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The Lawman's Secret Son (Home to Dover)

By Lorraine Beatty

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Chapter One
Carrie Fletcher quickened her steps across the walkway from the carport to the back door of her little cottage, inserted the key and stepped into her warmly lit kitchen. She never tired of coming home to this sweet little 1920s house. The soft glow from the lights under the cabinets kept the darkness at bay and welcomed her like a warm hug, as did the click of little claws on the tile floor as her five-year-old shih tzu, Leo, scurried to greet her. “Hey, sweetie. Were you a good boy today?”
After placing her purse and a sack of groceries on the table, she flipped the switch, bathing the kitchen in full light, instantly aware of the tension falling away from her shoulders. A long and hectic day had kept her at work until dark. Her job as Special Events Coordinator at Peace Community Church was both exhilarating and challenging. Especially now, when the historic edifice was celebrating 125 years as a house of God. The yearlong celebration would culminate with a huge citywide picnic at Friendship Park. Organizing such a massive event was keeping her busy every moment.
Tomorrow was her day off and she planned on taking full advantage by sleeping late and curling up with the book she was reading. The hero and heroine had been torn apart by a terrible disaster and she couldn’t wait to see how they got back together.
A rush of happiness buoyed her spirits as she made her way through the small dining room and living room, turning up lights as she went and sending up a grateful prayer for her new life. She had a job she loved and a home of her own. She didn’t own it, but her savings were growing and one day she hoped to purchase a house.
She flipped the dead bolt on the front door and switched on the porch light, which popped, then went out, surrounding her in darkness. Her throat tightened. Inhaling a deep breath, she scolded herself for being such a wimp. Her mailbox was right outside the door. She’d only be in the dark a second or two. After opening the door, she stepped out onto the porch. Movement on the other side of the rocker froze her in her tracks. The shadows made it hard to identify the shape. A dog? Cat? A man?
Heart pounding, she peered closer. The creature scooted backward. She froze, blood pounding in her ears. She fought the impulse to duck back inside. What if it was an injured animal? She couldn’t ignore that. Carrie forced herself to look closer. Two wide eyes looked back at her from a little face. A child. A little boy was huddled on her front porch. Fear slid quickly into concern. What was he doing here? Her mind raced through a dozen questions. She took a step toward the child. He scooted back against the wall, clutching a plastic grocery bag in his hands.
Slowly she stooped down, putting a smile on her face and keeping her voice calm and soothing. “Hello. My name is Carrie. What’s your name?” The big eyes blinked back at her.
The boy, whom guessed to be about five years old, didn’t respond, only clutched his bag to his chest. “Are you cold? Hungry? Would you like a cookie?” He nodded. Carrie extended her hand, but he was reluctant to take it. “It’s okay. I’ll fix you some milk, too. Or how about hot chocolate? It’s chilly tonight.” It was late March in Mississippi and while the days were warming up, the evenings could still be very cold.
Slowly the child extended his hand and together they stood. When he lowered his precious sack, she saw a large note pinned to his chest. She prayed it held some answers.
The blazing lights inside her home calmed her racing pulse, and she made a mental note to replace the porch light as soon as she could. Leo greeted them, tail wagging rapidly. The boy stopped. “This is Leo. You can pet him if you’d like. He’s a good boy.”
The child only stared at her a moment, then backed away from the animal.
Guiding the boy toward her breakfast table, she reached for his sack, but he clutched it more tightly against his chest. She noticed he held a toy in his other hand, a small yellow truck, battered and bent with much of the paint worn away and a tire missing from one of the wheels. A long-ago memory exhumed itself. A shiny blue bracelet. The only thing that had ever belonged to her. She’d lost it somewhere along the way, but she’d cherished it much the way the little boy did his truck.
Settling him onto a chair, she briefly rested her hand on the top of his head, surprised at how cool he felt. How long had he been on her porch? The thin jacket he wore was woefully inadequate for the weather. His jeans were threadbare and his sneakers worn through at the toes. Her heart ballooned with sympathy. She wanted to wrap him in her arms and make him warm and safe, but she doubted he’d let her do that.
She heated up a cup of water in the microwave, added a packet of cocoa, took two cookies from the jar and set them in front of the boy before joining him. “I see you have a note. It must be important. May I see it?”
He thought a moment, then nodded. Carrie unpinned the stained and crumpled paper. It was folded in half with the number 533 scribbled on it. As she read the short note inside, a swell of familiar anger formed.

Seth, I’m done. He’s your son and it’s time you did your part. He’s five years old. Do the math. I’m leaving the country. His name is Jack. Tiff

Seth. That was the name of her new neighbor, the man who had so kindly changed her flat tire last week. She’d labeled him a good guy—kind, charming, and nice. She’d even felt a spark of attraction to his solid strength and boy-next-door smile. Apparently there was another side to the man—deadbeat dad. She would never understand how a man could father a child, then walk away. Still, she found it hard to believe Seth was that kind of man. It was a shame. He’d been so thoughtful and seemed so trustworthy. But then she was a terrible judge of character.
Carrie scanned the note once more, making sure she hadn’t missed something. Nope. The boy was Seth’s, and for whatever reason he’d been left on her doorstep. Well, this was a situation she was not going to get involved in. She watched Jack sipping the cocoa and taking small bites of the cookies as if wanting the experience to last. Her throat constricted. She knew that feeling. Memories, hot and stinging shot through her system. She ached to hold the child and make sure he never felt this way again. But Jack wasn’t her responsibility. He was Seth’s.
Jack downed the last of his milk, wiped his sleeve across his little mouth, then stared at her. She forced a smile. “Jack. Do you know who left you here? Your mom, grandma, or a friend?”
He stared back at her with the biggest cobalt-blue eyes she’d ever seen. No. She’d seen them once before. Seth’s eyes were the same color. Only his eyes had crinkles at the corners and a warm, friendly light in them that drew people in.
Focus. She fingered the note again. “Jack, I think you’ve been left here by mistake. You should be next door. That’s where your…father lives. How about we go see him?”
Jack shrugged his bony shoulders and her throat tightened. The poor little guy was lost and afraid. From deep down, old hurts and fears coalesced into a ball of fury. This was the reason she was taking online classes to become a social worker. She vowed to help kids feel safe and protected. The way she’d never been. Part of her wanted to call the authorities, but the note clearly was intended for her neighbor and that’s where she would start.
Leo put his paws on Jack’s chair and whined. Jack reached down cautiously and touched the top of the dog’s brown-and-white head. Carrie wasn’t sure but she thought she heard a small giggle. The sound shot straight to her core, wrapping around her like a fast-growing kudzu vine. She stood. Time to get a grip, before she became more attached to the little fellow.
Holding on to Jack’s small hand, she walked across the front lawn and up onto Seth’s front porch. It was dark, the only light coming from deep inside the cottage. A chill chased up her spine. You are my strength. Darkness had never been her friend. But this wasn’t about her. This was about Jack. She would explain the mix-up, hand the boy over and be on her way. This was none of her concern. She smiled down at Jack and knocked firmly on the door. Very firmly.
The door swung open, and the outline of a man backlit from inside filled the doorway. He stood braced with feet apart. She swallowed a sudden lump in her throat. She’d forgotten how tall her neighbor was and how broad his shoulders were. In the shadowed light he seemed imposing. Her heart skipped a beat. Would he scare Jack?
The porch light flipped on and Seth met her gaze with a questioning frown. “Carrie? Hey. What brings you by tonight?” He glanced down at the child, his frown sliding into a curious smile. “Who’s your little friend?”
Carrie clenched her teeth. Really? The man didn’t even know his own son? This is why she’d vowed to steer clear of any romantic entanglements. Men were all totally irresponsible and self-absorbed. No matter how nice they might seem in the beginning, they would leave you in the end.
“He’s your son. But I guess not seeing him for a long time might make him hard to recognize.” She hadn’t intended to react in anger, but his indifference had sparked a nerve.
The warm smile vanished, replaced with a look of stunned shock before the dark brows drew together and the eyes narrowed. “I don’t know what kind of joke you’re playing, Carrie, but it isn’t funny.”
“No, it’s anything but funny. It’s tragic and irresponsible and unforgivable.”
Seth placed a hand on the doorjamb, leaning toward her, his scowl slightly threatening. “I told you I don’t have a son. I’m not even married.”
Carrie rolled her eyes and, stooping down, gently turned Jack to face her. “This is your father, Jack. He’s going to take good care of you, okay?” Unable to stop herself, she gave him a hug, then angled him to face Seth and gave the boy a nudge forward. “He’s already had hot chocolate and cookies at my house, but you might want to fix him something nourishing to eat.” She tried not to glare in disgust but failed. “Good night.” She pivoted and started down the steps.
“Carrie.”
Jack ran after her, grabbing on to her hand for dear life. She looked down into his frightened eyes and her heart broke. “Oh, Jack. It’ll be all right. I promise.” She glanced up at Seth, who had stepped to the edge of the porch. The look on his face tugged at her heart, too. It was an unusual mixture of concern, longing and fear. Maybe he was telling the truth. Maybe he didn’t know about Jack. As she considered the possibility, Seth came and stooped down with them.
“Hey, Jack. Why don’t we all go inside and get warm, huh?”
With only a hint of hesitancy, Seth gently touched the child’s head before looking at Carrie with pleading in his eyes. It was the last thing she wanted to do, but she couldn’t simply turn the child over to the man without making sure Jack was okay. But she shouldn’t get involved. Her emotions were too easily captured by the abandoned and abused. She would have to keep her emotional guard up. She nodded and stood, holding on to the tiny hand. It hit her that she was looking to the child for strength when it should be the other way around. At the threshold Carrie stopped, sending a quick prayer heavenward for strength, because she had a feeling stepping into Seth’s home would set her on a path she’d avoided most of her life. Jack looked up at her with soulful eyes.
She’d be strong for Jack because no one understood what he was feeling like she did. She had no choice but step inside.
*
Seth stood aside as his guests entered, the knot in his chest pressing so fiercely against his ribs it ached to draw breath. His thoughts darted in a dozen directions, trying to grasp something logical about Carrie’s announcement. The boy couldn’t possibly be his. He closed the door and moved to the living room, making a quick assessment of his lovely neighbor. She’d seemed nice and sweet the day he’d found her crouched down beside her small car staring at the deflated tire. Now he took a closer look. Was she a con artist? A mental case? It was his nature to question things, especially people. She didn’t look like she had a devious bone in her body. In fact, with her slender frame, her short blond feathery hair style, and bright blue eyes she evoked thoughts of summer and sunshine. But as a cop he knew everyone had a dark side.
He rubbed his forehead. “Have a seat.”
Reluctantly, Carrie sat on the sofa, pulling the boy down beside her. The child had released Carrie’s hand, but his hand was now firmly wrapped around a toy he’d pulled from his pocket. The old Tonka truck looked like it had been through a war. In his other hand he grasped a dirty plastic grocery sack.
Seth stood near the fireplace facing the pair, taking a position of authority. “Now, you want to explain what’s going on here? What makes you think the boy is mine?”
Carrie pulled a paper from her pocket and handed it to him. “I’m sure this will clear everything up for you. It was pinned to his chest when I found him on my porch a short while ago.”
“What?” He took the note and read through it, his mind refusing to grasp the words. This couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t be true. Not now, when he was finally making things right in his life. A lump of old shame and regret formed in his gut. He was a Montgomery. The son of a prominent and well-respected family in Dover. But he’d turned his back on his heritage and his values for a year of freedom that had quickly become a life of darkness and regret. Now that shameful time might have finally caught up with him.
He looked at Carrie, and the condemnation in her blue eyes stung. “I don’t understand any of this. And why was he left on your porch?”
She pointed to the number on the back of the paper he held, lowering her voice so Jack couldn't hear. “Five thirty-three. That’s your house number. Mine is five thirty-five. I think whoever left him thought they were leaving him on your porch.”
That tidbit of information latched on to him like the talons of a hawk. “Tiff was dyslexic.” He muttered the words to himself, but Carrie pounced on them.
“So she thought she was leaving him on your porch. Who’s Tiff?”
The scorn in her voice shot his defenses into place. “My ex-wife. We were only married a short time.” Short was being generous. Six weeks, two days and four hours, to be exact.
“Perhaps you should call her for an explanation.” Carrie stood and started for the door.
“I haven’t seen or heard from her in years. She never told me about…” He looked at the child, who had scooted onto the floor and was playing quietly with the battered truck.
Carrie crossed her arms over her chest, her expression clearly revealing her skepticism. “So you’re saying she kept the child a secret from you? Why would she do that?”
Good question. He put his fists on his hips. “I don’t know.”
He looked at the child again, so small and frail. Could the boy be his son? Somewhere deep inside, a feeling began to form. It wouldn’t be out of character for Tiff to have kept her pregnancy a secret. She’d thought she was marrying a fun guy who could keep her in high style. But when the money had run out, so had she. But why bring the boy to him now and abandon him on the porch? That was heartless even for her.
He ran his hands down his face, staring at Jack. “This is crazy. I don’t understand any of it.” The note said the boy was five. He’d done the math. It added up. A father. He’d never considered that. At least not for a long time. His foray into the Vegas lifestyle had drawn out all his sinful nature and he’d spent the last years trying to overcome it. Was it true? Was Jack his?
Carrie cleared her throat softly. “Seth, do you have something good for Jack to eat?”
Seth frowned. Was she kidding? His life had been upended and she was wondering about food? One glance at the child banished his irritation. He didn’t know a lot about children, but it didn’t take much to see the boy was thin and sallow looking, and his cobalt-blue eyes were set too deeply in his face, as if he might have been hungry awhile.
His eyes. Seth’s heart skipped a beat and that feeling deep inside grew stronger. The cobalt color was a Montgomery family trait. The only one of his siblings who didn’t have them was his sister Bethany who’d inherited their grandmother’s hazel color. He glanced at Carrie. She was looking at him with expectancy. Food. Right. “Uh, like what? Cold pizza? Lunch meat?”
“Fruit or cereal, perhaps?”
He winced at her scolding tone. “Right.” He moved into the kitchen. Good food. Nourishing food. Things he rarely purchased. All he could scrounge up was a slightly overripe banana.
“Will this work?”
Carried arched her brows as she urged Jack to his feet. “Jack, let’s get you over to your dad’s table and you can play with your truck while you eat this. We’ll be right here where you can see us, okay?”
After settling Jack at the table, Carrie approached Seth, her blue eyes wary and concerned.
“Seth, what’s going on? Is he yours or not?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. It’s possible. I have to figure out what I’m going to do with him.”
“You’re not thinking of sending him to foster care, are you? You can’t. He’ll be just a number there with no one to comfort him.”
Seth frowned. “I only meant I need to find someone to take care of Jack while I’m at work. I just finished orientation for my new job. I need to show them I’m committed and dependable. I can’t do that if I keep taking off work to watch Jack.” That wasn’t the only thing he was concerned about. Jack’s sudden appearance would stir up gossip. He didn’t want his family paying for his past mistakes.
“What about friends and family? I know you just moved here, but are they close by?”
Seth shook his head. “Moved back here. I grew up in Dover. My family has lived here for generations. Everyone knows us. But I can’t ask them for help.”
Carrie put her hand to her throat. “Wait. Montgomery. Are you one of those Montgomerys? Montgomery Real Estate, Montgomery Electrical Contractors and the woman who has the event planning business?”
“Yes. Why?”
“So why don’t you want to ask them for help?”
“I need time to sort this out and look into things and see if this child is really mine. I can’t just take the word of some faded paper. There’s no point in upsetting my family until I know more.” Embarrassing them was closer to the truth. In a town the size of Dover, an unexplained child could start tongues wagging.
“I suppose. But they’re your family. Don’t they deserve to know what’s going on?”
“My family knows nothing about that time in my life.”
“Why not?”
He took a moment to collect his thoughts. It wasn’t a topic he liked to think about, let alone discuss. “Let’s just say I was the rebel of the clan. I was never content in Dover, so I left and moved to Las Vegas. Eventually I came to my senses and the end of my finances, and I came home.”
“The prodigal son. And that’s when you got married?”
“One of my big mistakes. I’m not proud of that time in my life, and I’ve spent years trying to put it behind me.”
Carrie stiffened her neck. “And an unexpected child now would be awkward. Even scandalous.”
“Yes. It would. Especially since I’m starting a new job. But first I have to find out the truth about this boy and why he was dumped here without any word.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Try and find his mother. She’s the only one with answers.”
“And Jack?”
He glanced at the boy before facing Carrie. “I’ll take care of him until we get to the bottom of this.” Her blue eyes lightened in relief. Had she expected him to toss the boy out again? Did she think he was the kind of man who would walk away from his child? He couldn’t blame her given the cryptic note she’d read. She’d probably pegged him as a deadbeat dad.
She stood and started toward the door. The long blue skirt she wore swished attractively below the soft white blouse, making him think of clouds in a summer sky. He shut down the thought. “Where are you going? You can’t leave yet.”
“I can and I am. This is not my problem. I brought him safely to you. Now I’m going home.”
“Carrie.”
Jack ran out of the kitchen, traces of banana on his mouth. “Don’t go.”
She stooped down and hugged him. “It’s okay, Jack. I’ll be right next door if you need me. You can see my house from that window. I’ll wave to you when I get home, okay?” She shot a warning glare in Seth’s direction.
Jack’s mouth puckered up and he nodded. “Leo?”
She led him to the window. “He’ll wave, too. Now you stand right here, and as soon as I get inside I’ll wave at you.”
The thought of being alone with the little boy suddenly filled him with terror. “Carrie, are you sure you can’t stay awhile? I could really use your help.”
“I’m positive.” She opened the door. “And Seth, be gentle with him, okay? He needs to feel safe and loved whether he’s yours or not.”
Her warning triggered his curiosity. Why was she so protective of a child she didn’t know? She seemed very knowledgeable about how Jack felt and what he needed. He had a feeling she was coming from a place of experience. Assessing people was part of his job and one of his gifts. He wanted to know more about the intriguing Carrie Fletcher.
She stopped at the threshold and glanced over her shoulder. “Oh, and Seth, he needs a bath before you put him to bed.”
Her stern expression reminded him of the disapproving looks he’d gotten from his teachers when he’d misbehaved. He watched her start across the lawn, then realized his major mistake. “Carrie. Thanks for taking care of Jack.” She looked over her shoulder, her blond hair catching the light from the streetlamp.
“Make sure you take care of him or I will call the cops.” If he hadn’t been so shell-shocked he would have laughed at her threat. But she had a point. He needed to get to the bottom of this and find out the truth about the little boy. A father. The possibility was both scary and intriguing.
He started formulating a plan as he went back inside. He needed the truth and he needed it fast, before everything in his life started to unravel.
*
Safely inside her cottage again, Carrie scooped up Leo, went to the window facing Seth’s house and raised the fabric shade. She could see Jack’s little face pressed against the glass and his hand waving frantically. Behind him a shadow moved. Seth? She waved until the boy disappeared from view, her heart pinching. Had she done the right thing in leaving him there?
Had there been another option? The rest was up to Seth to figure out. In the kitchen she put away the groceries, filled a bowl with leftover casserole and set it to heat in the microwave. Leo followed her to the bedroom, where she changed into a pair of sweatpants and a loose T-shirt. Friday night was movie night and she had every intention of keeping to her routine.
But her thoughts kept replaying the expression on Seth’s face. She’d been furious with the man, but not so upset that she hadn’t seen the color drain from his face as he read the note.
She’d expected continued denial, even anger, but he’d been more stunned and confused than anything. He’d stared at Jack as if he were an alien creature. But he’d also spoken gently to him and she’d seen a glint of compassion in his eyes. At least he hadn’t thrown her and Jack out.
Her instincts told her Seth had been telling the truth. He hadn’t known about Jack. He’d even shared about his less-than-noble life in Vegas. Yet he was doing the right thing in keeping Jack and at the same time trying to not to bring shame on his family.
She wandered to the window and peeked over at Seth’s house again. The window was dark. Had they gone to bed? Had he tucked Jack in? Given him a bath? After grabbing the cord beside the window, she lowered the shade and turned away. Out of sight, out of mind. She had to let this go. Jack was Seth’s responsibility now.
Her cell phone rang and she picked it up, surprised to see Kathy Edwards’s name on the screen. What would she be calling for? The supervisor of the church preschool was a good friend and coworker. But with two small children and a husband, they rarely spoke outside of the office.
“Sorry to disturb your evening, Carrie, but I wanted to let you know I found a volunteer to take charge of the games the day of the picnic.”
“Wonderful. Who?”
“Earl Michaels. Turns out he used to work for his uncle’s carnival growing up and he says he knows all about managing several events at once.”
Carrie chuckled at the image forming in her mind of the dapper Mr. Michaels barking for a carnival. “That leaves only two more spots to fill.”
“Yep. However, I have to tell you, I ran into Ralph as I was leaving and he forgot to take the flyer to the printers today, and now we won’t have them to hand out at church Sunday.”
Carrie sank down onto the sofa. “Great. I really wanted those available this weekend. What happened?”
“He claims we never gave the original to him. Carrie, I know Ralph has been the go-to guy for the church forever and he prides himself on being an unofficial assistant to every church event, but he’s getting older and forgetful and he doesn’t hear as well as he should.”
Carrie knew only too well. Ralph had pledged his help for the Chili Cook-Off last month, but she’d ended up doing everything herself, taking valuable time away from other projects because Ralph either didn’t show up or confused his instructions.
“I think we need to make an announcement for a new assistant.”
“And break Ralph’s heart? Not to mention humiliating him. I can’t do that.” Ralph had a heart as big as all outdoors and he loved his Lord and his church. He would never understand being replaced.
“Carrie, you need someone to help you. You’re stretched to the max now.”
“I know. We’ll have to pray that the Lord will provide the perfect solution.”
“I wish I had your faith. All I see is a worn-out friend who’s going to crumble into dust once this picnic is over.”
“Then I’ll count on you to bring me hot soup and chocolate cake.”
They discussed a few more issues with the picnic before hanging up. Carrie was continually amazed at how the Lord had worked through her life, bestowing blessings that she never dreamed possible. He’d taken the battered, confused and hurting person she’d been, restored her and made her whole again. Her life was finally moving in the right direction. She had a decent education, a job that paid a comfortable wage and a work environment that not only made her happy but fed her spiritually, as well.
Now she was free to save up for her house and finish her degree. One by one she was conquering the shadows of her childhood and sealing them up as securely as the record of her past.
Or was that really the truth? Seth’s past had revisited him tonight. Would hers do the same? Would it rise up like a dark fist and smash her new world to pieces again? She shook her head to dislodge the negative thoughts. Her past followed her around like Marley’s chain. She’d tried to forget it, to ignore it, but she couldn’t let it go even though she knew deep down she wasn’t that person anymore. She was a child of God—loved, worthy and valued. He’d set her on a new path, and looking back wouldn’t gain her anything. She had to trust that He would sort it all out. But it wouldn’t hurt to keep her guard up and her heart protected.

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