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Last night was gruesome.
Scott Pataki poured himself a glass of whiskey, straight up. So what if it was a quarter after eight in the morning?
Eyes closed, he downed half the glass, trying to expel the gory images from his paramedic shift. The motorcycle-and-cement-truck tangle had been bad enough. Grisly. Closed casket for sure. But to follow that up, not fifteen minutes after they'd gotten the ambulance cleaned and restocked, with a suicide call
Thirty-six more days was all he had to make it through. Then he would finally escapeif he was lucky, before the job ruined him completely.
He swigged down the rest of the liquor, set aside the glass and headed to the hallway, unsnapping his jeans as he went. Before he could reach his bedroom, the doorbell pealed through the quiet. He swore and resumed his path to the shower but heard the sound again not twenty seconds later.
"At 8:26 a.m.?" he muttered, glancing at his watch. "Should be illegal to bother someone at this hour."
He retraced his steps to the living room. If he didn't get rid of whoever was out there right now, chances were they'd only come back in a few hours and interrupt his sleep. If he still had the ability to collapse like the dead and ignore it, there'd be no problem. But these days his sleep was as bothered as his waking hours.
Jaw clenched, he whipped the door open, planning to celebrate ridding himself of the unwanted visitor with another shot. Two if it was a religious zealot trying to save his soul.
If the teenage girl on his front step was a religion freak, they were getting younger. And tougher.
"Hi," she said, sizing him up. Vaguely familiar, restless-looking hazel eyes stared at him expectantly. Obviously she'd gotten the wrong apartment.
"Can I help you?" he said impatiently.
"You're Scott Pataki, right?"
That she knew his name didn't faze him. He was a paramedic. He met scores of people. He didn't recall seeing this girl before, though.
"I'm Gemma Lawrence." She said it almost as if she was challenging him.
He looked her over thoroughly, racking his brains for a connection. She was only a few inches shorter than his six feet, with messy, coarse-looking dirty-blond hair that hung to her shoulders. Her face was bare of makeup, except for the dark eyeliner she'd look better without. Her sloppy, oversize sweatshirt was not only stretched out and wrinkled as though it'd been slept in for a month straight, but it was all wrong for the weather. The temperature on San Amaro Island this stifling June morning was already close to ninety-five degrees. Ripped, faded jeans and orange camo tennis shoes rounded out her out-of-season getup.
"Dale Pataki is my father," she added. Oh, hell, no.
Son of a bitch, yes. The eyes. That's where he knew them from. Once you filtered out the too-heavy eye makeup, they matched his own father's. The realization reared itself like a rabid pit bull that'd worked its way out of a too-small backyard kennel.
Scott fought the urge to slam the door and act as if the past sixty seconds hadn't happened. Just as he'd been doing for ten years.
Make that three shots.
"Why are you here?" he asked.
She glanced to the side, probably at one of his crazy-ass neighbors down the way, then back at him. "Hot out here."
"That's summer in Texas for you." Chitchat about the weather wasn't going to win him over even if she hadn't just uttered the name of the man that made his blood boil.
"Can I come in?"
He eyed her warily, then inadvertently looked in the direction of the shower and bed he ached for. This problem wasn't going to go away until he handled it. He stepped aside to let her in, glancing at his watch. "It's past my bedtime. Make it quick."
As Gemma swiftly entered his apartment, chin up, he noticed the overstuffed backpack hanging from her shoulders and the black purse with metal accents that was big enough to hide a small child in.
"Do you have a roommate?" she asked, looking around the living room, taking a couple of steps toward his video-game system at the other end. She seemed to be scoping out the place.
"Not anymore. What do you want Gemma, was it?"
She whirled around and pegged him with a determined, measuring stare. "Yes. Gemma. I always imagined you being friendlier."
He'd never imagined her being anything. Never thought of her as a real person. "Are you going to tell me why you're here?"
She looked at him for another moment then became unusually interested in the thumbnail on her right hand. As Scott's patience slipped, she raised her long lashes again as if daring him to look away first. "I need a place to stay."
"Why would you think you could stay here?" Scott uncrossed his arms and did his best to remain calm as she wandered to the window. In the silence, he fought an inner battle against the rage his father's name stirred. Why today? He wasn't sure he could handle that particular memory lane anytime, but today of all days, after his worse-than-usual shift, he was at the end of his rope.
When she didn't immediately answer his question, he fired more at her. "Why aren't you at home with your mom? Fort Worth, wasn't it?"
Her shoulders jerked slightly, as if she'd been absorbed in her thoughts. Seconds ticked by.
"My mom kicked me out." Her tone was indifferent, cool. She walked over to the old couch and sat. The only sign that she wasn't totally at ease was a subconscious rubbing together of the fingers and thumb of one hand. With the other hand, she touched her abdomen purposefully. 'Tm pregnant."
Pregnant? He glanced at her belly but between the army-green sweatshirt that sagged over her and the way she was leaning forward, he couldn't see any telling bump.
Though she looked mature for her age, she wasn't much more than a child herself. Her skin looked soft and fresh, undamaged by the sun. Her eyes told a different story, though.
Scott opened his mouth to speak but couldn't figure out what to say to her announcement. Instead, he lowered himself to the arm on the opposite end of the couch and chewed on his dry lip, at a loss. Anger he could handle, but her revelation dampened that from a bottled-up rage to more of a slow, steady boil. Sympathy was tempering it, in spite of himself.
"Your mom kicked you out because you're pregnant?" he asked unnecessarily.
Gemma nodded. "In theory. Personally, I think she's just been waiting for an excuse. Which works for me because I planned to leave after graduation anyway."
"Did you graduate?"
"Close enough. The ceremony's tomorrow. I don't know how much you've heard about my mom, but she's not terribly reasonable."
"I haven't heard anything about your mom." Nor did he want to. "How pregnant are you?"
He calculated the months in his head and looked again at her middle.
"The sweatshirt covers it and I'm relatively small, I've been told, because of my height, but I assure you I wouldn't make that up."
"Where's the father?"
Where was he coming up with these questions and why was he asking them? This was so far from being his problem and still he couldn't throw her out. Yet.
The thing was, she damn sure couldn't stay here.
"He's not in the picture." Her answer came quickly.
Scott had several things to say about Daddy-O leaving her high and dry, but he reminded himself again this wasn't his problem. His concern was finding a place for her to go, someone to help her. He was in a bad state himself, but maybe not as coldhearted as he and everyone else thought.
"Why did you come here?" he asked, softening his tone.
He'd been aware, painfully aware, his dad had a child with another woman, but until now, she'd never had a face. It'd been easier to hate her before.
"We're in the same boat. It was you, our honorable father who I haven't talked to in almost four years, or the street. You win."
He tensed at the blunt referencethe use of ourto the reality that had caused him to walk away from his so-called family ten years ago. It didn't bear thinking of, not now with this stranger sitting in his apartment. Not ever. "Why would you even come up with the idea of showing up here?"
He'd never once had any desire to meet his dad's other family.
"You live on an island. We're practically family. Sounds ideal to me."
"We're not family." Scott had once been perfectly content being part of a family of threejust him, his mom and his dad. Then he'd found out the truth. Now the word family had very little significance to him.
"Half." She had a way of sounding removed from the argument, as though she didn't have any stake in it, and yet, there was a contradicting edge beneath her words.
Scott swore as he shot to his feet. "Come on."
The unveiled spark of hope that flitted over her face got to him, but he wasn't going to be her solution or her savior. Couldn't.
"I'll buy you a bus ticket to get home." He didn't have much cash available, but he could spare a little if it would get her back where she belongedand give him some peace. "Your mom is probably worried about you."
He expected her to protest, but she stared at him for several long, heavy seconds, all traces of toughness gone from her face. She rose wearily, straining under the weight of her backpack, and he wondered how long it'd been since she'd left home.
Shaking his head, he reminded himself of who she was and led her to the door. A stop at the ATM was all he could do for her. His father's love child wasn't someone he could handle charitably, now or ever.
Sometimes the person you pinned your hopes on wasn't cut out to be a hero.