Baby on the Run

By: Hope White

Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.

—Philippians 4:6





Many thanks to expert moms Stephanie Christanson and Cassy Patterson, along with Deputy Sheriff Ryan Sherman and FBI special agent Mike Johnson, for their patience in answering my many questions.





CHAPTER ONE

“You need to protect little Eli.”

Jenna North studied her friend. “What’s this about, Chloe?”

Chloe gazed at her eighteen-month-old son as he clutched a small white polar bear in one hand and ran a wooden train across a coffee table with the other.

Paperwork had kept Jenna late at the Broadlake Foundation, where she worked as development manager, when she received Chloe’s frantic call. Jenna offered to stop by Chloe’s house on the way home, but Chloe rejected the idea. Instead, she came straight over to the school-turned-community-center where the foundation leased space. Jenna hadn’t expected Chloe to bring Eli with her, not at this hour.

“I’ve made some bad choices,” Chloe suddenly confessed.

Haven’t we all? Jenna thought. “God forgives, remember?” The words tasted bitter rolling off her tongue. “Chloe, what’s going on?”

The young mother shook her head.

“Come on. I can’t help unless—”

“I’m scared!”

Eli looked up at his mom with rounded eyes. She pulled him into her arms and rocked slightly. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I’m sorry.” She eyed Jenna. “Promise me you’ll protect him.”

A chill ran down Jenna’s spine. Could she truly make that promise considering she’d been unable to protect her own son?

And even herself?

“Please,” Chloe begged.

Jenna nodded. “I promise.”

Chloe sat back down, clinging to her son. Eli had other ideas. He squirmed against her, so Chloe put him down and he squatted to dig for another toy in his diaper bag. He pulled out a second train and waddled back to the coffee table. Tears formed in Chloe’s eyes as she watched him.

Frustrated, Jenna wondered whom to call for help. Perhaps Chloe’s counselor? Chloe had admitted to struggling with depression in the past.

“Have you called Rosalie?” Jenna asked.

“Why, you think I’m crazy?” Chloe snapped.

“No, I’m just not sure how to help you.”

“You already have.”

“Are you sure there isn’t someone else?”

“Yes.”

A few moments of silence passed between them.

“As long as he has Bubba, his bear, he’ll be fine.” Chloe handed Jenna a piece of paper. “If anything happens to me, keep Eli safe and find this man.”

Jenna glanced at the note and slipped it into her pocket. “Who is it?”

“My cousin Marcus Garcia. He lives north of Missoula, in the mountains. Don’t trust anyone else with Eli, okay?”

Jenna nodded. That wouldn’t be a problem since trusting people was a skill she’d lost years ago.

“Marcus is the only family I’ve got,” Chloe said, wistful.

“What about Gary?”

Chloe sighed. “I was so naive when I married him. I thought he was my Prince Charming.”

Jenna knew that princes only existed in fairy tales.

“But he is Eli’s father,” Jenna said.

“Gary is a selfish man,” Chloe said in a firm tone. “He doesn’t care about us.”

“Chloe—”

“He’s dangerous.” She pinned Jenna with intense eyes. “Gary is a monster.”

Prickles skittered across Jenna’s nerve endings.

Keep it together, Jenna.

“Dangerous how?” Jenna pressed.

Chloe stood suddenly. “I’m going to be sick. Watch Eli.” She rushed across the office and disappeared into the hallway.

“Chloe!” Jenna wanted to go after her, but couldn’t leave Eli alone.

“Mama?” he said.

“She’ll be right back, buddy.”

He clung tighter to his bear. Jenna kneeled beside the table and struggled to smile at Eli. Her own son would have been a little older than Eli now.

I’m sorry, baby Joey.

“Stop,” she whispered and turned her attention to the toddler. “Choo-choo, choo-choo,” she said, running a small wooden train across the table. Eli grabbed another train and mimicked her action.

As she watched him intently move his train back and forth, she couldn’t help but smile. There was something so pure about a child. Most of the time, when she was around kids, she was able to revel in that innocence instead of being pulled down by sadness. Sometimes it allowed a slight ray of hope to pierce through the darkness of her own grief, grief that drove her to start a new life in Cedar River, Montana.

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