Dilly Calioni has spent most of her life with her parents in the witness protection program, but now she’s all grown up and eager to attend art school in Chicago, a place she barely remembers from before her family went into hiding. Since she knows that neither ‘Uncle’ Cal, the marshal assigned to them, nor her father would approve, she makes her plans in secret and leaves without saying goodbye.
After so many years away from the city, she didn’t think anyone would recognize her. But she’s been trained to be extra vigilant by her hitman father and is very concerned to realize that ominous black cars are circling her block – and she’s trapped in her apartment. Someone must have informed the mob that she is in town. They still want her father, and they are willing to take her to get to him.
When hitman Alf Calioni calls for help finding his daughter, he is shocked to discover that their long-time marshal has retired and been replaced by Marshal Race Stevens. He has his doubts about the young agent’s abilities, but reluctantly agrees to stay in hiding and let the marshal bring Dilly home.
Race thinks the pretty redhead needs a dose of discipline for being so foolish and so selfish. He doesn’t like playing babysitter for the hitman’s daughter, but if he doesn’t fetch her home, Alf will abandon the witness protection program to go after her himself. Race is determined to bring Dilly home to her parents, even if it means applying unorthodox methods to keep her safe.
“Where’s Cal?” Alf Calioni demanded in his rough voice when US Marshal Race Stevens showed his badge.
“I’m used to Cal.” Alf frowned and stared at the younger man.
“You need to get used to me now. What’s the problem?” Race demanded, noting the worried look on Rose Calioni’s face. The apartment wasn’t a bit fancy, but it fit in with the work Alf did now. The furniture was serviceable, and a big come down for one of the mob’s most successful hitmen. Alf Calioni was one mean son of a bitch; Race knew it from reading the file the office kept on him. When the man didn’t answer him, but just stared, Race squared his shoulders and stared right back. This was one man you didn’t show the least bit of fear. “Well, do you need me or not?”
Rose’s eyes filled with tears. “It is our little girl Dilly, Marshal. She left home; we forbade it, but she has a mind of her own.”
“Her name is Dilly?” Race demanded.
“Dilly is her nickname. Her real name is Delia. She couldn’t say that, and called herself Dilly, so we called her Dilly too.”
“She went back to the old neighborhood. If someone recognizes her, they could hurt her to get even with me. I’m asking you to go and get her, or I will go myself.” Alf’s black eyes were glittering with anger and fear. “Darn girl knows better. I told her not to go, but she wanted to see her aunts and cousins,” he explained.
“We aren’t running a babysitting service,” Race said. “You are only supposed to call me if you have been recognized.”
“Give me Cal’s phone number. He knows us; he would go,” Alf insisted.
“You can’t go. You would be in violation of the rules, and the judge could sentence you to life in prison, or give you the chair.” The man needed a reality check, Race decided.
“I am not going to let my little girl die for my sins.” Alf looked as dangerous as he was.
She should have listened to her parents, Dilly realized. The same car was driving by her apartment again. It was clear as could be that someone had recognized her, and word had reached one of her father’s enemies. Dilly hadn’t used her real name. Her last name was Calioni, but she knew that would draw negative attention. She’d used the name Bishop, positive that would keep her safe. She’d grown up in the witness protection program since she was three years old. She was sure she wouldn’t be recognized. One of her aunts or cousins had turned her in. That thought hurt her deeply. Dilly had dreamed of coming “home” since she was a little girl. There was a great art school in Chicago, and why should she give up on her dream of attending just because her father used to be part of the mob?
Dilly had to admit she was frightened right now. Her first instinct was to call her father and beg him to help her. Her hand was on her cell phone when she decided she would be putting her father in danger if she called him. She couldn’t get on a plane and go home either. They would follow her.
There was a sudden knock on the door. Dilly ran to her special bolt hole and hid.
Race hated Chicago. He especially hated this time of year in Chicago. He much preferred the office he worked out of now. He knew that Alf and Rose’s daughter was here. He’d seen her moving around in her tiny apartment. Race also realized that someone was keeping an eye on her. She would be very lucky if he was able to rescue her, reunite her with her family, then move them to a safer environment. Impatiently, he knocked once again. But now there was no movement or sound coming from within the small apartment.
Dilly was holding her breath. She was seriously afraid, and was positive that whoever was at her door could hear her heart pounding through the walls of her hiding place. She heard the person messing around with the lock, and in the next moment, the hinges on the door squeaked as it opened to let someone inside her home. Dilly told herself not to panic.
Race was surprised when he searched the apartment and saw no sign of the girl. He was truly upset, wondering if she was elsewhere in the building. There was probably a laundry room somewhere that all the tenants used, or she could be visiting with a neighbor. Or, he made himself consider all the facts, they’d already grabbed her, and she was in even more trouble than he suspected.
He was right outside! Dilly held her breath, waiting for him to discover her hiding spot. No one had ever found her father’s place, not when they lived in Chicago, or in the other three places they’d moved to over the years. Twice, her father had been recognized on the street, the other time, her mother’s sister stumbled across Rose while on vacation and they had a wonderful visit. Each time, however, they were moved again, and given new names. The first thing Alf did in each place was to build a safe hiding place for all of them. It was always in the living room, constructed to look natural. No one noticed the bookcase was attached to the wall. A gentle push, and the wall swung open to admit them, but could be locked from the inside to keep it from budging. Alf kept guns inside the room. Dilly kept water and food too, also a rocking chair to sit in.
“Damn it!” Race mumbled, unaware he could be heard. “When I get my hands on that female, I am going to put the flat of my hand where it will do some good! Where in hell did she go? She’s had enough time to do laundry, or to visit with a neighbor. She has to know that she’s in danger. Maybe she has a friend she is hiding with?” He got up and looked out the window again. The car that had been circling the block for the last while was now parked in front. “Great!” he muttered.
His search had shown there was no place to hide, Race then noticed the wall. It was exactly like the one in Alf and Rose’s apartment. The window wasn’t centered either. “Dilly, if you are behind this wall, you’d better open up. The mob is on their way up here. I’m with the United States Marshals Service. Your parents sent me.”
To his surprise, the wall opened. He was inside in a second, the wall locked securely behind him, then he realized that she had a gun pointed at him, and she obviously knew how to use it.
“Who are you? There is another marshal who works with my family.” It was clear to Race that Dilly was frightened.
He put a finger over his lips as he heard the door to the apartment open.
“She ain’t here.”
“When did she leave?” another man asked.
“I told you not to keep driving around the block. It was you who messed this up.”
“There were too many people around. The boss likes to keep things quiet. That’s what he said.
“He also said to get Alf’s daughter and bring her to him. He promised us some fun.”
Race could see that Dilly was furious, but she kept her head. He nodded at her, then put a finger to his lips once again. Quiet was imperative.
“We might as well go and tell the boss that she works nights somewhere. We just didn’t see her get into a cab.”
“He ain’t gonna be happy,” one of the men predicted. “Ole Alfie put the old boss behind bars for life. Boss Jr. wants Alfie real bad.”
“We’ll get the girl tomorrow.” They left, shutting the door, but commenting, “Someone should give her a lesson on locking doors. Anyone could walk right in.”
For the third time, Race put his finger over his lips. He heard the door open, then the two men walked the living room, kitchen, bedroom, and bath again.
“It was worth a try, Gilbert. I thought she might be hiding somewhere.”
“Yeah, me too. She just ain’t here.”
After a few more minutes, Race unlocked the wall so they could get out of the small space. “What were you thinking of to come back here, little girl?” he demanded of Dilly.
“I was thinking I wanted a normal life that included art school,” she answered sharply. “Where is Cal?” She gave him a nasty look, which judged him guilty. “I liked Cal,” she added.
“Cal retired. He got tired of dealing with all of you people,” he added the lie because he wanted to be just as mean as Dilly.
“Cal liked us,” she informed the much younger marshal.
“Get a change of clothes and your hairbrush. Whatever you need for a few days. Nothing more than a small bag. Is there anything in this place that would give away your parents’ residence? Letters or notes? Old cards, a bookstore label in a book? Anything at all?”
“No. I’m not stupid enough to do that.”
“You were stupid enough to come back here. You heard what those men said. If I don’t get you out of here within the next couple of minutes, those two will be back, and they’ll probably have someone with brains with them. Move it, girl.”
“Don’t take that tone of voice with me. You aren’t my father.”
“If I was your father, I would take you over my knee and paddle you soundly.”
“Try it, and I will shoot you.” Dilly tried to look fierce, but she failed miserably. She gave him her back, then went to her bedroom to pack a few things, reminding herself that she’d wished for Cal to come and rescue her. This man wasn’t Cal, but he was definitely handsome as could be.
Race started going through her drawers, looking for anything incriminating. The pictures on top of the dresser were of places; there were no faces anywhere. He then searched her bathroom, looking for prescription bottles with names on them. He found birth control pills, and one other bottle, both with a fake names on them. She grabbed them from his hands.
“You are in my way!” she snapped.
“That temper of yours is going to get you in big trouble with me. I have red hair too.”
“Whoopee,” she sarcastically answered. “You are still in my way.” Her green eyes flashed with pure temper, and Race thought about taking a seat on the john, then flipping her over his knee. Instead, he stomped out of the bathroom, and headed for the kitchen, still looking for anything incriminating.
The man, whose name she didn’t know, was a royal pain in the ass. She’d made a mistake, but she was a grown woman. She should have the right to live where she wanted, go to school where she wanted, but because of her father, she couldn’t escape his legacy. As long as he lived, she would live with one eye watching her back. She would always need a safe room. She would have another name to remember, a new address, and now they would probably forbid her the opportunity to go to art school. Because of her, the mob could easily find her and reach her father through her. Not fair. Not fair at all, but it was her reality. She felt tears sting her eyes.
“Are you ready to leave?” Race asked impatiently.
“Yes, of course.” She knew the rules. She couldn’t say goodbye to any of her new friends. One of them would probably file a missing person’s report, and she knew that Gloria would worry. Dilly hated that.
Race had to be cautious. “Do you have anything you can use to hide your hair?”
Dilly made a face of pure disgust, but went back into her bedroom and emerged wearing a black wig. She didn’t like the wig because it was so hot, but it made her feel glamorous, hiding in full view of everyone. “Can we go now?” she asked.
“Great wig,” Race complimented her. She looked fabulous, and no one would guess it was Dilly, unless she spoke.
Dilly looked at him in surprise. The wigs were the easiest way to disguise herself. She’d been doing this since she was in high school. Her parents didn’t approve of her going to concerts. If she wore a wig, no one but her friends would recognize her. Her parents wouldn’t hear of her disobedience. Even at her age, her father would spank her for risking herself at a concert with hundreds or thousands of people.
“The usual response to a compliment is ‘thank you’.”
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting a compliment. The last time I wore this wig was to sneak into a concert my father forbade me to attend. Now, I am wearing it to sneak out of Chicago, which he also forbade me to do.”
“He should have paddled you raw for disobeying him about the concert, then you wouldn’t have pulled this hare-brained stunt.”
“My father was a hitman for the mob; that means he killed people, not that he ‘hit’ them with his hand or any other implement. My father has never struck me.”
“It shows. Now, the rule, and you’d better listen well, little girl. You disobey me, and if it doesn’t cost us our lives, I will see to it that you get a spanking to remember for the rest of your foolish life. If I give you an order, obey me instantly. Don’t ask questions, just do as I say. I want to keep you safe. The mob wants you in order to force your father out into the open. They know he won’t let you die. After they kill him, they will do for you too. Hear me?”
“Yes, I hear you,” Dilly answered. If they took her, her father would give himself over to them to save her. She couldn’t allow that to happen. It was no wonder the new marshal thought her very foolish. She was. “Do you mind telling me your name? I can’t call you ‘Uncle Cal’.”
“I’m Race Stevens.” He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten to introduce himself. “I am sorry I didn’t properly introduce myself and show you my ID.”
“Under the circumstances, we had more on our minds.”
He reluctantly smiled, something he rarely did. “I would appreciate it very much if you don’t call me uncle.” Race smiled again, then turned serious. “I don’t see anything that appears threatening. Stay close, like we are on a date. My car is in front, white four-door compact.”
The air was cold, which was not one bit unusual for where these apartments were located, right across from the water. They hurried, trying to make it appear that they were late to attend an event. Once Race put her in the car, he leaned down to kiss her lightly.
It took Dilly’s breath away; she stared after him in shock as he rounded the car and got in on the driver’s side.
He started the engine and pulled out into traffic, heading for Wisconsin. He was going to avoid O’Hare, just in case the mob had men there watching.
“How is Cal liking retirement?” Dilly tried to make conversation.
“I guess he likes it. I don’t know Cal very well. I was transferred to his district about a week before he left. We spent that last week with him filling me in on his families. I was put here in Chicago for three years before I was promoted.”
“Did Daddy really send you?” Dilly asked in disbelief.
“Coming for you myself was the only way I could keep him from coming. He was positive you were in danger.”
“I figured that out tonight. When you knocked on the door, I thought you were part of the mob, so I hid in my safe room.”
“It looked exactly like your father’s wall. That’s how I knew you were there. Thank you for believing me.”
“I don’t know why I did. I didn’t know Uncle Cal had retired.”
“He followed regulations.”
“I hate your stupid regulations.”
“Those regulations were put in place to keep you safe, Dilly.” His palm was itching again.
“Are we going to stop anywhere for the night?”
“Is my family going to be forced to move again?” Dilly was exasperated. “Mama is happy where we are right now.”
“You should have thought of that before you ran off.”
“I didn’t tell anyone the truth when they asked where I was from. I even used a fake name when I registered for school. I wasn’t waving a red flag to attract attention. I didn’t want to lead anyone to Daddy. There is no need to uproot them again.”
“You know the rules. I must keep them safe; it is my job. You never know what you might have mentioned in passing to someone. Your parents will be happy to move again as long as you are safe and with them.”
“Then drop me off at a hotel, and I will make my own plans. I am not going home like some wayward teenager. I am an adult now, and I have a right to choose my own life.”
“Not when it could endanger your parents.”
“I do not intend to endanger them.”
“Do you intend to live without any contact with your parents?” Race asked knowingly. “If you apply to an art school anywhere, it will set off all sorts of bells and whistles. The mob will have your location, and all they need for you to do is contact your parents or maybe they will force you to tell them. You can’t have a normal life away from your folks. It is impossible. I don’t think you wish to ignore them as if they don’t exist?”
“You have no right to take me into custody. I appreciate you getting me out of my apartment, but I am not going home to my parents. You can stop at the next hotel.”
He didn’t stop, but kept right on going, a huge frown on his handsome face.
“Seriously, you are planning to kidnap me?
“Give over, Dilly. You know I have to do my best, or your father is going to go searching for you. He is worried for your safety.”
“Uncle Cal would have let me go!”
“Cal should have blistered your behind.”
“What a Neanderthal thing to say. Uncle Cal wasn’t nearly as ‘by-the-book’ as you are, and he is thirty years older than you; yet you are positively stuffy. I insist you release me, or I am going to call 911 and file kidnapping charges. You have crossed state lines.” She told herself that she wasn’t trying to bait him, just using what she had to threaten him so that he would release her.
“And you have been aggravating as hell every step of the way.” Race pulled the car into a hotel parking lot. “I will get rooms,” he lied.
She waited in the car.
He could see her through the treated window, but she couldn’t see him. He showed the clerk his badge, and explained that he had a runaway in custody, taking her home to her folks. He asked his assistance in keeping her from making a scene, and calling for help. She was a real brat. The clerk was anxious to help, and turned off the telephone service to their room. He also promised to alert Race if he saw her leaving the room without him. Race thanked him, then praised him for being a good citizen.
“That took long enough,” Dilly complained irritably when Race got in behind the steering wheel again. “Do you know this car has child locks on all the doors? You have to have a key.”
“Really?” He pleaded innocence. This car belonged to the Marshal’s Office. He’d taken a taxi to their office, and signed out a car. It was designed to keep prisoners in the car, and threats outside. It was also bullet proof. He didn’t think Dilly needed to know any of that. He was determined to get Dilly’s cooperation, even if that meant taking matters into his hands and dealing with the girl in an unorthodox manner. She was going home to her parents, and they would all be moved elsewhere.
“I am hungry,” Dilly announced. “There is a Mickey D’s right over there.” She pointed toward the Golden Arches. “Please? I’ll buy,” she offered.
Race took a deep breath, but he was starving too. He headed the car across the street, and pulled into the drive-thru line. “What do you want?” he asked, and grinned at the length of her order. “Are you sure you can eat all of that?”
“Positive. I am starving to death. I get irritable when I don’t eat.”
“I can attest to that.” It was finally their turn, and Race ordered enough food for at least four people. He paid at the first window, then pulled up to another window to collect their order.
“Did you have…” The teenager repeated their list, then commented. “This is a lot of food for two people; you must be taking it somewhere to share, huh?” He handed the bag and the drink carrier over to Race, who promptly loaded down Dilly’s lap.
“Thanks, kid,” Race said politely, then he took off for the hotel. The first thing he did was to park in front of their room. He walked around the car to take the food and drinks from Dilly’s lap, then stayed close to her as they went to the door of their room. He unlocked the door, and they went inside. He found the lights, then closed the drapes. It would be safer that way.
“I’ll need my bag from the back seat,” Dilly said, and was pleased when she saw that she’d struck a nerve. He deserved it after giving her a hassle.
Race fetched her bag from the back seat, and his from the trunk. He prepared for the inevitable fuss she was going to have, and carried them inside. He dropped his on the bed closest to the door, and hers went on the other bed. Dilly was too busy sorting their food to pay attention to what he was doing, which suited him. He was hungry, and like Dilly, he could be mean as hell when he was super hungry.
“Sit down and eat, Race. I think I have this sorted correctly. Why would you order a strawberry milkshake when they have vanilla?” she teased, but seemed very serious.
“Vanilla is plain and boring.”
“Not if you dip French fries in it. They are so good.”
“You dip your fries in your milkshake?” He couldn’t believe it, but then, he couldn’t believe half of what she said and did. Dilly was unique, and while he didn’t mind her silly habits, he couldn’t accept her selfishness, or the way she was terrorizing her parents.
“Isn’t this good?” she asked Race. “I don’t eat like this often, but I make up for it when I do give in to temptation.”
“I don’t eat like this very often either. It isn’t good for you, for one. I would gain a ton of weight, and I need to be able to run fast. A few meals like this one, I would be put at a desk until I lost weight and could re-pass a fitness test. Tonight, however, I’m going to enjoy every last bite.”
“I’m not sure I will be able to eat everything, but I’ll sure give it a good try. I didn’t have breakfast or lunch today. I was afraid,” she admitted. “Seriously, I am thankful you arrived. I would probably have done something really stupid, like shoot those two men. I have never raised a gun at anyone before, and I hate that I was afraid enough to make that a possibility. You kept me from doing something I would regret for the rest of my life.”
“That is why I am going to step in and keep you from doing something else you would regret forever. I am taking you home to your parents to grab anything you can’t leave behind, and then I am placing you in another small town with them. I am very sorry, but you will need to forget any plans of art school. It would be too easy for the mob to grab you, or to find your father.”
“I am going off on my own in the morning. I will give you a letter to give my folks.”
“No, Dilly. I am going to give you something your father should have given you years ago.” Race stood up, unbuttoned the cuffs on his white shirt, and started rolling up the sleeves.
“Don’t you dare think you can spank me!” she warned, getting to her feet, prepared to fight.