He's working for the Coast Guard, but that's not Heath Gerlach's only mission. He's also an undercover FBI agent, and his target for investigation is his new partner, Tracie Crandall. With her blond hair and pretty blue eyes, Tracie looks sweet and innocent. But was she involved in her former partner's crimes? Tracie won't talk about it. Because she's guilty? Or because she's afraid to trust another partner? Just when Heath is sure he knows, a shocking revelation changes everything. Now all he wants is to keep Tracie safe…and give her a reason to believe in the power of love.
Excerpt of chapter one:
"You've got the warrant?" Heath asked in a low voice.
Tracie patted the breast pocket of her Coast Guard parka. "Right here."
He nodded, his eyes flickering from her pocket to her face, and then quickly to the house and the woods surrounding it. Tracie felt as though he'd taken in every possible detail in those fleeting glances, and perhaps seen right through her tough exterior to her nervousness as well.
Heath's features softened ever so slightly. "You're all right coming here?"
"Of course," Tracie swallowed back her fear. "Why wouldn't I be?"
He tipped his head dismissively, his attention already back on the house. As he turned toward the curtained living room window, his nostrils flared, reminding Tracie of the way Gunnar, her German shepherd mix, reacted when he scented danger.
With her hand raised toward the doorbell, she paused, her eyes narrowing. "Do you think—" she started to ask, but the words were ripped from her lips as Heath grabbed her, scooping her off the stoop as he leapt toward the woods.
"Down, get down!" he shouted, his voice lost amid the sound of rapid-fire gunshots and breaking glass. She could feel the impact of the bullets as they hit him, knocking the air from his body. In six strides he had her across the yard and over the old stone wall that marked the property line between Trevor's lot and the woods beyond it.
Heath shoved her against the far side of the wall, shielding her with his body. "Stay down," he hissed, and she could hear him struggling to inhale. "Are you hit?"
Tracie ripped the radio from her belt. "I'm fine," she said, before hurtling a call for backup and paramedics. After hastily relaying their location and the situation, she clicked off the radio and looked back at her partner. She knew he was wounded—he had to be—but she couldn't see where, and the cold damp of the snow beneath her began to seep through her clothing while she waited.
Silence. Even Heath's labored breathing had eased, though his body was tense above her and he had his side-arm out, covering them, waiting. Tracie listened, not daring to move, wondering if the gunman would come after them, wondering who it could be. Trevor's killers? Or perhaps someone who didn't want them to know the full extent of what Trevor had been involved in.
With over six feet of solid muscle blocking her body and blocking her view, Tracie couldn't see much, but as she eased her head to the side, she saw the growing puddle of red in the snow.
"You're hit," she whispered, her voice barely louder than a breath.
"Shh," Heath cautioned her. Even in near silence, she could hear the pain in his voice.
She pinched her eyes shut, praying. The paramedics would come from the Bayfield volunteer fire association, which meant guys with beepers ditching whatever they were doing, calling in, and driving to the fire house for equipment before driving out to them. All those things took time. The roads were more or less passable after the latest snowfall, but still, she wondered if they'd be too late. She couldn't stand the idea that she'd lose two partners in less than six weeks.
"Do you need a tourniquet?" Her voice was barely audible.
Heath's head twitched slightly to one side. A quarter shake. Did he mean no, or was he fading already from the loss of blood? From the pattern of gunfire she'd heard, Tracie figured the gunman had been using some sort of assault rifle. Their standard-issue Coast Guard body armor wouldn't stop a bullet like that. It would barely even slow it down. And Heath had to have been hit several times.
An engine revved behind the house, and Heath eased up from above her. "He's getting away," he muttered, though his movements were still cautious, his voice quiet.
"Do you want me to try to go after him?" Tracie offered as the sound of the vehicle began to fade.
"No," Heath shifted his body and looked down at her. His face was so close she could see the tips of dark hairs starting to sprout into a five-o'clock shadow. "Your body armor won't stop what he's shooting."
About to ask how he knew, Tracie realized Heath's arm was wrapped around her torso, his hand beneath her, cradling her from the cold of the snow. "And what are you wearing?" she asked, shifting her body away from the close contact, more aware of him than she wanted to be. "Obviously not our standard-issue bulletproof vest."
"No, obviously not," Heath conceded, "or I'd be dead right now, and so would you." He turned at the distant sound of sirens.
Tracie took advantage of his distraction to assess what she could of his wounds. The red puddle seemed to be coming from his sleeve—he'd apparently been hit on his upper arm. The back of his Coast Guard parka was riddled with holes rimmed by tufts of synthetic down that was blackened by the searing force of the bullets. She swallowed hard, wondering how many had made it through. The severity of his wounds would depend on the angle and point of entry, and most importantly, what kind of vest he was wearing.
She sat up higher and reached for his arm. If he'd been hit in a major vein, he could still bleed to death before the paramedics could save him. She said a silent prayer that they'd hurry.
Heath leaned back against her, pushing her down. "Don't move until backup arrives."
"But the gunman already left," she protested.
"You don't know that."
Heath sat in the open back bay of the ambulance and tried not to wince as a medic wrapped the wound on his arm.
"I really think you should get an X-ray. You could easily have broken a rib." Another paramedic held up the severely dented steel plate they'd pulled from the back of his body armor. Six mushroomed bullets had been hiding inside—one for each of the blunt force trauma wounds he'd sustained on his back.
"And if I did, what are you going to do about it? Put me in a body cast?" Heath's eyes narrowed as he watched Tracie talking to the local sheriff across the yard. She'd stayed at his side long enough for the medics to survey his injuries and determine none of them were life-threatening. Now Heath wished he could hear what she was saying. His boss at the FBI was already bugging him for answers, but in the three days he'd been undercover as a Coast Guardsman, Heath had yet to get Tracie to talk much about Trevor Price's death. "How much longer is this going to take?"
"I'm done," the first medic said. "But I'm not letting you go until you sign these release forms. It's not my fault you won't go to the hospital."
Heath quickly scrawled his name wherever the man pointed, then slipped back into his bullet-hole-riddled parka before heading back across the crime scene.
Sheriff's deputies and his fellow Coast Guardsmen were crawling all over the house looking for clues. If there was anything to find, they'd find it. Still, he wanted to take a look around for himself. Though Trevor's house was several miles back in the woods and therefore not traditional Coast Guard territory, the Lake Superior officer's death, as well as the shady practices that had led to his death, made his house part of the Coast Guard's ongoing investigation.
Heath caught Tracie's eye and nodded to her, and she broke off her conversation with the sheriff and hurried over.
"They're letting you walk around?" She pinched her mouth into a slight smile, but her eyes still looked worried.
"Don't worry about me. I'm invincible," he assured her, with a grin to tell her he knew he wasn't quite.
Tracie's smile inched a little closer to her eyes. Heath wondered what she'd look like if she really smiled. Beautiful? No, she was that already. She'd be simply stunning. For a moment, he found himself wanting to make her smile, to laugh even, but he quickly chided himself. He was here to investigate her in conjunction with her previous partner's murder. That didn't require making her smile.
He adopted a more serious expression. "What have they found? "
"Footprints. Size fourteen, or pretty close to it. Not too common, but not nearly rare enough. And snowmobile tracks."
"That was the engine we heard?"
She nodded. "We followed them as far as Petersons', but there are hundreds of tracks over there. He could have gone any direction—there's no way to tell."
"Right." From what Heath understood, snowmobiles were as common as cars in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, and far easier to navigate during the long winter months when traveling by road was often risky. Their gunman could be anywhere. "No other leads?"
"No sign of forced entry to the house, which seems a little strange. John and Mack had locked it up tight after their last investigation—Jim had issued them new locks. Ben and Clint are dusting for fingerprints, but in this weather, everyone wears gloves." She looked down at Heath's bare hands.
He flexed his fingers against the cold. If she was trying to nag him, she'd find she wouldn't get far. "So what's our next move?"
"It's a pretty dead end." She shrugged. "I'll see Trevor's brother, Tim, at church tomorrow and ask him if he knows of anyone who'd be at his brother's place."
"What time's the service?"
Tracie raised an eyebrow at him.
"I'll meet you there," Heath explained.
"You're on medical leave. You have a hole in your arm and blunt force trauma wounds all across your back. You're not getting out of bed tomorrow."
"Medical leave is voluntary."
Tracie huffed impatiently. "Fine, you do whatever you want, but I'm not going to be part of it." She turned and crunched away across the snow.
Heath watched her go. Interesting woman. She had a chip on her shoulder bigger than the bullet hole in his arm, which made it very difficult to get any information out of her. She was tight-lipped about her work and absolutely silent about her personal life. The tip about church was the closest he'd come to a break in the three days he'd been on the case. Which was why, even though he hadn't been to a worship service in fifteen years, he was going to go to church the next morning.
Tracie spotted Tim Price the moment she entered the small country church, and slid into the pew next to him. He smiled a greeting and then looked back down to the Bible on his lap. She felt a grateful prayer of thanks rising in her heart at the sight of Tim reading his Bible—at the sight of Tim in church at all.
The younger man had been in a rough spot when she'd first met him. Between the drugs and alcohol, it was amazing he hadn't died of an overdose long before. But when his brother, Trevor, had been shot six weeks earlier, Tim had immediately entered a treatment program and given his life back to God. She'd accompanied him to church in the city while he was in treatment, and was thrilled that he'd insisted on meeting her at church now that he was home.
Lifting her eyes to the dark wood-beamed ceiling, Tracie took a long breath and tried to clear her mind as she prepared to worship. Life had been crazy lately, and the attempt on her life the day before, though unexpected, seemed to fit all too well with her recent experiences. But here in the house of God she could be at peace, if only for an hour.
As she began to bow her head, Tracie glanced around the sanctuary at the familiar faces who shared this sacred hour with her nearly every Sunday. She stopped short when a man's broad-shouldered frame entered the room, blocking the bright sunlight that streamed through the antique leaded-glass windows.
He'd found her. Tracie's heart stopped, then started thumping in an irregular, nervous beat. Sure, the worship service time was no great secret—he'd probably called the church and listened to the message on the answering machine. But most people in the coastal village of Bay-field worshipped in the larger church in town. The little countryside chapel where Tracie attended services had been founded centuries before by Swedish settlers, and remained a small, tight-knit congregation largely unaffected by the tourists and transplants who'd changed the face of the larger village church. She'd have expected him to look for her in the town church, not here.
So Heath had scented her out. She tried to tell herself it was no big deal. Anybody could come to church. She knew she should be glad her new partner was a churchgoing man. Trevor had never darkened the doors of the worship space in the time she'd known him, though it would have done him a world of good, she was sure. He might even be alive today if he hadn't gotten himself involved with diamond smugglers. Rather than allow thoughts of either man to disturb her, Tracie closed her eyes and tried to breathe in the peace she'd felt before she'd spotted Heath.
But peace eluded her. She watched warily as Heath made his way across the back of the sanctuary toward where she and Tim sat. Her back stiffened, and she instinctively turned as though to shield Tim as much as possible from Heath.
What was it about her new partner that upset her so much? Was it because he'd transferred in from elsewhere? When Trevor had been murdered, she'd figured she'd fall in with someone from among the existing crew. But Jake Struckman, the Officer in Charge at the Bayfield station, had shocked her when he'd announced they were bringing in someone new to work with her.
While that news had come as a surprise, Tracie knew it didn't explain all of the unease she felt around him. She could have chalked it up to the fear she'd always felt around Trevor. Her former partner had bent a lot of rules, even broken some when he knew there was nothing she could do to stop him, and she'd learned to constantly be on her guard around him. It was possible she'd transferred her unease onto Heath.
It would have been an easy explanation, but Tracie knew that wasn't it, either. If anything, she'd been relieved to have someone new to work with. Nobody could be as awful as Trevor. And so far, in the three days she'd worked with him, Heath had been a perfect gentleman. He'd even saved her life. So it didn't stand to reason that she feared him simply because she'd feared Trevor.
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