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He had to do it, Ryan Barton told himself. What was a little personal humiliation, under the circumstances? He had no right to even worry about the odious task before him. He needed help, and the last person on earth he wanted to ask for it was the only one who could provide it. He couldn't stand even one more day of his parents' frantic worry.
Or his own.
He didn't like the word frantic. It contained an element of hysteria, and that was not a word he liked applied to himself. But he had to admit the more time that passed the more it fit; he'd gone beyond anxiety and worry a couple of days ago.
Trish, he thought, an image flashing through his mind of the blonde, blue-eyed little pest who had annoyed him endlessly in his early teenage years, even as he'd admitted to himself that he was flattered by her unwavering adoration of her big brother. And when he'd gotten himself in big trouble for hacking a corporate network, and been facing some serious consequences, Trish had been the one who had defended him to their furious parents. That he'd known perfectly well he'd been in the wrong made her loyalty even more amazing to him.
And it had also been Trish who'd talked him into taking the unexpected offer made to him by the very person he'd been caught attacking. When Josh Redstone had challenged him to make the network he'd hacked safe from others with the same bent, it had been the beginning of his relationship with the vast Redstone empire. And now, seven years later, he couldn't imagine life without that connection. At Redstone he got everything that had been missing: the challenge, the equipment he never could have afforded on his own and the appreciation for his less traditional skills.
That Josh Redstone had been the same age Ryan had been at the time when he'd begun that odyssey was one of the factors that had decided him. That, and that the alternative would likely have been a too-close acquaintance with bars and a cell somewhere.
He could, he knew, go to Josh with this. Anyone at Redstone could go to Josh with anything. And if Josh found out his little sister was missing, he would swing into action. But he also knew it was likely Josh would call in the Westin Foundation.
And that meant Sasha.
Ryan had met the dark-haired, dark-eyed Sasha a couple of years ago when Reeve had called for some tech help on the case of Josh's missing nephew. She had enthralled him with her bold beauty, her vibrant energy and spirit, and fascinated him with her exotic history.
It had taken him a long time to work up the nerve to ask her out. And no one had been more stunned than he when she'd said yes. But then, somehow, he'd managed to ruin things practically before they even began, and she'd walked away leaving him feeling like a spurned puppy.
And with the nagging feeling that that was exactly how she saw him, like an immature, bothersome puppy.
And now he had to ask her for help.
Only for you, Trish, he muttered to himself.
He dug his smart phone out of the pile of parts on his work-table; Ian's new, ultrasecure, wireless network router design was proving to be a bit of a challenge. But then, that was why he loved his job, and considered it a great honor to be working with Ian Gamble, Redstone's genius inventor.
At the last second he decided not to call Sasha directly. He still had her number in his phoneassuming it hadn't changedbut he didn't want her thinking this was just an excuse. This situation, and his concern for his little sister, was genuine, and calling the foundation would show her that.
So instead he found the number for the foundation and called it instead. As the call went through, he decided maybe the best approach would be to just pretend he'd forgotten all about their aborted relationship. Like it had meant nothing, that he'd thought about it no more than she likely had.
Yeah, that was it. That was the way to go. Sasha Tereschenko? Yeah, I remember her. Works for the Westin Foundation, right? Met her a couple of times, I think.
Sure, that would work. Never let her see you sweat, wasn't that how it went? So he wouldn't. Besides, he didn't, not really. It wasn't like he obsessed about it, about what had gone wrong. He'd moved on, just as she had. He hadn't been ready for any kind of permanence anyway.
No strings, that's the way for me, he'd said to himself, and two years later that hadn't changed. Not at all.
He really did barely think about it.
Which didn't explain why his stomach took a wild tumble when that unmistakable smoky voice rang in his ear.
"Westin Foundation, this is Sasha. How can I help?"
What the hell was she doing answering the phone? They had somebody who did that. Why was she
He reined himself in, grimacing at his flustered reaction. It was like Sasha to just jump in if someone else was busy. She had no compulsions about job descriptions, only the job itself; he'd learned that about her early on. And he had a real, solid reason for calling, he reminded himself. Get to it.
"Do you have someone missing? I'm here, just tell me what you need."
What you need That gentle, soft urging note had come into her voice, the tone that Ryan remembered so well. She could get a guy to eat broken glass with that voice, he'd thought then.
It hadn't changed.
"Yes," he said suddenly, not exactly sure what he was saying yes to. With an effort he shook off the effects of that voice. Thought about addressing her as Ms. Tereschenko, but that sounded so weird even in his head he abandoned the idea as soon as it formed.
"Sasha, it's Ryan. Ryan Barton."
Well, at least she only sounded surprised, and not like she had no idea who he was. That was something, he supposed, that she hadn't forgotten him completely.
"It's been a while. How are you?" She sounded, he thought, annoyingly cheerful.
"Okay," he answered, not quite able to sound the same.
"I heard about you helping with Gabe Taggert's missing wife. That was a good thing you did."
He was warmed by the words, but didn't like the fact. He didn't want to care at all. So he said, "I didn't do it. Ian's new metal detector did."
"But you ran it," she said. "If you hadn't found that car, he might never have known what happened to her. And I heard there were a couple of other missing persons cases closed because of the other things you found. Definitely a good thing."
"Yeah, well," he muttered, not knowing what else to say when he was thinking, If I'm so great, why did you walk away?
"So what are you" She stopped suddenly. Then, quickly, "Wait. You said yes when I asked if you had someone missing."
Thankful she'd made the change, he shifted into the real reason he'd called. "Yes. My sister. For a week."
She sounded genuinely appalled, and that enabled him to get going on the things he'd planned to say.
"Yes. I know the foundation deals with children mostly, and Trish is eighteen, but only by five days. So the principles of searching can't be much different, can they?"
"It's very different looking for a teenager than a child," she said.
"I get that. Look, if you can't help, at least tell me how to start."
"Ryan, I never said that."
Her voice had taken on that gentle, coaxing tone again. Only this time it stung, made him think she'd put him into the category of frantic-relative-to-be-calmed. That that's exactly what he was didn't help any.
"Let's meet. Russ and I are just finishing up the paperwork on a case, but it should only take another half hour or so, then I'll be free."
Great, Ryan muttered to himself. Russell C. Langer, resident stud, GQ-handsome and so smooth he made Teflon seem like sandpaper.
And so hot for Sasha it was infuriating.
Or had been. He had no right to be infuriated anymore. And maybe Russ wasn't hot for her anymore.
Maybe he'd gotten what he wanted.
That thought made Ryan's stomach knot. Sasha's lively vividness and the polished, slightly older Langer's practiced charm made for well, the perfect couple. Especially when contrasted with his own laid-back geekiness. Russ was all that, and he was none of it. At best, his sister's sometimes irritating friends called him cute, which was something he associated with little kids and puppies again, and thus not particularly flattering. Trish just told him he should be glad he didn't look like a typical geek, but he hadn't found much comfort in that.
"Shall I come there, or can you come here?" Sasha was asking.
There? At the foundation, where she and Russ were cozily working together? No way, he thought. I so do not want to go there.
Ryan shook his head sharply.
Trish, he ordered himself. Get back to Trish, she's what really matters here, not your stupidity.
"I Let's meet in between."
"Okay." She didn't seem to find anything odd in the request. "It's lunchtime, how about at The Grill in an hour?"
He wasn't at all hungry, but at least at the popular restaurantknown to locals as The Grill despite it's longer name involving the street it was on and the ethnicity of the ownerhe could have some coffee, or a soda, something to do instead of staring at her like that pesky pup.
It would make it easier to hide the truth, that he'd never, ever forgotten her.
Ryan Barton, Sasha thought as she leaned back in her chair. She certainly hadn't ever expected to hear from him again. She'd known that he'd been bewildered by her sudden withdrawal, although she'd tried to explain. It wasn't that she hadn't liked him, she had. A great deal. It wasn't that she didn't have fun with him, she did. A great deal.
It wasn't that she wasn't attracted to him, she was. An even greater deal. Almost too much; she'd been nearly ready for a move to the next level, a sexual relationship, far too quickly for her comfort. There had been something about him that had, unexpectedly, appealed mightily to her. It wasn't his short, almost spiky hair that was nearly blond at the tips; that was hardly her style. More likely it was his obvious intelligence, his ready grin, his quick, energetic way of moving, and the simple fact that he'd made it clear he was strongly attracted to her.
But none of that changed the bottom line, the one difference between them that she simply couldn't get around. Ryan was cheerful, happy and carefree. The first two she liked. The last well, it annoyed her. Ryan didn't worry about much of anything, even things that should be worried about. He seemed to have a blind faith that everything would work out the way it should.
And Sasha Tereschenko knew better.
But he'd called with something that seemed to have finally gotten through to him, she reminded herself. For the first time since she'd known him, Ryan had sounded well, worried.
Maybe he would finally learn that life wasn't always a light-hearted skateboard through the park.
Quickly, she turned back to the paperwork she'd been working on when he'd called. If she pushed, she'd just make the time frame she'd given Ryan. She finished entering the text section of her report, then tackled the checklist at the bottom that would enter the case into their ever-growing database of cases, details and MOs in the case of criminal connections and the thankfully rare kidnappings.
When she was finally done, she attached the routing command that would complete the process. The computer software linked up with databases across the country, both law enforcement and private, and gave them an incredibly vast and broad-based pool of knowledge, statistics and case information to draw on. It was, to her knowledge, unique in the field, although thanks to Redstone, which had funded its development, it was being put into use all over the country.
And it had been written by Ryan Barton.
And there she was, back to the big conundrum. Shouldn't he get credit for that? Shouldn' t the fact that he was making it easier for places like the Westin Foundation to find missing and endangered children count as evidence he wasn't utterly carefree?
She'd thought so. In fact it was one of the reasons she'd agreed to go out with him in the first place. But she'd learned early on it had been the challenge of making it work, not the desire to help, that had truly driven him. That was Ryan; he thought his blessed computers could do anything, if you just programmed them right. That his work often helped people was just a side effect.
Not that that didn't please him, but his focus was the machines, not the people. And that
"Hey, beautiful, how about lunch to celebrate?"
Startled out of her reverie, she glanced up at Russ Langer, who was leaning against the doorjamb of her office. Funny, she thought. In the same way Ryan seemed to project his carefree mind-set, Russ projected self-assurance. She made herself use the term, even to herself, when what she was really thinking was cockiness. But she had to work with the guy, and thinking all the time he was a cocky jerk could lead to her actually saying it out loud, and she didn't want that.
Besides, he wasn't really a jerk, he was nice enough. And when he worked, he was good at it. It was simply that he was handsome beyond beliefand he knew it. She guessed he always had. She wondered yet again what it must be like to be able to slide through life simply on your looks.
"Well?" Russ prompted when she didn't leap to say yes to his offer.
"Sorry," she said, standing up and grabbing her phone to stuff it back in the capacious bag she called a purse. "A call just came in. I have to meet a relative."
"We just finished a long one. Somebody else can go. We deserve a break."
"The family of a missing girl deserves a break," Sasha said pointedly.
Russ sighed. At least he'd learned that about hernothing could distract her from helping someone who needed her particular talents.
"Want me to come with?" he asked as she reached the doorway, and him.
"No, I've got it. You go get your lunch, take your break."
His gaze narrowed over impossibly perfect cheekbones, as if he wondered if she'd meant the words as a slam. And perhaps, on some level, she had. She couldn't picture Russ ever skipping a meal or forgoing a breakeven though he was right, it was deserved, the Novato case had been long and hardto jump right into another case.
But he had offered, she reminded herself, and smiled at him. "I'll call you if it turns into something and I need the help. Thanks."