Ten years ago, Jen LaCroix left Dino Brancuzzi carrying a big secret. Now, her life is in danger and he’s the only man she can trust.
When a valuable shipment disappears from the museum where she works, the finger points to her and the number of dangerous people after her continues to increase. Leaving that secret, Dino’s nine-year-old daughter, Deanne, with Ethan Caine, Jen finds a place to hide in the Caribbean.
Dino is stunned to discover he has a daughter and immediately launches a search to find Jen and protect her. He might have made the biggest mistake by not realizing in time that he loved her all those years ago, but can he forgive her for keeping the child a secret?
A suburb of Detroit, Michigan
Jennifer LaCroix took a breath in an attempt to still her galloping pulse and get herself under control. What an unbelievable mess this was. And just how had it all ended up in her lap, anyway? It had to be Sutherland, that jerk, pointing his finger in her direction. She’d never liked him or trusted him, not in all the years she’d worked at the museum, and now she had even more reason not to.
Chaos reigned all around her. A shipment of antiquities, the largest yet, was scheduled to arrive at the museum for a special show. They’d be on display for three months, thanks to the owner who’d loaned them, and the entire shipment had somehow disappeared. Craig Sutherland, the museum director, swore he’d never signed for them, but the shipping company driver insisted he had. Meanwhile, they were missing.
In the ten years Jen had worked here, she’d never seen such pandemonium. But of course, a disaster like this had never happened before, either. When the discovery was made three days ago that the latest shipment of artifacts had gone missing, everyone went crazy. Of course, they did. Those artifacts were rare and uber costly. Some even said priceless. Crazy was a mild term for how it had been since then. FBI agents were all over the place, and the museum board was everywhere, scrutinizing everyone and everything. Giving everyone the third degree.
The board was also doing its best to clamp a lid on things, because if the owners of the artifacts heard, there’d be ten kinds of hell to pay. The blowback might even cause the museum to close. The story was all over the media, the board was in an uproar, the staff was in a panic.
Sutherland was sweating bullets, despite his efforts to maintain control. Major donors were involved in the museum, many of them thanks to his efforts. If they all pulled their support, the place would definitely close. No wonder Roger Welborn, the chairman of the board of directors of the museum, was raising holy hell and rightfully so. He was angrier than she’d ever seen him. It was almost as if they’d been stolen from him personally. Thank the lord, at least, he wasn’t here today, throwing his weight around, telling her how the museum was his responsibility and if she knew anything at all, she’d better tell him or get herself a good lawyer.
Sutherland, who was also her immediate boss, still denied any involvement, of course. Said he hadn’t even been at the museum the day the shipment arrived. That it was scheduled for a different day. The driver was now nowhere to be found, and the signature on the receiving form was totally illegible.
And now, here she was, headed yet again for the room the federal agents were using. Why? She’d already told them everything she knew at least five times. Answered their questions a million times. But the damn suits had summoned her for questioning yet again. Summoned!
Her throat was dry, but her palms were sweaty as hell. Nausea gripped her and she prayed she didn’t throw up. Why did the Feds want to ask her more questions? Was she being targeted to take the fall? Why? And by whom?
What the hell was going on?
Rumors were flying. Craig wasn’t exactly popular with the employees, so pointing the finger at him for this was a natural reaction. Some even said he’d gotten his tail in a financial crack and selling the antiquities was his best answer. Jen certainly knew there were enough uber wealthy people out there who would pay big bucks for the stuff, stolen or not. There was speculation that if it was him, he was planning to disappear and leave this mess in someone else’s lap.
Would it be hers? Had he dumped it on her? Was that why the FBI said they wanted to question her again?
She had done her best to keep a low profile. The delivery had gotten screwed up somehow. That’s all she could think of. Usually there were guards in the delivery truck and a museum guard to assist with the receipt of the items. None of that had happened. Sutherland was claiming the delivery date was changed, and that she, Jen, must have done it to get her hands on the items. That was the only answer he could think of.
What bothered her was how quick people were to believe it. Not that she’d spent any time cultivating friendships at work. She’d done her job, done it well, and devoted the rest of her time to Deanne. Still, she would have thought someone would wonder why a woman who worked hard and kept her nose clean was being accused of this.
Her stomach had been tied in knots for three days as she was questioned over and over and over. And now they had sent word they wanted to talk to her again. Again! God! Had Craig weaseled out by dumping this whole mess on her? She had to talk to him before she met with the Feds again.
As she approached his office, she heard his voice.
“Don’t threaten me, asshole.”
Jen LaCroix sucked in a breath and stopped where she stood, absolutely still, listening to his voice. Apparently, he’d thought he’d closed his office door all the way, but it was open a tiny crack, just enough so she could hear him. Through the thin opening, she saw him standing at his desk, talking on his cell phone. Frozen in place, she strained her ears to hear him, hoping no one came by here. Who on earth could he be talking to? She held her breath and pressed against the tall pieces of statuary right outside his door.
“That’s what I said, Welborn.”
Welborn? The chairman of the board? Surely, he didn’t have anything to do with this. Right?
“I don’t do well with threats. I told you this entire shipment had disappeared along with your special items, so I have nothing for you. I already have enough trouble from this. There’s nothing for you this time, and plus, the situation has made it impossible for us to continue our arrangement. Too many eyes on me.”
They had to be discussing the missing shipment. Nothing else made sense. It was all anyone was talking about. No one had yet been able to locate the mysterious person who had received it and whose signature was unrecognizable. It was now in the wind.
Craig, as the museum director, always received the shipments and signed for them. This time, or so he claimed, he’d been out when the boxes arrived, and he had no idea who signed for them. Didn’t even know they’d arrived, or so he said. She personally had no clue what had happened to it. What on earth was included with it that Roger Welborn had a special interest in? What did he have to do with it? There had to be something about this shipment that caused it to go missing.
Was it all a big lie? But it was Welborn who called in the FBI. Welborn who was raising holy hell. Welborn who had everyone running around like their hair was on fire. So what did he have going on with Sutherland that no one could find out about?
“Listen to me.” Sutherland’s voice had a grating sound. “For five years, I’ve been locating items for you and paying people to hide them in shipments to the museum. If I hadn’t been sucker enough to get pulled into your poker game, I wouldn’t be in this position.”
Holy shit! Five years? What did he mean? And what poker game?
Jen wondered if he meant the ones Welborn hosted privately that people speculated about. They involved people with a lot of power or money or both.
“No, damn it, I already told you ten times I don’t have them,” Sutherland snapped. His next words sent a chill racing down her spine. “I told you, I told the Feds, and I’ll tell you again. Take a look at snotty Jen LaCroix who’s thought she was too good for all of us from the day she got here. She’s got a kid to support and no husband. I’d put money down that she figured out how to grab it while I was out and has it hidden somewhere until she can figure out how to sell it. Maybe she already has a buyer. No, I’m not asking her. Are you crazy? Ask her your damn self. Yes, the FBI’s asked to talk to her again. Take it up with them.”
She sucked in a breath. What was he doing to her? He’d begun to resent her the past few years, mostly because she studied her craft and knew more about the antiquities coming into the museum than he did. And because the board members had begun to look at her with more respect and attention than they gave to him.
The last thing she wanted was to call attention to herself. What if somehow word got to Dino? What if—Oh, god!—he saw a picture of her and Deanne somehow and recognized the girl as the daughter he didn’t even know he had. For a moment, she was afraid she’d throw up right where she stood.
“What?” Craig’s voice had lowered. “Unless she already got rid of them, if she has them anywhere, she’s got them at her house. She’s got that nice little place just at the edge of town, situated among all those trees. It’s almost as if she planned this from the beginning and rented the house because it was a good place to hide things. No, I have no idea, but I’ll tell you this. I can’t be mixed up in something getting this much publicity. I’ve had enough. I’m done. I’m getting in my car, going home, making arrangements for my wife, and getting the fuck out of here. What do I care what everyone thinks?’
There was silence for another minute, and she was almost ready to ease herself away from his office, but his next words stopped her. This time his tone was different.
“That money’s mine. I earned it, and you’d better leave me the fuck alone. Listen,” Craig continued, “I have to get the hell out of here before they really start digging. If they find our connection, we’ll both be in deep shit, you more than me. This is over with. My debt is paid, and I’m done.”
“Maybe it’s a sign that our business arrangement really does need to come to an end. I told you I can’t keep doing it. No, I’m done with that, too. I have to get out from under this. I can’t live like this any longer.”
The pause this time was even longer.
“What? No, no, no. I told you, damn it. I do not have any of it. God knows I almost got my nuts in a wringer because of our arrangement, and that’s why I’m done. I’m getting the fuck out of here while I can. Don’t look for me.” There was a long moment of silence, during which Jen wondered if he’d just hung up. “Yes,” he said at last. “Yes, I’m sure Jen’s got them. That’s the only possible answer. I told you, I hinted as much to the Feds to point them in that direction and away from me.”
Jen thought she might faint. No wonder the FBI wanted to talk to her again.
“What? How? Damn it. I’m not saying it again. I wasn’t here when the shipment arrived. She could have intercepted this delivery and claimed it never arrived. If you want to find your stuff, check out that woman’s house.”
Oh, god! He’d painted a damn bullseye on her back. Jen swallowed hard. She had to fight the urge to barge into his office and smack the little shit.
“What? You think I’m an idiot? Of course I did. Told them, regretfully, much as I didn’t want to believe it, she had to be the one. I’d heard she really needed the money. Hinted she might even have been smuggling goods in this way for a while and selling them. This time she probably took the museum stuff, too. Shocked, of course, that she might do such a thing. You know the drill. I had to make sure they were off my back, for which you should be grateful.”
Holy shit! Jen nearly fainted at that, every bit of saliva in her mouth drying up.
“What? No, of course not.” He raised his voice. “Damn it, I said no. I can’t do that. I have to leave. This is all caving in on my head. No, I never should have gone to the damn poker game to begin with.”
There was a longer moment of silence now, during which Jen wondered if Sutherland had just hung up on the call. But then he spoke again.
“No. It was my damn ego, puffed up because the fucking chairman of the fucking museum board invited me to his private game. I’m wondering if the whole thing was a setup from the beginning. Doesn’t matter now, though. I can’t do it anymore. We’re finished. You and I have to get the fuck away from here. We’re done. I mean it. Just forget my name.”
He must have been doing this a long time, whatever it was. He controlled all the shipments to the museum and was certainly in the best position to make it happen. And what was he selling illegally if the legitimate shipments were safely logged in? The biggest shock was discovering that Roger Welborn was apparently involved in this with him. She’d heard the man was a big collector, but would he be involved in something like that?
Her answer was, absolutely. The guy was a wealthy asshole who used people to his advantage and didn’t think rules applied to him.
“I’m telling you for the last time. Leave me alone. Go to her house. She probably thinks they’re safe there until she can do whatever with them.”
“Yes. That’s what I said. Send someone to her house now while she’s still in her office here. You’d better get your own ass in gear because the Feds will be on the way as soon as their warrant comes through. No, I can’t. I have to go. Now. I’m hanging up this minute. I’m done. This is getting to be too much of a mess for me. Be grateful you got what you did, but I’m out of here. Going where no one will find me.”
How had all this happened practically under her nose, and she hadn’t seen it? She counted to ten, waiting for Sutherland to finish his call. But before she could move, she heard his voice again, lower this time and apparently on another call.
“It’s me. Yes, it’s still crazy around here, but I can’t wait any longer to leave. While Jen’s tied up with the Feds, I can just ease out of here. Yes, I’ve made all my arrangements. We’ve been over this again and again. You’ve got the cell phone I gave you? Okay, just do what we said. And keep putting on that good act for the Feds and everyone. Yes, I’ll let you know when I get there. We’ve already made plans for you so just keep doing what you’re doing. Yes, I love you, too. Be careful.”
He grabbed his briefcase and headed for the door. She hid behind the statue outside the door to his office while he raced to get the hell out of there. Where was he going in the middle of all this chaos? The museum was his responsibility, so why was he ducking out? He was obviously the one who’d done this.
Should she go talk to the Feds? Would they believe her if she told them what she’d just overheard? Not if their attitude toward her was any indication. What if they arrested her? What would happen to Deanne? Oh, god. Her stomach cramped at the thought. She had to get out of here. Get away. Protect herself and her child. Hide somewhere until this all blew over if it ever did.
She tried to quiet her racing heart enough to make her own escape without being seen. She hurried away from Craig’s office, shaking as she fast-walked out to her car.
Pick up Deanne. Get home. Pack. Get the hell out of here. She’d figure out where to go after that.
She raced through traffic, driving as fast as she could to where Deanne was spending the day with a friend and practically yanked her away. Welborn had her name, and who knew what the hell he would do if he got hold of her. Getting out of town and hiding somewhere was the only answer.
Her cell phone rang as she drove, but she refused to answer it, instead letting it go to voice mail. She punched the button to hear the message over the speaker. She recognized the voice as the chairman of the board.
“Jennifer, this is Roger Welborn.”
Chairman of the museum board. And obviously somehow involved in this mess. Oh, god. She couldn’t talk to him. She had to get her stuff and Deanne’s and get away from here as fast as she could.
“I hate to do this over the phone, but you left me no choice, disappearing the way you did. The FBI is not pleased with the way you ran out on their interview, and it doesn’t look good for you. I need to understand what your involvement in all this is, so we need to meet immediately. I know the Feds want to see you again right away, so get back here now. Call me immediately. If I don’t hear from you, I’m sure the FBI will be sending people out to look for you. This is a serious matter.”
That was an understatement.
Jen hit the Off button. She’d delete the voice mail message when she got to the house. The man wielded a lot of power. If he needed a scapegoat, Craig Sutherland had handed them the perfect one in her. And for whatever reason, the wife of the board chairman did not like her. Even if her innocence was proven, she could end up losing her job and maybe even going to jail just on circumstantial evidence.
She’d left so much behind when she fled another different situation ten years ago, but it had worked out well. Life here had been good, quiet, uneventful, or at least she thought so. Now, thanks to Craig Sutherland, it was all up in smoke. She needed a safe place for Deanne and then somewhere she could disappear until this was all sorted out.
“But why are we in such a hurry,” her daughter kept asking as she drove toward the house like a maniac. “Where are we going? What’s wrong, Mom?”
What’s wrong? Everything. How dare he put me and Deanne in jeopardy to save his own skinny ass?
“Everything’s okay, sweetheart, but we’re taking a long trip. And you’re going to meet someone who is going to help us.”
“Help us with what?
“There are some bad people who think I have something that belongs to them. I don’t, but I don’t want to be around to argue with them.”
“But where are we going?” her daughter asked again.
“Someplace you’ll like. I promise.”
Someplace where you’ll be safe.
The house she’d been renting was just outside of town on a short road, surrounded by clusters of trees. She liked it because it made her feel as if they were living in their own cocoon. She had pretty much limited her social contacts, although she made sure Deanne had a busy, active life.
She parked the car away from the house, hiding it in the thicket of trees, then hustled her daughter inside. The first thing she did was take her little SIG P365 from the small safe in her closet and put it on her bed. When she’d first landed in Michigan, she’d decided, living alone and knowing nobody, she needed protection. Lessons at the local gun range had taken care of that. At least she’d have security of some kind in this situation. She’d also taken some self-defense classes, telling herself a woman alone couldn’t be too careful. Whatever happened, at least she’d be able to protect herself.
She began packing the suitcases she’d dragged out of the big closet. Deanne said nothing, just helped by bringing her own things into the bedroom. They had filled three of the suitcases and were working on the fourth when Jen heard a car pull up in the driveway. The doorbell rang, followed by the sound of breaking glass.
They hadn’t wasted any time. She shoved the suitcases back in the closet, stuck the gun in her pocket and turned to Deanne.
Please, god, let us get out of here before whoever Sutherland sent shows up.
“Deanne, you know I love you, right? Please just do what I say, don’t ask questions, and everything will be all right.”
At that moment, the front door opened, and heavy footsteps sounded through the downstairs.
Oh, god. Please don’t let them find us.
Wow! A page turner for sure! Thank you for sharing a full chapter with us! Wishing you all the best.