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This isn’t real. This can’t be real. Elle Devereaux clenched her teeth so hard her jaw hurt. Her life as she knew it was unrecognizable. Three weeks ago, two police officers had knocked on her apartment door and delivered news that had suctioned every bit of oxygen from her lungs. Her parents, her vibrant, caring parents—dead in their early sixties. Their private plane, one her father had flown hundreds of times, had crashed, killing both the pilot and the passenger instantly. In the days that followed, the nightmare spiraled as words like suspected suicide, crumbled business empire, and mounting debt circulated in whispers through their wealthy community of friends and neighbors.
People she had once considered close now distanced themselves. Her best friend, London, had coldly told her that her parents’ scandal might reduce her husband’s political aspirations, and this was goodbye. Maybe Elle had acted tough, telling London that her stuffy excuse for a husband was more likely to find himself under public scrutiny for his recent indiscretions with his young assistant, but inside, it had hurt.
She slid down the grainy attic wall until she was sitting with her legs crossed on the floor, papers, books, and cardboard boxes packed with memories cluttered around her. Dust puffed into the air as she opened another photo album and choked back tears. The old images were tucked into protective plastic sleeves, stuck together after years of residing here in the scorching loft of her parents’ mansion, and her childhood home.
As the executor of her parents’ estate, it was her responsibility to handle the probate of their assets to cover their unfathomable debt. She would collect what was important to her and worthless to others before the estate sale at the end of the month.
Why hadn’t they told her their manufacturing company was failing after forty successful years? She would’ve done anything to help them. Mixed among the bills from collection agencies was hate mail from employees who had lost their jobs, who had lost everything. Part of her wanted to call the disheartened staff members and apologize for the hardships brought on by her parents’ actions, while the other wanted to scream and rage.
To remind these employees why they chose to work at Devereaux Industries in the first place: the unmatched benefits and salaries, the paid educational opportunities and free childcare. Her parents had cared, truly cared about their team members. She understood their confusion, the what-ifs because she felt them too. The feelings carved out space in her heart, right next to the anguish, guilt, and fear of navigating the world without her mom and dad’s constant presence.
She traced her fingertips over a photograph of her parents, flipped through dozens of others. Her soccer tournaments, where her parents cheered her on even when she kicked the ball into the wrong net, the clarinet lessons that lasted all of two weeks, vacations, and holidays at the country club where they’d been members since she was a child.
She closed the album, put it into the box of things she intended to keep, and moved onto another trunk of items her parents had stored in the basement. The IRS had notified her that she had thirty days before the auction, and there was still so much to do. She only cared about the photos, the half-full bottle of her mom’s perfume she could smell when she got lonely, her dad’s well-worn pack of playing cards that reminded her of so many evenings sitting out under the veranda playing War.
The hinges of the trunk groaned in protest as she opened the lid. It was packed with old records and some clothes. Nothing she would keep. She lowered the top of the trunk and paused when a swatch of faded fabric caught her eye. Her whole body stilled, and she glanced over her shoulder as a sense of dread crept through her. Goose bumps shot down her arms, and the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She just stared at the bag, unsure of why she was having such an intense visceral reaction to it. Ignoring the chill that swept through her, she reached into the chest and dragged out a small clear bag. With her heart pounding, she slid open the plastic. The scent hit her first. Something clean, fresh—like pine needles. Laundry detergent. Pain zinged behind her eyes, and she tossed it to the floor. A pink elephant and a toddler’s blue-checkered dress tumbled onto the unfinished wood. She folded in half as a scream erupted in her mind. The image of a van flashed behind her eyelids. Another wild cry echoed all around her, Stephanie, Stephanie!
She gasped, chest heaving, as she desperately fought for air. Get out. Run. Elle fell on all fours and clawed her way to the attic stairs. She half slid, half fell down them and pushed the fold-up door closed with a loud snap. Still not far enough away. Elle took the stairs to the first floor two at a time, flipping light switches as she went. From the outside, the estate must’ve been ablaze with light, but inside, the giant home felt like a dark sarcophagus. Cold. How was she so cold? Pacing the room, she shakily checked each door lock and window latch. She paused, fingertips against paned glass. Had she seen that car parked across the street before? The one that was shaded by tinted windows and glossed with navy paint? She yanked the drapes shut. Oh God, she was losing it. Imaging things. Finding fear in everything. And all because she’d . . . what? Found an old dress and a stuffed animal? Nothing made sense, especially the terror swelling within. Her chest hurt, a crushing pain that made her sure she was going to die. She crawled onto the buttery leather couch, hid beneath a throw blanket, and shook.
The next day, Elle feared she was having a psychotic break brought on by the trauma of losing her parents. She was sitting at the empty dining room table, laptop open, scrolling through missing and exploited children. How she mustered the strength to go back up to the attic after her extraordinary panic attack, she’d never know. Even though she hated the sight of them, she brought the elephant and the dress downstairs along with every photo album she could find. There were no baby pictures of her. She’d been adopted, so it made sense, yet something about the forlorn, terrified-looking child in the earlier images jarred her.
What was she even looking for? She should book an appointment with a therapist. Physical and emotional exhaustion from the panic attack made all her muscles limp, drained. One more internet search and she’d shut down the computer, load the final boxes in her car, and drive back to her apartment. She looked at the tag on the elephant, trying to ignore the rusty stain that had dried over its middle, and typed it into the search bar along with a few other keywords, like Stephanie and White Van. Had she somehow had a nightmare while awake, or was she remembering a horrifying clip from her past?
Results popped up on the computer, including a news interview. Something about the redhead frozen midsentence made her stop and inhale a long breath. She opened the video clip, pressed play, and couldn’t help but feel as though something was terribly, terribly wrong. Her stomach clenched as the camera panned to a woman in a strappy black gown. She was standing in front of an oil painting—at an art gallery maybe, or a gala?
Inside a copper frame was a cherry-red Radio Flyer wagon piled high with stuffed animals and two young girls, one in overalls and the other in a blue-checkered dress. Elle looked across the room at the elephant that was currently strewn on the other side of the table. It was eerily similar to the one dangling from the younger child’s hand. The video zoomed in on the woman’s face as she stated her name, Alexandra Macintyre, and the world around Elle crawled to a stop.
This message is for my sister Stephanie, who was taken from our front yard in Clearwater, Florida, in 1996. Stephanie, I’ve never stopped hoping that you might be out there. If you are, and you see this, please come to my office building at 872 Beaumont Avenue in Boston . . . I’ve been wishing for so long.
Elle Devereaux steadied her trembling hands as she reached for the frosted glass door of Macintyre Investigating. The moment the cold metal handle touched her fingertips, she pulled them back as though she’d been singed. She wasn’t a coward, but this last month had left her stomach in knots and her mind rattled. Elle leaned back against the wall, and the breath rushed out of her lungs. The cold plaster pressed into her white blouse, a welcome relief from the unseasonably warm June day—at least that’s what the peppy front desk agent told her as she walked through the lobby of the Emsworth Hotel. So much for leaving the heat behind in Nevada.
She hadn’t traveled nearly three thousand miles to stand in the lobby of an office building. Elle straightened her shoulders, tipped up her chin, and breezed through the doorway. The conditioned air made her all too aware of the trickle of sweat that inched down her back. The sound of her heels was muffled by wall-to-wall blue and white patterned carpets. To her right was a sitting area with a mix of couches and chairs, and to her left was a sleek white reception desk. Everything in the office was tasteful, yet no-frills, no-nonsense.
“Hello, how can I help you?” An older woman with a silver pixie cut and a lavender cardigan eyed her from behind the desk and offered her a welcoming smile that lined her eyes.
“I’m here to see Alexandra Macintyre, please.” It took control, but she kept her voice steady. A blur caught the corner of her eye, and she glanced up. A man was looking down at her, a manila folder in his hands, assessing her with stormy gray eyes. The intensity of his gaze made the knots in her stomach tighten, and she turned back to the receptionist.
“I’m sorry, she’s out of the office today.” The woman offered a professional smile and began to say something else, but it was muffled by the roar in Elle’s ears. She’d spent days in her Boston hotel working up the nerve to come to the office after being driven north by nightmares, eerie flashbacks, and the feeling that someone was constantly watching her. She was losing it, but the memory of Alexandra’s voice pleading for her sister made her wake up in a cold sweat, tangled in her sheets, each night since watching the news clip on the internet. She should be home, preparing her deceased parents’ estate for the auction, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she knew the pretty redhead. Had her whole childhood been built on a foundation of lies?
“She’s planning her wedding. We’re all dreadfully excited for her.” Elle saw the woman’s lips move and the words finally registered.
“Wedding,” she mumbled, more to herself. When she’d seen the elegant redhead in the video, it didn’t cross her mind what type of life Alexandra led, whether she was married, had children.
“Excuse me, miss?” The man with the steel-colored eyes stood in front of her, brows knit tightly together. “Is there something else we can help you with?”
“When will she be back?” she said in a shaky, urgent breath. Her composure was slipping.
“Not until Monday.” He stood straight, feet separated in an easy stance. “Who knew there was so much to a wedding?” A phone chimed, and he reached into his pocket to check the screen. “And that’s my cue. Deciding between daisies and roses requires my urgent attention.”
Elle stepped forward. “So, you’re her fiancé, then?” Thank goodness. At least she had a connection to the woman she came here to meet. He looked slightly baffled.
“No, I’m just . . . part of the thing.” His mouth quirked into a frown, and she tilted her head to the left.
“You’re a groomsman?” She fought the urge to massage her temple. A headache was brewing behind her eyes.
“Bridesman. Now, I need to go. Nancy can make you an appointment for next week.”
“If you let us know the nature of your visit, maybe we could help.” The receptionist stood up and came around the desk. “You look a bit lost.”
“My name is Elle Devereaux.” Her chin wobbled, but she forced herself to meet his emotionless eyes. “I’m not from around here.” Elle paused. How much could she say? “And my visit is rather pressing.” Honesty was always the best way, so she took a deep breath. “I have reason to believe I’m her sister.”
Elle’s stomach plummeted as they both went slack-jawed. The silence grew in the space between them until the only sound was a light hum from the air vents and her own shallow breathing. She’d never been so off-kilter as she was under this man’s gaze. Who was she, really, and what would it take to discover the truth?
Elle fought not to shrink back from the man’s unsettling stare, and she stumbled over her words. “I saw . . .” She drew in a breath, fighting for composure. “I saw her news interview online. She was looking for information about her sister.”
The man’s eyes narrowed and his brow creased. His phone buzzed again, and he hissed out a breath, tucking the device into his pocket. He turned to the desk, took a card from the display, and scribbled on the back. “That’s my cell.” He turned his wrist and glanced at his watch. “Call me tomorrow, and I’ll see where we can fit in a meeting.”
“I came such a long way, and I have to go back at the end of next week. I just want to see her, to see if . . .” She trailed off, losing her voice and some of her nerve. It wasn’t the assistant who was the gatekeeper but this tall, lean man with gripping features—handsome, yet hard and cold. The only sentiment behind his eyes seemed to be suspicion. He stared at her for a long moment, maybe two, before grumbling something under his breath.
“How long could the florist take?” he said more to himself. “Where are you staying?” His eyes seemed to look into her soul, through her, leaving every secret she ever possessed exposed.
“The Emsworth Hotel,” she said in a rush. The only thing her parents had left behind that wasn’t connected to an endless string of bills was their hotel rewards points. It seemed wrong to stay in such luxury with a financial crisis looming over her, but the reservationist had assured her the free nights would just go to waste if they weren’t redeemed. The man raised one brow, and uncontrollable flush of heat rushed from her scalp to her shoulders, and she had the urge to lower her head and sprint to the door. Instead she raised her chin.
“I’ll need your name. Your phone number.” He reached behind the desk, gathered a piece of paper and a pen, and pushed them toward her. “Write your information,” he added as she stood there stunned by the chill in his voice. She stared down at the stark paper. It was blank, void of anything at all, just like she felt at the moment. After noting down her information she slid the paper back.
It took every ounce of conviction she had left to meet his gaze with her shoulders pinned back.
“You won’t try to contact her. Won’t look for her yourself. If, after we talk, I feel like there’s something to this, I’ll discuss it with Alex. Meet me in the lobby at seven tonight.” His lips pressed together in a thin line. He handed her the card, and she took it with a quivering hand. He narrowed his eyes once more, then said goodbye to the assistant, and strode toward the door.
“Could you bring Alex with you?” she called when he was mere feet from the door. There was an empty feeling in the pit of her stomach, and her heartbeat was thready and quick. She had a feeling what his answer would be. That she’d have to overcome some kind of rigorous test to meet the woman who might be her sister, who inspired the protection of this man.
The muscles in his neck seemed to cord, and his jaw clenched. “No.” His voice was all grit, and there was a flutter in her belly at the low vibration of his tone as it resonated across the office. He opened the door in one quick jerk and disappeared into the hallway. The framed glass shut with a hard smack, and suddenly the office seemed empty without his overwhelming presence. She glanced down at the cream-colored card in her hand, printed with bold gray lettering.
Private Investigator, Partner
Fantastic. This man wasn’t only one of Alex’s bridesmaids but a stakeholder in her business. The woman named Nancy rounded the desk and put her hand on Elle’s shoulder. “You’ll have to forgive Gabe. Since that news report aired and then went viral on social media, several women have come forward claiming to be Alex’s sister.” With her free hand, Nancy pushed her simple silver-rimmed glasses to the top of her head.
“Why would they do that?” Elle dropped her hands to her side. Maybe she wasn’t the only woman to be unsure of her past. She didn’t want to think the worst of others. That perhaps they’d come forward for reasons that weren’t genuine.
“The reward—small as it might be—still drives those seeking financial gain. Once the women learn they have to take a DNA test, they rethink things.”
“That’s terrible.” She flexed her fingers even though her body tensed. “I’m not in any need of money.” She hadn’t seen anything about a reward, and didn’t care in the least that it existed. Maybe she was on the verge of losing the comfort she grew up in, but it wasn’t as though she had been utterly dependent on her parents. She was an adult after all. One with a steady job.
“Come sit, and I’ll fix you some tea, or maybe a coffee?” Nancy nudged her toward the sitting area where she folded into a white arm charm. There was a tightness in Elle’s chest that she’d become accustomed to, but the fatigue that crashed over her was new. She honestly had no idea if Alex was her sister, but her only reason for being here was to seek the truth. Her life was in shambles, and she was grasping for control, hoping that maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t entirely and utterly alone. That maybe there was an explanation for the terror that raged during her nightmares, and the sudden heart-pounding, throat-choking panic attacks were due to more than the extraordinary loss she’d faced.
“Coffee would be so nice,” she croaked out. Her earlier bravado was zapped, and she rested her head back against the plush fabric of the chair. Nancy nodded and walked into a back room, only to reappear moments later with a mug, a small pitcher of cream, and sugar on a rectangular tray. Nancy placed the setup in front of her and offered a soft smile. “Here you go, dear,” she said and sat across from her.
“Thank you.” Somehow she found the strength to pull herself up and pour cream and a packet of sugar into the steaming cup. She stirred it together and dragged in a breath of the slightly bitter scent of roasted coffee beans.
“If so many people have come forward claiming to be Alex’s sister, why are you being so kind?” The last few weeks hadn’t been filled with much compassion, only sorrow. She’d arranged the funerals of the people she trusted and loved the most, although now she had suspicions that they’d deceived her. She’d dealt with the crushing realization that their manufacturing empire was a crumbling fraud, and they’d left her in an awful bind. More debt than she could pay in ten lifetimes. The estate she’d grown up in, the cars, the helicopter, her mother’s designer clothes and bags—it would all be seized and auctioned by the state.
“Because I have no reason to jump to conclusions until I have all the facts.” Nancy folded her hands in her lap and crossed one leg over the other.
The simple words made the back of her eyelids tingle. The practical statement was what she needed to hear. “That’s why I came to Boston. To look for the facts. I don’t know if I’m Alex’s biological sister, but I have enough reason to believe we might be connected. To try to discover the truth.”
After she finished the coffee, Elle thanked Nancy and took a cab back to her hotel. Gabe said he’d meet her at seven, giving her precisely two hours to respond to her emails and work up the nerve to be within a mile of those disconcerting eyes. She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and let her shoulders loosen for the first time that day. If Gabe Sandoval wanted to question her intentions, so be it. She had nothing to hide.
End of Excerpt