Former Army Sergeant Holly Austin and her team at the HEARTS agency don’t normally find the police at their door. But it’s been weeks since a local woman vanished into thin air...and now there’s a second victim. Police Detective Jack Tarek wasn’t officially working the Julia Frederickson case until a second victim made the matter personal. Holly is willing to cooperate with Jack “unofficially,” but she quickly becomes a distraction he can’t resist. The leads on their cases might be running cold, but the attraction between the investigators is sizzling hot. With every lead a dead end, those close to the investigation grow increasingly impatient for answers. Just as hidden secrets come to light, one of the investigators vanishes without a trace. The HEARTS team has just hours to solve the case—or risk losing one of their own.
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Holly Austin paced in front of the room-length whiteboard. She ignored the photos of cheating spouses and suspected scammers and skimmed over her barely legible notes. Once again, she wished she had better handwriting. Squinting to make out a word as she walked, she cursed when she accidentally kicked a chair. Shoving the obstacle under the table, she continued her pass along the board.
The HEARTS Investigative Services conference room looked like a war zone. Colorful sticky notes, uncapped highlighters, and unstapled pages from police reports covered the table where the team staged cases. While some of her co-workers kept their notes in neat piles and color-coded notebooks, Holly worked best in chaos.
She turned her focus to one of the photos on the wall. The picture captured the woman's blue eyes and bright smile at the moment a breeze blew her long golden hair off her shoulders. Julia Fredrickson clung to her husband's arm. The sunlight sparkled off a large diamond on her left ring finger, as if to tell the universe these two people belonged together.
Julia and Eric looked so happy. In the photo, dark glasses hid his light eyes, but Holly easily recalled the pain that had filled his entire face as he'd begged her to help him.
Two days after this picture was taken, Julia vanished. She'd been missing over a month. The more time that passed, the less likely it was that she would be found. Eric knew that too. That was why he'd come to HEARTS when the police continued to imply that Julia had probably needed time away and would be in touch with him soon.
Over the last week, Holly had dug through the Fredricksons' personal lives, bank accounts, and social media pages. Seven days of asking friends intimate questions, watching Eric Fredrickson just in case he wasn't being completely honest, and trying to discover if Julia had a lover who might have whisked her away to start a new life.
Well over fifty hours spent hitting the same dead ends the police had run into. That wasn't sitting well with Holly. Every minute she spent looking for Julia added to the weight of dread in her stomach. She knew better than most how quickly the world and the people in it could change. She'd learned very young how unfair life could be. Though Julia's children were adults, Holly didn't think they had learned that lesson until their mother's disappearance. They had the kind of naiveté that came with being raised in a stable home, sheltered from the ugliness of the real world. That reality had been thrust upon them without warning.
Holly rubbed her thumb over the simple silver heart charm she wore around her neck. She needed to start over. Go back to square one. Start again.
Closing her eyes, she visualized the security-camera footage the store manager had copied for her. A man approached Julia as she put her groceries in her trunk. They spoke for just a few moments. And then she followed him to somewhere out of range of the only working camera in the grocery-store parking lot.
What had he said? Why would Julia go with him?
What the hell am I missing?
Someone gripped Holly's shoulder without warning, startling her. She grabbed the wrist attached to the offending hand, elbowed the solar plexus, and had the owner of all of the above face down on the floor with her knee in his back in seconds. The dark-haired man pinned beneath her grunted.
Samantha, the newest member of her team, laughed. Sam usually sat around munching on breath mints and sharing celebrity gossip no one cared to hear. She was brilliant at searching the Internet and finding people's darkest digital secrets. Holly didn't even want to know all the private databases the little sneak could access. Too bad Sam also had a warped sense of humor. The grin on her thin face made her appear far too pleased with the situation.
Leaning against the conference room doorjamb, she smirked at the scene before her. "I told him not to touch you while you were deep in thought. He didn't listen. Did you, Detective?"
Holly looked at the man she still had immobilized against the charcoal-gray commercial-grade carpet. The set of his jaw and deep lines around his eyes as he winced indicated he was in pain, but she was more focused on what Sam had called him. Detective?
He wheezed before saying, "I have some questions about Julia Fredrickson."
Sam chuckled as the man struggled against Holly's hold on his wrist and the steady pressure she kept on his back with her knee.
"This isn't funny, Sam," Holly chastised. "I could have hurt him."
"Uh, Ms. Austin," he said, "you are hurting me."
"Shit. Sorry." Holly pulled him with her as she stood. After years in active-duty service, her kneejerk reactions still got the better of her at times. Being both a woman and a soldier required finely tuned self-preservation skills. Even now as a civilian, she didn't always take time to measure her response when she was startled. Life-saving habits died hard.
An awkward-sounding laugh — the kind suspects used when trying to act casual — left him as he looked at her with wide, almost-black eyes. He quickly looked away and focused on stretching his shoulder. His moves didn't seem sincere. He seemed nervous. His hands trembled as he brushed his suit.
She tried to read between the lines of his behavior and suspected he was there to tell her to back off the Julia Fredrickson case. Though Holly did her best to stay on the good side of the police department, this wouldn't be the first time an officer had stopped by to warn her that she was treading on his turf. She hadn't backed off once, and she didn't intend to now. If that was his purpose in showing up at her office, he was wasting his time.
As she scrutinized him, the detective's dark skin changed from ashen to an interesting shade of maroon. She didn't see many men in the heart of the Midwest who had the sepia skin tones she'd seen so often in the Middle East. Though his nose was a bit long for his thin face, she thought he was handsome. She didn't usually notice those things, but she supposed her adrenaline was rushing as much as his, clouding her mind.
Turning her attention to Sam, Holly fought the urge to body slam her receptionist to wipe the grin off her face. "We'll talk about this later."
Sam's pink-tinted lips twisted into a deep frown. "Sure." She turned on her too-high-to-be-practical heels and left them alone.
The detective swiped at his cheek, but a few bits of gray carpet lint and a tiny scrap of neon-orange paper stuck to the black hairs of his short-trimmed beard.
Holly pressed her teeth together but couldn't stop the words from tumbling out. "There's still a little Right there." She pointed and then watched the debris fall away as he moved his hand over his chin. "Got it."
The detective shrugged and pulled at his black jacket as if to shift the material back into place and then straightened his tie. Finally, with a huff, he met Holly's gaze again. This time, though, he didn't look so shaken. She actually thought he looked amused.
"So. Next time I should wear a cowbell?" He grinned, showing off a dimple in his cheek that inexplicably drew her attention. She stared until he cleared his throat.
Holly didn't embarrass easily, but a sense of mortification built in her chest as heat spread throughout her body, settling in her cheeks. Another sensation she wasn't used to. Not that her assault on him was unwarranted. What kind of cop surprised people? He certainly would have been trained better than that.
She planted her hands on her hips, attempting to push her unexpected discomfiture down and regain control of her emotions. "Don't ever grab me without warning, Detective. Unless you enjoyed that." Her breath caught as soon as the words left her, and his eyes darted to hers.
That sounded wrong. Very wrong. She wanted to look away, but she wasn't about to let this situation get the better of her. His smirk twitched and drew her attention to his lips. Seeing another shred of paper trapped in the whiskers on his chin, she ran her finger under his full bottom lip to knock it away. She jerked her hand back when she realized what she'd done. "Sorry. I'm sorry. Are you okay? Did I hurt you?" The words rushed out, blending together in a barely intelligible strand.
Damn it. She was acting like a fool, coming across just as he probably expected a female private investigator to. A silly, stumbling girl dressed up to play private eye.
He made a show of flexing the arm she'd twisted. "I'm good. My pride is beat to shit, though."
"Don't take it to heart," she said. "I've practiced martial arts since I was a kid. My father wanted to make sure I could take care of myself."
"Well, you can." He reached into his pocket to pull out a black wallet and then flashed his credentials. "Detective Jack Tarek."
Though he lowered the badge quickly, she grabbed his wrist — without the intent of overpowering him this time — and lifted his identification for closer inspection. "Jakeem Tarek."
He shrugged. "Jack makes me stand out a little less. You know, besides all this." He waved his hand in front of his face. She suspected he meant the distinct combination of features and skin tone that implied his ethnicity rather than the fact that he was handsome enough to make her want to bat her eyes and giggle.
The word swoon came to mind, and Holly very nearly acted on it for the first time in her life. Instead, she released his wrist and held her hand out to him. "Holly Austin."
"Yes, I know."
He accepted her offer with a firm grip. Men who gingerly clasped her hand as if they could break her tended to see her as female first and as investigator a distant second. Tarek's greeting let her know he saw her the other way — an investigator who happened to be female. Of course, having just pinned him to the ground likely gave him an idea that she preferred men not handle her with kid gloves, despite her current state of rambling and apparent blushing.
He did, however, hold her hand longer than necessary for the customary greeting.
She begrudgingly slipped her palm from his and balled her fingers, a futile attempt to stop the feel of him from escaping her skin. Yet another response she didn't fully understand but couldn't control. "Sam said you're here to pick my brain?"
"I was hoping to cross-reference my case with yours. Have you found anything new on Julia Fredrickson's disappearance?"
She stared at him, careful to keep her face neutral. And not only because she was hyperaware of the man before her. Police seldom wanted the help of PIs working a case when there were still fresh leads to be investigated. Julia Fredrickson hadn't been missing long enough for the police to consider her case cold. His request surprised her. Holly didn't like surprises. Nor did she trust them. Surprises rarely ended well.
"I'm not here as a cop." He lifted his hands as if to show her he was innocent of any wrongdoing. "Not officially, anyway. My mother's neighbor has gone missing. Have you seen the news reports on Penelope Nelson?"
Holly nodded. There were similarities that had piqued her curiosity. She was keeping a close eye on the news, hoping to catch updates that might connect the latest missing woman to Julia.
"She's a sweet lady who sure as hell wouldn't just walk out on her life," Tarek said. "Something has happened to her, and I promised my mom I'd look into it."
"I get that." Holly wanted to believe him, but she couldn't help feeling he was baiting her. The police department had shut her out cold. They wouldn't give her the tiniest morsel of information on Julia's case. Eric Fredrickson had been giving her as much information as he could on the investigation. "What I don't get," she continued, "is what you need from me."
"When the department found out this was personal, they limited my access to the case and put the biggest asshole they could find as the lead detective, knowing he'd never give me information. I can't work on this through the force, but I can't not work on this, either. The woman is my mom's friend."
Tarek gestured to a file on the table that she hadn't noticed. He must have put it there before she dropped him. She opened the folder and scanned the eight-by-ten photo inside. Just to confirm what she already knew, Holly glanced over her shoulder at the image of Julia — a petite forty-three-year-old blonde with blue eyes and a perfect smile. She took the picture from the file and held it next to Julia's. "They could be sisters."
Tarek joined her at the whiteboard. Through her peripheral vision, Holly noticed him looking over her face. "You look like her. Like them. Only younger."
Holly frowned at his observation. "There are a lot of blue-eyed blond women out there, Detective. I'm one of many."
He didn't seem dissuaded by her explanation. "Her husband hired you, knowing that you look like a younger version of his missing wife?" She cocked a brow as she faced him. "Her husband hired my team. I took the lead by choice. My choice. The fact that I look similar to his wife has nothing to do with why he hired this agency, nor does it impact my ability to work this case."
He opened his mouth as if to object but then seemed to think better of it and pointed to the photo she was holding. "That's Penelope. She disappeared from outside a strip mall yesterday. We pulled the surveillance, of course. A man approached her as she was putting bags in her car. He talked to her for exactly eighty-three seconds before she followed him and got into a car. She hasn't been seen since. I looked into recent missing persons cases and came across Julia's. These cases have way too many similarities." Tarek scanned the pictures taped to the wall. "Are all these cases related?"
"No. These are from various things we're working on now. We like to bounce ideas off each other, but I'm the lead on the Fredrickson case. Julia disappeared six weeks ago from a grocery-store parking lot on MLK. Just like Penelope, she vanished in the middle of the morning from a high-traffic area, but nobody noticed a thing. The manager of the grocery store where Julia disappeared gave me a copy of the surveillance recording." She gestured to a fuzzy screenshot she'd printed. "The quality isn't clear enough to make an identification, but the man she left with was Caucasian, approximately six feet tall. She appeared to go with him willingly. We suspect she knew him or his cover story was convincing enough to get her to trust him."
"Or he had a weapon," he said.
"He didn't appear to be holding one in the video. Of course, the quality wasn't that great."
"Any evidence she had a lover? Maybe she ran off with him."
Holly shook her head. "Her life was about as perfect as it could get. I've looked in every dark corner I can find. There is no evidence of an affair, let alone one serious enough for her to leave her husband."
"Yeah," he said. "That's what I'm running into with Penelope, too." He pointed to another printed still from the low-quality security footage. "That his car?" "The cops are stonewalling me —"
"Don't take it personally. They can't compromise their case."
She pressed her lips together, taking a moment to temper her immediate response. "Yes. I know that. I may not be a detective, Detective, but I understand procedure and would never risk compromising a case or losing a suspect to protect my pride." She let her words sink in before continuing. "Julia's husband has been feeding me information. From what he says, this car was reported stolen earlier that morning and found outside town the next day. They found a print inside that matched Julia's. This was likely the vehicle used to abduct her. And I say abduct because despite what looks like her seeming to willingly go with this man, I don't believe she did." She eyed Tarek. "Unfortunately, I don't have much more to go on than that. Mr. Fredrickson has been an open book, but we just can't find any leads. The evidence is starting to point to her being a victim of opportunity. Which means she could be anywhere."
Tarek shook his head. "I would have thought that as well, but look at them. Two women, almost identical in appearance and age, taken in almost identical circumstances. He chose Julia, just like he chose Penelope." He faced Holly. "You know, if by chance Fredrickson did this —"
"He may have you in his sights," he finished as if she hadn't spoken.
"He doesn't. And if he did, I'd knock the wind out of him and pin his ass to the ground before he knew what was happening."
Tarek laughed. "Gotcha."
"He told the police she thought she was being followed."
"And what do the police think?"
Holly stared at him. He was a cop. He knew exactly what the police thought. That Fredrickson was throwing false leads to distract them. "He suspects they don't believe him. And we both know why. The first suspect is always the husband."
"Is he a suspect?"
"Aren't the spouses always a suspect? That doesn't make them guilty."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hidden Hearts"
Copyright © 2019 Marci Bolden.
Excerpted by permission of Pink Sand Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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