Lost Then Found is the first book in my New Beginnings series. In this story skip-tracer Renee Stratford-Knight’s life plan changed upon her sister’s murder. Instead of using her skills to find people, Renee opened New Beginnings a firm specializing in “vanishing” abused women. Now her ex-husband – and former business partner – Jonas Knight reenters her life asking about her most vulnerable client.
Jonas knows his ex-wife helped embezzler Gina Howard elude the authorities and intends to bring the young woman to justice. When Renee is threatened, Jonas grows suspicious of his client’s reason for finding his niece.
In order to uncover the secret a teenager girl disappeared to keep, and a killer wants silenced, Jonas and Renee must struggle through distrust and the pain of their pasts to work together to save the life of teenage girl – and their own
Renee Stratford-Knight pressed all six of the floor buttons but slipped out at the second floor, using the stairs to continue to the third floor. Even though her mind screamed run, she refused to abandon protocol and skip the arriving home routine. Enter the apartment staged as her home. Collect the mail. Check voice messages. Cook something. Run the water.
Failure to play the game put the women she helped in jeopardy. The world needed to believe office manager Renee Stratford-Knight lived in the building. That appearance allowed Renee Knight, guardian of abused women and children, to continue her calling of vanishing the hopeless to give them a new start in life. Keeping her true self off the grid was important to ensure the whereabouts of the women she relocated remained private.
What did Jonas want? Aged emotions bubbled in her chest, a mixture of sadness and anger. Small pricks of pain wormed in her heart and threatened to bury themselves again. One decision eighteen months ago ended their marriage.
A sharp, heated feeling pushed at her chest as she walked up the last few steps and stopped at the third floor landing. Vanquish it, Lord. She placed her hands on the bar and rested her forehead on the metal door, fighting the hot tears building in her eyes. Bitterness and vengeance were once favored friends, and she no longer wanted those vice-filled emotions.
Renee had wearied of it and turned her life back over to God. She knew the anger in her heart killed her emotionally, as surely as Samuel Thorn had killed her sister Melody. With God’s strength and grace, she claimed victory over the horror dictating her life. When painful events defined a person’s existence, they became nothing more than the pain they carried. Good lost. Evil won.
Melody’s beautiful heart-shaped face and twinkling brown eyes flashed into her mind. A smile stretched her mouth, a gift. Before, remembering her younger sister brought Renee to her knees in grief and guilt.
Renee straightened and dried her tears. She pushed open the door and moved forward as it slammed against the wall. Why had Jonas shown up tonight? His skip tracing business focused on locating people for those seeking self-righteous vengeance. Justice, not mercy, prevailed in Jonas’ world. Was he once again trying to track down Priscilla Thorn for the tabloids?
Running her hands along the wooden door of the apartment, Renee checked for any mars to indicate someone tried to break in. Nothing. She slipped her key into the lock, twisted it, and opened it inch by inch. She listened for any sounds, took in a deep breath and tried to detect any unusual scents. Nothing.
Six months after Melody’s death, a news reporter decided to play paparazzi and dredged up the worst night of Renee’s life to splash it back onto the pages with an added twist. That time they wanted to focus on the woman who raised the murderer and not the woman who witnessed her sister’s murder. A print reporter hired Knight and Knight skip tracing firm to track down the anguished and terrified Priscilla Thorn.
Renee begged Jonas to turn down the job. The way her faith-filled parents had handled their grief encouraged Renee to release the need for retaliation and stop self-destructing her life and marriage. Jonas ignored her concerns and took the case. Renee took matters into her own hands and interfered in the case, helping the woman escape from the media and severing the last thread of trust between her and Jonas.
Renee stepped inside, closed the door, and secured it behind her. Bending down, she picked up a magazine, catalogs, and credit card bills delivered to the apartment. She flipped through them, plucked out the photography magazine, and tossed the bills and catalogs onto the dining room table.
For a few minutes, Renee puttered around the apartment to give it the lived in feel. She fried up a piece of fish and fries, a smell that lingered for days. A good choice in case the situation with Jonas caused her to stay away for a while.
Renee took her dinner into the bedroom and turned on the computer. Time to prove or disprove her ex-husband’s motive. Renee opened up a search engine and typed in Priscilla’s name, steeling herself for the renewed grief looking into the past caused. She scanned the entries. Nothing new. Renee typed in Samuel Thorn and hit enter.
Local Surgeon Kills Wife. Like always, the headline took her breath away. Her gaze settled on the second article, Samuel Thorn Pleads Guilty. The caption not quite stating the whole truth of the plea. Samuel claimed Melody started the argument and struck him first. When the jury’s faces expressed their disgust at the defense tactic, Samuel and his attorney changed up their argument and laid the burden of guilt on Jonas.
The accusation changed him. The confident, even-tempered, resilient man turned vengeful, cynical, and downhearted, turning away from her when she needed the strength and security of her husband.
Renee scanned the last few entries and checked the dates. Over the last few months, Samuel remained quiet instead of issuing another statement on how circumstances beyond his control caused him to kill his wife. With the murderer remaining silent, did the media hire Jonas to track down the mother?
She dumped the history on the computer then powered down the machine. Grabbing the dirty dishes, Renee made her way to the kitchen and washed them. She needed to head home before Alex started worrying and decided to storm the apartment building. Her younger brother had a hair-trigger anxiety complex when it came to her. The last time his actions almost caused a neighbor to call the police.
Renee locked the apartment up tight and took the stairs. Gripping the rail, she plodded down the steps, each step draining energy. The eventual battle with Jonas weighed down her spirit. She didn’t want to relive the painful moments of her life.
She stepped onto the ground floor, tugged open the door leading to the back parking lot and walked outside. A cold breeze played along her skin, drifting against her unprotected neck. The impulsive summer haircut she chose that winter over the hairdresser’s recommendations no longer symbolized independence to her but teenage rebellion.
She tugged up the small collar of her leather coat. “Showed him, didn’t I.”
Hands clapped. Renee halted under the dim lights of the outside doors. Her heart rate accelerated as she looked around the darkening area. Parked in the lot were three cars and a van. She swallowed hard and stared at the windows of the van, trying to make out any figures. Placing her hand into her front pocket, she pressed her thumb onto the keypad of her cell phone. She sent out a heads-up message to her brother.
Jonas stepped into the light, a sarcastic smile stretching across his face. Better to face a known enemy than an unknown one. She typed another message to her brother. False read. Lord, let that work to keep Alex at home rather than charging to the rescue.
“Your skills at deception have gotten better.” Jonas loomed over her.
“I learned from the best.” Regret tugged at her conscience as the words left her mouth. She pushed it away. If she allowed Jonas to get the upper hand, then she offered an opportunity for his words to steal away her confidence.
She tilted her head back and locked onto his storm-cloud gray eyes, standing in place even though her neck muscles ached. She promised herself not to ever allow a man to make her feel powerless. The streetlights allowed her to see her reflection in his eyes. As he studied her face, his gaze softened. He reached out, fingers lingering by her cheek.
The air between them crackled. A shiver raced through Renee and she fought the instinct to lean those few inches toward his touch. They were divorced. They no longer meant anything to each other. She drew back but not before awareness crept into his gaze. He knew. He sensed it.
Time to end the silent duel, and leave. Now. She held in a frustrated sigh as she asked the question Jonas silently demanded. “What do you want?”
“Gina Howard’s location.”
Renee kept her expression neutral even as her pulse hammered away, and sweat trickled down her back. Jonas hunted for her most vulnerable client. Why? She kept the question locked inside and asked another. “Who?”
“Gina Howard. The teenager who stole half-a-million dollars from her uncle. Where did you hide her?”
So, that’s what Eric Howard told people about his niece’s disappearance. “I have no idea where Gina is.”
Not quite a lie but not quite the truth. Renee and her team created a new identity for the abused and terrified young woman. Glory Thorn, not Gina Howard, existed.
“Yes, you do, Renee. You realize that hiding a fugitive is against the law.”
She tilted her head and smiled at him. “I know that. But it’s no concern to me since I’m not hiding a criminal.”
The muscle in his jaw twitched. Nothing irritated Jonas more than someone running a game on him. He’d take the challenge and battle for the win no matter the cost. Like he did with Samuel.
Renee swallowed hard and tried to block out the horrific night from so long … and also so soon ago. She crossed her arms and kept her gaze focused on his forehead. “Do you have a picture of this Gina Howard so I can keep an eye out for her? Since you’re accusing me of a crime, I’d like to see a copy of the police report.”
Jonas stepped closer. “The authorities are going to find out you helped her, Renee. Tell me where she is, and we can avoid the whole police business.”
“I don’t have any information for you.”
Jonas laughed. The deep rumble, once a delight, now caused her jaw to clench. “Still the same. Your choice of words always gave you away.” With each word, his tone dropped down until a smooth whisper rolled over her. “Renee, I came here to help you. Soon the authorities will breathe down that pretty neck of yours.”
Breath clogged her throat. Renee and her team at New Beginnings hid the abused and broken from those bent on destroying them. She didn’t want the authorities — or Jonas — prying into her business. Too many lives were at stake.
Headlights washed over them. Renee punched in the code to the back door and opened it, motioning for Jonas to go inside. “It’s Alex. Go. Please.”
He nodded and stepped into the building. “We’ll finish this discussion later.”
Renee’s heart accelerated. Was that a threat or a promise?