A STOLEN BABY
When Sonya Daniels finds a kidnapped baby’s birth certificate hidden in her late mother’s home, she’s shocked. What was her family’s connection to the child, still missing for over two decades? And what happened to the little girl? Sonya hires detective Brandon Hayes to help her get to the truth. But someone doesn’t want the truth to come out and will stop at nothing to keep them from investigating. Sonya knows the guarded cop won’t rest until he unravels the mystery—but the answers could be more than she can bear alone.
Family Reunions: Bringing loved ones back together
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Sonya Daniels heard the sharp crack and saw the woman jogging four feet in front of her stumble. Then fall. Another crack.
Another woman cried out and hit the ground.
"Shooter! Get down! Get down!"
With a burst of horror, Sonya caught on. Someone was shooting at the joggers on the path. Terror froze her for a brief second. A second that saved her life as the bullet whizzed past her head and planted itself in the wooden bench next to her. If she'd been moving forward, she would be dead.
Frantic, she registered the screams of those in the park as she ran full out, zigzagging her way to the concrete fountain just ahead.
Her only thought was shelter.
A bullet slammed into the dirt behind her and she dropped to roll next to the base of the fountain.
She looked up to find another young woman had beaten her there. Terrified brown eyes stared at Sonya and she knew the woman saw her fear reflected back at her. Panting, Sonya listened for more shots. None came.
And still they waited. Seconds turned into minutes.
"Is it over?" the woman finally whispered. "Is he gone?"
"I don't know," Sonya responded. "Let's just stay here for a while longer."
Screams still echoed around them. Wails and petrified cries of disbelief.
Sonya lifted her head slightly and looked back at the two women who'd fallen. They still lay on the path behind her. Oh, Lord, help me help them. She reached for her cell phone. Had anyone called 911? Surely they had, but one more call wouldn't hurt.
Her trembling fingers refused to hold the device and it fell to the ground in front of her. She curled her hands into fists, desperate to control the shaking. She'd done this before. She could manage the fear. But never before had she been caught by surprise like this.
Sonya grabbed her phone and shoved it into the armband she wore when running. She took a deep breath and scanned the area across the street. She'd been in dangerous situations before, working the streets first as a paramedic, then as a trauma nurse on an air-ambulance helicopter.
Later, she'd shake her head at the irony. All those times she'd been in the midst of the flying bullets and had come out unscathed. Now she was a hospice nurse on her day off and she got shot at. Slowly, she calmed and gained control of her pounding pulse.
Her mind clicked through the shots fired. Two hit the women running in front of her. Her stomach cramped at the thought that she should have been the third victim. She glanced at the bench. The bullet hole stared back. It had dug a groove, slanted and angled. He was shooting down, which meant he was higher up.
She had no idea which building the shots came from, but if she had to guess, she would pick the one directly across the street. The office building? Or the clothing warehouse?
The police would figure it out. She checked her watch. No more shots had sounded in the few minutes she'd lain next to the cement fountain, her mind spinning. There were wounded people who needed her.
Heart in her throat, Sonya darted to the nearest woman, who lay about ten yards away from her. Expecting a bullet to slam into her at any moment, she felt for a pulse.
Brandon Hayes heard the gunfire through the open window of his third-floor part-time office at Finding the Lost and automatically reached for his weapon as he spun in his chair.
A police detective by profession and a Finding the Lost employee on his days off, he didn't have a lot of downtime. Nor did he want any.
The Glock felt natural and comfortable in his right hand. He stepped to the side of the window and looked out.
Chaos reigned in the park below.
Two people lay on the ground and appeared to be injured.
Erica James, his sister and founder of Finding the Lost, bolted into the office. "What was that?"
"Bullets. There's a shooter nearby and people are hurt."
She pulled out her cell phone. "Someone's probably already called, but"
Brandon heard her reporting the incident to the 911 operator as he tried to pinpoint the location where the bullets originated from.
His gaze shifted from the horror below him to the building beside him. Nothing. Not a flash, no movement, nothing. He grabbed the phone from his desk. Rachel, his cousin and secretary for Finding the Lost, picked up. "Get this building locked down now."
"I already did. I heard you say something about bullets fired and immediately called security."
"Good." Her office was just outside of his.
He returned to the window and watched the craziness unfold in the park, assessing the situation, planning the best way to help. Go after the shooter or help the victims?
Movement by the fountain caught his eye. A woman trying to pull one of the injured ones to safety.
Wait a minute.
"Hey, isn't that Sonya Daniels? What's she trying to do? Get herself killed?" He raced from the office, Erica's protests ringing in his ears. "Stay here!"
Brandon hit the glass door, swiped his card that would allow him to exit, but would lock the door behind him. Then he was on the sidewalk. Within seconds he was at the park. Police officers who'd been nearby started to arrive on the scene. To the nearest one, Brandon flashed his badge and yelled, "I think the shooter was in the building next to the bank."
Law enforcement now swarmed the area and he kept his badge in plain sight. He stuck his weapon back in the shoulder holster and headed for the fountain. Sonya Daniels had shown up at Finding the Lost a little over a week ago with a birth certificate for Heather Bradley. She'd hired him to find the person. And now she was rescuing joggers in the park. His heart thudded as he kept his attention tuned to the area around him.
No more shots sounded. He hoped that meant the shooter was on the run and not aiming at any more innocent people.
Brandon rounded the back of the fountain and found Sonya doing CPR on the woman she'd pulled out of harm's way. He dropped beside her.
"What can I do?"
Surprise and relief flickered across her face when she saw him. "She needs an ambulance. Her heart's stopped." Sonya did more compressions. "Feel for a pulse."
Brandon did as ordered. He looked up and shook his head.
Sonya gave a growl of frustration and slammed a fist onto the woman's chest. "Beat!" She pressed and released, pressed and released, unrelenting and breathless, with determination etched on her features.
Brandon felt a faint flutter under his fingers. "Keep going. I think I felt something."
Hope blazed in her eyes as she continued her efforts. "Come on, please. Please." An ambulance pulled up next to the fountain and two paramedics rushed over. Sonya looked up. "I think she has a pulse now. She coded about thirty seconds ago."
"You have medical training?" the first paramedic asked as she dropped beside Sonya.
"Yes. One semester short of being a doctor."
Brandon shot her a look. He hadn't known that.
He moved aside as the other paramedic joined them. Sonya fell back out of the way and let them take over. He grasped her arm. More medical help surrounded the other woman. "She's dead," Sonya whispered to him. "The bullet went straight through her head." Grief coated her words. "The one I was helping was shot in the back. Please let her make it, God." Brandon wondered if she even realized she'd whispered her prayer aloud. He hoped God listened to her more than He seemed to hear Brandon's prayers.
He watched the officers doing their job and knew Sonya needed to give a statement, but for now, he needed to get her someplace where she could sit and let the adrenaline ebb. He cupped her elbow and started to lead her away. She resisted. "No, I want to watch them."
Finally, one of the EMTs looked up, caught Sonya's eye and nodded. They moved the woman to the gurney and slid her in the back of the ambulance. The female paramedic looked back and gave a thumbs-up.
Sonya blew out a breath and leaned back against the bench.
An officer approached them. "Has anyone talked to you two yet?"
"No," Brandon said. "I heard the shots from my office window across the street and ran over to see if I could help."
Sonya looked up, then pointed to the hole in the bench. "That's the bullet that had my name on it."
Two hours later, after giving her statement and reliving the nightmare, Sonya was exhausted. Brandon had disappeared about an hour ago to offer his services to the investigation even though she knew he wasn't officially on the clock.
The officer next to her flicked a glance behind her and she turned to see Brandon approaching. He touched her arm and she shivered. "Are you all finished?"
"Yes, I believe so."
"Why don't we go over to my office so youwecan decompress?"
She nodded, noticing the sparks his touch set off. In spite of the terrifying situation they'd just lived through, she was still aware of everything about him. From the moment she'd walked into Finding the Lost last week, every time she was in his presence, her attraction meter spiked. So far she'd been able to ignore it, telling herself she didn't have the time or energy for a relationship. Especially not with someone she couldn't read.
Brandon's green eyes hadn't revealed anything to her and she hadn't figured out how to discern his moods or thoughts. That threw her off kilter. Of course, she'd known the man only a week. "Are you finished helping here?"
They walked across the park toward the office buildings. Sonya averted her gaze from the blood still staining the jogging path. "How long will they keep the park closed?"
"Until a crime-scene cleanup crew gets here and removes all traces of the tragedy."
She nodded, grateful for his easy manner and unhurried gait. "You hear about these kinds of things on the news almost every day, it seems," she said. "But you never really expect it to happen to you, to find yourself fighting to survive in the midst of something so awful."
She wondered if the shooter was gone. Or if he'd managed to avoid detection so he could linger and watch. She wondered if he was reveling in the chaos he'd created. A shiver slithered up her spine and she offered up a silent prayer that he'd be found and unable to hurt anyone else.
Brandon put an arm around her shoulders and she looked up, startled. He dropped his arm. "Sorry. You looked like you needed a friend."
His gruff voice and averted gaze grabbed her.
She touched his arm and gave him a smile. "I do need a friend. Thank you."
He nodded but kept his distance. Regret filled her and she wished she'd just leaned into him and accepted the comfort he'd been offering. She had a feeling he didn't do that very often.
"How's the job going?" he asked as he opened the glass door for her.
She stepped inside the cool interior of the lobby. "It's going fine." She'd been at Spartanburg Regional for only three weeks.
"And your mother's house?"
"Coming along." Her mother had died a month ago. Sonya had moved to South Carolina to settle her mother's affairs. She took a seat. She understood what he was doing. Talking about nothing to get her mind off the shooting. She wished it would work. "Did you find anything about the birth certificate?"
In the process of cleaning out her mother's house, she'd come across a box of baby items. Including a birth certificate for a Heather Bradley.
He nodded. "I did. Interesting enough, Heather Bradley, daughter to Don and Ann Bradley, was kidnapped from a church nursery twenty-eight years ago."
Sonya processed that bit of information and swallowed hard. "Why would my mother have the birth certificate of a kidnapped baby?"
Brandon leaned forward and narrowed his eyes. "That's a very good question. What do you think?"
She reached up and rubbed her forehead, trying to hold the headache at bay. "I don't know. Maybe she found it. She was a yard-sale junkie and something of a hoarder. What if she bought the box, stashed it and never thought about it again?" It had been known to happen. Hadn't it?
"It's possible." He looked doubtful.
"Are you saying you think my parents kidnapped a child?" she scoffed. She pictured her gentle father. A pastor with compassionate eyes and warm bear hugs. Before cancer had stolen his physical body. Cancer had robbed her of both of her parents. A lump formed in her throat. The illness may have taken his body, but his spirit had stayed strong to the end. "No way."
"I'm not saying that at all, but it does raise questions for sure." He paused. "Did anyone live in the house before your family?"
"Yes. The house was a parsonage. My father was a pastor for the church next door. When the church hit some hard times financially, my father decided to buy the house to help them out."
Brandon frowned. "How could he afford to do that if the church was having a tough time?"
Sonya blinked. "I don't know. I never really thought about it. I was only a child. Maybe ten or eleven when it happened."
Brandon tapped his chin and sighed. "Hmm. Well, I'll keep digging."
"Was Heather Bradley ever found?"
"Oh." Her stomach twisted into a knot.
"But I did locate her family. They actually live about thirty minutes from here, practically across town."
"How was Heather taken? Why would her birth certificate be in her diaper bag? Don't people usually keep those in a safe place?"
He gave her a slow smile that made her heart trip all over itself. His eyes crinkled at the corners. "What?"
"You ask good questions," he said. "I'm impressed. According to Mr. Bradley, his wife had decided to go shopping Saturday afternoon. She checked the mail, and the birth certificate had arrived. She slipped it into the diaper bag so she wouldn't lose it. She said she forgot about it until after Heather was taken."
"Which was the next day. So the kidnapper took the baby and the diaper bag?"
"Right out of the church nursery."
She nodded. "Right. So how did that happen? Where was security? Wouldn't someone see the person taking the child and stop him or her?"
He held up a hand at her rapid-fire questions. "Let me explain. Mrs. Bradley said there were two rooms in the nursery. A room that held cribs for sleeping babies and a monitor. The door was shut so the other children could play without waking the ones sleeping. There was a window in the door, but " He shrugged. "You have to remember this was almost thirty years ago. Security in church nurseries was nothing like it is today. If they even had security."
"So no one knew Heather was missing until a worker went in the room to check on the other babies."
"And I found the diaper bag with the birth certificate in my mother's closet." She paused, her mind racing. Then she looked at him and swallowed hard. "Do you think I'm Heather Bradley?"