Zach never expected the girl he’d once loved to walk into his bar. The last time he’d seen Mia Stevens, he’d dropped her off after school and the next time he planned to see her was when he picked her up for prom the next night. Except when he’d shown up in a rented limousine, dressed in his tuxedo, and holding a wrist corsage, no one answered the door.
Odd, considering Mia had a baby sister and her stepmother was usually home. The neighbors had seen him knocking on the door and come out to tell him the house had been unusually quiet all day.
It turned out, Mia and her family were gone for good. She’d ghosted him not just for prom, which was humiliating enough, but for all the things they’d planned for the future. Zach had done his best to search for her online and when he came up empty, he honed his computer and hacking skills to dig even deeper. Nothing had ever turned up.
Zach drew a deep breath and pushed off the chair, preparing himself to confront her for the first time.
“Zach,” Remy said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t know who she is or what’s going on but you look pissed. Maybe I should handle this –”
He shook his head. “I’ve got it.”
Remy released his grip but stayed close behind as Zach strode to the entrance.
Mia hadn’t taken a step into the bar, obviously waiting for his reaction. She looked good. Older, obviously, but just as gorgeous, despite being tired, as evidenced by the dark circles beneath her blue eyes. She was still his fresh-faced girl. Her freckles were more pronounced, her brown hair was longer, and though she wore little makeup, her pouty lips still begged to be kissed.
Fuck. She wasn’t his, hadn’t been in years, and wouldn’t be again.
He scrubbed a hand over his face. “It’s been a long time, Mia.”
She jerked and shook her head. “It’s Hadley, now.” Her voice had the same, husky quality he remembered.
He narrowed his gaze at the name change.
“And this is my little sister, Danika.”
It had been Danielle, he thought, remembering her baby sister. Danika. Another name change.
“It’s Dani.” The teenager with a pink streak in the front of her hair crossed her arms over her chest and stared at him. From her lack of shyness to the bold hair choice, she was both more outgoing and more of a rebel than her sister had been.
“Hey, Dani,” he said.
She looked from Zach to her sister, her nose scrunched as she watched them.
“Zach, I know this must be a shock but can we talk?” Mia – Hadley, he mentally corrected himself, asked.
As much as he wanted to hug her tight, feel her body against his and ask where she’d been all these years, he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of showing any emotion.
Whatever answers she held, she’d opted to keep to herself for the last decade. He hadn’t been hard to find and she could have come to see him long before now.
Her leaving had been a shock followed by embarrassment when he’d had to face the kids in his class, but her ongoing silence had devastated him. He wouldn’t fall at her feet in gratitude she’d shown up now.
“Sorry, but we’re closed for a private party.” He gestured with a tip of his head toward where his family gathered in the main dining area. “You can show yourselves out.”
Her eyes opened wide, flashing with hurt before she banked the emotion.
Forcing himself not to react or show he cared, he turned, intending to walk away, aware of Remy’s disapproving stare. His friend didn’t have a clue who Mia – Hadley – whatever she called herself had been to him. Although since he’d confided in Remy one drunken night, his friend might be figuring things out.
“This is the guy you said would help us?” he heard Dani ask in a sarcastic voice. He paused mid-step. “Good job, sis.”
“Be quiet,” Hadley hissed. “You have no idea what happened between us.”
“So, he’s not the boyfriend you had and the prom date you had to ditch when dad screwed –”
Dani’s voice cut off.
“We’ll discuss how you know about that later,” Hadley warned the teenager.
He looked over his shoulder to see her hand covering her sister’s mouth and he bit the inside of his cheek in an attempt not to laugh. The kid had spunk and though Hadley was probably used to dealing with her, the flush in her cheeks revealed Dani had embarrassed her.
Zach blew out a breath and forced himself to pivot back to them. Dani had had him at the word help. Saving women was his weakness, for reasons that began with his mother and the way her life came to a tragic end.
But he couldn’t bring himself to make this easy on Hadley. “Fine. Let’s talk.” His tone was deliberately cool.
She glanced at her sister. “Go sit at a table. I want to talk to Zach in private. I’ll come back for you in a few minutes.”
Zach glanced at Remy. “Can you get Dani a menu and let her order whatever she wants?” The cook had come in today for Leah’s party and would be happy to whip up whatever the teenager wanted.
Remy nodded. “Come on, kid. We’ve got milkshakes, burgers and anything else you want to eat.”
“Sweet. I’m starving. We’ve been eating crap since we left –”
Hadley managed an impressive eye roll at the same time she slapped a hand over her sister’s mouth. Again. “Go eat and do not talk.”
Remy chuckled and Dani rushed for a table near the kitchen.
Hadley shook her head and grinned as she watched her sister go. “That kid is a handful,” she muttered but Zach saw the love in her eyes and it caused an unwilling tug on his heart.
“Let’s go to my office where we won’t be interrupted.” He extended his arm in the right direction, grateful his family was occupied with the party girl and her presents in another area of the bar.
Hadley – it was going to take time to get used to calling her by that name – nodded and walked ahead of him to the hallway where his office was located.
He’d had years for his anger and hurt to build but he couldn’t deny his curiosity about her was still strong. And as she walked to his office, her ass swaying in tight black jeans, he was forced to acknowledge that relief wasn’t the only thing he felt upon seeing her again.
Nerves fluttered in Hadley’s stomach as she walked through the bar to Zach’s office. The décor she passed appeared old-looking by design with dark distressed wood tables and chairs, and graffiti, hand-painted art on the walls.
Walking into Zach’s office, she looked around, seeing if she could glean any information about the man he’d grown to be. The area was neat with a plain wood-styled desk that could be found in any office supply store and an executive-style leather chair. On the white walls hung family pictures but none were Zach’s relatives, at least none she remembered meeting in the past. But everyone had grown up and changed, including her.
“Have a seat.” He gestured to one of two open-arm guest chairs across from the desk.
She lowered herself into a chair. “Who are all those people in the pictures?”
“Happy clients,” he said, not elaborating further. “And we’re not here to talk about me. What did Dani mean by you need help?” He perched himself on the edge of his desk, leaning away from her. The emotional walls he’d erected couldn’t be higher, not that she blamed him.
She’d gone over what to say to him during their many hours on the road, but now that she was here, all her ideas disappeared. She took a moment to gather her thoughts, but her gaze cataloged the changes in him instead.
He wore a solid black t-shirt and his muscles were evident below the short sleeve. His chest was broad, his body obviously tight and built. He was all facial scruff and his attitude screamed alpha bad-boy, which begged the question. Where had her lean computer geek gone?
“I’m waiting?” His gruff voice startled her and she jumped.
Right. He wanted her story, not for her to sit and ogle him. “Maybe I should start with why I left all those years ago,” she said, blurting out the first thing that came to mind.
He folded his arms across his chest and somehow those biceps bulged even more. “How about you start with why you’re here now, instead? No need to revisit the past.”
She closed her eyes and sighed. Perhaps she’d misjudged how difficult he’d be. “Fine. My father is in trouble with some very bad people. I know that sounds like a line from a cheesy movie but it’s true. One of them approached me by my car after work and said to tell my father if he didn’t cooperate, they’d take me or Dani instead.”
Zach’s gorgeous indigo eyes narrowed. “Go on.”
She swallowed hard. “After he threatened me, the guy left. I got into my car and drove home.” She curled her fingers around her handbag until her nails dug into her palms. “As soon as I walked into the house, my father told me to pack up, take Dani, and run.”
She met Zach’s gaze, hoping to see some form of understanding only to find a stoic mask of indifference. He’d never been cold to her before and despite expecting it, his attitude hurt.
“How did you find me?” he asked. “Actually, scratch that since I already know the answer. I wasn’t the one who left. A simple Google search would have shown you my location.”
God, she’d hurt him and the knowledge twisted inside her.
“Why come to me for help?”
Her heart pounded painfully in her chest. If she didn’t convince him to help her, she didn’t know where she’d go or what to do.
She ran a hand through her hair with a shaking hand. “I read the article your sister-in-law wrote about her ordeal last year. How you were responsible for finding the former senator’s wife after she’d attempted to run over Winter with her car. I also read the follow-up about all the families who were indebted to you for what you’d done for them.”
She glanced at the photos on the walls again and the pieces fell into place. “They all sent you these.” Looking at the good he’d done, warmth filled her up inside, and she was awed by his second occupation. Finding missing people wouldn’t always have a happy ending and he did it anyway. “I always knew you’d do great things.”
“Don’t.” He bit out the harsh word and she flinched.
He pushed himself off the desk and paced around the room in silence.
She wondered if he was trying to find a way to say no or if he was attempting to come up with a plan. She hoped it was the latter.
“You need protection,” he said at last. “A place to stay where your sister is safe and so are you.” It wasn’t a question.
She blew out a long breath and nodded. “Yes. My father asked me to pick up a burner phone and call his disposable one so he’d have my untraceable number. He’ll let us know when it’s safe to return.”
Closing her eyes, she sighed. “If it’s ever safe. But right now I can’t worry about that. I need a short-term solution while I figure out what to do next. I can’t stay in a hotel because I can’t show my license or use my credit cards and they always want to have one on file. I do have some prepaid ones but I’d rather save them for food and emergencies.”
Zach stopped pacing and leveled his gaze on hers, as if trying to figure her out.
“You know an awful lot about disappearing without a trace,” he muttered, affirming her thought.
She rose to her feet, prepared for an argument but before she could remind him he hadn’t wanted an explanation, he spoke.
“How did you get here?”
“I drove my car. It’s parked behind the bar.”
“Is it a newer model?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No.” She couldn’t control the laugh at the thought of her old vehicle. “Not even close.”
Zach had come from a wealthy family but Hadley was the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. It had been a miracle his parents never gave him a hard time for dating her. Not that she knew of, anyway and they’d always been kind.
“Good.” He nodded in approval. “And you never bought a GPS tracking device?”
This time her laugh was even louder. “No, if someone was stupid enough to steal that car, I’d say good riddance and pray I never saw it again.”
His gaze caught hers and the first signs of a smirk lifted his lips as they shared an amused smile. She felt a small sense of victory until he caught himself and smoothed out his expression.
“Where?” she asked as he turned and started for the door without answering.
She rolled her eyes, sick of his attitude.
Before Zach could exit, a knock sounded and the door opened.
The man who stood behind Zach earlier stepped inside. “Just making sure you’re both in one piece,” he said with a grin she’d have found sexy if she wasn’t still so drawn to Zach and the bad boy he’d obviously become. “I’m Remy Sterling. Zach’s partner,” he said before Zach could perform any introductions. Assuming he even wanted her to meet his friends.
“Hadley Stevens,” she said softly. It was up to Zach to explain who she was – rather, had been to him.
“We were just coming out to discuss some things. Is my family still here?” Zach asked.
Remy’s lips lifted in a huge grin. “They sure are and asking where you disappeared to. Dani was only too happy to fill them in.” He glanced at her and winked.
“Eyes on me, asshole,” Zach muttered.
Her lips parted in surprise.
“Not so fun when the shoe’s on the other foot, is it?” Remy asked. “Try and remember that next time you’re flirting with Raven.”
Hadley had no idea what the byplay between them was about but she wondered. Who was Raven? And what was that sudden jealous knot in her stomach?
“I’ll let them all know you’re coming out.” As Remy turned and walked out, his words finally registered.
“Your family is here?” He’d said the restaurant was closed for a private party but she hadn’t thought about who it was for.
“It’s my niece’s birthday. Nick and his wife are having Leah’s party here.” Zach grimaced. No doubt at the thought of dealing with all the Dares.
How would she face them again? No doubt they were as angry at her for disappearing as their brother was.
Could things get any more difficult? Hadley stifled the urge to cry in frustration.
“Come on. Might as well get this over with.” Zach opened the door and walked into the hall, leaving her to follow him.