After her ex-boyfriend's murder, Callie Martin has no choice but to trade her quiet life as a kindergarten teacher for the witness protection program. It's US Marshal Jackson Walker's job to keep Callie safe, but the men who would do her harm just keep getting closer and closer. Either someone on the inside is betraying Callie, or she's lying to Jackson about her involvement. So he decides to go off the grid, spiriting her away to the remote Vermont countryside at Christmas. Jackson wants to trust her, but with danger dogging their every move, he'll have to use all his energy to keep her alive.
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The Christmas party down the hall was making her head ache.
Callie Martin sank into a chair at the now-empty conference table and rested her head in her hands. She tried massaging her temples to alleviate the painful throb, but her hands were shaking too badly.
Drug conspiracy. Conspiracy to kidnap and murder. Money laundering conspiracy. Interstate travel in aid of drug trafficking. The assistant US attorney's litany echoed in her mind, clashing with the cheerful strains of "Jingle Bells."
In that other office, people were celebrating the season with food and music and good cheer. Callie didn't begrudge them their fun. Any other year she'd have been happy to join in. But their party was in such contrast to the meeting that had just ended in this room.
No Christmas cheer for her. No punch, no cookies. Only a throbbing headache as she sat alone in a sterile New York City office, terrified beyond imagining about what her future might hold.
Callie wrapped her arms around her torso and huddled into herself. When she'd entered the Federal Witness Security program in Texas, she'd thought she was testifying only about the murders she'd witnessed. But the meeting today had established a terrifying new reality. According to a very determined assistant US attorney, that nightmare moment in her life was only one small part of a much bigger scheme.
And they thought she knew something about it.
Callie couldn't sit still. She rose and started pacing the room. How could they think she knew more? She wasn't into drugs. She was a kindergarten teacher. She was supposed to be spending December knee-deep in glitter and tinsel, and helping her students with the nativity play.
Instead she was running for her life, hiding out in witness protection. No Christmas lights. No fake snow. No fancy cookies.
This had to be a mistake. A bad dream. She'd wake up, and Rick would still be alive and she'd No. Not a bad dream. It was what her life had become.
She wanted Ben to come back upstairs. Ben Wilson had been her marshal, her protector, since the day she entered WITSEC. Earlier, after the assistant US attorney had laid all the accusations on the table, and the DEA agent had glared at her in disbelief for denying she knew anything, Ben had sensed her panic. Like the good handler he was, he'd tried to run interference, leaving her under guard while he escorted the attorney and the DEA agent to their cars.
Callie had no doubt he wanted to talk to them in private, but she didn't care. She'd just been grateful to see them leave. She'd blessed Ben for the solitude and the chance to gather her thoughts. But now she wanted him back. Wanted him to make sense of her world out of control.
"Jingle Bells" switched over to something softer, and Callie tried to calm herself. If only she could think straight. Understand what they wanted. She'd seen her ex-boyfriend and his band murdered. She'd told the authorities everything she knew. Every sordid detail of how that ex-boyfriend had turned out to be a drug dealer who was gunned down by the very people he worked with. She didn't know anything more than that. Why didn't they believe her?
Distracted by her frantic thoughts, Callie almost missed the unfamiliar ring of her cell phone. Not many people called her on this new phone. Hope lifted her spirits as she noted Ben's name light up on the display, and she fumbled to grab the phone.
"Ben? Where are you? Did you talk to her? Did"
His voice cut across her questions. "Another marshal coming to get you." Erratic breathing punctuated the words, making them hard to understand. "His name Jackson Walker. Go with him."
"What?" Ben had been her marshal from the start. Why go with someone else now?
"Don't go out front. Don't even Go Leave New York."
Callie shook her head, trying to clear the confusion. This felt all wrong. The voice was so broken. Was it really even Ben? He'd been fine when he left. Did this have something to do with the meeting? Dread sucked her hope away. "What's going on? Why should I go with someone else?"
"Because your security has been compromised."
Callie swung around at the sound of the harsh voice behind her. A tall man blocked the doorway. Her first thought was he looked like someone she wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. And she was supposed to go with him?
He flashed a badge at her. "Jackson Walker, US Marshals. Grab your purse and coat. We have to get out of here. Now."
Callie stared at the stranger. He didn't look like a marshal. His heavy jacket seemed straight out of an outdoors-man catalog, and he was wearing jeans and boots. The only thing missing was a cowboy hat. A dozen questions pinged in her brain. She settled on the most urgent. "How do I know I can trust you?"
He appeared to think about it for all of ten seconds. "You don't. But I'm all you've got."
Callie glanced at her phone. The display, her link to Ben, had gone dark.
"See those lights out there?"
Callie looked past him into the hallway. Some of the noise level had lowered, but the flashing lights were worse. They didn't seem to be coming from the office anymore.
"Those aren't Christmas lights. They're ambulances."
Callie swung back to look at his face. "What happened?"
"Someone tried to grab the assistant US attorney." The strained appearance of his face suggested more.
Callie shook her head in denial, but she could see from his expression it was true. "But he was just here. He went down to bring the assistant US attorney " Her words trailed off, and she leaned back on the table to steady herself against a wave of light-headedness. "I don't understand."
"I'll explain what I can on the way."
"Listen, Ms. Martin." He blew out a breath, softened his voice, but didn't quite manage to hide his exasperation. "We have to get you out of here. Now."
Callie was still reluctant to go with him. "Ben might need us."
"We're not doctors. The paramedics have him covered. My job is to protect you. That means getting out of here."
"Where are we going?"
He just stared at her. "How long have you been in witness protection?"
"Shouldn't you know that?" He sighed. And glared.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm not trying to be trouble, but it's my life on the line here. I don't know who to trust, and I don't know you at all."
"Didn't Ben call and tell you to go with me?"
"Ma'am, I don't want to have to drag you out of here, but the longer you stay, the more you're endangering yourself and everyone in the building."
He stared at her as if she were wearing a dunce cap. "Despite what people think, there generally aren't random stabbings and kidnappings on New York streets."
His words cracked her bravado. Kidnapping. He was right. She needed to leave. Tears built in her eyes and emotion choked her. Bad things seemed to follow her everywhere lately.
"Okay," she conceded. Not that there was really any choice. Where else could she turn if Ben wasn't able to protect her? Please, Lord. Guide me.
Callie grabbed her tote bag and headed for the door. She'd learned in her first week of witness protection to keep all her essentials in one ready-to-move-at-any-moment bag. It might seem silly, but having toothpaste, a brush, her Bible and the stuffed penguin that had been a gift from her class made her feel a bit more secure in this helter-skelter world that had become her life.
"Ms. Martin." Jackson handed over her coat. Yes, she would need that. It was strange getting used to needing a heavy winter coat everywhere she went. Back home in Texas she'd rarely needed more than a sweater under her jacket when the temperatures dropped. Here in New York, they were hitting low thirties on a regular basis. Just one more thing that was different in her new world.
Callie put the bag down and slipped the coat on, taking an extra minute to zip up and wrap a scarf around her neck. She snatched her bag and started toward the door but was brought up short by the marshal's hand on her arm. Right, Ben said not to go out front.
But he was out there. Callie's loyalty to the marshal who was her only connection to her former life begged her to check on him. The tug on her arm drew her back.
"Back way," he warned. "We can't risk them realizing their mistake. Someone might still be watching the front."
Mistake? His words sank in, and Callie's knees turned to water. Her legs wobbled. The kidnappers had meant to take her? She felt suddenly as weak as if she'd been the one stabbed. Which she might have been if Ben hadn't decided to walk the attorney out first. Jackson's strong hand cupped her elbow, a support she found herself grateful for. She was still having a hard time wrapping her mind around the idea that someone wanted her dead.
Callie took a deep breath and fought for control. She could fall apart later. Right now she had to do what the marshal said. He led her toward the back corner of the offices, out the fire door and down a back stairway.
As they reached the bottom, Jackson turned to her. "There's a connecting door in the basement. We're going to walk underground until we come to the next building down. When we walk out, I want you to look calm. Pretend we're just leaving and hailing a cab."
"A cab?" That seemed so ordinary.
"The less attention we attract, the better. There's a cab parked down the street waiting for us. As soon as I give the signal that we're coming out, he'll pick us up."
They wound their way through a warren of underground rooms, and just when Callie figured they'd walked clear to the Hudson River, Jackson took out his phone and entered a number.
"Whatever you do, don't look back. Ready?"
Callie closed her eyes and counted slowly to ten as she breathed in and out. Was she ready? No. But again, she really had no choice. She opened her eyes and nodded.
He pressed send. They waited just inside the doorway while the clock on his phone ticked off two minutes. "Wait here until I call you."
Callie watched him stroll out onto the midtown sidewalk, the picture of New York determination as he pretended to search for a cab. There wasn't much traffic on the streetpedestrian or auto. Apparently the authorities had the entire area blocked off.
"Here he is," Jackson called. She dashed out as he hailed the cab. It pulled smoothly to the curb in front of him, but before Jackson could hand her into the car, a man in an elegant overcoat materialized in front of them, attempting to grab the ride. Callie felt Jackson go on alert.
"Sorry, sir, my wife's not feeling well. I called ahead for this car." An elbow to the man's briefcase backed up his words. Jackson shoved Callie into the cab and jumped in after her before the man could recover his balance. The driver hit the locks and the gas pedal.
Callie fell back against the cracked upholstery as the cab sped down the block. New York traffic still scared the life out of her. She hoped she hadn't survived an abduction attempt only to be killed in a traffic accident.
Abduction. She shuddered, thinking about how close she had come to being a victim.
Callie's thoughts were interrupted by the cab pulling up to a curb. She looked around, but they didn't seem to actually be anywhere special. "Why are we stopping here?"
"Just making sure no one tailed us. We'll cross into Grand Central Terminal as if we're planning to get on a train to Westchester."
"But we're not?"
"Where are we going?"
"To a new safe house."
"You think this one will actually be safe?"
"Ms. Martin, WITSEC is not in the habit of losing witnesses."
"Yet you nearly did."
Callie was surprised at her bold words. She wasn't normally a complainer, but she was getting a bit tired of his terse responses and this episode had her rattled.
If she was honest, she'd been rattled for months, ever since she'd accidentally walked into the middle of a drug deal and watched her ex-boyfriend shot down in front of her.
"We have never yet lost anyone who followed the rules. And we didn't lose you."
Would it be wrong to wish they had? Callie was so tired of running. So tired of fighting for a new life. Lord, give me strength. She glanced over at the new marshal. And patience.
Four months ago, her life had been normal. Happy even. She'd been dating someone who seemed nice. She loved her job working with little children. Her church was a community that gave her support and the first sense of family she'd had in her life.
Then things started going wrong, and nothing had been right since.
She'd realized Rick wasn't the man for her. She liked him and had fun with him, but it would never grow into anything more. Though he gave lip service to her beliefs, he didn't really share them, didn't live them in his daily life. So she'd broken it off with him. Tried to break off at least. He had different ideas about that. He had different ideas about everything. That had been a big part of the problem. Things that seemed alluring at first were nothing more than temptations away from the life she'd chosen to live. So she'd ended the relationship.
And now she was paying the price for ever starting it. Facing the consequences of her bad judgment. How many times had she played the "if only" game? If only she'd stood firm. If only she'd never dated him in the first place. If only she hadn't agreed to sing backup for his band that one last time.
He'd told her it was a charity event, so she agreed to perform, even though it had been a few weeks since they'd broken up. One last time singing, and then she would put that part of her life in the past along with their relationship. Except it hadn't worked out that way. The charity gig had apparently been a cover for his drug dealing. And she'd walked right into a sting. DEA and FBI agents had arrived too late to save Rick's life but just in time to whisk her away. They'd offered her sanctuary, but in order to testify to the things she'd witnessed she'd had to give up her whole life, assume a new identity and leave behind all that she knew and loved.
As the months had gone by, she'd learned to accept this solitary new life as atonement for her poor decisions. Tonight she wasn't the only one paying the price. Regret at her own selfish thoughts stung Callie. A good man was injured, possibly dying, and another woman had been attacked. And what about the DEA agent?
None of this was directly her fault, but Callie couldn't shake the feeling that if she'd made better choices, it all would have worked out differently.