Toni

“Sir. I understand that you’re upset.” The officer spoke in a voice that managed to be soothing and calm without being condescending.

It was a nice voice and I had to admit, if he had been talking to me, it might have done something to penetrate whatever emotions were trying to drown me. As it was, it helped to ease the near-panic I was feeling. A little bit.

It had absolutely no effect on the man standing next to me.

Maybe it shouldn’t have.

We had no idea what happened to his sister.

She was just…gone.

Twenty year-old Isadora Lang, wealthy and beautiful heiress – and my boss – was nowhere to be found.

Slowly, he turned away from the window and approached the officer.

I had to give the cop some credit. Even though thirty-two year-old Ashford Lang stood a good eight inches taller, and was probably a good fifty pounds heavier, the boy in blue didn’t back down or even blink. As someone who knew what it felt like to go toe-to-toe with the wealthy CEO of Phenicie-Lang, I could appreciate the courage that took.

Ash stared down at him, green eyes blazing. “You understand?” he echoed, his voice cutting. “My sister is missing. But you understand? Do you think upset even comes close to what I’m feeling?”

I’d seen how he behaved when he’d believed I was a man his sister had hired as an assistant, and calling that upset would’ve been a stretch. No. I was pretty sure upset didn’t even come close to how he was feeling at the moment.

“Gentlemen.”

A new voice rang out, cutting through the rapidly growing tension. Reluctantly, Ash pulled his eyes from the cop. He and I both turned. The cop didn’t. From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw him take a deep breath and I wondered if he truly understood how close he’d been to having his ass handed to him.

The newcomer turned out to be a woman, dressed in a sharp suit, her hair cut in a neat, pixie-like cut that framed a face that could have been twenty-five or fifty. I pegged her at somewhere in between, but only because of the age I saw in her eyes. Those eyes were an incisive shade of brown and she looked like she’d seen it all, done it all, and probably invented a few things while she was at it.

Her smile was polite and professional.

The badge she displayed wasn’t needed. I could spot a cop a mile away, and her entire demeanor practically screamed it.

“Officer Raleigh, why don’t you join the other officers?” She glanced past us to look at the cop. “I’ll take over here.”

The uniformed cop gave her a nod, then tipped his head in our direction before leaving the room. I had to give him credit for the polite exit. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d simply left without a glance.

Once we were alone with her, she focused on Ash.

“Mr. Lang, I’m Lieutenant Green.” She held out a hand and Ash shook it, his expression still dark and angry. She continued, “My superiors thought it might be better if I came down here.” She paused, gave me an acknowledging glance, and then added, “I’ve worked with abduction cases in the past.”

Next to me, Ash tensed and it was all I could do not to put a hand on his arm to try to comfort him, soothe him. No matter what had happened between us in the moments before we’d learned of Isadora’s disappearance, he and I didn’t have that kind of relationship. I was here because I was Isadora’s assistant and I’d been in the house when she’d disappeared. Nothing more.

Nerves and anger pulsed under his voice. “Abduction. Is there a ransom demand I don’t know about? I’ll pay whatever’s asked.”

“No.” Green shook her head. “It’s far too early to be making assumptions. And in all honesty, your sister has probably gone out to a club or to visit some friends. Maybe she decided to take a few days to herself.” She glanced at the furniture and arched one dark eyebrow. “Perhaps we could sit?”

Ash looked like he was going to explode.

Quickly, I moved forward and touched his arm, acting before I could think better of it. “This will probably take some time, Ash.”

It was probably my use of his nickname more than anything that got through to him. Brilliant green eyes glinted almost feverishly as he studied me. After a moment, he gave a short, terse nod. I was slightly surprised when he took my elbow and led me to a couch, gesturing to the lieutenant to have a seat as well. Fortunately, it wasn’t the couch we’d been on earlier. That could’ve been…awkward.

Green sat down and smoothed her skirt, folding her hands in her lap, taking an almost deliberate amount of time to do it. If she was waiting for hors d’ oeuvres, she was wasting her time. Finally, she spoke, her attention still focused on Ash. “It’s my understanding that you employ several bodyguards for your sister?”

Lieutenant Green studied Ash the same way I would have looked at bacteria under a microscope in one of my biology classes.

I didn’t like it.

Ash gave her a cool look that said he didn’t like it either. “Yes, though they’re used for when Isadora goes out. I rely on my home security staff to keep her safe while she’s at home. You should know that each security member who was on duty today will be fired, so you might want to get their contact information in case you need to see them again.”

“That seems a bit harsh.”

“Harsh?” His body stiffened. “My sister was taken on their watch.”

“That is still undetermined.”

“Really?” Ash’s sarcasm was so thick, I was surprised nothing viscous dropped from the air to stain the thick, expensive carpet. “Oh, maybe I missed her while I was going over the security footage, or when I was tearing the house up, bellowing her name.”

“She could have left.” Green sighed and glanced at me.

I recognized the look well enough, but she was looking the wrong way for backup. I might not have known Isadora that well, but I didn’t think it was likely that she just stepped out without telling anyone where she was going, especially since she hadn’t told me that we were done for the day. She was disorganized, but never thoughtless. I wasn’t a mind reader, but I was a good judge of character on top of studying to be a psychiatrist.

I returned Green’s steady look, but didn’t say anything. If she wanted my opinion, she was going to have to ask for it. And I doubted she’d like it when she did. Her gaze lingered for a moment and then she turned back to Ash.

“Here are my concerns, Mr. Lang. Your sister is twenty years-old. I’ve got a fourteen year-old. I all but raised my two younger sisters. And although it was quite some time ago, I recall how it felt to be twenty. You want privacy. You want some independence. Does your sister have any of that?”

“She has safety,” Ash snapped.

“Safety.” Green nodded as she said the word slowly, as if weighing it on her tongue.

“Look,” he said. “My sister wouldn’t leave without telling me where she was going or taking her bodyguards with her.”

I was torn between hugging him and rolling my eyes. He was smart. He’d managed to get his MBA while raising Isadora and taking over the family’s numerous companies, even though he’d only been nineteen when his parents had died. But smart didn’t always produce insight. And insight into a loved one was always the hardest.

I knew that from experience. I’d had common sense drilled into me by my older brothers, but I’d known plenty of kids through the accelerated learning programs I’d been in who were practically as dumb as a stump when it came to practical things.

When it came to his sister, I had a feeling Ash was clueless.

Actually, when it came to twenty year-old females in general, Ash was probably clueless.

That wasn’t to say he didn’t have a clue about women. Or at least a certain type of woman. But Isadora wasn’t that type of woman, and she was at the weird stage where she was still figuring out who she was. Ash, on the other hand, probably looked at her and saw a girl in pigtails and a Catholic school girl skirt – or whatever flavor of private school she’d attended. Had he actually thought she was more interested in being safe than having a life?

I would’ve felt bad for him if I hadn’t been so worried about Isadora.

When I was twenty, I’d at least kept my parents advised of my whereabouts in general. I still lived at home even though I’d been in college. I’d respected them enough to know that they just wanted to make sure I was safe.

My brothers, however, were a different matter entirely. If they’d tried to dictate my every move after I’d become an adult? I probably would have filled their shampoo bottles with Nair. Again. Their overprotectiveness and over-helpfulness was bad enough.

Even though I loved my family, the freedom from all of that had been one of the reasons I’d chosen to move out shortly before my twenty-first birthday, even though it cut into my college funds.

It was a different sort of vibe here. Ash had raised Isadora since she was seven, so she’d had to have some respect for his authority. But still, he was her brother, not her father, and even if her memories of their parents were dim, she still had them. It had to irk her that she had so little freedom to come and go as she pleased. The question was, was her annoyance enough that she would’ve just taken off without a word to anyone, even if it was just to cover for her?

Sighing, I rubbed my temples with my fingers, a headache settling in nice and tight.

The sad thing was, I did understand why he was so determined to look after her. Aside from the fact that he’d been responsible for her for the past thirteen years, she was all the family he had left. Also, for all intents and purposes, Isadora was an adult, but she was sweet and naïve, not the best combination to have when roaming the city streets alone. Granted, she could probably thank her brother for that, since Ash had sheltered her to the point that she had no idea what real life was like.

Caught up in my thoughts, I startled slightly when the lieutenant said my name.

“I’m sorry?”

Green arched a brow. “I was wondering if you might have any idea where Isadora might have gone.”

Blinking at the unexpected question, I shook my head. “No, I’m sorry. I’ve only been working for her for a week.”

“What is it you do exactly?” Green asked as she pulled a notebook from inside her bag.

A deep pulse of envy went through me at the sight of that bag. It was a rich shade of purple, a Michael Kors bag, so out of my price range for now. I would have thought it would be too pricey for a cop, too, but what did I know?

“I’m her assistant.” Dragging my gaze away from the bag, I looked back at Lieutenant Green.

“And you assist with…?”

“Everything?” I offered her a half-hearted smile and shrugged.

“And when did you last see Miss Lang?”

“About an hour before we were told she was missing. I was working with her and she said she needed a bit of a break, so she left the room.”

“Did she do that often?”

I shrugged. “I’ve only been with her for a week and she’s done it twice. She leaves for a bit and then comes back. I had no reason to believe she wasn’t going to do the same thing, so I waited. Mr. Lang came home and the two of us were…talking when we got the news.” If Green noticed my slight hesitation on the word, she didn’t say anything.

“What sort of person is she?” Green asked.

From the corner of my eye, I glanced toward Ash, but he had risen and walked back to his position at the window. It was like he expected her to just come walking up Fifth Avenue, even though it was coming up on eleven o’clock. I hadn’t realized it was that late.

Ash was probably going to throw me out of here soon enough, and when he heard what I had to say, it would probably be sooner rather than later, but I knew the best thing to do with cops was be honest.

That settled it in my mind.

“I love working with Isadora. She’s a sweet girl. She’s bright, determined, and she’s got a good heart. But I have to be honest.”

I saw Ash turning towards me, but I didn’t let myself look over at him. What was the point?

“The girl could get distracted on her way to the bathroom, even if her bladder was about to bust.” I knew Ash was staring at me and I felt a blush start in my cheeks, but I kept going. “She starts projects and stops two minutes later. She’ll look for her phone while it’s in her hand. She’ll look for her jacket while she’s wearing it. She composes emails and half-way through, she forgets what she’s writing about. The girl is like the energizer bunny on speed.”

Both Ash and Green were staring at me now.

I twisted my fingers together. “The fact of the matter is, I’m surprised she can make it down the stairs without somebody reminding her that she needs to eat breakfast. She’s so focused on what she wants to do she forgets about what she needs to do.”

Ash was glaring at me.

I ignored him.

“And what does she want to do?” Green asked curiously.

“Save the world.” I smiled now, a strange little lurch of protectiveness settling inside me. “Isadora Lang is probably the most flighty woman I have ever met in my life, but she hired me because she knows it, and she wants big things. With her passion, the world better look out. Because she just might change it. Whether the world wants it or not.”

I heard a sharp intake of air and dared to glance over at Ash.

I was prepared for his fury.

But the look he was giving me was something I couldn’t quite place, but that made me more nervous than I liked.

Flushing, I shoved myself to my feet. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you much.”

Green gave me a strange look. “Oh, you told me quite a bit.”

Forcing a smile, I excused myself and left the room. I needed some water and some air.

***

 

When I came back nearly thirty minutes later, it was to find Ash shouting at Green.

Green didn’t look concerned.

She stood there listening with her hands crossed in front of her, her head cocked to one side as she listened. There was an expression on her face that seemed to say she found this whole thing terribly fascinating. But not compelling – as in, she wasn’t compelled to go and investigate anything just yet.

“I’m very sorry, Mr. Lang. But the fact he’s a meat packer doesn’t give credence to anything.”

Ash’s eyes narrowed and he shoved a finger into Green’s face. His entire face was flushed. “If anything happens to my sister because of your lack of action–”

Shit.

Pasting a smile on my face, I shoved between them and put my hands on Ash’s chest. I had a feeling that if I tried to touch Green, I’d end up in handcuffs. “This isn’t going to help find Isadora.” I kept my voice soft, even.

A muscle jumped in his cheek, but he let me ease him back a couple steps.

“I’ll look into it,” Green said. “That’s all I can promise. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Mr. Lang, Miss Gallagher.”

I had the feeling the lieutenant decided to take advantage of my showing up to vacate the room.

Once she did, Ash’s eyes narrowed in on me.

My heart lurched and I had to fight the urge to back up a pace. I had no reason to. I hadn’t done anything.

“How could you let this happen?”

“I…” I sucked in a breath and then let the question go through my head once more. Yes, he had just said what I thought. I managed to keep my voice even. “How could I let what happen?”

“You were supposed to take care of her!”

“I’m supposed to help her!” I countered, the statement coming out from between clenched teeth. I had to remind myself that he was worried about his sister.

“And you show it by letting her get kidnapped!” His roar echoed around the room and I couldn’t control my flinch.

I jerked my spine straight as he came close enough to loom over me. He might’ve been worried, but it didn’t give him the right to yell at me like that.

I glared up at him. “I was hired to be an assistant, you dumb ass. I wasn’t hired to be a prison guard or a babysitter. Maybe if you’d loosen the reins a bit, the cops wouldn’t be so quick to say that she wanted to get away.”

Harsh flags of color appeared on his cheeks and he caught my wrist, jerking me forward. “Are you saying this is my fault?”

I twisted my wrist against his thumb, breaking his grip before stepping back and putting several feet between us. My voice was calm. “No. I’m not. But it sure as hell isn’t mine, so why don’t you back the fuck off.”

He opened his mouth, but before he could say anything else, I held up a hand.

I doubted anybody had ever dared to do that to him before and the shock of it stopped him.

“I’m going home,” I said coolly. “I hope Isadora comes home and this is all a misunderstanding, but I’m not going to stay here and let you yell at me for something that isn’t my fault. If the cops want to talk to me again, they can contact me there. And you?” I gave him a tight smile. “You can kiss my ass.”

 

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