One

Edinburgh, Scotland

“What now, Officer Ballard?” Fiona Thomas, Hamish Ballard’s boss at the National Crime Agency, let out a long-suffering sigh.

“I was able to trace Brianna Walsh to America.” Hamish leaned forward, perched on the edge of the uncomfortable chair across from his supervisor, as if he could will her to get excited about his success. He had exhausted all his leads on the woman responsible for his brother’s death. Until today. Finally, one of his connections at MI5 had managed to give him highly classified information about Brianna. Her last known contact was at some public relations firm, Adams-Larsen Inc. and Associates, in Washington, DC. “She’s using the name Beatrice Winter. I want to go—”

“You’ve got to let go of this obsession.” She put her head in her hands.

Brianna Walsh needed to pay. And she needed to be stopped before more people died. “But—”

“No more. If you keep pursuing information about Brianna Walsh, your job is in jeopardy.”

He kept his mouth shut but his expression must have given him away. Family was everything. He’d been raised to stick together. He’d forgotten that lesson for a while. But he would never forget again. Blood, family was everything—even in death, blood prevailed.

“Do you understand?” she pressed.

He didn’t answer.

Couldn’t answer. The rage and frustration that had fueled him for the past year had only grown after it seemed as if Brianna had just…vanished.

“Officer Ballard?”

“Aye, ma’am.” Hamish Ballard stood in front of his boss’s desk like a little kid in front of the headmaster and nodded while he lied through his teeth.

“Go on holiday for a week and get your head on straight. When you come back, I don’t want to hear anything else about the Walsh family. Her father and brothers are in prison. The rest of their empire is in disarray. The Walsh cousins are impotent and ineffective without them. Brianna served the Crown with her testimony. Leave. Off. Full stop.”

Hamish had no intention of dropping his quest for justice. He hadn’t been there for his brother in life, he wasn’t about to abandon him in death. “Aye, ma’am.”

“Get on with your fuckin’ life, Ham.”

He left the office…and headed to the airport.

He’d find his answers in America. In Washington, DC. At a public relations firm of all things.

He had one week to find Brianna Walsh. No fucking way was he letting this—her—go.

#

Some days her motto, No Regrets, was easier to follow than others.

Jillian Larsen, cofounder of Adams-Larsen Inc. and Associates, affectionately nicknamed ALIAS, headed down the stairs of the office brownstone to grab a cup of coffee from the credenza in the former dining room that now served as her company’s conference room.

The office was buzzing after the long holiday weekend. Everyone was chatting about what they had done over Thanksgiving. Jill had spent the weekend, and the holiday, alone in her rowhouse. Thanksgiving dinner had been leftover takeout, out of the to-go container, at the island bar in her kitchen.

She would never regret what she’d done before starting ALIAS, but sometimes her life was lonely.

“Man, it’s good to be home.” Jake Brown—in Texas for the past month working with a corporate whistleblower whose company had been dumping toxic waste and falsifying data reports to the state government—had missed her increasingly vague deflections regarding Marsh.

“Welcome back.”

“Where is Marsh?” Jake asked as he stirred his coffee with one of the silver spoons.

Jill bit into a sugar cookie in the shape of a rosy-cheeked Santa and sighed. Maria Torres, former receptionist and current field trainee, had been working on her royal icing recipe and if she kept bringing her baked goods to the office, Jill was going to go up a dress size.

And that was a total lie. In reality, she’d lost weight.

Marsh, her absent (and missing) partner, the Adams in Adams-Larsen, was AWOL. His absence was starting to take a toll. Everyone was pulling extra duty to cover for him. Jill was the face of the company and the person who dealt with their clients. She had the temperament to keep things a secret and to deny potential clients.

Marsh was too nice, always wanting to rescue people. He was their logistics guy, and his three-month unexpected sabbatical had begun to impact their business. If Marsh didn’t come back soon, she was going to have to figure something else out.

They kept the business compartmentalized so that if an employee was ever compromised, it would be impossible for them to reveal the specifics of a client relocation. But it also meant that Jill didn’t typically dig down into the nitty gritty of relos beyond vetting the potential candidates.

Jill tightened her jaw and forced a smile. “Should be back soon,” she said cheerfully.

Jake grinned at her and snatched two cookies off the plate. He lifted them like he was toasting to good news and then sauntered away.

“When is Marsh coming back?” Viktor Kuznets tilted his head to the side in question. His eyebrows crimped, his usually perfect arch a bit scraggly and unlike her fastidious friend. She needed to pay more attention to her own house and quit looking for her errant partner.

Viktor had recently broken up with his live-in boyfriend and his attempt to mask his sadness was pretty much a failure, but he didn’t let it interfere with his work as their onsite medic, weapons keeper, and skip tracer. Hopefully they wouldn’t need his medic services in the near future.

Marsh was the one everyone went to for advice. Their confidant. Viktor clearly needed to talk, and their father figure was nowhere to be found.

“I’ll let you know when I have an exact date.” Not exactly a lie. “I’ve got some admin stuff to take care of before the new receptionist gets here. You guys have a good day.”

She marched up the stairs of the old brownstone that had been converted into office space and turned at the top to address her employees, who were still watching her. “I’ll be in my office if anyone needs me.”

Jillian had basically just…Lied. To. Her. Staff.

Her staff was more like her family than her actual family. But there were things they didn’t know, things no one knew, except Marsh. And the weight of what she carried was somehow too much these days.

Her carefully constructed world was falling apart.

She’d always thought of herself as confident and secure, sending a giant Fuck You to anyone who judged her, because at the end of the day she knew her core morals were rock solid.

Except she hadn’t realized how alone she was until her support system disappeared.

Kita Kim, resident hacker, social media seeder, and their self-defense instructor, followed Jill up the stairs. “Can I talk to you?”

“Always,” Jill replied smoothly, her stomach cramping.

“Privately.” Kita was the only other employee who knew Marsh was missing. She had also been Marsh’s friend since high school.

“Come on in my office.”

Once her office door was closed, Kita threw herself into a wing chair. “How are you really?”

Since she’d gotten a boyfriend, Kita had decided to start sharing her feelings. There was a reason that both she and Kita were Marsh’s besties. Neither one of them was what you’d call warm and fuzzy. Except lately, the formerly tight-lipped Kita wanted to share. Blech.

“Fine.”

Kita rolled her eyes. “Sure. Have you heard from Marsh?”

No. She’d been hoping he’d come home for Thanksgiving and she could rip him a new one and everything would go back to normal.

But that hadn’t happened.

And she was at a loss as to what to do next. She wasn’t an indecisive person. Far from it. She assessed the situation and then acted based on a set of criteria to fix it. Normally she had an unshakeable sense of purpose.

But things hadn’t been normal in a while and at this moment she was floundering. “No.”

“What are we going to do?”

Jill had searched everywhere. She’d exhausted all her resources without delving into Marsh’s privacy to try to figure out where he had gone. But he’d been off grid for over ten weeks. “Wait until he comes home.”

“Wait?” Kita’s voice rose.

She hadn’t really solidified what her next course of action was until this moment, but she realized now that she was done.

“Yes.” Jill nodded. She was done looking for her missing partner. The business needed her attention. Her life needed her attention.

Her intercom buzzed. Maria was manning the phones and door waiting for the new receptionist, Hannah Smith, to get here. Hannah had almost become a client a few weeks ago, but Kita had saved her.

Finding employees they trusted was the biggest challenge at ALIAS. Typically they vetted new employees six ways to Sunday, and potential new hires had a personal recommendation from multiple employees.

Their business was highly secretive. After a career-destroying situation had left her job and reputation at the US Marshals in shambles, she and Marsh had left and formed ALIAS to help relocate people who were not covered by government witness protection programs.

“There’s a Hamish Ballard at the front door. He says he needs to see you.”

She didn’t have a Hamish Ballard on her calendar. “Regarding?”

“He won’t say.”

Jill punched up the security feed on her desktop computer.

She couldn’t see much. Guy in a navy suit. European cut. Dark hair. Broad shoulders. Brawny body, not all that tall. He had his back to the camera as he surveyed their quiet street.

Jill pressed the intercom button. “What can I do for you, Mr. Ballard?”

He turned around. Dark hair brushed away from his face revealed sharp features: raw-boned cheeks, a wide unsmiling mouth, and an assessing gaze. There was a stillness to his stance, an economical way that he moved that made her think law enforcement.

He reached inside his suit coat.

Jill tensed, though she knew that even if he had a weapon, he wasn’t breaching the building unless she let him. Their security was top-notch.

He pulled out a leather wallet and flipped it open. “It’s Officer Ballard.” His accent, a hint of Scottish brogue, sent a shiver through her. Swoony. “I’d like fifteen minutes of your time to discuss a case with you.”

“One moment.” Jill raised her eyebrows. “Maria, let Officer Ballard in.”

Kita grinned. “I’ll leave you to the Scottish Hottie. We can chat again later.” And she strode from Jill’s office.

Well, Hamish Ballard had been good for one thing. She’d gotten rid of Kita without much nudging.

Jill couldn’t help the anticipation that cascaded through her. Hopefully Hamish Ballard would take her focus away from her missing partner. The distraction was welcome.

Within a few minutes, Maria ushered the man in to her office.

His presence filled the slightly feminine space as if he had expanded into all the nooks and crannies and sucked out every bit of air. Her body tingled and her heart jolted at the electricity in the room.

Jill met him near the furniture grouping of a small settee and chairs. Up close he was even more attractive than on the video screen. Jill extended her hand for the obligatory business greeting.

The moment their palms touched, an unshakeable sense of connection arced through her. Her gaze met his, a flash of attraction there and then gone.

Jill smoothed her expression and gestured toward a wing chair. “Have a seat.” She would admit to being curious. “How can I help you?”

Hopefully he’d have a new project for her to work on. Something to take her mind off Marsh.

He pulled a photograph from the breast pocket of his suit and placed it on the coffee table. “I’m looking for this woman.”

“We don’t find people. We’re a public relations firm.” But she tilted her head and picked up the photo.

Beatrice Winter. Jill kept her face casually interested but inside her curiosity roused. Adams-Larsen didn’t ever give out information on their clients. Ever. People weren’t even supposed to know they were connected to their clients.

Jill pretended to study the picture. Beatrice had been an interesting case. A whistleblower for a string of drug rehab centers whose CEO and CFO had pocketed their drug-addicted patients’ money, scammed insurance companies for millions, and didn’t actually do any rehab treatment. Their relapse rate was almost eighty percent—well above the typical forty to sixty percent. The executives had plead guilty and were awaiting sentencing.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know her.”

He bristled. “Bollocks.”

“Excuse me?” Jill frosted her voice.

“You’re lying.”

She was. But no way did he know that. More intimidating agents than Officer Hamish Ballard with the charming accent had tried to crack her. Yet his accusation rankled.

Protecting her clients was her number one priority. And she didn’t have to take his attitude. “I believe this meeting is done.”

He leaned forward in the chair, his eyes intense, harsh. “Not until you tell me where she is or I’ll make life very difficult for you. She’s a criminal.”

His threat was empty and unachievable. Instead of upsetting her, his blustery manner caused her to relax. No way was Beatrice Winter a criminal, but points for creativity.

Pity. Hamish Ballard was a blowhard. She had seen his type before. All blow, no hard. The dig made her laugh inside, and a little smile curved her mouth at her own private joke.

“This amuses you?” The harsh planes of his face were set in anger, but they were also compellingly attractive. The close-shaved beard and the slightly heavier mustache emphasized lips that looked soft in direct contrast to his hard navy-blue eyes.

And fuck her, he might be a blowhard, but apparently her hormones didn’t care.

Well, too damn bad. She was a high-functioning adult, and just because her body was saying jump him didn’t mean she had to listen.

“Not at all, Mr. Ballard,” Jillian said smoothly. “But I don’t believe we have anything to discuss.”

Officer Ballard,” he ground out.

Yes, he’d made that patently clear.

She wondered if he was going to flip open his wallet to show her his shield again.

“I need to know where she is,” he demanded once more.

And that tickle of amusement was gone. Her hormones would have to take a flying leap. She wasn’t about to get up close and personal with this guy.

***

But, Vanished wouldn’t be a romance if she didn’t get up close and personal…read how Hamish and Jillian get very personal. Click here to read more.

As always, happy reading!

<3 Lisa