Read Jake's child Online

Authors: Lindsay Longford

Jake's child

This book made available by the Internet Archive.

biggest writing influence has been, as with so many others, her love of reading. She says she'd read toothpaste labels just to have something to read! After studying fiction writing at Northwestern University and writing numerous short stories, she discovered that what she really liked to write was the kind of story she chose when she was tired, wanted a lift or just wanted to be swept away for a few hours—romance.

Her husband has been a constant source of encouragement, and with their ten-year-old-son, they crosscountry ski, hit the cinemas once a week and try not to overload their house with too many books.

SOUTH FLORIDA

Route 75 Moore Havens

C aloose*« tchie River

Alligator Alley

GulfofMexico

Miami,

I

Everglades , National *\ Park-V 3

Key West Underlined places are fictitious.

Chapter One

1 he pounding on the screen door woke her up just before midnight.

Her heart banged against her ribs, and for a moment Sarah couldn't remember where she was. A hazy, dreamy memory of happiness lingered, confusing her with its promise. Looking down at her hands clenched in the pilled blue knit of the afghan, she saw that sometime in the night she'd pulled it up over her legs. The wind must have risen out on the lake. Surely no one was going out fishing now.

The screen door rattled as a fist beat on its frame. Whoever was out there wanted in.

Sarah pulled the afghan up closer to her neck and curled her bare legs, clad in cutoff shorts, under her. Late-night fishermen were crazy, swarming out on Okeechobee for catfish. Her regulars knew they needed reservations to go catfishing or crab gigging. None of them would show up at this time of night hoping for a boat and bait.

She rubbed her eyes, chasing away the remnants of her dream. Too much craziness in the world. He could just stay

there in the swampy darkness. He didn't know she was inside.

Outside, the latch on the screen door of the wraparound porch squeaked as a hand tugged hard on the handle.

Would he break in if he thought no one was home? Sarah poked her finger through a hole in the blue yarn. She swallowed. The lake was overrun with strangers these days, drug runners, alligator poachers, scum of all kind. Maybe she'd had enough of the solitude and loneliness of Okeechobee. Maybe she needed to be around people again. Sarah shook her head, trying to wake up, reluctant to shed the illusory comfort of her dream.

The thump of booted feet on the old boards of the porch jerked her to her feet.

Under the yellow porch light, shadows moved toward her front door. Sarah reached under the sofa where she'd been half sitting, half lying, for the baseball bat she kept there. Gripping it, she breathed deeply and eased off the sofa. Her bare feet touched the cool wood floor and slid silently across planks worn smooth over the years. She edged to the door separating her from the screened porch.

"Hey! Anybody home?" The voice was a whiskey-roughened rasp sawing through the night.

Sarah stopped. Eerily lit by the yellow light, a large hand rubbed a pane of the floor-to-ceiling windows facing the porch and a blurred face peered in at her. She'd forgotten her glasses. Damn. Holding the bat in her hand, flexing the weighted end, she stood for a moment thinking. Like a wild creature she remained motionless, waiting for the hunter's movement to signal that she'd been spotted.

Maybe he'd go away.

The heel of that large hand whacked hard just above the front-door knob. She heard a curse.

And then a higher sound, a child's voice. "We ain't gonna get in."

4 'Yeah, we are." The deeper voice was chilling in its matter-of-fact certainty.

Sarah's fists pressed hard against her chest, the bat knocked against her knees. A child's voice.

Drawn irresistibly to the door, she pressed her hot face against its coolness, her cheek absorbing the shudder of the fist pounding on wood panels. She'd be a fool, a damn fool to open the door.

She knew better. People, especially women living by themselves, didn't open doors to strangers. She'd lived out here too long to be that stupid. After dark dropped its curtain on the lake, night creatures came out. Smart folks stayed home behind closed and locked doors. Boats disappeared on the lake, cars vanished from the long, lonely sweep of Alligator Alley slicing across the state, and water-bleached bodies bobbed up unexpectedly in weed-clogged shallows and saw grass. No, she knew better than to open her door and invite in danger.

The booted feet shifted, floorboards creaked, and again Sarah heard that childish voice.

".. .hurts bad now."

The thin treble halted the awful pounding that vibrated through the door to her body. Hearing the voice, she felt an old wound twisting and turning deep inside her. Sarah flinched.

Bracing her foot against the door, she cracked it open. With the bat at her side, she looked out into the night.

A rush of damp air, smelling of sea things and secrets, swept through the opening.

The hairy, angry face looking back at her was every woman's nightmare.

Sarah tried to slam the door shut, and the man's open palm slapped against the edge, forcing it against the chain's length. His eyes glinted in the yellow light as he kept his palm there, telling her more clearly than words her chain couldn't keep him out.

Sarah leaned her shoulder on the door. "We're closed! Go away. No fishing tonight!" She raised the bat, a puny threat against the strength of those fingers gripping the edge of the door. She pushed. "I said the camp is closed." Shoving against that steady pressure from outside, she pressed her hip into the door.

She'd been a fool, after all. Under the trees the stranger's rusty pickup truck sagged in the sandy earth. In the sudden still of the night, she saw and heard everything with a frightening clarity: details like the man's square fingers with their even nails, the sound of her own quickened breathing, the small shape at the man's side, all registered in her brain.

"Look, give me a minute, will you?" The man's impatience colored his deep voice. He shifted, but his fingers stayed clamped on the door.

Sarah felt the easing of pressure and kept her foot braced against a sudden move. "What do you want? It's late. Come back tomorrow." Tension tightened her throat.

The fingers curled around the door, dropped to the man's side. "My... boy here, he needs to use a bathroom."

"A bathroom?" Sarah started shaking her head. "He can go outside."

"He's sick." Never taking his light brown eyes from hers, the man laid his hand on the boy's head, drawing her attention to the child.

Scruffy, mud-streaked and shaggy-haired, the child wasn't appealing. Bright blue eyes in a sharp-pointed face gleamed with too much knowledge learned too early, and those eyes assessed her with the intelligence and alertness of an adult as he waited impassively with the man for her decision.

The boy—how old? Five, six, maybe?—didn't lean on his father, didn't seem connected to him. Sarah moved to get a better look at both of them. The man's hand had slipped to the boy's neck and rested there in either a caress or a threat.

She looked into the man's strange, pale eyes again, trying to decide. Brown eyes should be deep and rich, warm. Glittering with the force his body only hinted at, these brown eyes were cold. They judged her and sentenced her while something glimmered in their paleness like the silver shine of a minnow in the sunlight.

"Let's go," the boy whispered. "I told you she ain't gonna let us in."

"I got a sick kid here," the man insisted, irritation surfacing in his voice. "I saw your sign out on the road." His forefinger and thumb tipped the boy's head from side to side in a gentle movement. "We've been driving all day and he just started complaining of stomach cramps."

"I don't have public facilities." Sarah turned away. She inched the door forward, the chain drooping now. Half expecting a shove against the door, she almost missed the small movement of the boy.

His sudden stir, one ragged sneaker crossing over the other, was every child's universal signal of dire and immediate need. His face went greenish-white.

Sarah sighed and unhooked the chain. If the man pushed, she'd slam the door on his hand. "I'm unlocking the door. He," she motioned to the boy, "can come in. You," she jerked her head toward the man, "stay outside."

At her words, the boy turned to his father and tugged on the man's washed-out jeans. He bent down, his size hiding the boy's whispered comment from her. Straightening, the man looked at her for a second, deciding something before speaking. He glanced at the child and back up to her. The boy now clutched the man's hand. Sarah looked at the two faces, so different from each other. The boy didn't look like his father, but who could really tell what the father looked like, hidden as he was behind the thicket of beard and moustache?

His voice grainy with satisfaction at her expense, the man smiled thinly. "My boy doesn't want to come in by himself;'

"Well, he'll have to go outside, then." Sarah hated the coldness in her voice. But it wouldn't hurt the boy to go in the bushes.

The boy pulled on his father's hand. The boy's bright blue eyes met hers with quick shame.

"Look, the kid's got stomach flu or something. You going to make him throw up in the bushes with the snakes?"

He was afraid! This tough little nut with the streetwise face was afraid of the outdoors even with his father beside him.

Odd child. In Florida's back country, kids grew up used to swamp and snakes. This unkempt duo looked like backwoods, but the boy couldn't be. His foot rubbed on the toe of his sneaker. Sarah didn't like the look of humiliation and desperation he gave her. It made her feel small and mean.

"Jake, I'm gonna—" The boy's anguished wail had the man stooping down to lift him.

"As a matter of fact, lady, he's just about to throw up all over your front porch, so make up your mind fast!" The man's lips drew back in a snarl.

She couldn't slam her door on that sick little face with its shamed eyes. She couldn't do that. She wished she could, though. She didn't want the man or his son in her house for any reason.

Well, prudence and self-respect didn't always walk hand in hand. Sarah swung the living room door open.

"All right. The bathroom's over there." She gestured with the bat, making sure the man noted it now if he'd missed it earlier. She stayed by the open door. She could always take off into the darkness and find a hiding place.

The man looked at her as if he'd read her thoughts. Again a shadow of amusement and something else shone in his

clear brown eyes. "C'mon, Nicholas." They headed to the dark door Sarah indicated.

She cleared her throat, annoyed with herself that she'd let them into her home. "Switch is on the right.'* Light flooded into the living room from the half-open bathroom door. Low murmurs she couldn't hear tantalized her, but she stayed near the door.

She didn't want to know about them, this strange child and his puzzlingly angry father who didn't even look like him. Placing the bat in her other hand, she wondered what was taking so long. Surely a small male person could handle his business with a little more dispatch? Males were better equipped to be more efficient about bathrooms, after all.

The toilet flushed. The rough voice mumbled something, and then Sarah heard water swish in the basin. Another mumble and the gurgle of sink water.

"Okay, Nicholas. Turn off the light." The click was loud in the silent room.

They came out, the boy rubbing his eyes and the man looking down at the boy and then back at her with obvious hostility.

In the light Sarah could see that they were tired, not filthy. The boy's eyes were red-rimmed, with a near-the-edge look of exhaustion. The man was in marginally better shape, though the merciless light did nothing to remove his air of menace. He loomed before her, looking even more frightening in the light than the dark.

Clean, washed-out jeans and wool shirt flowed over a tough body. His muscular shoulders sloped into biceps and forearms the strength of which she'd already experienced. Drops of water clung to shiny, dark hair where he'd slicked it back off his forehead and down to his strongly corded neck. She'd never felt comfortable around big men, and this man typified everything masculine she didn't like. Hairy, rough, aggressive. Too sure of himself.

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