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Several hours later, Jocelyn dropped her pen, her hand aching from writing up her clients' notes in their files. Glancing toward the window, she saw the patrol car still in front of the pawnshop. She stood, stretching her arms above her and rolling her head to ease the tension in her neck.
A knock sounded and sent her whirling around toward the door. She stared at it, not moving an inch. This time someone pounded against the wood, prodding her forward. She hurried from her office into the reception area and peered out the peephole. The sight of Sam Pierce stunned her. She hadn't seen him in monthsnot since she'd worked that child kidnapping in New Orleans with him. It hadn't ended well, and they hadn't parted on good terms.
Sam pivoted to leave. Quickly Jocelyn unlatched the lock and pulled the door open.
Halting, the over six-foot FBI agent glanced back at her. Dressed in a black suit with a red tie, dark hair cut short, he fixed her with his intense stare, his tanned features making a mockery of the cool January weather.
"Jocelyn, it's good to see you again."
The formality in his voice made her wonder if he was only trying to be polite.
"I'd like to have a word with you. Sheriff Reed said that Leah Farley left a message on your answering machine. I'd like to listen to it."
"The FBI is working Leah's disappearance?"
"Yes." He took a step forward, forcing her to move to the side to allow him into the office.
"Really. I got the impression from the sheriff that he didn't think Leah had met with foul play. I'm surprised he requested your assistance."
"The mayor did. I don't believe the sheriff was too happy, but he's cooperating."
"Good, because I don't think Leah would run away and leave her daughter behind. She adores her."
"So you knew her well. Professionally or personally?" He wore a no-nonsense facade as if they hadn't dated for four months right before she had moved to Loomis. As if he hadn't saved her life once.
Jocelyn waved Sam toward the chair in front of her desk in her office. She sat in hers behind it, biding her time while she gathered her composure. As a psychologist, she'd learned to suppress any emotions she might experience in order to deal with a client's problem. His presence strained that skill.
"Personally. We're neighbors." She knew she was stating the obvious, but Sam's intense stare unnerved her, as though he remembered their time together but not fondly. He was one of the reasons she had come to Loomis nine months ago to open a private practice and teach a few classes at Loomis College.
Grinning, Sam threw a glance at the pawnshop across the street and said in a teasing tone, "Yes, I can see." Then as though he realized he'd slipped too quickly into a casual, friendliness toward her, he stiffened, the smile gone.
His sudden change pricked her curiosity. He didn't like this any more than she did. That realization made getting through the interview a little easier. She relaxed the tensed set of her shoulders.
When she had started seeing Sam in New Orleans, she had known it wasn't wise to date someone she had to work with from time to time in volatile, intense situations. Being a consultant on kidnapping cases where children were involved had thrown them together over the course of the year he'd been in the Big Easy.
Jocelyn gripped the edge of her desk. "Look, I'm happy to let you hear the recording, and I'll help in any other way I can, but I insist on us putting our former relationship in the past where it belongs." Their relationship started when Sam rescued her from a patient's father who tried to kill her, and it fell apart when they worked together on a kidnapping case that ended violently. Brutality had surrounded her in New Orleans. She thought she'd escaped it by coming to Loomis.
"Do you mean it? You'll help with this case? Because I was thinking we need someone with your experience." His frosty gaze melted a few degrees.
Although she now worked with all ages, in missing-persons cases she'd dealt only with the children involved. "Well, yes. I'll help. But since children are my specialty, I'm not sure how " She drew in a deep breath. "Sarah. You want me to work with Leah's daughter?"
Sam nodded. "I think the key to Leah's disappearance may be wrapped up in her husband's suicide, so I'll be looking into that, too. Were you aware that Sarah might have witnessed her father's death?"
Leah's heartbeat quickened. Poor little Sarah!
Leah swallowed and said, "I hadn't heard that before I had to leave or I wouldn't have left. I thought Sarah was asleep upstairs in her bedroom. Earl shot himself downstairs in his office in the store."
"Apparently Leah's brother told the sheriff his sister was beginning to think that Sarah might have seen or heard something from a couple of things the child said to her mother."
"Clint didn't know. Leah left Sarah with him before he could question her further about it."
"That poor child."
"I need to know what she knows."
"She's only three. It may be very little. Have you talked with Clint? The sheriff said that Sarah is staying with him."
"No, but I'm heading out to his house to interview him after I leave here. I want you to come along and assess Sarah."
Just like old timesunpleasant ones. Don't go there. Why, Lord, are you doing this? "Do you want to hear the message?"
"I'd give you the tape, but I use an answering service." The second time she heard it Jocelyn was even more convinced Leah was in trouble. Was it due to her husband's suicide or something else? Where did Sarah fit into this? Had the child heard or seen something she shouldn't have?
"Why would she call you? Isn't Shelby Mason her closest friend?"
"My, you have been busy. How long have you been in town?"
"A few hours." He captured her gaze, intensity pouring off of him. "You aren't seeing Leah professionally, are you?"
Clenching her teeth, she curled her hand around her pen until it dug into her palm. "No. We're friends, but lately she has used me more and more as a sounding board when something's bothering her."
"What was she bothered by, and don't tell me it's confidential because she isn't a client."
"Her marriage. She and Earl were having trouble."
"The kind that could drive her to kill her husband and leave her child?"
"I told you I can't see Leah doing anything like that."
"Leave her child or murder her husband?"
"Both." Before she snapped her pen in half, Jocelyn placed it on top of the folder she was working on.
"You, better than most, know that when people are pushed too far, they are capable of doing something you'd never think they could." Sam rose, hovering in front of her desk. "Will you come with me to Clint Herald's?"
She wanted to say no, not be dragged into the seedy side of life that had taken up so much of her time in New Orleans, but she couldn't. Leah was a friend. Shelby, Leah and she had once been a tight threesome in high school. What if she was in trouble and needed her help? "Yes."
"Thanks, I appreciate it."
The formal tone returned to his voice and bearing, and she grasped it like a life preserver. So long as he kept things professional, she would be able to help Leahthat was, if she could keep herself from remembering her and Sam's past relationship.
She locked her office and trailed him to the parking lot at the side of the building. He headed for his black nondescript sedan.
"I'll drive myself." Jocelyn paused a few feet from her yellow T-bird.
Over the top of his vehicle he studied her for a moment, then shrugged. "Suit yourself. I'll follow you, since I'm not familiar with Loomis."
When she pulled out onto Main Street, she noticed the sheriff coming out of the pawnshop with several plastic bags, probably full of evidence. Seeing them brought to mind the other child from her pastthe one she hadn't been able to save.
His hands tight on the steering wheel, Sam kept sight of the yellow Thunderbird a few yards in front of him. He'd known that Jocelyn had left New Orleans for a job in a Louisiana town north of the city, but he hadn't been prepared to see her again todayand worse, needing to work with her.
Being with her brought back the memories of the last case they'd handled together. For several seconds the image of the little five-year-old boy's body, bruised and beaten, and the horror on Jocelyn's face at the sight flashed across his mind like a strobe light. Jocelyn's reaction drew his own repulsion to the foreground. He'd almost quit his job.
He gripped the wheel until his hands ached. He hadn't found the child in time, and that would haunt him for the rest of his life. It flashed in his mind alongside his own younger brother's face the last time he'd seen him twenty-five years ago.
He shook his head to clear the disturbing images as Jocelyn turned into the driveway of an older two-story house with huge oaks dripping Spanish moss standing sentinel in front. Parking behind her, Sam shut down his thoughts of the past. He couldn't let anything cloud his judgment while working the case. He'd concentrate on solving it soon and be gone from Loomis.
After joining Jocelyn on the porch, he leaned around her and pressed the bell. She kept her gaze trained forward, the silence between them taut. Her faint scent of vanilla tempted him with memories. The sight of her long blond hair, free from the usual clasp at her nape, billowing about her shoulders or the feel of her soft hand in his
A click wrenched him back to the present. Relieved when the door opened to reveal a large man with dark features and a grim expression on his face, Sam pulled out his badge. "I'm Special Agent Pierce with the FBI. I'm here to look into your sister's disappearance and wonder if we could have a word with you."
"I'm glad someone is finally taking this seriously. I couldn't get the sheriff to listen to me yesterday when I told him that Leah wouldn't leave Sarah unless something bad had happened to her." Clint stepped to the side to allow them into his house. "Come in. And hi, Jocelyn. I was just about to put Sarah down for a late nap. I'll take care of that and then we can talk."
"I thought Jocelyn could intertalk with your niece."
"Why? Sarah was here when Leah went missing."
"But Sarah was at the apartment at the time of her father's death." Sam stuffed his badge back into his pocket.
"She's only three. She can't tell you anything!" Clint's voice roughened as he shifted his gaze to something behind Sam.
Sam glanced back. A little girl with blond hair and sea-green almond-shaped eyes came out of a room and rocketed toward them. Holding a blanket and sucking her thumb, Sarah latched on to her uncle's leg and buried her face against him, occasionally peeking up at Jocelyn.
"Clint, I'd love to put Sarah down for a nap. She's stayed with me some when Leah needed a sitter. That way you and Sam can talk."
"But, she" Clint settled his hand on Sarah's shoulder as though he would keep her glued to his side.
"Don't worry. Sarah and I are good buddies."
Clint stared at Jocelyn for a long moment, then nodded. "I know."
She knelt next to the little girl and held out her hand. "Sarah, I'd love to see your room. Will you show me?"
The child clung to her uncle for a few more seconds, then walked over to Jocelyn. Jocelyn rose with Sarah in her arms. "Which way?"
Clutching her blanket, Leah's daughter took her thumb out of her mouth and pointed toward the staircase.
Jocelyn left Sam alone with Clint, who watched his niece disappear up the stairs. Sam knew firsthand how traumatic it was when a family member went missing. That was why he was part of the Missing Persons Unit, although at times it was painful not to provide a happy ending to each case.
"Let's go in here," Clint said, gesturing toward his den, tension threaded through each word. "Leah and Sarah are all the family I have left. I'm glad my call to the mayor produced results because Sheriff Reed wasn't doing anything."
Sam folded his long length into a chair across from the couch and took out his notepad. "Tell me about the day Leah dropped off Sarah for you to watch her."
Clint stared toward the entry hall as though Leah were still standing there with Sarah and he could erase the past thirty hours. "The last time I saw my sister, she was acting a little strange. She was fidgety and talking fast as though she was anxious or afraid of something. At the time I thought it was because of Earl's suicide, but now I don't know. I should have questioned my sister more before she left."
"What did she say to you?"
Another long pause, then Clint swung his attention to Sam. "She said she had some business to take care of and wouldn't be gone long. She was worried that Sarah had seen something when Earl killed himself. When she said the word business, she said it with such firmness. I got the feeling she was confirming something in her mind."
"She didn't say who she was meeting or what Sarah had seen?"
"No, and before I could ask, she kissed Sarah goodbye and thrust her into my arms, then hurried away." Clint dragged his hand through his hair. "I thought at first she was just running late, but when she didn't come back to pick up Sarah, I knew something was wrong. I've called her cell phone repeatedly, but it goes straight to voice mail."
"What did you do next?"
"I called her friends, the hospital, highway patrol and the sheriff after putting Sarah down early last night. I didn't want her to know what was going on."
"There's nothing else?"
Again he plowed his fingers through his hair. "You don't know how many times I've wished there was something else. A lead. A hint. Anything."