Excerpt from BABY ON HIS DOORSTEP

Chapter One

If Callie Goodhue thought she could have gotten away with it, she'd have broken out in song.  But grade-school teachers didn't belt out musical scores no matter how beautiful the day.  Still she was tempted.  She felt just that good.

School was out for the summer, she'd gotten an extra hour of sleep this morning and the sun was shining bright in Harmony, Idaho.  It seemed a perfectly good reason to sing.  Of course, as far as she was concerned, any excuse was a good one.

Instead she settled for dancing her way down the sidewalk, paying little attention to the other residents of Harmony Grove cottages headed to the parking lot. Today she would start the first day of her eight-week summer vacation by indulging in a couple of favorite pastimes; cappuccino and a scone at The Daily Perk in downtown Harmony followed by a pedicure at Pro-Ten Nail Salon. 

"Callie."

Her name spoken in an all-too-familiar male voice had her spine stiffening.  But she forced a smile and turned to face Dr. Eli Webster.

Since Eli had moved into the cottage several doors down recently, Callie had only caught glimpses of him. She realized now the glimpses hadn't done him justice.

Back in high school she'd been convinced there wasn't a more attractive boy.  Popular, athletic and talented musically, Eli had a killer body, rich chestnut hair and his warm brown eyes always held a twinkle.

Eleven years had molded the boy into a man who was even more devastatingly handsome.  Though his face still held boyish appeal, his jaw and cheekbones were more pronounced.  His mouth—the one she'd longed to kiss but never had—remained firm and sensual.

And, if the confident, easy stride was any indication, the body beneath the khakis and green polo was as rock hard as it had been when he'd been playing sports.  While she'd always admired his body, it had been the person beneath those ripped muscles who'd captured her heart.  Once upon a time she'd been convinced he was her soul-mate.  Of course, that was before she'd discovered what he was really like.

She had no use for him now.  But he was her neighbor.  Cate, her twin sister and BFF, had reminded her last night during their three hour marathon chat-a-thon that being civil was the Christian thing to do.

"Good morning." Callie could have cheered when her voice came out casual and off-hand, just as she'd intended.

Even to her critical ears, there was no trace of the nervous energy that had her insides jumping like a bunch of seven-year-olds on a sugar high.

"You're usually driving off by the time I open my front door."  Eli rocked back on his heels, his gaze never leaving her face.  "Running late today?"

"Yesterday was the last day of school."

Two lines formed between his brows.  "Yesterday was Tuesday."

"We had to make up a couple snow days."

Eli tilted his head. "What grade do you teach?"

Callie gritted her teeth.  Eli was a bright guy—valedictorian of their high school class—and from all reports he'd breezed through medical school and residency.  That meant he should be smart enough to know his appalling treatment of Cate their freshman year in college had ensured Callie would never want anything to do with him. 

Now here he stood, being all neighborly.  Of course, he was her neighbor.  The only consolation was she doubted he'd remain content for long in a one-bedroom cottage.  Word was he was back in Harmony for good which meant he'd likely be buying or building before long.

"What grade do you teach?" he repeated.

"Second." Callie clipped the word, hoping to make it clear that an occasional wave was as close as she wanted to get to him. "Look, I have a lot to do today so—"

His hand cut a swath in the air.  "No explanation necessary."

For a moment an image flashed of talented fingers poised above the trumpet valves, ready to make beautiful music.  But it was another more poignant memory that pierced her soul; that long-ago day when she'd told him the sordid story of her dad.  She'd even cried, not just a trickle of tears down her cheeks but sobs that reddened her eyes and made her nose run.  He'd enfolded her in his arms and comforting warmth had washed over her.

He may not technically have been her boyfriend, but he'd been her friend.  She'd trusted him.  Which made the way he'd treated her sister so reprehensible. 

"See you around, Princess."

His private nickname for her, said in such an insolent manner, stabbed like a knife.  Callie's hands trembled as she settled behind the wheel of the ancient blue Subaru that had once belonged to her mother.  Why did she feel suddenly as if she was the one in the wrong, not him?

The motor turned over immediately but when Callie put the car into reverse, the vehicle remained stationary.  She gunned the engine and tried again. 

The car didn't move an inch. Instead a loud clunking sound filled the still air.

Out of the corner of her eye, Callie saw Eli pause by the bumper of his red Prius.

Third time's a charm, Callie told herself.

She blew out a breath, sent a prayer heavenward then tried one last time.

Nothing.

A fourth try wouldn't make a difference.  She'd known this would happen.  The car had been acting up since last week.  A fellow teacher had told her it sounded as if the transmission was going out.

Which will cost money I don't have

Despair closed in, threatening to overwhelm her. Callie rested her forehead against the steering wheel. She reminded herself Job had faced many trials.  He'd survived.

"Everything okay?"

Lifting her head, she stared into soft brown eyes brimming with concern.

Just pile it on, Lord, she thought. I can take it.

"I'm good." She resisted the urge to sigh. "It's Buster who's a bit under the weather."

Buster Bronco was well-known in the state of Idaho.  The mascot of Boise State University, the brown horse with a large head always wore a royal blue jersey during football season.  When Callie's mother had bought the Subaru off the showroom floor in 2004, she'd dubbed the bright blue wagon, "Buster." The name had stuck.

"Ah, Buster."  Eli flashed the smile that once made her heart skip a beat. "Good memories."

Callie started to smile back then froze.  How easy it would be to get sucked in by his charm.  She held up a finger, slipped the phone from her bag and called for a tow.

"I can give you a lift to your first appointment," Eli offered when she clicked off.

"I'm in no hurry." The admission slipped out before Callie realized only moments earlier she'd made it sound as if she had places to go and things to do.  Important places, not simply to the coffee shop for a scone.

At her hesitation, a shutter descended over Eli's gaze.  Yet, he didn't walk away.  He thrust his hands into his pocket. 

"So, how've you been?" he asked in a conversational tone.

Callie realized with sudden horror he planned to stay with her until the tow truck arrived.  How long had dispatch said it could be?  Ten minutes? Fifteen?

Too long.

"I'm fine." She made a shooing motion with her hands.  "I'm sure you need to get to the hospital or to the clinic, or…somewhere."

"Actually." He leaned back against the massive 4x4 parked beside her Subaru and crossed his arms. "I'll hang around, keep you company. I don't like the idea of you being out here all alone."

How many times had she heard him say those same words when her father had been late picking her up?  The memory brought a quick flash of anger.  Not at Eli, but at the first man she'd ever loved, ever trusted; Richard Goodhue, her father.

Her dad had been a highly successful sales executive who always had lots of out-of-town business meetings and trips.  Or so he'd told his family.  As her mind began careening down a path she had no intention of traveling again, Callie knew it was time to shut down this conversation.

"Look." She shifted to face Eli head on.  "You don't have to wait.  I don't want you to wait.  I—"

"Have I done something to offend you, Callie?"  His brows pulled together in confusion.  "If I did, please tell me and I'll make it right."

She opened her mouth, her hands clenched into tight fists at her side.  If he wanted the truth, she'd give it to him with both barrels.  And she wouldn't cry.  She'd never let him see how deeply his actions had hurt her.  "You—"

The sound of a truck horn broke her train of thought.  Her head jerked up just in time to see Fred Mierley--former high school classmate--offer a broad wave as he pulled the tow truck behind her vehicle.

"I was a block over when I got the call." The burly former linebacker with a messy thatch of red-brown hair and a full beard, hopped out of the vehicle, surprisingly limber despite his bulk.

He glanced curiously at Eli.  Callie saw the instant recognition dawned.

"Webb." Fred covered the distance that separated the two men in several strides then stuck out his hand.  "Good to see you, man.  I heard you were back."

Eli smiled as he took his football buddy's hand.  "Back to stay."

"We missed you at the ten-year reunion." Fred leaned companionably against the truck, as if he had all the time in the world.

"I was in the middle of a rotation that weekend and couldn't get off.  I was sorry to miss it."

"As my mother would say, a good time was had by all." Fred gestured with his head toward Callie, who'd stepped from the car.  "This one and her sister closed down the dance floor."

Surprise flickered in Eli's eyes as he refocused on her.  "I didn't realize you liked to dance."

"There's a lot about me you don't know."

The coolness in her tone brushed the smile from his lips.  For a long moment, he simply stared, a look of puzzlement on his face.  Then he shifted his gaze to Fred.  "I need to get to the hospital.  I'll leave Callie in your very capable hands."

"I don't know ‘bout that, but I'll do my best by her and Buster." Fred gave the car an affectionate pat.  "A bunch of the guys get together at the Thirsty Buffalo for happy hour every Friday.  Stop by sometime."

Though Eli's expression remained neutral, Callie saw the invitation had touched him.  Despite being gone for over ten years, an old friend had reached out.  "I'll do that."

Unexpectedly Eli turned and surprised her by giving her arm a squeeze. "Good luck with the car."

He strode across the parking lot to his car, the picture of a confident, successful man.  Even as he slipped behind the wheel of his Prius and drove off, the heat of his touch lingered on her skin.

Callie shivered with what she told herself had to be revulsion, before refocusing her attention on the ailing Buster.

+

By the time Eli arrived home that night it was close to seven.  After seeing his hospitalized patients he'd attended a CME educational luncheon before diving into a full slate of patients in the afternoon.

He didn't know how his father had handled such a load by himself all these years.  But his dad had never complained.  Even as a young boy, it had been clear to him that his father had a passion for medicine. 

At the age of ten Eli had announced he wanted to be a family practice physician like his dad.  Michael Webster had sat him down and told him if that was his goal, he needed to have a plan in order to reach it.  He must complete his education without getting distracted.

The path had been clear and Eli had remained focused.  The only serious temptation to veer off course had occurred his senior year in high school.  Despite his best efforts to keep his heart out of any equation involving a pretty girl, he'd found himself falling head over heels for his trumpet buddy, Callie Goodhue.

They'd been friends since freshman year but that last year in high school the attraction had morphed into something more intense.  He'd wanted to date her but couldn't trust that degree of closeness.  Still, he hadn't been able to stop his heart from caring.  He thought she had feelings for him, too.  But she'd moved on only months after starting college.

Like him, both Cate and Callie had planned to attend Stanford after graduation. But after her parents divorced, Callie had opted to attend college close to home.

While Eli liked Callie's sister well enough, having Cate at Stanford wasn't the same as Callie being there.  Not by a long shot.  His path had rarely crossed with Cate's, other than one time during freshman year when he'd gotten roped into taking her to a party.  What a fiasco that had been. 

Shoving the memory aside, Eli moved to the cupboard for a can of soup. As a physician he espoused the importance of proper nutrition, but for tonight chicken noodle soup and a peanut butter sandwich would have to suffice.

He'd just lifted the lid off the can when he heard a rustling sound outside the front door.  Eli paused, anticipating a knock. 

After waiting several seconds and hearing nothing more, he dumped noodles and broth into a bowl and stuck it in the microwave.  He could almost see his mother—a registered dietician--shaking her head in disapproval as he pulled out the jar of peanut butter.

His knife was deep into the creamy spread when he heard it again.  Though the night was windy and the sound faint, something was definitely out there. Eli set the jar of peanut butter on the counter and cocked his head, listening intently.

A baby?  Naw.

A stray cat?  Probably.

When the cry grew louder, his curiosity propelled him to the door.

A wicker basket took up most of the small porch.  It was the kind a woman might fill with boxes of crackers, blocks of assorted cheeses and a nice bottle of wine as a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift.

But this basket didn't contain a smorgasbord of food and drink.  Eli stared at the baby bundled in pink for several disbelieving seconds.  Then his gaze darted around the commons area to see who might have left her. No sign of life.

Had the person who'd left the child been aware he was a doctor?  Is that why she'd been left on his doorstep? 

As Eli crouched down, the baby smiled, showing two bottom teeth.  Her chubby arms waved wildly in the air when he spoke to her.

He was so focused on the child's face that it wasn't until he reached down and lifted her from the basket that he saw what he'd missed.  A note had been pinned to the front of the baby's shirt.

Eli read it once then skimmed the paper again.  His heart slammed against his ribcage.

Was this a joke?  A prank?  He glanced around, waiting for old high school friends to jump out.  Praying they'd jump out.  But the night remained silent.

He stepped back inside, pushing the basket through the front door with his foot while keeping the baby secured in his arms.

Closing the door, Eli slid his gaze over the baby's face and reread the note again:  

Lucy is your daughter. Please take good care of her.

 

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