In my defence at taking so long to update, at least it's now a Christmas story being published at Christmas :P

Chapter 3

Everything else flew from Stella's mind as she saw the empty space where her daughter had been only minutes before - no moments before, only moments.

'Holly!' Stella cried, looking round her wildly. There was no sign of her. Nothing. 'Mac, she's gone. Holly's gone.' She clutched Mac's arm, frantic. Larry's voice had ceased. 'She was right here, right by me, I swear, a moment ago…'

'Holly?' Mac stared round, tense and alarmed. 'Holly!'

'She can't have gone far, she can't…' On tip-toes, trying desperately to see over people, bobbing down to peer through their legs, Stella called her daughter's name again and again, Mac's voice echoing alongside hers. They heard Larry tell them he'd go look by the Christmas tree, but neither of them spared an acknowledgement.

'She can't have gone far. She'll be somewhere close by.' Mac squeezed her shoulders, trying to sound reassuring; failing as his face showed the same alarm as Stella's did.

'What if she's not? What if she's run outside, gotten down the steps, run out into the street? She's so small, Mac, drivers wouldn't see her.' Her voice rising, Stella felt her breath coming in gasps as her chest felt tighter and tighter as if someone was drawing strings cruelly round her. She attempted to calculate exactly how long it had been that she had taken her attention away from Holly; how far Holly could have gone in that time. Even as she tried, everything swirled into a blur in her head. The only clear thought being Holly's absence.

'Holly! Holly, where are you?'

Pushing through anyone in her way, Stella hunted for her lost child. She and Mac stopped only to give brief descriptions of Holly. Someone had to have seen her… So beautiful earlier, the cathedral now seemed vast, cavernous, threatening. Far too full of places that a little girl could be lost in, vanished in. Far too full of people, any one of whom, Stella knew, had the potential to have snatched Holly.

Again and again, Stella called. Wading through people, searching under the rows of pews. In the other direction, she heard Mac calling. Both their voices rang round the cathedral's stone innards, receiving no answering call from Holly.

Tears and breathlessness threatened to choke her as Stella turned in every direction, hearing other voices now joining in the calls for Holly. Until finally, someone hollered that there was a child on her own by the Nativity scene.

Almost stumbling in her haste, Stella ran towards the Nativity scene, pushing her way through to the front just as Mac caught her up.

'Oh, thank God,' burst from her as, sure enough, there stood a little figure clutching a metal box standing by the barrier, gazing at the scene.

'My baby! Oh thank God. Holly, sweetie, are you okay?' Stella reached Holly first, snatching her up, hugging her and checking her over. 'Baby girl, I was so worried…'

'Mommy, you're squashing me,' a plaintive, muffled voice said as Holly squirmed against her.

It took a few moments before Stella could bear to release her and balance her on her hip. When she did, she gazed into the reproachful face of her daughter, who looked none the worse for her absence.

'Mommy, I was looking at the animals and baby Jesus,' Holly said, her blue eyes full of blamelessness.

'But baby, you didn't tell us.' Stella smoothed a rebellious curl from Holly's face. 'We didn't know where you were.'

'And when we don't know where you are, we get worried. You know you must never, ever go anywhere by yourself without telling us,' Mac spoke gently, but with a serious tone that caused Holly's eyelids to droop.

'But you were talking to the man and I asked and you didn't listen.'

Stella glanced at Mac, neither of them believing her, especially given Holly's sleeve-tugging habit.

'Then it must have been a teeny tiny mouse voice that you asked with 'cause neither daddy nor I heard it.'

'Mice don't talk, mommy, they squeak, like this.' Holly demonstrated her best mouse squeak, and Stella gave her a sceptical look, reminded suddenly of diversion tactics used by perps.

'Even if you did ask, you didn't get our permission to go, so you should have stayed right where you were,' Mac said. 'This is a big place with lots of people and you could have gotten into danger.'

With downcast eyes, Holly struggled to get out of Stella's arms, so Stella set her on the floor, reluctantly; keeping tight hold of one hand.

'Let's go home,' she said to Mac, tired, shaken and wanting nothing more than to be safely back in their house.

Mac agreed emphatically and reached for Holly's other hand, the one which held her kit.

'No!' Holly snatched her hand away, clutching the kit to her.

Mac raised a stern eyebrow. 'Young lady, whether you like it or not, we are going to hold both your hands until we get home. I will carry your kit.'

Still Holly clutched the kit, shaking her head and sticking a stubborn bottom lip out. Communicating with Mac via a brief glance, Stella crouched down next to their daughter.

'You got two choices, OK?' Holly scowled down at her boots. 'You either let daddy hold your hand and your kit, and we go home and play some more, or you don't let daddy hold your hand and you don't open any more presents until tomorrow. What are you going to choose?'

The pout on Holly's face grew fiercer; the fine black eyebrows crashed together even more, until eventually, there came a mumbled, reluctant, 'Daddy can hold it.'

'Good choice.' Stella exchanged a relieved look with Mac, before they positioned themselves either side of Holly, grasped her hands and, after Larry had found them and been reassured of Holly's safety, they made a hasty exit from the cathedral.

Even by the time they reached home, Stella still felt shaky and Mac looked ruffled. On the way back, Holly had stomped along, saying very little and keeping a close eye on her precious kit.

Once inside, they sat Holly down and talked to her seriously about going off by herself. Chastened, she opened the few more of her presents she was permitted to and then took herself off to her room.

Assured their daughter was safe, within earshot and occupied, Mac suggested his special-recipe hot chocolate, to which Stella agreed whole-heartedly.

With their brimming mugs on the coffee table in front of them, they sank into the couch. Stella took a deep sniff of the wonderfully spiced chocolate and felt it already soothing her. A couple of sips later, she felt the last of the terror from earlier vanquished.

'Next time we leave the house, we ought to consider cuffing Holly to our wrists,' Mac said, taking a sip of chocolate.

'Sounds reasonable.' Shaking her head, Stella gripped her mug, lips pressed together. 'God, Mac, I never, ever want to experience that again. That moment when I realised I couldn't see her…' She shuddered.

'Neither do I,' Mac said with feeling. 'It's got to have aged me ten years at least.'

'And me.' Only half-joking, Stella stretched round some locks of hair to examine them. 'I'm pretty sure there are more grey hairs than there were this morning.'

Serious-faced, Mac lifted a handful of her curls himself and studied them. 'Yes, looks like at least ten more, maybe twenty.'

All she did in response was look pointedly at the dusting of silver in the hair at his temples. Mac grinned, tugged gently at a stray ringlet. 'Now I'm going to risk sounding corny and say that I don't care if your hair is grey, brown or even blue. As long as I've got you and Holly with me, that's all I care about.'

Stella clasped his hand. 'There's no danger of that changing… as long as we stay away from Nativity scenes in the future.'

Lifting his mug, Mac remarked, 'I'll drink to that.'

Drinks finished, Stella swung her legs over Mac's and laid her head on his shoulder, releasing a sigh.

'Quite the day,' Mac murmured, stroking her hair. 'Who knew a cathedral would be so full of fascinating and tempting things to a four year old?'

'We should have expected it, given that she is our daughter,' Stella said, gazing up at him.

'I don't think either of us ever had as much mischief in us as she has,' Mac mused, adding, 'Speaking for myself, anyway.'

Stella met his smug grin with an undiluted stare. 'Really? Huh. I guess your mom and I are going to have some interesting conversations next time we talk.'

Mac only chuckled.

After getting up to check on Holly again, who she found playing with various dolls and figures, her kit beside her, Stella returned to the living room. Even though Holly's unusually quiet play aroused mistrust, nothing illicit seemed to be happening. Maybe even Holly's ebullience had been squashed.

With the TV on quietly in the background, the hot, sweet drink and the warmth in their apartment made Stella and Mac drowsy. Gazing at the Christmas tree as she lay back in Mac's arms, Stella saw the lights begin to blur and seem to melt together. At the top, her two precious Christmas dolls – the fairy and the soldier – smiled benignly at her; smiled mischievously, if she let herself imagine that…

Then she caught sight of the time and gave an exclamation at how late it was.

'Holly should be in bed,' Stella scrambled off the couch. 'I'll go see to her; you tidy up here,' she told Mac already on her way to Holly's room.

At the bedroom door, Stella stopped and smiled at the sight of Holly asleep on top of her bed, still fully dressed. After the events of the day, it was no wonder tiredness had caught up with her.

Still smiling, Stella moved over to the bed and gazed down at her sleeping daughter, clutching something to her chest. Bear, no doubt. Her kit was cast to the floor, its lid open; empty. Stella frowned at that. Frowned even more when she saw the faithful Bear down at the bottom of the bed. She looked a little more closely at what Holly was clutching in her sleep, and gasped in shock.

'Oh no…'

Stella poked her head round the bedroom door. 'Mac, you need to come see this.'

'See what? Is something wrong?' He joined her.

'You could say that.' Stella pulled him over to the bed and pointed.

He looked, looked again; turned to her. 'Is that…?'

'Yes. Yes it is.' Arms folded she stared at Mac, the implications only just beginning to crowd in on her. 'Our daughter is tucked up in bed with the mouse from St Patrick's Nativity scene.'

Mac blinked. 'Are you certain? It's not a gift we overlooked?'

Stella gave him a look of pitying disbelief. 'Believe me, honey, I looked at that mouse for long enough this afternoon to recognise it.' Running her hand through her hair, Stella pressed her lips together. 'No wonder she was so eager to get back there. First chance she got, soon as we weren't paying attention, she took it.'

'No wonder she was so insistent she carried her kit herself,' Mac added and Stella nodded.

'She had the mouse hidden in there.'

'We should have suspected something.'

Stella glanced at Mac. 'It's hardly what you suspect your 4 year old daughter of doing.'

They stared down at their miniature mouse-napper, asleep with the incriminating evidence.

'Caught red-handed,' Stella murmured as she gazed at Holly's cherubic sleeping face and wondered again how a child with such an angelic visage could be so badly-behaved. Mac grunted and drew her out of the room.

'So what do we do?' he asked.

Again, Stella folded her arms across her chest. 'Well we certainly can't wake her up now, not at this time of night. Only thing we can do is tuck her into bed and wait until morning.'

'By which time there could be a BOLO out on the mouse, or a Missing Rodent report,' Mac said, deadpan.

'Mac, quit joking around, this is serious,' Stella hissed. 'Our daughter has stolen. And as if stealing from a cathedral wasn't bad enough, she stole from the Nativity scene. It doesn't get much worse than that.'

Lips pinched together in an effort to be grave-faced, Mac looked at her. 'I'm not saying it isn't serious, but you got to admit, you got up to your own share of mischief, not only when you were a four year old.'

Stella glared. 'Maybe I did, but I was not the daughter of the NYPD crime lab bosses, and I never stole anything from a cathedral,' she retorted, already picturing the lurid headlines, and the disapproval from Sinclair, as well as the Mayor's Office, St Patrick's cathedral, their co-workers, the population of Manhattan…

'Stella, it is not going to make the papers,' Mac said.

Stella sighed. 'Don't bet on it.'

Hand on her shoulder, he gave her a reassuring smile. 'First thing tomorrow, we go back to St Pat's, make our apologies, maybe make a donation, then we figure out a suitable way of dealing with our, uh, little larcenist.'

Exasperated with him not taking their daughter's… theft, yes theft; there was no other word for it… seriously enough, Stella swept past him back into Holly's room.

A short while later, sitting up in bed, she frowned over the top of the book she was not really reading as a still too relaxed-looking Mac got into bed next to her.

'I don't know how you're so calm about this,' she told him as he propped himself up on his elbow next to her, one hand resting on her thigh.

'Because there's nothing more we can do until tomorrow,' he said, his fingers tracing over her skin.

'But we've still got to figure out how we're going to deal with it tomorrow,' Stella argued, trying to ignore that he had sat up and his hands were now brushing her hair away from her neck, exposing the sensitive skin there…

'We can do that tomorrow as well,' he murmured.

'Maybe, but…' She wanted to argue more, but the way his fingers were caressing her skin was awfully distracting.

'It'll be okay,' he assured her, plucking her book out of her hands and kissing her. 'Trust me.'

'Okay,' she mumbled as his fingers slipped down her collar bone. 'If you're sure…'

Moments later, the mouse was temporarily forgotten along with the book that fell to the floor unnoticed.

Happy Christmas to you all! I'd be tremendously happy if you'd gift me a review :D Lily x