Deputy Marshal Angel Larson has been set up and accused of murder. On the run, desperate to stay one step ahead of the law and the real killer, she turns to a former protectee in a small town—the man who's haunted her dreams...and fantasies...ever since.
Former DEA agent Colton Williamson misses the action of his past life since entering witness protection as a high school math teacher. He also misses Angel, who refused to join him in his new life. Now it’s Angel who’s in trouble, and Colton can’t help but be there for her—before it's too late.
But the killer may be closer to them than they think.
Each title in the Love Under Fire series is STANDALONE:
* Witness in the Dark
* Wanted for Life
* Witness in the Dark
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About the Author
One very early morning, Allison B. Hanson woke up with a conversation going on in her head. Unable to go back to sleep, she went to the computer, and began writing. Years later it still hasn't stopped.
Her contemporary romances include paranormal, sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery suspense. She enjoys candy immensely, as well as long motorcycle rides, and running.
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San Francisco, California
U.S. Deputy Marshal Angel Larson woke to the coppery smell of blood, and the pale light of approaching dawn seeping through the high-rise glass. She fought through a heavy sense of unease, knowing something was terribly wrong. Angel never slept all night. Especially when she was protecting someone.
The last time she'd slept soundly had been years ago during a stay in the hospital. But that was only because she'd been ... sedated.
"Shit." Her rough voice broke through the silence of the room as reality filtered in through the fog. She'd been drugged. Which explained the heaviness in her limbs and the numbness in her brain.
As clarity returned, other facts caught her notice. She was in her protectee's bedroom — more accurately, in Heath Zeller's bed. She was still fully clothed, but her clothing felt wet. No, it was sticky.
Rubbing her temples, she fought to remember what had happened the night before.
She and Heath had attended a media event where he'd teased the press with what was to come from his newest piece of technology to be released in a few months.
The man had upturned the normal stereotype of geeky tech mogul. Heath had a pleasant personality, and a way of speaking that didn't bring on fits of narcolepsy to members of the non-tech world.
He'd used this gift to push his way out of the silicon box and into the hearts and homes of America. His good looks, paired with his hefty bank account, had him listed as most-eligible bachelor on every talk show across the land.
Angel had been assigned the job by her boss, Supervisory Deputy United States Marshal Josiah Thorne. Acting the part of Heath's girlfriend, Aubrey Daniels, was an easy way to stay close enough to protect him while he launched his new product.
Being the only female on Task Force Phoenix came with an extra dose of pressure. Angel prided herself on keeping up with the other deputy marshals. But the scent that greeted her when she'd awoken foretold of her failure to keep Heath Zeller safe.
Sluggishly, she reached out to turn on the light. The sun wasn't moving fast enough.
She wasn't surprised to see all the blood, but her breath caught anyway. Her hands were covered in blood, as were her clothes.
Heath lay next to her, pale and cold. She swallowed down the instant flood of despair, and forced herself to scan the scene. His throat had been cut first, as evident by the arterial spray across the wall. The spatter pattern from his other wounds matched up predictably to the stains on her shirt.
Wiping her hands on her ruined sweatpants, she moved to the safe by the desk. With stiff fingers she touched the correct keys and the lock disengaged. To the casual observer, nothing would seem amiss. The large stack of cash, his diamond cufflinks, and a number of stock certificates were all where they should be.
But something very important was missing — the nondescript-looking cell phone that held the prototype software for Zeller Communication's next step toward global domination.
Someone had gotten away with a priceless piece of technology, and done a damn fine job of setting Angel up for murder.CHAPTER 2
Other than that first brief inspection of the scene, Angel avoided looking at Heath's body as she focused on deciding her next step. She could call the police ... however, the evidence against her seemed solid. She hadn't discovered any proof that another person had been in the room, and she knew for a fact someone else had been there. Because she hadn't done this.
No doubt, her prints would be the only ones on the knife lying on the floor next to the bed. Someone had done a thorough job positioning her to take the fall. If she'd planned this hit, she would have also paid off a few people to say they'd heard her and Heath arguing at or after the party. No doubt, helpful witnesses would surface as soon as the news broke.
Josiah Thorne, her boss, would get her out of the situation eventually, if he could. But that would take time. Time she didn't have if she was in jail. Or if the cops believed her and she was embroiled in an official investigation. Not if she wanted to launch her own.
Until she knew who did this, dealing with the legal system wouldn't be safe. Whoever set her up were professionals. They knew exactly how to plant evidence so she would be the main suspect. She could only trust Thorne and her small team at Phoenix. They were like family.
Everyone else was an unknown.
She brushed aside the last cobwebs of the sedative and her instincts kicked in. Her next step was to get out of there before she was caught red handed. Literally. For a moment, her heart filled with sadness at the loss of the man lying in the bed. While their relationship had been strictly client/bodyguard, she'd liked and respected him as a person.
He'd told her many times how he trusted her with his life.
And she'd let him down in the worst possible way.
Putting aside the deluge of guilt, she worked out the details of her escape plan. No marshal worth their badge went anywhere without having a bolt plan. Normally, it would include the person she was protecting, but now it was to save herself.
From earlier surveillance of Heath's condo at 181 Fremont, she knew the cameras in all seventeen elevators were well monitored. The two main stairwells, however, only had active cameras on every fifth floor, alternating. No sane person took the stairs in a skyscraper.
She might have been able to hack into the building's security system to mitigate the cameras, but she quickly discovered the intruders who'd set her up had also taken her laptop. All the more reason to find them.
And make them pay.
Changing out of her bloody clothes, she threw them in a bag and pulled on a clean outfit and sneakers. Her platinum blond hair had splashes of red stains through it. She pulled it back and shoved on a ball cap to cover the blood.
She paused by the door before slipping out into the hall and heading for the stairs. There were only two other residences on this floor and it was still early, but she held her breath as she rushed past the other doors.
Down two floors, she took that corridor to get to the stairwell on the opposite end. Down the next three and across that floor. Heath lived on the sixty-seventh floor. It would have taken a long time to get to the lobby at this rate.
Good thing she wasn't heading for the lobby.
The main entrance was covered by cameras and security. She knew she couldn't simply walk out of the building without being recorded. Fleeing in disguise would make her appear all the more guilty.
She continued down to the fifty-fifth floor — to Heath's safe house. She'd suggested he rent the place under a fake name so he had a place to go in case his apartment was compromised. It wouldn't be linked back to her, and it would take weeks for them to track it back to Heath.
The scent of new paint and drywall hit her as she entered the apartment. Dropping her go-bag, she hurried directly to the shower, wanting to remove the evidence of her failure.
"I'm sorry, Heath. So sorry." A few tears escaped, but she quickly choked them back. U.S. deputy marshals didn't cry. They didn't allow emotions to get in the way of their duty.
The two times she'd broken that rule she'd paid dearly. The first time was when she'd lost perspective on her first partner at the Marshals Service. That mistake had nearly cost her life. She'd quickly learned not to let her heart get involved on the job.
She'd liked Heath, and they'd had a lot of fun playing a happy couple. But it had been a job and nothing more.
She swiped her last tear away and sighed. She knew Heath would have forgiven her if he'd been there. He probably would have told her she couldn't have been any more careful. They'd never eaten or drunk anything that hadn't been inspected by someone she trusted. Even bottled water had been dipped for contaminants.
She'd done everything right. She didn't know how someone had managed to incapacitate her and kill the man she'd been entrusted to protect.
Pink water swirled around her toes before escaping down the drain.
Heath Zeller was gone, and his life's work, his legacy, was in the hands of his murderer. As Angel stood there dripping, she vowed to get it back.
And to do that, she had to find the real killer.CHAPTER 3
Two days later, Angel was ready to make her move out of the building. By now, law enforcement would have scoured the footage taken at every exit. The day of the murder and the next, there would have been a strong police presence as they canvased the area and spoke to all of the neighbors.
A patrolman had even knocked on the safe house door to ask if she'd seen anything. She'd shaken her head, causing her newly dyed black locks to fall over her shoulder. She'd pushed her glasses up on her nose to look at the flyer that carried her own picture front and center. She'd nodded seriously and agreed to call the number listed if she remembered anything.
Now, with the police presence cut back, it should have been easier for her to make her escape. But there was one element she hadn't anticipated. Heath Zeller — eligible bachelor and America's brilliant boy-next-door — had been a media sweetheart when he was alive. His murder was being discussed on every channel across the country. And with every report, her photo was shown.
She was the jilted ex-lover, Aubrey Daniels, who'd killed Zeller in a fit of jealousy and was now on the run. Armed and extremely dangerous. Wanted by every law enforcement agency in existence ... other than Task Force Phoenix, the only ones who knew the truth.
Angel had spent the last two days working out a plan to get out of the building and away from San Francisco. Using a paper map, she drew a circle around the city showing the distance she could go with the fuel in her SUV's tank and the extra she kept in the back. It didn't help that 50 percent of the circle was in the ocean and therefore useless.
A town had caught her eye. Crystal Grove, Oregon, was within the circle. She shook her head and moved on. No. That wasn't an option.
Fortunately, she wouldn't need it.
She owned three small homes off the grid. Her West Coast property was just outside the circle. It meant she'd have to risk stopping for gas, but once she made it to her cottage, she wouldn't need to go outside again for months. Plenty of time to get things resolved, and hunt down a killer.
With a plan and all the clothing she had with her packed in a small bag, she took out her prepaid emergency phone. She knew she could only risk one phone call, and even that would be layered in code. Calls to her team were undoubtedly being recorded and traced in anticipation of her contact. They would also be watching her team, expecting them to make a move to help her or bring her in.
She dialed the number, having thought out exactly what she wanted to say ahead of time.
"Thorne." Her boss answered on the second ring.
"Hi." She didn't need to identify herself. They'd spoken nearly every day, up until Heath was killed.
"Where are you?" His question was normal protocol. If someone was listening they would think he was doing his best to talk in a rogue deputy marshal.
"I can't tell you that." She played her part. "I didn't do this." Which he well knew.
"You know how it looks. You should come in and discuss it. Tell your side."
She knew Thorne trusted her. From the moment he'd come to get her out of jail seven years ago to offer her a different life with Task Force Phoenix, he'd been a father figure to her.
In many ways he even reminded Angel of her real father. Both tall, steady men with graying hair. They had an air about them that emitted confidence, and made people want to listen to them. Thorne had known her father back before Thorne became Josiah Thorne. Back when he'd had a wife and a baby on the way. Before he'd given up his life for a new one protecting people.
Angel often wondered what kind of strength it took to do something like that — to give up everything and everyone you loved, for the greater good. She hadn't had the option to walk away. Her family was already gone. It had made the decision easier. Thorne had offered her a place on a team that was like a family of orphans, and for that she would be forever grateful. He'd saved her life and given her a purpose.
Her stomach twisted, knowing she'd let him down this time. Heath was dead because she'd failed. She swallowed and continued with a shaky voice.
"I know how it looks, which is why I can't come in yet."
"Where will you go? You can't keep running forever," he said.
"We'll see about that."
"You're too visible. Everyone is looking for you. The second you step out for food or gas, someone will recognize you."
"I have other options." Meaning, her other properties.
"There's nowhere you can hide that we don't already know about." Shit. He was telling her the other properties had been compromised. She was quickly running out of options.
"I'll figure it out."
She hung up the phone and tossed it on the sofa. She consulted her map once more before leaving the apartment. Her gaze moved to Crystal Grove again, which was nestled safely on the inside of the circle.
Her heart sank.
All her choices had just been reduced to one horrible solution.
It was a really, really bad idea. But the only one left.
Walking with purpose, she stepped onto the elevator, strode across the lobby, and out to the street without anyone noticing.
In a parking garage two blocks away, she used the remote to unlock the waiting SUV. Having an emergency vehicle nearby was another standard procedure for Phoenix ops. In addition to the full tank of gas, as a precaution there was also an extra ten-gallon can of fuel in the back. Stopping at a gas station meant risking being noticed or caught on surveillance. Thanks to Heath's fame, the news story wouldn't die down anytime soon. Making every stop even riskier.
She needed help. Even with all her precautions, she was still too visible. It wouldn't take long for law enforcement to realize she'd been in the building the whole time they'd been looking for her.
She was officially on the run, hunted.
She needed a place no one would expect her to go. She needed someone no one would expect her to turn to.
One person kept popping into her mind as she wrestled with the decision.
A year ago, she'd left him without a word.
Would he help her now?
Or would he turn her in the first chance he got ... ?CHAPTER 4
Crystal Grove, Oregon
Former DEA agent turned high school math teacher Colton Williamson's headlights flashed across his modest home before he pulled into the one-car garage. He got out of his truck and went in through the mudroom, as he always did.
Except this time someone was waiting for him.
With a very guilty look on his face.
At the sight of brightly colored debris strewn all over the kitchen floor, Colton let out a soft curse. "Dammit, Pudge."
The mammoth German shepherd let out a whine, not even trying to hide the destroyed tennis shoe at his paws.
"If you were going to chew up a pair of my shoes, why didn't you go for those loafers with the tassels? They're an abomination."
Pudge looked away.
"Right. I understand. It would be too embarrassing to be caught chewing on them. How do you think it feels to have to wear them?"
Pudge trotted to the back door and gave Colton the look that meant he needed to go out.
"Fine. But we're not done discussing this. I am not happy." He opened the door and the dog rushed out. "And if you could go in the back corner like we talked about, that would be great. We're not trying to create a minefield out there."
Still grumbling under his breath, he closed the door and went to get a beer.
He talked to his dog way too much to be considered normal. He was just glad he had a dog so he wouldn't have conversations with himself. Yeah, things were that bad.
When the hell were they going to track down Viktor Kulakov, arrest the bastard, and get his trial over with so Colton could get back to his real life?
He'd been in witness protection for a little over a year and it wasn't getting any easier. He missed his old job in the DEA, and he missed his big, overbearing family even more.
At one time, he'd been annoyed by the constant phone calls from his brothers and their wives trying to fix him up on dates. He'd sometimes avoided calls from his mother when she checked in to see if he'd had a good dinner, not liking the guilt it caused when he had to tell her he'd had pizza for dinner, yet again.
What he wouldn't give to pick up the phone and hear their voices now. He'd love to tell his mother he'd actually learned to cook. And he'd gladly go on a hundred boring dates just so he had someone to talk to.
Not that those dates would go anywhere long term. His heart was unavailable. Mainly due to the fact he hadn't yet gathered up all the pieces after a certain U.S. deputy marshal blew it apart last year.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wanted for Life"
Copyright © 2018 Allison B. Hanson.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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