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She stared outside, where the day before the concrete company had poured a beautiful new patio inside the six-foot privacy fence that surrounded the backyard.
Pride ballooned in her chest. It was all finally coming together for her. After years of working two and three jobs, of attending college nights and weekends, some of her dreams were beginning to come true.
She not only had her very own house, but she also had a brand-new patio where she could have a barbecue and invite neighbors who would hopefully soon be friends.
She turned from the window at the sound of a soft coo coming from the portable infant rocking seat in the center of the kitchen table. Her heart swelled as she smiled at her four-month-old little girl.
"Hey, Lilly girl," Peyton said as she scooped the baby up in her arms. Lilly flailed her arms and cooed again, her rosebud little lips turning upward in a happy smile.
It almost frightened Peyton, how happy she'd become, how many of her dreams were beginning to blossom into fruition. In a month she would begin teaching first grade at the Black Rock Elementary School. And even though Lilly hadn't been planned, she was the greatest gift Peyton had ever been given.
Although things hadn't worked out between Peyton and Lilly's father, Rick, Rick had promised to be there for his daughter, and Peyton knew he'd do just that. He was a good man, just not the man for Peyton.
"Are you hungry?" Peyton asked as she placed Lilly back in her seat.
Lilly bounced and wiggled and smiled, a faint trail of drool making its way from her mouth to her chin. Peyton laughed and grabbed a towel to wipe her mouth. "Or would you rather I just get your piggies?" She grabbed Lilly's foot and tickled her toes. Lilly squealed and kicked her feet as Peyton laughed again.
The ringing of the doorbell interrupted the game. Making certain that Lilly was secure in the seat, Peyton left her and hurried to the door.
She peeked through the spy hole on the door and saw the tall redhead on the other side. She quickly unfastened the dead bolt and opened the door. "Kathy! I didn't expect you to stop by today," she said.
"I decided a little exercise would do me good, so I thought I'd walk over for a visit, but it's hot as blazes out there." She flipped her long red hair over her shoulder and smiled. "Hope you don't mind a hot and thirsty friend dropping by unexpectedly."
"Not at all. Come on into the kitchen. I was just about to make a bottle for Lilly, and I'll get you something cold to drink."
As they entered the kitchen, Kathy beelined to Lilly as Peyton got a bottle of soda out of the fridge and set it on the table.
Kathy baby-talked to Lilly for a moment, then sat at the table and watched as Peyton prepared Lilly's bottle.
The two women had met two months earlier, right after Peyton had moved to the small western Kansas town. Kathy was new to town as well and the two had hit it off immediately.
"I see you got the patio poured," Kathy said as Peyton sat in the chair next to her and began to feed Lilly.
"Yesterday. I can't wait to have a real barbecue outside. I want to get one of those umbrella tables and invite all my new friends for burgers and hot dogs."
"At least wait until it cools down. This heat is about to kill me," Kathy exclaimed. "I'd forgotten how hot it gets in Kansas in July. Besides, you have to meet some new friends in order to invite them."
"I know, and I will," Peyton replied. "Now that I'm finally settled in and Lilly is getting older, I plan on getting out more." Peyton had been reluctant to take Lilly outside and around strangers while she'd been so small, and she'd had the work of settling in to keep her from going out and socializing.
"Did Rick stop by last night? Yo u mentioned that he was planning on driving out to visit with the baby."
"No, he didn't make it. He's working some big trial and scarcely has time to breathe right now." Rick Powell was an assistant D.A. Handsome and ambitious, he and Peyton had dated for six months, and ironically Lilly had been conceived on the night they mutually decided to break up.
"He could have married you," Kathy said with a touch of censure.
Peyton laughed. "I didn't want to marry him. We had a great time together, but I realized I wasn't in love with him. Besides, Rick is already married to his work."
Lilly finished her bottle and yawned around the nipple. Almost immediately she closed her eyes and fell asleep. Peyton put her back in the cushioned seat in the center of the table and brushed a strand of the pale blond hair away from her forehead.
"She's such a doll baby," Kathy said, then frowned and raised a hand to her temple. "You don't happen to have anything for a headache, do you?"
"Nothing stronger than an aspirin," Peyton replied.
"Could I have a couple? I have a killer headache."
"Sure, hang on and I'll be right back. I've got a bottle under the sink in the bathroom."
As Peyton walked through her living room with its gleaming polished surfaces and simple furnishings, she thought of how far she'd come from her roots.
She'd done it. She'd climbed out of the filth and the fear of her childhood. She was in a place where she couldn't get evicted, where filth would never exist again.
The guest bathroom in the hall was decorated in cool shades of mint-green and white. She straightened the hand towel next to the sink before she bent down to look for the aspirin bottle.
She was on her knees when she looked up and saw Kathy standing in the doorway. "Here you are," she said as she grabbed the bottle and began to rise.
"And here you are," Kathy said, and she slammed something into the side of Peyton's head. Peyton reeled backward, unable to keep her balance. What? Why? These two words exploded in Peyton's brain just before her head hit the edge of the bathtub and everything went black.
Consciousness came in bits and pieces. The faint scent of pine cleaner filled her nose and she winced from the nauseating pound of a headache. She opened her eyes and saw the mint-green bathroom rug beneath her face. She frowned in confusion. What? How did she get on the floor?
Kathy. Kathy had come into the bathroom and attacked her. Kathy had hit her. As she got to her feet it all came back to her. Why? Why had her friend attacked her? It didn't make sense.
Lilly! She had to get to Lilly. The baby wasn't crying. Maybe she was still napping. Peyton's heart crashed against her ribs, like an off-balance washing machine on the spin cycle. Please, God, let her still be napping.
Woozy and unsteady on her feet, she stumbled down the hallway. She needed to call for help. She'd been attacked. But before she could do anything she needed her baby in her arms.
As she stepped into the kitchen she froze. The infant seat was in the center of the table, the receiving blanket a swath of rose color against the empty seat.
"No." The word whispered out of her as her knees buckled. Horror pressed against her chest, making it difficult for her to draw breath. Where was Lilly?
She reeled out of the kitchen and ran down the hall to Lilly's bedroom. Kathy must have put her in her crib. Even though Peyton knew it made no sense, that nothing made sense, she clung to the hope that Kathy had tucked Lilly into her crib before she'd left the house.
She clung to that tenuous, fragile hope as she raced into the small bedroom she'd decorated with pink ruffles and teddy bears. She stopped in the doorway and stared at the empty crib.
Sheriff Tom Grayson pulled his car into the driveway of the neat little ranch house and got out before the engine had completely shut off. His youngest brother, Caleb, waited for him on the lawn, his khaki deputy uniform the same color as the sunburned dried grass beneath his feet.
"What's up?" Tom asked. The late July heat felt as if it seared his lungs with each breath he took.
Caleb's brown eyes were darker than usual, a sure sign that he was troubled. "A missing baby."
Tom's stomach flipped. In all his years as sheriff of Black Rock, Kansas, there had never been a child missing or murdered.
"Details," Tom demanded.
"The woman, Peyton Wilkerson, says she was entertaining a friend and she went to the bathroom. She says the woman attacked her and knocked her unconscious, then stole the baby. But, I got to tell you, Tom, it all seems pretty fishy. Her wounds look superficial, she just had a new patio poured yesterday, and the kitchen smells like bleach."
Bleach, the best thing to use to clean up traces of blood. Tom tried to keep his mind open as he nodded and went into the house.
He stepped into the living room, and his first impression was one of obsessive neatness and order. The furnishings were simple and the room smelled of lemon furniture polish and glass cleaner.
He heard the sound of his brother Benjamin coming from the kitchen. It didn't surprise him that Benjamin was the one in the kitchen with the potential victim while Caleb had been the one pacing the grass outside.
Benjamin had an affinity for anyone he thought might be a victim of a crime. Softhearted to a fault, he would be consoling Peyton Wilkerson. On the other hand, impulsive, impatient Caleb was always ready to believe the worst in a situation, always ready to investigate and arrest.
Before going to the kitchen, Tom turned down a hallway and stepped into the first bedroom he came to. It was obviously a nursery. Decorated in shades of pink, it was tidy and held the faintest scent of baby lotion.
He left that room and went farther down the hall, passing a bedroom and coming to the master bedroom. Decorated in yellow, white and green, it gave the aura of a peaceful garden with sunshine. As with all the other rooms, nothing appeared out of place. Even the nightstand held nothing more than an attractive reading lamp.
Tom frowned as he thought of his own nightstand, which often held the remainder of a bedtime snack, whatever book he was currently reading and little notes to himself of things he thought of just before drifting off to sleep.
He touched nothing; he was just trying to get a quick feel for the person who lived there. So far he learned that Peyton Wilkerson definitely took pride in her surroundings and probably had more than a touch of obsessive-compulsiveness.
The first thing Tom noticed as he stood in the doorway to the kitchen was the faint, underlying scent of bleach. The second thing he noticed was that Peyton Wilkerson was a stunner. Even red-rimmed eyes from crying and an angry gash on the side of her forehead couldn't detract from her fragile beauty.
Both she and Benjamin sat at the kitchen table. In the center of the table was an empty infant seat covered in pink material and ruffles.
Tom knew most of the people in the small town of Black Rock, but he'd never seen Peyton Wilkerson before. If he had, he definitely would have remembered.
As he stepped into the room she jumped up from her chair. "Thank God," she said, tears shimmering in her already swollen eyes as she reached out and grabbed his hand. "Sheriff, you have to do something. You have to go get my Lilly."
Her hand was fevered and trembled in his. The sense of urgency that he'd felt when Caleb had told him a baby was missing welled up inside him.
"Who took her?" Tom asked.
"Her name is Kathy Simon, and she lives in the Black Rock Apartments. Please, we have to get my baby back. She's only four months old." A sob escaped her as Tom led her back to the chair where she'd been seated.
"You know what apartment she lives in?" he asked, aware that Caleb had come into the room.
Peyton frowned. "No, not specifically. Whenever I've dropped her off, it's always been at the front entrance."
"What does she look like?" Tom asked.
"She has shoulder-length red hair and blue eyes.
She's taller than me and very thin. She told me she was twenty-nine, the same age as me."
"Caleb, Benjamin, head over to the apartments and check it out," Tom said. "Get out an AMBER Alert and have Sam run a check on a Kathy Simon. Tell Clay and Eric to set up roadblocks on both ends of town and to check every car leaving town."
"I want to go to the apartments, too," Peyton exclaimed.
"You and I are going to stay here so I can ask you some questions," Tom said firmly. "My deputies will check things out." He nodded in dismissal to his brothers, who immediately left.
He returned his attention to Peyton, who looked as if she were hanging onto her very sanity by a thread. "Tell me what happened this morning."
For a moment he thought she was going to break down altogether. Her lips trembled and tears filled her eyes. "Please, Mrs. Wilkerson. I know this is difficult, but the more information I have the easier it will be to find your baby."
She drew a deep breath and visibly pulled herself together. "I had just finished cleaning the kitchen when Kathy showed up." She gripped a tissue in her hand so tightly her knuckles were white.
"I smell bleach. Is that what you were cleaning with?" he asked.
She nodded. "I always use a little bleach when I clean, especially when I mop the floor."
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