November in Chicago was guaranteed to be cold, so she grabbed her warm jacket and stuffed one of her hoodies in her bag. She threw in her cell phone and running shoes along with an extra water bottle, grabbed her keys, and strode out of her dorm room.
“Miss Carrington?” A large man, well over six feet, pushed away from the wall and towered above her. He smiled, and straight white teeth gleamed through full lips. His Latino charm covered her like a warm blanket, and the heat in his gaze made her heart race.
Victoria stalled, unable to help her attraction to the man. Trying to keep her voice even, she said, “Agent Arellano. How are you?” She turned her head, to find the familiar sight of his shorter, stockier partner standing by the dorm building’s front door. “I see you brought Agent Yonko with you. What a lovely surprise! Have you been waiting outside my room the entire time?”
Agent Benjamin Arellano let out a quiet sigh. “It’s for your protection, ma’am.”
Victoria and Ben had had this conversation several times in the past, and Victoria was getting a little irritated with his habit of ignoring her assurances, choosing to listen to the long arm of her family. Truth be told, she was irritated with his pension to do his job, rather than forget about it and take her out. He’d mentioned his policy not to mix business with pleasure, and she’d just as soon forget the business part of this whole debacle and move straight to the pleasure.
“Bless your heart. You certainly know how to protect a girl.” She placed her hand over her breast, but kept walking. “I feel so safe.”
Ben captured her arm. “I’m sorry to disturb you, Miss Carrington, but we have a few additional questions. A possible suspect.”
Victoria whipped around, momentarily stunned by the kindness in his chocolate brown eyes. Shaking off her attraction, she asked, “Suspect?”
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am, a person of interest.”
Victoria stepped closer. “Do you think Hannah was kidnapped?”
“We’re looking at every angle.” The agent nodded to his partner in silent direction, and waited for him to leave the hallway.
As soon as she heard the door click closed, Victoria stepped closer to him. “Ben,” she whispered, “do you really think this suspect would come after me?”
His eyes softened, even if his expression didn’t. “The mayor doesn’t want to take any chances.”
Daddy’s connections reach all the way to Chicago, it seems.
Victoria dragged her teeth over her lower lip. “Oh, really? His concern wouldn’t have anything to do with pressure from my family, would it?”
“Victoria, this is serious.”
Crossing her arms, she frowned in response. “Ben, you can’t let my family run roughshod over you! I’m perfectly fine. I haven’t noticed anyone lurking around, and no one creepy has approached me.”
Ben gently squeezed her elbow. “The person may not appear to be anything but pleasant. Your parents are concerned that this is dealt with quickly.”
Victoria ran her hands through her hair with a sigh. “Look, the reason Mama wants this dealt with so quickly, is because she wants it out of the news. Specifically, the family name out the news. My well-being is secondary.”
Ben’s eyes widened. “That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?”
A derisive snort escaped. “No, just sadly realistic.”
Feeling a threat to her sanity if she didn’t distance herself from her family, Victoria had enrolled at DePaul, hoping the move would keep the long arm of the Carrington family from strangling her. However, something always seemed to interfere with her plans.
Placing her hand on his arm, she smiled. “Look, you’ve been more than an FBI agent, and I appreciate your friendship, but I have clients waiting for me and I’m already late. Could you perhaps meet me at the studio in two hours?”
She turned and moved down the hall, Ben followed. “Do you think that’s wise?”
Victoria waved her hand dismissively. “The building’s perfectly safe, Ben.”
“The last place Hannah was seen feels safe to you?”
Victoria stopped and faced him. “Okay, point taken. But this job is important for me. What if I promise to call you if I see or hear anything strange?”
“Okay, Victoria. But why don’t I take you to dinner tonight and we can talk about it more?”
Victoria raised an eyebrow. “What about your policy?”
Ben grinned. “I’m willing to make an exception.”
“Ben, we got a call,” Agent Yonko made the statement as he walked back into the hall.
Ben raised his chin. “Thanks.”
“Agent?” Victoria went back to their professional dialogue, but added in a whisper, “Ben, please.”
“Yes, dinner will work.”
Ben nodded. “Yes, Miss Carrington, that would be fine.”
Victoria grinned. “Great, I’ll talk to you later—I’m sure.”
Pushing open the main door to the dorm, she hit the remote on her car keys as she walked down the front steps. Her silver BMW flashed its lights as the doors unlocked in front of her. Not waiting for Ben to change his mind, she took off.
By the time Victoria walked through the doors of her studio, she was well past frustrated. Over twenty minutes late, she arrived to find a note taped to the door. Her clients had decided not to wait. Growling, she tore the note in half, unlocked her door, and threw it open.
All the scrutiny surrounding Hannah’s disappearance was getting to her and she had no one to lean on. Her family was absolutely no help. The only daughter of a wealthy Kentucky surgeon and socialite mother, Victoria was often forced to participate in events that would showcase her beauty and then subjected to ridicule from her mother if she complained. The fact that the authorities were even questioning her about Hannah’s disappearance brought attention her family would rather not have, even though Victoria had done nothing wrong.
Ben had become a person she felt comfortable with, even if they couldn’t relax completely. His behavior had to be professional at all times. They had moments of frank conversation, but it was usually interrupted, which annoyed Victoria. Tall and muscular, the fact the man carried a gun only added to his bad-boy image, and Victoria wanted this mess over so that she could get to know him better.
She was certain he felt the same way but knew he would never say anything until the mystery was solved. Four disappearances in less than two years and one a decade ago still unsolved, meant the FBI was interested—very interested. Today’s offer to take her to dinner was a nice surprise, and she couldn’t wait to spend time with him.
Since her clients were gone, she picked up an old roll of film and locked herself in her darkroom. Victoria was a purist, and although she owned several high-end Cannon digital cameras and complementary L-series lenses, she kept her film camera for specialty shoots. She took her time developing the photos she’d shot of Hannah the day before her disappearance. The process of developing film was cathartic for her, and she enjoyed standing in front of buckets of solution, rather than sitting at her computer tweaking with PhotoShop.
One photo in particular caught her eye and she held it up with a smile. Hannah didn’t know Victoria had been shooting her, but she caught Hannah laughing and there had been a soft, sudden breeze that brushed her hair from her face as she gazed skyward, a look of pure abandon on her beautiful face.
I miss you, HoBo. Where are you?
Ignoring the tinkling of her cell phone sounding from the other room, she slipped her tweezers into the final solution. Grasping the corner of her photo paper, she scowled when she found the photo she pulled out was overdeveloped.
As soon as it was safe to open the room to light, she tidied her studio and decided to call it a day. Flipping her cell phone open, she saw a missed call from her brother, Preston, so she dialed the number as she stepped into the hallway, locked her door, and moved down the hall.
Pausing briefly when she heard Preston’s voicemail, she left him a quick message and then threw her phone back in her bag. Popping a piece of gum in her mouth, she made her way toward the front door of the building, passing by the stairwell door as she shoved the gum wrapper in her pocket. A clang in the stairwell raised the hair on the back of her neck. She pushed open the door and poked her head inside.
“Hello?” Hearing the noise again, Victoria yelled, “Is anyone there?” Moving farther into the stairwell, she stretched her leg, doing her best to keep her foot lodged in the doorway.
If she moved her foot, the door would close and lock and when that happened, the only way out was to walk upstairs and down the other side of the building. Quite frankly, she couldn’t be bothered going through the trouble.
She would have to.
She lost her footing and in an effort to grab the handrail, her foot slipped from the door. It closed and locked. “Shoot!” she grumbled as she stomped up the stairs, muttering irritably. “Today just isn’t my day.”
Reaching the top, she yanked the door open and stopped cold. Her breath coming in short bursts, Victoria stared at the scene before her. Instead of a storeroom full of dusty boxes and rickety metal shelves, she saw a perfect replica of a Victorian Era parlor, almost as though it were a movie set on a sound stage.
“Wow.” She slowly wandered the room, her fingers brushing across the deep green horsehair sofa facing a large fireplace. On one wall was a painting of a young man with dark hair, dressed in black with a crisp white ascot. His eyes, dark green and shining like emeralds, seemed to follow her as she wandered the room.
In the corner, towards the back of the room, stood a small, round table draped in a dark burgundy silk tablecloth topped by a doily of ivory lace. The table was heavily laden with trinkets and assorted picture frames; the silver glint of one in particular drew Victoria's attention. Slowly, as if bewitched, she walked across the oriental carpet and picked up the frame.
She stared at the small hand-tinted ambrotype of a soldier and studied the man’s features, mesmerized by his eyes. She glanced up at the painting hanging on the wall. There was no doubt they were related in some way. Perhaps brothers? Or cousins?
She traced the strong lines of his jaw, her touch briefly lingering on his full lips. From the corner of her eye, she noticed something discarded on the floor and bent down for a closer look. She gasped. Her stomach rolled as she stared at the fragile paua shell bracelet that belonged to her friend. It had been a gift from Hannah’s mother in New Zealand, and Hannah often complained about the flimsy clasp, but regardless, she was never without it. Victoria reached for the bracelet then stopped; it might be evidence. Mouth dry and limbs shaking, she rose and reached for her phone. She dialed Ben’s cell and tried to control her racing heart.
Closing her eyes, she willed Ben to pick up. She pulled out the gum wrapper she’d slipped in her pocket earlier and reached down to cover and gently lift the bracelet from the floor.
Without warning, the acrid smell of smoke reached her nose. She opened her eyes and swallowed hard. Instead of the Victorian parlor walls, she was staring at trees; miles and miles of trees. She whirled around. She took in the sofa, portrait, and fireplace. Great, the stress had finally made her crack. She shook her head and slowly turned around, praying her mind and the room would return to normal.
A sob escaped her throat as the forest filled her vision. The thick smoke burned her nose and clouded her vision. She raised a trembling hand to cover her nose and mouth and took an involuntary step forward. Vertigo assailed her. The world in front of her tilted, the trees becoming blurred, and twisted shapes formed before her eyes. She cried out as her legs gave way beneath her and everything went black.
* * *
Weldon Railroad, Virginia
Dawn approached and Quincy Butler awoke hungry and exhausted—again.
Currently serving under Major General Gouverneur K. Warren in the Union Army, he was on special assignment for the V Corps and had spent the last two days in a bitter fight. Ulysses Grant had ordered an assault against the Weldon Railroad while the II Corps attacked Deep Bottom. Since enlisting in Company A, 1st Regiment Maryland Heavy Artillery, Quincy had moved quickly up the ranks to Sergeant First Class and was chosen to take a small group of men to assist Warren.
The morning was particularly humid and Quincy’s uniform, already ragged and worn, stuck to his body. His Union-issued boots had a hole in the right foot and a loose heel on the left. To say he was uncomfortable was an understatement.
“Quinn?” A young, scrawny private, close enough for Quincy to see his pockmarked skin despite the darkness, whispered to him.
Quincy glanced to his left. “Yes, Harry?”
“When we get out of here, I want food and a whore.”
“I’ll join you for that meal, Harry.” Quincy sent him a look of mild reprimand. “You’re on your own for the other.”
The rest of the men laughed.
Shifting from one foot to the other, Harry asked, “Did you send a missive to your brother?”
Quincy shook his head. “No.”
“Why not? He can help us with supplies. We’re starving out here.”
Quincy’s older brother, Christopher, was part of President Lincoln’s war cabinet.
“Because my brother has enough to concern himself with. I’d rather he not have to worry about a bunch of whiny soldiers crying for their mamas.”
His second in command, Marcus Martin, shot Quincy a smirk. Taller than Quincy, blond hair and dark brown eyes, the man was used to getting his way using plain old charm, but this time, Quincy raised an eyebrow in silent retribution. Marcus had just made the same request the day before, albeit away from the rest of the men.
“I still say he could send us some better provisions,” Harry grumbled.
The men were punchy. Since their arrival to Virginia, they hadn’t had a decent meal, and the hardtack that had sustained them so far was infested with maggots. Quincy thought of Nanny’s cooking back home in Maryland, but that only made his hunger worse, and his stomach grumbled in protest.
“I’ll send the request next week, Harry.” Quincy sighed. “Will that suffice?”
Harry nodded, a smile forming on his thin lips. “Yes sir.”
Quincy stared out over the empty battlefield, letting his thoughts wander homeward but was shaken from his memories by shouts coming from Major General Warren. It was five a.m. and it was time to move.
“Look alive, men,” Marcus called.
The men counterattacked and by nightfall retook most of the ground lost during the early afternoon fighting. The lull, however, would be fleeting, and even though they gained much ground, Quincy knew they had to be on alert.
Separating from his unit, Quincy moved to the west. All too quickly, he was forced to take cover from enemy fire, his unit several yards away from him across the valley.
“Stay with the men, Marcus, and stay low.” All further conversation halted as the firing stopped for a few tense moments. Quincy chose to stay behind the cover of the trees rather than try to get to his men. He knew this was simply a brief calm before the storm but was confident the fighting wouldn’t begin again for a few hours.
* * *
“Umph!” Victoria landed on hard, dry ground.
Opening her eyes, she saw a bright blue moon, glowing with a clarity not usually seen in the smog-laden skies of Chicago, and thought how unnaturally humid the weather was for November.
What am I doing outside?
Putting her hand to her forehead, she winced when metal hit her eyelid. She still gripped Hannah’s bracelet in her hand. Limiting her movement in case she was hurt, she tried to make sense of what was going on. She stared at the sky and tried to think back. Her last coherent thought was of standing in the attic of her building, gazing at an old-fashioned photograph.
I walked up the stairs, looked at the photo...then, what? Think, Victoria!
From her position on her back, she did a quick check of her extremities. All seemed unharmed.
Did I hit my head?
Upon further inspection, she didn’t feel a goose egg or have a headache, so she sat up and slipped the jewelry into the pocket of her jeans. Despite the fact she had a thin shirt on, it was long-sleeved and added to the heat. Pushing the sleeves up as far as they could go, she took a minute to look around. Surrounded by trees, Victoria didn’t understand what she was looking at. She blew a breath into her palm and sniffed.
Was I drinking and don’t remember?
Smelling nothing other than the minty scent of the gum she’d been chewing before she was locked in the stairwell, she took a deep breath and opened her bag. Grabbing her bottled water, she took a swig and then dug for her phone as she sat up on her knees.
Did I have an accident?
She rechecked her clothing, but found no evidence of blood, and she really did feel perfectly fine, so she quickly dismissed the thought. She checked her phone but couldn’t see any bars and sighed in frustration.
The smell of smoke overwhelmed her, but that confused her even more, as she couldn’t fathom why anyone would light a fire in this heat.
November isn’t supposed to be this warm! This is air conditioning weather. Not light a fire, get cozy, and make s’mores weather.
Victoria chuckled at her absurd thoughts. She just needed to get back to her studio and figure out where her missing hours had gone. As she stood, she saw the silhouette of a man hunkered down behind a small grove of trees and rocks. He turned slightly and she noticed he had what looked like a large rifle.
Her heart raced as she tried to covertly step behind one of the trees in an attempt to hide. Her hands shook and she bit her lip, knowing she probably wasn’t quick enough. Continuing to chew nervously on her lower lip, she squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath. That’s when she heard him.
“Who’s there?” a deep voice broke through the dark.
“Come out, or I’ll shoot.”
Sidling from her relative cover, Victoria moved into view, and when she noticed the man lift his gun, she raised her hands in surrender.
“You’re a woman!” Relaxing his stance but keeping his gun raised, the man made the blatant observation and then added, “In men’s clothes!”
Victoria stood, shaking with fear and staring at the very large, very strangely dressed man. Walking slowly toward her, he demanded, “Who are you?”