The wrought iron gate swung inward under a steel-gray sky. Colton Gale eased his Highlander through the opening to climb the road leading into his Atlanta subdivision.
Passing between those large brick columns used to always bring a sense of contentment and warmth. Maybe someday he’d find it again.
“You all right, bro?”
Colton glanced at his twin in the front passenger seat. For someone who lived life flying by the seat of his pants, Cade could be remarkably perceptive.
Colton forced a half smile. “Yeah.”
Cade nodded, silent assent to let it drop rather than acceptance or agreement. “Thanks for going with me this morning. Since you’ve been back in town only a week, I know you’ve got other things to do.”
When their father retired, he signed over the antiquities business to both of them. As co-owner, Colton’s signature was required for official business, like renewing their line of credit, which they’d done that morning.
But giving his John Hancock when needed was where his involvement ended. His job as an assistant district attorney kept him plenty busy. Besides, Cade was the one with the art and antiquities degree. He was also an expert schmoozer. Everyone seemed to let down their guard and trust him, whether it was warranted or not.
Colton rounded a gentle curve, where a huge oak spread half-bare limbs over the road, then cast another glance at his brother. Though their looks were identical, he’d never had Cade’s charisma.
Now the differences in their personalities were even more pronounced. For Colton, studious and sincere had become almost brooding. Though Cade had tried to pull him into the social scene, Colton wasn’t interested. The transition from widowed to single and available didn’t happen overnight. Even six months later, putting on a party face required more effort than he was willing to give.
He heaved a sigh. He knew the platitudes. He’d used them himself—Life is short. No one is guaranteed tomorrow. Somehow, he’d thought those were for other people. The last thing he’d expected was for tragedy to strike his own perfectly-ordered life.
“When we get to your house, I’ll have to leave to get to my appointment.” Cade’s words cut across his thoughts.
Colton nodded. He’d expected as much. The business at the company’s bank had taken longer than anticipated. Little Liam would be disappointed. He adored his Uncle Cade. Anytime Cade stopped by, Liam always tried to talk him into staying longer.
Well, talk was a misnomer. Except for during frequent nightmares, Colton’s son hadn’t said a word in almost six months. But the silent pleas with those big brown eyes were just about as effective.
Colton rounded a gentle right curve. These were his favorite homesites, with yards that backed up to the stucco wall that surrounded the subdivision, woods beyond.
“Stop.” Cade held up a hand. “Pull over.”
He hit the brake, following his brother’s gaze out the passenger window. A pickup truck was parked in the circle drive in front of the house catty-corner from his. A woman slid a five-gallon bucket from the bed onto the tailgate.
The place had been for sale when he’d left town. Someone had apparently bought it and was doing renovations. From what he’d heard, it had needed it.
Cade put his hand on the door handle. “Have you met your new neighbor? She’s pretty hot when she’s not covered in drywall dust.”
“I thought you had an appointment.”
“I do. But I can always make time for a lady, especially when it involves introducing one to my stick-in-the-mud brother.”
Great. When Colton’s life had fallen apart and he’d needed to get away, Cade had been at the end of his apartment lease and happy to house-sit. During his four and a half months here, he’d probably checked out every single woman in the neighborhood. “I don’t need to be introduced.”
“We can at least be gentlemen and help her unload those buckets of paint.”
Colton heaved a sigh, killing the engine, then followed his brother up the drive. The woman cast them a glance, then did a double take. “Whoa, you guys must be twins. One of you is Cade.”
Cade raised a hand. “That would be me. And this is Colton, the smarter, better-looking one.”
Her mouth split into a wide smile, and her dark eyes sparkled below a pixie haircut a shade deeper. He could see why Cade would classify her as “hot.”
Cade had a variety of preferences. Colton measured every woman against one. The comparisons weren’t intentional. They just happened, like a deeply ingrained habit. The thoughts were pointless, because he wasn’t even considering dating, regardless of his meddling brother’s efforts.
The woman extended her hand. “Jasmine McNeal. I’m hoping to have this place move-in ready in another two weeks.” After a firm handshake, she turned back to the truck and reached for the paint bucket.
Colton stepped forward. “Let us get those for you.”
“I can handle them.”
Yeah, she probably could. She was short, didn’t even reach his shoulders. Jeans and a sweatshirt hid her build, but judging from the way she was handling the paint bucket, she was probably well acquainted with the gym.
But he wasn’t the type to watch a woman haul construction supplies, no matter how strong she seemed. While she lowered one bucket to the concrete driveway, he reached into the bed and pulled out the second one.
Cade closed the tailgate. “Sorry to greet and run, but I’ve got an appointment.” He started up the driveway at a half jog, throwing the next words over his shoulder. “I’m borrowing your gate control. I’ll put it back in your car before I leave.”
Colton followed his new neighbor into the house and placed the second bucket on the concrete floor next to hers. Everywhere he could see, carpet had been removed. The walls had numerous patches varying from fist-size to more than a foot in diameter.
She followed his gaze. “Pretty bad, huh? The old owners were carrying the mortgage and when they had to foreclose, the new people got ticked and totally trashed the place. I’m making progress, though. Someone’s bringing in a hopper tomorrow and texturing the walls. Then I’ll be ready to paint.”
She leaned against the doorjamb between the living and dining rooms. “So, are you visiting Cade?”
“The other way around. Cade was housesitting for me while I’ve been gone. He’s pretty well moved out now.”
Over the past week, while Cade had worked on gathering his possessions, Colton had done some clearing out of his own, a task that had hung over him for the past half a year. The first six weeks, he hadn’t been able to even think about it. He still wasn’t ready, but it was time.
So three boxes occupied his backseat, with several more packed into the rear. He’d planned to drop the clothing by a thrift store and put the jewelry in the safety deposit box at his own bank. He hadn’t made it to either place before having to get Cade back home. He’d have to run back out this afternoon.
She walked with him to the door. “Thanks for toting the paint.”
“No problem.” When he stepped outside, a single beam of late November sunshine had found its way through the clouds blanketing the sky. Across the street, Cade was backing his Corvette through the wrought iron gate at the end of Colton’s driveway. What stood a short distance beyond wasn’t the most extravagant residence in the neighborhood, but the yard was neatly manicured and the three-bedroom, two-bath home exuded warmth and elegance. Not bad for a former foster kid.
The gate rolled closed, and Cade stopped next to Colton’s Highlander to return the control. Although the community was gated, the wrought iron fence that circled his property added an extra layer of protection. So did the rottweiler who regularly circled the half-acre grounds surrounding his home.
Except Brutus wasn’t waiting at the fence. A vague sense of unease wove through him as he scanned the yard. In his job as an assistant district attorney, he’d made some enemies and received several threats. Most he hadn’t taken seriously. A few he had.
He wished his new neighbor farewell and hurried to his vehicle. At a push of a button, the gate rolled open. Still no dog. The uneasiness intensified.
Colton slid from the Highlander and hurried toward the house. Nothing looked amiss in front.
But where was his dog?
He climbed the porch steps, heart pounding. His three-year-old son and babysitter were inside. He fumbled as he tried to insert the key into the lock. When he finally swung open the door, fear morphed to panic. At the opposite end of the foyer, every drawer in the Bombay chest was open, the contents strewn across the top and overflowing onto the tile floor. On either side, the living room and den were in the same condition.
“Liam!” He ran into the family room. “Meagan!” Where were they?
Dear God, let them be okay.
He headed toward the hall. At half past one, Meagan would have already put Liam down for his nap.
Movement snapped his gaze toward the dining room. As Colton ran into the room, a figure disappeared through the back door, little legs bouncing on either side of his waist. Colton’s knees went weak, almost buckling under him.
Someone was taking his son.
He tore into the room, shattered glass on the floor barely registering before he burst through the back door. Two figures ran toward the rear fence, knit ski masks covering their heads. At his shout, the man carrying Liam turned, then dropped his burden.
Liam hit the ground and landed in a heap, legs curled under him, face turned to the side. A vise clamped down on Colton’s chest. Liam wasn’t moving. Oh, God, please…
No, if the men had harmed him, they wouldn’t be trying to kidnap him.
When he dropped to his knees next to his son, his breath whooshed out. Liam was breathing. His eyes were squeezed shut, and soft whimpers slipped through his parted lips. Colton scooped him up, and little arms went around his neck with a strength that surprised him.
Rapid footsteps approached, and Colton swiveled his head. “Meag–”
But it wasn’t Meagan who’d stopped a short distance away, face etched with concern. It was his new neighbor. What was she doing there?
He rose, clutching Liam to his chest. “I have to find my babysitter.”
Jasmine shifted her attention to the back of his property, and he followed her gaze. A man dropped from one of the lower limbs of his oak tree to disappear behind the wall. A second shimmied out to follow his accomplice.
Colton squeezed his son more tightly. He’d get a tree trimmer out pronto. That same branch had probably given them a way onto the property.
As he turned, a dark shape snagged his gaze. It lay several yards from the oak’s trunk, partially obscured by the shrubbery lining the back wall. Brutus. He pressed his lips together. As soon as he found Meagan, he’d check on his dog.
When he looked at Jasmine again, she was already punching numbers into her phone. “I’m calling 911.”
“Thanks.” He’d let her handle it. He ran back to the house. Next to the door, jagged glass surrounded a large hole in the dining room window. He’d check out the security footage later. Or the cops would. He had a camera in back and one in front.
Once inside, he ran room to room, still holding his son while he shouted Meagan’s name. An image rose in his mind—features twisted, hatred shining from eyes so dark they were almost black. One defendant whose threats had sent a chill all the way to his core.
Colton had gotten the man a life sentence. Death would have been better. Drug dealer, gang leader and ruthless killer—men like that didn’t rehabilitate. Before being led from the courtroom in shackles, he’d turned on Colton and made his threat, cold fury flowing beneath the surface. You didn’t get a death sentence for me, but you just secured your own.
Maybe Perez had sent someone for him, and taking Liam was his way of drawing Colton out. Or maybe it was someone else, determined to exact the worst kind of vengeance.
When he started down the hall, a cell phone lay on the floor. Meagan’s phone. His chest clenched. Eighteen years old, her whole life ahead of her.
Oh, God, please let her be safe.
As he stepped into his son’s room, Liam stiffened and let out a wail. Colton cupped the back of his head. “It’s okay, buddy.”
He looked around the room. Drawers hung open, their contents tossed to the floor. Nearby, a Lego village sat in a state of incompletion. Maybe this was where Liam had been playing when the man grabbed him.
Jasmine stepped up behind him. “Cops are on the way. I checked on your dog. He’s unconscious, but his breathing is steady. What happened?”
“Someone just tried to kidnap my son. My house is ransacked and my babysitter’s missing.” He spun to walk from the room.
She stepped out of his way. “Maybe she escaped when the men broke in.”
“And left Liam inside? Not Meagan.”
“Or she could have slipped out to call the police.”
He walked into the bathroom across the hall. “They’d have been here long before now.” The destruction they were looking at didn’t happen in minutes. “She’s here somewhere. She’d never abandon Liam to save—”
Colton cut off his own thought. Had he just heard a thud? His gaze snapped to his neighbor. She’d obviously heard it, too.
He jogged down the hall toward the master bedroom. When he called Meagan’s name again, the thuds grew louder, more insistent. As he entered the room, there was another thud, and the door on the large walk-in closet jumped. He shifted Liam to one hip and swung it back on the hinges.
Meagan lay curled on the floor, hands tied behind her back, ankles bound. Tape covered her mouth. An angry bruise was already forming on her left cheek. When her fear-filled eyes met his, they welled with tears.
Colton tried to pry his son loose, but Liam released a wail that built into a scream of pure terror.
“Here, let me.” Jasmine pushed Colton aside and dropped to her knees. “This is going to hurt.”
When she ripped the tape from the girl’s face, Meagan winced. “I tried to protect him.” The tears flowed in earnest now.
“He’s fine.” Jasmine looked at Colton. “Get me something to cut the rope.”
He pulled a pocket knife from the drawer in his bedside stand. Jasmine had stepped in and taken charge. With a terrified child and a babysitter on the verge of hysteria, he was thankful for the help.
“Why did you come?”
“You.” Without looking up, she continued sawing through the ropes binding Meagan’s ankles. “When Cade was leaving, you started acting weird, like you were worried about something. I figured I’d stay outside and watch you.”
Colton shook his head. He’d just met the woman. How could she identify weird when she had nothing to base normal on? Had to be women’s intuition. After seven years of marriage, he still didn’t understand it.
“When you left your front door wide open, I knew something was up.” The last rope gave way. Jasmine helped a sobbing Meagan to her feet and led her to the bed. “It’s okay. You’re safe now.”
Colton sat next to his babysitter, Liam in his lap. “What happened?”
“Liam and I were sitting on the floor playing with his Legos when I heard glass shatter.” She drew in a shuddering breath, struggling to pull herself together. “I jumped up to get my phone. I’d left it on the coffee table in the living room.”
She swiped at her tears. “I got halfway back to the bedroom when someone tackled me from behind. He was straddling me, flipped me over and punched me in the head. Everything went black. I just woke up a few minutes ago.”
She squeezed her eyes shut. Today’s events would likely trigger some terrifying nightmares.
He put a hand on her shoulder. “Do you know who attacked you?”
“He was wearing a ski mask.” The tears started anew. “All I could think about was Liam.” She stroked his back. “Is he all right?”
Colton had no idea what his son had witnessed and probably wouldn’t anytime soon. Liam had stopped speaking shortly after his mother died.
Something in Jasmine’s tone sent fingers of dread crawling down his spine. He followed her gaze toward the door.
His mahogany dresser occupied a sizable section of the wall to the right of it, the massive mirror framed by curved shelves on either side. Letters were scrawled across the glass in his dead wife’s lipstick.
His foundation shifted, and the room seemed to tilt sideways as the message dove deep into his heart.
“The sins of the fathers…”
From the time he was adopted at age fifteen, he’d attended church. He knew his Bible. The next words went something like, “…are visited on the children to the third and fourth generation.” Whoever wrote the phrase was taking the verse out of context, but the intended meaning was clear.
Colton tightened his hold on Liam and buried his face in the boy’s hair, soft and silky like his mother’s had been. Determination surged through him. No one was going to get to his son ever again. He’d see to it.
Sirens wailed outside, growing in volume. Soon the police would be there. He’d give his report. And he’d insist that Meagan go to the hospital.
Then he’d find a bodyguard. Someone big and tough and mean.
The fence encircling the yard, with its electronic gate, the rottweiler prowling the property, the alarm when they were asleep. It wasn’t enough. What had previously been empty threats had just taken on flesh and blood.
He’d do whatever he must to ensure Liam’s safety. Even if it meant paying for around-the-clock protection.
Or leaving Atlanta and starting over somewhere else. Maybe both.
Yes, definitely both.