shadow of doubt
Helping him could end her career….
And her life.
Sworn to uphold the law, police officer Kate Dexter believes in doing the right thing. But when she meets an injured, altogether too sexy ATF agent, her entire world is turned upside down.
Jonas Burke is a wanted man. Framed for murder, he needs sanctuary – now. Finding it in the arms of a beautiful, feisty fellow cop isn't exactly his best plan, but he's desperate and wounded, and time is running out for him to prove his innocence. Armed with a little more than a conspiracy theory, Jonas has no choice but to ask for Kate's help.
Kate is torn between her duty to “serve and protect” and her growing desire for this man on the run. With her colleagues in pursuit and Jonas's enemies closing in, she and Jonas will have to work together if they want to survive. But can she really trust him beyond a shadow of doubt?
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The late October rain swept across the windshield, obscuring the dark, narrow road ahead. Kate Dexter flipped the wipers to high and returned to clutching the hard plastic of the steering wheel with both hands. Even with the wipers slapping back and forth at top speed, the road remained mostly invisible. The car's worn tires slid sideways on the rutted gravel road that was rapidly turning into a series of lakes.
Kate eased up on the gas pedal.
Damn, but she wished she’d taken her own vehicle, a solid little four-wheel drive sedan, instead of the family's old boat of a station wagon. That would teach her to give in to the nostalgia of her youth.
Not that there was a lot of nostalgia to—
Another sideways slip on the road. Kate corrected her steering, then eased her neck to the side to stretch out the tension forming in her shoulder, feeling every one of her thirty-three years. The ache intensified. She sighed. As much fun as it had been to get together for dinner with the old gang, she and her shoulder would pay for this little excursion tomorrow. In spades.
And her physiotherapist would tear her a new one for the abuse she'd put her injury through over the last few days. Schlepping all those boxes around, digging through fifty years of accumulated stuff in the attic...how in the world had she missed the fact that her parents had been borderline hoarders? And what in hell were she and Laura supposed to do with everything now that—
She slammed her foot onto the brake pedal as jagged blue light split the night, illuminating a silhouette ahead. A person. Dead center of the road, mere yards away.
Frantically, Kate pulled at the steering wheel, aiming the station wagon toward the trees, but the car, so determined to ditch itself only seconds before, refused to leave the road. Another flash of lightning illuminated the figure. Details imprinted themselves on Kate’s brain. Male, dark hair, eyes closed against the glare of headlights.
Then metal struck flesh with an impact that jolted through Kate's entire being.
The station wagon shuddered to a halt.
For an instant, Kate sat frozen, staring in horror at the body sprawled across the hood and onto the windshield. The wipers continued their steady sweep—left, right, left—obscenely oblivious to the arm in their path.
An arm that didn't move.
Kate threw the gearshift into park and scrambled from behind the wheel. The wind tore at her anorak, driving rain into every opening. Ignoring it, she reached across the station wagon's hood, groping for a pulse. Her fingers slipped on the cold, rain-slicked skin of the man's neck. Nothing. She pressed harder, just to the left of his windpipe.
There. Weak, but there.
She sagged against the fender, relief flooding her veins. He was alive. She hadn't killed him. Yet. But who knew what his internal injuries might be? Or how long he’d been out in this weather? At the very least, his chances of dying of hypothermia increased with every passing second. Every raindrop. She needed help here. Fast.
"Hang in there, buddy," she muttered to the unmoving form, tugging the cell phone from her jeans pocket. Her heart plummeted down to her toes at the No Service displayed in the top corner of the screen. Hell. She'd hoped she hadn't entered the dead cell zone just yet—a zone that stretched for miles, included her parents’ farm, and made calling for help impossible.
Pocketing the cell phone again, she squinted into the night against the wind-driven rain. Eight kilometers east to the farm, fifteen in the opposite direction to Graves Corners, and between the two, nothing but the occasional dilapidated storage barn. She was going to have to drive to get help, and that meant moving her victim off the car. And if she had to move him, she had to take him with her, too, because she couldn’t just leave him injured in the rain at the side of the road.
As if to underscore her thoughts, lightning streaked again through the dark, and thunder rumbled ominously close. Trees groaned under a fresh onslaught of wind, and a branch sailed out of the dark to land on the station wagon's roof. Kate flinched. Hell.
She wiped a trickle of rainwater from the tip of her nose as she considered the problem of how to wrestle two hundred pounds of dead weight off the car hood and into the back seat. Then she grimaced. Perhaps dead weight might not be the best description under the circumstances.
She slid through the mud to the passenger side and tugged on boot-clad feet, grunting as she dragged her victim toward her. If he did have internal injuries, this wasn’t going to help matters, but she really didn’t have a choice. And if her injury had objected to driving and moving boxes, it really wasn't going to like this next part.
The man's legs slid off the hood, and the rest of him followed, too fast. Kate grappled his arm across her shoulders, only just managing to keep him upright. White heat flared through her collarbone, searing down her left arm to set her fingertips ablaze. She squeezed her eyes shut against the wave of nausea and waited it out.
The pain receded to an angry throb. Grimly, Kate forced her knees straight and adjusted her estimate of her victim's size. The man stood at least six-four, and she'd put his weight at a good two-twenty. She'd be lucky if he didn't squash her own not-inconsequential five-foot-eight frame before she got him loaded into the car.
Keeping her victim wedged between her and the vehicle, she inched along the station wagon's side until she could prop him against the rear panel. Fingers numb with cold, she opened the back door and, with way more determination than finesse, wrestled him into the back seat. Then, fire-hot teeth sinking into her shoulder and fresh nausea roiling in her belly, she collapsed across him.
Freaking hell, that hurt. By the time she got this guy to a hospital, she'd need medical attention herself. Gritting her teeth, she waited for her breathing to slow and her heart to stop behaving like a sledgehammer. Then she levered herself upright, sidestepped the legs hanging out of the car, and slogged around to pull open the other door.
The wind pushed back her hood in another wet gust as she reached in with her uninjured arm to grasp a fistful of wet T-shirt. Lightning flared again. She blinked against the flare and flinched at the crack of thunder that followed overhead. That storm was scarily close.
Bracing a knee against the doorframe, Kate tugged grimly at her unwieldy passenger. Centimeter by centimeter, the man slid into the vehicle. Then, when she could pull no more, she slammed the door, returned to the other side, and tucked her victim's feet out of the door's way. She brushed the sopping hair from her eyes as she straightened again—and froze.
Her fingers weren't just wet; they were sticky.
Rainwater wasn't sticky.
She reached into the station wagon and held her hand under the dim interior light. Dark, viscous fluid covered her fingers. Her heart kicked against her ribs.
Lots of blood.
Muttering curses under her breath, Kate maneuvered around to the front passenger door and opened it to rummage through the glove box. She located a flashlight amid the years of accumulated papers and oddities. Weak light glowed when she switched it on—not much, but better than nothing.
She returned to the back seat and leaned in to tug the man's black T-shirt from the waistband of his jeans. Directing the flashlight's beam onto pale skin, she saw what she'd missed before in the dark. Crimson, seeping from a neat hole in the flesh below his left ribcage. A bullet hole. He'd been shot.
Kate sucked in a quick, shocked breath, but didn't doubt her observation for so much as a nanosecond. She'd seen too many gunshot wounds in her thirteen years with the RCMP to mistake this for anything else—and she still had the vivid memory of her own wound, too.
She lifted her head and scanned the surroundings as she ran through the possibilities. Hunting accident? Wrong time of year, and this guy wasn't dressed for the bush. Domestic dispute? Unlikely. There wasn't another farm around for miles, and she didn't think he could have walked far like this. The wound didn't look self-inflicted, either.
Which left the possibility that someone had deliberately brought him out to the middle of nowhere and left him for dead. It was an unsettling possibility at best, and she, for one, didn't care to be here if they came back to check on his well-being.
Mouth drawing tight, Kate slammed the door shut and skidded around to the driver's seat. First things first. Between hypothermia and blood loss, not to mention whatever damage she’d done with the car, this guy needed a hospital now. She'd call the local constabulary from there.
Her mind raced as she fumbled with half-frozen fingers for the key in the ignition. Grave's Crossing didn't have so much as a doctor, but once she got cell service again, she could call 911 and then keep driving to meet the ambulance. With luck—
Lightning turned the night daylight bright, and a simultaneous boom of thunder shook the station wagon. Kate ducked. Freaking hell, that was close.
A new, ominous groan threaded through the receding thunder, underlined by snapping and crackling, followed by a crash that sent another vibration through the vehicle. Kate's heart dropped to her toes. If that was what she thought it was...
She retrieved the flashlight from the passenger seat, opened her door, and forced her way out into the storm again. The flashlight beam didn't do more than highlight the pounding rain, but the nonstop flickers of lightning confirmed her worst fears. A massive tree lay across the road a few meters behind the car, blocking her only access to help.
She stared at it. Stared down the road into the dark. Wiped the water from her face. And made the only decision she could.Her parents’ farm it would be.
The drive took forever and required every ounce of skill and concentration Kate possessed. She nosed the vehicle into the rain at a painfully slow pace, fingers gripping the steering wheel until they ached. Entire sections of the gravel road were all but washed out, and she sent up a silent prayer of thanks each time the old car crept across yet another stretch of gushing water.
A groan sounded from the back seat as the tires jolted over a pothole, a sign that her passenger still lived. Her gaze flashed to the rearview mirror, but she saw only darkness. If the man had regained consciousness, he was at least still prone. She returned her attention to the treacherous road.
"Hang on," she said. "We'll be there in a couple of minutes."
"Where—?" The question hung behind her, half-formed, slurred and faint.
"You're hurt. I'm taking you to get help."
Another groan as the car jittered over washboard. Kate's shoulder throbbed anew under the unrelenting tension. She gritted her teeth.
"No." The voice from the back sounded stronger, but still slurred. "No help. No hospital."
Kate scowled. An objection like that raised a hundred questions in her cop's mind, but she stilled the urge to interrogate him on the spot. Priorities. First she had to make sure he'd live long enough to answer her questions.
"No hospital," she agreed, "but only because there isn't one near here. Or a doctor. The best I can do in a hurry is my house. If we're lucky, my sister will still be there. She's a nurse, and she handles most of the town's emergencies. You okay with that?"
Another glance in the mirror showed the ghostly reflection of her passenger struggling to pull himself up, his face lit by the glow from the dashboard. Kate tensed, all too aware of her vulnerability if he made a move. But he only closed his eyes and didn't reply.
At last a light glimmered through the trees on the left, and Kate slowed the vehicle to a crawl. The road here dead-ended in a pond, and many an unwary driver had missed the sharp turn into the farm's driveway. She banked left, made the corner without issue, and saw Laura's car parked in a pool of light in front of the barn. Relief washed over her.
"We're here," she told her passenger. "Just hang on."
She pulled up in front of the porch and gave a long blast of the car horn. A light came on outside the door. Laura had been watching for her. Kate switched off the engine, gave another honk, and clambered out. Rain beating against her back and seeping through the anorak to chill her skin, she rounded the vehicle to pull open the rear passenger door. Thunder snarled overhead.
"Right,” she said. “We have to get you into the house. Do you think you can help me?"
The man's eyes opened halfway. She couldn't make out their color, but between the dim light from the overhead dome and the floodlight switched on by their arrival, she could see their glaze of pain. She touched his shoulder gently.
"We have to get you inside," she repeated, softening her voice. "Can you help?"
The man nodded. Kate slid her fingers under the waistband of his jeans and pulled. Damn, his skin was cold. A presence loomed behind her, and she looked over her shoulder to find her sister peering into the back of the car, holding up an umbrella that threatened to turn inside out at any second.
"What'd you do, run over something?" Laura asked, squinting into the interior. "Dog?"
"Man," Kate grunted, giving another tug.
"What?" Laura took a startled step backward as the man stumbled from the car, but when he began a slow collapse onto the ground in spite of Kate's best efforts, she leapt forward again and helped prop him upright. Her umbrella disappeared into the storm.
Laura's fingers went to the man's throat. "Thready," she said. "And his skin's like ice. When did it happen? And why the hell didn't you call an ambulance instead of bringing him here?"
"Twenty minutes ago, give or take. And no cell service." Kate adjusted her grip on the man, trying to ease the strain on her shoulder. He slipped sideways. She swore under her breath. "Look, can we continue this inside before you have both of us on the ground?"
Contrition flashed in Laura's expression. "Your shoulder. I forgot. Here, let me take the weight."
She hoisted the stranger's arm over her shoulder, and together they half-carried, half-dragged their guest up the stairs onto the porch. Kate turned the doorknob and kicked open the door, and they staggered sideways into the house with their load.
"Back bedroom," Kate gasped. Alternately bouncing off walls and tripping over the man's feet, they hauled him down the narrow hallway of the old farmhouse and deposited him on the bed. There, Laura turned professional.
"Tell me exactly what happened," she said, running her hands over her patient's legs.
"He was standing in the middle of the road when I came around a corner. I wasn't going fast—hell, I wasn't going much more than a crawl." Kate massaged her aching shoulder. "I didn't even hit him hard enough to knock him down. He just kind of collapsed across the hood."
Laura flashed her a glance. "He's in awfully rough shape for something that minor."
Kate hesitated, then heaved a sigh. Laura wouldn't like it, but she'd find out anyway. She met her sister's questioning gray gaze.
"There's more," she admitted. "He's been shot. Left side, below the rib cage."
Laura sucked in a quick, startled breath. Her hands stilled in their task of unbuttoning the man's jeans.
"Then we need to get him to a hospital, Kate. The phone's out, but I can stabilize him, we can get him back into the car and—"
"There's a tree down across the road."
"Hell." Laura stared down at her patient and ran a hand over her short-cropped dark hair. "Hell, hell, hell." She bit her bottom lip and then sighed. "All right, I'm going to need some help. Is your shoulder up to it?"
Kate nodded. "Of course."
"My bag is in my car. I'll need it and some towels." Laura stripped off her dripping raincoat as she spoke. She draped it over the back of the chair at the desk their mother had used for sewing, then pulled open a drawer and took out a pair of scissors. "And blankets. Lots of them. We need to get him warmed up."
Kate turned on her heel and went in search of the requested supplies. She returned a few minutes later to find that her sister had already stripped the man of his T-shirt and boots, and was peeling back the jeans she'd sliced open. Kate stopped dead in her tracks.
Holy hell, this guy was built. He had it all: heavily muscled shoulders, broad chest, six...no, eight-pack, powerful thighs—his was one of the most impressive physiques she'd ever encountered. Which made the cop in her sound all kinds of alarms.
Someone in his physical condition, roaming the backcountry roads in the dark and in a storm, with a gunshot wound...
Her gaze settled on the spider web tattoo on the side of his neck, just below his right ear. A prison tat? The hair on the back of her neck prickled.
Laura cleared her throat. "When you're quite through drooling, I could use a hand over here."
Kate opened her mouth to object, but snapped it shut again. Better Laura drew that conclusion rather than know Kate's real line of thought.
"Sorry," she said, moving forward to set Laura's medical bag and a stack of towels on the night table her sister had cleared off. She dropped the blankets at the foot of the single bed and went around to the other side. A quick glance at their patient's slack features assured her he was unconscious again.
Laura nodded at the oozing hole Kate had seen earlier. "You were right. He's been shot. Twice."
Kate’s gaze followed her sister’s pointing finger to a second wound in the man's left thigh—this one bleeding more profusely, staining the bedspread beneath him a deep crimson.
"Both bullets went clean through, thank God." Laura took a pressure dressing from her kit and placed it over the leg. "Hold that."
Kate did as directed, applying a firm pressure to the dressing. She turned her gaze away while Laura removed the man's underwear and spread a towel discreetly over his groin, focusing her attention instead on the man's hand nearest her. She turned it over to see the back.
Nothing. She let the hand drop and reached across to his other.
"If you're looking for gunshot residue, there is none." Laura snapped the second glove into place. "At least, none that survived the rain."
It wasn't what Kate had been looking for, but she nodded anyway, even as she stared at the five tattooed dots on the soft flesh of the man's hand between thumb and forefinger.
The spider web hadn't been conclusive evidence, but this...this was unmistakable. Four dots forming a square to represent prison walls, a fifth in the center representing an inmate.
This man had done time.
Cold trickled down Kate's spine. Bloody hell. Just who—and what—had she brought into the house with her sister?