Molly gritted her teeth against the pain that started low in her back and swelled outward. Again. This was the third time since she’d started home. But it was nothing. It couldn’t be time yet. She was only eight months along. Besides, she had heard about such things, pain that started and faded away. A lie, a trick of the system. The fact was that she had just spent too much time on her feet today, and the discomfort would stop soon for sure. Besides, she was still four blocks from home. Nothing to do but keep on walking.
“Everything is going to turn out fine, Ruthie Ann. It will,” she promised, smoothing one hand over the mass of her abdomen and clutching her slippery packages with her other arm as she shuffled forward. “Let Mom tell you about all the pretty lights and decorations I saw today, and when we get home I’ll put up our tree. It’s small, angel. A sweet little thing. Like you. But it’s plenty big for the two of us. You’ll see when you finally get out and can look for yourself.”
She tried to smile as the aching web of distress within her grew stronger, stealing her breath this time. The sidewalk stretched out in a narrow, crooked swoop of gray that was long. Very long. Home couldn’t be close enough. The cold wrapped itself around her. It climbed inside her. Molly forced herself to keep shoving one foot in front of the other, to keep moving past each crack in the walkway
“It’s okay, Ruthie. We’re doing okay. Keep kicking those little feet of yours, sweetie. Relax. Be calm. Maybe we’ll call the doctor when we get home after all,” she whispered. “Just to make sure you’re all right. But of course you are. Of course you’re perfectly fine.” The words dropped low and fast as she tried to increase her pace.
The dark was deeper here, the lights that illuminated the shopping area blocks back more sparse. Long stretches of vision-stealing shadow were broken only by the brilliant biting glare of the street corners. And the next corner was coming up, but slowly. So slowly. The pressure in her back spread in long, unstoppable waves. It moved much faster than her feet.
She should have started back sooner, but it was Christmas, and she wanted everything to be ready for her baby. She wanted life to be perfect the way it hadn’t been for her.
“Almost home, sweetheart.” She gasped out the words on a breath as the pain receded and she inched her way to the corner, across the street, and up the next.
“Almost there,” she said again as she felt it coming back, chasing her down. The pain had fed and grown this time. It threatened to take over her whole body, to swallow her child.
Lurching forward, spilling her packages, Molly felt her toe nick against the thick rise of an uneven sidewalk slab. Instinctively she raised one arm, curling the other over her stomach as the black ground came up to meet her. Moving too fast to stop herself, she twisted, trying to shield her child from the fall.
Not alone. Not this way. The words shot through her brain. Despair engulfed her. Then the ground smacked her with a mighty blow and the world exploded into great shards of light.
~ ~ ~
His eyes were accustomed to darkness, so Seth McCabe had no trouble making out the small lump of clothing and sprawled limbs blocking the walkway that led from his apartment building. A drunk or an addict, he thought at first, but he’d seen more than his share of such and this particular person didn’t have that stripped-to-the-soul look.
Seth stepped closer, knelt and reached out.
“What in the—damn,” he said, noting the small pool of blood beneath the beauty’s matted curls, the telltale swell of advanced pregnancy beneath her too-snug coat.
Her hand was cold, the pulse faintly flickering. She shouldn’t be moved, but it was freezing here, the ground obscenely so.
“Ada,” he bellowed, calling for his neighbor and landlady, an ancient woman who lived in the basement.
No answer. She’d be asleep. Of course she would. Ada went to bed with the sun’s last light.
“Ada,” he yelled again, reaching the window in three quick strides and beating on it with his bare knuckles. “Ada, it’s Seth,” he yelled, when he saw the light come on and her face approaching the glass. “Call for an ambulance. There’s a woman out here. Hurt. Pregnant. Very cold.”
“Okay, I’m coming. I’m coming. I’ll call. Be out there in a minute,” the woman yelled, whisking aside the sheer curtains and motioning him back to his post.
That was all there was time for. His voice had ripped through the night and apparently through the young woman’s consciousness, too. She stirred, and he rushed back, kneeling at her side.
He pulled off his jacket. Smelly. Dirty. He didn’t want to let it touch her, but he couldn’t leave her in the cold alone, and Ada was old. It would be long minutes before she would be able to bring him a blanket. Carefully he tented the cloth around her, building a cocoon.
“Shh. Don’t move,” he whispered. “Be still. Help will be here soon and we’ll get you to the hospital.”
Small fingers reached out and clamped his wrist with a desperate, squeezing grip.
“My baby. Ruthie. She’s coming. She’s coming too soon.” Her voice was rushed, pain-drenched, scared. “Don’t let me—not here on the ground. It’s so cold. Too cold for her,” she begged.
Seth felt rather than saw her head bobbing back and forth in denial.
He brushed a dirty finger across the smoothness of her cheek, trying to get her to lie still. “Don’t do that, lady. You may have injured your back or your neck. When the paramedics come, we’ll move you somewhere warm. Until then, blankets are on the way,” he soothed. “We’ll take care of you.”
But her moan of denial was almost animal-like. “No.” She planted her hands on the ground, trying to sit up. “Not my back or neck. Just—my shoulder. I’m—fine. Got to get to the hospital now. It’s too soon. Please. Please.”
Those small, gripping fingers latched on to his. He felt determination in that grasp. And pain. And most of all, fear. That was it. She was probably right—and wrong, too. It wasn’t just her shoulder. She’d winced when he’d touched her face. But the temperature was dropping. He had to get her out of this. If her baby was early, she might not have the luxury of waiting for rescue to arrive. Seconds could count. Half seconds. Come on, hadn’t he already learned the danger of waiting when lives were at stake? Dark, aching images threatened to rise up, but he shut them down. Forced himself to fill his mind only with the moment and the woman before him.
“You got it, lady. Let’s get you to help ASAP.” And kneeling before her, Seth gently scooped her into his arms. He had no car, no need of one in a city like Chicago, but Ada had an ancient clunker she parked on the street, and he knew she duct-taped spare keys under the front license plate.
“I’m taking your car, and I hope you’ve got gas, Ada,” he bellowed as the lady in question made it to the street and wrapped him and his package in white wool. “Call off the rescue team. Tell them we couldn’t wait.” Depositing his passenger as carefully as he could in the back seat, Seth spun out of the tight space and roared off into the night.
“Don’t worry, lady. Been there more than a few times. Hold on, and we’ll have you to help inside of five minutes.” If we don’t get stopped for speeding or running red lights, he thought, slowing down slightly to make sure the intersection was clear, then pushing the accelerator as far as he dared in a populated area.
There was no answer from the back seat, just a thick, struggling gasp and a muffled moan.
Damn, he hated this kind of stuff. Why couldn’t someone else have found this one, someone more suited to heroics? Not him. He didn’t do dead-center Samaritanism. Not anymore.
“You okay?” he asked when she still hadn’t spoken.
He went through another intersection, slowing to hazard a swift glance back. The glare of streetlights reflected off a pair of night-darkened eyes and showed small teeth biting into her lip.
“Faster,” she begged, sucking in air and letting out a guttural groan.
The hospital rose up on the next block, a white glow that seemed to promise safety but which Seth knew was a lie at times.
In a squeal of brakes, he screamed up to the curb, threw open his door and hers and gathered her close. Even pregnant as sin, she was nearly weightless in his arms. Tension stiffened her slender limbs, and he felt an unwelcome urge to pull her even closer, to somehow comfort.
“Come on, lady, hang on,” he ordered, rushing for the emergency room doors. “Just a few more minutes and you and the kid will be tucked safely away.”
Away from him. And his part would be done. Over. Finished. Great.
He skidded up to the desk.
“She’s having a baby. She’s early. She’s hurt,” he declared to the woman looking down at the papers on her desk. “She needs attention. Fast,” he added.
The woman stiffened at the tone and frowned. She opened her mouth, clearly ticked off, then sucked in her breath and raised her brows as she saw who and what was in front of her.
“McCabe?” Still she hesitated, blowing out a deep breath.
“No time for that exciting insurance talk you love this time, Stace. Make it right and get whatever questions you need answered as you go, all right?”
The clerk made a quick assessment of the damaged, frantic woman in his arms, calling for the triage nurse who quickly sized up the situation and moved into action. Quietly asking questions of her patient, she asked Seth to help with the wheelchair.
Lowering the lady he’d been holding, Seth looked at her. For the first time they were face-to-face in a well-lit room, and he noted the slight, shocked widening of lovely brown eyes as she saw what stared back at him from the mirror every day.
“Thank you,” she managed to whisper as he released his grip on her.
“Anyone you need me to call? You want to give me your name, and the name and number of your next of kin?”
“Molly,” she said simply as another pain caught her, doubling her over. “No one.” And then she was gone.
For one frozen second, the brain that protected him from totally stupid acts shut down. She looked so small, surrounded by all that metal. He wanted to follow, to ask who had gotten her pregnant and left her alone, to issue orders to the nurse to take good care of her.
But he clenched his hands and willed his mind to saner paths. He’d been forced to act and he had acted, but he was glad that his part was over. Besides, she was in good hands, Seth reminded himself. He might have a personal distaste of hospitals, a slimy mix of gratitude and loathing, but he knew that Central Chicago Community had an excellent staff. Overworked but dedicated.
She’d be fine. Of course she would. And even if she wouldn’t—
“You never came in and let Dr. Knight follow up on that last knife wound, I hear, McCabe,” the clerk said, her voice a reprimand as Seth walked past on his way to the door.
Automatically he raised his hand to the jagged scar that ran from his eye to his ear, one of several that crisscrossed his cheeks in addition to the waxy pink burn mark that marred the left side of his forehead.
“It’s fine, Stace,” he said, continuing on his way.
“We’ve got some talented plastic surgeons here, McCabe. Some of those scars could be smoothed out a bit. You don’t have to leave them as they are.”
“Builds character.” He turned and faced her as if to prove his point, frowning for the best effect.
“Hmph,” was her only response to his blatant attempt to shock the socks off her. “Are you going to check up on her later?”
And then what? he asked himself. They’d become pen pals? She’d feel honor-bound to send him a fruitcake every Christmas? He’d start to worry about her, to wonder how she was doing?
“You’ll take good care of her. I’m done here,” he said, echoing his former thoughts as he wandered back onto the street. He was used to walking away, used to doing what was necessary and then moving on, and there was still plenty of the night left to him. Time to get some work done.
But as he ditched Ada’s jalopy at home and made his way to the grittier streets of the city, a pair of sad brown eyes rose before him.
He shut down his conscience, turning his attention to the homeless shifting their weight from one foot to another, trying to keep warm on a night where there was no warmth to be had. He forced himself to pay attention, to record the sounds and smells and feel of this place.
Still later as he sat at his computer, pounding the keys, the memory of a woman’s softly spoken words of gratitude intruded on his thoughts and made him garble his text.
He put his headphones on and let Vivaldi drown out the echo of a voice that had been sweet even though it had been filtered through a fog of hurt.
And when he woke uncharacteristically in the dying hours of the morning, wondering what the night had brought for one small, slender woman and one child pushing her way into the world before her time had come, Seth got up and left the house and the temptation of the telephone.
He moved back into a pocket of the city where crime and ugliness had a place in the spectrum of life. Where trust was dangerous, and every man was essentially alone. By choice.
And he was home.
~ ~ ~
Molly wandered down the street for the fifth time in as many days. She held her blanket-shrouded bundle close and felt Ruthie Ann’s little lips touch the spot of skin where she had left her coat open so they could have contact.
“I haven’t seen him yet,” she whispered. “If I could only remember which house it was, but...I just can’t recall.” Still, she had to find him, and she had to be careful. If the wrong person found her and the baby…no, she refused to even think about that. It really wasn’t safe wandering the streets like this. Still, that man had saved their lives. Molly was afraid he might also have done more, something involving the hospital bill. She had to settle with him soon. If only she knew who he was.
She hated not knowing his name when she knew so much more: his comfort, his touch, his voice, a pair of ocean-deep gray eyes, a face like no other. His face was fierce, scarred, maybe even frightening to some. It was the kind of face a person didn’t meet up with often on a city street, not during the naked lightbulb brightness of daytime. And that was what worried her most.
What if he stayed inside all day? The man had paid her bills. She was sure he had, judging by the hospital gossip and the guilty, evasive looks on the nurses’ faces when she had asked. She couldn’t have that. She could never be indebted to any man, not after that nightmare experience with her ex-fiancé, Kevin Rickman. The thought that anyone might have control over her in any way, even anonymously, and even if their paths never crossed again, was just unthinkable. It terrified her.
“Somehow we’re going to find him and pay him back,” she promised again.
The baby blew a wet bubble against her mother’s skin. When the sudden, ear-assaulting roar of an engine made Molly jump, and a choking cloud of black smoke had her coughing and trying to shield Ruthie, she turned her back to the car. Her ears caught the cadence of a sharp metallic clicking.
“That’s it,” she whispered, spinning around.
The ancient gray sedan meant nothing to her. Nothing fell into place when she saw it, and no bells began to ring. But that sound...over and over her in the back of her mind, she heard it. She remembered the accompanying pain as if it were still funneling through her in great, heaving waves.
Without hesitation, Molly rushed to the passenger window, rapping against the grimy glass.
Long seconds ticked by. She rapped again as the window was slowly rolled down.
“What do you want?” An iron-haired woman with hard, black marble eyes demanded.
A woman. Not the one at all.
“I—I rode in this car. I’m sure of it,” Molly stammered. “The night I had my baby, but—”
“She came out all right then?” the woman growled, but her face lost some of its sternness.
Molly held Ruthie closer. She nodded. “She’s perfect, but...the man—”
“What man?” The crabbiness had returned like an angry tornado.
“The one who drove me to the hospital. Does he live around here, too? Are you related?”
The woman snorted and shook her head. “Why do you care?”
“I want to thank him, to pay him back.”
“Don’t bother. He won’t want your thanks.”
She’d already figured that much. The clerk at the hospital had been every bit as secretive as this witchy woman.
“Does he live here?” Molly persisted.
But the woman was already rolling her window up. Molly pounded on the moving glass one more time. Louder.
“Stop that,” the woman ordered, stalling the window one inch from the top. “Give it up, lady. Just be grateful everything turned out well. The man you’re looking for doesn’t really exist. As to where he lives...anywhere. Everywhere.”
“Here?” Molly pointed to the apartment building closest to the car.
As the woman drove away, puffing smoke out the back of her car, Molly pondered her words.
“Not really, Ruthie Ann,” she said. “That must mean he’s here now and then, anyway. That means if we keep looking...”
It bothered her a bit that the man didn’t want her thanks, but it didn’t change things. She had lived much of a lifetime with other people who hadn’t wanted her, either. People who had tried to control her thoughts and her actions, not caring what she wanted or needed. Now she made her own choices, and she tried to make the right ones. Thanking someone who had saved her life and her baby’s...well, that just had to be the only right thing to do. More important, there was the matter of the money. It scared her. Clearly the man didn’t want any more contact with her, but he had plunked down big-time money for her baby. That just couldn’t pass. Money meant power, and she was never letting a man have power over her again.
Besides, she was making her own rules now, flying by the seat of her pants. She wasn’t sure what she was doing half the time, but she knew she had to build a home Ruthie. As a woman who lived looking over her shoulder, she intended to make sure her baby’s home was safe.
Molly shivered and pulled her baby closer. She was all that Ruthie Ann had and all that her daughter could depend on. “Which means,” she told her baby, “that right now you and Mom have to go to work. Later, we’ll try to figure out how to locate our mystery man.
“Unfortunately, he appears to be better at hiding than we are. Even so, we’re going to find him. A strong, independent woman stands on her own two feet, Ruthie. She pays her debts so that she has to depend on and answer to no one. Remember that.”
Ruthie Ann made a smacking sound.
“If that means, look out, mister, the Delavan women are on your trail, then I agree,” Molly said. “As soon as work is over today, we’re going to lay siege to this apartment building.”