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The little voice was barely audible, yet it was enough to reach into Lindy Southerland's subconscious and rouse her from a troubled sleep.
She sat up in bed, raked her long, reddish-gold hair back with her fingers and strained to listen. Could she have imagined hearing Danny calling?
Suddenly, something hit the floor somewhere in the otherwise silent house. The thud was muted but unmistakable. Had her only child fallen out of bed?
Danny's high-pitched plea was tinged with anxiety. "Coming, honey," she called. She hadn't imagined hearing it the first time. Poor little guy sounded scared. Again. No wonder. Neither of them had slept well since they'd seen Ben
Banishing the memories of her family's kidnapping and her husband's murder that continued to haunt her, Lindy threw back her blankets, stood to slip into a warm robe and belted it, while exiting her room.
How she hated the night. Her irrational fears had increased in the six months since she'd been tragically widowed and she didn't know how to fight back. Or how to help her seven-year-old son.
She took a settling breath and mustered her courage. Danny needed her. That was all that mattered.
"It's okay," she whispered, trying to fool herself by pretending she was composed and unruffled. "I'm okay. Danny's okay. We're fine now."
But she wasn't fine. And her little boy wasn't fine, either. They'd been through too much, seen too much, suffered too much.
"I'm coming, honey," she repeated. "Mama's coming."
Trembling inside, she padded barefoot down the second floor hallway. Danny's open door was illuminated by one of the tiny night-lights she had placed throughout the house after her son had begged for them. Not that she blamed him. Their world seemed far less gloomy and intimidating when it wasn't filled with darkness.
Lindy expected to spot his tousled head on the pillow but the blankets were too bunched.
She tiptoed closer.
Reached for the edge of the covers.
Lindy whirled in the direction of the distant echo. He sounded terrified!
Without pausing to think, she physically answered the child's summons, her feet slapping the cold, hardwood floor, the hem of her robe fluttering behind her as she bounded down the stairs as fast as she could without falling.
She paused at the bottom. "Danny? Where are you?"
All she could hear was his whimpering nearby. Had he been sleepwalking and awakened somewhere other than his bed? That was most likely the case. It had happened before. The pediatrician had assured her it was probably just a phase the child was going through but that didn't keep Lindy from hurting for her confused little boy.
"Danny?" Still on the trail of his soft sobbing, she dashed past the entrance to the ultramodern kitchen.
What she glimpsed in her peripheral vision took a second to register. Although momentum had already carried her well beyond the doorway, she suddenly realized she'd seen movement. Menace.
A huge, dark shape jerked and shifted as she darted past.
Lindy almost faltered. If not for the continuing sounds of her child's weeping she might have bolted, run for her life. But she could not think only of herself. She had to find Danny.
She rounded the corner into the living room and stopped. Held her breath. Cast around with her eyes and saw no one. Nothing. Where was he? His last plea had definitely come from this direction but there was no sign of him now.
The sound of childish crying had ceased. All she could hear now was muttered cursing and multiple, heavy footsteps behind her. There had to be at least two prowlers, maybe more, and she had nowhere else to go. She was cornered!
The high back of the brown tweed sofa caught her eye. It wasn't much but it was the only object in the room big enough to provide an adequate hiding place. She prayed Danny was safe, well hidden.
Lindy raced for cover, turned sideways, edged behind the bulky piece of furniture and then froze momentarily, straining to listen, to better assess her situation.
A shout of, "Get her," made the fine hairs on her arms prickle more than the icy February weather outside.
"Why me?" another male voice replied. "You're the clumsy one. We could of gotten in and out without a problem if you hadn't dropped that stuff."
"Shut up and do as you're told. I'm almost done."
Lindy nearly gasped aloud when something cold touched her ankle.
She fell to her knees, opened her arms and pulled the thin figure closer. "Danny!" His name was little more than a hint on her breath.
"Hush." Lindy gathered his shivering body closer. "Don't talk."
A nod told her that he understood. Satisfied, she grasped his shoulders and held him so they were eye to eye. Terror painted his shadowy expression so vividly Lindy could hardly bear to look.
"Shush," she mouthed, directing the boy's attention beyond their hiding place with nothing more than rapid eye movement. They could hear at least one person drawing nearer. Once the footfalls reached the carpeted living room, however, the noise was muted.
They heard that prowler pause and yell to his partner. "I don't see 'em in here."
Lindy pulled closer her quivering child and held tight. Was it possible this man was too dumb to think of looking behind the couch? Could anyone be that dense?
A long shadow flowed across the floor and crept up the wall behind her. He might be slow-witted but he was coming closer just the same. Should they stay there like sitting ducks or make a run for it?
Was there a chance they could get to the front door, unlock it and flee before he overtook them? She doubted it. Besides, it was freezing outside and Danny was wearing only light flannel pajamas.
"I'm done in here," the more distant prowler shouted.
"C'mon. Let's go."
"You sure? What if she saw us?" The bulky shadow shifted and shortened slightly, as if the man might be moving away.
"What do you care? You know what happens to witnesses who get in our way."
The man closest to Lindy laughed hoarsely, making her skin crawl. She bit her lip to stifle the urge to scream.
"Yeah," he said, projecting his voice as if making an announcement. "No cops, lady. You got that? You rat to the police and we'll be back. Next time, you and your brat won't be as lucky as you were when good old Ben got what was coming to him."
He was still snorting and chuckling as the sound of his morbid attempt at humor faded away.
Lindy slumped down, pulled Danny into her lap and just sat there, rocking him and weeping silent tears while she wondered what to do next. She knew she should call the sheriff and report the break-in. That's what a normal person would do.
But she wasn't a normal person, she was the widow of Ben Southerland. And Danny was his son. Some of the higher-ups in the criminal organization that had abducted her and Danny, and had cost Ben his life when he'd tried to save them, had evaded capture.
The police had assured her that those kinds of white-collar crooks would have no further interest in her family.
Lindy had wanted desperately to trust their opinion and had almost convinced herself they were rightuntil tonight.
* * *
Thad Pearson wasn't trying to eavesdrop on the women's conversation. He was simply standing in line several places behind them while waiting to order his fast food lunch at Hickory Station before returning to work at Pearson Products. The fact that one of them was Samantha Rochard Waltham, a former nemesis of his in regard to the permanent placement of his brother's orphaned children, made it hard to ignore what was being said.
"Prowlers? Really? I can't believe you didn't phone the police last night," Samantha told her companion.
When the other woman shook her head, her reddish-blond hair swung in a silky cascade that partially hid her cheeks from view. Although her voice was softer, Thad was able to hear her reply.
"I didn't find anything missing. It was no big deal."
One underlying sense grabbed Thad and refused to let go. Fear. An unmistakable tinge of tension and dread. She might choose to claim that the event she was discussing was no big deal but her body language said otherwise.
"That doesn't mean you shouldn't report a break-in, Lindy," Samantha argued, sounding as if she were a parent lecturing a foolish child.
Thad's brow creased. Lindy? That name was unusual enough to ring a bell but he couldn't quite place where he'd heard it.
When the young woman lifted her chin and he could see her profile more clearly he was immediately struck by her natural beauty. And by a deepening sense that she was terribly vulnerable, although if anyone had asked him why he felt that way, he'd have been at a loss to explain.
Her voice rose. "I don't intend to make waves and take a chance on losing custody of my son again. You, of all people, should understand."
Ah, so that was her problem, Thad mused. He could definitely identify. He knew Samantha had only been doing her job as a volunteer for CASA, Court-Appointed Special Advocates for children, when she had recommended that his late brother's kids be adopted by outsiders, but he was still struggling to accept it.
"Everything worked out fine the last time we went to court," Samantha reminded her companion. "You can trust the police. You'll have to learn to do that, if and when you apply to become a CASA volunteer yourself, like you said you might."
"I trust you more. That's why I asked you to meet me here. I wanted you to know what happened. Just in case. You're not assigned to look out for Danny anymore so there's no conflict of interest. Right?"
"This has nothing to do with what happened in the past. I'm your friend. And I'm telling you to use your head. Make a police report. Let the pros handle it."
Thad remained silent as Lindy paid for her food, turned and started to walk away without waiting for her outspoken friend to follow.
He continued to observe her wending her way through the crowd to a nearby booth. Clearly, she had problems. Perhaps serious ones. While her personal life was none of his business, he nevertheless felt concerned. It didn't matter that such feelings made no sense. He was used to following his instincts. Doing so had kept him alive when he was overseas and it was a part of his character he nurtured.
The woman called Lindy never looked back. Never seemed to notice that she had attracted his attention.
Thad paused long enough to say a quick, silent prayer for her before stepping up to the counter, smiling at the clerk and placing his own order.