Three years before
Tahlia O’Connor stood on the courthouse steps, staring at the figure walking through the doors into the building. Fear was an oily taste in her mouth, bitter and unpleasant. One she’d become intimately acquainted with over the twenty years of her marriage to a monster. The same man she watched entering the courthouse.
I can’t do this. There’s nowhere for me to hide. He’ll come for me; he’ll find me. He always does.
On the point of bolting, she felt the gentle touch of a hand on her arm. She flinched and clapped a hand over her mouth as a small scream escaped. Eyes glazing with terror, she shrank back, deep into her heavy winter coat. Throwing a protective arm up to shield her face, she couldn’t stop the words from coming, unbidden, “No, please. I’m sorry. Please don’t—”
“Tahlia. Honey, it’s okay. It’s only me. You’re safe. He can’t hurt you anymore. Tahlia? Look at me, honey.”
The soft voice, so unexpected, filtered through the fog of terror into her consciousness. Blinking tears from her eyes, she turned her head in the direction the voice had come from. Her attorney stood beside her, a look of sadness on her face.
“You with me, honey?”
Tahlia nodded but didn’t say a word. Couldn’t say a word. She felt paralyzed as she stood there, taking deep breaths. Her body trembled, her stomach roiling.
“Take your time. We don’t have to be in court for another fifteen minutes. You tell me when you’re ready, okay?”
Again, she simply nodded. She didn’t think she would ever be ready to face the man who had, over the years, systematically broken her in the name of taking care of her. The world had believed that theirs had been the perfect, fairytale life, but the reality had been far removed from a storybook romance.
Everything in her rebelled at the idea of being in the same room as him again. Hyperventilating, her heart raced just thinking about it. But it had to be done if she was ever to be free of him. If she was ever to have a chance at piecing her broken spirit back together, she needed to face her fear and see this through to the end.
With a last, deep breath, Tahlia wiped a shaking hand over her mouth.
“You’re sure they’ll be able to protect me? Marcus has a far reach. There’s nowhere I can hide that he can’t find me.”
“You’ll be safe. They know what they’re doing. He won’t find you. I promise.”
Her mind screamed at her to go, but if she did, she’d be running for the rest of her life. Despite how badly she was shaking, Tahlia straightened her spine. Her eyes not quite meeting the attorney’s, she nodded. “I’m about as ready as I’m ever going to be. Let’s just get this done.”
Her attorney placed a comforting arm around Tahlia’s shoulders and guided her up the steps.
Larry Keon lifted the glass of Guinness to his lips, taking a deep swallow. The lunchtime rush was over, and it was too early for the evening crowd, so the little bar he favored was still quiet. Just the way he liked it.
Movement on the television in the corner caught his eye. Looking over, he froze as a familiar face popped up on the screen, but, with the sound muted, he couldn’t hear what was being said.
“Hey Steve, turn the TV up a second?” he called out to the barman.
As the man increased the volume, Larry heard the news presenter say, “And in other news, former Senator Marcus Forrester has been found guilty on multiple counts of aggravated assault and one count of attempted murder against his ex-wife, Tahlia O’Connor. The senator’s legal team had been quite confident of a dismissal but after the evidence concluded with the emotional testimony of Ms. O’Connor this morning, it seems it might have been premature. A clearly distressed Ms. O’Connor gave an account of numerous occasions Senator Forrester assaulted her over the years of their marriage. This unexpected outcome followed a short deliberation by the jury. Sentencing will take place later this this month. And now for a commercial break before we check out the weather.”
As an ad came on, Larry sat back in his seat, staring unseeing at the screen. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
Time passed as he got lost in memories of a past that had haunted him for decades. A past he’d never thought would see the light of day. Who would have thought the day would come.? Lifting his glass in salute, he drained it. Cheers, sweetheart. I’m proud of you.
With a heavy sigh, Larry leaned back in his chair. Interlocking his fingers behind his head, he contemplated the papers scattered across his desk. Frustration bubbled beneath his skin like acid. Their investigation had run cold, and he was out of options.
For months, they’d been following up leads and tip-offs, no matter how far-fetched or implausible. One just never knew what would yield results. But so far, nothing. Scrubbing a hand down his face, he blew out another breath. He reached out a hand to randomly grab a piece of paper from his desk in the hopes it would spark something. Anything. A flicker of an idea, no matter how small.
The phone on his desk rang, catching him off guard. With a curse, he reached out a hand to answer.
“Sorry to disturb you, sir, but there’s a lady on the line for you. She’s reluctant to give her name but asked that I tell you she’s an old friend,” his secretary answered.
“She say anything else?”
“No, sir. That’s it.”
“All right, put her through.”
He heard the click as the call was transferred to him, and he answered, “Keon.”
“Hello, Laurence.” The soft voice feathered over him like a whisper of the past.
For a moment, Larry was incapable of answering. His grip around the phone tightened as he rocked back in his seat. Surely it couldn’t be. Could it? Taking a breath, unaware he’d been holding it, he asked, “Tahlia?”
“Yes. It’s been a long time. How’ve you been, Laurence?”
“I’ve been good, thanks. How’ve you been? I’ve wondered about you, but you disappeared after the court case.”
“It’s been a difficult few years. After Marcus was convicted, I needed to get away. I needed somewhere safe I could put myself back together again.”
“And did you? Put yourself back together again?”
“I’m getting there. I’m a work in progress still.”
“I’m glad to hear you’re doing better.” Pausing for a moment, he continued, “What can I do you for you, Tahlia?”
“Laurence, could we meet somewhere? I found something in a bank deposit box. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I think you need to see it. You might know what to do with this.”
“I– sure. Where and when?”
“There’s a coffee shop around the corner from your offices. Can you meet me there? In, say, an hour?”
Larry looked at his watch. “I’ve got a meeting scheduled in twenty minutes. Hang on a second while I see if I can reschedule.”
“Okay, I’ll hold.”
Putting her on hold, Larry dialed his secretary. “Mary-Beth, can you contact Finn and let him know something’s come up? I’ll have to reschedule for this afternoon. Tell him I’ll give him a call as soon as I’m back in the office.”
“Will do, sir.”
“Thank you,” he replied before switching back to the waiting call. “All sorted, Tahlia. I’ll meet you at the bakery around the corner in an hour.”
“Thank you, Laurence. I’ll see you then. Goodbye.” With that, the line went dead in his ear.
He put the phone back on the cradle and sat staring at it as if it might be a bomb about to detonate. The call had unsettled him, and he couldn’t say why. Maybe it was the specter of the past that had him so rattled. But he sure was curious to know what Tahlia wanted to show him.
Putting thoughts of Tahlia and their history out of his mind, he went back to studying the papers strewn across his desk. There had to be something there they were missing. Lives depended on them figuring this case out. In all his years, first doing private work as a bodyguard and then, as a field agent, he’d seen the worst that humanity had to offer.
When it came to human trafficking though, it really hit hard. While he knew his agents were more than capable of handling the case, he was called to be a part of it. The nightmare images still haunted him.
He picked up a page and started reading through the evidence they’d gathered in the hopes he’d missed something. After forty minutes of fruitlessly searching, Larry threw the documents back on his desk. He was getting nowhere fast. He decided he’d head to the bakery around the corner early to clear his head while he waited for Tahlia to arrive.
Lady Luck had smiled on Tahlia as she’d searched for a parking spot. A space three doors down from her destination opened, and she’d snapped it up. She’d intentionally arrived early, but in the end, she’d simply sat staring at the door of the bakery, unable to gather the courage to get out.
The last time she’d seen Laurence was the day he’d come to say goodbye. The day hope had died within her. He’d been her lifeline, her sanity. When he’d left, he’d taken it all with him – hope, security, sanctuary, and she’d never found another reason to fight back.
Shaking the thoughts from her head, Tahlia got out of the car. It would be impolite to make Laurence wait for her, and one thing she’d had beaten into her over the years of her marriage was that image was everything. As she hurried over to the door, she took a much-needed deep breath. She tightened the hand clasped around the straps of her purse and went inside.
She spotted him almost immediately. Standing completely still, she soaked in the sight of the man who had captured her heart only to crush it to pieces the day he’d left her. Time had been kind to him. Sure, he was older and gray now, but he was still as handsome as the day she’d met him.
He still made her heart beat faster. And despite the lines now visible around his eyes and mouth, as he looked up and caught sight of her, she discovered his smile could still make her knees weak.
Tahlia watched as Laurence rose gracefully to his feet and held out a chair for her. Galvanized into action, she walked over to where he stood.
“Laurence, it’s good to see you.”
He gifted her with another devastating smile before replying, “It’s good to see you too, Tahlia.”
She took a seat in the proffered chair, smoothing the skirt of her dress over her knees self-consciously. Watching him return to his own seat, her mind scrambled to find something to say. She couldn’t remember a time she’d felt so awkward around him.
After a long, uncomfortable moment of silence, Laurence cleared his throat. “Talk to me.”
She tried hard not to squirm under his gaze as he waited for her to reply. Those eyes of his missed nothing. There was so much she wanted to say to him, but she had no idea where to start. Finally, she replied, “After you left, things got worse. I always thought that he’d kill me one day.” She paused to gather herself. “Eventually, he almost did. My sister found me and called a friend pretty high up in the police department to report it. She went to him to make sure something came of it, since she was done keeping quiet about everything. He made good on his word and, as they say, the rest is history.”
“And after the court case? Where did you disappear to?”
“Once again, I have my sister to thank for that. She knew of a network called Friends of Patty that help women like me to disappear—abused women. I guess a bit like witness protection. They help you get settled somewhere else under a new identity. You’re meant to cut all ties with your past.”
“What made you decide to come back?”
“Honestly? I got tired of hiding, always looking over my shoulder. I missed my family. Leaving parents and siblings behind is one thing. Cutting all ties and leaving your children behind? That’s a different thing altogether. When I heard Maddie was getting married, I couldn’t stay away anymore.”
“Yeah, I heard Maddie’s getting married.” Shifting in his chair, Laurence leaned forward, his gaze searching. “So, what is it you think you have that has you looking me up, Lia? It’s been a lot of years since we last spoke.” He probably hadn’t intended to call her by the nickname he’d given her. It had slipped out.
“Yes, I guess it has,” Tahlia replied, tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. Not saying anything more about their time spent apart, she reached into her purse and pulled out a sheaf of papers. She slid them across the table as she continued. “I was looking for something in my safety deposit box at the bank, and I came across these papers. I didn’t recognize them, so I read through them. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I don’t think it’s anything good. Why else would Marcus have put them in my box and not his own?”
She watched as Laurence picked the papers up and shuffled through them. A couple of pages in, she saw his body stiffen. A frisson of alarm ran through her, leaving her hands cold.
“What it is?”
“Do you have any idea where these come from? What they are?”
“No. I have absolutely no idea. As I said, I found them in my safety deposit box, so I can only assume Marcus would have put them there since he’s the only other person who had access to that box.”
Tapping the papers lying on the table in front of him, Laurence said, “Thanks for these. I’ll look into it. Where can I reach you should I need to speak to you again?”
Reaching into her purse once more, Tahlia drew out a little notebook and pen. She wrote her number on a page, tore it out, and handed it to him.
“I’m staying in a rental suite for a while until I can find a place of my own. But you can reach me on my cell.” Silently debating for a moment, she eventually asked, “Do you have any idea what these might be? Do you think they’re important, since Marcus put them in my box?”
Larry shook his head. “I’m not sure. I’ll have to go over them more thoroughly than the brief scan I gave them.”
Tahlia studied him for a moment, not saying anything, as she tried to decide whether he was telling her the truth. His face gave no indication of what he was thinking, she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
After long moments of awkward silence, Larry said, “I need to get back to the office, but it’s been good to see you again, Lia.”
“You too, Laurence. Take care of yourself.”
“Thanks. You too.”
He got to his feet and rounded the table, on his way to the door. Stopping beside her chair, he hesitated a moment, and Tahlia could have sworn he wanted to say something to her. Instead, he touched a hand briefly to her shoulder before leaving without another word.
Larry stood on the sidewalk outside the coffee shop for a moment, gathering his thoughts. The papers in his hand made him twitchy. If they were what he thought they might be, things were about to get mighty interesting.
With one last lingering glance at the woman he’d left inside, he headed back to the office.
A million thoughts raced through his mind as he walked the short distance. He spared a quick glance at his watch. His meeting with his top agent on the trafficking task team was, it seemed, well timed. These papers could possibly be just the thing they needed to create a crack in this nightmare of a case.
His secretary looked up as he strode into the office.
“Special Agent Finn just rang. He’s in the office as soon as you’re ready, sir.”
“Great. Let him know I’m back and send him in when he gets here. No calls, no interruptions when he gets here, please.”
“Oh, and Mary-Beth, please ask Jackson to see what she can find on former Senator Marcus Forrester. Get her to put a file together for me, will you?”
“Certainly, Mr. Keon. Right away.”
He stepped into his office and closed the door behind him. Larry took a seat at his desk and laid the papers down before him. With a deep breath, he spread them out to take another look. The pages were covered in writing, detailing a sordid and deeply disturbing business, if his suspicions were correct.
Never in his wildest dreams had he imagined that not only would a break this significant simply fall in his lap, but who it was that was involved. Deep in the heart of it all, it seemed.
He’d always known Marcus Forrester was a bastard. He just hadn’t known how much of one.
A brief knock on the door drew him from his musings.
“Yeah, come in.”
The door opened, and Special Agent Kaden Finn stepped in.
“Ah, Finn. Just the man I’m looking for. Come on in.”
“How’s it going? Your lead yield anything this morning?”
“No luck, sir. We struck out again. It was another dead end. The building was empty. Doesn’t seem like anyone’s been there in a while.”
“Damn. I had hoped we’d catch a break this time. Although,” — he handed the sheaf of papers to Finn — “this landed in my lap today. Have a look and see what you make of it.”
Finn accepted them, taking a seat in one of the chairs facing the desk. Larry watched as he read the notes. He smiled grimly when he saw the moment the penny dropped for the other man.
“Is this what I think it is?”
“Depends. What do you think it is?”
“It looks to me like financial records of payments received for sales transactions, and if I don’t miss my guess, the commodity looks to be of the human kind.”
“Yeah, then I guess it’s what you think it is. That’s certainly what it looks like to me. And pretty detailed at that, too.”
“If I may, sir, where did you get these?”
Larry laughed. “That’s where it gets interesting. I got a call from former Senator Marcus Forrester’s ex-wife this morning. That’s why I had to postpone our meeting. She was looking for something in her safety deposit box and came across those. Since she and her ex-husband are the only two with access to the box, and she swears they aren’t hers, I can only surmise they belong to the senator.”
“Well damn. I never saw that one coming.”
“I didn’t either. But, knowing the bastard, it doesn’t surprise me. I guess I’m going to have to pay the man a visit. Let’s see what we can shake loose from that tree.”
“Need me to accompany you, sir?”
“Sure. I think an extra set of eyes and ears would be good. See what we can get out of him, if anything. I’m not holding out too much hope though. The man is a nasty piece of work.”
“Get me up to speed on where we’re at right now.”
They spent the next half hour talking over the case before Larry finally said, “Right, let’s keep working this thing. It’s gotta break some time.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll keep you posted.”
No sooner had Finn left than there was another knock on the door.
“Yeah, come in.”
Mary-Beth entered the room with a folder in her hand.
“Jackon’s pulled a preliminary file together for you, Mr. Keon. She’s still searching, but thought you might want what she’s already gathered.”
“Thanks, Mary-Beth. Appreciate it.”
Handing him the file, she smiled before leaving the office.
Sitting back in his chair, Larry contemplated the closed folder. He wondered what he would learn about the man he hated with everything in him. The man who’d had everything Larry had wanted but couldn’t have. The bastard who’d never appreciated what he’d had.
Tahlia eyed her phone with trepidation. Rubbing her hand down her thigh for the umpteenth time, she tried to work up the courage to pick it up from the table where it lay.
She’d been trying to scrape that courage together for the past half hour, a litany of reasons why calling her daughter wasn’t a good idea playing on a loop in her head. Maddie had been the sole reason she’d come out of hiding. She missed her terribly and had lost so much time in her child’s life over the past few years she’d been living under the radar.
But she was done hiding. She wanted her life back, and she especially wanted her sweet daughter back in her life. When she’d heard that Maddie was getting married, Tahlia had cried for hours, grieving the time she’d missed out on. Her little girl had met the love of her life, and she hadn’t been there. No more!
Marcus had almost killed Tahlia, more than once. He’d taken years from her. But she’d be damned if he took any more from her. Tahlia had every intention of being a part of Maddie’s life and wedding, if she could just find it in her to make the call. If she was willing to let Thalia back into her life.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and reached out to pick up the phone. Scrolling through the numbers now listed in her contacts, Tahlia quickly found the one she was looking for. Pressing the green phone icon, she waited for the call to connect. Just as the line rang in her ear, she lost her nerve and hung up.
Urgh! Pull yourself together woman. It’s not that hard. You’re making a meal out of this. Just dial the damn phone already.
Once again eyeing the phone she’d placed back on the table, Tahlia berated herself for being a coward. With another deep breath, she repeated the process. This time, as the phone rang, she held on. Her fist clutched tightly around the instrument in her hand, she prayed she wouldn’t be ill all over the floor.
Despite having made the call, somehow Tahlia hadn’t anticipated Maddie actually answering. She froze.
“Hello?” she heard repeated. “Hello, is anyone there?”
She reached deep and, drawing on all the strength she’d been working on building during her time away, finally managed to say, “Hi Maddie, it’s me.”
Nerves wouldn’t allow the words to come out much louder than a whisper, but still the other woman seemed to hear.
“Yes, baby. It’s me.”
“Oh my god, Mama. Is that really you?”
“Yes, it’s me, princess.” Tahlia’s heart clenched as she heard Maddie break down. “Shh, my darling. You’ll make yourself sick like that.”
She heard rustling and then a man’s voice. “Who’s this?
“This is Tahlia O’Connor. I’m Madison’s mother. To whom am I speaking?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Is my daughter all right?”
“Is this some kind of sick joke? Madison’s mother passed away some years ago. I don’t know who you are, but I suggest you don’t call this number again.”
The line went dead as Tahlia’s whole body turned to ice. The tears that had pooled in her eyes when she heard Maddie’s voice now slid over her bottom lid. Slowly at first, but as the shock of hearing she’d been proclaimed dead set in, they flowed faster. She stumbled over to the sofa and all but collapsed onto it, sobbing. The pain enormous.
But then, what had she expected? She’s disappeared without so much as a goodbye. True, she hadn’t had a choice. Once Marcus had been convicted, Tahlia had been rushed from the courtroom and into a waiting vehicle. The District Attorney had organized for her to leave the building through the underground parking to avoid the hordes of reporters waiting outside the courthouse. She’d been transported to a private plane and taken out of the city to begin her life as someone new. She’d been given a new name and identity, a brand-new life as someone else. For her protection, they’d assured her.
Her sister had heard about an organization called Friends of Patty. She’d discovered they were a cross between witness protection and the old Underground Railroad for victims of domestic violence. They’d promised to keep her safe, but, in return, she would be required to simply disappear. It would be hard leaving loved ones behind, they’d told her. But it had to be done, lest someone let anything slip.
More than once Marcus had threatened to kill her. And if he couldn’t be the one to do it, he vowed to hire someone to do the job for him. He’d blamed her for his arrest, conviction and impending incarceration. He had no intention of forgetting it.
Now, because of it, of him, her precious Maddie had thought she was dead.
Tahlia rocked herself, trying to ease the tightness in her chest. Spots danced at the edge of her vision from dizziness. The sobs tore from her shaking frame and hurt her throat. In a distant part of her brain, she wondered if she was having a heart attack, the tightness in her chest was that intense.
The unexpected sound of her phone ringing competed with the harsh sounds of her weeping. For a moment, Tahlia didn’t recognize the sound. She’d forgotten about the phone she still clutched tightly in her hand.
As she squinted at the screen, battling to see past the tears, she saw Maddie’s name flashing.
Fingers suddenly clumsy, it took a couple of attempts before she could connect the call. Taking a deep breath, trying to get herself under control, she answered.
“Hello?” Her voice was little more than a croak.
“Mama? Mama, is that really you?” Maddie’s voice caught.
“Yes, baby. It’s really me.” Tahlia’s heart clenched tighter in response.
Please God, I’ve just found my way back to my girl. Please, please don’t let me be having a heart attack.
“I don’t understand. Where have you been? You just disappeared without so much as a word. Why, Mama? I don’t understand. I thought you were dead!”
Tahlia took a moment to rein her emotions in. It was clear Maddie was overwhelmed with emotions of her own. And a meltdown would do neither of them any good.
“I know, my sweet girl. I’m so sorry. I’ll explain it all to you and answer any questions you may have. If we could please just do it in person?”
“Okay. Yes. I– um … Where … What?” Maddie stopped, and Tahlia could hear her taking deep breaths. “Where would you like to meet? And when?”
“Would it be okay if you came here? Whenever you want. I’m free anytime for you.”
“Where are you? Can I come to you now?”
“I– Well, sure. You’re welcome to come over now, if you wish. I’m staying at a bed and breakfast in Alexandria. I’ll message you the address.”
“I know the area. I’m leaving now. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Maddie paused. Then, “Mama?”
“Please, please be there when I get there. Please don’t run away again. I don’t think my heart could stand it.”
Choking down a lump in her throat, Tahlia replied, “I promise, I’ll be here.”
She heard the call disconnect. Lowering the phone to her lap, she sat for long moments, feeling as if she’d been put through the wringer. Thankfully, the tightness in her chest had eased some.
Realizing she’d yet to send Maddie her address, she quickly dashed off a message to the other woman, then hustled herself into the bathroom to repair the damage her crying jag had wrought. She didn’t want her daughter’s first sight of her after such a long time to be of a haggard old woman.
Splashing cold water on her face, she relished the coolness against her heated skin. She’d never been one of those graceful criers. Her skin always became blotchy, her nose and eyes red. Studying herself in the mirror, she decided a touchup was in order. She refreshed her makeup before returning to the living room to wait for Maddie.
Not even fifteen minutes later, there was a knock at her door. She got to her feet, smoothing her skirt with icy hands. On shaky legs, she strode to the door, praying they would hold her up. As she reached it, she took a moment to compose herself before opening it.
As it swung inward, she and Maddie stared, drinking the sight of each other in. Without warning, the beautiful young woman threw herself at Tahlia.
“Oh my god, Mama. I never thought I’d see you again,” Maddie cried.
Tahlia wrapped her arms around the daughter she’d thought she wouldn’t ever get to hold again, unable to hold back her own tears.
“My sweet, precious baby girl,” she murmured into Maddie’s hair, holding her close to her heart that’d ached so badly earlier. Rocking gently, she ran a loving hand over the vibrant tresses that reminded her so much of her own, soothing them both.
With no idea of how long they stood like that, Tahlia became aware of another person when she heard a man clear his throat.
“Sugar, I think we should move this reunion inside, don’t you?”Three