Excerpt for Reckless Behavior by
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Riptide Publishing

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Burnsville, NC 28714

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the authors’ imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. All person(s) depicted on the cover are model(s) used for illustrative purposes only.

Reckless Behavior

Copyright © 2018 by L.A. Witt and Cari Z

Smashwords Edition

Cover art: Garrett Leigh,

Editor: Rachel Haimowitz

Layout: L.C. Chase,

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ISBN: 978-1-62649-631-6

First edition

January, 2018

Also available in paperback:

ISBN: 978-1-62649-632-3


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After too many years of putting his job first, Detective Andreas Ruffner is getting his priorities straight. He’s ready to spend some quality time with his adult kids, not to mention come clean about some things he should’ve told them a long time ago. And introduce them to his partner and boyfriend, Darren Corliss.

But in a heartbeat, a family dinner turns into Andreas’s worst nightmare. When the dust settles, one of his kids is hurt, and the other three have been abducted.

Andreas is going to find his kids, and nothing, not even a broken ankle, is going to stop him. Thank God for his sharp, level-headed partner . . . who has a crisis of his own pulling him away when Andreas needs him the most. As both men try to support—and lean on—each other, they get no closer to finding the kids. And the longer the children are missing, the less likely it is they’ll ever be found.

About Reckless Behavior

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Dear Reader

Also by L.A. Witt

Also by Cari Z

About the Authors

More like this

Have you taken your pain meds?

The text from Darren made me roll my eyes. Grudgingly, I reached for the pills and the bottle of water on the end table. It wasn’t the first message he’d sent, and wouldn’t be the last. I could already hear the conversation we’d had a thousand times.

I don’t need to take it. My ankle doesn’t hurt.”

You’re supposed to stay on top of the pain. Take the pill before it hurts.”

Says the man who never wanted to take his after he’d been stabbed.”

But I took them. And don’t change the subject.”

Of course we both understood how pain management worked, but we both resisted doing it properly for the same reason: it fogged our heads and made it impossible to work. I’d had to force him to slow down when he’d been laid up after a knife had collapsed his damn lung, and now he was doing the same for me while my ankle slowly healed. Especially since my latest surgery a week ago, he’d basically waited on me hand and fucked-up-foot, and I was probably going to kill him before my cast came off.

I texted him back, Yes, I took it, and then took the pill.

I’d barely capped the bottle when my phone vibrated again. A call this time, not a text. For fuck’s sake, now what?

But Erin’s name came up on the caller ID.

I smiled as I picked up the phone. “Hey, kiddo.”

“Hey, Dad.”

I closed my eyes. The pain meds still made me slightly groggy, but I could focus on conversations as long as they weren’t too complex. “How’s your day going?”

“Good. I just wanted to let you know Ben and Casey texted me. They’re on the train, so I’ll pick them up at four thirty.”

Oh right. That was tonight. Of course I’d known that, but . . . Percocet. “Great. Looking forward to seeing them.”

“And dinner’s at six, right?”

“Yeah. You know how to get there?”

“It’s that Greek place down by the war memorial, right?”

“Yep. Darren made a reservation. We’ll meet you guys there, and Lisa will be along with Emily.”

“Awesome. We’ll be there.” She paused. “Zach had to cancel, though.”

“That’s too bad. Will he have a chance to meet your brothers while they’re in town?”

“Oh yeah.” The smile returned to her voice. “He’s going to meet them and me for lunch at work tomorrow.”

“Good. They can grill him and make sure—”


I laughed. “All right, all right. Anyway, I’ll see you tonight. Text me when you pick them up so I know they made it.”

“I will. I gotta go anyway—Mark’s got a huge stack of crap for me to do.”

“Okay. Love you, kiddo.”

“Love you too.”

She hung up, and I put my phone aside. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed that her boyfriend—my orthopedic surgeon—couldn’t make it tonight. Zach had quickly become a regular fixture in her world, not to mention mine. In fact, I had a feeling he was part of the reason she’d accepted an offer of a full-time admin job at the precinct. It had started as an internship for one of her classes, but she was damn good at it. Detective Thibedeau in Internal Affairs had offered her the job a week or so after I’d gotten hurt, and while I wasn’t thrilled about her putting school on hold, maybe this wasn’t a bad idea given how expensive her tuition had been getting.

So now Erin was living with me, working at the same precinct, and dating the surgeon who’d put my ankle back together both times. After living two states apart for too many years, I wasn’t complaining. Even if she was just as determined to take care of me as both of our boyfriends were.

I’d been parked on the couch for a couple of hours, and my back was starting to get sore, so I decided now was as good a time as any to move around a bit. I pushed myself up, wincing at the dull ache in my foot. At least it wasn’t blinding pain anymore. The first surgery had pinched a nerve—a possibility Zach had warned me about—but they’d unfucked that during the second one last week. Now I just had to recuperate from the fresh set of screws, rods, anchors, chains, anvils, saw blades, and whatever else they’d put in.

Gingerly, I tucked my crutches under my arms and went into the kitchen. Hopefully Darren wouldn’t notice I’d forgotten to eat anything before taking my pain pill. If I ate something now, I wouldn’t get nauseated, and maybe I’d slip under his radar.

After eating some leftover Chinese food, I moved back to the couch, where I eased myself down next to the stacks of files and reports I’d been working on. Sort of. I was technically still on medical leave, but I’d been getting stir-crazy.

But if I’d thought I would get any work done, I was delusional. I sat down, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up to the sound of the front door opening.

“Hey,” Darren said as he walked into the living room. “How are you feeling?”

“Like I’m ready to be back on my feet.”

He chuckled and came around behind the couch. Leaning down to kiss me, he said, “Just don’t overdo it, or you’ll spend even more time—”

“Yes, thank you, Dr. Zach.” I curved my hand around the back of his neck and pulled him the rest of the way down for that kiss.

He chuckled, kissed me, then stood and shrugged off his jacket. “What time do we need to leave tonight?”

“Probably around five thirty, just in case there’s traffic.” I carefully hoisted myself up onto my crutches and followed him into the kitchen. My head was still thick with fog, but I was better than I’d been earlier. “How’s your brother?”

The sudden fatigue in his posture and expression answered clearly enough.

I hobbled over to him and touched his arm. “You okay?”

His lips tightened, and he nodded but didn’t look at me. “He’s in hell. There’s no two ways about it.”

“And you’re right there with him.”

“Yeah, but at least I remember who I am from day to day.” He sighed heavily. “Honestly, I think his lucid moments are the worst.”

I chewed the inside of my cheek. Maybe it was small comfort that Asher wasn’t having as many of those anymore. In the weeks since his family had transferred him to a home that specialized in Alzheimer’s patients, he’d deteriorated at an astounding rate. More often than not, when Darren visited, he’d come home devastated because Asher was . . . not Asher anymore.

“He was kind of there today.” Darren’s voice was a hollow whisper. “Like, he recognized me, but couldn’t figure out why I didn’t look fifteen. And he didn’t understand why Mom was so gray.” He rubbed his eyes. “Mom’s been gray for almost twenty years.”

“Jesus.” I wrapped an arm around him and kissed his temple. “I’m sorry, Darren.”

He sagged against me. Not enough to put me off-balance, but enough to let me know he desperately needed someone to lean on. Using both my crutches and the counter for support, I gathered him in my arms and, as much as I could, let him.

“He wants to die,” Darren murmured.


He exhaled hard. “When he’s with it—as much as he can be anymore—he tells me he wishes this thing would just finish him off.”

I didn’t respond. What could I say?

Darren was quiet for a moment too, before he whispered, “I just wish there was more I could do for him than sit back and watch him fade away.”

I shuddered and tried to ignore the inevitable thoughts about how it might be Darren in that position someday, with me watching him slowly crumble. It was quite possibly the only thing I could think of that would be worse than when I’d very nearly watched him bleed out during a sting gone bad. Even now, every time I saw that scar on the back of his shoulder, my stomach somersaulted.

Fuck. I’d only known him a few short months, but I’d been in love with him for most of that, and had been forced to think way too much about when and how he might die.

Closing my eyes, I held him tighter.

And damn, now I felt like a dick for being even a little bit irritated with him earlier. The very fact that he was trying to take care of me while handling our case on his own and dealing with his brother’s rapid deterioration—yeah, I was being a dick.

After a while, he drew back and met my gaze. “I should get a shower and change clothes. So we can go.”

I touched his face. “You don’t have to go if you don’t feel up for it.”

“No, I want to.” He smiled weakly. “I want to meet your boys.” With a playful if tired grin, he added, “And you could probably use the moral support.”

“Yeah, probably.” My stomach knotted. I was looking forward to seeing my sons. I wasn’t really looking forward to coming clean about a few things.

He probably saw the apprehension in my expression, because he pulled me into a light kiss. “You’ll be fine. And I’ll be there with you.”

“Much appreciated.”

“Don’t mention it.” He smiled—this time with some more life in it—and kissed me once more. “Let me grab a shower. Then we can get going.”

He left the kitchen, and I leaned against the counter. Okay, I definitely hadn’t been fair to him earlier. As much as I hated being fussed over and taken care of, I was grateful beyond words for Darren.

Darren and I were already seated when Ben, Casey, and Erin walked into the restaurant. One look at them, and I almost choked up, never mind choking on my nerves. Erin was right—it had been way, way too long since we’d all been together. I really needed to start putting more time aside for my kids.

Ben and Casey were twenty-four and twenty-one, and both looked almost exactly like I had at that age, though Ben had stopped at five foot eight and Casey still didn’t care for haircuts. Ben had lost more weight than I would have liked, but he was an adult—he looked healthy, so I wasn’t going to say anything.

“Hey, guys.” I got up as carefully as I could. “Good to see you both.”

They each hugged me in turn. I introduced Darren without giving much detail, and they both eyed him uncertainly, but they were polite.

“Sorry we’re a little late.” Erin shot Ben a glare. “Somebody insisted we go clear out to the airport to pick up his rental car first.”

“Hey,” Ben said with a laugh. “I didn’t want to get there after they closed.”

“It’s a rental car counter at the airport, doofus,” Casey said. “They’re always open.”

“Uh-huh.” Ben flipped open his menu. “Says the guy who’s never showed up and found out they aren’t always open.”

Erin rolled her eyes. “Well, you have your car. Now you can relax.”

We made some small talk about their trip, perused the menu together and probably made a mess of pronouncing some of the Greek terms.

“Let’s order drinks now,” I said, “but wait on food until Lisa and Emily get here. Which should be in about twenty minutes.” I glanced at my watch to be sure. Yep. Twenty minutes. “But I wanted to talk to the three of you first.” Technically the two of them, since I wasn’t saying anything Erin didn’t already know.

My sons exchanged glances. Casey’s eyes darted toward Darren.

“Okay.” Ben studied me. “What’s up?”

“Well . . .”

Under the table, Darren pressed his knee against mine.

I took a deep breath and folded my hands on top of the closed menu. “All right, so . . . your sister and I have been talking since she’s been here, and I realized I’ve not been communicating with you kids as much as I should. I want to clear the air about a few things, and then hopefully we can . . . you know, not be quite as much like strangers.”

They exchanged another glance, and both shrugged.

“Okay.” Ben seemed a little guarded, but not hostile.

“So what’s going on?” Casey’s eyes flicked toward Darren again. “You said you wanted to clear the air, so . . .”

Did they already know? Had they suspected something?

Might as well just put it out there and see what happened.

“First of all, Darren is my partner. At work and, well, not.” I put a hand between Darren’s shoulders, as if that might underscore what I meant so I didn’t have to spell it out.

“Oh,” Casey said.

Ben blinked. “So, you’re gay?”


Both of them studied me for a second. Then, in unison, “Oh.”

I swallowed. “Is that okay?”

“Yeah, of course.” Casey shrugged. “I wasn’t expecting it, but yeah, it’s cool.”

Ben nodded. “Yeah, same.” He cleared his throat and turned to Darren. “So, uh, how long have you guys been dating?”

Dating. I couldn’t even call what we’d been doing “dating.” Not in any traditional sense, anyway. Mostly working together, dodging bullets together, and realizing I was much, much happier when we were together.

“Uh.” Darren shifted. “Couple of months. I think?” He looked at me. “How long has it been?”

“Shit, I don’t know. Sounds about right to me.”

He laughed. “So much for knowing the exact minute, hour, and day we became a thing, right?”

I laughed too, running my hand up and down his back. “So we’ll say a couple of months.”

My sons chuckled too. They relaxed a bit, and seemed relieved that this was my big announcement.

Except it wasn’t. Not entirely.

I folded my hands on the table again. “Um, there is one other thing.” My gut lurched. No turning back.

I glanced at Erin, and she gave me a subtle nod and an encouraging smile.

Facing my sons again, I said, “I want to say upfront that it’s under control and my health is just fine, but . . .” I took a deep breath. This time it was Darren who put a hand on my back, and the reassurance was a godsend. I met each of my kids’ gazes in turn. “I’m HIV positive.”

Ben’s eyes widened.

I thought Casey might’ve paled.

“You . . .” Ben cleared his throat. “What?”

“I have HIV.” I swallowed again. “Like I said, it’s under control. I’m completely asymptomatic. My viral load is undetectable. It’s not going to go away, but it’s not—”

“How the hell—” Casey shook himself. “How did . . .” His eyes flicked toward Darren, and Darren squirmed uncomfortably.

“I’ve had it for a few years,” I said quietly. “Lisa and I both—”

“Oh my God.” Ben’s eyes were huge. “Emily? Does she have it?”

“No, she’s negative. She’s been tested repeatedly since she was born.” I shook my head. “She doesn’t have it.”

Ben battered me with questions, but it wasn’t an interrogation. He obviously knew a thing or two about HIV, and he wanted to be completely up to speed on my condition.

The whole time, Casey was silent. He pinched the bridge of his nose and didn’t say a word.

When Ben was apparently satisfied—rattled but out of questions, anyway—he took a drink and fell quiet. And Casey still didn’t speak.

I stole a look at Darren. He gave me the same encouraging smile Erin had.

“Casey?” I said cautiously. “Are you—”

His hand dropped to the table, startling all of us and rattling our silverware and glasses. “I can’t believe you’ve had this for years and never said a word. What the hell, Dad?”

Oh, hadn’t I had this conversation with Erin?

“I know. I should have said something. But I—”

“How did you even get it? You drilled it into our heads the whole time we were teenagers about safe sex and all that.” He glared at me, unaware or just not caring that he’d turned a few heads in the restaurant. “Do I even want to know?”

I pulled in a breath. “Look, I did some things I regret. And I—”

“Ben! Casey!”

Emily’s voice snapped the tension, and the boys were instantly out of their chairs and crouching down, arms out as my youngest—their half sister—sprinted across the room.

“Oh my God, you’re getting so big!” Casey hugged her tight and kissed her cheek. “How old are you now? Ten? Eleven?”

She giggled as only Emily could. “I’m four and a half, silly!”

“Four and a half? No way! You’re way too tall for that!”

She erupted into laughter. As Lisa caught up, she said hello to the boys, and joined us at the table. Emily sat between Erin and Ben, and they quickly busied themselves with some crayons and paper placemats. I smiled fondly. Things had been rocky when I’d told my kids Lisa and I were expecting a baby, but all three of them had been madly in love with their little sister since the day she was born. Yet another reason for me to feel guilty—I hadn’t taken Emily to see them or had them come visit nearly as often as I should have.

As everyone settled in and we ordered our food, Casey shot me a look that said, This isn’t over.

My stomach somersaulted again. My appetite was pretty much MIA, but if I didn’t eat, Darren would have a fit, so I ordered a gyro and hoped for the best. While everyone caught up and chatted, Casey kept eyeing me uncertainly, but he said nothing. Nothing about my HIV status, anyway. He was perfectly chatty with everyone else, but there was definitely some frost between us right now.

Well, I’d been right that my kids wouldn’t be thrilled. I hadn’t expected them to be, but I had hoped I was worried about nothing. That they’d be, while not happy, willing to accept it.

I couldn’t read Casey. Was he angry that I had the disease? Or that I hadn’t told him?

But I didn’t ask, and he didn’t speak up. We carried on with dinner, and I just kept reminding myself there’d be time to clear the air with Casey in private later. This was a start. It hadn’t gone so well with Erin either, but once the shock had worn off, she’d been all right.

He would be too.


By the time dinner was over, everyone had relaxed somewhat. Casey was still tense, still obviously less than happy with me, but he hadn’t said anything more about it. Could’ve been worse, I supposed.

I paid the bill, and we all made our way to the door. Emily needed to use the bathroom, so Erin took her, and the rest of us went outside.

We chatted a bit more, but then Ben and Casey wanted to get back to their hotel since they’d had a long day of traveling. I hugged them both goodbye, and they shook hands with Lisa and Darren.

“Where’s Erin?” Ben looked around. “Aw, hell. We’ll see her tomorrow at lunch. Dad, could you let her know we took off?”

I nodded. “Will do.”

Lisa glanced back at the restaurant and scowled. “What is taking those two so long, though?” She rolled her eyes. “I’ll go get them.”

She went back in, and it was just Darren and me.

“Well,” he said. “That wasn’t so bad.”

“No.” I adjusted my grip on the crutches. “Could’ve been better.”

“Casey will come around. He probably just needs some time to absorb it. I mean, Erin came around.”


“Well, we should go. I’ll go get the car.” He kissed my cheek. “Wait here.”

“Thank you.”

Then he headed in the same direction my boys had gone. I closed my eyes and exhaled. The night had gone well. Not flawlessly, but I really couldn’t complain. Casey and I would talk later, and—

“Andreas.” Lisa’s voice turned me around. She stepped out of the restaurant, a puzzled expression on her face. “Did Erin and Emily come out already?”

“What? No, they—”

Tires squealed. Metal crunched.

What the hell?

I turned, and to my horror, Ben and Casey were getting out of their rental car, probably to inspect the damage the other car had done.

Some employees and bystanders hurried out the door, no doubt to see what was happening and maybe to help. In the commotion, someone bumped into me, and I stumbled. Then a foot swept my good leg out from under me, and I toppled, landing hard enough to send pain shooting through my bad ankle.

“Andreas!” Lisa grabbed my arm, but then she was knocked aside too.

“Drop the gun!” Darren shouted in the distance.

I scrambled, trying to get to my feet. I reached for a crutch, but my pistol was already in my hand. I didn’t even remember taking it out.

A bullet ricocheted off something. Someone shouted.

Oh shit!

“Go get Erin and Emily!” I shouted to Lisa. “Keep them inside!”

Lisa darted back into the restaurant.

Tires squealed again.

More gunfire. Shouts. A car peeling out. An engine vanishing into the night.

And then . . . nothing.

Panicked shouts and murmurs, but otherwise, silence.

Someone helped me to my feet and gave me back my crutches. I looked up to see Darren and Ben coming across the parking lot. Ben was limping pretty hard, one arm tucked protectively against his side, the other slung over Darren’s shoulders.

“Oh my God.” I hobbled toward them as quickly as I could. “Ben?” I touched his arm, hoping my sheer panic didn’t make it into my voice. “Are you all right?”

He nodded, grimacing painfully. “Just . . . got the wind knocked out of me. When they tried to . . .”

My mouth went dry. “Where’s your brother?” I looked around as my pulse ratcheted up. “Where the fuck is Casey?”

Darren, still keeping Ben on his feet, shook his head. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t get to—”

“What?” The world spun around me. “Darren, what are you . . . Who . . .”

“Three guys,” Ben said. “They clipped the car, then came at me and Casey and—” His voice wavered.

“They got Casey into the car,” Darren said. “I couldn’t get to him. I’m sorry.”

“You did what you could.” I hadn’t seen much, but I had complete faith that whatever he could have done, he’d done. “Did you get a look at them?”

He frowned and shook his head. “Sorry. I was trying to—”

“Andreas.” Lisa’s voice was filled with a kind of palpable terror I hadn’t heard since the day her doctor had told her that she—and possibly our unborn baby—had HIV. “Emily and Erin are gone.”

The world dropped out from under me. My crutches were literally the only thing that kept me from crumpling to my knees. “What? They’re . . . What do you mean they’re . . .”

Reality started sinking in. Ben was hurt. God knew how close Darren had come to an injury or worse.

And . . .




I sank onto the bench. Twenty-plus years of cop instincts disappeared in a heartbeat, replaced by nothing but pure, bone-deep panic. I was trained for this. Enough that I could be calm to the point of near apathy in a crisis.

I wasn’t calm this time. I was closer to catatonic. I couldn’t move. Think. Breathe. Act.

Three of my kids.


Just . . . gone.

And I had no idea what to do.

I had never seen Andreas so motionless before.

It was wrong. It was like a hurricane-force wind suddenly stopping, or a raging blizzard evaporating, leaving you muffled in snow and slowly freezing to death. Andreas was never quiet, never still—even when he was asleep, he twisted and turned until I had to lie on him to keep him in one place. Right now, he was so perfectly immobile I couldn’t even tell if he was breathing.

I’d seen this kind of shock before—hell, I’d experienced it myself more than once—and I knew that I needed to try to engage him. I needed to get him up and moving, and preferably checked out by the EMTs that were arriving on the scene now. Officers had already secured the scene, and more were on their way, and I doubted Andreas wanted any of them to see him like this. Especially not right now, when so much of the attention on us was negative already.


Oh Jesus, I’d almost forgotten about Ben, and I was the one holding on to him. “Here, sit down,” I said, helping him turn and settle next to his dad. “Where did he get you?”

He grimaced. “My right side, but it’s not that bad.”

“You should get checked out.” It was a light bulb moment for me, the best way I could think of to snap Andreas out of it. “Andreas.” I crouched down in front of him and put both my hands on his knees. “Hey. Ben needs your help.”

“No, I’m sure I can—”

“He needs you to go with him to the ambulance to get looked at, just to make sure he’s okay,” I said firmly, ignoring Ben’s token protest. The kid needed the help almost as much as Andreas needed to give it. Jesus, all of his siblings had been kidnapped, one of them violently, right in front of him. He needed his dad, and his dad sure as hell needed him.

Fuck, Ben was only a few years younger than me. Why did I feel infinitely older right now?

“Andreas.” I said it louder, and this time his dull eyes managed to focus on me. “You need to help Ben.”

“I . . . Ben?” He looked left, and once he saw his son, some of his animation returned. “Shit, you’re— We need a—” He looked back at me, and I was so relieved to actually see him looking out of his eyes that I could have collapsed. Except I had more to do now than ever before, and I needed to get started as soon as possible.

“Ambulance.” I pointed at the flashing lights that had just pulled up in front of the restaurant. “Go and get him checked out, and let them take a look at you too.”

“I can do that.” He frowned. “Where’s Lisa?”

She’d been here a moment ago. “I’ll find her. You take care of him, I’ll take care of everything else.”

“Okay.” I helped him to his feet, making sure his hands were firm on the crutches, and watched him straighten his back as Ben threw an arm around his shoulder. First crisis averted, or more likely, just put off. Next up—Lisa.

“Sir. Sir!” The restaurant manager was suddenly right in my face, a stormy expression on his. “That ambulance and those police cars can’t just block our entrance. It’s against the fire code and it’s distracting to our guests.”

I held up my badge. “Your guests are going to have to deal with it, because this is the scene of a criminal investigation now. Nobody leaves. I don’t care if they’ve already paid their bill or finished their shift, absolutely no one leaves the premises before they’ve talked to an officer. Is that understood?”

“I . . . suppose.”

“Good. Make an announcement, blame it all on me, I don’t care, but if anyone steps foot outside this place, I’m holding you accountable.”

He sighed. I wanted to punch him. “Can you at least calm down the hysterical woman? She ran into our kitchens and is harassing our staff, and they can’t work under those conditions.”

“What hysterical woman?”

“I’ll show you.”

It turned out the “hysterical woman” was Lisa, who’d run back inside to check again and make sure she hadn’t missed the girls somehow. She was coming out of the staff’s break room as I got to her, demanding to know if they’d seen the girls, and wasn’t it possible they were back here? Wasn’t it?


“Darren!” Her hands dug into my arms like claws. “Do you think they went out the back? They might have just . . . They might be outside, right? I checked the alley, but maybe they circled around to the front. Have you checked? Did you see them?”

“We’re going to figure it out,” I promised her. That was the best I could do. “We’re going to find them.” I could hear more sirens in the front of the building—more police were arriving. Great. Not that I didn’t need the help, but lately I couldn’t be sure if that help was going to be genuine or not. Andreas and I had managed to piss off almost every colleague in the city by putting away so many dirty cops with our first big case. It was fifty-fifty whether I’d get a handshake or someone spitting in my face.

“But what if they— What—”

“You’re going to need to give a statement to an officer, okay?” I gently turned her and led her back to the front of the restaurant. “And stay close, so I can keep you in the loop.” It wasn’t completely kosher, but she was Emily’s mother. There was no way I was keeping anything from her when it came to the welfare of her kid. Not right now, at least.

“Okay.” Lisa took a few deep breaths. “Okay, okay. Where, um . . . where’s Andreas?”

“He took Ben over to the ambulance to get checked out.” I pointed at it as we got to the entrance. “You might want to go check on him, make sure he didn’t take any damage when he fell.”

“He didn’t fall, he was tripped.”

Fuck, I hadn’t even seen that. “This is why you need to make a statement. I’ll send an officer over as soon as I can, all right?”

She nodded. “Yeah, all right.”

There were two police vehicles here now, and a third one pulling up. When I saw who got out of it, I did a double take. “Thibedeau?”

The taller man walked up to me, unsmiling and still in his perfectly pressed suit despite the fact that I knew he’d gotten off work an hour ago. “Corliss.”

“What are you doing here?” He was a detective with Internal Affairs; he had no reason to be at the scene of a kidnapping.

“I heard the call come in over the radio, and I remembered that Erin told me she was going to dinner here tonight. I tried her phone and got no response. I wanted to see for myself what was going on.”

“It’s . . .” a fucking nightmare and I want a goddamn do-over. “Not good.” I explained the little I knew to him: Erin and Emily going missing after they went to the bathroom, Ben and Casey’s car being deliberately hit and both of them attacked, me exchanging shots with the masked man jerking Casey into the van before they drove off, and someone in the crowd deliberately getting Andreas out of the way.

“This sounds like a setup.”

“No shit.”

Thibedeau frowned at me. “Believe it or not, I’m on your side in this. The last thing I want is for any of Detective Ruffner’s family to come to harm, especially his daughters.” He’d met Emily before, and Erin worked directly for him. I could buy that he was genuinely concerned. “But you need to let me help you.”

“Fine.” Whatever, I could be nice. I could share.

“I’ll organize officers to interview patrons and get contact information so we can start letting people go. You talk to the manager about security footage and see if the staff has anything to say.”

I was more than happy to let him deal with the other cops. “Make sure to check and see if any of them took cell phone footage. If they did, I want their phones.”

He waved a hand dismissively. “Not my first case, Detective.”

I bit back the urge to snap at him. But it’s your most important case, damn it! I didn’t need to alienate any more of our colleagues. I gritted my teeth, kept my mouth shut, and went to talk to the manager again.

He was less than cooperative, but after I assured him I would shut his goddamn restaurant down for a fucking week if I had to, he was a lot better about giving me access to his cameras. There were two: one of the front entrance, one of the back, and they weren’t just for show, thank God. I made him start copying the footage for me while I talked to the staff, who weren’t very helpful. Apparently it was a busy time, everyone had been rushing, and no one had noticed a thing except for a busboy, who said he thought he’d heard a little girl crying before the back door closed. Which . . . fuck. My heart just about shattered inside my chest.

My phone buzzed with a new message. It was from Andreas. Need you out front.

I might have broken the sound barrier with how fast I ran out there. Fortunately, it wasn’t dire. Or . . . not exactly. Andreas and Ben were squared off nose to nose—he wasn’t using his crutches, damn it—and were having a very loud argument in front of an awful lot of curious eyes.

“I’m not leaving.”

“You’re sure as hell not staying here!”

“You can’t make me go, Dad, I’m an adult!”

“For God’s sake, someone just tried to abduct you. I’m trying to keep you safe!”

“Where am I going to go that’s safer than with you?”

“Anywhere!” Andreas exploded. “All of you were with me, and now you’re the only one still here! What does that tell you, Ben? How good of a job did I do protecting you kids this time around, huh?”

Ben set his jaw in a look that was surprisingly familiar, and I raced to intervene before things could get worse. “Are you both okay?”

They turned their matching glares on me, and I swallowed.

“We’re fine,” Andreas said, his voice terse. “But Ben needs to get his ass on a plane—”

“I’m not going anywhere—”

“—and get back home—”

“—a witness, what if they need to interview me again?”

“—or so help me God, I will—”

“—not going anywhere before I know they’re safe!”

You’re not safe, what don’t you understand about that? They recognized you on sight, Ben, and you’re the only one who got away. What makes you think they won’t come after you again?” Andreas demanded.

“I’ll stay at your place.”

“It’s not secure enough.”

“Then the hotel—”

“Are you deliberately misunderstanding me, or—”

“Then put me in police protection, but I’m not going anywhere!” Tears stood out in Ben’s eyes, but he held his ground. “Dad, I’m sorry, but I can’t. I just can’t, not until I know they’re back, not until I can see them. I can’t be the only one to not be a part of things, to not . . . know.” Know if they’re still alive, his body language screamed.

Andreas sighed. “Putting you into police protection isn’t so easy.”

Ben frowned. “You’re a cop. What’s hard about it?”

Aaand we were about to get into territory that Ben probably hadn’t heard a lot about yet. If Andreas hadn’t given him the details of our last few cases and why so many cops had blacklisted us, now wasn’t the time for that revelation. Fortunately, I had a temporary fix. “Let me call Vic. Ben can stay with my folks tonight.”

Ben looked puzzled, but Andreas got it immediately. I saw a little of the tension ease from his shoulders, and took the opportunity to jam the crutches he was holding back under his armpits where they belonged.

“Vic’s my stepdad, and the former police commissioner,” I explained to Ben. “He knows how to handle a situation like this, and he can keep you safe.”

“You think him and your mom have time for this right now, with . . .” Andreas’s voice trailed off, but I took his meaning.

“I think they could use the distraction, honestly.” I knew Mom could. The fact that Asher was deteriorating so fast was making her sick with worry. She needed someone to take care of, if only for a night. “Is that okay with you?” I asked Ben. “They live close, you can stay in the loop, and tomorrow is another day, right?”

“Mom might be here tomorrow,” he said glumly, and I winced inside. Of course Andreas’s ex-wife had to be informed that two of her kids had been kidnapped. Of course she was coming out. “But yeah, it’s okay with me.”

“Great. Let me call Vic.”

By the time I’d finished talking to my stepdad, Andreas and Ben had made up—at least enough for his son to lean his head against Andreas’s shoulder, crutches be damned. Andreas had one hand on the back of Ben’s head, just holding gently, and while I could see the lines of pain in his face, I wasn’t about to tell him to let go and take care of himself. Not yet, at least.

Vic arrived five minutes later, lights flashing on the top of his Honda.

“Way to abuse your privileges,” I called out to him as I waved him over. A cop tried to stop him, but Vic leveled his best “son, don’t fuck with me” look at him, flashed the badge he wasn’t still supposed to have, and was let through with an apology.

Vic was a few inches shorter than me, fifty pounds heavier, and way more badass than any guy his age had a right to be. I filled him in on the details, then finished up with, “I don’t think anyone’s going to come after him, not now that we know to be on our guard, but we’d rather not risk it. I really appreciate your help.”

“It’s the least your mom and I can do.”

I led Vic over to Andreas and Ben. Someone had grabbed Ben’s and Casey’s luggage out of their rental car, and it was stacked in a pile beside them. The suitcases were identical. I knew Andreas’s kids were all close, but I’d never heard anything about either of his boys without both of them being mentioned. Ben was doing his best not to stare at the bags, and—yeah. He needed a distraction tonight.

I made the introductions, and Vic was as perfect as he always was with victims. He had a way of calming people down that was incredible—the only reason Asher had been able to live at home for as long as he had was the fact that Vic could usually talk him out of his rages. He shook Ben’s hand, then actually leaned in and gave Andreas a hug and a gruff, “Sit down before you fall down,” that would have gotten my head bitten off but just got him a nod, which was hardly fair. Vic hoisted both bags like they weighed nothing. “Come on, Ben.”

“You’ll call me again tonight,” Ben demanded of his father.

“I will.”

“And first thing tomorrow, and whenever you hear anything important. Right? Swear.”

“You’ll be first on my list,” Andreas said. “Remember to ice that rib, and if it’s still bad tomorrow, we’re going to the hospital whether you like it or not.”

Ben shook his head. “I’m fine.” He looked at me. “Thanks . . . for saving me.”

I wished I’d done so much more, but I was grateful that at least Ben was out of harm’s way for now. “Of course.”

He left with Vic, and as soon as they pulled away, I felt Andreas sag beside me. “Seriously, you need to sit,” I said, and tugged him back over to the bench. “And you need a pain pill.”

“I’m not taking any of those.”

“Andreas . . .”

He caught my eyes, and I couldn’t look away. It was like being mesmerized by a snake the second before it struck. Those eyes said, Don’t push me. His mouth said, “They fog me up, and I can’t afford that right now. Not until my kids are safe. You hear me?”

“Then ibuprofen,” I managed. “Something safe, something non-narcotic. Seriously, you need something to function if you’re going to be able to go at this hard.”

“Fine. Later.” He jerked his head toward the restaurant. “What’s happening in there?”

“Police are taking witness statements; I talked to the staff. We’re getting the surveillance video.”

“Who’s directing all this?”

“Mark Thibedeau.”

Andreas shut his eyes for a moment. “It figures.”

“Hey, it could be worse. At least we know he’s not going to try to stab us in the back.” He’d gotten rid of the chip he’d had on his shoulder back when Andreas and I were first partnered up. He’d been convinced Andreas was a dirty cop, and tried to use me to nail him. It hadn’t turned out exactly like he’d envisioned, but ever since Erin had come to town, we’d had a truce with the guy.

“I want to see the camera footage.”

“As soon as we get back to the station—”

“I don’t want to watch it for the first time surrounded by a bunch of fucking trauma junkies,” he snapped. “I’m not going to give them their fix, and if there’s something bad in there, I need to know it now.”

What was bad beyond getting kidnapped and . . . Oh. Right. I’d seen Casey forced into the car, but neither of us knew how the girls had been taken. If one of them had been hurt, or God forbid—

My stomach cramped, and I nodded. “Yeah. Okay. There are monitors in the manager’s office.” I stood up and tried to help him to his feet, but Andreas brushed me off and made his way, slow but steady on his crutches, back into the restaurant. I showed him to the manager’s office, where Thibedeau was already staring at a screen on the wall with a pensive expression.

When he saw us, he immediately shook his head. “This isn’t smart, Ruffner. You shouldn’t be a part of the investigation. Your participation could be used against us later in court as a conflict of interest.”

“You want to try and throw me out?” Andreas sounded deceptively calm. “I don’t recommend it. You can’t keep me off this case, so work with me or get the hell out of my way.”

Thibedeau stared at him for a long moment before finally turning back to the monitors. He held up a remote and rewound. “This is the view from the front.” He started the silent video just as the back of Ben and Casey’s car was clipped by a black SUV—a Suburban, maybe, not the most common car ever but hardly unique. Whoever the driver was, he knew what he was doing—he hit the boys’ car just hard enough to knock it askew but not noticeably damage his own vehicle. Two men got out, carrying what looked like saps. One of them hit Casey in the stomach to double him over, put him into a fireman’s carry, and literally threw him into the car a few seconds later.

The other guy went after Ben, but there I was, gun drawn, apparently shouting—I couldn’t even remember shouting. We exchanged shots, and the windshield on the car right next to me shattered. Shit, that had been closer than I’d thought. They retreated, a third guy ran into the car from the side—it had to be the person who’d tripped Andreas; he wasn’t in the frame for most of it—while I got an arm around Ben, and then they drove off. No license plate.

“I’ve got people going after cameras that might get a glimpse of them farther down the road,” Thibedeau said. “Now, the view from the back.” He cued it up and pressed Play without another word.

Compared to the scene out front, this was almost tame. A dark-colored sedan idled in the alley behind the restaurant. Erin suddenly appeared in the picture, moving quickly, her arms wrapped tight around Emily, who looked like she was holding on to her big sister with all her might. The masked man behind them opened the door and motioned them in with a subtle wave of his hand—what was he holding? A gun, a taser? I couldn’t quite make it out. They got in, and just before the door shut—

It had to be an accident, there was no way Emily would have done it deliberately, but as the door was about to shut, Emily stared right into the camera. Half of her face was hidden against her sister’s shoulder, but her eyes were visible, wide and filled with panicky tears. Even without sound, it was clear she was crying, shaking with the force of her sobs. She was a terrified little girl in the arms of a terrified young woman, and I didn’t even realize my own eyes were wet until Thibedeau stopped the video.

“I’ll meet you two back at the precinct,” he said quietly, and shut the door behind himself as he left.

Andreas was still staring at the screen, where the car that had taken his daughters away was frozen half on, half off the monitor. He looked exhausted, in pain, and absolutely, utterly murderous.

Maybe Thibedeau was right. Maybe Andreas shouldn’t be working this case. It wasn’t going to be good for him. But then, at this point, what was? The only thing that could fix the damage that had been done was bringing his kids home safe and sound, and I was determined we’d do it. “You ready to get back to work?” I asked.

“Let’s go.”

Everything between the restaurant and the precinct was hazy. Darren suggested—once—that I take it easy while he and Thibedeau spearheaded the investigation. He offered to stop for coffee, but both Lisa and I declined. Otherwise, the ride was silent.

It didn’t seem that way, though. My ears were still ringing with my son’s anger, my ex-girlfriend’s panic, and my other kids’ absence. They were gone. I couldn’t make sense of it.

And while I was relieved beyond words that at least Ben was safe, his shaken presence made this whole thing too real. If not for him and Lisa, everything at the restaurant might’ve felt like a normal crime scene, if there was such a thing. A normal night where I didn’t see any of my kids because I rarely saw them. Ben standing there, holding his side protectively, eyes wide and face pale, made the disappearance of his siblings too real and too raw. I wanted to take him home, lock down my apartment, and keep him safe under 24/7 surveillance until I was absolutely sure nothing would take him away from me, but I couldn’t. Because I had to find Casey, Erin, and Emily. And I wasn’t even sure if I could have kept Ben safe because his brother and sisters had been taken right in front of me.

Thank God for Darren. He had an impossibly cool head, and he’d thought quickly, coming up with a place for Ben. As soon as he’d suggested his mom and stepdad’s place, it had seemed so obvious, though I felt terrible for putting more on their shoulders than they already had. Somehow, I’d had the presence of mind to discreetly brief Ben on the situation with Asher. Enough that he wouldn’t be blindsided if Vic and Jessica suddenly had to rush off to the home where their older son was living. The last thing Ben needed tonight was another surprise.

Watching him get into the car with Vic, I’d been relieved that he had someplace safe to go, but I’d also been hit with the most profoundly powerless feeling. He was out of my sight now. Out of my hands. Safe and accounted for, but what kind of father let his son go at a time like this?

One who needed to find his other three kids.

Who were gone.

Who might not even still be—

No. Not going down that mental road. They were alive and well until proven otherwise.

Lisa’s silence was unnerving. In the rearview, I surreptitiously watched her staring out the window, face blank and eyes distant. She was tough. Always had been. Like the day we’d found out she was HIV-positive, and that there was a chance our unborn child might be as well, she’d collapsed in panic at first, but then pulled herself together. Same thing tonight. It was almost jarring when she did that. The palpable fear. The hysterical tears. And then . . . this. Stoic, rigid silence. That day half a decade ago, I’d thought she was shutting down and going almost catatonic, but when she’d spoken again, I’d realized she was regrouping. The shock hadn’t worn off, but it was like a switch inside her flipped from “this is catastrophic” to “it’s going to stay that way unless I get myself together and figure things out.”

The doctor says there are medications to keep this under control,” she’d said with eerie, almost monotone calm. “I’ll talk to her tomorrow about options. And about the baby.” She’d paused and looked me right in the eye. “We’ll need to get you tested too.”

At the precinct, Darren pulled up to the elevator to let us out, and we waited there while he went to park.

Lisa took a breath. “Do you think Ben will be all right?” The question was flat and robotic.

I nodded. “He’s in good hands.”

“Good.” She exhaled slowly, rubbing a hand over her face, and the slight tremor betrayed her cool exterior. “So what now?”

“Now we figure out who might have a motive.”

She blinked. “What the hell kind of motive would make someone—”

“If I knew, I wouldn’t need to figure it out,” I snapped.

Lisa jumped.

I sighed, slumping over my crutches. “I’m sorry. I . . . I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. I think we’re both going to be wound tight for a while.”

Our eyes locked, and once again, I went back to that crisis when she was pregnant. We hadn’t been in a good place at the time. Having a baby had promised to be the kiss of death to our already floundering relationship. But when the news came—when she was diagnosed and, shortly after that, so was I—we’d needed each other too much. We’d agreed to put aside everything, to rally around each other, and get through it. Had we not done that, I had no idea how either of us would have stayed sane.

If ever we needed to pull ourselves together again, this was it.

I touched her arm. “We’ll find her.”

Lisa put her hand over mine. Her jaw was tight, and she didn’t speak, but she gave a subtle nod.

Darren’s sharp footsteps turned my head. He came toward us, hands in his jacket pockets. We all exchanged looks, but said nothing, and got into the elevator.

As soon as we stepped out of the elevator, it was clear that word about what had happened had made it back to the precinct. People stopped what they were doing. Froze. Stared. And it wasn’t the usual hostility that Darren and I enjoyed most of the time thanks to our reputations as snitches who worked with Internal Affairs.

We didn’t say anything to anyone, and continued toward our desks.

“Hey, Detectives.” Officer Blaine—one of those fresh-faced, perfectly-squared-away types who’d driven me insane even back in my academy days—approached. His eyes were wide. “I heard what happened. Listen, uh, if there’s anything any of us can do, we—”

“We’ll let you know.”

“I mean it.” The earnestness in his tone was . . . well, it annoyed me on most days, but he was talking about helping find my kids. “Everyone here adores Erin. Whatever we can do.”

Ah, that explained it. The whole building loved my daughter. Ironic, considering she was working for Detective Thibedeau. The fact that she could charm the ranks despite working for IA said a lot about her personality.

But at this point, I’d take all the help I could get. “Thank you, Officer.”

“Do you have any leads? Anything?”

I gritted my teeth, and lucky for him, I didn’t have the energy to snap back that if I had a lead, I wouldn’t be here.

Darren spoke up first. “We’re doing what we can.”

That seemed to satisfy Blaine, and he didn’t push the issue.

We kept walking.

“Think we should grab a conference room?” Darren asked.

“Don’t know what good it’ll do us until—” I glanced at Lisa. “Until we have something to work with.”

“Fair enough,” he said.

I carefully took a seat at my desk, propped my crutches against the wall, and rested my fucked-up foot on a chair I’d brought over when I’d come back to work between surgeries. My ankle was throbbing like mad now, but I didn’t dare complain or so much as grimace, or Darren would get on my case about taking a pain pill. He meant well. I understood. But I needed to be clearheaded so I could find my kids.

Lisa leaned against another desk and folded her arms loosely across her chest. “So, we start by figuring out the motive?”

Anyone else, any other case, I’d have said, You start by going home and letting us do our job. But would I have let anyone push me away from this investigation? Hell, they’d already tried. I was way too close to this case to be anywhere near the actual investigation. And Lisa . . . well, she wasn’t a cop, but she was as likely as I was to walk away and let the detached professionals handle it.

Darren drummed his fingers on his own desk. “Can either of you think of anyone who’d want to mess with you?” His eyes flicked back and forth between us.

“There isn’t a cop in this town who’ll say my name without making the sign of the horns,” I said dryly. “But cops don’t fuck with other cops’ families.”

“No, but we can’t rule anything out,” Darren said. “Has anyone you collared been let out recently?”

I chewed the inside of my cheek. “I haven’t actually checked lately. I usually keep an eye on that, but . . .” I gestured at my foot. “I’ve been distracted.”

“Wouldn’t hurt to look into it.”

Nodding, I sat up and opened my laptop.

Lisa unfolded and refolded her arms. “There’s . . .”

We both turned to her.

She kept her gaze down, gnawing her lower lip so hard I was amazed it didn’t bleed.

“Lisa?” I said.

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