C1 Chapter One
“I need your help, Carolyn!”
Carolyn Trufant nearly dropped the crystal vase she was filling in the sink. “What’s wrong, Jasmine?”
Cars honked. People yelled. The sounds of a busy metropolis’s downtown reverberated through the phone line. Where is she?
“Help me, please!”
She set the vase down, struggling to hear and decipher the rest of what Jasmine was saying. “I can’t hear you.”
“…meet me, please.”
“Jasmine?” Her voice rose a few notches. “Where do you want me to meet you?”
“Come down to Atlanta, please. Meet me where I told you I first visited when I got here. At ten p.m. please, tomorrow. I’m…really scared.” The call went dead.
Shit . Carolyn’s hands shook like leaves in a stiff breeze. She hung her head and tried to control her racing, out of control emotions.
What could she do? What should she do would be a better question.
I have to help her. There’s no way I am going to lose her after just finding her.
Caro stroked a finger along the silken petals of the flowers she’d received moments before her sister had called. She loved the variety in the mixture of flowers. Of course I have to go.
Allowing herself one more inhalation of the fragrant floral blooms, she swept her gaze around the room, ensuring all items resided in their proper place. Then she went to her office and booked herself a flight to Atlanta.
That evening, once supper had been eaten and cleaned up after, she curled up on one end of her sofa, tucked her feet beneath her and stared through the window of her Madison, Wisconsin, apartment.
She closed her eyes and her thoughts drifted to Jasmine. Her sister. More than that. Her twin. A woman she’d met a month and a half ago. Separated at birth and adopted by other families who didn’t know about each other. In fact, even the paperwork stated she had no other known siblings.
To say it had been a shock when Jasmine had first contacted her would be the understatement of the year. Caro had been suspicious, hard not to be when she’d received such a call. She’d asked her parents before about siblings and they’d given her the paperwork, which had denied such things. Still, regardless of her doubts, she’d gone and met her in Saint Louis.
There had been no denying it the moment she’d laid eyes on Jasmine. They’d spent the weekend catching up and learning about one another. Since then they’d exchanged some calls and had discussed having another ‘sister’ weekend soon. But never a call for help.
She walked to the large window and stared over the twinkling lights of her city. “Never a call with someone sounding so scared either.” Caro rested her head against the glass and sighed.
Concerned, she made her way and packed her carry-on. She didn’t expect to stay all that long but could take a bit of time off if needed since she had plenty of accumulated days. Lifting the receiver to her landline, she sat on the edge of her bed. She sucked on her lip as she dialed a memorized number. Yes, it was programmed but she did it this way to give herself a bit more time. Not much, true, but anything would be accepted.
The gentle voice on the other end had her smiling. “Hi, Mama.”
“Caro. How are you doing, baby?”
“Fine, Mama. I just wanted to let you and Daddy know I’m taking a short trip.” She cleared her throat. “Out of town.”
“Hmm. Where to?”
“Down south.” She winced, hating the lie she was about to tell. “I have a two week vacation I’m spending in a timeshare.”
“Really? You didn’t say anything earlier.”
Because I didn’t know the twin—my twin sister you know nothing about—was going to call me asking for help. “Came up out of the blue. You remember my roommate, Jen? She was going to go but couldn’t.” She scrunched her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Just got off the phone with her. I have the time so I figured… Why not?”
More noncommittal noises. “Where down south?”
“Atlanta. I don’t have the info yet since she hasn’t texted it to me.”
“You’re leaving when?”
She could see her mother standing there with her head cocked to the side. “Early tomorrow.” Late tonight technically but what was one more lie in the grand scheme of things? She was already going to hell.
Her mom, silent for a moment, then made a delicate throat clearing sound. “Have fun and be safe.”
“Thanks, Mama.” The flush of deceit spread across her neck and face. She despised lying to her parents. “Tell Daddy I say hi. Love to both.”
Caro hung up and whimpered.
I feel terrible about this.
Her parents were an amazing couple who’d adopted her and raised her alongside the youngest of their naturally born children. A well-respected couple, they had raised her to understand hard work. When she’d come to Madison for college she hadn’t left, and now she worked for the same institution that had supplied her degree. Her boss had been on her case constantly about taking some time off, so she placed a call and left a message on his phone.
Her final call was to her friend who also rented in the same building, Terri Mosse.
“Hey, Terri. I need a favor.”
“Sure thing, babe. What can I do for you?” The blaring music softened. “Everything okay?”
“I’m heading to Atlanta tonight for no more than a couple of weeks.”
She whistled low. “Jasmine?”
“Yes.” Why did she feel horrible that Terri knew but not her parents?
“You are stressed. What happened?”
“I don’t know. She’s frightened out of her mind. Asked me to help her.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “I can’t ignore her. She’s my twin.”
“I’m not judging, babe. You need to go , go. I will take care of your place. When should I expect you back?”
She pursed her lips. “Not sure. I’m giving myself two weeks if she needs help getting back on her feet. No more than that I wouldn’t imagine.”
“Your plans change, you let me know.”
“Yes, Terri?” She carried her bag to the door.
“Be careful, yeah?”
“I will.” They hung up and she pocketed her phone.
She left her apartment, alarm set and door locked, before making her way to the front where she waved for a taxi.
Guilt nagged her as she settled against the leather seat. Her parents—adoptive some may call them, she called them her parents—deserved better than this. They loved her as much as their other children. She’d never felt like she didn’t belong in the family. This lying to them was ripping at her gut.
Yes, she could tell them but when she’d asked about what they knew in regards to her birth parents or if she had blood siblings there had been pain in their eyes. She despised hurting them and so when Jasmine had first contacted her, she’d kept it to herself. And the first meeting. Partly to protect them—if she hadn’t gotten along with Jasmine, only Caro would have been hurt.
May not have been the smartest thing to leave without telling them exactly where I was going.
She sat up a bit more as the cab drew to a halt before the Dane County Airport below the Delta sign. Passing the driver as she exited, she handed him a bill. “Keep the change.”
She smiled and walked inside to the first kiosk, bag on her shoulder. Before long she had her boarding ticket and was making her way through to security and on to her gate.
Seated in first class, she used the pillow and blanket provided after storing her bag. She closed her eyes and waited for them to take off, alone in her row. She’d raised the rest between the seats.
The flight was uneventful and she woke with the announcement of flight attendants preparing the cabin for landing. She watched the night lights of Atlanta come into view as they approached the airport.
As they taxied to the terminal gate, she withdrew her bag from beneath the seat ahead of her, her nerves suddenly going wonky. She chewed on the side of her lip and wished that she had her papers—she made origami swans when she got stressed or nervous. As a child she’d read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and had created a thousand of her own and hung them up in her room. It was the only shape she could make but she had the ability to create them from any papers.
The seatbelt light blinked off and she gained her feet, swung her bag in front of her and disembarked. Once firmly in the airport, she sidestepped an employee then sent Terri a text before striking out.
She waited for a taxi and gazed around taking it all in. The night was warm, despite it being autumn.
“The Marriott on Peachtree,” she informed the driver as he held the door for her.
It didn’t take long after arriving for her to secure a room and ride the elevator up to it on the thirty-fourth floor. Bag on the bed, she went to the window and stared out. The golden dome of the capital shone brightly against the night skyline.
* * * *
She spent the next day touring the Underground and sampling Coca-Cola in flavors she’d never imagined. Dinner she ate at one of the restaurants in the hotel then at nine she took a taxi to where Jasmine had told her she’d first visited when she’d moved to the capital city.
Caro got out, paid her fare and strolled into the downtown shopping complex. After making her way to the bookstore she grabbed a small table in the café and sipped the coffee she’d ordered.
A few minutes before the allotted meeting time a woman with a large hat and big sunglasses swept into the seat across from her. The items were removed and Caro frowned. Jasmine.
“Jasmine, what is going on? No more of this cryptic talk.”
Jasmine held up a finger then went to order a drink and muffin. Caro stared at her twin. They didn’t much look alike currently. Sure there were, of course, similarities but Jasmine’s hair was pink—bright pink—now and styled, short and spiky. Her clothing… I wouldn’t be caught dead in that.
Her skintight jeans looked uncomfortable. The stilettos, while extremely nice, were black as was the tight leather jacket she had on, its numerous zippers catching then reflecting the overhead lights.
Jasmine was hiding something. Granted, she didn’t know her all that well, but Caro wasn’t about to ignore her suspicions. Her sister returned, hips swaying with every step and sat.
There had been no hug or even a half-hearted attempt at one. Caro drummed her fingers along the rim of her plain coffee and watched Jasmine drink the concoction she had. “Well?” Caro prompted.
“I’m in trouble.” Her fingers clenched on the cup. “There are some guys after me.”
Unease skittered up her spine. “For what? What do they want and who are the ‘guys’ that are after you?”
Brown eyes met hers. “Really bad guys, Caro. I didn’t want to bring you in but”—she glanced around again—“I hoped you wouldn’t mind going with me to talk to the cops.” A shrug. “Cop. The one who I’ve been…dealing with. In fact I’d like you to go for me so I can take care of some things I can’t do with five-oh around.”
Holding up her hand, Caro shook her head. “What did you do? And what makes you think I would go as you.”
“I just told what I saw. It was against a crime boss. His men want to kill me so I can’t testify against him.”
Crime boss? She had a sinking feeling. “You want me to go in your place to meet some cop?” I need as much information as I can get here.
“Officer Declan McBride.”
She rolled her eyes and Caro got the feeling these two didn’t get along all that well.
“And what, he doesn’t believe you?”
Her twin shrugged. “We aren’t what you could call the best of friends. He doesn’t like me and… Let’s just say the feeling is mutual.” She drank. “The problem also is he has…certain views about how I am and may not be inclined to believe I will be there to testify.”
Caro kept her expression composed. She knew Jasmine’s adoptive parents had died and she’d been their only child so when they’d gone, she’d had no one. Jasmine’s expression was tortured.
Outrage grew inside her, unfolding like angry tendrils. How dare this man treat her sister this way. It had to be horribly frightening to be expected to testify against a crime boss especially feeling so alone.
“Okay, I’ll go in your place. I’ll help you, whatever you need. He can think what he wants, we’re sisters. Twins. It’s what we do for one another. I’ll go and you get your stuff done.” She finished her coffee. “When and where?”
“Thank you!” Jasmine smiled brightly and touched Caro’s hand. “We can do lunch after, it shouldn’t take too long. Tomorrow morning. I’m going to need you to hang with him for a short time so I can get a few things taken care of. Things I can’t do with a cop hanging around me. But I think if everyone is thinking you’re me and I’m, meaning you, are with the cops I can get this stuff done. Then I’ll come back and we’ll trade off again.” She wrote an address down on a napkin and slid it over to her. “We should switch bags as well in case he wants your—my—ID.”
Caro hesitated. Give up her bag? Is this legal? “Is this why you wanted to meet tonight? Like this? You’re scared?”
An indescribable emotion filled her features and Caro had that uncertainty again. Jasmine nodded and ate some of her muffin. “I figured they were listening to me and wouldn’t know where I was talking about. I wanted to get your help before I went back to the cops.” She fidgeted.
Caro waited a while then finally said, “Why don’t you leave if you’d prefer not to be out. Do you have a place to go where you feel safe?” She bit her lip and slid her bag to her twin.
“I do. That’s part of what I have to resolve on my own. It’s a small hostel but I blend in there. I’m safer there than I would be with the cops. This crime boss has a long reach and I would just assume to not be in his way if he tries to reach out and touch me.” She stood. “I have to go. See you tomorrow.” She donned her hat and glasses before walking off. Halfway to the door, she wheeled back around. “Thanks for coming.”
Caro gave a slight nod and waved. I should be able to just relax if this only takes until tomorrow. She feels safer away from the cops. Perhaps this one is just incompetent in his job. If that’s the case we can always ask for another to be assigned. Something has her spooked. On her feet she grabbed her cup and the items Jasmine hadn’t disposed of. Caro grabbed Jasmine’s bag and left to hail another cab.
* * * *
This is a shitty day! Declan McBride swore again as he whipped the vehicle around the corner. He slammed his hand on the dash.
“Get out of the way! There’s a reason I have this fucking cherry bar on top.”
People didn’t seem to care and by the time he had made it around the corner he was not any happier. He parked and climbed out, donning his hat. Gazing around, he frowned as he strode toward the store. The message had said she would be waiting for him.
This woman will be the death of me. Because I may very well kill her myself before they get a hold of her.
Jasmine Hoyer. A woman they were supposed to keep safe before the trial. A pain in the ass is more like it. She wouldn’t do as they advised her, running as often as she could from them and the protection they were there to provide.
When his lieutenant had told him to meet her, he’d refused. “Send someone else,” he’d barked. “I’m tired of dealing with her and her spoiled antics. She’s made it clear she doesn’t want our protection. There are plenty of people in this city who would like mine. I’m not wasting my time.”
He snorted. Declan nodded with a smile to a little boy who waved at him. His comments hadn’t gone over at all. “Which explains why I’m here to meet this obnoxious, spoiled…” He shook his head.
Ten steps from the entrance a scream pierced the air, remarkable considering the level of noise in the area. Immediately, he turned in that direction and started shoving through the crowd.
He reached the woman at the same as another officer. Declan froze. Jasmine. Not the short pink spiked hair, tight clothes wearing Jasmine. But it was her. Which meant she was about to try to slip away, yet again.
“You got this?” he asked the young officer.
“Good.” He began across the street holding out his hand to slow cars so that he could progress. “Jasmine!” He made sure his voice carried over the din.
Her head rose as she looked around, finally focusing in his direction. To his left the sun glinted off something and his gut screamed a warning. He ran directly at her, tackling her to the ground as the first shots rang out. Her bag scattered as they hit.
Pandemonium erupted around them. She lay beneath him, eyes wide.
“Damn it, Jasmine!”
He called it in and scanned the area for the shooter. Every fiber in him wanted to chase this person down but his orders were clear. Keep her safe and alive.
She struggled beneath him so he got to his feet then hauled her up as well. Shit! I have no clue where they went or what they looked like. He scowled at the woman who continued to tug against him.
“Let go of me!”
“Hold still, Jasmine. I’m in no mood.”
She pulled against his hold, but he ignored her, talking to the cops who had arrived.
“I’m not Jasmine. My bag!” She yanked against him trying to get to the spilled items.
“What?” He glared down at her. “What is your problem?”
“I’d just as soon as not lose my things! That’s what,” she snapped.
Declan looked up to see his lieutenant pushing through. “LT. What are you doing here?”
The man looked at the woman beside him and back to him. “On my way to a meeting when I heard your call.” The man coughed and patted his pockets. “Bring her to my office.” LT waved one meaty hand then walked away.
“Let’s go,” he barked. “You heard LT.”
“He’s not my lieutenant. What if something was stolen from it while you had me pinned on the sidewalk beneath you?” Fury drenched each word that spilled from her mouth.
He crossed his arms and stared down at her before turning his gaze to the surrounding area. “And for your information, you were beneath me because I saved your ungrateful ass from being shot. So… You’re welcome.”
Her eyes widened. “I’m welcome? I’m welcome?” Her voice eclipsed a pitch he wasn’t sure anyone could reach and he winced.
“What’s wrong? Did you have a few more drop phones in there to keep us chasing our tails as we try to protect you? If that’s what you’re worried about being taken I can’t say I’m sorry.”
Her brow converged but he ignored it. She wasn’t about to pull another fast one on him. “I don’t care.”
“You have this all wrong,” she said, tugging against his grip. She gazed behind him, paused, then struggled again.
“Do I?” He faced her fully, getting up in her personal space until the tips of his steel-toed boots rested against the toes of her—interestingly—light blue tennis shoes. “Really? Tell me what I have wrong, Jasmine Hoyer. Do enlighten me. While I see you lost that horrid pink hair and tight clothing, which I am assuming was yet another attempt to sneak away, you’re still you.”
For a moment, she seemed confused then that damn cool arrogance he was used to and expected from her crossed her features. Declan guided her to his car and held the back seat door open. “I’m tired of running after you. Personally, I don’t give a damn if you don’t want us around. I don’t want to be around you either but orders are orders. I’m tired of it all and tired of the chaos that comes from your selfish actions.”
She glared at him, eyes fiery with defiance. Blood resided on her face but if it stung or she was bothered by it, she never let it show. He made a note to get it checked out back at the station.
“This was my fault?” she asked, aghast.
“You’re the one with people trying to kill them.”
“Sure about that?” she snarked.
He rolled his eyes. “Get in.”
“Why? Am I under arrest?”
He ground his teeth and prayed for patience. Yes, he’d love to arrest her. “No, I’m taking you to the station per LT’s request. Get. In.”
“Would a please kill you?”
“Probably,” he grumbled. “Get in…please.” It would be hell to unclench his jaw.
“Better be clean back here.” Reluctance was stamped all over her body as she slid into the seat and crossed her legs.
Declan slammed the door, a bit harder than necessary, he’d admit that. “This woman…”
He turned and hid the sneer. Can my day get fucking worse? I now have to deal with this prick? Detective Lance Baldwin. Everything about this man just rubbed him wrong. From the way he styled his hair, to the ever-present smirk, which told everyone that Lance believed himself above them, to the custom-made suits he wore. Italian silk. All of it made Declan want to push him into something dirty. Or burn the suit. With the man in it. The detective’s smugness smacked him before the man had actually arrived.
“Yeah, Baldwin?” He opened the driver’s door and put one foot inside.
“Hear you’ve been having trouble keeping an eye on your witness.”
He eyed him carefully. “Nothing better to do than check up on me? I mean, perhaps you should be out doing some detective work and find the perp who decided to open fire down here.”
The man rolled a toothpick he’d put in his mouth. “Heard you were on scene. Couldn’t catch him?”
Declan gave a feral grin. “Not a good day to—”
Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.
The gunshots spurred them both into action. Baldwin hit the ground while Declan dove into his car, hollering, “Get down!”
Glass shattered around him and he swore as Jasmine screamed bloody murder.
“Go. Go. Go!” Baldwin hollered as he rolled and came up running in the other direction. Toward the shots. The same direction Declan would be going if… If not for Jasmine.
He readjusted and got them headed away, gunning the engine. “Are you okay?”
Declan repeated his question three times. All of which got zero response from her. He couldn’t see her. Whipping into a lot, he then threw the car into park and turned around. She lay slumped in the footwell, blood trickling down the side of her face.
Shit. Shit. Shit!
Calling it in, he raced to the nearest hospital, then screeched to a halt and jumped out. Two nurses waited with a gurney. He yanked open the back door and hauled her out. She lay unresponsive as he placed her on the stretcher.
“You can’t park there,” one person said.
“I am not leaving her. Move!”
They wheeled her in and he grabbed a security guard as he passed him. “Park my car to the side and bring me the keys.”
He stood in the operating room as they worked on her and cursed himself. This was crazy. If he was going to be charged with keeping her alive, which it appeared he was going to be, he had to do it in a place where he could control the surroundings. More so than here anyway.
* * * *
Declan gazed up from where he sat, hand on his pistol—cleared from the holster—when the door to her room swung open. The scowl on LT’s face was thunderous. Behind him—his heart sank—came the woman prosecuting the case, a woman in a severe business suit. Jacquelyn Ashcraft. Assistant District Attorney. His ex-wife.
She ran her vibrant green gaze over him and shook her head. “No manners, McBride? You used to stand when a woman walked in the room.”
He scratched his stubble and tapped his sidearm against his leg. When the nurse entered he rose and smirked at the frown Jacquelyn shot him.
“She was lucky,” he said when just the three of them remained in the room with the still sleeping Jasmine. “They’re getting bolder.”
“I can’t win with a dead witness,” Jacquelyn snapped.
He clenched his jaw to keep his comment inside.
“I’m sure death would be an inconvenience to Ms Hoyer as well,” LT said with an eye roll. LT, it appeared, had no problem voicing his opinion.
“Whatever,” she replied. She glared at both of them. “Keep her alive or it’s your asses.” She departed the room with the same cold precise steps with which she’d entered.
Damn woman gave him frostbite. Declan readjusted in his chair.
LT ran a hand over his hair. “Suggestions?”
“Let me put her somewhere.”
“Nope. Somewhere only I know. I’ll leave you a number to call when she’s needed in court. Just give us forty-eight hours’ notice.
LT watched him with dark brown eyes. “You can’t stand her.”
He shrugged. “There are a lot of people I’m not a fan of. Doesn’t mean I won’t protect them with any less passion.”
“You’re a damn good cop, Declan. I’m not implying otherwise. How many times have I encouraged you to take the detective’s exam?”
“Many. And my answer will be the same. I like being on the streets. Walking a beat. I don’t want to be a detective.”
LT harrumphed. “Discussion for another time.” His lieutenant held his gaze. “You sure you want to do this?”
“Nope, but it’s the smartest thing. I can’t imagine it will be fun being in close quarters with her.”
LT smirked. “You never know.”
He snorted. “Not likely.” And yet, he couldn’t deny his body responded to her feistiness with a fervor he wasn’t pleased with. More so just since today. He hadn’t felt it before, but from his first touch on her in the street earlier, his cock had jumped in with his own opinion. There was something different. It didn’t matter—he was in control of his body, not the other way around.
“Give me the number.”
Reaching into the front pocket of his uniform shirt, he withdrew his little notepad. After a few strokes of his pen he ripped the sheet free and handed it over.
“Nope. Just tell whoever answers she’s needed and I’ll be there within forty-eight with her in tow.”
“This is a DC number.”
Declan shrugged and stared at the woman in the bed. Right now she looked lost and small. All of which changes when she’s awake.
“We’ll leave when she wakes.”
LT put a smoke in and sighed. “Be careful.” The man played with his lighter but never once lit the cig dangling from his lower lip.
Moments later, he and Jasmine had the room to themselves. He settled back and waited. Declan needed to use this time to try to figure out a way to stay ahead of her. They’d butted heads many of times. This was different, though.
The Kazakova crime family was nothing to scoff at. They did what they did and not a single one of the witnesses against the family tended to make it to court, so they were continually freed. Jasmine and one other were their last chance.