the brutes were with law enforcement? He’d have to hand her over. No woman was worth getting arrested and having people digging around into his background.
A hundred yards ahead, men dove away from the churning props, dragging the bloodhounds with them.
He clicked on his mike. “Are they Feds?”
“No. Private security, but they really want to talk. Says there’s big money in it for you.”
Big money had a suspicious ring to it. Zane continued to flip levers. “What type of security?”
He swung around the far end of the taxiway, barely slowing. A squeak sounded in the rear, but he couldn’t decide if it had four legs or two.
Two sets of high beams shot around the opposite end of the runway thirty-five hundred feet away to face him. What was the chance those headlights belonged to the two sport utilities full of muscle? Pretty fucking good.
He eased the throttles forward.
What kind of trouble was this woman in?
To keep an eye on his cargo, he’d installed a rear view mirror. He shot a quick look at the cargo hold. A pair of wide eyes stared back, more panicked than before.
He understood that look.
She was running for her life.
After a long silence, Hack finally answered his question. “Private security, uh, like ... Big Joe Levetti.”
Hair stood up across Zane’s neck.
Hack had always joked that Big Joe had D-E-A-T-H tattooed across his knuckles. No way would Zane turn that haunted, frightened woman over to a bunch of hired guns.
He barked one last message into the radio. “You’re breaking up. I’ve got IFR clearance from center. I’m gone.” As the aircraft picked up speed, the four headlights racing toward him grew larger. Zane gripped the controls tighter. His pilot’s manual didn’t cover playing chicken in a loaded Titan on a rainy night. But his military experience made this an easy call.
Besides, he’d never been one to play by the rules.
Buffeted by the wind, the plane rocked and careened closer to the Land Rovers, the distance between them shortening with every second. He mentally calculated the added weight of the stowaway in the back.
He’d never get this aircraft up before reaching the vehicles if they held their ground.
He’d never be able to stop in time either.
NOTE: This is only the opening of book 1. Visit the Nowhere Safe and Honeymoon To Die For book excerpts to read those.