Locked and Loaded
Maddie Timmons turned over in bed for what felt like the fiftieth time. It had to be past two by now, but she refused to look at the clock and check. Not again.
The room had plunged into darkness hours ago when the sun ducked behind the mountains outlining the side of her cabin. The cool late-spring air couldn't penetrate the thick windows near her head. She knew because she'd installed the laminated safety glass herself and then made sure the potential entrances stayed locked at all times. A security alarm took care of the rest.
She kicked off the covers and stared at the ceiling. Despite all the precautions, something made her restless. She couldn't pinpoint a reason. She just knew her insides kept jumping around, pressing down on her chest and forcing her eyes open every time they tried to drift shut.
The unease had crept up on her that afternoon while she'd worked the lunch rush at the diner, doing the baking and serving the meals. Though in Sweet Home, West Virginia, the weekday "rush" usually meant about thirty people over the span of three hours.
She sat up and felt the mattress dip beneath her. Just as her feet hit the hardwood floor, the banging started on her front door. She heard the thud and the faint sound of a male voice calling her name.
The late hour. The frantic attempt to wake her. It all struck her as wrong.
Every nerve ending in her body screamed for her to run. Her cottage was blocked from the neighbor's by towering trees, and the dark night would give her attackers the advantage. And she could not risk getting caught. Ever.
She slid her feet into the white sneakers that always sat by her bed. The knife she kept under her pillow slipped neatly into the waistband of her pajama shorts. She had to grab her bag and take off.
That was the plan. Get to safety and then call the number she'd memorized for a situation just like this. The same emergency she'd hoped would never arrive.
She crept across the floor and wrapped her fingers around the handle of her packed safety bag. She listened closely for any sounds of house penetration. Relief flowed through her when only quiet echoed back.
She rounded the corner and headed for the small secret opening to the space under the house. From there she could see the property and listen for footsteps. Then it was just a practiced run to safety.
She froze. The husky whisper sounded louder and deeper than before. And totally familiar.
She eased the duffel back to the floor in total silence. The mandatory escape plan ran through her mind, but she ignored it. Instead, she walked down the short hall that led to the family room. The cabin consisted of exactly two rooms plus a kitchen and bath. No matter how careful she was, how shadowed the rooms, she would come into view from one of the windows in two more steps.
"Maddie?" The knocking grew louder and showed no signs of stopping.
Her brain pleaded for caution. Every other part of her wanted to open the door.
With quiet steps, she crossed the smooth floor and flattened her stomach against the front door. A quick look through the peephole confirmed what she already knew. Adam Wallace wanted in.
She hesitated, thinking of all the ways this could be a trap, but reached for the locks anyway. Metal rattled in her shaking fingers as she rushed to get the door open.
He stood there, all six foot three of him. Sandy-blond hair, thin wire glasses and shoulders wider than the door frame. He was her next-door neighbor. The chatty, sexy computer nerd with the linebacker body who moved in and insisted they be friends, all while she dodged every attempt.
She grabbed the side of the door and carefully blocked his way into the house, knowing he could power through if he really wanted to.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"That's my question."
She had never seen him do this frantic-whisper thing. Sure, they'd only known each other a month, but he'd been so even-keeled all that time. "Adam, I don't—"
He pushed the frames up on his nose. "I heard a noise."
The implication of that statement hit her full force. Blood pounded in her ears. "What? Where?"
"I was watching a movie and thought I heard something crash over here. I came to make sure you were okay."
As quickly as the adrenaline flooded her senses it receded again. No need to panic—yet. This likely was about a guy being lonely and nothing more. Why someone his age would choose to live out here, all alone, was a constant mystery. That question made her wary of him, just as s
he was wary of everyone else. She had to be.
But she did wonder how a man who towered over her and possessed those impressive arm muscles could look so sweet and comfortably disheveled at all times. Probably had something to do with the dimple in his cheek.
But he wasn't smiling now. Energy thrummed off him as he glanced all around, barely looking at her. "So, are you okay?" he asked. "Of course."
He finally focused his attention on her. The power of those grass-green eyes almost knocked her flat. Intelligence lingered there… and something else. Something she couldn't pin down. His size signaled danger but his easygoing manner made her think geek. The guy was an enigma.
"Can I come in?" he asked.
"No." The answer was automatic. Forget her curiosity and the hint of attraction. The response was the right one.
Her grip tightened on the door. "It's late."
The frenzied moments faded as his eyebrow inched up. "I came over to make sure nothing had happened to you."
"And I'm fine, so we're good." She couldn't let him in—physically or emotionally. If he'd truly heard something, if danger lingered in the woods surrounding her unwanted adopted home, then she had to run. Dragging a computer nerd with her would only slow her down. And the rules were clear: travel alone and light.
"Okay." He wiped a hand through his thick hair. With one last look behind him, he leaned in, sending warm air across her cheek. "If you need me, yell."
"Fine. Yeah, I know. You said that already. Many times." He blew out a long breath. "Just promise me."
Gone was the harmless cutie who'd caught her eye and kept it by coming into the diner every afternoon while she was on duty. He ordered pie and coffee and tipped her twice the bill. He never varied the scene…or he hadn't until today. He'd always smiled and laughed, flirted and then left with a "well, I tried" mumble when she made it clear those efforts were going to waste.
That was then. Now his jaw clenched and his mouth flattened. The dimple disappeared the second she turned him down.
"I promise I'll scream if I need you." It was a little lie, so she didn't feel any guilt in telling it.
"Okay." He shifted but didn't leave. "I'll be close by." Sounded like a threat to her, so she shut the door in his face before he could say anything else. The locks clicked under her fingers as she studied him through the peephole and saw he continued to stand on her front porch.
He paced around as if fighting some internal battle. It took another few minutes for him to jog down the steps and head for his house.
The thudding of her heart took longer to slow. For the first time since he introduced himself, he scared her. Sent her mind racing in a hundred different directions at once. And this wasn't the first time today. He'd lingered at the diner this afternoon, being more flirty than usual. He'd acted as if…
A smile spread across her lips before she could fight it off. Now that she ran down the clues it all made sense. This wasn't about noises or concerns for her safety. The man was looking for a temporary bed partner.
She had to take responsibility for that. She'd given in and sat down in the booth with him for a few minutes today. For once, she'd returned the harmless flirting. That sweet smile of his had done it. His mouth had kicked up and she'd turned to mush. She'd always preferred bad boys—and look where that got her. Giving a hunky nerd some attention had felt right for a change.
Adam was more than two hundred pounds of sweet temptation, but the seduction stuff had to end. She couldn't afford ties and refused to trust anyone who just popped into her life out of thin air. Starting tomorrow, she'd build the wall back up between them and hit him with a flashing stop sign until he turned his attention somewhere else.
She felt a kick in her gut at the thought of him finding someone else to joke with, and the feeling had nothing to do with fear. It was more like regret. The same emotion she'd lived with her entire adult life. But she'd survived it before and she would figure out a way to handle it this time, too.
Adam Wright braced his back against the side of Mad-die's house and listened. It was about three-thirty in the morning and he'd been waiting under her window for more than an hour. He'd tried to get into the room the logical way—through the front door and with an invitation—but Maddie was having none of it. Not that Maddie was her real name. Of course, Wallace wasn't his, either.
The Recovery Project, the now-private investigation firm he worked for, had been tracking her for months. They found missing people and Maddie was more than missing. She was supposed to be dead. If he didn't work fast, she would be.
According to their intel, the attackers would come tonight. Adam had seen the men roll into town earlier that evening, obviously out of place in their suits and black sedan. Fitting in around this part of West Virginia required a dependable pickup and jeans. Adam knew because he had been working the fake identity for more than a month. He'd abandoned the contacts in favor of glasses, temporarily traded his condo in D.C. for a one-bedroom cabin in the middle of nowhere.
People in town knew him as the guy who did computer work. In reality, he was a deep undercover. A former government agent on a mission to find his missing boss and figure out what role Maddie played in the corruption within the Witness Security Program, WitSec. For now he would treat her as a potential victim and then make sure the "potential" never turned into a reality.
At a crouch, he walked around the back of the house and along the opposite side. The sensor lights she'd installed didn't click on because he'd disabled them. He'd spent a day wandering around in the dark, figuring out how to trigger her alarm and then another day learning how to get around it.
He used that knowledge now. He slipped a small metal box out of his pocket and held it to the wall next to the back door. The handheld computer lit up as it wirelessly hooked into her alarm and turned it off. The plastic key in his front pocket got him the rest of the way into her house.
The place was small and deadly dark. Not even the air moved. For a second he worried he'd waited too long, that she was already gone, but that wasn't possible. He'd been watching, just hoping someone would make a move on her so he could react.
The boredom of behind-the-desk surveillance was killing him slowly. A man could only eat so much diner pie before his gut messed up his shot. He enjoyed that part of his cover, but he couldn't afford to get soft. Or stupid.
But the days of lying around, watching out his window and checking in with his fellow Recovery Project agents long-distance were over. No more waiting. He was going to grab her and get her out of there.
Since all the cabins had been built long ago as temporary residences for forest service employees, the layout of this one mirrored his own. In a few steps he stopped at her bedroom door. When he didn't hear screaming or anything else, he turned the knob.
Without any sound, he stepped across the threshold, his eyes focusing on the rumpled bed. The empty bed.
Yelling and aiming a lamp for his skull, she launched her attack. She flew at him from the left side. She was all over him, scratching and kicking, screaming threats and promises of pain. She jumped on his back as her fists pounded against his shoulders.
The base of the lamp glanced off his upper back. The spot went numb, but he couldn't take a second to check it. He doubled over to throw her off balance. As her feet left the floor, his hands caught hers. He tried to fend off the blows without hurting her. He would if he had to. Hell, he'd knock her out if it came to that. He just hoped it didn't.
"Maddie, stop," he hissed at her.
"Get out!" Her hands smacked against the side of his head. She fought as though death was at her heels.
He spun her around and grabbed her from behind, locking her arms to her sides. The trapped position didn't stop her thrashing. She shifted and wiggled and made it nearly impossible to hold her still.
Someone had taught her to fight dirty. If Adam weren't so busy getting knocked around, he might have admired her effort. But he didn't have time for that now.
He grumbled in her ear. "They'll hear you."
The fighting ended as her body went still, as if the life was sucked right out of her. "What?"
Tension radiated off every muscle. "Who?"
"The two men making their way through the woods to get to you." He thought about easing up on his viselike grip but decided against it. This lady was no slacker. She would throw him through the window if she got the chance. "I have to get you out of here."
She looked over her shoulder, her sky-blue eyes wild. "You're a computer geek."
He ignored the slam since he'd heard it all the time. Hitting the gym every day didn't stop the perception. "You've been compromised. Your WitSec handler was dirty. He sold you out."
As fast as her anger rose, her face went blank. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Yeah, that was the party line. Denial. Adam got it, even understood the reason for the web of secrecy, but it worked against them right now. Pretending ignorance could get them killed.
"We don't have time for this." He lifted her off her feet and dragged her through the house toward the front door, which wasn't easy since she'd turned to dead weight in his arms.
"Stop talking." At her openmouthed stare, he softened his tone. "If they didn't hear all that screaming, we might still have a chance to get away." Something in his words kicked up a second round of attack. As they walked, she put her feet out, balancing them on either side of the doorway and bringing them to a shuddering stop.