Excerpt from "Kandie Kisses"
I am fortunate to be part of a multi-author #sweetromance anthology with eight other amazing ladies. So, for the next several days, I will be featuring excerpts from each of the stories available in #HeartsHomesHolidays.
by Michele Pollock Dalton
The packed bar along the backshore of Lake Superior was stuffed to the gills and stifling hot as Mick Polenz set up his sound system. Despite the governor’s “half capacity” orders, the Down Low Bar & Grill still hosted a wall-to-wall crowd every weekend. And Mick certainly didn’t mind. The tips he earned from the gig always put him in a better frame of mind.
Although music was his first love, Mick’s job as a first responder for the township paid the bills. The area that comprised Magellan was essentially Michigan’s last outpost before the land gave way to Lake Superior, but the quaint village was a welcome change from the hectic pace of Lansing.
The atmosphere at the Down Low pulsed through the heavily timbered room and spiked Mick’s enthusiasm for his upcoming show. Still, the nerves that lingered before each performance set his foot to tapping as he waited for one of the waitresses to deliver his water bottle. “Thanks, Chel,” he commented when the harried woman handed off his beverage.
Rachel Boulton paused for a moment and gave the shy man an equally bashful smile before turning to hurry away. “Heaven’s above!” she whispered to herself, wishing she had a hand free to fan her face. One simple brush of the burly firefighter’s calloused fingertips made Rachel think of things a good girl would never admit.
Tamping down her runaway hormones, Chel pressed through the rabble rousers to greet the next group of diners. “How many?” she called above raucous laughter and the opening song of Mick’s first set.
After leading the trio of suggestively clad women toward the last table, Rachel scanned the crowded bar adjacent to the dining area. Intrigued, the busy waitress caught a glimpse of her favorite musician on the low-slung stage.
When the dining room closed down several hours later, Rachel rushed through the evening clean-up, so she could get home and begin her preparations for the following morning. Run ragged between her job at the Down Low and the supplemental work she picked up by baking sweet treats for the Merry Hollow Tree Farm; the weary woman wondered how long she’d be able to keep pace.
As Chel exited the back door off the prep kitchen, she gave a perplexed glance at her vehicle. The hatch of her older SUV was aloft. “Well, what the heck?” she mused in consternation as she approached the mismatched Santa Fe. After a recent fender bender, the predominantly black car now sported a red front quarter panel and driver’s side door. “Must have hit the button,” the buxom brunette mumbled as she pulled the key fob from the front pocket of her faded jeans.
Exhausted by long hours on her feet, Rachel climbed into the cold vehicle and got the defrost going. Despite the warmth of the day, as soon as the sun set, the September winds turned cold. And it seemed like the U.P. was in for an early winter if the blazing colors of the hardwoods were any indication.
Sipping from a travel mug of hot chocolate while the Santa Fe warmed up, Rachel stilled and listened. The noise of the bar crowd, still in full swing, along with the sound of wind and waves coming from the shoreline, carried a strange whine. The worried woman growled at the car, “Oh no, you don’t! I just had you in the shop for a tune-up, you overpriced lemon! So, just settle down and idle right!” Banging on the steering wheel in frustration, Rachel jolted in shock as the back hatch smoothly slid open. “Is this dang car possessed?” she wondered before hopping out and rounding the back.
As she lifted her arm to slam the bedeviled door, tiny eyes opened and glowed against the blackness of Chel’s cargo area. Frigid little fingers curled around the gray nylon netting that kept things from sliding about, and Rachel’s heart constricted.
* * * * *
Mick stepped out onto the back patio for a break and a bit of fresh air. The heavy scent of bodies, perfumes, and frying food inside the bar gave him a pounding headache. So, he dropped onto a wooden bench away from the hubbub and took several deep, cleansing breaths of the chilly night air.
When he heard a startled cry, his body instantly went rigid, and instinct kicked in. Bolting across the dark parking lot toward a line of parked vehicles, Mick yelled, “You alright?” to the curvy waitress who turned bashful gazes on him whenever he played at the Down Low.
Bending low to untangle the toddler’s fingers, Rachel lifted the frightened little girl and hugged the child to her chest. Whimpers from an infant tucked further into the recesses of the cargo hold drew the anxious woman’s attention. So, when her handsome crush leaned in close to reach for the baby, Chel sucked in the heady scent of him and forcefully resisted the urge to press closer to his warmth.
Scowling at the fresh-faced woman, Mick ominously rumbled, “Why do you have KIDS in your trunk?” The first responder examined the little one before tucking the blanket tightly around the baby boy.
Injured by the brusque tone and awful assumption that she left small children unattended in the cold, Rachel stammered, “There is one more.”
Furious, Mick freed a hand and reached back under the tonneau cover that concealed the cargo area. Locating another infant, he gently pulled the child forward. “What is going on here?” he angrily questioned, blue eyes snapping with fury.
Chagrined and confused, Rachel tried to console the itty bitty toddler in her arms. Although she wanted to shout right back at the presumptive dolt, Chel whispered, “I don’t know.”
“You . . . don’t know?!” Mick retorted, eyebrows raised in disbelief. Watching the waitress struggle to soothe the tiny girl, he released a cleansing breath and flatly acknowledged. “You don’t know.”
Gently rocking back and forth, the overwhelmed woman chattered, “I thought my lift gate was malfunctioning. It kept opening on its own. But, I guess this little one was pushing the button.”
Pivoting, Rachel looked around the parking lot. The outdoor crowd had thinned considerably as the hour edged toward midnight. And the over-packed, boat-sized sedan she was looking for was gone. “I think they’ve been . . . abandoned.”
“Abandoned, Mick,” she sighed. “Their mother came to the back door around closing time looking for any leftovers we were going to throw away. But now, her car is gone.”
* * * * *
Arranging the twin boys in his arms, Mick waited while the reluctant woman gathered a worn quilted handbag and slipped it over her shoulder. “I’ll have to call the Sheriff,” he thought out loud.
“What? No! Their mother might come back! Let’s …well, let’s just give her a few minutes. Please?”
Huffing, the man looked down at the tiny bits of humanity. “We need to get them warm,” he replied, tempering the agitation in his voice.
Grasping the musician’s muscled forearm, Rachel walked backward toward the passenger side of the vehicle. She juggled the toddler to one side and wrestled with the ratty diaper bag before she managed to get the car door open.
Rolling his eyes in exasperation, Mick awkwardly slid across the seat, carefully balancing his precious cargo. As soon as he was safely shut inside, the first responder gently laid the infants in his lap.
The dome light went out when his unexpected partner in crime shut the back hatch, and Mick waited for the bashful lady to slip into the car beside him. “Now what?” he grumbled as Rachel settled the whimpering girl in her lap.
Reaching up to flick the button that would restore light to the interior, Chel jostled the lumpy bag that had been left behind. “Let’s see if there’s anything in here that might give us a clue,” she sheepishly suggested.
“You met the person who left them here?”
“Like I said, she came to the back door looking for food.”
While the worried woman shuffled through the contents of the oversize purse, Mick unwrapped the first boy and gave him a quick exam before swaddling him more tightly. Sliding a large hand over the downy softness of the baby’s dark hair, he considered the newborn carefully before moving on to his brother.
“Found something,” he mumbled as the second blanket fell away to reveal a green and white dining check. “I saw what you did,” had been written in tiny letters under the meal total.
Looking up, Rachel pushed the hair out of her eyes and glanced at Mick. “What is it?”
Lifting the order stub closer to the light, the musician read the message out loud for her benefit: “I saw what you did when you took the money from your apron pocket and put it in the cash drawer for our meal. And I know you gave Kandie an extra big glass of milk with her mac & cheese. I also heard you say that someone in the bar worked for the local fire department. I couldn’t find the station, so I am asking you to please let the police know I tried to follow the Safe Haven law. Miss, I’m counting on your kindness and generosity to take care of them for me. My babies mean the world to me, but I just can’t do it anymore. Tell them I love them. Always.”
Rachel gazed down at the blonde girl in her lap, then closed her eyes. Bowing her head, she touched her forehead to the child’s and whispered, “I’m so sorry, little one.”
Pudgy fingers awkwardly brushed her cheek, and Rachel leaned into the featherlight touch. But her eyes blinked open when a very wet, sloppy kiss landed on the underside of her chin. “Oh! Oh my,” she giggled. “That left quite a spit spot.”
Scrunching up his face, Mick wrinkled his nose and expelled a disgruntled “ewwww” as Chel turned her head and wiped her chin against the shoulder of her t-shirt. “Guess I don’t mind my damp lap quite as much anymore,” he mumbled.
Rachel snorted in laughter and snuggled the little girl closer. “Hey, a kiss is a kiss,” she teased before sobering. “So, what do we do, Mick? How would you handle it if they’d been dropped off at the fire station?”
“I know you don’t want to hear it, but we have to call the Sheriff. The babies are probably only a week old, so their relinquishment could fall under the Safe Haven laws. But your little ‘puppy’ there? She doesn’t. So, there will be a criminal case opened against, ah, Sally…crud. I can’t read the last name.”
Mick tipped the ticket toward the light and then to its side, trying to make out the last few squiggles. “Still can’t read the last name. But there is a ‘P.S.’ here. Um, let’s see… I can’t bear. Ah, I can’t bear … the thought! The thought of what, um, what… well crap. This writing is too small. I just can’t read it,” he huffed.
Reaching for the piece of paper she’d torn from her order pad a few hours earlier, Rachel tried to make out the words that wrapped up the long edge. When she finally figured out the message, she glanced down at the little girl one more time. Unable to hold back her roiling emotions any longer, a tear slipped free. She whispered, “P.S. I can’t bear the thought of what they will do with Kandie. Please don’t let them send her to an institution.”
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Catch you tomorrow with an excerpt from Kirsten Osbourne's "Adopted in Arkansas."