* * * *
“So,” Nic begins about five minutes away from the townhouse. “Tell me about Asher.”
“Well, he has dark hair, gorgeous eyes. He’s tall, not quite as tall as Matt. His arms are To. Die. For. Seriously, he’s got muscles on his arms for days.”
“Okay, tell me about you and Asher.”
I glance at her, to find her smiling at me. “Well, I’m completely in love with him.”
I blink and change lanes.
“That obvious, huh?”
“Oh yeah.” Nic nods. “What do you love about him?”
“His arms,” I reply immediately and then sober as a flood of responses fill my head. “The way he holds me. His arms are hot, but they’re also strong and when he holds me, it’s the safest I’ve ever felt.” I turn down my street. “His laugh. Sharing his coffee with me in the morning. The way he touches my face when he kisses me. How much he loves his daughter, and how he parents her.”
“That’s a lot.”
“And it’s only the beginning,” I reply honestly. “There’s so much to love about him.” I pull to a stop, put the car in park, and turn to my new friend.
“You’re right.” Nic smiles reassuringly. “There is a lot to love about him, and I’m very glad that you see that. How did you meet?”
“On an airplane last summer.” I grin, cut the engine, and turn to look at Nic. “I fell in his lap.”
“In his lap?” She giggles. “Do tell.”
“Well, we had arrived here, and I was standing, trying to get my bag from the overhead compartment, and this man pushed me, sending me right into Asher’s lap.” I worry my bottom lip between my teeth. “I noticed his arms then, too. He laughed, planted his hands on my hips, and helped me up.”
“Hot,” Nic says and waves her hand over her face.
“So hot,” I agree. “Was that a test?”
“Did I pass?”
“With flying colors. You’re good for him. I see changes in him, all for the better. His eyes aren’t sad anymore.” Her own eyes fill with tears as she thinks. “And when he looks at you, he lights up. It’s beautiful, and I’m happy for both of you.”
“Thank you.” Her words have lit me up inside. “I’ll be back in a few.”
“I’ll be here,” she says and pulls her phone out of her bag. “I’ll just text my sister-in-law, Brynna, and let her know we arrived safely.”
“Great.” I jog up the steps to my apartment and let myself in. It’s strange to be here. It almost doesn’t feel like mine anymore. It smells musty, the way a place does when you’ve been on an extended vacation.
I walk back to the bedroom, grab the dress and underwear from my closet, and am about to change when I hear footsteps behind me.
“You can make yourself at home. I wouldn’t want to wait in the car either. It’s hot out there. I’ll be right out.”
I spin, shocked that it isn’t Nic that’s let herself into my apartment, but Colin from class.
“Colin? What are you doing in here?”
“Oh, you didn’t hear me knock? I’m sorry.” He looks nervous and apologetic, so I smile reassuringly.
“It’s okay, but what can I help you with? I’m on my way out.”
“Oh, I just have a couple questions about class.”
I frown at him, alarm bells going off like crazy. “You can ask me all the questions you want on Monday. I’d like for you to leave, please.”
His face transforms from apologetic and nervous to simply…evil. A slow grin spreads over his face. His eyes grow cold.
“I’m not leaving, Lila.”
“What the hell is this, Colin?”
“Don’t you remember?” He’s circling me now, cracking his knuckles almost absentmindedly. “I have a date tonight.”
“Yes, with the guy from Starbucks.”
He nods, that creepy smile still on his face. “No. With you.”
My heart kicks up into overtime, and a cold sweat breaks out over my skin. Colin is the killer!
“Colin, I don’t know what you want, but I’m quite sure we can talk about this.”
“Oh, we’re going to talk about it. We’re going to do a lot of talking, actually.” He’s advancing on me. My mind is racing, trying to figure out how to get past him, out of this room and outside. “You’re going to get really tired of talking. And then I’m going to cut your tongue out of your pretty little mouth.”
“What?” I can’t breathe. I can’t think. “I’m not going anywhere with you, Colin. And my boyfriend knows where I am.”
He laughs, the sound of it raking down my spine, making me want to throw up.
“You don’t have to go willingly, Lila.” I try to run, but he grabs my arm, yanks me against him, and hits me on the head with something hard, making me black out cold.
“So, things are going well with Lila.” Matt sips his soda and watches me across the table of the crowded restaurant. I check my watch for the fifteenth time. The girls should be here by now.
“They are.” I smirk. “Are we going to get all girlie and talk about our feelings now?”
“I like her,” he says. “She’s good for you.”
She’s fucking amazing.
“Am I supposed to feel guilty, man?” I ask and glance out the window to the busy French Quarter.
“For moving on. For falling in love again. I loved Missy, you know I did. And it killed me when she died.” If it weren’t for Casey, I don’t know how I would have survived losing her.
“Missy would be pissed that you’re even thinking about feeling guilty,” Matt replies. “Asher, you didn’t die. It’s okay to move on and live your life.”
“Missy would be pissed,” I agree with a laugh.
“What does Casey think of her?”
My heart softens as I think of how great Lila is with my daughter. “She loves her. They have a good time together. And Lila is so patient with her. And she listens, you know? She doesn’t brush Casey off.”
“I’m happy for you, friend.”
“Yeah, thanks. How is the family?”
“They’re all crazy,” Matt replies with a laugh. “There are so many of us now, when we get together it’s absolute chaos.”
“And you wouldn’t have it any other way,” I reply dryly.
Matt’s phone rings. “Hey, little one. Are you on your way?”
He frowns, catches my eye, then puts the call on speaker and sets the phone on the table. “Okay, you’re on speaker. What’s going on?”
“Lila was gone longer than I thought she would be,” Nic says, her voice shaky, and my entire body goes cold. “I went up to see what the hold up was, and she’s not here.”
“What do you mean she’s not there?” I ask, immediately throwing bills on the table for our drinks and heading for the door.
“She’s gone. Her door was wide open and she’s not here.”
“Don’t touch anything, Nic,” Matt says, right behind me, racing to the car. “We’re on our way. Go back to the car and lock the doors.”
“I’m sorry,” she says with tears in her voice.
“It’s going to be okay,” Matt assures her as I start the car and speed into traffic, headed to Lila’s. I pull my own phone out and call Jordan.
“He’s got Lila.” My heart stops, saying the words out loud. “He took her from her apartment. I’m on my way there now.”
“I’ll be there in ten.”
She hangs up and I immediately call dispatch. “This is Lieutenant Asher Smith. I have a possible abduction, connected to an ongoing case, at 4268 Tulane Avenue. I need all available units to respond.”
“Copy that, Lieutenant,” Dispatch responds. “Sending all available units.”
I hang up and swear ripely.
“We’re going to find her,” Matt says calmly, but his hands are in fists. I know he’s as worried as I am. “Walk me through it.”
I spend the ten minutes to Lila’s apartment filling Matt in on the specifics of the case. Fuck protocol.
Lila’s life is at stake.
I pull into the parking lot, next to Lila’s car. Nic rushes to Matt and hugs him tightly.
“I’m so sorry. She was gone for like twenty minutes, and I thought I should check. I should have gone in with her.”
“No, then we might be looking for both of you.” Matt holds her face and looks her in the eyes intently. “I want you to take Lila’s car and go to Asher’s.”
“I should stay and help—”
“That was not a question, Nicole.” Matt’s voice is hard. “I want you out of here.”
“My address is in the GPS,” I tell her as I run past and up the stairs to Lila’s apartment. The door is still standing open. I search each room, praying that Nic’s wrong and she really is here, but the rooms are empty.