Read an Excerpt
Lindsey Salinger frequently found herself doing the ill-advised, all in the name of helping someone in need.
Like now. The ill-advised was jogging "fast" when she hadn't exercised for a while. Okay, a long while.
The someone in need was her dad. She had to check on him, see for herself he was following doctor's orders and doing what he was supposed to: staying horizontal. His live-in housekeeper, Mrs. Hale, had been with him all day, but she'd had to leave for a meeting.
This would be a lot simpler if Lindsey's 1996 Civic hadn't quit on the way home from work. Since she'd already been running late and her roommate, Brooke, wasn't home, she'd decided jogging was the quickest way to get there. If she didn't die first.
Three houses down from her dad's, she allowed herself to slow to a brisk walk. She sucked in the chilled air in an attempt to dull the pain in her lungs. As she blew out, a sound from the evergreen bushes bordering the sidewalk stopped her.
Was that a child's whimper?
She strained to hear, wondering if her ears were playing tricks on her. But no, she heard a shaky intake of breath from the same direction. Faint, but unquestionable.
Lindsey looked at her dad's house, searching for a sign that he needed her immediately, but of course, there was none. No movement, no noise, only a dim light on inside.
She crouched to scan under the low-hanging branches and thought she spotted something on the far side. Creeping forward, she saw two small feet in grungy once-white socks.
Lindsey ducked her head and pushed her way through the branches. Her hands sank in the cold dirt, and pine needles stuck to her clothes.
Once she reached the trunk, there was a little more clearance, and she sat up as much as she could. She shoved her ball cap back to find herself face-to-face with a boy who couldn't be much more than five or six years old.
"Hi," Lindsey said, smiling to ease his fright. "It's okay. I'm one of the good guys."
He sized her up for several seconds, and she wondered if he'd try to run off. There was no quick escape route, so she doubted she'd lose him.
The boy's dark hair was disheveled, and he wore only a long-sleeved shirt, jeans and socks. Not nearly enough for February in Kansas"it couldn't be more than forty degrees out here. He clung to a branch near his head with one hand and grasped a small toy truck in his other.
"My name's Lindsey. What's yours?"
He sucked in his lower lip and let out a wail.
"Come here, sweetie." She held him while he sobbed into her shoulder.
Why was this little guy outside by himself?
He grabbed her upper arm with his free hand, squeezing tightly. Lindsey rubbed the back of his head with a gentle, circular motion.
She'd have to take him with her to make sure her dad wasn't curled up with a bag of chocolate chip cookies or something else off-limits.
"Shh. It'll be okay."
The boy's sobs gradually slowed, and he let go of her arm. He rubbed his eyes with one hand but still held the yellow cement mixer as if his life depended on it.
"What's your name, sweetie?"
He didn't respond; instead, he turned and scooted several inches away.
"Are you lost?" She reached across and rumpled his hair. "Tell you what. Let's get you inside and warmed up. You like hot chocolate?"
He shrugged. "I bet you do. With mountains of whipped cream on top."
She saw a flicker of interest in his eyes. "Then you can tell me your name and where you belong."
Please, let him open up. She didn't want to call the police. They'd just rattle him further.
"Come with me."
They crawled out from under the branches. Lindsey brushed dirt and twigs off her own pants, then the boy's. She held out her hand. He hesitated, then took it, and Lindsey frowned at how cold his fingers were.
The spicy aroma of burning cedar wood nearby hovered in the breeze and Lindsey shivered. She'd dressed lightly for running"yoga pants and a longsleeved T-shirt"not for a kid rescue.
They'd passed two yards drenched in shadow by towering, decades-old oak trees before the boy spoke. "Where are we going?" His voice was hoarse, like he'd been crying for ages.
"To my dad's house."
He seemed to consider her answer for several seconds. "Do you live there, too?"
Lindsey shook her head. "I have my own house, so I don't live with my dad anymore."
"Me, neither." His voice was considerably quieter, melancholic.
Where was his mother?
When they reached her dad's, she slipped her left, rarely worn tennis shoe off and took out her key, then unlocked the front door. She stomped her shoe back on as they walked through the main floor. A faint light shone under the closed door of the den, which they'd converted to a temporary bedroom so her dad could avoid stairs. Good. At least he was where he was supposed to be.
"Hey, Dad, it's me!" Lindsey said as she went by.
"Be in in a sec!"
She led the boy into the large kitchen of the house she'd grown up in and flipped on the fluorescent light.
He darted a curious glance around the room, shifting his weight from one leg to the other.
"Can you tell me your name now, sweetie?"
He studied the floor, running one foot along the lines in the linoleum pattern. "Owen."
Her heart missed a beat.
Coincidence? She could only hope. She'd heard rumors around town for the past couple of weeks about a boy named Owen.
Thank goodness her dad's door was shut. She lowered her voice. "Is Josh Rundle your daddy?"
He nodded solemnly.
Lindsey's chest tightened. She didn't realize she'd clenched her teeth until the pressure became painful and registered in her brain.
She pushed the hateful feelings aside and compelled her body to relax. Pretend Owen belonged to someone else. He had nothing to do with his father's past.
She had no idea what her dad would do if he found out she'd brought a Rundle into his house, but she knew it wouldn't be good. He couldn't afford to get upset, especially not with his health so fragile.
Forcing a smile, she patted Owen's head and went to the fridge to make him a snack. She sliced an apple and some cheese and warmed a mug of instant cocoa in the microwave, hoping the food would keep him occupied while she went to say hi to her dad.
Josh's child. That would explain a lot. Why he was left to wander outside, why he was underdressed. Why he was scared, hungry and tired. Josh Rundle didn't have a responsible bone in his body.
Lindsey set everything on the table, spooned whipped cream into the mug and pulled the chair out for Owen. "I'll be right back," she told him. "You stay here and fill your tummy."
She went to the den-turned-bedroom, which was next to the kitchen. She knocked lightly on the door but didn't wait for a reply.
"Hey, Dad." She made her voice cheerful as she entered the room, every surface cluttered with books and newspapers. Her eyes automatically stopped at the Astros cap"her favorite"in the top row of his wall of baseball caps.
Her dad, in flannel pyjamas, raised the remote from his stomach and muted the television. "Hi, honey," he said as she leaned down to kiss his forehead. "Didn't hear you come in."
"How're you feeling?" She scrutinized him for a sign that he should still be in the hospital.
Wendell Salinger's salt-and-pepper hair seemed heavier on the salt than it had been just a week ago and was rumpled from being in bed for days on end. His hazel eyes moved from her to the silent television and back again. That he was watching TV instead of reading spoke of his fatigue as much as his red-rimmed eyes did. The frown etched into his face seemed more pronounced than usual.
"Oh, not bad, all things considered."
All things considered were a heart attack and a double bypass eight days ago. Lindsey had brought him home from the hospital just this morning. She'd hated leaving him right away to rush to work, even though he had Mrs. Hale, who served as her dad's live-in housekeeper, cook and friend. Mrs. Hale was kind, caring and took no crap. Lindsey trusted Claudia Hale as much as the wonderful nurses who'd mollycoddled her dad the past few days, but she still needed to be here herself.
"Sorry I'm late."
He furrowed his bushy dark eyebrows. "Late? We have a date?"
"I told Mrs. Hale I'd be here before she left for her church meeting."
"I don't need a nursemaid."
She sat on the roll-away twin-sized bed next to him. "Did she make you a good dinner?"
"Hell, no. Didn't give me enough to fill up an ant. I want a slab of meat, not a scrap."
Lindsey sighed. "She was following doctor's orders. You can't eat like you used to."
"You'll take care of me though, won't you?" He smiled confidently.
"Of course. I'll make you follow your new diet." He started to say something, but she cut him off.
"No grumbling. You're going to do this our way. We'd like to keep you around for a while."
His face softened and he reached for her hand. "I'd be more grateful if you'd bring me a hunk of that chocolate cake I saw on the counter out there."
"Dream on. The Nelsons didn't know chocolate cake is off-limits now. I'll be sure to take it home so it won't tempt you anymore."
Lindsey felt a tug at her shirt hem and looked down to find Owen right next to her.
"Can I have more snack?"
"What's going on?" Her dad's voice was level but the pained look in his eyes told her he knew this was Josh Rundle's son. He'd probably seen Owen around"Owen's scum-sucker dad lived with his grandma, right next door.
According to talk around town, Owen's mother had recently died in a car accident, and authorities had tracked down Josh, who hadn't known he had a kid.
"I found Owen in the Abrahams' yard. Apparently lost."
Wendell swallowed hard and looked away. So much emotion crossed his face that Lindsey's chest tightened. She hated to see her dad hurting.
Lindsey picked up Owen, as if she could protect her dad by taking the boy out of the room. "I'm taking him home now."
"Careful, honey." The warning in his tone made Owen lift his head off Lindsey's shoulder.
She made a quick exit, setting a frowning Owen on the kitchen floor when they got there.
"Why do you have to be careful?"
"Dads just worry a lot, sweetie."
He nodded. "More cheese?" he asked.
"It's more cheese, please.' We need to get you home. I bet your dad wonders where you are."
"He's not there."
Color her not surprised. "Where is he?"
"I don't know. Grandma says he runned away."
"How long has he been gone?"
"Lots of days."
Interesting. But not out of the realm of possibility where Josh was concerned. She'd have to see what information she could get next door.
"Let's go see Grandma Rundle, then."