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Authors: Cathy Marie Hake

Mixed Blessings

BOOK: Mixed Blessings
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“We can talk here.
Do you have any other children?”

Turning back to face Peter, Marie steeled herself with a gulp of air. “The only other child I have is in your house.”

An agonized roar tore from his chest as he bolted to his feet.

“Mr. Hallock, I have to see my baby.”

“We don't know for sure that Luke is your son.” Even as he spoke, his face flushed. Was it from anger, or guilt?

Marie felt sick at how she'd torn this man's world apart, but she couldn't leave without learning the truth. “What does he—your son, Luke—look like?”

“You're not getting my son.” His eyes bored through her. His volume dropped ominously, but the rumble carried conviction. “The Hallocks are never losing another child.”

CATHY MARIE HAKE

walked five miles uphill in the Southern California snow (both ways) every week to check out books from the library. Then she grew up. Discovering the real mystery and adventure in life was men, Cathy fell head over heels for romance. She married the high school sweetheart she met at church, and now has two kids, two dogs and a fulfilling job as a nurse and Lamaze teacher. She enjoys writing stories that combine love and faith in a romance you can believe in.

M
IXED
B
LESSINGS
C
ATHY
M
ARIE
H
AKE

But God commends His own love toward us,
in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

—
Romans
5:8

To Andrea, who had faith with me and in me.
To Krista, who held my hand through cyberspace.
To my family, who believed and waited with me.
To Deb, who blessed me with her insights.
And most of all, to the Lord,
for His mercy and grace.

Dear Reader,

In my other life, I'm a Lamaze teacher. (Yes, it's an absolutely delightful profession.) One night, after class, a father-to-be asked, “What if the worst happened? What if our baby got swapped?” He was thrilled to learn our hospital allows daddies to stay with mother and child the whole time. That lucky baby girl has a father who loves her, wants her and is protective.

If an earthly father wants good for his daughter, how much more does the Heavenly Father want for His daughters? Luke 11:13 says, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”

Even then, we all have problems. Burdens. Tragedies. Marie and Peter experienced one of the worst imaginable. Their hearts were torn, their faith tested. In the end, the Lord helped them see the potential, the blessings and the triumph He sees when asked to be with us as we walk the path set before us.

My prayer for you is that you will hold tight to the Heavenly Father's hand on the days you skip with joy, and that in the dark of night when all you have are tears, you'll know the comfort of His drying them. All we have to do is ask.

I'd love to hear from you. You can write to me through my Web site http://members.aol.com/cathymariehake or through Steeple Hill at the following address: Cathy Marie Hake c/o Steeple Hill Books, 223 Broadway, Ste. 1001, New York, NY 10279.

Chapter One

“M
r. 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 wanna-be 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.

Instead of taking his cue, she tilted her face up to his. Peter inhaled sharply when he saw her expression. He'd expected to see fear, but the total devastation painting her features stunned him. Shock and tears glazed her huge eyes. “Come with me, Marie. There's a little bench in the garden.”

“Let us go!”

“You wanted to talk to me.”

“Not anymore!”

“You cannot hold her against her will,” said the officer who had been interviewing her.

She'd pursued him almost fanatically, yet now when he granted her his attention, Marie Cadant looked as if she'd give all she owned to be anywhere else. Peter knew he couldn't allow her to go until they resolved the matter. “I can't let you leave. You heard the cop—you can't drive right now. It's too dangerous.” His fingers tightened until he managed to make her focus on him again.

Marie gulped in several deep breaths. In spite of the terror of the moment, Peter's assertive tone sliced through some of her fear. She felt his body ease away a bit, felt his sigh gust across her face, and barely heard his soft praise. “Good. There you go. You're going to be all right. Come sit down.”

When he shifted to the side, his hand rotated so he kept hold of her, but his arm slipped beneath hers to brace her. He executed the move easily, capably, as if he were accustomed to dealing with balking, emotional women. Her fright caused a strange split to take place. Marie felt oddly removed—almost as if she were a spectator who could see silly details. The numbness wore off the second his other hand came across and pressed against Ricky's little back.

Her hold on Ricky tightened so intensely, she accidentally squeezed Mr. Hallock's arm between her arm and ribs. He studied her for a long moment, then gently stroked up and down Ricky's back. “I'd offer to carry him, but he needs you too much right now.”

She bobbed her head in jerky affirmation. When Peter Hallock tried leading her off to the right, she couldn't
seem to comply. Her feet stayed rooted to the ground. Every shred of maternal instinct screamed at her to shove Ricky back into the car and flee, yet she couldn't.

Peter gave her arm a tiny squeeze. Tall and broad-shouldered as he was, he overshadowed Marie and intensified her sense of vulnerability. It took a moment for her to realize his eyes no longer snapped with temper—they were dark brown pools of concern. “Ms. Cadant,” he said quietly, “that was a bad scare, but it's over. You and the boy are safe.”

She shook her head. Safe? Oh, no. Peter Hallock simply didn't know the truth—and her truth jeopardized all they both held dear. With a stilted gait, Marie accompanied him down a herringbone brick path to a bench that couldn't be seen from the road. It rested in the shelter of a long, tall hedge and faced a small, circular patch of bright, multicolored spring flowers.

“See? Nice and quiet.” Peter's voice took on a coaxing tone. “We can talk here.”

A verdant lawn dotted with croquet wickets stretched almost fifty yards between that area and the house. Marie looked back over her shoulder and felt a small flash of relief that the cops hadn't left. Peter Hallock led her over to a wrought-iron bench. She sank onto it and automatically turned to the side, away from Peter, in a vain effort to keep little Ricky as her very own for even a few more precious seconds.

Peter sat down right beside her and stayed silent—as if he expected her to explain everything. Though she tried to gather her wits, Marie knew no matter how much she'd prayed, she wasn't ready for this moment. Firmly, yet gently, Peter managed to wrap an arm about her shoulders and turn her around. He tenderly ran his long fingers through Ricky's hair. “Hey, tiger.”

“Mommy!”

“He's a mama's boy?”

Marie nodded. She gratefully accepted the snowy handkerchief Peter produced from the inside chest pocket of his stylish, charcoal suit coat and still kept hold of Ricky. She mopped her boy's sweet little cheeks, then nestled the child's face in the crook of her neck and rested her cheek on his crown. Giving Peter a stricken look, she took several choppy breaths.
I can't do this. I can't tell him.
She'd come this far, but her courage failed her. “We won't ever bother you again.”

The way he stared at her for many long seconds and carefully scanned each of her features heightened her anxiety. She felt a small flash of relief that she'd tucked Ricky in so closely. Mr. Hallock wouldn't be able to see his features well at all. Maybe she could still slip away from him.

Seconds ticked by. Each heartbeat hurt more than the last. The man beside her had razor-cut mahogany hair that glinted in the sun, just like Ricky's did. His eyes were the color of dark chocolate—just like Ricky's. His look of intense concentration, the shape of his nose…
just like Ricky's.
Though everything within her railed against it, Marie couldn't deny the truth.
This is Ricky's fath—

He shattered the fragile stillness. “How old is he, Marie?”

She nervously licked her lips. In a thin voice, she offered, “Three.” She patted her son's back and murmured his name over and over again in a mournful chant as his tears tapered off into the hiccups.

“So you named him Ricky. What's his birth date?”

She didn't want to tell him. Now that the time arrived, it was too hard, too miserable. Marie gnawed on her trembling lower lip.
God, he's not going to let me slip away.
I'm going to have to go through with it. Please give me strength….

He jostled her a little and persisted, “Marie, when's Ricky's birthday? Tell me.”

“April Fool's Day.”

Peter closed his eyes for a second, then opened them again. In a slowly exhaled breath, he asked for confirmation, “Did I hear you tell the cop he was born at Melway General?”

Marie nodded. She held her little boy and began rocking to and fro, as much to comfort herself as to soothe him. She desperately needed comforting. Steeling herself with a deep breath, Marie forged into the dark waves of doubt. “I started to have seizures during the labor, so they did an emergency cesarean. I didn't get to hold him for the first three days. My grandmother had red hair, so I didn't think anything was wrong.” She studied Peter's mahogany hair and fell silent.

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