Jolene Navarro.

The Soldier's Surprise Family

No! No, I have to cover the bush! The hails gonna destroy it.

You dont have any shoes on, and even small hail can be dangerous. Once he had her bare feet on the boards, he looked into her large eyes to check their dilation for signs of a concussion. Her irises were so dark he couldnt see her pupils in the dim light.

Maybe she already had brain damage. Another bright light flashed, and for a split second he could see everything as if it was high noon. He saw a thick heavy scar that ran across the base of her neck. The soft edge disappeared into her hairline by her cheek. Then he was blinded again just as quickly. Was that why she always wore a scarf?

She tried to push past him. Ive got to cover my plant before its destroyed.

The ceramic chimes thrashed in a sudden gust of wind, and it was hard to hear over all the noise. No, stay here. He made a gesture to her head and feet, hoping she understood. Ill cover the plant.

Pulling his hat low, he ran back into the storm and crossed the yard to retrieve the sheet. The dog followed, leaping and barking like they were playing a game.

Bumper, get back here, Anjelica yelled from the top step. The undisciplined dog ignored her.

With one hard yank, he had the sheet down. The two-foot bush had already lost some of its early growth. Small leaves dotted the ground. Using the wind to help, he threw the sheet over the top of the plant. Then Garrett looked around for something to anchor it.

Here, use these. Anjelica ran past him to pick up some red bricks lining the bottom of the fence. At least she had mud boots and a hat on this time, along with a bright orange scarf wrapped around her neck.

The pelts of hail grew harder. He tucked his head and drew his shoulders higher. He was apparently as crazy as his landlady.

The dog pulled on the sheet, tossing her head back and forth with a growl. The furball could fit in his pocket but fought with the fierceness of a lion. The pink bow did nothing to soften her attitude.

Ive got this! Garrett pointed toward her porch, hoping she would follow his command. She shook her head and moved to the base of the bush with a brick.

Bumper! Stop! The dog darted away from Anjelica and grabbed another corner.

Garrett scooped the bit of fluff up in one hand, holding the pup out of the way while he tucked the heavy sheet around a brick with the other, making sure it was under the bush and tight enough to stay in place.

On the opposite side of the shrub, his tiny landlady crawled out from under the plant and put her hands on her hips. I think thatll do it, she yelled before finally running back to the safety of the deep porch.

He followed. One step behind her, he tried to shield her from the worst of the storm.

Once on the porch, she threw her beat-up hat on a bench, then sat on a worn rocking chair and pulled off a boot. She wore two left rubber boots.

One of them had colorful stripes, but the other one was purple with white flowers all over it. Yep, she lived in another world altogether.

Glad you found proper footwear.

Waving a delicate hand toward her yard, she said, This wasnt in the weather report. I couldnt find my boots when I realized it was starting to hail. She pulled off the purple boot and dumped water out of it. My only thought was to get to my Esperanza. It just started sprouting spring leaves.

She never made eye contact as she flipped her hair over her shoulder. Wet, it looked black. Instead of the usual colorful blouse, she wore an oversize faded purple T-shirt with Fighting Angoras Football printed across the front. I know it sounds irrational, but I just wanted to cover my plant. With a deep sigh, she stood. Thank you so much for coming to the rescue, but I guess thats what you do. Rush into danger like a good soldier. She stood and took Bumper from him. The little dog started licking her face. You know, now that youre a father, youll have to be more careful.

His eyebrow lifted high as he stared at her. Did you really just call me out for being in this storm? I wouldnt be out in the storm if you had stayed inside.

She blushed and looked away. Sorry. Im not feeling very rational right now. With the back of her free hand, she wiped at her eyes.

Oh, please dont cry. He scanned her cluster of outbuildings and enclosed pens behind the garden area, a mismatched collection of painted structures that housed chickens, rabbits and goats. She was the mayor of a miniature village for all the misfit farm animals in the county, and now he was adding two children to the mix. He shouldnt be surprised she had easily agreed to him moving the kids into the garage apartment. She collected damaged goods. Looks like everyone else is safe from the storm. That should make her happy.

She rewarded him with a smile. Nodding, she kissed the top of the silky mops head. My dad bragged he built those to withstand a tornado.

The hail was larger now, dime-sized nuggets zinging off the tin roof like ricocheting bullets, putting his nerves on edge. He took a deep breath. He was in Clear Water, Texas. Far from war.

At least tornadoes were rare in the Hill Country. He took off his own hat and slapped it against his leg. Chips of ice clattered to the wood flooring. Calling the weather in Texas unpredictable was the definition of understatement.

It wouldnt surprise him if he found a few bruises in the morning. He pushed his hair back. The little froufrou dog ran over to him and put a paw on his muddy boot. The clipped tail wagged so hard its whole body squirmed. Bumper?

Anjelica smiled at the wet rat. I found her just the other day on Bumper Gate Road. I put an ad in the local paper, but no ones come to claim her.

Standing in front of him, she moved in for a hug before he realized what she had planned. Thank you for saving my plant. I do think youll do a fine job as a father.

His jaw clenched. He had never been a touchy hugging kind of guy, but hed been hugged more times in the few months since hed moved to Clearwater than he had his entire life. He remained still, not wanting to offend her by pulling away.

Kids liked hugs, too. He remembered wanting to be in his mothers lap, but she had always been too tired or too busy. He managed to lift an arm and give her a pat on the shoulder, hopefully not too stiff. She shivered in his arms. They were both cold and wet. You need to go inside and change.

She backed up and grinned at him as if shed made a new friend. Thank you, Officer Kincaid. Um, now that youre a father, you might think of a less dangerous job?

He frowned. I like my job.

Another flash of lightning. He counted again, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. A golf ball of solid ice landed at his feet. He narrowed his eyes and then looked at the path back to his apartment. The trip back to the garage wasnt far, but with that last bolt of lightning, he doubted it was wise to run across the yard again. He looked at his watch. It had taken him a couple of hours to go to sleep, but he had been out for seven hours.

Officer Kincaid

Call me Garrett.

Oh! She grabbed his arm. Now is as good a time as any to show you the baby equipment.

She leaned in closer, and the smell of vanilla and earth intrigued his nose. The lyrical sound of her voice tickled his ear. Promise not to tell my parents I was outside in this weather. My mom would have a fit and Papa would tell me to move back home, again. They wouldnt like that Id go that far for a simple shrub.

He had a feeling there was nothing simple about the shrub.

Come on. She turned and opened the screen door.

Garrett followed her and crossed over the well-trodden threshold. In his line of work, hed been in about every kind of housing, but this was straight out of a childrens picture book. Alices rabbit hole had nothing on this girl.

It was everything his apartment wasnt. The old farmhouse had a huge kitchen. A family of ten could easily sit at the table.

Even though the cabinets were painted white, splashes of color touched everything. More ceramic creatures hung from strings, while others lined the windows and cabinets.

Sorry about the mess. I made a big batch of tortilla soup earlier tonight to share with my grandparents and a few other people in town. Then an idea struck, and I ended up in my ceramic studio before I cleaned. Have you eaten since lunch? Here, let me get you some. Without waiting for his reply, she loaded a ceramic bowl with the aromatic soup. Fresh herbs and spices filled the kitchen. His stomach grumbled in anticipation.

She pulled a spoon out of the dishwasher and moved to the table. Here, sit down and eat. Ill slice an avocado and heat you up a corn tortilla. What do you want to drink? I have milk, sweet tea and water.

Waters fine. Before he got the first spoonful of soup to his lips, she had a small plate with avocados and thin corn chips on the table next to him. Another trip and she handed him a warm tortilla and a tall glass of ice water.

Ill put some in a container for you to take to the apartment for later. She set a blue bowl on the counter, then dug around in the cabinets. Im the only person that lives here, and I still cant find a lid. Pulling out a red one, she held it up and smiled at him. Found one. She snapped the red lid onto the blue bowl.

Of course she did. Why start matching now? Please sit and eat with me.

With the dog bouncing about her feet, she sat down across from him. She slid the plastic bowl his way.

Thanks. He dunked the tortilla into the warm soup. He didnt want to waste time with forming more words. He had fallen in love. He closed his eyes and savored the rich flavors on his tongue.

Im the one thats grateful. Thank you for braving the storm and helping me cover Esperanza.

He opened his eyes. He really shouldnt have been surprised by anything she said. You name your plants?

She smiled again, but this time it was a little tighter, not as bright. Its an Esperanza plant, the same name as my daughter. I planted it as a memorial for her.

Great going, Garrett. Well, its a beautiful plant. And a beautiful name. It means hope, right? He cleared his suddenly dry throat. Looks like we covered it in time.

Maybe he should leave...instead of staring at her like an idiot. Obviously, she no longer had her daughter. The baby stuff she said she had, it must have been...another reminder that children couldnt always be protected from bad things. And now he was responsible for two who already had a tragic backstory. He took a deep breath and set the spoon down, his appetite gone. Thanks for the soup.

Im glad I had it here for you. Are you finished?

A nod was all he managed. She took everything to the sink. The lights flickered as the thunder rolled through the house. She tilted her head toward the ceiling. Doesnt sound like its letting up. The lights wavered again. Follow meIll show you the baby stuff I have ready for you and Pilar. She walked through an archway that took them into a living room. Several mix-and-match sofas and chairs made for a welcoming room. He was surprised by the white sofa. The red floral sofa he expected, but the white one? How did she keep it clean? He didnt know anyone who actually dared to have white furniture. Red, white and blue pillows and blankets were everywhere. Yellow flowers were tucked into odd containers all over the room. It looked well lived-in, the site of years of family events and memories.

Ive been wanting to tell you how much I appreciate you playing the sax on the balcony. When Im working in the studio, I open my door to listen. You should come to church with me one Sunday. Pastor John is really into music. Did you ever play in a band?

He nodded and followed her around the furniture that looked as if theyd been salvaged from an old barn. All through school, and when I joined the Marines, I played for them, too.

Wow. She stopped in front of a floor-to-ceiling bookcase and looked up at him, making him feel taller than his six-one. I would have taken you for a football player, you know, the warrior type. I dont think of soldiers as musicians. Do you play any other instruments? She tilted her head as if trying to recalibrate what she knew about him.

I was a total band geek, marching and jazz. I play some strings, too, but I prefer the sax. I didnt get any size on me until later in high schoolI wasnt a jock. He cleared his throat. She looked as if she wanted to add him to her collection of odd animals now.

He glanced at the shelf behind her, and a wooden display with a folded flag caught his eye. The flag sat above some medals and a picture of a young Hispanic male in dress blues. Next to that was a wedding picture. A very young Anjelica in a white wedding dress standing in the arms of the same soldier. Letters were etched into the wood: Estevan Diego Garza.

She turned and looked behind her. Oh, thats my husband, Steve.

He was a marine, too. Way to go and state the obvious, Garrett.

Yes, one of the heroes that didnt come home. Graceful fingers touched the picture. Being a hero was his lifes dream. He planned to become a firefighter or EMT when he got home. A bright flash flooded the room in blinding light. Then everything went dark and silent.

He reached out to touch her arm, but the lights were on again and she had her happy face back in place. Im sorry. Im going on and on. Youre here to see the baby stuff. A few steps and she opened a white painted door.

Nerves started crawling again. Garretts skin became too tight for his body. The urge to escape and go back to his simple rooms had him feeling edgy. There was nothing wrong with beige. Beige was calming, very calming. A peaceful color for kids who needed a quiet place to heal. He liked quiet places.

Concern in her eyes, Anjelica placed a gentle touch on his arm. Are you okay?

She was the one whod lost her soldier and a baby, but she was worried about him?

Im good. We need to get this settled so I can figure out the next steps I need to take to make this right.

Garrett, its not your fault the way things played out.

A corner of his mouth twitched. She actually had him smiling. I dont think thats what you were thinking earlier.

Guilty. Sometimes we dive headfirst into conclusions and judge too fast. Sorry. So are you ready to see the stuff?

Lead the way.

* * *

Anjelica stood at her daughters door. She had put so much planning and time into decorating this space. Each step had been documented and sent to Steve, along with images of her growing belly.

Five years ago, she spent hours in that rocking chair, crying until every part of her body ached. After a while, she was able to visit the room without crying. The sadness was still there, but softer. The last few months, she kept telling herself to call her mom and sisters so they could help her pack it up.

Now she knew God had another plan for this room. Garrett, most of what Pilar will need is here. She turned on the overhead light and waited for him to join her.

In the middle of the room, she stopped and took a deep breath before she turned back to him. This would have been Esperanzas room. Nothing has ever been used.

Garrett stood in the doorway and scanned the room with a slow steady movement. I cant take your stuff from here.

Why not? I was to the point of packing it up. It was made for a little girl. Everything your daughter needs is waiting for her.

His head jerked up. Shes not my daughter. Both hands dug into his hair, interlocking the fingers at his neck. With his head back, he closed his eyes and blew out a slow waft of air. I guess by tomorrow shell be my daughter. He closed his eyes, his jaw working twice as fast as before.

She wanted to put her arms around him and soothe the pain. Instead she stepped away and placed her hand on the quilt draped over the rocking chair. Buela had made the blanket. Garrett, you can do this. I think God brings people into our world that need us and vice versa. Its been heavy on my heart that all the stuff was being wasted. She walked to the white crib that was tucked into a colorfully painted cove that had once been a closet. Pink and green triangle flags hung over the bed. Please let me give it to Pilar and your son.

Confusion marred his strong face as he watched her. Why are you doing this? What do you get out of helping us?

Adjusting the blankets they had picked out so long ago, she smiled at his cynicism. I cant save every child out there, but I can help you save these two. If she wasnt careful, she was going to cry. She feared he would misunderstand and this could all fall apart. She stiffened her spine as she turned and glared at him, making sure not to show any weakness. Stop being so suspicious and say thank you.

He walked around the room. Touching the rocking chair, setting it in motion. He saw the bags full of new supplies and clothes. Whats this?

While you were sleeping, I called a few of my family members and ladies from the church. They gathered some stuff youll need for the children.

In front of the chest of drawers, he stopped and looked at the wall.

She had painted Esperanza across the upper part of the wall, surrounded by stars and butterflies. The whole room was decorated with flowers and friendly critters, a little secret garden.

With a frown, he stared at the wall. You painted this?

A nod was all she managed.

He moved to the window and held the wispy sheer curtain to the side so he could look out into the storm. Wind slammed the rain against the window.

I called my mother.

Disappointment should not have been her first reaction, but it was. She had started thinking of them as a team when it came to these two kids she hadnt even met yet. Oh, so shes coming to help? You dont need me, then.

He rubbed his face. No. He looked away, staring at the mural. She hasnt returned my calls. It looks like Ill need someone to watch the kids. A temporary fix for now. Until I can get a place of my own and make permanent arrangements. He turned back to her. Is there anyone in your family you recommend?

Me. Before he could form any words to argue against her idea, she rushed on to explain. Ive been thinking about this all day. Im a sub at the school and I volunteer with the group home. I know what these babies have been through, so you wouldnt have to explain that to someone new. I can stop taking sub jobs and you can pay me the same daily fee, but I would be available day or night.

He looked back out the window. Lightning flashed. She forced herself to breathe and waited for him to process the options.

Well, she tried to wait. I also had another idea. Please, listen and think about it before you respond. I think you and the kids should move into the house. Its bigger and I can live in the apartment.

She chewed on the inside of her cheek while waiting for his response.

No. He crossed his arms. Im not kicking you out of your family home.

Youre not. Hands planted on her hips, she tilted her head. The garage is part of my family home and I actually lived there as a teenager once.

No. Well stay in the apartment. Its fine. Im not moving into your house.

Okay. Then what about hiring me as your babysitter? She smiled. I do think its important to have someone that can watch them with your crazy hours. I can be right there at a moments notice. The next best thing to a live-in nanny. I always wanted to be Mary Poppins.

He didnt say anything. He stared at her with the muscles flexing in his arms.

She broke eye contact first and rearranged some of the pillows. You dont have to worry about taking the kids anywhere or waiting for someone to get here. Its perfect, right?

I dont like asking for help.

A giant eye-roll threatened to pop from her head. Stubborn men. You didnt have to ask for help. Im offering. My heart is hurting for these babies. Im so sorry your mother isnt coming, but I think this will work out well for the children.

He sighed. Its funny if you think about it. He leaned across the crib, picking up a stuffed ladybug. This morning I didnt even have a girlfriend. Now Im talking about baby furniture and hiring a nanny. Seems I skipped a few steps from bachelorhood to fatherhood.

The sadness in his eyes ate at her heart. God has placed these kids with you. Its going to be okay.

He sighed. Are you sure you want to take us on full-time? I have a feeling these will not be well-adjusted kids. He gave her a lazy, lopsided grin. I know Im not well-adjustedIm barely housebroken. I dont even know what a normal family should look like.

Well, the one thing Im an expert on is family, and first let me tell you, there is no such thing as normal. Believe me, I know. She could not hold back any longer; she walked over and hugged him. His frame tightened as if in fight-or-flight mode. She held him gently until he relaxed and gave her a stiff pat on her shoulder. Garrett, I want to help those sweet kids.

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