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There had been a time when just the sight of his wife had Joseph Powers panting with desire. From the blue eyes that sparked fire through his every nerve, to the tips of her pretty pink toes, he'd known, tasted and loved every inch of her. But that was a long time ago, back when they'd been a family, when they'd been happy, when they'd been three. Now, they were just two.
He hadn't seen her in a year, not since the last time she'd called him, crying and begging for his help, promising him that this time, unlike every time before, she was sure.
He'd expected her to call, if not today, then tomorrow. Knowing ahead of time didn't make it easier, though. It made it worse. Tomorrow was a big day for both of them. It was her birthday and the second anniversary of their child's disappearance.
He dreaded opening his front door and seeing her standing there, looking sad and lost. Although, she had sounded different this time. Not quite as desperate. Not quite as beaten down. The tone of her voice had given him a tiny scrap of hope. Maybe she'd finally agreed to take the antidepressants the doctor had prescribed. Maybe she wanted to see him, not to declare that this time she'd really found Joshua, but to let him know that she was doing better.
He laughed, a harsh sound that scratched his throat. Yeah, and pigs can fly.
He paced back and forth, wishing he could wipe away the memory that haunted him. That split second at the outdoor market when he'd reached down to pick up Joshua's baby carrier and encountered empty space. The helplessness, terror and anger of that horrifying instant had never faded. Nor had the guilt. They were as strong and all-consuming as they'd ever been. He'd taken out a lot of that anger on Marcie, just as she'd taken out her own sadness, rage and devastating grief on him.
There were some tragedies that were too awful to share, some burdens that could not be lifted.
The doorbell rang and Joe's heart skipped a beat. He opened the door and there she was, fresh and beautiful, her lovely face shiny and clean of makeup. Her beautiful dark hair was caught up in a ponytail and her wide blue eyes sparkled with unshed tears. No matter what had happened between them, no matter how impossible it was for them to live together with the specter of their missing child between them, he still loved her. He was still in love with her. That had never changed and he knew it never would.
Marcie looked pretty and sad and yet determined as she pushed past him into his apartment. He caught a faint scent of her melon-scented shampoo and his body responded. So much for not desiring her anymore.
"Marcie," he said with resignation, closing the door and turning to meet her gaze.
"Joe," she said as she glanced around his apartment. Her gaze stopped for an instant on the small framed photo on the kitchen counter. Joe's gaze followed hers automatically, although he knew the photo as well as he knew his own face in the mirror. It was a picture he'd taken of her and Joshua in the hospital, when Joshua was about four hours old. She walked over and picked up the frame, brushing her fingers across the glass, a wan smile on her face. "I saw him, Joe," she said without taking her eyes off the image.
"Marcie, don't" he began as it occurred to him that she wasn't frantically excited, the way she'd been every other time she'd been positive that she'd spotted Joshua.
She touched the image of Joshua's round newborn face one more time, then set the frame down. She straightened, took a deep breath and clasped her shoulder bag more tightly. "I'm not hysterical," she said evenly. "I saw him. It was only a glimpse into the backseat of a car, but I know" She stopped and pressed her lips together before continuing. "I'm almost positive it was Joshua."
Almostpositive? Joe stared at her, trying to reconcile this new Marcie with the hysterical woman who, within the first six months after Joshua was gone, had been absolutely positive she'd spotted him at least four times. Who'd screamed and thrown things the first time he'd suggested that she go to a grief counselor. He ran a hand across the back of his neck. "Marcie, are you on medication?"
She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and shook her head. "No," she said on a sigh, meeting his gaze again.
His wife's eyes were damp with tears, but she wasn't the broken and defeated fragile bird he'd watched her become as weeks stretched into months with no word about their missing child.
"You don't believe me," she said.
"About being on medication?"
He winced, the way he did whenever he heard his son's name. "We've gone through this so many times before. You can't keep doing this to yourself. You've got to try to get on with your life"
"Like you did?" she retorted. "Just presto" she snapped her fingers "and it's oh, well, Joshua's gone. Guess I'll go help other parents find their lost children."
Six months after Joshua had disappeared, Joe had gone back to work, because he couldn't sit at home all day and watch Marcie turn into a depressed recluse. But his lucrative corporate attorney position had felt like a waste of time. So he'd quit and taken a job with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The pay was so low it could almost have been considered volunteer work, but at least he felt he was doing something important. The job was both a blessing and a curse. He helped others search for their missing family members while holding out hope that one day, one of these trails would lead to his own son. Then maybe, no matter what the outcome, he and Marcie could finally get closure.
"Marcie, I've told you before, the fact that I went back to work didn't mean"
"No," Marcie said, waving a hand dismissively. "I'm not letting myself get sucked into that argument. I came here for one reason and one reason only. I saw our son. I copied down the car's license plate and I need your help."
"You got the license plate number?"
"The woman has our child, Joe."
He steeled himself. So she'd written down a license plate this time. So she was calmalmost too calm, he thoughtrather than hysterical. That didn't make her any less delusional. "Come on, Marcie. How good a look did you get? Was it a glance into the backseat at a red light? You can't possibly know for sure that a child you saw for a split second in a dark car is Joshua." He felt the empty hole inside him open up and start bleeding. A familiar stinging began behind his eyes. "Do I have to remind you what the police told us? How slim the chances are of finding him as time goes on?"
"I haven't forgotten a single word the police told us," Marcie said stiffly. "I can't be like you, Joe. I can't convince myself that he's dea-dead, so I can pretend I don't hurt anymore. I saw him and this time I have a way to find out who has him and I'm going to do it. If it's not him, then at least I'll know.''''
"What are you planning to do? Not go to the police," Joe said stonily, because he couldn't tell her that he didn't think Joshua was dead. Not all the time. "You burned your bridges there."
He was being unfair, blaming her for crying wolf one too many times. During those first long weeks, his heart had jumped, too, every time he saw a woman with a baby. Time and again, he'd allowed her to call 911, hoping against all reason that she was right and the child she'd seen really was Joshua.
"I know that," she agreed. "But we don't need the police. You work for NCMEC now. You can run a license plate and find the woman."
"I can't do that. I can't use the center's resources for myself."
"Of course you can. It's what you do! Joshua is a missing child. He's on the register, just like the lost children of the parents you help every day. The only difference is, he's our child, Joe. He's my baby."
With those last three broken words, Marcie's face crumpled and she almost lost it. Almost. He wanted to reach out to her, to hold her and comfort her and, yes, take some comfort himself, but the two of them didn't do that anymore. It had been well over a year since they'd even touched.
As he gaped in stunned silence, she pulled herself together. The only sign of her near breakdown was the two tears that slid slowly down her cheeks.
He turned and headed to the kitchen, muttering something about a glass of water. But truthfully, he needed a moment to think about what she'd said and, yes, to get control of his own emotions.
She was right, of course. Joshua was listed in the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children database. There was no reason he couldn't run the plates. He was reviewing several cold cases in the New Orleans area. Joshua's disappearance could easily be classified as one of those. But as soon as he did, everyone from his staff here in New Orleans, to the employees at the center's headquarters in Virginia, would contact him and want to hear what he'd found out about Joshua that made him start searching again. He didn't want to tell them that once again, on the anniversary of their son's disappearance, his wife had started seeing their child everywhere she went.
He drew a glass of cold water from the refrigerator dispenser and took a long swallow, then wiped his face with a shaking hand. Scowling, he clenched his fist so hard his hand cramped.
He didn't have the strength or the will to get sucked into Marcie's fantasy world again, where Joshua was out there waiting for his mommy and daddy to find him. The sick emptiness inside him started aching and he imagined the taste of blood. After a second cooling swallow for himself, he took the water to Marcie. She refused it, so he set it down on the coffee table.
"Where did you see the car?" he asked.
"I drove up to Hammond yesterday to see my aunt, and when I pulled up to a red light, there was a woman in a Nissan hatchback with a child seat in the back. I eased forward until I could see him." She took a deep breath. "Joe"
He closed his eyes.
"It was Joshua. I'm not saying I know it was him. But I'm almost positive. His face, Joe. That little widow's peak. The woman saw me looking and I swear she went white as a sheet. As soon as the light turned green she gunned her car and sped away. I couldn't keep up with her."
He picked up the water glass and took a sip because he couldn't meet her gaze. The hope in her expression would fuel his, and he knew that one of them had to remain rational. Being the unflappable, levelheaded one had been his job ever since that awful moment in the outdoor market. Yes, he was the rational one. The strong one. Trouble was, he was also the guilty one. It had been his fault that their baby was gone.
"What about the woman?" he asked. "Did you get a good look at her? Could you identify her if you saw her again?"
"Yes," she said, surprising him. "She was probably in her late forties. Her hair had that faded noncolor that blondes get before they go gray. I can't tell you how tall or how large she was, but behind the wheel of the Nissan she looked small and thin. Oh, and she had a scar on her upper lip."
Joe's surprise turned to amazement and worry. Previously when she'd insisted that she'd seen Joshua, her claims were vague and boundless. But today, not only did she have a description of the car and the license plate, but she also had a clear, concise description of the woman. The realization that she'd been thoughtful and careful about getting the information, combined with the mention of Joshua's widow's peak, had Joe's insides churning like an addict looking at a bag of heroin. For Joe, that bag held hope, and for him, hope was a drug that fed on his ability to function.
What could it hurt if he ran the plate at the center?
Maybe it would help Marciehelp them bothif he found out for sure that the child she saw was not Joshua. Even though his conscious mind was certain that this random sighting at a random red light could not possibly be the answer to their prayers, in another, deeper place, far below his conscious mind, a faint thought that was as much feelings as words arose, and it was anything but rational. He did his best to ignore its insidious, hopeful message.
"Maybe I could run that license plate." As soon as he said it he wanted to take it back. If he'd had any sense, he'd have waited until after he'd run it. Then he could have gone to her with a fait accompli. It's not Joshua. Sorry, hon.
"Joe? Really?" Her face brightened and her eyes welled with tears again. "Thank you," she whispered, stepping toward him.
It was the most natural thing in the world to open his arms and pull her in. But holding her sent conflicting emotions roiling through his insides. In one sense, it was like coming home. She was his beautiful princess. The girl he'd been in love with ever since they were in high school together. The woman he'd married and promised to love and cherish as long as they lived. The mother of his child.
But as wonderful as it was to hold her, it was even more painful. It reminded him of the countless nights they'd spent huddled together after Joshua had disappeared, clinging to each other as if each one feared the other would disappear. And the equally countless nights when they'd lain back-to-back, rigid and sleepless, but unwilling to offer or ask for help.
A shudder rippled through him as the struggle continued inside him between his need to hold this woman he'd loved as long as he could remember, and his need to protect himself from the painful, heartbreaking memories she'd brought with her.
Her body was lighter, less substantial than he remembered. She'd lost weight in the year since they'd split. He felt bones where before she'd been soft and curvy. He'd already noticed that her face was not just paler, but thinner, as well.