When ruthless killers target them, even a safe house isn’t safe.
Only twenty-four hours remain until marshal Nick McKenna’s informant, Lori Carpenter, will testify against a powerful drug cartel. Nick has kept her safe for an entire year, but now all hell is breaking loose. With a team of cold-blooded assassins closing in, the by-the-book lawman decides to go rogue. He’ll risk his life for duty…and put it all on the line for his irresistible witness.
Nick had kept Lori safe for three hundred and eighty-six days. What could possibly go wrong in the next twenty-seven hours?
They reached the women’s clothing store. As they walked inside, a chime dinged from a motion-activated PIR sensor he spotted.
An employee behind the register, wearing a blazer and sporting a curly bob, made eye contact and gave a perky smile. One female customer perusing a row of blouses didn’t glance their way.
“Hello,” the young sales associate said, her warm voice rich with enthusiasm. “Let me know if you need help finding anything.”
“Thank you,” Lori said.
“You’ve got twenty minutes.” Nick looked at his watch while Ted swept the rest of the store. “We’re in and out, okay?”
Lori went to a rack of suits. “You don’t give a gal much time.”
“One hour away from the property,” he said, reminding her of the US Marshal Service rules that kept witnesses alive. “Not a minute more.”
Nick’s attention flickered to the other customer.
The woman was in her early forties, petite, olive complexion, coal-black hair pulled in a tight bun. No jewelry, wore slacks and a blousy top and carried a leather purse. She reached up, taking a shirt from the upper rack, and the frilly bell sleeve of her blouse dropped an inch, revealing a tattoo of a black rose on the back of her hand. The ink fit her. Beautiful. Elegant. Dark.
Reflexively, Nick pressed his arm against the Glock 22 in his shoulder rig.
“This is a big deal.” Lori checked the size on a navy suit. “Forgive me for not wanting to rush.”
Tomorrow she was testifying in federal court against her in-laws’ financial firm for laundering millions. He could tell she was doing her best to hold it together and not let nerves derail her. If he could give her more time, he would.
The low chime at the front rang. Another woman entered the store. Bottled-bleach-blonde. Tall and thin. Jeans and a buttoned shirt. Sneakers that squelched lightly against the tile floor.
“I’m sorry. Eighteen minutes,” Nick said, telegraphing with his tone this was nonnegotiable.
Lori picked a navy two-piece from the rack. “This should work. I better go try it on. Tick-tock.”
Nick looked to Ted, where his partner stood at the entrance of the dressing rooms. Ted nodded, signaling the stalls were empty and he’d make sure no one followed Lori inside.
Blondie headed straight to some dresses hanging in the rear of the store, grabbed one almost mindlessly, or perhaps she’d been in before and knew what she was looking for, flicked a glance at a tag and made a beeline for the dressing rooms.
Ted lifted a palm, not letting the blonde in after Lori. The woman huffed and protested, raising a loud stink, but his partner held firm.
Show her your badge, Ted, and be done with it. Flashing the Eagle Top five-pointed star had a way of shutting down any complaints lickety-split.
“Who do you think you are?” Blondie asked with a fist on her hip.
“A US Deputy Marshal, ma’am,” Ted said. “Sorry for the inconvenience and the wait.”
“Listen, jerk. I need to get in there now.”
Ted laughed in his self-deprecating way. “Sorry. Not going to happen.”
The sales associate went over to the scene unfolding. “Hi,” she said brightly, her sunny disposition almost disarming. “Is there a problem?”
Nick maintained his position, monitoring the rest of the shop and the entrance.
Black Rose circled silent as a fox around to an ornate display of scarves and ran her fingers across the silk. Not once since they’d entered had she acknowledged their presence in the slightest. Until now.
Her gaze lifted, meeting his, her face an expressionless mask, but her sharp eyes were those of a merciless predator.
Prior experience as an army ranger in Afghanistan before becoming a marshal had taught him the hard way never to underestimate a woman with a slight build, or even a child for that matter, and the deep scar under his chin was a testament.
For a chilling instant they stared at one another, sizing the other up. Not from a physical perspective. It was an assessment of will. And what Nick saw in her was fathomless.
Blondie threw the dress at Ted, dividing Nick’s attention, and stormed out of the store.
The bell chimed. Black Rose’s steely eyes narrowed before she turned and strode unhurriedly toward the door—as if she had all the time in the world.
Then he saw it. Her low-heeled boots that didn’t make a sound.
His neck prickled the way it did when he was on a hunt for big game with his siblings. Nick followed. He had no reason to detain or question her, but something about that woman was wrong. From the tattoo, those rubber-soled shoes, to how she’d looked at him. As if she’d wanted to slice through him like a hot knife through butter.
None of it was evidence of anything and not cause for more than suspicion, but training and years of experience had taught him not to dismiss either.
The woman strolled away, lengthening the distance between them with each store she passed. One, two, three. But the tightening in his gut didn’t ease.
Black Rose glimpsed back at him over her shoulder, caught his fixed stare and stopped in her tracks. Pivoting, she turned and faced him, leveling her icy gaze his way. The look she sent him was full of loathing and in a blink it changed. Her lips hitched in an ominous half grin and she winked. Almost daring him to pursue.
Old ranger instincts urged him to take up the chase, confirm what his gut screamed about the woman, shake something that made sense out of her, but his training overruled recklessness.
He looked back in the quiet clothing store, checking on things.
Ted no longer stood stationed at the entrance of the dressing rooms.
Nick touched his Bluetooth earpiece. “Ted? What’s your position? Do you have eyes on Hummingbird?” he asked, using the codename for Lori.
Nick’s pulse spiked, but he remained calm—never one to succumb to panic. He stepped past displays and racks, his gaze scanning, his mind assessing.
No sign of Ted. Or the sales associate.
Drawing his gun, Nick hustled toward the dressing rooms.
Anticipation coiled in his chest, adrenaline roaring through him. The weight of his backup piece strapped to his ankle was a small comfort. Nick’s fingers tightened on his Glock. He reached the threshold, scanned left, then right.
Ted lay on the floor beyond the entrance in a corner. Blood soaked his white hair at the base of his skull.
Son of a— Ted was down.
There was no time to check if his partner was unconscious or dead. A commotion deeper in the dressing room drew him forward. Two people struggled inside the second stall.
The horror in Lori’s terrified whimper jolted his heart.