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Nothing is harder than leaving my precious baby girl.
For the past five months, Kristin Perry had hung on to the words her birth mother wrote to FBI agent Jackson McGraw all those years ago. Written just before she'd left.
Eloise Hill was out there somewhere, and in her note to Jackson, she'd said she loved Kristin enough to give her up to keep her safe, something in which Kristin should find comfort.
Comfort didn't come easily, though, Kristin decided as she sat in the café and fought back the first sign of tears. Her new identity, as both orphan and adoptee, was still sinking in, displacing any comfort. She'd lost both her adopted parents five months ago, and the ache inside had yet to ease. Only after discovering the contents of her father's safe did she learn of her adopted status. She'd found her real birth certificate, and a note from her birth mother.
But visiting Jackson McGraw, the man to whom her mother had written, had done nothing to solve the mystery of where the woman might be. His last contact with her had been the note Kristin had since memorized.
Nothing I've done, from testifying against a Mafia kingpin, to starting over in the Witness Protection Program, is harder than leaving my precious baby girl. Kristin almost died because of the path I've needed to take. I love her too much to risk her life. For her safety, I must give her up, though it breaks my heart. Please see to it she's placed in a loving, Christian home. Yours, Eloise.
Kristin lingered over and over such parts as "nothing is harder" and "breaks my heart." And each time, the ache increased. She needed to find her mother. Her only family now. Or did she now have brothers, sisters?
The mere thought of a big family gripped Kristin. She'd been an only child, with grandparents that were now just a faint memory to her. When her aging parents, Anna and Barton Perry, had died in that terrible car crash last January, she felt so alone.
Not so much now, though. She had a mother somewhere, and while sitting in this downtown coffee shop near her Westbrook, Montana, university campus, watching one particular man enter, Kristin knew she was that much closer to finding her.
Was that Zane Black, the man she'd asked to meet her this Monday morning? With a demeanor that spoke of control, the man threw open the door and strode into the café. He really didn't look as if he belonged in her small town, despite the jeans and sheepskin jacket. Maybe a big city or even Kalispell just south of here, but not in little Westbrook.
Was this the private investigator she'd called? Kristin was about to stand when her cell phone rang, the soft version of "Ein Kleine Nachtmusik" barely heard in the busy café. Turning away from the man, she answered it.
On the other end was an unexpected caller, Jackson McGraw. "I—I was just thinking of you," she said to him shyly.
"Really? Kristin, I have something that needs your attention."
Hope flared in her. "You've found my mother?"
A distinct pause followed. "No. I'm sorry. I've told you all I know. I haven't learned anything new since that day I last saw your mother. She left that night."
Sagging, Kristin raked her fingers through her hair, then quickly smoothed the right side down carefully, as she always did. Beneath the straight brown hair that was cut in such a way to conceal it, lay a thick scar, long and white, devoid of hair. Jackson had told her how she acquired the scar, but for now, she set that thought aside.
"I wish I had better news for you."
Disappointment bit at her, and she blinked back the subsequent tears. "Then why are you calling? I got the impression that we wouldn't contact each other again because Witness Protection made everything too dangerous."
"It does, Kristin. I personally have no access to the program. It belongs to the Department of Justice and the U.S. Marshal's Office. Organized crime investigation comes under my jurisdiction. But I've received some new information that you need to know."
"What is it?" She had nothing to do with organized crime. And her biological mother had been hidden for years, after testifying against one Mafia member.
"It seems that the Martino family has learned you live in Montana. We believe that they are searching for you." His words sounded guarded, as if he weighed each one carefully to ensure a balance of gentleness and warning.
"You mean that man my mother testified against?"
"I mean the whole crime family. As a tribute to Salva-tore Martino, the rest of the Martino family and their associates want to get to your mother, but we believe that they want you, too. Or they want you to lead them to your mother. Or both."
She gasped, hunkered over the phone further and set her forehead into her left palm. "I don't understand. Why would they be after me?"
"Hurt you, hurt your mother. They're looking to honor Salvatore Martino, not to make any sense. What we need you to do is stop your search for your mother. We believe it may have sparked some interest in you."
Tears welled up again, causing a knot to tighten around her throat. She couldn't look for her mother? It didn't seem fair. "How do they know I'm in Montana?"
"We're not sure yet. They've learned that your mother gave you up for adoption and that you live in Montana. They know your first name was Kristin years ago, but that's all they know."
Her heart tripped slightly. "Do you think they'd break in to your office and steal my address?"
"No, they won't," he answered tersely. "Even if they could break in, they wouldn't find it because last night I shredded all the info I had on you."
So he must have committed her phone number to memory. So much to do for just her, she thought. Why?
"But if they've discovered you're in Montana," he continued, "they could find out more."
She gasped. "Then they could find my mother, too!"
"Not if I can help it." The grit in his words abraded through her cell phone. He'd do anything, she realized. Odd to have such determination, but since Jackson was the only FBI agent she'd ever met, maybe they were all that dogged. He just seemed so…concerned for her and her mother.
She lifted her head and straightened. "So what should I do? I want to find my mother. I need to find her. I have no one," she said, her voice cracking. The wounds of her parents' deaths were still too raw. It had only been four and a half months. "And I…just don't want to go through my life with no one. Do you understand?"
Jackson McGraw didn't speak right away. But when his answer came, his voice had softened. "I do understand. But for now, I need you to trust me, Kristin. Someone is after you, too, and if that person or persons find you, they may wait until you've located your mother. Or they may not wait and hope your death draws out your mother."
There was static on the line. "I'm stuck in Chicago right now and can't get out to see you in person, nor do I want to just yet, for your own safety. I'm asking you to suspend your search. Information is being leaked out to the Martino family, so I wouldn't trust anyone at this point. I mean no one."
"But no one here knows I'm adopted, not even the man who opened the safe for me. There are a few older people in Billings, but that's it. Really, only you and your brother know."
She paused, her thoughts skittering from Jackson to Micah McGraw, his younger brother who she'd first contacted because he was a U.S. Marshal in Billings. He'd introduced her to Jackson. Then her thoughts moved to the private investigator she'd hired. All she'd said to Zane Black was she was looking for a woman. She'd planned to explain everything when she met him today. But now, considering what Jackson had said…should she even say anything at all?
"I'm working as fast as I can to locate your mother, Kristin," Jackson continued, "but in the meantime, please be very vigilant and don't say a word to anyone, not even the police. Not just for your own sake, but your mother's, too."
His tone changed with that last sentence, sounding the same as when he'd told her about that night in the safe house twenty years ago. The night when Eloise had fled.
It had been the middle of the night and as a baby, Kristin had cried out, awakening Jackson. When her complaints went unanswered, he rose, and found her alone in her crib, a note shoved onto the mobile dangling high above her. He scooped her into his arms, and she stopped crying. When he read the note, the one he eventually gave to her adoptive parents, the one Kristin found in her father's safe after her parents died, Jackson knew Eloise believed her life was no longer safe. She'd left because the Mob had found her, even at that safe house—
She started, coming back to the moment. "Yes?"
"Don't tell anyone about this conversation, and say nothing about your mother. We'll find her, rest assured of that, but we don't want you to lead the Martino family to her first. You'll both end up dead."
Kristin wet her lips. Dead? She swallowed. "I—I'll be very careful."
She disconnected, and with a shaky sigh, set her phone down on the table. Not find her mother? Give up her search? That was easy for Jackson McGraw to say. He wasn't dealing with the loss she had right now. He didn't hurt inside the way she hurt.
She should call Jackson back and tell him he had no right to order her not to find her mother.
Toying with her small phone, she squared her shoulders and flipped it open.
Then, she jumped.
That tall man who had strode in a few moments ago, the one she'd believed to be the P.I. she'd hired, now towered over her tiny table. She ran her gaze up his tall length, until she found piercing blue eyes drilling into her.
"Kristin Perry, I assume?"
Zane Black knew Kristin immediately. On Friday, she'd called him, her soft, lilting voice giving him a clear impression of what she looked like, clearer than he'd ever had before with a client. Some people looked the opposite of how they sounded, but not Kristin Perry.
Wide, green eyes blinked at him. Eyes soaked in fear, he thought. Around them, the bustle of the café softened as if waiting for her answer. But all she did was flip closed her phone and set it back on the table, with a slight shake.
"You are Kristin Perry, aren't you?" he asked. Even to his own ears, he sounded gruff.
She nodded jerkily, as if gathering wild thoughts together. Finally, with one more blink and a swallow, she spoke. "Yes. And you are…?"
"Zane Black." She knew who he was, surely? She'd asked him to meet her here. She'd noticed his arrival.
Something was off and he didn't like it when his suspicions were roused. That usually meant trouble was coming.
No, this wasn't quite the woman he'd spoken to on the phone, the calm, quiet woman who sounded shy, but determined. This woman was scared, confused. "May I join you?" he asked.
"Yes, of course. Please, sit down." When he did, she glanced around and then leaned forward. "Um, call me Kristin. Ms. Perry sounds so formal."
Zane had made it his job to read body language and could quite accurately guess what people were thinking.
And this pretty young woman was already regretting her decision to ask him to come.
Zane sat back, wondering if he would get the brush-off. When the waiter appeared, he ordered an iced tea. Unsweetened. Then he turned his attention to her. "You mentioned on the phone you're trying to locate a woman. Do you have her name?"
Kristin bit her lip. Zane watched the motion intently, finding the little habit oddly attractive.
"I have very little information, I'm afraid. I know what the woman's name was years ago, and her approximate age, but that's pretty much it. I know she was living in Montana about twenty-one years ago."
"Is she a relative?"
Again, she bit her lip. "I'd rather not say at this point. I need you to be very discreet."
"I'm always discreet."
"No." She leaned forward, her voice dropping as her expression steeled. "I need you to find this woman without anyone ever knowing you're looking for her."
He lifted his eyebrows. "I can do that, too."
She paused, as if wanting to add more, but not convinced that she should. Impatient, he pulled out his notepad and pen, and set it on the table between them to write. His iced tea arrived and he shoved the cold glass to one side.
He looked up, meeting her wide, green eyes and noting the straight brown hair that threatened to fall into them. Her look could easily be interpreted as benign, innocent, had he not just seen a cool determination behind it. "No, what?" he asked.
"I don't want you to take notes. I need you to remember everything I say. I can't risk your notebook being stolen."
His pen hovered over his pad, irritation tempting him to write anyway. But when her eyes filled with pleading, Zane's hand froze.
He battled his capitulation. He didn't like giving in. "You want me to remember everything you say to me? Don't you think that's a bit unreasonable? I can assure you that no one gets my notebook, Kristin. No one."
"Just humor me, okay? For a little while?" Her voice developed a velvet tone to it. With her wide, innocent eyes and perfect cream complexion, this young woman could probably get whatever she wanted from any man in town.
Yet, if he was reading her right, he bet she'd never asked a soul for anything, never manipulated a man before. Until now. He was tempted to test her determination, to see if there really was silk over steel where her will was concerned.
But a battle of wills was pointless and he had no taste for such foolishness. He'd had his fill of that nonsense years ago.
And besides, he found himself not wanting to argue with the beautiful Kristin Perry.
Slowly, he put away his pad and pen.
Zane barely heard the words over the other conversations around them. But the gratitude rang clearly. "So, tell me about the woman you want me to find."
"She's around forty years old, has brown hair and green eyes, slim-boned and with a scar on her right cheek near her lips. It's in the shape of a rose petal."
He watched her hand drift up to her temple to smooth her hair. As if noticing his keen interest, she dropped her arm immediately.
"A rose petal?" he echoed. What on earth was the shape of a rose petal?