I folded the morning’s newspaper and set it down on the kitchen table, the headline of the Big City section reading, “Stocks Soar for Wondermann Corp.” As intrigued as I was about what caused Mr. Wondermann’s decidedly dangerous business to quadruple stock values overnight, the antics of my siblings Max, Cat, and Pietr, and Max’s girlfriend, Amy, demanded my more immediate attention.
“So I said to him,” Max began, pointing at Pietr, “‘I thought she was with you.’ We had split up for a little and—”
Cat stepped in, still carrying a shopping bag from their recent outing to the mall. “And I said: ‘You mean to tell me you’ve lost Jessie?’” She gave Max a hard look before returning her gaze to me. “He manages to lose his sneakers and at least one sock out of most of his pairs—and do not get me started about how very remote the TV remote becomes once he’s used it—but to lose an entire person?”
“I didn’t lose her!” Max bellowed, glaring at Pietr instead.
I cleared my throat, and all eyes were on me, my position as eldest brother and previous alpha a help. “Are we quite certain Jessie has not just gone home?”
They all looked at one another.
“Seriously? You think I didn’t try calling her?” Amy asked me. “She’s not answering her cell.”
“Does she always answer her cell?”
“I had Pietr call with his,” Amy said, as if that was all the answer I needed. It was. Jessie would always pick up a call from Pietr.
“Who was responsible for Jessie last?” I asked.
“Don’t ever let her hear you talk like that,” Amy said. “She’ll kick your ass.”
“Language,” Cat warned with a sniff.
I shrugged. “She has a gift for getting into trouble.”
Amy leveled her gaze at me. “Pietr’s in charge of stating the obvious. And just because a thing is true, it doesn’t mean we say it out loud,” she scolded.
Max chuckled. “We were at the mall. Pietr and I hit the Game Shop. The girls were trying on clothes. Is it any surprise they lost track of her when Cat was distracted by what color makes her boobs look better?”
“It’s green, you oaf. And they don’t need to look better, but it does somehow make them appear bigger.” She paused, blinking at him in frustration. “And that was most certainly not the issue,” she added with a hrumph. “Jessie said she was going to catch up to you two and talk with Pietr.”
“Well, it seems obvious she did not succeed.” Unease unfolded in the pit of my stomach. “It is very unlike Jessie to simply…”
“Pick up and leave?” Amy asked.
“Da. Unless…” Turning to Pietr, I asked, “Were you somehow a jerk to her?”
“Nyet,” he said, defensive. “I barely paid her any attention at all—”
Cat and Max groaned in unison.
“Jerk,” I confirmed, nodding my head.
“You’ve been kind of aloof since you got cured,” Amy stated more gently, reaching for Pietr’s arm.
He looked down, shoulders slumping. “I never intended for that to happen. We searched the mall.…”
“This may all be quite simple,” I assured him. “Call the Gillmansen household.”
They blinked at me.
“Use the landline,” I clarified. “Her father may be home. Or Annabelle Lee. Either might have answers.”
Pietr nodded and pulled out his cell, punching the proper button. “Mr. Gillmansen? Da. Is Jess around? Nyet. She is not with us.” He looked at us, worry etching a crease between his brows. “He is yelling for her now.”
Pietr’s focus returned to the phone. “She is? Nyet. Da. I understand. We will be there immediately.” He headed straight for the door.
“Hold up,” Amy said, grabbing his arm. “You said ‘she is.’ She’s there?”
“Nyet,” Pietr returned, paler than his normal pallor since taking the cure. “Rio is loose in the paddock. Spooked. Her stall door is hanging open.”
Amy pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes and groaned. “This is bad.” So fast he jumped in surprise, she grabbed Max’s arm, saying, “We need a tracker.”
Max did not need encouragement. He nearly beat us to the front door.
We piled into the convertible, Pietr, Amy, and Cat buckling into the back while Max took the driver’s seat and I, as the girls said, rode shotgun. It was a very American phrase, sounding far more dominant than it was in reality.
The Gillmansen farm was not a long drive in good weather, but peering up through the windshield I realized we were not entering optimal driving conditions. Snow fluttered down from fattening clouds.
Travel might take significantly longer, and if Jessie’s horse, Rio, was spooked, Jessie was most certainly in trouble. Time was, again, not on our side.
Leaning forward, I peeked out through the thin sliver of space between the door and doorjamb and looked down the motel’s second-story breezeway toward Gareth’s room. He’d be napping now, his shift guarding us recently over.
I didn’t get it. What did Pietr see in Jessica Gillmansen? Why’d I even care? She was like anyone else in the world: brown hair, brown eyes, a medium athletic build … freckles spotted her nose and cheeks like any country girl who’d stood in the sun for a few minutes. She was a simple human being living in small-town America.
Absolutely unremarkable in every way.
But Pietr, who seemed every inch the alpha, saw something in her. Not that I cared. I didn’t want to see any redeeming quality in her. For some weird reason she felt like competition.
Kyanne stalked along the breezeway, watching the parking lot below, keeping an eye out for trouble.
Maintaining a guard at all times was one thing I insisted on even though the motel seemed safe. I seemed like just an average college-age girl, but that was far from reality.
Gabriel teased me about not trusting anyone. He was very nearly right. I didn’t trust anyone but Gareth. And he was the main reason I didn’t trust myself.
Not far away, another reason I didn’t trust myself—Jessica Gillmansen—was stashed in a forgotten storage shed. Her very existence made me undeniably insane. It had only been an hour since Gabe had delivered her as a belated birthday gift and I needed to decide how everything was going to play out. And decide what—or how—to tell Gareth.
God. I rested my forehead on the door. Where I was raised, kids wore those WWJD bracelets to ask themselves what Jesus would do. My guardians, Phil and Margie, pushed religion on me so hard I rejected it. I was more worried about what Gareth would do.
A door clicked open at my other side and Gabriel came into view, his eyes popping wide when I opened the door before he raised a fist to knock.
His eyes raked over me, taking in my thin cotton pajamas and pausing so long in his examination of my low-cut top that I thought he had to be memorizing the statement scrawled across my front. “It says, ‘Sleep Is for Quitters.’”
He blinked up at me, his mouth opening. I stopped him before words—or drool—came. “If you’re done staring at my tits, say whatever you came to say.”
He pursed his lips and dropped his line of sight again to piss me off. I smacked him, my fingers tingling in the aftermath of the sudden strike.
He touched his face, my palm hitting the same spot just starting to heal from Jessica’s defensive strike. He worked his jaw, testing it. “You can’t think you’re sleeping tonight … not with her here.…”
I shrugged. “This doesn’t have to go down tonight.” I needed time to think.
He cocked his head, his naturally narrow eyes becoming sparkling slits. “I’m not sure.”
“Not tonight, honey.” The only thing I wanted to think about was getting rid of Jessica without Gareth knowing.
I began to close the door on him, but he wedged his shoe between my door and its frame. “Are you going to screw this up?”
“I don’t screw things up. I make things happen.”
A smile twitched at the corner of his lips. “I hope so. This could make big things happen for us. You just have to be ready.”
“I’m ready. I just need…”
“What? What do you still need?”
He snorted. “How much do you think you’ll have before they get here? It won’t take them long to realize she’s missing and then connect us to her disappearance.”
“I need time,” I insisted, shoving him back so I could slam the door shut. Silent and seething, I waited there until I heard him walk away, muttering.
Dread lodged in my gut, I knew I needed to talk to Gareth. Always on my mind and nudging his way into my heart, Gareth was the one I trusted. He’d help me see things clearly, although it seemed whenever I was near him all I could see was him.
Until recently. Now being around him made me think of Pietr Rusakova. And that made me as queasy as knowing that I had Jessica in the shed made me happy.
Rio was still racing around the paddock when we arrived at the Gillmansens’ farm. Leon and his youngest daughter, Annabelle Lee, edged toward the horse with soft words and slow gestures.
I caught Leon’s eye, and he nodded to...