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Hero for Hire

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Hero for Hire
Marie Ferrarella

Литагент HarperCollins EUR


HIS ONLY FEARKidnapped as a boy, Chad Andreini had devoted his life to rescuing abducted children. But this anguished mother was different. Alluring Veronica Lancaster stirred within Chad a long-buried desire to belong somewhere-and made more painful the stark dread that he never would….HER ONLY HOPETrusting a total stranger with her precious child's life wasn't easy for Veronica, but walking away from Chad would have been even harder. her child's safe return was all she wanted from this comforting yet cryptic man, until the night they turned to each other in lonely desperation–and undeniable desire….


“Maybe I’d better not stay,”


Chad whispered.

Being alone last night had been almost more than Veronica had been able to bear. The thought of being left alone again tonight drove shafts of panic through her. Her fingers tightened on his arms as she looked up at him. “Don’t go. Please.”

“If I stay…” His voice trailed off, leaving the rest unsaid.

She knew what she was asking. Knew what would happen if he remained. But she needed his comfort, needed to have him here. He understood more than anyone what she was going through. If there was a price to pay for that later, so be it. As long as she didn’t have to be alone tonight.
Hero for Hire

Marie Ferrarella
www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk)


To Tiffany & Chris,

Here’s hoping history repeats itself
Contents


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15
Chapter 1


He saw the pain in her eyes the moment she walked into his office.

Another man not in his line of work would have noticed the young woman’s slender figure, the honey-blond hair smartly done up in a variation of a French twist with just a few rebellious hairs out of place at her temples, or the cut of her clothes. She was wearing a powder-blue, single-breasted jacket and skirt that most definitely hadn’t come off some department-store rack fingered by the general public. This woman, with her hundred-dollar-an-ounce perfume that softly entered the room with her, was someone of taste and breeding who knew exactly what was becoming to her and who could easily afford it, no matter what the price.

All those things registered, but only on a secondary level. Because the pain in her eyes captured the bulk of Chad Andreini’s attention and immediately expressed to him the fact that a life-and-death situation had brought her here.

He half rose in his chair, fragments of manners his mother had once tried to teach him before she wasn’t able to teach him anything anymore surfacing automatically. Politeness, she had liked to say, never went out of style. He hoped, in the world his mother now inhabited, that it never did.

The woman entering his office seemed oblivious to the courtly gesture. It was apparent that she was fighting for composure as she moved toward him. She was employing that strange, disembodied gait that people find themselves unconsciously resorting to when their entire worlds are crumbling down around them and they can’t understand why they are still drawing breath, still alive, when something very precious has been snatched from them. Perhaps forever, though the thought was always far too horrible to contemplate.

She had that look about her.

He’d seen it before and would see it again, but it was nothing he would ever get used to.

Carrie, the secretary he and the others at ChildFinders, Inc. all used, had buzzed him half a minute earlier, telling him that a new client was here. It was his turn to try to pick up the pieces of this latest case and glue them into some semblance of a whole as he attempted to solve the puzzle. He knew nothing more about her than her name. Veronica Lancaster.

She looked like a Veronica, he thought now, silently taking measure of her. The woman’s bearing was regal. Regal even in the time of a parent’s worst nightmare.

At least, that was the facade.

But Chad knew how easily and quickly facades could crack and break apart, letting everything within spill out. Leaving only an empty vessel and a fading memory of composure in its wake.

Veronica Lancaster, for all her effort, looked close to breaking apart.

He liked to keep his distance. It helped keep his mind clear and focused on what was important. Right now, he felt like a spectator at a pending disaster. The feeling left him wanting to do something to prevent it. It was not only his job to do something about it, it was his calling.

“Please sit down, Mrs. Lancaster.”

Veronica heard the gently worded instruction. The voice was deep, strong. It penetrated the constantly recurring fog about her brain, and she looked around the room, focusing for the first time. There was a chair right in front of his desk.

Veronica complied with the man’s urging. It didn’t occur to her not to.

Hands on the chair’s arms, she lowered herself into it slowly, as if some part of her was afraid that any sudden movement might make her collapse into it.

Or collapse entirely.

Oh Casey….baby…how could this have happened? she thought.

Veronica felt moisture beginning to form at the corners of her eyes and she blinked as she drew air into her lungs. The silly thought came to her that if she filled herself completely with air this way, it would prevent anything from spilling out that wasn’t supposed to.

Like the wail of agony that scratched and clawed at her throat, threatening to burst out.

She couldn’t break apart, she couldn’t, she ordered herself silently. She had to hold herself together. Every second counted. Every moment she gave way to despair and the abject terror that was tightening around her heart was a moment she couldn’t use, a moment that was taken away from rectifying this incredible, horrible wrong that had been done.

A moment that might mean the difference between Casey’s coming home and not.

Taking another breath, she began, “My baby…”

No, he wasn’t a baby. Casey hadn’t been a baby for quite some time. He liked to draw himself up importantly and crisply informed her of that fact whenever she slipped and called him that.

I’m not your baby, Mama.

But he was. He would always be her baby. And someone had stolen her baby.

And her world.

“My son, Casey,” she corrected herself with effort, “has been kidnapped.”

Chad Andreini nodded his head slowly, encouragingly, as if what she had just said was a revelation and not the obvious reason anyone would come to the agency in the first place.

ChildFinders, Inc., specialized in recovering kidnapped children and in locating runaways. It had originally been established when Cade Townsend’s own son, Darin, had been kidnapped. The agency had a record of success rivaled by none. Recovering kidnapped children was a cause very dear to Chad’s own heart, having been one himself once. There had been no terror involved in his kidnapping, other than the lie that had been tendered to him as the truth—that his mother, younger brother and sister had all been killed in a car accident. No terror and no suspicion because the man telling the lie had been his own father. His father, who had abducted him from his home so cleverly that no one had suspected a thing.

It would probably have continued to remain a secret for a long time, instead of just two years had Chad not, in a fit of youthful rebellion, left his father’s house and hitchhiked back to his old neighborhood. It had come in the wake of yet another argument with his father, and Chad had been determined to return to a time and place when life had been less traumatic for him.

The trauma had come, anyway. Seeing his mother, barely functioning in her grief over losing him, and his brother and sister alive had been a shock. But it paled in comparison to the fierce sting of betrayal he felt when he realized that the man he had placed at the center of his universe, had kidnapped him from life as he knew it and lied to him.

It was something he frequently buried in his mind, but never managed to quite get over, even after his father had been sent to prison.

Odd how things worked. That event in his faraway past had brought him to this place in time, sitting at this desk. Waiting to listen to this woman with the pain-filled green eyes.

Eyes that were fighting back tears.

In a fluid motion, Chad reached over to the small, state-of-the-art tape recorder beside his computer and pressed the record button. The second he did, he saw apprehension bloom in her face.

Her eyes darted to the small sleek machine. “What are you doing?”

“Recording this meeting.” Did she have something to hide? He studied her quietly, toying with half-formed notions.

Distaste entered her eyes as she continued looking at the recorder. Veronica Lancaster had grown up living a fish-bowl existence where microphones and cameras were periodically pointed at her for one reason or another through no fault of her own. Her great-great-grandfather had assured the family fortune through methods that had not always welcomed scrutiny in the light of day. It took three generations and sizable contributions to almost every major charity for that to be smoothed over.

Now all that was remembered was that there had been a couple named Lancaster on the Mayflower, newly married young travelers who had made that first crossing to a brave new world almost four hundred years ago.

It seemed to Veronica that people were always interested in what the Lancasters were doing, treating them as if they were a cross between their next-door neighbors and visiting gods. Veronica had grown up hungering for privacy the way a person on a never-ending diet hungered for a taste of chocolate.

Knuckles taut and white, she struggled to keep her voice from quavering as she nodded at the tape recorder. “Is that really necessary?”

Chad made no effort to turn the machine off. His yes was silent.

“It helps us piece things together. You might forget things later,” he told her, his voice low, quiet. “Sometimes things you’ve overlooked come back to you when you listen.” The machine remained on, softly whirling. There were few rules at the agency, other than Don’t Fail, but Cade insisted on having the first interview with a client recorded. Chad saw no reason to break that rule. But he saw that having the recorder on troubled his client. He understood the desire for privacy, too. “Pretend it’s not there.”

The half smile, tinged in irony, rose to her lips unconsciously. Easier said than done, she thought. “I’ve spent half my life pretending it wasn’t there.”

Light-brown brows drew together over the bridge of Chad’s nose. “Excuse me?”

She raised her eyes to his. Veronica knew she sounded as if she was babbling. Her mind felt so scattered, so out of focus. She couldn’t seem to catch hold of a single thought for more than a moment.

Was it possible he didn’t know who she was? Maybe. Right now, she wasn’t certain who she was herself. Other than a mother whose heart had just been ripped out. When she’d first realized what had happened, it had been a struggle just keeping herself together and breathing. Every fiber of her being had wanted to cry out for help.

But who was there to call? Just acquaintances. And family members who were on the fringe of her existence. Not even her own family, but Robert’s.

Robert was gone and he had been the only one she had ever permitted herself to lean on. So there had been no one to turn to, no one to call.

Just as well. The voice on the phone had warned her not to call anyone. Not to tell anyone that Casey had been kidnapped.

Or else…

Or else. The two most horrible words she had ever heard. Veronica couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence, not even in her mind. The consequences were too terrible for her to contemplate.

“Nothing,” she murmured, dismissing her rambling comment.

Talk, damn it, Ronnie. You’re wasting precious time.

“I went to pick up my son this afternoon and he wasn’t there.” This time the tears did break through, trickling from the corners of her eyes. Angry with herself, she quickly wiped them away with the side of her hand. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I’m not like this normally.”

Coming around the front of the desk, Chad handed her a tissue. “There’s nothing normal about this.” Gently he prodded her along. “Where were you picking your son up from?”

Veronica drew what composure she could manage back to her, covering herself in the remaining shreds. It was hard to think.

“A birthday party. Andy Sullivan’s fifth birthday party. The Sullivans don’t live far from us and…” Her voice broke. Why hadn’t she remained with him? Why had she left Casey and gone? Other parents had stayed. Defending herself from her own accusations, she raised her head and looked at Chad. “I didn’t want to be one of those overprotective mothers. I didn’t want him being afraid of his own shadow, the way—”

Abruptly she broke off, waving away the rest of her words. The investigator looking at her with intense blue eyes didn’t need to know about the fears that had been inflicted on her by a feelingless nanny to whom her grandfather had arbitrarily handed over the responsibility of raising his two orphaned grandchildren—her and her sister, Stephanie. That had no bearing on this.

Nothing had a bearing, except finding Casey.

Struggling, she continued. “I went to pick him up and he wasn’t there. Anne—”

“Anne?” Looking at her, he jotted the name down on the small pad before him.

She was getting ahead of herself again, tripping over her thoughts as they ran up at her from all directions at once. It wasn’t going to do Casey any good if she kept falling apart like this.

Veronica tried again. “Anne Sullivan, Andy’s mother. Anne said she hadn’t seen Casey since the cake was served. The children were playing different games…”

He nodded, encouraging her. “How many children would you say were at the party?” He saw the bewildered look in her eyes. She was focusing on her son; the others didn’t exist for her. “Take a guess. Five? Ten?”

She shrugged helplessly before she could stop the gesture. “Thirty, forty—Anne Sullivan knows a lot of people.”

With that many around, it was simple enough to lose track of one small boy for a few minutes. And he knew that a few minutes was all it took. “Was the birthday party being held at the house?”

Questions, he was asking her questions when all she wanted him to do was run out and find Casey. Now. Bring him back to her before anything…

She was behaving like a madwoman, like someone she didn’t even know.

Biting her lower lip, Veronica forced herself to focus. She nodded. “Outside. On the grounds. There were other parents there, and Anne had clowns…”

Strangers working their way easily amid the children. It got harder. “Maybe…”

She knew what he was thinking before he said it and shook her head. “Casey hates clowns. He would never have gone off with one of them. Not without screaming.”

This investigator, Chad Andreini, sounded so calm, she thought, as if they were discussing a movie they’d both seen, instead of something that was ripping her apart with sharp, lethal talons. She was desperate to have this all said and out of the way so that this somber-faced man leaning back against the desk in front of her would make it right somehow. She would give him anything he wanted, as long as he would make it right. As long as he would bring Casey back to her. Nothing meant anything without Casey.

Chad made a notation to check out the clowns, anyway. He stopped writing when Veronica continued in a faltering voice.

“Anne started to help me look for Casey and then the housekeeper came out to say there was a phone call for me.”

As he waited, she paused as if to gather together courage to face the rest of the words she had to say. The phone call that turned vague uneasiness into a stark, frightening reality.

“The voice on the other end said that he had Casey. That if I told the police or anyone else, even Anne, about this, I’d never see Casey again. He said that Casey was safe and that he wouldn’t be harmed if I did exactly as I was told. And then he said he would be in touch later with instructions.” Anger and loathing filled her voice. “He told me to be ‘a good girl’ and then the line went dead.”

“Did you recognize…?”

Again she shook her head, this time adamantly. Did he think she’d be coming to a stranger for help if she’d had the slightest suspicion about who had kidnapped her son?

“No. I’m not even sure if it was a man or a woman talking.” She saw the way he raised his brow. He probably thought she was losing her mind. Maybe she was. “The voice was tinny—metallic, like something you’d hear coming out of a robot. It didn’t even sound human.”

The kidnapper was using a synthesizer. Which could mean that she might be able to recognize the voice under ordinary circumstances, Chad thought. Or not. His habit was not to let any one thought lead him off until he’d heard everything.

“What did you tell Mrs. Sullivan when you hung up?”

Veronica shrugged vaguely. “The first thing that came into my head. That Casey’s uncle had come by and picked him up without telling anyone. That he was the one on the phone, calling to let me know.” Her eyes asked him if she’d done the right thing. “I—I didn’t want to take any chances.”

He nodded. The woman could think clearly in a crisis. He wondered how clearly. The next question that came to him came from his own past experience. “Are you and your husband together?”

Startled by the query, Veronica stared at him in silence for a second before answering. “No.”

Chad’s father had stolen him in the aftermath of what had been an ugly custody battle. His father had been denied access to his family except for a handful of holidays, and even those, Chad had later discovered, were to be under supervision. History had a nasty habit of repeating itself. “Do you have any reason to believe that your husband would take your son?”

Veronica closed her eyes, pushing away the fresh onslaught of pain. She felt like a mouse, running from corner to corner, trying to elude a cat hot on its scent and bent on swallowing it whole. She hated this feeling, hated this helplessness she was trying to conquer.

Her voice was hollow when she answered. “My husband is dead, Mr. Andreini. He died in a plane crash almost eighteen months ago. I’m a widow.”

And she hadn’t come to terms with that yet, he thought. A kernel of sympathy pushed forward. “I’m sorry.”

The words, tendered politely, still had a devastating effect on the emotional fences Veronica was desperately attempting to keep up. The last of her composure shattered.

“I don’t need you to be sorry, Mr. Andreini,” she snapped at him. “I need you to be good at your job. I need you to find my son for me before…before…”

Embarrassed by her behavior, Veronica swallowed a curse at her own frailty and at him for bringing it out. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be taking this out on you.”

“No need to be sorry, Mrs. Lancaster. I understand.”

She wished he wasn’t being kind to her. Right now she didn’t need someone being kind; she needed someone snapping at her, making her angry. Making her cope. Kindness was dissolving her resolve.

“It’s Ms. Lancaster,” she corrected him. “Lancaster’s my family name. Robert said it sounded better than his—Reinholt. He joked that maybe someday he’d change his name to mine. He was very progressive that way…”

Talking about her husband drove her over the edge of endurance. The next thing she knew, she was breaking down completely and sobbing, unable to stop.

At a loss, Chad looked at the closed door and thought of calling his sister into the office. Megan was so much better at this kind of thing than he was. She knew how to be sympathetic while he had no idea how to handle a woman’s tears. It wasn’t in his nature. Even Rusty, his brother, who had come into the firm just before he’d joined it himself was better at dealing with this than Chad was. Rusty was warm, engaging and outgoing.

Hell, they were all better at this than he was, probably even the janitor.

But they weren’t here in the room with this woman, and he was. And her sobs were tearing at his heart. He thought of leaving, of getting someone, but that was the coward’s way out and too close to abandonment, however fleeting, to suit him.

Awkwardly he took hold of her shoulders and raised Veronica to her feet. She didn’t seem to be aware that he was doing it. But the moment he did, she collapsed against him, burying her face in his chest and sobbing uncontrollably.

Chad had no choice but to stand there and hold her. And silently make her a promise. He was going to find her son no matter what it took.
Chapter 2


The scent of unfamiliar cologne nudged its way into the depths of her grief, pulling her back up to the surface. She straightened again, determined to get control of herself. Raising her head, Veronica looked up at the stranger whose arms she had just been in. Embarrassment washed over her.

He was probably used to this kind of behavior, she thought. But she wasn’t used to behaving this way and it shamed her. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me,” she said.

She’d been raised not to show emotion, he guessed. Or maybe she’d learned along the way not to in order to survive. He could understand that. It gave them something in common. What little comfort he could offer, he did.

“You’re scared and you just gave in to every single bad thought that’s hammering away at you, trying to break in.”

And, he added silently, she had every right to be scared. Any intelligent person would be. There were a lot of variables at play here. A lot of ways this could end unacceptably. But she didn’t need to hear any of them. She needed to hear something to buoy her spirits, something to hang on to. That was part of his job, too, even if it was a part that didn’t come naturally to him the way it did to Megan and Rusty.

His eyes met hers. He had silently given her his pledge. He fully intended to make good on it.

“I am here to tell you that you’re going to get your son back, Ms. Lancaster. You have my word on it.”

“Thank you.” The two small words had her entire heart behind them.

The look on her face pinned him to his promise as surely as a monarch butterfly being pinned to a bulletin board.

Chad turned away and fished out another tissue from the box on his desk. Pressing it into her hand, he waited until she wiped her eyes.

He watched Veronica as she bunched the tissue in the palm of her hand and then threw it away. He got back to his questions. “Did the kidnapper tell you when to expect the call?”

She shook her head. The investigator was probably wondering what she was doing here when the kidnapper could be calling at any moment. She indicated her purse.

“I have call-forwarding. If he calls while I’m here, it’ll come through on my cell phone.”

Sitting home, waiting without having set any wheels in motion for Casey’s recovery, would have driven her crazy. She blessed the whim of fate that had sent her to her dentist’s office with a toothache last month. It was there that she’d overheard a conversation about a kidnapping with a happy ending that had brought her to ChildFinders.

Call-forwarding. She was thinking—a good sign, Chad thought. He glanced at the tape recorder. There were still a great many questions he had to ask her. Invasive, personal questions designed to enable him to get a better picture of who Veronica Lancaster was and why this had happened. Why her child and not someone else’s, if, in reality, she had actually been singled out. He wondered how she was going to bear up.

The agency dealt with every sort of missing-child scenario. Kidnapping cases fell under a variety of headings, this one being the kind that attracted the most attention, piquing the interest of news reporters. A child held for ransom rather than snatched by a social deviate or taken to fill an emotional hole left by a child who had been lost or perhaps never even conceived. The stuff headlines were made of.

A kidnapping for money meant, at the very least, that the kidnapper was in some way familiar with his chosen target, with the family’s lifestyle, as well as their comings and goings. That it might be someone that Veronica was at least slightly acquainted with might make this case easier.

Or more difficult, he thought, depending on the circumstances.

It was his experience that familiar surroundings helped clients. “There’re still a great many questions I have to ask you,” he said. “Would you be more comfortable at home?”

“I’m not going to be comfortable anywhere, Mr. Andreini, until I get Casey safely back.”

He nodded. “I understand.”

The way he said it, she had the impression that he actually did. But how could he? How could he know what it felt like, having a son just snatched away? There one moment, gone the next without a trace. She bit her lower lip to keep from accusing him of being patronizing. He was trying to be nice. But she didn’t want nice, she wanted results. Now. Before she lost her mind.

“But I still do have more questions to ask you, Ms. Lancaster,” he was saying. “You might feel better answering them at home. And seeing Casey’s room might give me a better sense of your son.”

She didn’t want to go home. Didn’t want to walk in and know that Casey wasn’t going to be there somewhere, bedeviling Angela, her housekeeper, with his antics, winning a free and clear pardon with nothing more than his infectious laugh and a smile that lit up a room.

But he was right, this tall, solemn-eyed blond detective. She should be home. And if there was something there that helped him find Casey even a minute sooner, then it was worth the agony she knew she was going to go through.

With a nod of her head, Veronica began steeling herself for the ordeal.
The emptiness assaulted her the second she closed the door behind her. She’d never thought she’d go through anything worse than having Robert die. She was wrong. Though every part of her tried feverishly to hang on to the hope that Casey would be home soon, fear was attempting to beat her down into a deep, slick-walled pit of despair.

Turning when she didn’t follow him, Chad saw the look in her eyes. Knew the dangerous state her mind was in. Instinct had him taking her hand, as if the physical act could pull her out.

“We’ll get him back,” Chad said again, this time with more feeling than he generally employed. “You have to believe that. We are going to get him back, and whoever took him is going to pay.”

“I’m not interested in revenge.”

“Then you’re a rare woman, indeed, Ms. Lancaster. But the kidnapper is playing a dangerous game and he has to be made to pay for it.” He squeezed her hand, surprising himself with the intimate action. He usually stood on the perimeter, gathering information and doing what he was paid to do. “It’ll be all right,” he promised. “Now, why don’t you show me Casey’s room?”

With a single nod of her head, she led the way up the stairs. Without thinking, Veronica left her hand in his. It helped.

The door to Casey’s room was open. Facing west, it received the afternoon sun, which was even now spilling out into the hall. It gave the room a warmth Chad instinctively knew was part and parcel of the boy.

He took a step inside and looked around slowly. It wasn’t a huge room, but there was a great deal to take in.

Veronica hung back in the doorway, warning herself not to cry again. She’d done all the self-indulging she intended to do. Her eyes came to rest on the drawings on his bulletin board.

“He’s just a normal little boy.”

A smile in reaction to her words played on Chad’s lips despite the gravity of the situation. There was a regular computer, not a child’s version of one, on one side of the room. Stacked around it in neat piles were boxes of educational software. A fifteen-inch television set was directly across from it. The set was hooked up to, not one, but two different gaming units, one on each side. In between were hip-level bookcases with either books, games or action figures occupying every available space.

For all its paraphernalia, he had to admit that the room was the neatest child’s room he’d ever seen.

“Not hardly,” he commented under his breath. “It looks like a toy store exploded in here.”

It was a valid observation. Veronica lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I suppose I’ve spoiled him a little since his father died, but Casey doesn’t take anything for granted,” she said proudly. “I was more self-centered as a child than Casey is. There was as much joy in his eyes when he got a new action figure as when I gave him that game set.” She indicated the one closest to Chad.

He’d taken note of that one first. It was all the rage these days, according to Rusty. His younger brother had the heart of a boy and kept him abreast of what was in and what wasn’t. The gaming unit was definitely the hot item of the moment.

“I never have anything to complain about with Casey. I couldn’t have asked for a better son than if I’d ordered him directly from heaven.” Veronica found herself before the bulletin board, staring at the drawing he’d done just the other day. It was of the two of them. She had gangly legs and wayward curls, courtesy of a yellow crayon. She was holding what passed for flowers in her elongated hands. Like the flowers Casey had picked for her out of the garden, much to the gardener’s dismay. Veronica’s eyes filled with tears again. Blinking them back, she turned away before she trusted herself to look up at Chad again. “In a way, I guess I did.”

Was the boy adopted? That brought in a complete set of new possibilities if he was. A natural mother, suffering the pangs of delayed regret, could have taken Veronica’s son. The ransom aspect might be a ruse. “Come again?”

It wasn’t something she talked about, but if this man was going to find Casey, maybe he needed to know all the details. At least he needed to know how precious the boy was to her.

Taking out the thumbtack, she held the drawing to her chest. “It took me a long time to get pregnant with Casey. Five years.” Looking back, it seemed a great deal longer than that. “There were endless tests, exploratory surgery…” Her voice trailed off. Everything she’d been subjected to faded the instant she’d held her baby in her arms for the first time.

A fresh volley of panic shot through her. Veronica gripped Chad’s arm. “I can’t lose him now. I’ll give you anything you want—”

He cut her short. She had to understand that for him, for all of them at the agency, it wasn’t about money. “Standard rates, Ms. Lancaster. I put in the same amount of effort—one hundred and ten percent—into finding a lost child whether there’s a family crest or not.”

She would have traded in every last cent if it meant that Casey would never have had to go through this. It was because of who he was, who she was, that he’d been kidnapped. Children from poor families didn’t get kidnapped for ransoms.

Veronica shook her head. “No family crest.” A hint of a bittersweet smile whispered faintly across her lips. “My grandfather would probably roll over in his grave if he could hear me saying this, but that ancestor who came over on the Mayflower was an indentured servant just one voyage ahead of a hangman’s noose. He and his wife both were.”

Chad nodded as he took in the information. At least she wasn’t a snob. “The common touch.”

“Very common.”

It remained to be seen, Chad mused, if their kidnapper fell into that category.

He took his time looking through Casey’s things, trying to get a sense of the boy. He talked to Veronica as he worked. For all intents and purposes, Casey seemed like a child with above-average intelligence, a happy-go-lucky kid with eclectic taste. The action figures, arranged in a scene of combat, looked as well used as the second game set did.

What caught Chad’s attention was a framed photograph on the far end of the bookcase of Veronica on her knees, holding her son to her. He examined it, trying to envision the scene that had been taking place when the photograph was taken. They were both laughing. Veronica looked radiant.

Someone had taken her child and extinguished that light.

Veronica came up behind him. Despite the raft of photographs she had from professional sittings, the one Chad was holding was her favorite of the two of them.

“That was taken the first day of kindergarten.” She could vividly remember every detail. Casey had been torn between wanting to run off to the new adventure and wanting to remain behind with her. She’d encouraged the former and loved him dearly for the latter. “This past September,” she added for clarity.

There was a building in the background. Chad peered more closely at the photograph, trying to make out the name. It seemed vaguely familiar, and he assumed that he had passed it on one occasion or another. “What school does Casey attend?”

“Los Naranjos.”

The name clicked. Chad looked at her. “That’s a public school.”

“Yes, I know. That’s part of keeping Casey grounded and not letting him get a swelled head about who he is.”

Had that been a mistake? she wondered suddenly. Was it someone she’d encountered at the school who had planned this awful thing? Would Casey have been safer if she had sent him to a private school, where the screening process was exacting and the security was tight?

“Do you know anyone who might want to take him? Have you seen someone hanging around lately? Have you received any threatening phone calls in the last month or so? Any strange calls at all, people hanging up, that sort of thing?” Chad asked.

To each question Veronica shook her head, feeling more and more agitated. She looked at the tape recorder Chad had placed on Casey’s computer desk. The soft whirring noise was almost undetectable, especially compared to the racing of her heart. But she hated it. She’d assumed since he hadn’t instructed her to talk into it or near it that it could pick up sounds from all over the room. Like an invasive intruder. Like the intruder who had come into her world.

In an effort to gather her nerves, she took a deep breath, then let it out. “As far as I can tell, I don’t have any enemies, Mr. Andreini. There’s nobody who would want to do this to me.” She felt a flash of temper. “Don’t you think if there had been I would have reported it to the police or gotten a bodyguard?”

Hindsight, he thought. Veronica Lancaster was upbraiding herself for not having it.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be an enemy,” he said. He studied her face for a sign as he asked, “No disgruntled boyfriend trying to get even?”

“No. I don’t have time for boyfriends, Mr. Andreini.”

Chad resumed going through Casey’s things. “Chad,” he corrected without looking at her.

He hated being called Mr. Andreini. It made him think of his father. There’d been a time when he had toyed with the idea of changing his last name, severing all ties with the man who had upended his life so brutally. But in the end, because Megan and Rusty had made no effort to change their surname, Chad had dropped the idea. The name tied him more to them than to his father.

“How about your husband’s parents?” Turning, he looked at her again. “Are they still alive?”

There’d been a card at Christmas. And a generous check in lieu of a gift, which would have required time and effort on their parts. But she bore the couple no malice. It was their loss. She’d deposited the check into the account she’d started for Casey with the money from Robert’s life insurance.

“They live in Europe, Mr.—” she corrected herself “—Chad, and are frankly far more interested in their three poodles than in their only grandchild.”

She was trying hard not to show it, but he’d caught a hint of bitterness in her voice. Undoubtedly on Casey’s behalf. “Your husband was an only child?”

“He has a brother—” She stopped abruptly. She wasn’t some soft-brained person to be led from question to question without understanding the direction. “Where are you going with this?” she wanted to know. Surely he couldn’t be thinking of accusing Neil. Casey’s uncle wasn’t exactly an eager beaver when it came to doing anything meaningful with his life, but he adored the boy. “Neil dotes on him. Some monster did this.” She began to sound more like herself to her own ear. Confident. In control. “I don’t know any monsters, Chad. Can’t you get that through your head?”

She was loyal, protective. All good qualities. But at times they tended to make a person blind. He’d learned not to instantly rule out anything on faith. He had to be convinced. Still, he wasn’t about to waste time arguing, either, other than to say, “Well, some monster apparently knows you, Veronica.”

Veronica opened her mouth to respond but never got the chance.

Chad was about to suggest that she take him to the site of the party—Anne Sullivan’s house. He wanted to find out what agencies the woman had employed to supply the food and the entertainment, as well as the names of any regular household help she had. From where he stood, he was looking at all the earmarks of an inside job. This had not been a random kidnapping, but one that had been planned. Someone knew something, and it was up to him to follow whatever trails there were until he came to a scrap of information he could use. It was a little like being a rat following different paths in a maze. One of the paths had to lead to something substantial.

But before he could make the suggestion, a high-pitched, urgent ring came from the purse she was still holding.

Veronica stared down at her purse dumbly for a moment, as if the sound rendered her incapable of thought. And then the words “The kidnapper!” burst from her lips. She had forgotten to cancel call-forwarding when they’d walked into the house.

“Answer it,” Chad instructed quietly.

The urging snapped her back to the world of the functioning. Wrapping her thoughts around a fragment of a prayer, she quickly took out the cell phone, snapping back the lid as she did so. Chad motioned for her to tilt it slightly so that he could hear.

Her heart was pounding so hard she could barely breathe.

“Hello?”

A high-pitched whine preceded the first word. “Took your sweet time answering. I was beginning to think maybe you’d changed your mind about the boy and didn’t care if you got him back.”

She wanted to scream at the person on the other end, to demand the reason he was doing this to her. To Casey. It was everything she could do to keep her voice level. The only thing she could ever remember her father saying to her was never negotiate from a position of fear. The other side could always smell fear.

So she did her best to sound annoyed at the suggestion. “Yes, I want him back. I want him back very much.”

The laugh, metallic, discordant, went right through her. “I’m counting on it.”

Her eyes met Chad’s. She could feel her breathing begin to regulate. Having him here helped her cope. “What is it you want?”

“What do you think?” The sneer transcended the metallic sound.

Her father’s edict began to fade. “I’ll give you anything you want, just don’t hurt him.”

“Hey,” the voice said carelessly. “If he gets hurt, it won’t be my fault.”

A fresh wave of fear assaulted her. Holding the phone in both hands, she angled it closer to her. “What do you mean?”

Very gently Chad moved the cell phone so that they could both hear it again.

The voice on the other end said, “You’re a smart lady. You figure it out.”

“Please, no games, just tell me how much you want and where to bring it.” She disregarded the expression on Chad’s face as he shook his head.

The voice laughed again. “Oh, but I like games, Ronnie. I really do—”

The line suddenly went dead.

“Hello? Hello?” she cried frantically, her voice going up. There was no response. “Damn it, answer me!” Veronica shouted into the telephone.

Chad took the cell phone from her, placing it to his own ear. The line remained dead.

The eyes that met his were bordering on frantic. “I charged it—it can’t be dead.”

“It’s not the phone’s fault.” Chad flipped it closed again and then handed it back to her. “In all probability, he’s just playing with you.”

“Playing with me?” she echoed in stunned disbelief. “Why? Why would he do something like that?” This was about money, wasn’t it? She’d already established to her own satisfaction that it wasn’t anyone out for revenge at some slight.

“To accomplish just what he’s done,” Chad said. “To keep you off balance so you don’t start thinking and piecing things together. Things he doesn’t want you to piece together.”

“Like what?” she demanded.

“That’s what we’re going to have to find out.” He took out his own cell phone and began punching in numbers.

She was so frustrated she could scream. Panicking when she saw him take out his phone, Veronica placed her hand on the keypad. “What are you doing? You’re not calling the police, are you?”

In his estimation, having the police around, except perhaps for a chosen few individuals, was not advisable at the moment. He’d seen too much on the force he’d left behind to be blindly trusting.

“No, I’m playing a hunch.” He drew the phone away from her. “It’s what you’re paying me for,” he reminded her gently. The phone on the other end rang three times. Sam Walters, he knew, was away on a case. But his wife wasn’t. A soft voice filled his ear. “Savannah? Chad. I need a little information.” He thought he heard the sound of laughter in the background. That would be Savannah’s girls, he thought. Two very live wires who rarely slept. He didn’t know how the woman did it. “Can I get you to look up something for me on your computer?”

“If I can,” Savannah replied. “What is it you need?”

He saw Veronica looking at him, undoubtedly trying to second-guess his request. “See if there’ve been any power outages or downed phone lines anywhere between here and L.A. County and Riverside.”

Savannah’s soft laugh filled his ear. “Don’t ask for much, do you?”

“Never more than you can deliver. Call me on my cell when you find out.”

“Will do. New case?”

Savannah had come into Sam’s life when he had set out to find her missing daughter. She knew firsthand what a mother in this situation felt like. He could have used her earlier in his office when Veronica had broken down.

“Yes.”

“Tell your clients they couldn’t be in better hands. Good luck, Chad.”

He smiled. “Thanks.” Breaking the connection, he flipped the cover shut on his phone.

Veronica watched him put away his phone. She didn’t realize she was holding her breath until she spoke again and found that her lungs ached. “Now what?”

“Now I continue asking you questions.”

She wanted to be doing something. Hitting something. “But the kidnapper…”

He’d seen all he needed to in the boy’s room. Gently he escorted her out into the hallway. “He’ll call again. And we’ll be waiting for him.”

The operative word, she knew, was waiting. She didn’t know if she was going to be able to much longer.
Chapter 3


“Who calls you Ronnie?”

Veronica stopped at the head of the stairs and turned to look at Chad uncomprehendingly. “What?”

“The voice on the other end of the line called you Ronnie.” He didn’t see her as a Ronnie. Ronnies were dark-haired women who excelled in competitive sports and laughed out loud when something tickled their funny bone. The woman before him looked far too sophisticated to manage more than a small smile. “Who calls you Ronnie?” he repeated.

Her response was immediate. “Nobody.” And then she stopped, backtracking. Remembering. “Robert did. And sometimes I do—in my mind when I’m frustrated,” she added. “But nobody else does.” That wasn’t altogether true. “Except for Stephanie,” she amended. “That’s my younger sister. She was the first one to call me that when she couldn’t wrap her tongue around ‘Veronica.’” That seemed so long ago now, she thought. She found herself wishing her sister was here, instead of on the other side of the country.

She hadn’t mentioned a sister before. Getting information in dribs and drabs was not something he was unaccustomed to. “And where is your younger sister?”

Veronica could feel herself growing defensive. “In New York. She’s a curator at the Museum of Natural History. And not a candidate for suspicion.” He was wasting time looking in directions that led to dead ends.

He could almost read the thoughts crossing her mind. “I’m just trying to get a clear picture, that’s all, Veronica.”

She was vaguely aware that he’d stopped addressing her formally. “The picture is crystal clear. Someone, not my sister, not my brother-in-law, but someone,” she emphasized, “came to Andy Sullivan’s birthday party and walked off with my son.”

According to her, there had been a great many people at the party. Still, children that age did tend to shy away from people they didn’t know. “Would he go off with a stranger that easily?”

Feeling suddenly weak, Veronica leaned against the wall. She ran a hand over her pounding forehead, but the throbbing continued. The headache was nearly blinding. She should have been stricter with Casey, should have made him more wary of people.

She could feel the sting of gathering tears again and willed them back.

“I wish I could say no, but other than a phobia of clowns, Casey is the world’s friendliest kid. I’ve tried to tell him over and over again not to talk to strangers, but…” Helpless, she tried to ward off the feeling with a shrug.

That one simple gesture transformed her from a regal queen into someone who embodied vulnerability and frailty. Chad felt something distant stir within him, prompting responses that were nearly foreign to him. It made him want to comfort her.

The best comfort she could possibly have would be the recovery of her son. He pushed on. “And there’s no one else who calls you Ronnie?”

Fighting her headache, she straightened again. “No, why? Is it important?”

He shrugged noncommittally. “Might have narrowed the playing field a little. ‘Veronica’ is rather a formal name while ‘Ronnie’ is on a different, more intimate level.”

She gave a laugh, short and without humor. “Which is a polite way of saying that ‘Veronica’ sounds like a snob.”

Memories from her past, cruel ones with taunting children who took painful shyness for aloofness and used insults and gibes to make themselves feel better, surfaced. She pushed them aside. This wasn’t the time for that, or for feeling sorry for herself.

She rarely felt sorry for herself. Hadn’t felt the inclination since Robert had died. Now the emotion waited for a moment of weakness to suck her in.

“My word would have been ‘regal,’” Chad told her easily. “‘Ronnie’ sounds familiar. As if whoever’s on the line knows you.”

The idea was completely foreign to her, completely unacceptable. When she finally spoke, her voice was hollow. “I don’t know anyone who would do something like this. It’s not hard to get money from me, Mr.—Chad. I’m a soft touch.”

Soft wouldn’t be the first word he’d think of, looking at her. But it had definitely suggested itself in the first few minutes.

He studied her for a moment. “Are you?”

“Yes.” She thought of Robert. The few times they’d had words, it was over her largesse, her tendency to be taken in by every sad story, not so much because she believed it word for word, but because she hated seeing people worried over money matters. Money was there to ease suffering, not be the cause of it. Robert disagreed. “So much so that my husband took over the finances when we were married. He said that otherwise, I would single-handedly get rid of money in a decade that took three generations of Lancasters to accumulate.” She dismissed her generosity of spirit with a single disparaging sentence. “I’m a sucker for any sob story.”

He sincerely doubted if the dictionary definition of the word was applicable to her. “Funny, I wouldn’t have pegged you as a sucker.”

This time her laugh was softer. She raised her eyes to his, surprised he could make a kind assessment. He looked very hard to her. As if nonsense was something he hadn’t even a nodding acquaintance with. “Which just goes to show that appearances are deceiving.”

His point exactly. “Right. I want you to remember that.”

She felt like someone who’d fallen into a trap without seeing any of the telltale signs. “Meaning?”

“Meaning that someone around you might have decided that a handout wasn’t enough. They realized that they now want the whole hand.” He studied her face, watching for any giveaway. “Know anyone like that?”

That same defensive feeling rose again, higher this time. She refused to believe what he was telling her. Veronica had spent years building up her confidence, convincing herself that there were people who wanted things from her other than just her money. That they were satisfied with her company.

She raised her chin defiantly, her eyes daring him to prove her wrong. “No.”

She was lying, he thought, and wondered why. Was she reluctant to reveal something to him because he was an outsider? It wouldn’t be the first time. Hiring a private investigator was a mixed bag. You were asking a stranger for help in exchange for money. Along with that money, you were being forced to bare your soul, something that didn’t come easily to most people. Certainly not in times of crisis.

Chad took no offense. He was accustomed to being on the outside. It had become his personal niche over the years, standing on the far side of everything. It made him an observer. And good at his job.

He pushed a little. “I’m on your side, Veronica,” he reminded her. “If there’s someone you think you’re protecting…”

“Why in heaven’s name would I hire you and then try to protect someone?”

It wasn’t so farfetched. Megan had had a case where the kidnapper had turned out to be the ex-husband. His wife, their client, had gone on defending him to the end. Chad fixed Veronica with a long look. “I don’t know. That’s for you to tell me.”

“I’m not. Protecting anyone,” she added after a beat. “You have to believe me, nothing and no one means as much to me as my little boy.” Veronica waved her hand around the well-lit hall with its collection of paintings that could easily have been housed in a museum. “I’d give up everything in a blink of an eye to have him back unharmed. As for protecting anyone…”

Veronica stopped for a moment. She pressed her lips together, debating. Her eyes slid over the photograph she still held in her hand. The one that Chad was going to have copied to show to people. Casey’s photograph. The scale tipped.

There was fresh resolve in her eyes when she looked up at him. “I know several people with cash-flow problems and one person who is being blackmailed.”

Blackmail. Someone being blackmailed could turn desperate. Discreetly pressing the record button on the tape recorder in his jacket pocket, he took out a pencil and began to write on a fresh page in his notepad. “I’m going to need names.”

Second thoughts sprang up. She didn’t want to put anyone through more than they were already enduring. “None of them would take Casey. They wouldn’t have to. I’m a very loyal friend, Chad.” If she had it, she’d give it. The word no was not in her vocabulary when it came to money.

“I’ve no doubt you are.” Somewhere in the back of his mind, he entertained the thought that it might be nice to have a friend like Veronica in his corner. If he was ever in a position to need friends. Which he wasn’t. His job required a certain amount of networking, but that was apart from the concept of friends. He even kept his distance from Sam and Cade, as well as Megan and Rusty, although he was as close to them as he was to anyone. “Your loyalty isn’t in question here, but as a rule, people can do some very ugly things when they find their back pressed to the wall. Ugly things even they wouldn’t dream themselves capable of.” She was wavering.

He could see it. “Let’s start with the blackmailing victim.”

Veronica sighed, giving up the name. “Erica Saunders.”

He wrote it down. “Does Erica know who’s blackmailing her?”

Veronica shook her head. “It’s being done over the computer.”

Chad shook his head. “Ah, the benefits of technology.” He’d settle for an old-fashioned typewriter any day. He looked down at Veronica. “What is she being blackmailed for?”

She hesitated, but knew it was useless to keep silent. She’d already given up Erica’s name. “She had a fling with someone on a vacation she took.”

So far, that didn’t sound like anything to try to hide. There had to be more to the story. “And?”

Veronica felt as if she was betraying a trust. She looked away. “And she has a jealous husband. A very jealous older husband. At first she could manage the money, but now…” She spread her hands wide, imitating a gesture Erica had used when she finally broke down in her living room and told her story.

“And she came to you.”

“No, actually I went to her. I dropped by and found her with a gun in her hand. Her husband’s gun.” Veronica looked at Chad, leaving the rest unsaid. “She told me because she knew I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

And now that she was, it was eating away at her, he thought. But there were more important things at stake than Veronica’s conscience. “Think of me as a priest. And remember Casey.”

Did he think she needed to be reminded? “I can’t think of anything else.” She looked around him at the telephone in the hallway. There were phones in all the rooms. Silent phones. “Don’t you think they should be calling back by now?” She could feel herself beginning to battle hysteria again. “How long does it take to get to a telephone?”

If downed lines had prompted the abrupt disconnection, that depended on how wide the affected area was. “Maybe the grid failure is widespread. Not everyone has a cell phone.” He saw her look at hers. “And even if they do, they’d be fools to use it.”

“Why?”

“Highly traceable.” He got back to the list. So far, there was only one name on it. She’d made it sound as if there were more. “Anybody else putting the touch on you? You mentioned several people with cash-flow problems.”

This time the hesitation was longer. He could see that her nerves were getting the better of her again, chewing away at her fragile hold on sanity as she stared at the telephone.

“My brother-in-law,” she finally said.

Since she didn’t elaborate, he made a guess. “Sister’s husband?”

She looked at him, realizing that she’d momentarily drifted off. She had to keep focused. “No, Robert’s younger brother.” She saw a look come into Chad’s eyes. He obviously suspected Neil again. “He made some investments. They’re not doing too well now…” At least, that was the story he’d given her when he’d asked her for a “loan.” But he was family, and she could no more turn him away than she could dance on the moon. “He has a trust fund, but he can’t access enough to—”

“Trust fund?” As far as he knew, trust funds were for children. “Just how old is your brother-in-law?”

“Twenty-five. No, he just turned twenty-six.” Not that the extra year had brought any extra wisdom to Neil. He was one of those people forever destined to be a boy trapped in a man’s body. “His father didn’t feel that he was capable of handling the money he inherited from his grandmother sensibly.” Robert had shared that opinion, she recalled.

“Father knows best,” Chad murmured, turning a page and continuing to make more notes.

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, it struck him how utterly ironic the phrase was, coming from him. In his case, father hadn’t known best. Father had known only how to inflict torment on all those around him. And on some who were far away.

He returned to the empty space above the information. “What did you say your brother-in-law’s name was?”

“Neil. Neil Reinholt.”

The name was vaguely familiar. Something about an overnight stay in jail and a party that had gotten out of hand. He made a mental note to do a great deal of checking into Reinholt’s past. “Anyone else?”

There were a few more minor loans here and there, but nothing on the level she’d given Erica and Neil. She shook her head. “Nothing of consequence.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.” When the cell phone rang, she nearly jumped out of her skin. He placed his hand on her arm automatically, as if that could somehow calm her down and reassure her. “That’s mine, not yours.” Hand still on her arm, he dug into his pocket and pulled out his phone. With a snap of his wrist, he flipped the cover open. “Andreini.”

“Are you anywhere near a television set?”

It was Savannah. The lady was quick. He glanced toward Casey’s room. “Close enough, why?”

“Flip on any channel,” she told him. “The story’s all over the news. They’re cutting into the local programming to make the announcement.” She saved him the trouble of having to watch. Sam had told her how much Chad hated to have things dragged out. “A truck swerved and catapulted off the 405 freeway overpass into some telephone lines. Lines are down through Newport Beach, Bedford and parts of Santa Ana and Tustin. They’re not sure how long it’s going to take to have them up and running again.”

Newport Beach, Tustin, Bedford and Santa Ana. That encompassed a pretty sizable area.

Turning on his heel as Veronica watched, Chad made his way back to Casey’s room and switched on the television set. The next moment, an earnest-looking young Asian-American woman dressed in a mint-green suit came on, her words captured mid-sentence as she went over the details of what Savannah had just told him.

“…and there’s no telling just how long this will continue. Local crews are out en masse, trying to rectify the damage. Stay tuned to Channel Six news for up-to-the-minute coverage of this story…”

He’d heard all he needed to know. “Thanks, Savannah.”

“Anytime. Anything else?”

He looked down at the notepad he was still holding. “As a matter of fact—” Flipping back the page, Chad glanced at the names he’d written down. “—I want you to see what you might come up with on an Erica Saunders.” He saw Veronica’s eyes widen and then annoyance enter as she placed her hand over the pad.

“Emergency or faster?” Savannah was asking.

He drew the pad away from Veronica. “The latter.” He shoved the pad into his jacket pocket for the moment. “You’re the best.”

He heard her laugh on the other end. “So I keep reminding Sam.”

“If he can’t remember that on his own, I’ll remind him for you.”

“It’s a deal. Call you when I have something.”

“Thanks.” Chad flipped his cell phone cover down, then tucked the phone back into his pocket. He read the wariness in Veronica’s eyes. “We’re all discreet at ChildFinders, Veronica. Mrs. Saunders’s husband isn’t going to find out a thing—and we might.”

It was asking too much for her to believe that her best friend had had Casey kidnapped. Erica was his godmother, for heaven’s sake. “I refuse to believe that Erica could be capable of—”

He cut her short. “No offense, Veronica, but you would be surprised what your friend might be capable of.” His gaze pinned her. “What even you might be capable of, under the right circumstances. Anyone looking at you would say you were too delicate to kill someone.”

She thought of the shiver that had gone through her just touching the gun that Erica had held in her hands. “What are you—?”

“But in the right situation,” he continued as if he hadn’t heard her protest, “say, defending your son, you might be capable of just that.”

She knew he was right. To keep Casey safe, she would do anything, including kill someone. “Why are you trying to deliberately shake me up?”

It wasn’t to see that look in her eyes, although it did make her appear wildly vibrant, instead of gracefully refined. “Because I need you to be aware of things, Veronica. And I want you to tell me the truth. About everything,” he stressed. “No holding back for whatever reason. This is a puzzle…”

A puzzle? Did he take this to be just another game to challenge himself with? A game with a fat check as a prize at the end? “This is my son’s life,” she said to him hotly.

Chad’s voice remained calm. “This is a puzzle,” he repeated, trying to make his point, “in which even the smallest piece might trigger us to see the larger whole. I want and need every small piece you can get your hands on, so to speak. It’s important,” he said, his eyes never leaving hers. “We’ll just sit here and go over everything you can think of—until the phone rings again,” he added, knowing that was foremost in her mind.

She swallowed and found that her throat was completely dry. Veronica put her fears into words. “And if it doesn’t ring?”

No chance of that happening, he thought. “You’re lucky, Veronica. The kidnapper is not after your son as a keepsake. Casey hasn’t been selected because someone is trying to line their pockets by selling kids, or because some mentally unbalanced person thinks he’s her son brought back to life. Whoever took Casey just wants your money. The phone’ll ring,” he assured her with conviction that came from instinct and years of training.

He looked at the room they had already left once. This wasn’t the best place to conduct the rest of his questioning, he thought. Just being here pained her. It would be best if he got her downstairs on more neutral territory.

He indicated the hallway. “I’d love a cup of coffee.”

Training returned to her. Veronica pressed her lips together and nodded. “Angela’s gone for the day, but I think I can manage a cup of coffee.” She turned toward the doorway.

He followed immediately behind her. “Angela?”

“My housekeeper.”

There’d been no one in the house when they arrived. He assumed that the housekeeper didn’t live in. That would make it easier for the woman if she was behind this. “How long has she been with you?”

“Since I married Robert. Ten years,” Veronica added when she realized Chad was still waiting for a number.

He stopped at the bottom of the landing to jot down the woman’s connection. “What’s her last name?”

“Evans.” She watched him write it down. “You can’t possibly suspect Angela.”

Chad fixed her with a long, studying look. “Yes,” he replied quietly, “I can. I can suspect anyone. I’m a very distrusting person, Veronica. It’s what makes me good at what I do.”

She saw the merit in that, but knew how it could interfere with the rest of his life. “How do you turn that off?”

The answer was short, succinct. “I don’t.”

For the first time she looked at him as something other than an investigator. “Doesn’t that make things difficult for you?”

He smiled, knowing where she was going with her question. “I don’t dabble in those kind of things,” he answered. “My work keeps me very busy. There isn’t time for anything else.”

She’d heard that excuse before. It was one she’d given herself. Before Robert had come along.
Chapter 4


Her heart leaped to her throat when she heard the ringing sound again just as she reached the bottom of the stairs. It had her grabbing for her cell phone even though the ring was different from her own. Hope made her irrational.

“It’s mine again,” Chad told her, slipping out his phone and opening it. It was too soon for Savannah to be getting back to him, he thought. Even Savannah wasn’t this fast.

The call was from Rusty and had nothing to do with the business at hand. Chad could tell by his brother’s unusually subdued voice that something was not right with the universe. His younger brother was ordinarily one of those people who needed no excuse to be genuinely happy. His exuberance was missing.

“Chad, do you have any free time tonight?”

Chad glanced at Veronica before answering. He intended to wait with her until the call came through from the kidnapper. There was no way of gauging how long that would be. Under normal circumstances, he would finish asking his questions and then return to the office where he’d begin a methodical investigation. But the kidnapper’s aborted call, whether intentional and merely aided and abetted by the power failure, or accidental, had left Veronica hanging. He wasn’t about to walk away from her until she heard the actual demand.

Turning away, he lowered his voice. “I don’t know yet. Why, what’s up?”

“I’m not sure,” Rusty replied. “But I don’t think you want me to talk about it on the phone. Give me a call when you’re available.”

Chad’s curiosity was mildly aroused. There were no real question marks in his personal day-to-day existence. His life was spartan-like. Outside of his cases, he had very little going on. He got together occasionally with his brother and sister, and even less often with the other three men in the firm, Cade Townsend, Sam Walters and Ben Underwood.

It wasn’t that he was antisocial; he was just self-contained. His job was to reunite parents with their children. He had no place in that sphere once his work was done, and now three of his partners, including Megan, had life partners of their own. He didn’t fit in.

“You okay?” he asked. He knew that when it came to himself, Rusty never liked to complain. Which was why when he’d had appendicitis, they had barely gotten him to the hospital in time.

There was a slight hesitation, followed quickly by an overcompensated assurance. “Me? Oh yeah, I’m fine.”

Chad took it at face value. “Then I’ll call you when I can.” With that, Chad flipped his cell phone closed.

She was looking at him with hungry eyes, hoping for a scrap. “Was that about—?”

He cut her off before she continued to work herself up. “No, that was a personal call.”

The tight-lipped way he said it told Veronica that was as much information as she was going to get on the subject. It wasn’t that she wanted to pry into his affairs. It was just that she was desperate for a distraction, any distraction, until the kidnapper finally got back to her. But the phone in her hand remained silent. She looked at it accusingly.

“About that coffee,” he prodded gently, taking her elbow.

The words made her snap back into her surroundings. “Right. Coffee.”

Veronica looked vaguely toward the rear of the house. She was seriously beginning to doubt she remembered how to make coffee. Or how to find her way to the kitchen.

She managed both.

Moving woodenly, she pulled out two cups, one for him and one for herself. When the coffee was finally ready, she poured them with a hand she was struggling to keep from shaking. Taking a seat opposite Chad at the kitchen table, she held on to her cup with both hands as if she secretly hoped it was a way of channeling the kidnapper, forcing him to make the call.

But nothing rang. She sincerely hoped that the downed phone lines were not making the kidnapper angry. What if he took that anger out on Casey?

What if…?

She forced herself not to go there. Not to think. Instead, she stared into her china cup, watching how the overhead light skimmed along the inky surface of her untouched coffee.

“Have you been at this long?” She tried to make herself sound as if she was interested in the response, but her voice sounded dull to her own ear.

Chad leaned back in his chair. He tried to remember if he’d ever seen anyone with skin paler than hers. She looked as if the slightest thing would set her off. He debated asking if there were any mild tranquilizers in her medicine cabinet she could take. His mother’s medicine cabinet had always been full of them. Different prescriptions from different doctors all with the same mission: to make her forget her pain.

Chad decided, for the time being, not to ask. Still studying her, he set down his cup. “Investigation in general or recovering lost children?”

Lost. The word echoed back at her, mocking her. Lost. As if she’d misplaced Casey somewhere like a sweater that had been absently shed. Casey wasn’t lost—he was stolen.

She lifted one shoulder, then let it drop. The smile was minimal, but genuine as her eyes met his. “Take your pick. I probably won’t remember what you say, anyway,” she added in a flash of bare honesty.

He liked the lack of pretense. There was nothing he valued more than honesty. And nothing, he knew, that was rarer. Chad took a long sip before answering. The coffee could have been better. He doubted anyone ever complimented Veronica Lancaster on her coffee-making skills.

“I was on the police force for five years.” He paused, taking another sip. “Being with ChildFinders suits me better. It’s a focus.”

The word hit her wrong, snapping her tenuous hold on overly frayed nerves. “That’s all it is to you? A focus?”

She had a right to rail. He took no offense. She was going through hell. If shouting at him helped her, it was all part of the job. “A very good, rewarding focus. We have an amazing success record. It’s an unbroken streak.”

“Yes, I know.” Her mouth was so dry she could hardly get the words out. What was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she remain in control for more than a few minutes at a time? “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

He waved away the apology. There was no need to compound her frustration with embarrassment. “That’s okay.”

She nodded her thanks, then sighed as she set down the untouched cup. “You know what they say about streaks.”

Yes, he knew what they said. That streaks ended. It was inevitable. Everything ended eventually. But she needed hope, not reality, with its pessimistic bent.

Chad placed his hand on her wrist, drawing her eyes to his. “This one won’t end here.” He needed to get her mind occupied. “Can you give me a list of people who were at the party?”

She blew out a breath, struggling to lift the fog from her brain. “A partial one.”

He turned his pad to a clean page. “Go ahead.” She gave him six names, then hit a wall. “No problem,” he assured her. “I can get the rest from Mrs. Sullivan.”

Terror leaped into her eyes. He couldn’t say anything to arouse suspicion. Common sense warred with fear. “He said not to tell anyone.”

“He meant anyone official. Police, FBI. That’s all kidnappers ever worry about.” He saw she was unconvinced. “We can start out by telling your friend that you want to hire the same caterers and entertainers for a party for Casey.” That had a drawback. “But if she knows your son dislikes clowns…”

Veronica nodded, understanding. “Do whatever you think is best. Just get me my son back.”

He made a couple of more notes to himself, ideas that had just occurred to him. “That goes without saying.”

“But I want you to keep saying it. Keep saying it until he’s here.” Maybe if she kept repeating it, if he kept repeating it, then it would happen.

She realized that she’d reverted back to one of her old childish beliefs. If you believed hard enough in something, it would happen.

“I’m sorry. You probably feel like you’re baby-sitting an overgrown child.”

“Nothing to apologize for. You’re going through hell and you need to believe that heaven’s waiting for you.”

That was one way to put it, she thought.

The doorbell rang, cutting off her breath. On her feet so quickly that she upset both her coffee cup and her chair, Veronica left both where they fell. She ran to the front door with Chad only half a step behind her.

He knew what she was thinking. That somehow Casey had eluded his kidnapper and found his way back home. Hadn’t that been what had actually happened with him? The only difference was that he hadn’t known it at the time. He hadn’t realized that he was leaving his kidnapper behind. All he’d known was that he’d walked out on his father when the man had been too drunk to realize what was happening.

But cases like his were not common. This kidnapping was entirely different from his own. There was no mentally unbalanced ex-husband in the wings waiting for his chance.

The motive was ransom, he reminded himself, pure and simple.

Except that there was never anything pure or simple about kidnapping.

Chad reached the door ahead of her, his legs being longer. She looked at him in surprise when he placed his hand over the doorknob. “I’ll take it from here,” he told her. Just in case.

Hand near the weapon he always carried on his person, Chad opened the door. He saw a casually dressed, dark-haired man of medium build slouching more than standing on the doorstep. Beside the man was a woman who looked far too flashy for him. She was half a head taller than he was, wearing jeans and a tight aqua sweater, and his hand around her waist.

The man’s expression turned from openly genial to confused as he looked up at Chad, who was a good five inches taller.

A very faint whiff of alcohol floated in. The man peered through the doorway. “Veronica?”
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