He’d had to fall to the bottom before he could pick himself up. In his misery, he’d torn down the innocent people around him. Twice. Thankfully, they’d rebounded. He cared about the people in his life and hadn’t meant to hurt them. His first wife had moved on after trying to pull him out of his soul-deep depression for three years. His second wife had caught the brunt of his anger from his losses in life. She’d stuck it out for two years, believing she could heal him. But she’d eventually left, too.
It’d taken his wife and son abandoning him to open his eyes. The boy wasn’t his. When he’d met his second wife, part of her appeal had been her son. He’d believed that having a child to nurture would be good for him, but it’d been the opposite. He’d resented the boy and resented the mother for their close relationship. He’d never bonded with the child.
After they’d left, he began his search for healing. He’d examined his life and his past and had clearly seen where he’d lost the balance. He’d made the corrections.
Now he walked along the Willamette River, leaving the sounds of the vigil cleanup behind him. The musty, wet scent of the river filled his nose. The river had a beautiful park on its west side, lit by the tall buildings of the city, and people strolled the long walk in spite of the cold night air.
Christmas was coming. People flocked to the city to get in the holiday mood. Stores put up decor and lights. Even the Morrison Bridge was lit up with green and red. If he hadn’t spied on the vigil for the missing girl, he would have sworn all was in balance with the world.
But it wasn’t. He’d waited a long time to set things to rights. His pain and loss had to be atoned for; the person who’d created his pain had to suffer the same. Then he could be at ease. He’d be able to breathe again. His life wouldn’t have the gray shadow that had consistently hung over him, reminding him that the guilty one hadn’t paid. His nightmares would ease.
He’d been the one who’d done all the paying. He’d been the one to have his life ripped away.
He breathed faster. He was so close to that blessed peace he’d sought for so many years.
He hadn’t been driving the minivan. He’d used it only that once, and it’d been hidden away since Friday morning. He’d been surprised to see the AMBER Alert on the news. That had happened a bit faster than he’d expected.
Where had they gotten the license-plate number? How had they connected the stolen van with Henley Fairbanks? He smiled to think of all the minivans that’d been pulled over with the hopes of finding a small blonde child in the back. Let the police waste their resources. The van had served its purpose. By the time they found it, they’d realize their focus had been misdirected from day one.
His plan hadn’t gone completely as expected, but he’d managed nicely when curveballs had been thrown his way. It was important to keep his options open. He hadn’t given up on his primary goal; it was still possible.
He’d kept a careful eye on the girl’s family tonight. They’d stuck together in a small group, never letting one another out of their sight. It was heartwarming to see their pain. It’d been worth every step so far. They were an odd blend of a family. Two fathers, two mothers. The other child. Everyone seemed to get along; they hadn’t turned on one another like he’d hoped.
They had to have their suspicions. When would they start to act out against one another? When would the inner dismantling begin?
He thought about the paper bag sitting in the trunk of his car.
It was time for the next phase.
Mason drove straight to his house. Ava was silent in the car. She didn’t comment as he took the freeway exit for his home instead of the Fairbankses’. When was the last time he’d taken a woman back to his place?
It didn’t matter. What mattered was how he handled this woman. Standing by his car, he’d been overwhelmed with the need to touch her. Not to comfort her, but to connect physically and emotionally. It’d been brewing under his surface since he’d first seen her. Perhaps the frankness of the emotions at the vigil had made it erupt. He’d known he’d never sleep tonight unless he acted on the small but intense fire that’d slowly built in his chest.
He’d done the right thing.
Ava had melted into his touch and fanned that fire.
Ava McLane was different.
She had the brains and dedication needed to succeed in her job. And she had the heart and compassion to do it well. An investigator who gave a damn about people.
He understood her. And wanted to know everything about her.
This wasn’t about a physical desire that just needed to be scratched. This was more.
What kind of burden was her twin? He’d known people who’d have strangled a family member like that, twin or not. Ava had looked pretty close to giving him permission to shoot her sister.
Jayne was mentally ill. Addiction had enhanced her problems. He’d arrested dozens of people just like her, and it made him want to protect Ava from the pain her sister created. A part of him would always be a protector; it was what had driven him to become a cop. Ava wasn’t the type to need protection, but damn it, she brought it out of him.
He stopped at his house, they got out of the car, and he followed her up to the front porch. Unlocking the front door, he glanced at the still-full dish of dog food. The sight of it stung.
Ava moved the dish with her foot, checking to see if anything else had been placed underneath. Nothing. She gave him a sad smile. “I’m sorry,” she whispered in that low, utterly sexy voice of hers, meeting his gaze.