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"Three, two, one. Happy New Year to me," Annie Duncan muttered as she flicked off the television. 12:00 a.m. on the first day of the New Year. She hoped this year would be better than the last one had been.
"At least it can't be any worse," she sighed as she walked down the hallway that led to the room she shared with her daughter. Sophia could have had her own bedroom, but Annie wasn't ready for that. Not yet.
She eased the door open and stepped into the room. The house was older than the one they'd had during the year they'd spent in Milwaukee, the wood floor creaky and cool under her feet. Sophia lay in her crib, her little toes peeking out from beneath the blanket, the stuffed dog that Joe had bought when Annie learned she was pregnant clutched in her arms.
Sophia was such a beautiful little girl. Joe would have been so excited to see her as a toddler, hear her baby-babble change to words and sentences.
He'd loved their daughter. Annie could still say that, and she still believed it. Even if so many other things in their lives had been lies.
She touched Sophia's soft baby curls, as the sound of quiet conversation drifted from the room below. She didn't tense the way she had her first few weeks back in St. Louis.
She'd gotten used to having people in the house with her twenty-four hours a day. The U.S. Marshals had made it as easy on her and Sophia as they could. The two-story safe house had been fitted with security systems and monitors, the upper level where she and Sophia spent most of their time perfect for their small family. It felt homey, but it wasn't home.
Annie wasn't sure when they would have that again.
Even Christmas hadn't made the place feel any less like a comfortable hotel, a stopping point on the way to somewhere else. Poor Sophia. Her third Christmas had been a bust. For the most part, the marshals who were guarding them had left them alone. They'd spent the day together. Just the two of them. That was the way it had been since their return to St. Louis. Aside from an occasional trip to meet with prosecuting attorney Steven Antonio, Annie and Sophia hung out together. That was fine and fun for a twenty-six-month-old, but Annie was starting to crave adult company and companionship.
Just a few more weeks and the case against the men who'd murdered her husband would be over. She could go back to Milwaukee or head to some new town, some new adventure. The lead marshal working her case had assured her that she'd be safe once the trial was over. She trusted Hunter Davis. He'd helped her through the tough times after Joe's murder, traveled with her from her hometown of St. Louis to Milwaukee to ease her transition into her new life.
Of course, she'd trusted Joe, too, and look where that had gotten her.
One way or another, she was going to follow through on her agreement to testify against Luke Saunders and John Fiske. She owed it to Joe, she owed it to the marshals who'd been protecting her, but mostly she owed it to Sophia. Someday, she was going to ask about her father.
Annie wanted to be able to say she'd done everything possible to make sure his murderers were put in jail.
There were other things she wouldn't say until Sophia was much older, things that had surprised Annie, upset her, made her question everything she'd believed about her husband.
"He was a good guy with a problem," she whispered, but saying it out loud couldn't make it true. Sometimes she wondered if he really had been a good guy or if she'd just been so in love that she'd been blinded to what lay in the depths of his heart.
She walked to the window that overlooked the backyard. Snow had fallen earlier in the day, just a light dusting that she would have loved to bring Sophia out in. Hunter had refused to allow it. He was one of the most stubborn men Annie had ever met. Emotionless and by the book, he loved to tell her how things were going to be. She always did what he said because she couldn't risk Sophia's life and he seemed to know how to protect it.
She leaned her forehead against the cold glass, wishing she dared go against Hunter's order to stay inside at all times. A little fresh air would be nice. She was too much of a chicken to risk it, though.
She hadn't always been afraid.
As a matter of fact, she used to think her life was going to be wonderful. She'd married her high school sweetheart, had a baby, planned to return to her preschool teaching job when Sophia was old enough to attend. Money had been tight, but that hadn't bothered her. She'd been happy, excited to see what life would bring.
She glanced at Sophia, her stomach churning with anxiety. She just wanted to feel safe again and to believe that her daughter was safe.
"Please, Lord, don't let anything happen to her," she prayed as she turned back to the window.
There was nothing to look at. Just the wide expanse of the yard. The landscaping was basicgrass and a few low shrubs. A small swing set stood in the far corner of the yard. In the month that they'd been there, Sophia hadn't been allowed to toddle around in the grass or sit in the baby swing.
Guilt settled like a heavy weight on Annie's shoulders. All she'd ever wanted was to be a wife and mother. She'd spent her childhood dreaming of having a houseful of kids. Joe hadn't been sure he'd wanted any, but he'd finally agreed that one or two would be nice.
After Sophia's birth, he'd said that being a father was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
Her eyes filled at the memory, her chest tight with grief. Even after learning about his lies, she missed Joe.
Clouds drifted across the moon, shrouding the yard in deeper darkness. A six-foot fence surrounded the property, the houses to either side well lit. Annie imagined friends and families gathered together to greet the New Year, and she felt more alone than ever.
She hadn't spoken to her parents in over a year, hadn't seen any of her friends in that same amount of time. She'd spent a month in hiding in a little house in St. Louis not far from where she'd grown up, and she hadn't been allowed to let anyone she loved know it. She was tired and bored out of her mind, ready to break free, do something fun, be with people who cared about her.
"Stop it," she muttered. "Things could be a lot worse."
As if her words had conjured trouble, a dark shadow rose above the fence. She blinked, sure that her eyes were playing tricks on her. The shadow remained just at the corner of the fence where the safe-house yard butted up against the neighbors' yards. Head, shoulders, arms. A person. A man? A quick furtive movement and something dark rolled into the yard.
Annie's heart jumped, her body cold with fear. She'd been warned that the men she planned to testify against were dangerous. She'd been told that they'd go to any length necessary to silence her. She'd seen what they'd done to Joe, but she'd been safe for a year, going about her life in Milwaukee without even a hint of danger.
She had to protect her daughter. She ran to the baby, lifting her from the bed in one quick movement. Her hands shook as she fumbled with the blanket and tucked it around her daughter. She raced into the hallway, the sound of feet pounding on stairs echoing through the quiet house.
The door that led from the rooms below into her upstairs apartment burst open, and Hunter Davis appeared. Tall, with broad shoulders and a granite-hard face, he wore dark jeans, a dark T-shirt and a gun holster strapped to his chest.
"We're leaving," he said without preamble, taking her arm, his grip hard without being painful.
"Someone was at the back fence," she told him, even though she was sure he already knew. He wasn't the kind of guy to miss things.
"That's why we're moving you and Sophia out."
"Annie," he said quietly. "I've been doing this for a long time, and I haven't lost a witness yet."
"There's always a first time for everything."
"This won't be it," he responded with confidence.
"Trust me, okay? That'll make it a lot easier for me to do my job." He led her down the stairway and into the lower-level apartment. Unlike the upstairs, it was sparsely furnished. Just a couch and a couple of chairs, a desk set up with a computer monitor. Two people hovered near it, watching an image on the screen. She knew both of them. U.S. marshals Burke Trier and Joshua McCall. They'd been part of her twenty-four-hour protection for the past month.
"No movement," Burke said, his dark gaze shooting to Annie. "Whatever he tossed into the yard is still there. The bomb squad will be here in five."
Hunter was glad to hear it. In the month since Angel Delacorte, now called Annie, had returned to St. Louis, they'd kept her and little Sophia locked away in the safe house. As the lead witness against Luke Saunders and John Fiske, Annie had the potential to bring down an organized crime ring that had been working out of St. Louis for the past several years. The FBI suspected that Saunders and Fiske were low-level members of the group, and the marshals had been asked to get Annie to trial safely. They'd changed her name to Annie Duncan, flown her to Milwaukee and kept her safe there.
So far, things had gone according to the plan Hunter helped create.
It looked as though that was about to change.
"We're going into the garage," he said, meeting Annie's dark blue eyes. "I'll put Sophia into her car seat. You get into the backseat beside her."
She didn't question his orders.
Good. They didn't have time to argue or to go over the plan again. He took the baby from Annie's arms. Not really a baby. A toddler with her mother's thick dark curls and big blue eyes. Pretty and delicate and filled with childish enthusiasm. After a year of working the Delacorte case and a month of spending most of his working hours protecting them, he knew little Sophia well. She didn't make a sound as he set her into the car seat, just stuck her thumb in her mouth and smiled around it.
"Good girl," he murmured, snapping the straps into place. Making sure Annie made it to trial and didn't change her mind about testifying was his job. Simple as that. He'd done the same with dozens of other witnesses.
There was something different about this assignment, though.
Maybe the little girl who went along with it. Maybe her mother. Despite the trouble Annie was in, despite losing her husband, giving up her job, giving up all contact with her family, she'd managed to hold on to a positive attitude. That made it easy to guard her. It had probably also made it easy for her husband to pull the wool over her eyes.
Her vision was clear now, though. After months of investigation, Joe Delacorte's secret life had been revealed. Joe's murder hadn't been random. He hadn't walked in on a robbery; he'd been killed because he couldn't pay back what he'd owed. Annie hadn't said a word when the prosecutor told her how much money her husband had borrowed to feed his gambling addiction.
Hunter was pretty sure she'd cried that night.
Her eyes had been red-rimmed the next day, but she'd still had a smile on her face when she'd greeted him.
She wasn't smiling now.
She looked terrified, her face stark white.
He almost patted her arm and told her everything would be okay, but he liked to keep some distance between himself and the witnesses he protected. He didn't want to ever have his judgment and instincts skewed by useless emotion.
He tapped his finger on the steering wheel, waiting impatiently for the all clear. Serena Summers should be outside by now, checking the perimeters, making sure that it was safe to leave.
He frowned at the thought. She'd changed since her brother's murder. A fellow marshal, Daniel Summers had been killed in the line of duty. A year after his death, they still had no suspects, no useful leads, nothing that would bring his murderer to justice.
"What are we waiting for?" Annie asked quietly, her tone soft and easy, just the way it always was. Whatever stress she was feeling, whatever fear, it wasn't in her voice.
"Just waiting for an all clear," he replied, shifting in his seat to look her in the eyes. "You and Sophia won't be coming back here."
"I'll grab some of your things later. What do you want me to get?"
"Sophia's going to want the stuffed dog her daddy gave her. The little brown one with the floppy ears. It's on her bed."
"What about you?"
She shrugged, thick strands of dark hair sliding across her shoulder. "I have a small suitcase in the closet. It's packed with clothes and baby supplies."
From what he'd observed in the past month, that was typical of Annie. Organized, prepared. "I'll make sure to grab it for you."
"Thanks. Why do you think it's taking so long for the all clear? Do you think someone is outside waiting for us to leave?" she asked, glancing at the garage door.
"I don't know, but we're not going to take any chances." He kept the answer brief, his body tense and ready for whatever action he needed to take. Drive away or go back into the houseeither option would work. As long as it kept Annie and Sophia safe.
His radio crackled, Serena's voice filling the quiet SUV
"It's all clear," she said. "No sign of trouble out front."
"We're on our way. You're following us to the next place?" He didn't give any indication of where they were going, didn't want to take a chance that someone had somehow tapped into their conversation.
"I'll be right behind you," Serena said.
He stabbed at the garage door opener and pulled out of the garage. Darkness pressed in on the SUV windows, the trees and grass white with ice. It was the first morning of the New Year, the streetlights pouring soft yellow light onto the road and the ice-coated foliage. It would have been beautiful if Hunter hadn't been so convinced that danger was lurking just out of sight. He could feel it, his skin tight with adrenaline, his senses alive. Every shadow, every swaying branch or rustling leaf hinted at trouble.
Across the street, headlights flashed. Serena signaling from her unmarked car. They'd worked as a team before. Despite her grief and anger over Daniel's death, Hunter trusted Serena to do her job and do it well.
He glanced in the rearview mirror, met Annie's eyes.
"It's going to be okay," he said, because he thought she needed the reassurance.
She probably didn't believe him. He couldn't blame her. She'd been promised that she'd be safe in St. Louis, told that she wouldn't be found, that she and her daughter had nothing to fear. He'd said all those things to her on the plane ride back from Milwaukee. They should have been true.
Someone had found Annie, though.
That was the better question.
No one but marshals working the case knew where the safe house was located. Hunter had gone to incredible lengths to make sure they weren't followed when he brought Annie to her appointments with prosecuting attorneys. Long rides out into the country and back, circuitous routes through the heart of downtownall of it designed to throw off a tail or to spot one.
There'd been no indication that they'd been followed, but the safe house had been compromised. Logical reason dictated that someone had leaked the information, but Hunter wanted to think anything other than that.
Too bad he couldn't.
He rubbed the back of his neck, glad that Annie was keeping her thoughts to herself. It was probably tempting to throw accusations. After all, she was doing the feds a favor by testifying. She'd been promised a lot of things that had made Hunter cringe. Things that could never really be promiseda new life, a new home, a chance to put the past behind her and to put her husband's killers in jail.
All Hunter had promised was that he'd keep her safe.
He intended to do that.
Nothing and no one was going to keep that from happening.