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"Miss Shannon, he just kicked me."
"On my way."
Shannon Lyndon grinned at the sight she must have made, galloping in like the cavalry toward the voice coming from the computer room. The voice of one of her girls. The chance that one of them was in any real danger was slim after all. At Hope Haven, a kick didn't necessarily signal an attacker, stomach upset seldom meant the flu and excessive restroom breaks were as ordinary as pop quizzes.
Inside the room, half a dozen teenage girls were crowded around a redhead named Holly. Her chair was pushed back from the computer desk, and hands of varying sizes and skin tones were pressed to her slightly protruding tummy. Most of the girls had rounded abdomens to match hers, and the remaining few would blossom in a matter of weeks.
"He's doing it again." Holly's eyes were as wide as the grin on her freckle-dusted face. She'd already started referring to her child as a "he" although it was too soon for an ultrasound test where she could find out for sure. "Want to feel it, Miss Shannon?"
"Of course I want to."
Well, want was a strong word, given that perspiration dotted the back of her neck though late fall already held Southeast Michigan in its frozen fist. And given that no matter how many times she shared moments like this with the teens, she'd never been able to escape her own private longing. But she brushed away the dampness, tucked the lock of hair that had escaped from her braid behind her ear and stepped right inside the circle of teens. One of her girls had invited her into this special moment, and she was determined to be there for every one of them no matter how much it cost her.
It couldn't matter this morning that Holly and the other girls entering their second trimesters weren't the only ones intimately familiar with the butterfly flutter of life inside of them. Shannon's secret was just another square stitched into a faded quilt of memories, and that quilt needed to remain folded away for another day.
She bent over the sixteen-year-old and splayed a hand on her belly. It came as no surprise that she felt no motion beneath her fingertips other than the rise and fall of the girl's breathing. When she shook her head, Holly's smile fell.
"Here, let me try." Kelly, a recent Hope Haven addition with close-trimmed black hair and lovely café au lait skin, squeezed in closer. She held her fingers to the spot Holly indicated for several seconds and then pulled them away. "I don't feel it, either."
Shannon patted Holly's shoulder. "At first you might be the only one who can feel the baby's movements, but before long they'll be strong enough to knock a quarter off your stomach."
"She's right. Believe me." Brooke, in her thirty-third week, rubbed a spot where a foot or elbow must have been poking her rib cage.
Holly's smile returned as she traced a circular pattern near the hem of her oversize Michigan State sweatshirt. Still a child herself, she clearly was in love with her baby.
Shannon could relate to that. As much to escape from her feelings as to hide them, she turned away from the sweet scene. Only then did she notice the three girls sitting in a row at computer terminals, focused on their online assignments while avoiding the excitement surrounding Holly's pregnancy milestone. It seemed unfair that they couldn't enjoy this celebration of life together since they'd all already chosen life for their babies. But for some of the girls who'd committed to adoption, becoming attached to the fetuses they carried was a luxury they couldn't afford.
Unfortunately, Shannon could relate to that, too.
The girls' varied reactions served as reminders of where they were. No matter how positive she and the other staff tried to make Hope Haven, it was still a Christian home for teen moms. The girls there would make more critical decisions than even the unfortunate choices that led to their pregnancies. Most would make those decisions with no input from their babies' fathers, some without their families' support. Shannon only prayed that the girls would be able to live with their decisions.
"Miss Shannon, have you planned the menus for our Thanksgiving celebration?" Tonya called from one of the PCs across the room.
"We're all set, but the holiday's still six days away, and you have midterms coming up, so don't start thinking about turkey and dressing yet."
Tonya grinned as she tightened the band on her raven ponytail. "Then could you look at this problem for me?"
The request for study help came as a relief from the intensity of the moment, that is until she recognized that the honor student was working on derivatives.
"Are you sure you want my help? Can it wait until Mrs. Wright comes back to teach on Monday?"
Her ponytail bobbed as she shook her head, her hand resting on the curve of her tummy. "Today you're all we've got."
Tonya probably hadn't intended for her comment to be a monumental statement, but their gazes connected with the truth of her words. While the girls were at Hope Haven, Shannon really was all they had. Well, she and a second social worker, a part-time classroom instructor, a weekends-only cook and a visiting minister, anyway.
Still, her girls were relying on her to help them navigate this terrifying journey into teenage motherhood. They needed her to teach them about proper nutrition and prenatal care, help them keep up with their online high school classes, pray with them, cry with them. And yes, she would even help them with derivatives once she refreshed her memory on how to find those.
"Well, let's give it a shot."
She pulled over a chair and sat next to Tonya, studying the steps the teen had typed below the math problem.
"Wait. You multiplied the coefficient wrong here."
Pushing her red wire glasses up on her nose, Tonya studied the screen and then smiled. "Maybe I should learn to multiply before I take on calculus."
"The simple mistakes are the ones that trip us up."
Shannon pushed back from the desk and stood, grateful that the answer had been easy to locate.
If only the solutions to the challenges facing these teens were as obvious or as simple. Some of the girls and their families would choose to keep the babies, with real or idealized expectations. Several would choose adoption and become the answer to prayer for childless couples. Some would return to their former lives and try to forget this ever happened. But the truth remained that no matter what decisions they made, no matter what justifications they gave for their choices, none of these girls would ever be the same.
Shannon understood that most of all.
The pungent scent of stale ice assailed his senses as Trooper Mark Shoffner passed through the frozen-food section on his way to the Savers' Mart store office. The suspect hadn't picked the most sanitary place in Commerce Township to hit, but he'd been wrong in assuming that the staff would be equally lax on theft recovery.
Inside the office, the juvenile suspect slouched in a chair in a belligerent teen pose: arms and ankles crossed, a Detroit Tigers baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. Mark stopped outside the door, sighing. He'd drawn the short straw again as the new guy at the Brighton Post, having to deal with another James Dean wannabe, especially so early on a school day. If only he hadn't responded to the call from the area dispatcher.
He had to be the biggest misery magnet on the Michigan State Police force. If his cheating ex-wife, who blamed her infidelity on his marriage to the force instead of her, wasn't enough, then state cuts requiring the closure of the Iron River Post helped cinch the title for him. With setbacks like these, how was he supposed to build a decorated police career that could prove he wasn't a juvenile delinquent anymore?
Mark referred to his notes from the manager and looked to the boy again. "Blake Wilson?"
Blake lifted his hand and let it fall without bothering to look up. He was trying to appear tough, all right. But the coating of filth on his jeans, sneakers and flimsy zipper sweatshirt and the grime melding with the crop of peach fuzz on his chin hinted that the world was beating up on Blake Wilson instead of the other way around.
"Well, good." Mark stepped over the boy's outstretched legs, pulled out a second chair from behind the desk and dropped into it. "I'm Trooper Shoffner of the Michigan State Police. Now, I'll tell you how this is going to go. You're going to sit up in that chair, take off that hat and look me in the eye. Then we're going to have a talk."
"So that's how it's going to go, huh?" The boy continued to stare at a spot on the floor.
"Unless you prefer me to cuff you now and take you on a ride in my patrol car first."
Seconds passed without any movement from the teen, but Mark folded his hands and waited. One of them had to win this power struggle, and it was going to be him. Though they'd only just met, Mark knew the kid well. He'd been that kid. But he wasn't that guy anymore, whether others accepted that truth or not, and he needed to stick with the present if he wanted to show the suspect who was in charge.
Finally, Blake straightened and lifted his head, meeting Mark's gaze with intelligent hazel eyes.
Though that gaze flicked to the trooper's hat in unspoken challenge, the boy yanked his cap off by the bill. A mess of greasy dark blond hair fell loose.
"Thank you." Mark left his own cover in place, as state police policy required that troopers wear them whenever responding to a call. "How old are you, Blake?"
He bit at skin on the corner of his pinky fingernail and then, switching hands, chewed again. His fingernails were so heavily bitten that it was a wonder he still found anything left to nibble. Just fourteen. Mark jotted the figure in his notebook, guessing that the jaded boy's life experience made him much older than that. "The store manager has reported that you were caught in possession of shoplifted items when you left the store. Can you tell me what happened?"
The boy shrugged. "I was hungry."
The manager materialized in the doorway. "Oh, he was hungry, all right. He walked out of the place like it was a food bank or something."
In answer to Mark's question, the man indicated items arranged on a table lining the office's back wall. Something heavy settled in Mark's throat. No cold medicine that could be cooked up into more powerful drugs. Not even a six-pack of beer or a pack of cigarettes. The suspect was accused of swiping a half gallon of milk, a box of corn flakes and a carton of cherry toaster pastries. A teenager's breakfast of champions. Arresting a hungry kid was the last thing he wanted to do, particularly so close to the annual gorgefest that was Thanksgiving, but unpleasant tasks sometimes were part of the job.
He turned to the store manager. "Thank you for your help. I will be taking Mr. Wilson back to the post for further questioning. I will be in touch."
The trip would also include a breakfast stop at a fast-food restaurant, but Mark didn't mention that to the manager, who would be complaining about special treatment. He'd questioned many things about his new faith that had helped him to turn his life around and then failed to keep his wife from leaving him, but the lesson he'd learned about feeding the hungry still seemed like a good idea.
Soon the suspect was Mirandized, cuffed and seated in the back of the patrol car, and they were headed west on the Interstate toward the post. Well, fidgeting in the backseat, anyway. How Blake had managed to do that with his hands cuffed, Mark wasn't sure, but the boy's wiggling had already caused the blanket that Mark had tucked around his shoulders to fall behind him. The only thing that stayed in place was the hat that Mark had returned to him.
"You're just going to make the cuffs rub your wrists raw," he pointed out.
But the squirming stopped for about a minute, and then it resumed as if the boy couldn't control it. Instead of mentioning it again, Mark took the Milford Road exit and headed south toward a shopping plaza with several fast-food restaurants nearby.
"We'll call your parents once we reach the Brighton Post, but I'm hungry, so I'm going to stop for some breakfast." He glanced at the boy in his rearview mirror. "I can pick something up for you if you like."
Unmasked longing flitted through Blake's eyes as he took in the brightly colored fast-food restaurant signs, but he blinked it away as he met Mark's gaze in the glass.
"Can't we just go to my house first? I mean it's right by here."
Mark wasn't sure which surprised him more, that a hungry teen was turning down food or that the boy was begging to see his parents sooner than he would have been forced to once they reached the post. Since he'd suspected that Blake might be a runaway, he was curious to see just how close they lived.
"Why would you want to go there now?"
"My parents will go ballistic when they hear about me getting into trouble anyway, so we might as well get it over with."
The Lie-o-meter should have exploded on that one because Mark wasn't buying it. The kid had probably figured out that the store was unlikely to press charges. Or maybe he had a juvenile record a mile long and wanted to delay Mark's chance to get back to his computer. Mark's lips lifted at the thought. Blake had missed the laptop mounted on the patrol car's dashboard if he believed a side trip could slow access to that information.
"Good to get it over with." His gaze flicked to the mirror. "Sure you don't want to eat something before-"
Blake shook his head, interrupting him. That settled it. Something was making the boy desperate to get home. Something more powerful than hunger intense enough to drive him to steal. And Mark had to know what it was.
"Okay, what's your address?"
He popped open the laptop and typed the address Blake gave him into the GPS. The short trip led to a rural area near the line that separated Oakland and Livingston counties. Turning off on a county road, he made a second left onto a lane with only a few houses spaced along it. He pulled onto the narrow drive of an expansive two-story brick house, remarkable in no way beyond its size. The place had seen better days. Its outbuildings were faded. Its gutters hung loose. Its long, blacktop drive begged for recoating. The owner had obviously tried to warm up the place with a fall display of hay bales and yellow chrysanthemums next to the porch, but the effort only reminded Mark of a tiny color portrait on a bare wall.
"Is this it?" At least it was a house. Many of the suspects he'd met lived with less. Far less.