little bird (the tangled series)

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Little Bird
by Liza Gaines
Copyright © Liza Gaines, 2013

All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher.

This e-book is a work of fiction. While references may be made to actual places or events, the names, characters, incidents, and locations within are from the author’s imagination and are not a resemblance to actual living or dead persons, businesses, or events. Any similarity is coincidental.

Musa Publishing
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Lancaster,
OH
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www.MusaPublishing.com

Issued by Musa Publishing, August 2013

This e-book is licensed to the original purchaser only. Duplication or distribution via any means is illegal and a violation of International Copyright Law, subject to criminal prosecution and upon conviction, fines and/or imprisonment. No part of this e-book can be reproduced or sold by any person or business without the express permission of the publisher.

ISBN
: 978-1-61937-621-2

Editor: Aimee Benson
Artist: Kelly Shorten
Line Editor: Jennifer Duffey
Interior Book Design: Cera Smith

For Jeremy,
You’re a good egg, Cowboy, and you make it all worthwhile. Thank you for our Happily Ever After. I’m over the moon in love with you.

And for Aimee,
My cheerleader, my word pimp, and, most importantly, my friend. Your unwavering support is appreciated more than you will ever know.

Chapter One

I
t was dark when Savannah Alderton woke abruptly to the sound of her ringing phone. She glanced at the clock. Three twenty-seven a.m. Ugh. She didn’t bother to look at the caller ID as she rolled over and answered. It was probably one of her friends, drunk dialing.

“Hello?”

“Savannah, you need to get up.”

Savannah sat up in bed, instantly wide-awake. Mike Hanson was her boss and friend. In the almost two years she’d known him he had never called her in the middle of the night before. This couldn’t be good. “What’s going on, Mike? Are Ginny and the kids okay?”

“Yeah, they’re fine. I’m on my way to pick you up now. Be ready in fifteen minutes. I’ll explain in the car.”

Before Savannah could respond, the phone went dead.

Savannah didn’t waste any time getting out of bed. She’d never seen Mike behave like this, and he wasn’t prone to overreaction. He had been a cop in Washington DC for a couple of years before getting frustrated with the bureaucracy and quitting. For the last seven years, he’d been self-employed as a private investigator and she’d been working for him for the last two. Contracting with the federal government doing security clearance investigations was the bread and butter of his business. These investigations weren’t exciting—mostly they involved combing through the financial records of prospective government employees and interviewing their friends and family. It paid the bills.

She went into the bathroom and brushed her teeth before pulling her long auburn hair into a loose ponytail. Savannah lived in a studio apartment on the first floor of an old historic house near Dupont Circle. The apartment was small. She only had room for a twin bed, an old wooden chair, and her dresser, but she appreciated not having to live with a roommate. Leaving the bathroom, she switched the light off and crossed the room to her dresser. Settling on a pair of shorts and a green baby-doll shirt, she dressed and headed out the door with her phone and purse in hand. Locking it behind her, she cringed as the dog in the apartment across the hall started barking. Generally Savannah loved dogs, but this particular beast was her nemesis, always waking the whole building when she came in after a late night out with friends. She could only hope he wouldn’t disturb everyone this morning.

Slipping down the hall and out into the warm night air, she was surprised to see Mike already waiting, his black BMW purring quietly at the curb. As she approached, Mike leaned across the empty passenger seat and pushed the door open for her. Savannah studied him as she got in. He wore a pair of old jeans with a Grateful Dead T-shirt that had seen better days, and his blond hair was tousled like he’d just rolled out of bed, which he probably had.

As he pulled away from the curb she asked, “So, what’s going on? Where are we going?”

Mike glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, most of his attention focused on the road. “Virginia. I have an old friend, Lee, who lives out in Middleburg. I’m not sure exactly what’s going on, but he called just a bit ago. He said he needed me to come out right away. He said he needed my help.”

Savannah stared sleepily out the window, watching the city streets go by. “But he didn’t say what it’s about?”

Mike shook his head. “No. He said we needed to talk in person. But I’ve known him for almost twenty years; this isn’t like him. Whatever it is, it’s big. That’s why I dragged you out of bed, by the way. Knowing what I know about Lee, I’m going to need help.”

“Okay, so tell me about him.“ They were speeding across the Roosevelt Bridge into Virginia. After a storm earlier in the night the Potomac River was dark and muddy, lapping against the shore of Roosevelt Island.

“Hmm—” Mike paused. “We met in college, and he introduced me to Ginny, actually. He was going to be—well he is—an attorney, but he doesn’t practice anymore. His folks owned a horse farm out here in Middleburg. He always said he hated the farm but it turned out he wasn’t happy stuck in an office either. When his dad died he quit his job in Arlington and went back to the farm. He said he was just going to help his mom get everything straightened out and sell the place. But that was six years ago. His mom’s gone now, too, but he still has the farm.”

Savannah shrugged. “Maybe he likes it more than he thought he would. It seems like there would be a lot more money in a law office than a horse farm, though.”

“The money isn’t really an issue. Lee’s family is old money, kiddo—old Virginia money. There’s even a rumor they’re somehow related to Robert E. Lee, but I don’t know how true that is.”

Savannah giggled and shifted in her seat to look at Mike. “So, is he Lee Lee then? Because that would be awesome.”

Mike snorted. “Uh, no, Lee Jackson actually.”

“Lee Jackson. You mean like the holiday, Lee-Jackson Day?” Savannah’s eyes were wide.

Mike laughed. “Well, that wasn’t their intent but I admit his parents didn’t really think the Lee Jackson thing through very well.”

“Oh! Oh! Please tell me he has a son named King Lee Jackson!” Savannah squealed and bounced in her seat, more awake now that she was giggling at the turn toward ridiculous their conversation had taken. For almost two decades Virginians celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. day on the same day reserved for honoring two of the most revered Confederates. It was hard to believe anyone had ever thought that was a good idea.

“I haven’t had coffee yet and that was entirely too shrill.” Mike scowled at her and added, “Anyway, sorry to disappoint you but there is no King Lee Jackson. He’s divorced, no kids. His ex-wife is Cara Dalton.“

Savannah frowned. “Cara Dalton? Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

“Don’t you ever read the paper? Cara’s a journalist. She works for
The
Washington Post
.“

Savannah shrugged. “I read the paper online all the time; I just don’t pay attention to the journalists’ names. So what happened? Why’d they get divorced?”

“Lee never really talked much about the why. But they were so different. I was surprised when they got together in the first place, so not really that shocked when it didn’t work out. I mean, they’re both great people, just not great for each other.”

Savannah frowned. “That’s too bad. But it sounds like the guy has a pretty normal life.”

“Right, exactly. Lee is the guy I would call if I had to dispose of a body. He’s a dependable, solid guy. A little hot-tempered maybe, he’s been known to get in the occasional bar fight, especially when we were younger. We raised some hell back in the day.” Mike smiled as he spoke, obviously remembering some of their former hell raising escapades. “A pretty serious womanizer, before he was married and again now that he’s divorced. But he’s just not the kind of guy to get himself into serious trouble. He isn’t reckless or anything.”

“Well, I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

Mike’s only response was a grunt, so they rode in silence and Savannah leaned her head against the window, unintentionally drifting off to sleep.

Savannah awoke to Mike gently shaking her arm as they turned into a long drive. She looked at the dashboard clock and noted it was just after five o’clock.

Looking over at Mike blearily she asked, “Are we there?“

Mike nodded and Savannah sat up straighter, turning her attention outside the car. The drive was wide and paved, lined with magnolia trees on both sides. In the gathering dawn she noticed board fence, neatly painted black, as far as the eye could see. Dozens of horses quietly grazed in the pastures.

They’d driven about a quarter of a mile when they came around a curve in the road and Savannah gasped, taking in the old Georgian house ahead of them. It was white, with green shutters and a black side-gabled roof. The front porch had a portico with two columns on each side of the door and an elaborate wrought iron rail, all covered in lush winding ivy. She had no idea how big the house was, she wasn’t good at judging things like that, but it was definitely huge. As they got closer, she noticed the road continued, but there was a turn off on the right into a cobbled circle drive in front of the house.

The house looked straight out of an old movie about the antebellum south and Savannah was in awe. It was a little odd though. Mike was such a down to earth person; it was hard to imagine him being friends with some stuffy rich guy, which is exactly how that house made her imagine Lee. She turned to Mike, a little breathless when she asked, “Is that his house?”

He laughed, “That’s where his parents lived, but Lee’s not pretentious enough to live there. Now he rents it out to a couple who run a bed and breakfast out of it. He lives in one of the cottages in back.”

Savannah looked at him curiously. “Cottages in back?“

Mike nodded. “Yeah, a lot of these old places had cottages. Sometimes the farm manager lived in one, or the trainer or other help. Sometimes they used them as guesthouses. There are four here. Lee lives in one, his farm manager and trainer each have one, and he rents out the other one, usually to someone who is also boarding a horse here. Apparently all the horse crazy girls like to live close to their horse.”

“How convenient for the womanizing landlord.” Savannah snorted and shook her head. “Anyway, pretentious or not, why would you live in a cottage when you could live in a house like that?”

Mike gave her a teasing look. “It may be a cottage but it’s still a lot bigger than the tiny closet you call an apartment.”

Savannah rolled her eyes and turned back to the window. They went around another bend in the road and she lost sight of the main house as Mike turned off onto a dirt lane. She could see the cottages in the distance now. They were cute, white with black shutters, all on the left side of the lane in a neat row. They were about fifty yards apart with well-manicured lawns and cute little flowerbeds in front. The one farthest down the road had a detached garage, set back from the corner of the house.

Mike pointed as they passed the first house. “This one belongs to the farm manager, the trainer is in the second house, and the next one is the rental. The one on the far end with the garage is Lee’s.“

“This is quaint. Not my idea of home but I can see why he likes it.”

Two cars were parked in front of Lee’s garage, a blue Chevy pick-up that must have been at least ten years old, and a gray Jeep Grand Cherokee, which appeared to be fairly new. Mike pulled into the driveway and parked behind the truck.

As they were getting out of the car, a large dog came around the corner of the house and stood in the driveway barking at them.

Savannah looked nervously at Mike but he didn’t seem concerned. He called to the dog, “Shush, Toby, it’s just me.”

The dog seemed to recognize his voice and with a final bark he turned and ambled back behind the house. Turning to Savannah, Mike added, “I’m guessing if Toby is out here Lee is out here somewhere, too.”

Savannah stayed close behind Mike as they followed the dog into the backyard, stopping to stand between the corner of the house and garage.

Surveying the yard, it took her a moment to find him in the gray early morning light. Finally, her eyes settled on the figure of a man working under what she thought was an old oak tree in the far corner of the yard. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, just a pair of jeans and work boots. Even from this distance she noticed his pants and chest were both streaked with mud. It looked like he was shoveling dirt.

Savannah watched as he raised his left arm, wiping sweat from his forehead. Even in the early morning, summer in Virginia was hot and humid and she didn’t envy him working so hard in this heat. She looked up at Mike, who shrugged and began to cross the yard.

They were about twenty feet away when she realized it wasn’t just mud smeared over his chest and clothes, but also what she was pretty sure was blood. They had taken only a few more steps when Savannah stopped, gaping, with a queer feeling in the pit of her stomach. He was shoveling dirt into what appeared to be a fresh grave.

Looking up at Mike, Savannah whispered, “Apparently, he thinks
you
are the guy to call if he has to dispose of a body.”

Chapter Two

L
ee briefly looked up as they approached, but he continued his work, silently throwing shovelfuls of dirt into the hole at his feet. A cigarette hung loosely from his mouth as he worked. Savannah was anxious, shifting her weight, as she tried to remain calm. Friend of Mike’s or not, this whole situation was freaking her out. What the hell was going on here? This guy was covered in dirt and blood and filling in a grave? What the fuck had Mike gotten her involved in?

Finally, the hole was full and Lee stepped back, leaning the shovel against the tree. He didn’t look at Savannah; his hard gaze focused intently on Mike as he pinched the cigarette between his lips and grumbled, “Who’s she?”

Mike looked briefly at Savannah and then back to his friend. “She’s my assistant.” Lee’s expression didn’t soften so Mike hastily added, “You can trust her, Lee. Really.”

Lee looked down at the ground for a minute and then sighed. As he turned and started back toward the house, he called to them over his shoulder. “Let’s go inside then.”

Savannah’s heart raced as she followed the men up the back steps and into the house. The back door entered directly into the kitchen. The room was dim, the only light coming from the under-cabinet lighting, but she could see well enough to know it was a mess. All the cupboard doors were open; some hanging awkwardly on their hinges, and the drawers had all been dumped on the tile floor. Lee paused to slip a nine-millimeter Beretta from the back waistband of his jeans. He laid it on the table, indicated they should sit down, and then continued to the coffeepot.

Savannah took her seat, her back to the kitchen counter, and considered the gun. When she was a teenager, she’d frequently gone to the shooting range with her dad, and she suspected Mike kept a gun at the office, even though it wasn’t legal in DC. She was generally pretty comfortable with them, and fairly capable with one. But seeing the handgun lying on the table, when the house had clearly been ransacked and the homeowner had just finished digging a grave, gave her the creeps.

When the coffee was started, Lee turned around and leaned back against the counter, his arms crossed over his chest. Mike had taken the seat across from Savannah so he faced Lee.

Mike cleared his throat and motioned across the table to Savannah. “Lee Jackson, Savannah Alderton.” He looked back at Lee and snapped sarcastically. “Now you’ve met. So tell me, friend, what the fuck is going on here? I figured you were in trouble to be calling me in the middle of the night but Christ, I didn’t expect to find you digging a grave.”

Savannah was surprised to hear Lee laugh behind her. It was soft, just a rumble in his chest. Despite the strain he was under, he seemed to be amused by Mike’s outrage. He crossed the room and switched on the main overhead light before taking the seat next to Mike.

As he sat down and leaned back in his chair, Savannah’s breath caught in her throat. Seeing Lee for the first time in full light, she realized two things. The first, this man was exceptionally good looking, and the second, he looked like he’d just been in a pretty serious fight.

Lee had softly curling brown hair, damp with sweat, and a roguish, scruffy beard. His eyes were an odd shade of blue, or maybe it was green, she couldn’t be certain which; the color reminded her of fog rolling in on the ocean. Whatever the color, they were breathtaking, and quite unexpectedly, Savannah wondered what they would look like in a more intimate situation. With a small shake of her head, she pushed that fantasy away. It was ridiculous to have such thoughts about Mike’s friend.

His left eye was slightly swollen and looked like it would be impressively black and blue before long. He also had a good-sized cut at the corner of his lower lip. His nose was long and straight, complimented by his high cheekbones. His profile looked almost like a statue, all straight lines and sharp angles.

Lee stretched back in his chair, rocking it up to balance on its two rear legs and Savannah’s eyes dropped to his still bare chest. That was definitely blood she’d noticed earlier. There was a light sheen of sweat on his skin and she couldn’t help but notice his broad shoulders and well-defined chest, tapering to his toned abdomen and narrow hips.

“The grave was for Meg.”

The sound of Lee’s voice drew her attention and Savannah looked up to find him staring directly at her. He held her gaze just long enough to let her know she’d been discovered before turning his attention to Mike. Blood rushed to her cheeks until they burned with her embarrassment. Good lord, he’d just caught her checking him out!

Mike, either oblivious to what had just happened or pretending to be, explained, “Meg was his other dog.” Savannah nodded mutely and Mike continued, “I assume that also explains all the blood?”

Lee glanced down at himself and shrugged. “Mostly.”

Mike ran both hands through his hair and sighed. “Okay, so, what the hell happened here tonight?”

Lee leaned forward in his chair again, his arms folded on the table in front of him. “I’d been out and it was a little after one when I got home. Meg was already dead in the driveway, she’d been stabbed, and Toby was nowhere to be seen.” Toby lay on the floor next to Lee’s chair now, and Lee reached down to ruffle the dog’s ears as he spoke. “I figure he got scared and ran off. Meg was always the guard dog around here. Anyway, all the lights in the house were on and the front door was busted open. I came in and there were three guys tossing the place.” Lee grinned at Mike, his expression that of a man who enjoyed the occasional tussle. When Lee continued, his natural southern drawl was over exaggerated for affect, “A scuffle ensued.”

“You always were a good brawler.” Mike laughed, grinning broadly.

Lee shook his head, drumming his fingers on the table. “Not good enough this time. I was out numbered and they were all at least ten years younger than me, I’d guess.”

“But you have old man strength!” Savannah blurted. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wished fervently she could call them back.

Both men slowly turned to look at her, dumbfounded expressions on their faces. Fuck, she’d really stepped in it now. She knew Mike had recently turned thirty-six and figured Lee must be right around that. That wasn’t old. God, why’d she have to say that?

Lee raised one brow, his eyes locked with Savannah’s as he spoke to Mike. “I think she just called us old, Hoss.”

“No, no! That’s not at all what I meant.” Savannah stammered. She was babbling but couldn’t seem to stop herself. “One of my friends always says if two guys are going to fight you always back the older one. Even if the younger one is stronger and faster, the older one is smarter and more experienced, and that’s more important. My friend, he calls that ‘old man strength’ but it doesn’t really mean the older fighter is an old man or anything, just that he’s older than his opponent.”

Lee glanced at Mike before asking Savannah, “Has this friend of yours ever even been in a fight?”

Savannah chewed her lip and thought for a moment before admitting, “No, I don’t think so.”

Lee laughed. “I figured as much. How old are you anyway, sweetheart?”

“I’m twenty-six.” She wasn’t sure why but she felt like he was mocking her so she hastily added, “And I’m not your ‘sweetheart.’ How old are you?”

“I’m thirty-seven. Which, I’d have probably thought was old when I was twenty-six, too. Although I notice I’m not too old for you to leer at like you’ve never seen a man without a shirt on before.” As Lee finished, a wide grin spread over his handsome face and despite her embarrassment Savannah’s heart skipped a beat.

Savannah gasped, a hot blush rising on her cheeks, but before she could gather her thoughts to respond, Mike jumped in. “All right, that’s enough. I didn’t leave my wife alone in our nice warm bed at O-dark-thirty just to listen to you two have some fucked-up bitchy-but-somehow-still-flirty pissing match. Can we get back to the reason we’re here? Three guys broke into your house, kicked the shit out of you, and left.”

Savannah, eager to change the subject, spoke up. “What I don’t understand is, if they’d killed Meg, they obviously had at least one knife. So why didn’t they just kill you, too, and be done with it?”

Lee shrugged, his eyes still on her. “Well, they did say they’d be back. They think I have something they want and maybe they think if I’m dead they won’t find it. Or maybe they’re cowards. There’s a big difference between killing a dog and killing a man. Maybe they don’t have the stomach for the latter. Anyway, they seemed far more interested in getting the fuck out of here than they did in sending me to my untimely demise.”

“And you didn’t shoot them because…” Savannah’s voice trailed off as she gestured toward the gun on the table.

“I was unarmed when I came through the door and they were unwilling to cooperate long enough for me to fetch a gun.”

Mike chuckled. “Okay, so you think you have something they want. Any idea what that might be? Did they say anything else?”

Lee ran one hand through his hair and sighed.

“Yeah, I have a pretty good idea.” He paused for a moment to give Mike a troubled look. “They kept asking, ‘Where is she?’ I asked who the fuck they were talking about and one of them finally said Cara.” He turned to Savannah and added, “My ex-wife.”

Mike groaned. “Shit. Do you know where she is?”

Lee shook his head. “No. I called her apartment and her cell before I called you. No answer, no voicemail at the apartment. And the cell voicemail was full and wouldn’t accept new messages.”

Savannah frowned. “When was the last time you talked to her?”

Lee shrugged. “Three or four months ago. She called and said she was cleaning out the storage unit she’d gotten after we split up. She’d found some things of mine she wanted to return so she came over and dropped a box off. It was just some books, a few pieces of clothes, stuff like that.”

“Yeah, but you guys have been divorced, what, five or six years? It took her all that time to return a few books?” Mike narrowed his eyes. “I don’t suppose you still have the box?”

“I do. I just shoved it in the closet and pretty much forgot about it until now. I’ll dig it out later.” Lee got up and brought the full pot of coffee to the table with three empty mugs. He retrieved a mason jar of sugar and a carton of whole milk before sitting down again.

Savannah cleared her throat. “So, maybe this is too obvious, but why haven’t you called the cops?”

“I feel like that might be a bad idea. Cara sometimes got herself into some sticky situations with her work, investigative reporting type of stuff. If this is somehow related to that it could be almost anyone, including people you’d think you could trust.”

“So, you think this is some big conspiracy or something? Against some run of the mill journalist?” Savannah didn’t ask Lee where he kept his tinfoil hat, only out of respect for Mike, but her skepticism was probably obvious in her tone. This whole situation seemed a little over the top.

Lee laughed. “Probably not, but right now I’m not going to take any chances. And she’s not just ‘some run of the mill journalist.’ Don’t you ever read the paper?”

Savannah rolled her eyes. “It’s not even six a.m. and that’s the second time today someone has asked me that question.”

“We need a plan here. Did Cara still have the apartment in Middleburg?” When Lee nodded Mike continued, “Okay, so at least for now, it seems like most of the work will be out here, although we should probably talk to her co-workers in DC. It’s an hour each way for us to drive out here, I still have a business to run in the city, and Savannah doesn’t even own a car.”

“The rental cottage is empty right now, and it’s furnished. You’re welcome to use it. But that doesn’t help your clients in the city much.”

“No, actually that’s a great idea. Savannah can stay out here and do a lot of the legwork on this end. I’ll have to rent a car for her, or something, but that’s not a big deal.”

Savannah was shocked. “What? You want to leave me way out here in the middle of nowhere? Uh, news flash but I only work for you eight hours a day, I have my own life in the city the other sixteen hours.”

Mike rolled his eyes. “It’s just for a few days. You’ll be fine. This is what, Tuesday? I’ll bet you’re happily back in that closet, err, I mean apartment of yours by Friday.”

Lee cleared his throat and gave Mike a meaningful look. “Don’t you think this might be a little over her head, Hoss?”

Savannah glared at him. She didn’t want to be left out here in the country but she wasn’t going to let this jerk say she couldn’t handle the job.

“Look asshole, I know I haven’t really put my best foot forward here this morning, but I know my job and I’m good at it. Believe me, I’d be thrilled to go back to the city and pretend I never met you, so if that’s what you want just say so. But with the situation you’re in right now, you’re an idiot if you don’t take all the help you can get.”

Mike leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest. He struggled unsuccessfully to keep from laughing as he gave Lee a sideways glance. “She is good at her job.”

“And she’s feisty, too.” Lee laughed and looked at Savannah. “All right, we’ll give it a shot, sweetheart.” He winked at her and turned back to Mike. “You don’t need to rent her a car. She can use my truck. I don’t drive it much anymore except to haul horses.”

Savannah rolled her eyes. This guy was an insufferable jerk. She’d called him an asshole and chewed him out and all he did was laugh and wink and call her “sweetheart.” This would be a long few days. With a sigh, she looked at Mike. “I need to go home and get a few of my things.”

Mike nodded. “We’ll head back now. Savannah can get what she needs and, Lee, you can get cleaned up and get some sleep. You’ve been up all night.”

Lee walked them to the door. “Come back this evening and we’ll have some supper and figure out where to start.”

Back at her apartment, Savannah packed a duffle bag with some clothes and personal necessities, and a second bag with her laptop, camera, and other equipment. She was just finishing when her cell phone beeped with a text message from her best friend, Joni.

Getting so nervous for Thursday night!

Shit, she’d forgotten about Thursday. Joni Lawson was an artist and she was about to open her first solo exhibition at an art gallery in Georgetown. Thursday was opening night and Joni would be devastated if Savannah missed it. She’d just have to make time to get back into the city for a few hours if they were still looking for Cara.

Savannah quickly texted back.

Call me if you have a few.

Less than a minute later the phone rang. “Joni!”

“Sav! Can you believe it’s almost Thursday? God, I’m getting so nervous. What’s up with you? I stopped by your office this morning but you guys weren’t there.”

Savannah lay back on her bed with a sigh. “Yeah, you aren’t going to believe this shit. Some friend of Mike’s has a situation he needs our help with. But he lives way out in the middle of nowhere Virginia and I’m going to have to stay out there for a few days. Don’t worry! I’ll be back for your show. But I think I might wither up and die if I have to stay out there very long.”

Joni laughed. “Meh, it’ll be a nice break from your fast paced city life.”

“I doubt it. I like my fast paced city life. Besides, the guy is kind of a jerk. And he keeps calling me sweetheart. How lame is that?”

“Yeah, that’s pretty lame. Is he hot? I mean, it’s still annoying but if he’s hot, at least you’re not getting called sweetheart by a Neanderthal.”

Savannah rolled her eyes. “Yeah, actually, dude is smokin’, which just makes it even more disappointing he’s an ass. I mean, he caught me checking him out. I saw him; I knew I was caught. But, as if that weren’t bad enough, he called me out on it right in front of Mike. I wanted to crawl under the table and die!”

Joni started giggling helplessly. “That is awesome! What did Mike do? I’ll bet he lost his shit laughing.”

“Actually, no, he seemed kind of pissy about it. I’d like to think that was out of loyalty to me but I’m sure it had more to do with the fact he was tired and grumpy. I’m home packing a few clothes and stuff now. Mike and I are going back later for dinner and then Mike will leave me there. I’m just dreading this.”

Joni sounded surprised. “Wait, you’re actually staying with this guy?”

“No. Well, sort of. Long story but I’ll be staying right next door.”

“I’m sure it’ll be over before you know it. Look, I have to go. I have a meeting with the caterer to approve the final hors d’oeuvres for Thursday night. Sorry. Call me if you need me and I’ll see you Thursday.”

Savannah sighed as she hung up the phone and got up to pack another bag. She’d need a dress for Joni’s party.

One thing Lee Jackson couldn’t tolerate was feeling powerless. As a result, his current situation had him unsettled, to put it mildly. He knew it would be useless to try to sleep when he was feeling like this. Instead he focused on picking up his house and getting himself cleaned up.

It wasn’t until mid-afternoon when he had completed those tasks that his idle mind was forced to confront his situation. Lee couldn’t make heads or tails of it though. He hadn’t talked to Cara in several months and before that they’d only spoken once since the divorce was finalized. Keeping in touch with his ex-wife wasn’t high on his list of priorities and seemed to be one thing the two of them could actually agree on. So why would anyone think it might be worth the effort to break into his home and kill his dog just to try and find her? Then again, contemplating why it happened probably wasn’t important. It happened and the only thing he could do now was figure out what to do about it.

Lee was equal measures furious and heartbroken about Meg. He was a soft touch for animals in general, and dogs and horses, especially. He’d had Meg since she was a puppy and her absence was palpable. His own sadness only intensified when he noticed Toby sulking around the house. Taking pity on the dog, and maybe needing the companionship a little himself, he stretched out on the couch and did something he never did: he invited Toby to join him. He laughed when the dog jumped up and settled himself on the furniture, taking great pleasure in the previously forbidden luxury and resting his head on Lee’s knee with a heavy sigh. Lee missed Meg fiercely but at least he still had Toby.

Staring up at the ceiling, Lee wondered what Cara had gotten herself into, what she’d gotten him into. They’d been divorced nearly six years and she was still fucking up his life. Lee snorted, annoyed with himself. That wasn’t really fair. Once upon a time, he’d done more than his share to fuck up her life, too. Probably they were even. Maybe he even had this coming. Still, it pissed him off and frustrated him because he had no idea what to do about it.

When he’d talked with Mike and Savannah earlier it had been quite clear Savannah thought he should call the cops. Mike had remained silent on that particular point but she’d seemed bewildered by Lee’s reasoning. Though, to her credit, she hadn’t argued with him. She had argued though when he’d insinuated she might not be capable of handling the case. Lee was honest enough with himself to admit that had probably been unfair. He trusted Mike. If Mike trusted her, that should have been good enough for him.

Lee chuckled, thinking about the ferocious look on her face when she’d told him she would happily go back to the city and pretend she’d never met him. It might have been more convincing if he hadn’t caught her looking at him like he was her favorite kind of candy. Not that he didn’t believe she thought he was an asshole. He was sure she did. He just didn’t particularly care and it wasn’t really relevant. Savannah might not like him but she wanted him, even if she wasn’t brave enough to admit it. The only question was what he intended to do about it.

It seemed safe to assume Mike and Ginny would disapprove of Lee screwing around with her, but that didn’t really concern him much. They’d been friends for a very long time and Lee had done much worse over the years. They would get over it.

More importantly, fucking Savannah had real potential to complicate his current dilemma. After all, she was supposed to be helping him find Cara and any drama between the two of them might get in the way of that goal. Since Lee had the feeling she didn’t share his casual approach to sex, things could get sticky in a real hurry.

Besides, she wasn’t really his type. Well, not exactly, anyway. Inexperienced naiveté wasn’t his thing. When he fucked, he liked to be in control, he needed to be the dominant partner, but he didn’t want a wide-eyed innocent under him either. Lee wanted a woman who was confident and sure, self-aware and comfortable with her sexuality.

When he’d caught Savannah giving him that hungry look he might have dragged her into his bedroom right then, Mike be damned, if she had looked right back at him and owned her interest. That kind of confidence always got him hot. But instead, she’d looked away, blushing and embarrassed. So not his type.

On the other hand, physically she was just what Lee liked. Savannah was short, maybe five foot three or so, and he nearly towered over her at six foot two. Despite her small stature, she wasn’t a waif. She was curvy in all the right places with full hips, even fuller breasts, and an ass that made him want to do very bad things to her. If she’d just been more confident and forward, there wouldn’t be any question about what he would do.

Lee snorted and gave Toby a nudge off the couch before getting up. These thoughts weren’t getting him anywhere except hard, which was more than a little frustrating since he was trying to convince himself he wasn’t interested in Savannah. But he could tell himself anything he damn well pleased. That didn’t change the fact his dick was definitely interested even if his head wasn’t really in the game. Better to go find something else to do to keep himself busy because continuing this train of thought wasn’t going anywhere good.

Chapter Three

I
t was seven o’clock when they pulled into Lee’s driveway and Mike parked the BMW behind Lee’s truck again. Savannah was reaching for the door when Mike said, “Hey, wait a minute, Savannah. I want to talk a second.”

Savannah rolled her eyes and settled back in her seat. They’d ridden in silence most of the drive and now he decided he wanted to chat? “What’s up?”

“I know you’re not excited about this and I just wanted to tell you that I appreciate it.”

Savannah smiled. “I know, Mike. You and Ginny have done a lot for me. I’m happy to return the favor.”

She started to reach for the door again but stopped when Mike cleared his throat. He stared straight ahead and appeared strained and maybe a little embarrassed. “One more minute, please. I just…there’s obviously some tension between you and Lee. And I don’t think…”

Savannah laughed and interrupted him. “You have nothing to worry about. He obviously doesn’t like me and I’m not wild about him. But I’ll be nice until we get the job done and then I never have to see him again. We have lots of clients I don’t like, Mike. I’ve really honed my skill for pretending to be nice to jerks.”

Mike turned to look at her. “That’s not really what I meant by tension. Just remember, he’s a client, okay?”

“Yeah, of course, Mike. I…” Savannah’s voice trailed off and she stared at him, comprehension dawning. Did he really think she’d fall into bed with that asshole? “Wait. Are you talking about the whole womanizer thing you mentioned this morning? That’s ridiculous. So far, he seems like a bastard and I mean, sure, he’s good looking but so what? Lots of guys are good looking and I somehow manage to keep from throwing myself at them. Plus, I know he’s a client and I know clients are off limits. Really, you don’t need to worry about this.”

“It didn’t even occur to me this morning when we came up with this plan but…” Mike stammered a little before continuing, and she was pretty sure he was blushing. “…when I told Ginny about it, she kind of freaked out. Don’t get me wrong, she loves Lee, but she knows what he’s like. And you’re a pretty girl and you’re going to be out here alone with him. And he’s not a jerk, despite your first impression. He can be very charming. And I just think…well, I care about you both and I think it would be a big mistake for you to get involved in any way.”

Savannah laughed and rolled her eyes. She loved Ginny to death but the woman did have a very wide streak of mother hen, and apparently that was rubbing off on her husband. “Won’t happen. Trust me, Mike.”

Mike nodded and moved to get out of the car. “Okay, then. Let’s go.”

Mike led her to the front door and knocked. They could hear Toby barking inside and then Lee opened the door. “Come on in.”

Entering the house, she noticed Lee had cleaned up. Barefoot, he wore a pair of jeans sitting loosely on his slender hips and a T-shirt just a little too tight in all the right places. She was surprised to see his eye hadn’t bruised nearly as badly as she thought it might, but she guessed he still hadn’t gotten any sleep because he looked exhausted and the house had been completely put back together. The front door entered directly into the living room, which had been tidied up. To the right were the bathroom and a closed door that she assumed was Lee’s bedroom.

They followed Lee into the kitchen, which had also been straightened. “There’s beer and wine in the fridge. Help yourselves. Dinner’s just about ready.”

Mike got a beer for both himself and Savannah before sitting down at the table. “You don’t look like you’ve slept today.”

Lee laughed. “Nah, I’m running on adrenaline and coffee.”

Savannah tried to smile politely. “Do you need any help with dinner?”

Lee shook his head as he took a pan out of the oven. “Thanks but I got it covered. Make yourself comfortable.”

Savannah sat down next to Mike and took a long drink of beer while Mike asked, “I don’t suppose you thought to call Cara’s parents?”

Lee started bringing the food to the table. He’d made a roasted chicken, sautéed vegetables, and frigging risotto. If it was even half as good as it looked this guy seriously knew how to cook.

“I thought of it but I couldn’t figure out how to call and ask if they’d heard from her without worrying them.”

Mike frowned. “I see your point.”

Savannah smiled triumphantly, pleased to have found such an easy way to prove herself. “That’s simple. What’s their number?”

Lee glanced at Mike, who just shrugged, so Lee went to his bedroom and came back a minute later with an address book. He laid it open on the table in front of Savannah and leaned over her shoulder, pointing. “Right there, Jack and Eva Dalton.”

Savannah felt him brush against her back and couldn’t help but notice he smelled amazing, fresh and clean and soapy with just the faintest hint of cologne. She swallowed hard trying to focus on the page in front of her. “Umm, thanks.”

Lee went around the table and sat across from Mike as Savannah pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. Setting the phone to speaker, she dialed the number and waited while the phone rang on the other end.

“Hello?” An elderly woman answered. Savannah looked up at Lee and saw his nod. He recognized her voice.

“Uh, hi, Mrs. Dalton? This is Emily Jones. You probably don’t remember me, but I went to school with your daughter, Cara.”

“I’m sorry, dear, I don’t remember you.”

Savannah smiled. Cara’s mother sounded very sweet.

“That’s all right. It’s just that over the years I’ve lost track of Cara. I don’t think I’ve talked to her since shortly after she married that guy, shoot, I can’t even remember his name.”

“Levon. He was such a good boy. I was so sorry things didn’t work out for them. And, oh was he a looker. They’d have had such beautiful babies!”

Savannah put the back of her hand over her mouth, trying to hold in the sudden overwhelming urge to giggle while next to her Mike nearly choked on his beer. When she glanced across the table at Lee she was surprised to find him looking embarrassed for once.

“Levon? Are you sure? I mean, I’m sure you’re right but that just doesn’t sound familiar.”

“Oh, everyone called him Lee.” The old woman laughed quietly. “He used to get so upset when people called him Levon, but I always thought it was such a nice name.”

“That’s right, Lee. Lee Jackson, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, dear, that’s right.”

“I see. Well, I was wondering if you could get a message to Cara for me. We’re planning a class reunion and I’d love to get her involved. She was always so good at planning parties.”

“Yes, I can get a message to her for you.”

Savannah nodded, feeling confident. This was going well. “I hate to be pushy, but I was just wondering when you thought you might talk to her again? I mean, we’re kind of on a deadline planning the reunion.”

“Oh, she comes over for dinner every Sunday. It’s a bit of a drive for her but she never misses it. She’s so busy, and travels so much for work. We don’t talk often during the week but she always comes on Sundays.” Mrs. Dalton sounded proud her daughter made a point to come home once a week even though she led such a hectic life.

“That’s fine, Mrs. Dalton. When you see her this weekend just tell her Emily Jones is trying to reach her.” Savannah gave Mrs. Dalton her number and hung up.

Mike smiled proudly at Savannah. “Well, she certainly didn’t sound worried, so we know her parents just saw her last weekend. If Cara’s missing, she hasn’t been missing for long.”

Savannah looked down at Lee’s address book thoughtfully. “They live in Richmond? I think if we haven’t figured this thing out by Sunday, we should go to Richmond and keep an eye on her parents’ house that afternoon. Maybe she’s in hiding on her own but will show up to keep them from worrying.”

“Good thinking, Savannah.” Mike started passing the food around the table as he heaped his plate. He sounded apologetic when he added, “Sorry, but I’m hungry.”

They ate in silence for a few minutes and Savannah was surprised to find the food was excellent. She smiled across the table at Lee. “This is really good.”

“Thanks, sweetheart.”

Savannah gritted her teeth. It grated on her every time he called her sweetheart. So patronizing. But now she had a little ammunition of her own.

“You’re welcome, Levon.”

To Savannah’s disappointment, Lee didn’t react, and instead spoke to Mike. “I dug out that box Cara dropped off awhile back. It’s out in the living room. I thought we could take a look after supper.”

Mike nodded. “I’ll see if I can work some magic and pull her credit reports, bank statements, and credit card statements tomorrow at the office. I’ll email it all to Savannah.”

Savannah ate quietly while the men’s conversation drifted. Lee asked after Mike’s wife, Ginny, and their two boys, and they reminisced a little about college, but Savannah wasn’t really listening. She was first to finish eating, so she got up and started to clear the table. She looked through the cupboards and found some Tupperware, putting the leftovers away. She was running water in the sink and starting her third beer when Lee and Mike noticed what she was doing.

Lee looked over his shoulder at her. “Just leave that. I’ll do the dishes later.”

“It’s all right, it’ll keep me busy while you two rehash the glory days.”

Lee laughed and brought her the rest of the dishes. “Suit yourself.”

Lee left the room and returned a minute later with a pack of cigarettes and a book of matches. He sat down next to Mike and tapped two cigarettes out on the table, offering one to Mike. Savannah had her back to them at the sink and didn’t realize they were smoking until she smelled it. She turned around, expecting to see Lee smoking and was shocked to see Mike was, too.

“That’s so gross. Mike, you don’t smoke!”

Mike shrugged. “Sometimes I smoke when I drink.”

“Does Ginny know?”

Lee’s bark of laughter surprised her. “Sweetheart, Ginny would burn one too if she were here.”

Savannah gritted her teeth and returned to the dishes. When she finished, she neatly stacked them on the counter to dry and turned back to Lee and Mike, who were deep in conversation about some party they’d been to a hundred years ago.

“That’s right, I was there with that girl from the bar. Shit, what was her name? That blonde with the big…” Lee laughed as he hit Mike on the shoulder but his words trailed off when he realized Savannah was looking at them both with an arched brow.

“I hate to interrupt what appears to be a riveting conversation, but maybe we should go see what’s in that box?”

Mike stood up and headed for the living room. “Right. It’s after nine o’clock and I need to get back to the city, so let’s get this show on the road.” Lee headed to the refrigerator for more beer, so Mike added, “No more for me, I’m driving.”

“Sure thing, Hoss.” Lee got another beer for himself and they all trailed into the living room.

Lee flopped down on the couch, leaning against the armrest, and put his feet up on the coffee table next to the unopened box while Mike took the recliner. Faced with the option of sitting next to Lee on the couch or sitting on the floor, Savannah chose the floor. Crossing her legs under her, she reached for the box.

As she started to open it, Lee and Mike leaned forward to look inside. “I came home before they got to the bedroom on their search and destroy mission last night so it should all be there.”

Three T-shirts were folded on top. Savannah removed them from the box and handed them to Lee, who unfolded them and shook them out before tossing them onto the couch next to him. Next were about a dozen books, and they each picked one and started thumbing through the pages.

Lee happened to look up as Mike reached for another book. “That’s not my book. I’ve never read it, or even heard of it before.”

Mike looked down at the book he held. “Are the others yours?”

Lee glanced through the remaining books. “Yeah, just not that one. I’m sure of it.”

“Well, either she made a mistake and gave you the wrong book or…” Mike started leafing through the pages when a slip of paper fell out and fluttered to the floor. He reached down and picked it up, setting it in the middle of the coffee table.

They all leaned over, their heads close, to look. It was a short note, written in rushed cursive.

Sorry, Lee. I don’t know who else I can trust.

Lee sighed, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. “Fuck, I wish I’d opened this box when she gave it to me.”

Mike shook his head. “I’ll bet she was counting on the fact that you would probably stuff this in the closet or attic and forget about it unless something happened to remind you. She was married to you for god sakes. She knows you. If it was a message she’d wanted you to have right then she’d have found a far less subtle way to get it to you.”

Savannah started rummaging through the rest of the box. Beneath the books were three CDs, various refrigerator magnets, and other knick-knacks. Lee frowned and shook his head. “There must be something else in here, some other clue or something; otherwise her note doesn’t mean anything. But that all looks like my stuff, or at least, stuff we had together when we were married.”

“Wait, what’s that? It looks like another T-shirt all balled up in the corner.” As Savannah carefully pulled it out of the box she could feel something wrapped inside of it.

“Hey, that’s my Springsteen concert shirt. I’d forgotten all about it, but I used to love that shirt.”

As Savannah shook the shirt, two keys fell on the floor. She picked them up and held them out toward Lee. “Look familiar?”

Lee shook his head. “The one looks like the key to a safe deposit box. But I don’t know which bank it would be at. The second one I have no idea, maybe her apartment?”

Savannah chewed her lip. “Well, we need to get into her apartment anyway, so we might as well try the key. Do you know where her apartment is? I should go tomorrow.”

Lee frowned. “Yeah, I know where it is. We’ll go in the morning. I’m not keen on sending you over there by yourself when we know these thugs are running around out there somewhere.”

Mike dug through the box for a minute and then looked at his watch. “I don’t think there’s anything else important here. And I need to get home before Ginny sends out a search party.”

They all walked out to Mike’s car together and Savannah pulled her bags out of the backseat, setting the first two on the ground and folding the dress bag over her arm. “This reminds me. I have a thing in the city I can’t miss Thursday night. So Thursday evening, I’m going to have to split for a while. I’ll just call a cab to take me to Vienna and metro in. And then I’ll probably just crash at my apartment after and come back out in the morning.”

Lee picked up her duffle bag and computer bag, slinging them over his shoulder. “You can take the truck to Vienna if you want and just leave it there overnight. Or I can probably drop you off. No need to waste money on a cab.” He turned to Mike and wiggled his eyebrows. “I’ll bet she has a hot date.”

Mike laughed. “Maybe so. Look, there’s no telling when those thugs will be back, if they do come back. Make sure Savannah has your number in case, well, just in case anything happens.”

“Hell, I’ll give her a gun if she wants it.” Lee gave her a thoughtful look before adding, “As long as you promise not to shoot me, sweetheart.”

Savannah offered him her sweetest smile. “I can’t make that promise.”

“You two just may kill each other before this is over,” Mike laughed as he spoke, but Savannah could see the concern in his eyes.