‘And when was this?’
‘A couple of... I don’t know, just now.’ She clutched her head and struggled to think straight, fighting her way through the panic.
‘Fine. Show me where you last saw her.’
The next few minutes were a blur for Angel, who retraced her steps and repeated the sequence of events for what seemed like the thousandth time, then sat and watched, feeling helpless and more scared than she had imagined possible, while Alex divided up the volunteers into teams and gave them areas to cover.
‘She can’t have gone far, and ten teams can cover a lot of ground. We will find her.’
She caught his arm. ‘I want to go too.’
‘No, I need you and Nico to stay here in case she makes her own way back, and everyone has Nico’s number.’ Nico held up his phone. ‘He’s the contact so you’ll be the first to know.’
‘You’re afraid you’ll find something bad—that’s why you don’t want me to go!’ she accused shrilly.
Alex took her by the shoulders. ‘You can’t think that way, Angel, and you’re not going to fall apart. You’re strong. Look at me, Angel.’ Her wild restive gaze settled on his face. ‘We are going to find her.’
She swallowed and took a deep shuddering breath. ‘I’m not strong, Alex.’
He gave the most tender smile she had ever seen and touched her face. ‘You are as tough as old boots.’
Then he was gone.
Nico’s phone rang exactly ten minutes later, the longest ten minutes of her life.
* * *
Still holding his daughter’s hand, Alex dropped into a squatting position beside her and pointed towards Angel, who was belting across the sand with Nico and several staff trailing in her wake. ‘There’s your mummy!’
As Angel reached them he released Jasmine’s hand and, rising to his feet, took a step back as Angel, panting, tears streaming down her face, dropped down on her knees and grabbed Jasmine, hugging so tightly the little girl protested and wriggled to escape.
‘Sorry...sorry...’ Angel pushed her back, one hand patting her own mouth to hold back the sobs that struggled to escape from her throat as her anxious green eyes scanned her daughter’s face. ‘You’re all right?’ She lifted her eyes to the tall figure who stood over them both. ‘She’s a-all right? Oh, God, my teeth won’t stop chattering.’
To witness the emotion she was leaking from every pore was making his throat ache. ‘She’s fine,’ Alex promised huskily. ‘She’s just had a little adventure, haven’t you, Jasmine? And none the worse for it, excepting a few scratches.’
‘I was very, very brave.’ She looked to Alex for confirmation of this proud boast and he tipped his head gravely.
‘Just like your mother.’
Angel, shaking with the force of her relief, impelled to touch Jasmine every other second just to prove she was real, was not feeling brave. She was still fighting the nightmarish images in her head. As her distress began to communicate itself to the little girl the proud smile vanished and her lip began to tremble. ‘Mummy...?’
‘Don’t do that again...ever...promise me.!’
Jasmine’s face crumbled. ‘You weren’t there!’ she wailed.
The words pierced Angel’s heart. ‘Don’t cry, darling....’ Angel sniffed, hugging her daughter’s rigid body. ‘It’s all right now.’ She stroked her daughter’s head and Jasmine’s arms went round her neck. Carrying her, Angel rose awkwardly to her feet and over the top of Jasmine’s head she smiled at Alex and mouthed ‘thank you’.
Cool focus and the ability to empty his mind of everything but what he needed to do had got Alex through this, had kept his darkest imaginings at bay. All it took was the gratitude in her shining eyes and those self-imposed barriers crumbled. He tipped his head, his own smile giving not a hint of the rush of powerful emotions locked tight in his chest, the primal need to protect the two women in his life from all the dangers that lurked out there.
He moved to stand protectively beside them and kissed the top of the curly head pressed to Angel’s shoulder and said quietly, ‘Will you be all right?’
Angel felt her face drop. ‘You’re not coming with us?’ Hearing the wobble in her voice, she pinned on a weak smile in an effort to retrieve the situation, and she struggled to display some of the self-reliance she prided herself on.
All in all it was a pathetic effort.