Right in front of her eyes…
Former bounty hunter Marc DiLeo is not the guy social worker Courtney Gerard wants helping her. But finding a kid who's been missing for a long time takes priority over her personal preferences. And if anyone can locate the child, Marc can—even with his injury. So she'll overlook his attitude.
As they follow cold leads together, Courtney glimpses beneath his tough exterior to something surprising—caring, compassion… vulnerability. That softer side proves more irresistible than his good looks. An unexpected—and unexpectedly intense—attraction flares between them, making her wonder why she never saw this before. Suddenly the man she was determined to avoid is the only man she wants close!
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Jeanie London writes romance because she believes in happily-ever-afters. Not the "love conquers all" kind, but the "we love each other, so we can conquer anything" kind. Jeanie is the winner of many prestigious writing awards, including multiple Romantic Times BookClub Reviewers’ Choice and National Readers’ Choice Awards. She lives in sunny Florida with her own romance-hero husband, their beautiful daughters, and a menagerie of strays.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Courtney Gerard went on red alert when she glanced up to find her supervisor in the office doorway. She'd worked with Giselle since an internship in college. Courtney knew this look. Not good.
"What's wrong, Giselle?"
Working for the Department of Children and Family Services could be emotionally demanding on the best of days. Children in difficult circumstances troubled caring people, and all the social workers in the New Orleans DCFS cared deeply about the kids they managed. Giselle's expression promised this day wasn't even close to the best.
"Are you okay?" Courtney tried again.
Giselle lifted a disbelieving gaze and stood rooted to the spot. Courtney was on her feet instantly, the impulse to do something preferable over the powerlessness of doing nothing. She'd barely circled the desk when Giselle gave her head a slight shake as if mentally rebooting.
"Yeah, yeah. I'm okay." Sinking into a chair, she clutched a file folder as if her life depended on it. "We have a problem."
We could mean the social services department or just the two of them. Courtney didn't ask. Giselle was shaken, and struggling hard to maintain her professionalism right now. That much was obvious.
Leaning against the desk, Courtney braced herself. "Whatever it is we can deal with it. Right?"
Giselle didn't answer—another bad sign. She set the file between them, an innocuous folder with a case number and name in an upper corner that read Araceli Ruiz-Ortiz.
The case hadn't been Courtney's for long. Only since a drizzly, cold February morning earlier this year, when one of their social workers hadn't made it to work when expected. A multiple-car accident on Interstate 10 had robbed them of one of their team, a woman with a huge laugh and kind heart.
"Has something happened?" Courtney asked. "Is Araceli all right?"
Giselle opened the file, rooted through the documents and slid out a photo. "Who is this?"
The image was the most recent of the girl in question, which Courtney herself had taken on their first visit together. She'd snapped photos of all the kids in the cases she'd taken over, uploaded digital copies to the server and printed hardcopy files. Standard procedure. "That's Araceli."
"You've actually spoken with her?"
Adrenaline made the hairs along Courtney's arms stand on end. "What kind of question is that? Of course I've spoken with her. She's been my case since Nanette."
The euphemism for the tragedy that had impacted everyone in their close-knit department in so many ways beyond increased caseloads.
"Any red flags?" Giselle asked.
Courtney frowned. She interviewed all of her kids, checked in with each of them monthly. Giselle knew all social workers followed the same procedure, so unless she was implying that Courtney had stopped doing her job properly… "What sort of red flags? Abuse? Drugs? Gangs?"
"Maybe. I don't know. Did anything at all seem off to you? What were your impressions of the girl?"
Courtney scoured her memories, apprehension sabotaging her focus. "I have to work to engage her most of the time. She resents my intrusion in her life but has enough respect not to be overtly rebellious. She's sixteen. You know how those last few years till majority can be for some kids."
Giselle nodded. "When you get her talking, does she communicate well? How's her English?"
Courtney considered the girl she was scheduled to visit again in just another week. "Accented but okay. I noted my first impressions in my report. Her guardians can be problematic."
"How so?" Giselle latched on to that admission. "I need to know everything you can tell me."
"The mother communicates in English better than the father, but he's the one who likes to do the talking. He won't allow me to talk to his wife and let her translate. A cultural thing, I think." She shrugged, frustrated even thinking about how she could burn an entire afternoon going over every single thing once, twice, sometimes three times until satisfied she understood and had been understood.
"No hablo Espanol. Hablo muy poco de todos modos."
Senor Perea didn't seem to care that Courtney was the department go-to girl for all things French, including French-based Louisiana Creole and Cajun. Of course, there was a smattering of Spanish words in those dialects, so if he slowed down enough for her to catch the verbs, she could usually figure out the rest. "The situation was never optimal, Giselle. I'm not Nanette. She spoke Spanish fluently. You knew that when you assigned me this case."
Giselle inhaled deeply, acknowledging imperfect reality in that one gesture. "But I knew I could trust you to put forth the effort to make sure these kids were properly cared for until I could get someone fluent in Spanish to replace you."
What she didn't say was that there were other social workers in the department who might be good and caring but who would also let the language barrier deter them.
Courtney was detailoriented and thorough. Always. She would take the time to be clear, even if it meant derailing her schedule. Even if it meant she didn't return to the office to start reports until after dark. Even if it meant she sacrificed a normal life to manage a caseload that had only grown in the years since the hurricane had leveled their entire agency.
They'd all been overworked before category-five winds had blown holes in the levees around Lake Pontchartrain, but since every record in every case they managed had been obliterated, they'd all been burdened additionally with rebuilding the system. A new system that wouldn't utterly and completely fail during a catastrophic natural disaster.
They'd all made sacrifices, were still making sacrifices, but some managed to juggle the additional workload better than others. Courtney didn't have a husband or kids awaiting her at home every day. "Will you tell me what has happened? You're flipping me out with this interrogation."
"You have to promise you won't panic." Giselle was the epitome of self-restraint, but everything about her begged Courtney to manage her reaction.
Giselle's need in that moment seemed impossible to meet. The best she could do was face her supervisor and close friend, and nod, hoping she could keep the promise.
Giselle held up the photo. "This is not Araceli."
It took Courtney a moment to wrap her brain around that. And in that one surreal instant, she took action again, reaching for the photo and inspecting it carefully, unable to absorb the overwhelming implications passively.
Same glossy dark hair. Same melting brown eyes. Same smooth caramel skin.
"I'm not sure what's going on, Giselle, but I promise you this is Araceli. I've met with her every month since Nanette."
Giselle pulled out another document with two photos stapled to the corner and set it on the desk between them. One eight-by-ten was a group shot of a classroom of young kids. Mr. LeGendre's third grade, according to the neat font imprinted along the bottom above the students' names. The other photo appeared to be the sort of proof used by photographic companies. There was a name and number beneath the face in that photo. The child was young like the ones in the group shot, maybe seven or eight, with a jagged smile where adult teeth were growing in.
Courtney scanned the group shot. She spotted Araceli's name but couldn't pick out the accompanying face from among the smiling kids. Reaching for the proof, she inspected the girl in that photo.
Gold skin. Glossy black hair. Melting dark eyes.
But a younger version of the uncommunicative girl Courtney met with every month?
A chill skittered through her, a physical sensation that made her breath catch hard. Grabbing the photo she'd taken herself, she placed them side by side, swung her gaze between them, made sense of the truth before her eyes.
There was something about the way the features came together that warned not even eight years could transform this child into the young woman who visibly reined in inconvenience each time they met.
Glancing up, Courtney saw her disbelief reflected in Giselle's expression. "Are you sure? This can't be possible."
"Apparently Araceli's file wound up on a compliance officer's desk. Turns out he used to be in the classroom before he went into staffing. He looked at the Araceli in the file and questioned whether she was his third-grade student. The classroom photo was his, but he still wasn't sure. He contacted the photography company on the off chance they had records since they're not based locally. You're looking at what he found."
A rare piece of evidence left after the hurricane. Courtney stared at the proof again and latched on to the first thing she could in the midst of her racing thoughts. The most irrelevant. The least horrifying.
"Why was a compliance officer reviewing Araceli's file? I should have been included."
"No meetings were scheduled because of this situation. Araceli, or the girl we thought was her, got into a fight with a weapon during summer classes."
The zero-tolerance policy changed the rules when a weapon was involved. "What weapon?"
Giselle scowled. "A chair. But given the way she used it… She has to be moved."
"Okay." Courtney rubbed her temples, willed her brain to reason. "Then where is Araceli, and who is this girl?"
"If we knew, we wouldn't have a problem."
That stopped Courtney cold. A powerful wave of vertigo rolled through her.
Two girls. One name.
A missing child.
Her heart pounded so hard each beat throbbed as reality narrowed down to the terrifying implications.
A missing child.
Details didn't matter. The situation simply didn't get any worse. Letting her eyes flutter shut, she blocked out Giselle's expression, the hard-won professionalism that wasn't concealing her panic.
Inhaling deeply, Courtney willed herself to think, to ask the questions that were critically important now that a child was missing.
"Has anyone spoken to the Pereas yet?" She forced the words past the tightness in her chest. "What about this girl?"
"The FBI will conduct the investigation."
"Not the police?"
"We have nothing on Araceli but what's in this file," Giselle explained. "She crossed state lines during the hurricane evacuations. The investigation is out of police jurisdiction."
Another euphemism. There had been hurricanes before and since, but Katrina was the hurricane. Giselle didn't have to say another word because again, her expression reflected the helplessness and horror of an event that had been far beyond the control of the people involved, an event that had challenged everything from their comfy worldview to standard business practice for this department.
All hard-copy documentation had been lost in the flooding. Out of the five thousand plus kids in foster care at the time, two thousand had been displaced by Hurricane Katrina, then many shuffled again a month later because of Hurricane Rita.
Kids had wound up spread over nineteen states in that mess, and social workers such as Courtney, Giselle and Nanette had tracked them all down again. The aftershocks were still being felt to this day, along with memories of the litany of priorities that had dictated their lives as they functioned from evacuation shelters because offices and homes had been flooded, cell towers had been down, and the city had been under martial law.
First, we keep you alive….
Then we get you safe….
Then we work on your health and medications..
Then we figure out where you belong..
Recalling that long road back to a functioning system brought another realization, one that hit with familiar category-five velocity.
The hurricane had been eight years ago.
"Tell me we have some other documentation, Giselle," she demanded. "Tell me we're not operating on what Nanette pieced together after the hurricane."
Giselle spread her hands in entreaty, motioned to the desk. She didn't have to say another word because they were both thinking the same thing.
The only person who might shed some light on this situation had died on the side of the road, surrounded by strangers on a drizzly February morning.
"Her work was stellar." Giselle assumed the crappy responsibility of verbalizing the doubt that would be cast on someone not able to defend herself. "I won't believe this situation is a result of negligence. That goes against everything I know about her."
"You're right. Absolutely right."
"The FBI will want conclusive proof, but we don't have any. Nanette looks culpable. This department looks culpable."
Which circled right back around to the we.
Giselle was responsible for this department and everything that took place within. Courtney was responsible for this case and everything that had taken place since Nanette.
A child was missing.
The only answer that mattered, the one that left her doing exactly what she'd been told not to do— panicking—was the very one she had no answer for.
What were their chances of finding Araceli alive?
"We had no way of tracking Araceli after the hurricane." Giselle riffled through documents one by one. "We can't prove Araceli's the child on one document in this folder. We can't prove we placed the real Araceli with the Perea family. We can't prove she's the Araceli in this Red Cross database."
Her voice escalated. "We can't prove she evacuated to the Superdome with her foster family, then got separated on the buses in Houston. We can't prove she went to Atlanta after being evacuated during Hurricane Rita. We can't prove she was the child we got an emergency injunction to remain out of state until the Pereas moved out of the FEMA trailer and back into their home. We have no idea who we've been shuffling around because the last known photo of Araceli is from third grade."
The papers were now all over Courtney's desk. Papers that proved nothing conclusively—except that Araceli Ruiz-Ortiz had gotten lost somewhere over the course of the past eight years.
Courtney walked to the window that provided no escape. She saw nothing but eight years stretching out like a lifetime, and all the horrifying things that could happen to a girl alone. The passage of time was marked only by the silence echoing as she mentally replayed every horror story she'...
"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.
Book Description Book Condition: Brand New. Book Condition: Brand New. Bookseller Inventory # 97803736079761.0
Book Description Harlequin, 2013. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0373607970
Book Description Harlequin, 2013. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 373607970