Authors: Alysia S. Knight
He leaned toward her. “I want you to stay low and follow me. If I hold up my hand like this,” he made a fist, “you stop”. “Slow, drop, come.” He went over the series of motions. She nodded. “We’re going to the basement. I’ve an exit there.”
“I need my jacket,” she whispered, leaning into him.
“Leave it. I have a raincoat for you.”
Her head moved negatively. “It’s important.”
He’d searched it earlier and hadn’t found anything, but her look seemed to say trust me. Well, if she trusted him, he could do no less. He just hoped it wasn’t a fashion thing.
Raising and lowering his head, he flattening himself to the wall. She mimicked his action, staying close behind. He entered the main room from the opening closest to where the jacket hung by the fireplace. Motioning her to stay back, he dropped low, crossing the floor in a crab walk.
Reaching his target, he waited a second before he rose. His hand just clamped onto the jacket when one of the large window panes shattered around him. Zan threw himself across the floor reaching Marley as smoke burst into the room. He shoved the jacket into her hands as he passed, leaving her to follow him down the hall to the kitchen entrance off the main room.
He was about to motion her around the corner to the stairs when there were several thuds against the shatterproof glass and the sound of splintering wood. Zan crossed the room to meet the shadow as it stepped through the door. The intruder’s arm whipped out.
Zan threw up his arm to block the punch. Letting the motion of his body carry him around, he sent a blow into the man, dropping him to the floor. Zan pulled a plastic pull tie from a pocket in his pants. Grabbing the stunned man’s hands, he fastened them together through one of the stools hooked to the counter.
Smoke was seeping into the hall, but Zan ignored it. Catching Marley’s arm, he drew her with him down the stairs. By the time they reached the bottom, she seemed to be past the shock. Zan released the bolt-locking mechanism on the small window and lifted down the whole window inset. Turning back, he noticed Marley had already pulled on her leather jacket and the camo raincoat.
“I’ll go through the window first. When I decide it’s clear, I’ll put my arm through. You grab hold of it, and I’ll pull you up,” he whispered his order.
Gripping the edge, he pulled himself up enough to do a quick survey before he pushed up and rolled out, flattening himself against the house. He waited to hear a movement. None came, but he knew there had to be at least one other.
How had they found Marley so fast? One of them had to be a heck of a tracker to follow a trail in this kind of rain. Rain might have made the ground softer, imprints deeper, but washed evidence away quickly. That’s why they moved so fast, so not to lose her.
The faint rustle of leaves to his right, and the sound of one of his snares releasing, told Zan what he needed to know. He moved silently across the ground. At the side of the porch, he caught a glimpse of a figure, dressed similar to him in combat fatigues, but Zan had an advantage. He knew what he was facing. He doubted the other man, though cautious, had any idea he was up against someone with as much or more training than he had.
Zan came up behind him as the man watched the two side doors to the deck. Clamping his arm around his neck, he applied pressure, careful not to kill him. He held on until the form went slack. The guy would wake up with a massive headache, but by then, he and Marley would be long gone. This time Zan fastened the hands to the railing.
He was about to start back to Marley when he noticed the man’s gun on the ground and recognized it as a tranquilizer gun. Deciding it might be handy, since he really didn’t want to kill anyone, he did a quick search of the man for the spare darts, shoving the case into his pocket. He took the gun, going back around the house to the window.
He was almost to the window when he saw another shadow move. Zan brought up the tranquilizer gun. There was a faint hiss as the dart exploded out of the barrel, but it was too late of a warning. The man dropped. Zan didn’t know how long the man would be out but didn’t worry about restraining him, just checked to make sure he was breathing okay.
Satisfied, he went to the window. The instant he stuck his hand through, Marley grasped it and he pulled her up. She looked at him as if checking he was all right but didn’t make a sound. He pointed to a set of trees to the edge of his yard and motioned for her to go.
She burst from her spot, keeping herself hunched low but at a run. Zan didn’t have time to be impressed as he scanned the area for danger. The minute she reached her destination and dropped down, he was after her, running in a low, zigzag manner.
On reaching her, he motioned for her to follow and set the pace through the woods at a light jog. He hoped her eyes were adjusted enough to the darkness to keep from falling. He wanted to get as far away from the house as quickly as possible.
Marley ran following Zan’s form in front of her. At times, she almost had to struggle to make him out. He blended into his surroundings, like a ghost appearing at the shadows of her mind.
Her heart still pounded from his awakening her. Her mind raced over the day’s events, trying to configure them to make sense, but they didn’t. She’d never seen anyone, except in movies, move like Zan did when taking out the man who broke in. Zan hadn’t killed the man, but she knew he could’ve and would’ve if he deemed it necessary.
She’d felt his strength of body and sensed his inner control, but the relaxed manner he exuded to her earlier had hid the hard edges of the man. Still, she wasn’t afraid of him which was odd to her. He was the type that tended to make her the most nervous, but Zan didn’t and she wasn’t sure why.
Zan was controlled. It radiated from him along with power. His stealth surprised her, especially considering his size. He was a weapon with a conscience.
Marley ran. Her eyes had adjusted to the dark. Still, it was impossible to see anything. She just trusted that Zan knew where they were and where they were going. Bushes whipped at her.
Rain hit her face along with droplets from the foliage. She flinched when something dark appeared in front of her face. The branch caught in her hair, yanking it, but she didn’t slow her pace. She set her breathing, in and out, letting the crisp, damp air fill her lungs, refresh her mind and invigorate her body. Running did that for her.
Ahead, Zan dodged a tree. She followed suit, but as she came around the tree, her toe caught an exposed root she didn’t see in the dark. Marley managed not to cry out but could do nothing to stop her fall. Powerful hands clamped on her shoulders just before she hit the ground.
Zan pulled her up, set her on her feet and steadied her.
“You okay?” His voice cut through the darkness in a low, hoarse whisper. She couldn’t make out his face.
“Yes.” It surprised her she could sound so normal.
“We should be far enough away now that we can slow down, but we have to keep moving. In another hour we can find a place to wait out the night. Can you follow me?”
He barely waited for her answer before he started walking. His long stride made her hurry to keep up. At times, she wondered if she’d have to run to catch him. “Where are we going?”
“Up, over the mountain. They’ll have the ways into town watched, so we’ll have to bypass it.”
“How do you know they’re watched?” she asked the question mainly because hearing his voice helped push away the fear.
“Because that’s what I’d do.”
They walked on silently for a while longer until Marley couldn’t take it anymore. “I’m sorry about your window and door.”
“They can be replaced.” His curt reply cut into the night.
“I’m sorry about the trouble I caused.”
He stopped, and turned so abruptly Marley didn’t realize he had until she ran into him. His hands locked on her shoulders, whether to strengthen his point or steady her, she didn’t know. “You didn’t cause this. You’re trying to help.”
Even in the dark, she could feel his gaze burn into her. His intensity was palpable. Zan Masters was a multi-layered man. He could be hard, deadly. He was full of honor. But deep down there was another side of him, the one that had taken care of her when she was frightened out of her mind. That man was caring and tender. He didn’t intimidate her.
Maybe that was why she could handle this other forceful side of him. Forceful people usually petrified her. She had worked hard to overcome it on the outside, but inside, she was still insecure. She felt no such trepidation from Zan.
“Do you hear me?” he demanded.
“You’re doing the right thing. Don’t feel you need to apologize or thank me for helping you. It is my friends you’re trying to save, my brother.”
Marley felt her breath catch as the significance hit. Suddenly, the people who would die if she failed picked up a face − the image of Zan, his brother, his twin.
She nodded then added “yes”, when she could finally make her voice work. She understood. To Zan, it was his brother and his men who would be affected by the drug. He would do anything to help her stop that from happening. He would give his life to stop it.
Earlier, running through the forest trying to escape Mills and Jansen, her mind had dwelt on the risks. Now, with Zan, they didn’t seem so oppressive, even though the attack on his house said the stakes had reached another level.
“We need to get going,” Marley said firmly. The hands on her shoulders tightened in acknowledgement a brief second before he set off into the darkness.
Marley had no idea how far they traveled. She figured easily five miles because, even though at the supposed walk, she was winded when Zan finally came to a halt.
“We can rest for a while under that overhang.” He pointed to a dark shadow.
Marley couldn’t see an overhang but didn’t doubt it was there. She just went the direction he motioned, and ten feet later, the world darkened even more around her. A faint glow burst behind her, and she spun. The planes of Zan’s face were made harsh by a soft glow from his hand.
He placed the light on a rock. “Get settled. I don’t want to risk the light longer than necessary. It doesn’t travel far but still could be noticed.” He swung his pack off and tossed her a bundle the size of a football. “You can sleep in this. It’ll keep you warm.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll be okay.”
“Cold bounces off you.” As soon as she said the words, she wanted to take them back. They sounded so waspish, but a smile tilted his lips.
“You in a fighting mood, Doc?”
“I can’t believe I said that. It’s not like me.”
“It’s okay. You need that. Use it.” He turned his back to her, pulling something else from the pack. He disappeared into the darkness. “Make sure you keep your shoes and rain poncho so you can get to them fast if we have to leave in a hurry,” he said over his shoulder.
Marley stared after him, her mind still back on ‘use it’. How was she supposed to use it? What was she supposed to use? Shrugging, she picked a dry spot close to the rock wall to settle down.
Opening the bundle he tossed her, she was surprised when it pulled out into a full sleeping bag. She thought sleeping bags were supposed to be big and bulky. Figuring this was better than nothing, she worked her way in. She wondered what Zan would say if she told him she’d never slept outside before? As cold as she was, she doubted she would sleep but still this counted.
Surprisingly, she felt warm and content when he stepped into the lighted area. She hadn’t heard him approach. One instant the space was empty, the next he stood over her. Wordlessly, he picked up the light, and it went dark. Marley heard only a slight whisper as he settled on the ground close to her.
“Don’t you have another sleeping bag?” She couldn’t keep back the question, feeling guilty for having his bag.
“I don’t need one.”
“So you said earlier, but I had your rain poncho. Aren’t you wet and cold?”
“My clothes repel water,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Oh. I’ve never slept outside before,” she blurted out then groaned. She sounded like a nerd again.
The silence of the night sat heavy. Even the rain seemed to hold its breath. “You’ve never gone camping?”
Marley wasn’t sure which was stronger in his voice, shock or disbelief.
“I’ve always wanted to go,” she countered defensively. “It just wasn’t my sister’s thing, and I had to study. My parents wanted the best for me.”
“Your dad didn’t camp?”
“I’m sure he did as a kid. He grew up on a farm and went fishing as a kid. But we grew up in the suburbs of LA. My father works as an engineer at an aeronautics company. My Mom’s a librarian. They were both very supportive,” Marley added, needing to defend them, unable to take it when Zan remained silent.
“What was your childhood like?” he finally asked.
Marley felt a sense of relief when his voice came through the darkness.
“When I was little, I’m sure it was like everyone else’s. I had a good home life. I played, got skinned knees. I took swimming lessons. I was even on a swim team. Normal for the area. I always liked to read and read quite early. I just started picking harder and harder books. I was curious, forever asking questions. So my mom started telling me to go look it up. And being a librarian, she’d bring me home books on whatever subject I was interested in that week.
“When I was in first grade, they bumped me to second and the next year to fourth. They wanted to go farther, but my parents said no, not wanting me to feel like a freak, but they gave me an accelerated curriculum. Still, I’d get finished and be bored. My mind tends to be different. Anyway, at the end of the year, my parents were approached about placing me in several different private academies. Finally they chose one.”
“Did you like it?”
Marley heard him shift against the rock. She’d been asked that question before and usually gave her pat answer ‘of course’, but with Zan, she just couldn’t. So in the darkness, with rain pouring down and men trying to kill her, she thought it out.
“For the most part, it was okay. I liked the ch-challenge. I felt special. But I also felt like a f-freak.” The stuttering that had been absent for the last few minutes snuck back in.
“I was lonely a lot, so I w-worked harder to excel because then I got attention. I loved holidays because I got to go home and spent them with my family. My parents tried to make them extra special for me, but it caused problems with my s-sister. We weren’t very close. She was two years younger and a decade ahead socially. She had the room all to herself until I came home. I felt like I was visiting in my own home, and she used to sh-shove all her friends and b-boyfriends in front of me.”
Lightning lit the sky, illuminating Zan. He stared down at her. “Did you have many friends at school?”
Marley was grateful when the darkness settled over them again. “No, even in the private schools, I was kind of in a class of my own. The other kids like me were so into their studies that, well, they just didn’t socialize.”
“What did you miss the most?” His question made her think again.
“I always wanted to try sports, you know, like baseball, soccer, and volleyball. Volleyball looks so fun. But mostly, I always wanted to go to a dance. I went to one when I turned sixteen.”
She let the words fade away as she remembered standing off to the side watching the other people and wondering what you were supposed to do to get to dance and even how to dance. After a half hour of watching and hoping, she finally gave up and went back to her room to study her chemistry.
Marley jumped, becoming aware of Zan shifting closer to her. “It’s all right.” His voice cut through the night. “You’re nervous. You should get some sleep.” His hand came out of the dark to touch her cheek. “Marley, I’d like to take you dancing some time.”
Her heart pounded with excitement at the thought of dancing with Zan before reality seeped in. A wave of sadness followed. “I-I don’t know how t-to dance.”
“Well, I’m no Fred Astaire, but I think I can get us through it. Get some sleep now. We need to be moving in a couple hours.”
The words brought back the memory of why they were there. A cold, icy shudder ran through her that had nothing to do with the temperature. As if Zan sensed her distress, his hand settled on her shoulder and remained there.
She liked the feel of the weight of it. Having him so near took her thoughts away from the madness, back to dreams of dancing with him as she drifted off to sleep.
The rain had stopped, but for how long, Zan didn’t dare to guess. A faint rose color tinted the sky, hinting of the coming sunrise. He looked down at the woman pressed to his side.
Marley, he didn’t know quite what to think of her. She was as open as a book but still an enigma. She’d been in shock when he’d found her, yet gave him her trust. When the men attacked, she hadn’t panicked. His violence hadn’t frightened her either, and not once had she complained or even made a sound of protest at him dragging her through the woods in the rain and dark.
Part of him wanted to discount Marley as being submissive; like how she accepted the life she’d lived as a child. But there was more to Marley. She had the strength to leave her comfort zone, try to stand up for what was right, at the risk of her own life.
He heard the unease in her voice as she spoke in the darkness about sleeping outside, yet there was almost a twinge of excitement. He wanted to take her camping when she could enjoy the experience. He’d also like to teach her to play baseball, soccer and volleyball, but mostly, he’d like to teach her to dance. Hold her in his arms, sway with her to music.
It didn’t really make sense to him, but she seemed to lure him like no other woman had. Was this pull what was missing in his other relationships?
He studied her features, captivated by the calm beauty of her in sleep. Even in the early dawn, he could make out her dark eyelashes on her sculptured cheeks. Her hair was in disarray again, tumbling around her face. He hadn’t thought of grabbing something to tie it back.