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In the downtown courthouse, Deputy U.S. Marshal Carly Masterson eyed the three bloody fingerprints on the cracked door and pulled her weapon.
Blood on the door to the judge's chambers.
Not a good sign.
Her partner, Mason Stone, followed her actions. In a low whisper, he asked, "Is he in there?"
Heart picking up speed, Carly toed the door open. Without a sound, it opened inward, exposing Judge Nicholas Floyd's chambers. "Nick?" She kept her voice low.
They'd been on the way to the courthouse when they'd gotten a call that the judge had received the second threat of the day. This time the authorities were sending protection whether he wanted it or not. Three minutes later, Carly and Mason arrived to find themselves in this situation.
A sweep of the room showed nothing amiss.
Except for a few drops of blood trailing across the floor.
So where was the judge?
Anxiety twisting her stomach into knots, Carly said, "I'll take the bathroom." She headed for the closed door. "The drops of blood are fresh."
"Look at the shape of the drops. They're leading from the bathroom," he noted in a matching whisper.
She could feel her heart thudding in her chest. Her fingers reached for the knob then pulled back. "Blood on the knob."
"Noted. I've got your back."
She knew he would. Having been partners for two years, she trusted Mason with her life.
"Here." He thrust a tissue he'd retrieved from the desk into her hand. Standing to one side of the door, with Mason on the opposite side facing her, she placed the tissue over the knob, nodded to him and twisted her wrist. The door flew open at her shove, and they rounded the edges of the door frame as one, guns pointed inside.
The bathroom contents lay scattered. Water tinged with red filled the plugged sink.
Adrenaline rushing, Carly pulled back and let the thudding in her chest subside.
Mason looked at her. "Now what?"
"We follow the blood."
Nicholas pressed his fingers to the cut and bit back a word he hadn't said in a long time. "Did you have to barge in while I was shaving? You could have at least let me grab a towel." He swiped the blood on his pants, not caring if it left a stain. That was the least of his problems right now.
The marshal simply looked at him. He'd been in the Spartanburg, South Carolina, courthouse delivering a captured fugitive to his hearing when Nick had called the authorities. The first threat had come in the form of a phone call. Nick had hung up on the caller. The letter that had appeared on his desk an hour later had been harder to ignore.
He stomped to the table and yanked a napkin from the holder. The small break room/kitchen now served as his safe area until more help arrived.
"Sorry." An unexpected apology from the man.
Pressing the napkin to the still-seeping cut, Nicholas paused. "Aw, it's all right." He'd been on his last upward stroke when the pounding on his bathroom door had caused him to jerk like he'd been shot. As a result, he'd pressed and yanked on the razor, cutting himself pretty bad.
"Want me to take a look at it?" Concern flickered on the marshal's face.
"No. It's slowing down."
The marshal shook his head and asked, "Who still uses a straight razor these days? You got something against an electric one?"
"It was my grandfather's. He taught me to use it and…" He shrugged and blushed. "I like a close shave."
"Huh. Not that close, I'm guessing."
Nick tossed the paper into the trash and grabbed another one. "You're right about that." He winced at the sting. "What's your name?"
"Thanks for responding so quickly, Deputy Marshal McCoy."
For the first time, a hint of a smile creased the corners of the man's eyes. "No problem. When a judge gets a letter like that, we don't waste time."
Nick grunted. "I noticed."
McCoy's eyes shifted as he raised a hand to the earpiece then spoke to the wall. "I got him. We're in the break area. One way in, one way out." A pause. "I'll be waiting."
"Who was that?"
"Your protection detail."
"Protection detail, huh?"
"Yeah, and this time you're not running them off."
Two weeks ago, marshals had been assigned to Nicholas after the first death threat, a phone call warning him to recuse himself from the de Lugo trial or to be watching his back. Nicholas had insisted it was hoax, just like the one two years ago. The marshals had reluctantly left him alone.
Now he wasn't so sure. The tone of this letter had been different. It had shaken him because it had mentioned the children. Twelve-year-old Lindsey and seven-year-old Christopher. When Nick's sister had been killed in a car wreck, he'd become their guardian. "Do you have someone on my house? On the kids' school?"
"Even as we speak."
He didn't like the feeling of relief. That meant he might actually be worried someone was serious about hurting him or the children. At least the children hadn't been threatened directly. Still, Nicholas didn't like the fact that they were mentioned—by name. "Tell them not to let the kids know anything is wrong. They've had so much turmoil in their lives. The less they know, the better. At least as long as we can leave it that way."
Again, Seth eyed him patiently. "They're professionals. The kids will be fine—and alive."
Before Nicholas could respond, a knock on the door sounded, and he flashed back to two years ago when another knock had jerked him out of his comfort zone and forced him to admit his marriage needed help.
God, please don't let it be…
Staring at the man before her, who was dressed in jeans and a white oxford shirt stained with blood, Carly felt a surge of attraction mixed with disdain.
To cover her shock, consternation and anger with herself at the blindsiding emotions, she moved aside to let Mason in. If she was going to be attracted to someone, why couldn't it be her partner? Unfortunately, even though she thought he was a good-looking man, Mason didn't send a single zip up her spine.
Not like the judge standing in front of her. A judge who let a killer get off scot-free. Free to kill again. Free to kill my beloved mentor, Hank Bentley.
Of all the assignments I could have gotten, I pulled this one. Why? Who she was appealing to, she didn't know. But it sure wasn't God. They weren't on speaking terms.
Focus, Carly. Do your job.
Derailing her unprofessional thoughts, she glanced at McCoy. "Took you long enough to let us know you had him."
McCoy raised a brow and shrugged. "You know the procedure as well as I do. Get the subject safe then report in as soon as possible. That's what I did."
Carly did know the procedure and inwardly cringed at the gentle reprimand from her peer. She was being entirely too sensitive about this…and she knew why.
Because it was Nicholas Floyd. A man she'd come to think of as a friend two years ago when she was assigned to him and his wife. A man she once admired and respected. Only to have him turn around and let a killer go on a "technicality" six months ago. She despised the word. There should be no "technicalities" in her line of work.
But Judge Floyd was also a man who was now in danger. She would put her personal feelings aside and do her job.
"Right." Turning to Nicholas, she asked, "What happened? We found blood in your office."
A flush covered his cheekbones, and he shot a look at Seth. "He surprised me while I was shaving."
Frowning, she eyed the cut on his face. "Do you need a doctor?"
"No." His lips tightened. "I need to make sure my niece and nephew are safe, then get out there in the courtroom and try the case I've got waiting for me."
"They're safe," she assured him. "As soon as we got the call, two other marshals and several officers headed for your house. Authorities are also fanning out around the building here. We're pulling the security videos from the cameras around your office."
Nick nodded. "It didn't come through the U.S. mail. It came through interoffice mail. If you look at the cameras, all you're going to see is my secretary entering my office and placing an interoffice envelope on my desk."
"We'll still check. We'll be checking your phone records, too."
Nick shook his head. "Of course, but what do you want to bet that threatening call came from an untraceable prepaid cell-phone number?"
"Unfortunately, you're probably right."
Mason cleared his throat. "What exactly did the letter say?"
Nick reached into his back pocket and pulled out a piece of paper encased in a paper bag. At Carly's raised brow, he shrugged. "I've had police training, remember? Before I decided what I wanted to do with my life, I went through the police academy. I can gather evidence without contaminating it just as well as any cop."
As she took it from him, her fingers brushed his and she felt their warmth briefly against her own. Shivers danced along her spine and she cleared her throat, ignoring the heat flushing her cheeks. She didn't want to be attracted to a man she didn't respect.
Focusing, she snapped on a glove and pulled the letter from the bag. She read aloud, "Drop the de Lugo case, Judge, or you'll be sorry. You've already lost a sister and a wife. What would those kids do if they lost you, too? You're not safe anywhere. Your home, your office, your gym, your bed—there's nowhere we can't get to you. If you don't drop the case, you'd better update your will."
Carly passed the letter to Mason and looked up at the handsome judge. "The de Lugo trial." A statement, not a question. She knew about the trial.
"Yes, the trial of Ricardo de Lugo and his murdering band of cohorts is set to start in less than one week. Six days to be exact. Two years of undercover work by two FBI agents finally netted enough evidence to put him away for life—possibly even give him the death penalty." He paused. "Assuming we make it to trial. No matter how much protection is offered, it seems this man has eyes and ears everywhere." He gestured to the letter. "Someone who knows me pretty well seems to be passing on information."
Carly shifted. "We have marshals on the FBI agents' families, too. As for this—" she waved the letter "—he doesn't necessarily have to know you well. A little research online probably told him everything ever published in the newspaper about you. But," she mused, "whoever wrote this appears to be educated. Proper grammar, flawless punctuation…"
Seth stood. "I've got to get back to my partner. I left him guarding a prisoner who gets on your nerves after five minutes in his company. He'll be ready for a break."
Mason shook his hand. "We've got this covered. Thanks for your help."
"Anytime." Seth left, and Mason turned to Nicholas. "You're still determined to go out there?"
A hard sheen flattened his gold-green eyes. "Absolutely."
"When will your current trial wrap up?"
"I'm hoping by this afternoon. It's a pretty straightforward case."
"After that, what would you think about hiding out in a safe house until the de Lugo trial starts?"
He didn't answer at first. "If it were just threats against me, I would say forget it. I've had training. But the kids…" He stood. "I've got to change my shirt and get into my robe. Let me think about it."
"There's really nothing to think about, sir. All the training in the world won't stop a sniper's bullet. And while we can't exactly stop it, either, we give you a better chance of ducking when one heads your way. You need us, whether you like it or not."
Carly watched Nick and Mason square off.
"Think of the children, Nicholas," Carly offered softly. When she'd first met him two years ago, he hadn't had the children. His wife and sister had been alive. She'd seen pictures of the kids, and he'd told her about them in detail, like the doting uncle he was.
Since then a lot had happened. He'd lost two women he'd loved, gained two children—and released a killer to kill again.
She blinked that last thought away.
He blew out a breath and undid the buttons on his cuffs. Forearms roped with strength emerged as he shoved the sleeves up to his elbows; Carly swallowed hard, desperately trying to convince herself she was not feeling another tug of attraction.
What was wrong with her?
"Look," Nick said as he headed for the door, "we just moved here to Spartanburg a year ago. My mother moved out to California to take care of my sick aunt, and my latest nanny up and quit on me so I have a friend filling in." He shook his head. "Since my sister died in the car wreck with my wife, there's been no real consistency in my niece and nephew's lives. Lindsey and Christopher need that. They crave that. My house is about as safe as you can get. Granted, it's not hard to find, but I'm not listed in the phone book, either. As for the information online, that was all newspaper stuff. Nothing about where I live." He shot Carly and Mason a hard look. "If I let you move in to my house, can you keep the kids safe while they go through their usual daily routine?"
Carly glanced at Mason, who shrugged. To Nick, she said, "Yes. The children weren't threatened. That's a good thing. But it's obvious the de Lugos are trying to hit you where you're vulnerable. They mention the kids, but there's no overt threat to them. However, if you ask me, that's still a threat, no matter how subtle. We'll take extra precautions with the children, of course, but your safety is our main concern right now, since you were the one threatened."
She wondered if she would believe those words one day, but they seemed to ease Nick's mind a little. For her, though, just the fact that there were children involved would keep her up nights until this assignment came to an end.
Nick nodded. "Then pack your bags. I'll tell my housekeeper you guys are moving in for a while."
Carly watched Nicholas walk up the steps and settle himself into the judge's chair. The bailiff took up residence off to the side. As the jury filed in, she noted their serious expressions. Several looked at the door through which the defendant would enter. Others watched their feet, never lifting their eyes from the floor even as they settled into their chairs.
Interesting and odd, she noted, picking up on the undercurrents flowing around the group.
The prosecutor already sat at his table.
The door opened, and Seth and his partner led an orange-suited, leg-shackled prisoner through it.