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Excerpt - Missing by Lynette Eason

Missing
by
Lynette Eason


Her daughter is the most important person in Lacey Gibson's world. So when the girl disappears, Lacey will do anything to find her. Even track down a man she hasn't seen in sixteen years—U.S. Marshall Mason Stone, the father of her child.

Mason was perfectly content with his life until Lacey arrived. Her confession that their daughter—the daughter he didn't know they had—is missing shakes his carefully controlled world. But there's no time to adjust as they race to find their child, catch the kidnappers…and learn whether they can have a second chance at happily-ever-after.

Excerpt of chapter one:

"My daughter's missing and I need your help."

Mason stared down at the distraught redheaded woman standing on his front porch, tears swimming in her eyes, fists clenched at her side.

Shock immobilized him for a brief moment, then with an effort, he found his voice.

"Lacey Gibson." Just saying her name transported him to the past. His first love. His first romantic heartbreak. She hadn't changed a bit.

At least on the outside.

If her heart was as traitorous as he remembered, he was in deep trouble.

The fact that his own heart did its best to leap from his chest in joyous welcome surprised him so much he almost swallowed his tongue.

What was she doing here? And what had she said? His brain had ceased to function the minute he realized who'd knocked on his door.

Stepping toward him, she placed her hands on his chest, tears threatening to spill from those green eyes that had captivated him at first glance. She pleaded, "I need your help. Bethany's missing and no one seems to know why, or who she may have disappeared with—and no one seems to even care or want to listen to what I have to say or—"

A finger over her lips effectively cut off her monologue—and sent fire shooting along his nerve endings. He remembered covering those sweet lips with his, kissing her until they were both breathless and…

First things first. "What are you doing here and who is Bethany?"

She seemed oblivious to the fact that she still had her hands on his chest. He wasn't in any hurry for her to remove them.

Much to his disgust.

Was he still so besotted with her that he'd forgotten what she'd done to him sixteen years ago?

No way. He'd gotten over her a long time ago.

Or so he tried to convince himself.

And yet somehow he found himself standing in his foyer with Lacey Gibson practically wrapped in his arms—and liking it.

Clearing his throat, he stepped back, took her hand—a soft hand, he noted—and pulled her into the den. There, he deposited her on the couch and asked, "Do you need a drink of water? Some coffee?" He looked at the tears that had now spilled over to track their way down her pale cheeks. "A tissue?"

"Yes to the tissue, no to the drink."

Mason reached around her and, with only a twinge of pain in his left shoulder, snatched a tissue from the end table and handed it to her. The only reason Lacey had found him at home at ten-thirty on a Tuesday morning was because he'd been forbidden to go back to work for another two weeks.

Being shot in the line of duty had been a real pain. Both physically and mentally. As a Deputy U.S. Marshal, he was used to action and staying busy. Being out on medical leave was definitely not on his top-one-hundred-favorite-things-to-do list. But he was almost finished with that.

And he had a feeling his days of boredom had just come to an end. She had a daughter? His gut tightened. "Why do you think she's missing, and what do you think I can do to find her?" What he wanted to ask was why she'd chosen to come to him about it. Instead, he leaned back against the couch and studied the woman before him.

Her fiery red curls were pulled up into some kind of scrunchy thing women seemed to like. Her normally sparkling green eyes were set in an oval-shaped face that looked pale and drawn, stressed and tired. Light gray bags under her eyes attested to some lost sleep.

But she was still beautiful, and his heart warmed.

Which meant she could still be dangerous, his head argued.

His heart agreed, but from the way it threatened to beat out of his chest, Mason didn't think it cared.

She raised the tissue and swiped a few tears then took a deep breath. "Bethany is my fifteen-year-old daughter. She's been gone for two days now." She looked at the ceiling. "Today's Tuesday. I last saw her Sunday morning when I went to wake her up for church. She mumbled that she didn't feel good so I let her sleep. When I got home, she wasn't there. I called her cell phone and she didn't answer."

"Does she usually answer when you call?"

Lacey blinked and took another swipe at the tears. "Yes, usually. So, I waited awhile, then tried again. And kept trying. When I still didn't hear anything, I called a few of her friends. The ones that I managed to get on the line didn't know where she was. When she wasn't home and hadn't called by dark, I went looking for her. I couldn't find her, so I started calling all of her friends again. Not one of them knew…" Her breath hitched and more tears leaked. She turned wet emerald-green eyes on him, pleading. "She's not answering her cell phone and she missed school yesterday…" She lifted her hands and swallowed. "I went to the police and they're treating her as a runaway. No one else will do anything and I just don't know what else to do. Please help me, Mason."

Lacey bit her lip and stared up at the man as if he were her last hope. He still wore his reddish-blond hair in a military buzz cut. A hysterical laugh bubbled in her throat. Why had she even noticed that?

Focusing on his startling blue eyes, the same eyes she'd looked into every day for the past fifteen years, she decided that while she hated to come begging for his help, she'd do it for Bethany.

Where Bethany was concerned, the only thing that mattered was finding her. And if working with the man who'd broken her heart sixteen years ago meant she could bring her daughter home safely, she'd do it without a second thought.

What she hadn't told Mason was that it wasn't just Bethany that she needed help with. Since her daughter's disappearance, she had felt watched. Like eyes followed her wherever she went. It was creepy and unsettling.

But nothing else had happened. So she'd started to wonder if it was all her imagination.

Bethany's disappearance confirmed it wasn't.

Even as she walked up the steps to Mason's front porch, she had to resist looking back over her shoulder. She shuddered.

And just last night, she'd paced the house, praying, calling out to God and thought she heard someone at the door.

Thinking it was Bethany, she'd flung it open and found a page from her old high school yearbook tacked to her door.

Confused, she'd pulled it down and stared out into the night. The hair on the nape of her neck had prickled, and a sense of foreboding had nearly overcome her.

One thing she knew for sure: someone was watching her. But who? Bethany's possible kidnapper?

"Give me back my daughter!" she'd screamed. "Where is she?"

No one had answered.

But she'd felt the lingering eyes on her, watching from beyond, the malice, the—evil? Gulping, she'd shut the door and leaned against it, a hand to her throat. What was she going to do?

The answer had come to her—and not one she'd liked. She knew without a doubt that she had to go to Mason Stone. A man she'd vowed never to see again.

The man who'd broken her heart sixteen years ago.

Now looking into Mason's expressionless face, she realized she might have made a mistake. She was surprised he'd let her in the door. How she found herself on his couch was anyone's guess. But that didn't matter. Her main focus was Bethany. She had to save her child.

No matter what their past contained. They'd simply have to deal with that later.

Mason stood, shoved his hands into the back pockets of his jeans and paced to the other end of the room, then back. "Why should I help you, Lacey?"

The question, while asked in a voice so low she had to strain to hear it, seemed to echo off the walls of the house and ricochet inside her brain.

"Because…because."

"Because of our past? Just because we once meant something to each other doesn't mean anything. When you decided to cheat on me with my best friend, you made it clear what you thought of our relationship."

Shock bolted Lacey to her feet. "How dare you? How dare you? I never cheated on you! But just like now, you wouldn't stop throwing around accusations long enough to listen!" She snatched another tissue from the box and headed for the door. "Well, I'm not the scared, intimidated little girl I was at eighteen years old. So, never mind. I was wrong. I can't believe how wrong I was."

"I saw you—Daniel said…" Mason sucked in a deep breath and turned away from her as she stomped for the exit. His low "Stop. Don't go yet" froze her in her tracks.

Without facing him, she asked, "Why shouldn't I?"

"Because you came to me for a reason," he said, then sighed. "It seems the past isn't as dead as I thought it was. I didn't mean to."

Keeping her voice frigid, she muttered, "Never mind. It doesn't matter. All that matters is finding Bethany. Will you help me or not? "

Fingers wrapped around her upper arm and he swung her around to face him. "I don't know yet. Sit back down. Please. Tell me about Bethany and why you think I can help you."

Clamping down on the desire to hurtle her own accusations, she seated herself on the couch once more and took a deep breath. For Bethany, remember? You can do this for Bethany.

So, how much should she tell him?

All of it.

"I thought you could help me because being a marshal…isn't that what you do for a living? Find people?"

He nodded. "Fugitives mostly."

"But you have connections, you can—" She stopped, closed her eyes and sucked in a calming breath. She needed to keep her cool. "Bethany is a good kid." Should she show him the picture? No, as soon as she did, he would know…. "She's had an emotional and rocky couple of years as all teens do, but things had been getting better since we moved back here."

He nodded, listening.

"Bethany wouldn't just disappear like this. Not at this point in our lives. Not at all." Her daughter might do a lot of things, but running away from home was definitely not one of them. "And not when I've just promised…" She bit her lip and looked away.

"Promised what?"

She straightened her shoulders. "Since I've promised to let her meet her father."

His lips tightened and suspicion narrowed his eyes. "And who is her father?"

"He's…" She sucked in a deep breath. She couldn't just blurt it out. "I'll get to that in a minute." Oh Lord, I need your help and guidance on this. Right now, please.

Twisting the tissue between her fingers, she drew in another breath and looked him in the eye. "Some strange things have been happening lately. To Bethany. And I think they're related to the car wreck that happened a couple of months ago."

"What wreck?"

"It was during spring break back in April. Bethany's best friend, Kayla Mahoney, was driving and she ran off the road, hit a tree and—" she pressed shaking fingers to her lips "—died."

Mason's sharply indrawn breath stabilized her. "Wait a minute, I think I heard about that."

Lacey swiped a tear away. "Anyway, after the accident, Bethany was having trouble dealing with it. So, I looked into getting her some help. She started counseling with our pastor and seemed to be improving. And now this." Through clenched teeth she gritted, "But no one seems to be interested in helping me!"

She fought the wave of tears as she looked at Mason.

He rubbed a hand over his face then caught her eye. "And you said weird things started happening after the wreck?"

"Yes."

"Like what?"

"Bethany started acting very strange. She jumped at the slightest noise, refused to go out by herself, became my shadow if we went out together. It seemed she was constantly watching her back, but she adamantly refused to talk about it. She started losing weight, having nightmares. I thought she might be suffering from depression after everything that happened."

"It would certainly be understandable."

Lacey nodded. "Then someone tried to break into our house one night. Bethany came screaming into my room in the middle of the night that someone was climbing in her window. I called the police and they came out, but found nothing that indicated someone tried to get in. But there are bushes and mulch and—" She waved a hand. "It would be impossible to say if there was or wasn't someone out there. The police blamed it on youthful pranks." She rolled her eyes and shook her head.

"What else?" he probed.

"About a week later, she said she thought someone had followed her home from school. We live near the high school, so she walks to and from school. Only in the last few weeks I've had to start taking her and picking her up. She's gotten so frightened that she's refused to go to school unless I drive her."

Mason started pacing again. "Did you report it?"

"Yes."

He frowned. "And that's it?"

Exasperated, Lacey stood and paced to the fireplace then back to her seat. "Yes—and no."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning I think there's more to it."

"Such as?"

"I don't know!" Lacey threw her hands up in frustration. "But I think there was someone else with Kayla that night. I think her friend Georgia Boyles and—" she swallowed hard "—Bethany were in that car that night."

Mason's brows shot up. "Why do you say that?"

"Because Georgia's mother came to my house to ask Bethany if Georgia had been with Kayla that night."

"Why did she suspect that?"

"Because Georgia came home around three in morning, scratched up and with bruises she couldn't explain. The police also found her cell phone in the car. When they returned it to her she said she'd left it in there earlier that day."

"Could be." Mason shrugged with his good shoulder.

"Is that it?"

Frustrated at his apparent lack of concern, she clenched her fists. "Yes! That's basically it! But come on, Mason, there's got to be more. Bethany wouldn't just disappear like this. I'm really afraid she's in trouble, hurt…or worse." Just saying the words nearly brought her to her knees. "And then, there was the thing taped to my door last night," she whispered.

His eyes sharpened. "What thing?"

Rummaging in her purse, she pulled out the yearbook page. "This."

He took it from her and his brows shot up as he studied it. "And it was taped to your door?"

She nodded. "I was up pacing and praying and just…I couldn't sleep. Mom and Dad were upstairs sleeping and I didn't want to disturb them so I went downstairs. I heard something at the door and thought it was Bethany. When I opened it, that was there."

"This is a picture of us."

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