Nick opened his own door, scraping it against the branches of the bush he’d parked alongside. Even here in the shade the warmth was oppressive, thick with strength-sapping summer heat. It threatened to drag him down, to finish him, once and for all. He shook it off.
The pistol fit comfortably in his right hand, and as he fought his way through the bushes his eyes found the hostage and stayed on her as she made her way slowly through the same dense growth he fought. Her dark hair danced with every step she took. The red she wore made her an easy target.
When he rounded the front of the car, his leg gave out from under him, buckling so that he fell to his knees. He righted himself quickly, but found he could not stand. All of a sudden he had nothing left to give. Well, almost nothing.
“Stop!” he shouted once with surprising strength, and then, almost without conscious thought, he raised the pistol and fired.
The blast took Shea by surprise, and she waited for the impact of a bullet in her back. Oh God, I’m going to die. She stopped running, and still she fought for every breath she took, her heart pumping so hard she could feel it pounding in her chest.
But she wasn’t dead. He’d missed!
“Stop!” he shouted again. “Hold it right there or the next one goes in your leg, not a tree.”
Shea cut her eyes to the right and saw where a bullet had exploded, embedding itself in a tree not two feet away. The shot had been a warning; he hadn’t missed at all. She looked at the splintered bullet hole in the center of the tree trunk and knew Taggert had hit exactly what he’d been aiming for.
She slowly turned around. Taggert was on his knees in front of the car, the weapon he held pointed steadily at her.
“You said you wouldn’t hurt me,” she said.
“I said I didn’t want to hurt you.” Taggert had gone deathly pale, and a strand of thick black hair fell over his forehead. His suit was rumpled, the tie loosened slightly, and it seemed to Shea that he swayed ever so slightly, there on his knees in front of her car. Through all that, she saw his unwavering tenacity. He was inflexible. In spite of his wound and his weakness, he was damned and determined to have his way.
Part of her job was to read people when she had to. She had to be able to smile and nod through an interview, all the while knowing in her heart who was lying and who was telling the truth. It was an instinct some people had and others didn’t.
In this instant Shea saw something she’d rather not. Nicholas Taggert really didn’t want to hurt her, but he would.
“If I shoot you in the leg you won’t die,” he said passionlessly. “Unless you go into shock, which is always a possibility. Won’t we make a pair.” A humorless smile barely touched his lips. “You can try to hobble away and I’ll hobble after you.”
“What do you want from me?” Shea asked. “You got away from the courthouse. You don’t need me anymore.”
“I need time,” he said softly as he lowered the weapon. “We’re too close to houses, roads. If I let you go now I won’t have time to get away.”
“What if I promise not to tell them where you are?” Shea took a step back and Taggert raised his gun quickly, snapping it up and training the sight low on her body. The leg, he’d said. He was pallid and weak—growing weaker with every second that passed—but the hand that held the gun remained steady.
“No good,” he said. “Even if you keep your mouth shut, and I doubt that’s possible, simply by showing up on this mountain you’ll tell the cops where to search.”
Shea took a single step forward, and Taggert dropped the gun again. He looked relieved, and that evident relief told her, as much as any instinct, that he was willing to carry out his threat. He didn’t want to, but he would.
She returned to the car, shaking and angry. On her run she’d ignored the branches that snagged her clothing and scratched her bare legs, but on the return trip she felt every scratch, every gentle brush of a leaf, as if it were an added indignity.
“I’m going to watch you fry for this,” she said bravely when she was no more than five feet from Taggert.
He struggled to his feet, but all the while he kept a steadfast hand on his weapon. “Yeah, well, you’re going to have to stand in line,” he muttered. “Right now everybody wants to see me fry.” He motioned with the gun toward the car. “Sit down.”
She had to fight branches to return to the parked car, pushing angrily past thin, flexible limbs that made way for her and then snapped back. Stepping in a small hole she’d managed to miss in her failed escape attempt, she lurched forward, grabbing on to the opened door for support. But she obeyed Taggert’s surly order and lowered herself into the passenger seat again.
He slammed the car door when she was seated, and she winced at the sound of the branches scraping against the Saturn. This car wasn’t even a year old, and it was her first new car. It would be a mess when this was over, between the bloodstains and the scratched paint.
Taggert limped around the front of the car, leaning on the hood occasionally for much-needed support, stumbling twice before he fought his way to the driver’s-side door and plopped down beside her. He waved the gun in her direction. “Put on your seat belt.”
He locked those cold blue eyes on her again. They were chips of ice in a pallid face, hard and uncompromising. Those extraordinary eyes showed no mercy, not even a hint of apology for what he’d done to her. “Do it.”
She fastened her seat belt, muttering every curse word her brothers had ever unwittingly used in her presence. If she did decide to run again, she’d have to stop to unfasten the seat belt, warning Taggert of her intentions.
She waited for him to start the car, but he didn’t. Instead he shifted his body so he leaned against his door, and he very carefully lifted his wounded leg and placed it in her lap. The weight was more than she’d expected, and warm blood seeped through his pant leg onto her skirt. Suddenly he seemed too big for her compact car, the leg in her lap too long and heavy. A surge of panic raced through her own blood. This was all too much, and Taggert was too close.
“You’re going to have to help me with this,” he said softly.
Shea stared at the leg in her lap, at the blood-soaked gray fabric and the hole…two holes and a lot of blood, she saw from this angle. If possible, she felt more terrified than when he’d fired the gun and she’d thought she was dead. “I can’t,” she whispered.
“You have to.”
Taggert jammed the gun into the waistband of his trousers and shrugged out of his jacket, moving cautiously, as if every small movement hurt him. “Wrap this around the leg,” he said as he tossed it to her.
“You’re kidding, right?”
Taggert shook his head and began loosening his tie.
Shea took a deep breath. She positively hated the sight of blood, and there was too much of it here. Taggert should be passed out, or going into shock, or at least getting woozy. She quickly glanced at him as he whipped the tie from his neck. He could die from this wound to the leg, if he lost too much blood, if he went into shock.
She wrapped the jacket around his injured calf, taking great care not to move the leg any more than was necessary. Still, when she very easily lifted Taggert’s leg to shift the jacket around the calf, he winced. She tried to place the thickest part of the makeshift bandage over his wound, to staunch the bleeding, and she wrapped the jacket arms around crosswise, making a relatively neat bandage, given what she had to work with.
When the jacket was swathed around his calf, he handed her the necktie. “Wrap this around a couple of times and bind it tight.”
“Like a tourniquet?”
“Not that tight. Just tight enough to hold the jacket snugly in place.”
She did as he instructed, crisscrossing the tie several times around his leg. He didn’t flinch again; she wondered if he could feel anything at all. “You need a doctor,” she mumbled as she brought the ends of the navy blue tie together and fastened them in a knot.
“I’m sure you’re right,” he muttered darkly, “but I’m not likely to run across one anytime soon.” He took a deep breath. “You’ll have to do.”
When she finished the unpleasant task, Taggert very cautiously removed his leg from her lap, leaving behind a nasty stain on her skirt. That dark stain was a reminder of how very serious the wound was. He could easily die. Even though he’d kidnapped and threatened her, she didn’t want that to happen.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked as he swung his body around to face forward, resting against the wheel as if he wanted nothing more than to lay his head there and go to sleep. “You have to know they’ll catch you, eventually.”
“I know,” he whispered. “But I can’t just sit back and accept what’s happened. I have to do something. No one else can prove my innocence, so I have to do it myself. When I have the proof I need I’ll turn myself in.”
Taggert slowly rotated his head until he faced her again, and Shea saw something that startled her. Eyes that had been like ice just a few minutes ago had softened. She didn’t know if the ache she saw in his eyes was there because of the wound in his leg or for some other reason. Like it or not, his ache touched her. Goodness, that pain went deep; seeing it made her shiver.
“I thought the system worked,” he said, and his voice wasn’t simply soft now, it was weak. “I thought the truth was sacred. But you know what? No one cares about the truth. The police want a conviction, the D.A. wants a win. Why bother to look for the truth when you have a convenient patsy sitting right in front of you?”
Shea’s instincts were in perfect working order, in spite of the trying events of the afternoon. She’d never been so scared; she didn’t scare easily, but Taggert had terrified her. For revealing that weakness, she should hate him, and she did. She did. But heaven help her, she believed him. Nicholas Taggert was innocent.
He slowly propelled himself away from the steering wheel until his dark head fell against headrest. His eyes fluttered and then closed, but all the while one hand rested over the gun that was tucked into his waistband.