Colton Baby Homecoming(2)

By: Lara Lacombe

He pulled up next to the cabin and shut off the engine, then opened the door for Penny. She jumped out with a graceful leap, but Ridge could tell by the set of her ears and the look in her eyes she was just as tired as he. A nice, relaxing evening would do them both a world of good.

After grabbing his bag and locking up the truck, he started for the back door. It took him a few steps to realize Penny wasn’t with him. She’d stayed behind, her nose lifted as she sniffed the spring air.

Probably a raccoon, maybe a squirrel, he thought, pausing to watch her. Penny was a highly trained and very skilled search and rescue operator, but she was still a dog. When she was working, she maintained a laser-like, almost unshakable focus, but when she was off duty, she was just as susceptible to the taunting of small woodland creatures as any other dog. He’d give her a few minutes to enjoy herself outside, but then they really needed to get cleaned up.

He expected her to take a quick roll in the grass and rejoin him, but she kept her nose in the air. It was the same behavior she exhibited when she’d found the scent trail of a human, and Ridge felt the skin on the back of his neck tighten. Had someone been near his cabin lately? He had no neighbors for miles around, and there was no reason anyone should have come looking for him today. Why then was Penny acting as if she’d caught a trail?

After what seemed like an eternity, Penny dropped her head and met his gaze. She let out a short, sharp yip and cocked her ears forward, the signal she used to let him know she was on to something. Intrigued, Ridge gave her the command she wanted: “Find it.”

She took off, racing around the corner of the house. Ridge followed at a slightly slower pace, but he wasn’t worried about her running away. Penny would stay put once she’d found the source of her interest, and her bark would tell him exactly where she was.

As it turned out, he didn’t have to go far. He rounded the corner of the house just in time to see her jump onto the front porch. She headed straight for the wooden bench that sat overlooking the drive, plopped her butt down on the weathered boards, and began emitting her characteristic “I found it!” bark with all the gusto of an opera singer.

Ridge bounded up the steps and joined her, placing his hand on her head to let her know he was there and she could stop barking. She immediately quieted, but kept her gaze fixed on the floor behind the bench. Ridge leaned forward, squinting into the shadows. The front porch faced east, and the thunderclouds threatening overhead obscured the last rays of the setting sun, making it nearly impossible for him to determine what Penny had discovered. He dug a flashlight out of his bag and flicked on the light, then nearly dropped it when he realized what he was looking at.

“Oh my God,” he breathed, hardly daring to believe his eyes.

One of those big plastic carriers sat on his porch, the kind people used when driving around a baby. There was a blanket draped over the top, so he couldn’t tell if the seat was occupied. But Penny wouldn’t have signaled if the thing was empty...

Ridge reached forward, his heart in his throat. He pushed the covering aside and bit back a curse.

How in the world did a baby wind up on his front porch?

* * *

What the hell?

Ridge stared down at the infant, now safely inside and sleeping peacefully. The little one had stirred at the sound of Penny’s barking, but had drifted off again when Ridge had picked up the carrier and moved it into the cabin. He didn’t know much about infants, but it seemed odd that this one was so quiet. Weren’t babies supposed to cry a lot?

He glanced down at Penny, but she offered him no guidance. She looked from him to the baby and back again expectantly, and he realized he’d forgotten to reward her for her find. A spike of guilt pierced through his shock, and he moved quickly to dig her favorite toy out of his bag. “Good girl,” he crooned as he presented it, giving her some extra ear scratches. Search and rescue dogs were motivated by positive reinforcement, and he’d never before forgotten to treat her right away after she’d done her job.

Of course, he’d never encountered a baby on his front porch, either.

“Where did you come from?” he murmured.

There had been no signs of anyone around his cabin, so he had no way of knowing how long the baby had been out there. His stomach twisted at the thought of the helpless infant left to the mercy of the elements, and a flash of anger warmed his chest. Who in their right mind left a baby on a stranger’s porch? What kind of parent did that to a child? He glanced outside, noting the rotten-egg-green color of the sky. Bad weather was coming. A thunderstorm for sure, maybe even hail and a tornado. If he hadn’t made it home when he did...

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