The Soldier's Surprise Family
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The muscles in his forearms bulged. Head down, he backed away from her. УThey might not be so sweet.Ф Then he nodded, his face relaxing. УOkay, so I have a stocked nursery and a nanny. This might work.Ф He looked up. УThank you, Anjelica.Ф Halfway to the door, he stopped. УWhat about the boy? I need to get him a bed, too.Ф
УI can call around, but if nothing comes up, we have a couple of bunk beds upstairs.Ф She brushed past him to cross the living room but paused in the doorway. The smell of earth after a rainstorm crossed her senses. Closing her eyes, she absorbed the scent. It was rich and dark.
Jerked out of her own head, she jumped forward and bumped into him. Large hands steadied her. УAre you okay?Ф
Looking up, she saw the concern in his eyes. He looked that way a great deal when around her. He probably thought she was a complete flake and maybe he was right.
УIТm fine. We can move all the stuff in the morning.Ф She rushed past him. She needed some distance. That was it. Other than her family, and the one date sheТd had with Jake Torres, she hadnТt been this close to a man in a long time. SheТd forgotten how good they smelled, and how different they were compared to her.
УCan I use your restroom?Ф he asked.
УSureЧright through that door.Ф She pointed to the right of the staircase.
Standing in the middle of the living room, she lost her purpose. What was she doing?
Anjelica went back into the kitchen. Bumper barked, demanding attention. The little Yorkie looked like a rat just rescued from a flooded river. Anjelica grabbed a towel and rubbed down the little dog. Garrett and Steve seemed to have a great deal in common. Why did some men want to rush into danger?
Buela and Mom were always on her about getting back into the dating scene. She knew it was time. But not with Garrett. He had too much on his plate already.
The biggest problem was his job. He was a lawman and she didnТt see that changing anytime soon.
Talking to the dog, she made her way to the studio off her kitchen. УJust because I married one soldier doesnТt mean I want another one in my life. No thank you.Ф She held Bumper up so they were face-to-face. УNext time around, I want a man with a nice safe job. Maybe I should warn Garrett about the matchmaking duo. Now that heТs a single father, IТm sure they have bumped him up on their list.Ф She chuckled. This might be fun to watch, because it was not going to be her. Nope, his job was too dangerous for her peace of mind. But she was ready to date again.
In a few months, sheТd be twenty-five. On her wedding day, she had imagined life with Steve in five and ten years. HeТd be back home full-time, and theyТd have two or three kids. She rubbed the little dogТs head and sighed.
Si Dios quiere. Her parents had taught her that saying for her whole life, to trust in GodТs will. Sometimes it was easier to say she trusted in GodТs will than live like it.The wind rushed against the wall and slammed the screen door. Hail hit the roof harder and the storm whirled around the old house.
Loud banging made her jump. The wind played games with her outdoor furniture. She rushed to the door.
Garrett gently caught her by the arm. His hard face looked even sterner. УYou canТt go out there.Ф His voice sounded like a growl. УItТs even more dangerous than before. ItТs late anywayЧyou should go to bed.Ф
She narrowed her eyes and pulled her arm out of his light grip. With her hands on her hips, she lifted her chin. УI outgrew a bedtime a few years back. What about you?Ф
The wind manhandled the hundred-year-old oak trees around her yard. The sound sent chills up her spine. She sucked in a large volume of air as she looked out the window. The force of the storm pelted the hail into the passageway. The rain came in at such a slant, looking as if it could slice through skin.
With muttered words under his breath, Garrett pushed her farther into the kitchen. УIs there a room without so many windows?Ф
УMy studio.Ф Bumper barked and jumped around her feet. УThereТs just the garden doors, but I have shutters over them. ItТs in there.Ф She pointed to the door on the other side of her table. УBut my animals. WhatЧФ
УThey have shelter.Ф He opened the door, flipped on the light and peered in. УThis is good.Ф He took her hand and pulled her inside the studio space and closed the door.
Sitting on the wooden bench her grandfather had carved, she patted the empty spot next to her. His big frame took up the rest of the space, long legs stretched out in front of him.
Total chaos reigned outside. She often thought of the wind as a gentle lullaby at night, but not now. It expressed itself like a two-year-old in a full-blown temper tantrum, a giant two-year-old. It sounded as if trees were being tossed around.
Bumper buried her head under AnjelicaТs arm. Her heart slammed against her sternum. УDear God, please keep everyone safe.Ф Thunder rolled, but in the studio they couldnТt see the flashes of lightning. The walls rattled. The lights went out, plunging them into darkness. УOh no, I left candles in the kitchen.Ф
УWeТll be fine. It shouldnТt last long. WeТre safer in here in case any furniture or branches get tossed into one of your windows.Ф
Another clap of thunder was followed by a loud crash. This time the whole earth shook. An explosion sounded too close. Had something hit the house? Blood rushed to her ears. УWhat was that? Oh, my babies have to be scared.Ф
His long fingers found her hand and took hold. УItТs okay. Good thing about Texas is the storms never last long. So this is your grandparentsТ house?Ф His voice reached out to her, low and soothing.
She knew he was distracting her and she let him. УMy great-grandparents had the property and a small house. My grandparents started this house and added on and updated as the family grew. They wanted to move into town and have a smaller place, so they sold it to Steve and me.Ф
As quickly as the wind had started, it was gone, the silence heavy. Anjelica held her breath and waited, but she couldnТt even hear the rain anymore. УIs the storm over?Ф
He squeezed her hand. УStay here while I check the damage.Ф He stood. He flipped the switch, but the room stayed dark.
УIТm going with you.Ф
He frowned and opened his mouth, then shook his head. УStay close to me. There could be lines down. We donТt want to rush out and make things worse. Trees and structures could still fall.Ф
Bumper squirmed in her arms. УLet me put her in the washroom and get the flashlights.Ф
As they exited the back door, she gasped. Her world had been turned upside down. She prayed sheТd find everyone safe and sound.
GarrettТs warmth and solidness comforted her. Looking around, she found most of the rocking chairs and some of her wind chimes were missing. Broken pieces of ceramic projects littered the ground. Frantically scanning for the piece celebrating her wedding and then pregnancy, she didnТt find it. It was her favorite, whimsical shapes and swirls with sunflowers, frogs and butterflies in an asymmetrical layout.
She gasped. Large pieces of it were scattered across the porch. She found one of the frogs on the bottom step. She picked it up and ran her thumb along the jagged edge where the leg had been.
Garrett rushed to her side. УWhat is it? Are you okay?Ф
She nodded. УSorry. ItТs one of my wind chimes. I started this one when we bought the house. Each section was tied to a memory.Ф She made sure to smile at him. УItТs just an object, right? The memories are in my heart. LetТs make sure everyoneТs all right. ThatТs the important thing. Not broken pieces of clay.Ф
УAre you sure?Ф He looked back at the porch. УWas it the one with the big sunflower and bugs?Ф
She had to laugh. УYes, butterflies, ladybugs and frogs. Steve loved frogs. He always had a pet one growing up. He wanted to put a pond for frogs on the property. I didnТt want the cleanup or risk to children. I was going to decorate the nursery with frogs if we had a boy.Ф She closed her eyes and gathered her thoughts. УIТm sorryЧthis doesnТt matter.Ф
УDo you want to gather it up?Ф
УNo, it... We need to take care of my poor babies.Ф
The beams of their flashlights scanned the area. Debris, both natural and man-made, cluttered the yard. As they walked past the empty garden, she let out her breath with a sigh of relief. Her pens and outbuildings all stood strong. He followed her to each shed and helped her check the huddled groups of animals. Everyone was safe and accounted for. Her father would be proud of his work.
GarrettТs phone went off. Glancing down, he pulled his lips tight. УI need to go. We have low water crossings that need to be barricaded.Ф He glanced at her little farm. УEveryone is safe for now. You stay inside until we can get someone out here to look deeper at the damage.Ф
He turned to the garage and stopped. There on the roof they found the reason for the loud crash.
The old hackberry tree had moved into his bedroom. Thinking of the possibilities, she felt her heart skip. УIТm so glad you came to my house.Ф
He gave a dry laugh and shook his head. УThere has to be irony in this somehow. I just inherited two homeless kids and now it looks like IТm homeless, too.Ф He rubbed the back of his neck.
УNo, youТre not. I think when you said no to my offer of the house, God wanted you to say yes.Ф
УYouТre joking, right?Ф He looked down at her.
She shrugged and gave a halfhearted laugh. УMaybe. But you have to admit my plan is sounding better now.Ф
УIТm still not kicking you out of your own house. Where would you live?Ф
УI can move into town. You could have a fully furnished house. We donТt even have to move anything.Ф
УNo. I couldnТt live in your house while you live somewhere else. IТll call Sharon and tell her I need more time before I pick up the kids.Ф
УWe canТt let those babies stay in emergency care. If you refuse to live in my house, I could call my family and have the roof fixed in less than twenty-four hours. You know there arenТt a great deal of rental options in Clear Water.Ф She tucked her hand into the bend in his arm and leaned in close. УSi Dios quiere.Ф
УDid you just say he wants God?Ф
УNo. ItТs a saying that means to trust in GodТs will. My grandmother and mother say it all the time. ItТs drilled into my brain. Si Dios quiere. ItТs how I try to live my life. The worse things get, the more I lean on that trust.Ф
УI donТt trust easily.Ф He was looking straight ahead. The muscle in his jaw popped. УMy son probably doesnТt trust men at all. Will you go with me? IТm sure they have issues, too, and men would be on the top of the list. You, being the nanny, might help them feel safer.Ф
УI would love to.Ф
He nodded and patted her hand. УOkay. DonТt worry about the roof.Ф He waved to the apartment. УIТll take care of it after I get off work.Ф
УYou donТt worry about this.Ф She made a bigger wave. УYou worry about rescuing the good people of the county and IТll take care of my property. You are about to discover the power of the Ortega army. Be very happy we are on your side.Ф She gave him her best wicked laugh. УMy father and brothers will have all this cleaned up and fixed before you can drive your patrol car around the county three times.Ф
He looked at her one more time. УAre you sure youТre okay?Ф
УYes, IТm stronger than I look. I promise.Ф SheТd learned the hard way how strong she could be. Now she hoped she was strong enough to make the right choices for her heart. She wasnТt sure how much more it could take.
Si Dios quiere. IТm trusting You, God.
Anjelica looked at her hands clasped tightly around the handle of the bag she had packed for the two little ones they were about to take home. Garrett pulled his truck into the empty parking lot of a nondescript brick building. It didnТt even have windows on the front, just one glass door.
During the forty-five-minute trip to town, she told her heart not to get too engaged. These were his children. His family, not hers. She was just the nanny. But still, the pictures of those innocent faces embedded themselves in her head. She had a feeling that in the end, her heart would be broken again. She was never the kind of person who could keep an emotional distance. With her, it was always all in or not. How did someone teach their heart portion control?
Garrett cut the engine. He leaned over the steering wheel and looked at the sky. УI canТt believe how fast this has happened.Ф
УYou made it easy for her to move the kids from an emergency shelter to a home. IТm sure she wishes all her cases were this easy.Ф She checked her watch again. УWeТre early.Ф
With a glance to the backseat, he opened the top button of his starched blue shirt. His black cowboy hat and jeans looked sharp. УWell, I guess itТs time to fill those car seats.Ф He cleared his throat. УThank you for all youТve done so far.Ф
УHow could I not help?Ф Waiting for him to move out of the truck, she sat in silence. Her attention went to her watch again.
Thirty minutes early. If he needed to sit out in the parking lot, she could do that, but she really wanted to see the kids.
УOkay.Ф With one hand on the door, he turned to her. УAre you ready?Ф
She bit back a laugh and just nodded. He was a mess. She imagined a first-time dad might react the same way with the birth of his child. But for him, skipping those first few years probably made it harder.
The heat off the black asphalt threatened to melt her makeup. Garrett held the glass door open for her as he pulled on his collar. УItТs unusually warm for March.Ф
Nodding, she entered a sterile and empty lobby. Green vinyl chairs lined a paneled wall. Above them were posters depicting women and children, along with warning signs of abuse or neglect. A narrow corridor led to rows of more doors.
Without any hesitation, Garrett started down the hallway. At the far end, Sharon and an older man stepped out from one of the rooms. УOh, Officer Kincaid, youТre early. Good. The children are here. This is Joe Ackerman. HeТs your new caseworker.Ф
The men shook hands and everyone else was introduced. Half of the wall behind Garrett was glass, so they could clearly see inside what looked like a conference room.
The man stepped back through the door and spoke with a woman who stood inside holding an infant car seat. A little boy sat in an oversize chair, his feet dangling above the floor as his small hand hung over the side of the yellow blanket covering the baby.
Anjelica touched GarrettТs arm. Looking down, he raised his eyebrows at her. She pointed to the brother and sister. УThere they are.Ф Not sure why she was whispering, Anjelica shifted her gaze between the man standing next to her and the little boy who looked so much like him.
His forearm tensed under her hand. He stopped talking and became still. Nothing moved.
Sharon broke the silence. УAre you ready to meet them?Ф She turned to look at the kids.
Garrett took in a deep breath. He licked his lips and his throat worked as if he were trying to swallow. Anjelica wanted to wrap him in her arms.
Sharon continued talking, apparently oblivious to his struggles. УHe attended the Head Start program. We know he can speak Spanish and English, but he hasnТt spoken since theyТve been in custody. They documented that his oral development is behind, but that isnТt unusual for a dual-language child. Pilar is physically behind. SheТs not sitting up on her own yet. There are small developmental delays, but they look to be more environmental.Ф She sighed and looked back at the kids. УHeТs protective of his sister and gets very upset if he canТt see her. There are several signs of general neglect.Ф
УSuch as?Ф Garrett asked without taking his eyes off the children.
УHe knows how to make her bottle and dress them both, and he can work a microwave. We have found him changing her diaper. For a five-year-old, that indicates to us that he was the caregiver.Ф
Had she just heard him growl?
AnjelicaТs fingers tightened around his arm. GarrettТs other hand came up and covered hers.
УHeТs been appointed a child psychologist. HeТs experienced a traumatic event and will need time to heal and feel safe. YouТll need patience in large supplies.Ф She looked at Garrett and smiled. УIТm so relieved youТre letting us place Pilar with you. IТm not sure Rio would survive being separated from his sister.Ф
Garrett nodded. УRio?Ф
УAt Head Start they called him Garrett, but weТve discovered his grandmother called him Rio. The rest of the family called him River. What do you want to call him?Ф Sharon looked through the window at the kids.
Garrett shrugged. УWe could ask him what he wants to be called. If he wants Garrett, IТll go by something else. Can we go in now?Ф
Oh no. IТm not gonna cry. Anjelica let go of Garrett and squeezed her fingers together in front of her. With a count to five, she steadied her heartbeat.
He paused with his hand on the door. УWhat do I say?Ф
Sharon gave him a soft smile. УKeep it simple. IТll introduce you. But still tell him who you are and whatТs going to happen in small steps. DonТt lie or make promises you canТt keep.Ф
With a nod, he walked through the door. Anjelica followed but hung back, staying close to the wall. She needed to proceed slowly. This was his time to bond with the kids. As much as she wanted to hold that baby girl, she was only a temporary babysitter. The hired help.
The mini Garrett tucked his feet under himself and hovered over his sister. His curly dark hair hung in his face, hiding his eyes. The baby appeared to be asleep. She looked too small for a ten-month-old.
Anjelica watched as Sharon and Garrett approached the little boy. The small body froze, becoming unnaturally still. He didnТt look at them directly but from the corner of his eye.
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