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O N C E B O U N D
(A RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY—BOOK 12)
B L A K E P I E R C E
Blake Pierce is author of the bestselling RILEY PAGE mystery series, which includes twelve books (and counting). Blake Pierce is also the author of the MACKENZIE WHITE mystery series, comprising eight books (and counting); of the AVERY BLACK mystery series, comprising six books; and of the KERI LOCKE mystery series, comprising four books (and counting).
An avid reader and lifelong fan of the mystery and thriller genres, Blake loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.blakepierceauthor.com to learn more and stay in touch.
Copyright © 2018 by Blake Pierce. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Jacket image Copyright Photographee.eu, used under license from Shutterstock.com.
BOOKS BY BLAKE PIERCE
THE MAKING OF RILEY PAIGE SERIES
WATCHING (Book #1)
RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY SERIES
ONCE GONE (Book #1)
ONCE TAKEN (Book #2)
ONCE CRAVED (Book #3)
ONCE LURED (Book #4)
ONCE HUNTED (Book #5)
ONCE PINED (Book #6)
ONCE FORSAKEN (Book #7)
ONCE COLD (Book #8)
ONCE STALKED (Book #9)
ONCE LOST (Book #10)
ONCE BURIED (Book #11)
ONCE BOUND (Book #12)
ONCE TRAPPED (Book #13)
MACKENZIE WHITE MYSTERY SERIES
BEFORE HE KILLS (Book #1)
BEFORE HE SEES (Book #2)
BEFORE HE COVETS (Book #3)
BEFORE HE TAKES (Book #4)
BEFORE HE NEEDS (Book #5)
BEFORE HE FEELS (Book #6)
BEFORE HE SINS (Book #7)
BEFORE HE HUNTS (Book #8)
BEFORE HE PREYS (Book #9)
AVERY BLACK MYSTERY SERIES
CAUSE TO KILL (Book #1)
CAUSE TO RUN (Book #2)
CAUSE TO HIDE (Book #3)
CAUSE TO FEAR (Book #4)
CAUSE TO SAVE (Book #5)
CAUSE TO DREAD (Book #6)
KERI LOCKE MYSTERY SERIES
A TRACE OF DEATH (Book #1)
A TRACE OF MUDER (Book #2)
A TRACE OF VICE (Book #3)
A TRACE OF CRIME (Book #4)
A TRACE OF HOPE (Book #5)
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
CHAPTER THIRTY ONE
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR
CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE
CHAPTER THIRTY SIX
CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN
CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT
CHAPTER THIRTY NINE
As consciousness slowly returned, Reese Fisher realized that she was in pain all over. The back of her neck ached and her skull felt as though it would burst from throbbing.
She opened her eyes only to be blinded by glaring sunlight. She squeezed her eyelids tight again.
Where am I? she wondered. How did I get here?
Mingled with the pain was a tingling numbness, especially in her extremities.
She tried to shake her arms and legs to get rid of the tingling, but found that she couldn’t. Her arms, hands, and legs were somehow immobilized.
She wondered …
Was I in some kind of accident?
Maybe she’d been hit by a car.
Or maybe she’d been thrown from her own car and was now lying on hard pavement.
Her mind couldn’t get a hold on anything.
Why couldn’t she remember?
And why couldn’t she move? Was her neck broken or something?
No, she could feel the rest of her body, she just couldn’t move anything.
She could also feel the hot sun on her face, and she didn’t want to open her eyes again.
She tried hard to think—where had she been and what had she been doing just before this … whatever this was?
She remembered—or thought she remembered—getting on the train in Chicago, finding a good seat, and then she’d been on her way home to Millikan.
But had she gotten to Millikan?
Had she gotten off the train?
Yes, she thought she had. It had been a bright, sunny morning at the train station, and she was looking forward to the mile-long walk to her house.
But then …
The rest was all fragmented, even dreamlike.
It was like one of those nightmares of being in terrible danger but unable to run, unable to move at all. She’d wanted to struggle, to free herself from some threat, but she couldn’t.
She also remembered a malignant presence—a man whose face she now couldn’t bring to mind at all.
What did he do to me? she wondered.
And where am I?
She realized she could at least turn her head. She turned away from the glaring sunlight and finally managed to open her eyes and keep them open. At first, she was aware of curving lines stretching away from her. But at the moment they seemed abstract and incomprehensible.
Then she could see why the back of her neck was in such pain.
It was lying against a long curving stretch of reddish steel, hot under the bright sunlight.
She wriggled slightly and felt a sharp roughness against her back. It felt like crushed rock.
Little by little, the abstract lines came into focus and she could see what they were.
In spite of the hot sun, her body felt cold as she understood.
She was on a railroad track.
But how had she gotten here?
And why couldn’t she move?
As she struggled, she realized that she could move, at least somewhat.
She could writhe, twisting her torso, and also her legs, although she couldn’t separate them for some reason.
The tingling numbness she hadn’t been able to shake off was now turning into surges of fear.
She was tied here somehow—tied to railroad tracks, with her neck fastened to the rail.
No, she told herself. This is impossible.
It had to be one of those dreams—a dream of being immobilized and helpless and in terrible danger.
She closed her eyes again, hoping the nightmare would go away.
But then she felt a sharp vibration against her neck, and a rumbling reached her ears.
The rumbling was getting louder. The vibration became piercingly strong, and her eyes snapped back open.
She couldn’t see very far along the curve of the tracks, but she knew what the source of that vibration was, that crescendo of noise.
It was an oncoming train.
Her pulse pounded, and terror erupted through her whole body. Her writhing became frantic, but completely futile.
She couldn’t tear her arms and legs free, and she couldn’t pull her neck away from the rail.
The rumbling was now a deafening roar, and suddenly it came into view …
… the reddish-orange front of a massive diesel engine.
She let out a scream—a scream that sounded supernaturally loud to her own ears.
But then she realized—it wasn’t her own scream she’d heard.
It was the piercing noise of the train whistle.
Now she felt a weird rush of anger.
The engineer had sounded his whistle …
Why the hell doesn’t he just stop?
But of course, he couldn’t—not nearly fast enough, not hurtling along at his current speed.
She could hear a screeching sound as he tried to bring the mountain of metal to a stop.
The engine filled her whole field of vision now—and peering out through the windshield was a pair of eyes …
… eyes that looked as terrified as she felt.
It was like looking in a mirror—and she didn’t want to see what she was seeing.
Reese Fisher closed her eyes, knowing it was for the last time ever.
When Riley heard the car pull up in front of her townhouse, she asked herself …
Am I really going to be able to go through with this?
She studied her face in her bathroom mirror, hoping it didn’t look too obvious that she’d been crying. Then she went downstairs, where her family was already gathered in the living room—her housekeeper, Gabriela; her fifteen-year-old daughter, April; and Jilly, the thirteen-year-old girl Riley was in the process of adopting.
And standing among them, flanked by a couple of large packed suitcases, was fifteen-year-old Liam, smiling rather sadly at Riley.
It’s really happening, she thought. Right now.
She reminded herself that this was all for the best.
Even so, she couldn’t help but feel sad.
Then came the sound of the doorbell, and Jilly rushed to open the front door.
A man and woman in their late fifties came inside, all smiles. The woman hurried over to Liam, but the man approached Riley.
“You must be Ms. Paige,” he said.
“Riley, please,” Riley said, her voice choking just a little.
“I’m Scott Schweppe, Liam’s uncle,” he said. He turned toward his wife, who was giving Liam a big hug. “And this is my wife, Melinda.”
With a slightly awkward chuckle he added, “But I guess you already know that. Anyway, I’m so glad to meet you.”
Riley shook his offered hand. She noticed that his handshake was warm and strong.
Unlike Riley, Melinda didn’t bother to hold back her tears. Looking up at her nephew, she told him, “Oh, Liam! It’s been such a long time! You were so little when we last saw you. Such a handsome young man you’ve become!”
Riley took several long, slow breaths.
This really is for the best, she told herself again.
But until a couple of days ago, it was about the last thing she’d expected to happen.
It seemed like only yesterday when Liam had come to live with Riley and her family. In fact, he’d been here less than two months, but Liam had fit in perfectly and everyone in the household was already very attached to him.
But now it had turned out that the boy had relatives who wanted him to come live with them.
Riley said to the couple, “Please, sit down. Make yourselves comfortable.”
Melinda dabbed her eyes with a tissue, and she and Scott sat down on the couch. Everybody else found places to sit except Gabriela, who hurried away to the kitchen for refreshments.
Riley was a bit relieved when April and Jilly started making small talk with Scott and Melinda—all about their two-day drive from Omaha, where they had stopped for the night, and how the weather had been along the way. Jilly seemed in good spirits, but Riley detected sadness behind April’s cheerful demeanor. After all, she had been closer to Liam than any of them.
As Riley listened, she observed the couple closely.
Scott and his nephew looked a lot alike—the same lanky build, bright red hair, and freckled complexion. Melinda was on the stout side and looked like a perfectly conventional, good-natured housewife.
Gabriela quickly returned carrying a tray with coffee, sugar and cream, and some delicious home-baked Guatemalan cookies called champurradas. She served everybody as they talked.
Riley noticed that Liam’s aunt was looking at her.
With a warm smile, Melinda said, “Riley, Scott and I can’t thank you enough.”
“Oh—it was my pleasure,” Riley said. “He’s a delight to have around.”
Scott shook his head and said, “I’d had no idea how bad things had gotten with my brother, Clarence. We’d been estranged for such a long time. The last I’d heard from him was years ago, when Liam’s mother left him. We should have stayed in better touch, if only for Liam’s sake.”
Riley wasn’t sure what to say. How much had Liam told his aunt and uncle about what had happened?
She remembered it all too vividly.
April had just started dating Liam, and Riley had taken a liking to him right away. But after a frantic call from April, Riley had rushed to Liam’s house and found him being beaten savagely by his drunken father. Riley had subdued the man, but leaving Liam in his care had been unthinkable. Riley had brought Liam home and set up a place for him to sleep in her family room.
This living situation had been precarious, of course.
Liam’s father kept calling and texting his son, promising to change and not to drink anymore—emotional blackmail, pure and simple. And it had been awfully hard for Liam.
Scott continued, “You could have knocked me over with a feather when Clarence called out of the blue last week. He sounded like he was out of his mind. He wanted my help getting Liam back. He said … well, he said some stuff, let me tell you.”
Riley could imagine some of the “stuff” Liam’s father had said—probably including what a vile, horrible person Riley was for taking Liam away from him.
“Clarence said he’d stopped drinking,” Scott said. “But I was sure he was drunk even when he called. Sending Liam back to him was a crazy idea. So there seemed to be only one thing to do.”
Riley felt an emotional jolt those words …
“… only one thing to do.”
Of course, that one thing wasn’t to let Liam stay and live with Riley’s family.
It was simple common sense.
He should go and live with his nearest relatives.
Melinda squeezed Scott’s hand and said to Riley, “Scott and I are empty nesters, you know. We raised three kids, two sons and a daughter. Our girl is finishing her last year of college, and the boys are married and successful and ready to start families of their own. So we’re alone in our big house and we miss hearing young voices. For us, this is the perfect time.”
Again, Riley felt a sharp twinge.
“… the perfect time …”
Of course it was the perfect time. What was more, these were obviously perfect people—or as nearly perfect as parents could be.
Probably a lot better at it than me, Riley thought.
She was a long, long way from balancing everything in her own complicated life—the duties of being a parent and the often conflicting, sometimes dangerous duties of being an FBI field agent.
In fact, she sometimes found it to be almost impossible, and having Liam here hadn’t made her life any easier.
She’d often felt as though she wasn’t giving nearly enough attention to her kids—including Liam. She had stretched herself much too thin when she took him in.
Besides, how could he keep living in that family room until he went to college?
Just how was Riley going to send him to college, anyway?
No, this really was for the best.
Jilly and April kept the conversation going, asking all about the couple’s children.
Meanwhile, Riley’s head was filling with worries.
She felt as though she’d gotten to know Liam well in just a short time. After years of estrangement from him and his father, what did these people know about him? She knew that Scott was the owner of a thriving bicycle store. He also seemed to be in remarkably good shape for his age.
Would he understand that Liam was by nature clumsy and nonathletic?
Anything but a jock, Liam loved to read and study, and he was the captain of his school chess team.
Would Scott and Linda know how to relate to him? Would they enjoy talking with him as much as Riley did? Would they share any of his interests?
Or would he wind up feeling lonely and out of place?
But Riley reminded herself that she had no business worrying about these things.
This really is for the best, she told herself again.
Soon—much too soon, as far as Riley was concerned—Scott and Melinda finished their cookies and coffee and thanked Gabriela for the delicious refreshments. The time had come for them to go. After all, it was going to be a long drive back to Omaha.
Scott picked up Liam’s suitcases and headed out to the car.
Melinda took Riley’s hand warmly.
She said, “Again, we simply can’t thank you enough for being there when Liam needed it.”
Riley simply nodded, and Melinda followed her husband outside.
Then Riley found herself face to face with Liam.
His eyes were wide, and he looked to Riley as if he’d just now realized that he was going away.
“Riley,” he said, his voice squeaking in that charming adolescent way of his, “we never got a chance to play a game of chess.”
Riley felt a stab of regret. Liam had been teaching April the game, but somehow Riley had never gotten around to playing with him.
Now she felt that she’d never gotten around to too many things.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “We can play online. I mean, you are going to stay in touch, aren’t you? We all expect to hear from you. A lot. If we don’t, I’ll come out to Omaha. I don’t think you’ll want the FBI knocking on your door.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll stay in touch. And we’ll play chess for sure.”
Then he added with an impish smile, “I’m really gonna kick your ass, you know.”
Riley laughed and hugged him.
“In your dreams,” she said.
But of course, she knew he was right. She was a pretty good chess player, but not nearly good enough to win against a brilliant kid like Liam.
Looking like he was on the verge of tears, Liam dashed out the door. He got into the car with Scott and Melinda, and they pulled out of the driveway and drove away.
As Riley stood watching, she heard Jilly and Gabriela cleaning up in the kitchen.
Then she felt someone squeeze her hand. She turned and saw that it was April, looking at her with concern.
“Are you OK, Mom?”
Riley could hardly believe that April was the one to show sympathy right now. After all, Liam had been her boyfriend when he’d moved it. But their romance had been put on hold since then. They’d had to be “hermanos solamente,” as Gabriela had put it—brother and sister only.
April had handled the change with grace and maturity.
“I’m OK,” Riley said. “How about you?”
April blinked a little, but she seemed remarkably in control of her emotions.
“I’m fine,” she said.
Riley remembered something April had planned to do with Liam when school was out.
She said, “Are you still planning to go to chess camp this summer?”
April shook her head.
“Without Liam, it just wouldn’t be the same.”
“I understand,” Riley said.
April squeezed Riley’s hand a little harder and said, “We did a really good thing, didn’t we? Helping Liam, I mean.”
“We sure did,” Riley said, squeezing April’s hand back.
Then she stood gazing at her daughter for a moment. She seemed so incredibly grown up right now, and Riley felt deeply proud of her.
Of course, like all mothers, she worried about April’s future.
She’d become especially concerned recently, when April announced to her that she wanted to be an FBI agent.
Was that the kind of life Riley wanted for her daughter?
She reminded herself yet again …
What I want doesn’t matter.
Her job as a parent was to do all she could to make her daughter’s dreams possible.
April was starting to look just a little restless under Riley’s intense, loving gaze.
“Um, is something wrong, Mom?” April asked.
Riley simply smiled. She’d been waiting for the right moment to bring up something special with April. And if this wasn’t the right moment, she couldn’t imagine when it would be.
“Come on upstairs,” Riley said to April. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”
As Riley led April up the stairs, she found herself wondering if she had really made the right decision. But she could feel that April was excited about what the “surprise” would be.
She thought that April also seemed a little nervous.
No more nervous than I am, Riley realized. But she didn’t figure she could change her mind now.
They both went into Riley’s bedroom.
A glance at the expression on her daughter’s face convinced Riley not to make any advance explanations. She went to her closet, where a new little black safe was on the shelf. She punched numbers into the keypad, then took something out and laid it on the bed.
April’s eyes opened wide at what she saw.
“A gun!” she said. “Is it …?”
“Yours?” Riley replied. “Well, legally it’s still mine. Virginia law says you can’t own a handgun until you’re eighteen. But you can learn with this one until then. We’re going to work our way into this slowly, but if you’ve learned to handle it well, it’ll be yours.”
April’s mouth was hanging open.
“Do you want it?” Riley asked.
April didn’t seem to know what to say.
Was this a mistake? Riley wondered. Maybe April actually didn’t feel ready for this.
Riley said, “You said you wanted to become an FBI agent.”
April nodded eagerly.
Riley said, “So—I thought it might be a good idea to start you on some weapons training. Don’t you?”
“Yes—oh, yes,” April said. “This is wonderful. Really, really amazing. Thanks, Mom. I’m just kind of overwhelmed. I really hadn’t expected this.”
“I hadn’t either,” Riley said. “I mean, I hadn’t expected to do anything like this at this point. Owning a gun is a huge responsibility and one that a lot of adults can’t handle.”
Riley took the gun out of the case and showed it to April.
She said, “This is a Ruger SR22—a .22 caliber semiautomatic handgun.”
“A .22?” April asked.
“Believe me, this is not a toy. I don’t want you training with a larger caliber yet. A .22 can be just as dangerous as any other gun—maybe more so. More people are killed by this caliber than any other. Treat it with care and respect. You’ll only be handling it for training purposes. I’ll keep it in my closet the rest of the time. It will be in a gun safe that can only be opened with a combination. For now, I’ll be the only one with that.”
“Of course,” April said. “I wouldn’t want to have it just lying around.”
Riley added, “And I’d rather you didn’t mention this to Jilly.”
“What about Gabriela?”
Riley knew it was a good question. As far as Jilly was concerned, it was simply a matter of maturity. She might get jealous and want a gun of her own, which was out of the question. As for Gabriela, Riley suspected that she might be alarmed at the idea of April learning to use a weapon.
“I might tell her,” Riley said. “Not just yet.”
Riley clicked out the empty cartridge and said, “Always know whether your weapon is loaded or not.”
She handed the unloaded gun to April, whose hands were shaking a little.
Riley almost joked …
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get one in pink.”
But she thought better of it. This was not a thing to joke about.
April said, “But what do I do with it? Where? When?”
“Right now,” Riley said. “Come on, let’s go.”
Riley put the gun back in its case and carried it with her as they went back down the stairs. Fortunately, Gabriela was working in the kitchen and Jilly was in the family room, so they didn’t have to discuss what was in the case.
April went to the kitchen and told Gabriela that she and Riley were going out for a while, then went to the family room and told Jilly the same. The younger girl seemed to be fascinated by something playing on the TV, and she just nodded.
Riley and April both went out the front door and got into the car. Riley drove them to a gun store called Smith Firearms, where she’d bought the gun a couple of days ago. When she and April went inside, they were surrounded by firearms of every type and size, hanging on the walls or in glass cases.
They were greeted by Brick Smith, the store owner. He was a large, bearded man wearing a plaid shirt and a wide, hearty smile.
“Hello there, Ms. Paige,” he said. “It’s good to see you again. What brings you around today?”
Riley said, “This is my daughter, April. We came by to try out the Ruger I bought here the other day.”
Brick Smith seemed slightly amused. Riley remembered when she’d brought her own boyfriend, Blaine, here to buy him a gun for self-defense. Back then, Brick had seemed a little nonplussed to see a woman buying a gun for a man. His surprise had waned when he’d found out that Riley was an FBI agent.
He didn’t look the least bit surprised now.
He’s getting used to me, Riley thought. Good. Not everybody does.
“Well, well, well,” he said, looking at April. “You didn’t tell me you were buying the gun for your little girl.”
Those words jarred Riley a little …
“… your little girl.”
She wondered—had April taken offense?
Riley glanced at April and saw that she was still looking a bit overwhelmed.
I guess she kind of feels like a little girl at the moment, Riley thought.
Brick Smith led Riley and April through a door into the surprisingly large shooting range behind the store, then left them alone.
“First things first,” Riley said, pointing to a long list on the wall. “Read these rules. Ask me if you’ve got any questions.”
Riley stood watching as April read over the rules, which of course covered all the safety essentials, including never pointing a gun in any direction except downrange. As April read with an earnest expression, Riley felt an odd sense of déjà vu. She remembered when she had brought Blaine here to buy and try out his new weapon.
It was a somewhat bitter memory.
Over breakfast at his house after their first night of lovemaking, Blaine had hesitantly told her …
“I think I need to buy a gun. For home protection.”
Of course, Riley had understood why. His own life had been in danger since he’d come to know her. And as things turned out, he’d needed that gun only days later to defend not only himself but also Riley’s whole family from a dangerous escaped convict, Shane Hatcher. Blaine had almost killed the man.
Riley now felt again the pang of guilt over that terrible incident.
Is no one safe with me in their lives? she wondered. Will everyone I know need guns because of me?
April finished reading the rules, and she and Riley went to one of the empty booths, where April put on ear and eye protection gear. Riley took the gun out of the box and put it in front of April.
April looked at it with a daunted expression.
Good, Riley thought. She ought to feel intimidated.
April said, “This is different from the gun you bought for Blaine.”
“That’s right,” Riley said. “I got him a Smith and Wesson 686, a .38 caliber revolver—a much more powerful weapon. But his needs were different. He only wanted to be able to defend himself. He wasn’t thinking about going into law enforcement like you.”
Riley picked up the gun and showed it to April.
“There are some big differences between a revolver and a semiautomatic. A semiautomatic has a lot of advantages, but a few disadvantages as well—occasional misfires, double feed, failure to eject, stovepipe jams. I didn’t want Blaine to have to deal with any of that, not in a case of emergency. But as for you—well, you might as well start learning about them right away, in a safe setting where your life isn’t in danger.”
Riley began to show April what she needed to know next—how to put rounds into the cartridge, how to put the cartridge into the weapon, and how to unload it again.
Demonstrating, Riley said, “Now this weapon can be used in either single-action or double-action mode. Single-action is when you pull back the hammer before pulling the trigger. Then the gun takes over and automatically cocks the gun again and again. You can fire off rapid shots until your cartridge is empty. That’s the great advantage of a semiautomatic.”
Fingering the trigger, Riley continued, “Double-action is when you do all the work with the trigger. As you begin to pull, the hammer cocks, and when you finish, the gun fires. If you want to fire another shot, you have to start all over again. That takes more work—your finger is pulling against eight to eleven pounds of pressure—and the firing is slower. And it’s what I want you to do to get started.”
She pushed a button to bring the paper target to seven yards away from the booth, then showed April the proper stance and hand positions for firing, and also how to aim.
Riley said, “OK, your gun isn’t loaded. Let’s try some dry firing.”
As she had done with Blaine, Riley explained to April how to breathe—to inhale slowly while aiming, then exhale slowly as she pulled the trigger so that her body would be most still when the weapon fired.
April aimed carefully at the vaguely human shape on the target, then pulled the trigger several times. Then, at Riley’s instruction, she put the loaded cartridge into the gun, resumed her position, and fired a single shot.
April let out a startled squeal.
“Did I hit anything?” she asked.
Riley pointed to the target.
“Well, you hit the target, anyway. And for your first try, that’s not bad. How did it feel?”
April let out a nervous giggle.
“Kind of surprising. I expected more of a …”
“Yeah. And it wasn’t as loud as I’d expected.”
Riley nodded and said, “That’s one of the nice things about a .22. You won’t develop a flinch or other bad habits. As you work your way up to larger weapons, you’ll be ready to deal with their power. Go ahead, empty the cartridge.”
As April slowly fired the nine remaining rounds, Riley noticed a change in her face. It was a determined, fierce expression that Riley realized she had seen in April sometime before. Riley tried to remember …
When was that? Only once, she thought.
Then the memory hit her like a thunderbolt …
Riley had pursued the monster named Peterson down to a riverbank. He was holding April hostage, bound hand and foot with a gun to her head. When Peterson’s gun misfired, Riley lunged at him and stabbed him, and they struggled in the river until he pushed her head underwater and was about to drown her.
Her face surfaced for a moment, and she saw a sight she would never forget …
Her wrists and feet still bound, April was on her feet holding the shotgun that Peterson had dropped.
April slammed its butt against Peterson’s head …
The fight had ended a few moments later, when Riley smashed Peterson’s face in with a rock.
But she’d never forgiven herself for allowing April to be in such danger.
And now, here April was, firing away at the target with the same fierce expression on her face.
She’s so much like me, Riley thought.
And if April really put her heart and soul into it, Riley was sure that she’d become as good an FBI agent as she’d ever been—perhaps better.
But was that a good thing or a bad thing?
Riley didn’t know whether to feel guilty or proud.
But during the half-hour training session, April fired with ever increasing confidence and accuracy at the target. By the time they left the gun store and drove home, Riley was definitely feeling proud.
April was exhilarated and chatty, asking all kinds of questions about the training she had to look forward to. Riley gave the best answers she could, trying not to show her ambivalence about the future April seemed to want so much.
As they neared home, April said, “Look who’s here.”
Riley’s heart sank when she saw the expensive BMW pulled up in front of the townhouse. She knew it belonged to the last person in the world she wanted to see right now.
As Riley parked her own modest vehicle behind the BMW, she realized that things were likely to get very unpleasant in her house. When she turned off the engine, April picked up the box with the gun in it and started to get out of the car.
“Better leave that here for now,” Riley said.
She certainly didn’t want to explain the weapon to the unwelcome visitor.
“I guess you’re right,” April replied, shoving the box under the front seat.
“And don’t forget—don’t tell Jilly about this,” Riley said.
“I won’t,” April said. “But she’s probably figured out already that you got something for me, and she’ll wonder all about it. Oh, well, on Sunday you’ll be giving her a present of her own and she’ll forget all about this.”
Present of her own? Riley wondered.
Then she remembered—Sunday was Jilly’s birthday.
Riley felt her face flush with alarm.
She’d almost forgotten that Gabriela had planned a family party for Sunday evening.
And she still hadn’t bought Jilly a present.
Don’t forget! she told herself sternly.
Riley and April locked up the car and walked on into the house. Sure enough, the owner of the luxury car—Riley’s ex-husband—was sitting there in the living room.
Jilly was in a chair across from him, her stony expression showing that she wasn’t the least bit happy to have him there.
“Ryan, what are you doing here?” Riley asked.
Ryan turned toward her with that charming smile that had too many times weakened her resolve to shut him out completely.
He’s still handsome, damn it, she thought.
She knew that he went to a lot of trouble to look that way and spent many hours at the gym.
Ryan said, “Hey, is that any way to greet family? I am still family, aren’t I?”
Nobody spoke for a moment.
The tension was palpable and Ryan’s expression turned to one of disappointment.
Riley wondered—what kind of greeting had he expected?
He hadn’t even been to see them in about three months. Before that, they had made an attempt at reconciling. He’d spent a couple of months more or less living here, but he’d never completely moved in. He’d kept the comfortable house he had once shared with Riley and April before the separation and divorce.
The girls had been happy to have him around—until he lost interest and wandered off again.
The girls had been crushed by that.
And now, here he was again, out of the blue and without warning.
The silence continued to hang in the air. Then Jilly crossed her arms and scowled.
Turning to Riley and April, she asked, “Where did the two of you take off to, anyway?”
She hated to lie to Jilly, but this would surely be a bad time to tell her about April’s gun.
Fortunately, April said, “We just had an errand to run.”
Ryan looked up at April.
“Hey, sweetie,” he said. “Don’t I get a hug or something?”
April didn’t make eye contact with him. She just stood there shuffling her feet for a moment.
Finally she said in a sullen voice, “Hi, Daddy.”
Looking like she was about to burst into tears, April turned around and trotted up the stairs to her room.
Ryan’s mouth dropped open.
“What was that all about?” he said.
Riley sat down alone on the couch, trying to figure out how best to handle the situation.
She asked again, “What are you doing here, Ryan?”
“Jilly and I are talking about her schoolwork—or at least I’m trying to get her to talk about her schoolwork. Have her grades been slipping? Is that what she doesn’t want to tell me?”
“My grades are fine,” Jilly said.
“So tell me all about school, why don’t you?” Ryan asked.
“School’s fine—Mr. Paige,” Jilly said.
Riley cringed, and Ryan looked wounded.
Jilly had started calling Ryan “Dad” just before he had left.
Before that, she had called him “Ryan.” Riley was sure that Jilly had never called him Mr. Paige before. The girl was expressing her attitude very clearly.
Jilly got up from her chair and said, “If it’s OK with everybody, I’ve got some homework to do.”
“Do you want any help?” Ryan asked.
Jilly ignored the question and trotted up the stairs.
Ryan looked at Riley with a stricken expression.
“What’s going on here?” he said. “Why are the girls so mad at me?”
Riley sighed bitterly. Sometimes her ex was just as immature as they’d both been when they married so young.
“Ryan, what on earth did you expect?” she asked, as patiently as she could manage. “When you moved in, the girls were just thrilled to have you around. Especially Jilly. Ryan, that poor girl’s father was an abusive drunk. She almost became a prostitute to get away from him—and she’s just thirteen years old! It meant so much to her to have a father figure like you in her life. Don’t you understand how crushed she was when you took off?”
Ryan just stared at her with a puzzled expression, as if he had no idea what she was talking about.
But Riley remembered all too well what Ryan had told her on the phone.
“I need some space. This whole family thing—I thought I was ready for it, but I wasn’t.”
And he hadn’t shown a lot of concern about Jilly at the time.
“Riley, Jilly was your decision. I admire you for it. But I never signed up for it. Somebody else’s troubled teenager is too much for me. It’s not fair.”
And now here he was, acting hurt because Jilly didn’t want to call him “Dad” anymore.
It really was infuriating.
Riley found it small wonder that the two girls had stormed off just now. She more than half wanted to do the same thing. Unfortunately, somebody had to be an adult in this situation. And since Ryan seemed to be incapable of that, Riley was stuck with the job.
Before she could think of what to say next, Ryan got up from his chair and sat down beside her. He reached toward her.
Riley pushed him away.
“Ryan, what are you doing?”
“What do you think I’m doing?”
Ryan’s voice sounded amorous now.
Riley’s fury was mounting by the second.
“Don’t even think about it,” she said. “How many girlfriends have you been through since you’ve been gone?”
“Girlfriends?” Ryan asked, obviously trying to sound baffled by the very question.
“You heard me. Or did you forget? One of them mistakenly called here while you were still around. She sounded drunk. You said her name was Lina. But I don’t guess Lina was the last. How many more have there been? Do you even know? Do you even remember all their names?”
Ryan didn’t reply. He looked guilty now.
Everything was starting to make sense to Riley. This whole thing had happened before, and she felt stupid for not having expected it.
Ryan was between girlfriends, and he figured Riley would do under the circumstances.
He didn’t really care about the girls at all—not even his own daughter. They were just a pretext for getting together with Riley.
Riley clenched her teeth and said, “I think you’d better leave.”
“Why? What’s the matter? You’re not seeing anyone, are you?”
“As a matter of fact, I am.”
Now Ryan looked genuinely perplexed, as if he couldn’t imagine why Riley would take an interest in any other man.
Then he said, “Oh my God. It’s not that cook again, is it?”
Riley let out a growl of anger.
She said, “You know very well that Blaine is a master chef. You also know that he owns a nice restaurant, and April and his daughter are best friends. He’s terrific with the girls—everything you’re not. And yes, I am seeing him, and it’s getting pretty serious. So I really, really want you to get out of here.”
Ryan stared at her for a moment.
Finally he said in a bitter voice, “We were good together.”
She didn’t reply.
Ryan got up from the couch and headed for the door.
“Let me know if you change your mind,” he said as he left the house.
Riley was tempted to say …
“Don’t hold your breath.”
… but she managed to not say it. She just sat still until she heard the sound of Ryan’s car pulling away. Then she breathed a little easier.