Read Baby Love Online

Authors: Catherine Anderson

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary

Baby Love


An icy Idaho night wind whistled along the dark, deserted sidewalk, carrying with it the snow-crisp scents of mountain pine and fir. The gusts pushed at Maggie Stanley from behind, tossing her long dark hair over her eyes and cutting through her thin nylon jacket. Shuddering with the cold, she hugged her bundled baby close and forced herself to keep moving. Her feet felt as if they weighed a thousand pounds, and she worried that she might slip on the treacherous black ice that coated the cracked cement.

A flash of automobile headlights from somewhere behind made her heart do a flip. She flattened herself against a building, praying that the shadows cast by the eaves might hide her. The car moved on through the intersection.
Not Lonnie.
Going limp against the wet siding, Maggie gulped back a sob, the jolt of fear so numbing that she could no longer feel her legs.

Oh, God. Off the street. I have to get off the street.

She lurched into a plodding run, clutching Jaimie protectively against her. With every step she took, the heavy diaper bag slammed into her bruised leg. As her fear moved away and feeling returned to her extremities, the pain of the blows became so excruciating that nausea rolled up her burning throat

Up ahead, she saw an unlighted sign through the shadowy gloom. The boldly painted letters beckoned to her


like a beacon.
Pacific Northern.
She'd done it. She was almost there. Only a few more steps now.

Breathless, she staggered to a stop when she reached the sign and stared incredulously at the chain-link fence. Beyond the sturdy wire mesh lay the railway yard where she hoped to hitch a ride.

Chapter One

Drifting in the misty unreality of dreams, Rafe Kendrick surrendered himself to the images that moved softly through his mind. As he sank deeper into slumber, the details gained clarity and seemed more lifelike. He smiled drowsily. He was down on the lakeshore, he realized, not far from the main ranch house. Through the stands of evergreen trees, he could see the sprawling expanse of ivy-covered brick that was his family home, three of its fireplace chimneys silhouetted against the summer-blue sky. On the gentle breeze, he heard the whinny of a stallion coming from the north pasture behind the stables.

On some level he knew this was only a dream, but it felt wonderfully real, a vivid recollection of all that he'd lost. Small, water-worn rocks shifted under his feet as he followed the sweep of shoreline. The soft lapping of the water soothed him. He took a deep breath, identifying the smells that had once been so commonplace he scarcely noticed them. Fir and pine. Sun-warmed grass and fertile earth. A crisp edge to the breeze, even on a summer day, because the high-elevation basin was ringed by snowcapped peaks.

His footsteps slowed as he crested a slight rise. Ahead of him in a shaded grove, he saw a sorrel mare and a buckskin gelding. They grazed contentedly, their reins loosely draped over the limbs of sapling oaks. Nearby



two blanket-draped saddles rested on the green grass.

A sense of deja vu filled Rafe. He remembered this day. He and Susan had taken the kids for a short ride through the forest, and then they'd come back here for a picnic by the lake. They had enjoyed themselves, singing silly songs they made up as they went along to entertain their three-year-old son, Keefer. It had been a near perfect outing, and they had ended it here because they loved spending time near the water.

He eagerly scanned the clearing, his yearning to catch a glimpse of his family so sharp that it made his breath hitch. Drawn by a red-checkered tea towel that fluttered in the breeze, his gaze came to rest on the wicker picnic basket first. The hinged lid was wedged partially open by the protruding neck of a wine bottle that their nanny-housekeeper, Becca, had slipped inside to accompany their meal.

Oh, yes... he remembered it all so clearly—Susan, in snug faded jeans and a pink cotton blouse, her golden hair caught at the crown with a clip to spill in a silky cascade to her shoulders. He could almost hear the sound of her laughter rippling around him—and smell the little-boy scent of his son, riding double in front of him on the buckskin. After coming here to eat, he had rocked his baby daughter to sleep while Susan set out the food, and he could recall exactly how his little girl's plump body had felt in his arms.

A slight frown pleated Rafe's brow. This was too real to be a dream. He could actually hear the water lapping and feel the breeze caressing his skin. With every step he took, the beach pebbles pressed sharply into the soles of his riding boots. Dreams weren't this vivid.

Oh, God.
Could he dare to hope? Maybe a miracle had happened, and somehow he'd been hurtled back in time. Maybe, after all this time, his prayers had finally been answered and God was giving him a second chance.

Oh, yes, please
... All he needed was just one more


chance. This time, he wouldn't blow it. He'd put his family first. Nothing had ever mattered more to him than his wife and kids.
He'd just gotten so caught up in the everyday responsibilities and obligations of being a husband and father that he'd lost sight of what was really important for a while.

He'd never make that mistake again.

to believe that this was all actually real, he clenched his hands into throbbing fists and eagerly scanned the clearing. Susan and the kids lay only a short distance away from the picnic basket. The three of them were taking a nap on a Navajo blanket he'd spread on the grass for them. Their snuggled forms were dappled with sunlight that filtered through the fir boughs above them. Susan lay on her back with a child on each side of her, her sweet face relaxed in sleep, her lush mouth curved in a slight smile of contentment. His son Keefer had fallen asleep with his arms around her neck, and he still clung to her, his baby-soft cheek pressed to her breast. The six-month-old Chastity was cradled in Susan's other arm, her tawny curls glistening like drizzles of honey.

Rafe walked toward them, a sharp ache stabbing his chest. Dear God, how he loved them, and it had been so long—so very long—since he'd seen them.
Thank you, God.
He wanted to shout and run to cover the distance more quickly. But no. He couldn't shake the feeling that this scene from out of his past might exist only in his imagination. A loud sound or sudden movement might shatter it like fragile glass.

As he moved closer to the blanket, Susan's face grew less distinct. He squinted down at her, wanting to see her more clearly. But no matter how hard he tried, her features remained an elusive blur, framed by a nimbus of golden hair. He came to a stop, staring so hard that his eyes burned. It was like trying to see her through a plate of steam-fogged glass.


he called softly.
"Honey, wake up. It's me, Rafe. "

She didn't stir at the sound of his voice. He reached a hand toward her, his need to touch her a craving he
couldn't deny. Just as his fingertips nearly grazed her cheek, the ground under his feet shifted and seemed
to jerk. In a twinkling, his wife and children vanished, and he found himself surrounded by an endless and
horribly empty darkness.

"Susan? Don't leave again! Susan?"

He felt a light touch on his arm, and as he turned, a dizzy feeling came over him. As the sensation subsided,
he realized that his surroundings had changed. He was still on the lakeshore, only now it was late evening.

Susan sat beside him on the grass, and once again, he couldn't see her clearly. She was only a shadowy presence, and he knew she would vanish again if he tried to touch her. The knowledge filled him with a sense of
hopelessness and pain that ran so deep his bones ached.

Her face was a blurred, pale oval in the darkness as she turned to regard him.
"What are you doing, Rafe?"

she asked softly.
"You promised me you'd find someone else to love, that you wouldn't spend the rest of

your life alone if something ever happened to me. Now, just look at you!"

He clamped his arms around his knees to resist his urge to reach for her.
"I can't, Susan. I know I promised,

but I can't. I'll never love anyone hut you. Never. "

Her voice rang with sadness.
"Oh, Rafe, you can't go on like this. Life is such a precious gift, and you're wast-

ing it. "

He closed his eyes.
"I don't have a life, "
he whispered raggedly.
"Without you and the kids, I'm just marking

off the days. Why can't you understand that?"

Silence settled between them, broken only by the gentle sound of lapping water and the night wind
whispering in the evergreen trees. Those sounds had once seemed like music to him. Now hearing them only
made him


hurt, and he wanted to escape. Leaving right then was impossible, though. As long as Susan was there, even
in this elusive, heartbreaking way, he couldn't leave her.

"It's time, Rafe"
she whispered gently, her voice seeming to fade in and out.
"You have to let me and the

kids go now and move on. "

Move on to what? He wanted to scream the question, only a lump had lodged in his throat, making it difficult
for him to speak.

"You keep praying for one more chance"
she murmured.
"Well, dear heart, now you're getting one. Don't

throw it away or mess it up because you're still clinging to ghosts. "

"Mess what up?"

"You'll see. "
He heard a smile in her voice.
"Just open your heart, Rafe. You'll see. "

Rafe jerked awake in the middle of a snore. For an instant, he thought it was the bad dream that startled
him, but as the grogginess cleared from his head, he decided it was something else. After two years of riding
the rails, he had learned to sleep lightly even when drunk. Something wasn't right.

He heard nothing except the constant clank of the train wheels and the clatter of the boxcar. He nudged his
Stetson back to regard his four traveling companions, who sat hunched along the rear wall of the boxcar just
as they had been earlier, only now they all seemed to be staring at something to his left.

Shaking off the last trace of sleep and the haunting dream along with it, he flicked a glance in that direction
and did a double take. A
He could scarcely credit his eyes. Pushing with the heel of one boot, he sat
more erect and turned the full blast of his gaze on her.

A shaft of moonlight fell over her. He could see she was a beauty, slightly built with a wealth of dark hair and
that rare milk-white skin you see in pictures but seldom run across in real life.


A fragile little flower.

Not likely. Fragile little flowers didn't hitch rides on boxcars. She probably had a switchblade in her hip pocket and was just waiting for some poor bastard to mess with her. Well, judging by the interest she was drawing from his fellow travel mates, she wouldn't have long to wait.

As if she sensed Rafe's gaze on her, she turned to look at him, and he found himself staring into the biggest, most vulnerable, and most frightened eyes he'd ever seen. He got the oddest feeling—a tight, achy sensation, dead in the center of his chest.

She ducked her head so fast he had little time to analyze his reaction. Not that it took a genius I. Q. to figure it out. He was drunk, for starters, and it had been a hell of a long time since he'd gazed into eyes that didn't seem shuttered and shrewd.

"Seem" was the keyword in that observation, he felt sure. First impressions were often deceiving, and women could be consummate actresses, especially the hard-as-nails variety who bummed the rails. The gentle caress of moonlight undoubtedly made her look prettier and more fragile than she actually was. She was probably about as vulnerable as a hedgehog and twice as ornery.

While she gazed fixedly down at the jacket she held clutched to her chest, Rafe studied her. An angelic countenance with delicate features. Long, thick eyelashes that cast shadows on her pale cheeks in the eerie illumination. A cute little turned-up nose and a chin that hinted at a stubborn streak.

Who in her right mind would hug her coat instead of wearing it when the temperature was registering close to zero? The boxcar door was jammed and wouldn't slide shut, making it far colder and draftier inside than usual. With no protection from the cold, she'd be dead by daylight. Not to mention that no young woman right in the head would climb on a boxcar with five sex-starved men. Correction: four sex-starved men and one uninterested,

has-been rancher. Even at that, she was faced with some stiff odds.

Rafe snorted at the unintentional pun and curled his hand over the neck of his whiskey bottle.

Thank God she wasn't his problem. He was too drunk to help her out if things got ugly, and he planned to get drunker yet before the night was finished. If there was a code that a man learned to live by while bumming the rails, it was to mind his own business. The little lady was on her own.

Glancing at the other men, who were still staring at her as if they'd never seen a female before, Rafe decided things were definitely going to turn nasty. He'd give it five minutes—ten at the outside.

Picking up the bottle, he gave a mental shrug. She looked on the high side of twenty-one.

That was old enough to know better. Right? Damned straight. If you messed with the bull, you got the horn.

Well, she'd better be able to handle it. Those yo-yos weren't your street-corner-variety thugs; they were hardcore railroad trash, the kind who stayed in one town only as long as the welcome lasted and then freeloaded to the next small community before they got arrested and tossed in jail. They slept under bridges and highway overpasses, making a few dollars here and there for cheap wine by begging at traffic lights near shopping malls. They carried all their worldly goods from place to place in their knapsacks or backpacks, living by their wits and the whimsy of chance. When their luck ran out, they played rough and for keeps, surviving any way they could.

To men like them, a pretty, defenseless female was a rare delicacy.

Rafe unscrewed the bottle cap, intending to have a drink. But he burned with curiosity in spite of himself. What in the hell was she doing here? She was too old to be a runaway. He supposed it was possible she was fleeing from a husband, but if that was the case, why do

it on a train? She should have just rolled the creep and bought herself a bus or plane ticket. Rafe sure as hell wouldn't have wanted any woman he cared about to put herself at risk like this.

Memories of Susan sifted through his mind. He tried to call up a picture of her face, but just like in his dream, her features remained a blur. Guilt swamped him. She'd been his whole life. Now, in only a little over two years, he couldn't recall her smile. His memories of his family were like color snapshots steadily fading with time.

The thought hurt so much he felt as if a knife were slicing at his guts.

He tipped back his head to swig the whiskey. The blessed burn promised oblivion, and he closed his eyes as the warmth spread through him, needing it—craving it—grabbing for it. Tomorrow he'd find an odd job and buy another bottle before this one went dry. At the bottom of a jug, he found sobriety, and for him, that was abhorrent. When he was drunk, at least he couldn't think.

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