The Man Who Would Be Daddy
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Malcolm didnТt want to get into it with her. He looked past the blond head, searching for someone to give his name to and get this all over with. But there was no one behind the long ebony-and-chrome desk.
УLetТs just say that this was a small payment on a debt I owe.Ф
His answer baffled her. She found herself wanting to make sense out of it. УI donТt understand.Ф
He shook his head, dismissing her part in it. УThatТs all right. You werenТt involved.Ф
There were no landmarks to help her pick her way through the maze. She didnТt like being lost. It was clear to her that he was carrying on some inner conversation with himself that she was only accidentally privy to. It was a subject that obviously caused him pain. Because of what heТd done for her, for Robin, she was determined to learn more.
The policewoman chose that moment to return. УIf you follow me, IТll take you to Detective Harold.Ф She raised her eyes to MalcolmТs face.
УIТm Malcolm Evans. Officer McGuire told me to come in to give my statement regardingЧФ
She nodded. УDetective Simms is waiting to see you. Why donТt you both come around the desk and follow me inside?Ф
Malcolm stepped back and gestured for Christa to go first.
Malcolm Evans. So that had been his name on the sign earlier. Ever since sheТd read it, the name had been teasing her. SheТd heard it before, though the connection eluded her. It flittered back and forth in her mind like an annoying gnat.
The policewoman ushered them to two adjacent desks in the squad room before disappearing.
For the next twenty minutes, Christa and Malcolm gave their statements to two detectives. Detective Harold questioned Christa about the incident as gently as if he were dealing with his own daughter. She discovered that he had known her father. She answered his questions as completely as she could, all the while trying to listen to what Malcolm was telling Detective Simms. She succeeded only minimally.
Detective Harold offered her the paper he had just finished typing. Glancing over it, she signed her name on the bottom.
Christa laid the pen down. УIs that all?Ф
УNo.Ф TylerТs voice came from behind her. УNow you have to pick him out of a lineup.Ф
She offered an apologetic smile as she rose to her feet. УSorry, I would have known that if it wasnТt happening to me.Ф
УDonТt worry about it.Ф Tyler slipped an arm around her shoulders. УWhoТs baby-sitting? Dad?Ф She nodded. УYou know, he makes a much nicer grandfather than he did a father.Ф
Christa laughed. УSometimes these things take time. DadТs a late bloomer.Ф A stern disciplinarian, her father had turned into a pushover with Robin.
УAlmost finished?Ф Tyler asked the burly man at the next desk.
In response, the detective took out a pen and handed it to Malcolm. УJust needs a signature.Ф
But Malcolm was in no hurry to sign. Instead, he slowly read through the words the older man had typed on the form.
Tyler laid a hand on MalcolmТs shoulder.УWeТll wait for you in the hall.Ф The question was silent, evident in the set of the wide shoulders. УWeТre going to need your ID, as wellЧseparately,Ф Tyler explained.
Malcolm only nodded in response. Tyler ushered Christa into the hall.
УSo, how did it go?Ф
УPretty painless. Detective HaroldТs niceЧjust like you said.Ф
УNothing but the best for my baby sister.Ф
Christa looked toward the glass encompassed squad room. Malcolm was signing the bottom of the form. УDo your baby sister a favor?Ф
He knew better than to say yes right away. УWhat?Ф
УCan you get me some information on him?Ф
Tyler didnТt have to ask who УhimФ was. It was against the rules to give out information on the forms, but some rules could be bent on occasion, and this seemed a harmless enough infraction.
УI have a feeling I know him, or of him, from somewhere.Ф She saw the skepticism in TylerТs eyes. He probably thought she had other reasons for asking. Maybe she did.
Christa had never been the type to drift through life, Tyler knew. She had to be an active player and turn everyone around her into one, as well. УIsnТt it enough that he was there at the right place at the right time?Ф
She shook her head. УItТs because he was that I want to know.Ф She looked toward Malcolm thoughtfully. УThereТs something bothering him.Ф
Tyler frowned. As if she didnТt have enough problems to deal with as an out-of-work single mother with a small daughter to raise and a deadbeat ex-husband who would never make any child-support payments. УThereТs something bothering all of us, Christa.Ф
УI know, but-Ф
Humoring her, he kissed the top of her head. УOkay, IТll see what I can do,Ф he promised.
She grinned up at him. УI never doubted it for a minute.Ф
It was past four oТclock when Malcolm finally walked out of the police station. As he hurried down the stone stairs that led to the parking lot, he noted that the lot had thinned out considerably. There was only a smattering of cars left. Business at the police station had to be slacking off, he mused.
Walking toward the black sports car, he became aware of the grating, whining noise. It was a sound he was more than passingly familiar with. Metal on metal, sparking nothing but aggravation as it prophesied a stranded motorist.
Malcolm automatically glanced in the direction the noise was originating from.
He might have known.
It was coming from her van.
His initial impulse was to ignore the sound, and her, and just keep walking. That would have been the sensible thing to do.
Malcolm got as far as the driverТs side of his own car before he finally turned around. The grinding noise put his teeth on edge as she tried to turn the ignition on again. He couldnТt just drive away and leave her like this. In a vague way, it was tantamount to a fireman ignoring a fire alarm or a policeman ignoring a cry for help.
HeТd thought that she would be gone by the time he was finished at the station. Her brother and another policeman had led Christa in first to look at the men in the line up. It had taken her all of one minute to pick out the man who had car-jacked her van.
It had taken him a little less than three minutes to make the same choice. Malcolm had deliberately taken his time after that, hoping sheТd be gone when he walked out of the station.
Obviously, he hadnТt taken enough time.
She was going to kill that thing if she didnТt stop. By his count, sheТd tried to start the van six times since heТd left the building.
УCТmon, cТmon, start,Ф Christa chanted under her breath. The mantra wasnТt working. The engine refused to turn over.
She turned the key again just before he reached her. The window on her side was open, and he heard her mumbling something under her breath, but he couldnТt make it out. The grinding noise drowned it out.
УYouТll flood the engine.Ф
Christa started, her head jerking up at the sound of someone at her elbow. When she saw it was Malcolm, she relaxed, but not before the exasperated sigh escaped her lips.
УRight about now, IТd like to drown the engine.Ф
Malcolm nodded. It had been a long time since a carТs problems had baffled him, but he could relate to the helplessness she had to be experiencing.
It was the way he had felt about life when he had found himself alive in the hospital bed. Alive when Gloria and Sally were gone.
Christa threw up her hands in surrender. SheТd been trying to start the van for the past ten minutes. Taking every curve life had to throw at her, Christa prided herself on being levelheaded and calm. Today, however, her nerves were very close to the surface.
She looked at him. УAny suggestions?Ф
In reply, Malcolm circled the front of her van and placed his hands on the hood. Then, as she watched, mystified, he pushed down on it, hard. She felt the vehicle begin to bounce up and down like a small sailboat caught in a storm at sea.
He wasnТt behaving like any mechanic she knew. Christa stuck her head out the window. УWhat are you doing?Ф
Malcolm didnТt bother answering. Instead, he gave her an order. УNow try it.Ф When she just looked at him, he added, УTurn the key.Ф
Not seeing how what he was doing could make any difference whatsoever, Christa turned the key in the ignition. She was rewarded with the sound of the engine turning over. The van vibrated as the engine coughed to life, shuddering like a wet dog.
Relief coaxed a grin from her. УIs that the auto mechanicТs equivalent of a TV repairman hitting the side of a set when it doesnТt work?Ф
The principle would take too much effort to explain to her. УSomething like that.Ф He cocked his head, listening to the sound of the engine as it idled. A starter motor wasnТt her only problem. The engine sounded as if it was wheezing, and the car was idling rough. Besides that, he detected the light scent of gasoline.
Not my business, he thought.
But cars were his business. If he let her go now and she wound up stranded somewhere, it would be partially his fault. A great deal had changed in his life, but Malcolm still believed that omission was just as much of a sin as commission.
Trapped by his conscience, he reluctantly asked, УYou live far from here?Ф
The nice thing about the condo she was leasing was that it was so centrally located. УA couple of miles.Ф She nodded toward the street right off the parking lot. УWest Plaza Development. Just off Heather.Ф
Heather Drive. That was in the opposite direction from his own apartment. Malcolm sighed. He supposed it wouldnТt be too far out of his way. УAll right, IТll follow you home.Ф
Now, that was a switch. Though she appreciated it, she didnТt see any reason for his abrupt change of heart. УAny particular reason youТve suddenly decided to become friendly?Ф
Malcolm sniffed the air. Nothing. The light scent of gasoline must have just been his imagination.
УIТm not being friendly,Ф he corrected mildly. УIТm being a mechanic. I donТt like the sound of your engine. You might not make it home.Ф
УI hate putting you out like this.Ф
That made two of them. He shrugged in reply. УLike you said, you live only a couple of miles down the road. No big deal.Ф
That sounded more like him, Christa thought. Distant. Matter-of-fact. And he was wrong; it was a big deal. She was a stranger and he was offering to help. Again. She felt bound to tell him the absolute truth.
УItТs not exactly two miles. More like five,Ф she amended.
Two, fiveЧit made no difference. He had already made the offer:
УFive,Ф he repeated, accepting the correction. Malcolm glanced at his watch. УWeТre still not quite into rush hour yet. ShouldnТt take more than ten minutes to reach your house.Ф The idling sound the van was making was beginning to sound like someone with smokerТs hack. УUnless, of course, the van breaks down,Ф he added matter-of-factly. УIТm parked two aisles over.Ф He jerked his thumb toward the LeMans. УWait for me.Ф
It was more of an order than anything else.
He was one strange man, she thought. There was something about him that spoke to her. Despite his size and the aura of power he cast, there was something about him that was reaching out to her. She doubted if he was even aware of it.
Tyler would have said she was meddling.
Mentally, Christa crossed her fingers as she backed out of her space. The van seemed to shimmy and shudder more than usual. She had the impression that it was like a prize-winning stallion past its peak, trying to eke out just a little more life before it died.
She kept her fingers crossed all the way home. The van didnТt die, but Christa had the uneasy feeling that it was touch and go all the way. It was reassuring to see the LeMans in her rearview mirror.
The van had over a hundred and fifty thousand miles on it. It had brought her safely over the desert, when she had left with Las Vegas and Jim in her rearview mirror. Actually, she amended silently, only Las Vegas had been in her rearview mirror. Jim, at the time of her departure, had probably been housed somewhere at a casino table, hoping that Lady Luck had decided not to snub him any longer.
Luck had been an elusive, capricious partner during the five years that she and Jim had been married. When sheТd had enough of his gambling fever and divorced him, heТd acted relieved. HeТd called Christa his Jonah. Without her, he felt confident that his luck would change for the better.
She sincerely doubted it, but she was decent enough to hope that it had. No matter what, the man would always be RobinТs father. That meant something.
All during the trip back to Southern California, sheТd had the uneasy feeling that she was on borrowed time. Each false start and stop that the van made only increased that feeling. TodayТs harrowing chase down BedfordТs main thoroughfare had undoubtedly wreaked havoc on the failing engine.
Or whatever it was that was wrong with the van, she mused with resignation.
Just last a little longer. Please.
Finally, Christa pulled up in the short driveway in front of her condo. MalcolmТs car was only a beat behind her. Though there was ample room in the driveway, he parked in the street, directly in front of her fatherТs vintage Jaguar.
She watched Malcolm smoothly guide his car into the tight space between her fatherТs car and her neighborТs. Admiration curved her lips. She couldnТt conceive of doing that. She could no more manage to parallel-park than she could fly on her own power.
Malcolm slammed the car door shut behind him. He nodded at the dark metallic green Jaguar. Her husband must be the sporty type, he decided.
УNice car. Yours?Ф
She shook her head. With a bank account barely in the triple digits, she could ill afford maintenance on something like that.
УMy fatherТs.Ф She smiled, thinking of the way he pampered the vehicle. УItТs his baby now that heТs retired.Ф
Malcolm nodded absently, acutely aware that she had turned her electric blue eyes up at him. He didnТt quite know what he was doing here. He was going out of his way, and heТd made it a practice never to go out of his way. The less involved he was with people in general, the less there would be to trigger him, to remind him of what he no longer had.
Of what he had allowed, because of a momentary lapse in skill, to slip through his fingers.
Feeling uncomfortable, Malcolm slowly shoved wide, capable hands into his back pockets. He stood looking at her van.
Now would be the time to back out. Before he got in too deep.
УWell, you got here without any mishaps. Maybe your husband could take a look at the van for you.Ф
He was already turning to go when he saw the amused smile rising to her lips. It feathered up to her eyes. The sight was appealing, though Malcolm didnТt want it to be.
She could just see Jim staring into the interior of the engine. He would have been more lost than her.
УI donТt have a husband, at least, not anymore. And when I did have one, he would have been far more prone to look at a deck of cards than a car. Jim wasnТt what youТd call handy by any stretch of the imagination.Ф
What he had been, she thought, was a spinner of dreams. Unattainable, impossible dreams. TheyТd been magical once. But the magic had long since faded from his dreams and their life together.
Malcolm gave no indication that he had heard her or absorbed the information she offered. But he did approach the van with a resigned expression on his face.
He was here, he thought, so he might as well take a look at it. УPop the hood for me.Ф
Obediently, Christa pulled the lever on the dashboard. The hood made a noise as it rose an inch, still tethered to a lock.
Feeling around for the release latch, Malcolm found it and pulled. He moved the hood back and looked in, letting out a long, low whistle. That had to be one of the dirtiest engines heТd seen in a long, long time. And just possibly the worst cared for. He shook his head.
Christa joined him and looked down below the yawning hood. She had absolutely no idea what she was looking at, other than the fact that there was a great deal of metal and rubber snaking into itself that she didnТt begin to understand.
She was standing too close to him. The light scent she wore somehow managed to block out the smell of gasoline that was now much more prevalent since she had opened the hood. He wished she would move.
УSo, whatТs the prognosis, Doctor?Ф Her voice was teasing as she crossed her arms before her. УCan the patient be saved?Ф
Not without a hell of a lot of work, he thought. Malcolm looked at her, trying to gauge just how knowledgeable she was. УHow much do you know about cars?Ф
That was an easy one. УYou put the key in and they go?Ф she offered with an apologetic shrug that should have irked him but did just the opposite.
He laughed very softly, but she heard him and it warmed her.
УNot this time,Ф he said. The hoses all looked worn. A couple of them were cracked. And heТd been right about that smell of gasoline. She had a leak somewhere. His guess was that one of the seals on the fuel injectors was cracked.
УYouТre lucky to have gotten home. From the sound of it, IТd say that your starter motor has just about had it and IТm surprised that youТre getting anything out of your battery.Ф He indicated the corroded couplings. УThe cables are completely corroded with residue. By all rights, there shouldnТt even be a connection being made.Ф
He wasnТt even going to bother getting into the hoses and the fuel injectors, except to warn her. УI wouldnТt drive it if I were you. ThereТs a faint smell of gasoline. ItТs not safe.Ф
Christa wrinkled her nose; she believed MalcolmТs assessment. She knew sheТd been pushing her luck with the van, but sheТd had no choice. A new one, or even a new used one, was out of the question right now.
УCan you fix it?Ф
He felt as if she had just placed a wounded baby bird in his lap and asked him to breathe life into it.
УWell, it needs a new starter motor, and thereТs no telling what else might be wrong with itЧФ
This was beginning to sound worse and worse. УSo it wonТt be fixed by tomorrow?Ф
Did she think he was a miracle worker? He began to say just that, then decided against it. УNo, it wonТt be fixed by tomorrow.Ф
Christa sighed, dragging her hand through her hair. УOh, God.Ф
She sounded as if heТd just told her the car was terminal. УIs tomorrow important?Ф
УIt might have been.Ф She dug deep, trying to rally her sinking spirit, but it wasnТt getting any easier. УI have a job interview. Had,Ф she amended. УI was counting on getting there with this.Ф She waved a disparaging hand at the van.
УNot unless the place interviewing you is located at the bottom of a hill.Ф
Christa nibbled on her lower lip again, thinking. Watching her stirred a distant feeling in Malcolm that he had been certain had completely vanished from his life the day heТd buried Gloria.
He pushed it away.
Christa knew she had no right to impose. But she was desperate. УCould you work on it for me?Ф
Malcolm had never seen so much hope in a womanТs eyes before. Unfounded hope, he thought, but hope nonetheless. It pinned him to the spot and kept him there. It also gave him no choice.
Shrugging, he acquiesced. УSure. I could have it towed to the shopЧФ
Towing. Something else to consider. УIs that going to cost?Ф Before he could answer, she flushed ruefully. УOf course itТs going to cost.Ф
She ran a slender hand over her face. God, but it was hard not to feel as if her back were against the wall. She knew she could always turn to her brothers and father for money, but her pride wouldnТt let her.
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