KIDNAPPED AT CHRISTMAS
FBI agent Elise Richardson fears the worst when a Mississippi teen is abducted days before Christmas. But she won't give up, especially when she learns she owes her life to the missing girl's father. Years ago, former army ranger Josh Adams lost his brother when he died saving Elise. Though Josh resents her for the loss, she's now his niece's only hope. Working with the ex-soldier proves dangerous to Elise's heart and to her life when she closes in on what she fears is a human trafficking ring. If she's right, Elise has only days to rescue Josh's niece for a holiday homecomingand to prove herself worthy of his love.
RANGERS UNDER FIRE: Nothing's more dangerous than falling in love
About the Author
Virginia Vaughan is a former investigator for the State of Mississippi. Blessed to come from a large, Southern family, she was a lover of books from a young age, devouring novels packed with romance, danger and love. Armed with a passion for writing and the knowledge gained from her criminal justice background, she soon started writing them herself.
Read an Excerpt
She should have brought her gun.
FBI agent Elise Richardson slowed her jogging pace then stopped and knelt down, pretending to tie her shoelace. She glanced over her shoulder at the car that had been following her for three blocks. An older-model gray sedan with one occupant. She stood and stretched her arms and legs, casually scanning the early-morning downtown area. The buildings had been decorated for Christmas, but the streets were uninhabited at this time of day. Stores were locked up and secured. Only the street lamps lit the sidewalk as her feet pumped against the pavement once again. And she was exposed without her gun and without her cell phone.
Who knew an early-morning jog would necessitate weaponry?
She rounded a corner and found more of the same. Christmas adornment. Empty streets. Locked shops. No one in this sleepy town of Westhaven, Mississippi, was at work yet.
Except the guy in the car following her.
She kept her speed consistent, but her legs and her lungs were already burning from the run. If she could circle the block perhaps she could make it to her hotel. She pushed through the pain and quickened her pace. The car matched her speed. She rounded another corner. The slow-moving car did the same.
She had no idea who was following her or what they wanted. Who even knew she was in town? She hadn't checked in with the local police department yet since she'd arrived last night. She turned her head and glanced at the car again. Sunglasses and a hat hid his face, but he flinched as if realizing he'd been spotted. He gunned the engine. Elise took off running and this time the driver made no pretense. He swerved onto the sidewalk, barely missing her before she jumped over a concrete barrier and across a grass partition. The car rammed the barrier then backed up and sped toward her, its wheels squealing against the asphalt and metal screeching as it swiped the pavement.
She ran past an outdoor café, taking a moment to fling the metal chairs into the path of the oncoming vehicle that swerved to miss them but didn't stop pursuing.
She heard a horn blare and tires squeal from a different direction. She turned to look and saw a black truck swerve into the path of the car then slam into it. Elise dived into the alcove of an office building to escape the debris. Her head hit the hard glass doors and the mounted Christmas wreaths fell on her. Blinding pain exploded in her head and the world spun. The howl of metal on metal roared in her ears. She tucked her head into her knees and used her arms to shield her, but shards of glass and metal bit into them. Another blinding pain ripped through the back of her leg. She cried out, realizing a fragment had lodged in her upper thigh.
Tires screeched again, and she peered out to see the sole figure in the gray sedan shake his head and regain his composure before ramming the car into gear and speeding away as fast as possible with the damage done to the driver's side of the car.
The truck's driver stumbled out, obviously shaken by the crash but heading unsteadily toward her. Elise braced herself for a confrontation and rummaged beneath fallen lights and garland for a piece of metal matching the one in her leg. Could this man be trusted? He had just saved her life, hadn't he? Had he not rammed his truck into the sedan, she would be roadkill. Still, she hesitated, her instinct melting into her fear. She felt naked without her gun, and the blinding pain in both her leg and her head could be hampering her judgment.
Before she could decide if he were friend or foe, he was beside her. "Are you injured?" He glanced at the weapon in her hand then where her other hand cradled the piece in her leg. "You are hurt." He knelt and examined her wound. "Can you speak?"
She had to be delirious. Perhaps she was already unconscious because the man before her was someone who couldn't possibly be there. She recognized the strong, triangular jaw from the image on her faded newspaper cutout and even more vividly from the night that had changed her life ten years earlier. She remembered those intense blue eyes gazing at her from beneath dark, brooding eyebrows that matched his black hair, sideburns and the hint of a stubbled beardthe face of her own personal hero.
But it couldn't be.
Max Adams had died ten years earlier the night he'd saved her life.
The piece of metal slipped through her fingers as her mind swirled. "Max?"
His head jerked as she said the name, and his eyes grew dark and inquisitive. "Max was my brother. My name is Josh Adams."
She cried out as a sharp pain pulsed through her, and Max Josh grabbed her hand.
"Hang on. Help is coming."
She chuckled at the idea. What were the chances of being rescued by another of the Adams brothers?
"Stay with me," he commanded, doing his best to keep her conscious. "Talk to me. Tell me how you knew my brother."
She struggled with the memory of another man stepping between her and an armed assailant. "He saved me." And died doing it. She didn't need to verbalize that part. He knew his brother had died.
His eyes widened in surprise. "What's your name?"
She struggled to fight off the darkness but finally gave in to it. "Elise Richardson," she managed to mumble before the shadows overtook her.
Sitting in the ER waiting room, Josh gingerly touched the goose egg on his forehead from where the air bag had deployed. He'd rammed his truck quite hard into the car gunning for Elise, but he was no worse for the wear.
It wasn't possible, was it, that this woman was the same girl whom his brother had rescued from an attacker ten years ago? The woman he'd died protecting? He'd imagined her many timesthe woman who'd caused his brother to step to his deathbut he'd never imagined the thin, toned body, the dark hair and olive complexion or the beautiful hazel-green eyes with specks of golden brown glancing up at him. In his mind, she'd always been a caricature of a coed who'd selfishly placed herself in danger. But he'd remembered her name. He'd held on to it as a target for his anger through three tours of Afghanistan.
And now she was in danger again.
He folded his arms as he stared through the windows into the ER room where she lay unconscious on the bed. Why had someone been chasing her? He thought he knew most folks in Westhaven even if just in passing, but he didn't recognize the dark-haired beauty who'd passed out in his arms, or the driver of the car that had tried to run her down, as locals.
Daniel Mills, the current police chief and his brother's childhood friend, approached him and glanced into the room. "She had no ID on her and no cell phone."
"She said her name was Elise Richardson, but I don't think she's local. She could be visiting someone in town for the holidays." He hesitated, wondering if he should mention her connection to Max. His brother had worked on this police force and was well known and liked by guys still on the job. There might still be some hard feelings from them about this woman who'd cost him his life. At least for his part there was.
Daniel's eyes widened. "Seems like you two had a nice conversation before she passed out. Did she happen to say who ran her down or why?"
"No. I didn't recognize the car. It was a gray sedan with darkened windows. Mississippi plates but I couldn't see the county or catch the tag number. But the car was like a hot rod, probably custom-rebuilt."
"Did you get a look at the driver?"
"He was male but I mostly just saw his outline."
The chief nodded. "Why don't you come by the office later and give a full statement. I'm going back to the scene and see what's left of your truck. I'll have it towed to Carr's Body Shop." He pressed a set of keys into Josh's hand. "Use my Jeep until you get your truck back. I'll drive the squad car."
"You probably saved that woman's life today."
At least he could save someone.
Josh bit back that negative thought and nodded at Daniel as he walked off, but frustration tinged him. His niece, Candace, had been missing for nearly two weeks and he was at a loss to find her. It seemed she'd vanished from the face of the earth while walking home from school. The police, including Daniel, believed she'd run away, but Josh knew better. Something had happened to Can-dace and, despite his best efforts, he was frustrated he hadn't yet brought her home.
He would never be the hero his brother had been.
Elise moved in the bed and her eyes fluttered. Josh stepped into the room as she opened them and examined her surroundings.
She glanced his way. "Max? No. Josh, right?"
"Right. And your name is Elise." She struggled to sit up and he saw pain flit across her face as she moved her bandaged leg. "Maybe you should take it easy. You've been through a lot. I'll get the doctor to come in and speak to you, and I know Chief Mills will want to take your statement, too. Do you remember what happened?"
Her full lips pressed into a line. "Absolutely. Some maniac tried to run me down with his car."
"Did you know him?"
She thought for a moment as if trying to recapture the incident. "No. I have no idea who it was."
"Well, I'm glad I was in the area."
She turned her inquisitive eyes upon him and suspicion filled them. "What were you doing in the area? I know I'm an early bird, but why were you out so early?"
"I was on my way to the Randolph Hotel. I heard an FBI agent was in town and I wanted to speak with him. My niece is missing and I was hoping the FBI was here to investigate her disappearance. But then I saw the car chasing after you. I didn't even have time to dial the police. I knew I had to do something or you would be killed." He glanced down at the bloody shirt he was still wearing and knew he'd made the right call. Someone had tried to kill her. "Why would someone want to hurt you, Elise?"
She gave a haggard sigh. "I suspect it's because I'm the FBI agent you were going to speak to."
Elise didn't care for the incredulous tone of his voice, but she was in no mood to chastise him. Her brain hurtactually hurtand she was having enough trouble putting words together for a rational conversation. The doctor who looked to be thirty years past retirement age had told her she'd suffered a concussion, but he might as well have said she'd scrambled her brains. It felt the same.
"I've been with the Bureau for six years. In fact, I owe my career to your brother in a way. I changed my major to criminal justice after my attack."
"Are you here because of Candace's disappearance? I know she didn't run away. She wouldn't do that, especially not right before Christmas."
Elise visualized a photograph of a young, redheaded girl the police had classified as a runaway. How had she not realized it before? "Max's daughter is the girl that vanished?"
Determination settled inside her. She pushed back the blanket and pulled her injured leg over the edge of the bed, struggling to balance as she stood.
Josh rushed to her side, steadying her with his arm. "What are you doing?"
"Getting out of here. I have work to do."
She owed it to Max to find his daughter.
The doctor and a nurse rushed into the room. "Agent Richardson, we need to keep you for observation," the doctor insisted.
"I'm fine," she said, wishing her legs were just a bit more steady. But Josh slipped his hand under her elbow and acted as her support. Beneath his gentle touch, she sensed strength and power and was confident he wouldn't let her fall.
The doctor sighed. "Well, I can't keep you, but you'll have to sign something saying you're leaving against medical advice. And I insist on having one of my nurses phone you every few hours just to check on you. Leave your number with Nurse Stringer here," he stated before walking out.
Elise wrote down her cell phone number then changed into a pair of borrowed hospital scrubs with the nurse's help.
"Are you sure you're up for this?" Josh asked her as they exited the hospital. "You did sustain head trauma."
She grunted, already tired of hearing that question. "I'm fine. Candace may not be. Now, please take me to my hotel. I'd like to change my clothes." She glanced at the shirt he was still wearing, stained red with her blood. "I'm sure you'd like to go home and change, too."
He opened the door to a black, four-door Jeep and helped her into the passenger's seat. "DanielChief Millsloaned me his Jeep while my truck is in the shop."
He walked around and slid behind the wheel then donned aviator sunglasses similar to ones Elise had seen military men wear. He didn't have the clean-cut look of most of the former military types she knew, but there was something about his manner that was orderly and neat and made her wonder about him.
"Since I guess I owe you my life, tell me about yourself. What do you do for a living?" She felt silly asking, like a schoolgirl digging for information about the boy she liked, but she tried to keep her tone matter-of-fact because she wasn't a schoolgirl and Josh wasn't the object of a girlish crush. She was an FBI agent and he was the brother of the man she'd got killed.
"I'm a security consultant for an oil company. I arrange and oversee security for the executives when they have to travel overseas."
That only confirmed what Elise suspected. "Isn't that the kind of job former military usually take?" She'd been around enough former military men to recognize the signs.
He nodded. "I served fourteen years in the army. Discharged last year."
"Why did you leave? You could have stayed and retired in only a few more years."
He shrugged. "Things change. People change."
His guarded expression and suddenly rigid body language told her there was more to that story but he wasn't going to share it. That piqued her curiosity. Vague people generally had something to hide.
But she hadn't come to town to learn about Josh. "Tell me about your niece. When did she go missing?"
His entire demeanor changed in an instant. His eyes perked up as he spoke about his niece. "Candace is smart and funny and so kindhearted. She often tutored other students." His smile faltered. "That's what she was doing the day she vanished. It was a Thursday afternoon and she'd stayed after school. I spoke to her before she left, but she never made it home."
"And why do the police think she ran away?"
"Her best friend, Brooke Martin, told the police Candace was planning to leave home, but Candace never said anything to me to make me believe that."
"Fifteen-year-olds don't always share everything with their uncles."
"She did. She talked to me about a lot of things. I would know if she was planning to run away."
Elise suspected that might not be the case, but she didn't bother arguing the point. Her work had taught her that teenage girls were notoriously secretive with adults. What made Josh's relationship with his niece so different? More important, what made Josh believe their relationship was different?
He turned into the hotel and parked beside Elise's blue SUV.
She got out, careful not to place undue weight on her injured leg. "I'll have to go to the office and get the spare key."
"That won't be necessary." Josh's gaze stopped her. She followed it and saw her hotel room door standing open, the lock busted and the wood splintered.