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New York City
The phone call came at the worst possible time. Just as Erinn Winters was having lunch at Tavern on the Green with her new editor from hell. At precisely the moment the waiter set down their salads.
"Finally--great news, Ms. Winters," the calm male voice said at the other end of her cell line.
Cordovan. In that instant, he had her full attention. She hadn't heard from him--or from anyone at Cordovan-Smith Security and Investigations--in more than two months.
"We've found her," Wayne Cordovan said. "We've found your sister."
In that instant Erinn forgot about Clare Bonham, frowning at her across the table. She forgot that she was planning to have a nervous breakdown later that day, and that if she didn't finish writing her latest Princess Devonshire book in very short order she was going to have to return every nickel of her advance and get herself a real job.
She forgot everything but the words Cordovan had just spoken in her ear. We've found your sister.
Her heart lifted and a dazzling relief rushed through her like golden sunlight in winter.
But then her gaze flicked to the subtly annoyed expression of her editor. Clare looked as if someone had superglued a lemon under her tongue.
Erinn knew she'd blundered by even answering her cell just as they were about to get down to business. Normally, she wouldn't have. But at the last second, she'd panicked and wanted to put off the central point of this meeting until she'd had time to gulp down at least half a glass of wine. So she'd impulsively scooped her phone from her bag, never expecting the call to be anything as important--and personal--as this.
"That's . . . that's very good news." She chose her words carefully and spoke as evenly as she could, flicking up one digit to signal Clare she'd be off in a minute.
No one in her present life knew anything about her search for Devon, or the truth about her own past. No one even knew her real name--except for Wayne Cordovan and his agency.
So she wasn't about to give anything away to the tall fortyish redhead in chic black sitting across the table, a woman who in Erinn's eyes represented the closest thing to a boss she'd known in a long time.
Erinn didn't deny she had a problem with authority figures. And Clare--with her protuberant brown eyes, air of breezy command, and repeated e-mails inquiring when the book would be turned in--definitely qualified as an authority figure.
It was therefore certain that Clare Bonham wasn't going to discover one thing about Erinn that Erinn didn't want her to know.
"I can't wait to hear all the details, but can I possibly call you back? I'm . . . in the middle of a business meeting."
"No problem." Cordovan didn't miss a beat. "Why don't you stop by my office sometime before three? I'm leaving for Rome, and I'm afraid I'll be gone for the next two weeks. If you can't get here before three, you can always schedule a meeting with one of my associates while I'm gone. But I have all the details right here on my desk, including some photographs, and I assumed you'd want to see the report on your sister as soon as possible."
"I do. Believe me, I do." The words flew from her mouth. She hadn't seen Devon in eleven years. Now the tiny chubby-cheeked four-year-old she'd kissed good-bye in their father's mansion that long-ago day was fifteen, a teenager herself.
And a runaway.
Just like me, Erinn thought.
But there was one big difference. Erinn had at least been eighteen, legally of age, when she'd fled Chicago and the stunning Lake Forest estate where Dane Stanton's word had been law.
Devon had vanished last year. When she was only fourteen. And no one in her family had seen her since.
Erinn's gaze shifted to Clare once again. The anorexically thin, cropped-haired editor was tapping a tomato-red fingernail on the snowy tablecloth.
Erinn spoke decisively into her cell. "I'll definitely be there in an hour. I want to see everything you've got."
Clicking off her phone, she slipped it into her bag and offered Clare an apologetic smile.
"I'm so sorry. That was important or I wouldn't have kept you waiting."
"I do hope everything is all right," Clare commented tartly, obviously waiting for further explanation.
But Erinn declined to oblige her. She hadn't even told Nancy Leonetti, her previous editor, who'd also become a close friend, anything about her past or her real identity.
She hadn't told anyone in all these years. So there was no way she'd discuss her family history with the woman who had reluctantly "inherited" the Princess Devonshire books from Nancy, and who had made it abundantly clear she hadn't a shred of sympathy for Erinn's writer's block.
"I know you're worried about my finishing the book." Erinn took the plunge, determined to get this discussion over with so she could grab a cab to Cordovan's office. "But you needn't be. I'll finish it soon. By the end of the summer."
"You don't know how relieved I am to hear you say that. But it's not quite good enough, I'm afraid." Clare raised her wineglass to her lips and tossed back a swallow.
"We've had to delay production twice, you realize--and it wasn't easy. But I managed to rearrange the entire schedule. Now I've snared you a lead slot for next April, but you must have the book on my desk by the middle of August. At the latest."
She eyed Erinn skeptically over the rim of her glass. "That won't be a problem for you, Erinn, will it?"
"Not at all." Oh, God, what am I going to do?
Erinn choked down a gulp of Pinot Grigio. Her successful series of children's books about a brave princess mouse, who happened to be a superheroine and rescued all manner of creatures in the Emerald Forest, had screeched to a grinding halt when she'd discovered three months ago that her control-freak billionaire father had died and that the little sister she'd left behind had disappeared a year ago.
Since then she hadn't been able to write more than a dozen pages of her book, which barely scratched the surface of Devonshire's latest adventure.
But nothing more would come. No ideas, no dialogue, no derring-do. The words were silent in her head. The characters and images frozen.
The magic gone.
"It'll come back," Nancy had assured her when in desperation Erinn had called in tears the day after her deadline passed.
"Hang in there and relax," Nancy advised. "I've worked with at least a dozen authors over the years who've had worse writer's block than you, and in each case the magic eventually returned. So count on it."
Erinn hoped she was right. There hadn't been much magic--at least of the good sort--in her life for a long time now.
And the last remaining drops of it had simply evaporated when she learned of her father's death--and that Devon had followed in her own footsteps and run away from home.
As Clare droned on about marketing plans, cover treatments, and publicity schedules, Erinn tried to swallow a few bites of her salad. But she scarcely tasted the delicate array of arugula, baby greens, grilled chicken, and sugared pecans gracing the china plate before her.
Her mind kept returning to the image of her baby sister the last time Erinn had seen her.
"I'll come back and visit you, I promise," she'd vowed, kneeling beside the golden-haired four-year-old with the fairy-blue eyes. They'd been in the upstairs hall near the curving marble staircase, while downstairs in the formal living room, Erinn's stepmother--Devon's mother--hosted a tea for the Chicago Art Institute's auxiliary board.
Devon had thrown her baby arms around Erinn's neck and held on for dear life. "Don't go, Tiffy," she begged. "I want you to stay. Stay here . . ."
"Shhh." Erinn had hushed her, worried that either Annabeth--Devon's nanny--or her stepmother would come to see why Devon was crying.
"It's a secret, remember? I don't want anyone to know I'm gone until it's bedtime. Honey, quiet, please don't cry."
Her stomach had twisted like knots of twine at the sight of Devon's tears, at her pale cheeks blotching with despair.
"I'll come back, Devon." She smoothed her sister's baby-fine hair, the color of spun gold. "I'll come visit you and tell you stories and we'll . . . we'll have a picnic in the garden on your birthday, just like we did last summer, remember?"
"P-promise!" Devon's voice had been a heartrending gasp that had filled Erinn with love and guilt and pain--all of it mixing with her own raw desperation to escape.
"I promise, sweetie. Every time you look out at the garden you think about our picnic and remember that I'm coming back. Okay, now, hurry--scoot back to your room and don't tell anyone I'm gone. Be brave, like Princess Devonshire. That's my good little mouse."
Erinn had smiled and waved as Devon scampered down the hall to her pink and white bedroom. Then she'd hitched her duffel over her shoulder, slipped silently down the stairs and across the vast ivory marble foyer, holding her breath that none of the Art Institute board members would look up from their tea and scones to notice her creeping out the door.
She'd left her father's coldly beautiful three-story home, with its lush grounds and meticulous rose gardens, without a single look back.
And she hadn't seen Devon--not even once--since that day.
"Erinn . . . Erinn . . ." The annoyance in Clare's voice splintered through her reverie. "Did you hear what I said? Good Morning America has expressed interest in having you on during your next book tour. We need to start working on an itinerary soon, though I don't want to distract you from the writing, of course."
"I'll work with publicity on the schedule," Erinn promised, and tried to refocus on the discussion of her career. But she couldn't concentrate. She was ready to jump out of her skin.
It was nearly two and she had to get to Cordovan's office before he left for the airport.
"Shall we order coffee now?" She signaled the waiter without waiting for a reply. "I'm sorry to rush, Clare, but this appointment that just came up--it's urgent."
Tension knotted through Erinn's neck an hour later as she leaned back against the lumpy cushions of her speeding taxi, darting kamikaze-style through snarled midday traffic. Clare's displeasure was the least of her concerns right now. She wondered anxiously what she was going to learn about Devon. Guilt whipped through her, not for the first time. I should have gone back for her. Been there for her.
But you did go back, a voice inside reminded her. You tried to see her . . . you know what happened . . .
She gritted her teeth, pushing away the memory of that disastrous July day, a little over a year after she'd run off. The day she'd returned to her father's house, determined to see Devon.
But the only person she'd seen had been Dane Stanton.
She drew in a breath as the cab swerved and braked for a red light, blocking her father's coldly contemptuous face from her mind. Blocking the acid of the words he'd hurled at her that day--words that seared and wounded like poison bombs.
She'd run away from him, from his house--again. And failed her sister.
I should have known Devon's life would be as awful as my own, even if she did have a mother to look out for her . . .
But one of the things she'd learned when the news of her father's death hit the network and cable news stations three months ago was that Dane Stanton's second wife had cheated on him and left him when Devon turned ten. And that the divorce settlement had granted her only a paltry twelve million dollars and the title to the house in Palm Beach in exchange for Dane Stanton being awarded full custody of their only child, Devon.
Erinn's first reaction had been horror. Horror for her sister, left alone at the mercy of the Great Dane, as she'd angrily nicknamed her father during her own teenage years. It hadn't surprised her that she'd felt nothing more than a momentary shock when she learned he had died. Dane Stanton had been as rigid and controlling as he was powerful, and those who crossed his path either revered him for his business acumen or feared him for his compulsion to ruthlessly dominate everyone and everything around him.
Erinn had ceased being intimidated by him long ago, but she'd never stopped hating him. She'd managed to escape, to make her own life, shunning both his fortune and his control. And somehow, she lived through it. But when the newscasters reported that Devon Stanton, Dane's now fifteen-year-old daughter, had run away from home and mysteriously dropped from sight a year before his death--following the same pattern as her older half-sister--Erinn had sunk into a chair, her legs too wobbly to hold her, her heart squeezing painfully in her chest.
Since then the enormity of her own failure had weighed on her every day. And each day that passed without Cordovan getting a lead on Devon's whereabouts, without discovering if she was even still alive, had taken its toll on Erinn.
As the taxi driver zigzagged across the financial district, she rubbed her temples and tried to prepare herself for the photos awaiting her, wondering with dread what kind of life her baby sister had found in the soulless chaos of the big wide world.
"Come in, Ms. Winters. I have your sister's file right here."
Wayne Cordovan, a tall and urbane man somewhere around forty, guided her to a wing chair opposite his sleek granite desk. The expansive office was every bit as polished and handsome as Cordovan himself. Cordovan-Smith Security and Investigations took up the entire seventeenth floor of the modern mirrored glass building.
Gleaming hardwood floors, high ceilings, modern Italian furniture, and massive contemporary paintings distinguished the reception area, conference rooms, and the series of plush offices that might have belonged to a prestigious law firm or Fortune 500 company. Instead they were home to one of the East Coast's most high-tech, high-priced, yet discreet security firms, one that boasted an elite clientele from major cities all over the world.
This was no shabby, nickel-and-dime private eye operation. It was a modern-day fortress of steel, glass, and smarts.
Erinn had hired the best and had invested a good part of her latest book advance in the initial retainer, and still it had taken Cordovan and his staff of investigators months to find her sister.
"Where's Devon? Is she all right?"
"She appears to be well. For the moment."
For the moment? Erinn felt a tug of panic as she read the somberness in the detective's eyes. "Tell me where she is."
"She's out West. We found her living on the outskirts of a small town in Montana. It's just a speck on the map, in the shadow of the Beartooth Mountains. I doubt you've heard of the place. It's called Wolf River."
Erinn shook her head. Wolf River. He was right, she'd never heard of it. How in heaven's name had Devon ended up there?
"I need to see the photographs right away." Her throat was dry. "I have to see her for myself." Erinn pointed at the dark green leather folder on his desk. "Are they in here?"
Cordovan nodded. He flipped the folder open and slid it toward her. "Take your time looking at them." His tone was sympathetic. He cleared his throat. "Then I'll tell you how we found her."
Much later, Erinn gazed unseeing out the third-floor window of her apartment on 20th Street overlooking the gated darkness of Gramercy Park.
It was 2 a.m. and she couldn't sleep. Or work. Her laptop was open and booted up on the slim table across from her bed, but Princess Devonshire was still trapped in a giant sticky spiderweb on page twenty-two, as she had been for weeks. The pale champagne satin sheets on Erinn's bed were flung back, the pillows scattered, and today's New York Times had fallen unnoticed to the floor beside the five-foot-tall glistening bronze flower sculpture she'd bought to celebrate her first book sale.
The quiet one-bedroom apartment with its cream walls and champagne leather furniture was an oasis of calm and serenity above the pulsing energy of New York, but Erinn's spirit was far from calm, nowhere approaching serene. Emotion and anxiety churned within her and she was scarcely aware of her surroundings, of the beautiful sun-drenched paintings dotting the pale walls, or of the vases of tulips and calla lilies picking up the colors in the throw pillows and rugs, which gave the room a lovely glow of softness, color, and life.