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One juror. That's all it had taken to set a murderer free.
Jessica Delaney flattened her hands against the conference-room window of the White Plains Federal courthouse, watching the mockery playing out two stories below.
Mistrial. The word left a bitter taste in her mouth. What would that juror have done if his friend had been brutally murdered in front of him? Or if his life had become the nightmare Jessica's had become, living in fear that her former boss would discover where the government was keeping her during the year-long trial?
She'd been foolish to think her testimony could make a difference, that a twenty-eight year-old accountant could put the head of the most powerful crime family in New York away, when others had tried and failed before her. She'd given up everythingher home, her friends, her jobto become the government's star witness. For what? DeGaullo was free, and she was about to go into hiding.
For the rest of her life.
Her hands tightened into fists as Richard DeGaullo waded through the crowd of reporters, smiling and waving like a foreign dignitary instead of a man who'd viciously executed a young mother, leaving two small children behind to mourn her death.
He jogged down the steps, his perfectly pressed suit jacket flapping in the wind as the first fat raindrops from an afternoon storm splattered against Jessica's window. Freedom waited for DeGaullo in the form of a black stretch limo snugged up against the curb.
The driver opened the rear door. Jessica sucked in her breath when DeGaullo turned and looked up, as if he knew she was watching. He raised his hand in a jaunty salute, flashed a cocky grin, then slid inside the car.
A loud knock sounded behind Jessica, making her start in surprise. She turned around to see a man she didn't know, standing in the open doorway. The briefcase he held looked like a child's toy in his large hand, and the top of his head barely cleared the door frame.
Jessica's gaze darted past him to the marshals in the hallway. William Gavin, the marshal who led her security detail, gave her a reassuring nod before closing the door, cocooning her in with the stranger.
A polite greeting died on Jessica's lips as the man strode toward her, his angular face tightening into lines of disapproval. With his coal-black suit emphasizing his massive shoulders, he looked like an avenging angel, or a demon, swooping down to punish her for her sins. She tensed against the urge to flinch away when he stopped in front of her.
"Move away from the window." He gently but firmly pushed her away from the glass. The look in his dark blue eyes, as he scanned the courtyard below, reminded her of a hawk sighting its prey. Seemingly satisfied, he flipped the blinds closed and crossed the tiny room to the table in the corner.
He pulled out a chair and raised an expectant brow. Jessica reluctantly obeyed his unspoken command, taking the seat he offered. She stiffened when he leaned down, his lips next to her ear.
"Never stand in front of a window, especially with the light behind you," he said. "Don't make it easy for him."
She shivered at the feel of his warm breath whispering across her skin, and the deadly warning in his wordswords that rang true after seeing DeGaullo wave at her. Since the stranger seemed to be waiting for a response, she nodded.
He moved to the chair across from her and set his briefcase on the table.
"I was told the glass is bulletproof." Jessica immediately regretted her statement when she realized how defensive she sounded.
The stranger's dark brows arched but he didn't bother to look at her. He was more concerned with the papers in his briefcase.
Jessica pressed her lips together and took the opportunity to study him. Tiny lines bracketed his mouth. On someone else they would have been laugh lines, but she couldn't picture this man laughing. His eyes were guarded, as if he'd seen too much, and the tragedies in his life had stamped themselves onto his soul.
He took three pieces of paper out of his briefcase and placed them on the table in front of her. "Nothing's bulletproof if you have the right weapon, the right motivation." His deep voice echoed through the small space. "Your former boss has plenty of both." He reached a tanned hand into his suit jacket, pulled out a pen, and tossed it across the table.
Jessica managed to snatch the pen before it could fall onto the floor. "Who are you?" She slapped the pen down on the table.
"Deputy U.S. Marshal Ryan Jackson."
Jessica's face flushed as she recognized the arrogant disdain on his stern features. He didn't approve of her, and he didn't try to hide it. Jessica curled her fists in her lap. She was so sick of being judged by people who didn't even know her. The last year had been a trial in more ways than one, sitting in the courtroom every day, feeling the weight of the jurors' stares, their contempt.
As if her own guilt wasn't enough.
She leaned forward and waved her hand at the papers.
"What's all this?"
"Official acknowledgement of the WitSec rules before you take on your new identity."
"Marshal Cole always calls it Witness Protection," she murmured absently as she skimmed the pages. "Why isn't he here to take care of this? He's the one I usually work with when there's any paperwork to be done."
"He's unavailable." Without giving her a chance to ask any more questions, Ryan pointed to one of the pages. "This is your acknowledgement of the first rule of the program. Never contact anyone from your previous life. No snail mail, email, text messages and especially no phone calls."
"I know the rules." She scrawled her signature beneath the statement.
"Rule number two," he said, as if she hadn't spoken, "never go anywhere you've ever lived or even visited in the past. Five, ten years from now, you still can't go back. Ever."
Hearing those words in Ryan Jackson's ominous tone made the second rule sound even worse than she'd remembered. This was the last time she'd ever see the beloved city where she'd spent most of her adult life.
Who would have thought she'd miss the smell of exhaust as the rows of taxi cabs jostled for position every morning, or the constant flood of tourists getting in her way on the sidewalk? She would definitely miss the aroma of fresh-baked bread wafting out of cafes, and the thick, juicy cheeseburgers at Junior's, with cheesecake for dessertplain, the way it was supposed to be.
After today, nothing would ever be the same again.
Her hand shook as she signed on the dotted line.
Ryan's gaze flicked up to her face.
Jessica blinked, fighting back an unexpected rush of tears. She wasn't about to cry in front of a stranger, especially a stranger as cold as the one across from her.
He watched her intently as he recited the last rule. "Never tell anyone about your past. Break any of these rules and the government can toss you out of the program. More importantly, break any of these rules and your life will be in danger. No one has ever been killed in WitSec, as long as they followed these three rules."
His dark eyes narrowed at her. "People who break these rules die. Do you understand?"
Her stomach did a little flip and a deep sense of dread crept over her. The fear that always simmered beneath the surface threatened to take hold. But with Ryan watching her so closely, as if he expected her to break down at any moment, she straightened her shoulders and tried not to let him see how much his words had affected her.
"I understood the rules the first five times I heard them." She signed the last page with a flourish and raised a brow. "Are we done?"
She tossed the pen across the table, forcing him to grab it before it fell on the floor.
The corner of his mouth tilted up in a grin, surprising her. "Not quite."
He shoved the pen and papers into the briefcase, his expression sobering, as if he realized he'd let his guard down. "You've memorized your new identity?"
"Marshal Cole has grilled me for months to prepare me. I'm not likely to forget."
"Convince me. What's your name?"
She tapped her foot, irritated that she had to go through the same routine again. "Jessica Adams."
"New Orleans, Louisiana." He raised a brow.
She blew out a frustrated breath and rattled off the addressa house number and a street that meant nothing to her, but that were more ingrained in her memory now than her real New York City address had ever been.
He fired off questions about her fake bio, her new social security number, the names and birthdates of her pretend family. For the first time in her life, she was grateful that the foster families who'd shuffled her back and forth had always kept her at a distance, as if they were afraid her bad genes were contagious. If she'd had a real family, people who loved her and were loved in return, she didn't think she could give them up and leave them behind.
Ryan shoved back from the table and rose to his feet.
Was she ready? Ready to move a thousand miles away to a place she'd never been, a place she'd never wanted to be? Was she ready to have her past erased as if she'd never existed, living in fear that Richard DeGaullo would find her and punish her for betraying him?
Her stomach twisted into knots. She wanted to cling to her chair and hide, but that wasn't an option. All she could do now was face her future, however uncertain it might be.
"I'm ready." She stood and wiped her sweaty palms on her slacks, and followed him to the door.
He paused with his hand on the knob, his mouth curving up into the first genuine smile he'd shown since entering the room. "You're going to be okay, Jessica Adams."
And with that, he was gone, striding down the hallway, leaving her with her usual contingent of marshals.
"Ready, Jessica?" William echoed Ryan's earlier words.
She tore her gaze away from Ryan's retreating back, stunned by how his smile had completely transformed his features, giving her a glimpse of the lighthearted man he must have once been. She cleared her tightening throat.
The four marshals flanked her on all sides as they headed down the hallway toward the back stairs. One of the marshals moved to let another man pass and gave him a curt nod. Jessica frowned, surprised the marshal had let the stranger get so close to her. He must have been someone the marshal knew and trusted.
Thoughts of the stranger evaporated as Jessica descended the stairs, getting closer and closer to the bottom. By the time her feet touched the last step, her instincts were screaming at her to run, hideanything but walk toward the exit at the end of the hall.
Her heart pounded in rhythm with her steps. Twenty feet to the door.
Too fast. Slow down. Please, slow down.
Far too soon they stood at the back door. Had she said she was ready? She was wrong. She wasn't ready.
Her pulse leaped in her throat. Soon she'd be completely, utterly alone, without marshals guarding her twenty-four-seven. Her safety would depend on a web of lies and documentation, her fate in the hands of some paper pusher she'd never met.
Panic tightened her chest. She jumped when one of the marshals opened the door and it slammed against the wall, caught by a blast of surprisingly chilly wind for early September. The oak trees lining the street swayed, their branches clicking together like tiny drummers foretelling her doom.
With William urging her forward, she had no choice but to move. She couldn't cling to the door and cower in fear.
She stepped outside.
A gust of wind and rain blasted her, whipping her hair around her face. The light sprinkle that had started earlier was now a steady downpour, pelting the small group as they hurried across the concrete to the street that ran along the back of the courthouse. A black cargo van waited fifty feet away at the curb. Uniformed policemen lined the sidewalk.
Thunder cracked overhead, making Jessica jump. Lightning flashed, filling the air with the smell of something burning, reminding Jessica of gunfire the night her friend was killedthe flash, the smell.
The spray of blood as Natalie fell to the floor, DeGaullo standing over her.
The van's open door was dark and menacing in the maelstrom of wind and rain. Jessica couldn't breathe. Her lungs squeezed in her chest. Was this how Natalie had felt as she died?
Please, I don't want to die.
Thunder boomed again and the rain became a deluge. Three of the marshals ran ahead to the van, positioning themselves to watch for anyone approaching. Jessica froze, unable to take another step. She was too exposed, too vulnerable, the safety of the van too far away.
"Come on," William urged. "We're almost there." He pushed her forward.
She stumbled, gasping for air.
Someone shouted, but the words were snatched away by the wind. Jessica whirled toward the sound. Ryan Jackson stood in the open courthouse doorway. He dropped his briefcase and sprinted toward her, his arms and legs pumping like an Olympic runner. He might have shouted her name, but she wasn't sure.
William cursed and grabbed her shoulders. Another shout, a metallic click, an explosion of light and sound. A wall of searing heat slammed into Jessica. She tumbled through the air, her screams mingling with the screams of others as the concrete rushed up to meet her. A sickening thud, burning, tearing agony, then nothing.