Authors: Debra Webb
That he didn't rebut right away worried her. What was he thinking? If she were totally honest with herself she would admit how good it felt to have him here. She'd always felt safe with Paul. She wanted to lean into those broad shoulders now. To have his strong arms around her and that deep voice of his whispering assurances.
But he wouldn't give her the assurances she wanted to hear. He had given up.
"I want to help."
Those four little words took her breath when her heart was already shuddering. Once they had worked together night and day trying to find Sophie, but that hadn't happened in a really long time.
"Why?" Her lips trembled. She bit them together.
Don't get your hopes up. This is Paul...he's too logical to really believe there's still a chance.
His eyebrows shot upward. "Seriously?"
When she made no effort to amend her demand, he made a dry, pained sound that might have been an attempt at a laugh. "Sophie's my daughter, too. If she's here, I want to find her and bring her home."
With all her heart Jen knew he loved Sophie; that he would never stop. But he was an unbeliever. He had given up and moved on. That hurt so badly.. .even as his offer drew her like nothing else could.
"How can you help me? I have the job. I'll get what I need."
"You need backup. Every good operation starts and ends with top-notch backup."
He was completely serious. "What about your fancy P.I. job in Chicago? Are they going to let you stay gone as long as you need to? Most employers want their employees on the job." Despite her best efforts, hope bloomed deep in her chest.
Please let him stay.. .please let him believe just a little bit.
"The Colby Agency is different." A smile lifted the corners of his mouth and her heart stumbled. No one smiled the way Paul Thompson did. "My boss, Jim Colby, is all about family first. I have as much time as I need."
He was serious. He wanted to stay and help her. Maybe he'd had time to think these past few months.. .maybe the photo of the little girl from the Wallace Institute had changed his mind. Whatever the reason, she was glad he was here. Maybe this time they would bring their little girl home. Jenna would never fail her daughter again.
Seven years ago if Jenna had been home, like a good mother should have been, none of this would have happened.
It had been a perfectly normal evening. Jenna on her first girls' night out in three years, Paul getting an urgent call from his superior to work a possible security threat in downtown L.A., and Grandma all too pleased to look after Sophie for a few hours.
Only it hadn't been a normal evening. Someone had taken their girl and no one knew how or why.
Sophie was simply gone. Lost.
And look at their once happy family now. Her mother had turned into a total alcoholic who never left the house. Once, in a drunken stupor, she had told Jenna she didn't dare leave in case Sophie came back. Jenna had lingered on the edge of alcoholism herself until recently. She'd had five different jobs in the past two years, but she couldn't seem to stick with any of them. None of her clothes fit anymore because she hated to eat. How could she eat when her heart had been torn from her chest?
Then there was Paul. Good, steadfast, unbreakable Paul.
Except that he'd given up on Sophie.. .and Jenna.
If he admitted what she absolutely knew was in his heart, he would have to say that Sophie wasn't the only one gone.. .they were all lost.
Jenna reached out and took his hand. "I'd like you to stay."
He pulled her into those big strong arms and held her close. Jenna closed her eyes. And even though she was a long way from L.A., for the first time in ages she felt as if she were home.
May 4, 8:40 a.m.
"Be careful." Paul didn't want to let her go.
Jenna hesitated at the door. "I will." She adjusted the strap of her bag on her shoulder. "If I have the opportunity to confirm she has the scar, I will. If not, maybe I can at least get something usable for a DNA test."
He nodded, though reluctant to agree. If this was what it took to make her see the truth, so be it. He just wanted her safe.
With considerable effort, he gave her a smile. "I'll be doing what I can from here. I should be hearing back from the agency this morning."
She smiled. "Thank you."
He might be a fool, but he couldn't help himself. He leaned down and left a chaste kiss on her cheek. "No unnecessary risks," he reminded her.
She stared up into his eyes. "Just one."
Before he could question what she meant, she raised herself on tiptoes and kissed him on the lips. He reached for her but she rushed away. She climbed into her old SUV and started the engine. His fists clenched as he watched her drive away. He didn't like this at all.
He needed more information before she put herself in the middle of the unknown, but there had been no changing her mind. When she was out of sight, he turned back to the shabby room she called home for now. He walked straight to the kitchen cupboard and removed the coffee container. The notes she had made on the printed images of the family would help.
After spreading her notes and the photos on the table, he took a seat and called Jim Colby. It took only a few minutes to pass along the names of the other families Waters claimed were involved. So far, nothing on a Reginald Waters had been uncovered by Paul's colleagues in Chicago. The alias he suspected Waters used could be camouflaged by dozens of layers, which would require time and deeper research. They had no prints and no photos of the man, only Jenna's description. Those details may have changed dramatically since their meeting.
With the Colby Agency on the case, Paul decided to see what he could learn locally about the institute. He still had a friend or two in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. An intro to someone in the local office here in Huntsville might prove useful.
Meanwhile, a drive-by of Dr. Hancock's residence couldn't hurt. Waters had given Jenna the lowdown on the administrator. The question was, could anything Waters told her be trusted?
The call to his Bureau contact yielded nothing for the time being. The special agent assigned to the Huntsville office was out for the day. The Hancock residence, on the other hand, had been easy to locate. An elegant community, but not gated, which made access simple. The Springhouse Road address was a cul-de-sac with three towering mansions rounding out the quiet street. Seemed Dr. Hancock was well paid for running such a small facility. The only sign of anyone being home was the woman working vigorously on a large flower bed. She didn't glance up as Paul rolled slowly past.
Since one of the houses on the cul-de-sac was for sale, Paul parked in front of it. He pulled the listing up on his phone and looked at the photos. The rooms were unfurnished, which meant the house was empty. He climbed out of his SUV and strolled up to the house. Posing as an interested buyer, he walked around the property, peered in the windows and waited to see if the woman now watching his movements would grow curious enough to question him.
As he walked leisurely back to his SUV, she turned her attention back to the weeding. Well, if the lady wasn't going to make the first move, he would have to.
"Hello," he called as he walked slowly toward her.
She looked up from beneath the brim of her gardening hat. "Good morning."
She looked well beyond retirement age, most likely too old to be Hancock's wife, based on Jen's description of him. "Can you tell me anything about this house?" He cocked a thumb toward the one for sale.
"I can tell you it's overpriced, just like the rest of 'em in this neighborhood." She hitched her head toward the Hancock home. "They're not going to get what they want for this place any more than they will." She nodded toward the house that was listed for sale. "I guess some people got so much money they forget there's a recession."
Paul nodded. "I suppose they're both too rich for my blood." He eyed the Hancock home. "I didn't realize this one was for sale."
The woman shrugged. "Heard 'em talking this morning. They're leaving soon." She yanked at an errant weed amid the begonias. "You'd think they could at least give their employees a little advance notice."
"Yeah, that's too bad."
She scoffed. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised. They let the cleaning ladies and the cook go two weeks ago. Fired all three of 'em. There's no one left but me and the guy who cuts the lawn. Gotta keep the lawn looking good if it's going on the market." She made a harrumphing sound. "I'd like to see his highfalutin wife clean this place by herself."
The Hancocks were leaving. Funny, the administrator hadn't mentioned that to Jen. Seemed a bit of a coincidence that a sudden change would be happening just now.
Paul pretended to admire the Hancock home. "I'll have to tell my real-estate agent to keep me posted about when this one goes on the market."
The lady with the miniature shovel and dusty gloves eyed him for a moment then surveyed the street. "No one's home. I could show you around. Give you a sneak peek."
Paul held up his hands. "I couldn't let you jeopardize your job like that."
She made another of those frustrated sounds. "I'm pretty sure my job is gone anyway." She rose and dusted off her knees. "Where you from? I can tell you're not from around here."
"California," he told her, which launched a whole tirade about west coasters.
Paul let the lady lead the way, answered her barrage of questions and walked right into the Hancock mansion. The interior was as glamorous and sophisticated as the outside.
The gardener paused in the entryway. "See, I told you they were leaving soon. Look at that."
She pointed to what appeared to be a study or home office. A number of boxes were stacked around the room. One sat on the desk. Oh, yeah, these folks were out of here. From what he could see of the open boxes on the floor, papers, files and books had been tossed in with little care.
Why the hasty departure?
Paul's cell vibrated. "Excuse me just one moment."
He stepped away and took the call. The gardener wandered around peering into rooms. He wondered how many times she'd done that today.
"Paul, this is Jim."
His boss. "You found something?" Another blast of anticipation tightened his gut.
"According to my contact, who shall remain anonymous since he is employed by the feds, this Wallace Institute is under investigation. My contact couldn't divulge the reasons for the investigation but he indicated it had something to do with the testing being conducted there."
Testing on the children? What else could it be? "Anything on Hancock?"
"Nothing on him, but his wife has quite a colorful background—the possibility of fraud, tax evasion, unregulated experiments. She's the one the feds appear to be most concerned about."
Strange. Jen hadn't mentioned a Mrs. Hancock. "Thanks, Jim. Let me know if you learn anything else."
"I'm on it." He hesitated. "With your years in Homeland Security I'm certain I don't have to tell you that those guys who wear the white lab coats can sometimes be the most dangerous. Be careful, Paul. We don't know what's going down here, but you can always count on one thing. You corner a rat and it's going to make a move."
Paul thanked him and ended the call. How the hell could he get this news to Jen? She was at the institute and, from the sound of things, the place was about to implode.
What if he was too late already?
Paul had stood in the doorway watching her go that morning and now, well after lunch, no matter how hard she tried she could not evict the image from her head.
How many times had she watched him leave for work in the morning? Thousands.
With the taste of his kiss lingering on her lips and Sophie in her arms, she had waved to him, then watched until he was completely out of sight.
But that was a long time ago. When they'd been a family.
She licked her lips. Whatever crazy urge had driven her to kiss him, she was glad she had.
Since arriving at the institute, Jenna had filled out all the required forms, using her fake identity of course. Staying focused on such mundane matters proved challenging. Paul had assured her that the Colby Agency would attempt to glean any available information on Reginald Waters and the Wallace Institute. He had also promised that if she were able to get a DNA sample from the little girl, the agency's contacts would ensure speedy analysis.
She couldn't deny being immensely thankful for the assistance. She'd asked him to stay and he had. Still, sharing the same space with him last night had been completely nerve-racking. By the time she'd fallen asleep the entire room had been filled with his scent.. .with him. And, if she were completely honest with herself, she had missed him so, so much.
As true as that was, they could never be together unless he came to terms with the fact that Jenna would never give up on finding their daughter.
Who was she kidding? He had signed those divorce papers. He wanted a new life. Had he found someone else? Her heart caught on a pang so fierce it took her breath. After all, she was the one who'd kissed him on the lips. His kiss had been a chaste peck on the cheek. He might not feel anything like desire for her anymore. Why wouldn't he find someone else? Paul was a handsome man in the prime of his life. He had a right to want to share his life with someone. Just as she had the right to focus all her energies on her quest.
Jenna snapped from the disturbing thoughts and forced a smile into place. "Yes."
"I'm Mrs. Hancock, the administrator's head of research." She offered her hand. "I'll be taking you on a tour of the institute before turning you loose with your class."
Jenna shook her hand. "Thank you, Mrs. Hancock." She wondered if this was the administrator's wife. Her face seemed a lot kinder than her boss's.
As they moved along the bland white corridors Jenna realized that the institute wasn't nearly so large as she had thought. There were six classrooms, a small gymnasium, a cafeteria and twelve resident rooms. Only seven of the resident rooms were labeled with a student's name.