A YEAR LATER

Nicolas was thankfully thriving in his new environment, much to the relief of Jonathan and Jennifer. She had been apprehensive in the beginning of taking on the role of parent but there was no question that Nicolas would live with them. Jonathan was a natural father, teaching Nicolas how to play ball and introducing him to American sports, even signing him up for pee wee baseball. He had never even watched a game but thanks to Dad and Uncle Max he was picking it up very easily. Jennifer, while not completely ignorant on the subject and understanding the importance in a young boy's life, wanted to expose him to the things that interested her as well. She took him to museums, there were some wonderful children's exhibits and signed him up for piano lessons. He took to it all very quickly and was making friends as well. It was Saturday morning and Nicolas and Jonathan were already warming up for the game outside. Jonathan couldn't help but smile with pride as his son hit the ball with quite a bit of skill. Freeway sat watching them barking every once in a while to signal his approval.

"That's it, Nicky." He encouraged him, "That's it."

"Daddy, I'm thirsty, can I get some water?" He asked

Jonathan sighed, "Yeah, I could use some, too."

They headed toward the house with Freeway following behind, walking into the kitchen to find Max and Jennifer packing sandwiches for the team for after the game. Jonathan took a seat at the table

"Bon Jour, Mama." Nicolas greeted her with a warm hug, having lived in Monte Carlo, Nicolas spoke French very well and Jennifer wanted to keep it fresh in his mind. It had taken him and while but he had made the decision to call her Mom, with no pressure from her or Jonathan, and every time she heard it her heart swelled

"Ah, Bon Jour, Nicolas." She replied smiling, hugging him close, "Comment allez vous?"

"Tres bien, et vous?" He replied, "Puis-je avoir un peu d'eau?"

"Qui, d'accord." She replied reaching for a glass, filling it with water and handing it to him

"Merci." He said then took a big drink

"Bienvenu."

"You know, I'm beginning to get a funny feeling with all this French talk." Jonathan quipped, "How do I know you two aren't talking about me?"

"Darling, if we were talking about you we'd be laughing." She countered with a grin, winking at Nicolas

Nicolas laughed heartily, "She's right, Daddy." He said finishing his water and setting his glass on the counter

"Mrs. H, do you think we've got enough sandwiches?" Max asked

She gave the wicker basket a quick inspection, "That looks fine, Max." She replied then turned to Nicolas, "Nicky, sweetheart, you better get changed into your uniform. It's almost time to leave."

"Okay, Mom." He said, "Come on, Freeway."

Freeway followed loyally behind him. The Heinz 57 mutt had been a constant companion, especially when Nicolas had first come to live with him. He slept with him almost every night and as lovable as he was he could be very protective. When some kids at the park had started picking on Nicolas not long after he had come to California, Freeway let it be known that no one would mess with his young master.

"I'll go put this in the car and bring it around." Max picked up the basket and exited the kitchen

Jennifer began putting the meat, cheese and condiments back in the fridge as Jonathan sat watching her. He was amazed at how she stepped into the role of Nicolas's mother. He knew that she had, in the past, doubted her maternal instincts. But he knew what a wonderful mother she would be and he was right. Nicolas was thriving and she was a big reason for that. He got up and walked over to where she was at the sink and put his arms around her.

"You are really something, Mrs. Hart." He said kissing the back of her neck

"Jonathan, these dishes won't wash themselves." She chided but it was evident she craved his touch

"Hmmm." He mumbled continuing to nuzzle her neck, "Let Max take care of it."

She turned around meeting his eyes, her own like pools of finely aged scotch, "We've got a ballgame to go to, mister."

"Have I told you lately how very much I love you?" He asked, "You never cease to amaze me."

"You're amazed? By little ole me?" She quipped doing her best imitation of Scarlett O'Hara

His expression became serious, "Thank you." He paused, "For loving my son."

She caressed his cheek, "Our son." She corrected, not wanting to erase the memory of Nikki from Nicolas's mind but wanting him to know he was loved by everyone in his new family

He pulled her closer to him still wondering how he ever came to be so blessed

"I'm ready." Nicolas announced entering the kitchen

They broke their embraced and Jennifer looked from Jonathan to Nicolas, "Well, I don't know how I got so lucky."

"Lucky?" Nicolas asked

"Yes, lucky to have the two most handsome men in the world." She smiled broadly

After a triumphant victory, The Chargers Pee Wee ball team devoured the sandwiches and after they ate a few of the boys wandered over to the play area across the park from the ball field. Diane Vinson, the mother of one of the other boys was keeping an eye on them. But when one of the boys scraped his knee they went back to the field to get a first aid kit. When they returned Nicolas was nowhere to be found.

"Where's Nicky?" She asked one of his closest friends, Christopher

"I thought he went back over to the field, Mrs. Vinson."

She looked around and didn't see him anywhere, "Oh god." She muttered then turned back to the group of boys, "Let's get back to the ballpark. Maybe he did go back there."

Jennifer was talking with a couple of other mothers and Jonathan was talking to the coach.

Jennifer saw Diane and the expression on her face and immediately went up to her, "What's wrong, Diane?"

"Jennifer, I can't find Nicky." She said

"What?" She asked, "Isn't he with the other boys?"

"Well, when I went back over there after fixing up Kevin's knee, he was gone. They said they thought he came back over here. Did he?"

Jennifer felt like she was going collapse, "Oh, God, no." He muttered, "Jonathan!"

Jonathan was immediately at her side, "What is it, sweetheart?"

Jennifer couldn't speak so Diane did it for her, "Jonathan, when I went back to the playground Nicky wasn't there. The other boys thought he came back here."

He promptly went into action, "You and Dave look on that side, Jennifer Max and I will look on this side of the park."

"Okay, I'll get Dave." She said, "Jonathan, I'm so sorry."

"There's no time for that now. Let's just find him."

He pulled Jennifer in his arms, "Sweetheart, he's got to be here somewhere. Let's get Max and look for him."

After combing the park and finding no sign of him they went to the police, hoping their friend, Lt. Hershel Gray would do them a favor and not wait the obligatory twenty four hours to start investigating. But where would they even start? It was like he vanished into thin air. They waited in Gray's office for him to return from a meeting with the captain. He returned to find two very anxious people waiting for him.

"Jonathan, Jennifer, they told me something happened to Nicolas?"

"Hershel, he's disappeared." Jonathan said, "We have no idea where he is. We were hoping you could pull some strings and not wait to look into this."

Hershel signed leaning back in his chair, "Jonathan, you know I would like nothing more but where would I even start. Did anyone there see anything?"

"I don't think so." Jonathan replied, "He was playing with some of the other boys. One of the other mothers was watching them but left for a few minutes to bandage up one of the kid's knees and when she went back, Nicky was gone. The others said they thought he went back to the ball field but he hadn't."

"Well, unofficially, maybe we can do something." He said, "Why don't you two go home. If this was a kidnapping, there's bound to be a ransom call. We will put a tap on both your lines."

"Alright." Jonathan said then looked at Jennifer, who appeared to be in a stupor, "Let's go, Darling."

She nodded slightly and they exited Gray's office

Later that night no ransom demand had come and neither of them could sleep. They felt paralyzed, having no idea what or who they were facing. Jonathan went into the kitchen to get some coffee and when he returned he found her standing, staring out the window into the dark night. He set the coffee cups down on the table and went over to her.

"Darling, we'll find him." He assured her, wrapping his arms around her

She relaxed against him but he still felt the tension in her body, "He's just a little boy, he must be so scared. We're supposed to protect him…" She trailed off

He sighed heavily, he was trying to be strong and in control but he too was crumbling, his tears started to fall, "I know…" the words got caught in his throat

She turned around to face him and saw, for the first time, fear in her husband's eyes, he pulled her closer and they held in each other as they both cried, for themselves and the little boy who needed them. After a few minutes the phone rang.

They froze for a minute then Jonathan broke their embrace and he walked over to the phone on the desk, "Jonathan Hart." He answered

"Mr. Hart." A male voice replied, "If you want to see your son again, do exactly as I say…"

TBC