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Try as he might, Tyler Davis was not what anyone would call an expert gift shopper. And if anyone on this snow-covered earth needed proof, here it was, wrapped up in Christmas paper and tied with a big-ass bow.
He tried to tune out the jangle of department store Christmas music and warring scents from the army of perfume pushers and focus on the pair of oversized slippers that resembled a dog's paws clutched in the three-year-old's hands. Even with his deep-seated shopping deficiency, Ty had doubts whether this was the way to go. "You're sure she's going to like those?"
Connor nodded, his tousled red hair flopping over one side of his forehead.
Ty raked his hand through his own cropped, spiky hair. If this was any other kid he'd taken Christmas shopping as part of his small city police department's Shop with a Cop program, he'd find the choice funny. He might even encourage the kid, just for a chuckle. But Megan had been through a lot. And the whole reason he insisted on taking Connor out shoppingsecretly on his own dime, since the department's official Shop with a Cop program was already overwas to give Megan a good experience for a change. "I don't know, Connor. Moms usually like things that make them look I don't know pretty. Not like a dog."
The inside corners of Connor's eyes reddened. His lips pulled together into what was fast becoming a pout and could any minute cross the line into crying.
He must be out of his mind to take his old flame's son shopping. And when he thought about the world of hurt he'd be in if the chief found out he had misrepresented this as an official department program, he knew he'd crossed to the far side of crazy. It was just that when he'd heard how Meg's ex had dragged her through the shredder and seen the dumpy apartment the smartest girl in his high school class was now living in, he'd wanted to do something for her. She couldn't afford a nice Christmas for herself and her young son, but he could. And she never had to know where the money came from.
And besides, it gave him an excuse to see her again.
Of course, he hadn't considered that the success of his brilliant plan all hinged on a three-year-old's taste.
He pulled in a deep breath of patience and let it out slowly. The last thing he wanted was to make the kid cry. Now that would really impress Megan, returning with a tear-sodden little boy who could tell her all about what a jerk Officer Ty was. Not that she didn't know that already.
He picked up the slippers and pretended to examine them, turning them over in his hands. "Oh, look here. They're slippers. I didn't realize that. Well, that changes everything. You're right, man. Your mom will love these." He eyed the kid, hoping Connor wouldn't pick up a false note in his voice.
Big green eyes flicked up to his face. A twitch settled over the little lips, not exactly a smile, but something less than a pout.
Ty handed the fuzzy things back to Connor along with a grin. So Megan would be wearing dog paw slippers this winter. Interesting. "What next? Can you think of something else your mom might like?"
Connor shook his head.
"Should we look around?" His arms were already weighed down with Legos, books and a Hot Wheels set for the kid. But he couldn't leave the mall with nothing but a pair of dog slippers for Megan. He had to find something nice.
He did a 360, gaze skimming over the clothing racks and colorful Christmas displays in the mall department store. His eyes fixed on racks of lacy bras and thongs in the lingerie department nearby.
Hmm. Now he could much more easily picture Megan wearing something in satin or lace. If he hadn't given up his right to play Santaofficiallythat's what she would find in her stocking come Christmas morning.
He stepped a little closer. Images of Christmases back when they were dating in high school and college danced through his mind like some kind of damn sugar plums. He could imagine what it would be like now. A quiet Christmas Eve, sitting in front of the fire running his fingers through Megan's silky auburn hair. He'd choose something like that black number with the lace that was cut down to there. Or maybe the teddy on the mannequin, green to go with her eyes. Yeah, that was the one. He could imagine her filling it out.
And right after that, he could imagine taking it off.
He shook his head, trying to remove the thought, but he had little luck with that. Seeing her this morning when he'd picked up Connor had been like the return of a delicious dream after five sleepless years. She'd been nervous about taking him up on the shopping offer, he could tell, even without knowing the money was actually coming from him. But when Connor had started jabbering about reindeer and presents and stockings filled to bursting on Christmas morning, the loving smile that had transformed her face had left Ty feeling like Santa himself.
After that, he hadn't stood a chance.
The cloying clash of perfumes in the department store had only reminded him of how good and pure she'd always smelled. The taste of the soft pretzel he'd forced on Connor in the food court had only made him think of how often he and Megan had pooled their change to buy one at the convenience store after school. And each memory brought back thoughts of the cold lump that had formed in his gut when he'd come home from the police academy one weekend and learned she was planning to marryof all peopleDoug Burke.
He had to get his focus back on shopping. He was with her kid, for God's sake. He needed to focus on taking Connor "Shopping with a Cop," not on his personal history with the boy's mother.
Getting the hell away from the lingerie section would be a good first step.
"Let me guess, you're looking for a gift for someone."
The voice came from over his left shoulder. He glanced down to see a woman wearing too much eyeliner smiling at him as if he was the most fascinating man in the world.
He didn't buy it. "Thanks, but I need to get back"
"It's not a problem. My friends call me the Giftina-tor." She giggled, the bubbly sound more suitable coming from a fifteen-year-old girl than a grown woman. "Get it? Like The Terminator?"
"Funny." He forced a smile. In other circumstances, he might have a little fun joking around, maybe even flirting. But today, it didn't feel right. "I hate to be rude, but I"
"Then don't be. Let me help. I'm seriously good at the whole Christmas present thing. I should get a job in a store. Or maybe start my own business as a personal shopper. Not that I could do something like that in a town with only one decent mall. But I really think shopping is my true calling."
Rude or not, Ty glanced back toward the pajamas, stockings and fuzzy footwear. Dog-paw slippers lay on the waxed tile floor. A woman pored over a rack of flannel drawstring pants. A tinny version of "Silver Bells" tinkled in the air.
Great. He'd only been ten or fifteen feet from Connor, but that was enough for the boy to feel like he could wander away. Ty couldn't blame him. He'd probably gotten bored waiting for Ty to quit talking well, listening would be more accurate.
He gave the woman a cursory glance and a mumbled excuse me, and strode back to the slipper rack. "Connor?" His gaze landed on a family of four over in the shoe department, an older couple shopping for jewelry and a woman parked at the makeup counter wearing a sweater covered in Christmas trees. No little boy with tousled red hair.
His breath stuttered in his chest. "Connor?"
He bolted across the aisle and circled the rack of slippers. The kid had to be here somewhere. Didn't he?
The aisle behind the rack was vacant.
"Connor?" He let his voice boom this time. Maybe he was off looking at something for Megan, or playing with another kid. Ty did another scan of the store. The woman who had tried to monopolize his attention was gone. He spotted nothing but lingerie, women's pajamas and formal dresses tucked far in the corner.
"Did you lose someone?" The woman absorbed in flannel pj's gave him a sympathetic, if slightly amused, smile.
Ty was not finding this amusing in the least. "Little boy. Three years old. Red hair. Have you seen him?"
"No. But maybe he's hiding in one of those circular clothing racks. My kids always liked to do that at a certain age."
Hiding. Great. Ty strode to the pajamas and peered inside the ring of clothing. Nothing. He moved from rack to rack; all of them in the area were empty. "Connor? Connor Burke? You need to come out right now."
Nothing. No answer. No movement. No boy.
He grabbed for his cell phone and flagged down a store employee. It was time to call for backup. Store security, shoppers, the entire Lake Hubbard police department, the damn FBI. Whatever it took. He had to find Connor, and he had to find him now.
The cramped little office tucked into a corner of the department store's upper level smelled sharp with body odor and stress. Ty could only guess that most of it was coming from him, but the mall security guy hunching over the computer that collected the feeds from the store's security cameras seemed awfully fragrant, as well.
Ty jammed in beside his lieutenant, Leo Wheeling, and held his breath while the security dude flipped through each of the store's video cameras. "Can't tell you how many kids I help track down every month."
"That so?" Leo said, focused on the screen. "You work a lot "
"You working a lot lately, Derek?"
"Sure am. This time of year is even busier than tourist season. Just this weekend, in fact, I returned two different kids to their mothers." He puffed out his polyester-clad chest just a little and pushed his glasses back up his nose. "This one? He probably just ran off. They usually do. Get bored or whatnot and want to find some toys to look at."
"Sounds like you have a lot of experience." Leo sounded a bit bored and whatnot himself, yet somehow he still managed to be polite.
At this point, Ty had sworn off politeness for the rest of his life. He just wanted the guy to shut the hell up. He was about to share that sentiment when the lingerie department flashed on the screen. "That's it. That's the camera. That's where I last saw Connor."
Leo glanced at him, his bushy blond eyebrows pulling low. "You took the kid shopping for bras?"
"Slippers." Ty pointed to the image of the slipper rack beyond the lacy under things. "He wanted to buy his mom dog paw slippers."
The security man squinted up at him through coke-bottle lenses. "How long you want to go back?"
Ty glanced at his watch. "Almost a half hour." He couldn't believe that much time had already passed. They had locked down the store right away. But even though patrol officers and store security personnel were all combing the area, they hadn't found a single sign of Connor. In those precious minutes that Ty was being polite to a stranger, Connor had seemingly vanished. He prayed the video would give them an idea of where the boy had gone.
He forced himself to concentrate on the speeding images moving in reverse on the screen, not on what might have happened to Megan's son. He spotted himself, racing around the area backward, peeking in the circular clothing racks, talking to the woman holding flannel. And there he was, peering at the lingerie, listening politely to the woman who called herself the Giftinator, barely visible on the screen. And then
The angle wasn't great, the camera was too far from the slipper rack to show much detail, but what he did see sent a chill down his spine. A man in a shapeless coat and hood. Then the man was gone, and Connor was there, clutching those dog paw slippers. "That's it. Stop."
The security tech stopped the reversing images.
"Okay. Play it."
Ty held his breath and watched as the action went forward at normal speed. Him talking to Connor. Him drifting a few feet away to the lingerie, leaving the poor kid all alone. The figure in the shapeless coat stepping around the slipper rack, taking Connor's hand and leading him to the exit nearby.
"Fifteen feet away. I was only fifteen feet away." Yet he'd been so caught up in his memories of Megan, in his selfish fantasies, in being polite to that woman, he hadn't even noticed the man in the parka. He hadn't had a clue that Connor was gone.
Not until it was too late.
Leo leaned over the security system tech's shoulder. "Can you save that section of the recording and get me images from the camera for that exit?" He pointed toward the one where the man in the parka and Connor had disappeared.
"After you're done with that, check prior footage for all the exits, starting with that one. He must have entered the store at some point. I want a face shot of him. Anything we can use to get an ID."