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    Synopsis



    Winter's Verdict, the second book of the Grace Restored Series, continues Katie MacKenna's story. Even though her roommate in college was murdered right before break, Katie chose to stay on the nearly deserted campus. During that time, she is approached with an opportunity that may affect her aspirations to be an FBI agent. With the challenges ahead of her, will her heart experience a winter thaw or will she continue on as the Ice Queen?

    Chapter 1

    The Fleece

    Seventeen-year-old Damian wandered around the warehouse district that had been his home since he ran away from his abusive uncle at age thirteen. After his parents died in a car accident when he was five, his uncle took him in and never let him forget it.

    Covered in filth, his jeans, sneakers, and jacket all had holes in them, but he did his best to change them out once in a while with the money he made from odd jobs. Additionally, he was granted the blessing of being a snitch to FBI agent Nick Locke. When Damian had information for him, Nick would buy him lunch. He would also buy Damian clothing when his looked a little too worse for wear.

    Damian didn’t like living on the streets, but he would rather go looking through the restaurant dumpsters for his food, than take beatings or be belittled by his uncle each day. Deciding his best bet not to be found would be to hide in a city in another state, he ran from Erie, Pennsylvania to Cleveland, Ohio.

    Nick stumbled onto him by happenstance. One night, when Damian was fourteen and searching for food in an alley, he witnessed a murder committed by Dante from the Rossi family. When Dante saw him, he slammed Damian into the wall. Thinking he’d killed him when Damian slid down the brick wall, unconscious, leaving a blood trail, he left Damian for dead.

    When the officer responded to an anonymous call regarding the murder, he found Damian still there. Through the course of the investigation, the detective assigned the case discovered the murder victim was a witness to another crime committed by the Rossi family. He immediately contacted the agent in charge of the case, Nick Locke. Damian made the concession to talk to Nick, as long as he wasn’t used in any formal paperwork or in the trial. As soon as Damian described the assailant, Nick instantly knew it was Dante. Since Nick needed the information Damian had, he respected Damian’s request. From that day forward, Damian became another set of eyes and ears on the street for Nick.

    Damian’s coat was in shambles, but he did his best to tuck it around his body as an icy chill cut through the buildings, creating frigid wind tunnels. He normally didn’t venture out during the day, but he needed food, and it was too cold at night to search. With temperatures hovering at about fifteen degrees and wind chill factors hanging around three degrees, any amount of warmth generated by the sun was welcome.

    A scream echoed over the whistling wind and he stopped in his tracks. Flattening himself against the wall in the shade, he strained to listen over his now racing heartbeat. In the building across from him, he heard the screams again. He slowly crept toward the building to a window that had already been broken.

    On his tippy-toes, he peeked through the tiny hole to see a woman zip-tied to a chair, next to a table that contained a car battery, jumper cables, and a set of torture tools. There were two men beating on the woman, while a third yelled in her face, shouting in a foreign language. Her left eye was swollen shut, blood covered her torn clothing, and there were cuts and bruises visibly evident all over her body. Damian wasn’t sure how much more the woman could take and still be alive.

    Dropping back down out of sight, he had to catch his breath. The horrific screams coming from the woman turned into shrieks when her captures hooked up a car battery with jumper cables and burnt her skin with the live charges.

    His heart pounded so fiercely, he thought sure the men would hear it. Pulling Nick’s card with his cell phone number from his pocket, Damian ran as fast as he could out of the warehouse area toward a gas station. Once safely there, he pulled the pay-by-use phone from his pocket that Nick had given him for such occasions.

    “Agent Locke,” Nick answered his phone.

    “Nick, it’s Damian.”

    “Hey, mate,” Nick said, with his thick Australian accent, “been a while. Thought maybe ya lost your phone.”

    “Please just listen. I don’t want to use too much of the time.”

    “No worries. I’ll reload it next time we meet. What’s going on?”

    “There’s a woman being tortured in the warehouse district.”

    “Did you recognize anyone?” Nick asked, with a sense of alarm in his voice.

    “No, but the guys were talking funny.” “Funny, how? With an accent?” “Yeah, and in a foreign language.”

    “Can you tell me something they said as an example?”

    “The one who was asking the questions at one point said to one of the other guys, ‘nyet, ni nada.’”

    “That’s Russian for, ‘no, there’s no need,’” Nick translated. “Can you describe the woman?”

    “She’s pretty beaten up. From what I could see, she looked older than you. She had medium-length brown hair. Her one eye was swollen shut, so I couldn’t really tell the eye color.”

    “Where is she?”

    Writing down the directions Damian gave him, Nick passed them to the agent in charge of his unit, Seth Simmons, to set up for a rescue. Before Nick hung up with him, he set up a time to meet with Damian to take him out to lunch. If his information was good, Nick was sure he would owe him more than a lunch. Last time he saw him, Damian’s coat was looking ragged, so he planned to take him a new winter coat as well.

    When he hung up, Nick took a moment to collect his thoughts. He had a sick feeling in his stomach that this might be Diane Foster, an agent from their unit who went missing the week before. He wasn’t sure whether to pray his hunch was right or wrong. If he was right, he’d finally found her. However, by Damian’s description, she was in rough shape. If he was wrong, she was still missing. Time was of the essence either way.

    * * *

    “Unit two, head in through the back while we take the front,” Special Agent in Charge, Seth Simmons, said into his radio. Seth stood at six-foot-two, with dark-brown hair and brown eyes. Even with his thin build, his tactical gear made him look bulky. Truth be told, he was all muscle, but didn’t look it, especially next to his partner, Nick Locke.

    Nick was known as the brawn of the unit. At six-foot-four, his immense presence was felt as soon as he stepped into a room. His charisma and good looks of blond hair, sky-blue eyes, and pure muscle, were never missed. His Australian accent added to his charm, making him virtually impossible for women to resist. They often used him to get the attention of the women, and work his way into the situations they needed him to infiltrate.

    “Ready and in position,” the agent in charge of the other unit responded.

    “On the count of three, we enter. Be advised, we know her location, so we’ll retrieve Agent Foster,” he said, making sure they didn’t take out one of his squad. She had been undercover among the Rodchenko Crime Family for several weeks.

    “Copy that,” the other agent responded.

    “One, two, three,” Seth counted.

    Shouting, yelling, and gunfire rang from every direction in the warehouse as the agents penetrated both entry points. They were greeted with a barrage of gunfire from the Rodchenko family members who currently occupied the building. This went on for several long, tense minutes while agents from several other units followed after them.

    When the gun fire all but stopped, Agent Claire Brenner gave Seth instructions over a headset from the safety of a mobile unit just down the road. “Go to your left,” she said, as she sat behind the computer screens, with Agent Emma Sharpe looking over her shoulder. Several screens showed the cameras on the helmets of the men in a split screen view, and a single one that contained blue prints of the warehouse itself. “According to Nick’s source, she should be in the room down that hallway to your left, two doors down.”

    “Copy that,” Seth said, quietly, unsure if there were more men from the Rodchenko family in the warehouse waiting to jump them. He gestured for the other two agents in his squad, Dakota Wolfe and Todd Edwards, to check the other room, while Nick picked the padlock on the door where Diane was being held.

    Nick could pick any lock known to man in a matter of seconds – which made a more stealthy entry. Unless there was a barrier on the door, there was no need to kick a door in with him around. Of course, if that was the case, due to his strength he was often used for that as well.

    After the lock was picked, Seth pushed open the door to see his agent tied to a chair. He heard Claire gasp into the radio at the vision of her friend and coworker on the monitor. Her face was hardly recognizable, and she had cuts, scrapes, and bruises all over her body, while blood coated her clothing. It was the interior wounds of broken bones and internal bleeding that were the bigger concern for Seth.

    “Stop,” the man behind her shouted, as he held a gun to Diane’s head.

    Seth put up his hands, with the gun still in his right hand. “Look, we’re FBI. Put the gun down. We only want the woman.”

    “Ostanovka, ili ya ub'yu yeye,” the man responded.

    Seth glanced toward Nick for a translation.

    “He said, ‘Stop, or I’ll kill her.’”

    “Tell him to put the gun down,” Seth told Nick.

    Nick translated, “Opusti pistolet.”

    “Nyet!” the man shouted.

    “Vy dolzhny poka my budem schitat' do trekh, ili my budem strelyat’,” Nick ordered. The man’s eyes widened as Nick translated for the others in the room, “I told him that he had until we counted to three or we would shoot.”

    Seth took the cue and positioned his weapon, aiming at the man’s head.

    “Odin,” Nick said, starting to count.

    “Otpusti menya , ili ya ub'yu tvoyego agenta!” the man threatened.

    “He said to let him go or he’ll kill our agent,” Nick said, raising his weapon. Dakota and Todd aimed as well. Standing firm, Nick continued to count, “Dva.”

    The man cocked the gun that was aimed at Diane’s head.

    Nick fired his weapon, landing the bullet square between the man’s eyes. The man’s body slammed into the wall behind him as his gun went off. The stray bullet from the man’s gun hit the wall next to Dakota’s head while the man’s body dropped to the ground. “Tri,” Nick said when the room went silent.

    Seth ran to Diane. While he released her from her ties with a pocket knife, he asked, “Did you give them anything?”

    “Wouldn’t be here if I did,” she mumbled, barely moving.

    “Let’s get you out of here.” Seth helped her out of the chair, but she burst into sobs, so he held her instead.

    “We’re clear,” Nick said into his radio.

    “All is clear out here as well,” the other agent in charge announced.

    “Ambulance just pulled up,” Claire said into the radio, wiping the tears from her eyes. Then she muted her mic and said to Emma, “I don’t think she could have taken much more.”

    “No. Thank God they found her,” Emma mentioned, as she stood and began to pace, a thousand thoughts running through her mind.

    Claire shook her head. “God had nothing to do with it. Our guys found her and rescued her. She’s a strong woman.”

    “Not as strong as you think. She made it out of this one, but she’s forty-three. Do you really think they’re going to let her go undercover again?”

    “No. I’m pretty sure she’s headed into here from this point forward,” Claire confirmed. Claire looked toward the screen to see the men gingerly lift her out of the chair. Twenty-seven- year-old Nick put her arm over his shoulder, supporting the weight of her body to help her out of the warehouse to the waiting ambulance.

    “Then we’ll need a new unit member.”

    “You mean another female,” Claire corrected. “I’m afraid she’s going to be a desk jockey for the remainder of her career if she chooses to return. Director Shaw wasn’t happy when he found out her cover was blown and she was MIA. If it wasn’t for that street kid of Nick’s who heard her screams and figured out what room she was in, we would never have known where she was.”

    “Thank the Lord for little ones with ears.”

    “Quit giving credit to that God of yours. There is such a thing as luck, ya know.”

    “I don’t believe in luck. I believe in God.”

    * * *

    About a week into her Christmas Break, Katie was in her room doing her devotions. Remembering her challenge to God, she was reminded of a story Eric shared in youth group. She turned to Joshua 6, scanned down to verses 36-40, and read: “‘Then Gideon said to God, “You said that you would help me save the Israelites. Give me proof. I will put a sheepskin on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the sheepskin, while all the ground is dry, I will know that you will use me to save Israel, as you said.” And that is exactly what happened. Gideon got up early the next morning and squeezed the sheepskin. He was able to drain a bowl full of water from it. Then Gideon said to God, “Don’t be angry with me. Let me ask just one more thing. Let me test you one more time with the sheepskin. This time let the sheepskin be dry, while the ground around it gets wet with dew. That night God did that very thing. Just the sheepskin was dry, but the ground around it was wet with dew.’”

    She got off her bed and opened the window. The rush of cold wind smacked her in the face as she looked out over the almost deserted campus. She calculated maybe twenty to thirty other students left on the campus with her who hung around for work purposes instead of returning home. The doors to the dorms were locked since there was no one in the lobby and security was on a skeleton crew. Whenever anyone returned to the dorm, security would have to let them in until break was over.

    The snow and ice had been building for several days, but each day she would knock it off in order to open her window. The cold, fresh air reminded her she was alive and this wasn’t some bad dream. She didn’t want to be alone, but she didn’t want to be a bother either. Losing Jill a week and a half ago cut her deeply. She thought she was done losing people. It made her want to not get close to anyone again. The verses Stacey and Scott shared with her that night touched her, but her jagged heart was growing cold. Maybe she would be the Ice Queen for the rest of her life after all.

    She sighed before she looked up at the sky toward Heaven. “All right,” she said to God, “I have a lot of respect for You. I put the challenge out to You, but I haven’t heard anything yet. Please let me know You exist. I’m putting a fleece out like Gideon did.”

    Psalm 9:10 ran through her mind, ‘Those who know Your name trust in You, for You, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek You.’

    “I am seeking You. People keep telling me You don’t hate me, and You supposedly love me. I told You before if You want me to trust You, You have to show me You’re real this break. Show me You care about me and I will trust You. I will walk with You for whatever life I have left. It’s up to You, though. Show me. This is my fleece. This is my challenge to You.”

    Silence filled her room. The only sound she heard was the ice crackling on the trees and an occasional tree branch breaking under the weight of the snow, falling to the ground with a thud.

    “Silence. All I get is silence. Fine. You have three more weeks to prove to me You’re real and You love me. After that, we’re finished.”

    Katie froze when she heard a knock on the apartment door. She looked down to the entrance of the dorm, noting no footprints on the walkway. “Hmmm,” she said, cautiously going to the door. Looking through the peephole, she saw two men. One was about six-four, the other around six-two. Both were handsome and in suits and ties. She opened the door. “Look, guys, I appreciate your passion for your religion, but you scared me. I’m fixin’ to call security if you don’t leave.”

    They looked at each other before bursting out in laughter.

    “That’s a new one,” the taller of the two said, his Australian accent evident.

    They both produced their badges and IDs, which stated they were FBI agents. The taller one’s name was Nick Locke and the shorter one Seth Simmons. Handing their IDs back to them, she nervously asked, “Um, what can I do for you? I’m not aware of anything I did.”

    “May we come in?” Seth asked.

    She gestured to the table off the tiny kitchen of the apartment suite. “There’s a table over there where we can sit.”

    When they settled, Seth spoke first, “We first wanted to extend our condolences regarding Jillian Shaw. We understand you two were roommates for two and a half years.”

    “Yes, sir, but –”

    “Director Shaw is our supervisor,” Nick explained, cutting her off. “His family was deeply hurt by her loss. We also know how close you are to the Shaw family.”

    “I am, but –”

    “We understand you met with Giovanni Rossi on the night she was killed,” Seth interrupted her.

    “That’s true, but he didn’t kill her,” Katie said adamantly.

    “How do you know?” Nick asked. “Isn’t it true she made it very clear to you to stay away from him?”

    “She did, but he was writing his paper when Jillian was, um...” Katie swallowed her words, not wanting to admit to Jillian’s passing aloud, while nervously fiddling with a napkin on the table.

    “How do you know this?”

    “Because she was missing by the time I got back to the dorm, per the note her boyfriend, Aaron, left her. Also, I helped Giovanni find the books he needed for his paper that night in the library, so I know he was there at the time she was killed. And, according to the way she looked, she had been dead for over an hour when we found her.”

    “How do you know that?”

    “Criminology is one of my majors,” she explained. “The amount of snow that covered her told us by the rate it dropped that night that she was there for over an hour. Now, knowing the time she left and the time I returned to the dorm, she had to have disappeared within the hour between when she left the library and when I returned to the dorm to write my paper. Giovanni was still in the library and didn’t leave prior to that.”

    Seth sat back in his seat and crossed his arms. “How do you know?”

    “Because I noticed him.”

    “Noticed him how?” Nick pushed, as he intertwined his fingers on the table in front of him.

    “Well, he’s kind of hard to miss,” Katie said, as she felt her face flush in embarrassment by her admittance.

    “So, you think he’s good looking?”

    Katie’s anger momentarily flashed at what he’d insinuated. “What does that have to do with anything?”

    “We’re here to ask for your help,” Seth admitted.

    Katie crossed her arms, glaring at them. “What kind of help?”

    “We would like you to befriend Giovanni,” Nick explained.

    “Why would I do that? My friends have continuously told me not to be friends with him.”

    Nick glanced at Seth, and Seth nodded, so Nick asked, “Can we trust you?”

    “Pretty sure you wouldn’t be here if that were in question.”

    Seth and Nick both laughed. “You’re quick,” Nick commented. After they settled, he clarified, “Let me correct myself. We know we can trust you, but we need to ensure whether you help us or not, that what is said here is left between the three of us.”

    “Why are you being so cryptic?” Katie asked.

    “Because we just dropped off an agent at the hospital this morning and don’t want a repeat,” Seth said. “You see, we know you’re interested in working for the FBI and only have about a year and a half left of school.”

    “Right.”

    “Well, we’re asking if you want to do a sort of internship in working with us.”

    “In other words, I don’t get paid.”

    “Correct.”

    “How much danger would I be in?”

    “Danger is relative,” Nick jumped back into the conversation. “We’re only asking you to be friends with the guy.”

    “According to my friends, that’s dangerous.”

    Seth let out a frustrated breath of air. “Okay, here’s the deal. Giovanni is sick and tired of being the son of Lucca Rossi. He is the oldest and will inherit the family business when he is of age, but I can guarantee he wants nothing to do with it. He and his dad have a love/hate relationship.”

    “He loves him, but hates what his father does,” Nick clarified. “He doesn’t want the business. He hates that what his dad does has cost him so much.”

    “Meaning?” Katie questioned.

    “Meaning his mother was killed when he was thirteen. Meaning he hasn’t had a close friend, except for the men who work for his father. Meaning he has never had a girlfriend or gone on a date.”

    “Meaning he has not had a life because of his father,” she said in understanding. “And if he continues on the track he’s on, he won’t have one either.”

    “We can’t get anyone undercover into that family,” Seth went on. “They are too closed off and exclusive. Having said that, Giovanni approached you, you didn’t approach him. This means it was an innocent occurrence. You are both in a couple of the same classes next semester, too, so it will still seem innocent.”

    “What does this have to do with Jillian’s death?” Katie asked, confused.

    “We needed to clear him and you did that,” Nick assured her. “Look, we’re only asking you to keep your eyes open and report back to us what you see and hear. In the meantime, he gets a friend.”

    “How can this be done so he doesn’t get hurt?”

    “If it’s done right, we may be able to get him to flip on his father, shutting that family down.”

    Katie sat back in her seat, nervously nibbling on her finger nails.

    “With it being break, there aren’t many people here to stop you from being his friend. A friendship can be established and you can help him in the process.”

    “Can I think about it?”

    “Of course. We only wanted to put the fleece out there to see what you thought,” Nick said, then pulled his card from his wallet. “Please let me know what you come up with.” He wrote his cell phone number on the back of the card and handed it to her. “This is of the utmost secrecy. Only contact me.”

    “Yes, sir.” Katie walked them to the door and locked it after they left. She looked toward the ceiling and said aloud to the Lord, “Nice. I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to do this, especially with the words that Nick guy used. If I do, I am asking You to keep me safe. I want to be one hundred percent sure, not just pretty sure. If You could make it obvious that I’m supposed to do this, I would appreciate it. You seem to have a hand in quite a bit, and I don’t want to mess up anything. Also, would you mind finding Jillian’s killer? I will only admit to You that it scares me to death to be on campus practically by myself, knowing there is a killer out there. This is my second fleece I am putting out to You. Please don’t let me down now.”