Hot On His Trail
Linda Winstead Jones

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One cop raised his gun. I can take him. Shea read his lips as he whispered. She didn’t have to read the lips of the deputy who reached out to make him lower the weapon again, drawling a loud curse as he tried to avoid more bloodshed.

“You might hit the girl,” he added in a calmer voice.

As if she wasn’t panicked enough with the muzzle of a gun stuck to her ribs! That one hothead would take the chance without a second thought, if he believed he’d get Taggert. She was expendable…but not as long as Mark had the camera on her and Taggert. No law enforcement agency could afford that kind of bad press.

“A car,” Taggert whispered breathlessly into her ear again, and he jerked around so they were half facing the street. “Is one of these yours?”

She made a split second decision, an easy one when she weighed all her options. “The red Saturn,” she said, nodding her head in the direction of the car that was parked at the curb. “The keys are in my pocket, and you can have them. Just let me go.”

The idea of getting into the car with Taggert terrified her. He was desperate, he had a weapon and she remembered too well the stories Astrid had filed on him. A former military man, he’d spent several years in Special Forces. Before that he’d been a teenage troublemaker. The state had made part of their case the fact that Taggert was capable of anything.

He dragged her toward the car, holding her in a viselike grip and keeping her body between him and the officers. He kept the gun pressed tightly to her ribs.

Burgess ran down the steps. “Nick, you’re making a terrible mistake. This is kidnapping!”

“The keys,” Taggert said, the whispered words an unquestionable order.

Shea reached into the pocket of her red jacket and pulled out a small silver key chain with the initials S.L.S. engraved in the center in a delicate script. Two keys hung from the chain—one to the car, the other to her apartment. She considered trying to remove her house key, then decided against it. Her trembling hands would make the task too difficult, and besides, she could have the locks changed this afternoon.

“Here,” she said. “Take the car and let me go.”

Taggert ignored her request for freedom, but he did take the keys from her hand. His hold on her faltered for a fraction of a second as he made the transfer. “If anyone follows, I’ll shoot her,” he rasped, tightening his grip as he made the threat. “Let me get away clean, and in two hours I’ll release her. You have my word.”

“Nick, don’t,” Burgess whispered.

The door to her Saturn was unlocked, and Taggert reached behind him and threw it open. He sat down hard and brought Shea with him. She dropped back and down, and ended up sitting in his lap and practically falling to the front passenger seat. Warm blood touched the back of her calf. He was bleeding pretty badly; maybe he’d pass out….

With the hand that held the weapon he threatened her with, Taggert slammed the passenger-side door shut, and for the first time Shea actively tried to get away. The slamming of the door was so final, so terrifying. Gun or no gun, she refused to willingly ride off with a murderer.

She used her elbows first, lashing back into his ribs with all her might. One elbow connected solidly and Taggert grunted, but he didn’t loosen his grip. She used her feet, kicking back blindly. Taggert let out a howl when the heel of one running shoe connected solidly with his injured leg. While he yelled she snapped her head back and bashed his nose. He let out a string of low curses and grabbed her hair, twisting her head and forcing her to look at him. He held her so tightly she couldn’t move, not even to look away.

Her short struggle gave the officers an opportunity to move closer to the car, but with Taggert in control there was nothing they could do. The escaped murderer glanced at them and made sure they saw the gun he had pointed at her head.

His face hovered close to hers, so close she could see the dark stubble on his chin and the beads of sweat on his brow. A thin trickle of blood seeped from one nostril. Shea shivered. The ice-blue eyes he locked on her were colder, more menacing, than anything she’d ever seen.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he whispered.

“Then let me go.” She struggled against his grasp as he slowly maneuvered over the console and into the driver’s seat. His hold on her never slackened. His moves smooth and sure and amazingly quick, he placed the weapon between his legs and jammed the key into the ignition.

Instinctively, she reached for the gun. She was fast, but not fast enough. The engine started, and Taggert snagged the gun before she could. He pointed it at her chest. “Don’t make me hurt you.”

He released his hold on her, slammed the car into drive and took off. The weapon he pointed at her never wavered. When they were well down the street he glanced at her, and those icy eyes softened a little. “I’m really not going to hurt you,” he said. “In two hours I’ll let you go. I promise.”

Shea settled warily back against the seat, her eyes on the weapon Taggert lowered slowly. She was terrified; she was angry. And for some odd reason, she believed him.

He didn’t have much time. They’d have news helicopters in the air in a matter of minutes, and while they might not attack while he had a hostage, they would definitely be looking for him. In order to make this work, he had to disappear.

Nick glanced in the rearview mirror. An unmarked car followed, at a distance of course. Since he had a hostage, they were playing it safe, being cautious, but if they could stop him now they would. That wouldn’t do.

He turned right, and then quickly turned right again, and before the car that was following turned onto the residential street, he made a sharp turn into a narrow alley that ran between two old houses. The car lurched as it hit a pothole.

His heart pounded so hard he could feel it, and in his head he could still hear the guilty verdict and the roar of the courtroom that had followed. His leg was bleeding badly and the girl sitting in the passenger seat looked like she was thinking of opening the door and jumping out, taking her chances that the fall would be less dangerous than he was. He cast a quick, warning glance in her direction to change her mind. And then he returned his attention to his driving. He concentrated on getting out of here in one piece, and tried to dismiss the nagging certainty that he’d just made a bad situation worse. He had nowhere to go from here.

He knew these downtown neighborhoods well; he’d renovated several of the historic homes here, when he’d first started his business. Years ago, a lifetime ago. Another sharp turn put him in a backyard, where he was hidden from view for a few moments. The car bounced over a short stretch of rough terrain until he found another dirt lane, one that led to another quiet street.

With one hand on the steering wheel, Nick drove the car down a series of tree-lined roadways. The major roads would be covered; there was no way he’d be able to drive straight out of town. News helicopters were probably already overhead, but the heavy canopy of trees in this old neighborhood would keep the car out of sight. For now.

He wasn’t a hundred percent, mentally or physically, right now—not even close—so two hands on the wheel would have been better…but he didn’t dare set the pistol down again.

The adrenaline pumped through his veins, adrenaline and fear and rage. The rage kept him going, kept him from pulling the car over and collapsing. He’d been so sure the verdict would be not guilty. He was innocent, and if the system worked, if there was any justice…

But there wasn’t any justice. If a man could be convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, if everyone was so damn quick to convict an innocent man, then there wasn’t any justice at all.

His leg throbbed. It had been blessedly numb until the girl had kicked it, and before too much longer it would hurt like hell. It continued to bleed, but the flow had slowed some. He’d have to bandage it…soon.

Nick again glanced sideways at the girl he’d grabbed from the courthouse steps. She’d fought for a while, but now she was quiet and she no longer gripped the door handle as if she was thinking of jumping. He half expected to see tears, fear, anger, anxiety—but she remained relatively calm. Her hazel-green eyes were fixed on him, clear and unafraid, and at that moment she looked very familiar, like an old friend whose face you recall but whose name escapes you. She was a reporter, he knew. Hell, he’d grabbed the microphone from her hand and tossed it down. But still he couldn’t place her. He just couldn’t quite remember…

“How’d you get away?” she asked softly, just a hint of the South in her voice.

“What difference does it make?” He returned his attention to the empty, tree-lined road that headed up Monte Sano Mountain.

“I want to know, that’s all.”

He hadn’t planned it. Up until the moment the jury foreman said “guilty,” Nick had been so sure he’d be walking out of that courtroom a free man. “A deputy was taking me upstairs to the jail, but before he could put the cuffs back on I grabbed his pistol right out of the holster and clipped him under the chin. He went down like a stone. Another one came at me.” Out of nowhere, with a shout and a hand on his weapon. “I brought him down with a swift kick and headed for the stairs.”

“You make it sound easy.”

Easy. “It is, if you’re fast enough and strong enough.” And desperate enough. God knows he was desperate enough, and since he’d been such a model prisoner for the past ten months he’d had the element of surprise on his side, as well.

A thick overhang of trees shaded the road they traveled, allowing no more than a few small dapples of sunlight here and there on the road. If he was lucky the patrol cars and helicopters that were searching for him right now would be focused on the major roads out of town. After all, he’d be a fool to stay in an area where everyone knew his face and his name, and believed him to be a killer.

Of course, thanks to the press, everyone in the country knew his face and his name. He hated the reporters. They’d grabbed on to every detail of his life, had hounded everyone he’d ever known in the months since his arrest. They’d made his life hell and done their best to convict him long before the trial. He glanced at the girl again. Reporters like her, though in truth he couldn’t remember ever seeing her cover the story of Winkler’s murder or the trial. Until today. That didn’t mean anything. Lately he’d tried not to watch.

He pulled off the mountain road and onto the dirt trail he’d been heading for, a winding, narrow path barely wide enough for her car. A sharp turn took the car into a copse of thick trees and low-lying bushes. No one would see them here, unless they knew exactly where to look.

“Who shot you?” the girl asked in a soft, controlled voice.

“The deputy I knocked down.” He braked to slow the car as the trail got rougher. “Son of a bitch,” he mumbled. If he’d been thinking he would have taken that weapon, too, or at least taken the time to knock the second deputy out…but no. His only objective had been to get out, and he’d forgotten his training. It had cost him.

The path grew narrower, and green-leafed branches brushed against the sides of the car. The girl flinched with every grinding scrape, but she said nothing. When the winding trail came to an end he put the car in park and shut off the engine.

He needed time to think, time to plan, and time was one of the many things he didn’t have. He had no time, no money, no ally…no chance.

“How did I end up here?” he muttered, laying his head against the steering wheel and closing his eyes. Less than a year ago he’d had a successful contracting firm, a woman in his life he’d foolishly thought had potential for a longterm relationship, and a nice house he’d built himself. Ten months later the business was history. Lauren had not turned out to be the woman he’d thought she was, and even if she had been, twice-monthly conversations through scratched Plexiglass was no way to keep a relationship alive. The house was empty, up for sale so he could pay his legal fees.

Once again, he literally had nothing.

He should’ve known the reporter he’d snatched would try to take off once the car was stopped, but she startled him when she threw open her door and scrambled out. He tried to reach out to snag her before she got away, but she was too fast…or he was too slow.
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