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Excerpt:  Journey to Fulfillment

Chapter One

 The cell phone went dead, crushing her fragile connection with her five-year-old daughter.

“Stella?  Stella?”  Marianne Mueller gasped, knowing the frantic tone in her voice would accomplish exactly nothing.  She inspected the face of the phone, and it verified that the line was, indeed, lost.  Suppressing the urge to stomp her foot on the silly thing into the grassy ground, she lifted her head and scanned the heavy foliage all around her.

Tom grabbed her shaking hands, effectively stopping her from hurling the cursed device. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, Marianne.” Her husband was always the voice of reason.  Of course, it was a miracle they’d gotten Jeremy’s call in the first place.  Cell towers were sketchy in these parts, in the best of times.

Tom pulled her close and guided her head into his chest, his warmth and scent drawing her home.  She gulped cleansing air, trying to hold off the tears threatening to make a fresh appearance.  She’d cried all day.  Well, of course she had.  Her daughter was missing.

Kidnapped by a crazy man who was driving drunk in the car he hadn’t even belted her into when he enticed her to take a ride with him.

“It’s over now,” Tom said.  “We’ll see her soon.”

She concentrated on drawing in air, slowly.  Yes.  How would she have ever gotten through these endless hours of searching without his strength and level-headedness? A smile emerged through her tears.  “Yes.  She’ll be in my arms and I’ll never let her out of my sight again.”

Tom pressed his lips against her forehead and pulled her tighter.  “She’s safe now.  How’d she sound?”

She glanced at the phone again, and thought of the short phone conversation she’d shared with Stella.  Somewhere on Pawleys Island, Marianne’s brother Jeremy had found her baby. Safe and sound, although tired, hungry, dirty and scared. Hiding in the woods, trying to stay safe after escaping the crazy man.

She could only imagine the joyous celebration in the woods moments ago between Stella, Jeremy, and his girlfriend Emma. Jeremy’s words over the phone, sharing the jubilant news, “We’ve got her.” When Stella got on, they’d talked just long enough for Marianne to confirm that indeed, it was Stella.  To ask her if she was okay, and to let her know that Daddy and Mommy loved her, oh so very much.

Stella had started a story about a little pink elastic scrunchie that had been in her hair, but had come loose when she’d pulled her Pawleys Island Pelicans baseball cap off and left it in the crazy man’s car.

A sign?  An assist to the dozens of volunteer searchers, friends and family members who were combing every inch of this island for some sign of precious little Stella?  Her story continued, so Marianne didn’t have time to ask.

The scrunchie held on through the adversity of hiking several miles alone through the woods, while Stella put distance between herself and the dangerous man.  But it eventually fell loose and landed on the forest floor.  And that — that one random hair accessory was what led Emma, then Jeremy to find her.

Thank the Lord.  Thank God for small miracles like pink scrunchies.

“She sounded wonderful.  I mean, she’s exhausted, she’s starving, she’s scared.  But she’s so happy to be safe, her ordeal over.  You know her Uncle Jeremy is her hero, now more than ever.”

Tom didn’t respond but he kept up his strong hold on her shoulders. “Want to try calling her back?”

It was worth a try.  She pulled back from him, tried a redial and waited with the phone on speaker.  Silence, then one ring tone, then straight to some recorded message from the phone company.  She sighed and disconnected.

“It’s okay.  I got to hear her.  We’ll just have to wait.  Even if it kills us.”

His lips gave a little grimace that she was sure was intended as a smile.  “I assume he’ll take her back to the Inn.”

She nodded.  They turned to make the trek to their car and ran into one of the rescuers in charge.  “My brother found her.  She’s safe. He’s bringing her home.  Thank you for everything.”

A grin lit the man’s face.  She was sure he had some mountain of announcements, process and paperwork to follow now that the search was over.  But he could initiate that.  She had a daughter to wait for.

 * * *

 At least forty minutes had passed from the time they got the call, till they now sat waiting at the Seaside Inn, their home and place of business.  Sharing their home with up to a dozen vacationing families was both a blessing and an inconvenience, depending on the situation.  Tonight, word had spread among the vacationers, mostly retired snowbirds.   Six or eight of them waited anxiously in the great room.  Stella was a favorite among all guests, with her easy socialness, her happy smiles and her expert sand castles out back on the beach.

“They found her,” Tom announced immediately, and a rush of relief filled the room, murmurs of thanks to God for many answered prayers.  “She’s on her way now.”

After hugs and pats on the back by loving well-wishers, the room cleared, leaving Tom and Marianne.  She checked her watch.  “Do I have time for a shower, you think?”

“Sure.  Make it quick.”

She nodded and headed to their family’s wing of the inn, separate from the guest rooms.  She dug in her purse for her key, then pushed through the door, pulling clothes off on the way to the bathroom.  She couldn’t bear it if Stella arrived while she wasn’t there to greet her.  Her baby — her only child.  A shudder wracked her shoulders. She couldn’t protect Stella from the evils of the world — obviously — but she sure could show her with words and actions how much she loved her.

She stepped into the hot spray and lifted her face.  Jets pinged off her forehead and eyelids as she started a silent prayer.  Thank You, God.  Thank You for bringing Stella safely home.  She’s my life.  My child that You have entrusted to me.

She turned, her back now to the firm fingers of water.  I didn’t do a good job of keeping her safe.  I failed her, and You.  The evils of the world grabbed her from me.  I was no match but I will be.  I will be, God.  Stella is my top priority, and I will keep her safe, no matter what.  With Your help.  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry, God.  Help me do better.

The tears hit with a vengeance then, and she couldn’t keep up with the silent prayer.  Sobs wracked her middle and her legs gave out, no longer able to hold her.  She bent her knees and slid down the wall of the shower till she hunched in the corner, weeping.

 *  * *

 Despite her watery meltdown, she made it out to the great room before Stella arrived.  Tom sat in an easy chair in the corner, his leg crossed over one knee, his fingers picking at a stray string on his shoe.  He looked up.  “I called Jeremy about ten minutes ago.  We’re both back in range, so I reached him.”

“And?”  Her heart was in her throat, she couldn’t help it.

He smiled slightly.  “She fell asleep in the back seat.”

“Ahhh.  She’s exhausted.”  Of course she was.  She spent at least five hours tromping through the cold woods after her escape from her prison.  No food.  “I wonder if Jeremy stopped to get her something to eat.”

Tom shook his head distantly.  “He didn’t mention it.”

Marianne stood up and took a step toward the kitchen. Tom looked up at her, alarmed.  “They’re only moments out.”

Priorities warred within her.  She could make Stella’s favorite peanut butter and apple sandwich in less than two minutes.  But the price was too high if it meant not being here to greet her little girl.

The door flung open.  Jeremy, carrying Stella in his arms, flanked by Emma, strode into the room.  Marianne squealed.

“Mommy,” Stella said, eyes closed and arms out.  Marianne pulled her into an embrace, giving her brother a grateful expression.  He knew.  No words were necessary.

Tom joined them and wrapped his arms around his family.  He murmured words into Stella’s bent head, her unrestrained hair creating a curtain around her face.  The two of them had such a bond.  Before long, her daughter was laughing.

Stella threw her head back and for the first time, Marianne saw a glimpse of her happy, undamaged little girl.  She planted a kiss on Stella’s cheek and Stella struggled to get down on her own feet.  No more pampering for this little fireball.  Marianne squeezed her one more time to savor the closeness, and slid her down to the floor.

Jeremy stood with his hand on Emma’s shoulder.  “Well, we’ll get going and let you guys do your thing.”

“Yeah, good idea,” Tom said abruptly.  Marianne looked over at him, surprised by his brusqueness.  If it weren’t for Jeremy, Stella could still be lost.  Then again, Tom had searched endlessly and was undoubtedly tired.  Too tired for politeness.  And she looked forward to having Stella to themselves.  So, Marianne moved to Jeremy and wrapped her arms around both him and Emma.  “I can’t thank you enough.”

Jeremy shook his head.  “No need.  Glad it worked out the way it did.”

She pulled away.  “Of course it did.  I wouldn’t have survived if it didn’t.”

Emma reached for her hand and squeezed it, her face a mess of emotion.  “I’m so sorry, Marianne.  I can’t even imagine what he was thinking.”

Marianne lifted her hand.  “Sweetie, I can’t talk about it now.  I can’t even think about it now.  Please.  I don’t hold anything against you, but … he needs help, you know.”

Emma gave her head a firm shake.  “Yes, he does.  The police took him to jail, which is where I imagine he’ll stay for a while.”

Marianne pulled the girl into her arms.  “That’s good enough for now.”

“Oh yeah,” Jeremy said.  “Normally we’d all have to go to the police station to give our statements, but they were willing to let that wait till tomorrow, since Stella’s so young, and so tired.”

Marianne looked over to Tom.  “We have to take her to the police station tomorrow?”  He rolled his eyes and she swung her gaze back to her brother.

“Yes,” Jeremy replied, “but hopefully for just a short interview.  She’ll do better after a good night’s sleep.”

A shudder flitted down Marianne’s spine.  A kidnapping.  Search and rescue.  An Amber Alert.  Marianne was in way over her head, but she had to be strong for Stella.  She planted a happy smile on her face and chanted, “Say good-bye to Uncle Jeremy, Stella, and a thank you very much!”  She ignored the odd look from Tom.

Stella obliged, and soon the room was quiet with the three of them.  Tom sat back on the easy chair and pulled Stella on to his lap.  Marianne kneeled in front.  Her daughter was filthy.  But she couldn’t count the number of hours she’d gone without a meal, so she’d leave it up to her.

“Sweetie, do you want something to eat first, or do you want a bath?”

Stella’s eyebrows shot up as she considered her options, raising an index finger to pat on her lips.  “Hmmm,” she said, as if she were at a toy store surveying the inventory, “ice cream?”

Marianne chuckled.  “Food first, it is.  But not ice cream, not on an empty stomach. You’ll end up with a tummy ache all night. How about a nice sandwich first, then ice cream, then a bath?”

Stella smiled, and nodded.  Marianne stood, intending to head for the kitchen, but Tom caught her hand.  Marianne looked back, and then took Stella’s hand with her other.  He said, in that soft voice of his so full of heart, “Sweetheart, we love you so much and we’re so glad to have you back, safe and sound.”

Marianne added, “We’re so sorry you went through that, baby.  We’ll never let something bad happen to you again.”

Tom gazed at her, the expression on his face surely supposed to be a message.  But she hadn’t the strength to figure out what it was, and she was more concerned with Stella’s feelings at the moment.

“Stay right here, baby.  I’ll be back in a flash.”

 

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