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By Cathy Hake
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Mr. Hallock, the Cadant woman is out here. She pulled right up to the gate and is blocking the driveway. I've already notified the police."
Peter Hallock gripped the receiver. "I'll be right there to handle her. Don't let her in." He slammed down the phone and headed for the front walkway. This woman had pursued them zealously, and he was going to put an end to it - here and now. No one threatened his son.
Four days ago, she'd tilted his world when she called and introduced herself, then rasped, "We have to talk. I - I have your son." Peter could see Luke with his nanny just outside the window, so he'd hung up and immediately called them inside. He refused to accept three other subsequent calls from Ms. Cadant.
When Ms. Cadant persisted by sending a letter marked "Urgent!" via next-day mail, he consulted a security specialist and returned it unopened, as recommended. He also hired a security guard. Worried, he'd taken off from his job as the CEO of the local hospital. Luke was the joy of his life, and as long as there was even a hint of danger, Peter would do everything in his power to safeguard his son. At the moment, that meant confronting the woman. He'd make it clear she'd tangled with the wrong man.
He couldn't believe she had the gall to show up- but that just reinforced how dangerous and mentally unstable she must be. Each long, purposeful stride he took down the cobblestone walkway took him away from his son's giggles that spilled from the backyard and closer to the opportunity to tell Marie Cadant she'd gone too far.
When she came into view, Peter felt a jolt of surprise. Marie Cadant wasn't anything like what he'd expected. Instead of a vampy siren or an unkempt bag lady, she looked like an ordinary, albeit pretty, housewife. She stood beside the open door of a road-weary blue sedan. A snarled skein of shoulder-length, buttery yellow hair glowed in the midday sunlight. It framed big blue eyes and dimples. Her rumpled apricot-colored dress looked like she'd sneaked a nap in it, and the run in her nylons called his attention to ankles that were just as trim as the rest of her.
As he passed through the heavy wrought-iron gates, she stepped forward and gave him a tentative smile. "Thank you for coming!"
He scowled back. "Miss Cadant, I thought I'd already made myself abundantly clear. I don't deal with seedy little opportunists or con artists. Now leave."
Her smile faded. "Please! This is terribly important -"
"The police are on the way."
She folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the car. "Please, listen! You've got to listen to me."
"Not a chance, lady." Peter spun away and took a step back toward the house. Just then, he realized the giggles he thought had been Luke's were coming from the neighbor's grandchildren.
"I have your son!" Ms. Cadant cried.
He wheeled around quickly, but she'd already dipped her head into the car. He saw chubby toddler arms around her neck. A wild surge of adrenaline flooded him.
"Nooooo!" he roared as he shot toward her car before she could take his precious boy. "Luke!"
Everything clicked into eerie slow motion. The woman straightened and turned. Her arms encircled a little boy. A red plastic toy firefighter's hat tumbled off the child, revealing wide, frightened eyes as he screamed in terror. Peter came to an abrupt halt, but his hands still closed around the boy's ribs.
"Police!" someone boomed. "Freeze!"
Instinctively protecting the boy, the woman held him tighter. Her hand came up and cupped his head to her shoulder. Every speck of color drained from her face. The officer continued, "No one's going to get hurt if you let the boy go."
Peter shouted, "It's not Luke!"
In spite of his assertion, four officers all converged on the car, their weapons still drawn. "Is there anyone in the back seat?" one officer called to another.
So close he could see the woman's whole body shuddering, Peter felt some of his furor fade. Hopefully, she'd learned her lesson and would leave him alone now. For a brief second, her tongue loosened. "Let us go. I'll never come back. Please -"
"Mr. Hallock." An officer drew him off to the side to talk as his partner interviewed Ms. Cadant. Clearly, Marie wanted nothing to do with the officer. After stammering something, she desperately started to stuff her child into the car. The cop firmly drew her to the back end of her sedan and tried to calm her. Peter couldn't hear much of what she said over the boy's frightened wails.
The officer with him gained his attention. "Sir, she's made threats and trespassed."
"No. Wait." He'd just heard her mention Melway General. Peter's heart kicked into overdrive. Luke was born at Melway.
The tyke's pitiful sobs tore at Peter. Ms. Cadant didn't indulge in tears, but she looked ready to collapse. Whatever she said made the cop shoot a quick glance from the boy, over to Peter, then back again.
Her little boy. Hers? I have your son ... The child she held sported red hair and black-brown eyes. He was the only person Peter had ever seen with that unique combination - other than when he glanced in the mirror. This boy looked like a twin to the pictures in Peter's own baby book - and he seemed to be about the right age, too....
It can't be. It can't.
Peter agonized over what to do. Something was wrong, dreadfully wrong. Her impulsive appearance was bad enough, but his rash actions had undoubtedly made things far worse. Prompted by painful memories, he'd responded in such a way that he'd jeopardized this woman and her little boy. "We'll ... talk. Give me a minute with her."
"No," his security guard protested. "You can't do that. Never give in to these tactics. It's a big mistake."
The police officer cast a disparaging look at the guard and muttered something under his breath about wannabe cops and rent-a-thugs. "No one," he grated, "is doing anything until she calms down."
"I'll talk to her," Peter reiterated in a louder tone.
"No." Marie cringed and stammered, "It w-was all a m-m-mistake. I'll go -"
"Ma'am," the officer interrupted, "you're in no condition to drive."
The little boy clung to her for dear life. His arms and legs twined tightly about her neck and waist. Something about the way she cradled him spoke eloquently of love and protection. A woman who cherished her child wouldn't ever intentionally endanger him. She'd obviously anticipated no possible jeopardy since she'd brought along the boy.
The little guy was big for her to hold. He had to be heavy, but her arms stayed wound about him. She kissed his unruly curls, then rested her cheek on them.
"She needs to sit down." Peter pointed past the gates toward a small garden. "There's a bench over there."
The two cops got together and exchanged information. The one who had been talking to Peter looked at the child, then back at him. A less astute person would have missed the subtle grimace, but Peter read body language as a matter of course. In dealing with staff, families and attorneys, he'd learned to pick up faint cues, and it stood him in good stead. Clearly, the cops felt something vital was going on between him and the Cadant woman.
Whatever the issue, Peter didn't want an audience. He took control. "Ms. Cadant is rattled, but it's apparent she doesn't mean any harm. I appreciate your response, but I'm confident we can handle this matter, ourselves." As he spoke, Peter closed the distance between them. He cupped Marie's elbow and marveled she'd stayed upright. Uncertain her legs would hold much longer, he knew he'd better hustle her to the bench. "Here." He tugged her lightly.
Excerpted from Mixed Blessings by Cathy Hake Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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