A missing girl.
A young woman running from her shameful past.
A person with a dark secret who will stop at nothing to keep it hidden.
Chapter 1, Engraved
February 8, Present Day
When Amy Thompson opened her door to the two detectives, she knew her past had finally caught up with her. She’d spent the last seven years running from it, but still it haunted her. It surfaced at inopportune moments, conjured up by a smell, a song, a color. She could hear its footsteps as it chased her but she had always managed to outrun it.
Dizziness swept over her. She felt equal parts relief and fear. Oliver’s arm came around her waist. She leaned against him, grateful for his support.
“Amy Thompson?” The woman detective with the boyish haircut and soft features stuck out her hand. “I’m Detective Smart and this here’s my partner, Detective Thicke.”
Thicke grunted, scowling. Amy thought his name fit him with his round middle and imposing stature. His gaze slid over to Oliver. “Who are you?” He spoke out of one side of his mouth, reminding Amy of the lollipop kids from the “Wizard of Oz.”
“Oliver Watson. Amy’s fiancée.”
Before Amy could ask what they wanted, Thicke barked, “Isabel Greene is missing.” Smart threw him a hard look.
Amy’s knees softened. Oliver tightened his grip in an effort to hold her up.
“May we come in, please?” Detective Smart asked in a gentle tone.
Amy nodded, too stunned to speak. They walked past her, their sleeves brushing against her elbow as she pressed into the narrow doorway. She stayed rooted in place, hoping to melt into the wall and disappear into the ivory paint. Oliver guided her inside. Amy chose this apartment because she loved the openness of the floor plan since there were no walls to separate the kitchen from the family room, but today the room felt too large and exposed. She passed the dining table, candle glowing in the center, half eaten food on the plates. The scent of garlic bread and marinara sauce turned her stomach. Moments earlier she and Oliver were having a romantic dinner to celebrate their engagement. Amy had been thinking about how lucky she was; how things were finally looking up.
“Do you mind if we ask you a few questions?” Thicke asked, but then pressed on before she could answer. “You gave your daughter up for adoption seven years ago. Is that correct?”
“Yes.” Amy felt unsteady on her feet but since no one else sat down she did her best to stay upright.
“Why?” Thicke asked.
“That’s none of your business,” Amy said. Oliver’s hand clamped down on her shoulder like a warning.
“Thicke, back off.” Smart flashed an apologetic smile and shook her head. “Men. They can be so insensitive. Think how it is for me. I have to hang out with this oaf all day.”
The male detective glared behind bushy brows. Amy managed a smile.
“That must’ve been hard for you to give your daughter up,” Smart said.
“I admire you.”
“Yes. It’s a very selfless thing to do. I only wish more young mothers would do it. You were only nineteen, right?”
“You knew you couldn’t give your daughter the life she deserved.”
“Yes, that’s exactly it. It was a difficult time. I knew someone else would do a better job.”
Thicke groaned, ran a hand over his face. “Enough with the female moment. Where were you this afternoon, around two-thirty?”
The question caught Amy off guard. “Um, at work. Why? What’s going on?”
“Where do you work?” Smart asked
Amy’s head spun. She felt like a tennis ball being volleyed back and forth. “Gold Rush High.”
“Do you teach music?” Smart stepped over to the upright piano nestled in the corner and fingered a piece of sheet music from the stack.
“No, I’m a counselor. Playing piano is just a hobby.”
“That’s so great. I don’t have a musical bone in my body.” Smart dropped the paper and it landed askew, leaving the stack messy. Amy fought the urge to organize it. “When I was younger I tried to play the flute until my parents made me quit because it was too painful for them to listen to me practice.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t that bad,” Amy said, grateful for the switch in conversation.
“Yes, it was.”
“I believe it.” Thicke snorted.
“Oh yeah? What instrument did you play?” Smart placed a hand on her hip in a challenge.
“Clarinet. I was first chair.” He lifted his chin.
“I bet.” Smart turned to Amy. “How late did you work today?”
“Until four. Why? What happened?”
Without answering, Smart scribbled something on her little pad.
“What about you?” Thicke grumbled in Oliver’s direction. “Where were you this afternoon at two-thirty?”
“I’m a writer for Lakefront Magazine.” Oliver cracked his knuckles, one by one. Thicke glanced down at Oliver’s fingers.
Amy hoped Thicke didn’t think Oliver was nervous, because the truth was that he always popped his knuckles.
“How late did you work?”
Oliver chewed on his lower lip the way he did when in deep thought. The familiar gesture tugged at Amy’s heart. She hated dragging him into this.
“Not sure. I think until around five.”
“You don’t own a watch, Mr. Watson?”
“Of course I do.” Color as dark as blood rose from Oliver’s collar. “I get caught up in work and don’t always keep track of the time. I was working at two-thirty, though. Wasn’t that the question?”
Smart flashed an amused smile. Amy liked her but wasn’t quite ready to trust her. She wasn’t dumb enough to believe the detective was on her side.
“Amy, have you been telling people you wished you hadn’t given your daughter up?”
Panic gripped her. “Who told you that?”
“Just answer the question,” Thicke said
“Yes I have, but I would never take her.” It was then that she saw the picture in Smart’s hand. She moved forward as if in slow motion. “Is that a picture of Isabel? Can I see it?” The detective handed it to her and she stared into the beautiful little face. She ran her finger over the glossy portrait, at the girl with Amy’s same curly hair and dark eyes. Chills snaked up and down her spine at the shocking resemblance the child bore to Blake. The night she conceived flooded into her memory and the taste of anger and bitterness lingered on her tongue. She forced the memories down and handed the photo back.
“She’s beautiful.” It was then that Amy realized she had tears on her cheeks.
“Have you had any contact with Isabel since you gave her up?”
“No. When she was an infant the Greene’s sent me a couple of pictures and letters about how she was doing, but they cut off communication around the time she turned one.”
Amy shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“You were never curious?”
“No, I wasn’t,” she lied.
“Did it upset you?”
“Not at all.” The lies were stacking up now, like a wall of bricks. “I knew she was well cared for.”
“And yet you only live half an hour from the Greene’s,” Thicke interjected.
Amy bristled. “I grew up in Sacramento. I love that area. I wanted my daughter to be raised there.”
“If you loved it so much why’d you move to Folsom?” Thicke paced, his crude footprints stamping over the even vacuum lines.
Amy took a deep breath. The truth was that she’d moved to get away from Blake and his family. She couldn’t stand the thought of running into one of them at the store or gas station. Memories of their relationship lingered in restaurants, shops, parks, movie theatres and neighborhood streets. These were reasons she couldn’t explain to the detective. Instead she said, “It was time to grow up, get away from my parents and start my own life.”
“Yet you stayed relatively close.”
“I love my parents. I wanted to be far enough to be on my own but close enough to still see them on a regular basis.” In reality she knew if she moved too far her parents would be devastated. Amy had hurt them enough. She couldn’t stand the thought of hurting them more.
“But in all these years you’ve never seen your daughter?”
Amy hesitated. Seen and been in contact with were two entirely different questions. “No,” she lied. If he knew the truth he’d surely suspect her.
“What about Isabel’s father? Has he had any contact with her?”
“I’m not sure who he is.”
“Oh, come on. You expect us to believe that bull?” Thicke spat.
Smart threw him an exasperated look. “What my partner is trying to say is that you must have some idea.”
“I honestly don’t.” What kind of person must they think I am?
Smart cocked an eyebrow. Oliver stared at her in disbelief. She reached for his hand and held it tightly. Amy was so lucky to have him. She never thought she’d have someone who loved her so completely. She hoped he understood why she couldn’t tell them the whole story. The detective scribbled more down on her little pad, making Amy uneasy.
“Thank you for your time. Here’s my card.” Smart extended it to her. “If you think of anything else, give me a call. I’ll be in touch.”
Relief swept over Amy. Clearly they didn’t suspect her anymore.
“Oh, and don’t leave town.”
Or maybe they still did. Amy gave them a weak, quivering smile as she closed the door. The minute they left she crumpled into Oliver’s arms, sobbing into his t-shirt, which smelled like laundry detergent and cologne. He stroked her hair and kissed the crown of her head.
“I can’t believe Isabel’s missing,” she spoke into his chest. “And I can’t believe they think I took her.”
“They just said they’re following up on every lead. It’s only a matter of time before they find a more likely suspect.”
“You really think so?” she peered up at him, curls falling into her eyes.
He nodded. She took in his blond hair and light blue eyes which were such a contrast to Blake’s dark hair and eyes. She couldn’t have chosen a man more opposite than Blake in both looks and attitude. Oliver was easy going and fun while Blake was intense and controlling. Even though it was his good looks that first attracted her to Oliver, it was his temperament that caused her to fall in love.
She sunk onto the couch and pulled her legs to her chest. Oliver sat next to her. She stared out the window at the black night sky devoid of stars. The darkness taunted her. Snatching up the afghan that was draped over the back of the couch, she wrapped it around her shoulders to stave off the cold.
“When I was six my parents got me a baby doll for Christmas. I loved that doll. Lorraine. I carried her with me everywhere. That summer we went to the beach and I brought her. Seth and I had so much fun. We played in the waves and made sandcastles. I forgot all about Lorraine until we were miles down the road, too far to turn back.”
“It was just a doll.”
“But I abandoned her. I was selfish and I let her go.”
Oliver grabbed Amy’s hand, threaded his fingers through hers. “Lorraine or Isabel?”
“You didn’t abandon Isabel. You gave her a good life.”
“Did I? Lately I’m not so sure. I mean, I could have raised her.”
“Yes, but it would have been hard on both of you. You were going through a lot.”
“Is that what you would say to your biological mom?”
Oliver’s eyes darkened. He frowned. “That’s a completely different situation.”
“But your life would have been better if your mom had kept you, right?”
He shrugged. “Maybe, but then again she could’ve been just as bad as my adoptive parents. Heck, she could have been worse.”
“I always wanted to be a mom.” Amy rubbed her fingers along the inside of Oliver’s palm, touching the rough calloused spots that came from his childhood living on a farm. It was funny for Amy to think of her studious boyfriend, whose skin burned so easily and who spent most of his time inside on his computer, milking cows and feeding chickens.
“And you will be.” Oliver squeezed her hand. “You and I will have kids. I’ll give you everything you ever wanted.”
“How come you and Marie never had kids?” Rarely did Amy ask about Oliver’s ex-wife because he didn’t like to talk about the woman who had caused him so much pain, but right now she was too curious to hold back.
He stiffened. “We talked about it but Marie was never ready. It’s a good thing, anyway. She wouldn’t have been a very good mother.”
“What if I’m not a good mom either?” Amy voiced the fear that nagged her all the time.
“Are you kidding? You’ll be the best mom in the world.”
Warmth spread through Amy’s body. She leaned against Oliver and snuggled into his chest. His arm tightened around her and she cocooned herself in the safety of it. With Oliver she believed in a life she never allowed herself to dream of before. All she wanted was to jump into it, splash around in the waves of happiness and swim away from the darkness of her past.
“Do you think it’s possible that Blake might have found out about Isabel?” Amy’s stomach rolled.
“Maybe.” Crack, crack, crack. He popped his knuckles one at a time. Amy placed her hand over his in an effort to stop him but she knew it was no use.
“How many times do I have to tell you that I won’t get arthritis? It’s just an old wives tale.” Crack, crack.
She ignored his statement, not having the energy to argue. “I knew something like this would happen one day. Blake warned me.”
Amy felt sick to her stomach. Her head pounded. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to dump all this on you.”
“Dump away. I’m a big boy. I can take it.” He rested his hand on her thigh.
“I should’ve known he wouldn’t stay away forever. It was too good to be true. Everything was going so well. I almost forgot about my life before.”
“I know exactly what you’re saying.”
Amy looked up at him. She knew he understood. He’d told her many times that being with her made the pain from his previous relationship and his difficult childhood fade away.
“If there’s even a chance Blake took Isabel I have to find him.” At the mere thought, bile rose in her throat.
“No, you don’t.”
“You don’t know him. You don’t know what he’s capable of. If he’s got her then she’s not safe.”
“All the more reason to stay out of it. You should’ve told the police the truth tonight.”
“I can’t.” She lowered her gaze.
“But what if he really took her? You’re not helping by hiding information.”
“That’s why I have to find him myself. Feel him out. See if he knows anything without letting on too much. I know Blake. I’ll be able to tell if he’s hiding something.”
“No, Amy. It’s too dangerous.”
“But I can’t tell the police. Not just yet. Maybe it has nothing to do with him. I mean, face it. I haven’t seen Blake in years. I don’t even know if he’s still alive.”
“Amy, promise me you’ll stay out of it. Let the police handle it.”
She knew it wasn’t that simple. Oliver was just worried about her. She would feel the same way in his shoes, but he didn’t understand the responsibility she felt for Isabel. He wasn’t there when she held her daughter for a moment before handing her to the Greenes. He didn’t know how much pain it caused to give her daughter away; how she carried that emptiness inside every day. That’s why she had to do everything in her power to find Isabel and bring her back.
Amy was prepared to once again put her daughter first.
The minute Oliver left she raced to the kitchen and unhooked her cell phone from the charger on the counter. As she dialed the familiar numbers, she felt bad for deceiving him.
“Hello.” The high-pitched voice of her best friend came on the line. Hannah always said that when you sounded like she did your only career options were to be a kindergarten teacher or play Minnie Mouse at Disneyland. Amy remembered how relieved Hannah’s parents were when she chose a career in education after teasing them about her potential as a theme park character.
“Hannah, thank God you’re home.” Amy leaned her back against the tile counter.
“Of course I am. It’s after eleven. What’s up?”
Amy filled her in on the situation in a rush of words. As she relayed the evening’s events, the initial shock wore off and the reality of the situation sunk in. The entire thing seemed unfathomable to her. These kinds of things only happened on television or to people far away. Amy never imagined it could happen to her.
“Oh, Amy, that’s terrible.” Hannah said when she was finished. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Although she wasn’t sure she’d ever be okay again.
“Do you need me to come over?”
“No, I’ll be fine. I just need to ask you a favor.”
“Sure. Not a problem. Richard will help with whatever you need.”
“You think I’m going to need a lawyer?” There was a tiny red spot on the counter where she must have dripped spaghetti sauce. Amy rubbed it with her finger until it vanished from the white tile.
“Well, you might.”
“Okay. I’ll let you know. But that’s not why I called. Can you find out where the Smiths ended up? I know Branson’s wife used to work at the school with you. Maybe you could do a little digging? I’m sure Branson knows where Blake is. Those brothers were pretty tight.”
“Amy, you’re scaring me. Why do you want to find Blake?”
“He might know where Isabel is.”
“You think he took her?”
“Maybe. I just need to find him.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to see him again.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Famous last words.” Wailing flitted through the line. “Oh great, the little monster’s awake.”
That was the nickname Richard and Hannah had given their five-month-old daughter, Phoebe, because she was colicky. The constant crying was a bit much for them to deal with on top of Peyton, their rambunctious three-year-old boy.
“I’m sorry. I’ll let you go,” Amy said, envy gripping her heart. “Can you please just check on that tomorrow at work?”
“I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”
Hannah sighed heavily. “Fine. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Okay, call you tomorrow,” Amy said, but the phone had already gone dead. She pictured her friend at home with her baby in her arms and loving husband by her side. It made her heart ache. For years she had longed for that herself. With Oliver she’d been close to having that but now she was worried it would slip through her grasp like a slimy fish.
Amy moved to the table where food congealed on the plates and the candle still flickered. Leaning over, she held back her curly hair and blew out the flame. Watching the grey plumes of smoke swirling above, she thought about how life can change in an instant. After picking up the dishes she carried them into the kitchen and dumped them into the sink, where pots and pans soaked in soapy water. Amy knew she needed to clean up, but weariness descended on her like a heavy blanket. Exhausted, she turned out the lights and trudged down the hallway.
Flicking on the wall switch, her room was bathed in yellow light. The deep red color of her bedspread and curtains reminded her of blood. When she first moved in she had decorated with bold colors to liven up the washed out look of the white walls. Tonight it made her uneasy. She turned toward her dresser and opened the top drawer where her favorite flannel pajamas were folded on top. After changing into them, she threw her clothes in her hamper and went across the hallway to the bathroom. All her lotions and soaps were arranged in a neat row on the shiny counter. As she reached for the face soap, she glanced at her reflection.
Her curly hair was even frizzier than normal, her eye makeup was smeared and her pink lipstick bled outside the lines of her lips. She resembled a deranged clown. After scrubbing her face, the smattering of freckles across her nose returned, no longer hidden under a layer of foundation. Her body ached, her eyelids weighed down. She staggered to her room and climbed into bed, pulling the covers up to her chin. The last thing she saw before falling into a deep sleep was Blake’s face, dark and sinister, laughing at her as if he’d played her for a fool once again.