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Braden McCrae left work in a hurry. Pushing through the front doors of the building, he strode toward the parking lot. There had been a tremor in his dad's voice when he called. He wouldn't talk over the phone, only insisted on meeting him and Mom at his house. What had happened? Had one of his grandparents died? Were his parents all right? Or had his sister gotten herself into more trouble? Whatever it was, it couldn't be good. His dad never asked to meet in person if he didn't have something serious to tell him.
Reaching his Subaru, he hesitated before getting inside. A white BMW was parked in the outer lot. A couple of days ago, one just like it was parked down the street from his house. Was it the same SUV? Immediately on the offensive, he took in all the details he could from this distance. Someone was sitting inside, probably a man. He couldn't see the license plate from here.
A long-buried instinct emerged, the fighter in him. Life had taught him to be ready for anything. And he was now.
Driving out of the parking lot, he turned onto the street and watched his rearview mirror. Sure enough, the BMW pulled out of the lot. Who would follow him and why? Would his ex-wife go to such extremes? She'd been angry he'd appealed the divorce terms. He was only disputing the credit card balances, but she had thrown a fit. She'd never liked being married to a mere engineer. She had high hopes of him soaring to the top, running the company and earning an equally top salary. He wasn't opposed to making lots of money; he just didn't want the job that went along with it. Certain executives he'd observed were only as good as their ability to warp the truth. Only one line needed to be on their resumehow many years of experience they had warping the truth.
And Serena had expected him to become that. It had led to their demise. Why did some women think they could change a man? What was wrong with the version they married? Braden didn't get it. He didn't get women.
Engineering was in his blood. He'd spent countless hours taking things apart and putting them back together when he was a kid. He was a natural at math and enjoyed blowing things up. He was happy with his job. But Serena didn't care about that.
He checked the mirror again. The BMW was several cars back. Serena was many things, but he didn't think she was the type to hire a thug to scare him into dropping the appeal. And there was only one way to find out who was in that BMW, and why. When he was a teenager, he learned how to avoid bullies and was afraid of defending himself. Now a grown man, he was no longer afraid and knew how to defend himself.
Turning a corner, he drove slowly until the SUV appeared, and then went into a parking lot of a small, organic market. Leaning over, he opened his glove box and took out a big flashlight, covertly seeing the BMW park along the street.
Braden got out of his Subaru and headed toward the vehicle, careful to keep cars within close proximity in case he needed to take cover. There was a man inside. He was wearing a baseball cap and a dark blue, lightweight jacket. He was a big man. Seeing his approach, long, solid flashlight swinging at his side, the man stared at him a second or two. He hadn't expected his prey to become the predator. He also didn't appear afraid of that. Calmly, the man restarted the BMW engine that he'd presumptuously shut off. Then he looked at Braden again, as though making sure he hadn't misinterpreted his approach.
Nope. No misinterpretation. Braden fully intended to use this flashlight if he had to. But the man wisely decided not to go up against him. The man steered out into the street.
Braden jogged to the sidewalk and read the license plate. After memorizing the number, he headed back toward his Subaru. Whoever the man was hadn't anticipated Braden would notice the tail, much less take action. Not many knew that side of him. To most, he was an average guy. But he was also someone who couldn't be pushed around. Ever since he was a kid, he'd worked hard at that.
But this was a situation that could go beyond kickboxing and target practice in his free time. Why was someone tailing him?
Back inside his car, his father's tone over the phone reclaimed him. Was the reason the man in the BMW had singled him out related to whatever he'd go home to find out from his parents?
Fifteen minutes were too long. As he turned onto his street, he saw his parents' car in the driveway of his middle-class, three-bedroom house. They had a key and must be waiting for him inside. A sense of foreboding kept him on alert.
After going through the garage, he stepped into his open kitchen, spotting his parents across the island counter. His mother stood rigidly beside the bulky, round pine table and his dad rose up from a chair, pushing it in and standing behind it. In their late fifties, they looked a decade younger. His dad was tall and fit, wearing jeans and a long-sleeved white, pink and gray finely striped shirt. His hazel eyes were heavy with apprehension and his salt-and-pepper hair uncombed. His mother kept her hair dyed the chocolate brown of her youth and her petite body in shape. As usual, she was put together in big, stylish silver-and-blue earrings, a matching necklace and designer slacks and blouse. The whites around her green eyes were red from crying. Braden had gotten his eyes from his mother and his dark hair from his father, although his dad wore his shorter.
It was difficult to see them so shaken.
"We have something to tell you," his mother said, her still-beautiful face ravaged with strain.
"It's your sister," his dad finished for her.
So, it was his sister. Her trouble wasn't over. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"She's gone missing."
Missing might mean dead. She had gone to the British Virgin Islands on vacation last week. Now she was missing.
Damn it. What would he do if he never saw her again? He and his sister were close in age and had done a lot together. They lost contact when they went to college, and then he'd gotten married. She hadn't married and was the top executive he'd never be.
"She hasn't answered her phone in two days." His dad leaned on the back of the chair, his hands gripping the top, pale wood bar.
Why hadn't they called him sooner? He subdued his reproach. They probably didn't want to worry him unnecessarily. Now it was necessary. His parents hadn't achieved success by being impulsive. His dad was an architect who'd started a log business that provided well for his family. His mother didn't need her psychology degree, but she practiced out of their home.
"Has she called you?" his mother asked, looping her arm with his dad's.
"No. Not since before she left." She'd been upset over losing her job. "Have you talked to the police there?"
His mother began crying softly.
Freeing his arm from hers, his dad pulled her closer. "According to them, she never checked in at the Frenchman's Point Hotel, but the manager there said he saw her get into a taxi."
That offered a small glimmer of hope. "Where did the taxi take her?"
"The detective didn't know. Neither did the hotel manager. He only saw her get into the taxi."
"Have they questioned the driver?"
His mother's crying deepened into a wrenching sound.
"He was found shot to death later that night."
Murdered? The sting of shock bled into deflated hope. Tatum could be in serious trouble.
"The airline confirmed she boarded her plane," his dad said unnecessarily. If she was seen getting into a taxi, she must have made it to the island. "The detective assigned to the case said she didn't rent a car," his dad rambled on, a father distraught. "He couldn't find evidence that she took a cab there. The other taxi drivers there didn't have a record and didn't recognize her picture."
Frenchman's Cay was an island off the coast of Tortola.
"Who is the detective?"
At least he was intent on searching. "Did Tatum mention she might meet someone there?"
"No." His dad shook his head, barely hanging on to his composure. "We've searched through her things here in Denver. Nothing is missing and nothing is out of place that we can tell."
Braden contemplated telling them about the BMW and just as quickly decided to hold off. They had enough trauma to deal with right now. He'd go search for his sister and keep them informed as much as possible. The detective may seem to be doing that for them, but Braden could not stay here and wait. He had to do something. Finding a missing person wasn't his area of expertise, however. He wasn't proficient in this sort of thing, especially on foreign land, but he did know someone who was.
Halfway through their Monopoly game, Arizona Ivy had had enough. "I'm twenty-five. I can make my own decisions."
At her sharp tone, her brother's blue eyes lifted from the board game. Blond-haired, tall and muscular, he had Viking good looks. All of her brothers and sisters had that Scandinavian appearance. "You aren't thinking it through. As usual, you're being impulsive."
She didn't respond. She had a real shot at making a good career for herself and Lincoln was stepping all over her toes. She wrote the latest gossip for a not-so-great entertainment rag. Who was divorcing whom. Who was cheating. Who was gay. She could do better than that. Her dad had helped her get a lead on a job, and Lincoln thought she was setting herself up for failure. She should stick with what she was good at, and that was entertainment.
Just because their father was a huge success as a movie producer didn't mean his kids were destined for entertainment careers. She had her own aspirations. And that was a much more serious career than the one she currently had. If only she could find a way to prove she was capable.
"It's still your turn," Lincoln said.
She didn't feel like playing anymore. "I have to go now."
While he protested with a brotherly "Aww, come on," she stood. Tucking her shoulder-blade-length blond hair behind one ear, she grabbed her car keys.
"Don't be a big baby, Arizona. I tell you these things because I don't want to see you get hurt."
"Then support me." She left his 1950s, newly remodeled kitchen. Big baby. He always treated her like a kid. His little sister. She was tired of that, too.
"I do support you. I wish you would listen to me," he called from his seat at the table.
"I do listen to you," she called back. "I wish you would listen to me!"
It wasn't fair. He was her only sibling out of eight that she could talk to. Guess not anymore. He was the oldest and she was the youngest. She was an adult now. She didn't need guidance. She could guide her own way.
Through his living room, the lack of feminine touches further sparked her ire. No flowers. No frilly decor. Just furniture and trim. She sure wished he'd find himself a woman. Then maybe he'd be too preoccupied to stick his nose in her business!
With snowballing energy, she swung the door open and came face-to-face with a man standing there, his finger poised over the doorbell. The first things that struck her were his lean, hard biceps and broad chest. Next was his military-short, dark brown hair and sexy stubble that peppered a square jaw. And last were his intense green eyes. Something about them ignited warm embers.
As he lowered his hand, his bold gaze went down her body and back up again, brushing her with tingles. She'd worn jean shorts and strappy red high heels, which showcased her long legs. A metallic-beaded, sleeveless pink top did the same for her breasts and small waist. Her aim wasn't to be overly sexy, just fun. Some people didn't take it that way. Was he one of them?
His pique polo shirt was wrinkle-free and tucked neatly into his jeans. His shoes were leather. He was clean. Smelled that way, too. He appeared a lot more conservative than her. But she'd felt what lay underneath. It was in the green fire of his eyes.
"Hi," she said.
At her flirtatious tone, blinds shut tight over his emotions. Rigid control. Big, giant, thick wall.
What had caused his withdrawal? She hadn't mistaken the chemistry.
"I'm here to see Lincoln Ivy."
His deep voice melted through her.
"Braden, is that you?" Her brother appeared with a big smile on the porch. "Good to see you." Arizona stepped aside as he reached forward and shook his hand.
"It's been a while," Braden said.
"Yes. Too long."
Arizona stuck her hand out. "I'm Arizona. Ivy. Arizona Ivy. Lincoln's sister."
Braden reluctantly shook her hand. "Braden McCrae." She felt silly for being so awkward. Why was she trying so hard to get his attention? Normally, she was uncontrollably picky when a handsome man crossed her path. She looked for flaws and held back until she either found them and had an excuse to walk away, or didn't and dated them until the threat of more sent her scurrying.
"How do you know my brother?" He had smooth skin, and yet not. Strong. Slightly calloused.
"We went to college together." He let go of her hand.
As before, her skin tingled as though he'd caressed her intimately.
"What brings you here?" Lincoln sent her a curious look, obviously having noticed her reaction to his friend.
"I wish I could say it's just to pay a visit. Unfortunately, it's urgent."
"What is it?" Lincoln was perplexed now. His college friend had come for a reason and it wasn't to catch up.
"My sister is missing. She went to the British Virgin Islands on vacation and said she was going to call my parents but never did. The police are saying she was seen getting into a taxi in front of Frenchman's Point Hotel."
Arizona felt a one-two punch as Braden dropped his news. Missing. In the Virgin Islands. Plummeted back in time, she struggled with sobering memories and the ever-hovering sense of helplessness she could never quite shed.
"Are the police looking for her?" Lincoln asked.
"Yes. They've done some investigating, but nothing has turned up so far."
We 're very sorry, but there's nothing more we can do
The St. Thomas police hadn't known where Trevor's abductors had taken him. They'd demanded money, and her father had paid, but they'd killed Trevor anyway. To this day, they hadn't been caught. The injustice of that had stayed with her.
Arizona was vaguely aware of Braden glancing over her before saying to Lincoln, "I'm going down there to look for her myself."
"And you came to me for help?" Lincoln asked, still perplexed.
"You're a bounty hunter. You know how to find people."
Lincoln fell into an undecided silence.
He hadn't been a bounty hunter when Trevor had been kidnapped. A few years had passed since that traumatic event. It may as well have happened a few months ago. Arizona's heart went out to Braden, and especially to his mother. She well understood what they were going through.
Except, all she sensed from him was determination to find his sister. He hadn't experienced the awfulness of losing someone close, knowing how horribly that person must have suffered before dying. She hoped he never would have to. "What if she decided to go somewhere else?" she asked. "Maybe she's having fun and not thinking about calling her mother." It's what Arizona would do. Calling home would be the last thing on her mind. "How old is she?"
"Twenty-nine. She would have called. And she would have returned my mother's calls. I hope she's only having fun. But I can't wait to find out. If I wait, it might be too late for her."