“Ms. Megan, thank God you’re home! It’s . . . it’s Charlie. I can’t find little Charlie.”
Meg’s heart took a leap as she stepped into the house, nearly colliding with her housekeeper, Rose Wills.
“He probably woke up and wandered off somewhere. He has to be here someplace.” But even as she said the words, worry jolted through her. Telling herself not to panic, Meg hurried toward the stairs.
“I put him down for a nap an hour ago,” Rose said, hurrying along behind her. “When I went back to check on him, he was gone.”
“You know how he likes to hide. He’s just found a new place.” But fear had her pulse kicking up, and her stomach started to churn. At the top of the landing, she turned and ran down the hall to her three-year-old’s bedroom, the housekeeper close behind her.
Charlie wasn’t in his small white youth bed. “Charlie! Mama’s home. Charlie! Where are you, sweetheart?” Meg ran to the closet and pulled open the door, searched through the stuffed toys and games on the closet floor, but found no sign of her son.
Her heart was hammering now, her stomach balled into a fist. Meg told herself to stay calm. There were dozens of places a little boy could hide in a two-story house.
“Charlie! Charlie, where are you, sweetie?”
Rose’s higher-pitched, worried voice chimed in. “Charlie! Come out now. Your mommy wants you.”
They searched upstairs, but he was nowhere to be seen, went downstairs and searched the floor below.
“God, Rose, where could he be? You don’t think he went outside?”
“I always keep the doors locked and the chain on. There’s no way he could have gotten out.”
They checked all the doors, but Rose was right. No way could her little boy have gotten out of the house.
Meg ran back upstairs. She returned to his room, walked over to the bed to see if the covers still held a trace of warmth. Reaching down, she touched the soft blue blanket with the sailboats on it, but none of Charlie’s heat remained.
Instead, she spotted an envelope protruding from the folds, her name in ink on the front.
“What did you find?” Rose came up beside her.
“It’s a letter.” Her hands shook as she tore the envelope open.
“I didn’t see it before,” Rose said. “Oh, dear Lord.” She started to tremble, her breasts heaving as the implication sank in. She was a big woman, nearly as tall as Meg’s five-foot ten-inch frame. “What . . . what does it say?”
Meg read the note and her heart clutched, then turned to stone. “‘We have your son. He’ll cost you ten million in cash. You’ve got three days or he’s . . . he’s dead. No police.’“
Meg swayed on her feet. She gripped the headboard, afraid she might faint. Dear God, my baby! She turned, let Rose pull her into a hug, and her eyes welled with tears. They clung to each other, both of them crying.
The housekeeper straightened away. “We have to call the police. They’ll know what to do. They’ll get Charlie back.”
Meg shook her head. “No police. If we call them, they’ll kill him.”
Rose crossed herself. “What are going to do, Ms. Meg?”
Meg closed her eyes and prayed for strength. Her dad was extremely wealthy. He loved his grandson. Her father could get the ten million dollars they needed to pay the ransom.
But her dad was also extremely controlling. And he believed money was the solution to everything. What if the kidnappers took the money and still killed her baby?
She thought of Charlie’s father, Jonathan Hollander, the man she had married to please her dad. Yes, he was hand-some. She couldn’t deny she’d been attracted to his dark good looks and charming smile. Her father hadn’t been able to see past Jonathan’s impressive Harvard education and his family’s lofty position in society.
Meg thought what a no-good, lying cheat he had turned out to be.
She couldn’t go to Jonathan.
Another man’s image came to mind. Smart. Loyal to a fault. Strong. Tough. Reliable. The one man she would trust with her precious son’s life.
“I know someone.” Strength seeped through her as determination set in. “I know a man who can bring Charlie home.”
Megan O’Brien parked at the end of the gravel driveway and quietly got out of her white BMW X1 compact SUV. Through the trees, she could hear the roar of a chainsaw, hear hammers banging away, see two-by-fours of golden-yellow pine going up to form the sides of the house under construction.
The garage was already finished, undoubtedly full of Dirk’s toys, including a Harley and a custom Dodge Viper. In the summer, he kept a boat docked on the lake below the house.
Though two other men were hard at work, her gaze went straight to Dirk. Hammer in hand, carpenter’s belt dangling low on his waist, he was shirtless, though the January air was chill.
Hard muscle flexed across his back and shoulders as he pounded in a nail with an ease that said how many times he had done it. Long, sinewy muscles outlined by the soft fabric of his jeans stretched and moved as he worked on his house.
Meg’s gaze went over the familiar dragon tattoo that wound over one shoulder and inched up the side of his neck. The colored ink seemed right with the sexy, short-cropped horseshoe mustache that framed his mouth and curved down to his jaw, making him look like the hard, tough man he was.
Even her terrible fear for her son couldn’t block the memories of how it had felt to lie with him. Couldn’t lessen the yearning that burned through her body just at the sight of him.
Meg had met Dirk Reynolds five months before when she had been preparing for the La Belle fashion show tour. Meg, one of their top models, worked for the chain of expensive lingerie stores.
She glanced back at Dirk. He and his friend, Ethan Brodie, did private investigation and personal security for Brodie Operations Security Services, Inc., the company that had been hired to protect the models after one of them was murdered.
Dirk had been her bodyguard, and though every instinct had warned her not to get involved with him, the fierce attraction between them had been impossible to resist.
Once the models returned home, Meg had ended the affair. She and Dirk weren’t right for each other. Dirk lived fast and hard. He rode a motorcycle, drove a car that could go two hundred miles an hour. Dirk Reynolds was wild and fierce, while she was a single mother with a son to raise.
She couldn’t have Dirk Reynolds. She had a responsibility to her little boy. With a failed marriage behind her, she couldn’t risk failing again.
But she had never gotten over Dirk.
Meg steeled herself and headed along the gravel driveway toward the house Dirk was rebuilding after the fire that had nearly killed him five months ago. One thing she knew, Dirk Reynolds was a hard man to kill.
Which was the reason she had swallowed her pride and her heartache and come to him. She needed him, trusted him as she never had any other man. Her little boy’s life depended on gaining this man’s help. This man she had loved and rejected.
She stepped out of the foliage-covered driveway into the open area around the house he was rebuilding. She had called his office looking for him. Nick Brodie, one of the other PIs at BOSS Inc., had reluctantly told her where to find him. Maybe it was the tears he heard in her voice when she had said how important it was. That it was a matter of life or death.
With Dirk’s usual keen senses, he turned, alert that some-one was there, though the buzz of the saw had hid the sound of her footsteps.
For several long moments, he just stared, watching as she walked toward him. He was six-two, his body lean and sculpted. Wavy dark brown hair curled at the nape of his neck. She forced herself to keep walking, even as his jaw locked and a fierce scowl darkened his face.
Dirk grabbed a faded blue work shirt and shrugged it on, covering most of his amazing chest. He didn’t bother fastening the buttons, just strode toward her, blocking her view of the house.
He stopped right in front of her. “What are doing here, Meg?”
“I need to talk to you. It’s . . . it’s urgent.”
“You’re trespassing. What do you want?”
She swallowed, fought to stay strong. He didn’t want her there. She had known he wouldn’t. Known he thought of her only with contempt. She wished he would hold her the way he used to when she was afraid. “I . . . I want to hire you.”
The corner of his mouth edged into a ruthless half smile. “What for? Stud service?”
She wanted to cry. She wanted to beg his forgiveness. Tell him she had never forgotten him. That she never would. She knew it wouldn’t matter to Dirk. Not anymore.
All that mattered now was saving her son.
She looked into those hard hazel eyes and for the first time wondered if she’d been wrong to think he would help her. Dear God, what would she do if Dirk refused?
A sob wedged in her throat. She fought desperately to hold on to her courage. “It’s Charlie. He’s been kidnapped. They left a note. It says they’ll . . . they’ll kill him if I go to the police.”
Something shifted in those hard, condemning eyes. For a moment, the old Dirk appeared. Concerned for her, determined to protect her at any cost, even his life.
“I’ll take you down to the office. Ethan’s out of town with Val. I’ll get Nick to work with you. Or Luke. They’ll help you find your boy. They’ll help you get him back.”
They were all private investigators and they were the best. But they weren’t Dirk Reynolds. Meg started shaking her head, couldn’t stop the tears that leaked onto her cheeks. “It has to be you. I know in my heart you can save Charlie. Only you.”
His jaw went iron hard. “Jesus, Meg.”
“Please, Dirk. Please help me.”
“Do you know what you’re asking?”
She knew. There was a time he had loved her. He had begged her to stay with him, give them a chance. Meg had refused.
“He’s just a little boy. I know you can save him. You won’t give up until you do.”
“Jesus.” He raked a hand through his heavy dark hair. She remembered the exact silky feel of the strands between her fingers.
“The note says they want ten million dollars,” she said. “They’ll kill him if they don’t get it.”
He took a deep breath, released it slowly. “How much time did they give you?”
“Ten million. That’s a helluva lot of money.”
“My father can get it.”
His gaze remained on her face. “But you don’t trust him to get your boy back. That’s smart, Meg, because money doesn’t always work.”
She swiped at her tears with the back of her hand. “Will you help me?”
His eyes went dark. “You knew I would when you came here.”
“I prayed you would. I wasn’t sure anymore.”
He gazed over her shoulder through the trees, spotted her small white SUV. “You okay to drive?”
“I’m all right.”
“I’ll follow you back to your house.” His mouth barely curved. “I think I can remember where it is.”
Meg turned away from him. Three days. In three days Charlie would be safely returned. Dirk would go on with his life and she would go on with hers.
The pain didn’t matter. Charlie was all that mattered. Meg had no other choice.
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