She nodded her head as much as his tight hold would allow.
“We’re gonna do this slow and easy,” he repeated. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if I have to, if it’ll keep you safe. Do you understand that, Peyton?”
He waited, so she nodded again.
“Good. I’ll explain everything later, but right now, I want you to reach over and engage the locks.”
None of what he was telling her made sense. Keep her safe? As far as she could tell, he posed the only danger. Didn’t he realize that after what he’d done, he could end up being shot on sight? He was a wanted man, for crying out loud.
Once she hit the button and the locks clicked, he finally removed the pressure from the weapon he held on her. She heard the rustle of fabric and assumed he’d stuffed the gun into his pocket.
Breathing suddenly became a whole lot easier.
“I’m going to remove my hand. Are you going to scream?”
She shook her head. No one would hear her, anyway. She seriously doubted the aging guard could hear her if he was standing directly in front of her. Still, she had to do something. Was she really supposed to believe she was the one in danger, when it was his face on a wanted poster?
With his hand still clamped over her mouth, he reached over and snagged her purse off the seat, dropping it on the floorboard beside him.
“I’m going to remove my hand. Scream, and who knows what might happen. I’m feeling a little edgy right now, so I wouldn’t make any fast moves if I were you. You understand me, sweetheart?”
At her nod, he added, “Okay. Ease over to the passenger seat.”
As slowly as he’d ordered her to follow his instructions, he removed his hand. She sucked a large gulp of air into her lungs. “What do you think you’re doing?” she snapped at him, ignoring his demands. “Why are you here?”
“Now that’s a hell of a greeting for someone you haven’t seen in three years,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Move over.”
Remaining behind the wheel, she shifted in the seat so she could get a good look at him. Shock coursed through her at the sight. Although vibrantly alive, and way too virile for her not to notice, he’d aged. A lot more than three years would warrant if he hadn’t been hiding from the authorities, and doing only God knew what to stay alive and hidden. Thanks to the lights on the dash, she could just make out haggard lines of fatigue bracketing his eyes and the slight gray sprinkled along his temples. He was only two years older than her thirty-one years, but he looked so much older, and tired, as if he hadn’t had a good night’s rest in weeks, maybe even months.
Three years, her conscience reminded her. Three long, no doubt hellish, years.
Against her better judgment, compassion nipped at her. She desperately wanted to feel nothing toward him, but deep down she knew she’d have an easier time asking for the moon to be personally delivered to her doorstep with a pretty pink ribbon wrapped around it. Jared had been such an important part of her life. He’d been her life, or so she’d thought once upon a time. Despite her need to remain detached, the trace of fear she detected in his gaze gave her heart a sharp tug. The Jared she’d known, the Jared she’d once loved with all her heart, had never been afraid of anything. That his eyes held even a hint of that emotion now worried her, even more so than the determination she sensed there, as well.
“You’re a fugitive, Jared,” she said, lowering her voice. “As an officer of the court, it’s my duty to—”
“Save me your legal duty bullshit, Peyton,” he said with an unmistakable hardness in his tone. “I’ve heard it before. Remember? Now move it over like I told you to, real slow.”
She had to find a way to get through to him. Certainly he realized the danger of even being in the D.C. area. If he was found, they’d kill him. She knew that. She’d been involved with Jared long enough to know feds didn’t take too kindly to their own going south, much less killing a fellow agent in the line of duty.
“They’re looking for you, Jared. They’re always looking for you.”
“Tell me something new,” he said impatiently. “Now move it.”
She twisted around and acted before she could think about the possible consequences. She slammed the car into reverse and stepped hard on the gas. The car shot backward, tires squealing on the smooth concrete. Jared swore vividly and scrambled to keep upright. She jerked the car to a hard stop, but before she could shift into Drive, he reached over the seat and killed the engine. As he tried to remove the keys, she fought him, tugging unsuccessfully on his hands, pulling on the sleeve of his lightweight jacket. He yanked the keys from the ignition and tossed them on the floor at her feet. She knew then the battle was lost.
Not ready to give up the fight completely, she made one last-ditch effort and reached for the door, opened it, but he swore again and grabbed a handful of her hair. The butterfly clip holding it in place flew to God knew where an instant before her feet hit the pavement. Dammit!
For a few moments, the only sound inside the car was their ragged breathing. In the distance, she could hear the sounds of the D.C. traffic. “That’s the wrong way, sweetheart,” he said, his mouth dangerously close to her ear. His warm breath fanned her flushed skin and sent a shiver traveling down her spine. “Close the door, Peyton.”
Temporarily out of viable escape options, she reluctantly did as he ordered. She tried to pull away from him, away from that mouth close enough to brush against her skin, but he held on tight.
“Look, if it’s the car you want,” she said, struggling to calm herself, “just let me get my briefcase and you can have it.”
“So you can run to the nearest phone and report it stolen? Not a chance, sweetheart.”
“Stop calling me that,” she told him. She was no longer his sweetheart, babe or any of the other silly endearments he’d used during their affair. “What do you want?”
“Dammit, I’m trying to protect you, Peyton.”
“Then you should have stayed away.”
“I couldn’t. This is what they wanted.”
“What who wanted? You’re talking in circles.”
“Look, I’ll explain later. Right now we need to get out of here. They could be watching us even now.”
“Who, Jared?” She wanted to understand, but without an explanation, she was reduced to guessing games. “Who could be watching? The bureau? They wouldn’t be watching, they’d be surrounding the car with guns drawn like a bunch of liquored-up farmers on a turkey shoot. And guess who the turkey is?”
He let out a frustrated breath. “Let’s take this back to the beginning, okay? Move over to the passenger seat.”
“I’m not moving anywhere until you explain what’s going on.”
“I told you—I’ll explain later.” The words were sharp and clipped. “Move it, Peyton. Now!”
With nothing left to do but follow his orders, she eased over to the passenger seat. He kept her hair wrapped around his hand until he moved first one, then the other leg over the seat and slid behind the wheel. He adjusted the seat to fit his long, powerful legs, then adjusted the mirror and double-checked the locks. He even made sure the window lock was engaged before he scooped up the keys and started the car. With his foot on the brake and his hand on the gearshift, he turned to look at her. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Oh, really?” Although his gaze held sincerity, she still balked. She was effectively his captive. He was the one in control, the one calling the shots, and she hated it almost as much as she hated the changes in him. “Then what do you call that gun you held to my head? A greeting card?”
He had the audacity to offer her a sheepish grin as he reached into his pocket. When he opened his hand, she stared in disbelief at the round, black plastic object lying across his calloused palm. “A lighter? You mean to tell me you scared me half to death with a disposable lighter?”
He slipped the car into Drive and headed toward the exit. “It worked, didn’t it?” He stuffed the lighter back into his pocket and pulled out something else.
She looked down at his hand. “I suppose you’re going to tell me you’re responsible for the light being out in the parking garage, too,” she said, taking the small lightbulb from his palm to return it to the overhead lamp in the car.
When he just grinned at her again, she let out a disgusted sigh, then reached behind her to pull the seat belt into place. Being kidnapped was one thing, but that didn’t mean she had to compound stupidity by riding around unprotected. “Will you at least tell me where we’re going?”
“Somewhere that’s safe.” He glanced quickly in her direction. “At least for now.”
“And then you’ll let me know what this is all about?”
“Yeah, Peyton. I’ll tell you. But I guarantee you’re not going to like it.”
HE LOVED HIS JOB. He was powerful, connected and damn good at what he did. Invitations to dinner parties in the homes of Washington’s movers and shakers always came to him. The other senatorial aides on the hill called on him for advice and counsel. Lobbyists vied for his attention and were grateful when he gave it to them. Visits to the White House were a common part of his job, and the rush of adrenaline he felt stepping into the hallowed halls of the West Wing, of having the ear of those closest to the president, never failed to lift him a little higher in his own self-esteem. He wasn’t feared, but he was deeply respected, and respect meant everything to a man who’d crawled out of a dirt-poor childhood, one small step ahead of being trailer trash.
His father had been a drunk who’d died instantly behind the wheel of a battered pickup held together by lube oil, dust and a prayer, when it kissed the trunk of a tree at 60 mph. For reasons he failed to comprehend, his mother had mourned the death of her mean bastard of a husband and committed suicide three months later. Only thirteen at the time, thin, pale and oddly quiet, Stevie Radgetz had been the one to find his mother, along with an empty bottle of tequila and prescription sleeping pills as her companions in bed.
He’d gone to live with his father’s brother, William Radgetz, following his mother’s funeral. His drunken father and suicidal mother had been a picnic compared to dear old Uncle Willie. At least Stevie had known his parents had loved him in their own misguided way, even if it hadn’t been enough for them to stick around. Willie didn’t give a shit about him and didn’t care who knew it, even thin, pale, dirty little Stevie. It was no secret the only reason Willie kept him around was for the government check that arrived each month, a check Stevie never saw so much as a penny of in the five years he lived in his uncle’s ramshackle house on the edge of town. The only thing he’d ever seen from his uncle had been his fists when he’d had too much to drink, which was often.