Authors: Patricia Davids
Tags: #Fiction, #Religious, #Romance, #General
At the corner, she turned and headed down Lexington. It was then that Mick thought he knew where she was going. The Lexington Street Shelter was about six blocks farther on. Had she been walking all this way to see the baby every day?
She paused at the side of an old brick building and reached out a hand to steady herself. Without warning, she crumpled to the pavement.
Mick broke into a run. Darting across the rain-filled street, he dodged a taxi and almost bowled over a man waiting at the crosswalk. Ignoring the indignant shout behind him, he raced to the fallen woman and dropped to his knees beside her. Her eyes fluttered open as he lifted her by the shoulders. “Caitlin, are you all right? Caitlin, answer me!”
“Mick? What are you doing here?”
“Never mind that. Are you okay?”
“I think so.” She raised a trembling hand to the back of her head and winced. Lowering her hand, she stared at the blood smeared across her palm. “Or maybe not.”
“Let me see.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Easing her head forward, Mick probed her scalp with hands that were less than steady. He located a knot, but it was too dark to see the damage.
“You’ve got a goose egg. It doesn’t feel like a bad wound, but I can’t tell for sure. Can you stand?”
“I think so.” She made an effort to rise.
He helped her up and steadied her once she gained her feet. She bowed her head and leaned heavily against him. He wrapped his arms around her and held her close. The feeling of her safe in his arms brought a rush of gratitude.
Thank You, God, for prompting me to follow her.
The trembling woman he held was so slight that he thought a single gust of Chicago’s notorious wind might blow her away. She lifted her face to gaze at him. Possessed with the need to keep her safe, Mick bent his head and covered her trembling lips with a gentle kiss. For a second, she seemed to melt against him and it felt so wonderfully right. Then she stiffened and pushed away.
Pulling back, Mick stared into her eyes now wide with surprise. She bit the corner of her lip and looked away. A tremor shook her slender body.
“We need to get you out of this rain.” Mick took a firm grip on her elbow as he led the way out of the alley and back toward the busy street. Within minutes he had flagged down a cab.
Caitlin gave the cabby the address of the shelter, then lapsed into silence in the backseat. Mick pulled off his jacket and tucked it around her. It was damp, but it still retained some of his body heat and he didn’t have anything else to offer. He considered putting his arm around her, but thought better of it. The kiss had been a mistake. While she hadn’t protested his embrace, she had clearly been surprised by it and perhaps even a little frightened. Adding to her fright was the last thing he wanted.
When the taxi pulled up to the curb in front of the shelter Caitlin handed him his jacket. “Thanks, Mick.”
She opened the door and stepped out, but he was close behind her. After telling the driver to wait, Mick took her arm and hustled her toward the door of the building.
Once inside, he halted in the lobby lit by a single bulb in a bare socket in the ceiling. The place was packed with men and women sitting and lying around the perimeter of the room. The rank smells of unkempt bodies and dirty, wet clothes laced the thick air.
Ignoring the squalor around him, Mick took Caitlin by the shoulders. “Let me have a look at your head. I’m not going to leave you here if you should be in an emergency room.”
Wordlessly, she turned around. Her meekness sent a small jolt of worry through him. Once he was satisfied it wasn’t a deep cut he pulled her around and took a closer look at her eyes. Her skin that should have been cold from the damp rain was hot to his touch.
“I’m fine, Mick, don’t fret.” Her voice, so timid and soft, sent alarm bells ringing in his mind. This wasn’t right. It wasn’t the Caitlin he knew.
“You don’t look fine. You look like a drowned cat. What you need is a hot bath, dry clothes and a filling meal,” Mick stated firmly.
“That’s just what I’ll do, Mick. You don’t have to hang around.”
“Ha!” said a woman seated on the floor of the lobby. “They ain’t got a tub here, only a drizzling shower and the water ain’t never hot.”
Mick frowned. “You’ve got to be kidding.” Glancing around at the ragged men and women lining the room, he knew she wasn’t. Not all of the shelters in town were as well-equipped or as well-funded as Mercy House.
“She can’t get nothin’ to eat, neither. They done served the last meal, and the kitchen ain’t open again till morning.”
Suddenly, the pieces began to fall into place. Caitlin wasn’t using drugs, she was exhausted and undernourished.
“Mick, I’ll be fine. I’ll go right to bed. All I need is a little sleep.” Even as she spoke, Caitlin’s knees buckled and she would have fallen if he hadn’t scooped her up.
“You aren’t fine, and you aren’t staying here.” He and the nurses had misjudged Caitlin badly. Her only crime was that she didn’t know how to ask for help. He turned and carried her toward the door.
“Where you takin’ her?” the woman called after him.
“To my place. I’ll bring her back when she’s able to take care of herself.”
“They won’t hold her bed. If she ain’t in it by ten, they’ll give it to somebody else.”
“Let them!” The door closed behind him with a bang.
he taxi driver cast Mick a puzzled look when he deposited Caitlin in the backseat and climbed in beside her, but didn’t make any comment. As the cab pulled away, Caitlin’s head lolled to Mick’s shoulder, and this time he didn’t hesitate to drape an arm around her and pull her close.
“I don’t want to go home with you,” Caitlin said. A shiver coursed through her.
“I’m not giving you a choice.” Mick glanced at her, but her eyes were closed, and she missed the amusement that curved his lips into a smile. He was relieved to hear some defiance creeping back into her voice. She attempted to sit up, but Mick pressed her back against his chest. It felt right to hold her close. For now, it was enough to know that she was safe.
All too soon, the cab pulled to a stop in front of Mick’s home. He paid the driver, then gently lifted Caitlin from the car.
“I can walk,” she protested weakly.
“So can I,” Mick countered.
“I mean, you don’t have to carry me.”
“I want to.”
That silenced her, or maybe she was simply too exhausted to put up more of an argument. On the porch, he set her feet down long enough to locate his keys and unlock the door, but he kept a firm grip on her with one arm. When the door swung open, he scooped her up and carried her inside.
Nikki gave a woof of a greeting from her spot by the fireplace. Mick lowered Caitlin to the sofa. With a quick tug, he pulled the worn, fuzzy throw emblazoned with the Chicago Bears logo from the back of the couch and swaddled it around her. Nikki rose and ventured across the room.
“You have a dog?”
Mick didn’t understand the wistful tone that filled Caitlin’s voice.
“This is Nikki. She won’t hurt you.”
Wagging her tail in greeting, Nikki sat down and promptly laid her head on Caitlin’s lap. One of Caitlin’s hands crept out from between the folds of the blanket to stroke the dog’s head. “She’s beautiful.”
Mick patted the dog’s side with a quick thump. “She’s a good old girl. She wouldn’t hurt a flea. I’m sure she’d hold the door open for a burglar and then lick his face just to show him how happy she was for the company.”
Why was he standing here babbling about the dog? The woman on his sofa looked ready to keel over. He frowned. “When was the last time you had something to eat?”
“I don’t know.”
She didn’t answer. He turned and headed for the kitchen. He searched through the cabinets until he located a box of instant soup. It would be fast and it would warm her up. He poured the powdered broth and tiny noodles into a thick white mug then put the kettle on to boil. When the kettle began to whistle, he filled the cup, cooled it with an ice cube and carefully carried it in to Caitlin.
She was where he’d left her, only her head was lying back against the sofa. The fingers of one hand were still threaded through the long fur of Nikki’s ear, and the dog watched her with adoring eyes. Nikki shifted her gaze to Mick as he came into the room, but she didn’t move until he nudged her aside with his knee. Gently, Mick laid a hand on Caitlin’s shoulder. “Wake up.”
“Go away,” she said without opening her eyes.
“No. Come on, sit up a minute.”
“I said, go away.”
“And I said, no.”
She peeked out from under one lid. “You’re a mean man.”
“I know, but I have my good points.”
“I’ve got a cup of hot soup here.”
Both her eyes shot open. “That would be a good point.”
“Think you can drink this before it gets cold?”
She reached out with both hands. “Even if I have to fight the dog for it.”
Mick chuckled, but he didn’t miss how her hands shook before they closed around the mug. “Don’t worry, Nikki is a picky eater. I’m afraid instant chicken noodle soup is beneath her notice.”
Caitlin took a tentative sip, then a longer one. With a murmur of appreciation, she licked her lips as she clutched the mug close to her chest and bent her face to inhale the fragrant steam. “Her loss. This is good.”
“I’m glad you like it.”
“It’s fantastic,” she murmured as she raised the cup to her lips and took another sip. She gripped that mug like it was the last meal she was ever going to get. He could make sure that it wasn’t, and he could see that she had a decent place to live, as well.
He had plenty of room here. He practically rattled around in this big, old house when he was home—which wasn’t all that often. Somehow, he’d convince her to stay here. He owed her that much for his unjust suspicions. She wasn’t going to get back on her feet staying at that run-down shelter. She needed help. He intended to see that she got it. “I’m going to let my mom know you’re here.”
“I already know.” He looked up to see his mother descending the stairs. “I heard voices and came to see what was going on.”
She crossed the room, took a seat beside Caitlin, and held out her hand. “Hello. I’m Elizabeth O’Callaghan. You must be Caitlin.”
Caitlin nodded as she took the offered hand. “My daughter is named after you.”
“I know. I’m quite flattered. My dear, you are soaking wet. Mick, why don’t you run a bath for our guest.”
He smiled. “That was next on my list.”
“I don’t want to be any trouble.”
Caitlin’s feeble protest caused his mother to grin. “It’s no trouble at all. I’ll find something you can change into. Don’t just stand there, Mick. Get a move on.”
Caitlin giggled. “So this is where he gets it.”
Elizabeth gave her a puzzled look. “Gets what?”
“His tendency to boss people around.”
Mick chuckled as he followed his mother up the stairs. He called over his shoulder. “You might think I’m bossy, but you have just met the master.”
After adjusting the temperature of the water pouring into the ancient claw-footed tub that occupied the house’s only bathroom, Mick straightened. His young nieces always insisted on a tub full of bubbles with their baths. Would Caitlin like that? If she hadn’t had anything but lukewarm washups at the shelter since she was dismissed from the hospital, he was pretty sure she might.
Turning, he surveyed the room. The last time Mary’s kids had slept over, he had picked up a box of bubble bath at their insistence. He finally discovered the slightly battered box under the sink. He shook out a bit of the powder under the running water and a few bubbles began to form. It didn’t seem like enough. With a shrug, he emptied the rest of the box in the tub and headed downstairs to get Caitlin.
She was asleep again. The empty soup cup dangled precariously from one hand while her other hand lay on Nikki’s head where the dog had curled up on the sofa beside her.
“Get down, mutt,” he grumbled softly. Nikki ignored him as usual. Mick bent and scooped Caitlin up in his arms.
Her eyes fluttered open. “You kiss nice.”
He didn’t know how to respond to that so he said, “Your bath is ready.”
He started up the stairs and noticed how pleasant it was to carry this woman in his arms.
“I don’t need a bath,” she grumbled.
“Would it be ungentlemanly of me to say, yes, you do?”
Her tired eyes settled into a frown. “I don’t stink.”
“I never said you did.”
“I said you need a bath. You’ve been soaked to the skin and chilled to boot, and a hot bath is exactly what you need.”
“Okay. But I don’t stink.”
“No, you don’t,” he agreed, and hoped she didn’t notice the amusement in his voice. He pushed open the bathroom door and stopped.
“Awesome!” she said in amazement.
Mounds of foam filled the tub and lazy sheets of it slid over the side to pool on the floor. Quickly, he deposited her on the toilet seat and turned off the water, feeling like a first-class nitwit.
“I thought you’d like a bubble bath. It’s just Mr. Bubble—that’s all I had. My niece left it here. I know my sisters used to use some kind of scented foamy stuff that smelled like lilacs or gardenias or some such flower.” He realized he was babbling like an idiot and stopped talking.
“This is just like in the movies. I always wanted to do this.”
He frowned at her. “You’ve never taken a bubble bath?”
“Not that I remember.”
She didn’t seem to realize how pathetic that simple statement sounded. What a hard, bare life she had lived. He rubbed his palms on the sides of his jeans. “Well then, I’m sure you’ll like it. Just don’t fall asleep and drown. I’ll wait outside the door and you can hand me your clothes. I’ll toss them in the washer for you.”
She cast a suspicious look in his direction.
“Don’t worry, dear,” his mother came in behind him. “I have a robe you can wear. Go on, Mick. Shoo.”
He retreated and closed the door.
A few moments later, it opened a crack and his mother dangled Caitlin’s clothes out by one hand. He took them and beat a strategic withdrawal to the laundry room in the basement. He tossed her skirt and hose into the washer, but paused as he stared at the sweater in his hands. A few drops of blood speckled one shoulder.
It was frighteningly easy to imagine Beth living a life with Caitlin, and he shuddered at the thought of what she would endure if that happened. Caitlin deserved his help. Because if she didn’t get it, Beth might be with her the next time she waited in the lobby of a crowded shelter to find out if there would be a bed for the night. And if there wasn’t room, Beth would sleep with her mother in a doorway, or alley, or on a grate to keep from freezing to death in the winter.
No, Beth wasn’t going to live like that. He would make sure of it. He started to toss the sweater in with the rest of the load, but a piece of paper fell out of one of the pockets and landed at his feet. He made a quick search of both pockets, but he didn’t find anything else.
Bending down, he picked up the paper and smoothed out the small, damp note. With a muttered oath, he hurried back upstairs. He knocked on the bathroom door and didn’t get any answer. “Caitlin, I need to talk to you.”
“Just a moment,” his mother answered.
He heard the sound of the shower curtain sliding on the rod, then his mother called out, “You can come in.”
He pushed open the door. The gray-and-white-striped shower curtain hid most of Caitlin. All he could see was her head as she leaned against the back of the tub. His mother sat on a small vanity stool beside her. Caitlin opened her eyes and smiled sweetly.
“This is totally awesome.” She lifted her palm filled with a small mountain of suds and blew. Bubbles danced through the air. “Can you imagine being able to do this every day?”
Having soap and hot water was something he never gave a second thought to, but with a simple question, she changed all of that. He held out the note. “I found this in your sweater pocket.”
“What is it?” She frowned at the paper as if she’d never seen it before.
“Caitlin, this is a prescription for antibiotics for you written by Dr. Wright.”
All at once, huge tears began to stream down her face. Alarmed, Mick said, “What’s wrong?”
“I never meant to hurt her. I’m so sorry.” With that, she broke into hysterical sobs.
“It’s all right.” The force of her uncontrolled weeping was so unlike the tough and resourceful woman he knew that he began to fear she would do herself physical harm.
“Let me handle this,” Elizabeth said as she pushed him out the door and closed it in his face.
Finally, his mother called for him to come in. He opened the door and saw Caitlin wrapped in a long, thick robe and slumped against his mother on the edge of the tub. Elizabeth held her awkwardly with her one good arm.
“Can you carry her to the spare bedroom, son?”
“Of course.” He slid his arms around Caitlin and lifted her easily. In the bedroom, he sat down on the edge of the bed where he held her and rocked her and murmured words of comfort until the storm of her weeping abated. She kept repeating that she was sorry. Sorry for what, he couldn’t make out.
He looked at his mother, hovering beside him and said, “She’s on the verge of exhaustion. This can’t be good for her.”
“She needed sleep more than anything else, but we can’t put her to bed in a damp robe. I’m not sure I can get her into one of my nightgowns by myself.”
Gently, he laid Caitlin down on top of the coverlet and went to his room. From his chest of drawers, he pulled out a button-down pajama top that would have to suffice for a nightgown and returned to her room. He paused beside his mother in indecision. “Can you manage this?”
“Yes, this will work. I’ll call if I need you.” She took his shirt.
He was sitting on the side of the bed when his mother joined him a short time later.
“She’s more than exhausted, Mick. The woman is sick.”
“I know.” He held out the crumpled prescription.
“Has she been seeing the baby?”
“Every day. I’m guessing that’s why Beth is sick, too.”
He picked up the phone and dialed the number for the NICU.
“This is Mick O’Callaghan,” he said tersely when the unit clerk answered. “I need to speak with Dr. Wright, immediately.”
* * *
A knocking sound woke Caitlin from a pleasant dream. She opened her eyes and stared at an unfamiliar room with walls painted a delicate shade of rose. Across from her, white curtains billowed from an open window. Beyond she could see the branches of a huge tree silhouetted against a blue sky. Beside the window, a large purple toy cat stared at her from a rocking chair. Another knock sounded. It came from behind her. She turned over and winced. Every part of her body ached.
A door opened and Mick peeked around it. He stepped into the room looking uncertain and wonderfully handsome. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m not surprised. You’ve been asleep for thirty hours.”
He crossed the room in three strides. She flinched when his hand shot toward her, and he froze. “I’m not going to hurt you. I only want to make sure your fever’s down. May I?” Slowly, he extended his hand and touched her forehead.
She remembered now, she remembered everything—the doctor telling her that her milk had made Beth sick, Mick’s rescue, meeting his mother. He had brought her to his home. What else had been real and not part of a dream? Had he really kissed her?