About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
"Okay, Mom." Nine-year-old Sophia turned the water off and started wrapping the hose.
"Remind me to put some in the fridge out here for later."
"Put some out here for later," Sophia dutifully said.
"Haha. Come on in after you finish that, and we'll make some cookies."
Zoe relished her daughter's grin. One that used to f lash all the time before the kidnapping attempt a month ago. She'd been walking home from school when a car pulled up beside her. The vehicle door had flown open, and hands had reached for Sophia. Zoe had been standing on the porch watching it, horrified at the possibility that the man would manage to get her daughter into the vehicle. She'd raced toward them screaming for Sophia to run. Sophia had, and the car had squealed away.
Then the attempt to run Zoe off the road and leave her in the ditchor worse, have her go over the side of the cliff
She shook her head.
At least now they were safe until she could figure out whom to trust and ask for help. Running two hundred miles away from Knoxville, Tennessee, to this little town in the middle of nowhere had seemed like a good idea a few weeks ago. Now she wasn't sure.
Oh, the people in town were friendly enough, but she and Sophia were so isolated out here. More isolated than she'd intended or understood it to be when she'd taken the job. She drew in a deep breath. But it served its purpose. "Stop it. Get the water and put your worries behind you. You have a painting to finish," Zoe told herself. She was extremely grateful she could work from anywhere. Her paintings sold well in a variety of shops all over the country, providing a good living for her and Sophia. She looked over the area. If she could live anywhere on a permanent basis, it would be somewhere like this. A rich land with horses to ride and plenty of fresh air to breathe.
She turned back to Sophia. "Yes?"
"When is Lily going to have her baby?"
Lily, the pregnant heifer. "Any day now."
"Is Doctor Aaron going to come check on her today?"
At the mention of the hunky veterinarian, Zoe's heart turned a flip. "Yes, he'll be here soon, I imagine."
"I like him." Sophia skipped back to the hose to finish wrapping it.
Yeah, I do, too. She'd run into him at the local diner when he'd walked in with a service animal he had been training. Sophia had been instantly captivated by both man and beast. Zoe hadn't been far behind. When she realized he was the vet who would be checking on Lily on a daily basis, she'd ordered her heart to chill. To no avail. It still did a little happy dance every time he showed up.
She walked up the porch steps and reached for the knob of the door. Only to stop and snatch her hand away.
The door wasn't shut all the way. The black crack from top to bottom mocked her. She stepped back, her pulse ratcheting up several notches.
She knew she'd shut the door. With the indoor cat, who liked to make her escape whenever the opportunity presented itself, Zoe was extra careful with the doors. So why was it open? Had Sophia
Sophia's harsh scream spun Zoe around. Her fear spiking, she froze and stumbled a full turn. A large man held Sophia by her ponytail, a gun pointed to her head. Her daughter cried out again and tried to pull away, but he held her easily.
"Let her go!" Zoe moved toward them, her only thought to get her child away from the man.
He moved the weapon so it pointed at Zoe, his finger tightening on the trigger. A cruel smile tilted his thin lips upward. "Bye-bye."
Zoe shook, somehow made her legs work and ducked behind the wheelbarrow just as a loud crack splintered the air. Sophia screamed, a high-pitched, ear-piercing wail full of terror. Zoe's legs gave out and she hit the ground hard. She tried to think, but the horror sweeping over her wouldn't let her. She had to get to Sophia. She had to get her child back.
"Stop, you moron! Don't shoot her!"
Zoe's breath came in pants, her terror lessening a fraction as relief filled her. Someone had come. She nearly sobbed. She forced her legs to stand, to take a step toward the man who still held a crying Sophia. He kept the gun held on Zoe, but glanced at the other man who'd stepped from inside the house, cell phone pressed to his ear. "Don't shoot her!"
Relief fled and fear gripped her again. What was this second man doing in her house? She headed to Sophia who continued to struggle in spite of the pain inflicted by the man's hold on her hair. With his other hand, he aimed the weapon at Zoe, but didn't pull the trigger, his gaze still darting between her and the man behind her. When she was two steps from Sophia, her daughter's eyes widened and her attention focused behind her. Zoe turned to look over her shoulder, saw a flash of movement. Before she had time to think, something crashed into the side of her forehead, pain exploded through her skull and she fell to the ground.
Aaron Starke stepped up to the counter and took the two prescription bags from Lucille Andrews, the pharmacist for the Wrangler's Corner Pharmacy. "Thanks."
"No problem. Hope your mom feels better fast."
"It's just an ear infection. She should be fine in a day or so."
"And thanks for taking that out to Zoe. I know she'll appreciate it."
"Happy to do it. See you later." He headed back to his truck and tossed the bags onto the passenger seat.
One for his mother and one for the pretty single mom he couldn't seem to get out of his head. Although he really needed to.
Well, he was going out to the farm anyway to check on the pregnant heifer. Taking the prescription was only being neighborly, nothing else. Right? Right.
Ten minutes later, he turned into the Updikes' drive and followed it up to the main house. A large four-bedroom home, it looked lived-in and loved, with Thanksgiving decorations hung on the door and a small flag with the words "Thankful for Blessings" stuck in the ground. He figured that was Zoe's doing. He didn't remember Martha Updike bothering with that kind of thing.
Aaron coasted to a stop at the top of the drive. An old pickup truck sat in front of him. He'd never seen it before and knew Zoe didn't drive it. She had a Jeep Wrangler. Maybe she had family visiting? Then he noticed the open barn door and frowned. Why would Zoe have the door open when the temperatures were already dropping and were supposed to hit record colds tonight?
He climbed out of the truck and pulled his heavy down coat tighter against his throat. He shoved his hands into his gloves and settled his hat more firmly on his head. Snowflakes drifted down littering the ground that was already starting to turn white. Aaron tromped across the few remaining dried twigs that would be green grass come springtime and knocked on the door. "Zoe? You in there? Sophia? It's Aaron Starke."
He peered inside and all the animals looked well taken care of with fresh water in their buckets and clean stalls. Aaron walked down to the office and unlocked it. He placed Sophia's medication on the desk, left the office and locked it behind him.
His next stop was to check on Lily the pregnant cow. She'd been brought in out of the cold and now stood in one of the horse stalls looking fat and ready to get the whole thing over with. He checked her and found the calf had turned. "Well, that's good news," he told her and gave her bulging belly a light pat.
He cleaned up in the large barn sink then decided to check on Zoe. He thought it strange she hadn't come out to at least say hi and ask about the cow. She had all the other times he'd been by. And every time he'd seen her and talked to her, he'd wound up leaving with her on his mind. Where she stayed. Constantly. He'd learned a few things about her. She loved her daughter, she was a very private personand she was worried about something.
Satisfied that all was well in the barn, he left and shut the door behind him. A frigid wind blasted across his face, and he shivered. He headed to the house, his heavy boots crunching the brown grass that would soon be covered in the snow still coming down.
A glint from the ground caught his eye, and he stopped. He stooped down to poke into the dirt and snow with a gloved finger and uncovered a silver necklace with a pretty blue charm. He picked it up, and a red liquid substance slid onto his tan glove. He frowned. Lifted his hand and sniffed. The coppery smell of blood reached him. He spied a large footprint in the area next to the where he'd found the necklace. A boot print too large to be Zoe's.
He looked up, truly concerned for Zoe and Sophia now. He glanced back at the earth and realized the blood wasn't just limited to that one spot. It trailed drop by drop to the front porch. He followed it, saw more blood on the steps. It could be a simple thing. Maybe she cut her hand on one of the tools in the barn or Sophia fell and scraped her knee or something.
But the necklace in the dirt bothered him. It hadn't been there long. There was no rust or embedded dirt. And the blood was still fresh.
If it had been just one thing, he might not have been overly concerned, but the open barn door, the necklace, the trail of blood that had only just begun to dry, her car parked in the covered area but no sign of Zoe or Sophia the boot print.
She was here. Somewhere. The blood suggested close by and in trouble. He moved up onto the wraparound porch and saw more drops of red at the base of the door. He tried to see in the window, but the gauzy curtain blocked his view. Aaron walked around the perimeter of the house and saw nothing else amiss.
He knocked on the door. A scuffling sound came from inside but no one answered. He knocked again. "Zoe? You in there? You okay?"
Zoe stared up at the man who pointed the weapon at the end of her nose. Her head throbbed, but at least the blood had begun to dry. Fear pounded through her and she couldn't stop shaking. Sophia clung to her and buried her face in Zoe's neck. "Get rid of him," her captor growled. "Now. Or I'll have to shoot him."
"We don't need any more trouble, Pete," the other one muttered from his position by the window. He held the gun loosely in his left hand. Comfortably. As though he used it on a regular basis.
"Like I don't know that," Pete said. The angry scowl twisted his face into something from a horror movie. Zoe wanted to close her eyes and shut them all out, but she couldn't. She kept her arms around Sophia's slight frame. Her daughter was so little, so vulnerable.
"Now, I said." He jabbed the gun at her, and Zoe flinched. She glanced at the door and back at the man who'd intervened and saved her only to hold her and Sophia captive. She rose on shaky legs, stumbled then caught herself. Sophia rose with her, refusing to let go. Zoe's head swam and bile climbed into her throat. She breathed deep and the dizziness settled.
The man called Pete grabbed Sophia by the arm and jerked her away from Zoe. Sophia cried out. Pete slapped a hand across her mouth. "Make another sound and I'll shoot your mother, you understand?"
Zoe stood frozen, wanting to smash the man's face in, but knew one wrong move could cause him to hurt her daughter. "It's okay, honey, just sit still for a minute, all right?" she said.
Sophia's gaze clung to hers, but she gave a small nod. Pete relaxed his grip a fraction, and Sophia didn't move even as silent tears tracked a path down her ashen cheeks.
"Hey, Zoe? You okay? It's Aaron Starke. I came to check on Lily and wanted to say hi." The pounding on the front door resumed, and she walked over to it.
The man near the window lifted his weapon, an un-needed reminder that he was watching. Zoe closed her eyes and drew in a desperately needed calming breath, praying for strengthand some way to convey the fact that she needed help without putting the person at the door in harm's way.
With one last glance at Sophia, she pulled on every ounce of inner strength, ignored the throbbing in her head and opened the door. Aaron stood on the front porch. His large frame filled the doorway, blocking the icy wind and the sunlight. He had to be half a foot taller than her own five foot eight. She forced a trembling smile to her lips. "Hi."
He offered a frown in response. "I came by to check on that pregnant heifer and saw some blood on the ground and a necklace. This yours?" He held it out to her as his gaze landed on her right temple.
"Um. Yes. Thanks." She took it and stuffed it in her front pocket.
He leaned in to take a closer look. "What happened? That looks like a pretty bad gash."
She raised a shaky hand to lightly touch the wound. "Oh, that." A laugh slipped out, but it sounded nervous to her ears. Scared. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other and her eyes darted away from his only to return a fraction of a second later. "I was ah clumsy, tripped over the water hose in the barn and hit the side of the stall. I was just getting ready to clean the wound when you knocked."
"Why don't I give you a hand? I'm pretty good at that kind of thing. Granted, most of my patients are of the four-legged variety, but the concept is the same." He moved as though to enter and panic filled her.
She shifted and blocked his entrance. "Really, I'm fine. I can do it."
He paused, his eyes probing the area behind her. She knew he couldn't see anything but the stairs that led up to the second floor. "Well. Okay. If you're sure." He backed up, his boots clunking on the wooden porch.
No! she wanted to scream. She widened her eyes and cut them to the side window. Don't leave!
But he simply tapped his hat in a gentlemanly gesture and turned to go. Then spun back. Her breath caught. Had he figured out she needed help? Did he know someone stood behind her with a gun? "Oh, by the way," he said, "I was in the pharmacy a little bit ago getting a prescription for my mother and Mrs. Lucille gave me Sophia's medication. I left it on the desk in the office in the barn."
"Oh, th-thank you. We were getting low."
"I'll just go get it for you."
"No, no, that's okay, I can get it. I'm going to have to go out there and ah fill the water buckets anyway."
He tilted his head and gave a slow nod. "All right then. Holler if you need anything."
She nodded but couldn't force any more words out of her tight, tear-filled throat. This time when he turned around, he didn't look back. She shut the door with a soft snick and turned to find the two men staring at her.
Pete let go of Sophia and she rushed at Zoe, wrapping her arms around her waist and holding tight. Zoe met Pete's gaze since he seemed to be the one in charge. "Now what?" she whispered. "What do you want?"
His eyes dropped to Sophia. "Her."