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Finding missing children was the only thing that kept Slade Blackburn going. The only thing that kept him from giving into the booze that promised sweet relief and numbness from the pain of his failures.
That was, when he found the children alive.
The other times…well, he locked those away in some distant part of his mind to deal with later. Much, much later when he was alone at night, and the loneliness consumed him and reminded him that he didn't have a soul in the world who gave a damn if he lived or died.
Voices echoed through the downstairs as the agents at Guardian Angel Investigations entered the old house Gage McDermont had converted into a business and began to climb the stairs.
Slade's instincts kicked in. He'd arrived early, situated himself to face the doorway in the conference room so he could study each man as he entered.
Not that he hadn't done his research.
Gage had started the agency in Sanctuary and recruited an impressive team of agents.
The moment Slade had read about GAI in the paper, he'd phoned Gage and asked to sign on. Leaving his stint in the military had left him wired and honed for action, yet the confines of the FBI or a police department had grated on his newfound freedom.
Too long he'd taken orders, followed commands. Now he was his own man and wanted no one to watch over, not as he'd had to do with his combat unit.
But he needed a case.
Being alone, listening to the deafening quiet of the mountains, remembering the horrific events he'd seen, was wreaking havoc on his sanity.
He refused to be one of those soldiers who returned from war damaged and suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
He would not fall apart and become needy, dammit.
And he would keep the nightmares at bay.
By God, he'd survived his childhood and Iraq, and he wouldn't go down now.
Still, returning to the small town of Sanctuary, North Carolina, held its own kind of haunts, and when he'd passed by Magnolia Manor, the orphanage where his mother had dropped him off without looking back, he'd questioned his decision to settle in the town.
Gage McDermont strode in and took the head seat behind the long conference table while the others filed in. Slade maintained his stoic expression, honing his self-control.
Gage gestured toward Slade. "This is Slade Blackburn," he said. "He just finished his first case and returned Carmel Foster's runaway daughter to her."
The men surrounding the table nodded, then Gage gestured to each of them as he made the introductions. Slade analyzed each one in turn.
Benjamin Camp, a dirty-blond-haired computer expert with green eyes. Brilliant techy, he'd heard. Slade would bet he had a shady past. Maybe a former criminal with skills that could come in handy in a pinch.
Levi Stallings, former FBI profiler, black hair, military-style haircut, dark brown eyes. Intense, a man who studied behaviors and got into a killer's mind. He cut his gaze toward Slade as if dissecting him under his microscope, and Slade forced himself not to react, to meet him with an equally hard stare.
First rule of engaging with the enemy: Never let on that you're afraid or intimidated.
Not that he was, but he didn't like anyone messing with his mind or getting too close.
Adopting his poker face, he angled his head to study the man, seated next to him, whom Gage introduced as Brock Running Deer.
"Running Deer is an expert tracker," Gage said in acknowledgment.
A skill that would be needed in the dense mountains. He was also big, slightly taller than Slade's own six feet, had shoulder-length brown hair, auburn eyes and was part Cherokee. He scowled at Slade as if he were permanently angry, but Slade shrugged it off. He hadn't come here to make friends.
"And this is Derrick McKinney."
Slade nodded toward him.
Next Gage introduced Caleb Walker, who also looked mixed heritage. He had thick black hair, black eyes, and wore a guarded expression. Gage didn't elaborate on his particular skill, which made Slade even more curious about the man.
Gage gestured to the last man seated around the table. "This is Colt Mason, a guns and weapon expert." Slade sized him up. Short, spiked black hair, crystal-blue eyes, sullen and quiet. He had that military look about him, as well, as if he'd stared down death and it hadn't fazed him. Probably former Special Ops.
The door squeaked open and a petite brunette with hair dangling to her waist and large brown eyes slipped in.
Gage's face broke into a smile. "This is Amanda Peterson, our newest recruit. Amanda is a forensics specialist, and we're glad to have her on board.
"Now that we've all been introduced, I want to get you up to speed on the latest case and the arrests made in Sanctuary. Brianna Honeycutt, now the wife of Derrick, adopted an infant son when the baby's mother, Natalie Cummings, was murdered. Our investigation revealed that Natalie learned about a meth lab in town that was connected to the creators of a lab eight years ago, the one that caused the hospital fire and explosion that took dozens and dozens of lives."
Gage paused and twisted his mouth into a frown. "The police have made several arrests, but locals are up in arms now that they know who was responsible. There's also been speculation that there might have been more locals involved in the lab. Lawsuits are cropping up each day, and people who lost loved ones are asking questions. Due to the fire and contamination of evidence, there are questions regarding some of those who were presumed dead."
Slade frowned. "Presumed?"
"Ones whose bodies were never found or identified," Gage clarified. "Among those were women and children. I expect that we might have some work ahead of us."
Slade's blood began to boil. Women and children… who'd died because of some stupid drug lab. Women and children whose bodies had never been identified.
Families with no answers just as his own hadn't had answers when his older sister had disappeared. Not until Slade had found her in the morgue.
Maybe it was right that he'd come back to Sanctuary. If he had the opportunity to find closure for even one of the families involved, it was worth it.
Then maybe he could finally find peace and forgive himself for his sister's death.
Nina's baby's cry haunted her every day.
Peyton would have been eight years old had she survived, the same age as the children Nina taught at Sanctuary Elementary.
She tried to envision what her daughter would look like now as she watched her students rush to the school bus, squealing and laughing, excited to be out for summer break. Most of the teachers were jumping for joy, as well.
"Freedom at last," one third-grade teacher said with a laugh.
"Vacation," another one boasted.
But instead of dreaming about long, lazy days at home or a vacation road trip, tears filled Nina's eyes.
To her, summer break meant weeks of being without the kids. Long, lonely days and nights of silence. Of no tiny hands reaching out for help, no sweet voices calling her name, no little patter of feet or giggles, no little arms wrapping around her for a big bear hug.
Tortured nights of an empty house and more nightmares of what her life would have been like if her little girl were alive.
For a moment, she allowed herself to dream of taking her daughter to the beach. They'd build sand castles, collect shells, ride bikes. She could almost hear her daughter's laughter in the wind roaring off the ocean….
The bus driver gave a big honk of its horn, jerking her back to reality. Kids waved and screamed out the window, and the bus roared away. Teachers cheered and waved, laughing and talking about their plans as they dispersed back to their rooms to tidy up for the day.
Nina wrapped her arms around her waist and watched until the last bus disappeared from the school drive, then turned and walked back inside, her chest tight.
She should be over the loss of her daughter, people had told her. "Move on with your life," her father had insisted. "Let it go," the ob-gyn had said.
But sometimes at night, she heard her baby's cries, and she sensed that Peyton was still alive. That she hadn't died in that fire. That she was out there somewhere, and that she needed her.
Moving on autopilot, she went to her classroom, packed up boxes, wiped down the chalkboard, stripped the bulletin boards and cleaned out her desk.
Finally she couldn't procrastinate any longer. The empty room was almost as sad and overwhelming as her house. Here she could still see the kids' cherub faces, hear their chatter and smell their sweet, little bodies.
She stuffed her worn plan book in her favorite tote, one emblazoned with a strawberry on the front and sporting the logo Teachers Are Berry Special, then added a copy of the language arts guide for the new language arts program the county had adopted, threw the tote over her shoulder, flipped off the lights and headed outside.
The late-afternoon sunshine beat down on her as she walked to the parking lot. The sound of engines starting up filled the air, and she noticed a group of teachers gathering for an end-of-the-year celebration.
Celia, her friend from the classroom across the hall from her, looked up and waved as she climbed in her minivan. Celia had invited her to join them, but she'd declined. Celebrating was the last thing on her mind.
Instead she drove to the little bungalow she'd bought in town, picked up the newspaper on the front stoop, then dragged herself inside and poured a glass of sweet iced tea. Hating the silence that engulfed her, she flipped on the television, then glanced at the front page of the paper.
The headlines immediately caught her eye.
Murder of Natalie Cummings and Kidnapping of Her Son Ryan Leads to Answers about the Hospital Explosion and Fire Eight Years Ago.
Nina skimmed the article, her own memories of the explosion taunting her. For years now the town had mourned the lives lost back then. Now they finally had answers.
Police have learned that a meth lab built by local teenagers at the time was the cause of the explosion that killed dozens. Recently Natalie Cummings had overheard students at Sanctuary High discussing a new meth lab nearby, and she was apparently murdered when she connected the current lab to the one eight years ago.
Derrick McKinney, an agent from Guardian Angel Investigations, was instrumental in uncovering the truth about the explosion, the kidnapping and murder connection.
Nina frowned, her heart racing. That night had been horrible. The explosion, the fire, the terrible confusion. The burning bodies.
Her frantic rush to find Peyton…
Her stomach knotted. She'd wondered if her baby might have been confused with another that night, or if she could have been kidnapped in the chaos.
But the investigation had been a mess, and the sheriff had assured her her fears had been unfounded. Even worse, the P.I. she'd hired had been convinced she was just a hysterical mother and had done nothing but take her money.
Still, one question nagged at her. They had never found Peyton's body.
She glanced at the article again. Guardian Angel Investigations. They specialized in finding missing children.
Her hand shook as she went to the mantel and picked up the photo of her newborn. Peyton had been so tiny Nina had been able to hold her in one hand.
If someone had kidnapped her, how would she have survived?
Still, every night when she crawled into bed, she heard her cries. And every time she closed her eyes, a little angel's voice sang to her in the night.
Determination and a new wave of hope washed over her as she grabbed her purse. "I'm going to find you, baby."
If GAI had dug deeply enough to find out who'd caused that fire, maybe they could dig even deeper and find out what had happened to her daughter.
Just as the meeting was about to disperse, the bell on the downstairs door jangled. Gage gestured for the group to wait while he descended the stairs. A minute later, he returned, escorting a young woman with him.
A beautiful blonde with long wavy hair, enormous blue eyes the color of the sky on a clear North Carolina day, and a slim body with plump breasts that strained against her soft, white blouse.
But nothing about the woman indicated she was aware of her beauty.
Instead, those blue eyes looked wary and were filled with the kind of grief and sadness that indicated she'd lived through a hell of her own.
"This is Nina Nash," Gage said. "She's interested in our services."
Gage gestured for her to sit down, and Slade noticed her body trembling slightly as she slid into a leather chair. Why was she on edge?
Was she intimidated by the agents, or in some kind of trouble?
"How can we help you, Miss Nash?" Gage asked.
She bit down on her lower lip and twisted her hands together, glancing at each of them as if to decide whether to continue.
"Just relax and tell us your story," Gage said in a soothing tone.
She nodded, then jutted up her little chin, took a deep breath and spoke. "I read about your agency in the paper and saw that you found the people responsible for the hospital fire and explosion eight years ago."
"Yes," Gage said. "The police made some arrests."
"I…lost my baby that night," Nina said in a pained tone. "At least she went missing."
A hushed silence fell across the room as everyone contemplated her statement. Finally Gage assumed the lead and spoke. "Why don't you start from the beginning and tell us what happened."
She rolled her tiny hands into fists as if to hold herself together. "My baby girl was early, a preemie, and I had to have a C-section," she said as if she'd repeated this story a thousand times already. Then she rushed on as if she had to spit it out or she'd completely crumble. "I was asleep when the sound of the explosion woke me. Everyone started shouting and screaming, and I smelled smoke so I got out of bed and tried to get to the nursery, to Peyton…" Her voice cracked in the deafening silence stretching across the room.
But no one spoke. Her anguish was like a palpable force in the room.
"It was chaos," she said on a choked breath. "Everyone was screaming, desperate to escape. Patients were struggling and needing help, and an orderly told me to go to the stairwell, but I couldn't leave my baby so I pushed him away."