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There was blood on the porch.
That kicked up Deputy Reed Caldwell's pulse a significant notch. He'd already drawn his Colt .45, but he called for backup because this wasn't looking good.
He walked to the end of the porch, his breath mixing with the early morning air and causing a filmy haze around him. Reed peered into the window of the dining room and saw that the table and chairs had been toppled over. There'd been some kind of struggle.
Mercy. What was going on?
No sign of any intruders or the ownerhis ex-wife, Addison.
But Reed was pretty sure she was inside somewhere. Alive. Or at least she had been a few minutes earlier when she'd made a frantic nine-one-one call to the Sweetwater Springs Sheriff's Office. Reed had intercepted the call because he'd been on his way home after pulling a night shift and was driving right by her place.
"Someone's trying to break in."
That was the only thing Addison had managed to say before the line went dead. There was no bad weather to cause a dead phone line. No maintenance that he'd heard about. Just the frantic one-line message.
Reed hadn't been sure what to expect when he arrived at the small country house Addison had recently inherited, but he'd parked by her mailbox, twenty yards or so from the house so that the sound of his truck engine wouldn't alert anyone. Even with the extra precaution, Reed had figured this would turn out to be a false alarm. Or else he'd find Addison cowering inside while some would-be burglars were making their escape.
But he definitely hadn't expected blood. Or the toppled furniture.
Maneuvering around the drops of blood, he turned the doorknob. It was unlocked. And he eased open the front door. Reed wasn't a blood expert, but there were more drops in the foyer, and it looked like high-velocity spatter as if someone had been hit hard.
It didn't take him long to see that more stuff had been knocked down in the entry. A small table. The landline phone that'd been ripped from the wall.
Most noticeable, thoughan empty infant car seat.
Since Addison had recently adopted a baby, the seat wasn't unexpected, but it put a knot in Reed's gut to see it tossed on its side like that.
Where was the baby?
And where the heck was Addison?
If it was her blood, then she'd clearly been hurt. Maybe hurt badly enough that she couldn't even call out to him.
That didn't help the knot in his stomach.
His backup wouldn't be there for at least fifteen minutes, but Reed didn't want to waste any more time in case she was bleeding out. Listening, he quietly stepped inside, pivoted, checking every visible corner of the house. No one was in his line of sight, but he heard some movement in the adjacent living room. He peered around the edge of the wall, and his heart walloped against his chest.
There was blood on her forehead and smeared in the side of her light brown hair. Her eyes were wide, and there was a large swatch of silver duct tape covering her mouth. The same tape had been used to tie her hands and feet, but despite the restraints, she was frantically trying to crawl toward him.
Still keeping watch around them, Reed hurried to her and eased back the tape from her mouth.
"They're upstairs," she whispered, the words rushing out with her breath. She tried to crawl again while fighting to get her hands and ankles free.
"Who's up there?" Reed asked, looking in that direction.
"I think they're kidnappers."
Hell. Sweetwater Springs wasn't a perfect town, but he hadn't expected kidnappers to break into someone's house.
"Get me out of this," Addison insisted, still fighting the tape.
Reed pulled out his pocketknife, sliced through the layers, but the moment that Addison was free, she sprang to her feet. Or rather she tried. She stumbled and probably would have fallen if Reed hadn't caught onto her. She smacked right against him and into his arms.
Despite the nightmare of the moment, that gave him a jolt of memories. Of when they'd been married and she'd been in his arms for a totally different reason. However, Reed shoved those memories aside and instead focused on trying to hold back an injured woman who was hell-bent on barreling up the stairs where she could be killed.
Reed took her by the shoulder and forced eye contact. How many are up there? he mouthed.
She shook her head. "Two, maybe three." Her breath broke. "I saw them on the porch, then called for help, but one of them hit me."
That explained the blood. But not why they'd broken in.
"I heard them say something about the baby," she added in a hoarse whisper. "Emily's upstairs sleeping."
Reed figured that was her adopted baby's name. And if there were indeed two to three kidnappers trying to take the child, then he needed to get to the baby now. The only problem was, he didn't hear any movement upstairs, and he hadn't seen any extra vehicles when he'd driven up.
Of course, this could be just a simple burglary, and the men could have mentioned the baby to threaten Addison, to make sure she cooperated and didn't fight back.
Addison wasn't rich, but the house she'd inherited from her aunt might have something burglars would want, and it was off the beaten path. The men might be looking for quick cash or jewelry. Or maybe they didn't even know that anyone would be there because the place had been empty for months. Addison had returned only a few days earlier.
Or so Reed had heard from the gossip mill.
After their bitter split, Reed had done his best to avoid any and all info and gossip about his ex.
He fired off a text to his backup and fellow deputy, Colt McKinnon, who would no doubt be arriving soon. Reed didn't want Colt walking in on this without some kind of heads-up.
"Stay here," Reed warned Addison when he finished the text.
She didn't, of course. Even on good days Addison could be hardheaded, but he doubted anything short of duct-taping her again would get her to stop. Not with her baby in possible danger.
"At least stay quiet and behind me," Reed amended.
This time she listened, but she grabbed an umbrella from a basket next to the overturned table. She was still shaky, her breathing was way too fast, but she kept up with him as he eased up the stairs. Reed had made it just a few steps from the top when the sounds stopped him cold.
Footsteps and whispers.
"They're in my aunt's old bedroom," she muttered. "I'm using it as a temporary office."
Better there than the nursery, but that didn't make things safer. Burglars could still do all sorts of bodily harmAddison's head was proof of thatbut maybe they'd leave the baby out of this.
Reed eased onto the stairwell but had to take hold of Addison when she tried to dart past him. She didn't try to go toward the sounds in her office but rather to the room at the end of the hall.
The nursery, no doubt.
There wasn't anyone moving around in there, not that Reed could hear anyway. The only movement was coming from the room on his right.
He shot Addison a warning glance for her to stay put, and he hoped this time she'd listen. Thankfully, she did. With a death grip on the umbrella, she waited and held her breath.
Reed was holding his breath, too, when he glanced around the edge of the door of her office. Like in the downstairs, things had been tossed and turned in here, too. There were two men dressed all in black, their backs to him, and they were stuffing papers and a laptop into a large satchel. Both were armed.
"We got two minutes," one of the men called out. "Don't want the locals in here on this."
Locals. As in Reed or someone else from the Sweetwater Springs Sheriff's Office. Did the men know Addison had managed to call him? If so, they probably thought the cops were still en route. They likely wouldn't have known that Reed would be driving right by her place at the exact moment she'd needed him.
Reed glanced back at Addison to make sure she was okay. She hadn't stayed put for long and was now inching her way to the nursery. That maybe wasn't a bright idea, but Reed had enough to deal with now. Besides, Addison would likely do whatever it took to protect the baby, and that meant he could focus on these morons ransacking the place.
"You think we got it all?" one of the men asked his partner.
"Can't be sure," he answered. "Let's go to plan B and torch the place."
Reed didn't have time to curse or try to get Addison and the baby out of there. He heard a vehicle approaching. Colt, no doubt. The siren was off, but it still must have alerted one of the men, because he pivoted, his attention zooming right to Reed.
"I'm Deputy Reed Caldwell," he identified himself.
Both men raised their guns. Not ordinary weapons but ones rigged with silencers. One of them fired, just as Reed scrambled to the side, and even though it wasn't a normal loud blast, the bullet tore through the doorjamb.
He hadn't wanted to get into a gunfight with anyone but especially not without backup in place.
Another shot quickly came at him, and Reed hurried out of the way while he readied himself to return fire. He latched on to Addison and pulled her into the adjacent open doorway. It was her old bedroom, still decorated as it'd been when she was in high school.
"The bullets could hit Emily," she said, fighting to get away from him. But she didn't go toward the nursery. She hurried to her nightstand and took out a gun. That definitely hadn't been there when she was in high school.
"Reed?" someone yelled. It was Colt, and it sounded as if he was already inside the house.
"Upstairs." Even though the men had fired guns rigged with silencers, Reed figured Colt had heard the shots and knew that this situation had gone from bad to worse.
However, worse took yet another bad turn. No more shots, but it was a sound that got Addison moving fast. Soft cries.
Definitely the baby, especially since the cries were coming from the nursery. Reed had to put Addison in a body lock to keep her from racing out into the hall where those men could kill her with an easy shot.
"Let's get the hell out of here now," he heard one of the men growl.
Reed didn't want them to escape, but he also didn't want any more shots fired in the vicinity of the baby. He pulled Addison to the side of the bed so he'd be in a better position to protect them both, and he braced himself for the men to come running past them. If that happened, he could stop them before they got to the nursery. Maybe.
"Watch out, Colt!" Reed shouted down. Because he figured these guys might eventually head Colt's way if they didn't go to the nursery. If they did indeed run for the stairs, then Reed could let go of Addison and race after them.
But no one came out of the makeshift office.
Reed still heard the scrambling around. Still heard voices. However, the men didn't come his way or toward the stairs.
The seconds crawled by. With his heartbeat crashing in his ears. His hand tight and hard on his gun. Addison struggling to get loose. The baby's cries.
"They're getting away," Colt called out.
Reed had no choice but to let go of Addison, and he hurried to the doorway so he could glance into her office.
But the window was wide-open. He hadn't spotted a ladder when he drove up, but they'd obviously gotten out somehow.
"They're on foot," Colt added, "and I'm in pursuit."
Reed raced to the office window and looked down. Not the best idea he'd ever had. The two men were there on the ground. A ladder, too. Not the standard metal one but the portable rope kind that could be carried in an equipment bag.
One of them turned and fired a shot directly at Reed. The bullet tore through the window and sent a spray of glass over the room. He felt the sting of a cut near his eyes, ignored it and took aim.
His shot slammed into the nearest man's shoulder, and even though the guy stumbled, his partner took hold of him, and they ran toward the barn. Reed got a glimpse of the black SUV parked inside, and both men barreled into the vehicle. The SUV was out of his firing range, but if the driver came back toward the road, he might get another shot at stopping them.
But then Reed saw something else.
A second rope ladder.
This one was three windows over, and it took him a moment to realize it was outside the nursery. That had barely registered when he heard the scream.
Reed bolted out of the office, directly toward her scream, and he found her in the nursery. She was at the open window, climbing out on the rope ladder.
The crib was empty.
"They have her," Addison sobbed. "They took Emily."
Reed pulled her back so he could get a better look at the SUV as it sped out from the barn. The windows were heavily tinted, too dark for him to see inside. But he did spot Colt.
"Aim for the tires," Reed shouted down to his fellow deputy.
If the baby was indeed inside the vehicle, he didn't want to risk a stray bullet going her way.
Colt took aim. Fired. But the shot smacked off the bumper.
"Go after them!" Addison begged.
He did. He barreled down the stairs and toward the door. But he was already too late.
Reed barely managed to ready his gun before the SUV sped away.