“Waffles.” Carson slid out of the chair. On his way past, he gave his baby sister an affectionate pat on the head.
“I didn’t get much sleep last night,” Grant said. “I could sure use a nap.”
Carson pulled a box of waffles from the freezer. He dragged a step stool to the counter, eyed his uncle, and then loaded the toaster. When the waffles popped out, he put them on a plate. “Daddy always eats four, and you’re bigger than him.”
Eats. Present tense.
The ache in Grant’s heart swelled until he wasn’t sure he could swallow food. He cleared his throat. “Thanks. I don’t think I can eat so many, though. Are you sure you can’t help me out?”
Carson plunked a bottle of syrup down on the table. He went back to the cabinet for another plate, forks, and knives. “Mommy likes me to set the table.”
“You’re doing a great job.” Grant kept his voice clear. Obviously, Carson wanted to talk about his parents, so talk they would, even if Grant would prefer to bury his grief until it had formed a solid scab like the thickened skin over the bits of shrapnel in his leg. His to-do list rearranged itself. Lee’s estate issues got bumped. Call school about grief counseling shot up to number one, and buy books on children and grieving took the number two spot. He’d need to read a baby book, too. Kate probably had one or ten around the house.
Carson moved a waffle onto the second plate. He poured syrup over it until it floated.
Faith’s bottle was empty. Grant set it on the table and eased her over one shoulder. She let out a reverberating belch that would have impressed a mess tent full of recruits. He put her back in the car seat and helped Carson cut his waffle. They dug in together. Two kids, both eating. So far, so good.
Carson gave his baby sister a suspicious glance but finished his breakfast.
Grant loaded the dishwasher. Now what? He’d planned on getting the kids to take a nap so he could dig into Lee’s paperwork and make a few calls. Grant needed to know more about his brother’s life. Maybe he’d ask Ellie Ross next door. She seemed kind and intelligent. And pretty. Not that that mattered.
“What do you want to do?” he asked Carson.
The boy lifted a shoulder. Kids needed fresh air, right?
“Do you want to go outside and play with the dog?”
Carson shook his head. He looked like he would pass out where he sat. Grant spied crayons and paper tucked under the bowl in the center of the table. The fridge was covered with colorful, primitive drawings of stick people and grass and trees.
“Would you draw me a picture?”
“OK.” Carson breathed out the answer as if the request was a huge imposition.
Great, he’d had the kids less than an hour and he was floundering already. Maybe that social worker was right to doubt him. A raw, wet sound jerked his attention back to the baby just as she spewed what appeared to be ten times more than she’d eaten all over herself, the car seat, and the floor.
Karma had a sick sense of humor. The baby was an explosive.
“I guess I have to get her cleaned up.”
Carson huffed. “Better get used to it. She does that all the time.”
Carson’s head was bent over his drawing. Grant lifted the baby out of her carrier, holding her at arm’s length. He found clean clothes in the laundry room. He wiped her off and changed her clothes and diaper, which took longer than field stripping and cleaning his rifle. But then his M-4 didn’t try to wiggle away from him. A bath would have to wait until he reconnoitered the baby-bathing facilities and did some research. Faith babbled and grabbed at her toes while Grant stuffed her into a one-piece suit with a zipper up the front. He drew the zipper up her chest, and she let loose again. Regurgitated formula splashed over both of them.
Carson looked up from his drawing and heaved a long, disgusted sigh. The situation would have been funny if the prospect of Grant not being able to care for the baby wasn’t so terrifying.
The social worker’s statement rang in Grant’s head. This baby is a challenge.
Words that had seemed bitchy at the time now felt prophetic.
With her pumps in her tote and snow boots on her feet, Ellie buttoned her wool coat, pulled on her gloves, and walked out the firm’s back door. She’d worked an hour over her official five p.m. quitting time to finish a rush client report, throwing off her evening schedule.
She hurried around the building to the small parking lot. Still on her to-do list was a stop at the grocery store. The sun had fallen behind the buildings an hour before, and shadows stretched over the frozen ground. The wind whipped across the lot. Her boots crunched on the half-frozen snowpack. Ellie clutched her coat lapels together and dug her keys from her pocket. Her old minivan sat in the rear of the lot, where employees were required to park. Prime spots closer to the building were reserved for clients.
Shivering, she passed into the shadow of a giant oak tree. She pressed the fob button, and her car doors unlocked with a chirp. Sliding behind the wheel, she started the engine and turned the heater on full.
Something jabbed at her hip. Ellie jumped, her heart knocking against her rib cage.
“Don’t turn around,” a male voice whispered.
Without moving her chin, she rotated her eyeballs down and right. Just over the center console, a gloved hand pointed a gun at her lower back. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she saw a shadow in her peripheral vision. A man lay on the dark floor behind the van’s front seat. Fear solidified in her stomach like ice.
He motioned with the barrel. “Eyes front.”
Her gaze snapped forward. Her panting breaths puffed out and fogged the windshield. There was no one in sight. The only other car in the lot was Roger’s Mercedes, and his office was in the front of the building. He’d never see or hear her. A hedge separated the law firm’s parking area from an oral surgeon’s lot next door. Not that it mattered. Their office wasn’t open on Tuesdays.
Options whirled in her head. She couldn’t get out of the car faster than he could pull the trigger. The way the gun protruded from between the seats, there wasn’t room for her to try and grab it. The close quarters also made getting out of the way of a bullet impossible.
He prodded her again. The muzzle poked her in the kidney. “Pull out of the lot and make a left on First Street. If you shout or draw attention in any way, I will shoot you.”
Light-headed, she shifted into reverse and depressed the gas pedal. The vehicle jerked backward. She stomped on the brake, and the car lurched to a halt.
“You dumb bitch,” he whispered.
Ellie breathed and willed her shaking limbs to obey. She could crash the van once she got out of the parking lot. That was her only chance.
“No speeding, and if you crash this ride, I’ll be able to shoot you no problem. I’m wedged tight back here. I’ll be fine.”
Her hopes dimmed. The air bag would deploy in her face and immobilize her. She’d still be helpless.
What did he want? Was he going to kill her? She wanted to open the door and run, to take her chances in the parking lot, where she had at least a chance of getting away. Once he took her somewhere else, he could do anything he wanted to her. But there was no way she could get out of the van fast enough.
She turned left onto First Street. Under her coat, sweat soaked through her silk blouse, and her snow boots seemed bulky and awkward on the van’s pedals. Cruising at twenty-five miles an hour, she stopped at an intersection.
“W-where do you want me to go?” she asked.
“Make a left.” He ground the gun into her back as he answered in the same hoarse whisper.
She drove past the elementary school, now empty and dark. He levered his upper body higher to look out the window. “Pull into the parking lot of the thrift store.”
Two blocks later, she turned at a lighted sign. St. Paul’s Thrift Shop closed at four. Ellie had been there many times. She’d bought most of Julia’s baby clothes secondhand. Gravel and ice crunched under her tires as she drove past the converted brick bungalow that housed the used clothing shop. Inside, the building was dark. A single light by the rear door cast a yellow glow across the pavement. He could kill her right here, and there was no one close enough to hear the shot. The lot was empty, except for one car parked in the very back. Light reflected off the windshield. Was there anyone inside?
Fresh terror sent sweat rivering down her back. She could smell her own fear, amplified under the heavy wool of her coat.
“Stop,” he said.
She braked and waited, her hands clenching the steering wheel like a life buoy.
“Put the van in park and raise your hands.”
Ellie followed the instructions. She was alone. He might have reinforcements. She fought to keep her breathing under control. Freaking out would not help. Think! She had to get away, but shock paralyzed her brain. Escape seemed impossible.
He tossed something over the seat into her lap. She flinched.
“Take a good look.”
Ellie dropped her gaze. An eight-by-ten envelope. She opened it and slid out two photos. She picked one up, her pulse stammering as she recognized Julia walking up the driveway after school, her full backpack dangling from one shoulder. The second photo was her grandmother stooping to pick up the paper in the driveway in front of their house.
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