Angelina Baroni was about to testify against her mafia kingpin father until she received a threat to her lifedespite the protection of US Marshal Dylan McKnight. Deciding she's safer on her own, she leaves witness protection and goes into hiding. Three years later, the duty-dedicated marshal is the last man she expects to see when she wakes up in a hospital after someone attempts to kill her. Dylan knows he can't afford to trust Angelina. Still, he'll do whatever it takes to keep her safe from the mobsters on her trail. But Dylan has only a few days to accomplish his most difficult mission: defuse Angelina's doubts about testifying and win her heart before their time runs out.
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Unease crept up Angelina Baroni's spine. The kind of unease a person feels when she thinks she's being watched but doesn't see anyone.
The tinkling of laughter and the sound of distant voices drifting on the Atlantic City ocean breeze couldn't pull her out of her funk. Not even the incessant chattering and giggles of her best friend and business partner, Maria Lopez, could calm her dark mood as they strolled the beach.
Something was wrong.
She couldn't put her finger on it but her senses flashed warning signs. She wouldn't be alive today if she hadn't paid attention to those inner warnings over the past three years. It unsettled her to have them crop up again.
Nothing unusual had happened during their marketing meeting tonight. On the contrary, Maria had given an excellent presentation. They'd signed a lucrative advertising contract with one of the larger casinos. This was a huge milestone for their tiny firm. First time they'd gone up against the corporate advertising giants and won.
They'd celebrated with dinner in the swanky dining room they would now promote and were walking off the huge calorie overload at the edge of the surf. Maria had worked hard for this account. Her enthusiasm was contagious and Angelina couldn't be happier for her, for them.
A sense of foreboding crawled up her body like a bug she'd been unable to swipe away. She glanced over her shoulder. Nothing. No one.
But someone was there. In the darkness. Watching them. Waiting. She could feel it.
The pale glow from a full moon provided extra illumination. Except for the two of them, the beach was deserted. She glanced at the boardwalk. People walked back and forth in a continuous motion. No one stopped to stare at them over the rails.
Her gaze settled on the area under the pier. Had she seen someone move in the shadows or was her mind playing tricks on her? She stared harder into the darkness. Nothing.
But that feeling of being watched
Her stomach clenched.
She trusted her gut. This familiar, although unwanted, tightness told her she was missing something. But what?
A splash of cold water hit her face.
"Hey, Angie! You haven't heard a word I've said."
It took her a second to respond to the shortened name. Believing her life was in jeopardy, she'd run away from the witness protection program, trusting no one but herself to keep her alive. She'd changed her name, staying close to her birth name so she'd respond to it easily, yet even three years later she still occasionally hesitated. Now Angelina Baroni, aka Angie Robertson, wiped the salt water from her cheek and grinned at Maria. "I've been listening. And stop throwing water at me. It's cold."
"It's October, silly. The ocean is supposed to be cold. Don't change the subject. You've been ignoring me." Maria's short black hair with its one large aqua streak blew in the wind. Strands danced across her freckled nose and coiled in her large hoop earrings.
"I heard every word."
"Okay, fine. Tell me what theme I'm going to use for our first ad?"
Busted! She'd tried to listen. Honestly, she had. But that unsettled feeling had distracted her.
"See! I was right. You weren't listening." Maria stooped and splashed her again.
Angelina threw her hands up to protect herself and laughed. "Enough!"
"Our first casino! Can you believe it?" Throwing her arms wide and her face to the heavens, Maria spun around. On one of her passes she threw a glance An-gie's way and stopped in midtwirl.
"Okay. What gives? Something's bothering you." Maria shot a look in each direction. "What?" Her expression sobered. "Ang? You look scared to death. What is it? What's wrong?"
"Nothing. I'm being paranoid." She stared into the darkness under the pier again. "It's just " She didn't see anyone, no moving shadows this time, only darkness. "Forget it. I'm being silly." She turned her attention back to her friend and grinned. "I'm so proud of you. You did a great job tonight."
"Thanks." Marie grinned in return. "Just think, Ang. We've worked so hard. Now all our dreams are about to come true!"
Something whizzed past Angelina's ear.
Before her mind could identify the sound, another bullet whizzed past. This one landed in a soft thud.
A small patch of moisture formed on the left side of Maria's dress.
Angelina blinked in shock and stared at the stain.
Oh dear, it is blood!
A surprised expression appeared on Maria's face moments before her body began to crumble.
Angelina rushed forward. Bullets kicked up the sand where she'd been standing only moments before.
"Maria!" She caught her friend in her arms. "No!"
Tears burned her eyes. Her arms begged to release the heavy weight but she couldn't. Not yet. She clasped her friend against her body. Her arms ached with the strain of the deadweight. Her heart breaking with the sorrow.
Dear Lord, be with Maria. Carry her home in Your arms.
Slowly, gently, she lowered her friend to the sand.
The prayer had been automatic, instinctive. Angelina had stopped praying years before to God, whom she believed never answered her prayers. But she couldn't take the prayer back. Not this time.
Two more bullets hit the water, each one closer than the last.
Springing into action, Angelina zigzagged across the beach, doing everything she could not to be an easy target. If she could reach the boardwalk she'd be safe. Lights, people, help loomed only a few dozen yards ahead.
She pushed harder, her feet fighting her as they sank into the soft sand. Her calves cramped beneath the punishing pace. Her breath bubbled in short gasps, each one feeling like her last.
Only a few more yards.
She never heard the bullet that claimed her. Never felt the pain as the velocity of the shot threw her to the ground.
I've been hit.
That was her last conscious thought as a second bullet sent her into blessed oblivion.
US marshal Dylan McKnight stormed down the hospital corridor and came to an abrupt halt outside one of the rooms. US marshal Thomas "Bear" Simmons stood with his back against the closed door.
Dylan never knew whether the man had gotten his nickname from his enormous linebacker girth or the fact that his huge hands could be mistaken for lethal weapons. Either way he never thought of his partner as anything less than the bear of a man he was.
"Is it true?" At six foot one Dylan still had to look up at the gentle giant.
Bear held his hands up and grinned. "Hey man, I know better than to play with you about this. Yeah, it's true. Angelina Baroni is inside."
Dylan exhaled slowly. He'd thought about what he'd do if he ever saw her again. Prayed about it. Now the time was here and he didn't feel he could move a muscle.
His mind's eye immediately captured the memory of long thick black hair framing a heart-shaped face. Twinkling sky-blue eyes. Natural blush-tinged cheeks. Lips, touched lightly with red, smiling back so mysteriously, she could give the Mona Lisa a run for its money.
His nightmare was more like it.
He'd had one job to do. Keep his witness alive and hidden in protective custody until the upcoming trial of Vincenzo Baroni, New Jersey capo. Head of one of the strongest arms of organized crime to hit this area since the olden days of Capone and Luciano.
He had had Vincenzo dead to rights. His own daughter Angelina was going to testify against him. But Dylan had broken a cardinal rulenever get involved with a witness.
He'd trusted Angelina, after all he'd known her since grammar school, but he should have known better. He'd been burned once before by trusting a witness. The bad information had led to a shoot-out that killed his partner and had almost cost him his life, as well. He couldn't believe he'd allowed his tendency to trust to burn them again.
Angelina had proven without doubt that she was her father's daughter. She'd played him. Made a fool out of him. Disappeared without a trace. Almost ruined his career. Definitely ruined his case.
Thankfully, there had still been enough circumstantial evidence for the grand jury to indict. Now, after three long years and multiple attempts of the defense attorneys to delay, the case was finally going to trial.
With his star witness missing and the trial starting in six days, he'd been unable to sleep, eat or do anything else these past few weeks but pray.
God had cut it close answering those prayers. But He'd answered. Angelina was on the other side of that door.
His heart thundered against his chest. He shot a glance at Bear. "What happened? How is she?"
Dylan wanted to push past his partner into the room and find out for himself but he steeled himself to remain professional and in control. Something he should have done three years ago and hadn't. He'd put his heart on the line and he'd been burned.
"She took a couple of bullets. One in the right arm. One grazed her head."
His stomach clenched as if he'd been sucker punched. No matter what had happened between them he couldn't bear the thought of anyone hurting her.
"She probably has a concussion. We're waiting for the doctor to brief us." Bear stepped away from the door. "She's one blessed lady. The woman with her was brought in dead on arrival."
Again, Dylan winced, offered a prayer of gratitude that Angelina hadn't died and offered a brief prayer for the woman who had.
"Did they nab the shooter?" Dylan placed his hand on the door but paused for the answer.
Bear shook his head. "So far no witnesses. We have our suspicions but you know how that goes."
Dylan nodded and pushed open the door.
The room, illuminated only by the night-light over the bed, revealed a small female form lying beneath the blankets.
Dylan stepped closer.
Short errant strands of hair peeked from beneath the gauze bandage across her head. Red hair?
Who would have thought?
A smile touched his lips. Cute, though.
Almost as if it had a mind of its own, his hand brushed a wisp from her forehead.
He'd forgiven her years ago as God asks everyone to do. Forgiveness was the easy part.
It was forgetting he was having trouble with.
She stirred beneath his touch.
His hand froze. The warmth of her smooth, velvety skin seared his skin. His pulse skipped a beat. His eyes strayed to her slightly parted lips. She'd been his best friend in grammar school and their relationship had become full of teenage angst in middle school. Gazing at her now stirred those memories.
He took a deep breath, stared at the sleeping woman for another minute, and then lowered his hand to his side.
Once upon a time he'd believed he was falling in love with her. Until.
A slow, steady burn rose from his gut and he allowed the anger to flow like molten lava through his veins.
Anger would help him remain professional and keep his personal feelings at bay. Anger would keep him sharp and focused. Anger would prevent him from falling for her lies or betrayals ever again.
Deep, throbbing pain.
Angelina raised a hand to her forehead. A thick gauze bandage made her pause.
She opened her eyes. A lightning bolt of hurt shot through her head and she squeezed them closed again.
Okay. Stay still and think. Where are you? What happened?
It didn't take long for her mental fog to lift. Everything came rushing back and she wished it hadn't. The shooting. Her best friend, Maria, dead.
She shot up in bed and instantly regretted it. The room spun like an amusement park ride out of control. Her stomach turned over. She held her head with both hands and groaned aloud.
"Good. You're awake."
Angelina froze like a person who had stumbled upon a deadly rattler. She'd recognize that voice anywhere. Dylan McKnight.
How had he found her? The last time she had seen US deputy marshal Dylan McKnight he was conspiring to have her killed.
She hadn't wanted to believe it. Wouldn't have believed it if she hadn't witnessed it with her own eyes.
Angelina had been sitting in a holding room waiting to testify before the grand jury. She knew her testimony would go a long way in helping them determine whether there was enough evidence to indict her father for murder.
Nerves had skittered up her spine. Her legs had bounced up and down and her hands wouldn't stop shaking. Unable to sit still another second, she sprang up from her chair and paced the room. On one of her passes she glanced out the door into the hall and saw Dylan slip the bailiff a piece of paper. Minutes later the bailiff, who had a sinister look in his eyes and a sneer on his lips, passed that note to her.
Do you really think you will live to testify? I own cops. I own judges. I own the marshals that pretend to protect you. You will never be able to hide from me.
The note had broken her heart. If she hadn't seen the exchange she would not have believed it. During the few short months they were together in the witness protection program before she fled, she'd started to have feelings for Dylan and had believed they were returned.
How could she have been so wrong?
She'd tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe Dylan had given the bailiff a different note. Or maybe Dylan hadn't read the note and was just a go-between passing it from an outside source to the bailiff.
But could she trust her own judgment anymore? She'd trusted her father, believed him when he claimed to be a successful businessman who was the brunt of vicious rumors by envious competitors. She'd believed Dylan when he told her he cared about her and promised to keep her safe.
She'd been wrong about both the men closest to her.
Her father had turned out to be a cold-blooded murderer.
Even if Dylan hadn't known the contents of the note, he'd still let the bailiff come close enough to give it to her, close enough to kill her if he had wanted. She couldn't trust Dylan to keep her safe. The note proved she couldn't trust the marshals, the cops, even the bailiff! A heavy lead weight had formed in the pit of her stomach and with sickening clarity she'd known the truth. She couldn't trust anyone anymore except herselfnot even God.
And for the past three years that was exactly what she'd doneprotected herself.
Until last night.
Dylan approached the head of the hospital bed. "What's the matter, Angelina? Have nothing to say to an old friend?"
The warmth of the US marshal's breath fanned her cheek when he spoke. She couldn't be sure whether it was his words causing her pulse to trip or if it was the proximity of the man himself, the man who long ago had made her pulse race for reasons that had nothing to do with fear.
Did he have to stand so close?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another winning book from Diane Burke. It grabs you right from the opening sentence, and the suspense doesn't let up until the end. The mystery keeps you hooked right up until the villain is revealed. And worked seamlessly throughout is a heartwarming love story about learning to trust, getting a second chance, and deciding how to do do the right thing. I really enjoyed this.