Twenty years ago, Alexa Rodriguez’s sister disappeared without a trace. The trauma drove Alexa to become a private investigator. No matter how many cases she solves, there will always be a hole from the one that haunts her.
When Dean Campbell hires the HEARTS Agency, he has no idea what has happened to his sister. The police aren’t taking her disappearance seriously, but Dean knows Mandy—and he will do anything to bring her home safely.
As the line between investigator and client blur, the hunt for Mandy continues. But will their need for one another compromise their search?
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Alexa Rodriguez had spent the last twelve years obsessing about the night her older sister had disappeared. Lanie had been there one minute. The next, she'd vanished. Poof. She was never seen again. The questions surrounding her kidnapping had never been answered. Hope that they ever would be had long ago evaporated.
Just like any traces of Lanie.
Alexa had spent so much of her teen years learning how to work missing persons cases that she hadn't considered any career other than becoming a private investigator. She didn't want to be a cop, or a federal agent, or the teacher her abuela had tried to convince her to become. Her grandmother preferred she do something "safe," but Alexa had been preparing for solving cases most of her life. Even so, cases like the one unfolding before her had a way of shaking her to her core.
"She wouldn't have left without telling me." Dean Campbell had said those exact words at least four times since sitting at the table in the HEARTS Investigations conference room. "My little sister is in trouble."
"We believe you," Alexa said in a soothing tone she'd learned from her abuela.
Dean met Alexa's gaze, and the desperation in his light brown eyes broke her heart. He scowled, causing the lines around his mouth to deepen, aging him before her eyes. He was no older than thirty, but the crease between his brows had yet to ease and he had a seemingly permanent frown on his thin lips. His shaggy hair was unkempt in a way that she didn't think was usual for him. He had dragged his fingers through the brown strands enough in the last fifteen minutes for her to recognize it as a nervous habit. He was genuinely distressed. So, yes, Alexa believed that he believed his sister was in trouble. She'd have to confirm that before she believed it, but his conviction was enough for her to want to comfort him.
Holly Austin, lead investigator for HEARTS, stared at Alexa in that way she always did whenever she worried about a case hitting too close to home for one of her teammates. Holly didn't think Alexa working missing persons cases was healthy, but at the same time, Alexa was the best one for the job.
"What do you think?" Holly asked pointedly. She wasn't asking what Alexa thought of the case. She was asking if Alexa was up for taking the case. Holly was the lead investigator for a reason. Not only because she was brilliant and strong enough to shoulder the weight, but because — whether she wanted to be or not — she was the most in tune with the others on her team.
Alexa loved that Holly always took the time to think before agreeing to take on a case. She might not be good a verbalizing how much she cared about her team, but she showed it every day in the way she looked out for them in little ways.
Dean sat across the table, his dark eyes moving from one PI to the other. "Is there a problem?"
Shaking her head, Alexa offered him a warm smile. While Holly's talent was assessing if one of her teammates was up for a case, Alexa's strength was reassuring their clients. "No. No problem. We're going to do everything we can to help you find Mandy. You'll be working directly with me, but my team will be kept informed on the case to make sure I don't overlook anything. I can't make you any promises, Dean, other than that every one of us will be dedicated to bringing your sister home."
Relief wasn't exactly the look on his face, but hope seemed to light in his eyes. "The police won't do a damn thing."
"She's nineteen, legally an adult," Alexa said. "Unless there's reason to believe she has been hurt or left against her will, there isn't much they can do."
"She might be an adult, but I still take care of her. I pay her living expenses so she can focus on school. I haven't heard from her for a month. She wouldn't leave without telling me. I'm her brother, for God's sake." Raking his fingers through his brown hair, he didn't notice — or maybe he didn't care — that the strands were now standing on end. "Do you think she left against her will?"
"I'm going to find out." Opening her notebook, she scribbled Mandy's name at the top.
"We're going to ask questions, Mr. Campbell," Holly said. "Some may be personal and hard to answer, but we need you to be absolutely honest. Nothing you tell us will leave our team, and none of us are here to judge you or Mandy. Your transparency is crucial to helping us locate her. Understand?"
He nodded, but a hint of defensiveness was evident in the way he sat a little taller. That was normal. Nobody liked strangers digging into their private business.
"You said that you moved back home after your mother passed away?"
"We haven't had much contact with our dad since our parents divorced. After college, I moved to Chicago, where I was a graphic designer. When Mom got sick three years ago, I came back to take care of her. After she passed away, I moved back permanently. Mandy was still in high school, and I didn't want her to have to change schools. She was traumatized enough by losing our mom, and I can work from anywhere."
"You've checked with your father?" Alexa asked. "She's not there?"
"No. She's not there." He almost sounded angry about that. "She barely speaks to him."
"Had you and your sister fought recently?" Alexa asked.
"No. We talked at least once a week when she was at college. She seemed distracted lately, but we hadn't fought."
Alexa made a note of that fact. "Did she say why she was distracted?"
"No. I asked, but she said she had a lot going on with finals."
"Finals?" Holly creased her brow. "Didn't you say she went missing in August?"
"Yes. She went to school over the summer as well. She's determined to finish two majors in four years." Pride sounded in his voice. "She's studying journalism and marketing."
Alexa smiled. "She's a hard worker."
"Too hard." His proud look faded back to one of concern. "I wanted her to take the summer off, but two of the classes being offered wouldn't fit in her schedule during fall semester. She worried if she didn't take them, she would have to postpone graduation another semester. I tried to tell her that wasn't a big deal, but she wanted to finish ..." He took a breath. "I said that already, didn't I?"
Alexa reassured him with another smile. "It's okay. We know you're under a lot of stress right now. Did you ever meet any of the friends she'd made at college?"
"Just her roommate and only in passing. Mandy didn't care for her too much. They didn't have real conflict that she spoke of, but she said they didn't mesh."
Alexa scribbled a note to check in with the roommate. "Was Mandy dating?"
"Not that I know of."
"Did you usually know if she was dating?" Holly asked. She lifted her hand to stop him from lashing out when he reared back, as if offended. "Some big brothers can be a little too overprotective. When that happens, little sisters keep secrets."
His face tensed. "My sister wasn't keeping secrets from me, Ms. Austin."
"She didn't mean any offense," Alexa soothed. "We just need to know how close you are with your sister."
"We talked at least once a week," he reiterated. "She never mentioned any problems or concerns. Or a boyfriend. She seemed to be enjoying school. The next thing I know, she's stopped answering her phone and she's stopped posting on her social media accounts. You'd think that would be enough to raise some damn red flags, but I talked to her roommate. She left school willingly. The police said she probably moved and didn't let me know because she thought I'd be mad about her leaving school. But that doesn't make sense. Yeah, I'd be frustrated and upset, but it's not like I wouldn't get over it. Something is wrong."
Alexa reached across the table and put her hand on his. "We understand. We're going to do everything we can —"
"To find her," he finished in a flat tone.
Closing her notebook, Alexa sat back. He was shutting down. She didn't blame him. He'd likely answered these same questions a hundred times while trying to convince the police his sister was in trouble. However, if he shut HEARTS out, he was going to forget something that could be vital to their case. God love Holly, but there were times her straightforward approach wasn't the best way.
"Would you take me to your house?" Alexa asked. "I'd like to take a look at her room and get a better feel for her."
"She's lived on campus the last year and a half."
"I know. But she still has a room at home, doesn't she? Seeing her space might help me figure out who she'd turn to or where she'd go."
His frown implied he didn't see the point, but he nodded his agreement. "Sure."
"Give me one minute to gather my things." Alexa pushed herself up and eyed Holly in a silent bid for her to follow.
"He's not telling us something," Holly said the moment she closed the conference room door between them and Mr. Campbell.
"I agree. I'll get it out of him."
"I don't like you going off with him —"
"He's not the bad guy, Holly." She didn't mean her words to sound so clipped, but they had. Overprotective was one way to describe Holly. She'd become more so after one of her cases had taken a bad turn and she'd gotten shot. Softening her approach, Alexa said, "I'll check in periodically."
Holly looked at the closed door, as if debating how to respond. "Keep him in your sights until you get a better feel for him. Be aware of your surroundings, Lex. I know you know this, but it's my responsibility to remind you. And take your tracker, or Rene will kick your ass. We all will."
In her office, Alexa opened the top drawer of her desk. After tucking the small wallet she carried inside her back pocket, she double-checked that her Beretta sat in the holster on her hip and the personal tracker Rene, one of her teammates, insisted they all carry sat in her right front pocket.
With her phone in one hand and car keys in the other, she rejoined her new client, ready to help him find his sister.
* * *
Dean climbed out of his car and waited while Alexa parked beside him in the wide driveway. He was glad she'd agreed to take his case. He didn't doubt the other investigator's abilities, but Holly had been more pointed in her questions than Alexa. The tall brunette who had followed him home was softer. He needed that right now. He felt like shit for not knowing where Mandy was. Maybe it was selfish on his part, but he didn't need one more person making him feel like a bad brother.
"This is a lovely home, Dean." Alexa rounded the front of her black sedan, adjusting her blazer. For the first time, he realized she was carrying a gun.
Maybe if he'd taught Mandy how to handle a gun ...
Shaking the thought from his head, Dean muttered his thanks before guiding Alexa to the front door. Even now, he had a hard time thinking of this as his home. He'd left for college and hadn't returned until his mother had become so ill she couldn't care for herself. This was her home. He felt like a visitor, despite having grown up here. The house looked like every other on the street. As October moved in, the grass was losing the bright green of summer and a few leaves had fallen, but the lawn was nearly immaculate.
The small porch leading to the front door didn't show signs of autumn or Halloween like the other houses. Decorations sat in labeled boxes on the shelves in the garage but hadn't been opened since his mom died three years ago. She was the one who would spend an entire afternoon digging out wooden witches and pumpkins and setting them out just so.
Their home had looked like something out of a decorating magazine when she was alive. He missed that sometimes. He'd never really understood her need to change everything with the season, but sometimes he did miss it.
After she died, he'd tried to keep up appearances for Mandy's sake, but once his sister went off to college, he really didn't see the point. He hadn't even put up a Christmas tree last year. Mandy's disappointment had been like a knife in his heart. She'd walked in with a smile on her face, but the moment she looked toward the corner of the living room where the tree had stood every year, her face sagged at the emptiness.
He'd justified to her, and to himself, that she was old enough now that they didn't need to do all that stuff. He'd felt guilty, though. He hadn't meant to ruin her holiday, but he had. He hadn't realized how much that tree had meant to her.
He was going to change that this year. He was determined to have her home by Christmas, and he was going to put up that damned tree and hang garland and set out all the various Santa Clauses and elves and snowmen their mother had collected over the years.
It was going to look like St. Nick himself had vomited on the Campbell house by the time he was done. He just needed Mandy to come home first.
He blinked. He hadn't realized he'd stopped moving until Alexa spoke his name. Her soothing voice pulled him from his self-reflection. Swallowing, he looked around the barren porch. "I didn't decorate for Christmas last year."
Her brow creased for a moment before she seemed to catch herself and erased her automatic reaction.
"She loves Christmas. The lights and the decorations. I didn't do that for her last year. For some reason I thought she was too old. Maybe I was just too lazy." Blinking again, surprised at the surge of conflict raging inside him, he focused on unlocking the door. "Sorry. I don't know why that came out."
"Because you're worried about your sister and sometimes the brain brings up strange things when we're worried."
He swallowed, neither agreeing with nor denying her explanation. Opening the door, he gestured for her to enter first, but she gave a gesture of her own and waited for him to step inside. He did so and held the door for her. She walked in as well but didn't venture deeper into the house. She stood aside, waiting for him to close the door and drop his keys on the little table that had stood there for years. "I'm not sure what you're looking for," he said, leading her toward Mandy's room.
She followed, and though he couldn't see behind him, he suspected she was eyeing every inch they walked through, including the framed photos of three smiling faces. Alexa would probably notice that the last family photo was with their mom sitting between him and Mandy. They hadn't had another portrait taken since she'd died. No. They hadn't taken another portrait since she'd gotten sick. She didn't like having her photo taken after she'd gained weight and lost her hair from the treatment.
"Cancer," he announced.
"My mom. Her name was Lily, and she died three years ago from cancer. You didn't ask, but you were wondering." He glanced back at her, and the curve of her lips seemed to confirm his suspicion.
"Ah. You're one of those mind-reader types."
He let a humorless chuckle leave him. "If that were the case, I wouldn't need you, would I?" He stopped in front of Mandy's bedroom door and gestured toward the space that had remained unchanged for several years.
Alexa stuck her head in, scanning the room. "I know it goes without saying that you and Mandy were devastated by your loss, but did anything about her grief unnerve you? Did she get depressed or withdraw?"
"No. Not really. Mom had been sick for a long time. Not that the length of her illness made losing her any easier," he added, as if his reasoning might be taken wrong. "I just mean that we had time to accept what was happening."
Alexa gave him another warm smile of understanding. He liked that smile. It'd been a long time since someone had tried so hard to comfort him. Most people seemed convinced that Mandy had dropped out of school to gallivant around the country or backpack across Europe or some other adventurous thing that was completely out of the norm for his sister.
Mandy wasn't the adventurous type. She was focused and studious. She had goals and worked hard to achieve them. She'd always been that way.
Leaning against the doorframe, he watched Alexa enter Mandy's room. She peered into the closet and then scanned the rest of the room as if looking for a booby trap. "Are you afraid someone's going to jump out at you?"
The slight twisting of her lips showed her amusement. "Assessing your surroundings is the first step to safety."
"And the reason you want to walk behind me?"
"Habit. Gentlemanly manners are wonderful but can also be dangerous. It's a lot easier for an assailant to get the upper hand if you don't see him coming."
Her words, even though they weren't meant to stab at him, hurt his heart, and the little smile that had toyed across his lips left.
"Sounds like common sense self-defense there," he said. "I never taught her that."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Stolen 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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