Read an Excerpt
For an instant Emma Colton thought she'd somehow slipped back in time, that she was back on the ranch being rudely awakened by her annoying brother Tate, who was three years older and had teased her incessantly about her rather bright red hair.
Clutching her phone, she blinked the sleep out of her eyes, the sight of the familiar bedroom of her Cleveland apartment orienting her back into the present. Still, as she shoved her tangled hair away from her face, she felt a tiny frisson of relief that it was still the darker, richer auburn of adulthood. That made her smile, until she realized what time it was.
She yawned. "You don't even have the excuse of a different time zone, bro. This better be good."
"I take back tomato-head. Sleepyhead fits better," Tate Colton said.
"It's five in the morning. I thought I was the workaholic in the family."
"Please. It comes with the Colton name. You're just worst than most. Except maybe Uncle Joe."
She laughed, humor restored. The man they'd grown up calling Uncle Joe, although he was in fact their late father's cousin, was indeed dedicated to his work. That hadn't prevented him from standing in for their deceased parents on occasion. Like every Colton, he took family responsibilities very seriously.
Almost as seriously as he took his job as president of the United States.
"So what is it that has you waking me up at this hour?"
"I need your help, little sister."
Something had changed in her brother's deep voice. The teasing note had vanished, replaced by a grim seriousness. Instantly she responded, sitting up straight, shoving aside the warmth of the covers.
"I've got three missing girls."
As a Philadelphia police detective, Tate having a case of even three missing girls sadly wasn't shocking. Nor would that alone necessitate this early-morning call to her; if he needed FBI help on a case, he had his own contacts. Not that the name Colton wasn't enough to get him in about any door he wanted at the Hoover Building.
"Why me?" she asked. "Not that I don't mind giving you wise advice, even though you never take it, but"
Emma went very still. "Three?"
"Two weeks. The usual reluctance to involve outsiders." She knew it too well. "How old?"
"Sixteen to nineteen."
"Rumspringa?" Emma asked. Growing up on the family ranch in Eden Falls, Pennsylvania, the Amish and their ways had always been part of the fabric of her life. Rumspringa, that time when young people are allowed to explore the outside world, then make their own decision on whether to return to the religion and simple lifestyle of the Amish, had always fascinated her as a teenager. She simply couldn't picture why anyone would voluntarily leave behind the world of convenience and technology for such deprivation. Yet eighty percent of them did.
Now she wasn't quite so arrogant about her assumptions. She'd seen enough in her years as an FBI agent to understand the appeal of pulling back from the hectic, crazyand sometimes pervertedworld of today.
She realized she was tracing the intricate pattern of the quilt on her bed. An exquisitely designed and handmade Amish quilt, a traditional diamond-on-point pattern in soothing blues, that she'd brought with her from home. Her mother had purchased it from one of their neighbors, had loved it and cared for it so well it seemed almost new. It had come to her as the eldest daughter, after that horrible, shocking day in September 2001, the day that had stolen the loving, generous couple who had taken them all in, adopted them and given them a life beyond anything they ever could have hoped for
She snapped out of her reverie. "Sorry. What?"
"I said yes, Rumspringa. They're all from Paradise Ridge."
That brought it even closer to home for her; Paradise Ridge literally bordered the Colton ranch. She might even know the families, she thought with a sudden qualm. They had often bought fresh produce and milk from the local farmers.
She had a sudden vivid flash of memory. A young Amish girl near her own age of ten, from when she and her father, Donovan Colton, had stopped to offer assistance to a driver of one of the iconic Amish carriages that added tourist-drawing quaintness to the Pennsylvania countryside. One of those tourists had passed too close in their rental car, clipping the corner of the carriage and sending the right rear wheel onto rain-softened ground, and then proceeded merrily on their way, either uncaring or oblivious to damage done.
She remembered her father pulling the ranch truck up behind the carriage, angling it so that no oncoming car could repeat the incident.
The first concern of her father, a horseman of many years, was the welfare of the animal pulling the carriage. Emma herself had been fascinated by the child who remained in the carriage while her father had gotten out to inspect the damage. She remembered the girl's simple dress, in contrast to her own jeans and T-shirt. She remembered the vivid blue of her eyes as she peeked out to stare in apparent equal fascination at Emma. The only thing she remembered from the conversation between the adults was the Amish man's quiet acceptance; he expected no better from the English, as they called anyone not Amish.
She shook her head, ordering herself to stop meandering and pay attention.
"You think your case is connected to mine." It wasn't a question. Didn't really have to be. But Tate echoed her own thoughts on the matter anyway.
"I think the likelihood of two independent serial kidnap-persand maybe killerstargeting the exact same class of victims, even three hundred miles apart, is slim."
"Anything's possible. But likely?"
Sometimes both their jobs relied on simply going with the odds, Emma thought. Still she hesitated. She was reluctant to abandon, even temporarily, her own case. She had not just three, but a string of missing girls going back nearly three months. But because of that reluctance to involve outsiders, and even more to involve federal outsiders, she'd been called in so late there had been little to find, and the suspect's trail and the case had quickly gone cold.
Because they'd relocated to Pennsylvania?
"I need you, Emma. You've been working your case long enough, you'll catch anything that might prove or disprove that mine are connected. And you always did relate better to them than any of us."
Not that any of the Colton brood didn't get along, Emma thought. They'd been taught to respect their quiet, peaceful neighbors and appreciate their industrious ways. But Tate was a Philadelphia cop and had come a long way from those youthful, halcyon days on the ranch.
"All right," she said decisively. "I'll be on my way."
"Text me your flight number. I'll pick you up, bring you up to speed on the way to the ranch."
Emma hung up and scrambled out of bed. She called her supervisory agent and left a long voice mail explaining, emphasizing the likely connection to their case to head off any dissent about her being called in by her brother. It was legit, she told herself. If the cases were related, then it crossed state borders and they were involved anyway.
Then she made a reservation for the next flight from Cleveland to Philadelphia. She could probably drive it in about the same amount of time, but wanted to arrive fresh and have a chance to study the pictures and basic details Tate was sending.
Her timeline now set, she showered, quickly dried her hair and pulled it into her usual ponytail. Then she went about the business of packing, although since she and her family had enough clothing left permanently at the ranch to handle everything but the longest visit, it was mainly toiletries and the rather severe pantsuits she generally wore. They were expensive, yes, but subtly so and made to last.
She'd long ago decided she wasn't going to stress out over what to wear to present the proper image; she'd found a style that worked, plain, simple, yet exquisitely cut to flatter, and bought several in the colors she considered acceptable for workblack, dark blue or gray. Not only was it easier, but if she was always wearing the same thing, her attireand the severe hairstylenever distracted from her professional demeanor. Sometimes she even resorted to dark-framed glasses to somewhat mask the vivid green of her eyes.
Overall, she strove for a neutral, businesslike look. It was helpful not only with civilians, but with her male colleagues, as well. She had enough trouble with assumptions people made about her, from riding on the Colton name to being a "poor little rich girl," and she didn't want to add to them with any blatantly upscale clothing, fancy jewelry or anything else that might remind people of her background. Especially her connection to Joseph Colton, who was, in essence, the boss of all her bosses.
She shook off the old concerns, went to the nightstand and took out her weapon. With no children in the apartment, she kept the Glock 23 ready for use, and she slipped it into the holster at her waist. It had become a part of her now, and she was, sometimes to her brother's dismay, a better shot than he was. Their phone calls to compare proficiency scores had become a tradition.
Emma smiled. She was so lucky. Tate was the best of big brothers, even if he was a bit overprotective. And as for her big brother Derek Well, Derek was their rock, his steadfast, solid goodness something they had all clung to at one time or another. And when their parents had left the ranch to him in their will, a will executed far too early, after the vicious sneak attack on September 11, 2001, every shaken Colton child had felt a tiny bit safer knowing Derek would see to it that the ranch remained the refuge it had always been for all of them.
Gunnar, on the other hand
She couldn't worry about her troubled, antisocial oldest brother just now. She'd see him soon enough, although she didn't expect much change.
Despite the grimness of the reason for the trip, she was looking forward to it. She hadn't been home in a while and hadn't expected to make it before the holidays.
She smiled at the thought of seeing the kids, as she always thought of her sister, Piper, and little brother, Sawyer. She wondered if they were still squabbling, eleven-year-old Sawyer, with his knack for sarcasm, constantly teasing his big sister, and Piper responding with typical sixteen-year-old drama. The girl was tall, five foot nine and still growing, and Emma suspected Sawyer's fear that she might end up taller than he, even when he was grown up, was behind a lot of his jabs at the sister he called an Amazon.
As she headed to the airport, she felt the usual pang that accompanied thoughts of her youngest sibling. Sawyer had been an infant when he'd come to them, practically a newborn. He'd never had the chance to know the kind, generous, dynamic couple that had adopted him. For a long time they were afraid they were going to lose him back into the system because of the death of Donovan and Charlotte Colton. Derek, ever the rock even at twenty-two, had spearheaded the Colton resistance to the very idea of losing the baby who was the last piece of their parents' grand plan. A contingent had flown in from the Texas Coltons to stand with them, impressive enough, but a brief yet powerful video statement made by then-senator Joseph Colton had put the cap on the affair. As a result, baby Sawyer had gone home with his adoptive family.
She realized suddenly why her mind had veered onto this track. The possible loss of their baby brother had been yet another horrific blow to a family that had already lost so much. The Amish community was like one huge family, and they'd been struck again and again. And no family court hearing could restore their children to them.
It was up to her, and now her brother, to find them and bring them home.