“There have been more death threats.”
Willow Cassidy’s heart skipped a beat. Opposite her, across the wide expanse of her desk, her uncle sat in a wingback visitor’s chair. His gaze was steely eyed, the hardened expression earned through three decades as a federal prosecutor. Scott Buchanan had a reputation for honesty, integrity, and a fierce devotion to fairness. He could also be stubborn and overbearingly protective, especially with his only blood relation left. Her.
“It’s not the first time there have been threats against our family.” Willow kept her tone steady. She didn’t enjoy being on anyone’s hit list, even if it was only in their imagination. From the furious look on her uncle’s face, he shared her opinion. She offered him a reassuring smile. “We knew your campaign would place us in the spotlight.”
In a surprise move Willow hadn’t expected, Scott quit his job as a federal prosecutor last year and threw his hat into the ring to become a state senator. A series of scandals had plagued the district in the last two years—ones that had frustrated Scott immensely—but the elected senator held on. Jerry Randall intended to keep his job. He was running opposite Scott in the election, and things had turned decidedly uglier in recent months.Willow folded her hands over her desk. “You don’t have to come down to my office every single time there’s been a new batch of threats. I’m being careful, Uncle Scott.”
His expression remained grim. “This time things are different.”
“How so?”He removed several sheets of paper from the inner pocket of his suit jacket and laid them on her desk.
Willow inhaled sharply. Photographs of her had been taken serendipitously in different places: shopping at the grocery store, leaving her home, during a campaign event last week. The emails didn’t include a message, but the photographs had a sniper’s bull’s-eye over her face. The threat was apparent.
A shiver raced down her spine. This wasn’t the normal terrorizing message sent from an angry constituent. Someone had been following her. It was menacing and more than frightening, given the criminals her uncle had placed behind bars over the course of his career. “Do the police have any idea who sent these?”
“Chief Garcia is looking into the matter, of course, but there isn’t much to go on.” Scott leaned forward in his chair. “It’s time for you to reconsider a full security detail.”
Willow rose from her chair and walked to the broad expanse of glass separating her office from her staff. Blessed Hearts Youth Center was a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping teens in crisis. There was a 24-hour suicide line, trained counselors to provide support and guidance, tutors for school, sports events, and organized volunteer service activities. It was her passion project turned into reality through years of hard work and dedication. She’d struggled desperately as a teenager after losing her parents in a plane crash. Depression had nearly taken her life. Intervention by her grandmother—and later, Willow’s faith—had pulled her through. She wanted to provide that opportunity for other kids struggling to find their way.
Expanding the youth center by adding an outdoor recreational area was the next move. Fundraising events were already underway after months of planning. Her calendar was full of activities, culminating with a final gala in two weeks.
Frustration bubbled inside her. How was Willow supposed to do everything she needed to with a full security detail trailing her? They would have to clear every store she entered and frisk any person she met with besides family. She knew. For a brief period of time, when her uncle was prosecuting a cartel member, he’d installed a full security detail around Willow. College hadn’t been fun with three bodyguards tracking her every move.
“Doing my job would be impossible with a full security detail, Uncle Scott.”
“You also can’t do your job if you're dead.”
Willow winced at his harsh retort. Scott’s bluntness mirrored her mother’s, a Buchanan trait that had served them well in business and in the courtroom, but not as much in family relationships. Her father had been a soft-spoken man with a quiet reserve of steel. Willow favored him in personality.
Scott sighed and softened his tone. “I know it’ll be difficult, but we need to take these threats seriously.”
“I am.” She turned to face her uncle, unwilling to yield to his control. “But I’m not putting my life on hold because of some creepy emails. Expanding the youth center is important and it can’t be done without donations.” She smiled. “The trust fund only goes so far, you know.”
She’d poured the inheritance from her parents into a charity trust fund with the youth center as a beneficiary. The money covered their operating costs, and would for years to come, but didn’t allow for the kind of rapid expansion Willow wanted. For that, she needed donations.
The hint of a smile twitched Scott's lips. “Your parents would be very proud of the youth center, Willow.” His expression turned grave again. “But you need protection.”
“I have my driver, remember?” Bruce Snyder began working for her a few weeks ago at her uncle’s insistence. He was a trained security guard who drove her back and forth to work. During the day, he kept an eye on the youth center.
Willow didn’t like having a bodyguard at all, but her uncle’s fears were legitimate considering the numerous threats sent to his campaign office over the last several months. Bruce was a compromise to prevent Scott from worrying.
“Most of my time is spent at my office or my home,” she continued. “Both places are secure. I’m cautious, Uncle Scott, but I won’t be bullied by a few nasty emails.”
“Don’t be foolish. These threats are directed at you specifically.” Scott gestured to the pictures on her desk. “Bruce isn’t enough. You need a full security detail.”
Down the hall, Scott’s own security detail stood like sentries waiting for battle. Their ramrod straight posture and ever-roaming eyes unnerved Willow. Yet another reason she didn’t want a pack of bodyguards watching over her. It didn’t make her feel safe, only trapped.
She resisted the urge to be petulant and took a deep breath to rein in her emotions. Scott was scared. She wouldn’t talk him out of that, but Willow also refused to give in to it. “Let’s give Chief Garcia a chance to investigate these threats. In the meantime, I’ll be more vigilant about my surroundings.”
He was quiet for a long moment. “You have your father’s stubbornness.”
She scoffed. “Buchanans aren’t known for being weak-willed.”
That comment earned her a smile. “No, we aren’t.” Scott rose, his gaze turning tender as he took a few steps in her direction. “Forgive me for being so pushy. I only want to keep you safe.”
Warmth swelled in her chest. “I know.”
She understood Scott’s need to protect. While Willow favored her father in personality, she was a near replica of her mother physically. White-blonde hair, delicate features, and crystal-blue eyes. She was a living, breathing reminder of all Scott had lost. He’d been very close to his only sibling, and poured all of that love and grief into caring for Willow.
Scott’s phone beeped. He pulled it from his pocket and frowned. “I have to go. Meeting with a donor.”
“Best get to it then. You don’t want to be late.” Willow kissed his cheek.
Scott retrieved his jacket from the stand next to her door. “Call me if you need anything.”
“Will do. Give my love to Kathryn.”
Her aunt. Uncle Scott had married late in life. Kathryn was twenty years his junior, but smart and successful in her own right. She’d worked as a reporter and political correspondent before marrying Scott. Currently, she was his campaign manager.
Scott left with his bodyguards. Willow settled back into her leather chair with a sigh. Crisis averted. For now, anyway. She was under no illusions that her uncle would let the matter go.The emails were still scattered across her desk. She studied each one. Based on the outfits she was wearing in the pictures, they’d been taken in the last week. Unnerving, especially since she hadn’t sensed anyone watching her. Willow called her driver/bodyguard into her office.
Bruce entered and shut the door behind him. Probably unnecessary. Most of the staff had gone home for the day, given the late hour. It wasn’t uncommon for her to be the first one there and the last to leave. She didn’t have much of a life outside the youth center. Most of her friends, made in college, were scattered across the US. Dating was a distant memory. She’d come close to marrying her college sweetheart, but that had ended in disaster and heartbreak.
Willow showed Bruce the emails. “Have you noticed anyone watching us?”
He shook his head. His bald head shone in the fluorescent lighting. Bruce had the physique of a boxer with a barrel chest and thick neck. He also wore a perpetual scowl. It deepened as he studied the pictures. “Your uncle and Chief Garcia already questioned me about these photos, ma’am. I never saw anyone suspicious hanging around.”
It didn’t surprise Willow to learn Scott had already questioned her bodyguard. He was probably considering firing the man as well, but Bruce couldn’t be blamed for someone taking photographs with a long-view lens. His job was to prevent someone from approaching her with an immediate threat, not to spot a stalker.
Lightning streaked across the night sky beyond her window, followed by a clap of thunder. Willow jumped with the intensity of it. She laughed lightly. “The weather man promised there’d be a storm tonight. Guess he was right. We should head home before it gets too bad.”
Willow quickly gathered her things and shrugged on her jacket. Her gaze kept being drawn to the photographs on her desk. Popping open her briefcase, she shoved them inside next to her laptop. Maybe she’d review them later, try to pinpoint where and when they’d been taken. It could help Chief Garcia with the investigation.
She flipped off the lights to her office and then locked the office door. Bruce was sending a text when she met him in the hallway. He tucked his phone in his pocket and then guided her to a rear stairwell. For security purposes, her vehicle was parked in an adjacent staff lot instead of the main one. Wind howled when he pushed the door open. As they stepped outside, the skies opened. Rain pelted the asphalt in a fury.
Bruce opened an umbrella and turned. “Give me the keys and your things. I’ll fetch the car so you don’t have to walk in the rain.”
Willow frowned but did as he asked. Her SUV was several rows down. Normally, she used the spot next to the door, but an afternoon meeting away from the office meant she’d lost the space to another employee. She’d also forgotten to take her umbrella with her this morning.
Bruce jogged across the parking lot. His form disappeared around the side of the vehicle. Willow tightened her coat around her midsection. The storm had brought a cold-front with it and the temperature dropped by the second. Rain pounded against the overhang covering the sidewalk. Wind pushed the drops sideways. They dampened her hair and iced her bare skin. Goosebumps pebbled on her neck.
What was Bruce doing? Why was it taking him so long to start the car?
She fisted her hands. Her breath formed puffs in the night air. Willow peered through the curtain of rain, trying to see what Bruce was doing, but it was impossible. A creepy sensation washed over her. She glanced behind her. The door to the building was closed. It automatically locked and her master key was on the same key chain as her SUV. Going back inside wouldn’t be possible. And her cell phone was in her briefcase, which Bruce had taken with him.
Pulling a can of pepper spray from her jacket pocket, Willow eased to the end of the sidewalk. She could go around the side of the building to the front, but she’d have to pass by her vehicle anyway. And would she abandon Bruce if there was trouble? Could she honestly forgive herself if something happened to him?
The answer was no. The man had a wife and a little girl. Even if he didn’t, it wasn’t in her nature to run away from a potential problem. Not anymore. Doing so as a teenager had nearly destroyed her.
Willow stepped off the sidewalk and into the rain. It soaked her instantly. She blinked rapidly to clear her eyelashes of the droplets and moved forward. Darkness shrouded the parking lot. The lights from the building weren’t enough given the cloud cover caused by the storm. She approached the vehicle. “Bruce?”
It was nothing. Maybe Bruce was on a phone call. She’d be laughing at her silliness in a few minutes. “Bruce?”
He didn’t answer.
Willow circled the bumper of her SUV and stopped short. The driver’s side door hung open. Her briefcase was nowhere to be seen, and neither was her bodyguard. The hair on the back of her neck stood up. Fear cramped her stomach. Some deep instinct urged her to take a step back.
Wrong. Something was very wrong.
She whirled. A large form came out of the darkness, heading straight for her. It was a man in a ski mask.
Willow screamed. She hit the button on her pepper spray, but the attacker knocked it from her hand before the aerosol was freed from the can. It slipped from her grasp and clattered against the ground.
Leaving her defenseless.