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Excerpt - FUGITIVE by Shirlee McCoy

Fugitive
By
Shirlee McCoy


"Help me."

When she opens her door to a wounded, handcuffed stranger, Laney Jefferson is terrified…until she recognizes her unexpected visitor. Thirteen years ago, Logan Randal was there for her when she desperately needed a friend. Now the wrongfully convicted lawman needs the widow's help. On the run from the law and guided only by Laney's unswerving faith in Logan's innocence, their mutual attraction begins to break down the barriers around Laney's heart. But the real culprit is much closer than they imagine…a cunning enemy determined to keep the past—and the truth—buried forever.

Excerpt of chapter one:

Just another step.

That's all he had to take. Another step. And another. Wind howling.

Blood dripping on fresh white snow.

Fire behind. Darkness ahead. Only one way to go. Up.

Deputy Sheriff Logan Randal pushed through winter-dry foliage, moving as quickly as his handcuffed wrists would allow. Fifteen minutes and rescue units would be at the wreck. A little longer, and the state police would know he was missing.

Missing and presumed responsible. For the wreck.

For the officer lying dead in the culvert where Logan had dragged him before he'd realized it was too late to help. And for Officer Camden Walker, who lay bleeding beside him, unconscious and shivering beneath the jacket Logan had wrangled off Camden's deceased partner. If not for Walker, Logan would still be locked in the back of the burning police cruiser. Everything in him demanded that he go back and wait with the injured man until help arrived.

But, going back meant death. For Walker and for Logan.

A bullet slammed into the snow beside him, bits of earth and ice splattering his face. He ducked behind a towering pine, then kept moving through deep forest and blowing snow, praying the gunman's aim would prove as terrible now as it had been when Logan exited the cruiser.

His foot caught on a snow-covered root, and he fell, hot white pain shooting through his head, blood still dripping from a gash on his temple. An inch closer, and the bullet that had grazed his head would have bored into his brain.

He'd be dead.

Get up. Keep moving away from the wreck. Give Walker a chance. Give yourself a chance.

The words chanted through his mind, a mantra that brought him to his feet, his orange prison jumpsuit too bright against the dark shadows of the woods and the whiteness of the snow.

Sirens screamed, the sound growing closer with every heartbeat, every breath.

Please, God, let them be close enough to chase the gunman away from Walker.

He didn't need another life on his head, didn't need someone else's blood on his hands. Didn't need anything but a chance to prove he was innocent. Not just of arranging the ambush that had freed him from prison, but of the crime a jury of eight had just convicted him of.

A half a million dollars' worth of heroin missing from the evidence room. A hundred thousand dollars in an offshore bank account in Logan's name. A paper trail of evidence that led straight to him.

Someone had worked hard to frame Logan for the crime.

Whoever it was had succeeded.

Apparently, that same person now wanted him dead.

But that wasn't going to happen. No way did Logan plan to die a felon and a murderer. No doubt that was exactly what his enemy wanted. If he was caught by the police, he'd be tried for the murder of the fallen officer. If he was caught by the men in the SUV who'd run the cruiser off the road, he'd probably be killed and left to rot where no one would ever find him. A lose-lose situation.

He had to escape. Had to prove his innocence. Had to get back the life he'd worked so hard for.

He shoved through snow-covered foliage, ducking under pine boughs, aiming up the mountain. The wind whipped through his jumpsuit, snow blasting against his face.

Sirens pierced the air, their endless shriek joining the wild howl of the wind. A fifteen-minute head start wasn't much, but it was something, and in this weather, it might just be enough.

He struggled up the steeply inclined ridge, snow falling heavier and harder, the swirling white making him dizzy. Blood loss making him dizzier.

He looked back, saw a speck of orange fire in a gray world, flashes of red and blue reflecting on pure white ground. He was making progress, but to where? Miles of wilderness could hide him. It could also kill him.

He glanced around, searching for signs of civilization. He knew the area well, but that didn't mean he could find his way to safety. This part of eastern Washington was sparsely populated, the mountains dotted with hunting cabins. If he could find a hunting trail, make his way to a cabin, he'd live through the night. If he couldn't..

He refused the thought and kept slogging toward the top of the ridge, breath panting, body shaking with cold. The sirens faded, the wind's howl the only sound in the deepening storm.

The handcuffs weighed him down, the freezing metal only adding to the cold bite of the wind. He was shivering convulsively, and he knew what that meant. He had to get to shelter, and he had to do it fast.

His feet were frozen logs, catching on every hidden rock and jutting root. He caught himself once, twice, fell the third time, going down hard. Winded, he lay where he'd fallen, the snow more comfortable than it should have been, the cold not so cold anymore.

He forced himself up, disoriented, not sure which direction he'd been heading or where he'd come from. Trees to the left, the right, up ahead…

He squinted, sure he saw a glimmer of light through the trees, distant but beckoning.

God, please let it be more than a hallucination.

He moved toward it, the trees blocking, then revealing, then blocking his view again.

Still there.

All he had to do was keep walking.

Gusting wind rattled the cabin's windows and howled beneath its eves, the sounds shivering along Laney Jefferson's spine as she bent over the cold hearth and built a fire. Outside, fat snowflakes fell from the purple-blue sky and lay thick on the roof of the Jeep. It was stupid to have made this trip in the dead of winter, but putting it off wouldn't have made it any more appealing. Besides, Valentine's Day was just a week away, and she'd rather spend it cleaning out her parents' house than spend it alone in Seattle.

Stopping at William's cabin on the way to Green Bluff had made sense when she'd been planning the trip to her childhood home. Clean out the cabin, clean out her parents' house, clean out the cobwebs of the past that seemed to be keeping her from moving into the future. She'd been praying about the trip since she'd gotten the letter from her father's attorney saying that she'd inherited Mackey Manor and the hundred acres of farmland that went with it.

She'd wanted to turn her back on the legacy, wanted to go on pretending that her life had started the day she'd left Green Bluff and run to Seattle, but she'd had no peace about it.

She'd spent three months planning and plotting and trying to convince herself that she should return to the place she despised. Those months had made her realize just how easily she'd shoved aside her childhood and how tightly she'd been holding on to the dreams she'd built with William. Dreams that had died with him.

Move on.

That had become her mantra.

So, it had made perfect sense to take a two-week vacation in the middle of February, make the trip back across Washington, tying up the loose ends of her life as she went.

She wasn't sure how much sense it made now that the storm of the century was blowing through the eastern part of the state.

She shoved paper under the fire log she'd brought from home, struck a match and tossed it in. If William had been around, he'd have taken care of that. He'd also have braved the wind and snow to grab logs from the back porch. He wasn't, so Laney went herself, pulling her hood over her hair and walking out the back door. Frigid wind cut through her coat and chilled her to the bone as she lifted an armful of wood from the neat pile that William had left on the covered back porch the last time they'd been there.

Two and a half years ago.

Had it really been that long?

They'd been married less time than that. Just eighteen months, and she'd thought they would have forever. Instead, she'd been without William for longer than she'd been with him.

She walked back inside, the wind slamming the door closed behind her. She ignored it as she chose the driest log and set it on top of the burning kindling. It was easy enough to make a fire. She'd learned the skill years ago, but doing this herself, here where she and William had once bent close and worked together, it hurt more than she'd expected it to.

She nudged the log deeper into the fire. Sparks flew, wood crackled and something banged against the back door.

She jumped, whirling to face the door and whatever was outside it.

The wind.

It had to be.

But her racing pulse said different. So did the hair standing up on the back of her neck.

Bang!

The door shuddered, the weight of whatever was out there seeming to press in, demanding entry.

She grabbed the fireplace poker and walked to the door. "Who's there?"

No one answered.

She hadn't really expected anyone to because she couldn't imagine that anyone was wandering through the mountains during a winter storm. A tree branch must have flown into the door.

Two tree branches?

The wind was certainly blowing hard enough to tear off pieces of old pine trees, and there were plenty of those around the cabin.

She opened the door, determined to prove it to herself.

A shadow lurched through the doorway, white and gray and strangely dead looking. She screamed, and screamed again as the figure stumbled into her, knocking her to the ground.

Breathless, she twisted, fighting against deadweight and icy cold, then realizing suddenly that she was fighting herself. That her attacker was limp and heavy and motionless. She shoved him sideways and scrambled out from beneath him, her breath panting.

The poker! Where was it?

She snatched it from the ground, backing away, her heart pounding wildly in her ears.

Go! Now! Before he gets up!

She reached blindly, grabbing her purse from the hook near the front door, snatching her coat from the rocking chair and never taking her eyes off the motionless man.

The dead man?

Snow blew across his prone body, the back door banging against his legs and feet as the wind tried to push it shut. No response from him. Not even a twitch. Facedown, features hidden, everything about him still and silent.

She took a step closer, afraid he was dead.

Dark hair. Orange jumpsuit that looked crisp and frozen rather than wet. It had to be prison issue, which meant he had to be a prisoner. An escaped one. The state prison was twenty miles away. Had he walked that far?

Did it matter?

She needed to get out before he got up. Run before he recovered enough to take a hostage.

She turned her back to him, her hands shaking as she unlocked the front door. She'd head down the mountain, find a spot where she could get a cell phone signal and call the police.

"Help me."

Two words. Raw and hot and rasping. She wanted to ignore them. She couldn't.

She pressed her back to the door and kept her hand on the knob. "I'll call for help as soon as I get far enough down the mountain to get a signal. You'll be okay until the rescue crew gets here."

"Don't." He raised his head, his eyes midnight-blue in his gray-white face. Dark lashes wet from melting snow. Blood seeping down his face.

His very familiar face.

"Logan?" It couldn't be.

She knelt beside him, her hand shaking as she touched his cheek and brushed hair from his forehead, looking for the thin white scar near his hairline.

There. Just like she'd known it would be.

"What happened?" she whispered.

His eyes drifted closed, and he didn't respond.

She grabbed a blanket from the trunk at the end of the bed, her throat aching with all the memories she'd shoved out of her mind and done her very best to forget.

"You have to get up. I need to close the door, and you've got to warm up." She slid her arm around his shoulders, tried to nudge him into motion. He felt different. Thirteen years had built muscle and weight on his lean frame, made the twenty-year-old kid that he'd been into a man.

wanted man.

She shuddered, the cold wetness of his jumpsuit seeping into her sweater and jeans as she tried to maneuver him out of the doorway. He rolled onto his back, his hand capturing hers so unexpectedly that her heart jumped. Cuffs clanked, the frigid metal burning against her arm, Logan's grip tight and hard as he pulled her closer.

"Laney?" he rasped, his breath hot against her cheek.

"Yes."

"Go."

"What?"

"Leave. Now." He released his hold, grabbed the edges of the blanket with dead-white hands and turned onto his side, closing her out in a way he'd never done when she'd been a little girl desperate for someone to believe in.

"Your hands may be frostbitten. We need to get—"

He snatched her wrist and yanked her so close she could see every fleck of silver in his eyes. He had blood on his cheek, frozen against his grayish skin, and blood on the front of his jumpsuit. 'We don't need to do anything. You need to go."

His words were slurred, his body stiff as he released his grip and struggled to his feet.

She didn't touch him this time. Didn't try to help as he shuffled to the fireplace and dropped down in front of it.

Thirteen years was a long time.

He could have become anyone or anything in those years. But she still couldn't leave him. She owed him too much.

She set the teakettle on the propane stove and took coffee from the box of supplies she'd left on the table.

"Did you hear me? I want you to leave," he said, his back to Laney, the blanket shrouding his head and covering his shoulders. Melted snow pooled around him, tinged pink with blood.

"You're bleeding."

"Not your problem." He didn't move, didn't glance her way.

"There's a first aid kit in my Jeep. I'll—"

"You don't seem to get it, Laney. Being around me is dangerous. You need to leave while you still can."

She took another blanket from the chest and threw it over his shoulders. "Here. Coffee will be ready in a minute."

Suddenly, he was up, looming over her. Cold, cold expression and fiery eyes, a stranger lurking behind an old friend's face. She shivered and tried to step back, but he held her in place with his eyes and the sheer force of his will.

"I'm a felon, Laney. Tried and convicted. You want to spend the night in this cabin with me? You want to risk that?"

"I—"

"Drive off this mountain and forget you ever saw me." He dropped back down in front of the fire, shivering beneath the blanket. Closed in and closed up and absolutely committed to chasing Laney away.

The small part of her, the remnant of the scared kid she'd been when she'd run from Green Bluff, wanted to give him what he wanted. The other part, the bigger part, refused to. He'd helped her all those years ago. If not for Logan, she'd never have gotten her college degree, become an interior designer, met William and married him. Without Logan, the Laney she was now wouldn't exist.

She took the keys from her purse and stepped out into the blowing snow, heading for the Jeep and the first aid kit she kept there. No matter what Logan had become, no matter who, she'd make sure he was warm and dry and safe because, once upon a time, he'd done exactly the same for her.

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This week, the featured book is: What Lies Beneath by Andrea Laurence (Harlequin Desire)

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