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Authors: Sharon Dunn

Wilderness Target

BOOK: Wilderness Target
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A WANTED WOMAN

Clarissa Jones is running for her life. Though she has no idea why her ex-boss wants her dead, the killers at her heels are very real. Deep in the Montana woods she finds what seems like the perfect hideout, in Ezra Jefferson’s survival training school. The ex-military outdoorsman has the skills and training to keep her safe…but only if she’ll lower her defenses enough to let him help. When her attackers close in, Ezra’s protection and Clarissa’s fierce determination are all that will keep her alive—while the growing bond between them gives her a reason to fight to survive.

“Where can we find safety?”

“The trees,” Ezra said as they ran toward the thicker part of the forest, the chopper too close for comfort.

As she sprinted ahead of him, Clarissa stumbled. Ezra caught her and backed up to a tree, clutching her close.

The noise of the helicopter faded. He was aware of her palms pressed against his chest, and his heart skipped a beat.

“Do you think we lost them?”

“Wait a while longer,” he said. Her proximity made his skin tingle but he stepped back. He knew enough to know that people had let her down when she’d needed them. He wouldn’t destroy the fragile trust he saw in her eyes.

“Ezra, why are you helping me?”

His commitment went beyond responsibility to a client. He felt something much deeper for her. He couldn’t bring himself to say it, though. “Because you deserve better than having some murderer chase you through the woods.”

And unless they got moving, that’s exactly what she’d get.

Books by Sharon Dunn

Love Inspired Suspense

Dead Ringer
Night Prey
Her Guardian
Broken Trust
Zero Visibility
Guard Duty
Montana Standoff
Top Secret Identity
Wilderness Target

SHARON DUNN

has always loved writing, but didn’t decide to write for publication until she was expecting her first baby. Pregnancy makes you do crazy things. Three kids, many articles and two mystery series later, she still hasn’t found her sanity. Her books have won awards, including a Book of the Year award from American Christian Fiction Writers. She was also a finalist for an
RT Book Review
s Inspirational Book of the Year Award.

Sharon has performed in theater and church productions, has degrees in film production and history, and worked for many years as a college tutor and instructor. Despite the fact that her résumé looks as if she couldn’t decide what she wanted to be when she grew up, all the education and experience have played a part in helping her write good stories.

When she isn’t writing or taking her kids to activities, she reads, plays board games and contemplates organizing her closet. In addition to her three kids, Sharon lives with her husband of twenty-two years, three cats and lots of dust bunnies. You can reach Sharon through her website,
www.sharondunnbooks.net
.

WILDERNESS TARGET

Sharon Dunn

According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.

—Ephesians
1:4–5

To Jonah, the bravest person I know.

ONE

C
larissa Jones quickened her pace through the tiny airport that serviced Discovery, Montana. Fear shot through her when she looked back at the barrel-chested man making a beeline for her. Why had one of her former boss’s employees followed her here?

Max Fitzgerald owned one of the largest real estate and property management firms in Southern California, and the man coming after her hauled furniture for him when he staged houses. As Max’s assistant—up until two weeks ago—Clarissa had known all the people Max employed. This man, whose first name was Don, had displayed a temper on more than one occasion.

Don caught up with her, grabbing her arm just above the elbow. “I think you better come with me.”

She recoiled from the pressure as the man’s meaty fingers dug into her flesh. Max had been angry when she’d refused his advances, and even angrier when she’d told his wife. But having his hired muscle chase her all the way to Montana seemed a bit extreme even for a hothead like Max Fitzgerald.

“Let go of me.” Pain shot through her nerve endings as she tried to pull away.

Several people craned their heads in her direction. Don glanced from side to side, suddenly aware of the spectators around them, and lightened his grip on her arm.

“He wants you on a flight back to California tonight.” The man spoke in a hushed tone, but the threat of violence in his eyes terrified Clarissa.

The hired muscle had been one of the last ones on the plane. She’d managed to avoid him for the whole of the flight, but now there was little chance of escape.

Clarissa squared her shoulders and looked Don in the eye. “I don’t want anything to do with that man anymore.”

Why was Max doing this? Was this about revenge or control? She had expected to be fired when she’d refused his advances. She’d spent ten years working her way up from the cleaning crew. She’d been his assistant for less than a month. Up until then, the veneer of her employer’s charisma and her minimal contact with him had masked who he really was.

Her newfound faith had compelled her to tell Mrs. Fitzgerald what kind of man she was married to. Stella Fitzgerald had been grateful—and apparently had immediately confronted her husband. Days later, when Clarissa had told him she was going to file wrongful dismissal charges against him, Max, who had access to her personal information, had stopped direct deposit on her paycheck and used his position as owner of her apartment building to get her evicted. The final nail in the coffin of her life in California was when Max filed charges saying she’d embezzled company funds. She’d gone to the police, but by then her reputation was so smeared they didn’t take her claims seriously. Max was a respected businessman, while she was homeless and jobless, with no one on her side.

So she had decided to return to Discovery after ten years away to start over. And now Max’s muscle had followed her here. Where would his desire for revenge end?

Don leaned close to her, eyes bloodshot, breath hot on her face. “Now you listen to me. We’re going to go down to that ticket counter and you’re going to buy a one-way ticket to L.A. Max wants to talk to you.”

Clarissa gasped. The threat of violence stained his every word. Fear squeezed her heart like a vise. She glanced around. She could scream right now, but somehow she thought better of it. She didn’t know what this man was capable of.

A group of people swarmed toward the baggage claim as the first suitcase appeared on the carousel.

Stay with the crowd and he can’t hurt you.

She pulled free of his grip and stalked toward baggage claim, but then dived into the ladies’ room. He wouldn’t follow her here. She hid in a stall, taking in a deep breath to ease the rising panic.

It was close to 11:00 p.m. now. An airport this small probably pretty much shut down by midnight. She listened to women chatting, water being turned on and the hand drier blowing. Forty-five minutes passed. She couldn’t stay in here forever.

Was he just outside, waiting to grab her? She opened the door to the stall. A young woman with a backpack stood drying her hands.

Clarissa stepped toward her. “Can you do me a favor? Could you look and see if there’s a large man in a brown sport coat standing outside? He has short, spiky hair.”

The woman smiled. “Trouble with the boyfriend, huh?”

Clarissa didn’t bother to correct the woman’s assumption. “If you could just look, I’d be so grateful.”

The woman nodded, disappeared and then came back a moment later. “You’re clear.”

Clutching her handbag, Clarissa raced out to the main area of the airport. Don was at the other end by a snack cart with his back to her. She assessed her options.

Four people stood in line at the rental car agency—if she tried to join the line, there would be too much risk of being noticed while she waited. She ran toward the sliding doors just as the thug turned in her direction. Clarissa breathed in clean night air as she scrambled to come up with a plan of escape. If memory served from the time she’d lived here as a teenager, the town of Discovery was eight or ten miles from the airport.

There were several hotel shuttle buses, but no taxis.

A set of doors farther down opened, and Don stepped out. Clarissa slipped into the shadows by the brick building. She held her breath, fearing that even exhaling would alert him to her presence. He lumbered down the sidewalk of the unloading zone, away from her.

A broad-shouldered man with light brown hair got out of a van that was parked in the shuttle lane. The graphic on the side said Jefferson Expeditions. He walked toward the airport holding a clipboard. He hadn’t locked the doors, probably thinking whoever he was picking up would just let themselves in.

Max’s thug was talking to a woman who had emerged from the airport and was facing away from her. This was Clarissa’s chance to escape. She ran toward the van with the unlocked doors. This had to work. She needed to get into town. Hopefully, the van driver wouldn’t be checking IDs. The vehicle could hold at least twelve people. Maybe he wouldn’t even notice her. If he did, she could offer to pay. Anything to get away from Don and into town.

Within minutes, a forty-something couple crawled into the seat in front of her.

The woman adjusted her canvas hat and turned toward Clarissa. “Hi, I’m Jan and this is my husband, Kenneth.”

“I’m Clarissa.”

“So this survival school should be pretty unique.” Jan smoothed her shirtfront. “I know Ken and I are excited. We do a lot of hiking and camping, but we haven’t ever done anything like this.”

Clarissa nodded in agreement.

“Have you met Ezra?” Jan pointed out the window at the man with the clipboard, who was shaking the hand of a younger man who looked as if he was barely out of high school.

As she watched Ezra help the young man with his suitcases, anxious thoughts tumbled through her head. Maybe this had been a mistake. “We’re going into Discovery first, right?”

“Yes, we’ll spend the night there, and in the morning we’re off on our wilderness adventure.” Jan furled her brow. “Didn’t you get the itinerary? Ezra emailed it to everybody days ago.” The woman narrowed her eyes.

Clarissa laced her fingers together, hoping her voice didn’t give away the level of panic she felt. “I’ve been so busy at work trying to wrap things up. Guess I forgot to check my email. I had to race to the airport, and I almost missed my flight.” She hated telling lies. Could she even pull this off?

Jan’s expression brightened, all doubt falling away. “I understand. You can look at my itinerary if you want to refresh your memory.” She dug through her bag.

“I’m sure Ezra will go through everything before he turns us loose in the woods.” Kenneth broke his silence. “This guy should be pretty good. His bio on the website said he’s ex-military.”

More people piled into the van, a blond with a deep tan, a twenty-something couple and several others. Clarissa had chosen the middle of the middle seat, hoping that would shield her from view. The tinted windows helped, too. All the same, she slumped down to be less noticeable from the outside. Now if only Ezra wouldn’t give her up.

The young man he had been talking to earlier wedged in beside Clarissa, providing even more of a shield. He held out his hand to her. “Hi, I’m Bruce Finch, from New Hampshire.” Bruce was thin and light complected. If she had to guess, she’d say he worked in an office.

“My name is Clarissa.” She shook his hand quickly, hoping he wouldn’t notice the trembling in her fingers.

A man with glasses took the front passenger seat. He turned to introduce himself, and a moment later, most of the people in the van were engaged in a discussion about whether they were doing the two-day survival course with a man named Jack or the weeklong one with Ezra.

Clarissa closed her eyes and willed her heart to slow down. The voices around her faded. How had her life gotten to this point of desperation? She’d tried to do the right thing. She’d worked hard for ten years. As a homeless teenager, she’d been given a job on Max’s cleaning crew, even though she was only fifteen. That he had been willing to hire her illegally should have been her first clue as to what kind of man Max really was. But she’d been desperate and hungry. She’d finished her GED and taken college classes at night, until she’d been promoted to the position of his assistant. The day she’d started that job, she’d thought she had put a childhood of neglect behind her.

The back hatch of the van flipped open. Ezra’s warm tenor voice floated in on the night air. “Just be a minute here, folks, while I load up.”

Clarissa sank down farther into the seat, not daring to turn around. Some of the seats in the van were still unoccupied. That clipboard he hauled around probably had a list of who he was supposed to pick up. Why had she ever thought this would work?

Please, God, don’t let him toss me out.

The first suitcase hit the floor of the van with a thud. “So glad...everyone could make it without any flight delays.”

Clarissa tensed, anxious thoughts plaguing her. She’d heard the stutter in his voice. No doubt he’d counted heads and seen that there was one too many. Her mind scrambled to come up with an excuse before he kicked her out on the curb.

The back hatch closed.

“Excuse me, sir, I’m wondering if you have seen a woman—blond, skinny, wearing a gray suit.” Clarissa’s stomach coiled into a tight knot as Don’s gruff voice came through an open window.

Ezra said, “Why are you looking for her?”

“I thought I saw her walking over this way. If you don’t mind, I’d like to check in your van.”

“Are you a police officer? Is she in trouble with the law?” Ezra’s voice held unexpected resolve.

A tense silence followed.

Don lowered his voice a notch, rage evident in each syllable despite the forced courtesy of his words. “If I could just have a look inside your van...”

Clarissa dug her fingers into the armrest.

Bruce leaned toward her. “You all right?”

She managed a spastic smile. “Just tired and tense from the flight, I guess.” Her heartbeat drummed in her ears.

She turned her attention back to the conversation outside the van. Ezra’s answer was a long time in coming. When he did respond, he spoke deliberately. “Sir, it’s clear you have no authority to search my van. These people are my paying customers. They signed up for a survival class, not to be harassed. Good day.”

Ezra’s footsteps pounded around the side of the van.

The tension Clarissa had felt since leaving California eased from her muscles. She was safe for now.

Ezra slipped into the driver’s seat. She felt self-conscious as he peered in the rearview mirror at her. She studied the back of his head where his brown hair touched the collar of his flannel shirt. She breathed a silent prayer of thanks for Ezra. But why had he protected her?

* * *

Ezra caught a glimpse of the blonde woman with the delicate features in his rearview mirror. He’d first noticed her as she’d stepped out of the airport, clutching her bag to her chest. Everything about her, from the high heels to the gray suit that showed off her curves, said city girl. But it was the look on her face right before she’d slipped into the shadows by the building that had stabbed at his heart. He’d seen something that ran deeper than fear in her expression and body language. The woman had been terrified.

As he pulled out onto the road that led back to Discovery, he wondered what her story was. Who was she and who was the rude man who was looking for her?

He let go of his speculation about the blonde woman and tuned into the small talk of the other clients. He loved the sense of excitement they had at the prospect of a week in the woods learning survival skills. Forget the vacations where people lounged on beaches and had meals brought to them. He taught people how to find their own food, build shelters and work together. In the process, he made them feel better about themselves and what they could accomplish.

The headlights ate up the yellow line on the highway as the warm glow of a thousand lights indicated that they were nearing Discovery.

He glanced one more time at the woman in the middle seat. Was the guy back at the airport an angry boyfriend?

Ezra still wasn’t sure what impulse had made him not turn her over to the gruff man with more muscles than social skills.

His experience in the wild had taught him to read the signals for when an animal would charge or run away. And something about that man gave off a dangerous vibe that seemed to say his intention was to hurt the woman. Getting her away from him had seemed the only option.

That said, Ezra had no desire to get involved with whatever trouble she’d brought with her. The slight build and soft features reminded him of his little sister. Melissa had been the only girl in a family of four boys. They’d doted on her, spoiled her, loved her. But it hadn’t been enough. Neither he nor his brothers had been aware of how controlling the man she was dating was...until it was too late. Melissa had married and moved to another state, cutting off all contact with the family.

It still broke Ezra’s heart. He hadn’t been able to protect his little sister. Was he trying to make up for it by helping this woman? He’d like to think he could have made a difference for Melissa if he’d acted earlier—but he couldn’t change that now. Helping this woman wouldn’t bring his sister back. And besides, he knew nothing about her. It wasn’t his place to interfere in her life or her problems.

BOOK: Wilderness Target
7.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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