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Authors: Patricia Rice

Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance

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BOOK: Lure of Song and Magic
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Had he been sitting there in his pricey shark suit, his white teeth gleaming in a practiced smile, she could easily have dumped the smoothie over his head for insulting the worth of her books. But he was sitting at her little mosaic-tiled kitchen table in a fluffy white robe sipping a strawberry-colored smoothie and scowling.

She trusted the scowl more than the smile. That he was able to still be his usual manipulative self while wearing a knee-length robe said he was so full of himself, so certain of his masculinity, that he didn't give a damn how he looked. She liked that even better.

“How many hours of my day do you need?” she asked. “I can only parcel myself out so many ways, and I won't give up the day care time.”

“Three,” he said instantly.

“Two,” she countered. “You can use my wireless and pool while I'm at the school. I'll come here and give you two hours of my time. And then you're gone.
Sayonara. Auf wiedersehen
. Out of my hair until the next day. And I get weekends off.”

“How about dinner? My treat. I hate eating alone.”

“You're going to push until you knock me down, aren't you?” She carried her smoothie outside and arranged herself on a lounge chair.

She had a feeling Dylan Oswin was the ultimate test of Zen.

Chapter 8

Oz couldn't imagine why anyone called this woman Seraphina. There was nothing angelic or serene about the tense, vibrant female burning up the keyboard in the lounge chair beside him.

It had taken another hostile argument to persuade her to pull her chair next to his so he didn't have to shout across the pool at her. If it ever rained in California, he had a feeling they'd get no work done at all because she wouldn't share a space as small as a house with him. Working in the great outdoors was all she could manage.

While
he
was conjuring images of sharing a bed, even when she was wearing that concealing hoodie. Bad Oz. He knew better. He'd just never found someone so stubbornly resistant to his usual charm. Which forced him to study her more.

And the more he watched her, with her cropped red hair bent over the keyboard, her slender nape vulnerable, the deeper he dug his hole. He liked polished, sophisticated women who knew the score, women who used him just as he used them—mutual itch scratching, some newsworthy gossip action, a few good dinners where they could see and be seen, and then
sayonara
, as Pippa had so colorfully said.

So his attraction to the skinny elf with freckles on her unpainted face was confusing. And distracting. He kept checking out her slender pianist's fingers flying across the laptop's keyboard and wondering how they'd feel in his hair. Which led him to wondering if she had any curves at all beneath the ugly hoodie. Which led to more distraction than he could afford.

“Muppets are expensive,” he warned when she went off on a creative tangent. “Besides, they've been done. And so have costume characters. Why should kids relate to talking ducks?”

Her wicked blue-green eyes glanced up from the keyboard to spear him with a frosty glare. “Kids need security, the comfort of the familiar. Half the
adult
population of this country dislikes change, so don't expect kids living in a world they don't understand to accept surprises. People even hate clowns. You don't want a children's show to be
too
original. Just original in a familiar way.”

Her phone rang, leaving Oz to ponder original but
not
, while she leaned over to punch the speaker button.

The torrent of Spanish spilling forth ripped Oz straight out of his musing. He spoke fluent Spanish, but this flood of idioms and hysteria blurred to one clear topic—a child was missing. Why was someone calling her about a missing child?

His gut churned. The pen that Pippa had given him for note-taking, while she'd appropriated his computer, snapped between his fingers. He tensed, following her every gesture and word.

Fear for a lost child caused incoherent suspicion to buzz through his brain. It made no sense to connect Pippa with kidnapping. She had nothing to gain from Donal's disappearance but the notoriety she so blatantly avoided. But she was irretrievably linked with his son in his mind, and now she had some link to another missing child.

Instinct made him doubly wary because he
wanted
to trust her, but he'd learned he couldn't trust anyone. Not his late wife. Not Heidi, his son's nanny. No one. Which was why he hadn't even told his brothers why he was here.

“Slow down, Juanita. I'll ask,” Pippa said reassuringly into the receiver. “I'll do everything I can. I'm sure Tommy is asleep under a tree somewhere. Let the sheriff do his job. Don't tie up your phone line. I'll talk to Oz right now.”

She calmed the caller with soothing tones that left the woman weeping, grateful, and less hysterical by the time she hung up.

Oz was already picking up their equipment and notes and carrying them to the house by the time Pippa swung her long—gorgeous—legs from the lounge chair. She might be skinny, but she had great legs, now that she'd let him see them. Or part of them.

“What does she want us to do?” was all he asked as he dumped laptop and notes on the table.

“She thinks Hollywood producers can call in CSI. She's not thinking straight. It's her grandson, Tommy. He's autistic. She brings him to Bertha's for story hour because he seems to listen when I read. We can't tell if he's absorbing the story, but it gives Juanita a chance to relax and take some time for herself. Her daughter works in the city, trying to make enough money to pay counselors for his treatments.”

She was throwing things into an oversize tote as she talked. Water bottle, sunglasses, a miniature copy of some of her books… Oz lost track. He pulled a floppy hat off a rack by the door and pulled it over her cropped hair. She didn't fight him on it.

He'd dressed again after his clothes dried. His dry-clean only shirt was wrinkled, but his khakis had held up. He was presentable enough for the public. “So, how do you look for an autistic kid?”

“Same as any other. It's pretty much desert out there, except with more vegetation to hide in. The town has trackers. Unless you know magic, you might as well go back to the inn.”

Oz grabbed a bottle of water from her refrigerator and opened his BlackBerry as he followed her out. “No magic. Just contacts.”

She nodded, apparently aware of the value of knowing the right people. She didn't look like a woman who would steal a child. She looked like a worried baby-sitter.

A worried baby-sitter had stolen Donal. Maybe Pippa was a sicko who got her jollies out of watching parents panic because she didn't have any kids of her own. A whole lot of psycho stuff could be traced to abandonment issues.

She definitely had abandonment issues.

When they reached the day care parking lot, she walked on past his Ram. Oz grabbed her elbow, felt her stiffen, and prepared to duck. But she reluctantly climbed in when he opened the truck door.

“Where to?”

“They're forming a search party at Dot's, but Juanita's hacienda is just outside of town. Don't drive and talk.” She took the phone out of his hand.

“Headset.” He stuck it in his ear and flipped it on. “Call Conan.”

She found his brother's name on the menu and hit it. The phone was ringing on the other end by the time Oz covered the short distance to Dot's and maneuvered into a tight parking space between two dusty pickups behind the café.

“Got a lost kid,” he told Conan as he switched off the ignition. “Where are you?”

“Driving back from Bakersfield. It'll take me an hour to get there. I've got equipment with me.”

“Good. Alert the team. It may be a simple wandering case, but the kid is autistic. Did you learn anything useful while you were out?”

“Made some contacts. Nothing solid yet.” Conan hung up.

He couldn't expect Conan to dig out Pippa's past in a day, but he was getting a little more desperate with each passing minute.

Oz realized she was looking at him strangely as they climbed out of the truck. He supposed she had a right to wonder about who he'd called and why. Donal's kidnapping had been all over the news, so his interest in finding missing children was no secret. That he'd formed a task force to find them was a little more private.

“CSI?” she asked dryly, leading him through the café's back door, the one she must have used the other night to sneak up on him.

The entrance opened onto a hallway with a public phone and restrooms, not a kitchen. The kitchen door was open, but no one was working. A voice barked with authority in the front dining room.

“Not quite. I just know people.” He didn't want to explain and miss what was being said about the lost boy.

People glanced back at them as they entered, but the crowd was focused on the man in uniform at the front entrance.

“Sheriff Roy Bailey,” Pippa murmured as they found places at the back. “Good man.”

“We've got the horses meeting at Juanita's,” Bailey was saying. “The search team needs a supply of water for themselves and for the animals, and horse feed if we're out there long.”

Two men wearing battered cowboy hats and jeans raised their hands. The sheriff nodded in their direction and continued listing needs and taking volunteers.

When he seemed to be winding down, Oz spoke up. “Do you have an air crew?”

“Nope. You volunteering?” In crisp khaki, wearing a holster over his middle-aged belly, the sheriff sent him a hard glance.

“Tell me when you need it, and I'll get one here. If you need more dogs, tell me that too. I've got a crew coming in with night vision equipment in case it's needed.”

People stared. Murmurs rose around the room. Pippa slipped behind him as if he were big enough to hide her.

“We'll take all the free help we can get. We ain't got money to pay anyone,” the sheriff warned.

“My crew is free,” Oz assured him. “You know the territory better than they do, so I'll send them to you when they arrive.”

“Pippa, give him my number so we can keep lines of communication open.” The sheriff put on his hat and nodded at the door. “Let's move 'em out.”

***

Pippa preferred working quietly in the background, providing water, helping the women arrange food on the open fire pits to serve the searchers as they returned from their fruitless quests. People got lost up here, she knew. In the six years she'd been in town, tourists had fallen off slippery rocks, kids had lost their seats when their horses bolted, and hikers had lost their way a dozen times a year. Any number of minor events could add up to a missing persons report.

Even the media hadn't bothered checking out Tommy's story, it was so commonplace. Although they might later, if the search went on overnight. Or if it was a slow news day. But the town had no newspaper to alert a news crew.

Except a child who couldn't communicate was a different problem from more routine searches. Tommy would run and hide from the rescue teams. Pippa fretted about that knowledge, working up her courage. She had no notion that she could actually help, so she prayed they found him before she had to offer.

Besides, until they found a trail, she really couldn't help. Even if she knew it would make a difference—which she didn't—she couldn't broadcast over the twenty square miles a kid could travel in a few hours. She hoped he hadn't wandered that far, that he was close by and just hiding, but they'd found only a few footprints that might be his. The dogs had lost the trail half a mile down the path.

So she distracted herself by watching Oz. Probably a mistake, but she couldn't seem to help herself. Every time she looked up, his square shoulders loomed over the crowd—talking to the sheriff, introducing a tall, lean man who must be the mysterious Conan, handing hundred dollar bills to the women for food. He was just
there
, a presence felt by all, even though he spoke quietly and did nothing overt to attract attention—for a change.

Finally, when she ran out of busywork and his tense body language radiated a pain that even she could sense, she sidled up next to him.

“Is this how they searched for your son?” she asked hesitantly, uncertain whether to bring up the past he never spoke about.

He shook his head. “In the city, dogs and horses are useless. They sent out alerts and flyers with pictures of the nanny and Donal, checked security tapes around the neighborhood, went door to door. I didn't even know how long he'd been gone when I returned to find the house empty. They had to judge by the time on a security camera at the gate.”

The sorrow and guilt in his voice said it all. He blamed himself. Pippa didn't know his story and couldn't tell if the guilt was justified, but she knew he didn't have to be here right now, sharing his hard-earned lessons.

“It takes a strong man to use his suffering to help others. You're doing a good thing here today. Juanita was hysterical, but you've given her confidence and calmed her down, which helps. She even remembered to tell the sheriff that Tommy had been playing with a dog before he disappeared. Every little bit of information can make a difference.”

Oz didn't nod acknowledgment but shoved his hands into his pockets and watched the next round of searchers return.

They'd found the dog but not Tommy.

A tall, lanky stranger with sharp cheekbones and eyes hidden behind wraparound shades ambled over to join them. He had arrived earlier, talked to the sheriff, and gone about his business in the same efficient, quiet manner as Oz, distributing equipment and men as needed.

As he approached now, he studied Pippa but didn't take time for introductions. “I've got the night vision goggles ready to go. It'll be dark in about an hour. Do I call in the air crew or tell them to wait until morning?”

“Morning,” Pippa told him without waiting for Oz to reply. If Oz could face his pain for strangers, she could use him as an example to overcome her cowardice for a little boy she knew and loved. “The noise will scare Tommy. We'll do better to light bonfires and let him come to us.”

Oz nodded silent agreement, and after sending him a look of concern, the other man wandered off to join his crew.

“That's Conan, my brother,” Oz said. “He thinks it's his fault that his contacts couldn't locate my son. He overcompensates.”

“He admires you, and he wants to help. That's not a bad thing. You're very fortunate to have family.”

He cast her a look, no doubt remembering she had none. He shouldn't need reminding that he was a lucky man.

Before he could comment, a shout rang out near the front lines.

“A shoe! We found his shoe! Bring the dogs.”

Excitement rippled through the crowd. With hope rejuvenated, people threw down their burgers, finished off their bottles of water, and prepared to set out again.

Pippa took a deep breath to steady her nerves. She didn't know if she could do this, but she knew deep down inside that she had to try.

“My turn,” she said quietly. “Does your brother have sound equipment in his magic trunk, or shall I fetch mine?”

BOOK: Lure of Song and Magic
12.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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