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The sweet promise of freedom lay just beyond the courthouse doors, a nearly irresistible proposition for a woman who'd spent the night in jail.
Kelly Carmichael longed to rush outside and turn her face to the late-June sun. The Wenona County courthouse was three or four miles from the cozy, one-bedroom town house in upstate New York where she lived alone. She planned to walk the entire way home, no matter how high the temperature climbed.
Then she'd take a long, cool shower. She yearned to wash away the horror of the eighteen hours since uniformed police officers had pounded on her door, shown her a warrant and taken her away in handcuffs.
But first she needed to hear what the attorney who'd represented her at the arraignment advised her to do about the colossal misunderstanding that had gotten her arrested.
The attorney stumbled out of the hall restroom, wiping the brow of his thin, pale face. She'd seen that same look of misery on one of her first-grade students last week. Spencer Yates, she guessed, had a stomach virus.
She rose from the wooden bench outside the court clerk's window where her ex-boyfriend had posted her bail before leaving as quickly as he could. Spencer Yates was moving very slowly.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"No, I am not all right," the lawyer snapped. His wisp of a moustache underscored how young he was, as though he couldn't yet grow decent facial hair. He put up a hand. "Sorry. It's just that this stomach thing has hit me pretty hard. So let's get down to it."
He indicated that she should precede him into a meeting room not much larger than the jail cell where she'd spent a sleepless Sunday night on a hard cot, counting down the hoursuntil Monday's arraignment. He moved to pull the heavy door shut and last night's claustrophobia came rushing back.
"Please, can we leave the door open?" she asked, her voice cracking.
His hand dropped to his side. "Makes no difference to me."
He sat down heavily on one of the upholstered chairs alongside a meeting table with a laminate wood top and swiped a hand over his damp brow.
"Are you sure you're all right?" she asked.
"I'm fine," he said unconvincingly. "Even if I wasn't, we need to go over a few things."
He opened her file and removed some sheets of paper he'd had time only to glance at before the hearing. Kelly sat silently, trying to be patient. Yates had explained the district judge was interested in getting through his heavy load of arraignments rather than correcting mistakes.
But once the young lawyer looked over the specifics of her case, surely he'd see to it that justice was served.
In short order he put aside the papers, his head lolling slightly as though he had to put forth an effort to keep it up. "My suggestion is to see if the district attorney will go for a plea bargain. I'll try to get you a deal where you won't have to serve more than one year."
"One year! No!" She shook her head vigorously. Like mother, like daughter, she thought before her mind rebelled. "I can't go to prison. I won't."
He looked at her through tired eyes shadowed with heavy, dark circles. "You should have thought of that before the police found that baby at your place."
"But there's a perfectly good reason he was there." Kelly leaned forward, desperate to make him understand. She'd already told the story a dozen times in hours and hours of interrogation. "A woman I met on the playground asked me to babysit."
"Where is this woman?"
"I don't know where she is. I don't know anything about her except her name is Amanda Smith."
"So you agreed to babysit for a perfect stranger?" Yates put one elbow on the table and tiredly rested his chin in his hand. "The police aren't buying that story."
"It's the truth. Amanda has to be the one who kidnapped Corey."
"The baby's name is Eric, and the police think you kidnapped him. Right now you're facing charges of second-degree kidnapping, which is a felony. If the DA agrees, I might be able to get the charge reduced to endangering the welfare of a child. That's a misdemeanor."
Misdemeanor sounded better than felony, but the words still sent dread coursing through her. If she pleaded guilty to either of those charges, she'd have a permanent criminal record and the repercussions that came with it. "If I'm convicted, nobody will ever hire me to teach again!"
He stared at her as though it was of little importance to him whether she lost her job as a first-grade teacher.
"You don't understand," she said. "Teaching children is all I've ever wanted to do."
"Yeah, well, maybe you're not the sort of person who should be around kids."
It took a few seconds for his meaning to sink in. A shudder raked her from head to toe. "You think I'm guilty, don't you?"
"I shouldn't have said that." He rubbed the back of his neck. "But it doesn't matter whether I think you're guilty or not. What matters is whether there's enough evidence here to win at trial. And there's not."
"I don't believe you," she said.
He opened his eyes the rest of the way and straightened his backbone. "If you're not satisfied with my counsel, you can request to be reassigned to another lawyer. With the overwhelming evidence against you, though, another lawyer will tell you the same thing."
"What overwhelming evidence?"
"Besides the kidnapped baby the police found in your town house? The report says you spend hours watching children at the playground."
"I don't go alone," she countered. "My next-door neighbor runs a business out of her home. I take her son to the playground to help her out."
"Okay, then. How about the fact that the person who called the police after hearing the Amber Alert said you're unhappy you can't have children of your own?"
"Of course I am! What woman wouldn't be?" she cried. She was sorry she'd ever shared that sad information with any of the women at the playground. "That's not proof."
"The baby was taken from a stroller outside a grocery store in Utica on Friday night." He named a town in New York about an hour away and tapped her file folder, which he'd already closed. "On Sunday the police found that baby with you."
"I wasn't in Utica!"
A spark of interest lit his eyes. "Can anyone verify that?"
Kelly thought back to the thriller that had kept her reading Friday night until the last page. Too bad fictional characters couldn't give alibis. "No," she admitted.
His eyes went flat again. "There are two eyewitnesses who described the suspect as a woman in her twenties of average height and weight with shoulder-length brown hair.
"That could describe a lot of women," Kelly said, even as panic started to set in. She couldn't deny she and the woman at the playground shared a resemblance.
"One of the eyewitnesses picked you out of a photo lineup," he said. "Do you see the problem here? A jury will believe you're guilty. We'll be lucky if we do get a plea, but it would certainly come with a stipulation that you submit to counseling. If we didn't take it, you could be facing up to eight years."
She swallowed her panic, making herself think, picking out the hole in his argument. "If the evidence is so overwhelming, why did the judge grant me bail?"
"Quite frankly, given the nature of the crime, it surprised me that he did." He gestured with his hand. "Who knows? It could be because you have ties in the community and no priors. And bail was high enough he probably thought you couldn't make it."
She understood how the judge could believe a defendant who needed a court-appointed attorney wouldn't have the money to cover the huge amount set for bail. Or even the ten percent a bail bondsman charged. "A friend posted bail for me."
Yates quirked an eyebrow, but didn't ask what sort of friend coughed up that kind of money. His face was growing paler by the second. He clearly didn't want to hear about her relationship with Vince Dawkins, who'd materialized at the arraignment like a benevolent ghost.
Kelly would have preferred not to accept favors from Vince, who worked as a reading resource teacher at the private Edgerton School where she also taught, but the alternative was going back to jail and she'd been desperate.
Vince was wealthy enough that the bail amount would be a trifle for him. Besides, he still felt guilty for the way their relationship had ended.
"Just be thankful you caught Judge Waters in a good mood," Yates said, "because he's usually much harsher on people conventional wisdom says are flight risks."
The lawyer couldn't be serious. Kelly Carmichael, a flight risk? Despite her mother's long rap sheet, Kelly had never tangled with the law until yesterday. She'd spent the last two years establishing herself in the community with a town house she'd turned into a home and a career she loved.
A career that, according to Spencer Yates, was in serious jeopardy. She was working as a counselor at the Edgerton School's summer camp, a position she'd already lost. Vince had informed her the school's principal said she shouldn't come back until this matter was cleared up.
"I'll give you a call after I talk with the DA." Yates stood, swaying slightly on his feet. He acted as though the matter was all settled, as though she'd agreed to let him work out a deal that would send her to prison.
"I really need to go." Yates turned even more gray. He hurried out of the meeting room, calling over his shoulder, "You have my number if you need me."
She stared after him, frustrated because she had so much more to say. But Yates was clearly illand as disinterested in hearing about the woman at the playground as the police had been. If Kelly retained him as her lawyer, he'd get around to asking the same tough question the police had: Why had nobody else seen the woman?
The reason was both simple and complicated.
Nobody had seen her because Kelly had been the only one at the playground. Late on a Saturday afternoon. Without her neighbor's two-year-old son.
Kelly hadn't set out to visit the playground. Her intention had been to enjoy the beautiful summer weather.
Her walk took her past the swings and the monkey bars, the place where she spent so many happy hours. The womanshe'd given her name only as Amanda Smith had been trying to get her baby boy to stop crying. Kelly's first mistake had been stopping to talk to her.
Kelly shook off the memory and stood up, suddenly desperate to be outdoors. She hurried out of the courthouse and into the brightness of the summer morning. She gazed up into the cloudless blue sky, watching the flight of a hawk that was free to go wherever it pleased.
So was she, but not for long. The police weren't searching for the real kidnapper. Kelly was headed for prison unless
Unless she found Amanda herself.
The idea took root and sprouted. It was crazy, but it was her only option.
There was the not-so-minor detail that she wasn't allowed to leave the state of New York under the terms of her bail, but if she was back before her next scheduled court appearance, Vince might not even lose the money he'd posted for her bail. If she wasn't, she'd find a way to pay him back, even if it meant selling her town house.
But she couldn't think about that now. She needed to remember somethinganythingAmanda might have said that would provide a clue on where to look.
Their conversation had revolved around the baby. Amanda hadn't talked about where she'd grown up or where she lived but it seemed to Kelly she had mentioned a place.
Yes. That was right. She'd said something about there being no more to do in Wenona than in what? The name of the town floated in Kelly's brain, just out of reach of her consciousness.
Green Water? No. That was wrong. It hadn't been Water, it had been Springs. But Green Springs wasn't right. Neither was Blue Springs.
The name hit her with such certainty that she rushed down the courthouse steps, eager to get to a computer so she could figure out where Indigo Springs was.
Because that's where she was headed.
Chase Bradford set down the car seat that doubled as a carrier, acting as if it made perfect sense for the invited guest at the Indigo Springs library's Summer Speaker Series to bring along a sleeping year-old baby.
"Dream on, buddy," he whispered, squashing an urge to kiss one of Toby's flushed, chubby cheeks. "Please, please dream on."
He wouldn't have called himself soft-hearted before Toby came into his life, but it had taken Chase about ten seconds flat to fall in love with the little guy.
He'd fallen pretty quickly for Toby's mother, too, but that turned out to have nothing to do with love. He wasn't usually impulsive when it came to women. After Mandy, he wouldn't be again.
"You sure that baby will be okay there?" asked Louise Wiesneski, the big-boned, florid-faced librarian who'd set up the talk.
"He'll be fine, Louise," Chase said with more confidence than he felt.
Her eyebrows formed an inverted V and her mouth twisted. "If you say so."