Authors: Janice Kay Johnson
If they hadn't lost the girl, Meg wouldn't have found Jack...
She hadn't hesitated to take in Sabra, her daughter's pregnant best friend. Yet maybe that was Meg Harper's first mistake. It was hard enough raising one teen, but two? And now the girl has disappeared. Because Meg's the responsible adult, police suspicion falls on her. Which brings her entirely too close to Detective Jack Moore. The man's clearly attracted to her, but she hasn't been in a relationship in years and she doesn't even remember how to begin. Her past is...complicated. One thing she does know: she absolutely doesn't want Jack to be her second mistake. Her heart couldn't take it.
The sound of footsteps was followed by a lock disengaging.
The door opened a cautious crack, letting him see the woman within, every bit as hot as he'd remembered from down at the police station. The snug, faded jeans she wore gave Jack a better look at long legs and curvaceous hips. She had a redhead's skin with a scattering of freckles over her nose and cheeks. Cinnamon and cream.
And, damn it, he needed to quit looking.
Which meant...what? She was divorced? Had never been married?
He pushed back his shirt to expose the badge hooked on his belt. “I'm Detective Jack Moore with Frenchman Lake Police Department. I'd like to talk to you about the disappearance of Sabra Lee.”
Sometimes I know exactly where my stories come fromâan overheard conversation, a newspaper article, even one of those aha moments.
Because of a Girl
isn't one of those. It came from a note I made years ago that said something unhelpful like “missing pregnant teenager.” But if I wait long enough, my subconscious moves puzzle pieces around until...they fit!
I've always liked teenagers. I vividly remember the sheer irrationality, the roller coaster moods, and yet the sense of limitless possibilities. All those qualities make teenagers incredibly vulnerable.
Sabra was a fun character to create in a lot of ways. She's a diva like her mother, yet is also a good friend and maintains her dignity and confidence under circumstances that would humiliate the average fifteen-year-old girl. She's definitely preyed upon, but holds a whole lot of responsibility for the huge trouble she gets into. She's only in a couple of scenes, and yet everything that happens is indeed because of herâa snotty, romantic, credulous girl who changes many other lives, including those of a man and a woman who have each been alone for too long.
Hope you wince a few times when you meet Sabra Lee!
An author of more than ninety books for children and adults,
JANICE KAY JOHNSON
writes about love and familyâabout the way generations connect and the power our earliest experiences have on us throughout life. An eight-time finalist for a Romance Writers of America RITAÂ® Award, she won a RITAÂ® Award in 2008 for her Harlequin Superromance novel
. A former librarian, Janice raised two daughters in a small town north of Seattle, Washington.
telling me you won't even take a report?”
The woman arguing with the desk sergeant caught Jack Moore's attention. He'd come out from the back because someone claiming to be a witness to a carjacking was here to talk to him as detective on the case. The crime had been ugly, and he had stayed late at the station even if it was Friday night. As with a homicide, the more time passed, the less likely an arrest would ever be made.
Surely this wasn't his witness?
She was so intensely focused on Sergeant Todd, she wasn't noticing anyone else.
Used to dealing with distraught people, his colleague said calmly, “Ma'am, you say you saw her this morning. She hasn't even been gone overnight.”
Whatever she was here for had nothing to do with Jack, then, at least until a missing persons report was filed. And the sergeant was right; most people who went missing turned up on their own. The police department couldn't waste resources chasing people who had chosen to run away from their lives.
Even so, curiosity made him pause, his hand still on the waist-high swinging door partway down the long counter, to find out why this particular woman was so hot and bothered.
“Sabra is fifteen years old and six months pregnant. That means she's exceptionally vulnerable.”
Yeah, it did, Jack thought.
“She's an age that's moody,” the sergeant pointed out. “Chances are good she's at a friend's house.” He shrugged. “Probably the boyfriend's place.”
“I have tried calling every friend I know of.” The woman's voice held a faint tremor now. “Unfortunately, Sabra has been unwilling to tell anyone who the father of her baby is.”
“Well, then,” the sergeant said, as if there was the answer.
In a way, it was. The kid hadn't even been gone twenty-four hours? Hard to get excited unless there was a solid reason to suspect an abduction. A fifteen-year-old girl who was pregnant? Volatile as gunpowder.
Jack became uncomfortably aware that he was loitering not because the story was interesting, but because the woman was. She had glossy hair of a color that made him think of desert sandstone, confined in the fattest braid he'd ever seen. It lay over her shoulder and reached below her breasts. Big, greenish-hazel eyes shimmered with intensity. Medium height, she had enough curves to explain why he was still hanging around for no really good reason.
He didn't much like the batik skirt she had on. It was a dark sea green that shaded to almost cream around the hem, which was at midcalf. She wore clunky boots below it and on top what might be a man's white shirt over some kind of camisole. He wasn't a big fan of multiple piercings, either, and there were three earrings in the ear he could see.
While he appraised her, she and Sergeant Todd had apparently concluded their standoff. She gave an angry huff, turned so fast the skirt swirled and strode out of the police station with long strides. The heels of her boots came down in a hard staccato that would have told anyone, absent the rest of the scene, that she was pissed.
Both cops watched her yank open the door and stomp out. Then the sergeant glanced at Jack and grinned. “Not a happy lady.”
“No shit. Is it her kid that's pregnant?” Though she didn't look old enough to have a teenager.
Todd shook his head. “A friend of her daughter's, from the sound of it. Man. If Kelly turned up pregnant at fifteen, I'd chain her to her bed.” He seemed to mull that over, for good reason since his daughter had just turned thirteen. “Maybe I should chain her now.”
Laughing, Jack started in motion again. The low, swinging door closed behind him.
“The lady you're looking for is off in that corner.” The sergeant jerked his chin that direction.
More like a teenager. Jack assessed the thin, anxious-looking girl who stared fixedly at the entrance. Because she wanted to run? Or because she was afraid of who might come through the doors?
When he stopped in front of her, she jerked and swung a panicky look at him.
He introduced himself. Then, although there was enough privacy for them to have talked out here, he suggested they go back to his desk.
She jumped to her feet. “Thank you.”
When he asked what worried her, she said, “If some friend of his sees me, I'm dead.” Once he had her seated in front of his desk, Jack bought her a cold can of Coke and made friendly conversation until she loosened up a little. At this time in the evening, they had the detective unit to themselves, although there were still occasional passers-by in the hall. He left the door open to avoid alarming her.
Sometimes he could tell just from looking at someone that her life hadn't been easy. Robin Buckley was classic: too skinny, with rounded shoulders and stooped posture. She gazed down at her hands on her lap more than she did at him. Nobody had ever taken her to an orthodontist. Even so, she might have been pretty if hopelessness wasn't so apparent in her eyes.
At last, she sneaked a desperate look at Jack and said, “This is all my fault. If I'd waited for him...”
“Why don't you start at the beginning?” he suggested. “You know who committed the robbery and carjacking.”
She nodded, face pinched. “He's my boyfriend. Was my boyfriend, I guess. I mean, I was living with him, but now I don't know what I'll do.” She took a deep breath. “His name is Dustin Tackett.”
“You told the desk sergeant you saw the carjacking.”
She pressed her lips together and nodded.
“Tell me how that came about,” he asked gently. He'd chosen to half sit on the front of his desk, one foot braced on the floor, rather than plant himself behind it like a stern principal judging a wayward student. The technique seemed to relax people.
The story came out in fits and starts. She'd driven the boyfriend to the convenience store and waited in the car while he went in. What he hadn't told her was that he carried a gun under his denim shirt and planned a holdup. Through the glass front of the store, she saw him pointing the gun at a young clerk. Scared and shocked, she'd put the car into Reverse, rocketed out of the parking spot and accelerated away. He came racing out and chased her to the street before apparently deciding he wouldn't catch her.
“He was so mad,” she said softly.
To her horror, he jumped into another car idling in front of the store.
“I stopped because, well, I thought maybe it would be better if I didn't leave.” She bowed her head, lank brown hair veiling her expression. The hopelessness he'd seen in her eyes leaked from her voice. “Because I didn't know where to go.”
Jack had to clench his teeth together or say something he shouldn't. Something that wouldn't be at all helpful right now. She wasn't the first person and wouldn't be the last he'd dealt with who was so entirely on her own, she couldn't imagine any real refuge. He'd be willing to bet she'd grown up in an abusive home and had therefore gravitated toward an abusive man, unable to believe in any other reality.
She continued her story in the same soft, almost expressionless voice. The boyfriend had punched the young woman driver, then flung her, unconscious, out onto the pavement like garbage.
“She...she sort of flopped.” She did shudder there. “I don't think he saw that I'd pulled over to the curb. He drove past, going really fast.”
The victim's Chevy Malibu had been found two hours later, about ten miles out of town, on a dirt road graded for farm machinery between a vineyard and a wheat field. Pure chance anyone had noticed it so soon. It was currently in an impound lot. The department's crime scene investigator was going over it with a fine-tooth comb.
Presumably, a buddy had picked up the scumbag.
“You think he'll come after you,” Jack said.
“I know he will!” she flared. “He'll kill me!”
He had to ask, even though he knew the answer. “Has he hurt you before?”
Hands writhing on her lap, she finally nodded. “He burns me,” she whispered.
After a brief hesitation, she swiveled in her chair and lifted her T-shirt in back.
For all that he'd seen on the job, Jack cringed and then swore. A couple dozen small, round burns showed on skin that should have been smooth. Some were long-healed scars; a few, likely infected, seeped.
It was damn lucky for Dustin Tackett that he wasn't there at that moment. Lucky for Jack's career, too, he realized, anger sizzling his nerves like an electrical surge.
“We need to get you to the ER to have those looked at and documented,” he said, voice deceptively composed. “Once we pick him up, he should be charged for what he's done to you as well as the holdup and carjacking.”
Robin protested, but not very hard. He guessed she was used to being obedient to a stronger will.
He asked some questions designed to find out whether she'd really seen the boyfriend at the store, since reporting him could be a revenge ploy. But she gave details she'd have had no way of knowing if she hadn't witnessed events.
She also had a good idea where Dustin would be holed up. He had a best friend who was the same kind of scum. She knew, more or less, where this buddy lived. Jack ran him and came up with an address that matched her recollection.
While he was behind the computer, he ran her, too, and was sorry to see that she was older than she looked, barely twenty-one, which limited the resources available for her.
He drove her to the community hospital, where a woman doc went silent and grim upon seeing the damage. After talking quietly to the doctor, Jack called the founder of a battered women's shelter here in Frenchman Lake and explained the circumstances. Without hesitation, she said she was on the way.
ICU was his next stop. There he was told the carjacking victim had yet to regain consciousness. Nobody was quite sure whether the punch had done the damage, or the skull-concrete collision.
Finally, Jack called out the combined county/city SWAT team, and set out to make an arrest that was going to give him a whole lot of satisfaction.
* * *
settle to work or read or even just sit after her maddening visit to the police station Friday evening. Her worry consumed her. Her anxiety ran in a loop, replaying every few minutes.
Her truly awful week had started with the phone call from the police department Tuesday night letting her know that Emily and Sabra were being detained after a noisy kegger had been raided. And on a weeknight! Worse yet, the two girls were supposed to be at a friend's house working on a project for school. In other words, Meg's own, formerly reliable daughter had flat-out lied to her face so she could get drunk and...
Please not have wild sex or do drugs.
To her shame, Meg wanted to blame Sabra, who had to be leading Emily astray.
And, yes, Emily's best friend was pregnant, which meant she had already gone astray, so to speak. But Meg had a suspicion she had been hiding her head in the sand. Yes, Sabra was pretty mixed up right nowâthus getting kicked out of her own home and needing refuge in Meg'sâbut Emily was rebelling in her own way, something Meg had foolishly believed would never happen.
If only the school had called her, the way they should have. She should have known first thing this morning that Sabra had gone missing, instead of only finding out when Emily tore into the house after getting off the bus at the end of the day.
“How come you let Sabra stay home?” She had glared at her mother.
With a punch of shock, Meg echoed, “Stay home?”
Emily sank onto the couch, her book bag clunking to the floor. “She wasn't at school today
“But... I dropped her in front five minutes before the first bell.”
Moving slower than usual that morning, Sabra had whined about her back hurting. Meg remembered acute back pain late in her pregnancy. Sabra wasn't anywhere near that far along yet, but... Oh, God, what if she was having contractions anyway? The fetus wouldn't have a chance of survival.
But Sabra had insisted the pain wasn't anything like that. She'd just slept funny.
Of course, when the bus came, Sabra's bag was upstairs, and she hadn't made a lunch. Meg had waved Emily, protesting, out the door, then made a sandwich for Sabra while she'd finished getting ready.
Finally, Meg had driven her to the high school, pulled up to the curb in front of the main entrance and waited while she got out.
Not until that afternoon when she learned that Sabra hadn't gone to her first class or any thereafter did she wish she'd
at the curb until the girl was inside. But apart from cutting a few classes here and there, Sabra had attended school without protest. She was smart, an A student in subjects that interested her. A few weeks back, the art teacher had told Meg that Sabra was gifted with exceptional creative ability. She'd pulled out Sabra's portfolio, which included charcoal sketches, colored pencil pictures and some watercolors, and Meg could see right away what Ms. Guzman was talking about.
Looking out the front window at the dark street now, as if part of her expected Sabra to stroll up the walkway any minute, Meg murmured, “Where did she go?”
“I don't know!” her daughter cried from behind her. “I suppose you think I'm lying.”
Meg had to gird herself before she turned around. Why, oh why, had Emily decided to go off the deep end now? “I was talking to myself. I know you'd tell me if you had any idea where she went.”
Emily's face crumpled, and she began to cry. “She'd have told me if she was going to run away. I'm
she would have.”