I let out a harsh curse, imagining how terrifying that had to have been for her. Needing a moment, I focus on the Keurig, brewing myself a cup of coffee. Tracey—fuck, Leighton—was barely eighteen when that happened. I remember the day she disappeared as if it were yesterday. I’d never felt more lost in my entire life than when I realized something bad must have happened.

She hadn’t shown up for school, hadn’t responded to my texts or calls, and she hadn’t been at her house when I checked. I couldn’t explain her sudden absence, so I used my key to let myself in to her home. Her dad liked me a lot, and he hadn’t minded me coming and going as I pleased. He was a very “hands-off” type of parent. Hell, if he’d known about some of the things his daughter and I got up to when he was off on one of his frequent business trips, he would have locked her in a tower to keep me away.

It had been obvious something wasn’t right. When she was still missing at the end of day two, I’d known something was seriously wrong. My parents were always supportive of me, so they helped me file a missing person’s report. The police investigated, but they’d been stumped, too, given none of Tracey and her dad’s personal belongings had been touched. Even Rich’s—her dad’s—Mercedes was still in the garage. The Glendale family—father and daughter—had disappeared, but there weren’t any signs of a struggle, a robbery, or any other nefarious acts.

Eventually, everyone moved on. Our mutual school friends stopped talking about her, my parents stopped calling the police for updates on my behalf, and the case turned cold.

Everyone had moved on but me.

Even to this day, ten years later, I’d never moved on. I was still plagued with doubt, recrimination, fear, and a generalized loathing at the unfairness of losing my girl without a clue how it happened. Convincing myself she was dead one moment while other times hoping perhaps she was living a new life, safe and happy away from me, was torture. Half was a comfort to me, but the rest pissed me off.

How in the hell could I move on when the woman I had loved with all my heart—whom I’d thought I’d spend the rest of my life with—was taken away from me without any explanation? There’s no way to get past that.

Grabbing my coffee, I pivot to face her. Warily, she regards me. I try to temper my expression. “I’m sorry, Tracey.”

“Leighton,” she corrects. “Tracey is dead.”

“It has sure felt that way all these years,” I mutter, then sullenly add, “Leighton.”

“I’m sorry, August.” Her eyes are shiny with remorse. “They wouldn’t let me contact you. At first, I tried. They kept us locked away until we were transitioned. I even lifted a U.S. Marshal’s phone out of his pocket once, but it was passcode protected. When I begged them to let me call you, they were adamant we had to sever any contacts from our past lives. They said it was for your safety as much as ours.”

And that confession punches through the last of my anger. This sweet girl—barely turned woman—had practically been kidnapped from her home in the dead of night. She must have been frantic over everything left behind. One thing I never doubted was… she loved me. Tracey—fuck, Leighton—would have been desperate to try to get word to me that she was alive. How can I blame her for any of that?

Setting my cup down, I hurry around the counter. Without a moment’s hesitation, I take her into my arms. Stiffly, she accepts my embrace, and I can tell the easy trust we used to have with each other is gone. Ten years of absence doesn’t necessarily make the heart grow fonder. Add in the fact she’s been living in hiding all this time, and I’m sure her trust factor toward anyone is at a negative.

Still, I pull her closer and wrap my arms around her, one hand going to the back of her head. “I’m sorry you had to go through that. Sorry for whatever horrible position your dad’s actions put you in.”

She nods against my chest, and I half expect her to give in to the tears that were obviously threatening just a moment ago. But she’s strangely silent.

Pulling slightly away, I glance down. I see nothing but the top of her head… the brunette color is strange on her, but admittedly, it’s looks great. It makes her appear far more grown up and womanly than I remember.

Placing a finger under her chin, I force her gaze up to mine. “But hey… you came here to see me for some reason. I assume you need help with something regarding this? Are you still in WITSEC?”

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