THE BROTHER QUEST
The Luchettis Book #3
If anything ever happens to me, go to 445 Briar Lane, Wind Lake, Minnesota.
Colin Luchetti read the cryptic note for perhaps the hundredth time. He would know the precise, anal retentive handwriting of his brother anywhere.
Something had happened to Bobby, but no one was sure what. He was a captain in the U.S. Special Forces and the leader of a twelve-man A-team. Nevertheless, he had disappeared in Afghanistan about two months ago. Neither his superiors nor his men had any clue where he’d gone.
The note would have been cause for celebration, indicating that Bobby was still alive, except the thing had been postmarked before Colin’s brother disappeared.
But the date on the envelope raised another question. Had Bobby known he was in danger? If so, why hadn’t he written a better letter?
Colin had called Bobby’s boss and informed him of the note, but the man had been unimpressed.
“It’s not like ISIS could sneak into camp and make off with your brother, Mr. Luchetti.’’
“No? From where I’m standing, ISIS seems to sneak around at will.”
“Since you aren’t standing here, how would you know? When we have news of your brother, we’ll be in touch.”
The call had been terminated. Colin wasn’t surprised. He rubbed authority figures the wrong way—always had.
As a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Dispatch, Colin was living his dream. During a long, boring childhood in the heartland of Illinois, he’d imagined seeing the world and writing about it.
The prospect of staying in Gainesville and being just one more Luchetti brother had been unappealing. He’d decided he wanted to be famous. After eight years of busting his hump in places very few people wanted to go, he was well on his way to getting what he wanted.
But he’d had to turn down a plum assignment to Pakistan and take vacation time—something he had plenty of, since he rarely used it—to search for his brother. Why Bobby would send him to Godforsaken, Minnesota, Colin had no idea. But since it was the only clue available, here he was.
He glanced through the windshield of his rented car toward the redbrick house with 445 in large black numerals on the front. The sign just below the numbers read Chasing Rainbows Preschool. What was going on here?
Colin would have understood if his brother was shacked up with some Nordic bimbo. He’d have kicked his ass, but he’d have understood.
Except Bobby was not the type to go MIA in one place, then turn up somewhere else with a woman. He hadn’t become a Special Forces officer by being irresponsible. For Bobby, the army was his life, his career there as important as Colin’s was to him. Which only made his sudden disappearance all the more disturbing. Bobby Luchetti had not earned the family nickname GI Joe because he liked to play with dolls.
Colin got out of the car and approached the preschool. The windows were decorated with handmade American flags and bright red-and-green apples.
He understood the apples—this was a school, after all—and since it was near the end of August, the flags made a certain kind of sense. Labor Day was only two weeks away. What else did they have to look forward to around here?
On the front door a sign said Welcome, Friends, so he turned the knob and stepped inside.
The floor was covered with little bodies. For an instant his neck prickled, until he saw that they were sleeping.
Weariness washed over Colin. He wanted to grab a mat and lie down, too. He’d gotten on a plane in Paris...yesterday? This morning? Tomorrow? His mind was too jet-lagged to do the math.
Colin glanced around. Several walls had been removed to construct a single open area at the front of the house. A long hallway led toward the backyard. There was a single doorway on the opposite side of the room.
He caught the sound of a voice and followed it, picking his way through the maze of children until he reached a door that was ajar. Colin pushed it open.
A woman knelt on all fours, head and shoulders stuffed beneath a table, fanny up in the air. “Come out of there right now, you hear me? This is not funny.”
Her blue jeans were worn thin at the seat, emphasizing a round, ample backside. A bit too ample to be considered trim, but Colin was getting mighty sick of the no-ass model types he’d dated. Just once he’d like to take a woman out to eat and actually see her eat.
When had that started to bother him? Why did it bother him? He’d squired some of the most beautiful women in the world to places most people only read about. If they had no asses, who was he to complain?
Suddenly the woman dived forward. He heard a thump, like a head hitting metal. “Ouch! You’re going to pay for that.”
Was that any way to talk to a child? Colin cleared his throat.
The woman jumped and banged her head again, then backed out from underneath the table. Glancing up, she rubbed what must be, by now, a good-size knot.
She was very young, maybe eighteen or nineteen. Her blond hair fell in a soft straight wash past her shoulders. Her skin was pale and clear, full cheeks flushed with pain, embarrassment or heat, he wasn’t sure which.
She wasn’t exactly pretty. In fact, she appeared to still have her baby fat, as his mom would say. Large-rimmed glasses—severely out of style and not at all flattering—framed light-blue eyes surrounded by thick lashes. His fingers itched to remove those glasses and get a better glimpse of those amazing eyes, but she scrambled to her feet and lunged for the phone.
“Hey, relax,’’ he ordered.
She hesitated, glancing toward the room of sleeping children, then back again. Her smooth skin creased into a frown that spread from her ample mouth all the way up to her forehead. “Who are you and what are you doing in my preschool?’’
Colin lifted his hands in the universal gesture of surrender. “I’m looking for...a...”
He wasn’t sure what to say. Bobby wasn’t here. He’d be a little hard to miss. Maybe Colin was in the wrong place.
The girl tilted her head, and her hair slid across her T-shirt, drawing his attention to the purple dinosaur on her chest. It was an amazing chest.
He forced his eyes back to hers. Lucky for him she was too young, too innocent or maybe too preoccupied to notice his faux pas. Why was he ogling the spectacular breasts of a woman who was not only too young but not anywhere near his type? Sure, he was sick of no-ass models, but he’d never had a taste for large-boned Viking women, either.
She stared at him with her eyebrows lifted, though it was kind of hard to tell since they were so blond they were almost invisible. Women of his acquaintance would have felt the need to dye those eyebrows or pencil them in. That she hadn’t done so interested Colin more than it should have.
“You’d better state your business or I’ll be calling Chief Moose.”
The image of an actual moose wearing a policeman’s hat walked through Colin’s mind, but he shook it away.
“If you’re so worried about intruders, maybe you should lock the front door.”
“No one locks their doors in Wind Lake.”
If Colin hadn’t lived the first eighteen years of his life in another land of the unlocked door, he might have been surprised.
“Where is the lake?”
“There isn’t one.”
“Isn’t Minnesota the land of ten thousand lakes?”
Her lips twitched. “You’ve been reading license plates.”
He hadn’t had much choice. The drive out of Minneapolis had been full of them.
“The Indians named the place,” she said. “In the spring and summer, we’re tornado alley. In the winter, blizzard bay.”
His confusion must have shown because she elaborated. “Hence the name Wind Lake—as in lake of wind. Or at least that’s what the Sioux called it in their language, which was too difficult for us white folks to pronounce, so we changed it.”
“I see,” he said, though he didn’t.
Her gaze darted to the ground. She let out a soft but intense, “Gotcha, you little son of a gun,” and fell to the floor behind the table. A scuffle ensued.
“Um, should you really be treating him, or her, like that?”
She climbed to her feet and blew her hair from her face with an upward puff of air from her lips. Her right hand was hidden from his view by the tabletop. “What?”
“I know I’m not a teacher or anything, but you seem to be treating that kid a little rough.”
“Kid?” She giggled and lifted her hand. Draped over her palm was a...
“Ugh.” Colin shuddered. “That’s the biggest rat I’ve ever seen.”
Her giggle erupted into laughter, the force of her mirth making her chest jiggle better than anything he’d ever seen on Cinemax. But the sound was so inviting, Colin found himself distracted from the view. When she laughed, he wanted to laugh with her, an uncommon occurrence for him.
Colin rarely laughed. In his world there wasn’t much he found funny. Starvation, war, overpopulation—nothing to chuckle about there.
He’d been a solemn child, and he’d become a sober man. Still, he might have laughed along with this woman—if he hadn’t been so grossed out by the rat-thing in her hand.
“This is Houdini.” She stepped over to the counter and popped the animal into a cage. Twisting the lock, she shook her head. “The disappearing guinea pig. Blink and he’ll be out of there and under the furniture before you can say, ‘Eek!’’’ She contemplated him for a moment. “Where are you from that you don’t know a guinea pig from a rat?”
Now that he got a good glimpse of the critter, safely confined, Colin could see it wasn’t a rat. It only looked like one.
“We didn’t have many pets where I grew up.”
His mom had always said there were enough animals in the house—referring to himself and his four brothers. The farm dogs had stayed outside, and they’d never been very petlike. The thought of Eleanor Luchetti allowing a guinea pig anywhere near her was ludicrous.
The places he’d been living since he’d left the farm had rats the size of dogs, which might in some way explain his unreasonable aversion to large rodents. If there’d been any guinea pigs, they’d have been lunch—for the rats and the people.
“Too bad,” she murmured. “Kids should have pets.”
Colin wouldn’t know.
“You really thought I was chasing a child around under there?” From her expression, she obviously couldn’t decide if she should be amused or insulted.
She waved her hand, dismissing his apology. “You were concerned. I wish more people would speak up if they feel uneasy about the things they see. We might have less abuse, fewer kidnappings.”
She smiled, and Colin was left dazzled and wondering how he could ever have thought she wasn’t pretty. She had perfect teeth, white and straight. Her parents had obviously been able to afford braces. Unlike his own.
“Now, who is it you were searching for?”
“Brother?” Her smile faded. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you take any of my kids without permission from their parents, even if you are his brother.”
Colin’s tired brain didn’t catch her meaning for several seconds. “Oh! No. My brothers are all older than you are, Miss...?”
“Anderson. Marlie Anderson.”
The name fit her. Soft, sweet and Swedish. Or was it Norwegian?
What difference did it make? Damn, he was tired.
“Then I don’t understand why you think you’ll find your brother here. What’s his name?”
From the way Miss Anderson’s beautiful blue eyes widened behind her great, big glasses, he had come to the right place.
* * *
Marlie had been uncomfortable from the moment she’d seen this man’s face, and she hadn’t been able to figure out why. It seemed as if she knew him. But she’d never seen him before.
She sat on the edge of the table and his brow creased with concern. He took one step forward, hand outstretched as if he was going to touch her. She probably appeared as if she might faint.
Not that crawling out from under a table to discover that a stranger had strolled through a room of sleeping children who were in her care shouldn’t upset her. Since intruders in Wind Lake were as scarce as a green Christmas, something like this had never happened before. However, his presence in her school no longer upset her; his identity did.
“Which one are you?” she managed through a tight throat.
Marlie ran through her knowledge of Bobby’s many brothers. Colin, the foreign correspondent.
He resembled Bobby around the eyes; they had the same shade of brown hair, though Bobby’s was a lot shorter. And while Bobby had the muscular build of a lifetime soldier, his brother’s body was long and lean, as if he liked to run marathons, though Lord knew why.
His perfectly coiffed hair, handsome face, piano-man fingers and smooth way of talking made her think he spent most of his time sipping martinis in rooms lit by chandeliers. She’d half expected him to introduce himself as “Luchetti, Colin Luchetti.”
“How do you know Bobby?” he asked.
She ignored the question. She had a few of her own that were much more important. “Why would he be in Wind Lake?”
“I was hoping you could tell me. You haven’t seen him? Heard from him? When was the last time he was here?”
“I’ve never met Bobby Luchetti in my life.”
Colin rubbed his forehead. “Miss, I don’t mean to be rude, but I just flew here from Paris—”
“Well, la-di-da,” she muttered, then clapped her hand over her mouth.
Marlie usually kept her sarcastic comments to herself. A lifetime living in Wind Lake had taught her that a smart-mouthed girl got into trouble, and a smart-mouthed preschool teacher ended up with very few students. As a result, all of Marlie’s perfect comebacks took place in her own head.
But this time she’d actually spoken out loud. What was the matter with her?
She was confused and a little afraid. There was no reason for Bobby’s brother to search for him here. Heck, if he was searching for him at all, that couldn’t be good.
Colin didn’t even acknowledge her rudeness. Instead, his gaze flicked over her shoulder. His eyes widened. “Um, your...uh, that thing...”
She spun around just in time to see Houdini escape from his cage and race away.
She threw up her hands. “I give up. Let him hide all night. Let him never come back.” She lowered her arms to her sides in defeat. “But the kids will cry.”
“Miss Anderson, I’ll help you look for your rat-thing—”
“Guinea pig,” she corrected.
“Whatever.” His mouth twisted with distaste.
He really seemed to dislike her “rat-thing.” Strange behavior for a man who’d been raised on a farm.
“I’ll help you,” he repeated, “but first, can you tell me how you know my brother?”
“We’re pen pals.”
That stumped Mr. Not-a-Hair-Out-of-Place. “I don’t understand.”
“We’ve exchanged letters. Frequently. Or at least we did until last spring.”
Bobby had a busy life, an important job. She was surprised he’d written to her for as long as he had. But what had hurt was that he’d stopped writing after she’d sent him her picture. She knew she wasn’t pretty. In fact, she was downright plain, even dumpy.
But Bobby hadn’t seemed interested in her in that way. He’d been lonely. He’d liked hearing about the children. When he’d asked for her picture, she’d sent him one. What difference did it make if she didn’t resemble Taylor Swift?
“What’s happened?’’ she demanded.
Marlie never demanded. She didn’t shout. She rarely swore. When folks in Wind Lake thought of Marlie Anderson, they thought of a sweet, sturdy, soon-to-be-old-maid schoolteacher. She was a comforting, sure presence in the lives of so many children, which was exactly what she wanted to be.
If she’d dreamed a few foolish dreams in the privacy of her bedroom, so what? She was entitled. It wasn’t as if Bobby would ever know she’d fantasized about him. She’d never planned on meeting the man and certainly never thought she’d meet his brother.
The urge to scream, shout, shake Colin Luchetti until he told her what was going on nearly overwhelmed her. Marlie clenched her fists. “Tell me.”
“Not exactly. He went to bed one night and in the morning he was gone.”
“Then they waited and they searched and they never found him.”
“Is the United States Army in the habit of misplacing their captains?”
“You’d be surprised at what they misplace.”
Marlie’s eyebrows shot up. She lived in a conservative hamlet that didn’t question the federal government—much. The idea that the army might not be as invincible as everyone liked to believe was not something Marlie wanted to dwell on.
“Why did you come here?”
Colin opened his mouth to answer just as a small voice said, “Miss Marlie? Ned had an accident again.”
Marlie didn’t need to ask what Jake meant. The damp patch on the front of his sweatpants told the tale.
“Accidents happen, Big Jake,” she said brightly.
“How come they always happen to me and Ned?” Jake hung his head.
Marlie wanted to scoop the child up and cuddle him close, but she needed to get him changed first. “Let’s find your spare clothes, kiddo. That’s what they’re here for.”
“Ned, too,” she agreed, even though Ned had no extra clothes, because there wasn’t any Ned.
“Ahem.” Colin stared at his feet with an expression she could only describe as horrified.
“Houdini!” Jake shouted, and lunged.
The furry body shot off Colin’s shoe and disappeared behind the filing cabinet.
Marlie took Jake’s hand.
“You’re not going to just leave him back there, are you?” Colin asked, inching closer to the door.
“I can’t chase Houdini and locate Jake’s spare clothes. Unless you’d like to volunteer.”
Expecting Colin to pursue the guinea pig, Marlie was left openmouthed when he took Jake’s hand and let the boy lead him out of the room.