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Authors: Becky Barker

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense

Stowaway

BOOK: Stowaway
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Dedication

For Buzz, my better half in so many ways for so many years. I love you beyond words.

 

With special thanks to Christina Brashear for leading me into the future.

Chapter One

Desperation clawed through Nick Lamanto’s body as he cautiously surveyed his surroundings. He realized, with a grim twist of his mouth, he didn’t like feeling desperate. Not one damn bit. Normally, he thrived on danger and adrenaline highs, but this time the thrill seeped from his body as steadily as the blood from his gunshot wound.

Cloaked in darkness, he pressed himself against the trunk of a tree, and then sucked in a ragged breath as pain exploded in his left shoulder. His head spun, consciousness wavering, but he fought it with a strength born of innate stubbornness.

The bullet hadn’t lodged in his flesh, yet the wound went deep and his constant movement kept it bleeding. Exhausted and getting feverish, he knew the eighteen hours of running and hiding had taken a heavy toll.

He had to get out of this town.

He didn’t have a chance in hell of doing it if he stole a vehicle. Which meant hitching a ride. There would be roadblocks and probably an all-points bulletin out for him. The sheriff’s department wouldn’t leave anything to chance with a possible homicide involved, and he wasn’t entrusting himself to the local good-ole-boys law enforcement until he knew how deep the corruption went.

A cloudy sky and the late hour worked in his favor right now. His experience with undercover work had taught him danger stalked like a jilted lover, but he had keen survival instincts. He trained to stay sharp in situations where one wrong move could cost his life. The odds were rarely in his favor, and even less so this time because he didn’t have a clue as to what had gone down or who to trust.

A red neon light heralded the emergency room entrance of the county hospital and spotlights added illumination for a few more yards. Clouds obscured any light the moon might have cast, leaving most of the area in shadows.

Only a couple dozen vehicles remained in the parking lot. He had studied them all carefully. One particular black sport vehicle had camping gear piled to the windows. Plenty high enough to hide a man his size.

He recognized the vehicle. It belonged to the sheriff’s daughter, Keri Merritt. Her brother, Jack, also worked for the department. Protective types, both of them, and he’d heard grumbling over her vacation plans. Apparently, she planned to leave town by herself and they didn’t approve.

Nick knew she worked as a trauma nurse. He’d met her, along with half the other women in the county, at a community picnic. They’d shared a dance, but only because he’d asked her. She hadn’t vied for his attention like many women did. His famed Italian good looks hadn’t made much of an impression on her. So much for his irresistible charm too. Keri’d resisted pretty convincingly.

He didn’t know where she planned to go for vacation, but it didn’t matter. The concrete jungle of Miami was his home turf, and he was completely out of his element in Podunk, USA. He needed transportation out of here. Then he could contact his superiors, lay low for a while and take time to heal.

He’d slipped out of the shadows long enough to try the doors of her SUV, but found it locked. Not surprising. For the past hour, he’d waited and watched as the staff of the graveyard shift arrived and those of the earlier shift headed home. Now it had gotten quiet again so he could try to jimmy the lock and hope her vehicle didn’t have an alarm system.

The sheriff’s daughter would be a perfect escort to safety. He didn’t know why it was taking her so long to leave work, but it was to his advantage. Creeping closer to her SUV again, he slipped a thin blade from his knife into the lock.

He’d just begun to play with it when the whirring sound of automatic doors reached his ears. He swore silently. Voices accompanied the sound, and he ducked behind the vehicle. The swift movement had his limbs trembling and sweat beading his brow. It scared the hell out of him to feel so weak and vulnerable.

“I can’t believe you’re really gonna leave us, Keri, honey,” teased a cheerful soprano. “You know you won’t be gone an hour before you’ll be missin’ us.”

Husky laughter responded to the teasing, deep and sexy feminine laughter. It rippled seductively in the night air, shimmying along Nick’s nerves and punching him in the gut. The intensity of his reaction caught him off-guard.

“Forget it, Paula. I’m outta here. I don’t care how many people have to work double shifts to cover for me!” she called back to her coworker as she approached the SUV.

Nick heard the gentle thump of the automatic lock before she reached the door, and realized she’d used a remote. Keri and her friend continued their banter while she climbed behind the wheel and turned the ignition. The engine purred to life. She slammed her door, lowered her window, and said a final goodbye just before a male voice called to her.

“Keri! Hold up! Telephone!”

Nick willed her not to ignore the summons.

“I am officially on vacation!” she shouted.

“It’s your dad. And I already told him I could catch you,” came the apologetic reply. “You know if you don’t talk to him, he’ll sic the whole sheriff’s department on you.”

Nick heard Keri’s loud sigh and held his breath until she shut off the engine, hopped out the door and slammed it shut again. She dashed toward the emergency entrance where she got swallowed by the electronic doors.

Just the break he needed. She’d left her window down far enough for him to reach inside and unlock the back door. About damn time something went his way, thought Nick. He sent up a silent prayer of thanks to any saint who might still be watching over him.

It took only an instant to unlock the back door. It should have been easy to slide his legs under the piles of clothes and shut the door, but his useless arm made his movements sluggish and awkward. He jarred his shoulder, shooting pain over his body and making him so lightheaded he almost lost consciousness.

Get a grip, Lamanto, keep moving!

The mental nagging had gotten him this far, so he didn’t cut himself a break. Once he’d finally gotten settled with his head directly behind the driver’s seat, he managed to pull the door closed. Gritting his teeth against more pain, he struggled to adjust his length to the uneven space. Then he made sure he’d completely concealed himself before shifting the bulk of his weight onto his wounded left shoulder.

More pain radiated through him. His stomach roiled and threatened to upchuck. He took several deep breaths until the pain became bearable and his struggle for air less harsh. The pressure against the wound would halt the bleeding, and, if he got really lucky, maybe even numb his arm.

He’d barely had time to regulate his breathing before Keri returned. She shouted a final goodbye as she climbed behind the wheel, slammed the door and set the locks. Next he heard the whir of her window being closed. She switched on the radio, and country music blasted at a deafening volume.

Nick offered another silent prayer. With the radio blaring, any noise he made would go unnoticed. He might be able to get some desperately needed rest.

Once the pain in his shoulder had dulled to a slow throb, total exhaustion settled in. It was a relief to be off his feet and safely hidden even in such a cramped position. He didn’t know where his unsuspecting hostess planned to go, but he hoped it was far, far from home.

Then, if luck held out a little longer, she’d decide to get a good night’s rest before unloading the SUV. Given a little time, he would be long gone. She’d never have to know she’d helped him escape.

His satisfaction with the situation wavered when the vehicle made a sharp right turn, throwing him sideways. He stifled a groan, adjusted his position and braced his foot against the opposite door so it wouldn’t happen again.

The sheriff’s daughter had a lead foot and had a reckless streak behind the wheel. Her driving habits probably gave everyone in town fits. From what he’d overheard in his short stay, every member of the tight-knit community concerned him or herself with Miss Merritt’s welfare.

Her petite stature gave the impression of fragility, but she looked healthy and capable to him. She had big hazel eyes and light brown hair cut in a short, sassy style. Her chin had a stubborn set to it, warning people not to mess with her. Nothing about the lady hinted at weakness or vulnerability.

Having met more than his fair share of trauma nurses, he knew most of them had more stamina than men twice their size. Still, this one seemed to appeal to everyone’s protective nature.

Nick felt a change in their motion once they’d cleared the corporation limits and headed down the highway. They made no more stops and starts at intersections or sharply turned corners. The lights of town faded and a more intense darkness settled over him as the SUV picked up speed. He empathized with Keri in her desire to leave Thornsbury, Tennessee and its residents behind her. If he never set foot in the town again, it would be too soon.

Within a few miles, they’d probably be running into the first roadblock. He didn’t know how the authorities were dealing with his disappearance, but he’d be considered armed and dangerous. They’d probably labeled him a person of interest in the investigation of Don Monroe’s shooting. If Don survived, the charge would be aggravated assault of a law enforcement officer. If he died, suspicion of murder. Nick prayed his old buddy had survived.

When the SUV began a gradual slow down, he tensed again, figuring they’d encountered a roadblock. Who would be at this particular post? The county sheriff’s deputies or the state highway patrol?

He didn’t have long to wonder. The volume on the radio went low, the power window whirred and Keri called out into the night.

“Hey, big brother, don’t you have anything better to do on a Saturday night than stand by the side of the road?”

Nick recognized Deputy Jack Merritt’s voice as he approached the vehicle.

“Hey, Sis, I expected you through here an hour ago.” When he stepped closer, he added, “You look totally wiped. Are you sure you want to drive up to the cabin after back-to-back shifts? Why don’t you go home and get a few hours’ sleep first?”

“I don’t need sleep, I need distance,” she argued. “You know it takes me longer to unwind after working sixteen straight.”

“Have a hard time getting away tonight?”

“You’d think I was leaving home for good instead of just going on vacation.”

“Everybody had another word of advice to offer?”

“A word or two or a million,” she teased. “Including our father who called one last time.”

“He worries.” Jack excused their dad’s behavior.

“Do you have a legitimate reason for delaying me, Deputy, or are you just bored?”

“We still haven’t tracked down Lamanto.”

“He has to be long gone or the dogs would have caught up with him by now,” she said.

“They lost his scent near the stream and cost us valuable time. They picked it back up again near the highway, but I’m guessing he hitched a ride or had an accomplice waiting for him somewhere close. How’s Deputy Monroe?”

“Holding his own but critical,” Keri explained. “I thought the visiting cop was a friend of Monroe’s. What reason would he have to shoot him?”

Nick’s pulse raced at the news that Don was still alive.
Live, buddy, live
, he silently chanted while cheering Keri’s reasoning. Why would he shoot the friend he’d come to visit?

Then he heard Jack’s response.

“There’s always a chance Lamanto turned bad. It happens a lot to those vice guys. He could be a front man for organized crime, trying to set up some operation in our area.”

Nick clenched his teeth as blood rushed hotly through his veins. Bigoted bastards. Because of his heritage, people always wanted to link him to organized crime. It had worked to his benefit for undercover ops, but it annoyed the hell out of him when he risked his life to fight that sort of crime. Folks in this area would be quick to judge him. To most of them, he was a foreigner from the big, bad city.

“You think Monroe and Lamanto are involved with something illegal?”

“Don’t know,” said Jack, “but we aim to find out as soon as Monroe recovers or we find Lamanto. You didn’t pick up any passengers on the way out of town, did you?”

“Nary a one.”

Nick could tell Jack was scanning the contents of the SUV with a high-beam flashlight. He didn’t so much as twitch.

“You’re welcome to unpack the whole car if you’d like,” Keri taunted her brother, “but then you’ll have to repack it exactly the way you found it.”

Jack groaned. “Nobody could pack the way you do. Don’t you know it’s unnatural to be so damned organized?”

Soft, feminine laughter floated back to Nick. For the second time in the space of an hour, he felt himself being enchanted by the husky sound. It eased some of the tension from his weary body.

“I’d rather be unnatural than never be able to find a clean pair of underwear when I want them.”

Nick knew Keri kept house for her dad and brother. She probably didn’t abide clutter or disorganization.

BOOK: Stowaway
7.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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