Only Ever You by Rebecca Drake follows Jill Lassiter, a mother put through her worst nightmare, as her daughter is abducted and it becomes apparent that someone is trying to tear the entire family apart (Available March 22, 2016).
Jill Lassiter’s three-year-old daughter disappears from a playground only to return after 40 frantic minutes, but her mother’s relief is short-lived–there’s a tiny puncture mark on Sophia’s arm. When doctors can find no trace of drugs in her system, Jill accepts she’ll never know what happened, but at least her child is safe.
Except Sophia isn’t. Someone is watching the Lassiter home in an affluent Pennsylvania suburb, infiltrating the family’s personal and professional lives. While Jill struggles to balance building her photography business with parenting high-spirited Sophia, and David is distracted by pressure to make partner at his law firm, both of them are holding on in a marriage that’s already been rocked by loss.
Three months after the incident at the park, Sophia disappears again, but this time Jill and David become the focus of police and media scrutiny and suspicion. Facing every parent’s worst nightmare a second time, Jill discovers that someone doesn’t just want Sophia for her own, she wants to destroy the entire family.
JULY 2013—THREE MONTHS
On the day her life began to unravel, Jill Lassiter smeared sunscreen on her three-year-old daughter’s soft skin and drove her, as promised, to the park.
It was a hot afternoon, and she held Sophia’s hand as they crossed the road, leaning a little so her daughter’s small arm wouldn’t have to stretch too far.
While they walked Sophia chattered about the swings, about her plastic ring with the pink “jewel,” about a small terrier being walked. The older woman holding the leash smiled at Sophia’s cry of delight, but Jill’s mind was elsewhere and she didn’t really hear what her daughter said, pretending to listen with small sounds of interest.
Afterward, she’d feel guilty about this. What kind of mother didn’t pay attention to her own child? Except she’d been thinking about two bar mitzvahs and a wedding she had to shoot, and attempting to mentally coordinate schedules so she and her business partner, Tania, could juggle them all.
“Let go, let go!” Sophia tugged to get free, and Jill released her hand, raising her camera as she watched her daughter run across the grass and struggle onto a swing. She was small for her age, but intent on doing everything herself. Jill offered a push and Sophia gravely accepted one, but didn’t want her mother’s help after that.
Jill stood to the side and snapped photos, watching her daughter’s baby-fine blonde hair lifting as she swung forward and back. She had no premonition, no sense of imminent disaster.
There were few people at the playground on such a hot day. Even in the shade it was warm. Sweat darkened the hair near Sophia’s temples, beaded slightly on her upper lip. Her cheeks were pink, but she didn’t look as if she were getting sunburned. Jill could feel the damp against her own neck and lifted her dark hair for a moment to catch a breeze. She thought they would stay just a little longer.
When Sophia ran toward the slide, she didn’t think to stop her. It was a safe, modern playground, with padding under everything, so that a child would have to work to skin a knee or scrape an elbow. She started to follow, but the crying of another child distracted her. Jill saw a mother struggling to support a howling infant in one arm while helping a little boy onto a swing with the other. The boy caught Jill’s attention. She stared at him, caught by the familiar ache in her chest because he had dark hair and looked about the right age.
The baby’s wailing and the other mother’s obvious distress snapped her out of it. “Here, let me help.” She walked back to them, quickly giving the little boy the boost he needed.
“Oh, thank you,” the mother said above the cries of the infant. “She’s so hungry. Would you mind handing me that bag?” She nodded toward a large tote on the ground near her as she settled down on a park bench to nurse.
Jill set the bag down before hurrying after her own child. Helping the other mother had taken less than a minute. Two minutes at most. When she couldn’t spot Sophia’s blonde head bobbing above the brightly colored plastic she wasn’t alarmed. Not yet.
She rushed toward the slide, using her free hand to shade her eyes. The slide wasn’t like the old-fashioned ones, the single metal structures that burned the backs of your legs in the summer and had metal steps that were slippery when it rained. This was all plastic—a slide and a fort with tunnels and a climbing wall, and she thought Sophia was somewhere in that obstacle course. Only she wasn’t.
Jill kept looking for that small blonde head, raising her voice when she called her name: “Sophia?” She expected to hear her daughter’s high-pitched voice, to see her pop up, a question visible in her pale blue eyes. Except she didn’t.
In that gap between Jill’s first call and the frantic search that followed, there was a moment of such awful stillness that the only sound she heard was the startled catch of her own breath.
Other adults joined in her hunt, the woman with the two children, a man out jogging, an elderly couple walking, their voices joining hers until she could hear Sophia’s name echoing through the park. She called David at work, babbling when he got on the line so that he had to say, “Slow down, slow down, I don’t understand.”
She didn’t know who called the police, but they came before her husband, arriving in a screaming squad car. There were two of them, one short, one tall, both male, one white, one black, but beyond that she couldn’t focus. She looked past them, constantly scanning the same territory over and over again. Swings, slide, wide empty field, the woods surrounding it all. Sophia had been standing right there and now she was gone.
“Does she have a history of wandering off?”
“Is she friendly with strangers?”
“Could a family member have taken her?”
She answered their questions, nervously checking her watch as they followed the route that Jill had taken through the playground.
“Did you pass anybody on your way here?”
“Who else was at the playground?”
They asked to see her camera and she handed it to them, showing them how to scroll back through the photos she’d taken. Her husband arrived, his car screeching to a halt behind the police cruiser. David came across the field faster than she’d ever seen him run, tie flying, short blond hair in disarray, his face flushed. “Where is she? Have you found her?”
The police spread out to search. David retraced her route at a run before coming back to Jill with his hands on his head in disbelief.
A second police car arrived, then a third. Onlookers gathered on the fringes of the park. A female police officer placed a hand on Jill’s arm, a touch that was supposed to be kind, but only unnerved her.
The police spoke quickly to one another and into radios, voices clipped and dispassionate, discussing doing a wider search of the wooded areas of the park and cordoning off all entrances and exits. Twenty minutes passed, then forty.
At the moment of despair, at the moment when fear overcame the guilt and Jill’s body started to shake, Sophia suddenly appeared, standing in the shelter of some trees across the road from the park. She was more than fifty feet away, but Jill spotted her all the same, her small blonde head and white dress a beacon in all that green.
Jill pushed past the police officer and ran toward her daughter, calling to her with hiccupping cries. Her legs were leaden; she couldn’t move fast enough. She was too scared not to scare her child, too, grabbing her with such intensity that her daughter started to cry.
“Oh, Sophia, Sophia.” Her name was all Jill could utter, holding her tightly until David arrived breathless behind her, wanting to hold her, too. She passed the girl to him, but kept her hands on the little body, checking her back, her legs, for injuries.
The police tried to question the toddler. “Did you walk all the way over here by yourself?” Sophia shook her head and would only say no to every inquiry. She yawned, looking down, before mumbling, “I find a doggie.”
The police looked relieved. “Is that what happened?” the female cop asked. “Did you follow a doggie?” She was smiling, the atmosphere suddenly relaxed. The news went around the small crowd that had gathered to search and they slowly dispersed, parents releasing their children back to the playground, couples walking away hand-in-hand.
“Do you think she might have followed someone walking their dog?” an older cop asked.
David nodded. “She’s crazy about them, keeps begging us to get one.”
Jill carried Sophia as they walked back with the police toward the parked cars. An older officer laughingly suggested that they keep their little girl on a leash, and David shook everyone’s hands and thanked them repeatedly for their quick response. Jill tried to smile, but she was teary with relief. Some of the officers patted Sophia on the head before taking off in their squad cars.
David opened the doors to Jill’s car to let out the heat. “Don’t wander off like that, Sophia,” Jill said between kisses to her daughter’s round cheeks. “You scared Mommy.”
“My ring gots lost,” Sophia mumbled, scratching an upper arm. Jill glanced at her chubby little hands and saw that the plastic ring with the pink gemstone was indeed missing.
“Don’t worry,” she said soothingly, “we’ll find another one.”
Sophia scratched her arm again. Jill pulled Sophia’s hand so she could lift the cap sleeve of her sundress to see.
“She’s got a mark here, David, she didn’t have this before!” On the smooth skin of Sophia’s inner arm was a tiny red pinprick with a slight swelling of the skin around it. “Jesus, someone’s injected her!”
“What the hell—” Her husband grabbed his daughter’s arm to look.
“They’ve drugged her! Sophia, did someone give you a shot?” She checked her daughter’s blue eyes, but she couldn’t tell if the pupils were dilated. Sophia stared at her mother, one thumb climbing to her mouth.
“It looks like a bug bite,” David said, peering at the mark.
“That is not a bug bite.”
At Jill’s insistence, they drove to the nearest hospital. Jill held Sophia in the back of David’s car, firing questions while he drove that Sophia wouldn’t or couldn’t answer. “How did you get in the woods? Did someone touch you? Did someone give you a shot?”
Sophia only kept up a mumbled singsong: “I find the doggie, I find the doggie.”
An emergency room physician with dark circles under her eyes examined her arm. “It’s hard to say. It looks like a small puncture mark, but it could be a bug bite.” She gave Sophia a complete checkup and said they should give her a tetanus shot, just in case. The little girl howled when she saw the needle.
Jill held onto Sophia, wincing as the doctor inserted the needle into the soft fold of the girl’s other arm and her daughter cried out.
“What about blood tests?” Jill asked as the nurse put an Elmo Band-Aid on Sophia.
The doctor looked up from the chart. “Tests? For what?”
“If someone injected her, you could check for drugs in her system, right?”
“I really don’t think that’s likely, Mrs. Lassiter.”
“But you said yourself you can’t tell. If she’s been given a drug, we need to know.”
David said, “Jill, do you really want to subject her to another needle?”
“No needle!” Sophia started wailing again.
“What if she’s been drugged?” Jill said to David. She turned to the doctor. “Shouldn’t you check for that or give her some preemptive treatment just in case?”
The doctor sighed. “I really don’t think that’s the case, Mrs. Lassiter, but we can run a tox screen.”
Sophia howled and Jill opened her arms, but it was David she clung to this time. He seemed as upset as his daughter, holding her so tightly that Sophia had to tell him to stop squeezing her.
She had forgotten the pain of both shots by the end of the hour they had to wait while the hospital lab ran tests. She sat on the floor in front of a table strewn with old magazines and played with David’s cell phone, amusing herself with a voice memo app. Jill sat next to her, a hand resting on one small shoulder until Sophia nudged it off. At fifteen minutes past the hour the doctor finally appeared looking at paperwork from the lab. “Negative for everything,” she said, addressing Jill with a slightly patronizing smile. “There are no drugs in her system.”
David drove them back to retrieve Jill’s car. She sat next to Sophia, unable to be apart, running her hand repeatedly over her silky hair. “I shouldn’t have looked away, she moves so fast these days.”
“She needs to learn to stay with you,” David said. He drove fast; she could see his hands gripping the steering wheel, read the tension in his shoulders.
“It’s over,” she said, trying to calm down, trying to calm him. “She’s safe.”
That night she dreamed of someone lurking in the woods waiting for her daughter, and of Sophia waving good-bye before being swallowed by the trees. Jill woke in a cold sweat and got out of bed in the darkness, padding silently across the hall to check on Sophia, surprised when she heard voices coming from her room.
In the muted glow of the night-light, she saw the outline of David sitting on the edge of Sophia’s bed, the big-girl bed she’d lobbied for, not the least because she liked to climb out. She looked so tiny in it; the bed seemed huge around her. Jill stepped in the doorway and her husband looked up, startled.
“What’s going on?”
“She had a nightmare.”
Sophia whimpered and reached out to her mother. Jill took David’s place and held her, rocking her daughter back and forth.
When the little girl slept she crept back to her own room, sliding back into bed next to David. He reached out his arms to hold her. “You know how much I love you, right?” he said. “Love you and Sophia?”
“You know I’d never let anyone hurt you?”
“What is it?” she said, searching his face in the darkness. “Are you afraid because of what happened today?”
He shook his head again, unwilling or unable to answer, but his arms tightened around her.
It was just residual anxiety. They’d faced every parent’s worst nightmare and gotten a reprieve. It was only natural that they’d feel some leftover stress. Everything would be okay. Their daughter was here and whole, and what had happened to her was just an isolated incident. Nothing this bad would ever happen again; they had nothing to fear.
Jill was wrong.
Copyright © 2016 Rebecca Drake.
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Rebecca Drake moves to hardcover with her breakout psychological thriller, Only Ever You. She is the author of three other suspense novels, Don’t Be Afraid, The Next Killing, and The Dead Place, as well as the short story, “Loaded,” which was featured in Pittsburgh Noir. Rebecca is an instructor in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction M.F.A. program. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA with her husband and two children. Find more at RebeccaDrake.com