"Home," Grace sighed as she tossed her keys and purse on the small table beside her front door. She padded to her bedroom, the sound of honking cars filling her ears. Sunlight burst directly into her line of vision from the open blinds, too bright, too cheery.
She was not in a good mood.
She'd spent the past week with the Argonauts. While they had been perfectly solicitous of her, they had failed to find any clue as to her brother's whereabouts. Neither had she. Every day she'd called his cell phone. Every day she'd called his apartment. He never answered. She'd had no luck tracking down what flight he'd taken out of Brazil.
She finally caught the red-eye and here she was, though she didn't know what she was going to do. File a missing person's report? Hire a P.I.? Uttering another sigh, she picked up the cordless phone perched on the edge of her desk. Three new voice mails, all of them from her mom. Grace dialed her brother's number. One ring, two. Three, four, five. No answer.
She called his cell. No answer there, either.
She hung up and punched in her mother's number.
"Hello," her mom answered.
"Grace Elizabeth Carlyle. My caller ID says you're calling from home." Accusation layered her voice.
Grace pictured her sitting at the kitchen counter, one hand on her hip while she glared at the red checkered curtains hanging over the window.
"I flew home last night."
"I didn't realize Brazil had yet to embrace modern technology."
"What are you talking about?"
"Phones, Grace. I didn't realize there were no phones in Brazil."
She rolled her eyes. "The rumor that you heard, the one that says there are pay phones on every tree in the jungle. Well, it's false."
Ignoring her, her mom said, "Not one call did I receive from my only daughter. Not one. You know how your aunt worries."
"Is that Gracie?" a second female said in the background. Her "worried" aunt Sophie was probably standing over her mom's shoulder, grinning from ear to ear.
The two sisters had lived together for the last five years. They were polar opposites, but managed to complement each other in a strange sort of way. Her mom was schedule-oriented and thrived on fixing other people's problems. Sophie was a free spirit who caused problems.
"Yes, it's Grace," her mom said. "She's calling to tell us she's alive and well and not dead in the jungle like you feared."
"Like I feared?" Sophie laughed. "Ha!"
"How are you feeling, Mom?" Her mom's health had been dismal lately. Weight loss. Fatigue. They didn't know exactly what the cause was.
"Fine. Just fine."
"Let me talk to her," Sophie said. Slight pause, crackling static, then, "Did you get lucky?"
"I don't want to hear this," her mom groaned in the background.
Automatically Grace opened her mouth to say yes, she'd made out with a sexy, tattooed warrior and had nearly given him everything a woman could possibly give a man. Then she clamped her mouth closed. Dreams, or mirages, or whatever Darius had been, did not count in Sophie's estimation.
Over the past week, she'd mulled over her experience in Atlantis. She always came back to the same conclusion. None of it had been real. Couldn't possibly have been real.
"No," she said, careful to keep the disappointment from her voice. "I didn't."
"Did you wear the outfit I bought for you?"
The leopard-print spandex skirt with matching low-cut, too tight shirt? "I didn't have a chance."
"Men go crazy for that sort of thing, Gracie honey. They're like fish. You have to hook them with the proper bait, then reel them in."
Her mom reclaimed the phone with a muttered, "I will not allow you to give my daughter lessons on seduction." Then to Grace she said, "How's Alex doing? Is he eating enough? He never eats enough when he goes on these expeditions of his."
With each word, dread uncurled inside of Grace. "So you haven't talked to him?" she asked, hoping her fear and uncertainty were masked. "He hasn't called you?"
"Well, no," her mother said. "Is he back? He's back, isn't he, and just didn't call?"
"No, I just-" Just what? Don't know if he's eating enough because no one's heard from him in several weeks?
"What's going on, Grace?" Worry tinged her mom's tone. "You took tins trip specifically to see your brother. Why don't you know how he is?"
"Does this have anything to do with the man who called us?" Sophie asked, her voice clear enough that Grace knew she was still standing over her mom's shoulder.
"What man?" she demanded. "When?"
"Someone called for Alex about a week ago," her mom said. "Asked if we'd heard from him, if we knew where he was. Grace, what's going on? You're worrying me."
To tell the truth, or not tell the truth... She loved her mom and hated to cause her any worry. Yet, as Alex's mother, Gretchen had a right to know that her son was missing. The worry might make her sicker, though. She'd tell her, Grace decided then, but not now, and not over the phone. She'd wait a few days and see if she learned anything new. No reason to cause her mom anxiety until absolutely necessary.
"You know how Alex likes those doughnuts," she said, evading. And not lying. "I can say with one hundred percent surety that he's not eating right." He never did.
"So he's okay?" her mom asked, relieved.
"I'd tell you if anything was wrong, wouldn't I?" Again, evading and not lying, since she'd posed the words as a question.
"You've always told the truth," her mom said proudly, then tsked under her tongue. "I swear, your brother is a walking advertisement for heart disease. Maybe I'll send him some soy muffins. I can FedEx them. Does FedEx deliver to Brazil?"
"Not in the heart of the jungle."
"I'll send him a Cindy Crawford workout DVD ," Sophie called.
"I doubt his tent has an electrical outlet."
"He has to go to his hotel room sometime," her mom said.
Grace rubbed her temple. "I hate to do this, but I've got to let you go."
"What! Why? You haven't told me about your trip. Did you do any shopping? Did you visit with the natives? I hear they walk around... " She paused and uttered a scandalized gasp, "Naked."
"Unfortunately I didn't see them. Which is too bad, since I'd promised to take pictures for Aunt Sophie."
"Speaking of Sophie, she's wondering if you brought her a souvenir."
"I was not," her aunt said.
"I'll come by in a few days and give you all the details. Promise."
"Bye. Love you." Grace gently placed the receiver in its cradle and cringed. Oh, she was going to be punished for that one. A never-ending lecture, followed by a reminder every time her mother needed a favor. "Do you remember the time you hung up on me? I cried for days."
Rolling her eyes, Grace punched in one last number. Her friend Meg was head of reservations for a major airline, so she had Meg check all databases for Alex's name. He wasn't listed, but that didn't mean anything. He could have flown private.
Not about to give up, Grace stuffed her keys, wallet and a can of Mace into her favorite backpack. She caught a subway to the Upper East Side. She needed to find her brother, or at least find proof that he was okay.
He'd always been there for her as a child. He was the one who bandaged her cuts and bruises. He was the one who held and comforted her when their dad died. They both traveled extensively, but they always managed to make time for each other.
Please, please let Alex be home , she inwardly recited, a mantra in rhythm to the rocking of the car against the rails. If he was home, they could spend the rest of the day together. Maybe have dinner at Joe Shanghai in Chinatown, a favorite restaurant of theirs.
Soon she was strolling past the security desk at Alex's apartment building. He'd lived in the ritzy building only a short time. Despite her few visits, the doorman must have recognized her because he let her pass without a hitch. After a short elevator ride, she found herself knocking on Alex's door. When he didn't answer, she used her key and let herself inside. Only three steps in, she paused with a gasp. Papers were scattered across the thick, wool carpet.
Either someone had broken in (again!), or her brother the neat freak had left in a hurry. "Alex," she called, remaining in the foyer.
"Alex," she called again, this time louder, more desperate.
Not even the shuffle of footsteps or the hum of a fan greeted her.
Though she knew she shouldn't, knew she should call for help first, Grace withdrew her Mace, holding the can out as she inspected every inch of the spacious apartment. Her need to know Alex's whereabouts completely obliterated any sense of caution.
There was no intruder lying in wait for her, but there was no sign of her brother, either. She walked to the living room and lifted a framed photograph of her and Alex, smiling and standing in Central Park, the sun glistening around them. Her aunt had taken the picture several months ago when they'd all decided to jog around the park. Two minutes into their run, Sophie had panted that she was too tired to continue. So they'd taken a break and snapped the picture. The memory made her ache.
Disheartened, Grace locked up and leaned her back against the door. A few seconds later, a man strolled past. "Excuse me," she called. She flashed him a quick, I'm-a-sweet-Southern-girl smile that proclaimed you-can-tell-me-anything. She only hoped it worked. "You live in this building, right?"
He nodded wearily. "Why?"
"Do you know Alex Carlyle?"
"Yes." Again, he asked, "Why?"
"He's my brother. I'm looking for him and was wondering if you'd seen him."
Her words relaxed him, and he gave her a half smile. He even held out his hand to shake. "You're Grace," he said. "The picture Alex has of you in his office is of a little girl. I thought you were younger."
"At the office?" Grace asked. "You work for Argonauts?"
"Nearly everyone here does. They own the building." He paused, his smile fading to a frown. "Unfortunately I haven't seen your brother in weeks. He hasn't been home, or even to work."
"Do you know anyone he might have contacted?"
"Well, Melva in 402 has been picking up his mail... I saw her this morning. She's rent controlled," he whispered, as if it were a shameful secret. "Argonauts can't get rid of her. Not legally at least."
Grace gave him her biggest, brightest smile. "Thank you," she said, taking off. Her first break. Another elevator ride and she was hammering on Melva's door.
"Coming. I'm coming," a craggy voice called. Moments later, the door swung open. Melva was thin, wrinkled and wrapped in a fluffy white bathrobe. She held herself up with a walker. The only difference between her and every other great-grandma across the country was that she wore a diamond choker and sapphire earrings.
"Can I help you?" she asked, her rough voice testament to years of smoking.
"I'm Grace Carlyle. I'm looking for my brother and wondered if he'd contacted you recently."
Melva's wrinkled gaze studied her. "Sister, eh? That sly boots never mentioned a sister. I'll have to see some ID."
Grace slid a photo ID from her wallet and allowed Melva to glance at the picture. The old woman nodded in satisfaction. "I haven't seen Alex for a while now. I have his mail, though. It's been piling up in his box. He asked me to collect it for him, but I was under the impression he would return last week."
"If it wouldn't be too much trouble, I'd like to take his mail with me."
"Give me a second. I'm still recovering from hip surgery and it takes me a bit longer to get around." She slowly turned, her diamonds twinkling in the light, and disappeared beyond the foyer. When she returned, she wore a fanny pack stuffed with different sized and colored envelopes. "Here you go." She braced one hand on the walker and handed Grace the letters with the other.
"Thank you so much." Grace quickly riffled through the contents. When nothing jumped out at her, she crammed them in her backpack. She'd go through them more thoroughly when she returned home. "Do you need help getting back inside?"
"Oh, no." Melva waved her off. "I'll be fine."
Spirits buoyed, Grace bounded outside. Within seconds she felt an ominous gaze slicing into her back, observant, penetrating. The sensation unnerved her, and she glanced over her shoulder. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. After everything that had happened with Alex, however, she didn't try to convince herself that her imagination was playing games. She increased her pace and slipped one hand inside her backpack, wrapping her fingers around her Mace.
Instead of going straight home, she stopped in a coffee shop, a souvenir shop and a bakery, trying to lose herself in the crowds. By the time she felt safe, the sun was beginning its descent. She reached her apartment building as darkness fell completely. She gathered her own mail, then bolted herself inside her little efficiency. What have I gotten myself into ? she wondered, securing all of the window locks. A thirst for danger seemed so silly now.
Exhausted both mentally and physically, she tossed her backpack onto her nightstand and sank into the chair at her desk. She booted up her computer and checked her e-mail. When she saw one was from Alex's return address, dated yesterday morning, she broke into a huge smile and eagerly pressed Open.
I'm fine. I've got a lead elsewhere and had to follow it. Sorry for the note, but there wasn't time to call.
As she read, her smile faded. She should have been relieved by the note. This was, after all, what she'd wanted. Contact with Alex. But if there'd been no time to call, how had there been time to type a note?
With that question floating in her mind, she stripped to her tank and panties, poured herself a glass of wine and sprawled across her bed. She meticulously sorted through Alex's mail. Junk mostly, with a few cards and bills thrown into the mix. She checked her own. Her eyes widened then subsequently narrowed when she came to a postcard from her dad. Her dad ! A man who had died five years ago after a long battle with lymphoma. Confused, she shook her head and read it again.
Can't come to see you as planned. I've been detained. I'll contact you. Don't worry. I'll be fine. Yours,
This was Alex's handwriting and had to be some sort of code. But what did it mean, other than someone had sent her a false e-mail? Perhaps the same person who had "detained" Alex. Why had he been detained? And for how long?
Where was he now?
She studied the postmark. Sent from Brazil, three weeks ago. A lot could have happened in three weeks. Alex said not to worry about him, but she couldn't help herself. She was worried. None of this made sense.
A wave of fatigue overtook her. Moonlight had settled comfortably inside her bedroom, and the scent of unlit apple cinnamon candles filled the air. Grace drew in a shaky breath and set the mail aside. She closed her eyes and leaned against the mountain of pillows behind her, wondering what to do next If only Darius were here...
He's not real , she reminded herself. Unbidden, his image floated to the forefront of her mind. With his harshly angled face, he radiated rawness and sheer male virility.
She should have known the moment she first saw him that he was a figment of her deepest fantasies. Real men were nothing like him. Real men lacked the savageness, the fierceness and didn't taste like fire, passion and excitement when they kissed her.
Real men didn't chase her down and threaten to hurt her, then tenderly caress her in the next heartbeat of time.
A shiver of remembrance swept through her, until she recalled one last fact about him. Real men didn't blithely admit to being an assassin.
His confession had startled her, made her feel unexpected sorrow for him because even though he'd claimed he made his own choices, that he was never forced to kill, she'd glimpsed flickers of agonizing despair in his eyes. She'd glimpsed endless torment. And at that moment, his eyes had been without any shred of hope.
No man should be without hope.
Grace rolled to her side, taking a pillow with her. Forget about Darius and get some rest . Nothing mattered but Alex. Perhaps the key to finding him would come to her after a good night's sleep.
But how could she have known that key would come in a six foot five, two hundred pound package?