Laurie Alice Eakes
Publisher: Love Inspired Suspense
A kidnapper with deadly intentions …
and a US marshal who must come to the rescue The carjacking that ended with Kristen Lang running for her life—and her federal judge mother kidnapped—was a nightmare. The ransom, however, is worse: Kristen in exchange for her mother. Deputy US Marshal Nick Sandoval will do almost anything to safely recover the judge—except trade Kristen. But can he shield the woman he’s falling for and bring her mother home?
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Kristen Lang had to be mistaken. The same vehicle that had followed her from her office to the courthouse where she’d picked up her mother, the Honorable Julia Lang, could not be tailing her down the Eisenhower out of Chicago. The world was surely full of gunmetal-gray SUVs.
With her mother’s job, threats were not uncommon. For the past ten years of her life, Kristen had learned to be vigilant of anything out of the ordinary.
Seeing the same—or very simliar—vehicle three times in one afternoon was out of the ordinary.
Kristen took one second to glance at her mother. “Is everything all right with you?”
“When is it not?” Mom’s voice sounded a little too bright.
“Oh, I don’t know, Mom. Maybe when someone threatened to blow up your car, or you had that stalker two years ago, or—”
“Why would you think anything is wrong now?”
“Because you’re not answering my question with anything but questions.” Kristen checked her rear view mirror.
The dark SUV loomed closer.
Beside her, Mom sighed. “I have no reason to think anything is wrong. I haven’t had any threatening phone calls or mail.”
“But?” Kristen squeezed the word past the tightening of her chest.
“Nothing that doesn’t make me sound like a silly old woman.”
Kristen laughed at that. “You are the last person I would call silly or old.”
“Thank you for protecting my ego.” Her mom patted Kristen’s hand on the steering wheel. “Now tell me what’s going on with you.”
Defeated for the moment, Kristen shrugged. “Everyone else left the office early for one reason or another, and I decided to finish up paperwork at home. You know I don’t like being there alone.”
“I don’t blame you. If you had an office in a better part of town, that wouldn’t be a problem.”
“We’re there to be closer to our clients.”
“If you had better clients, such as ones who pay—”
“Someone has to advocate for poor victims of crimes. And I get paid, Mom, you know that.”
“A tenth what you would make if you’d gone to law school.”
Kristen sighed over the age-old conversation. “I wouldn’t be doing as much good as I am now for those who can’t afford to pay to get help.”
The work she was certain God wanted her to do, but her mother didn’t want to hear that.
“You could do pro bono work with better support staff than you get at that nonprofit organization you work for now.”
With the rain starting to fall more heavily, Kristen concentrated on her driving and didn’t answer. Rain made the road slick, and her tires weren’t the best. One moment of inattention, one need to slam on the brakes, and they could hydroplane into the path of a larger vehicle like a truck.
Or an SUV appearing out of nowhere again.
She shivered, and her knuckles whitened on the steering wheel.
“It’s not too late to change your career.” Mom’s voice broke her concentration. “You’re only twenty-five. It’s too late to get into a law school this year, but if you apply this fall, you can start next year. You’ll only be twenty-nine when you finish.”
Kristen didn’t want the sort of corporate lawyer job her mother thought good enough. She liked being a social worker, helping rebuild people’s lives.
“I thought you wanted me to get married.” Hearing the sarcasm in her voice, she opened her mouth to apologize.
“I would, of course, but you don’t seem to meet any men on your own or like any of the men I introduce you to,” Mom said first. “I saw Marcus Ashburton today, and he said you turned him down for a second date. Why?”
Traffic was anything but boring, especially with that SUV behind her.
Kristen wanted to concentrate on driving, not discuss her love life—or lack thereof—with her mother, the matchmaker.
“That young lawyer you went out with last week is a good man,” Mom continued. “He does a great deal of pro bono work.”
Kristen grimaced. Marcus had spent nearly the entire dinner talking about his “charity” work and how good a person it made him. Not a way into Kristen’s good graces. If someone had to tell her he was good, he was probably drawing attention away from too many parts of him that were not.
“He says he’s good.”
At being nice, at being a lawyer, at choosing fine restaurants. He probably thought he sneezed better than anyone else.
“I don’t like him,” Kristen said. “He only does the sort of free legal services that bring him maximum attention from the press.”
Kristen struggled to keep one eye on the dark SUV bobbing in and out of her rear view mirror, and the other eye on traffic. The latter seemed to close in on her so much she could scarcely breath. And the former was drawing near.
“The press loves him.”
Even if she hadn’t found him boring, she’d never date a man with a job that kept him so busy—a man she couldn’t count on to be home when she needed him. Her lawyer father had been absent for nearly every important moment in her life.
“I don’t want to talk about Marcus, Mom.” Kristen sounded tenser than she intended.
“All right, but I was sure you would like him.”
“He’s a perfect gentleman. He’s just not my type.”
Mom pulled her phone from her bag and began to text. “What is your type?” she asked as her thumbs flew across the screen keyboard.
She forgot the question she was answering as the dark SUV filled her rear view mirror.
She needed to get away from that vehicle, return to the left lane. If she could find an opening in the line of cars streaming past her, she would accept traveling beside the “L” train. Anything to get clear of that behemoth riding too close to her rear bumper.
“See, you don’t even know what you want.” Mom sounded victorious.
Mom’s phone pinged with an incoming text, so Kristen didn’t bother to respond. Her goal required her attention. She needed an opening.
Nothing but endless vehicles sending up plumes of rainwater. Nothing… Nothing…
Yes. There! A break in traffic at last.
She stomped on the gas in an attempt to surge into the break in traffic. Zero to sixty in her aging vehicle was more like zero to thirty, but she managed to slip into the next lane.
And that oversize SUV cut in right behind, its engine far more powerful than hers.
Kristen wanted to scream in frustration and beat the steering wheel instead of gripping it like a rip cord on a parachute jump.
If only she could bail—from the highway, from the conversation with her mother, from the fear that the vehicle was following them, or more likely her mother, the judge who often made unpopular decisions in the name of justice and had experienced trouble in the past.
And this time, the second time since Kristen was fifteen, the pursuer was bringing her into the picture.
Unless she was mistaken and this wasn’t the same vehicle. That was entirely possible. Likely, even. Only, past events were making her anxious.
“You don’t even know which lane you want to drive in.” Mom didn’t raise her gaze from the phone in her hands. “And you’re going too fast for the conditions.”
“I’m trying to keep up with traffic so we’re not run over by that monster behind us.”
“You’re too close to the car ahead of us.”
She was, but only by a car length or so. If she dropped back, that SUV would be too close by about a gazillion feet.
“Kristen, get back into the right lane.”
“How? I forgot my shoehorn.”
“Don’t be sarcastic. It isn’t attractive.”
Kristen sighed. Her mother—every carefully blond hair, dyed to look natural, lay in place in an elegant twist, her makeup glowed as fresh as it had been that morning, and her charcoal-gray suit hung on her slim frame without a wrinkle—might be a circuit judge in the federal court system, but she was still a mother and applied herself to the role with as much vigor as she had applied herself to everything else in her life.
“There’s an opening coming up where you can get back in the right lane.” Mom tapped on the side window.”
Kristen shook her head. “Can’t make it.”
“If you had a better car—”
“Please, don’t start.”
She was too tired and too worried about that gunmetal-gray SUV to deal with the “If you had a better job, you could have a better car” lecture. At that moment, she needed to tell her Mom she intended to get off at the next Oak Park exit instead of continuing to her mother’s house farther west. She needed to lose this tail before she led him straight to her mother’s home—or her own.
But the SUV was even closer.
“Kristen,” Mom said with exaggerated patience, “get into the right lane. You can move in there.”
“But I want to exit the expressway.”
“Who’s driving here?” Kristen tried to laugh to lighten the question.
“Just listen to me for once.”
Kristen glanced at her mother and read tension in the tightening of the skin around her blue eyes.
“You know,” Kristen murmured.
“That we’re being followed? Yes. Now change lanes.”
Hands gripping the steering wheel hard enough for her knuckles to whiten, Kristen managed to slide into the slower lane.
And the dark SUV wedged in right behind her. Mere inches from her bumper. Just as her foot pressed hard on the gas to create more distance between her Camry and the SUV, a pickup roraed into the gap between Kristen and the car ahead of her.
“What are they doing?” Kristen cried.
Mom didn’t answer. She held her phone to her ear. “I think we are about to be carjacked.”
“Mom, who are you talking to?” Kristen’s voice had gone squeaky as she sought for breath—breath and the Harlem Avenue exit. She passed it every day, and she couldn’t remember if it was on the left or the right. She couldn’t remember if Austin or Harlem was first.
Her sweating palms slipped on the steering wheel, and the car swerved. “I need to get off the expressway.”
“We’re easier to find if we stay on the Eisenhower.” Mom’s tone remained quiet, calm. “If we get off in Oak Park, there’s too many quiet side streets we could end up on.”
And the exit loomed too close. Moving over for a left-hand exit was impossible at the moment. The pickup was slowing. The SUV was not. The faster lane flowed with an unbroken line of cars and trucks. At the moment, a semi roared alongside them, flinging water from beneath its enormous tires, sending diesel fumes in to the intake vents for the air-conditioning.
Kristen’s stomach rolled with the anticipation of what was about to happen and the knowledge she might fail at the drastic measure she must take in an attempt to stop it.
“Mom?” Kristen kept her tone as calm as she could manage. “Hold on.”
She spun the wheel to the right.
“Don’t do it,” Mom cried.
Too late. The Camry’s tires rumbled on the edge of the pavement. The car hit the shoulder, water and rocks spraying, pinging against the fenders. Kristen’s foot pressed harder on the gas. Fifty-five. Sixty. Sixty-five.
“Kristen!” Mom shouted.
She saw it looming in her rear view mirror—the SUV riding her bumper. Ahead, a disabled vehicle stood on the side of the highway, flashers blazing into the rain-created twilight. To her left, the pickup kept pace, blcoking her ability to swing back into the flow of traffic.
Trapped, she eased up on the gas, praying the SUV wouldn’t crash into them, and moved her foot to the brake. Slow and steady. Water flooded over the road. She could hydroplane and cause a pileup if she slammed on the brakes and lost control. If she didn’t stop ast enough, she would plow into the aged Buick ahead of her.
She was losing momentum too quickly. The back of the Camry fishtailed. The SUV blasted its horn, and Kristen jumped.
“Just past the Harlem exit,” Mom was saying into her phone.
“Put the phone down.” Kristen barked out te order. “If we crash, it could break your face.”
If they crashed? When they crashed.
Or something crashed into them.
The thud came from the left, a tap against the bumper. From the corner of her eye, she caught sight of the SUV looming dark and menacing in her side mirror. Roaring up closer, crowding her to the right where she could go no farther. Threatening the back of the pickup.
The SUV hit the left-hand back door. Kristen’s foot slammed on the brake in a convulsive effort to maintain control. Water blasted against the undercarriage.
And control was only a dream.
The Camry spun perpendicular to the lane, missed the pickup by a hair, then smashed its front bumper into the side of the SUV.
The air bags exploded, slamming Kristen against her seat, driving wind from her lungs. Mom emitted a soft gasp, hen began to cough from the dust.
Kristen couldn’t breathe at all. Her vision blurred. Her chest tightened, squeezing, squeezing…
Between the air bag and seat belt, she couldn’t move. Cocooned. Strangled. The air bag was already deflating. A click and the seat belt would be off. This was mere seconds.
It felt like a lifetime.
A scream reverberated through her head, couldn’t reach her lips, choked her.
“No panic attacks now.” Mom never raised her voice, but it was sharp nonetheless. “No weakness.”
Weakness. Mom considered panic attacks weakness. Must not show weakness.
Nausea clawed at Kristen’s middle. She swallowed, reached for the seat belt lock with one hand and the door handle with the other.
The door popped open without her aid. It should have been locked, but a man stood in the opening on her side and another on Mom’s side.
“Get out,” the man on the right commanded.
“Stupid move there, lady,” the man on Kristen’s side said. “Who taught you to drive?”
“I will wait for the police here in the vehicle.” Mom made the declaration and folded her hands against her waist.
“You’re going to get out now.” The man on her side grabbed her arm and reached across to release her seat belt.
Mom moved her hands to the dashboard. “I do not wish to go into the rain.”
“Even if your car explodes?” The man on Kristen’s side grabbed her arm and began to haul her from the car.
She slammed her fist against his wrist. The move failed on a full-grown man. He continued to hold. She grabbed for the steering wheel, curled her fingers around the grip.
With a squeeze of the man’s hand on her wrist, her fingers opened against her will, freeing her hold on the wheel. And then he was dragging her into the rain, icy for June, painful for rain. Hail. Tiny hammer blows against her face. She ducked her head, saw her feet in their sensible pumps scraping along the pavement as though they belonged to someone else.
They may as well belong to someone else. She possessed no power to stop herself from being forced from her car.
Carjacking was all too common. People stole cars to commit a crime, but they didn’t usually hurt the vehicle owners. They left them beside the road. It was unpleasant but not life threatening if they didn’t fight back.
But these men were taking her and her mother, not the car. They had deliberately wrecked her.
She yanked one arm free and struck out for the man’s face. Missed. She kicked one kitten heel into the man’s shin. Connected. He grunted, then picked her up and tossed her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Tires, a barely dented bumper on the SUV, wet pavement, Mom’s designer heels spun past in a nauseating blur. In another moment, she was going to be sick.
The man tossed her in to the back of the SUV. Her head hit the side. Stars exploded before her eyes. Dazed, she lay still for a fatal moment—a moment in which her mother landed beside her.
“Tie her up,” one man commanded.
He leaned into the back of the SUV and grabbed Mom’s hands.
Kristen surged up and bashed her head into his face at the same time Mom shoved both stilettos into his middle. He staggered back, fell against his companion, sending him reeling, but still held Mom’s hands.
“Kristen, run!” her mom cried.
Kristen ran, kicking off her pumps and speeding along the shoulder of the Eisenhower. Above the roar of traffic, she heard the slam of the SUV’s hatch—with her mother behind its tinted windows.
* * *
Traffic slowed to a crawl and Nick Sandoval knew he had found what he’d been looking for, what he’d he would find since receiving the phone call from his boss.
“Judge Lang contacted us to say she fears they’re about to be carjacked.” Callahan’s voice was as calm as usual, but Nick knew the US marshal for the norther district of Illinois well enough to catch the tension beneath. “I’ve called the local law enforcement and am sending men out from here, but you’re on your way in that direction, aren’t you?”
Despite all his responsibilities, Nick’s boss remembered this was Monday night, the night Nick ate dinner with his eldest sister’s family. Unlike Wednesday night when he joined his younger brother and sister-in-law, and Friday nights, when the entire clan gathered at their parents’ house for Mom’s great cooking and terrible attempts to get her last unmarried child to commit to someone—again–no matter how many times Nick told her he wasn’t ready to put his fiancée’s death behind him.
“She’s in her daughter’s car,” Callahan continued with his deliberately slow explanation. “It’s a silver Camry.”
“That should be easy to spot. There must only be a hundred within a mile.”
Despite his sardonic response, Nick’s instincts for trouble tingled up his spine as his eyes fell on the slowed traffic ahead.
“Got to go, sir. Something up ahead.” Still hearing his boss’s voice squawking from the speaker, Nick tossed the phone onto the passenger seat. He needed both hands on the wheel, and his vintage Mustang didn’t possess anything as fancy as a Bluetooth connection to the car speakers.
Sirens wailed in the distance, audible above the rain drumming on the Mustang’s roof and roar of surrounding traffic. Cops were on their way, but Nick wanted to get to the scene first if it involved the judge. Protecting the federal judges was his primary duty.
An accident involving the judge would be worse than a carjacking. Oddly enough, the latter were usually peaceful with drivers forced off the road, removed from their vehicles, left stranded while the crooks took off in the vehicle to commit a crime, such as a robbery or drive-by shooting, and then abandon the car, usually wrecked, somewhere else. In that scenario, the car might be a loss but the judge and her daughter would be safe. Wet. Cold. Probably frightened, but unharmed.
His gaze swept the traffic and his mind touched on the idea that if this was a carjacking, it wasn’t like those that went down in the city so often they rarely made the news anymore.
Maybe the traffic jam had nothing to do with Her Honor. Nick couldn’t risk picking up his phone to call Callahan to ask if or what he had heard. Neither had the phone rung. A good sign, surely.
An opening in the right lane was another good sign. Nick punched the accelerator and surged into the gap seconds before everyone’s brake lights flared on and the lane screeched to a complete halt—a defining characteristic of an accident, not a carjacking.
Nick cut the wheel right and, half a dozen horns honking in his wake, plowed onto the shoulder of the road.
He spied what lay ahead now. An accident for sure. A crash between a dark gray SUV and a silver Camry, the former idling with emergency flashers engaged, the latter with doors wide-open.
And from the vehicles raced a tall woman in a flowing summer dress and long, blond hair, with a man in hot pursuit.
Nick flung himself from his car and raced for the woman. The daughter? Not the judge. Where was Her Honor? His gaze flicked to the Camry, to the SUV. Rescue the daughter? Go look for the judge? His duty was to the judge, but the daughter was in imminent danger.
Wishing he wore his running shoes, Nick sprinted along the side of the road. Cars honked. People shouted, words indistinct above the rumble of engines and approaching sirens. His feet slipped on wet gravel.
A hundred yards ahead of him, the woman stumbled, started to pitch forward. The man in pursuit grabbed a handful of her hair and jerked upright. Her mouth opened. If she cried out, ambient noise drowned the sound.
Nick pushed himself to greater speed. The man was dragging the woman backward, closer to him. She struck out with one hand. The man caught her wrist, spun her around toward the idling SUV nosed against the Camry.
That SUV was involved in more than having wrecked the Camry. Jnick knew it with all his law enforcement instincts for trouble. On foot, even in his Mustang, he couldn’t stop the owners of the SUV if it took off. From it’s angle, he could read the license plate. Police were on their way but taking too long. Minutes when Nick needed seconds, wedged into traffic as he had been despite their sirens.
But he could stop that man from taking the judge’s daughter. A dozen drivers and their passengers could stop the man from taking her. Not one person got out of their vehicle. Scared. The man could be armed. Nick was armed. Still, if anyone simply tossed something in the way trip the man Nick would catch them before they reached the SUV.
“Seconds. I only need seconds to gain.”
Half prayer, half plea to anyone who might be willing. Nick spoke the words aloud, though he barely heard them. Ten yards. Three yards.
Nick lunged and grasped the daughter’s captor. “I’m a deputy US marshal. Let her go.”
The man tried to keep running, hold firm on the judge’s daughter. But she stopped, dropped to her knees, an anchor to her captor.
“Get up.” the man aimed a kick in the young woman’s direction.
Nick hooked the man’s raised leg with his own foot and threw him off balance. “Now stay down.” He placed his foot in the center of the man’s chest. “IF you can, get up and head for my car behind me.”
“I can’t. My mom—” She spoke between gasps for breath, then leaped up and began running toward the SUV.
“Stop,” Nick shouted.
She kept running.
Nick’s prisoner laughed and tried to grasp his ankles.
Nick grabbed the man’s wrists and hauled him to his feet. “Who are you?”
“Who are you?” Four cops from the nearest suburban town surrounded Nick.
“Deputy US Marshal Nick Sandoval. Please take this man into custody. I need to go after the judge’s daughter.”
And the judge? Of course. The young woman was running toward her mother.
“Credentials?” the police sergeant demanded.
“Later.” Nick thrust the prisoner, a man nearly half his size, toward the waiting police officers. “I’m responsible for those ladies.”
An officer caught hold of the prisoner, and Nick raced after the judge’s daughter. It took mere seconds to catch up with her—seconds in which the flashers on the SUV ceased, the tires spun, and the monstrous vehicle roared to life. One officer raised his weapon as though intending to shoot out the tires.
“No,” Nick shouted, as another officer pushed his colleague’s arm down.
They couldn’t fire at a vehicle containing a federal judge. They could miss the tires and strike her through the rear of the vehicle. They could hit a tire and send the SUV spinning or rolling into the heavy traffic—traffic unable to stop because of the rain-slick road.
Two officers ran for their cruisers to give chase, but the SUV swept past the wrecked Camry and sped along a suddenly clear shoulder, pickup and stalled vehicles gone. Before the police reached their car, the SUV was lost in traffic.
“Noooo.” The daughter’s cry was long and painful like a wounded animal.
She took a few stumbling steps in the direction of the SUV, then dropped to her knees, her hands to her cheeks.
“It’s all right—” Nick hesitated, not sure of her name, as he crouched beside her. “You’re safe with me.”
“But they have my mother.” She was gasping as though still running. “They took my mother.”
“We’ll find her. We caught the man who grabbed you. He’ll tell us something.”
Not at all guaranteed, but she needed reassurance.
“Let’s get you to my car and out of the rain.”
“We need to after that SUV. They have my mom.”
The judge, Nick’s responsibility.
The minute he helped the woman to her fee and turned toward his vehicle, he knew her assailant had slipped the officers’ custody. The officers were scattered, running into the now halted traffic, and the wiry kidnapper darted between cars and under the elevated train tracks to the eastbound lane.
No one would blame Nick for the vehicle getting away. He could not have caught up with it.
But they might blame him for the prisoner escaping.