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Kerri Nelson never heard the glass she dropped shatter in the sink. As the series of explosions ripped through the quiet August afternoon, the dish towel slipped from her fingers, her heart catching in her chest.
Her mind raced through the possibilities—not of what had happened, but of where her son was. Where was Thomas? He'd taken his skateboard when he'd left an hour ago.
Where had he gone?
Fear danced along her spine, sending the small hairs at the back of her neck to attention.
Black smoke billowed into the crystal blue sky above the line of trees behind her home, and she sucked in a sharp breath. Close. Too close to home.
She hit the floor in an all-out sprint, slowing only long enough to yank open the kitchen door, focused on one thing only—Thomas.
As she raced through the woods and into the clearing, flames licked at all but one of the six huge houses in the area's newest development. Pine Ridge Estates.
Anxiety pooled deep inside her. Tom had a fixation with construction sites, always had, ever since his daddy had taken him to work and gotten him his own tiny hard hat as a toddler.
She'd forbidden him from coming anywhere near this site. Had he defied her? Could he have been playing inside one of the partially constructed homes when something went horribly wrong?
Her gaze landed on a township truck parked at the edge of the dirt road, yet she saw no one. An inspector probably. She sent up a silent prayer that whoever had driven that truck onto the site was far from where the fires originated.
Sirens wailed in the distance, drawing nearer. Kerri's fear morphed into panic as she scanned the construction site and the surrounding woods for any sign of her son.
Her heart twisted in her chest. "Thomas?" Her first attempt at calling her son's name was strangled, tight. "Thomas!" Her second wasn't much better.
The sound of his voice teased her through the smoke-filled air, but she couldn't locate the source. Couldn't see her son.
The blaring sirens were muffled beyond the pounding of her heart, the rush of her pulse in her ears. When her son emerged from behind a stand of trees, she saw him as if he were in slow motion, his face pale, but apparently without a scratch.
She ran as fast as her feet would carry her, gathering the nine-year-old who'd grown too old for hugs into her arms, hanging on for dear life. His arms locked around her waist and squeezed. When Kerri finally put enough space between them to tip his face to hers, she saw terror in his eyes.
"Are you hurt?"
He shook his head.
"Did you see what happened?"
Tom nodded. "Everything blew up. I'm sorry." Sorry? Surely he didn't have a thing to do with what had happened.
A horn blared and Kerri realized the emergency vehicles were crossing Red Lion Road, getting ready to turn into the dirt path that gave access to the new community. She linked her arm through her son's and rushed him back toward the trees.
"Quickly," she said, fear palpable in her voice. "Did anyone see you here?"
"No," he answered, and relief surged through her. They reached the cover of the woods just as a sea of vehicles and flashing lights careened onto the cul-desac, once lined with multimillion-dollar homes, now fringed by flames and smoke.
"Hurry." She urged Tom forward, away from the fire and destruction, back toward the safety of their home.
Sorenson Construction no doubt had insurance that would cover whatever accident had caused the explosion. Lord knew it wasn't the first accident on a Sorenson site.
Her stomach twisted and bile threatened to climb into her throat at the memory of another accident three years earlier. She shoved away the unwanted images— the hospital waiting room, the casket, friends and family gathered in her home.
Right now, Kerri needed to focus on her son's safety. Nothing else.
She locked the door behind them as they entered the kitchen, as if the brass bolt could keep them safe from whatever threat might lurk at the Sorenson site.
"I'm sorry." Tom dropped his gaze to the ceramic tile floor. "I wasn't supposed to go there."
"Ever." The sharpness of her tone startled Kerri and she read the surprise in her son's face as he lifted his focus to her.
"They put in new curbs," he said flatly. "Frankie said they were awesome for skateboarding."
Awesome for skateboarding.
Kerri closed her eyes and focused on her breathing. Her son was fine. He was unhurt. She needed to focus on that. But the reality was he could have been killed.
"I saw someone."
If possible, Tom's voice had grown even fainter and more frightened.
"From the township?" She snapped her eyes open and studied his expression. "The man from the truck?"
Tom nodded his head—slowly—as if he were afraid of what he'd seen. "I saw him, too. But he never came out again."
Never came out again.
My God. "There was somebody else?" Countless thoughts battled for position inside Kerri's brain. Had the explosion been set on purpose? Had Tom witnessed a crime?
"He was running, Mom. The other man."
The little color that had been left in Tom's cheeks was gone now, making the blue of his eyes shocking next to his fair cheeks and sandy brown hair.
"Running where?" Kerri narrowed her gaze, her brain racing to keep up, to put the pieces of her son's story together.
"Away from the last house. Into the woods."
"From the fire?"
"Before the fire. Just before the fire. He came out of the last house after the inspector went into the first."
"Like he knew what was going to happen?"
Tom nodded, his gaze dropping back to the floor. Fear squeezed at Kerri's throat, threatening to strangle her. What if the fire wasn't an accident, but something far more sinister? What if the man her son had seen had set the blaze? What if he'd seen her son?
She worked to steady her breathing, wanting to avoid panicking Tom any more than he already was.
"Did he see you?" She spoke the words slowly, distinctly, punctuating the importance of the question.
He shook his head. "Are you sure?" Hope bubbled inside her.
Tom nodded and she pulled him into a hug, tucking his head protectively against her chest.
"Good," she whispered into his hair. "Let's keep this between you and me...deal?"
His head moved in another nod, and Kerri squeezed her eyes shut. Was she making a mistake? What if the inspector had been injured in the blast? What if Tom had seen something that might help the police figure out what had happened?
No. She mentally chastised herself. It was all too likely that the fire might be blamed on her son somehow, even though he'd had nothing to do with setting the blaze. After all, the investigation into the accident that had killed her husband had pointed the final finger of blame directly at the deceased.
She'd be damned if she'd let her son get anywhere near an investigation, especially an investigation involving Sorenson Construction.
As she held Tom close, she watched the fire's black smoke billow above the line of trees. She worked through her son's story in her head, repeating every word silently, analyzing every detail to see if she were making the right decision.
Awesome for skateboarding.
Tom hadn't had his skateboard when she'd found him at the site.
"Where's your skateboard, honey?"
He winced. "I dropped it when I ran."
Kerri swallowed. "Where?" Where investigators could find it? Where the man Tom had seen could find it?
She drew in a deep breath and held it, picturing the words she'd written on the bottom of the board with a permanent marker. Thomas Nelson. 122 Holly Drive.
She might as well have drawn a map.
She had to find that board before anyone else did. Kerri pushed her son out to arm's length. "Where were you when you dropped it?"
He described a location not far from where she'd first seen him, and Kerri nodded her head, praying his memory hadn't been altered by shock or fear.
"Lock the door behind me and don't answer it for anyone."
Her son's pale eyes grew wide. "I have to go find it. I don't want anyone to know you were there."
"Because," she answered, knowing her reply was unsatisfactory even for a nine-year-old. "Just because," she repeated.
A long while later, Kerri continued to pick her way through the foliage behind the houses, choking on the stench of burning lumber. The billowing smoke had shifted from black to white and she knew the operation would soon switch from fire fighting to investigation. She had to move quickly.
Relief surged through her when she spotted the wild swirls of cobalt-blue and lime-green paint that covered the board. She knew her sense of urgency was partly irrational. If questioned, she could easily say Tom had lost the board on another day, at another time, but she wasn't taking chances.
Kerri had no sooner wrapped her fingers around the edge of the board and tucked it under one arm when she heard deep voices. Two unfamiliar, but one as familiar as a long lost friend.
The deep timbre reached into her heart and squeezed. Tears blurred her vision, but she blinked them back. She had no time to relive the pain she'd felt three years earlier, when Wade had betrayed her husband— his best friend.
She dropped into a squat and waited for the men to move farther away. The two strangers walked toward the one unburned home, and Wade turned back toward where a dark car had been parked.
Without looking back, Kerri took off in a sprint, praying she reached the deep cover of the pines before Wade spotted her.
Whatever mess Wade Sorenson had gotten himself into this time was no business of her son's. No business of hers. Sorenson could take care of himself.
All Kerri had to worry about was taking care of Thomas, and she wasn't going to let the man she'd once considered one of her closest friends inflict any more heartache on her family than he already had.
WADE STOOD BACK, arms crossed, and watched the tendrils of gray and white smoke wind their way up into the air. Emotions battled deep inside his gut. Anger. Dis-belief. Denial.