Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Free First Chapter Read: Cam's Witness

Cam's Witness debuts September 15 from World Castle Publishing in hardcover, paperback, and eBook formats! Here's the blurb, deets and first chapter!

Federal Marshall Timothy Campbell – ‘Cam’ to his near and dear – makes the biggest mistake of his career when he falls for the witness he vowed to protect.  When Kendra Driscoll’s cover is compromised in a hail of bullets at a discount store, she’s terrified and when a stern faced lawman drags her away to a safe house somewhere in Arkansas, she’s beyond upset.  Although she can be Deborah, her real name again, her future is anything but secure.  Things become complicated when she realizes Cam isn’t as stern as she thought and when both discover the forbidden attraction is mutual.  When danger follows her to Arkansas, Cam’s life hangs in the balance and it’s up to Deborah alone to survive, if she can.


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Chapter One


            The first shot shattered a half-dozen bottles of olive oil, and by the time the second boomed through the discount store, Kendra was hugging the floor.  She sprawled across it, paralyzed with fear. If the first shot had not whistled over her head before shattering most of the olive oil bottles at the end of the aisle display, Kendra might have thought it was nothing but firecrackers or some teen playing a prank.  By the time the second report echoed through the grocery department of the discount store, she hugged the floor, sprawled across the light beige tiles behind the produce bin of potatoes. Although she had not been around firearms in several years, she recognized the sound of an automatic weapon in hands that knew how to make it walk and talk.  Earlier still, she drew memories from a childhood spent shooting clays and hunting.  Her daddy taught her to shoot with the boys, and she had excelled.  She knew too well the damage that a bullet could inflict and crawled a few more feet to put an open freezer case between her and the unseen shooter.

            Each time the gun fired a chorus of shrieks, and screams echoed in her ears, shriller than the retort.  Somewhere she could hear a baby crying and an older woman’s voice praying, thick with fear as she said the Our Father. Kendra heard a few muffled curses but she thought prayers were far more appropriate given the situation. She prayed too, silently, as she peered around the end of the freezer at what she recalled were nicknamed “coffin cases,” which seemed eerie and prophetic.

            A rank stench of gunpowder flared her nostrils, and she smelled the metallic, unmistakable smell of blood.  Moans from somewhere up near the front entrance indicated that there were wounded, if not dead, and as she hunkered down, praying for deliverance, more gunfire blasted. Shots pinged off metal and thwacked into shelved goods with an ugly sound. More glass broke, and Kendra heard someone cry out with a muffled sound that boded ill.

            From where she laid, she saw a Nike-encased foot lying at an odd angle, and with her head still low to the floor, she watched a spreading line of blood. She did not want to know where it originated or from whom, so she retreated, too upset to shed a tear and much too scared to make any noise.

              She could not catch a glimpse of the gunman or determine if there was one or more.  Kendra wriggled backward, like a snake, moving along the base of the freezer case with the idea that she might reach a different position with a better view.  Halfway there, her leg caught on something, and she jerked trying to free it but she could not budge. Just as she turned to look for the problem, a large hand encased in a black leather glove clamped down over her mouth.

            “Don’t scream,” a male voice whispered in her ear. Whoever he might be, he was behind her, and she could not see him at all. He smelled, however, of Irish Spring soap and peppermints.  “Take my hand.”

             She tried to ask why, but with his hand blocking her mouth she could not speak.  She shook her head to refuse. He snatched her left hand with his free one and jerked hard enough that she had to move with him or drag behind.  He took his hand off her mouth, but she did not dare make a sound or speak.  In a crouched position, he maneuvered her past three more open freezer cases and then went wide to the left, through a door that led back into the storerooms. Once that door swung back behind them, he stood upright and faced her.                                                               He loomed tall above her, six feet or better, lean and lithe. His blue jeans fit his chiseled body like an outer skin, and his plaid flannel shirt looked cozy. That was the only thing that did.  On his hip, a Smith and Wesson .40-caliber pistol fit into a nylon holster attached to his wide leather belt.  His black eyes bored into hers, vital and filled with strength. The solemn expression on his face seemed carved from solid granite. He looked capable and very dangerous.  He reminded Kendra of a leopard she watched once at the zoo, graceful and somehow beautiful, yet deadly.

             Back[A1]  in the store somewhere, more gunfire roared and screams followed, but he did not flinch or react. She cringed with each blast, fighting the desire to drop to the floor.  If he had not still held her in his grasp, she would have. His height and his lethal manner intimidated her, but not enough to stop her attempt to break free.

            “Let me go!” She twisted her hand, struggling to work loose.

            He snorted and gripped harder.

            “Relax.  I will get you out of here, safe and sound.  Just stay calm and be quiet.”

            Her anger kindled.  His bossy ways made her old-fashioned mad, and without thought she spoke, her voice louder than it should be.

            “I’m not going with you. I will not be a hostage,” Kendra told him, her voice sounding high-pitched and nasal.  “Leave me alone and go turn yourself into the authorities!”

            He laughed aloud and with his free hand reached into his front jeans pocket, pulling out something that he thrust in her direction—a gold badge formed with an outer circle around a five-pointed star with United States Marshall etched around the rim.

            “Maybe I should have introduced myself,” he said, with what might have been a smile on a less serious face.  “I’m Timothy Campbell, United States Marshall.”

             That reality sank in with speed. He was not one of the shooters but a law enforcement officer, and Kendra wondered why he wasn’t out there, taking down the suspect and saving lives in plural instead of just her own. Questions flooded her brain, so many she didn’t know where to begin or what to ask. He must have read the curiosity in her eyes because he pulled her forward, toward a back exit off the storeroom.

            “Ask me whatever you want later,” Timothy Campbell said. “Right now, we need to move.  Let’s go!”

              He towed her with speed outside and into a waiting black Humvee. He opened the rear passenger door, shoved her inside, and followed her onto the seat. Before Kendra could assimilate anything more, the vehicle pulled out and reached the busy highway within seconds.  With the discount store fast vanishing behind them, she realized that her car remained in the parking lot, but at least her purse still dangled from her shoulder. Numerous emergency vehicles raced past them, headed for the scene.  She counted three ambulances, two fire trucks, multiple squad cars, and more.

            “Wait!” she said, fumbling for the seat belts. “Where are we going? I need to cover this breaking story.  Shouldn’t you be back there helping people or something?”

            He turned to her, face still impassive.

            “We are going somewhere safe, and no, I need to be here with you.”

            Anger flared, stronger than fear. Her routine groceryshopping trip halted with violence that forced her to take cover, and now she found herself in the back of an SUV hurtling down the highway at breakneck speed.  She would rather be anywhere else—even still crouched behind the freezer case.  Where she should be was outside the store with a press pass and a microphone in one hand.

            “I don’t want to be here.” Kendra snapped.  “Take me back to the store, please.  I am a news director for the local radio station.  I need to cover this story.”

            The marshall shook his head.

            “No, you don’t.  Do you know why the shooter was at that location?”

            She had no clue. 

            “Let me guess.  Did they overcharge him? Not have what he wanted in stock? Or was it just the first place he came to where he could go postal?”

            Her sarcastic tone failed to get a rise, but his reply struck her hard, like a slap across the face.

            “No, he wanted you, Deborah.  You were the target.”

            She caught her breath and held it, fear snaking through her body like live electricity. Her first response to hearing her name, her own name that her mother picked out for her twenty-seven years earlier, was to run, to flee.  If she could have leaped from the fast-moving vehicle she would have, but since she could not, so she tried to bluff it out instead.

            “Who’s Deborah? My name is Kendra Lou Driskell.”

             He focused his full-strength stare on her and made eye contact.

            “That might get you brownie points but it won’t cut ice with me.  If you say it to the wrong individual, you might end up in the county morgue.  You and I both know that you are Deborah Kay Kincaid and that you’ve been in the federal Witness Security Program for two and a half years.”

            His harsh tone cut through her feeble bravado like a knife through a tender T-bone steak. His voice had a no-nonsense quality that refuted any possible argument, but she heard a kindness beneath the gruff words that steadied her enough to sit back and exhale.

            “How do you know they were after me?” Kendra asked, wondering if she could just be Deborah again since her cover was now transparent. 

            “You are watched, of course. We had a tip that proved to be correct.” His voice remained even.  “Everyone in the program is monitored. Didn’t you realize that?”

            “No, I did not.”

            A chill crept up her spine as comprehension that someone kept track of her every day, maybe each hour, and that her notion of hard-won privacy was just an illusion. So was any real security, she mused, if someone tracked her to Bargain-Mart and started shooting.  She was not safe, and worse yet, she never had been.

            He sighed.  “Don’t they brief you any better than that? Did you think Max was your sole contact?”

            She had. The older agent who posed as her Uncle Max had become like real family to her, and living her brand new life, she never thought the old one could find her, let alone touch her.

            “Yeah, I did.  That’s what they told me when I got my new identity. Does Max know what happened or that you’re taking me off against my will?”

            “You ask too many questions, but I’m a nice guy so I’ll answer them one at a time.  Whoever told you that didn’t know what they were talking about, not in the least. Max knows what went down at the discount store.  He also knew that we were tracking a lead that put a hit man on the scene to take you out.”

            Poor Max, she thought, summoning an image of the older gentleman with his suspenders, rimless spectacles, and classic music collection.  Although she called him “uncle,” he was more like a grandfather and he would worry.

            “I need to call him and let him know I’m all right,” Kendra said, digging into her purse for her cell phone.
              “Deborah, it has been handled,” US Marshall Campbell said as his large hands removed the phone from her small one.  “Max is relocating himself, and you will soon be doing the same.”

             She thought of the life she had built, piece by piece out of nothing. She came to this small town, tucked into the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, and with a manufactured background got a job at the local radio station. That tiny apartment she rented on the second floor of an old house became her haven. Her plants bloomed there, and the greenery made it seem as homey as her grandmother’s kitchen.  On the windowsill, African violets blossomed year-round, and she grew herbs in a tiny dish garden, herbs used for seasoning when she cooked. She created a cozy zone with cheap pillows from Bargain Mart, rummage sale knickknacks, doilies that she crocheted herself, and an old patchwork quilt she bought at Tina’s Treasures downtown. Her collection of used furniture was vintage but not antique.  That apartment became her home, an almost real one, and she thrived there. Now the stranger who whisked her away from a deadly shooting spree told her she was about to be uprooted again. Everything in her rebelled against that, and she told him so.

            “I don’t want to go anywhere else! I’ve built a life here in Hickory and I like it.”

            His eyes met hers, dark and unfathomable, but he nodded as if he understood.

            “I am sorry about that, but it will happen, Deborah. Do you prefer Debby, Deb, or Deborah? We will be spending a lot of time together so I might as well get it right.”

            Thirty months passed since anyone called her Deborah or Debby, and the names sounded strange in her ears.

            “I like Kendra.”

            Kendra was smart, a perceptive woman who knew her own mind and didn’t let any man into her life to destroy it. She seldom dated and was not in any relationship, because that got too complicated.  Kendra went to church without fail each Sunday morning, not because it was part of her cover, but because she liked it.  Kendra, she thought, was probably a better person than Deborah once was—and wiser.

            “Your time as Kendra is over.  If you don’t tell me what you like, I’ll just call you Deb because it’s short and simple.”

              Nick called her that for the same reason.

            With as much dignity as she could summon, she said,           “In that case, I would rather you called me Deborah.  What would you like me to call you—Tim or Timothy?”

            For the first time since he grabbed her, he smiled. The genuine grin lit his face like sunshine streaming through storm clouds, stripping away at least ten years.

            “Neither.  My friends call me Cam, and you can, too.”

            “Cam.” She tried it out, liking the sound of it, short and to the point.  It suited him, she thought. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.  Now that we are friends, tell me where you’re taking me against my will.”

             His grin broadened despite her sarcasm.

            “We’re going to a safe house until things settled down and we decide if you remain in danger or not.”

            “Where is this house?”

            Cam shook his head.  “I can’t give you the location. Try to trust me.  I am one of the good guys, remember.”

             She wanted to believe that but she was not sure if she could.  Trusting a man was difficult after what happened with Nick and all that followed.  As she struggled, she said a brief, private farewell to Kendra, the feisty, capable woman she wanted to be, and slipped back into Deborah’s skin.

            “I will try,” Deborah said.  “That’s all I can promise, that I will try.”

            Cam turned his head toward her and nodded.

            “That’s good enough for now.”

            Deborah stared out the tinted windows of the SUV watching the countryside fly past, and her thoughts soared with the same speed. After building a life here, her possessions were cut down to the clothes on her back and her purse, nothing more. Her small network of friends vanished with the miles, and Max, all the family she had for the last two years, was out of her life. She would never see him again, and that brought tears to her eyes. Her own family might as well be dead.  She could never see or interact with them again. As Kendra, she was often tempted to try, but today’s unexpected turn of events underlined why she had been wise to leave them alone.

            One question mattered enough to risk his ire asking it.

            “Who was after me?”

            Cam turned his head to stare at her, a worry line dividing his forehead into two neat halves.

            “Are you trying to tell me you don’t have any idea?”

            He sounded like he thought pursuit by killers, hired or not, was just a day in the life of Kendra Driskell.

            “I don’t.”

            Cam snorted.  “Surely Nick Bianco’s girlfriend knows better than that.”

            He said the name and she froze, her mind filled with images of Nick.

            He snorted again.  “Yeah, I thought so.”

            Deborah found her voice.  “It’s not like that…it isn’t what you think. It never was.”

            Cam’s black eyes smoldered like two jet stones as he stared back at her.

            “Isn’t Mr. Bianco the reason you ended up in the program?”

            She could not lie.  “Well, yes, but—”

            “But?” He sounded skeptical and almost angry.

            “It’s a long story, but I was never really his girlfriend,” Deborah said, searching for the proper words that would explain. 

            His eyebrows, lighter than his eyes, rose at that, and his lips tightened.

            “Deb, let’s get a few things straight.  My current assignment is to protect you, and we will be spending a lot of time together, like it or not. I can’t help you or keep you safe if you won’t be straight with me. I am the one person you can’t lie to.”

            Cam used the short form of her name to needle her, and it worked. Anger rose in her like yeast-increased bread dough.

            “I’m not lying,” Deborah said, scooting so that she could face him.  “You don’t understand, and you won’t give me a chance to explain.  None of your people ever did.  They all judged me and looked at me as if I were some kind of loose woman, but I am not.  I never was.”

            He folded his arms across his chest, looking very formidable, more like an Old Testament prophet without the beard.  His piercing gaze made her feel like she was about seven years old and in the principal’s office, seconds from a scolding and a sound spanking.

            “You know, I actually want to believe you,” Cam said in a voice as stern as his face.  “You have this air of innocence, and I find it hard to imagine you with a hardened criminal like Nick, but I’ve read the case file. Everything in it indicates that you were as close as any woman could get to Mr. Bianco.”

            Deborah wanted to cry.  This was the very attitude she encountered more than two years ago. Every federal prosecutor and judge treated her like a hostile witness when she wanted to tell the truth, nothing more. She came forward, willing to provide facts and details because it was the right thing to do, but when the trial ended, her reputation was ruined and her life as she knew it over. Let there be a way to get back my life and restore my reputation, she thought. Even her own family treated her as if she had sinned, and she wondered, as she  often did, if they ever thought about her anymore.

            With calmness she lacked within, Deborah said,        “Then the file is wrong.”

            Cam quirked one eyebrow in her direction and looked her over with disdain.

            “Is it?” He did not sound very sure. “Well, you’ll have plenty of time to convince me at the safe house. You won’t like what I need to do now.”

            Deborah bristled.

            “And what would that be?  Are you going to handcuff me?”

            “That’s a good guess—and close,” Cam said as an evil grin flirted with his lips. “I have to blindfold you so you can’t reveal the location of the safe house.”

             “No.” The word pushed past her lips before she could even think about it. “You can’t do that.”

            He pulled out a blindfold.  “I’m sorry, but I have to do this.”

            “I haven’t been paying any attention to where we are at or where we’re going,” Deborah protested.  “I won’t reveal the location.”

            “Good.  But just in case, let me put this in place.”

            His hands were deft for such a large man, as he tied the blindfold over her eyes with swift skill. Panic hit as soon as everything went black, but as soon as she realized she could breathe, she calmed, irate but resigned to temporary blindness.

             Unable to see, Deborah’s thoughts turned toward prayer, and to remain focused she recited every Psalm she knew from memory, silent but steadfast. The age-old familiar words helped ease her angst and leached some of the horror from the morning’s events.  Although she could not forget the gunfire ripping through Bargain Mart, the blood, or that foot lying so still, she reached deep within to find fortitude and the strength to face whatever came next.


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