A desperate call in the middle of the night reunites a cowboy with the woman he's never forgotten
A child's voice was pleading from the other end of the receiver. He'd been abducted and wanted to come home. Months ago, Chance Hastings had watched Charlie and his mother, Lily Kirk, walk away, vowing to forget them. Now one look at Lily's terrified face and he knows that plan had been futile. Promising to bring her child home, Chance goes undercover to infiltrate a dangerous group in the Idaho mountains. Once the boy is back in his mother's arms, Chance makes a new vowto convince Lily they belong on his ranch. Permanently.
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Chance Hastings couldn't sleep. This in itself wasn't unusual, not lately anyway. Between the extra ranch work an early fall demanded, his brother Frankie's antics and his own personal chaos, his mind was just wound up too tight. What was unusual was that instead of being in his own cabin two miles over the ridge, he'd elected to spend the night at the main ranch house in the home in which he'd been raised. His father and his new stepmother, Grace, had taken a short trip to Oregon and Chance had volunteered to watch over the house as Frankie was rarely around anymore.
Finally admitting there was no point lying in bed with his eyes wide open, he got up and dressed by the light of the full harvest moon shining through the generous window. He'd always loved autumn in Idaho, especially around the ranching community of Falls Bluff. The golden fields rising to the mountains and the deciduous trees bleeding yellow, orange and red into the high evergreen forest engaged him at every turn.
His plan for the coming day included traveling out toward the mountains with his brothers Pike and Gerard to round up the heifers they wanted to move closer to the ranch for the coming winter. He might as well get a head start on things by saddling up three horses and loading them into the trailer. He paused in the kitchen to start a pot of coffee and leave his brothers a note about meeting him in the barn. He pinned the note to the corkboard by the door.
The perking coffee created a warm ambience in the kitchen that he rarely experienced anymore. Lily, who had shown up under mysterious circumstances nine months earlier and left after a sudden fright six months after that, still dominated the room, at least for him. He could almost picture her at the stove, an enigma of a woman who had wormed her way under his skin. He waited for the coffee to perk, but the more aromatic it became the less he wanted it. Instead, he headed for the mudroom where he retrieved his Stetson from the shelf on which he'd stashed it hours before, grabbed his coat and snagged his truck keys from the hook. As he clasped the doorknob and twisted, the phone back in the kitchen rang. His first instinct was to ignore it. He didn't really live here. However, calls in the middle of the night always telegraphed urgency.
"Hello?" he said as he grabbed the receiver.
He heard breathing but nothing else.
"Hello?" he repeated.
A child's voice said tentatively, "Is Mommy there?" Was this someone's idea of a joke? "Who is this?" he demanded.
Lily's five-year-old boy? At three thirty in the morning? "Charlie, this is Chance Hastings. Where are you? Where's your mom?"
"I don't know," the child wailed.
"Calm down, big guy. Are you lost?"
"I want Mommy."
Chance's brow furled as his imagination suggested all sorts of reasons for the child to have lost track of his mother. None of them were good. "Charlie? Your mom and you don't live here anymore, remember? You guys left. Do you know where you went?"
Soft sobs filled Chance's ear. "That's okay," he crooned. He could picture the boy's blond hair and blue eyes, freckles scattered over tearstained cheeks. "I'm trying to help you. When did you see Mommy last?"
"Yesterday," Charlie managed to choke out.
"Then what happened?"
"I went to school on the big bus."
"That's great. What's the name of your school?"
"Miss Potter's kindergarten."
Chance doubted that was the actual name of a school. "Do you know where it is?"
"On the little hill."
"Do you remember the name of the hill?"
"Do you remember the name of the town you and your mom live in or maybe which state it is?"
"I forget. I want my mommy."
"Okay, we're working on it. What happened at school yesterday?"
"I made a picture."
This was like pulling teeth. "Charlie, who are you with now?"
The phone in the kitchen was the old-fashioned rotary type. Chance's grip on the receiver tightened. He didn't know much about Charlie's father, Jeremy Block, except that he'd done something severe enough in Lily's eyes that she'd run from him with their child in tow and hid out here until Block sent someone to abduct and kill her a few months before so he could reclaim his son. The man had been adamant he was working for Jeremy Block.
The night that went down, Lily left Hastings Ridge Ranch, Charlie in tow. Chance didn't know where Block lived and he didn't know what had happened in the weeks following Lily's departure.
He hadn't wanted to know. He'd avoided the topic like the plague. "Where is your dad right now?"
"Has he hurt you?"
"Okay, that's good. Can you tell me anything about where he lives?"
"In a house."
"Could it be Boise?"
Another thought jumped to the foreground of Chance's mind. Lily would never willingly let her son go unless she had no choice and that meant almost anything from abduction to murder.
"When did you go with your dad, Charlie?"
"Mommy wasn't at the bus stop," Charlie said, talking fast now, his voice wavering as he apparently turned his head and compromised the signal on a cell phone. "A man said he knew where she was. He drove the wrong way and I was scared. I told him to stop but he frowned at me. I fell asleep and it got dark and then we were at Daddy's house but I want Mommy and he says I can't see her and"
"Charlie!" A masculine voice boomed from Charlie's end of the line. "What are you doing, boy? Is that my phone? Who did you call?"
"I want Mommy," Charlie squeaked.
The man spoke into the phone. "Lily? Do you really think you're ever going to see him again?"
"This isn't Lily," Chance said.
"I'm a friend of Charlie's. Are you Jeremy Block?"
"What's it to you?"
"The boy sounds upset. What's going on?"
"Nothing that concerns you," Block said, and severed the connection.
The ranch phone didn't have a caller identification screen so Chance dialed the code to find out the number of the last call, jotted it down and dialed it. The call was answered by Block's terse message to leave a number but now Chance knew that Charlie was in Boise or a nearby community with the same area code.
Chance called a Hastings family friend on the police force next, Detective Robert Hendricks, who had a knack for sounding alert and on the job no matter when you yanked him from slumber. Chance told him about the call. "Give me the number," Hendricks said.
"You've got to rescue the boy," Chance said.
Hendricks was quiet for a beat or two. "Gerard told me you didn't want to know anything about Lily Kirk after she left the ranch. Was your brother mistaken?"
"No. I didn't want to know anything. I still don't. But it's different now that Charlie is in jeopardy."
"Charlie isn't in jeopardy," Hendricks said slowly.
Chance straightened his shoulders. "What? How can you say that? Are you forgetting Jodie Brown and what he did to Kinsey thinking she was Lily?"
"Stop for a minute, Chance. Jeremy Block is a respected district attorney in Ada County down in Boise. Lily ran out on him and took their child with her. She has a documented history of being unstable. He filed for and won temporary custody in her absence. It sounds as if he finally got his kid back. As a father, I can understand how good that must feel. The fact is Lily is the loose cannon, not him."
"Jodie Brown was a career criminal with a record as long as your arm. Block sent him to prison for drug trafficking twelve years ago. He says that's the last time he saw him. He figures Jodie was out to take revenge on him by abducting his wife and demanding a ransom. Block denies having anything to do with Jodie since years before when he won the conviction. There is no indication he isn't telling the truth."
"What does Jodie Brown say about this?"
"He's dead. His truck ran into a tree a couple of days after he left your ranch. His blood alcohol was .20. Case closed. Except that there's a warrant out on Lily but I understand she's disappeared."
"If Jeremy Block knew where to find his son, he knows where to find his ex-wife," Chance said, and despite Hendricks's insistence that Jeremy Block was Man of the Year material, felt a chill.
"Not ex," Hendricks said. "There's been no divorce."
Chance blinked away that momentary shock. "Charlie said a man took him from the bus stop and drove him to his father's house. Doesn't that remind you of what Jodie Brown tried to do? Do you really believe Jeremy Block is telling the truth?"
"I really do," Hendricks cautioned. "But more importantly, it's all happening two hundred miles from here. The police in Boise are satisfied with his story so that's the end of it although I will contact them about the child's call so they can look into it."
Chance slammed down the receiver. His father had taken Lily in nine months earlier and not said a word to anyone about her past but there was a good chance he knew something that might help. Chance had to know she was safe and not fighting for her life somewhere. He dialed his father's cell and when no one answered, his stepmother's. Both phones went straight to voice mail and he left the same message, an insistent request they call home as soon as possible.
Now what? Where was Lily? How did he find her?
He heard a vehicle outside. Undoubtedly Gerard or Pike had arrived early to help get ready for the Bywater trip. He dashed into the mudroom, glad for the company. He was betting Gerard knew all about Lily's past from Hendricks. He switched on the floodlights before opening the door and exited the house as a woman stepped out of a red coupe.
The car looked familiar but the small woman standing in the glaring light did not. The three resident dogs had roused themselves from their beds in the horse barn to welcome the newcomer who didn't seem alarmed by the excited attention of the two shepherds and the part-Labrador retriever milling around her legs. She wore her light brown hair parted in the middle and pulled back. Heavy black glasses dominated a pale face while a long shapeless gray cardigan dominated an equally drab dress that fell all the way to the top of brown cowboy boots.
"Chance?" the woman cried, taking a halting step forward and then stopping.
Chance's mouth almost dropped open as he recognized Lily's voice. For the tick of a heartbeat he tried to reconcile the woman before him with the sassy, blonde firecracker who had left here months before, and then he came out of his stupor and stepped toward her. "I just had a call from Charlie," he said.
"You heard from my baby? When?" Her hands flew up to cover her face and her knees buckled. He reached her before she hit the ground. The dogs yipped with uncertainty.
"I'm okay," she insisted. "Where is Charlie? Who has him?"
"His father," Chance said. "I thought so. Damn."
He still couldn't believe she was here and right on the heels of the past thirty minutes of revelations. He was touching her, almost holding her. He'd only done that once before and at that time, he hadn't known she was still married. And at that time, at least at first, she'd melted into him
"Come inside," he said. "I just made coffee."
"I need to talk to your father."
"Come inside," he repeated. "You're trembling."
"How did Charlie sound?" she asked as she allowed him to guide her up the stairs.
"Not bad," Chance said because he couldn't bear to tell her how frightened the boy had seemed. "I don't know why he called here looking for you."
"It's my fault. I drilled this number into his head last summer when my cell phone died."
The dogs hung back at the door. Chance led Lily to a stool and she sank down with a shuddering sigh. He found mugs and poured coffee. "I contacted the local police and asked a detective friend for help."
"The police?" She took off the thick glasses and closed her eyes, squeezing the bridge of her nose with thumb and forefinger. "I wish you hadn't done that," she said, looking back at him. Without the glasses, her rich brown eyes came into focus and she looked more the way he remembered her.
"Yeah, I can understand why you'd rather not have to discuss your husband with the cops," he said. "Did you know there's a warrant for your arrest?"
"It doesn't surprise me. It's probably the first thing Jeremy did when he realized I wasn't coming back."
"What's it for?"
"I'd lay my money on kidnapping my own child."
"Because of your troubled past?"
She narrowed her eyes and he saw a flash of the old Lily. "I don't have a troubled past. That's Jeremy's story, not mine. Where's your dad?"
"He's gone. He won't be back for a few days. Tell me why you stole off into the night with Charlie. Not the time you did it three months ago when you left here. Before that, when you left Jeremy."
She shook her head as she undoubtedly picked up the anger his words hadn't been too successful at disguising. "You don't need to know."
"Listen, Lily. Jerk me around all you want but in the end, who else is going to help you? Dad is off in Oregon. There's a good chance he's out of signal range. Unless you have legions of friends I don't know about, maybe we should just level with each other."
"Don't start this, Chance. You and I can't agree on anything. There's no point in involving you"
"Involving me?" he snapped. "You come here in the middle of the night dressed like you're auditioning for the role of the prim librarian in It's a Wonderful Life. Your son, the best thing you've ever done as far as I can see, has been taken by his psycho father and you're so frightened your eyes are spinning. Trust me, I'm involved."
"I don't want you"
"I know. You made that real clear last summer. I'm not asking you to sleep with me, I'm asking you to let me help Charlie. Now, what do you say?"
She rubbed her forehead and he wondered how long she'd been driving. Where had she gone after she left the ranch? He waited for her to make up her mind, and when it seemed they would sit there in silence forever, he decided to wade in. "Block told the police Jodie Brown was acting on his own to take revenge on him for convicting him twelve years ago. By the way, Jodie died in a traffic accident before the police could question him. The case is closed as far as they're concerned.
"Furthermore, Block is claiming you had a history of being unstable and that you took your son without giving him a chance to work something out with you."
"He didn't want a chance to work things out," she said. "You don't understand"
"Of course I don't," Chance said. "You haven't given me the opportunity to understand because you haven't said anything. Start with something easy. How was Charlie snatched?"