SUSAN SLEEMAN is a best-selling author of inspirational romantic suspense and mystery novels. In addition to writing, she hosts the popular internet website TheSuspenseZone.com. Susan currently lives in Oregon, but has had the pleasure of living in nine states. Her husband is a church music director and they have two beautiful daughters, a very special son-in-law and an adorable grandson. To learn more about Susan visit her website www.susansleeman.com.
The Christmas Witnessby Susan Sleeman
"Don't say a word."
When a criminal threatened to kill Megan Cash if she testified against him, she didn't back down. Years later, he's out of jail and ready for revenge against Megan and her daughter. The only one who can protect them is the former FBI agent who broke Megan's heart. But Reid Morgan isn't the same/i>/i>… See more details below
"Don't say a word."
When a criminal threatened to kill Megan Cash if she testified against him, she didn't back down. Years later, he's out of jail and ready for revenge against Megan and her daughter. The only one who can protect them is the former FBI agent who broke Megan's heart. But Reid Morgan isn't the same manhe's now a widowed father with a harrowing past and a heart more guarded than ever. Still, he's the only one who believes Megan when she says she's in danger. Because someone wants to make this a Christmas she won't live long enough to forget.
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Norman Fowler was free to terrorize her again.
Icy-cold fear slid over Megan Cash. She'd imagined this day. How she'd imagined it.
Terrifying, breath-stopping, the man who'd held her at gunpoint during a bank robbery coming back into her life. Now he was here, striding across the gas station lot, heading toward her car. Had he seen her? Worse yet, followed her to make good on his threat?
Averting her face, she considered flooring the gas pedal and fleeing, but where could she go?
Two cars in front. One behind. Three at the island to the side. All with nozzles feeding gas tanks. She was trapped unless she wanted to jump from the car and take off running, making herself even more of a target.
C'mon, Megan. Deep breaths. Maybe it's not him.
She'd seen him hundreds of times in the twelve years since she'd testified against him. The pockmarked face with the long jaw jutted out in anger, a tattered Tacoma Rainiers baseball cap snug on his head and hiding long dishwater blond hair, thinning in the back.
Hundreds of times she'd been wrong. Had to be wrong. He occupied a federal prison cell for robbing the bank where she'd worked. But today was different. He'd served his twelve-year sentence and could be free.
A hard knocking on the window startled her, dropping her heart to her stomach.
"You want gas or what, lady?" the attendant's voice shot through the open window.
She'd make a small purchase so she didn't draw attention to herself. When the cars in front of her moved, she'd race away. She fished through her wallet and withdrew her credit card. Keeping her face averted, she slid it through the gap at the top of her window.
"Ten dollars. Regular." She shrank back and watched in the mirror as he went to pump her gas.
Who knew Oregon's law forbidding consumers to pump gas might save her life? With Fowler advancing across the lot, her car provided better cover than standing next to the pumps.
"Hey, dude," she heard her attendant call out.
Was he talking to Fowler? If so, maybe this meeting was just a coincidence.
She risked a quick peek and spotted the sharp profile of the lunatic who'd terrorized her in the bank, chatting with the string bean of an attendant on the far side of the pumps.
A shudder of revulsion swept through her body, but she couldn't take her eyes off him. Not yet. Not until she was certain he was the man she'd stared at for the three long hours she'd been held hostage at the bank.
She didn't know why he'd singled her out, but as the FBI negotiated with him, he'd traded the other hostages for supplies and transportation. But not her. No, he decided to take her with him when he fled.
His angry eyes declared he wouldn't hesitate to kill her when he no longer needed her. So in a moment of distraction, she grabbed a letter opener from the desk, plunged it into his thigh and fled for her life. A sniper had taken him down, and he blamed her for his injury. He threatened to get even once he was free again.
"What time you off?" he asked the attendant.
"Six," the attendant answered.
"Wanna get a drink to celebrate my freedom?"
Fowler's raspy voice was seared into her memory, but this guy's tone was less grating. Maybe age had changed the timbre. Or her mind could be playing tricks on her.
Was this even Fowler? Physical appearance changed a lot in twelve years.
Her gas pump clicked off and the attendant walked to the rear of her car. Fowler followed. She jerked her head away and held her hand to the side of her face.
"I dunno, man," the attendant said as she heard him latching the nozzle into the pump. "I'm not supposed to associate with you."
"Don't be a sissy," Fowler answered, the voice similar to the one he'd used at the bank. "I'll be at our usual spot, Mc-Menamins, at six. Be a man for once and show up."
Fowler laughed and her mind raced over the memories of him standing over her. The baseball cap pulled low over his hard eyes. Sadistic grin on his face. His gun aimed at her heart.
Fear skipped along her nerve endings. Too bad God didn't hear her prayers anymore or she'd pray. But He didn't listen. Even when the prayers were for her daughter, Ella.
Ella. Precious Ella. Lying helpless in a hospital bed. Chemotherapy weakening her immune system.
Hot tears filled Megan's eyes. She took a cleansing breath to keep them at bay. Gasoline fumes irritated her airway, but she wouldn't cough and draw attention to herself. She'd survived the terror inflicted by Fowler once. She could do it again. This time for Ella. She had no one else to protect her.
Megan heard someone approaching her window. Hoped it was the attendant.
"Here you go, lady. Merry Christmas." The holiday greeting was as lackluster as the sagging garland on the pumps. She reached for her card.
He released it and walked away. "I'll be there, man, but only one drink."
Fowler laughed again, but the taunting sound drifted away as if he was heading back to his pickup.
C 'mon, hurry up. Drive away.
The cars in front of her slowly pulled out, but she sat, watching until Fowler roared to the exit. He was leaving. She was safe.
He turned right on the road leading to the hospital. Wait. Toward the hospital? Did he know about Ella, or was she just being paranoid?
Maybe he pretended not to see Megan to make her think he didn't care about her anymore, so she'd relax and become an easier target. That seemed logical. The city of Portland was too big for such a chance meeting. They were near her home, and the hospital. He could've followed her when she left Ella at the hospital to go home for Boo Boo bear.
Or had his truck been at the station when she'd driven in? Was it even Fowler?
Now she wasn't sure. Memories could do funny things.
Maybe she had mistaken his identity. After all, the Department of Justice's Victim Notification Service should have contacted her about his release, and she hadn't heard from them. But she hadn't been home to take the call. She needed to call their hotline. Later. After she was certain Ella was okay.
Hand still shaking, Megan fumbled with the ignition. She finally revved the car and peeled out of the lot in hot pursuit of the truck. She raced down the festively decorated streets above the speed limit, and in a few minutes she careened to a stop next to a white pickup parked in the visitor lot.
Giving the truck a quick once-over, she climbed from her car. Looked like the same vehicle from the gas station, but she couldn't be positive it was Fowler's truck. Pulse ratcheting up, she jumped out and pressed her hand on the hood.
Warm. Hot, actually. As if the engine had recently been turned off.
Her heart pounded wildly against her sternum as she ran for the lobby, charged across the open space and around a brightly decorated Christmas tree with colorful packages stacked below.
No time to wait for the elevator car to descend. Ella's room was only two floors up.
Her mind flooding with terrible possibilities, Megan took the stairs two at a time and pulled open the heavy fire door. In the hallway, she picked up speed again and made a hard right turn into the corridor leading to Ella's room.
Megan slammed into a nurse, and they both tumbled to the hard tile. She rolled and peered down the hall.
Fowler stood outside Ella's room, his back to her, his hand pressed to an open door.
Megan let her voice spiral into an ear-piercing scream.
Fowler spun. His hot, ugly eyes met her gaze. A knowing smirk slid across his face before he turned and walked away, taking with him all hope that Megan had arrived in time to save her daughter.
Reid Morgan heard the woman's scream. Knew this cry well.
Lord, please help this woman.
Even as the wail drifted into nothingness, the piercing shriek still filled his head. As a former FBI agent working on the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team, he'd heard the keening cry of a mother whose child would never come home again more than he heard the happy laughter of a reunion.
"Go to the nurses' station, Jessie," he said to his ten-year-old daughter. "I'll check this out and be right back. Okay?"
Eyes wide with concern, she tightened her hold on their therapy dog's leash and nodded.
One last glance at Jessie to make sure she headed in the right direction, and he charged the other way to see if he could help when he spotted a petite woman racing toward him, a nurse hot on her heels.
"Stop him," the woman called out, gesturing to the corridor behind him. "Please, don't let him get away."
Reid turned back, searched the hallway but didn't see a man, much less one trying to get away.
"There's no one there," he yelled back as he walked toward her.
For a moment, their gazes connected, and he caught the sheer terror claiming her eyes. A spark of recognition flashed into his brain, but before he could determine her identity, she jerked her eyes away.
She pointed at the corridor behind him. "That way. He's heading for his truck. A white one. In the main lot. Please stop him. I have to" Her words drifted off as she darted into a patient's room.
Should he follow her or go after this elusive man? From the look of determination on the nurse's face as she caught up to the woman, maybe she was the problem, not the supposed fleeing man.
No. Reid knew better. He might not have worked a case in over three years and his skills might be rusty, but he knew abject terror when he saw it and couldn't turn his back on her.
He spun and went down the hallway, his eyes alert and cautious. No telling what the guy had done to terrify this woman. He could be armed and dangerous, and Reid wasn't carrying.
How he wished he were. He wanted to. All the time. But he'd locked up his guns after his wife died and he had left the FBI to be more available to Jessie. She really freaked out at the sight of weapons. She was only now recovering from losing her mother to cancer three years ago, and guns made her think she'd lose him, too. He couldn't do that to a ten-year-old. Not simply to soothe his ingrained need to feel safe.
He worked his way down the hall and into the stairwell, racing down the stairs to the lobby. A quick sweep of the open area produced nothing out of the ordinary. He went out into the gloomy late afternoon made bright only by the tall Christmas tree at the end of the walkway with thousands of twinkling white lights.
Keeping his back to the entrance, he scanned the lot for a white pickup.
Howling winds picked up from the west, whipping hard rain into his eyes and clouding his vision. He lifted a hand to ward it off and searched the lot shadowed by ominous clouds.
Unease skated down his back. He'd feel a lot more secure in stepping out into the open like this if he had his Glock in hand. He searched the lot. Odd. No trucks, either parked or exiting the lot.
Maybe the woman's fear caused her to confuse the truck's exact location. He jogged around the hospital perimeter to check all three parking lots. Rain penetrated his clothing and hair, but nothing unusual caught his interest or made him the least bit suspicious.
When he returned to the main lot, he found a police car parked in the patient-loading area.
Good. The police were likely here because of the woman. They'd get to the bottom of this, and he could go back to Jessie and their therapy visits.
Entering the lobby, he slicked the moisture from his hair and shook it from his jacket. To the sweet sound of children caroling in the distance, he took the stairs two at a time.
In the hallway, he spotted the woman, hands fisted, voice surprisingly loud for such a small person, standing next to a police officer.
"But you can't just leave, Officer Dunn." She sounded desperate. "What about my daughter? He could come back."
"I'm sorry, ma'am. But without any proof this guy is threatening you, there's not much we can do other than file a report."
"A report?" she cried. "What good does a report do when he comes after Ella again? How will a report keep him from killing her?"
Officer Dunn looked away, frustration written all over his face. Reid recognized that look. The man wanted to do more for this woman, but budget constraints didn't allow officers to pursue every problem presented and they often had to prioritize resources.
He turned back. "I'll stop by security on the way out to make sure they know what's going on here. They can make a point of checking in on you now and then."
"I guess that's better than nothing." She looked around, and her eyes lighted on Reid. "There. That's the guy who went after him. Maybe he saw him or at least saw his truck."
The officer faced Reid and came forward.
"Reid Morgan," he offered his name to the officer then, before telling the woman he couldn't help, he glanced at her and flashed a look of apology.
"Reid," she whispered his name like an involuntary breath and let her jaw drop.
Megan, Megan Singleton.
Surprise froze him in place and he couldn't manage to move his mouth, let alone drop it open as she had.
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