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Susan Johnson was frantic. She could scarcely think as she rushed down the crowded New York sidewalk, dodging pedestrians, searching for her son. How could one small boy disappear so quickly. Why wasn't someone looking for his mother? When she found him, she'd never let him out of her sight again!
Of course that was impossible, but she was so scared she couldn't think straight. Where was Danny?
"Please, God, let me find my baby," she prayed as she searched the crowded sidewalk in front of her.
"Do you think he'd try to cross the street alone?" the teacher's aide next to her asked, already puffing slightly from the fast pace Susan set.
"No. I don't know. If he thought he saw his father across the street he might, though I'm always careful to make sure we stop and look both ways even when the light is green. But he's only four." And always after tall dark haired men thinking they were his daddy. Ever since Tom had died, Danny had been searching. Children his age didn't understand death, she'd been told.
How could the preschool have let him get away? The play yard was fenced and the front gate should have either been latched so a little child couldn't open it, or monitored by an adult. Had the teacher turned her back? For how long? Where was Danny?
Were they going in the wrong direction? Had he turned right when exiting the preschool? Or left? She'd opted for left because it was in the direction of their apartment. Familiar territory to a little boy. But what if he'd gone the other way? If he'd darted out to follow some stranger, he wouldn't have cared for directiononly his goal to find his father. She could be increasing the distance between them, not closing it. Panic closed her throat. Fear seized her heart. Her precious son was out on the streets of New York and could get into who knew what kind of trouble.
Susan stopped and looked ahead, then behind her. Indecision. Seconds were ticking by. Where was her child? Fear increased. New York was a dangerous city. And her son was adorable. What if someone snatched him up? What if she never saw him again?
She moaned softly at the thought.
Her child was missing. Was there anything worse for a parent to face?
"What?" the aide asked.
"I'm thinking he could have gone the other way. Tell me again how long ago it was until you noticed he was missing?" Susan had been given all that information when she had arrived at the preschool. But she'd scarcely listened, dashing out to try to find her son.
"Less than five minutes before you showed up. Mrs. Savalack was busy with the little boy who had a bloody nose. She didn't know Danny would leave before you arrived. She went the other direction as soon as one of the other teachers came to watch her children. She'll find him if he went that way."
"Maybe," Susan said, her eyes searching. She didn't see a child anywhere.
Glancing around, she noticed a man walking slowly along the street. He looked out of place in the midday crowdambling along when everyone else was walking briskly, with places to go. Tall, with dark hair and a deep tan, he looked competent and reliable. His casual attire blended in with the men and women on the sidewalk at the lunch hour, but were of higher quality than the cheaper clothing more common in this neighborhood. What a stupid thing to notice, she thought as she approached him.
"Excuse me. Have you seen a little boy? He's four and should not be out on his own. We don't know if he came this way, but we need to find him!"
He shook his head. "I haven't seen any kids. Wouldn't they be in school at this time of day?"
"He's in a preschool and wandered away." Susan bit her lip, her heart pounded, fear increasing with every heartbeat. "Maybe I'm going the wrong way."
"Which way is that?" he asked, glancing at the aide and then scanning the sidewalk behind him.
"No one saw him leave, so we didn't know if he came this way or went the other way. The preschool is back there." She pointed to a small building at the end of the block. "I just hope he didn't try to cross the street." The traffic was lighter than midtown, but still heavy. A small boy might be overlooked by a motorist in a hurryuntil it was too late.
"Someone would have stopped a small boy from dashing into danger," the man said. He glanced at the aide. "Is someone looking in the other direction?"
"Yes, the teacher." She glanced back up the street. "I don't see her, so I guess she hasn't found Danny."
"Danny?" the man asked, his voice odd.
Susan looked at him, her eyes holding appeal. "My son, Danny. He's missing. I've got to find him. Oh Lord, I can't lose him, too!"
"I'll help look. Name's Zack Morgan. Where did you lose him?"
"I didn't lose him. He left his preschool without an adult.
I can't believe he's run off like this. New York is so dangerous for a little child if someone isn't right there with him every minute."
"I'm sure he'll be fine, Mrs. Johnson," the aide said, her worried expression belying her words.
"We'll find him," Zack said.
"Unless someone's taken him," Susan said, voicing her worst fear. What if someone had kidnapped her son? She swayed with horror at the thought. Zack reached out and took her arm gently, seeming to give her strength.
"No one's taken him in this direction. I've been on this street for several blocks. No little boy. And I'm sure no one would let him cross the street by himself, so let's try the other direction." His reasonable tone calmed her.
"Okay." For a split second she felt as if the burden had lifted slightly and been placed on the broad shoulders of the stranger who held her arm.
She swallowed and turned, wanting to race the wind to find her son. He was so precious to her. He could not have been taken. He was just searching for Tom.
Less than five minutes later they saw Mrs. Savalack heading toward them, Danny's hand firmly held in hers.
Susan burst into tears and raced to her son. "Danny, you scared me to death." She swooped him up in her arms, hugging him tightly, her heart still pounding. "Don't ever run off like that again."
He struggled a bit with Susan's tight hold, and she set him on his feet, taking his hand firmly in hers. "You know you are not to leave the school until I get there."
"I thought I saw Daddy." He looked sad. "But it wasn't him."
Susan reached out and brought Danny's face round to face hers. "Your daddy died. He's gone to heaven. You will not find him on this earth. Honey, he loved you, but he's gone."
"No! I want my daddy!" Danny stuck his lower lip out and glared at his mother.
The stranger stooped down until he was Danny's level.
"Hi," he said.
Danny looked at him warily, pout still in evidence.
"You should mind your mother," Zack said gently. "She was scared you'd get hurt or lost." He reached out and brushed Danny's dark hair off his forehead.
"I thought I saw my daddy," Danny repeated.
Susan wiped the tears from her cheeks and tried to smile at Zack. "He's got this fixation in his head that my husband is just gone out. Every time he sees a man who looks the slightest bit like Tom, he's running after him. He hasn't done this in a long while and I'd hoped he'd stopped by now. Thanks for your help. I'm Susan Johnson. This is my son, Danny. I appreciate your concern."
Zack rose and nodded. "You two take care now."
He turned and walked away, when every cell in his body screamed to stay. He'd actually touched his son. Met his adopted mother. Been scared for a few moments that Susan Johnson's fear would turn into reality.
It had been a quirky idea to wander by the preschool the detective had listed in his report. Zack had had no idea whether the playground could be seen from the street. Or if he'd recognize his son among a few dozen playing children. Fate had stepped in and he had actually spoken to his son.
He had thought that seeing Daniel from a distance would suffice. Now that he'd actually met him, he wanted to know even more about him. He was adorable. His eyes were brown and his hair a darker brown. He seemed small, but so did the other children Zack glimpsed in the playground. Daniel obviously missed his father. The report said Tom Johnson had died two years ago, which meant Danny had been grieving for two years. A long time for a child. Wasn't he happy with his mother?
Wanting to think about the encounter, Zack walked a few more blocks until he found a coffee house. Ordering a hot drink, he sat at a table near the window and gazed outside, his thoughts back with the boy he'd just met. And his mother.
There had been no photo of Susan in the report. She looked younger than he expected. And tired. She was thin like Alesia had been. But where Alesia had always worn trendy, stylish clothing, Susan's looked plain and serviceable. Her hair had been pulled back and she wore a minimum of makeup. The appeal in her eyes when she asked if he'd seen her son had touched him. He could tell she loved the boy.
For some reason, Zack felt a need to do something for her as well. It couldn't be easy raising a child alone. She had no relatives close by. According to the detective, her parents lived in Florida. Her mother worked in a travel agency and her father was in frail health. The warmer climate was a necessity for his well-being in winter months.
Her dead husband had been the only child of an older couple. His mother had moved west to be with her sister when her husband had died before Tom and Susan were married. She now resided in an assisted care home in California.
There had been little insurance money; the man had been younger than Zack was now when he had died. They must have thought they had their entire future together. Neither had known two years after adopting Danny that Tom Johnson would be dead.
Would they still have gone through with the adoption?
Zack felt funny knowing so much about Susan Johnson and her family history. She didn't know him at all except as a stranger stopping to help for a few minutes. Yet he wanted to know about her, to assure himself his son was getting the best of everything. And with the dearth of money in her life, was that possible?
Maybe he could set up a blind trust to make sure they had enough money. Would Susan accept? The character sketch the detective had done indicated she probably would not. She seemed big on independence. She hadn't applied for any aid.
She'd quickly moved from the apartment she and her husband shared in Manhattan to one more affordable in Brooklyn. Even returned to work when she'd obviously planned to stay home with Danny if the first two years of his life were any indication.
He sipped his coffee and wondered what he could do. Maybe the best thing would be to leave mother and son alone. Danny looked healthy. His clothes had been neat and clean. He obviously missed his father, but he was well cared for.
For a moment Zack wondered what it would be like to be a father to a child. He'd have to change his job, quit the nomadic life he'd enjoyed the last decade and put down roots. Get a job that would allow him to be home evenings, attend school events.
Would he grow bored? Long for faraway lands?
Slowly Zack smiled. Danny was a cute kid. His dark hair probably came from him. And his brown eyes. Did he look at all like Alesia? With soft baby cheeks, it was hard to tell. He wished he had some baby pictures of himself. Maybe he could see a resemblance to himself at that age.
He finished his coffee and rose. He'd walk by their apartment and then return to his hotel. It would be enough to know where they lived. Then he had to think about what he wanted to do for the rest of his medical leave. Walking had been strongly recommended, as had light exercise in addition to the P.T. he was doing. He had an entire schedule for the next couple of months tacked to the mirror in the bathroom. By then he should be ready to return to the Middle East and work.
He needed to decide on what to do about the future, but there was no rush. He had time.
Danny jumped up and down, his face shining with excitement. "Let's go, Mommy. Let's go!"
"In a minute, sweetie. I need to get some bottled water and a snack for us. You know you always get hungry at the park."
Susan smiled at her son as she headed to the kitchen to gather what she needed. Yesterday's scare had faded to the background, but hadn't totally disappeared. She sometimes didn't know if she was going to make it as a single mother. Danny was a handful. Somehow she had to get him over chasing after strangers thinking they were Tom.
Yesterday's trauma had been a strain but everything was finefor now. Danny loved going to the park. Actually he loved going anywhereto the store, preschool, visiting Mrs. Jordan, her neighbor who watched Danny when Susan had to work.
Susan put some dried fruit and two water bottles in the small backpack, checked to make sure the sunscreen was there and the wet-wipes. Picking up her dark glasses, she was ready. This spring had proved balmy and warm for New York City. She took advantage of the nearby park every chance she got. The grassy area gave plenty of running room for Danny and the playground section provided slides and swings and other equipment that he loved. It was a great way for him to burn off some of that energy he had.
Their apartment was tiny. It was all she could afford with her salary and the expense of preschool and Edith's pay. The neighborhood wasn't the best, but it was the best she could afford and be close enough to work that she didn't spend hours commuting. She'd rather spend the time with Danny.
Passing through the crowded living room she glanced at Tom's picture out of habit. She still missed him with an ache that never seemed to go away despite the two years that had passed since his death. They'd taken Danny for walks together before he died, but Danny had been in the stroller then. Wouldn' t Tom have loved watching Danny at the park playing with the other childrenrunning around, yelling in sheer joy?
"Okay, I'm ready." She smiled at her son, her heart swelling with love. He was such a darling boy. She wished Tom had lived to see Danny grow up. He'd been as excited as she when Danny had come into their lives. They'd made such plans for the futurefamily vacations, maybe buying a house one day with a yard so Danny could have a dog. Tom had wanted him to attend NYU. Sighing softly for what was not to be, she helped her son put his jacket on. It was up to her to make sure Tom's dreams came true.
"Yay!" Danny ran to the front door and waited impatiently while his mother unlocked it and opened it. He was off like a shot to the elevator. "I can push the button," Danny said proudly and pressed the down arrow.
Susan locked her door and hurried to follow her son. She wouldn't put it past him to jump into the elevator without her in his excitement to get to the park.
Danny raced out of the elevator when it reached the lobby.
"Danny, wait!" She hurried after him and took his hand before he reached the large glass door that led outside.
Danny did not move slowly. She laughed as they raced the light at the corner. In only moments they reached the grassy expanse. Releasing Danny's hand, she followed as he headed directly to the playground area. Several children she recognized were already running around, swinging, sliding down the slides and having a great time. Danny joined in with no hesitation.
Susan glanced around at the benches, looking for an empty seat. She spotted the man she'd met briefly yesterday, Zack Morgan. Did he live in the neighborhood? She didn't remember seeing him before. And he was someone she would have remembered. Slowly she walked over. He looked up when she drew near and nodded in greeting.
"Good morning," he said.
His voice was amazing, deep and husky. She remembered how tall he was. Even sitting, he gave the impression of strength and size. His hair was almost black. A dark tan gave him a healthy look, while faint lines around his eyes proved he squinted in bright sunshine. Spring had been nice, but not that nice. Was he a skier? That would explain the tan so early in the season. He was broad in the shoulders, muscular without appearing to be a bodybuilder. He looked totally out of place in the park. She glanced back at Danny. Seeing the man had her thinking of wide-open spaces and endless vistas. A man used to doing, not sitting. Why was he in the park today? Did he live nearby? Had he been a regular she'd overlooked before meeting him?
For an instant she had the insane urge to make sure her hair was tidy and she still wore lipstick.
She looked back and smiled politely. After a second's hesitation, she sat beside him.
"I'm sorry I didn't thank you properly yesterday," she said.
"I didn't find your child. The teacher did."
"Just being willing to help was a good thing. I appreciate it. And the fact that you looked. Many people would have been too busy."
"I'm glad he was safe," Zack said, glancing over at the children. The folded newspaper at his side indicated he'd been there for some time. Did he have a child playing with the others?
"I'm Susan Johnson." She reached out to shake his hand. His palm was hard, callused. His grip was firm without being too hard. The tingling sensation that ran up her arm surprised her and she pulled back quickly, more aware of the man than she ought to have been.
"We met yesterday. You were a bit flustered, though. No lasting aftereffects after your scare?"
"Just a constant worry of that child of mine making me gray way before my time," she replied, sitting back and relaxing, her gaze on Danny. She was not taking the chance he'd run after some other man today.
After a few moments of silence, she glanced at Zack and was surprised to find him watching the children play. Somehow he didn't seem like a man who spent a lot of time with children.