Runaway Vampire (Argeneau Book #23) – Lynsay Sands

Mary stifled a yawn, and then gave her head a shake, trying to ease the sleepiness closing in around her. Having slept in this morning, she’d started out late and shouldn’t be tired yet, but it turned out driving for hours at a stretch was exhausting. It hadn’t seemed tiring when she’d had Joe with her on these travels down to Texas from their home in Canada. The two of them had passed the time chatting about this and that and the miles had seemed to fly by. Of course, he’d also helped by plying her with coffee after coffee as well, as she had done for him while he drove. Now, though, it was just endless hours of long roads and nothingness. Bailey sat up beside her to nudge her arm with a concerned whimper and Mary smiled faintly. Keeping her eyes on the road ahead, she reached down blindly to pet the German shepherd. It was as if the dog had a sixth sense when it came to her moods and was always offering comfort whenever Mary’s thoughts turned to her deceased husband. “It’s all right,” she assured the dog. “I’m fine. We’re almost there. Another hour and we should reach our next stop.” She forced a smile and sat up a little straighter in the driver’s seat as she returned her hand to the wheel. In the next moment, a thud startled the smile off her face, and Mary slammed on the brakes as the right wheels of the RV rocked over something in the road.

Despite pretty much standing on the brake pedal, the vehicle continued forward a good distance before coming to a shuddering halt that sent drawers and doors flying open, loosing items to tumble out onto the floor. Jaw tight, Mary glanced into the side mirrors, then the rear camera view as well. She’d hoped to see what she’d hit, but there were no streetlights on this lonely back road and the side mirrors only reflected darkness. As for the rear-view camera screen, despite the camera’s night vision capabilities, she couldn’t spot what she’d hit. She’d have to get out and look, Mary realized with a sinking heart. “Probably just someone’s trash tossed out and left on the road,” she muttered reassuringly to Bailey. Certainly she hadn’t seen anything before the thud, just the paved road revealed by her headlights. Maybe she didn’t have to get out and look. Mary barely had the thought before she was pushing it away. Her eyes weren’t as good as they used to be, but she might be more tired than she realized.

Had she hit a deer that had lunged out of the trees? It might even have been a pedestrian in dark clothes or something. It was the possibility that she might have hit someone walking on the side of the road that forced her out of her seat. Pushing the button to ease the driver’s seat back several inches, she stood in the space she’d made and then paused, kept in place by Bailey, who had stood up and was now blocking her way. “Move, girl,” she ordered and the shepherd obeyed at once, trotting toward the door behind the passenger chair. Able to move now, Mary shifted to the right a few steps and opened the pull-up doors above the front passenger window to retrieve the large flashlight that was stored there. These doors were among the few that hadn’t slammed open in the stop, she noted. A good thing too; she and Bailey would have taken a beating had these opened and allowed their contents to crash down over them. Flashlight in hand, Mary moved up behind Bailey to reach for the lock on the door. It would have been easier without the dog in the way, but it was a dark lonely road out there and Mary was more than happy to let the shepherd lead the way. Not that she was that worried.

Of course, she’d heard the stories of RVers getting jacked on lonely stretches of highway and such, but most RVers wouldn’t take this route, they’d stick to the highways. Surely smart criminals wouldn’t sit around out here for days or weeks on end waiting for that one idiot RVer who eschewed the highway for the more scenic route? On the other hand, who said criminals were smart? Mary asked herself as she pushed the door open. Bailey immediately bound down the steps and disappeared into the darkness. “Bailey! Wait for me,” Mary barked, rushing down the first two steps, only to pause on the last of the inside steps so that she could turn on the flashlight. She then swung the beam over the gravel and grass below, before stepping down onto the metal stairs that had dropped down when she’d opened the door. Cool damp air slapped her face as she stepped down onto the side of the road, but Mary barely noticed, she was shining her flashlight around in search of her dog. Catching a glimpse of Bailey’s tail end disappearing around the back of the RV, Mary muttered a curse under her breath and moved a bit more swiftly, which still wasn’t very fast. The side of the road was uneven, littered with stones and weeds. The last thing she needed was to stumble and fall and break something in the middle of nowhere. Help would not come for a while out here, if at all.

“Bailey?” Mary called as she reached the back of the RV and was startled to hear the slight quaver in her voice. She sounded like a scared old woman, and the knowledge annoyed the hell out of her. Irritated now, she snapped, “Bailey! Get back here or I’ll get your leash.” A bark sounded to her right, on the driver’s side of the RV and she started in that direction, but paused when Bailey appeared before her, tail wagging and excitement in every line of her body. Once Bailey had her attention, the dog barked again. “What is it?” Mary asked, and in her head heard Joe’s voice finishing the question with “Did Timmy fall down the well?” It was one of his little jokes. He’d had many of them and they’d always made her smile no matter how often he used them. Pushing the thought away with a little sigh, she turned her flashlight to run it over the road behind the RV. By her guess it must have taken them a good twenty or thirty feet to stop, but it may have been as much as sixty or even a hundred. With 20,000 pounds of weight behind it, the RV wasn’t designed for fast braking.

Mary often thought that should be written on the front and back of the large vehicles. “Give wide berth, RVs need space to stop.” It would certainly help with tailgaters and those idiot drivers who seemed to like to cut her off on the highways. That was the reason she was on this lonely back road. She hadn’t wanted to have to deal with aggressive drivers on the highway today. And perhaps she’d also wanted to avoid the stretch of highway where Joe had suffered his heart attack last year. Pushing that thought away as well, Mary swung the flashlight from left to right on the road, frowning when the light didn’t reveal anything but wet tarmac. It had obviously rained here earlier, the road was soaking and the air was heavy with moisture. Raising her flashlight to see farther down the lane, Mary started away from the RV, but hadn’t gone far before she began to feel unaccountably nervous at leaving the safety of the RV behind. It was silly, she supposed, but the night was so very dark out here.

And there was an odd almost waiting quality to the silence around her. The only sound she could hear was the rustle of leaves in the breeze. Shouldn’t there have been the chirps and hoots of crickets, frogs, and owls or something? For some reason the lack of those sounds bothered her a great deal. “Nothing,” Mary muttered nervously, and found herself easing backward step after step until she felt the bumper of the RV against the backs of her legs. She almost turned and hurried back inside the vehicle, but her conscience wouldn’t let her. She’d hit something. The best scenario was that she’d run over garbage, but if that were the case there would be trash all over the road, and there just wasn’t. The next best option was that she’d hit a deer or some other animal but there was nothing on the road. She hadn’t just hit something; she’d run over it. Mary distinctly recalled the way the RV had bounced over something in the road.

She’d think whatever it was might have got caught and been dragged, but there had been two bumps over whatever it was—front tires and back. Of course, whatever she’d hit could have got caught behind the back tires and been dragged, some part of her brain pointed out, and Mary turned to shine the flashlight under the RV. The double back tires were a good six feet before the end of the RV and she bent at the waist to see more, then straightened abruptly when Bailey began to bark. The dog had moved up the passenger side of the RV and Mary stepped out beside it to find her with the flashlight beam. Bailey stood next to the door to the RV, she noted, but the dog was staring off into the dark trees along the side of the road, body stiff and growling. Mary promptly turned the flashlight beam toward the woods where Bailey had focused her attention. She caught a glimpse of something in the trees, but it was gone so quickly. It may have just been a shadow caused by her flashlight, she reassured herself. Still, something had Bailey upset. Fear suddenly tripping through her, Mary swallowed and began to ease toward Bailey.

She did so by shuffling sideways so that her back was to the RV and her flashlight beam and gaze could remain trained on the woods. It seemed to take forever to get to the door, but some instinct was telling her not to turn her back to the dark woods. She wasted no time in opening the door and the moment she did, Bailey rushed in, galloping up the steps as if the hounds of hell were on her tail. That did not ease her anxiety. Bailey was not a cowardly dog. She was the type to rush into confrontation and stand between any threat and her people. The way she raced into the RV had the hair on Mary’s neck standing on end as she scrambled up the steps after her. Mary pulled the door closed behind her and locked it almost in one motion. Even then she didn’t feel safe, though, and found herself eager to get out of there. Ignoring the doors and drawers that had flown open during her abrupt stop, as well as the items now littering the floor, she tossed the flashlight on the passenger seat and jumped behind the wheel with more speed than grace.

Mary had left the RV engine running and now only had to shift into gear and hit the gas. An immediate clatter arose as the RV lurched forward and more items tumbled out of the open doors she’d neglected to close. There was also a loud thump as if Bailey had tumbled off of, or into, something and Mary glanced around with concern. It was dark in the back of the RV, but she thought she spotted something moving in front of the closed bedroom door. It should have been open, but it had no doubt closed when she’d stopped abruptly, or perhaps that was the thump she’d heard when she’d hit the gas—the pocket door sliding closed. “You okay, girl?” Mary asked as she swiveled her head forward again, her eyes shooting to the road, then each side mirror and the camera screen showing the rear-view as well. There was nothing but dark road highlighted by her headlights, and the view behind was all just black nothingness, but she relaxed a little when Bailey barked in answer to her question. At least she hadn’t killed her dog careening off like that, she thought grimly, and immediately glanced to the rear camera view again with dissatisfaction. Mary was quite sure she’d run over something back there and despite not finding anything, she didn’t feel right about driving off. Her search certainly hadn’t been a thorough one and she feared she might be leaving someone lying injured on the side of the road.

Which didn’t make any sense. Whatever she’d hit should have been in the road, easily visible, not at the side or off hidden in the bushes. She’d run over whatever it was, not hit and sent it flying. Her conscience was telling her she should reverse, go back out and make a proper search, but the idea of getting out of the RV again made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. Something had spooked Bailey, and yes all right, she’d been spooked too, she acknowledged with a grimace. Perhaps she could just call the police and have them send someone out to search the area properly. Although, they might demand she turn back and wait for them by the spot, she thought unhappily and didn’t even like the idea of waiting in the safety of the RV back there. Good Lord, she was acting like a teenager left home alone for the first time, Mary thought with self-disgust and clenched her hands on the steering wheel, then released a little impatient hiss and reached for her cell phone, only to find that it was no longer in its holder. A quick glance toward the floor revealed absolutely nothing. She couldn’t even see her feet let alone the missing cell phone.

Biting her lip, she briefly considered stopping, but then glanced once more to the rear camera screen and quickly changed her mind. She would wait until the first stop sign she reached, Mary decided. At the moment she wasn’t sure where exactly she was, other than the name of the road. If she waited until the next stop, she could check the street signs and give the police some idea of the nearest crossroad to the accident. That thought made her glance down at the mileage gauge. She’d just keep track of how far she drove before she reached the stop sign and then could give the police the exact spot where they should be looking. Surely, that would be more helpful anyway? Dante groaned and opened his eyes to peer at the edge of the built-in bed’s wooden base before him. He wished he had the strength to pull himself up off the floor and back onto the bed’s soft comfort, but was quite sure he couldn’t even manage that small task at this point. It seemed he’d used every last drop of strength he’d had getting himself into the RV and onto the bed he was now lying beside. That was a shame.

He hadn’t exactly landed in a comfortable position when the RV had surged forward and he’d rolled off the bed. His body had twisted and he now lay with his head and shoulders jammed between the base of the bed and one doorjamb, his feet caught between the bed and the other doorjamb, while his butt had fallen through the latched-open door of the bathroom to lie on the cold hard tile. The discomfort of his position was an added irritation, the final straw that broke the camel’s back of the agony his wounds were causing him. Not surprising after being run over by an RV, he supposed, but that was perhaps the wrong description for what had happened. Dante had been racing through the woods when they’d suddenly given way around him. It had taken him a moment to realize he had come upon the side of a road and that he was about to crash into the side of a passing RV. There was no way the driver could have seen him, let alone stopped, and Dante had instinctively tried to stop himself, but instead managed to skid right under the wheels. His mouth tightened as he recalled the impact of several tons of metal and wood rolling over his stomach and lower chest. He’d actually heard his ribs snapping and the pop as one of his lungs had burst. He hadn’t lost consciousness though, and when the first tires had cleared him, he’d instinctively tried to roll out of the way of the back wheels, but dazed and shocked and gasping for breath at that point, he’d merely got turned around under the vehicle so that the back right tires had rolled over one of his ankles.

A fortuitous event really, because had he got any farther in the direction he’d been moving, the back left tires would have rolled over his head. Better to have a crushed ankle than a crushed head, he thought dryly, and then let out a short breath and glanced toward where his feet were caught against the wall. He just as quickly looked away again, unwilling to focus too closely on just how badly mangled his one lower leg was. Damn, he was a mess, he acknowledged. So much so that he had to wonder how he’d managed to even get himself into the RV. The moments after the accident were a bit muddled in his head. He recalled his panic over his pursuers catching up to him. It had been enough to make him drag himself to his feet. He’d been desperate to reach the driver’s door and gain help. Only there had been no driver’s door, just a large window high up showing nothing but an empty cab.

He’d been considering that with some confusion when he’d heard a door slam closed on the other side of the vehicle. Dante had immediately started to hobble around the front of the RV when a dog had suddenly appeared beside him out of the darkness. Tail wagging and sniffing curiously, the furry fellow had seemed friendly enough as he trailed him around the vehicle, but when the owner had called out, the dog had raced off into the darkness along the RV. Dante had tried to call out then, hoping for help, but he was barely getting any oxygen into his one remaining lung. He wasn’t even sure how he was moving, but shouting was out of the question, so he’d simply continued around the RV. He’d spotted the flashlight moving over the road behind the RV as he came around the front of the vehicle, but it had seemed miles away in his condition. Then he’d spotted the door on this side of the vehicle and it had seemed like the gates of heaven. Dante had opened the door, and dragged himself up the steps. He’d paused then and glanced toward the flashlight by the back of the RV again. The driver had been in view at that point and he’d been surprised to note that it was a woman.

He’d tried to slip into her thoughts and take control of her, hoping to urge her back into the RV and get them moving, but he hadn’t been able to either read or control her. Realizing he was too weak to perform what should have been an easy task, Dante had decided discretion was the better part of valor here and had continued on into the RV, easing the door closed just as the German shepherd had rushed back toward him. It had been dark inside, but his eyes did well in darkness and the moment he’d spotted the bed toward the back of the RV, Dante had headed for it. He’d made his way to the soft berth, relieved to find that there was a door to the small room. He’d managed to find the strength to pull it closed, and then had collapsed on the bed with relief. He must have passed out then, though probably not for long, but the next moment he was tumbling from the bed to the floor as the RV accelerated. He’d waited stiffly, afraid his pursuers may have overcome the driver and were now in charge of the vehicle, but then he’d heard the woman call the dog to her. Her voice had been a little tense when she spoke, but not the terror stricken type of tense he was sure he would have heard had she found herself in the hands of the captors he’d just escaped. It seemed he’d eluded his pursuers, he’d reassured himself solemnly. Although there was no guarantee they weren’t following them even now, waiting for the opportunity to steal him back.

He needed to heal and get his strength back so that he could ensure he didn’t land in their hands again before he could call Mortimer or Lucian and tell them what was happening. To do that, he needed blood. His gaze focused on the blanket hanging half off the bed and he almost sighed. He didn’t have the strength to pull himself onto the bed, let alone drag himself over it and open the door so that he could see his driver, slip into her thoughts, and make her come to him. It seemed he’d have to wait for her to come to him on her own. He just hoped she didn’t wait too long to do so. The woman may not realize it, but she was in danger. Even if his pursuers hadn’t shown themselves to her, they must have seen the RV. He had no doubt they would come searching for them. The good news was the men would have to make their way back to the house where they’d been keeping him and Tomasso to fetch their vehicle.

It would buy a little time at least, but not much, he feared. If the woman didn’t come to him immediately on stopping, they could both be in trouble. “Damn,” Mary growled as she stared at the broken face of her cell phone. It must have bounced off something as it had tumbled from its holder. Or perhaps she’d stepped on it in her rush to get out or into her seat. Whatever the case, the glass front was shattered and the phone was dead . so much for calling the police. Frowning, Mary set the phone back in its holder and then picked up the pen attached to the tiny memo clipboard she’d affixed on the dashboard, and quickly wrote down the cross street and the miles from it to the accident site. Setting the pen back, she then glanced toward the road, looking both ways before taking her foot off the brake and starting forward again. She’d have to stop at the first store or gas station she came across and use the phone there to call the police with her directions.

It meant delaying her arrival at the campgrounds even further, but it had to be done. Her conscience would never rest if she didn’t. The good news was Mary didn’t think she would have to go far to find a phone. As she recalled from her perusal of the map that morning, there was at least one truck stop coming up where the 87 met the 10, and this road should take her to the 87 soon, from what she could tell by the quick glance she took at the Garmin GPS. She would have to get gas while she was at the truck stop too, Mary thought, noting where the needle was on the gas gauge. A whine from Bailey reached her ears, and Mary glanced around but still couldn’t make out the dog. A niggling worry that perhaps the shepherd had been injured after all by something falling when she’d accelerated made Mary frown and she coaxed, “Come on up here, sweetie. I know you’re tired and we’ll be there soon, but come sit with Mama now so I know you’re okay.” When that didn’t elicit any reaction, Mary eased her foot off the gas and risked leaning quickly to the side to grab the flashlight off the passenger seat. It was quite a stretch and was probably incredibly stupid, but she managed to snag the flashlight and not swerve all over the road while she did it.

Switching the flashlight on, she shone it toward the back of the RV and risked a quick glance over her shoulder, relieved when she spotted Bailey simply lying in front of the bedroom door. She looked fine in the quick glimpse Mary got. Deciding the dog was just tired and complaining of the long journey, she switched off the flashlight and laid it on the huge dashboard. Bailey liked a certain bedtime and, when tired, would let it be known. Usually she did so by pawing at your arm and giving you the “sad eyes,” as Joe had always called her expression when she did that. Fortunately, the dog knew better than to paw at her while she was driving so was apparently making her complaint more vocal. At least, Mary hoped that was the case. But she intended on giving the dog a good look-over when she reached the truck stop anyway, just to be sure a falling object hadn’t injured her. Her mind taken up with this worry as well as what she would say when she called the police, Mary was a little startled when the Garmin announced the approaching turn onto 87. It gave enough warning that she was able to slow down and make the turn without sending anything else clattering to the floor from the cupboards and drawers.

Relieved by this, she squinted into the distance, looking for the truck stop despite knowing it was past the I-10 and surely out of sight for now.

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