Still The One (Family Stone #4 Jack)(6)

By: Lisa Hughey

At twenty-three, she’d basically been in isolation for one third of her lifetime.

The psychological impact of her imprisonment would likely take years of therapy to eradicate. And as much as it broke Bliss’s heart, she wasn’t sure that Maria would ever be able to integrate back into society. The isolation Maria had endured would haunt her forever. Which had made the discovery of her disappearance a triple shock. Maria went into sensory overload with minor stimulation from outdoor light and sound. How was she going to handle the stress of being out in the world alone? She needed protection from the basic triggers of everyday life.

The case had been a challenge from start to finish. And now Maria was out there somewhere. Unprotected, alone, and vulnerable. Bliss was worried sick about her.

“The idea was to place her near farms. The smells, the sounds, even the quiet is more similar to the Watsonville/ Salinas area than say, Texas.” She refused to be defensive about her choices regarding Maria. But since Maria disappeared, Bliss had been second guessing every decision she’d made to keep Maria safe.

She realized maybe she hadn’t completely lost the defensive in her tone when Jack’s pitch black eyebrows rose. The scar crease created an interesting arch to his right brow.

“Okay.” Jack shrugged. “Makes sense. But if she was relocated to Iowa, why did you have me fly here first?” Jack continued to skim through the file, looking for something, anything that would give them a lead on where Maria Torres might have gone.

“Several reasons,” Jillian clipped out. “One, we wanted to makes sure you weren’t followed. All we need is Fernandez getting wind of your involvement and tailing you here.”

Jack started to protest, but Jill kept going. “He already knows that Maria escaped. He would have to reason that she had help when she didn’t surface anywhere in California. And there were only a few trusted people involved in her depositions, but if there was even a whisper of scandal, and if somehow Fernandez connected her with you and your company, we didn’t want the trail to lead straight to Iowa in case she is still there somewhere.”

Jack stiffened. Bliss had predicted that he would be unhappy with Jill’s reasons for having him come here.

She’d also told Jill to tell the truth. Jack had an aversion to lies. Jack had never said why he hated lying so much but she knew from past experience that Jack would rather have the unvarnished, uncomfortable truth than a sugar-coated lie.

Bliss smiled at Jill and encouraged her to keep going.

The delay amounted to about seven hours but now wasn’t the time to cut corners. Fernandez had survived for years without detection. They had to take every precaution to keep Maria safe.

“And second?” he asked stiffly.

“We wanted to make sure you have Maria’s best interests at heart.”

Jack’s chest broadened and his eyes narrowed. He shot a blistering glance at Bliss. “Was that your idea?” The words were gritted out through clenched teeth.

Bliss wasn’t about to answer that question. Damn him. We’ve met?

Jill tried to draw Jack’s attention back to her, but he didn’t look away from Bliss. So finally Bliss answered carefully, “Our first priority has to be to our clients.”

Which was no answer at all. But Jack’s anger seemed to calm at her words as if he understood the finer points of protecting the innocent.

Jack certainly understood their motivation. Protecting clients. Protecting the innocent. He would want the same.

Judge Adams, Marsh Adams’ father, had asked for Jack specifically to help track and recover Maria Torres with the Adams-Larsen team. Fortunately, before he flew out here, he’d been apprised by Jillian Larsen that the employee who arranged Maria’s new life, the one who would be assisting in the recovery, was Bliss Lee. Jack’s heart had nearly stopped. There couldn’t be more than one Bliss Lee in the world. Half Irish, half Chinese, all female.

Jack really didn’t fucking want to be here. But he’d known when Stone Consulting had an issue with the CIA and he’d used a favor from Judge Adams that he would owe the judge for taking care of it. He just hadn’t thought payback would come so soon or bring up a painful, visual reminder of a time he’d tried like hell to erase from his memory banks.

Jack tried to concentrate on the file. Tried to keep his attention on the paper and words. Tried to hold on to the anger that had sustained him through the plane trip to DC. He resolutely ignored the incredible and compelling draw of Bliss.

She looked...different.

Older, of course, but in a good way. Her face had lost the slightly rounded look of youth and emphasized her Chinese heritage in the tilt of her pale, honey brown eyes, aristocratic cheekbones, strong nose, and wide, unsmiling mouth.

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