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The grimy backpack rested abandoned against the playground fence. Laney Thompson's eyes riveted on the schoolbag, but her feet stuck to the gravel near the swings. What was the matter with her? The students had rushed less than a minute ago into the elementary school building after noon recess. One of them must have forgotten the bag. Simple explanation. Then why did her skin pebble as if she stood on this Minnesota playground in mid-January, rather than the balmy end of May?
A warm breeze puffed a curtain of light brown hair in front of her face, and she blinked, breaking the hold of the strange paralysis. Laney brushed the hair aside and moved forward. Standing in front of the pack, she curled her hands into fists. Come on, pick it up. But her arms balked at the command to reach for the pack's frayed top strap.
Dread pummeled her.
She studied the object. Mildew stains spattered the canvas, and the original color was barely discernable as green. Whoever owned this schoolbag had been mighty careless with it or was too poor to afford a new one. Several students who fit either description passed through her mind.
All she needed to do was check inside for papers identifying the owner. The plumpness of the pack suggested that there ought to be plenty of clues inside. She reached for the strap, then froze, breath sawing in her lungs. Blackness trimmed her vision.
Laney Thompson, this is no time for a panic attack. You left those behind. Remember?
Yes, she remembered the years of counseling. Vividly. Then the determined struggle to put the past behind her and get a college education—an effort prolonged and complicated by a mistake of a marriage and the birth of a beautiful daughter. But at twenty-eight she now had her teaching degree. She was what she had always dreamed of being—a protector and guide to the young. Perhaps to atone for…
Laney swallowed and rubbed damp palms against her tan slacks. She snatched up the pack. A side seam gave way, and the corner of a notebook stuck out. The bag was in worse shape than she'd realized. Laney squatted and set the pack on new spring grass. A smell like rancid musk wafted from the canvas. Her heart rattled against her ribs. Trembling fingers worked the zipper and another seam parted as she yanked the notebook out.
She had to know who owned this schoolbag.
Laney flipped open a yellowed page, and found a first name printed in ragged block letters in the top right corner. For breathless seconds, her mind denied what she saw. Then the horror—and the guilt— deluged her, as suffocating as the day of Laney's tenth birthday. The day the nightmare began.
Grace Thompson. The name mocked her from the page.
This backpack had belonged to her eight-year-old sister. At least, that's how old Gracie had been the day she disappeared on her way home from school. Alone. Eighteen years ago.
That terrible smell now held no mystery. Decay. She gagged. The pack had come from the unknown tomb where Gracie's abductor had stashed her body. Her killer had put the bag here on purpose. He wanted Laney to find it. To know he was nearby.
She scooted backward, wails ripping through her mind, but bottled in her chest. She tumbled onto her side and gripped her legs in a fetal position. The screams burst free.
A sliver of her mind continued to churn questions. Was he watching? Enjoying her breakdown? Why now? What did he want? Or who?
A vision of her daughter's face sobered her like a plunge in a glacial lake. She sat up stiff. How could this mean anything else? Briana was newly eight years old. Just like Gracie.
Excited voices that had been there, but unregistered, reached her ears. The aide from the music department stuck his face in hers. "Are you all right?"
She surged to her feet, strong-arming him aside. "My daughter. I have to go!"
Astonished faces melted away before her as she charged between approaching people. Why couldn't she move faster than the speed of sludge? Laney yanked open the door and raced up a hallway floored in wax-coated linoleum and walls covered with bulletin boards and glass display cases. Familiar scents pumped through her nostrils—white-board markers, sweaty gym shoes stored in lockers. She rounded a corner and dodged around a line of kindergarteners and their teacher heading for the restrooms. Squeaks of surprise followed her into the first classroom on the left.
Briana's teacher and Laney's best friend, Ellen Kline, stood at the head of the third grade classroom. She stopped midsentence and stared at Laney. "What's going on?"
"Mommy!" A little girl's voice drew Laney's attention.
"Sweetie, you're okay!" She ran to her daughter at her desk and hugged her tight. At the smell of strawberry shampoo in soft, brown pigtails, she exhaled a thankful prayer.
"Mommy… I can… hardly breathe."
Laney loosened her grip and eased away from her daughter. Briana's sea-blue eyes, mirrors of her own, brimmed with puzzlement. The classroom was dead silent. They must all think she'd gone insane. She needed to find a quick excuse for the interruption without alarming her daughter, or anyone else, further.
Fastening a smile to her lips, Laney rose. "I'm sorry—I… Well, I just needed to check on my daughter. One of those mother's intuition things. I'm glad I was wrong." She nodded toward Ellen, whose puckered brow said she wasn't buying the lame explanation. "Forgive the interruption." She backed toward the door, and a soft buzz of student voices followed her out into the hall. So did Ellen.
Her friend stepped in front of her, hands planted on generous hips. "Are you okay?"
Laney's fingers dug into the soft flesh of Ellen's upper arms. "Don't take your eyes off Briana. Don't let her go anywhere alone, not even to the bathroom. I've got to see Principal Ryder, and then I'm going to call the police."
"I'll explain later." Laney hustled off, leaving her friend with her mouth open.
Seconds later, Laney burst through the door of the main office.
Miss Aggie, the receptionist, fixed her with an eagle's stare. "If you were a student, you'd risk a warning for running in the halls."
"Is he in?" Laney's breath came in little puffs.
"Who? Mr. Ryder?" Miss Aggie stood, her lined face beginning to mirror the alarm Laney radiated from her whole body.
"What's up?" The man himself stepped out of the office situated to the left of the reception desk.
Lean and medium tall, the strength of Principal Ryder's steady green gaze left no one in doubt of his authority. In the school year that he and Laney had served the district together, he'd shown himself to be a man as protective of his students as he was a firm, but understanding disciplinarian. He was also as honorable as he was good-looking, a combination that amazed Laney, based on past life experience.
A wave of warm comfort swept over her. She'd found a safe haven. Noah wouldn't let anything bad happen to Briana. Hot tears spilled down her face and a sob surged from her throat.
Laney Thompson's shattered expression shot a deep burn through Noah's gut. In his thirty-six years, he'd had reason to learn the difference between a minor emergency and a critical situation. This felt like the latter. He motioned her into his office. As she stumbled past the reception desk, Miss Aggie stuffed a tissue into her hand. Noah nodded appreciation to the woman who really ran the show around here, and then closed his office door.
"Have a seat," he told the attractive special education teacher who'd dogged his thoughts since he interviewed her for the position last summer.
She melted into a cloth-covered chair in front of his desk, wiping at pale cheeks with the tissue. Her fine-boned chin quivered. He perched on the edge of his desk. If she keeled over, he'd just as soon catch her before she hit the floor.
"What's this all about?"
"Briana," she croaked. "My daughter. I think she's in danger."
"How so?" His spine prickled.
Her fingers white-knuckled the wooden arms of her chair. "I don't have time to go into detail, but I just found a backpack left on our playground that belonged to my sister Grace." Her slender neck contracted around a deep swallow. "Gracie was abducted and presumed murdered eighteen years ago. They never found her body. Briana's the same age as my sister was when she disappeared. I just…I can't… Nothing can happen to my daughter!" Her haunted blue gaze sifted him, searching for a promise of safety.
He'd seen that look too often not to be wary of its demand. He leaned back and crossed his arms. "Where is your daughter right now?"
"In her classroom. Ellen is watching out for her, but she doesn't know why."
"And where's the backpack?"
"Still on the playground. It was more important to make you aware that a maniac may be nearby, and then to call the police."
"You're doing everything right, Laney. Make your call." He patted the phone on his desk. "I'll go to the playground and secure the evidence, while Miss Aggie puts the staff on alert."
"Thank you. I'm so glad you're in charge of this school."
The husky gratitude sandpapered through Noah as he went into the reception area. He was nobody's savior. He'd proven that six years ago.
Agatha Nederleitner speared him with a stare. "Anyone can see that woman's in trouble. How are you going to help her?"
"We're going to help her," Noah answered, then briefed her on what Laney had told him.
The woman grasped the situation quickly, and Noah was grateful once again for this gem in the rough. The steel-haired brick of the office never soft-pedaled her opinion, but her sternness hid a marshmallow heart. She refused to plague the children with her last name, so she was the beloved Miss Aggie who packed an ounce of sugar into her scolds and stood firm as a rock while everyone's problems crashed against her. Today, she would need all her fortitude.
"Announce an orange alert over the intercom," Noah finished. "Then give Laney any assistance she needs. I'll wait for the authorities on the playground. Send someone to get me if you need me."
"Will do." Miss Aggie's blazing brown eyes telegraphed that Satan himself would have a hard time getting past her to do anyone harm in her school.
As he strode up the hall, the woman's platinum tones issued the orange alert, the internal code for intruder watch. In the tiny town of Cottonwood Grove, Minnesota, people routinely left their cars running during the winter while they ran into the grocery store for milk, so his code system had seemed extreme to some. When he implemented it, he'd hoped never to use some of the alerts—especially this one. At least it wasn't an Amber Alert, the national code for a missing child.
Noah strode onto the playground. A small group of staff members hovered near the fence about a foot from an entrance gap. In the center of the huddle stood the custodian, Richard Hodge. The man cradled a bulky object in his arm while he rifled through it.
"All right, people." Noah smacked his palms together, and heads swiveled toward him. The custodian froze with his hand in the bag. "Thanks for coming out to help. Richard, please leave the pack on the ground. I'll take it from here."
With murmurs and shrugs, the group dispersed.
The custodian plunked the bag on the grass and backed away from it. "Just tryin' to see whose it was. Didn't recognize the name."
"Thank you, but it's not your worry. Head inside, but be aware that we are on orange alert."
Richard's prematurely lined face settled into a scowl. "Figured we couldn't end the school year without some kind of trouble." He clomped away.
Noah watched him go. For a thirtysomething guy with most of his life ahead of him, a steady job and good benefits, the custodian had the dimmest outlook of anyone he knew. What was his story?
Shaking his head, Noah studied the bag. The backpack used to be green. He squatted down and took in the shabby condition and decaying seams. A few sheets of yellowed paper stuck out of the torn edges—aged but not pulped by exposure to the elements. Interesting. When the police arrived, he'd have to inform them the custodian had handled the bag, so they could get his fingerprints for elimination. Laney's, too.
Noah let out a soft growl and rose. Even after all this time, his thoughts fell into investigator mode. This situation was a trap for him in more ways than one.
"The authorities are on their way." Laney's mellow voice reminded him of one of those traps.
He turned to find her approaching. Her complexion had more color than when she all but collapsed in his office. Everything about her appealed to him, from the glossy brown hair bouncing against slender shoulders to her big blue eyes and gentle way with her special needs students. But he'd vowed never again to mix his professional life with his personal life.
She stopped beside him, the top of her head coming to his chin, which made her a petite five-two or so. "I think we're going to see both the sheriff and the city boys," she said, her gaze fixed on the backpack. She shuddered and hugged herself.
Noah bunched his fists and denied the impulse to hold her. The temptation would have been harder to squash if he didn't know so many eyes were on them. He'd seen noses pressed against the windows. Even without the orange alert, people in this small school could smell something was up.
"Tell me about it, Laney." He stepped close.
Noah mentally smacked himself for a fool. The fresh rain scent of her understated cologne reached his nostrils, and as usual, those enormous eyes did terrible, wonderful things to his insides. Good thing for him she'd always appeared oblivious to the attraction.
"Grace was autistic," she said. "It wouldn't have been hard for someone to take advantage of her."
"She was eight." He grimaced. "It's pretty easy for an adult to take advantage of any child that young."
"I know but… how do I explain?" She rubbed the side of her neck. "My sister didn't see the world in the same way as a child without that particular perspective. Gracie could fixate on something and not notice one other thing around her. The monster who took her must have lured her with something that fascinated her. Otherwise she was leery of strangers, and could get vocal and combative if someone unfamiliar invaded her space."
Noah frowned. "Lured her? You're sure it was a stranger abduction?"
"The FBI came to that conclusion after extensive investigation."
"Did the predator have to get her away from a public place? If he found her in a remote or private location, he wouldn't have cared if there was a struggle."
Laney's sable brows lifted. "You talk like someone familiar with these situations."
Noah rippled his shoulders. "A school principal needs to be these days."