Accountant Victoria Hayes never would have thought discovering fraud in her office would put her life at risk. When her house catches fire, destroying the evidence she's collected, it seems the mastermind will do anything to keep Victoria from disclosing what she knows. Unsure what to do, she turns to her charming supervisor for help. But without much evidence, Jeff Tucker is reluctant to believe Victoria...until they both become suspects. Now they must work together to prove their innocence...and stay alive. With an unpredictable—and deadly—criminal after them, each step could be their last.
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Heather Woodhaven earned her pilot's license, flew a hot air balloon over the safari lands of Kenya, assisted an engineer with a medical laser in a Haitian mission, parasailed over Caribbean seas, lived through an accidental detour onto a black diamond ski trail in the Aspens and snorkeled among sting rays before becoming a mother of three and wife of one. Heather channels her love for adventure into writing characters who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :
Victoria Hayes tossed through her anxious dreams, the day's events on an endless loop: Todd Wagner had caught her trying to collect evidence. Wagner's breath was hot and pungent against her neck, just like her dog's breath. And he was barking. Barking?
Victoria blinked herself awake with the help of Baloo's wet nose pressed into her cheek. The acrid smell of smoke and the piercing shriek of the house's smoke alarms sent her heart into overdrive. She couldn't see anything. The haze stung her eyes. The urge to yell for help prompted her to open her mouth, but her lungs constricted and sent her into a fit of coughing.
She kicked against the covers and fell off the bed, landing on the plush carpet. The fur of her one-hundred-fifty-pound Newfoundland brushed against her hand. She reached out and felt for his tail. Victoria crawled a few steps. It was useless. She couldn't see a thing. She reached out again and felt for his presence. Baloo, like his fellow Newfoundlands, was acting like the rescue dog he'd been bred to be as he led her to safety. Victoria never knew he had it in him.
Her hands crossed the hallway threshold. If she and Baloo could reach the entryway, they had a fighting chance. Wiping tears away with the back of her hand, she could make out hot orange flames licking the ceiling ahead of them.
Victoria cowered to the floor and pressed her face against the carpet as another fit of coughing shook her. Every muscle in her body wanted to give up, wanted to sleep. Baloo ran around and nudged her.
One hand, one knee, one move at a time, she obeyed Baloo's nudges with her eyes closed. She couldn't see anyway. Her skin burned from the heat. She prayed for help just as Baloo shoved her again. An unbidden image of the grass, a river and an open starlit sky filled her mind, and she forced herself to move faster.
Her head bumped into glass. Thank you, Lord. She reached up and pulled on the sliding door handle. Flicking the back door lock upward, she wrenched it open and sucked in a breath of fresh air.
She heard it before she felt it—the roar—as the fire sucked up the new current of oxygen. In the light of the new flames, Victoria glimpsed a sight of the shiny red bag just out of reach, on the kitchen counter. Against her better judgment, Victoria took a step into the kitchen and grabbed the purse. Baloo barked, bit the bottom of her pa-jama pant leg and dragged her the rest of the way outside.
Victoria stumbled across the cement patio, following Baloo, who trotted across the yard to the gate. She reached into her purse, and as soon as her fingers found her phone she heard distant sirens already on the way. Her voice probably wasn't strong enough to communicate, anyway. Her feet moved quickly over the icy wet grass to her waiting rescuer. She flung the gate open and prayed Baloo wouldn't run off, as he was prone to do without a leash.
Victoria wiped her gritty eyes with the corner of her pajama shirt. Baloo led her to the wooded nature trail that ran past the backyards of their subdivision. Beyond the grove of trees, the Boise River flowed. Ironic. If only she had means to redirect all that water or a rainstorm were to sweep over the neighborhood.
Her breath caught as she watched the flames climb the siding of her house. Please, don't let the fire hit the other homes or these woods, Lord. She fell to her knees in a pile of leaves and hugged Baloo as she coughed the toxic fumes out of her system.
"Thank you. You saved me," she whispered to her beloved canine.
Baloo made a gagging noise. She released him so he could clear the smoke from his own lungs. Victoria leaned back on her heels and watched her home continue to be consumed by fire. Her cheeks were wet with tears as she recalled the many hours she'd spent picking out paint colors, wall accents and furniture. The painstaking process of making her house a home seemed futile—all that effort to open her doors to neighbors, friends, book clubs and Bible studies. And for what? It was all going up in smoke.
Victoria's gut churned. She hadn't lit any candles. She hadn't cooked her own dinner. She even turned her computer off before bed.
Her computer... Victoria groaned. The flash drive containing the evidence sat inside the house, likely a melted piece of useless plastic by now. Her only hope of proving her suspicions gone, and now she had nothing to take to the FBI in the morning.
Could that be why her home was destroyed, because Wagner caught her trying to gather evidence of fraud? Was she in danger?
Baloo's cough morphed into a growl. Victoria fell back in alarm. The moonlight illuminated Baloo's position, four feet away. The fur on the back of his neck spiked, and his nose pointed to the grove of trees behind her. She twisted around and stared into the blackness between the trees.
"What is it, boy?" His focus and steadfast growl made her shiver.
Victoria leaped to her feet. She clutched her phone as she stepped backward, back onto the nature path. Her feet protested as a sharp rock pressed into her arch. A sudden snap of a twig, and Baloo's monstrous bark pushed her into gear.
"Come! Baloo!" She patted hard against her leg as she ran. Baloo obeyed, as Victoria sprinted toward the far side of her neighbor's house—one she knew had no fence. Darting between the two houses, she lengthened her stride to reach the street in record time.
She spotted her car parked a couple houses down on the street, almost directly in front of the raging bonfire. A block farther down sat a red Range Rover. The same vehicle she suspected followed her yesterday afternoon.
The disoriented feeling vanished immediately. Pieces clicked into place within her mind. It was no coincidence that Baloo growled at the trees. She glanced over her shoulder. A figure in the shadows crept into the front yard behind her, two houses down, and he was headed her way.
"Don't make me shoot you," she shouted in his direction. The only weapon in her possession was the pepper spray in her purse, but the figure in the shadows didn't need to know that. He momentarily stiffened. If only she could see the man's face, but she didn't want to risk standing out in the open any longer. What if he had a gun?
Her hand fumbled within her purse for her keys. Where was that fire truck? She needed help. "Victoria!"
She spun to find her neighbor beckoning to her from the porch across the street. With a quick look over her shoulder, Victoria raced to Darcy's house. Lunging into Darcy's outstretched arms, Victoria fell to her knees one step within her foyer, coughing.
A blurry vision of Darcy waving at someone swam before her eyes. A man wearing a helmet pushed Baloo away from her side and shoved a mask onto her face. The sweet oxygen eased the pain in her lungs. She let herself close her eyes, but she needed to hang on to her thoughts. She didn't have time to lose consciousness.
Tonight was no accidental house fire, and she needed real help. Everything she'd worked for was at risk. She couldn't start over. Not again. And there was only one person she could think of who might be able to help her.
Jeff Tucker squinted at his alarm clock. Who would be ringing his doorbell at four in the morning? He grabbed his cell phone on the way to the door.
He flipped on the porch light and peeked through the peephole. His lead accountant at Earth Generators, Inc. recoiled in the bright light. She closed her eyes and waved at the door. What in the world?
Jeff did a quick assessment of his own appearance. He supposed his blue flannel pajama pants and navy T-shirt were modest enough to answer the door in the middle of the night. He unlocked the bolt and swung the door open only to see a large beast just to Victoria's right. The dog knocked him to the side and trotted indoors. "Hey!"
Victoria held a hand to her mouth. "I am so sorry, Jeff. He's kind of my protector right now. He usually has better manners."
Jeff squinted. "Victoria, what's going on? And why does your dog smell like a barbecue?"
She responded by glancing over her left shoulder and then her right. "I think I'm in danger. Can I explain inside? Please?"
Jeff's mouth dropped open, but he moved back and opened the door wider. "Yes, of course." She stepped in and immediately to the left of the door, flat against the wall, as if she didn't want anyone to see her. He closed the door. "Want me to call the police?"
"Someone set my house on fire tonight. The police already know but have nothing to go on yet."
Jeff raked his hand through his hair. So many questions came to mind. He started with the most obvious. "Your house was on fire?" Jeff blinked. "Are you okay?" He examined her once more. Her face appeared paler than normal, and her bright blue eyes were red from crying...or smoke? His first aid training kicked in gear. Victoria could be in shock, which would explain her bizarre decision to come to his house. "I can drive you to the hospital now."
"No, I'm fine. The paramedics checked me out." She crossed her arms, and her teeth chattered. "Sorry. I just can't seem to get warm."
Jeff turned to the basket by his couch. "I think I have a blanket here somewhere."
She eagerly accepted the red fleece and swung it around herself like a robe. She flipped her long hair out from under the blanket. It looked wet; no wonder she couldn't get warm.
"My neighbor let me borrow her clothes and take a shower, but I didn't think of a jacket. Everything of mine is—" her voice caught "—gone."
"That's horrible. How can I help?"
Victoria's face crumpled. "I'm sorry to barge in on you in the middle of the night. I had to talk to you, and I remembered where you lived from the department Christmas party."
She shifted her gaze to the ceiling, then the living room walls. She looked everywhere, it seemed, but at him. "Jeff, I need you to come with me to work. It can't wait."
Jeff's arms fell to his side. Did she realize most people considered four in the morning to be the middle of the night? "I better start a cup of coffee while you explain."
"No. There's no time. I need you to go with me to the office. Now."
Jeff turned toward the sudden slamming noise in the living room. The mammoth dog flopped down on the rug at his back door. The baseball bat-sized tail pounded a couple more times on the glass. "Make yourself at home," he muttered. How was it possible that Victoria—beautiful, sweet, off-limits Victoria—could be in his home, like this? And why did she need him? He wasn't an accountant or a police officer; he was a supervisor.
"I think you're the only one that can help me," she said, as if hearing his thoughts.
"How do you figure?"
She took a deep breath and swung her black, velvet hair over her shoulder. "Can I explain it in the car?
The image of her, wrapped in his blanket in his living room, suddenly felt too intimate. Going to the office—or anywhere else—seemed like a good idea. "Give me five minutes." Jeff closed his bedroom door behind him and flipped on the light. He slapped his face a couple times while watching his reflection in the mirror. He definitely wasn't dreaming. Confusion and annoyance were evident from his expression, but it was the best he could do at this hour. He threw on jeans and a shirt.
The dog growled from the other room.
He shoved his feet into already tied shoes and ran out of his room. The dog's large mouth lifted up and over its teeth, in preparation to bite something...or someone.
Victoria whipped around to face him. "There was a man lurking down there in your backyard." She pointed at the back glass door.
Jeff's shoulders relaxed. "Well, it's more of a community area." The moment he said the words, he knew it was a weak attempt at comforting her. The dog turned around in a circle a couple of times and plopped back down on to the rug.
She blew out a long breath. "He must be gone, or Baloo wouldn't relax. I'm sure of it," Victoria said, but it seemed as if she was talking more to herself than to him. She turned her attention to Jeff. "Ready to go?"
Her concern about a lurking man may have diminished, but his only increased. "If you're right and think someone is after you, I don't know how safe it is to walk to your car in the open. Even with me and the gorilla by your side."
A flash of anger sparked in her eyes, and Jeff was reminded how badly he needed coffee. He wasn't guarding his tongue very well without it.
"He's a Newfoundland. And a great rescuer."
He smiled at the dog in hopes of appeasing Victoria. "I'm sorry." The possibility of a man waiting in the shadows changed things. Jeff wasn't armed or trained in defensive techniques. "What are we dealing with?"
She raised an eyebrow and pursed her lips. He'd never seen her look annoyed before. At work, she was nothing but quiet and efficient. She faced the window again. "Last quarter I reviewed the expense reports before submitting them to the audit committee."
He nodded. "Like every quarter."
"Yes, but when the numbers went public, they seemed different than I remembered."
Jeff shifted his feet. Maybe he should've taken a seat first. "What do you mean?"
"The numbers made Earth Generators, Inc. look like a much better company than reality. The profits are way up and the expenses are way down. The difference in operating and capital expenses grew exponentially."
"Okay. Hang on a second." Jeff pressed his thumbs into his temples, attempting to fight off the headache threatening to start. "So, in English, that means the stockholders are about to be very rich."
She tilted her head to the left and right, as if weighing his translation. "Essentially, yes. Except, the numbers were blatantly wrong, Jeff. I'm sure of it."
Victoria consistently proved to be the best accountant in his department. It's why she'd risen to lead accountant within a year. Normally, he'd believe her in a heartbeat, but she was standing in his living room with her massive dog at four in the morning. Had she lost her mind?
"The problem was—when I checked the data again—everything matched the public numbers."
"So you misremembered."
She blinked and shook her head. "No, I don't think I did. But your reaction proves my point. I knew I needed evidence."
Jeff winced but covered it by taking long strides into the kitchen. She may think they had no time to waste, but if he didn't at least get some instant coffee into his system, he wouldn't be able to retain a single word she said.
Victoria followed him to the sink. "So, this time around, at the end of the quarter, I took action. I saved my own copy of the report onto a flash drive before submitting it to Wagner and the audit committee. Then, when the report became public yesterday, I went into work early—before everyone else—to see if the numbers matched the statements on my flash drive."
She folded her arms across her chest. "I was right on the money, Jeff. Someone changed the numbers in the company files and the public reports." She took a deep breath and rubbed her hands over her arms. "Except Wagner caught me comparing the reports."
Jeff's spoonful of coffee grounds froze in midair. While Jeff was supervisor of the accounts payable department, Todd Wagner managed the entire accounting division. In fact, Wagner had just reassigned Jeff to supervisor of the accounts receivable department starting next week.
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