Author: UTsSQ

Rated: M/MA

Genre: Horror/Drama/Comedy




He just needed to stop for a minute, to stretch his legs and get his bearings.


He was nearing on two full days with no sleep, little rest, and hardly enough food to keep him going. He’d been living on coffee pretty much, and given that his eyes were starting to feel like sandpaper when he blinked he would be paying for it for the next few days unless he forced himself to take a break.


It was hard though. Hard because he knew he was close. If he stopped even to sleep for a couple of hours that was a couple of hours he’d have to make up at some point. That was also assuming that he would have a chance to make up the hours.


Mark didn’t think he’d ever been closer, that was the real hell of it. He could sense it. Hell he could practically smell it. One way or the other, soon it would all be over. That the was thought that kept him moving, kept driving him on even though he had reached the point of being so tired it was a struggle to blink without dozing off.


The cold rain helped. He’d pulled into the deserted rest stop along an equally deserted stretch of highway, stepped out of his truck, and had rolled his shoulders against the ache that had settled into the center of his back. The rain soaked him – it had been coming down steadily since midnight and showed no signs of letting up. In fact, the few times he’d snapped on the radio he’d heard reports that it was changing to snow in some areas. He believed it, watching as his breath puffed out in white vapor in the cold air. He had a jacket in the truck but he didn’t bother with it. The cold rain might make him sick, but it would also wake him up a bit.


He paced the small rest stop, pausing to look over a faded map that hung behind a protective cover, trying to clear his head and figure out where he was going to go next. It wasn’t a matter of wanting to go. It was a need, a compulsion; something inside him that would not let him stop. This would be the third one in eight years, and he still had no idea why he was compelled to chase these…things.


Mark forced the thought out of his mind and took in a deep breath of cold air, blowing it out with a groan. Eventually he would have to stop and rest, and probably very soon. He wasn’t a kid – these marathon sessions driving down dark highways trying to sense…or being led to…these things was starting to wear him down. He was getting tired much sooner than he had been before, and the caffeine in his coffee couldn’t keep up.


This one was turning out to be a lot more difficult than the others. Mark had missed it by mere hours, which in turn only aggravated him. Maybe being tired also played in to that, he wasn’t sure. He just knew that he had to do something, and soon, before the lack of sleep and the constant urge to move drove him insane.


He didn’t like to dwell on it. Thinking about ‘why’ was counterproductive and usually led to him losing even more time. It was best to just do what had to be done and then move on, and enjoy whatever peace he got until the next time. He dragged a hand over his face, wiping cold rain from his eyes, rubbing tiredly at his pounding temples.


Headlights cut through the rain, making him lift an eyebrow. So much for deserted. It wasn’t the thing he was after – that would be way too easy.


Instead it was a woman who climbed out of a Jeep Wrangler. She didn’t seem to care that the rain was soaking her as she walked toward the small building that constituted the restrooms. She was talking on a cell phone and hardly spared Mark a glance. That was a good thing. He could only imagine that he looked like hell, and probably wouldn’t have been a comforting sight to a female traveling alone in the middle of the night.


“…and I told you I would be there when I got there.” The woman’s voice drifted to him over the sound of the falling rain. Mark felt his lips twitch in a bit of a smirk. The tone of her voice said the woman was tired of talking to whoever was on the phone, and she was about 3 seconds shy of just hanging up and blaming the weather. He was perceptive. He could pick that up in less than a sentence.


The door to the rest area swung shut, muffling any other comments the woman made. Too bad really, because it was a distraction from being tired and he could use it. Rather than skulk around the rest area trying to eavesdrop, Mark headed back to his truck and slid behind the wheel. Already he could feel the pressure to move coming back. Sleep would be a long way off.


It was stronger than it had been, though. Almost as if the thing he were chasing were heading directly for him. Mark had no better way to explain it. He spared the woman’s Jeep another glance, frown of concentration on his face. Not this one. But someone, and someone soon, would have a brush with the thing he was after. He doubted that he would be in time to stop it. But maybe he’d be able to get closer, close enough to stop it before the next one. Or the one after that.


He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to focus on the horrible rushing feeling that seemed to pour through him, unable to pinpoint where it was coming from. It was everywhere. Mark opened his eyes and muttered a curse. He was close, so damned close, but probably not close enough. Resigned, he started the engine and backed out of the parking space, concentrating only on the crawling sensation that began at the back of his neck.




Of course she had to slow down when her sister called for the millionth time. Harper debated, only for a moment, and answered. If she didn’t her sister would just keep calling. And calling. And calling.


It wasn’t enough that Harper was on her way back. She wasn’t getting there fast enough to suit her older sister. In fact, if she had lived next door and walked instead of jogged, she was pretty sure Colleen would have found a reason to bitch about it.


And why was she driving all the way across the country at her sister’s whim? Because Colleen’s father had died. Not Harper’s dad, that lowlife was in Vegas with wife number 4. Or 5. Harper had ceased to care after the third one. Colleen’s father had been the original, loaded beyond measure, a prolific womanizer who had kicked their mother out about eight seconds after giving birth to Colleen.


Harper was ten when her mother passed away. She had lived – very briefly – with her father and wife number 2. Number 2 had been an airhead, a blonde socialite whose biggest goal in life had been to find a plastic surgeon who could freeze her age at 25. Harper’s father was a plastic surgeon but even he was not a miracle worker.


Harper’s problem was that she had something of an acid tongue concerning her father – who her mother often referred to as sperm donor number 2 – and his bimbo of the month club. Even if said bimbo were technically married to him. But her dad had nowhere to send her, except for maybe private school, and Harper had run away repeatedly until he finally threw up his hands in defeat and had called Colleen.


Colleen was nineteen years older than Harper. And every inch her father’s daughter. She was cold-hearted, with a bank vault where her heart should have been. She took guardianship of Harper and was unaffected by Harper’s sharp tongue or threats of running away. In fact she’d hired a sort of babysitter/bodyguard whose job was mainly to keep tabs on Harper 24/7. If she had to use the bathroom, Colleen probably got a full report. It wouldn’t have surprised Harper if she found out Colleen had been having her secretly drug tested. Or even drugged to keep her docile.


The fact that Colleen’s father, Daniel, absolutely hated Harper was not glossed over either. Colleen seemed to take a perverse sort of satisfaction in his anger. Harper was stuck until she turned eighteen. Then she’d taken the money her mother had left her (kept in a trust fund of course, something they liked to hold over her head) and she’d taken off, putting as much distance between herself and her “family”, for lack of a better way of describing them.


And she’d done all right. She was co-owner of a successful bakery and catering company. She had a nice house, a few close friends, and peace and quiet. And then this. Colleen’s insistence that Harper be there for Daniel’s funeral after not hearing from her for…two years? Harper had to think back to find the last time they’d spoken. Colleen had threatened her the last time – but damned if she could remember what the argument had been about. Harper didn’t really care.


Yet here she was. To shut the bitch up she was on her way to the funeral of a man she was tempted to dance on the grave of. Harper thought she might do that anyway. She had thought she’d put all her hatred behind her but it was still there, as fresh and bright as it had been when she’d been forced by court order to stay with her sister until she reached legal adulthood.


The real reason was that Colleen was the head of her father’s company now and had to put on the same mask her father had worn to appease investors. Family-oriented and stable. Oh yeah, Harper had been used to being trotted out as Daniel’s sort of charity in progress, the bastard child of the whore wife who had left him because she had been in the midst of post-partum depression. The back story was meant to establish Daniel and Colleen as giving, loving family types. Harper was fairly certain that Daniel had made a habit out of killing small animals as a child, and Colleen had glass and nails where her uterus should have been.


Colleen was currently griping about Harper’s chosen form of transportation. A plane would have been much faster, of course. But faster to what end? Spending an extra 2 days in the company of a bitch who she was only attached to by the grace of genetics? A bitch she honestly could not stand? No thanks. Driving, Harper could stop and rest once and get there with a few hours to spare before the festivities…er…funeral.  She had no urge to trot herself out along behind her sister for a press conference, or an investor’s conference, or a shareholder’s meeting, or whatever it was Colleen had planned.


To be perfectly honest the only reason she was going had nothing to do with Colleen or even the opportunity to dance on the grave of a subhuman asshole; it had everything to do with her best friend, business partner, and sometime boyfriend Jack. Ok…boyfriend was pushing it. Friend with benefits, that was more like it. They had been exclusive for a couple of years but when he’d pushed for something more permanent she had backed off. Jack had been hurt for a while but they were good together at work, good together as friends. Neither could walk away. There had been other relationships but they were always there for each other, as strange as it seemed to other people who knew their situation.


He’d encouraged this trip. ‘Closure’, he’d called it. Harper wasn’t sure what sort of closure she was going after, unless it was to restate to her sister that she thought the older woman was a world class frigid bitch with a black hole for a soul. At this point it would only be repeating something Harper was sure she’d made clear over the years.


So she was really only listening to Colleen’s griping with half an ear when she pulled into the rest area and parked. Harper didn’t even care she was getting rained on. In fact a spiteful part of her hoped water would seep into the phone and kill it, but no. Colleen droned on and on about Harper’s “responsibility to her family” and “putting on a good public showing”, two things which seemed as foreign to each other as oil and water.


The deserted rest area wasn’t so deserted after all. There was a guy there, a very large guy. He looked exhausted. Harper could commiserate but at that hour of the morning it probably wouldn’t have been one of her brighter ideas. Instead she concluded her conversation by rudely cutting off Colleen’s voice in mid-squawk, then shut her phone off and tucked it in her pocket. She paused long enough to push her dark hair back from her face, wincing at the cold water that dripped on her skin, and peered into one of the mirrors that lined the back wall.


With a sigh she went into the stall and used the restroom before stepping out and scrubbing her hands. She had consulted her written directions at her last stop – she knew her next stop would be nearly100 miles down the road in a small town. She would refill her gas tank, get some strong black coffee, and continue driving. She was a night owl by nature, not bothered by driving in the cruddy weather. Even with the threat of black ice and snow as she headed west, Harper was confident in her ability to get there in one piece. She would stop in the morning, around sunrise, and find a motel to get a few hours sleep. Four hours, tops, and she’d be on the road yet again. She had patterns, and she knew how they worked.


She headed back outside and let the cold rain hit her full in the face for a moment before heading back to her Jeep. The guy and the only other vehicle that had been parked in front of the rest stop were gone. For his sake, Harper hoped he didn’t have far to go before he reached his destination. She dug her key out and climbed into her Jeep to get back to her own journey.




She didn’t even get to pull out onto the highway. Harper accelerated and was beginning to merge left when bright headlights cut through the rain and a low-slung car – possibly a Mustang, it was too dark to really get a look at it – flew by doing well above the posted speed limit of 65. Well above safe traveling speed for the road conditions as well. The car spit up a fan of dirty highway grit filled water and Harper cursed when she heard rocks pinging off the side of her Jeep.


She hated people who couldn’t drive. It was a pet peeve of hers, something she had apparently been born with. Ever since her first driver’s ed class she’d had no patience for anyone who mishandled themselves on the road. Now she could admit that she had a bit of a lead-foot on occasion, and she loved to speed. If it weren’t pissing rain and getting colder, she’d probably be coasting along at 90 miles per hour herself. Especially on a deserted stretch of road. But in a sports car meant to impress 20-something girls? Not in this weather.


Muttering she cranked her windshield wipers on to the highest setting and picked up speed, settling comfortably on five miles over the posted limit. Until it snowed…or her Jeep slid…she was perfectly happy moseying along at her own pace. The sports car’s taillights shrank in the distance and disappeared over a rise. Good riddance.


She punched the radio on and scanned, getting nothing but a bunch of talk shows and country music. Ugh. She should have plugged her MP3 player in but she’d been annoyed at Colleen and now she didn’t want to dig through her bag for it. She listened to a weather report – nothing had changed – before shutting the radio off. She would just have to entertain herself until she reached her destination.


Harper was pretty good at that anyway. Growing up as she did, she developed a pretty decent imagination. And most of it was focused on hearing the details of Colleen’s miserable father’s miserable death. Her sister hadn’t been too forthcoming with the details, saying only he had passed. Had it been a heart attack in his sleep? He was the type, all wound up and carrying fifty pounds of extra weight. Add that on top of his high stress job running a company and eating his weight in fatty foods every day probably wouldn’t help. Oh but that would be too simple for Daniel. Harper was not a vicious person but she found herself hoping it had been a little more involved than that. Like…maybe he’d had a massive coronary in the middle of a board meeting, flailing and knocking over a bunch of middle-aged rich assholes as he went down face first onto the floor. Or even better maybe he was killed in a drunken rage by one of the many, many women he’d left in his wake over the years. That actually would have made Harper happier – it would also be hard to keep a straight face at his funeral. The man had been so intent on keeping up appearances as a stallion that he had used Viagra since it was introduced. Harper might have been young but she could read a bottle. And Daniel had been especially pissed off when he had discovered she had found out about it.


It still made her laugh. It was so random, the great and powerful Daniel Richards needing medical enhancement to get a hard-on, all so he could bang whichever 22 year old idiot that was too impressed by his name to notice that he was using her like a 2 dollar hooker. Colleen was no better. She had inherited their mother’s platinum blonde hair and dark chocolate eyes, making her look the part of beautiful ice princess, but Harper had long harbored the notion that her sister preferred females just as much as Daniel had. She probably used them in much the same way, although given the nature of their investors and the ages of the men involved, Colleen was forced to keep her sexual preference quiet. At least until Daniel died. She would step up as head of his company, just as he’d groomed her, and she could do whatever she wanted with it. Including turning the boardroom into a strip club if she so chose.


Harper didn’t care. She didn’t give one single, solitary fuck about the “family” business. She had her own business and she loved it. Nothing made her happier than standing in the big industrial kitchen, starting with a stack of ingredients, and making something that was beautiful and delicious. Jack did the heavy cooking, she did the baking and cake decorating. It worked out because they worked well together. And since it was a labor of love for both of them, they did not have to charge huge prices – they were affordable, but most of all they were good. Word of mouth got them bigger jobs, and now they employed sixty full time helpers. It had been lucrative from the start, and the expansions had happened with an ease that had been almost uncanny, even in an unstable economy.


Of course being happy meant paying a price. Colleen hated that Harper was making it on her own. Actually Colleen just hated Harper, for reasons that Harper never really understood. The feeling was definitely mutual though. Hate maybe was not a strong enough word for what Harper felt when she thought about her sister. She had yet to come up with one that was more suitable.


Harper almost didn’t see the car. It was dark, it was pouring rain, she was lost in thought. But the idiot in the Mustang had stopped in the middle of the road, and her reflexes were good enough that she braked as soon as her headlights glinted off the chrome bumper at the rear. It had been fifteen minutes or so since it had passed her at the rest area, and now it was parked blocking the two lanes of road, engine running, driver’s door standing open. Harper brought the Jeep to a halt with a curse, slamming on the parking brake before climbing out, stopping to actually flick on her emergency flashers.


In the glow of her headlights, she could see that something had happened. There were fresh black marks on the pavement. Even over the rain she could smell melted rubber. A low metal guardrail lined the right side of the road, where there was a mild slope down into some state-owned forest land, was torn, twisted, and missed quite a few pieces. Harper glanced at the Mustang once more, shook her head, and hurried to the side of the road to try to see what had happened. Even though it was dark and her headlights barely cut through the heavy curtain of rain, she could see a trail of twisted metal. At the bottom of the slope was a dark truck, the front end crumpled after an apparent impact with a huge old pine tree at the edge of the woods. One light was on…it was canted at an upward angle though, highlighting falling rain. The doors of the truck were open as well. Someone was standing on the driver’s side but it was too dark to see if they were hurt.


She started to fumble her cell phone out of her pocket, intent on calling for help, when a pop followed by a whining ring had her ducking her head. Harper didn’t try to kid herself – that was a gun shot. It happed again and the metal guardrail to her left pinged hollowly as a bullet struck it. She stumbled backward, trying to find her footing and yank her cell phone out at the same time.




When it happened, it happened fast.


Mark knew this area, and knew he had at least an hour’s drive ahead of him to get to the nearest wide spot in the road where he might be able to catch a bit of a rest. He settled down to do it, finding the energy to keep going somewhere inside him. Hell it was driving. It was easy.


At least it was until the car came up behind him. He neither saw nor heard it – the rain covered the approach and the engine noise. The driver didn’t have his lights on. Mark was alone and suddenly the cab of his truck was filled with the bright white light of high beams. After the near solid darkness, he was effectively blinded by the pulse of light from all of his mirrors. He winced and instinctively tapped the breaks. At the same time something slammed into the truck from behind and a bit to the side. The car had hit the back quarter of his truck, starting him on a slide on the wet pavement.


Tires barked against the road as he tried without luck to wrestle the truck through the skid. He might as well have just saved his energy, the tires could not find much on the wet road to grip and he was thrown against the guardrail doing better than fifty miles per hour. His stomach lurched as the truck bounced down the hill, and Mark had a brief moment of clear, complete recall – a roller coaster ride when he had been ten or eleven years old, that feeling of going over the first big drop when his stomach felt as if it had been left behind the rest of his body. Then everything slammed forward as the truck rushed down the hill and into the trees.


Tree. He mentally corrected himself even as he tried to brace for the impact. He grabbed the wheel and twisted it, trying to angle the truck so that most of the impact would be on the passenger side. It hardly budged but it was enough so that he didn’t end up with the engine sitting in his lap or the steering wheel through his chest. He came up off his seat though, feeling the seatbelt lock around him and bite in but not before he cracked his shoulder against the steering wheel bringing a bright flash of agonizing pain. 


He managed to pull himself upright, but it took a few minutes that felt like at least an hour. By the time Mark tried to reach for the door handle, concentrating to move his left arm against the pain that shot down from his bruised shoulder, the door was already opening. He was blinded again, this time by wind-whipped rain blowing in his face. But he knew who it was.


“You’ve made this way too easy.” A deep voice spoke from inches away. Mark tried to blink water out of his eyes and brought up his right hand, the one that still cooperated, to clear his vision. The first thing he saw was a gun. It was pointed squarely at his face, the barrel looking to be as big as a cannon.


Mark tried, weakly, to reach out and grab the guy’s arm. His left arm refused to move. Stupidly he wondered if he had dislocated his shoulder – which struck him as morbidly funny considering that this thing in front of him was seconds away from killing him off and ending his random thoughts.


That was when the guy got distracted. Mark got his first good look at the guy’s profile. He was big. Maybe Mark’s size. He had a scruff of facial hair and was wearing dark clothes. His hair was on the short side. That was all he got because the rain blew in his face again.


“Oh. A good Samaritan.” The guy said in a low tone that dripped with a mix of hatred and something else. “A pretty one too.” The guy reached into the truck and wrapped his hand over Mark’s throat, pushing him until he was leaning back against the seat. With his other hand he aimed the gun up the slope. “The dark haired ones aren’t really my flavor but I can make an exception. I’ll have all the time in the world when I’m done with you.” The guy snickered. “Unless you wanna watch? Is that why you’ve been following me? Maybe hoping to catch me in the act?”


He didn’t give Mark a chance to answer. He was squeezing his throat. Mark groped at his hand feebly, using his right hand, getting a grip but unable to do more than give himself half an inch to suck in a breath. He couldn’t see, couldn’t turn his head and look up the slope but he knew without having to look that the person at the top of the hill, on the road, had to be the woman from the rest stop. The one with the snappy mouth that had been giving someone hell on the phone.


The guy sneered and shook his head. “You I should deal with first. But…” He fired his gun up the slope, making Mark flinch, gaining a little more breathing room.


“Stop…” Mark managed to gasp out in a hoarse voice. The guy didn’t hear over his own laugh and the heavy rain.


“Stupid bitch.” He fired again, this time laughing aloud. “Got her. Hopefully didn’t kill her. It’s a lot more fun to chase them when they’re injured. They try so much harder to get away. You…” He renewed his grip on Mark’s throat. “Are just in my way.” He brought his gun up and touched Mark’s forehead. He felt the heat of the metal against his skin where it had been fired and tried to pull back but the guy held him still. “You people are supposed to be so much smarter than this.” The guy said, cocking the gun.


Mark resigned himself to it. The lack of sleep plus the impact of hitting the tree…he was loopy as hell, and couldn’t seem to gather the strength to fight the guy off.


He shut his eyes and waited. And when the gunshot came it sounded distant. There was no pain. But suddenly he could breathe again as the guy jerked his hand away from Mark’s throat.


It took a moment for Mark to realize that he had not been shot. Instead the guy who he had been following howled in pain. Another pop sounded from behind his truck, then another. The guy staggered backward, went down on one knee, cursed as yet another shot rang out, then turned and disappeared into the trees in front of the truck. There was one more shot, this one much closer, but Mark hardly paid it any attention. He fumbled for the latch of his seatbelt, got it opened, and fell out of his truck onto the muddy ground.


“Holy shit. Are you all right?”


He had been right. It was the woman from the rest area. She was soaked, dark hair plastered to her neck, black t-shirt sticking to her like a second skin. She should have looked like a drowned rat. Instead she looked extremely pissed off and ready to take more pot shots at the guy who had been standing by Mark’s truck. She had a gun in her hand, a deadly looking black metal .45 semi-auto. No wonder the guy had run off.


“Hurt my arm I think.” Mark struggled to push himself up to his feet, felt her step against his side, and let her push him up until he had the truck supporting his back, his left arm cradled against his stomach.


“Then we’d better get you some help.” But he heard in her voice a kind of hesitation.




He didn’t have to ask. Not really. Even with so little light coming from the one remaining headlight of his truck he could see that the woman wanted to follow the guy who had shot at her. Maybe wanted to put a bullet up his ass for daring to shoot at her. The thought damn near made him smile.


“Or go hunting.” She didn’t try to deny it. Instead she frowned and looked around. “I hit him. Twenty yards, clear shot? Yeah I got that fucker. But he just ran off. How the fuck did he manage that?”


“Bullet-proof vest?” Mark asked, all innocence.


“My ass.” The woman looked around again. “Can you walk?”

“Do I have a choice?”


“You can sit your ass here and freeze to death. That cocksucker made me drop my phone up there. It’s a way to go to call for help.”


“I can walk.” Mark didn’t argue with her over it. He would baby his arm and get up the slope. He could figure out what came next after that.




He did manage the slope. The woman helped as much as she could, letting him lean on her when the going got slippery. But mostly she kept a wary eye behind them. She didn’t rush him but she didn’t need to. Mark didn’t need to be reminded how much danger they were in.


Once they were at the top of the hill, everything went gray for a moment.


“Don’t you dare fucking pass out on me.” The woman said, peering at him through the falling rain. Mark shook his head, not wanting to risk trying to answer. He wasn’t going to pass out, he’d never passed out in his entire life. She took no chances, hustling him toward the passenger seat of her idling Jeep. She even peered into the backseat, something that might have struck him as funny if circumstances were different. Instead he could only sigh in relief when she opened the door and helped him inside, pausing long enough to loop the seatbelt over him and snap it into place so he wouldn’t have to tangled with it.


“Sit tight.” She said that as if he had a choice. Mark frowned and watched through the rain streaked windshield as she approached the parked Mustang. He knew he should stop her, she was taking a risk especially since she had no clue what she was up against. But she surprised him. Instead of peeking into the car doors or windows, she aimed her gun and shot out the front tires, then the back. The gunshots were loud even over the sound of rain hitting the pavement and the soft rumble of the Jeep’s engine. She shot one more time, probably out of anger, into the hood. Mark let his head fall back against the seat and smiled to himself as she finally approached and slid behind the wheel. She tossed something onto the center console and Mark glanced at it in confusion before realizing it was her broken cell phone.


She didn’t say a word at first, she merely threw the Jeep into gear and went around the Mustang, cutting into the wet grass of the median to manage it. The Jeep’s big tires chewed up the ground and found purchase. In a moment they were back on smooth pavement. She quickly accelerated, glancing at him from time to time. Mark watched all of this through a hazy semi-doze. Not a faint. He’d not admit to a faint in a million years.


“So who did you piss off?” She finally asked, breaking the silence. He watched the way her eyes went from the road, to the rearview mirror, to the road, then to him and was satisfied she actually knew what she was doing.


“I don’t know his name.”


“Oh yeah? Just a random road crazy? That asshole almost ran me down when I pulled out of the rest area. I knew something idiotic was going to happen.”


“He’s crazy all right. Not random but crazy.” Mark muttered softly. The pain in his shoulder had gone down to a dull throb. “Got any aspirin?”

“Maybe. In the glove box.”


Mark nodded and very carefully reached out with his right hand. He thumbed open the glove box and shuffled through a small stack of papers before he found the bottle of pills. He popped the top and dry swallowed three of them before tucking the bottle back into the glove box.




“Believe me, the less you know the better.” Mark knew she would not let it drop.


“Dude, I just shot a guy several times. If there was ever a time I should be allowed to have some information I would think this would be it.”


Resigned he once more let his head fall back and willed the aspirin to start working, at least to get rid of some of the soreness that was settling in to his shoulder. “All right. I don’t know his name. I just know that he’s been driving. A lot. And killing a lot of women.”


The woman let that sink in. “And you’re what? Some kind of vigilante or something?” The tone of her voice told him that she found the idea ludicrous.


“Or something.” Mark resettled his arm with a hiss. “It’s hard to explain. I’ve been living with it and I can’t fucking explain it to myself.”


“Try me.”


“You won’t believe me.”


She took her eyes off the road. “Try me.” She repeated it.


“Ten years ago my wife got murdered on her way home from work one night. She was a nurse. Worked a double shift, got a flat tire just outside of town. She called home but I didn’t hear the phone. I was pulling extra hours myself. We were saving up…” He trailed off but shook his head. “That part doesn’t matter. Somebody stopped and offered her a ride. She ended up dead in a field almost forty miles away.” It was hard to bring himself to say the words. He had never spoken out loud about what had happened, not after the police interviews. Nothing ever came of it. They had no evidence. But talking about it was like opening old wounds which Mark would have preferred remained scarred over. “Cops couldn’t do shit about it. The case went cold. It was a couple of years later I saw a story in the newspaper. Similar circumstance…a woman with car trouble, middle of the night, middle of nowhere. Killed and dumped out in the open so she’d be found. That one had an ex-husband that had threatened her, he even confessed to her murder but…I didn’t believe it. I think he was just unstable.”


Mark stopped talking and looked out the window, watching as the wind blew the rain in patterns against the glass. “I started researching. It was like…an obsession…I guess. I quit my job. I quit everything. Every time I found a story like what happened to my wife, I went to the place it happened and did my own investigation. Eventually I found the pattern. The guy was driving, repeating the same thing over and over. Always between the first and seventh of the month. That was the first thing. The second was…”


He was silent again. He was quiet for so long that she took her eyes from the road again to look at him. “The second?” She prompted.


“All the victims were pregnant. None more than four months along.”


He glanced at her and watched as she processed that. “So your wife…”




“I’m sorry.”


All the anger was gone from her voice. She sounded genuinely sorry, which in turn only made him want to find the guy who did it and deal with him all over again.


“Thanks.” He said it in a hoarse voice. He cleared his throat. “The real pattern was in the driving though. West, then east, south, then north…it made no sense until you actually looked at all the murders and saw that he was sticking to specific roads, specific towns. Almost alphabetical. He would kill one every month for four or five months, then stop for a few months. I tracked him. I eventually caught up to him. Almost on accident. I knew the town he’d be in, I knew the timing was right. I stopped at a bar for a beer before bunking down for the night and there was this guy there. Looked normal, acted normal. But something about was like realizing a person was wearing a really good mask. I followed him. I watched him stalk a couple of women until he picked one.”


“And then?”


“I killed him.” Mark stated it bluntly. He flexed his hands, wincing at the pain in his left arm but noting that it was fading. That was good. “I strangled him with my bare hands in the parking lot of a roadhouse. The woman he was following was named Ellie. She was a waitress, three months pregnant. Had a 3 year old little boy at home too. Husband was a long-haul trucker. Her car broke down a few miles from the bar where she worked. Turned out that she was missing a pin from the valve in her tire. Gave her a slow flat. That’s how he got them. He tinkered with their cars so they’d break down then he’d come to the rescue.”


“And you got away with it? Killing him?”


Mark snorted without humor. “Cops don’t care. They cared because it created a mess at first but then people would forget. I never forgot.”


“What are you not telling me?” The woman glanced at him again.


He ignored that. His arm felt better anyway. The grayness was leaving his mind. He was getting his second, or third, wind. “Lady, I’m glad that you showed up when you did back there but you can just drop me off at the next town. Or sooner if you want. I don’t care. You shouldn’t be around me. I’m like a…a…” He struggled for the word. “A curse I guess. He might go after you for helping me.”


“He might come after me for shooting him.” She said. “I hit him. Several times. So unless he’s some crazed psycho killer out of a horror movie, how did he manage to run off?”


Mark could only shake his head. He did not know. Unless her aim hadn’t been as good as she claimed.


“I at least have to report this to the cops. I can leave your name out of it…” It was her turn to snort a laugh, more sarcastic than his had been. “Not that I know your name. But my gun is registered and I popped holes in his penis extension car back there.”


“The cops won’t do shit. It’s like they don’t see it.” Mark muttered, more to himself than to her. But she heard. Her speed had steadily decreased as he’d talked. Now they were drifting along at a steady 30 miles per hour.


“How the fuck could they miss bullet holes?”


Mark shook his head. How much could he really explain without sounding crazier than he already did? “If the guy isn’t dead…and he’s not. Trust me. He’s not. He’s already moved his car. Probably shoved it off the road. For all I know he was packing enough spare tires to replace the ones you shot out. My truck? Maybe it would run long enough to drive it further into the woods. A little gas, a couple of piles of paper or rags…easy enough to burn it out. He picked this road because it’s hardly ever used. State cops wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole. Local cops are non-existent. If there’s a competent sheriff or deputy in shouting distance, he’d have steered clear. But he tried this shit here. Means he was probably going to pick his next victim from close by.” He trailed off. He was tired again. Mark couldn’t remember the last time he’d talked so much. Before his wife had died? Or right after, when the cops had been so intent on interviewing him every 30 minutes, implying he had something to do with her death?


“The way you talk, it’s like you’re after the same guy.” She said softly.


“I am. Kind of. The body changes. Everything else stays the same.” There. That was the real craziness, the part of the story that even to him sounded like he was as dangerous or messed up as the thing that was killing those women. “You want me to get out now?” He finally asked when she said nothing to that revelation.


Instead of answering, she had picked up speed again. She glanced at him once more, expression unreadable. “Let’s get you checked out. We’ll start there then figure out the rest later.”


He could not argue with that. The woman was keeping a watchful eye on the road behind them, and the sound of the rain accompanied by all the various aches and pains he was feeling left him feeling more than sleepy. “Mark.” He muttered it.


“What?” The woman had been lost in thought and his voice had caught her attention.


“My name. Mark.”


“Ok. Take a nap, Mark. I’ll wake you up when we get there.” She reached over and gave his arm a careful pat so as not to jar it, which under other circumstances might have struck him as funny. Instead of laughing he yawned and shut his eyes, hoping that he’d get just thirty minutes of sleep. That would be all he needed to recharge his battery just a little bit until he could get to somewhere safe. It struck him as he dozed off that he hadn’t bothered to ask her name but he was sleeping before he could really form the question.




Harper glanced at the guy beside her from time to time but mostly kept her attention on the road. She did reach out and crank the heat up to high, shivering as the rain dried on her skin. She was still in shock she supposed. She knew it and understood that was why she felt so utterly calm. Ok except for being pissed off at being shot at. That had come out of nowhere.


And she would have to remember to thank Jack for insisting she tuck the gun he’d bought her under the driver’s seat of her Jeep. She had refused his company on the trip because one of them needed to stay behind and watch the business, but could find no argument against taking the gun. She was good with it, she had a license to carry it – although she didn’t think a cop would appreciate it being loaded and within easy reach under her seat. She hadn’t really thought about it – the guy at the bottom of the hill had shot at her. When she’d stumbled back her phone had shot through her fingers and landed on the pavement, the battery compartment popping open, the screen cracking. And Harper had just seen red. She went to the Jeep, grabbed her gun, and fired off a few shots.


And she had definitely hit the guy.


Whatever the man in the seat next to her might think, Harper was a decent shot. Especially at such a close distance, with a height advantage. She had seen the guy jerk when the bullets had hit him – the first one in his shoulder, the second in his stomach. By the time she fired the third shot he had been moving and she wasn’t sure if she’d nailed him again but that was all right. She’d gotten her point across anyway.


The guy she’d helped, Mark, obviously had his own issues. Did he seriously think that she would believe he had been following some sort of…she had no idea what he had meant. Different bodies? What the hell did that mean? It had just been some idiot guy. A dangerous guy, sure but the world was full of crazy people.


Obviously she was one of them. She was driving along with a stranger in her passenger seat, and she felt bad for him in a way. If he were telling the truth then he’d lost his wife and unborn child. He hadn’t needed to go into detail. Harper’s imagination as good – probably too good – and she could fill in a lot of blanks herself.


So she didn’t quite believe him, not about the guy who she had shot. But the rest? Yes. The rest of it…losing his wife, getting obsessed. Even killing the guy that did it – yes. She believed that. It had been in the way he’d spoken, matter-of-fact, as if he were commenting on the weather.


What she would do – because just dropping him off in the middle of nowhere after what had happened went against everything that Harper believed in – she would go to this small town, find a doctor. Get him looked at and then call the cops. Even if they were of the Barney Fife variety Harper felt like she had to report the guy in the Mustang. She hadn’t even gotten a clear look at him but she had to do something. She’d get Mark some help then she’d be on her way again. This would start to feel like a side trip that happened to another person.


That was easier said than done though. She reached the small town, the wide spot in the road, and that was really all there was to it. There was a single gas station – closed but with automatic pumps that accepted credit or debit cards at night. There was also a diner which was surprisingly open. It was tiny, but it was well lit. Harper really wanted to go in and get a big steaming mug of hot coffee but instead she settled for dashing inside to speak to a sleepy looking waitress.

There was no doctor in town. The nearest medical assistance of any kind was located in the next largest town which was a full county back the way Harper had come from – and that was well over a two hour drive. There was a retired veterinarian who lived on a small ranch in the sticks. Harper accepted directions because there was not much else she could do at that point. She asked about police and was rewarded with a snort and a glance at the clock. “You call ‘em you better expect to sit around and wait for about 3 hours to see ‘em if they show up at all.”


That was comforting. Harper thanked her and took her hastily scribbled directions. She hoped the vet wouldn’t mind a late night visit. Actually she didn’t care. The guy was gonna get a visit whether he wanted one or not. It took thirty minutes to find his place and ten to negotiate the gravel driveway that led almost a half mile back to his house. Mark slept on next to her, mindless of the stop or the jarring ride.


Harper parked and got out to knock on the vet’s door. Lights were already on around the house. He answered a lot faster than she had expected. Maybe he was a night owl too. Or more likely maybe the ceaseless sound of rain had kept him up.


He turned out to be a man well into his 70s, with thick white hair and a trimmed beard. “Help you?” He asked as he opened the door.


“Maybe. Hopefully. There was…an accident.” For lack of a better way to describe it she went with the least outlandish explanation.


“Hit a deer? A dog?” The old man was pulling on a bright yellow rain jacket.


“No. I didn’t hit anything. A guy ran off the road, wrecked his truck.”


“You realize I’m a vet, right? A horse doctor.” He pointed out but he still tugged on a pair of boots.


“Yeah. Sure. The guy is kind of a bull so maybe you can do him some good.” Harper was thinking of the size of the guy, Mark. He was tall. It had probably been pretty comical, someone her size letting a guy that large lean on her.


That surprised the old vet into a chuckle. “A bull huh? Let’s take a look.”  Harper led him to the Jeep. He opened the passenger door and whistled. “You weren’t kiddin’. Did he hit his head?”


“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think he was tired before. Shock or something.” Harper climbed in through the driver’s side door and leaned over the center console. “He did something to his arm or his shoulder when he went off the road. He’s been favoring it. Hey…Mark…” Harper reached out and laid her hand against the side of his neck. Mark jerked and came awake with a groan.


“What? Where…?” He tried to clear his eyes and take in everything at once. He had a moment of panic, which Harper could see clearly in his eyes even though the light was horrible in the Jeep.


“It’s all right. We’re gonna get you checked. Can you walk?” She asked him, keeping his attention on her, making him focus. Mark nodded and seemed to realize belatedly that they had stopped and that someone else was with them.


It didn’t take much coaxing. He still favored the arm although he did not baby it nearly as much. Harper got her keys, and tucked her gun – with a fresh clip – into the waistband of her jeans when the vet wasn’t looking. She locked up her Jeep, something she would not have normally done, before following Mark and the vet into the house.


There was a small exam room off the living room. The vet led them there and had Mark sit down, putting them more or less at eye level. “Can you tell me your name?”


“Mark.” He was keeping an eye on Harper, who stood near the doorway watching them.


“Wanna tell me what happened?”


“Sure. Wanna tell me who you are?” Mark asked in response to his question.


The vet smiled as he produced a penlight. “I’m Joseph Johns. Most folks around here just call me Doc Joe. I answer to Joe mostly. I’m a vet.”


“Great.” Mark’s voice carried enough sarcasm to cause Harper to raise an eyebrow. “I went off the road. Seatbelt locked, but not before my shoulder caught the steering wheel.”


“Did you hit your head?” Joe was shining the penlight into Mark’s eyes, checking his pupils.


“No. Just rattled my brain around a little.”


“Well we’ll have to get that shirt off you so I can take a look at your shoulder.” Joe said, looking to Harper. “Could you give him a hand?”


She shrugged and stepped into the room while Joe turned and began sorting through a small cabinet in the corner. Mark fumbled the top buttons of the shirt he was wearing and she gently pushed his hands away and made quick work of the rest. At least it was flannel, and a button-down. She thought they’d have had to cut a pull-over off of him. She eased the material off his good arm, then the hurt arm before stepping out of Joe’s way.


The seatbelt hadn’t done Mark any favors. He had some nasty looking bruises over his collar and down his chest. His left shoulder was obviously swollen and bruised but it didn’t look dislocated. Not that Harper was an expert. She watched as Joe poked and prodded Mark’s chest and back, then his arm, getting him to lift his arm and lower it. Mark’s face paled but he managed to move it.


“I can’t say without an x-ray that you didn’t break anything.” Joe finally said, running his hand over Mark’s shoulder. “But I think it’s just a lot of bruising. Maybe a few pulled muscles. I don’t like that swelling but we can take care of most of that. You’ll need to get to a doctor and soon, because if it is something worse you don’t want it to become permanent.” He continued talking as he dug through his cabinet again.


Harper had pretty much tuned him out. Mark was listening intently so that was good. It gave her a chance to study him. In the small room he looked even bigger than he had before. And shirtless he was pretty muscular, with tattoos covering both arms and his stomach. He accepted a bottle of pills from Joe and started to pull his shirt on, and Harper stepped up to help him once again. He shot her a frown but she ignored it. They’d be there all night while he tried to fix his shirt over his shoulder. She got it on and did the buttons, saving him the effort. Now that they were in a well lit place, she could see details – like the fact that he had long hair. She hadn’t noticed until a few minutes before; it was pulled back in a braid. Also he had a goatee. And he had some intense green eyes. He was studying her awfully hard as she finished setting his shirt to rights.


“I don’t want to put your arm in a sling.” Joe was speaking, bringing Mark’s attention back to him. “Moving it will make it easier on you. As long as it’s not a fracture. And I’m pretty sure it’s not. So just be careful, keep heavy weight off it, and try to use it sparingly for a while. The bruises will fade and the swelling will go down and it’ll probably be fine. Just make sure…”


“I get to a doctor. Yeah. I got that.” Mark slowly lifted the arm a few inches and eased it back down. To his credit he didn’t flinch that time. “How much do I owe ya?”


Joe looked surprised. “I wouldn’t even begin to know what to charge. Don’t worry about it.” He led them to the door. “You two can stay here a while if you want to wait out the rain.” He said, peering out the doorway.


“We can’t. Especially if I need to get to a doctor.” Mark said. “Thanks for the help, Joe.”


“No problem. You kids be careful.”


Harper smirked at that and watched as Mark walked to the Jeep. They’d been at Joe’s for less than an hour. She looked at Joe finally and smiled. “Thanks a lot. Sorry to bother you.”


“No bother. I was up.” Joe’s smile faltered. “There’s trouble, isn’t there?”


“Maybe more for him than me.” Harper stated softly.


“You be careful.” Joe repeated the sentiment and squeezed her hand, then watched as she followed Mark to the Jeep.


Harper waited until Mark was settled before putting the Jeep into gear and turning around to begin the trip back toward the small town. Now that Mark was dealt with, she had coffee on her mind. Coffee and maybe something to eat. She was starving suddenly.


Mark didn’t speak the entire ride back to town. He didn’t doze off again either. In fact, Harper got the distinct feeling he was brooding. He stared out the window and gritted his teeth over the bumps that the Jeep took. He also idly turned the pill bottle Joe had given him around in his fingers, toying with it. It wasn’t until Harper parked close to the door of the diner that he finally sighed and looked at her again.




Now that he’d had a short nap, he was a little uncomfortable.


It was easier to hide when they’d been in Joe’s house. Mark was aware of the woman’s scrutiny – she didn’t try to be subtle. He got the feeling that being subtle was not one of her stronger points. But it made him aware of her in a way that he hadn’t been before. Especially when she had stepped in and helped him with his shirt. Not that what she had done was motivated by anything other than getting him seen by the vet. Maybe he was just still tired.


But he would have had to have been dead to not notice that she was a good looking woman. Her dark hair had mostly dried and it fell just past her shoulders in waves. She had clear blue eyes. And she still wore only a black t-shirt and a pair of jeans, seemingly as mindless of the cold air and rain as she had been when he’d first seen her. It surprised him, the sudden awareness that had come over him when he’d looked at her. It had been a hell of a long time since he’d felt anything even remotely like it.


Mark was not brooding no matter what the woman was thinking. He was analyzing the things that had happened, that was all. Actually he was feeling sort of pissed off. The loss of his truck wasn’t a big deal – he could go back and see if it was salvageable, which he doubted, but the vehicle itself was easily replaced. If he’d been thinking right, he would have grabbed his bag out of the passenger side floorboard but circumstances being what they were, that was also a small price to pay. He could buy more clothes. It wasn’t like he was hurting for money.


What got to him was that the thing had managed to catch him with his defenses down. Not only that but it had damn near killed him. The thing had actually put its hands on him. Mark refused to think of it as a man. He had seen too often exactly what it could do. And while he didn’t mind dirtying his hands getting rid of it, the fact that he’d been touched…he suppressed a disgusted shudder as the woman brought the Jeep to a halt in front of a small diner. He looked at her to find that she was studying him in the dim light that came from the diner’s windows.


“The plan, before I was interrupted, was to grab something to eat and move on.” She said as if he’d asked.


Mark nodded and followed her out of the Jeep and into the diner. Why not? It wasn’t like he had a more pressing place to be. That feeling – the restlessness, or premonition or whatever it was – had fallen away. Now he was just sore and tired. His nap had done a little good but he knew he was overdue for some real sleep.


The diner was small but there were customers. A few big men, all sitting at the counter, could have very well had ‘truck driver’ stamped on their foreheads. There was a young couple sitting in one of the booths near the door. The woman he was with headed toward the back of the place and slid into the last booth available. Mark hesitated for a moment before sitting in the opposite side. The thought had occurred that he could just walk away now that the woman was in a public place and conceivably out of danger.


Then he noted the way a couple of the guys at the counter eyed her. It was possible that the events of from his past, plus dealing with that thing tonight, had tainted his view and the guys were simply admiring a well built woman in their midst, but Mark didn’t trust them. The woman didn’t seem to notice them at all. So Mark simply stared at the most obvious gawker until the man shifted uncomfortably and turned away.


The waitress approached them, looking just as sleepy as she had earlier. They both placed their orders and were quiet until the waitress had wandered to the kitchen to get their food started. Mark found himself once again the subject of the woman’s scrutiny although he got the feeling it was more out of curiosity than anything else.


“So where are you headed next?” She finally asked.


Mark could only shrug. “I don’t know. I guess I need to resupply and then I’ll figure it out.” He glanced around and knew that was easier said than done. Besides the gas station and this diner, there was a small grocery store. It was completely dark though and Mark highly doubted they sold much beyond staples. They were in sparse country – it would be an hour’s drive at least before hitting a town large enough to support anything bigger.


She nodded. “I can give you a lift. At least until I stop for the night…er…day.” She corrected herself. “I planned on stopping and getting a room at the next town. If you want I can get you at least that far.”


“You don’t have to do that.”


“Because it would be so easy for you to find another way? From here?” She snorted a laugh. “No offense, but you don’t necessarily come across as being a harmless drifter.”


Mark raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t the one that shot a guy tonight.” He pointed out.


She smiled at that. “And as much as I appreciate the dirty looks you’re throwing at those people at the counter, I’m pretty sure I can handle the stares from a few horn-dog truck drivers.” So she had noticed. Noticed, and then noted Mark’s reaction. He gave her credit – she was sharp.

“I have a distrust of strangers.” Mark said simply.


“I’m a stranger.”




She merely smiled. The waitress appeared and set down their drinks – a steaming mug of coffee for each of them plus a glass of ice water for her.


Mark waited until the waitress went on her way before turning back to the conversation at hand. “So what is your name, stranger?”


“Does it matter?”


“Probably.” If she could be short, so could he. “You know mine. That’s sort of an unfair advantage.”


“I didn’t know you were keeping score.” She was still smiling, amused by the conversation. “We definitely should discuss what happened, but this is hardly the time or place. I get that. It can wait. But I have questions.”


“I’ll answer what I can.” Mark said softly. “Although it won’t be much.”

“Fair enough. It’s Harper.”




“My name.”


“Yeah. I figured.”


“Mom’s favorite book was ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.” She said with a dismissive shrug. “I should be grateful I wasn’t named ‘Scout’ or ‘Boo’ I guess.”


Although she still smiled, a hint of ice entered her voice. Mark got it. He was an old hand at avoiding taboo topics. “So where are you headed?”


“West.” Another taboo topic. He was on a roll. The waitress saved him the effort of pressing for details when she appeared with their food.


Harper dug in but Mark spent a couple of minutes eying the eggs and bacon and toast that he’d ordered while slowly rotating his bruised shoulder, trying to loosen it up a bit. He’d brought the pills in with him, so he popped the bottle open and swallowed a couple with a sip of strong hot coffee. He took a few bites of food, using his right hand while he slowly stretched his left shoulder to try to work out some of the stiffness.


“Are you trying to break a recovery record?” Harper asked with a smirk, watching as he moved his shoulder up and down.


“I dunno. What’s the record?” He asked, matching her sarcastic tone.


Harper smiled more naturally and went back to eating, not hiding the fact that she was watching him. It made Mark a bit self-conscious – which was pretty damned foreign to him. Normally he didn’t care what people thought of him. Hell, he hardly noticed it when people looked at him. He’d been going through life with his head down for too long to be bothered under usual circumstances.


They were quiet the rest of the meal. Mark was beyond rusty at small talk. Harper didn’t seem inclined to want to talk much at all which suited him just fine. She was still studying him though. Every now and then she’d look out the window or around the diner but mostly she just eyed him curiously. And since he had nothing better to do at the moment other than eat and try to subtly manipulate his shoulder, he did the same thing. She was awfully calm for someone who may or may not have just killed a man. It made him wonder about her. He tried to put a lid on it because he didn’t want to wonder, he didn’t want to be curious. He just wanted to find a new ride, some new clothes, maybe sleep for a while, and then be on his way. Back to hunting down the thing that had brought him here? Maybe. For now that urge was quiet. If it wasn’t dead it was quiet, licking its wounds.


Which made him wonder…again. Wondering was kind of dangerous. It led to too many ideas. If Harper had hurt the thing, she might as well have put a target on her back. Then again, maybe if she got out soon enough it would be a non-issue. Besides that, the thing had said she was not his usual victim. She didn’t fit the physical description. Every victim Mark had found had been blonde, pregnant, working a late shift with an easily identified pattern of travel to and from work. As far as he could discern, Harper was just passing through.


That didn’t mean she hadn’t made a big mistake when she’d made the decision to stop. She had a phone – most people would have instinctively called the cops first. At least in Mark’s experience. This far out in the sticks, people didn’t tend to stop. Especially in this kind of weather. The most well-meaning person would simply tell themselves they’d call for help and go back with authorities if need be.


She hadn’t just stopped. And she hadn’t just been defending herself either. Harper had been pissed. Mark had no idea why – but instead of running for help what had she done? She’d grabbed her gun and had fired back. It was almost funny when he thought about it. It was a spit in the thing’s face, a bit of a ‘fuck you’. That alone could mean that Harper could be in trouble. And all because Mark hadn’t been paying attention.


He had felt it coming. He couldn’t deny it. But he’d thought it had been coming for someone else, another female victim to add to the list. He had been so intent on stopping it that he’d ignored everything else including his own basic need to rest and eat and take care of himself. He was pushing himself way too hard, which in turn was putting other people in danger. Harper was proof although he wasn’t sure how much danger she was in. He had a feeling she wasn’t done causing trouble. Maybe not for him. He hoped not for him. He already had more than he could handle.


If he were smart, he’d send her on her way and go back to his truck. Even if it was gone – which Mark did not doubt – it would be the most logical place to resume his search. He could find a local selling a junker piece of shit and use it to do that, maybe to head to a nearby town with more options. Hell, into one of the cities that were a few hours away where he could have his pick of dealerships. He could resupply, get new clothes and replace what he’d lost – there was nothing in the truck that had any personal meaning to him after all.


But something held him back. He watched as Harper sipped her coffee and knew it was her. She was heading to a more populated area, which was great. But until she got there, until she cleared the thing’s hunting ground, Mark didn’t think she’d be safe. Not that he’d proven to be any sort of protection. She’d been the one to pull his ass out of the fire, after all.


It didn’t help matters either that he felt an odd sort of attraction toward her. He didn’t understand it, or why it was happening now. After what had happened to his wife, it had taken a long time for him to even consider looking at another woman. And when he did it was usually because he felt like he should be doing something about living normally. Normal meant occasionally getting laid. Actually normal probably meant moving on and finding an actual relationship but the thought made his insides freeze up. No. It was enough that he could take care of his urges on a one-night-stand basis and leave it at that. Hell, he didn’t even do that very often. He wasn’t very comfortable in social situations so sometimes it just hadn’t seemed worth the bother.


Mark preferred being on his own. With his wife it had been different. They’d known each other since grade school, had dated through high school, had gotten married about six minutes after she’d graduated from nursing school and he’d taken over the tattoo shop his father had owned. He wasn’t an artist by any means but he’d been good at running the business. His father had passed away and left the shop to Mark to do with what he wanted. Actually he hadn’t wanted to do anything with it until his wife had convinced him to give it a try. He’d been good at handling the business end of things. They had done well for themselves and he had been in the process of opening a second shop in another city when everything came crashing down. Her murder had soured every aspect of his life. Mark could find no point in anything after she had died – not in the shop, not in other people. His circle of friends was small to begin with and he pushed everyone away until he was alone. He did not sell the shop – but he stopped working. He moved one of the artists up to the management position and retired himself because he hated going in and pretending he was all right. So he still had money coming in – he was still the owner. But he no longer associated himself with the place that before held so many good memories.


So basically he had his anger at the thing that had taken away everything he had ever cared about and the money to pursue his obsession. It was probably a dangerous combination. Mark often wondered if what had happened earlier was his real end-game. Did he want the thing to kill him and end his suffering? He could not definitively answer yes or no so his mind shied away from the question. He had managed to kill it once. He tried to keep it in mind. He would figure out a way to end it permanently one way or another. Until then he would just have to deal with things as they fell into his lap. Including the beautiful woman who was sitting across from him.




Harper’s big interior debate was whether to make use of the diner’s pay phone to call Jack – who would be worried if she didn’t check in. Or if she could put it off until she got to a motel room and could replace her cell phone with a new one.

She decided to wait. Jack could worry if he wanted to. He wasn’t her keeper. Besides, she would have to explain what had happened and she wasn’t entirely sure that she could. At least not in a way that wouldn’t sound insane. Jack’s first instinct would be to come running, as if Harper were a damsel in distress and he was the put-upon white knight. It was just the way he was.


So it could wait. After they finished eating, she asked for the check and a cup of coffee for the road. While the waitress was gone she excused herself from the table and went to the restroom. By the time she got back, the table had been cleared and Mark was holding two steaming foam coffee cups near the register.


“I could have paid for that.” Harper pointed out as she took her cup so the waitress could hand Mark his change. He shrugged and pocketed the money before letting her lead the way outside. The rain droned steadily on, hissing against the pavement. After the warmth of the diner it felt as if the temperature had dropped at least a dozen degrees. She unlocked the Jeep and got the engine on so the heat could warm the air. A few minutes later and she was driving down the highway, once more the only vehicle moving in sight.


It didn’t mean she dropped her guard.


“So…” She began as the small town receded and they made their way through the dark countryside.


“So? Ask away.”


“I would if I knew where to start. I know I hit that guy.”


Mark sighed. “I know it too. I saw it. He wouldn’t have moved otherwise.”


“How does somebody just walk away from that?”


Mark could only shrug. Harper sensed he was struggling with something, so she waited him out, not speaking. He finally heaved a sigh. “I don’t think it’s human.” He muttered, so low she barely heard him.


“He looked human enough.” Harper said.


“It keeps coming back. After I killed it…the first time…there was about 3 years or so when I felt almost normal again. Like everything could get back to what it was. Or close to it. I lost my wife and our baby, but I stopped it from killing someone else.”


“The first time.” Harper repeated.


“It started happening again. They found a body in almost the exact same place they had found my wife. Everything about it was the same, right down to how she was laying. Even the way she died…” Mark shook his head. “I started tracking it again. It was like I couldn’t help it, I had to do it. And sometimes it would kill in the same places, sometimes it was somewhere new. That time I didn’t get a chance to stop it. There was an accident – a wreck. Apparently it didn’t get out of the car in time, ended up burning in a crash.”


“And it’s back again now?”




“How do you know it’s not just some crazy copycat kind of thing? You figured out the pattern or whatever it is. Maybe somebody else did too. Somebody who figured if it worked for the first guy it would work for them.”


“I’d buy that for the first one. But now it’s happening again. What would be the odds of that?”


Harper shook her head. “So how much trouble am I in here? Since I put a bullet or two in the guy?”


“Maybe none.” Mark said. “I don’t know for sure. You aren’t its normal target.”


“Should I point out that it went after you?” Harper glanced at him. “You don’t look blonde or pregnant to me, but I guess I might have missed some big leap forward in reproductive medicine.”


“It knew I was following it.” Mark said, thinking it over. “So maybe it’s getting smarter. The first time I surprised it. But you’re right. It broke the pattern. That’s never happened before.”


“So we might both be in trouble.”

“Until you get to somewhere more populated. It tends to want to stay out here where nobody will bother it. You get into a bigger town or a city, with a lot of people and authorities, and it avoids that like the plague.”


“So far.” Harper sighed. “This trip has turned out to be way more interesting than I thought it would be.”


“If you hadn’t stopped at that rest area…” Mark said thoughtfully. “You would have been ahead of all this.”


“And you might be dead right now.” Harper said, glancing at him again.



“There’s a car behind us.” The tone of her voice did not change so it took Mark a moment to realize she had switched gears. “Keeping its distance but its there.”


Mark turned in his seat, wincing at the ache in his shoulder. There was nothing but darkness behind them for a moment then in the distance he saw a glint of metal. Whoever it was, they were driving with no lights. Unlike before he had no sense that it was the thing he had been hunting. Of course after what had happened he didn’t think he could trust his instincts on tracking it anymore. Things had changed.


“It could just be a random drunk.” Harper said, when Mark turned back to face the front. He huffed a laugh.


“Yeah. I don’t think we could be that lucky.”


“One way to find out for sure.” Harper took her foot off the gas pedal, slowing the Jeep.


“I think the point would be to try to put some distance between us and it.” Mark said, once more glancing out the back window.


“We will.” But she was still slowing. They rounded a curve in the road and she cut off her lights, dropping them into darkness. It was still raining and dark, and how she could see the road was beyond Mark’s comprehension.


But Harper had no intention of staying on the road. She slowed even more and guided the Jeep off the road, into the line of trees.


“What are you…


“Hush.” Harper waved a hand at him as she brought the Jeep to a halt. From here they could still see the road, but they were hidden among the trees. She shut off the engine so that only noise was the sound of rain and the wind in the trees.


Less than a minute later the car went past their hiding spot. It was a dark car but not the Mustang that they had seen before. It did not slow down as it went past. Mark let out a relieved breath he hadn’t been aware of holding.


“We could follow whoever it is.” Harper said, starting the Jeep’s engine.


“I don’t know if we should risk it.”


“I thought you were hunting it?”


“I was. Am. But I don’t think I’m in any kind of shape to tangle with it right now.”


Harper maneuvered the Jeep back to the road but she didn’t turn on her headlights just yet. Instead they rolled at a steady thirty miles an hour for a few minutes. “You don’t know if that was it, right?”




“How do you usually know?”


“That’s hard to explain. I just kind of…sense it.”


“You sense it.”


“I know. It sounds crazy.”


“Not as crazy as half of the stuff you’ve said so far tonight.” Harper stated dryly. “And you don’t sense anything right now?”


“Nothing at all.” Mark shook his head. “But earlier when I was sensing it, I didn’t have any idea it was coming after me. So I don’t know if I can trust it right now.”


“Ok. So we’ll just move our butts and get to town. And we’ll be safe there?”


“Safe enough.” At this point, Mark thought it sounded rather hollow.


“I’ll settle for that.” She turned on the headlights and picked up speed. She didn’t want to catch up to the car but she also didn’t want to take all night to reach their destination.


Actually she wasn’t too worried about catching the car. She had her gun after all and it had stopped the guy once. She would just have to aim more carefully next time.


“So what will you do next?” She finally asked once they had travelled a few miles in silence.


“I don’t know.” Mark reached up and rubbed a hand over his forehead.


Harper lapsed into silence. There wasn’t much else she could say. She couldn’t disbelieve him – she’d seen the guy for herself after all, she’d shot at him, hit him, and watched him run off. Even Mark’s insistence on referring to the guy as a thing rang true, somehow. Or maybe she was just buying into his craziness out of boredom. Or possibly she was the one suffering from sleep deprivation.


They didn’t see the car again, whoever had been driving it. Until dawn approached, they had the road to themselves. The rain had not let up, which was as expected. It was just after five in the morning when they finally reached an area that looked inhabited. It was the town that Harper had planned on catching a few hours rest before continuing her trip.


First though she found the town’s only really prosperous business; a Walmart, which just proved that they really were everywhere in Harper’s estimation. It was about half the size of the store she was used to but she figured even out here she was bound to be able to replace her busted phone. Plus Mark had said he needed to resupply. If he wanted something fancier he would have to find it himself.


He didn’t seem to care. He’d lapsed into a morose silence for the majority of their drive and at first Harper thought he was crashing from the adrenaline of the night or maybe his second wind was fading away. But he didn’t fall asleep, which she had almost expected. Since she had forgotten to plug her mp3 player in once again, she had settled for humming to herself, and he hadn’t commented on that either. Jack had told her on several occasions that it drove him nuts when she did that – not that she had a bad voice, just that she got songs stuck in his head. Harper couldn’t help it. She wasn’t used to too much quiet.


Mark left her in electronics while he went to the men’s clothing section. Harper didn’t have to worry about losing him in the place – he was so tall there wasn’t really a rack he could hide behind. She found a decent replacement for her phone and wandered for a bit, idly picking up things and putting them back. Nothing really caught her eye so she checked out the tiny grocery section and picked up a case of soda and some snack food for the road.


Harper figured she’d just wait for Mark out in the Jeep. She wasn’t much of a browser by nature and got bored just hanging out at a store when she had no intention of actually buying anything else. She went through the only open checkout lane and paid a sleepy looking teenager for her things before heading for the doors. After the warmth of the store it felt even colder than it had been outside. Harper shivered and hurried to the Jeep, reminding herself for what felt like the thousandth time to grab her coat out of the back seat. Sometimes it didn’t seem worth it, to wear it when she’d only be outside for a few seconds. Now that the air actually had some bit to it, she was starting to change her way of thinking.


She had just reached the passenger side of the Jeep when she noticed that her Jeep was no longer the only vehicle in the lot. She normally wouldn’t have paid attention. It was just a car in a department store’s parking lot after all.


Except this one was a black Mustang.


It hadn’t parked right beside her Jeep. It was further up the same row. The windows were tinted so it was hard to see if someone were sitting inside the car. But the engine was running. It was a low rumble just above the steady drone of rain falling on pavement, and white exhaust rose from the tailpipe.


Harper forced herself to keep walking. She tossed her bags into the backseat and picked up her coat, yanking it on, keeping one eye on the car and the other on the entrance to the store and trying to look like she was doing neither. Mark had said they would be safe in town. No. He had said ‘safe enough’ meaning he didn’t know for sure. Maybe the thing he was after was changing its methods after all. Or maybe some of Mark’s paranoia was wearing off on her. Mustangs were pretty much a dime a dozen these days.


Except she didn’t know how many of them were traveling with bullet holes in the hood. Specifically a bullet hole she herself had put there just hours before. She could see it, right of center, a little low.


She zipped her coat up to her chin and moved to the passenger door, not wanting to cross to the driver’s side. That would put her back to the Mustang and she didn’t want to risk taking her eyes off it for too long. Instead she reached over the center console and grabbed her gun from under the seat where she had tucked it earlier, after the diner. She felt better with it in her hand, she knew that much.


The Mustang’s engine revved and she heard the sound of it shifting into gear. It rolled slowly out of the space it was in, but Harper purposefully refused to look at it. Instead, she tucked her gun into her coat pocket and went once more to the back seat door to pretend to rummage through the bags there. If the car came around she was going to pull her gun and start shooting, public place or not. Harper did not scare easily; the fact that this guy was managing it without half trying just pissed her off even more.


Instead of driving around her Jeep, the Mustang picked up speed and left the parking lot. Now Harper openly watched as it sped away along the highway, going back the way they had come in to town. It disappeared over a low hill and she let out a sigh of relief. She slammed the Jeep’s doors shut and went to the driver’s side, keeping a wary eye on the parking lot entrance the entire time. She had just slid behind the wheel when she saw Mark come out of the store.


It was almost like the guy in the Mustang had timed it. For all Harper knew, maybe he had. She kept an eye on the road while Mark stowed his bags in the back and got into the passenger seat.


“Sorry…took a few to find stuff that would actually fit…” He trailed off when he got a closer look at her face. “What is it? What happened?”


“The car was here.”


Mark raised his eyebrows. “The car? Here, where?” He looked around.


“It drove off. It was that damned Mustang.” Mark looked at her again. Harper was nodding. “He might have fixed the tires but there was still a hole in his hood where I shot it.”


He didn’t insult her by asking if she were sure. Instead he merely shut his door and buckled his seat belt. “Ok. So we’ll just have to be extra careful. Which way did it go?”


Harper gestured. Mark nodded slowly. “You still need to get some rest.”


“I could argue the same point to you.”


“Then that puts us in sort of a bind.”


“Me in a bind. You weren’t even out here.” Harper said.


“Fine. You’re in a bind. Let’s get out of here, get holed up in a motel. You can get some rest. Later on we can figure out something to do.” He matched her tone again. She thought he might be doing it without realizing it, which might have been funny under other circumstances.


Harper knew she should argue but she didn’t see the point. He was right. What else could they do? Except sit here making a target of themselves. She shifted the Jeep into gear and slowly headed for the exit, keeping a wary eye on the road in all directions.




It was strange how uneasy the thought of leaving her made him feel.


Mark had been contemplating that as he looked through clothes at the store, trying to stay focused. Instead he spent most of the time keeping one eye on Harper. He had no idea why. She struck him as being perfectly capable of keeping an eye out for herself.


But he figured they had made it into town. Now would be the time to have her drop him off at one of the used car lots that did business around here. He wasn’t going to buy new and have it run off the road again. He could see her to whatever place she was staying and then find himself some rest before hitting the road and resuming his search.


In theory it sounded like a pretty solid plan. But it left him feeling oddly hollow. As if a part of him knew that even though it would have worked out fine any other time, this time was somehow different. The events of the night had left him doubting his instincts, which was something else that was new. Maybe he really did need to find a doctor and get himself a proper examination. It was entirely possible he cracked his head and just didn’t remember doing it.


He knew as soon as he saw her face that something had happened. It had rattled her, even more than getting shot at during the night. Maybe it was because she was tired but it took Harper more of an effort to put her game face back on. And heaven help him he was starting to admire her ability to keep moving forward even when there was crazy happening all around her.


She drove in silence through town, keeping an eye on the road behind them, and to both sides. It was subtle. She had gotten control of her initial shock. But it led to a slight change of plans. Instead of checking in to a motel directly off the highway on the outskirts of town, Harper instead went to the center of the small town and pulled into the parking lot of a motel that was located directly across from a small sheriff’s station.


“False sense of security maybe.” Harper said it as if Mark had asked. In truth, he hadn’t needed to. He understood the change in plans, and approved. The presence of the police didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things but if something happened it was likely that someone would see something.


She parked near the motel’s office and got out to see about getting a couple of rooms. Mark kept an eye on the road but saw nothing unusual. Actually he had wanted to protest the need for a room for himself – he should move on and soon – but she had been pretty adamant about him getting some rest. He wasn’t sure if she were worried for his well-being or not but it felt sort of strange to be fussed over that way. It wasn’t something he was used to.


Harper reappeared a few minutes later and got behind the wheel. “Here you go.” She held out a key. Mark took it and glanced at her as she drove the Jeep around to the side of the building where the parking lot was. She found her own room and parked right in front of it. “You’re next door.” She pointed out. Mark nodded and climbed out, reaching into the back to grab the things he’d bought earlier.


The room was all right. Small, but he’d stayed in worse. At least he wasn’t trying to take a nap in his vehicle. That was always a plus. There was a door next to the entrance, and out of curiosity he pulled it open. Whether she had done it purposely or if it was just the luck of the draw and what was available, Harper had gotten them adjoining rooms. He tapped on the door and in a few moments she opened her side, looking amused and worn out at the same time. It was the first time he had seen her with her defenses down. He wasn’t the only one who could use some sleep apparently.


“I thought this was maybe a closet.” She said, peering into his room curiously.


“A closet might be bigger. You all right?”


“Yup. Going to grab a shower and then pass out for at least a few hours. If I can.” She glanced at the door to her room. “Unless I have to worry about some idiot breaking in and killing me in my sleep.”


“That could happen anywhere. And breaking in isn’t really its style.”


“It’s sort of playing against its style isn’t it?” She said, but instead of the sarcastic edge he expected, she sounded flat. “I’m more worried it’s going to mess with my Jeep while I’m sleeping, to be honest. Isn’t that how it gets people?”


“Yeah.” Mark rubbed his temples. “Best we can do is check it out before you hit the road again. It uses the same few tricks to cause a breakdown.”




“I have to go out for a bit.”


Harper’s eyebrow went up at that. “Oh?”


“Yeah. Got to replace my truck. I can do that now and save myself the trouble later.” Plus he wanted to have a secondary vehicle, just in case.


“All right. You want me to give you a lift or…”


“Nah. There’s a dealership right up the road. I shouldn’t be gone too long.” He put his hand against the door that he’d opened between their rooms. “Keep this open until I get back though.” He did not have to explain why. She got it. The adjoining rooms were a good idea unless the thing figured out it could get to her in a different way. “You should be safe here.” He pointed out when she didn’t immediately move to take her shower or get ready to sleep.


“Should be.” She echoed it and shook her head before turning away and disappearing through a doorway in the back corner. A few moments later the sound of water flowing reached his ear. Mark was confused again. Once more he wasn’t sure if Harper was worried for herself or for his welfare. On the surface, she had been worried about herself but he got the distinct feeling that was more for his benefit than hers. He didn’t know why he would think that way but it felt true.

Mark sighed and headed out, making sure to lock the door behind him. He looked around, satisfied that the Mustang and driver were nowhere in sight before he headed out of the lot. A bit over an hour later he drove back to the motel leaving a pretty well stunned salesperson behind. Mark had spent all of three minutes perusing what was available, test drove a truck, poked through the engine, and deemed it good enough. He had the money wired to the dealership’s finance department which took the bulk of his time out. The only real perk about living the way he had been – he didn’t need anything fancy. The truck would get him around. And he could always trade it for something else later.


He was starting to feel like a paranoid idiot by the time he got back to the motel. Mark found himself looking constantly over his shoulder, down side roads, in his mirrors - to the point of hardly paying attention to what was directly in front of him. Traffic was light though. He doubted this town saw much in the way of gridlock.


Now that he’d been out and away from Harper he was starting to rethink his urge to stay near her. He was starting to feel the exact opposite. He should grab his stuff and hit the road, and put some distance between them. It was his fault that she was in danger. He could hope that by putting miles between them would also turn the things attention away from her. He wished there as a way to be sure though.


And Mark couldn’t babysit Harper for the rest of her life. She was heading off on her own business, and that was fine by him. He didn’t know what business it was but she seemed resigned to do it. So it was best that she get on her way. And he’d point out that she needed to head to more populated travel areas. They weren’t so far off a couple of major highways that it would be risky.


Mark parked his trucked next to Harper’s Jeep and spent a few minutes listening to the engine tick as it cooled down. The rain, which had declined since the night before, was now mixed with snow. He could see fat wet flakes strike the windshield and melting on the warmed glass. Across the street, a couple of deputies were hanging out near the entrance to the sheriff’s station, smoking, huddled against the cold air. That was fine. More eyes meant he could let down his guard just a little bit and get some sleep.


He let himself into his room and glanced through the open door to Harper’s room. She’d apparently had her shower – she was sitting on the end of her bed with her dark hair laying wet on her shoulders and a towel wrapped around her. She was also talking on a cell phone that was plugged into a wall outlet, presumably charging. Mark averted his eyes but not before he took in an eyeful of bare skin.


He did however listen with half an ear as he dug into his bags. He pulled out what he’d need for a shower and caught himself smiling at Harper’s tone of voice. It wasn’t the same person she’d been speaking to the night before – there was no annoyed sarcasm this time. She was explaining why she was calling from a new number although Mark noted that she left out quite a few of the more life-threatening details like being shot at.


Mark shook his head and ducked into the tiny bathroom. The shower was almost big enough for him to turn around in, but the water was hot and that was all that mattered. He relaxed in the steam for a few minutes, trying to get himself geared down for a few hours of sleep. Then he would try to figure out how the hell the thing had managed to turn things around on him. Mark finally washed off and had to contort himself a bit to get the soap out of his hair – the shower wasn’t made for somebody his height. He made do though because he’d had to deal with worse. He wiped fog from the mirror and spent a few minutes shaving and brushing his teeth. It always struck him how doing such randomly mundane things should be so calming. He combed the tangles out of his wet hair then dried off and pulled on a pair of shorts and a plain t-shirt, in deference to having company nearby. Normally he wouldn’t have bothered.


At least he was presentable. He left his towel hanging and took his worn clothing back into the main room. He’d bought a small overnight bag, so he spent a few minutes packing it with all of the new things he’d bought. He also tossed in his toiletries because he figured he’d be up and ready to leave in less than four hours. That was his usual pattern anyway. He was restless by nature, and had never gotten used to sleeping during the day


It took him a few minutes to notice how quiet it had gotten. He stepped toward the open door to Harper’s room and saw that she was no longer sitting on the bed. Nor was she laying in it. Her phone was sitting on the bedside table, her bathroom door was standing open, but the woman herself was not in sight. There were no places she could be hiding either.


Mark was trying to decide how panicked he would be if she had been snatched right out from under his nose when there was the sound of a key rattling in the door. It opened and Harper stepped inside, coat wrapped tightly around her, shivering. She’d given up her towel for a pair of pajama pants – which was sort of disappointing. While Mark didn’t necessarily pursue women as a habit it didn’t stop him from admiring a nice set of legs on occasion. Or other parts. He pushed that thought away.


“Thought you got kidnapped or something.” He said, sounding a little gruffer than he had meant it to sound.

“Nope. Just had to go up to the office for a minute.” She had a small square box in her hand. Mark frowned at it in confusion as she shrugged her coat off and tossed it onto the room’s only other piece of furniture – a worn chair in the corner.


“Did you hurt yourself?” He asked, concerned, watching as she sat down and pried the lid open. Mark could see it was a first-aid kit.


“No. At least not that I recall.” Harper pulled a couple of bandages out, a small tube of cream, then she looked up at Mark. “I guess I was sort of pumped up on adrenaline and didn’t notice that I had a bullet hole in my shirt.”


“You were shot?” He moved toward her.


“No. Grazed, I guess, would be the word for it.” She sounded amused. Actually amused. He could only gape at her as she lifted the thin shirt she was wearing. Not too far – just enough to expose a few inches of skin on her side. And she had an angry looking red streak on her side. A graze was right – the bullet had been close enough to burn her and leave a shallow scratch about two inches long. It was a miracle she wasn’t hurt worse. “I didn’t notice it and it didn’t start hurting until I was taking a shower and got soap in it.”


Mark watched as she took a few of the gauze pads from the first aid kit and poured peroxide over them. He saw her grit her teeth before she applied it to the wound on her side. She hissed in a breath but that was her only reaction. He sat down on the bed next to her and moved her hands out of the way, carefully cleaning her wound. The scratch was jagged and seeped a little bit of blood, but it wasn’t bad. He took the tube of ointment from her and applied it liberally to the wound and the burned skin around it, careful not to press too hard. Then he covered it all up with another piece of clean gauze.


He smoothed the last piece of tape over the edge, ensuring it would stay in place, and finally looked up. Harper was watching him, that amused expression still on her face but it was underlined by something more serious. He met her eyes, struck for a moment by the bright blue color. He also realized, a little belatedly, that his hand was still on her side and his fingers were slowly stroking the skin above the bandage and tape he’d just applied. No wonder she looked amused.


Mark cleared his throat and pulled back, ignoring the little flash of regret at letting go, resolutely looking away from her and toward the door to his room. “Well…uh. I’m gonna try to catch some sleep. Saw some cops outside while I was out so maybe that’ll be all right.”


“Yeah. I noticed them.” Harper hadn’t moved. She didn’t make an effort to lower her shirt either. She was eying him as if he were a new species of weird.


“Ok. Good…night. I guess?” He sounded unsure and made it a question. Harper smiled.


“Yup. Good night.”


Mark got up and went to his own room, aware every step of the way that Harper was still watching him. It made him uncomfortable – maybe because he had no idea what she was thinking. Normally he wouldn’t give a damn. For some reason she was starting to get under his skin. It was for the best, that they’d be parting ways in a few hours. She was probably a complication he did not need in his life.




Harper took a shower under water as hot as she could stand, and didn’t bother getting dressed. After discovering the graze from the bullet wound she spent a few minutes seething inwardly. Some people might have reacted different. Harper looked at the red mark and would have happily strangled the guy…or thing…that did it just for the satisfaction of it.


She figured Mark would be gone for a while so she secured a towel around her before going back into her room and digging out the new cell phone she’d purchased. She spent a few minutes getting it opened and plugged in, and then what felt like an eternal amount of time setting the thing up for use.  It might have been simpler to just call her own service provider and replace her phone that way but then she’d have nothing for emergency use on the road.


That done she grabbed her comb and detangled her hair while she dialed Jack’s number. Predictably he let it go to voicemail since he didn’t recognize her number. Harper dutifully left a message, hung up, and counted to 10. The cell phone rang, right on cue. Smiling she answered it. “Yes?”


“Where the hell are you?”


Her smile widened. Jack had been worried. How sweet. “In a motel room. Got a little sidetracked last night. Oh and dropped my phone and broke it. So this is what I’m using until I get home and can get it taken care of.”


“Sidetracked? Sidetracked by what?” Jack was apparently in the middle of something because she could hear the clatter of metal utensils in the background. “Your psychotic half-sister has called here every half hour wanting to know why you won’t answer your phone. That’s every half hour since about 4 this morning.” He amended. Harper laughed.


“She’s pissed that I hung up on her. And sidetracked by uh…I guess…a stranded motorist?” Harper didn’t even know how to describe what Mark was. Not really.


“Harper. Tell me you did not pick up a hitchhiker.”


“He wasn’t hitching. Just had…car trouble.”


Jack was silent for a long moment. “The point is you gave him a ride.”


“I never said I gave him a ride. I just said I was distracted.”


“There’s a lot of room in there for what you’re not saying.” Jack said with a sigh.


Harper bluntly changed the subject. She asked about the business. Jack reluctantly let himself be led away from the topic at hand as he explained they’d had two new contracts that morning, plus he had made a few appointments for her to deal with people wanting baked goods.


It was during Jack’s rundown of what she had missed the past few days that Mark came back. Harper glanced up and saw him looking in at her, and had to bite her cheek to keep from smiling. He seemed to have surprised himself by his blatant perusal of her as she sat on the bed. It was amusing to see such a big guy, who seemed to be pretty confident otherwise, get a little flustered at the sight of a woman in a towel. He walked off without saying anything and Harper turned her attention back to Jack in time to catch the tail end of his monologue.


“I can always tell when you’re not listening to me.”


“I was listening.” Harper corrected. “I can’t help it that you bore me.”


“Ha. So tell me what happened last night. No bullshitting. Because if I detect any crap you know I’ll be tempted to come out there.”


“Or course.” Harper proceeded to tell him a very watered-down version of events – from stopping at the rest stop to coming across the wrecked truck. She conveniently left out the part about the guy – or thing – that had caused all the trouble. Also she made sure not to mention the gun. She merely said that Mark had been tossed around by the wreck, she had taken him to get checked, and now they were parting ways since he was taking care of his vehicular deficiency.


“You mean to tell me he’s still there?” Jack asked, sounding as amused as Harper felt.


“Yeah. He’s next door.”


“Well thank goodness you aren’t shacking up with the guy.”


“Our rooms are connected.” Harper pointed out with a snicker.


“The plot thickens. How sure are you that he’s not going to stab you to death in your sleep?”


“I’m pretty sure it’s safe.”


“Harper.” Jack laughed. “Dare I ask if you’re up to something?”


She smiled although his question genuinely confused her. “I don’t know what I could be up to. I’m too tired to be up to anything. I spent half the night wearing wet clothes, it’s snowing a little bit outside, and this bed is looking better and better. So unless you have a point I’m going to be heading in that direction.”


“My point.” Jack paused for effect. “Is he a good lookin’ guy, Harp?”


“I guess. Sure.” Harper shrugged. “He’s tall.” She mock-gasped. “Don’t tell me you’re jealous, Jack.”


“I’m not jealous. I’m just wondering if maybe you decided to show the guy a good time before sending him on his way. What with the ‘adjoining rooms’ and everything.” He laughed and she could almost picture him doing air quotes.


“That was the furthest thing from my mind.” Harper said serenely.


“Was?” Jack was still grinning. She could hear it in his voice. “Don’t tell me I’ve planted the seed.”


“Maybe. Doesn’t hurt to consider it.” Harper reserved her considering though. Her side was starting to hurt. And itch. She pressed her hand against the wound and winced at the sting. “But considering is all I’ll do. I’m too tired to try to get laid by a complete stranger. It sounds like it would take effort.”


Jack cracked up laughing at that. Harper promised to call him again when she got up, before she hit the road and they said their goodbyes. She tossed the phone onto the bedside table and listened to the sound of water running from Mark’s room before getting up and pulling on her pajama pants and t-shirt. She wasn’t going to bother getting fully dressed just to walk 20 feet to the motel office. She pulled on her coat and shoes, snagged her key and went out into the cold.


It didn’t take long. The desk manager hadn’t wanted to give her the first aid kit but Harper eventually wore him down. She took it back to her room and was surprised to see Mark standing there. He had a look on his face, like he had been a few seconds away from breaking something. It faded when he looked at her though.


She smiled to herself. He had worried. How sweet.


The look returned to his face when she explained what she needed the kit for and showed him the graze. Harper had been content to deal with it herself but he had taken over, and she let him because it gave her a chance to study him up close without him paying much attention to her.


Jack had asked if he was good looking. Harper had to admit that Mark was but in a very rugged way. She couldn’t describe it. He had nice eyes – that unusual piercing shade of green. He had even better lips. Harper was a sucker for a guy with a decent mouth. Even his tattoos, which normally she could take or leave on a guy, seemed to be as much as part of him as his eye color or his well-formed lips. They suited him somehow. Plus it didn’t hurt that they covered about nineteen acres of well-muscled body.


Ok. So it was hard not to be attracted to the guy.


Also, it was only slightly adorable – the flush that rose on his face – when he looked up and caught Harper studying him. And when he noticed that he’d gone from nursing her injury to stroking her skin. It was just the tips of his fingers above the bandage, and Harper had to fight to keep from flinching; she could be ticklish. But she also didn’t mind it so much. In fact she wouldn’t have protested if he had done more.


She could actually see the exact moment when he threw his defenses up again. All of them. It was in the set of his jaw, the way his eyes – which until then had been clear and focused – refused to look at her. Even his posture was different. And he tripped over his words, getting tongue-tied in the process. He couldn’t get away from her fast enough.


Harper was still amused by it. Sure she understood why he was stand-offish. He’d lost his wife. He wasn’t a social person, he was out of practice, there were a million reasons. It did not change the fact that she was intrigued by him. It would probably pass – Harper had felt the same way about different people, jobs, hobbies, situations, and events. It was just the way she was built. She let her curiosity get the best of her on occasion.


And this had seemed like the perfect occasion. Unfortunately Mark had pulled away just when things were beginning to get interesting.


She listened to the quiet sounds of him preparing for bed and finally pulled her shirt down. Well. She would just get some sleep and then see how things went from there. Maybe she was just over-tired and would sleep off her curiosity. That would be a first but she wouldn’t be surprised by it. Harper crawled into bed and tugged the blankets up as she snuggled into her pillow.


Thirty minutes later she was ready to give up. The bed was soft, comfortable, warm. The room was quiet. She just could not drop off into sleep. She kept tossing and turning, dozing and snapping awake at every sound. That was the problem with quiet. Normal noises took on ominous tones.  Or maybe she just had a very active imagination.


Harper pushed herself up on her elbows and looked around the room for a moment before kicking the blankets aside and eying the television. Maybe some mindless daytime TV would put her out for a few hours.


“What’s wrong?”


Mark’s voice startled Harper out of her thoughts. She glanced at the door between their rooms and saw him standing there, looking as if he’d had as much trouble falling asleep as she had.


“Can’t sleep.” She kept it simple. “My brain just won’t shut down I guess.” She finally said when the silence spun out.


Mark nodded slowly. “We could take turns. I’ll stay up and keep an eye on things so you can rest.”


“You need it more than I do.”


“You were shot.” He pointed out in a dry voice.


“Barely. You were in a car wreck. Are we trying to one-up each other?” Harper pushed herself into a sitting position and looked at him critically. “And how are all of your bruises? I have a scratch. You were the one that got banged around.”


“I’ll survive. Shower helped a lot more than those pills that vet gave me.” He moved his arm to prove it.


Harper watched his face for any sign of pain and saw nothing. Either his shoulder had loosened up or he had gotten better at masking it. “So instead of taking turns, why don’t we share my TV and watch a movie?”


Mark raised an eyebrow and appeared to think it over. “I dunno if I’d be able to stay up for the whole thing. I’m tired…just can’t drop off.”


Harper smirked. “Yeah. Me either. That’s the point.” She patted the bed next to her. And had to bite back another smile. Because it didn’t take a mind reader to see that he was having a bit of an internal debate over whether or not he should actually share a bed with her. Hell she hadn’t offered anything but a couple of hours of television.


She knew that he was going to join her before he made his decision. Harper was no expert on people by any means but she kind of got that neither of them wanted to be alone. She wouldn’t have admitted it out loud but she was shaken by the events that had happened through the night especially seeing that damned car at the store. And Mark…well. She could only assume that being lonely was sort of a way of life for him at this point.


Harper waited until he crossed the room before she leaned over to get what looked like a prehistoric television remote from the bedside table. When she turned back, Mark was sitting beside her, eying her speculatively.


“What?” Harper asked, returning the look.


Mark shrugged. “You sure you just want to watch a movie?”


Harper frowned. “What do you mean?”


“Nothing. Just got the feeling there was an ulterior motive.” A flush rose on his face.


Harper snickered. “Yeah. I’m going to take advantage of you the first chance I get. My secret is out.”


Mark half-smiled at her tone. “I could be wrong.”


“You could be. But you probably aren’t.” Harper tossed the remote, unused, to the end of the bed.


“You’re a very…blunt…person.” Mark said when Harper turned to face him again.


“I can be. Sometimes.” Hell she took that as a compliment. Life was too short to play coy. Of course there was a time and a place for that sort of thing, which she would consider teasing. “How blunt do you want me to be?” She asked, moving until she was kneeling next to him so she could face him fully.


“We should get some sleep.” He pointed out. Which was a lesson in futility. Because even though his mouth formed the words Harper could see the way his eyes drifted from hers, to her mouth, downward to her breasts where they paused long enough for her to begin to smile. He’d been distracted by her injury earlier and had not noticed that even though her pajamas were conservative by most standards the top was so thin it was practically see-through. And because of that he could plainly see the hard outline of her nipples through the material. He finally managed to drag his eyes back to hers and Harper was glad she was sitting because that look told her that he wasn’t going to take much convincing if any.


“Or we could do other stuff.” She said, her voice coming out a bit lower and huskier than she intended. “Listen to me. I’m so smooth. Don’t start thinking I make a habit out of this kind of thing.” Even as she spoke, Harper was reached out to slide her fingertips up Mark’s arm, under the sleeve of his shirt, curious about how all that smooth skin would feel.


It was his turn to smile slowly. “What about a…uh…condom…or something? Because I don’t really pack those around with me. It’s not something that I need on a day-to-day basis.”


Harper grinned at his brief stumble of words and business-like tone. “I have some.”


“You do?” Mark had been enjoying the feel of her hand against his shoulder as she lightly squeezed him. Now he looked at her in surprise.


“Sure. I’m prepared for anything. Guns. Condoms. A coloring book and crayons for when I get bored.” She laughed at his expression. “I bought them from the front desk when I picked up the first aid kit.”


That surprised him into a chuckle. “I knew there was an ulterior motive.”


“What can I say? It was an inspired gut feeling.” Harper pulled her hand back and pressed both her palms against his chest, letting her hands slide down his chest and stomach. She hadn’t even given much thought to the why of purchasing the condoms. They had been there, on a small shelf with a bunch of other impulse items like gum and candy and aspirin. She hadn’t even marveled at the oddity of items for sale in the tiny motel’s front office. She figured it was just one of those places that did big business from through travelers or people looking for a few hours of a good time.


Mark brought his hands up and caught hers, eying her with a renewed intensity. Harper felt her stomach do a slow flip at the hunger she could see in his eyes. She knew in that moment that he was hers for the having. He was done offering up a token resistance. Harper leaned forward and slowly pressed her mouth against his, knowing that there would be no turning back from what was going to occur.




Mark cupped the back of Harper’s head in his hand, tilted his mouth against hers, and deepened the kiss. She parted her lips and sighed against his mouth as he took the opportunity to flick his tongue against hers. He pulled her, letting go of her head to grab her by the hips, until she was sitting on his lap, her legs on either side of his.


Harper pulled back, breaking their kiss. She brought her hands up to rest on his shoulders and half-smiled as she slid them downward. She caught the material of his t-shirt and tugged it upward. Mark helped pull it off and tossed it onto the floor. When he turned his attention back to Harper, she was eying the colorful bruises on his chest and shoulder.


“Looks worse than it is.” He said gruffly.


“I’m sure.” Harper shot him a look that he could not decipher. She reached out and lightly traced his bruised shoulder, letting her fingers trail along his chest. She ducked her head and kissed him lightly on the skin above the biggest of the bruises. “Poor guy. Are you sure you’re up for this?”


“Unless you plan on tying me in knots, I think I can handle it.” Mark smirked and pulled her hips forward, pressing her closer, letting her feel the effect she was already having on him. Harper smiled lazily and cocked an eyebrow.


“Well. I guess part of you is up for this.” She let her fingers slip down his stomach and shifted so she could run her fingertips lightly against his growing erection through the cotton of his shorts.


Mark pulled her hips forward again, trapping her hand between them. “All of me is up for it. Stop trying to challenge me.”


Harper laughed and squeezed him, making him suck in a breath. He groaned and moved, surprising her into a squeal of surprise when he flipped her onto her back and moved so that his body was covering hers. All the laughter was gone from her now. She was breathing a little harder, her blue eyes darker than normal, as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders.


Mark caught her mouth with his, using his tongue to tease her lips, to taste her. He kissed her until they were both breathless and gasping, until he felt her fingers tangle into his hair and pull. He backed off, angled his head, and kissed her again, moaning at the sensation of Harper’s body rising off the bed and pressing up into him. He dragged his mouth away from hers and kissed his way down her neck, nuzzling her, sucking, biting lightly, listening to her soft moans of acceptance against his ear.


He ran his hand down her arm, her side, then back up, staying on top of her pajamas for now. He paused long enough to cup her breast, to squeeze it, to flick his thumb against her nipple, before moving his hand upward to stroke the skin on the side of her neck, soothing the places where his goatee had scratched her.


He kissed his way down her chest before pulling back to eye her shirt. The material did not leave anything to the imagination. He could have practically read a book through the white cotton. He glanced up at Harper, looking into her eyes for a moment before ducking his head and closing his mouth over her nipple through the shirt. She moaned and he felt her hips buck lightly against his as he bit her gently, getting the shirt wet, sucking her through it. He repeated the slow torture on her other breast, teasing her. His hand slipped down her side, found the waistband of her pajama pants, and tugged. She raised her hips to aid him. Mark pulled back and sat up, grabbing the material with both hands, sliding it off her legs. That left her in her pajama top and a skimpy pair of white panties.


Mark was in no hurry to strip her further. The slide of her smooth legs against his when he covered her once more caused him to moan. He felt her wrap her legs around his waist, and groaned as he shifted his weight, grinding himself into her. She gasped next to his ear and caught his earlobe in her teeth, biting him playfully as she pushed at his shoulders. He rolled willingly enough so that he was on his back with Harper stretched out above him. She slowly sat up and straddled his waist, letting her hands slide over his chest and stomach until she was touching herself. She stroked her thighs, up, over her lower belly until she snagged the material of her shirt and tugged it upward.


Mark reached for her before she could get the shirt all the way off. He cupped her full breasts in his hands, rotating his thumbs slowly against the hard peaks of her nipples, drawing a moan of pleasure from low in Harper’s throat. She finally managed to get the shirt off and tossed it aside before bringing her hands to cover his as he molded her with his palms. She began to move her hips as well, slowly rotating and grinding against him, the contact muffled through his shorts and her panties. He released one of her breasts and let his hand drift downward, sliding it between their bodies so that she was grinding against his fingers. One tug and he was touching her, sliding his fingers through her folds, listening to her soft moans as he stroked her clit. Harper lifted herself, giving him room to maneuver his fingers as he touched her damp skin.


Harper closed her eyes and let her head fall back as Mark continued to stroke her. He dipped his finger into her folds and found her tight opening, listening to her gasp of pleasure when he pressed upward. He slid his finger into her body inch by slow inch before pulling out and once more stroking her clit.


He was concentrating on that and was surprised when she pulled back, leaning away from him. He watched, an amused smirk crossing his face when she pulled a foil-wrapped packet from the bedside table. Harper used her teeth to tear it open and reached down to pull at his shorts. Mark caught her hands in his before she could do more than release the head of his cock from the confines of his shorts though.


“What’s the rush?” He managed to ask, his voice husky. Harper smiled and looked down, touching the head of his cock with her finger and stroking him.


“I want you inside me.” She stated simply, again with a bluntness that he was starting to admire. She wasn’t afraid to say what she wanted. It was a character aspect that Mark was not used to.


He didn’t stop her when she resumed tugging his shorts down. Harper slid back on his legs and wrapped her fingers around his cock, stroking him a few times, feeling him throb against her palm. He moaned as she squeezed him, his hips jerking involuntarily upward. She smiled at the sound and very slowly eased the condom over his hard shaft, using her hand to stroke the thin latex into place.


Harper slipped away from him for a moment, long enough to push her panties off and kick them to the floor. She straddled him once more, shifting her hips to slide his cock between her folds. Even through the condom he could feel how hot she was, and as she guided him toward her opening he moaned with her at the feel of her inner walls tightening around him until he was fully sheathed.


She took a few moments to get used to the size of him, holding herself still, only her fingers moving against the skin of his stomach. Mark caught her hands and pulled her until she was lying on top of him, her breasts against his chest. He kissed her once, deeply, probing her with his tongue until he felt her hips move, until she began easing him in and out of her body in a slow rhythm.

For the moment, Mark let her set the pace and speed, enjoying the feel of her, the heat. It had been a damned long time since anything had felt so good, and he was in no hurry to speed it up. He and Harper might only have this one day, this one time, to be together so he wanted to enjoy every second of it.


She finally pulled herself back, sitting up with her hands braced on his chest. Mark let his hands rest on her hips as she picked up her pace, riding him harder, faster. She moaned softly as he slid a hand over her hip and let his fingers slip into her folds to once more find her clit and stroke it in time to her thrusting. Harper’s moaning turned into a higher pitched mewling as she climaxed the first time, her inner walls squeezing him so tight that Mark had to fight not to follow her lead. He pulled his hand away from her, aware she was oversensitive, enjoying the sensation of her body shaking against his.


It took her a few minutes to catch her breath. Mark let her take the time as his fingers stroked her, from her shoulders down to her breasts, to her stomach, relishing the feel of her soft skin against his fingertips. He experimentally lifted his hips, pressing up into her, and was rewarded by hearing her moan and shake in response. He looked up into her eyes, unsurprised that she was watching him, self-satisfied smile on her face.


“So you had your turn. Now it’s mine.” Mark said in a low voice. He rolled, pinning her beneath him once more, her breathless moan as he inadvertently moved inside her music to his ears. Harper clutched his shoulders as he slowly moved his hips, entering her with slow methodical strokes. She wrapped her legs around his waist again, pulling him in even closer, tighter, her hot breath puffing against his ear as she moaned. She tangled her fingers into his hair again and pulled, making him groan against her neck as he continued thrusting into her.


“Mark…” Harper moaned his name softly, fingers clutching at him, using her legs to give her leverage to meet his thrusting. “Harder…” She moaned that out as well, and he obliged her, picking up his pace, giving her what she wanted, what they both wanted. His strokes became shorter, harder, until his hips slammed into hers forcefully, drawing gasping moans from deep in her throat. He angled his hips, found her mouth with his and groaned as her fingernails dug into the skin of his shoulders as she climaxed again. This time he did not fight it, he went with it, focusing on the feel of her under him and the way her body milked at him. With a deep moan of his own, he came to his own shuddering finish buried deep inside her body.


Harper was still shaking as she slowly untangled herself from him and fell limp against the pillow. Mark pressed gentle kisses along her jaw line, down her neck, making her chuckle tiredly. “I could probably sleep now.” She mumbled as he nuzzled her ear.


“Mmm hmm. Me too.” He kissed her again, quickly, and pulled away, carefully extracting himself. He rolled off the bed and disappeared into the bathroom to dispose of the condom. When he returned, Harper had turned onto her side and had pulled the blankets up to her waist. He crawled in next to her and pulled her close, spooning against her back. She made a low noise but she was already mostly asleep. Mark smiled to himself and closed his eyes. He refused to regret what had happened. Harper was something special – he just could not figure out how or why. He knew he should be careful not to attach himself to her. He would be leaving in a few hours and she would hopefully be safely on her way to whatever business she had to deal with.


Mark’s arm tightened around her as he drifted off to sleep. If this moment was all he could have, then he would take it and be grateful for it. It had been a damned long time since he had felt half so good, all things considered. It was for the best that they would be parting ways before either of them got in any deeper. A one night stand, or whatever it was that had just occurred, was one thing. Staying with Harper could be dangerous to the walls Mark had spent so many years building. She’d already proven to be more than a match for him, and he’d only known her for 12 hours.  


He slept deeply for several hours, until a low ringing noise disturbed him. He heard Harper mutter and groaned as she pulled away from him. A moment later she was talking into her phone, still sounding mostly asleep. Mark rolled onto his side and pulled her pillow onto his head, blocking the sound, trying to drop back into sleep before he woke up fully. He dozed for only a few minutes when he felt her slide up against his back and wrap an arm over his waist.


“You realize we’ve been sleeping for like six hours?” Harper said, amused when he groaned.


“You on a schedule?”


“Kind of.” She rubbed his chest lightly with her fingertips. “I’m only a little behind thanks to certain events that have happened.”


He smiled at her tone. “Is that your way of sayin’ you’re ready to hit the road?”


Harper heaved a sigh. “Not particularly."


Mark rolled onto his back and pulled her against his side. “So where are you going?”


It took her so long to answer that Mark thought maybe she had gone back to sleep. She finally shook her head. “Going to a funeral.”


“Oh. I’m sorry.”


“Don’t be. I’m not.”


Again he could detect ice in her voice. “I know it’s none of my business…”


“Hell most of the time I’m pretty sure it’s none of mine. The only reason I’m going is because I won’t believe the old fuck is dead until I see it with my own eyes.” Harper pulled away from him and sat up on the edge of the bed.


“Obviously you aren’t mourning whoever it was.”


“You got that right. I shouldn’t even bother going to this stupid funeral.”


“Then don’t.” Mark reached over and took her hand, playing with her fingers.


“I have to.” The scorn in her voice made him smile again. “I need to get ‘closure’ or some other such bullshit. Apparently I have anger issues that’ll only work out once I’m satisfied the asshole is dead and gone.” She sighed again. “I should get ready to go though. I can drag ass or I can get it over with. And it would be best if I just got it over with.” She squeezed his hand and then got up, grabbed her bag, and ducked into the bathroom.


Mark lay there for a minute, just processing things. He finally got up and found his things then went into his own room to get dressed.




By the time Harper got dressed and had packed up her belongings, Mark was already outside. She opened the door and watched him as he walked around her Jeep, stooping to peer at the tires before opening the hood and poking around in the engine.


“All clear?” She asked, smiling at the intent look on his face.


“Looks like it.” He slammed the hood shut. “I don’t see anything wrong. You should be good to go.”




“I hope you aren’t going to stay on the back roads.” He said, stepping closer.


Harper shook her head. “I think the interstate will be good enough for me from now on. It’s only about six miles away.”


“Good. That’s probably the safest thing you can do.” He followed her inside the room and shut the door behind him. “I don’t have to say it but I will. Don’t stop for anybody. And try to stay in populated places.”


“I know. I get it.” Harper looked around, double checking that she had everything. “So where are you going?”


Mark shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ll figure it out as I go. Maybe back to where I got pushed off the road. It’s a place to start.” He was studying her closely. Harper looked up and met his eyes. “I gotta admit I don’t like the idea of you drivin’ off alone.”


She waved a hand at that. “I don’t need a babysitter. You have things to do. I have places to go.”


“Yeah but if that thing decides to follow you…”


“I’ll shoot it in the face for its effort. Don’t worry about me.” She smiled. “Why not just let it go?”


Mark’s eyebrow went up. “Let it go?”


“Yeah. You know. Let the cops in their own slow way deal with it or the backlash from it. Go live an actual life again.”


“I can’t. I already have too much blood on my hands.” He actually looked down at his hands as if to prove his point. “Do you know how many it’s killed since I stopped it the first time? Because if I let it go then I have to live with that plus all the others that’ll be victims from this point on. I have enough nightmares without adding that to it.”


“Ok. Sorry for suggesting it.” Harper seemed to be sort of hurt by his refusal of her idea. Mark had no idea why. He had thought if roles were reversed that she would feel the same way. Of course he didn’t really know her so it was hard to say what she was really thinking. She looked at him for a long moment before grabbing her bags. “Going to throw this in and warm my Jeep up. I’ll be back.” She was out the door before he could say anything else.


Mark stared after her, confused. He finally shook his head and went into his own room to pick up his bags. He’d transferred everything into a small overnight bag he’d picked up that morning, so it wasn’t much to lug around. By the time he got back to Harper’s room she was there again, tugging her coat on. She had snow in her hair, and her cheeks were red from the few brief moments outside, and Mark thought that in a perfect world he’d say screw it and just take her to bed again. And probably stay there for about a week. But it sure as hell wouldn’t be at some cruddy little motel…the more he thought about it the more he would have liked to take her home with him. His wife had passed away and he’d sold their big rambling farmhouse – the plan had been to fill the five bedrooms with kids at some point – in favor of a more modest single level log house. One bedroom. The best part – the place had absolutely no memories. It also had all the personality of a model home because to Mark it was just a place he crashed when he wasn’t doing anything more pressing. He didn’t live there really. He waited.


Apparently his romantic side was rusty as hell because once he thought of getting Harper to his house he was baffled as to what would come next. He had a fireplace. Of course he hadn’t used it in over two years, so he wasn’t sure it was usable at the moment. Did women even enjoy that kind of thing anymore? It wasn’t something he had bothered to think about in years. On the rare occasion when he’d gotten an urge, he had taken care of it at a motel like this one or on extremely rare occasions the woman’s place if it was more convenient and she didn’t seem like the clingy type.


He shook himself out of his thoughts. There was no sense in wondering about it now. They were parting ways. He’d never see her again, and she was probably better off for it. Hadn’t he caused her enough trouble?


“Well. I’m all set I guess.” Harper finally said, mindless of his scrutiny and errant thoughts. “Back to my own quest for inner peace. Plus I remembered to plug my MP3 player in so I’ll even have music to listen to. The universe has realigned itself.” She smiled up at him. “You want me to go first?”


“That would probably be best. But I’m debating following you to see if you’re followed.”


“But then how would you know it’s following me and not you?” Harper asked. Mark frowned in confusion.


“Good question. Ok. Maybe I should go first. I’m heading back in the other direction. Maybe it’ll be curious to see what I’m up to. There’s no way of knowing unless it shows up.”


“I’ll offer it again. Do you want my phone?”


“Are you kidding?” Mark snorted. She’d already tried to give him her new phone once. And her gun. He had declined both. He had no use for either. She on the other hand might need to call for help in a hurry. The thought made his stomach churn. “Who would I call? Bill Murray?”


“I’m pretty sure he said he’s finished being a Ghostbuster.” Harper said, serious. “I just don’t like this, that’s all.”


“It’ll be all right. As long as you stay on the interstate and don’t go wandering off alone…”


“I’m not so worried about myself.” She said, eying him. Then she shook her head. “Just take care of yourself. And watch yourself out there.”


“I will.” He was oddly touched by her worry. It had been a long time since anyone had bothered to care even that much. “Harper…”


She looked away from him and zipped her coat, giving herself something to do. “Thank you. You know. For this morning.” It was strangely formal, and the first time she had sounded remotely awkward, and it made a weak smile surface on Mark’s face. It was also the only time either of them had come close to mentioning what had happened between them.


“Uh…well. I can’t take all the credit for that.” He finally said.


“Take care of yourself.” She repeated it and finally looked up at him. Mark could only nod at her serious tone of voice. Harper stepped forward, caught the shirt he was wearing in her hands and pulled him down. She kissed him, surprising him, but Mark wasn’t going to complain as he kissed her back thoroughly. Hell who knew when he’d have the notion again? He should enjoy it while he could.


When she finally pulled back they were both breathless. She smiled and raised her hand in a wave instead of saying anything else. Mark nodded and watched as she walked outside and climbed into her idling Jeep. He sighed heavily as she pulled away. He felt oddly empty as he watched her turn onto the main road and head in the direction of the interstate.


He waited and watched traffic. Although it was snowing, and accumulating, people were still driving. Traffic was actually sort of heavy at the moment with people heading home from work. He did not see the familiar car but that could mean nothing. The thing could have easily traded it for something else by now.


But why would it? The car was obviously still in working order. Plus there was the added satisfaction of scaring the hell out of Harper if she saw it. If it chose to go after her – which Mark was almost positive was going to happen, no matter what he had said about the interstate being safe, about her not being one of its usual victims – then the car would be an asset for it. It liked the fear almost as much as it liked the kill, at least in Mark’s opinion.


Plus its appearance at the store that morning, and for Harper’s benefit, just solidified in Mark’s mind the idea that the thing was going for her. Maybe because she interfered. Maybe because he felt she was unfinished business. Or maybe because she had dared to stand her ground and fire back. Who knew? The thing didn’t spend time thinking like normal people.


Mark gave Harper thirty minutes then forty-five. And that was about the end of his comfort zone of time. Anything more than that and he’d risk losing her. He left the motel room and shut the door behind him, trying like hell to find his detached way of thinking again. It was hard because his mind wanted to think about Harper. Ok. His mind wanted to fantasize about Harper. For the first time in a long time he found himself wishing that he’d had more time with someone other than just long enough to get a release and give a token ‘I’ll call you’.


He let the truck warm up for a couple of minutes, once again listening to the engine, getting used to the sound of the new vehicle. Satisfied he finally backed out of the space and went to the lot exit. He paused for a moment, looking both ways before turning in the same direction that Harper had taken. He wasn’t going to be leisurely about it but he wasn’t going to get too close too fast. He didn’t want her – and hopefully it – to know he was closing in. He only hoped that his instincts were right this time. They had failed him the night before.


Although he had gotten to be with Harper. If that was a fail maybe he should fail more often. Smiling at that utter absurdity of that thought, Mark gave the truck some gas and got ahead of slower moving traffic. Now that he was moving that inner voice of his that had led him was telling him not to get too far behind.


If she followed her own newly made plans of travel, Harper would be going west on the interstate for about three hours until she would stop at the next largest city to refuel and get dinner. Or lunch. Sleeping in the day sort of threw off Mark’s sense of time. After that she planned to drive another four hours to the next major city where she would take a longer break. That was as much as Mark knew because that was as much as Harper had planned for. If she drove straight through she could get to her destination in about fourteen more hours. But she was in no real hurry even if the funeral was scheduled for the day after tomorrow. She didn’t have to see the guy’s body to enjoy his death. Mark hadn’t questioned exactly why she was so happy to see some old guy kick the bucket. It made sense to her so that’s what mattered.


The rest had done him a world of good, maybe nearly as much as the brief interlude he had shared with Harper. Mark kept an eye on the traffic around him as he guided the truck onto the interstate. He had no real reason to rush. Maybe the rest had done his instincts a world of good. He picked up speed, quickly outpacing the slower traffic around him. He didn’t care. Like the murders that occurred in the rural areas, the cops always seemed to turn a blind eye to his vehicle. It was a theory Mark had tested on many occasions, sometimes pushing the truck or car he was using into the 90 or 100 mile per hour range. He had passed state cops doing better than 40 over the speed limit without a hint of being pursued. It was like they did not see him.


That had happened many times since he’d started this whole thing. People had seemed to look right through him, to the point that he sometimes wondered why he bothered being around at all. Until Harper, he could not remember the last time someone had actually paid attention to him, had seen him. It never bothered him before. Now Mark felt uncomfortable with the thought.


Resolutely he increased his speed as he left town limits and reached open highway. The plan was to trail Harper for a while and watch her back, at least until his alarm bells quieted where she was concerned. He was determined that she had seen the worst that she would have to endure. The thing wasn’t going to get another chance at her if Mark had anything to say about it.


He was reaching for the radio, meaning to tune in to a weather report. The snow was still coming down, and he was probably driving way too fast for the conditions, but he had to make time while the sun was out. After dark visibility would be horrible and he’d be forced to slow down. His finger rested on the power button but he paused, listening. Something was rattling. He made a face, expecting a wave of annoyance. It was a used truck of course it would have issues. Before he could get annoyed he realized it was coming from under the seat. He raised an eyebrow. There hadn’t been anything under the seat to rattle. He had checked. He debated pulling over, decided the road was clear enough ahead, and leaned over to carefully feel along the floor under the passenger seat. His fingers brushed cool metal. Mark pulled it out and raised an eyebrow. It was a gun case.


“Harper…” He muttered her name in exasperation and unhooked the latches on the sides. Sure enough the .45 she had used the night before was inside, along with a spare ammo clip. It was full. There was a slip of paper tucked inside too. He brought the truck to a short stop, ignoring the bite of tires on asphalt, and pulled over onto the shoulder. He grabbed the paper and unfolded it, smiling a little at the short message.


‘I know you said no, but now you’re stuck with it. No worries. I have another one.’ Under that was a phone number. Mark carefully re-folded the paper and tucked it back into the metal box. He eyed the gun for a moment and shook his head. She was insisting he keep the gun maybe to make herself feel better. He understood that. Maybe the number was so he could return it eventually. Or maybe it was her roundabout way of telling him to call her. Either way – it made him smile again.


And it struck him. The things she had said at the motel about getting on with his life, about letting this stuff go. And how she’d been momentarily hurt by his insistence of continuing. He replayed the conversation in his mind, turning it carefully, realizing belatedly that maybe she had been hinting at moving on…with her. She hadn’t wanted to come right out and say it because hell, even Mark could admit the idea would have freaked him out if presented in a blunt manner. In Harper’s usual manner. She had toned it down and pulled back just to see his reaction, and he had disappointed her. But here was her gun and her number. Obviously there was still some hope.


He picked up the gun, testing its weight. He checked the clip that was already set – it was also full. Mark made sure the safety was on before sliding the gun into the gap between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat. It wouldn’t slide around and he’d be able to get to it faster than if he put it back under the seat. He took the second clip and put it into the center console, pretty sure if one clip wasn’t enough the second wouldn’t do much good. He hoped she hadn’t been joking about having a second gun. She might end up needing it. Hating how that thought made him feel, Mark checked for traffic and pulled back onto the interstate, quickly gaining speed.




An hour after leaving the motel, Harper called Colleen. She also blocked her number before she dialed so Colleen wouldn’t be able to call her back. After ten minutes of half-listening to her sister’s loud complaints (no concern over why Harper was behind schedule, naturally, just anger that Harper would dare arrive later than she had scheduled), Harper couldn’t take anymore and hung up. It made her laugh. Hanging up her spoiled sister never failed to be amusing.


She also called Jack. And Jack immediately knew something was wrong because Harper never called when she was driving. She always waited until she had stopped – at a rest area, at a gas station, or a restaurant.


“Nothing is wrong.” Harper assured him for what felt like the hundredth time. “Guess I just thought you’d like to know I’m back on the road.”


“Harper you are terrible at lying.” Jack said with a laugh. “Did your hitchhiker find a new ride?”


“He wasn’t a hitchhiker. And yes.”


“Ah. So you just miss companionship. It’s all right to admit you don’t love driving all by your lonesome, Harp.”


That was the problem. Normally she did love driving alone. Short trips, long trips, it did not matter. It gave her time to think. She hesitated before saying what was on her mind. “I feel kind of…out of sorts.” She finished lamely. She couldn’t think of a better way to put it.


“Out of sorts about what?” She could hear Jack shifting the phone to his other ear before he spoke again. “The guy? The drive? Harper I don’t know what to tell you. Because I don’t know what the problem is.” He paused and when she didn’t speak he came to a realization. “Oh god. Harp. You slept with him?”


“That is the least of my problems at the moment.” She said, smirking.


“Well if that’s not the problem what is?”


“And you encouraged it anyway. So I don’t know why you would sound so surprised.”


“I am surprised. Because it is so unlike you.” Jack laughed. “But good for you. Maybe it’s a sign of the healing process.”


“Spare me the armchair psychology.” Harper cut him off before he could say more. Yes she had her demons to overcome. Who didn’t? That did not mean she wanted to be constantly reminded about them. “And remind me why it is I called you.”


“You never said.” Jack pointed out.


“Right. Well then. Bye.” She hung up on him, smiling again. Maybe she just needed to hang up on people more. It seemed to improve her mood. Not that her mood was horrible. But she did feel out of sorts. And she knew why. She wasn’t a one night stand person, never had been. She didn’t see how some people made a habit out of it. Giving in to an attraction was not unheard of, and she wasn’t going to regret a bit of it, but it still felt so unfinished to her. She hated that feeling, of leaving things hanging. Harper liked to finish what she started, although she had no idea what it was she had started with Mark that needed finishing.


And he obviously didn’t need her help with finishing anything. The rest had changed him. She got to see him when he was fully there instead of worn out and running on fumes. Oddly she found him even more attractive. She had thought maybe it was some kind of female urge that caused it because he had been injured and he was worn out. She had been tempted to pull him back into bed for another shot just to see if there’d be a difference in that area as well. For a moment she had been almost sure he’d been thinking along the same line, but the moment passed and she kicked herself for not acting. She had reeled herself in – something she rarely did – and she’d tried being more subtle. Maybe she had been too subtle. Harper had never been very good at it.


She sighed and shook her head. Best to just let it rest. There was nothing she could do about it now. Unless of course Mark found her gun under his truck seat and decided to call her. She’d had to be sneaky about it because he had refused the gun the first time she’d offered it. Something – some instinct of her own, maybe – told her that he would need it more than she would. So she’d tucked it under his seat and had left her phone number. Another subtle little thing that she normally would have rolled her eyes at. He could call – or not. The ball was in his court.


And as for the gun, she still had her .38 revolver. It was in the glove compartment, loaded, ready to go. She had double checked. The gun was one she’d bought for herself for a couple of reasons – first, she had liked the gun Jack had given her after her initial reservations, and second she preferred the revolver. It felt better in her hand and she was a better shot with it.


Harper turned her music on, needing the company. She was still wary of the road around her of course, and the traffic, but there was so much that she relaxed and tried to enjoy the drive. She liked the snow, even driving in it was no problem for the Jeep as it handled well. She kept an eye out for the familiar black Mustang but other than that she felt pretty safe. She also felt oddly lonely in a way she hadn’t in a long time. Usually she was her own best company.


She stopped for supper, right on schedule, just as night began to fall. Harper managed to find a parking spot near the entrance to the restaurant just as Mark had warned her. It took maybe forty-five minutes to order and eat. She wasn’t in a hurry. In fact she rather enjoyed people-watching. In spite of the weather the place was packed. Harper finished up, made a quick stop at the restroom, and got herself a cup of coffee for the road before heading back out to her now cold Jeep. She had a way to go before she would stop for the night. Usually she would drive until nearly dawn but circumstances being what they were, she had decided to switch her habits just a little and get a room near midnight. She could drive in the daytime for this last leg of her trip.


Of course as midnight approached, Harper wasn’t the least bit sleepy or tired of driving. There were plows out now, staying ahead of the falling snow. There was just enough traffic so that she didn’t feel all alone as she had on previous nights on the back roads. Large towns came and went in the darkness. She stopped for gas and a snack just after midnight, and less than an hour later she was approaching the exit she would need to take to find a motel room for the night.


And she knew without a doubt that it would be a long, boring night if she did it that way. Because she’d never be able to sleep. She’d slept too much earlier in the day and besides that – she was lonely. Sort of. In the vehicle it wasn’t so bad, she had her music and she could sing along, and plan experiments in baking, and entertain herself. In a motel room she’d have a TV and a bed and no real urge to use either.


Even though she had told Mark she was stopping, Harper decided to keep going. There was another city two hours away and a dozen towns in between. She could stay somewhere else if the roads got worse or anything happened. Not that she expected it would. She’d knock on wood if a piece were handy but it had been a quiet, uneventful trip so far that evening. She resolutely gave the Jeep more gas and picked up speed, blowing past the exit.


An hour later and she was signaling a turn into a rest area. She needed to stretch her legs, but more importantly she needed the bathroom. Harper parked near one of the bright street lights that ringed the building. There were a couple other cars, all of them running and spewing exhaust into the cold air. At least the place wasn’t deserted.


The rest area was actually two separate buildings. The left side was the women’s rooms, the right was the men’s. There was a small glass enclosed kiosk between the two buildings along a narrow walkway that was full of maps and local travel brochures. Harper paused to zip her coat and glanced over the titles, realizing that she recognized quite a few of the destinations. She was getting closer to her destination all right. Sighing she headed along the walkway toward the restrooms, hands tucked in her pockets against the cold wind. The walkway was a nice idea in theory – unfortunately it created something of a wind tunnel. A family of four was walking in the opposite direction, laughing about the sudden vortex of air that puffed between the buildings.


The restroom was almost superheated compared to the air outside. Harper made quick use of the facilities and spent a moment washing her hands and finger-combing her hair. It was a mess thanks to the wind, so she gave it up as a lost cause. She mentally braced herself for the cold air as she exited the restroom.


She had only gone a few steps along the walkway when she got a sudden skin-crawling sensation on the back of her neck. Harper shivered and turned, expecting…something. She didn’t know what. But there was nothing there. Just more swirling snow and cold wind blowing right into her face.


She peered into the darkness beyond the rest area’s lights and shook her head. Whatever it had been, it was gone now. Maybe she was just more tired than she thought. There was nothing here but a lot of snow. In the short time she’d been inside the restroom the storm had intensified, lowering visibility even more. She turned and hurried along toward her Jeep to get back on the road. A motel for the night was sounding much more tempting than it had earlier. She would just have to deal with being bored.




He could smell her.


It made hunting her that much easier. It helped that he had managed to scratch her the night before, releasing the smell of her blood into the air. Even hurt and running he had scented her like an animal. His interest in the man in the truck waned in favor of the woman. She was not at all his preferred target but maybe that was for the good. Maybe this time he would be able to act out the fantasies in his head that plagued him night and day, that drove him to do hunt endlessly for a woman who could meet his needs.


Fundamentally something about her was different, not just her hair color. She had fire. She was defiant. And there was something about that flash of anger he’d seen that intrigued him. The bullet holes in the car, that was what had done it. She had been so mad about what had happened – whether it was being shot at or missing her target he did not know – that she’d taken her anger out on the car. The car was nothing to him – he had stolen it two weeks before because the idiot who owned it had left the keys in the ignition. It never failed to amaze him how many idiots there were in the world. No one protected what was theirs.


Except for this random woman.


Obviously the man wasn’t hers. The man was someone that he had been peripherally aware of for quite some time. He had deemed the man unimportant. The only reason he had gotten so close was because he had let him, to get an idea of what he was after.


He would have liked time to deal with the man. He was bothersome, but only because he did not understand why he insisted on following him. He’d become aware of him slowly over the past few months. The man’s presence made him nervous, and he did not like to be nervous. It was foreign to his nature to be nervous.


And he could not figure out why the man and the woman had thrown in together, albeit briefly. And how the both of them kept disappearing. The night before he had been tracking he woman when she had just vanished. He had found her again, of course, but that brief period of there being nothing had left him angry. He had pushed his hand, showing up at the store. And to give the woman credit, she had barely raised an eyebrow at seeing his car there. But she did see it. He got an even better look at her in the pale light of the rainy morning, and knew he would have to have her. Even if she was not his standard, she represented something else that he could not put a name to.


And the man had still been with her. He had sensed him coming and had left before there would be a confrontation, because he was good at biding his time. He still did not understand the man’s motivation, and he felt as if he had to in order to stop him.


But now the man and woman had split up. The man was gone – out of range, maybe. And that was good. The woman was the important thing. The more he scented her the more he wanted her.


He stopped and ate at the same restaurant that the woman had visited. He even sat in the same booth, surrounded not only by the smell of food but by the scent of the woman. He sat for nearly an hour, food barely touched, drawing in as much of the atmosphere as he could. As much of the woman as he could. He would have her well before the night was through, but now that the threat of the man was eliminated he could savor it.


With her smell renewed in his mind, he made faster time in tracking her. He was gaining. He could feel it. Well after midnight he pulled into an overly-lighted rest area and parked on the end furthest from the lights. Snow was falling, and rapidly covering his car. That was good. The woman was here. It would not do for her to spot the car and run now.


As he trudged through the snow he saw a family climbing into a large sedan. He barely paid them any notice. He had no interest in small children – unless they were of the unborn variety. He did not know why that was, he only knew it was one of the conditions of his actions. Whether he sensed a woman’s pregnancy or if he had just gotten lucky, he couldn’t say. Maybe it was also something in their smell. Once he was finished with the woman tonight he would think it over. For now he had to concentrate.


He rounded the corner just in time to see her duck into the women’s restroom on the left. He smiled to himself. Although there were still a few cars parked out front, they might as well have been all alone. Her complacence was her mistake. He was mindless of the cold air or the sting of snow against the bare skin of his face as he reached the door. It was close to the back corner of the building. He took a moment to scout the lay of the land, and nodded to himself. It would do. He would have to be quick, and silent, just in case there were more through-travelers in the men’s restroom. But he could grab the woman and have her gone into the woods behind the rest area in moments.


He moved to stand in ankle deep snow just on the other side of the door, around the corner of the building. There were no lights at the back, not like the harsh white glare of the street lamps out front. There were spotlights on the building but they were off – and were probably only used during maintenance hours. That was good. He was virtually invisible as he waited, peering around the corner, anticipating the door opening and the woman stepping out.


It happened just as he had envisioned it. She exited the restroom and tucked her hands into her coat pockets against the cold air. She never even looked in his direction; she merely turned and moved along the walkway. He silently crept forward, two paces, three, and reached out for her.


He grabbed nothing but air as he was jerked backward off his feet and all but thrown into the snow he had just been standing in. Before he could do more than gasp in a breath, the man - the one he had written off as going in the other direction - had him by the throat. He picked him up easily, slamming him back against the wall of the building, making his head bounce off the concrete wall.




Mark’s instincts were firing on all cylinders.


He knew – somehow – that Harper would not take the opportunity to rest at a motel in the city, just as he had known, somehow, that he had to get ahead of her. And he’d managed it while she had been eating dinner. He did not know how he could possibly know any of it but it was true. He only had to concentrate for a moment to get a feel for what she was doing. He didn’t bother trying to pinpoint the thing that was after Harper. He knew where it would be eventually.


Mark almost didn’t stop at the rest area. In fact he’d been traveling at nearly ninety miles per hour, ignoring the nearly ten inches of snow and the low visibility. He was being driven by a force greater than himself by that point. He couldn’t put a name to it any more than he could control it. At the last second he had tapped the breaks and guided the truck through the drifting snow. There was a small service road that went to the rear of the dual buildings. Instead of parking out front, and risking Harper or the thing recognizing his truck, he’d pulled in behind the men’s room into a deserted employee lot.


Like other rest areas this one employed cleaning people to keep it looking neat. There were none on duty at that hour so he was positive that he would not be bothered.


Once he’d parked, Mark shut off the lights and sat in the quietly idling truck, keeping the engine on for the heat. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, trying to get a sense of where Harper was. She was coming – that was all he could tell for sure. He hoped he wasn’t wrong.


Not long after he’d parked, he shut the engine off and pulled on a pair of black leather gloves that he’d bought the day before. He hesitated a moment then picked up the gun Harper had left for him. It felt somehow…right…and he tucked it into his coat pocket without questioning it. He slipped out of the truck and turned his collar up against the wind.


Still running on instinct, he avoided the back entrance to the rest area. He didn’t want to leave any prints in the snow that Harper or the thing would see and be spooked by. Harper might not care – it was a rest area after all, people were in and out. He went to the edge of the small employee lot and walked the perimeter, getting to the other side in a roundabout way. He came to a stop on the side of the women’s restroom, out of the wind for the most part. He could see the back entrance to the walkway – and more importantly he could see a large portion of the well-lit parking lot out front. There was nothing to do but wait. Mark leaned against the building and watched as the wind whipped snow around him.


Ten minutes passed, then fifteen. Mark’s adrenaline was so high he didn’t feel the cold. He watched – and heard – as people came and went. The restroom behind him echoed, and there were windows set high into the concrete wall. He didn’t know if it was a trick of acoustics or if he were imagining it, but he could make out snatches of conversation and separate voices coming from the restroom.


He knew the exact moment when Harper got out of her Jeep. Mark had not been wrong. He waited patiently, biding his time, listening until he heard the soft bang of the restroom door close. He risked peering around the corner and saw the thing he had been pursuing. It stood near the walkway, much the same way Mark was doing. Out of sight.


Mark steeled himself and slowly moved toward the thing. All of its attention was occupied as it waited for its opportunity to grab Harper. Mark could sense that as well now, the thing wanted Harper and was going to snatch her and pull her into the woods. He clenched his fists at the images that flashed into his head. As far as Mark knew, the thing had only ever been interested in killing. There had been no sexual assault on any of the women although many had been found half-dressed. But since Harper was different, the thing had different ideas about what would happen to her. The other women would look like mercy kills by comparison. And why? Because Harper had dared to stand her ground. It was intrigued because only hunting a certain type of woman led to a certain sort of apathy. Harper was different.


Mark could definitely attest to that as he crept up on the thing in front of him. He knew the exact moment Harper came out of the restroom even though he could not see the door; the thing’s back straightened, and a shark-like grin crossed its features. It took a step forward, already reaching, meaning to get Harper before she could get too far away from the corner.


But Mark had anticipated that. He grabbed the thing by the hair and hooked his elbow around its throat, using the element of surprise to throw it backward out of the walkway.


He didn’t give it time to recover. Mark reached down and grabbed it by the throat, fueled by a cold rage that he had not been aware he was capable of. He slammed the thing against the building, squeezing its throat so that it couldn’t make a noise and alert Harper. She had paused to look over her shoulder but was moving on – she hadn’t seen or heard anything yet.


The thing squirmed under his hand. “Let…go….” It managed to hiss out, wasting oxygen. Mark had no intention of letting go.


“Yeah. I don’t think so.” He said it more to himself than the thing. He used his free hand to pull the gun from his pocket.


“Now…remember…you.” The thing had narrowed its eyes as it stared at Mark. It was trying to breathe shallowly, and Mark could feel it coiling, almost like a snake, as it prepared to fight. It thought he would slip up if it could distract him. So Mark let it think that it was. He wanted Harper to be far enough away that she didn’t hear anything because she would be compelled to check. She didn’t walk away from things like that. But this was one time when it would do her more good to move along. Mark did not want her to see this. He didn’t much like himself for having to do it but it needed to be done.


“Good.” Mark brought the gun up and rested the barrel under the thing’s chin.


“Dawn…put up…a fight.” It might have sounded like random ramblings, but to Mark a sucker punch to the stomach would have done less damage than hearing his wife’s name come out of this thing’s mouth. “And begged for…her baby’s…life.” It raised a hand and wrapped it around Mark’s wrist, trying to pull his hand away from his throat.


Mark’s thumb flicked off the safety. Red rage washed over his vision momentarily turning the word dark. Something stopped him before he could pull the trigger though. He wanted to. He ached to. He wanted to empty the entire clip into the goddamned thing’s head. But he held himself in check, breathing hard, trying to check his temper.


“You should have listened to her.” Mark finally said. The thing merely stared back at him, a look on its face that Mark couldn’t define. Part fear – even though it had come back, dying apparently was not enjoyable – but something else as well. A sort of knowing smirk crossed its lips.


“Killing me…won’t bring her…back.” The thing hissed out. “It makes you…no better…than me. Doing this for…for her…won’t change…anything.”


“Except I’m not doing this for her.” Mark pointed out. His voice was low, calm. Damn near amicable. “This time it’s for Harper. You can’t have her.” He accented that point by lightly smacking the thing’s head into the concrete again.


Har…” The thing tried to say her name but Mark didn’t give it a chance to finish. He pulled the trigger. The sound of the gun was incredibly loud to Mark’s ear but his timing was nearly perfect. Harper had driven off; the rest area was momentarily deserted. One bullet was all it took. The thing slumped forward and Mark let it go, dropping it to the ground.


He stooped low and rolled the thing onto its back. Dead. Its sightless eyes stared up at the falling snow.


Mark suddenly felt as if all the energy were drained out of him. He sat down heavily, mindless of the cold snow through his jeans, letting the gun slip from his fingers and drop to the ground. He stared at the thing, waiting. Just waiting. The last time he’d killed it he’d walked away without a backward glance. This time he wanted to be sure.


He sat for nearly half an hour, dimly aware that people were still coming and going less than 10 yards from where he sat with the dead body. His bond, or link, or whatever it was, to Harper was fading. He was trying desperately to hold on to it, because he needed it. As hard as it was to admit, even to himself, he needed her. Damned if he knew exactly why.


Eventually he got to his feet. He bent and picked up the gun, knocking snow from it before putting it back into his pocket. He looked at the dead body lying at his feet with tired contempt. He had to get rid of it. Last time he hadn’t bothered. This time something told him to deal with it different. He would drag it into the woods, far enough that a fire would not be easily seen. The thing’s car was nearby as well – so Mark would come back for it and deal with that as well. Although he did not want to leave the body, he risked it to head to the front of the rest area to find the car. The keys were in it. Mark got in and guided it around the building. The body was as he’d left it. He didn’t try to be stealthy now. Once again he was aware that on some level no one would see him – even if a cop had been standing at the entrance to the walkway Mark was pretty sure he wouldn’t be bothered.


He tossed the body into the trunk of the Mustang and slammed it shut. Although the car was low to the ground, he managed to get it over the curb around the parking lot and through the line of trees. Ten minutes later he found a small natural clearing. It would be perfect.


It took another fifteen minutes to set the car up and prepare it. He had found tubing and had siphoned some gas out of the tank. He used it to douse the interior of the car and the body in the trunk. He had a book of matches in his coat pocket – something he had grabbed from a bar several weeks before and had forgotten about – so he used those to start the fire. He watched as the interior caught fire first, the flames heating the air a bit. The fire found the trail of gasoline and followed it into the trunk. Mark watched as the thing started to burn and forced himself to back away. The fire would eventually reach the gas tank. He didn’t want to be in the neighborhood when that went up.


But he watched for as long as it was safe. The fire burned hot. He stood at the edge of the clearing and listened to the flames crackle. The thing in the trunk was no longer recognizably human. Finally satisfied, Mark turned and followed the car’s fading tracks back to the rest area. The snow was quickly filling in any evidence that a vehicle had gone through.


He had reached his truck when the Mustang exploded. At this distance it was muffled and sounded almost like a clap of thunder. He cocked his head for a moment, feeling bone-deep weariness settle into him. He checked to make sure he still had Harper’s gun as he climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine. He pulled to the front of the rest stop and parked like all the normal people before climbing out once again and heading into the restroom.


Mark stripped off his gloves and washed his hands, then his face. There were no outward signs of what he had done. But he knew he would see it every time he looked in the mirror. He used paper towels to dry off and headed back outside. He paused near the glass-enclosed kiosk, eying the three payphones that were lined up inside.


He could call Harper. Tell her that it was over, offer to send her gun back to her. He wanted to. There was no denying it. But what would come next? He was at a total loss trying to figure it out. He finally shook his head and turned away from the phones. He would call her. Eventually. Not now, not when he felt like it would only take a friendly voice to make him break into pieces. He got behind the wheel and closed his eyes again, trying to sense her. Just one last time. There was nothing there. She was gone.


He hoped it meant that it was over.


Even as the thought formed, he huffed out a tired laugh. “Over. Right.” He muttered as he threw the truck into gear. He had thought it was over before but the thing had come back. And again. It was too much to hope that this time he’d gotten it right.




Harper guided her Jeep along the road, frowning to herself. That odd feeling had left as soon as it had popped up which was just fine by her. But it had reminded her that she needed to be careful still.


So she did take the first exit for the next city. And had to hunt around for almost an hour to find a place to stay for the night. The weather had filled up the motels directly off the interstate, so she had gone into the actual city and had booked a room for the night at one of the larger hotels. Normally it would have annoyed her but not that night – she was glad to have the humongous jet-filled tub and room service. That late the menu was limited but she’d eaten a big supper. What she wanted were snacks. After a leisurely soak in the tub in jasmine scented bubbles up to her chin, she wrapped herself up in one of the hotel’s terrycloth robes and relaxed on the bed to watch a movie until she got sleepy.


Jack would have made fun of her. Actually Harper would make fun of herself. She had never been one to spend the extra time or energy pampering herself. She had never understood the need people had to use a place like this – which was just a motel with a better paint job in her estimation. She supposed in her case it didn’t matter. She had just taken what was available. But she had been raised around this kind of thing and found that expensive hotels were heartless cold places for people with too much money and too much time on their hands.


Once she had her snacks, some drinks, and had combed the tangles out of her wet hair, she was of course bored nearly to tears. Even the movie didn’t hold her attention for long. It was just background noise while she paced the room. She could have fit three of the rooms from the night before into this one. There was plenty of space to wear a hole into the carpet.


Harper also glanced at her phone from time to time. She had called Jack earlier, before her bath. He had told her he was going to bed so he could get an early start in the morning. She didn’t have any other close friends she felt comfortable calling on at this hour of the night. She finally gave up and tossed the phone onto the bedside table before crawling onto the bed. She should have been comfortably tired but she just couldn’t seem to drift off. Everything still felt so damned unfinished. She hated that.


Everything should have been right with the world. Her own personal boogeyman was being laid to rest. She was financially stable, she had enough to do to keep herself occupied. Hell even the stuff that had happened earlier had been what she would classify as an interesting diversion. Had she really been so accepting of Mark’s story? She had to be. She had seen the guy run off after taking a couple of bullets. So why had she been compelled to leave him her gun? And her cell phone number of course. Normally Harper could be about as subtle as a chainsaw, but she had practically held herself back to merely leave him the gun and the note.


Harper started to drift. Her doze didn’t last long. It took a moment to realize that someone was knocking on her door. She eyed the door warily before sliding off the bed and adjusting the robe around her. Whoever it was knocked again, softly. It was almost as if they were trying not to wake her up if she was sleeping. She hadn’t told anyone where she was staying, room service had delivered her food hours before, so there was no reason for anybody to show up at her door at nearly four in the morning.


She tiptoed to the door and leaned close, noticing a peephole set into the center.  She expected maybe a hotel manager type or even the desk clerk. What she got was a very exhausted looking Mark. All of his energy from earlier appeared to be gone.


Harper opened the door and just stood there for moment at a loss for words. “How…what…”


“I don’t know.” Apparently she didn’t need to elaborate her thought. He looked like he understood. He smiled tiredly. “I thought maybe I could just stop somewhere and get some rest. And something brought me here.” There was something in his eyes that made Harper feel like crying. It came on her so suddenly that she couldn’t breathe for a moment.


“Mark?” She realized he was still standing in the hallway. She reached out and grabbed a handful of the coat he wore, and pulled him into her room. He stepped in and wrapped his arms around Harper’s waist, pulling her closer, bending down so that his face was pressed again the side of her neck.


Harper let the door swing shut behind him and put her arms around his shoulders, holding tight to him. She had no idea what he wanted or needed but a hug was as good a place to start as any. She smoothed her hand through his long hair, which was hanging loose around his face. He also smelled faintly of gasoline. It wasn’t totally unpleasant. She stroked his head and ran her fingers over his shoulders, sensing that he just needed time to pull himself together.


Whatever had happened had done something to him. That was obvious. It still did not explain how he had managed to find her. She wanted to ask him about it but held herself back. He was upset or…something. Maybe beyond upset. Maybe in some kind of strange shock. She was aware on some level that she was swaying with him in her arms, and humming under her breath. Soothing him. She had no idea what else she could do at that moment.


Eventually he pulled back. Harper had a moment to wonder what he was thinking before he was kissing her. The kiss was nothing like the hug - there was no softness, no gentleness. He invaded her mouth with his tongue and cut off her breath by holding her tighter against him. She made a low noise in her throat and tried to keep up with him, surprised yes but not unwilling. The intensity of it shocked her. Mostly because he had seemed so tired just moments before.


It was all she could do to hold on to him. Mark started sliding his hands over her body, squeezing her through the thick material of her robe, not stopping in one spot for long. It wasn’t until his hand found the belt that was tied around her waist that Harper tried to pull back, to slow him down.


She leaned back and dragged her mouth away from his, gasping, trying to get her breath. He wasn’t put out – he ducked his head and pressed his mouth against her throat, sucking on her, scraping his teeth against her. Harper felt a pleasurable shudder go down at her spine as he untangled the robe’s belt and pulled it free. He slid his hands under the material, groaning at the feel of bare skin under his palms as he touched her waist, her hips. He moved and cupped her rear with his hand, pulling her hard against him, making Harper suck in a sharp breath at the urgency she could sense coming from him. He squeezed her rear and his teeth found a sensitive spot on her neck where it met her shoulder. Harper moaned and clutched at his shoulders, closing her eyes as the sensations washed over her.


He pulled away suddenly, leaving her shaking. Mark got rid of his coat, throwing it to the floor. Then he yanked his shirt over his head. His eyes caught hers and Harper felt an odd mix of lust and fear shoot through her. She had never seen a man look at her the way he was, his eyes darker than normal. He looked hungry. But that didn’t even come close to describing it. She wasn’t afraid of him – she knew that without even thinking about it. It was the sense of not being in control of things, of herself.


She didn’t have time to consider it or form a token protest. Mark was pulling her against his body again, his mouth seeking hers, his hands rough against her. But she liked it. Liked it. Hell, she loved it. The rougher he got the more excited she became. He seemed to sense it. He pushed the robe off her shoulders and began moving her backward, his hands once more roaming her body, aiming her toward the bed. Even though she expected it, Harper still jumped when her knees bumped the mattress and fell backward. She laughed breathlessly at herself and began to push herself up with her elbows, still noting the way he was watching her every move. He was also unsnapping the fly of his jeans and shoving them down his hips.


Harper managed to push herself backward onto the bed but Mark did not give her much room. He was on top of her, pushing her down onto her back, covering her body with his. She trembled at the feel of him, all that smooth skin sliding against hers even as he roughly cupped her breast in his hand and closed his mouth over the nipple. He nipped her hardened nipple with his teeth and sucked at her until her body arched up off the bed at the sensation. She grabbed a double handful of his hair and yanked, not sure if she wanted to pull him away or hold him there. Mark didn’t seem to notice as he shifted his focus to her other breast.


She jumped for the second time when she felt his fingers pressing into her folds, roughly stroking her clit, drawing a moan from her. His mouth moved down along her stomach as his fingers continued the onslaught of her slick flesh. He parted her folds and inserted one thick finger inside her body even as he moved between her legs and his mouth found her wet center.


Harper had to fight back against an actual scream as he added a second finger to the first and flicked his tongue rapidly against her clit. She had never been into rough sex, not even when she had been drinking. She wasn’t an angel by any stretch of the word but even on the rare occasions when she’d been drunk she had shied away from the rough stuff. Even if she had, just the morning before, asked Mark to use her harder – that was about her limit. This was not like anything she’d felt before.


She could not control her moaning as he sucked her against his tongue and his fingers found a steady hard rhythm into her body. Harper did not even try to keep up. He was like a man possessed, fueled on by her high pitched panting moans. Mark pressed his fingers up and once more flicked his tongue against her clit. Harper suddenly arched up against him as she climaxed against his mouth and fingers, the sensations so strong that she felt as if she couldn’t have stopped it if she wanted to.


He didn’t give her time to recover. He didn’t even give her time to finish her first earth-shattering orgasm before he extracted his fingers and crawled up her body. Mark didn’t finesse her. He reached between them, guided the head of his cock into her still-spasming body, and plunged into her with force.


Harper cried out and dug her nails into his back, jerking her hips up against him. She was oversensitive, her body did not want to be stimulated again, but Mark had other ideas. He began moving his hips in a hard, steady rhythm, pressing tightly against her so he was buried to the base, pulling nearly all the way to thrust into her again. He repeated it a few times, angled his hips, then picked up his pace, slamming into her with shorter, harder strokes. Harper clutched at him and this time did scream out as a second orgasm shook her to her core. Mark once again continued to ride out her moaning, ignoring her body’s attempts to hold him still, slamming into her with even more force than before.


“Mark…” She could barely speak above a whisper, and she could not catch her breath. Harper wrapped her arms around his shoulders and shuddered against him as he finally reached his own end, moaning as he came buried deep inside her body, hips pressed down hard against hers.


It took several minutes to come down. Mark semi-collapsed against her, his head resting lightly against her shoulder, breath puffing across her breasts.


Harper finally managed to get her breathing down to normal levels. She felt as if her arms and legs were suddenly made of rubber bands. It took an effort to raise her arms and wrap them around Mark’s shoulders again. “Do you need to talk about it?”


Mark had a huffing noise that could have been a chuckle. “I’d prefer not to. Not yet.”


“Ok.” Harper said agreeably although she didn’t understand what the hell had just happened. Sex of course but there had been a sort of desperate quality to it that she had been too overtaken by lust to notice. It was dizzying. And terrifying. And even a little intoxicating.


“Do you care if I stay here?” He had pulled back a little to look down at her. That dark hunger was no longer evident in his eyes. It was sort of a relief and a letdown at the same time.


“My room is your room.” Harper smiled when he ducked his head to kiss her lips. Gently this time.


“I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.” He mumbled against her mouth. Harper laughed tiredly.


“I’m not complaining. Don’t apologize.” She was still smiling when he kissed her again. Once more she got a subtle whiff of gasoline, mixed with whatever cologne he was wearing and just the smell that belonged to him. Again it wasn’t strong enough to be off-putting. Mark must have smelled it too because the half-smile faded from his lips.


“I need a shower.” He said, almost apologetically. Harper nodded and groaned as he withdrew and shifted away from her. He headed into the bathroom mindless of his nudity. That was all right. She rather enjoyed the view from the back. But she also wondered, again, what exactly had happened to bring him to her door once again.


Fifteen minutes later Mark crawled into bed beside her and pulled the blankets up to cover them both. Harper shut off the last lamp and dropped them into darkness, smiling sleepily when she felt him snuggle up against her back.


It felt like only minutes had passed. Harper frowned and cracked an eye open, wincing at the bright light flooding in through the window. She had forgotten to shut the blinds and of course she would get a room that had sun exposure. She glanced at the clock on the bedside table, blinking until the numbers made sense. It was after noon. She stretched and turned, expecting to see Mark laying there sleeping.


He wasn’t there.


Harper frowned and sat up, dragging a hand through her tangled hair. His clothes were no longer piled on the floor. For a second she wondered if she had dreamed him up but the soreness that had settled into her body proved that he had been. Her thighs especially felt weak and sore. Harper looked down at herself, raising an eyebrow at the various marks on her skin. He had given her a pretty decent beard burn along with a couple of bruises from sucking so hard against her skin. But she still couldn’t complain.


That only made her wonder where the hell he had disappeared to. She got up, wincing again as her body protested the movement. Her gaze fell on a familiar metal lockbox that was sitting near the television. She moved slowly over to it and opened it, seeing without surprise that her gun was inside. So was the spare clip. The paper was not there though. Out of habit she ejected the clip. One of the bullets was missing. Harper cocked an eyebrow wondering what exactly that meant.


She took a shower, and felt a little more human. Or at least a little less sore. By the time she had dried off and dressed an hour had passed. She resigned herself to the fact that he was not coming back. He had shown up the night before looking for…something. Maybe a goodbye screw for all she could tell. At least it had been a good one. She made sure she had all of her things and headed down to the lobby to check out. She told herself she did not feel hurt at all that he had left her while she’d slept. It actually probably made things way easier. No awkward goodbyes. At least she didn’t feel like she had unfinished business anymore. With a sigh she headed for her Jeep and the last leg of her journey.




He had no idea why he’d done it.


Actually he had no real idea exactly how he managed to find her.


Mark had every intention of just going home. Resting. Laying low and trying to come to terms with what had happened. It should have been easy. Instead he’d found himself driving west along the highway, into a city he’d never been before. And something had pushed him right to Harper’s door.


The worst part was for a very short period of time he had not really been in control of himself. What had he been trying to prove? Something inside him wanted her – whether it was because of what had happened, or because she had been a target and could have died, hell maybe because she was a target because of helping him – Mark did not know. He’d felt like a passenger in his own body until reality had hit him. Harper hadn’t mentioned it but he knew she could smell the gasoline that had splashed on him at some point. He hadn’t noticed until he’d basically dropped back into himself.


He showered and scrubbed until he could smell nothing but the soap that the hotel provided. By the time he got back to the bed Harper was already mostly asleep. He gave in to the temptation of crawling into bed with her. She had almost immediately dropped into a deeper sleep. Mark wished he had been able to follow her lead. He was tired but not sleepy, and confused in a way that he hadn’t been in a long time. He didn’t understand what had brought him here. And he was at an even bigger loss trying to figure out why he had used Harper the way he had.


Eventually he couldn’t stand not sleeping. He slipped from the bed, got dressed, and took her room key. It only took a few minutes to go to the parking garage and get her gun from his truck. He hesitated though, fingering the piece of paper and her note. If he were smart he’d leave it with the gun and try to forget everything. It was how he usually got on with his excuse for a life.


He couldn’t do it though. He tucked the paper into his pocket and took the gun case back up to Harper’s room. She slept on, unaware that he had moved. He looked at her, feeling a pang of regret, before leaving her key where he’d found it and stepping out of the room. He had to. If he stayed he’d be tempted to get back into the bed. And then in the morning she would expect an explanation for what had happened. And what would he tell her? He’d gotten blood on his hands, in the literal sense, and so he’d screwed her to force himself back to reality?


He didn’t even understand it himself.


Mark drove aimlessly for hours, stopping finally when it registered that he was nearly out of gas. He had no idea where he was – not headed in the direction that would take him home, for that he would have to head south and east. No. He was still driving west. The snow had stopped at some point during the night after leaving behind ten inches. The roads were mostly clear, at least the main highway. He took the nearest exit and refueled, wondering what the hell he was doing.


Something was driving him. Obviously. He paused for a minute after paying for his gas and stood next to his truck, one hand on the door, the other holding his keys. He closed his eyes and tried to clear his head. And again he felt it. That tug west. It made no sense. But he knew better than to try to fight it. It would get worse if he tried to fight it.


So he continued on. It wasn’t as if Mark had more pressing plans. He only stopped once, for coffee. Soon enough he found himself in a city he had never been, driving streets he’d never heard of. Basically just getting a feel for things. There was a definite vibe here; he just couldn’t figure out what the vibe was. He almost felt like he was holding his breath, waiting for something to happen.


Eventually Mark checked in to a motel. He had to. Whatever need was driving him took a lot out of him. He dropped into a heavy sleep as soon as his head hit the pillow and did not move until almost ten the next morning. The pull was still there but he was more clear-headed. He showered and got dressed, only noticing after he had packed his bags that he was wearing nearly solid black from head to toe. He couldn’t even remember buying the black pants at the store – of course he had been tracking Harper’s movements so he had basically just thrown things that were his size into his basket. He checked out of the motel and climbed into his truck, hardly aware that there was light traffic on the road or that he was pulling into a pair of gates that marked the edge of a large cemetery.


He absolutely had no business being there. He didn’t know anyone who would be buried there, so he had no interest in any of the grave markers. But there was a crowd gathering on a slight rise near the back of the place. He moved in that direction, mixing in with other mourners, none of them seeming to be too heartbroken. He glanced around, curious, noting that most of the attendees were older men with a few women interspersed among them. Some were wives, but they all held an obvious disinterest in the service. It was as if they were all there more out of duty than to pay respects.


His eye fell on the one really bright spot of color in the group. A woman was seated in the front row near the grave, her white-blonde hair in perfect contrast to her black outfit. She was striking in a severe way, unapproachable, stoic. She held a white tissue in her hand but even from the back of the crowd Mark knew it was just stage dressing. The woman was no more crying than he was.


He finally looked away from her and scanned the crowd once more, almost not recognizing Harper. He didn’t know why he had expected her to look exactly as she had the day before. It was a funeral after all. She was wearing a skirt and a dressy sweater top. Her dark hair was pinned back on the sides and fell in waves past her shoulders. The completely bored expression on her face nearly made him smile. That was until she looked around and her eyes fell on him.




Harper got into town with a few hours to spare.


It was a lot closer than she had planned but she wasn’t going to complain about her diversions. She checked into a hotel and spent an hour showering and dressing for the day ahead. Only when she was ready did she call Colleen.


She certainly didn’t sound bereaved. Instead she was extremely pissed off that Harper dared to stay in a hotel instead of at the house. Harper refused to let herself get riled. She figured that was Colleen’s goal – to make her angry then claim it was Harper being unreasonable.


“I’m not staying at the house.” Harper said when Colleen paused for a breath. “I hate the house. You stay at the house, I’ll stay here. This isn’t a social visit and I want to have as little contact with you as humanly possible.”


Her sister could only sputter at that. Harper got the joy of hanging up on her once again. Before Colleen could get the bright idea to call her room, she headed out. She would get to the funeral home early, but that was all right.


The next four hours were basically Harper’s idea of hell. People she did not know kept offering condolences or hugging her. For her part she tried to keep straight face. Colleen appeared, fashionably late, and pretended to be the doting big sister. If anyone noticed that Harper did not reciprocate it was not mentioned. The funeral was packed – it was mostly Daniel’s business contacts, which said all that needed to be said about the man. Harper found herself staring at the open casket with a sneer on her face and tried to cover it up. Whoever had said it was impossible to hate a dead man had not been through her life. She found herself hoping that he had suffered. A lot.


Eventually it was over. Harper just wanted to go back to her hotel and sleep for a few hours. She was still a bit sore from the previous night. Colleen had other ideas. As soon as the place cleared out she attacked.


“Nice stunt, waiting until the last minute. You know how important this is to us.”


“Us?” Harper echoed.


“Yes, you ungrateful brat. Us.” Colleen sniffed and tossed her hair. She still sported her straight hair in a shoulder-length bob, but Harper knew the hair color was no longer real. That platinum blonde was too brassy to be anything but a dye job. Colleen had aged and not well. It took Harper a moment to realize that her sister was technically pushing 50. The thought made her smile inwardly.


“I actually don’t give one single fuck about how important this is to anybody.” Harper said. She looked over her shoulder at the casket where Daniel lay. The funeral director had closed it up and the pall bearers were waiting in the next room to move the body to the cemetery. They were giving Colleen and Harper time to say their goodbyes, in theory. “You’re lucky I don’t spit on the pair of you. I’m still debating it, actually.” Parker eyed Colleen’s pristine black pantsuit. It was probably something with an expensive label.


Colleen’s eyes narrowed. “The problem with you, Harper, is you always were too much like Mother for your own good. Always with your superior attitude and sarcastic mouth. You don’t know how good you had it here.”


Harper snorted at that. “Right. Other than having to barricade my door at night to keep that perverted piece of shit out of my room it was a real cakewalk.”


Colleen cocked an eyebrow. “Oh please, Harper. Still making up stories about my father because he wasn’t yours?”


Harper rolled her eyes. “Not my fault your sperm donor couldn’t get it up with someone his own age.” And Harper had been damned glad that Daniel’s issues with getting erections apparently knew no boundaries. How old had she been when he’d first tried to touch her? Twelve. Maybe thirteen. The only time the old pervert had been halfway cordial to her was when he tried to have sex with her as an underage kid. Luckily he hadn’t been able to go through with it. Of course by the third time he’d shown up in her room in the middle of the night Harper had wised up considerably. She hadn’t threatened to scream – that would have been a waste of breath since Colleen was the only other person in the house and her room was far enough away that she wouldn’t have heard anyway. She had stolen a knife from the kitchen. Not one of the big butcher knives, which had been pretty tempting. Just a regular old steak knife, but wickedly sharp. Daniel had backed her into a corner and tried to touch her chest; at that age was hadn’t developed much of course. Harper had pulled the knife out and held it to his throat. It was the proverbial impasse. She hadn’t even spoken a word.


What she did do was steal some money from him. She felt justified doing it. She went to a hardware store and invested in a deadbolt, which she installed on her door herself. It was keyless – it could only be locked or unlocked on the inside. Daniel stopped bothering her after that. His progression of barely legal “girlfriends” began.


Colleen sputtered at Harper’s comment, trying to maintain her composure. It was something she’d had half a century to practice. She smiled coldly. “All of this spite. Poor little Harper. However will you go on without my father being your motivator?”


“Pretty sure I’ll get by.” Harper pushed her hair back over her shoulders and brushed absently at her sweater. Unlike Colleen’s severe black suit, she was wearing a dark blue skirt and sweater combo. It was as close to mourning clothes as Harper was going to get. “Shouldn’t you be moving on to phase two of this carnival? The burial?”


“Of course. You will ride with me in…” But Harper was shaking her head way before Colleen could complete her command.


“I think not. Have I not made myself clear that I want to stay as far away from you as possible?” Harper asked rhetorically. She checked she had her bag and left the funeral home on Colleen’s huff of annoyed air.


Harper didn’t even try to be a part of the burial. She stayed in the very back of the crowd – although the obituary had said the burial was to be private, there were just as many people there as had been at the funeral home. It was typical of Colleen. Her sister called on all of her acting ability to pull off the mourning daughter farce.


She let her eyes drift over the crowd. She didn’t recognize any of these people, which wasn’t surprising. She hadn’t cared to know them when she was forced to live here, why would she care now? Her eye fell on one person and she had looked past him before she realized that he looked familiar.


Familiar? He stood out in this crowd. It was Mark. In the back of the pack, on the other side of the grave. He was looking at Harper intently. How the hell had he found her again? She tried to remember if she’d said where she was going but couldn’t recall. It wasn’t a bad thing, seeing him. A friendly face amid strangers. But this was the second time he’d just popped up. How weird.


Eventually it was over. There was going to be a reception at the house – once again advertised as private, but Harper already figured it would be nothing short of a networking party for Colleen. She chose to hang back, watching all the other mourners leave. Except for Mark. He waited until the others had cleared out before he approached her.


Harper managed to smile at him. “Hi, stranger.”


Mark nodded in distraction. “I had a feeling.”


Harper waited for him to complete the thought. Instead he shrugged helplessly.


The grounds crew had hesitated to complete the burial but she waved them on impatiently and watched as Daniel’s casket was lowered into the ground. She even watched as they brought out the heavy equipment to move the dirt to fill in the hole. It was quite the educational experience for Harper. Plus she felt like a weight had lifted off her shoulders with every scoop of dirt that went into the hole. Mark stood silently beside her, hands in his pockets, lost in his own thoughts.


One of the crew members offered his sympathy. Harper nodded and asked if she could have one of his cigarettes. He gave her one and lit it. She hadn’t smoked in years – it was one of those habits that she’d never fully gotten comfortable with. It made her feel a little dizzy but she smoked anyway, watching as the grounds crew finished smoothing out the dirt. They would lay down sod in a few days after the ground had time to settle. In the meantime this rectangle of dirt was all that was left.


Harper was well aware that the grounds crew and Mark were watching her with curiosity. She moved toward the grave and tossed the cigarette down. She stomped it with her foot and ground it into the dirt, hopefully right where the bastard’s face was in his coffin. That had been worth the lightheadedness. She smiled brightly at the grounds keepers and turned to head back to her Jeep. Dancing on the grave would have to wait she supposed.


Mark followed her. Harper was starting to wonder if she was mistaking distraction for him being uncomfortable around her. After the night they’d had, maybe he felt like he should be embarrassed about popping up again. He opened her Jeep door for her which surprised Harper. She slid behind the wheel and watched as he stood there indecisively with her door open.


“What is it? And what do you mean, you had a feeling?” Harper finally asked when he couldn’t seem to make a move.


“I can’t explain it.” He sighed heavily. “I just kept thinking there was trouble. It got stuck in my head…” He tapped his temple. “And here I am.”


“Other than being bored to tears and having to deal with the bitch who shares half of my genetics, everything is fine. As far as I know.”


“I still feel it though.” He glanced around and seemed to realize where they were. “Last night…” He trailed off and looked annoyed with himself. “This shit is impossible for me to talk about.” Harper merely studied him, saying nothing. “I took care of what I had to take care of. But there’s still something going on. I can feel it.”


“Nothing going on here but a bunch of rich jackasses celebrating the death of one of their own.” Harper said with a shake of her head. “For some reason they want me at the reading of the will. Actually the lawyer said that the bitch and I both have to be present. It’s bullshit but whatever. That’s tomorrow morning. After that I’m going home. I hate it here. That hasn’t changed a bit.”


It was Mark’s turn to study Harper. He slowly nodded. “I hope you aren’t mad at me. Because of what happened between us yesterday…”


“Well. Not mad really. More confused than anything.”


“I don’t know what came over me.” He frowned. “I just needed…” He was at a loss to explain it. Harper nodded in understanding.

“It’s all right. I mean…I’m not complaining, it wasn’t like I didn’t enjoy myself.” She smiled although it barely touched her eyes. “So are you going to tell me what happened? Before you showed up at my room. Maybe it’ll help us figure out why you’re here now.” She hesitated again before finally turning to meet his eyes. “The plan was to go back to my hotel room and get ridiculously drunk.”


“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.” Mark said, speaking slowly. He half-smiled. “Me, going to your hotel room that is. I don’t know if I trust myself.” He clarified.


“Well it’s a good thing I can make my own decisions about stuff like that.” She shot him a sarcastic look and nodded toward the passenger seat. “You riding with me or following me in your truck?”


“I’d better get my truck. Give me two minutes.” With that he walked away, disappearing over a slight rise. Harper shook her head and started her Jeep. She couldn’t believe that Mark had once again popped up, but considering other things that had gone on it was not even the strangest thing that had happened since she’d left the house. Obviously he was here for a reason. She waited until he drove up behind her before leaving the cemetery and pointing her Jeep in the direction of the hotel.




“So…” Harper poured her first drink. They were in her hotel room. Even though a public bar seemed like a safer choice she wasn’t feeling very social. “Tell me again why it is you’re here.”


Mark accepted the glass from her and looked at the liquid for a moment before answering. “I told you, I don’t know. I had every intention of going home.”


“So tell me what happened.” Harper swirled her class making the ice cubes rattle before taking a drink. “I mean, I know something happened. Tell me.”


Mark understood that she wasn’t going to let it go. He sighed heavily and drained his glass empty, feeling the alcohol burn his throat. “I caught up to it.” He knew it wasn’t their encounter that Harper was interested in, although that might come up later. “I… I got rid of it. Again.”


“Which tells me exactly nothing.” Harper shook her head. “How did you catch up to it? How did you get rid of it? How do you keep managing to find me?”


“I can’t explain it. Not in a way that would make sense to you. It makes perfect sense to me because I live with it.” Mark paced across the room and picked up the bottle that Harper had set aside. He poured himself another drink before turning to face her again. “I knew that it was going to follow you. I was maybe a distraction to it but not really a point of interest. You though…” He shrugged. “For some reason I knew it wanted to add you to its victim list. Maybe because you shot it. Or maybe just because you were there. Who knows?” He drained his glass empty and sighed out a breath at the burn.


“So…you used me as bait?” Harper had taken a seat on the edge of the bed. She took a slow sip of her drink, a strange smile tilting her lips slightly.


“No. Yes.” Mark shook his head wearily. “I don’t know. I guess in a way. I didn’t dangle you in front of it but I knew that it would eventually go for you.”


“And where did this happen?” The humor had left Harper’s face. She was studying Mark closely. He chose to pour himself another drink. Why not? He had no reason to want to stay sober that evening. “It was that rest stop wasn’t it?” When he didn’t answer, Harper supplied one for him. “I thought that place had kind of a weird vibe around it for a second.”


Mark nodded and lifted his glass once again. The amber liquid no longer burned going down. “I got there first. I waited. I watched. And when it showed up I stopped it from going after you.”




Mark finally turned to look at her, meeting her eyes. “Your gun. Then a can of gas and a light.”


Harper merely blinked at the flat way he spoke. When she had no comment he sighed and shoved a hand through his hair.


“I don’t know how I keep finding you.” His tone dropped, his voice got lower. “Like I said – I had every intention of going home. I ended up here.” He gestured with the hand that held his glass. “I can’t explain it anymore than I could explain how breathing works. Something pulled me.”


“You think I’m still in some kind of trouble, don’t you?” Harper finished off her drink and sat, idly turning the glass in her fingers.


“I don’t know. Maybe.” It was as honest an answer as he could give. “Something isn’t right. Maybe I fucked it up somehow.”


That brought the ghost of a smile back to Harper’s face. “What else happened? Before you showed up at my door last night.”


Mark frowned at that and thought it over. He also finished his drink. His head was starting to swim a little. He hadn’t eaten since that morning, so the alcohol was working pretty fast to loosen him up. “I finished it. And then it just hit me. I felt sort of…raw.” He risked a glance at her and saw she was studying him closely. It made him uncomfortable to be the object of her scrutiny, so he once more turned to pour a drink. Anything to occupy his hands. “The same thing happened the first time I got rid of it. It’s like coming down off a high, crashing from eating too much sugar, and coming out of a fever dream all at once. I was shaky and…” He drank. He didn’t need the liquid courage but it was hard enough to explain without the alcohol loosening his tongue. “I don’t know. I knew that if anybody saw me or said a half-decent word to me I’d likely have started raving. One of those things where a kind gesture will tip a person over the edge and turn them into a blubbering idiot. I was sort of in that spot.”


“Some kind of survivor’s guilt?” Harper asked. Mark shrugged his shoulders and toyed with his glass. He jumped when he felt her touch his back. He hadn’t heard her get up or move across the room.


“I guess. I don’t know. I started to go home.” At that he had to stop for a moment to collect his scattered thoughts. It was no small feat considering he was well on his way to being drunk. Harper had only finished one glass. He was now working on what felt like a second bottle. “Got in my truck. Got turned in the right direction. Then I looked over and saw that case you’d put in my truck. And I knew I had to track you down. I probably could have just called you. But it wouldn’t have been enough. I needed to see you for myself, you know? To make sure it had happened the way I remembered it happening.”


Harper had been lightly running her fingers up and down his back. She paused at his words, a frown crossing her features. “And then you just showed up?”


“I don’t even remember driving. Not really. I was sort of in a zone. Or a daze.” He polished off his drink and set the glass down. He risked looking down at her, gauging her reaction. She wasn’t freaking out and there was no indication that she didn’t believe him. Mark felt a bit of relief wash through him. He knew how crazy he must sound.


He could tell she had something on her mind though. He waited her out, giving her time to think it over. He expected more questions. A lot more. Or at the very least maybe a lecture about how he had used her. Mark still wasn’t sure what had come over him.


Harper apparently decided that it would keep. She reached around him to pour herself another drink. She also refilled his glass as well. She went back to slowly rubbing his back. Mark got it – that she was trying to comfort him a little, and maybe herself at the same time. It helped that it felt nice.


She wasn’t very subtle about getting him drunk. Mark knew that was what she was doing even as he continued to drink the liquor she poured for him. Hell, he needed it. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a single beer, let alone a full-fledged drunk. He’d regret it the next day, but the alcohol relaxed him. He wasn’t sure if Harper even finished her second drink. Her light rubbing of his back for comfort turned into a full back massage for him. By that time he was well inebriated, but not so drunk that he could ignore the weight of her, straddled over his legs, or the press and slide of her fingers on his back and shoulders. She had coaxed him out of his clothes and he had been all-too willing to cooperate with her. She did it in silence too, still deep in thought, and Mark watched her reflection in a mirror across the room as she focused all her concentration on giving him a back rub.


At some point he dozed off. He did not notice when Harper eased away from him, or when she took his nearly empty glass from his hand so he wouldn’t spill it. She was still looking at him thoughtfully, chewing her lower lip in a troubled way as she pulled the bed’s blankets over him to cover him up. Mark muttered and shifted but didn’t wake up.


Harper took their glasses into the bathroom to rinse them out and left them on the counter to dry. Then we went back to the room and sat down, studying the big man that was stretched out on her bed. A thought had occurred to her, one that she had come within a few seconds of sharing. But she had held back. Mostly because she wasn’t sure how Mark would react.


She hadn’t planned on getting him drunk. A few drinks – sure. She had needed that too. But he seemed to need to let go, and so the alcohol had come in handy. Harper spared him another look before going her bag and digging to the very bottom of it. Under her clothes and assorted road junk she had packed her laptop. She kept an eye on Mark while she booted up the computer and waited to sign on using the hotel’s internet service.


She almost stopped herself a few times. She was normally a direct person, but with Mark being direct might be a horrible mistake. So she was going to be indirect even if it didn’t sit right with her.


She looked at him again, assured herself he was really out, and then went to where his clothes lay in a pile. She didn’t expect to find anything but he was carrying a wallet in the pocket of his jeans. Harper slid his license out and started to put it back but she paused. Curiosity got the better of her. She flipped his wallet open again and glanced through it, seeing he didn’t carry much with him. A couple of credit cards, one of them expired. A stack of cash. Harper didn’t bother to count it because she didn’t care. At the back of the slot meant to hold his driver’s license, there was a picture. It was backward but Harper could tell what it was from the paper. She pinched it between her fingers and pulled it out, casting a quick look at Mark’s sleeping form before eying the picture.


It wasn’t necessarily old but it was a bit faded around the edges. It showed a younger Mark, with short hair, dressed in a dark suit. He stood next to a tall blonde who was wearing all white. A wedding picture. They looked happy. It wasn’t one of those annoying posed photos. Someone had caught hem sharing a bench and a plate of food.


Harper tucked the picture back into the wallet the same way she’d found it. She picked up his license and went back to her laptop. She almost felt bad for doing it but she loaded up a search engine and typed in his name and his hometown according to the license. She didn’t expect much but was surprised. The very first article in fact answered most of her questions.


It was Mark’s obituary.




Obviously she had found the wrong person.


Even as the thought formed, Harper was pushing it aside. Of course it was Mark. There was a picture with his obituary, grainy because it was a reproduced newspaper print. But it was still undeniably Mark.


Harper glanced from the man in the bed to the link before she clicked on it. At least it was short and to the point. It said Mark had passed suddenly and there would be no public memorial service. She frowned and went back to her search. She had to dig a little but found a few articles with Mark, mostly dealing with the business he owned. She finally braced herself and sought out the real reason she had gone looking. His wife, the one who had been killed. It only took a little more searching but the lack of information was bothersome. A gruesome murder and there were only a few small articles? His small town newspaper should have used it to sell papers for at least a few months.


What it boiled down to was that the police suspected that Mark’s wife had car trouble, and someone had stopped. It wasn’t said right out loud but it was implied that the cops believed it to be totally random and they were not making any real effort to find the killer. Mark had been unreachable for comment, which under the circumstances she thought was a good thing.


At least Harper knew she wasn’t being fed an elaborate line of bull. She could have handled a lot of odd things, Mark’s apparent death included, but that might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.


She looked at the obituary one last time before shutting down her laptop and setting it aside. She stared morosely at Mark’s sleeping form, wondering what it was exactly that she had stepped in to. So…there was a dead guy in her bed. Fabulous. How dead could be possibly be though? His license was still perfectly fine – according to the date he still had a year until it expired. She had seen him interact with other people; the vet, the truckers at the diner, the waitress…so she couldn’t be losing her mind to the point that she was seeing a ghost.


She almost wished she hadn’t gotten him drunk. She had too many questions.


Harper settled for returning Mark’s license to his wallet, his wallet to his pants, and pacing the room for what felt like hours. Mark slept on. That was a good thing really. She’d seen at the funeral the tired look on his face, and of course she knew it was because he had probably spent the better part of the night driving out here. Eventually she grabbed a pair of shorts and a tank top and went to the bathroom to take a shower and get ready for bed. She wasn’t sleepy but she was starting to get a headache.


Mark muttered when she crawled into bed next to him, and Harper smiled when he wrapped an arm over her waist and pulled her back against him. Obviously he wasn’t dead – he felt as real as Harper did. So maybe he had faked his death? But why? He had no reason to do it, without family he was pretty well without tethers.


She eventually dozed off. It didn’t last long. She woke up in bed alone, the room completely dark. Harper reached out to touch the bed where Mark had been but it was empty. She frowned and then winced when the bathroom door opened and light spilled out into the room.


“Didn’t wake you up, did I?” Mark’s voice was rough with sleep but he didn’t sound the least bit slurry.


“No. I wasn’t that out of it.” Harper moved so he could get back into bed.


“You thought I was gone. Again.” He sounded completely sober. After the amount of alcohol he’d had, Harper would have thought he’d be out of it for at least the night if not more.


“The thought had maybe crossed my mind.” Harper yawned and stretched before scooting to the end of the bed and sitting up. Mark wrapped his hand around her wrist before she could stand up.


“I’m sorry that I did that.”


“It’s not a big deal.”


“Yes it is. I don’t even know why I did it.”


“It’s all right. It’s not like you owe me anything, Mark.” Harper extricated her wrist and went into the bathroom to get a drink of water. She walked back into the bedroom and saw that Mark had sat up and was waiting on her, a worried frown on his face. “What?” Harper asked as she crawled back into the bed. “Am I growing a second head?”


Mark half-smiled but even in the dim room she could tell it was more for her benefit than his. “No. You have something on your mind. Obviously. What was the point in getting me drunk, Harper?”


“You don’t act drunk.”


“Doesn’t mean I’m not feelin’ it.” Mark poked her side. “And that wasn’t an answer.”


“Seems like we both have trouble with answering questions.”


“I told you to ask and I would try to explain.”


Harper looked at him for several long moments. “I looked you up.”


“Ok.” His frown deepened. “So?”


“So…I found your obituary.”


Mark snorted at that. “I might have pulled myself out of society a little but I’m not dead, Harper.”

“Then what the hell is going on?”


Mark sighed heavily. “I’ve told you pretty much everything that I know.”


“Pretty much?” Harper echoed.


“I did some looking up myself. Back when this shit first started. Trying to understand how it could be starting all over again. I didn’t accept that copycat bullshit. Everything was to the letter, including how the cops responded. A guy can copycat another one, yeah. But all of it?” Mark shook his head.


“That doesn’t explain the obituary.” Harper pointed out.


“I know.” He sighed again. “The second time it came back wasn’t really the second time. It was the second time I knew about. But this has been going on way longer than I’ve been involved. Longer than I’ve been living.” Mark put a hand on Harper’s arm when she drew in a breath to question him again. “I was in a bad way. Ok? I didn’t know what else to do or who to talk to. I had cut off all my friends…people I worked with…no family. I found this woman. She was a….” He hesitated. “I don’t want to say a psychic. That’s not what she called herself. She told me about this thing that I was after. Only she said it was connected to me because I had interrupted it. It’s like it runs in cycles or something…a few years and then the murders start again. No real rhyme or reason for the breaks – it was a year one time, five years another. The number of murders are close to the same. About thirty. All of them the same. Blonde. Young. Pregnant.” 


“And when you stopped it the first time? How many?” Harper asked softly.


“My wife was seventeen. As far as I can tell I caught him on twenty-two.”


“So you ended the cycle early.”


“And made myself a target. According to the woman I spoke to.”


“So…you just trusted her? And why would you be a target?”


“Because I knew. I could see the thing for what it was. I wasn’t like the cops who turned a blind eye and half-assed an investigation. It didn’t want to be seen.  It just wanted to do what it was put here to do.” Mark rubbed his eyes. “And yes. I trusted her. I believed her. Because at that I had started sensing things in people, about people. She was the real deal.”


“Was?” Harper was almost afraid to repeat it. She had a bad feeling.


“She was the first victim in this new cycle.” Mark dragged a hand through his hair and winced at the tangles. “It was her idea. Faking my death to throw it off. It isn’t very smart. Kate…the woman…she told me that it was going to look for me when it got to the right number. Either my wife’s or the one that I had stopped it at the time before. I was unfinished business.”


“But you didn’t fit the pattern.”


“No. I fucked up the pattern. To get it back to right, it would have to get rid of me.”


“According to your friend.”


“Yes. According to Kate. She knew what it was. Or at least she had a theory that made sense of it all. She called it a revenant.”


“A revenant. What the hell is that?”


“Some kind of evil spirit. A ghost that can use willing bodies. Forced to repeat the same pattern over and over until it’s stopped.”


“But you stopped it.”


“No. I stopped the body it was using. I don’t know how to stop the thing inside, whatever it is that drives them. Kate didn’t know either. She was trying to figure it out when she was killed.”


Harper looked at him thoughtfully. “So if she was the first victim this time around, that means she fit the pattern right?”




“So she was pregnant?”


Mark nodded and then looked at her. “It wasn’t mine. If that’s the idea that you got in your head. She had a guy she was seeing, but I never met him. I hadn’t talked to her in a while when it killed her. The only reason I know it was part of this was the coroner thought I was her husband and told me she had been pregnant.”


“So if you faked your death…”


“Wasn’t even really faking it. Just posted an obituary. Wasn’t hard to do.”


“If you faked your death, and the thing wasn’t after you anymore, or thought you were already dead, then why go after it again? Why make yourself a target?”


“Because it’s not right.”


“And you managed to stop it again. Doesn’t that mean you can get a break? A year or five or whatever?”


“Technically, I guess. But how do I know that I got rid of it this time and not just the shell it wears? I don’t even know who it is I killed.” His tone changed. Harper could tell it ate at him.


“You said the body had to be willing.” She said, thinking out loud. “Then wouldn’t that mean that the person that it takes over wouldn’t necessarily have been up for sainthood?”


“I guess. I don’t know.” He sounded reluctant to believe it. But Harper understood. She did even if she didn’t want to. How he had acted when he’d shown up at her room, what had happened – the desperation she had felt had been real. Maybe it had been part relief that it was over, but the bigger part had been guilt. Guilt that Mark might have innocent blood on his hands.


“That still doesn’t explain why you’re here.” Harper pointed out. “Even if you only killed the shell it was wearing, it would still be dormant for a while. But you said you thought I was still in trouble.”




“Do you still think that now?”


“Yes.” He didn’t hesitate.


“But why?”


“I don’t know. It should be over. At least for a while.” Mark shifted to look at her. “But something brought me here. Something isn’t right. I don’t know what it is, but there’s still trouble for you coming.”


“And you think you have to protect me from it?”


“I feel like I have to.” Mark smirked without humor. “Maybe because you stopped when you did. Maybe I feel like I owe you.”


“You don’t owe me a thing. In fact I would say that you paid in full when you stopped that thing.” Harper gave in to the urge to reach out to him. She let her hand rest against the side of his neck, her thumb tracing his jaw-line lightly. 


“Then maybe I just can’t let you go. I tend to lose everybody I get close to.” He leaned into her hand. “I normally wouldn’t admit that in a million years but the booze is still working.”


Harper laughed at that. Alcoholic honesty was better than nothing. Although she couldn’t help but feel a bit strange about what he’d said. Strange was maybe not the word. Scared was maybe better. And she didn’t know why.




It was just past eight in the morning. Mark was sitting up in the bed, watching as Harper got dressed. She didn’t seem to mind the audience. She had told him that she was supposed to meet with some lawyers that morning, but she was not necessarily dressing the part. She put on a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt.


They’d spent a quiet night. After their talk, Harper had withdrawn into her thoughts. They’d both fallen asleep until the alarm on Harper’s phone woke them up. He hadn’t wanted to distract her but the feeling that something was wrong had come over him almost as soon as he’d opened his eyes. And it was getting stronger by the minute.


“Don’t go.”


It was the first time he spoke since they’d gotten up. Harper paused in tugging on a black leather boot to look at him, eyebrow raised. “Huh?”


“To this meeting. Don’t go.”


Harper frowned slightly. “It’s just a will reading with a bunch of suits. What’s the big deal? I’m sure that the asshole probably included a few lines about how ungrateful I was and how I deserve to rot in hell. And believe me I’ve heard that before.”


Mark was shaking his head. He didn’t know what expression was on his face but when Harper finally gave him her full attention her frown deepened.


“What is it?”


“I don’t know. I wish I did. I just know it’s not a good idea for you to go to this meeting.”


Harper looked confused. Mark knew she didn’t even want to go to the damn lawyer’s office she was only doing it to shut her half-sister up once and for all and to cut her ties. That was all well and good. Except he knew – he felt – that something horrible would happen to Harper if she went.


“Ok. So I won’t go.”


Mark had been mentally preparing himself for an argument. Her easy agreement stunned him into silence.


“What?” She said at the look on his face. “I’ve believed you about everything else. Why stop now?”


“I guess I expected an argument.”


“I’m too tired to argue. I’m also too tired to deal with the ice queen and her entourage of legal minions. I’m willing to say screw the rest of this horseshit and head home.”


It should have made Mark feel better. It didn’t. The alarm in his head died down but it was still there. As if Harper was still in trouble. How the hell was he supposed to protect her if he didn’t know what he was protecting her from?


He watched as she picked up her cell phone to call the lawyer and tell him that she would be skipping the meeting before getting out of bed and grabbing the small bag that he’d brought in with him the afternoon before. By the time he was done in the shower and dressed, Harper had packed up most of her things.


“Well.” She said, when he opened the door. “The wicked witch just blew a gasket. But I got to hang up on her again so I guess I can live with it.”


“Why do you hate her so much?” Mark asked idly, just wondering. He’d never seen so much venom aimed from one person to another. He sat on the end of the bed to put his own boots on.


“That’s hard to say. There are so many reasons to hate. Mostly she’d a cold, selfish bitch that wouldn’t spit on you if you were on fire. She used to threaten me.” Harper said that just as casually as the rest but Mark heard the way her tone changed. It was subtle but it was there.


“Threatened you? How?”


“Long story.”


“I’ve got time.”


Harper paused in repacking her bag. He could see she was debating with herself on exactly how much to share with him. She finally sighed. “Ok. Full disclosure. The asshole who did the world a favor when he died tried to have sex with me when I was a kid. And she knew about it. She likes to pretend that I made it up. But after I ran away for the third or fourth time, she hired this guy. Technically he was her personal assistant. What he really was…was a guy who had been in jail for raping and murdering his 12 year old little sister. Got out on a psychological discharge. The bitch kept him on a tight leash but she liked to tell me what he’d do to me if she ever gave the go-ahead.”  




“I don’t know if you noticed him or not. He was with her at the funeral. Talk about your unhappy reunions. It’s a good thing I left my gun in the Jeep because I used to fantasize about shooting him in the balls. And I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t have tried to do it the first time he looked at me.” She visibly shuddered.

Mark wracked his memory but of the funeral he could only remember Harper and her sister, the one with the white-blonde hair. There had been men on either side of her but Mark had paid them no mind. Now he wished he had.


“Do you think… He had no idea how to finish that.


Harper figured out where he was going. “She told him that he could ‘have’ me. Right before my 18th birthday. Made sure I knew about it too. That’s why I got the fuck out of there as soon as I could.” She sighed again. “And from the way he kept leering at me apparently he hasn’t forgotten it. I feel like I need a shower just talking about it.” 


“Then maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why I feel like you’re in trouble.” Mark had to fight the urge to track the guy down and rip his spine out through his mouth. It was close. Seeing Harper’s reaction to just the memory of the guy was enough to set it off.


“Well since I’m not going to the lawyer’s office, I won’t have to look at his big stupid face, and he won’t have a chance to ogle me. Win-win.”


She sounded overly glib. Mark studied her for a moment before proceeding. “What did she say? Your sister, when you told her?”


“The usual. I’m an ungrateful bitch that doesn’t care about anything but herself, I owe it to the piece of shit to hear his will, I owe it to her to at least show up so the will can be read, I’ve been nothing but a burden my entire life. All the usual bullshit that I’ve been listening to my entire life.”


“Of course you know none of that’s true.”


“Of course.” She looked at Mark as if he’d lost his mind. “No worries. I don’t have self-esteem issues because Colleen has a superiority complex. I know my worth. She still thinks she can bully it out of me.” Harper half-smiled. “Sad when you think about it. What would be in it for her?”


“Self-satisfaction. Maybe she’s jealous.”


“Jealous?” Harper snorted. Mark smirked and reached out, grabbed her wrist, and pulled her until she was sitting on his lap.


“She sounds like a warped daddy’s girl.” He said, brushing Harper’s hair back from her forehead. “And then you came along. Young. Pretty. Warm.” He let his fingers slide down her cheek. “And then daddy started giving you attention. Bad attention, sure, but it took his focus off of her. So she tried to break you.”


“How psychological.” Harper said sarcastically.


“She’s jealous.” Mark repeated. He ducked his head and nuzzled her neck, making Harper grab his shoulders. “Must be rough, having a young, gorgeous sibling show up out of nowhere.”


“I hardly think I’d use the word ‘gorgeous’.” Harper said, sounding a bit out of breath as Mark nipped at her earlobe.


“I would. Eye of the beholder.” He pulled back and winked at her. “It drives her crazy that she can’t touch you. She can’t break you down. She can’t figure out why.”


Harper nodded. She linked her fingers together behind Mark’s neck. “I’m done with her. I promised myself this would be the last time I’d ever look at her, and I’m perfectly fine with that.”


“Good.” Mark went back to nuzzling her neck. Harper sighed contentedly and stroked her fingers through his still damp hair.


“So what do we do?”


“Right now?” Mark’s hand slipped under her shirt and he skimmed his fingers along her side, across her warm smooth skin.


“No. I kind of figure I know where you’re wanting the ‘right now’ to go.” Harper said with a laugh as she tried not to jerk away from his touch. It tickled a little. “I mean after.”


“Is there an after?” Mark pulled back once more to look at her.


“I don’t know. Is this it? Is it going to be a thing where you just randomly pop up from now until the end of time?”


“Do you want more than that?”


“I don’t know what I want anymore.” Harper answered honestly, meeting his eyes. “A few days ago I probably would have been all for a random one-nighter.”


“Maybe even entire weekends.” Mark pointed out. There was still that feeling, weaker but there. He pushed it aside because he could do nothing about it. At least not now.


“What do you want?” She tossed it back at him, curious to know his answer.


Mark thought it over, still lightly stroking her back with his hand. “I don’t know. I thought I was all right just rambling along on my own. I don’t know if I can get involved – really involved – with somebody else again. Like I told you last night…I tend to lose people I get close to.”




“I’m sorry. I know that’s not what you want to hear and…” Mark barely got the words out when Harper was covering his mouth with her hand, a frown on her face.


“Shut up. You either want to be with me or you don’t. Maybe we need to break your pattern too. Maybe that’s how you end this.” She moved her hand so her fingers traced his lips.


“Harper, I have a lot of baggage.”


“Who doesn’t?” She asked rhetorically.


“I don’t know how much of myself there is left to give.”


“So you don’t want to be with me.”


“I didn’t say that.”


“You don’t have to actually come out and say it. You keep dancing around it. I can take a hint.” She pulled away but he caught her before she could stand up.


“I wish you knew how hard this is for me.” He wrapped his arms around her and held her still, his chin resting on top of her head. “I’m afraid of losing you.”


“Then don’t.”


“Because it’s that simple.”


“It can be.” Harper finally relaxed against him and wrapped her arms around him. “You found me how many times? It’s got to mean something.”


Mark could only nod in answer. She was right. She had to be right. It wasn’t the thing he had tracked the past few nights. It had been Harper. He was drawn to her in a way that he’d never felt before. And maybe she was right again – maybe changing his own pattern was the way to end it for good. He could only hope so as he held Harper tight.




Although she had mentioned heading for home, Harper called down to the front desk and booked her room for a second night. Under normal circumstances she would have gone down to the lobby and taken care of it in person but Mark had no intention of letting her get up anytime soon.


He couldn’t remember ever wanting anyone the way he wanted her. And it was a different kind of wanting. Their last encounter had been one-sided, even if Harper had enjoyed it. Mark had used her. He still didn’t know why. This time had been different. Slower. Unrushed and thorough. There wasn’t a part of her that he had not touched or tasted, and Harper had repaid him the attention. There was no more talk about the circumstances that had brought them together. That was more Harper’s doing than Mark’s. Eventually they had ordered food from room service and she was very blatantly keeping to neutral, more getting-to-know-a-person topics. The food had been a short break. Mark could not get enough of her, and Harper seemed to feel the same way. He’d taken her in the shower, and then back in the bed, until both of them were completely drained and satisfied.


And sleepy. A deep sleep was almost guaranteed after their day. He dropped off easily with Harper wrapped in his arms. The woman was a complete contradiction. She was tough but something about her was vulnerable. He wanted to protect her but at the same time understood she was more than capable of protecting herself.


The nightmare took him by complete surprise. In it he had been too late. Even dreaming he knew it was a dream but could not seem to wake himself up out of it. He was at the rest area with snow melting against his cheeks. He was out front though. Harper’s Jeep was a vague shape under several inches of snow meaning she had been there for a while. The rest of the lot was deserted.


He moved toward the restrooms, stomach tightening at every step. He paused briefly at the door to the women’s facilities but didn’t open it. Instead his eye fell on something that was almost outside the glow of light cast from the laps overhead.


The snow at the end of the walkway was trampled. That alone wasn’t enough to mean anything. Except to Mark it did. Not two feet past the end of the walkway there was a splash of bright red. Blood. He felt his knees loosen as he looked at it.


It wasn’t nearly enough. Murder was messy. This was too neat, almost like it had been left to taunt him. Mark resolutely looked away from the blood and let his eyes follow the trail through the snow. They couldn’t be classified as prints; there were drag marks and scuffs. To his untrained eye it looked as if someone had been subdued and then dragged away from the rest area.


Mark still knew it was a dream. He knew and he was still unable to keep himself from plunging ahead, kicking up his own trail of snow as he ran to try to catch up. He knew it was futile, just as he knew what he would find at the end of the trail but it didn’t stop him from trying. If the thing that had dragged Harper into the woods was still there it would have plenty of notice. Mark didn’t bother with stealth. Panic was settling in.


He finally came to the familiar clearing. His steps faltered as he tried to take in what he was seeing. The car – the black Mustang – was there, burned. Much as Mark would imagine it would appear in real life But there was something different about this set-up.


It was Harper. She had been stripped, her naked body stretched over the hood of the car. Mark took one step toward her then gagged and dropped down to one knee. She was dead. Even from this distance he knew she had to be dead. Here was all the blood that had been missing earlier. And she had suffered. That more than anything else hit him. It hadn’t just been about the ritualistic killings, because Harper had not fit into the pattern. She had been used and brutalized. Bruises stood out against her pale skin, which meant that she had gone through most of it while she had still been alive. Another break in the pattern. The thing had killed fairly quickly and had spent time after death putting his mark on the bodies. This was different. This felt like pure rage.


There was a gurgling, gasping noise. For a moment Mark thought it had come from his own throat. But even as he thought it, the noise happened again. This time he was looking at Harper’s broken body and saw her struggle to breathe. Still alive. She was still alive but so far beyond help that there was nothing Mark could do. He knew it but he couldn’t stop himself. He forced his body to get up and move, panting as he tried to run to Harper and make sense of why she would still be alive.


He had almost reached her, had gotten to the point where he had seen exactly what type of damage had occurred to her beautiful body, when a hand touched his shoulder.


Mark jumped and sat up in the bed, breath whistling through a throat that felt as dry as the Sahara. He blinked a few times, trying to shake off the horrible image of Harper’s dying body, of the damage that had been done. He reached for her at the same time, needing to reassure himself that she was fine.


His hand encountered nothing but an empty bed.


Mark frowned and reached for the bedside lamp. He winced at the bright glare of light but could see even through bleary eyes that he as in bed alone. The bathroom door stood open, the room dark. For a moment he wondered if she had maybe decided to go ahead and leave but the idea didn’t fully form. His eyes fell on her overnight bag on top of the dresser and the scatter of her clothes.


He frowned again. Her clothes shouldn’t have been scattered. In fact he had watched her pack. She hadn’t unpacked again. He leaned over the side of the bed and saw the shirt and jeans she’d been wearing were still on the floor where he’d tossed them after stripping them from her earlier.


“Harper?” He spoke her name out loud and for a moment didn’t recognize his own voice. There was no answer. Mark threw back the blanket that covered him and eyed the room critically. He didn’t know what all she had packed so anything or nothing could be missing from her bag. For all he knew she could have decided to throw on a robe and go down to the ice machine at the end of the hall.


Mark knew that would be all too easy.


He sat down on the end of the bed and took a deep breath, then another. He had to concentrate. It was easier this time, considering the day they’d spent together. Mark could still feel her, the texture of her skin, the weight of her on top of him, the silken glide of her every time she moved.


His intuition was still running at full throttle. He could sense her. She was still sleeping. He concentrated, but realized that he could get no more because Harper was not providing any information. He did know one thing. Harper was no longer in the hotel.


Mark stood up and reached for his clothes. He had no idea where Harper had gone or why but those damned alarms in his head were going off. This was the trouble. And he had slept through it.


“Some fucking protector you turn out to be.” He muttered to himself as he grabbed his keys and headed for the door.




Harper was pretty sure her eyes were open.


She was only pretty sure because it was pitch black. There was not even the faintest hint of light anywhere. She seriously could not see her hand in front of her face. Instead of panicking, she had carefully walked around, feeling nothing but bare smooth walls. There was a door – but it was locked tight. It did not even wiggle in the frame.


The only piece of furniture in the room, as far as she could tell, was a bed. It was in the middle, exactly six paces from the palls on all sides. She had miscalculated and whacked her shin a good one on the frame. Now as she walked she kept her left hand out, trailing it along the wall.


What made this even freakier was the utter lack of noise. Not only had she been effectively rendered blind, but deaf as well apparently. She spoke under her breath, softly, just to see if she could hear. Her hearing seemed fine. It was just extraordinarily quiet wherever she was.


Where she had been was in bed with Mark. If she got nothing else out of this trip, she had managed to find a damned near perfect lover. It could have just been the newness of the relationship, or maybe the fact that he was as mysterious as a puzzle box. She found herself wanting to know more and less at the same time, which put her in an odd spot.


She realized her mind was wandering and reached up to cradle her forehead in her hand. She had a headache, which was making it hard to think. What had happened? She wished she could remember. Oh she definitely remembered sleeping with Mark. In fact she still felt the after-effects of his attention. They had finally fallen asleep. The next thing Harper knew she was here.


Well. That wasn’t totally true.


She’d had a dream. A weird dream but a dream nonetheless. She had dreamed about Jack. Although she couldn’t remember much detail, she did know that in her dream he had been in their hotel room. He wanted her to see something. Harper was amused by it because the Jack in her dreams was very un-Jack-like. He was rumpled, as if he’d just stepped off a plane or had gotten in from a long car ride with the windows down. His hair was a mess. He looked tired. But he smiled when he saw her and kept up his side of the conversation while she’d tugged on a pair of shorts and a shirt.


At that, Harper frowned. Why had she felt the need in a dream to get dressed? And for the life of her she could not remember what it was that Jack had been talking about. He said it was important, and he seemed excite although he had looked tired. That was another odd thing. Why would dream Jack look tired? And real-life Jack would not have been caught dead outside his apartment looking anything short of well-groomed. He claimed it was because a chef had to worry about his public image. Harper had always just through it was a touch of vanity.


From the time she got dressed until the time she woke up in the dark, Harper had no memories at all. Her head ached sickly though, and if she didn’t know better she would have thought she’d had too much to drink. Since she hadn’t touched a drop since the day before that seemed implausible.  


She probably should be panicking. One of her personality traits that had driven Jack and several other friends absolutely crazy was that it was hard to tell what her reaction would be to situations. Kitchen fires could send everyone into a panic but Harper would calmly continue whatever she was doing until someone dragged her out. It wasn’t that she didn’t see the danger – she just refused to let it touch her. She blamed it on her childhood.


She had no idea how long she’d been in this particular room. She didn’t want to sit on the bed because she was afraid sitting would remind her that she’d had a fairly active afternoon  and evening, and then she’d start to get sleepy, and who knew what she’d wake up to next? But her head was pounding and she thought she was almost at the point of killing somebody for a drink of water.


To keep herself occupied she felt her way to the bed. Instead of sitting down, she bent and carefully moved her hands, expecting…well. She wasn’t sure what she expected. Maybe for a monster to grab her and pull her under. Instead she just encountered the empty space under the mattress and box spring. Fabulous. No one would ever think to look for her under there if she needed to hide. As far as she could tell there was nothing useful there anyway. Just bare floor. The bed was a big one, at least a queen and maybe king-sized. It was hard to tell in the dark. There were pillowed and blankets and sheets on it. She she’d first opened her eyes she had been laying on the bed.


She heaved a sigh and got to her feet, once more rubbing at her forehead. She was starting to feel a little lightheaded. Harper staggered to the wall and leaned there, moving forward slowly and leaning against it for support. The dizziness came and went.


Harper almost ignored the soft clicking sound behind her. Belatedly her mind registered what it must be – the door opening. She slowly turned but could not see it, there was still no light.


There was another soft thud and click. The door had closed. She backed up until she was in the corner, eying the direction where she thought the door had been. It was hard to tell in the dark. Nothing happened for several long minutes, and the only sound was her own ragged breathing.


She was almost to the point of blaming her imagination when a rasping voice spoke from directly in front of her.


“Hello, Harper.”




Harper didn’t try to kid herself. It was a voice she knew.


“Michael. I should have recognized the unwashed smell in the air.” She masked her surprise with sarcasm, which was second nature. Michael was Colleen’s personal assistant and ex-con. Harper tried to wrap her mind around it but was thwarted by her pounding temples. It was disorienting, the pain coupled with the darkness. She felt something touch her cheek and jerked away, biting back a hiss of pain when she moved her head too quickly. “Did Colleen put you up to this?” She managed to ask.


“Colleen?” Michael’s breath puffed right into her face. Harper winced and moved along the wall, trying to get some space. It wouldn’t have been so bad if she could see him. He apparently had the advantage though. “Oh right. The bitch.” Something in his voice brought Harper to a halt. A moment later she felt a hand close around her wrist. She tried to jerk away but he held her tight, pressing her arm against the wall behind her. “She was a little older than I usually like. But it was fun breaking her.”


Harper frowned at that. In her confusion Michael took advantage and grabbed her other arm, pinning them above her head. Suddenly he was right in front of her, pressing her back into the wall. Harper gagged and tried to wiggle out of his grip.


“I enjoy it when you fight. Your sister didn’t.” He pressed closer. Harper stopped moving, holding herself utterly still at the repulsive feel of him pressing against her. “In fact she cried and begged as soon as I started cutting. Typical.” He made a low noise. “I think she would have been all right if I’d just wanted to rape her. In fact she probably would have enjoyed it. But I was saving myself for you, Harper.”


“What the hell are you talking about?” She asked, trying to fight the urge to squirm. She had the feeling he was just waiting for it to heighten his own excitement.


“You know.” His breath was in her face again. Harper tried to turn her head away but it didn’t stop him from nuzzling her neck. She felt like she was going to throw up as he bit her lightly. “You smell like him. I would have bathed you but somehow that smell just adds to the fun.” He lowered his voice and said it right into her ear.


“Him?” Harper managed to ask. Tears pricked her eyes. Mark. She had been trying not to think about him because at the moment that seemed to be about six light years away from where she was now.


“I should have paid more attention. He managed to sneak up on me. But that’s all right. I think I’ll win this round. And after this…after I’m done with you…” He punctuated each statement with another of those bites along her neck, making her shudder. “I’ll deal with him. I should have taken care of him the first time but I had other things on my mind.” He laughed. “I probably could have driven a knife into his heart while he was sleeping with you, but the body I was in wouldn’t have allowed it.”


His words sent ice down Harper’s spine. “Who the hell are you?”


“At this point that really doesn’t matter.” Michael suddenly stepped back, yanking her by the arm, spinning her toward the center of the room. Harper yelped when her legs hit the bed and tried to stay upright but his weight was right behind her. She fell and had the wind knocked out of her when he landed on top of her. He let go of her wrists and ignored her as she tried to push him away. One of his hands wrapped around the top of the shirt she was wearing and she could hear the fabric ripping as he pulled it away. Rough hands groped at her breasts and she tried to roll him off of her. He seemed to find it amusing. Michael had always been a big guy, one of those obsessed with lifting weights until his arms looked action-figure freaky. The result was that for all her struggling Harper should have saved what little strength she had left. He completely ignored her fighting as he ripped her shorts away.


She had to distract him somehow. It didn’t help that her head was still swimming sickly. “You drugged me.” She finally said, when she could suck in a deep enough breath to form words.


“Sure. Had to get you out of your room. Don’t worry. It’ll wear off soon enough.” He pulled away from her and Harper rolled off the bed, but knew it was a momentary reprieve at best. She could hear him shedding his clothes. Somehow he could see in this darkness, and she had nowhere to go. Except for the door. Had he locked it behind him? She had heard it close but she had no idea if it needed a key. She moved to the side of the bed opposite from where she heard him getting undressed and tried to cover herself. She grabbed the thin blanket from the bed and wrapped it around herself, listening as he moved. Now that he was barefoot it was easier to hear him on the hard floors. “You know, the longer it takes for me to catch you the worse it’ll be for you.” It was a threat but he spoke in a reasonable tone of voice.


“Hard to believe. It’s already been pretty fucking horrible.” Harper shot back. She heard him chuckle from her left so she moved right, keeping the bed in front of her. She would have to run for the door. From exploring she knew it was in the corner at the foot of the bed. If she could get out and close it, she might buy a few seconds to find a place to hide.


“So your sister promised you to this body.” He spoke conversationally. “That must be the reason it’s so easy to control. Usually even the best of them put up a fight. Your friend, for instance.”


Harper’s steps faltered. “My friend?”


“Mmm. He fought the entire way. But I knew it would be the only way to get to you.”


“What the fuck are you talking about?” Harper asked, already fearing the answer. Jack. He had to mean Jack.


“I can jump into anyone that I want. I can’t always control them. I would have taken you right there in the room, and killed your new companion, but he refused to cooperate. He didn’t have the instinct inside him for either scenario. And he didn’t want me to take you. But I dealt with him. This body though…” There was another chuckle. “He’s wanted you for a long time.”


“Yes. I know. Because he’s fucking perverted pig.” Harper had to move around the bed again. The voice kept moving as well. She hoped he wouldn’t figure out that she was using his talking to keep her distance.


He laughed again. “If you could only see what he wants to do to you…what I want might be merciful by comparison.”


“Yeah. I doubt that.” Harper was trying to think past her pounding head. If he had drugged her then no wonder she felt hung over. “What…why not just jump into Mark? If you can jump into whoever you want, he was laying right there with me.” Her mind was grasping at things to distract him.


Michael had a smirk in his voice. “I can’t jump into him. I’ve tried. There are a few exceptions, ones I haven’t been able to touch. I can’t control women although I can get information about them. Some men I can’t control at all. Others only minimally. Your friend, for example. I made him think he was dreaming. He believed it for the most part. Until he saw you. Then he decided to put up an argument.” He made a soft chuffing noise. “Too little, too late by that point. Once I had you, I had no more need for him. I shed him like a snake shedding skin.”


Harper blinked at that. “Wh…where is he? What did you do to him?”


“Dead. I killed him. Oh not with my bare hands, although I probably would have.” He sounded amused. And oddly proud. “When I leave a host, they die. Heart most likely. I don’t know or care why.”


Harper felt tears once more threatening. He had to be lying. Jack couldn’t be dead. She was nearing the point of no return as she rounded the bed once more, moving closer to the door. She would have to be fast. If it was unlocked, good. She could duck out and slam it. And pray there was a lock on the outside. If there wasn’t she would not spend more than a second checking. She was going to run. Michael may have looked like a bodybuilder but he was slow. A lifetime of smoking didn’t improve his chances either. Harper hoped that he hadn’t given up the butts because that might be her only advantage. She had no idea where she was. So she would take whatever advantage she could find.


Somehow Mark had been wrong though. She was in the room with Michael yes, but it was also the thing that Mark had been pursuing. Maybe he had been wrong about it needing to take a break. Or maybe it had just been a guess based on past experience. She had to chance talking. “Mark killed you. He said he watched you burn.”


“He watched the body I was in burn. I can assure you I was long gone by that point. Although getting shot in the head wasn’t very pleasant.” Again there was a chuckle. “He surprised me though. I didn’t have time to leave.” He sighed. “Nice try on his part though. Too bad he won’t get another. “


“That’s what you think.”


He snorted a laugh. “I took you right out from under his nose. He’s not much of a threat. He’s already failed. Repeatedly. Eventually he’ll break. In fact…what happens to you right now may be what puts him over. I’ll make sure he knows exactly how you suffered. Every little detail. He’ll…”


Harper didn’t wait until he finished. He seemed to be as distracted as he would get, talking about hurting Mark. To her it sounded petty, like a kid who had been denied something. Without another word, she spun and reached for the door. It was exactly as she remembered, so she didn’t fumble long. The knob turned and she opened it only wide enough to slip out and shut it behind her. She felt, giving herself to the count of three, and her fingers encountered the lock. It was a deadbolt with a key. She twisted it and backed up a pace, feeling her heart race. There was a thud from the other side of the door and the knob rattled. Another thud. Harper didn’t know how much time she had before the thing jumped into someone else and let himself out, or just broke down the door. She felt along the wall and found a row of switches. Bracing herself she flipped them all, flooding the space she was in with light.


It took a moment to get used to it after the absolute blackness. She took a step, and another, looking around. She was in some sort of storeroom. There were stairs in the far corner. She moved in that direction when it hit her. The place was familiar. It was the basement of the home she’d been forced to live in with Colleen and Daniel. Daniel had insisted on having a house with a basement because he needed it for storage. The room Harper had been locked into used to be nothing but dry storage for papers that hadn’t been moved to computer storage.


Time had passed but Harper still knew her way around. There was another thud from the door behind her. She spared it a glance and saw it rattle in its frame. She figured that she’d managed to piss both Michael and the thing riding in him off. She gathered the blanket up so she wouldn’t trip on it and ran for the stairs. She knew that if Michael still had anything to say about things – and it seemed he did – then the house would definitely be locked down. There were magnetic locks on the doors and windows that would only open with a code or when a fire alarm went off. Harper figured she could start a fire if she had enough time, but she had other ways too. Michael seemed to have forgotten that she had run away from this place on more than one occasion. She had a few tricks of her own she could call on. She only hoped it would be enough.




Michael hadn’t been kidding about cutting Colleen.


Harper tried for the front door, only because she had to check to be sure the place was locked down. It was still dark outside, she could see that much through the shatterproof glass on either side of the door. Only a few lights were on in the enormous entryway. It was enough to see the large puddles and splashes of blood that marred the otherwise polished white floors.


She couldn’t help it. She followed the trail. It led through the formal living room, the formal dining room, and into what had once been Daniel’s home office. It was where he did most of his business. The door was open a crack, something that would have caused Daniel to have a coronary had be still been alive to see it. They were never allowed in his office, not even Colleen. Daniel considered it the one room in the house that was his.


No need to worry about retribution now. Harper pushed the door open and flipped the light switch, feeling her stomach turn at the amount of blood that was in the room. Michael had damn near painted the room with it. At first she wasn’t sure what the hell the thing in the chair was but after a moment Harper finally made out the shape of Colleen’s face. Or what was left of it. Her hair – that platinum white blonde – was dark red with blood. She couldn’t be sure, and she wasn’t going to get closer to look, but it seemed like there were parts of her sister missing. It might have been a trick of the light or the blood but Harper would not have been surprised to learn that Michael and the thing inside him took a few trophies in their rage.


Speaking of. She had spent too much time trying to make sense of the mess in the office. Harper turned on her heel and ran back to the entrance. The stairs were directly in front of the door. She took them two at a time, her feet silent on the polished wood. At the top of the stairs she went to the left. To the right had been Colleen’s rooms. Rooms – plural. Her sister had a bedroom but also a sitting room, a dressing room, and a humongous bathroom. Her area of the house was larger than some people’s starter homes. She had no interest in Colleen’s rooms. She could go to the third floor where Daniel’s bedroom was located. He had a study up there – although Harper had never been able to figure out why he needed a study and an office on two separate floors. The important thing was that he had guns in his study. A couple didn’t work – he had bought them as an investment. But he had always kept a real one in his desk drawer, and another in the locked gun cabinet, just in case. If she had time and if she couldn’t get out, Harper knew she would have to make an attempt to get to one of the guns. If Michael was smart – and she had to bite back a sarcastic laugh at the thought, she didn’t want to waste her breath – he would have made sure the guns were gone before he got to her room. It wouldn’t be very funny if Harper had to go upstairs and found the gun case empty.


She pushed the thoughts aside as she dashed into the room that used to belong to her. She slammed the door behind her and twisted the lock, yanking the key from the deadbolt. It was odd that Daniel hadn’t bothered to change it or replace the door but Harper wasn’t going to wonder about it. The lock had been enough to deter a scrawny 50 year old man but it might not be enough to hold back the psycho that was coming. Harper flicked on the lights and saw the room and had an eerie flash of recall. Nothing had really changed. The bed was made up although the sheets were plain white. She had never bothered with posters or artwork, so the room still had the high-end hotel look that she had dealt with through her teen years. There was a bathroom and a walk-in closet. She opened the closet doors and saw with no surprise that anything she’d left behind had been taken away. She felt along the top shelf anyway and came down empty-handed. That was where she’d tucked the knife she had taken from the kitchen.


Ok. So plan B. Harper adjusted her blanket again and went to the room’s large window next to the bed. It was magnetically locked like the rest, but boredom and just plain hatefulness had led her to prying it at. The knife would have made it easier but the bathroom wasn’t totally empty – there were toiletries including a nail kit. She took the slim metal nail file and went back to the window. There was a thud from the hallway outside her door, making her jump.


“Harper…” Michael dragged her name out, letting his fingernails rake the door. “You have nowhere else to run, Harper. We made sure of it.”


She didn’t answer him. He had gotten out of the locked room in the basement pretty fast. This door didn’t stand a chance. Instead of wasting time trying to talk to him, she jammed the nail file a small slot above the window lock. It was flimsy as hell but it would have to work – she jimmied it, moving it around to touch the magnetic tape that completed the circuit. If something metal touched it, the circuit would break. It was how firefighters would get into the house if need be. She had known that because she had looked it up during a long afternoon of boredom at school.


Harper almost gave up with there was a soft thump from the window. It was the sound of the magnets disengaging. The control panels – in the entrance, in the kitchen, and in Daniel’s room – would show that an emergency release had been triggered. That was something he had added after she’d gotten out the second time. She spared a glance at the phone on the bed side table as the window opened silently. There was no time to make a call and the phone probably didn’t work anyway. She looked over her shoulder at the door. Michael was being suspiciously quiet.


She risked it. She had to. Harper grabbed for the handset and put it to her ear, surprised to hear a dial tone. Before she could do anything about it, the bedroom door exploded off its hinges, sending splinters and chunks of wood flying into the room. Michael stormed in, probably expecting to see her cowering in a corner or maybe hiding in the closet. His surprise as he caught sight of her gave Harper just enough time to dive through the window.


It was a short drop to the overhang below. Of course she had been younger, more flexible, and wearing more clothes. Harper barely checked her fall and managed to skin her leg and the palm of her left hand on the rough shingles that covered the roof. She could feel sharp points of it digging into her feet as she dashed to the corner. The rain gutter was still there. Harper dropped down and rolled, holding the gutter for support. There were enough brackets that attached it to the corner of the house for her to find finger and toe holds. It was slow going. Her bloody palm made it hard to keep her grip and it had been a lot easier with shoes.


Her feet finally touched cool grass. She half gasped – half sobbed a breath and glanced up. Michael was standing on the roof, hands on his hips. He looked amused.


“Nice trick, Harper. But the gates are locked. There’s no way out. Make this easier on yourself and just…give in.”


The hell of it was, he made it sound like a pleasant invitation. Harper backed away, keeping her eye on him. She knew that the property was surrounded by fourteen-foot high fences. Three layers of them as a matter of fact – fancy scrolled black iron on the outside where the world could admire them, the tops of which were sharpened into points. The layer closest to the house was thick concrete topped with more spikes. And in the center was a perfectly ordinary hedge – except for the barbed wire that was wrapped into the branches, hidden from view. Daniel hadn’t wanted to just keep people out, he had wanted to hurt anyone that tried to come in.


The gates were iron, like the fences, and mag-locked just like the house. Unlike the house she didn’t need a code for the gate, just time enough to hit the emergency release button. There was a small power box next to the main gate that didn’t lock. Once she had the gate open, she could run to the nearest neighbor’s house and call for help.


She turned to run when he moved back toward the window. He wouldn’t risk climbing down, risk falling, or risk her having time to find a weapon. Plus he would need to open the front door to take her back inside. She went straight for the front gate, slipping a little on the dewy grass. She didn’t try to scream for help; there were neighbors, the house was right in town, but the property was huge. Screaming might not be heard. And what good would it do her? They wouldn’t be able to get in unless they knew to unlock the gates.


It was dark. The moon was already down, but enough of a glow came from the landscape lighting for Harper to see that there was something lying on the ground near the gate. Her steps faltered and she hitched in a breath, wincing at the stitch that had developed in her side. It was a person. A familiar person. Even as she looked, he moved, weakly trying to crawl toward the house.


“Jack?” Even with so little light she would know him anywhere. She’d spent the better part of ten years with him after all. Michael had said he was dead, but he could have lied – or been wrong.


Har…Harper?” Jack turned his head to look at her and fell onto his side, gasping for breath.


“Oh my god…Jack…are you all right?” She skidded to a halt and dropped to her knees, reaching out for him.


“ Hurts…” He clawed at his chest. Michael had said that it was heart issues that caused its hosts to die. Maybe it had jumped out of Jack before it had to suffer the sensation of a full blown coronary.


“Ok, Jack. Hold on. Ok? I’m gonna get out of here and get us both some help.” She caught his hands and squeezed. He squeezed back weakly.


“Hurry…” His voice was nothing but a hoarse whisper. Harper didn’t want to leave him but knew she had to. The gate was within her reach. She stumbled to her feet, swaying a bit as a wave of dizziness washed over her. She forced herself forward, nearly tripping before reaching the concrete fence and the control box that was next to the gate. For a moment she could only look at it, not comprehending what she was seeing.


Then she realized – all of the buttons were gone. Someone had smashed the box.


“No…” She looked at the mess of wires and broken plastic for a moment before moving to the gate itself. It was locked tight. She shook it futilely, listening to the hollow rattle of metal on metal.


“Harp…er…” Jack’s voice was weaker than before, barely a whisper now. But she heard him. She started to turn to face him when she was grabbed from behind and lifted, then slammed forward into the fence. Her forehead hit one of the unforgiving iron poles and she immediately saw stars. Dazed, she went limp as Michael dragged her back from the gates. Even though it was late and there was no traffic he didn’t want to risk anyone driving by and see them.


“I told you not to run.” Michael said, turning and practically throwing Harper to the ground to the side of the gate. She tried to push back away from him, hands and feet slipping in the dew again, too weak to get her feet under her. She realized belatedly that Michael hadn’t bothered to get dressed. He was as naked as he’d gotten in the basement. He was also sporting an erection that she might have found comical under other circumstances. The fact that he didn’t seem to care about his nakedness or his aroused state scared her more than his friendly tone of voice. He spared a glance at Jack, who lay helplessly on his side, breathing growing weaker by the second.


Michael said something else. It was lost on Harper. There was a roaring sound in her ears, and her befuddled mind couldn’t make sense of it anymore. She had tried and he had caught her. She had almost gotten away from him. The thought kept repeating as she tried to force herself to move faster, to stand up. It would at least give her a fighting chance. But her head had taken a hard hit and things were starting to get gray around the edges. She knew if she passed out it would be over for her. Any chance she had of escaping or even surviving would be lost.


Bright light suddenly flared through the gate. The expression on Michael’s face changed from smarm-filled smile at winning to puzzlement. He said one word, ‘what’, which Harper could not hear over the roaring in her ears. She could read it on his lips though as he turned to look at the gate.


The metal exploded inward, joints snapping as a truck hit the gate doing well over fifty miles per hour. Michael did not even have time to move, one moment he was standing there the next he was being run down by the truck whose engine was shrieking. That was the noise that Harper had heard, and her tired, drugged, rattled brain had attributed it to being slammed around.


The truck screeched to a halt. Harper managed to turn and get on her knees. She reached out for the wall and used it to brace herself and stand upright, her head swimming sickly. She could see Michael’s crumpled body at the back of the truck. He was moaning and laughing sickly. It sounded as if he had a mouth full of water, which Harper assumed he did. After being struck by the truck if he wasn’t bleeding internally she’d be shocked.


The driver of the truck came around the rear. He stood over Michael, breathing heavily, looking extremely infuriated. Harper hoped she never be on the receiving end of that particular expression from Mark. Her relief at seeing him threatened to buckle her knees though, pissed off or not. He glanced at her and his expression changed, melting into concern.


“Harper. Are you all right?” He stepped over Michael, who was moaning and trying to turn over. Harper tried not to cry relieved tears as he grabbed her and held her close.


“What took you so long?” She asked, sniffling. He chuckled weakly but held onto her tighter.


“You were in the dark. I couldn’t find you until you knew where you were.” It sounded crazy but to Harper made perfect sense. She held on to him, breathing him in.


Her eyes fell on Michael. He had gotten to his knees. A steady stream of blood ran from between his lips. He spit and looked up, sneering at Harper. “Good. This will save me the trouble of telling him what I’ll do to you. I can just let him watch.” Incredibly he was getting to his feet. There was a crunching, grinding noise as something broken inside him rubbed together. Michael might have been dying but the thing inside him refused to give up his body. Not now. Not when he was so close.




To say he was pissed off would be an understatement.


Mark watched the thing get to its feet, feeling his anger boiling just under the surface. It had started as soon as he understood what was happening. His intuition – instincts – whatever – had only told him that Harper was not in the hotel. He was driving around, trying to decide where the most likely place for her to go would be, when a light exploded in his head. For a second he worried that he’d had a stroke; that was how intense it was. He was blinded. Luckily he was on a deserted road and managed to stop the truck. As his vision cleared her felt her for the first time. Not only did he feel her but he felt some of what she was going through.


The fact that Harper was scared only elevated Mark’s anger into new levels. She was in trouble, just as he had been sensing but somehow her fear had ignited a rage in him. It was one thing too many. Especially from Harper who had seemed so unshakeable.


He let the force that drove him take over, pushing him to hurry. He had no idea where Harper was, not really, but he knew she was still alive and that his instincts would lead him right to her. Something wanted him to protect her, and he hadn’t failed her yet.


He understood, even as he plowed through the iron fence, that the naked man standing in the driveway was more than just a naked man. It was the thing that Mark had been chasing, back to finish what it had started. Harper had changed things maybe, to the point where the old rules didn’t apply.


Mark could not deny the satisfaction he felt when the truck slammed into its body. Peripherally he was aware that the thing had done something to Harper, and that she was hurt. When he had gotten out of the truck he had seen nothing but red and wanted to get his hands around the throat of the thing that had done this.


Until he saw Harper getting shakily to her feet. It seemed to drop him back into himself somehow. Forgetting the broken thing on the ground, he went to her and damn near cried in relief when she held on to him. He felt her stiffen in his arms when the thing spoke though. It was getting to its feet, broken and hurt but unwilling to stop.


And even though Mark was standing there with Harper the thing still looked at her as if she were the main course on its menu. He muttered a curse, infuriated all over again. Harper clutched at his shirt before he could do more than shift his weight in that direction.


“His heart.” She said it in a low voice. “Try his heart.”


Mark looked down at her, taking in her tear streaked face and the bruise that was forming on her forehead. She looked tired but resolute. He reached a hand up and rubbed his thumb over her cheek, wiping her tears away before nodding. Reluctantly he let her go. She squeezed him one more time before releasing him and leaning against the fence once more.


Mark turned his attention to the thing in front of him. It had shuffled forward a few steps but apparently its leg wasn’t working. Every time it moved, that crunching noise resumed. It was the sound of a fractured bone rubbing against itself. It set Mark’s nerves on edge.


“Go ahead. Finish it. I’ll just come back again. She’ll never be safe.” The thing said, its voice grating and liquid-sounding.


“And I’ll get rid of you again.” Mark paused for a moment before stooping to pick up a piece of iron fencing that had been knocked loose from the impact of the truck. The point on top was wickedly sharp. It was almost two feet long, plenty of room to hold on to.


The thing touched him, grabbing his arm weakly. Mark grimaced but turned, looking into the thing’s eyes. He could see the man this person had been, in pain and suffering, but still with an eye cast toward Harper. And the thing he was after was there too, gloating. As if it knew something Mark did not.


Even if it was a temporary fix, he had to try. Even it all it did was buy them time to find a way to end it for good. He grabbed the thing by the hair and without speaking a word – Mark didn’t trust himself to speak at that moment – he thrust the sharp end of the gate post into the thing’s chest, piercing its heart.


The death was anti-climactic. Its mouth opened and closed and it looked confused. Then it slowly sank to the ground, dead before it was fully down. Mark wiped his hand on his shirt and found himself staring once more at person whose life he had ended. It didn’t feel any different this time. Or so he thought.


He was hit by something. He understood even as he staggered and caught his balance that it had been more mental than physical. Whatever power had been driving him since he lost his wife and their unborn was gone. For a moment his head felt like a popped balloon and his vision blurred, making him feel dizzy.


It passed as quickly as it happened. He realized two things. The body in front of him was just that. A body. It had an iron fence pole imbedded in its chest, and it was naked but for all that there was nothing else there.


The second thing was that whatever had tethered him to Harper was gone. She was right behind him, not ten feet away, and he sensed absolutely nothing. Mark turned around and saw that Harper had moved – she was kneeling on the grass next to another man that Mark had not noticed.


“Jack…” Harper was speaking to the man, who was breathing shallowly. His face was stark white in the backwash of the truck’s lights. “Gonna get you some help now, ok? You hold on.”


The man muttered but didn’t say anything. His breath was wheezing. Harper looked up at Mark helplessly. “There are phones in the house. In the entryway…can you call somebody?”


Mark nodded and hurried up the drive to the front door. It was standing open. Inside the massive entry, there was a trail of blood. He stepped over it carefully and grabbed the phone off the table. He dialed 911 and ignored the dispatcher’s questions. “Trace this call. There’s a guy that needs an ambulance.” He left the phone turned on and set it on the table. The cops would be able to trace the call. He had no idea what the address here was.


He went back outside. Harper was still with her friend, gently pushing his hair back from his forehead. The dead guy was still dead. Mark fought the urge to kick his body on the way past. In the distance they could both hear sirens. Mark saw Harper tilt her head to listen.


“We should go before they get here.”


“I’m not leaving Jack.” Harper said resolutely.


Mark nodded in understanding. It didn’t change the basic facts though. “Up til now the cops have pretty much ignored everything. Something is different. I’m hoping that isn’t one of the things. Because there’d be a lot of explaining to do, and to somebody who hasn’t lived it, it’ll just sound like we’re both crazy.”


Harper sniffled and picked up Jack’s hand, squeezing it. Jack blinked his eyes open and tried gamely to smile at her. “Go.” His voice was barely more than a whisper.




“Be fine.” He squeezed her hand weakly.


“You’d better be. You die on me, I’m going to have you stuffed and mounted.” Harper said through her tears. Her equilibrium hadn’t deserted her.


“All the more…reason…to not die. Go on. Get out of here.” Talking was taxing his energy. Harper kissed the back of his hand and slowly let him go, accepting Mark’s help to her feet.


“This isn’t right.”


“It’s what has to be. They’ll get him in time, take him to the hospital. We’ll have enough time to go get you some clothes.” He pointed out her blanket. “But we have to hurry. Like I said the cops might still play dumb, just this one last time. But not if we’re standing here.”


“Ok.” Harper spared another look at Jack. He was rubbing his chest, and trying to breathe deeper. She couldn’t speak to him because she’d be tempted to stay. Instead she let Mark lead her to the truck and help her inside.


Even after the crash into the gate and hitting Michael the truck still ran perfectly. Mark fought the urge to reverse out the drive – running over the body one last time in the process. He didn’t want to risk that iron rod jamming the undercarriage of the truck though. He smirked inwardly. Talk about skewed priorities.


Once they were on the road he kept to the speed limit. There was a rattle and Mark wondered for a moment if the truck had taken some damage after all. Then he realized that it was Harper. Her teeth were chattering.


He slowed and looked over at her. She was crying silently and shaking, hugging herself to try to get warm. Reaction was setting in – or her adrenaline was wearing off. Maybe a combination of both. Mark pulled over and put the truck in park then pulled her toward him. He wrapped his arms around her and felt her tremble against him.


“It’s all right Harper. It’s over.” He soothed her as best he could, but he didn’t know what had happened to her. It made him angry all over again to even think about it.


“Is it?” Her voice caught on a sob. “Fuck I’m blubbering like a baby.” She angrily wiped her eyes and he could feel her getting a hold on herself.


“I think you’ve earned it.” Mark said, kissing her on the forehead. Near where she’d hit her head. “How did you know?”


“How did I know what?” She asked, wincing when bright lights washed across the truck’s windshield. An ambulance and two police cars sped by, sirens wailing.


Mark waited until they passed. “The heart.” He said simply.


“Lucky guess?” She huffed what might have been a laugh. “It said that when it left a body before it died, it would have a heart attack. It made a stupid kind of sense I guess.”


“I think it worked.” Mark said, brushing her hair back from her face.


Harper raised an eyebrow. “How can you tell?”


“I don’t know. It just feels different this time.” He hugged her close. She grabbed on to him and held him tight, relaxing against him for a moment. “You wanna tell me what happened?”


Harper hesitated and shook her head. “I will. But right now all I want is a hot shower, some clothes, and a trip to the hospital to make sure Jack’s ok.”


“Well. That’s three things we can do pretty easily.” He lightly traced his finger over her forehead. “We’re going to get you checked out too.”


“I’m fine.”


“That might very well be. But you’re swelling and bruising. Don’t wanna risk a concussion.”


“If you say so.” Harper pulled away from him but didn’t go back to her seat. She sat in the middle so she could rest her head against his arm as he drove.


“Don’t you fall asleep on me.” Mark said, shifting the truck into drive.


“Wasn’t gonna.” Harper punctuated that by yawning. It made Mark grin even though he was worried about her. She seemed a bit loopy, a little out of herself. He supposed that was to be expected considering what she’d been through.


He got her into the hotel unseen, which was good. He didn’t know how he’d have answered questions about why Harper was wearing only a blanket. He shared her shower, assuring himself that she was basically unharmed. More specifically quieting his mind about what had happened. That dream had stuck to him but Harper was fine. She’d hit her head, and she was tired, but fine.


He drove them to the hospital in her Jeep, aware that the damage to his truck might draw a bit of attention. She was quiet, deep in her own thoughts, at least until he insisted she be seen by a doctor before she went looking for her friend.


It was an argument that he won easily. Mark could tell that Harper was bothered – the exam was thorough but the doctor didn’t bother to ask how or why she had taken a knock to the head. He had seen her without really seeing her, which was something Mark had gotten used to over the years. Sometimes it was a blessing.


She put up with as much poking and prodding she could stand before hurrying things along. The doctor said he saw no signs of concussion, and it was true that the lump was already going down and the bruise had stopped its progression across her forehead. The doctor prescribed ice, rest, and aspirin, which caused Harper to roll her eyes.


“Massive waste of time.” She said as he led her toward the elevators. While she’d been in the exam room Mark had spoken to a receptionist and found out that Jack was on the fourth floor in the cardiac care unit.


“Better safe than sorry.” He shot back at her, threading his fingers through hers, squeezing.


Only one of them was allowed into the room to visit with Jack, and even that could only be a 10 minute visit. The doctors had stabilized him but he had suffered what the cardiologist had called a ‘coronary incident’. Mark wondered why they didn’t just call it a heart attack. He sat in the waiting room while Harper had her visit, glancing at the clock every few minutes. It was nearing on seven in the morning. He might write this down as the longest night in history.


Harper finally reappeared. She was dry-eyed and seemed to be relieved. “He’s going to be ok.” She said, taking a seat next to Mark. “They said he would be in cardiac care for at least seven days, and they might have to install a pacemaker…” Her throat caught on that word but she heaved a sigh and went on. “He’s pretty well out of it too. Doesn’t remember anything. He doesn’t even know why he’s here. I didn’t know what to tell him so I just shushed him.”


Mark smiled albeit sadly. “You might not have to tell him anything. I’ve found that sometimes people make up their own memories.”

“I guess.” Harper said tiredly.


“Before you go to sleep, do you want to get some breakfast? I know they want your friend to rest, so no sense waiting around here for four hours til you can visit again.”


“I guess. I’d rather find a bed to crawl into.”


“And you can tell me what happened.” Mark knew it would eat at him if he didn’t know. His imagination could be worse than the reality.


“Yeah. I can do that too.” Harper took his offered hand and let him lead her toward the exit.




“If there was ever a time for you to slow down, this would be it.”


Harper was concentrating on putting the finishing touches on a huge wedding cake. Lately she had been leaving the detail work to a couple of her more senior staff members but this was an expensive cake for an exclusive wedding. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust the others to get it done – she just knew she could do it to her own picky standards.


“One cake in four months isn’t necessarily breaking work labor laws for me.” She said, setting her decorating bag aside so she could sit up straight. She put her hands against the small of her back and stretched, sighing in satisfaction. She really couldn’t hunch over to get the best angles like she used to and her back reminded her of that constantly.


Jack looked over her shoulder and turned the cake stand, rotating the six-tiered cake slowly. “It looks amazing.” He had recovered from his heart attack for the most part. The pacemaker had not been necessary but he had enough prescriptions to medicate the entire state as far as Harper was concerned. This Jack was not the same Jack that Harper had known and loved. He was more subdued, and acted more his age. He still ran his half of the business, and still occupied the spot as head chef of their catering company, but he didn’t mind letting others do the really heavy lifting. Unlike Harper, who seemed to be unable to slow down. “Speaking of labor laws…” Jack smirked and gave Harper’s swollen stomach a rub.


“Three more weeks.” She grabbed his hand and moved it up, pressing it so he could feel the baby kick. “She’s being pretty active today too. So since I couldn’t rest, I came in here.”


“Poor kid is gonna take after her mama.” Jack grinned and gave her stomach one more pat before wandering off toward the large walk in refrigerators in the back. They had a lunch to cater that afternoon and he wanted to get an early start to make sure they had things in hand.


It was hard to believe that it had been three years. To Harper it sometimes seemed that no time at all had passed. Time flew when a person was having fun. She guessed it was true.


Jack had ended up spending two weeks in the hospital in California, and another month at a rehab hospital close to home. As eager as Harper was to get the hell away from that place, she had stayed until the doctors had cleared Jack for travel. She had flown back with him because the drive would have been way too taxing on his mending heart.


He didn’t remember anything. As far as he was concerned, he had gone to California to offer moral support to Harper after the funeral. She didn’t correct him. She got the feeling that deep down he knew that wasn’t necessarily true and it was that knowledge that led him to being a more cautious Jack. Sometimes she wished she could explain things but unless a person was living in the moment she didn’t think it made a whole lot of sense.


As for Mark…Harper smiled inwardly. She hadn’t spared him any details, which seemed to set his mind at ease about what had happened. That was good. He stayed by her side during Jack’s recovery, making sure that she rested and took care of herself and didn’t spend the whole time worrying herself to death. When she had flown home, Mark had driven her Jeep. The truck he scrapped as a loss, and not a huge one.


The police were not looking for the truck or for Harper or Mark. About that he had been right. Harper received a phone call from a lawyer with the news that Colleen had been murdered, probably during a home invasion. Nothing was mentioned about the absolute overkill of her death. And not one word was breathed about the dead naked man in the driveway who had obviously been hit by a vehicle.


Even Jack’s location hadn’t played into it. The cops never questioned him. The general consensus was a robbery gone wrong, case closed.


The lawyers were more than happy to tell Harper that with Colleen’s death she became the sole beneficiary to what Daniel had left behind. She found it hilarious though, and knew why Colleen had been so pissed. In his will Daniel had liquidated his company assets and sold them to his partners. She would not have gotten control of the business after all. Once all of his holdings were cashed in, and all of his expenses paid out, the estate equaled a little less than forty thousand dollars. Daniel had been broke – and he’d been using credit to hide the fact. The only thing he freely owned was the house, which automatically reverted to Harper because it had been her mother’s investment not Daniel’s. When they had gotten divorced she had let him live there with Colleen because it was close to the business that she had helped him build. He did not own it or the property.


Harper didn’t want the house. It sounded like a massive headache in the making. So she had hired a cleaning crew who had scrubbed the place from top to bottom. All of the furniture and household goods were sold – it was probably the only yard sale that particular neighborhood had seen in decades. The neighbors hated it but she didn’t care. The six or seven people who worked the sale split the proceeds evenly between them. Harper figured it was the least she could do since they did all the work.


That left the house. The lawyer suggested selling. With Colleen’s death being such a non-event, and the gate repairs underway, she could easily get a couple of million for the size of the property alone. Harper wanted to throw up at the thought.


What she really wanted to do was burn the place to the ground. Barring that, she had donated the house and property to one of her favorite charities. They could use it or auction it off and use the profits, she didn’t care. But signing the papers had lifted a weight off her shoulders.


A big hand slid down her shoulder and paused to rub at her lower back. Harper sighed happily. “Shouldn’t you be at work?”


“Shouldn’t you be at home?” Mark shot it right back.


Harper smiled. “I was bored.”


“Hmm. Well I have nothing doing today.” He had thought over his options and had bought into a local gym. It was small, and out of date. He didn’t mind the work to build it up. And he found that he actually enjoyed the expansions – boxing equipment, a wrestling ring, and a small pool. They planned on eventually moving to a bigger location because one of the local indy wrestling companies expressed an interest in signing an exclusive deal with their gym. That meant that they would get some TV exposure as well as draw in small crowds once a month for the shows. “I was kind of hoping I could sneak back in bed and do you.”


Harper cracked up laughing. “That may be the least smooth line I have ever heard.”


“It’s from hanging around all those young people.” He said with a snort as his fingers pressed against her back. “How about it?”


“I don’t know. I’m a married woman. My husband could possibly come home at any time.”


“I don’t see a ring on your finger.” Mark leaned forward and picked up her hand, dropping a kiss on her ring finger.


“Yeah well. Pregnancy drawback. My fingers were swollen this morning so I had to take it off.”


“Then your husband should have bought you a bigger size. At least temporarily.” Mark let go of her hand and used his to rub her stomach.


“He’s had other things on his mind. He’s not very attentive.”


“Then he’s a bigger idiot than I thought.” Mark ducked his head to nuzzle her neck.


“He is pretty dumb. One of those jock types.  You know…always so full of himself.” Harper started laughing, unable to keep a straight face when he gave up rubbing her back to tickle her ribs.


“So I’m a dumb jock now?” He asked.


Now.” Harper emphasized the word. He started to tickle her again but she stopped him by squirming away. “Ok, ok. I’ll go home with you. But the cake has to go back into the fridge, plus I have to put my stuff away…”


“You have flunkies for that.”


“Spoken like a true dumb jock.” Harper poked his chest and gestured at the cake. “Haul it for me. But if you hurt it there’s gonna be hell to pay. That’s a two-thousand dollar cake.”


“Two thousand? Are those real diamonds?” He pointed at the sugar crystals that decorated one of the layers. Harper smiled when he kissed her quickly before turning to wheel the heavy cake back to the refrigerator. She began cleaning her station, meaning only to store her unused decorations until she could come back in later to finish it.


It was fun to joke around with Mark. He had been way too serious before. And she couldn’t complain about him not being attentive. As a matter of fact, when she’d found out they were expecting a baby he had been a little too attentive. A leftover of what had happened to his first wife, maybe. He jumped at shadows and refused to let her go anywhere alone. Harper put up with it because she understood what he had gone through. Eventually though she had to draw the line. She had to go to work, and so did he.


They had waited almost a year after things had settled down to get married. Mark did not have roots, so it was an easy thing for him to move in with Harper. That lasted all of six months. Her small apartment seemed way too crowded. So she and Mark had upgraded to a house – a three bedroom on a quiet dead-end street in town. It was far enough away from the nearest neighbors to guarantee privacy while close enough that they didn’t feel isolated. The marriage had come as naturally as everything else had. He hadn’t so much asked as mentioned that he thought they might want to consider getting married. Harper had agreed. Three weeks after that they were married at the local justice of the peace’s office with the man’s secretary as a witness.


It had been perfect, as far as Harper was concerned.


The baby came as something of a surprise to both of them. They had not talked children at all, and Harper was content to just carry on as things were. But it had been during a busy period at the catering company, and she had been forgetful in taking her birth control.


Mark hadn’t let down his guard until Harper was well into her second trimester. He never came out and said it but he didn’t have to – he feared things would start up again and that this pregnancy would be the catalyst. But nothing happened. She didn’t even get morning sickness. Her pregnancy had gone so smoothly that she swore her doctor was disgusted by it.


She was washing her hands at the sink when Mark joined her. “All done?” He asked, giving her a familiar look. Nine months pregnant with the man’s baby and he could still turn her insides to mush with just a look. Harper grinned.


“I suppose. Unless you want to stick around and help Jack cook some shrimp or make tomato tarts or whatever the hell it is he’s doing.”


“I think I’ll pass.” Mark had helped out around the place in the past three years. He’d been drafted into doing some of the heavy work, and even some of the grilling. Harper knew it made him nervous which is what made it so funny. “I’ve got better things to do this morning.” He gave her a lascivious wink that made Harper grin.


“The doctor said that sex could stimulate my labor. So I hope you’re planning on an all day thing. I’m ready to have this kid.” She took off her apron and lightly rested her hand on her protruding belly.


“Well I make no promises but I’ll do my best. Should I call work, tell them I need medical leave so I can service my wife to induce her labor?”


“That would be hilarious. Yes, you should.” Harper grinned when he bent and pressed his mouth against hers. Even through all that had happened, she wouldn’t have changed a second of it. She knew that someday they would have an interesting story to tell their daughter about how they met. Of course making her believe it might be another story entirely.