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Treacherous Intent

Sonoma series, book #5

(Love Inspired Suspense, December 2014)

This is the fifth book in my romantic suspense Sonoma series (although each book is stand-alone). This story stars Liam O'Neill, whom readers met in my books Narrow Escape and Unshakeable Pursuit.


Private investigator Elisabeth Aday thinks her California women's shelter is a safe haven—until skip tracer Liam O'Neill shows up. While searching for a missing woman, Liam unwittingly puts Elisabeth in the crosshairs of the deadly drug gang that is trailing his target. To stay alive, they must find the woman before the gang finds them. And when a second rival gang joins the search, the threats multiply. Deep in the lair of notorious drug dealers, Elisabeth can't tell which is more dangerous—the criminals after her…or her growing feelings for the man at her side.

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Extended excerpt


Liam O’Neill frowned as he caught sight of the gray Mercedes sedan in his rearview mirror. Hadn’t he seen that car behind him several miles back, when he was driving through downtown Sonoma?

He scrubbed his face with one hand as he guided his beat-up pickup truck down the country road. He was exhausted—the nightmares had been especially bad last night. His tiredness was probably making him paranoid. As a skip tracer, tracking down people who didn’t want to be found or helping people disappear, he had his share of enemies, but he’d been monitoring the cars behind him and hadn’t noticed any obvious tail.

Moments later, the Mercedes turned off onto a side road. Clearly he needed more sleep. He was starting to imagine things.

It had been almost eighteen months since a medical discharge had sent him home from Afghanistan. His shoulder now only had crisscrossing pink scars, but the nightmares and occasional hallucinations hadn’t faded as quickly.

His cell phone rang, and he hit the button on his Bluetooth headset to answer it. “Liam.”

“It’s Shaun.”

“Hey, how’s Dad?” Liam’s brother had taken their father to the hospital that morning.

“Tired. He’s home now. But the doctor says he’s doing fine. Only a couple more chemo treatments to go. He should be feeling well enough for Christmas in a few weeks.”

Liam couldn’t share Shaun’s optimism. Dad’s diagnosis of leukemia a few months ago had rocked him as violently as the mine that had injured his shoulder. The worst part was, cancer wasn’t an enemy he could shoot at. He couldn’t defend his father the way he defended his unit.

So he did the only thing he could—he tried to burden his family as little as possible while this was going on.

Shaun said, “Monica asked me to call you. Instead of seeing Dad this afternoon, my lovely wife wants to know if you can come tomorrow.”

Liam’s shoulders tensed. “Is he okay?”

“Yeah. Monica just wants him to nap.”

“No problem.”

Liam’s GPS unit on his dashboard began telling him to turn. “Gotta go,” he said to Shaun.

“See you later.” His brother hung up just as Liam turned into a long driveway that wound up to a large, rambling farmhouse. The only indications that it was a battered women’s shelter were the three security cameras.

He walked up the steps to the front porch and peeked into the window to see what looked like a security room with video monitors, computers and two husky men watching Liam’s approach.

There was a security intercom and he pressed the button. “I’m Liam O’Neill, here to see Elisabeth Aday.”

“I don’t have you on the visitor’s list for today, sir,” a guard replied.

“I don’t have an appointment. I need to ask Ms. Aday a few questions about one of her clients. I don’t even need to come inside, if she wants to meet me out here on the porch.”

There were heavy footsteps, then the dead bolt drew back and the door opened to reveal a man with a weathered face and jet-black hair. His wary eyes pierced through Liam, but he stepped back to let Liam enter.

He stepped into a short entry hall with a door on either side, one to the security room and another to what looked like a small conference room. The entry hall ended with a stout-looking door, obviously made with reinforced steel. Liam guessed that was the door into the shelter itself.

The security guard said, “I’m afraid I’ll have to search you, sir.”

Liam submitted readily. He had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, but he’d left his gun locked in his truck. When he had given Liam a pat-down and a thorough sweep with a metal-detector wand, the security guard gestured to the conference room. “I’ll call Ms. Aday to let her know you’re here.”

Liam scanned the small room, sparsely decorated with only a large table and chairs surrounding it, and a smaller table in the corner with paper cups and napkins. This must be a place where the women in the shelter could meet with outsiders—close to the security guards and separated from the rest of the house.

Within minutes, he heard the heavy reinforced door open and then close before light footsteps approached. Liam had been expecting the young woman who entered, but he hadn’t expected the gut-punch reaction to how beautiful she was.

She wasn’t model-gorgeous, but there was something about the dark hazel eyes that spoke of courage, pain and compassion. Her skin seemed to glow like gold in the morning sunlight, and her dark straight hair, pulled back into a ponytail, glinted with reddish strands. But her mouth was serious, almost frowning as she looked at him. She studied him for a moment before closing the door and turning to face him.

Her self-composure and the way she waited for him to speak first was what Liam would have expected of a private investigator of her caliber. He found himself wanting to make her trust him as quickly as possible.

“I’m Liam O’Neill.”

She nodded but didn’t answer.

“I wanted to ask you a few questions about one of your clients.”

“I don’t speak to anyone about my clients,” she said crisply. Her voice was low, husky.

Liam opened his mouth to reply, but he was interrupted by a loud knocking at the front door. They both turned toward the noise, but at the rumbling sound of the security guard’s voice, speaking to whoever was outside, Elisabeth turned back to Liam.

“I’m a skip tracer,” Liam told her. “A woman named Patricia hired me to find her sister, Joslyn, who disappeared a few weeks ago from San Francisco.”

Elisabeth hadn’t moved a muscle, but Liam could tell that she had tensed and was trying not to show it.

“Patricia said that Joslyn might be escaping her abusive boyfriend and using a different name,” Liam continued. “I found out that a woman named Joslyn came here and that you helped her.”

“How do you know it’s the same Joslyn?”

“I’ve been tracking a woman who matches Joslyn Bautista’s description.” He held up his phone with a photo that Patricia had given to him. “I just want to find out if she’s safe. Her sister is worried.”

Elisabeth’s mouth tightened. Then she said in a strangled voice, “Joslyn doesn’t have a sister.”

Liam’s breath caught in his throat.

At that moment, they could hear a man’s voice speaking loudly through the intercom. “I told you, I’m with Liam O’Neill. I know he’s here already.” The voice had a faint Filipino accent.

Liam reacted instinctively. He moved toward the conference room door and tried to reach for his concealed gun before remembering he’d left it in the truck. “Get under the table,” he ordered Elisabeth before he yanked open the door.

The security guard replied to the man through the intercom, “Sir, Mr. O’Neill is in a conference with Ms. Aday. I’ll have to ask him first before I let you inside.” The guard turned his head and caught sight of Liam.

“He’s not with me,” Liam said urgently. “Don’t let him—”

There was the deafening blast of a shotgun as the wooden front door exploded into splinters. Liam leaped backward and fell against Elisabeth, who had come up behind him.

The man’s voice shouted, “You send Joslyn out here now or we’ll blow this place apart!”

Elisabeth stumbled backward into the conference room, landing hard against a chair, as Liam backed into her. The sound of the gunshot still rang in her ears.

She shoved away from Liam. “What did you do? Who are you?”

But Liam’s entire body had tensed. There was a haunted look in his dark blue eyes, and though he stared at the open doorway, he didn’t seem to see it.

She’d seen behavior like this before in ex-military men. One had reacted in exactly this way to loud bang noises—the tensed muscles, the wide unseeing eyes—a waking nightmare brought on by his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Liam carried himself tall and strong, like a soldier, and he wore his hair in a buzz cut that emphasized his sharp cheekbones and wide jaw. Was he ex-military? Was it possible he suffered from PTSD?

He gathered himself together with an effort.

“Liam,” she said urgently.

He took a few quick breaths, getting his bearings again, then turned to her. “He’s not with me.”

“He knew your name.”

“He must be working with Patricia—or whatever her name really is.” A muscle tightened in his jaw. “You have to believe me.”

She had developed a habit of not trusting people readily, but she wanted to believe him. Maybe because his first reaction had been to tell her to get to safety.

Elisabeth moved to the blinds and peeked out. “He’s not alone.” There was a gray Mercedes parked behind an ancient pickup truck she assumed was Liam’s—and three other cars had just pulled up.

The man at the front door looked Filipino, with dusky skin and dark hair, and he waved a shotgun around a bit dramatically. Elisabeth pegged him as a hothead who would shoot first and ask questions later. Behind him, at the base of the porch steps, stood a shorter Filipino man who looked nervous, making Elisabeth wonder if the hothead had been ordered to attack the shelter or if he had done that on his own initiative.

The two security guards had pulled their firearms, but they remained inside the security room. Elisabeth and Liam hovered in the conference room doorway. Her primary weapon was back in the shelter, and she was just about to pull her secondary weapon hidden under her pants leg when the hothead called out, “Where’s Joslyn? I want to see her! Or else bring out that Aday woman!”

A shiver spiked through Elisabeth at the mention of her name. Liam shot her a look of concern.

“That’s it!” The hothead kicked the door open.

Frank, the security guard closest to the door, jerked back as a piece of wood flew at his face. Bill, the younger guard, recklessly rushed the hothead to try to disarm him.

Liam moved to shield Elisabeth with his body just before the shotgun went off, the sound almost masking Bill’s gasp of pain.

Elisabeth peeked out the doorway to see Bill fall to the floor clutching his shoulder, blood seeping between his fingers.

Liam was up from the ground in a flash. Elisabeth followed suit, grabbing her gun from her ankle holster.

Liam elbowed the attacker in the face, making his grip on the shotgun loosen, and then knocked the weapon away. The man threw a punch, but Liam blocked it and grabbed the man in a wrestling move. The two of them spun and staggered in the small entry hallway, thudding against the walls.

The nervous man hesitated at the bottom of the porch stairs. Elisabeth opened the conference room window and fired her pistol into the air. The nervous man ducked and scurried to the open door of the gray Mercedes. “Stay right there,” she called out.

Men had emerged from the other three cars, but at her shot, they backed behind their open doors. She wished there was a way for her to help Liam, but the armed men in front had her full attention.

One Filipino man, dressed in an expensive gray suit, purple silk shirt and purple tie, stood up so that he was only partially covered by the door of the car he’d been driving. “We only want Joslyn.”

“She’s not here. Get in your cars and drive away. No one has to get hurt.”

The man’s handsome, arrogant face creased in a vicious smile. He obviously wanted to hurt someone—probably Joslyn. Elisabeth hadn’t spent much time with the young woman, but she’d been frightened, penniless and alone with the distinctive mark of a man’s fingers around her wrist and a strange-looking cut above her eye that Elisabeth guessed was from a ring.

Elisabeth should know. She herself had a strange-shaped scar above her left cheek.

Had that mark on Joslyn’s face been caused by the flashy gold ring glinting on this man’s finger?

“I’ve already called the police,” yelled Frank’s voice from the other window. He must be like her, crouched at the corner of the open window. Most of the time, Frank and Bill were needed for enraged ex-boyfriends or husbands who came to demand their women back—not standoffs with whole groups of Filipino men in expensive cars and silk shirts. Elisabeth realized that each of them wore something purple and gray.

It would take at least fifteen minutes for a policeman to arrive. Elisabeth hoped they could hold them off for that long—without anyone getting shot. Liam still struggled with the other man.

Suddenly, a body flew down the front porch and landed on the ground. Elisabeth caught a glimpse of dark hair and a purple sock as a pants leg rode up. It was the hothead.

Immediately, Liam was beside her on the other side of the window, holding a firearm—probably Bill’s. His dark blue eyes scanned the scene in front, his mouth tight. “How long before the police can arrive?” he whispered.

“At least fifteen minutes.”

“They won’t stay put forever.”

“We only want Joslyn,” the man with the ring repeated loudly.

“O’Neill was talking to her.” It was the nervous man, still huddled behind the Mercedes, speaking to his boss.

Elisabeth tried not to flinch. She had been half-hoping the chaos would make the men forget about what Frank had told them. They obviously knew all about Liam being hired to find Joslyn.

And now they knew Elisabeth’s name. She was on the shelter’s website on the volunteer page—her picture, her full name, her website link, for anyone wanting to hire a private investigator who volunteered her services for a battered women’s shelter.

Then suddenly Elisabeth heard a faint wailing. A police car, ten minutes sooner than expected. The officer must have already been in the area.

The Filipino men heard it, too. Their leader called “let’s go” to them in Tagalog, and they got back in their cars. Their driving was impeccably organized—within one minute they were heading down the driveway and turning away from the shelter just as a police car shot into view. It pursued them, red lights flashing.

Elisabeth reholstered her firearm, sagging against the wall next to the window. This was something she didn’t do every day—have a standoff with eight armed men.

Liam also relaxed, breathing heavily, and lowered his weapon. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” Elisabeth studied his tall, muscular frame. He looked like he’d be carrying a few bruises, but thankfully there were no signs of blood.

He turned the full force of those dark blue eyes on her, and she found it hard to breathe. She hadn’t been attracted to any man in so long…ever since Cruise. The name of her ex-boyfriend was like a bucket of cold water, and Liam turned back into just a man—a handsome one, but not one to be trusted.

“I’m sorry.” Liam’s voice was hoarse.

“For almost getting me shot or for ruining my morning?” she quipped. She needed to get some distance from what had just happened. And from the emotional intensity in Liam’s eyes.

“Those men must have followed me. While I was driving, I thought I might have been tailed, but I wasn’t sure.”

“They had four cars here. They might have used a four-car team to tail you, which would have been harder to notice.”

Unease crept into his eyes. “But what’s worse is that they followed me straight to you.”


He’d just put an innocent woman in danger.

No, it was even worse than that. He’d put two innocent women in danger.

The fact that Liam had practically delivered Elisabeth to those men on a silver platter filled him with guilt as police officers swarmed around the women’s shelter. Some of the residents were outside now, looking fearfully at the broken front door, while police officers ranged around the property, going in and out of the house through side doors.

An ambulance had pulled up front and the injured security guard, Bill, was being patched up from where his shoulder had been grazed. The older security guard was giving Bill an earful about his foolhardy actions.

Detective Carter of the Sonoma police department had just arrived. Liam had worked with the man several times over the past few months, contracted by the Sonoma police to track people down.

“Did you catch any of the men who drove away?” he asked Detective Carter as the officer approached.

He shook his head, his thinning red-gold hair glinting in the sunlight. “Officer Fong happened to be nearby when the security guards hit their direct signal to dispatch, but the four cars split up as soon as they left the driveway. Officer Fong followed one of them but lost the car.”

Elisabeth sighed. “I guess it was too much to hope that we got a couple of them for questioning.”

“You don’t know who they were?” Detective Carter asked.

She shook her head. “I think they were Filipino. The leader spoke in Tagalog to his men.”

“What exactly did they want?” Detective Carter asked.

“They demanded that we turn over one of my clients,” Elisabeth said.

“What client?”

“She told me her name was Joslyn Flores.”

“A few days ago, a woman who called herself Patricia hired me to find her sister, Joslyn Bautista,” Liam said. “She’d disappeared a few weeks ago, and her ‘sister’ was worried.”

“Nothing about it seemed unusual?” Detective Carter asked.

Liam grimaced. The detective had often praised Liam’s gut instincts, but they seemed to have failed him this time. “She seemed sincere. It was a little unusual when she paid the deposit in cash, but she said it was because she didn’t want her husband to know because he didn’t believe Joslyn was missing. I ran a cursory background check on her and she seemed to be who she said she was. The records showed that Patricia’s last name had been Baustista before she’d married Joseph Santos, and her sister Joslyn lived with them in Los Angeles.”

“I know Joslyn didn’t have any sisters,” Elisabeth said. “When I was training her to go off grid, she had to be honest with me about any relatives she might run into. I saw her face. She wasn’t lying to me when she said she didn’t have siblings.”

“I should have dug deeper. A hacker could have created a credible background for Patricia,” Liam said. “Patricia said that Joslyn may have been traveling under a different last name. I followed a few leads that pointed to Ms. Aday.” Liam nodded to Elisabeth. “That’s why I came here today, to ask her if she’d helped Joslyn.”

“Did you tell Patricia you were coming here today?” Detective Carter asked.

“No. When I was driving here, I thought I might have been tailed but I couldn’t be sure. The men came in four cars, so they might have traded off tailing me.”

“Hiring a hacker and using a four-car tail?” Detective Carter frowned. “This isn’t some small operation. These guys are organized and have money.”

Liam told him about speaking to Elisabeth and being interrupted by the man at the front door who claimed he was with Liam. “The guard let slip that I was with Elisabeth. He mentioned her by name.” If only he’d been a second faster, he could have prevented that guard from saying anything.

Detective Carter looked sharply at them both. “So if he didn’t know who you’d come to see, he does now.”

Liam explained about the man shooting the door and rushing in, about Bill jumping him and Liam struggling with him. It had been a lot harder than he’d expected because his injured shoulder had flared up. He rubbed it, still feeling the ache.

Detective Carter noticed. “Your shoulder still okay?”

“It’s fine.”

The detective shook his head. “I want you to see the paramedic when we’re done here.”


“Injuries like that are always bad.” The detective’s gray eyes on Liam were steely but concerned. “You don’t want to learn you’ve made things worse when you’re in the middle of chasing someone and you find you can’t pull yourself over a fence.”

Liam put his hands up in mock surrender. “Fine.”

“What injury?” Elisabeth asked.

“Shoulder wound. Afghanistan,” Liam said. It was bad enough his injury had worried his dad. Now even Detective Carter was interrupting taking their statements to worry about him. Liam couldn’t have that.

Elisabeth studied his face for a moment, and surprisingly she seemed to understand his reluctance to draw attention to his shoulder. She turned back to Detective Carter. “I tried to see the license plate but didn’t have a good enough angle.”

“I only saw a partial as they got away,” Liam said. “3-T-something.”

Detective Carter noted it down in his notebook.

She explained the rest of what happened. Liam winced again when she mentioned how the man had told his boss that she was talking to Liam.

Detective Carter’s expression was alert. “They only got your last name?”

“But I’m on the shelter website. Full name, photograph and my professional contact info. The men only needed to use a smartphone to check the website to find me.”

“And you have no idea who they were and why they wanted Joslyn?” Detective Carter asked.

“Four cars seems excessive for an angry ex-boyfriend who wants her back,” Liam said.

“She never mentioned anything about her ex,” Elisabeth said. “She was scared and penniless. Luckily she didn’t need medical attention when she arrived. She left as soon as she could.”

“That seems unusual,” the detective said.

“It is. Most women are relieved to find somewhere safe. They’re not yet thinking about the future. Joslyn was grateful to the shelter, but she was still anxious to move on. She took off early one morning and no one saw her leave.”

“Ms. Aday, you’re in danger if they think you know where Joslyn is,” Detective Carter said.

“They don’t know for sure that she’s not at the shelter,” Elisabeth pointed out.

“I don’t know how long that’ll keep them from trying to find you,” Liam said. He saw the shiver that passed over her.

“I’ll post an officer here to make sure the shelter’s safe from any other attacks,” the detective said. “But I’m afraid we’re stretched pretty thin. Unless you’re directly threatened, I don’t believe I can get authorization for a protective detail on either of you.”

Elisabeth said, “Don’t worry, I can take care of myself,” at the same time that Liam said, “I’ll be fine.”

“I know you’re both pretty competent, but just be careful.” He nodded to them and went to talk to one of the other officers nearby.

“You need some type of protection,” Liam blurted out. “Let me help you. It’s my fault they’re after you now. I led them here.”

She blinked in surprise, and he thought he saw a hint of warmth in her hazel eyes at his concern for her. But then she lifted her chin. “I’m a licensed private investigator with advanced tactical and defensive handgun training. I think I’ll be okay.”

He was impressed. Still… “No one can be completely safe on their own. Personally, I know I wouldn’t stand a chance against eight men. The two of us could help each other out.”

Again, she blinked at him. Now she looked wary. “Help each other to do what?”

“Figure out who those men are, and why they want Joslyn so badly.” Liam looked deep into her eyes, wanting her to understand how sincere he was. “Let me help you.”

Those dark blue eyes were almost hypnotic.

Elisabeth couldn’t look away from Liam. Finally, she had to close her eyes and turn her head away.

He wanted to protect her. It had been so long, she’d forgotten what it was like to rely on someone else, to not have to always stand on her own two feet.

But trusting someone wasn’t who she was anymore. She’d had to learn that lesson the hard way—she wasn’t about to open herself up to that again.

Still, she had to admit she was touched by the deferential way he spoke to her, as if he really respected her abilities and wasn’t just placating her. Most of the men she encountered—the ones who had betrayed her and the abusers who came to the shelter in search of their victims—were condescending in the way they treated women. It surprised her to find one who wasn’t.

And really, who was she kidding? What chance did she have against eight armed men? She might be stubborn, but she wasn’t stupid.

She kept her expression cool; calculating. “What did you have in mind? I’m not much into someone shadowing my every step.”

He smiled and it transformed him, softened his wide jaw, making his eyes gleam. “I promise I’m house-trained.”

“Good, because I just got a new apartment here in Sonoma.” A muscle in her neck spasmed. She hadn’t meant to share that. There was something about Liam, some aura of safety he emitted that enveloped her, too, and made her let down her guard. She couldn’t afford to do that.

Liam looked at the people milling around, and with a gentle hand on her elbow, guided her down the long driveway.

“For starters, let’s see if we can reconstruct what happened with Joslyn. How did she find the shelter?”

“I have a few contacts in Los Angeles, some churches and shelters. They refer women to this shelter if they have an especially vindictive or persistent abuser.”

“You have no idea where Joslyn might have gone from here?”

Elisabeth chewed her lip. Was Liam truly trustworthy? But she trusted Detective Carter—she’d seen him handle some of the men who had found their victims at the shelter, and the other volunteers had always spoken highly of him. From his manner with Liam, Detective Carter obviously had respect for him. “I’m not sure,” Elisabeth said slowly, “but when I was coaching her, I mentioned Oregon once as an option, and she seemed interested.”

“Oregon’s a big state.”

“I also taught her how to hide, and it might not be safe for us to even try to find her. I don’t want to lead these men straight to her. If it comes down to it, I won’t risk Joslyn’s safety. I’d rather work on this end and try to find out who they are and why they’re after her.”

“Joslyn didn’t say anything about who she was running from?”

“No.” Elisabeth thought back to her short few days with Joslyn. “She had been badly beaten about a week before. She had bruises fading from her arms and shoulders, a cut on her face, a broken rib—I think she’d been kicked—and a broken hand. Her injuries had all been bandaged up by some clinic or emergency room.”

Liam’s expression had become grave and hard as she listed Joslyn’s injuries. “Her ex-boyfriend did that to her?”

“She seemed afraid of him, but at the same time, I thought there was some anger behind all that fear, which is unusual.” She then remembered something. “She might have had ligature marks on her wrists. At least, they looked that way to me, and they were her freshest bruises.”

“He tied her?” His voice was muffled by his tight jaw.

Men’s anger used to make Elisabeth flinch. As she’d regained her self-esteem, she’d had to train herself to face it with calm confidence, remembering she was no longer that victim. But Liam’s anger, directed at the man who’d hurt Joslyn, made Elisabeth realize he was someone who wouldn’t stand for anyone lifting a finger to her. What would it be like to have someone who wanted to guard her and care for her? She hadn’t had anyone like that since she was sixteen, when her mother died.

“Some abusers do that, but it’s unusual,” she said.

“The way I see it, the only way you or I will ever be safe is to figure out what’s going on,” Liam said.

“It sounds better than just sitting around and waiting,” she admitted. “Let’s talk to some of the women at the shelter to see if anyone knows anything about Joslyn.”

Liam nodded, but as they walked back up the driveway toward the house, he said, “We’d better be discreet. Detective Carter might not appreciate us doing our own investigation when the police are on it already.”

“I’m a private investigator. This is my job.” They walked in silence for a few moments, then she said, “You’re pretty friendly with Detective Carter.”

“He’s known my family for a long time. When I started my skip-tracing business, he sent some work my way.”

“I do some freelance for the San Francisco FBI,” she found herself saying, and bit her lip to keep herself from blurting out more. What was it about Liam that made her so eager to overshare about her life? “Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like I was bragging.”

His eyes twinkled at her. “An occasional dose of humility is good for a man’s character.”

She didn’t know what to say. She hadn’t often met men who could make fun of themselves this way.

At the back of the house, there was a fenced-in recreation area for the residents, and Elisabeth knew the key combination to open the gate. She nodded to Witton—one of the house security guards—who stood watching over the children on the play-set. As soon as some of the women saw her, they came up to talk.

“Are you all right?” Kalea, a staff member at the house, grasped Elisabeth’s hand, but she also cast a curious look at Liam.

“I’m fine. This is Liam O’Neill. He’s a skip tracer and he works with Detective Carter.”

Several of the women visibly relaxed.

Elisabeth gave an abbreviated account of what had happened.

“Joslyn?” Kalea’s eyebrows rose. “But she left weeks ago.”

“Do those men still think she’s here?” Witton’s dark brows lowered over his deep-set eyes.

“Not sure,” Liam said. “Detective Carter is assigning some officers to watch over the house, though.”

“What do they want with her?” Kalea asked.

“We don’t know,” Elisabeth said.

Kalea looked thoughtful. “She didn’t say much when she was here.”

“She enjoyed playing with the children,” one of the women spoke up.

“Miss Joslyn was sick,” said Kayoi, a precocious little girl with large eyes and a narrow chin.

Her mother tried to hush her, but Elisabeth said, “No, I’d like to know what Kayoi saw.” She knelt in front of the girl. “What do you mean, she was sick?” From what Elisabeth could tell, Joslyn had been healthy, aside from her injuries.

“She was throwing up in the bathroom,” Kayoi said. “Early in the morning, before breakfast.”

Joslyn could have been vomiting for a variety of reasons, but one zoomed to the top of Elisabeth’s list.

“I asked her if she wanted me to get Miss Kalea, but Miss Joslyn said she was only a little sick and didn’t need help.”

“Thank you, Kayoi. That’s helpful.” Elisabeth rose to her feet and caught Liam’s eye. From his expression, she figured he had made the same guess.

“Was she pregnant?” Kalea asked in a low voice.

“If she was, she didn’t tell me,” Elisabeth said.

Kalea leaned close to her. “Are you in danger from those men who are after her? Are you going to be all right?”

Elisabeth didn’t want to lie to her, but she didn’t want to worry her, either. However, Liam answered for her. “I’ll keep her safe. Don’t worry.”

His words should have annoyed her—after all, she was able to take care of herself. But his tone was earnest rather than arrogant, and if she was honest with herself, it was good to know someone had her back.

Not that she’d let herself rely on that. No, he might sound trustworthy now, but she’d seen too many broken promises to start trusting someone now just because they seemed earnest. He wanted to protect her? Fine. But she wouldn’t stop protecting herself.

Kalea squeezed Elisabeth’s hand. “We’ll be praying for you, okay?”

Elisabeth’s answering smile was stiff. She loved volunteering at Wings shelter, but the faith of the owners and the staff occasionally made her uncomfortable. She didn’t feel any affinity to a God who had failed her at some key points in her life.

She spoke to a few of the other women there, giving reassurances and answering questions, but she learned nothing new about Joslyn. She had just left a group of women when she saw Tiffany sitting alone on a bench, soaking in the sun. Tiffany didn’t obviously signal to Elisabeth, but she held her gaze and tilted her head slightly. Her expression was anxious.

Elisabeth casually walked over and sat beside her. “How are you feeling?”

Tiffany rubbed a hand over her distended stomach. “Tired. The baby’s been kicking a lot lately.”

“So you heard that the men were looking for Joslyn?”

Tiffany nodded. She whispered, “I saw her, the night she left.”

“What happened?”

“I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. When I was heading back to bed, I spotted Joslyn just as she was closing her door. She looked scared to see me. I knew right away she was leaving. I tried to get her to stay, I told her she was safe here.”

“She didn’t believe you?”

“Joslyn said that he’d never stop looking for her until she was dead, because she’d embarrassed him. She said that she had seen him kill a man for no good reason, so he’d certainly kill her.”

Elisabeth started in surprise. “She witnessed a murder?”

“I told her to speak to Detective Carter, but she said she didn’t have proof outside of what she saw, and she wouldn’t live to testify against him. She was certain that the only way she’d ever be safe would be when he was in jail, and until then, she had to keep running from him. And then she left.” Tiffany’s lips were white. “Was he the man who came to the shelter today?”

“I don’t know.” She took Tiffany’s hand. “But don’t worry. You’re safe here.”

Tiffany nodded, but her shoulders still hunched, as if trying to protect her unborn child. “Please don’t tell anyone I told you about this.”

“I won’t.” Elisabeth gave her hand a final squeeze, then went to speak to some other staff workers.

She was distracted by the sound of children squealing. Liam had entered into a tickle war with four children at once, and they were having a grand time. Liam squirmed out of the way of little hands even as he wiggled his fingers at tummies, making the children shriek and leap aside.

The mothers laughed, and the joyful sounds seemed to erase the somber mood. The women came here out of such pain, and this lighthearted play seemed to Elisabeth to bring not just a respite but also a sense of hope for the future. And it was all because of Liam.

Finally, Elisabeth and Liam decided to leave. Two little boys clung to his legs and rode along for a few steps as he walked.

“Please, Mr. Liam, don’t go,” one of them said, looking up at him.

“You can stay in my bed,” the other one said.

Liam grinned and managed to untangle their little arms from his legs, ruffling their hair. “I’ll come back.”

As they left, Elisabeth said, “You’re really good with kids.”

“I like them.” The grin was still on his face. “I hope I have—” He stopped abruptly, and his smile faded.

Did he hope to have kids of his own? Why would that thought make him so sad?

You’re being nosy, Elisabeth told herself. Never mind that she was an investigator and she was always observing people. She didn’t want to wonder about Liam or his life. She wasn’t even sure it was a good idea to partner with him. She just wasn’t used to working with someone. She usually only depended on herself, and that’s what she was comfortable with.

That thought suddenly made her feel very alone.

She shook it off and refocused on Liam. “If Joslyn is pregnant, that might be what had spurred her to run away. She’d want to protect her baby.”

Elisabeth also told Liam what Tiffany had said—keeping Tiffany’s name out of it, as she’d requested—about Joslyn witnessing her ex-boyfriend murdering someone.

“We need to look into that murder,” Liam said. “Joslyn said she had no evidence, but with our skills and training, we might find something she missed. And to start, we could look into the men who attacked us today.”

“Did you notice their clothes? They all wore purple and gray. Was it a uniform? Are they part of some organization?”

Liam hesitated, then said, “Gang colors.”

Elisabeth thought about it. “Maybe. There are a lot of Filipino gangs up and down the West Coast. But they’re mostly in the big cities.”

“They could be from one of the cities. That murder Joslyn witnessed might be important enough to make them drive to Sonoma.” Liam looked thoughtful. “I have a friend who used to be LAPD. He could chat with someone from the gang task force. But that’s just for Los Angeles.”

“I’ll call some of my contacts with the San Francisco FBI.”

“Maybe Detective Carter has contacts in Portland and Seattle.”

“We have to find a way to put Joslyn’s ex-boyfriend in jail, just like Joslyn said,” Elisabeth said. “Until then, none of us will be safe.”

© 2014 Camy Tang