By: Kendra Elliot

She let Lilian have a few minutes to herself and went to the kitchen. Special Agent Parek looked up as she entered. He sat at the kitchen table, two cell phones, a novel, and a notepad in front of him. Ava avoided looking at the Christmas tree in the living room. The stack of presents underneath made her heart hurt.

“She says they put things back neatly. She seems pretty pleased,” Ava told him. He nodded and gestured at a chair at the table. She pulled out the chair to join him. Parek seemed like a quiet type of guy. He was compact, not much taller than her, with kind, dark eyes. “Do you know how the canvass went in the building?”

“Out of a dozen units, only six had people inside. A team is coming back this evening to knock on doors again. The art gallery has a camera system that catches part of the sidewalk out front and another camera on the rear entrance. They had a backup of forty-eight hours of footage, so if Henley somehow made it here, we’ll see her.” Parek took a sip of a soda, and Ava realized she’d missed lunch. She never missed lunch. She swallowed hard, her mouth dry. She had to eat several times a day, or she suffered severe headaches.

She would eat and sleep this case until it was over. It was the type of case that she had to throw herself into 100 percent, or she’d feel she failed the parents. And failed herself.

She was prepared for the worst, but she would fight for the best outcome for Henley in every way she could. But she wouldn’t be out tramping the sidewalks or digging through paperwork on this case. Her hands had been tied on the investigative side. As the fill-in victim specialist, her job was to be there for the family. Not to interview the parents.

Of course she’d keep her ears open . . . and ask a question here and there.

“What do you think of the mother?” Parek asked in a low voice.

“I don’t know. I met her a few hours ago, and she’s traumatized over the loss of her daughter. It’s too early to form any accurate opinions.”

But what does my gut tell me?

She’d been watching Lilian’s every expression and movement. She’d been analyzing every word out of her mouth. Had she seen anything to make her feel Lilian was lying? Or holding something back?

Not yet.

Her departure in the hallway had been abrupt, but Ava had understood the need for some privacy. The woman wouldn’t have much of it until they found her daughter.

“Has anyone stopped by? Any neighbors or friends?”

Special Agent Parek shook his head. “It’s been quiet. With the security system the building has in place, I don’t expect any friends to drop in. As for the neighbors, I don’t know if this is a get-to-know-your-neighbor type of building or not. There’s no landline, so no calls, either.”

“I’m ready.” Lilian stepped into the kitchen. “I didn’t know how many days to pack for. Do you think I need more than a day or two of clothes?” Her red-rimmed eyes blinked rapidly, and Ava knew she’d cried as she hid in her bedroom.

There’s no answer to that question.

Ava forced a smile. “We can always come back for more.”

Lilian flinched, and Ava wished she could have said, “I’m sure that’s more than enough.”

But that wasn’t who she was. She was too damned practical. “Pack for the worst,” she wanted to say. She believed in keeping a positive attitude but didn’t let it affect the practical decisions that needed to be made.

Prepare for the worst.

You could never pack too much underwear or question too many neighbors. An agent did what needed to be done.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t expect to find her soon. It’s okay to plan ahead.” Her voice softened. “Our goal is to find her before you need anything you’ve packed.”

Lilian’s throat convulsed as she swallowed. She nodded. “Let’s go.”

In the car on the way back to the Fairbanks house, Ava asked her if it felt odd to stay in her ex-husband’s home.

“Not really. We’ve done some short vacations together. Like trips to the coast or the water park in Washington,” Lilian answered, her gaze on the scenery they were passing.

“You do all get along,” Ava stated. “That’s rare.”

“I guess. The kids all like each other. Even Jake enjoys being with the younger girls. He’s a good big brother. It makes it easier when the adults have all committed to doing what’s best for the kids.”

“What about Jake’s dad? Is he around much?” The detective was stuck in Ava’s brain. His level of professionalism and almost old-fashioned manners at the interview had impressed her. He looked to be in his late forties, with salt-and-pepper hair and dark-brown eyes. She’d immediately picked up that he was an investigator through and through. It took one to know one.

“Mason? He’s a good guy. Just always working. He’s married to the job. I don’t know how he and Robin lasted as long as they did. I don’t see much of him, but Robin says he stays in touch with Jake. She has nothing but kind words for him. I think she almost feels sorry for him. He never remarried and seems to have a pretty solitary life.”

Ava understood perfectly.

She felt Lilian’s gaze focus on her. “What about you? I don’t see a ring. Do you have kids?”

Ava paused. In any other situation, she’d deflect the questions. Her personal life was her own business. But she was facing the possibility of spending a lot of hours with Lilian and the Fairbanks. She needed to appear open to gain their trust. “Never married. No kids. I guess I’m a bit like Jake’s dad. Married to the job. But I like it that way.” She didn’t look at Lilian, whose curiosity filled the car. Did she believe her? Some people thought their life wasn’t complete unless they had a significant other.

Like Ava’s sister. She bounced from man to man, searching for her soul mate.

“Sounds peaceful. There’ve been times when—,” Lilian broke off, a sob catching in her throat. “Oh my gosh,” she whispered. “How did I ever think like that?” She buried her face in her hands and let the tears flow.

Ava knew she’d been about to say there’d been times when she wished she lived alone.

Every mother must have wished for solitary peace during the trying times of child raising. Especially when she was doing it on her own.

Now Lilian had gotten her wish, and she was in hell.



Mason jogged up his front porch steps, his boots clomping loudly. He considered it a warning to anyone with the balls to break into his house. He was being kind to let them know he was home and saving their asses from being surprised and probably shot. He hadn’t surprised anyone in twenty years; he was disappointed when he pushed the door open and discovered quiet instead of a meth head diving out a window. Apparently he had some extra adrenaline to burn off.