*****Jake’s mouth was dry and his face was numb, yet his palms soaked the inside of his leather gloves with sweat. He’d lost feeling in each toe awhile ago and the rest of him ached from the ruthless lash of a bitter wind. The abrupt drop in an already record setting low temperature flash-froze the slushy streets into skating rinks.
And would do worse to the fragile skin of a child.
Another brutal blast of frigid air whipped by his face to make his nose run and his eyes tear up. He could hardly see where he was going as he hunkered into the collar of his topcoat for its scant protection.
Having come full circle around the area more times than he could keep track of, he stood on the deserted loading dock at the back side of Mynderse. Before setting out, he’d dropped Bethany at the hospital so she’d be there if one of many other searchers brought Tina in. With the unforgiving cold of iced rain landing on his cheeks, he nearly quit breathing when he heard a sound like a small animal in distress. His entire body ramrod straight, he strained to listen when another whimper, faint as the first, came from beneath him.
Jumping off the dock, he dropped to all fours to search underneath then pulled aside the cardboard covering of a makeshift shelter. Peering inside, he nearly cried out when he found Tina huddled in the back corner, her legs covered in corduroy slacks, wearing a coat he could only hope had enough lining to keep away frostbite.
Wrapped in the thin arms of the boy known as Zeke.
“What in the world—?”
He dove inside to gather them to him then, helping first one then the other back up onto the dock, he soon had Tina clutched in one arm with Zeke under the other. The key card he fished out of his pocket fit into a metal case beside the door. At the opening click, he hit the handle with his backside and pulled them all into blessed warmth.
Working quickly, he removed his top coat to wrap around Tina and bundled the boy into the jacket of his tux. Then he sat down on the floor, with her cuddled in his lap and him sitting along side.
“What in hell were you doing?” In a voice raised more in alarm than anger, he started right in on the boy.
“It’s my job to take care of her.”
“What do you mean it’s your job to take care of her?”
“She’s my sister.”
He tightened his arm around youthful shoulders and went for an answer he’d tried for before. “Where are your parents?”
It was Tina who piped up from the folds of her camel hair shelter. “My mommy went away and didn’t come back.”
Jake sucked in much needed oxygen. “You two live alone?”
Zeke sagged beneath his arm. “We did.”
On reflex, Jake held him closer. “That’s why you weren’t going to school.”
“She’s too young to be left alone. Then she ran away on Halloween.”
“You’re the one who brought her here?”
“Yeah.” He looked up, mouth set in anger. “You took her away from me.”
“I did that for her own good,” Jake answered in a matter of fact tone which he quickly softened. “That’s why you were hanging around in here so much. You took her from the foster care home.”
“I needed to protect her.”
“Didn’t you realize she was safe?”
Young eyes relented then grew hard. “She wasn’t with me.” The crack in his voice betrayed a valiant show of strength. “So she couldn’t have been.”
“You got me there, pal,” Jake admitted. “How did you live?”
The boy raised himself to bring his mouth close to Jake’s ear. “After Mom died,” he whispered, “and, I’m pretty sure that’s what happened, messed up as she was, nobody came by to kick us out until a few days ago.” He shrugged as he sat back down. “I’d figured we were gonna be okay.”
“You’re name’s not Zeke, it’s Tommy,” Jake surmised out loud. “Which do you prefer to go by?”
Another shrug. “Tommy I guess.”
Jake swallowed hard. “Okay, Tommy, tell you what we’re going to do.”
Even as he shared a proposed solution, he hoped to hell his plan would work. If it didn’t—he paused in the middle of those thoughts—he’d just have to come up with one that would.
From her office in Family Health which was long ago closed for the day, Bethany heard the muted wail of a child in pain.
“Ow! My fingers hurt! And my toes. They burn!”
Out of her chair, she hurried into the hallway and toward the sound. The sight which greeted her as she came out to the reception area stole her breath and melted her heart. Jake knelt in front of two children, Tina held close with one arm and his other around a boy she’d never seen.
She came to her knees beside them and tried to pick up Tina who kept a strong grip on the collar of Jake’s shirt. “It’s okay, princess. It’s okay,” he soothed as best he could with the little girl’s head nuzzled firmly under his chin.
Heeding the look he gave her that all would be explained soon enough, Bethany settled back on her heels. One hand rubbed up and down Tina’s back, with the other she reached out to bring the boy close.
“Doctor Thomas, this is Tommy, Tina’s brother.”
She pulled back from the child she embraced. “Hi, Tommy, I’m Bethany.”
“Hi,” he mumbled with a shy nod.
“My fingers! Ow!”
An alarmed gaze shot to his sister. “Is she gonna be okay?”
Bethany cupped her hand over one of Tina’s and winced as a numbing cold seeped into her palm. Her quick visual for the white of frostbite revealed only the bright pink of exposure.
“She’ll be fine.” Out of necessity, she shifted to take charge physician. “We need to get both—all of you, warm.”
*****You could call the result of this scene a pre-happily ever after to the final happily ever after.
And isn’t that the purpose of a romance?
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