Prologue and Chapter 1
When Alex regained consciousness she was surrounded by thick darkness. The air was hot and heavy, making it difficult to breath. Her hands were tied in front of her and her feet were bound tightly together. Then she realized she was in the trunk of a moving car.
Panic and fear collided in her chest. What was going on? Who would do this to her and why? With all the willpower she possessed, she forced herself to stay calm, to breath slowly, and to think clearly. But her heart pounded and her nerves sparked with terror. A thousand thoughts tore through her mind at once. She searched for one that made sense out of what was happening, but found nothing.
In less than one week, she and Rich would be going to the temple to be married after almost an entire year of waiting. She'd met Rich and they'd fallen in love while she was visiting her sister, Jamie, and her husband in Island Park, Idaho. Jamie had been expecting a third time after two devastating miscarriages, and Alex had come, hoping to offer some support. Rich was her brother-in-law's business partner, and everything she'd ever hoped for in a man but thought she'd never find. He'd nearly lost her because of his fear of commitment but had realized his mistake before it was too late. Although Alex's recent baptism meant they would have to wait almost a year to be married in the temple, Alex knew there was no other place to be married.
But now Alex wondered if her abductor would let her live to see the day.
Please, Heavenly Father, this can't be happening! She thought as her body shook with fear, and tears of helplessness slipped down her cheeks. But there was no denying it. She'd been kidnapped.
It was the last thing anyone expected on a relaxed Friday evening as Alex McCarty stretched out on the living room floor, discussing her wedding plans with her sister, Jamie. Jamie's husband, Steve, and Alex's fiancee, Rich, were only minimally interested in the "girl talk," preferring to discuss last night's big game.
"I can't believe it's only six more weeks until the wedding," Jamie said. "And you'll be in San Diego for one of those weeks, at that fitness convention. Are you going to be able to get everything done?" At seven and a half months pregnant, she winced and shifted uncomfortably. After three previous miscarriages, she was understandably nervous about this pregnancy. Even this far along in the pregnancy she was still afraid to hope, and no one dared suggest anything could go wrong with this pregnancy. Still, it was at the forefront of everyone's thoughts and fears as they nervously and anxiously awaited the blessed event.
In fact, it was because of Jamie's last miscarriage that Alex had taken time off from her work as an national fitness instructor and lecturer to visit Jamie in Island Park, Idaho, and offer moral support. During her visit, Alex had gained a testimony of the Church and gotten baptized. She had also met and fallen in love with Rich Greenwood, Steve's best friend and business partner.
After a fire had devastated the outdoor equipment rental business that Rich and Steve ran together, Steve had decided to go back to school for a law degree. He'd always wanted to be an attorney, but had let other interests get in the way of actually going after this goal. He and Jamie, with their adopted daughter, Andrea Nicole, moved to Salt Lake City, where Steve was applying to the University of Utah Law School.
His mission president had gone to the "U" law school and was a partner at one of Salt Lake's most prestigious law firms. Steve hoped President Simon's letter of recommendation would help.
Steve and Jamie enjoyed living in Salt Lake. They had found a cute duplex in the Sugarhouse area of Salt Lake City, close to the University campus, nestled in the northeast bench of the Wasatch Mountains.
When Steve and Jamie decided to leave Island Park, Alex and Rich agreed that there was nothing to keep them there either. They had discussed their future, fasting and praying to know where to make their new home after the wedding. Rich had already left the recreation business even before the fire to pursue painting full-time. With his growing reputation as an artist and Alex's travel demands for her work, moving to Salt Lake to be near the airport was the perfect solution.
In addition, Alex's mother was a frequent visitor, spending more time in Salt Lake than she did in New York. Alex still traveled occasionally back to California, but she was beginning to feel that Salt Lake was home. She and her mother shared an apartment at a complex just south of Jamie and Steve. Rich had an apartment in the same complex. With everyone living in close proximity, it was easy to spend time together.
When he wasn't painting, Rich devoted every possible moment to the new house they were building. Alex joined him whenever she wasn't traveling for her work. She loved the location they'd chosen-high enough on the east bench of Bountiful, north of Salt Lake City, to have a spectacular view, but secluded enough to give them privacy.
Their floor plan allowed plenty of space for Rich's art studio, a workout room in the basement, a nursery close to the master bedroom, and an extra bedroom upstairs to be used for company. Alex and Rich had encountered a few problems with the house-but Alex refused to think about those tonight.
As Jamie continued to shift positions, trying to get comfortable, Alex empathized with her sister's aching back, swollen ankles, and constant heartburn. Nevertheless, she knew this was what Jamie wanted. Jamie had waited so long to have a baby and had nearly lost hope of ever having children. Then she and Steve had adopted little Andrea Nicole.
Has it been almost a year since they brought Nikki home? Alex mused. And fourteen months since I met Rich? It was difficult to remember life before Rich; she couldn't imagine it without him. And now, finally, after nearly an entire year of waiting, she was getting married in six short weeks-and in the temple, no less.
"Alex," Jamie repeated. "I asked you a question, but you look like you're off in never-never land."
Before Alex could respond, an unexpected knock came at the door. Four surprised faces looked at the door, and then at each other.
"You didn't arrange something with the home teachers, did you, honey?" Jamie asked her husband suspiciously.
"No, I swear, I didn't, " Steve said, holding his right hand up to promise on his honor. "I learned my lesson last time."
"I wonder who it could be," Jamie said, struggling a little to stand and answer the door.
"I'll get it, honey." Steve hopped to his feet and raced to the door. He opened it to find a stranger, a man who was definitely in the wrong neighborhood. The man wore black jeans and a black t-shirt under a black leather vest. A chain hung from a belt loop and was tucked into his pocket. He had tattoos on both forearms and had two earrings in one ear. Alex suspected he had a Harley in the parking lot.
"Hello," the stranger said gruffly. "My name is Clint Nichols. I'd like to talk to you about my daughter."
"I'm sorry," Steve said, obviously confused, "but are you sure you have the right address?"
"Are you the Dixons?"
Exchanging a puzzled look with Jamie, Steve nodded his head slowly. Jamie joined him at the door, curious to find out what this was all about.
The man looked satisfied. "Then you're the right ones. I was told you adopted my baby daughter."
"Steve," Jamie's voice grew weak, along with her knees. Steve placed a supportive arm around her.
"What is this?" he demanded, glaring at the stranger. "Who are you?"
"I told you," he repeated. "My name is Clint Nichols. I'm the baby's father and I want to talk to you about her."
Steve and Jamie didn't speak for a moment, then Steve motioned for the man to come inside. Inviting the man to take a chair, Steve sat beside Jamie, her face ashen, her eyes wide and full of fear.
"Now, Mr. Nichols," Steve said, "do you want to tell me what this is all about?"
The man took a deep breath. His words sounded rehearsed, as if he had practiced his lines to make sure he said them right. "Several days ago I went to a funeral for a woman I knew. Her name was Coralyn. I learned she had a baby and gave it up for adoption."
"Sh-she died?" Jamie gasped.
The man nodded. "In a car accident. I heard about it from the people at the diner where she worked. I stopped in there on my way to deliver a load to Missoula."
"Why are you here? Why are you telling us this?" Jamie asked. The fear in her face tore at Alex's heart. After all she had been through, was Jamie about to lose her daughter now?
Jamie and Steve had been warned that adoption carried some risks. But when Jamie's obstetrician, Dr. David Rawlins had placed the baby in her arms and told her that the child's mother didn't want to keep her, both Jamie and Steve had felt an instant bond with the tiny girl; they felt surely that it was meant to be. They had already made their decision before the lawyer who had drawn up the papers assured them there was practically no risk of the unknown father stepping forward. Alex and Rich had been at the hospital with them, and Alex had helped Jamie with little Nikki for those first difficult weeks while the infant struggled with the drugs in her system. She had been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, a legacy of a mother with a substance abuse problem.
Alex forced herself to listen as Clint Nichols continued to speak. "Me and Coralyn, well," he paused, "we had somethin' goin' for a while. And when I heard she died, I wanted to pay my respects to her, so I made arrangements with another trucker to finish my run and I went to the funeral. Coralyn's sister Bonnie told me that Coralyn talked about me and even said she thought I was the baby's father."
Steve and Jamie sat with both hands clasped together between them. Alex was grateful that little Nikki was asleep in her room. This guy didn't seem like a convicted kidnapper or thug, but they all felt a serious threat from his mere presence. Alex hated to think what he might have said or done if he had seen Nikki.
"'Course I didn't want to bother you people 'til I knew for sure. Bonnie said Coralyn told her the names of the people who adopted the baby on the legal papers, and all's I needed was to get the name of the county the baby was born in and the date of the adoption."
Alex frowned at this information. She had always thought adoption papers were sealed documents.
As if he could read her mind, Clint looked uncomfortably around at the four suspicious faces staring at him. "I know it don't seem like I'm a nice, upstandin' fella and all," he said, somewhat defensively, "but if this is my child-one I had no idea was mine, mind you-I thought I should take some responsibility for it. I really did love Coralyn, but she was a stubborn woman and wouldn't let no man control her life again." When no one spoke right away, he mumbled, "I just want to do what's right."
Jamie spoke at last, the pain evident in her voice. "But she's ours-we've adopted her legally. She's been sealed to us." Her eyes pleaded for the stranger to understand and go away.
Clint shrugged. "You gotta see it from where I stand," he argued. "You see, I didn't even have no say in what happened to this kid when she was born. If Coralyn had told me she was pregnant, I'd-a stayed with her and helped her out. She didn't give me no choice, though. So now I feel an obligation to try and make it right to her. 'Specially now that she's dead and left four other young'uns with her sister."
Steve spoke up now. "You said if this child is yours. Are you sure without a doubt that she is?"
Clint stuck out his chin. "Accordin' to Bonnie I am," he said, "but she did say Coralyn had a lot of men friends and wasn't exactly positive about it. Now I found out that accordin' to Idaho state law there's something called a 'Putative Father Statute' that allows the natural birth father to reclaim the child at any time if he hasn't signed a form releasing all parental rights. I asked a lawyer friend of mine about this," he stated proudly.
Alex didn't like where this conversation was headed. She watched nervously as Steve leaned forward on the edge of his seat and said tersely, "Listen, Mr. Nichols, I don't know what you plan to do-"
"I plan to take care of my child, the way any father would," Clint interrupted.
Steve's eyes hardened. "As I was saying, Mr. Nichols, I don't know what you plan to do, but unless you have a positive paternity test proving that you are, in fact, the baby's father, I really don't see any need to continue this conversation. I think it's time for you to leave."
Clint Nichols looked confused. "Wait! What do you mean, paternity test?"
But Steve was clearly out of patience. He marched to the door and yanked it open. "Mr. Nichols, if this is as important to you as you say it is, I'm sure you'll figure it out," he said curtly. "Until then, we'd better not see you anywhere near our home again or I'll call the police and have you arrested for harassment."
"But-" the man stumbled to his feet "I-I just-"
Steve's voice was glacial. "I mean it, Mr. Nichols. You'd better leave."
Almost as if it was his cue, Rich stood to add force to Steve's words. His tall, well-built frame was imposing, although Alex knew he would never consciously hurt a soul. Clint Nichols looked at both men, then turned on his boot heel and left. Steve slammed the door behind him and locked it.
For a moment no one spoke, then Jamie burst into tears. Her worst nightmare had just come true.