Baltimore PI Clay Maynard routinely locates missing children for clients, but his own daughter—stolen by his ex-wife—has eluded him for years. Until she turns up right under his nose…
Since she was a child, Taylor Dawson believed the lie her mother told her: that her father was a monster. But now she has a chance to get to know the real Clay while doing real work as an equine therapist, which includes helping two girls whose mother was brutally murdered. She might even find something deeper with her boss’s handsome son, Ford Elkhart, whose eyes are so haunted. But just as Taylor feels her life opening up to new family, work, and friends, a danger lurks in the darkness—one that will show Taylor the face of true evil…
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Hunt Valley, Maryland Saturday, August 22, 12:50 p.m.
“Heels down, Janie.” Taylor Dawson stood in the middle of the training ring, focused on the five-year-old girl sitting astride what was the most gentle, patient horse Taylor had ever known. Janie’s back, already too stiff and rigid, tightened further, her little hands clenching the reins as a frown thinned her lips.
Taylor knew the child’s frown was not directed at her, but almost wished it were. A perfectionist in little zebra cowboy boots, Janie was angry with herself. Angry that she’d had to be corrected by anyone. That she wasn’t already perfect.
Taylor swallowed a sigh. Been there, done that. Looking quickly to her right, she met the worried eyes of Janie’s big sister, who stood on the other side of the fence, watching Janie with an eagle eye. Taylor gave the girl an encouraging smile. Jazzie did not smile back, her expression a mix of poorly hidden desperation and stoic determination. At eleven years old, she’d become her little sister’s keeper. Her protector. Her staunchly silent protector.
Because Jazzie Jarvis had not spoken a single word, not in the two weeks Taylor had been interning for Healing Hearts with Horses. According to Maggie VanDorn, Taylor’s boss, Jazzie hadn’t spoken in the two weeks before that, either—not since finding her mother’s broken body in a pool of her own blood, her face nearly unrecognizable.
It’ll be okay, Taylor wanted to promise. For both of you. But she couldn’t promise that. Nobody could. Janie and Jazzie had been through a hell no child should ever endure.
Taylor suppressed a shudder. How did anyone come back from that? Adults didn’t come back from that kind of trauma. How could two little motherless girls begin to cope? To heal?
But if it could happen anywhere, it was here. Healing Hearts with Horses had been providing therapy to traumatized children for over a year now and already had a slew of success stories. Taylor knew this because she’d very thoroughly researched the program, including its founder/president, Daphne Montgomery-Carter, and her staff, before submitting her application.
In addition to her philanthropy, Daphne was a full-time prosecutor for the city of Baltimore. Somehow she managed to raise money for the program in her “spare time,” lending a hand to the therapy sessions whenever she could. All the day-to-day details were left to Maggie VanDorn, an accomplished horsewoman and licensed therapist who had years of experience working with child victims of violent crime.
Janie and Jazzie had a good chance for recovery here—if they’d let themselves relax and have a little fun. Getting Janie to actually breathe while on her horse would be a good start, but telling new riders to remember to breathe often made them even more stressed.
Getting Janie to sing would get her to breathe without her knowing she was doing it.
“Hey, Janie!” Taylor called. “Did you know that Ginger likes music?”
Janie turned her head to stare at Taylor suspiciously. “Horses don’t like music.”
“Ginger does. She loves it when I sing to her. Especially when I’m riding her. She just chills out like you’re giving her a massage.” It wasn’t exactly true, but it wasn’t necessarily a lie, either.
Taylor was good at telling not-exactly-truths that also weren’t lies. She’d perfected the skill at the feet of the master of lies and deceit. Thanks for that, Mom.
Pushing her own bitterness aside, she smiled at Janie. “Do you know any songs?”
A wary nod, but no reply, which was no surprise. Unlike Jazzie, who’d remained mute, Janie did speak sometimes. Their files said that Jazzie had been shy before their mother’s murder because she had a painful stutter, but Janie had been a champion talker, never meeting a silence she couldn’t fill. Now Janie was withdrawn, her communication reduced to sentences of four or five words. Well, duh. Who wouldn’t be withdrawn?
“Do you know ‘The Wheels on the Bus’?” Taylor asked and grinned when Janie rolled her eyes. It was a beautifully normal gesture from a kid who’d forgotten how to behave like a child.
“That’s for babies,” Janie said sullenly.
And you’re oh-so-old, Taylor thought sadly, but forced her lips to remain curved. “Fair enough. How about ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,’ then? Do you know that one?”
“Yeah,” Janie muttered. “Everybody does.”
“Good. Help me out, then. Let’s make Ginger happy.” Taylor began singing the song loudly and off-key, because the universe had not gifted her with any musical ability. She made it through the song once solo while Ginger patiently plodded around the training ring, Janie still rigid as a board. The second time, though, Janie began to sing as well.
Taylor didn’t ask any more questions, immediately launching into “You Are My Sunshine,” hoping Janie knew that one, too, gratified when the little girl followed her lead. After the second time through that song, Taylor began to see the desired effect. Janie’s shoulders softened, her posture relaxing a fraction. She was singing with a studied focus, like she did everything else, so she wasn’t enjoying it, but she was breathing and that was a good start.
Taylor searched her mind for the songs she’d sung with the kids at the campus day care where she’d volunteered as an undergrad, quickly eliminating all those that were violent—like the old woman who swallowed a fly and eventually died—or those that mentioned a mommy and came up with . . . Nada. Shit.
But Janie solved the problem herself, filling the silence with a gritty, muttered, angry version of “Let It Go.” Thank you, Disney, Taylor thought.
She heard the gate open and close, the footsteps behind her too heavy to belong to Jazzie, who was too afraid of the horses to approach them anyway. It was Maggie VanDorn, then. The manager of the program was an efficient older woman with a big heart and years of experience in social work. Maggie pressed a cold bottle of water into Taylor’s hand.
“Good thinking, getting her to sing,” Maggie murmured.
Taylor’s lips curved at the praise. She’d learned that Maggie never said anything she didn’t mean. “She’s still not enjoying herself, but she’s breathing.”
“Joy takes time.” Maggie sighed. “Lots of time. And speaking of time, Janie’s session is over and you need to take a break. You’ve done four sessions back-to-back and it’s time to get out of the sun for a while.”
“I’m fine,” Taylor said dryly. “I’m from California, remember? I grew up in the sun.”
“Be that as it may, take a break,” Maggie insisted. “I don’t want to have to replace you because you got heatstroke. Your face is redder than my heirloom tomatoes.”
Taylor put up her hands in surrender. “Okay, okay.” She drank most of the bottle of water, then splashed the rest in her face. It was hot here, she had to admit, a lot hotter than back home in Northern California, where the temps rarely climbed above eighty year-round and the humidity was nonexistent. This suburb of Baltimore had been eighty degrees by breakfast and the high was supposed to be ninety-nine. The air was so muggy, she was beginning to wish she had gills.
“Let me get Janie down and cleaned up,” Taylor said. “Then I’ll take her and Jazzie back to their aunt.” The aunt whose eyes were a constant mix of grief and fear and fury.
Lilah Cornell had lost her sister and gained responsibility for her two nieces all in the same day. A former prosecutor who’d worked with Daphne, she was now on the fast track in the attorney general’s office, which meant she worked long hours, nearly seven days a week.
All that had abruptly changed when her sister was murdered, but no one on the farm had heard her complain. Lilah did have help, at least. The girls’ father was no longer in the picture, but his mother, their grandmother, had been living with Janie and Jazzie at the time of the murder. Grandma Eunice had watched the girls while her daughter-in-law was at work. After the murder, she’d moved with them to Aunt Lilah’s posh but very small apartment, which had been a major adjustment for all of them. Maggie had mentioned that Lilah was looking for a bigger place, which only added to the little family’s general stress.
But both Lilah and Eunice seemed to be good women who loved the girls. Lilah accompanied them for their Saturday therapy sessions while Grandma Eunice brought them during the week.
Taylor pointed at the farmhouse, to the large window that provided a view of the training ring—complete with audio courtesy of discreetly placed microphones. “Lilah’s waiting in the lounge.”
Daphne and Maggie had converted the dining room of the farmhouse to a sitting area where parents and guardians could monitor their kids. Healing Hearts was all about transparency. The program prided itself on making the children and the adults feel safe.
Maggie’s nod was briskly approving. “I’ll take care of Ginger. She’s done for the day. We’ll use Gracie for lessons this afternoon.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Taylor approached Ginger and Janie, smiling when she heard the little girl still singing softly. Janie had released her iron hold on the reins and was stroking Ginger’s neck.
No smile bent Janie’s lips, but the little stress lines around her mouth had disappeared. No child should have stress lines. But kids like Janie did. So did I. I still do.
Taylor cleared her throat. “Ginger likes you.”
A solemn nod. No words of reply, just a look of bruised exhaustion in Janie’s eyes, like she was so tired of being scared but had resigned herself to it. Taylor recognized that look, too. She’d seen it in the mirror often enough.
“Time to dismount and get a cold drink, okay?” Taylor held her hands out, ready to catch the child if she fell, but Janie executed a flawless dismount then stood motionless for a few hard heartbeats, staring up at Ginger. Then she stunned Taylor by throwing her arms around the horse’s neck and leaning up to Ginger’s ear.
“I like you, too,” Janie whispered.
Taylor quickly looked over her shoulder to Maggie, whose eyes held a satisfaction that was tender and fierce all at once, underscoring that Janie had made a breakthrough. And I got to be here for it, Taylor thought, her eyes stinging.
Taylor didn’t delude herself into thinking that she’d made the breakthrough with Janie. Maggie VanDorn had done all the work, really. But it didn’t stop her from feeling a little of Maggie’s satisfaction. This could get addictive. Except that I’m not going to stay.
She hadn’t come to Maryland intending to actually work the full internship or even to stay more than a few days, but the Healing Hearts clientele had sucked her in more quickly and completely than she’d anticipated. It was going to be hard to walk away once she’d gotten what she’d come for.
Baltimore, Maryland Saturday, August 22, 1:05 p.m.
Gage Jarvis snugged the tie against the collar of his crisp new shirt, nearly sighing at the feel of quality linen against his skin, of the silk tie between his fingers, all slippery smooth.
How long had it been since he’d worn a tie? Hell, since he’d worn a dress shirt?
His hands faltered on the Windsor knot. He knew exactly how long. Two years, nine months, and fourteen days. The day he was fired from his job at Stegner, Hall, and Kramer. Of course they’d told everyone he’d resigned to “pursue other interests,” but he’d been fired, for doing the same damn thing every other lawyer in the firm did. Pretentious, sanctimonious, holier-than-thou assholes. Judging me. Me. He’d been the top junior partner, had brought in more business than all the others. Almost put together. Which the partners had lauded, until Valerie made her little phone call to the cops. Domestic violence. The fucking bitch.
Hell, he hadn’t even hurt her that bad that time, either. And he wasn’t sorry. She’d had it coming, like she always did. He could have hurt her a lot worse.
He could have done what he had done a month ago. Beaten her until she didn’t get up. Ever again. Shoulda killed her two years, nine months, and fourteen days ago. Would have saved everyone a whole lot of trouble.
She’d recanted back then. Withdrawn her complaint. But it was too little, too late. The partners had ordered his office searched, had found his stash in his desk drawer. Hidden, of course, but they’d found it easily enough because they hid their stashes in exactly the same place in their desk drawers.
So he’d done a little coke. So what? So had everyone else. They needed it just to wake up because the hours were grueling, the competition fierce. Too many partner wannabes and too few positions. Fucking asshole senior partners had to retire or die before any of the slave-labor junior partners were given the proverbial key to the executive washroom. Because Stegner, Hall, and Kramer still had those keys and Gage had wanted one.
And he would have gotten it, if it hadn’t been for Valerie’s malicious lies. And her sister’s, too. Can’t forget about Lilah. No, he never would. Valerie would never have made that call to the police on her own. Lilah had made it for her.
Ruined my stupid, fucking life. One of these days he’d see his sister-in-law humiliated and cast out, just like she’d had him ruined. But at least Valerie had been taken care of. That would have to be good enough. For now.
Because I’m back. Back to his city, ready to reclaim the life he’d had. No, not the life I had. A much better one.
Because he had a new job. A better one than he’d had at the old firm. Soon he’d have an expense account again and could wine and dine and . . .
He realized he was scowling into the dressing room’s full-length mirror and abruptly smiled at himself. That’s better, he thought, massively grateful that he’d never done meth like the Romano kid had. Gage might have a few track marks and a bit of a sniffle, but his teeth were still nice.
He regarded his reflection with a satisfied nod. The suit, while not quite up to his old standards, was a giant leap above what he’d been wearing for the last few years. It was a decent fit—not great but not as bad as it would have been a month ago—and the white shirt made his tanned skin look even darker. The tan he’d come by honestly, courtesy of the two and a half years he’d spent combing the beaches of Florida. It had helped him look . . . not so dead. He’d been gaunt there at the end. He was still too thin, but at least he didn’t look like a walking corpse anymore.