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Jackson Revannaugh knew he was in the land of Oz when the jet touched down in the middle of a patchwork of farmers' fields. Nowhere near the Kansas City International Airport did he see any signs of a city.
It was already after 7:00 p.m. and he was eager to get off the plane. The flight from Baton Rouge had been over three hours long, and not only had a baby cried the entire trip, but the kid behind him had seemed to find great amusement in kicking the back of Jackson's seat at regular intervals.
Jackson was working up to a stellar foul mood. Too little sleep in the past couple weeks, a long ride in cramped quarters and a bag of pretzels as his only food for the past eight hours or so had made Jackson a cranky man.
Thankfully, it took him only minutes to deplane. From the overhead bin he grabbed the large duffel bag that held everything he would need for the duration of his stay in Kansas City, Missouri. He then headed down the walkway toward the terminal entrance.
Just ahead of him were double doors that led outside the building. As he exited, Jackson realized that the humid mid-July heat of the Midwest had nothing on Bachelor Moon, Louisiana, where he'd spent the past several weeks of his life working on the case of a missing man, his wife and his seven-year-old stepdaughter.
He'd been yanked from that case before they'd had any answers and sent directly here to work on something similar. He stepped to the edge of the curb and fought the exhaustion that, over the past month, had settled on his shoulders like a heavy weight.
He'd been told a car would pick him up to take him to the small town of Mystic Lake, a thirty-minute drive from Kansas City. But he hadn't been told specifically what kind of a car to look for.
What he'd like right about now was a big, juicy steak, a tall glass of bourbon, a ride to the nearest posh hotel for fluffy bath towels, a king-size bed and about twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Instead he stepped to the curb with a frown and the knowledge that it was probably going to be a long night and he wasn't at the top of his game.
He had been given no details about whatever crime had taken place here; he knew only that he was to work with a partner from the Kansas City FBI field office.
Now if he could just find his ride, he could, sooner rather than later, solve the crime and be on his way back out of town and home to his luxury apartment in Baton Rouge.
He stepped back from the curb as a large blue bus pulled to the curb and belched a whoosh of hot exhaust. The doors swung open and for a brief moment Jackson wondered if he was supposed to get on the bus, but that didn't make any sense.
When he'd spoken briefly on the phone earlier to Director Daniel Forbes of the Kansas City field office, he'd told Jackson to stand on the curb outside the luggage area of Terminal A and a car would be waiting.
He remained standing, tamping down an edge of new irritation. Where was the car? His plane had been right on time.
When the bus finally pulled away, a black sedan slid next to the curb. A petite woman with shoulder-length strawberry-blond curls and eyes the green of a Louisiana swamp opened the driver door and stood.
If there was one thing that could transform Jackson from a grouch to a gentleman, it was the sight of an attractive woman. God, he loved women.
"Agent Revannaugh?" she asked.
"That would be me," he replied. He opened the back door and tossed his duffel bag onto the seat and then got into the passenger seat.
She got back behind the steering wheel, bringing with her the scent of honeysuckle and spice. Clad in a pair of tight black slacks and a short-sleeved white blouse that hugged her breasts and emphasized a slender waist, she was definitely a hum of pleasure in Jackson's overworked brain.
As she swept her hair behind one ear, he noted what appeared to be a nice-sized emerald earring. Emeralds were a good choice for her, with her green eyes.
"Well, I feel my mood lifting already," he said as she pulled away from the curb and into the traffic lane that would take them away from the airport terminal. "Darlin', I wasn't expecting my driver to be such a gorgeous piece of eye candy. What a nice welcome to Kansas City." As usual when Jackson worked his charm, his Southern accent grew thicker and more distinct.
She slid him a quick, cool glance and then focused back on the road. "You just assume I'm nothing but your driver because I'm a woman? Hmm, not only a silly flirt, but a chauvinist, as well," she replied. "I haven't had a chance to introduce myself yet. I'm Special Agent Marjorie Clinton, lead investigator on this case. You'll be working with me and you'll quickly discover I'm not anyone's 'darlin.'"
Jackson sat up straighter in his chair, seeking a mental shovel to get out of the hole he'd already dug for himself. "I'm not a chauvinist," he finally said. "I was told a driver would pick me up-I just assumed you were my driver and nothing more. And you might not be anyone's darlin', but you're definitely a fine piece of eye candy."
He watched her slender, ringless fingers tighten on the steering wheel and realized he'd just made the hole a little bigger. "Since it appears we're going to be partners, perhaps it would be nice if we start all over again. Hello, I'm Special Agent Jackson Revannaugh."
Once again those lush green eyes slid in his direction and then back to the road. "We're about twenty minutes from Mystic Lake, a small town on the outskirts of Kansas City. I suggest we use that twenty minutes with me filling you in on things rather than pretending to play nice together. How much do you know about the case?"
"Virtually nothing," Jackson admitted. She might look like a hot piece of work, but there was nothing hot in the cool disdain in her eyes when she glanced at him. Focus on the work and then get the heck out of Dodge, he thought.
"I was pulled off a case I was working in Bachelor Moon, Louisiana, and instantly dispatched here with no details other than the fact that this case appears to have some similarity to the one I was working."
"Missing persons?" She turned off a four-lane highway and onto a two-lane that appeared to take them farther away from civilization.
"Three people seemingly disappeared into thin air at some point during an evening. Evidence of an interrupted late-night snack was on the table, but the two adults and one child have yet to be found. Me and a couple of my partners were on the case for several weeks and we found no clues, no real leads to follow."
He took the opportunity to study her. Faint freckles, evident in the fading light of day, smattered the bridge of her nose. He had a feeling she wasn't a woman who smiled often, although he knew instinctively that a smile would light up her face, warm her features into something even more beautiful.
"We have two missing persons, but unfortunately we don't have a specific time line as to when exactly they went missing. The couple, Amberly Caldwell and her husband, Cole, were newlyweds, and were transitioning between Cole's house in Mystic Lake and Amberly's home in Kansas City."
She stopped talking and slowed to make a right-hand turn, and then continued. "Amberly has a son, Max. The boy had spent the weekend with his father, John Merriweather. The arrangement was that Amberly would pick up Max from school yesterday afternoon. When she didn't show up, John got worried and drove to Cole's place."
"But they weren't there."
Marjorie gave a curt nod of her head. "Both of their cars were in the driveway, but he couldn't rouse them. Unfortunately, the deputy who had been called out made the determination that it would be best to give it twenty-four hours before officially doing anything."
"He didn't do a well-check?" Jackson asked in surprise. A well-check would have required an officer to get inside the house to make certain the occupants were okay.
"Small police force, underzealous officers and two people who aren't old or sick." Her voice once again held a faint touch of derision. "It was only late this afternoon that an officer finally broke into the front door and discovered that things weren't right inside. That's when my director got a phone call from Roger Black, Mystic Lake's number one deputy. Apparently our director knew what was going on in Louisiana, and that's when you were dispatched here."
"I've heard there's nothing better than Kansas City steaks, and my first impression of the women of the city is definitely a positive one." He couldn't help himself. Part of the way he prepared himself, part of his process in approaching a crime, was to small talk, to attempt to get on the good side of whoever he'd be working with during the course of an investigation.
Marjorie shot him a baleful look. Apparently she didn't have a good side, he thought, as he sighed and stared out the passenger window, where the landscape was so different from what he was accustomed to.
Here there were stately oaks and leafy maples, stretches of fields with cornstalks reaching high. There were no graceful magnolia trees or cypresses with Spanish moss hanging like ghostly spiderwebs.
Jackson had never been out of Louisiana before.
Kansas City would have to work hard to match the beauty and charm of his home state.
Speaking of charm, he turned his head to look at Marjorie. "Have you already been to the scene?"
"I came from there to pick you up," she replied. "We've just done a cursory walk-through of the house. The crime scene unit hasn't touched it. Nobody else has been inside except me and a couple of the Mystic Lake deputies. We were waiting for the hotshot from Louisiana to officially begin."
"And that would be me," he replied easily. "So, what did the initial walk-through tell you?"
"I'd rather you draw your own conclusions by seeing it first. I can tell you this-the doors were all locked and there is no sign of forced entry anywhere."
"Tell me more about the potential victims. Who they are and what they do." A victim rundown was usually as helpful as an official profile of the potential perpetrator.
"Cole Caldwell, thirty-six years old. He and Am-berly married less than two months ago. She's thirty-one, has a seven-year-old son and is a beautiful Native American woman. Apparently the two of them had been spending weekends packing up Caldwell's place and getting his house ready to put on the market, as they'd decided to live full-time in Amberly's home in Kansas City."
Her voice was pleasant, but her tone was all business. "Amberly shares custody of Max with her ex-husband, who lives down the block from her house. They had an arrangement that worked well for everyone involved."
"You never told me what each of them does for a living," Jackson asked.
"Cole Caldwell is the sheriff of Mystic Lake." She turned into the driveway of an attractive ranch house where several other Mystic Lake patrol cars were parked. She pulled up next to the curb, cut the engine and then turned to face Jackson.
For the first time a hint of emotion darkened her green eyes. "Amberly works with me. She is one of the brightest FBI profilers in the area."
Jackson's stomach gave an unpleasant lurch. "That's odd. The case I was investigating in Bachelor Moon involved a man named Sam Connelly, a retired FBI profiler from the Kansas City office."
Marjorie had been sick from the moment she'd realized that one of the missing persons was Amberly. Although the two women hadn't been superclose friends and had never worked a case together, they'd been friendly. Everyone in the office was on edge due to this new development.
She was grateful to get out of the car, where the scent of Jackson Revannaugh's cologne had been far too pleasant. It whispered of bold maleness and an exotic spiciness that could be intoxicating if allowed.
She didn't like him. She knew his type the hotshot Southern charmer who never met a woman he wouldn't take advantage of, who skated through life on a lazy smile and smooth style.
Oh, yes, she knew his type intimately, and she wasn't about to fall prey to his questionable charisma. All she wanted was for the two of them to work as hard as possible to get Amberly and Cole back where they belonged.
Deputy Fred Morsi stood at the door as sentry. "Nobody has been inside since you left," he said to Mar-jorie, as if assuring her he'd done his job properly.
He was one of the first locals Marjorie had met when she'd arrived on scene, and he'd instantly impressed her with his earnest face and professional attitude.
Marjorie nodded and grabbed a pair of booties from a box sitting on the front porch. As she pulled them on over her black sneakers, she noticed Jackson doing the same over his expensive-looking leather shoes. He grabbed a pair of latex gloves, his easy smile gone and his mouth set in a grim line instead.
So, there was another side to the hot Mr. Southern Charm, she thought. She frowned as she realized she'd just thought of Jackson Revannaugh as hot.
Of course, she was certain most women would find him a hunk, with his slightly long, slightly curly black hair and blue eyes, with chiseled features and a mouth that looked soft and pliable. She stifled a yelp as the latex of her glove snapped her wrist.
"Shall we?" she said to the tall, broad-shouldered man who was her temporary partner. She gestured to the closed front door.
"After you, darlin'," he replied, and then winced. "I didn't mean that Force of habit."
The front door opened into a small formal living room. The only pieces of furniture were a couple of end tables and a stack of large boxes. Jackson stopped just inside the door behind Marjorie.
His dark blue eyes narrowed and he lifted his head, like a wild animal sniffing the air for prey. "No evidence that anything happened in this room?"
"Nothing," she replied. The small formal living room opened into a large great-room/kitchen area. Here was the evidence that something unusual had taken place.
She followed Jackson's gaze as it traveled around the room, taking in the oversize pillows on the floor in front of a coffee table that held two half-empty wineglasses and a platter of hardened, too-yellow cheddar cheese, crackers, and grapes starting to wither and emanate a slightly spoiled scent.
Jackson picked up one of the long-stem glasses and sniffed the contents. "Fruity I smell a touch of cherry and plum and a faint dash of damp leather. Pinot noir would be my guess." He set the glass back on the table as Marjorie stared at him in astonishment.
"There's a bottle of pinot noir open on the kitchen counter," she replied in surprise.
Jackson nodded. "Like a good Southern gentleman, I know my wines, although I definitely prefer a good glass of bourbon or brandy, and preferably with a lovely lady by my side."
"But, of course," she replied dryly.
He frowned at the coffee table. "So, it appears our two missing souls were seated here sharing what appears to be cocktail time together."
"And something happened to interrupt their intimate little party," Marjorie said.
"So it seems." Jackson turned away from the coffee table and his gaze swept around the room. "No sign of a struggle. What have we here?" Nearly hidden at the edge of one of the pillows was a small black purse.