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"Tell me again what we're doing checking out the whereabouts of an ex-FBI agent from the Kansas City field office?" FBI agent Andrew Barkin asked from the backseat of the car.
FBI special agent Gabriel Blankenship slowed the car as they approached the city limits of the small town of Bachelor Moon, Louisiana. "We're doing this as a professional courtesy, because the Kansas City office asked us to."
"A little over two years ago Sam Connelly was a respected FBI profiler before he came out here for a two-week vacation and fell in love with Daniella Butler, who owns the Bachelor Moon Bed-and-Breakfast," Jackson Revannaugh drawled from the passenger seat. "Apparently true love won out over career climbing. Sam quit the agency, moved here and he and Daniella got married."
"Sam not only became a husband but also stepfather to Daniella's daughter, Macy. And this morning we received a call from the manager of the bed-and-breakfast that all three of them are missing," Gabriel said.
"Unusual that we'd be sent out, since it hasn't even been twenty-four hours," Jackson observed.
"According to the manager, they've been missing since last night." Gabriel kept his gaze focused on the road ahead, knowing that the bed-and-breakfast was ten miles outside of the small town.
His gut feeling was that this was all a wild goose chase, some sort of misunderstanding between the manager and the family she worked for. It was an hour and a half drive from their field office in Baton Rouge, and they hadn't been dispatched to leave until past three that afternoon.
Hopefully they could get this sorted out and he would be in his own bed, back in his comfortable ranch house in Baton Rouge, before midnight.
He'd been surprised when Director Jason Miller had assigned two men to travel with him to check out this supposed disappearance, yet he had been grateful for the company of the men, who were not only good agents adept at processing crime scenes and sniffing out bad guys but were friends, as well.
"There." Andrew pointed ahead to a sign that indicated to turn right for the Bachelor Moon Bed-and-Breakfast.
Gabriel made the turn, squinting against the bright hot sun. He drove on for three more miles and then turned again, following another sign leading into a lane that took them to their destination.
"Nice," Jackson said as a huge two-story house with a sweeping veranda surrounded by large trees came into view. On one side of the B and B, a big pond glittered in the overhead sun, and on the other side, a giant carriage house looked inviting with large pots of multicolored flowers along its perimeter.
The employees must park in another area, and there must be no guests, Gabriel thought, for the parking lot in front of the house was empty. He pulled the car to a halt and shut off the engine. At the same time, the front door opened and a woman stepped out on the porch.
With the sun sparkling off her short, curly blond hair, creating a halo effect, she looked like a slender angel. Her long bare legs exposed by a pair of white shorts and her shoulders by a pink tank top, she looked like a very hot angel.
"Sweet," Jackson muttered from the backseat.
"On the job, not on the prowl," Gabriel reminded his fellow agent, who had a reputation around the office as a ladies' man. Still, he was shocked by the quick, visceral warmth that swept through him at the sight of her. Her eyes had to be blue, he thought.
She started down the steps as if unable to wait for them to join her on the porch. As she drew closer, the men exited the vehicle.
Two things occurred at the same time: Gabriel flashed his official identification and noted that her eyes weren't blue, as he'd expected, but rather an electric green. She was more than pretty with her slender face, wide eyes, straight nose and generous mouth, but at the moment all of her features were radiating an emotion somewhere between panic and unadulterated fear.
"Thank God you're here," she said after Gabriel had introduced himself and his two men. "I'm Mar-lena Meyers, the manager here, and I'm the one who sounded the alarm this morning. I called the sheriff first, but he was afraid to get involved in what might be federal business, so he said I should contact the FBI. I found Sam's contact list in his bedroom and called his former director with the Kansas City field office."
"And Assistant Director Forbes contacted our field office in Baton Rouge and here we are," Gabriel replied. Despite the fact that the sun was slowly sinking in the west, the mid-July heat and humidity made it difficult to breathe. "Can we go inside?"
"Oh, of course." She whirled on the heels of her white sandals to lead them back to the house. Gabriel couldn't help but notice the shapeliness of her butt in the tight shorts as she walked ahead of himand that irritated him.
It had been a long time since a woman had attracted his attention in any way, and the last thing he needed was to be distracted by this blonde bombshell. He just wanted to get inside, figure things out and get back home as soon as possible.
She led them into a great room, obviously a place decorated for guests to hang out. Besides a couple of couches and chairs, there was a flat-screen television and a bookcase full of paperbacks and puzzles.
She paused in the center of the room, and her gaze shot from Andrew to Jackson and then finally landed on Gabriel. "They're gone." Her voice was a tortured whisper as her eyes became shiny with unshed tears. "When I got up this morning, I knew that something was horribly wrong."
"And how did you know that?" Gabriel asked.
Her eyes darkened, and she twisted her ringless hands together. "You need to see the kitchen." Once again she turned and walked out of the room. The three men exchanged curious glances and followed.
"This is the guest dining room," she said as they entered a room with a table big enough to seat a dozen. A sideboard held an industrial-size coffee brewer, but no scent of coffee lingered in the air.
She paused at the door on the opposite side of the room, her eyes still shiny. "There," she said and pointed into the room. It was obvious she had no intention of going inside.
As Gabriel swept past her, he caught a whiff of her scent, a clean floral fragrance he found instantly appealing, but the allure of her perfume immediately died as he walked into the kitchen and saw the table before him.
The small round wooden table on the far side of the roomy kitchen held the remnants of what appeared to be an evening snack. Three glasses of milk sat next to three small plates with cookies. Milk was missing from all of the glasses, and there was one cookie on one plate and two each on the other plates. A single chair was overturned on its back on the floor, as if the person seated in it had jumped up so quickly that it had flipped over.
"The back door looks like it's unlocked," Jackson said.
None of the three men had taken more than two steps into the room. "Has anyone been inside here besides you?"
She shook her head, her blond curls dancing with the movement. "No. We don't have any guests right now, and I've made sure the other help have stayed out of the kitchen all day."
Gabriel frowned. "Before we do anything more here, I'd like to see their bedrooms."
"They live in the two-bedroom suite upstairs."
"Are they the type of people to take an impromptu trip somewhere?" Gabriel asked as they all followed her up the wide staircase.
"Not at all. If they had planned anything, they would have let me know, and they would have never taken off in the middle of the night." Her voice was laced with a simmering frantic worry. "Something bad happened last night. I just know it. Now they're gone, and nobody has seen or heard from them all day."
Gabriel had known the moment he had stepped into the kitchen that he wasn't going to make it into his own bed tonight. Although his gut told him they'd just looked at a crime scene, he didn't have enough information to fully embrace that as a certainty.
Upstairs there were guest rooms on either side of the hall. Gabriel paused at each doorway to look inside. The first was decorated in blue and white and held two double beds, a dresser, a small table and chairs next to the window.
The second held a king-size bed and was a study in lavender and lace, with the same type of furniture again. There appeared to be nothing amiss in either of the rooms.
"The guest rooms have their own baths, and there are three more rooms in the carriage house," she said, flipping on lights, even though night wouldn't encroach for a couple of hours yet.
"Where does this go?" Gabriel asked, referring to a closed door in the hallway.
"It leads to an old servant's staircase that goes down to the basement and outside. Nobody uses it anymore, and the door is kept locked."
Gabriel nodded, knowing before the night was over that the door would be unlocked and the basement thoroughly checked.
"These are Sam, Daniella and Macy's rooms." The door was already open, and Marlena paused in the hallway and gestured the men in.
The initial space was a large bedroom/sitting area. The king-size bed was neatly made with a black-and-white spread. At the foot of the bed was a settee in front of a wall-mounted flat-screen television. A set of bookshelves held games and books, and it was easy for Gabriel to recognize that this was the family getaway from a houseful of paying guests.
The bathroom was also neat and clean, with no indication that anyone had been there during the day. The smaller bedroom was an explosion of pink with a single bed covered with stuffed animals and dolls.
Gabriel returned to the main room and opened the closet doors as Jackson and Andrew checked the bathroom and Macy's bedroom more carefully.
Gabriel noted a set of suitcases were shoved to the left of the closet, and there didn't appear to be any clothing missing from hangers. He moved to the dresser, where two phones resided side by side. He couldn't imagine the Connellys leaving without taking their cells with them. He picked up the phones and noticed that both were turned off, probably shut down for the night before their owners had gone to bed.
He then pulled out the top drawer of the dresser, dismayed to find Sam's wallet and his gun. A check in the wallet let Gabriel know that his driver's license, credit cards and bank card were all intact.
Gabriel's heart stepped up its rhythm as he tried to imagine any reason a man would take off with his family without his wallet. And an FBI agent would never leave for any extended time without his gun. It just wouldn't happen.
He turned to see Marlena still standing in the hallway. "You'd better set us up with rooms for a night or two. It looks like we're going to be here a while. And don't allow anyone into the kitchen. Right now that appears to be a crime scene."
One hand shot to her mouth in obvious horror. "You have to find them."
Gabriel nodded. "That's the plan, and the first thing I need to do is ask you some questions." Marlena Meyers might be pretty, and she appeared genuinely distraught, but he had to figure out if she was truly scared for the people who had been her bosses or a good actress who was somehow responsible for whatever had happened in that kitchen the night before.
Of the three FBI agents, Gabriel Blankenship intimidated Marlena the most. Since the moment he'd met her, his blue eyes had remained dark and flat, his lips seemingly unable to curve into any semblance of a smile.
Within minutes it was established that agents Barkin and Revannaugh would share the blue room and Gabriel would take the lavender room. While the other two men went out to their car to bring in duffel bags and crime-scene kits, Gabriel gestured her into a chair in the common room downstairs and then pulled up one of the other chairs close enough so that their knees practically touched.
Marlena wanted to scream at him that he was wasting precious time, that he and his men should be out checking the woods, beating the bushes, knocking on doors in an attempt to find the missing family . Her surrogate family.
From the pocket of the white shirt that stretched across impossibly broad shoulders, he pulled out a pen and a small pad. He was definitely a hunk, his black slacks fitting perfectly to his slender waist and long legs. He also wore a shoulder holster and gun that would constantly remind her he wasn't a guest here but rather a man on a mission.
His black hair had just enough curl to entice a woman to run her fingers through it, but those eyes of his would stop any impulse a woman might have to touch him in any way.
Cold and with a glint of keen intelligence, his ice-blue eyes appeared to be those of a man who had seen too much, who trusted nobody and held not a hint of any kind of invitation.
"How long have you worked here as a manager?" he asked.
"For the past seventeen months or so. Before that I was living in Chicago, although I'm originally from Bachelor Moon. Daniella and I were best friends all through high school. I left here around the time she married Johnny Butler, and when I returned, I found out Johnny had been murdered and she had fallen in love with Sam." She knew she was rambling, giving him far more information than he'd asked for, but it was nerves. Whenever she was nervous and frightened, she talked too much.
"I was maid of honor at Sam and Daniella's wedding, and for almost the past two years, the two of them and little Macy have been my family." New tears burned at her eyes but she quickly blinked them away. "They took me and Cory in when we had nothing and no place else to go. They embraced us, and my friendship with Daniella picked up where it had left off."
He stared at her mouth, and she wondered if he was somehow judging the words that fell out of it. Did he believe she'd had something to do with the family's disappearance? Did he think she was lying to cover up some sort of heinous crime?
He turned his attention to the pad in his hand, made a couple of notes and then gazed up at her again.
"My brother. He just turned twenty, and he works as the gardener's assistant here. My mother abandoned us when we were young, and my father Well, he did the best he could, but I basically raised Cory. When I was twenty my father died, and I petitioned the courts to get custody of Cory, and he's been with me ever since." Again she realized she was talking too much and firmly chastised herself just to answer his questions as simply, as succinctly as possible.
"And where does Cory stay?"
"He has a small apartment built onto the back of the carriage house, but he'd never do anything to hurt Sam or Daniella, and he thinks of Macy as a little sister. He loves them as much as I do."
"Who else works here?"