Parker Hathaway walked slowly, almost casually, to the front door of the house in South Salt Lake, not crouching or darting, yet keeping to the shadows made by the huge walnut tree in the front yard. The back door would have been a better choice for staying out of view, but it was too close to the neighbor’s dog kennel. If the child’s mother awoke, she’d call the police.
Or maybe not. Given her current circumstances, Dakota Allen was more likely to call the hulking, balding boyfriend who’d been hanging around almost constantly during the past week, though Parker had made sure his battered car wasn’t in the driveway tonight. Of course, Dakota might still be awake. He didn’t know anything about her sleeping habits these days. Did she drop off the moment her head touched the pillow? Or maybe she lay awake nights like he did, thinking of how he had to do something—anything—to prevent the disaster he knew was imminent.
It didn’t matter. He hadn’t come for her. When he was through here, she’d hate him with a murderous passion that might barely begin to approach the feelings he harbored for her.
He shivered in the cold, and thoughts of the small whisky bottle he’d once kept in the cab of his truck made him ache with longing. But that was a place he would never go again. He forced his thoughts back to the task at hand. Two more minutes, maybe three tops, if all went well. He slipped the credit card into the crack between the door frame and the faceplate of the lock mechanism. Good, the dead bolt hadn’t been engaged. He’d hoped for that. Maybe she’d been too tired. Or maybe she simply didn’t care. Women like Dakota didn’t. Not about the things that most people considered important. They were too busy using others to expect to be victims themselves.
Even if she’d thrown the dead bolt, he’d come prepared with the glass cutter in the truck, but this was better, cleaner. Less evidence that he’d been inside the house. What he planned to do there could land him behind bars. Deep behind bars.
Far more easily than Parker had dared hope, the card released the latch. He eased the door open, and only as he went inside did he allow his gaze to scan the neighborhood. Not furtively but carelessly, as though he belonged. Indeed, he had belonged to a neighborhood exactly like this one for as long as he’d been able to bear it. A neighborhood like this and all it entailed was what had driven him near the edge of sanity.
No one was in sight, and even if someone was looking out a window at that moment, they might assume he was the husband coming home after a night shift. They were used to having people come and go at all hours here. Three o’clock on a weekday morning, the time he’d chosen, was when they had the least traffic. He’d watched for three nights to be sure, eating up tankfuls of gasoline in the car he’d borrowed for the purpose.
He took a step inside, shut the door quietly, and then took another step as his eyes strained to be sure the tiny living room was empty. The furnishings were plain and mismatched, with a tattered brown couch, a blue love seat, and a white coffee table that had seen better days. The floor was clean. This surprised him, and he felt his first tremor of doubt.
No. Doubts were fatal. He had no choice but to continue. Desperation drove Parker onward. Another step and the floorboards creaked. He froze, listened for a full minute, and then continued when only silence met his ears. Moonlight filtered in from the kitchen window between sheer curtains that even in the dim light appeared tired and desolate. The counters were clear, though dishes were piled high in the sink, some with globs of food stuck to them. Turning his head, he slid down the dark hallway, a step at a time, stopping to listen between each movement.
Two rooms were at the end, both doors closed. What mother closed her bedroom door in the middle of the night with a helpless child sleeping nearby? How would she hear its cry? He took the left door, the front bedroom. He’d seen Madison in the window and knew it was hers.
Carefully, he twisted the doorknob and pushed open the door. There was the faintest of creaks but not loud enough for alarm. The bedroom was not as plain as the living room. Here, colorful posters lined the walls, numerous stuffed animals filled a book shelf or lay scattered over the floor and bed, and an easel for drawing stood in one corner. All the furniture was made of light oak and definitely on the new side.
His breath caught in his throat as he saw Madison lying in her bed beneath the window, a smile curving the edges of her button lips. Moonlight spilled onto her outstretched hand, a hand that beckoned to him. His heart constricted as it always did at seeing her face.
No doubts here. They belonged together. I’m here, sweetheart. In three steps he was kneeling at her bed, his hands reaching toward her.
A sound made his hands jerk to a stop—a soft murmur that came not from the bed but from the crib against the wall. Curious, he stood and peeked inside. Another child lay there, dressed in a blue, short-sleeved T-shirt, his mud-colored hair curling softly at his nape. He was huddled face down with his hands and feet tucked under his small body, as if trying to protect himself from the cold. Parker hadn’t realized this child would be here tonight. Scrubbing a hand over the week-old growth on his face, he considered the boy. He wished he could take them both.
Better stick to the plan, he thought. Where he was going with Madison, he couldn’t take the boy. He would only be a liability. Jaw clenched, Parker grabbed the furry blanket near the boy’s feet and pulled it up to his neck.
Resolutely, he turned his back on the crib, kneeling again near the bed. He pulled down her blanket, scooting one hand under her warm body. She wore a thin nightgown with cap sleeves, completely inappropriate for the November night, even in a heated house. With his other hand, he grabbed the princess lap blanket folded at the bottom of the bed and pulled it up to her neck, tucking the furry warmth around her body as he drew her toward him.
She stirred as Parker rose to his feet and folded her tightly against his chest. He rocked her until she buried her face in his shirt and was still. It’ll all be over soon, he promised. Turning, he tripped over a jumble of stuffed animals on the floor, but he caught himself in time. The dresser was open, and clothes peeked out this way and that. She wouldn’t need them.
He was nearing the bedroom door when footsteps made him freeze. There was no time to hide before the other bedroom door was flung open. Dakota, most likely. He stood motionless in the darkness as she stumbled to the bathroom down the hall, not shutting the door behind her. The sound of urination filled the quiet of the house.
Parker swore under his breath. The closet—he should hide there. But if she were to check on the children, the missing girl would be noticed immediately. Then he’d have to do something to prevent the mother from calling anyone.
Or he could put Madison back in her bed.
Swiftly, he crossed the room and laid the child down, pulling the larger blanket over her to hide the furry one. Then he sprinted to the closet.
He needn’t have worried because the woman didn’t come into the children’s bedroom. Yet she didn’t shut her door, either. He waited for her to fall asleep again, though he knew every minute put him closer to discovery.
After fifteen minutes, he could wait no longer. Again, Parker knelt by the bed and scooped up the little girl. This time she didn’t react but slept on like an angel. Down the dark hallway he went, shuffling slowly to be sure he didn’t trip over anything. Then he was at the front door, shutting it behind him and stepping quietly over crunchy mounds of snow. His blue truck was parked between this house and the neighbor’s. He climbed inside and, still holding the child, started the engine.
The cab was cold—he hadn’t planned for the wait inside the house—but he’d brought blankets. Headlights appeared ahead, and he stiffened until a car passed, the lights fading behind him. He should have borrowed his friend’s car again instead of using his own truck, but that hadn’t been possible tonight, and he couldn’t afford to wait. The cost might be too high.
Two blocks away, he stopped and settled Madison on the seat next to him, tucking blankets around her to help her feel secure.
The faint red lights from the dashboard barely illuminated her baby face, but he could see that her eyes had opened, small slits in her chubby roundness. “Daddy? Is that you?”
The light made it difficult for her to really see much of anything, and her apparent trust made the ache in his chest intensify. Parker swallowed, the dryness hurting his throat. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” he murmured. “Sleep, now. That’s my girl.”
Obediently, she shut her eyes and was lost again in her dreams.
He drove to I-15, heading south. What he wouldn’t give for a drink. Just a sip to burn a little warmth down his throat. He knew it was a battle he’d fight for the rest of his life, but no way would he let that vice steal what he had worked so hard to achieve. His entire life and future were tied up in that little girl lying there so peacefully on the seat. He must arrive at his destination. Then he could decide what to do next.