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Excerpt - CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN by Vicki Hinze

Christmas Countdown
By Vicki Hinze


A simple trip home for the holidays is all former FBI profiler Maggie Mason wants. But a serial killer has other plans. Trapped in a deadly game of cat and mouse, Maggie finds an ally in Lost, Inc. with private investigator Dr. Ian Crane. The handsome widower is reluctant to love again, and the last thing Maggie wants is to put Ian in the line of fire, too. Love could cost them everything…unless they can find their way to each other, in time for Christmas.

Excerpt of chapter one:

Something wasn't right.

Alert and armed, Maggie Mason moved room to room. Outwardly nothing appeared to be wrong. The house was chilly and quiet, silent in the way a house is on a cold December night when you're in it alone. Yet the awareness that something was off prodded her honed instincts. You didn't work in her field, much less enjoy her success, and not hone your instincts or fail to respect them. No one was inside the house with her; she'd have picked up on that immediately. Yet some nebulous alert had triggered her internal alarm. She couldn't explain it. She just felt it.

Knew it.

Feared it.

And she'd learned the hard way to never ignore internal warnings.

Controlling her breathing, deliberately working to slow her racing heart, she circled back to the kitchen, clicked on her flashlight and followed her emergency plan, taking the worn wooden stairs down to the basement. An unadvertised and unmentioned feature in the basement sold her on renting the Decatur, Illinois, home just days ago. It wasn't in the best neighborhood, but she'd lived in far worse, and it had that nondescript look about it—not too nice, not too dumpy—where she could fade into obscurity.

Obscurity was essential.

With it and any luck, she wouldn't have to move again for a couple of months. Oh, how she yearned for a little luck.

In the past three years, her record for staying put, hospital and recovery time aside, was two months, fourteen days, seven hours and twelve minutes. This basement's special feature could help buy her a little more time here and help her break her record. At least, she dared to hope it could.

Please, God. I'm so tired of running.

A knot rose in her throat. She swallowed it down and stepped off the bottom stair onto the cracked concrete floor. The twenty-by-twenty open area billed as a basement storage room was inky dark—no electricity, no windows, and only one door at the top of the stairs she'd just descended…or so it appeared until further inspection.

Sweeping the beam of light corner to corner on the floor, she checked the dull coating of dust for new footprints but spotted none, then lifted the beam up the walls, casting light on the thin cobwebs clinging to the corners at the ceiling and on the floor joists overhead. The webs glistened but remained intact.

A little reassured, she eased her finger on the trigger of her weapon and took a steadying breath to work the hitch from her chest. The basement clearly had been abandoned for a long time, yet it didn't smell musty or dank. Odd, with the occasional water stain in the pink fiberglass insulation stuffed between the wall studs. The stains spoke of past leaks now repaired, but the absence of a musty scent had first alerted her that more than met the eye was in this basement.

Following the flashlight beam, she moved across the empty expanse to the back wall, where a tall and rickety wooden shelving unit stood in the corner. Battered and worn, it, too, wore a layer of dust she'd been careful not to disturb. She checked each shelf. No smears or swipes marring its dull surface. Here, too, the dust remained undisturbed.

Stretching on tiptoes, she reached between the top and second shelves and tapped seeking fingertips along the rough wooden back wall. They snagged metal. A flathead bolt. Inching her nails under its edge, she pulled the bolt out and then slid the entire shelving unit sideways. Gliders bore its weight, but it moved in jerked spurts.

In the wall where the unit had stood, an opening appeared: a low, narrow passageway.

At one time, that passageway likely had been used as an emergency exit for a drug dealer—she'd seen a number of those in neighborhoods such as this during her time as a normal, active FBI profiler—but the rental agent hadn't mentioned the passageway at all. When he'd left her to explore, she'd found it on her own, though she hadn't mentioned finding it to him, either. If he'd known, he'd have disclosed it. For her own safety, the fewer who knew the better.

Bending low to keep from cracking her head against the wooden-beam reinforcements holding back the earth inside the tunnel, she focused her flashlight's beam down the passage and then followed it to its abrupt end at a heavy metal grate. The first thing she'd done when she moved in was to replace the grate lock with one of her own. She peered through the lacy metal outside into the backs of thick, squat bushes. The grate couldn't be seen from the yard. It took knowing it was there behind the bushes to find it.

She carefully checked the grate's internal perimeter. The chewing gum embedded with a single strand of hair she'd pressed on each of the four corners remained untouched and in place. Peering outside again, she scanned the dirt behind the bushes and spotted the heavy-duty string she'd strung ankle-high. Unmoved. Nothing disrupted the smooth dirt, and the stones she'd arranged in a distinct pattern were exactly where she'd put them.

Her escape route was intact.

Yet her internal alarm didn't shut off. It continued to pound its warning in time with the fast beats of her heart.

You've been running too long, Maggie.

She had. And paranoia was setting in. Chiding herself, she made her way back upstairs then bolted the basement door, slamming home both original dead bolts and the one she'd installed the night she'd moved in. Three days and counting…

Breathing easier, she tucked her weapon into the holster at the back of her jeans' waistband and shifted her focus to the barren kitchen. A familiar ache settled in her chest. It lacked any of the warmth or comfort of generations of family use. The kitchen on the ranch in North Bay, Florida, on the other hand, held a lot of history. Most of her history. It was and always had been home. Her big brother, Paul, still lived there, but for now, home and North Bay were off-limits to her. If Gary Crawford had anything to say about it, both would remain off-limits to her for the rest of her life, which he had every intention of ending as soon as possible.

Resentment and bitterness welled up from deep inside and soured her stomach.

No, don't do it, Maggie. Don't. Think about something else.

She looked at the kitchen table. Its once-white enamel top was chipped and yellowed and worn slick but the table was still sturdy, and currently nearly buried under the strewn makings of a gingerbread house. Christmas was just weeks away—the fourth in a row she'd spend alone—but she'd kept the gingerbread house family tradition for the past three, and she would keep it for this one, too. It wasn't much, but when you had nothing, it was, well, something.

Running was never easy. But holidays were hardest.

Her eyes burned. She blinked fast and snipped the corner of a Ziploc bag, inserted the plastic piping tip and seated it, then spooned icing into the bag. At home, Paul had always stuffed the icing bag. She'd put the gumdrops on the house, sprinkle nuts around the base and position the candy canes to frame the front door.

A smile curved her lips. From the time she'd had to tiptoe to reach the tabletop, Paul had fawned over her perfectly positioning each gumdrop. Every girl should be so lucky as to have a brother like him. She sniffed and checked her watch—4:10. He was late calling her, but just ten minutes. Not yet worrisomely late.

Snagging an apple, she took a crunchy bite, discovered she was starved and scarfed it down, then tossed the core into the trash can under the sink and rinsed her hands, careful not to bump the cup filled with her best artist's paintbrushes beside the tap. She gave them a longing look. Security first. Then the gingerbread house. Then landscapes. "Just a little longer," she told the red cup of brushes. "Tomorrow night, I paint. Maybe that sunset in Lafitte, Louisiana." The fall of dusk and the fading light on the bayou had been stunning…

Finally at 5:15 her cell phone rang.

Brushing at an errant lock of long reddish-blond hair clinging to her cheek, she primed to give Paul a hard time for calling late and checked caller ID. It was Ian. At first, he was her brother's good friend from the military, a physician and husband to Maggie's now-deceased friend, Beth. Now Ian was an investigator at Lost, Inc. And while due to Beth's murder he'd pushed most people away, he and Maggie remained close. But why was he calling now? Was something wrong with Paul?

Don't jump to conclusions. You've got enough trouble without borrowing more. "Ian, how are you?"

"Hi, Maggie. Paul's out of pocket and I promised him I'd check in on you. Sorry I'm late. Got tied up with a client. You okay?"

"For the moment." Trying not to be disappointed Ian called her as a favor, she pulled out a chair at the table. It scudded across the wooden floor. "Where's Paul?" Her brother rarely missed an appointed call with her. "He's okay, isn't—"

"He's fine. He and Della are on their way to her step-grandmother's." Ian sounded excited.

"Did he propose to her or something?" Maggie snitched a red gumdrop. Paul hadn't told her, so she doubted it, but with the move, she had been out of touch the better part of two weeks.

"I think that might be the reason for the trip. She's Della's closest relative."

Paul would ask somebody's permission first, so it fit. He'd loved Della Jackson for two years, but she'd only recently allowed herself to love anyone. Thank goodness, she'd chosen Paul. He deserved the best, and Maggie prayed every day he got it. "I hope it is."

"Either way, they're happy and celebrating."

"If he hasn't proposed yet, what are they celebrating?"

"The hunt is over, Maggie." Intense emotion thickened Ian's deep voice.

Over. She tensed, afraid to hope. "They've caught Gary Crawford?" Surely she'd have heard through FBI channels—

"No. No, I'm sorry." Ian let out a powerful sigh, clearly rebuking himself for raising and then dashing her hopes. "They caught Della's stalker."

Disappointment fell to confusion. "It wasn't Crawford?" Maggie crunched a crisp piece of gingerbread between her forefinger and thumb. The entire task force agreed the stalker had to be Crawford. "You're sure?"

"Positive. It was Jeff Jackson, Della's ex. They had a personal encounter, and police nailed him with hard evidence."

"Personal encounter?" Sounded dangerous. She knew just how dangerous close encounters with Crawford could be, and how good he was at setting up others to take blame for his actions. Had he done that in this case? He'd nearly killed her with a car bomb in Utah. The shrapnel did what was expected to be permanent injury to her leg. Months in the hospital, multiple surgeries and more months of physical therapy, where she'd worked to the point of exhaustion to re-cover—her survival required mobility. She had ninety percent success in function of her leg as opposed to the forty-five percent the doctors originally estimated. Now there was another personal encounter? Elated and deflated simultaneously, Maggie pressed her elbow on the table and braced her head in her hand. "Paul and Della weren't hurt—"

"No, they're fine. They're great. I told you they're celebrating."

Life. They were living a life without being hunted down like animals. Living and laughing and loving. Maggie's eyes burned again, and again she blinked hard. She wanted those things for Paul, of course. Problem was, she wanted them for herself, too.

Pipe dream.

Definitely a pipe dream, and it would be so long as Gary Crawford drew breath.

She turned her mind and focused on letting gladness fill her heart. "I'm happy for them." So it was Jeff Jackson, not Gary Crawford. "They have to be breathing a lot easier."

"Paul won't breathe easy until you come home."

Guilt speared her. She stared sightlessly at the white stove top. Home. Safety. Security. The beloved ranch she'd grown up on, the rescue animals Paul had taken in for her, the friends she'd known her whole life, the smell of the pines and the feel of the grass and sandy beach under her feet at the little creek. Longing burned her stomach and left it hollow. More than anything she wanted to go home. Well, more than anything except not to ever again endanger those she loved. Her throat thick, she swallowed. "I wish I could, but I can't, Ian. You know why."

A year ago in Utah, Crawford had nearly killed both Paul and her in an act of revenge against her. He was a serial killer. A very bright one who had murdered four women and she'd been called in to profile him. She'd picked up things others had missed, giving the task force needed insights that brought them too close to capturing him, and he resented it enough to want her dead. Crawford willingly used those she loved as bait to get to her. If Paul hadn't forgotten his phone and gone back to get it and she hadn't started her car using the remote, he would have succeeded. It'd taken her six months to recuperate and get out from under intense medical care. No way was she exposing Paul to that again. Her heart couldn't take the trauma or bear the guilt.

"How's your leg?" Ian asked. "Doing the exercises like you're supposed to?"

She smiled. "Yes, and with the move, a lot more." Since his wife's—her friend's—murder three years ago, he and Maggie had supported each other long-distance. Little happened in either's life that the other wasn't aware of—her job status aside. That she couldn't share.

"How's Uncle Warny?"

"He wants you to come home, too."

"You're as bad as Paul with the guilt trips, Ian Crane. You know Crawford is still after me. I can't come home, so quit."

"I know why you think you can't come home. You're protecting everybody else. But, Maggie, think about it. Paul and I and everyone at Lost, Inc., are ex-military and investigative specialists. We can protect ourselves, and we can help protect you."

Her childhood friend Madison McKay, a POW sacrificed to avert an international incident, had escaped and returned home to start the agency for the sole purpose of helping others who were lost find their way home. "You can't. Crawford proved that in Utah. But I know you, and I know Paul. This is about you two wanting to protect me." Paul had always protected her and, since Beth's passing while Ian was still active duty in the military and deployed to Afghanistan, he wanted to protect everybody.

"You can't run forever, Maggie."

She squeezed her eyes shut. "Not running doesn't work. If I come home, it means everyone I care about spends every moment looking back over his or her shoulder, and I worry nonstop when and where and whom Crawford is going to strike next. All of you deserve better. This is my problem. I'll deal with it."

"Will you just let me say what I have to say? I know you're tired of hearing it, but I'm not going to make the same old argument—I promise."

Order:
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Ebooks:
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You can also purchase this book from any of the stores found at CBA Storefinder.

Also, don’t forget that it’s Free Book Friday over at Harlequin.com--if you order two or more books, you’ll get their weekly featured book for free!

This week, the featured book is: What Lies Beneath by Andrea Laurence (Harlequin Desire)

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