It happened so suddenly. One moment, Lucia was right there, beside her, chattering about this and that, sticking her tongue out from under her hood to catch the lashing rain, the next…the next she was gone, lost, snatched away from her in a desperate crush of tourists.
Frantic, she spun round, eyes scanning the crowd.
“Lucia!” she cried, panic clutching her heart. “Have you seen a little girl?” she begged the passers-by. “Seven years old, in a pink raincoat, long dark hair in pony tails.”
Strangers shook their heads, faces masks of sympathetic curiosity, as she darted from one to another, fear for her lost child rendering her almost incomprehensible.
Finally, she stopped still, trying to calm her racing brain, trying to think, think, think…all the time, her mother’s soul remembering news headlines, fearing the worst…
“You’re the best brother ever, Luke. Thank you so much for this, I owe you big time.” With his sister’s words still ringing in his ear, Luke Blackwood plastered what he hoped was a sincere smile of welcome onto his face, and stepped forward to serve the first customer of the week, his first customer ever, if the truth be known.
Twenty minutes later, he slumped, exhausted, behind the till, realising it was going to be worse than he’d ever imagined.
“You’ll be fine,” Susannah had reassured him. “It’s easy; all you have to do is guide people to the right shelves, and then take their money. I mean, how hard can it be?”
Luke now had the sneaking suspicion, Susannah’s tongue had been firmly in her cheek. If the other customers were going to be as demanding, difficult and downright awkward as the first one, it looked as if he was in for a long week; and he only had himself to blame.
After all, he was the one who’d offered to mind the shop for Susannah, whilst she went on a much-needed holiday. A holiday which had been booked for months, but, at the last moment, looked like being cancelled, when her capable assistant was rushed into hospital with appendicitis. Hell, what big brother could possibly have seen the devastated disappointment in his kid sister’s big, blue, eyes, heard the quiver in her voice, and not offered to help, especially knowing how fragile Susannah was, following the recent meltdown of her marriage.
So, he’d stepped up to the mark. After all, he was off work himself, recovering from the disaster of his last assignment. Pulling a wry face, Luke gingerly felt his tender side. It was recovering quicker than the doctors had thought possible, but still ached. He knew too much physical exertion, would simply pull the wound wide open again.
A frown briefly marred his rugged, handsome, face, as he remembered that dark night a month ago. They’d been tracking the target for days, he’d finally settled in an old farmhouse, deep in the Tuscan countryside.
Luke and his colleague had gone in alone, not expecting any trouble. Info on the mark agreed he was a mild-mannered, quiet, man, not the sort to play hero, just a normal guy driven to desperate measures. For a moment, Luke had felt a twinge of sympathy for him, then remembered the desperate grief and fear on the face of his client back in England, firmed his resolve and gone in, determined to end this job now and take the package home.
It had appeared to go smoothly. The guy, sitting at an old, rickety, table in the kitchen, had looked up at their approach. Luke had seen a sort of weary acceptance cross his face, then he’d nodded his head towards one of the closed doors.
“In there,” had been all he’d said. Leaving his colleague to keep an eye on him, Luke had quietly opened the door, had found himself standing in a dimly lit room. Looking around, saw the huddled shape on the bed, gently moved closer, anxious not to panic its occupant.
“Who are you?” the voice was high, young, female.
“My name’s Luke,” he’d replied, his voice calm and steady. “I’ve come to take you home, honey, your mummy is missing you very much, and I know she’ll be so happy to see you.”
There was movement, the child sat up. Luke saw her clearly, for the first time, in the shaft of moonlight angling through the bare window.
“But he…Daddy…he said she was ill, too ill to look after me anymore.”
Luke’s heart twisted at her words, at the sight of her pale, little, face, scared and anxious in the dim light. Her words were familiar, during his lengthy career running ICRA – the International Child Recovery Agency, they were words he’d heard many a child utter. Their worlds having been ripped apart by parents who couldn’t part amicably, whose desperation had led to one of them taking drastic action, snatching their own child and absconding with them.
“Your Mummy’s better now,” was all he said though, held out a large, comforting, hand to the frightened child. “Come on, I’m here to take you to her.”
The child hesitated, then something in Luke’s steady gaze seemed to reassure her, and she held out her hand, allowing him to lift her gently from the bed and carry her into the kitchen, where the man, her father, still sat.
“Daddy?” Luke could hear the confusion and conflicting emotions in the child’s voice.
“Jenny!” the sight of his small daughter being carried away from him, possibly forever, seemed to galvanise him out of his previous lethargy. “No!” he shouted, jumping to his feet, so violently, his chair crashed to the ground.
“No!” he shouted again, and it was then it had happened. Taking Luke’s colleague by surprise, he’d leapt towards Luke, who’d turned to keep the child away from her father’s hungry grasp. Suddenly, from nowhere it seemed, there was a knife in the desperate man’s hand.
There’d been no time for Luke, his arms full of screaming, kicking, child, to do anything more than propel himself backwards. So, instead of the knife burying itself in his stomach, it plunged into his side, drenching Luke in red hot pain, which he’d thrust away from, even as his fist had punched upwards to send the man spinning to the ground, unconscious.
Lost and Found ~ Prologue