Read an Excerpt
Lori Harper needed a miracle. It didn't have to be a big, showy miracle. Not like the time she and Tyler were down to peanut butter, crackers and half a bag of flour in the whole house and Tyler had reached his hand between the couch cushions and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat.
She pushed her shoulder-length blond hair out of her face and shifted her unwieldy body on the edge of the bed. It didn't even have to be a medium-size miracle. There had been plenty of those in her life, and she was thankful for them. Of course there were times when even miracles didn't help, or she wouldn't be in the fix she was in.
She still didn't understand why Gary had to go and run the car off the road last August or why he didn't get out before the car sunk in the lake. There had been no miracles that day, unless it was the kind crew from the county fire-and-rescue team that had broken the horrible news.
The young woman, especially, had been wonderful. Carrie had helped Lori face all the awful arrangements. She'd even bullied Gary's boss, Clyde Hughes, into giving them a replacement car, even though Gary had no insurance, and no paycheck coming except from the week he died. Carrie had stood her ground and argued toe-to-toe with the prominent businessman in a way that Lori couldn't imagine doing.
That was a minor miracle, even though Gary hadn't left any others in his wake. He did the best he could as a father and husband until the day he died. Lori wished he could have lived long enough to be here today. Even more, Lori wished she'd told Carrie about this baby. She hadn't been showing noticeably in August, and didn't feel like seeming even more pathetic than she did already in this awful place with only her son Tyler for company.
Lori arched her back. The only thing moving did was remind her that her swollen belly dwarfed the rest of her slender body. It didn't ease her discomfort. Still, she considered herself fortunate. Even if it was out here with no neighbors, at least they had a roof over their heads, and it was warm and dry and there weren't any crawly things in it, like that one apartment in Kansas City.
A sharp wave of pain across her belly brought Lori back to the present. Yes, this time a little miracle would do just fine. Like the time the lady from the next farm over, where they had a telephone, stopped by the way she did that once before Gary told her to leave them alone. Right now she'd even take Gary's old boss coming out to ask his aggravating, enigmatic questions.
"Anybody," Lori said aloud through dry lips. "Anybody at all would be a miracle." And she needed that miracle soon. Because this time Lori Harper had to admit something to herself. Unlike the time with the peanut butter, when she and Tyler would have been hungry and uncomfortable, she was in real trouble now.
This time it looked as though she was going to give birth in a trailer with no phone, miles from anyone except her five-year-old son. It hadn't been an easy pregnancy, and if she was reading the signs right, she had maybe an hour until the baby arrived. This time, Lori admitted, if she didn't get her miracle she could very well die.
"I hate my job." Mike Martin didn't answer his friend Carrie Collins because he knew she wasn't talking to him. She was talking to Dogg, who took up most of the bench seat of the pickup between them. The big black-and-tan shepherd thumped his tail and moaned softly at the attention from Carrie. "I hate my job, I hate my life, I hate "
"Aw, knock it off, Carrie," Mike told her. "You don't hate your job. You're one of the best fire-and-rescue officers in the county, maybe even in the state of Missouri. You only hate the fact that it's winter, it's cold and you've got to go out in the middle of nowhere and remind some woman she's a widow."
"Like it's going to surprise her, I'll bet," Carrie said glumly, still holding Dogg's massive tawny head in her hands. "But still, why do I have to do this?"
"Because it's your job," Mike reminded her, looking over at the slim redhead. "And despite saying you hate it, you're very good at it. Besides, you took the original call on this one. And you insisted that Ms. Harper be the one that the department took up their collection for. And let's add the fact that the captain knew that being a woman, you'd give this part of the job the right kind of sympathy." What Mike didn't add was that nobody else wanted to touch the assignment with a ten-foot pole, so naturally it fell to the junior member of the team.
That part was unspoken but agreed. "You gonna help out?" Carrie asked him.
Mike snorted. He might be built like a brick wall, but he was more intelligent than one. "Lady, this is your job. I just drive the truck, remember?"
"Drive the truck, dive for things in the pond, do search and rescue with Mister Big herethe whole nine yards," Carrie said. "You should be doing my job, you know."
Mike felt a column of ice replace his spine. He looked straight ahead to where the wipers scraped snow off the windshield. His dark hair was still damp from his shower, and the cold made him shiver. At least he would say it was the cold, and not the thought of doing Carrie's job. "Never in a million years. You do your job, I'll do mine. I can handle driving, diving and spending most of my time waiting between volunteer calls back at the real-estate office. But regular patrol work? No, ma'am. Not in this lifetime."
"Suit yourself. I still say you'd be good at it. How about being backup anyway out here?" Carrie wheedled. "I mean, since my partner deserted me and everything."
"Bart didn't desert you. He was listening for the dispatcher."
"Yeah, well, only because he'd rather spend the morning waiting for a call that might not come than do what I'm doing." Carrie wore the ghost of a pout on her snub-nosed face.
"Oh, get real," Mike told her. "Anybody would rather do that than go out to a spot ten miles from anyplace and tell some girl her Christmas is going to come from the fire department because she's the most pathetic case they had all year."
Anybody sane, Mike added silently. He'd long ago counted himself among the other part of the population because he would have given his well-muscled right arm to be able to do what the woman sitting next to him did. But like he told her, it wasn't going to happen in this lifetime. This was the closest he was going to get to her kind of work, with good reason. There was enough trouble in his past to convince Mike he wasn't capable of the kind of strength this took.
"You've got a point," Carrie admitted. "And you still haven't answered my question. Are you going to be my backup here?"
Even in the cold Mike could feel himself break out in a sweat. "I hadn't planned on it. I mean, you've got the training in this. I'm just a guy with a truck, the guy who's dumb enough to drive you out here, remember?"
"All too well," Carrie said. "You won't even put on the red suit. Could we at least try the antlers on Dogg?"
"If you want to try antlers on Dogg, go ahead. I am not helping, unless he bites you. Can't let the old EMT training go to waste," Mike said, wondering why he'd even agreed to get out of the truck.
His part of this job had been done in August. He'd taken a johnboat across that pond to where Dogg unmistakably told them there was a body somewhere under the surface. He'd put on his wet suit and probed the murky water until they'd found the battered car that yielded Gary Harper's body still behind the wheel. Facing his widow, even this many months later, was beyond him.
Granted, she might not be that brokenhearted to be a widow. Everybody in the department pegged Gary Harper for a small-time drug runner, out on parole this time for less than a year. The car had yielded evidence that he'd moved here to Franklin County to set up his old trade of running a meth lab. He probably hadn't been any prize to live with.
A battered mailbox alerted Mike that the turn-off to the trailer was ahead. "Hold on to your hat. Things are about to get bumpier."
"Like that's possible." Their heads nearly hit the ceiling of the big truck. Even Dogg gave a deep "woof of discomfort when they settled back into the ruts of the nearly nonexistent lane to the house.
They jounced down the ruts for almost a half mile. At the end of the ruts was a single-wide mobile home in poor condition. There were lights on behind two of the windows. At least that was encouraging.
Looking at the mobile home, anger rose in Mike. He wondered how anybody, even a thug like Gary Harper, could let his family live out here. Couldn't he have provided something better when he was alive? The aluminum siding of the trailer was gray and dented. Two cracked concrete blocks served as the only stoop at the front door. The whole place had such an air of neglect, Mike wondered if anyone would answer the door, even with the lights on.
Carrie got out of the truck cab and coaxed Dogg to stand up. The big German shepherd looked back at Mike with a questioning look. He didn't shake off the fabric antlers, but he seemed to beg Mike to do it for him.
"Sorry, buddy. You let Carrie do that. Now go to the door with her."
The dog leapt down with a resigned air and followed Carrie. Mike shut off the engine and got out to stretch his legs. Carrie went up to the door and knocked.
She stood, head cocked, for a long time. "There's somebody in there. I can hear them," she said, turning her head toward Mike.
"Kids?" Mike asked her. He hadn't thought of that possibility. He breathed a silent prayer. Please, no kids. I can handle anything else, but no kids.
Carrie knocked again. "Franklin County Fire and Rescue. Please open the door," she called loudly. Now things were getting serious.
"I can hear bumping and scraping inside. I wonder if "
Before she had time to say anything else, the door swung slightly open. From where Mike stood, he could tell that it was blocked from opening all the way. Carrie looked back at him, her pale complexion paling even more. "C'mon, Mike. I need backup here."
He was at the door in an instant, heart racing. Mike was hoping for some beefy accomplice of Harper's, a big guy he could take out by brute strength. No such luck. Instead, a small boy with wispy blond hair stood in the doorway. He looked to be maybe five years old.
The child struggled with the chair that blocked the door. "Had to get it to unlock the chain. I can't reach the chain by myself. But the chair's heavy," he said, panting, as he tried to push the chair away. "I'm Tyler. Are you here about Mama?" he asked, still struggling with the chair.
"Let me," Mike said, picking it up with one hand and getting it out of the path of the door. "Can we come in?"
"Sure." The little boy motioned them in. "Mama says you guys are her miracle. She says the baby's coming. Are we going to get to ride in a police car?" His blue eyes sparkled with anticipation.
Carrie was already pushing her way down the narrow hall from the trailer's main room to the bedrooms. "Something better, Tyler," she said over her shoulder. "How do you like trucks?"
"Cool." The boy grabbed Mike's hand. "Come on and get Mama. She likes trucks, too."
At the touch of the small boy's hand, time telescoped for Mike. He went down on his knees next to him, looking at the boy. He saw so much.
There was more in this moment than a slender child in battered blue jeans and a sweatshirt. For Mike Martin there was a reliving of a very similar scene. In a scary instant he knew what was behind that boy's wide blue eyes. Here the kid was, trying to get help for the most important person in his world, wanting reassurance that everything would be all right.
For this child it probably would be. Mike looked into his eyes. "We'll go take care of your mom. It's going to be okay, Tyler." How he wished with all his heart that somebody had taken time to say those words years ago, when he'd been the boy in blue jeans.
Of course in his case, any such reassurances would have been a lie. Nothing anybody did that cold morning long ago could have made everything all right again in Mike's world. For the child in front of him there was still a chance. So for this child, Mike had to fight his horror, his fear, and deal with the situation. He stood up.
"Take me to your mom. Ms. Collins doesn't know much about babies."
Tyler looked at him in disbelief. "She's a girl, isn't she? I thought they all knew about that stuff."
Mike shook his head. "That girl knows more about cars than babies. I guess that's why I'm here," he told Tyler, only realizing the truth of it as he said it. He'd wondered all morning why he had agreed to drive Carrie out here instead of taking Dogg and going back home the way he should have. Now he knew. Just let me do all right, he said silently.
He looked down at the brave little kid leading him down the hall. It had to be all right, just for him. Mike took a deep breath and pushed through the doorway.