| SECRET HIDEOUT
The man down the hall was definitely watching her. And given how grubby she looked at the moment, Isabel Cooper didn't think he was ogling her for the usual reasons.
Reaching for the handle of the ice machine door, she dropped her room key card on purpose, giving herself an excuse to shift position and sneak a better look at the man lurking at the end of the hall. He was lean and sandy-haired, wearing a simple black T-shirt and faded jeans. As her gaze rose toward him, he looked away. But she was certain he'd been staring.
Hair prickling on the back of her neck, she scooped ice into her bucket and headed back to her room. The carpeted hallway muffled even her own footsteps, so she couldn't hear anyone moving up the hallway behind her. But she could feel him.
Even though her room was straight ahead, she hooked a quick left into the elevator alcove. It was a dead end, but it gave her a chance to set herself for a fight.
She waited, her breath burning in her lungs.
But no one appeared around the corner.
The elevator dinged behind her, making her jump. The couple emerging from the elevator gave her a curious look. In the mirrored back of the open elevator, she caught a glimpse of her reflection, a wild-eyed brunette in a T-shirt and yoga pants, her feet stuck in a pair of fleece-lined house shoes and her unruly curls caught up in a lopsided ponytail.
The couple turned left, toward her own hotel room. She followed, darting a quick look down the hallway where she'd seen the loitering man. The corridor was empty.
Isabel released a puff of air. Wasn't it time to stop looking for criminals around every corner? Six months had already passed since she'd resigned from the FBI and returned home to work for her brother.
Six months since she'd buried her partner and said her final goodbye to the man she'd worked with for years, since she was a snot-nosed green agent fresh out of Quantico.
God, she missed him.
Trudging to her hotel room, she pushed the painful thoughts of Scanlon from her mind, thinking about the man she'd seen in the hallway instead. He hadn't looked familiar. And apparently she'd only imagined that he'd shadowed her up the hallway.
Tucking the ice bucket under one arm, she swiped the key card in the lock and let herself inside the hotel room. The door clicked shut, engaging the automatic lock. On instinct, she engaged the safety lock as well, waiting for the prickling sensation on the back of her neck to subside. But it lingered, the tingle of a thousand spider legs dancing across her skin.
She darted to the mirrored dresser, put down the ice bucket next to her overnight case and unzipped the bag, feeling inside for her Beretta 9 mm. She shouldn't have left the room without her weapon, but there was nowhere she could hide it in her yoga pants, and she hadn't wanted to alarm the other hotel visitors.
She ran her hands around the inside of her bag one more time, her fingers moving frantically in search of the weapon.
It wasn't there.
Her heart lurched into higher gear, pounding against her breastbone, as she picked up the bag to see if it could have fallen out without her noticing.
As she moved, her gaze glanced across the mirror on the wall above the dresser. Her heart jolted as she saw a man in a black ski mask standing a few inches behind her, holding her Beretta in his gloved hand.
Terror sucked the breath from her lungs.
"Looking for this?" The man behind the mask spoke in a low, pronounced drawl, the unabashed rural accent of the north Alabama hills.
"You can take all my money," she said, careful to sound neither too weak nor too strong. "Take the gun, too. I won't give you any trouble."
The man laughed. "Turn around."
She obeyed, sucking in another quick breath when she realized the man was not alone. A second man, similarly masked and clad in a dark long-sleeved T-shirt and pants, stood nearby, watching her. He didn't seem to be armed but was large enough, muscular enough, to pose a problem if she had to fight her way out of the situation.
The adrenaline coursing through her veins screamed for her to run. Catch them by surprise. But she'd engaged the safety lock—she'd never get it open in time to make her escape.
Was that the point of the man down the hall? To spook her into taking the extra precaution?
Think, Cooper. How do you get out of this?
"What do you want?" she asked, her voice strained.
"You don't know?" The man sounded surprised.
"You don't want money?" she asked, though it was clear her assailants weren't here for anything as ordinary as robbery.
"Agent Cooper, you're too smart to play games with us."
Which answered one question, she thought. They knew who she was. Their agenda was personal, not random.
But why? She wasn't working a case of any sort—she was here in Fort Payne, Alabama, to give a talk to some mystery writers about investigative procedure. It had been months since she'd worked any cases for the FBI, and she wasn't even working an open case with Cooper Security at the moment.
What would bring three armed men to her hotel room?
"I don't know what you want from me," she said aloud.
The man holding the gun on her glanced toward the other man. Isabel took advantage of his brief inattention and grabbed the ice bucket off the dresser, swinging it at his gun hand. The Beretta went flying, smacking against the motel room wall.
She ran to the door, her fingers clawing at the safety latch. As it flipped open, hands circled her throat and gave a backward jerk. She choked as her windpipe began to close from the pressure, black spots forming in her vision.
"Do it now!" her captor growled, dragging her onto the bed. Terror eclipsed the sense of suffocation as she struggled against the hands holding her down. The pressure on her throat eased, and she sucked in a lungful of air. Her vision returned in time to see a flash of a needle descending toward her neck.
She screamed for help, fighting harder. The man who'd had her gun shoved his gloved hand against her mouth, laughing as she bit at the leather. "Scream again, and we'll kill you now."
The needle descended, pricking the side of her neck.
The men held her in place, laughing at her struggles, until she felt her lungs burning for air. The room began to spin and grow strangely out of proportion. On the wall, the bland painting of daffodils started to melt, the colors sliding down the wall to pool atop the dresser.
One of the men had moved away from her, she realized, wondering how that could be possible when it seemed as if a dozen pair of hands still held her down.
She felt powerless to move against the pressure keeping her immobile. Forcing her gaze upward, she found herself staring into a pair of piercing blue eyes.
Jasper Swain, she thought, giving a start when she realized the words had escaped her aching throat in a rasp.
The blue eyes widened.
Then they bled.
And she screamed.
THE CRY DIED QUICKLY, but he knew what he'd heard. It was her. And she wasn't alone.
He flattened himself against the wall of the ice maker alcove down the hall from her room, knowing how disastrous it would be if one of the men inside caught sight of him. But he couldn't let them take her out of here.
He'd considered calling in a tip to the police, but the men in that room were dangerous, reckless men who'd have little compunction about leaving a small-town cop bleeding out in a hotel corridor. The cops would be more likely to get in his way than help him get her to safety.
He closed his fingers around the Glock hidden in the pocket of his windbreaker, grimacing. He wasn't the world's best marksman himself. But unlike local law enforcement officers, at least he knew what he was up against from the start.
How in hell did they think they were going to get her out of here? Was that even the plan anymore? He'd been damned lucky to hear about what the Swains were planning in the first place, considering how close-mouthed the people of Bolen Bluff, Alabama, could be.
He'd overheard the conversation while snooping around Tolliver Feed and Seed. Hidden in the back room, he'd eavesdropped on two Swain clansmen talking cryptically about an operation the next day, something to do with a woman at a Fort Payne hotel.
And if the Swains were up to something, it was bad news.
Down the hall, a door opened, and he heard scuffling sounds. He forced himself to remain in place as footsteps thudded down the hall toward his position.
He edged toward the ice machine, tugging the bill of his baseball cap lower over his face. He didn't have an ice bucket, but someone had helpfully left spares stacked on top of the machine, so he grabbed one of those and opened the ice machine bin. As he dug into the ice, he heard footsteps shuffling past him at a quick clip.
Once they'd passed, he took a quick look down the hall after them. He caught sight of a mass of dark curls and his heart gave a disconcerting flip.
Two men flanked her, holding her up as she sagged against them. A third man lagged behind, watching their backs. All of them wore caps low over their faces, just like his.
They were heading for the stairs.
He waited for them to enter the stairwell before he hurried after them. Cracking the door open, he listened for a second, trying to gauge how far ahead they were.
The footsteps echoed in the cavernous stairwell, making it hard to be sure where the sounds were coming from. He slipped into the stairwell and eased after them, keeping close to the wall to stay out of sight.
He had no idea how he was going to get her away from them without being seen, but if it came to a choice, he'd risk identification to save her. Whatever it took, he was going to get Isabel Cooper away from her captors.
What happened after that, however, would be anyone's guess.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.