A fist sized lump formed in Philip’s throat when his eyes confirmed what his heart wanted to believe. Light reflected off the glossy surface of the art gallery brochure. An adorable little girl, a child he had never seen, gazed at her mother. The name of the painting, My Sweet Beautiful Rachel, erased any remaining doubt.
Renée is alive. We have a daughter.
The jet engine’s pitch changed and the plane began its descent toward Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Philip turned toward the young woman seated to his right. Through the window, a cloud passed in the distance. Wearing white jeans, a pink Hard Rock Café T-shirt, and matching flip-flops, he guessed her to be a college student returning home for a summer break.
Her hand flipped through pages of Cruising World, the magazine he had purchased at La Guardia before boarding the plane. Appearing to be oblivious to his emotional reaction, he raised the brochure and asked, “Where did you get this?”
She looked up from the magazine and said, “I’m not sure,” before lowering her head again.
“Please, I hate to trouble you, but it’s important.”
She glanced out the window before turning her head toward him. “I took a shortcut through one of those big hotels with entrances on two different streets. Several pamphlets and brochures were in a rack. I liked the picture on that one, so I grabbed it on my way out. Sorry, mister, I don’t remember the name of the hotel.”
“May I keep it?”
She flipped through another page. “Sure.”
He gazed at the portrait. Would it be enough to get the police to reopen the case? No one had been able to find anything, not even her car. All active searches ceased when legitimate private investigators quit taking his money.
Statistically speaking, his wife was dead. Everyone involved in the case either felt that way or had said as much to him. Why had no one been able to find her? Confronting one possibility he had never considered, he tried to think of anything he had done. If she left voluntarily, why for God’s sake had she gone into hiding and kept his daughter from him? Rachel’s first words, her first steps; he had missed so much. He blinked away tears.
By the time the wheels of the plane touched down, he had organized his plan to return to New York. The certainty his wife and child were alive had brought back all the hope and optimism the last seven years had drained from him.
I have a daughter played over and over in his head. Nothing could stop him from finding her.
The young woman broke the silence as the plane neared the gate. “Thanks for letting me read your magazine.” She offered it to him.
He raised the palm of his hand. “Please, keep it.”
“Thanks, but I’m not really into boats that much.”
He took it and tucked it away.
She gathered a small backpack from beneath the seat.
“My name is Philip Lewellan.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” she said. “I’m … I’m Carla.”
“Nice to meet you, Carla.” He glanced at his watch.
“Do you have a connecting flight?”
“Not tonight, but I’m hoping to catch one out in the morning. I have to get to New York City as soon as possible.”
She knitted her brows. “We just came from there.”
“It’s a long story. What about you? Are you home?”
“Almost, I work at the Red Bird Grill in Lubbock. They expect me back tomorrow morning at six o’clock sharp. My aunt paid for the trip. I wouldn’t have been in New York otherwise. She still has high hopes for me. If you’re ever in town, stop by. We serve a good breakfast.”
* * *
After she and Lewellan cleared the arrival gate area, she slowed to allow him to get ahead of her. He appeared to be in his early thirties, much younger than she expected. Why had she jabbered on so much? Nervous, scared, whatever, she had done her part. Jessica hoped throwing out the name Carla had not been her biggest mistake.
She watched Philip leave the airport terminal. His confident stride, his hair, his clothes, everything about him indicated money and a lot of it. He could be featured in an upscale men’s clothing photo shoot without any additional prep work. His physical appearance was one thing, but his tears and emotional reaction to the photo had conveyed much more.
He didn’t try to kill that woman, he loved her.
She dialed the number for her contact in New York. When he answered, she said, “He took the brochure like you said he would.”
“Did you keep your mouth shut?”
“I did exactly what you told me. Now, I want you to follow through on your end of the deal.”
“The charges have been dropped. You’re free to go. You can pick up your ticket at the counter. You have one more thing to do.”
She squeezed the phone. “Wait. You said all I had to do was make sure he saw the picture on the brochure.”
“Get out of Texas and never go back unless you want to be buried there.”
“No problem. I don’t ever want to see you again either.”
“Where are you going?”
“None of your damn business,” she replied.
“Have a great life,” the man said sarcastically.
She slammed her cell phone shut and walked toward the ticket counter. What had she done to a man named Philip Lewellan—a man who had fought back tears. More importantly, why had Barletto threatened her? Why did he ask her where … hell it wouldn’t be hard for him to figure that out. Her stomach churned.
She placed another call. A woman answered.
“I’m going to be a few days later than I told you.”
“Are you okay? Has something happened?”
“I’m fine, Momma. There’s something I need to take care of first.”
“I’ve been so worried about you. Please be careful.”
She looked up and realized she was next in line. “I have to go now. I love you.”
Stepping up to the ticket counter, she said, “My name is Jessica Riddling. I should have a one way open e-ticket.”
The ticket agent entered her name and waited for her computer screen to update.
Decision time. Go home and hope Barletto wouldn’t come after her, or go on the run. His sarcasm was a dead giveaway. He’d never planned to let her go. If she was going to run, she’d need help. She remembered what Philip had said, “I’m hoping to catch a flight out in the morning.” She wasn’t ready to confront him yet. Screwing up a police investigation could land her back in jail, or worse, she would end up dead, if Barletto got to her first.
“I want to go to New York. Anything, but an early morning flight.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish