The satellite phone rang just before dawn. The sky was shifting from star-speckled black to sunshine-streaked blue. Payton stretched, working her aching muscles. Adriano did everything to the maximum, like a runaway freight train; when he put his mind to something, he didn't do it halfway. Satisfaction lighted her smile. She nudged him with her foot, not wanting to leave the warm bed. He shifted, itching his back closer to her, but didn't fully awake. The incessant ring jogged Payton out of bed. She fumbled with the phone until she figured out how to answer it.
“Hello?” Her voice sounded shamefully like a woman who had been loved all night. She watched Adriano sleep. They were rabbits, but she was ready for more.
The voice on the other end of the phone stunned her. She had mindlessly answered, knowing Jake would be calling and she'd have the privilegeâand rewardâof telling Adriano his friend was alive and well.
“Listen carefully,” Sherman said. “Don't let the reporter know who you're talking to.”
Fear aside, she had a million questions for Sherman. How had he gotten Jake's phone? Why was he being bold enough to call her directly?
Why was he trying to kill her?
“You should have come to me, Payton,” he said. “You know I would do anything for you.”
“You killed a man.” More questions: Who was the man? Why did he deserve to die?
“It couldn't be avoided, but this whole mess could have been. We would make great partners . . . at work and in other ways.”
“You have to pay for what you did. Don't make this my fault. Innocent peopleâpolice officers are dead because of you.”
“This is bigger than a few cops! This is my life.”
“I don't have time for this, Payton. Come back. Now. To me.”
“Are you crazy? You'll kill me.”
“If I wanted you dead, you would be. Don't you think my men could have shot you through the window of the SUV? Or busted down the door of that seedy motel and filled you with bullets?”
“Tom and Lila,” she breathed.
“The old couple are still alive.”
She closed her eyes, thankful for that at least.
“I'm going to need you to come home now, Payton. One of my men will meet you at your apartment and bring you to me.”
“No.” She couldn't believe he had the audacity to even ask.
“I won't kill you. You know I don't go back on my word.”
“Why do you want me then?”
Adriano turned onto his back, but didn't wake up.
“PreciselyâI want you.”
Payton's crawling skin left no doubt about his meaning. It always came down to sex. No matter how dire the situation, there was always enough time to slip between the sheets. The only thing more powerful was money.
“Get yourself a good lawyer, Sherman,” she told him.
He laughed, but it was humorless. “You have three hours.”
“Why would you even think I would consider doing this?”
“Because you love your brother, Patrick, and you'd do anything to save him.”
Her heart lurched and her stomach tightened. “What?” she barely whispered.
“You I want alive. I could give a damn about Patrick. Three hours, Paytonâan even trade: you for Patrick.”
She heard her brother shouting in the background, warning her to stay away.
It's real. He has Patrick.
“He has a family,” she pleaded.
“Not my concern. It's yours.”
“He doesn't have anything to do with this.”
“I agree, which is why I'm willing to make a trade.” He exhaled loudly, impatiently. “If I didn't care so much for you, he'd be dead the second you returned. I'm going to let him go, but only if you willingly come to me.”
Patrick's screams rose above a commotion in the background.
Adriano moved again.
She lowered her voice. “I'll be there.”
“Three hours, Payton. And come alone or the deal is off.”
She heard Patrick scream one last time before the line went dead.
The steam from the shower filled the motel room, heating the room to a temperature uncomfortable enough to wake Adriano. Helping Tom around the farm all day, making love to Payton all night, and running from Grazicky's men had sapped him. He'd finally gotten a good night's sleep, and now he was ready to come up with the next step in their plan.
He rolled over, missing Payton next to him in the bed. She wanted to go to Columbia today. He was torn. He needed to know she'd be safe with the FBI, and he wasn't looking forward to ending their time together. He climbed out of bed and slipped into his clothes. While she showered he'd find them some breakfast.
The satellite phone propped on the dresser reminded him of Jake. He was worried. If he could find a pay phone, he'd make a call to the
offices and try to connect with Jake or Mr. Conners. He jotted a note for Payton, leaving it on the television before he left.
Pageland was already buzzing with people going about their day. City boy that he was, he could never get used to starting the day before dawn. It had been one of his motivations for leaving the reservationânot being able to acclimate his internal clock to the work schedule.
He found a pay phone at the town hall. Apparently the Watermelon Festival was approaching, and the town was in a tizzy getting ready for it.
reversing the charges to Jake. Mr. Conners came on the line. He filled Adriano in on everything that had happened over the past few days.
“Grazicky's men connected Jake to Payton. They thought he was the reporter who helped her get away. Long story short: they snatched him from outside his hotel and beat Payton's whereabouts out of him. You get out safely?”
Adriano told him about their hurried escape, omitting their current location. “How bad did they hurt Jake?”
“Broken arm. Bumps and bruises. Nothing bad enough to keep him from working the story. We have a lead.” Mr. Conners told him about the secret script written on the paper found in Payton's planner.
“I'll get a disposable cell and call you with the number. As soon as you know what that paper says, call me.”
“If I don't end up getting arrested again. That DA in Charlotte is a pit bull.”
“Arrested?” As Adriano listened to Mr. Conners filling him in, he realized how much he was missing while on the run. He chastised himself again for being so distracted by Payton's pretty eyes and tempting body. He had to refocus.
“Payton wants to go to Columbia today. She's tired of running.”
“You get the story?” asked Mr. Conners, always an editor first.
“Up to this point.” He'd learned so much more about his source than was necessary. He knew her favorite color and the sensitive places on her body where his love bites sent her over the edge.
“Columbia is safe. I checked it out myself. Here's the man you want to see. Got paper?”
Adriano borrowed a pen from a passerby and wrote the information on a corner of a page from the phonebook.
“I want you to call me when you're close. I want to alert my contact before you arrive. Jake suggests we get every reporter in town to meet you.”
“It's smart. Grazicky wouldn't try anything in front of a bunch of television cameras.”
“Done. The FBI will take Payton into protective custody, and this entire mess will be over. And you can get about writing my story.”
“It's the only way,” Adriano concluded, not believing it. How could leaving Payton ever be the best thing to do?
“You've done the right things for this woman. You saved her life, and your story will make her richer than she ever would have been working for Grazicky.”
It wasn't about getting the story, writing a book, making money, or winning Reporter of the Year anymore. This was about giving up the woman he loved . . .
“Gotta go,” Adriano said, suddenly feeling melancholy and not much like a hero.
“See you in Columbia.”
Adriano's footfalls hit the cement walk hard as he made his way back to the motel. Was he really considering . . . yes . . . telling Payton he had fallen in love with her somewhere along their journey? He rehearsed what he would say, the inflection of his voice, where he'd have her sit. Nervous anticipation made his mouth go dry. He hadn't been this rattled with a woman since his first sexual encounter. And that's just what it had been all these yearsâsex. When he was with Payton, the emotions took the physical to a new realm.
After he told Payton he loved her, they'd have to come up with a new plan.
Would he leave the
newspaper, move to Charlotte and live the life of the residents thereâa neat home, marriage, and two point five kids? Or would he ask Payton to walk away from her life, leaving all she knew to take a chance on a self-professed playboy?
The giddy excitement driving his steps faded, and his pace slowed. He couldn't ask it of Payton. He couldn't ask her to undergo the traumas she'd been through and then leave the familiar to startâwhat?âwith him.
A real man didn't ask the woman he loved to make such sacrifices. It was selfish. He had to consider her feelings.
It was his job to keep her alive, deliver her to the FBI, write her story, and
let her go.
The words made him queasy, but an honorable man would encourage her to regain normalcy in her life. She should reunite with her family. Maybe he could help her get to St. Louis, but then he'd have to walk away, leaving her in the good hands of her people.
By the time Adriano reached the motel, he'd worked through several scenarios, teetering between whisking Payton away forever and ending their association with his pride and honor intact. He knew he would have to do the hardest thing of allânever tell Payton how he felt.
Precipitation wet the lone mirror in the room. The hot steam from the shower had turned cold. He could hear the water still running in the shower and knew something was terribly wrong.
“Angel,” he called, making his way to the bathroom. His heart thumped wildly as he pushed the door open. The water was running, but Payton was nowhere in sight. Confusion made him lightheadedâhad she been gone before he left? Where did she go? Why would she just up and leave? He replayed the night before. She was a little bummed out, but not enough to do this.
She couldn't have gone far. Knowing Payton, she probably decided to go to Columbia without him to protect him. She wouldn't want him near Grazicky if she could help it.
Adriano searched the room. She'd left what little they'd acquired behind. No note. She hadn't taken the time to jot him a sentence or two telling him what the hell she thought she was doing and why. Fear warred with anger as Adriano snatched up the satellite phone and ran out the door.
Not thinking clearly, he dialed Jake on the run. When the person on the other end picked up the phone, but remained silent, Adriano remembered his earlier conversation with Mr. Conners. He disconnected. Still running, he dialed Mr. Conners. It took forever for the man to get to the phone. Adriano was back at the town hall before his call was forwarded.
“What's up?” Mr. Conners asked.
“Payton's gone. I need to speak to Jake.”
“What's the number?” Mr. Conners correctly deciphered the urgency in Adriano's voice and didn't waste time with stupid questions.
“The satellite phone. Tell him to call now.” Adriano disconnected. He jogged down the streets, searching each one for Payton. He bumped into little old ladies and shoved big, burly men as his body reacted without any direction from his mind.
“Hey, boy, slow down.” A police officer dressed in traditional blues with a radio belted around his pendulous stomach grabbed him up by the arm.
Adriano's first response was to pull away, ignoring the man.
“Just a minute now,” the officer said, tightening his hold. He chewed his cheek. “What's the rush?”
Passersby watched the interaction with interest. The last thing Adriano needed was to call attention to himself. Or worse, get arrested in a small southern town an hour away from the capital where the Confederate flag was flying. He forced himself to regain control.
The man let him go, still chewing his cheek as he watched Adriano with narrowing eyes.
“My girlfriend left me this morning.”