About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The pickup area at the back of the church was empty save for a monster-size black SUV. On the sidewalk, a large man with a baseball cap pulled low and an open button-up shirt had his hands on her Lily. The tires on Samantha's car squealed in protest with the speed, and Lily looked up, her mouth open from her scream, relief washing across her features. The thug seemed to tighten his hold on the girl's skinny arm, jerking her closer to him. Red splotches radiated from beneath his grip.
Samantha stopped the Honda nose to nose with the SUV and instinctively grabbed her bag. There wasn't time to consider her professional clothes wholly inappropriate for fighting bad guys, or her sensible but still high heels, which would make it difficult to run away.
Lily pulled against the bully, but her thin frame barely allowed her to budge against his bulk.
Samantha swallowed, determined her voice would come out strong. "I don't know who you are, but she's not yours to take. Let her go."
The man stared at her, his eyes cut into narrow slits. Without looking away, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a photograph. He glanced down at the photograph then eyed her, his gaze sweeping from her hair to her shoes. Her skin crawled and itched as his attention swept over her.
Heat to match the summer afternoon rocketed up her back and neck. Whoever that man was, he wasn't only after Lily. He wanted her, too.
The curl of his lip projected pure maliciousness.
Her mind flitted to her phone, resting just inside the outside pocket of her large leather bag. There wasn't time to wait for an answer to a nine-one-one call. The thug would have them long gone by the time an emergency vehicle arrived.
She tossed a glance at Lily and nodded toward the car. The girl was smart. She would understand Saman-tha's meaning, that she should dive for the car as soon as she was loose.
The man took a step toward Samantha. She tightened her grip on the bag. "The girl is mine. I said let her go."
He took another step toward her, his hand still tight around Lily's arm. A breeze ruffled his shirt, and Samantha spied a weapon tucked in a shoulder holster. Moisture slicked her palms, and she choked up on the strap of her bag. How could she get this guy to let go and then get away without harm or injury?
Her bag. Of course. If he'd wanted to kill them, he could have easily accomplished that mission by now. All she needed was to get away.
"One last time." Her voice fairly growled. "Let herlet usgo."
One more step, and in a split second Samantha hefted her bag and swung wildly for the thug's head. He obviously didn't see it coming, for the metal buckle on the front of the tote ripped open his cheek, the contents of the bag clunking around inside. A shattering sound filled the void between them.
Bright red blood gushed down his cheek. He let go of Lily, grabbing at his face with his hand. "You"
Before he could finish, Samantha pulled Lily away from him. "Get in the car." She kept her voice low. "Now."
Her tennis shoes squeaking against the pavement, Lily jerked the closest back door open and dived headfirst into the backseat. With visual confirmation that Lily was crouching low, Samantha returned her attention to the thug just as he fixed his gaze back on her. She swung her bag again and hit him on the shoulder, praying that would buy her enough seconds to get in the car.
He seemed stunned that she would fight back, and she used those moments to rush to the driver's seat. With the door still flopping open, she threw the little Honda into Drive and slammed her foot against the accelerator. She scrunched down in the seat, staying just high enough to see over the steering wheel. "Stay down," she commanded Lily.
As she neared the curve that would lead her around the church building and to what she hoped and prayed was safety, the back windshield shattered. A bullet whizzed past the headrest and her ear. A shriek filled the car. "Sam!"
"Lily? Are you hit?"
"No." Samantha rounded the corner and rocketed through the front parking lot toward the road. A couple of loose pebbles smattered against the side panel. An engine roared behind her, and a glance in the rearview mirror revealed the SUV barreling toward her little car. The front parking lot was empty. There was no one to offer assistance. "Can you get up front and still stay low? Get my phone?" In her haste, she'd thrown her bag onto the front passenger seat. It had fallen onto the floor and was completely out of her reach.
Lily crawled in between the front seats. Samantha edged to the outside of her seat, allowing the girl as much maneuvering space as possible. Lily slid into the seat and crouched down, then retrieved the bag from the floor. She unzipped it and pulled out the phone, revealing a shattered screen. She turned it on and the screen glowed, but it didn't respond to her touch no matter how many times she tapped it.
"Can't call now." Lily dropped the phone back into the tote.
"At least it helped when I slugged that guy who grabbed you."
The normally busy highway had a small break in the traffic approaching, and Samantha hit the accelerator. She shot the little car in between a semi and a bread delivery truck. Lily grasped the armrest, leaning into Samantha with the force of the turn.
The black SUV screeched its tires and steered onto the shoulder next to the bread truck. When the truck swerved into oncoming traffic, the SUV slowed and eased out of view of Samantha's rearview mirror, probably behind the truck. Samantha gulped air. At least the SUV driver was smart enough to realize that an accident wouldn't benefit anybody.
But now what? It wouldn't be long before the SUV could catch up. What if that thug was crazy enough to drive alongside them and start shooting? Where was a policeman when she needed him? She would gladly pay a speeding ticket if a siren would just show up behind her. She catapulted another silent prayer, asking for help and safety and guidance.
Lily was still grasping the armrest, her breath ragged. "What now, Sam?"
"I'm thinking. Just hang on." Samantha released a hand from the wheel to swipe at the perspiration on her forehead. If she couldn't call a policeman, she would drive to one. In a tiny suburb like Heartwood Hill, the police station was only a couple of miles away, tucked in a corner of the city center and surrounded by grassy hills, playgrounds and picnic pavilions. She checked her mirrors again and allowed herself to lean back in the driver's seat when no monster SUV appeared. Maybe she had lost him.
She dared to point her attention at Lily for a moment. The girl seemed somewhat calm despite the turn of events. She was definitely a trouper, but then she had to be after the recent traumatic death of her father. It was in that church where Samantha had first met Lily and her father. She had been so drawn to the girl that she had stepped into her life as a mother figure. It had been an honor when Lily's father had asked if she would be Lily's guardian, if the need should ever arise. Now she recalled that he'd had an odd look about him, almost as if he'd expected that the need would be arising very soon. Samantha blinked hard and forced her attention back to the present. "So what happened back there?"
Lily drew a ragged breath. "I knew you'd be coming soon, so I decided to wait outside for you. Karen said it would be all right since she was just inside. I'd only been out there a few moments when that big truck pulled up and the guy got out. He offered me a lollipop to take a ride with him. You know, the kind with bubble gum inside?"
Samantha gripped the wheel and thanked God that she had broached the don't-talk-to-strangers discussion with Lily just a few days after Lily had come to live with her. "That's your favorite."
"Yeah, but I'm not stupid. I'm ten years old now. I know better than to get in the car of someone I don't know."
"And then he grabbed me, and you drove up."
Whoever the thug was, he wanted Lily. He even had a photo of her, possibly of them both. But why?
The winding drive that led back to the city buildings lay just up ahead. Gratitude filled Samantha's heart, thankfulness for safety around the corner and a soon-to-be daughter who listened to her. She wiped one hand on her leg and checked her mirrors again. No sign of
"Watch out!" Lily's screech filled the car.
Samantha's chest cramped as she stomped on the brake. Her seat belt bit into the soft flesh of her neck, but it was too late. A burgundy Jeep Cherokee rose up in front of her. She fell back into the seat as the car's bumper smashed into the Jeep, a loud crumple heralding the collision.
She leaned her head against the window and swallowed, the lump in her throat crying out in protest. Who was driving the Jeep, and how could she and Lily get away now?
"Is this a problem, Sam?" Lily's voice sounded small in the sudden silence of the stillness.
"If the car won't drive anymore, yes. But maybe we can borrow his cell phone to call the police if we can't get going again." She threw the little car into Reverse and gently touched the gas, hoping to disengage her bumper from his and speed off to safety. Nothing. She surveyed the surrounding area, still a mile from the police station, but only homes dotted the edge of the grassy area, so far away that backyard barbecuers looked like ants milling around their patios. She paused, then reversed again, with a little more gas this time. Her Honda came loose with a loud grinding sound, but smoke began to trickle out from under the hood.
Once again, there was no one nearby that could be of help if needed.
No one except the guy she had just rearended.
Lily gawked with her face smooshed against the windshield and elbowed her. "He's ginormous." She paused, a frown wrinkling her forehead. "Is he safe?"
Samantha pushed her door open to see a man of giant height unfold slowly from the Jeep as he removed his sunglasses. His face was clean shaven, although adorned with a scowl, and he was wearing a dark blue knit shirt with short sleeves that strained against his biceps. "I guess we'll find out." Despite his almost scary size, this had to be a far better encounter than their one with the guy who had a gun peeking out from under his shirt.
What other choice did she have? She would have to trust this man with the vaguely familiar face.
His first day back in town, and some crazy driver had to mangle his bumper? Reid Palmer shook his head and whispered a prayer for patience as his shoes hit the asphalt. The Lord certainly knew how practiced that request was, and Reid tamped down the niggling worry that he would never be free of making that particular supplication. Growing up with an abusive father hadn't helped him learn how to handle life with a calm and patient spirit. Anger had been his father's way of life, and Reid had thought it would be his, until he had met God. Then everything had changed, but prayer remained a constant companion.
A slight breeze, definitely not enough to dry the perspiration that beaded on his forehead, ruffled the strawberry blond hair of the woman stepping out of the compact car behind him. She frowned, but he couldn't tell if it was due to the impending storm or the damage to her car. Probably both. When their gazes collided, she narrowed her eyes at him. He wanted to step back or apologize at the force of her unspoken accusation, but he hadn't done anything wrong. She was the one who had rearended him.
He scrubbed a hand through his hair. Why did she look so familiar? It had been a few years since he'd been in Heartwood Hill, but he quickly ran through his mental contact list of faces from the area.
Law school. That was it. He'd attended a few classes with her and her twin. Which one she was he had no idea, but it didn't really matter. In the end, he would probably let her out of any responsibility for damage to his Jeep in the interest of forming amicable working relationships with the local lawyers, and they would part ways. In an hour, he'd be eating take-out Chinese and sitting on the floor of his new unfurnished apartment.
She leaned back into her car, talking to a girl in the front seat, probably retrieving her insurance card from the glove compartment and her phone to call local law enforcement. The girl clutched a large leather bag and shared a worried look with the redhead. Reid shot up another prayer, this time that the woman wouldn't call the police to write up an accident report. There was no need to involve law enforcement, and one encounter with a person from his past was enough for this evening. He didn't want to face that difficult reintroduction sooner than he had planned.
The redhead straightened and hurried toward him, but her attention focused everywhere but on him. She glanced over her shoulder twice as she walked the short distance. Reid's training whispered to him that she had the manner of a person afraid someone was after her. He peered past her, but nothing suspicious presented itself.
Without a greeting, she asked, "Can I borrow your phone? Mine got damaged, and I need to call the police."
He reached toward his pocket for the cell. "I think you need a tow truck more than"
A scream of tires interrupted him. The redhead gasped and spun around. A moment later, she signaled to the girl in her passenger seat. The girl slid out of the car and rounded the front in a jog, a purple backpack clutched to her front. When the girl was within reach, the redhead nudged her toward Reid's Jeep.
Whatever was going on, this woman was scared to a degree Reid hadn't seen in a long time. He leaned around her and spied a large black SUV completing a turn, its driver gunning the engine. There were no outward indicators that the SUV was after them, but the woman and girl scrambling into his backseat were an obvious clue that something was wrong.
With her hand on the door handle, the woman whispered to him, "Get us out of here. Now." She glanced back again, a hunted look creasing the area around her eyes. "Please."