Authors: Ashley Stryker
“Thom’s going to have my hide,” Brad said, crossing to the answering machine and unplugging it.
“What are you talking about?” Mary couldn’t stop pacing. Something bad was going to happen. That man, Adam Fielding. He was going to hurt someone and it would be her fault.
“He left this yesterday,” Brad said.
Mary squeaked, “Before he snatched Nancy?”
Brad coiled the power cord around the answering machine and returned it to the counter. “Don’t think on it.”
Mary scooped up Fizgig, who’d wondered into her path and retreated to the sofa with him. He allowed her to hug him close and snuggle her face in his fur. He must have missed her a lot to allow her to smother him with this much attention. Usually his dignity didn’t permit such displays of affection. Great, she thought, another reason to feel guilty. Pet negligence.
Mary barely contained her mountain of anxiety, pacing back and forth and ignoring Brad’s assurances. Brad gave up on the conversation and settled on the easy chair where he could watch both the front and back entrances. He found the remote to the television and channel surfed between sitcom reruns, trying to find one that would provide a distraction for Mary, although none did. Finally, his cell phone chirped.
Mary wanted to snatch it away from Brad and frantically beg for news but realizing she couldn’t best the officer in a wrestling match settled for watching Brad’s reactions instead. The cool cop veneer didn’t waver during the brief exchange. Nothing he said gave any indication to the conversation on the other end of the line. In less than a minute he hung up.
“Any news?” Mary demanded, breathless in anticipation. “Is Thom hurt?”
“That was Thom,” Brad said. “He’s fine. They have Nancy. She’s being taken to the hospital as a precaution.”
Mary grabbed her purse. “Take me to them.”
Thom spotted Mary sprinting down the hospital corridor with Brad trailing more sedately after her. He’d been watching for Mary. He knew she’d come.
Leaving the patrolman on guard duty outside Nancy’s room, Thom jogged to meet her. “Hey. What are you doing here?”
Mary rushed into his arms and held him tightly. In his embrace she felt small, soft and just right. Thom hugged her close. The sweet citrus aroma of her perfume swept away the sterile odor of hospital cleaner. Her warmth thawed the stress contracting around his heart. How someone so pure, so unassuming could affect him on such an elemental level baffled and fascinated Thom.
Even Brad Macosa couldn’t restrain Mary when she set her mind to something and she would want to see Nancy for herself. For her own sake, Thom couldn’t allow that.
“Is it true? You found Nancy alive?”
“Yes, it is true.”
She pulled back to look up at him. Her rich mocha eyes claimed him. “You caught him? No one was hurt?”
Thom stroked his hands along her cheeks and slipped beneath the heavy silken blanket of her hair so he could cup her face. “He wasn’t there.”
Mary tried to step back but Thom held her fast. He wanted to keep her focused on him. He wanted to kiss the worried frown off her lips and keep on kissing her until every harsh shred of reality dissolved away.
“We know who he is now.” He massaged the back of her neck, trying to ease away some of the tension. “We have an APB out on him and the van. It’s just a matter of time.”
Her features darkened. “I heard the message he left on my machine.”
Thom glanced past Mary at Brad who shrugged apologetically. In his rush he’d forgotten about the message waiting at her home like a coiled serpent. He’d intended to take the tape and spare her at least that painful detail. Especially after having forced her to relive so many traumatic memories.
Not waiting for an answer, she hooked her hands around his wrists and yanked out of his touch. If she’d slapped him across the face, it wouldn’t have hurt more. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want to worry you.”
“You still should have told me,” she hissed, only keeping her angry voice controlled out of consideration for the patients in the nearby rooms. “He called before taking Nancy. You could have warned her. You could have protected her!”
“We didn’t know he would grab her. We didn’t know who he would target.” Thom tried to reach for Mary but she pulled away. “I thought he’d try for you.”
“So you kept me safe at the cost of someone else. Thom, he could have snatched one of the children.” Tears shone in her eyes but it was frustration that made her voice crack. “You should have let him come after me.”
“I won’t risk your safety.”
“This is my problem but everyone else is paying for my mistake.” She chopped her hand angrily through the air. “Not anymore.”
A lump the size of a boiled egg lodged in his throat. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean, you can take your protective custody and stick it.” Mary stomped around him.
Thom caught her elbow and spun her toward him. “Where are you going?”
She twisted away. “To see Nancy.”
“You don’t want to do that,” he said, his urgency betrayed in his voice. “She needs her rest.”
“She needs someone who understands, someone who’s been there.”
Thom didn’t know how to convince her not to go. He searched her face, trying to find the words that would make her change her mind. She’s stubborn, he thought, just like Tammy Jo but feisty in a way Tammy had never been. Despite Mary’s good girl exterior, she was a fighter.
His silence stretched too long. With dawning realization, Mary covered her mouth. “Oh, God,” she whispered. “He hurt her.”
He couldn’t meet her gaze. Thom wanted to shield her from that. With her emotions already raw and she didn’t need to add any more guilt to the sack-load she already carried. Mary recoiled in anguish, ripping a jagged hole in Thom’s heart.
She broke away from him and raced down the hall.
The guard on duty blocked Mary’s path but she pushed hard enough that she caught a glimpse of the room past him. The sight hit her like a punch in the stomach.
As the guard moved to restrain her, Thom said, “Let her through.”
The officer released her but Mary didn’t want to go inside anymore. Inside that room was her nightmare come true. Hugging her middle, as if that would somehow protect her from the gut-wrenching truth within, Mary forced herself to march forward.
The room matched the one Mary stayed in just days earlier. The same cheerful, pastel colors intended to soothe. The same antiseptic smell, as if any cleanser could truly wash away anything but the most superficial evidence of trauma. The same flowers overflowed the nightstand beside the bed. All those niceties did little more than the smiley faces Mary drew on the Band-aids that she patched over the cuts and scrapes suffered by her students.
Bars of light filtering through the blinds fell across the bed as a reminder that the woman stretched out there so recently had been held prisoner. Mary couldn’t bring herself to look up into Nancy’s face just yet. Instead, she watched the nurse changing the bandage around Nancy’s ankle.
Mary covered her mouth to stifle the urge to sob. Her own ankles had not been bound. What other new tortures had the school librarian endured? Mary didn’t want to know. She twisted away, prepared to run out.
“Mary.” Nancy’s voice strained as if she’d gone thirsty for a while.
Mary froze as an icy hand gripped her spine. She couldn’t slip away now that Nancy had seen her. Mary turned to face her.
Purple bruises blotched the left side of Nancy’s face. Her bottom lip was puffy and split in the corner. Marks left around her neck showed where each finger had squeezed her throat and matched the fading marks still visible on Mary.
Nancy reached for Mary’s hand and smiled. “Your inspector told me all about how you helped to find me.”
Mary shook her head, not finding any words that could pass the lump in her throat. The tears burned at her eyes before spilling in hot rivulets down her cheek.
“You were wonderful.” Nancy reached to Mary and when their hands clasped she pulled her close and hugged her. They clung to each other for a long while, like estranged sisters finding each other after so many lost years. Nancy patted Mary’s back. “Quite a week we’re having, huh?”
Mary pulled back. “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”
“Don’t you be sorry,” Nancy warned. “I don’t want to hear that kind of talk from you. It wasn’t your fault.”
“No! No more. If I hear you blame yourself one more time, I’ll bop you one, just like I did that creep.”
Mary wiped the moisture from her face with a tissue. “What?”
“Oh yeah.” Nancy raised a fist. “He’ll think twice before messing with me again.”
“I kicked the crap out of him.” She punched her fist into the palm of her other hand with a thwacking sound. “I woke up in his van as he tried to carry me into the house. I bit him and scratched the heck out of his face. You’ll see when they catch him. This,” she drew her hand in a circle around her own face, “is nothing.”
“You are kidding!”
“Nope.” Nancy continued. “After he tied my wrists to that bed, I started kicking him. He couldn’t get near me. I got him in the crotch, twice!”
Mary grabbed her friend’s hand. “Nancy! Weren’t you scared?”
“Terrified. That’s why I was kicking.”
Mary slumped into the chair by the bed, suddenly weary. “You are so much braver than me.”
Nancy waved off the comment. “I was just pissed off.” She squeezed Mary’s hand. “Look at it this way. I landed two money shots, one for each of us.”
Mary giggled despite herself. The gripping anxiety that squeezed like a vise around her heart eased. The ordeal hadn’t destroyed Nancy, as Mary feared it would. Somehow, her friend could still smile and be herself. She’d not merely survived the ordeal but conquered it.
“That’s more like it,” Nancy laid back against the mountain of pillows. “Anyway, that’s why he tied my ankles. He left me after that. He knew better than to mess with me anymore and left me alone until your boyfriend rescued me.”
Mary glanced over her shoulder and saw Thom watching her with those suggestive eyes that gave her a rush of warmth from her stomach all the way down her thighs. He was not only a good cop but a good man. He’d watched after her every moment and kept her from harm. He’d found and rescued Nancy. He’d even come to the school and talked to the kids. When his hot gaze fell upon her, her breath caught in anticipation. When he reached for her, every molecule in her body magnetically drew her to him. But, was he her boyfriend? After the heartbreak of losing his high school sweetheart, could he ever commit again? Could he commit to her?
Brad implied that he would. He seemed to think Thom was head over heels for her. Mary felt a bit topsy-turvy herself when it came to Thom but every time their relationship progressed a step forward, Thom retreated.
“We should let Nancy get some rest,” Thom said, extending a hand to Mary. “I’m leaving a guard on your door and I’ll check in on you later.”
His fingers closed protectively over hers as he helped her up. A shower of sparks shot up her arm at his touch, followed by a warm humming of comfort. The fear, the anxiety, the guilt she endured like the emotional tentacles of an octopus twisting around her soul loosened its grip after speaking with Nancy and melted away like fog in the late morning in Thom’s loving care. Mary sighed a cleansing breath, tinted with Thom’s rich minty cologne and smiled up at him.
Mary followed him out of the room, enjoying the familiarity of his hand over hers. It felt right, she decided, as natural as kittens lapping up a saucer of milk or bees pollinating a flower.
As the door to Nancy’s room closed behind them, Thom said, “I think you might be right.”
She smiled up at him, wondering if he sensed her thoughts. “About what?”
“About the suspect, Adam.” Thom guided Mary into a subdued waiting area across from the nurses’ station. A TV mounted from the ceiling droned a sports news channel quietly in the background. Nurses and patients passed by but didn’t disturb the waiting area’s sense of privacy. Thom indicated for Mary to sit on a couch whose overly compressed cushions suffered from years of use and he perched on a wooden coffee table across from her. He leaned in close and spoke softly. “Now that we know who he is, we’ve been able to get a whole history on him. I have a doctor who treated him meeting me here shortly to review his case in greater detail but here’s what we know so far. This hospital diagnosed Adam Fielding with a type of mental retardation mild enough to allow him to function fairly well on a daily basis. For the most part, the interviews with the neighbors indicate that Adam is not usually violent unless provoked. Once provoked, however, he doesn’t know when to stop. The police arrested him twice as a teenager for assault and both times the charges were dropped based on his condition and the fact the witnesses to the incidents reported the other person started the fight. He wouldn’t normally be a candidate for a kidnapper.”
“So why did he grab me?”
“By all accounts, Adam depended on his mother to care for him. Up until recently, she appears to have been a good caretaker. When we searched the house this afternoon, we found her body.”
“You mean he—” Mary recoiled, picturing Adam straggling his mother as he’d done Nancy and herself.
Thom shook his head. “I thought so at first but no. She died of natural causes.”
“So he’s on his own now.”
“For the first time in his life.”
Mary nodded. Her first impressions about Adam had been right. “So he is trying to find someone to replace his mother.”
“That’s what I think. Her clothes resembled those you and Nancy wore when you were each taken, that might be why he saw you each as a possible substitute.”
“Plus we both work at a school.”
“Exactly. With that child’s mindset, he would still equate a school teacher with a caretaker. He probably didn’t know Nancy’s a librarian and not a teacher.”
“If he hadn’t attacked Nancy and me, I would almost feel sympathetic.”
Thom drew little circles on Mary’s kneecaps, sending a zing of excitement across her skin like a blast of broiling air exploding out of an oven on a cold winter day. When he spoke softly to her, his voice purred, melting her insides. He leaned so close to her, so intimately, that she could almost believe that no one else existed in the world but the two of them. She ached for him to touch more than her knees. Mary wanted Thom to stroke his hands all over her. She wanted his mouth on hers and she wanted to lose herself in him.
Mary laced her fingers behind his neck. “I have not thanked you yet, for everything you’ve done.”
“The job’s not done yet.” His features softened as his gaze lingered on her lips.
“I know.” Mary played with his thick, dark hair. “But you saved Nancy and found out about Adam.”
“You had as much to do with that as I did.”
“You’ve kept me safe,” Mary said. “You’ve done more than that. You make me feel alive.” She couldn’t remember the last time she felt sexy but he always made her feel beautiful and wanted. When he looked at her with desire, her nerves sizzled. More than anything, she wanted to unleash that passion.
“Mary,” Thom hesitated. His hands drifted up to her mid-thigh and sent a wild tremble through her core. The green of his eyes darkened to the color of emeralds displayed on black velvet. “I have not been the man I want to be, when it comes to you.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s no secret that I have feelings for you. More than I have ever felt for anyone else.” He reached up and disentangled her fingers from his hair. Thom folded her hands between his and kissed her knuckles before continuing. As he spoke, he focused on the patterns his thumbs drew over the soft backs of her hands, not meeting her eyes. “After Tammy Jo, I promised myself never to fall in love again. I told myself it was because I wanted to honor her. I told myself she’d been my one true love and when I lost her that was it. I’d lost my one chance for happiness. My one chance for a family of my own. Game over, you know?”
Thom pressed his fingers into Mary’s soft palms, sending new percolations of sensation into her blood stream. “I became a cop and threw myself into the job. I told myself it was penance for failing Tammy Jo. I told myself these things but I was lying, Mary.”
Rising to his feet, Thom let Mary slip from his grasp. He paced several steps away from her. “I never knew I could hurt so much. I thought I would die. I never wanted to fall in love again, because I didn’t think I could survive another loss like that. I definitely didn’t want to fall in love with another woman whose life was in danger and who depended on me to save it.”
Thom hesitated, and then turned to face Mary. “Since the moment I met you, I’ve been fighting not to fall in love with you.”
“Thom,” Mary rose, “if you don’t feel for me the way I feel for you…”
“That’s not what I’m saying.” He cupped her face in his hands. “I realized today how close I came to never knowing you. If you hadn’t escaped…” Thom hugged her tightly to him. “If I’d missed out on a single precious moment…” He kissed the top of her head. “I know this is fast but God, Mary. I don’t know how to say this but just to say that I want to give us a chance.”
Mary snuggled deeper into his chest, loving the strength of his arms around her, the unyielding wall of his chest against her cheek and breasts, the way he rocked her gently.
“Inspector,” a woman’s voice interrupted the rare moment of contentment.
Mary stepped back but Thom wrapped an arm around her waist and held her close. She glanced up at him. For the first time, Thom hadn’t retreated from her after a moment of intimacy.
The nametag on the doctor’s coat identified her as Dr. Westin, developmental psychologist. From her white hair and wrinkles, Mary guessed the doctor’s age ranged between the high fifties to mid-sixties but her strong posture lent her a youthful vitality. “I’m sorry to interrupt Inspector, but I only have a few minutes. I received the warrant for Adam Fielding’s medical records.” She handed him the thick file. “I also read your assessment of the situation and I feel I must express my concern.”
Finally, Thom released Mary in order to accept the file Dr. Westin handed him. He flipped through the pages, skimming the remarks. “What concerns you doctor?”
“Considering Adam’s dependency on his mother and her untimely passing, I suspect he is in a very conflicted state. From your account, he had transferred these feelings to a substitute mother figure.”
“You realize he transferred both emotions, don’t you? Both the dependency and the anger over the abandonment.”
Icy claws spread across Mary’s skin, chilling her to the bone. The ghost of the choking memory constricted her throat, forcing her to gulp for air.
“Making him extremely dangerous.” Thom pointed to an entry. “What’s this about the kitten?”
“That illustrates my point. Adam found a kitten on the grounds during one of his stays with us. When the orderly tried to take the animal, Adam gripped it so tightly, he killed it.”
Mary covered her mouth, feeling sickness rise from her stomach and she struggled to keep it down. Unwittingly, she’d tapped into the residual emotions from that incident when she’d lied to Adam about her own cat. He’d meant to keep her locked up forever, as a replacement for his deceased mother. After his failure to find a second suitable substitute, he would look back to her. He’d been longing to reclaim her, just like Thom said, watching her from afar, and never getting his chance. He’d squeeze her neck like he did before, like he did the kitten, crushing the thing he desperately wanted. And in his eyes, she’d betrayed him. His mother betrayed him by dying. Mary betrayed him to the police.
“As brutal as that sounds, that’s not the worst of it.” The doctor continued, “Adam later attacked the orderly. Adam blamed him for the cat’s death. He beat the man so severely he broke four ribs, his clavicle and his jaw before we could tranquilize him.” The doctor shook her head regretfully. “We recommended Adam be placed in an institution but his mother would not allow it.”
“What do you think he’ll do next?”
“Adam tends to fixate on one thing at a time. If he’s tried twice to find a mother substitute, he’ll try again.”
“He won’t stop, even knowing the police are looking for him?”
“I think that will only make him more desperate. He’ll strike again very soon.”
Thom speared his fingers through his hair. “He probably knows we’ve been to his house. He won’t go back there. If he abducts someone else, we won’t know where to begin looking for them.”
“I’m afraid I can’t offer you anymore insight than that.” Dr. Westin said, glancing at her watch. “I have to go now but page me if I can be of any more assistance.”