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Little Girl Lost
By Marisa Carroll
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Marisa Carroll
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe calendar said it was November, but the scudding gray clouds and lowering sky made it seem as though winter had arrived in southern Ohio. The maples and slippery elms had long ago lost their leaves. The mottled trunks of the sycamores blended into the white and gray of the storm clouds. Only the oaks held stubbornly to their tattered brown leaves, the way she had been holding stubbornly to her grief.
No, not stubbornly, Faith Carson told herself as she trudged along the path that skirted a small lake and ended at a tiny, hidden roadside park bordering her farm. "Surely six months isn't too long to mourn a dead husband?"
She wasn't talking to herself, not really. She'd addressed the question to her two-year-old Shetland sheepdog, Addy, trotting at her heels. She'd found Addy at the local animal shelter a few weeks after she'd moved into the echoing old farmhouse that Mark had inherited from his grandparents, and which, until three weeks after his death, Faith had never set foot in. Addy was the only friend Faith had at the moment. The little dog pricked her ears at the question and gave a yip of sympathetic agreement.
Six months. Not nearly long enough when that sorrow was coupled with the aching loss of a child barely conceived. Surely six months was only a beginning. Faith blinked hard to hold back tears as icy raindrops touched her cheeks. She had nothing left in her but a sense of bereavement so deep and unrelenting she sometimes felt as though she had died, too, on that mountain road in Mexico.
They had been vacationing, their first real vacation since their marriage, looking for the remote area where thousands of monarch butterflies came to spend the winter. Mark was a computer programmer whose passion was butterflies. It was a trip he had wanted to take for as long as she had known him. But a washed-out section of road and a blown tire had caused their rented Jeep to roll over.
Somehow, for some reason, her heart had gone on beating when Mark's had stopped as she held him in her arms and their baby's life drained away between her legs. A loss like that scarred the heart so much the healing might take six years, or sixty - or never come.
She walked out of the trees just behind the rustic two-sided building that, along with a pair of old-fashioned outhouses and a rusty jungle gym, were the park's only amenities. An expensive, sporty blue car was parked in the graveled lot at the edge of the small body of water the county had named Sylvan Lake, but that was still known to the locals of Bartonsville, Ohio, as Carson's Pond. A young couple, the boy's arms wrapped around the girl, her head resting on his shoulder, sat on one of the picnic tables near the blackened fieldstone fireplace that took up the entire north wall of the building. Faith halted, half-hidden by a huge pine whose low branches brushed the ground, and acted as a windbreak on one side of the small picnic shelter.
She hadn't expected anyone to be in the park on a day like this, certainly not a pair of amorous teenagers. She took a quick step back, deeper into the shadow of the pine. They hadn't seen her. She could melt back into the woods, retrace her steps through the frosty grass and be home before the raindrops that were now falling steadily changed to sleet. Addy growled low in her throat.
"Shh." Faith knelt down to fasten the leash she carried in her pocket to the dog's collar before Addy could begin barking in earnest. She scooped the small dog into her arms and prepared to depart. The teenagers were absorbed in each other and didn't look in her direction, but some trick of sound brought their words to her ears.
"Beth, we can't stay here. There must be a town close by. Maybe it's big enough for a hospital."
"If we go to a hospital they'll call your parents." The girl cried out, a moan of pain and fear. These weren't just two moonstruck teenagers making out. Something far more serious than that was going on. Addy whined nervously and squirmed in Faith's arms. The boy turned his head and stared directly into her eyes.
"Help us," he said, his face as gray-white as the clouds and the sycamore trees. He was blond, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, seventeen or eighteen at most. A good-looking kid, or would be if he weren't half-scared to death. "My girlfriend's having a baby. And I don't know what to do."
Faith couldn't believe her ears, didn't want to. He couldn't have said what she thought she had heard.
"Please," he said, raising his voice so there could be no doubt as he repeated the words. "She's having a baby. I don't know what to do."
Instinctively Faith shook her head. "I don't, either," she murmured, but he couldn't hear her above the moaning of the wind in the trees. And she did know what to do. That was one of the things that made her own loss so hard to bear. She was a nurse. She had the skill and knowledge to help save lives. Once, she had even delivered a baby herself. But that had been five years ago in the hospital emergency room where she'd worked while Mark finished up his graduate studies. She had been young and fearless, then. Now she was not. She hadn't even set foot in a hospital since three days after her miscarriage.
The girl shifted her position, and Faith took a better look at her, her heart sinking. Her arms were wrapped around her swollen middle, which strained against the fabric of her pale-green sweater. She wasn't wearing a coat and shivered in the cold air. She was very, very pregnant. Her face was white, her eyes dark with fear. "I - I hurt so badly. I can't walk."
Feminine instinct and medical training took over, marching Faith forward on stiff legs. She tied Addy to a sapling at the corner of the shelter and hushed her with a stern warning. The little dog dropped to her belly on the cold ground whimpering with anxiety, sensing the tension in the humans around her, but obedient to Faith's command.
Faith looked from one terrified young face to the other. "She needs to be taken to the hospital." She took off her all-weather coat and draped it around the shivering girl's shoulders. She was wearing the sweatshirt Mark had given her for Christmas the year before, a heavy black one covered front and back with butterflies so she would be warm enough without her coat.
"No!" The girl panted, then bit her lip and groaned, a low, guttural sound. The sound of a woman who was almost ready to give birth. Faith's heart hammered. This couldn't be happening. Not today of all days. The day her own child should have been born.
"Your baby is coming, and it shouldn't be born out here in the cold. I'll give you directions to the hospital in Bartonsville. When you get there the nurses can notify your families -"
Silvery strands of gossamer-fine hair danced in the cold air as the girl shook her head. "I don't have a family," she said defiantly. "Only my brother in Texas."
"What about you?"
"I - I don't have any family, either," he said miserably.
Excerpted from Little Girl Lost by Marisa Carroll Copyright © 2003 by Marisa Carroll
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.