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"Hey, wait! Mister, you gotta help us!"
Mick O'Callaghan stopped at the sound of the frantic shout. He turned to see a grubby, bearded derelict emerge from the doorway of an abandoned building, one of many that lined the narrow Chicago street. As the man stumbled down the dilapidated steps, Mick recognized Eddy Todd. Eddy, in his stained and tattered overcoat, was a frequent flyer at the Mercy House Shelter where Mick volunteered two days a week.
Staggering up to Mick, Eddy grabbed the front of his brown leather jacket. "Please. You gotta help. She's havin' a baby! I don't know what to do. You gotta help her."
"Take it easy, Eddy. Slow down and tell me what's wrong."
Eddy squinted up at Mick's face, and some of the panic left his watery, gray eyes. "That you, Mick?"
"Yeah, it's me." He kept the old fellow from falling by catching his elbows. The sour odors of an unwashed body and cheap whiskey assaulted Mick. No doubt Eddy had been out panhandling, and some well-meaning Samaritan had given him money for a meal, but he had spent it on a bottle instead.
Eddy regained his balance and tugged at Mick's arm. "Come on. You're a fireman. You can deliver a baby, can't ya?"
Mick cast a doubtful eye at the old tenement. What would a pregnant woman be doing in there? Only broken shards of glass remained in the few windows that weren't boarded over. A section of the roof had collapsed, and debris littered the area. The only signs of life were a few weeds that had sprouted in the sidewalk cracks and struggled to survive in the weak April sunshine. It wasn't the kind of place he wanted to go searching throughespecially for an old drunk's hallucinations.
With a gentle tug, Mick tried to coax Eddy away. "Why don't you come down to the mission. Pastor Frank can get you a hot meal. It's meat loaf tonight. You like meat loaf, don't you?"
"Sure, sure, I like meat loaf." Eddy allowed himself to be led for a few steps, then he stopped. "But what about the girl? She shouldn't have her baby in there. It ain't clean, or nothing. Come on, I'll show ya where she is."
Mick studied the building again. What if Eddy wasn't imagining things? He glanced at his watch. Normally, it didn't matter how he spent his days off, but since his mother had moved in for an extended stay after her accident, he tried to make sure she didn't spend much time alone. Tonight was the nurse's night off. Naomi would be leaving in an hour. Perhaps if he hurried, he could check the place out, take Eddy over to the mission and get home before she left.
He turned back to the old man. "I'll take a look, but I want you to stay here," he insisted.
"Sure, sure. I'll stay ri-right here." Eddy nodded, lost his balance and staggered back a step. He wavered on his feet but stayed upright. "You want I should call an ambulance?"
Mick shook his head and hid a smile. "I'll do that if we need one. You just stay put."
Walking carefully up the broken steps, he ducked under crisscrossed boards someone had nailed over the doorway in a vain attempt to keep people out. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust in the gloomy interior. He faced a long hall with a dozen doors down its length. The first one stood open, and he looked in.
A tattered mattress surrounded by heaps of cardboard boxes lay in one corner. Old clothes, tin cans and trash covered the floor. The place reeked of stale sweat and rancid garbage. As he stepped back, his foot struck an empty bottle of whiskey and sent it rolling across the warped floorboards. Apparently, Eddy had been holed up in there for some time. At least there was no sign of a pregnant woman. Mick turned to leave, but the sound of a low moan stopped him.
It came again, and he moved down the hall to investigate, skirting a pile of broken furniture and fallen ceiling plaster that all but blocked the dark hall. The last door on the left stood open a crack. He hesitated beside it. Four years as a firefighter had taught him caution. Plenty of unsavory characters inhabited these slums, and some of them could be very unpleasant if he'd stumbled onto a meth lab or another equally illegal operation.
Another moan, louder this time, issued from the room. Someone was in pain. He couldn't ignore that. Standing with his back to the wall, he stretched out his arm and eased open the door. From behind, a hand clamped down on his shoulder, and Mick's breath froze in his chest.
"What ya doin'?" a slurred voice wheezed.
Relief surged through Mick as his heart began beating again. He turned and whispered, "Eddy, you scared the life out of me! Didn't I tell you to stay put?"
"Yeahyeah, you told me, but she's in here. I found some help," he announced and barged through the door.
Mick followed with more caution. Light poured in from a large, broken window on the back wall. It showed a room surprisingly neat and free of the stench that permeated Eddy's lair. It contained little more than a bare mattress where a young woman with short blond hair lay on her side. She wore a simple black skirt and a pale pink sweater with long sleeves. Her splayed fingers covered her small, rounded belly beneath the sweater. A thin wail escaped her clenched lips. This was definitely not a hallucination.
At the sound of voices, Caitlin Williams lifted her head and sighed in relief. Eddy had managed to bring help. She was sorry she had doubted the old guy. The young man with him crossed the room and dropped to one knee beside her.
"Can you tell me what's wrong?" he asked.
Scared out of her wits but determined not to show it, Caitlin said, "I think my baby's coming."
His fingers closed around her wrist, and he stared at his watch. "How far apart are your contractions?"
"Right on top of each other," she panted, trying to stifle a groan as another one gripped her. "You a doctor?"
"No, I'm an EMT. Don't worry, I know what to do."
He sounded so calm, so confident. Maybe it would be okay. Peering up at him, she realized with a jolt that she knew him.
She'd seen him at the nearby homeless shelter where she got some of her meals. Only last week, she had watched him playing football with some of the kids there. He'd caught a wobbling pass and staggered toward the makeshift goalposts with half a dozen of them hanging on and trying to pull him down. His muscular frame had made light work of the load, but it was his hearty laughter that had truly drawn her interest. His rugged good looks and dark auburn hair made him easy on the eyes. At the time, she had thought his face was more interesting than handsome. It had character.
"I know you. At the shelter they called you Mickey O."
A warm smile curved his lips and deepened the crinkles at the corners of his bright, blue eyes. "Mick O'Callaghan at your service. And you are?" A vague trace of Irish brogue lilted through his deep baritone voice.
"Caitlin Williams," she supplied through gritted teeth.
"Pleased to meet you." He laid a gentle hand on her stomach. "When is your baby due?"
"Not till" Pressing her lips together, Caitlin waited for the pains to pass. "August," she finished.
His startled gaze flew to her face, and her fears came rushing back to choke her. "My baby will be okay, won't it?"
"I'll do everything I can." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. He flipped open the lid, then muttered, "Not now."
Caitlin saw the worried look in his eyes. "What's wrong?"
"The battery is dead. Eddy?" he called over his shoulder. "I need you to go get that ambulance, now. And hurry!"
"Ri-right, Mick, sure thing. Urn where should I go?"
"Go to Pastor Frank. Tell him Mick O'Callaghan says to call an ambulance, then bring him here. Can you do that?" Taking off his jacket, Mick spread it over Cait-lin and tucked it around her shoulders.
Eddy nodded. "Sure, I can do that."
Mick saw the old man stagger as he hurried out the door. Torn between the need to stay with the woman or make sure that help was called he looked at her and said, "Maybe I should go."
She grabbed his arm. "No, stay, please. Eddy can do it. Stay and take care of my baby."
"Okay, I'll stay." He composed his face, determined to keep her calm. He knew a baby born three months early wouldn't survive unless it waited to be born in a hospital.
Please, Heavenly Father, guide me in making the right decisions here.
Her face tightened into a grimace as she curled forward again. "Something's wrong. It hurts."
"You need to breathe through your contractions, like this." He demonstrated. "Come on, breathe, breathe."
"You breathe. I'm going to scream."
She didn't and he admired her control. "Tell you what, we'll take turns. Every other contraction, I get to scream, and you breathe."
She uncurled and relaxed back onto the mattress. "What have you got to yell about?"
He gave a pointed glance to where she gripped his arm. "You're doing a bit of acupuncture with those fingernails."
She jerked away. "I'm sorry."
"Why don't you hold my hand?" He offered it, but she ignored him and gripped the edge of the mattress instead, and he regretted saying anything.
He had seen this young woman occasionally at Pastor Frank's shelter in the last month. She would show up for the evening meal, but she never stayed long. Like many of the women at Mercy House, she kept to herself. He'd never spoken to her, yet something in her eyes had captured his attention the first time he saw her.
The women who came to Mercy House were mostly single mothers with ragged children in tow or old women alone and without families. Their eyes were dull with hopelessness, desperation and sadness, but life hadn't emptied this girl's eyesthey blazed with defiance.
Up close, their unusual color intrigued him. A light golden brown, they held flecks of green that made them seem to change with the light. They reminded him of the eyes of a cougar he had seen in the zoo. Aloof, watchful, wary. Only now, raw fear lurked in their depths.
Come on, Eddy, don't let me down. Get that ambulance here.
Struggling to hide his concerns, Mick searched for a way to establish a rapport and put her at ease. "Have you got a name picked out for your baby?"
"No. I thought I had plenty of time."
He gave her a wry smile. "I've got names picked out for my kids, and I'm not even married yet."
She arched an eyebrow. "Goody for you."
"A kid's name is important. It's something you should give a lot of thought. Not that you haven'tor wouldn'tI mean," he murmured as he ducked his head.
Caitlin couldn't believe it. This grown man, as big as a house, and probably twenty-five years old was blushing. His neck grew almost as red as his hair. It was sweet, really.
What could she say to someone about to deliver her baby? Things were going to get intimate. Maybe soon. She felt the beginnings of another contraction and reached for his hand. His large fingers engulfed her small ones. Strength and reassurance seemed to flow from him into her, easing her fear. Focusing on his face, she followed his instructions to breathe in and blow out. The pain did seem more bearable.
As the contraction faded, she realized he still held her hand. She pulled away and drew his jacket close, relishing the warmth and comforting scent of leather and masculine cologne. The quiet of the old building pressed in around them.
"So, tell me what names you got picked out," she said at last. "Maybe I'll use one."
He smiled. "For a boy, it'll be William Perry."
"Willie Perry Williams." She tried the name out but shook her head. "Not a chance. Why would you do that to a kid?"
"Are you joking? William 'The Refrigerator' Perry was the greatest football player in the history of the Chicago Bears."
Her husband had liked football. The thought of Vin-nie sent a stab of regret through her heart. He would never see his son or daughter. How she had hoped that he would give up his wild ways once he knew they were having a baby. He hadn't. A high-speed chase while trying to outrun the police ended his life when his car veered off the highway and struck a tree. His death that night had started her down the painful path that led to her current desperate situation.
Within days she had discovered that Vinnie had been gambling away the rent money she worked so hard to earn. The landlord didn't want to hear her sob story. He wanted his money. Three months of unpaid rent was more than she could come up with. She was evicted the day after her husband's funeral. With no money and nowhere to go, she soon found herself living on the streets. The one place she swore she'd never go back to.
She took a close look at her rescuer. Was he the same kind of man? One who would drink and gamble and then lie to his pregnant wife about it? She didn't believe that. Not a guy who liked kids as much as he did.
Managing a little smile, she said, "You don't plan on naming a girl after a football player, do you?"
"No," he answered quietly. "I'll name her after my mother. Elizabeth Anne O'Callaghan."
Amazing! If this guy was any sweeter, he'd rival a candy bar.
Another contraction hit, and his hand found hers. "You got it, that's it. Breathe," he coaxed. "Breathe, breathe. You're doing great."
She curled onto her side and focused on his singsong voice. With his free hand, he began to rub her lower back in slow circles. Okay, she thought, a sweet guy is a good thing to have around just now.
"Is there someone I can call once we get to the hospital?" he asked. "Family? The baby's father?"
She shook her head. "Vinnie, my husband, he's dead. There's nobody."
She bristled at the pity in his voice. Normally, she would have ignored it, but now she couldn't seem to control the emotions that flared in her.
"I don't need your pity. I've had a little bad luck, that's all." She raised up on her elbow to glare at him. "I'll be on my feet again in no time and a lot better off than I was before."
Holding up one hand, he said, "Chill, lady. I wasn't feeling sorry for you."
"You'd better not. I can take care of myself. And I can take care of my baby, too."
"In here?" He gestured around the room. The broken window let the wind in, and strips of dingy wallpaper peeling from the stained plaster waved in the breeze that carried the smells of mildew and rotting wood.
"Lady, I've seen kids living in places like this covered with rat bites and worse. If you think you can go it alone, you're crazy. There's a system to help if you'll use it."