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It was a nice little town, as far as relatively small towns went. Hardly any trouble at all.
Which, when he came right down to it, was the problem. The town was nice; it was little and it was peaceful.
And Sheriff Enrique Santiago was restless.
Rick's people had lived in and around Forever, Texas, as far back as anyone could remember. This was especially true of the Mexican and the Apache branches of his family. The Black Irish contingent came later, but still far back enough to be only slightly less old than the veritable hills.
All three branches had left their indelible mark on Rick, found in his gaunt cheekbones, his blue-black, thick straight hair and his exceedingly vivid green eyes, which could look right through a man's lies.
He was a walking embodiment of the nationalities that called Forever their home. But he wanted something different, something that would make his adrenaline accelerate, at least once in a while. The need to feel alive was why he'd taken the post of sheriff to begin with.
But being sheriff in Forever meant breaking up an occasional fistfight when the weather was too hot and tempers were too short. It meant making sure Miss Irene wasn't wandering around town in the middle of the night in her nightgown, sleepwalking again. Or worse, driving through the center of town in her vintage Mustang while sound asleep.
It wasn't that he hankered after dead bodies piled up on top of each other, but he did yearn for days that weren't all stamped with a sameness that had the capacity to drive a sane man crazy.
And that was why these days he was thinking about moving north. Specifically, Dallas. Not just looking, but doing something about it. He had a friend on the Dallas police force, Sam Rogers, a born and bred native of Forever. Sam had let him know that the Dallas police force was hiring again. So he'd filled out an application and requested an interview.
A Captain Amos Rutherford had called him Wednesday and told him that they liked what they read and were interested. The man promised to get back to him about a time and place that was convenient for them both for the interview.
The promise of an interview had put a bounce in his step this morning, the day after Thanksgiving. Never one to dawdle, he got ready even more quickly than usual. Moving fast, he threw open the front door and his size-eleven boot came a hairbreadth away from kicking what appeared to be an infant seat that was smack in the middle of his doorstep.
An occupied infant seat.
The occupant of the infant seat made a noise just before the toe of Rick's boot made contact with said infant seat. His hands flying out to the doorjamb in an effort to keep from pitching forward, Rick managed to catch himself just in time.
Stunned and surprised but ever mindful of the five-foot nothing, formidable grandmother who had raised him, Rick bit off the curse that shot to his lips. He gazed down at the infant seat and the baby he very nearly had wound up punting across his front yard.
As if sensing the attention, the infant, all waving arms and gurgling noises, swaddled in blue, looked right back up at him. Intense blue eyes met green.
The baby was smiling.
Rick was not.
This had to be somebody's really poor idea of a joke, Rick thought, although the point of it eluded him.
Immediately, his deputies came to mind. He'd said more than once that nothing ever happened in Forever and his three-man team, which contained one woman, had also heard him say more than once that he was seriously thinking about leaving the small town because the boredom was getting to him.
This was undoubtedly their idea of "excitement."
Rick glanced around the immediate vicinity. He lived approximately five miles out of town, on a small plot that was barely half an acre. The terrain was as flat as an opened bottle of last week's ginger ale and if there was someone hanging around to witness his immediate reaction to the baby, they would have been hard-pressed to find a hiding place.
There was no one around.
Rick frowned and squatted down to get a close look at the baby. It didn't help. He didn't recognize the infant.
With a sigh, he picked up the infant seat and rose to his feet.
The baby was blowing bubbles, drooling on everything and appeared unfazed by the fact that he was out here, apparently all by himself for who knew how long.
Rick touched the baby's hand to see if it was cold. The temperature had dropped down to the upper forties during the night. The tiny, curled fist was warm. The baby had to have been dropped off in the past hour.
He scanned the area again. Still no one.
Rick had always had an eye for detail and for faces. His only requirement was that the faces had to belong to someone who was at least two years old. Prior to that, one baby looked pretty much like another to him.
Which was why he didn't recognize the infant he was holding.
"This someone's idea of a joke?" he asked out loud, raising his voice.
Only the wind answered.
Holding the infant seat against him with one arm, Rick gingerly felt around the baby to see if a note had been left and slipped in between the baby and the seat. As he disturbed the blanket in his search, an overwhelming, pungent odor rose up.
"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," he muttered, his nose wrinkling automatically.
His uninvited visitor made another, louder grunting noise, doing away with any doubts about what was going on. There was a full diaper to be reckoned with.
"Okay, enough's enough," Rick called out. "Take your kid back."
But no one materialized. Whoever had dropped the child off on his doorstep was gone.
Rick's frown deepened. "You didn't come with your own set of diapers, did you?" The baby gurgled in response.
"Yeah, I didn't think so," Rick muttered, shaking his head. "Hope you like dish towels," he told the baby as he walked back into the house.
Rick knew without having to raid his medicine cabinet that he had no powder to use on the baby, but because his Mexican grandmother had been adamant about his learning how to cook when he was a boy, he knew he had cornstarch in the pantry. Cornstarch was fairly good at absorbing moisture.
"Beggars can't be choosers," he told the infant as he appropriated the box of cornstarch off the shelf.
With nothing faintly resembling a diaper and only one set of extra sheets, which he was not about to rip up, Rick was forced to press a couple of clean dish towels into service.
Armed with the towels and box of cornstarch, he laid the baby down on the kitchen table and proceeded to change him.
He had no problem with getting dirty and more than once had sunk his hands into mud when the situation called for it. But when it came to this task, he proceeded gingerly.
And with good reason.
When he opened the diaper, he almost stumbled backward.
"What are you, hollow?" he demanded, stunned at just how much of a "deposit" he found. "How can something so cute be so full of that?" he asked.
The baby responded by trying to stuff both fists into his mouth.
He was hungry, Rick thought. "Well, no wonder you're hungry," he commented. "You emptied everything out." As quickly as possible, he got rid of the dirty diaper, cleaned up his tiny visitor and put on the clean, makeshift replacement. "Let's get you back to your mama," he told the baby, laying him back down into the infant seat and strapping him in.
Within five minutes, Rick was in his four-wheel-drive vehicle, his unwanted companion secured in the backseat, and on his way into town.
"You brought us something to eat?" Deputy Larry Conroy asked, perking up when he glanced toward the man who signed his paychecks as the latter came through the front door.
From where Conroy sat, he could see that the sheriff was carrying something. Given an appetite that never seemed to be sated, nine times out of ten, Larry's mind immediately went to thoughts of food.
"Not unless you're a cannibal," Alma Rodriguez commented, looking around Rick's arm and into the basket. "What a cute baby." She eyed her boss and asked, "Whose is it?"
Rick marched over to the desk closest to the doorit happened to belong to his third deputy, Joe Lone Wolfand set the infant seat down.
Long, lean and lanky, Joe jumped to his feet and looked down at the occupant of the infant seat as if he expected the baby to suddenly turn into a nest of snakes.
"I was just about to ask you three that," Rick answered, his glance sweeping over the deputies.
"Us?" Larry exchanged glances with the other two deputies, then looked back at his boss. "Why us? What do we have to do with it?" He nodded at the baby, who was obviously "it."
Hope dwindled that this was just a prank. "Because I figured that one of you left him on my doorstep."
Alma had a weakness for babies and a biological clock that was ticking louder and louder these days. She was making funny faces at the baby, trying to get the infant to laugh. "It's a he?" she asked.
"Well, yeah," Larry said, as if she should have figured that part out quickly. "He's wearing blue."
Joe slid back into his chair, pushing it slightly away from his desk and the baby on it. "Doesn't mean anything."
"It's a he," Rick confirmed, his tone indicating that the baby's gender was not the important issue. "And I want to know where he came from. Any of you ever seen him before?"
Forever had not yet cracked the thousand-occupant mark. Be that as it may, he wasn't familiar with everyone who called the small town home. In addition, Forever stood right in the path of a well-traveled highway and had more than its share of people passing through. For all he knew, this little guy belonged to someone who had made a pit stop in Forever for a meal and had gotten separated from his family for some reason.
Larry looked at the baby again and shook his head. "Nope, don't recognize him."
Joe had already scrutinized his temporary desktop ornament. "Never saw him before."
"How can you be so sure?" Rick asked. "They all look alike at this age."
"No, they don't," Alma protested. "Look at that personality. It's all over his face." She realized that the others were watching her as if she'd taken leave of her senses. "What? Just because you're all blind doesn't mean I have to be."
"So you recognize him?" Rick asked, relieved.
"I didn't say that," she countered. Turning back to the baby, she studied him one last time and then shook her head sadly. "No, I never saw him before. This baby's not from around Forever."
"You know every baby in Forever?" Larry asked skeptically.
"Pretty much," she answered matter-of-factly. "Hey, I'm a law enforcement officer. It's my job to notice things," she added defensively. Alma had to raise her voice to be heard above the baby, who had begun fussing. Loudly.
Joe looked at him. "I think the kid wants you to hold him."
"Since when did you become such an expert on babies?" Larry asked.
Wide shoulders rose and fell in a careless manner. "Just seemed logical, that's all," Joe responded.
"I'll hold him," Alma volunteered. But when she took the baby into her arms, he only cried louder.
Reluctantly, Rick took the baby from her. The infant instantly quieted down.
"Looks like you've got the knack, Sheriff," Larry chuckled.
If he had it, Rick thought, he didn't want it. People this small made him nervous. He could easily see himself dropping the baby.
"Why don't you take him to Miss Joan's?" Alma suggested. "Everyone who comes through town stops there to eat. Maybe she remembers seeing him with his parents."
"Or if he does belong to someone in town, she'd recognize him," Larry added, "just in case you don't know every kid in town, Alma."
Rick looked at his three deputies one by one, his deep green, penetrating eyes locking with each pair in turn. He knew them, knew their habits. Neither Larry nor Alma could maintain a straight face if this was a hoax. Joe, he wasn't so sure about.
But to his disappointment, not one of his deputies was grinning. Or looking guilty. This was on the level. Someone had left a baby on his doorstep.
Rick sighed, placed the baby back into the infant seat, strapped him in again and then picked up the infant seat. He looked down at the baby. The little boy was smiling again.
At least the kid had something to smile about, he thought.
"Anybody wants me," he murmured as he left, "I'll be at the diner."
Joan Randall, fondly referred to as "Miss Joan" by everyone, had run the local diner for as long as anyone in town could remember. Five foot five, with rounded curves and hair that looked to be just a wee bit too strawberry in color, the years had been kind to her. For the most part, she'd kept the wrinkles at bay despite her advancing age. Her eyes were quick to smile and she had an earth-mother quality about her that coaxed complete strangers to suddenly open up and share their life stories with her.
She had the same effect on the people she rubbed elbows with on a daily basis.
Rick had once ventured that Miss Joan had heard more confessions than all the priests within a fifty-mile radius put together.
The older woman lit up when she saw Rick walk through the door, a fond smile growing fonder when she saw that he was not alone.
"Whatcha got there, Sheriff Santiago," she teased, coming around the counter to come closer to him. "A new deputy?"
"I was hoping you could tell me," Rick answered. He carefully placed the infant seat on top of the counter, making sure that the baby was secure and that the seat didn't wobble.
No longer being lulled by the soothing constant motion of Rick walking, the baby began to fuss and complain again.
Having come over on the other side of the counter, Miss Joan peered into the infant seat. She studied the infant for a moment, then raised her eyes to Rick's.