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Bobby Crabb lined up the scope of his rifle on the rangy silhouette of a man unlocking the gate to Dock J. Coat collar turned up and knit cap pulled low, the guy was dressed for the weather.
No, when Bobby had gotten this job, he'd assumed all of California was sunshine and babes in bikinis. Too bad. He'd been waiting for the target less than a half hour, and he was already colder than a pawnbroker's smile.
Where was Honey Dawson?
The guy in the hat secured the gate behind him and ambled down the dock. His stride rolled, loose-hipped, more like a cowboy than a sailor. He headed toward a catamaran in the last slip.
The guy fit the part of the old boyfriend, all right. Reed Tanner. The one Bobby had guessed Honey was coming to see. But there was no sign of the bimbo.
Had he missed her?
Tanner climbed a small set of stairs leading to the boat's deck. Unlocking another gate, he let himself through and stepped aboard the sailboat. He disappeared
into the cabin for a moment, then reappeared. Bobby didn't know much about boats, but he could guess Tanner was getting ready to take the craft out on the bay.
Honey had better get here soon if she was coming at all.
Lowering the rifle, Bobby tucked it between his side and the wall of the Bay Seafood Shack and stuffed his trigger hand into the pocket of his long, thin duster. The pinkish yellow of dawn reached over the hills of the city and reflected off the concrete walls of Alcatraz, just a short distance from shore. Sailboats lined wooden docks in between, their masts stabbing into the sky. Few people stirred in the restaurants and shops lining the pier, but the place wouldn't be quiet too muchlonger.
Time was running out.
Maybe Honey Dawson had more than one boyfriend in San Francisco. God knew, she'd had plenty in Dallas. And all at the same time. Even Bobby was smart enough to know that would lead to trouble.
"Call me trouble," he muttered under his breath. Although he had to admit, he didn't feel much like trouble at the moment. Right now he just felt cold and in need of a hot cup of joe.
Sounds started to reach him from the shops and restaurants lining the pier. The jangle of keys. The murmur of voices. The shushing sound of a push broom. Sounds of the day beginning. Sounds that indicated his perch was getting risky.
He'd hoped to end this. To pick off Honey Dawson as she walked down the pier. Erase her and get his hands on the babies before Fisherman's Wharf opened for
business. Be back in the warm arms of Texas before nightfall to enjoy the client's cash. But somewhere, somehow, he'd gotten some bum information. Either she was here and gone, or that cute little maid at the hotel had lied to him. Whatever the answer, this place was fast becoming too busy for comfort.
Ready for a sail, the old boyfriend's boat started inching out of its slip. Tanner stood at the back, hands on the wheel, guiding the craft.
So much for the trap Bobby had set. Looked as if he was going to have to get back in touch with his patient side. Bide his time. Keep a close eye on the old boyfriend. Do some poking around. Wait for Honey to surface. Or maybe for a call telling him to buy a plane ticket.
In the meantime, he'd get himself a sweatshirt. Or two. And wish Honey Dawson had had the decency to hide her twins someplace warm.
There was something wrong with his boat.
Reed Tanner turned his head to eliminate the whoosh of the wind whistling past his ears. Above the flap of the sails as they unfurled against the gray sky, a sound halfway between a cat's mew and donkey's bray grated along his nerves like steel wool on rusted tin.
That couldn't be good.
He turned the rudder, easing his catamaran starboard, but the sound didn't change. He'd never heard anything quite like it. Not when he was out on the bay. But whatever the problem was, he was glad he didn't have the boat full of tourists, as he would come afternoon.
He was going to have to turn around.
Waves hit the front of the catamaran and sprayed
into the air. Water droplets misted his face and beaded on the band of his stocking cap. He loved sailing. Loved the cold spray and the biting wind. It made him feel alive and free. But at the moment he couldn't concentrate on any of those things. All he could do was worry.
A problem with the boat meant repair costs and canceling cruises. Even though his fledgling business had done gangbusters over the summer, he was heading into autumn now, and he didn't have a lot of cash to spare.
He cleared Alcatraz and veered hard to port, circling the island in a long arc. The city lifted bright across the water, rising up from the piers like some ancient fort, the morning sun cresting over the top. He squinted against the glare.
Now that he was moving in the direction of the wind, the sound seemed louder. More distinct. It sounded like
He shook his head. He had to be losing his mind.
He streamed alongside the city, moving at a nice clip now. If he was lucky, he could repair whatever it was that was causing the sound and still get in a short test trip before he had to get back to the pier for his scheduled cruise.
As he approached the pier, he brought down the sails. The boat slowed, and he kicked in the engine. With the sails contained, he could hear the sound clearly now. And he didn't want to think too hard about what it was.
He threaded around the breakwater and headed for Pier 94. Sea lions already draped their huge bodies over the wooden docks, staking out prime sunbathing areas. One big bull gave a barking yell, and an encroaching youngster splashed into the water.
He guided the catamaran into its slip and tied it off.
Shrugging his coat tight around his shoulders, he descended the steps into the boat's cabin.
The sound was clear now and unmistakable. He followed the braying into the kitchenette. Tucked into the corner next to the refrigerator he spotted a little bucket-shaped seat, and inside
Reed's breath caught, thick in his throat. It was a baby, all right. In his boat. It didn't make sense. It couldn't make sense.
A blue blanket snuggled around the infant, almost completely covering the little face. Words embroidered the fleece under the baby's chin. Cootchie-Cootchie-Coo, Troy.
Reed's mind stuttered. And he knew only one woman who would wrap her child in a blanket suffering from that extreme level of cutesiness a woman who happened to be a big Dallas Cowboys fan, a woman who would name her son after Troy Aikman.
The little fellow continued to scream, his face an alarmingly dark shade of pink. Obviously he was hungry or had a dirty diaper or one of those things that made babies cry. Reed rocked the little seat, but baby Troy kept right on wailing. He dipped a hand between baby and seat, trying to brace himself if he should touch anything wet and warm. What he was going to do with the kid once he picked him up, he hadn't a clue. Feed him, he supposed. But what? He didn't exactly serve milk to the tourists on his cruises, and a baby couldn't drink wine.
An edge of paper hit his fingertip. Leaving the baby in place, he pulled out the paper. A note.
Please hide and protect my baby.
The note was short and sweet. The words disturbing. But even more disturbing was the familiar round and loopy curves of the script.
It was Honey's writing, all right.
A stabbing headache lodged at the back of his skull. His nausea grew until he thought he might have to race up the steps and puke over the boat's rail.
He was no judge of a baby's age, but this one couldn't be all that old. Maybe a month? No, more like two or three. And if he added either number to nine, the total came awfully close to the amount of time that had passed since he'd left Dallas the last night he'd been with Honey.
He closed his eyes. The baby kept wailing, the sound wrapping around his throat, tightening, choking. He wasn't ready for a child. Of that he was sure. It had been only a little over a year since his mother's death. A year since he'd finally left Honey. He had just started to live his own life. He couldn't get dragged under by that kind of stifling responsibility again.
He scooped in breath after breath. He had to chill out. He had to think.
He couldn't assume this baby was his, not without knowing more. He needed some facts before he could figure out what to do next.
He looked at the note again. Protect and hide. Protect and hide. What did Honey want him to protect and hide the baby from? Why had she left the baby in his boat?
He eyed the baby blanket. The loopy endearment. The embroidered, personalized "Troy." Honey had carefully chosen her son's name. He had to assume she'd just as carefully chosen to leave her baby with him. And that she had to be pretty desperate to do so.
A clatter rose from above deck.
He spun around, searching the doorway, the steps leading into the cabin. Could someone be up there right now? Looking for Honey or the baby? Wanting to hurt the little guy for some unfathomable reason?
He grabbed an empty wine bottle from last night's trash. His heart knocked against his rib cage as if desperate to break through. His legs and arms jittered with adrenaline. The bottle's glass neck felt slick in his palm.
He'd been in one bar fight in his life, back in a rowdy Texas roadhouse in Springton, not far from the ranch where he'd grown up. The black eye, split lip and monster headache he'd been left with was enough to teach him to hold his temper. Maybe this time he didn't have to fight through the booze haze, but he had no idea whom he was about to face. Or why. Or how'd he got into this mess in the first place.
He slipped out of the kitchenette and approached the stairs. He breathed shallowly, quietly, trying to hear over the thunk of his heart and the baby's persistent crying. Gulls shrieked. Water lapped at the dock's pilings.
A footfall sounded on the boat's deck above. A shadow fell across the steps.
Reed raised the bottle.
"Reed, honey? What in the" Missy Donderfeldt's ample frame filled the doorway and blocked the morning sun. Dressed in her usual pink tracksuit, she plopped hands on hips and glowered at him through rimless glasses. "What on earth are you doing?"
Reed lowered his makeshift weapon. Embarrassment heated all the way to his hairline. The mysterious appearance of a baby and one little note warning to hide and protect, and Reed had almost assaulted one of the kindest and most generous people he'd ever known. "Sorry about that, Missy. I guess I'm a bit jumpy this morning."
"I can hear why. You have a baby in there?" She pushed past him and descended into the cabin. "Poor little soul sounds like he's starving to death."
Reed almost groaned. He loved Missy, but the last thing he wanted to do was explain why a baby was left in the cabin of his boat. Especially since he didn't really know the answer himself. Or maybe he just didn't want to face it. "I'm fine, Missy. Really, you don't need to"
"Fine? You might be fine, but this little one sure isn't." She bustled into the kitchen area, nearly filling
the cramped space. She shook her head, her graying bob swinging against her cheeks. "This child is hungry."
Reed followed her. "I don't know "
She picked up a baby bag sitting on the floor that Reed hadn't even noticed. "Is there a bottle in here?"
"I I don't know."
She gave him a disapproving press of the lips. "Men. You don't know much, do you?"
He knew better than to answer that.
"You go ahead and do whatever it is you were doing. I'll have this little one taken care of in a sec." She rummaged in the bag, pulled out a bottle and popped it into the microwave. When the chime rang, she pulled it out, shook it and squeezed out a drop on the inside of her wrist. "Perfect." She handed the bottle to Reed.
He looked at the strangely squared-off nipple and then at the kid.
"You want me to feed the poor little darling, too?"
Reed felt a little guilty for pawning the whole baby thing off on Missy, but that didn't keep him from nodding. She had raised four children, after all. God knew he'd heard stories about them every day. "Would you?"
"I thought you'd never ask." She expertly picked the baby out of the bucket seat, plopped herself down on one of the benches along the wall and stuck the nipple into the open little mouth.
The crying stopped. Missy smiled down at the baby as if the little guy was one of her own grandchildren. "So why do you have a baby on your boat?"
Just like that, the tightness came back, gripping his throat. "I'm still trying to figure that out."
Her normally friendly eyes narrowed. "Are you saying you just found him here?"
"With no idea where he came from?"
"Is he yours?"
"I I don't know."
"But you think he is, don't you? I can see the fear in your eyes."
Is that what he felt at the prospect of this being his child? Fear? Maybe. But he'd describe it more as the feeling of being sucked back into living someone else's life instead of his own. "He might be mine. I don't really know."
"Who is she? The mother, I mean." She hitched her head back and studied him, glasses low on her nose. "And don't go saying you don't know. If you think this child might be yours, you must have an idea who his mother is."
He let out a breath. He might as well not even try to keep secrets from Missy. She was nothing if not perceptive, even if she was a little overbearing. "I think it might be a woman I dated before I came out here."
She looked down at the baby and smoothed her hand over the blue blanket. Her fingertips lingered on the cootchie-cootchie embroidery. "I take it his name is Troy."
He shrugged, although Missy wasn't looking at him to notice. "I need to try to reach Honey, find out what's going on."
"And you want me to take care of the child while you make the call?"