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A wave of terror washed over Morgan Smith when she heard the tapping at her window. She gripped the book she'd been reading a little tighter. Someone was outside the caretaker's cottage. Had the man who had tried to kill her in Mexico found her in Iowa?
Though she'd been in witness protection for two months, her fear of being killed had not subsided. Only a few days ago, she'd left Des Moines for the countryside and a job at a stable because she'd felt exposed in the city, vulnerable. She'd grown up on a ranch in Wyoming, and when she worked as an American missionary in Mexico, she'd always chosen to be in rural areas. Wide open spaces felt safer to her.
With her heart pounding, she rose to her feet and walked the short distance to the window, half expecting to see a face contorted with rage or clawlike hands reaching for her neck. The memory of nearly being strangled made her shudder. She stepped closer to the window, where there was only blackness. Yet the sound of the tapping had been too distinct to dismiss as the wind rattling the glass.
A chill snaked down her spine.
Someone was outside.
If the man from Mexico had come to kill her, it seemed odd that he would give her a warning by tapping on the window.
She thought to call her new boss, who was in the guesthouse less than a hundred yards away. Alex Rear-don seemed like a nice man. She'd hated being evasive when he'd asked her where she had gotten her knowledge of horses. She'd been fortunate to get the job without references. Her references, everything and everyone she knew-all of that had been stripped from her, even her name. She was no longer Magdalena Chavez. Her new name was Morgan Smith.
The tapping came again, this time at a different window. She whirled around. Paralyzed by terror, she couldn't bring herself to take a step. Did he intend to torment her before he moved in for the kill? With the description she gave them, the U.S. Marshals had tracked down a name for the man who had tried to kill her-Josef Flores, a mercenary for hire, a muscular man known for wearing white suits and killing his victims with his bare hands. But they hadn't caught him yet.
Her pulse drummed in her ears as silence pressed on her from all sides. It had taken her weeks to get out of Mexico alive. Twice, Josef had found her and tried to strangle her. She could still see his bloodshot eyes as he vowed to kill her.
The trouble had started when she became suspicious of some of the practices at the agency where she assisted with international adoptions. Babies were being escorted into the States, instead of adoptive parents coming to Mexico to pick up their children. The behavior of some of the birth mothers was peculiar. At first, they would decide against adoption. Then they would return, days later, saying they'd changed their minds. The young mothers seemed afraid at that second visit. She'd just begun to look through old records and try to contact the mothers when Josef had come after her in her office late at night.
The marshals had agreed to provide her with protection and a new identity because they thought her case might be connected to a larger kidnapping and illegal adoption ring.
Now she stared at the dark window and took in a raspy breath. If what had happened to her was connected to a larger crime, it wouldn't only be Josef who came after her. There could be others.
The knob on the locked door turned and rattled.
She'd been a fool to think the U.S. Marshals could keep her safe.
Clutching her book tighter to her chest, she waited for the moment when the attacker would break down the door and come after her. Morgan steeled herself against the rising panic. She wasn't going to give up that easily. She grabbed her phone to dial 911 but couldn't get a signal in the cottage. She glanced around the room for possible weapons and hiding places.
The door stopped shaking. She waited for a few minutes, tiptoed across the floor and then peeked out the window.
A motion-sensitive light came on in the distance by the stable. She recognized the broad shoulders and denim jacket of Alex Reardon.
What if her would-be attackers hurt Alex? She couldn't let that happen.
Pushing her fear aside, she wrapped her hand around the doorknob, turned it and raced outside. Her feet pounded across the hard-packed dirt toward the stable. She was out of breath by the time she caught up with Alex.
"Alex, what are you doing out so late?"
"I thought I saw somebody run toward the stable." His wavy brown hair appeared soft in the moonlight. "I need to check it out."
"I know-they tapped on my window and shook my door handle. Maybe we should call the police." Fear resonated through each word she uttered.
"Call the police?" He hesitated, probably wondering why she was so panicked. "Why would we do that? My guess is it's just some teenagers messing around. It's happened before. Nothing we can't handle on our own."
Impulsively, she grabbed his upper arm. "I'll go with you then." If something happened to him at her expense, she would never forgive herself.
"All right." Alex shone the flashlight in her direction. "Are you okay to take the inside of the stables? I'll search around the perimeter. We'll meet at the other end." His voice filled with concern.
"I suppose that would be best. " She let go of his arm. "To split up."
His gaze rested on her long enough for her to feel uncomfortable. He probably thought she was flighty, which was not the impression she wanted to give. If only she could explain to him why she was reacting this way. "We could stay together if you want."
"No, we'll go with your plan." Her voice held an intensity that seemed out of place.
He shook his head, clearly confused by her heightened emotions. "Morgan, we live in a really safe part of the country. In all the time that I've lived here, the worst it's ever been was just some bored teenagers looking for something to do." The compassion she heard in his voice helped her let go of some of her fear. "If you do get scared, I won't be far away."
"Okay, I'll search the inside of the stable," she said feeling a little more at ease.
He gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder and disappeared around the side of the stable.
Morgan stepped into the stable. The door had not been locked, a responsibility that probably fell to her. She was still learning all her duties. She clicked on the lights. By design, the lighting was minimal and subdued to keep the horses calm. She'd need the flashlight to search the dark corners of the barn. She flung open the equipment box and retrieved it. Several of the horses were standing, and the stomping of their hooves and their jerking heads indicated they'd been disturbed by something or someone.
Morgan paced through the long narrow building shining the light where shadows fell. Most of the horses had calmed down except for Bluebell, a black Arabian. Once at the other end of the stable, Morgan pushed open the barn door and stepped out, shining the light in all directions. No Alex. Her heart skipped a beat.
Her voice cracked when she called for him. He was innocent in all this. It wasn't right that he should be hurt in any way. Maybe she had been foolish to move out here, to think she could build some kind of life with this threat hanging over her. The last thing she wanted was someone to get hurt because of the danger she faced.
She heard footsteps and turned just as a body barreled into her. She saw a flash of a plaid material right before she was pushed to the ground. She lay on her back with the wind knocked out of her. Terror raged through her as memories from the attack in Mexico flooded her mind.
Alex called her name from a distance. Her assailant let go of her and retreated into the darkness, probably scared away by Alex's voice.
Alex came around the corner and fell to his knees when he saw her on the ground. His voice filled with concern. "Hey, what happened?"
Morgan blinked. Pain shot through her back. "He knocked me over." Why hadn't the man simply killed her? Maybe Alex had been too close and the thug didn't want witnesses. "He got scared when he heard you yelling."
Alex reached out his hand to help her to her feet. "I saw one of them run off in the other direction. This is a little more serious if they are going to start hurting people. Last time this happened, it was some teenagers going from farm to farm, running through the property."
So there was more than one of them. "Do you think you'll call the police?" Not that that would help her. There was a part of her that really hoped it was just teenagers, but she couldn't take chances. If there was the smallest chance she'd been found, the U.S. Marshals would need to move her.
His hand cupped underneath her elbow. "I might have to if we can't get to the bottom of this." He leaned a little closer to her. "Are you sure you're not hurt?"
She winced and touched her bruised back muscles.
"Guess I hit the ground pretty hard." Alex's concern for her warmed her heart.
"Why don't you come back to the guesthouse? I'll fix you a cup of tea and get you an ice pack. You probably don't have much in the way of supplies for the cottage yet."
"I will, but could you give me a minute? Bluebell sounds really stirred up in there. I'll make sure everything is locked up tight." She didn't want Alex to see how badly she was shaking.
He rested a hand on her shoulder. "Morgan, this really frightened you."
The warmth of his touch permeated her thin cotton shirt. She nodded but didn't say anything, afraid she wouldn't be able to keep the emotion out of her voice. Let him think it was just teenagers. She knew better.
"I'll lock up while you calm down Bluebell." His voice filled with compassion. "We'll go back to the house together."
They entered the stable. Bluebell stepped side to side in her stall. Morgan slipped into the stall, stroking her hands over the horse's neck and back. She leaned close so her side rested against the horse's front flank. She looked into Bluebell's coal dark eyes.
We 're both afraid, aren 't we?
"It'll be all right." Bluebell let out a heavy snort. Her stomping subsided. Morgan leaned in close and buried her face in the horse's mane. Her eyes warmed with tears.
She had no idea how they'd found her. She had complied with the witness protection rules of not talking about her past or contacting anyone she knew in her former life. It seemed odd, though, that the assailant hadn't killed her outright. One thing was certain. She couldn't stay here.
She'd have to pack her things and call the marshals as soon as she could get a cell phone signal.
"You ready to go?" Alex closed and latched the stable door. He pulled out his ring of keys to lock the door on the other end from the outside. They lived far enough away from the city that crime wasn't a huge issue. All the same, he should have remembered to lock the doors.
"Yes, I'm ready."
Morgan didn't turn to him. Her hand went up to her face. When she did turn around, it looked to him as if she'd been crying. Clearly, she didn't want him to notice, so he didn't mention it.
In the few days she'd been working there, he'd concluded that Morgan Smith was not easy to get to know. She was friendly and connecting with clients but very closed down when it came to talking about herself.
Morgan gave the horse one final pat on the neck before climbing out of the stall. Alex had to hand it to her-she was good with the horses. He wasn't in the habit of hiring someone without references, but the day she'd arrived for the interview, she'd talked an uppity horse into taking the weight of a saddle and calmed the frightened kid who'd been dealing with that same horse.
She gazed at him, her dark brown eyes holding a world of mystery. She rubbed her lower back and winced. "That ice pack sounds really nice right now." She wore her long dark hair in a ponytail. Her cheeks flushed with color-maybe from the cold, maybe from the scare she'd just had.
They walked through the stable and out into the darkness. Only two windows in the guesthouse glowed with golden light. It was a weekday, so they only had one guest. On the weekends, all six rooms were usually full. Clients who lived in the city drove up and stayed for two or three days of riding. They were two hours outside of Des Moines in Iowa farmland. The Stables boarded horses and owned some to provide lessons. Alex's favorite part of his job was the therapeutic riding program for disabled and underprivileged children.
Morgan and Alex walked side by side onto the expansive porch of the guesthouse. He led her through an open sitting room furnished with leather couches and rough pine end tables into a large kitchen. Only he and Morgan lived on the property. He had private quarters in the guesthouse and she had the caretaker's cottage. Mrs. Stovall, who supervised the cooking for guests and cleaning of the rooms, drove in from Kirk-wood, a tiny town five miles up the road. She hung up her apron promptly at seven every night.
Morgan glanced around the kitchen while he put a kettle on. "This is really homey."
He detected emotion in her voice, longing perhaps. After grabbing an ice pack from the freezer, he turned to face her. "Oh, does it remind you of a kitchen you grew up in?"
Her face blanched and she looked off to the side. "No, I just think it looks very welcoming." Her tone was defensive.
Even that tiny bit of probing about her past scared her. She exuded confidence around the horses, but in many ways she was like a frightened little bird. What was she hiding? Everything else about her seemed honest and forthright. But still, there was a guarded quality to their interaction, as if she'd built walls around herself.
He set two mugs on the counter and pulled out the tea bags. "Mrs. Stovall's rules remain even when she's not here. We have access to everything in the kitchen, but we have to clean up after ourselves, same as the guests."
She picked up the tea bag and placed it in her cup and then pressed the ice pack against the small of her back. "Understood. I get the impression she runs a pretty tight ship."
They then talked a little more about the horses. The kettle whistled. Alex poured the steaming liquid over her tea bag and pushed the sugar dish in her direction across the counter. He watched her stir in the sugar, the metal of the spoon tinkling against the inside of the mug. Once again, he was struck by her beauty, the wide brown eyes and thick eyelashes, her swanlike neck.
But it was that look of vulnerability in those eyes that had won him over. There was no guile in her. That's why her secretiveness confused him. Was she running from an abusive boyfriend or husband?
She gazed at him over the top of the mug.