Mackenzie Winters spent years building a life in Witness Protection, but when someone shoots at her, she fears her cover has been blown. Could the brother of the drug lord she put away be here for revenge? Mackenzie must rely on her handler's twin, world-weary Delta Force soldier Aaron Hanning, to protect her. Aaron doesn't want to be anyone's hero, but he can't let this brave woman die. Now, with danger stalking them, they'll have to make a daring choice that means life or deathfor them both.
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Mackenzie Winters didn't need her years in witness protection to know someone was targeting her. She was looking at the evidence.
All four tires on her old, nondescript car had been slashed.
Mackenzie glanced up at the dark sky. After the day she'd had, all she wanted was to go home and crash. But that wasn't going to happen anytime soon.
She looked back at the dark building, the center that she managed for at-risk teens. Locked up for the night, it looked almost menacing, but that was crazy. It was only bricks and mortar.
The broken streetlight at the far end of the parking lot cast long shadows on the pitted cement. Mackenzie gripped the strap of her purse and strode around the building to the street, where there was a pay phone that seemed to have been long forgotten.
Downtown Phoenix was busy even at this time of night, and there wasn't much time before the last bus of the day. Mackenzie dropped some coins in the slot and dialed her WITSEC handler's number. Eric would know what should be done about her slashed tires. He'd do what he called a "threat assessment" to determine if she needed to be really worriedas opposed to just regular worried.
All because of one night: the night Mackenzie had walked into the hotel suite her entourage shared and saw a man holding a gun to her manager's head. Seconds later, he'd pulled the trigger, and Mackenzie, her manager and her head of security, who'd been with her that night, were all on the floor bleeding. She was the only one who'd survivedthe one who had testified against the shooter and crippled a drug cartel in the process.
The call to her handler went to voice mail, so Mackenzie left a message and started walking again.
She scanned the street in front and behind her. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Whoever had slashed her tires could be watching right now, waiting for the right moment to strike. Why else would they make sure her car was undrivable, instead of just slashing one tire and making her change it? They must want her out of her normal routine. But for what?
Paranoia came with the territory, even though it had been sixteen years since the day she'd testified against the shooter. The adrenaline never really left. Not when at any moment you could be recognized, gunned down or kidnapped and left for dead in the middle of the desert.
Okay, so she needed to watch a romantic comedy tonight instead of a movie about vengeful mobsters.
A car slowed beside where she was walking on the sidewalk, but she didn't look. Traffic was backed up, so it could be nothing. Mackenzie walked faster. It was better to be safe than dead. She should call her WITSEC handler again as soon as she got home. It had been years since she'd needed protection, and months since she'd even talked to Eric on the phone, but if there was a threat, then he should know.
She flicked her gaze to the street. The car was still there, tracking with her every step.
This was her life. It had been ever since her manager had made a deal with the wrong people. It wasn't enough that he'd spent all the money she made him as a musician on his habit; no, he'd needed more money to sustain that habit. And when he'd neglected to pay the money back, the cartel had come looking for him.
Hello, witness protection.
Now for the past two weeks she'd had a funny feelingnothing more than that, not until the tires. It could be simple vandalism, nothing more. Maybe someone with a grudge against the arts center she'd founded. Since she was still alive, she didn't think it was about her former life. If Carosa found her, he would simply kill her.
Mackenzie knew what it felt like to be watched, and to have her whole life dissected for everyone to read about in the tabloids. But no one would even recognize her now. Mackenzie's WITSEC persona was more of a spinster librarian than a famous musician. To her surprise, she'd found being unassuming felt more natural than all the makeup and sparkly clothes in the world.
The car slowed to a crawl and a window whirred down. Mackenzie's foot hit a crack in the sidewalk. She stumbled and broke into a run. There was only one more block to the restaurant where she sometimes got dinner before she went home. The car engine revved to catch up.
A door opened ahead, and a man stepped out, blowing across the top of his white paper cup. It was Eric, her handler. Mackenzie tried to stop, but she slammed into him. Eric's coffee went flying. She grabbed his arms to steady herself and his eyes flashed wide.
"Someone's after me."
The rapport of gunfire shot toward them like fireworks. The window of the coffee shop shattered, and concrete chips flew up from the sidewalk, stinging her legs. Mackenzie's head spun. She was being turned; Eric had his arms around her. He hit the concrete first, grunting when she slammed into him. They rolled toward the car parked by the curb. Gunshots flew over their heads and people screamed.
When they reached the spot between the parked car and the curb, out of the line of fire, Eric hauled her up on her hands and knees. "Crawl. Go!"
With him right beside her, they scrambled away. The sidewalk cut through her tights, so she got to her feet. Eric's grip on her elbow held her down, lower than the cars parked on the side of the street.
The gunfire stopped, but he still didn't let her straighten fully. Thank God he was here. What would she have done if Eric hadn't walked out of that coffee shop at exactly the right moment? She'd probably be dead, and she owed the U.S. Marshals Service so much already. They'd given her a new life when she desperately needed one. How could she possibly thank him for this?
The engine revved, and the car sped away.
"Okay, I think we're good." His voice was deep, deeper than she remembered, and his proximity warmed her chilled skin. His denim-blue eyes scanned the area and then focused on her. "You can get up now."
He stood first and winced when he touched his left shoulder.
"You're bleeding." Mackenzie gasped. "You've been shot!"
"It isn't from this. I just ripped my stitches is all. Don't worry about it."
"We should call an ambulance."
He checked the street and finally looked at her, his blue eyes almost gray. "What we should do is get off the street."
Mackenzie glanced around. The sound of sirens was getting closer. Probably someone in the coffee shop had called 911. "Do you think whoever shot at me will come back and try again?"
Eric shrugged, as though being shot at was no big deal. "I wouldn't rule it out."
"Are you going to make me leave Phoenix? I like it here."
His forehead crinkled in confusion. It was a nice forehead. What was wrong with her? Eric was her handler; she wasn't supposed to think he was good-looking.
He motioned to the coffee shop. "We should at least go inside."
"Right. People might need help."
Mackenzie needed something to focus on aside from the weirdness that seemed to resonate between her and Eric. That had never happened before.
Eric usually wore a suit and tie. Maybe it was the jeans and a black T-shirt he was wearing that made him different. He seemed relaxed and tired.
"Is there a reason you're staring at me?"
Mackenzie turned away, praying he didn't see the awkwardness. So unprofessional. She spoke over her shoulder as she walked. "I'm going to see if they have a first-aid kit."
Inside the coffee shop, broken glass crunched under her feet. The two baristas and half-dozen customers looked shaken, but no one seemed to be injured.
Eric entered right behind her, probably intent on protecting his charge. He'd always been efficient. It was probably why they gave him the responsibility of working in witness protection.
Mackenzie went to the barista, crouched by an older man who seemed to be having trouble breathing. "Do you have any medical supplies? My friend is bleeding."
The woman who'd made Aaron's Americano jumped up and ran behind the counter. He stepped away from the crazy lady who'd launched herself at himthat part hadn't been all badand tried to ignore the sting in his shoulder.
He crouched in front of the old man clutching at his chest. "Take a breath. Blow it out slow and try to relax."
Outside, the sirens grew to deafening proportions. Aaron turned just as two police cars and an ambulance parked on the street outside. He looked back at the old man again. "Medics are here."
The man's brow flickered. "Army?" His voice was barely audible.
"Yes, sir. Good guess." He wondered what the old man would say if Aaron told him he wasn't just army, but Delta Force. But that wasn't something anyone but close relatives could know.
Aaron glanced around. The crazy lady stared intently at the door the barista had disappeared behind. She looked shell-shocked, which he didn't blame her for, since she'd just been shot at on the street. He'd never seen anything like that stateside, except in the news. It was usually contained to the war zones his team was dropped into, not downtown Phoenix.
Some trip to come and see his brother this was turning out to be. First Aaron's twin was too busy to see him, and then he suddenly had to fly to D.C. for whatever reason a U.S. marshal needed to be somewhere. A federal court case was the obvious guess. Why didn't he know more about what Eric did?
He'd figured they could spend some time together, reconnect. That wasn't going to happen now. Aaron had been bouncing around his hotel room earlier before he ran out for coffee just for the sake of something to do. Anything was better than staring at the ceiling trying to sleep.
EMTs raced in, carrying their bulky bags. Aaron got up and out of the way. He looked at the woman he'd collided with. She dressed kind of dowdy, but she had nice eyes. It was a shame she was loopy, and paranoid. Just because someone had been shooting in her direction didn't mean they were out to get her.
Her arms were folded, the sleeves of her wool cardigan pulled down over her hands. She clutched her elbows, making herself look small. Vulnerable.
Aaron stepped closer to her. "Are you okay?"
She really did look shaken. Maybe all this was for real. He'd have to make sure the cops looked out for her if she really was in some kind of trouble. But what trouble could a harmless-looking woman be in?
Her eyes locked with his. Beyond her, three cops stood huddled on the sidewalk and she motioned to them with a tilt of her head. "What do I tell them?"
"The truth is probably a good plan."
Her face paled. "I guess. Someone did just try to kill me."
She looked as though she believed it. So was she a great actress, or was she really onto something? "The police can help. You can't hold back anything from them."
"Okay. I can do this." She gave him a short nod. "I can tell them I'm in witness protection, if you think it's for the best."
"You're what?" Aaron sucked in a breath and choked. "Do not tell them that."
A uniformed police officer strode in, all business as though this was an everyday occurrence, and maybe it was. Maybe she hadn't just told him what he thought she had. Witness protection? Surely that wasn't something you just blurted out.
Mackenzie's face jerked from the cop to him and her eyes widened, as though she wanted to latch on to him for safety. Why was she looking at him that way?
The cop looked between them. "You folks all right?"
She shifted up on her toes, as though she was anxious to leave. "My name is Mackenzie Winters and someone just tried to kill me."
The cop's eyes widened. "I'm Officer Parkwell. Maybe you should tell me what happened."
Mackenzie. It wasn't the name of a woman you overlookedit was too special for that. Aaron liked it. She looked at him, as if she was asking for permission. He shook his head.
She should definitely not tell the cop she was in witness protection. Why had she told him? They didn't even know each other. There was probably a procedure to these things. If this Mackenzie woman really was part of that, shouldn't she know what the rules were?
She turned to the cop. "Okay, well, someone tried to kill me. I think they've been stalking me, whoever they are, because they slashed my tires tonight so I couldn't drive home. While I was walking to the bus stop a car pulled up by me, and someone started shooting."
She looked at Aaron and relief washed over her features. "Thank God you were there. I'd be dead if you hadn't acted so quickly."
Aaron shifted his feet. "No problem, ma'am."
It wasn't a big deal. Why was she making it such a big deal? Anyone else would have done the same thing. Just because he'd got them both out of harm's way didn't mean Aaron was someone special.
He knew he wasn't a hero, because heroes didn't ruin missions and get their teammate hurt. His shoulder injury was inconsequential compared with the fact Franklin wasn't ever going to see again. And it was Aaron's fault.
His first time as leader of their now four-man Delta Force team, and he'd led them right into a trap. The package had been retrievedeventuallyand the information brought home to whoever needed the intelligence, but the success of the mission on paper didn't make the reality any better. Not when Aaron had been shot and Franklin blinded by shrapnel. Sure, they couldn't have known there would be that level of resistance at the plant they'd infiltrated, but they were trained to be prepared for anything.
The truth was that while Aaron had been a spotless Delta Force solider for years, when the responsibility of leading the team was on him, he'd frozen. And the cost of that hesitation, that moment of trying to decide whether to continue on or abort had been high. Too high.
The cop looked up from his little pad at Mackenzie. Her eyes were on the EMTs carrying the old man out on a backboard. "I'm sorry people got hurt. I didn't know." She looked at Aaron, tears in her eyes. "What do I do now?"
"How should I know?" Why did she persist in looking to him for help? Did Mackenzie really think he knew how to help someone in witness protection? He was on vacation, not some kind of hero for hire.
"You're not going to help me? You're just going to abandon me? What if they come for me again, what if they kill me?"
Aaron motioned to the officer. "That's what the cops are for. They'll be able to keep you safe. I've got a life to get back to." Not to mention a career to rebuild, and a whole lot of reparations to make.
She blinked and a tear fell down her cheek. He didn't want it to prick his heart, but it did. The last thing he needed was a vulnerable woman looking up at him with brown eyes that really were too big for her face.
Aaron cleared his throat and turned to the cop. "You have someone who can look out for her?"
The officer nodded. "Of course. If you'll wait here, I'll inform my sergeant that Ms. Winters feels that this wasn't a random shooting and that her life is in danger."
He walked away and Aaron looked at Mackenzie again. "We'll get you squared away, don't worry about it. No one's going to hurt you."
"You're really not going to help?"
This again? Why did she think it had to be him who kept her safe just because he'd thrown her to the ground while bullets were flying? That was nothing but a reflex.
He couldn't let the hurt on her face get to him. He sighed. "Look, you seem nice and all, but I think you've got the wrong end of the stick here. I'm not your hero."
She swiped away tears that were still falling. "Of course you are, Eric. You're the only one who can help me."