IN HARM’S WAY

Prologue

In a matter of minutes, the baby would be hers.

Forever.

Debra flexed her fingers inside the snug latex gloves, tightened her grip on the loop of wire in her hand, and melted deeper into the shadows at the back of the dim, gothic-style church. As the final organ notes reverberated through the deserted sanctuary, their hollow echo fading into the murky alcoves along the perimeter, the woman behind the keyboard tilted a bottle of water against her lips, emptying it in two long swallows.

The hint of a smile touched the corners of Debra’s lips. Rebecca O’Neil was nothing if not predictable.

Standing, Rebecca leaned over the pew behind her and rearranged the blanket on the infant in a pumpkin seat. She cooed a few words Debra couldn’t distinguish, smiling as the child gurgled gibberish in response.

The mother bent close to press a gentle kiss to the tiny forehead, and Debra’s fingers twitched on the wire, itching to pick up the baby, to cuddle her close, to breathe her fresh scent. To experience all the sweet joys of motherhood that had been denied her.

But they would be denied her no more.

Today she would rectify that wrong.

Drawing a deep breath, Debra tried to slow her accelerating pulse. She was close, so close to realizing her dream. If all went according to plan, in less than five minutes she would hold her baby in her arms.

And she never intended to let go.

The organist moved toward the back of the church, and Debra’s fingers clenched…unclenched…clenched in a spasmodic rhythm on the wire. Her eyes narrowed as she watched Rebecca approach, and for one fleeting instant, doubt assailed her. The woman seemed like a caring person, a good mother. One who would miss her baby. But three months ago, back in October, Debra had overheard her admit to a friend at the gym that she was overwhelmed. The words had replayed over and over in Debra’s mind.

“It’s a handful,” Rebecca had said. “The kids are a lot more closely spaced than we planned. I never expected to have two in diapers at once. But Megan is such a good baby. It’s only been seven weeks, and already she’s starting to sleep through the night. Would you like to see her latest picture?”

While Rebecca pulled a photo from her purse, Debra had strolled past and glanced over the woman’s shoulder. It had been no more than idle curiosity…until she’d seen the baby’s copper-hued curls—the same shade as hers—and the blue eyes that matched her own.

The child looked like the baby she might have given birth to, Debra had realized with a jolt. Should have given birth to. She deserved a baby. Far more than did Rebecca, who already had one child.

The sudden flash of insight that followed had stunned her.

That baby should be mine.

She’s known that as surely as she’d known that the pleasant fall breezes would soon give way to the icy winds of winter.

That’s why she was sequestered in a house of God on this cold January day, her visit the culmination of weeks of careful planning. Nothing less monumental than today’s task could have compelled her to set foot in a church. She and God had parted company long ago.

A familiar ache in the empty place that had held her womb radiated upward, tightening her throat. Natural birth might no longer be an option. Nor adoption. They didn’t give healthy Caucasian infants to single parents. Or women with her history. But there were other ways to get babies.

And it wasn’t as if she would leave Rebecca childless. She would never do that to anyone. She knew what it felt like to lose a child. But Rebecca already had one daughter.

Besides, Debra’s plan would benefit everyone. Rebecca would be less stressed. Both children would receive undivided attention. And she would have the baby fate, or nature, or God—or the conspiracy of her doctors and her husband—had deprived her of.

The woman passed her, mere inches away, and Debra shrank further into the shadows, readying the sturdy loop of wire in her hands. Except for the day she’d seen the baby’s picture, this was the closest she’d ever been to the mother. Yet she knew a lot about her from eavesdropping at the gym. Rebecca worked as an organist. She practiced every Saturday morning in the empty church. Brought her new baby with her while her husband watched their two-year-old. Finding her address had been a simple matter of following her to her car one day and copying down her license number. Debra’s work provided easy access to research resources.

The location of the church had also been easy to track down. All Debra had to do was wait at the end of Rebecca’s street and follow her one Saturday. The next day, she’d attended services to scope the place out. It had been a little trickier to slip into the practice sessions unobserved, but she’d pulled it off. Rebecca always unlocked the church door and propped it open before retrieving the baby from the car, exposing the infant as briefly as possible to Chicago’s frigid January weather. That gave Debra the perfect opportunity to slip in.

It had taken just two trips to find the window of opportunity she needed and to formulate a plan. The young mother always brought an oversize bottle of water with her, and about halfway through her practice session she visited the ladies room.

As she was doing now.

Heart pounding, Debra waited while the woman stepped into the rest room and pulled the door shut behind her. As the click echoed in the empty sanctuary, Debra moved to the door and slipped the small wire loop over the knob, her rubber-soled shoes noiseless on the terrazzo floor. Stretching the remaining length of wire taut, she wrapped it around the adjacent knob to a storage closet, securing it with half a dozen tight twists.

The whole maneuver took less than fifteen seconds.

She was halfway to the baby when the knob on the door to the rest room rattled. Rattled again. And again, with more force.

“Hey! Is anyone out there?”

Rebecca’s voice sounded faint through the heavy oak door.

More rattling followed.

Debra rounded the pew and smiled down at the tiny baby. Her blue eyes were wide, her coppery curls bouncing as she kicked her tiny legs. She was clutching a Raggedy Ann doll that lived up to its name, its face patched, the hair sparse and limp. Debra gave the worn doll a gentle tug, but the baby tightened her grip and screwed up her face, signaling her intent to register a loud protest. Debra hesitated. A crying baby would attract attention. Not a good thing. She could dispose of the doll later.

Retrieving a stretchy wool hat from the pocket of her coat, Debra pulled it low over her forehead and lifted the infant from the pumpkin seat, relishing the sense of completeness that washed over her as she held the small bundle against her shoulder. The baby felt good in her arms. Like it belonged there.

“Is anyone there? Please…let me out!”

Tuning out Rebecca’s desperate plea, Debra strode toward the side door near the sanctuary. As far as she’d been able to determine, the small church in the quiet suburb had no security cameras. And the back parking lot was hidden from the street. Getting away unseen should be a piece of cake.

She cracked the door and surveyed the lot. Empty. Slipping into the frigid January air, she shut the heavy door behind her, the stone walls muffling the faint, panicked cries from within.

As if sensing distress, the baby began to whimper.

“Hush, little one.” Debra stroked a soothing finger down the child’s satiny cheek as she settled her into the brand new safety seat in the rental car. “Mommy will take good care of you. In a little while we’ll stop and have lunch, okay?”

Once more, she tugged on the doll. When the baby let out a howl of protest and clutched it against her chest with both hands, Debra wavered. If the doll kept her baby happy—and quiet—during the drive, why not let her keep it for a few hours? She could dispose of it later.

Snow began to fall as she slid behind the wheel. Soft, downy flakes that kissed her windshield. Perfect, each one. And unique. But so short-lived. God had made a mistake with snowflakes, Debra decided as she watched them melt against the glass. They deserved much more than a brief moment of glory.

In truth, God made a lot of mistakes. Like with her, for example. She’d wanted to be a mother for as long as she could remember. Deserved to be a mother. Why else would she have married? Put herself through all those treatments? Kept trying after three miscarriages? She’d still be trying, if she could.

But she’d fooled them all. All the people who’d said she’d never have a baby. Her doctor. Her husband. God.

She had her baby now. The child of her heart. The one person in her life who would love her for always. Unconditionally.

Today, at long last, she’d become a real mother.

Smiling, she put the car into gear and began the long drive home.