Yesterday's Gone (Two Daughters #1)
Harlequin Superromance (August, 2015)
Tomorrow's a new beginning…
When a digitally aged photo of a girl named Hope Lawson is posted online, Bailey Smith can't deny the similarity to herself. But could she really be the same woman who was abducted as a child twenty-three years ago?
When she meets Detective Seth Chandler, who opened the cold case of Hope's disappearance, suddenly everything changes. Not only does Bailey have a family she barely remembers—and a sister she's never met—she's connecting with a man for the first time. A man who's loving and gentle. But Bailey's not sure she's ready to be found: by him or the parents she once lost.
Detective Seth Chandler tugged his tie loose and undid the top button of his white shirt as he settled into his chair. Testifying in court that morning had demanded his best getup.
Unfortunately, the detective bull pen was upstairs in the aging building that housed the county sheriff's department. In winter, they appreciated the scientific fact that heat rises. A heat wave right before the Fourth of July weekend meant today they sweated, as they would off and on all summer. A couple of window air-conditioning units rattled away inadequately. Doing the job meant tuning out physical discomfort along with the noise of too many conversations around him.
No surprise to find that, in his absence, over a hundred new emails had arrived. He was being inundated with "tips" right now. That's the way it was when you got word out there. Most were worthless, but once in a while, he found wheat among the chaff.
Within moments, he was engrossed. He skimmed, deleted, opened the next.
I saw this feature online about missing kids and how you can draw pictures so everyone can see what they look like once they grow up. One of them looks EXACTLY like this girl I knew in high school.
His phone rang. He gave it an irritated glance and saw the call was internal, which meant he couldn't ignore it.
Attention still on the open email, he snatched up the phone. "Chandler."
I bet she is the one you're looking for. Her name wasn't Hope, but I'm totally positive. Except you've got her hair wrong in the picture, and her nose, too.
"A Mrs. Lawson is here to see you," said the desk sergeant. Seth heard a murmur in the background. "Karen Lawson," the sergeant amended.
"Buzz her in."
Most police departments across the nation had grown cautious. Locked doors kept visitors from barging in to confront an officer.
Seth rose to his feet a minute later when the door opened and a slender, middle-aged woman, who reminded him a little too much of his mother, appeared. It wasn't the general physical similarities that had him making the comparison, but rather the sorrow that clung inescapably to both women.
Clutching her purse, Mrs. Lawson cast a shy look at the men and women too engrossed in phone calls and computers to so much as notice her presence. She wound her way between desks, her expression apologetic when she reached him, even though this wasn't her first visit and wouldn't be her last. He made a real effort to call and let the Lawsons know what he was doing, but she'd obviously read advice to families of missing children that told her to be persistent. Never let them give up, the advocates often advised.
Ironic, in this instance, when he was the one who had taken the initiative to revisit a case so cold, he'd had to defrost it.
She rushed into speech. "I know I shouldn't be bothering you, Detective, but Kirk asked last night if I'd heard from you and since I happened to be downtown I thought you might not mind…"
He interrupted. "Of course I don't mind. Please, sit down."
She perched on the straight-backed chair next to his desk, her blue eyes fixed anxiously on him. Damn it, he was disturbed every time he saw her by the resemblance the age-progressed drawing of her long-missing daughter had to her. There was a reason for that, of course; part of the art of age progression was using photographs of the parents as children and adults. And there was no denying that daughters did sometimes grow up to look like their mothers.
"I'm getting a lot of calls and emails," he said gently, "but nothing has jumped out at me yet. I can tell you that the photo of Hope at six years old and the artist's best guess at what she'd look like now have been getting wide currency. It's prompted some newspapers to run features on the fate of missing children like her, but I'm especially hopeful because those pictures are appearing everywhere on the internet. People are intrigued." It was the pretty young white woman syndrome, of course, but he'd use anything that worked. "Given her age now—" assuming Hope Lawson had lived to grow up, of course, which they both knew to be unlikely in the extreme "—odds are she and her friends spend a lot of time on social media sites. If she's alive, I'm optimistic that, sooner or later, someone will recognize her."
God, he hoped he wasn't giving this woman false hope. He suppressed his natural wince at his choice of word, as he too often had to these days. What a name for a kid who'd been abducted!
"Thank you," she murmured, and he knew damn well she hadn't even heard the "if she's alive" part. He'd been deluding himself that they both knew her daughter was likely dead.
From the beginning, he'd made it clear that he was fighting the odds here. Hope Lawson had vanished without a trace twenty-three years ago.
The 99.9 percent likelihood: she was dead. He'd set out to take advantage of improved police and medical examiner cooperation to find a match with an unclaimed body. Elizabeth Smart and Jay-cee Dugard were the rarities, not the norm. But despite all his warnings, Karen Lawson wanted to believe that by some miracle he'd bring her daughter home alive and well.
A sheriff's department in a rural county like this one didn't have anything like a cold case squad. He was allowed to indulge his interest as time allowed, however. He'd found closure for a few people, mostly by giving them a chance to put a headstone on a loved one's grave. Not a happy ending, but better than suffering through a lifetime of wondering, as Karen and Kirk Lawson had.
Her gaze left him to fall on his bulletin board, where he'd tacked copies of the last school picture taken of little Hope Lawson and of the recent rendering. Other photos shared the space: a sweetly pretty wife and mother who had either suffered a terrible fate or fled from her husband and preschool-age children two years before; a toddler who'd disappeared from a picnic ground the previous summer; an elderly man with the beginnings of dementia who had gone for a walk and never come home.
If only to himself, Seth would admit that his gaze was most often drawn to Hope Lawson's face. As a child, huge blue eyes had dominated a thin face with high, sharp cheekbones. A few pale freckles dusted a small nose. Moonlight-pale bangs cut straight across her forehead. Her grin revealed a missing tooth.
The artist had seen the promise of beauty in her, or something very like. The cheekbones were distinctive. More than anything, they gave him hope that she would be recognized.
"Eve mentioned that she hasn't seen you recently," Mrs. Lawson remarked.
Another wince he didn't let show. The Law-sons' adopted daughter was responsible for his current cold case project. They'd been on several dates when she told him something of her family's history. Intrigued, he'd done his research, gone to talk to her parents and made the decision to do his damnedest to find out what had happened to the little girl who disappeared sometime between getting out of the community pool after a summer swimming lesson and her mother arriving to pick her up.
He'd quickly got the idea Eve wished she'd never told him about Hope. She wouldn't talk about the missing "sister" she'd never met, much less how she felt about her adoptive parents' renewed yearning for their biological daughter. Any conflicted feelings she might have were understandable. Seth didn't see any chance of the relationship going anywhere long-term, but she was an attractive woman and he liked her. No one else had caught his eye recently. Why not call and find out if she'd like to have dinner this weekend?
"I've been working long hours," he told her mother, feeling guilty even though it was the truth. Among other things, he'd been working a murder/suicide perplexing enough to draw nationwide attention. There was no one to arrest after that bloodbath, but everyone would feel better if he could come up with some answers to explain the unexplainable.
In fact, he'd barely had time to keep up with the influx of emails he was receiving in response to his multiple postings of Hope Lawson's story.
"Then I won't keep you," Mrs. Lawson said with dignity, rising to her feet. "I really shouldn't have come by. I know if there was any news, you'd have called."
"I would," he said gently, standing, as well. "But I don't mind you stopping by, either."
She searched his face, then gave a small nod. "Good day, Detective Chandler."
He stayed where he was and watched until she let herself out into the hall and was gone.
"You'll never get rid of that one," observed the detective whose desk was right behind Seth's.
He grunted. "Am I doing her any favors? Hell, face it. It's an intellectual exercise for me. For her…"
"It's a heartbreaker."
He turned to scowl at Ben Kemper, near his age, light-haired to his dark, a man Seth suspected was on a mission of his own, although Seth had no idea what it was. "Thanks. Just what I needed to hear."
Kemper grinned. "An intellectual exercise, huh? That's all it was?"
"Damn it, no! But I don't have the same stake that woman does, either." He scrubbed a hand over his head. "Shit. My best hope was a match in NamUs." The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System hadn't existed when Hope Lawson disappeared. A body found in one jurisdiction had in the past rarely been matched to a listing for a missing person even a few counties away. Now medical examiners, cops, even families could input information. A body found in a shallow grave in Florida could be linked to a woman snatched in Montana. As time allowed, some medical examiners' offices were inputting old information. Or the improvements in DNA technology meant they were taking another try at finding a name for a body long since buried but never identified.
"Nothing, huh?" Kemper leaned back in his chair, his expression sympathetic.
"No." He didn't kid himself that meant Hope Lawson had grown up and was living out there somewhere under another name.
Kemper was the one to grunt this time. "You get a call back from Cassie Sparks's school counselor?"
He and Kemper, often paired on the job, were working the murder/suicide together. Along with her mother, eleven-year-old Cassie had been shot to death by her father, who had then swallowed the gun. The fact he'd killed a kid—his own kid—had made the scene a difficult one, even for seasoned cops.
"Hell. No." Seth frowned. "I'll finish going through these emails, then head out to the school. I should still be able to catch her before they let out." They were trying to find out every detail of the lives of all three members of the Sparks family. Unfortunately, Cassie's very basic Facebook page had been unrevealing. Friends were denying any knowledge of problems with her dad. "You talk to the father's boss again?" he asked.
"Sure. Best employee ever. Great attitude. We have to be wrong. Dale would never do anything like this."
They'd been getting a lot of that. Too much, in Seth's no-doubt cynical viewpoint, one shared by his fellow detective. No one who'd known the Sparks family wanted to admit they'd seen any crack in the perfect facade. It sucked to face the reality that you might have knowingly blinded yourself. Or to realize you weren't nearly as perceptive as you'd imagined yourself to be.