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"I've come for my son."
The man holding a big battered hand over her mouth had a funny but familiar accent. He smelled of snow and wind, as if he'd been out in the night for a long time. His breath was warm as it fanned her ear and caused the hair on the back of her neck to stand up. His big body was broad and solid as he pulled her against him.
Gena tried to wiggle away, but he held her with an iron grip. So she closed her eyes, her heart rate accelerating as she became trapped in her worst nightmare.
She'd been expecting him.
"I'm not going to hurt you," the man said, his words as soft as silk. "I'll let you go if you promise not to scream. I don't want to frighten him."
Gena didn't want to scare her son either. So she nodded and waited for Eli Trudeau to release her.
And then she grabbed underneath the massive arm that had been restraining her and with a grunt and a prayer, she tripped Eli and flipped him over and onto the floor in a perfect takedown. He landed hard on his back with her booted foot centered on his belly.
Eli lay stunned for a few seconds, then let out a groan as he shook his head to clear it. "For sure, I should have known Devon would train you in self-defense. But did you have to try and break my back?"
"Did you have to break into my home just to see your son?"
Well, at least she got right to the point. He liked that in a woman. Even the woman who'd been secretly raising his little boy.
He watched her breath coming fast and furious. "Can you let me up?" he asked in a nice way, with a nice smile, hoping she'd fall for it.
She didn't. "Why should I let you up? And why should I care that your back might be broken?"
Eli stayed still, thepressure of her boot somewhere near his spleen reminding him that he wasn't dealing with a girly-girl here. Gena Malone meant business. But then, so did he.
He carefully ticked off the facts inside his head, just to calm himself so he wouldn't do something stupid like grab her and pin her down, tie her up, then rush to his son's side.
Gena Malone Thornton. Thirty and widowed. Husband was a CHAIM agent who had been killed somewhere in Europe doing his duty for the Christian organization three months after they'd gotten married. Gena now lived in Maine in this cottage by the Atlantic Ocean and worked from home as a Web page designer. She also rented out two nearby cottages to make extra money.
While she dared him to move, Eli noticed how pretty she was. Her hair was curly and thick and dark, just like Scotty's. He couldn't be sure, but he'd guess her eyes were a deep blue like her brother's. She looked healthymore curvy than slender in her jeans and long sweater. And lethal in the protective mama mode, no doubt.
Cut that out, Eli told himself. He wasn't here to notice the woman. He was here to get his son. And he could easily roll over, grab her by the leg and end this standoff right now. But he wouldn't do that. He might be lower than a snake's belly at times, but he wasn't one to hurt a woman. Even the woman who'd been raising his son.
But he'd have to figure out a way to get through the woman before he could see Scotty, because it was obvious this woman loved his child. And that meant she wouldn't let Scotty go without a fight. Eli should know; he'd sat in the broom closet for over an hour, watching her with Scotty. He'd just have to charm his way into getting what he'd come here for, he reckoned.
"Okay, let's start over," he said as he lifted his head. "I'm Eli Trudeau. I just happened to be in the neighborhood and thought I'd stop by to see my son. And you are obviously the lovely, mysterious Gena. Since Devon hand-picked you to raise the boy, you can't be all bad."
Her boot put a little more pressure on his stomach. "And since he and I made a promise to each other to keep Scotty safe because he didn't trust you to raise him, you can't be all that good."
"Ouch, that hurt." Eli used humor to hide the real hurt her words inflicted and thought to himself that maybe she was right. "I've changed," he said, trying to hold up his hands in defense. "Honestly."
"How did you get in?" she asked, not moving and obviously not convinced. "Because I don't recall inviting you and because I have a pretty good alarm system."
"Part of the training," he shot back. "Your system wasn't good enough to stop me. What does it matter? I'm here now and we've been properly introduced, so could I have a cup of coffee at least? And maybe a sandwich? I'm sure hungry."
She pressed her boot against bone while she mulled over that request. But she sighed. "I'm going to let you up, because I believe underneath that black heart you have a good soul. But if you try anything, you just might live to regret it."
"I believe you, chère," he said. "I won't cause any trouble. I don't want to upset the boy."
She lifted her foot. "Get up very slowly."
Eli did as she told him, biding his time for now. He stared up at the woman who'd just brought him down with a single swift move, his gaze slamming into hers as she gave him a look that floored him more than any physical moves ever could. It was a look full of anger and fear, a look that told him he might have to rethink taking the child away from the mother.
"Nice to meet you, Gena," he said, shooting her one of his winning smiles. "Can we talk?"
Gena circled him, her hands on her hips. "That depends. Do you think you can behave like a civilized human being?"
"Never tried that, but I reckon now's a good time to start, oui?"
She leaned over him, her long hair falling like black ribbons across her blue wool sweater. "I would suggest you be very careful. I have lots of weapons in this house and I know how to use all of them. You might have figured out how to turn off the alarm system, but you won't be able to figure out how to trick me, understand?"
Eli held up his hands in defeat, even though he was pretty sure she had no weapons. "Okay, I got it. We'll both make nice for the boy's sake." Then he gave her what he hoped was a sincere stare because he meant what he was saying. "For my son's sake."
Gena reached out her hand to him. Eli took it and felt the pull of her strength all the way to his bones, along with what might be called an electric charge of awareness that reminded him of the mists he used to see in the marshes back in Louisiana. But he was so cold and stiff from hiding in that freezing closet that he couldn't be sure. He hated the cold.
"I'll make coffee and food," she said, her eyes never leaving his face as she backed up toward the counter. Then she pointed to one of the high-backed chairs by the table. "Sit. And don't make me regret this."
"Yes, ma'am," Eli said with a salute. "It's sure gonna be a long night."
She slammed cabinet doors and opened drawers. "You should have considered that before breaking into my home."
"I should have considered a whole lot of things," Eli retorted. "Especially you. Most especially you."
She turned and nodded. "You got that right, Disciple." Giving him a look that dismissed him, she added, "So you just sit right there and think this thing through before you make any more stupid mistakes."
He couldn't come up with a reply for that one. Finally, he said, "I watched you with the boy earlier."
She hissed a breath as she went still. "For how long?"
"Long enough. You need a comfortable chair in that closet." He shrugged. "Make the coffee and then we'll have a long talk. And I won't try anything uh stupid."
She whirled around, silent and stealth, a bit shaken and very intimidating for a womanwhile Eli remembered the first time he'd seen his son about an hour ago. His heart had hammered with each breath as he'd sat silent and still inside the tiny broom closet, the words screaming inside his head forcing him to inhale with slow, deliberate calculation. I have a son. I have a son.
When the time was right, he would make his move. Until then well Eli was learning patience. And sitting in that closet had given him plenty of time to practice it.
He'd been tired and cold and starving for a good meal when he'd broken in earlier, but he'd been starving for any glimpse of his son even more. So he'd reset the alarm, then waited and watched until he'd heard them arriving through the back door in a gush of freezing fresh air, their happy laughter tearing at his gut like a fish knife as Gena had looked around after her son giggled.
"What's so funny?" she asked. Eli was amazed at how such a swelling of maternal love filled her eyes each time she looked at Scotty.
"You are, Mommy," Scotty said, thick dark curls spraying out of control across his forehead. "You were humming."
"Was I?" Gena asked, turning to hand Scotty his mug of hot chocolate. "I don't recall. What was I humming?"
Scotty blew on the marshmallow Gena dropped into his hot chocolate, then grabbed an oatmeal cookie from the plate she had set on the small oak breakfast table.
"That song you likefrom the Christmas play at church," Scotty replied just before he slurped his drink.
"What Child Is This?" Eli had recognized the song when he'd heard her humming it.
Gena squinted, then nodded. "I guess I was. It's one of my all-time favorites." She sat down beside her son, ran her fingers through his unruly curls, then took a bite of cookie. "I like that particular song because it was playing the night the night you came into my life."
Scotty grinned. "I'm a December baby, right?"
"Right you are." Gena glanced at the magnetic calendar on the refrigerator. "You have a birthday coming up, too, don't you?"
Scotty bobbed his head. "Four more days. I like having my birthday on Christmas Eve. Me and Jesus get to celebrate together."
Gena laughed at that innocent comparison, while Eli, alternatively sweating and freezing in the closet, held his eyes tightly shut so he could tamp down the pain. He'd missed his son's birth.
"Jesus was born in a manger on a very special night. That's what the hymn I like is all about."
"He came to save us from our sins," Scotty said, reciting what he'd obviously learned in Sunday school. Then the very astute little boy asked, wide-eyed and curious, "What did I come to do, Mommy?"
Eli's breath hissed as he heard his son's innocent question. Restraining himself, he sent up another prayer for quiet and patience. Lydia Cantrell, soon to be Lydia Malone when she became the wife of his friend and fellow CHAIM associate Devon Malone, had shown Eli how to pray. She'd also shown him how to forgive. He was still working on both.
But hearing his son speak brought out all of Eli's long-held resentmentresentment toward his grandfather, toward his well-meaning friend Devon and toward God. I should have been here, Eli thought as he watched the woman and the boy. I should have been here. He shifted, his calf muscles screaming as he sat crouched in his hiding spot. The mother had told the child to change for bed, but the boy, his son, hadn't wanted to go just yet. He watched as they'd gone about their businessnormal and loving and cozy. Eli was so tired of watching.
Gena made coffee for the man she had dreaded seeing for close to six years. And yet, she'd known he'd come one day. She'd felt it in her bones all winter long.
Gena's gaze locked with Eli's as she heard her son cry out. "I have to go to him. He's always hard to get to sleep."
Eli nodded, his expression solemn and unyielding. "I'll wait right here."
"I won't do anything to upset either of you. I'll just get some of that good-smelling coffee." He nodded his head toward the hallway. "Go on now."
Breathing a sigh of relief, Gena hurried upstairs to Scotty's room, thinking that when she'd tucked Scotty in earlier, Eli had been hiding here the whole time. He had been right here, watching them. To keep herself from going into hysterics now while Eli's gaze followed her, she remembered her sweet son and how their nightly ritual had become so special, even if she did have to struggle with Scotty every night.
Rushing into his room, she found him sitting up and rubbing his eyes. "What's wrong, baby?"
"I had a bad dream."
Gena wished she was just having a bad dream, but this nightmare was very real. "It's okay. Try to go back to sleep."
"Can't I stay up and watch you work?"
"No, and I don't want to fight with you," Gena said as she tucked the cover back around him. "It's bedtime whether you like it or not. Now try to rest."
Scotty turned to her with a cute pout. "But soon it'll be winter break, remember?"
"I do remember," Gena replied, using her best stern mother tone. "But for now, it's late and we had a big night practicing for the Christmas play. It's already past your bedtime." And your father is downstairs probably trying to figure out how to take you from me.
"I don't wanna," Scotty said, his arms wrapped against his flannel action figure-inspired pajamas. "I'm not tired."
"Scotty, you're going to stay in bed," Gena retorted, thinking it was mighty hard to resist her son's boyish charms. For just a fleeting moment, she wondered if Scotty got that from his real father. Eli's face flashed through her mind, reminding her of the constant worries that never left her thoughts now that he knew about his son. Those worries had tripled over the last hour. What did Eli think about his son, now that he'd seen him? And when would he make his move? Because she was sure he was going to do just that.