Reading Sample — Lies They Tell Her

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Lies They Tell Her

Reading Sample


Chapter 1

Hillside Parkway, Appleman’s Gap, Tennessee

The Day After Thanksgiving



“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

Laurel Dane’s breath caught as she pressed her ear awkwardly against the mobile phone. “Oh, thank God, you answered,” she breathed. “You’re there?”

The man’s voice on the other end of the line was cool and smooth. “Yes, ma’am. Officer Cedric Martin here, Appleman’s Gap P.D. Do you have an emergency?”

Laurel wriggled, shopping bags and wrapping paper crinkling around her. She had to muffle the sound of the dispatcher’s voice. “Shh,” she pleaded. “Talk quietly. He’ll hear you.”

“Who will hear me, ma’am?” Cedric asked, as quietly as he could. “Who is he?”

Laurel’s hands were bound tightly at the wrists and her feet were tied at the ankles. There had been a gag in her mouth, too, but she’d managed to use the muscles in her jaws to slowly work it up and out. The dirty cloth still clung to one side of her lips, secured by twine that had been ripped from the Christmas tree on the roof of her car. Finally, after much effort, her mouth was free enough to speak. 

The gag smelled of an unidentifiable chemical. Like motor oil. Although, not as sweet. The odor wasn’t familiar to Laurel, but it was certainly noxious. She feared that whatever it was might cause her to lose consciousness. She did her best to breathe fresher air, from the opposite direction. There was precious little space around her. 

Some Black Friday this was turning out to be.

“Ma’am, are you still on the line?”

“I’m here,” she replied in a hushed tone. A single tear ran down her cheek, its wetness sticking in the cold. She was supposed to be catching criminals, not falling victim to them. 

It had taken what felt like forever to dig the phone out from a shopping bag, remove the packaging, power it on, and place the call. Every step in the process had felt excruciatingly difficult. Every little noise she made had been a dangerous liability. 

“Where are you?” Officer Martin asked.

“I don’t know,” Laurel replied. “I was at the holiday market, the open air space with the high ceilings and string lights.”

“In Appleman’s Gap?”

She nodded, her head bumping against something. Moving around in the cramped compartment was hard to do. “Yes. We ate lunch nearby and were doing some shopping,” she explained. She spoke softly, in fits and starts. “I was at the east side of the property when he grabbed me. There must have been something on the gag because I think I was unconscious. Chloroform, maybe.” 

“Are you still at the market now?” the officer asked. His voice became muffled as he turned away to give instructions to someone else. 

“No,” Laurel said. “Not anymore. My friend Sarah went back inside because she had forgotten her scarf. That’s when he got me.”

Officer Martin mumbled something additional in the background. Laurel wondered what he was saying, but didn’t have the mental bandwidth to try to figure it out. All of her energy was spent making sure the man who had abducted her didn’t realize she was talking on a phone. That was step one in getting away.

“Are you calling from a mobile phone?” 

“Yes, but he doesn’t know I have it,” Laurel replied. “He took my phone. Luckily, though, I had just bought a new one for my mom. It was in one of the shopping bags. I dug it out and powered it on. That’s what I’m calling from now.”

“Smart move,” Officer Martin said. “You’re doing great. I need you to stay on the line with me, okay?”

“Okay,” Laurel said, another tear making its way down her face. 

She debated whether to tell him that she was an FBI agent, in town to visit family for the Thanksgiving holiday. She should have known better than to let herself be taken.

How embarrassing.

Laurel was freezing, her breath visible in the cold November air. She hoped she could get warm soon. It had snowed earlier in the day, and a layer of crunchy ice had formed on top. Temperatures were in the thirties and forecast to drop even further overnight. 

Snow was sparse in Middle Tennessee at any time of year. The fact that it had made an appearance on this long holiday weekend was certainly special. Laurel had been delighted to see the wintry precipitation when it had arrived. The market had been alight with sights, sounds, and smells of happiness and holiday cheer. But that was before. Now, the snowscape felt foreign and cruel. 

“Can you tell me your name?” 

Laurel nodded, again bumping her head. She grimaced. “Yes. Laurel Dane.”

“Good, Laurel. I’m going to help you, okay?”

“Please do, Officer,” she replied, more tears surfacing. She bit them back, choosing instead to focus on relaying the facts. “It sounds like we’re on a highway. I can hear traffic around us. I’m in the trunk of my own car. It’s a late model Honda Accord. The Sport-L Hybrid model in red. Matte black alloy wheels. There is—or at least, there was—a Christmas tree tied to the roof.”

“Good. That’s helpful. What else?”

“The man who grabbed me was Caucasian. Just under six feet tall. He was well dressed, wearing a long overcoat and one of those English hats … Flat caps, I believe they’re called. He was clean and well groomed. Mid-thirties. Very short hair. Strong features. He blended into the crowd. Nothing about him seemed unusual until he approached me.” 

She wondered how long it would take for the dispatcher to search her name and learn her connection to the Bureau. Ol’ Jimmy Paulson, her Special Agent in Charge back in D.C., would be none too pleased to find out that one of his agents had fallen victim to some petty criminal while on leave. Laurel could already imagine the talking-to she would receive when this was all over. 

First, she had to break free. 

“I understand,” the officer said. “Can you tell me where you are now?”

Officer Martin was calm and patient. He had been trained for this, and it showed. He was handling the situation like a pro. There was a lot at stake, though. More than the officer even knew. His assistance would soon be critical to saving more than one innocent life.

“I told you, I don’t know where I am,” Laurel said. She was growing frustrated. “I was at the holiday market, but I think the guy knocked me out. I don’t remember him binding my hands and feet. I can’t be sure how long I’ve been in here.” Despite the circumstances, she was maintaining her composure. She knew how to keep a level head under pressure. “There’s a release lever in the trunk. It’s not working, though. He must have disabled it somehow.”

“It’s okay,” Cedric replied. “Let’s start at the beginning. What happened at the market?”

A booming voice sounded suddenly. “Don’t be gettin’ any ideas back there! You hear me?” a man bellowed. “If you’re awake, you better stay still and shut your whore mouth. Or else.”

Laurel’s body went stiff as a board, which was remarkable given how twisted it was in the tight space. She remained silent, knowing better than to speak. She had to play her cards carefully.

For someone who looked as polished as this man had, he sure sounded gruff now. She couldn’t understand the vitriol he had for her. What had she done to anger him? She had been minding her business, shopping like everyone else. Why her?

“What was that?” Officer Martin asked.

“Shh,” Laurel whispered through gritted teeth. “Quiet!”

“Is it him? Tell me what’s happening,” the officer pleaded. “We need to know so we can help, Laurel.”

Maybe it was because Laurel had let the strange man stand too close when he’d approached her in the market. Or maybe, it was because she’d held eye contact too long during their brief conversation, encouraging him to pursue her and the hope of something more. Just maybe, it was because she hadn’t smacked him square across the face when he’d groped at the rise of her inner thigh. In hindsight, shouting for him to stop probably hadn’t been enough of a reaction. He had grabbed her in plain sight.

“Are you tracking my location?” she asked. “Can you triangulate the signal?”

“We’re working on that,” the officer said. “Stay with me, okay?”

She nodded, having finally learned how to avoid hitting her head when doing so. “Okay. Maybe I can knock out a tail light. That could draw attention.”

“Good idea,” Cedric replied. 

Yeah, it was a good idea, but Laurel couldn’t help but feel like it wasn’t good enough. She felt like her training had failed her. Or more like she had failed the FBI. Not to mention, herself. 

All that time learning at Quantico and working in the field, only to be snatched like a clueless civilian. She told herself to remain calm. Yet it seemed impossible to push the feelings of shame away. They pressed against her, like the icy hands of a winter ghost.

Laurel sobbed now, though she held as much of the sound inside as she could. Turning her head, she pressed one arm against her mouth to squelch the noise. She cried for what felt like an eternity as the cold and the chemical smell moved deeper into her lungs. She couldn’t help herself. She had been so strong, for so long. And being back in Appleman’s Gap was bringing the painful memories to the surface. 

“Laurel?” Officer Martin asked.

“He’ll hear me if I talk,” she breathed. 

“I know, Laurel. I realize this is scary,” he replied. “But you sound like you can handle it. I need you to tell me more so that my officers can find you and make sure you’re safe. Now, whisper, but tell me. What happened at the market? Who is the man?”

For a moment, she didn’t answer. 


“I’m here,” she managed. “I don’t know who the man is, but I think he heard me and I’m afraid of what he might do.”

The words tasted bitter coming out. 

“I understand,” Officer Martin said. “I’ll stay on the line with you as long as it takes.”

Bolstered by the officer’s encouragement, Laurel took a deep breath as she felt around for a way to disable a tail light. Her hands were going numb from being bound, but she pushed through the discomfort. 

“Cornelius Dane would be having a conniption fit, if he could see me now,” she mumbled to herself.

There was a scratching sound as Officer Martin moved the phone closer to his mouth. “Did you just say … Cornelius Dane? As in the late Chief Cornelius Dane?”

Laurel hadn’t meant to say her dad’s name out loud. Too late. The cat was out of the bag. She sighed heavily. “That’s the one. He was my dad.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” the officer said. “Chief Dane was a good man. It hasn’t been the same around here since he’s been gone.”

“Thanks,” she squeaked out. She wanted to ask how well he knew her dad, but this wasn’t the time.

“Let’s get you to safety, okay? I owe it to your dad. Are you close to the holiday market now?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” Laurel replied.

“Are you still in Appleman’s Gap?”

“I honestly don’t know. He’s driving like a madman.”

Just then, the man hit the brakes, slamming Laurel against the back seat. Her muscles tensed even tighter. She waited nervously to see if he had heard her. She knew that nothing good could happen if he found out she had dialed 9-1-1. She didn’t have her service weapon on her, and she couldn’t immediately come up with a plan to overpower the man, given her bindings.

“I think he’s stopping,” she whispered into the phone. “Please, you have to help us. I’ll never forgive myself if—”

“Us? Who’s with you?”

Officer Martin spoke to someone in the background again, his voice muffled.

Laurel wanted the car to stop. Sarah’s infant son was in the backseat. The boy could make a sound and set the man off. Perhaps he wasn’t yet aware of the child’s presence. 

“My friend’s dog, Bear,” she explained reluctantly. Saying the words somehow made what was happening more real. More terrifying. “And Jasper, her infant son. He’s buckled into his car seat. I think he’s still sleeping. He’s quiet, anyway.”

“There’s a baby in the car?” Cedric asked, his voice rising. Gone was the cool, calm demeanor from earlier.

“That’s right,” Laurel replied.

“Standby,” the officer said, then covered the receiver on the phone as he shouted something in the background. 

It seemed like forever that he was gone. Each second that ticked by felt like an eternity. Laurel expected the man to fling the door to the trunk open at any moment. Or worse, to put his hands on the baby. The car was stopped, she could tell that much for sure. But she couldn’t tell if the man had exited the vehicle or if he had simply parked somewhere. Perhaps at a traffic light. Everything was disorienting from her vantage point.

Come on. Come on, she thought, hoping Officer Martin would return with some shred of good news. Maybe knowing her dad would make him work harder for her. 

A car door slammed, the sound and the impact startling the baby. Little Jasper screamed and Laurel’s blood ran cold. 

“He’s coming. He woke the baby,” Laurel breathed into the phone. 

Cedric heard her, and he removed whatever it was that had been muting the phone. “Agent Dane,” he said solemnly, “we pulled your file. We know you’re with the Bureau, which is why I’m going to tell it to you straight.”

“Okay,” she replied, hurriedly. “Do it fast. We’re running out of time.”

“There’s been a rash of kidnappings all over town. Carjackings with babies in carseats. We don’t know much yet, but they seem to be targeting busy places like gas stations, shopping centers, that sort of thing. Places where the baby is left inside a vehicle unattended for a few minutes while someone is loading, unloading, or gassing up.”

“Oh, my God,” Laurel breathed. 

“That isn’t all,” he continued. “Sometimes, they take the mothers, too, and sometimes … they dump the bodies. We have a handful of missing persons and two confirmed deaths. We’ve managed to keep it from the media so far, but it won’t be long before word gets out.”

Laurel shook her head, as if the motion could make all of this go away. “It’s like …” she began. “Like before. Like what Dad was investigating …”

Words failed. The realizations were coming too hard, too fast. Sheer terror gripped Laurel.

Officer Martin sighed as baby Jasper screamed louder. His tone was stern. “Do everything you can to get yourself and that baby out of there, Agent Dane. Your lives almost certainly depend on it.”

Before Laurel could respond, the lid to the trunk was ripped open. The silhouette of the man came closer, his quick movements too fast for her eyes that were still adjusting to the light. 

“Get out!” he shouted. “You’re done.”

The man yanked Laurel by her long brown hair, up and partially out of the small compartment. The mobile phone landed on the floor of the trunk with a soft thud. She steeled herself, determined to make the most of the moment and provide Officer Martin whatever clues she could. Straining against the man’s effort, she wedged her feet at the front of the trunk, slowing his progress.

“I can see the lights of downtown,” she said loudly and clearly as baby Jasper continued to cry from the backseat. He wailed as if his life depended on it.  “The top of the courthouse is visible in the distance. It looks like we’re northeast of there. Maybe two miles away, as the crow flies.”

“Shut it!” the man said as he continued to tug on her. Then he reared back, and smacked her hard across the face.

Pain shot through Laurel’s jaw and cheekbone, but she opened her eyes against it. She kept watching, kept searching for clues. “Oh!” she exclaimed defiantly, talking loudly in the direction of the mobile phone. “A plane just flew overhead. Blue and orange. Must be Southwest. It’s heading in for a landing, west of us. Probably to BNA, the international airport in Nashville—”

The man reached in and grabbed the phone, then threw it to the ground and stomped it to pieces. “Enough,” he growled.

Despite her attempts to brace against the man and make his job difficult, he successfully hoisted her out of the trunk. She landed on the concrete hard. Jasper wailed. 

“Leave the baby,” Laurel pleaded. “Take the car. You can have it. Just leave the baby.”

The man grunted as he walked around the side of the car and opened a door to the backseat. Laurel held her breath, hopeful that he would remove the baby’s car seat and leave the infant with her. Bear immediately jumped out and took off, clearly spooked by what was happening. 

Aww, Bear, she thought as she watched her best friend’s dog disappear behind an industrial building in the distance. He was a family pet who probably wouldn’t last long on the streets. It was a sad sight, but nothing like what she was about to witness if this man took the baby.

“It’ll be better for you if you leave the baby,” Laurel tried. “I’ll say that you didn’t know he was in the car. You’ll get off easy. Or maybe, you won’t even get caught.”

He grunted again, turning toward Laurel and narrowing his eyes. For a moment, she wondered if he had a weapon and whether he intended to use it on her. She was defenseless. She wouldn’t have been able to stop him. Her life could end, right here and now. 

Finally, he slammed the door of the car, baby Jasper still inside.

“No!” Laurel said as the man walked around to the trunk and slammed it, too. 

“Don’t do it,” she pleaded. “He’s just an innocent baby … Take me instead!”

The man scoffed, appraising her as she struggled on the ground. He kicked his head back and let out a sinister laugh. “Say nighty-night, mama. He’s my baby now.”

Then he returned to the driver’s seat and sped away, tail lights disappearing into the night.


Chapter 2

In little more than an hour, Laurel was sitting in a sparsely decorated room at the Appleman’s Gap Police Department, drinking a cup of bad coffee. She wasn’t even a coffee drinker, but she had taken it when the nice receptionist asked. It was likely going to be a long night. She figured the extra caffeine wouldn’t hurt.

Two patrol cars and an ambulance had found her in record time. She was impressed, if she did say so herself. Her dad would have been proud of his team. Not too shabby for a small Tennessee town. Her friends back in D.C. probably wouldn’t believe it, if she told them. 

Of course, the EMTs had wanted to take her to the hospital to get checked out, but she declined. She had other matters on her mind that took priority, namely finding baby Jasper. Not to mention, Laurel wanted to be the one who broke the news to Sarah. It would be one of the most gut-wrenching conversations of her life, but she knew that her friend deserved to hear it directly from her rather than some random officer who didn’t have a personal interest in what was happening.

Laurel used her fingertips to carefully dab at the bruises on her face. She’d given them a quick look in the bathroom mirror a few minutes prior, but the pain was beginning to develop an edge to it. Her back was sore too, along with an all-over ache she couldn’t even identify, let alone fully explain. Maybe it was from being thrown around and twisted up in the trunk. Or maybe it was from the emotional trauma, which had surely led to holding her body tense as she braced for the worst.

“Agent Dane, can I get you anything?” the receptionist asked, sticking his head in the door cautiously. “More coffee?” He was a clean-cut young man who looked every bit the part of a cop, but he seemed too timid to survive out on the streets. Maybe that’s why he was on desk duty.

“I’m good on coffee, thank you. Some pain killers would be great, though,” she replied. “Have any?” 

“Of course. Be right back, ma’am.”

Thanks to her dad’s reputation, everyone here was treating her like local royalty. 

Maybe she was royalty. Laurel had grown up in this town. In this station. 

If she closed her eyes, she could almost see the child version of herself sitting in her dad’s office down the hall, working studiously with crayons and a glossy coloring book while she waited on him to wrap up what he was doing and eat the sandwiches she and her mom had brought from Sammy’s Deli next door. 

How she wished she could go back to those simpler days. Life had seemed so easy then. Her dad had seemed like a bonafide superhero. To Laurel, but also to the townspeople of Appleman’s Gap. His great-grandfather had founded the town in 1876, back when America was celebrating being a country for just one century and wounds from the Civil War were all too fresh. 

As the story goes, Chester Dane had moved west from the mountains along the Tennessee-North Carolina border in pursuit of Faye, the woman who would become his wife. They’d met when he’d made a delivery to her parents on their farm in Nashville. Wishing to be with Faye but also to carry on his own family’s tradition of growing apples, Chester found a spot as close to Nashville as possible that was hilly enough and high enough elevation for the fruit to grow and mature. A tenacious man by nature, he brought seeds from home and got busy planting an orchard, his new bride looking on as her belly grew right along with the saplings. Soon, other settlers followed suit and the town was officially founded in 1883, named for the space near the Cumberland Plateau where orchards now thrive. 

Old Chester was a legend around these parts. There was still an apple festival every fall in his honor. 

The Danes that came after him enjoyed an elevated status as a result of his efforts. And no one made use of that status more than Cornelius Dane. When he’d run for town sheriff, he’d been a shoo-in, getting elected by a landslide. The entire town was still mourning his loss.

“Here you go,” the young receptionist said, scurrying into the room and dropping acetaminophen and a bottle of water on the table in front of Laurel. 

“Thank you,” she said wearily. She tried to take the items from his grip, but he fumbled them too fast. “I didn’t get your name.”

He shrank back, shoving a hand through his blonde hair and pausing just long enough to reply. “Wilson. I mean Matt. Matt Wilson.”

“Nice to meet you, Matt Wilson,” she said sincerely. “This will really hit the spot.” Laurel didn’t see many faces at the station she recognized anymore. She figured it was in her best interest to make friends.

“Good. I’m glad,” he mumbled. “Sounds like you had a tough day.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” she replied as she swallowed a couple of pills and washed them down with water. “But my day wasn’t half as bad as that poor baby’s. I’m sick about him being taken. I should have been able to keep him safe.”

Matt softened, then sat down beside Laurel and took her hand in his. “Now, don’t go beating yourself up over that,” he implored. “My momma always says that we’re only human, after all.”

“Tell that to the baby’s mother, who happens to be my closest friend,” Laurel said, tears threatening to reveal themselves. She bit them back.

“It’s true,” he continued. “Hold your head high. From what I hear, you did an exemplary job noting your surroundings, which gave our officers enough information to find you.”

Laurel smiled half heartedly. “But not enough information to find the baby.”

“Not yet,” Matt said. “The key word is yet. They’ll find him. I know they will.”

Laurel didn’t believe his assurances. What did this kid know, anyway? He was probably too wet behind the ears to actually understand the odds of finding a missing child as the hours ticked by. Sometimes, she wished she didn’t know the odds, either. This was certainly one of those times.

Just then, an imposing figure appeared at the door. 

Matt jumped, then dropped Laurel’s hand and hurried out of the room. “Have faith,” he mouthed on his way out. 

If only it were that simple, she thought.

She nodded appreciatively, then appraised the man in the doorway. He was as big as a linebacker, and muscular like one, too. His well-defined physique was visible under his tailored dress shirt, neat belt, and pants that seemed to cling in all the right places. Laurel liked to think of herself as immune to the charms of such a man. At least, she didn’t let herself succumb to any such charms when she was on duty. Especially not when there was important business at hand like informing Sarah about her son’s disappearance and finding baby Jasper. 

“Hello, Ms. Dane,” the man said as he entered the room and sat down in a chair across from Laurel. A pair of male underlings followed closely behind—one older and gray haired, the other who looked like a smaller version of the big guy. They found seats as well, then proceeded to open note pads and ready their pens.

“It’s Agent Dane, with the Bureau,” she corrected. “And what? Don’t you people have any women that work here?”

She asked to make a point, but she knew law enforcement was a male-dominated profession. She was used to being the only woman in the room. Although, if she did see another woman anytime soon, she wouldn’t hesitate to ask to borrow a hair tie. Laurel’s long, wavy hair was a pain to wrangle on a good day. Now, after being matted in the trunk, it felt like broom straw on her head.

The big man smiled politely, but didn’t address her remark about demographics of the station’s employees. “Right. Agent Dane. I have your file. I know who you are.”

“Is that why we’re here, instead of out looking for the baby? I’d like to get a move on, if it’s all right with you.”

He sighed, then leaned against the back of his chair. “More like that’s why we’re in this room instead of back in interrogation.”

Laurel stiffened. “Am I a suspect?”

“Easy girl,” he quipped. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Laurel immediately disliked his tone. She was a full grown woman in her early thirties. Not to mention, she had most likely achieved more in her career with the Bureau than this clown had in small-town Tennessee. He was the epitome of a big fish in a little pond. She hated pompous men like that. 

She held her tongue, though, realizing that sparring with this guy would only hamper her efforts to get things done.

“How would you like to proceed?” she asked calmly, measuring her words.

“Let’s begin again. Seems we got off on the wrong foot. I’m Detective Josh Nolan. Appleman’s Gap P.D. How are you feeling?”

At that, Laurel scoffed. His concern was fake. That much was obvious. He looked away briefly as he asked the question, a classic sign of insincerity.  

“What?” Detective Nolan asked.

She collected herself, forcing the best acting job she could muster. “I’m sore, but okay. Thank you for asking. Officer Wilson was kind enough to bring me some painkillers. They should be kicking in soon.”

“Good man,” Nolan said approvingly. One of his minions—the young one—nodded his agreement.

“Is Sarah on her way here? Or should we go to her home?” Laurel asked, cutting to the chase. “I’ll just need a ride with one of your officers because my car is … well, you know.”

Detective Nolan pursed his lips. “Sarah is your friend?”


“The mother of the baby who was in the car with you?”

“Yes,” Laurel replied, “But you already know that. I explained it all on the phone to Officer Martin. I assume you’ve read that transcript. Why ask again?”

“How about you let me do my job?” he asked.

She raised her brows, tempted to make an “easy girl” remark. Instead, she exercised restraint. “My apologies. Yes, Sarah is the mother of baby Jasper, who was kidnapped. We’d been at the holiday market when a man grabbed me and threw me into the trunk of my car. Baby Jasper was already buckled into his car seat in the back. Sarah had returned to the store to retrieve a forgotten scarf. Thankfully or not, depending on how you look at it, she was left there unharmed.”

“And you’re expecting to see her … here?”

The minions scribbled furiously on their notepads as if Detective Nolan had said something profound. 

“Well, yes,” Laurel said. “I want to be the one to tell her what happened. It’s the right thing to do. She’ll take it better coming from me.”

Detective Nolan scratched his chiseled jawline and narrowed his eyes. “The thing is … We don’t know what your involvement is with the kidnapper. You’re not even a local. We have to conduct a thorough investigation, and that means considering the possibility that you were working with this man.”

So much for the royal treatment. 

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Laurel said. “I’m beaten up. You think I’d fake my injuries? Or worse … that I’d allow myself to be harmed to make it look convincing? That’s ridiculous. I’m an agent with the federal government, for God’s sake. They don’t let just anyone wear that badge. Do you have any idea what kind of vetting I’ve been through? What kind of training?”

She could hardly believe this. It made zero sense. Never in a million years would Laurel have expected to be questioned as a suspect at any police department, let alone her dad’s. And now she was, apparently, going to be kept away from Sarah. Some idiot would probably break the news to her instead. Laurel was devastated.

“Am I under arrest?” she asked, beads of sweat beginning to form on her brow.


Chapter 3

Before Detective Nolan could answer, another man burst through the door, making it bang against the wall behind him. This man was big and muscular, too, and the detective instantly recognized the newcomer as his superior. He stood quickly.

“Chief Tate, I wasn’t expecting you.” Detective Nolan said. He tried unsuccessfully to hide the nervousness in his voice, but mostly, he seemed surprised.

“Tate?” Laurel mumbled. Her eyes grew as wide as saucers when she realized that she knew the … chief. She could hardly believe it.

“I’ll take over here,” Chief Brad Tate said. He had nothing but a smartphone in his hands, his short, black hair damp like he’d just stepped out of the shower. “That’ll be all, Detective.”

Laurel remained silent, working to process what was happening and wondering how any of this made sense. Brad Tate should be in D.C. where she left him, not Appleman’s Gap.

Detective Nolan opened his mouth to protest, but thought better of it. With a dutiful nod, he tightened his jaw and motioned for his underlings to follow. “Looks like we're done, boys,” he said. It was obvious that he was miffed, but no one cared. 

Posturing and perceived slights were par for the course in a small-town police department. They were just as much a part of the culture as talking down to women and overblown male egos. Except that Brad Tate wasn’t anything like that. At least, he wasn’t before. Had he changed?

No, surely not.

When the door was closed again and Laurel and Brad were alone, she used every ounce of her willpower to keep herself from rushing into his arms. She loved this man, like no other. They’d been together for nearly six years. They’d only recently broken up after the death of Laurel’s father because she’d wanted time to focus on herself. She hadn’t shared her doubts with anyone besides Brad, but she’d been considering a career adjustment. That’s why she’d taken an extended leave over the holidays. To think things through.

Brad pulled a chair around the table and sat next to Laurel. “I came as soon as I heard,” he said. “I’m sorry it took me so long.”

She was still shocked. It was hard to find words. 

Suddenly self conscious about her bruises, Laurel tilted her head so that her hair covered one bloody cheek. She didn’t want Brad to see her weak like this. At the same time, though, he was the one person—other than her late father—whom she felt safe enough with to actually lean on.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I heard your name come across the radio and got here right away.”

“I mean, what are you doing here … in Appleman’s Gap? You’re the new chief?” she asked.

Brad had been to Tennessee with Laurel many times over the years to visit, and he’d been by her side at her dad’s funeral just months ago. Sure, he’d often talked about how he’d love to leave the rat race that was Washington D.C. and move somewhere with a slower pace. She never thought he’d actually do it. Especially not in her hometown of Appleman’s Gap. 

He smiled broadly. “That I am. You think your dad would approve? I hope so. I work every day to make him proud and honor his memory. He was one of the best men I’ve ever known.”

“He’d like to hear you say that,” she replied.

Brad smiled again in that easy way of his. “I dig it here. I’m making friends. Even got a dog.”

“You did?” Laurel asked, her eyes lighting up. 

They’d discussed adopting a dog, but their crazy work schedules in D.C. barely allowed time for them to see each other, let alone take proper care of a pet.

“I did,” he beamed. “A spotted girl with ruffly fur and big eyes who is black, white, and brown. She’s a beauty. She’s only two years-old. She belonged to an old woman who passed away last summer. Relatives couldn’t keep her for long, so I stepped in. I think she misses a female presence though. The poor pup seems to be grieving.”

“Aww, sweet girl,” Laurel said, aware that she had completely dropped the Agent Dane persona and was being her personal, genuine self with the man she loved. “What’s her name?”


Brad searched for a picture of the pooch on his phone. When he found one, he showed Laurel proudly. 

“I’m so happy for you,” she said softly. “You’re living your dream, I suppose. Good for you for making it happen. You’d better believe I want to hear all of the details, just as soon as I get myself out of this current predicament.”

His expression became more serious, and he took off his leather bomber jacket and slung it over the back of his chair. He was dressed in civilian clothes. He must not have had time to put on his uniform. “About that, don’t worry. I’m going to take your statement, then I’m taking you home to Maureen’s house. I already called her and let her know that we’d be along soon.”

“You called my mom?” Laurel was surprised, but not unhappy. “Wait, did she know you’re the new chief? She must have. That stinker. She didn’t breathe a word to me.”

“She promised not to tell.”

Laurel smiled, making a mental note to find out more about this chain of events later, too. She had so many questions.

“You might want to check with your detective before you go any further. He made it sound like I’m a suspect,” she explained. 

“Oh, yeah?”

“It was a short conversation, but yeah,” she replied. “He said they can’t be sure that I wasn’t connected to the kidnapper. I wanted to break the news to Sarah and to help with the investigation. He made it sound like I wouldn’t be able to do either. Can you get me access?”

Brad hesitated. “I don’t know. I can get you home tonight, but I’m not certain what tomorrow will bring.”

“That sounds vague and well, disturbing, if I’m being honest,” she replied. “Doesn’t my background speak for itself? I’m not a criminal.”

“I know that. You know that. But it’s complicated.”

Laurel shook her head. “It’s actually not complicated at all, Brad. What aren’t you telling me?”

The room suddenly felt too small. Too quiet. Brad wasn’t jumping in to reassure Laurel, and she didn’t like it. “Look” he said, “I’ll take you home to your mom’s house, and then I’ll inform Sarah myself. Okay?”

“We’re not exactly interchangeable,” Laurel said. “Sarah knows all about our breakup. She knows we haven’t spoken recently. And besides, I’m the one who should have kept her baby safe. It was on my watch. It’s my fault.”

Hearing Laurel blame herself visibly pained Brad. He reached out to put an arm around her, but she shrugged him off. 

“By that standard, I’m the police chief in this town, so it’s ultimately my responsibility. I should have done something to prevent the carjacking from happening in the first place. My officers should have gotten there sooner,” he said.

“Nonsense, and you know it.”

Laurel’s head began to pound. Those painkillers weren’t up to the challenge. This was all too much. She could only imagine what her mom would have to say about this mess. Her rowdy and opinionated siblings would, no doubt, chime in, too. 

Brad put a firm hand on Laurel’s forearm. This, she allowed. “I need you to trust me, okay? Right now, it’s that simple. Let’s get you home. Then I’ll inform Sarah, and I swear to everything that’s holy I’ll pull out all the stops to find that baby. My team and I won’t rest until he’s home safe.”

“And tomorrow? What about me?” she asked. “It’s a holiday weekend. I’d like my name cleared as soon as possible so that I can assist with the investigation.”

“I’ll come by before lunch and give you an update. I promise.”

Laurel didn’t like this. She wished she had done any of a thousand things differently so Baby Jasper would be safe at home with his mother, not in the car with a dangerous madman. She hoped the child was warm.

That reminded her of Bear, Sarah’s dog, and she thought maybe she could help track him down and get him to safety. 

“Actually,” she said, “can I borrow your car?”

Brad looked confused. “I mean it, Laurel, you have to leave this investigation alone. At least, for now.”

“No. I know,” she said. “But Sarah’s dog was in the backseat. He took off when the kidnapper opened the door. If I can’t help in any other way, maybe I can find him. He must be terrified out there. And cold. He’ll be hungry soon, if he isn’t already. He doesn’t strike me as a dog who would last long on the streets.”

Brad didn’t see the harm in letting Laurel poke around for the dog. “Fine,” he said. “But do not disturb the crime scene. Got it? My deputies are still processing it.”

Laurel grinned, relieved that she could do something. The last thing she wanted was to sit uselessly on her hands. 

This plan had the added benefit of allowing her to avoid her family for a while longer. She wasn’t ready for that drama just yet. They were probably all riled up, gathered at their mom’s house to fret over the events of the evening. They didn’t seem to understand Laurel’s need to serve and protect. They chalked it up to a need to be like their dad and get his approval. None of them realized it was so much more complex than that.

Brad stood. “Come on, then. We need to swing by my place so I can get my cruiser.” 

Laurel followed him, resigned to the concession that would allow her to help out in a small way. She’d take it one step at a time from there. She waved goodbye to Matt Wilson as she walked through the familiar front door and into the cold night air.


Chapter 4

“You bought a truck?” Laurel asked as Brad unlocked the shiny new vehicle with a beep and opened the passenger door for her. 

The truck was American made in a deep, metallic blue. Fitting for a police officer.

Laurel wouldn’t normally allow a colleague to open her car door, but with Brad, it was a habit. When they’d dated, she had worked for the F.B.I and he had been a detective with the Metropolitan Police Department. The city was big enough that their paths didn’t cross professionally, so they were free to act like any other couple while off duty. 

Old habits were hard to break. 

“Sure did. It was my first big purchase when I moved. You like her?” Brad asked.

“Now you’re referring to your automobile as her?” Laurel asked as she climbed in and buckled her seatbelt. “Gag me.”

He chuckled. “Maybe I’m trying to fit in with my new community. How am I doing so far?”

She raised her brows. “Not too bad.”

She hated to admit it, but the truck and Brad’s easy-going charm would serve him well in Appleman’s Gap. Her dad had thrived, thanks to much the same.

They chatted like old friends during the short ride down the main drag in town, both happy to be in each other’s company again. It was a relief for Laurel. A stark contrast to the way she’d spent the earlier part of the evening. 

“Hey, are you hungry?” he asked as they approached the local diner. 

She was starving, but she hated to eat when Baby Jasper was missing. Brad could tell what she was thinking, so he put a hand on her forearm again while turning into the parking lot. Once more, Laurel allowed this friendly touch. 

She wanted to be strong and tough, like an F.B.I. agent should, but she was also tired and traumatized. She needed comfort and companionship, like any other person would. Especially given the memories the carjacking had stirred up. 

“My deputies are on it,” Brad said. “You have to eat. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else.”

She nodded reluctantly. “You’re right.”

He parked the truck, then winked and patted her arm. “Stay here. I’ll grab us something to go and we can eat at my place. You can meet Lilly, before you head out to look for Bear.”

Laurel nodded. “Okay, if you’ll do me a favor first.”

Brad twisted toward her in his seat and leaned against the headrest. The pose was a sweet one. It reminded Laurel of seeing him in bed, looking over at her from his pillow. 

“For you? Anything,” he said.

“Get someone to update Sarah. She shouldn’t have to wait.”

“I completely agree,” he said. “She knows about the carjacking, of course. She came out of the holiday market to find that your car had disappeared, but she hasn’t been updated on your safe return …”

“And her baby’s further disappearance,” Laurel said, finishing his sentence. 


Laurel thought about asking if she could call Sarah, using Brad’s phone, but she decided against it because someone should really deliver this news in person. The phone she had gotten for her mom that she used to place the 9-1-1 call had been admitted as evidence.

“I’ll send a couple of my best guys out to talk to her, and I’ll follow up later. Okay? Then you can eat with a clear conscience.”

“Oh, I’m far from having a clear conscience,” she replied. “I know what you mean, though. It’s a start.”

Brad nodded, then got out of the truck and placed the call as he walked into the diner. Laurel watched him through the side mirror out her window. He hadn’t asked what she wanted to eat, because he already knew what she liked. The relationship between them had always been effortless. It made her wonder now why she’d ever broken up with him. Perhaps doing so had been a big mistake. 

That’s what happens when you’re grieving, she supposed. She’d been told not to make any major life decisions for a full year after the loss of her dad. It hadn’t even been half of that yet and she’d broken up with a man she truly loved and was thinking about leaving her job at the Bureau. For what, she wasn’t sure. Maybe she’d become a private investigator. She had a certain set of skills that might as well be put to use, but she was growing weary of the politics and red tape inherent in the field. 

Not so long ago, Laurel had been on an entirely different career path, anyway. In college, she had been a music performance major who played orchestral French horn. She had unmistakable talent, proven by the number of full scholarship offers she’d received out of high school. She chose to attend the University of Maryland, College Park, where she thoroughly enjoyed her time practicing, studying, and performing on stage in various ensembles. Something else had nagged at her, though, and in her junior year, she decided to add a double major in criminal justice. 

Maybe she truly had wanted to be like her dad. Or maybe she had felt guilty possessing such an obvious talent when her younger siblings were struggling. Whatever the case, at that critical juncture, she diversified her training and had begun to consider a career in law enforcement.

“So much for that decision,” Laurel mumbled to herself as she thought about it. “Maybe I should have stuck with the horn. And Brad Tate.” 

Lately, she’d been wondering if she had steered her life in the wrong direction.

After college, she didn’t think she was ready for graduate school and she didn’t want to teach music to kids, either, so she auditioned for and joined the United States Air Force Band. The four years she spent as an active duty musician were some of the best she’d ever experienced. Being part of the premiere band allowed her to travel all over the world, as well as to perform locally in the Washington, D.C. metro area. It was a dream, really. Nothing compared to the pride Laurel had felt wearing her Air Force uniform and using her talent to entertain. She could hardly get through a performance of “America the Beautiful” without breaking into full-body goose bumps. 

She was still deep in thought when Brad returned with a big to-go bag and a couple of paper cups.

“Did I ever tell you the story of how I was recruited to the Bureau?” she asked as she took the drinks from him and secured them in the center console.

Brad’s door dinged to be closed as he took straws and napkins out of his jacket pocket and stuffed them into an open spot on the console. “You mean the one where they needed you to spy on a foreign diplomat while posing as an innocent horn player?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she replied, “but did I tell you the details?”

He closed the door, then looked into Laurel’s eyes. “Tell me again.”

She smiled as Brad started up the ignition and pulled back onto the two-lane road. “They approached me after a concert we’d just performed on the National Mall one summer evening. Two guys in suits and sunglasses took me by the arms and asked if we could have a private conversation. I thought I was about to get mugged, until the conductor gave me a nod to let me know he was in on it.”

“That must have been unnerving.”

“It sure was. The agents had already cleared their plan with my superiors. All they needed was my cooperation and they’d have the perfect espionage agent who would blend in seamlessly,” she explained. “Can you imagine? It felt like a scene out of a movie. I half expected someone to jump out from behind a column and tell me that it was some sort of prank.”

“No such luck, huh?” Brad asked.

“Nope,” she continued. “It ended up so much more fun. Dangerous, but fun. I miss that spark. That feeling of being needed.”

Brad pursed his lips. It seemed like he had plenty to say, but didn’t want to open old wounds. There was much to focus on in the present moment. His place wasn’t far, so he chose to focus on that. He knew he could distract Laurel with Lilly. His ex-girlfriend was a sucker for cute dogs.

“My humble abode is right up here,” he said as he pointed to a bungalow nestled into the hillside. 

It was hard to make out details in the dark, but Brad’s two-story house featured siding stained a warm brown with a craftsman front door and a big, airy front porch. Warm light glowed from lamps inside. 

“My God,” Laurel said, “it’s gorgeous. Are you renting?”

He shook his head proudly. “No, I own it. You told me to go and live my life. To find what would make me feel settled and accomplished. Here I am.”

“Wow,” she said simply.

This was a lot for Laurel to take in. She had sort of hoped that Brad would be there waiting when she had healed and was ready to resume their relationship. She hadn’t expected him to make such big moves for himself. She couldn’t blame him, though. He had asked her to marry him. Not only had she turned his proposal down, she had broken up with him and told him to go out and find his own happiness. He had done that, and then some.

Brad parked the truck in the driveway on the side of the house, then grabbed the bag of food and climbed out. “Come on,” he said. “Lilly will be glad to meet you.”

Laurel carried the cups, straws and napkins, then followed along. It felt strange not to have a handbag. That was still in her car. She walked carefully on decking under string lights to enter the house from the back, which by the way, was just as charming as curb appeal from the front. 

It was all enchanting, until a noise startled her. She jumped, her nerves raw after the events of the evening. The sound was a door opening, that much was certain. Laurel looked to Brad for his reaction. Surprisingly, he wasn’t alarmed.

“Hey there, Jamie,” he said casually as he waved to a beautiful blonde woman who had just emerged from the building on the back of his property. 

“Hey you,” she replied with a mischievous smile. “Who’s your guest?”

Laurel’s jaw dropped. Immediately, she could tell that Jamie must be staying there, and that she and Brad were more than friends.




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