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U.S. Marshal Serena Summers entered three-year-old Brandon McIntyre's room with a packing box in hand. Her heart ached for the turmoil the McIntyre family had recently suffered. Danger had touched their lives in the most horrible of ways. A child had been kidnapped.
But thankfully Brandon's older brother had been rescued by the joint efforts of loving parents and the Marshals Service.
Serena paused, taking stock of the signs that the McIntyre family had once lived in this home. Little clothes spilled out of the dresser, as if the furniture had burped. Toys were scattered across the floor, tiny land mines to avoid. A toddler-size bed, the sheets and covers thrown back as if Brandon had recently awokenand now the bed waited for the tiny body to once again claim slumber.
But the child wouldn't be back. At least not to this house.
The McIntyre family no longer lived in Houston. The U.S. Marshals Service had moved them for a second time when their location had been compromised.
Only a few people within the service knew where Dylan, Grace and the kids had been relocated.
Serena and her partner, Josh, were among them. It was their job to pack up the family's belongings and forward them through a long and winding path to their final destination. The McIntyres had been spirited away and deposited in paradise. Or as close to it as the U.S. Marshals Service could get them. Hawaii, to be exact.
Carefully picking her way around stuffed animals, train pieces and Legos, Serena went to work, gently folding clothing and stacking them inside the box. Her chest ached with empathy for the family that had almost been destroyed by the illegal activities of Dylan's boss, Fred Munders, and his thugs.
Mr. Munders, a wealthy and well-connected lawyer in St. Louis, Missouri, had been implicated in several murders and in the illegal operation of a baby-smuggling outfit run through the adoption agency his wife, Matilda Munders, founded.
The only problem was the marshals and the FBI had found no hard evidence with which to shut Munders and the adoption agency down.
The word of several thugs and Dylan McIntyre, who worked as an attorney in Munders's law firm, Munders and Moore, wasn't enough to indict. The evidence Dylan had collected against his boss had disappeared from within the Marshals Service's district offices, apparently stolen by someone within the service itself.
Serena's fingers curled with anger around the tiny tennis shoe in her hand.
So many deaths, so many lives thrown into chaos.
The thought that someone she worked with, trusted, could have stolen the evidence and could have been leaking information to the bad guys sent Serena's blood to boil.
If her brother were alive, he'd know how to compartmentalize the anger and pain gnawing at her day in and day out.
But Daniel was gone. Murdered.
A sharp stab of grief sliced through her heart. Followed closely by the anger that always chased her sorrow.
She tossed the shoe in the box and abruptly rose. Restless, she moved to strip the bed. She had to keep busy, keep her mind occupied, or her emotions would overwhelm her. Something she refused to let happen. She needed to stay professional. She needed to keep up the front that her world hadn't collapsed with her brother's death.
"Hey, you okay in here?"
Serena glanced up at her current partner, U.S. marshal Josh McCall. They'd been paired to work the illegal adoption case. His six-foot-three frame filled the doorway. He'd taken off his navy suit jacket and rolled the sleeves of his once crisp white dress shirt up to the elbows. His silver silk tie was askew, and his brown hair looked as if he'd been running his fingers through it again, the ends standing up, making him appear as if he'd just rolled out of bed rather than put in a ninety-hour week. His soft brown eyes, shadowed by signs of fatigue and grief, tugged at her heart. She'd always found him appealing. But that was before. Now she refused to allow her reaction to show. Not only did she not want to draw attention to the fact that she'd noticed anything about him, she didn't want him to think she cared.
She didn't. Josh was the reason her brother had been alone when he'd been murdered. Instead of having his partner's back, Josh had been out on a personal day at the time Daniel needed him, leaving Daniel on his own to chase a lead, where he was struck on the head and left to die. Alone.
A traitorous thought niggled: Daniel shouldn't have gone off by himself. Doing so went against protocol and logic. If he hadn't, he would still be alive. She pushed back her musings. Her brother must have had a good reason. But nothing absolved Josh of the responsibility he had to protect Daniel. They'd been best friends as well as coworkers.
Her fists bunched up the bedding. Her soul cried out with "Why, Lord?" as it always did anytime she allowed her mind to go down that road.
Turning away from Josh, she said briskly, "I'm good."
Taking the two ends of the sheet in each hand, she spread her arms wide and attempted to fold the sheet in half. The material didn't want to cooperate.
"Here," Josh said, stepping all the way into the room. "Let me help."
He reached for the sheet, his hand brushing hers.
An electric current shot through her. She jerked away, letting go of the ends as if she'd been burned. The sheet fluttered to the floor between them. "I don't need your help."
His hand dropped to his side. "Serena." Josh's tone held a note of hurt.
Inhaling sharply, Serena berated herself for not being professional. She'd allowed her personal grief and bitterness to show. She stiffened her spine, raised her chin and let out a long breath.
Keeping her voice neutral, she asked, "How's the kitchen coming along?"
Resignation shuttered his expression. "Almost done."
"Good. I finished the kids' bathroom and the daughter's room. Those boxes are ready for transport."
"We'll be out of here in time to make our scheduled flight," Josh stated, his tone flat. "It'll be good to return to St. Louis and get some rest."
Serena's mouth pressed tight. Rest was something she'd had little of the past year and a half, ever since her brother's unsolved murder. Not to mention the trips to various locations around the country as she and Josh worked to track down leads on the illegal baby-smuggling scheme. Each lead only brought more confusion and chaos. They badly needed a break in the case. Glass shattered.
Serena's heart hammered against her ribs.
The sound came from somewhere in the house.
Josh raised a finger to his lips, indicating silence.
She nodded and withdrew her weapon from the holster at her hip. Moving in tandem, they slowly made their way down the hall toward the main part of the house. At the T in the hallway, Josh gestured with two fingers for her to go right, while he'd go left.
Dipping her chin in acknowledgment, she peeled off to enter the empty kitchen. Her pulse beat a frantic tempo.
Hushed male voices came from the next room. At least two.
The muscles in her shoulders tightened. Adrenaline pumped through her veins. The nitty-gritty aspect of taking down the bad guys was a necessary part of the job. A part she had no qualms about performing. As a woman in a field historically dominated by men, she'd worked hard to prove herself. Just as other women in the service had done as far back as the late 1800s, when Ada Carnutt first put on the badge. Serena admired her predecessors as well as the current female director of the U.S. Marshals Service, who'd been appointed by the president. Serena would do them proud.
Skirting around stacked boxes, she made her way to the dining room just as Josh entered from the living room.
Two men stood inside the dining room and another was balanced half in, half out of the broken window on the side of the house. All three men, dressed in black, were big guys in their late twenties.
Josh yelled, "Stop! U.S. Marshals!"
The guy half inside the window dropped back outside and disappeared. One of the remaining thugs reached behind his back to whip out a .357 and aimed the pistol at Josh.
Fear burst within Serena. "Gun!"
Josh ducked behind a stack of boxes as the guy holding the gun fired in his direction. A bullet tore through the cardboard box, nearly taking out Josh's eye, and smashed into the wall. She dove behind the love seat.
Knowing the boxes wouldn't provide enough cover for Josh, Serena had to do something. She popped up, aimed at the intruder with the gun and squeezed off a round. The rapid beat of her heart thundered in her ears, drowning out the retort of the weapon in her hand. The bullet slammed into the guy's leg. He screamed and crumpled to the floor. His buddy jumped through the broken window and escaped.
Serena leaped to her feet and raced around the love seat, keeping her weapon trained on the man writhing on the floor, clutching his leg. She kicked aside the gun he'd dropped.
"You okay?" Josh asked as he skidded to a halt beside her.
She nodded, her gaze searching him for injury.
"Good." He rushed toward the window. "Watch him. I'm going after the other two."
Chest knotting, Serena watched Josh disappear through the window.
"Keep him safe, Lord," she whispered and hoped God would listen. She blamed Josh for her brother's death, but she didn't want to have to live through another loss. She'd known Josh a long time. He and Daniel had been friends since basic training at the academy in Glynco, Georgia, over eight years ago.
She dug her cell phone out of the pocket of her suit jacket and called the Houston district office and the police department for backup. While she waited, she cuffed the guy's hands in front of him and then grabbed a towel from a box to press against the bullet wound.
The man moaned. "You shot me."
She refrained from pointing out he'd shot first. "Who sent you?"
"I don't know," the guy ground out. "I need a doctor!"
"What were you doing here?" Serena asked.
"Trying to find out where they went."
Serena didn't need to ask who; she knew he meant Dylan and his family. "What were you supposed to do with the information?"
"I don't know. Bob set this up. He'd know."
"Bob who? What's Bob's last name?"
The guy clamped his mouth shut.
"Come on, give me the name. It will go better for you if you do," Serena coaxed.
"I want a lawyer." A spasm of pain marched across his face. "I'm not saying anything more."
Serena blew out a frustrated breath.
The wail of a siren announced the arrival of the Houston police force. Josh reentered the house through the front door, leading paramedics and two police officers inside.
Serena relinquished her hold on the rag to the paramedics and joined Josh off to the side so the local LEOslaw enforcement officerscould take over.
"Mr. Bad Shot said they were looking to find out where Dylan and the family went," she told Josh. "Said one of his buddies named Bob set up the deal."
"Good job getting that out of him."
The approval in Josh's brown eyes made her stand a little taller. She still only reached his shoulder. "I take it the other two got away?"
"Yeah, they had a vehicle on the next block. I got a partial plate."
"We have to put a stop to this," Serena said. "We have to bring Munders down once and for all!"
Josh swiped a hand through his hair. "We will. First things first. Let's finish up here and get home to St. Louis."
Home. The word reverberated through Serena's head like a pinball, bouncing off her thoughts. Growing up, she and Daniel had been passed around between their divorced parents like a set of candlesticks that neither really wanted but didn't want the other to have. When Daniel had reached the age of majority he'd moved out on his own, taking Serena with him.
They'd shared an apartment ever since, but after Daniel's death, she couldn't take being there without him. She'd given everything to a local charity and moved into a studio. Her apartment wasn't a home. It was a place to store her stuff and to sleep when she could.
She didn't know if she'd ever have a real home again. Without her brother in her life, she was lost. He'd been her anchor. The one constant. Home had been where he was. Now he was gone. Thanks to Josh.
"Will we make our flight?" Serena asked, as the moving van, escorted by Houston police, pulled away from the curb.
Josh checked the time on his smartphone. "With time to spare."
With the help of two local marshals, they'd made short work of packing the last of the McIntyre household into boxes and loading them onto the transport bound for Hawaii via Chicago and Seattle.
The Houston marshals had taken the wounded thug into custody and had obtained Josh's and Serena's statements. Josh wished they'd had another chance to further interrogate the guy who'd broken into the McIntyre house, but he didn't want to get into an arm-wrestling match for control of the situation.
He'd let his superiors deal with the politics. Local marshals would interrogate the man later. And hopefully he would give up information on his cohorts.
After locking up the house, Serena placed the key in the mail slot for the landlord. The small circle of light from the porch fixture didn't extend to the driveway, where they had parked the green four-door sedan they'd rented when they arrived in Houston this morning. Darkness shrouded the driveway and the bushes on either side.
The need for caution tripped down Josh's spine.
He placed a hand to the small of Serena's back. The fabric of her pantsuit felt luxurious against his palm.
She stiffened at his touch and stepped away.
Ignoring the sliver of irritation that sliced through him, he opened the passenger door and she slid into the seat. He reached inside to help untangle the seat belt strap. She shifted away from him and wouldn't meet his gaze.
He blew out a frustrated breath and finished righting the belt before backing away and slamming the door shut.
They were both tired and cranky.
At least that was how he explained away her reaction every time he got close to her. But then again, these days she was always prickly with him.
Besides the one glimpse of vulnerability on her face when she'd been packing young Brandon's room, Serena was her stoic self. Saying little and showing even less in her expression. The professional to the nth degree.
Her lack of emotions set his nerves on edge.
He wished she'd get mad or sad or something. She was grieving for Daniel, yet she held on to her emotions with an iron fist. He tried to emulate her. But it took a lot of energy to repress the myriad emotions raging through him at any given moment. There were times he wanted to give up, but knowing he had to stay focused and in the game for Serena's sake kept him going.
He missed the easy friendship he and Serena had had before Daniel's death. But since the moment she'd heard of her brother's murder, she'd retreated behind this ascetic silence, talking to him only when necessary.
Not easy when they had to work together.
Sometimes impossible as partners assigned to a tough case.
He blew out a puff of air.
He knew she hadn't been happy to be paired with him. But they made a good team regardless of their personal issues. Each easily anticipated the other's need, the other's movements. Numerous colleagues had commented on their compatibility. In fact, many people thought they were so in sync with each other that they could be a romantic couple.
So not the case.
For so many reasons.