Her Christmas Protector (Silver Valley P.D.)

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9780373279432: Her Christmas Protector (Silver Valley P.D.)
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A Sinister Silent Night 

 

Two female ministers have been shot in the heart of Silver Valley, Pennsylvania. Now Zora Krasny, navy veteran turned undercover operative, is posing as a new preacher. That means her life's on the line, yet it's the only way to smoke out a psychopath. But she's not alone. She's got the best of the Silver Valley P.D. at her side—Detective Bryce Campbell, the high school boyfriend Zora left behind when she joined the navy. Bryce must pose as her fiancé, so he can stay close and protect Zora. It's a role they're both finding way too easy to play. But with the killer's imminent Christmas countdown, Zora and Bryce can't afford any distractions.

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About the Author:

Geri Krotow is a Naval Academy graduate and Navy veteran. She has traveled to and lived in many places abroad, including South America, Italy and Russia. Her family has finally settled down in Central Pennsylvannia but Geri still writes about all the places she's been. An award-winning author, Geri writes the Silver Valley PD for Harlequin Romantic Suspense and the Whidbey Island Series for Superromance. www.gerikrotow.com 

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Detective Bryce Campbell climbed out of his aging Ford Mustang and walked across the Silver Valley Police Department's graveled lot to the waiting unmarked cruiser. Its taillights glowed like two red Christmas tree bulbs in the darkness. Both of the officers assigned to him for this patrol were in the car, and he made out a third, smaller head in the backseat of the sedan. A third person?

He opened the back passenger's door and slid into the car. Slim hands rested on slim thighs in utilitarian khakis.

A woman. "Evening."

No response from the stranger.

"We never get enough of you, Detective Campbell." Officer Julian Samuel—Jules to the force—spoke from the driver's seat. He never wasted a chance to send a zinger at Bryce. They'd been up for promotion at the same time, and Bryce had not only received the advancement, he'd been assigned as one of three detectives on Silver Valley's force.

He ignored Jules. "How are you doing, Nik?"

"I'll be better when we catch the killer." Officer Nika Pasczenko's voice purred from the passenger's seat in front of Bryce. Although he couldn't see her in the dark interior, Bryce knew the first-generation Polish-American woman wore no makeup to emphasize her model-quality beauty. Not on the job. She'd been a godsend to Silver Valley, as her natural talent with languages, including Spanish and Russian, had helped them break into the drug and crime rings that were ever-expanding into their central Pennsylvania town from New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

"And you're...?" Bryce didn't want the mystery rider to feel left out.

"Colleen Hammermill. I'm the volunteer chaplain tonight."

He made out shoulder-length hair, probably dark as it wasn't catching any of the ambient light in the car, and a throaty voice that sounded vaguely familiar.

"Bryce Campbell. Have we met?"

The leather seat creaked as she shifted.

"No."

Liar.

She was a rookie, too, at whatever she was trying to pull off. That tell with her body language could cost an officer his or her life.

"Are you a minister?"

"Yes, but I'm not assigned to a local church at the moment. I'm ecumenical and float from congregation to congregation as needed to give the local pastors a break."

He knew every volunteer chaplain, made up of local ministers, counselors and psychologists. They rode with the officers on a rotating basis and sat in the backseat as they encouraged the officers to open up about what dedicated law enforcement agents usually avoided—their emotions. Sometimes the volunteer chaplains were present during a crime or right after, and often proved excellent witnesses. No matter their background, they were all required to be certified counselors. If they thought an officer might be in emotional or mental difficulty, they were free to inform the superintendent of police.

Bryce had ridden with all of the chaplains, or so he thought.

He'd never met Colleen Hammermill. His phone buzzed in his front pocket and he pulled it out.

Superintendent of police Colt Todd.

Now what?

"Campbell."

"Bryce, I assume you're in the cruiser and have met the new chaplain?"

"Yes, sir. But I don't..."

"No, she's not on the permanent roster, and yes, she's temporary. No questions. Just."

"Sir?"

"Watch her six for me, will you?" Superintendent Todd's voice was gruff. That wasn't unusual, but his more personal request to watch Colleen's back, using the military term both Todd and Bryce knew well, certainly was. Superintendent Todd's request was clear—he needed him to protect the mystery ride along.

"Yes, sir."

Bryce ended the call and stared at the phone's screen for a full beat.

Just who the hell was Chaplain Colleen Hammermill?

Zora Krasny wanted to kick herself for even thinking about squirming when Bryce Campbell slid in beside her. She'd be able to do that later, after this mission was complete. The fact that he'd acted as if he was suspicious of her, as though he knew she was giving him a fake name, as if he might find her familiar, made her want to bolt.

But they had a mission to accomplish.

Zora unobtrusively stretched her shoulders under her body armor. While her Kevlar vest was like an old friend and still fit her perfectly, she needed to get used to it again. She rarely needed bulletproof gear in her new job. She'd resigned her navy commission and ended her seven-year naval intelligence officer career three years ago. After six months of downtime she agreed to go to work for the Trail Hikers on an as-needed basis while she completed her civilian counseling degree program.

She'd been sporadically employed for the past two years by the Trail Hikers, a secret government shadow agency that existed to aid local and federal law enforcement with particularly difficult cases. Cases that needed more financial backing or expertise than was provided in the everyday operating budgets of regular law enforcement.

The training she'd received from the Trail Hikers had far surpassed her military schooling and she relished the new tactics she'd learned. The only reason she felt any jitters at all was that Bryce Campbell was sitting next to her.

So far the Trail Hikers had only sent her into the field on basic missions. Decoy, undercover distraction, tailing a suspect. Nice breaks from her schoolwork and new, permanent counseling position in the Silver Valley community. The Trail Hikers took care of clearing her counseling schedule whenever they needed her, as they paid for her answering service. She'd worked hard to get her psychology degree and knew that assisting clients through their tough times was one of her passions, as she'd had help in her darkest hours. When she'd had to start over because of the criminal actions of others.

Justice was another passion.

This was the first time the Trail Hikers had assigned her to track with the intent to ensnare a criminal. The fact that it was in her hometown made it that much more personal, more imperative to her that she get the suspect.

The Female Preacher Killer, as the FBI and local law enforcement agencies—LEA—referred to the murderer, was blamed for two murders and three near misses in central Pennsylvania. The second killing had occurred in Silver Valley Township two months ago, and the Trail Hikers and every other LEA in Silver Valley wanted to catch the killer before they found another murdered minister.

The last victim had been one of Zora's clients, a Methodist minister who'd come to counseling to work through issues from her childhood. Like the first victim, she'd been found dead in her driveway. The near misses had been more recent, female ministers shot at as they'd left their respective church services. Two had sustained significant but not life-threatening injuries, while the third had been grazed on her temple by the killer's bullet. Like her childhood best friend—Bryce Campbell, sitting next to her—this case was too close to home for Zora's liking.

She hadn't run into Bryce Campbell in the entire time she'd been back home, not while living as herself nor as Reverend Colleen Hammermill. When she left the navy she'd moved back to Silver Valley, but to a different part of the sprawling suburb of Harrisburg than where she'd grown up since age twelve. With a population of twenty thousand, it wasn't extraordinary that she hadn't run into him yet. She hadn't sought out any of her former high school classmates or friends.

Why did she have to bump into him tonight, when her undercover disguise was vital to the operation's success?

"You nervous about doing this with that lunatic out there, Chaplain?" Bryce's voice betrayed no suspicion of her. He was a pro.

"No. I've got the best protection in Silver Valley, right?" She smiled but inwardly winced. Lying came too easily to her. The officers in the front seats thought she was a real chaplain, needing protection from the man or woman who'd been making female ministers a target for the past year.

No one in SVPD knew about the Trail Hikers, except for one man. The man who ran the entire force, Superintendent Colt Todd.

Officer Samuel pulled out of the SVPD lot and toward the main artery of the surrounding area. Zora cast a quick look at Bryce. His profile was more attractive than she'd remembered. Fifteen years had passed since they'd graduated from Silver Valley High School, fifteen years since she'd canceled their date for the senior prom and effectively ended their childhood bond.

It was more than that.

She'd given him a week's warning that she wasn't going to prom with him. Guilt still prodded at the mental floodgate that kept her memories of the boy who had been her best friend compartmentalized.

He wasn't the boy she'd known anymore, though. His profile was etched with the years that had passed.

Her mother had tried to catch her up on Bryce and other classmates but Zora had asked her to stop. Truth was she had no intention of looking up Bryce or any past Silver Valley acquaintances.

She should have checked the SVPD roster and told Superintendent Todd to assign a different detective to tonight's mission, or she'd have to go back to the Trail Hikers and let one of the other women on the team fill in.

Too late now.

The bright lights of the football stadium, so large it rivaled many college fields, made the night sky glow even though they were a full mile away from their target area. It was a prime spot to lure out the killer. It had been announced for weeks that a female minister would give the invocation for the community's holiday festival, and an exposition football game was part of the celebration. Zora, in her cover as a female minister, was to play the killer's victim of choice.

Adrenaline surged through her system and she curled her toes, trying to stay grounded. She really wanted to get this bastard.

Officer Samuel spoke to her from the front seat. "Chaplain, we'll continue as planned. You take your time walking around the concessions, around the bleachers where the fans are seated. We have officers all over the place—that stadium is on a virtual lockdown. Everyone attending the game has gone through a metal detector.

When they call you out on the field for the invocation, go up and say the prayer. As soon as the marching band finishes the national anthem, leave the field and immediately go around the back of the main school building. We'll be waiting for you in the teachers' parking lot and we'll bring you back to the station. You're safe with us."

Zora nodded, sensing Bryce's attention on her as he finished speaking.

"Right. I'm not worried about my safety with you backing me up. I trust you. Besides, it would be pure stupidity for the killer to try something in such a public place." But she hoped her words proved wrong. She hoped the psycho who thought picking off women of the cloth was some kind of sport took the bait. The killer was sloppy—he'd attempted to kill three women, and of the two he did manage to kill, one had only died because she had been on a blood thinner. She'd bled out from what otherwise would have been a survivable wound.

The officers in front murmured their agreement. Bryce remained silent.

Did he recognize her voice?

Impossible. She'd never come back since she'd left for the naval academy, save for short holiday visits to see Mom and Dad. They were adoptive parents in name only—they'd loved her through her hardest years.

From what her mom had told her, Zora knew Bryce's parents had moved to a fifty-five-plus community a few years ago. The house with the top window she'd stared at for so many dark summer nights had been sold to a new family at least a decade ago.

Even if he was available, she'd be the last person he'd ever want to befriend. Not after how she'd betrayed him, betrayed the deep friendship they'd shared.

You betrayed yourself most of all.

She tried to force back the unwanted memories of the way she'd closed herself off, even six years after moving to Silver Valley. She'd been placed in the home next to Bryce's as part of the Witness Security Program when she was twelve years old.

But she'd never told him about her life before Silver Valley, or where she was from.

Snap out of it.

Mission focus was essential. With any luck, there'd be a serial killer with a weapon aimed at her in the next fifteen minutes. SVPD would apprehend the psycho and Silver Valley would be safe again.

Zora watched the stadium lights grow from a soft glow to the harsh glare of hundreds of incandescent lights. The rumble of the crowd's cheers penetrated the unmarked car's tinted windows.

She pretended to stretch and allowed her fingers to lightly brush her weapon under the roomy Silver Valley High School jacket she wore over her bulletproof vest. She hoped she'd never need to use the pistol; her job was to attract the criminal's attention, giving the local and federal agents that were part of this operation something to work with. A suspect.

"Here you go, Chaplain." Officer Samuel opened her door.

"Thanks, officers."

Before she eased her way out of the car she allowed herself a quick look at Bryce.

The stadium lights illuminated the car and his eyes glowed with intensity. How had she forgotten how bright his blue-gray eyes were?

You haven't forgotten one thing about him.

"When you get back, let's see if we can't figure out how we know each other, Chaplain Hammermill."

She laughed. "I don't think... "

"Save it for some other chump. Is that a wig you're wearing, or have you dyed your hair? And those black-rimmed glasses—pure Halloween. Next time, don't be so obvious." His voice was low, precluding Officers Samuel and Pasczenko from hearing his words.

Zora ignored the sick drop of her stomach and got out of the car.

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