Duty to Protect

Duty to Protect

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by Roxanne Rustand

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After nearly a lifetime in witness protection, Emma Graves depends on the anonymity of her false identity. But when her parents die under suspicious circumstances, and Emma is framed for murder, all security is gone. There's nothing to do but run.

Cop-turned-rancher Jake Kincaid is an unlikely defender. Why would an ex-cop believe an accused killer?… See more details below


After nearly a lifetime in witness protection, Emma Graves depends on the anonymity of her false identity. But when her parents die under suspicious circumstances, and Emma is framed for murder, all security is gone. There's nothing to do but run.

Cop-turned-rancher Jake Kincaid is an unlikely defender. Why would an ex-cop believe an accused killer? Still, Jake makes Emma feel safe. With his drive to protect, she knows staying on his ranch endangers them both—yet now that her heart's engaged, she's not sure she can walk away.

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Publication date:
Big Sky Secrets
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The soft blanket of new snow glittered under the streetlamp and muffled her steps as Emma strode from the city bus stop at the end of the block to the side door of her garage. Anxiety twisted her stomach into a tight knot of fear.

The snow could muffle the sound of someone else's steps, too.

And even now, that unknown person could be watching her. Waiting. Just as he had waited for her father last week.

She'd been only a few feet away from her dad, pushing a cart of groceries in the busy Safeway parking lot. He'd suddenly faltered to a stop. "We've got to leave," he'd whispered urgently. "I just saw—"

Then he'd fallen face-first, a widening pool of crimson spreading through the slushy snow beneath him. He died at her feet, and she hadn't even heard the gunshot.

Had he seen his killer's face? Why hadn't the shooter taken her out, too? The melee of screaming frightened people running for cover would have given the shooter ample opportunity to pull the trigger, and he probably wouldn't have missed. From the perfect placement of the single bullet in her father's skull, the cops figured the killer possessed sniper experience.

Which meant the killer was someone sent by the drug cartel that had been trying to kill Emma and her adoptive family for years. Orphaned at the age of seven and taken in by an older, childless couple a year later, she'd longed for love and security in her new home but had found little of either.

And now even that connection to a family was gone.

Taking a slow breath, she willed away the horrific images of blood and panicking people, and willed her heartbeat to slow. I'm okay. I'm almost home.

She unlocked the door of the garage and slipped inside, then rounded the rear bumper of her old Blazer, thankful that the dark, smoke-tinted windows hid its contents. No one could look inside and guess at what she planned to do tomorrow—not that anyone was likely to drop by. No one ever did.

The Witness Protection Program was no place to make friends, and with luck, anyone who'd known her in her former life probably figured she was dead.

From somewhere inside the house came a thud. She paused, her hand on the door leading from the garage into the tiny entryway off the kitchen. That hadn't been the sound of the furnace kicking in. There was no one else who had a key. A crazy longing flitted through her thoughts. It's just Dad—

But he was dead and so was her mom, and now she was totally and forever alone. Surely she was just hearing things. She lowered her gaze to the doorknob, started to fit her key into the dead bolt.

But then she heard another thud. An anguished moan.

And were those voices inside? They came closer. Both male, both agitated.

She'd locked all the doors and armed the security system when she left. Not even her WITSEC contact knew its code—yet there were intruders inside. So where were the sirens? The squadron of patrol cars that should be closing in? Had the alarm even triggered?

Warning bells sounded in her head.

An inner voice screamed at her to run.

Rising on her tiptoes, she braced her trembling fingertips on the door frame for a quick glance through the window set high in the door. A narrow gap between the loose-woven curtains on the inside revealed just a slice of the kitchen, but the bright lights inside illuminated more than enough.

Horror and disbelief swept through her as she stumbled away from the door, caught herself and swallowed hard, trying to hold back a wave of sudden nausea.

It couldn't be.

A body was lying facedown on her kitchen floor, the hilt of her favorite carving knife rammed upright into his back. The dark, wet pool of blood spreading from beneath him was a shocking contrast to the white tile floor.

She forced herself to take another quick look.

A vaguely familiar cop hunkered down next to the body, and a tall, dark-haired stranger in a long black overcoat and dove-gray slacks moved into view, facing away from her. A detective, maybe?

A rush of relief swept through her. The cops were already here. Everything would be all right. But just as quickly, she knew this scene was all wrong.

The cop's face was dark red with anger, and sweat beaded his forehead. "You shouldn'ta done it," he bellowed.

The other man gestured at the body. "He was a loose cannon, you fool. I had orders." "Yeah. But—"

"Okay. So we'll do the woman with his gun. Get the angle right and the investigators will think she stabbed him, then he managed to turn and fire in self-defense before he went down."

The cop swore, low and fierce. "Opportunity. Means. But just try and give me a plausible motive."

"Her dad's murder. She…figured Todd blew their cover."

"So a mousy little librarian was able to kill a guy this size? With his self-defense training? Tell me another one."

"We've got time. We can fix this scene—make it look right. No one will ever know different."

The rising argument between the two men faded away as the walls of the garage started to spin. Todd? Todd Hlavicek?

She wobbled away from the door, her heart in her throat and her knees quivering as she half fell against the front fender of the Blazer.

Todd was her only current contact in the Witness Protection Program. He was the only one in the area who should have known about her adoptive family's involvement in the WITSEC program and their whereabouts…yet loose cannon implied that his loyalty had been bought.

Had he betrayed her family for money? Had he been coerced? Either way, the fact that he was dead reemphasized just how dangerous her family's old enemies were. How long they could hold a grudge.

She was the only one left, and she was going to be next.

She had to get out of here. But the garage door was closed and the noise of rolling it up would rumble like thunder in this enclosed space, alerting the men inside. Trying to reach someplace safe on foot would be useless. This was a quiet neighborhood of large yards and inexpensive 1940s ramblers filled with people she didn't know. As always, she'd carefully avoided friendships with the neighbors. Whose life could she dare risk by begging for sanctuary?

The muffled argument inside the house stopped abruptly. Had they heard her?

Oh, Lord—please, please…

She whirled around, jerked open the SUV's door and threw herself inside, slamming her hand against the locks as she searched for the keys she'd dropped in her pocket.

Her fingers closed over them and she tried to push the key into the ignition. Fumbled. Tried again. Please…please…please…

A scream threatened to tumble from her lips when the kitchen door flew open and flooded the garage with light. The cop stood in the open doorway, his face a mask of anger, his right hand already reaching for the service revolver at his side.

With shaking fingers she tried the key again. Felt it slide home. The engine roared when she shoved the gearshift into Reverse and floored the accelerator. Tires squealed as the vehicle launched backward, splintering the flimsy garage door.

A deafening explosion enveloped her as the front windshield shattered and something hot whistled past her ear.

Throwing her weight against the pedal, she flicked a last glance at the two men racing after her. One grabbed at her car door but fell away as the SUV shimmied, nearly out of control. She swung it into a wild arc, over a trash can. She rammed the gearshift into Drive and again floored the accelerator. The SUV crossed an edge of the lawn and shot toward the highway.




The sounds were distant. Toylike. Surreal—until the rear windshield shattered into a glittering network of crystalline fabric. They would be on her tail the minute they reached their vehicles.

She wasn't armed. She had no experience in highspeed driving. She had to make it two full blocks to the freeway ramp, and pray the Chicago rush hour traffic was still heavy. If she could disappear into that bumper-to-bumper mass of frustrated and impatient drivers before her pursuers caught up, she might have a chance to live until tomorrow.

God hadn't listened to many of her prayers over the years, far as she could tell, and she'd long-ago drifted away from the silent, one-way conversations she'd had with Him as a child. Yet He must have tuned into her pleas today.

She had no illusions about her odds of evading a determined cop with any number of high-speed chases under his belt. But she hadn't noticed a cruiser parked near her house and there hadn't been a civilian's car parked nearby, either, other than Todd's black Taurus sedan. If the other two had left their cars far enough away to avoid the curious eyes of neighbors, she could be in luck.

A patrol car still hadn't shown up in her rear-view mirror when she slipped into traffic on I-90 and changed lanes until she was flanked by one semi to the right and another at her rear bumper for cover. Please, God, be with me. Please.

At the Elgin exit she white-knuckled the steering wheel. Held her breath. Then veered off at the last second and wound through the residential areas for twenty minutes, making sure no one had followed, before she headed for the far edge of the Metra commuter train parking lot and pulled in next to the battered Ford Focus she'd left there earlier, for the disappearance she'd planned for tomorrow.

Then, she waited.



Waited, her hands trembling and heart pounding, until the last train of the night left at 10:15, and no one was in sight. Each endless minute had ratcheted up her tension—but she couldn't risk the curiosity of anyone who might still be lingering in some unseen corner of the station. One misstep, and someone might remember her.

And then she would be as good as dead.

Finally, she pulled her hat low over her newly dyed auburn hair and quickly transferred her duffel bag and suitcases from the SUV into the trunk of the Focus.

After plugging in her GPS, she began her new route on quiet backcountry two-lane roads.

She had no doubt that her Blazer would be discovered in the morning. The shattered front and back windows would ensure a great deal of interest by the local police. The license plates would be easily traced to her latest identity.

But the Focus would buy her time.

Bought with cash from a sleazy little car lot in a bad part of town, she'd given the seller a false name she fabricated on the spot, stashed the car at the commuter train station. Then she'd taken the Metra downtown and used the city bus system for the final leg of the trip home.

Maybe her pursuers would expect she'd decided to lose herself among the eight million people of the Chicago area. With luck, that's exactly where they'd search, and eventually they would give up.

Now she just had to make it to the Greyhound bus station in Moline, on the Iowa-Illinois border, pay cash for a ticket to Deer Lodge, Montana, and catch the midnight departure.

And then finally she'd be free.

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