Years ago Asher Winsome almost lost his life in the jaws of a great white shark. It was the scariest moment of his life—until his four-year-old nephew is kidnapped. Called home to be with his family, who see him as the black sheep, Asher must rely on every bit of his courage if he’s going to help get his nephew back. But this is not an ordinary kidnapping. And the outcome will leave Asher running for his life.
Former FBI agent Alec Banner buries himself in his work to forget everything that’s missing in his life. His job, at a private company run by an old friend, locating missing children can be tough and brutal, but Alec is no stranger to working with the worst of humanity. From the minute he’s called to help on the Winsome kidnapping he knows something is different.
Thrown together under such difficult circumstances Asher and Alec are drawn to each other’s unrelenting courage even in the face of their fears. But a relationship begun under such impossible stress can’t survive. When his job is finished Alec runs from Asher and his growing feelings, but the danger hasn’t passed, in fact it has only just begun. And both men will need to be brave if they are to survive.
|Publisher:||NineStar Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.74(d)|
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Alec Banner stood at the massive oak door, with his ear pressed against the wood, and listened. There was plenty of yelling going on behind it, but the words were muffled. He moved to the glass paneling to the side. It afforded much better acoustics for his eavesdropping on the family.
Tempers were usually frayed in situations where a child was missing, but he'd never encountered the level of rage and viciousness coming from the other side of the front door of the Winsome mansion this early in a child abduction case. Normally, the family members of the missing child initially clung to each other, desperate for some comfort and reprieve from the waking nightmare they were living. The Winsomes, however, sounded as though they were about to tear each other to pieces.
He refrained from knocking even though he was certain the occupants were well aware of his arrival. There were enough cameras around the entrance to the Winsome estate to make it difficult for even the most accomplished cat burglar to sneak through. Instead, he did his best to hear the argument still raging behind closed doors. He couldn't make out much but got the general gist that someone wanted to contact the police and was fighting hard for the call to be made.
Time was coming up on twelve hours since Jack Winsome had been stolen, literally out of the arms of his nanny, at the local park. He'd received a call from Ryan as soon as he'd landed in San Diego, confirming Madeline and Kane wanted him out at the family estate as soon as possible to help them get their son back.
The battle inside wasn't easing up, but Alec had heard enough. Their arguing was wasting time better spent on finding little Jack. He pressed the doorbell and waited. The noise from inside ceased immediately, replaced by quick steps approaching from the other side. When the large door swung open, he stood face-to-face with Kane Winsome.
The photos he'd been sent were all recent, within the last two years, and yet the Kane who stood before him seemed to have aged by at least a decade. His hair was messy, his eyes red-rimmed and swollen, and his skin was pale. In short, Kane looked as though he was a small, shaky step away from the grave.
Alec put his hand forward and received an extremely weak shake from Kane. The man seemed to be using every bit of energy he had for the sole purpose of keeping on his feet. "Yes. You must be Kane Winsome."
Kane nodded and ushered him in. He quickly glanced around the entryway, taking in as much detail as possible. The ceiling here was two stories, making the second-floor landing easily visible. The staircase was covered in a lush, cream carpet and was met with a complementary cream tiled foyer. Several large pots added a touch of greenery to the otherwise muted color scheme of whites and beiges. To the left, Alec noted a formal room that continued the natural coloring throughout, with cream leather sofas and the same carpet as the staircase. A splash of color was added with a handful of throw pillows and a mosaic-tiled coffee table. To his right, the tiled floor continued into a far less formal-looking living area. Though the colors remained neutral, this room was far more colorful and casual than the formal room.
"Thank you for coming, Mr. Banner. Please follow me," Kane said, leading Alec through to the sitting room. "This is my wife, Madeline."
Madeline Winsome, in contrast to her husband, looked ready to go several rounds with Rocky Balboa. Her hair was wild, and she wore not a scrap of make-up, but the woman looked fierce. She was the lioness preparing to protect her cub as he'd imagined.
"Thank god. Alec, let's dispense with niceties. I'm Maddy, and I'll call you Alec. Please tell my in-laws we need to call the police. We've been told not to, but I still think they need to be called. I won't allow anything to jeopardize my son." Maddy finished breathlessly.
Alec was taken aback by mini-tornado Madeline Winsome — and the news they'd heard from the kidnappers. Either Ryan had forgotten to mention that — unlikely — or Ryan hadn't been told. "You've heard from them?"
"Yes. They sent me a text immediately after taking my son. It simply said 'No cops.' So I was okay not calling them at the start, but we haven't heard from the kidnappers since then, and I think it's way past time now to call." Even though she was talking to him, Maddy glared at her father-in-law as she spoke.
"Why didn't you tell Ryan about the text when you called for our services? We have a tech wiz who could have been working on tracing the text for the last several hours." Alec did his best to not sound too accusatory. People in the Winsomes' position did irrational and illogical things all the time; such was the nature of their distress. But, depending on the level of sophistication of the kidnappers, Jacey might have been able to trace them, and this could have all been over by now.
"That was me." Edmund Winsome's voice was as powerful as he'd expect from someone in his position.
Alec turned and shook Edmund's outstretched hand. "Mr. Winsome." He nodded to the man. Meeting people under these circumstances was always difficult. Social niceties such as saying "good to meet you" could hardly be used. Alec preferred to get straight to the point. A no-nonsense approach gave the family confidence and set the tone for how Alec would handle the situation. "Can you tell me why you withheld that information?"
"Let me get one thing straight, Mr. Banner. I don't want the police called. I only allowed Madeline to call you as a concession. The text message was clear and we're more than happy to pay the money. My son and daughter-in-law have wanted them called in since Emily came home battered and hysterical, telling us Jack had been taken. You're only here in deference to my son. But my patience is wearing thin. It's been almost twelve hours, and no further contact has been made."
Alec watched Edmund as he spoke. The man's chest puffed up and his face got redder as he continued. A quick glance also showed the utter disdain with which Maddy viewed her father-in-law's opinion. Frankly, Alec was surprised Maddy hadn't gone ahead and called the cops, regardless of Edmund's wishes.
Phyllis Winsome's hand closed gently over her husband's forearm and squeezed. The man deflated instantly, allowing Alec a glimpse of the pain behind the bluff and bluster. Phyllis looked at him intensely with nothing but judgment in her sharp eyes. Whatever she saw in him, she must obviously approve, because Alec got the feeling, if she didn't, he'd have been shown the door immediately.
"Mr. Banner, thank you for coming. You must forgive us as we are all under a lot of strain right now, and to be honest, not one of us knows how to handle this situation. Your guidance and expertise would be much appreciated." Phyllis Winsome spoke with the barest hint of a leftover Southern accent and with impeccable pronunciation and manners. "Let's all take a seat. Maddy, dear, why don't you go get Emily so Mr. Banner can speak to her?"
Alec followed Phyllis to the sofa, and though she gestured for him to sit, he shook her off and remained standing. If he was going to help little Jack, there could be no more lies and none of the manipulations he suspected this family was so good at.
Maddy left the room immediately after receiving her orders from the matriarch. The men sat as soon as Phyllis took her seat, and Alec was left with the distinct impression this little family was governed with the iron fist of its queen.
Despite the viciousness he'd listened to through the door only moments ago, the family had officially closed ranks. They had all expressed their opinions, but they'd used their public facades with him to do it — the shouting was over for now.
"Before Maddy returns, please tell us, Mr. Banner, is it your recommendation the police are called in?"
"Mother, we agreed —"
"Hush now, Kane. We've all had our say, so it's time to get the opinion of an expert." Phyllis turned her eyes, gray like her son's, to Alec, her gaze piercing with its intensity.
"My recommendation would be to call the police. When the call comes from the kidnappers, it is up to you how you handle it, but the police can be investigating in parallel with whatever you decide to do regarding paying a ransom. I'm sure you've all heard the first twenty-four hours are crucial when somebody goes missing. The unfortunate statistic is that if the missing person isn't located within that time the chances are high they are already dead or long gone and out of reach." Alec looked around. His words were harsh and difficult to hear, but the family needed to know. They'd already lost too much time.
"I want to get Jacey working on the text message Madeline received immediately, regardless of whether or not you call in the police. She's the best at what she does, and the advantage with her is we won't need to wait for warrants or official approval. Our goal is to get Jack back, whatever it takes."
Alec looked up as Maddy approached with a younger woman in tow. The other woman, probably in her early twenties, was extremely petite. Her hair was in disarray as though she'd just woken up. Bruising was coming to life on her face and upper arms. The girl looked terrified.
"I'll get Maddy's phone," Kane offered as he stood and walked out of the room. Maddy and Emily took the seat he'd vacated, with Emily practically curling into the older woman. Whatever had taken place had understandably left Emily shaken.
"Emily, this is Alec Banner. He used to work for the FBI. He's going to help us get Jack back."
Alec kneeled in front of the woman, bringing himself to eye level but keeping a safe distance so he didn't spook her. "Hi, Emily. Do you think you could tell me exactly what happened this morning?"
Her eyes were already glistening with tears, but a look of determination changed her expression. Whatever else she may be, Emily obviously cared about her charge and was going to do what she could to help get him back.
"Um ... well, Jack and I walked to the park as usual. We'd been there about half an hour when I noticed two men turn up with no children. It's a children's playground, so I was immediately wary. I kept my eye on them."
"Could you give us a description of them?"
"In general terms, yes, but I never got a clear look at their faces. They had ball caps pulled low. They were both similar height. I'd say maybe a little under six foot. One was solid but not too muscular and the other was on the slender side. The slender one had long, mousy brown hair curling out from under his cap. The other one I think had a buzz cut because I couldn't see any hair poking out. They were both Caucasians. Nothing remarkable about either of them, and they never spoke." Emily looked up at him and waited.
"That's good. Everything helps," he encouraged. She was young but had given an excellent description. "What happened? How did they get Jack?"
"I wasn't comfortable with them there, so I wanted to leave. A few other people had already left, and I didn't want to be there alone with them, so I got Jack and started walking away. I knew ... as soon as I heard noise behind me, I knew what was happening. But there were two of them and one grabbed me from behind and threw me to the ground while the other pulled Jack away from me. I ran after them but I couldn't —" Emily wrestled with her tears, and Maddy leaned in to comfort her.
How long would it be before they started blaming Emily? Unfortunately, a natural part of the process, when a child was taken, was to start blaming the person who had been responsible for them at the time it happened.
As he looked around the room, he noticed all eyes were now teary, even stoic Mrs. Winsome. This poor family. No matter how many times he witnessed it, he'd never get used to the pain suffered by people who'd had a child taken.
"Alec, here's Maddy's phone." Kane handed over the latest iPhone and immediately took the seat beside his wife. He comforted her as she continued to try to console Emily. Kane turned and looked at Alec. "Tell us what to do. Whatever you think we should do, we'll do. Whatever it takes."
"Right now I'm going to call Jacey and get her working on the text message. Then we're all going to sit and make a plan — including getting the police involved." Alec didn't wait for an answer as he turned on his heel and left the room, heading for the foyer.
Jacey answered on the second ring in her usual cheery manner. "Hey, Alec, my favorite ex-fed who came to see the light. How can I help?"
"Hey, Jacey. You really should try to cheer up a bit, ya know." Alec winked even though Jacey couldn't see him. She was one of those very rare people who brought out the goofball in him. "I've got Madeline Winsome's phone. She got a text message right after Jack was taken, and we think it could be from the kidnappers. Can you see what you can do?"
"Of course. I need her phone number, phone company she's with, and for you to forward the message to me."
As Alec began giving Jacey the information, the front door opened behind him. Alec turned and was suddenly face-to-face with Asher Winsome. Oh, he'd been so right; Asher's photo hadn't done him justice at all. The man was fucking breathtaking. Alec had fallen in lust at first sight many times, but Jesus Christ, this man was utter perfection.
Asher stood about the same height as his own six-foot-one, but he was a little broader across his chest, which tapered to a narrow waist and sensational-looking legs. His wavy, sun-bleached, brown hair grazed his shoulders, and his jaw was covered in light stubble. His light gray — almost silver — eyes never flinched as he watched Alec watching him. Alec's dick stirred under the delicious scrutiny.
"Hey, you're new," Asher drawled, and Alec's cock hardened even more from the husky tone. Fuck. There was nothing but trouble there, but damn if Alec didn't love a bit of mischief.CHAPTER 2
Well this wasn't exactly what he'd expected when he set foot inside his parents' house for the first time in close to three years. He didn't know who the man was, but god, he wanted to find out all about him. Normally he'd be flirting his pants off by now, but panic for his nephew and his frantic need to find out what the hell was going on was an absolute wet blanket to his libido.
Asher watched as the gorgeous man finished his call, his gaze never leaving Asher, even as Asher continued to stare at the magnificent creature. The man was tall and well-built with long, long legs — a runner's body. His ginger hair was a spiky mess and his cherry-red lips were thin and scarred. The man had beautiful, intelligent hazel eyes. Asher wanted to lean in closer to see all the flecks of color in them. And to top off all the visual pleasure, the man's scent was a heavenly mix of cinnamon and sweat.
When the stranger finished his call, he extended his hand causing Asher to jump at the chance to actually touch him.
"I'm Alec Banner. I've been called in to help find your nephew."
So Alec Banner knew who he was. He'd either done his research, or his parents had mentioned him — and he couldn't imagine them ever doing that. "Asher Winsome. Are you with the police?"
"No. I work for a company called Chasing Hope. We specialize in locating missing children. Your sister-in-law called us."
"How is Maddy?" Out of the whole family, his brother included, Maddy was the only one he really got along well with. She was the only one who ever bothered to try to understand him. His parents had written him off years ago and strangely it hadn't been because of his sexuality. They'd taken the news he was gay with surprising equanimity. It had been his announcement that he was not going to pursue a career in law that had damaged his standing in his parents' eyes.
"She's holding up. She's a fierce lady. Your brother doesn't look too good, though. I'd be more worried about him."
Handsome and straightforward. The more Alec Banner talked, the more Asher was impressed by him. "Do you know anything yet?"
"Why don't you come through and see your family? We were about to start planning our next steps."
"I don't know how much you know about my family, Mr. Banner, but apart from Maddy, I won't have a warm reception."
Alec watched him a moment, and then a small smile curved his lips. "It's Alec, and I'll be honest with you, Asher, I kind of expected that. However, your family politics don't concern me at all, other than how they may affect getting Jack home."
"Are you always like this?"
"An asshole or honest?" Alec's smile grew, and it looked damn good on him.
Asher laughed — inappropriate, maybe, but irrepressible. Alec Banner ticked boxes Asher didn't even know he had. "I'm guessing both."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Valor"
Copyright © 2019 Karrie Roman.
Excerpted by permission of NineStar Press, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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