Solomon’s Choice by Emily Mims
Sixteen months after the murder of her husband and the abduction of her baby, grieving widow Caroline Stern finally locates her son Ryan-in the custody of his biological father Jackson Briscoe, who is not about to give the boy up. Forced into a shared custody arrangement with the attractive cattle rancher, Caroline builds a whole new life for herself in the Texas Hill Country community of Heaven’s Point on the shores of Lake Templeton and finds herself falling in love with her child’s all-too-appealing father. But when Ryan falls ill and an old enemy from the past returns to haunt them both, will the love Caroline and Jack share be strong enough to carry them through?
Caroline Sullivan Stern smiled as she snuggled into the warm pillows at her back. The bedroom was dark and the early morning quiet except for the sound of the tiny lips pulling at her breast. “Hungry, little man?” she asked, gently touching the soft peach fuzz on her four week old son’s head. The baby stirred and sucked at her that much harder. “Isaac, give me a break,” she laughed softly as the baby’s tiny lips and tongue worked her nipple. “There’s more where that came from, I promise.”
Aaron’s dark head shifted on his pillow. “Greedy little bastard,” he groused as he watched the baby pulling at Caroline. “When do I get to be that friendly with mom again?”
With her free hand Caroline swatted Aaron’s nose. “Shouldn’t be too much longer, sport. I go back to the doctor next week.” She looked back down at the baby and then over at her husband. “It doesn’t get much better than this, you know?”
Aaron scooted over close to her and wadded a pillow beneath his head. “Yeah, I know-no sleep, burp on my shoulders, mountains of laundry, pee fountains every time you uncover his—“
Caroline bent down and cut him short with a quick hard kiss. “And you love every minute of it.”
Aaron grinned as he levered himself into a sitting position and ran his fingers through his unruly curls. “Yeah, I do. I really do.” A cell phone went off under a pile of baby blankets. “Aw, geez, not on Christmas Day. I swear, if that’s the hospital- ‘
“Tell them you’re sick. Tell them I’m sick. Just get rid of them.”
Aaron found the offending telephone and glanced at the number on the screen. “It’s mom. Probably calling to remind us not to be late.” Aaron punched the receive button and wandered into the bathroom with the phone.
Caroline sat quietly as Isaac finished his meal. She breathed in and out slowly, relishing the peace and contentment of holding her son close. Pinkish morning sunlight was beginning to filter through the closed window shades, painting patterns of light and dark on the hand-pieced quilt, once her grandmother’s, that now covered their bed. She glanced around the cluttered bedroom, a microcosm of hers and Aaron’s life together. This and that furniture, picked up here and there, to be replaced with a real bedroom set someday. A picture of the two of them at the senior prom. A sea shell from a vacation in Mexico. A framed wedding portrait. A bookcase full of medical school textbooks. A pile of scrubs waiting to be run through the washer. His and hers name plates thrown on the dresser. Aaron Stern, MD. Caroline Stern, MD. And now Isaac. Beautiful, wonderful little Isaac. Her beautiful little boy. No, their beautiful baby boy.
Deftly, Caroline swung the baby up on her shoulder and patted his back until she heard the telltale whoosh of air come from the little mouth, then cradled him in her arms as he dropped off to sleep. Caroline seldom gave the circumstances of Isaac’s conception much thought, but as she studied him this morning she had to admit that sometimes she was puzzled. When they made arrangements with the fertility clinic they specifically requested a donor that was small and dark and had been assured their request would be easy to fulfill. And here was this big-boned, square-bodied little cherub with shoulders that would one day do a linebacker proud, strawberry-blonde peach fuzz, and eyes as blue as her own. Caroline fingered Isaac’s square, chubby hand. Was he a throwback to one of her English seafaring ancestors? Or one of her sturdy Sullivan forebears? Aaron, God bless him, had laughed out loud about raising her clone and had apparently given Isaac’s build and coloring no more thought, but still Caroline wondered. “Where’d you get these feet, little man?” she whispered as she touched the short wide foot peeking out from underneath the blanket. What dance of the genes had produced this baby?
Aaron came out of the bathroom with wet hair and a towel around his waist. “Mom says that dinner’s at one and not to be late.” He reached down and plucked Isaac from Caroline’s arms. “Hey, little man, we’re gonna show you off to the whole Stern crowd.”
Caroline crawled out of bed and put her arms around Aaron’s back, reaching around to hug both him and Isaac. As small as Aaron was, she was even shorter, her head barely reaching the bottom of his ear. “Like we would dare be a minute late to your mom’s house.” Rachel Stern’s insistence on punctuality bordered on obsessive and irked Caroline to no end. “You go get breakfast and I’ll get this little guy settled for a nap.”
Four hours later, Caroline was standing in front of the bathroom mirror smoothing a little foundation over her upturned, freckled nose. She was not particularly looking forward to the next few hours. She had tried; she really had, to warm up to Aaron’s parents, especially after her own parents died one at a time during her college years. But to the Sterns, she would forever be the little redneck girl from the wrong side of town who seduced their baby boy and plucked him from the midst of their tight-knit family. And in a way she guessed they were right. Aaron was her everything, she made no secret of that, and Aaron was wrapped up in her in a way that left very little room for his disapproving parents. Maybe Isaac would make a difference, she thought as she brushed her strawberry blonde hair behind her ears and dabbed on a little lipstick. The Sterns did not know the details of Isaac’s conception, no one did except her and Aaron and the fertility specialist at the clinic hospital, and Caroline hoped that maybe the Sterns would come to love the baby in a way that they would never love her.
Aaron poked his head into the bathroom and handed over Isaac. “Here, he’s wet again. You get him changed while I warm up the car.”
Caroline shifted Isaac to her shoulder and carried him down the hall, laying him on the changing table. She swore when she reached into the box of disposable diapers and found only two. “Aaron, I thought I asked you to pick up some more diapers at the store,” Caroline called down the hall.
“I forgot, babe. Sorry. I was tired.” After a sixteen hour shift in the emergency room, Caroline didn’t doubt that. “Doesn’t matter. We can pick some up at the grocery store on the way to Mom’s.”
“Not on Christmas Day,” Caroline complained. “We’ll have to find a stop and rob.”
She turned back to Isaac and cleaned his bottom with a disposable wipe, then snapped him into his warm one-piece and wrapped him in a blanket. Aaron was already in the car, but he hopped out and helped her settle Isaac into his car seat. “Ready to mingle with the Stern Tribe?” he asked as he and Caroline climbed in the front seat and buckled their seat belts.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Caroline said. “Don’t forget to stop for diapers.”
The man and the woman sat in the car parked on the side street of the new Dallas subdivision. “Are you sure this is the right place?” the driver asked the woman in the passenger seat. “Don’t look like they have any money to pay a ransom.”
“Yes, this is the right place,” the woman in the passenger seat replied. “The rest is none of your business.”
The woman in the passenger seat glanced over at the young punk driving the car. She didn’t know the boy’s name and the boy didn’t know hers. The kid wasn’t more than eighteen or nineteen, but already he had that hard look about him that surrounded those on the wrong side of the law. The woman in the passenger seat shrugged inwardly. At least the kid had done what he was told-he had jacked the car, changed the plates, and picked her up at White Rock Park. And he had asked no questions when given this address and instructed to park around the corner where they wouldn’t be seen from the house. But they had been here almost an hour and the boy was beginning to fidget.
“How much longer are we going to sit here?” the young man asked. “Somebody’s bound to notice.”
“Nah, it’s Christmas,” the woman replied. “There’s strange cars parked all over the neighborhood.” She fingered the Santa Claus hat in her lap and hoped her driver could not sense her own unease. When she made the final plans to pull this off on Christmas Day, she had counted on the Sterns leaving at some point in the morning to celebrate the holiday, but it was almost noon and the Sterns were still in the house. She had not considered the possibility that the young family would spend the holiday at home. Her mind raced-they had to get the baby in the next hour or so or everything she had spent the last five years working toward and finally putting into motion was in danger of unraveling. She supposed that she and the punk could break in the house and take the baby, but that entailed a lot more risk, since even with her attempt at a disguise one or both of the Sterns might remember her. It would be so much easier if they could just grab the baby from the car. She looked down at her hands, deliberately relaxing them into her lap, and wondered if the punk could tell she had never done anything like this before. Had never ridden in a stolen car. Had never cashed a check not meant for her. Had never kidnapped a child. Hell, it had been years since she’d even gotten a speeding ticket.
But today that was all about to change.
At first she had been tempted to kill them outright, but that would have been too easy. Instead, after a name change was in place she had spent the last five years patiently waiting and watching, spying on the up-and-coming young doctors as she swept floors and cleaned toilets at the hospital where they worked, looking for a chink in the Stern’s armor and biding her time until the perfect opportunity arose. And when it did, she moved quickly, putting this plan into motion, a plan that would make them suffer the same grief and helplessness that raged within her. This way, they would have to live with their pain the same way she did, bleak hopelessness greeting them day after day, year after year, for the rest of their miserable lives. The Sterns-the bitch and the bastard, as she now thought of them-had made their cruel, arrogant choices that afternoon, and she had lived with the consequences of their choices for the last five years. The woman’s lips tightened into a thin line. Now it was her turn to choose.
Just then the driver sat up straighter as a Honda backed out of a garage halfway down the block. “That’s them,” she said as the blonde bitch doctor carried an infant seat to the car. “Follow them. See where they go. First chance we get, we take the baby and clear out.”
The driver grinned. “Bout time we got this show on the road.” The Honda backed out of the driveway and turned the corner at the end of the street. The driver gave it a few seconds before he followed. The Honda turned this way and that through the neighborhood before pulling onto a busy thoroughfare. At a discreet distance they followed the Honda down that street, onto another street, onto the expressway, and off the expressway into an exclusive older section of Dallas. The driver wondered if they were going to have to wait out a long Christmas dinner and snatch the baby as the parents left when the Honda pulled into a convenience store and the kid’s mother got out. “Pull in beside the car, on the shotgun side,” his passenger said as she pulled on the Santa hat. “You hold the gun on the man while I snatch the baby. Don’t do anything to him. Nobody gets hurt today.”
“What if he tries something?” the driver asked.
“He won’t,” the woman said confidently. “He’s a coward. Just hold the damn gun on him until I have the kid.”
Caroline was counting her change and wondering if she should get an extra box of diapers when she heard the boom of a nearby gunshot and the sound of shattering glass. Startled, she flinched and spun around toward the door. “Get down, lady!” the clerk snapped as he dove under the counter. “Something’s going down in the parking lot.”
The parking lot. Aaron and Isaac were in the parking lot. Stifling a scream, Caroline raced toward the door and rammed it open. And froze, absolutely froze, at the sight of Aaron’s body face down on the pavement, the knife from under the car seat clutched in his hand. “Aaron! My God, Aaron!” she screamed as she knelt beside him. Caroline grabbed Aaron’s wrist and was feeling for a pulse when she noticed someone in the back seat of the car. A woman, her face partially obscured by a Santa Claus hat, was reaching for Isaac, fumbling with the restraints holding the baby in the carrier. Caroline let go of Aaron and stumbled forward. “No, that’s my baby!” she cried as she jerked open the back door of the car. As Caroline scrambled to reach her son, the woman snapped open the carrier straps and grabbed Isaac, blanket and all. Caroline thrust herself across the seat, cursing her awkwardness as she clambered over the bulky carrier, and emerged from the car as the woman with her baby jumped in the back seat of a small white sedan and slammed the door. The car roared to life, backing away and whipping around. Caroline dashed for the car, grasping the door handle as the driver changed gears. She pulled on the handle, screaming, as the woman in the back seat holding her baby glanced at her almost dispassionately, no sign of emotion on what little Caroline could see of her face. Through the clear glass of the window Caroline could see her raise a gun and level it at her. She’s going to shoot me too, she thought, but the gears ground into drive and the car jerked forward taking the gun with it. “No, please God, no,” she gasped as the car pulled away from her. The door handle wrenched out of Caroline’s grip and the car sped out of the parking lot.
No, this cannot be happening, Caroline thought as she chased the car across the parking lot and out into the street. They can’t have just taken Isaac. They can’t have taken my baby. She raced as fast as she could toward the disappearing car, the blood pounding in her ears as she approached the intersection where the car had turned. Rounding the corner, she could see the car taking an entrance ramp onto the expressway and disappearing from her sight. No, this can’t be happening, she thought as she punched in 911 and screamed her plight into the ear of a police dispatcher. She ran back toward the parking lot where a crowd was beginning to gather around Aaron’s Honda. Caroline elbowed her way through the crowd. This can’t be happening, she thought as she turned Aaron over and saw the gaping hole where his chest had been. She again reached for his wrist and felt for his pulse, knowing she would find none. No human body could sustain that much damage and survive.
Caroline slumped onto the pavement, cradling Aaron’s lifeless hand in her own. Dimly she could hear the sirens screaming in the distance. Tears ran down her cheeks as she waited for the police to come. She forced herself to go over the events of the past few minutes-make and model of the car, the driver, the woman in the Santa hat, what Isaac was wearing and the color of his blanket. She would give them a description-a thorough, detailed description. They would find the car. They would find the two bastards in the car. They would find her child. Aaron was gone to her-she would have to wrap her mind around that fact. But Isaac was not. They had not killed Isaac. Isaac was out there. And she would move heaven and hell to find her baby boy and bring him home.
The woman and the baby swayed as the white car raced down the expressway. “I thought I told you not to kill anybody today,” she said through clenched teeth as the punk at the wheel changed lanes.
“Tough shit. I didn’t have much choice,” the punk ground out. “The bastard came after me with a knife.” His shoulders lifted in a rueful shrug. “At least I made my bones. Besides, you almost shot the bitch yourself.”
Yes, she had, he thought as the car sped through the traffic. She had been so tempted, but she really didn’t want the bitch doctor dead, hadn’t wanted either of them dead, she had just wanted them to suffer. Well, the woman was going to suffer plenty now, with her kid gone and her husband six feet down. She glanced into the front seat. “Shit, your glove ripped,” she said to the driver. “Did you touch their car?”
“Don’t think so. Don’t matter anyway; I’m not in the system.”
“Keep it that way.”
The driver pulled off the expressway, wound his way down a side street, and pulled into the bottom floor of the big medical center parking garage. “Are you sure this is where you want to get out?”
The woman pulled an envelope and a key from her pocket and handed the envelope to the driver. “There’s an extra five thousand in there. Thanks.”
“Awesome, lady.” He waited until his passenger had disembarked with the baby before hitting the gas.
Shifting the weight of the baby in her arms, she took the elevator to the third floor and unlocked the garage-access entrance. She slipped into the deserted building and headed for the nearest restroom, where she spit out the false teeth and removed the padding from her cheeks and popped out the colored contact lenses and traded her scruffy jeans and punk hair for a tailored suit and a businesslike bun. As she entered the back door of the clinic and went to unlock the waiting room door and turn on the lights, she heard footsteps and excited-sounding voices in the corridor outside the clinic door. Good. She would be done with this in the next fifteen minutes.
The woman let herself smile a little. By God, she had actually pulled it off. A rank amateur had committed the perfect kidnapping. Her smile faded as she looked down at the sleeping baby in her arms. Maybe she could find some closure now, she thought as she rearranged her face into a professional-looking smile and went to greet the couple coming into the waiting room. Hopefully this would finally lay the demons to rest.
Writing her first novel on a dare, Emily Wright Mims is the author of eighteen romance novels that have been published in six languages and sold around the world. She combines her writing career with a long career in public education. “Some of my biggest fans over the years have been my students,” she says. “They have been a constant source of encouragement and inspiration.” Married with two grown children, she and her husband Charles split their time between their home in San Antonio and their lake house on the shores of LakeBuchanan in the Texas Hill Country.
Emily’s website http://www.emilymims.com
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