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?