| CHICKASAW COUNTY
Blue and cherry lights strobed the night sky as Sam Cooper muscled his Jeep into a tight turn onto Mission Road. Ahead, a phalanx of police cars and rescue units spread haphazardly across the narrow road in front of his house.
He parked the Cherokee behind the nearest police cruiser, his pounding heart outracing the pulses of light. Ignoring the gaggle of curious onlookers, he took the porch steps two at a time and pushed past the uniformed cop standing in the doorway.
"Sir, you can't—"
Sam ignored him, scanning the narrow foyer until he caught sight of his older brother's terrified face. "J.D.?"
J. D. Cooper turned at the sound of his name. The look on his face made Sam's stomach turn queasy flips. "Is Cissy okay?" he asked J.D. "Where's Maddy?"
J.D.'s gaze flickered back to the paramedics working over the unconscious body of his teenage daughter lying on the woven rug in the middle of the foyer. "Cissy's alive but they can't get her to respond."
Sam's heart skipped a beat. "What the hell happened? What about Maddy?"
J.D. looked at him again. "We don't know."
The panic Sam had held in check broke free, suffocating him. He started toward the stairs up to the bedroom, where he'd last seen his daughter when he kissed her good-night before leaving for his business dinner.
J.D. caught his arm, jerking him to a stop. "She's not up there. We looked."
Sam tugged his arm away. "Maybe she's in another room—"
J.D. gestured at the obvious signs of a struggle. "Cissy didn't just fall down and hit her head, Sam! Someone did this to her! Someone took Maddy."
Sam shook his head, not willing to believe it.
A pair of detectives moved toward them, their badges hooked to their waistbands. All that broke through the haze of Sam's panic was the sympathy in the man's eyes and the complete lack of expression on the woman's face.
The female introduced herself. "Kristen Tandy, Gossamer Ridge Police Department. This is Detective Jason Foley. You're the home owner?"
"Sam Cooper." He bit back impatience. "My daughter's missing."
"Yes, sir, we know," Detective Foley said.
His sympathetic tone only ramped up Sam's agitation. "What else do you know?"
"We've searched the house and the property, and we have officers questioning neighbors, as well," Detective Tandy replied. Her flat, emotionless drawl lacked the practiced gentleness of her partner, but it better suited Sam's mood. He focused his eyes on her face, taking in the clear blue of her eyes and the fine, almost delicate bone structure.
Damn, she's young, he thought.
Foley took Sam's elbow. "Mr. Cooper, let's find somewhere to sit down—"
"Don't handle me," Sam snapped at Foley, jerking his arm away. "I'm a Jefferson County prosecutor. I know how this works. My four-year-old is missing. I want to know what you know about what happened here. Every detail—"
"We're not sure of every detail," Detective Foley began.
"Then tell me what you think you know."
"At 8:47 p.m. your brother J.D. called to check on your niece Cissy to see how she and your daughter were doing," Foley answered. Behind him, his partner wandered away from them, moving past the paramedics and out of view. Sam found his attention wandering with her, wondering if she knew something she didn't want him to know. Something bad.
Foley's voice dragged him away from his bleak thoughts. "When your niece didn't answer her cell phone, he tried your landline, with no luck. So he came by to check in person and found the front door ajar and your niece on the floor here in the foyer, unconscious."
Movement to their right drew the detective's attention for a moment. Sam followed his gaze and saw the paramedics putting his niece onto a stretcher. His chest tightened with worry. "How badly is she hurt?"
"She's been roughed up a little. There's a lump on the back of her head." Foley looked back at Sam. "There's some concern because she hasn't regained consciousness."
Pushing aside his own fear, Sam walked away from Foley and crossed to his niece's side, falling into step with J.D. "She's a fighter, J.D. You know that."
His brother's attempt at a smile broke Sam's heart. "She's a Cooper, right?"
"Mom and Dad have Mike?" Sam asked, referring to J. D.'s eleven-year-old son. Poor kid, growing up without a mother and now facing another possible loss…
"Yeah. I'd better call 'em." J.D. headed out behind the paramedics carrying his daughter out to the ambulance.
"Mr. Cooper?" Detective Foley stepped into the space J.D. just vacated. "We have some questions—"
Sam turned to look at him. Foley's gaze was tinged with pity disguised as sympathy.
"What?" Sam asked impatiently.
"What was Maddy wearing tonight?" Foley asked.
"She was in jeans and a 'Bama sweatshirt when I left her in her bedroom with Cissy," Sam answered, the memory of his daughter's earlier goodbye kiss haunting him. "She didn't want me to leave. Tuesday is extra-story night."
"We found those clothes in the hamper outside her room," Foley said. "Maybe she'd already dressed for bed?"
"Then she's in Winnie the Pooh pajamas. Blue ones. She won't wear anything else to bed. I had to buy three identical sets." He fought a tidal wave of despair. He knew the odds against finding Maddy alive grew exponentially the longer she was missing.
"We'll put out an Amber Alert," Foley said.
Sam walked away, needing space to breathe. The thought that he might never see his daughter alive again made his knees shake and his chest tighten.
"Mr. Cooper?" The sympathy in Foley's voice was almost more than Sam could bear.
"I need a minute," Sam said.
"Sure. Take all the time you need." Foley stepped away. A few feet away, Sam saw the female detective edge toward the staircase. Her eyes met his briefly, her expression grim. Then she turned and headed up the stairs.
Sam's heart squeezed into a knot. Take all the time he needed? Time was the one thing he didn't have. Not if he wanted to find his child alive.
The house was clean but lived-in, the carpet runner in the upstairs hallway slightly askew, as if someone had hit it at a run.
Kristen Tandy moved past Mark Goddard, one of the two uniformed officers tasked with evidence collection, and crossed to a door standing slightly ajar. "Checked in here?" she asked.
Goddard looked up at her. "It's a storage area. Full of boxes. Didn't look like much had been touched, but I'll get to it before we leave."
She donned a pair of latex gloves. "Can I take a look?"
Goddard frowned. "Do you have to?"
But she'd already opened the door and flicked on the light.
Inside, the room was a mess. Stacks of boxes, mostly full, filled the spare bedroom. The Coopers hadn't been living here long, she guessed. Hadn't finished unpacking from the move.
"Maddy?" She stopped and listened. She heard no response, but the hairs on the back of her neck prickled. She stepped deeper into the room, squeezing between two stacks of boxes. "Are you in here?"
There was still no answer, but Kristen thought she heard a noise behind the boxes ahead. She froze in place, her head cocked. The sound of Goddard at work just outside the room mingled with a faint hum of conversation from downstairs.
"When I was a little girl, my favorite game was hide-and-seek." She formed the words from her frozen lips. "I was good at it, you see, because I was so little. I could go places nobody else could go. So they never, ever found me until I was ready to be found."
She eased forward, past a large box in the middle of the room, ignoring the tremble in her belly. "I bet you're good at hiding, too, aren't you, Maddy?"
A faint rustling noise came from the back of the room. Beyond the stack of boxes in front of her, she spotted a door. The closet, she guessed.
"My name is Kristen Tandy. I'm a police officer. I came here to help your cousin Cissy."
A faint hiccough sent a ripple of triumph racing through Kristen's gut, followed quickly by a rush of sheer dread. Taking a bracing breath, she pushed aside a box to get to the closet and pulled open the door.
Four-year-old Maddy Cooper gazed up at Kristen with tear-stained green eyes, her face damp and flushed. "I want my Daddy," she whimpered.
Kristen crouched in front of Maddy, helping her to her feet. The little girl's hands were soft and tiny, and up close, she smelled sweet. Kristen felt her knees wobble and she put one hand on the door frame to steady herself.
Do your job, Tandy.
She looked Maddy over quickly. No obvious signs of injury, she noted with almost crushing relief. "Are you okay, Maddy? Do you hurt anywhere?"
"Kristen?" Foley called from somewhere behind them.
Maddy Cooper flung herself at Kristen, her arms tightening around her. The little girl buried her tear-damp face in Kristen's neck, shaking with fear.
"It's okay," she soothed, fighting the primal urge to push the little girl away and run as fast and as far as she could—the way she felt every time she was this close to a child. Instead, she picked Maddy up and turned to face her partner. The scent of baby shampoo filled her lungs, making her feel weak, but she clung to her equilibrium.
Sam Cooper stood by Foley, staring at her with eyes full of shock and fragile hope. "Maddy?"
At the sound of her father's voice, Maddy wriggled to get away. Kristen put her down, and the child weaved through the stacks of boxes to reach her father.
He scooped her into his arms and smothered her face with kisses. "Oh, baby, are you okay?" Sam held his daughter away to get a good look.
Kristen looked away, a powerful ache spreading like poison in her chest.
"The bad man hurt Cissy!" Maddy wailed.
"I know, baby, but the bad man is gone now. And Cissy's getting help. It'll be all right now, okay?" Out of the corner of her eye, Kristen saw Sam Cooper thumb away the tears spilling from his daughter's eyes.
"Mr. Cooper, we need to ask Maddy—" Foley began.
"Enough, Foley," Kristen said flatly, joining them in the doorway. "You might want to take her to the hospital, too, let a doctor check her over," she said to Sam. "We'll talk to you soon." She grabbed her partner's arm, tugging him with her as she headed out of the room. She couldn't stay there one minute longer, she knew.
Foley stopped in the middle of the hallway. "How the hell did you know—?"
"Kids like to play hide-and-seek," she said, moving ahead of him down the hallway.
She knew from experience.
HOSPITALS HAD A SMELL TO THEM, a strange mix of antiseptic and disease that made Kristen's skin crawl. A doctor had once told her that knowing the reason behind an irrational aversion was the key to overcoming it. But knowing why she hated hospitals hadn't done much to cure Kristen of her phobia.
The doctors were still examining the two Cooper girls. Across from where she and Jason Foley stood, the girls' grandparents sat in aluminum-and-vinyl chairs backed up against the hallway outside the emergency treatment bays. The elder Coopers flanked a scared-looking boy of eleven or so—Cissy's brother, Michael.
"Why are we here?" Kristen asked Foley softly. "We should be back at the crime scene."
Foley slanted a gaze toward the grandparents before speaking in a whisper. "The girls saw their attacker."
"One of them has a cracked skull and the other is practically a baby," Kristen shot back, apparently louder than she realized, for Mrs. Cooper sent a pained look her way. Kristen took a few steps away from the family, waiting for Foley to catch up with her before she added, "We should be supervising the evidence retrieval."
"Goddard's perfectly capable of that," Foley said. "The answers are here with the girls."
Kristen stopped arguing, mostly because she knew her desire to leave had less to do with good police work and more to do with her need to get the hell out of this hospital.
The doors to the Emergency wing opened, ushering in a cool night breeze and two men dressed in jeans and T-shirts. They were tall and dark-haired, clearly related to Sam Cooper and his brother J.D. The two men looked so alike, Kristen wondered if they were twins.
The one in the dark blue T-shirt caught sight of the elder Coopers. "Mom!" He hurried to her side and crouched by the chair. "I got your voice mail. Any word?"
Mrs. Cooper shook her head. "We're still waiting to hear. Sam and J.D. went back there with the kids. Cissy was still unconscious when she came in."
"What about Maddy?"
"She seems okay, but Sam wanted her looked over anyway."
The other man ruffled the dark hair of the young boy sandwiched between the grandparents, hunkering down until he was eye level with the child. "How you holdin' up, sport?"
Michael managed a faint smile. "I'm okay, Uncle Gabe."
The man in the blue T-shirt caught Kristen watching. His gaze settled on the back of Kristen's right hand for a second. She saw recognition as he raised his blue eyes to meet hers.
Kristen ignored the look, but Foley flashed his badge at the newcomers, so she had no choice but to follow.
Foley introduced himself. "You're the girls' uncles?"
The man in the blue T-shirt shook the hand Foley offered. "Jake Cooper. Sam and J.D. are my brothers. This is my brother Gabe." He nodded toward the man who had to be his twin.
Foley introduced her. "This is Detective Kristen Tandy."
Jake's gaze slanted toward the scar on her hand. "I know."
She squelched the urge to stick her hand in her pocket. "Detective Foley and I are investigating the case."
"So I gathered." He looked from Kristen to Foley and back. "What the hell happened at Sam's house?"
"That's what we'd like to ask your nieces."
"Mom says Cissy's still unconscious and Maddy's gotta be traumatized. Can't it wait till morning?"
"The sooner we know what happened, the sooner we find who did it and stop it from happening again," Foley said soothingly.
"Sam!" Mrs. Cooper's voice drew their attention. Kristen saw Sam Cooper coming down the hallway, his daughter perched on his hip. Maddy had red-rimmed eyes and a slightly snotty nose, but apparently she'd received a clean bill of health.
Sam locked gazes with Kristen. One dark brow ticked upward before he looked back at his mother.
As Mrs. Cooper reached for the little girl, Maddy clung to her father, tightening her grip around his neck. Sam gave his mother an apologetic look and kissed her forehead, then crossed to Kristen and Foley. "I thought you'd still be at the house."
"We were hoping to talk to the girls," Foley said.
"Cissy's still unconscious. They've called in a helicopter to take her to Birmingham." Sam's eyes darkened with anger. "If I ever get my hands on the son of a bitch who did this—"
"What about your daughter?" Foley pressed.
Sam looked at Kristen rather than Foley. "Can't it wait?"
Text Copyright © 2010 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.