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Evenings in Tucson were a lot cooler than the Los Angeles' dusk Susannah Wells was used to.
Remember, Suze, we foster kids never know about tomorrow. Save whatever you can so you'll be prepared.
Susannah squeezed her hand in her pocket, fingering the last bits of change leftover from her meager savings. Connie's advice about money had been right on, like so much other guidance she'd given in those long-ago days when they'd shared a room in their North Dakota foster home.
What advice would Connie have for her this timeor would she even want to be bothered with her former foster sister?
Susannah hugged her thinly clad arms around her waist and breathed in the heady scent of hot pink oleanders. Deliberately she forced one foot in front of the other. Moving quickly wasn't an option when the world occasionally tilted too far to the right. Beads of moisture on her forehead chilled her hot skin, making her shiver.
The bus driver had said two blockssurely she'd come at least that far?
Suddenly off balance, Susannah stopped to steady herself. She focused her blurry eyes on the paper in her hand, peering to confirm that the numbers on the page were the same as those on the house. Her sluggish brain responded as if obscured by fog. She squinted for a second look.
This was it.
Susannah's heart sank a little lower. Such a grand home. How could she possibly walk into that perfectly manicured courtyard, knock on that elegant glass and wrought-iron door and ask Connie for help?
You're not worth helping, but you don't have a choice.
Nothing harder to stomach than the truth. Susannah knew that too well. She gritted her teeth, pushed open the gate and moved forward. Droplets of perspiration ran into her eyes, blurring her vision. She swiped them away with a quick brush of her hand, afraid to release the branches of the hedge for more than a second, lest she flop to the ground. She was cold, and yet she was so hot.
What was wrong with her?
Finally she stood at the entrance. Music floated out from the brightly lit house. Or maybe the melody was just stuck in her head.
Susannah lifted a hand and tapped gingerly, inhaling as the world spun faster.
The door opened, light and laughter flooding out.
"Yes?" A man's voice, rich and smooth, like butterscotch candy, flowed over her. It was hard to see his face, but light brown eyes gleamed through the dusk. "Can I help you?"
"Connie," Susannah whispered. Then everything went black.
David Foster stared at the unconscious woman lying on his best friend Wade's doorstep. Wade's wife, Connie, always had someone stopping by, friends from the foster home where she'd once lived, acquaintances she'd met and offered to help, even total strangers who'd heard about her charities. This frail woman must fit into one of those categories.
But Connie and Wade were celebrating their return from Brazil with a houseful of guests. He didn't want to disturb them. As Wade's lawyer, David was accustomed to handling things for his friend. He decided he'd handle this guest, for now.
He bent and scooped the young woman into his arms.
"Who's that?" Darla asked. His little sister had a habit of soundlessly appearing at his elbow.
"I don't know," he murmured, leading the way to the study. "One of Connie's friends, I guess. She fainted. I think she's sick."
"Oh." Darla watched as he laid the young woman on the sofa. "Can I help, Davy?"
David smiled, brushed his hand over her shiny brown hair in a fond caress. Darla loved to help. Though nineteen, a skiing accident had left Darla with a brain injury that cut her mental age in half. David's goal in life was to make his sister's life as rich and happy as possible. It was becoming a challenge.
"Sure you can help, sweetie. Why don't you go in the bathroom over there and get a wet cloth?" he suggested. "You can wipe her forehead. She seems to have a fever."
Darla hurried to do as asked, her mood bright because of Connie's party. "Like this?" she asked him, dabbing the cloth on the woman's face.
"Very gently. That's good." He watched for a few moments. "She had a bag," he mused. "It must have dropped. Can you take care of her while I go look for it?"
"Yes." Darla hummed quietly as she gently removed the traces of dust and grime from the visitor's pale skin. Not that it matteredtheir guest was gorgeous.
"I'll be right back." David hurried toward the front door, his mind filled with questions.
She was tiny, light as a feather. Her delicate features made him think of fashion magazine coversthin, high cheekbones, full lips and wide-set eyes. She'd pulled her golden blond hair back and plaited it so it fell down her back, but little wisps had worked free to frame her face in delicate curls. He caught himself speculating what the color of her eyes would turn out to be when those incredible lashes lifted.
She's obviously needy, and your docket is full.
Boy, did he know that.
A denim backpack lay outside on the step. David bent to pick it up. Well used, even ragged. Like her clothes.
He carried the bag inside, quickening his step. Darla couldn't be left alone for long. He stepped into the room.
"You're Sleeping Beauty, aren't you?" his sister whispered as she slid her cloth over the girl's thin, ringless fingers. "You need Prince Charming to wake you up."
David knew what was coming. He tried to stall by taking the woman's pulse.
"She'll wake up in a few minutes, sis."
"No," Darla said, eyes darkening as her temper flared. "She needs you to kiss her, Davy. That's how Sleeping Beauty wakes up."
David sighed. Apparently he'd read her that particular fairy tale one too many times.
"It would be wrong of me to kiss her, Darla," he said firmly, ignoring the allure of full pink lips. "I don't know her. She wouldn't want a strange man to kiss her. Women don't like that."
"It's the only way to get her to wake up." Darla was growing agitated.
David closed the study door and prayed their visitor would soon rouse. He didn't want a scene at his friends' party. And Darla would make one. She'd grown used to getting her own way, and when she didn't, she tantrumed. That was the main reason she'd gone through so many caregivers in the past six months. None of the helpers he'd hired had been strong enough to stand up to Darla's iron will.
Like he was?
"Kiss her." Darla scowled at him, her mouth tight.
"No." David kept his voice firm. "It's no good getting angry, Darla. I'm not going to kiss her. This isn't a fairy tale, and she's not Sleeping Beauty. She's real and she might be quite ill. Look how she's shivering." He lifted a coverlet from the sofa and laid it over the small form.
"You have to kiss her." Darla stamped her foot. "I want you to." She swung out her hand. It connected with a lamp, which shattered against a table.
"Darla! Now you've broken Connie's lamp. Stop this immediately." David reached for her arm to keep her from wrecking anything else, but Darla was quick. She sidestepped him.
"Kiss her," she ordered, her face stormy as any thunder cloud.
"Nobody's going to kiss me," a soft voice murmured. "And I wish you'd stop yelling. You sound like a spoiled brat."
Darla glowered at their visitor. Then she grinned. "Sometimes I am," she admitted shamelessly.
"Why? It's not very nice to live with people who are spoiled." The woman shifted the cover over her shoulders then swung her feet to the floor as she sat up. Her face paled a little and her fingers tightened on a sofa cushion.
"Easy," David murmured. "Not too fast. You fainted. Remember?"
"Unfortunately I do remember. What an entrance." She tilted her head back to rest it as she studied him.
Her eyes were a deep, vivid green. Their shadowed intensity reminded David of the Amazon foresthe'd once taken a trip there with Wade and their friend Jared. Before his world had become consumed by responsibility.
"My name is David Foster," he said. "This is my sister, Darla."
"I'm Susannah Wells. So this isn't Connie Ladden's home?" She looked defeated.
"Oh, yes. Connie and Wade Abbot live here," he assured her.
"They're having a party," Darla butted in. She frowned. "Did you come for the party? You don't have a party dress on. You're not supposed to come to a party if you don't dress nice," she chided.
"Darla." David frowned at her.
"She's only saying the truth. You're not supposed to show up at a party dressed as I am." Susannah smiled
at him tentatively then turned to Darla. "But I didn't know it was a party, you see. Anyway, I don't have party dresses."
"Not even one?" Clearly this mystified Darla. "I have lots."
"Lucky you." Susannah frowned. "Maybe I should leave and come back tomorrow."
"You can't." Darla flopped down beside her.
Susannah blinked. "Why can't I?"
"'Cause you don't have any place to go. Do you?" Darla asked.
David tried to intervene but Susannah merely waved her hand at him to wait.
"How do you know that, Darla?" she asked, brows lowering.
"I'm a detective today."
"Oh." The visitor glanced at him, her confusion evident.
David shrugged but didn't speak.
"I'm Detective Darla Foster. You don't have any suitcases. All you have is a backpack." Darla trailed one finger over the frayed embroidery work on the bag. "If you had a hotel, you would go there and wash first. But you came here dirty. I washed your face." She lifted the wet washcloth off the floor and held it out to show the grime. "See?"
A ruby flush moved from the V of Susannah's neck up to her chin and over her thin cheeks.
"There was a wind," she muttered, avoiding David's gaze. "It was so dusty."
"It's none of our business," he assured her hastily, giving Darla a warning look. "Except that I don't think you're well. Should I call a doctor?"
"You actually know doctors who make house calls?" Her big eyes expressed incredulity.
"Dr. Boo came to my house. She asks too many questions." Darla's bottom lip jutted out. "Detectives don't like Dr. Boo."
"Dr. Boone," David clarified, interpreting Susannah's stare as a query. "Actually she's here. Shall I call her?"
"No." The word came out fast. Susannah donned a quick smile to cover. "I'm not very good with doctors. I'll be fine. I think I caught a little cold, that's all. But they never hang around for long."
"You're shivering." David didn't miss the way she hugged the coverlet around her shoulders as if craving warmth, or the way her stomach issued a noisy rumble. "And hungry, by the sounds of it. Shall I go get Connie?"
"Oh, please, I don't want to disturb her party." Susannah shook her head. "Can't I just stay here quietly until everyone's gone?"
"You don't want to go to the party?" Darla frowned, then grinned. "Me, neither," she declared. She patted Susannah's arm. "Let's have our own party. Davy, you get Silver," she ordered.
"Silver?" Susannah looked horrified. "I don't want money!'
"Silver is Wade's daughter." Darla giggled. "She's nice."
"I think Connie took Silver up to bed a while ago." David held his breath, wondering if that would engender another explosion.
And that was exactly his problem. He worried too much about Darla's temper and not enough about insisting she modify her behavior. But it was so hard to be firm with her. She was his baby sister. She'd lost so much since the accident. All he wanted was to make her world easier, to see her happy.
Still, it was his job to take care of her, no matter what. Which meant that tomorrow David would start scouting the agenciesagainto find someone to be with his sister when he couldn't be.
Lowered voices drew him back to the present. Two heads, one dark, one blond, bent together as his sister laid out her plans for their impromptu party.
"Darla?" David waited until she lifted her head and smiled her dazzling smile at him. "I'm going to find something for Susannah to eat. Will you stay here?" He emphasized the word so she'd understand she wasn't to leave the study.
"Okay." Darla tore a piece of paper off the pad by the telephone and began scribbling. "Here's our order, Davy. Crackers and cheese and soup. Chicken soup. Eighty-six percent of doctors say chicken soup is an effective aid in treating cold and flu."
Darla had a knack for reciting television commercials verbatim.
"Cold and fluis that what I have?" Susannah asked, tongue in cheek. "How do you know?"
"I'm a nurse. We just know." Darla pulled the cover tighter around her patient's shoulders.
David hid his smile at Susannah's surprise.
"I thought you were a detective," he said.
"Not anymore." Darla glared at him. "Food, Davy. This child is starving," she said in her bossy grandmother voice.
"Yes, ma'am." He choked back his laughter. Darla had always been able to make him laugh. He headed for the door. "I'll be right back." He thought he heard a giggle from the blond woman before he closed the door, but it was quickly smothered.
David went searching for Connie and caught her between guests.
"There's a woman in the study, a Susannah Wells," he began, but got no further.
"Really? Suze? How wonderful." Connie beamed with happiness. It faded a little as she glanced around the room. "We're about to eat dinner. I can't leave right now." She thought a moment. "Bring her to the table, will you, David? I'll get another place set."
Before Connie could continue, David stopped her.
"I don't think that's a good idea," he said softly. "I don't think she's well. She fainted when I opened the door and she's been shivering ever since."
"Oh, dear." Connie looked distracted. "Cora just gave me the nod. I need to get everyone seated."
"Then go ahead. Darla and I will keep Ms. Susannah entertained until you're free." David smiled at her. "Don't worry. Darla has everything under control. She's a nurse."
"Ah." Connie grinned in understanding and stood on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. "What would we do without Darla, David?"
"I don't know," he answered her, perfectly serious. "Go enjoy dinner and don't worry about your friend. I'll look after her."
"You always look after everyone." Connie touched his cheek. "Thank you for all you do for us. You're a dear."
David watched her hurry away. He couldn't help but envy Connie. She and Wade shared the kind of home he'd always wantedone filled with love and joy, hope and the laughter of friends and family.