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For one… two… three heartbeats Julia Reed’s world went still. Never had she seen such vital, expressive eyes as those in the tanned, rugged face turned toward her.
The sounds of after work traffic whirred in the background, punctuated by the jarring jangle of bells from the door of the minimarket a few feet away and she sat behind the wheel of her parked car and stared. Not a sexy call-me-maybe kind of staring. No. A big ol’ dorky ‘may start drooling any second because it’s been so long since I even thought of a guy like that’ kind of stare. Cool, Julia, cool.
She forced herself to scan the cigarette prices, beer ads and lottery banners covering the windows of the store. But she could not keep her gaze from wandering back to the man with the softly curling golden hair, leaning against the side of the building, with a rainbow touching his broad left shoulder.
It Could All be Yours the poster for the Lucky Lotto Big Pot’O’Gold Game behind him enticed. And then those eyes found her like a beacon of light in the dimming of the late winter day.
Her breath caught in the back of her throat.
He tucked his hand into the pocket of his faded jeans, pushing up the hem of his creamy Irish-knit sweater. He looked for all the world to her like the very pot of gold at the rainbow’s end.
A wordless tune began rambling through her mind. She pressed her lips together, realizing that she had instinctively parted them to speak to the stranger through her open window.
“Let’s get cruising. I have a life, you know. Big plans for tonight.” The passenger door creaked open and the car dipped as her assistant, Craig, threw his lanky form into the seat. He settled a white plastic bag in the foot well behind her seat. “Got everything on your grocery list.”
Julia shut her eyes, not sure if she were grateful for his dragging her back to reality or if she wanted to shove him out of her car and go back to dreaming about kind eyes and golden hair and…
“After this week, I decided you deserved a little decadence. Got you a candy bar.” Craig grinned, probably because he knew she’d get caught up in her work and forget the candy and he’d get it to eat it. Like the kid (a ‘kid’ who was probably only a few years younger than Julia, old soul that she was) needed more energy. He shifted in his seat as if trying to get a stubborn horse to get a move on then frowned her way. “Are you okay? You look kind of, um, dazed or something.”
“I was just thinking.” Her long hair snagged on the tattered upholstery as she twisted her head to steal another glimpse of the man with the twinkling green eyes and the faint quirk of a smile.
He was gone.
She was just thinking, she finished in silence, that she would have liked to have said something to him, to have seen if his voice matched the compelling image of masculine strength and boyish mischief she saw conveyed in his intense gaze. That’s all.
Of course, that was not all. But she was hardly ready to admit that to herself, much less her assistant. She sighed. “Never mind.”
She cranked the key in the ignition. Her twelve year old car coughed to life, then lurched backwards out of the parking space. She drove off, humming through her involuntary smile the song that had popped into her head.
By the time she they were rolling along the streets of Cincinnati toward Craig’s apartment building she had begun to sing softly. “When Irish eyes are smilin’…”
It Could All Be Yours. The glittering rainbow arched against the gray Ohio late winter sky, stilling the song on Julia’s lips. She guided her old clunker of a car into the exit lane that passed directly alongside the glaring billboard promising riches.
Turn one dollar into millions! The golden coins brimming over the lip of a fat black pot on the sign seemed to wink at her, beckoning. The change from her twenty, two crisp dollar bills that Craig had tossed in the cup holder between them ruffled in the breeze from the car window that hadn’t rolled all the way up for months now.
Quiet thunder shook the sky.
“This is the voice of your conscience speaking.” Craig beamed a teasing grin at her, poked his wire-rimmed glasses up onto the bridge of his nose, then placed his curled fingers to his lips like the mouthpiece of a trumpet. “Weee-ooo. Weee-ooo. Temptation alert! Temptation alert! Woman in sector five considering spending her last few dollars on lottery tickets.”
“I am not,” she snapped, then backpedaled. “Well, not exactly.”
“C’mon, Julia, you can’t fool me. Whatever goes through your head shines right out those big baby blues of yours. You cannot tell a lie.”
She edged her car into the sluggish line of traffic creeping up to the expressway. The sign loomed nearer. “I wasn’t seriously considering it, just daydreaming. You know, playing “what if?’”
“Things will work out for the shelter, Julia, you’ll see.” He angled his narrow shoulders toward her and settled his frame into the worn seat.
“I wish I had your positive outlook,” she told her assistant. The car’s engine growled as her foot pressed heavily on the gas pedal. She pulled the steering wheel sharply to the right, following the sloping curve to the expressway. As they pulled parallel to the billboard, she couldn’t resist taking one last, wistful peek.
What she saw made her swerve the car onto the gravel shoulder of the exit ramp, stopping dead-even with the huge sign, which was actually two billboards back-to-back. Her cluttered keychain jangled as she turned the car off. The engine sputtered and coughed, then finally slumped into silence.
“What are you doing?” Craig demanded.
She pointed to a thin ribbon of smoke spiraling upward between the billboards’ twin support posts with the other hand. Below the sign the green-black glimmer of wind-battered garbage bags covered the space between the posts. “Looks like someone is trying to set up housekeeping without a house.”
She opened her door and swung her long legs out.
Craig lunged across the seat as if to snatch her back inside by her belt loops if he had to. “You can’t save them all, Julia.”
Her feet hit the ground, and she slipped out of the car. “No, but maybe I can save this one.”
She braced herself against the hood of the car, the engine’s warmth seeping into her flattened palms. She narrowed her eyes to size up the situation under the billboard. Satisfied that it was not overtly dangerous, she peeked inside the car again. “It looks pretty typical. Care to join me in extending the hand of welcome?”
Craig set his lips in a thin line and glowered at her.
She shoved up her sweater sleeves and shot him a look that said ‘this is happening, your only choice is whether it happens now or ten minutes from now after I’ve worn you down with my stubbornness’.
Craig huffed and rolled his eyes. The passenger door clanked as he popped it open.
“Oh, and bring that bag of groceries, will you? If whoever is under that sign won’t go to the shelter, at least we can leave those.”
Craig snagged the plastic bag and wrangled it out of the car. “This is your food, Julia,” he protested. “If you give it away, what are you going to eat?”
“I’ll be fine, Craig.” She waved away his very real concern. “It’s not like I can’t stand to lose a few pounds.”
“Maybe you should start by unloading the weight of the world you try to carry on your shoulders,” he called out as she strode away from him.
Julia pretended she didn’t hear. She tugged at her shapeless sweater then stepped lightly up the gentle embankment toward the billboard. Her tattered loafers sank into the muck of the soggy spring ground, the moisture seeping through where the stitches had broken in the sole. She wiggled her chilled toes in her damp socks and tossed back the long tangles of wavy black hair that had fallen over her shoulder.
The chances were that she was about to try to help someone who would be as thrilled with her offer as her assistant was to tag along behind her. Julia trudged on. Even if this unseen person did accept the warmth and safety of the shelter for the night, that was not a long-range solution. And as temporary solutions went, Julia thought glumly as she scaled the hillside, her foundering shelter seemed more temporary than most. Unless something changed very soon, St. Patrick’s Homeless Shelter would shut down in six short weeks.
Still, she could provide a hot meal and dry place to sleep tonight—and that beat camping out under a billboard.
“Excuse me,” she called out. “I don’t mean you any trouble, but I noticed your campsite.”
She glanced at Craig.
He shrugged and cast a longing look back at the car waiting for them.
“Um, I’m the director of St. Patrick’s Homeless Shelter and this is my assistant. We just wanted to let you know we can find you a place to sleep tonight, if you’d like.”
“Be off with you.”
The Irish brogue in the voice coming from beneath the billboard hit Julia like a smack in the face. Was her fascination with the man at the market making her hear things? The firm tone held no hint of threat, just an obvious desire to be left alone, so she decided to press the matter a bit.
“Look, I’m not going to drag you out of there or anything. If you’re an adult, capable of making your own decisions about where you spend the night, it’s not my place to force you into a shelter,” she said in a soothing, yet no-nonsense voice.
The wind whipped her hair across her face and she tossed her head to clear her view. “But it looks like a real storm brewing tonight, and I just wanted you to know there’s a warm bed and hot meal available if you want to get out of the elements for a night.”
“I do no’ wish it,” the voice barked. “And I don’t wish to be having any callers. Now, away with you.”
Once she overcame her shock at the accent, something else about the voice disturbed her. She couldn’t decide what, though. As she tried to pinpoint her misgivings, she realized she couldn’t even tell if it was a man or woman speaking. The building howl of the wind and steady whooshing of passing cars didn’t help.
She squinted into the dimming light of the approaching evening and concentrated, hoping the voice would speak again. When it didn’t, she felt she had no choice but to do what she could and go on. “At least let me leave these groceries for you.”
She stretched her arm out to Craig to take the bag filled with the staples she’d hoped would get her through the week.
“Groceries?” Even through the thick accent, suspicion colored the word.
Julia glanced at Craig and gave a confident nod. She’d piqued the person’s interest.
“It isn’t much.” She lifted the bag up. The white plastic rustled in the swirling wind. “Just a few things I picked up on my way home from work.”
“You’d give me the food meant for your own table?” The hushed question in the sweet, lilting brogue seemed to carry on the wind to her.
Julia smiled. She’d made a connection. She lifted the bag higher. “I only wish it could be more.”
“Tis a trick.”
“No, really, it isn’t." Her top teeth scraped across her lower lip and she gave Craig an anxious look.
Craig shook his head. Not this one, Julia, he seemed to be saying.
She sighed. Even after all these years, it tugged at her heart not to be able to reach someone. But Craig was right. The storm could break out at any moment and they couldn’t stay any longer. She could only leave the groceries and hope that tomorrow her outreach workers could coax the person in.
“We’re going now,” she told the voice. She set the bag down in the thick grass at her feet and stepped back. “Why don’t you come get these before they get rained on?”
“How do I know you won’t snatch me once I come out? Or, for that matter, that what you’ve got in that wee bag is worth the leaving of me humble abode?”
“Humble abode?” Craig whispered. “Who’s he kidding? If that abode were any humbler it would be a hole in the ground.”
“You’re better than this, Craig,” she said, smiling at the charm of the phrase in this situation, “I know you can’t just walk away from a fellow human being in need any more than I can. We must be—”
“Out of our ever-lovin’ minds,” he concluded with good natured resignation. He flipped the collar of his jacket up against a sudden gust then directed his gaze toward the flapping garbage bags. “Look here, pal, it’s nothing fancy, but it’s what the lady planned to live on for a few days. Some bread and peanut butter—”
“And jelly?” the voice asked.
“Sorry, no jelly.” Julia said, craning her neck to see if she could spot the speaker. “But there are three apples and a candy bar, and half a gallon of milk.”
“Milk? Did you say milk?”
The mysterious loner had been hooked. Julia stepped back to show she meant no aggression and said, “Half a gallon of cold, sweet milk.”
“All right, then. Leave the bag and be on your way.”
“I’m going.” She took another backward step. Sensing more than seeing that Craig had done the same, she whispered to her assistant from the side of her mouth, “At least now we know he won’t go hungry,”
“Yeah, but you will.” Craig turned to hurry on down the hill to the car.
Julia followed suit, but she couldn’t resist a quick glimpse over her shoulder and she stopped cold. No matter how often she encountered it in her line of work, each time she came across a child living in the streets— or in this case, beside the expressway—it had a profound, chilling effect upon her.
No way would she let this little redheaded imp slip back under that billboard to spend another night on his own. Luckily for her, the boy, clad in a green windbreaker and surprisingly clean jeans, had stopped to rifle through the contents of the bag. Withdrawing the milk, the boy ripped open the half-gallon carton and began swigging down its contents.
Three strides brought her almost on top of the child, who didn’t seem to notice her until she wrapped her arms around his waist. “Gotcha.”
“You said you wouldn’t be snatching me,” the child roared as he thrashed from side to side in her grasp.
“I said no such thing.” She tightened her hold, tipping her head up to keep the churning headful of red curls from crashing into her chin.
“You said you had no right to be forcing me into your shelter,” he reminded her as droplets of milk from the open carton splashed in her face.
“I said I couldn’t force you if you were an adult—but you’re not.” She thanked Craig with a nod when he strode up to take the carton. “There is no way I’m going to leave you out here alone.”
“Not what?” Julia demanded. “You’re not going to try to tell me you’re not a kid, are you?”
The boy’s emerald green eyes flashed in panic as he shifted his gaze to Craig, then Julia, then to their surroundings. He hunched his slender shoulders.
“Th-that’s right, lass, that’s just what I’ll be telling you." The lie was neither well-planned nor well-presented. He ducked his head and could not keep his gaze fixed to hers.
Julia couldn’t help but wonder what he had been going to say—that he was not alone? Could he be protecting someone? She scanned the area but could not see anyone else in or near the makeshift campsite.
As if he sensed her suspicions, the boy raised his shoulders and cocked his head, his voice wavering but loud. “I’m telling you I’m no more a kid than you are.”
To emphasize this point he swung his legs back, trying to kick her shins.
She set his feet soundly on the ground and leaned in to speak clearly in his ear. “Here’s a helpful hint: next time you try to convince someone of your maturity, leave off the part where you throw a temper tantrum.”
Craig took one of the boy’s arms and she the other. He sulked along between them all the way to the car.
“Listen, son, don’t feel bad that you got caught. I’m an old hand at this kind of thing,” Julia told him, trying to keep the lines of communication open. “I’ve been a social worker for over a decade. Six years in the Department of Child Welfare and the last four running a homeless shelter.”
She helped him over the fence, keeping a firm but gentle grip on the scruff of his neck. Her feet were nearly frozen now, and to add insult to inconvenience, her struggle with the boy had caused milk to spill down her leg and drip into one sorry excuse for a shoe.
Her discomfort probably fueled her weary sarcasm as she prodded him toward her car. “There isn’t a story you can concoct that I haven’t heard, son—and in several languages, to boot. Nothing you can say will make me leave a child to spend a single night on the streets alone.”
“But I tell you, I am no child,” the boy insisted.
“Let me guess,” Craig strode forward and opened the back door of the car. “If you’re not a kid, judging from that accent, flaming red hair and green jacket, it’s obvious to anyone with eyes—you’re a leprechaun.”
The boy, whose movements had already stilled, went positively rigid. The flash in his green eyes quieted, and he tipped his chin up at a proud angle. “I am.”
“You are what?” Craig crowned the bright red curls with his large palm to try to urge the boy inside the car.
The boy jerked his head away. “I am one of the little people of Ireland—a leprechaun.”
A stress-breaking bubble of laughter burst from Julia’s lips. As lies went, this one was a whopper. But it was original, she had to give the boy that. He had to be protecting something— or someone—pretty important to try anything this creative to distract them.
“Well, I have to admit, you’ve got me there, kiddo. That is one story I’ve never heard,” she said. “But just because you’re a terrific storyteller doesn’t change the fact that you’re a minor in need of assistance.”
“I’m no miner.” A resigned grin broke across his face, his green eyes glinting in mischief. “Leprechauns don’t mine their gold, they bury it. You must be thinking of dwarfs.”
“No, I’m thinking of dinner, and how standing here listening to your nonsense is keeping me from it.” Craig set Julia’s groceries inside the car and motioned for the boy to get in as well.
“I don’t suppose you want to tell us your name?” Julia asked through the open driver’s door as the boy curled up in the back seat and Craig plunked down in the passenger’s side.
“Oh, no, you won’t be tricking that out of me.” He scowled up at her.
“Why not? Is that some kind of leprechaun superstition?” She regretted the bitter tinge of her words, but she was cold and tired. Tired, not just from the grueling day-after-day struggle for the shelter’s survival, but tired to the depths of her spirit over situations just like this one. It sometimes seemed that every day, more and more hands stretched out in need, and fewer and fewer reached back, ready to help.
Craig slammed his door shut. “Whatever we’re going to do, Julia, could we get on with it?”
She sighed and folded her hands on top of the car, scanning the thinning traffic in the dim evening light. Darkness and stormy weather were fast approaching, her car was on a ramp headed away from any facilities that could take this child for the night, and Craig had made it clear he had plans and would not welcome delay.
A passing car flicked on its headlights. Thunder resonated from deep inside the billowing gray clouds. If only she could find a police car and wave it over—that would be ideal.
“I’ll tell you what, my little lucky charmer, I could use some leprechaun magic right now,” she muttered to the kid in the back of her car.
“What is it you’d wish for, lass?” The child’s slight weight moved the old car as he leaned forward to peer up at her from behind the driver’s seat.
What is it you’d wish for? The question echoed through her being. She knew what she must work for, even what she would hope for, but what would she wish for? The distinction of the single word gave her a wistful feeling, like a child with her pencil poised over a Christmas list.
“Days like this, my friend, I think I’d wish—” She imagined enough money to afford a hot meal out somewhere, nothing fancy but filling. Decent shoes. The shelter full of volunteers, its bankrolls filled to capacity, its occupancy at an all-time low. She sighed. “I guess I’d just wish—for a little help.”
“Granted.” The word rushed out like a breath of fresh Irish breeze.
Julia stared down at the boy, who pressed his lips together the way a child does before he imparts his deepest secret. But before he could utter a single sound, the whoop of a police siren made her jump.
Whirls of red light spun across the scene as an unmarked cruiser pulled up behind her old car.
A wave of relief washed over her, sweeping away the dim cast of her mood. She glanced from the stopping police car to the boy and grinned. “I suppose you’re going to try to claim this is all courtesy of your benevolent blarney, Mr. Leprechaun.”
“No need to thank me, lass. I’ll just be on my way”
“Oh, no, you don’t.” Craig lurched after the boy, but the youngster was too fast. He slipped away and out the car door.
“Hold it right there.” Julia fell into her I’ll-brook-no-argument-from-you voice with great ease. She snagged the boy, who glanced toward the cruiser and the officer climbing out of it with anxiety in his green eyes.
“I’m telling you,” the boy said in a harsh whisper, “I’m a leprechaun. I’ve granted your wish for help, now you have to let me go.”
He fought like a wildcat for release, but Julia held firm.
“Stop that this instant,” she said, then let her tone soften to show the real empathy she felt for the child. “Listen, sweetie, I know a kid in your situation has a natural distrust of the police, but I promise you, the officer is here to help you. This is really for the best. We can’t leave you out here alone.”
“I’m not...” he clamped his mouth shut.
Alone. He didn’t have to say it for Julia to hear it. She glanced to the billboard but saw no other sign of life there.
She returned her gaze to meet the boy’s searching for the answers he masked with a flash of defiance. Beyond them, she heard the swish of the policeman’s boots in the tall roadside grass. “If someone else is out here, you’d better tell me now.”
“What? Do you think there are other leprechauns lurking about, Julia?” Craig teased, his own mood obviously lightened. “You’ve already caught your limit, and besides that, he hasn’t forked over his pot of gold.”
The boy went rigid beneath her restraining hand.
“Don’t be silly, Craig,” she said, trying to keep everyone calm until the policeman, who was scribbling down her license plate number, got to them.
“It’s not silly, Julia,” Craig protested, poking his glasses back on the bridge of his nose. He sniffled in the damp air. “The legend goes, if you catch a leprechaun, he has to surrender his pot of gold. Isn’t that right, Red?”
The boy’s green eyes sparked. “Indeed it is. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just be getting that gold...”
“What seems to be the problem here, ma’am?” The tall, imposing officer strolled up to their little tableau, his face partially obscured by the brim of his dark brown hat.
“Hello, sir. I’m Julia Reed, director of St. Patrick’s Homeless Shelter.” She extended her right hand. “I am so glad you came along when you did, Officer...?”
“Shaughnessy.” He took her hand and gave it one jerking shake. “Michael Shaughnessy.”
Was it her imagination, Julia wondered, or did the man’s presence make the child bristle more than it should?
“How can I help you?” Officer Shaughnessy asked, his gaze fixed on the boy.
The gesture made Julia shiver, but she fought off any apprehensions by concluding that perhaps the two had had run-ins before. Street kids and cops did not mix well, at any rate, so even if there was nothing personal between the two, they would respond as adversaries out of habit.
“Um, you can’t help me, exactly, Officer,” Julia said, caution coloring her words. “It’s this fellow here.”
“I see,” the officer said, his voice flat. “Well, you just leave him to me. I’ll make sure he’s taken care of.”
The boy glowered at the uniformed man.
The situation didn’t feel right to Julia, but she had no reason for her misgivings. Swallowing down the cold lump in her throat, she reached in her back jeans pocket to find a business card. “If you need anything, son, please call.” She offered the card to the boy. “Here’s how you can find me.”
He turned his angry eyes to her and kept his arms at his sides.
The police officer stepped up. His huge hand grasped the boy by the jacket collar, throwing the child off balance for a moment.
Suddenly, the boy shot away from the officer, straight into Julia.
The force of the boy’s weight made her stagger backward a few steps, but she quickly regained her footing. The boy moved around so he was standing half behind her, and she automatically straightened up in a defensive posture.
The officer tensed and she wondered if she—or the boy— was in danger.
“Please, lass, please.” The pure pleading nature of the boy’s voice tugged at her heart, and she turned her head to meet his desperate gaze.
“Leave the boy to me, ma’am,” Officer Shaughnessy barked.
“One moment,” she responded, making it clear she wouldn't allow any quibbling. She focused on the child, who was standing so close she could feel his rabbit-paced heartbeat at her side.
Julia placed one hand on the boy’s shoulder. She kept her voice low to preclude Craig and the police officer from hearing. “What is it? Don’t be afraid, you can tell me.”
The green eyes shifted toward the rainbow-covered billboard and a brightness seemed to pass over his features.
“By rights, my pot o’ gold is yours, lass.” The lilting words barely carried to her above the din of traffic and the grumble from the skies above. “I can’t have it fallin’ into another’s hands.”
Officer Shaughnessy tapped the toe of his boot against a stone jutting from the wet grass. “Hurry it up, will ya?”
The boy took a deep gulp. “Please, lass, you’ve got to be the one to claim me treasure. Can I have your promise on that?”
She looked steadily into the boy’s face, her heart as heavy as the laden rain clouds hanging low over the skyline. The child had no home and few possessions, she realized. The last thing he wanted was to lose the belongings he had managed to squirrel away, those things which he counted as precious as gold—his treasures. And he was asking her for help. “Just tell me where to find it.”
“Now, where are you supposin’ you’d be finding a pot o’ gold, lass?” He wriggled his dark red eyebrows, his glance flicking toward the Lucky Lottery Jackpot Billboard. Their voices blended in a hushed conspiracy. “Under the rainbow.”
“Just find the patch of shamrocks and dig straight down," the boy whispered.
“Dig? I have to dig?”
“Shh!” The boy raised a finger to his lips. “Of course you have to dig for the treasure. Don’t you know anything?”
She smoothed her hand over his thick curls and shifted her weight uneasily. “Actually, I’m beginning to think I don’t know anything at all."
Lightning ripped across the gray clouds, throwing over the boy’s anxious features a mixture of yellow light and shadow.
“If you don’t hurry this along, ma’am, we’re going to be standing in a rain storm.” Officer Shaughnessy shuffled a step closer to them.
“I’ll be coming along with you...sir.” The boy turned and walked away from Julia, his shoulders hunched, his feet kicking at the grass as he went.
As the patrol car drove away, Craig clapped his hands together. “Another good deed done in record time. Now if we could just—”
“Not yet.” Julia moved to the back of her car to unlock the trunk.
“If you’re doing what I think you’re doing,” Craig warned her, “you better realize I’m not going to be a party to it. I have…”
“You have work to do,” she cut him off. Turning to rifle through the piles of blankets and extra clothes, spare batteries, flashlights, and first aid kits she finally found her sorry excuse for a shovel. She thrust the splintered handle into Craig’s hand. “Faith can move mountains, but sometimes it has to do it one shovelful of dirt at a time. And somebody has to hold that shovel.” Julia trudged back up toward the billboard, motioning for her assistant to follow. “That shovel, my friend, is an instrument of faith in human kind in action.”
“Pardon me if I point out it’s also used to dig graves.” Craig hoisted it onto his shoulder and slunk along behind her.
Julia drew in the smell of the impending storm, let it refresh her then let it out in a sigh. “Not today, my friend. Today, we’re digging for treasure.”