Authors: Kristen Heitzmann
Tags: #FIC042000, #FIC026000
Â© 2003 by Kristen Heitzman
Published by Bethany House Publishers
11400 Hampshire Avenue South
Bloomington, Minnesota 55438
Bethany House Publishers is a division of
Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Ebook edition created 2013
Ebook corrections 03.27.2013
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any meansâfor example, electronic, photocopy, recordingâwithout the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
who saw this book from its inception through its many faces to now,
who assists me with wisdom and joyÂ in building the Kingdom.
All glorious is the king's daughter as she entersÂ .Â .Â .
borne in with gladness and joy.
PSALM 45:13, 16
oelle pressed her back into the textured wall and tensed, her breathing fast and shallow. Her pulse throbbed in her throat. What was this feeling of prey, of eyes scanning the crowd as a hawk searches a field, circling, circling, until it strikes?
She shrank against the wall, heart pounding at something lurking deep in her subconscious. Fear. DÃ©jÃ vu. Nightmare. She couldn't moveÂ .Â .Â . she didn't dare. But she had to. She knew it. Why didn't matter. She'd been propelled this far by something raw, primal. Her mind need not engage beyond the command to run.
she told her legs. But they wouldn't.
Frantic, she watched the people passing by. The noontime throng surged and stalled and moved with a purpose in the Port Authority Bus Terminal. She alone was still. But she had to go now or it would be too late.
“Did you wash your hands?” Noelle jumped when the woman spoke behind her, tugging a child from the rest room. If only someone could hold her hand, make her move. But there was no one except herself. Her knuckles whitened on the strap of her tote. As the woman and child passed, she stepped into the crowd.
She must not panic. Panic had frozen her before. Now she must move. She hurried toward the exit.
Just board the bus
. Its door opened, beckoned. Before her, an elderly woman mounted the stairs slowly, so slowly.
Noelle glanced over her shoulder, looking forÂ .Â .Â . what? Her mind offered no explanation. It had shut down, functioning now on an animal level. Hide. Flee. To someplace deep and dark; noâsomeplaceÂ .Â .Â . She couldn't think where, but it didn't matter. Away. Just away. She climbed the bus stairs, pressed down the aisle, and sank into a seat, breath suspended while the bus pulled out from the terminal.
Then she sat silently, alternately dozing and staring out the window as the miles passed, their markers, like the lines on the highway, a pulse soon unnoticed. Day passed into night, light swallowed by darkness. The different terminals were a conglomerate of fluorescent lights, rows of seats bolted to the floor, and everywhere the bodies in motion. Before this, she'd never ridden a bus, never traveled commercially with the masses. Now she was just one moreâno different, no one special.
After the first terminal the panic had numbed. She felt invisible, boarding one bus, then another. They were a means only. She cared little where they took her as long as it was away. Her mind had closed down and that was fine. She didn't want to think, to feel. Only to act, and even now that took the smallest effort. Simply sit while the buses carried her away.
But at one station she paused beside a pay phone, biting her lip. Hesitating only briefly, she dug out a handful of change and approached the phone. According to the clock on the wall, it was nearly four o'clock in the morning. If she called the office, she'd get his voice mail, and that seemed better. Though she was twenty-three years old, if she didn't call, he would mobilize a search. Even so, he would wonder why she called from a pay phone in Ohio. But maybe it would be enough.
Holding the receiver close to her mouth, she spoke softly. “Daddy, it's Noelle. I'm fine and I don't want you to worry, but I'll be away awhile.” She couldn't tell him why, couldn't tell him where. “I need time to think, toÂ .Â .Â . figure things out. I love you.” She hung up.
May as well ask him not to breathe. But perhaps that was part of it. She'd consider that when it was time to think. She rubbed her temples, then boarded a new bus and went on.
Inside the spacious office, the noise of the city was muffled by plush carpet, drapes, and heavy mahogany furnishings. Cool air-conditioning replaced the sweltering mugginess of downtown Manhattan. But William St. Claire brooded. Noelle's message, which he'd received upon
arrival that morning, had charged his mind and wakened his ulcer. At 4
. she had phoned his voice mail, not wakened him at home, not waited until a normal hour, but nonetheless left a cogent, if perplexing, message.
He jerked his head up when Michael Fallon rapped on the open door. Maybe Michael could make sense of it, but by the look on his face, maybe not. “I'm sorry to interrupt, sir, but I need to speak to you.”
“Come in, Michael.”
“It's about Noelle.”
No surprise there.
“William, she's missing.”
William kept his lips in a tight line as he controlled the familiar fear. Just the sound of that word. Missing. He closed the portfolio sharply. “Why do you think she's missing?”
“I've looked everywhere.” Michael's blond hair was neatly styled, his suit impeccable. He stood alert, almost mercurial, balanced on the balls of his feet. William held him in his gaze. It was that energy that had first caught his attention, as it so closely resembled his own.
Michael was driven, determined, and one of the few men William genuinely took an interest in. He had nurtured that interest for years. But something in his manner now caused a seed of disquiet and even annoyance to form.
“It's nine o'clock in the morning. She could be having her nails done.”
“I don't think so. I searched the bungalow.”
Searched it? Noelle's bungalow was near the west gate, across the lake from the main house. Michael had access to the estate, one of the few William allowed that freedom. But why would he search Noelle's home? She couldn't have been gone more than twenty-four hours. They'd dined together the night before last.
“She seems to have packedÂ .Â .Â . meagerly.”
Of course she had packed. And called. If Michael had approached in any other mode, William would have touched his phone and played Noelle's message. He had heard no terror in her voice, not likeâhe jerked his mind back to the present. This had nothing to do with that other time. He could put both their minds at ease. But something said wait, some instinct honed by years of vigilance.
“She took the Gucci bag you gave her for Christmas.”
He pictured the tote. Not exactly luggage for an extended tour.
What troubled him was the obvious impetuosity; it was unlike Noelle to take off without discussing it first. He would have liked details, an itinerary, a clue as to what she needed to think aboutâall part of her safekeeping.
Even during college when she had taken an apartment outside the estate, he had kept close watch. Not surveillance, exactly, but near enough. After graduation, when she'd moved back to the estate, he had relaxed, trusted the security system. But that was to keep danger out, not Noelle in. She had a right to come and go and owed him no explanation. Though Michael might make a different argument.
“Michael, what's this all about?”
After an awkward moment, Michael took a small box from his pocket and opened it. “She left this.”
Frowning, William eyed the sparkling engagement ring Michael had presented to Noelle, but inside, his relief grew. No thief would have left so valuable an item; no abductor would have removed it from her finger. Michael's alarm was ungrounded. “She said nothing? Left no note?” Why not a message on Michael's voice mail? Even at four o'clock in the morning.
William leaned back in his chair. Perhaps Michael's unease was natural. It couldn't be easy to tell his prospective father-in-law he'd been jilted. Noelle's irresponsibility surprised and annoyed William, for it was uncharacteristic. But she was not in danger. He had to believe that. “Well, she's an adult. She can make her own choices.”
Neither of them sounded convinced. But as much as he would like to deny it, Noelle had grown beyond his ability to control, maybe even to protect. William drew a long breath, felt it clear his head, easing the ache. He could play the message for Michael now, but again he refrained. In the same way he sometimes left a cross-examination at a heightened point, so he'd leave Michael now and watch. He said, “Give her time. It'll work out.”
“Yes, sir.” Michael's voice sounded tight, but he held his emotion wellâanother reason he'd brought him up from the ranks of aspiring lawyers to junior partner in the firm. For a young man whose passion ran deep, Michael had amazing control.
As the door closed behind his prospective son-in-law, William sat grimly. What foolish whim of Noelle's was this? Had he not trained her
better? She could do worse than Michael Fallon, worse by far. Michael knew what he wanted and had the courage to grab it. He had compensated for his upbringing through sheer determination, unlike the privileged sons and nephews of old money who came to work for the firm on their family's reputations and some flimsy effort at school.
William judged by what he saw here and now. He appreciated Michael's drive to climb up from his wretched beginningsâsomething Michael never discussed but William had complete knowledge of. Noelle, of course, knew some of it, had even met Michael's mother and sister. Was that it? Had he raised a snob?
No. He shook his head. It must be more than that. Was Noelle afraid to commit? Possibly. There was that element, that unreachable place in her he had sensed more than once. All the more reason for someone like Michael. Noelle needed someone to keep her safe, keep her happy. He leaned back in the leather chair and looked at her picture on his desk. Her hair hung straight to her shoulders, the bangs casually disordered. Her lips smiled, but it was the eyes that held him, her mother's eyes.
It was painful to look into their gray-green and see Adelle. Though the color was his own, the shape of the eyes, the placement in the face, the delicate cheekbones and narrow jaw gave her the same vulnerable beauty. How had she grown into the young woman in the picture? How had time slipped away? Where was his little girl?
The emotion hit him so hard it winded him.
“Where is she? What do you mean she's missing?”
And Adelle almost cowering before him.
“I only looked away for a moment.”
Her wretched face pale with terror. William clutched his forehead. This was different. It had to be. But why hadn't Noelle told him she was going? Didn't she knowâno, of course she didn't. She couldn't remember. She'd been too young. Too young.
William sighed. This time was different. Wherever Noelle had gone, she would be back. This was not a crisis. A lover's spat, a stretching of the wings, a bid for independence; these were normal. He must allow her the freedom of womanhood. He must not grasp or he would lose her. Wait and trust. She would be back.
He returned his attention to the business Michael had interrupted. This case was tenuous, and the prosecution had wrapped up sooner than he expected. He had ordered his calls held and cancelled all other appointments. He had thought it was about the case that Michael had
come to his office, not this business with Noelle. He needed everyone focused. He must focus himself.
He pressed the intercom. “Margaret, see that I'm not interrupted again.” He pressed his jaw one way then the other and released the tension in his neck, then looked back at the papers on the desk.
Okay. They want to fightÂ .Â .Â . we'll give them a fight
He read the details over, piecing them together, searching their relevance. Silently assistants brought him the information he called for and left without acknowledgment. That human hands assisted him was irrelevant. His focus was complete until a tap on the door broke it. He wrenched his head up, scowling.
Margaret stood sheepishly in the doorway, the office lights dimmed behind her. She looked like a small potato dumpling, innocuous and ordinary, but there was nothing she couldn't do, and no one penetrated her web. She was his right arm, and he'd cut off his left before he'd lose her.
He cleared his throat. “That time?”
She nodded. “Is there anything you need before I go?”
“No. Thank you.” William leaned back and undid the knot of his tie. He should call it a day, be fresh tomorrow. He was getting too old to work the kind of hours he used to. “I'll just finish up here.”
She paused, but she had long since given up remonstrating him. He would finish when he finished, and no well-intentioned words from her could move him one minute sooner. He hid a secret smile as she left quietly. The outer door closed behind her with a solid click. Sighing, he activated his voice mail, replaying Noelle's message. This time he listened for strain, fear, anything that said he should take Michael's cue and panic.
Had he not received her message, Michael's alarm would have been contagious, but he had her own words.
Daddy, I'm fine
. He rubbed his eyes, ashamed at the pulsing joy her voice brought. She was safe! He willed himself to believe it. Eyes closed, he steepled his fingers against his lips.
She had the right to time alone. She hadn't needed to call. She was a grown woman, no longer answerable to him. StillÂ .Â .Â . he had traced the call through the office system. What on earth was she doing on a pay phone in Columbus, Ohio?
Michael Fallon sat in the darkness of his upper Manhattan apartment, his fingers slowly drumming the edge of the table. He stared at the silver-framed photograph until the light dimmed and he could hardly make out the delicate features. He gripped the frame and held it close, then threw it across the room.
Where would she go? He fingered the three-carat diamond ring, slipped it over the edge of his smallest finger, then flung it too. It struck the glass-covered picture on the wall, glancing off the widespread wings of the hawk that attacked with talons extended, beak open.
He stared into the amber eyes, felt their fierceness. At times he felt like that bird, restless and seeking, undaunted and daring the world to move beneath him. He almost heard the cry from the hawk's throatânot a plaintive cry, but rather one to terrify some small prey into fleeing its hiding place and awaiting his plunge. His plunge.