Last Seen Alone
When they face the most baffling missing person’s case of their careers, a fiercely ambitious lawyer and a homicide detective have no one to turn to for help except each other, from New York Times bestselling author Laura Griffin.
Up-and-coming attorney Leigh Larson fights for victims of sexual extortion, harassment, and online abuse. She is not afraid to go after the sleaziest targets to get payback for her clients. Leigh is laser-focused on her career—to the exclusion of everything else—until a seemingly routine case and a determined cop turn her world upside down.
Austin homicide detective Brandon Reynolds is no stranger to midnight callouts. But when he gets summoned to an abandoned car on a desolate road, he quickly realizes he’s dealing with an unusual crime scene. A pool of blood in the nearby woods suggests a brutal homicide. But where is the victim? The vehicle is registered to twenty-six-year-old Vanessa Adams. Searching the car, all Brandon finds is a smear of blood and a business card for Leigh Larson, attorney-at-law.
Vanessa had hired Leigh just before her disappearance, but Leigh has no leads on who could have wanted her dead. Faced with bewildering evidence and shocking twists, Leigh and Brandon must work against the clock to chase down a ruthless criminal who is out for vengeance.
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“A pulse-pounding romantic thriller… off-the-charts chemistry… Griffin skillfully juggles suspense and romance right up until the adrenaline-fueled final page.”
— Publishers Weekly
I love smart, sophisticated, fast-moving romantic thrillers and Laura Griffin writes them brilliantly. LAST SEEN ALONE is a terrific example of her signature style: intriguing characters, sharp dialogue and a tight, well-researched plot.
— New York Times bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz
"Readers will be hooked too, by a viscerally compelling plot. LAST SEEN ALONE is a bravura thriller...you’re guaranteed a late night."
— Criminal Element
"Another top-notch romantic thriller by one of the best writers in the genre. Ms. Griffin never disappoints.... I always know I'm in for a fantastic novel filled with suspense and sensuality. Her books are pure keepers."
— Gail Link, RWA Bookseller of the Year 2010
Last Seen Alone
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He was late, and she shouldn’t have been surprised.
Vanessa buzzed down the window a few inches and cut the engine. Crisp, piney air seeped into the car, along with the faint scent of someone’s campfire. She checked her phone. Nothing. She settled back in her seat to wait.
Her headlights illuminated a clump of trees—spindly fresh ones, along with the pointed black spires that had burned years ago. She looked at the stars beyond the treetops. Once upon a time, she’d stretched out on a patch of grass not far from here with Cooper, gazing up at the sky and trying to pick out constellations. Orion. Leo. The Big Dipper. The memory seemed strange. Fanciful. Everything like that was gone now, replaced by a dull ache that never went away. Her emotions felt like tar, thick and heavy in her veins, and swinging her legs out of bed required effort.
Yet here she was.
She was sick of the dread in her stomach. She was sick of being a silent bystander in her own life.
Vanessa eyed the bottle of Jim Beam peeking out from beneath the passenger seat. She reached for it and checked her phone again before twisting off the cap.
Late, late, late.
She took a swig. The bourbon burned the back of her throat, but then she felt a warm rush of courage. She could do this.
Headlights, high and bright, flashed into her rearview mirror. Her shoulders tensed as she listened to the throaty sound of the approaching truck. It pulled up behind her and the lights went dark.
Vanessa stashed the bottle on the floor and wiped her damp palms on her jeans. Her stomach flip-flopped as he slid from the pickup and walked over. She couldn’t believe she was doing this.
He stopped by the car, and she pushed the door open. He watched her from beneath the brim of his ratty baseball cap, and she could smell the smoke on his clothes. Marlboro Reds.
“Long time,” he said.
“Do you have it?”
He held up a bag.
It was lunch sack, like her mom used to pack for her. PBJ and a pudding cup. Vanessa took the bag, and the paper felt soft and greasy. She looked inside.
“That’s four hundred.”
Her head snapped up. “You said three-fifty!”
He pulled the bag away. “I need four.”
“I don’t have it.”
His gaze dropped to her breasts, and she knew that look. Her gut clenched. The thought of sex right now made her want to throw up.
Twisting in her seat, she grabbed her leather tote from the back. She pulled the stack of bills from her wallet and counted twenty twenties. She turned and held them out.
Tucking the sack under his arm, he took the cash and thumbed through it.
“You look different,” he said, and she caught the disapproval.
Vanessa gritted her teeth and waited. His attention fell to the bottle on the floor, and his brow furrowed as he leaned on the door.
“You all right, Van?”
Something flickered across his face. Pity? Tenderness? She had to be imagining it.
He passed her the bag. “That’s not really for your sister, is it?”
Vanessa didn’t respond. It was none of his damn business. He stepped away, and she yanked the door shut.
For a moment he didn’t move. But then he turned and walked back to his truck, stuffing her money in his back pocket.
The lights flashed on. Wincing, she watched in her rearview mirror as he backed up and made a three-point turn. When he was gone, she rested her hand on her stomach and let out a breath.
Vanessa started her car. She retraced her route over the pitted road until she reached the two-lane highway. When her tires hit smooth pavement, she pressed the gas and a wave of dizziness washed over her—probably the whiskey. She sighed with relief as the Austin skyline came into view.
She looked at the houses scattered on either side of the highway, some with lights on, some without. Through a gap in the pines she caught a glimpse of the lake glimmering under the half moon.
Eying the brown bag beside her, she felt a pang of yearning. She checked the mirror, then pulled onto the shoulder and parked. She grabbed the bag and reached inside.
It felt heavier than she’d imaged. She held the pistol in her palm and ran her thumb over the textured grip. For the first time in months, the knot of fear in her stomach loosened. She’d never been brave, never in her life. But people could change.
Headlights winked into the mirror, and she glanced up. High and bright again, probably a pickup truck. Squinting, she watched them get closer and closer.
Vanessa’s nerves skittered. Was it slowing down?
Had someone followed her here? But she’d been careful. Not just careful—vigilant. She’d taken every precaution.
The truck started to slow, and an icy claw of fear closed around her heart.
Vanessa scooted across the seat and reached for the passenger door, jerking back as her sweater snagged on something. She yanked it free, then grabbed the bag and pushed open the door.
The truck rolled to a halt. Vanessa scrambled from the car, tripping as she glanced back at headlights. Adrenaline shot through her, and she sprinted for the trees. The ground sloped down, and she ran faster, faster, losing control as she hurtled toward the woods.
Her toe caught and she crashed to her knees and elbows but managed to hold the bag. She pushed herself up and raced toward the line of trees.
Then the headlights switched off, and everything went black. She ran blindly through the knee-high weeds, huffing and gasping and clutching the bag to her chest like a football. A car door slammed, sending a jolt of terror through her. She pictured him running after her, closing the distance, grabbing her by her hair.
Thorns stabbed at her as she reached the thicket. She swiped at the branches, desperate for cover as she imagined him behind her. She couldn’t see anything, not even her hand in front of her face as she groped through the razor-sharp bushes.
The thorns disappeared as she stumbled into a clearing. Panting, she stopped and glanced up at the moon. Her heart thundered as she looked around and tried to orient herself. An arc of pines surrounded her. She could hide. Take cover. Defend herself if she had to. With trembling hands, she fumbled inside the bag and pulled out the gun. Dear God, was it loaded? She hadn’t thought to ask.
On a burst of panic, she raced for the trees.
Brandon almost made it home.
His stomach grumbled, and he eyed the pizza box riding shotgun in his truck. Mushroom-pepperoni, thin crust. It wasn’t nearly as good cold, but he wasn’t picky.
His cell phone buzzed in the holder, and he tapped it.
“Almost there,” he told his partner.
“Where are you exactly?” Antonio asked.
“About two minutes out.”
“Okay, take it easy on the curve. You’ll see a black-and-white on the eastbound shoulder near my car. That’s the best place to park.”
Brandon drove another mile down the highway and slowed. He spotted the whirring yellow lights of a tow truck blocking the eastbound lane as it dragged a pickup from the ditch. Brandon passed them, making note of the disabled vehicle—a black Chevy Silverado.
He tapped the brakes before the curve and saw the reason for Antonio’s warning. A silver car occupied the shoulder, just barely out of the roadway. Traffic flares flickered on the pavement. Directly across the street, Antonio and a uniform stood talking with a man. Tall, goatee, green camo jacket and a baseball cap turned backward on his head.
Brandon pulled a U-turn and parked behind Antonio’s personal vehicle, a black Mazda. Grabbing his phone, he gave his pizza a last wistful look and slid from the warmth of his truck.
A cool October breeze blew off the lake as Antonio trudged over. He wore dark slacks and a white button-down, same as Brandon, but his sleeves were rolled up. Looked like he hadn’t made it home yet either. Their workday had begun at five thirty a.m. with a gas station holdup on the south side of town, and it was almost eleven p.m.
“How’s it look?” Brandon asked.
Antonio stopped in front of him and ran a hand through his black buzzcut. His partner was short but powerfully built, like an MMA fighter.
“When did you get here?”
Antonio sighed. “’Bout ten minutes ago.”
Brandon turned to look at the man still being interviewed by the patrol officer.
“Guy’s name is Tom Murray,” Antonio said. “He called it in. Says he was driving westbound when a deer ran in front of him. He slammed on the brakes and swerved. Nearly hit the silver car there, then overcorrected and skidded off the road.”
Brandon turned back toward the tow truck. The orange flares illuminated twin skid marks leading to the ditch.
“Tire marks corroborate his story,” Antonio said. He’d spent five years on highway patrol, so he should know.
“And the driver of the car?” Brandon asked.
“Nowhere. But all her stuff’s in the vehicle. Wallet, keys, phone, everything.”
“Yeah, Murray said he walked over to see if anyone was inside and found a purse. Vanessa Adams, twenty-six. He checked the wallet.”
Brandon muttered a curse.
“I know, right? Now his prints are everywhere.”
Shaking his head, Brandon turned back toward the car. “What do you make of the guy?”
“Seems credible. Passed a Breathalyzer.” Antonio shrugged. “We ran the name from the wallet. No wants or warrants. Vehicle’s registered to her, too.” Antonio looked at him, his brow furrowed. “I gave the car a once-over.”
“Didn’t touch anything. There’s a smear on the door. Looks to me like blood.”
Hence, the reason why he and Antonio had been called out to an otherwise routine abandoned vehicle.
Brandon scanned the area. The highway was lined with trees. North of the road, the forest was thick and healthy. South, not so much. Years ago, the highway had acted as a firebreak, but several hundred acres to the south had burned, and now it was a mix of jagged black points and fresh saplings. The terrain sloped down to an area dense with scrub trees. Beyond the brush was a man-made lake created in an abandoned quarry. East of the lake was a public park.
Brandon opened his truck and reached into the back. “You have time to look around yet?”
“Not yet.” Antonio gave a sheepish smile. “I don’t have a flashlight.”
Rookie mistake. But Brandon didn’t state the obvious, even though he was Antonio’s training officer.
Brandon reached into his truck and grabbed his high-powered Maglite, then tucked it into the back of his pants and handed his spare to Antonio. Opening the tacklebox that lived in the back of his cab, he dug out two pairs of latex gloves and handed one to his partner.
“You want to talk to the driver?” Antonio asked.
“I’ll take a look at the car first.” Brandon pulled on the gloves. “Tell him to hang out, then go get started in the woods.”
Antonio headed off, and Brandon took a last look around before approaching the vehicle.
It was a silver Toyota, ten years old, give or take, with a purple “namaste” sticker on the back bumper. The tires were bald, but no sign of a flat. A thin layer of grime covered the paint, except for streaks along the back, where someone had opened and closed the trunk a bunch of times. Brandon switched his beam to high and checked the back seat. Empty. He stepped to the driver’s side. The door was closed, but the passenger door was wide open. He didn’t like that.
No interior light on, no ding-ding-ding warning sound. Brandon circled the vehicle, making note of the license plate and the dented side panel. The damage looked old. Taking care not to mar any footprints in the dirt, he approached the open door and leaned in.
The smell hit him immediately. Piña colada. He swept the flashlight over the seat and spotted the pineapple-shaped air-freshener tucked inside the door pocket.
Brandon crouched beside the car. On the floor was a half-empty bottle of bourbon and a big leather bag. It seemed more like a tote bag than a purse. A red leather wallet sat on the passenger seat. He shined the light on the Texas driver’s license peeking through the plastic window and studied the smiling picture. Vanessa Adams had long auburn hair. She wore red lipstick, and her eyes were accented with gray eyeshadow. Smoky eyes. That was how his ex described it when she did her eyes that way before they went out to clubs. Yet another thing he definitely hadn’t missed over the past six months.
Brandon swept the flashlight over the door again and found the smear. It wasn’t big—just a swipe near the handle. But it looked to him like blood.
In the cupholder was an old-model iPhone with a glittery white case that had a pink heart on the back. The heart seemed young for a twenty-six-year-old.
Brandon stood and examined the exterior again. No sign that she’d hit an animal in the road or anything else. So, what was the deal here? Was it a simple case of car trouble, and she’d hiked out for help?
Brandon could see her leaving her stuff behind, maybe even the tote bag and wallet if she was inebriated enough not to be thinking clearly. But her phone?
He looked over his shoulder toward the dark woods where a white light bobbed behind the trees. He called Antonio, and the light went still.
“Anyone check nearby gas stations?” Brandon asked. “There’s an Exxon half a mile east of here where Old Quarry Road meets the highway.”
“I’ll get patrol on it.”
Brandon turned back to look at the car. The iPhone bothered him. Even shitfaced, he couldn’t see someone leaving it behind. For most twenty-somethings, a phone was like an appendage. Plus, it was late. He couldn’t picture a woman leaving here without her phone if she’d gone somewhere by choice.
He swept the light over the dashboard. The ashtray was open slightly and a white business card poked out. Brandon took a pen from his pocket and used the end to slide the tray open enough to read the card.
Leigh Larson. Attorney-at-Law.
Beneath the name was a Tenth Street address and an Austin phone number. So, was Leigh a man? A woman? What kind of lawyer? The generic white card didn’t offer a clue. Brandon took out his cell and snapped a picture, then slid the ashtray shut.
His phone buzzed as he stood up. “Yeah?”
“Hey, I’m in the woods about fifty yards south of you.” Antonio sounded out of breath, and Brandon caught the excitement in his voice. He turned and spotted the distant white glow through the row trees.
“What is it?” Brandon asked.
“Man, you need to come see this.”