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Friday, February 18 St. Louis, Missouri
Willow Harris shifted the car into Park and turned off the engine. She drew in a slow, deep breath and ordered herself to remain calm.
This particular part of the east side of St. Louis wasn't exactly the kind of place a woman wanted to find herself in at dusk, but she had no choice.
She'd had to come, no matter the time of day or night. The man she'd driven here to see didn't keep the usual business hours.
Before getting out of the car she said one last prayer. Please, God, let the news be good. She wasn't sure she could take any more bad news.
She'd been fighting to get her son back for eight long months. An eternity. Hurt welled up inside her at the idea that she'd missed his second birthday. Just last week. She'd missed so much already. All those evolving toddler moments. Precious changes that no mother should miss.
Nothing would bring those moments back.
Closing her eyes, she forced the painful thoughts away. She had to be strong. She would never be able to bring her baby home again if she couldn't hold herself together better than this.
"Whatever it takes," she murmured as she opened her eyes and firmed her resolve. No weakness, no fear. "I will do whatever it takes."
Willow emerged from her car and headed for the office of Davenport Investigations. She'd been here several times before. But this time was different. This time she would be given an update on the man who'd actually managed to get close enough to send back pictures of her son.
No one had gotten that close before. Anticipation fluttered in her chest.
She couldn't wait to see thepictures of her baby.
Eight endless months had passed since she'd last seen him.
She hadn't been able to hold himto kiss his sweet little head. Maybe if she were really lucky, this man would be able to reunite her with her precious child.
After numerous failures he could be the one.
The bell over the door jingled as she entered the suite of offices that sat tucked between a dry cleaning service and a small chain drug store, both of which had long ago gone out of business. The small waiting room was empty and absolutely silent as usual. Not once during her four previous visits had she encountered another client. Mr. Davenport explained that he carefully arranged appointments to ensure complete privacy. As much as she understood that need, walking into his office alone this close to dark made her a little uneasy.
Whatever it takes, she reminded herself. She passed two upholstered chairs flanking an end table, the magazine-cluttered top highlighted by the dim glow showering down from a ceramic lamp. No desk, no chair, no telephone and, evidently, no receptionist. Just a space-challenged room designed for waiting.
Since she'd timed her arrival to the minuteexperience had taught her not to bother coming earlyshe strode up to the door that led into Davenport's private office and knocked. He should be waiting for her to show up about now.
"Come in, Ms. Harris," he called through the closed door.
Willow moistened her lips, took another deep breath and entered his office.
He sat behind his massive wooden desk, didn't bother standing as he gestured for her to have a seat. She'd wondered at his lack of social etiquette at first, but the hope that he could help her had overridden any second thoughts. Desperation had a way of doing that.
His desk, credenza and file cabinets were clear of clutter as if he'd taken care to lock away every single scrap of paper that might reveal information regarding one of his clients. However lacking in decorum he might be, he was definitely discreet. "You have good news?, she asked as she settled into the lone chair on her side of his desk. "And the pictures?, Hope bloomed in her chest at the mere idea of seeing her baby, even if only in covertly snapped photos.
He tossed an envelope in her direction. "I received these day before yesterday."
Willow didn't ask why he hadn't let her know about the pictures before today. Nor did she inquire as to why he avoided giving her an answer as to whether or not he had good news. He most likely had his reasons for doling out information in the way he did, reasons she probably wouldn't want to know. That was something else she'd learned about this man, he didn't like prying questions unless he was the one doing the asking. Her fingers trembled as she opened the envelope and took out the digital prints. Her heart thumped hard and tears burned in her eyes.
Her baby. He looked so bigso different. Two years old.And she'd missed that special day. The need to hold him was suddenly so intense that she could scarcely breathe.
How could the man she'd thought she loved, the man she'd trusted and married, have done this to her? Somewhere in the back of her mind a voice taunted her, reminding her that she should have listened to her parents. They would tell her that this was the price she paid for getting in bed with the devil. Her stomach knotted violently and she pushed the painful thoughts away.
Yes, she'd made a mistake. But surely God would not consider taking her child from her reasonable punishment for an innocent error in judgment. She refused to believe as her parents did. If that made her evil, then so be it.
Clearing her mind of the ugly past that represented her dysfunctional childhood, she shuffled through picture after picture, her heart bursting with equal measures of joy and sadness. Ata playing on the balcony outside her former husband's home. Her baby's face pressed against the glass of a car window. Him toddling around her exhusband's mother in the market.
Davenport's man had gotten very close. Close enough to reach out and touch her baby.
She held the pictures against her chest and lifted her gaze to the waiting investigator. "How soon does he think he can make a move?"
This was the moment she had waited forprayed fornight after night for so very long.
"We have a problem, Ms. Harris."
Her heart dropped, landing somewhere in the vicinity of her stomach.
Raymond Davenport was not a man she could even hope to read or assess in any way. His expression remained as impassive, as utterly devoid of emotion as a lamp post. But something in his tone, the subtlest note of defeat or disappointment had dread crushing against her vital organs and seeping deep into her bones.
"I don't understand." There couldn't be a problem. Not now. They were so close.
"You said your man had gotten close to my son." She held out the pictures. "The proof is right here. What could go wrong?"
"We've had no further contact since I received the photos."
Fear, stark and brutal, roared through her, ruptured the thin membrane of hope. She instinctively knew that this was very bad news. "On an extremely sensitive job like this one," Davenport went on, " when you lose contact for more than twenty-four hours that usually means only one thingtrouble."
She didn't want to hear this. Dear God, she did not want to hear this. It couldn't be trueplease don't let it be true.
Davenport leaned forward, propped his hands on his desk. The hard-earned experience and cool distance usually in his eyes were overshadowed by something softer, something very much like sympathy. "Ms. Harris, I understand how badly you want to get your boy back. Believe me. I have two sons of my own and grandkids. Every day you have to wait is pure hell, but."
She wanted to speak upto tell him not to say more. She didn't want to hear what she knew was coming. But she couldn't force the words from her lips.