“I thought what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her… until it did.”
The buzzer on my desk phone went off and I ignored it, preferring to push papers around on my desk, pretending to look busy. I had patient charts to review, medications to approve, and a plethora of patients who were waiting for me to make my rounds. But first…first I had to find her. I had to find Lynn.
I had to at least try, although in my heart of hearts I knew she wouldn’t be found until she was good and ready.
The phone buzzed again, and I hit the appropriate button to mark myself busy so no one could buzz me anymore. I had too much on my mind. I knew I might even have to take a few days off so I could get my shit together.
I’d checked her bank accounts. I’d checked her credit cards. Her social media profile. Her phone. I’d checked everything, and I still had no idea where she was.
Suddenly, the door of my office flew open, slammed hard against the opposite wall, and in rolled a ball of fire.
My secretary followed her, trying to stop her forward trajectory, to no avail.
“What the fuck did you do?” the intruder snarled, bending over my desk so she could slam her fist on the wood in front of me.
My heart eased a little. If Ash was here, things would be okay. She could help me find Lynn. She might already know where she was.
I sat back in my chair and made a steeple of my hands in front of me. “Ash,” I said with a nod. “Always a pleasure.”
“Dr. Peterson, I’m so sorry,” my secretary stammered from behind Ash. “I told her you didn’t want to be disturbed, but she wouldn’t listen.” She reached for Ash’s arm, but Ash jerked back and then made a move like a charging bull at the poor woman. Mrs. Anderson blanched and backed up against the wall, her hand upon her heart.
“It’s okay, Mrs. Anderson,” I said calmly.
“I told her, Dr. Peterson, I really did,” she said, her voice shaking in the presence of the fury that was Ash.
“It’s okay,” I said again calmly. “She can stay. Can you close the door on your way out?”
“Do you want me to call security?” Her gaze dragged up and down Ash’s clothing, stopping on the torn jeans where we could all see a little too much of Ash’s thigh. Then paused again on the cropped shirt that was short enough to show a strip of soft, supple stomach. The lace of her bra, which stuck out the top of the ripped shirt she wore, was torn and frayed. The dirty, scuffed, overfilled backpack she carried had all her worldly possessions in it, I was sure. Ash liked to travel light. And dirty.
“No,” I said, still not moving. “You can close the door. We have a little business to take care of.”
“Are you certain, Dr. Peterson?” she insisted, her gaze jumping from me to Ash and back.
Ash lifted her voice high and mocked Mrs. Anderson. “Are you certain, Dr. Peterson?” she chimed. “Of course he’s certain, bitch. Now get out.” Ash made a move like she was going to jump toward Mrs. Anderson, and Mrs. Anderson scurried quickly to the door. Ash slammed it shut behind her.
“So nice to see you, Ash,” I said slowly.
“Where the fuck is she?” Ash perched her curvy little ass on the edge of the chair on the other side of my desk. She rested her arms on the desk and glared at me.
“What makes you think she’s gone?” I asked. I pretended to be occupied with the papers on my desk, stacking them into organized piles.
“I just left your house. She’s not there.”
“Lynn’s not a prisoner, you know,” I reminded her. Although, if I was truly honest, I knew she kind of was. She didn’t leave home, not unless something was terribly wrong, or one of her closest friends was with her, or unless I was with her.
“Lynn’s not a prisoner,” she parroted. “What did you do?” She glared at me.
“When was the last time you had a shower?” I countered.
She froze, but didn’t answer my question.
Ash was a friend of Lynn’s, and she lived on the streets most of the time when she was in town. She did odd jobs, a little waitressing when she could find someone with poor enough standards to hire her. With her heavy eyeliner, deep-black lipstick, and combat boots, she was a study in contradictions. Deep down, I knew she was good. But on the surface, she was bad. Very, very bad.
“Where have you been sleeping?” I asked mildly.
“Here and there.” She kicked back in the chair and lifted her scuffed and worn combat boots to rest on the edge of my desk.
“While Lynn’s gone, I want you to stay at our house.” I got up and walked around to her. “Take a shower. Get cleaned up. I’ll come home later and we can talk.” I sat on the edge of the desk and scooted over until her feet were against my hip. She softened as soon as I touched her, just like she always did. She might be tough as shoe leather on the outside, but on the inside, she was as soft as cotton. “We can make a plan. Find her.”
“Do you want her back?” she asked. Her eyes skittered around, looking everywhere but at me, so I bent over and captured her chin with my fingers.
“I always want her back,” I said. “Always.” The vehemence of my words startled even me.
“What did you do?” she asked again.
“I didn’t do anything.” Not this time.
“The last time she vanished like this was when you asked her to marry you,” Ash reminded me.
“I know.” She was gone for almost two weeks. I had to deal with Ash then, too. And several of Lynn’s other friends. “She came back, though. She always comes back.”
“I’m worried about her,” Ash whispered.
“I am too.” I laid my hand on her shin and gave it a squeeze. Her eyes fell closed and a tiny tear escaped, streaking across her black makeup, leaving a sooty trail down her cheek.
“I need for her to come back. It’s been a long time since she’s done this.” Ash laid her head back against the back of the chair, following her words with a damp, tear-stricken groan.
Two years, four days, and twenty-two hours since the last time Lynn vanished. “Did she say anything to you? Give you any indication she was stressed over something?”
She shrugged. “It’s not like she talks to me every day.”
“I know.” I patted her leg again, lingering just a little too long. Her eyes flew open and her gaze met mine. “Go home. Take a shower. You stink. I’ll be there later. We’ll talk.”
She glanced toward where my hand rested comfortably on her leg. “Talk,” she repeated.
“Yes, talk.” I couldn’t keep the corners of my lips from tipping up into a grin.
She lowered her feet to the floor and slowly stood up beside me, pressing her lithe body against mine. “Last time she was gone, we did more than talk.”
I remembered. “That was a mistake.”
Her eyes roamed up and down my body. “A mistake that tasted like it was right.” She licked her lips. “Damn. I missed you.”
In my own fucked-up way, I missed her too. “Go home. I’ll be there in a few hours. I have some things I have to do here.”
She nodded. Then she stepped onto her tiptoes and waited, her face tilted up toward mine. I bent and kissed her lips quickly and softly. “Later,” I whispered. “I’ll see you later.”
She nodded and walked toward the door. I opened it for her and stepped to the side, my back against the open door. She lifted her hand, each finger tipped with black nail polish, and stroked her finger down my tie.
“Not here,” I whispered.
“I know,” she whispered back. “Because I’m not her.”
I studied her face, searching for the features I knew so very well. “No, you’re not her.”
She nodded sadly and left.
I closed my door and rushed across the room to pick up the phone. I dialed my mom’s emergency number.
“Mason,” my mom said as soon as the phone rang once. She sounded out of breath. “Did you find her?”
“No, but Ash was here.”
Silence was the only response. “Mom?” I prompted.
“If Ash was there, Lynn’s okay.”
I knew that, but it didn’t make it any easier. “I want Lynn back.”
“I know you do, son. Just give it time. These things have a way of cycling around.”
“Mom…” I heaved out a sigh.
“I know,” she said softly. “But you know she’s safe. That’s what matters.”
What mattered was getting Lynn back, and I’d do anything to make that happen.
Available Nov. 1, 2017