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Chapter 4
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Demetria was glad to be working the case with Everett. He'd said ten, but she had been ready—well, almost ready—since four this morning. Way too early, but she couldn't help herself. She wanted to resolve Brayden's case before she started her vacation.

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Despite telling herself her eagerness was because she wanted to learn the truth about Brayden, she knew it wasn't just about that. She'd messed with her hair and makeup way more than she ever did when she was getting ready to go on an assignment. She'd changed her clothes several times this morning, trying to figure out what would be appropriate for the job. She never changed clothes this much for anything—except when she'd known she'd be seeing Everett at Tammy's mother's home this past year. So what was up with that? She'd never fussed as much when she was going to see Matt.

She scoffed at herself for being so ridiculous.

She'd made three unanswered calls already this morning to Brayden's father, after several last night, but she made one last call to Lucian to tell him where his son was. He hadn't made any effort to connect with anyone concerning Brayden's whereabouts. Still no answer. She left a message again, probably a little terser than the rest. She was tired of not being able to get ahold of him and had even asked someone to check whether he had been injured. But at last report, he was home sleeping off drinking and gambling all night. Though no one had been able to locate him before he got home.

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When she arrived half an hour early at the JAG headquarters, Everett had already set out a case file on Brayden's family. She liked how he'd pulled the file and gotten started on it right away.

Everett checked Demetria out as much as she checked him out. She swore he was sporting a brand-new shirt and haircut, the pale-green shirt making his eyes stand out more than usual. His mouth curved a smidgen, as if he was glad she'd noticed.

“Did you learn anything?” She poured a cup of coffee for herself.

“The wife had no family to speak of. Lucian does. A sister. We can question her, but unless she was close to Nina, Brayden's mother, she probably didn't know anything about the jungle trip. I haven't had time, but I thought we could see if Brayden can tell us the names of any of Nina's friends,” Everett said. “I received authorization to check out the trust fund and discovered Lucian is paying himself a hefty commission to manage it. Which could be why he's worried about losing control of the boy. If Martin has one of his accountants take charge of the trust, Lucian will lose the commission and that extra spending money. The JAGs will handle the account free of charge for Brayden.”

“Okay, that sounds like a good reason why Lucian wants the boy under his thumb and a good way to handle it.”

Howard walked into the room carrying a cup of coffee. “Morning. What do you need me to do?”

After that, they all made calls, first to Brayden for a list of his mother's friends, then to the friends. No one knew anything about the jungle incident.

“Do you think Nina didn't tell anyone because she was protecting her mate?” Demetria asked.

“Or the boy really did get lost. It happened to me once.” Howard refilled his coffee cup.

Demetria was dying to hear the story. Everett was smiling.

“Hey, it happens. I was off exploring, kind of like what happened to Brayden. Next thing I knew, my mom and dad were somewhere else, and I got scared.”

“In the Amazon?”

“A rain forest in Belize. Anyway, I got scolded good. I had to stay in the cabana for a whole day and wasn't allowed to go out and play with my sister and brother. They stuck close to my parents, afraid they'd get in the same hot water as me. But I'd scared the hell out of them. And myself. I heard about that from everyone in the family—Mom, Dad, my sister and brother—for the next twenty-two years.”

“How old were you when it happened?” Demetria asked.

“Same age as Brayden. I was fearless until I realized I was out in the rain forest all by myself.”

Demetria's phone rang. She picked it up to look at the caller ID. Lucian Covington.

She couldn't believe he'd finally called. She expected he would not be pleasant. “It's Lucian. Putting on speaker,” she told everyone. “Yes, Mr. Covington. You must be calling about your son. He's with a foster family and doing great.” As if his stepdad really cared.

“You can't do this.”

She stiffened. Yeah, they could. “Listen, Mr. Covington—”

“No, damn it. You listen to me. You had no right picking him up and giving him to some other family to raise. I told you people that before! He's my son, and I want him returned to me at once. Do you hear me? Damn it! No one else is raising my son.”

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As if
he
was raising his son! Someone needed to take the boy in hand because the stepfather sure wasn't doing the job. Demetria and other Guardians had left messages on Lucian's cell phone for hours and also sent emails letting him know his son was in their custody. There hadn't been one peep from Lucian until now.

“When did you learn he wasn't even home?” she asked.

“That's none of your damned business.”

Lucian's ugly response prompted Howard to say, “Brayden was telling us about how you lost him in the jungle when he was eight. I want to know exactly how you managed to cross a river without realizing he wasn't following you. Any decent father would have made sure he was right there with him. I also want to know why you didn't immediately retrace your steps or call out to him when you ‘noticed' he wasn't with you on the other side or still swimming across to join you.”

“Who the hell are you?”

“Howard Sternum, Enforcer Branch, and I take out the trash.” Even if Howard's growl hadn't been enough of a threat, just mentioning the Enforcers should have been enough for Lucian to understand the seriousness of the case. Enforcer agents didn't normally take on cases that didn't require having someone terminated.

“Hell, the kid got lost in the jungle. Kids do stupid things like that all the time.”

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“Knowing that, you should have been more responsible, since you were the adult,” Demetria said.

“Who do I need to talk to so I can get this straightened out? I want him home at once,” Lucian said, changing the subject.

No way would she or the director allow Brayden to return to Lucian. “You'll have to speak to the director of the Guardian branch concerning Brayden. Once we had word he was at risk—hanging around with other at-risk teens and without adult supervision and homeschooling, which you know is mandatory for our kind—we had to take him into protective custody. Not only that, but this isn't the first time we've had issues with you over this.”

“Who's the director, and what's his number?” Lucian growled.

Demetria gave him the director's name and number. “I'll patch you through to him.” Before she could, Lucian hung up on her. She wasn't totally surprised he was angry but was a little surprised he'd taken so long to realize Brayden was in the Guardian's custody. If she and the other Guardians hadn't left messages, Lucian would never have known his stepson hadn't been home all night. Did his stepfather do this all the time?

“Well, what do you think?” Howard asked.

“He didn't deny that he'd lost him in the jungle, which would have been his word against Brayden's, and he could be right about just not realizing Brayden wasn't with him,” Everett said. “As a new stepfather, he might not have realized how important watching out for a young boy in the jungle could be. By the way, nice touch mentioning your branch affiliation to communicate a threat, Howard.”

Howard gave him a dark smile. “We don't always terminate the subjects we're pursuing. Most of the time, but not always. So the mention of our branch usually gets a response.”

“I agree with Everett. Perfect comment to Lucian, in case he thinks the Guardian agents don't have any backbone. Particularly when his stepson has gone home with him twice before, but that has been Brayden's choice. We always take the kid's wishes under consideration. Without finding someone else to corroborate that Lucian actually planned to leave Brayden in the jungle, we don't really have a case to pursue,” Demetria said. “Even so, he's not getting Brayden back, and that's the main thing for now.”

“Not even if Brayden decides he wants to return to his stepfather's home?” Howard asked.

“No. It's too late for that. He's an at-risk teen so he belongs with a family who will ensure he has rules to follow and a good home.”

Wanting to check on how Brayden was doing, Demetria called and let him know his stepdad had finally gotten ahold of her and wanted Brayden returned home.

He was distressed right away. “He doesn't care what happens to me! He wouldn't have known if I disappeared for days! I know because I've done it before!”

Demetria had been afraid of that. Brayden might have been testing to see just what he could get away with before his stepfather took notice.

“I like staying with the Stone family. They've been really good to me. I don't want to go back this time. Not ever.”

Demetria was glad to hear that Brayden was content with the arrangement. “All right, Brayden. Believe me, we have laws to back us up here. You're staying right where you are. I just wanted to let you know your dad isn't happy.”

“Stepdad.”

“Right. Stepdad. But at least he's well aware you're with a family now. He will most likely call the director and try to convince him to release you into his custody again, but it's not going to happen this time. Your stepdad would have to prove he's going to make some real changes in his life. The Guardian branch would require him to be monitored for a year first. If he even agreed to it, by the time the year passed, you'd be eighteen and could decide for yourself what you wanted to do.”

“What if he learns where I'm staying and tries to make me come home?”

“The foster family's name and location are confidential. No one will give out that information. The only way he'd learn of it is if you tell him or he discovers where you've been hanging out and catches you there.”

“Okay.”

“I need to talk to Mr. or Mrs. Stone for a moment. Because of your interest in returning to the jungle, I want to see if they had any trips scheduled or if I could find another family who does and would be willing to take you with them.”

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“The Stones are! I can't wait. I mean, it's okay, isn't it? They said I had to check with you in case I had work to do with you or Everett. They're going during the New Year's holiday.”

“Oh yes, Brayden. I'm thrilled for you. We'll make sure you're off for your entire vacation. We'll talk later. I just wanted to make sure you'd be able to go there. Also, Tammy wants to show you some of the training they're doing for new JAG agents. She'll tell you the times you'll need to be there.”

“Thanks. Do you still want to talk to my foster parents?”

“Yes, please.” Demetria spoke with Mrs. Stone again about Brayden's past jungle experience, wanting to make sure that his upcoming trip to South America would be as pleasant as could be.

“Believe me,” Mrs. Stone said, “he will have a ball, and all of us stick together at all times.”

Relieved that the issue was taken care of, Demetria finished speaking with her, and they said their good-byes.

“Sounds like a good deal for the boy,” Howard said.

“I'm thrilled he's going to be able to visit South America again. Hopefully, he will have a much better experience. I've got to call my boss and update him on the case.”

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Everett nodded. He was reading his emails or texts or something.

Demetria's boss picked up immediately. “I've already gotten a call from Lucian Covington,” Ben Knight said. “I'd spoken with Brayden, and I'm completely satisfied he's happy with his foster family. Lucian said we had no business taking his son into custody, and like last time, he wants him returned home at once. I read him the code about unsupervised shifter teens. No way are they allowed to run freely with human teens, who are also at risk, without any kind of adult supervision. Brayden is just asking for serious trouble. Even if he didn't do anything wrong, if the other kids he's running with did, they could all end up in jail together.

“Anyway, Lucian didn't like my response. I believe he thought he could intimidate me into giving up the boy because he felt he had done it successfully before. But I've got our shifter law behind us. There's no going back. He knows the rules: take care of your kids, or we will.”

Demetria sighed. “Do you think we'll have any more trouble with Lucian?”

“I wouldn't be surprised.”

She frowned. “What's wrong with some people anyway? He doesn't show any interest in his son, but when Brayden finds a lovely family to live with, Lucian all of a sudden wants to what? Protect him? Show some fatherly love? I doubt it. More likely, this is all about the trust fund arrangement.”

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“Agreed. We need written permission from the beneficiary, Brayden, and Lucian, the current trustee, to change it. We'll ensure that Lucian agrees. If you have any further trouble with him, direct him to me. I'll take care of it. Keep me informed.”

“Yes, sir.” She figured this was the last she'd get to work with Everett on the mission, and she was really disappointed. But maybe working together wouldn't end there. She smiled a little. No, it could be just the beginning.

When she ended the call, she said to Howard and Everett, “I guess we're done with this case for now, unless something else happens to warrant further investigation.”

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“I agree,” Howard said.

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“I'll be on leave for the next two weeks,” Everett said.

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“Me too. I am so looking forward to just lazing around in my pajamas until I feel the urge to go out and do something fun.”