Authors: Patricia Davids
Tags: #Fiction, #Religious, #Romance, #General
Embarrassment flooded her, but she couldn’t help thinking about kissing him again.
“I’m fine.” She turned away from his hand.
“You’re better, but not fine. Look, I’ve got to get to work. I won’t be back until tomorrow morning. Mom is here and my number is on a pad by the phone in the kitchen if you need anything. Make yourself at home. Fix yourself whatever you’d like to eat. I’d like you to consider staying here for a while. My mother will be here as well.”
“How come a guy your age still lives with his mother?”
He laughed. “I don’t normally. Mom was injured in a car accident two months ago. I’m sure you saw the cast on her arm.”
“Yeah, I wondered about that.”
“Her doctor didn’t want her staying alone. My sisters both have jobs that require them to travel. I work one day and get two days off. Having Mom stay with me seemed like the best solution. She has a nurse that comes in while I’m gone. You won’t be expected to take care of her if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I wasn’t thinking about that. I’d like to repay your kindness, but I’m not sure I can stay here.”
“It’s only until you’re well. You don’t have to make a decision today. Just tell me you’ll think about it.”
Soft bed, clean sheets, a room to herself—or back to the shelter—oh, hard choice! “Okay, I’ll think about it.”
He nodded then started to leave the room, but as he opened the door, he turned back. “Oh, I left your medicine on the bathroom sink. Dr. Wright said to take one pill morning, noon and night. Your pump is in there, too.”
He looked down, and Caitlin saw his dog wiggle past him into the room. She trotted over to the bed with her tail wagging and pressed a cold, wet nose into Caitlin’s hand.
Caitlin pulled her hand away and crossed her arms, then turned to stare out the window. She didn’t want Mick to see the tears that threatened once more. “I don’t need a pump.”
“Sure you do.”
“Didn’t the good doctor tell you my milk is what’s been making Beth sick?”
He didn’t answer her, but a moment later, she heard him pull a chair next to the bed. “Caitlin, look at me.”
She couldn’t. She couldn’t let him see how much it hurt to fail at the one thing she wanted so desperately to do for her baby. Gentle fingers cupped her chin and pulled her face toward him. She couldn’t look him in the eye, so she fastened her gaze on the top button of his dark blue shirt.
“Dr. Wright told me it was possible that the infection you have may—
—” he emphasized the word again “—have made Beth sick. But she also said babies who are on formula, even babies that haven’t been fed, can have the same problem.”
She looked into his eyes. “Honest?”
“But they threw my milk out.”
“I know.” He pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her, and she rested her cheek against his shoulder. His touch said without words that he understood how much that had hurt.
“Once you’re better, you can start saving your milk again. As soon as Beth is ready, they’ll give it to her.”
“What if it makes her sick again?”
She straightened, pulling away from him. “But if it does?”
“Then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. The main thing now is to get you well. There’s plenty of food in the kitchen. You need to eat and put some flesh on your bones.” He tweaked her nose. “You’re way too skinny.”
She sniffed once and rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. “I’m not skinny.”
“You’re skinny, skinny, skinny.”
She tried to hold back her smile, but lost the battle. “You’re a mean man.”
“As I pointed out before, I have my good points.”
“I don’t see any soup, so I guess you’ll have to name one.”
“I kiss nice. You said so yourself.”
Before she could think of a comeback, he rose and left the room, closing the door behind him. Nikki put one paw on the bed and whined for attention. Caitlin reached out to pet the dog.
“If I said that, I was delirious.” Maybe she had been, but it was the truth.
Tossing the covers aside, she sat up on the side of the bed and glanced down at the green-and-white-striped pajama top that more than covered her. She vaguely remembered Mick’s mother putting it on her. A soft warmth stole over her at the memory. These people were gentle and kind. She wasn’t exactly sure what to make of them.
She stood and felt the hem of his shirt drop to her knees. Grinning, she raised her arms and flapped the sleeves dangling a good six inches past the end of her hands. The door opened after a gentle knock. Caitlin paused in midflap as Mick looked in again.
“I almost forgot—” Whatever he started to say dissolved into a hearty laugh.
She dropped her arms to her sides and scowled at him.
He held up one hand. “I’m sorry. It’s just that it’s a pretty silly getup.”
She planted her hands on her hips. “It’s your shirt, not mine. If anyone here has bad taste in sleepwear, it’s you.”
He flushed. “I came back to tell you my mother left a few things for you to wear. They’re in the closet along with your clothes. She said to keep what you like, she doesn’t wear any of them anymore.”
He hesitated a moment, as if he intended to say something else, but instead he closed the door. Caitlin waited, but this time the door stayed shut.
His kindness to her was something she didn’t quite know how to deal with. He was kind to everyone, she reminded herself. He was kind to the kids at the shelter, to scared women in labor and even to old bums. The feel of Mick’s strong arms holding her might tempt her to believe it had been something more, but she wasn’t stupid. Besides, he was way out of her league. A man like him could have the pick of any number of women. Smart women, women with class. Not someone like her.
Out of curiosity, she crossed the room and opened the closet. A plush pink bathrobe hung from a hook on the back of the door. She fingered its softness. A half dozen outfits hung from hangers on a wooden rod. One was the black skirt and pink sweater she’d been wearing for weeks. She pushed it aside. “If I never wear this again, it’ll be too soon.”
Instead, she reached for a pair of raspberry red sweats that looked like they might fit. When she pulled the top off the hanger, she noticed it still had a price tag attached. She checked the others. They all did.
Caitlin looked at the dog sitting at her side. “Keep what I want because his mom doesn’t wear them anymore? One or both of them are very poor liars.”
Nikki whined and gave a small woof.
“I’ll take that to mean you agree.”
Looking for her shoes, Caitlin spied a familiar orange crate on the floor. With a glad cry, she dropped to her knees.
“My baby clothes, my sketchbooks, it’s all here.” She lifted the baby blanket from the box and held it to her cheek. Mick had saved her things. There was no way she would ever be able to thank him. Sitting back on her heels with a happy smile, she lovingly replaced the blanket. There was no way she was going to lose them again. Jumping up, she pulled off a pink-striped pillowcase from the pillow on the bed and stuffed her treasures and new clothes inside.
Her stomach growled, reminding her that she hadn’t had anything to eat except broth for the past two days. She dressed in the soft sweats, then with pillowcase in hand, she opened the door of the room and stepped out into a narrow hall. The dog slipped past her, and Caitlin followed the animal downstairs.
Nikki made a beeline for the kitchen. She stopped in front of the refrigerator and raised a paw to scratch at the door.
“My thoughts exactly,” Caitlin agreed. Pulling open the fridge door, she stared in amazement at the food that crammed the shelves. “Awesome!” She looked at the dog. “He did say to fix myself anything I wanted, didn’t he?”
Nikki answered her with a short, sharp bark.
“That was a definite yes.” Caitlin reached in, pushed aside a bag of oranges, a jug of milk and a carton of eggs to pull out a round pan. “I don’t know about you, but I want some of this pie.”
She made a quick check of the cabinet drawers, located a fork, then plopped on a chair at the table. The first giant bite of whipped topping and chocolate cream pie straight from the pan was the best thing she had ever tasted. The second bite was every bit as good. Only when the pan was half-empty did she pause long enough to take a closer look at her surroundings.
It was hard to imagine having all this space and not having to share it with somebody. She ran a hand over the smooth surface of the table. She’d never eaten off anything so fine, not even when she’d been in some of her good foster homes.
A delicate teapot sat in the center of the table. Her eyes widened as she reached for it and turned it over. She had learned a thing or two about good junk in her years of scrounging in garbage cans and Dumpster diving for food and stuff to sell.
“Do you see this?” she asked the dog in astonishment. “This little green crown means this is valuable. I could get twenty, maybe twenty-five bucks easy for it at a pawnshop.”
“Nikki is smart for a dog, but I don’t think she can read labels.” Elizabeth stood in the kitchen doorway dressed in a pale blue robe and slippers.
Caitlin flushed with embarrassment and looked down. She couldn’t read either—she was no smarter than the dog. Replacing the teapot with care, she said, “I wasn’t going to steal it.”
Elizabeth came to the table and laid a hand on Caitlin’s shoulder. “It never occurred to me that you might. But if you like it, you’re welcome to have it.”
“No, thanks. I’m not much of tea drinker.”
“Maybe that’s because you’ve never had someone make you a
cup of tea. Sit there and I’ll fix you some Earl Grey with honey and cream. I promise you’ll love it.” She headed to the stove and picked up the kettle.
Caitlin jumped up. “Let me do that.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “No, I can fix tea one-handed. Naomi will be here any minute. She’ll spend the day fussing over me and scolding me. This may be the only chance I get to do something for myself. Please, sit down.”
“Okay. If you’re sure.” Caitlin sank into her chair again. “I’d like to do something to repay you for these clothes.”
“Your clothes? I don’t understand.”
“Mick said you wanted me to have these because they didn’t fit you. Only you forgot to take the price tags off.”
Elizabeth gave a bark of laughter. “It wasn’t me. I can’t believe my son went shopping for women’s clothes. What else did he buy?”
“I have them right here.” She touched the pillowcase with one foot.
“Wonderful. You can show me what he bought later this morning. When we’ve finished our tea I’ll give you a tour of the house. Would you like that?”
“If you think Mick won’t mind.”
“Of course he won’t. Besides, if you plan on staying for a while, you’ll need to find your way around. Do you plan on staying?”
“I don’t know. It feels kind of weird living in someone else’s house as an adult.”
“I have to agree with that. It was wonderful of Mick to let me stay here after my accident, but I do miss my own space. I thought the pillowcase meant you were on your way out.”
“No. I just don’t want to lose my stuff again. I was really lucky to get it back this time.”
Elizabeth’s eyes filled with understanding and sympathy. “It must be difficult to keep the things you love living on the streets.”
Caitlin shrugged. “People will steal anything of value. You can’t blame them. Some of them have nothing. They don’t know any other way to survive.”
“It’s the sad truth. Keep your things close if it makes you feel better and keep the pillowcase. I never did like that pattern, anyway.”
“Good. Now, the plan is tea and a tour. I have to warn you, Mickey is not a great housekeeper. Dust bunnies abound under his furniture. Once I have two good hands again, I’m going to make a clean sweep of things.”
Caitlin brightened. Here was a way she could repay some of their kindness. “I’ve got two good hands. Show me where the broom is and I’ll get rid of them for you.”
“You’ve been sick. Mickey would skin me alive if he knew I’d put you to work your first day out of bed.”
“We won’t tell him. If he’s like most men, he’ll never notice that the place has been cleaned.”
Elizabeth pressed her one good hand to her lips and chuckled. “My dear, I do believe I’m going to enjoy having you around.”
* * *
Mick pulled into his drive the next morning, turned the engine off and remained sitting behind the wheel. Was she still here, or had she taken off? He shouldn’t be surprised if she had. He couldn’t believe how much he wanted her to stay.
He walked around to the front, picked up the morning copy of the
from the steps and quietly let himself into the house. Nikki wasn’t in her usual place, and that gave him his first bit of hope.
He checked the kitchen. No Caitlin and no dog. He stopped at the foot of the stairs and called out. Only silence greeted him. Where was everyone?
He climbed the stairs and after knocking twice, he opened the door to the guest room. It was empty, the bed neatly made. He checked the closet. The clothes he’d bought and all her things were gone.
ick struck the closet doorjamb with the heel of his hand in frustration. He wanted her to be here. He wanted her to stay more than he cared to admit. She was sick, broke and alone in the world. She needed his help, but every time he tried to give it, she threw it back in his face. Why did he keep trying?
He knew Beth was part of it, but it was more than his attachment to the baby that drew him to Caitlin. Caitlin was like a song in his head that wouldn’t go away. The more he tried to ignore it, the more he found himself humming the same tune over and over. His attraction to her didn’t make sense. They had almost nothing in common. She didn’t even share his faith.
The sound of a dog barking followed by a burst of girlish laughter reached him through the open window. He rushed to look out. Caitlin lay stretched out in his hammock in the backyard. One bare foot hung over the side, and she swung herself back and forth with an occasional push. She held one of Nikki’s favorite toys and laughed at the dog’s antics as Nikki bounced up and down waiting for her to throw the ball.
Mick’s heart gave a leap of joy that he couldn’t ignore or explain away. She was here.
He sank onto the chair beside the window, knocking aside the stuffed cat. Reaching down, he picked up his niece’s toy and stared blankly into its glass eyes. If it started talking he wouldn’t be as surprised as he was by the realization that he was falling in love with the woman outside.
When had it happened? He certainly hadn’t been looking for a relationship, had he?
Caitlin’s laughter rang out again and drew his gaze. Nikki was trying to crawl into the hammock and was making a serious attempt to lavish doggie kisses on Caitlin’s face. His Sleeping Beauty was awake, and she was even more beautiful in the bright light of day.
Her giggles eased the doubts clambering in Mick’s mind. He’d rarely seen her smile, and this was the first time he could recall hearing her laugh. It felt good to see her happy. Perhaps that was why God had brought her into his life.
Her life had held little happiness, but he’d never heard her complain. Instead, she faced it with a belligerent determination and a resilience he could only admire. Was it any wonder that he was attracted to her?
So what are you going to do about it, Mick’O?
He didn’t have a clue. No, that wasn’t quite true. He knew one thing for sure. He wouldn’t do anything to hurt her. She had been hurt far too much already. For now, she was safe and happy, and he didn’t want to jeopardize that. Caitlin was as wary as a feral cat and just as likely to disappear unless he could gain her trust.
Mick put the purple cat back on the window ledge. He had a lot of soul-searching ahead of him.
Please, Lord, show me what I need to do to help her.
He left the spare bedroom and went downstairs to the back door. From there, he watched Caitlin playing with Nikki until the dog spotted him and came loping toward him. Caitlin picked up a stuffed pillowcase from beside the hammock and followed.
“You’re home,” she said with a smile that turned his heart upside down.
“I am. Any problems while I was gone?”
“Not a one. Nikki and I had a great time, didn’t we, girl?”
“I’m glad. You look better. How are you feeling?”
“Less like a drowned cat all the time.”
“Good. Where is my mom?”
“Naomi took her shopping. They should be back in an hour or two. Your mom had a list of things she thinks I need.”
“Does that mean you’re planning to stick around? I thought maybe you were on your way out.” He pointed to the bag she carried.
“It’s just my stuff. I don’t want to lose it again.”
“I think it would be safe up in your room.”
“I guess it would. I’m just not used to leaving my stuff unguarded, that’s all.”
“If that’s the way you feel, I’ve got a duffel bag that might work better than a pillowcase.”
“That would be great. Thanks.”
“So, you do plan to stay.”
“I’m not an idiot. This is better than any shelter. It’ll do until I find a place of my own. Besides, Nikki needs someone to play with when you’re gone. Don’t you, girl?” She leaned down to pat the dog.
It was the answer he wanted and his heart took flight.
Straightening, she threw a punch at his midsection. “Right now, I’m starved. I hope you can cook because I hate cooking. Besides, I’m no good at it, and all the pie is gone.”
He’d never seen her this accommodating. He’d half expected a bitter battle just to get her to spend another night here. “I don’t cook much myself, but I guess we’ll get by.”
“Fast food is fine if you want to treat me to Mickey D’s. Hey, I can eat at Mickey O’s or Mickey D’s.”
Surprised, he gaped at her. “Was that a joke?”
She frowned. “Yes. It wasn’t that bad.”
“Not at all. Sometimes, I’m a little slow after I’ve been at work for twenty-four hours. How about some bacon and eggs?”
“Sounds great. I can make the tea. Did you know you should always warm the pot first? I like the orange kind better than the Earl stuff, but please don’t tell your mother I said that.”
Bemused, he said, “Do you think if Prince Charming had known that Sleeping Beauty had a multiple-personality disorder he would have kissed her anyway?”
“Never mind.” He held the door open. “After you.”
She flounced past him into the house. He followed her to the kitchen and watched as she put the kettle on then slid into a chair at the table. She ran a hand through her short hair. “You got a nice place here. It’s kind of big for one guy, isn’t it?”
He pulled the eggs and bacon from the fridge and carried them to the stove. “A little, but it suits me. There’s always plenty of room when my family comes to visit.”
“Your mom is really sweet. I’m not sure if I should ask, but what happened to your dad?”
“He died when I was eight. He was a fireman, too. How about your parents?”
“Mom OD’d a few years ago. I don’t know who my dad was.”
“Any brothers or sisters?”
“Nope. I always wanted a sister, though.”
“Great! I’ll give you one of mine. I’ve got two.”
“Was that who helped you buy my clothes? Did you know you forgot to take the tags off?”
He sent her a sheepish glance. “I guess I was too worried about getting them into the closet without waking you.”
“Why say they belonged to your mother?”
“Because I thought you might refuse them if you thought they were from me. I don’t know if anyone has mentioned this, but you can be stubborn at times.”
She shrugged one shoulder. “I need clothes, and these fit pretty good,” she acknowledged, rubbing a hand down her denim-clad thigh.
“I see that. I was afraid the jeans would be too small.”
“How’d you know what size to get?”
He propped one hand on his hip. “Having sisters gives one a sense of fashion, darling. Actually, I took your skirt with me and let the saleslady make an educated guess.”
“Be sure and tell your mom that. I think she was worried that you knew how to buy women’s clothes.”
“I think I’ll let her wonder about that one.”
Her giggle did his heart good. “How do you like your eggs?” he asked.
“Cooked, but not burnt.”
He turned to the stove. “Cooked, but not burnt it is. In fact, hand me some mild cheddar, not the sharp, and some Tabasco sauce from the fridge. I’ll make you Mickey O’s famous Scrambled Eggs O’Callaghan.”
When she didn’t answer, he turned back. A frown had replaced her smile. “What’s the matter?”
She jumped to her feet. “Get it yourself, what am I, your servant? Anyway, I-I’ve got to go to the bathroom.” She fled from the room.
“I guess you do,” he said to the empty air.
The eggs and bacon and tea were ready by the time she came back. He set a plate in front of her, then sat down, bowed his head and said grace. Caitlin didn’t participate, but sat quietly until he finished. She ate, but she remained subdued. She answered his questions with monosyllables and none of his jokes brought back her smile.
“Are you feeling okay?” he asked at last.
“I’m fine. Thanks for breakfast.” Her voice held a sharp edge to it. She carried her plate to the sink.
“I can clean up,” Mick offered, wondering how he had offended her.
“No, I do my part.”
“Would you like to go to the hospital when you’re done?”
She spun toward him. “Oh, yes.”
He nodded. “Let me grab a quick shower, and we can go.”
“Don’t you need to get some sleep?”
“I was able to grab a few winks at work. I thought I’d take you to the hospital and let you spend some time with Beth while I came home and pulled in a few more z’s.”
“That would be great.” Caitlin paused, then added. “Your job is a tough one, you must love it.”
It blew him away that this woman could see how he felt about his work when his sisters, who knew him so much better, still didn’t understand.
“I think it’s the calling God chose for me. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Of course, my family thinks I’m nuts.”
“But you said your dad was a fireman.”
Mick nodded and stared at his plate. “He died on the job.”
He nodded without looking up. “I was eight, but I remember it vividly—the men at the door, my mother’s weeping, the race to the hospital, the smell of charred flesh in the burn unit.”
She slipped onto the chair beside him and covered his hand with her own. “Did you get to see him before he died?”
“Was it terrible?”
“His face wasn’t burnt. One of his arms was covered in a thick bandage. They had a kind of tent over the rest of him. He was conscious, and he said he wasn’t in much pain. I think the hardest part was my mother’s crying. For him, too. He told me I would be the man of the house and that he expected me to take care of her. I didn’t have the slightest idea how I could do that, but he made me promise, and I did.”
“That wasn’t fair.”
He looked at her then. Her eyes were full of sympathy, as if she knew what that vow had cost him. “Maybe it wasn’t, but I did my best to keep that promise. He died the next day. I never wanted to be anything except just like him.”
“Well, you are. You’re a fireman.”
“I don’t mean the job. I wanted to be the same kind of man he was. He was the best dad a kid could have. He always had time for me. We played catch, we went fishing, we took in the ball games—he was always there for me. I wanted to be the same kind of father. But it didn’t work out that way.” Mick voiced the death of his dreams in a matter-of-fact tone that bore little resemblance to the state of shock that he had been in when he endured his doctor’s explanations of sterility.
—the word changed his life. It made him less than a man, and he knew then that he would never be like his father. In time, he came to grips with the knowledge, even learned to accept it as God’s will.
“But you can adopt, right?” Caitlin asked.
How many times had he heard that platitude from his family? He forced a smile and nodded. “Sure, I can always adopt.”
“Your mother never remarried?”
“No, she never did.” He was glad to change the subject.
“How did she take it when you decided to be a firefighter?”
“My sisters didn’t understand, but Mom was proud of me. The fact that I wanted to be like him made her very happy.”
“That was lucky.”
“Because it turned out to be a job you love.”
He nodded and gave her a small smile. “You’re right. I could have done it to please her and then been miserable.”
“Do it to make her happy? Maybe.”
“Are you still trying to make her happy?”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Taking me in, naming Beth after her, taking responsibility for a baby that isn’t yours.”
He studied her face a long moment. “Caitlin, I try to live my life the way I think God wants me to live it. Do you know what that means?”
“Kind of. But I don’t believe in all that stuff.”
“What do you believe in?”
“Not much. Life stinks and then you die. That’s it.”
“That doesn’t leave much room for hope, or love or kindness.”
“Sometimes that stuff comes along, but you can’t count on it. If you do, people let you down. I count on me and no one else.”
“You can count on God, Caitlin. He loves you no matter what you think. And you can count on me. Please believe that.”
“Aren’t we going to the hospital?”
It was obvious she wanted to change the subject. “Sure. As soon as I wash up.”
In the bathroom upstairs, he braced his hands on the sink and stared into the mirror. He rarely talked about his father, but it was easy to talk to Caitlin. She had endured a childhood far tougher than his, and maybe that created a bond between them. She was a homeless waif, but he saw the potential for so much more in her.
A frown creased the brow of his reflection in the mirror. He had told her a great deal about himself, but she had shared almost nothing about herself. She was willing to accept a place to live but he sensed that she still didn’t trust him.
Would she learn to? Perhaps if he gave her enough time. If she didn’t, he stood to lose more than the growing affection he felt toward her. He stood to lose both her and Beth.
* * *
Caitlin stood beside Beth’s bed and waited. The baby lay on her back with her arms limp at her sides. Sandra listened to her with a stethoscope.
“How is she?” Caitlin asked when Sandra pulled the instrument from her ears.
“About the same, except she’s up to sixty percent on her oxygen.”
“Her color doesn’t look so good. What does Dr. Wright say about it?”
“She says we need to keep a close eye on her, but we’re doing everything we need to do. This happens sometimes when these little babies get sick.”
“Can I hold her?”
Sandra laid a hand on Caitlin’s shoulder. “I don’t think it would be a good idea. She hasn’t tolerated much today.”
Caitlin nodded. She would do whatever the nurses and doctors thought was best. She’d learned her lesson. Guilt, she found, was harder to get rid of than head lice.