“Don’t I know you, kid?”
Will nearly rolled his eyes over the grizzled Uber driver’s question, but he didn’t want to look like the kid he’d just been called. He was twenty-two, for Christ’s sake. He wasn’t a damn kid. How would the driver feel if Will called him Old Man?
He would have hired a professional chartered car to take him to and from the holiday party he’d just attended if he’d known he’d end up leaving the party alone. How was he supposed to know the party’s hostess would lead him up to the lavish bedroom she shared with her husband and screw his brains out right there while her husband drank himself senseless downstairs?
By the time Will was done giving her the ride of her life, it had been too late to contact a charter to get his intoxicated ass home. He’d had to settle for the Uber. Now here he was, sitting in the back of a lumbering Oldsmobile while a driver who looked and sounded eerily like Tommy Lee Jones peppered him with questions. He half-expected to be led to the Men in Black facilities…but maybe that was the whiskey talking.
“I play ball,” he finally said in response to the driver’s question.
“Hot damn,” the driver declared, jerking the wheel so much in his excitement that Will braced himself. “You’re Will Campbell! I’ve got Will Campbell in my car!”
The driver turned to look at Will over his shoulder. “You look a little different without your ballcap on. I’m a huge fan. You’re one of the most promising young pitchers I’ve seen in years. I don’t know how you pulled out that win against New York to end the season. Shame it didn’t get us into the playoffs.”
The car crept towards the double yellow lines on the road, prompting Will to tighten his grip on the chicken stick. “Uh, yeah. Listen—”
“I always wondered what you guys did in the off season. Do you live here in Denver then?”
Will’s eyes were glued to the road. He was grateful that it was after two in the morning and there wasn’t any traffic coming from the other direction. The car’s tires thudded as they hit the reflectors lining the center of the road, prompting the driver to finally glance back out the windshield and yank the wheel the other way.
“Yep,” Will choked out.
He didn’t mention that they were on the way to his neighborhood now. The driver seemed like the kind of guy who would drop by unexpectedly if he knew that.
“It’s been a bitterly cold fall,” the driver observed, his eyes now mostly on the road. “But I guess it’s nearly winter now, isn’t it? Just another week or so to go.”
Will was relieved when the driver slid back into his standard “kill the time” banter and stopped bouncing in his seat over the fact that Will played professional baseball. His stomach reeled from the driver’s erratic swerving, and it was being urged along by the overwhelming scent of lemon and cheeseburgers floating through the car’s heating system. Those tequila shots he’d done on top of the whiskey were starting to feel like a terrible idea.
Fortunately, it didn’t take much longer to get to their destination. He had given the driver an address a few blocks from his house. It was a safety measure his father had suggested years ago when Will first started living on his own. There had been several times when the advice had saved his ass, especially once he started getting more well-known.
They pulled up to the curb in front of the dark dwelling belonging to the incorrect address. “Nice neighborhood,” the driver observed as he entered their arrival into his app.
Will finished entering a tip amount in the app on his own phone, knowing he’d likely forget otherwise. “Yeah, it’s quiet,” he said as he reached for his door handle. “Thanks for the ride.”
“Hey, wait…can I get your autograph?”
Although Will wanted nothing more than to get out of the car and into the crisp December air, he obliged the driver by signing a couple of greasy napkins that looked as though they were the source of the cheeseburger smell. He signed one for the driver and one, he was told, for the driver’s son, then made his escape.
He focused on his phone and pretended to get absorbed in responding to a text on his way up the driveway. As soon as the car pulled away and turned out of sight, Will put the phone in his pants pocket and walked along the silent suburban streets to his house.
The driver had been right about the neighborhood, he idly thought as he rounded the bend towards home. The houses were all well-tended and there was little crime in the area. In the months he’d been renting there, he hadn’t met a single unfriendly neighbor. It also suited him being a short drive from the ballfield and convenient to Denver nightlife. Although he doubted he’d be there much longer since his contract was up and his agent was close to finalizing a deal with Atlanta, the neighborhood had served him well.
His head throbbed dully with every step he took, telling him he was sobering up. He longed for a bottle of water. A frigid wind had him picking up the pace and burying his hands in the pockets of his Berluti suede bomber jacket. He sure as hell wouldn’t miss the Denver winters, he mused as he finally headed up the path to his front door and fished his keys out of his pocket.
He’d forgotten to leave the porch light on, so he struggled with finding the right key on his heavily shadowed front porch. The cold night air quickly numbed his fingers. He dropped the keys with a jarring clang.
Cursing, he shifted to look for them. His foot connected with them, sending them skittering under one of the two porch chairs. He cursed again, more loudly this time, and bent to retrieve them. He couldn’t see a damn thing under the chair.
Having an a-ha moment, he pulled out his phone and triggered the flashlight. He turned the light towards the chair and caught the glint of light off metal.
Then the shadows in the second chair moved.
He jerked back into a standing position and braced himself for a possible assault. His heart throttled into overdrive.
“Who’s there?” he demanded.
Jesus, Campbell, he thought. Could you sound any more like a fucking horror movie cliché?
Forcing his hand to remain steady, he aimed the phone towards the second chair. His racing heart calmed as fear eased into confusion. There was a small, shivering lump sitting on the chair…a lump with two long braids and wide, glistening eyes staring right at him.
A little girl.
Why the hell was there a little girl on his front porch?
He had no clue how to gauge a kid’s age, but if he had to guess, he’d say this one looked no older than three or four, certainly too young to be out here on her own. She had her legs up on the chair, her knees pressed against her chest and her thin arms wrapped around them. He didn’t recognize her as one of the neighborhood kids. From what he could see, she wore only a button-down sweater and jeans with sneakers. She was woefully underdressed for this weather.
He looked around blankly as though he’d find the child’s parents standing nearby. He found nothing but silence and darkness. Looking back at the girl, he moistened his lips and struggled to think clearly. Never before had he so regretted overindulging in alcohol.
“Um, hey,” he began. “Hey there, little girl. Are you lost?”
She didn’t respond. If possible, she drew into an even tighter ball.
“Look, I can help you find your parents,” he said. “I just need to know—”
A brisk wind whipped across the porch, cutting him off. A biting chill ran through him. He knew the little girl had to be freezing.
“Let’s get you inside where it’s warm,” he suggested, slowly lowering himself so he could pick up the keys while keeping his gaze on her. “I’m sure we can figure this out.”
When the child continued to remain silent, he sifted through his keys until he found the right one. Relief surged through him as he inserted the key into the lock and opened the door. Light from the hall lamp that he kept on an automatic timer flooded out onto the porch. He stepped inside to deactivate the alarm. Once that was done, he eased back outside, half-hoping the kid was gone.
Okay, more than half-hoping.
She was still there. He bit back another curse.
“My name is Will,” he said in an attempt to put the child at ease. “Will Campbell. This is my house. What’s your name?”
Silence stretched between them for a full minute before he realized she wasn’t going to answer. He looked from her to the inside of his warm house and wondered what the hell to do. He wasn’t qualified for this. He wasn’t—
Stopping himself in mid-thought, he once again pulled out his phone and dialed the number of the person who was qualified for this…the person who had single-handedly raised him and his three siblings over the past sixteen years.
His father answered on the third ring. “Will? You okay?”
Will had never been so glad to hear his father’s deep baritone voice. “Yeah. Sorry, Dad. I didn’t know who else to call.”
“It’s nearly four a.m. You’d better be in the back of a damn ambulance.”
Will had forgotten about the time. Even though it was an hour later in Chicago where his father lived, it was still a godforsaken time of the morning to get a call like this.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” he said again, running a hand through his hair. “I just got home from this party and—”
“Have you been drinking?”
“I—what? Jesus, Dad. Yeah, I was drinking. It was a party. It isn’t like I drove home, and—” He stopped himself and shook his head. “Dad, that isn’t important. What’s important is that I got home and found this kid on my front porch.”
All grogginess faded from his father’s voice. “A kid?”
“Yeah. She’s young and alone and freezing to damn death. She won’t talk to me and tell me what’s wrong.”
“Did you call the police?”
“I…well, no. I called you.”
“Use your head, son. You need to get her inside and call the police.”
Will cast a wary glance at the little girl, who continued to stare at him with her solemn, shadowed eyes. “She doesn’t seem to want to budge.”
“What’s the temp right now?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere around forty maybe?”
“Christ. Get her inside. You’re capable of picking up a little girl if she doesn’t want to move.”
Will edged closer to the girl, who watched him with as much suspicion as he felt. “What if she starts screaming or something?”
“Get that child in the house right now, William Patrick Campbell.”
Grinding his back teeth, Will kept the connection with his father open and stuffed the phone in his coat pocket. Somehow, knowing his father was on the other end of the line gave him the courage to approach the child.
“I’m going to bring you inside, okay?” he told her, keeping his voice calm. “It’s too cold out here for you. Then we’ll figure out where your parents are.”
She didn’t speak or move. He decided to do it quickly, like ripping off a bandage. In one swift move, he swept her out of the chair, keeping her in the tight ball she seemed to want to be in, and took five long strides until they were both standing in his tiled foyer. He kicked the door closed behind them and, having no better place to put her, set her right on the entry floor. He immediately pulled the phone back out of his pocket.
The smell of urine hit him as he stood back up. He glanced down at his suede coat and saw a wide damp spot.
“Son of a bitch!”
“Hey,” came his father’s sharply-toned voice through the phone’s earpiece. “Don’t be cursing like that in front of a child.”
Bringing the phone all the way to his ear, Will growled, “I think she peed on herself. It got all over my Berluti.”
“Serves you right for spending five grand on a damn jacket,” his father rejoined. “Since it’s already ruined, you should put it on her. Sounds like she needs to warm up.”
To hell with that, Will thought. His jacket could probably be saved by the right dry cleaner. No sense making it worse.
Stepping to the hall closet a few feet away, he reached in and pulled out one of his thick cotton workout hoodies. He hurried back to the little girl. When she met his gaze this time, he staggered to a halt.
In the light, her gray-blue eyes looked eerily familiar.
“Did you get the coat on her?” his father asked through the phone still pressed to Will’s ear.
“Um, yeah,” Will said, shaking off the odd feeling. “Doing that now.”
He bent down and draped the hoodie around the girl’s shoulders. As he awkwardly tried to pull it closed over her chest, he heard a rustling sound from beneath her tattered sweater. The corner of a baggie holding a piece of paper stuck out from between two buttons.
“There’s some kind of protected paper under her sweater,” he told his father. “It looks like a note.”
“A note? What does it say?”
Frowning, Will again met the girl’s gaze. “I’m going to get this piece of paper, okay? Maybe it tells us who your parents are.”
She didn’t move a muscle as he carefully pulled her sweater away from her shivering body and retrieved the baggie containing the note. He took a deep, relieved breath as he stepped away from her. Using his teeth, he unsealed the baggie and pulled out one of two sheets of paper from inside it.
Giving the first sheet a quick scan, he said into the phone, “It says, ‘Will, I’ve dealt with her for four years. Now it’s your turn.’”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“I have no idea,” Will said, flipping the baggie over so he could see what else it contained. “There’s a legal document in here. It says it’s a certificate of…it says…”
He didn’t remember sitting on the ground, but the next thing he registered, he was on his ass with his father’s voice getting louder and louder in his ear.
“William, talk to me!”
Will blinked and attempted to free his tongue. “I…”
“What the hell is going on?”
“I…it’s a birth certificate.”
“Well, that’s good. It’ll make it easier for the authorities to find her parents.”
“Dad…it says I’m her father.”
There was a pause. “That can’t be, son,” his father said at last. “The note said she’s four years old. That means you’d have been…”
“Seventeen,” he said, calculating the conception based on the child’s July birthdate.
“But I’ve always told you to be careful. Will…”
Will closed his eyes and fought a wave of nausea. This couldn’t be happening. He was only twenty-two years old, for God’s sake.
He was just a kid.
“Dad,” he managed, “she has our eyes.”
The silence lasted a lot longer this time. When his father spoke again, he had clearly arrived at his own decision. “All right, William. Here’s what’s going to happen now. You’re going to get that little girl into some clean clothes and make sure she’s warm and fed. I’m going to get on the first flight to Denver so we can begin the process of checking the validity of that birth certificate. But from this moment, she’s your responsibility.”
Panic clawed at his chest. “Dad, there’s no way I can do this.”
“The hell you can’t,” his father argued. “It’s just like what you do when you’re pitching. You don’t start the game, but you save the win for the pitcher who did. Well, you’re going to do the same thing for that little girl. What’s her name?”
“Katherine,” Will read off the birth certificate, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Katherine? Well, that’s awfully adult-sounding, isn’t it? She’ll be our little Katie. Now you go take care of her. I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
The phone went dead. Will and Katie stared at each other from across the foyer for a long time. Neither spoke a word.
They both seemed to know their lives would never be the same.