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by Gayle Wilson

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A wounded warrior was facing the toughest mission of his life

The battlefield had taught Jake Underwood just how much could be lost in a single moment. So when he returned home, scarred and grieving for those he'd left behind, the last thing he needed was to be responsible for another person's life. Especially that of a missing little


A wounded warrior was facing the toughest mission of his life

The battlefield had taught Jake Underwood just how much could be lost in a single moment. So when he returned home, scarred and grieving for those he'd left behind, the last thing he needed was to be responsible for another person's life. Especially that of a missing little girl. But one look in police chief Eden Reddick's tear-fi lled eyes and Jake couldn't help but feel her frustration…and share her pain. Jake knew Eden was grateful for whatever investigative skills he could offer— until he uncovered a connection to her mysterious past. Now, as a heartbreaking case turned even more personal when Eden became a target, Jake realized that all he'd lost in his past was nothing compared with just how much he had to lose now…

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Harlequin Intrigue Series , #1295
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"Can you tell me about it, Mrs. Nolan? The moment you found out your daughter was missing?" Eden Reddick leaned forward, establishing eye contact—and hopefully, a feeling of trust—with the woman on the opposite couch.

Totally focused on the story she was about to hear, Eden blocked out the other aspects of the investigation going on around them. Her deputy chief, Dean Partlow, was taking the father outside to hear his version of events, as she was preparing to guide the mother through hers. The officers she'd assigned to gather evidence from the bedrooms upstairs had already disappeared, leaving the two of them alone in the spotless living room.

Margo Nolan nodded in response to Eden's prodding. Her tear–reddened eyes shifted slightly off center, as if she were seeing it all again.

"I went to wake the kids up for school. It's really preschool for the twins, but with the older ones and all, we just call everything school. I usually wake the girls first because they're the easiest to get going. I lay out their clothes, and then, while they dress, I wake Gavin and Casey. This morning I went into their room and Raine wasn't there. Storm was asleep, but her sister—" The sentence broke, and Eden patiently waited through the pause. "I thought maybe she was in the bathroom, you know, but she wasn't. And she wasn't in the hall or in the boys' room. By that time, I was yellin' at the top of my lungs. Just pure screamin' for her to answer me." Her eyes found Eden's again. "I was already startin' to get scared, but tellin' myself that was stupid. What in the world could happen to her inside her own house?" In her own bed…

Eden's mother had used that phrase over and over. "She was in her own bed. Where would you think a child could be safer than in her own bed?"

"But she wasn't anywhere," Margo went on. "By then, everybody was looking. Ray and the boys. Me. Looking inside and out. We kept askin' Storm, but she just kept sayin' she didn't know. All she knew was that Raine had been there when she went to sleep."

"How long before you called 911?"

Margo shook her head. "I don't know. Maybe an hour. Maybe more. You just keep thinkin' she's gonna be somewhere. You sure don't want to think about someone takin' your baby. Not here. Not in Waverly."

The nearest town to this tiny Mississippi community was the coastal resort of Pascagoula. And few people there would think about the possibilities of someone kidnapping a child from her own bedroom.

Margo shook her head again, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue from the box that sat on the coffee table between them. "Then the officers found the door to the patio had been forced. That's when I knew—" She stopped, bowing her head as she held the tissue bunched against her nose and mouth.

"We've already got people out looking for her," Eden said, as comfort. "And we're working on the Amber Alert. That's when people begin thinking about what they've seen and reporting things that seemed…strange. Out of place."

Margo looked up at that, nodding vigorously. "That's what Ray keeps sayin'. It just takes the right lead. We just need that one person to come forward."

The father's language, almost official, struck a warning note in Eden's mind, but she kept any sign of that unease from the mother, choosing to reassure her instead. "I'm sure we'll hear something soon. I can arrange for you to make a public plea for people to do that, if you'd like."

The parents' statement had become the standard operating procedure in these situations. And the local stations would be more than willing to give it airtime.

While Eden knew that if the Nolans chose to speak publicly, generating sympathy for theirs and their daughter's plight, it might increase the odds of a witness coming forward, she also dreaded the onslaught of national attention that might generate. It would be a mixed blessing, in her opinion, getting Raine Nolan's description out to a far larger audience than the local affiliates could, but at the same time bringing more of the outside media into this mostly rural area.

"They find missin' children all the time." Margo seemed stuck on reiterating the assurances she'd been given. "Raine will get home safe, too. I just know it."

Eden nodded, torn between pity and guilt that she couldn't be nearly that sanguine about the outcome. She stood, indicating the front door with a sideways tilt of her head. "I'll go on outside and tell the TV people you want to speak to the public on your daughter's behalf. You think your husband will want to say something?"

"I don't know that Ray will get up in front of the camera. I've always been the outgoin' one in the family. Me and the girls." Her eyes flicked to the pictures of her twin daughters in the photos lining the hallway. "The boys are into sports. Ray says that breeds the kind of physical confidence they need. All I know is they don't have the kind that lets you get up in front of a crowd. The kind that lets you speak up for yourself. That's what my girls have. Raine's probably tellin' whoever's taken her to get her on back home or she's gonna be late for school." Margo's laugh was watery. "I can just hear her now."

Eden's personal acquaintance with the reality of what the Nolans faced left her unable to respond to that sad attempt at humor with another platitude. "Right now, we just need to get the information out to the public," she said instead. "Television and the Alert are the best ways to do that."

"I'd really appreciate you settin' all that up," Margo said. "I swear, everybody's been so good. Ray said the neighbors have already organized search parties. With all this help, I know we'll find her soon. We're just bound to."

Eden nodded again, and this time made good her escape through the front door. Given the possibility that Raine Nolan had been kidnapped as early as midnight, they were already eight hours into this.

She knew, even if Margo Nolan didn't yet seem to understand, that whoever had snatched that little girl out of her own bed could be several hundred miles away by now. In any direction. Even, she acknowledged with a chill of resignation, out into the Gulf.

Taking her deputy chief with her, Eden had retreated to the squad car to avoid the mob of local media already assembling along the street in front of the Nolans' house. Although their presence was inevitable, and ultimately useful, at this stage of the investigation she felt only resentment that keeping them out of the yard and away from potential evidence required three of her officers, who could have been better employed in the search.

"The local affiliates will want to broadcast it, too, of course," Dean Partlow said, "but the cable–news guys can give us a wider audience."

"God knows we need one," Eden agreed.

Dean had been a friend of her father's. To give him credit, no matter what he thought about having a woman, and a much younger woman at that, as his chief, he had never indicated by word or deed that he didn't believe Eden was capable of doing the job she had virtually inherited.

The town they served was small, the kind where everyone knew everybody else's business. Eden was sure the older man knew more about hers than she would be comfortable with, but that was something else Dean hadn't let on about. Just as he'd never indicated that he felt he was more deserving of the job her dad had groomed her for most of her life.

She was grateful Partlow had stayed on when her father retired. She'd learned almost as much from Dean in the past three years as she had from her dad or the criminal–justice courses she'd taken.

Part of that acquired knowledge was how unprepared she'd been to accept the responsibility that had been handed to her. Something that had only made her more determined to eventually become worthy of it.

"I don't know about that," Dean said. "I can't think of a single case where a parent's tearful plea has made a hill of beans worth of difference in the outcome."

"You got an opinion about who did this? Other than you don't think the mother was involved?"

"I don't get paid to have opinions. Not at this stage. 'Course, so far, we ain't got much fact to go on, either."

Almost all they knew right now was that Raine Nolan was missing. Like Dean, Eden found it hard to believe Margo was involved. Her grief and innocent hopefulness had felt too genuine.

"What'd you think about the father?" she asked.

"If Ray Nolan's faking, he should be making movies instead of selling insurance. I've seen men with that kind of burden of guilt on 'em, and that isn't what's in his eyes this morning."

"What is?" Eden needed him to put it into words, maybe just to reinforce what her own instincts were telling her.

"Disbelief. Fear. Fury. Somebody stole his baby. Somebody who didn't have any right to be inside his house, much less take a child out of it."

"You know that the parents' involvement is the first thing the FBI is going to suggest, especially in a case like this. Somebody comes in and snatches a little girl out of the same room where her sister's sleeping."

"Just because that's the most common scenario doesn't make it the explanation for this."

"So who do you think took her? And why? They're going to ask, and right now." Eden shook her head.

"Nobody's asked for ransom. Not yet, anyways. And despite that big ole house, Ray hasn't got much money. None he could get to real quick. The other possibilities are a whole lot less appealing."

"You think she's dead," Eden said flatly.

"I think there's a real good chance. My worse fear is the kid'll be alive and we'll walk right by her. Or we don't search the house she's in. Do something stupid when, if we'd been quicker or smarter, we could have found her."

That was something Eden didn't want to think about. The fact that a little girl's life rested in her hands. That if she forgot something, missed the obvious or was just unlucky, Raine Nolan might die.

"We'll need to have them add a plea that anyone who's noticed anything unusual, anything at all, should call the hotline," she said.

People in the South were sometimes hesitant to report what their neighbors were doing, even if they thought it was strange. They could only hope sympathy for the mother's desperation would overcome the public's tendency to mind their own business.

"Have 'em keep that number up while Margo talks," Dean suggested.

Eden nodded, adding to her notes. "Maybe you're wrong,

Dean. Maybe somebody looked at the Nolans from the outside and thought they have money."

"I hope so. For all our sakes."

Eden glanced up, meeting his eyes. "You don't think anybody's going to call."

Dean hesitated before he shook his head. "That same instinct that's telling me Ray and Margo don't have anything to do with this is telling me that whoever forced open their patio door and took that baby didn't do it for money."

"Can you think of anything we haven't done?"

Eden's question was as much to herself as to Dean. As hard as it was to believe, they were now approaching the infamous forty–eight–hour mark on Raine Nolan's kidnapping. And despite doing everything she could think of, they were no closer to finding her than they had been when the call had come in yesterday morning.

"Pray?" Dean looked up as he took a bite out of one of the sandwiches someone had brought into Eden's office hours ago.

The take–out iced teas that had accompanied them had formed puddles of condensation on the glass cover of her desk. The possibility of food poisoning crossed her mind, but it wasn't enough to keep her from biting into her own sandwich.

"I expect folks who are more adept at praying than either of us have that covered. What'd the lab tell you?"

"That they're six months behind, but that since it concerns a child, they'll do the best they can."

Chronically underfunded, the state forensics lab was their only option. The county didn't handle enough crime to justify having one of their own.

Not that the guys who had gathered the evidence had been all that optimistic that there was anything in the girls' room that would point a finger in the perpetrator's direction. The best they could hope for was something that might be useful at the trial.

If there ever was a trial…

"The Bureau's questioning the Nolans again." Dean shrugged as he added the information.

"You think they got their minds made up?"

"Looks that way. I'm not sure it matters, though. Long as you don't."

It would be easier, God knows, to think that whatever had happened to Raine was over and done. An out–of–control moment by an exhausted parent that ended in tragedy.

That image, disturbing as it was, was more palatable than those that had played in Eden's head the past two days. The only way she'd found to defeat them was to keep herself mentally occupied by making sure the department was covering every possible angle.

"They say a camera doesn't lie," she said. "I don't see how anybody who watched Margo yesterday morning could doubt she doesn't have a clue what happened to her daughter."

"So…you like Ray for this?"

"I didn't say that. You don't, and I trust your instincts. I just haven't watched him get emotional like I've watched Margo."

That was one thing she'd have to give the national media credit for. They'd given the mother's plea to bring her daughter home endless airtime. The fact that they'd apparently had a couple of slow news days had played into that, of course, but the story itself was compelling enough to demand attention.

Where would you think a child would be safer than in her own bed?

Meet the Author

Gayle Wilson is a two-time RITA Award winner and has also won both a Daphne du Maurier Award and a Dorothy Parker International Reviewer's Choice Award. Beyond those honours, her books have garnered over fifty other awards and nominations. As a former high school history and English teacher she taught everything from remedial reading to Shakespeare – and loved every minute she spent in the classroom. Gayle loves to hear from readers! Visit her website at: www.booksbygaylewilson.com

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