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Juniper Hill: Chapter 22

MEMPHIS

In just minutes the street had filled with police cruisers. Winn pulled in last, getting out of an unmarked SUV, and rushed over to where we stood. Her officers followed, crowding in close to form a blockade around us.

My entire body trembled as I stood tucked into Knox’s side.

Winn took my hand, giving it a squeeze. “Tell me everything. From the beginning.”

The idea of saying the words—she took my son—made my throat close. Like he knew I wouldn’t be able to do it, Knox held me tighter and spoke for me.

He told her how we’d come to pick up Drake. How we’d gone to Jill’s house only to find it empty. How we’d both raced for the center, panicked and frantic, and demanded information from the owner and other caregivers—there hadn’t been much to share. No one in the building, not the women in the office or the girl in the nursery, had a clue where Jill would take Drake.

All we knew was that Jill had left with him, promising to return soon. And then she’d disappeared.

With every word Knox spoke, the tremors in my limbs amplified until I was sure that if not for his arm around my back, I would have buckled to the icy sidewalk.

Winn soaked in his statement like a sponge, listening without comment until he was finished. Then she began issuing orders to her officers. “Get Jill’s information. Start with her car. Description. License plate. Make and model. Push an AMBER Alert immediately. Then run her plates and get it out around town. Dig into her phone after that. See if we can track her to a cell tower.”

“You got it, Chief.” One of the men took off running for the center’s front doors.

“Search her house,” Winn ordered two other officers.

They rushed off and only seconds later, I flinched at the boom of a door being kicked in.

“Has this ever happened before?” Winn asked.

I nodded, swallowing the lump in my throat. “Once. She took Drake with her to run home. But she was only gone for a few minutes. I told her she couldn’t do that again.”

“What’s her relationship with Drake?” Winn asked.

“She loves him. She acts like she loves him.” Maybe she loved him too much. My head was spinning. My legs began to crumble.

“Breathe.” Knox held me tighter. “Breathe, Memphis.”

I filled my lungs, the sting in my nose bringing a new set of tears. “Do you think she might have taken him? That she wants to keep him?”

“This is most likely just a miscommunication,” Winn said. “Maybe she had to run to the store or something. You were here early today, right?”

I nodded. “Yes. I usually don’t get here until after five.”

“Okay.” Winn squeezed my hand again and locked her gaze with Knox. The message passed wordlessly between them made my stomach knot tighter. There was dread there. Fear. And sympathy.

He was holding it together for me, but I wasn’t the only one who stood shaking, numb from the cold and panic.

“Why don’t you both wait in the car?” she suggested. “I need to ask more questions and make some calls.”

“Come on, honey.” Knox escorted me to the car, our steps slow because he must have known I didn’t trust my feet. He helped me into the passenger seat, then rounded the hood for the driver’s side. The moment the door was closed, he pulled out his phone and put it on speaker.

Harrison answered on the first ring. “Hi, Knox.”

“Dad.”

One word and Harrison heard the tremble in Knox’s voice. “What’s wrong?”

“We came to get Drake from daycare. He’s gone. Jill, the woman who watches him, took him.”

“Oh, God.” Harrison sucked in a sharp breath. “Call Winn.”

“Already did. They’re pushing an AMBER Alert.”

“I’ll make some calls too.” Without another word, Harrison ended the call.

Knox’s fingers flew across the screen, pulling up another contact. Again, he left it on speaker.

“Thank you for calling The Eloise Inn. How can I help you?” Eloise answered.

“Eloise. It’s Knox.” He repeated the same message and when Eloise gasped on the line, I had to squeeze my eyes shut to keep from crying.

“What can I do?” Eloise asked.

“Help us get the word out. The more people looking for them, the better.”

“On it.”

Knox sighed and stared at his phone, like he wanted to make more calls but couldn’t find the strength to repeat the truth again.

“Is this a bad dream?” I whispered.

He set the phone on his thigh and looked to me, his own eyes full of unshed tears. “It has to be.”

“What if we don’t find him?”

“Don’t go there.” He took my hand, gripping it so fiercely that it hurt my knuckles. But I clung to the pain, clung to him, so that I stayed here, in this car, and didn’t take a step down an unthinkable road. “We’ll find him.”

“We’ll find him.” There was no confidence in my voice. Only fear.

The two of us sat together in the cold car, watching as Winn and her team rushed back and forth between the daycare center and Jill’s house. A crowd was gathering outside the daycare’s doors.

The two women from the office had come outside, both bundled in coats. They made sure to keep their heads down and not glance our direction as we sat motionless, our short breaths curling into white wisps in the car. Neither of us thought to turn on the engine, to crank the heat. We were both too stunned.

I sat and stared through the windshield, a prayer running through my mind on loop.

Find him. Find him. Please, let us find him.

“We left his stuff.” Knox’s words startled me as he burst out of the car, running to the sidewalk.

I’d grabbed Drake’s car seat and diaper bag from the nursery. When had I set them down? Before or after we’d gone to Jill’s? I couldn’t remember now. Every minute seemed fuzzy, every second like a lifetime.

A fresh wave of dizziness hit, swirling around the what-ifs that I refused to let myself think, let alone voice.

Knox picked up Drake’s things, carrying them to the backseat. Then he returned to the driver’s seat and, this time, turned the key.

“I can’t sit here,” he murmured. The heat had barely begun to flow from the vents before he was out of the car once more, this time stalking toward Winn.

She stood in Jill’s driveway, talking on the phone.

Knox walked right to her, waiting for her to end the call. The moment she put her phone away, the garage door at Jill’s opened. It was empty. Where there should have been a car, there were only shadows.

Where would she have gone? Drake didn’t have his car seat. What if she got into an accident? Had she gone into town? Maybe she’d ventured downtown for a coffee.

My hand found the door handle and I pushed it open, but before I could step outside, a blaring alarm sounded from my phone. The noise echoed through the air, not just from my phone, but from all the other people.

The AMBER Alert.

For my son.

That shrill sound slashed through my body, slicing to my heart. I clutched my chest, willing my heart to keep beating. Find him. Please, find him.

Two cars pulled into the parking lot, both at almost the exact same time. Other parents were beginning to show to pick up their own children. Their faces were clouded in confusion and sudden worry before they each rushed inside.

Except inside, they’d find their children.

While I had not.

A rush of energy lit my nerve endings into a buzz. Sitting in this car, waiting, was no longer an option. I shoved outside, wrapping my arms around my waist, and hurried to join Knox.

He saw me and swallowed hard, then held out a hand.

I took it and faced Winn. “I can’t sit here. I’m going crazy.”

“We’ve got everyone in the department looking. The alert’s out there. Let’s hope we get a call.”

“What if I just headed into town? Maybe I’ll bump into her. Maybe she went to the store or Christmas shopping. She said she’d be back before I showed up. It’s almost five.”

“It would be better if you stayed here,” Winn said. “In case we need information.”

“You could call me.” My eyes watered. “Please. Please don’t make me sit here and watch. If this was Hudson . . .”

“Okay.” She blew out a deep breath. “All right. Keep your phone close.”

“I will.” I moved to take a step, but before I could walk away, Knox’s hand shot out and clasped around my elbow.

“Wait, honey.”

“What?” I spun. “Are you coming too?”

“We need to tell Winn the whole story.”

“What whole story?” she asked.

It took me a moment to read his face. Then realization hit me and my stomach did a cartwheel.

Oliver. My parents. The woman who’d tried to blackmail them for money.

“Do you think this is related?” I asked Knox.

“I don’t know.” His forehead furrowed. “But if it is, Winn needs the truth.”

All this time, we’d waited for my parents to contact us. We’d endured their silence, hoping for the best possible outcome. Except what if that had been a mistake? What if Drake had been a target for months? What if we could have stopped this from happening?

“Memphis.” Winn placed her hand on my shoulder, pulling me out of my head. “Talk to me.”

“Last month, around Thanksgiving, my parents showed up in Quincy. Our relationship is . . . strained. They came because a woman was blackmailing them. She threatened to expose Drake’s father’s name. To tell people who his father is.”

“Who is his father?” she asked.

I looked to Knox.

Knox was Drake’s father. In all of the important parts of that label, Knox was Drake’s dad.

They just didn’t share the same DNA.

“His name is Oliver MacKay,” I said, then told her the whole story.

Winn planted her hands on her hips. “Could they have taken Drake? Oliver or his wife or her family?”

“I don’t know.” Maybe they wanted him after all. Or maybe this was Oliver’s wife’s punishment for his infidelity.

“Chances are, Jill has him,” Winn said. “You said she loves him. The daycare owner confirmed that Drake’s her favorite, by far. Given that, my hunch is that she’s probably overstepped. She took him on a walk to a park or downtown or to visit a friend.”

“But . . .” Knox voiced the doubts written on Winn’s face.

“I need to know what happened with the woman in New York,” she said.

“Okay.” With shaking hands, I scrolled through my contacts and found my father’s name. I tapped it and raised the phone to my ear, holding my breath as it rang. My heartbeat was so loud and hard that I felt my pulse blast through my veins.

“Memphis,” he answered.

“What happened with the woman who was blackmailing you?”

“You made it clear that you didn’t care about the outcome. You had your chance—”

“My son is missing.” My voice cracked. “What happened? Please.”

“What do you mean, missing?”

“Just tell me!” I screamed the words, the hold on my sanity beginning to break.

Before I could hear my father’s response, Knox ripped the phone from my hand. “Talk. Now.”

A tear sped down my cheek as I stared up at Knox. His jaw ticked and his nostrils flared at whatever my father said. Then he dropped the phone from his ear and ended the call.

“What?”

“He refused to pay. Told her to fuck off. Hasn’t heard from her since.”

“Oh, God.” A hand flew to my mouth to hold in a sob.

How could I have been so foolish? In the past weeks, I’d let myself have hope. I’d let myself be blind. My father had never intended to help me. Not once.

I was about to crash to the sidewalk when a strong arm banded around my back, holding me up. “He called her bluff. And she called his.”

“Does he have a name?” Winn asked.

Knox shook his head. “No. He didn’t get one.”

“This is my fault,” I whispered. “I should have dealt with it myself.”

“No. This isn’t on you.” Knox took my face in his hands, his thumbs wiping furiously to dry the tears. “We made this decision together.”

“It was the wrong decision.”

The anguish on his face only made my tears fall faster. “I know.”

“What do we do? Where is he?”

“We’ll find him.” Knox pulled me to his chest, holding tight as he spoke to Winn. “What do we do?”

“I know you don’t want to hear this, but I need you both to wait.”

I growled into Knox’s chest, the terror morphing to frustration and despair. “I can’t sit in that car and do nothing. I can’t watch mothers walk into the center and pick up their children. I can’t.”

“Walk to town if you want,” Winn said. “But we’ve got a lot of people looking for Jill. I’ll check in with the team and be back with an update shortly.”

“Then let’s go.” He let me go and grabbed my hand, pulling me down the sidewalk as we set off toward Main.

My legs were stiff and wobbly over the first two blocks, but then they began to warm and my strides lengthened. We walked in silence but the dull scream in my head grew louder with each step.

If my father had no idea who the woman was who’d tried to blackmail him, there was one person who would.

I stopped so abruptly that my hand slipped from Knox’s firm grasp.

“What’s wrong?”

“We have to know who this woman was. Even if it’s not her, we have to know.” The time for burying my head in the sand was over. I’d made the mistake thinking that in Montana I was unreachable. Maybe this had nothing to do with the blackmail but I wasn’t going to take that chance.

“You’re going to call Oliver,” Knox guessed.

I nodded and dug out my phone, finding the number I’d hidden under a fake name.

“Yes,” he answered, his voice as cold as the winter air.

“Who knows about us?”

“No one.”

“Someone,” I corrected. “Because someone is trying to blackmail my family for money to keep my son’s paternity a secret. Who?”

“Shit,” he hissed.

“Who is it, Oliver?”

“I don’t know.”

My fury spiked. “Don’t you dare lie to me. This involves my son. I promised you I’d be quiet, I walked away, but you will tell me. Or my next phone call will be to your wife.”

“Do that and I will take your child.”

“You will never touch my son. I will use every dollar of my millions to ruin your life.” Whatever it took to keep Drake safe. If that meant doing my father’s bidding, so be it. “Who?”

The other end of the line went silent. So quiet I wasn’t sure if he was still there. But then he breathed and I knew he’d chosen self-preservation over his secrets. “No one knew about us.”

“Then why did the FBI stop by my house before I left the city? Someone has to know, Oliver. Who?”

There was a rustling noise in the background, then the closing of a door. “When did the FBI approach you? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“We weren’t exactly on speaking terms. And I told them nothing.”

“What, exactly, did the FBI agent say?” There was an edge to his voice. Fear. Good. I was fucking terrified. He could be scared too.

“Nothing. The agent asked if I knew you. I told her I didn’t.” A half-truth. By that point, Oliver had been dead to me. “I didn’t realize you were being investigated.”

“I’m not.”

Liar. “If the FBI knows, then someone else does.”

“Maybe a friend of yours. Someone who’d know you had money and thought they could con you out of some.”

“No. I told you before I left, I didn’t tell anyone we were together.” Because he’d asked me not to. And I was a goddamn idiot.

“It certainly wasn’t me,” he said.

My free hand balled into a fist. “Other than your wife, who would care that I had your child?”

“It is not my wife.”

“Then who? Please?” I hated begging this man, but for Drake, I’d drop to my knees if that meant getting him home safe.

“It might be this woman I was seeing. We weren’t together long. Six months. My time with her began shortly after my time with you. She was . . . demanding.”

“You mean she knew you were married.”

“Yes,” he muttered.

“How would this woman know about me?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Unless she had me followed. I wouldn’t put it past her.”

He’d come to my townhouse twice after our breakup. Once, the night he’d asked me to forget his name. The night he’d offered me money. The night I’d told him about the baby. Then, just days later, he’d come to sign his parental rights away.

If she’d been following him, maybe she’d kept following me too. Out of jealousy? Spite? Curiosity? When I’d had Drake, she must have guessed that Oliver was the father.

“A name. Give me her name.”

“Averie Flannagan.”

“Averie Flannagan,” I repeated and Knox immediately took out his own phone, moving two steps away to call Winn.

“Goodbye, Oliver.”

“Memphis.” He stopped me before I could end the call. “This changes nothing.”

“Nothing,” I agreed and the line went dead.

Don’t give up.

We’d find Drake. We had to find Drake.

“Winn’s going to run her name,” Knox said. “See what she can find.”

“If she came to Montana, I doubt she would have stayed in Quincy. Maybe we should call some other hotels in the area.”

“There aren’t many. The closest is fifty miles away.” He held up a finger and scrolled through his phone. Then he dialed a number and pressed it to his ear. “Yeah, hi. My name is Knox Eden. I’m the owner of The Eloise Inn in Quincy. I had a guest who bailed on a room charge this week. I’ve been calling around because I guess she’s done it to a few hotels in the area. Any chance you’ve got an Averie Flannagan staying at your place?”

There was a pause, then Knox clasped my hand and began marching down the sidewalk, retreating the way we’d come.

“No problem. Do me a favor, I’m going to call the local sheriff. Don’t let her know I called. Appreciate it.” He shoved his phone in his pocket and began to run.

Any other day and I’d have a hard time keeping pace, but adrenaline and fear had me matching his pace, stride for stride, as we sprinted for the daycare center.

We ran right for my car, Knox hollering to Winn as he opened the door. “There’s an Averie Flannagan staying at the Mountain Motel on the way to Missoula.”

Winn snapped her fingers at an officer and took off for her own SUV. “Follow us. Stay close.”

Knox whipped us out of the parking lot and when one of the cruisers tore away, with Winn right behind, he drove with white knuckles toward the highway.

The miles passed in a blur, but no matter how fast we drove, it wasn’t fast enough. My knees bounced. My stomach churned.

“This is my fault. I should have called Oliver sooner. At Thanksgiving.”

“No,” Knox said. “This woman is crazy. If she really took Drake, she’s crazy. You couldn’t have stopped this.”

“We could have paid her.”

“And she would have asked for money until we had nothing left to give.”

“What if she did something to him?” My voice was barely audible. “What if she hurt him?”

Knox didn’t answer. Probably because those same questions were in his mind.

So we drove in silence, speeding along the road, until a small, U-shaped motel came into view along the highway, tucked into a grove of evergreens.

I gasped. Three sheriff cars were in the parking lot, each with their lights flashing.

“Winn must have called it in.”

I refused to blink as we got closer and closer, until Knox slowed to ease off the highway.

An officer in a tan shirt and matching pants walked out of a room. Behind him, escorted by another cop in uniform, came a woman.

A blond woman about my height. Her hands were handcuffed behind her back.

“I know her.” I shook my head, hardly believing my own eyes. “That’s the FBI agent who came to talk to me.”

“What?” Knox said. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.” What the hell?

Knox parked beside a car with New York plates. The moment the tires were stopped, I was out my door. The sound that greeted me when my foot hit the pavement was the best sound I’d heard all day.

A cry. From a little boy.

My little boy.

I took off running. So did Knox.

“Hold up.” An officer held up his hands to stop us but we pushed past him anyway just as Winn came striding out of the hotel room with Drake in her arms.

“Thank God.” I hauled him to my chest and burrowed my nose in his neck, peppering him with kisses. Then I felt over every inch of his body, making sure he was whole. “You’re okay.”

“He’s okay.” Knox wrapped his arms around us both, his cheek on Drake’s hair. “We found him.”

We found him.

“You’re never leaving my sight again,” I said, holding Drake tighter.

Knox and I clung to him, even as he wiggled and squirmed to be set free, only pulling away when a familiar voice carried from the hallway.

“I wouldn’t have let anything happen to him.” Jill, handcuffed and being pushed out of the room by an officer, had tears streaming down her face. The moment she spotted us, she froze. Her mouth opened and closed, like a fish out of water gasping for air. But before she could speak or make some bullshit excuse, I spun with my son and strode toward the Volvo.

Knox wasn’t far behind.

Neither was Winn.

“Is there any reason we need to stay?” I asked her.

“No. Go home. We’re taking them both into custody and I’ll question them myself.”

“Thank you.”

She stepped closer, running a finger over Drake’s cheek. “Drive safely. I’ll see you soon.”

Knox put his hand on her shoulder, then he took Drake and buckled him in his seat.

I slid into the backseat, waiting for Knox to get behind the wheel.

He met my gaze in the rearview.

Then drove us home.

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