x v i i

Prol ogue
The stack of photographs slipped to the floor, splaying
across the wood planks like wildflowers over a grassy
meadow. Her hands trembled as tears flowed down her cheeks.
This wasn’t real. This couldn’t be happening.
Yet the pictures proved otherwise. This was real, very real.
Her knees weakened. She slumped into the leather chair
behind the desk. Even the familiar whoosh couldn’t comfort her
now. The proof of his betrayal assaulted her. On the floor. On
the desk. In her hand.
Photographs of him in another woman’s arms. How could he
do this to them, his family? To her? Surely he knew this would
destroy them, but he cheated anyway. She didn’t understand. Did
they mean so little to him?
Her heart ached in a way she never thought possible. Like
someone shredded her insides. Another sob escaped her clenched
lips. It bounced off the walls and rattled her ears. She never
imagined betrayal like this would hurt so badly. So deeply.
She held her head in her hands, her elbows digging into the
unyielding wood of the desk. Her lungs fought to push air in and
out. Her legs wouldn’t stop quaking.
The morning sun beat past the curtains and flooded the loft
with light. How dare such a symbol of joy invade when her entire
life had just been destroyed?
STR AND OF DECEPTION x v i i i
Swallowing against a dry mouth, she bit her bottom lip and
stared at the photographs. All of a sudden, she felt physically
ill. This would destroy not only their family, but his career. His
future. Was that why the pictures were taken?
Her heart slammed against her ribs as another thought raced
through her mind . . . Why were the pictures here? Everything in
her didn’t want to believe what stared her right in the face. But
there was no other explanation. The photos were here . . . for
what? Money? A favor?
Blackmail?
Bile burned the back of her throat. This was all wrong.
Everything.
Her mind struggled to comprehend. She’d let him into the
family. Trusted him. Thought she loved him and he loved her.
Apparently, she was wrong.
Dead wrong.
The pictures mocked her from all sides. This was her fault.
She didn’t have a choice now—she’d have to confront him and
hear his excuse, not that she’d believe any lie he told. She’d
destroy the photographs, all of them, and demand the negatives.
Then she’d shut him out of their lives forever, even though it
would kill her.
Her legs barely supported the weight of her decision as she
ran for the bathroom.
1
Chapter One
“Adversity is sometimes hard upon a man; but for one man
who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred
that will stand adversity.”
ELVIS PRESLEY
Two Weeks Ago
“We call Ms. Madeline Baxter to the stand.”
Maddie wiped her hands on her skirt and stood.
She’d testified at various trials over the years, but never one like
this. Only a handful of people sat in the stuffy courtroom, the
heat turned too high. She took the oath to tell the truth amid
little fanfare before taking her seat in the witness stand.
She glanced over the few people sitting on the very hard, very
uncomfortable pews. The judge had closed the hearing to the
media, but the hounds waited just outside the oversized doors of
the Shelby County Courthouse. Those allowed inside were legal
figures, police, family members, and of course, the defendant.
“Ms. Baxter, will you please state your name and occupation
for the court record?”
STR AND OF DECEPTION 2
She leaned forward to the microphone. “Madeline Baxter.
I’m a forensic scientist specializing in serology and DNA.”
“And you are currently employed by the Tennessee Bureau of
Investigation, correct?”
Maddie licked her lips. “In the Forensic Services Division,
yes.”
The defense attorney shuffled through pages on the legal pad
he held. “Can you tell us a little about your professional back-
ground and qualifications, Ms. Baxter?”
Standard questions, but for the first time in her career, she
felt like she was in the hot seat. “I hold a bachelor’s degree in
chemistry, as well as one in forensic science from the University
of Tennessee. I graduated magna cum laude ten years ago and
have been working for the TBI ever since. As such, I am a com-
missioned law-enforcement officer.”
“Would you be described as an expert in your field, Ms.
Baxter?”
They always asked the same question, just worded in various
ways. Getting it on the record. “Yes.”
“And the lab where you conduct your tests . . . is it accredited?”
“The TBI forensic lab is accredited by the American Society
of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation
Board.”
“Good.” The lawyer paused for effect, Maddie was sure,
returning to the table where the defendant sat, back straight and
shoulders squared. “Now, Ms. Baxter, I’d like to direct you to
a recent DNA test you conducted at the request of my office,
regarding the defendant, Mr. Mark Hubble.”
And here we go. Maddie licked her lips again. “Yes.”
“You recall performing this test?”
“Yes.”
“Can you give the court a brief overview for the record?”
ROBIN CAROLL 3
“Our lab was supplied a saliva sample taken nine years ago
from a crime scene involving a sexual assault. The sample was
well preserved. I initially made tests, presumptive tests, for the
presence of blood, which is ortho-tolidine. I utilized hydrogen
peroxide as the tests reagents. I conducted testing for acid phos-
phatase, testing for P30 protein and for amylase, which is an
enzyme found in saliva in high concentrations.”
“Go on.” The attorney nodded, as if he understood every-
thing she said. He didn’t. Most people didn’t. All they wanted to
know was what she would testify to next.
“We were also supplied, by the Shelby County Sheriff ’s
Office, a saliva sample of the defendant.”
“And you ran these same tests on that sample?”
“I did.”
The lawyer paced slowly in front of the courtroom, paused,
then moved beside her. “And you compared the two results?”
“Yes.”
“And what was your conclusion?”
Maddie sat up straighter. “That Mr. Hubble is excluded as a
match for the saliva sample.”
The attorney smiled as he faced her. “So, in your expert opin-
ion, Ms. Baxter, the tests you ran on the samples concluded the
samples were from a different person, right?”
She nodded, then remembered she was in court. “Yes.”
“Are you positive?”
“Yes. Science doesn’t lie.”
The defense attorney smiled broadly. “Thank you, Ms.
Baxter.” He grinned at the judge. “I have no further questions,
Your Honor.”
The judge glanced at the opposing table. The prosecutor
jumped to his feet. “We have no questions, Your Honor.”
“You may step down.” The judge excused her.
STR AND OF DECEPTION 4
She marched from the witness stand, catching the defen-
dant’s stare as she did. His eyes were dark, lifeless as he stared
through her. A chill settled over her as she rushed past him.
The victim had stood in court, faced the man, and testified
that Mark Hubble had sexually assaulted her. He’d been found
guilty and sentenced to fifteen years. He’d served six already
when his appellant lawyer discovered the saliva sample sitting in
evidence and the order for DNA testing came through.
Looking at him now, Maddie’s stomach knotted. He gave
her the creeps, but DNA didn’t lie. She had run the tests twice
and gone over the results multiple times, twice with the head of
the crime lab. The samples weren’t from the same person—she
was 100 percent positive of that fact. She stood behind the sci-
ence over eyewitness testimony. How had the victim identified
the wrong man?
Within moments, the judge had overturned the conviction
and set Mr. Mark Hubble free with the court’s humble apology.
Right . . . Maddie could see the defense attorney’s eyes shining
with visions of dollar signs as he would prepare a civil suit for
wrongful incarceration and try to get rich off sensationalizing
this case. The media would grab hold of the details like pit bulls,
locking their jaws on the story and not letting loose until the next
big one surfaced.
Maddie shoved open the courtroom door and ducked behind
the marshal as he held up his hands to ward off the vultures
waiting in the hall. Flashes snapped.
She rushed down the hall, trying to ignore the reporters tail-
ing her. Turning, she let the music soothe her as it had for years.
“If you’re looking for trouble—”
“Ms. Baxter, is it true Hubble’s DNA wasn’t a match to the
saliva sample?” Yes. She kept walking at a fast clip. Daa-da-da-
da-da.
ROBIN CAROLL 5
“Is it possible your lab contaminated the samples?” No. “You
came to the right place.”
Gritting her teeth to stop the retort on the tip of her tongue,
Maddie stomped toward the exit. While most of the media
stayed behind at the courtroom to hound Mark Hubble, a few
industrious reporters dogged her heels.
“Ms. Baxter, a statement, please?”
No way. Daa-da-da-da-da.
“How do you feel about your results freeing a man?”
If only the man didn’t give her the creeps . . . if only she could
believe he was innocent.
“What would you say to Mark Hubble’s victim right now?”
Maddie stumbled at the last question. How did she feel
toward the victim? The woman had to have mistakenly identi-
fied Hubble, right? But how would she feel when she heard the
news that Hubble was free?
Dear God, please be with that poor woman. Wrap her in Your
arms and comfort her in the way only You can.
Maddie regained her footing and broke free out the doors.
She paused, gulping in the cool February air. The midday sun
shot through the sky but didn’t offer much heat against the
breeze. She rushed down the stairs to the street corner, then
turned back to the courthouse.
Her sword at her side, the statue of Lady Justice with her
blindfold permanently in place stared back at Maddie. The
marble she was carved from as cold as Maddie’s heart.
Science didn’t lie.
Present Day, Friday
“Sir, is it possible your daughter might have stayed the night
at a friend’s and just overslept today?” Special Agent in Charge
STR AND OF DECEPTION 6
Nick Hagar peered into the man’s face, gauging even the slight-
est nuance for possible deception.
“No, it’s not.” The man’s stance tightened, his Adam’s apple
bobbing.
Nick sighed. Missing children were the worst cases—par-
ents distraught, scared, and rightly so, no matter the child’s
age. The enormous emotional toll on parents when they didn’t
know what happened to their child . . . he knew all too well
what that looked like. Memphis kept her secrets—always had,
always would.
“Gina is well aware of the immediate consequences if she
misses a check-in.” Les Ford’s public expression usually hid well
his fifty-nine years. Today, every year weighted the lines of his
ebony face. His tensed shoulders seemed out of place against the
smooth lines in the formal living room. “Especially in light of
that girl last week.”
“I understand that, sir, and I mean no disrespect. I must
ask these hard questions to find your daughter. If there’s even a
remote chance she’s merely out of touch . . .”
Despite her father’s prominent position, Gina Ford was a
college student. One who could’ve stayed at a party and crashed
with a friend. Or stayed somewhere she didn’t want her father to
know about. Several other reasons she was just out of touch. So
far, nothing indicated she’d been taken hostage to manipulate
her father or she was a victim of foul play. Nick made brief eye
contact with Darren, motioning him over to the couch.
The distraught father ran a trembling hand over the top of
his head. The ends of his closely cropped black hair were tipped
with white. “I apologize, Agent Hagar.” He let out a long, slow
breath. “Call it a gut feeling or father’s intuition, whatever, but
my daughter’s in trouble.”
“Okay, let’s back up. I know you’ve already told the police
ROBIN CAROLL 7
everything, but I’m going to ask you to tell me so I have all the
details.” Nick sat forward on the high-back chair, taking in every
movement, nuance, and gesture Les Ford made. “This is Agent
Timmons, who’ll be taking notes for our investigation.”
Nodding at Darren, Ford flexed, then relaxed his fingers
dangling in front of him. “Last night, Gina had study group and
didn’t plan to get home until after midnight.”
“Do you know the names of those in her study group?”
Darren asked, pen poised over his notebook.
“Rebecca Dragon, Cynthia Mantle, Lisa Trainer, and Rachel
Boxer. But Rachel wasn’t feeling well last night so she called
to tell them she wouldn’t be able to join them.” Gina’s father
shot Darren a look that indicated he knew everything about his
daughter’s life. Or thought he did. He turned his piercing black
eyes to Nick. “The group usually meets every Thursday evening
in the McWherter Library from eight until eleven, then they go
out for pizza at Garibaldi’s.”
Darren scribbled while Ford continued. “Last night, Gina
returned to her room early. She told me she didn’t feel like pizza
and had some stuff to do before her workout in the morning. So
she planned on going to bed as soon as we hung up. That was
at eleven fifteen last night. I haven’t heard from her since.” His
voice cracked.
Nick waited, understanding the father needed a moment to
recompose. Nick cleared his throat. “What time did you realize
she was out of contact?”
“Ten thirty this morning. She always calls when she arrives
at the university’s fitness center, and we walk half an hour on the
treadmill together every weekday.”
Nick glanced at his watch—closer to one than noon. The
silent ticking of every second falling off the clock skidded down
his spine. “And when she didn’t call?”
STR AND OF DECEPTION 8
“I called her cell. It went straight to voice mail. I called her
room. No answer. I went to her apartment. She wasn’t there, but
I saw evidence that she’d slept there last night.”
“You have a key to your daughter’s place?” Darren asked.
Ford shot him a look full of disdain. “I’m her father. Of
course I have a key to her apartment.” He pushed to his feet and
dug out a key ring from his front pocket. His hands trembled as
he pulled a single key off the ring and passed it to Nick. “Here’s
her key. Her car wasn’t there.”
This was feeling less and less like a kidnapping and more
and more like . . . what? Nick swallowed the sigh and stood,
staring out the expansive window overlooking a private garden.
“And your wife? Is it safe to assume she has no idea where your
daughter could be?”
“Mrs. Ford hasn’t heard from Gina. Of course, she is
extremely upset at the moment. I ordered her to take a sedative
to calm her nerves and to lie down for a bit.” He gave a slight
shrug. “She had a minor medical procedure performed a few days
ago and needs her rest.”
Oh, yeah, Nick understood all right. He’d seen video clips
of Jennifer Ford on the news recently, leaving the dermatologist’s
office. Rumors floated around that she’d had some lightening
done. Without intent, his gaze settled on the framed photos
adorning the marble mantle. Jennifer’s skin looked like smooth
mocha as she smiled at the camera.
Nick stopped at the photograph of Gina. “May I?” He
pointed at the frame and raised a single brow to Ford.
“Certainly.” Ford nodded. “That was taken a few months
ago.”
The girl was beautiful, there was no doubt about that. Her
skin was even lighter than her mother’s, her chocolate eyes wide,
but not as wide as her smile showing off perfectly straight and
ROBIN CAROLL 9
white teeth. There was a freshness to her face . . . a reflection
of genuine passion for life. Nick’s chest tightened at the mere
word—passion. How long had it been since he’d felt passionate
about much of anything?
He shook off his thoughts and directed his attention to
Gina’s father. “Did she mention what stuff she needed to do this
morning before her workout?”
Ford shook his head. “I assumed it had to do with schoolwork.”
Nick sat back on the chair. “We’ll get her schedule later.
Right now, tell me about Gina. What are her interests? Hobbies?
Special people in her life?”
Ford’s eyes glistened as his voice warbled uncharacteristically.
“Gina is kind and loving, a wonderful daughter and person.” He
cleared his throat, staring off into space. “She loves the ballet and
art. Takes after her mother that way.” A gentle smile was affixed
on his face and he swallowed hard. For a moment, Nick forgot
who the man was and saw only a scared father.
The Tennessee afternoon sun settled over the garden just on
the other side of the wall. Various flowers extended and poised
toward the warmth of the rays against the February chill. A gust
shoved against stems, swaying them.
“Gina is an excellent student. Takes pride in her work. All of
her professors tout how much they enjoy her being in their class.”
Which could just be lip service to an important man, who
happens to sit on the University of Memphis’s board.
“She’s active in various community-volunteer positions, mainly
through my office. My assistant can give you a list of them.”
Nick nodded. “What about the people she spends the most
time with?”
“Gina’s best friend is Cynthia Mantle. They’ve been close
since high school. They were on the dance squad together back
then.”
STR AND OF DECEPTION 10
They’re also in the same study group. Nick would definitely
speak with Ms. Mantle.
Darren tapped against the notebook. “What about a boyfriend?”
The senator frowned. “Gina understands it’s not prudent to
become serious with anyone while she’s so young.”
Surely Ford didn’t believe his daughter didn’t date.
“She has, however, begun seeing a young man. A David
Tiddle.”
Nick leaned forward again. “I mean no disrespect, sir, but I’m
sure you’ve had him checked out, so I’d like to see your report,
if I might.”
Ford stared down his nose. “She’s not serious about him.
He’s only been to the house a couple of times for dinner.” He
shrugged. “Seems like a nice enough young man.”
And Nick would just bet Ford had a nice, fat dossier on
Tiddle. “Sir, I’m not judging you or your family, but anything
you can provide will help us to find your daughter.”
Ford stood and moved to the desk in the corner of the room.
He opened a drawer and withdrew a thin manila envelope he
passed to Nick. “That’s all the initial query gathered. I haven’t
authorized more digging. Hadn’t planned on it unless Gina felt
like the relationship was turning exclusive.”
Nick slipped the file under his arm and stood. “Thank you.
One last thing . . . can you think of anyone who would want to
harm your daughter?”
“Considering my position? I have many enemies, Agent.”
“Anybody in particular recently?”
“Let me get you a list of those on our current threat-watch.”
Interesting they had to keep a current list. Nick paused at the
door while Ford returned to the desk. Nick turned to Darren.
“I’m going to question Ms. Mantle. You check out the other
members of the study group. And pull Gina’s phone records.”
ROBIN CAROLL 11
Darren nodded as Ford returned and passed a piece of paper
to Darren.
Nick moved to the hallway and addressed the senator. “Is
there anything else you can think of? Even if it’s remote and
seems unimportant at the moment?”
Ford’s fear flickered across his face. “Please, find my daughter.”
Chest tightening, Nick nodded. “I’ll do my best, Senator.”

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