Once Missed – Blake Pierce

Lori Tovar pulled her car into the driveway of the house where she’d lived for most of her life. She stopped the engine and just sat there staring at the charming three-story dwelling. A familiar phrase went through her mind. First to arrive, last to leave. She smiled a bit sadly. She’d heard people say that a lot about her. Working as a nurse at South Hill Hospital, she was known to take longer shifts than anyone else. She often filled in for other nurses’ absences while seldom taking any time off for herself. It wasn’t that she felt especially diligent. It was just that, somehow, working long hours came kind of naturally to her. She murmured those words aloud, “First to arrive, last to leave.” The phrase was the story of her life in more ways than one. She’d been the firstborn child out of four to live in this big, once-happy house. During the last few years, her younger siblings had spread out all over the country. And of course, Dad had simply gone away.

Nobody had seen that coming. Lori and her brothers and sister had always felt as though they’d belonged to a picture-perfect family. It had come as a shock to all of them to find out otherwise a couple of years ago, when Dad had left Mom for another woman. And now, here Lori was—the last child left in town, so always the one who came around to check in on Mom. She’d stop by at least once a week, maybe take her out for coffee, or just sit with her and talk and do her best to cheer her mother out of spells of deep sadness. Last to leave. Lori heaved a long sigh, then got out of the car and walked past the immaculate terraced plants and shrubbery toward the front porch. She stopped at the mailbox and opened it to see if there was any mail. The box was empty. Lori figured Mom must have already checked it, which might be a good sign.

Maybe it meant that Mom wasn’t slipping into one of her bouts of extreme apathy. But Lori was dismayed that the door swung open when she turned the knob. She shook her head. She must have told Mom a thousand times that she needed to keep the door locked, even during the day, especially now that she was living alone. During Lori’s childhood and teenage years, locking the door all the time hadn’t been necessary. But those had been more innocent times. Things had changed, and crime was up even in this well-todo neighborhood. Break-ins were getting more and more common. Guess I’ll have to remind her again, Lori thought. Not that it would do any good.

Old habits die hard. She stepped into the house and called out, “Mom, I got off work early. Just thought I’d stop by.” No answer came. She called out again, “Mom, are you home?” Again there was no answer. Lori wasn’t especially surprised. Mom might be napping upstairs. This wouldn’t be the first time she hadn’t heard Lori arrive because she was asleep. But it wasn’t good that Mom had left the door unlocked while she was napping. I’ll have to talk to her about that.

Meanwhile, Lori felt a bit undecided. It seemed a shame to go upstairs and wake Mom up if she was sleeping soundly. On the other hand, she’d gone to a certain amount of trouble arranging her work schedule in order to stop by. I should have called first, she told herself. She decided she’d go upstairs and peek in her parents’ bedroom and try to see just how soundly Mom was sleeping. If she was starting to wake up, Lori would let her know she was here. Otherwise, maybe she’d just leave quietly. As she headed up the stairs, Lori was seized by a familiar spell of deep nostalgia. As always, this house was haunted by memories, most of them very pleasant. There was nothing really wrong with Lori’s life now, but she couldn’t help but think that she’d spent her happiest days right here.

Will I ever be that happy again? she wondered. She hoped someday her life would be a little more complete than it was right now. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if that could happen right here? Lori and her husband, Roy, often talked about buying this house. They both thought that Mom would be better off in a smaller home, maybe a cozy apartment that she could easily take care of, and where she wasn’t constantly reminded of how Dad had left her. Certainly it would be better for her general mood. Lori thought that this would be a perfect place to start her own family, which she and Roy both figured ought to be soon. For a moment she thought she could almost hear the sound of children laughing, running from bedroom to bedroom as she and her siblings had years ago. If only Mom would agree to move, and of course to give them a financial deal that they could manage. Mom often said that she was getting impatient to have grandchildren, but she didn’t seem to realize that moving out could speed up that process. She stubbornly insisted on staying right here, refusing to think of living anywhere else.

Maybe someday she’ll change her mind, Lori thought. If so, she wished it happened before she started having children, When Lori stepped into the second-story hallway, she noticed that the door to Mom’s bedroom was partially open. Mom usually closed it whenever she took a nap. Suddenly it seemed a little strange that Mom hadn’t heard her call out from downstairs. Was she maybe getting a little hard of hearing? If so, Lori hadn’t noticed it. Lori walked to the bedroom door and silently pushed it the rest of the way open. Nobody was in the bedroom, and the bed was perfectly made. She figured Mom must have gone out somewhere. And that’s probably a good thing. Mom had been spending too much time shut up alone inside this enormous house.

When Lori had visited a few days ago, Mom had mentioned maybe going out with some of the friends she played bingo with on Fridays at the church. Lori had told her that she thought that would be an excellent idea. But this wasn’t Friday, and wherever Mom had gone, it was troubling that she’d left the front door unlocked. Lori wondered—was Mom maybe mentally slipping a little? The thought had worried her lately. Mom’s memory had always been exceptionally sharp, but she had been forgetting little things lately. Lori tried to assure herself that Mom was still pretty young for dementia to be setting in. But from her own work at the hospital, she knew it was a possibility. She hated the thought of having to talk to Mom about that, and also all the troubles and heartache that would surely ensue. Meanwhile, Lori decided she might as well head on home. She walked back down the stairs and paused to glance over into the dining room.

She felt a pang at not seeing the long dining room table where she and her sister and brothers had enjoyed delicious dinners and conversations with Mom and Dad. As determined as Mom was to live much as she always had, she just hadn’t been able to sit at that big table anymore. It had had plenty of room for all the family members who were no longer here, and it could even be expanded for company by adding extra leaves. Lori could understand why Mom had wanted the table gone. Lori had helped sell it and its matching chairs, and they’d bought a smaller dining room set. Then Lori noticed something odd. There were usually four chairs around that new square table. But there were only three chairs there now. Mom must have moved the missing chair, but why? Maybe she’d used it to reach a shelf or change a light bulb. Lori frowned as she thought, Another thing I’ve got to talk to her about.

Mom had a perfectly good stepladder, after all, which was much safer for tasks of that sort. She ought to know better than to use a chair. As Lori glanced around looking for some sign of the chair, her eyes fell on the narrow marble counter that separated the dining room from the kitchen. She saw a reddish splotch on the far side. That was truly odd. Mom was always a meticulous housekeeper who was especially obsessed with keeping her kitchen clean. It wasn’t like her to spill something and not clean it up immediately. Lori felt a tingle of mounting worry. Something is wrong, she thought. She hurried to the edge of the counter and looked into the kitchen.

There on the floor lay her mother, splayed awkwardly in a pool of blood. “Mom!” she gasped in a hoarse voice. Her heart was pounding, and she felt her arms and legs grow cold and numb. She knew she was going into shock, but she had to keep her wits together. Lori knelt down and saw that her mother’s eyes were closed. There was a large gash on her head. Lori felt herself grappling with disbelief, horror, and confusion, and her mind raced as she tried to grasp … What happened? Mom must have stumbled and fallen and hit her head against the countertop. Her medical reflexes kicking in, Lori reached to touch Mom’s neck to check her pulse. And that’s when Lori saw Mom’s throat had been slashed. One carotid artery had been severed, but there was no blood pulsing out of it.

Her mother’s face was pale and utterly lifeless. Lori felt a volcanic force erupt from deep in her lungs. Then she began to scream. CHAPTER ONE A shot rang out from somewhere very close by. Riley Paige whirled around as the noise resonated through her upstairs hallway. April! she thought, as shock charged through her body. Riley dashed to her bedroom. Her sixteen-year-old daughter April was standing there shaking from head to foot, but she didn’t seem to be wounded. Riley could breathe again. On the floor in front of April lay a Ruger SR22 pistol.

Next to it was the blue vinyl box the gun was supposed to be kept in. April’s voice quavered as she said, “I’m sorry. I was getting ready to put it in the safe in the closet, and it went off and I dropped it. I didn’t know it was loaded.” Riley felt her face flush. Her fear was turning into anger. “What do you mean, you didn’t know?” she said. “How could you not know?” Riley picked up the gun and popped out the magazine and waved it at April. “This magazine shouldn’t even be in the gun,” she said. “You were supposed to take it out before we left the shooting range.

” “I thought I’d fired all the rounds,” April said. “That’s no excuse,” Riley snapped. “You always remove the magazine when you finish target practice.” “I know,” April said. “It won’t happen again.” Damn right it won’t happen again, Riley thought. She realized she was also angry with herself for stepping out of the room before April had put the gun away. But they had already put in several sessions at the practice range, and everything had gone smoothly before. She glanced around the room. “Where did it hit?” she asked.

April pointed toward the back wall. Sure enough, Riley saw a bullet hole. She felt a renewed wave of panic. She knew that the walls between the rooms inside her house weren’t solid enough to stop a bullet—not even from a .22 pistol. She wagged her finger at April and said, “You stay right here.” She went out into the hall and stepped inside the adjoining room, which was April’s bedroom. There was an exit hole in the wall right where she’d expected to see it, then another hole in the opposite wall where the bullet had kept on going. Riley struggled to clear her head to assess the situation. Beyond that wall was the backyard.

Could it have hit anybody? she wondered. She walked over to the hole and peered into it. If the bullet had continued on through, she ought to have been able to see sunlight. The brick exterior must have finally stopped it. And even if it hadn’t, the bullet would have been slowed enough not to get beyond the backyard. Riley exhaled with relief. No one was hurt. Even so, this was an awful thing to have happened. As she left April’s bedroom and headed back to her own room, two people reached the top of the stairs and charged into the hallway. One was her fourteen-year-old daughter, Jilly.

The other was her stout Guatemalan housekeeper, Gabriela. Gabriela cried out, “¡Dios mio! What was that noise?” “What happened?” Jilly echoed. “Where’s April?” Before Riley could even begin trying to explain, Jilly and Gabriela had located April in the bedroom. Riley followed after them. As they all entered, April was putting the vinyl box into the little black safe on the closet shelf. With an obvious effort to appear calm, she said, “My gun went off.” Almost in unison, Jilly and Gabriela exclaimed, “You’ve got a gun?” Riley couldn’t hold back a groan of despair. The situation was now bad on all sorts of new levels. When Riley had bought the gun for April back in June, they had both agreed not to mention it to either Gabriela or Jilly. Jilly would surely have been jealous of her older sister.

Gabriela would simply have worried. With good reason, as things turned out, Riley thought. She could see that her youngest daughter was gearing up for an outburst of questions and accusations, while her housekeeper was simply waiting for an explanation. Riley said, “I’ll come downstairs and explain everything to both of you in just a few minutes. Right now I’ve got to talk to April alone.” Jilly and Gabriela nodded dumbly and left the room. Riley shut the door behind them. As April plopped down on the bed and looked up at her mother, Riley was reminded how much she and her daughter resembled each other. Even though she was forty-one and April was just sixteen, they were obviously cut from the same cloth. It wasn’t just their dark hair and hazel eyes, they also shared an impetuous approach toward life.

Then the teenager slouched over and seemed on the verge of tears. Riley sat down beside her. “I’m sorry,” April said. Riley didn’t reply. An apology just wasn’t going to be enough right now. April said, “Did I do something illegal? Discharging a weapon indoors, I mean? Do we need to notify the police?” Riley sighed and said, “It’s not illegal, no—not if it’s accidental. I’m not sure it shouldn’t be illegal, though. It was unbelievably careless. Honestly, April, I thought I could trust you with this by now.” April swallowed down a sob and said, “I’m in some pretty serious trouble, aren’t I?” Again, Riley said nothing.

Then April said, “Look, I promise I’ll be more careful. It won’t happen again. The next time we go to the range—” Riley shook her head and said, “There won’t be a next time.” April’s eyes widened. “You mean …?” she began. “You can’t keep the gun,” Riley said. “This is all over.” “But it was just one mistake,” April said, her voice getting more shrill. Riley said, “You know perfectly well that this is a zero-tolerance issue. We’ve talked about this.

Even one stupid, careless mistake like that is one too many. This is very serious, April. Somebody could have gotten hurt or killed. Don’t you understand that?” “But nobody did get hurt.” Riley felt stymied. April was moving into full-throttle teenager mode, refusing to accept the reality of what had just happened. Riley knew it was just about impossible to reason with her daughter at times like this. But reasonable or not, this decision was solely Riley’s responsibility. In fact, she was the legal owner of the weapon, not April. Her daughter couldn’t own a gun until she was eighteen years old.

Riley had bought it because April had said she wanted to become an FBI agent. She’d thought the smaller caliber would make it a good weapon for April to practice with at the gun store’s firing range. Until today, those lessons had been going just fine. April said, “This is kind of your fault, you know. You should have been watching me better.” Riley felt stung. Was April right? When her daughter had been putting the gun back in its case at the range, Riley had been finishing up her own target practice in the next booth with her own .40 caliber Glock. She’d watched over April plenty of times before. This time she’d thought she could be less vigilant with her.

Obviously she’d been wrong. In spite of all their practice sessions, April still needed close supervision. No excuses, Riley knew. No excuses for either of us. But that didn’t matter. She couldn’t let April change her mind by putting her on a guilt trip. Her daughter’s next mistake could be deadly. Riley snapped, “That’s not an excuse, and you know it. Putting the gun away properly was your responsibility” April said miserably, “So you’re taking it away from me.” “That’s right,” Riley said.

“What are you going to do with it?” “I’m not sure yet,” Riley said. She thought she’d probably turn it over to the FBI Academy. They could make it available as a training weapon for new recruits. Meanwhile, she would make sure that it was locked securely in the closet safe. In a sullen voice, April said, “Well, it’s fine with me. I’d changed my mind about wanting to be an FBI agent. I’d been meaning to tell you.” Riley felt an odd jolt at those words. She knew that April was trying again to make her feel guilty, or at least disappointed. Instead she felt relieved.

She hoped it was true that April was no longer interested in the FBI. Then she wouldn’t have to spend years and years worrying for April’s life. “That’s your decision to make,” Riley said. “I’ll go to my room,” her daughter replied. Without another word, April walked out of the bedroom and shut the door, leaving Riley sitting alone on the bed. For a moment, she considered following after April, but … What else is there to say? Right now, there was nothing. Rationally, Riley knew that she had taken the correct course of action just now. April couldn’t be trusted with the gun again. Further scolding and punishment would surely be pointless. Nevertheless, Riley felt like she’d failed somehow.

She wasn’t sure why. Maybe, she thought, it was in trusting April to take care of a gun to begin with. But, she wondered, wasn’t that part of being a parent? Sooner or later, kids had to be given more responsibilities. They’d fail at some, and they’d succeed at others. That’s just part of growing up. Surely no parent could predict all of a child’s lapses and failures in advance. Trust was always a risk. Even so, Riley felt as though her brain was spinning its wheels, trying to generate rationalizations for her own parental failure. A sudden twinge of pain in her back stopped her ruminations. My wound.

Her back still hurt from time to time where a psychopathic killer had stabbed her with an icepick. The pick had gone alarmingly deep—deeper than an ordinary knife would likely have gone. It had been just over two weeks ago, and she’d spent a night in the hospital because of it. Then she’d been ordered to remain inactive at home. Although Riley had been both physically and emotionally shaken by the ordeal, she’d hoped to be back on the job by now, working on a new case. But her boss, Division Chief Brent Meredith, had insisted that she take more time to recover than she’d have liked. He’d put Riley’s partner Bill on a leave of absence as well, because he had shot and killed the man who’d stabbed Riley. She certainly felt ready to get back to work now. She didn’t figure a twinge of pain every now and then would interfere with her work. Even though the kids and Gabriela had been waiting on her constantly, she hadn’t felt like she’d been connecting well with them.

Their constant worry just made her feel guilty and inadequate as a parent. She knew that right now she had some explaining to do to both Jilly and Gabriela about the gun. She got up and walked down the hall toward Jilly’s room. * Her conversation with Jilly was about as difficult as Riley had expected. Her younger daughter had dark eyes from what had probably been an Italian family heritage and a feisty temper from a difficult early life before Riley had adopted her. Jilly was openly resentful that Riley had gotten April a gun, and that her sister had been getting target practice behind her back. Of course, Riley couldn’t begin to convince her younger daughter that a gun would be out of the question at her age. And besides, it hadn’t worked out well for April anyway. Riley saw that nothing she said was working and she soon gave up. “Later,” she told Jilly.

“We’ll talk about this again later.” When Riley stepped out of Jilly’s doorway, she heard the door close behind her. For a long moment, Riley just stood there in the hallway. Both of her daughters were closed up in their rooms, sulking. Then she sighed and went down the two flights of stairs to Gabriela’s living quarters. Gabriela was sitting on her sofa, gazing out the big glass sliding doors into the backyard. When Riley came in, Gabriela smiled and patted the seat beside her. Riley sat down and began at the beginning, explaining about the gun. Gabriela didn’t get angry—but she did seem to be hurt. “You should have told me,” she said.

“You should have trusted me.” “I know,” Riley said. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m just … having some trouble in the parenting department these days.” Gabriela shook her head and said, “You try to do too much, Señora Riley. There is no such thing as a perfect parent.” Riley’s heart warmed at those words. That’s what I needed to hear, she thought. Gabriela continued, “You should trust me more. You should depend on me more.

I am here to make your life easier, after all. That is my job. I am here also to do my share of the parenting. I think I am good with the girls.” “Oh, you are,” Riley said, her voice choking a little. “You really are. You have no idea how grateful I am to have you in our lives.” Riley and Gabriela sat smiling at each other in silence for a moment. Riley suddenly felt much, much better. Then the doorbell rang.

Riley gave her housekeeper a big hug and went up to the main floor to answer the door. For an instant, Riley was delighted to see that her handsome boyfriend, Blaine, had just arrived. But she noticed something wistful about his smile, a melancholy look in his eyes. This isn’t going to be a pleasant visit, she realized. CHAPTER TWO Something wasn’t right, Riley knew. Instead of walking right in and making himself at home as he usually did, Blaine just stood there outside her front door. He had a vaguely expectant expression on his pleasant features. Riley’s heart sank. She had a pretty good idea what was on Blaine’s mind. In fact, she’d been expecting it for days.

For a moment she felt an urge to close the door and pretend that he hadn’t dropped by right now. “Come on in,” she said. “Thanks,” Blaine replied, and he stepped into the house. As they sat down in the living room, Riley asked, “Would you like a drink?” “Uh, no, I don’t think so. Thanks.” He doesn’t expect this to be a long visit, Riley thought. Then he looked around and remarked, “The house is awfully quiet. Are the girls out someplace this afternoon?” Riley almost blurted, “No, they just don’t want to have anything to do with me.” But that didn’t seem right under the circumstances. If things were normal between them, Riley would feel free to vent about the trials of parenthood, and she could expect Blaine to cheerfully commiserate and even lift her spirits with some words of encouragement.

This just wasn’t one of those times. “How are you feeling?” Blaine asked. For a second it seemed like an odd question, and Riley felt like saying, “Pretty apprehensive. How about you?” But then she realized he was talking about the icepick wound. He’d been extremely attentive and kind to her during her recovery. On many evenings he’d brought over delicious meals from the fine restaurant he owned and managed. But his very attentiveness had clued her in that something unpleasant was coming. He was always a kind and considerate man, of course. But during the last week or so, there had been a telltale sadness about his kindness—with maybe the hint of an unspoken and unexplained apology. She said, “I’m feeling much better, thanks.

” Blaine nodded, then said slowly and deliberately, “So I guess you’ll be going back to work soon.” Here it comes, Riley thought. “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s up to my boss. He hasn’t assigned me to a new case yet.” Blaine squinted at her and said, “But do you feel ready to go back to work?” Riley sighed. She remembered the conversation they’d had shortly after she’d gotten home from the hospital. She’d told him she expected to be able to get back to work in about a week, and he hadn’t tried to hide his anxiety at hearing her say that. But they hadn’t tried to work things out at the time. Instead, Riley had squeezed his hand and said, “I guess we’ve got some things we need to talk about.

” It had been well over a week since then. This conversation is overdue, she thought. She said, “Blaine, I’ve felt ready to get back to work for days now. I’m more than ready. I’m sorry. I know it’s not what you want to hear.” Blaine stared at the floor for a moment. “Riley, don’t you ever think about …?” His voice faded away. “About what?” Riley asked, trying to keep a note of bitterness out of her voice. “Getting into a different line of work?” “I don’t know,” Blaine said with a shrug.

“Surely there are things you can do with the Bureau that don’t involve such … risk. You’ve been a field agent for—what?—nearly twenty years? I know you’ve been great at it, and I can’t tell you how much I admire your dedication and courage. But haven’t you given enough of that kind of service? Don’t you think you deserve something more?” He stopped speaking again. Riley said, “More—safe, you mean? Less dangerous?” Blaine nodded. Riley didn’t know what to say. Certainly there were choices she could make, even in the BAU. But they would mean huge changes. She couldn’t imagine working in the office, just poking through evidence that other agents risked their lives bringing in. Even though she had enjoyed giving occasional lectures at the Academy, she thought it would be hard to teach full time. Describing cases to recruits would only remind her of what she was no longer doing.

She couldn’t imagine a life of not confronting evil face to face, despite all its dangers. It would mean abandoning everything she was really good at. But how could she explain that to Blaine? Then Blaine said, “I hope you understand—it’s not me I’m worried about.” Riley felt a sharp stab of understanding. “I know,” she said. Indeed, she did know that he was perfectly sincere. And that said a lot about Blaine. Riley’s work had brought danger into his own life, and he had dealt with it courageously. Last December, a criminal bent on revenge against Riley had come to her house when she wasn’t here and tried to kill April and Gabriela. Blaine had come to their rescue, but he had gotten badly injured himself.

Riley was still shaken by horror whenever she thought about that ordeal. Blaine added, “I’m not even worried about you, or at least not mostly about you.” “I know,” Riley said again. He didn’t have to explain. She knew he was worried about their children—Riley’s two daughters and his own teenage daughter, Crystal. And she knew that he had every reason to worry. Try as she might, she couldn’t guarantee their safety as long as she kept living the life she lived. In fact, the safety of everyone around her was already at risk because of criminals she’d encountered, even those she’d beaten. More than once, figures from the past had returned to try for revenge. Blaine opened his mouth as if searching for the right words to say.

Instead, Riley said, “Blaine, I understand. We don’t need to have this talk. We’ve been having it for a while now, we just haven’t been saying it all aloud. I get it. I really do.” She swallowed hard and added, “Things aren’t going to work—between you and me.” Even as she said the words, a sense of loss nearly overwhelmed her. Blaine nodded. “I’m sorry,” Riley said. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry about,” Blaine said.

Riley had to stop herself from saying, “Oh, I do. I really do.” After all, it was because of her own life choices that Blaine felt the way he did. Blaine had done his best to accept those choices. But in the end, he honestly couldn’t do it. And Riley knew she had no one to blame but herself. She and Blaine both fell silent for a little while. She was sitting on the couch, he in a chair facing her. She remembered the first time they had held hands, sitting on the couch right here. It had been a magical moment when she’d felt as if her life had suddenly changed for the better. She wished they could hold hands right now. But she knew the distance between them was a lot greater than a few feet between two pieces of furniture. Anyway, a decision seemed to have been made. She wasn’t sure exactly what that decision was, and she doubted that Blaine did either. But something had ended between them. And there would be no getting it back again. They began to talk a little, awkwardly and tentatively, about one thing and another. Blaine assured Riley that her family would always be welcome for free meals at his restaurant, and he’d be glad to see all of them. And of course, they’d stay in close touch because of their daughters. April and Crystal were best friends, after all, and they’d be visiting each other a lot. And this wasn’t like a divorce. They’d always stay close. Blaine smiled weakly and added, “Maybe things won’t be so different after all.” Riley blinked back a tear and said, “Maybe not.” But that wasn’t true, and she knew it. Then Blaine said he’d better get back to work, so they both got up and shyly kissed each other on the cheek, and Blaine left the house. Riley muttered aloud to herself, “It’s time for a drink.” She went to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of bourbon, then went back to the living room and sat down again. The house seemed ghostly quiet, and Riley felt deeply alone. And of course, she really was alone, even with three other people in nearby rooms. She cried softly for a few moments. Then, after she dried her eyes and began to sip her bourbon, she tried to keep memories of happier times out of her mind. But she somehow couldn’t manage it. She remembered the night when she and Blaine had first kissed on a dance floor while a band played her favorite song at his request. She remembered the first night they had slept together. And she also remembered the two weeks that she, Blaine, and their three girls had spent together in a borrowed house on the shore at Sandbridge Beach. They really had felt like a whole family then. She especially remembered hearing the comforting soft rumble of waves on the night when Blaine had showed her architectural plans to enlarge his own home so they could all live together. They really and truly had thought about getting married. That had been little more than a month ago. But it seems so long ago now. Another, more discordant, memory crowded its way into her mind. It was Blaine telling her the morning after they’d first slept together, “I think I need to buy a gun.” And of course, he’d felt that need because of Riley and the dangers of being in a relationship with her. They’d gone to the gun store and bought him a Smith and Wesson 686, and Riley had given him his first shooting lesson at the indoor range right there and then. Riley smiled bitterly as she thought, I hope he takes better care of that gun than April did with hers. But then—what need would he have for that gun now that things were over between them? What was he going to do with it? Just leave it hidden away in his house and forget he even had it? Or would he sell it? As she considered these questions, an unexpected emotion crept up inside her. Her breath and pulse quickened, and to her surprise she realized, I’m angry. She’d been blaming and doubting herself ever since Blaine’s visit—even before then, really, when she’d found herself feeling at least somewhat guilty for April’s accident with the gun. But was everything that was going wrong in her life really her fault? Riley growled under her breath as she took another sip of bourbon. So many disappointments, she thought. And she was tired of blaming herself for all of them—including the failure of her marriage to Ryan. Was it really her fault that Ryan had been an unfaithful, selfish jerk, and such a lousy husband and father? And was it her fault that April couldn’t handle the responsibility of a gun, or that Jilly was angry with her for not getting one herself? And was it really her fault that Blaine couldn’t accept her for who she really was, that he wouldn’t stay in a relationship with her unless she became somebody she couldn’t possibly be? When she’d harbored such hopes of making a new life with him and his daughter, had she really been expecting too much from him? Wasn’t true commitment always about accepting the good with the bad? Wasn’t it possible that Blaine was failing her, and not the other way around? Now that Riley thought about it, she did have something to blame herself for. It was a single mistake she’d made over and over again in her life. I trust people. And sooner or later, people always failed to live up to that trust, no matter how hard she tried to live up to their demands and expectations. Then Riley became aware of noises from the kitchen. Gabriela had come upstairs and was starting to fix dinner. Riley had to admit to herself, Gabriela was one person who had never let her down, never betrayed her trust. And yet there were limits to her relationship with Gabriela. Although Gabriela was like another family member, since Riley was Gabriela’s employer, they could only become just so close even as friends. Gabriela started humming a Guatemalan melody in the kitchen, and Riley felt her anger start to ebb. Soon, she realized, she and Gabriela and the kids would sit down to a lovely dinner together. Even if they were barely speaking to each other, that was a good thing. She took another sip of bourbon and murmured aloud, “Life goes on.” * Riley was awakened early the next morning by the sound of her phone buzzing on the nightstand. She picked up the phone groggily, but snapped awake when she saw that the call was from her boss, Brent Meredith. “Did I wake you, Agent Paige?” Meredith asked in his gruff, rumbling voice. Riley almost said no, but quickly thought better of it. It was always best to be truthful with Meredith, even about seemingly insignificant things. He had an uncanny way of detecting even the slightest dishonesty. And he really didn’t like being lied to. Riley had found that out the hard way. “Yes, but it’s all right, sir,” Riley said. “What can I do for you?” “I was wondering if you might feel ready to get back on the job,” Meredith said. Riley sat up in bed, feeling more alert by the second. What should I say? she wondered. Even after supper yesterday, things were still strained between Riley and her two daughters. The girls were still sullen and distant. Was this really a good time to go back to work? Shouldn’t she spend some time trying to work things out here at home? “Is there a new case?” she asked. “It looks like it,” Meredith said. “There have been two murders in suburbs of Philadelphia during the last couple of weeks. Due to oddities in both crime scenes, the local cops think they must be related, and they’ve asked for our help. I know you’ve been resting up from your injury, and I don’t want to—” “I’ll do it,” Riley said, interrupting him. The words were out before she even knew she’d said them. “I’m glad to hear that,” Meredith said. Then he added, “Agent Jeffreys is still on leave. I’ll put Agent Roston on the job with you.” Riley almost objected. Right now she really wanted her longtime partner and best friend, Bill Jeffreys, with her, but then she remembered their recent phone conversations. He’d sounded pretty frayed, and with good reason. Bill had shot the man who had attacked Riley with an ice pick—shot him and killed him. It wasn’t the first person Bill or Riley had killed in the line of duty over the years, but Bill was taking it unusually hard. It was the first time he had used deadly force since he’d mistakenly shot an innocent man last April. That man had survived, but Bill was still haunted by his error. “Agent Roston would be fine,” Riley told Meredith. The young African American agent had become Riley’s protégé during the last few months. Riley had come to think highly of her. “I’ll have a plane ready to fly out of Quantico to Philly as soon as you both can get here,” Meredith said. “Meet me on the tarmac.” They ended the call, and Riley sat on the bed staring at the phone for a few moments. Did I make the right decision? she wondered. Should she really head on out like this when there was so much uncertainty here at home? The question stirred up some of the same anger she’d felt yesterday. Again, she resented having to think so much of other people’s wants and needs—especially when they so often neglected to think about her. She could stay here trying her best to placate April and Jilly, apologizing for things that weren’t really her fault, or she could get out and do something useful. And right now, she had a job to do—a job that few if any other people could do as well as she could. She looked at her clock and saw that it was still very early in the morning. She knew that Gabriela was already up getting breakfast ready, but the kids would still be in bed. Riley didn’t feel much like explaining her decision to the kids, but she knew that Gabriela would understand if she went downstairs and told her. Riley could grab something to eat and head out, and Gabriela would tell the girls before sending them off to school. Meanwhile, Riley had to get dressed and pack up her go-bag. As she got up from her bed and headed for the bathroom, she realized that she felt better than she had in days. She’d soon be doing something she was good at—even if it could be extremely dangerous.

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