This was it. This was where the trail had taken us. The knots that had resided in my gut for the last few days had now moved into my throat, and caused my heart to beat erratically. Words were struggling to emerge past the constriction that had settled there, but this was the closest we had been so far and I was not about to lose my opportunity.
The bartender had leaned in a fraction, though he remained far enough away that I would have to raise my voice above the noise. It was not an unfamiliar reaction to me, not ever since that night four years ago. Before that night, men seemed to enjoy my company and gravitated towards me. Even now, I could feel it rankle within me how men nowadays seemed to sense that I was damaged goods.
“I am looking for my son,” I croaked over the loud music that was playing in the background. The small wallet sized picture was clutched in my fingers as I fought to keep them steady while the man gave a passing glance at the image. When he did a sly double take at the image, my heart bulleted into my throat. Would he tell me what I needed to know?
Watching from a safe distance, my brother, Garrett, and his friend, Johnny, were wearing their uniforms indicating that they were law enforcement. Not many would stop to consider that they were outside of their jurisdiction. This is what we were hoping, at least.
The bartender shook his head before pulling himself upright in a rather sharp motion, and continued to dry the whiskey glass in his hand with a towel. Once wearing a look of near curiosity, now he sported a deep frown. “No children allowed in here, lady.” At least he referred to me as a lady. He moved away from me slightly as he returned to his task of cleaning the rest of the dirty glassware that littered the countertops behind the bar, sparing me with a wary look from the corner of his eye.
There was no way I was about to give up. This was the place I was supposed to find my next answers. Everything that I have learned in the last forty-eight hours pointed to this location, and we travelled nearly ten hours to get here. I couldn’t go home empty-handed. It was not an option. Holding up my ace in the hole, I only prayed that it was enough to encourage this man to share any information he might have. With all the signals he was putting off, there was something he wasn’t telling, and it did not take my brother’s tutorage to know that. “Was that what you told this man a few hours ago?” Okay, maybe it was more than a few hours, but I was hoping he didn't know that.
Holding up the only image I had of my son that gave me comfort, I held my breath. That security camera photo showed me two things: he was still alive, and he was still within reach. My brother could barely keep up with me as I sprung from my chair and raced out of his office when he showed it to me. Once that image was in my hand, there was no stopping me from appearing on this business’ doorstep. The only thing my brother was able to do was slow me down a fraction, enough so that he could get his deputy to come along with us. Truth be told, their presence gave me some comfort.
The man behind the counter lifted his brows with his chin tucked towards his chest, his eyes nearly glaring through me. “Ma’am, let me offer you a piece of advice. I would march that tight, little ass of yours out of here, and never look back.”
Anger flared inside of me as the insult slapped me hard in the face. “Why you son of a biscuit eater!” Okay, being a mom made me change some of the ways that I behaved, and talked. One of them was to take some of the foul language I used to use and make them more kid friendly. The drawback? Men like him thought me laughable. As it always tended to, the man smiled at my lack of an insult that had any true grit.
My brother was at my elbow, tugging at my arm to pull me away from the counter and this man who was in danger of me clawing his eyes out. “Cat,” he whispered in my ear as he tried to pull me to his side.
“Garrett, let me go. That arrogant dog just told me to forget about Evan! He can’t…”
“Cat!” Now, his voice grew a few decibels, his baritone voice breaking through my ire to capture my attention. Garrett does not yell, and was always calm in every situation I could remember. He always had to be in control of every situation, but it beats the devil out of me if that was an ego thing, a cop thing, or a man thing. He would not be the first or the last to try to control situations where I was involved.
Snatching my arm from his grip, I let my hand fly to my forehead as I moved away from his reach. My fingers swept across my forehead and temple in agitation. “Garrett, I can’t lose him.”
“I think we have another situation to attend to at the moment.” He nodded his head in the direction of a large group of nearly a hundred people that had gathered before us, and had only just started to step aside to let another through their masses. Before I could see who approached, Garrett leaned over and whispered to me once more. “No matter what, Cat, we will figure this out. We will get Evan back, somehow.”
My shoulders drooped a fraction. That was something he would say if he did not have a current solution, and it would mean that we would have to step back and reformulate another plan. “I can’t.” I whispered back.
Before the person had managed to come through the throngs of people, I was on him. My brother had reached out a hand to still me, but I easily shook him off propelling my feet past the onlookers that wore expressions as if I was the most vile person that they had met in their life. Each nearly snarled at me as I blew by them, neither caring nor interested in what they thought of me and why. I was only interested in the person that I thought might know where my son was.
The solid mass that I met head on was unmovable, but it did not stop me from slamming into him hard with my fists as I screamed at him. “Where is my son? Give him to me, now!” I demanded as anger radiated off me in waves. Heated tears started to inch down my face unbidden.
After everything that I was forced to deal with, I was not going to back down. No one would understand the ache that nearly drowned me for years after that night, before a more severe pain seared through my entire body and incapacitated me for weeks before finally giving way. Once I crawled through that darkness of near torture, I was finally free to be the mother that Evan deserved. Doctors and psychologists did not have an explanation, and the best they could ever manage was that it was some sort of guilt that I harbored inside. Losing my son would send me into a spiral down the rabbit hole that I may never recover from. I couldn’t let that happen. I won’t!
Strong hands circled my more dainty wrists, and he clamped down hard on them. I could hear my brother behind me trying to come to my aid, but low growls and angry shouts led me to believe the mob had closed him off to me. This man would be allowed to face my wrath, but I would have no support. “You give him back! You give him back to me!” I repeated the words over and over again as I thrashed against him and wrenched away from him in an effort to free myself and make him...make him what? Mildly uncomfortable?
Though the tears had blurred my vision, I could see enough to know that he was huge. The man stood taller than me by a head, and his body could completely conceal me in its shadow. There was only one other time when I felt completely dwarfed by a man.
His hands still caught at my wrists, and I dipped my head towards my shoulder to wipe at the tears that tracked down my face. I needed to see his face. The need to know who this man was became more important than breathing.
One look at him, and fear clung to me, it’s scent oozing from every pore in droves. “It can’t be.” It was whispered words, but I wanted to bite them back as soon as I said them. To say them would entice them to be true.
Tilting my head back, I found the eyes that I have dreaded seeing for years now. Eyes that my son now bore. Ones that brought that night crashing through my brain and forcing me to fall to my knees. The night my son was conceived.