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Making Her Way Home

Making Her Way Home

by Janice Kay Johnson

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A child is missing. The words chill Detective Mike Ryan and bring to mind memories of his own tragedy.

He'll dedicate every resource he has until the girl Sicily is found, safe…and alive. His investigation hits a snag with Sicily's aunt and guardian, Beth Greenway. Beth's cool demeanor is at odds with the situation, making him


A child is missing. The words chill Detective Mike Ryan and bring to mind memories of his own tragedy.

He'll dedicate every resource he has until the girl Sicily is found, safe…and alive. His investigation hits a snag with Sicily's aunt and guardian, Beth Greenway. Beth's cool demeanor is at odds with the situation, making him suspicious. She's definitely hiding something. But the more time he spends with her, the less he believes that something is about the missing niece. And with all that contact, Mike sees Beth's vulnerabilities. Suddenly, he wants to protect her, even while he wants to know her secrets.

As the search hits one roadblock after another, Mike's dedication intensifies. He needs to bring Sicily home for Beth…but also for the future he wants with them.

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Harlequin Super Romance Series , #1796
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Even as she awakened slowly, Beth Greenway felt the first pang of unease. The sun was warm on her face, which was strange since she never slept in the daytime. Whatever she was lying on wasn't very comfortable. Instead of immediately opening her eyes, she listened to distant voices—conversations, shrieks of delight, laughs.

Pebbles. That's what she seemed to be lying on. Puzzlement sharpened her brain and she opened her eyes to the sight of the sun and a glimpse of twisted gray driftwood.

She was at the beach. She and her niece, Sicily, had brought a picnic. Sicily had found some other kids to play with, and Beth read a paperback thriller until her eyes got so heavy she'd laid back and closed them.

That's why she felt uneasy—she hadn't meant to fall asleep. Sitting up, Beth quickly scanned the beach, searching for the ten-year-old. Sicily surely had the sense not to go far. The tide was on its way in, but there was still a wet, slick expanse of beach tide pools. A cluster of children crouched, gazing into one, but none of them had Sicily's bright blond hair.

The parents of the kids she'd been playing with had laid out their blanket over there…but the blanket and parents were gone.

Now she was on her feet, her head turning. Where on earth had Sicily gone? Beth snatched a glance at her watch and was reassured to see that she hadn't been asleep for more than half an hour. Inexcusable if her niece had been younger, but Sicily was, thank goodness, astonishingly self-sufficient. She'd had to be, with such an undependable mother.

Beth walked first north, then south on the beach, scanning each group, scrutinizing the beachgoers reading or strolling above the waterline. Her heart had begun to hammer. Was Sicily trying to scare her? Beth couldn't imagine. No, it was more logical to think it hadn't occurred to her niece that she needed to keep any adult in her life informed about her plans. It was new to her to have someone trying to establish rules.

She might have walked up the trail to the wooded land above. Hadn't they seen a sign for a nature trail? That made sense, Beth thought on a surge of what she wanted to be relief.

But she hesitated. If Sicily came back and found her gone…

Beth spotted a group of older teenagers listening to music and talking near where she'd been snoozing. She jogged up to them.

"Excuse me." Her breath came in choppy pants. "I can't find my ten-year-old niece. She's blonde, wearing red shorts and a white T-shirt. Have you seen her?" In unison, all five shook their heads. "Will you be here for a few minutes?" she begged. "That's my blanket right there. I'm going to check the nature trail to see if she went up there. If she comes looking for me, will you tell her I'll be back soon?"

"Sure," one of the girls said. "Do you need help looking for her?"

Surprised by the offer, she said, "As long as one of you stays here, I'd be really grateful if any of you are willing to look. Sicily is about this tall.. " She held up her hand. "Skinny, long-legged. She was playing with some other kids and I guess I fell asleep."

Two of the girls stood up. "We'll look," the first one said. "There are lots of places to hide along here."

"Thank you." Beth began running, her searching gaze moving nonstop. She'd see Sicily any minute; she'd probably gone too far down the beach, or up the trail, or…maybe she'd needed to use the restroom the state park provided.

Beth went there first, pushing open the heavy door on the women's side. "Sicily?" she called. "Are you here?"

Nobody was in the restroom. Beth raced to her car; her niece wasn't waiting at it.

Back to the nature trail, which according to the sign was half a mile long. Half a mile didn't take Beth long to cover if she jogged the entire loop. She asked the few people she passed if they'd seen a ten year old girl in red shorts, but no one had.

Oh, God, she thought, please let her be there when I get back. As she rushed back down the trail to the beach, Beth comforted herself by rehearsing how she'd scold Sicily. The moment she stepped onto the pebbly beach, she saw her blanket and the group of teenagers. There was no child with them.

She felt the first wash of real fear.

Mike Ryan frowned as he drove, thinking about the interview he'd just conducted. The home owners had suffered a major loss. Mike had taken the case from the first responder, a patrol officer. Nobody in the detective's division would have gotten involved if this had been a garden variety break-in, with maybe a plasma TV, a laptop, a digital camera stolen. This one was bigger than that. A window into the family room at the back of the house had been broken and, yeah, TV, DVD player, Nintendo, camera and two iPods were reported stolen. More significantly, a locked metal outbuilding had been stripped of some heavy equipment the husband used in a landscaping business. The Komatsu dozer alone was insured for $37,000, never mind the attachments. There'd also been a commercial quality aerator, stump grinder, a couple of tillers, chain saws and more. Two flatbed trailers parked outside the building were gone, too. The loss added up to $200,000 easy.

Detectives in this rural Washington State county handled a mix of cases, from fraud and theft to rape, assault and murder. Mike had a dozen active cases already, and at least another dozen not-so-active ones that stayed in the back of his mind in hopes a break came.

He'd have to go back later in the day when neighbors were home to find out if anyone had seen or heard anything. Supposedly the home owners had been away for a weeklong visit to see their daughter in Ocean Shores. The house, a 3,500-square-foot faux Tudor with a three-car garage as well as the 2,000-square-foot metal outbuilding, sat on a five-acre wooded parcel. The buildings were visible neither from the road nor the neighbors' houses, which were also situated on five-acre parcels. It would be pure luck to find someone who happened to see either of the flatbed trailers being hauled away.

Mike was pretty damn sure he was being played, and he didn't like it. Right now, he was heading back into the station, where he would begin delving into the finances of J. N. Sullivan Landscaping Services. He had a suspicion he was going to find the business was in trouble. So much trouble, a nice insurance payoff would be an easy way for Mr. John Sullivan to take his retirement. Especially since he'd likely sold all that heavy equipment, and would thereby double his return once the insurance company paid out.

The radio crackled on and off as Mike drove, all routine inquiries and requests. "Possible missing child at Henrik Beach County Park." He was caught by the note of urgency in the dispatcher's voice. "Ten years old, last seen an hour or more ago. Park ranger search failed to turn up the child. Any nearby units please respond."

Oh, hell. If there was one thing that rubbed Mike raw, it was people who didn't keep a sharp eye on their kids in potentially dangerous situations. A park that combined a mile of Puget Sound waterfront, crumbling bluffs, a forest and a whole lot of strangers met that criteria. And by happenstance he was less than a mile from the park. In a county as sprawling as this one, it might take fifteen minutes to half an hour for a patrol response. He reached for his radio to gave his location and ETA.

Not ten minutes later, he was getting the story from the park ranger, a short, wiry woman in her forties with weathered skin.

"Maybe we brought you in too quick, but I'd rather that than make the mistake of wasting time."

"That's our preference," he agreed. "Sounds like you've done the basic search."

She nodded. "We need help."

"All right. I'm going to put in a preliminary call to search-and-rescue, then let me talk to the aunt."

He knew the local head of the volunteer group and, when Vic Levine said he could have the first few searchers there within fifteen minutes, Mike hesitated. Standing by his car in the parking lot, his gaze moved slowly over the density of the old growth forest past the picnic ground. As county parks went, this was a big one, including a campground, as well as the picnic area, several trails and the beach. He didn't like to think about how many people were in the park at this moment, never mind the ones that had come and gone as the sun moved overhead and the girl's aunt failed to notice she was missing.

"Make the calls," he said. "Better safe than sorry."

"Good enough."

The ranger, who had introduced herself as Lynne Kerney, was waiting to lead Mike down to the beach. He followed, taking in the scrubby coastal foliage clinging to the bluff, the tumbles of driftwood, the tide that must be starting to come in. There were people all over the beach, most of them wandering or scrambling over the gray logs.

Ranger Kerney turned toward him. "Most every adult here is looking for Sicily."

There was one woman who wasn't searching. She stood beside a blanket maybe a hundred yards from where the trail they were on let out onto the gravelly beach. As he watched, she turned slowly in a circle, her arms wrapped herself as if she were cold. Or containing fear? But from this distance he didn't see any on her face.

He wasn't surprised when Lynne Kerney led him straight toward the woman. Anger began to burn inside him as the coals in his gut ignited. Her niece was missing and all she could do was stand there looking a little agitated, as if this were on the scale of discovering she had a run in her pantyhose or a button was off the blouse she'd intended to wear that day.

She was facing them long before they reached her. Her eyes fastened first on the ranger, then him, flickering from his face to the badge and gun he wore on his belt.

"You haven't found her?" She even sounded cool. No, that wasn't fair—she was worried, all right, but hadn't lost her composure. Mike couldn't imagine not being utterly terrified by this time.

"I'm afraid not," the ranger said. "Ms. Greenway, this is Detective Ryan with the county sheriff's department. He's called in search-and-rescue."

"The first volunteers should be here in ten minutes or so," he said. "It's great so many people are already helping, but these folks are trained to search systematically. If your niece is in the park, we'll find her."

She swallowed, he did see that. A reaction of some sort. "If only I hadn't fallen asleep," she said softly.

If only were two of the ugliest words in the English language, especially when spoken by an adult who'd been negligent where a child was concerned. His slow burn was gathering force, ready to jump the fire line.

Not yet, he cautioned himself. People didn't all react the same to fear or grief or any other strong emotion. He knew that. This woman might be holding herself together by the thinnest of threads. If he severed it and she got hysterical, he might not get answers.

"Your name?" he asked.

"What? Oh. Beth Greenway. Elizabeth."

"And is your niece also a Greenway?"

"No. Her name is Sicily Marks." He processed that. "Sicily. Like the Italian island?"

"Yes." She sounded impatient and he couldn't blame her.

Somebody shouted down the beach and they all turned to look. A question was yelled down the line. Did Sicily have a blue-and-white-striped towel?

Beth shook her head. "We only brought one towel. It's right here."

Mike glanced down at the towel, folded neatly and apparently unused. It was a sea foam-green and more of a bath sheet than a beach towel.

But this woman wasn't Sicily's mother. No surprise that she had to improvise for an outing.

The ranger hurried away to talk to the people excited by the abandoned towel. Mike looked at Ms. Greenway.

"All right," he said quietly. "Tell me what happened."

He knew the basics of what she had to say and didn't listen so much to the words as to her intonation, the way she paused over certain words and hurried over others. He hoped to see emotions and failed. She'd battened down the hatches with a ruthless hand. The only giveaway at all was the way she clutched herself, seemingly unaware that she was doing so.

"So then I talked to these teenagers." She turned her head, looking for them. "They're still here, helping search. They said they'd watch for her while I."

As she spoke, he had the uncomfortable realization that anger wasn't the only reason his belly was churning.

He was attracted to her. Extremely, inappropriately attracted.

Beth Greenway wasn't a beautiful woman, exactly. She should have been too thin for his tastes, for one thing. The bones were startlingly prominent in her face, like a runway model. That was it exactly, he decided; her face was all cheekbones, eyes and lips. Those lips might be pouty and sultry in other circumstances, but were being held tightly together between sentences, as if she were thinning them deliberately.

Her hair was brown, but that was an inadequate description for a rich, deep color that was really made up of dozens of shades. Chin-length, it was straight and thick and expertly cut to curve behind her ears. Her eyes were brown, too, but lighter than her hair. Caramel, maybe, flecked with gold.

Fortunately, he was good at compartmentalizing. In the couple of minutes that passed while she talked, he'd assessed her appearance, decided his reaction to it was one hell of a stupid thing he could ignore and begun to question whether a single word coming out of her mouth was the truth.

"Will any of these folks looking for your niece be able to recognize her?" he asked.

She stared at him. Her eyes dilated at the instant she understood what he was really asking. Did any of these people ever actually see your niece?

Meet the Author

The author of more than ninety books for children and adults, Janice Kay Johnson writes about love and family - about the way generations connect and the power our earliest experiences have on us throughout life.  An eight time finalist for the Romance Writers of America RITA award, she won a RITA in 2008 for her Superromance novel Snowbound.  A former librarian, Janice raised two daughters in a small town north of Seattle, Washington.

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