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Christmas Haven (Love Inspired Large Print Suspense)
Julie Burns had planned to visit her family for Christmas, but not like this, not running from danger.
She dug her fingernails into the strap of her backpack and quickened her step. Heart pounding in her chest, she crossed Sunset, eyeing the ferry terminal ahead.
She was close, a block away from hopping the ferry and escaping the threat.
"Don't be paranoid," she told herself as she shot a quick glance over her shoulder.
The last thing she wanted was to draw attention by acting nervous. She'd tucked her blond hair into a knit hat, put on her glasses, which she rarely wore, and hopped the bus to the Edmonds ferry terminal from downtown. She did everything she could to look average, nondescript. Invisible.
The police hadn't been able to help her. Not when she'd reported Andy missing, or when she reported the kidnapping of Dane Simms, another teenage street kid that she worked with at Teen Life. When Julie's office had been broken into, the cops had investigated, but chalked it up to a random burglary. She sensed there was more to it.
Then she started getting anonymous calls and felt as if someone was watching her, waiting for an opportunity to
Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a dark sedan cruising slowly past. She focused on the doors to the ferry terminal, closing in, nearly there.
"Excuse me?" a man called out from the car.
She ignored him at first, hoping he was speaking to someone else.
"Miss? Is this the ferry to Kingston?"
Breathe. It's okay. He's just asking a question.
She turned to the driver, a clean-cut-looking man in his thirties. "Yes, it is."
"Great. Do you know where they line up? It's my first time on a ferry."
"I think back on the main street, there." She pointed. "Thanks very much." He smiled and pulled away to get in line.
With a slight shake of her head, she refocused on buying her ticket. Relax, don't be so paranoid. She'd taken precautions to make sure no one had followed her and had removed all her personal information from files at work, which wasn't easy with Helen spying over her shoulder. The woman was always looking for an opportunity to point out Julie's shortcomings to their boss. She'd probably lead the rally to fire Julie when she didn't show up for work tomorrow.
Julie couldn't worry about office drama. She'd packed a bag this morning so she wouldn't have to go back to her apartment after her dinner meeting, and instead came straight to the ferry terminal.
To escape, back to her hometown of Port Whisper. Morgan's smile flashed across her thoughts and regret sliced through her chest. It surprised her. She didn't think it would still hurt. Not after all this time.
But Morgan Wright had been her first true love.
Her only true love.
Now, with her work schedule counseling homeless teens, she had little time for romance, but didn't miss it. She wondered if that was because she'd had her chance at love with Morgan and blew it.
"Don't think about it," she hushed.
It only added to her anxiety. To calm herself, she pictured her hometown, the safe, predictable, boring world in which she grew up.
And had left ten years ago. She'd had to leave. She'd needed to do more by helping underprivileged teens in Seattle.
It had seemed like a good plan, until last week, when it all fell apart.
She bought her ticket and headed up the ramp to board the ferry.
Heading home. Something she said she'd never do. Not because it was a bad place, but she couldn't bring herself to go back and be that person again, a small-town girl living in a city where the biggest crisis was the Langford brothers breaking into Stuckey's Hardware to steal supplies to make pipe bombs.
The teens she counseled dealt with homelessness and drug use, abusive parents and a bleak future. She wanted to help the people who really needed her.
She shifted into a booth by the window and pulled out her phone, feeling bad for having to abandon her team. They'd had no idea about her plans to leave when she'd smiled across the dinner table at them tonight. But there were no other options. She sensed the danger trailing her and had to get away. She figured the less they knew about her plans the safer they'd be.
Thinking of how she'd craft that email to her boss, Andrea, she noticed a text message alert. She clicked on it and the message opened:
I see you.
She gasped and whipped her head around, eyeing the passengers in the immediate area: a group of kids with a parent; a hippie-looking guy curled up and asleep on the bench; a mom with two kids, one in a stroller.
Should she get off the ferry and wait for the next one? Notify ferry personnel?
And say what? That she feared she was being stalked but couldn't be sure?
She continued scanning other passengers as the ferry started across the water: a businessman in suit and tie, working on his laptop; a threesome of middle-aged folks laughing as one told a story.
Walking toward her was the man who'd asked for directions to the ferry line. He eyed his phone, stopped dead in his tracks and looked right at her. He smiled. Goose bumps pricked down her arms.
She got up and headed for the snack bar, bustling with passengers anxious to fill their stomachs. Look relaxed, casual. You don't know he was the one who sent the text.
She wandered up to a pack of teenagers who eyed foil-wrapped burgers. The thought of food made her stomach twist into a tighter knot. The hair bristled on the back of her neck, instinct warning her to get away.
She grabbed a sandwich and lined up to check out. Glancing over her shoulder, she spotted the car guy in line a few people behind her.
"Seven eighty-seven," the cashier said.
Julie fumbled in her pocket for cash. Her fingers trembled as she desperately strategized her next move. She handed the cashier a ten and took off, rushing toward the stairs, hoping to hide between the cars below.
Would he jump the line and follow her? She couldn't think about that, she had to get away, had to—
She raced down the stairs and flung open the door. Rushing up the aisle, she used the cars as cover, ducking between them so as not to be seen. She crisscrossed the ferry and glanced over her shoulder. A tall figure headed toward her.
She stumbled on something and went down, dropping her sandwich and slamming her palms to the ground to brace her fall. But it was too late. She was down and he was close. She could feel his eyes boring into her back.
And saw a shadow loom above her.
"Hey, you okay?" Morgan Wright asked, kneeling beside the frantic woman.
His instincts piqued when she dodged around the corner and raced for the opposite end of the ferry as if she was a sprinter in the Olympics. They went on red alert when he spotted a tall male make the same turn and search between cars.
"Ma'am?" he tried again. She didn't answer at first. He'd seen her hit the ground and figured she was out of breath.
"Don't hurt me," she gasped.
"You're okay," he assured. "I'm a police officer."
She sat up and the air ripped from his chest. No, it couldn't be. He'd never forget the face of his first love, never forget her golden eyes or freckles that dotted her nose.
He'd never forgotten Julie Burns, the girl who'd taken a piece of his heart with her when she'd left ten years ago.
Lower lip trembling, she clutched her wrist to her stomach, rocking forward slightly. She still hadn't looked at him.
A tornado of emotions whipped through his body, from anger to pain to concern. And he had so many questions.
"I He was." she choked.
"Take a deep breath," Morgan said, touching her shoulder for support. That's what he'd do if she were a stranger. He decided that was the best way to keep his perspective.
To treat her as if she were a stranger.
He spotted movement out of the corner of his eye. A tall man, thirties, with slicked-back hair, wearing an overcoat, froze ten feet away. Was it the man who'd been searching between cars? Morgan couldn't be sure.
"Can I help you?" Morgan stood to his full six feet two inches.
"She forgot her change upstairs." He hesitated and extended his hand to reveal a few bills and coins. Morgan reached for it. "Who are you?" The guy closed his fist. "A cop." He flashed his badge. "I'll take it from here."
The guy dropped the money into Morgan's hand and eyed Julie. "Is she okay?"
"She tripped. She'll be fine." Morgan glanced at Julie, who still hadn't looked up, then back at the stranger. "You a friend of hers?"
The guy backed off. "No, I just happened to be in line behind her." Uh-huh. Right.
"Good Samaritan type," Morgan said. "Thought we'd lost all of those. Thanks again," he said in dismissal.
With a nod the guy disappeared into the stairwell.
Morgan took a deep breath and kneeled beside Julie. She was white as a sheet, dazed and looked as if she was going into shock.
"Jules, hey, it's really okay."
She blinked, the sound of her nickname snapping her out of the trance. Glancing at Morgan, she gasped.
"Morgan " She closed her eyes. "I'm dead, right? I'm dead and went to heaven."
Interesting that she thought seeing Morgan equaled heaven.
"You're not dead. Just shaken up."
She eyed him, a tear trailing down her cheek.
He remembered the last time he'd seen her cry. He thought they were happy tears, but they'd been tears of goodbye.
"I don't understand," she said.
"To see me in heaven I'd have to be dead and I'm very much alive, which means you're very much alive." He sounded like a dork, but finding the right words, any intelligent words, at this point was a challenge.
He was on the ferry headed back home. With Julie.
A scene that had filled his dreams more than once in the years after she'd left.
Shifting into police mode he asked, "Do you want to tell me what happened?"
"I gathered as much."
She tipped her head slightly, a habit he'd found endearing years ago.
"Why are you on the ferry?" she asked.
"Coming home from seeing my dad in the hospital. Why are you on the ferry?"
"Mom needs help."
Short sentences seemed to be all she could utter. He guessed the trauma still buzzed in her system.
"Huh, news to me," he said. "I saw her yesterday and she looked fine."
Now he knew she was half in shock. Edith Burns kept a tidy house, was the most organized person Morgan knew and baked a mean pecan-chocolate pie.
"Housecleaning?" he prodded.
She gave him a quick nod, looking like a little girl.
Don't do it, Morgan. Don't get sucked in.
"Did she send you to get me?" she asked.
She was up to seven-word sentences. That had to be a good thing, right?
"No, she didn't send me. Take your hat off," he said, changing the subject. He didn't like seeing her like this, frightened and disoriented.
"What? Why?" she asked.
"I need to check for a head wound."
She absently slipped the knit cap from her head and golden strands of sunlight fell across her shoulders. Clenching his jaw, he ran his hand gently across her scalp looking for a contusion. He struggled to ignore the feel of the soft-spun gold against his fingertips.
"I didn't hit my head. I don't think," she said.
He removed his hands and leaned back on his heels. "Nope, doesn't look like it. You wanna tell me what got you so spooked?"
"I—" her breath caught. "I was " Her voice trailed off and she clasped her hands in her lap, he guessed to keep them from trembling.
Morgan touched her shoulder once again, hoping to ground her. "Come on."
Gripping her upper arm, he coaxed her up. He'd forgotten how perfectly matched they were with her five-foot-eight-inch height to Morgan's six foot two. She'd been teased in grade school for being a giant, but the teasing stopped when she turned into a beautiful teenage girl.
"I can't believe I tripped," she said, avoiding his gaze. He could. She was terrified, and eventually she was going to tell him why. But not now. Now he had to help her calm down. Cupping her elbow, he guided her to his truck. "I'm such a klutz," she offered.
She was anything but a klutz. She'd been a star athlete at Greenwood High, center on the basketball team, track star, and she had looked breathtaking in a prom dress.
This was bad, very bad. He needed to take her to her mom's and get as far away as possible from this woman. And his past.
He opened the truck door. She took off her backpack and climbed into the front seat. It suddenly hit him how surreal this was. Running into Julie on the ferry? Rescuing her?
Morgan glanced over his shoulder to see if the guy who'd brought her change was anywhere in the vicinity. A Good Samaritan? Perhaps. Yet the guy looked as if he'd been caught stealing when Morgan noticed him.
Morgan slid behind the wheel of his truck and locked the doors. They couldn't dock fast enough. At least when he was driving he'd have to concentrate on the dark roads leading to Port Whisper. But sitting here on the ferry he dreaded the awkward conversation.
"How have you been?" she asked.
"Good. You?" He didn't look at her, fearing the resentment would rise up this throat against his will. "Okay, I guess."
Just okay? She'd fled Port Whisper, ran away from Morgan to save the world. She'd sacrificed true love and she was just okay?
Knock it off.
"I work with street kids," she offered. "Sounds like a worthy endeavor."
"It is. It's fulfilling."
Unlike staying in her hometown, marrying Morgan and raising a family. Ancient history.
He thought he'd moved on. He'd been engaged once, thought he'd found love again. But Renee couldn't turn down an offer to teach in the Midwest, and Morgan wouldn't abandon his dad.
Sure, he'd recovered from Renee's heartbreak, occasionally dating Anna, another hometown girl.
But she wasn't Julie.
Unbelievable. Why did they have to be on the same boat? "You said your dad was in the hospital," Julie said. "What's wrong?"
"I'm sorry." She leaned back against the headrest and sighed.
Seconds stretched like hours between them. Fine. Silence was better than talking about their past.
Her cell vibrated and she pulled it out. "Hey, Mom. Yeah okay. You'll never believe who I ran into on the ferry. Morgan Wright." She glanced at him and smiled.
He ripped his gaze from hers and focused on the Camry in front of them. It was dangerous to look too long at that gentle smile, the whir of emotions building in his chest.
"I don't know, hang on." She glanced at Morgan.
"Can you give me a ride to my mom's?"
"Absolutely." Great, now he was down to one-word sentences. Shock did that to a person, and he was still in shock after running into her tonight.
"Sure, Mom, he'll drop me off. Okay, I'll tell him. Love you, too."
She pocketed her phone and glanced at Morgan. "She wants you to come in and say hi."
"Can't tonight." Or tomorrow. Or ever.
The Burnses' house brought back too many memories. It had been a safe place, a nurturing place for Morgan to hide out when his dad was in one of his moods. He'd had a lot of those after Morgan's mom left.
Morgan never understood how Julie could have traded such a safe, loving home for the threat of working with street kids. He'd kept up with her life through the town grapevine, not intentionally, of course, but the news always made its way to him through one source or another: Did you hear that Julie got her master's degree? Julie was honored by the city of Seattle? Julie is saving runaway teenagers?
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