The frigid snowy weather was wreaking havoc with the traffic. Ethan got into the apartment way later than he’d intended—well after the blizzard hit.
He stamped his boots to shake the snow off and pulled his wool coat off.
Thank frigging god I fixed the heaters last week. Over the past couple of weeks he and Jason, his partner at the bureau, ripped out the old dysfunctional radiators in his apartment and replaced them with a modern central heating system. He was looking forward to spending the night watching an old New Zealand rugby game and eating frozen pizza in his toasty new living room.
That sounded a lot less lame earlier when he’d debating going to the Caislean, a five-star hotel here in town, to join Jason and Maggie for dinner. His partner lived there with his wife as she was part owner.
How his geeky partner had managed to land a rich and hot hotel heiress still made his head spin, but there was no accounting for taste. Maggie was cool, though. Not as hot as her best friend Peyton, but still way out of Jason’s league.
If he’d gotten snowed in at the Caislean he could have had his pick of the hotel’s empty rooms to crash in. Gourmet meals served by a courteous staff, his run of the gym—all for free. Most people would give their eyeteeth for a deal like that, but hanging at the hotel seemed too pathetic now that Peyton was off on her honeymoon.
Frozen pizza it is. Good thing he’d finally convinced the local grocery store to deliver here. They had thought the building was condemned—or at least that’s what the snide teenager answering the phone had said.
Ethan sniffed. That shitty delivery kid could shove it. The building was starting to shape up. As Jackson had declared, it had good bones. Most of the remaining work was cosmetic. Once they got rid of the crumbling stucco on the exterior and restored the original brickwork it would look pretty damn good. And his weatherproofed windows would be a great place to watch the storm.
He shoved his lined leather gloves into his pocket to open his mailbox. Damn it. The envelope was back.
Yesterday, he’d found it in his slot, filled with grubby tens and twenties and a whole lot of singles. The envelope was rent from the building’s last hold-out resident, the girl Jackson hadn’t kicked out because he felt sorry for her.
Ethan had given all the rent back yesterday along with an extra two hundred out of his own wallet. He’d stuffed it into a manila envelope and shoved it under the corner studio’s door with a warning to vacate by the first of next month.
In theory that should have given the girl enough time to find a new place. But that was before this blizzard hit. It was supposed to last the better part of the week. The weather would hamper apartment hunting. Which meant he might have to give the woman an extra couple of weeks. However, getting the envelope back was a bad sign. What if she didn’t understand English enough to read his note?
Damn it. He was going to have to talk to her in person.
Ethan wasn’t afraid of crushing someone. He did to criminals in interrogation rooms on a regular basis, but this was different. It was a single mom for fuck’s sake.
Trying not to swear aloud he turned the corner instead of heading for the stairs. Maybe he would finally catch his sneaky little tenant at home this time. She’d been avoiding him for weeks. And he was pretty sure she was tuning out the lights and pretended she wasn’t home whenever she heard him in the hall.
Not this time. This couldn’t go on. Obviously, he needed to look the girl in the eye as she agreed to start looking for a new place. He didn’t want this hanging over his head anymore.
What the hell was the woman’s name again? He squinted down at the on the envelope, but he hadn’t written it down there. The only identifying information was the apartment number drawn in a script so precise it could have been typed. Doesn’t matter. He didn’t need to know her name.
Ethan turned the corner of the short hallway leading to the first-floor units. He stopped short and blinked.
There was a tiny figure standing in the middle of the hall. The toddler was wearing a puffy hot pink snowsuit, the kind that was so thick it forced your arms wide like the Stay Puft marshmallow man. Ethan couldn’t tell if it was male or female despite the color of the suit. It could have been a hand me down. The patches indicated it was used.
“Hey…kid. Where’s your mom?”
The tiny little face blinked up at him. It tottered, turning around to face the other way. Ethan relaxed as a small, but adult-sized, figure came toward him and the child.
It had to be the girl, although he would have found it impossible to guess if he’d seen her on the street. She was wrapped in too many layers. Her body was covered in two coats and a multitude of scarves obscured half her face. Nothing looked thick enough for the current weather, which was probably which she’d layered up.
“Hi. I’m glad I finally caught you,” he said, cocking his head at her as she marched down the hall toward him.
Her mittened hand was running along the wall. Behind her and the kid he could see the studio door, open at last. A brown bag partially filled with groceries was resting on the floor outside.
The girl reached down for the kid so slowly Ethan wondered if she was drunk. That was how the inebriated moved—very carefully.
She didn’t acknowledge his words as she picked up the child and turned around.
Fuck. That was rude. “Did you hear me?”
How did you say that in Spanish? He racked his brain. Spanish was the easiest of the languages he’d learned back in college. Why couldn’t he remember a damn thing now?
“Hey. I’m talking to you.”
Still nothing. The woman was inching down the hall, her progress molasses slow. The toddler in her arms was babbling softly as if it was telling her all about its day.
He took a deep breath, shaking his head as he followed them. “Look lady, we really need to talk about the apartment. I know you talked to my friend Jackson about it. We can’t keep letting you live here when we’re redoing this floor. The old landlord should never have signed a lease so late in the game.”
None of the rentals had been legal by that point. The place was in such bad shape, full of rats and bad wiring. Luckily the other tenants had been quick to find better accommodations when the extent of the problem had been pointed out to them.
The rats were long gone. It was the first they’d taken care of. But this girl…fuck what was she doing now?
She had stopped half-way to the door, her arm out to wall again. Then the arm dropped. She leaned against the wall, using it for support as she dragged herself forward. It was a familiar move. He’d done the same thing in college when he’d been too wasted to walk in a straight line to his dorm room.
And with a kid too. Did that fucking dive bar pay her in drinks?
Really pissed now he stalked to her before she reached the open doorway. “Are you seriously going to pretend I’m not here?”
If she shut the fucking door in his face he was going to break it down. He put a hand on her arm and tugged gently.
Her reaction was instantaneous. The woman reared back and pulled away, holding the puffy pink baby tighter to her chest. He caught a glimpse of a pair huge brown eyes and a flushed face. She leaned against the wall again and looked from him to the door as if weighing the distance. One step was all she could manage. She slid down the wall with the kid in her arms.
Ethan swore and dived after them. He caught them just before the kid slipped out of her arms headfirst onto the ground. The girl slumped, her head falling back, exposing more of her face. Her cheeks were red and she was shivering.
What the hell? His squatter-tenant wasn’t drunk.
She was sick.