Chapter One

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The sudden, sharp crack of a rifle shot, way too close, shattered the peace of a lovely June day.

Moments before, Kristie Sandford had been driving sedately and musing on camera angles and light as she reveled in the sun-drenched beauty of a back road in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Pink and blue wildflowers grew along the verge, just in front of shrubs in varying shades of green. The scent of honeysuckle drifted in the open window of the car.

Alarmed by the explosive noise, she pressed down on the Toyota's brake pedal and scanned the area around her. Thick shrubbery limited visibility to only a few feet into their depths. The land rose above her on the right, but even when she bent her neck to look up the side of the hill, she could detect no sign of human presence. She hadn't passed any parked vehicles recently, and only one had gone by in the other direction in the last ten minutes. The last house she'd seen was more than a mile back.

A second crack followed moments later. Hunters, maybe—an uneasy thought. Stray bullets from careless hunters killed people. Kristie slowed the car, although the frequent switchbacks on the steep, narrow mountain road already limited her speed.

She steered around the next tight curve, alert to the possibility of another shot. That attention probably saved the life of the man who darted out of the trees and dashed across the road directly ahead of her.

"Ohmigod." She stomped on the brake. Thank heaven for anti-lock technology. The tires screeched on the pavement and almost lost traction.

The man stopped in the middle of the road and stared at her. His glance swung toward the trees from which he'd emerged, then back to her. What the hell was he doing? Did he have a death wish or was he just frozen by panic? He stood in the center of the highway, watching her bear down on him.

Her heart did somersaults as she struggled to control the Toyota. Fingers locked around the steering wheel and swung it, trying to avoid him. The man stood his ground, inviting her to hit him. It looked like she'd grant his wish. There wasn't enough room left to stop. If she swerved sharply enough to miss him, she'd induce a skid that might take her off the road. The agonized squeal of tires on asphalt scraped her nerves raw. Her pulse hammered in her ears

At the last possible second, he jumped out of the way, diving to the side.

"Ohmigod," she muttered over and over. Her stomach twisted into knots. She continued to wrestle the car, flicking her gaze between the road ahead and the rearview mirror. The man landed near the shoulder, slid along the gravel, and rolled a couple of times across the narrow grass verge until brought up short and hard against the trunk of an old oak tree. The Toyota jerked to a halt, and Kristie sat for a moment. Her heart thumped like a drum and she couldn't seem to draw in enough air. She wiped a bead of sweat off her temple, and then turned to look back over the seat through the rear window.

The man sprawled at the base of the tree and hadn't moved since he'd landed there. She hadn't felt the thunk of the car hitting him, but he might have bumped his head on the ground or against the tree. Cursing his folly, she shifted into reverse, checked behind her, and backed down the road, stopping when she drew even with the still figure.

She stared at him for a moment before she got out. He didn't stir. People get tricked this way. The thought nagged at her. Someone pretends to be hurt or stranded, and when the mark stops to help, she gets mugged. Or worse.

But he could be badly hurt, her conscience argued back. And out here he could lie for hours before someone found him. She dragged her cell phone from her purse, hoping, praying even. It still showed the blasted "No Service" message. She tossed it onto the seat and pounded the steering wheel with her fist, then opened the door and approached the man cautiously. He lay on his side, back to her, so she couldn't see his face. Torn, dirty jeans covered long legs, with well-worn running shoes below. Sweat, dirt, and blood stained the cotton work shirt stretched tight across broad shoulders. Medium brown hair just brushed his collar.

Her stomach clenched tighter when she surveyed the area around him. The tree he'd hit had saved him from a worse fate. A few feet beyond it, the ground dropped off sharply, diving into a ravine some forty feet down. If he'd gone over the edge he would have been seriously injured or killed. She couldn't even think about what would've happened if she'd swerved too much to avoid him.

He might be dead already. Kristie sucked in a deep breath and walked across the grass to stand over him. With his face turned down toward the ground, all she could see was the hard angle of one cheek, smeared with dirt, streaked with blood and sweat. He lay very still.

She reached down to put a hand on his shoulder, but stopped short when he spoke. Without moving any other muscle of his body, he said in a low, urgent whisper, "Do you see two men on the other side of the road?"

The breath she'd been holding slipped out on a sigh of relief. "You're not dead. I didn't think I'd hit you, but you were laying so still--"

"Shut up and listen!" The words cut across her relieved babble. He made no move other than to speak. "Do you see two men across the road?"

Kristie stared at him in shock for a moment before she looked up. Beyond her car the woods on the other side of the road were still. "No."

"They'll be here any minute." He collected himself and sat up so suddenly Kristie backed away. He winced as he levered himself upright. A large smear of blood surrounded a ragged tear in the left sleeve of his shirt. Something more than a scrape had caused that injury. He looked around. The man was probably about thirty. The face that studied his surroundings was lean and had too many sharp angles to be called handsome, but a rugged strength shone through the grime, blood, and bruises. His skin was almost the same shade of brown as his hair, too deep and even to be a suntan. A large abraded area reddened his left temple, and blood from a scratch across the cheekbone tracked toward his ear.

The snap of a twig on the other side of the road made them both swing around to look that way. Kristie still didn't see anyone. The man sitting on the ground looked up at her. His eyes were very light, either pale blue or gray, the color a startling contrast to his skin and hair, but they held a penetrating intelligence and force. "Tell them I went over the edge," he ordered.

He offered no further explanation. Without waiting for her response, he crawled swiftly to a thicket of rhododendron bushes ten feet away and disappeared into its depths. Since he stayed low, her car would hide his movement from the person approaching. She winced when she thought about how many more scratches he'd collect in his passage through the shrubbery.


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