It was happening again. Someone was following her.
Kenzie Reese wove through traffic along Interstate 35, putting as much distance as possible between herself and the blue Chevy. It was nearing rush hour on a Friday afternoon; soon the highways would be snarled with bumper-to-bumper traffic. If she was going to give the Chevy the slip, she had to do it now, while the roads were still manageable.
She first noticed the car ten minutes ago, when she stopped to pick up payment for a freelance photography job. The driver yielded to her as she exited the parking lot, so she offered a friendly wave of thanks. She paid the car little heed as they both entered the busy freeway. But when she changed lanes and noticed the Chevy following suit, an uneasy sensation shimmied down her spine.
Kenzie rolled her shoulders, shaking off the tension gathering there. It was coincidence, she told herself. No reason to think the driver of the sporty little Chevy had any ties to the Zaffino mafia or Bernard Franks or the now-defunct Modern Power; he was just another commuter, weaving his way through Austin traffic.
But three lane changes later, and the blue car was still only two vehicles behind. Kenzie jabbed the touchscreen on her dashboard and waited for her call to connect.
As always, she felt a brief stab of guilt when she used the feature on her new car. No disrespect to Myrtle, her faithful old ride damaged beyond repair in an accident two and a half months ago, but she already loved this new car. She especially appreciated the hands-free phone feature, even if it did make her look like she was talking to herself.
The analogy sent a shiver over her, reminding her of Bernard Franks and his ever-present earphones. The Press Secretary for U.S. Senator Harry Lawrence always appeared to be talking to himself, an amusing contrast to his neat persona of ultimate efficiency. He hadn’t looked so efficient, though, with the blood flowing frantically from his body, soaking the ground all around him and his neat pinstriped suit. At least the bullet hole Texas Ranger Travis Merka placed in the center of his forehead had been small and neat.
Travis. Her heart ached, just thinking of the tall, lanky man. He had stolen her heart nine weeks ago and had carried it away with him when he took a promotion in East Texas, four hours from Austin. Their romance - if it could even be called that - was over before it had a chance to properly begin.
Still, he was the first person she thought to call.
“Lieutenant Merka.” His deep voice filled her car and warmed her heart, despite the clipped tones of his barked greeting.
“Kenzie?” With just one word, she heard his mood range from pleased to worried. “Is something wrong?”
She glanced into her mirror; the car was still there. “Do the Rangers have someone watching me?” she asked. Travis had originally been assigned the duty, and followed her for weeks before she even knew it.
“You refused protection, remember?”
“Yes I remember. You don’t have to sound so snippy about it.” The man may have stolen her heart, but he had a unique way of irritating her. They spent most of their conversations arguing. Although, she had to admit, they had finally mastered the best part: making up.
“I’m a little busy here,” he practically growled. “Was there a reason why you asked?”
“Pardon me, I didn’t mean to interfere with your important new job.” Her words were cool. He had only called twice in the one week, five days, and six hours since he had been gone. Not that she was counting. This was the first and only time she had called him. “I won’t bother you again.”
She started to hang up, but she could hear him sigh on the other end of the line. She pictured him running his hand up the back of his neck, rubbing the neatly trimmed blond hair at his nape. He was weary; she could hear it in his voice. “I’m sorry, darlin’.” His voice softened, sliding over her like warm chocolate. “You’re not bothering me. And I’m sorry I haven’t called but twice since I’ve been gone. It’s been crazy here. But what’s wrong, darlin’? Why did you ask if Rangers were following you?”
“Because someone is. A blue Chevrolet.”
She heard his sharp intake of breath. “Did you get the license plate number?”
“No, he’s keeping a car between us for the most part.”
“Maybe he’s just going in the same direction you are,” he suggested.
“Don’t patronize me, Travis. I admit I never knew when you were following me, but I’ve finally got it down. I speed up, they speed up. I change lanes, they change lanes. The car is definitely following me.”
“Did you get a look at his face? Anyone you recognize?”
“Male, mid-thirties, dark hair.”
“You would notice,” he muttered beneath his breath.
“Don’t even start,” she bristled. He always accused her of being a flirt. Never mind that he was right.
“So where are you?”
“Southbound 35, about three exits away from my apartment.”
“Don’t go home,” he said sharply. “You should be near the Randolph exit. Can you get off?”
She glanced into the mirror, seeing a steady stream of cars behind her. “Maybe,” she said, but her tone was doubtful.
“There’s a police station just off the freeway on the left. I want you to go there. Go in and ask for Sergeant Phillips. He’ll help you.”
“I don’t need -”
“This is exactly why you should have gone into WITSEC.” He cut her off. “Right now, everyone still believes your father has the evidence. They still may try to get to him through you. No one realizes that we have the files. So until formal charges are made, you and Makenna may both be in danger.”
“How much longer, Travis? It’s already been two weeks,” she reminded him testily. The lane beside her was beginning to stall, but there was a small opening behind a panel van. If she squeezed her way in, the blue car would be forced to continue along in the current lane. With a little luck, she could scoot over one more lane and exit before the Chevy even knew what was happening.
“Captain Ramirez says two to three weeks at most. It’s a tricky business, charging top elected officials, a federal judge, members of the mafia, and a powerful millionaire with fraud and embezzling government funds for the past twenty-odd years. The hardest part is finding the right people to trust with the intel, who aren’t already on the payroll for the men we’re trying to take down. It just takes a little time, darlin’, but we’re getting there,” Travis assured her. Kenzie heard someone speak to him in the background, but she paid no attention to his muted response as she whipped into the tiny space behind the van. She cut off a car in the process, earning an angry blast of its horn. She was still learning the feel of her new brakes and came closer than intended to the bumper in front of her.
“So where’s the blue car now? Still behind you?” Travis asked.
Grinning triumphantly, Kenzie watched the blue Chevy breeze past her, forced to go with the flow of traffic. “So long, sucker!” She tossed the words in singsong as she bulldozed her way into the next lane, again amid protests of blaring horns and angry hand gestures.
“Kenzie? Why are all those horns honking?” Travis barked.
“Just a little Austin attitude.”
“Did you get off the freeway? Is the blue car still behind you? The police station isn’t far from there.”
“Don’t need ‘em now,” Kenzie said glibly, taking the exit and turning the opposite direction from the station. She knew a back way to wind around to the apartment she shared with her sister.
“What do you mean, you don’t need them? Go find Sergeant Phillips and tell him what’s going on.”
Kenzie grabbed an advertisement circular off her dashboard and began to crinkle it noisily. “Can you hear that?” she asked. “What is that noise?”
“Kenzie-” He was growling again. She heard someone call his name in the background, pulling him away from her. She felt the silence hum with indecision.
“I know you’re busy and everything is fine now, so I’ll let you go,” she said quickly. She wasn’t ready to find out how she fared in a tug-of-war against his new promotion. The truth might be too painful.
“I really do need to go,” he admitted reluctantly. “But I need to know you’re all right.”
“I’m fine. Honestly.” She put as much enthusiasm into her voice as she could muster.
“Kenzie, go find Sergeant Phillips,” he urged more softly.
“Sorry, got in the wrong lane and turned the opposite direction. But there’s no sign of the blue car, so I’m good.”
“At least call Hardin.”
“There’s no need to bother him now.”
Someone called Travis’s name again, this time more urgently. “Kenzie, let me call WITSEC.”
“No! I told you, I’m through with running. I moved enough in my childhood to last me three lifetimes. No Witness Protection.” Her voice was firm. They had argued over the same issue time and time again, and her answer never wavered.
“I’m just trying to get you through one lifetime, darlin’.” His voice slipped into a low, sensual ribbon that wove its way through her soul. The handsome Ranger was known for cheating during an argument; she would be in the middle of winning a perfectly good fight, all fired up and confident in her position, when he would slip in some tenderhearted sentiment that immediately rendered her helpless. It was a sucker-punch, delivered straight to the heart, and it worked every time. Even now.
“Kenzie, I need to know you’re safe,” he pleaded softly. “I’m too far away to keep an eye on you. It’s killing me, darlin’, knowing I can’t be there for you. Please, let me protect you the only way I know how. Let me get you into WITSEC.”
Kenzie drew in a deep breath, fighting the temptation to curl herself around the deep, warm timbre of his voice. Her foot must have slipped off the brake, because she slid slightly past the white line before making her turn. “No, Travis.” She forced her voice to come out strong and even. “You don’t get to say those things to me. No more cheating. You’re not here because you chose not to be here.”
“Is that what you think?” His tone was incredulous.
“Just stating the obvious.”
Activity buzzed in the background. “This argument isn’t over,” Travis muttered thickly.
“Yes it is. Sorry I interrupted you at work. It won’t happen again. Bye, Travis.”
“Gotta go. Need both hands on the wheel, after all.” He did not have to know she was using the hands-free feature. Beneath her breath, she grumbled, “You should know that. You’re the one who’s such a stickler for the rules.”
Travis and his rules! She fumed as she pressed the ‘end’ button. Wasn’t there a rule somewhere that said you couldn’t fall in love with someone who was your polar opposite? If there wasn’t such a rule, there should be. She was going to make one right now.
Unfortunately for her, Kenzie had always been a rule breaker.
It would make sense that she fell in love with someone like herself, someone outgoing and fun, someone with social aspirations. Someone like Craven Shaw, for instance. But no, her heart had gone and given itself to a solemn and staid lawman, a man she had nothing in common with. The only things they shared were bone-melting kisses and the crazy fact that somehow, they each filled an emptiness in the other’s soul. Their relationship had not gone further than the kisses, per more of his rules. Travis Merka’s life was dictated by a strict code of honor, a stiff set of decrees and imaginary lines that dared not be crossed; Kenzie made her own rules, followed self-taught morals the best she could, and viewed most lines of discipline as being arbitrary, at best.
“I hate rules,” she said aloud. “I hate cheaters. And most of all, I hate changes!” She crested one of Austin’s many hills as she sped her way home. Perched on the edge of the famed Texas Hill Country, many of the city streets were a series of crests and valleys. With her standard transmission, old Myrtle made driving them a real challenge, but her new car took the hills with ease. Okay, so this was one change she appreciated.
Traveling down a residential street with little traffic, Kenzie indulged in the thrill of sailing over the hill faster than the posted speed limit. It felt good to abandon all her cares and worries to the roller-coaster effect. Knowing her careless act would irritate Travis and defy his words of caution came as an added bonus, bringing a mischievous grin to her face.
Seeing an intersection up ahead, Kenzie curbed her adventurous spirit and pressed on the brake.
Nothing happened. Instead of slowing, her speed accelerated as she swooped down the hill. The stop sign was coming up much too quickly, and still nothing happened when she stomped on the brakes.
Kenzie tried pumping the petal, thinking it might be a new safety feature, but there was nothing safe about the speed with which she approached the intersection. She could only beep her horn and pray no one was coming as she sped past the stop sign.
She made it through the intersection with no complications, but there was another car up ahead. At least it was in the other lane. The approaching knoll would slow her speed somewhat, but Kenzie knew what was on the other side; the road became a series of meager hills and steady dips, each declining more steeply than the last, as the thoroughfare narrowed and flowed down into a low-lying lakeside suburb.
Kenzie shifted into low gear, vaguely wondering if it would damage her transmission. Of course, if she crashed, it wouldn’t matter anyway. She belatedly recognized the warning signs she had ignored earlier, but who would suspect brake failure on a brand-new vehicle? More than likely, someone had tampered with them. Someone in a blue Chevy, perhaps?
Kenzie knew she was still going too fast to pull the emergency brake; doing so would probably cause her to lose control and go into a skid. She steered over to the curb, hoping she could rub her wheels along the cement to slow her speed. It made a slight difference, but not enough to stop her momentum going up and over the crest of the knoll. For a breath-stealing second, her car was airborne, flying over the pavement before hitting with a vengeance. Kenzie hung on to the steering wheel as her head hit the roof. She was practically standing on the brake petal.
A young mother and child were crossing the street up ahead. Kenzie began praying frantically, something that came surprisingly easy for someone not accustomed to doing such. She honked her horn and rolled down her window, yelling for the mother to get out of her way. As the mother fled back across the street, Kenzie tried to use another curb for deceleration. Another slight crest and she was going downhill again, picking up speed rather than decelerating.
The road curved to the right in front of her. Taking a calculated risk, Kenzie kept her wheels straight, running over the sidewalk and across the manicured lawn of a three storied home. She was in one of the city’s ritzier neighborhoods, so few vehicles parked along the street, most of them tucked inside their multi-car garages or still with their owners at the office. Kenzie plowed through a beautiful rose garden, bumped her way across a cobble stone driveway into the neighbor’s yard, knocked over a lawn statue, raided another colorful flowerbed, bounced over the smooth grass carpet of a third yard, and entered back into the street as the road curved back toward the left. She sailed right in front of an oncoming car, narrowly missing its bumper. Her tires jumped the curb on her right, plundered through a prolific bed of pansies and cosmos, and headed for a landscaped yard that would make any gardener proud. As Kenzie thumped her way over the tops of neatly trimmed boxwood and colorful hydrangeas, she recognized the yard as one she had photographed for the city’s Garden Club Magazine a few years ago. She glanced briefly in her rear-view mirror at the destruction behind her. Oops.
Her speed was finally beginning to decelerate, thanks to the dense lawns and copious flowerbeds she furrowed through, but she was still traveling forward on momentum. Shouting an apology through the opened window, Kenzie rammed into a lovely white arbor. Wood splintered all around her and a riot of colorful blooms took a free ride on the hood of her car as she careened into the neighboring yard, as the road curved yet again. Rustic stone steps, edged with colorful plants and low shrubs, climbed their way up to a magnificent house with a view, but Kenzie could think of only one thing; a yard that steep had to be sitting on the crest of another hill. And where there was a crest, there was a fall.
Determined not to take the next fall, Kenzie aimed her car for the steps. Between the shrubs and the stone, her momentum took a direct hit, but her car bounced away and headed down the slope of the yard. This time, Kenzie targeted the sole tree in the yard, a large live oak that would undoubtedly put an end to her horrific journey.
She crashed into the tree hard enough to deploy her airbags and jar every bone in her body. Dazed, Kenzie slumped in her seat, staring blankly at her crumbled hood as steam billowed out from beneath. She heard sirens in the distance, was vaguely aware of people pouring out into their yards and surveying her path of destruction, but she was too numb with shock to move. Relief washed over her, making her limbs weak and her body tremble.
Someone opened her door and spoke to her. Kenzie nodded that she was all right, groped along the seat for her purse, and used what little energy she could summon to crawl from her wrecked vehicle and collapse promptly on the bed of grass.