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Caleb O'Malley's stomach knotted painfully at the thought of seeing his daughter, Kaitlin, for the first time in over a year. Since the day he'd been sent to jail for a crime he didn't commit.
He parked his beat-up truck in front of the fourth house from the corner and killed the engine. Taking a deep breath, he shoved his car door open and forced himself to get out and walk up the sidewalk to the front door of Noelle Whitman's house, trying not to resent the woman who'd been his daughter's foster mother while he'd been behind bars.
To be honest, it was his own fault he hadn't seen Kaitlin in so long. At first, he'd thought he'd be let out as soon as they realized he was innocent. But then week after week passed by, and he'd grimly realized there was a very real possibility he'd be found guilty. At that point, he'd been unable to bear the thought of having his young daughter see him in jail.
He'd been shocked to hear from his lawyer that the case against him had been dropped due to the strange disappearance of the eyewitness. And deeply glad to know he was free at last.
He rapped sharply on the door and waited impatiently for the Whitman woman to answer.
He squinted against the harsh glare of the summer sun. After not being in the sunlight for so long, he enjoyed the warmth soaking into his skin, even though the temperature was hovering at a steamy ninety degrees.
His lawyer, Jack Owens, had promised to let Ms. Whitman know Caleb was on his way to pick up Kaitlin, so there was no reason for her not to be here. Hard to believe that he'd only been out ofjail for a few hours. His release had been so sudden he hadn't had time to make plans. It was Friday and once he picked up Kaitlin, he'd go home and take the weekend to figure out how to start their life over again.
He lifted his hand to knock again at the exact moment the door swung open, so he pulled back his hand just in time. The woman standing before him was much younger than he'd anticipated, probably barely thirty, with reddish-gold hair and fair skin. She was dressed casually in a green short-sleeved sweater and calf-length blue jeans. In her arms was his five-year-old daughter, wearing a pretty pink dress and pink barrettes clipped to her glossy chin-length blond hair. She clutched a small stuffed giraffe to her chest.
The minute Kaitlin saw him she dropped the giraffe, wrapped her arms around Noelle's neck and burst into tears. "Nooo, I don't wanna go wif Daddy!"
His stomach tightened painfully as his worst nightmare played out in front of him. Ms. Whitman held Kaitlin close at the same time she took a step back, a wary expression on her face.
"You'd better come in," she said over Kaitlin's sobs. He stepped forward and bent down to pick up the giraffe.
A split second later, he heard the crack of a rifle and the soft thud of a bullet hitting the doorframe of the house, inches from where his head had been.
"Get back," he shouted, barging into her house with the finesse and strength of a bull, before slamming the door behind him.
Another bullet pierced the door, followed by yet another. He covered Noelle's body with his as he practically pushed her toward the relative safety of the kitchen.
"What's going on?" Noelle asked hoarsely, her green eyes wide with fear as he shoved her down behind the island. He hated the way Kaitlin's crying grew louder.
"We have to get out of here." There wasn't time to explain what he didn't even understand himself. He had no clue why someone was shooting at him, but right now all that mattered was getting out of here in one piece. He lunged for the keys he saw lying on the counter and mentally visualized where the garage was located. "Does that door lead out to the garage?"
"No! Wait! We have to call 911!" She shrank away from him, pressing herself against the island and curling protectively around his daughter.
He hesitated, trying to think rationally. He didn't trust the police, but if he left on his own would the shooter follow him and leave Ms. Whitman and Kaitlin alone?
Or use his daughter as bait as a way to draw him out? The very possibility made his blood run cold.
"Look, we need to get out of here. There's a chance that guy out there will try to use Kaitlin as a way to get to me. I have to keep her safe!"
The sound of breaking glass made him glance back toward the living room. A familiar round canister landed and rolled on the carpet with smoke rising up toward the ceiling.
"Tear gas! Listen, lady, if you want to live, come with me. I promise to keep you and Kaitlin safe. But we have to move. Now!" His eyes were already starting to burn as he grabbed the pink backpack that was on the counter next to the keys, gripped her arm and dragged her toward the door to the garage. "Hurry!"
Thankfully she followed him into the fresh air of the garage. She slid into the backseat and talked softly to Kaitlin as she buckled his daughter into her booster seat. He tossed the pink backpack inside and climbed into the driver's seat.
"Buckle up," he said tersely as he cranked the key in the ignition. The moment he heard her seat belt click he put the SUV in gear. Thankfully she drove a sturdy vehicle, which would help them escape the shooter. The thought of backing out the driveway in full view of the shooter filled him with dread. But he mentally visualized the neighborhood, marking a path that should help keep them safe.
"Hang on," he warned before he hit the garage door opener. As the door slowly opened he decided not to wait for it to get all the way up before he stomped hard on the accelerator and flew out of the driveway, clipping the bottom of the garage door with the top of her car.
The sound of gunfire filled the air as he swiftly spun the SUV around and headed straight across the street through a neighbor's yard.
Noelle let out a small scream as he barreled out of the garage, wrecking her garage door as he sailed down the driveway. At the sound of gunfire, she leaned over, trying to protect Kaitlin as Caleb O'Malley drove like a maniac across the street and through her neighbor's yard. She momentarily closed her eyes and frantically prayed.
Dear Lord, please keep me and Kaitlin safe!
The vehicle jerked sharply from side to side as they went up and over the edge of her neighbor's flower bed. Within moments, they were heading down that neighbor's driveway to the street behind hers.
Kaitlin's father didn't speak as he drove, taking several sharp turns as he took them farther away from her house. The way he kept glancing at the rearview mirror told her he was worried they were being followed.
Should she mention how she'd noticed a black pickup truck following behind her for the past few days? Was it possible that person had just been waiting for Kaitlin's father to show up?
She swiped at her eyes and glanced back, wishing desperately there was a cop somewhere close by. Where were the police when you needed them? Hopefully one of her neighbors had heard the gunshots and called the cops. If only she hadn't left her cell phone and her purse in her bedroom. But how was she to have known something like this would happen?
She pulled herself together with an effort. She could not let this man know how afraid she really was.
Kaitlin finally stopped crying, but her thumb was planted firmly in her mouth, a sure sign that the child was upset.
When Kaitlin's father headed toward the freeway, she forced herself to speak. "Why aren't we going to the closest police station?"
"Because I don't trust the police."
Her stomach knotted further and she had to work to keep her tone steady. "Where are you taking us?"
"Somewhere safe," he said, barely glancing back at her.
Somewhere safe? She swallowed a hysterical laugh. Everyone in Milwaukee knew he'd been arrested for killing his wife fourteen months ago. Caleb O'Malley had made headline news, not just in the city but across the country. Former sharpshooter for the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department SWAT team arrested for murdering his wife.
Unfortunately, all charges against Caleb O'Malley had been dropped when the eyewitness, who claimed to have seen O'Malley shoot his wife and then take off from the scene of the crime, abruptly disappeared a week before the trial. Without the witness there wasn't enough of a case against him. At least that was what his lawyer, Jack Owens, had told her.
Noelle had been sick at the thought of handing Kaitlin back over to her father, but there hadn't been much she could do to prevent him from exercising his custodial right to take his daughter. Supposedly he wasn't a criminal anymore.
Still, she knew there was no statute of limitations for murder. There was a part of her that believed the police would eventually find the evidence they needed to lock up Caleb O'Malley for good. If he was guilty, of course, which she was fairly certain he was.
Had she gone with one killer to escape another?
"Why don't you let me and Kaitlin go?" she said, striving to sound reasonable. "Surely you don't want to expose your daughter to danger."
He concentrated on the road. "I told you, I can't ignore the possibility they would use her to get to me. I thought about dropping you off somewhere, but obviously Kait-lin needs you so that's not an option. I promise I'm not going to hurt you."
He was right about one thing: Kaitlin did need her.
No way was she leaving the child alone with a potential murderer. Yet she knew she was risking her life by staying. Granted, he'd tried to protect her back at the house when the bullets had started flying, but what did she really know about this man? Nothing except what she learned through the media.
And none of that had been good.
Trusting men wasn't exactly easy for her, either.
"Did you see anything out on the street?" he asked, breaking into her thoughts.
"You mean before the gunshots?" She thought back to those moments when she'd faced Caleb O'Malley across the threshold. Ironically, there hadn't been the usual black car she'd noticed over the past few days. "There was a red pickup parked on the street."
"That's my truck. Did you see anything else? Another vehicle? A person? Anything?"
"No." She'd been far more preoccupied with trying to find a way to ease the transition for Kaitlin. Noelle had planned to invite him in, hoping he'd spend some time getting to know his daughter again before leaving with her. Especially after the way Kaitlin had clung to her, sobbing.
As much as she feared the dark-haired stranger, she wasn't leaving Kaitlin alone with him any time soon. Kaitlin was the sole reason she'd come along in the first place. The poor child had already been through so much, losing her mother and then her father. Kaitlin had suffered night terrors the first weeks she'd been with Noelle, but the child hadn't had a nightmare for almost five months.
Noelle would be shocked if today's events didn't bring them back. She'd be surprised if her own nightmares of the past didn't return, too.
There was another long silence and she realized they were already well outside the city limits. Grimly she knew they could go for several hundred miles without stopping on the gas tank she'd filled yesterday.
"I'd let you both go if I could," he said in a low voice. "But I'm afraid it's too late. You and Kaitlin are in danger now, too."
"In danger from whom?" she asked helplessly.
"I wish I knew," he said, his tone weary. "Probably from the same person who killed Heather."
She knew Heather had been his wife and Kaitlin's mother. And if he thought she was going to believe that line of baloney, he was as crazy as the media had portrayed him to be.
During an interview on TV, one of his SWAT teammates had mentioned Caleb's hair-trigger temper. She could imagine how difficult it must have been for him to discover his wife was cheating on him.
Not that his wife had deserved to die for her sins, leaving Kaitlin without a mother, or a father once Caleb had been arrested. As Kaitlin's preschool teacher and an approved foster parent, she'd fought for and won temporary custody of the little girl. At first she thought it would only be a few weeks until other family had been notified but no one had been found. Over the past year she'd grown to love Kaitlin. And being forced to turn the child over to Caleb had nearly broken her heart.
"I guess you don't believe in the theory of innocent until proven guilty," he said, breaking into her thoughts.
"I never said you were guilty," she said hastily. No sense in baiting the tiger. She needed to keep on his good side in order to convince him to let her and Kaitlin go. So far, she wasn't entirely sure she believed in his theory that she and Kaitlin were in danger.
"So you believe I'm innocent?" he asked after several long moments.
She licked her dry lips and tried to smile. "The judge let you go, which is good enough for me."
He let out a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort, but didn't say anything more. She stared out the window as the miles zipped past. Glancing over at Kaitlin, she noted the girl's eyelids were starting to droop. Long car rides tended to make the little girl sleepy and no doubt she'd worn herself out with her crying jag.
Twenty minutes later, Noelle realized Kaitlin's father had left the freeway and turned onto a country highway.
She couldn't quell a hint of panic when she didn't recognize the area. They were in a rural part of Wisconsin. Where was he taking them? What did he intend to do?
She'd gone along with him to protect Kaitlin, not to mention to get away from the rolling tear gas and flying bullets. But now, she was second-guessing her decision.
She and Kaitlin would likely be safer on their own. She trusted the police would protect them. Why wouldn't they?
Somehow, she needed to find a way to escape.