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He'd come for her again. Here in the dark-fog oozing over the edge of the floating home's deck and clouding the Columbia River. He'd followed her from San Diego to Portland and burst through the door to her friend Lilly's house. Splintered and hanging by a hinge, it served as a warning of his deadly determination. Gina had stepped out for only a moment, leaving her precious baby niece in her friend's care, and now Sophia and Lilly were helpless inside.
Gina had to rescue them, but how?
She searched the deck, looking for something-anything-she could use to save them. Found only worn patio furniture. No weapons. Nothing to help. Nothing to do.
How could she have been foolish enough not to realize he'd track her down? She should have known that she'd put Lilly at risk by coming to stay with her. And as for Sophia She'd had custody of her niece for only four months. Not nearly enough time to recover from her brother's death and barely enough time to think of Sophia as her daughter. And now, Gina had put the precious baby in danger.
What if he'd already harmed them? Panic stole her breath.
Calm down. They're alive and they need you.
Gina sensed movement on the far end of the deck before rapid footsteps cut through the quiet. She spun and searched the area. The vague outline of a burly man carrying something as he rushed toward the water emerged through the shifting fog.
If Gina could see him, could he see her, too? She flattened her back against the houseboat bobbing in shifting waters.
Is he carrying a body? Lilly? Oh, God! Please, no! Despite Gina's prayer, terror crept up her throat and threatened to strangle her.
Breathe. In. Out. In. Out. That's it. Get it together.
Now that he was on the deck, it was safe to check inside.
She slipped into the hazy mist rolling over the large deck. One foot in front of the other-feeling her way through murky shadows clinging to the home.
Squinting in the bright light of the family room, she scanned the area. The coffee table and a chair lay discarded on the floor like Sophia's toys, lamp shards scattered nearby. There'd been a struggle.
"Lilly!" Gina called out.
No reply. Fear gaining a stronger hold, Gina hurried toward the bedrooms. She scanned the master. Empty. She charged down the hallway to the room she and Sophia were sharing tonight. A Winnie the Pooh nightlight burned on the far side of the room, not providing enough light for a clear look at her niece.
Holding her breath, Gina rushed to the portable crib.
Sophia slept in her teddy bear pajamas, her tiny bottom up in the air, a Pooh blanket discarded by her feet. Gina pressed her hand on the seven-month-old's back. At the even rise and fall, Gina sagged against the crib.
Thank You, God.
She hadn't failed her brother. Sophia was safe. Lilly. Where is Lilly? The thought barreled into Gina's brain.
Lilly would never leave Sophia alone. Never.
Had her attacker taken Lilly, hoping Gina would swap places to save Lilly's life?
Gina bolted through the house and back outside. A scraping noise ground against the end of the deck, followed by a loud thump.
Holding her breath, she crept over the slippery planks to the back of the house and listened. The river lapped against floating homes, but another noise broke the gentle rhythm- the dunk then pull of oars whispering through the night.
To gain a clearer view, she took a few more steps toward the water and saw the stern of a small boat rowed by a large man moving away. He wasn't masked as he'd been last night, but he was the right size and build for the man who'd attacked her.
The boat stopped, and he stood then heaved an anchor into the water. He braced his feet wide then bent low and dragged a body from the boat.
Lilly. Oh, no.
He lifted her like a rag doll and pinned her against his wide chest. He drew a gun from his belt and pressed the barrel against her temple.
Was he going to kill her? Or did he know Gina was watching and he hoped she'd show herself? She had to risk it. She ran to the edge of the deck to order him to stop and take her instead.
The gun flashed and a pop split the silence.
Lilly's body sagged. The man released her, and she dropped like an anchor into the water. He stood looking down at the spot where Lilly had fallen.
He'd shot Lilly. Killed her.
A strangled cry came from Gina's mouth, and she took a step back. Her heel connected with a table, knocking a container to the deck. The metallic clang, clang, clang as it rolled over the wood cut through the night, and the man's head popped up.
She scrambled back into the shadows. He'd killed Lilly. Right in front of her. Shot her.
Gina dropped her head low and breathed deep to stem a wave of nausea. Still gagging, she watched the man.
He holstered his gun and started drawing up his anchor.
Hand over hand, he moved at a fast clip. He'd seen her and was coming for her next. For Sophia.
Gina charged inside the home. She grabbed her overnight bag and slung the strap across her chest. She scooped up Sophia, Pooh blanket and all. The baby startled for a moment, and Gina hugged her close, laying her cheek against soft curls for the briefest of moments. Her sweet baby sighed then drifted back to sleep.
Back on the deck, Gina heard the man's oars hitting the water. Plop, swish. Plop, swish, he moved steadily closer. She had to hurry.
She raced toward the dock, clutching Sophia in one arm and digging out her phone to call 9-1-1 with her free hand.
"Help," she whispered so the man couldn't hear her. "I need help." She blurted out her story as she heard his boat thump against the end of the deck.
"Hurry. Send someone fast. He's right behind me. Closing in on me faster than I'd thought." She huffed out Lilly's address, but she could no longer carry on a conversation and pull in enough air to run. She shoved the phone in her pocket and charged toward the gangplank that connected this small floating village with the shore.
In the parking lot, she wished for her car, but she'd flown to Portland and arrived at Lilly's house by taxi. She ran as hard as she could, her feet pounding toward the nearby mall.
Heavy footfalls soon slapped on the asphalt in the distance behind her. She had to hide and hope the police arrived on time. At the nearest store, she sank into the shadows of a large Dumpster.
A foghorn sounded from the river.
Fog. What about the fog? Wouldn't it slow down the police response? She couldn't risk them not arriving in time. She had to summon more help. Preferably someone nearby.
Thankful a mutual friend had shared his cell number just after she'd arrived in town, she dialed the phone.
Please answer, Derrick. Please. I need you.
The thought took the last shred of her calm. She didn't want to need him or anyone else. Didn't deserve his help with the way she'd walked out on him.
But she trusted him to come through for her, whether she deserved it or not. Life-and-death matters trumped pride. He'd balk at helping, but he was a man of honor. Of integrity. One who worked hard to find justice for the underdog. He'd never let her down. No matter what she'd done to him in the past.
As reality settled in, her stomach cramped hard. Sophia's and her own life now depended on the very man who never wanted to see her again.
From the upper deck of Derrick Justice's houseboat, he stared over the Columbia River, letting the rhythmic flow of the river melt away his terrible day. Okay, so maybe it hadn't been terrible. Just stressful. Something he never thought he'd say about an early dinner with his siblings, but since they'd all married, he felt out of place at family gatherings.
"Get used to it," he mumbled to himself. You 're not marriage material. This is your life now. A life that would be filled with watching all of them making doe eyes at each other and playing touchy-feely. It was enough to gag him.
The hardest to take was his twin, Dani. He'd always been able to count on her to stand in solidarity with him. But now, she'd gone to the other side, too. In the two months since she'd married Luke Baldwin, Derrick had hardly seen her outside of work at the family's private investigation agency.
He drew in a deep breath, let it out and watched the vapor swirl up then disappear into the haze. He propped his arms behind his head and noticed long fingers of the fog creep over the edge of his second-story deck. Soon it would surround him and he wouldn't be able to see a thing. Perfect. Just the way he wanted it tonight.
His phone chimed. He glanced at the screen. Not someone he knew, but the call could be related to a case so he answered. "Derrick Justice."
"Derrick." The whispered voice hit him like a Mack truck, and air whooshed out of his lungs. He shook his head in disbelief.
Was it really her, or had all these thoughts of marriage parading through his head tonight unearthed a memory he'd rather avoid? Holding his breath, he waited for her to speak again.
"Derrick, are you there?" Her voice was stronger this time.
A chill settled over him, and he thought about hanging up. He didn't need to talk to the woman who'd walked out on him. Especially not today when he was already crabby about family members leaving him behind.
"A man is going to kill me unless you help me," she whispered.
"What man?" He came to his feet to pace the deck.
"My brother was murdered. The killer just shot my friend Lilly right in front of me. I grabbed Sophia and ran. Derrick, she's only seven months old. He'll hurt her, too. I can't fail her. But he's " Her voice fell off in a strangled sob.
The Gina he'd known was calm, levelheaded and not prone to exaggeration. Self-reliant, asking for help only as a last resort. She also didn't panic. Unless the situation called for it. The threat must be real.
Unease curdled his dinner. "Where are you?"
"Jantzen Beach. I'm hiding behind Coffee to Go's Dump-ster."
"Did you call the police?"
"Yes, but I'm afraid the fog will slow them down and they won't get here in time."
"I'm on my way. Make sure your phone is set to vibrate so it won't be heard if I need to call you."
"Thank you," he heard her say as he disconnected.
Dropping his phone in his pocket, he charged inside and headed straight to his bedroom. He grabbed his gun from the drawer and filled his pocket with ammo. No telling how much he might need.
On the way to the main door, he snatched his car keys from a hook. Running cross-country would be faster than getting his car out of the garage and driving, but he'd need his car to pull off the safe rescue of a woman with a child.
Child. Gina has a child.
A vice gripped his heart. She had a baby. Should've been his child. His daughter.
"Too bad," he mumbled as he climbed into his SUV. She didn't want you, now, did she?
Once on the road to the mall, doing fifty in a thirty-five zone, he speed-dialed Dani. It was foolhardy enough to go into a dangerous situation without backup, but the situation was too dangerous for him to wait. Still, he needed to let one of his siblings know where he was going.
"Derrick," she answered on the third ring.
He quickly explained the situation. "Gina called the police, but this is a potential homicide, so call Mitch, too." Their sister, Kat's, husband was a Portland homicide detective. "I'll call you as soon as I have anything else to report."
He turned into the strip mall's lot, his focus going straight to the coffee shop at the far end of the mall. Hazy mist clung to the concrete, inching up the siding as if planning to devour it, while windows on the darkened stores stared blankly back at him. He crawled through the lot, not spotting any movement.
Had Gina fabricated this incident? Played him? If so, what did she want with him? Only one way to find out.
He parked at the end of the building and got out. He drew his weapon, and after a careful sweep of the area, rounded the corner. Sliding along the building to protect his back, he glanced into the service alley. Light filtered through the moisture-laden air from a streetlight in the distance, but nothing moved. He chanced a longer look, and once he was confident he wouldn't be ambushed, he flattened his back against the wall again and eased toward the Dumpster.
A few more steps took him to the back side of the metal container angled against the building. In the corner, large, terrified eyes peered up at him. Eyes he'd stared into for two years in college and once figured he spend his life looking into.
She cowered in the corner, a sleeping baby clutched to her chest.
"Derrick," she whispered, her voice trembling.
She wasn't faking her terror. Someone was after her, and she needed him.
Correction. She needs your help, not you.
The thought helped him steel himself for her touch, and he offered his hand. As he'd expected, when she slipped soft fingers into his, it burned all the way to his heart. Their eyes met and held. He suddenly wanted to let go of common sense, of their past, the pain and heartache, and draw her into a comforting hug to erase the misery from her eyes.
She shivered violently, pulling her gaze free, breaking the intensity of the moment and bringing him back to his senses. She wore only a heavy sweater and jeans. Shrugging out of his jacket, he settled it over her shoulders. She burrowed into the fleece lining without a word. "Are you okay?" he asked.
"It's a long story. Can we get out of here before I explain?"
He opened his mouth to agree, but something rustled behind him and he spun to search the area. Darkness met his gaze-he saw no one. But then heavy footsteps pulled his focus to the distance. They pounded nearer, their cadence laden with caution.
The killer? Of course. Who else would it be on a night like this and after the mall has closed?
"He's coming. We have to move." Derrick scanned the alley for an escape route. Nothing presented itself without leaving them exposed. If the footsteps belonged to the man trailing Gina, they were trapped.
Derrick needed a plan and needed one fast. He grabbed Gina's arm and pulled her from behind the Dumpster, a surefire death trap if the killer caught them back here. He looked around, his mind waffling as he decided what to do.
The footfalls neared, echoing into the night before disappearing.
Derrick had to act. Now! Even if he failed.