Colton Baby Homecoming(3)

By: Lara Lacombe

He shuddered, refusing to consider the alternative. Fortunately, he had come home. And even better, Penny had been there. Ridge didn’t make it a habit to check his front porch, so there was no guarantee he would have found the child if not for his partner.

“Seems like your guardian angel is working overtime,” he said, shaking his head at all the things that could have gone wrong tonight.

Ridge reached out and peeled down the light green fleece blanket to reveal an impossibly small body strapped into the car seat. The baby sported a pink long-sleeved, footed outfit, complete with small mittens. “I guess this means you’re a girl,” he said softly.

It took him a second to figure out how to extract her from the harness, but after a few fumbling attempts he was able to gently lift her from the carrier. Her head lolled back at the movement and she emitted a small squeak of distress, which sent his heart racing. Had he hurt her? What if she was already injured—was he making things worse? Sweat broke out on his palms, and he feared she would slip right out of his hands and onto the floor.

“Don’t drop the baby,” he told himself, tightening his grip on the little torso. He could feel her heartbeat under his fingers, fast as a hummingbird’s wings. Was that normal? Maybe she was stressed or sick.

He brought her to his chest and held her against his heart, his large hand spanning her entire back and extending to her head. She squirmed a little against him, and he was gratified to feel the warmth of her body through his shirt. Not too cold then. That was something, at least.

Now that he’d taken her out of the carrier, he noticed a folded piece of paper that had been left behind. It was slightly wrinkled and a little damp from its stay under the baby, but the message was still legible. Please take care of her until I can come back.—F

Okay, then. It wasn’t much to go on, but at least it was something.

If the note was to be believed, the baby’s mother intended to come back for the child. So what kind of circumstances forced a woman to stash her baby on a stranger’s front porch? Why not take the little one to the police station, or the hospital? After all, there was no guarantee the baby would be found, so the mother had to be truly desperate to resort to such an action.

Based on the signature, if an initial could even count as a signature, the mother’s name started with the letter F. Was this woman worried she was the next target of the Alphabet Killer? Did she think she was in mortal danger, and had left the baby in a last-ditch attempt to save her?

It was possible, he mused. So far, the killer had targeted women in alphabetical order of their names. The latest victim’s name had started with E, which meant an F name was next on the list. Maybe this mother knew the killer and had good reason to suspect she was the next target.

The baby wriggled against him, and he brought his other hand up to secure his hold on her. He lifted her off his chest and was rewarded with the sight of two dark eyes squinting up at him. Her movements had knocked her cap askew, so he tugged it off her head to reveal a light dusting of dark brown hair.

Just like the Alphabet Killer’s previous victims.

A tingle raced from his fingertips to his chest. Was he holding a clue to the identity of the killer? If they could identify this baby and somehow find her mother, would that lead them to the Alphabet Killer? Maybe this was the break they’d all been waiting for.

“But why are you here?” he asked the baby. She smacked her lips together as if she was trying to respond, but otherwise gave no indication she’d heard him. Was her mother somehow connected to the mysterious armed subject he’d been hunting all day? Perhaps the Alphabet Killer had been playing hide-and-seek with the unknown F, and the mother had taken the first opportunity she’d found to get the baby to some kind of safety. That still didn’t explain why Archie Johansen had heard someone on his porch, but it would account for why the baby had been left on his property.

The little girl was now emitting an increasingly loud series of grunts and squeaks, and Ridge felt his heart begin to pound as he realized he had no idea what was wrong with the baby or what to do about it. Apparently dissatisfied with his response, or lack thereof, the baby opened her mouth to emit a piercing wail. Penny dropped her favorite toy and stared up at Ridge, her expression saying more than words ever could. Are you going to deal with this?

“Ah, it’s okay,” he said, awkwardly patting the baby’s little back in what he hoped was a comforting cadence. “Don’t cry. You’re fine.”

This did not have the desired effect. The baby settled into a rhythmic cry that made it clear she had needs and he was failing to meet them. She’s probably hungry, he realized belatedly. Who knows how long it’s been since her last meal?

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