After witnessing a murder, Melissa Harris faked her death, changed her name and went into hiding, hoping to keep the gunmen at bay. For years, it workedbut now the ruthless killers have found her. When bullets begin to fly, SWAT cop Nate Freemont rescues Melissa and her little girl. Her former high school sweetheart is shocked that she's alive and seeks an explanation about why she vanished from his life. Telling the truth would only put her daughter's safety and Nate's future in jeopardy. With Christmas approaching, can Melissa risk everything to accept the safe haven and second chance Nate offers as deadly enemies close in?
SWAT: Top CopsLove in the line of duty
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SWAT team member Nathan Freemont ducked his head against the swirling snow as he jogged across the megamall parking lot to reach the entrance of the building. The place was jam-packed with people, and he knew it was his own fault for waiting until the week before Christmas to do his shopping.
He had only a couple of gifts to buy, one for his dad and another for his dad's new wife, Amelia, so with any luck he could be in and out within thirty minutes. At least, that was his plan. As he was still wearing his uniform, he had no intention of lingering.
Of course, it would help if he had a clue what to buy. He was hoping something in the mall might inspire him.
Nate headed toward the escalator leading up to the second floor, where he could see a shop that specialized in scented lotions. Amelia would probably like something like that, wouldn't she? Didn't all women like that stuff?
He eased through the crowd to step onto the escalator, scanning the sea of faces intensely. He was first and foremost a cop, and he instinctively made sure there wasn't anyone looking suspicious enough to cause trouble.
But he didn't see anyone suspicious. Instead, on the other side of the escalator, a pretty woman caught his attention. She held the hand of a small girl who he estimated to be about five years old. The woman's features looked familiar, and as they grew closer, his eyes widened in surprise.
"Meredith? Meredith Dupont?" he called above the din.
The woman's head jerked up, her gaze clashing with his, and he noticed her pupils flared in recognition before she deliberately turned her head away, ignoring him.
Was he losing his mind? Hadn't Meredith died years ago? He clearly remembered the devastation he'd felt at the news. He'd even attended her memorial service.
But no matter what his old reality might be, he couldn't seem to tear his gaze away from the woman. As they passed each other, he was convinced he was right. Despite her dark hair, rather than the honey blond he remembered, he knew that the woman was Meredith Dupont. He'd know her anywhere, since he'd fallen in love with her during their senior year of high school.
"Meredith!" he shouted again, louder. She continued to ignore him, and since the escalators were taking them in opposite directions, he made a split-second decision.
He planted his hands on the center area between the set of mechanical stairs and jumped over, prying his way into the crowd. People around him muttered and moved away with annoyance, but he didn't care.
"Meredith!" He dodged around people in an attempt to reach her. "Meredith, wait!"
Meredith swiftly moved farther down the escalator, urging the child along with her. When they reached the ground level, she headed straight into the crowd of adults and children who were waiting in line to see the mall Santa.
Nate followed her, wondering if he was crazy to think the woman was really Meredith, after all. He hadn't seen her in twelve years, since she'd broken his heart by disappearing right after graduation. He'd practically staked out her father's house, begging for information. Her father had claimed she was in rehab and wouldn't provide any details. But her dad had agreed to give Meredith his address.
He'd never heard from her again. And a mere four years later, he'd been told she'd died in a terrible car crasha result of driving under the influence.
Was it possible he was wrong? No, she'd jerked her head up to look at him when he'd called her name earlier. And her dainty facial features and her wide hazel eyes were exactly as he remembered.
The woman was Meredith. He was sure of it. He zigzagged his way around the display of Santa's elves decorating the North Pole. As he scanned the area again, he noticed two men wearing black leather jackets were also weaving a determined path through the crowd of shoppers toward the area of the mall where Santa was being photographed with children. The tiny hairs on the back of his neck tingled in warning.
Were these two guys actually following Meredith and the little girl? And if so, why?
Nate quickened his pace, dodging around people in an effort to catch up with Meredith. He thought for sure he'd lost her, but then he caught a glimpse of her dark hair above the navy blue parka she'd been wearing. He could see her moving rapidly through the mall, only this time, there was no sign of the little girl.
Surely she hadn't left the child behind?
As much as he wanted to keep an eye out for the two leather-clad guys, he didn't dare take his gaze from Meredith. As he gained ground, she turned back to see if she was being followed and he caught a glimpse of the bulge beneath her jacket.
A flash of admiration made him smile grimly as he realized she was holding the child against her, hiding the girl beneath the bulky winter coat. Smart move, especially since she could dart around shoppers more easily this way.
Meredith was headed toward one of the side exits, and he followed, risking a glance behind him. The two guys in black leather were farther back but still making headway directly toward them.
Nate picked up speed, determined to catch up to her. He no longer needed to confirm she was Meredith. Now it seemed he had to help keep her and the child safe. Her head was averted as he came up alongside.
"This way. We need to ditch the two guys following you," he urged in a low voice.
For a second he thought she would resist, but then she glanced over at him, giving a terse nod.
He tugged at her arm, taking her down a hallway that led to the public restrooms on one side and a staff break room and lockers on the other. He remembered the area all too well from working a mall shooting eighteen months ago.
"Mommy, I'm scared."
"Shh, Hailey, it's okay," Meredith whispered. He could see the very top of the little girl's head poking out from beneath Meredith's parka. "We're fine. Just hang in there a little longer, okay?"
"Through here," he said, pushing open a door that led to the break room.
Meredith had barely got through the doorway when he heard the distinctive poofing sounds of a gun being fired through a silencer.
"Get down," he shouted, ducking his head and slamming the door behind them, blocking Meredith and her daughter with his body as much as possible.
He pulled his .38 and then dragged Meredith farther back into the locker room. "There's a bathroom up ahead. Get inside and stay low on the floor next to the toilet if you can. Don't come out until I tell you."
Meredith nodded again. Her eyes were frightened, but she was calmer than most women would be under the circumstances. Maybe she didn't realize the extent of the danger, but somehow he didn't think so. No time to consider the implication of that fact now.
Once Meredith and Hailey were safely in the bathroom, he pulled out his cell phone and called for backup, even though he knew it was probably a useless effort. If these guys kept coming, he'd have no choice but to defend himself.
Nate had no idea what he'd stumbled into, but right now, he didn't have time to think about the various possibilities. He grabbed the break room table across from the lockers and flipped it over on its side so that he could use the wide metal slab as a shield.
It wasn't foolproof, but since he wasn't wearing body armor beneath his uniform, it was the best he could do. He hoped that the guys would come in aiming high so he could shoot from his lower position.
He crouched down behind the table, waiting patiently for the gunmen to approach. He couldn't hear a peep from either Meredith or Hailey, which was good.
The doorknob of the break room slowly turned, and he held his pistol steady on the top edge of the table. Nate held his breath, knowing he couldn't shoot until he knew for sure who was on the other side of the door. He didn't dare fire at some innocent mall staff member.
The door swung open, and several long seconds passed before one of the guys in black leather edged around the corner to peer into the room. When he caught a glimpse of the guy's gun, Nate knew the waiting time was over.
"Police! Drop your weapons!" he yelled. When the guy didn't comply, Nate fired off two rounds, one of them lodging in the wooden door frame a fraction of an inch from where the guy's face had been. Instantly, the face disappeared.
Nate swallowed hard and kept his gaze trained on the doorway, knowing his situation was grim. The gunmen had the advantage, not only because there were two of them against one but also because they knew exactly where he was located. Plus, it wasn't exactly as if the metal tabletop was a bulletproof barrier.
But he refused to give up. If he died today, that was fine, but he'd make sure to take these two gunmen with him. He had no idea why these guys were following Meredith and Hailey, but no way would he allow either of them to be hurt.
Nate adjusted his aim, trying to anticipate the gunmen's next move. Seconds passed by with impossible slowness, but he knew the value of patience.
The two men came in with a one-two punch, guns blazing. Nate fired in return, taking the first guy down even as one bullet whistled past his own head, while another plowed through the tabletop, mere inches from Nate's right shoulder. He fired at the second guy, catching him in the upper arm. The gunman cried out in pain and dropped his gun, sliding to the floor with a surprised expression in his eyes.
Nate didn't hesitate, leaping over the table and kicking both of the gunmen's weapons well out of the way before checking to see if they were still alive.
They both were.
The first guy was bleeding from his abdomen, so Nate grabbed some towels and pressed them over the wound. He pulled a chair over, tipping it on its side to add pressure and slow down the bleeding.
The other guy was still conscious, holding his own hand over the wound in his biceps. "You're not going to get away with this," he said in a harsh tone.
"You're the one who fired at a cop," Nate said grimly, even though he had no idea what he'd stumbled into. He quickly cuffed the man to a metal bar beneath the table and then spun on his heel to head back to the bathroom where Meredith was hiding with Hailey. He was stunned to hear singing, catching the phrase "Jesus loves me." The choice surprised him since Meredith hadn't ever been particularly religious in high school.
Obviously things had changed. She not only was alive and had a daughter but also believed in God.
"Meredith? It's me, Nate. Are you and Hailey all right?"
The singing stopped, and he could hear movement inside before the door opened a crack, revealing Meredith's face. "We're fine, but what happened?"
"The guys who followed you are bothtaken care of." Nate amended what he was going to say in deference to the little girl. He pushed the bathroom door open wider, giving Hailey a reassuring smile. "The bad guys are going to be arrested so they can't hurt you anymore. I have backup and an ambulance on the way. Meredith, I need to know what's going on."
She shook her head. "My name isn't Meredith. It's Melissa. Melissa Harris. And we can't stay. We need to get out of here, now. Before anyone else sees us."
Nate knew the woman was Meredith, and the name Melissa wasn't that much different. She'd obviously changed it, but for the life of him he didn't know why. "MeredithMelissa, your name doesn't matter to me. I remember you from high school, and I know very well you remember me, too." He crossed his arms over his chest and planted himself in front of the bathroom doorway. "You're not leaving. Not until you tell me what's going on."
Her gaze implored him to listen to reason. "Please let us go. Making me talk to the police will only put us in more danger."
Nate stared at her, trying to understand what was going on. "I've wounded two men," he said bluntly. "I'm a sheriff's deputy sworn to uphold the law. I can't just leave."
Melissa actually winced. "I know, and I'm sorry. Of course you can't leave. We'll go on our own. You have to trust me on this, Nate. I refuse to put my daughter's life in jeopardy."
Nate glanced down at Hailey. Her tear-streaked face and the fear reflected in her hazel gaze ripped a hole in his heart.
He closed his eyes and sighed, knowing he was likely going to regret this. "Okay, let's get out of here. I'm coming with you."
Melissa's eyes widened in surprise. "Where?"
"If you think I'm letting you go off on your own, you're nuts. You have two choices. Stay here and wait for my backup or allow me to take you someplace safe."
She hesitated and then reluctantly nodded. "Okay. We'll go with you, for now."
He planned to stick with her longer than for now, but there wasn't time to argue. His team would be here at any second.
His boss, Griff, would likely fire him for leaving the scene of a police shooting, but there wasn't anything he could do about that now. Not when the fear he saw in Melissa was too real. No way was he going to put a woman and her child in danger.
And he was determined to get to the bottom of whatever Melissa was involved in.
Melissa couldn't believe that out of all the people to stumble across in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it would be Nate Freemont.
Her old high school sweetheart.
The man she'd been forced to leave behind.
She wasn't totally surprised to find out he was a cop, since law enforcement was all he'd talked about back when they were in school. Twelve years later, fate, or maybe God, had brought them back together. Being with a cop was dangerous, and she told herself that after he'd helped her get away, she'd ditch Nate as soon as she could.
Deep down, she was relieved not to be alone. Hailey didn't deserve to be in danger like this. Melissa knew coming home to see her father in the hospital before he passed away had been a mistake. She'd thought for sure everyone around here believed her dead and buried.