A Christmas Conundrum Women, Dr. Jacob Hartman knew, were a mystery. Take the first time he met social worker Hannah Smith at the Stone Refuge home for foster children. The woman stared him down as if he'd come at her with castor oil. Why? His past was full of heavy-duty heartache, but he was positive they'd never met. And as a former foster child himself, Jacob was deeply touched by how much she cared about the kids at the home, how loving she was—to everyone but him. Which ...
A Christmas Conundrum
Women, Dr. Jacob Hartman knew, were a mystery. Take the first time he met social worker Hannah Smith at the Stone Refuge home for foster children. The woman stared him down as if he'd come at her with castor oil. Why? His past was full of heavy-duty heartache, but he was positive they'd never met. And as a former foster child himself, Jacob was deeply touched by how much she cared about the kids at the home, how loving she was—to everyone but him. Which was where, he figured, the mistletoe came in!
Margaret has been writing for over 20 years. She started writing in the late 1970s because she wanted to see if she could put a whole story down on paper. That book is still in the drawer and will never see the light of day. But she was able to finish a book, which was her goal.
The child's name on the chart held Jacob Hartman's gaze riveted. Andy Morgan. The eight-year-old from Stone's Refuge had possibly another broken bone. Flashes of the last time the boy had been in his office, only a few weeks before, paraded across his mind.
With a sigh, Jacob entered the room to find the boy perched on the edge of the exam table, his face contorted in pain as he held his left arm, in a makeshift sling, close to his body. A woman Jacob wasn't familiar with stood to the side murmuring soothing words to Andy. She turned toward Jacob, worry etched into her face—and something else he couldn't decipher. Her mouth pinched into a frown that quickly evolved into an unreadable expression.
Jacob shook off the coolness emanating from the young woman. "Hi, Andy. Remember me? I'm Dr. Jacob," he said, using the name the children at the refuge knew him by. "How did you hurt your arm?" He gently removed the sling made from an old T-shirt and took the injured, swollen limb into his hands.
When he probed the forearm, Andy winced and tried to draw it back. "I fell." The child's lower lip trembled, and he dug his teeth into it.
"He was climbing the elm tree next to the barn and fell out of it." When Jacob glanced toward her, taking in the concern in the woman's dark blue gaze, she continued in a tense voice that had a soft Southern lilt. "I'm the new manager at Stone's Refuge. Hannah Smith. I was told when there was a medical problem to bring the children to you. This is only my second day, and no one else was around. The other kids are at school. Andy was supposed to be there, too. I—" she offered him a brief smile that didn't reach her eyes "—I talk toomuch when I'm upset."
No doubt the tension he felt coming from the refuge's new manager was due to Andy's accident. "I take care of the children's medical needs." Jacob buzzed for his nurse. "Andy, can you do this for me?" He demonstrated flexing and extending his wrist and fingers.
With his forehead scrunched, the boy did, but pain flitted across his features. He tried to mask it, but Jacob knew what the child was going through. He'd experienced a few broken bones in his own childhood and remembered trying to put up a brave front. He learned to do that well. Jacob unlocked a cabinet and removed a bottle of ibuprofen.
He handed the boy the pain pills and a glass of water. "Why weren't you at school?" Children like Andy were the reason he had become a pediatrician, but he hadn't quite conquered the feelings generated when he was confronted with child abuse.
The boy dropped his head, cradling his arm against his chest. "I told the other kids I was going back to the cottage because I didn't feel good. I hid instead. I don't like school. I want to go home."
"Just as soon as I get a picture of your arm and we get it fixed up, you can go home."
Andy's head snapped up, his eyes bright. "I can? Really?"
Hannah Smith stepped closer and placed a hand on the child's shoulder. Apprehension marked her stiff actions. "Back home to the refuge."
"No! I want to go home." Tears welled up in Andy's brown eyes, and one slid down his thin face.
"Andy, you can't. I'm sorry." Calmness underscored her words as tiny creases lined her forehead. Her concern and caring attitude accentuated her beauty.
Having realized his mistake, Jacob started to respond when the door opened and the nurse appeared. "Teresa, Andy's visiting us again. We need an X-ray of his left arm."
"Hello, Andy. What did you do to your arm?" Teresa, a petite older woman with a huge, reassuring smile, helped the child down from the table. "I bet you remember where our prize box is. Once we get the X-ray done, I'll let you check it out."
"Sure. If I remember correctly, you were also eyeing that red car the last time. It's still there."
"It is?" Andy hurried out of the room, still holding his arm across his chest.
The refuge's manager started to follow the pair. Jacob blocked her path and closed the door. Frowning, she immediately backed up against the exam table.
"I'd like a word with you, Ms. Smith. Teresa will take care of Andy. He knows her. She spent quite a bit of time with him several weeks ago."
Her dark blue gaze fixed on him, narrowing slightly. "I haven't had a chance to read all the children's files yet. What happened the last time he was here?"
Obviously she was upset that something like this occurred on her watch. But beneath her professional demeanor, tension vibrated that Jacob suddenly sensed went beyond what had occurred to Andy. "His mother brought him in with a nasty head wound, and I called social services. Her story didn't check out. Thankfully he was placed quickly at Stone's Refuge."
"I was in the middle of reading the children's files when the school called to find out why he wasn't there. I found Andy lying on the ground hugging his arm and trying his best not to cry, but his face had dry tear marks on it." She pushed her long blond hair behind her ears and blew a breath of air out that lifted her bangs. "When I approached him, he tried to act like nothing was wrong."
"Sadly, Andy is used to holding his pain in. I took several X-rays last time because he was limping and discovered he'd broken his ankle and it was never set properly. He probably will always limp because of the way his bone healed without medical attention."
"His mother didn't seek care for him?"
He shook his head. "I think the only reason she came in last time was because there was so much blood involved. She thought he was dying. He'd passed out briefly. She flew into a rage when he was taken from her." Jacob didn't know if he would ever forget the scene Andy's mother created at the clinic that afternoon. If looks could kill, he would be dead, but then he should be accustomed to that from an angry mother.
"Is there a father?"
"No. I don't think there ever was one in the picture. His mother clammed up and hasn't said anything about the new or old injuries." Jacob picked up the child's chart. "I want you to know what you're dealing with since you haven't been on the job long. The only time Andy cried was when he found out he wasn't going with his mother when he left the hospital. He kept screaming he needed to go home. When he settled down, he whimpered that his mother needed him, but I could never get him to tell me why he thought that." He jotted his preliminary findings down on the chart. "Have you been a social worker for long?"
A gleam glittered in her eyes. "No, I got my degree recently."
A newbie. No wonder she'd wanted to know if Andy's mother had sought help. He would hate to see that light in her eyes dim when the reality of the system sank in. But having dealt with the Department of Human Services and the lack of funding that so often tied its hands when it came to neglected or abused children, he knew the reality of the situation, first as a boy who had gone through the system and now as a pediatrician.
"I've been impressed by the setup at Stone's Refuge, especially since it hasn't been around for long. We could use more places like that." Hannah hiked the straps of her brown leather purse up onto her shoulder. "I'm glad they've started building another house at the ranch. Mr. Stone has quite a vision."
Jacob laughed. "That's Peter. When he came up with using the students from the Cimarron Technology Center to help with the construction of the house, it was a blessing. They're learning a trade, and we're getting another place for kids to stay at a cheaper rate."
"I heard some of his ideas, as well as his wife's when I interviewed with them. It's quite an ambitious project." She started forward. "I'd better check and see—"
The door opened, and Andy came into the room with Teresa and a red car clutched in his hand. "It was there, Dr. Jacob. No one took it."
The child's words, no one took it, stirred a memory from Jacob's past. He'd been in his fourth foster home, all of his possessions easily contained in a small backpack. Slowly his treasures had disappeared. The first item had been stolen at the shelter after he'd been removed from his mother's care. By the age of twelve he hadn't expected any of his belongings to stay long, so when he had received a radio for Christmas from a church toy drive, he hadn't thought he would keep it more than a day or so. But when he had moved to his fifth foster home seven months later, he still had the radio in his backpack. No one had taken it. His body had begun to fill out by then, and he'd learned to defend himself with the older children.
"Here's the X-ray, Dr. Hartman."
Teresa handed it to him, drawing him back to the present.
After studying the X-ray, Jacob pointed to an area on Andy's forearm. "That's where it's fractured. Teresa will set you up with Dr. Filmore, an orthopedic surgeon here in the clinic, to take care of your arm."
Andy's eyes grew round. "What will he do?"
"He'll probably put a cast on your arm."
"Can people sign it?" Andy stared at the place where Jacob had pointed on the X-ray.
"Yep, but you won't be able to get it wet. You'll have it on for a few months."
Andy grinned. "You mean, I don't have to take a bath for months?"
Jacob chuckled, ruffling the boy's hair. "I'm afraid a few people might have something to say about that."
"We'll rig something up to keep your arm with the cast dry while you take a bath." Hannah moved next to Andy, her nurturing side leaking through her professional facade. "And I'm thinking when we get home, we'll have a cast signing and invite everyone. I've got some neat markers we can use. We can use different colors or just one."
"My favorite color is green."
"Then green it is." Hannah glanced toward Jacob. "Where do we go to see Dr. Filmore?"
Jacob nodded toward Teresa who slipped out of the room. "He's on the third floor. He owes me a favor. If he isn't in surgery, he should be able to see Andy quickly. Teresa will arrange it."
Hannah smiled, her glance straying to Andy. "Great."
It lit her whole face, transforming her plain features into a pretty countenance. It reached deep into her eyes, inviting others to join her in grinning. Jacob responded with his own smile, but when her attention came back to him, her grin died. An invisible but palpable barrier fell into place. Was she still worried about the accident on her second day on the job? Or something else?
As Teresa showed Hannah and Andy out of the room, Jacob watched them leave. He couldn't shake the feeling he'd done something wrong in Hannah's eyes, that her emotional reaction went beyond Andy's accident. Jacob was out at the refuge all the time, since he was the resident doctor for the foster homes and on the board of the foundation that ran Stone's Refuge. But the ice beneath her professional facade didn't bode well for their working relationship. As he headed into the hall, he decided he needed to pay Peter a visit and find out what he could about Hannah Smith.
The sun began its descent toward the line of trees along the side of the road leading to Stone's Refuge. Tension gripped Hannah's neck and shoulders from the hours sitting in the doctor's office, waiting for Andy's arm to be taken care of. No, that wasn't the whole reason. The second she'd seen Dr. Jacob Hartman she'd remembered the time her family had been torn apart because of him. After the death of her older brother, Kevin, everything had changed in her life, and Jacob Hartman had been at the center of the tragedy.
But looking at him, no one could tell what he had done. His bearing gave the impression of a proficient, caring doctor. Concern had lined his face while interacting with Andy. Even now she could picture that look in his chocolate-brown eyes that had warmed when he'd smiled. The two dimples in his cheeks had mocked her when he had turned that grin on her. And for just a second his expression had taunted her to let go of her anger. But she couldn't.
The small boy next to her in the van had been a trouper the whole time, but now he squirmed, his bottled-up energy barely contained. "Mrs. Smith, ya ain't mad at me, are ya?" Andy stared down at his cast, thumping his finger against it over and over.
The rhythmic sound grated on Hannah's raw nerves, but she suppressed her irritation. Andy wasn't the source of her conflicting emotions. "Mad? No. Disappointed, yes. I want you to feel you can come talk to me if something is bothering you rather than playing hooky from school."
Andy dropped his head and mumbled, "Yes, ma'am."
"Please call me Hannah. You and I are the new kids on the block. Actually, you could probably show me the ropes. How long have you been at the house? Two, three weeks?"
He lifted his head and nodded.
"See? This is only my second day. You've got tons more experience at how things are done around here." Why had she accepted this job? How was she going to work with Dr. Hartman? The questions screamed for answers she couldn't give.
"Sure. But I don't know too much. The other kids "
When he didn't continue his sentence, Hannah slanted a look toward him, his chin again resting on his chest, his shoulders curled forward as though trying to draw inward. "What about the other kids?"
She slowed the van as she turned onto the gravel road that led to the group of houses for the foster children at Stone's Refuge. "Is anyone bothering you?"