"Steve! Wake up!"
Steve bolted upright, best he could since he was trapped in a sleeping bag. As the last wisp of sleep drifted from his brain, he glanced around for the source of the voice. He noticed Rudy leaning against a boulder, waiting impatiently.
"Are you just going to sit there on your tin butt all day or are we going to fish?" Rudy questioned. It had taken a bit of effort, but he finally convinced Oscar that Steve needed a break; a fishing trip would do the trick. Rudy decided to drag Steve up into the Montana mountains, away from civilization. All methods of outside communications were left back at the lab.
"Yeah, yeah," Steve replied while fighting with the zipper. He heard Rudy chuckling at his dilemma. "How the heck…" The zipper finally broke loose. Steve cast off the bag and scrambled to his feet. He cast a dirty look at the doctor while rolling up his bedding.
In the meantime, Rudy poured coffee for both of them and seated himself in front of the fire, offering a cup to Steve.
Steve reached across the fire, accepted the cup, then seated himself. "Thanks," he replied before taking a sip. He was still trying to relax after having spent a week in the mountains. The peace and quiet is what he needed, but he was becoming a bit antsy.
After several minutes of silence, Steve said "I hope you don't mind, Rudy, but I'm going to give the fish a chance to live another day."
Rudy finished off his coffee and put the cup down. "What do you have planned?" Rudy suspected that Steve was getting restless when he started pacing through the campsite the other evening.
"See that mountain?" Steve questioned, pointing to the looming peak behind Rudy.
Rudy glanced behind him briefly. "You're going to climb it?"
"It's there to be climbed, so that I'll do."
"As long as you stay out of trouble, fine with me. That will just mean there will be more fish for me to catch." Rudy replied.
Steve laughed. "Right…"
Rudy just rolled his eyes. This was a long standing argument… who's the better fisherman. "Be back in time for dinner," he said while gathering his fishing gear.
"Will do." Steve started off at a slow jog toward the tree line.
By Noon Steve had made it about a quarter of a way up the mountain. He found a ledge to sit on, wanting to enjoy the view before needing to head back down to camp.
Minutes later, Steve thought he heard the sound of a twin engine plane. Looking around, he spotted the small plane flying just above the tree line, much too low to clear the mountain top. Using his zoom, he noticed the plane carried two, maybe three occupants. He decided that if there were a third occupant, it must be a child. Steve stood and watched in horror as the plane smashed into the trees, crashing to the floor below.
He dashed over to the burning wreckage and using his right arm, he tore open the side door. He leapt aboard the plane and went straight for the young girl. He ripped her seatbelt off her waist, lifted her in his arms and carried her off to safety. An explosion rent the air as he was laying the unconscious child on the grass. He protected her small frame from the blast, using his own body as shield.
Feeling a strong pulse, Steve picked her up gently and hurried down the mountain path.
Rudy was already halfway up when he met with Steve treading down carefully with his limp bundle. They pressed on down to the campsite to bundle up the little girl in a warm blanket before heading to the lake to their motorized boat. Steve cradled her in his arms while Rudy steered the boat to the nearest beach house to contact the ambulance.
Hours later at the hospital, Rudy happily informed Steve that the little girl was resting comfortably and that aside from a few bruises and a mild concussion, she was going to be fine.
“Her name is Kim Dunning. She’s three and a half years old, lives in Milwaukee, Chicago. She was traveling with her foster parents. Until they can locate any living relatives, they are going to turn her over to Child Welfare.”
“No! Not that. Let me take her.”
“Steve, you’re not serious?”
“I am, Rudy.”
“Steve, think about it?”
“It’ll just be until they can locate her kin. I’m still on vacation until the end of the month. I’ll have plenty of time to take care of her.”
“She’s an orphan who was placed in a foster home. I doubt they’ll find any living relative.”
“Until they find her a new home with some nice folks, she’ll be living with me.”
“Steve, she’s not your responsibility. What happened was an accident.”
“I know that. I just don’t want her to be handled by Child Welfare, that’s all.”
Rudy sighed in resignation. “All right. I’ll make arrangements for you to take her as soon as her doctor signs the release papers.
“When will that be?”
“Probably tomorrow if all goes well.”
“Great. Can I see her?”
“Sure. Come with me.” Rudy led Steve to the end of the hall.
A nurse was checking the vitals when the two men padded up to the bed.
“How is she?” Rudy asked in a whisper.
“Her BP and pulse are regular. She should awake shortly.” She adjusted the blanket over Kim’s shoulders before walking out of the room, leaving Steve and Rudy to gaze at the little girl slumbering peacefully.
“You sure she’s going to be all right?” Steve queried with concern.
“Dr. Johnson says so.” Rudy looked at Steve, wearing a grateful smile. “She’s a sight to behold, isn’t she?”
“Yeah,” Steve sighed musingly.
“I’ll be right back.” Rudy said, patting Steve on the shoulder before he slipped out of the room.
Steve shifted a chair next to the bed and sat, elbow on thigh and fist over his mouth, pondering. He gazed at the blond munchkin who’d stolen his heart at first sight. She was awakening some deep feelings within him, many of which he thought had completely vanished the day after his horrific accident. He felt a tightening in his throat as he began contemplating fatherhood. He tried to curb the rush of emotions by reasoning with himself that the child was entrusted in his care temporarily.
The next morning, Steve took Kim to his hotel room before they left for the airport to catch a Washington-bound flight. The shy girl had taken to Steve almost instantly. He’d made her feel comfortable in his presence and in return, she was filling a void in his life. Her infectious giggle was dangerously tugging at his heartstrings, nurturing a longing for a family of his own. She had a powerful effect on him.
When they landed in Washington, Steve drove Kim straight to his home. Her eyes widened in awe at this spacious house with a living room she estimated as twice the size of the one in her house back in Milwaukee. He folded his fingers around her tiny hand like a glove and led her to the kitchen for a glass of milk and cookies. He sat her on the stool and tweaked her nose to steal a giggle that shot an arrow through his heart.
In the midnight hour, Steve was sleeping soundly when he suddenly felt a light tug on his arm. His conscious mind broke through the haze to emerge from beneath the surface. He blinked open his eyes to establish focus on the petite figure silhouetted against the moonlight beaming through the window. “What’s the matter, Sweetie?”
Her bottom lip quivered as she rubbed her eye with one fist and clutched to her chest the stuffed bear Steve had given her earlier. “I don’t feel so good,” she whimpered.
Steve stretched out his arm to turn on the night lamp and flung the covers aside to sit on the edge of the bed. “Where does it hurt?”
He sat her next to him and began rubbing her stomach. “A little bellyache from eating too much chocolate cake, huh?”
“I have the perfect remedy. You wait here.” He went to the bathroom to fix her a glass of Eno salt. “Here, drink this.” He handed her the glass of fizzy water that she eyed warily. “Go ahead, it’s going to make your tummy feel a lot better.” He watched her drink the remedy until the very last drop, then reached for a tissue to wipe her mouth dry. “There you go.”
“It still hurts,” she lamented.
“You need to give time for the bubbles to work,” he explained calmly with a reassuring smile. “You want to sleep here until the hurt goes away?”
She nodded shyly.
He helped her dive under the covers, after which he turned the light off and laid beside her. She snuggled up to him, resting her head in the crook of his arm. He kissed her forehead and tightened his hold around her small frame. ‘Don’t get too attached, Steve,” his mind cautioned him, but it was too late: she had already captured his heart.
The next morning, Steve took Kim to the OSI. Callahan was typing a letter at her desk when Steve ushered his lady into the reception area.
“Well, who have we here?” Callahan greeted with a broad welcoming smile. She rose from her chair and stepped over to her visitors.
“Her name’s Kim. She likes to be called Kimmy.” Steve hunched down by the little girl who was shyly avoiding Callahan’s stare. “Kimmy, this is Peggy. She’s my good friend.”
Callahan squatted in front of her. Hello Kimmy. My, you are a pretty girl!”
Kim blushed and buried her crimson face into Steve’s shoulder. He laughed and squeezed her by the tiny waist, giving her a kiss on the forehead. “She’s a little shy.”
“She’s a cutie, Steve.”
“I know,” he mused, rubbing the little girl’s back. “Would you mind keeping an eye on her while I go talk to Oscar?”
“Not at all. It’ll be my pleasure.”
Steve stood up and nudged Kim towards Callahan who clasped her hand. “Come with me, Kimmy. I’ll show you where I work while Steve goes to the next room for a few minutes.” As she pulled on Kim’s hand, she met with resistance on her part. The girl wrenched her hand free and hugged Steve’s legs.
He gently peeled her arms off his legs and lifted her up in his arms. She flung her arms around his neck and held him tight, refusing to let go.
“She’s very attached to you…literally.”
“The feeling’s mutual.” Steve gave Callahan a friendly wink. “I’ll take her with me.”
He started for Oscar’s office when Callahan waved goodbye to the little girl who risked an eye over Steve’s shoulder to peek at the secretary. Callahan’s smile sent the blood mantling over her cheeks, prompting her to bury her face into Steve’s neck.
Steve rapped on the door before entering the office.
“What’s this? A new recruit?” Oscar teased as he stood from his desk and moved over to them.
“Maybe in a couple of years,” Steve replied on the same bantering tone. “This is Kimmy.”
Oscar brushed his hand in her hair. “Hi Kimmy.”
She nuzzled her face deeper into Steve’s neck.
“She’s very shy,” Steve whispered to Oscar.
“Did you find out anything?”
Oscar nodded and sighed ruefully. “Not yet. No one turned up in Milwaukee. We’re broadening our search. It might take longer than expected.”
Steve ran his hand through Kim’s hair and craned his neck back to meet her ocean-blue eyes. “That’s okay. Kim and I are good friends now, aren’t we girl?”
She raised her head and nodded enthusiastically, giving Steve a peck on the cheek.
“Careful, pal,” Oscar cautioned with a concerned expression etched on his face.
“I know,” Steve sighed. “Don’t get too attached. I’m afraid it’s too late for that.”
“I might have known.”
“You keep me informed?”
Steve let Kim slid down to the floor and clasped her hand to lead her out of the office. He brought her closer to Callahan’s desk.
“Not yet. Say Callahan, I was just thinking. Since this is Friday, why don’t we have a small picnic in the park? I’m sure the boss won’t mind you extending your lunch break. You could ask for a replacement.
“I’d like that, Steve.”
“Besides, I’d like Kimmy to warm up to you just in case I might need to call on your feminine touch.”
“Ah, I knew there was a catch! And here I was thinking it was on account of my gleaming eyes and fetching smile?” she teased.
“That too,” Steve reciprocated with a wink.
“She’ll come around in her own time,” Callahan assured Steve while she stroked the little girl’s hair.
“I’ll drop by the delicatessen for some sandwiches and cooked meals and we’ll meet you back here at noon.”
“I’ll be here.”
“Come on Kimmy.” Steve tugged at her dainty hand. “You’ll help me choose.”
Callahan beamed with delight at the little girl shyly waving her goodbye as she and Steve left the reception area.
Three weeks passed without any news regarding any known relatives of Kim’s. Steve didn’t mind the lack of progress in the investigation for he enjoyed the little girl’s company. Not only was she filling a void in his life, but she provided him with the opportunity to get better acquainted with Callahan with whom he’d found himself smitten. She would drop by the house everyday, either on her lunch break or at night for suppers and to play with Kim.
Steve would often sit on the couch and admire girls at play, organizing the miniature furniture in the dollhouse Callahan had bought, sometimes joining them when it was time for a tea party with the ladies. He wanted to freeze time, frame the picture he considered a part of his future. He felt ready to settle down with the woman who not only had captured his heart and soul, but proven herself worthy of motherhood.
Callahan and Kim had become inseparable in the last three weeks. She would tuck the little princess in her bed at nights before heading downstairs to share an intimate conversation with the man whom, with each passing day, she felt more drawn to.
One Saturday evening, the doorbell rang at Steve’s residence.
“I’ll get it,” offered Kim, bouncing out of the kitchen where she had been giving Steve a helping hand with supper. She hurried to the front door, her tiny fingers fumbling with the huge knob before she opened the door.
“Hi Peggy!” Kim said excitedly, jumping up and down, itching to be held. Callahan lifted her into her arms and crossed the threshold, closing the door behind her.
“Where’s Steve?” she asked, scanning the living room for any sign of him.
“He’s in the kitchen,” Kim replied, pointing towards where Steve was seeing walking up to them.
“Good evening, Peggy. I hope you’re hungry?”
“Good, ‘cause I made roast beef for the entire neighborhood.”
Callahan sighed and rolled her eyes in despair. “Men in the kitchen.”
“Hey, nothing wrong with my cooking,” Steve defended with a feigned pout. “As I recall you loved my chicken cacciatore.”
“Oh, I did. On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…” she teased.
Steve swathed her playfully on the arm with his apron. “Funny.”
“See there! She agrees with me,” Steve boasted with a wink at Kim. “Make yourself at home.”
“Need any help in the kitchen?”
Steve crinkled his nose in a funny face. “You wish.”
“I helped him,” Kim said proudly.
“You did? Then it can’t be all bad.”
“I’ve got everything under control. You can fix yourself a drink. I’ll be right with you.” He walked back to the kitchen while Callahan put Kim down on the floor and followed her to the living room sofa where she introduced her to her new dolls.
Later that evening, Steve and Callahan joined Kim for a game of nerf balls. At one point, Steve tried to tickle the ball out of Callahan’s hand. She cast the ball back to Kim just as she and Steve fell to the floor in a heap. Their laughter slowly faded as their eyes locked into a tender gaze. Her heartbeat quickened and her skin tingled all over at Steve’s light touch against her cheek. Her eyes beckoned his lips to kiss hers, his hands to caress her. Events appeared in slow motion as she felt his body lean in to brush his lips delicately against hers, leaving feathery kisses before pulling back a few inches to search the mirrors of her soul for permission to deepen the kiss.
Time stood still as she drowned in the sweetness of his mouth, until a small giggle brought her back to the surface. She reluctantly pried Steve’s lips apart from hers and blushed. “Steve, we have an audience.”
“Oh, you think that’s funny, don’t you?” Steve reached for Kim and tickled her before sitting her on his lap.
“Does that mean you are going to be my new mommy and daddy?”
That question left them completely stumped. Their faces reddened in embarrassment at the realization of the implication of their impulsive act.
“Oh boy!” Steve heaved out, raising a hand over his eyes.
“Well?” Callahan asked expectantly, somewhat amused by the awkward situation.
“Do you wish me to handle it?”
“Of course. I’ll go tuck her in and explain it to her.”
“Thanks. I’ll wait for you downstairs and…maybe we can pick up where we left off?”
“Are you sure you want to risk it?”
“Just make sure she’s sound asleep.”
Callahan laughed and gave Steve a small kiss on the lips. “I’ll be right back.”
He took her hand and rubbed his thumb lovingly against her knuckles. “I’ll be waiting.”
“Come on, Kimmy. Time for bed.” Callahan clasped the little girl’s hand and headed up the stairs.
Steve exhaled a sustained sigh of relief and wiped the sweat off his brow before going to the kitchen to fix a fresh pot of coffee. He had a feeling it was to be a pleasant long night.
Upstairs in Kim’s bedroom, Callahan was tucking the little girl in when she was asked the dreaded question once more. She tried to explain that her and Steve were merely good friends, and that when she would be placed in a good home, they would always be there for her.
“But I like you and Steve. I don’t want another mommy and daddy. I want you,” Kim insisted on a crushingly pleading tone.
“It’s not that simple, Kimmy.”
“Don’t you love me?”
“Of course we do, Sweetheart. It’s just…” Callahan’s voice faltered as she searched for the right words.
“Do you love Steve?”
Steve was nearing the bedroom when he stopped at the door, anxiously awaiting an answer to the question he longed to ask himself.
“Yes I do. I have for a very long time,” Callahan confessed with a wistful smile.
His heart brimmed over with delight at her answer. “So have I,” he also confessed as he entered the room.
Startled, Callahan’s head jerked up. “Steve! You scared me to death.”
“How about it, mommy? Should we give it a try?”
“What are you talking about?”
“All three, becoming a family?”
“Are you serious?” she quavered, gulping down the wave of emotions rushing to her throat.
“Very.” He approached the bed and sat next to her on the rim of the mattress. He gently cradled her hand in his and gazed lovingly into her glinting eyes. “Peggy Callahan, will you marry me?”
“Yes!” Kim gushed. “Yes, she will!”