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Excerpt - Freezing Point by Elizabeth Goddard

Freezing Point
by
Elizabeth Goddard


Casey Wilkes didn't realize her simple human-interest story would put her life at risk—again. After fleeing her home and journalism job in Portland, she wanted to live under the radar for a while. But when her interviewee starts dodging her questions, her reporter instincts kick in and she finds herself in over her head….

Homeland security agent Jesse Mitchell has been undercover as an ice sculptor for months, trying to infiltrate a smuggling ring. He wants to avoid trouble, and that's just what Casey brings. Now someone has a target set on Casey. Saving her could blow his cover, but leaving her unprotected endangers him even more—especially his heart.

Excerpt of chapter one:

Beautiful…but dangerous.

Jesse finished shoving the last block of dry ice into the back of the specially designed truck—well insulated, yet ventilated to allow for sublimation—the melting that would give off deadly CO2gas.

The solid form of carbon dioxide would be used to create the snow effect around the ice sculptures along with fog—a mysterious yet stunning display.

He tugged off the gloves used to protect his hands from ice burns or, worse, frostbite. Because his father was a chef and master ice sculptor, Jesse had learned a few techniques of his own, even entering competitions during his college days.

That's what made him the perfect candidate for this covert operation, and the only reason Robert McCoffey, his superior, had pulled Jesse from the desk job and visits to the psychiatrist and put him back into the action. Working as an undercover agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Jesse had nearly blown his last assignment and thought he'd never get the chance to restore his reputation and career.

But ICE's bulk cash and smuggling division decided Helms Ice and Trucking Company was hot—laundering money for the Mexican cartel—and they wanted someone on the inside. Since the trucking company also had a catering side business specializing in ice sculptures, Jesse was it.

He shoved his hand through his hair. God had some sense of humor.

Miguel grinned as he assisted Jesse in closing off the back of the truck. He signaled to the driver that the truck was ready to go, and it lumbered away from the loading dock.

"You okay today?" Miguel asked.

"Everything's great," Jesse lied. With his superiors breathing down his neck, he had to come up with something and soon. He'd already been working undercover too long for his own good.

"You'd better get back to your hole. You got another gig in a few days." Miguel strode over to a counter and grabbed a pack of cigarettes.

Though Miguel referred to the ice-sculpture competition that Jesse needed to prepare for, Jesse was concerned about a far different gig, and that's what had him on edge today. He was desperate to get in on what he believed would be the next transport of bulk cash. As the truck departed, Jesse fought the tensing in his gut. Could this truck be driving off with millions in cash tucked away behind or in the ice, and Jesse had somehow missed it?

Carlos returned from his break. "We expecting another truck in a few?"

"You're not going anywhere. Jesse's got his own work. You're lucky he was here to cover for you," Miguel said.

Carlos gave a halfhearted snarl. Jesse didn't like the guy. After years spent working undercover assignments, Jesse had learned there were some people you met while undercover that you grew to care about and others you grew to hate. Carlos was someone to hate. He had no doubt that Carlos was capable of much worse than smuggling cash. He might have committed the murder on the loading dock that occurred several months ago, bringing the police down on this place and the cash smuggling operations to a complete halt for a few weeks.

Jesse had to remain and bide his time until things began moving again. Though he had proof of several small transactions, those crimes had already occurred. His goal was to gather intelligence, figure out all the players and be witness to the movement of a large amount of cash—catching them in the act. This would bring stiffer penalties under federal law.

When Carlos's eyes slid toward him, Jesse turned his back on the man. "Later," he said, and headed for the exit.

He squeezed his eyes closed for a moment. Guys like Carlos were the reason Jesse had grown to loathe working undercover. Memories from his last assignment flooded his mind—a man struggling with the thugs of a drug ring Jesse had infiltrated. He'd lived with the nightmare day and night. Jesse could have stepped into the fray, but that would have been kicking his cover in the teeth. He'd almost cracked under the moral dilemma. If only Jesse had gone a little out of his way, he could have prevented the man from strolling around the corner at that precise moment—the exact wrong moment. He would never allow that to happen again.

He promised himself then that once he got out, he'd never go back. In the end, he'd almost blown the mission and been reprimanded before being returned to a desk job. After months living life undercover as a drug runner, learning to walk and talk like them, to avoid the cops, he'd struggled to fit in with his fellow agents again.

What had the psychiatrist told him? "You 're suffering from anxiety and extreme suspiciousness." That he was near the breaking point.

A shiver swept over him when he passed the room-size freezer that took up a quarter of the loading dock. At the moment, he felt like he was near the freezing point—if he worked like this for much longer, his heart would turn stone-cold.

Right now, he knew one thing—if he wanted to transfer programs within the agency, he'd have to earn back the respect of his supervisors and the confidence of his fellow agents.

In order to do that he'd have to see this case through and make the bust of these so-called untouchables.

Nothing or no one would stand in his way this time. Nor would he allow anyone to stumble upon Carlos and Miguel on the loading dock. Not again. Not on his watch.



Casey Wilkes stood outside a door with a nameplate indicating it was the ice-sculpting studio, which she presumed was where she could find the ice sculptor. After knocking and receiving no response, she jiggled the doorknob.

Locked.

She forced her shoulders back, unwilling to give in to defeat. The receptionist probably lied to get rid of Casey, telling her the ice sculptor was here. The cute little brunette had been instructed not to allow visitors beyond the foyer, but Casey had pulled a trump card—she was the owner's niece, and needed an interview.

Casey didn't mention that until this week, she'd lived in a little town near Portland, Oregon—a far cry from Orange Crossings near San Diego—and had never been to the ice company before. Nor did she mention that John Helms had married her aunt three years ago, and Casey didn't know him that well.

She had no idea if Uncle John would allow her to get an interview, but since he and Aunt Leann were out of the country, traveling in Europe somewhere, and everyone else was leaving for the day or had already gone, there wasn't anyone around to question.

The receptionist didn't want to get fired for denying the owner's niece entry.

Casey looked down the hallway where she'd just walked. Helms Ice and Trucking Company conducted business from a large multifaceted warehouse, part of which had been converted into an office complex. Maybe the guy was around here somewhere.

Get the interview with the sculptor and you have a job.

The newspaper editor's words emboldened her, propelling her through a door and down another hallway where a few people remained working in their offices. A couple of women chatted and laughed when they passed her in the corridor—probably heading home for the day since they both held their purses—only giving her a cursory glance.

"Excuse me," Casey said.

The ladies paused and glanced back, as though uncertain Casey was talking to them.

"I'm looking for Jesse Dufour, the ice sculptor. He's not in his studio. Any ideas where I can find him?"

"Can't help you. Although…" The tall slender woman paused and stared at the ceiling for a moment as though gathering her thoughts. "His sculptures have to be delivered at some point, so try the loading dock."

"Thanks." Casey turned and walked in the opposite direction before it occurred to her she wasn't sure where to find the loading dock.

An unmarked exit and dark corridor later, she heard a voice behind a door and decided to ask for help. This was getting ridiculous.

After a quick, light knock, she opened the door to a small dimly lit room cluttered with papers strewn on empty desks and rank with the smell of cigarette smoke. A man stood in a shadowed corner, talking on his cell.

Finally. Relieved, she waited for him to notice her. As soon as he did, he stopped talking and skewered her with his gaze.

She shivered and sensed the sudden chill had nothing to do with the cold room.

Casey offered an apologetic look for interrupting his private communication and began backing from the room. Wait. He could answer a simple question.

"I'm sorry to bother you. Can you point me to the loading dock?"

The man scowled and pointed at the door. Casey frowned. Maybe she should have asked a different question.

As she made her way down a long corridor devoid of life and through another doorway, she prayed she would run into friendlier natives who could help her find the loading dock, or at least tell her where to find the ice sculptor.

In the shadows between boxes stacked to the ceiling, the only light streamed from a small window in a thick door of—if she had to guess, she'd say a giant freezer. She dropped her bag onto a box to give her shoulder a brief reprieve and examined the digital thermometer next to the door. Fifteen degrees. Definitely, it was some sort of cold storage room. She trembled.

This place was a veritable maze, and though as a seasoned reporter she hated to admit it, now she was lost.

From behind, a hand clamped her shoulder.

Her heart ricocheted. She jerked around to find a man with piercing blue eyes staring back. Though the look on his face was anything but friendly, relief swept through her.

For a fleeting moment, she feared Will Tannin had caught up with her. In almost the same manner, Tannin had grabbed her from behind and detailed how he planned to torture then kill her. Her throat constricted at the memory.

She'd fled Oregon that night a week ago.

But this man didn't have the look of a crazed killer. She should know. Her breathing slowed, if only a little.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

Taken aback at his guarded tone, Casey struggled for words. "I'm sorry, I—"

"You shouldn't be here. Let's go." He glanced over her shoulder at something behind her, a sense of urgency in his eyes, and grabbed her arm. "The loading dock is off-limits to visitors. It isn't safe. You could get hurt."

Ah, so she'd at least found the loading dock. A small comfort.

Maintaining his hold on her, he tried to lead her away.

Casey stood her ground, attempting to tug her arm free. "Hey, you don't have to drag me."

"You'll follow me out?" He took his time slipping his hand away, looking into her eyes for assurance that she would obey.

"Of course. Why wouldn't I?" This was weird. Could Tannin have sent him? Dread stalked through her.

No. This insane fear of Tannin had to stop right now.

Again, he glanced behind her, deep lines of concern creasing his brow. She followed the guy into the corridor and then into an empty office. She figured he was escorting her somewhere "safe" to talk.

Once inside, she turned around to face him. He was closing the door. "Wait a minute. What are you doing?"

He ran a hand down his face. "The question is who are you and what were you doing trespassing?"

She opened her mouth to reply, but he had her there. "My name is Casey Wilkes. I'm a reporter here to do a story on the ice sculptor. That's all." She cringed inside. Since she was trying to fall off the grid, she'd have to remember to use her recently assumed pen name, Carson Williams.

While he appeared to contemplate her words, she studied him. If they'd met on different terms, she might have found him attractive. Scratch that. Regardless of the terms, he was good-looking. Thick dark hair, troubled but intense blue eyes and a strong clean-shaven jaw. She'd experienced firsthand that he was strong and muscular. Heat crawled up her neck.

Casey blew out a breath.

For a moment, she thought his expression might have softened but it hardened again. "A reporter, huh? That still gives you no right—"

"I'm sorry. I got lost and ended up on the loading dock. Why don't you just ask me to leave?"

"All right. Would you please leave?"

Something about his actions weren't tracking, but Casey didn't want to leave. Not really. She'd come here for a reason. She stomped to the door and placed her hand on the knob.

He put his hand over hers, sending a warm shudder through her. She yanked it back.

"Not so fast," he said.

"You can't keep me here." Her defiant words mocked her. He could, actually, and that scared her.

This time his gaze softened. "Look, if you want an interview with the ice sculptor, all you have to do is ask."

Casey felt like an idiot. He was right, and she wanted to explain, to start over. "The receptionist sent me back to look for him. But he wasn't in the studio, so…"

His mouth quirked in a grin and he crossed his arms, leaning against the door. She'd bet that was on purpose. "So, you thought you'd explore. What could it hurt, right? You might uncover the scoop of the century."

She hadn't gotten where she was today…Queasiness swirled inside. Where exactly was she today in her rising career as an investigative reporter?

Running for her life.

Still, his playful tone managed to bring a smile to the corner of her mouth. "Something like that." She wanted to kick herself. Oh, I am not responding to his flirting! Nix this.

He thrust his hand out. "I'm Jesse Dufour, the ice sculptor."

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