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THE NOTE WAS STUCK to the fridge with a magnet when Leigh Hartwell came home from work, but she was too rushed to read it.
She set the bag of groceries on the counter, then opened the fridge to store the assorted cheeses she'd picked up for the party tonight. She'd hardly finished when the phone rang. It was the caterer, her friend, Tina O'Dell.
Leigh had a premonition of trouble. "Don't tell me you couldn't find fresh scallops."
"I found them." Tina sounded grumpy. "But why didn't you tell me you weren't inviting men to this party?"
"I sent you the guest list a month ago and you're just noticing that now? Anyway, why should it matter whether there are men at the party or not?"
It wasn't as if she and Taylor had set out to avoid them. It just so happened that when they'd listed the important people in their lives—her coworkers at the dental clinic and the people in her running group, Taylor's best friend and her pals from ballet—no males had made the cut.
"I bought a low-cut blouse to wear tonight, that's why it matters. I was going to look hot."
"I'll take a photo. You can put it up on an Internet dating site."
"Hey, I'm not that desperate. You, on the other hand—"
"No lectures, Tina. I don't have time." She still had to shower and change before Tina arrived with the food. "You still planning to be here in an hour?"
"Of course. I'm never late for a catering gig. So how was the run? You know I love Taylor and wouldn't have missed cooking for her party, but I hated to miss it."
"I didn't go, either."
"How could I, when I'm expecting twenty guests less than two hours from now?"
"But runningrelaxes you, and worrying about your guests is my job. If you trusted me—"
"I do. Really. I know everything will be perfect. It's just—what's one run? We'll both go a few extra miles on the weekend." "This isn't about your training schedule. It's about your need to relax and enjoy yourself now and then. I want you to have fun at Taylor's party. Not worry about every little detail. Speaking of Taylor, how's our girl doing?"
"Actually…I'm not sure. She should have been home by now. There's a note on the fridge. Let me just grab it." She snatched it too quickly, sending the magnet flying to the floor.
"Wasn't today the first day of her new summer job?"
Leigh grabbed the magnet and stuffed it into the drawer where she kept pens and paper. "Yes, if she made it on time. She didn't get to bed until after midnight last night." She'd been on the computer again. Since receiving her letter of acceptance from Cornell University a month ago, Taylor was forever on their Web site.
"Look, Tina, I'd better run. See you soon, okay?" As Leigh returned the phone to the counter, she skimmed the note.
Hi, Mom, Taylor had written. I know this is going to sound crazy…
Leigh stopped breathing as she read the rest. No. Impossible.
This had to be her daughter's sick idea of a joke.
She set the paper down, pulled out an open bottle of white wine and poured herself a glass. She took a long swallow, then read the note again.
I know this is going to sound crazy, Mom, but I've been chatting with this really nice guy over the Internet for several months and last week he asked me to come and visit him. Don't worry, he's a great person and I'm not in any danger. I'll call you once I get there.
P.S. Sorry about the party…
No matter how many times Leigh read the note, the message wouldn't change. And yet she still couldn't believe it. She and Taylor had had so many conversations about the dangers of meeting people over the Internet and the folly of dating someone you only knew through correspondence.
All those late nights when Leigh had assumed Taylor was either studying or researching Cornell…she'd really been chatting with this guy.
And who was he? Taylor had left her no clue. No name, no address, no contact information of any kind. Leigh grabbed the phone again and tried her daughter's cell phone. She was shuffled straight to the message service.
"It's Mom, Taylor. I've found your note. Please call me as soon as you get this."
How could Taylor have done this? Leigh's daughter was a shy girl who didn't date much. Years of struggling with acne had left her self esteem a little battered where boys were concerned. In a way, Leigh could understand why Taylor had felt more comfortable meeting a guy at the distance the Internet offered.
But why hadn't Taylor said anything? Their relationship was close, or so Leigh had thought, but she'd had no clue Taylor was carrying on this way.
Who was this guy? How old was he? Was he a predator?
No, no, don't panic. Stay calm. Think. Focus. It was no use. One scary possibility led straight to another. Where was her daughter, right now? Still en route? Or had they already made contact?
The very idea had Leigh hyperventilating. Don't worry, the note had said. He's a really nice guy.
Well, how would Taylor know? Had she had the guy checked out? Leigh knew she hadn't.
Oh, God. Please don't let this guy be some sort of pervert.
Leigh jerked away from the table. The first thing she had to do was phone Kerry. Surely Taylor's best friend would know all about this.
But Kerry didn't. "That's insane, Ms. Hartwell. Are you sure?" Leigh read her the note. "Taylor never mentioned a word about this guy." "So you can't give me a name? You don't have any idea where he might live?"
"Sorry, I don't have a clue."
Leigh could have banged her head against the wall. "I can't believe Taylor would do something like this."
"I can't, either. It's totally not like her." Leigh disconnected the call, more concerned than ever. For a moment she contemplated the bizarre possibility that her daughter had been abducted and forced to compose the note. But there was no sign of any stress in Taylor's neat printing. No sign of a struggle in the pristine apartment.
She checked her daughter's room and found it atypically neat. Taylor's backpack, the one she'd used for school, was missing. So were several pairs of jeans and her favorite hoodie.
Leigh looked in her own room next and found her closet in disarray. Not a good sign. It was usually when Taylor wanted to look older that she borrowed from her mother's wardrobe.
The computer was the next logical place to go. Leigh and Taylor shared the same password, since it was a family machine, and she had no trouble getting into Taylor's e-mail account, though it was something she'd never done before.
She groaned at the list of saved messages, almost all of them from someone who called himself Party Man. Why hadn't she thought to check up on her daughter sooner? The media were always warning parents to monitor their children's computer usage.
But Leigh never thought to worry about Taylor. She was such a good kid and there'd been no decline in her marks at school. Wasn't that one of the warning signs that were supposed to alert parents that their kid might be in danger?
But she couldn't pinpoint any changes in Taylor's demeanor or behavior. If anything, Taylor had seemed in higher spirits and even more cooperative these past few weeks. Leigh had attributed this to excitement about her graduation from high school and acceptance at Cornell. Apparently, though, her daughter had been excited about something else, entirely…
An Internet romance.
But was that really what was happening here? Fear crawled over Leigh's skin and she tried not to think of the many newspaper articles and made-for-TV movies about far more sinister scenarios.
Her daughter had a golden future before her. She had to be all right. She just had to be.
Leigh opened the most recent message from Party Man and skimmed the contents. Most of the message contained plans for when he and Taylor would finally be together. It all sounded quite innocent…long walks together, picnics, listening to music, that sort of thing. But of course, if this guy was a pervert he wouldn't be broadcasting his intentions, would he?
Her attention zeroed in on the last paragraph of his message: I'll pick you up at the bus station. It's just a few miles from my place. Can't wait to finally meet you!
Her stomach dipped, and her skin crawled again. "I'll just bet you can't wait to meet her, you creep."
Needing specific details about their plans, she opened the previous message. It was all there. Party Man's real name was Josh Wallace—or so he claimed—and he lived in a town called Jefferson in Mount Washington Valley, New Hampshire. He'd given Taylor information on the bus route, and, thank goodness, a home address.
Leigh closed the computer and picked up the phone again. She had to rent a car and go after Taylor right away. She was negotiating a weekly rate, with unlimited mileage, when the doorbell buzzed.
"Okay, that sounds fine. Can you have someone drive the car to this address?" She recited her apartment number and street quickly, as she crossed the room to the front door.
Tina O'Dell, her curly hair in a messy ponytail, arms laden with a huge casserole dish, stepped into the room.
"Party time," she announced gaily.
Leigh disconnected the call and shook her head. "Afraid not."
"Taylor is missing and I'm on my way to find her. But first I'm going to call the police."