Authors: Karen Rose Smith
"Good morning to you," he said as casually as he could manage. She looked fabulous in drawstring pink patterned pants and a pink tank. He figured they were a sleeping set. Was her favorite color pink? She looked more tempting in that outfit than any woman would look in lingerie.
Had he just seen too many women in lingerie?
She pointed to the blobs of pancake batter on his shirt. "I can see Becky was helping?"
He chuckled. "How do you know I didn't do this myself?"
"Well, if you did, then I'd say the next time you should borrow my apron."
"The next time?" He picked up on that right away.
"Just a turn of phrase," she responded lightly with a slight blush, moving toward the refrigerator.
Becky had wandered with her blanket back into the living room to watch TV. So he said, "That came out a little too easily. Maybe you don't mind having a man sleeping on your couch."
"Maybe I didn't mind having you sleep on my couch. Thank you, Linc. That was the best night's sleep I've had in months."
He couldn't say he wished he'd been beside her in bed to watch her sleep, could he?
Her thoughts seemed to follow his because her cheeks seemed to pinken even more and she looked away.
"How do you feel?" he asked.
"Not dizzy. But I know I have to have that blood work done this morning. So I guess I can't eat any of this breakfast. Zack said I had to fast for ten hours."
Linc swore. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking."
She shook her head. "It's okay. Becky will love the pancakes. And I love leftover pancakes. When I get back, I'll warm them in the microwave." She came toward him and then laid her hand on his arm. "I'm grateful, Linc. For everything you've done. Don't ever think I'm not."
Unable to keep from putting thought into action, he wrapped an arm around her, pulled her toward the cover of the pantry closet and brought her close. Before he even considered what he was about to do, he kissed her.
When Emma's hands slid across his nape, he almost closed the pantry door. But he knew he couldn't. He also knew the kiss couldn't last too long or he'd have her clothes off as well as his. He let his tongue sweep her mouth. He let his hands roam down her back. He tortured himself with the idea of burying himself in her. Then he ended the kiss, and he merely held her.
Resting his forehead against hers, he said, "I don't want gratitude."
After a moment in which she obviously composed herself, she asked, "What
you want, Linc?"
On the spot, he asked himself the same question. An affair? A one-night stand? A family of his own?
thought come from? He willed himself to slow everything down. He tried to erect again the walls that Emma and her story had torn down. He attempted to distance himself at least for now.
"I want to find your sister for you. Or at the least, help Gillian and Jake do it. So I decided to charter a jet to fly to San Diego. There's a company I use that will accommodate us."
Emma looked as if she'd just been plunged from one world into another, and he knew the feeling. The haze of their desire could block out everything else...could let them escape...could possibly create something new. But now wasn't the time. She knew it, too.
"After breakfast, I'll make some calls," he assured her. "If we have our own plane, we won't have to waste hours in the airport, and I can get you home to Becky as soon as possible. Is that all right with you?"
He knew he couldn't just make unilateral decisions, although that was what he was used to doing most. Emma wasn't the type of woman who liked to be left out of decision-making.
"That would be the most practical thing to do," she said, and he couldn't tell if her voice trembled a bit...if the kiss had meant something to her...if she was looking for
than an escape.
Maybe if they found answers in San Diego, he'd find out.
Parked at the curb in the driver's seat in one of San Diego's residential neighborhoods the following day, Linc glanced over at Emma. Her gaze was riveted to Gillian and Jake who were walking up the path to a stone and stucco rancher. They'd checked in at their hotel, one where Linc often stayed, then driven to this neighborhood not far from the college area. The city contained more than a hundred neighborhoods and had often been called the City of Villages. Mesas and canyons, agricultural preserves and business centers defined community planning areas with distinct neighborhoods. Tim Levine's neighborhood was older, but well kept. Bougainvillea climbed the trellis beside the carport. A palm tree in the front yard partially obstructed their view of the small porch and the front door of the house the man rented.
"Do you think he'll tell them anything?" Emma asked, glancing at Linc then back at Gillian and Jake.
Emma had seemed withdrawn on the plane, definitely had been lost in her thoughts. He knew she wasn't going to be able to live her life again until she found out what had happened to her sister.
"It depends where the interview goes. If he won't even let Gillian and Jake inside, they're not going to get very far. On the other hand, Gillian might be able to pick something up even if he doesn't want to talk."
"Is Jake sure he's not married?"
"He couldn't find anything. The good thing is he didn't find anything else negative, either."
"You consider being married a negative?" Emma asked.
He gave her a wry grimace. "Not what I meant. Though it is a negative if he's involved with Paige."
"That's what Jake and Gillian are going to find out. I know this is tough for you." He reached over and took her hand. "But this is the first decent lead we've had."
"But you think the police already questioned him."
"If they went through Paige's
posts like we did, I'm sure they did. That's why Gillian picked up the San Diego connection from the detective."
"This is such a long shot," Emma said on a released breath.
"It is, but it's the only one we've got."
"He's opening the door." Emma's voice was tight with anxiety and excitement.
From their vantage point, Linc and Emma watched the interchange at the door. Linc's heart was beating fast so he could only imagine the speed of Emma's. You never knew in a situation like this what could happen.
Levine, who was tall and slim and wearing horned-rimmed glasses, shook his head and attempted to close his door. But Jake was quick...and strong. He held it open. Linc saw Gillian put her hand on Jake's elbow. Then she reached out and handed Levine something. But it fell to the ground. After Levine stooped over to pick it up, Gillian tapped it.
"She's trying to make contact," Linc murmured.
"Touch him in some way...or at least touch the same thing he's touching."
They saw how Jake backed off now...how Gillian shook the man's hand. Then the two of them turned away from the door and started back to the SUV.
Linc had made sure they'd rented a vehicle with darkly-tinted windows, just in case they needed some anonymity. Now he was glad of that. Levine hadn't seen him or Emma. And that might come in handy. He and Jake would have to come up with Plan B if this didn't work. Linc
had a Plan B.
Jake and Gillian climbed into the back of the SUV. Linc asked, "Anything?"
"Not much," Jake muttered.
"He's probably going to watch out the window until we leave," Linc concluded. "So let's get out of here."
He started up the SUV, pulled out on to the street and drove away from the house. Afterward Linc glanced in the rear view mirror at Gillian. She looked troubled.
"Let's go back to the hotel and get something to eat. We can talk there about all of this. Gillian, are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she said in a low voice.
But Linc knew something was up.
Emma must have realized it, too, because she turned around and looked at Gillian. "What did you see?"
"I'm trying to piece it together. Give me a little time to process, okay?"
Emma gave Linc a look that said—What choice did she have?
The hotel had an old-world feel with its gas light lanterns, ornate portico and tall rose bushes. "There's an outdoor cafe," Linc suggested as he handed his keys to the valet. "We can grab a table."
"Privacy is probably best," Jake decided as he glanced at Gillian. "My room or yours?" he asked Linc.
"My suite has a table large enough for a board meeting. We can spread out, talk, use the computer, do whatever we need to do."
"But my TV's bigger than yours," Jake said with an attempt at levity.
Jake and Gillian sometimes traveled on a shoestring. This time Linc was paying. They hadn't wanted a suite, so Linc had reserved the best single rooms in the hotel for each of them. "Enjoy it while you can," Linc joked back. "I don't think Sara will let you move one in that's that big." Jake's wife, Sara, was all about what was best for their son, Christopher. Like Emma, she didn't want him watching too much TV...or thinking he could have a movie theater in his house.
The women remained silent during this back and forth. But Linc knew the same thing was on all of their minds.
They rode the elevator in silence, then he used his key card to open the door. He let all three of them precede him inside. But when Emma passed him, he had to take in a big gulp of air. She was wearing sea green capri pants and a matching top. Her perfume was a scent that was ethereally light. He wanted to wipe her worry away and give her back her life. Maybe this was a start.
Ignoring the grandeur of the living room with its gas fireplace, he went to the kitchen and pulled bottles of water and soda from the stocked refrigerator. After he set them on the table, they all took seats on the padded, cushy dining chairs. But nobody seemed interested in comfort. All eyes turned to Gillian.
Emma broke the silence. "Don't be afraid to say anything in front of me, Gillian...whether it's right or wrong or somewhere in between. I just need to know something."
"I believe Paige is alive."
Linc heard Emma's small gasp, and he leaned forward slightly to watch Gillian's expression.
"I could see Paige's name all around Tim Levine."
"He had a throw-away phone," Jake said. "When he stooped over to pick up Gillian's card, it practically fell out of his pocket. Maybe they had conversations after they met, but my guess is that it won't do any good to access his phone records to figure out what's happening now."
"He's communicating with someone on that phone," Gillian said. "Either Paige or someone else who knows where Paige is." Her voice was sure and Linc didn't doubt Gillian's vibes.
"Like a kidnapper?" Emma asked.
"Possibly," Jake responded. "But as you said, you haven't received a ransom note...no call demanding money. So either someone is holding Paige against her will or she did run away, wanting to leave her life behind."
Emma studied Gillian. "Do you know?"
"I don't know anything for certain. I'm just getting some strange signals I don't understand. From Paige's jewelry you gave me as well as from Tim Levine. It feels like...a secret of some kind."
"Between them?" Linc asked.
"No. No...and that's what's confusing."
"So Levine knows where she is?" Emma asked.
Gillian shook her head. "I can't tell you that, Emma. That's what I mean about everything being confusing. Paige might be in contact with him, but he might not know where she is. Or someone who's holding her might be in contact with him. And he still might not know."
"Why hasn't he talked to the authorities?" Emma asked almost rhetorically.
Gillian shook her head.
Linc could see Emma's frustration and it compounded his own. He said, "Why don't you and Gillian order room service? It doesn't matter what you get. Jake and I are going to conference.
"About?" Emma asked. "Don't you think I should be involved?"
"I don't want to bring you personally into this unless I have to," Linc said. "Just in case there's some kind of criminal element involved. You have to think of Becky, too."
"Of course, I'm thinking of Becky," Emma said hotly. "I can't just sit by."
"Order room service," Linc repeated. "You have to trust me."
She crossed her arms over her chest and stared him down. She was good with that because she'd had lots of practice with a four-year-old. But he was better. He
He wasn't sure what he saw in her eyes eventually—it might have been resignation more than trust—but she gave in. "All right." She was saying the words but she didn't mean them because nothing was all right. "Conference with Jake," she told him curtly. "But then tell me what we're going to do next."
He didn't reply. He didn't know if he was going to tell her what they were going to do next. That all depended on what Jake thought of his idea.