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Stepdad Surprise (River's End Ranch Book 53) by Caroline Lee (1)

CHAPTER ONE

 

Eleven months ago

 

 

Trisha stared into her newborn daughter’s eyes, and knew she had to become someone else.

She’d already made that decision once before, eight months ago, when she sat on the toilet in the dingy apartment she shared with Ivan and a few others in Chicago’s South Side and stared down at the pregnancy test showing two lines she’d clutched in her hand.

A baby.

A baby hadn’t been part of her plan—not when she was barely keeping herself alive—but she’d made the decision that day to live for her baby, and to live well.

It had been the hardest thing she’d ever done, to get clean from the drugs, but she’d had help. After a particularly nasty argument with Ivan over whether she would be allowed to keep the baby, she ended up at a battered women’s shelter. They’d hooked her up with Father George MacVeigh from St. Katherine’s, and he’d been her savior.

Thanks to Father George, she’d gone through detox and stayed clean, for the entire length of the pregnancy…and now that the baby was finally here, it was impossible to imagine going back to her old life.

“Kalli,” she whispered reverently, stroking the newborn’s silky cheek. “My Kalli.”

It was a name she’d heard once, years ago, and it had always appealed to her for its simplicity. It reminded her of a life she’d never had—wholesome, down-to-earth. She’d give her baby that kind of life, as much as she could.

The baby couldn’t possibly know her name, but she turned slightly at the touch, rooting with her mouth. The little movement made Trisha smile, and she pulled her knees up to prop the baby higher so they could stare at one another.

Giving birth to Kalli yesterday had gone well—alarmingly well, according to everything she’d read online. The few prenatal visits she’d managed had shown Kalli to be smaller than she should be, and Trisha had spent months berating herself and her bad habits for the baby’s low birth weight. But yesterday morning when she’d gone into labor, she’d grabbed her packed duffle and taken the bus to the hospital…and three hours later, she had been holding her perfect, though tiny, baby daughter in her arms.

Kalli hadn’t cried at all. When the nurse had placed her on Trisha’s stomach, the baby had looked up at her mother, sneezed twice, and started rooting for food.

It had been the most magical, most terrifying moment of Trisha’s life.

No, not Trisha. She was done being Trisha. She was done with the cocaine and the men and letting Ivan beat on her until she gave him what he wanted. The moment she’d seen that positive pregnancy test, she’d changed inside, and Father George had helped even more. Now, thanks to him, she was someone new in all ways, someone who would live far away from here, and she even had a new legal name for her new life, which she used for the first time when she’d checked into the hospital yesterday.

Jackie Novak.

Novak had been her great-grandmother’s name, and Jackie…well, Jackie had just sounded nice. It was the name of one of her favorite book heroines: a woman who knew what she wanted, and who wouldn’t let anyone hurt those she loved. A woman who would go to the ends of the earth to protect her baby.

That’s who Trish—no, Jackie was going to be.

Father George had promised that once the baby was born, he’d help her run as far and as long as she’d needed. He’d already come up with some possibilities of really small towns out west where she and little Kalli could just disappear.

She’d been studying up on the requirements for massage certification in a few states out there, and figured she could pass even though her current license had been lapsed for several years thanks to Ivan’s demands.

In a few days, when she had more of her strength back, she and Kalli were going to run and run and run. They’d start a new life, with the baby supplies like diapers and layette Father George had collected from his congregation. And they’d be safe. Truly safe.

A knock on the door jerked Jackie’s attention away from planning for her daughter’s future. Here in the hospital, she’d barely had a moment to herself, as nurses were always popping in to check on her or Kalli.

Without waiting to be invited in, Nurse Josephine stepped into the room. She’d been the one who’d made Jackie feel less guilty about the baby’s low birth weight yesterday, by saying, “Don’t worry, honey, some babies are just small, and this one looks like she takes after you—teensy weensy. Could be because of foreign chemicals, but just make sure she eats good, and she’ll be fine.”

So Jackie smiled in welcome, knowing she’d always be grateful to this particular nurse…even though no one else had ever accused her of being “teensy-weensy”. Her mood sobered again when she remembered the times Ivan had hit her because of all the weight she’d put on during the pregnancy.

“How you feeling, honey?” Josephine bustled around the room, checking numbers on machines and the half-finished tray of hospital food from lunch. “You feeding that baby?”

Nursing, right. Jackie fumbled with the hospital gown and opened it for Kalli. She hadn’t managed to pull on her old dirty sweats again and was praying Father George would bring her something more suitable for her new life.

“Sorry,” she whispered to the baby, who blinked up with blue-grey eyes the same color as Jackie’s. The internet said the color might change, but Jackie hoped they wouldn’t.

There was so little of Ivan in Kalli, and that was the way it should be. He’d never wanted her, and they didn’t need him.

“There, that’s good.” Josephine reached over and adjusted the baby slightly, finding a more comfortable position for everyone. “Make sure the latch is strong and she’s swallowing enough. That’s how you know she’s getting the milk that will help her get bigger. We want her at a good weight before she leaves, which is why we keep stealing her away and weighing her.”

She said the last part in a teasing tone, because Jackie had asked yesterday why everyone kept taking her baby from her. Jackie smiled shyly at the other woman.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “For everything.”

The way the other woman’s eyes softened, she knew the nurse understood exactly what Jackie had meant. Josephine cleared her throat.

“You’ve got a visitor, honey. I came to see if you wanted us to let him in.”

“A visitor?” Jackie straightened in excitement, accidentally disturbing Kalli, who let out a little grunt of irritation. “Sorry,” she said again, this time to her daughter, then readjusted the baby to the correct latch.

Josephine glanced at the door. “We’ve got good security here. If you don’t want him to come back, he won’t.”

“Is it Father George?” Jackie remembered Josephine wouldn’t know who he was. “An older man, grey hair, a priest?”

“No, honey.” The nurse shook her head. “I’m not one to judge by appearances, but this man, he looks mean.” She gestured to her neck. “Tattoos, nasty ones. No hair, lots of rings.”

At the description, Jackie’s heart sank.

Ivan.

How had he found her? She and Father George had specifically chosen a hospital on the opposite side of town so Ivan would have trouble tracking her down.

Don’t tell me he checked every maternity ward in the city!

Josephine’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I don’t want to embarrass you, honey, but I’ve seen a lot of you, if you know what I mean.”

She nodded towards Jackie’s shoulders, where the bruises from Ivan’s last temper tantrum still showed. Josephine must’ve seen them when she’d helped Jackie change last night.

Jackie kept her attention on Kalli’s face—her eyes were now closed in bliss as she nursed—and tried not to blush.

Tried not to cry. Ivan found us after all.

“Honey,” Josephine’s low soothing voice cut through Jackie’s self-pity. “Us women have to stick together. If he’s the man who did that to you, or if he’s a person you just plain don’t want to see, we won’t let him back here.”

Jackie’s voice stuck in her throat. “Even if he’s the baby’s daddy?”

Josephine sniffed. “You didn’t list his name on the birth certificate, Ms. Novak, so I don’t know him from Adam. This is a place of peace and recovery and more than a few miracles, if I do say so myself.” She reached over and wrapped her large hand around Jackie’s, where it clutched at the baby’s swaddle. “If that man coming back here will disrupt that peace and recovery, then he won’t. I’m not going to even give him excuses, okay? I’ll tell him I don’t have any patients named Trisha whatever-he-said, and the woman who I thought he was describing told me she don’t know anyone like him. Okay?”

Jackie felt the tears ready to spill down her cheeks, but now they were from gratitude, not fear. “Thank you,” she choked out, as she flipped her hand around and grabbed Josephine’s in a tight squeeze. “Thank you again for everything.”

“Oh, honey.” Josephine’s eyes crinkled up like she was fighting tears too. Instead, she leaned down to drop a kiss on Jackie’s forehead. “I’ll protect you and that beautiful baby of yours.” When she straightened, her eyes were sparkling once more. “You know, Jo is a lovely middle name,” she said with a wink and one more squeeze.

As the nurse bustled out of the room to tell Ivan to leave and never come back, Jackie smiled slightly through her tears.

“Kalli Jo,” she whispered down to her daughter. “That’s your name, sweetheart. Kalli Jo Novak, and no one is going to take that away from you.”

Nurse Josephine convinced her supervisors Jackie needed to stay an extra day, so it wasn’t until three days after Kali’s birth when Father George arrived with a suitcase full of diapers, wipes, tiny onesies, and a turquoise baby blanket lovingly knitted by one of his parishioners.

“Are you ready?” the older man asked in a gentle voice from his seat by the window in her small hospital room. “Are you sure you’re ready to leave your old life behind?”

Jackie had never been surer of anything in her life, and she made sure her smile told the priest that. “I left my cell phone in Ivan’s apartment last week, and no one here knows my old name. I—we’re ready to get out of here.”

Yesterday, she’d made an anonymous phone call—a tip to the police—to make sure Ivan would be too busy to mess with her again before she left, or be able to try and stop her.

She was sitting on the bed, wearing her old clothes once more. Father George’s donations would be enough to cover what Kalli Jo needed, and Jackie would be fine, surviving on what she’d managed to stuff into her duffle bag before she’d escaped.

Father George was holding the baby now, cupping her tiny head in his palms as she lay across his knees. Even though he’d been speaking to Jackie, he watched the baby reverently.

“She’s a miracle, Tr—Jackie. She’s your own tiny miracle.”

“No.” Jackie’s throat was thick with emotion. “You’re our miracle.” Father George and Nurse Josephine and the social worker who’d come in and not asked too many questions…all miracles. “Thank you for everything you’ve done.”

When Father George met her eyes, his were wet with unshed tears. “I’m only doing what the Lord tells us to do.”

Gingerly, Jackie pushed herself off the bed and walked—at least she wasn’t waddling anymore—across the room to the window seat. She sank down beside the older man and put her hand on his forearm, close to her sleeping daughter.

“Then thank you for listening, Father. You’ll never know how much your kindness means to us,” she whispered.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, both staring down at the sleeping miracle the priest held. Finally, he cleared his throat.

“I’ve found a place for you. It’s a tiny town in Idaho named Riston. There’s a ranch there, a tourist place where people are always coming and going, at least according to their website. They have a spa, and when I called, they said they were always willing to interview for a new massage therapist.”

Jackie took a deep breath and dropped her hand. “I don’t even have my license yet, Father George. It’ll take me a while to get that.”

“Here.”

He twisted to hand the baby to her, and when she took the little swaddled body—she was still amazed how proficient she’d become at handling a delicate little newborn in only three days—he fumbled for his pocket. He took out a bulging envelope and tucked it into her packed bag at his feet.

“That’s a little something—cash—to tide you over until you can get on your feet. There’s also a train ticket in there, leaving tomorrow out of Union Station, for Spokane.” He was talking fast now, as he turned back to her. “You’ll get to go through the Rocky Mountains and see Glacier National Park and everything! I thought the train would be good since you could focus on the baby—”

“Father!” She was still staring at the envelope, peeking out of the bag’s pocket. She’d watched enough of Ivan’s drugs transactions to know how to evaluate an envelope full of cash, and that one had to have a few thousand dollars in it. “You’ve given me so much already,” she said in a softer voice, not wanting to offend him, “I can’t accept money from your congregation, too.”

He smiled kindly and patted her arm. “This is money from me, daughter. I want you to have it, to take care of this beautiful miracle you’ve been given.”

He was giving her his own money? As a gift? Jackie nodded, too choked up to speak. She vowed someway, somehow, she’d repay him. She would not let him down.

“I’m so proud of you, Jackie,” he whispered, patting her arm again. “You’ve overcome so much for your daughter, and I know you’ll be successful in Riston. She is your biggest blessing so far in life, but I’m convinced our Heavenly Father will bring you something even better. You’ll have a good life, if you work hard and trust in Him.”

Before Father George, she hadn’t had much to do with God. But it was hard to imagine all the changes in her life over the last few months without giving some credit to Him. Surely, he’d sent Father George and Nurse Josephine and all the others who’d helped her and Kalli.

And surely He’d been the one who’d given her the strength to put her old life behind her and to become someone else.

“Amen,” she whispered.

The priest smiled and took her hand. Bowing their heads over the newborn baby, they prayed for their future and safety.

Tomorrow, her new life would start. Trisha was staying in Chicago, but Jackie Novak and Kalli would head to this ranch in Riston, Idaho, and they’d build a new life.

Together.

 

 

 

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