He maintained a steady speed until he reached the back of the motel, counting the windows until he knew he was at the right room. He coasted up to the back of the building, pulling the SUV up onto the crumbling sidewalk and stopping underneath the window to their room.
He squatted next to the SUV and looked around. With it still being early morning, no one was visiting the gas station, which left the area deserted. None of the hit men had secured the back of the motel.
Thinking quickly, Adriano jumped up on the hood of the Land Cruiser.
“Payton,” he called, looking around to see if he had drawn any attention. He tapped the glass. “Payton. Come to the window.” He peered inside, looking down into the rusted tub. “Payton, it's Adriano. Come to the window.”
A shadow moved across the window.
He tapped again. “Payton, open the window.”
The shadow grew larger and soon the window opened a few inches. From this angle he could only see the rusted tub. “Payton, it's me.” He fit his face into the crack of the window.
“What are you doing at the window?”
“Whatever you do, don't open the door.”
“What are you talking about?”
He began to work the window open against old paint and rusted gears. “
is outside in unmarked cars, and I hope for our sakes it's the FBI.”
“What are you talking about?” Payton disappeared from the window.
“Payton,” he called, working frantically at opening the window. Like the victims in scary B movies, Payton didn't heed his warning. He had lifted the window wide enough to see her silhouette leave the bathroom. “Payton, don't open the door!”
“Who's there?” she shouted.
“Damn.” He struggled with the window. “Payton!”
He knew she would be headstrong by the nerve it must have taken to jump into his Land Cruiser. If they got out of this alive, he'd have to explain to her that she needed to follow his orders without question. He didn't have time to negotiate.
He had the window three quarters of the way up when he heard Payton scream. “Payton!”
She reappeared in the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. Her fear-stricken face gave him the strength to shove the window open to its fullest.
“Climb through the window.” He stuck his hand inside to aid her.
“I can't fit.”
“You have to fit. C'mon.”
A crashing noise on the other side of the bathroom door pulled her attention away from his waiting hand.
“Hurry up, Payton.”
He extended his arm as far as his body would allow. He would never fit his broad shoulders through the window frame, but Payton's lithe body could squeeze out of the narrow opening.
Payton clasped his hand. He balanced himself on the hood of the SUV while providing leverage for her climb. Her hands grabbed the window ledge, and he pulled her arms as she attempted to jettison herself out of the window. He lost his footing on the rain-slicked hood and fell against the windshield of the SUV. He sprang up as Payton wiggled the top half of her body through the window.
“Adriano,” she cried, grabbing wildly at his hands.
He wrapped his arms under hers and pulled as she climbed. They collapsed with a thud on top of the SUV. Sliding down the slippery hood, they landed next to the Land Cruiser in a muddy puddle. He wrapped his arms around her chest, securing her so she fell on top of his body.
“Are you hurt?” Payton asked.
“No. Let's get out of here.” He scrambled to the driver's side, knowing it would be only seconds before the men realized Payton had escaped out the window. He slowly whipped the truck into a half circle.
“Hurry up!” Payton yelled. “What are you doing?”
“Stay calm. And get down. I don't want to draw any attention to us.”
Adriano's heart pumped with such force it made his temples pulsate. He kept his eyes on the road, glancing into the rearview every few seconds to measure the distance between the SUV and the first black car.
Was that gunfire?
He remembered hearing the sound beforeâwhile being pursued by Grazicky's men. This time there was no doubt someone was shooting at them.
“Get down!” Adriano shouted.
Payton folded herself into a tight ball on the floor of the front seat.
Somewhat familiar with the area from his morning drive, he formulated a plan. A tall cornfield came into sight. He glanced in the rearview again. These men were relentless. He made a hard left, and the SUV rose up on two wheels. He sped through the cornfield, knowing the following cars would not be able to drive through the rough terrain of the field for long. About a mile into the field, he no longer saw either car.
He rolled to a stop. “Payton, are you okay?”
She climbed up from the floor. “You saved my lifeâagain.”
“Are you hurt?”
“No,” she answered, checking scrapes on her elbows.
He checked the rearview, searching the cornfield. “Did they say who they were?”
“When they knocked at the door, did they call out FBI?”
“The man kept yelling for me to open up. He didn't say he was from the FBI.”
“Grazicky's men. How did they find us? Did you call anyone?”
She looked away.
“Who did you call?” His tone was harsher than he'd intended.
“You don't understand. People are dead because of me.”
“You think I don't understand? I've almost been killed twice, and I've only known you a day.”
“I just wanted to go home.” Her voice trembled.
He glanced at her, quickly losing his anger when he saw the tattered nightgown, torn and covered in mud. She was shivering from the cool early morning temperature.
“I'm on your side, but if I'm going to keep you alive, we have to start working together.” He placed his mud-covered hand on her knee. “Tell me who you called.”
“I called my brother in St. Louis. He'll let me stay with him until this is over.”
“Grazicky must have a trace on your brother's phone. You can't go to your brother's. Grazicky's men will be waiting on the doorstep and snatch you before you can kiss your brother hello. He's probably watching everyone you know.”
“Is my brother in danger?”
“Grazicky is probably watching him in case you go there.” He tried to reassure her, but he couldn't be certain. “He needs your brother alive to take your calls and lure you to his house.”
“I have to warn him.”
“That's the worst thing you can do. If Grazicky thinks you're close, or that you're going there, he'll have his men waiting. And I don't know what he'll do to your brother while they're waiting for you to show up. If Sherman thinks you might call your brother again for help, he'll want him alive to take the call so he can find out where you are. The best thing is not to contact him until this is over.”
Payton shifted toward the window, falling into morbid silence. Tears made a path down her cheeks and dropped onto her shoulder. Coming close to losing her at the motel had scared him. He couldn't imagine how frightened she must be with Grazicky's men relentlessly coming after her. She swiped the tears away, fighting to remain composed. She donned her tough armor before she turned to him and asked, “You're going to keep me alive?”
“I will.” He meant it. This was no longer about besting Grazicky. It was about saving Payton from whatever evil things he had planned for her.
“Because you want my story.”
A corner of his heart ripped. He was a jerk, and she knew it. His actions were admirable, but his intentions were selfish. He wanted to pull her into his arms and tell her she had him all wrong. But he couldn't, because the truth was he'd only agreed to help her because he needed the story.
“And once you get the story,” she asked, her voice trembling, “what will happen to me then?”
He swallowed hard. Seeing his difficulty in answering, she turned away from him again, lapsing into that nerve-wracking silence Adriano had come to hate.
He cleared his throat. “Angel.”
She didn't acknowledge him.
“You're right. My helping you was all about getting the story. The second you jumped in the SUV, I started planning my next article.”
She turned to him, her expression unreadable.
“I didn't know you then. Twelve hours has made all the difference. I'll make sure you're safe. Story or no story, we're in this together. I won't leave you again.”
She watched him, her gaze unwavering. Either she appreciated his honesty or she hated his self-serving motives. She angled her body toward him. “You'll help me even if I don't give you an exclusive?”
“Keeping you alive is what's important.”
“You're in danger now too.”
“More reason for us to stay together.”
A tremor moved across her shoulders. “I really don't want to be alone.”
With her confession, he made a confession of his own. He reached across the center console and dragged her into his arms. Ignoring the mud splatters on her cheeks, he kissed away her tears, wishing he could remove her fear as easily. There was something about her unique mix of vulnerability and resolve that ignited his desire for her. He held her tightly, crushing her curvy frame to his body. He'd wanted to touch her this way since the moment he wrestled her down in the backseat.
He pressed his lips to hers, softly at first, gauging her reaction. He teased her bottom lip, removing the tension and uncertainty. Her entire body relaxed, bringing her curves down on him. The adrenalin pumping through his veins throbbed. He turned his head to obtain the perfect angle and slowly entered her mouth. His kiss told her everything he needed her to know. He wasn't going to leave her. He'd protect her to the end. He admired her. She was beautiful. Even mud-covered and tattered as she was, he wanted her more than he'd ever wanted a woman before.
He apologized with his kiss, assuring he would never again be selfish at her expense. When he was certain she understood him, he pulled away, closely watching her reaction.
“What do we do now?”
His brain was scrambled. He didn't understand the question. His mind buzzed, knowing Grazicky's men were out there searching for them, but his groin argued there was always time for the important things in life.
“We have to get as far away from those men as possible. And then we have to ditch this SUV.”
Payton started to say something but thought better of it. She untangled herself from his arms and returned to her seat. She perched on her knees, searching for the two black cars.
He drove carefully through the cornfield until he reached the road. He left the Land Cruiser at the edge of the field and went to check their surroundings. He crouched near a thick stalk of corn, checking both directions.
Payton appeared next to him. “No cars in sight.”
“They'll be back.” The tension in her shoulders knotted beneath her skin.
“Hey.” He caressed her cheek, and she didn't pull away from his mud-covered knuckles. He studied the sharp arch of her eyebrows, the scrumptious curves of her body, the broad flare of her hips and the billow of her breasts . . . and he knew he'd never leave her stranded. “My word means something. I don't make arbitrary promises.”
Her big brown eyes swept his face. “Thank you.”
What about her made him want to risk his life to protect her?
“I've got a signal!” Payton called to Adriano. He was inside a dilapidated barn changing into the new jeans he'd purchased at the discount store. They'd left the cornfield after finding a one-lane dirt service road that led deep into farmland. They'd stopped to eat and change into the new clothes. Hunger made Payton tear into the breakfast sandwich and hash browns as if they were a gourmet meal of lobster and filet mignon. For the first time in days, with Adriano at her side, she felt secure enough to resume the normal functions of living.
“Adriano,” she called again, “I have a signal.” The cell phone displayed one bar of battery life. No telling how long the signal would last before the phone died for good.
Adriano appeared, carrying the new button-down shirt in his hand. He'd managed to remove most of the mud from his face and hair, revealing striking features that somehow fit in with their wild surroundings. Every muscle of his abdomen rippled as he approached. Without the benefit of a belt, the new jeans hung low on his hips, dipping in front to give Payton a tantalizing glimpse of the terrain between his navel and his groin. She stole a sweeping look at his package and the long legs carrying him toward her.
“You found a signal?” he asked, taking the phone from her. His fingers brushed hers when he handed her his shirt. Her face heated, and she knew her cheeks would be a hearty pink. She turned away as he dialed his partner.
“Change of plans,” Adriano announced. “Can't talk. My battery is low. I need you to meet us.” There was a short pause in his conversation before he said, “Yep, the usual. We're on Service Road 182. We'll head north back to the main road.”
Payton perched on the bumper of the Land Cruiser, listening to Adriano's conversation.
“Jake will meet us,” Adriano said, ending the call.
“You trust him?”
“With my life.” He reached out for the shirt. “We've been partners for years.”
“Ever been involved in anything like this?”
He hesitated while he stuffed his arms into his shirt. “Never been up against a mobster, no, but we've been under gunfire in Iraq. Jake and I take the stories other reporters find too dangerous to handle.”
He raised his fairy-kissed eyebrow in contemplation of an answer. He buttoned the last three buttons of the shirt, leaving enough chest exposed to tease her thoughts away from the danger at hand.
“No one's ever asked you why you do what you do?”
“My mother nags me about changing careers, my father shakes his head, but no one has ever asked why I like doing what I do.”
“Why do you put your life on the line just to write a story?” In her world of glitz and glamour, the most calculated risk she'd ever encountered was if she should have breast-augmentation surgery. Her life was about entertainment, performance, and maintaining a happy faÃ§ade at any cost. Heroes topped the box-office charts, and saviors signed the next big artist.
“It isn't just writing a story. The stories Jake and I break expose wrongdoing in the world. We make people aware of the things they wish they could ignore. We put it out there in the faces of politicians who are forced to act and answer. Important issues are brought to the forefront, and people with the money and the power to right the situation take notice. I can't change the world alone, but I can recruit those who have the means to.”
“Like all the celebrities adopting babies from foreign countries. Or the politicians who are forced to resign when a story about their abuse of power breaks.”
“Exactly.” He opened the back door of the SUV and began rummaging around. “What do you love about your job?”
“I thought I had the best job in the world, but after I saw that man get shot, I realized what I do is shallow.”
“Don't be so hard on yourself. What you do is important too. You provide the illusion needed when life gets too tough to handle. People need release.” He slung a camera bag over his shoulder. “How'd you get into the business?”
“I was like most little girls who enjoy dressing up in fancy clothes and wearing their mother's high heels. I always wanted to be glamorous and famous. It drove my parents crazy and put pressure on my older brother to pick up the slack and make a success out of his life. While he was in college, I was working as a waitress in a local bar. I helped the owner with the books, learning all I could about the business. I worked my way up through bars, clubs, and the concert-promotion business. Eventually, someone who knew someone told me about Sherman's club. I met with him, presented my ideas for increasing profits, and he called me the next day with the job. The pay is great, the perks wonderful.”
“And you get to dress up in high heels every night.”
She searched for condemnation but found none. Instead, desire danced in his eyes. He broke their connection by sliding into the front seat and searching the glove box. He retrieved the flashlight from under the seat and locked up the car. “They'll be looking for the SUV. We'll walk back to the road on the other side of the cornfield. Jake'll pick us up.”
She fell into step beside him.
“How long have you worked for Grazicky?”
“A little over a year.”
“And you never suspected anything?”
“Suspected what? He's the typical wealthy businessman who probably never received much female attention before he started opening clubs.”
“Flirty, plays the big shot with the celebrities, loves the camera.”
He looked her up and down. “All over you.”
“He's hit on me. I keep it about business.”
Adriano didn't look happy about her honesty. “Does his wife know how he acts with you?”
“I've never met her. She rarely comes to Skye. From what I've overheard, she travels and spends money.”
“Grazicky has never discussed their relationship with you?”