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Unleashed
 


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Unleashed


  UNLEASHED

  Also by Jami Alden

  CAUGHT

  KEPT

  Published by Kensington Publishing Corp.

  UNLEASHED

  JAMI ALDEN

  KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.www.kensingtonbooks.com

  To Hilary, my great friend,who made me strive to bea better writer with every book.

  And to Gajus, who makes me striveto be a better person every day.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  As always I have to thank my usual cast of characters: Monica McCarty, for coming up with “the big creepy,” and Bella Andre, for quickly and enthusiastically reading when she was on a deadline of her own. Seriously, I don’t think I could make it through a book without you two. To Barbara Freethy, Tracy Grant, Anne Mallory, Penny Williamson, and Veronica Wolff for all the lunchtime brainstorming that helped me get my story straight. And to Kim Whalen for her endless enthusiasm and support.

  CONTENTS

  CHAPTER 1

  CHAPTER 2

  CHAPTER 3

  CHAPTER 4

  CHAPTER 5

  CHAPTER 6

  CHAPTER 7

  CHAPTER 8

  CHAPTER 9

  CHAPTER 10

  CHAPTER 11

  CHAPTER 12

  CHAPTER 13

  CHAPTER 14

  CHAPTER 15

  CHAPTER 16

  CHAPTER 17

  CHAPTER 18

  CHAPTER 19

  CHAPTER 20

  CHAPTER 21

  CHAPTER 22

  CHAPTER 1

  Danny Taggart sprinted the last quarter mile of his run. His feet flew over the ground, kicking up mud, his lungs sucking in fog-moist air as he pounded along the redwood lined trail that led to his backyard. His thigh muscles burned as he pushed it hard for the last fifty meters, summoning up one last surge of juice after a two hour run through the densely wooded hills surrounding his property.

  His brothers thought he was psycho the way he ran, far and fast as though the hounds of hell were chasing him. But Danny ran because it was one of the three things that managed to keep the all the shit in his brain semistraight, the other two being booze and sex. Booze was out—if he drank enough to take the edge off, he was left with a wicked hangover. And sex—well it worked occasionally, but even a Grey Goose headache was nothing compared to a woman who refused to believe that all you wanted from her was a lusty fuck and a hassle-free good-bye.

  In an ideal world he’d have sex every day, probably twice, and maybe cut his runs down to five or six miles. As it stood, the runs got longer, and the sex was depressingly less frequent as Danny lost all taste for the idle chitchat and stupid human games that went into getting laid.

  Sweat dripped from his face and steam rose off his Capilene clad shoulders to mingle with the mist laden air of a typical January morning in the coastal mountains of the San Francisco Bay area. As he tracked mud up the wooden stairs to his front door, rain began to fall in fat, cold drops. The sky was silty gray with clouds that had settled in for the long haul. The rain would continue all day, maybe all week.

  It suited Danny just fine, as he stripped off his muddy clothes on his front porch, the rain running in icy rivulets down his exertion-heated skin. Winter, such as it was in Northern California fit his world just fine right now. Rainy, dark, and cold.

  As he walked through his front door and made for the laundry closet, he noticed the message light blinking on his phone. A chill coursed through him, chasing away any residual warmth from his run. His running clothes landed on the floor with a plop, forgotten as he headed straight for the phone.

  Goosebumps coated his naked body as he punched in the access number to retrieve his voice mail. “Danny, it’s Derek. You need to come to Dad’s as soon as you get this.”

  His mother was dead. Derek’s message was characteristically curt, but Danny knew that was why he was calling. An icy band wrapped around his chest and his breath caught as the full weight of reality hit him. Danny headed for the bathroom and set the shower to scalding before getting in the stall. He didn’t bother to try to look on the bright side, didn’t try to convince himself that Derek’s call had a different, more positive purpose.

  If it was anything else, Derek would have told him over the phone or waited till he got to the Gemini Security offices in a little over an hour. Even though Derek tried to keep his tone as flat and emotionless as possible, Danny knew the sound of someone bracing himself to deliver a blow.

  Danny met the blow head on. There was no other way than to bite the bullet, face the truth no matter how ugly.

  Just like that, the almost quiet, semirestful state his brain had managed to achieve on his daily fifteen mile run was obliterated. A level of calm that took nearly two hours to achieve, gone in the five seconds it took for Danny to listen to the message. His mind roiled with a thousand images and impulses, but one truth superseded them all.

  She was dead.

  After all the years, waiting, wondering, searching, they finally knew the truth. Thanks to a week long rainstorm and a mudslide that uncovered two sets of bones that had been lost for nearly two decades, Danny finally knew what happened to his mother.

  He felt something rip in his chest as he turned his face directly into the shower spray. In the eighteen years since she’d disappeared, Danny’s father Joe had never given up. He’d chased down every lead, no matter how thin, entertained every possible theory of how she was spending her time, no matter how ridiculous. But now everyone, including Joe, had to face the hard fist of reality. She wasn’t living in some exotic country with a lover. She hadn’t changed her name and started a new family in Montana. She wasn’t tooling around the island paradise of Bali.

  Anne Taggart was dead.

  Whatever infinitesimal shred of optimism that might still have existed in Danny’s mind disappeared the moment he walked into his father’s living room thirty minutes later. One look at his brother Ethan’s grim face as he sat, tight lipped on the couch next to his father said it all. Still, he needed to hear it, loud and clear, on the record.

  “So the DNA was a match?” he asked.

  Ethan met his gaze, his blue eyes flashing in irritation at Danny’s usual bull in the china shop approach. But Danny didn’t have it in him to soften his style or ease into it. Blunt, hard, truth was the only way he was going to make it through this. “Yeah. DeLuca called a little while ago with results from the lab.”

  Danny’s vision fractured for a second as he took it in. He’d been certain of the truth as soon as Derek had called him, but bracing himself for this news was like trying to brace himself for a knife blow. It hit him just the same. Cold and sharp and slicing him to the quick.

  “I’m so sorry, Danny,” a female voice, husky with tears, penetrated the high pitched buzz in his head.

  He turned and looked at Toni Crawford who was sitting to Ethan’s left on the couch. Toni was Ethan’s girlfriend and Gemini’s resident tech head. Danny liked Toni for her sharp mind and cool, logical approach—not to mention it was fun to see Ethan panting after a woman instead of the other way around for a change. But this morning her eyes were bloodshot behind her glasses as she dabbed her eyes and nose with a Kleenex with one hand and clutched Ethan’s fingers with the other.

  But that was nothing compared to Joe. Danny’s stomach twisted as he saw his strong, robust father, slumped on the couch on the other side of Ethan, tired, weak, and wasted. He’d aged a decade in the nearly six weeks since the bodies had first been found and they all faced the possibility that one of them might be Anne.

  Guilt racked him as he sat down in a leather club chair across from the sofa. All the horrible things he’d said to his father, telling him he should forget about their mother and move the fuck on, stop chasing a w
oman who thought so little of all of them that she could take off without a backward look. Because that’s what it had looked like, that Anne Taggart, unhappy and unfulfilled in her marriage, had packed a bag, left her family behind, and covered her tracks so well they’d never found a trace.

  “The bitch is still haunting us,” he’d said when Detective DeLuca from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s office had tipped them off that one of the bodies was a possible match for Anne Taggart. Shortly after she’d disappeared she’d been spotted in the small town of La Honda, located in the surrounding coastal mountains. Danny had taken dark satisfaction from the news. Finally, he thought, a chance for closure. If they could confirm, once and for all what Danny had long believed—that Anne was dead—they could stop wasting their time and money chasing half baked leads that never led to anything but trouble. Danny had a recently healed broken nose and dislocated shoulder to prove it.

  But when he’d imagined finally learning the truth, finally getting closure, he hadn’t taken pain into account—his own, his brothers’ and especially his father’s. He hadn’t anticipated the toll the past several weeks would take on his father, draining him of strength and purpose.

  Joe didn’t say anything, just stared at some point past Danny’s shoulder, the gray eyes that matched Danny’s dull and flat behind the lenses of his glasses.

  Danny bowed his head, fighting back the sting of tears, pushing away the guilt as he realized that while he was blaming his mother, cursing her for walking out on them, she’d been buried in a hillside less than fifty miles away.

  Don’t forget, she took off with a suitcase full of clothes and over five thousand in cash. She still ran, she just didn’t get all that far.

  Danny seized at the thought, using it to chase away the guilt, to chase away the grief. Still, another voice nagged at him, reminding him that whether she left them or not, Anne was still his mother. And even if she left, she didn’t deserve to end up in a cold unmarked grave.

  Danny silenced the voice. He couldn’t give in to emotion now. Nothing would be accomplished by crying like a fucking girl. The best thing he could do was to find out the truth of how she and another woman ended up buried together in a densely forested hillside. Maybe that would make up in some small way for all of the shitty things he’d said and thought about his mother over the years.

  “Any closer to IDing the other body?”

  Ethan shook his head. “All they know is that she was young and had given birth at some point in her life.”

  Danny leaned against the chair’s padded back and closed his eyes. None of this made any sense. What the hell was their mother doing in a shallow grave with a teenage mother? Danny’s memories of his mother were of an unhappy, borderline alcoholic, frustrated with her marriage, a housewife who may or may not have been cheating on Joe at the time of her disappearance. But the police, and later they themselves, had pursued every lead and had never come up with anything. If she’d been cheating, no one knew with who. And if she did anything with her time other than have long lunches and playing the occasional tennis game, none of her friends knew anything about it.

  Derek walked into the room with a carafe of coffee, followed by his girlfriend, Alyssa who had six coffee mugs hooked on her fingers. Derek set the coffee on the table in front of Joe, and Danny stood to accept his brother’s swift, brutal hug. Before he could sit back down his breath whooshed from his chest as a small, warm body hit him head on. “I’m so sorry, Danny,” Alyssa said as she wrapped her arms around his waist. She radiated warmth like a tiny sun, and Danny found himself hugging her back, absorbing her heat, though it didn’t make a dent in the icy chill frosting his blood.

  Danny never would have pegged Alyssa Miles, one of America’s most famous for nothing celebutantes, as the woman for a hard-hearted bastard like Derek, but she’d surprised the hell out of them all. She was about a hundred times smarter and kinder than the press ever gave her credit for, and Derek would walk through the gates of hell to keep her safe. She pulled away from Danny and went to sit next to Derek on the love seat. As Derek curved his arm around her, his whole body seemed to sigh with relief. As though, regardless of all the shit flying around them, Alyssa’s presence provided some measure of peace.

  Something tasting faintly of jealousy rose in his throat as he looked at his brothers, taking comfort in their women, knowing no matter how much shittier things got, they’d go home and fall into bed with the beautiful women who loved them.

  He shoved the thought aside, not about to let grief turn him all sentimental. He focused instead on his father, his weathered, wasted countenance. This was the face of love Danny knew. Bitter. Disillusioned. Danny learned that lesson early and hard, and unlike his father, kept himself from succumbing to the hell that came from needing a woman to make his life worth living.

  “Dead,” Joe whispered, the first words he’d spoken since Danny arrived. “All this time, she’s been dead. And we’ll probably never know what happened.”

  Danny had never heard his father sound like that, so defeated, so exhausted. It sent a shot of panic down his spine.

  In eighteen years, Joe had never wavered from his cause. He’d taken the steely determination and resourcefulness that defined his military career and later his career in investment banking and focused it on his search for his wife. Even in her absence, Anne had given Joe Taggart’s life purpose. Through everything, through all the years, Joe loved her. All he wanted was to bring her back so he could prove that to her once and for all. Danny didn’t understand it, and Anne’s death didn’t change the fact that she left them.

  But he needed to wipe that look off his father’s face, needed to obliterate the defeated slope in his shoulders. “We’re going to find out what happened, Dad, I swear. I know I can’t bring her back to you, but I promise you I’ll find out the truth about what happened to Mom.”

  Too bad he didn’t have a fucking clue where to start.

  “This is the last of it.”

  Caroline Medford stepped forward and took the box from her stepdaughter, staggering a bit as she absorbed its weight.

  “Sorry, I should have warned you,” Kate laughed and blew a thick red curl out of her face.

  “What’s in here, anyway?” Caroline braced the box against her hips and skirted her car to get to the door of the storage area under the house.

  “Books,” Kate answered. “Actually, I think that one might have been Dad’s and somehow got mixed in with my stuff when Mikey and I moved.”

  Caroline immediately went on high alert. “Are you sure it’s just books?”

  Kate had ducked out of the storage space and back into the garage. “Michael, what are you doing? Come out where I can see you.”

  Kate’s four-year-old son, Michael, popped his head around Caroline’s silver Mercedes which took up most of the garage. His big blue eyes stood out in stark contrast to his dark auburn hair and pale skin, made even paler by the grayish light of the overcast day. “I’m just looking at this shovel Mommy,” he replied and waved a gardening trowel dangerously close to the side of Caroline’s car.

  Kate leaped over and stayed his hand. “Let’s watch how close we get to Aunt Caro’s car. We don’t want to scratch it.”

  “I’m not scratching Aunt Caro’s car,” he said, “I just want to dig with this cool shovel.”

  Caroline felt a smile stretch her lips at Mikey’s pronunciation. He still hadn’t quite mastered his “r” so her name came out “Aunt Cawo.” They’d come up with the nickname right after Kate had him, deciding that at only ten years Kate’s senior, Caroline wasn’t exactly grandmother material.

  Although these days, Caroline felt about a hundred years older than her thirty-four years.

  The smile vanished as quickly as it appeared, as though her cheek muscles, so unfamiliar with the motion over the past several months, couldn’t hold it for more than a few seconds.

  “Mikey, honey,” Caroline called, “why don’t you go use the shovel in t
he planter right outside. Maybe you’ll find some buried treasure.” Another stiff smile broke free at Mikey’s exclamation of how cool that sounded.

  So what if he dug up all her daffodil bulbs? It was worth it to experience that kind of pure, simple joy, even vicariously. And besides, one way or another, Caroline doubted she’d be in this house next year to appreciate them.

  Satisfied that Mikey was occupied for the time being, Kate ducked back into the storage space. The single bare bulb cast shadows over the custom-made shelving unit that held boxes of clothing, books, and unused suitcases. An old metal file cabinet that contained decades of Caroline’s late husband’s financial documents was tucked into a corner. Caroline knew the contents of every single box, bag and drawer, because she’d been through every shred of paper and clothing in the past six months, looking for something, anything, that would help her find the truth about what had happened to James.

  “Sorry, you asked me something before,” Kate finished with a wave and an eyeroll in Michael’s general direction.

  “Oh, I just asked if there was anything interesting in the box,” Caroline said, trying to keep her tone casual, trying to quell the shred of hope that never failed to raise its ignorant head whenever she came across something, anything, that might help her case.

  The grim set to Kate’s full mouth said it all. “It’s just books, Caroline, I checked. You can look yourself, but I don’t think you’ll find anything.”

  Caroline nodded, but kept the box near the front of Kate’s growing pile so she could look through it, just in case.

  “So how is everything going?” Kate asked. “You look a lot better than the last time I saw you.”

  Caroline huffed out a laugh as she heaved a box of sweaters onto one of the shelves that lined the space. “I should hope so, considering the last time you saw me I just got out of jail.” As soon as she’d been released two months ago, she’d made a beeline for her favorite salon and gotten a cut, color, eyebrow wax, bikini wax, a manicure, and a pedicure.

  It would have been heaven had she not had to endure the suspicious looks of the other women as they whispered about her behind their impeccably manicured hands. Caroline had provided enough speculation and gossip when she’d married James ten years ago and moved to his beautiful house in the wealthy enclave of Piedmont, California.

 
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