Hush Now Baby
Sloane Monroe Series #6
Chapter One Sneak Peek
Serena Westwood peeled back the quilt atop her four-poster bed and climbed in, reeling the covers over her shivering body until she’d cocooned herself inside. It was early September, and already the frigid fall air crept through the valley, misting it like a damp sheet struggling in the wind.
After a long, noise-filled day, all was still. There was a time when Serena loved the quiet, basked in the gentle, serene calm, but not now. Now she had more than herself to consider. At thirty-nine years old, Serena had almost convinced herself the role of “mother” was meant for everyone but her. She’d spent many restless nights in the same bed she rested in now, trying to accept the reality that she, and her husband, Jack, would remain childless forever. And yet, here she was, the proud new mother of a sweet baby boy.
Before Finn was born, Jack and Serena had run the gamut, trying everything from artificial insemination to in-vitro fertilization. Nothing took. Her womb, desolate and barren, had rejected it all. When conceiving a baby themselves was out of the question, they turned to surrogacy. Three potential candidates were interviewed. All were rejected. Another round of women were selected. None seemed like the right fit.
On the way home from the market one wintery afternoon, an SUV struck a patch of ice on the road. The vehicle careened into the oncoming lane, sideswiping Serena’s Subaru in the process. While waiting for police to arrive, Serena had taken refuge inside the Precious Gift Adoption Agency. A firm believer in fate, Serena found herself explaining her unsuccessful plight to Teresa, one of the case workers. Teresa was empathetic, her own struggle mirroring much of what Serena herself had endured, but Teresa’s attitude was different. In Teresa’s mind, infertility had led her to the greatest gift of all—adoption—and she prevailed upon Serena to think of adoption the same way.
One week and several conversations later, Jack and Serena filled out the necessary paperwork. And although Teresa cautioned them at the onset, saying the wait time for a newborn baby could be two years or more, a mere three months passed before a birth mother selected Serena and Jack as her adoptive parents. Four months later, Finn made his opening debut.
The faint hum of a stirring baby jolted Serena awake. She peered at the clock on the nightstand. Four a.m. It seemed like only minutes had elapsed since she rested her head on the pillow, and already, it was feeding time again.
“Mommy’s coming, Finn.” Her melodic voice drifted down the hall.
Serena coiled a tattered robe around her body, cinching it in front of her waist. She picked a few bobby pins out of the terry-cloth pocket and twisted her long, blond locks into a bun. She squeezed the lids over her hazel eyes open and shut a few times, forcing herself awake.
The frigid chill of the tiles beneath her feet as she made her way down the hall were a stern reminder to leave her slippers by her bedroom door next time. She entered the kitchen, her mind doing most of the work for her, having memorized her every move. After performing the same routine night after night, intelligent thought was no longer required. The bottles practically made themselves.
Cupping the bottle in her hand, Serena stirred the formula and water together and popped it into the microwave. She watched the hardened plastic revolve around and around on the circular glass tray like a carousel. For a moment, her eyes closed and she found sleep again until Finn’s desperate cries grew louder. She was used to the baby fussing, but he’d never been this agitated before.
“Almost there,” she called. “Mommy’s coming.”
She still wasn’t used to the name.
The microwave dinged. She removed the bottle and dipped her pinkie finger inside, ensuring the formula had heated just right. Perfect. She screwed the lid on and paused. The crying had stopped.
Had he fallen back to sleep?
Tiptoeing to the other side of the house, she snuck up to the crib and peered inside. A wave of panic gripped her. There was no baby.
A low chirp prompted Serena to whip around. She saw nothing at first, but then she fixed her eyes on the wall. A dark shadow in the shape of a person blackened its surface. Her eyes trailed the shadow to its source—the bedroom door.
“Who’s there?” Her voice trembled.
Her eyes tore across the lamp-lit room. Armed with nothing but the baby’s bottle, she saw no way to defend herself from the assumed attacker. Her mind raced back to a self-defense class she’d taken years earlier, remembering something the instructor had said about fingers being a person’s most viable weapon. “Jab them in the eyes,” he’d said, lecturing the room full of women on how to handle an intruder. “Fast and hard. Don’t think about it. Just do it.”
A knot wrenched her gut. “I asked who’s there. Show yourself.” She thought about adding the word “please,” but didn’t want to sound weak.
There was no movement, but a second faint squeak emitted from Finn’s mouth.
“Who are you?” she cried. “Why do you have my baby? Come out. I know you’re there.”
A man spoke, but not to her. “Hush now.” His voice was rugged, and yet soothing enough to quiet the child.
The man remained behind the door, toying with Serena. But why? She shaped her fingers into a stiff V and surged forward. The man stepped out. He had the height of a basketball player and the largest hands she’d ever seen. In one hand he held Finn. In the other, a Sig Sauer .45, aimed right at her.
“Back…up,” he demanded. “Now.”
Staring down the barrel of a gun, Serena shied away, seeing no alternative than to comply with his demand.
“Why do you have my baby?” she whispered.
He bounced Finn up and down, his eyes never breaking contact with Serena’s terrified face. “My baby.”
“What do you mean your baby?”
A nervous laugh escaped from the man’s lips.
Finn started to cry.
“He’s frightened,” Serena said. “Let me hold him. Please. You’re scaring him!”
She attempted to place the bottle on the nightstand.
“I was just going to—”
“Your hands,” he grunted. “Keep them where I can see them.”
She wasn’t sure whether to hoist them in the air, palms forward, like she was a hostage in a robbery or to let them fall to the side. He picked up on her uncertainty.
“Just … cross your arms or something.”
In his eyes she detected inner conflict, like he was wrestling with the decision of whether to keep Finn or give him back. Or maybe she had it all wrong. Maybe he was trying to decide whether she lived or died. His hands were steady, not pulsating like hers. Why was he there? What was his motivation? She tried appealing to his sensitive side, if he had one.
“My son’s name is Finn. We adopted him a few weeks ago. He’s our only—”
“Shut your mouth, lady. I don’t care.”
Finn squirmed, growing restless in the man’s hand.
Without stepping forward, Serena reached her hands out in front of her.
“Don’t … move,” the man said through gritted teeth.
He crossed in front of Serena, eased Finn back into the crib.
“We have a safe,” she added. “I’ll show you where it is. Okay?”
With the slowest of movements, she put one foot in front of the other, easing her way toward the door.
“You think I’m here to rob you?”
“Aren’t you?” she asked, without looking back.
“Lady, if I wanted to rip you off, I would have done it already.”
“If you don’t want money, what do you want?”
Thoughts swirled around in her mind, each more sinister than the one before. She breathed in, but it made no difference. It felt like all the air to the room had been sucked out. Another thought occurred: Is he here to rape me?
She reminisced on how grateful she’d been when her husband switched from days to swing shift at work. The bump in pay allowed them to come up with the adoption money they needed. Now she wished Jack was here.
Serena wrapped her arms around herself and bowed her head, pointing the way to the master bedroom at the other end of the hall. “Just get it over with … and then I want you to leave.”
“I’m sorry about this. Really, I am. Why couldn’t you have stayed asleep?”
“Why couldn’t I…?” But it was too late.