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Two babies in jeopardy two powerful stories in one!
When an unhinged cult leader escapes custody, he'll stop at nothing to get to two innocent babies and the foster mothers who stand in his way.
GUARDING EVE by Beth Cornelison
Lila Green goes from foster mom to bodyguard when a storm traps her and six-month-old Eve in a remote mountain cabin with a killer on their heels. Can her neighbor, wounded veteran Dean Hamilton, help them survive?
CLAIMING CALEB by Karen Whiddon
Michelle Morgan must protect her newborn nephew, Caleb and even work with her ex-fiancé. FBI agent Garrett Ware never wanted children, but now he'll sacrifice everything for this baby and this woman.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Award-winning author Beth Cornelison has been writing stories since she was a child. A University of Georgia graduate, Cornelison worked in Public Relations before becoming a full-time writer. She has won many honors for her writing, including the coveted Golden Heart, awarded by the Romance Writers of America. She lives in Louisiana with her husband and son. For more information, visit her website at www.bethcornelison.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"44 teens slain during raid on compound," Lila Greene said, reading the news story headline on her laptop screen, horror twisting through her.
As if answering, her brown-and-black tabby, Chloe, meowed loudly.
"I know! Horrible, right?" Lila said to the cat, her only companion in her parents' isolated mountain cabin. She'd moved to the family's remote vacation home for the privacy, for the inspiring views it provided for her work and for the peacefulness it afforded her broken heart. As an artist, she preferred plenty of uninterrupted time by herself to experiment with different mediums and bring her commissioned oil paintings to life. As a casualty of her ex-fiance's cheating, theft and lies, she considered the location an escape as she healed from her deep wounds of betrayal.
She'd been hard at work on an oil painting of the West Virginia landscape near her cabin when she heard the first pings on her window of the predicted ice pellets. She, along with the rest of the populace of Collins Ridge, West Virginia, had been glued to weather forecasts as the wintry mix moved in from the northwest. The headline about the raid on the nearby cult compound had snagged her attention as she'd logged on to the internet to check the current weather update.
Now, sidetracked by the tragic news story, Lila clicked the video associated with the headline and watched the sound bite that included footage of the raid conducted by the FBI and ATF just a handful of miles from her cabin.
"Pitts, the self-proclaimed leader of The Sword, a radical and militaristic cult, stabbed the teenaged girls, whom he claimed were two of his nine wives," the reporter said while standing in front of a fleet of law enforcement vehicles that flashed red-and-blue emergency lights. "The slain teens are believed to have been kidnapped, and each had borne a child to Pitts."
Lila gasped, shocked and, sadly, not so shocked by the story unfolding in the report. She'd come to expect the worst of people based on personal experience with her ex, Carl, and the all-too-common circumstances that necessitated her second career as a foster mother for the local courts.
"The identity of the murdered girls is being withheld by authorities while their next of kin are located and notified. The girls' infants will be placed in foster homes during the search for the babies' families."
Lila cut a glance to her hall closet, where she kept a stock of baby supplies so she'd be ready at a moment's notice to receive an infant to care for. "Well, Chloe, we may be getting company soon."
Chloe hopped up in her lap and butted her head on Lila's hand, demanding a cheek scratch. Lila complied as she used her free hand to navigate her laptop to the local weather website. The radar showed a significant winter storm making its way toward her cabin. "If they want to bring me one of the babies, they'd better hurry. In a couple hours, the roads up here will be impassable."
Chloe only purred and continued bumping her hand every time Lila stopped patting the cat's head, but her landline phone, as if intentionally fulfilling her prediction, rang seconds later. She lifted Chloe from her lap and hurried to answer the call.
"Lila, it's Miriam Webber," the coordinator of foster services in her area said. "If you've been watching the news, you probably know why I'm calling."
"Yes," she said, brushing cat hair from her clothes. "I just saw something about an ATF and FBI raid on a cult, if that's what you mean. Can I assume this call means you need me to take one of the babies rescued in the raid?"
"You assume correctly. Are you available? We'd like to get Eve placed before the ice and sleet get much worse."
Lila pulled the sheer curtains back from her front window and peered out at the pale gray sky. Sleet plinked on the dead leaves covering the forest floor, and the first shimmers of icy accumulation glimmered in the muted daylight. "I'm happy to take in one of the babies. How old will my charge be? Will I need formula? What size diapers?"
"We'll be bringing you Eve. She's five months old. Almost six months."
Lila smiled. All babies were precious, and every month of an infant's first year was marked with developmental achievements and new skills, but little Eve was at Lila's favorite age. At around five to six months, an infant begins laughing and smiling, can sit up alone and eat solid food.
"All right. I'll be waiting. Do you have access to a vehicle with four-wheel drive or snow tires? It's already looking icy up here."
"I'm sure the sheriff's department does. I'll be riding with them. See you in about thirty minutes."
Lila disconnected and faced her living room. She'd allowed it to get a bit cluttered. Okay, a lot cluttered, but weren't all creative people a little messy? She started to pick up magazines and fold laundry but quit after a minute or two. While straightening clutter might spare her a little embarrassment for her poor housekeeping, a tidy living room wasn't as important as preparing the crib for the baby Eve, Miriam had called her and mixing up a bottle of formula.
"Come on, Chloe. Let's get the nursery ready for our guest." Moving to the spare bedroom, Lila began prep-ping the crib for her little charge. When she shook out the sheet, Chloe hopped into the crib and pounced on the flapping bedding. "Oh, no, you don't. We need to keep this bed kitty-hair free."
The tabby stalked out of the room as if pouting, and Lila chuckled. "Sorry, Chloe."
As she tucked the crib sheet around the mattress, the images she'd seen in the news report replayed in her head. The raid had been a violent and emotionally charged event. Eve's mother had been murdered. Lila's gut twisted with sympathy and concern. Poor little lamb, losing her mother at such a young age. Little Eve would undoubtedly need plenty of TLC, and Lila's heart swelled with affection for the infant she'd not met yet. She had an abundance of love to share with the motherless baby girl. She understood the pain of losing someone you loved, and she'd make it her mission to smooth the transition between homes for Eve.
Wayne Pitts sat on the hard seat in the back of the police department's transport van and kept a watchful eye on Kent. He was ready to act on Kent's signal.
His older brother's eyes stayed locked in a lethal glare on the US marshal who rode with them to the holding facility. From that jail cell, they'd await a preliminary hearing or some such government crap. Assuming they got that far. Kent wouldn't let things progress that far. He'd show them the way forward. He always had.
Wayne's body was growing stiff and sore from sitting with his hands cuffed behind him, and he chalked up his discomfort to The Enemy. The government's lackeys had no right to take him or any of The Sword family from their compound. No one had authority over another man, except to whom he chose to give his loyalty.
For Wayne, Kent had every bit of his loyalty. His big brother had been looking out for him since they'd been old enough to hide together in the linen closet when their father went on one of his drunken rages. Kent had taken care of Wayne after their father killed their mother, and they'd slipped out the back window while their father was passed out. They'd survived on the street thanks to Kent's smarts and his good sense not to trust the government. After the cop had caught them living in an abandoned building, the government had tried to separate the brothers, but Kent would have none of it. He'd rescued Wayne from that horrible foster home and vowed to keep Wayne safe.
Kent had moved them to the farm outside of town, and the brothers had begun building their own family. Kent took a wife, then another, and had led them all toward a greater Truth. He'd had the vision of The Truth in a dream. He'd seen the manipulation of the government and freed his family from the tyranny of Uncle Sam. The Sword represented strength, freedom, Truth at all costs. The Enemy would not prevail. Wayne was certain. So he waited. Watched.
Kent was working on a plan. Kent would see them freed.
"How do you live with yourself?" Kent said in a low tone.
Wayne was roused from his thoughts to follow his brother's lead.
The marshal returned a placid, bored look. "You were read your rights. That one about remaining silent? I'd use it if I were you."
"You have no say in my rights. I alone determine my rights."
The marshal said nothing, only curled his lip in a dismissive sneer that sent fire through Wayne's veins. "Don't you dare disrespect Master Pitts!"
"Master Pitts, is it?" the marshal asked with a mocking edge to his voice.
"Wayne." Kent's calm, stern tone silenced Wayne, even without taking his eyes from the marshal.
"Where did you take my children?" Kent asked, his stare as icy as his voice. "They're safe."
"Where? Foster homes?" For the first time, Wayne heard a note of emotion in his brother's tone. A hatred for the abhorrent foster family that had taken Wayne in was one of many bonds he shared with Kent.
Their guard gave Master Pitts a withering glance. "They're safe."
"Not as long as they are in The Enemy's hands," Wayne said, unable to keep his peace.
"They will be freed," Kent said with only a slight side-glance to Wayne. "My family will find them. All of my wives and children will be found and sent to a better place."
The marshal took out a pad and started making notes. "You know all of this can be used against you. You've been warned."
"I will find my children, the innocents first, then my wives. And I will free them from the bonds of earth and man's dominion."
The Enemy's minion pulled a face that said he thought Kent was crazy.
Wayne gritted his teeth, wanting to strike out at the impudent man. If not for the shackles binding his hands behind him and looped around the steel bar on the side of the paddy wagon, he'd dispense the kind of beating his father used to dole out.
With a ragged breath, Wayne shoved down his rage. Wayne knew The Truth. Kent kept his word. Kent would do what he vowed, no matter the cost.
"Could be kinda hard from behind bars," the marshal mocked with a sloppy grin.
Kent arched a dark eyebrow. "I wouldn't "
The van shifted suddenly, slinging the men in the back from side to side as the vehicle fishtailed.
Wayne and the other members of The Sword gathered themselves, grunting in pain where the shackles had jerked against their wrists. The marshal tapped on the small window between the front seat and the transport bay. "Everything all right up there, Stan?"
"Black ice. Sorry. It's getting dicey out here, so I'll probably get off these side roads and try the highway. They're more likely to have been salted," was the muted reply from the front seat.
"Radio the staties and ask which "
The van jerked again. Pitched hard left, then right. Rolled. Men and metal were tossed, crumpled, broken.
When the world stopped spinning, Wayne blinked at the opposite side of the van, which was now above him. He lay on his back, and his arms ached, having been yanked in a tug-of-war between momentum and the handcuffs as they had flipped. His head throbbed, but he was conscious, in one piece.
He searched the space around him quickly. Found Kent struggling against the metal shackles.
The marshal groaned and rolled onto his side. His head was bleeding. His leg lay at a funny, unnatural angle. The other members of The Sword Jimmy, Oscar, George and Burt were in various states of injury. All of them were moaning and moving slowly.
The scrape of metal drew his attention back to Kent. "Help me, Wayne. The bar is loose."
Sure enough, the steel bar their handcuffs had been looped around for transport had been dislodged as the van wall crumpled. Kent had slid his shackles to the loose end of the bar and tugged to free the final bolts from the twisted metal.
"We have to act fast. We don't have much time." Kent worked his handcuffs free of the bar and hauled himself to his feet. He stepped over the handcuffs to bring his arms in front of him and quickly snatched the keys from the marshal's belt. With key in hand, Kent turned and sent Wayne a hard look. "You know what has to be done."
Energized with a new mission and fresh resolve, Wayne gave a terse nod. "I do, Master Pitts."
Miriam and a sheriff's deputy arrived at Lila's twenty minutes later with Eve. They brought a small supply of baby clothes, Eve's blanket, favorite toys and a few jars of baby food.
Miriam wrote both her number and the contact number for FBI Special Agent Dunn on a notepad as a precaution. "But you shouldn't need either," Miriam reassured her with a smile. "The cult members are in custody, and it's only a matter of time before Eve's grandparents are located. We should have her resettled in a day or two."
After signing some legal documents and getting the usual procedural instructions from Miriam, Lila was left alone with her foster baby to get acquainted and settle in. Eve was understandably fussy. The events of the morning had to have been frightening and confusing to the little girl. Eve had lost her mother, had been bustled from one strange environment to another, and had been roused from her morning nap when they'd arrived at Lila's cabin.
Eve released a mournful wail, and Lila lifted her from the baby carrier. Cuddling the infant on her shoulder, she paced the cabin, rubbing Eve's back and cooing to her. According to Miriam, the baby wasn't due for another feeding for almost two hours. Sleep was the priority, so Lila walked the floor, sang lullabies and murmured sweet nothings to calm the cranky baby.
Chloe, who'd hidden while the social worker and cop were delivering Eve, crept out from the back of the house and cast a wary eye to the noisy little creature that had invaded her house. She sniffed the baby's things and sent Lila a disdainful glare.
"It's just for a little while, Chloe. We've had babies here before. You know the routine. Don't pretend you don't."
With a loud meow, Chloe traipsed over to the door to her screened porch and stared at the door handle.
Lila chuckled. "It's thirty-three degrees and dropping, Chloe. Trust me. You don't want to go out there."
Chloe meowed again, more emphatically, and Eve raised her head from Lila's shoulder to glance at the cat. Her cries calmed a bit as she studied the feline with a curious wrinkle on her button nose.
"You like that kitty? Her name's Chloe. Nice kitty."
Eve gave a loud squawk and waved a chubby hand toward the cat. Chloe merely regarded the baby balefully then trotted down the hall, presumably to hide again. With the cat out of sight, Eve's whines tuned up again, and Lila resumed her pacing and back patting. "I know, sweet girl. You miss your mommy."
Lila shuddered as the news story replayed in her mind. A teenage girl, a young mother murdered by her kidnapper. Horrible!
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