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A baby on the doorstep was a cliche. Wasn't it?
Creed Carter shook the early morning cobwebs from his head. He should have had one more cup of coffee. Maybe two.
No one abandoned babies on doorsteps anymore. Especially in a town as small as Whisper Falls.
But this wasn't a doorstep. This was the altar of Whisper Falls Community Church. A small church that was always as quiet as a tomb on Tuesday mornings and every other morning he came in to pray before starting his day in the air above the Ozark Mountains.
Creed blinked and crept closer, tiptoeing, hoping his vision would clear or he would awaken and laugh off the silly dream.
Maybe a child had left a doll behind. Maybe the Christmas committee had gotten the baby Jesus doll out of storage for some reason.
But this was spring. Christmas was months away.
Suddenly, the small wrapped bundle stirred. Creed's heart jumped, kicking up to a hundred knots. A man who'd flown helicopters over Iraq wasn't scared of anything. Except very small human beings who cried a lot and couldn't talk. Or walk. Or feed themselves.
A pair of tiny fists rose from the odd-looking bundle. Right behind them came the mewling cry.
His heart slammed against his chest wall as if he'd lost power over Whisper Falls with the chopper filled with sightseers. Creed rushed to the altar and fell on his knees beside the bundle. A tiny baby, face wrinkled and red, eyes still puffy and slanted as if she or he was brand-new, quivered and kicked. The tiny rosebud mouth opened with a loud, distressed wail.
Creed glanced wildly around. Surely this child had a mother around here somewhere. Reverend Wally Schmidt opened the church every morning at five before making his trek over the mountains to his day job in Fayetteville. If Creed arrived early enough, sometimes they prayed together. But not this morning. The church was empty. Not even Wally's four-wheel drive was parked outside. There wasn't another soul around except him and this little bitty, squalling baby.
Heart revving faster by the minute, Creed offered up a quick prayer and then whipped out his cell phone and did what any sensible man would do. He called 9-1-1.
The sound of JoEtta Farnsworth's moped had barely died when the Whisper Falls police chief slammed through the double doors into the sanctuary. Short and stocky and tough as shoe leather, the middle-aged blonde looked like a scooter-riding version of Amelia Earhart.
"What's going on in here?" she demanded in voice like a foghorn.
"I found this baby," Creed said, realizing how sad that sounded. People found pennies, not babies.
It was weird. He, an only child whose experience with babies was limited to diaper commercials on TV, was downright heartsick to think anyone would leave a baby alone. Even if the little thing had been left in a church, he or she was alone. Abandoned. Helpless.
"What do you mean you found her?" Chief Farnsworth eyed him as if he was a teenaged driver caught spinning doughnuts on Main Street.
"I came in a few minutes ago, and there she was." He hitched his chin toward the long, oak altar.
"On the altar?"
The baby stirred. "Wrapped up in this thing. It's a tablecloth, I think."
"Uh-huh. The kind you carry on picnics." The chief stepped closer. "Flannel on the inside. Vinyl on the outside."
"She quieted down when I picked her up."
He'd rocked her, too, and sung "Jesus Loves Me" in the rough, pathetic voice that could make dogs howl and soldiers throw things. She'd seemed to go for it.
Creed didn't mention the singing and rocking to the chief.
"Anyone else around?"
"No one I saw."
"Did you look? Check in the office or the bathroom?"
"Never thought about it. She was crying." A man would be heartless to walk away from a cry like that.
JoEtta peeled back the vinyl to peek at the sleeping face. "You say she's a girl? What about the umbilical cord? Is it still attached?"
Creed blinked, horrified. "I didn't look. I just thought she seemed pink and round like a little girl."
"Oh, for pity's sake. Let me see its belly." The no-nonsense policewoman pushed aside the cloth and peered down at the naked baby. "It's a girl, all right," she said. "New as the dew."
The baby started crying again.
"Well, pardon me, missy," JoEtta said with a snort.
Creed rewrapped the baby and snuggled her close to his shirt. She stopped crying.
"I think she likes you, Creed."
Creed figured the little thing was simply happy to be held. Either that, or desperate to escape Chief Farnsworth's rockgrinder voice. But the idea that she liked him tickled his chest, anyway. "What are you going to do with her?"
"Call Social Services." JoEtta pointed at the altar. "Sit down there and do whatever it is you've been doing to keep her happy while I search the church and make sure there's not a mama lurking around."
"You think someone walked in here and had a baby, then left her?"
"Stranger things have happened."
"Not in Whisper Falls."
The chief made a rude noise in the back of her throat. "I beg to differ. A woman had twins one year on the Ferris wheel at Pumpkin Fest because that idiot Buster Gruben-heimer thought she was screaming from fright and wouldn't shut down the ride."
"True. I'd forgotten about that. She named the babies Ferris and Wheeler."
"Sure did." JoEtta slapped her thigh and guffawed. The baby jerked. "Sit tight. I'll be back."
Creed grinned as the short, squat chief stomped away, gear rattling at her side.
The sanctuary grew quiet again. A large round clock on the back wall reminded him of the time. With a grimace, he sat down on the front pew.
"Don't worry, princess," he said to the sleeping face. "I won't bail on you. Not like your mama did."
He fished for his cell phone and canceled his first scenic flight of the day. He'd no more than ended the call when the baby's mouth opened in a whimper that quickly escalated to a cry.
Creed scooped the frantic bundle against his chest and patted her back. She was probably hungry. He was about to sing again when the police chief marched in from the vestibule.
"Social worker's on her way."
"You didn't find any sign of the mother?" he asked.
"Nope. The way I figure it, the mother slipped in, left the baby and made a run for it." Left at the mercy of strangers.
The idea twisted in Creed's gut. Through a cap of fine dark hair, he could see a pulse in the infant's head. The sight scared him silly. "Maybe we should call Dr. Ron."
"The social worker will make that determination. She ought to be here any minute." The back door opened. "See? I told you. Howdy, Melissa."
"Chief Farnsworth." A surprisingly young woman wearing very high heels with a black business suit and crisp white blouse bustled into the room. Before Creed could say a word, she took the baby from him.
He didn't think he liked her.
Haley Blanchard got the call at ten o'clock. She stripped off her gardening gloves, stuck her feet into a pair of flip-flops and jumped into her minivan. Never mind that her hair had escaped its topknot and now danced in auburn wisps around her face, or that she was sweaty, grubby and needed a shower.
A baby had been abandoned. The thought quickened a sinking sensation deep in her gut, a moment of deep pity. But this was her job. Fostering was what she did. If a child was in need of a temporary home, she provided one. She didn't let her emotions get in the way of doing the right thing.
Haley reached Dr. Ron's clinic in less than ten minutes, a thousand questions and thoughts racing through her head. Who found her? Where? Was she healthy? Who would abandon a baby in Whisper Falls?
As she entered the building, flip-flops smacking the tile, she was greeted by Chief JoEtta Farnsworth and a social worker, Melissa Plymouth. The three were well-acquainted, having worked together on child welfare cases many times.
"Where's the baby?" Haley asked.
"Dr. Ron's checking her out."
"What happened? Where was she found?" Haley ran her hands down the sides of her dress, glad for the hand sanitizer hanging on the wall.
The chief gave her a brief rundown, answering the questions she could. At the moment, no one knew why the baby had been left at the church or by whom.
"Did Reverend Schmidt find her?"
"Actually, no." Chief Farnsworth stepped to the right, creating a space between herself and the social worker.
Haley's gaze snapped into focus.
A deeply tanned, dark-haired man slapped a magazine shut and stood. "I did."
In her haste to speak with the women, Haley hadn't noticed the man sitting against the pale green wall. Now she did. Creed Carter, the helicopter pilot. She'd seen him around, mostly at the Iron Horse Snack Shop, knew he flew a helicopter all over the place and was too good-looking for anyone's good. He was the usual well-built, compact size for a pilot. Dark spiky hair, black cargo pants, black golf shirt with a bright yellow helicopter logo on a very nicely formed chest.
She yanked her attention from his chest to his dark chocolate eyes and found those every bit as compelling as the rest.
His lips twitched. He'd caught her staring.
Haley lifted her chin and eyed him coldly.
Arrogant. Overconfident. A typical flyboy. She decided not to like him.
"What were you doing in a church that early in the morning?" Her words were sharp with suspicion.
His mild expression pricked her conscience. Okay, so she'd been a little rude. The man reminded her of someone she'd dated. Well, a lot of someone she'd dated.
"Why would anyone abandon a baby in a church?"
"Why would anyone abandon a baby at all?" A muscle ticked under his left eye.
Clearly, he wasn't happy to be here. Typical of a flyboy. But he'd stuck around, and that was the partthe only partthat interested Haley, regardless of how good-looking Creed might be.
"There was a note," he said.
JoEtta Farnsworth, who scared Haley a little with her gruff demeanor, dug inside her brown leather vest and produced a folded piece of notebook paper. "Looks like it was ripped right out of one of those spiral notebooks kids use in school."
"What does it say?"
"Not much, but enough to know the mother thought she had no other choice. She seems desperate and certain she's doing the right thing. Tragic."
Tragic didn't cover it as far as Haley was concerned. Irresponsible. Selfish. Some mothers were. No one knew that better than Haley. "May I read it?"
"Sure." The chief passed the note over.
Haley read the note and then looked up. Creed Carter watched her from beneath hooded eyes, arms crossed over his black shirt.
Okay, so he was really good-looking.
She did her best to ignore him while she read part of the note out loud. "Please find the perfect family for my baby. Don't look for me. I won't take her back. I can't. I prayed at Whisper Falls, and this was the answer. Tell her I'm sorry and I love her."
"The mother sounds very young and frightened," the social worker said. "I hope she's all right."
Creed's feet shifted against the tile, a tense, masculine presence Haley found unsettling. She was here now. He could go.
"Will you look for her?" he asked in a voice Haley could only describe as dark, rich chocolate.
"Have to," the chief said with a sniff. "She broke the law."
After reading the note, Haley wanted to protest. The girl, whoever she was, wasn't a criminal. Nor was she anything like Haley's mother. The girl sounded hopeless and alone, two emotions Haley understood very well. She'd broken the law a few times herself when she'd been young and stupid and under the spell of her crazy mother.
Before she could say anything, though, Dr. Ron and Wilma, the doc's bun-haired assistant, appeared from the back carrying an infant. Wilma held a bottle of formula against the tiny face. Every adult in the waiting room turned in their direction. Creed Carter's expression, Haley noticed with interest, went from cocky to concerned and bewildered.
"She appears healthy and full-term," Dr. Ron said.
The only doctor in Whisper Falls, the forty-something physician handled anything that came his way from delivering babies to setting bones. Issues outside his abilities he sent to Fayetteville or Little Rock. Haley liked the youthful-looking doctor with his freckles and cowlick and affable bedside manner. She'd committed more than one foster child to his efficient care.
"Does she need to go to the hospital?" Haley asked.
Creed stepped up beside Haley, bringing with him the scent of woodsy aftershave and pressed cotton. She tried not to notice but she liked scents. She liked them a lot.
"I can fly her there."
Haley shivered at the thought. No way was she going up in his death machine with a baby. Or with anyone else for that matter.
"Thanks, Creed," Dr. Ron said, "but no need at this point. Right now, the baby looks good. Not very big, but at six pounds two ounces and eighteen inches long, she's big enough. Formula and diapers and a lot of love should fix her right up. If anything medical presents, Haley will let me know. Right, Haley?"
"Absolutely." She reached for the baby. Too late, she saw the grass stain on her fingers.
"7ou 're not taking her, are you?" Creed's voice was incredulous.
Haley bristled. As Wilma transferred the baby to Haley's arms, she said, perhaps a bit stiffly, "The social worker called me. I am a certified foster parent. Taking care of displaced children is what I do."
So she sounded defensive and more than a little testy. The man's attitude ticked her off.
His doubting gaze drifted from her frizzy hair to her stained hands and down to the chipped polish on her toenails. A flare of nostrils indicated he'd seen the dirt on her feet, too. "You do?"
With those two words, he made her feel about an inch tall. The jerk.
"I was working in my garden," she said hotly and then wondered why she felt the need to defend herself to him. A helicopter pilot. Ugh.
"Haley is an excellent foster parent." Melissa's gracious comment mollified her some, though not completely, after Creed had insinuated the opposite.
Creed still didn't seem convinced. "You'll take good care of her, won't you? She's really small."
The man was hovering. She wanted to dislike him. She wanted to tell him to get lost, but he had found the child. Maybe he actually cared.
She softened a bit. That was it. Perhaps he wasn't criticizing her. He was genuinely interested in the baby's welfare.
"She'll be fine." Haley jiggled the infant for effect, noticing how avidly the little girl sucked at the bottle.
"Right. Okay." Creed stepped back, but his gaze remained on the nursing child who was now dressed in an oversize yellow drawstring gown.
Haley was forever amazed at the supplies Wilma stocked in that small clinic. "I can assure you, she will be well-cared for until the authorities decide what to do with her."
Creed's lips twisted beneath flared nostrils. He gave her a searing, squint-eyed look she couldn't begin to comprehend. Then to the chief, he said, "You'll keep me posted."
"Will do. Thanks, Creed."
With one last troubled glance at the infant in Haley's arms, Creed Carter strode out of the clinic.
He had insulted her, but Haley had the inexplicable feeling that she'd somehow offended the handsome flyboy.