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Panic set in about five minutes after Paige Matthews realized her son was gone.
At first, she told herself it was no big deal. He was probably two rows over in the toy aisle, checking to see if the selection was up to snuff.
When he wasn't there, poring over the surprisingly extensive collection of miniature cars, she figured he'd simply wandered over to the ice cream caseLuke was a sucker for strawberry ice cream.
And when he wasn't there either, when the small kernel of concern that had formed the moment she realized he was not at the end of the aisle as she'd thought he was, started to grow, she still told herself she was overreacting. This mom-and-pop grocery store in the small Oregon town she'd grown up in was a far cry from the huge supermarkets of Los Angeles, where Luke had been born and raised. Even at eight, he knew how to take care of himself, knew not to talk to strangers and to stay in one place if, for some reason, he did get separated from herthough it had never happened before.
So what could possibly happen to him here?
The reassuring thoughts didn't keep her from walking faster any more than they kept her from remembering her childhood here in Prospect and all the trouble she had managed to get into. While the fact that they weren't in the big city made her feel a little better, the feeling didn't last longespecially when she got to the candy aisle and realized Luke hadn't wandered over there, either. Worse, the store's display of gummy animals and body parts was completely undisturbed, a sure sign that he had not stopped here at all. And that was so unlike him that concern turned to terror.
"Luke!" she called, racing past the deserted candy section to the front of the store. "Luke, where are you?"
There was no answer and in those moments every terrible thing that could happen to an unaccompanied eight-year-old boy flashed through her mind, small town be damned. Sure, this was Prospect, but Eugene really wasn't that far away. Salem. Portland. All reasonably sized cities with rising crime rates.
"Luke!" She was running now, from one end of the store to the other, looking down each row that sprouted from the perimeter of the store.
Other shoppers stared at her, whispered, but she didn't acknowledge them. They'd whispered about her for the first seventeen years of her liferight up until she'd left town, broke and alone, save for the unborn baby she carried. The fact that they started talking about her so readily, even after all this time, came as no surprise. She might have been back for only a day and a half, but she knew how this town worked.
Some things never changed.
This time at least there was something real to talk about. Sure, she was running around like a crazy woman, but if they knew she was looking for her son, maybe someone else would start to look. Maybe someone else would spot him. Finding Luke, making sure he was safe, was the only thing that mattered.
Butsurprise, surpriseno one came forward to help.
Where could he be? she wondered again as she frantically combed the aisles for her son's yellow and purple hoodie. She'd bought him the outrageously expensive jacket for his eighth birthday and he rarely went anywhere without it.
Why, oh, why, had she let Mary Beth Peters distract her? She didn't even like the womannever had, even when they were in school together. Mary Beth had been the most popular girl in school and Paige had been popular in her own right. But certainly not because she was head cheerleader.
Still, when Mary Beth had stopped her, Paige hadn't wanted to be rude. Hadn't wanted to cause any more gossip than was absolutely necessaryher sister Penny had to live and work here long after Paige and Luke went home, after all. And she figured alienating the locals was not the best way to reconcile with her sister.
And look what her concern had gotten her. One of these days she was going to remember that trying to keep on the right side of these people's opinions cost too much.
"Luke!" Paige screamed his name as adrenaline coursed through her ice-cold body. She was approaching the last section of the grocery store and if he wasn't thereIf he wasn't there, she didn't know how she was going to hold it together long enough to call the sheriff's department.
She'd only spoken to Mary Beth for a couple of minutes, long enough to exchange pleasantries and a quick explanation about why she was back after such a long time. How could her son have possibly disappeared in less than one hundred and eighty seconds?
Suddenly she spotted the familiar L.A. Lakers hoodie. "Luke." This time it wasn't a scream so much as a long, exhale of relief. Grinding to a halt, she rubbed her eyes to make sure she wasn't hallucinating. She wasn't. He was still there. Her sonher beautiful, amazing, mischievous sonwas seated in front of the small comic-book display, the iPod he'd gotten yesterday from his aunt Penny playing in his ears as he flipped through the latest superhero comic.
She blinked rapidly to clear her vision of the moisture that flooded her eyesa shock in and of itself as it had been years since she'd allowed herself the luxury of anything as useless as tears. For so long it had been just Luke and her against the world. If anything ever happened to him she would
Paige shook her head, unable to think about such a nightmarish occurrence, even in the abstract.
She didn't go to him right away, didn't wrap her arms around him and squeeze him the way she wanted to. Doing that before she had herself under control might trigger a public crying jag. A really bad idea here in the middle of Prospect hell.
Luke chose that moment to look up, and his not-quite-little-boy-anymore face lit up at the sight of her. "Hey, Mom! Look, it's the new one." He jumped nimbly to his feet, raced toward her. "Can I get it?"
Forcing herself not to grab him, Paige gently pulled one of the earbuds free. "You wander away from me in a public place and you expect me to reward you for it?" she asked in the sternest voice she could muster. It might have worked, too, except for the fact that her voicelike the rest of hershook.
She saw the knowledge register in Luke's eyes, followed swiftly by a look of shame. "I'm sorry, Mom.
I went to find the gummy eyeballs and then found these instead. I didn't mean to scare you."
She tried to hang tough, but felt herself cave in the face of his obvious remorse. Taking the comic from Luke, she herded him to where she'd left her cart. She tossed the book on top of the fresh fruits and vegetables and told herself not to sweat it. She wasn't normally so lenient, but the joy of finding him clouded her judgment. She'd transplanted the kid from everything he knew to this small town next to nowhere. If a comic helped get him through the interminable summer, who was she to argue?
"Don't ever do it again. I couldn't find you and ran screaming through the store."
"Ugh, Mom, that so isn't the first impression I was hoping to make." Luke glanced toward a couple of boys who appeared close to his age. Both were staring at them as though they were alien life-forms. She didn't have the heart to tell Luke it was probably more about the nasty things they'd heard their mothers say about her than her mad dash through the store.
Prospect had a long memory, and no matter how much she'd accomplished in the nine years since she'd left here, she was still that wild Matthews girl from the wrong side of the river. The one whose mother had conceived her while her husband was serving his country overseas, then left her to wear the Scarlet A.
It was a legacy that had proved impossible to live down no matter how hard Paige tried, so in the end, she'd done her best to live up to it. It had been lonely, but infinitely more satisfying than crying herself to sleep every night had been.
At the moment, hearing the echoes of whispers and taunts and boys asking her for things she had been all too eager to give in her search for affection, she wished that she'd never come back. Never let Penny talk her into returning to this one-horse town, even if it was just for a few months.
But then, the wish was nothing newshe'd been repeating variations of it since she and Luke had rolled into town the day before. Before that actually, if she was completely honest with herself. That first pang of regret hit before she'd hung up the phone. Only the awareness that her sister was finally reaching out to her after so many years, that Penny needed her, had kept Paige's foot on the gas pedal and her car pointed north during the long trip.
"Come on, Luke, let's go." She hustled her son to the checkout. "You know you're not supposed to wander away like that. Anything could happenespecially in a place you don't know."
Luke stared at her in disbelief. "Mom, this place has a population of, like, five people. Nothing's going to happen to me here."
"More like five thousand people and you don't know that nothing will happen to you. No one does." God knew, plenty had happened to her in this sleepy seaside town. More than enough that she had gotten the hell out and never looked back. Until Penny's desperate call for helptoo embarrassed and afraid to ask their parents for it.
That vulnerability, that fear, had been impossible for Paige to ignore. She'd turned her back on Penny once, had all but cut her sister from her life in her bid for survival. She couldn't, wouldn't, do that again. And if it cost her a little of her hard-won sanity, oh well.
Something in her voice must have tipped Luke off, because he stopped arguing much more quickly than usual. "I'm really sorry, Mom."
"I know you are. Just, please, stay with me. You don't know the town yet."
"I know. I promise I won't do it again." His silver eyes shined with remorse.
"Good. Because next time I won't be so nice." She was rubbing his back even as she made the threat, leaning down to press a quick kiss on his rumpled black curls and marvelingnot for the first timeat how incredibly blessed she was to have him. Prior to Luke's arrival, her luck with men had been so abysmal that when she'd found out she was having a boy, she'd actually broken down and sobbed in the ultrasound room.
But that was before she'd had him, before she'd held him. Before she'd known him. From the moment he'd entered the world, Luke had been the most amazing creature. Gorgeous, smart and with a heart full of joy and eyes full of mischief, he made every day an adventure. She wouldn't trade him for the worldand certainly not for a perfectly coiffed, well-behaved little girl. Any gray hair he gave her would be more than worth it. She was certain of it.
"Thanks for the comic, Mom. It's really cool."
Paige emptied her cart onto the conveyer belt as she listened to Luke rattle on about the adventures of his favorite superhero-bad-guy duo. She should have thought to check the book aisle for him first. Would have, had she known the store carried them. When she'd been a kid, the only books old Mr. Marshall had allowed into his store were religious and nature ones. Obviously, some things had changed in Prospect.
But not too many, she acknowledged wryly, hyper-conscious of the not quite whispered comments currently circulating the market.
"Isn't that Paige Matthews? What's she doing here?"
"Always knew she was no good. Unwed mother"
"Losing her child on her first day back"
"Come to stay with her sister, in that pitiful little B and B"
"She must be broke and is mooching off Penny"
"I don't think she's broke. Did you see her car? Must be some drug dealer's girlfriend"
Paige slammed her purse down on the small check-writing counter, and began bagging the groceries as the clerka teenaged girl who didn't seem to be aware of the barbed chatterasked if she was new in town. Normally, bagging your own groceries was considered the height of rudeness in Prospect, as it indicated a desire to leave instead of participating in a nice, long chat. But being thought rude was the least of Paige's problems, so she shoved a head of broccoli into the same bag as a loaf of bread and a chocolate bar and prepared to call it a day.
"We're here for the summer," Luke told the girl with his quick, easy grin. "Mom says she's going to teach me to surf."
"Oh, yeah?" The girl looked impressed. "I've always wanted to learn how to do that myself."
"Well, maybe my mom can teach you, too. She's really good at it."
Paige laughed. "By really good, he means I fall off the board only about half the time." She put the last bag in the basket. "How much do I owe you?"
"And she's taking me for lunch at Prospector's," Luke continued. "She says they make the best strawberry shakes in all of Oregon."
"Maybe in the whole universe," the girl agreed.