A Taste of... Cold revenge

Chapter One

Maribel Green snuck a hunted glance over her shoulder, checking to make sure none of her coworkers in the Arlington, Virginia United States Marshals’ office were watching before slouching low into her government-issued desk chair. With her heart clamped in an invisible vice, she tapped at her phone, but her hands shook so much that she hit the wrong app. Facebook popped open, filling her screen with a political rant by a woman she’d gone to high school with and had never spoken a single word to since.

“Dammit.” She flinched as the whispered curse came out louder than expected. After a frantic look toward her boss’s office to make sure he hadn’t noticed her outburst, Maribel closed her eyes and inhaled through her nose the way every yoga instructor over the last ten years had taught her.

One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand, five…

At the last one thousand, she released the air through her mouth. It took Mirabel ten repetitions before her hands ceased the worst of the trembling. This time, she managed to tap the correct icon. The encrypted messaging app she’d been instructed to download popped open, displaying a single new message. Mirabel opened it, and a link appeared. She held her breath as she clicked.

Please, please, please…

As promised, a video popped up, and Mirabel struggled to recognize anything in the dimly lit room. Her pulse threatened to sputter out. Where? Where were they?

Just as her hand started trembling again, the lighting improved, and she spotted the two small forms huddled together on a weathered cot in the far-right corner. The video zoomed in, showing the zip ties binding their wrists and ankles and the blindfolds swallowing half their faces. After squinting long enough to ensure their chests were rising and falling, Mirabel nearly sagged onto the floor in relief.

Her babies. Her babies were still alive.

As Mirabel reached a shaky finger to touch little Ava’s face through the screen, her phone buzzed. She jumped, making her chair lurch forward while she swallowed a startled scream. A new message appeared, catapulting her heart into her throat.

As you can see, the little darlings are still fine…for now. How long that lasts is up to you.

She muffled an escaping sob with her hand. She needed to pull it together. Focus. Remain calm. Hysteria would only serve to get her children killed.

On the bright side, the kidnapper didn’t have any new instructions for her, which was one of the things she’d feared. That happened too often, she’d learned in her role with the Marshals. A kidnapper started by demanding one thing before asking for a second and a third.

For now, it appeared that her children’s kidnapper merely wanted to remind her what was at stake if she failed to meet his demands.

Merely.

A hysterical laugh bubbled up Mirabel’s throat as the absurdity of the situation hit her. She clamped her lips together to hold it in while her hands clenched into fists. She worked for the U.S. Marshals Service, for heaven’s sake. Why was she following the instructions of some lowlife scumbag who’d kidnapped her kids and held them hostage when help was only steps away?

All she had to do was march around the corner to her boss’s office and tell him what was happening. Within seconds, Seth Conway, the Assistant Director of the U.S.M.S. Witness Security Program, would spur the marshals into action. Mirabel didn’t have to do this alone.

She was halfway out of her chair before fear shattered her newfound resolve like a hammer splintering her office’s glass wall. She sank back into her seat as the kidnapper’s message from earlier that morning flitted through her head.

Be warned. I’m listening to every word you say. I watch every move you make. I’ll know the second you mess up, and poor Liam and Ava will be the ones to pay the price.

Mirabel knew he was telling the truth about monitoring her because she’d already tested him once. In a panic, she’d started to dial Seth’s number, but a new message popped up before she could finish.

I see what you’re doing.

Mirabel shivered. That was all the kidnapper had said, but it was enough to convince her. If he wasn’t lying about his ability to monitor her every move, then she had no choice but to believe him when he said he’d take any of her mistakes out on her children.

Her sweet, precious babies, all bound up like criminals in that dark room. How terrified must they be? Mirabel opened the video again. Her spine straightened, even as her stomach turned.

She didn’t want to steal the highly classified information the kidnapper demanded, but she would. In Mirabel’s mind, a choice between handing over names of people in the WITSEC program and forfeiting her children’s lives was no choice at all.

Now, she just needed to wait for the right time.

Mirabel pretended to be engrossed in a memo on her monitor while the minutes ticked by. After what felt like hours, a flicker of motion in the hallway caught her eye through the glass partition. Right on time, her boss walked past her office on his way to the conference room for a scheduled meeting.

This was it.

Mirabel watched the time on her monitor like a hawk. When exactly five minutes had passed, she gathered a stack of folders as cover, stood up from her chair on trembling legs, and headed toward her boss’s empty office. She kept her head down and exhaled a sigh when she reached his desk without interruption. Her gaze fell on Seth’s computer.

I can’t do this. I can’t.

Before she realized it, she’d stumbled back a step. She tightened her fists and fought against the instincts urging her to turn and flee.

If she did that, Liam and Ava were as good as dead.

That was all the reminder Mirabel needed. Skirting the edge of her boss’s desk, she sank into his chair and clicked the mouse. She entered the passcodes stored in her head from all the years of working with him. A few clicks led her to the file she needed.

WITSEC

There they were. The real names of the people currently in the federal witness security program. Their aliases and contact information. All she had to do was write them down.

Just three of them, she reminded herself.

Three names in exchange for her two beautiful children.

What else could she do?

Mirabel reached for her pen to jot the information onto the paper she’d brought along with her, but her hand refused to budge. She wasted precious seconds reminding herself that the majority of people on that list were criminals. Scumbags who had only escaped federal prison by cutting a deal and ratting out someone who was even more awful. The most terrible of bad guys.

Not innocents, like her babies.

With a trembling hand, her pen scratched across the notepad as she jotted down the information the kidnapper had requested on the three names. When she finished, she glanced at the page, startled to find that the cursive didn’t look familiar. No tidy, flowing letters. Instead, her handwriting looked like the wobbly attempts of a second grader.

She shook her head to clear her scattered mind. Forget the cursive. What mattered was that she’d retrieved all the information he’d demanded. All she had to do now was get out of there without being caught.

Mirabel logged out of the computer, replaced the mouse where she’d found it, and pushed to her feet. With all the calm she could muster, she called on her dwindling reserve of self-control to force her legs to walk out of the office, instead of the full-out sprint her nerves demanded. Once she arrived at her desk without incident, she collapsed into her chair, gripped the edge of her desk until her knuckles turned white, and waited for her pulse to stop its frantic drumbeat in her ears. Everything would be okay. The hardest part was over, and no one was the wiser.

Yet.

When her heart no longer threatened to punch its way out of her chest, she tapped out a text: Got the info you requested. Can we meet now?

Mirabel’s eyes never left her phone as she waited for a response.

Wait for GPS coordinates. Don’t do anything foolish in the meantime.

Before she could set her phone back down, an image popped up, a close-up of her babies’ sweet, sweet faces as they slept.

A reminder of everything at stake.

Goose bumps erupted all over Mirabel’s skin, and she rubbed her arms to chase them away. She didn’t know how she would make it through the rest of the workday without having a mental breakdown, but she needed to figure it out, and fast.

The rest of the day dragged by. Mirabel checked the time so often that the numbers swam before her eyes, dissolving into meaningless symbols. Even the tiniest, unexpected noise caused her to jump in her chair. She stared sightlessly at the file open on her monitor, unable to focus on anything other than the names on the paper she’d tucked into her pocket. That, and her children.

Thunk!

Mirabel yelped and jerked in her chair, causing an unpleasant screeching noise. She swiveled to discover her boss looming in her doorway with his fist still mid-air from where he’d rapped on her window. Deep creases lined his broad forehead.

Oh god. Did he know she’d accessed his computer? Her legs quivered while her brain performed frantic calculations of her odds of darting past him and making it to her car.

“You okay in here? You’ve barely poked your head out all day.” Seth’s gravelly baritone sounded the same as always.

Mirabel’s chest eased a little. “I’m fine, thanks. Just not feeling one hundred percent.”

Her boss’s too-sharp gray eyes inspected her. “You look pale, like you’re coming down with something. That stomach flu has been going around, so if you’re not feeling better tonight, take tomorrow off.”

Tomorrow off.

Yes, that was precisely what she needed. After this, Mirabel wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to let her kids leave her sight again.

She forced her lips into a semblance of a smile. “Thank you, I’ll do that.”

“Good.” He jerked his head toward the hall. “Why don’t you go ahead and leave a few minutes early?”

Before she could respond, Mirabel’s phone buzzed in her lap. She knew without looking who it was, and the smile froze on her face, though she forced her voice to remain calm. “Yes, I think I’ll do that. I’m pretty beat.”

Please, leave already.

“Feel better.” Seth nodded, and to her immense relief, turned and headed back down the hall. She waited until he disappeared from sight to open the new message.

I was worried you were being foolish, but you kept your mouth shut, good girl.

How? How could this stranger know that? Either he had a bug in her office, or he could hear via her cell phone.

The how didn’t matter right then, though. All that mattered was what she needed to do next.

Bring the information, drive straight to the coordinates below, and wait. It would be unfortunate if you made any mistakes now, when you’re so close to being reunited with your children again.

A pin appeared, providing blessed directions to a spot on the map a little over thirty miles away. She hurried into her coat, snatched up her purse, and rushed into the hallway. Taking in a calming breath, she forced herself to slow to a brisk walk. She couldn’t let her actions be memorable. Nothing to see here, folks.

Almost there, almost there.

The chant accompanied her down the hallway, into the elevator and out through the lobby area. She exited the building into a world freshly blanketed in a dusting of white. Frigid gusts of wind chafed at her already winter-dry cheeks, and she welcomed the awakening slap it provided.

Only last week, the temperatures had been unseasonably warm for December, sunny and in the low seventies. Mirabel had begrudgingly given in to her kids’ whining and taken them on a bike ride. Guilt swelled in her throat at the way she’d initially resisted. At the time, she’d been tired from a long week at work.

She shivered and quickened her pace to the parking garage. The beep-beep of her remote echoed through the deserted building, and lights flashed, leading her to the white Buick Enclave. She flung open the door, lunged into the seat, and shoved the key in the ignition.

Once Liam and Ava were home safe and sound, she’d take them wherever they wanted to go. They could build a snowman. Make hot cocoa and watch holiday movies. Mirabel vowed never to take them for granted again.

BEEP!

Mirabel yelped and slammed her foot down on the brake so hard that her head whipped forward an instant before the back of her skull smacked the headrest. She winced, rubbing her neck while her heart continued to race. A glance in the rearview mirror reflected the silver SUV she’d come within inches of backing into, along with a woman Mirabel didn’t recognize flipping her off.

Mirabel weakly fluttered her fingers at the pissed-off driver. “Sorry.”

Her hands tightened their grip around the wheel before she relaxed, releasing an unsteady breath. So stupid. Now wasn’t the time to let her focus wander, not when she was so close to having her babies back safely in her arms.

Once the SUV cleared the path, Mirabel scanned both ways before easing her foot onto the gas. She exited the parking garage and followed the directions dictated by her GPS.

The first thirty minutes were excruciating as traffic moved at a crawl. Apparently, she wasn’t the only one off work early. She switched on the radio, scrolled to a classical station she normally found soothing, but punched it off again a minute later. Each note was like a hammer on her taut nerves.

She finally cleared the D.C. traffic when the GPS navigated her off the highway and onto back roads. Soon, she was winding her way down unfamiliar streets. White flakes fluttered onto her windshield like ash, and when Mirabel passed a car smashed into a fence on the shoulder, she eased her foot off the accelerator.

Another ten minutes passed before the GPS guided her down a deserted road that Mirabel was sure she’d never been on before. The longer she drove, the more the acid ate at her stomach, burning as it attempted to rise up her esophagus. The sun was getting close to sinking from the sky, and she hadn’t passed another car in a while.

“Turn left.”

Mirabel did as the robotic voice instructed, then breathed a sigh when she was informed that she was only point two miles from her destination.

“Thank God.”

Mirabel squinted through the falling snow, attempting to spot a building or structure of some kind.

Her phone pinged. Pull to the side of the road.

Not even bothering to be surprised that the villainous man knew her exact location, Mirabel did as she was told. She shifted into park and craned her neck to inspect her surroundings. She didn’t like what she saw.

No one else was around. No other cars, no anything, except what appeared to be a deep ravine to her right. Beyond the ravine, day slowly gave way to night, and despite her nerves, Mirabel couldn’t help but admire the riot of reds and oranges streaking across the sky, courtesy of the cloud-camouflaged sun.

A shrill ring interrupted Mirabel’s trance, and she yelped before realizing it was her phone. The panic subsided, and her lip curled as anger fired within her every cell. Nine years. That was how long she’d been working for the Marshals. Nine years of her dealing with some of the worst of society and yet arrogantly believing she could continue unscathed indefinitely.

A mentor had once given Mirabel some serious advice. “Those of us who work in law enforcement all pay a price eventually, one way or another.” At the time, Mirabel had merely smiled and dismissed his claim.

Not her.

She was careful. She ate healthy, meditated, did yoga. Kept her personal information under lock and key. Didn’t post photos of her children anywhere on the internet. She did everything she’d convinced herself would protect her and her family from the ugly side of her job. Only now did she fully understand her mentor’s warning.

Slipping the Sig P365 from her purse, she checked that the magazine was full before placing the gun in her coat pocket. She’d never killed anything before, but she’d kill this man if needed. Gladly.

Mirabel’s skin buzzed with the need to do something. She shifted her weight in the seat and reached for the door handle before switching gears at the last second and wiping at the growing cloud of moisture fogging up her driver’s side window. The text had instructed her to wait in the car, so that was what she’d do. Wait, even if her body was desperate to move.

She was close to crawling out of her own skin when she spotted headlights in the distance. They glided toward her like a beast in the night: slow, calculated, predatory. The sedan slowed as it approached and pulled up beside her.

Her phone pinged. Show me your hands.

Mirabel dug her nails into her palms before doing what he said. Had he seen the gun somehow, or was he just being extra cautious?

When the driver stepped out, she took in every detail she could see. Around six feet tall with broad shoulders, the man wore dark jeans and a plain black sweatshirt. A ski mask prevented Mirabel from further observation.

Without so much as a glance her way, the man headed for the back of his car. There was an audible click, and then the trunk flew open.

Mirabel gasped. Had that monster shoved her babies in the trunk? What if they couldn’t breathe in there? A knot clogged Mirabel’s throat as she smashed her face to the window in an attempt to get a better view.

The man pulled her children from the trunk, one at a time, and gripped them each by an elbow.

Horrible, but they were standing. Her babies were okay.

A strangled sob escaped Mirabel’s lips as she fumbled for the handle, threw open the door, and jumped out. “Liam! Ava!”

“Mommy!”

Two little bodies propelled their way to her at a dead sprint. They launched themselves into her arms with such force that Mirabel staggered backward under their combined weight. She regained her balance and squeezed them tight, relishing the sweet feeling of their warmth pressed up next to her.

She laughed and sobbed and inhaled the sweet scent of their apple blossom shampoo. She was filled with a wave of maternal love so fierce she had to force her arms to release the pair because she never wanted to let them go.

There would be time when they got home for her to smother them with kisses and love and check to make sure they hadn’t been harmed in any way. Right now, she needed to get them all to safety.

With that in mind, she hurried to open the back door and guide their shivering bodies inside. First Ava, then Liam. Before she could close the door, the driver appeared at her side, his gloved hand clamping down on her arm.

“The list?”

With fingers that felt numb, Mirabel pulled the folded paper from her pocket. Her fingers brushed the steel of the gun, but from the way he squeezed her bicep, she knew she wouldn’t be able to pull it out, let alone lift it high enough to aim at anything important.

She just needed to give him what he wanted and go. She’d let Seth and the others track him down afterward. Maybe…

A part of her, a very cowardly part of her, knew that she’d never say a single word about this day to anyone. She didn’t want to be targeted again.

Lord, please forgive me for what I’m about to do and protect those three people on the list.

She extended the paper toward the man. She was so distracted by the way he whipped his hand out to grab it that she never saw his other fist coming. Pain exploded in her cheek, and Mirabel flew backward before crashing to the ground.

The toe of a boot connected with her temple, and her world dimmed even further as a loud ringing filled her ears. And pain, there was so much pain. Her face, but also her lungs. It was like someone had parked a car on her chest.

Mirabel gasped, and air wheezed down her throat. As awareness slowly returned, cries and screaming prickled her consciousness. She frowned, wincing as the motion made fresh pain explode in the side of her face. As her mind desperately tried to piece together the events of the last few minutes, her body jerked, then lifted. The screaming grew more distinct.

Her kids. Ava and Liam.

Her eyelids flew open, her gaze landing on the man in the ski mask. Her memory came crashing back, and Mirabel began to writhe in his grip. She flung an elbow into his abdomen, but either he was too strong or she was too weak for it to make an impact.

“I gave you the names! Please, put me down!”

A low chuckle was her only answer. The amused sound increased her panic by several degrees.

“You don’t have to do this.” She pushed at his shoulders, tried raking her fingers in his eyes. In response, he clamped her so tight against his chest, she couldn’t move. Could barely speak. “I won’t talk. I won’t say a—”

Without warning, the man threw her inside the open driver’s door, and the sudden jolt of her head filled her vision with flashing, agonizing light. She screamed, and bile rose in her throat as darkness threatened to consume her once again. She gritted her teeth against the pain and nausea.

No. Must stay awake. Liam. Ava. Need me.

Focusing on her children’s sobs, Mirabel fought to remain conscious. This might be their only chance to escape. She felt for the gun in her pocket but couldn’t seem to find it. Where had it gone?

“Shhh, babies. It’s going to be okay. Mommy’s here now.”

At the sound of her voice, the children’s sobs subsided into whimpers. There. She’d be okay once she caught her breath and her head stopped spinning. As soon as her vision cleared, she’d fight back. Grab her babies and make a run for it.

She thrashed at a new pressure against her chest, but when her hands flew up to fight, all she grabbed was a thick fabric strap. Her seat belt. Why had this horrible man fastened her seat belt?

A blurry figure filled her vision, and she tried to slap the dark demon away. It didn’t go. Instead, it reached past her, doing something to the gearshift before turning the steering wheel in a clockwise rotation. While her mind was still trying to make sense of what was happening, a hand fell above her right knee, fingers biting into her muscle.

“What—?”

The Enclave roared as her foot pressed onto the gas pedal. The awful reality hit Mirabel when the SUV launched forward, taking a hard right turn. The man hung on to the door, his foul presence remaining at her side…pressing…pressing…

No. No! This can’t be happening.

She pumped the brake with her other foot, but she was too late. It was done.

As the man jumped away and the Enclave’s nose dipped down, Mirabel remembered her third-grade teacher sharing Newton’s law. “An object in motion stays in motion…”

Her body went weightless. The first few moments when the heavy SUV caught air were peaceful, like floating in a hot air balloon. The children must have found it peaceful as well because neither of them said a word.

“…unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”

The front end crashed against the rocky crevice, catapulting the vehicle into the first of many somersaults.

The last thing Mirabel heard before her forehead cracked the windshield was the high-pitched sounds of her children. “Mommy!”

“Mommy’s here,” she whispered as the SUV tumbled two-hundred feet down the rocky ravine. She reached back between the seats, longing to touch them one last time. “Mommy’s here.”


Chapter Two

Ellie Kline set the last take-out container of Pad Thai shrimp on the table next to Jillian, the cardboard hot on her fingers, before scooting into a chair beside her. “That’s all of it, dig in.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice.” Jillian grabbed the yellow curry chicken and scooped a healthy serving onto her plate before passing the food to Jacob Garcia. Jacob was Ellie’s former partner at the Charleston Police Department, but he’d grown into Jillian’s real-life partner. The two had been dating for months.

Ellie grinned at the lovebirds, so glad that her two best friends had found happiness together. The grin widened when her stomach rumbled in response to the delicious spicy-sweet aroma wafting her way. She pressed her hand to her belly to shut the beast up.

The growling was so loud that Jillian paused with her fork halfway to her mouth and snickered. “You know, if you ate once in a while, maybe your stomach would be less vocal.”

Jacob snorted as he helped himself to a serving of Pad Thai “So, what you’re saying is, Ellie should start eating every half hour instead of every hour?”

Ellie shrugged, unbothered by their good-natured teasing. “Sounds like a solid plan to me.” She liked food. She especially liked food when it was shared around her dining room table with her closest friends.

“I still think it feels a little weird eating out of cardboard boxes while sitting at this fancy table with that even fancier light overhead.” Jacob gestured to the elegant crystal chandelier that glittered like diamonds above the exquisite dark dining set. “Shouldn’t we be serving the food out of china or something?”

Ellie waited until she swallowed a bite of sweet, pan-fried noodles before responding to her former partner’s joke. “The rule is, whoever uses it, washes it. Oh, and by the way, my mother insists that the family china be washed by hand.”

At the mention of Helen, Ellie’s perfectly-put-together mother and more-than-a-little intimidating matron of the elite Charleston, South Carolina Kline family, Jacob lifted his hands in surrender. “On second thought, take-out containers are perfect, Eleanor.”

The way he said Ellie’s given name sounded suspiciously like her mother.

Jillian Reed rolled her eyes at the man she was dating before breaking into an indulgent laugh. Across the table, Clay Lockwood broke into a faint smile. Proof that even special agents with the FBI had at least some sense of humor.

Ellie surveyed them, a warm glow filling her. All her favorite people, living here in one place. Ellie could barely remember what it used to feel like, back when she’d lived alone in this giant four-bedroom luxury apartment in the building her parents purchased when she insisted on moving out of their family home.

That was before she’d met Jillian Reed in the basement of the Charleston Police Department. Ellie and the petite blonde evidence clerk had become fast friends, so the natural thing to do when Jillian’s landlord objected to her big goofy mutt, Sam, living in her old building was for Ellie to invite her friend to move in.

Clay cleared his throat, drawing Ellie’s attention across the table to the handsome, dark-haired Texan cowboy she’d met while working a trafficking case. The FBI agent had charmed her almost immediately with his easy-going nature and lack of arrogance. Clay’s eyes met hers, and the flash of yearning she detected in their brown depths sent an electric current racing across Ellie’s skin.

She shifted in the chair and dropped her eyes to her plate. Having Clay Lockwood as a temporary roommate was…complicated. As much as she liked him, Ellie still hadn’t completely forgiven him for his role in setting Katarina Volkov free, and worse, letting the vile woman take her innocent daughter with her. Even under the protection and guidance of WITSEC marshals, and even though Katarina would have to undergo extensive therapy and parenting training, it just felt wrong.

Very wrong.

But that was how law enforcement sometimes worked, she knew. You tossed the smaller fish back in the pond in order to catch the larger ones. Plus, setting Katarina free wasn’t Clay’s doing, she knew. The orders had come straight from the Attorney General, whose only concern was the information Katarina could give him. If Clay hadn’t been involved in convincing her to turn state’s evidence, someone else would have.

But still…he could have fought it harder. Done something more. Not tossed that little girl to that wolf. What he could have done, she still didn’t know. She just knew little Harmony had been living with the treacherous woman for two months now, and Ellie could only pray that the sweet girl was safe.

Not that anyone had done anything to keep Katarina safe when she’d been Harmony’s age, Ellie knew. Katarina, named Marcella at the time, had been thrown to the biggest wolf of them all…Lawrence Kingsley. There was a part of Ellie that felt terribly sorry for Katarina. Maybe being with her daughter could make a difference.

A hand came down on Ellie’s shoulder, and she jerked her attention back to the present. Jillian gave her a little squeeze before dropping her hand away. “You okay?”

Ellie stabbed her fork into a bite of food. “Of course. My mind just wandered a bit.” She glanced over at Clay to find his gaze on her. It was time to let it all go, she knew. The past couldn’t be changed. She smiled at the agent. Relief flooded her when he smiled back.

He was important to her, and she needed to get down off her high horse and realize that everyone was just doing the best they could with the shitty circumstances they’d been handed.

Ellie was deeply glad he was here…for several reasons. His company, sure, but also because she felt safe around him. Ellie appreciated both him and Jacob taking up residence in her home after a stalker planted a bomb in her Audi.

The stalker hadn’t planned on one thing, though. Ellie had been out of town on a case, so Jillian was the one using her car. The chicken Ellie chewed turned to ash as she remembered how close her friend had come to dying in the explosion. If it hadn’t been for Ellie’s custom keyless ignition, the paramedics would have been scraping Jillian off the concrete, one tiny piece at a time.

Ellie grabbed her glass of water and guzzled it down, trying to wash away the bile burning her throat.

Clay wrinkled his brow at her before launching into a discussion of his recent Florida trafficking case. Almost like he’d recognized that she’d needed a distraction. Yet another reason she was glad he was here…he knew her well.

He was in the middle of sharing that six more of the children illegally adopted by a smarmy attorney in Florida had been located when a loud buzz cut Clay off mid-sentence. All four of them searched for the culprit, which turned out to be Ellie’s phone, dancing its way across the table. “Oops, sorry.”

Ellie grabbed the device with the intention of dismissing the call but frowned when the notifications caught her eye. Six missed calls, all from the same unknown number. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. Wasn’t 503 a Portland area code?

“It’s probably nothing, but I’d better take this just in case.” She shoved her chair back and jumped to her feet. “Hello, Detective Ellie Kline.”

“Ellie!” Her name burst through the speaker, forcing her to pull the phone away several inches. “Oh, thank god, you finally answered! Where have you been? I’ve been calling you for hours!” The words came out in a frenzied rush, but even though his voice was higher-pitched and much louder than she’d ever heard him speak, Ellie recognized the caller instantly.

She hurried around the corner and into her bedroom, shutting the door so as not to disturb her friends. “Gabe? Is that you?”

“Yes, and I’ve been trying to reach you for the last few hours. I’m sorry to disturb you, but I’m freaking out here. I think I’m in trouble, and I need your help.”

Despite the pleasant temperature inside her apartment, Ellie shivered. The fact that the usually soft-spoken Gabe Fisher was calling her in an obvious panic did not bode well.

Once the assistant to the notorious sociopath Dr. Lawrence Kingsley, Gabe Fisher had risked his life to help Ellie and Jillian escape the murderer’s clutches by shooting Kingsley’s partner-in-crime…the former Charleston PD psychologist, Dr. Earnest Powell. As a result of his heroic actions, Gabe had likely propelled himself to the top of Kingsley’s personal most wanted list, leading Ellie to help him enter into the U.S.M.S. WITSEC program.

The marshals had whisked Gabe away—apparently to Portland she’d just learned—under a new identity, issuing him strict instructions to keep him safe. One of those rules was no contact with people from his former life.

Ellie hoped that Gabe was overreacting. For his sake.

“Slow down and tell me what’s going on. You know you’re putting yourself in danger by breaking protocol.”

“It’s an emergency. I promise I wouldn’t be calling you otherwise.”

An odd wheezing emitted from Ellie’s speaker. It took her a second to comprehend the noise. “Are you hyperventilating?” Gabe choked out an indecipherable reply that Ellie accepted as confirmation. “Okay. I’m here now, so why don’t you take some deep, slow breaths to calm down, and then tell me what’s going on.”

“O-okay.”

While Gabe worked to control his obvious panic, Ellie leaned on her antique dresser, battling her own rising sense of unease. Her mind refused to help. Instead, it insisted on dredging up vivid memories of exactly why Gabe was in WITSEC.

Ellie remembered the knots in her gut when she’d learned Kingsley had kidnapped Jillian, using the file clerk as bait to lure Ellie to his lair.

Ellie’s Audi Q3 bumped down the dirt driveway off Clements Ferry Road, teeth clenched as the Master’s voice guided her back to the warehouse where his sick obsession with her first started when she was only fifteen years old. The rusted-out, sagging metal structure loomed on the hill, conjuring reminders of the time she’d spent trapped inside.

As she approached the building, a chill swept over her. The Master is only a man, she reminded herself before pressing on. She had no choice but to continue. That monster had Jillian.

When she first stepped into the shadowy interior, she was as good as blind. The only light flickered from a single, bare bulb. She waited for her eyes to adjust while, from within the darkness, a steady drip-drip of water pinged the floor. Over time, shadows formed into murky objects, so she eased forward, her hand hovering near her holster. A metal table solidified in her path first, then a human-shaped figure.

That was how Ellie discovered her best friend. Unconscious. Her head listing to one side, and her mouth slack.

But the rope cinched around Jillian’s neck was the detail that struck true fear into Ellie’s heart. That, and the audible click of the complicated pulley mechanism the Master had created, which tightened the rope every thirty seconds.

Goose bumps flared at the unwanted memory. Ellie rubbed her hands up and down her arms, soothing the prickly flesh. The truth proved more difficult to banish. If she hadn’t shown up to rescue Jillian, her friend would have slowly strangled to death.

The high-pitched rasp of Gabe’s breathing softened and slowed, alerting Ellie that he’d be ready to talk soon. She listened with half an ear while her mind wandered to the other person who’d nearly killed her. A man she’d trusted with all her secrets…Dr. Powell.

During Ellie’s attempt to rescue Jillian, she’d believed the middle-aged and very kind Dr. Powell was an ally. If it hadn’t been for Gabe rushing in to shoot the doctor as Powell pretended to help Ellie free her friend, both Ellie and Jillian would be six feet under right now. The mild-mannered doctor had fooled them all, working out of the Charleston PD office as the resident police psychologist for years. No one had been the wiser.

Proof that evil came camouflaged in a variety of ways.

Ellie’s hand curled around the dresser’s edge at the memory of all those times she’d spent in Dr. Powell’s office, revealing her innermost thoughts and fears. Never once suspecting that he was part of the nightmare of her past or that he passed every bit of private information she shared straight to Kingsley.

Gabe was the reason Dr. Powell was dead, and Ellie was free. Kingsley would never forgive his former assistant for that. Or forget.

Ellie straightened from the dresser and began circling her room, her tension mounting with each passing moment it took for Gabe to calm enough to explain.

“I went to the mailbox this afternoon, and I found a box.” Gabe whispered as if he was worried the boogeyman might be lurking right around the corner, eavesdropping. “It was from him. Kingsley.”

Although she’d already suspected it to be the case, Ellie’s stomach still tightened when she heard the name. If Gabe was right, that meant Kingsley was back in action. “Are you sure?”

“The address was in his handwriting. I worked with him long enough to recognize it immediately. And…there was a bird inside.”

When no further explanation came, Ellie’s gaze returned to her dresser, as if an answer might materialize, genie-like, from one of her perfume bottles lining the top. “A bird? I’m sorry, I’m not following you.”

“I started bird-watching as a hobby, something to pass the time. I was even considering joining the local Audubon society until I opened the box.” Gabe broke off, his breath a harsh rasp in Ellie’s ear. “The bird was dead. Its eyes stabbed out and throat sliced.”

“Kingsley.” His name was like knives leaving Ellie’s mouth.

“Yes. He knows, Ellie. I don’t know how, but he does. My new identity and where I live, even my new hobby. For all I know, he’s watching me as we speak, getting ready to grab me any second and punish me for turning on him.”

Ellie chewed her lower lip. Gabe was right. There was a chance Kingsley planned to grab him any second now, but somehow, she doubted it. A quick capture wasn’t exactly Kingsley’s style.

“I don’t think so. There’s a distinct possibility that he’s holed up somewhere miles away from you, recovering from his injuries. He could have easily sent a lackey to do this kind of dirty work. Plus, we both know how much Kingsley enjoys playing his twisted little games. It’s likely that he’s content deriving pleasure from toying with you.”

She didn’t add, for now. Gabe was worked up enough without her fanning the flames of his fear.

Gabe, though, knew Kingsley well. He said the words for her. “For now.”

Ellie pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead, trying to think this all the way through. “Walk me through your steps these past couple of weeks. Who have you had contact with? In-person and electronically.”

Seconds ticked by before Gabe replied. “No one. I go to a coffee house to order and say thank you to the barista, check out books at the local library, bird-watching, but that’s, uh, that’s about it. It’s not like I moved here to join clubs and make new friends.”

There was an unusual cadence to his speech that struck Ellie as odd. A little hiccup, followed by a rise in pitch. She frowned, then shrugged the oddity off as nerves. Or something to delve into further when Gabe’s alarm bells weren’t ringing so loud.

“I’m not accusing you of anything, Gabe.” She kept her voice slow and even. “These are questions that need to be asked.”

“You think I wanted to give Kingsley the chance to find me? I know I didn’t recognize how truly horrifying he was when I first worked for him, but I promise, I’m not stupid.” Gabe’s tone softened this time, to the point that he almost sounded sad. “How do you think he found me?”

Ellie was already racking her brain over the same question. If Gabe was telling the truth—and she had no reason to suspect he wasn’t—then how had Kingsley tracked him down? That was a mystery that needed quick solving.

“I’m not sure, but trust me, I’ll do everything in my power to find out.”

“I know you will.”

His simple declaration of confidence tugged at Ellie’s heart. The hand pressed to her forehead fell away, and she straightened her spine. She would get to the bottom of this. She’d been the one to arrange for Gabe to go into WITSEC, which made her responsible for what happened to him. Dammed if she’d let Kingsley hurt another person on her watch.

“For now, stay put. Forget your lattes, books, forget going for a walk. Stay locked inside and keep your eyes peeled. I’ll call you back as soon as we have a plan. If anything else happens, no matter how small it might seem, call me immediately. Me. No one else.”

“Don’t worry. It’s not like I’m talking to anyone else, so you’re the only one I can call.” Gabe gave a nervous little laugh. “If there’s any way you could please pick up quicker next time, though, I’d really appreciate it.”

Ellie shot a guilty look into her mirror. She looked pale. Heck, she felt pale.

“Sorry about that. I turned my ringer off before a work meeting, and I must have forgotten to turn it back on. I promise to answer right away next time.”

After a few more encouraging words, Ellie hung up, her mind spinning as it struggled to process what Gabe had told her. She needed a plan. Quickly. Lucky for her, she had her own planning committee conveniently seated at the dinner table down the hall.

Despite the seriousness of Gabe’s call, Ellie found herself smiling a little bit as she rushed from her bedroom. If she knew that trio as well as she suspected she did, they were sitting on pins and needles, trading ideas on who was important enough to pull Ellie away from her food. All three of them, nosy as hell when it came to her life.

Their interest grew once they’d started sharing Ellie’s apartment, a roommate situation she owed to the bomb that destroyed her Audi. Ellie had hired private security, but both Jacob and Clay insisted on staying on as additional protection. That worked perfectly for Ellie. If anything happened to Jillian because of her, Ellie would never forgive herself.

Jacob and Jillian had used the time together to grow even closer as a couple, whereas Ellie and Clay? Well, she wasn’t sure exactly where they stood. Ellie sighed as she retraced her steps to rejoin her friends in the dining room. That one weekend they’d shared the same bed had been wonderful, but ever since they’d returned from their trip to Florida, their relationship had grown increasingly strained.

Living together in the FBI ACTeam building hadn’t helped, but the real kicker was discovering Clay had not only agreed but actively participated in convincing Katarina to trade a prison sentence for entry into the WITSEC program. Even now, Ellie’s blood boiled, thinking about how Katarina had escaped the consequences of her crimes, but at the time? Oof. Her blowup at Clay had served as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Only in this case, that last straw propelled Ellie and Clay back into the friend zone.

Ellie paused before she rounded the corner, twirling a red curl around her finger. Sometimes when he didn’t think she’d notice, she caught Clay staring at her with intense hunger and longing in his dark eyes, only to turn away the moment he spied her watching. She was pretty sure he wanted more than friendship, and some days, so did she. But any time she considered making the first move to tell him as much, something inside her shied away.

No, not something. Someone. Nick Greene, to be precise. Her complete failure to maintain a relationship with her ex-boyfriend had taught her a hard lesson: romantic relationships and detective careers didn’t mix. Not for her, anyway.

Lifting her chin and pulling her shoulders back, Ellie entered the dining room and paused behind her abandoned chair. Forks dropped to plates. Chatter ceased. Three pairs of eyes focused on her.

“So?” Jillian swept a stray tendril of blonde hair behind her ear, worry furrowing her brow. Ellie’s roommate and coworker spent enough time with her to read the unnatural stiffness in Ellie’s posture.

“That was Gabe Fisher. He got a package in the mail today, in Kingsley’s handwriting. Addressed to his new alias.”

Jacob swore under his breath while Clay nodded. “We were afraid this might happen,” Clay said.

“Sure, but this quick?” Jacob’s head whipped toward the special agent, making his K-9 partner release a low, worried whine from his spot on the dog bed. “Shh, it’s okay, Duke.”

Clay shrugged. “The Marshals are excellent at their jobs, but they can only protect those people who follow the rules precisely.” He met Ellie’s gaze. “Did he say he followed the rules?”

Ellie thought about the change in Gabe’s tone. “He said he did, but…” She lifted a shoulder. “It’s possible he slipped.”

Clay looked grim. “From what I understand, it happens more often than not. Plus, Kingsley has the kind of resources that most people can only dream of, and when it comes to Gabe, he’s highly motivated to seek revenge.”

Clay’s calm demeanor washed over the table. Not for the first time, Ellie found herself grateful for the FBI agent’s quiet confidence, a trait she attributed to his work on the bureau’s anti-trafficking coordination team.

Clay’s ACTeam role was what drew them together in the first place. Fortis assigned Ellie to help the agent with a cold case involving a runaway named Charity, which led to a wild chase to capture a serial killer and ended with a dark web auction organized by Katarina Volkov herself.

Jillian pushed the remnants of her chicken curry around her plate, trailing yellow streaks across the white paper. The grooves above her nose grew more prominent, a sure sign that she was deep in thought. “You know, one of my old friends from college is in the Marshals’ Washington office. Her name is Mirabel Green. We don’t keep in close contact or anything, but we do touch base once every year or so. You want me to reach out to her and ask if she might be able to help?”

Ellie considered Jillian’s offer for a moment before shaking her head. “Thank you, but let’s hold off on that for now. It’s good to know you have a contact in case we do end up needing an insider we can trust.”

Clay patted his mouth with a napkin. “Speaking of the Marshals, did you tell Gabe to call the marshal handling his case?”

“No, not yet. I wanted to check in with you first and make sure that was the best plan. Do you think it’s safe?” Ellie sipped her water, hating that she even had to ask that question. Leaks in any organization were possible. So were traitors. Ellie knew that to be true personally.

Clay tapped a finger to his chin as he mulled it over. “What proof do we have that there is a leak or a mole inside the U.S.M.S.?”

Jillian exchanged a glance with Jacob, her mouth twisting. “Do we need more of a reason beyond the fact that Kingsley knows Gabe’s whereabouts?”

“I don’t think that’s enough of a reason to jump to any conclusions. With Kingsley’s network, there’s no telling how he got the information.” Ellie rubbed her aching temples. “We know that he’s had moles in the Charleston police department, though, so who’s to say the informant isn’t from an outside agency? Or a computer hacker?”

“I agree. And even if there is a leak somewhere, the chance that Gabe’s personal marshal is involved is slim. In my mind, that play would be way too risky and obvious.” Clay lifted his eyebrows at Ellie. His subtle way of asking if she agreed.

Ellie nodded. “Right, and for better or worse, the local marshals are Gabe’s best shot at protection for now.” She picked up her phone and redialed the last number, hitting a button to switch the call to speaker.

The phone only rang once before Gabe picked up. “Ellie?”

“Yeah. Listen, I need you to call your marshal as soon as we hang up and tell him what happened.”

“Okay, I can do that.” Gabe’s ragged intake of breath filled the dining room. “Does that mean I have to move again?”

Ellie sought Clay’s gaze across the table. She caught the inclination of his head, which confirmed her own instincts. “I’m afraid so. It’s not safe for you to stay there, now that he knows where you are. We need to set you up with a new name and house as soon as we possibly can.”

Gabe cleared his throat. “What if I don’t want to? What if I’m okay taking my chances here?”

The sudden increase in Gabe’s volume made Ellie frown.

Clay leaned forward, a growing storm clouding his eyes. “Pardon my French, but why the ever-loving hell would you want to stay there, knowing that Kingsley has your location locked and loaded?” The FBI agent’s voice was soft. Dangerously so.

Silence followed, broken only by Sam’s whimper as she twitched on her dog bed next to Duke, chasing imaginary bunnies in her dreams.

Ellie fisted her hands tightly in her lap as her suspicions grew. “Gabe? Is there something you need to tell us?”

Clay obviously had the same suspicions. “Now isn’t the time to hold anything back. Not if you’d like to keep on breathing.”

At Clay’s sharp reminder of what was at stake, Gabe let out a low moan. “I met someone, okay? I know, I was stupid and didn’t follow the rules. I’d say I’m sorry, but that would be a lie. He’s decent and smart, and the thought of picking up and leaving and never seeing him again breaks my heart.”

Clay and Jacob groaned in unison. Ellie dropped her face into her hands. Oh Gabe, what did you do? She felt bad for him, but at the same time, she wondered how he could be so reckless.

Clay pinched the bridge of his nose. “Am I dreaming, or did you tell Ellie a few minutes ago that you hadn’t met anyone?”

“I said that because I didn’t want to move, but now I guess it’s happening anyway.” Gabe sighed over the line. “It’s not my fault that Kingsley found me, so how is it fair that I have to upend my life all over again?”

Clay dragged a hand through his short, dark hair and waited for Gabe to reach the inevitable conclusion. They all waited.

Gabe’s sigh lasted longer this time. “Right. Life isn’t fair. I should know this better than anyone.”

Ellie’s heart twinged. “I’m sorry, Gabe, because you’re right. It’s not fair. We understand that, but unfortunately, the facts don’t factor fairness into consideration. Your safety has to come first. Now, walk us through your movements over the past few weeks again, and please, don’t leave anything out this time. We can’t keep you safe unless you’re completely honest.”

The next few minutes were spent listening to Gabe recite his movements and periodically responding to questions that Ellie, Clay, or Jacob decided to ask. By the time they finished this round of inquiries, Ellie felt confident that Gabe had shared everything he remembered.

“Thank you, Gabe. That was very helpful. Now, listen closely. As soon as I hang up, call your marshal like we discussed. Then, once you hang up with them, I need you to remove the SIM card and battery from your phone. From now on, only contact me with a burner phone.” Ellie paused to give Gabe a chance to process her instructions. “Did you catch all that or should I go through it again?”

“No, I understand. Call the Marshals, then remove the SIM card and battery.” He sounded on the verge of tears.

Once they said their goodbyes and she ended the call, Ellie leaned back into her chair with a loud exhale that transitioned into a groan.

Jillian studied her. “So, now what?”

“Now, I ask Fortis for permission to fly to Portland. If Kingsley is monitoring Gabe, that means he might be lurking somewhere nearby, and I want to be there if he is.” Ellie inhaled deeply before meeting each of her friends’ eyes in turn. “I need to be the one to take that bastard down, once and for all.”

Cold Revenge  releases on December 17! Add to your Goodreads shelf now!

Cold Revenge by Mary Stone

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