After exposing an illegal adoption ring, newly named "Kara Grant" is promised safety in Witness Protection. But someone has found herand wants her dead. If only she could trust the handsome firefighter who catches her fleeing from a suspicious fire. Jake Steele seems to think she's guilty of burning her own home. But how can she tell him who she really is and what she's been through without bringing danger to the widowed single father's door? Yet with the criminals quickly closing in, taking such a risk might be her only chance at survival. Because the price she'll pay for her silence could be her life.
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Jake Steele squinted through the smoky haze surrounding the house, his skin prickling with the sensation of being watched. There. In the hedges. It had to be their arsonist. This fire had all the signs of being deliberately set. Jake motioned to his partner, Davis, and they started for the hedge.
The face disappeared, swallowed by the drizzly darkness.
Counting on the suspect wanting to avoid the street, Jake beelined to the backyard. Sure enough, a lone figure skulked along the property's edge. This pyromaniac was going down.
Jake and Davis closed the distance fast, the commotion of the other firefighters masking the thump of their heavy boots. "Where do you think you're going?" Jake grabbed the guy's arm.
The scream that met his grip was no guy's.
Jake turned his flashlight on their culprit, and her panicked brown eyes blindsided him. His grip loosened.
She twisted and squirmed, pounding her free fist against his chest and kicking uselessly at his legs. "Let go of me."
"Fat chance," he said, tightening his grip again. Never mind the tears streaking her sooty cheeks. Men hadn't cornered the market on arson jobs. And with five suspicious fires this side of Seattle in the past nine weeks, he wasn't about to let her out of his sight until he found out exactly what she knew about this one.
She went limp, her fight gone. "You're hurting me."
His gaze shifted to the arm he still held, the only part of her he'd touched as he'd let her wear herself out pum-meling his chest. His heart pitched. "You're burned." He jerked his thumb off her blistering flesh, sickened that he'd hurt her further.
His partner directed a flashlight at her arm. The underside was flaming red from wrist to crook.
Cupping her elbow with just enough pressure to prevent her from escaping, Jake gentled his tone. "Are you burned anywhere else?"
"I'm fine." She tried to tug free of his hold.
"You're not fine." Megadoses of adrenaline had to be shooting through this spitfire for her to not so much as wince at the pain that had to be blazing up her arm. "This is a serious burn. It needs to be dressed."
She visibly shrank at his insistent tone. "My friend's coming for me. He'll take care of everything."
Right. If she thought he was about to let her walk away, she'd clearly burned a few brain cells along with that arm. Being careful not to cause her any more pain, he steered her toward the street. "You can wait for your friend in the ambulance."
As they came around the now-smoldering building, she dug in her heels and darted terrified glances every which way. "No, please."
Jake caught his partner's attention and jerked his head toward the sheriff's car.
Davis nodded and jogged off.
Jake angled his flashlight just high enough so he could study her heart-shaped face without blinding her. How had he ever mistaken her for a guy? She didn't look much younger than himlate twenties, maybe. Her damp hair, flattened by the rain, skimmed her shoulders, but she was all girland very afraid. He'd expected to see fear over getting caught, maybe regret. Not"I want to help you," he said, his voice cracking at her terror.
Her watery brown eyes searched his as if she desperately wanted to believe him. "I can't go out there," she whispered.
The rattled pitch of her voice tugged at his heart. He tilted his head, softening his expression. "I'm Captain Jake Steele with the Stalwart Fire Department. What's your name?"
"Ni" She coughed, the crackly sound rattling through her limbs. "Kara. Kara Grant."
He didn't believe her, but nodded anyway. The cough had all the signs of an attempt to buy enough time to come up with an alias. "Did you set the fire, Kara?"
Her eyes flared. "What? No!" She made another useless attempt to jerk free of his grip as the sheriff and Davis rushed toward them. " Sheriff, this firefighter won't let go of me!"
"She needs medical attention," Jake growled.
"He thinks I set the fire! When I'm the victim here."
"Wait. You live here?" Jake's surprise pitched the question a couple of octaves higher than he'd intended.
"What do you think?" She cradled her wounded arm.
"Lady, you were running away. What do you think I thought?" His department had been called in to assist this neighboring town's volunteer department. He hadn't caught the name of the missing victim. Her name.
The sheriff radioed the news to the chief. The firefighters who'd been searching for her inside soon emerged from the house.
Kara gulped. "They were all looking for me? I'm sorry, I didn't realize."
"Didn't realize?" Jake ground his teeth to reel in his tone. "My men were putting their lives at risk while you watched from the bushes. I have a five-year-old boy at home who doesn't need to lose another parent."
"I" Her expression crumpled. "Please, no one was hurt, were they?"
Jake let out a pent-up breath. "No."
The sheriff cleared his throat. "I still need you to answer a few questions, and I think you'll be more comfortable doing that in the back of the ambulance than a squad car."
Her breathing quickened. "Okay, yes. You're right. Of course."
Since she'd stopped complaining about his hold on her elbow, Jake guided her toward the ambulance. As they stepped into view of her neighbors huddled in their yards, their Thanksgiving dinners forgotten, Kara clung to his coat. Jake scanned the crowd, looking for anyone suspicious. A bulbous-nosed man stood alone and seemed particularly intent on the firefighters' actions.
"It's the tenant," a woman exclaimed.
A young man cut across the yard and raced toward them. At Kara's sharp inhalation, Jake instinctively angled his body to block her from view.
The guy raised something in his hands. A camera.
"It's okay. It's just a reporter," Jake said, shifting back.
But at the camera's flash, Kara buried her face against his coat. "Please, just get me to the ambulance. Please."
His conscience pricked at her sudden trust, or maybe the way she trembled against his chest. He curled a sheltering arm around her. "Sheriff, I think those questions better wait until after the paramedics check her over."
Jake pulled back just enough to see Kara's face. His initial assumptions weren't adding up. He scrutinized her breathing, her eyes, her skin, for signs of assault, shock, something that would explain why she'd run from help.
Besides the obviousfear of getting caught.
A section of roof crashed to the ground, spewing black smoke and debris into the air and over her car. Kara forced herself to draw deep breaths, to release them slowly. The paramedics were bound to insist on taking her to the hospital, and she couldn't let that happen. Especially now that Jake's suspicions had confirmed her worst fears. The fire was no accident.
The taste of smoke turned acrid in her mouth. Deep down she'd known the fire was meant for her. That was why she'd called the marshal overseeing her protection the instant she'd gotten out of the house. She shook her head. And then she'd almost let her real name slip to the overprotective firefighter. Thank goodness Mrs. Harboyle had been away at her daughter's for Thanksgiving.
Kara's vision blurred. Her landlady's home was destroyed, along with sixty years of memories, and it was all her fault.
"Hang on," Jake's husky voice whispered through her hair, an instant before his hands spanned her waist and hoisted her onto the back of the ambulance.
Her breath caught. Oh. After the way she'd fought him back there, she hadn't expected him to be so nice.
He ditched his hat on the end of the rig, and his sandy brown hair, damp with perspiration, curled over his forehead. "You okay?" he asked, his sweet, lopsided smile not helping her breathe any easier.
Pressing her palm to her chest, she sank onto the gur-ney. Listen to her. She shouldn't be noticing a guy's smile. Never mind how her heart had twisted when he'd mentioned his motherless son. No one wanted a relationship with a woman with a price on her head.
Kara startled at the touch of a petite brunette beside her and scrambled to catch up to the questions she was spewing.
"I think she's in shock," Jake said, his deep voice quieting her frayed nerves.
He seemed genuinely concerned. Could he be someone she could trust? Maybe. Except the marshal had warned her not to trust anyone. Not even the police, because a smart bad guy would pretend to be on her side, pretend to want to help her, pretend to be taking her to safety just long enough to get her somewhere secluded and then slit her throat.
She gulped, sliding her hand up to her neck. Stick to the rules, the marshal had said, and she'd be okay. They'd never lost a witness who stuck to the rules.
So how would Deputy Marshal Ray Boyd explain the fire?
She pushed away the female paramedic's stethoscope. "I have to go." For all she knew, the paramedic worked for the adoption ring, too. She glanced from one blocked door to the other, her heart racing. Anyone here could work for it. Be waiting for the chance to finish her off.
"It's going to be okay," the paramedic soothed in the kind of voice Kara used to use with her kindergarten students. "I can quickly dress this wound and then the sheriff can ask his questions. Okay?"
The sheriff, right. Kara wiped sweaty palms down her slacks. She needed to stay calm. If they thought she was in shock, the sheriff might insist she go to the hospital. And it would be way too easy for her attacker to get to her there.
"Kara?" the paramedic's voice filtered through her frenetic thoughts.
"I'm sorry, pardon?"
"I asked on a scale of one to ten, how bad is the pain in your arm?"
Jake stood at the rear door, watching her, his warm blue eyes radiating concern.
She ducked her head. The pain was bad, really bad, but if she admitted that, they'd dope her up and send her to the hospital and she'd miss her meeting. The marshal might not find her.
"Kara?" The paramedic split open what looked like a ketchup packet. "How bad?"
Kara shrugged. "Not bad. Honest. A four maybe."
The paramedic clasped Kara's wrist and started squeezing the packet over the wound.
Blinding pain streaked down her arm. "Ah!" She jerked from the paramedic's grasp. Bandages tumbled to the floor.
The paramedic swiped at the gel that had spilled from the packet onto her leg. "I'd better give you something for the pain," she said through gritted teeth.
Kara thrust out her arm. "No, really. That's not necessary." Nausea churned her gut. She swallowed hard. "I'm sorry. You just surprised me."
The woman raised her eyebrow and slanted a glance at Jake with a slight shake of her head.
Kara tried not to wince as the paramedic dabbed the remaining gel around the blistered portions.
"Most of the burn is first degree," the paramedic explained as she wrapped a bandage around the arm.
Kara swallowed again and again. Why had the marshal suggested a place so far away to meet? With her car covered in debris, not to mention blocked in the driveway by fire engines, she'd have to walk, and
"These blistered portions are second degree," the paramedic went on. "I'm afraid they're going to hurt a lot more than a four before they get better."
Yeah, they already did. A black haze slid over Kara's vision.
"Are you okay?" Jake sounded really concerned.
She teetered, reached out blindly to stop herself from toppling off the gurney.
Jake lunged toward her. "She's going to faint!"
The next thing she knew, her cheek was pressed against his solid chest, his arm wrapped protectively around her. "You're okay. I've got you."
For a few blissful seconds, she lingered in his protective embracethe kind of embrace Clark should've wrapped her in three months ago.
She sucked in a quick breath and straightened, dismissing the memory. She'd made her choice and so had he. Jake's arm dropped away, and she shivered at the chilly damp air that rushed into its place.
"I'm guessing you'll want those painkillers now?" The paramedic doused the bandage in saline.
The cooling flow took the edge off the pain. "Uh, maybe just a couple of acetaminophen."
Empathy brimmed in Jake's eyes. "You'll have to forgive my cousin. She needs to work on her bedside manner."
Kara chuckled, bringing that heart-fluttering smile back to Jake's lips. She sighed. She would've liked the chance to get to know him. But by tomorrow, Kara Grant would no longer exist.
Another paramedic appeared at the back doors, where the now-missing sheriff had been. "Ready to roll?"
"Roll?" She pushed on the gurney to slide off. "No, I'm fine. I don't need to go to the hospital."
Jake's hands dropped to her shoulders, pinning her in place. "You almost passed out. You're going to the hospital."
Kara was about to argue, offer to sign anything they needed to let her leave, then she caught sight of the reporter angling for another photograph and said, "Okay, let's go." If by some miracle the adoption ring wasn't behind tonight's fire, her picture in the paper would seal her fate. A haircut, dye job and colored contacts may have transformed her from a long-haired, blue-eyed blonde, but there was no disguising her heart-shaped face.
One good thing Kara learned en route to the hospital was that the coffee shop where she was supposed to meet her handler was only two blocks away. All she had to do was convince the doctor she was fine and get out before anyone tried to stick her with anything.
Except the triage nurse didn't hold out much hope that she'd see a doctor anytime soon. "The fog caused a huge traffic pileup," she said. "Every E.R. bed is full, and I'm afraid it may be some time before we can even transfer care from the EMT. We need to give priority to the most critical patients."
"Yes, I understand," Kara said, fishing for an out. "Perhaps I should just wait to see my own doctor tomorrow."
"I don't think that's wise," the paramedicSherri, she'd said her name waspiped up. "You have no home to go to. And besides, the sheriff is coming here to interview you."
"Okay, then." The nurse recorded all Kara's pertinent details, and then directed Sherri to wheel her into the hall to wait until her care could be transferred.
Not good. She could be stuck for hours waiting for a bed, never mind waiting to see the E.R. doc. "You really don't have to stay with me," Kara said to Sherri after her partner wandered off to do paperwork and restock their rig. "You must have other calls to get to."
"No, not until the hospital takes over your care. That's the policy."
Kara sat up. "If you just need the gurney back, I can sit in the waiting room." She felt silly lying on the thing anyway.
"That's not how it works."
Sherri hitched her hip onto the edge of the gurney. "So how long have you known my cousin?"
"Oh, the firefighter." Kara vaguely remembered him referring to Sherri as his cousin, although they shared little family resemblance. "Just since tonight."
Sherri's head jerked back as if she didn't believe her. "Really? He didn't act like it."
Jake's "It's okay. I got you" replayed in Kara's mind as she realized for the first time that he'd caught her, when Sherri had been closer, right at her side, even.
Sherri studied her intently, her expression unconvinced.
"Why don't you grab yourself a coffee?" Kara suggested.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love Sandra Orchard's books, and this one did not disappoint! A wonderful story that is hard to put down. You do what you feel is right and suddenly your whole world crashes around you. A new name, new career and a new home in a new state is supposed to keep you safe. But does it? Kara goes from a happy kindergarten teacher to one whose house is set ablaze with her inside it all because she became a witness to a world she knew nothing about. How can anyone keep her safe, if she can't tell them who she is or why people are trying to kill her? Don't miss this suspense-filled story!
Identity Withheld is a thrilling mystery and includes a wonderful romance. From the beginning, this book starts with action-packed drama and totally kept me turning the pages. I could not stop reading this book until I was finished. I loved the mystery and suspense with a few surprise twists and turns. Also, I loved how the romance was woven into the storyline. At the end, the author gives a fantastic conclusion. I definitely recommend reading this book. I'm looking forward to reading the next book by Sandra Orchard. I received a complimentary copy from the author in exchange for my honest review. This review is one hundred percent my opinion.
Protecting a child leads to dangerous consequences. Kara Grant makes the ultimate sacrifice to save a child, giving up her life and all that is known to her, including her own family. Jake Steele protects Kara when her new home is burned and her new life is compromised. As the danger to Kara increases, Jake chooses to continue to help Kara, but he doesn't count on the consequences for his own family. Kara and Jake are strong and honorable characters that will have you cheering for them at every turn of events. Sandra's latest novel continues her tradition of producing well-written, attention-grabbing stories. You won't want to stop reading this novel until you reach the last page. Don't pass up this great read. It's well worth your time.