As I watched a speck of dust float in the air, a knock at the door made me jerk. The weight of existing pushed me down, but I forced myself to rise and see who’d come to interrupt my day of empty reflection.

Five years… gone. I scanned the framed pictures covering the back wall of my living room with unfocused eyes. Turning my listless head, I gazed at the black screen of the large, unused television. I was empty inside and had been for about a year. At one point in my life, personal time was lost in books, movies, and bad TV—anything to escape the enormity of my lonely future. Dry air scratched my throat as I sighed for the hundredth time. Empty seconds ticked by, void of emotion. Meaningless.

In previous years, on the anniversary of the beginning of my personal hell, my day was filled with tears and drama. I’d locked myself away to lament the hand life had dealt me. This year, for the first time, I was numb. The numbness was a boon—having no emotions sure beat the pain.

My revolver was in its hiding place near my front door, so I grabbed it and tucked it into the holster always at my back. I didn’t even dress in the morning without putting on my holsters. Nobody would snatch me out of my home without a fight. Not until I got answers, anyway. Once I knew the truth, I might not bother fighting. Maybe I’d be able to let go and have peace at last.

Through the peephole, a man—hot enough to melt gold—waited for me to answer the door in slacks, a nice shirt, and a striped tie. Salesman. I rolled my eyes. I didn’t have the patience for a sales pitch. Not today of all days.

Cracking the door open, I didn’t bother removing the chain while I kept one hand on the reassuring grip of my gun.

The crisp fall air tickled my cheeks as I peeked through the crack in the door. “Can I help you?” My voice was polite, fake.

My body gave a small surge of hormones as a sea foam gaze met my own. At that moment, I couldn’t see any of the other features on his face. I was too focused on the rarity of his eye color. Those eyes could’ve been on the face of a troll, and I wouldn’t have noticed. His irises, outlined by a thin ring of forest green, caused a small blush to warm my cheeks. I shook my head as if it would clear my thoughts. I’d begun to think my libido had disappeared with my husband years ago.

Huh. Maybe I wasn’t void of emotion after all.

With that thought, my husband’s face drifted through my mind, and guilt consumed me. Until life coughed up some answers for me, I would only be dead inside. How could I enjoy anything when my family was still missing?

“Ma’am, my name is Darrell Abbott.” He flipped up an FBI badge. His voice was a deep bass, and though his words were professional, his timbre said nothing but sex. “I was assigned your cold case and would like to speak to you about your husband, Michael Effler. Is it a good time for us to talk?”

The hair on my neck prickled as I studied his badge. It resembled the other FBI badges I’d seen over the years, but something about him set off warning bells in my mind. Oh, well. Maybe he’d be a distraction.

I double-checked to make sure my holster was unbuttoned, closed the door, and removed the chain. Re-opening the door, I wordlessly stepped aside so he could come in. I pointed to a recliner so Agent Abbott could sit.

I took a deep breath through the small sting in my chest. I was used to the pain, but no one had sat in that chair for five years. In the plethora of conversations with the police and FBI, I’d never allowed anyone there. Why did I motion for this man to sit in my husband’s favorite spot after all that time?

I perched on the end of my large sectional sofa, as far away as I could sit and still remain in the room. Staring past the agent, I showed him very little interest, even though I was finally feeling something besides numbness.

His wide shoulders strained the expensive material of his button-up shirt. He was built like my husband, which caused more pain to hit my heart as memories flashed before my eyes. Michael had been tall, towering over my own five-eight frame. Broad and muscular, he’d made me, then-plump, feel dainty and petite.

Agent Abbott cleared his throat and pulled at his tie as he studied my living room. His gaze rested on the various pictures my family had collected over the years. Art related to literary and pop culture icons covered the wall behind me.

The detective sat in front of a wall filled with family pictures. Sometime in my second year of hell, I’d printed every picture we ever took and framed them. Determined to never forget a single memory, I covered the house in pictures my son colored, fan posters and art, or treasured photos.

“Ms. Effler, can you start at the beginning and tell me what you remember from the day your family disappeared?” Agent Abbott cleared his throat again and stared at me expectantly as he held a small voice recorder with long, thick fingers.

Eventually, I moved my gaze from his hand to his face. I’d avoided looking directly at him and allowed myself to study his features. His eyes stood out from a tanned face with a strong jawline. Rich mahogany hair, a good month past time for a cut, fell to right above his ears. I noted a five o’clock shadow, which added to his rugged appeal.

“Agent Abbott, right? Darrell Abbott?” I narrowed my eyes at his mesmerizing face and my mind filled with rage. He’d exhausted my patience.

“Yes, ma’am.” He nodded, smiling, oblivious to my growing rage.

I adjusted my position so I could grab my gun, one hand behind me, against the couch. “If you’d cracked my case file, you’d know that my husband was an avid listener of metal music. I don’t know what kind of teenage demon-hunter show you think you’re in, coming here with a bogus FBI ID and a fake name, but Darrell Abbott was the real name of Dimebag Darrell, one of my husband’s favorite guitarists.” I swung my gun out from behind me and pointed it at his face. “Explain yourself, Agent Darrell Abbott.”

“Riley, please. I mean you no harm. I’m here to help.” His vivid eyes widened, pleading with me, and I was hit with an overwhelming desire to trust him. At the same time, a splitting headache formed. It started with a jolt between my eyebrows and then my entire head throbbed to the beat of my heart.

“Stand up slowly, whatever-your-name-is. If you make any sudden movements, I will shoot you.” I stood, my head pounding.

The faux agent rose, hands still in the air as the hair all over my body stood on end. I tried to watch every part of his body simultaneously.

He spoke with a low, even voice, trying to calm me. “I’m going to turn away from you and walk to the door. I’m sorry I’ve upset you, and I want you to know I came here today with the best of intentions.” I held the gun steady in my hand as he turned and moved toward the front door.

A shadow passed in front of my living room window, drawing my gaze. In an instant, somehow, the faux agent was in front of me, and my gun was in his hand. I gasped in surprise.

It was a fraction of a second! How’d he move so fast?

On the one-year anniversary of “the day,” I decided I was tired of fear. My husband and I already owned various guns, and while I was a pretty good shot, I’d begun to go to the shooting range daily to practice. Money was no longer a concern without any family to spend it on, so I’d figured I might as well blow it on bullets. I’d considered putting one of those bullets in my head, but there were too many unanswered questions. I couldn’t leave this life until I knew what happened to my family.

I’d also started taking self-defense classes, rapidly moving into private lessons. I’d trained with the best self-defense instructors in the area. I was good. Good enough that when a large man was unexpectedly in my bubble, I reacted.

I felt his nose crunch as I slammed into it with the meat of my palm. His head twitched a bit, but he didn’t move his body, nor did he try to defend himself. What is going on? I drew back to hit him in the throat but was stopped by a jab of searing pain in my head. Whimpering, I dropped onto the couch. A thousand needles poked at my head. At even more of a disadvantage, I tried to kick him in the crotch, but he grabbed my foot in an iron grip. He didn’t squeeze, but I was sure that he could easily crush my foot if he did.

“Please, Riley, calm down. Listen to my voice and try to breathe. I’m not here to hurt you. Defensive measures aren’t necessary for me.” I realized as he spoke that my breathing was labored, and I was sure my eyes were wild. I twisted my foot out of his hand, vulnerable. “Please, really look at me, Riley. Look at my eyes, and you’ll be able to see I’m being honest.”

Like I’d actually be able to read lies in his eyes. That only happened in books and on angsty teenage vampire shows. I considered his unusual eyes, and though he did seem genuine, I wouldn’t be basing my next move on perceived sincerity.

“Step away from me, and I’ll think about calming down.” If I can get to one of the guns hidden in here, I won’t hesitate to shoot this time. The man had to be some sort of special ops if he was able to move across the room with such speed.

He backed away, keeping himself between me and the front door. I was happy he was going in that direction—I needed a bit of room to reach the gun in the holster sewn to the side of the couch.

Trying to ignore the constant pains in my head, I pulled my legs up on the couch, hoping to convey that I was settling in. “You have me up against a wall. So, talk.” I placed my arm on the side of the couch, as close as I could get to the gun without reaching for it. I’d already seen that he could move fast, so I needed to be faster. Unfortunately, it was all I could do not to grab my pounding head.

He spoke, his voice passionate and caring. The words caused me to freeze, and the tone shook me. “Riley. I have the answers you need. I’ve watched over you for the past five years. I came here because I must help you.” I opened my mouth to argue, and the volume of his voice rose. “I need to help you, to know you. You’re in danger, and I can’t stand watching from the sidelines anymore.”

What sidelines?

“My name is Anthony, and I know where your family is.” He rushed his words as if to prevent me from interrupting.

My long-numb mind exploded. Thoughts raced so fast I saw my brain shatter in colors. The rush of emotions exacerbated my headache. I cried out in pain and reaching for my gun was forgotten. I couldn’t think about my family, my desolate past, or the danger I was in. There was only pain.

Convinced I was having an aneurysm, I tried to stand, but my legs buckled under me. “Call 911,” I gasped. My vision blurred, and I knew I was losing consciousness. I couldn’t stop my body from splaying out on the floor—my muscles weren’t listening to my brain. Anthony’s panicked yell sounded like it came from several rooms away.

In the moment before my vision went black, it occurred to me that he spoke in the present tense. He hadn’t said ‘was.’ He’d said ‘is.’

They’re alive.

Five Years Ago

Though my boys were not fans of my favorite TV show, they’d be excited, knowing how much I loved it. I struggled to hold my keys and coffee in one hand and my cell phone in the other as I carried the painting of a blue telephone box into the house.

“Boys? Michael? David? Where are you guys?” I dumped everything but my coffee onto the bookshelf by the front door of our small, silent home.

“Danny, baby? Come see Mommy. You guys better not be napping this late! Daniel will be awake all night and I’ve got a long shift tomorrow.” Bounding upstairs, I checked the bedrooms and found the second story empty and far too tidy. My breathing accelerated, mother’s intuition kicking in. Something was wrong. Clothes, books, and shoes should’ve been strewn everywhere. I walked into the boys’ room and over to their open closet. My stomach filled with dread as I stared at the empty hangers and shelves.

I stared at the space in confusion. My mind wouldn’t process an empty closet. I turned and opened one of the drawers in the chest of drawers we used as a toy chest. Empty drawer after empty drawer. In a blind panic, I ran to the bedroom I shared with Michael and jerked open the closet door. The left half of the closet was empty. Running to the other closet, I discovered Michael’s collection of rare toys was gone. I turned to study the rest of the bedroom, noting the comic book boxes were gone as were the free weights usually kept in front of the overfilled bookcase. Breathing became difficult as I panicked.

I called the police as I tore down the stairs, searching for any sign of where they might’ve gone. The operator answered as I opened the door to the coat closet in the living room, where we stored the family’s bulky winter coats. Only my coats were there. They looked lonely.

“911, what’s your emergency?” A smooth baritone voice answered my call.

“My husband and children are gone! It’s all gone! Please help me. I don’t know what to do.” I stood in the middle of the living room in hysterics, too panicked to cry. How could they have been gone? How could everything they own disappear in the span of my ten-hour shift?

“Ma’am, do you see any evidence of a break-in or anything else that would cause you to think anyone has been injured or kidnapped?” Nothing was broken or disturbed.

All the oxygen left my lungs. It was clear. Michael had taken the children and left me. Except that was impossible. “It appears that my husband has taken the children, but he wouldn’t. He has no reason. We’re happy! He wouldn’t leave. Please, please send someone!” By the time I finished, my voice was shrill, and I was on the verge of screaming.

“Yes, ma’am, I’ll get an officer over as soon as possible.” I gave the operator my address and hung up. Unable to stay inside the half-empty house, I waited on the front porch, aching to hug my babies. I longed to lean against my rock and protector, my soulmate. As I waited on the police, the pain began. And for five long years, it didn’t stop.

The events of my afternoon flooded my mind when I woke from a dreamless sleep. My memories were clear; I remembered Agent Abbott—Anthony—and our entire interaction. His insistence that he knew the whereabouts of my family gave me wild hope. I played our interactions over and over in my mind.

He must’ve carried me to bed. How often does this guy work out to be so strong? I’m no tiny pixie.

Headache gone, I leaped from the bed and ran down the stairs, searching for Anthony. The house was silent and dark. I had no idea how long I’d been asleep. It was bright daylight when Anthony knocked on my door, that much I knew, but in my disheveled frame of mind I couldn’t remember what the time was. For all I knew, it could’ve been before noon or almost twilight.

A ding came from the living room. I hurried to check my phone, but there were no messages—it was a stupid game notification. It’s already eleven? My search of the house was fruitless. He was gone. Boneless, I sank down onto the same couch I’d cowered on earlier. Alive—they’re alive.

My mind split open, ripping away the numbness to let the emotional pain out like a knife cutting open a pathway to my tortured memories. The faces of my children flashed in my mind.

Every day for five years, I paced the rooms and halls of my home, memorizing the pictures on the walls. Every day I recited precious stories of my husband and children so that my memories would stay fresh. But I didn’t speak of my children to anyone, except the people working on their case. For five years, I’d refused to say their names out loud. I kept them inside, in my mind and in my heart. My attention moved to a picture of both of my boys, taken the day we brought our youngest home from the hospital.

“David,” I whispered, “are you still taking care of your little brother? Do you still call him Dannel?” Daniel would be six and David would be eleven. For the millionth time, I wondered what they’d gone through, and if they’d suffered. I rose, trying to recapture the numbness before the pain broke me. Those kinds of questions always led to pain. I was desperate to be numb again. How could I know if Anthony was telling the truth? His disappearance made his claims even less credible.

It took me several minutes to compose myself. Shuffling into the kitchen for a bottle of water, I grabbed it out of the fridge, but didn’t drink. Instead, I ogled the clear liquid, wishing it was alcohol. Opening the cabinet above the refrigerator, I looked up at the bottle of whiskey. We always kept the liquor there, well out of the reach of the curious David.

About a week before my world went black, I’d purchased the bottle. I wanted to drink the entire bottle and make the pain disappear. My numbness was gone, and the pain was back as if the horrible events happened yesterday.

The weeks after their disappearances were horrible. I couldn’t come up with a single reason why Michael would leave with the children. Horrible scenarios plagued my thoughts, leaving me anxious and nauseous.

After extensive questioning of me and anyone connected to our family, the police called in the FBI. They agreed it would be out of character for Michael to leave with the kids of his own volition. They also agreed that he would’ve needed help. Help to vanish without a trace—and to be able to take their things. I was left with the baby books and memory boxes and the hard drive with pictures stored on it.

Both Michael and I lost our parents before we met each other; mine in a car crash, his gone from cancer and a heart attack. There was no family to help him, and our friends wouldn’t have.

The investigators found no links on his computers or phone. They combed the house for forensic evidence. Nothing came up. There was no evidence of foul play, and the only DNA they found was ours.

With no clues, our only option was a reward hotline. I cashed out our meager retirement plan to put up the ten-thousand-dollar reward, but each tip turned out to be someone angling to get the money. After a year, they canceled the reward and told me they assumed his actions were intentional. They turned my family, my heart, my reason for living, into a cold case. They said they were forced to assume Michael had indeed taken the children.

I closed the door on the whiskey and trudged upstairs to change into workout clothes. My solace was my gym. The dapper Anthony might return and give me answers, but it was more likely that I’d never see him again. Might as well continue my monotonous life. I changed and bolted out of the house before I could change my mind and guzzle the whiskey instead.

With my family gone, I’d taken a three month leave of absence from my management position at a local coffee shop. The position was ideal because I’d always liked to work with the public, plus the shop was close to home and offered decent pay and hours.

When I couldn’t face another day of sitting beside my phone, begging it to ring, I returned to work. But still, I’d go home at night and lie awake, staring at my phone. Sleep would elude me for days at a time, which would cause me to get sick and take more time off work. Thankfully, the owners were always patient with me.

Once I began my self-defense training, I learned that pushing my body to the brink of exhaustion was the only way I could manage to rest. I’d sleep all night with just an occasional nightmare.

I’d worked my way through every available self-defense class, traveling farther and farther away from home to find a challenge. A former Marine started to do private training at a gym near me. He was willing to continue my training beyond the generic classes I’d already taken. He encouraged me to explore martial arts and spend more time building up my strength and endurance. The exertion tired my body and my mind; I lost weight, settling into a size twelve again, some days even a ten.

Elias, my trainer turned friend, had said my body was likely meant to be curvy, since I’d done intense workouts for four years and stopped losing weight. I was happy with my body and hoped that I’d be able to show it to Michael one day. He loved me no matter my appearance, but he’d be happy for my health.

Lacing up my running shoes, I put earbuds in to stream some of Michael’s favorite music and jogged the mile to my twenty-four-hour gym.

Heading straight for the punching bag in the corner, I jogged in place to keep my heart rate up as I wrapped my hands. The bag swung to and fro as I punched and kicked out my anger and frustration. My body moved to the rhythm of the heavy guitar riffs and drumbeats of Black Sabbath.

I pulled my fist back to hit the bag again and found my right bicep locked in a strong grip. I turned and lashed out at whoever was behind me. Elias jumped out of the range of my fists and emotional turmoil. My shoulders sagged once I knew I was safe, that it was just Eli, and my rage and pent-up ire left me at once, exhaustion taking its place.

“What are you doing here so late?” He pulled out my earbuds. “Do you need to spar and wear yourself out?”

“Not tonight.” I yawned. “I’m tired. It’s been a long and emotional day.” I turned to the small refrigerator in the corner to grab another bottle of water. This time, the thought of replacing water with whiskey didn’t tempt me.

“Riley, what happened? I knew today would be hard for you, but you normally hole up in that shrine of a home for the day. Did something change?” He touched my arm and peered down into my eyes.

I debated what to tell him, if anything. He’d become a close friend and confidante. I couldn’t stand to speak to any of the friends Michael and I had shared before his disappearance. They had eyes full of pity. I didn’t want their pity, or their sorrys, or their wishes they could help. I simply wanted my family. Elias didn’t give me pity—he gave me defense. He gave me the confidence that I’d be able to keep myself safe in a world that would rip my children from me. He pushed me to work harder and train longer, and I owed him a large part of my sanity, such as it was.

“Honestly, I think you’d have me committed if I told you how my day went.” I laughed humorlessly as I walked over to the weight bench and sat down. Crazy or not, I knew I needed to run my day by someone, and I trusted him more than I trusted anyone alive.

“Sit down, E. It’s a strange story.” I told him the details of my day. I even included how easy it was for Anthony to disarm me. His face displayed shock throughout the entirety of my story, and when I finished with, “and then I woke up,” his jaw dropped.

“Riley, doll, you can’t go back to that house.” I tried to interrupt, but he put his hand on my mouth. “No arguments. He neutralized you in seconds, leaving you utterly defenseless. And then you blacked out—most likely due to emotional stress—but we need to have you checked out. And then you’re staying with me. I won’t let you argue this.”

I sighed and studied his face. Elias was another exceptionally attractive man, but for years, he was purely my friend. Any other possibility had never entered my mind. After the surge of hormones I experienced today while dealing with Anthony, I found myself considering Elias in a completely different light. I imagined myself allowing a modicum of attraction into my life. A smidgen of desire.

He kept his blond hair cut close, still a Marine at heart, even though he’d been honorably discharged before I’d met him. Warm eyes, the color of milk chocolate, were framed by thick lashes any woman would kill for. He often joked that his eyes were basic brown, but his self-deprecating humor was lost on me. His eye color was stunning.

Raised in the southern U.S., his family was from Greece. I didn’t believe him until I searched for blond Greek men online. Apparently, there was an abundance of blond hair in Greece. Who knew?

His speech was void of accent, at least to my ears so used to hearing a Tennessee twang. Until he told me he was born and raised in Knoxville, I would’ve never guessed he was Southern.

“All right.” I sighed. “Thank you for believing my story and for once again being what I need.” I leaned against his thick arm and put my head on his shoulder. “Take me to the ER and waste most of our night. Let them pronounce me in perfect health. Then will you at least take me home to pack a bag and grab some of my guns?”

“Riley, I’ve got plenty of guns. You know that.” He chuckled and gave my hand a squeeze.

I rolled my eyes and got to my feet, “Yes, but they’re not my guns.”

He slung an arm around my shoulders. “Okay, let’s go get you checked out.”

We rode to the local university hospital in his massive Ford truck. There was something about men and trucks in the South, and Elias wasn’t immune to the pull of a super-duty. I didn’t mind his truck obsession because it was a smooth ride. By the time we reached the emergency room door, I was lulled to the brink of sleep.

“Eli, I want to sleep. Take me home,” I groaned as he opened my passenger door.

“Not a chance.”

I glared at him until he reached across and unbuckled my seat belt. His chest brushed against mine, and I sucked in my stomach as I tried to stamp out the spark of arousal.

Don’t stress about it. It’s been an insane day and your hormones have been all over the place. It was an instinctual reaction. It doesn’t mean you’re disloyal to Michael.

Elias stared at me with one eyebrow cocked as I gave myself a mental pep talk. “Can we go in now?”

I gave him an exaggerated huff. “Let’s get this over with.”