Her Stolen Son


Her Stolen Son

Guardian Angel Investigations Series

Her Stolen Son

A little boy hired a brooding detective to bring his mother home…and then the child disappeared.

Detective Colt Mason’s latest “client” was impossible to resist. Not only was he just five years old, his teary-eyed pleas to prove his mother was innocent of murder pulled at Colt’s hard to reach heartstrings. But before he could investigate, the child disappeared without a trace. Now, with Serena Stover desperate to find her son and clear her name, Colt took one look at the beautiful widow and knew this little family would change his life forever. As the search intensified, Colt unearthed a far-reaching— and deadly— conspiracy, making him more determined than ever to solve this case and keep his promise that Serena’s smile would return when she was reunited with her little boy.

“Mister, will you get my mommy out of jail?”

Colt Mason glanced up from his desk at Guardian Angel Investigations and stared at the dark-haired little boy, surprised at his request.

He was probably what, five or six years old?

“I don’t gots a lot of money,” the boy said, then hoisted the piggy bank he held in his arms onto Colt’s desk. The change inside clanged and rattled as he shoved it toward Colt. “But you can have it all if you’ll help me.”

Colt grimaced. The last thing he wanted was the boy’s savings.

Besides, the kid’s eyes were red and swollen from crying, and he was breathing hard as if he’d been running.

Where had he been running from?

“Why don’t you sit down, son, and let me get you some water. Then you can tell me who you are and what’s going on.”

The boy slid into a chair, his shoulders hunched. Colt stepped from his office into the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of water, brought it back and handed it to him.

The kid’s big brown eyes studied Colt warily, but he took the water, unscrewed the lid then took a long drink. Finally he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and sighed. “My name is Petey Stover. My mommy said people here help kids. And she’s in trouble so I come here.” Petey pointed to the nameplate on Colt’s desk. “You gots the name of a gun.”

“Yeah, I do.” Colt fought a small smile. “Now, tell me what happened, Petey. How did your mother end up in jail?”

Worry tightened Petey’s bowlike mouth. “Last night my mommy had a date with this man named Mr. Lyle. But he pushed Mommy against the fireplace, and then he grabbed her neck.” Petey gulped and Colt noticed his hands shake. “I didn’t like him hurting her.”

Cole clenched his jaw. “I wouldn’t like that either. What happened next?”

“She stomped on his foot and kicked him in the? you know—” he pointed to his private parts “—where it hurts.”

Colt barely resisted a smile. “Yes, I know. Then what?”

“I tried to pull him away ’cause now Daddy’s gone I’m the man of the house.” Another deep breath and he squared his small shoulders as if to prove he was a man. “But he knocked me down on the floor.”

Anger made Colt grip the chair edge. “He hit you?”

Petey nodded. “Then my mommy got the fire poker and yelled at him to leave.”

Colt narrowed his eyes. “Did your mother hit him with the fire poker?”

“No.” Petey took another swig of water. “She acted like she would though ’cause she was scared. Then the man got mad and said she’d be sorry.”

Colt wouldn’t have blamed the woman if she had killed the bastard. “What did he do then?”

“He gives her a mean look but he left.” Petey sighed. “So Mommy and I wents to bed. But this morning when I was eatin’ cereal, the sheriff came and he said Mommy killed that mean Mr. Lyle, and they taked Mommy away. And this lady with big orange hair took me to kid jail.”

Colt’s head was reeling. “Kid jail?”

Petey pointed toward the door. “To that big spooky house down the street.”

Ah, Magnolia Manor, the orphanage. DFAC had obviously gotten involved.

“But I runned away when they went in for lunch, cause I don’t wanna stay in jail, and Mommy shouldn’t be there either.” He squared his little shoulders. “Jail is for bad people, and my mommy is good. She didn’t kill nobody.”

Colt took a moment to process the situation. “Where’s your father, Petey?”

Petey looked down at his hands where they clenched the water bottle. “He was a policeman, but he got shot and he died.”

Poor boy. And now his mother had been arrested.

Petey’s chin quivered as he looked back up at Colt. “Will you get her out, Mr. Colt?”

Colt stood. He didn’t know if the woman was innocent or guilty but he wanted more details on the matter. “Let me talk to her and we’ll see.”

Petey jumped off the chair. “Then let’s go.”

Colt knelt beside the boy. He wasn’t a babysitter. Hell, he didn’t know much about kids at all.

In fact, he’d screwed up bad when he’d been left in charge of his own brother?.

But how could he refuse this little boy? “Petey, I’m sorry, bud, but the sheriff won’t allow children in the jail. One of my friends will stay with you here while I talk to your mom. All right?”

“You won’t send me back to kid jail?” Petey touched his arm, his voice pleading.

Colt winced. Petey’s hands were tiny, just like the rest of him. Yet he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.

He’d been fifteen when he’d lost his own dad and he’d felt that weight on his shoulders. A few months later, he’d failed and lost his brother, too.

Petey was nowhere near that age. Still, he couldn’t lie to the child. He would have to call Magnolia Manor sooner or later. “Let me talk to your mom and then we’ll make a plan.”

Petey nodded, his trusting acceptance sending a streak of guilt through Colt. Still, he went to get Derrick. Derrick could phone Brianna at the manor and smooth things over. She must be frantic.

He hurried to Gage’s office, pausing at Derrick’s to ask him to join them.

“What’s going on?” Gage asked.

“This little boy just came into my office asking for my help. His name is Petey Stover.”

Gage switched on the TV in the corner. “His mother was arrested. It’s all over the news.”

Colt watched as the special news story aired.

“This morning, Serena Stover, wife of former police officer Parker Stover of the Raleigh Police Department, was arrested for the murder of a man named Lyle Rice. Rice was supposedly killed at his home, but police have yet to recover the body. However, evidence quickly led the sheriff to Serena Stover’s door.”

The camera zeroed in on Sheriff Gray handcuffing and escorting an attractive woman with long, curly, copper-colored hair from her home. She was arguing and protesting, trying to break free to reach her little boy.

Petey was crying and kicking and shouting, determined to wrestle away from the deputy who was hauling him toward another vehicle. A woman Colt assumed to be the social worker was trying to soothe the boy, to no avail.

The camera panned back to Serena as the sheriff pushed her into the back of his squad car. Tears streaked her big eyes as she turned and watched her son beating on the window, screaming her name.

Colt’s gut clenched.

“As you can see,” the reporter continued, “the arrest quickly became an emotional scene. However, the sheriff feels he has sufficient evidence and motive to move forward.”

The camera panned back inside to focus on the crime scene. Massive amounts of blood stained the bedroom floor, and the sheets were blood splattered, one corner dragging the floor. A crime scene tech lifted the corner to reveal more blood.

In fact, Serena’s name had been spelled in blood on the wood floor.

“Police believe that Rice scribbled his killer’s name in his own blood before he died,” the news reporter continued. “More on this story as it develops.”

“That’s not good,” Gage said.

“If Serena killed Rice and got rid of the body, why wouldn’t she have cleaned up?” Colt asked with a frown. “Besides, she sure as hell wouldn’t have left her name there for the police to finger her.”

“Maybe she was in a hurry and didn’t see it,” Gage suggested. “The name was covered by the sheet.”

Colt shrugged, questions nagging at him.

“Petey was taken to Magnolia Manor, Derrick,” Colt said. “Will you let Brianna know he’s here and safe?”

Derrick nodded. “She’s probably frantic. I’ll call her right now.” Derrick stepped from the office to make the call.

Gage drummed his fingers on the desk. “This isn’t our usual kind of case.”

“I know,” Colt said. But something about the poor kid and that emotional scene had gotten to him. “The boy is so upset, though. And his story made sense. I’d like to at least talk to the woman.”

Gage hesitated, then gave a nod. “All right. But be careful. And don’t make an enemy of the sheriff. So far, he’s cooperated with us on other cases. I’d like to keep it that way.”

Colt agreed and headed back to Petey. He’d be civil to Sheriff Gray, but if he thought the man was wrong about Serena, he wouldn’t hesitate to rattle some cages.

There was no way he’d sit by and let him railroad a single mother away from her child if she was innocent.

Serena stared at the ink on her fingertips, still stunned that she had been arrested, fingerprinted and was locked in a cell.

Not that it was the first time. But she’d thought her juvenile record was sealed.

She had to get out. The first chance she had, she’d make a break for it. Then she’d find Petey and get him and run.

What kind of life would that be for him, Serena? Hiding out, always making up new names, always afraid?.

No, she couldn’t do that to her son.

Poor little Petey. He’d been through so much the last two years. His father’s murder. Their move to Sanctuary because she’d wanted a nice small town where they could both heal. And they both had started to heal.

Then her friend from work had encouraged her to start dating. A huge mistake.

Lyle Rice had been a charmer at first, then turned into a snake. When the arrogant animal had pushed Petey, she had wanted to kill him. But she hadn’t, dammit.

And she couldn’t run either. She’d given up that life when she’d married Parker. She’d vowed to give Petey a more stable life than she’d had?

Footsteps pounded, the shadow of movement in the hall indicating the sheriff or his deputy had returned. She’d requested her phone call, but the truth was, she didn’t even know the name of a good lawyer to call.

Of course, the state would give her a public defender, but she’d had one of those before and that had ended with her in a juvenile facility.

Suddenly the sheriff appeared, along with a broad-shouldered man with hair as black as coal and eyes just as black. He looked powerful, lethal even, with a strong, square jaw and arms that were as big as her legs.

Definitely an alpha guy who was accustomed to being in control. And judging from his short haircut, muscular physique, that laser-intense look and the tattoo on his arm, he was former military.

Either that or a hardened criminal.

Her stomach pitched. Surely, the sheriff wasn’t going to lock him in the cell with her.

“Ms. Stover,” Sheriff Gray said. “You have a visitor.”

Serena crossed her arms, confused. Frightened. Wary.

Who was this man and what did he want with her? Remembering her husband’s horror stories about how

devious police interrogation tactics could be, she braced herself. She had to be careful.

He might be here to trap her into giving a confession.

Chapter Two

Serena adopted a brave face. “Who are you?”

“My name is Colt Mason. I’m a detective with GAI, Guardian Angel Investigations.”

Serena frowned, confused even more. “I don’t understand. Why do you want to talk to me?”

“It’s about your son, Petey,” Colt said gruffly.

Serena’s mouth went dry, the room swirled around her, and she reached for the bars to steady herself to keep from passing out. Today had been too much, and if something had happened to Petey.

The sound of the cell opening registered, the men murmuring something indiscernible in low voices. Colt gripped her arm and led her to the cot by the wall. Her legs buckled, and she sank onto it, then leaned over, the room spinning in a dizzying circle.

“It’s all right. Take a deep breath, Serena,” Colt said in a low voice. “Then another.”

His soothing tone brought a flood of tears. Angrily she brushed at them and inhaled, determined to regain control. She had to know what had happened to her son. But when she tried to speak, nausea rose to her throat.

The sheriff returned, then Colt pressed a cold cloth against the back of her neck.

Dammit. She needed to be strong. But she’d lost Parker. She couldn’t lose Petey. And that blasted woman had promised to take care of him.

Clawing for control, she jerked her head up, removed the cloth from her neck and tossed it aside. Colt Mason was staring at her with those intense black eyes again as if he was trying to see into her mind and soul. Maybe even her heart.

She wouldn’t let anyone there, not ever again.

Besides, he was probably trying to judge whether she was a killer.

“Where’s my son?” She clutched his shirt. “Is he hurt?”

“Petey is fine,” Colt said. “He’s at my office.”

“What? I thought that social worker took him to a foster home.”

Colt covered her hands with his and peeled her fingers loose. “She dropped him off at Magnolia Manor, but as soon as the children went inside for lunch, he bolted and ran down to GAI. Apparently you told him that some nice men there helped children.”

Relief mushroomed inside Serena, and she found herself hanging on to his hands. Caution told her not to trust him, but the fact that she had used those exact words with Petey made her relax slightly.

“You have fifteen minutes,” Sheriff Gray interjected.

Colt nodded to the sheriff, and he strode back to the front of the jail.

“He must be so scared,” she whispered. “Are you sure he’s okay?”

“I’m certain.” Colt hesitated, an awkward second passing as he released her hands. “Do you feel better now?”

She nodded, searching his strong face for the truth. This man looked hard, cold, forceful, as if he’d seen the worst in humans and was trying to figure out where she stood on the pendulum, if he should be protecting her son from her. That suspicious look cut through her like a knife. “You scared me to death. When you said GAI, I thoughts”

“That he’d been kidnapped,” Colt said darkly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. Petey is in my office. One of the other agents, Derrick McKinney, is staying with him. His wife, Brianna, works at Magnolia Manor where the social worker took Petey.”

“So you’ll send him back there?”

“We have to follow the law, but Brianna is a great lady,” Colt said. “She has a son of her own, and loves those kids. Trust me, she’ll be like a second mother to him.”

He obviously meant to make her feel better, but rage churned through Serena at the thought of anyone else taking care of her son.

“Petey should be with me.” She scanned her bleak surroundings. Concrete floor, dingy concrete wall covered in graffiti. Scratchy, faded wool blanket on top of a cot with a mattress so thin the springs bore into her. “And I shouldn’t be here. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Colt’s gaze scrutinized her. “Petey told me a little bit about what happened,” Colt said. “But I’d like to hear your version.”

Serena hesitated, doubts creeping in. “Do you have some ID?”

The Missing Twin


The Missing Twin

Guardian Angel Investigations Series

The Missing Twin


Detective Caleb Walker had taken on some tough cases for Guardian Angel Investigations, but when Madelyn Andrews came to him, claiming that her five-year-old daughter was able to “communicate” with her twin sister who’d never made it home from the hospital, Caleb was skeptical. One glimpse at the beautiful single mother, though, and he couldn’t walk away. Now, as he looked into what had really happened when Madelyn went into labor, suspicious details were uncovered. Details that prompted Madelyn to cling to him as pain consumed her. And the deeper he dug, the more invested Caleb became in their tiny family, in their safety when danger penetrated their lives—and in their salvation when he promised to bring a little girl home…

Emotionally gripping, quickly paced, and littered with bodies, this latest addition to Herron’s “Guardian Angel Investigations” series features a complex plot, a cast of likable characters—including a pint-sized charmer—a fragrant hint of the South, and a heartwarming sense of family. A satisfying hair-raiser with a gentle psychic touch. ~ Kristin Ramsdell, Library Journal

THE MISSING TWIN (4.5) A slick plot combined with riveting characters and unyielding suspense make Herron’s latest a star attraction for fans. ~ Reviewed By: Pat Cooper, RT

Fear clogged five-year-old Sara Andrews’s throat. She could see her twin sister running from the old wooden house, stumbling down the porch steps, crying as she raced toward the woods.

“Help me,” Cissy cried. “He’s gonna hurt Mommy!”

The wind whistled, shaking the trees. Leaves swirled and rained down. A dog howled in the distance.

Then thunder boomed.

No, not thunder.

It was the big, hulking man storming down the steps. “Cissy!” the monster bellowed. “Come back here.”

He slapped at the branches with his beefy fists, moving so fast he was nearly on top of her. Then he lunged for her.

Cissy screamed and darted to the right, running, running, running into the darkness?.

The monster reached a pawlike hand toward her and snatched her jacket. Cissy screamed again, stumbled and fell to the ground. But her jacket slid off in the man’s hands, and he cursed.

Sweat slid down Sara’s temple. Her heart was pounding so loud she could hear it beating in her ears. “Get up,” Sara whispered. “Get up and run, Cissy.”

As if Cissy heard her, she took a deep breath, grabbed a fistful of dirt and hurled it at the man.

The dust sprayed his eyes and he cursed, then swung one fist toward Cissy. Cissy dodged the blow, pushed herself to her hands and knees and stood. Tree branches cracked. The wind screeched.

The monster roared and dove for her.

“No!” Sara cried. “Run, Cissy, run.”

Tears streamed down her sister’s cheeks as Cissy tried to run, but the monster yanked her by the hair and dragged her back toward the house.

“Help me!” Cissy cried. “Please, help me!”

“No!” Sara screamed. “Let her go?.”

Madelyn Andrews raced toward her daughter’s bedroom, her lungs tightening at the sound of her daughter’s terrified sobs. Outside, the wind roared off the mountain and sleet pelted the window, reminding her that a late winter storm raged around the small town of Sanctuary, North Carolina.

Shivering with the cold, she threw open the door, flipped on the sunflower lamp Sara had begged for and crossed the distance to her little girl’s bed. Sara was thrashing around, tangled in the bright green comforter, sobbing and shaking.

“No, don’t hurt her, don’t hurt Cissy?”

Madelyn’s heart broke, worry throbbing inside her as she eased herself onto the mattress and gently shook Sara.

“Honey, wake up. It’s just a nightmare,” she whispered. Although Sara would insist that it was real.

Sara sobbed harder, swinging out her hands as if fighting off an invisible monster, and Madelyn pulled her into her arms. Tears blurred her own eyes as she rocked her back and forth. “Shh, honey, Mommy’s here.

It’s all right.”

“Gonna hurt Mommy?” Sara wailed. “Help Cissy. We have to help Cissy!”

“Shh, baby.” Madelyn stroked Sara’s fine, blond hair. “No one is going to hurt Mommy. I’m right here.”

Sara jerked her eyes open, her pupils distorted, her lower lip quivering. For a moment, she stared at Madelyn as if she didn’t recognize her.

“But Cissy’s mommy is hurt,” Sara said in a shaky voice. “The bad man chased Cissy into the woods and he catched her, and?”

“It was a dream.” Madelyn cupped Sara’s face between her hands, imploring her to believe her. “A really bad dream, sweetheart, but it was just a nightmare.”

“No,” Sara choked out. “It was real. Cissy’s in trouble and we gots to help her or he’s gonna hurt her.”

“Oh, honey,” Madelyn said softly.

Sara gulped. “It was real, Mommy. I saw Cissy.” Tears rolled down her face. “And she saw me. She begged me to help her. I tolded her to get up and run, but he caught her and dragged her back to the house? ”

Shaken by the horror in Sara’s voice, Madelyn took a deep breath, desperately trying to calm the anxiety bleeding through her.

She dried Sara’s tears with her fingers. “Sara, I told you that we lost Cissy a long time ago.”

“No,” Sara said with a firm shake of her head. “She lives with that other mommy. But if we don’t helps her, that mean man’s gonna kill ’em both.”

Madelyn hugged Sara to her, lost in turmoil.

Something was very wrong with her little girl. She’d been having these nightmares for the past two months, ever since they’d moved back to Sanctuary, and nothing Madelyn had done or said had helped. Not her long talks with her about Cissy, Sara’s twin who they’d lost at birth, or the therapists Madelyn had consulted for assistance.

“Please, Mommy,” Sara cried. “We gots to do something.”

A tear slid down Madelyn’s cheek. The day the twins had been born was the happiest and saddest day of her life. She’d gotten Sara but lost her sister.

She’d heard that twins had a special connection, but why was Sara still dreaming that Cissy had survived?

Knowing neither she nor Sara would sleep well the rest of the night, she carried Sara to her bed, then snuggled beside her. Sara lay on her side, sniffling for another hour, then finally drifted into an exhausted sleep.

Madelyn’s heart wrenched, and she lay and watched her daughter, unable to sleep. Just as dawn streaked the sky, her telephone jangled. Who could be calling at this hour? She checked the caller ID. Her mother.

She grabbed the handset, then slid from the bed, walked to the window and connected the call.

“Mom? What’s wrong? Are you all right?”

“Yes, honey, I’m fine. Have you seen the news?”

“No, why? What’s going on?”

“A big story aired about a doctor in Sanctuary who stole babies and sold them. His name was Dr. Emery. Isn’t that the doctor who delivered the twins?”

“Yes. Oh, my god. What else did the story say?”

“This lady named Nina Nash thought her baby died in that big, hospital fire eight years ago but discovered her child was alive. She hired these detectives at an agency called Guardian Angel Investigations there in Sanctuary. These men are all dedicated to finding missing children and they found her little girl.”

A cold chill swept up Madelyn’s spine. She glanced back at the bed where Sara was sleeping.

Dear God.

Was it possible that Cissy could have survived?

Caleb Walker entered the offices of GAI, his neck knotted with nerves. He hadn’t liked the sound of his boss’s voice when he called. The urgency had him postponing his visit to the cemetery to visit his wife’s grave this morning, and that pissed him off. He’d wanted to go by first thing, to pay his respects, leave Mara’s flowers, talk to her and beg her forgiveness one more time?

Gage’s voice rose from his office, breaking into his thoughts, and Caleb forced himself to focus. There would be time for seeing Mara later. Time to drown his sorrows and guilt.

He climbed the steps to Gage’s office, his mind racing. Had another child gone missing?

Or was there another case related to Sanctuary Hospital? Ever since the news had broken about the recovery of Nina Nash’s daughter and Dr. Emery’s arrest for selling babies, the phones had gone crazy.

People from all over were demanding to know if their adoptions were legal. GAI had been plagued by crank calls, as well, two from distraught women whose accusations of baby kidnapping had turned out to be false. The women had been so desperate for a child they’d tried to use the illegal adoptions to claim one for themselves.

Caleb twisted the hand-carved arrowhead around his neck to calm himself as he knocked on his boss’s office door. “Come in.”

Caleb opened the door and Gage stood.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Gage said without preamble. “We have a new client. One I’d like for you to handle.”

Caleb narrowed his eyes. “Why me?”

Gage’s eyes darkened. “You’ll know after you meet her and her five-year-old daughter, Sara. Sara insists she sees her twin in her nightmares, that her sister is in trouble.”

“I don’t understand,” Caleb said. “Sounds like a child having bad dreams, not a missing person case.”

“It gets even more interesting.” Gage flicked his gaze to the conference room across the hall. “The mother claims the twin died at birth, but Sara insists she’s alive.”

Damn. Gage requested him because of his so-called sixth sense. He wished to hell he’d never divulged that detail.

But Gage had caught him in a weak moment. Gage motioned for him to follow. “Come on, they’re waiting.”

Caleb rolled his hands into fists, then forced himself to flex them again, struggling to control his emotions. Emotions had no place in business. And business was his life now.

The moment Caleb entered the conference room, he spotted the woman sitting in a wing chair cradling the little girl in her lap. Gage had purposely designed the room with cozy seating nooks to put clients at ease.

But nothing about this woman appeared to be at ease.

Her slender body radiated with tension, her eyes looked haunted, her expression wary.

Yet he was also struck by her startling beauty. Copper-colored hair draped her shoulders and flowed like silk around a heart-shaped face. Big, green eyes gazed at him as if she desperately needed a friend, and freckles dotted her fair skin, making her look young and vulnerable. Her outfit was simple, too, not meant to be enticing—long denim skirt, peasant blouse—yet the soft colors made her look utterly feminine.

And downright earthy.

Earthy in his book meant sexy. Lethal combinations to a man who had been celibate for the past three years.

Dammit. He hadn’t been attracted to another woman since Mara. He sure as hell didn’t want to be attracted to a client. Not one with a kid who claimed to see her dead sister.

Then his gaze fell to the little blonde munchkin, and his lungs tightened. She looked tiny and frail and terrified and so lost that his protective instincts kicked in.

“Ms. Andrews,” Gage began. “This is Caleb Walker. He’s one of our agents at GAI. I’d like for him to hear your story.”

The woman squared her shoulders as if anticipating a confrontation. She expected skepticism.

“You can call me Madelyn,” she said in a husky voice that sounded as if it was laced with whiskey.

Gage claimed the love seat, leaving the other wing chair nearest Madelyn for him. Caleb lowered himself into it, aware his size might intimidate the little girl.

“What’s your name?” he asked in a gentle tone.

Eyes that mirrored her mother’s stared up at him as if she was trying to decide if he was friend or foe. Smart kid. She should be wary of strangers.

He smiled slowly, trying to ease her discomfort. But his senses prickled, suggesting she was special in some way. That she possessed a sixth sense herself.

Not that he would wish that on anyone, especially a kid.

“Let’s see,” he said, a smile quirking his mouth. “Are you Little Miss Sunshine?”

A tiny smile lit her eyes, and she relaxed slightly and loosened her grip on her blanket. “No, silly. I’m Sara.”

“Hi, Sara,” he said gruffly. “That’s a pretty name.”

“Thank you,” she said, her tone sounding grown up for such a little bitty thing. “It’s my Gran’s middle name.”

“Okay, Sara. Tell me what’s going on so I can help you.”

Madelyn stroked her daughter’s hair. “Sara’s been having nightmares for the past two months, ever since we moved back to town.”

“Where are you from?” Caleb asked, probing for background information.

Madelyn hugged Sara closer. “We moved to Charlotte four years ago to be near my mom, but Sara was born in Sanctuary. Recently my mother suffered a stroke, and I found a nursing facility here that she liked, so I bought the craft shop in town, and we packed up and moved back.”

“I see,” Caleb said. Had the move triggered these nightmares? “Sara, did you have dreams of your sister when you lived in Charlotte?”

Sara nodded and twirled a strand of hair around her finger. “We talked and sang songs and told secrets.” Caleb narrowed his eyes. “What kinds of secrets?” Sara pursed her mouth. “They’re not secrets if I tell.”

Hmm. She was loyal to her sister. But those secrets might be important.

“She has dreamed about her twin all her life,” Madelyn confirmed. “But lately those dreams have been disturbing.”

Sara piped up. “Her name is Cissy, and she looks just like me.”

Caleb nodded, aware that she used the present tense. “Sara and Cissy. How old are you?”

“Five,” Sara said and held up five fingers. “Cissy’s five, too.”

He smiled again. “You’re identical twins?”

She swung her feet. “Yep, ‘cept I gots a birthmark on my right arm and hers is on the other side.” She pointed to a small, pale, crescent-moon shape on her forearm.

Caleb folded his hands. He needed to keep Sara talking. “Tell me what happens in your dreams, Sara.”

Terror darkened the little girl’s face. “Cissy is scared and she’s screamin’ and she runned into the woods.”

Damn. He understood about nightmares, how real and haunting they could seem. “Who is she running from?” Caleb asked.

“From a big, mean man. He screamed at her mommy,” Sara said with conviction. “Cissy says he’s gonna kill them.”

Caleb intentionally lowered his voice. “Can you see his face? Does she call him by name?”

Sara chewed on her thumb for a moment as if trying to picture the man in her mind. “No, I can’t see him.” Her voice rose with anxiety. “But I saw Cissy running and crying.”

Caleb clenched his hands, listening, hating the terror in the little girl’s voice. The last thing he wanted to do was traumatize a troubled child by doubting her or confirming her fears. And she was genuinely afraid and believed what she was telling him.

His sixth sense kicked in. This little girl was?different. Did she truly have a psychic connection to her twin?

Other questions bombarded him: If her sister was dead, was Sara seeing and conversing with her spirit? Was Sara a medium? If so, why was she seeing images of Cissy at the same age as herself instead of the infant she’d been when she died? Was Cissy’s growth a figment of Sara’s imagination?

Another theory rattled through his head. Or could Sara be experiencing premonitions? Could Cissy’s spirit be trying to warn Sara that Sara was in danger from some future attacker?

“You’re a brave girl,” Caleb said, then patted Sara’s arm. “And if you see anything else—the man’s face, or the mommy’s—I want you to tell me. Okay?”

Sara bobbed her little head up and down, although she looked wrung out now, as if relaying her nightmare had drained her. Or maybe she was worried that describing the terrifying ordeal might make it come true.

He lifted his gaze to Madelyn. “Can we talk alone?”

Her wary gaze flew to his. “I don’t like to leave Sara by herself.”

Gage retrieved a pad of paper and some crayons and gestured to the coffee table.

Unbreakable Bond


Unbreakable Bond

Guardian Angel Investigations Series

Unbreakable Bond

For eight years Nina Nash has been told it’s time she moved past the night that changed her life forever. But the sounds of her baby’s cries at night—and the intense feeling that her little girl is still alive when she’s been led to believe otherwise—remain. Only, no one accepts her claims…except the one man who’s determined to help her uncover the truth.

Investigator Slade Blackburn takes Nina’s case, hoping to finally give her some closure. But what she really needs is someone to trust, someone to protect her…someone to erase the sadness from her beautiful blue eyes. Their search for answers turns dangerous, and Slade vows he’ll stop at nothing to ensure her survival—and reunite her with the child she knows is still out there.

Finding missing children was the only thing that kept Slade Blackburn going. The only thing that kept him from giving into the booze that promised sweet relief and numbness from the pain of his failures.

That was, when he found the children alive.

The other times…well, he locked those away in some distant part of his mind to deal with later. Much, much later when he was alone at night, and the loneliness consumed him and reminded him that he didn’t have a soul in the world who gave a damn if he lived or died.

Voices echoed through the downstairs as the agents at Guardian Angel Investigations entered the old house Gage McDermont had converted into a business and began to climb the stairs.

Slade’s instincts kicked in. He’d arrived early, situated himself to face the doorway in the conference room so he could study each man as he entered.

Not that he hadn’t done his research.

Gage had started the agency in Sanctuary and recruited an impressive team of agents.

The moment Slade had read about GAI in the paper, he’d phoned Gage and asked to sign on. Leaving his stint in the military had left him wired and honed for action, yet the confines of the FBI or a police department had grated on his newfound freedom.

Too long he’d taken orders, followed commands. Now he was his own man and wanted no one to watch over, not as he’d had to do with his combat unit.

But he needed a case.


Being alone, listening to the deafening quiet of the mountains, remembering the horrific events he’d seen, was wreaking havoc on his sanity.

He refused to be one of those soldiers who returned from war damaged and suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

He would not fall apart and become needy, dammit.

And he would keep the nightmares at bay.

By God, he’d survived his childhood and Iraq, and he wouldn’t go down now.

Still, returning to the small town of Sanctuary, North Carolina, held its own kind of haunts, and when he’d passed by Magnolia Manor, the orphanage where his mother had dropped him off without looking back, he’d questioned his decision to settle in the town.

Gage McDermont strode in and took the head seat behind the long conference table while the others filed in. Slade maintained his stoic expression, honing his self-control.

Gage gestured toward Slade. “This is Slade Blackburn,” he said. “He just finished his first case and returned Carmel Foster’s runaway daughter to her.”

The men surrounding the table nodded, then Gage gestured to each of them as he made the introductions. Slade analyzed each one in turn.

Benjamin Camp, a dirty-blond-haired computer expert with green eyes. Brilliant techy, he’d heard. Slade would bet he had a shady past. Maybe a former criminal with skills that could come in handy in a pinch.

Levi Stallings, former FBI profiler, black hair, military-style haircut, dark brown eyes. Intense, a man who studied behaviors and got into a killer’s mind. He cut his gaze toward Slade as if dissecting him under his microscope, and Slade forced himself not to react, to meet him with an equally hard stare.

First rule of engaging with the enemy: Never let on that you’re afraid or intimidated.

Not that he was, but he didn’t like anyone messing with his mind or getting too close.

Adopting his poker face, he angled his head to study the man, seated next to him, whom Gage introduced as Brock Running Deer.

“Running Deer is an expert tracker,” Gage said in acknowledgment.

A skill that would be needed in the dense mountains. He was also big, slightly taller than Slade’s own six feet, had shoulder-length brown hair, auburn eyes and was part Cherokee. He scowled at Slade as if he were permanently angry, but Slade shrugged it off. He hadn’t come here to make friends.

“And this is Derrick McKinney.”

Slade nodded toward him.

Next Gage introduced Caleb Walker, who also looked mixed heritage. He had thick black hair, black eyes, and wore a guarded expression. Gage didn’t elaborate on his particular skill, which made Slade even more curious about the man.

Gage gestured to the last man seated around the table. “This is Colt Mason, a guns and weapon expert.” Slade sized him up. Short, spiked black hair, crystal-blue eyes, sullen and quiet. He had that military look about him, as well, as if he’d stared down death and it hadn’t fazed him. Probably former Special Ops.

The door squeaked open and a petite brunette with hair dangling to her waist and large brown eyes slipped in.

Gage’s face broke into a smile. “This is Amanda Peterson, our newest recruit. Amanda is a forensics specialist, and we’re glad to have her on board.

“Now that we’ve all been introduced, I want to get you up to speed on the latest case and the arrests made in Sanctuary. Brianna Honeycutt, now the wife of Derrick, adopted an infant son when the baby’s mother, Natalie Cummings, was murdered. Our investigation revealed that Natalie learned about a meth lab in town that was connected to the creators of a lab eight years ago, the one that caused the hospital fire and explosion that took dozens and dozens of lives.”

Gage paused and twisted his mouth into a frown. “The police have made several arrests, but locals are up in arms now that they know who was responsible. There’s also been speculation that there might have been more locals involved in the lab. Lawsuits are cropping up each day, and people who lost loved ones are asking questions. Due to the fire and contamination of evidence, there are questions regarding some of those who were presumed dead.”

Slade frowned. “Presumed?”

“Ones whose bodies were never found or identified,” Gage clarified. “Among those were women and children. I expect that we might have some work ahead of us.”

Slade’s blood began to boil. Women and children… who’d died because of some stupid drug lab. Women and children whose bodies had never been identified.

Families with no answers just as his own hadn’t had answers when his older sister had disappeared. Not until Slade had found her in the morgue.

Maybe it was right that he’d come back to Sanctuary. If he had the opportunity to find closure for even one of the families involved, it was worth it.

Then maybe he could finally find peace and forgive himself for his sister’s death.

Nina’s baby’s cry haunted her every day.

Peyton would have been eight years old had she survived, the same age as the children Nina taught at Sanctuary Elementary.

She tried to envision what her daughter would look like now as she watched her students rush to the school bus, squealing and laughing, excited to be out for summer break. Most of the teachers were jumping for joy, as well.

“Freedom at last,” one third-grade teacher said with a laugh.

“Vacation,” another one boasted.

But instead of dreaming about long, lazy days at home or a vacation road trip, tears filled Nina’s eyes.

To her, summer break meant weeks of being without the kids. Long, lonely days and nights of silence. Of no tiny hands reaching out for help, no sweet voices calling her name, no little patter of feet or giggles, no little arms wrapping around her for a big bear hug.

Tortured nights of an empty house and more nightmares of what her life would have been like if her little girl were alive.

For a moment, she allowed herself to dream of taking her daughter to the beach. They’d build sand castles, collect shells, ride bikes. She could almost hear her daughter’s laughter in the wind roaring off the ocean….

The bus driver gave a big honk of its horn, jerking her back to reality. Kids waved and screamed out the window, and the bus roared away. Teachers cheered and waved, laughing and talking about their plans as they dispersed back to their rooms to tidy up for the day.

Nina wrapped her arms around her waist and watched until the last bus disappeared from the school drive, then turned and walked back inside, her chest tight.

She should be over the loss of her daughter, people had told her. “Move on with your life,” her father had insisted. “Let it go,” the ob-gyn had said.

But sometimes at night, she heard her baby’s cries, and she sensed that Peyton was still alive. That she hadn’t died in that fire. That she was out there somewhere, and that she needed her.

Moving on autopilot, she went to her classroom, packed up boxes, wiped down the chalkboard, stripped the bulletin boards and cleaned out her desk.

Finally she couldn’t procrastinate any longer. The empty room was almost as sad and overwhelming as her house. Here she could still see the kids’ cherub faces, hear their chatter and smell their sweet, little bodies.

She stuffed her worn plan book in her favorite tote, one emblazoned with a strawberry on the front and sporting the logo Teachers Are Berry Special, then added a copy of the language arts guide for the new language arts program the county had adopted, threw the tote over her shoulder, flipped off the lights and headed outside.

The late-afternoon sunshine beat down on her as she walked to the parking lot. The sound of engines starting up filled the air, and she noticed a group of teachers gathering for an end-of-the-year celebration.

Celia, her friend from the classroom across the hall from her, looked up and waved as she climbed in her minivan. Celia had invited her to join them, but she’d declined. Celebrating was the last thing on her mind.

Instead she drove to the little bungalow she’d bought in town, picked up the newspaper on the front stoop, then dragged herself inside and poured a glass of sweet iced tea. Hating the silence that engulfed her, she flipped on the television, then glanced at the front page of the paper.

The headlines immediately caught her eye.

Murder of Natalie Cummings and Kidnapping of Her Son Ryan Leads to Answers about the Hospital Explosion and Fire Eight Years Ago.

Nina skimmed the article, her own memories of the explosion taunting her. For years now the town had mourned the lives lost back then. Now they finally had answers.

Police have learned that a meth lab built by local teenagers at the time was the cause of the explosion that killed dozens. Recently Natalie Cummings had overheard students at Sanctuary High discussing a new meth lab nearby, and she was apparently murdered when she connected the current lab to the one eight years ago.

Derrick McKinney, an agent from Guardian Angel Investigations, was instrumental in uncovering the truth about the explosion, the kidnapping and murder connection.

Nina frowned, her heart racing. That night had been horrible. The explosion, the fire, the terrible confusion. The burning bodies.

Her frantic rush to find Peyton…

Her stomach knotted. She’d wondered if her baby might have been confused with another that night, or if she could have been kidnapped in the chaos.

But the investigation had been a mess, and the sheriff had assured her her fears had been unfounded. Even worse, the P.I. she’d hired had been convinced she was just a hysterical mother and had done nothing but take her money.

Still, one question nagged at her. They had never found Peyton’s body.

She glanced at the article again. Guardian Angel Investigations. They specialized in finding missing children.

Her hand shook as she went to the mantel and picked up the photo of her newborn. Peyton had been so tiny Nina had been able to hold her in one hand.

If someone had kidnapped her, how would she have survived?

Still, every night when she crawled into bed, she heard her cries. And every time she closed her eyes, a little angel’s voice sang to her in the night.

Determination and a new wave of hope washed over her as she grabbed her purse. “I’m going to find you, baby.”

If GAI had dug deeply enough to find out who’d caused that fire, maybe they could dig even deeper and find out what had happened to her daughter.

Just as the meeting was about to disperse, the bell on the downstairs door jangled. Gage gestured for the group to wait while he descended the stairs. A minute later, he returned, escorting a young woman with him.

A beautiful blonde with long wavy hair, enormous blue eyes the color of the sky on a clear North Carolina day, and a slim body with plump breasts that strained against her soft, white blouse.

But nothing about the woman indicated she was aware of her beauty.

Instead, those blue eyes looked wary and were filled with the kind of grief and sadness that indicated she’d lived through a hell of her own.

“This is Nina Nash,” Gage said. “She’s interested in our services.”

Gage gestured for her to sit down, and Slade noticed her body trembling slightly as she slid into a leather chair. Why was she on edge?

Was she intimidated by the agents, or in some kind of trouble?

“How can we help you, Miss Nash?” Gage asked.

She bit down on her lower lip and twisted her hands together, glancing at each of them as if to decide whether to continue.

“Just relax and tell us your story,” Gage said in a soothing tone.

She nodded, then jutted up her little chin, took a deep breath and spoke. “I read about your agency in the paper and saw that you found the people responsible for the hospital fire and explosion eight years ago.”

“Yes,” Gage said. “The police made some arrests.”

“I…lost my baby that night,” Nina said in a pained tone. “At least she went missing.”

A hushed silence fell across the room as everyone contemplated her statement. Finally Gage assumed the lead and spoke. “Why don’t you start from the beginning and tell us what happened.”

She rolled her tiny hands into fists as if to hold herself together. “My baby girl was early, a preemie, and I had to have a C-section,” she said as if she’d repeated this story a thousand times already. Then she rushed on as if she had to spit it out or she’d completely crumble. “I was asleep when the sound of the explosion woke me. Everyone started shouting and screaming, and I smelled smoke so I got out of bed and tried to get to the nursery, to Peyton…” Her voice cracked in the deafening silence stretching across the room.

But no one spoke. Her anguish was like a palpable force in the room.

“It was chaos,” she said on a choked breath. “Everyone was screaming, desperate to escape. Patients were struggling and needing help, and an orderly told me to go to the stairwell, but I couldn’t leave my baby so I pushed him away.”

His Secret Christmas Baby


His Secret Christmas Baby

Guardian Angel Investigations Series

His Secret Christmas Baby

Investigator Derrick McKinney’s quiet bachelor life was shattered when the son he just learned existed was abducted right out from under the watchful eye of his beautiful guardian. And although she was left unconscious and heartbroken, someone feared Brianna Honeycutt saw more than she claimed, placing her life in danger. Working together, Derrick now had to push aside the long-buried attraction he’d always felt for Brianna. More determined than ever to end this nightmare and put a smile back on Brianna’s face, Derrick vowed he’d stop at nothing to bring his baby home in time for Christmas…

Why can’t Robert and I adopt Natalie Cummings’s baby?” Dana Phillips asked.

Brianna tensed at the cold hardness in the young woman’s eyes. Dana and her husband had been trying to get pregnant for three years, had tried fertility treatments and in vitro fertilization but none of it had worked. Worse, they had been on the adoption list for two of those stressful years.

“You said you’d find us a baby,” Dana screeched, “but you’ve done nothing to help us. And now there’s a baby we could have and you won’t give him to us.”

Brianna understood their desperation, but Dana’s emotional state worried her. The woman was obsessed with having a child to the point that Brianna worried about placing one with her.

“I’m sorry, Dana, but Ryan is not up for adoption.”

Dana crossed her arms, tears glittering in her eyes. “Why not? His mother is dead, and he has no father. And don’t forget, I grew up in this town. I know that Natalie’s family is gone now.”

Grief for Natalie was still so raw that Brianna’s throat thickened with emotions. The fact that Natalie had been anxious her last few weeks and seemed frightened gnawed at Brianna. Women dying during childbirth were uncommon these days. Had Natalie really had heart failure?

“You know I’m right,” Dana said, her shrill voice yanking Brianna from the worry that something hadn’t seemed truthful about the doctor’s explanation.

“I understand that you’ve waited a long time, Dana, but Natalie asked me to be guardian of her child, and I promised her I would.”

“You would be taking good care of him if you gave him to us,” Dana pleaded.

“But Natalie wanted me to raise him.” Brianna reached for Dana to calm her, but Dana jumped up and paced across Brianna’s office, her anger palpable.

“Listen, Dana, I know you’re desperate, but we’ll find you a child. I promised Natalie that I would raise Ryan, though. Natalie was like a sister to me. I have to keep that promise.” Besides, the moment she’d held the newborn, she’d fallen in love with him.

“That little boy deserves to have a mother and a father, Brianna, and you can’t give him that. You’re not even married.”

Brianna sucked in a sharp breath. “Dana, I’m not going to argue with you. I’ve already legally adopted Ryan. Believe me, it’s what Natalie wanted.”

“It’s what you wanted,” Dana said in a high-pitched voice. “You’re selfish. You took him for yourself even though you know he’d be better off with two parents. You act like you care and that you’re some Goody Two-shoes, but you don’t give a damn about Robert and me. You’re only thinking about yourself.”

“Dana, I will keep looking and find you a child. I promise. Maybe we can find a private adoption—”

“We can’t pay thousands for a baby and you know it,” Dana cried. “That’s why you have to give us Ryan.”

Brianna stood, her voice firm. “Dana, Ryan is my child now, and no one is going to take him from me.”

Derrick McKinney settled into the chair at the Guardian Angel Investigations Agency, his mind heavy. Now he was back in Sanctuary, North Carolina, he had to visit Natalie Cummings’s grave and pay his respects.

But visiting any grave after his last case was going to be a bear. He still couldn’t get the image of the child’s small tombstone out of his mind. If he’d only been sooner, figured out that the mother was lying….

Footsteps sounded from the upstairs of the old house that had been converted into a business, and Gage McDer-mont strode down the steps. Derrick hadn’t seen him in ten years, but Gage still exuded confidence and authority.

Derrick had read about Gage’s departure from the Raleigh Police Department and how he’d found Leah Holden’s little sister Ruby a few months ago when she’d gone missing, and was glad to hear Gage had opened his own agency.

The fact that Gage had focused his investigative services on missing children had been a big draw. The fact that, at the agency, he wouldn’t have to play by the rules was another major plus.

To hell with rules. They could be too damn confining.

Although he wasn’t sure Gage would want his help. They hadn’t exactly been friends in school. Gage had been the popular jock whereas he’d been the sullen bad boy on a Harley.

“Derrick McKinney, good to have you here.” Gage extended his hand and Derrick stood and shook it, surprised not to find any hesitation in Gage’s tone.

“Thanks for bringing me into the agency.”

“Are you kidding?” Gage grinned. “I know your reputation, McKinney. Your specialty is missing kids and that’s what we do here.”

Except the last one which had ended badly, and he’d received some bad PR from it. “Yeah, but you saw what happened on my last case.”

Gage’s smile faded slightly, but understanding lit his eyes. “I don’t go by rumors. Besides, I know how the job goes. We have to be tough to do it, but we’re only human. We can’t get them all.”

Derrick’s throat closed with emotions he didn’t dare show, and words he dare not say. He’d learned a hard lesson on that case.

Never trust a woman. Pretty eyes, tears and seductive voices could lead a man astray real fast.

“Thanks,” he finally said.

Gage gestured for him to follow him up the stairs. When they reached Gage’s office, Gage offered him a drink, but Derrick declined. For a few days after he’d found that kid’s body, he’d drowned himself in booze.

Then one day he’d realized that drinking himself to death was too easy. He needed a clear head to remember what he’d done wrong, and he’d spend the rest of his life trying to make up for it.

Over the next hour, they reviewed office business, salary, benefits and other candidates Gage had brought into the agency. Slade Blackburn, agent. Benjamin Camp, a computer and tech specialist. Levi Stallings, former FBI profiler. Brock Running Deer, an expert tracker. Caleb Walker had special skills that he didn’t elaborate on. Colt Manson, a guns and weapons specialist. And he was trying to recruit a woman named Amanda Peterson, a renowned forensic anthropologist. Caleb and Colt hadn’t started yet, but Levi, Ben and Brock were on board.

“Do we have a case now?” Derrick asked.

Gage fingered a file. “Not at the moment. I sent Slade Blackburn to recover a young teenager who ran away. He called and will be bringing her back soon.”

“Sounds good.”

Gage nodded. “Yeah. The mother is a local, Carmel Foster. She’ll be thrilled to have her daughter, Julie, back home with her.”

“That’s what it’s all about,” Derrick said. “Connecting families.”

A smile curved Gage’s mouth. “Exactly. But we’re still growing the agency. I’d like you on board.”

Derrick shrugged. “Hell, a few days off won’t hurt me. But I am ready to go back to work, just in case you’re wondering.”

“I have no doubt.” Gage stood. “In fact, that’s why I wanted you here now. Leah and I plan to take a little second honeymoon. Ruby is staying with a friend. I need you to hold down the fort.”

“I appreciate the opportunity,” Derrick said. “I won’t let you down.”

Derrick shook his hand again, then strode down the steps and walked out into the cool December air. Christmas was coming, the town was lit up with decorations, winter on its way.

But the holidays had never been high on his list. He’d seen too much over the years, had lost faith too damn long ago to think about singing Christmas carols or shopping.

Besides, he had no one to shop for. No one to celebrate with. No one to share a cozy dinner or decorate a stupid tree.

And that was fine with him.

He climbed in his Jeep, stopped by the florist, picked up a bouquet of lilies, and drove to the cemetery on the edge of town. The little white church needed paint, but vibrant colors from the stained glass windows danced in the waning sunlight across the parched grass and dead leaves. Snow fluttered from the sky in a light downfall, sticking to branches and painting the graveyard in a soft white that made the grounds look almost ethereal, a contrast to the sadness there. A small blue sedan was parked in front of the church, and he wondered if it belonged to the minister or another visitor, but dismissed it without thought.

Tugging his coat around him, he walked through the cemetery searching for Natalie’s marker. Sprays of flowers circled a grave in the distance, and he instantly realized it had to be hers. A lone figure stood beside it, burrowed in a coat, head bowed.

He hesitated for a moment, then curiosity overcame him, and he picked his way through the rows of graves until he was close enough to see the figure more closely.

The woman wore a long black coat, and as she leaned forward to place the flowers in the vase at the head of the marker, he spotted a bundle in her arms.

A baby wrapped in a blanket.

The two of them looked like angels in the midst of the snow, like a mirage so beautiful it couldn’t be real.

Then she turned to leave, and he sucked in another pain-filled breath.

It was Brianna Honeycutt, Natalie’s best friend. Brianna, beautiful Brianna. Brianna with the raven hair and sky blue eyes. Brianna with a voice that sounded like sugar and spice and everything nice. Brianna with skin like a porcelain doll, and a body like a goddess.

Brianna who’d never wanted anything to do with him.

Her face registered shock as she spotted him, and instant regret slammed into him. He’d never had the courage to talk to her when he was young.

Then he’d slept with her best friend, a night that was a blur. Natalie had been in Raleigh, and they’d run into each other at a bar. He’d been upset about a case, and she’d had a sympathetic ear.

Too many drinks later, and they’d ended up in bed. But they’d both known it meant nothing and had gone their separate ways.

Judging from the glare Brianna sent him, she knew exactly what had happened that night and didn’t think too highly of him.

His gaze dropped to the baby, and shock hit him. Brianna had a child? He hadn’t heard that she’d gotten married.

A quick check to her finger and he saw there was no ring.

“You have a child?” he asked, wondering who Brianna was involved with.

She hesitated, her look wary, then stroked the baby’s dark blond head. “I adopted Natalie’s son. It was what she wanted.”

A knot settled in his gut. He had kept up with the town through the online news and knew that she’d died in childbirth. “Of course.”

Then the date of Natalie’s death flashed into his head, and the months fell away as he ticked them off in his head.

The dark blond hair… Hair just like his.

Was it possible that that baby was his?

Brianna clutched baby Ryan to her, a frisson of alarm ripping through her at the sight of Derrick McKinney.

That same feeling of hopeless infatuation she’d felt as a young girl followed. Hopeless because he’d never even noticed her.

Just as she remembered, he was tall, muscled and broad-shouldered. The wind tossed his wavy dark blond hair across his forehead, snow dotting his bronzed skin. His eyes were the color of espresso, a magnetic draw to them that made her body tingle with want. She could still see him dressed in all black, tearing around the mountain roads on that Harley.

Sexuality leaked from his pores just as masculinity radiated off his big body. But even as need and desire swirled through her, fear sank like a rock in her stomach.

He suddenly stalked toward her, his jaw clenched, his eyes darkening as they raked over her and settled on the bundle in her arms.

She’d wondered who the baby’s father was, and had feared it might be Derrick, but Natalie had insisted he wasn’t. Besides, he hadn’t been in Natalie’s life the last nine months, nor had he attended the funeral, so she’d assumed that if he was the father, he didn’t want anything to do with the little boy.


She stiffened. His voice sounded rough and deep, the sensuality in his tone igniting desire inside her.

She had to get a grip. Had to steel herself against him. He’d slept with her best friend—not her.

And she couldn’t forget it.

Tears pricked her eyelids as she zeroed in on the bouquet in his hands. He’d even brought Natalie fresh flowers.

Lilies—Brianna’s favorite.

Natalie had loved roses.

God, she was pathetic. Jealous over her friend because Derrick had obviously loved her.

He cleared his throat. “I was sorry to hear about Natalie. How tragic.”

Brianna couldn’t speak. Instead she swallowed back tears. As if the baby overheard the reminder that his mother was gone, he whimpered and began to fuss.

“I know how close you two were.” He shifted awkwardly on the balls of his feet. “This must be really hard for you.”

She nodded. “I still can’t believe she’s gone. I miss her every day.”

His gaze dropped to the fussing baby in her arms. “So Natalie had a little boy?”

Brianna took a deep breath and tugged the blanket over his face to ward off the wind. Or was it so he couldn’t see the little boy’s face? “Yes.”

“What about the father?” Derrick’s voice warbled slightly over the word father.

Wariness filled Brianna, and she rocked the baby, trying to soothe him. “He’s not in the picture.”

Derrick’s broad jaw tightened. “Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” Brianna said, trying to stick as close to the truth as possible. “Natalie never told me.”

Surprise registered on Derrick’s face. “I thought you two shared everything.”

At one time they had. But Natalie had glossed over the details of that night with Derrick. And the last few weeks she’d acted strangely, secretive, even shut her out.

Because Derrick was the father of her son? Because she knew it would hurt Brianna even more to know that Natalie shared a child with the only guy she had ever wanted?

Silent Night Sanctuary


Silent Night Sanctuary

Guardian Angel Investigations Series

Silent Night Sanctuary

“Get rid of the P.I. If not, Ruby is dead.”

So warned the kidnapper of Leah Holden’s little sister, abducted just before Christmas. But P.I. Gage McDermont of Guardian Angel Investigations wouldn’t be deterred. He’d returned to Sanctuary to escape his dark past, but the secrets he saw in Leah’s eyes made him wonder what her past could tell him.

Leah knew what happened years ago would rock her small southern town to its core if it was revealed. Now, caught in a web of lies, the only solace she found was in Gage’s arms. She wanted to be honest with him, but feared he’d walk away the moment he knew—the moment he learned her real identity….

The wind whipping through the paper-thin walls of Leah Holden’s North Carolina mountain cabin whistled, shrill and violent, jarring her from a deep sleep. Or had the sound been a scream?

A child’s scream?


Leah vaulted from her bed and raced to her seven-year-old sister’s room, praying she’d been wrong. Through the half-open door, Christmas lights from the tiny tree inside sparkled red and gold and silver.

But when she rushed inside, Ruby’s bed was empty.

“Ruby!” Her heart pounded as she scanned the interior, the dark shadows, the rumpled bedding, the closet where her sister had made a playhouse for her dolls.

No Ruby.

The curtains flapped wildly, the chill in the room sending icy fear through her.

The window was open. It had been shut when Leah had gone to bed.

Frantic, she flipped on the overhead light, her gaze landing on the teddy bear that had been slashed to pieces on Ruby’s bed. A note lay in the midst of the cotton stuffing, and nausea lurched in her stomach.


She screamed in terror, panic clenching her chest as a dozen horrific scenarios assaulted her. Ruby, kidnapped. Being tortured. Abused. Molested. Murdered.

The room swirled in a blinding sea of white and she gripped the edge of the brass bed, struggling not to pass out. This couldn’t be happening.

Sanctuary was supposed to be a safe little town. A haven for families—a close-knit community.

But a cold emptiness filled Ruby’s room. The sight of her Pippi Longstocking doll brought tears to Leah’s eyes. Ruby loved her Pippi doll just as Leah had loved the colorful character when she was a child. After her mother had died, Leah had moved back hometo take care of Ruby, and they’d started reading the Pippi books together.

Leah’s hand trembled as she ran to the den for the phone. The message on the note echoed in her head and she hesitated. Every horrific TV-show scenario flashed through her mind.

Maybe she shouldn’t call the police.

But time was important. And how could she handle this alone?

She needed the police to issue an AMBER Alert, start searching, set up road blocks, put Ruby’s picture on the news, call the FBI? She needed them to find Ruby.

Terrified, she punched in the number. Ruby was all the family she had left. She had to find her.

The image of the dead boy’s face would haunt Detective Gage McDermont for the rest of his life.

Thirteen years old and he’d been murdered on the sidewalk by a man who should have still been in jail.

All because the kid had tried to do what was right: testify against a lowlife scumbag for beating his mother to a bloody pulp.

In the end, she had died. And Rodney Kemple had walked on a damn technicality and shot the kid in the chest.

Guilt pressed against Gage’s lungs, making it impossible to breathe. He had promised Tommy Beringer that he’d protect him.

And he had failed.

So had the system Gage had sworn to uphold.

He balled his hands into fists as he waited in the chief’s office, wanting to pound something again, just like he’d pounded Kemple’s face when he’d finally caught up with him. He’d have finished the guy off if his partner hadn’t interceded and dragged him away.

The chief walked in, his granitelike face showing a mixture of anger and disdain. Gage had worked for the Raleigh Police Department for eight years, and he and Drew Hardy had almost come to blows before, but the past year things had grown even more strained. The chief seemed to be more interested in politics than catching perps, and Gage had told him so more than once.

Hadn’t gone over well with the chief.

“What in the hell were you thinking, McDermont?” A vein bulged in Hardy’s wide throat. “You nearly beat Kemple to death.”

“He deserved far worse than he got, and you know it, Chief.” Gage pushed to his feet, anger rolling off him. “He put a bullet in that kid’s chest.”

“You had him under arrest,” the chief barked. “Now we have police brutality charges to deal with and IA on our butts. Are you trying to make this department look bad?”

“You’re worried about the damn department?” Fury turned Gage’s voice to ice. “What about that poor kid? The one we promised to protect?” He struggled with the hate churning in his gut. “What about justice? When did our jobs stop being about that?”

The chief leveled him with a lethal stare. “I’m trying to see that justice is done,” he growled. “Within the law. And your actions may just enable this guy to walk.”

“He won’t walk,” Gage snapped. “We’ve got the gun with his prints on it, and Beringer’s shirt.”

Chief Hardy slammed his hand on the desk. “You’ve been walking the line for months, McDermont. But this time you went too far.”

Gage crossed his arms. “If you want an apology from me, you’re wasting your time.”

The chief’s furious stare met his. “In that case, I’m ordering you to take a voluntary leave of absence. Take some time off, get your head back on straight,” he hissed. “Hell, if you need to see a counselor, the department can set you up.”

“And if I don’t?”

His voice dropped and he leaned forward. “Then I’ll be forced to suspend you.”

Rage, frustration and disbelief rallied inside Gage like a storm ready to unfold.

His job was his life.

But he was fed up with gangs, street thugs and having to adhere to the bureaucratic BS that protected criminals’ rights and left the victims vulnerable and without justice.

And if he had it to do over again, he’d beat Kemple even worse.

“What’s it going to be, McDermont?”

Gage removed his badge from inside his leather jacket, ripped off his shoulder holster, put them both on the desk and then walked out.

All he’d ever wanted to do was be a cop.

But there were other ways to get justice. Maybe it was time he went out on his own.

Ruby had been missing for seven days now. Seven days of pure torture.

Tears blurred Leah’s eyes as she stared at the gifts stacked beneath the glittering tree. Christmas was three days away.

Ruby had to be home by then. The house was so empty, the silence deafening.

When she got back, they’d make sugar cookies and hot chocolate, and Ruby would squeal with delight when she discovered the games and craft sets under the tree.

And Santa was supposed to bring a kitten. Not that Ruby completely believed in Santa, but she still pretended.

Leah’s breath caught. Today the locals had called off the search teams that had combed the woods. Had essentially given Ruby up for dead.

Leah paced to the window and studied the empty backyard swing dangling in the wind. Ruby loved that swing.

But she might never sit in it again. Might never run across the yard or skip rope or climb the ancient oak to the tree house they had built together last summer.

Thunder rumbled across the gray sky, her mood as dark as the threatening storm. It was too cold for a child to survive out in those woods. Too dangerous.

Coyotes roamed the mountains, along with bears and mountain lions. And there were tales of mountain men who lived in the wild—who’d never been civilized. Strange things had happened along the Appalachian trail and in the deep recesses of the forests. People had gone missing and never been found.

Stories of cults and gypsy clans who performed strange rituals circulated. There were also rumors of ghosts haunting the area, the agonized souls of people who were killed in the battles between Native Americans and those who’d driven them from their homes during the Trail of Tears.

What if one of the animals had gotten Ruby? Or one of the mountain men? What would he do to her?

What had he already done?

Was Ruby lost somewhere, terrified and alone? Hurting or locked up in some scary place?

Was she?

No, Leah wouldn’t give up hope. She couldn’t.

But the local police hadn’t been able to find her. Not that she trusted them, especially with Charlie Driscill, a guy from her old high school, as the deputy and acting sheriff. He was following in his father’s footsteps, preparing to take over as sheriff when his dad retired soon.

She’d considered the fact that her own secrets might have played a part in Ruby’s kidnapping, that the kidnapper was someone from her past—someone from that terrible night eight years ago—but everyone in town had been questioned and supposedly had alibis.

She’d even wondered if Ruby’s father had taken her. But that was impossible. Ruby’s father didn’t even know she existed.

Had she made a mistake in calling the police? Would the kidnapper have contacted her if she hadn’t?

A sob choked her. She’d been second-guessing herself for days now, praying for a phone call or a message that someone had seen her sister. But that phone call had never come.

Gage stared at the news broadcast of the update on Ruby Holden’s kidnapping, emotions rising to the surface. He still couldn’t believe there had been a kidnapping in his hometown. Not in Sanctuary.

The news clip summarized the past few days of the search and then showed the deputy sheriff, Charlie Driscill, approaching Leah Holden. He’d said, “I’m sorry, but we’re calling off the search team.” Then Leah collapsed in a fit of tears.

Seven days missing—he understood the reasoning behind calling off the search. By now, the kidnapper would have left the area.

Or the child was dead.

Every hour a child was missing lessened the chances that she would be found alive.

He watched as neighbors surrounded Leah, supporting her, and frowned.

There had been no ransom call. No word. No physical evidence except that shredded teddy bear and the note warning Leah not to call the police.

So what was the kidnapper’s motive? Was he a pedophile? Someone who’d lost a child and wanted to replace it with another? A crazy lunatic who simply saw an opportunity?

He glanced at the screen again. Leah looked so lost, so devastated?.

He had to do something.

Not that he wanted to see her again after all these years, but she needed help. And a child was in danger.

The past week he’d decided to start his own private investigative firm specializing in children’s cases. In memory of Ramona Samples, the woman who’d helped him find a home with the McDermonts, he’d decided to call his agency Guardian Angel Investigations. He planned to hire other detectives to work for him, ex-cops or military men, as well as security and computer specialists. GAI would step in when the police or feds failed.

Or when a client chose not to call the police.

And he’d jump-start his agency by finding Leah’s sister.

Leah had called in the locals, but after seeing her plea on the news, he sensed she was hiding something. If she’d done something to her sister, he’d nail her ass to the wall.

But memories of Leah in high school returned and he couldn’t believe she’d hurt anyone. He’d harbored a crush on her in high school and had planned to meet her at a party once, but then she’d hooked up with his brother.

He’d never spoken to her after that day. And it had caused a rift between him and Jerry.

Maybe moving back home for a while would enable him to mend fences with Jerry. After all, Jerry had probably changed. He owned a construction company and had built neighborhoods all around Sanctuary.

Gage turned off the TV, tucked the newspaper photo of Ruby inside his bomber jacket, climbed in his Explorer and headed toward Sanctuary.

He’d find out what happened to this little girl and make the person who’d abducted her pay.

He watched Leah Holden’s house from the top of the ridge with his telephoto lens, the frigid December air biting at his neck and hands. His skin was raw, dry and chafed, but he barely noticed. Rage heated his bloodstream, making it flow thick and hot through his system.

Leah shouldn’t have called the police. He’d never expected her to, counting on her fear and cowardice to keep her quiet.

The bitch should have heeded the warning. If she had, she’d have the kid back by now, and life could go on as normal.

But no, she’d called the damn cops.

She’d be sorry she ever came back to town. Ever messed with their lives. Ever lived.

Because of her, Ruby might have to die.