With two infants already missing, Maya Ellison worried that her son would be targeted next. She would guard him with her life, but for once she wouldn't have to do it alone. Slade Becker went beyond the call of duty and sequestered the single mother and her son on his ranch.
Slade guaranteed their protection, and soon Maya learned there was no place safer than within his embrace. Just as she knew there was no place in Texas that the kidnapper could hide from the imposing U.S. marshaland nothing on earth that could break up their new family .
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Maya Ellison spotted the man the moment she stepped out of the grocery store.
He would have been darn hard to miss, especially since he was leaning against her car. Except he wasn't just leaning. It was more as if he was lounging while he took in the scenery. Arms folded over his chest. Jeans-clad legs, outstretched and crossed at the ankles.
Maya had no idea who he was. Or what he wanted. But he appeared to be waiting for her.
She walked closer, her steps slow and cautious while she kept her attention nailed to him. Even with the lounging pose, she could tell he was well over six feet tall. Solid build. Dark brown hair that fell slightly long against his neck. Even though he was wearing a black Stetson, the cool October breeze had rifled through what she could see of his hair and had left it rumpled.
He reminded her of an Old West outlaw. And that was the reason she tightened her grip on the infant carrier that held her son, Evan.
The man lifted his head, snagging her gaze, but he said nothing as he pushed himself away from her car. The simple gesture nearly caused her to turn and run back into the store, but Maya reminded herself she was on Main Street, in broad daylight, no less. Plus, this was Spring Hill, a sleepy Texas town that was as close to crime-free as a town could get.
Bad things don't happen in Spring Hill.
It was the reason she'd moved here. A safe haven to raise her child. She hoped she hadn't been wrong about that.
"May I help you?" Maya asked, and silently cursed the polite tone. She added a glare for his leaning on her car.
"I'm Slade Becker," he said, not answering her question. He reached into the pocket of his black jacket and pulled something out. Before Maya could react to the possibility that it might be a gun, he produced a wallet and held it up for her to see.
Not a wallet.
She eased a few steps closer so she could get a better look at him and that star shield. It wasn't a cop's badge, but now that she had a better look at him, his steel-blue eyes seemed as if they did indeed belong to a cop. He didn't just look at her. He studied her from the top of her head to her sensible leather walking shoes. Then that gaze went to the carrier.
Because of the way she was holding the carrier and the single plastic bag of groceries, the man could likely only see the top of Evan's head, which was covered by a blue knit cap. Still, even that seemed intrusive, so she turned, hoping that would shift his gaze off Evan and back to her.
Maya decided to do something about that. She gave the carrier another adjustment so that it was as far behind her as she could position it. The shift caused her arm to ache, and she wouldn't be able to stand there long. Not that she intended to do that anyway.
"You're a U.S. marshal," she said, making sure she sounded impatient, which she was. Even though it was a beautiful autumn day, she suddenly wanted nothing more than to get home.
And away from this lawman with the haunting blue eyes.
There was something downright unsettling about him, and it didn't have anything to do with the car-leaning or memorable eye color. Maybe it was his looks. Edgy, along with being drop-dead gorgeous. He was the kind of man she usually avoided but found herself attracted to anyway.
Maya choked back a huff. No way, no how would she feel anything but wariness when it came to this man. She wasn't at a point in her life where she was looking for a relationship, especially one with a man like this.
"Yeah, I'm a marshal," Slade confirmed, and the wind had another go at his hair. "You didn't know I was coming." It wasn't a question, nor did he wait for her to answer. "I was on my way out to your house, but I spotted your car in the parking lot and stopped."
He opened his mouth, maybe to explain why she would have known he was coming or why he was indeed there, but her phone rang. The sweet lullaby ringtone didn't mesh with the syrupy tension in the air.
Even though she was on an extended leave of absence from her job as a victims' rights advocate, Maya couldn't risk not checking the caller-ID screen to see if this was someone from the office. She set down the carrier and grocery bag and snatched the phone from the diaper bag she had looped over her shoulder. She then picked up Evan again as quickly as she could, making sure she didn't let the stranger get a good look at her baby.
"Saul Warner," she mumbled, reading what had appeared on the screen of her phone. It wasn't a name she recognized.
"That'll be my boss," Slade provided, his rusty growl of a voice slicing through the lullaby notes. He leaned against her car again to resume his waiting.
Yet another piece to this puzzle. Why would his boss want to speak to her? "Maya Ellison," she answered.
"Marshal Warner," the man greeted. "I'm sorry I'm just now getting around to calling you, but I got tied up with something. It's possible that Slade Becker is already there in Spring Hill."
"He's with me in the parking lot of Hawthorne's Grocery Store on Main Street." Maya met his gaze again. Frowned. "But why is he here?"
Marshal Warner made a slight sound in his throat, as if the answer were obvious. "Because you need someone there with you, and when the FBI put out the request, Slade volunteered."
Okay. "Uh, why would I need a marshal, and why would the FBI request anything that had to do with me?"
No obvious throat sound that time, and Slade's left eyebrow slid up. It was a question. But Maya didn't know what exactly he was asking.
"You've heard about the kidnappings, of course," Warner continued.
Kidnappings? That kicked up her heart rate. She had seen something in the headlines of a newspaper in the grocery store, but she hadn't read the article.
"I haven't heard much news in the past several days. I just adopted a five-week-old baby, and" Maya stopped herself from gushing about the joys and challenges of being a new mom and remembered she was talking to a federal marshal.
"Who are you?" Maya asked flat out. "Not your name. I got that. But why are you calling me?"
"The FBI asked us to help and Slade volunteered his services. Actually, he insisted on personally taking this case. Like the rest of us, he doesn't want another baby to go missing."
Her chest was suddenly so tight that Maya was afraid she wouldn't be able to speak, or breathe. "Why would you think anyone would want to take my baby? His birth mother willingly gave him up for adoption. And everything's in order with the paperwork. I should know because I'm an attorney."
The marshal paused. "You really haven't heard?"
"Heard what?" Maya snapped, though her sharp tone was more from fear than temper.
Another pause, longer than the other. "Marshal Becker will fill you in." And with that, Warner hung up.
She would have huffed if her breath hadn't been stalled in her lungs. "Your boss said you'd tell me what's going on," Maya relayed, hitting the end-call button.
He looked around. Another lawman's glance. "We should sit inside your car while I explain. Best not to spend any more time out in the open."
The hairs on the back of her neck started to tingle. But Maya didn't budge and she didn't fall back on a polite response grilled into her with her Southern upbringing. "I'm not getting in a car with you. In fact, I think it's time to call the sheriff."
Slade shrugged. "I'm sure Sheriff Monroe already knows what's going on, but he might not have figured it all out yet. The FBI phoned him a little while ago and faxed him my photo, my file and a copy of the police reports on the kidnappings."
"Figured out what?" Her voice was so loud that it woke up Evan, and he stirred in the carrier. Maya wanted to throw her hands in the air but that would have meant putting down Evan again. She wasn't letting go of her baby.
Slade made another glance around. His attention landed and stayed on the car and truck that were stopped at the traffic light just up the block from where they stood. "Two baby boys have been kidnapped in the past couple of days. Both were from the San Antonio area."
Maya swallowed hard. "I'm very sorry for the families." They had to be suffering. She would be completely distraught if she were to lose Evan. Even though she'd only had him a week, she couldn't imagine what her life would be like without him.
"Yeah" was all Slade said.
The one-word response was laced with a ton of emotion, but it was short-lived. His shoulders went back. His chin came up. And anything that he'd been feeling was once again concealed behind that lawman's facade.
"Neither of the babies has been recovered," he continued a moment later. "Yet. Now we have to stop any others from being taken."
There it was again. A threat. Not from him, of course. Despite her earlier thoughts of his dangerous and dark air, he probably wasn't a kidnapper. Probably. Unless he wasn't really a marshal and this was some kind of ruse to get her to go with him.
Yes, she really did have to speak to the sheriff.
"I have to get home," she insisted. And run by the sheriff's office so she could have a look at this man's file and those police reports.
Maya walked right up to Slade, looked him in the eye and waited for him to back away. He did. Finally. She shoved her phone back into her shoulder bag and used the keypad on the door to unlock the car.
"You're sure you want to go home? Alone?" he added.
Maya huffed and threw open the back door so she could set the carrier in the specially designed car-seat holder. It made strapping in Evan a cinch, which she needed right now because her hands were shaking. Also, thankfully, her son had gone back to sleep. With luck she'd be home before he started to demand his two o'clock bottle. She had some formula with her, but she preferred to feed Evan at home.
Away from Slade Becker.
"I have a security system," Maya let Slade know. "And a gun."
That last part was a lie, plain and simple, but she made a mental note to consider buying one. She tossed the grocery sack on the floor of the backseat and started to close the door so she could then get inside and leave.
"The other families had security systems," Slade informed her.
That did it. Maya had had more than enough. With her hand still on the back door, she whirled around to face the doom-and-gloom marshal. "Look, those kidnappings have obviously concerned you, but I don't live in San Antonio any longer."
"No, but your son was born there." His words were slow and deliberate, as if he was emphasizing each one.
"So? Lots of babies have been born in San Antonio," she pointed out.
He nodded. "About twenty-five thousand each year. Your son was born September 16, a light day for deliveries because on that day only sixty-two babies were born. Twenty-eight were girls, thirty-four were boys. Of those thirty-four boys, twelve weren't Caucasian. So that brings the final figure of possible victims to twenty-two, and two of them are already missing."
"Victims," Maya repeated. The blood rushed to her head. "What are you sayingthat someone might want to kidnap my baby?"
"Yeah." He let that hang in the air for several seconds. "Both of the kidnapped babies were Caucasian males born on the same day as your son."
She heard her own sharp intake of breath but tried to tamp down her reaction. This didn't make any sense. "Why would anyone want to kidnap Evan? Or either of those children who share his birthday?"
Slade took his time shaking his head. "We hoped you'd be able to tell us."
"I have no idea why!"
Again her voice was too loud, and it caused Evan to stir. He whimpered, and his mouth pursed as if he was about to cry. Maya caught onto the car seat and jiggled it gently, rocking him.
"But if you're right, if your numbers really add up, there are twenty babies." She made sure her voice stayed calmer. Hard to do. "Twenty. So why would you think someone would come after my child? Why not offer your services to the other nineteen?"
Slade studied a dark green SUV that was slowly making its way past the parking lot. Not a newer-model vehicle but a big sturdy gas-guzzler.
"Because of the sixty-two babies born that day, only four were placed up for adoption," he said. "One girl. Three boys."
Her heart went to her knees. She didn't want Slade to confirm anything else, but she couldn't stop him. Maya could only stand there and try to brace herself for the worst.
The worst came.
"The adopted boys are the ones who've been kidnapped," Slade said, his words echoing through the thick pulse that was now pounding in her ears. "And your son, Evan, is the final one on the list."