Hadley Stevens loved her job but late spring always turned high school kids into restless, hormonal savages thanks to being stuck inside a stuffy brick building seven hours a day, five days a week. They were so close to summer freedom, even she could relate to their restless spirits.
The sun shone overhead as she walked to her car. Coworkers also strode to their vehicles and Hadley knew without asking they were all grateful it was the second to last Friday of the school year. It helped that the weather was warm, even for mid-June in Braxton, Illinois, giving everyone an extra pep in their step. Hadley had no plans for the weekend beyond reading and relaxing, and if the weather stayed nice, she would sit outside and chill.
The house she lived in with her father, Gregg, and thirteen-year-old sister, Danika, had a small patio in the backyard where Hadley always found peace. No doubt some of this weekend would include shuffling Dani to and from a friend’s house, too, something Hadley didn’t mind at all.
She approached her car, key fob in hand when a man strode up beside her, his shadow blocking the sun.
“Hadley Stevens.” He said her name in a low voice.
She stiffened and looked up, recognizing him immediately. He was one of the sleazy men who’d been meeting with her father in their home most evenings, hanging out in their family room, and eyeing her just-developing thirteen-year-old sister with lust-filled eyes. Their perversion scared Hadley to no end and she always kept Dani within arms reach until the men left.
“What do you want?” Hadley slid her finger over the alarm on her key fob.
He grasped her wrist tight enough to bruise. “Don’t. Hear me out and nobody has to get hurt.” He slid his jacket aside, revealing a holstered gun.
Shaking now, she straightened her shoulders and refused to show more fear. “I’m listening.”
“Tell your father if he doesn’t do what we asked, we’ll take you and your pretty little sister as payment instead.” Releasing her wrist, he strode off, mixing in with the male and female teachers in the lot.
Trembling, she could barely unlock her car door and when she finally climbed inside, she jammed her finger against the door-lock button four times before she convinced herself she was safe.
Dani, she thought, her stomach twisting in knots. She had to get home to her sister. The plan calmed her down enough to drive but the past she’d been told to forget crashed through her mind for the duration of the fifteen-minute trip.
Hadley had just come home from shopping with a friend for last-minute makeup and hair clips for her boyfriend’s prom night. She’d been high on life and excited to be his date for the senior prom. He didn’t care that she was a junior. She and Zach Dare had been friends for years and a couple for almost eight months. And she planned to give him her virginity on prom night.
Except there’d been no prom. Not for her. And probably not for Zach, either. When Hadley had walked into her house that day eleven years ago, she’d been greeted by her father and the federal agents who’d relocated them that night, changing her name, her identity and altering the course of her life forever. She was sure Zach hated her for abandoning him without a word and did her best not to think about the cute boy she thought she’d loved.
Now, as she approached the home where she’d lived since being uprooted from everything and everyone she knew, that same gut-churning feeling returned. She already knew her father had gotten involved with the wrong people again but this time, she doubted they’d have government protection to keep her and Dani safe.
She pulled into the driveway, relieved to find it empty with no other cars on the street. It didn’t mean the men weren’t inside the house, but it gave her some hope. She glanced at the small home and though the white paint was chipped in places, she’d done her best to keep the grounds pretty by planting flowers and bulbs that bloomed yearly.
She pulled her car into the garage beside her father’s vehicle and tapped the button to close the electric door behind her. Still shaking, she walked inside and paused to listen. It was quiet. She didn’t hear men’s voices and Dani wasn’t blasting loud music. Knowing her sister, she was probably using earbuds and destroying her hearing instead.
Hadley rushed through the hall and into the kitchen to find her father pacing back and forth across the small area.
“Dad? What did you do?”
“Hadley!” He spun around, his dark hair, newly threaded with gray, an unruly mess. He made it worse when he ran his hand through the too-long strands. His face was drawn and pale, the lines around his eyes and mouth more pronounced. “I’ve been waiting for you to get home from work.”
She narrowed her gaze. “One of the guys who hangs out here just cornered me by my car at school. He said if he couldn’t get what he wanted out of you, he’d take me and Dani as payment instead. What did you get involved in this time?”
“Fuck!” He picked up the cookie jar where she kept Dani’s lunch money and threw it against the wall, shattering the ceramic and causing a dent in the plaster.
She flexed her fingers, her palms damp from her hard grip on the steering wheel, and her wrist throbbed from where the man had gripped her hard enough to leave bruises.
After placing her heavy tote bag on the kitchen table, she drew a deep breath, preparing herself for whatever disaster was coming.
Then she turned to face her too-silent father.
He rubbed his hands over his bloodshot eyes. “I’m in trouble, baby girl.” He only called her that when he was feeling guilty about something. “I need you to take your sister and go,” he said, his gruff, demanding words shocking her.
She’d known he was in trouble but sending them away? “What are you saying?”
He placed his hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Get your sister from her room, pack a bag, and leave. Now. Drive far and fast.”
Processing his words was impossible. “But…”
He shook his head, his eyes wild. “There’s no time. Hurry up.”
She nodded, and just like when she was sixteen, Hadley went on autopilot. She rushed upstairs and knocked on her sister’s door. Receiving no answer, she opened it and found Dani with earbuds on while tapping away on her laptop, unaware everything was about to change.
Hadley stepped up to the bed, catching her sister’s attention.
Dani yanked out her earbuds and grinned. “Hey, Hads. What’s up?”
Hadley managed a smile at the nickname that Dani had used since she was a toddler. It had taken Hadley years not to think of herself as Mia Roberts, her given name, the person she’d been prior to entering WITSEC thanks to her father. Mia, a name Dani had never heard anyone call her since she’d been a baby when they’d been forced to disappear.
“Can you shut that down?” Hadley pointed to the laptop. “We need to talk.” And she didn’t want any of Dani’s friends who might be listening on Facetime overhearing.
Hadley had already decided to be honest with her sister. Dani was a smart, wise-for-her-years kid. She already knew neither of her parents were the most upstanding citizens nor did they associate with decent people. It was Hadley who kept Dani’s life as normal as possible.
Dani closed the laptop cover and leaned forward. “What’s wrong?”
“I need you to listen carefully,” Hadley said, as she sat down on the mattress.
“You’re scaring me.” Dani’s green eyes were wide with fear and Hadley hated her father for forcing her to put that emotion there.
She had no way to soften the blow, either. “Dad got himself into serious trouble. You and I can’t stay here. It’s not safe and we need to leave.”
“What?” Dani asked, her body jerking, her voice raised.
“I’ll explain more in the car but right now, pack as much as you can fit in your rolling suitcase and backpack and meet me in the kitchen. I need to go do the same thing.”
Blinking fast, Dani shook her head. “Wait. For how long because I have so many fun things planned for the last week of school and Amy’s having a party next weekend!”
Hadley winced, aware of how her sister felt, knowing she’d miss out on things that seemed so big in her young life. She felt the same when she missed going to with Zach. And once Dani realized they were probably going to be gone for a long time, that pain and disappointment would only get worse.
“I’m going to treat you like an adult and be one hundred percent honest. I don’t know how long we’ll be gone but I will find a way to make it up to you. Right now, just pack, please,” she said, hoping just this once, Dani’s teenage stubbornness wouldn’t kick in.
Dani shook her head. “But mom said she was coming over tonight and I need to be here.”
Hadley gritted her teeth, doing her best not to show her aggravation at the mention of Dani’s selfish, drug-addict mother.
Hadley’s mom died in a car accident when she was thirteen. Instead of staying home with his grieving daughter, her father, Ray, immediately began hitting the bars at night. It wasn’t long before he met, hooked up with, then knocked up Patrice Munson. He moved his pregnant girlfriend into the house where Hadley’s mom had lived. Patrice hadn’t been interested in helping and Hadley, in between schoolwork and her part-time job, did everyone’s share of housework and cooking.
Dani was a year old when the feds moved them as a family to a small town in Illinois. And that sent a bored, miserable Patrice into a drug-induced spiral, leaving Hadley to care for Dani just as she had been prior to the move. Ultimately, Patrice lost custody due to her neglect and she only saw Dani because their father allowed it, as long as he or Hadley was home to supervise.
“Hads?” Dani’s voice shook Hadley out of her stupor and put her squarely back in reality. Was it any wonder she’d escaped into her memories, even if it had meant revisiting a shitty past?
“What? I didn’t catch what you said.” Hadley looked at her sister.
Dani rolled her eyes. “I said, can we please leave after I see mom?”
Hadley sighed. “You saw your mom last night.” And it was unusual for Patrice to show up two days in a row, let alone all that often. Hadley doubted she’d be returning tonight, disappointing Dani yet again. But she wasn’t going to fight with her sister by bringing up the truth about her mom.
“We’ll figure out what to do about seeing your mother again but right now, we need to go.” Hadley walked to the closet and pulled out Dani’s suitcase. “Come on, now. Get packing.”
Ignoring the half-yell, half-whine from her sister, Hadley rushed to her room, retrieved her suitcase, and began to throw things in without thinking.
She dumped her entire underwear drawer into the suitcase, along with some casual clothes, hearing the thump of her diary. A habit she’d kept up from her teenage years. Putting her feelings on paper helped clear her mind.
Nothing could give her that clarity now, as she wondered what she could possibly tell the school district about her sudden leave. She needed an excuse that wouldn’t jeopardize her Teacher Loan Forgiveness or get her fired for bailing on them with no warning the last week of the year. At least she had until Monday morning to think of something.
After she packed, Hadley shut her bedroom door. She walked to her closet and knelt, grateful that ever since their middle-of-the-night move, she’d thought ahead. Beneath three shoe boxes, she pulled out a fourth and opened the top. Inside she had a secret stash. A mix of cash and prepaid Visa and Master cards she’d saved over the years. She couldn’t say she’d anticipated this moment but something inside her knew she needed to prepare just in case.
She stuffed everything into the inside lining of her everyday tote, hooked the bag on her shoulder, and dragged the suitcase to the kitchen. She passed Dani’s room on the way and a quick glance confirmed her sister was packing like she was supposed to.
In the kitchen, her father sat at the table, his head in his hands. The shattered jar still lay on the floor, and it took everything in her not to act on habit by getting the broom and cleaning up his mess.
“Dad?” she asked when he didn’t look up.
He rose from his seat and walked over to where she stood. “Take this.” He shoved cash in her hand. “Don’t use your credit cards. They’re traceable.”
As if she hadn’t learned that lesson from the female agent who’d accompanied them here when she was sixteen. Hadley glanced back at the destroyed cookie jar and realized he’d gathered up the spare fives and singles she’d stuffed inside.
From the look and feel of the bundle, he’d added more but as she flipped through the pile, her heart sank at the small denomination of the bills. He didn’t know she had access to untraceable money, yet this wasn’t enough to get by, and her disappointment in him somehow grew.
“This won’t even cover a motel. Not if we want to eat. I need more. Is there anything else in the house?” she asked, pushing him because she would eventually need access to more funds.
“I’m here,” a sullen Dani said at the same time her father shook his head.
Hadley turned as her sister shuffled into the room. Her backpack hung over one shoulder and she dragged her suitcase behind her. She’d put on a baseball cap and her long hair hung in braids on either side of her head. The front strand she’d dyed pink covered one eye and she glared at them through the other. Looking at her now, no one would realize how beautiful the teen really was.
Their father moved close and pulled Dani into a long hug. “I’ll see you soon. I promise.” He met Hadley’s gaze over Dani’s head, seeming to beg her to make this easier.
He couldn’t even handle the goodbye like a man.
“Dani, why don’t you meet me in my car? I parked it in the garage. I’ll be right out.”
The teenager held onto her father for a few seconds longer, enough time for Hadley’s anger at their dad to grow. Every time she thought he’d hit his lowest in her estimation, he dug the hole deeper.
Dani released him and looked at Hadley, and she forced a wink at her sister. “It’ll be a fun road trip. I promise.” Too bad she couldn’t cross her fingers behind her back at the lie.
She didn’t know what awaited them any more than she knew where they’d go. “Do me a favor and get the sunglasses I left on my dresser.” Hadley wanted a minute with her father. “Once we settled in the car you can pick the music you want to listen to,” she said, already cringing at the certainty of loud sound to add to her pounding head.
Once Dani stomped out, Hadley spun around. “I can’t believe you did this to her. To us. Again. Don’t you ever learn?” She didn’t ask him what kind of trouble he was in. The less she knew, the safer she would be.
He hung his head and sighed but didn’t answer, which was a good thing. Nothing he said would make any difference.
“Take Dani somewhere safe,” he muttered. “And don’t tell me where you end up, either.”
Of course. Because if he didn’t know their whereabouts and those dangerous people came after him, he couldn’t reveal their location. Regardless of what they did to him to extract information. She shuddered and nausea threatened.
“I’m sure my calls are being traced,” he continued in a monotone but urgent voice. “There’s a burner number on a piece of paper stuffed in with the money. Once you’re settled, get one for yourself and ring me once so I have your number. That way I can let you know when it’s safe to come home.”
If it was ever safe, she thought, not saying the words aloud.
He had tears in his eyes but she was in a mixed state of shock, anger, and disbelief, too stunned by the sudden upheaval to feel bad for him. He’d caused this mess.
“I’m sorry.” He pulled her into a hug.
One she forced herself to return because a part of her feared this might be the last time she saw her father.
“Go, baby girl.”
She stepped back and nodded. “Bye, Dad.”
For the first twenty minutes of the ride Dani was silent, giving Hadley time to think. Too bad she hadn’t come up with a destination when Dani finally spoke.
“Are we taking a plane? I’ve never been on an airplane.” She sounded excited which was better than the angry quiet of before.
Hadley shook her head. “We can’t. We’d have to show our IDs and I don’t want a footprint, digital or otherwise.” God, she was repeating the FBI’s words verbatim. She supposed there were some things one never forgot.
She slid her gaze to the passenger seat. Dani had scrunched her nose, then nodded. “I get it. I’ve seen that show called FBI on television. What’s the plan then?”
Hadley glanced at her gas tank and sighed. She hadn’t anticipated a long trip. “Let’s hit the next rest stop and load up on snack food. That’ll get us by until I’m tired and we can find a motel for the night.”
From there, she’d decide where to go next but for now, she was headed east. It was as good a route as any and ironically, she was driving in the direction of New York City and the town where she’d grown up. And the boy, now a man, she’d never forgotten. She wondered if Zach ever thought of her and if so, if he’d forgiven her disappearance? She shook off that thought and focused on the present.
She pulled into a rest stop and filled the car with gas, then parked. She and Dani walked into the store.
Knowing she had to keep her sister happy during this trip, Hadley extended a hand, gesturing to the aisles of chips, candy, soda, and other food. “Load up. And I know you’re not a kid but let’s both try and use the restroom. It’ll save us having to stop again until we’re ready to pull over for the night.”
“Love the reverse psychology, sis. But I’m still going to roll my eyes and tell you I’d know if I had to pee.”
Hadley rolled hers right back. “Try anyway.”
A little while later, they were in a long line for the register with a basket full of junk food and drinks, waiting to get their items rung up so she could pay. Dani seemed engrossed in her phone, bopping her head in time to music Hadley could hear above the earbuds.
She glanced around and her gaze came to rest on one of the few magazines on the endcap rack. The cover photo was a punch to her already painful emotions. A photo of Harrison Dare and his siblings at the Cannes Film Festival for a movie premiere stared back at her. The entire Dare family was in the shot, including Zach, and Hadley’s knees went weak at the sight of him for the first time in years.
Since being forced to leave the first time, she hadn’t looked him up online because she knew it would be too painful to see him on social media. Not that she’d allowed herself to have a profile of her own. She’d taken every word the feds said to heart. She had no intention of exposing her family, even by mistake. There were people who’d recognize Hadley so she remained as hidden as she could. No one from the past would know Dani, enabling her sister to have all the social media apps along with her friends.
The line ahead of her moved slowly and her gaze drifted back to Zach’s handsome face. No longer a boy, he was all man, and mouth-wateringly handsome. She skimmed the article and discovered that like his siblings, Zach was wealthy and recently famous, thanks to a news article about him that had gone viral. He’d been the person who found the stalker terrorizing Harrison’s then-pregnant girlfriend and turning her whereabouts over to the police.
Since Winter Capwell was a reporter, she’d published a story about her ordeal that every news outlet had picked up. A second article followed, this one about Zach and all the people who’d contacted Winter to rave about how he’d helped reunite them with missing family members.
He also owned two bars, one in Manhattan, another in East Hampton. But his side business was finding people who had disappeared, and until the viral news story, he’d done it quietly and under the radar. She blinked as the solution to her own problems came to her. Zach was the perfect person to help her keep Dani safe and though he might not want to see Hadley ever again, she needed him.
And based on what she read about him, Zach Dare would never turn away someone in danger. Especially a young teen and Hadley was more worried about her sister than herself.
“Next!” The cashier called out.
Hadley had been slowly shuffling forward, her focus on the magazine and learning about Zach, but she hadn’t realized it was her turn. Dani was still bopping her head to the music, making Hadley grin despite their circumstances.
She unloaded the food from the basket and waited as the woman behind the counter rang up the total and bagged the items.
At the last second, Hadley cleared her throat. “Can you add this please?” She handed over the magazine. If she was lucky, there would be information about Zach inside. Regardless, she now had a photo of him to look at later and prepare herself to see him again.
She paid and they walked back to the car. Dani pulled her earbuds out. “I saw you buy that magazine. Why?”
God, the teenager missed nothing. “There’s an article in it I want to read. And I decided where we’re headed.” She might as well tell her sister the new plan. “We’re going to New York City.”
“Really? What’s in the city?”
“Someone I think can help us,” she said as they reached the car and together put the bags into the back seat.
Once they were resettled in the front, Dani buckled her seatbelt and Hadley did the same.
“So, who’s this person? Old boyfriend?” Dani asked.
Hadley choked on her own saliva and began to cough. She wiped her tears and turned to her sister with a narrowed gaze. “What makes you say that?”
“Oops. Mom slipped and told me she met dad in Manhattan. That we used to live in a town nearby but we had to move to Illinois when I was a baby.”
Hadley couldn’t believe Patrice could be so careless. Then again… yes, she could. “That doesn’t explain the boyfriend comment.”
Dani shrugged. “Just a guess.”
A too lucky one, Hadley thought. Before she could press her sister, Dani shoved the earbuds back into her ears and cranked up the volume.
Happy for the opportunity to put some quiet music on so she could think as she drove, Hadley decided not to yell about the decibel level. Her new plan involved finding a decent motel that took cash and wouldn’t insist on seeing her license. No small feat.
She would also have to stop at a public library in Illinois so she could look up the name of Zach’s bars. That way nobody could trace her. Once she had the phone number, she’d call and ask to speak to Zach, hoping that would tell her which bar she should go to first.
She planned to hang up before he answered. The first time she spoke to Zach in eleven years had to happen in person and she needed the element of surprise on her side. Maybe then he’d be so happy to see her again, he wouldn’t throw her out before she had a chance to explain her sudden disappearance.
Zach Dare sat on a barstool, watching in amusement as his niece, Leah, ripped open her birthday gifts with all the exuberance of a seven-year-old. He was surprised her accompanying squeals hadn’t yet shattered someone’s eardrums. The good news of the day was she’d had a party for just her friends last weekend and though Zach had stopped by, he hadn’t had to deal with all the kids running around and shrieking. Because why speak when yelling was so much fun?
Leah’s father and Zach’s brother, Nick, hushed her while stuffing the wrapping paper into a big garbage bag, trying his best to keep up with the mess. Nick’s wife, Aurora, held their ten-month-old daughter, Ellie, on her lap while writing down who brought each present. The rest of his massive family gathered around, talking and laughing with their significant others, their children and various family friends.
Zach strode over to Remy, his longtime friend and more recently, his business partner. Last year, Remy had retired from his position as a New York City detective and bought into both of Zach’s businesses. Together they ran two bars, one in the city and the other in East Hampton, along with a private investigation business.
But there was more to Remy than being a former cop. He kept a low profile but Remington Sterling was one of The Sterlings, a family with old-money wealth thanks to a financial equity firm going back generations and real estate holdings all over Manhattan. But like Zach, Remy was wealthy in his own right thanks to a joint venture that had begun back in their college days.
“Hey,” Zach said to his friend.
Remy looked up from the iPad he’d been viewing. “Hi. The birthday girl looks like she’s having fun. Sounds like it too,” he said with a grin.
“Thanks for shutting the restaurant so my family could have a party for Leah,” Zach said.
“She calls me Uncle Remy. How could I say no?” Remy asked, chuckling.
Zach grinned. “She does know how to wrap the men of the family around her finger, doesn’t she?”
His friend laughed.
“Drink?” Zach walked behind the bar to get himself a soda.
Using the fountain gun, he filled two glasses and slid one across the bar.
He lifted the other for himself and walked back to a stool, taking a seat beside Remy. He faced the alcohol bottles lined up on shelves which were bolted into the wall behind the bar. His family’s Dirty Dare brand of spirits took up most of the space and Zach was damned proud. Both of his siblings, their lives and careers, as well as his own.
He took a gulp from his glass, wishing he’d remembered to grab straws.
“So how was your date last night?” Remy asked.
At the question, Zach choked on his soda. “There was no date,” he managed to say as he wiped his eyes, which had watered from swallowing wrong.
An attractive bar regular had invited him out to dinner. “I said no, remember? She’s not my type,” he muttered. But she had been pushy and hadn’t liked being turned down.
Remy took a long sip of his drink. “While we’re discussing your type, quit hitting on Raven,” he said of the woman who’d been a server at the New York City location for a couple of years.
Raven had seen the Help Wanted sign in the window, walked into the bar and handed him two references. One had been from a restaurant where she’d waitressed, the other from a bar where she’d mixed drinks and served. After Zach verified her references, he’d rented her the apartment upstairs and hired her as a server.
She’d provided excellent service to the customers and had become an invaluable employee and friend. She was so good that after Remy had become his partner, and they’d opened a second location in East Hampton last year, they’d promoted Raven to manager. Remy held down the fort in Manhattan and Zach managed the Hamptons location.
Not once in the years she’d worked for him had Zach considered sleeping with her. It was Remy who had desired her from the second they’d met.
“Relax. Banter is our thing,” Zach reminded him. Whatever Raven’s hang-ups about getting involved with Remy, Zach was no threat.
“As long as you remember Raven isn’t your type either,” Remy muttered.
“I’m not interested in her and she sure as hell isn’t attracted to me,” he told his friend, realizing his behavior had gotten under his pal’s skin.
Remy nodded. “Yeah. It’s just… something’s bothering her and she’s not letting me in.”
Zach thought about his New York manager. Something might be off. She’d normally want to oversee a private party, especially one for his or Remy’s family, but she’d asked if she could sit this one out. Since Raven pretty much made her own hours, as she did the scheduling for the staff, and was rarely not at work, of course he’d said yes. She said she wasn’t feeling well and he’d believed her. But… Remy knew her best.
“Try turning on the charm and if that doesn’t work, sit her down and insist you want to know what’s going on.” Zach attempted to give his friend advice on his love life but other than his siblings’ recent relationships and marriages, Zach had little of his own adult experiences to draw from.
One night stands? Yeah, those he could do. Relationships meant exposing too much of himself and he wouldn’t go there again.
Remy ran a hand through his too-long hair. Once he’d left the force, he’d gone overboard in growing out his hair and beard. A fuck you to the rules he’d been subjected to as a cop. “I’ll think about it,” he muttered.
Zach decided a subject change was in order. “Okay so… since you’ve mentioned it twice, just what is my type?” He was curious what his friend thought considering Remy had never seen Zach with a woman more than once or twice.
Remy smirked at the question. “If I had to describe her, I would say she’s understated but beautiful, has ample curves but isn’t overly voluptuous.” He drummed his fingers on the counter as he continued to think.
Meanwhile, Zach couldn’t believe Remy had nailed Zach’s ideal woman. The one perfect female who’d had his heart back when he’d believed settling down was in his future. God, he’d been young. And stupid.
The sound of Remy slurping the end of his drink pulled Zach out of his musings.
“In other words,” Remy said, “She’s the opposite of anyone I’ve ever seen you with. Someone like… her.” He pointed towards the bar’s entrance before turning back to Zach – who spun to face the door.
He took one look at the woman standing with her hand on a teenager’s shoulder and felt the blood drain from his face. He blinked, certain he was mistaken. He must be imagining her because Remy had been spot-on in his description and Zach had been trying not to remember too much about her.
Remy stood up beside him. “What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
He slammed a hand down and curled a spare napkin into a wrinkled ball. “That’s because I fucking have.”