Authors: Rachel Trautmiller
Amanda blinked back the image. Apparently, she was into torture, because none of it could happen. Wouldn’t matter if the conversation was easy, the smiles genuine and physical contact throwing sparks. At the end of the day, the problem wasn’t something
McKenna hauled her bags to the recessed counter in front of them. “Which is it?”
Amanda freed herself from Robinson’s grasp. “See,” she said slowly. “Ideas.”
“I’m more interested in yours.” He turned to McKenna, now unloading a box of crackers and a twenty ounce bottle of Sprite from her bags. A package of diapers and wipes already sat next to the coffee maker.
“McKenna, did you notice the ring on Amanda’s finger?”
Amanda sucked a breath inward. Sent a glare his way. What didn’t he understand about giving McKenna ammunition? She’d run straight to Jordan and they’d have double the handful.
Robinson braced both elbows on the counter and clasped his hands in front of his face. At ease, as if he’d asked what his agent’s plans for the weekend were.
Fine. She could follow his lead. Tucked both hands in her pockets. And barely resisted smacking him upside the head.
The other woman had paused, a box of Cheerios mid-air. “What?” Her all-knowing gaze bounced between them as if they were teenagers she was trying to understand how best to punish.
Amanda resisted the urge to squirm. Eyed the door while calculating the best escape route. Too bad she was the worst kind of moron. Always running
a problem, instead of away.
For the most part.
“Are you...?” Her best friend’s gaze flicked to her, bounced to Robinson and then came back. “Is it...? Let me see it.” She held her hand out as if Amanda would show the evidence upon request.
The man beside her had seriousness blanketed across his features, one fisted palm cupped over his unsmiling mouth, as if he really had no idea. As if he actually thought she might find another guy and agree to marry him less than six months after their disastrous non-wedding.
She should kick him. Or...kiss that stupid expression growing on his face. The one that said, check-mate.
Infuriating G-man always had her scrambled. Always backing her into a corner. Anticipating a little battle of wills, where no one ever got hurt. Usually.
The prospect sent excitement through her veins.
She needed therapy. And maybe heavy anti-Robinson medication.
“So?” McKenna put the Cheerios aside and wadded up a shopping bag. “Let’s see it.”
“There’s nothing to see. No boyfriend. No ring. Pretty simple.”
Her best friend watched with slanted head and squinted eyes, her arms folded across her chest.
“Not really.” Robinson straightened. “How do we know you don’t have one? Neither of us have actually
you in a few months. Not for longer than a couple of minutes.”
McKenna nodded as if his statement made absolute sense.
What was this? Amanda sent a glare toward her friend. “Is your house really being fumigated? Or was that a smoke screen for this?” She pointed toward Robinson.
“Hey.” He tugged her toward him. Started working on removing her left hand from her pocket.
Amanda put up a feeble attempt at resisting the half-hearted struggle drawing her right into his arms. Wrestled a smile from showing up all over her face, like a schoolgirl coming into contact with her first crush.
“There’s no set up here, A.J.” Another tug on her hand did little to dislodge it. “Some luck? Yes. Now, I won’t have to suffer alone when I see some other guy’s ring on your finger.”
“You’re walking thin ice, buddy.”
His eyes met hers and held, his face centimeters from hers. A breath caught in her throat. A bolt of electricity surged toward her heart. Time suspended around them.
“Turns out I like a little risk.” His voice was more caress than whisper. The Robinson magnet pulling hard.
It would be so easy to—
The shrill peel of a phone filled the room. A bleat of panic rushed through her system, eighteen months falling away in seconds. A serial bomber still dogging her heels.
That wasn’t the case, anymore. She’d moved on. Didn’t have to jump every time a call came through.
As if he knew her thoughts, Robinson’s gaze flicked to the phone. He released her. Nodded toward the toddler still wielding the cordless device.
Shaky legs carried Amanda to her niece. She squatted next to her and tried to take it from her chubby hands.
“No.” A blonde head shook in fierce determination. As if Amanda were taking away her only sippy cup. The phone ducked out of sight, behind her back.
Amanda made a grab for it. Missed as the child backed away. “Can I have that for just a minute? I’ll give it back as soon as I’m done.”
The toddler shook her head some more, a cute smile filling her face. “No, peas.” The words came out in a near sing-song voice.
“Riley Lynn Bening.” McKenna rounded the counter and headed in their direction.
It continued ringing as the child slowly backed away from both adults. A twinkle lit her eyes. She bypassed the coffee table and headed for the single bedroom in the apartment. Little bursts of giggles trailed behind. And then she slammed the door in their faces.
The phone stopped ringing.
A bark of laughter filled the room and met her ears in the soft, warm potency that always encompassed Robinson. “Super Spy would’ve been able to handle a one-year-old.”
Amanda shot him a glare that did little to dim the amusement dancing across his face. McKenna opened the door, revealing the dress still hanging near the closet. The open ring box on the bed. A photo of Amanda and Robinson propped against her pillow.
A worried expression covered the other woman’s face as she picked up her child.
And Robinson was witnessing it all.
The day couldn’t get worse, right?
Amanda whirled toward the man in the room. Found his gaze scanning those items from his perch. His smile had faded.
The ring was one thing. An event he could shrug off. This display made her looked like a lovesick idiot, when she was really just sick. Of the torture. The loss. The regret. Love couldn’t come into play. Not without massive hemorrhaging.
“A.J.” His voice was velvety soft, turning those initials into the word
A whisper that said so much and not enough, all at once. It was full of all the things she wanted in life. Promises neither of them should be making.
And she should know better than to entertain ideas of anything different.
Another sound lit the apartment. The peel came from her cell phone lying on the counter near Robinson. He scooped it up and held it for a second, his eyes locked on hers. As if he knew the direction her thoughts were running.
He tossed it to her. She caught it. Noted Jonas’ number.
They must be tag-teaming her, because Robinson had to know she might say no to his quest for justice. She pressed it to her ear and waited for the harassing tone lodged in every syllable the SBI agent uttered. “Nettles.”
“Amanda.” A loud sob came with the word, on a voice she’d know any day of the week. It sent her heart soaring out of her body.
“Ariana? What’s wrong?” Why wasn’t she in school? And why did she have Jonas’ phone?
The name of his niece brought Robinson to a standing position. His brows slammed together over eyes filling with anxiety. He rounded the couch and stood at her side. “What’s going on?”
Amanda held up her hand. Automatically placed it on his chest, steadying the small earthquake raging in her limbs. The harsh pound of his heart bounced against her palm.
“I need your help. There’s a man...” A high-pitched sob drowned out the teenager’s sentence and broke it up into tiny bits that didn’t make sense. “Hurt...key...ran after...backpack.”
“Okay, honey, slow down. I need you to breathe.”
A few harsh exhales blasted through the line. And then a sniffle.
“Ariana, where are you?”
More sobbing broke through. It rivaled the pounding of Amanda’s heart. She moved around Robinson and to her laptop. Wedged the phone in between her neck and ear. Opened the computer. Flicked past the eBay screen and started up tracing software. Entered Jonas’ number.
“Honey, I can’t help if you don’t talk to me.”
Harsh breathing filled the line, the kind that held nothing but terror. Muscle seizing terror. As if somebody were nearby.
Amanda clenched her eyes shut. The thought of the missing girls Robinson had spoken of, popped into her mind.
Ariana couldn’t become one of them. She refused to let it, or anything else, happen.
“One beep for yes. Two for no. Okay?”
One long beep filled the space between her erratic heart and this beautiful child who needed her.
Robinson moved Amanda out of the way. Started typing in pertinent information on the database. McKenna came to their side, her child on her hip. Worry highlighted her features.
“Is there someone nearby?” Amanda asked.
She’d mentioned a man. “Is there more than one?”
She rubbed a shaky hand across her brow. Headed toward her bedroom. Opened the drawer that held her gun safe. Entered the code. Grabbed both her Glock .45 and badge. “Your uncle is trying to locate you, right now. We’re gonna find you and everything will be okay.”
It had to be. Any other alternative was unacceptable.
A sharp, snotty inhale met her ears. The distinct crunch of gravel beneath a shoe came next. Another few steps. A pause. Some more shuffling.
Ariana’s short, barely-there gulps let Amanda know she was still on the line. Amanda found her breaths coming just as abnormal. One shaky hand clutched her dresser. She tried to swallow the nothingness in her throat. She didn’t dare speak for fear the sound would give away Robinson’s sweet niece.
The best thirteen-year-old around.
This was Amanda’s fault. She should have found a way to stay in contact with Ariana. Never left.
A string of curses filled the line, in a man’s deep baritone. “This was supposed to be easy. Get rid of one man. The knowledge goes down with him. Instead, I’m chasing a little girl around a parking lot.”
“Let’s just get out of here.” A second man said. His voice wasn’t as deep, a slight lisp to each word. “Before someone discovers his body and calls the cops. You’re gonna need stitches.”
A snort broke through, before a heavy splat landed inside her ears. “What are you? My mom?”
A sniffle filled the line. Silence pierced it, beyond that.
Breathe, baby. Just breathe.
Robinson appeared at her side. Pried her fingers from the dresser. “Got a location.”
She held one finger to her lips. He pulled her through the house and out the door, to his SUV.
More crunching of gravel. “Little snot better keep her lips closed. You hear me?” The sound echoed. “One word and I’ll find you. Cut you into tiny little pieces and your family will never find you. Hear me, kid?”
“Wait.” Lisp-man said. “Take a look at this.”
THEY WERE GOING to kill her.
Ariana had been unable to watch—only heard the agonized screams and grunts of the man who’d tried to secure her escape. At least she thought they came from him. And with how badly he was already beaten, it made sense.
A part of a sob slipped through her lips, before she clamped them together. Sweat dotted her hairline and the back of her neck, but ice dripped through her veins.
Her grip was slipping. The rough rock bit into the flesh of Ariana’s fingers as she clung to the storm drainage ports carved into the manmade ravine. Shoe-clad feet dangled above the wet cement. At least six feet below. There was no way she could drop without being heard. Or seen.
And caught. And cut into tiny little pieces Uncle Robbie would never find. A hitch formed in her lungs. Something wet ran down her face.
“This backpack should lead us right to her.” The man’s words ran together like he had too many jagged teeth in his mouth and not enough room for his tongue.
Her backpack. She hadn’t thought about all the information inside it as she’d flung it toward the men. Had only focused on running. And blocked out the image of stain-soaked clothing and skin. Managed to slip beneath a broken portion of the chain link fence surrounding the ravine.
What had she put inside the pockets? Pencils. Homework. Gum. Notebooks filled with doodles.
Noise came from the cell phone she’d tucked in her excuse for a bra. It sounded like jackhammers in the middle of a church sermon. A fluctuant heartbeat filled her body. Could they hear it?
Her left hand started slipping, her pinky finger losing grip. The purple book jabbed into her spine from where she’d tucked it. She should have dropped the thing.
As if her muscles weren’t her own, she’d clung to it.