After overhearing a murder plot and being pursued by hit men, Mallory Roth knows she has to disappear. She leaves a warning message for her twin—and then runs. Seeking shelter in a small Wisconsin town, Mallory's determined to leave her old life behind. She changes her name, her hair, her clothes even her stance on faith. But big-city detective Jonah Stewart still tracks her down. And if he can find her, a killer can, too. The handsome, world-weary cop claims he wants to help Mallory—will he change his mind ...
After overhearing a murder plot and being pursued by hit men, Mallory Roth knows she has to disappear. She leaves a warning message for her twin—and then runs. Seeking shelter in a small Wisconsin town, Mallory's determined to leave her old life behind. She changes her name, her hair, her clothes even her stance on faith. But big-city detective Jonah Stewart still tracks her down. And if he can find her, a killer can, too. The handsome, world-weary cop claims he wants to help Mallory—will he change his mind when he learns the harrowing secret from her past?
Laura Scott is honored to write for the Love Inspired Suspense line, where a reader can find a heartwarming journey of faith amid the thrilling danger. She lives with her husband of twenty-five years and has two children, a daughter and a son, who are both in college. She works as a critical-care nurse during the day at a large level-one trauma center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and spends her spare time writing romance. Visit Laura at www.laurascottbooks.com.
Mallory Roth awoke with a start, her heart thundering against her ribs in terror.
Had she imagined the noise?
The interior of her uncle Henry's cabin was shrouded with darkness. It was nestled in the woods in central Wisconsin with the back porch overlooking the town of Crystal Lake. The trees blocked any light from the moon, and in the darkness, she strained to listen.
Just when she figured she had let her imagination run wild, she heard it again—a low creak of the wooden floorboards from the main living area.
Her pulse surged into triple digits. There was no time to waste. Anthony Caruso had found her.
She sucked in a quick breath and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, rolling into an upright position. She knew only too well that whoever was out there intended to silence her forever. As quietly as possible, she dragged a sweatshirt over her head and jammed her feet into running shoes. She picked up the thick stick from where she'd left it propped in the corner next to her bed, tightly grasping the only weapon she possessed.
Another muffled sound came from the other room. Closer. She imagined the intruder stealthily making his way toward the bedroom.
For half a second, she considered waiting for him behind the door so she could hit the back of his head. But then her self-defense training kicked in. Running away from an attack, if at all possible, was better than staying to fight. Weapons were all too often used against the victim.
She'd been lucky to escape the last man Caruso had sent after her with nothing more serious than a cut on her arm.
Looping her purse over her head so that it lay across her chest, leaving her arms free, she crossed the room and slid the window frame upward. She winced when the window gave a small groan. She'd already removed the screen in case she needed to use this window as her escape route. She quickly threw her leg over the threshold, stick in hand as she ducked through the opening.
The door to her bedroom burst open, and she turned in time to catch a glimpse of a tall man in black with a matching ski mask covering his face. She ran.
Dressed in dark clothing, she blended into the trees as she pulled up the hood of her sweatshirt to cover her blond hair. She ducked under low-hanging branches, making her way through the woods toward the highway. Trees and thick brush lined the highway on both sides, and her closest neighbor was located just a half mile south of the cabin.
She had to stay hidden long enough to get to the Andersons.
She could hear Caruso's thug swiping at branches and hitting trees as he followed behind her. Stark fear coated her throat.
The brush in the woods became less dense, and she could just barely make out the road. The guy behind her was closing in, and she pushed herself to go faster. But the moment she broke free of the woods, strong arms reached out to grab her. The shock of finding someone there waiting for her caused her to drop her weapon.
She'd run straight into a trap!
She tried to scream but the man clamped his hand over her mouth. "Don't," he whispered. "I'm a cop. If you want to stay alive, Mallory, come with me."
A cop? Or a partner to the guy in the black ski mask? Or both? She didn't know who to trust. The sound of the ski-masked thug crashing through the woods behind her helped make up her mind. She barely had time to pick up the stick from the ground before the cop dragged her down the road toward the car he'd parked along the side of the highway. She also noticed a large black truck parked across the street.
"Keep your head down!" the cop yelled, yanking open the passenger-side door and shoving her inside. More popping sounds peppered the air as he ducked and ran around to the driver's side.
She barely had time to strap on her seat belt before her rescuer cranked the engine and floored the gas. He peeled away, her heart lodging in her throat as they careened down the highway.
Gripping the handrail with white-knuckled fingers, Mallory tried to find her voice as the cop drove through the night like a madman, taking the sharp curves in the highway at breakneck speed. She glanced over her shoulder to see the headlights dropping farther behind. The cop changed directions as often as possible in order to lose the truck.
She should have been reassured by his ability to evade the man behind them but she wasn't. Her teeth chattered and her body began to shake. She recognized the aftereffects of shock from the last time she'd narrowly escaped Caruso's thug.
She closed her mind against the memory of the bloody room in her twin sister's town house as she struggled to breathe.
The guy in the ski mask wasn't the same guy as before. He was tall and broad-shouldered compared to the shorter, stockier guy she'd taken down in Alyssa's town house just a few days ago. When her rescuer slowed his breakneck speed, she glanced back, relieved to see there were no longer any headlights following them.
"Who are you?" she finally asked. "How did you find me?"
He didn't take his eyes off the road as he tossed a small leather case in her lap. She opened it and was slightly reassured when she saw the shiny metal glint of his badge. At least it looked real enough.
"My name is Jonah Stewart and I'm a detective with the Milwaukee Police Department." There was a long pause, before he added, "Your sister, Alyssa, sent me to find you."
Jonah didn't slow down until he was a good fifteen miles outside of town. And even then, he maintained a decent clip, pushing the posted speed limit, carefully watching the rearview mirror to make sure the guy in the black truck hadn't found them. When he was reasonably sure they were safe, he unclenched his fingers from their death grip on the steering wheel.
That had been way too close. If he'd arrived a minute later, he might have lost Mallory for good. When he'd gotten to the cabin just after midnight, he'd noticed the black truck and grown suspicious. Just as he started making his way down the driveway toward the cabin, he'd heard someone running through the woods. It only took a minute to rule out a four-legged animal—he'd heard the distinct sound of two people. He'd braced for the worst and been immensely relieved when Mallory had raced out of the woods first, apparently unharmed, just in the nick of time.
"Did you get a good look at him?" he asked in a gruff tone.
"No." She slowly shook her head. "His face was covered by a ski mask. But why were you waiting on the road for me after midnight? You claim Alyssa sent you, but I know her and she would have come to meet me herself."
"Alyssa did send me. How else do you think I knew about the cabin? She also told me your uncle Henry is really your mother's cousin, and he hadn't been up here in a long time because he recently had a stroke." He hoped the additional information would reassure her that he was on the right side of the law.
"Yes," she admitted. "That's true."
"I found the place a few minutes before you came out of the woods." He sent a silent prayer of thanks, knowing God had been watching out for the both of them. "Alyssa didn't come herself because we didn't even know for sure you were here."
Mallory's scowl deepened. "What do you mean she didn't know? I left a message on her cell phone. I told her to come to the place she least expected to find me. As kids, we had to stay at the cabin for two weeks in the summer while our parents took an Alaskan cruise. Alyssa loved it, but I hated every minute. Do you realize I spent the last few days in a place with no indoor plumbing?"
For the first time in a long while, he was tempted to smile. He could well imagine how a cabin on a lake with an outhouse was not Mallory's idea of fun.
"Alyssa lost her cell phone and must not have picked up her messages. And the other reason she didn't come is she tore the ligaments and tendons in her ankle pretty bad. I convinced her that she'd only slow us down and she agreed I could protect you better by myself. She's scheduled for surgery later this week."
That news made Mallory sit up in her seat. "Surgery? What happened to her?"
"It's a long story." He continued to drive, deciding he wasn't stopping anywhere for a long time—maybe not even until daylight. "Several days ago Alyssa fell and hit her head. When she woke up, she had amnesia.
Alyssa's boyfriend, Gage, thought she was you. They asked for my help because someone was trying to kill them. Don't worry, they're safe now. And once Alyssa's memory started to return, we realized you were missing and in possible danger. That's when we began searching for you." He glanced at her expectantly.
"Are you sure they're all right?"
"I promise they're fine," Jonah assured her.
"Then what happened to her ankle?" Mallory asked.
Was she really worried about her sister? Or was she simply asking more questions to put off telling him the truth? He wanted to believe the former, but his instincts warned him not to trust her too easily. He'd been burned by an apparent victim before.
"According to Gage, they had to climb out of a warehouse window and drop down to the ground, about ten feet. She landed hard on her ankle. Frankly, we were both surprised she hadn't broken it." He turned his attention back to the road, slowing down since they were approaching a small town.
"Are we stopping here?" Mallory asked.
"Why not?" she demanded. "How do I know I can really trust you? Let me out. I want to talk to Alyssa."
He stifled a heavy sigh. "Be reasonable. It's one o'clock in the morning."
"Reasonable?" Her voice rose a few decibels and he tried not to wince. "A man in a ski mask broke into my uncle's cabin to kill me. And suddenly you're conveniently waiting for me when I run out of the woods? Don't you dare accuse me of being unreasonable."
He held up his hand in surrender. Good thing the rental car didn't need gas—he didn't doubt that Mallory would bolt the first chance she was given. He'd already saved her from the guy in the ski mask, so why was she so uptight?
"If you want to call your sister, go ahead. But the only number I have is Gage's cell." He tossed his phone into her lap.
She picked it up and grimaced. "Gage doesn't exactly like me," she said as she scrolled through the contact list. "How do you know him?"
"Gage and I went to high school together. Both he and Alyssa have been worried sick about you," Jonah added. He had been worried, too, mostly because he believed Mallory was the key to solving the case. Just a little over a week ago he and Gage had uncovered a money-laundering scheme that involved a man named Hugh Jefferson. Jonah had also been betrayed by a cop who'd tried to kill him. Soon he'd discovered that Jefferson had been searching for Mallory, who'd disappeared.
Now that he'd found Mallory, he wanted to know exactly why she'd been hiding at the cabin. And why Jefferson had wanted to find her. All along they'd suspected there was a man higher up the chain of command, the one truly in charge of the money-laundering scheme. He was convinced Mallory knew the identity of that man, or at least someone working for him. Why else would Jefferson want to know where she was?
Mallory held the phone up to her ear. After several rings, the call went into voice mail. There was the faintest tremble in her voice as she spoke. "Gage? It's Mallory. Will you please have Alyssa call this number as soon as you can? Thanks."
She ended the call but kept a tight hold on the phone, as if waiting for her sister's return call. In the darkness, he was able to see the glitter of tears in her eyes. His gut clenched and he tightened his grip on the steering wheel. The last thing he needed was for her to break down.
"Look, I'm sorry. I understand you've been traumatized by everything that's happened. But, Mallory, I am a cop. And I promise I'll keep you safe."
A tense silence stretched between them. She sniffled loudly and swiped at her eyes. When her chin came up again, he almost smiled, impressed by her ability to pull herself together. Mallory was obviously a lot tougher than she looked. "You better. It's only fair to warn you, I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and besides, I can call 9-1-1."
When she actually punched in the buttons, prepared to make the call, he reached over to take his phone back. She didn't let go. In the brief tussle, she brushed her arm against the side of his chest.
"What is this? Are you bleeding?" She stared in horror at the stain on her arm.
He glanced down in surprise, feeling the dampness against his shirt. It wasn't easy to see in the darkness, but he could feel blood oozing through the dressing along the right side of his chest.
"Yuck. I faint at the sight of blood." She rummaged through her purse, pulled out a small packet of wipes and cleaned the stain from her arm before glancing over to frown at him. "Are you sure you're okay? Were you hit by a bullet back there?" The concern in her eyes was nice even though he didn't deserve it. He wasn't here just to save her life—he was here to close his case.
"No, I'm fine." He realized the fresh surgical incision located along his rib cage was throbbing painfully. There was ibuprofen in his duffel bag, which was all he was willing to take. "It's just an old injury that must have opened up a bit."
"We'll have to stop at a drugstore and get some bandages," she murmured. "Too bad I'm not Alyssa—you could probably use a nurse." She made a face as she placed a hand over her stomach. "I really am not much help when it comes to blood."
He gave a brief nod, even though he had no intention of stopping at a drugstore anytime soon. Right now, his reopened wound was the least of his worries.