Read an Excerpt
Someone threatened to kill her last night. Now a man was following her.
Coincidence? Not likely.
Jennie Buchanan's breath hitched as she boarded Portland's MAX light-rail train and wound through standing passengers toward the far door. She glanced back.
The guy crept in. Searching the car, he caught sight of her and headed down the narrow aisle.
Her photographer's eye took in every detail. Short, stocky, wearing a light gray hoodie, twenty-five at the oldest, he looked like one of the many skaters hanging out at Pioneer Square. His eyes told a different story. Dark and narrowed, fixed on her like a hunter sighting prey.
He advanced. Silent. Stalking. One hand never leaving his hoodie pocket.
Had to be a weapon. A gun, maybe, or a knife.
Fear razored through her stomach, and she backed deeper into the car. She tripped on a baby stroller, grabbed the handle and righted herself. The fresh scent rising up from the sweet baby did nothing to calm her fears.
"Sorry," she said to the mother, her voice trembling. She tried to smile an apology, too, but her mouth wouldn't cooperate.
She couldn't endanger the baby so she kept moving, easing in and out of people. She ached to ask them for help. The tall man with a kind face. A young woman, earbuds snugged in her ears and tapping her foot, her face buried in a book like many of the other commuters.
Not a good idea. What could she say? How could she make them believe she was in danger when even she didn't know why?
She searched for an escape route before the train departed, but the doors grated on their hinges and closed with a solid thud. She had no way out. Her heart picked up speed, thudding in her ears, a rapid thump, thump, thump as her brain clouded with indecision.
Please, God. Send a police officer. Even a transit cop would be good. Anyone official, really. Just someone in uniform to scare him off.
He continued to move closer. Slower now. Stealthily, like a hunting cat. He flipped up his hood, his face dark and shadowed. Who was he? And what did he have planned?
He came to a stop on the other side of the car. He looked up and the overhead light gave her a clear look at his dark eyes boring into her.
The train jerked on its rails. A high-pitched squeal grated up her nerves. Riders jostled. She lost her footing for a moment. So did he, wobbling then reaching up to clamp stubby fingers around a slick aluminum pole.
His fingers. His hand. Stained bright red, the color running down the underside of his sleeve. Paint. Red paint.
The same color used in the art gallery break-in last night where someone had ripped her photos from the wall and spray-painted a message.
OPEN THE SHOW AND YOU DIE! it said.
She hadn't seen the warning, but the gallery owner had phoned first thing this morning. She'd said the police wanted to talk to her, but Jennie was photographing a sixalarm fire for the newspaper so they agreed to interview her later. Jennie had spent the past two hours waffling between breathing in caustic smoke and wondering if these creeps would kill her if she went through with the show designed to raise money for her charity Photos of Hope.
Would it actually come to that?
She glanced at the guy again. Cold, deadly eyes peered out from the shadow of his hood.
Yeah, when she didn't cancel the fundraiser, he'd make good on the threat. And she wouldn't cancel. Of that, he could be sure. Her charity supported impoverished children and many would suffer without the money she raised for medicine and food. The children came first. They always came first.
But he couldn't possibly know they'd already decided to hold the show as scheduled. Only she, the gallery owner and the police knew, right? So why was he coming after her now?
He shifted, eyes raking her body. Drilling into her face as if he were mining her thoughts. Maybe he did know, and he was here to end her life.
Easy, Jennie. It's broad daylight. People around. He's not going to hurt you here.
She had no idea what he intended.
She wanted to bolt through the car to move far away from those piercing eyes.
Stay calm. Two more stops. Just two more stops.
Then what? Get off the train and become an easier target?
She needed help. She should call 9-1-1. And what? Tell them a man with red paint on his hands was following her? By the time she convinced them to respond, she'd be dead.
Think, Jennie. Think.
Her phone pealed from her pocket, the shrill ring making her jump. She turned away from her stalker's cold stare and looked at the screen. Madeline. The gallery owner.
"Thank goodness you called," Jennie whispered into her phone. "Someone's following me. He has red paint on his hand and jacket. I think he's the guy who broke into the gallery last night." Her words tumbled over each other.
"Where are you?" Madeline sounded calm, as usual.
"On MAX. First car. Two stops away." Anxiety made it hard to breathe. She paused and sucked in stale air but still felt lightheaded.
"Ethan Justice is here. I'll send him to meet your train."
"Ethan." Of course! Ethan! Madeline had hired his P.I. agency to investigate the break-in and keep them safe. Thank You, God.
"Stay on the phone," Madeline continued. "I'll give it to him and he can talk to you on his way there."
As the train slowed for the next stop and passengers stirred, Jennie heard Madeline relay details to Ethan. The doors opened, and she stepped aside to let people pass. Her hooded tail stayed put. His eyes never leaving her, the razor-sharp gaze terrifying.
"I'm on my way, Jen." Ethan's voice, warm and familiar, rumbling through the phone, sent relief flooding down her veins, the last reaction she expected for the man she'd walked out on ten years ago.
"He's after me, Ethan," she whispered.
"I can't hear you, Jen. Too much background noise."
"I don't want anyone to hear me," she said a bit louder. "It'll quiet down in here when we start moving again."
That was Ethan. Patient and caring. Coming to the rescue of a woman who'd hurt him. Hurt him badly. And yet here he was. On his way to stop the creep whose scowl said he'd kill her without a second thought.
She shivered, a long shudder working over the length of her body. She wrapped her free arm around her stomach and waited for the train to reach cruising speed. When the car settled into a soft, rhythmic hum, she cupped her hand over her mouth and phone.
"There's a man," she said. "He followed me from the fire."
"Are you sure he followed you?" Ethan breathed fast, as if running.
"Yes. I was shooting pictures as I walked to keep my mind off the break-in. I caught him in the viewfinder a few times. I was already freaked out from hearing about last night so I wondered if he was tailing me."
She quickly looked to see if he still stood there. Fierce and threatening, he hadn't moved.
"I got on the closest MAX car," she went on. "Ran through it and back outside. Then I boarded the next car. He did the same thing."
Ethan mumbled something she couldn't make out. A loud exhale followed. "Madeline said something about paint."
"Red. On his hand and jacket. I didn't see it until he got close."
"What's he doing now?"
She glanced at him again. "Just watching me. But I'm afraid, Ethan." Saying it aloud sent another shiver down her body. "I think he might have a gun. He hasn't taken his hand out of his jacket pocket this whole time."
"Calm down, Jen. Panicking might make him do something crazy." He paused and she heard him draw in air. "I'm almost there. You should be able to see me soon. I'm wearing a long-sleeved white shirt and jeans."
As if she needed to know his attire. Even with this creep threatening her life, she'd instantly recognize someone she'd once loved.
"Madeline said you were in the first car," he continued. "Wave when you see me."
"Okay." She peered out the window, searching for the man she hadn't seen since their amazing summer vacation from college. Hadn't seen since the night she'd lied and told him that she just didn't love him and didn't want to be in a relationship with him anymore.
She'd never forgotten his face that night. Shocked, surprised, but most of all hurt. So hurt. She still felt horrible about lying to him. She had a choice and had taken the easy way out. Rejecting him had seemed less painful than waiting for his rejection when he learned about her past. That would end their relationship anyway, so why wait? So much easier to end things before she fell even more in love with him.
Now he was committed to helping her.
In the distance, she saw him running, dodging people on the busy downtown sidewalk. She took in his lean, wide-shouldered build, square jaw and dark hair cut shorter than she remembered. The white shirt set off his dark coloring, making him look dangerous yet very appealing at the same time.
The train began to slow and she waved to let him know she saw him.
He stood tall and strong where her train would disembark. "Where's the guy standing in relationship to you?"
She checked to make sure he hadn't moved. "Behind me. A little to my left. Near the other door."
"Hispanic. Short. Stocky. Wearing a light gray hoodie. He has the hood up."
The train's automated voice announced their pending stop and they slowed to a crawl.
"I see him," Ethan said. "When the doors open, I'll come forward and I want you to run out and get behind me. Okay?"
"I'm gonna hang up now to keep my hands free."
She nodded her understanding and slid her phone into her pocket. His hands came to rest at his sides, as he settled into a centered stance, clearly poised and ready for anything. Probably an unconscious habit from years at the FBI.
She was so thankful for his lawenforcement training. Despite the years they'd been apart, it was immediately obvious how strong and capable he was. He'd probably been a wonderful agentjust as she'd always known he'd be. She wasn't surprised when she read in the paper that Ethan and his four siblings followed through on their high-school pact. They'd decided to serve in law enforcement to show their appreciation and respect for their adoptive dad, who was a retired cop.
She was surprised, shocked really, when she read the rest of the article about an intruder murdering their adoptive parents. The local police department couldn't solve the case so the five of them left their jobs to hunt down the killer and then stayed together to form the Justice Agency.
If someone wanted to hurt her, she could think of no better allies than Ethan and his siblings.
Brakes squealed as the train slowed even more. This was it. Time to escape this creep.
Her palms grew moist. She scrubbed them over her jeans, stained and sooty from the sixalarm fire. She glanced back to check on her tail. He was on the move. Slowly inching toward her.
"C'mon, open, open, open," she whispered to the doors, but kept her eyes on him.
His hand came out of his pocket. Something slid through his palm and between his fingers. Looked like a knife. A switchblade. Closed. But easily opened with a flick of his fingers. He took a few more steps.
The train jerked to a stop. She lost her balance, wobbled and worked to regain her footing. She braced for the attack she feared was imminent.
His footfalls thumped slowly across the metal floor.
Close now. Too close.
Please, God, please! Let me get to Ethan before this guy hurts me.
The doors whooshed apart, but not before she heard a click. Not any click, but the distinctive snap of his switchblade opening a whisper of a space behind her back.