Erin Eagleton has been on the run for months after her ex-boyfriend was killed in front of her. She escaped from the killer once, but the police consider her a prime suspect. She is determined to prove her innocence and bring down the real criminal before he finishes the job. Her high school sweetheart, Capitol K-9 officer Chase Zachary, has been searching for her with his trusty police dog. Now that he's found her, he vows to keep her safe at all costs. He'll stop at nothing to reveal the truthand to protect the woman he's never forgotten.
Capitol K-9 Unit: These lawmen solve the toughest cases with the help of their brave canine partners.
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An urgent heartbeat pounded through Erin Eagleton's temples each time her sneakered feet hit the dry, packed earth. She stumbled, grabbed at a leafy sapling and checked behind her again. The tree's slender limbs hit at her face and neck when she let go, leaving welts across her cheekbones, but she kept running. The sun slid in a shimmering-gold descent beyond the trees to the west as dusk settled like a vivid redorange blanket over the sticky, hot Virginia hillside. Soon it would be full dark and she would have to find a safe place to hide.
Winded and damp with a cold sweat that made her shiver as it snaked down her backbone, Erin tried to catch her breath. Did she dare stop and try to find another path?
The sound of approaching footsteps behind her caused Erin to stare through her nonprescription black-framed glasses into the growing darkness. Making a split-second decision, she took off to the right and headed deeper into the woods. She had to keep running until she came to a highway or a hideaway. But she was so tired. Would she ever be free?
Dear Lord, I'm so lost. I don't know where to turn.
Memories of Chase Zachary moved through her head, causing tears to prick at her eyes. Her first love. Her high school sweetheart who now worked as a K-9 officer with an elite Washington, DC, team. A team that was investigating her.
From what she'd read on the internet and in the local papers, Chase had been one of the first officers on the scene that horrible night.
She'd thought about calling him a hundred times over these past few months, but Erin wasn't sure she could trust even Chase. The last time they'd seen each other, on the very evening this nightmare had taken place, he hadn't been very friendly. And why should he be kind toward her? He probably hated her for breaking his heart when they were so young.
But then just about everybody else along the Beltway and possibly even in the entire metro area surrounding DC hated her right now. Erin had been on the run for months. She knew running made her look guilty, but she'd had no other choice since she'd witnessed the murder of Michael Jeffries, and she'd almost been killed herself. The authorities thought she was the killer and until she could prove otherwise, Erin had to stay hidden.
The media had already condemned her with a relentless assault that had her face plastered all over television news reports and newspaper headlines. Whole hours of cable news had been dedicated to dissecting her life. How could anyone stand up to such scrutiny?
The reports had at first painted her as an allegedly scorned ex-girlfriend who'd possibly murdered prominent Washington lawyer Michael Jeffries because he'd broken up with her. None of which was true. Michael had been too caught up in his crusade against corruption to even have time to break up with her, and besides, their relationship was mostly for "show," to please their political families. Tired of the ruse, she'd actually gone to dinner with Michael on that cold night to break things off with him. But Michael had been too upset about another situation in his life for her to tell him it was over between them, publicly and privately. He'd found out he might have a young relative living in a foster home and he'd insisted he had to get home and do some more digging for the truth.
Erin still remembered Michael's frantic attempts to explain the situation. "I can't tell you everything, Erin. I don't want to accuse anyone of wrongdoing, but I will find out the truth. I think I can prove I'm right. I need more time. And I'm going to talk to my father and make him tell me the truth."
They'd parted ways, and Erin had decided to go for a walk.
Later, concerned about his state of mind, she'd searched for Michael and found him at his father's estate outside the city.
At least the news reports had one thing right about that night. Michael had been murdered.
And she knew who'd killed him because she'd witnessed the whole horrible scene. But no one would believe her if she told the truththat Congressman Har-land Jeffries had killed his own son, had worked to pin the murder on Erin and had tried to have her killed, too.
Now Erin Eagleton was a wanted woman.
And if she couldn't get away from the man chasing her so she could prove her innocence, she'd soon be going to jail.
Orshe'd soon be dead.
* * *
Chase Zachary held the delicate cashmere scarf to his nose, the lingering scent of the expensive floral perfume making him remember the touch of her lips on his. Chase remembered way too many things about the girl he'd loved and lost years ago in high school. But right now he'd give anything to find Erin once again.
Help me, Lord. Help me to find her before it's too late.
She was out here in these woods, lost and afraid. Chase had been searching for her for close to five months, while on duty and often on his own time, too. He'd never believed Erin capable of murdering Congressman Jeffries's son Michael and shooting the congressman, so he'd been trying to find enough evidence to disprove the original theory that had her as the scorned girlfriend who'd been at the scene of the crime. So many things about this case didn't add up, but at least now they had a witness who said the congressman had shot his son.
That witness, an aide named Leon Ridge, was now in custody. After being caught a few days ago after planting a bomb, he'd finally caved and explained that the congressman had accidentally shot Michael and then, in an effort to cover it up, he'd had Leon shoot him so he could insist that some unseen assailant had attacked both of them. And the congressman had hinted that Erin might be involved. Crazy, but Leon had done a good job following orders. The congressman's injuries had been severe enough to make it look real, but Leon Ridge swore his version was the truth.
"And what about Erin Eagleton?" Chase had asked the bouncer of an aide. Rumor around the city was that Leon's only qualification involved handling delicate matters for the congressman.
"I don't know anything about her," Leon had retorted. Then he'd started fidgeting.
"You mean you haven't heard all the news reports alleging she was the shooter? She's missing, in case you didn't know."
"I don't watch the news."
"Right. But you probably know that Congressman Jeffries is wanted on corruption charges. He's missing. Could have left the country."
Shock had turned Leon's skin a sickly pale.
The captain had stood up. "Let us know when you're ready to tell us what really happened that night, Ridge. Think about it long and hard because until we find Erin Eagleton and the congressman, you're our main suspect."
"Hey, I told you the truth. The congressman accidentally shot his son."
"And you were forced to shoot him at his request to make it look like an unknown assailant did it," Chase had reminded him. "That's a tall tale, for sure." Then he'd asked Leon Ridge the one question burning through him. "Was Erin at the congressman's estate that night?"
"Like I said," Ridge had insisted in a quick rush of breath, "I don't know anything about Erin Eagleton."
Ridge still maintained he was telling the truth, but Chase didn't believe him. More like, he was covering his own hide until Erin turned up. Ridge had clammed up even more when two fancy lawyers had visited him.
Now Erin was still out there on the run, afraid for her life. Chase needed to find her to tell her that they had new information that might clear her name.
And he wanted to tell her that it had all started with a two-year-old boy.
A maid named Rosa Gomez who worked for the congressman had been found dead the day before Michael Jeffries was shot. The congressman was wounded the night Michael died and at first claimed he hadn't seen the shooter. Erin's starfish necklace was found at the scene of the shootingChase had verified that since he'd seen her earlier on the night of the shooting. After that, everything pointed to Erin as a witness or person of interest, but no one had been able to find her.
Then a kid named Tommy Benson from the All Our Kids foster home not far from the congressman's estate confessed that he'd sneaked out that night and witnessed the congressman holding a gun. But the kid also said Michael was still alive when he was there. Tommy hadn't seen Erin there. He didn't even recognize her in a picture. Chase couldn't imagine Erin arriving after that and committing such a cold-blooded crime. No way.
But things were unraveling for the pompous congressman. The dead maid had left behind a little boy who carried the same scallop-shaped light brown birthmark as the congressman and his son Michael. Strong evidence that the rumors about the boy being Harland Jeffries's son could be true. And maybe it was one of the reasons Michael had been murdered. Congressman Jeffries stood to lose everything if he'd been having an affair with his maid and had a secret child whom he'd let languish in foster care.
But would that alone force him to kill his adult son?
The team had finally found evidence of corruption by the congressman in his own meticulous records. They'd also had a break when they'd arrested several of his top aides, but no one wanted to talk. They'd planned to bring in Congressman Harland Jeffries on corruption charges and to question him about the murdered maid since the evidence was mounting on that one, too. But the congressman had fled. No one could locate him and Leon Ridge talked only about his version of what had happened the night Michael had died.
But Ridge had admitted to planting a bomb to kill K-9 team member Isaac Black and DC General Hospital nurse Daniella Dunne, trying to make it look as if Daniella's mobster father, Terence Fagan, had done the job. Congressman Jeffries knew the nurse had seen his birthmark, the same birthmark that Michael and little Juan Gomez had on their shoulder. More evidence that Juan was a Jeffries.
That admission at least showed Leon Ridge as a henchman for the congressman and proved that the congressman wanted the Capitol K-9 team to stop this investigation.
Ridge was a witness to whatever really happened the night Michael was murdered, but he refused to even discuss Erin's involvement.
Someone had put a muzzle on Ridge. Why?
Was the congressman trying to get to Erin before she could finally tell the truth about what happened at his estate that night?
"I know you didn't do this," Chase said, his gaze scanning the countryside. Fiona Fargo, who worked as a technician for the team, had been helping to track any chatter regarding Congressman Jeffries or Erin Eagleton, and had seen some interesting search efforts in the internet cafés in and around this area. When she'd found a Wi-Fi hot spot at a local hotel, she'd let the team know some of the searches might be coming from Erin. And she'd found evidence that Erin was picking up work there as a waitress. That explained how she had cash to carry her through.
Chase hoped he could find Erin soon, and he wished he could have helped her the night of the murder, or at least stopped her from going to the Jeffries estate. But they'd bumped into each other near the Washington Monument and the tension between them had somehow overshadowed any clear thinking.
She hadn't even realized Chase was jogging along the path until he stopped and called her name. "Erin?"
Erin had whirled, her honey-blond curls collapsing in a silky waterfall around her face and shoulders. She wore a patterned scarf bundled loosely around her shoulders and a short wool jacket over jeans and high-heeled boots. A gold necklace sparkled against her skin and the blue pattern in the cream-colored scarf matched her deep blue eyes.
"Hey, Chase." Her gaze moved over his fleece hoodie and back to his face, surprise masking her obvious discomfort. "Still staying in shape, huh?"
He jogged in place, and then relaxed. "Yep. Part of the job."
She walked closer, her arms wrapped against her midsection to ward off the winter chill. He could see she'd been crying.
"Are you okay?"
Lowering her head, she looked down at her boots. "I'm fine. Just working through some things." She stared off into the lights twinkling all around the city. "I wonder if it'll snow tonight."
Her tone suggested she didn't want to talk about anything but the weather.
Chase had never known when to give up, however. "Erin, are you sure you're all right? You shouldn't be out here alone."
"I told you, I'm fine."
He tried one more time. Seeing her made his life hard, but he cherished their brief encounters all the same. "Anything I can do?"
She shook her head and wiped at her eyes. "No, nothing. I have to go." She pivoted, her eyes holding his. "It was good to see you again, Chase."
Chase reached out to her, his fingers brushing against her scarf. "Erin, you know I'd do anything for you, no matter what."
"I don't need your help," she replied, ripping away from his touch. "Not anymore."
That comment brought out a pent-up bitterness in Chase. "You mean, because you don't need me in your life now, right? I saw you with Michael Jeffries at that recent White House dinner. I guess your father is still calling the shots."
"I have my own life now, Chase. No one tells me what to do."
"Okay," he said, hating himself for caring. "Or maybe you still don't have the courage to stand up to your daddy."
The hurt in her eyes as she turned away made Chase want to take back that accusation. But it was too late for that. Too late for a lot of things.
"I have to go," she'd said, her expression as chilly as the night wind blustering through the bare branches of the nearby cherry trees.
She'd taken off so fast her scarf fell away from her jacket. The soft material fluttered toward the ground like a dying butterfly, but Chase caught it up in his hands.
Chase had held it and called out to her. "Erin?"
But she'd already slipped out of sight.
Chase had been one of the last people to see her the day of the murder, and he'd beaten himself up over that tense conversation. What had she been crying about that night? Why hadn't she let him help her?
A few hours later, he'd seen her broken starfish necklace in an evidence bag and Chase had become obsessed with finding Erin. It might be too late for them, but he wouldn't let time run out on saving her.
This latest lead from Fiona and the research team had brought him to a rural area of Virginia about forty miles southwest of DC. Months ago, someone matching Erin's description had been seen by a couple, Edward and Mavis Appleton. The elderly Virginia husband and wife had helped Erin in the days after the murder, but they'd been attacked by some thugs also looking for Erin. Since then, no one had come forward with any concrete sightings, but the team had proof that she'd been using internet cafés and remote libraries to do some online research, all of it pointing toward a strong corruption case against the supposedly upstanding Congressman Jeffries. Smart. She'd tried to bring down Jeffries on her own.
Since the man was now wanted on said corruption charges, Erin had obviously been onto the truth. Because the congressman had fled and was now missing, Chase wanted to find Erin before one of the congressman's henchmen did.
The big dog at his feet whimpered and danced around, dark eyes staring up at Chase with anxious clarity. Valor was ready to get on with things, too.
"Yeah, boy, I know," Chase said to his K-9 partner. Trained in search and rescue, Valor knew only that he was needed to find someone. But how could Chase explain to his faithful companion that they'd gone off the gridway off the grid?
Leaning down, Chase allowed the fawn-colored Belgian Malinois to sniff the now-familiar cream-and-blue patterned cashmere scarf.
"We need to find her, Valor," he said, praying that after so many months of uncertainty regarding Erin Eagleton's whereabouts, one of his leads would finally pay off.
Valor sniffed the delicate material, then started trembling. The big dog was ready to go. Chase held tight to the leash and made sure Valor's protective vest was secure. Then he gave the command to "Find."
Valor took off into the Virginia woods located along a jogging trail near a narrow stream. Chase held tight and ran along with the animal. Had they hit on something so soon?
Was Erin somewhere nearby?