Honeysuckle Summer (The Sweet Magnolias #7)

Honeysuckle Summer (The Sweet Magnolias #7)

Sherryl Woods



1




Raylene stood in the kitchen doorway on a day that was surprisingly cool for the first of June. She stared in dismay at the backyard where Sarah’s children, Tommy and Libby, had been playing not two minutes before. Now only two-year-old Libby was in sight. She was standing next to the open gate of the fenced-in yard.

Tommy’s absence immediately set off panic in Raylene. “Libby,” she called. “Sweetie, come here. Where’s Tommy?”

Toddling to Raylene, her big eyes filled with tears, Libby pointed in the direction of the street.

“Come inside,” Raylene commanded. She could only deal with one missing child at a time. Raylene scooped up Libby, then raced toward the front door and flung it open to peer up and down the block. Tommy was nowhere in sight. Barely five, he couldn’t have gone too far in the time she’d been in the kitchen, she assured herself. She’d turned away just long enough to put a few cookies on a plate and pour three glasses of lemonade. Two minutes, maybe three.

Normally she would have brought the kids inside when the sitter left to run an errand, but it had been such a beautiful day, she’d decided to let them continue playing in the yard. What had she been thinking? She’d been terrified ever since she’d moved in with Sarah and her family that something like this would happen on her watch. She’d taken every precaution she could think of to avoid it. Now, just one slip and all her worst fears were coming true.

Opening the door, she shouted at the top of her lungs. “Tommy!” She managed to inch over the threshold, but just barely. The panic she’d felt upon discovering Tommy was gone multiplied a thousandfold as she tried to force herself to take the next step and then the next. It took every bit of willpower she possessed not to scramble right back inside. She clutched Libby so tightly that the little girl whimpered in protest.

“Sorry, baby,” Raylene soothed.

Again, she shouted for Tommy, but there was no response. Frustration warred with terror.

Tommy knew the rules. He knew, even if he didn’t understand, that she couldn’t leave the house to go chasing after him. He was also an adventurous preschooler for whom rules meant very little. He couldn’t possibly comprehend that the thought of leaving the safe haven of their home terrified her. Sometimes it was beyond her understanding, too.

Ever since Raylene had run from her abusive husband, she’d grown increasingly housebound, scared of everything beyond the boundaries of these walls. It didn’t seem to matter that Paul Hammond was safely locked behind bars, at least for a few more months. She couldn’t make herself leave the house. If anything, she’d been getting worse, not better.

She forced herself to inch down the last step and onto the sidewalk, fought the fear clawing its way up the back of her throat, the trembling in her limbs. Unable to take one more step, she shouted again and again.

“Tommy Price! You get back in this yard right this minute!”

She scanned the street in every direction, fully expecting him to pop out from behind a bush, a lopsided grin on his face at having won some misguided game of hide-and-seek.

Instead, there was no sign of movement on the quiet, tree-lined street. Any teens were inside playing video games or doing homework. The younger children on the block were probably indoors having an after-school snack. An hour from now, more than likely there would be a dozen kids who could tell her in which direction Tommy had gone, but for now there was no one in sight.

Raylene tried to calm herself with the reminder that Serenity was a safe town, and small enough that almost anyone would recognize Tommy and bring him straight home. Unfortunately, those thoughts warred with too many dangerous possibilities.

She tried telling herself that if a stranger had approached, one or both of the kids would have screamed. They’d been drilled often enough to be alert to that kind of danger. Even Libby was old enough to be wary of anyone she didn’t know. That Raylene hadn’t heard any fearful shouts was some consolation.

All of this went spinning through her head in what seemed like an eternity, but was probably no more than a couple of minutes. She had a choice to make. She could fight her fears and try to go farther than the front steps, or she could call for help. Given her inability to leave the house for so long, she opted for being smart over saving her pride. Not wanting to waste another precious second, she punched in 911 on the portable phone.

Her second call was to the Serenity radio station where Sarah had a morning show of talk and music. She often stayed after the show ended to book future guests. It was the station owner and Sarah’s soon-to-be husband, Travis McDonald, who took the call.

“I’m so sorry,” Raylene kept telling him, trying not to break down in tears as she rambled through the story. “I swear I only looked away for a few minutes, and I tried to go searching for him, Travis. I really tried. I’m standing on the sidewalk now, and you know how long it’s been since I’ve come even this far. I’ve called the sheriff’s office. They’re sending a deputy right away.”

“It’s okay, Raylene. Everything’s going to be fine,” he reassured her, though she could hear the underlying tension in his normally laid-back tone. “I’ll tell Sarah what’s going on and we’ll be there in five minutes. No need to panic. Tommy’s probably playing next door. Give Lynn a call.”

“But surely she would have heard me shouting for him,” Raylene protested. “Hurry, Travis, please. I’ll try to go looking myself, but I don’t know if I can.”

Travis, bless him, didn’t criticize her for this phobia that had taken over her life. He just reassured her that he was on his way. “Call next door,” he repeated. “The number’s on the bulletin board by the phone in the kitchen. Lynn will help until we get there.”

“Of course,” she said, furious with herself for not thinking of that sooner.

But when she reached Lynn, the neighbor reminded Raylene that her daughter was in a playgroup this afternoon.

“I haven’t seen Tommy, but I’ll be right over to help with the search,” Lynn said at once.

“Don’t bother coming here,” Raylene told her. “If you could just look up and down the street toward town and maybe alert some more of the neighbors, I’ll send Travis in the other direction as soon as he gets here. Surely Tommy can’t be more than a few blocks away.”

“Will do,” Lynn promised, then hesitated. “Are you okay? Anything you need before I start hunting?”

“No, I’m fine.” In fact, finding herself with an actual role—acting as command central for news from those actually out searching—finally began to steady her nerves. This was something she could do. She could keep Libby close and safe, make calls, coordinate efforts, even wait for Tommy to wander back from whatever adventure he’d gone on. Shaking with relief that others were now doing what she couldn’t, she sat down on the top step to watch and wait.

Sitting there on the front stoop, phone and lemonade in hand, Libby in her arms, Raylene peered up and down the street for some sign of Tommy, or at least of Travis or the deputy that the sheriff’s department had promised to send.

When the wait began to seem endless, she once again tried to venture back down the sidewalk. Even though she took a deep breath and told herself she’d already done this once today, her palms began to sweat. Her heartbeat accelerated, and her breath seemed to lodge in her throat. Tears of frustration filled her eyes. She ought to be able to take this one short step, dammit! There was a crisis, and she was absolutely useless.

For the first time since she’d given in to her fears and settled for such a limited existence, she realized just how much might be at stake. Though the kids were the sitter’s responsibility at this time of day, Sarah had depended on Raylene to be her backup, to keep her children safe if she ever happened to be left in charge, even for a brief time. She’d let Sarah down, let Tommy down.

Consumed with self-derision, Raylene realized they all should have known better. Any length of time with her was too long, especially for Tommy, who had his daddy’s stubbornness and tenacity along with the conviction that he was now a big boy. He was growing more independent by the day.

Raylene should have put her foot down and refused to look after the kids at all, not for an hour, not even for five minutes. She knew Sarah was determined to convince her that she was still normal, instead of some basket case, but Raylene should have insisted that the risks were too great. If anything happened to that little boy, she’d never be able to forgive herself.

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