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New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author Brenda Novak has penned over 45 novels. A two-time Rita nominee, she's won The National Reader's Choice, The Bookseller's Best, The Bookbuyer's Best and many other awards. She runs an annual online auction for diabetes research every May at www.brendanovak.com. To date, she’s raised over $2 million. Brenda considers herself lucky to be a mother of five and married to the love of her life. --This text refers to an alternate Mass Market Paperback edition.
When Jasmine Stratford opened the package, she was standing in the middle of a crowded mall. Suddenly she couldn't hear a single sound. The laughing, the talking, the click-clack of shoes on the colorful floor, the Christmas music that'd been playing in the backgroundit all disappeared as her ears began to ring.
"What is it?" Sheridan Kohl touched her arm, eyebrows gathered in concern.
The words came to Jasmine as if from a great distance, but she couldn't speak. Her lungs worked frantically, but her chest felt so tight she couldn't expand her diaphragm. Sweat trickled down her spine, causing her crisp cotton blouse to stick to her as she stared at the silver-and-pink bracelet she'd just pulled from the small cardboard box.
"What is it, Jaz?" Still frowning, her friend took the bracelet from Jasmine's cold fingers. As she read the name spelled out in silver letters separated by pink beads, her eyes filled with tears. "Oh, God!" she murmured, pressing a hand to her chest.
Jasmine's head spun. Afraid she might pass out, she reached for Sheridan, who helped her to the center of the mall and asked a man sitting in one of the few seats to move.
He collected the shopping bags piled at his feet and jumped up, allowing Jasmine to sink onto the hard plastic chair.
"Hey, she no looking good, eh? She sick or somet'ing?" he asked.
"She's just suffered a terrible shock," Sheridan explained.
The words floated over Jasmine as if they'd been written in the air, each letter flying past her, meaningless. Her nervous system seemed to be shutting down. Overload. Rejection of current input. Inability to cope.
"Don't move," Sheridan barked and put the bracelet back in the box on her lap. "I'll get you something to drink."
Jasmine couldn't have moved even if she wanted to. Her rubbery legs refused to support her weight, or she would've walked out of the mall. People were beginning to stare.
"What's wrong?" someone murmured, pausing near the Mexican man who was still watching her curiously.
"I don't know, but she no look good, eh?" he repeated.
A teenage boy ventured closer. "Are you okay, lady?"
"Maybe someone should call the paramedics," a woman said.
Wave them away. But Jasmine's thoughts were so focused on what was in her lap, she couldn't even raise her hand. She'd made that bracelet as a gift for her little sister. She remembered Kimberly's delight when she'd unwrapped it on her eighth birthday, her last birthday before the tall man with the beard entered their house in Cleveland one sunny afternoon and took her away.
Jasmine's mind veered from the memories. Until she was twelve, she'd led such a safe and happy life she'd never dreamed she would encounter a threat in her own home. Strangers were people outside on the street. This man had acted like one of her father's workers, whose faces changed so often she wasn't familiar with them all. They were always coming to the house to pick up equipment for his satellite TV business, to get a check, to drop off some paperwork. Occasionally he hired vagrants to organize his warehouse or build a fence or even clean up the yard. In any event, she'd believed their visitor was a nice guy.
Heaven help her, she'd believed he was nice. And she'd let it happen .
"You want I should call an ambulance?" the Mexican man ventured.
Jasmine had to cover her mouth so the screams inside her didn't escape. Breathe deeply. Get hold of yourself. After nearly destroying each other with their bitterness and grief, her parents had given up hope. But she'd kept a candle burning deep inside. And now this
Sheridan returned and nudged her way through the four or five people who were watching to see if Jasmine would rally. "I've got her. Everything's fine," she told them, and they began to drift off, but not without a backward glance. "Drink this," she said.
The freshly squeezed lemonade tasted reassuringly normal.
A man seated next to them stood and offered Sheridan his chair. She thanked him and perched on the edge of it.
After a few minutes, Jasmine's breathing and heart rate slowed. Still, she was damp with sweat and when she tried to talk tears slipped down her cheeks.
"It's okay." Putting an arm around her, Sheridan squeezed her shoulders. "Take all the time you need."
Jasmine appreciated her friend's empathy, but now that the shock was wearing off she had so many questions. Who had sent the bracelet? Why after so long? What'd happened to her sister? And the biggest question of allwas there any chance that Kimberly was still alive?
"I'm so sorry I brought that package with me, that you had to deal with this in a public setting." Sheridan's expression revealed her chagrin. "When I saw it sitting on the reception desk with the rest of the mail, I thought it might be something you've been waiting for. I knew you weren't planning on coming into the office today so I was " she shrugged helplessly " trying to be helpful."
Jasmine wiped her eyes. "It's okay. Of course you'd never expect anything like this."
"Who sent it?"
"I don't know." She studied the box. There was no return address. There wasn't even a note, just some crumpled packaging material
Jasmine's pulse spiked. Wait a minute There was something written on one of the papers that'd been wadded up.
Careful not to tear the note or get her fingerprints all over it, she flattened it outand saw two words printed in what appeared to be blood: Stop me.
That night, Jasmine hovered over the phone. Should she tell her parents about the bracelet? She couldn't decide. According to the cancellation stamp, the package had been sent from New Orleans, but she didn't know if she'd ever be able to glean more information than that. She was reluctant to open old woundsand yet, her folks had a right to the information, didn't they? Would they want to know?
She picked up the handset. Her father would. After the bearded man took Kimberly, Peter Stratford had become so single-minded in his quest to find his youngest daughter that he'd eventually lost everythinghis business, his wife, his home. He'd searched until he'd nearly driven himself mad. Searched until everyone else in his life, including Jasmine, had become nothing more than shadows. Even then he'd given up only because he had no choice. There was nowhere else to go, nothing more he could do.
Now that Peter had moved on, he was doing better than he had in years. Would learning about Kimberly's bracelet send him into another tailspin?
Jasmine set the phone down again. It probably wasn't wise to take the chance.
And then there was her East Indian mother. Gauri was so full of bitterness and blame, toward Peter and Jasmine, she had difficulty being in the same room with either of them.
The phone rang. Nervous that it might be one of her parentsthat she'd be confronted with a situation she hadn't figured out how to handleshe checked caller ID, then breathed a sigh of relief. It was her friend and coworker, Skye Kellerman. Actually, Skye Willis since her marriage last year.
Dropping into a seat at the kitchen table, Jasmine rubbed her fingers over her left eyebrow as she answered. "Hello?"
"I just got your message. And several from Sheridan, too." Skye's voice came across as brisk, worried. "I'm sorry it took me a few hours to get back to you. David and I were in Tahoe and didn't have phone reception."
"It's fine," Jasmine said.
"It's not fine. Are you okay?"
Jasmine wasn't sure. One minute she was filled with rekindled hope, the next terrified that nothing could change the outcome of her sister's abduction. "I'm okay," she said, although her mind added a little "not."
"This is so unexpected," Skye exclaimed. "Why now? Why after so many years?"
Jasmine had asked herself the same question. But it hadn't taken long to come up with the most probable answer. "It must be because of the publicity on the Polinaro case." Four weeks ago, she'd been on America's Most Wanted, profiling a sex offender who'd victimized nine boys. When authorities got too close, he fled. She'd been invited on the show to suggest places he might have gone, things he might be doing.
"Of course," Skye agreed. "That episode aired right before Thanksgiving."
"How else would he have known where to find me?" After her mother had remarried and left Cleveland, where Jasmine was born, Jasmine had dropped out of high school and moved away from home, starting a three-year descent into drug abuse and self-destruction. During that time, she'd drifted from one city to another, working odd jobs, even begging in the streets for enough money for one more fix. She doubted anyone could've tracked her movements back then. Her parents certainly hadn't been aware, much of the time, of where she was or what she was doing. It wasn't until Harvey Nolasco, a long-distance trucker, picked her up and insisted she get some help that she settled down. And then she'd married a white man, like her mother, and became Jasmine Nolasco for a short while.
"I'm pretty sure they posted our address at the charity," Skye said.
"They did." When dealing with the media, Jasmine always mentioned her affiliation with The Last Stand. TLS relied exclusively on donations to keep its doors open. She couldn't miss the chance to raise public awareness and support, and it'd proved to be a good move. Since the episode had aired, they'd received thousands of dollarsand more requests for help than ever before.
"The package came to the office, right?" Skye clarified.
"Sher found it with the other mail and brought it with her when we met for lunch."
"Have you had anyone inspect that note?"
"We took it directly to the police."
"They confirmed it was written in b-blood." She stumbled over the last word because picturing the large square letters on that note sent a chill up her spine.
"Do you think it could be Kimberly's?" Skye said.
"Even if she's dead, I suppose it could'...