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Dante Moran got off the private elevator on the sixth floor and entered the Dundee Agency. As the newest employee of the private security and investigation firm, he'd decided to make a good impression by showing up early his first official day on the job. The agency's suite of offices took up the entire floor, with each agent having his own small office. He'd been in and out of this place several times over the years, in his capacity as an FBI agent, so he was familiar with his surroundings. Having seen the way a former federal agent and now Dundee CEO, Sawyer McNamara, ran this organization, Dante had realized that he, too, was better suited for private security than the government job he'd held for the past twelve years. He'd always felt restricted as a federal agent; and God knew he'd alienated his superiors with his rebellious, maverick mentality. Realizing he wasn't in line for any major promotions, that he'd gone as far as he could with the bureau, he'd decided the smart thing to do was cut his losses and move on.
"Good morning, Mr. Moran," Daisy Holbrook, the office manager, welcomed him.
He'd heard the other agents refer to her as Ms. Efficiency. She looked every inch the young professional in her tan dress slacks and matching jacket. Being a connoisseur of women, he wouldn't assess Daisy as a beauty by any means. Pretty, yes, in a fresh, youthful way, with her light brown hair, honey-brown eyes and dimpled cheeks. Unfortunately she was a bit too plump to fit the beauty standards of today's society. A hundred years ago, her hourglass figure would have been the ideal.
"Good morning," he replied. "You're looking very pretty today, Ms. Holbrook."
"Please, call me Daisy." Her dimples deepened when she offered him a warm smile. "And if you need anything, just let me know."
"I think I'll get a cup of coffee from the employees' lounge, then head to my office and settle in."
"You might want to take your coffee straight to Mr. McNamara's office," Daisy said, and when he looked at her inquisitively, she continued, "He came in nearly an hour ago and had me start rounding up every available agent for a big powwow this morning."
Interesting, Dante thought. Something important must be in the works. "Do you happen to know what's going on?"
"All I know is that he's already been on the phone with the governor of Mississippi and both state senators this morning." She lowered her voice. "Three agents are in there with him, and we're expecting two more to arrive anytime now."
Dante nodded. "I think I'll skip the coffee and go straight to Sawyer's office."
When Dante reached the CEO's office, he found the door closed. McNamara's private secretary wasn't at her desk, so he assumed she hadn't yet arrived for work. After all, it was barely eight-thirty. He paused, knocked on the door and waited.
Vic Noble, a tall, lanky former CIA operative opened the door. "Come on in."
Dante nodded, then entered McNamara's large, professionally decorated office, the area as elegant and sophisticated as the man who occupied it. Behind his back, the other agents referred to their boss as Beau Brummell because the guy always looked as if he'd just stepped out of a GQ ad. But looks could be deceptive and that was particularly true in McNamara's case. Those who didn't know him by reputation might pass him off as nothing more than a highly intelligent pretty boy. But there was a lot more to the man than brains and good looks. Beneath that deceptive facade beat the heart of a deadly warrior.
"Join us, Moran." Sawyer McNamara motioned him over and pointed to an empty chair. "We'll get started as soon as Dom and Lucie arrive. I couldn't reach her by phone this morning, so I sent Dom by to pick her up."
Dante noted the frown on Sawyer's face and suspected that Lucie Evans was the cause. Before joining the Dundee agency, he'd heard about the ongoing feud between Sawyer and Lucie, both former FBI agents. And since he'd come on board and gone through several weeks of orientation, he'd seen the two of them in action. Whenever those two occupied the same space, sparks flew. The words "dynamite" and "lit match" instantly came to mind.
After sitting, Dante glanced around the room, nodded cordially to the other two agents and settled comfortably into his chair. His gaze kept wandering in J. J. Blair's direction and when she caught him staring, she smiled and winked. Grinning, he winked back at her. Now, there was one good-looking woman. Petite and curvy, with jet-black hair and big, dark eyes that appeared black, but were, on closer inspection, a deep bluish purple. Judging her by using his vast experience with the ladies, he figured Ms. Blair was one tough cookie, the type of woman who could easily devour a man in one bite and then spit him out in little pieces.
"I don't think we've met." A burly guy, with a rough face, military-short blond hair and friendly smile offered Dante one of his big hands. "I'm Geoff Monday. I've been on assignment in London for the past month." The man's accent was decidedly British, with just a hint of something else. Scottish?
Dante stood and shook hands with Monday. "Dante Moran. I'm the new guy."
"Yeah, you were a fed, weren't you?"
The office door flew open and Lucie Evans stormed in, her long, curly red hair hanging wildly around her shoulders and her green eyes shooting fire in Sawyer's direction. Domingo Shea came in behind her and paused in the doorway, as if he wanted to distance himself from any fallout that might occur.
"What do you mean sending Dom to fetch me?" Lucie planted her palms down atop Sawyer's desk and glowered at him. "I just got in from D.C. last night and I'm supposed to be starting a five-day vacation."
"Your vacation has been canceled," Sawyer said.
"The hell it has!"
"Sit down and shut up." Standing, Sawyer faced Lucie, who rose to her full six-foot height. Their gazes locked in mortal combat. "We have a special case on our hands and I need every available agent here so we can decide who's the best qualified to take on the assignment and to head up the team I'll be sending to Mississippi this morning. With your background in psychology and your stint as a profiler with the bureau, it's possible you'll be the best agent for the job."
Breaking eye contact first, Lucie gritted her teeth, then turned around and sat in the chair that was farther away from Sawyer's desk than the other two empty chairs. "If it turns out this isn'tmy assignment, I'mtaking those five days off."
Sawyer didn't reply, instead he turned to Dom Shea. "Close the door and take a seat so we can get started."
Dom followed instructions and within minutes Sawyer patted a stack of file folders on his desk. Files containing information on what Dante assumed was a high-profile case.
There was a good chance that since he was the new man at the agency and low on the totem poll, so to speak, he would be sent in as backup for the agent chosen to head up the assignment. And that suited him just fine. He had to get his feet wet sooner or later. So why not the first day on the job?
"This is a special case," Sawyer McNamara told them. "Both Mississippi state senators and the governor himself put in calls to Sam Dundee early this morning to let him know they'd take it as personal favors if we accepted this assignment."
Lucie Evans let out a long, low whistle. "Who's involved? Must be somebody pretty important."
"G. W Westbrook is one of wealthiest businessmen in the South and his family is one of the most prominent in Mississippi." Sawyer lifted the stack of thin file folders and passed them around the room, one for each agent. "His granddaughter has run away from home. She's sixteen.
Not wild. Not into drugs. No special boyfriend. From all accounts, a good kid."
"What would make a good kid run away from home?" Vic Noble asked.
"That's an excellent question," Sawyer replied. "It's one her grandfather and her mother want answered. But first and foremost, they want Ms. Leslie Anne Westbrook found and returned home. She's an only child and the apple of Grandpa G.W.'s eye."
"Do they know for sure she ran away?" Dante Moran flipped open the file folder and quickly scanned the information condensed into a couple of paragraphs by the ever efficient Dundee office manager, Daisy. "Since Westbrook is a multimillionaire, can we be certain the girl wasn't kidnapped for ransom?"
"The girl's been missing for over twenty-four hours and no one has contacted the family with a ransom request," Sawyer said. "The mother is out of her mind with worry and old G.W is ready to offer a quarter mil reward for information on the girl's whereabouts. Sam told me to get somebody to Fairport, Mississippi, ASAP and to send them on the Dundee jet."
"Are the feds involved?" Domingo Shea asked.
Sawyer shook his head. "There's no evidence of a kidnapping and the family says that they're certain the girl simply ran away. They don't want the feds. The local police and sheriff's departments are handling the case. But Sam suggested one of our former FBI agents might be the best choice to head up this assignment." He glanced from Lucie to Dante.
"Want to flip a coin?" Lucie smiled at Dante.
"Works for me," he replied, absently twisting the onyx and diamond ring on his finger.
"Read over the information we have and take a look at the girl's picture her grandfather faxed us." Sawyer spread apart his file and lifted the eight-by-ten photo. "She's a pretty girl. I'd hate to think of what might happen to her if she fell in with the wrong crowd or got picked up by the wrong person."
Dante's last case for the FBI had been to oversee an operation that busted apart a decade-old infant abduction ring. He supposed because of his background, he was now the Dundee expert on missing children and this case was perfect for his first assignment. He'd been with Dundee only a few weeks, undergoing their strict orientation, and was chomping at the bit to see some action.
Lucie looked at the photograph. "Oh, she is a pretty thing, isn't she? All blond and delicate. God, what a white slave ring would pay for a girl like this."
Dante pulled out the picture intending to give it a quick glance, but the moment he gazed at the girl's familiar face, he couldn't look away. His gut tightened painfully as he stared at what was obviously a studio photograph of a breathtakingly lovely girl.
"What the hell's wrong with you?" Dom Shea punched Dante's shoulder. "You look as if you've seen a ghost."
Yeah, he'd seen a ghost. That's exactly what it felt like. Unconsciously Dante lifted his hand and ran the tip of his index finger tenderly over the girl's cheek and across her jawline. He closed his eyes, waited a minute and reopened them, thinking maybe his imagination was working overtime, that it had played a trick on him. He glanced back at the photograph. Damn! How was it possible that this sixteen-year-old girl was the spitting image of Amy? His Amy. His first and only love, who had died at seventeen. Died a lifetime ago.
"Are you all right?" Lucie asked.
"I'm fine," Dante said. "And I'll take this assignment."
"Good." Sawyer closed his file folder. "I'd hoped you'd take it. Despite this being your first job for us, I believe you're the best qualified, but I wanted to give you the chance to volunteer."
Lucie shrugged. "I guess that settles that. Will you need me to go along as backup?"
Sawyer's gaze narrowed on Lucie. "It's probably a good idea for you to go with him. You can keep the mother calm while Dante deals with the situation."
Dante nodded in agreement, but didn't take his eyes off Leslie Anne Westbrook's photo. Her resemblance to Amy was uncanny.
And impossible. Amy was gone. It had taken him a long time to accept the loss, and yet something about this young girl made him want to believe that somehow his true love still existed. That Amy was still alive.
Maybe it was the hope that still burned in his gut that had made him take the assignment. Though Dante had all but given up hope…
What the hell are you doing to yourself? Amy is dead. She's been dead for seventeen years. Just because her body was never found, just because you've hung on way too long to a hopeless dream doesn't mean Amy is alive, that this girl—he stared at the photograph—could be Amy's daughter.
"Go home, pack for a week's stay and go straight to the airport. The Dundee jet is ready and waiting," Sawyer said. "Moran will head up this assignment. Lucie, you'll be strictly panic control. You keep the mother and old G.W. in line, smooth their ruffled feathers and calm their fears.
Dom, you and Vic go in as his backup and do the leg work. We'll coordinate everything from here."
"When I get back, I want ten days off," Lucie said.
"We'll discuss that later," Sawyer replied.
"There won't be any discussion. I'm taking ten days off and that's that."
Sawyer's nostrils flared. He deliberately didn't look directly at Lucie or respond to her.
"I want two reports every day. Morning and evening. I'll be reporting in directly to the governor and to Sam Dundee."
Dante glanced through the thin file folder he held, searching for more information about the Westbrook family, about Leslie Anne's mother in particular. All he found were the basic facts. Tessa Westbrook was G.W.'s only child. At thirty-five, she was single, the mother of one child and— She was thirty-five. A year older than Amy would be if she'd lived.
Every possible scenario he could think of that could explain Leslie Anne Westbrook's remarkable resemblance to Amy Smith flooded his mind, sending his thought processes into overdrive. Maybe Leslie Anne was adopted and she really was Amy's child. But did that mean Amy was alive now? Maybe Tessa Westbrook was a long-lost relative of Amy's and that's the reason her daughter looked like Amy. Maybe Tessa was Amy. Too far-fetched. And totally impossible. Or maybe in person Leslie Anne's resemblance to Amy wouldn't be as strong. Maybe…
Maybe I'm nuts!
"Is something wrong?" Dom clamped his hand down on Dante's shoulder.
Dante shook his head. "Nothing's wrong. I was just lost in thought there for a couple of minutes." If he told anyone
what was going on inside his head, they would think he was crazy. And with good reason. How could he expect anyone to understand that the past haunted him. A part of him still blamed himself for what had happened to Amy. If only he hadn't been late that night. If only…