Read an Excerpt
Hank knew the assailant was making his way toward the bedroom, sneaking down the hall as silently as possible.
Feigning sleep, he lay waiting. Coiled to move when the moment arrived. Listening to the whisper of fingers slowly turning the knob. A breathless sigh as the door opened across the carpet. Barely audible footsteps moving toward the bed.
Four three two Now! He thrust his arm from beneath the covers and wrapped it around his son.
Robbie shrieked into his earone of the occupational hazards of fatherhoodthen threw himself onto Hank's chest in a fit of giggles.
Hank caught him in a bear hug. "I almost got you!" he hollered, struggling to get free. "I almost did!"
"Uh-huh. You had me right to the last second. Then my instincts warned me someone was there."
When Hank released his hold, Robbie scrambled around so he could sit straddling his father's chest. "Mrs. Chevy said I should come wake you up."
"By launching a kamikaze attack? Is that how she told you to do it?"
He nodded, looking so sincere that Hank would have believed him if he didn't know Audrey Chevalier better.
But he could practically hear her saying, in her most grandmotherly voice, "Now, wake your father very gently, darling. You know how he likes to be a little lazy on his days off."
And he did. Working ten days at a stretch sometimes felt as if he were working forever, but he really enjoyed having four days off between shifts. Especially when the weather cooperated, which it was doing at the moment.
The next three days promised to be just as nice as yesterdaythree more spring days that were going to be gorgeous, and that he intended to spend with his son.
Except for this morning, he remembered.
Audrey was taking Robbie shopping for clothes.
It was a task she'd insisted on assuming more than a year ago after Hank had arrived home with an expensive pair of jeans that Robbie put his knees through in a week, and four designer T-shirts that came out of their first wash too small for a teddy bear.
Hank lifted his son onto the floor, then rolled out of bed, aware that if he believed in guardian angels he'd be convinced his had sent Audrey to him.
She'd spent her entire life in New Jersey, most of it right in the town of Madison, and she hadn't wanted to leave the area after her husband died.
But she'd been both lonely and nervous on her own, so taking a job as a live-in housekeeper had been the perfect solution for her. And she'd been the perfect solution for a single father who worked irregular hours.
If she ever decided to leave The mere possibility made him shudder.
"You're cold, huh, Dad? You oughta get dressed."
"Right. So why don't you go tell Mrs. Chevalier I'll be there in five."
Robbie took off running, standard three-year-old speed if he was a good example.
As Hank watched him disappear, he tried to recall what life had been like without a child in the house.
He smiled to himself, thinking that it had been a whole lot quieter. And he hadn't had to worry about tripping over toys in the dark.
But he'd never once regretted adopting Robbie. Not even during those first harrowing weeks after Jane had walked out on them. Because he'd been absolutely crazy about his son from the first moment he'd laid eyes on him.
Hank's immediate impulse was to ignore the doorbell.
He had a section of the ceiling down in his basement office, and was wrestling with a wrench and a length of old galvanized pipe he wanted to replace before Audrey and Robbie arrived back from their shopping expedition.
If he didn't make his deadline, Robbie would be down here helping. And that always resulted in jobs taking ten times longer.
As the bell rang again, he vaguely recalled Audrey saying something about a delivery. He hadn't thought she'd meant today, but he decided he'd better go check things out.
Wiping his hands on his jeans, he headed up the stairs and along to the front door. A glance through its small window almost started him rubbing his eyes in disbelief.
The woman standing on his front porch had a long tangle of dark hair, a trim figure and a sweet face that would make any man take a second look. A third one, too.
She was downright gorgeous. And gorgeous women did not routinely come calling. Not to his door, at least.
In fact, he was positive it had never happened before. It was definitely the sort of thing he'd remember.
Opening up, he gave her a warm smile.
"Hank Ballantyne?" she said.
He nodded. This was getting better by the second. She hadn't just rung the bell because she was looking for directions or something. She was looking for him.
Of course, that briefcase she was carrying could mean trouble. She might be a lawyer or a process serverit wouldn't be the first time one had appeared out of nowhere. Or maybe she wanted to sell him something. Or she could be some sort of scam artist.
But his instincts were telling him she wasn't. And like most cops, his instincts about people were usually reliable.
"I'm Natalie Lawson," she said. "There's something I need to discuss with you."
Okay, not a process server. If that was it she'd have told him straightaway.
"Would you like to come in?" he said, taking a backward step.
"I Are you alone?"
He nodded again. "I'm a pretty safe risk, though. I'm a police detective. NYPD."
"Yes. I know."
She knew. Okay, then, she'd done some homeworkwhich got him back to thinking either lawyer or a sales pitch. But if it was the latter, wouldn't she be acting friendly instead of looking so serious?
Glancing across his greening property to the Taurus parked in his driveway, he noted the Atlas Car Rentals sticker on its front bumper. Salespeople didn't normally drive short-term rentals.
He ushered her inside and began gathering up the toy trucks that were parked all over the couch while she stood gazing at the pictures of Robbie on the mantel.
"There," he said. "That gives you room to sit down. Would you like coffee? Or something cold?"
"Thanks, but no. I just Where's your little boy?"
"My housekeeper took him shopping. He outgrows his clothes awfully fast. Either that or he plays hard enough to destroy them."
Natalie smiled. It was a great smile that made him smile backyet he was still wondering what she was after.
As he sat down on one of the wing chairs facing the couch, she said, "He's pretty active, then."
The comment was almost enough to make him laugh. When he wasn't asleep, Robbie seemed to be in perpetual motion.
"That's a real understatement," he said. "He gets into more But you aren't here to talk about my son."
"Actually, I am."
"Oh?" He glanced at her briefcase again, an uneasy feeling creeping up his spine. Had she come in some sort of official capacity? If so, he had no idea what it might be. But there was a simple way to find out.
"You're here to talk about Robbie because.?"
Instead of replying, she opened the briefcase, pulled out a spiral-bound document, then leaned forward and handed it to him.
The title page read, Final Report on Benjamin Lawson-Garcia. Prepared by Rodger Spicer, Private Investigator, Licensed by the State of Michigan.
"Michigan?" He looked at her uncertainly.
"That's not really relevant. I just hired him because he was recommended by a friend. One who lives in Detroit, which is where I grew up."
She bit her lower lip for a moment before saying, "Look, I know what a shock this is going to be, and I've spent days trying to think of some way to lessen it. There isn't one, though. Benjamin Garcia is my son, and my Benjamin is your Robbie."
For an endless moment Hank felt as if he'd been punched in the solar plexus. He couldn't breathe and he couldn't think. He could only stare at Natalie Lawson while the meaning of her words sank in.
He finally managed to take a deep breath, which started his brain working properly again. After that, he only needed half a second to realize this picture was completely out of focus. And that maybe his instincts had been wrong. Maybe Natalie was a scam artist. Because she was not Robbie's mother.
Ordering himself to deal with this calmly, he set the report down on the coffee table and said, "Both Robbie's parents were killed in an earthquake. In Guatemala. He was just a baby at the time."
When she didn't reply, merely sat gazing at him, he decided that the more details she figured he knew the quicker she'd back off from whatever her game was.
"The quake left hundreds of children orphaned," he elaborated. "And a lot of them ended up being adopted in the U.S. Robbie only remained in Guatemala for a few weeks afterward. Then he was flown here and placed with my wife and me."
"Yes," she murmured. "It's all in the report. The adoptions were arranged by Worldwide Child Rescue and " She shrugged. "But you know that as well as I do. What you don't know is that Rodger Spicer has spent the past three years tracking Benjamin down."
"Three years," Hank repeated. "That's roughly how long I've had Robbie. Since he was about six months old."
"Yes, well The Worldwide people weren't exactly cooperative. They did everything they could to prevent Rodger from accessing their records. But child by child, court order by court order, he."
She paused, then continued. "Some of the babies they brought here came from an orphanage in Guatemala City. And Benjamin was one of them. He shouldn't have been, though. There was a mix-up, and
"You see, my husband was killed in the quake, but I was only injured. And Benjamin was taken to the orphanageto be cared for while I was hospitalized.
"Only, somehow the sisters mixed him up with another baby and turned him over to Worldwide."
Hank could feel panic growing inside him. What if Robbie really was her son? If he was, there was only one reason she'd have come here. To get him back!
But no. That report had to be wrong.
"Look, I'm sorry you lost your child. And your husband," he managed to say evenly. "I can only imagine what that's put you through.
His gaze flickered to the document. "Your Rodger Spicer's made a mistake."
"No, he hasn't," she said gently. "Robbie has a birthmark on the left side of his neck, doesn't he? Just above his shoulder. My baby had a birthmark there."
His heart pounding, Hank glanced over at the photos on the mantel. "You saw that three minutes ago, when you were looking at those," he said, turning back to her.
"I don't think it shows in any of them."
He'd seen the pictures a thousand times, yet right this minute he was so upset he couldn't answer his own question.
"Then you know about it from the report," he said.
Natalie shook her head. "I've always known. It's one of the identifying features I was able to tell Rodger about way back in the beginning.
"Robbie has Benjamin's birthmark," she reiterated quietly. "And according to his medical records he has the same blood type as my son. And"
"Fine. Your P.I.'s poked around and come up with enough coincidences to build a case. But that's a long way from proving"
"Hank, it isn't only the birthmark and the blood type and Robbie's age. Most Guatemalans have a darker complexion than Benjamin does, and if you read the report. There's no mistake. I'm his mother. A simple DNA test will prove that.
"In fact, I spoke to someone at a private lab in Englewood. If you'll agree to take Robbie there, we can both be tested and have a definitive answer within twenty-four hours."
He pushed himself out of his chair and paced across the roomhis heart pounding harder still.
Of course he'd agree. He'd take Robbie tomorrow, and hope to hell the test would prove Spicer had arrived at the wrong conclusion. But deep down his fear was telling him that wasn't going to happen.
One by one, he scrutinized the photos on the mantel and discovered Natalie was right. The birthmark didn't show in any of them. And if she'd actually told Spicer about it in the beginning, this was no scam. It was the real thing.
He turned and stood gazing at her. There were no striking similarities between her features and Robbie's, but their eyes were the identical shade of brown. And something about the way she held her head.
But if she was Robbie's mother, he was at risk of losing his child. The thought made his chest feel hollow.
"Maybe if you just looked at the report," she murmured.
As much to give himself some breathing space as anything else, he walked back over, picked it up and began flipping through the pages.
The document was exhaustive, even contained a brief description of his house. "A comfortable, three-bedroom bungalow in a semirural area outside Madison, New Jersey," he read before moving on to biographical information about him and Audrey.
He skimmed the summary section headed Hank Ballantyne. "Thirty-six years of age. NYPD homicide detective. Work involves rotating shifts and frequent overtime."
He swore under his breath. That hardly made him sound like the ideal single parent. As for Audrey.
"Live-in housekeeper. Fifty-eight years of age. Widowed. One married daughter living in Idaho."
Hell, couldn't Spicer at least have mentioned that she was crazy about Robbie? And that she was one of the nicest people in the state of New Jersey?
Thinking thatthanks to Rodger Spicer Natalie knew almost as much about his adult life as he did, he moved on to the next section and discovered it discussed Jane's leaving him. And their subsequent divorce.
He read through the overview, which contained details that had obviously come from the divorce pleadings.
Jane hadn't been able to have a baby and had been pressing him about adoption for quite a while. Then, when they'd seen the news coverage of the earthquake, so many children suddenly needing homes had made him agree to the idea.