Four miracles and a bachelor add up to...one family.
J.D. Grayson agrees that the Brown kids, abandoned by their parents, deserve a loving home. He's just not sure that one man is parent enough for four young children--not if he is that one man. But a persuasive--and mysterious--young woman insists he's exactly what the children need. Now he has to convince twelve-year-old Caleb, fierce guardian of his younger brothers and sister--and then pass muster with Kelsey Malone, Bethlehem's newly arrived social worker.
With one good deed, J.D. finds his life turned upside down. The kids barely talk to him and they won't eat his home-cooked meals. Then he finds himself looking forward to Kelsey's home visits too much. Her buttoned-down suit and tough-as-nails professionalism can't hide the vulnerable woman inside. But haunted by the shattered life he left behind, J.D. doesn't want to risk loving again.
It'll take a miracle to make a family of them all...but as one enigmatic young woman knows, Bethlehem has no small supply of miracles.
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October 01, 1999
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Excerpt from Father to Be by Marilyn Pappano
It was five-thirty on a Friday afternoon when Caleb Brown walked into the grocery store two blocks off Main Street. Though he would have preferred to come earlier so he could get home before dark, circumstances chose the time. It was the end of the week, the beginning of the month, payday, and people were just leaving work and stopping on their way home to do their weekly shopping. The store was too busy for anyone to pay attention to one twelve-year-old kid whose parents were probably around somewhere.
He walked through the produce section as if looking for his mom, then took a turn onto the canned food aisle. The only shoppers there were at the other end and had their backs to him. They didn't see him sweep a half dozen cans of green beans off the shelf and into his backpack. On the next row, no one saw the bags of rice disappear either, or the macaroni, the peanut butter, canned tuna, and two loaves of store-brand bread.
Acting as normally as he could, he slung the full pack over his shoulder by one strap and started toward the front of the store. This was always the hard part--walking past the clerks without making them suspicious. He was sure that if they ever really looked at him, they'd know he was a thief, and so he stared at the floor and hunched his shoulders and tried hard not to make anyone notice him. He must have gotten pretty good at it, because he hadn't been caught yet, but his hands got sweaty and his chest felt like someone was squeezing it tight. He was always afraid that each time would be the time something would go wrong.
Sure enough, it was.
He was almost even with the cash register in the express lane, maybe fifteen feet from the door, when a yank on his backpack jerked him to a stop. He tried to pull free but managed only to twist around enough to see that it was a big man in shirt-sleeves who'd grabbed him and was holding on tight.
"Where do you think you're going?"
Caleb tried to act innocent, but with his face burning hot, he knew it wasn't going to work. "Out to the c-car to--to wait for my mom," he bluffed, but his voice was high, like a girl's, and he couldn't look the man in the eye. "She's--she's getting groceries, and she said I can wait in the car."
"Your mother's in the store getting groceries," the man repeated as if he didn't believe him. "Tell me her name, and I'll have the clerk page her. She can come up to the desk and we'll straighten this out."
"Her--her name . . ." His gaze darting side to side, Caleb looked for a way out. If the guy would ease up just a little, he could slide out of the backpack and run, but the grip was so tight, it was cutting off the blood to his arm. "What's wrong, boy? You forget your mother's name?"
Looking disgusted, the man turned to the customer service desk and the woman working there. "Call the police, Eileen. Tell 'em we've got a shoplifter over here."
A sick feeling rushed up from Caleb's gut. He couldn't let them arrest him. Even if they didn't put him in jail, they'd hold him awhile, and they wouldn't just let him walk out by himself. They'd want to talk to his mom or dad, and then they'd find out everything. He couldn't let that happen. He'd promised.
"L-look, you got the stuff. I didn't t-take nothin'. Just let me go and I won't come back, I swear."
"Yeah, right. This isn't the first time you've stolen from us. Why do you think I've been watching you?"
"You can't call the police!" Caleb shouted and jerked, desperate to get loose. Surprised, the guy pushed him against the counter, forcing his face down until the cold glass was against his cheek, but he still tried to squirm free--until he heard a voice.
"Uncle Nathan, I know that boy. What is that man doing to him?"
Caleb went still, closed his eyes, and wished he could die. Of all the people in the whole stupid town of Bethlehem, New York, she was the one he didn't want to see, not now, not like this. He thought he'd been embarrassed when the guy grabbed him, but that was nothing compared to this. This was a hundred times worse. This was pure humiliation.
He heard footsteps as they came closer, heard a man speak. "Bill, what's the problem?"
"I caught this kid stealing, Nathan--and it's not the first time. He's trying to carry my store off one bag at a time."
"Why don't you let him up? He's not going anywhere, are you, son?"
Caleb didn't want to be let up. He didn't want to stand there, humiliated, in front of her. But Bill let him go and took his backpack at the same time, and he had no choice except to straighten up from the counter. He didn't have to look at her though. Instead, he stared at the floor, hot and sick and scared enough to cry.
"What's your name?" Nathan asked, but Caleb just stared harder at the floor.
When he didn't answer, she did. "It's Caleb Brown. He's in my class at school . . . sometimes."
"Caleb, I'm Nathan Bishop. This is Bill Mitchell, and you already know Alanna."
Nathan offered his hand, but Caleb didn't take it because then she'd see how badly his own hand was shaking. She'd know he was scared, and that would make her feel even sorrier for him. He didn't need anyone's pity, most of all hers, and so he just kept on staring at the floor.
Nathan didn't seem to mind. He turned away and started talking to the store guy about what was in the backpack, but Alanna kept looking at Caleb. What would he see if he looked back? Pity? Shock? Scorn? Would she still talk to him now that she knew he was a thief? Would she tell her friends, who'd always made fun of him anyway?
He didn't know, and he didn't care.
The sounds of the automatic doors opening drew his gaze. The two men were paying no attention to him. If he could get a good head start, he could outrun both of them and make his way through the alleys and back streets to the road that led home. Once he got outside town, they would never find him. They wouldn't even know where to look.
With his muscles tight, his jaw clenched, he moved an inch closer to the door. When neither man noticed, he took another step, bigger this time, and was about to take off, when Nathan Bishop took hold of his collar and pulled him back.
"Have the clerk ring it up," he was saying to Bill, "and I'll pay for it, then Alanna and I will give him a ride home. I'll have a talk with his parents."
Panic made Caleb look at Alanna's uncle for the first time. And he realized just how bad his luck was.
Nathan Bishop was a cop.
There was a loud rushing in Caleb's ears as he tried to think what to do. There was no way he could let a cop take him home. He'd take one look around and know something was bad wrong, and he'd call the welfare people and the sheriff and whoever else.
But there was no way to get loose either. Even when Nathan paid for the food, he pulled the money out with his left hand and kept a tight grip on Caleb with his right.
"Thanks for handling this, Nathan," the store guy said as they started toward the door.
Caleb considered dragging his feet, or grabbing hold of the rail that separated the in door from the out, or tearing off his shirt, but instead he let the cop pull him outside and across the parking lot to his truck--the black and white one with the light bar and the seven-pointed star on the door. Surely he would let go of him there, just for a minute, and then Caleb could run like hell. He knew some places to hide.
But Nathan didn't let him go. He unlocked and opened the passenger door, pushed the seat forward, and sort of helped, sort of pushed Caleb into the backseat. Then Alanna got in the front and Nathan got behind the wheel and he was trapped with no way to escape.
Trapped. Like a scared animal.
There were people in town who thought his whole family wasn't much better than animals--people who laughed at him and his brothers and sister because their clothes were shabby and didn't fit, and they weren't clean and were poor and the little kids were hungry most of the time. Alanna had never been like those people, but now that she knew he was a thief, she might be. She hadn't even said a word to him so far. She'd talked about him, but not to him, like maybe she was ashamed to know him.
Hell, he wouldn't have answered her if she had spoken to him.
"Which way, Caleb?" Nathan asked.
He answered in his angriest, most sullen voice. "Take Tenth Street east out of town."
No one said anything as they drove. The cop didn't ask what he was doing in town by himself and did his parents know he was shoplifting from the grocery store, and why was he doing that anyway? Alanna didn't mention the last month of school that he'd missed or the end-of-the-year picnic at City Park or what she was doing for summer vacation. As for Caleb, he had no time for conversation. He had plans to make.
By the time they reached the crossroads near old Mr. Hayes's place, he'd come up with the best chance he was likely to get. As soon as the cop passed the mailboxes clumped together on the far side of the road, he spoke up. "Hey, that's our mailbox back there. Can I get our mail?"
Nathan was giving him a distrusting look in the rearview mirror, but he stopped, shifted into reverse, and backed up.
"Don't get too close. Ours is the one falling over backward. You can't reach it from the car. I'll have to get out." It really was their mailbox, and looked it. It had been beaten in and hammered back out too many times to count. The bottom of the post had rotted away, and it tilted so far that only the barbed wire fence kept it from falling down. The lid was broken off, and when it rained, the mail inside would get soaked, if there ever was any.
There hadn't been for more months than he could remember.
Nathan came to a stop in the middle of the road, and Caleb scooted onto the edge of the seat. The backpack with the groceries was on the opposite floorboard, but he couldn't reach for it, couldn't risk getting seen. His nerves were tingling, his hands getting sweaty, as he prepared to make his big break.
Then Nathan looked at him. "Sit back, Caleb. Alanna? Do you mind?"
"Of course not."
Caleb waited until she circled the truck, then he dove through the open door. He hit the ground hard, rolled, and came up on his feet, then vaulted the fence and headed into the woods. The trees grew heavy, and their branches scraped his skin and tore at his shirt, but he didn't slow down. He heard shouts behind him--Alanna calling his name, the cop yelling at her to wait in the truck--then the sounds of pursuit, and he ran faster, blindly crashing through the undergrowth.
Stinging sweat dripped into his eyes, and he wiped them with his shirt-sleeve. His side was beginning to ache and his breaths were labored when he saw the fallen tree ahead. He couldn't go under it, and with all the brush along the sides, he couldn't go around. That left only over. He hit it at a run, the bark biting into his hands as he scrambled for a hold. He thought he'd found one, when abruptly he went sailing over the tree. He landed on the other side, then something dropped on top of him and pinned him there.
"Why'd you run, Caleb?" Nathan Bishop demanded.
With one side of his face pressed into the dirt, Caleb muttered, "You figure it out."
"I'd say it's because you're scared to go home--scared to let your folks know you got caught stealing. But even if you'd gotten away from me tonight, I would have shown up tomorrow. They still would have known." He breathed in a couple of times, deep and loud. "If I let you up, will you promise not to run off again?"
"No," Caleb replied, but he let go anyway. Caleb sat up and wiped dirt from his face.
"Lilah Brown is your mother, isn't she?"
"I don't have a mother." Not since 'she'd walked out two years before, when she'd gotten tired of being poor and never having money to spend on pretty things. She'd found a man who didn't mind buying pretty things, and she'd left her family behind. She didn't want them, and they didn't want her.
"So you live with your father. It must be hard for him, taking care of the farm and you kids all by himself."
Gritting his teeth, Caleb fingered a new hole in his shirt and said nothing.
"With him working so hard, he wouldn't be happy to find out you'd been caught stealing, would he? Unless maybe he put you up to it. Was that it? He figured they'd go easier on a kid than on him?"
"My dad doesn't steal!"
"So you're afraid of what he'll do when he finds out that you do. Will he punish you? Beat you? Hurt you?"
"No! Of course he won't! He loves us! Don't say he doesn't!"
"It has nothing to do with love, Caleb. Some people hurt their kids without meaning to. They love them. They just don't know how to deal with them."
"Not my dad! He'd never hurt us--never! He loves us and takes real good care of us!"
"Then why are you stealing food?"
Caleb slumped against the tree trunk. The shadows were getting deeper. Before long it would be dark. Maybe then he'd stand a better chance of getting away. But he didn't know these woods, and he didn't like the dark. Bad things happened in the dark--like his dad leaving.
"Is your father at home waiting for you, Caleb?"
"Yes," Caleb lied. "He'll be worried."
"Then let's get you home so he doesn't have to worry."
Caleb didn't get up, and neither did the cop. He was looking at Caleb real hard, as if he could see everything and his voice when he started talking again was soft, pitying, because he'd already figured out the truth. "Your father isn't home, is he, Caleb? He left, like your mom did."
"No! He's coming back. He said he would, and he always does what he said."
"How long has he been gone?"
Caleb stared at the ground, wishing a hole would open up and transport him away from there. Sometimes it seemed like that was what had happened to their dad. He'd just disappeared.
"Caleb? How long?"
He wanted to lie, but it wouldn't work. Now that the cop believed his dad was gone, nothing would change his mind except seeing him, and there wasn't much chance of that happening. "I don't know." But he knew exactly--thirty-nine days. Somehow that sounded better than nearly six weeks or a month and a half.
"Come on." Nathan stood up and pulled Caleb up too, then held on to his arm as they started back toward the road. They hadn't gone far at all. In just a few minutes they were back at the truck, where Alanna was watching anxiously from the front seat.
"Where do you live?"
Caleb nudged gravel with his foot.
"You can tell me, Caleb, or the sheriff's department. It's your choice."
The cop was wrong. He didn't have any more choices. They'd run out when the store guy had grabbed him.
He gestured grudgingly down the road. "It's that way. Turn left at the first road and go all the way to the end."
Nathan put him in the backseat again, then pulled away from the mailboxes. Caleb stared out the side window. Thirty-nine days. That was all it had taken for him to screw up--to disappoint his father and put his family in danger. Less than six weeks. Not even a month and a half.
Just thirty-nine lousy days.