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If they ever find you, run
Those are the words Jenna Stark has lived by for three years. But now the stakes are much higher. Her child is in danger and only one man can keep them alive. The man who forced her into a life on the run: her husband.
Cade Stark curses the day he was recruited for a covert ops organization—and the perilous assignment that tore the Navy SEAL from his new wife's side. Cade's only mission now is to protect Jenna and their young son. On the run from a vengeance-seeking arms dealer, desire reignites, hot and unstoppable. That's when Cade realizes how much he'll risk to win back Jenna's trust. And how far he'll go to offer his son a future.
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Carol Ericson lives in southern California, home of state-of–the-art cosmetic surgery, wild freeway chases, and a million amazing stories. These stories, along with hordes of virile men and feisty women clamor for release from Carol’s head until she sets them free to fulfill their destinies and her readers’ fantasies. To find out more about Carol and her current books, please visit her website at www.carolericson.com, “where romance flirts with danger.”Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
They'd found her son.
Jenna put her hand over the boy's mouth and held a finger to her lips. His dark eyes, wide above the rim of her hand, danced with excitement. He knew the game.
Only this time it was for real.
The heavy footsteps above them shook the floor. Jenna curled her body around Gavin's, like a mama bear hibernating with her cub. Protective. Fierce.
The muffled voices volleyed back and forth, punctuated by crashing furniture and banging closet doors. How many? Two? Three? She'd kill every last one of them to save Gavin from their clutches.
The throwaway cell phone in the pocket of her sweater buzzed and she clutched it in her fist, pushing a button with her thumb to turn it off. She could call 9-1-1, but she knew it was pointless. The people ransacking her house wouldn't let a small, local police department stop them. Worse, they might have already turned the police against her.
Better to hide.
Better to melt away.
Gavin squirmed in her arms, so she loosened her viselike grip. He whimpered and she shushed him. Did he realize this exercise had gone beyond pretending?
He looked up at her with a pouty face and a trembling lower lip. She cuddled him close and whispered in his ear. "Just a little bit longer."
Her eyes adjusted to the dark, and she gazed around the space beneath the slats of the wood flooring. The bundle of cash she stowed down here dug into her hip. She'd kept it for a rainy day, and it was pouring now.
With her arms wrapped around Gavin, her elbows almost touched the sides of the enclosure. They couldn't stay here long. When they first moved in here, she'd identified this spot as a place where she and Gavin could hide out from intruders...not take up temporary residence.
Another thump and a crash had Gavin clinging to her neck even more tightly. Despite the chill of the dank air, sweat dampened her armpits. She ran her tongue around her parched mouth.
Her muscles ached with the tension of keeping still and the weight of her son's body crushing against her. She stroked his hair with a shaky hand and murmured reassurances that she didn't feel.
A booted footstep stomped over her head, and she instinctively ducked. Please don't look down. Please don't see the gap in the wood.
She shivered as a low voice rumbled above them. She caught maybe every third word and couldn't make sense of the one-sided dialogue. So there were at least two of them.
Would they stay? Would they wait for her return?
Her car had been in the shop for the past week. She'd railed against the inconvenience, but now that broken fuel pump and the fact that her mechanic hadn't been able to get his hands on the right parts might've saved her life. Her car missing from the driveway may have given the men ransacking her house the impression that she wasn't home yet. Good.
Or would they sit and wait for her to drive up to the house? Not good.
Gavin snuffled and tapped her on the shoulder. Drawing back from him, she wedged a knuckle beneath his chin and tilted his head. She put two fingertips to his lips just in case he'd forgotten that they didn't speak when hiding in their secret place.
His mouth formed a stubborn line and he scrunched up his freckled nose. She knew that look...like father, like son. She couldn't keep Gavin in here forever—or even the next half hour.
She jerked her head to the side at the sound of a higher-pitched voice, a woman's voice, across the room by the front door. Could that be Marti?
Fear trickled down her back like a drip from an ice cube. Oh, God, Marti, run. Get out of here.
The low voices answered the high voice. If she could only hear the conversation.
The door slammed, and Gavin dug his grubby fingers into her shoulders, making a move to push against the wood slats that served as a door to their hideaway.
She clutched him tighter and shook her head and whispered, "Not yet."
Her limbs frozen, she cocked her head and listened. Was that a truck? The same truck that had sent her and Gavin scrambling for the floorboards fifteen minutes earlier?
She bit her lip so hard that she drew a salty drop of blood. Ten more minutes. They could wait ten more minutes if it meant the difference between life and death.
The hinges of the front door squeaked as someone pushed through again. Soft footsteps stole across the floor, and Jenna drew in a breath and held it.
The footsteps shuffled to the next room, the bedroom, and someone slid open the mirrored closet door. The intruder wandered into the second bedroom and the bathroom before returning to the living room.
The floor creaked to the right of Jenna's ear and she heard a voice. "Jenna? Are you here? It's okay. They're gone."
"Marti." Jenna sobbed with relief and knocked the heel of her hand against the floorboards. One slat shifted, weak daylight filtering through the space.
Marti gasped. "Are you under the floor?"
Jenna pushed against the second floorboard and blinked against the light that spilled onto her face. She gripped Gavin under the arms and hoisted him out first.
Marti's waiting arms pulled him up and against her chest. "Hey, buddy. Having some fun playing hide-andseek?"
Shifting Gavin to her hip, Marti widened her eyes at Jenna clambering from the hiding place, clutching her purse against one side of her body and the bundle of cash against the other.
"Who were they, Jenna?"
"I'm not sure." Jenna dropped her purse and the stacks of money on a table. She brushed a few cobwebs from her arms and shook out her short hair. "What happened out here?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Marti swept her arm around the room at the upended tables and tossed cushions. "Those guys were looking for something."
"I mean, what happened with you? How did you get them out?"
"I saw the door ajar and heard noises, so I pushed open the door and asked them what the hell they were doing."
"You didn't!" Jenna clapped her hands over her mouth. "Were you trying to get yourself killed?"
"I had this baby." Marti dipped into the pocket of her jacket and drew out a gun, just far enough for Jenna to see before shoving it back inside. "I brandished it and told them to get lost."
Jenna threw her arms around Marti and Gavin. "Just one more reason I'm glad you're my next-door neighbor." Her gaze darted to the window. "But they'll be back."
"Then let's call the cops. I told them that's what I was going to do."
"No!" Jenna held out her arms for Gavin and he slid from Marti's embrace to hers. She dragged in a shuddering breath and injected a cheery tone into her voice for Gavin's sake. "Do you want a cookie? You did such a great job with the game this time."
As Gavin nodded, Jenna carried him into the kitchen with Marti's eyeballs burning a hole in her back. She settled him on a chair at the kitchen table, rummaged through the cupboard and the fridge and placed a plate with two cookies and a glass of milk in front of him.
Marti came up behind Gavin and ruffled his hair. "What just happened, Jenna? Who were those guys?"
"I'm telling you the truth, Marti. I don't know."
"But you do know why you hid under the floorboards when they got here, and apparently it's not the first time you and Gavin have been under there."
Jenna dabbed at a lone chocolate chip from Gavin's plate and sucked it into her mouth, the sweetness replacing the metallic aftertaste of fear. "I told you never to ask me any questions, Marti. For your own safety."
"A-are you in some kind of witness protection program? That's what I always figured."
"Sort of." Her gaze wandered to the kitchen window, and a voice surfaced from her past.
If they ever find you, run.
"Can't the authorities who put you here help?" Marti was talking again, but Jenna was only half listening.
"We have to leave." She swept the cup and plate from the table and ran some water over them in the sink.
"Good idea." Marti tugged her down jacket around her. "Let's go to the police, and then maybe you can call the FBI or whoever put you in the program, and."
Jenna grabbed Marti's arm. "No. I mean we have to leave—leave Lovett Peak for good."
Marti's mouth gaped open. "Like forever? Like now?"
Tears pricked the back of Jenna's eyes as she nodded. She'd miss Marti. She'd miss her adopted town of Lovett Peak, Utah. Just like all the other towns in all the other states.
"T-tell everyone I had a family emergency." She grabbed her bag from the table and shoved the bundle of money inside. Holding her hand out to her son, she said, "Let's go, honey bunny."
"You mean now?" Marti gripped her shoulders and shook her. "What about all your stuff? What about your life?"
Jenna took in the sparse little house with no photos, no mementos, nothing personal, and a smile twisted her lips. "There's not much stuff.not much life."
A fat tear rolled down Marti's cheek, smearing her makeup. "Can't you tell me what's happening, Jenna? Won't you let me help you?"
Jenna hugged her friend, her best friend for the past ten months she'd lived in Lovett Peak. "Thanks for everything, friend. And keep that gun handy for the next twenty-four hours.
"Let's go, Gavin."
"I'm going to miss you. Contact me when you can." Marti extended her arms for one last hug.
A crack split the air, and Marti froze. Her heavily lined eyes widened and her lipsticked mouth went slack. She toppled forward, the blood from the gaping wound in the back of her head spreading onto the battered linoleum floor.
Covering Gavin's face with one hand, Jenna screamed. The front window shattered and she ducked at the same time she realized the window had fallen apart from the bullet that had taken Marti's life.
Lifting her gaze to the snowy scene outside, she saw nothing—no gun, no gunman—but she knew they were out there somewhere.
Gavin whined and tried to peel her fingers from his face.
"What's wrong with Marti?"
"She's sick, honey." Jenna crouched, covering Gavin with her body, and hustled him out the back door. If the assassins had their high-powered weapons aimed at the back of the house, too, she didn't stand a chance.
She jogged across her small backyard in a hunched-over position, her muscles tight, her breath coming out in short spurts visible in the frosty air. She waited for the next shot.
They'd aim for her. They wouldn't want to hit Gavin.
They just wanted to take him.
Shoving Gavin in front of her, Jenna swung through a gate that led to her neighbor's side yard...her other neighbor. The image of Marti slammed against her brain, and her gut rolled.
Focus. Transportation. With her car out of commission, she and Gavin had been taking the free shuttle buses around town. After a week, she had memorized their schedules.
Head down, she stumbled through her neighbor's yard, her boots slushing through the snow, half dragging, half carrying a complaining Gavin. Poking her head into the street, she set her sights on the Mountain View Hotel one block down.
The free shuttles made a stop at the hotel's side entrance to take the tourists to the ski resort and the downtown restaurants. Looking neither right nor left, Jenna scurried to the side of the hotel.
She flattened her body against the wall, clutching her purse with one hand and her son with the other. A couple of skiers gathered on the steps of the hotel, their skis and poles pointing skyward.
When the bus pulled to the curb, Jenna hunched behind the skiers. The doors cranked open and she lunged for the first step, sweeping Gavin along with her.
She nabbed a seat near the back door of the bus and slumped in it.
Gavin kicked his legs beside her. "Skiing?"
"Not today." She kept her voice low and hoped Gavin would do the same.
"Marti fell down."
A sob hitched in Jenna's throat. Those men had murdered Marti and it was all her fault. Her fault and his. "Marti will be fine."
The bus lurched forward and trundled along the snow-plowed streets. Jenna raised her head high enough to peek out the window. Were they out there? Were they following her?
"Are you going to snowboard?"
Jenna's heart flipped and she grabbed the back of the seat in front of her.
A man had twisted around in his seat, his smile aimed at Gavin. Her son hunched his shoulders and darted a sideways glance at her. Then he shook his head.
The bus jerked to a stop, and the bus driver growled up front. "What the heck is going on now?"
Jenna's heart picked up speed and she bolted upright in her seat. She leaned into the aisle of the bus to see if she could look through the front windshield, but she couldn't see over the extended dashboard. "What's wrong?
"Looks like a truck has stalled across the lane up ahead."
"A truck?" Jenna licked her dry lips. She'd seen a flash of a black truck out the window of her house, and that had been enough to send her scurrying for the crawl space beneath her living room floor. Her instincts had been right, then.
Were they right now?
Folding her body almost in half, she scooted up the aisle and peered out the front windshield.
"Miss, I'm going to have to ask you to take your seat."
The bus driver's voice sounded as if it was coming from a far distance as a spasm of fear twisted her gut.
The black truck loomed horizontally across the lane ahead and cars flowed around it on either side. The bus wouldn't be able to squeeze past the truck. They'd have to stop. Right in front of the truck. Would Marti's killers be brazen enough to snatch a boy from a public bus?
She'd bet on it, but not her life and not her son's life.
Jenna scrambled back to her seat and grabbed Gavin, tucking him under her arm.
"We have to get off. Now."
The bus driver eyed her in the rearview mirror. "Lady, we're in the middle of the street. You can get off when we stop ahead because there's no way we're getting around that truck."
Jenna kicked a booted foot against the back door of the bus, rattling its windows. "Let me out of here."
The other passengers turned wide eyes on Jenna, huffing and puffing by the door.
The more commotion the better.
She battered the door again with her other boot and screamed. "Open the door."
The doors squealed open and she stumbled down the steps. Looking both ways, she hopped into the street.
Gavin wailed. "I wanna snowboard."
She jogged to the sidewalk, glancing over her shoulder. Was the man by the truck looking her way?
What now? She hadn't gotten too far from her house...and Marti's dead body. She couldn't go back. She couldn't get her car—the mechanic just got the part this morning.
She couldn't put any more lives in danger. She'd have to hop on another bus and get to the main bus depot in Salt Lake City. She had cash...lots of cash. She could get them two tickets to anywhere.
Hitching Gavin higher on her hip, she strode down the snow-dusted street in the opposite direction ...
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