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"Mama!" Abby Cramer screamed.
Her mother had suddenly collapsed, one leg folded awkwardly beneath her thin body. Abby kept a hand on the shopping cart that held her toddler and dropped to her knees on the concrete floor of the new home-improvement center.
"What happened?" The young cashier bolted around her checkout counter and knelt beside Abby.
Her mother clenched her teeth against the obvious pain. "My foot slipped out from under me." She twisted at the waist in an effort to get up, then fell back with a gasp. The character lines in her pale face deepened with the grimace.
Abby knew her very private parent would die of pain before she'd suffer the embarrassment of tears in public.
"Don't worry about your little boy. I'm right here beside him." A woman's voice penetrated Abby's concern. She nodded thanks, let go of the cart and turned full attention to her mother, who once again strained to sit up.
"Please lay still. You might have broken something." Abby began the assessment she'd learned during first-aid training. The skills had served her well in her three years as an elementary schoolteacher. Her mother's hands fluttered like the wings of an angry bird, shooing away Abby's efforts to feel for injuries.
"Oh, I've just aggravated my old sciatic back. I'll be okay in a few minutes." She held her breath through a determined effort to ease her twisted leg from its abnormal position. Finally giving up, she rested her head on the floor.
The store employee untied her apron, rolled the cloth into a pillow and maneuvered it beneath short-clipped, salt-and-pepper hair.
"Don't move. I'll get Guy," the cashier insisted as her sneakers squeaked a fast departure toward the back of the new store.
Concerned onlookers stopped to offer assistance. Abby reached for her mother's hand, only to be brushed away.
Being the late-in-life only child of Sarah reagan was both a blessing and a curse. Responsibility and kindness were civic requirements of the woman who was more like a finishing school headmistress than a doting parent. While Abby's mother expected her daughter to help others, Sarah generally refused aid at all cost.
Abby's gaze darted from the scene on the slick concrete floor to her precious toddler son who perched in the shopping cart above her. Dillon's chubby legs dangled as he leaned forward and frowned over the excitement below. She smiled to reassure him, mouthed a silent Thank you to the thoughtful female who hovered nearby.
"Where's my purse, Abigail?"
"It's still on the counter."
"Well, hand it to me before somebody steals my wallet."
Abby reached for the pastel spring bag and offered the other shoppers an apologetic shrug before placing the straw purse within her mother's reach.
"I don't want to worry your father about this so let's not mention it when we get to the house."
"Mama, we're going to have to go to the hospital to make sure you don't have a serious injury."
"Nonsense," Sarah insisted. But the word was hardly out when she yelped involuntarily, arching her back from the stab of pain.
"I have to agree with your daughter." A man squatted beside Abby, his orange apron announcing the grand opening of yet another new Hearth and Home Super Center. "We've put in a call to a private ambulance service. They'll be here any minute to take you to Brackenridge."
"No, thank you," Sarah insisted. "A senior citizen on a fixed income can't afford a luxury like that. Besides, a hospital will just run expensive tests, take my money, and tell me I'm fine." Sarah's hands felt for the buttons of her seersucker jacket, making sure she was properly covered. "As soon as I catch my breath, Abigail can take me home."
Handsome blue eyes, glinting with unspoken conspiracy sought Abby's permission to take charge of the situation. She nodded slightly, glad to have somebody else deal with her hardheaded parent if only for a few moments.
"I'm afraid that's not possible, ma'am. It's Hearth and Home's standard operating procedure for any injury, no matter how minor, to be treated as an emergency. You wouldn't want me to lose my job for not following store policy, would you?" He turned his palms upward in a plea for cooperation.
Abby watched with fascination as her perpetually demanding mother became agreeable and compliant beneath the mesmerizing appeal of those blue eyes. The hard lines of her face softened as she sighed her acquiescence.
"And don't worry about the cost. Hearth and Home will cover everything."
"I don't expect any charity," she insisted.
"Well, maybe this time you'll make an exception and let the store's insurance take care of things."
He patted her thin hand, and she didn'tjerk away.
Torn between relief and envy, Abby filed that moment away for consideration on another day.
A gust of warm wind whipped her curls as the glass doors slid apart. In the distance she heard the sounds of a gurney's legs snapping into place and then the rush of rubber wheels and crepe soles that brought the paramedics to their side.
"Pardon us, folks. Please step aside, miss," the efficient attendant instructed as he took charge. "We'll take it from here." He knelt to assess the situation.
"At least you had the good sense not to scare me half to death with your siren," her mother half complimented, half grumbled to the EMT.
"You can thank Mr. Hardy for that."
"Guy Hardy at your service, ma'am." The man with eyes the color of Texas bluebonnets nodded. "I figured you were in enough discomfort without that racket ringing in your ears."
Her mother seemed focused on Guy's smiling face and charming words. She hardly noticed the work of the crew who deftly lifted her from the hard floor to the padded gurney for the short trip to the boxy red ambulance.
Abby noted the sudden flash of uncertainty in her mother's eyes at the same moment Dillon began to whimper. Accustomed to adjusting on the fly to meet the needs of her classroom full of first graders, Abby considered her dilemma; her mother on the way to the hospital and her son on the way to panic. To make matters worse, her dad was home alone, sitting in front of the television in his wheelchair, waiting for his "womenfolk" to return with his list of plumbing supplies.
Though it was a mild spring day, Abby's cheeks filled with unaccustomed heat. She hadn't let the death of her husband send her into a downward spiral and she wouldn't let this crisis put her into a tailspin either.
"We'll take my vehicle." Guy Hardy had whipped the orange apron from around his waist and handed it to the cashier. "I'll drive you and " He was glancing toward Abby's blubbering son.
"Dillon. My son's name is Dillon."
"I'll drive you and Dillon to Brackenridge and stay with you until they release your mother."
"But what about our van?" she asked, though she'd already scooped up the baby and her shoulder bag and followed quickly behind this take-charge man.
"You're too distracted to be driving right now anyway."
Guy guided the lovely young woman and her son to a white H&H courtesy SUV parked outside.
"I need to get Dillon's car seat."
"No problem. Climb in and tell me where you're parked."
Focused as he was on the task at hand, he couldn't help admiring the shiny cap of blond curls that bobbed across his field of vision as she stepped up into his vehicle, clutching the baby boy who bawled over his unfamiliar surroundings. Her confident handling of the toddler reminded Guy of his sisters and the same second-nature manner they showed with their kids.
He followed her directions and pulled alongside a minivan coated with a layer of yellow pollen, a common sign of springtime in Austin, Texas. She dropped the keys into his outstretched hand, allowed him to retrieve the car seat and help her carefully secure it and the boy together with her in the backseat.
"I'll have you there in no time."
"Thanks," was all she said. She dug into the oversize bag probably filled with all the traditional goodies mommies kept handy to appease grumpy babies. She hardly spoke a word during the fifteen-minute trip, but cooed softly to her son while he gnawed what looked like a hunk of graham cracker.
Guy allowed her the privacy she needed to comfort her child and steel herself for whatever waited at the hospital. He drove carefully, checking his passengers often in his rearview mirror. During one glance he noticed that her face was turned to the side, offering a clear view of her profile. Thick lashes framed eyes crinkled with worry. The perfectly straight bridge of her nose suited her firm jaw. Both probably genetic signs of stubbornness, from her mother's side of the family.
She shoved a hand through her hair tucking curls behind one ear. Her head was covered with the same kind of ringlets that he'd teased Casey about for years. He still remembered the wallop his youngest sister had delivered to his gut the day he'd called her Corkscrew one too many times. At the memory he felt an uncontrollable grin of brotherly love.
"Wanna share the joke? I could use some humor right now."
He glanced over his right shoulder briefly, training his smile her way. What she returned was a watered-down imitation. The effort stirred sympathy in his heart.
"Your hair reminds me of my kid sister, and I was just remembering how I used to make fun of it."
Her eyes widened, brows rose in an exaggerated manner as she attempted to look offended. "So you think I have funny-looking hair, huh?" She shook her curls at her son, who burst into high-pitched giggles. "Well, you're not the only one."
"My sister's curls are wild and corky, she's always trying to squash them into submission. But yours are " Their eyes met in the mirror. Hers filled with anticipation of what he might say. "Nice."
She stared for a couple of seconds then smiled and ducked her head as if no one had complimented her for a long time.
Unbidden, protective warmth surged in his chest for this young woman. Her quiet modesty reminded him of Kate, one of his older sisters, the busy mother of four boys and an incredible wife in the mold of their beloved mother.
With so many great examples of married couples in his family, it was oddeven to himthat he truly had no need whatsoever to experience that for himself. Not that there was any chance of it with his work schedule. As vice president of corporate expansion, he was on a tight schedule to open an H&H Super Center in a new city every twelve months. He'd be buried with projects through the end of the decade.
"Thank you. A girl will take nice over wild and corky, any day."
"Actually, Casey's hair is part of the reason she's the prettiest of my sisters, though I'd never admit that to her," he said as he took the final turn that would lead them to downtown Austin's premier emergency-care facility.
"How many sisters do you have?"
"Five," he said into the rearview mirror.
"What are their names?" Abby's wide eyes were back.
"I won't bore you with the long versions. But they go by Meg, Kate, Andrea, Tess and Casey. I came along between Andrea and Tess."
"What was it like growing up in a house with that many women?" She seemed amused at the thought. The tiny glimmer of humor in her eyes was charming.
"Brutal." He chuckled. "They spoiled me rotten. Between Mom and the girls, every need was met before I could ask a second time. By grade school I'd figured out that the kid-glove approach with my sisters would always get me what I wanted."
"Well, I hope Dillon has a sister to be soft on some day. But not five," she teased and again his heart surged with compassion. This young woman had so much on her mind yet she was putting him at ease.
"Here we are," he warned as he pulled into the hospital's emergency entrance.
The ambulance attendants had already wheeled their patient through the automatic doors and disappeared into the triage unit. Guy hurried around to help his passenger step down.
"I'll be right in as soon as I park."