A Taste of... Autumn's Fear

Chapter One

Lindsay Welsh forgot absolutely nothing. It was a quality she’d always taken pride in, and even now, as her due date became countdown worthy and the fabled baby brain threatened to take over, she refused to slip up.

Tonight was taco night, which also meant that this was grocery shopping day. It had been that way since before they were married. Josh anticipated the weekly tradition like a child looked forward to Christmas, and Lindsay wasn’t about to disappoint her beloved husband. Besides, she was a stickler for keeping a schedule, and if she didn’t shop today, she was afraid she’d forget what day of the week it was.

Besides, this might be the only time in her life when she didn’t have to worry about her figure or count the calories of each taco to maintain the same number on the bathroom scale. She was clearly incredibly pregnant and had begun to resemble a penguin much more than an hourglass several months ago.

“We’ll eat every damn taco in Florida if we want to,” she murmured to her rounded belly, stroking the stretched skin. “All of them.” She smiled as her palm received a solid kick in return. An intrauterine high five. She’d take that as a yes.

The checkout lady shot her a glance that implied that Lindsay might be a tiny bit off her rocker. The thought made Lindsay smile. She’d just blame the hormones. That seemed to be the default explanation for anything she did these days. According to the rest of the world, anyway.

Lindsay didn’t care. She was nearing the most epic event in her life, one that neither she nor her husband had thought possible. Not ever. As if to remind her that doctors didn’t know everything, one of her unborn daughters performed an Olympian-worthy double axel out of nowhere, landing firmly onto Lindsay’s bladder. Lindsay gasped and pressed her legs together, sure that either urine or a baby’s head would appear at any second.

“Little ballerina almost made Mommy pee herself,” she murmured when it was clear that she didn’t need to rush to the nearest ladies’ room. Taking a deep breath, she almost decided to make a pit stop anyway. She went so much that Josh had offered to build her a cot in their master bathroom.

“The Greengrocer will be closing in five minutes,” a voice said from overhead, and that made the decision for her. She’d definitely need more than five minutes to wobble to and fro in her current condition.

Besides, home was only a few miles away, and Lindsay was moderately sure she could make it there before the floodgates opened. Well, assuming the ice-skating competition in her womb was temporarily over.

In spite of the fact that it was January, the Florida air was oppressive with humidity. The winters here were certainly different than what they’d been used to back in Georgia, even though the Peach State was pretty darn warm most of the time too.

Regardless, Georgia seemed a million miles away at this point. Now, Florida was where they belonged. The peaceful city of Lavender Lake had quickly become home. They were close to Lindsay’s family, and having her mom’s help with the babies would be a sanity-saving gift from the infant gods. They’d made the move six months ago, and neither Josh nor Lindsay had regretted it even once.

They’d wanted these babies for a long time. Their savings account had all but been emptied to make the IVF treatments possible. Every necessity, along with a ridiculous amount of luxury items, had been bought in preparation for the baby girls’ arrival. Countless parenting books had been pored over, but Lindsay was positive that nothing could ever truly prepare them for the change that was soon charging its way into their lives.

It was exciting. It was overwhelming. It was more than she had dared to dream was attainable. Two little girls. They would soon have two precious little girls.

But tonight, they were having tacos.

“Shit. Sriracha sauce.” Lindsay gave one last look over her shoulder, but the stern stares from the checkout counters convinced her that Josh would be okay, just this once, without his beloved topping.

I guess I won’t be able to avoid a bit of pregnancy brain after all.

She straightened her posture as best she could and held her chin a bit higher. At five-eight, Lindsay knew she was attractive, regardless of the penguin shape she’d taken on as of late. Bright blue eyes, blonde hair, and a pretty face were always in style. So what if she did begin to slip a little? The two bouncing creatures rolling around in her womb were most definitely draining some of her brain power, and whatever was left after that, she’d been putting into training a temp to cover her position as a legal secretary at a local firm.

Even with the depletion of cognizant braincells, she’d stayed on top of everything like a champ. Aside from the sriracha, Lindsay couldn’t think of one other single time she’d blatantly forgotten anything. Josh was a big boy. He’d be fine.

But more so, Josh loved her and was ecstatic about finally becoming a father. She could have made mac ‘n’ cheese for dinner, and he would still adore her. Lindsay knew this without a doubt, and it brought a soft smile to her lips.

The sweet reverie would have to wait until later, however, because it was taking most of her strength to push the loaded cart toward her minivan, and her phone was going off inside her purse. The ringtone seemed impossibly loud in the silent air of the evening, and she had to stop to take the call.

“Josh, I’m on my way. Just made it out of Greengrocer. Tacos coming at ya, babe.” Lindsay’s cheery words echoed back to her, and she suddenly couldn’t wait to be home with her husband. These long days they’d both been working were making her miss him horribly, even if he did sleep right next to her every single night.

“You were supposed to let me pick up the groceries. Is there any power in the freaking universe that can keep you off your feet, Linds?” He sounded upset, but Lindsay knew he was exaggerating. His exasperated laugh confirmed her suspicions.

“It’s taco night, but don’t worry. Soon, I’ll be a worthless zombie lump, fit only for breastfeeding and diaper changing. Let me do what I can while I can. I’m seriously fine, okay? Feeling fabulous, actually.”

And she was. If she hadn’t been so pregnant, this was a moment when Lindsay would have jumped on the cart like a playful child and let it cruise to her vehicle.

“Okay. Just be careful and get your sexy butt home. I’ll carry the groceries in.” A heavy sigh followed his words. It was full of the exhaustion that he tried—and failed—to keep hidden from her at all times.

“How was the board meeting?”

“Don’t change the subject, Linds.”

“Don’t be a grumpy old man. I’ll withhold the tacos.” Lindsay smiled at her own threat.

Josh’s laughter added to her own. “You would never.”

She softened. He knew her so very well. “No. I wouldn’t. But…I did forget your sriracha.” She cringed, waiting for the adorable little-boy disappointment she knew was coming next.

“How dare you.” Mock serious words were followed by more laughter.

“I’ll see you soon, okay? Lemme get off the phone so I can push this damn cart.” Immediately, she wished she hadn’t alluded to the fact that pushing the cart was in any way a struggle for her.

“See? You’re doing too much. I’m right. Come home.”

“Be there soon. Love you.” Lindsay waited for his reply and then tossed the phone back into her purse. Some days she couldn’t believe how much she loved that man, and she hoped they would always be this taken with each other.

Lost in happy thought, she almost didn’t notice the woman at first. More of a girl than a full-grown adult, the small figure stood beside a banged-up station wagon that had stopped seeing “better days” decades before the girl had even been born. A closer look revealed that the poor thing was crying. She was holding a cell phone, but by the desolate way she jabbed at it, Lindsay could tell that it very clearly wasn’t in working order.

Lindsay hesitated as her maternal instincts piqued. “Can I help you? Are you okay, hon?”

A tear-streaked, freckled face looked up at her, eyes wide. The young woman—Lindsay could instantly see that she wasn’t quite so young as her tiny stature had suggested—ran a hand through her caramel-blonde corkscrew curls. Giant blue eyes brimming with emotion sought Lindsay’s gaze, and almost immediately, a small light of hope seemed to click on beneath the obvious turmoil that had otherwise consumed her pitiful façade.

“I think it needs jumped. My car. It won’t start, and my phone isn’t working. I don’t know what to do!” A fresh tear threatened to spill down her still-damp cheeks.

“I’m pretty sure I’ve got some jumper cables. Let’s give those a try, okay?”

Lindsay couldn’t remember the last time she’d actually had to use a set of cables, but she was semi-confident that she’d figure it out. She gave the woman a wide smile, wanting her to know that everything would be okay. The dilapidated station wagon behind them clearly hinted that the distressed creature before her wasn’t a stranger to hard times. Lindsay’s heart hurt for her.

“I’m Sasha.” She wiped her nose on her sleeve. “Thank you. Thank you so much. I don’t even know what I’d do—”

Lindsay waved a hand to hush her. “It’s not a problem. I’m right over there.” She pointed toward her shiny new minivan with a small twinge of guilt. “I still can’t believe I’m a minivan mom. These babies aren’t even out yet, and they’re already running the show.”

This made Sasha giggle, and the young woman seemed to relax a little. “Everybody loves a soccer mom.”

Lindsay grinned, realizing she didn’t mind the term as much as she’d always thought she would.

I’m ready for this. I’m ready for the next phase.

It was a serene thought, but when she couldn’t seem to find the right button on the vehicle’s fancy remote to open the back hatch, Lindsay immediately questioned whether she was ready for any change at all.

“Sorry.” She let out an embarrassed chortle and held the tiny device closer to her face, squinting to see the buttons in the dim light. “We just got this. I’m not really used to all of the gadgets yet.” That much was obvious, and Lindsay was happy to see that, if nothing else, her struggle had momentarily entertained the stranded young woman.

“It’s really pretty. I’m not sure I’ve ever even touched a new car. Does it have that cool OnStar security voice thingy?” Sasha’s eyebrows were raised high with interest, and her smile seemed to have overtaken her worries for the time being.

“I think so, or something like that. My husband hasn’t set it up yet, and I’ll be damned if I know how to use it. But yes, it’s in there somewhere.” Lindsay laughed at her own lack of tech-savvy skills as the hatch raised slowly.

One of her daughters gave a karate kick somewhere near her rib cage. Pull it together, the baby seemed to be saying.

“I’m sure he just wants the best for you and the babies. You did say babies, right?” Sasha was brimming with bright-eyed enthusiasm, her freckled face adorable when it wasn’t scrunched tight with worry. “Are you having twins? Triplets?”

“Oh, lord save me from triplets. I think these twins will be just enough to ensure that we never sleep again.” Lindsay leaned over the hatch, pulling up the carpet piece that covered the spare tire and—she hoped—the promised jumper cables. Her amiable response didn’t touch upon the fact that she and Josh would have happily dealt with ten babies after all the IVF hell they’d endured.

She had just laid a hand on the bright yellow cords when Sasha seemed to lean in questionably close beside her. Before Lindsay’s inner alarm had a chance to fully alert her to the possible threat that came with the movement, a sharp sting at the back of her neck pierced through all other thought.

“So sorry about this, Lindsay.” Sasha’s voice was dark and cold this time. Menacing.

Lindsay’s vision blurred for a split-second, and she nearly fell backward, but Sasha’s strong grip caught her and pushed her straight down onto the minivan floor. The curly haired woman was small, but she wasn’t weak. Lindsay tried to scream, but no sound would come out. She wanted to fight, to do anything other than just lay there, letting what was happening continue. But her muscles were rigid. Her arms, legs, fingers, toes…everything had frozen in an instant paralysis.

She watched as Sasha calmly picked up the remote from the concrete where it had fallen when Lindsay’s hands turned to ice. The woman looked down at her, the same large blue eyes having taken on a very different demeanor.

“It’s not that hard, Lindsay. The buttons are clearly marked. Pathetic.” Sasha shook her head, sneering as she hit the proper button and the hatch door slowly lowered to a close. Only a few seconds passed before the van was backing up, and then leaving the parking lot at warp speed.

An animalistic desire to escape had completely overtaken Lindsay’s mind by then, but her body refused to allow even the slightest movement. She’d been tricked. She’d been duped like a complete, careless moron. And that woman—Sasha or whoever the hell she actually was—had known her name! She was positive she hadn’t shared it.

What now? I can’t move I can’t move I can’t move!

As she strained to make a fist, an unimaginable horror flooded her mind. She concentrated, hoping she was mistaken. Anything but this. She waited for the familiar sensation of her little girls maneuvering around inside of her.

Lindsay Welsh couldn’t even cry when she realized her precious babies were no longer moving either.

Chapter Two

Autumn Trent checked her reflection in the full-length mirror hanging from the back of her bedroom door. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for, exactly. Her long, bright auburn hair was neat and tamed to within an inch of its life. Her inquisitive green eyes shone clear. Her black blazer and crisp white blouse conveyed that she was a professional woman who demanded to be taken seriously.

But was she really FBI material?

The transition was unsettling, to say the least. Her current role at Shadley and Latham, where she specialized in threat assessment, had never given her any reason to doubt herself. She was good at that job and more than qualified for it. Her hard-earned Ph.D. in forensic psychology as well as her master’s in criminal psychology, not to mention her Juris Doctorate, had spoken volumes to her employers and co-workers about her capabilities.

These capabilities were the same reason that Special Supervisory Agent Aiden Parrish had campaigned so consistently to bring her into the Behavioral Analysis Unit at the FBI’s Richmond, Virginia Field Office. The man had a faith in Autumn’s abilities and the valuable insight they could add to the BAU that she herself wasn’t entirely sure of. Even while the hoops were being jumped through to make her an official FBI employee, Autumn wondered if, at some point in the future, Aiden would change his mind.

Hadn’t she already messed up in Oregon? Hadn’t she added to that in Pennsylvania? Was there really room for her inexperience in such high-stake cases as the ones she had been and would be involved in?

Autumn sighed and turned away from her reflection. It was time to leave for work, and she refused to be late. Autumn planted a kiss on Peach’s head, earning only a disinterested glare from her orange feline. She attempted to likewise kiss her Pomeranian, but that was always a little more challenging. Toad had mastered the art of the sad puppy dog stare, which triggered a deep guilt in Autumn’s chest that only a four-legged friend could inspire.

“I’ll be back,” she promised the dog, but only got a whine in return.

Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.

As she made her way to the Virginia Field Office, Autumn realized there was one thing that she was absolutely sure of, and none of her concerns had changed it. She wanted to do this. There was an excitement—a purpose—in being out in the field with the BAU that stirred something inside her. In the FBI, she could make a bigger difference. She could help more people. Her special insight could be utilized in a way that was deeply needed by the seven billion plus human beings surrounding her on this spinning rock.

And it was a special insight. Very special.

The brain surgery Autumn had undergone at the tender age of ten had left her with a type of “sixth sense.” All it took was the simple touch of another human being to send an instant delivery of intuitive knowledge—knowledge she otherwise had absolutely no way of obtaining—into her psyche.

The particular person’s thoughts, emotions, and motives were made clear to Autumn in a mere split-second of connection. Occasionally, she even received short visions of a sort, giving her a glimpse of an individual’s past. Though she’d been wary of her newfound ability as a child, in college she had come to see it as a valuable tool.

Now, as an adult, the magnitude of good that could be done by harnessing her gift was not lost on her. She could help the FBI and the plethora of victims they encountered in a way that no one else could. Autumn was a valuable, irreplaceable asset. SSA Aiden Parrish knew this, but more importantly, Autumn knew it.

Added to that, there were the signs.

Special Agent Sun Ming had informed her of the pregnant women inexplicably going missing in Florida at the same time that Autumn had received the word that her long lost sister, Sarah, might also be in the Sunshine State. It certainly wasn’t the same thing as being offered two free tickets to Disney World, but Autumn took it as an indication that her newfound path with the FBI was inevitably destined.

Others might call it coincidental, but Autumn had long ago learned that the voice of coincidence was booming with design. All doubt aside, these new developments felt significant. Solid.

And it was too late to reconsider, anyway. Just last night, she had spoken with Mike Shadley. Though Autumn was officially still his employee, they were both clearly aware of the transition taking place. She had no problem with Mike, and he had none with her as far as she knew, but Autumn had sensed relief in his voice when they discussed the details surrounding her exit from the firm.

Her other boss, Adam Latham, had plenty of problems with Autumn. Adam had plenty of problems in general. As Mike’s partner, Adam had proven himself to be more of a liability than an asset—a giant, chauvinistic, narcissistic liability.

Autumn thought briefly of the bright red handprint Adam had left on her cheek in the Oregon hotel room. He’d been convinced that she was physically attracted to him, and even more convinced that he was not only her boss but her all-knowing mentor.

Neither of those things had been even remotely true, and when Adam had been faced with this reality, he’d momentarily lost his cool. Autumn had proven herself to be incredibly knowledgeable and off-limits. Adam had shown himself to be the absolute douchebag she’d already known he was. And furthermore, now that some time had passed, Autumn had decided she would be filing charges against Adam.

The decision wasn’t based so much on account of her own well-being as it was on the fact that she wasn’t Adam’s first victim, and she surely wouldn’t be his last. As repulsive as Adam’s touch was, it had given Autumn a clear picture of just how many women he’d taken advantage of in the past.

No matter what effect it had on her own career, or even on Mike Shadley’s firm, she couldn’t let the incident slip quietly by. So many women kept quiet about harassment, indecencies, and abuse. Autumn understood well the reason for the silence, but she also knew that victims had voices that needed to be heard.

If Autumn was really going to lead humanity—any part of it—to a better state of existence, she had to start with herself. Leaders weren’t silent, even when they were afraid. The more difficult tasks in life were every bit as important as all the rest. Hard or not, Adam Latham wasn’t getting away with his indiscretions. Not this time.

As she approached the elevator of the FBI’s Richmond office, Autumn’s phone vibrated in her jacket pocket. A couple of swipes opened the text from Victor Goren, the public defender in the case of young Justin Black.

Justin Black has been granted transfer to the Virginia State Hospital.

Autumn sucked in a sharp breath. “That was quick.” Her brow furrowed as she stared at the screen. She had just submitted her assessment of his competency to the court the previous day. This was a clear example of a situation that did not feel solid at all.

Justin Black was only nineteen, but that hadn’t stopped him from achieving full-on serial killer status. The question was whether or not he was competent to stand trial, and Autumn had more than enough accolades to make her a qualified choice for Justin’s particular evaluation.

Upon her return to Virginia, she had been hard-pressed by “the powers that be” to prioritize Justin’s competency assessment. The two-day evaluation deadline hadn’t allowed Autumn to prove or disprove if Justin was, in fact, faking his mental illness. Although she had tried to make it very clear to the court that she hadn’t had sufficient time to prove malingering in Justin’s case, no one had seemed to care. Justin was an insane, obnoxious cog in an overworked system. The sooner he was drugged up and mentally vacant inside of a brick-walled institution, the better. For them.

The Virginia State Hospital was the single state-run facility with an Adult Maximum-Security Treatment Program. And although Justin had very much wanted to take the route he’d apparently been granted today, Autumn couldn’t help the uneasy feeling that crept up her spine as she thought of him.

Justin wasn’t the average serial killer. He’d been raised by none other than Douglas Kilroy, The Preacher, and they later learned was The Preacher’s biological cousin. Whatever nails “nature” had left loose in Justin’s life, “nurture” had fully pounded them in. He was a psychopath whose genetic makeup and life experience had made him a prime apprentice for The Preacher. He’d been dutifully trained to torture and kill and had developed an intense preference for depravity before he’d ever reached adulthood.

Autumn wasn’t yet sure of anything other than the fact that Justin was incredibly intelligent and certainly smart enough to fake the symptoms of mental health issues that he exuded during their visits. Either way, she couldn’t truly help him without fully and clearly ascertaining his mental state, and when done correctly, that wasn’t a short process.

I need more time.

There was another reason that Justin Black’s case was so incredibly important to Autumn. He was the younger half-brother of her best friend, Winter Black. Winter was an FBI Special Agent in the Violent Crimes Division of the Richmond Field Office, and she’d become a very important part of Autumn’s life. Although Autumn knew Winter was more than capable of handling nearly anything hurled her way, finding out her baby brother was a cold-blooded killer had been a gut punch that her friend struggled with on a daily basis.

Autumn desperately wanted to discover the full truth about Justin because, most of all, Winter deserved and needed that closure. Autumn was determined, even now, to give it to her. Eventually.

Autumn’s fingers flew across the screen. Does his sister know?

Goren responded immediately. Winter Black has not yet been informed.

Autumn sighed, her heart heavy. Someone needed to tell Winter, and it was apparently going to be her. She hastily typed one more text, letting Goren know she’d be going out of state for a case in Florida and that she would be in touch when she returned.

Just as Autumn had re-pocketed her phone, a familiar voice called out to her. Special Agent Bree Stafford, one of the most tenured agents in the VCU, approached with a wide smile on her face.

“Guess you’re coming aboard again, hm?” Bree seemed delighted by the idea. “You know, if you keep this up, Aiden’s gonna get you to stay.”

“Ha. I kind of figured that one out for myself already.” Autumn returned the smile and would have chatted with Bree longer, but Aiden Parrish appeared as if the sound of his name had summoned the man. She nearly jumped out of her skin at his unexpected presence but managed to maintain her composure…barely.

“Dr. Trent. Might I have a quick word with you?” Aiden’s blue eyes stayed fixed on Autumn until she smiled and nodded, though she glanced at her watch, thinking they’d need to be very quick or else they’d be late for their meeting. But it was his meeting, so she could always blame the boss if she was tardy.

Although he normally maintained stony features, he smiled back, causing the corners of his eyes to crinkle. His light brown hair didn’t successfully hide the stitches he’d recently incurred.

Autumn tensed at the memory. The man had endured quite the beating at the hands of the last serial killer they’d tracked in Pennsylvania. Several hits to the head had left him in the hospital with a concussion and the now-stitched laceration.

Autumn followed him dutifully to his office but couldn’t manage to keep a pressing question to herself. “Are you sure you’re okay to be back so soon? It’s been less than a week since you were in the hospital.”

Aiden turned to face her a little more slowly than he normally would. His expensive suit and tie were just as neat and crisp as ever, and in spite of the recent events in Pennsylvania, he seemed completely relaxed. Or at least, he seemed about as relaxed as SSA Aiden Parrish was capable of being. “When the doctors okay you to leave, you leave.”

Autumn didn’t quite feel that she’d received an answer to her actual question, but it was as close to an answer as she’d probably get from this very private man. They both sat in uncomfortable silence for a few seconds, and Autumn was aware of the relief that flooded her as she observed Aiden very much alive, and for the most part, well.

“The last time we spoke, Autumn, I’m afraid I was a little hard on you.” Aiden cleared his throat and solemnly held her gaze once again. “I’m sorry.”

Heat rose to her face, burning her with all the emotion she’d been feeling for days. Guilt. Sorrow. Anger.

“Aiden, I’m sorry.” She tapped a fist against her chest. “I messed up. I blew my cover, I blew Winter’s cover, and I nearly compromised the entire investigation. You had every reason to be upset with me. I’m upset with myself.” Autumn earnestly meant every syllable.

Aiden’s shake of the head was so small it was barely a movement, making Autumn once again wonder at the extent of his head injury. “It’s behind us. We need to move past it and concentrate on the new case.” He leaned forward, the corners of his mouth struggling to stay down. “That being said, you should know that you might be the worst speed dater in history.”

Autumn threw her head back and laughed, completely unprepared for Aiden’s bit of dry humor. When she could speak again, she lifted an eyebrow and said one word. “Vanilla.”

The tenured agent went bright red right before he planted a palm in the middle of his face. “I’m going to kill Dalton.” But he was laughing as he said it. “That was the craziest case I think I’ve ever been a part of.”

Autumn hadn’t been part of many cases yet, but she had to agree.

A trio of sisters had targeted widowers up and down the east coast, swindling the rich men for every dollar they could. One of the sisters had literally gotten a taste of blood and started taking more than money. She started taking lives.

Clearing her throat, she forced herself to be serious again. “I’ll fully focus on this case and give it everything I have. The way this is all happening,” Autumn threw up her hands, “I know I’m facing a rather severe learning curve.”

Aiden nodded, wincing at the motion. “You’re definitely not the average transfer.” Autumn wished that she could touch him, just for one moment, and know if the statement carried multiple meanings. She pressed her fingertips together to stop herself from reaching out.

“Overall, I’m just sorry that you got hurt.” She fought to keep her gaze from wandering to the stitches as she said the words.

Aiden touched his temple with a soft snort. “I’m sure that wasn’t the first woman who ever wanted to beat me over the head.” He and Autumn shared a momentary smile before his face went stone serious. “Let’s meet with the others.”

Business time.

In just a few minutes, Aiden had gathered all the agents together for the briefing. Autumn shot Winter and her boyfriend, Special Agent Noah Dalton, a smile. The smile carried over to Bree, and Autumn attempted to share it with Sun as well. But Sun was, as per usual, less than interested in amiable greetings.

Sun had been much friendlier when she’d been dating another agent, though she would have been mortified to learn that her brief relationship with Bobby Weyrick had been a badly kept secret. The psychiatrist in Autumn wanted to ask Sun about him, especially after the cutting comments Sun made about men during the Black Widow case in Pennsylvania, but she kept quiet. She didn’t imagine the surly agent would appreciate either the concern or invasion of privacy.

The only faces Autumn didn’t recognize were swiftly introduced to her by Aiden as Special Agents Chris Parker and Mia Logan, both of them BAU agents called in to help work the new case. Autumn forced herself to stand tall, even though she wasn’t exactly an established part of the FBI yet. Surrounded by all these great minds, it was imperative for Autumn to remember that she was worthy of being here too.

“This is what we have, Agents. Two pregnant women have gone missing in Lavender Lake, a town of about 150,000 residents in Central Florida.” As Aiden spoke, Sun tapped at her laptop, and in a moment, the missing women’s faces appeared on the smart screen. “The first, Sheila Conlon, went missing two years ago, and the other, Patricia Gorski-Wilson, just this last month.”

“Here you go.” Sun tossed Aiden the remote for the slides. She grumbled something like, “Lazy ass men. I’m not your slave,” but Autumn wasn’t sure she heard her correctly.

Aiden nodded his thanks. “Two weeks ago, a fisherman found a hand lodged in a log at one of the local swamps.” The images on the screen were replaced by that of the severed hand in question. “Just three days ago, the DNA results came back confirming that the hand belonged to Ms. Gorski-Wilson.”

Sun’s fingers were flying again, and she didn’t look up as she spoke at an equally rapid clip. “CODIS and N-DEx searches indicated an abnormally high number of pregnant women missing in Central Florida alone, and that’s just within the last five years.”

Aiden tapped the remote again, and the hand mercifully disappeared. “After learning this information, the local sheriff’s detective called us for assistance in connecting the cases. That call was only a few days ago, but last night, another pregnant woman, Lindsay Welsh, went missing from Lavender Lake. The case has now been expedited to high priority. We leave for Florida today.”

“Are there any leads on Lindsay Welsh’s disappearance?” Winter voiced the question Autumn knew they all had.

“Grocery store cameras caught everything. Lindsay appeared to be helping another woman experiencing car trouble. But when Mrs. Welsh raised the back hatch of her van, the cameras lost sight of both women. When the hatch went back down, the van drove away, and all that was left was the shopping cart. Mrs. Welsh’s purse was still in it.”

“Has the husband been questioned? The primary suspect in any spousal murder is always the victim’s partner, especially when pregnancy is involved.” Bree’s voice was confident, and Autumn knew that the woman’s twenty years as an agent had provided her with a plethora of information.

“Exactly. Hasn’t anyone considered that this case may have nothing to do with the previous two? It seems a bit presumptuous.” Chris Parker spoke as though he were trying to out-boom the SSA. He ran a careful hand over his perfectly coiffed blonde hair, and Autumn had the instant premonition that Special Agent Parker was probably not going to be her new best friend.

Aiden exhaled a long breath. There were dark circles under his eyes, and Autumn wondered again if he was really up for this so soon. “I think it goes without saying that the police are following standard protocol for kidnapping, and that includes questioning the partners. All of them. We’ll be questioning them as well when we arrive, along with family members, neighbors, and any other possible eyewitnesses.”

Chris crossed his arms in mild annoyance. He clearly had more to say but wisely chose to stay silent. His expression said more than words ever could, though.

“No presumptions are being made, but we have to consider the possibility that this isn’t the average missing persons case. We wouldn’t be expending time and resources if there wasn’t the possibility that something much more complicated could be taking place in Lavender Lake. I’m sure you’re all bright enough to realize that.”

Aiden’s words conveyed his obvious annoyance as he tapped the laptop and a pretty woman with blonde hair popped up on the screen. Chris opened his mouth but snapped it closed when Aiden’s gaze came his way.

Autumn shifted in her seat, wondering at the clear animosity between the two men. Was it simply a power play or was something more deeply seated creating this thick tension?

Aiden’s expression relaxed a bit when he turned back to the others. “It’s my understanding that Mrs. Welsh is due within the next few weeks with twins. The working theory is that whoever took her will keep her alive until the babies are born. After that…” He lifted a shoulder, and Autumn didn’t need any help filling in the blank.

Aiden flipped to another photo of Lindsay Welsh. It appeared to be one from an expensive maternity shoot. Lindsay looked stunning in a flowing sapphire gown that clung to her swollen shape. Her beauty nearly eclipsed the sunset painting the sky behind her.

There was a murmur around the table, and Autumn’s heart squeezed at the serene expression on Lindsay Welsh’s face as her hand rested on her belly. “Beautiful,” Winter murmured. There were nods of agreement all around.

We need to save her. Save them.

“She could give birth at any moment.” Aiden looked as grim as the rest of them clearly felt. “Time is of the essence, so get ready to head south, Agents. We leave in two hours.”

Aiden clicked the button, and the screen went dark. Goose bumps raised on Autumn’s arms as the missing woman and her twins faded away.

 There one moment. Gone the next.


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Autumn's Fear by Mary Stone

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