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"Go, Sam! Woohoo!" Carrie pumped her fist in the air when her lanky teenage son nailed the soccer ball with the inside of his size-ten foot, sending it like a bullet past the goalie and into the net. He glanced her way, gave her a half smile that didn't reach his eyes, then tapped the yellow band on his arm to remind everyone watching who that goal was for.
As she sat down again, Carrie was embarrassed by her outburst. It was inappropriate, given the circumstances.
The game continued, and she looked around at the other spectators. Parents and other locals, mostly, lining the bleachers at the edge of an extensive and well-groomed field behind Shadow Falls Central High. School hadn't yet started—even though preseason games and practices had begun for soccer, track and cheerleading.
September in Shadow Falls had a definite scent to it, and a distinct feeling to it, as well. You'd know autumn was coming even if you couldn't see or hear a thing. The leaves were beginning to turn, though they were nowhere near their peak just yet. The sun was just as bright as it had been all summer long, but not as hot anymore, and the breeze had a brisk snap that was missing in the summer months. Fall was rolling in. You could feel it, taste it in the air.
But there was something besides autumn hanging in the air around Shadow Falls. There was a pall that was hard to miss. A lingering darkness that hadn't let up for five days. It only grew, in fact. Every day that Kyle Becker didn't come home, Shadow Falls got a little grimmer, a little grayer.
Even the tourists must know the reason for the town's unusual melancholy mood by now. It was hard to miss, with the Teen Runaway posters stapled to every telephone pole, fence post and unsuspecting maple tree, and the thrice-daily gathering and dispatching of volunteer search parties in front of the old firehouse, just in case something had happened to him, a possibility no one wanted to contemplate too intently.
Every player on both soccer teams, the Blackberry Chiefs as well as the Shadow Falls Vikings, wore a yellow armband to show unity in hoping the missing sixteen-year-old would come home soon. Five days. Carrie didn't know what the kid was thinking.
"Nice boot," someone said nearby.
Carrie looked up to see local cop Bryan Kendall, in uniform, sitting four feet to her right. "It was, wasn't it?" she said. "How are you, Bryan?"
He shrugged. "Been better."
"I imagine you're over your head in wedding plans about now, aren't you? What have you got, six weeks to go?"
"Just under. But it's not the wedding plans weighing me down. Though I gotta tell you, I'd just as soon elope and get straight to the honeymoon."
"It's this Kyle Becker thing," he said.
She nodded, sighing. "The timing couldn't be much worse, could it?"
"Not much. Tough checking out every stranger in town at the kickoff of leaf-peeper season."
She nodded in sympathy as she scanned the bleachers, spotting a few unfamiliar faces among the locals, even here. Not many. The tourists preferred winery tours and foliage photo-ops to high school sporting events. But a few of them had discovered the soccer match and settled in to watch. One in particular caught her eye. He sat a few rows down and off to the left, and he was immersed in a supermarket tabloid with Shadow Falls' latest scandal splashed on its front page.
Dead Woman Misidentified for More Than Sixteen Years.
Anonymous Source Puts Up Half-Million-Dollar Reward for Her Missing Baby.
Carrie closed her eyes, shook her head, wishing the story of her son's birth mother would just go away already. But it was everywhere. And the idiot offering the reward wasn't helping.
All those years ago, the dead woman had been identified as one Sarah Quinlan. It was only in the past few weeks that her true identity, Olivia Dupree, had been revealed. That had renewed interest in the case, and the additional information that the dead woman had given birth only weeks prior to her murder had given the story legs.
No one in Shadow Falls had known Olivia was pregnant or heard anything about a baby, but now everyone in the U.S. of A. suddenly seemed to be interested in speculating on what had become of it. Especially with the huge reward thrown into the mix.
Carrie hadn't known the dead woman's name when her body had been trundled into her hospital's morgue for autopsy. But she'd recognized her face. It had been only six weeks since she'd last seen it, after all. She'd been searching Shadow Falls for the young woman, hoping to get her to sign the adoption papers that would officially make Sam Carrie's own. On that horrible day, she'd realized it would never happen.
She alone knew what had become of the murder victim's missing baby. He'd just scored a goal on the soccer field, and he didn't even know he was adopted.
"You know that guy?" Bryan asked.
Carrie blinked and realized that her eyes were still glued to the tourist with the tabloid. He had long, honey and caramel hair, pulled back and held with a black rubber band. He had whiskers, too. Not a beard, exactly. Just a neatly trimmed layer of bristles that was probably supposed to be sexy.
Okay, it was sexy. Just not to her.
He wore jeans, and a T-shirt with several guitars on the front of it and some words underneath, but she was too far away to read them clearly.
"Carrie?" Bryan nudged.
"No, no, I don't know him. I was just thinking he looks like a hippie."
"Nah, they usually travel in groups." He was being funny.
She wasn't laughing. "So maybe he's a lone hippie. Can't say I approve of his choice of reading material."
"He probably doesn't care." Bryan nodded in a direction slightly farther left. "That one's reading the same thing, but since he's wearing a buttoned-up suit, you probably don't find it as offensive."
She looked beyond the long-haired man to where Bryan had indicated. Another man sat there, light brown hair in a neat cut that seemed a little too short and too severe for his face. It was a nice face, though. He had a deep tan that stood in sharp contrast to his pale brows and even paler blue eyes, giving him a striking appearance. And his suit was impeccable, not to mention expensive.
"It's just as offensive. Though I'm more surprised to see an intelligent-looking guy like that reading it."
"I think he looks like an Oompa-Loompa."
She elbowed Bryan in the rib cage but had to laugh, and it broke a little of the tension. "You're just not used to seeing sun-worshippers at the peak of their color."
"The man is orange."
"He's not orange. He's deeply tanned. And he looks harmless. The hippie, on the other hand…"
"Doesn't look the least bit suspicious to me," Bryan said.
"Never trust a guy in a ponytail," she told him. "If you're still checking out tourists, I'd suggest you move that guy to the top of the list."
Bryan rolled his eyes. "I don't seriously think we're looking at a stranger abduction here, Carrie. Do you?"
"Of course not. Kyle's sixteen. Same as Sam. God, it's hard to believe they're only two years from legal, isn't it?" She sighed. "Anyway, it was a bonehead move on Kyle's part to leave without a word, though… Sammy insists Kyle would never run off without telling him."
"You think he's right about that?" Bryan asked.
She looked across the soccer field at her son. "You know how kids are at this age—it's all about the drama. And my son's second favorite activity is drama club."
"I don't blame him. He kicked ass in 'The Wizard of Oz.'"
She smiled, remembering. "He's a natural. I think he could be a professional actor if he wanted to."
"I agree. I also think he watches too much CSI."
"I hope that's it," Carrie said. "I just don't want to believe child abduction is something that can happen here in Shadow Falls." She watched Bryan's face as she spoke, hoping for some confirmation of her theories.
He looked away as he said, "I just wish we'd get a lead on Kyle so we would know one way or the other."
Her heart skipped a little. "Bryan, are you saying… are you saying there's a chance Sam's right? That Kyle didn't run away?"
He shrugged. "There's no evidence that anything happened to him. Every indication is that he just took it into his head to run off. I just wish he'd call his family and fess up already. It's cruel, putting them through this. They're good people."
"I never thought of Kyle as a cruel kid," she said.
Bryan averted his eyes. "Yeah, I know. It does seem out of character, and that's what's bothering me about all this."
It sounded to Carrie as if Bryan might be rethinking the current popular theory about Kyle's disappearance, and that realization sent a chill up her spine. But before she could question him further, she saw his eyes widen and followed his gaze to the field just in time to witness a teeth-jarring impact between a player and the ground. There was no one near the kid, so obviously no one had hit him. He was clutching his chest, and his mouth was open wide.
"Gotta go, Bry!" Carrie grabbed her medical bag, always nearby at sporting events, and bounded between spectators to get to the field.
The crowd was on its feet but parted to let her through. She wasn't in a panic—this happened on a fairly regular basis, and it was usually nothing. As she cleared the knot of players and parents being held at bay by the coaches and refs, she saw the boy.
The kid on his back was Marty Sheffield, and he had a full-blown asthma attack going on. She could tell that his pulse was skyrocketing; his eyes were rolling back already, and his lips were blue.
"Okay, Marty, easy now. Easy." She yanked an inhaler from her bag. She also kept one in her glove compartment and two at her house. The number of asthmatic teens was ridiculous and seemed to be growing all the time. Not just in Shadow Falls, but nationwide, and she blamed air pollution, though she couldn't prove it.
"You're gonna be fine," she said automatically as she knelt beside the fallen boy, held the inhaler to his lips and gave him two short bursts. He tried to suck the medicine into his lungs, but she didn't think he'd gotten very much.
"Are you sure?"
That was a new voice. Male, and not local, because she knew all the locals.
"I know CPR if—"
"He's breathing," Carrie lifted her eyes and damn near gasped aloud when she saw the hippie from the bleachers kneeling on the opposite side of the prone player. His eyes were an interesting mingling of green and brown, and they were filled with concern as they bored into hers. He was far better looking than he'd seemed at first glance. Not that she had time to think about that right now.
"What are you doing down here? Do you know this kid?"
"No, but I—"
"Then you should get back to your seat with the rest of the spectators."
He lifted his brows as if mildly offended. "Happy to. I just thought you might need an extra pair of hands, with every firefighter and EMT in town out searching for that missing boy."
He was paying attention to local news, wasn't he? she thought, as she fished a premeasured dose of epinephrine from her bag, tore off the cellophane wrap and jabbed the needle into Marty's arm.
The man with the perfect jawline and cheekbones started to rise, but she said, "Hey, hold up a sec. You're right. I might need you." And then she looked past him, her entire focus on her son, who was hurrying toward her. Sweat had smeared the black smudges underneath his eyes, making him look even more menacing to the opposing team, she supposed. If a kid like Sammy could ever look menacing, anyway. She saw his massive red SUV sitting nearby and realized he must have run to the parking lot to get it, then driven it out onto the field to transport his teammate if a trip to the E.R. turned out to be necessary. Now he held up the keys.
"Can you drive, so I can tend to Marty?" she asked the stranger.
She ran a hand over Marty's forehead, lifting the sweat-damp hair away. He was semiconscious, and breathing a little easier, though his airway sounds were still terrible. He was whistling louder than the referees had been. She waved the coach over. "Get him into the back of Sammy's Beast," she said, using their nickname for the Ford Expedition Funkmaster Flex Edition that was Sammy's pride and joy. The coach and the stranger worked together to lift Marty and then ease him into the cargo area.
"I can't believe this," Sam said, standing at the rear of the vehicle, looking in at his friend. "First Kyle goes missing, and now Marty—"
"Marty's had asthma attacks before, and he'll have them again, hon, but I guarantee you, he's going to be fine."
"I've never seen him this bad."