Preston frowned at the muzzle pointed toward him. “Whoever’s out there might still be—”
A noise, movement, drew their attention back to the broken window. A man loomed outside. Preston was fairly sure he’d never seen him before, but he wasn’t positive until the stranger came around the house and entered the living room through the same door he’d used.
“No friend of mine,” Preston said when he emerged into the light. “What about you?”
The man was lanky, had tattoos down both arms and wore a bandanna around his long greasy hair. He quickly closed the distance between them. “Get up,” he snapped at Preston, but when he saw that Vince held a gun, he grew leery and turned the muzzle of his own gun in Vince’s direction. “Drop it.”
“If you do, he’ll kill us,” Preston warned.
“Who…are you?” Vince asked with a groan.
“I have no argument with you. I’m here for him.” He waved his weapon toward Preston. “Drop the gun.”
Vince shifted to lean against the breakfast bar, and Preston guessed he couldn’t sit up any longer without support. “What…what did Preston…do to you?” he wheezed.
“For me, it’s just a job. Nothing personal. You can thank Manuel Rodriguez.”
Manuel. Preston’s heart thumped erratically. “He knows where Emma is?”
“Emma?” The man chuckled. “You mean Vanessa. Of course. He’s with her now, probably taking up where you left off, eh?” He winked and the image that went through Preston’s mind made him nauseous.
Emma…“How’d he find her?”
“Fate.” His black eyes narrowed as he eyed Vince. “I said drop the gun.”
Preston itched to feel the cool metal of the trigger beneath his finger. He’d been shot in the right arm and probably couldn’t use his most coordinated hand. But at this range, he didn’t think it would matter. “Don’t do it, Vince,” he said. “You can identify him, so he has to kill you, too. Surely you know that.”
“I’m dying anyway,” Vince said hopelessly, and slumped farther toward the floor. He face grew ashen, his jaw slack.
“Then give me the gun.” Preston launched himself toward it and was immediately deafened by gunfire. But he didn’t feel any pain. He looked down in surprise, expecting more blood. Then he heard the man with the bandanna gasp, saw him fall.
The smell of gunpowder filled Preston’s nostrils as he stared at Vince, whose head had fallen back. He was struggling to catch his breath.
“You got him,” Preston said.
Vince’s eyelids fluttered open. “Did I?” He smiled weakly. “Now maybe—” he fought for another breath “—someday you can…forgive me. But—” he swallowed “—I know how much you loved Dallas. I…I shouldn’t count on it, right?”
Preston didn’t know how to respond. He missed Dallas terribly, would always lament the tragedy of his son’s death. But for the first time in two years, he was more worried about the present.
Manuel’s man was still moving, but barely. Preston didn’t care whether he lived or died. He could only think of Emma.
Fighting the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm him, he rose to his feet, dialed 911, and told the operator to send the police to Vince’s house and the motel. The motel first, he said. Then he collected both guns, staggered out of the house and started running for his van.
EMMA’S FINGERNAILS SCRAPED the walls as Manuel dragged her down to the floor. He was nursing his right hand, the hand she’d injured earlier. And his head was bleeding. When Max snapped on the light, she could see a large gash near Manuel’s temple, which he must have sustained when he came through the window.
“You stupid b***h. You broke my hand,” he said, but it didn’t stop him from punching her with the other.
Emma supposed it was a good thing she’d injured his right hand, because his left one was powerful enough. Her teeth clacked together as he connected with her chin and, for a moment, she saw spots.
“Daddy?” Max said uncertainly.
Emma struggled to reach the bat she’d dropped. “Get into the bathroom, Max,” she said, tasting blood. “Lock the door. Hurry! Mommy will be okay.”
Instead of obeying, Max started to cry. “Don’t hurt my mommy,” he said. “Please, Daddy. Don’t hurt her.”
“I’m not gonna hurt her. I’m gonna kill her,” he said, and that was when Emma knew rage had carried him beyond all rational thought.
“Go!” Emma cried to Max, but she couldn’t get out anything else before she had to use all her energy to swing at Manuel with the bat. It make a sickening thud, but his arm had blocked it from doing any real damage. And he retaliated with a vicious kick to her abdomen. Pain exploded in her ribs, burning so badly she wondered if he’d managed to puncture a lung.
“You think you can threaten me, take my son and f**k any man you want?” he hollered.
Trying to raise the bat again, she stumbled and fell, and he kicked her a second time.
“Mommy!” The terror in Max’s voice brought Emma to her feet despite the pain. She lurched toward her son, but she was so dizzy, she couldn’t even stand. She collapsed to her knees as Max flung himself at Manuel’s leg, hitting and kicking him. “Leave her alone! Don’t you hurt my mommy!”
Manuel threw Max off as effortlessly as though he were a rag doll. He slid across the floor and banged against the wall.
My God! Max! He’s out of his mind. He’s going to kill us both.
“You want to f**k him again?” he cried. “You want to let Preston Holman cost you your life, your child?”
Frantically, she grabbed Max’s arm and pulled him toward the bathroom. They were so close. If only she could get inside and shut the door—
But Manuel was on her before she could. Whirling just in time, she hit him with the bat, but there wasn’t room for a full swing, and it didn’t seem to hurt him too badly. He tore it out of her grasp and slugged her again, and she hit the vanity before landing in the bathtub.
“Stop it!” Max screamed. He must have bitten Manuel because Manuel suddenly bellowed in pain—and lashed out.
Terror seized Emma as Max fell to the floor. “Max!” she cried, but he didn’t answer.
Rage flooded through Emma, lending her strength she hadn’t known she possessed. She struggled to her feet and shoved Manuel, hard, knocking him back into the door.