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Mariah Harrington wasn't worried when she got home from work and found her eight-year-old son and her roommate missing. It was a gorgeous late-summer afternoon, and odds were good that Billy and Jenny had walked to the nearby park to enjoy an hour or so of outdoor fun. Jenny's car was in the driveway, so Mariah knew they couldn't have gone far.
She threw her keys on the kitchen table, stepped out of her navy high heels and opened the refrigerator to look for the can of soda that she'd hidden the night before in the vegetable bin. No chance Billy or Jenny would look in there. They both shared the same abhorrence for anything green and good for them.
Smiling as she carried the cold can into the living room, she thought of her son and her roommate. It was hard to believe how much an eight-year-old and a twenty-five-year-old could have in common. But in many ways Jenny was as much child as adult.
Of course, that came from being raised by an overly protective, domineering brother. Her smile fell away as she thought of Sheriff Lucas Jamison.
As the mayor's secretary, she often found herself acting as a buffer between the hardheaded Lucas and the ineffectual mayor of Conja Creek. But it wasn't her job that made her want to keep her distance from the handsome-as-sin sheriff.
There was a touch of judgment in his dark eyes and a command to his presence that made her think of dark days in her pasta past she'd finally managed to escape.
It had been Lucas who had approached her about renting a room to his younger sister. He'd thought Mariah would be a good influence on flighty, immature Jenny.
She popped the top of her soda and took a long swallow. She'd agreed to the idea ofa roommate because financially it made sense and because the house was big enough that they could live together without being in each other's pockets.
Jenny had moved in two months ago. Mariah had found her to be charming but lacking in confidence, thanks to too much older brother and not enough life experience. It was an added benefit that Jenny and Billy had taken so well to each other. There were a lot of young women Jenny's age who wouldn't want to bother with an eight-year-old boy.
Mariah unfastened her hair from the neat ponytail at the nape of her neck and slithered her hands through the thick curls to massage her scalp. Then she leaned her head back against the sofa and released a deep, weary sigh.
It had been a long day. She was not only Mayor Richard Welch's secretary, she was also part therapist, errand runner and mommy to the man. Things were particularly hectic now with the mayoral election coming in less than three months. When Richard had won the election that had made him mayor, he'd run unopposed. This election he was facing two worthy opponents.
Checking her watch, she figured she had twenty minutes or so to sit and relax before she needed to make supper. Billy and Jenny would be back by six. They were never late for a meal.
She must have fallen asleep, for when she opened her eyes again the room held the semidarkness of late twilight. For a moment she was disoriented as to the day and time as she stared around the neat living room.
As sleep fell away, she remembered it was Friday night and she'd been waiting for Billy and Jenny to get home from the park. She checked her watch, the first faint alarm went off in her head. Almost seven. They should have been home an hour ago.
She pulled herself off the sofa and walked to the front door, trying to ignore the small niggle of worry that whispered in the back of her brain.
"They've been late once before," she whispered aloud, as if the audible sound of that thought could ease her concern. The last time, they'd found a stray dog caught in some brambles in the wooded area next to the park. It had taken them hours to calm the frightened mutt and get him untangled.
Mariah opened the door, stepped onto the front porch and looked in the direction of the park, hoping to see them hurrying toward the house with a tale of adventure to share. She saw nobody except Roger Olem, three doors down, watering his flowers.
In another half hour or so it would be full dark.
The humid evening air, redolent with the scent of flowers and sunshine, enveloped her as she left the porch and headed down the sidewalk in the direction of the park. As she made her way, she marveled at the happiness she'd found here.
She'd never meant to make Conja Creek, Louisiana, her home. It had simply been a blip on her road map when she'd left Shreveport on her way to anywhere.
It had taken only a single night spent at a local bed-and-breakfast to make her fall in love with the small, quaint bayou town.
She'd just about given up on happiness before landing here. Eight months ago, life had been about survival, but now she was a respected part of the community, and Billy was happier than she'd ever seen him.
She quickened her pace as the park came into view. If they were here, then she needed to have a talk with Jenny about making sure they got home on time when they decided to leave the house for a little fun.
Her heart dropped a bit when she saw that nobody sat on the swings or climbed on the jungle gym. The only person she saw in the park was one of her neighbors, Rosaline Graham who, since her husband's death, often spent the hours between dinner and bedtime sitting on a park bench.
"Hi, Rosaline," Mariah called to the old woman. "I don't suppose you've seen my son or Jenny Jamison lately, have you?"
She shook her head. "Sorry, honey. I just got here a few minutes ago, but I sure haven't seen them."
The alarm bells that had just been whispering through Mariah's head suddenly pealed so loudly she could barely hear anything else.
Maybe they'd chosen another way home. Maybe they were there right now wondering where she was. She started back toward home. After several steps she broke into a run, telling herself not to panic. It wasn't as if it were the middle of the night. It was only about seven-thirty.
But when she got back to the house, there was still no sign of them. The phone had no messages, and the panic that had tried to take hold of her now grasped her with both hands.
She pulled out her address book and grabbed the phone. The reason Billy had been home today and not at his babysitter's was because he'd awakened with a sore throat. Maybe Jenny had taken him to the doctor's office.
The fact that Jenny's car was in the driveway didn't matter. From Mariah's house it was a short walk to Main Street, where Dr. Ralph Dell had his offices.
Her fingers shook as she punched in the phone number. Normally Mariah was the last to panic, and even though she thought there was surely a logical explanation for Billy and Jenny's absence, she couldn't help the swell of inexplicable fear that filled her chest.
By nine o'clock she had called everyone she knew to call. Friends, neighbors and schoolmates of Billy's. None of Billy's friends had seen him that day, nor had anyone seen Jenny.
She'd been reluctant to call Lucas, knowing that if Jenny and Billy came home and nothing was seriously wrong, Lucas would reprimand Jenny for the next week for worrying her.
But now she had no choice. With each minute that passed, the disquiet she'd felt since waking from her unexpected nap raged into full-blown fear.
She punched in the number for the sheriff's office, unsurprised when Lucas himself answered the call. "Sheriff Jamison." His deep, self-confident voice instantly commanded respect.
"Sheriff, it's Mariah Harrington. Have you by any chance seen Jenny or Billy today?"
"No. Why?" His voice held a sudden intensity and she could see him in her mind. The tight jaw, the disapproving line trekking across his forehead, the thin press of his lips.
"I'm sure there's a logical explanation, but I've been home since five-thirty and they aren't here." Although she tried to maintain her composure, her voice cracked and tears suddenly stung her eyes.
"I'll be right there." He didn't wait for her to reply.
Mariah hung up the receiver then walked back to the front door and stared outside, watching the night shadows as they moved in to steal the last of the day.
Fear clawed up the back of her throat as she realized that within fifteen minutes or so it would be night. Where was Jenny? And, dear God, where was her son?
Lucas Jamison climbed into his car and headed for the Harrington home, already forming the words to the lecture he'd deliver to his sister when he saw her.
God bless that girl, he thought. Sometimes she just didn't use the brains that she'd been born with. She'd probably taken Billy for ice cream, or decided to get him a burger at the café and had neglected to leave a note.
He just hoped this little escapade didn't screw up the living arrangement with Mariah. When Jenny's last boyfriend had broken up with her, she'd not only lost the man she'd believed was the love of her life but also her living space. She'd refused to move back to the family home with Lucas and had bunked on a girlfriend's sofa for a couple of weeks.
It had been Lucas who approached Mariah about Jenny renting a room from her. He knew Mariah was a widow, alone with her son, and lived in a big enough house that a renter might not be a problem.
But that wasn't the real reason he'd approached the mayor's secretary.
Despite being only twenty-nine years old, Mariah carried herself like a much older, much more mature woman. No-nonsense and with cold blue eyes that could freeze a man in his path, she could potentially have the steadying effect on Jenny that Lucas had never managed. Or so he hoped.
"Jenny, what have you done this time?" he muttered as he pulled up to the curb in front of the Harrington house. He hadn't even turned off the engine before Mariah flew out of the house.
Her chestnut hair, normally pulled back in a tight ponytail, sprung in wild curls around her petite features, making her look far younger than she appeared when she was at her desk in the mayor's office.
He didn't have to ask if Jenny and Billy had shown up. The answer to the unspoken question shone from Mariah's worried blue eyes.
"I'm glad you're here," she said, her usually cool, composed voice holding a telltale tremble.
"I'm sure there's nothing to worry about," he said as he fell into step with her and headed back toward the house. "If I know my sister, this is all just some crazy misunderstanding, and she and Billy are probably down at the café eating pie or star-watching down at the park."
"I've been to the park. They weren't there." She opened the front door and ushered him into the small entryway. When she turned to face him, her eyes flashed with a touch of impatience. "And I haven't known your sister as long as you have, but I know her well enough to know that she wouldn't just take off with Billy and not let me know where they are. Something's wrong. Something is terribly wrong."
She might think she knew Jenny, but Jenny had obviously been on her best behavior since moving in here. "You mind if I look around?" Lucas asked. In the two months that Jenny had lived here he'd only been as far as the front porch. Jenny had insisted that this was her space and she didn't want him checking up on her. He tightened his jaw. Obviously somebody needed to check up on her.
"Please, be my guest," Mariah said. "I've already looked in Jenny's room to see if she might have left a note for me there, but I didn't find one."
"Which room is hers?"
She gestured down the hallway. "Second door on the right."
She didn't follow him, but instead moved back to the front door as if she could make them appear on the doorstep by sheer willpower alone.
Mariah's house was exactly what he'd imagined it would beslightly old-fashioned and immaculately clean. As he grabbed the doorknob to Jenny's room he steeled himself for the chaos inside.
He adored his baby sister, but Jenny had always seemed most comfortable in the middle of chaos and drama. He hoped like hell she hadn't orchestrated this to get attention. It was one thing to be a drama queen in your own life. It was quite another to involve an eight-year-old boy.
Her room was actually fairly neat, except the bed hadn't been made and a pair of jeans had been thrown across a chair in the corner. He looked on the nightstand, checked the small desk but found no note, no clue as to where she might have gone with a little boy in tow.
Billy's room was next door. Bunk beds stood against one wall, the lower bunk not made. A small toy box sat beneath a window. Lucas walked to the window and checked it out. The screen was in place and nothing seemed to be amiss.
The third bedroom had to be Mariah's. He opened the door and paused in surprise at the sight of the king-size bed covered with a scarlet spread and plump matching pillows. Fat candles stood on the nightstand, their dark wicks letting him know they weren't just for decoration but were burned regularly.
So, the cool and distant Ms. Harrington had a sensual side. Lucas was surprised by the little burst of heat that filled his stomach at the thought of her in the bed, candlelight stroking her features.
He frowned and shut the door behind him. He flipped open his cell phone and called his office.
"Deputy Ellis," a deep voice boomed.
"Hey, Wally, it's me," Lucas said.