A CHILD'S LIFE WAS IN JEOPARDY
Texas Ranger Jake Cavanaugh will do anything to rescue his kidnapped daughter from the clutches of a killer. And that means turning to Ella Terrellhis high school sweetheartfor help. The former FBI agent is lucky to be alive after her own encounter with the vengeful madman. And now history seems to be repeating itself this holiday season. Ella needs time to sort through the pastyet time is a luxury they don't have. For the kidnapper is taunting them with misleading clues and a ticking clock. But Ella will bring Jake's child home at all costseven at the risk of losing her heart and her life .
About the Author
Lenora Worth writes for Love Inspired and Love Inspired Suspense. She is a Carol Award finalist and a New York Times, USA Today, and PW bestselling author. She writes Southern stories set in places she loves such as Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. Lenora is married and has two grown children and now lives near the ocean in the Panhandle of Florida. She loves reading, shoe shopping, long walks on the beach, mojitoes and road trips.
Read an Excerpt
I need you to help me find my daughter."
Ella Terrell hushed her barking German shepherd and stared up at the tall man standing with his cowboy hat in his hand at the door of the barn.
"What?" Her pulse quickened, causing her to put down the rifle she had aimed at him and squint into the sun. Even though he lived and worked a few miles away in Tyler, Texas, she hadn't seen him or heard a word from him in over five years. Pushing away the dark memories surfacing in her mind, she asked, "What are you doing here, Jake? What do you mean?"
He shifted, turned to glance around the tree-lined yard toward the house, the star emblem on his Texas Ranger badge flashing gold. "Look, I don't have much time and I haven't slept all night." Then he lowered his head but lifted his gaze to her. "Ella, I need your help. Somebody took Macey."
The plea in his golden-brown eyes did her in. Jake had never been good at asking for help. Which only showed how desperate he must be to come to her. Ella had left the FBI a few years before, but if Macey was missing, she'd help Jake find her.
Ella nodded and took him by the elbow to guide him up to the house, her big dog trailing behind them. "Let's get inside and talk."
When they reached the house, Ella hurried up the porch and waited as Jake pushed his way past the big evergreen Christmas wreath hanging on the door, his broad shadow temporarily blocking out the warmth of the Texas sun.
Once inside, he pivoted back to stare at Ella, his expression dark with worry. "Macey was kidnapped last night."
Macey, the daughter he'd had with another woman after he'd broken off his engagement to Ella. Having a child at nineteen hadn't been easy. Having a wife who got sick with cancer eight years later had been the worst. Jake's wife, Natalie, had died and left him with a little girl to raise.
Ella rubbed a grubby hand over her ponytail then snapped into action. Putting down the rifle she always kept with her when she was working alone, she motioned toward the kitchen. "C'mon in and tell me everything."
Giving her a thankful nod, Jake stepped into the old farmhouse and did a quick sweep of the staircase and den.
Sensing his agitation, Ella motioned to the long dining table between the den and kitchen. "My grandparents went into town for supplies." She pointed to the big dog that had followed them inside. "Just me and Zip. I have fresh coffee."
Jake plopped down on a chair and laid his hat on the table near a glazed pot holding a bright red poinsettia. He looked exhausted. His eyes, always a bright golden-brown that reminded her of a cougar, looked washed out and dull. He looked a lot older than his thirty-four years. She couldn't help but compare this Jake to the one who'd angrily told her close to sixteen years ago that they couldn't get married if she was going to become an FBI agent like her daddy. She remembered every word of their conversation.
"But, Jake, we've talked about this. It'll be years before I can prepare to take the applicant test. We'll get married after we graduate college, just like we planned. Once we're done with school, we can both work toward our careers."
"And what about a house full of children, Ella? We've talked about that, too. I know you want to follow in your daddy's footsteps, but I thought you'd get over that notion once we got married. It's too dangerous and it'll be hard on a family."
"And I've supported your choice to become a Texas Ranger, but I guess I was the only one being honest about things. I want children but I also want to work for the FBI. You've always known that. Why are you worried about children now? If you get to be a Ranger, why can't I do what I want? We can still have children."
He'd refused to listen, had accused her of not really loving him. Ella figured underneath the bluster of his complaints, he'd really been trying to protect her and maybe keep her from doing something out of a sense of duty, but they'd been young and stupid and stubborn, and neither of them had backed down. So they'd broken up during the summer they'd planned to be married.
Maybe now they'd both aged and become a little wiser, but she could still see the stubbornness in the set of his jaw and the gleam of his eyes. It was the same stubbornness she'd seen when they'd teamed up again five years ago to track a killer. After that ordeal had ended they'd gotten close again.
But Ella didn't want to think about all the reasons she'd had to say no to Jake a second time. Maybe she wasn't the marrying kind, after all.
Ella brought him his coffee and sat down with her own cup, memories of his sweet little daughter churning in her soul. Of course, Macey would be a teenager now. Her hand rubbing Zip's soft fur, she asked, "What happened, Jake?"
"She uh " He took a breath, pinched two fingers over his nose. "Somebody took her. Out of her friend's car. Last night at the mall."
Ella nodded, trying to encourage him to go on. Jake wasn't one to show emotions so he had to stop and clear his throat several times.
"Have you heard anything? Seen anything?" And because she couldn't stop thinking it, she added, "And why do you need me, Jake? You're a Texas Ranger. You've tracked criminals all over this state. All over the country."
She knew firsthand how good he was at his job. He'd found her once when she was near death. She wouldn't think of that, or of how she'd broken his heart again after he'd found her. What it must have cost him to come here for her help.
Jake held his coffee mug with both hands, his head down. "This is different. This is Macey." He gave her a glance that told Ella he wanted to say more.
"Why'd you come to me?" she asked again, her mind already clicking back into a professional mode. "You know I left the FBI, right?"
Jake grabbed her hand, his eyes centered on her face. "Ella, listen to me. He took her. That's why I'm here."
Ella's heart rate surged like a storm coming over the pasture and then crashed into a thundering warning. "Do you know the man who took Macey?"
Jake's eyes filled with a bright anger and then he nodded. "We both know him. The Dead Drop Killer. He took my little girl. And I need you to help me find her before it's too late."
Ella clutched her hands to the lip of the old oak table. "The Dead Drop Killer? No." She got up and paced around the big country kitchen, her gaze hitting on her grandmother's cross-stitching. The lacy white dish towels with the bright red-and-green holly leaves etched on their edges looked perfectly ordinary. "No, no, Jake. He's he's gone. He hasn't killed anyone in over five years because he's dead. The trail ran cold after you found me. You know that. You know he was wounded and he had to have died in those woods, possibly drowned in the lake. You were there the night"
"I was there the night I found you half-dead and just about out of your mind," Jake said. "Yeah, I remember everything about that night and everything that happened afterward. But we never found a body, Ella." He shook his head. "We assumed he was dead but we never actually had proof."
His eyes held accusation as well as torment. He'd never forgiven her for following her dream, but he'd sure brought home the point he'd tried to make when they broke up way back. Being an FBI agent was dangerous.
And some dangers never went away.
Ella gulped in air, ran to the back window and stared out over the fence line leading down to Caddo Lake. A beautiful winter day waited for her but she could only see the dark, murky memories clouding out the sun. "It's been so long. So long. We thought he'd drowned. Out in the lake." She whirled around. "I'm comfortable here now. I found something I could do and I love it. Something to help me heal."
Jake got up and came to her. Putting his hands on her arms, he stared down at her. "He's back. And he took my Macey."
Ella refused to believe that. "How do you know it's him?"
Jake tugged a small brown evidence bag out of his shirt pocket. "Because of thisthe first clue." He carefully opened the bag and turned it down just enough that she could see what was inside without touching it. "He left me a note that led me to this."
Ella gasped, her gaze slipping over the necklace. A delicate gold chain with a white daisy hanging from it. The chain Jake had given Ella for graduation their senior year of high school.
The chain she'd been wearing several years after high school and a lifetime later when the case they'd been working on together had gone bad and the Dead Drop Killer had taken Ella and held her here on Caddo Lake with the intent to kill her in the same way he'd killed four other young women. But she'd escaped because she had been trained to survive. Special Agent Ella Terrell. She'd lived, but they'd never caught the man who'd taken her. She'd wounded him during her escape and some had believed he'd crawled off like the animal he was and died in the woods. Some thought the alligators had done away with him. Others had predicted he'd come back one day. Some of the rumors said he still lived in the woodswaiting for her.
Ella had refused to believe those rumors. Just high school kids trying to scare each other. But the Dead Drop Killer preferred young, dark-haired girls. Girls like Macey Cavanaugh. Girls with hair similar to Ella'sback then. He'd taken Ella to make a point, to show her that he could break her, training or no training, because she'd gotten too close.
At least that was what she believed. Some of the old team members believed she'd been his target all along, but her mind couldn't comprehend that after four deaths. Why would he want her so badly?
But in the end, maybe he'd succeeded in breaking her. He hadn't killed her, but she certainly hadn't been able to do her job anymore. And now Jake was asking her to step back into that world .
She slammed a fist against her old jeans, logic slamming against fear inside her head.
They'd never found his body and they'd never found her necklace. This was that same necklace. Of that she had no doubt. She could see the old, dried bloodstains caked against the links of gold. She hated daisies.
"No, no." She reached out, grabbed at Jake's plaid shirt. "No, Jake. He can't it can't be him."
"I think it is, honey," Jake replied, the truth charging through his eyes. "I came to you because you're the only one who can help me find himand because I'm worried about you. I've got a little bit of a head start before a task force from Tyler shows up with the Sheriff's Office."
He pushed at the bangs falling over Ella's forehead. "I'm sorry but I need you, Ella. I'm going to track him."
His touch was as gentle against her skin as a butterfly's fluttering wings. But the look in his eyes was anything but gentle. "And this time, when I do find him I'm going to kill him."
Jake watched as Ella went around, gathering supplies and firearms. She obviously knew how to take care of herself. She'd been doing it for years now. She had a loyal guard dog to warn her of strangers. Zip had alerted her that someone was approaching when Jake arrived and she'd greeted him there in the barn with a rifle pointed at his head. Nothing new about a Texan carrying a weapon on her own land, but Ella needed the security of protecting herself more than most after what she'd been through.
"You seemed prepared to hold off an army," he said to settle his antsy nerves. He glanced at the huge Christmas tree by the picture window, memories of other Christmases lighting his mind.
Now she turned to explain, one hand tugging through her burnished gold-streaked hair. Hair that used to be a rich brown. Had she dyed it? "I have weapons hidden inside the house and out in the barn. Even in the open-air dining room down by the lake." She lifted her chin in defiance, just the way she'd done when they'd fought long ago. "I won't live in a spirit of fear."
Jake had to agree with that. God's people didn't live in a spirit of fear, but it paid to be prepared, too. "But you live with your grandparents," he said. "They'll need to know what's going on."
She'd have to send them away. Somewhere safe.
She nodded, went back to gathering supplies. "They'll be home any minute now. I'll close down the restaurant for a while." Her sky-blue eyes went dark. "We'll set up the command post here."
Jake didn't want to rush her, but each minute was precious. He had to talk to keep from screaming. "Uh, so you run a restaurant now. I saw the sign on the gate. Caddo Country?"
Ella's gaze swept over the den and kitchen in an urgent rush. "Yes, it's farm-to-table meals by request out underneath the big screened gazebo and outdoor kitchen Grandpa helped me build." She checked her weapons, grabbed ammunition.
Jake let her do her thing, figuring Ella needed to feel safe and he'd see to it that she was safe. But he could tell she'd left the law enforcement life behind. She'd built more than a restaurant here. She'd rebuilt her life. Without Jake. Had she ever really needed him?
"I have to keep them away, Jake," she said now. "You know they raised me after my parents died." She stopped, stared off into space. "I can't believe he's back."
Jake could tell she was reliving the terrible memories and the awful guilt of knowing one man had killed four young women just possibly so he could get to Ella. One faceless man who now had his daughter.
"I don't know for sure if it's him, but the MO is the same."
"You need to brief me before we get going."
He cleared his throat and wished he didn't need to do this. "A whole lot of law enforcement people are out there looking, but I knew once I found that necklace I had to come and check on you."
Ella whirled to stare at him. "And you also knew I'd want to help."
"Yeah. I didn't want you to hear this news from anybody else. I figured you'd strike out on your own to find him."
"And Macey," she added before she turned back to her busywork. "I'd have to find Macey."
He couldn't lie. "Yes. I really need you to help me figure out the clues and stay on this, Ella. We don't have much time."
Ella's sky-colored eyes met his with a look of defiance, chased by a solid trepidation. "No, we don't. But if this is him, then neither does he."
Jake went silent while they both remembered what this man could do to a victim. He could see that horror written all over Ella's face.