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Lieutenant Nate Ryland took one look at the preschool building and knew something was wrong.
He eased his hand over his Glock. After ten years of being a San Antonio cop, it was an automatic response. But there was nothing rote or automatic about the iron-hard knot that tightened in his stomach.
"Kimmie," he said under his breath. His fifteen-month-old daughter, Kimberly Ellen, was inside.
The side door to the Silver Creek Preschool and Day Care was wide open. But not just open. It was dangling in place, the warm April breeze battering it against the sunshine-yellow frame. It looked as if it'd been partially torn off the hinges.
Nate elbowed his car door shut and walked closer. He kept his hand positioned over his gun and tried to rein in the fear that had started to crawl through him. He recognized the feeling. The sickening dread. The last time he'd felt like this he'd found his wife bleeding and dying in an alleyway.
Cursing under his breath, he hurried now, racing across the manicured lawn that was dotted with kiddie cars and other riding toys.
"What's wrong?" someone called out.
He snapped toward the voice and the petite brunette whom he recognized immediately. It wasn't a good recognition, either.
A defense attorney who had recently moved to Silver Creek. But Nate had known Darcy before her move. Simply put, she had been and continued to be a thorn in his side. He'd already butted heads with her once today and didn't have time for round two.
Nate automatically scowled. So did she. She was apparently there to pick up her child. A son about Kim-mie's age if Nate recalled correctly. He remembered Kimmie's nanny, Grace Borden, mentioning something about Darcy having enrolled the little boy in the two-hour-long Tuesday-Thursday play sessions held at the day-care center.
"I asked, what's wrong?" Darcy repeated. It was the same tone she used in court when representing the scum she favored defending.
Nate ignored both her scowl and her question, and continued toward the single-story building. The preschool was at the end of Main Street, nestled in a sleepy, parklike section with little noise or traffic. He reminded himself that it was a safe place for children.
He had no idea what was wrong, but Nate knew that something wasthe door was proof of that. He prayed there was a simple explanation for the damage. Like an ill-timed gust of wind. Or a preschool employee who'd given it too hard a push.
But it didn't feel like anything simple.
Without stopping, he glanced at the side parking lot. No activity there, though there were three cars, all belonging to the employees, no doubt. He also glanced behind him at the sidewalk and street where he and Darcy had left their own vehicles. If someone with criminal intentions had damaged the door, then the person wasn't outside. That left the inside.
"Why is your hand on your gun?" Darcy asked, catching up with him. Not easily. She was literally running across the grassy lawn in high heels and a crisp ice-blue business suit, and the slim skirt made it nearly impossible for her to keep up with him.
"Shhhh," he growled.
Nate reached the front porch, which stretched across the entire front of the building. There were four windows, spaced far apart, and the nearest was still a few feet away from the door. He tested the doorknob.
It was locked.
Another sign that something was wrong. It was never locked this time of day because, like he had, other parents would arrive soon to pick up their children from the play session.
He drew his gun.
Behind him, Darcy gasped, and he shot her a get-quiet glare that he hoped she would obey. While he was hoping, he added that maybe she would stay out of the way.
Continuing to be a thorn in his side, she trailed along right behind him with those blasted heels battering like bullets on the wooden planks. Of course, he couldn't blame her. Her son was inside, and if she had any intuition whatsoever, she knew something wasn't right.
Nate moved to the window and peered around the edge of the frame. He tried to brace himself for anything and everything but instead saw nothing. The room was empty. Another bad sign.
It should literally be crawling with toddlers, the teacher and other staff members. This should be the last fifteen minutes of the play session, and the staff was expecting him. Nate had called an hour earlier to let them know that he would be arriving a little early so he could watch Kimmie play with the other kids. Maybe Darcy had had the same idea.
He lifted his head, listening, and it didn't take him long to hear the faint sound. Someone was crying. A baby. And it sounded like Kimmie.
Nothing could have held him back at that point. Nate raced across the porch and jumped over the waist-high railing so he could get to that door with the broken hinge. He landed on the ground, soggy from the morning's hard rain, and the mud squeezed over the toes of his cowboy boots. It seemed to take hours to go those few yards, but he finally made it. Unfortunately, the sound of the crying got louder and louder.
Nate threw open the broken door and faced yet another empty playroom. His heart went to his knees. Because the room wasn't just empty.
There were signs of a struggle.
Toys and furniture had been knocked over. There was a diaper bag discarded in the middle of the floor, and it looked as if someone had rifled through it. The phone, once mounted onto the wall, had been ripped off and now lay crushed and broken on the counter.
He didn't call out for his daughter, though he had to fight the nearly overwhelming urge to do just that and therefore alert a possible intruder. Kimmie had to be all right. She just had to be. Because the alternative was unthinkable. He'd already lost her mother, and he couldn't lose her.
Trying to keep his footsteps light so he would hopefully have the element of surprise, Nate made his way across the room and looked around the corner. No one was in the kitchen, but the crying was coming from the other side. It was one of the nap rooms, filled with beds and cribs, and normally it wasn't in use on Tuesday afternoons for the play group.
He heard the movement behind him, and with his Glock aimed and ready, he reeled around. It was Darcy, again. She gasped, and her cocoa-brown eyes widened at the gun pointed directly at her.
"Stay put," Nate whispered, using the hardest cop's expression he could manage. "Call nine-one-one and tell my brother to get out here."
Even though Darcy was new in town, she no doubt knew Sheriff Grayson Ryland was his brother. If she hadn't realized before there was something wrong, then she certainly knew it now.
"My son!" she said on a gasp.
She would have torn right past him if Nate hadn't snagged her arm. "Make the call," he ordered.
Her breath was gusting now, but she stopped struggling and gave a shaky nod. She rammed her hand into her purse and pulled out her cell phone.
Nate didn't wait for her to call the sheriff's office. She would do it, and soon Grayson and probably one of his other brothers would arrive. Two were deputies. And a nine-one-one call to respond to the preschool would get everyone in the sheriff's office moving fast.
Nate took aim again and hurried across the kitchen toward the nap room. The baby was still crying. Maybe it was Kimmie. But he heard something else, too. An adult's voice.
He stopped at the side of the door and glanced inside. At first, Nate didn't see the children. They weren't on the beds or in the cribs. But he looked down and spotted them.
They were huddled together in the corner with the teacher, Tara Hillman, and another woman Nate didn't recognize, but she no doubt worked there since both women wore name tags decorated with crayons. The babies were clinging to the adults, who were using hushed voices to try to comfort them.
"Lieutenant Ryland," Tara blurted out. Her eyes, like the other woman's, were red with tears, and they looked terrified.
With a baby clutched in each arm, Tara struggled to get to her feet. "Did you see them?"
"See who? What happened here?" Nate threaded his way through the maze of beds to make it to the other side of the room. He frantically looked through the huddle so he could find Kimmie.
"Two men," the other woman said. "They were wearing ski masks, and they had guns."
"They barged in before we could do anything to stop them," Tara explained.
"What happened here?" Nate repeated. He moved one of the babies aside. The one who was crying.
But it wasn't Kimmie.
"They took her," Tara said, though her voice hardly had any sound.
The words landed like fists against Nate and robbed him of his breath, maybe his sanity, too. "Took who?" He knew he was frantic now, but he couldn't stop himself.
"Kimmie." She made a hoarse sound. "They took Kimmie. Marlene, the other helper who works here, was holding her, and they made Marlene go with them. I couldn't stop them. I tried. I swear, I tried."
Everything inside Nate was on the verge of spinning out of control. That knot in his stomach moved to his throat and was choking him.
"What did they want? Where did they go?" he somehow managed to ask.
Tara swallowed hard and shook her head. "They drove away in a black van about ten minutes ago."
"Which direction?" Nate couldn't get out the question fast enough.
But Tara shook her head again. "They made us get on the floor, and I can't see the windows from there. They said if we went after them or if we called the sheriff that they'd come back and kill us all."
Nate turned to run. He had to get to his car now. He had to go in pursuit. He also had to get at least one of the deputies out to protect Tara and the babies just in case the gunmen followed through on their threat and returned. But he only made it a few steps before he smacked right into Darcy.
"They took Kimmie," he heard himself say.
But Darcy didn't seem to hear him. She was searching through the cluster of children. "Noah?" she called out. She repeated her son's name, louder this time.
Nate couldn't take the time to help her look. He had to find that van. He snatched his phone from his pocket and pressed the number for his brother. Grayson answered on the first ring.
"We're on the way," Grayson assured him without waiting for Nate to say a word. His brother had obviously gotten Darcy's call.
"According to the teacher, two armed men took Kimmie," Nate got out. "They kidnapped her and one of the workers, and they left in a black van. Close off the streets. Shut down the whole damn town before they have a chance to get out with her."
Nate didn't hear his brother's response because of the bloodcurdling scream that came from the preschool. That stopped him, and it wasn't more than a second or two before Darcy came tearing out of the building.
"They took Noah!" she yelled to Nate.
Hell. Not just one kidnapped child but two. "Did you hear?" Nate asked Grayson. He ran toward his car.
"I heard. So did Dade. He's listening in and already working to get someone out to look for that van. He'll get there in just a few minutes."
Dade, his twin brother and a Silver Creek deputy. Nate had no doubts that Dade would do everything he could to find Kimmie, but Nate wasn't going to just stand there and wait. He had to locate that van. He had to get Kimmie back.
"I'm going east," Nate let his brother know, and he ended the call so he could drive out of there fast.
Nate grappled to get the keys from his pocket, but his hands wouldn't cooperate. He tried to push the panic aside. He tried to think like a cop. But he wasn't just a cop. He was a father, and those armed SOBs had taken his baby girl.
He finally managed to extract his keys, somehow, and he jerked open his car door. Nate jumped inside. But so did Darcy. She threw herself onto the passenger seat.
"I'm going with you," she insisted. "I have to get Noah."
"We don't even know who has them," Nate said. He dropped his cell phone onto the console between the seats so he could easily reach it. He needed it to stay in touch with Grayson.
"No, we don't know who has them, but they left this." She thrust a wrinkled piece of notebook paper at him. "It was taped to the side of the fridge."
Nate looked at her, trying to read her expression, but he only saw the fear and worry that was no doubt on his own face. He took the paper and read the scrawled writing.
This was his worst nightmare come true.
Nate Ryland and Darcy Burkhart, we have them. Cooperate or you'll never see your babies again.