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"Sha sha, Mama. Sha sha! Geen, Go! Geen, Go!"
Easing her foot slowly off the brake as the traffic signal turned from red to green, Meredith Smith Bennet tuned out Caleb's chatter because she had to.
And took comfort from it at the same time. The blond-haired toddler, strapped into his car seat behind her, kicked his feet repeatedly with glee. Sha shaFrench fries. That was all it took for him to be happy. The anticipation of a French fry.
With a glance in the rearview mirror, keeping the small green car four vehicles back in the other lane in sight, she turned left at the familiar Santa Raquel corner.
"Sha sha, Mama! Sha sha!"
She'd promised Caleb French fries at his favorite fast food placea treat on the one day a week he had to spend an afternoon at day careand he'd had his eye on the Golden Arches where they'd been heading before she'd been forced to turn off the main drag.
Instead of excitement, she heard the beginning of tears in his voice as the arches disappeared from view. The green car had made an illegal right turn, cutting off another vehicle to cross over two lanes.
"I know, Caleb," she said. Her son was not going to suffer. Or know fear. Not by her hand. "In a minute," she said, keeping her voice light and cheerfulher husband's description of her "mommy" voice. A voice he was certain he'd never tire of hearing.
But he'd also been certain that Steve was in the past.
"Mama's going a different way," she continued, changing lanes without a signal and making a quick left turn the second she saw the chance.
As luck would have it, she was able to cross three lanes and make a right and then another left turn before the not new, not old, not big and not particularly small green car with the black-haired man behind the wheel could follow.
She'd lost him.
Pediatrician Max Bennet was finishing up his afternoon's charting, listening to the chatter of the front office staff in the clinic he shared with several other family physicians. His private cell phone buzzed at his hip.
Last he'd spoken to his wife, she'd been leaving to take Caleb for French fries on his way to day care. But Meri knew his last patient, a four-year-old needing a well-check, had been at three. She probably needed him to stop for milk on the way home. Or vanilla wafers. Caleb was addicted to them. And since they were the only sweets the little guy was allowed
The caller wasn't his wife of three years. It was Caleb's day care.
"I'm sorry to bother you, Dr. Bennet, but Mrs. Bennet isn't here yet and Caleb's not happy. He's been upset since she dropped him off, but it's gotten steadily worse. He's crying so hard he just threw up."
He and Meredith had disagreed on the whole day care thing. He'd thought it was important that Max be integrated. She'd wanted to keep the toddler with her or a private sitter.
She was paranoid about safety. With good reason.
But Caleb had grown too attached to themthe separation anxiety he was experiencing was, in part, their fault.
They couldn't let Meri's fears paralyze their son.
"It's three-forty-five," he said, glancing at the clock on his walla Seth Thomas he and Meri had purchased together at a little shop in Carmel. "What time did she say she'd be back?"
"Technically she's not due until four but when he was so upset at her leaving, she said she'd be back by three."
It got earlier every week. "What time did she drop him off?"
They'd gone from one full day a week to one half day. And now it was down to two hours?
Still, it wasn't like Meri to be late collecting their son. Ever.
"Mrs. Bennet had a client this afternoon," he told the woman on the phone. "I suspect she ran over. I'll be done here in another fifteen minutes or so and will stop by there on my way home. If she shows up in the meantime, have her wait for me, will you?"
They'd have to talk about increasing Caleb's time at day care again. Later. Maybe over a glass of wine. When Meri was relaxed.
"Yes, sir. What do you want me to do with him in the meantime?"
"Tell him to go play," Max said. He supposed he sounded harsh. But his son had to learn to cope away from his mother's watchful eye.
At two years of age, Caleb was showing no signs of asserting his own independence.
Clicking to end his call, Max dropped his phone to his desk. And closed the file on his laptop. He wasn't going to get any more work done. Might as well pack up and get Caleb.
But first, he put in a call to his wife. She wouldn't answer if she was still in session with the little boy who had Down syndrome. His parents had hired her for private therapy one day a week in addition to the speech pathology work she did with him at the elementary school where she worked part-time.
Not surprised when she didn't pick upif she was out of session, she'd be getting Calebhe put his cell phone in the breast pocket of his lab coat and headed out to the minivan he'd purchased when they'd found out they were expecting Caleb.
He pretended that he was as relaxed as he knew he should be. Meri was fine. There was nothing to worry about.
Trouble was he'd told himself that once beforein another lifetime. About another woman. His first wife.
And he'd been wrong. She hadn't been fine at all. She'd been dead.
Waving goodbye to Devon, who stood with his mother in the doorway to their home, Meredith hurried to her white minivan, a much less posh version of the one Max droveher choice because she didn't like to stand out or attract attention. With the remote entry device in the palm of her hand, her finger poised over the panic button, she waited until she was in front of the car, with a view of both sides of the vehicle, ensuring there was no one there waiting to jump in one door as she climbed in the other, and then, pushed the unlock button. Ten seconds later she was safely inside with the doors locked. Mrs. Wright, Devon's mother, was just closing their front door.
Adjusting her rearview mirror, she stole a panoramic glance of the road behind her. No green vehicles. No vehicles in the street at all.
And no one sitting in a car in a driveway that she could see.
No one loitering in the yards or on the sidewalks or the street.
Nothing suspicious looking at all.
Unless the absence of human life outside was suspicious .
Starting the van, she slowly pulled away from the curb. She was late. She'd told the day care she'd be there to pick Caleb up at three. But technically, based on the agreement she'd made with Max, she was supposed to leave Caleb at Let's Pal Around until four.
She'd told her husband she'd try to leave him that long but hadn't expected to succeed. Today, thanks to the new at-home client and the many questions his mother had asked, she just might make it. She just might manage to leave Caleb at day care for the full three hours.
The important thing to do right then was act as if everything was normal. Get Caleb. Go home. Have a normal evening.
And find a way to disappear. Before Max figured out that something was wrong and called in his cop friends to save the day and put himself and Caleb in danger in the process. Before Steve got tired of the little cat-and-mouse game he was playinghad possibly been playing for days if he was the one who'd left that note on her van three days before.
A note with no signature and no number, only a demand to call. She'd tried to convince herself it was a mistake, that it had been meant for some other vehicle. She'd heard Max's calm voice in her mind, telling her that the past was just that, the past. That Steve hadn't been around in years and she was letting him win by living in fear.
Keeping a watch behind her as she entered the main thoroughfare on the outskirts of Santa Raquel, Meredith made a mental plan of the route she would take back to her son. A route that wove in and out of various neighborhoods, seemingly going nowhere fast, until she could be certain that no one was following her.
Her rendition of Max's voice in her head had been telling her to calm down. To stop worrying. To smile.
She'd tried to smile.
And had seen that car following her that afternoon. She couldn't pretend any longer. The note, this carthey added up to only one thing. Steve knew where she lived. He knew her routine.
Caleb had had a particularly hard time being left at day care. Her sweet little man had probably picked up on her tension. It had gone against every maternal instinct she had to leave him there today.
And yet, she had been grateful to turn him over and walk out that door. He'd be safe there.
Safer than he'd be anywhere with her?
There was a green car behind her. Two cars back. It had been behind her since she'd turned out of Devon's neighborhood. Staying back in traffic. Not always in the same lane. But there.
The same green car that had been following her earlier. It was a message to say that he was on to her. That if she was driving he knew. That she belonged to him. Was a part of him. Would always be a part of him. They were both parts of the same body. The same soul.
She knew the words. Could hear his voice in her head, too. Louder than Max's.
Just as she heard her owntelling her to get as far from Caleb's day care as she could. As quickly as she could.
Her plan wasn't fully formed yet. She wasn't ready.
But her time was up.
His job was not to panic. When he'd married Meredith Smith, alias Cassandra White, alias Lori Wade, alias Pamela Casey, he'd promised not only to love and to cherish, to be faithful and kind until death did them part, but he'd promised to be the keeper of their calm. The one in charge of making certain that fear didn't rule their lives.
He'd promised her he could live with a woman whose life could possibly someday be in danger.
And in the three years since they'd made those vows, he'd been able to keep every single one of them.
But unlike Jill, the cop who'd made him a widower four years after they'd married, and who'd driven him crazy with worry countless days and nights before that, Meredith's entire life revolved around keeping herself and her loved ones safe. Not putting herself in danger to keep the world safe.
Jill's job, and her penchant for leaping into the middle of any situation if she thought she could help, had made living without fear impossible.
Meredith made keeping fear under wraps easy.
The woman was a walking safety course in action.
So she was a few minutes late. Today had been her first private session with Devon Wright, the eight-year-old with Down syndrome. She'd been working with him for more than a year through his school. The at-home session had probably run longer than she'd expected. And that was all.
He could hear Caleb's cries as he entered the deserted front lobby of the Let's Pal Around day care, chosen because of its proximity to the elementary school, their home, and his clinic, as well as its distance from the beach. And because of the superior instructors as well, but he wasn't kidding himself. As soon as Meri had seen the security systems in place at Let's Pal Around, he'd known she'd made her choice.
"Dr. Bennet," Alice somethingor-other, looking slightly harried with her graying hair falling out of the twist on the back of her head, and a bit of something white spilled on the front of her shirt, greeted him when he walked through the door. "Caleb will be very glad to see you."
A sentiment, no doubt shared by the Let's Pal Around staff.
"No word from my wife?" Why was he asking? Clearly, if Meri were there, he'd see her.
"No, sir." Alice swiped a card and disappeared behind the half door leading to the children he could hear, but not see. The top half of the door closed and latched as well, but remained open during business hours. He knew from his tour that there was another door, a locked security screen door, behind which the children played.
Hands in his pockets, he rocked back and forth on his tennis shoes and told himself there was nothing to worry about. Meri was fine. He was not going to check his watch.
When Meri hadn't answered her phone, he'd left a message. And sent her a text, too. She'd be in touch as soon as she finished with Devon.
In the meantime, he'd take Caleb home and start dinner. They'd moved chicken from the freezer to the refrigerator that morning. Talked about doing it on the grill with some of the fresh corn on the cob they'd picked up at an outdoor market that weekend. Maybe he'd best put the poultry back in the freezer. Might be too late to grill outside by the time she got home.
They could eat one of the ready-to-go meals in the freezer.
Meredith wasn't even an hour late yet. And she'd warned him that today's session might take longer than usual since she'd never been to Devon's home and would need to prepare the working environment once she saw what she had to work with.
Turning, he couldn't help but see the little analog clock on the screen of the computer by the receptionist's window. See, it was only four o'clock four-oh-one.
Meredith was officially late.
But he wasn't going to worry.
His job was too stave off the paranoia that threatened their well-being.
Meredith was a speech pathologist. Not a cop. And her past, while dangerous to her at the time, was no longer a threat.
They'd had four peaceful years together, including the year they'd met and dated.
Meri was fine. And had even managed to leave Caleb at the day care for their agreed upon duration.
He should be celebrating.
At the very least, he was going to keep his fears in check.
Their happy life together depended upon his doing so.