Read an Excerpt
"Jilly? Jilly, where are you?" Stephanie Alberts launched herself up the stairs toward her daughter's bedroom. The starched white lab coat tangled around her calves. The nerves that had sizzled to life when Maureen had called her home from work clutched at her heart.
Not this, her mind begged. Please not this.
"Are you in here, baby?" she called into the frilly little room, trying to keep it light in case Jilly was only hiding. "Look! Mommy's home early. Don't you want to come out and play?"
There were no furtive, laughing eyes peering out from beneath the bed. No thumping of tiny feet running across the thick braided rug.
The little room was full of thingsstuffed animals and model horses and the ruffled child-sized bed that Steph and Luis had picked out before Jilly was born. But there were no miniature red sneakers sticking out from beneath the frothy pink curtains. No stifled giggles.
"Jilly? Jilly, answer me or you're going to be in big trouble!" The sick feeling in Steph's stomach was getting worse by the minute. Where was her baby?
She felt a touch on her shoulder and whirled, hoping against hopebut it was only her aunt Maureen.
"She's not in the house. I told you, I looked everywhere. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry!" The older woman's gray eyes filled. Her soft cheeks trembled. Even so many years ago, when she'd told the eight-year-old Steph that her parents were dead, Maureen hadn't looked this devastated.
The comparison was terrifying. Steph pushed it aside. "She has to be somewhere! If she's not in the yard, then she's in the house." Her voice rose. She couldn't help it. "She has to be here! Jilly? Jilly, you come out here right this minute!"
The doorbell rang and Steph glanced out the window. A blue-and-white cruiser was parked on the cobblestones outside the narrow house, looking out of place amidst carefully tended homes whose exteriors had barely changed since Paul Revere's ride.
"The police are here," she said on a note of rising hysteria as the bell rang again. "Why are they here? Oh God, what if?"
Maureen tugged her into the hall, down the stairs, and Steph could feel the other woman's hand shaking, could hear the quiver in her voice when she said, "I called them right after I called you. I swear to you, Stephanie, that I didn't take my eyes off Jilly for more than a moment. I think
Maureen couldn't finish.
Steph tried to force words between her numb lips, but they stuck as her aunt opened the door to reveal a pair of uniformed officers standing shoulder to shoulder. The bottom dropped out of her world as reality kicked in.
Jilly was gone.
When his cell phone burbled a tinny version of Beethoven's Fifth, Reid balanced the weights on his chest, glared at the phone and lost count of his repetitions.
"Don't answer it," he told himself firmly. It was his first day off in over a month, for heaven's sake, and he'd planned on doing some serious relaxing.
He deserved it. The Solomon brothers were behind bars awaiting arraignment, and even District Attorney Hedlund had grudgingly agreed that Reid and his partner had built a solid case against the two punks. The owners of the robbed convenience stores had all agreed to testify, and Chinatown was safer by another two criminals. It was a done deal.
Da-da-da-DUM. The phone seemed to ring louder the longer he ignored it. He started to get that itchy feeling between his shoulder blades that he usually got just before a takedown went south. Or maybe it was just sweat running down his back and he was a paranoid cop who was always ready to assume the worst.
Da-Da-Da-DUM. "Damn it." He banged the free weights back onto their rack and snatched up the phone. "Peters."
There was no answer. In the background, he could hear the squawk of a radio and loud, urgent voices.
Reid snapped, "Sturgeon, is that you? What're you doing at the station? This is our first day off in forever, and"
"Detective Peters?" The soft, tearful female voice was most definitely not that of Reid's partner, but it sounded familiar. His heart gained a beat and he angled the phone away from his ear for a belated glance at the display.
"Yes, this is Peters." His libido gave a big BA-BOOM when he saw the number and the name, but then the radio squealed again in the background and the itch intensified. "Miss Alberts? Stephanie? What's wrong?"
Loud silence again, then she gulped, clearly fighting a sob. "I'm sorry to bother you on your day off, but you gave me your card
" He was drawing breath to tell her it was fine and please get to the point when she hiccupped and said, "My daughter's gone."
Reid's stomach sank like a stone. He'd never met Stephanie's daughter, but his mind quickly supplied the image of another child, a broken body lying curled around a rag doll that was no more lifeless than the little girl. God, he hated it when there were kids involved.
"I'll be right there."
When he pulled up in front of Stephanie Alberts's house a few minutes later, Reid thought that the collection of cruisers and uniforms outside the lovely historic home seemed an abomination. Nothing bad should happen in a neighborhood where flags streamed from every front door and the Freedom Trail was a red stripe down the middle of the brick sidewalk on either side of the cobblestone road. Tasteful brass plaques gleamed beside doorways, engraved with the names of builders and dates and important moments in the American Revolution.
This was Patriot District. Nothing bad should happen in Patriot. It was a national landmark, for Chrissakes.
"I'm sorry, sir. You can't go up there." A uniform reached out to detain Reid and he yanked out his badge.
"Peters. Chinatown. And don't get in my way," he snarled.
Though they both knew he had zero jurisdiction, the rookie nodded him through.
Peters saw Stephanie's aunt Maureen first. She grabbed him and ushered him to the back of the narrow house. He heard movement upstairs, and knew the Patriot District cops were doing their thing. The house felt like terror and tears, an all-too-familiar litany in Reid's world.
"I'm so glad you're here." There were stifled sobs in Maureen's eyes and voice, and the hand on his arm trembled. The two of them had met across Stephanie's hospital bed a year ago, and the older woman looked no less frantic now than she had when her niece had been brought to the hospital, badly beaten by a man Reid should've gotten to first. "I only took my eyes off Jilly for a moment. Not even that. More like a split second, and she was gone."
She ushered him to the back of the house, where Stephanie was sitting with pictures of a dark-haired child heaped in front of her on the kitchen table. In the most recent of the photos, the girl looked about three or four years old.
"We only need a couple," Officer Murphy from Patriot said, and the woman at the table nodded jerkily. The cut-glass light above the table shone down on her, picking out the russet highlights in her curly hair and placing her lowered face in soft shadow.
Not for the first time, Stephanie Alberts reminded Reid of the Renaissance paintings down at the Museum of Fine Artall porcelain skin and delicate curves. He'd seen paintings like that when he was a boy, before the old man had found out about the art class and hit the roof.
Since then, there had been no time for art appreciation, and very little time for Reid to think of Stephanie Alberts.
But he had anyway.
"Of course. Silly of me." She stirred the photographs with her index finger.
"Steph? Detective Peters is here." Maureen tugged Reid into the room. Stephanie's head snapped up. Her eyes immediately filled with relief and more tears and Reid felt a rush of uncharacteristic emotion.
Especially uncharacteristic for a cop who'd been repeatedly turned down by the woman in question.
He wanted to pull her into his arms and tell her everything would be okay. He wanted to offer her his shoulder to cry on, and stroke her back until she was done. He wanted to hold her hand the way he'd done those four long days it had taken her to wake up in the hospital.
But he didn't. Instead, he looked away from the woman who'd told him in no uncertain terms that she didn't want to be involved with him, turned to Officer Murphy and said, "I know I don't belong here, but it's my day off. Cut me some slack and let me help. I'm a family friend."
Leanne Murphy's canny eyes cut from Peters to Stephanie and back again before she nodded. "We can use all the help we can get."
Steph wasn't sure why it had seemed so imperative that she call Detective Peters. She barely knew the man. They'd met at her work, when the Watson lab at Boston General's Genetic Research Building had been the scene of several crimes.
Steph's boss, Dr. Genie Watson, had been brutally attacked in the lab darkroom. At first, it had seemed a randomthough horrificevent, but a string of "accidents" and a car bombing had soon followed. Genie had been the target of a madman intent on protecting an inheritance he wasn't genetically heir to.
It had been during the investigation that Steph met Detective Peters. Even then, she'd been uncomfortable around the man. She'd just begun an intense relationship with a pharmaceutical rep named Roger, and it seemed disloyal for her to notice Peters's piercing eyes, broad shoulders and long, swinging strides. So she'd resisted the attraction and focused on Rogerand she'd nearly paid with her life when it turned out that her new boyfriend was using her to gain access to the lab.
One dark night, Roger had taken Steph's keycard, her self-respect, and nearly her life. Then he'd gone after his real targetGenie Watson.
Genie had survived, thanks to the protectionand loveof Dr. Nick Wellington, her former adversary. Now her husband. Steph had survived, too, though she'd been in the hospital for several weeks recovering from the beating.
Peters had been there, she remembered, sitting by her bedside, his eyes hooded with dark thoughts. Part of her had wanted to reach out to him, but she'd forced herself to turn away. Later, she'd refused his calls. He was a reminder of a time she'd rather forget. A near-fatal misjudgment that had proven again that she had abysmal taste in men and was better off alone.
She wasn't even sure why she'd kept his card, but it had leapt into her hand after the first wave of police questioning had finished and the officers had begun the search. When he'd arrived, for a moment, she'd felt as though everything was going to be okay. He'd see to it, though he didn't look quite like the Detective Peters she remembered.
She was used to seeing him in a suit and tie. Even when he'd visited her in the hospital, he'd been wearing work clothes, with his tie loosened and his top button undone. But her call had interrupted his day off, and Stephanie realized something she'd only suspected before
Detective Reid Peters, handsome enough in a suit and tie, was downright devastating in casuals.
The jeans and cutoff sweatshirt didn't detract from the commanding impact of his wide shoulders or the military-straight posture that stretched him to a full six-three. The soft shirt clung to bulges and ridges that the suits had covered, and Steph wondered how she could have forgotten the striking contrast between his mid-brown crew cut and the light hazel, almost gold of his eyes.
Then she wondered how she could be thinking of such things when her daughter was missing.
Peters asked Officer Murphy, "How long has the girl been gone?"
Having noticed the female gleam that had entered Murphy's eye when Reid arrived, and hating herself for caring, Stephanie snapped, "Almost two hours. Maureen called me at two-ten and it's close to four now." The reality of it closed in and all thoughts of the handsome detective fled when Steph stared down at the photographs spread across her kitchen table. It was four. Jilly should be sitting there eating crackers and peanut butter. "She missed her snack."
Tears threatened again, and she cursed herself for all of it. Faintly, she heard Maureen sobbing in the living room and her head throbbed where the hairline crack had long since knit. She wished that once, just once, she had someone other than Aunt Maureen to lean on.
Sometimes they were barely enough to prop each other up.
There was a sudden commotion at the front of the house. Feet pounded on the upstairs floorboards and excited voices shouted outside. Officer Murphy grabbed the muted radio at her belt, turned up the volume, and barked a question. Steph couldn't understand the response, but she knew what the sudden tension in the room must mean.
For better or worse, they'd found Jilly.
Her stomach heaved and she tasted bile as a parade of macabre images flashed through her mind, courtesy of every forensics program she'd ever watched on T V. She tried to make her legs carry her outside. Tried to ask the question, but was afraid to because until someone said otherwise, she could believe that Jilly was okay.
She had to be okay. Steph didn't think she could bear it if anything happened to Jilly. The little girl was her lifeline. Her life. A perfect little person who'd been created by an imperfect union.
Steph felt Peters behind her, and drew an ounce of strength from his solid presence, which was more familiar and welcome than it should have been. He asked the question while her stomach tied itself up in knots.
"Is the girl okay?"
Steph might have found it odd that Peters hadn't said Jilly's name once since he'd arrived, but that thought disappeared the instant Officer Murphy smiled. "They found her across the street in that little park. She's okay."
Thank God! was Steph's only thought as her feet carried her out the door to her daughter.
A SCANT HOUR later the Patriot cops were ready to pack it up and call it a day, but Reid wasn't so sure.
"Something about this just doesn't feel right," he insisted. "You're telling me that a three-and-a-half-year-old girl wanders across the street, down a half mile of paths, and nobody sees her? Then two hours later, a jogger tells Officer Dunphy he saw a little girl over by the duck pond, and boom! There she is? Where was she the rest of the time? And where's the jogger?"