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Harlequin Large Print Intrigue #1380: The Reckoning
Psychiatrist Alexandria Bastin clutched the cell phone at her cousin's words. "Repeat that." She couldn't possibly have heard her correctly.
"The witch took her! She took my baby!" Sarah's wailing pierced Alex's ear, even through the phone.
"Calm down, Sarah," Alex said and waved off a nurse who had paused during her rotation to see if Alex needed help. "Take a deep breath and tell me everything." She hurried down the hall and into her office to escape the normal noises of the busy hospital. "How long has Erika been missing?"
"Since this afternoon. She went down the street to play with her friend." The hysterical tone in Sarah's voice continued to rise with each sentence. "She was supposed to be home at three, but she never came. I waited and waited and she never came."
"What did the friend's mother say?"
"That Erika left in time to get home. She's gone, Alex, and no one will believe me. My baby! What happened to my baby?" Sarah began sobbing. "I called and called but you never answered."
Alex grabbed her purse from her desk drawer and locked her office. "I'm on my way. Sarah, can you hear me?"
The sound of frantic sobbing was all Alex heard as she rushed into the elevator. As soon as the elevator door closed, the call dropped. Alex looked at her display and cursed when she saw the list of missed calls from her cousin. She'd been tied up all afternoon giving a videotaped statement for a commitment hearing and had turned off her phone, but now she wished she hadn't.
Mentally, she willed the elevator to move faster and as soon as the door opened to the parking garage, she ran to her car, pressing in Sarah's number as she ran. The busy signal had her cursing again.
She jumped into her car and tore out of the parking lot toward the highway. Even with a fast car and a lead foot, it would take her at least an hour to get to Sarah's house. She pressed redial, and the busy signal sounded once again. Glancing in her rearview mirror, she merged onto the highway and immediately moved to the fast lane.
Out of options, she dialed 9-1-1.
"This is Dr. Alexandria Bastin. I'm a resident psychiatrist at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans. I have reason to believe that a patient is suffering from a serious mental episode and I cannot get her to answer the phone. I'm on my way, but I need someone to check on Sarah Rhonaldo at 152 Cypress Lane in Vodoun."
She pressed her foot down harder on the accelerator and prayed that Sarah hadn't done something foolish. Her cousin had separated from Erika's father three months before, and it hadn't been pleasant—especially not for Sarah's husband, her best friend, or the bed she'd caught them having sex in, as it had met a tragic end, hatchet style.
Alex had managed, with the help of a great attorney, to get the charges reduced to destruction of private property, but Sarah's Paul Bunyan routine hadn't scored her any points with the local sheriff. Given that their families had been warring since the dawn of time, the bed-hatchet escapade cemented Sheriff Conroy's belief that Sarah was worthless trash.
She could only hope Sarah hadn't done anything to jeopardize her health or her parole. Alex didn't even want to think about what might have happened to Erika until she got face-to-face with Sarah and heard the entire story.
A truck displaying the sheriff's logo on the side was in front of Sarah's house when Alex pulled up just before seven p.m. This can't be good. She pulled in behind the truck and parked. She'd been hoping for an ambulance, but there was no sign of a paramedic anywhere. Which meant whatever had happened to Sarah, her health was fine, but given that the sheriff was still there, her freedom might be in question.
She grabbed her purse and hurried into the house without bothering to knock. "Sarah," she called, scanning the rooms as she rushed down the hall.
"Back here," Sarah answered, her voice weak.
Alex ran the rest of the way down the hall and into the kitchen and ran straight into the last person in the world she expected or wanted to see.
His shoulders were wider, his upper body harder and leaner than she'd ever seen him. And she'd seen every inch. "Holt," she said, trying to keep her voice steady. "I didn't know you were back."
Ten years ago, he'd run away to war—the one place he could be certain his past couldn't follow him.
His hands were still on her shoulders, and he stood so close she could feel the heat coming off his body. The smell of his aftershave tickled her nose, and instantly she remembered the last time his hands had been on her body. The last time she'd been completely absorbed with Holt—mind, body and soul.
"Been back for a month now," he said, and looked down at her with those sexy green eyes that had been the cause of many a weak moment on her part.
But no more.
She stepped back so that he was forced to drop his hands, and that was when she noticed the badge on his belt. "You're working for your uncle?"
"I'm just filling in until I figure out what I want to do next and until his broken leg heals."
"Is Sarah okay?"
Holt moved to the side and motioned her into the breakfast nook where Sarah sat, staring out the back window. "You tell me."
Alex walked over to the table and slid onto the chair next to Sarah. Her cousin took one look at her, flung her arms around her neck and began sobbing. "They don't believe me. My baby's gone and they don't believe me." The volume of her voice increased with every word until she was shouting.
Alex untangled Sarah's arms from her neck and studied her cousin. Her skin was pale, but normal, given the situation. Her eyes were red from crying, but Alex didn't see any disconnect from reality in them.
"Who doesn't believe you?"
Sarah pointed to Holt. "The sheriff's department. They think I'm crazy."
A flash of anger washed over Alex like a tidal wave and she turned to face Holt. "A six-year-old is missing from her own neighborhood in broad daylight. Exactly what does it take for the sheriff's department to become concerned?"
"My uncle said—"
"Your uncle wouldn't have a nice thing to say about Sarah even if it meant avoiding eternal damnation." Alex turned her attention back to Sarah. "I need you to take a deep breath and tell me what happened."
Sarah nodded and took a deep breath, blowing it slowly out. "Right after lunch, Erika went to her friend's house up the street to play. I stood outside and watched her until she went inside their house. She was supposed to be home by three."
"But she didn't come home?"
"No. At three-fifteen, I called her friend's mother to remind Erika to leave, but the mother said Erika had left at five 'til, just like she was supposed to."
"Did the friend's mother watch her walk home?"
"No. Erika walked with her friend all the way to the house and then her friend crossed the street to go to her music lesson."
"Did her friend see Erika go in the house?"
Sarah shook her head. "She said when she was closing the door, she saw Erika checking the mail. But when I came outside to look for her, the mail was lying in the street." Sarah began to cry again. "They think Bobby took her. He's a lying, worthless, cheating waste-of-a-husband, but he's a good father. Bobby would never take Erika away from me."
Alex blew out a breath, trying to make sense of everything Sarah had said. Her cousin's story didn't fill in all the gaps and she had a feeling those gaps were important. Unfortunately, the one person who could give her the answers she needed was the last person she wanted to talk to.
She opened her purse and took out a prescription for antianxiety medication that she'd filled for Sarah the day before. Ever since Sarah's split from Bobby, she'd had trouble sleeping and concentrating. The meds took the edge off and allowed her to act normal even though she didn't feel normal. "I want you to take this," she said, and placed a pill in Sarah's hand. "I need to know everything you can think of. In order to be helpful, you need to be refreshed and calm. While the medicine is doing its job, I want you to take a hot shower."
Sarah opened her mouth to protest, but Alex held up a hand to stop her. "I'm saying this as your doctor. No arguments."
Sarah looked at Alex, her expression wavering between wanting to comply and wanting to argue, then she glanced over at Holt and sighed. "Fine."
Alex rose from the table and pushed a glass of water closer to Sarah. Sarah placed the pill in her mouth and took a big drink, her hand shaking a bit as she lowered the glass back to the table. Her cousin rose from the table and hugged Alex.
"I feel better already because you're here," Sarah said. "You're the smartest person I know. You'll find Erika." Sarah broke off the hug and trudged down the hall toward her bedroom.
Alex stared after her, trying to keep her own heart from breaking over the situation. She and Sarah had been born only a month apart and were more like sisters than cousins. She and Erika were the only family Alex had left since her own parents had died in a car wreck twelve years before. The day Erika was born, Alex had been almost as proud as Sarah, and to think of that little girl, taken from her home, was beyond upsetting. But one of them had to remain calm and collected, and that role almost always fell to Alex.
She looked over at Holt, who was leaning against the kitchen counter. "I need you to tell me exactly what is going on. No speculation or your uncle's gossip. Cold, hard facts are all I'm interested in."
Holt smiled. "Cold was never in your vocabulary when I knew you. Hard well, that's a whole other story."
Alex felt a flush rise up her neck. "And one that will not be remembered or relived now or at any other time. A little girl is missing. Her mother is frantic. Surely, you can tell me something."
Holt's expression changed from teasing to serious.
"Sarah called the sheriff's office this afternoon in a panic. I came out here to see what was up, then followed up on the leads. What she told you is correct. I talked to the friend's mother and she verified the story. I checked with the other neighbors, but no one saw Erika."
"Then why haven't you formed a search party? Do I have to remind you that not a hundred yards from the backyard of this house is the swamp?"
"It rained the past couple of days. I walked a two-mile stretch of the tree line and never saw a single footprint. So unless Erika walked beyond that before entering the swamp, that's not where she is."
Alex nodded, not wanting to admit that so far, everything Holt said made sense. "And this theory about Bobby taking Erika?"
"Pretty much everyone knows about the split between Bobby and Sarah and what caused it, so the sheriff thought I better check with Bobby before sending out an alert and panicking the town." He looked down the hallway for a second then back at Alex. "Is she all right. .mentally, I mean?"
"She was angry over Bobby's cheating, and rightly so, and she's clearly upset now and perhaps in a bit of shock. But given the circumstances, I don't see anything wrong with her reactions."
"So she's sane?"
Alex bristled. "I can't discuss a client's medical condition with you. I've already said more than I should have."
"So even if there was something wrong, you wouldn't tell me?"
"Couldn't tell you. There's a big difference. But as nothing is wrong, aside from the obvious, this is a pointless discussion. What happened when you talked to Bobby?"
"Nothing. His fourplex unit was stripped clean and so were his bank accounts."
Alex stared, completely taken aback with what Holt had said. "His employer?"
"He gave notice two weeks ago and had already worked his last day. Said he'd gotten a better job in New Orleans."
"And that that woman?"
Holt grimaced. "Oh, she had plenty to say about Bobby, especially as the affair ended her marriage, too. Apparently, middle-aged, unemployed, uneducated women who sleep with their best friend's husbands aren't exactly desired by employers or anyone else."
"My heart bleeds for her. So did she know where Bobby moved?"
"Yeah, see, that's where it gets interesting. She says he was going back home to Brazil."
Alex froze. "Permanently?"
Holt shrugged. "The New Orleans police haven't turned up a new residence or employer so far."
"You think he stole his child and fled to Brazil? Erika didn't even have a passport."
"Yes, she did. He filed for one a couple months ago."
Alex took a couple of seconds to digest that. "Did Sarah know?"
"Yeah. She said he was planning to take Erika to visit his family in Brazil during summer vacation."
"Sarah knows how to contact his relatives. What do they say?"
"Naturally, they all claim ignorance on the subject."
Alex's mind swam with all the implications of Holt's theory, but no matter how much sense it made on the surface, it didn't add up for Alex, either. "You've checked the airports."
"Of course, and if we'd found anything, this would already be over."
"So that means he didn't take her out of the country."
"No. It just means he didn't fly. Given that he took all his belongings, it's more logical that he's driving."
"So you're going to do nothing?"
"I've notified Louisiana and Texas law enforcement that Erika was missing and sent them photos of her and Bobby and all the information on Bobby's car. I contacted several news agencies here and in Texas, and they've agreed to show a picture and ask viewers to call a hotline if they've seen either of them." Holt sighed. "What else would you like me to do?"
"Nothing," Alex said. "You're right. There's nothing left to do but wait and pray."
Holt nodded. "Then I'll get going and let you take care of Sarah. If you need anything, call dispatch, and they'll get in touch with me."
Alex followed him down the hall to the front door. He stepped outside, then turned back to face her. "I'm really sorry about all of this," he said. "I know my uncle and Sarah have their issues, but I promise you my uncle's beliefs do not interfere with my investigation. I'm doing everything I can to find Erika."
Alex nodded and he turned and walked to his truck. She watched as he drove down the block in the vanishing sunlight. She didn't doubt Holt was doing everything he could. He wasn't the kind of man who took failure lightly—she knew that better than anyone. But Holt didn't know what she did—that Sarah was telling the truth.
There was no way Bobby would have taken Erika away from Sarah. She was as certain of that as she was of anything. And since it was unlikely Erika had gotten lost in the swamp, Alex knew something very bad had happened to the child.
It was up to her to find out what.
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