Fifteen minutes had passed since she had arrived at the Lynch estate, fourteen minutes and thirty seconds since she had firmly ensconced her children in her arms. No word had arrived since then, and she now sat huddled with her family on a sofa in the spacious den, making no effort to wipe away her flowing tears.
She was grateful for the calming influence of Regan’s hand on her shoulder, for the closeness of Bobby in between them, for the confused fidgeting of Rebekah and Billy securely embraced in Regan and Bobby’s laps, and for the reassuring movement of the child in her womb. She was so thankful that they were all safe and sound, yet she felt guilty for being so relieved while Hallie, who had risked everything for them, was still missing.
Her tears flowed as she thought of her cousin in the clutches of a kidnapper, of her nephew frantically pacing behind them. His every instinct yearned to be out there in the rapidly falling dusk, searching for his wife. Orders from his superior officers on the force had been of no effect. It had taken Jim forcing him to look at his hands to stop him; trembling hands holding a gun could only do more harm than good.
A phone call from Honey assuring them that the rest of the Bob-Whites were on the way helped somewhat, although in the back of her mind, she wondered how Honey had known that they were needed in Sleepyside. Then again, she thought, it was possible that Mart may known something; even after so many years apart, she knew that he still had something of a sixth sense when it came to his barely younger sister. Despite herself, she almost smiled as she caressed her own set of almost-twins. Would they grow up to have the same special bond that she shared with Mart? She leaned her head against Bobby’s shoulder. It was thanks to him and to Hallie that she would one day have a chance to find out.
Minutes turned into an hour, then two. Still no word came from the police, nor from Jim who had waited only until the Sergeant left before going out to search for himself. Trixie glanced across the room at Joeanne’s pale, worried face, remembering just how often Jim and Brian had gone on rescue missions in the past. Somehow, it felt even worse to her now that she was one of the ones left behind to wonder and wait than it had been when she was the one who had been in danger.
She closed her eyes, praying that Hallie was enduring no worse than she had during her days as an amateur detective. She could still see the splintering wooden floor of the riverboat on the Mississippi, still feel the fright and guilt she felt thinking that she would never see her family again. She could see the inside of the van where the counterfeiters had thrown her the night before the bike-a-thon, still remember her realization that no one knew where she was. She could still see the inside of a different van, still feel the terror she had felt when she realized that the driver was the same man who had already callously run down a man in his efforts to steal an invention from the employer he had previously framed.
Tears streamed down her cheeks. She and Honey had wound up in the back of Andy Kowalski’s dirty green van after his attempt to kidnap one of Eileen Meiser’s children had been thwarted, and now – now, Hallie was in his clutches after she had foiled his attempt to take Rebekah and Billy. Trixie sobbed, remembering how he had intended to kill both her and Honey once he managed to successfully take the miser, and how he had sworn to get vengeance on the day of his conviction. It no longer mattered that the threats had contributed to the reasoning for the life sentence he had been given, somehow, he was out and had come to seek the vengeance he sought. Her blood ran cold at the thought of her cousin in his hands. With his original kidnapping plan foiled, and not even the hope of the miser to buy her some time, she knew that he would have no reason to keep Hallie alive.
A violent tremor shook her body as she thought of one reason, and she barely stifled a cry. In all the times she had herself been held captive, she had been threatened with death, but had never actually been touched. “Oh, God, no!” she pleaded silently, clutching her family even closer to her as she tried desperately to not even think about the possibility of her cousin facing a fate that would be even worse than death. She told herself that Hallie would be found safe and unharmed. She had to be.
Eventually, the almost tangible silence was broken by the sound of gravel crunching on the driveway as a car pulled into the yard. Doors slammed, and Terry slipped out of the room. Within seconds, she found herself in the strong arms of her almost twin, who said softly, “Thank God you’re all right.”
“Yes,” she answered, choking back yet another sob. “But Hallie…”
“We know,” he informed her soberly. “We stopped by the police station first, and Molinson’s already checking out Hawthorne Street.”
“Hawthorne Street?” she repeated. “Why Hawthorne Street?”
Mart breathed deeply, taking her hand in his. “It’s a long story, Trix.”
“What is a long story?” she demanded.
He looked into her eyes. “You’ve been getting a lot of odd phone calls, haven’t you.”
It was a statement of fact, not a question, but she shook her head. “We’ve had some hang-up calls, but…”
Regan came to stand behind her, wrapping his arms around her shoulders. He looked at Mart. “What’s going on?”
“They weren’t just hang-up calls, Trixie. Honey and Di have been getting them, too.” He looked apologetically at Regan. “Honey finally had them traced to a phone booth on Hawthorne Street.”
“Where is Honey?” Dan asked. Only then did Trixie realize that Brian and Honey hadn’t arrived with Mart and Diana. “Did she find Jim?”
“She and Brian are with him now,” Diana assured him, gently laying her hand on his arm.
He nodded shortly. “I need to be out there with them.”
“No.” Diana shook her head, tears welling up in her violet eyes. She swallowed hard. “Dan, you’re in no condition to be out there.”
He moved away from her, striding towards the huge picture window that overlooked the manicured lawn. He stared out into the night, turning only when Regan walked over to him. There were tears in his own eyes when he looked up at his uncle. “This is even worse than the night Mum died.”
Regan pulled his nephew to him. “I know,” he said simply, glancing across the room at his own wife, Dan’s agony mirrored in his own green eyes.
Trixie briefly met his gaze, then looked down at her hands. She knew he was thinking of the night only seven months earlier when she and Honey had been held hostage in Lytell’s store. So much had happened right afterwards that they had never really discussed it, but looking into his eyes, she suddenly realized just how he must have felt that night.
Harrison chose that moment to enter the room with his silver cart, bearing a tray of sandwiches and an urn of hot chocolate. He set it up against the wall, and with Larry and Terry’s help, began to make sure that, despite their protests, everyone had been served. The very thought of eating made her feel nauseous, and she quickly busied herself with feeding her children, hoping that no one would notice she wasn’t actually eating.
When they had finished, Regan helped her make a pallet for them right beside the sofa, and once they were comfortably settled on the soft blankets, he pulled her into his lap. “Please, sweetie, at least drink something? For me?”
She had no time to answer before Bobby handed her a mug of the steaming cocoa. She took it reluctantly, but forced herself to take a sip. She could feel the muscles in Regan’s arms slightly relax, and he almost smiled as he kissed her cheek. Bobby soon stretched out on the blankets beside his young niece and nephew, and before long, both sets of the Lynch twins were sprawled out nearby.
Another hour passed before the shrill ringing of the telephone startled the adults and woke the young people. Despite his somnolence, Larry reached it first, shouting, “Hello?” as he lifted the receiver to his ear. He listened for a moment, then held it out towards Dan. He spoke quietly. “The Sergeant wants to talk to you.”
Dan’s hands shook as he took it. “What… how…?” he stammered, then forced himself to take a deep breath. “Yes, Sergeant?” He listened quietly for a moment. “I understand, sir. Thank you.” He replaced the receiver. Tears streamed down his face as he sank down to the floor.”They’ve found her.”
Trixie and Regan stood to their feet, both automatically moving towards Dan. She stopped as Mart took her arm. Nothing felt real as she clung to him, watching as her husband knelt down beside his weeping nephew.
Three weeks later…
“Give me a hand, Dan!” Hallie pleaded impatiently. “They’re going to be here in less than an hour, and I still don’t have these streamers up, or the dead flowers off of the mantle, or the punch made…”
“I told you to let me hang those,” he reminded her, even as he jumped up to help. “Kitten, there’s nothing to be nervous about. No one will notice if everything’s not exactly perfect.”
She glared at him from her perch on the step-ladder. “No, but I will! This is my first time being in charge of anything like this, and I want everything done right!”
“It will be,” he assured her, stepping up behind her. “Here, give me that.”
“Gladly.” She smiled a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes and turned to hand him the roll of purple streamers. She put her hand down on his shoulder to steady herself as she climbed down and found herself squealing as her foot slid off the step.
Dan caught her before she could fall, but instead of turning her loose, he swept her up into his arms, quickly tossing the streamers on the recliner. His intense black eyes gazed worriedly into her own. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” Tears unexpectedly came to her eyes. The words slipped out before she could stop them. “No, I’m not, Dan. I’m scared.”
“I know, kitten,” he whispered, sinking down onto the couch with her still in his arms. “I wish I knew how to make you feel safe again.”
“It’s not that,” she told him quietly, burying her face in his neck. “You do make me feel safe. It’s just that all my life, I’ve made one screw-up after another. Then I met you. I was only thirteen, and I knew that you would never be serious about a kid like I was, but then when you disappeared and I fell into their trap… You didn’t berate me for barging into that room like everyone else did. Then when we finally got a chance to talk…”
She paused only long enough to raise her head and look at him. “Dan, you were the first person to ever take me seriously, but then I had to go home, and we drifted apart, and I knew I’d somehow messed everything up again. Then I somehow got accepted to art school out here, and everyone back home acted like I was betraying them by coming out here. But it was all worth it when you gave me another chance…”
“Hallie…” he started to interrupt, but then stopped, realizing that she needed the emotional release. He pulled her closer to him.
“Then I got my diploma, and I felt like I’d actually done something. I was so happy when you asked me to marry you right before I left for Idaho. But I couldn’t even get married without messing up. I never told you what happened before we left for our honeymoon, about Mom blessing me out for that dance at our reception.” She sniffled. “Then we get back here, and I think everything’s going okay, but then I really screw up and almost let Bekah and Billy be kidnapped right from under my nose!”
“Hallie!” Dan did interrupt this time, honestly shocked by the realization that she was blaming herself for what had happened. He took a deep breath. “Kitten, first of all, I loved our wedding reception. Almost everyone there loved how you made that into a dance for all the fathers and daughters, and I know full well that Trixie is grateful you did. She was heartbroken when her parents didn’t attend her wedding, and Uncle Regan said that dance was all she could talk about that night.”
Hallie almost smiled. “Really?”
“Yes, really.” He smiled sadly, bending his head toward hers. “And she’s also grateful to you for that horrible night last month. Had it not been for your quick thinking and courage… Kitten, you never heard Kowalksi’s entire confession.”
She shook her head. “All I knew is what he told me himself, and then no one would ever tell me what happened after he was finally caught.”
Dan took a deep breath. “We thought we were doing the right thing, baby. I could tell you were still so frightened, and Dr. Gregory told me that you needed to put it all behind you. If I’d dreamed you were blaming yourself….” He wiped her teary eyes with his thumbs. “You didn’t know that he’d been watching the house for quite some time, finally paying an accomplice to slash Uncle Regan’s tires while they were in the doctor’s office to make sure they wouldn’t get home while he was there. He was planning to take the kids, but Hallie, he never planned on asking for ransom. That’s why the note read what it did; he wanted to make sure Trixie knew just why her children were gone.”
She gasped as she realized what he meant. “But he said he wanted ransom money!”
“Yes,” he closed his eyes. “He was still hoping that you’d somehow lead him to them. You saved their lives, kitten, and your own.”
“Barely,” she admitted in a tiny voice. “If he had realized that I wasn’t still unconscious when he dumped me out at that warehouse,” she shuddered as she looked up into her husband’s eyes. “He didn’t want to risk having to explain me if he was pulled over on his way up the river, but he was going to come back after he finished with Honey. I’ll never forget how thankful I was to see her safe and peering through that dirty window with Brian and Jim.” She choked back a sob. “Almost as thankful as I was that you weren’t with them.”
He frowned at her. “It was about to kill me not being with them, kitten. You’re my life. I couldn’t stand not knowing where you were.”
“I know,” she whispered. “But do you know how it makes me feel knowing that you love me that much? I’ve seen you so often in so many dangerous situations never blinking an eye. Then I’ve seen you with those you truly love.” She looked away from him. “I’m just scared I’ll do something to make you not love me anymore. That was what bothered me most, Dan. I was so scared that he would do something and you’d blame me.”
“I would never blame you, Hallie.” He turned her head back towards him and looked deep into her eyes. “And as for not loving you, don’t you realize I’ve loved you since you were thirteen? Nothing is going to change that now. But I miss you, baby. I miss your throaty chuckle, your sarcastic drawl. I even miss you teasing me day and night.”
“You really mean that, don’t you?” she asked in amazement.
He nodded. “I really do.”
Impulsively, she leaned in to initiate a kiss for the first time since her ordeal. They were still clinging to each other when the doorbell rang a few moments later. Hallie pulled only far enough away to glance up at the clock, then she sat up straight. “Oh jeepers! They’re early!”
Dan gently pushed her up. He stood up, smiling when he glanced out the window. “It’s just Regan and Trixie’s brood. We can put them to work.”
She laughed as the doorbell rang again, and he was relieved to hear the genuine amusement in her voice as she told him to open the door. “Don’t make them stand out there all night!”
“No, please don’t,” Bobby added, coming inside. He tried to sound pitiful as he shivered dramatically. “It’s freezing out there!”
“No, it’s not,” Trixie laughed. She bent down to help Billy take off his coat. “I’m burning up!”
Rebekah let go of Regan’s hand, and ran straight for her. “Help me, Hallie! Pwease?”
“Of course,” Hallie smiled a real smile, then she knelt down in front of the little girl to unzip her jacket. “Don’t you know I’d do anything for you?”
Trixie handed Billy’s coat to Regan, then reached over to hug her cousin. With tears in her eyes, she spoke softly. “And you almost did.”