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The woman's body lay on the cold, dirty concrete floor of the garage, a few feet from her car. She'd probably been trying to run to it when the murderer caught up with her. Her hands reached toward it, the right one smeared with dirt, in a silent, futile plea for help.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Micah McGraw forced down the sick feeling in his gut. A law enforcement professional couldn't get emotional about crime victims. He could imagine his police chief father saying the words. Or his big brother, the FBI agent. They wouldn't let anything as soft as emotion interfere with doing the job.
"Pity." The local police chief grunted the word, but it sounded perfunctory.
Natural enough. The chief hadn't known Ruby Maxwell, aka Ruby Summers. He hadn't been the agent charged with relocating her to this small, supposedly safe environment in a small village in western Montana. He didn't have to feel responsible for her death.
Bless her, Lord. Speed her soul's journey straight to Your hands.
The brief prayer helped to center him. Shoving aside all distracting thoughts, Micah leaned over the body, studying the wounds. One shot to the chest, a second to the head. Her killer wanted to be sure Ruby was dead.
"Her apartment was tossed, too. Might have been a robbery, but nothing's missing that we can tell."
"I'll have a look before I leave." He'd been in Ruby's apartment a couple of times when he'd come to check on her.
"This looks more like a professional hit than a robbery gone bad." Chief Burrows made it sound like a question.
He knew only too well what was in the man's mind. What would a professional hit man be doing in the remote reaches of western Montana on a cold January night? Why would anyone want to kill this seemingly inoffensive woman who'd been waiting tables at the Village Café for the past year?
And most of all, what did the U.S. Marshals Service have to do with it?
All good questions. Unfortunately he couldn't answer any of them. Secrecy was the crucial element that made the Federal Witness Protection Program so successful. Breach that, and everything that had been gained in the battle against organized crime would be lost.
He straightened, brushing his hands together even though he hadn't touched anything. "My office will have a team here in a couple of hours. Until then—"
"Yeah, yeah, I know." Chief Burrows let annoyance show. "Cordon the scene, don't touch anything, don't say anything to anyone."
"That's about it. Sorry," he added.
He was sorry, though Burrows probably didn't believe it. Brownsville was the chief's town, and he was responsible for keeping the people in it safe. Burrows probably hadn' t had a murder in this sleepy place in years, and now that there was one, the feds were brushing him aside.
Micah's father, a police chief in a Chicago suburb before his death, would have felt the same way about a crime on his turf.
His cell buzzed, and he turned away from the disgruntled chief to answer it. "McGraw."
"The crime scene team is on its way." The voice was that of Mac Sellers, a fellow marshal sidelined to desk duty after an injury. "Should be there in about an hour."
"Good. Make sure they know to check out the apartment, as well as the garage."
"Will do. You wanted the address for the woman's next of kin?"
"Right." Ruby had a twin sister, he knew. She'd have to be notified. Since she lived back east, at least he wouldn't be the one to do that.
"Jade Summers." Mac was probably reading from a computer screen. "Librarian. Current address is 45 Rock Lane, White Rock, Montana."
For an instant Micah froze, the cell phone pressed against his ear." Are you sure of that?" He barked the words.
"Course I'm sure." Mac sounded offended. "I can look things up, as well as anyone."
Uttering an apology that probably didn't placate the man, Micah hung up, his mind buzzing with questions.
He turned to stare once more at the empty shell that had been Ruby Summers. She'd made mistakes in her life, plenty of them, but she'd done the right thing in the end when she'd testified against the Mob. She hadn't deserved to end up lifeless on a cold concrete floor.
As for her sister…
What exactly was an Easterner like Jade Summers doing in a small town in Montana? If there was an innocent reason, he couldn't think of it. That stretched the long arm of coincidence a bit too far.
Ruby must have tipped her twin sister off to her location. That was the only explanation, and the deed violated one of the major principles of witness protection.
Ruby had known the rules. Immediate family could be relocated with her. If they chose not to be, no contact was permitted—ever.
Ruby's twin had moved to Montana. He frowned. White Rock was probably forty miles or so east of Billings. Not exactly around the corner from her sister.
But the fact that she was in Montana had to mean that they'd been in contact. And that contact just might have led to Ruby's death.
He glanced at his watch. He'd have to wait until the team arrived and all the routine that followed a violent death rolled into motion. Then he'd get back on the road toward Billings and beyond, to White Rock. To find Jade Summers and get some answers.
Jade pulled a warm sweater over her head. After nearly a year in Montana, she'd learned to love the Big Sky Country, with its spectacular scenery, clean air and friendly, independent people.
But if she stayed her whole life, she'd probably never get used to the cold winters. Her indoor-outdoor thermometer declared that it was two below zero now, and the weather forecaster had cheerfully announced that it felt like sixteen below. The thought made her shiver even in her warm bedroom.
Still, the good things about the move far outweighed the bad. She had her own little house, neat and clean and everything she had once dreamed of. She could run the small county library to suit her ideas of what a library should be. She'd made friends here. She was settled.
Had Ruby adapted yet to life in Montana? Her twin had loved warmth—warmth, comfort, luxury. All the things their early life had denied them. Was she happy now with the way things had turned out?
Or was she pestering the Witness Protection Program to relocate her someplace warm? Jade had to smile at the thought of her sharp-tongued twin taking on some hapless U.S. Marshal.
The sound of a vehicle coming down her narrow lane caught her attention. That probably wasn't Herb or Ellen Trask, her landlords. Herb had been over at first light to plow her lane for her after last night's snow, and Ellen knew that Jade would be headed for work soon. Jade moved to the bedroom window and raised the shade.
A black-and-silver 4x4 stopped at the front porch. She was already learning to identify her neighbors by their trucks, but she didn't recognize this one. It was old but looked well-cared-for, like most of the trucks she saw out here. People knew that in bad weather their lives might depend on the reliability of their vehicles.
A man got out on the driver's side. He paused for a moment, staring at the house, and she looked down at him, her hand pressed against the cold pane. He was tall, she could tell that even from this angle. Beyond that, his jeans, boots, heavy parka and Stetson could belong to anyone.
He moved toward the front door, his stride that of someone fairly young and agile. Definitely not Herb, whose paunch was visible even when he wore a down parka.
The stranger turned slightly, and the sunlight struck the object pinned to his jacket, making the metal glitter. A badge.
Jade's heart stopped for a second. Then it started thudding against her chest.
Ruby—it must be something to do with Ruby.
She raced down the stairs, feet keeping time to the violent beating of her heart. She hurried to the door and yanked it open while the man's hand was still raised to knock.
That faint shock in his brown eyes—was it because of her precipitous approach, or because he was looking at an identical replica of Ruby?
"Are you Jade Summers?" His voice was a deep, mellow baritone, roughened by some emotion.
She nodded, taking a step back, motioning him in. He stepped across the threshold, the movement bringing a wave of cold air into her cozy room.
He was even taller than she'd thought, with an air of authority that seemed to suck all the air out of the space around him. He removed his hat, holding it in one hand, revealing thick, glossy brown hair cut in a vaguely military manner.
He had a slash of straight dark brows, a lean, tanned face and a jaw that might have been carved from teak. A faint hint of sympathy in his brown eyes softened the harsh impression.
Sympathy? Or pity? Her eyes focused on the badge. U.S. Marshal. The U.S. Marshals ran the Witness Protection Program.
Nausea hit like a blow to her stomach. Something had happened to Ruby.
"I'm Deputy Marshal Micah McGraw." He held out some sort of identification.
She shook her head in denial of the news he undoubtedly carried. "Ruby…" Her voice failed.
"I'm sorry." His baritone deepened even more. "I'm afraid I have bad news."
She couldn't stand dancing around it. "Tell me. Just say it."
His eyes hardened at her tone. "Your sister, Ruby Maxwell, died last night."
Maxwell. That had been the name she'd taken when they'd relocated her out here after she'd testified. It didn't sound right.
"Died." She repeated the word. It was odd that no tears sprang to her eyes. Maybe because she couldn't picture Ruby—vital, eager, annoying Ruby—as anything so final as dead. She took a harsh breath. "You mean, killed, don't you? Murdered."
That would be the way it ended. That was the only thing that would bring a U.S. Marshal to her door.
"She was shot in her garage." He paused, as if editing what he was saying. "I'm sorry. She would have died instantly."
Was that supposed to comfort her? She opened her mouth to say something, but no words came. Instead her knees buckled.
She sensed him move. He guided her to the sofa, lowered her to a seat, steadying her with a hand on her elbow.
"Easy. Just take it easy. Take a deep breath."
She wanted to snap at him that deep breathing wasn't going to help her, not when her twin would never breathe again.
Why, God? Why? The plea formed before she thought about it.
Why did she bother? Ruby had always said you couldn't rely on anyone else—certainly not God. Once she'd have argued the point, but in the past year she'd begun to think Ruby had it right. If God cared, why was her twin dead?
She sucked in air. She had to say something—had to make him stop hovering over her.
"Last night." She swallowed. "They say identical twins can sense it if something traumatic happens to one of them. I didn't feel a thing. But we've been apart so long."
She gaped at him, not sure she'd heard correctly. He'd moved a step away, taken off his heavy jacket and tossed it on the back of the sofa. Now he sat, pulling the straight-backed chair up so that they were knee to knee.
"I—I don't know what you mean." She stammered the words, mind racing. Ruby had broken some rule, probably, in letting Jade know she was being sent to Montana. A vague need to protect her sister moved through Jade. "I haven't seen Ruby since she went into Witness Protection. You must know that."
His gaze probed, as if he looked for a chink in her armor. "You've corresponded with her. E-mailed, maybe."
"No." What was he getting at?
"What are you doing in Montana then, Ms. Summers? This is hardly normal stomping grounds for an Easterner like you."
She had control now. She wouldn't let him rattle her. "I can't think of any reason why that would be your business, Marshal McGraw."
"It wouldn't," he said. "Except that if Ruby broke the rules in order to bring you here, that might explain what happened to her."
For a second she stared into those stern brown eyes, feeling like a jackrabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming pickup. Then a cleansing wave of anger washed through her.
"What are you saying? Are you accusing me of contributing to my sister's death?"
He looked as if he might respond, but before he could speak, she swept on. "How dare you? How dare you imply such a thing? Ruby testified in that Mob case because you people offered her a fresh start. You promised you'd protect her. You said no harm would come to her. You cited all kinds of statistics to prove she'd be safe. If anyone's responsible for my sister's death, it's you!"
McGraw rose, and for a second she thought he was threatening her. But he raised his palm, signaling her to silence.
She heard what he must have picked up first—the sound of a vehicle coming down the lane.
"Are you expecting someone?" The question was low and sharp.
"No." She got up, shaking off the atmosphere of fear he'd brought into her house with him. "It's probably a neighbor." She took a step toward the door. "I'll get—"
He caught her, pulling her against him, his hand going over her lips. Her first instinct was to struggle, but his grasp was protective, not menacing.
"Stay here." He whispered the words against her ear, his breath moving her hair. "I'll check."
Ridiculous, one part of her mind said. But some instinct kept her glued to the spot, watching as he moved silently to the window. Keeping to one side, he peered out cautiously.
Then his body stiffened, and his hand moved toward his gun.
Micah forced himself to remain motionless, assessing the odds. Two of them, both armed, with their weapons out in the open, obviously not fearing any interference in this isolated location. Even as he watched, one man signaled the other to go around the back of the small house, cutting off any retreat.
His hand was on his weapon. If he were alone…
But he wasn't. The woman had to be their target. His first priority was to protect her, and he only had seconds to make a decision.
He reached her in three quick strides, yanking out his cell as he did.
"A place to hide," he murmured the words as he punched in numbers. "Think."
To his surprise, she didn't argue. She touched his hand, guiding him to the stairs. They went up swiftly even as he identified himself and gave terse instructions to the local police dispatcher.