Life is full of decisions and it’s the split-second ones that change your world forever.
Nick Shepherd made such a decision on the day his son, Jesse, was taken from a Christmas market in Naperville. The woman looked normal and had a son of her own, and he was only going to be a minute. But that minute was all she needed. His son was gone.
A year later, the task force is being downsized and they are no closer to finding Jesse than they were the day he disappeared. At his wits end, Nick is given a number and a name by the lead on the case.
Ex-detective Frank Ford has issues, several of them. Two steps shy of a full-blown alcoholic, all he wants is to bury himself in the bottle. He’s doing a pretty good job of it, too, when Nick Shepherd asks for his help. Does Ford want to help? No. Is Ford going to help? Hell no. Until four words resonate deep within him.
“She took my son!”
Half an hour later there were only three people ahead of them and Nick sent a silent prayer of thanks heavenward. He’d stopped feeling his fingers fifteen minutes ago, and the sky had begun to darken as evening approached. After Santa, they could take one more trip around the lot, pick up a few decorations and the quilt Jesse had spotted for Nick’s mom before heading home. Nick’s stomach rumbled loudly and he suddenly realized they hadn’t eaten since the giant pretzel’s and hot chocolate when they first arrived. The Disney Channel and takeout pizza was the way to go. They were down to two in front when Jesse announced.
“Excuse me?” Nick stared down at him with a raised eyebrow. Although Jesse didn’t notice because he was too busy hunting through his pockets.
“I lost my mitten!” Jesse looked up at him, one of his multi-colored Christmas mittens clutched in his fingers.
Anna had bought him those mittens last year at this very market and Jesse had scoured his closet last night looking for them. Wearing them today had been important and Nick got it, he really did.
“Where did you have them last?” Nick asked, dropping down to his haunches to look his son in the eye. His stomach rumbled again and Nick had a lightbulb moment. “Were you wearing them when we had hot chocolate?”
“Yes!” Jesse exclaimed. “But I took them off to hold the cup. Maybe I left it there.”
“Okay,” Nick said. “When we’ve seen Santa, we’ll go back and look for it.”
“But what if someone takes it while we’re waiting?” Jesse’s voice rose and Nick could hear that tears were on their way. “We have to go now!”
“Jay, we’ve been standing in line for thirty minutes, dude, and Santa’s gonna be closing up shop soon. If we go now, you’ll miss him.” Nick tried to reason but Jesse was on the verge of meltdown and people were beginning to stare at them.
“I… need… my… mitten!” Jesse wailed, sobs building in his chest and he threw his arms around Nick’s waist.
Nick looked at the woman in front of them with her son, then over at the seating area where they’d had their hot chocolate and pretzels earlier—then back again. It wasn’t that far…. If he sprinted, he could get to the wooden tables, check if the mitten was there and get back before it was their turn. Jesse would be okay just for a minute—wouldn’t he—of course he wouldn’t he’s only seven—but it’s only for a minute and there are people everywhere—but—? Nick didn’t have time to finish the conversation with himself because Jesse wailed again. Tapping the woman in front of them on the shoulder, Nick made an executive decision.
“Excuse me,” he said as she turned around. “My son left his mitten at the seating area over there but I don’t want him to miss his turn. Would you mind watching him for a minute while I run over and find it?”
The woman’s kindly brown eyes took in Jesse’s tear-soaked face and the length of the line then smiled. “Of course,” she replied. “But be quick, I think they’re rushing the kids through so they get in as many as they can before closing.”
“Like there’s fire coming out of my as—sorry, butt—sorry.” Nick stumbled over the words but she only laughed and waved her hand.
“Thanks,” Nick said gratefully and quickly hugged Jesse to him. “I’ll be right back, buddy, okay? You just stand here with this nice lady and I’ll be so quick you won’t even notice I’ve gone.”
Jesse looked at him warily but the woman smiled and said, “He’ll be fine with me and Marcus, won’t you?” Jesse gave a hesitant nod and Nick hit the ground running.
The mitten Gods must have been smiling down on him because he found it under the table where they’d been sitting almost immediately. He heaved a huge sigh of relief and dashed back to Santa’s Grotto, mitten held high like a victory torch so Jesse could see.
Nick made good on his promise, he was back in just over a minute, if a little out of breath. Promising himself he’d tell Daisy to stop bringing in donuts to work, he headed to the front of the line. He smiled as he slowed his approach, not wanting to slip on the frozen ground. Nick was surprised to see Jesse still held the woman’s hand. Although Jesse was an affectionate kid, he was also very cautious and took a while to warm up to new people. A hand tightened around Nick’s heart. It had been a long time since Jesse had felt a motherly touch. Even when they’d sat on the couch watching TV, Jesse’s hand had always been curled around Anna’s.
“I got it, dude!” Nick said jubilantly, putting his hand on Jesse’s shoulder. “It was right whe—”
The words caught in his throat as the boy turned and so did the woman holding his hand. “Hey!” she yelled, pulling the boy toward her.
“I’m sorry.” Nick held up his hands. “I thought you were… my….” He spun on his heel, his gaze flitting all around him. “Jesse!” His name echoed on the cold evening air. “Jesse! My son? Where’s my son?” Nick grabbed the woman’s forearm and her eyes widened in horror. “My son!” he repeated. What was wrong with her? Why was she looking at him like that?
“Hey, man, take it easy.” That came from a big, bald man a couple of spaces down the line.
Nick ignored him and shook the terrified woman. “My son, he was here. Right here. Where is he? You must have seen him!”
“Sir, is there a problem?”
Nick looked at the woman dressed in a short-skirted elf costume and the burly security guard behind her. He dropped the frightened woman’s arm and ran shaking hands through his hair. “My son,” he said again. Why was no one listening to him? “He was right here! Where is he?” He turned back to the dark-haired woman who now clasped her son to her tightly. “You saw him. You must have. He was with the other woman and the boy. I just went to find his… his mitten.” Nick waved it pathetically, the woolen mitten still clutched firmly in his fingers. “I found… it.”
“The little blond boy?” the elf asked.
“Yes!” Nick tried not to scream but panic, raw and heavy bubbled deep within him. He tried to push it down, but he could taste it in the back of his throat. “He was here. Right here. I was only gone—”
“She left?” Nick shook his head. “What do you mean she left?” He grabbed her forearms. Where. Is. My. Son?”
The elf turned her concerned gaze on the security guard, who stepped forward and put a firm hand on Nick’s shoulder. Spots dotted Nick’s peripheral vision as his brain tried to force him to accept what she was saying.
“Sh-she said there was an emergency. That they had to go.”
“I-I thought you were together,” she stuttered. “Oh, my God. I didn’t know. I thought you were toge—”
“Where is my son?” Nick knew what the answer was going to be, but he had to hear it. “Where is my son!”
“Sh-she took him.”