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"Sheriff, I wanna report something missing," the boy said, his blue eyes earnest as he stared across the desk.
Chance glanced up at his gray-haired secretary, who leaned against the doorjamb of his dark-paneled office. A smile curved her lips, and her eyes twinkled with amusement. He winked at her before returning his focus to the complainant in front of him. From his small size and the gaps in his teeth, the redheaded, freckle-faced boy was probably about seven or eight. Chance doubted the kid had anything more important than a library book or a bike missing, and unless Forest Glen was having an unprecedented crime wave, that item had been misplaced rather than stolen.
Since he had nothing else to do besides make another expensive, frustrating call to his lawyer, Chance pulled out a form to humor the boy. He'd brought Forest Glen police department into the twenty-first century when he'd been hired a couple of months ago, and a computer sat on his clutter-free desk. But he wasn't about to open an official investigation until he knew more about the boy's complaint.
"I'd be happy to take your report. What's your name, son?" He coughed, nearly choking on that last word since he could so rarely use it to address his own child. He needed to call his lawyer again.
"My name is Tommy Phillips," the boy replied.
If Chance really intended to open a case file for the kid, he would have asked him for more information, like his address and date of birth. Instead he cut to the chase. "So what have you lost, Tommy Phillips?"
Chance's breath left his lungs in a gasp that echoed Eleanor's. The older woman stepped forward and put her hand on the boy's shoulder. "Did your father pass away, honey? "
Tommy shook his head. "No." But then his smooth brow furrowed and he shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe."
"You don't know where your father is?" Chance asked.
"No, Sheriff, he's missing," Tommy said, his voice rising slightly with impatience, as if he were annoyed that Chance wasn't following. "Can you please find him for me?"
Setting aside the pen and the form, Chance pushed back his chair and came around the desk. He crouched in front of the boy and asked, "How long has your father been gone, Tommy?"
The kid's gaze slid away until he stared down at the hole in the knee of his jeans. He plucked at the loose threads with fingers that trembled. "Since before I was born."
"I think we better talk to your mother, Tommy."
Chance straightened to his full six feet and pushed a hand through his dark hair.
"Why? She won't tell you anything about my dad." Tommy's face flushed with color that nearly connected the dots of his freckles. "I don't even know who he is."
"Yeah, we definitely need to talk to your mom." Chance turned toward Eleanor. "Is she waiting out front?"
"No, he came in all by himself."
"You did?" Chance asked the boy. He'd moved to Forest Glen, Michigan, because it was the kind of town where kids could play outside without worrying about stray bullets from a drive-by shooting or drug dealers harassing them—both things Chance had dealt with as a detective in Chicago. Still, it surprised him that a child this young was out all alone.
Tommy nodded. "I rode my bike."
"And your mom doesn't know you're here?"
Chance swallowed a sigh. "Tommy, you can't take off without telling your mom where you're going."
"She doesn't even know I'm gone," the boy assured him. "If she knew I was here, she'd freak out. She won't help me find my dad. But you have to."
The redhead bobbed in a vigorous nod. "You have to 'cause it's your job. If somebody's missing, you gotta find 'em."
"Tommy, this situation is a little different from a usual missing person's case. Your dad didn't just disappear." But Chance wasn't the one who owed the boy an explanation. "You really need to talk to your mom."
The kid snorted his disgust. "Weren't you listening?"
Eleanor choked, covering a laugh with a cough.
"I told you, she won't say anything about my dad," precocious Tommy reminded him.
"But that's not a matter for the sheriff's office, son."
The kid sprang out of the chair. "I thought you were supposed to help people!" Tears glittered in his blue eyes, but he blinked them back and shoved past Chance. Probably anxious to get away before he broke down and cried.
Chance caught the back of the boy's hooded sweatshirt. "Hold up. I didn't say that I wouldn't help you."
Tommy turned toward him. One tear streaked down his face. "You will? You'll help me find my dad?"
The kid wasn't playing him with those tears; it really meant that much to him to find out who his dad was. And maybe it was because Chance couldn't dry his own son's tears that he found himself gently wiping away Tommy's with his thumb. "Sure, I'll help you."
The boy threw his arms around Chance's waist in a hug of gratitude and joy. "Thank you! Thank you, Sheriff!"
Chance patted the redhead and then lifted his gaze to Eleanor's. The older woman's lips pulled down in a frown of disapproval.
Yeah, he had no business getting involved in something that was clearly family business. But despite Tommy being a couple years younger than Matthew, he reminded Chance of his own son and how much he wished someone could help reunite them.
"Can you help me find him?" Jessie Phillips asked, panic pressing on her chest.
"Sure, Jess," Bruce Johnson replied. "Christopher and I will ride into town and look for him. He probably went down to the ice cream parlor."
"He was only supposed to come over here." Her knees shook with anxiety as she leaned on the gate of her neighbor's white fence. She'd walked to the house four down from hers to call Tommy home for dinner, only to find out that he had never showed up to play with his friend.
"Didn't you see him at all?" she asked, desperate to know if they'd at least caught a glimpse of her missing child.
Christopher shook his head, tumbling a light brown curl across his forehead and over the top of the wire rims of his glasses. "No, Ms. Phillips, he never showed up."
"Don't worry," Bruce said with a reassuring smile. "We'll track him down for you and send him right home." The guy, thin and slightly built like his son, slid an arm around Christopher's shoulders. "We'll finish our game later."
Christopher, probably picking up on the concern that the adults weren't quite able to hide, dropped his beloved birthday-gift glove and rushed past Jessie out the gate to the driveway where his mom's minivan was parked. Then he turned and called back, "Hey, Ms. Phillips, there's a cop car by your house."
Jessie's heart skipped a beat. "Cop car?"
Forest Glen had only one: the new sheriff's white sedan with the light bar on the roof. The two deputies used their own vehicles. One had an extended cab pickup truck and the other an old Jeep, and they had only a light that snapped onto the dash inside. It was the sheriff's sedan parked at the curb outside her house. The lights weren't flashing. Was that a good sign or a bad one?
Her legs shook even more as she ran down the sidewalk. "Tommy! Tommy!"
"Hey, Mom," he called back from where he stood on the front porch. A man's big hand cupped her son's shoulder, as if he were keeping the little boy from running off.
What trouble had Tommy gotten into?
She didn't care. At the moment, all that mattered was that he was all right. She stumbled up the steps of the small Craftsman bungalow. Then she dropped to her knees and threw her arms around Tommy's slight body.
"You scared me half to death," she admonished him, her shaky voice weakening the reprimand. "When I went down to the Johnsons' to get you for dinner and they said you'd never showed up…" Tears threatened again. She'd fought them off earlier because she'd needed to keep her wits about her to find her son. But now that he was safe, she could shed tears of relief.
"I guess he was wrong," a deep voice murmured.
She glanced up at the sheriff, her confusion increasing because the man himself was such a distraction. His eyes were nearly as deep a blue as his uniform, and his hair was dark. Even though it was short, it looked thick enough for her to lose her fingers in it. She blinked, trying to clear that image from her mind.
"What was he wrong about?" she asked. And how much trouble had it gotten him into?
"He told me that you wouldn't even notice him gone."
She sucked in a breath and pulled back from her son. Then she cupped his little pointed chin in her palm and lifted it, so he had to meet her gaze. His face flushed nearly the same shade of burnt orange as his freckles. He wriggled free of her loose hold and stared down at his feet. "Why would you say something like that, Tommy?" How could he think that when she told him so often how much she loved him? "Of course I'd notice if you were gone."
He scuffed the toe of his tennis shoe against the stained boards of the porch floor. "I know, Mom."
"Then why would you tell Sheriff Drayton that I wouldn't?"
His thin shoulders lifted in a slight shrug. "I dunno…"
Since her son wasn't forthcoming, she turned toward the sheriff for answers. Her gaze locked with his intense one, and she nearly forgot her question as her pulse quickened. She had never let a man's looks, however handsome, distract her, though.
Forcing her focus back to what mattered most to her, she explained, "I—I thought he was at the neighbor's. He's only allowed to ride his bike down the sidewalk the four houses to theirs." She gestured back down the block to the Johnsons' brick Cape Cod with the white fence. "I…I don't understand why he's with you. Why are you bringing Tommy home? Did he get in some kind of trouble? Where did you find him?"
"In my office," the sheriff replied.
"Did someone bring him in to you?" Had her child been out wandering the streets of Forest Glen? Not that there were many streets for him to wander, but still…
"I rode my bike, Mom," Tommy replied in a long-suffering tone. "And I didn't get run over crossing any streets."
She swallowed a gasp of fear at the image of him out there, alone, in traffic—not that there was a whole lot of that in Forest Glen, either. But if he'd crossed paths with the mayor's mother in her pink Cadillac…
She shuddered at the thought of what could have happened to her son. The eight-year-old was too independent for his own good and hers. "That's not the point."
"You always say I can't cross streets, but I know how to look both ways first. I'm not stupid."
No. That he wasn't. "You know you were only supposed to go over to play with Christopher. Why did you go to the sheriff's office?"
Her son pressed his lips together in a stubborn gesture that Jessie knew a little too well. She forced aside some of her joy in his coming safely home to admonish him, "Tommy—"
But he pushed open the front door and ran inside, slamming the door behind him.
"Tommy!" Heat rushed to her face with embarrassment that the sheriff had witnessed her son's disrespect. Even though his hair wasn't quite as bright as hers, Tommy had more of the notorious redhead temper than she did. "I'm sorry. Really, he has better manners than that. I don't know what's the matter with him."
"I do," Chance Drayton replied.
She remembered his name from the town council meeting where they'd voted to hire the ex-Marine who'd just returned from his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. A reservist, he'd left behind a career as a detective in Chicago to serve his country. But until the next public election, he was just an interim sheriff since the town's old one—old as in former and really elderly—had just retired.
She doubted the big city detective would put his name on the ballot. He was probably already bored out of his mind in Forest Glen, considering where he'd worked and lived before. He wouldn't be sticking around. But Jessie had mentioned the town meeting and the man to her son, and ever since, Tommy had wanted to meet the Marine.
She rubbed at the tension headache forming between her brows. "He told you? But he won't tell his mother…"
"He said you won't talk about it."
Dread clenched her stomach as realization dawned. "Oh…"
"Yeah." The sheriff nodded. "He came into my office to file a missing person's report."
She sucked in a breath. She didn't need to ask because she already knew whom Tommy had reported missing. But all she managed to utter was another, "Oh…"
"He wants me to find his father for him."
She moved her hand to her throat, where her pulse pounded as rapidly as it had when she'd discovered Tommy had never gone to the Johnsons'. "I'm sorry he asked you to do that. He doesn't understand…"
"Like he said, he's not stupid. He actually seems to be a pretty intelligent kid. I'm sure he'd understand if you explained."
A twinge of guilt struck, causing Jessie to wince. She couldn't tell Tommy the truth without risking her son hating her. She doubted that the former Marine would condone her cowardice.
"This is a family matter," she pointed out, her shoulders tensing with defensiveness, "and he shouldn't have bothered you with it."
"He was no bother," he assured her.
"I'm glad, and I'm grateful that you brought him home," she said. "But I'm sure you're very busy. I wouldn't want to keep you from anything."
"Busy?" His deep blue eyes glinted with humor. "The only thing Tommy kept me from was finding Mrs. Wilson's cat."
"Which one?" The elderly widow had so many that Jessie was surprised she would have noticed one missing.
He shrugged. "She didn't say when she called it in."
"Those cats are like her kids, so I'm sure she's concerned. I better not keep you from her. Thanks again for bringing my son home." She turned toward the door Tommy had slammed behind him. She needed to have a talk with her son about his behavior—not his father.
She'd been avoiding that last conversation for eight years. Until recently, Tommy had been fine with having no father. He'd only occasionally asked about his dad, but when Jessie had replied that he didn't have one, he hadn't pressed for more information. Then.
"Wait," the sheriff said. "I have a question for you."
She closed her eyes and drew in a breath before turning back to him. Heat rushed to her face as she wondered exactly what else Tommy had told him, besides the fact his mother wouldn't notice him missing, and what Chance Drayton must think of her because of it.