Authors: Valerie Hansen
“You’d turned me down flat,” Flint replied. “How was I supposed to know you were in trouble?”
“It wasn’t trouble,” Maggie said, pausing to smile fondly at her little boy. “It was a blessing in disguise. I didn’t realize that for a few months, but eventually it became very, very clear.”
The knock was brisk and brief. Maggie opened the door with a smile and stood back. “Thanks for coming, Greg.” She gestured. “Wolfie’s over there with Mark.”
The vet stopped midstride. “And who else?”
“I’d get up and shake your hand,” Flint said, “but I’m a little busy here.”
Maggie sensed an increase in tension that practically rattled the remaining windows. Greg and Flint were both scowling and facing each other like two rutting bucks. In Flint’s case that was probably due to his outdated impression of the veterinarian’s stature. Both men had filled out and matured. They were about the same build and while wearing padded jackets seemed equal in strength, although she would have given an edge to Flint in a fight.
“That’s Warden Crawford,” Maggie said. “Flint, this is Greg. You remember Miss Inez’s grandson.”
The vet nodded at Flint. “I’d heard you were back in the area.”
When Maggie noted Greg’s attention flitting between Mark and the warden, she was afraid one of them would say something to make things worse—if that was possible.
“Flint located Wolfie for us and brought him home,” she interjected. “I hope he’s not badly hurt.”
That lessened the pressure somewhat, particularly when Greg crossed the room, knelt next to the resting dog and began to examine him while Flint eased away.
If the living room had been the size of a football stadium, it would still have felt too small to accommodate the four of them, Maggie realized. The only one who seemed oblivious of the crackling anxiety in the atmosphere was little Mark. All he cared about was seeing that his pet was well cared for.
And all I care about is Mark,
Maggie kept insisting. Who was she trying to convince? Herself? Well, she was failing. She cared about her son, yes, but seeing his father’s pain and watching him struggle to maintain self-control in the midst of this situation had hit her with a tsunami of emotion, which was now ebbing and flowing like a real tidal wave.
Worst of all, Maggie recalled, Flint had insinuated she might be in cahoots with somebody who wanted to hurt him. She would never even consider causing him purposeful harm because... Because she still loved him.
y the time Flint reached his parked truck, he was at the end of his emotional rope and barely hanging on. It was too much to deal with all at once. Lost years. Lost opportunities. What was he going to do? What
“Take one day at a time,” he told himself. “So far, this one has been plenty.” The irony of that thought stuck with him long enough to warrant a disgusted chuckle. Myriad questions were whirling through his mind so rapidly that none made much sense.
He didn’t have to take a DNA test to prove he was Mark’s father. That much was certain. Getting to know the little guy better was going to be a pleasure.
What if Maggie interfered, tried to keep them apart as she had done so far? That notion did not sit well, and he began to realize he’d be wise to get back into her good graces for his own sake, rather than simply to carry out the assignment to locate her kin.
“And stop letting my temper rule my mouth,” he added, grimacing. “Accusing her of trying to hurt me was really stupid.” In his heart Flint knew better. The old Maggie had been kind and gentle. And in spite of the fact that her newly developed strength of character had them butting heads, deep down he still trusted her.
After loading the ATV in the back of his truck, he slid behind the wheel and waited for the vet to leave. Repeated checks of the time made it seem as if the guy planned to spend the night. That thought tied Flint in a knot. It had been a long time since he’d courted Maggie, and he supposed it was possible that her morals had slipped. He didn’t want to think such a thing, but there it was, front and center in his unruly imagination.
What was it the sheriff had said? Maggie had been engaged to several men after he’d left town? Flint’s hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles turned white. She couldn’t have been serious about anyone else, could she? Not when she was already carrying his baby.
His baby. His son
. Picturing the innocence and affection in the child’s eyes when they’d hugged turned Flint’s heart and mind to mush. Was it possible to love a child that quickly?
“Apparently,” he murmured, aware of the strong pull to reenter the house regardless of the lack of welcome he anticipated. “I have to see him again. I have to know more. Maggie owes me at least that much.”
Just as Flint was checking the time on his cell phone once more, the front door opened and Greg Gogerty stepped out. Bright light behind Maggie made her seem to glow, and although that threw the vet into shadow, Flint was certain the two shared a brief parting hug.
Unwilling to let their tender moment linger, Flint stepped from his truck and slammed the door to make his presence known.
Greg stepped in front of Maggie, obviously shielding her. “Who is it? Who’s out there?”
“I thought you left.” The man’s voice radiated animosity.
“Changed my mind,” Flint said, approaching the porch as casually as possible. He knew Maggie wouldn’t be fooled, but perhaps he could allay the vet’s concerns. “I need to have a talk with Ms. Morgan.”
Although Greg gave no ground at first, Flint heard Maggie quietly reassure him that she’d be okay before he replied, “If you say so. You have my number. If you need anything else, just give me a call. Night or day.”
She smiled. “Thank you. I’ll be fine.”
I would never have left her alone in a situation like this,
Flint told himself, watching the other man leave. Then again, it was clear that Gogerty had made the familial connection between Flint and Mark, so perhaps that was why he’d given in so easily.
As Flint climbed the porch steps, Maggie’s smile faded. Solemn, she stepped away from the doorway, leaving the path open for him to enter.
Without turning she asked, “Coffee?”
“Fine.” Flint figured holding a mug would give him something to do with his hands and help keep their conversation from escalating into an argument.
They eased past the dog and boy. Both were sleeping on the throw rug, curled up like two tired pups.
“No other injuries?” Flint asked softly.
“No. Fatigue and blood loss, mostly. Any shards of glass that were stuck in his fur apparently fell out while he was running. It’s a good thing he has such a thick coat.”
Flint entered the kitchen for the second time that evening, this time taking note of its old-fashioned quaintness. Clearly, the bulk of funds for the sanctuary had been spent on the animal quarters. At least so far. If Ms. Dodd intended to refurbish the house, too, perhaps that was why her niece and nephew thought she was delusional. Doing that job well was going to cost a small fortune.
Instead of sitting, Flint leaned against the edge of the counter, arms crossed, and watched Maggie making coffee. Her hands were shaking, as before, but she was standing tall.
“He seems like a good kid,” Flint said.
“Most of the time. All little boys have their moments.”
“Not me. I was perfect.” He smiled slightly, waiting for her reaction, and was not disappointed. When she whirled to stare at him, Maggie was wide-eyed.
That made him chuckle. “Okay, so maybe not quite perfect, but I did the best I could under the circumstances.” He sobered. “I was a handful when Bess and Ira took me in.”
“I remember. A lot of girls were fascinated by your bad-boy image.”
Maggie sighed. “I suppose that may have had something to do with the attraction, at first. Once I got to know you I could tell you weren’t really such a terrible rebel.”
“But I was a Crawford.” He grimaced. “The evil product of two generations of unwed women.” Realizing what he’d implied, he apologized. “Sorry.”
“No need to be sorry. It is what it is. I never once considered getting rid of the baby. He’s a gift from God whether his parents were married or not. What happened between you and me is not Mark’s fault.”
“I know that. Did you think I was blaming him?”
She turned back to the bubbling coffeepot and filled two cups. “I don’t know what to think. I suppose you don’t, either, or you wouldn’t be here now.”
Flint followed her to the small kitchen table and sat across from her, waiting until she’d sweetened her coffee before continuing. “I hardly know where to begin. It seems impossible.”
Maggie nodded. “It did to me, too. When I began to suspect why I felt funny, my mother took me to the doctor. Even after testing I kept arguing that it had to be a mistake.”
“Did your father try to force you to terminate?”
“He probably would have if his health hadn’t been so poor.” She smiled wistfully. “In a way, Dad’s illness helped. He passed away before Mark was born and Mom was there for me, even though she’s a Witherspoon.”
“You do see the idiocy of that old feud, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.” Her voice was raised. “But apparently you don’t.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, you did leave town.”
“Only after you refused to marry me.”
Maggie pushed away from the table and jumped to her feet. “I did nothing of the kind.”
“You refused to come away with me.”
She was rolling her eyes. “Oh, please. I didn’t want to elope, that’s all. How was I supposed to know you’d up and take off the way you did?”
“Because I told you so.”
“Ha! You did nothing of the kind. I sat there in my prom dress for hours, waiting for you, and you never came.”
Puzzled, Flint wondered how their communication had gotten so mixed up. He was positive he’d not only discussed his plans for joining the military, but he’d also sent Maggie a goodbye note.
“I can see we’re not going to get our past ironed out in one sitting, so let’s talk about the future.”
The look she sent him reminded him of a doe pinned by the headlights of a speeding car, unable to flee to save herself. When she said, “What future?” he knew he had his work cut out for him.
“Mark’s future,” Flint said. “You know who he looks like as well as I do, so you may as well admit it.” He scowled at her.
“No way. Leave me alone.”
“Not until you and I figure out how to protect our son.”
“I’m doing just fine, thank you. Mark is a happy, healthy child.”
“With parents who have both been shot at and a mother who was run off the road and chased through the forest. What if he’d been with you that night?”
“Not then. What about the next time?”
“I can take care of my family.”
family,” Flint insisted. “Mark is my son, too.”
“Get out!” Maggie ordered.
Calm on the outside, stomach roiling, Flint faced her. “If you make me take you to court and sue for my parental rights, I will.”
“I said, get out.” She pointed with her whole arm. “We have nothing more to talk about.”
“Yes, we do. Think, Maggie. You love the boy. I know you do. So let’s work together to keep him safe.” If that sensible suggestion didn’t get through to her, he didn’t know what would.
“There was no trouble around here until you showed up again,” Maggie insisted with a raised voice. “Whatever is wrong, you’re the cause.”
He reached for her hand, tried to grasp it, but she yanked away. “Think,” he said. “We’re both victims and stuck between two warring sides. You and I didn’t cause the feud. We want nothing to do with it. But we’re still in somebody’s crosshairs. Until we get to the bottom of the problem, nobody is safe, especially not Mark.”
“Leave him out of this. He’s my responsibility and I’ll send him away if I see fit. You have no say in the matter.”
“It wasn’t enough to hide him from me for five years?”
The contrition Flint had expected to see did not appear. Instead, Maggie flung open the back door and shouted, “I would have been delighted if you’d never met him. My father was right. You’re trouble with a capital
. I want you out of my life.”
Flint knew lingering was useless. Once tempers flared, logic went out the window. If Maggie wouldn’t plan with him, he’d take steps to guard his son on his own. True, the boy wasn’t up to his neck in the feud—yet. But let one of the old-timers like Elwood decide Mark was a true Crawford and everything could change.
In the blink of an eye.
* * *
Maggie was so angry she wanted to throw her coffee cup across the room, preferably at Flint’s head. Fortunately, he was through the door before she could decide to act.
what I was afraid of,” she grumbled.
A small voice answered, “What’s wrong, Mama?”
Maggie added silently, bending to kiss the top of Mark’s head and ruffle his hair. “Nothing’s wrong. I’m sorry if I woke you.” She glanced past him. “How’s Wolfie? Is he leaving his bandage alone this time?”
“Uh-huh.” Mark peered into the kitchen. “Where did the man go?”
“You mean the veterinarian?”
“No. The nice one. The one who found Wolfie and brought him back.”
“You were awake when the warden left, honey. Remember?”
Mark shook his head. “Uh-uh. He came back. I saw him. I was hoping he’d like me and stay.”
“Everybody likes you. You know that.”
“Yeah.” He scuffed the toe of his slipper on the floor. “’Cept Johnny and Kyle. They said I was a ba—”
Maggie clamped her hand over the child’s mouth before he could finish. “Don’t ever say that again. Understand? You’re just as good as they are. God made you special and He doesn’t make mistakes.”
“Then why did Wolfie get hurt?”
The first answer that came to Maggie involved Flint, so she rejected it. “Sometimes we do things we shouldn’t and we get hurt. That’s all.”
His little face was upturned, his expression one of abject trust. Maggie yearned to confide in him, and would have, if he’d been a few years older. Someday the whole truth would be clear to Mark and he could then decide if he wanted to connect with his father. But in the meantime, Flint Crawford was
going to get his hands on her baby. Not as long as there was breath in her body.
Which reminded her of the recent close calls Flint had cited. Okay, maybe he did have a point. She could see wisdom in breaking up her routine and being less predictable, not to mention letting her son spend more time at Faye’s. While Mark was in town with his granny, he was also much closer to the police station and among friends, rather than being isolated out at the compound with her.
Tomorrow she’d see what her mother thought of having a temporary houseguest. Given the way Faye loved the little boy, Maggie knew there would be no problem leaving them together a bit more. And she’d worry about Mark a lot less if he was in a familiar place than if she allowed Flint to interfere.
It didn’t matter what his so-called plans were. She wanted nothing to do with them.
“It’s past your bedtime, Mark, honey. You need to go to sleep.”
“Can I sleep with Wolfie some more?”
Maggie smiled at the sweet remembrance. “How about if I take him to your room and help him up on the bed with you? That way you’ll know if he’s being a good boy and leaving his bandages alone.”
“Wolfie can sleep with me? Yeah!”
“Only for a few nights. Just until he gets better and it’s safe to let him walk around by himself. Dr. Greg said we should be able to take off the bandage soon.”
Grinning at his youthful enthusiasm, she followed him to where the dog was dozing. Medication had left the enormous canine in somewhat of a stupor, but he managed to rouse himself enough to stand, with Maggie’s help.
She encircled the massive chest and lifted to keep weight off his sore paw. His rear end hobbled along, Mark pretending to support his bushy tail. “I’m helping.”
“I can see that.” Maggie would have doubled up laughing if she hadn’t been straining to transport a half-limp dog bigger than a German shepherd and hairier than Sasquatch.
She heaved Wolfie’s front end onto the coverlet on Mark’s bed, then quickly grabbed his waist to lift the rear. To her relief he stayed where she put him, panting and already starting to close his eyes again.
“Okay, Mark. You have my permission to move your pillow and cuddle up with him if you want. I’ll get an extra quilt and cover both of you.”