Authors: Patricia Davids
Tags: #Fiction, #Religious, #Romance, #General
“Of course it matters!” Mary’s tone was incredulous. “Did her mother use drugs? Is she addicted? Has she been tested for AIDS?”
Mick tried to curb his annoyance. Couldn’t they accept that Beth was simply a baby in need of love and affection?
His mother held up her hand. “Hush, girls, and leave him alone. You two don’t know how lucky you are to have had healthy babies. No child comes with a guarantee. Only God knows what we will have to face. I’ve been willing to trust Him all my life and so does Mickey. It’s something both of you would do well to try.”
He took a deep breath. “If I can’t do anything else for her—even if she doesn’t make it—I can see that she’s not alone in this life.”
Mary’s gaze fell before his. “But signing paternity papers seems so extreme.”
“It was the only way,” he said.
Alice lightly clapped her hands. “Great speech. Just the right touch of a plea for maternal understanding. How long did you practice?”
“I think what Mickey is doing is wonderful.” His mother rose to his defense. “It’s not like he’s totally clueless around children. Why, he babysits your kids often enough.”
Mary gave a huff. “Watching the kids for an hour or two is not like raising them. And what about your job? You can’t simply take off for the next few months.”
“I can use the vacation time I’ve got coming, and I can afford to take off a few more weeks if I have to.”
“And when this baby comes home from the hospital? Who’s going to watch her when you go to work? You can’t expect Mom to take on the job at her age.”
“I’m not expecting any of you to take care of Beth. I’ll arrange for day care like the rest of the world does.”
“You don’t always have to be the hero, Mick,” Alice said quietly.
“I’m not trying to be a hero here.”
“Are you sure?” Mary asked. “First you follow in Dad’s footsteps in the same job that got him killed. And no offense, Mom, but then, Mick insists on moving you in with him after the accident. As great as that is, Mick, I think you’re putting your own life on hold. You were only eight when Dad died, but you were determined to be the man of the family.”
Mick rose from the table with the pretext of refilling his coffee cup. He’d become the man of the family because, with his dying breath, his father told him he had to.
“My life isn’t on hold, and Mom is welcome to stay here as long as she wants.”
“Because you promised Dad you’d always look after her,” Mary stated.
He whirled around, barely noticing the hot coffee that sloshed over his hand. “Leave Dad out of this!”
“Please, children, don’t fight,” Elizabeth pleaded.
Mick stuck his stinging knuckles under the tap and turned on the cold water. “Mom is here because we
decided it was the best solution. As for my work—I like being a firefighter. It’s my life, Mary. Just because I didn’t choose a nine-to-five job like your boring businessman husband doesn’t mean it’s a waste. Money isn’t everything.”
“As usual, I see you don’t intend to listen to anything I have to say. If you wanted my advice, you would have asked for it instead of telling me after the fact. Mother, I hope you can talk some sense into him.”
Biting back his retort, Mick turned around. “I’m sorry, Mary. I don’t want to argue. I do want your support in this.”
“And I can’t give it. A child needs a mother and a father. You’ve got no business trying to raise one by yourself.” She rose and headed out the back door, letting it slam behind her.
“You shouldn’t have said that about Rodger,” Elizabeth chided.
“Oh, pooh.” Alice waved her mother’s objection aside. “He
boring and Mary was the first one to notice.”
“No, Mom is right.” Mick dried his hands. “I let Mary get under my skin, and then I say something that makes her mad.”
“Mary was born mad,” Elizabeth added quietly.
Mick and Alice turned to stare at her in astonishment.
After glancing from one to the other, she straightened. “Well, it’s true. It’s the red hair.”
Mick laughed. “My hair’s red. Do you say that about me?”
Alice snorted. “Mom has never said an unkind word about you from the day you were born. Frankly, it irked me. Nobody’s that perfect.”
“Mom doesn’t know the half of it,” he retorted.
Elizabeth grinned at him. “Don’t be too sure about that.”
“No,” Alice said, “you, little brother, are too good for your own good.”
“Would you rather I lie, drink, steal and swear? That’s not a very Christian attitude.”
“What I’d like is to see you go a little wild once in a while. Skip church on Sunday. The place won’t fall down.”
“Alice!” Clearly appalled, Elizabeth gaped at her daughter. “Just because you don’t go to church on a regular basis is no reason to tempt Mickey to give it up.”
Rolling her eyes, Alice asked, “Are you tempted?” When he shook his head, she turned to her mother and spread her hands. “See? All I’m saying is that he needs to have a little fun in his life. He’s way too serious.”
She rose and crossed the room to stand in front of him. “If you’re determined to do this, fine. Just make sure you’re doing it because
want this, and not because you think this is what Dad would want you to do. Otherwise, much as I hate to say it, I’m with Mary on this.”
* * *
“Good news, Mick.” At the NICU the following morning, Sandra came across the room to greet him. “We pulled Beth’s chest tube today. She’s doing fine.”
“That is good news.”
“Would you like to hold her?” Sandra asked.
Joy leaped in his heart. “Of course I would.”
Then, just as quickly, his elation took a dive, tempered by a heavy dose of dread. “Are you sure it’s okay?”
Smiling, Sandra patted his arm. “I’ll be here to keep an eye on her. Have you heard of kangaroo care?”
He shook his head.
“It’s where we let parents hold their babies skin-to-skin. We’ll lay her on your bare chest and cover her with a blanket. Your body heat will keep her warm, and the sound of your heartbeat will soothe her. Want to try it?”
“Good. We’ll be able to do this once a day if she tolerates it, but moving her is rather complicated and that’s the stressful part. We ask that you hold her for at least an hour. Do you have that much time today?”
At the bedside, he saw Beth lying curled on her side with both hands tucked under her chin.
“Hey, sweet pea. I get to hold you today. Isn’t that great?”
Beth’s eyes fluttered at the sound of his voice, and she yawned. Chuckling, Sandra said, “I don’t think she’s suitably impressed with you.”
Sandra indicated a recliner beside the bed. “Okay, Mick, take your shirt off.”
He pulled his T-shirt off over his head. Feeling a bit self-conscious, he sat in the chair, still as a fire hydrant, while the nurses transferred Beth. The scary part came when they unhooked her from the vent. Alarms sounded until Sandra laid the baby on his chest, and reconnected her to the machine.
His large hand covered Beth’s entire back and held her still as she squirmed in her new environment. She was light as a feather against him. He could barely take in the rush of emotions that filled him. Sandra laid a warm blanket over the two of them, and Beth proceeded to make herself comfortable. She wiggled against his skin, her tiny fingers grasping handfuls of his chest hair.
She felt wonderful, amazing. So real and so precious. A tiny, warm body pressed against his heart. It was everything he had ever imagined it would be and more. He wanted to hold on to this marvelous moment forever. Did Beth hear his heartbeat? Did she draw comfort from the sound? Did she remember the sound of her mother’s beating heart?
An intense sadness settled over him, dulling his happiness.
He looked up at Sandra, hovering close by. “It should be her mother holding her for the first time.”
“At least she has you. Some children never know a loving touch their entire lives even when they have two parents.”
* * *
Caitlin opened her eyes to see sunshine streaming in through a wide window that framed a blue sky and fluffy white clouds. Her nose itched. She raised her hand to scratch it then stopped, startled. A padded board and a loop of clear tubing were taped to her hand. Swallowing painfully, she discovered a tube in her mouth.
Bits and pieces of a half-remembered dream danced at the edge of her mind. A deep voice telling her everything would be all right, the wailing of a siren, someone saying, “It’s a girl,” other voices saying, “blind and deaf.”
She tried but nothing settled into place, and her head began to pound. She moved a hand to her belly, seeking the lump that sometimes stirred and kicked. She found only flatness. Had she lost the baby? Cold fear settled in her chest.
The sound of a door opening came from behind her. A moment later, a young woman in a nurse’s uniform came around the bed. She stopped short, and her eyes widened in surprise as she met Caitlin’s gaze.
“Well, hello. It’s nice to see you awake. In fact, it’s quite a shock.” Taking a small light from her pocket, she leaned over the bed rail and shined it in Caitlin’s eyes, checking first one, then the other. Putting the light away she slipped her hand beneath Caitlin’s and said, “Squeeze my hand.”
Caitlin did, and the woman’s smile widened. Gingerly, Caitlin touched the tube in her mouth.
The nurse nodded. “You’re on a ventilator, that’s why you can’t talk. It’s been helping you breathe, but I don’t think you’ll need it much longer. I know you have a lot of questions. Let me get something for you to write on.”
Something to write on? No, that wouldn’t do. They’d find out how stupid she was. They’d laugh at her. They always did.
The nurse started to turn away, but Caitlin grabbed her. Fearfully, she patted her now flat stomach and waited with dread crawling inside her.
The woman smiled in understanding and grasped Caitlin’s hand. “Your baby is here in the hospital, and she’s being well taken care of, so don’t you worry. We have to concentrate on getting you well enough to go and see her. Okay?”
Caitlin relaxed in heartfelt relief. Her baby was here. She had a little girl, and she would be able to see her. Everything was fine. Just like the voice had promised.
The nurse returned followed by a short, bald man in a white coat. “Welcome back to the world, young woman,” the doctor said. “Do you remember what happened?”
Caitlin shook her head, ignoring the pen and paper the nurse laid on the bed.
“I’m not surprised. You’ve been in a coma. We’d just about given up hope that you’d wake up.” Like the nurse, he used a small light to check Caitlin’s eyes.
“Mick never gave up hope,” the nurse said. “He’s been in to see you nearly every day. You’re lucky to have a guy like that. Every minute he isn’t with you, he’s upstairs with your baby. He has the makings of a great dad.”
Caitlin frowned as she tried to make sense of the woman’s chatter, but the doctor drew her attention when he asked her to follow the movement of the light, then to move her hands and her feet. At last, he straightened. “I’m going to remove the tube in your throat. If you have any questions, go ahead and write them down.” He indicated the pad beside her.
Caitlin shook her head. Any questions she had could wait until she could speak for herself.
Caitlin winced as they peeled the tape off her face. When the doctor pulled out the tube, she choked and gasped for air. The nurse put a mask over her face. Quickly, her breathing became easier.
The doctor straightened, and stuffed his stethoscope in his pocket. “Your throat will be sore for a few days, and you’ll be hoarse. Let us know if you have any trouble breathing.”
“Thanks,” Caitlin managed to croak.
“Start her out on ice chips, then sips of clear liquids. Let me know how she does.”
“Yes, Doctor.” The nurse disappeared out the door.
He patted Caitlin’s shoulder. “You’re a very lucky woman.”
She didn’t feel lucky. She felt like a lab rat who’d tested a new poison and found it hadn’t quite killed her.
The nurse came back with a foam cup and offered Caitlin a plastic spoon full of ice. Taking it gratefully, she held the cold moistness in her dry mouth, letting it melt and spread to every corner before she chanced swallowing. It was as painful as she expected but the ice felt so wonderful on her dry tongue that she took a second spoonful eagerly.
“This is so exciting,” the nurse said. “I just phoned Mick. He’s on his way—he’ll be here shortly.”
Waiting until every bit of the marvelous ice had melted, Caitlin swallowed her second spoonful, grimacing at the discomfort. “Who’s Mick?” she managed to croak.
The woman’s eyes widened. “You don’t remember him?”
Caitlin shook her head, puzzled by the woman’s obvious surprise. Pointing to the ice, she asked, “Can I have more?”
The nurse gave her another spoonful. “Are you positive you don’t remember Mick O’Callaghan? Think carefully.”
“No. Who is he?”
“Your baby’s father.”
Caitlin choked on her piece of ice.
m telling you, I don’t know anybody by that name.” Caitlin tried to hide her exhaustion. Her throat burned from her efforts to talk. She knew her own name; she even knew who the president was, but she didn’t know anyone named Mick. So, why was some guy pretending to be her baby’s daddy?
The doctor jotted a note on her chart. “Amnesia isn’t unusual after a trauma such as you’ve experienced, but it’s usually limited to the time directly preceding the event. The fact that you can’t remember a specific person is somewhat worrisome.”
“No kidding,” she croaked.
“It’s best not to try and force your memory. You’ve been in a coma for ten days. For now, you need rest.”
“Ten days?” Caitlin stared at him, aghast. She’d been asleep for ten whole days? How was that even possible? Her daughter had been alone all this time. Who’d been taking care of her? She grabbed his arm. “I’ve got to see my baby.”
“I’m sorry, but you can’t get up yet. You’ve been very ill.” The doctor gently removed her hand.
“I want to see my daughter. Let me out of this thing.” She shook the bed rails.
“Your baby is being taken care of. If your vital signs remain stable, we’ll talk about letting you visit the NICU tomorrow.”
Caitlin stared at him. “What’s that?”
“NICU stands for neonatal intensive care unit.”
Blinding pain stabbed through Caitlin’s head. “Intensive care? What’s wrong with her?”
“Your baby is very premature. She needs special care to help her breathe and stay warm.”
“I’ve got to see her.” Again, she tried to sit up.
The doctor stopped her. “Not today.”
“Please?” She hated pleading.
“Perhaps tomorrow,” the nurse said.
Caitlin looked down and smoothed the sheet with her free hand, then leaned back and closed her eyes. She wasn’t strong enough to fight both of them. Let them think she’d given up. “Okay. I guess I am kind of tired.”
The doctor patted her shoulder. “I’m sure you are. Get some rest. Tomorrow will come soon enough.”
After a moment, she heard the door close, but the faint sound of movement told her the nurse had remained. She waited. Lying quietly in bed, sleep pulled at her, but she fought it. What if she didn’t wake up the next time she drifted off?
Long minutes stretched by until at last Caitlin heard the door open and close. She chanced a peek. The room was empty.
Studying the bed rails, she couldn’t find a way to lower them, so she scooted to the foot of the bed. Slipping out the end, she stood and clutched the footboard. The room spun and tumbled around her like clothes in a Laundromat dryer.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Startled, Caitlin looked up to see a tall man with auburn hair and a deep scowl on his face standing in the doorway. The movement cost her what little balance she had, and she pitched forward.
She would have hit the floor if he hadn’t been so quick. Instead, she felt herself swept up and cradled in arms that were as strong as they were gentle.
“Easy does it. You’re okay, I’ve got you.”
She kept her eyes closed to shut out the sight of the spinning room as the last of her strength drained away. She knew that voice. It haunted her dreams.
Mick stared at the pale slip of a woman in his arms. Her full lashes, tipped with burnished gold lay fanned against her high-boned cheeks. They fluttered for a moment, then lay still. An ugly, red mark left by the tape that had held her ventilator tubing marred her fair skin.
Sleeping Beauty was awake. He was glad for Caitlin’s recovery, but his dreams and plans for Beth had died a quick death when he got the phone call. Oh, he intended to remain a part of her life—a big part. But just how much depended on the woman he held.
Caitlin stirred in his arms, and he noticed the thinness of her body beneath his hands. She felt delicate and fragile. During the past week and a half, she had lost weight she didn’t have to spare. The thought roused feelings of pity. How had someone so small and exquisite survived in the harsh, violent world of Chicago’s slums?
And how could she take care of Beth in that same brutal environment? The thought of what might happen to them sent chills down his spine. He’d seen enough worst-case scenarios to know the odds were stacked against them.
Caitlin gathered her strength as she rested for a moment with her cheek pressed against the crisp material of the man’s shirt. It held a clean, fresh smell, but beneath that scent was a deeper more disturbing one—a masculine essence.
“Next time wait until someone is here to help before you get up.” Deep, mellow and scolding, the voice from her dreams rumbled up from the chest beneath her ear. She chanced opening her eyes. The face above her was handsome except for the frown etched between his deep blue eyes. Handsome and vaguely familiar. She stared at him feeling both puzzled and disturbed.
“Mick, what on earth happened?” The surprised question came from the nurse who hurried into the room. “Is she hurt?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Let’s get her back into bed. What was she trying to do?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.”
Caitlin’s dizziness eased, but her pounding headache didn’t. Still, she kept her gaze fastened on the face of the man who laid her gently on the bed. So this was Mick, the guy claiming to be her baby’s father. There was something familiar about him—but she couldn’t put her finger on it.
The nurse checked Caitlin’s IV, then wrapped a blood pressure cuff around her other arm. “I had hoped that seeing you might jar her memory.”
“Stop talking about me like I’m not here.” Caitlin eyed the man beside the bed. He rubbed his hands on the sides of his jeans then thrust them into his front pockets and avoided looking at her. Why was he saying he was her baby’s father? What did he want?
The nurse seemed satisfied with Caitlin’s blood pressure. She folded the cuff and tucked it in its holder above the bed.
“Betty, could I talk to Caitlin alone?” Mick asked.
“Of course. I’ll be right outside if you need me.” The nurse flashed him a sympathetic smile, patted his arm and left.
So he was on a first-name basis with the nurses. The knowledge made Caitlin uneasy. What was his angle? She waited until the door closed. Arching one eyebrow, she said, “Okay, Mick—jar me.”
He pulled a chair up and sat beside the bed. Clasping his hands together, he stared at them for a long second, then met her gaze. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
She tried to concentrate, but her headache pounded away inside her skull. Trying to remember only made it worse. She struggled to keep her face bland. It never paid to let others see your weakness. “I remember thinking I was in labor.”
“You called out and Eddy came.”
“That’s right,” she admitted slowly. “He said he’d get help, but I had my doubts.”
A small grin lifted the corner of his lips. “I guess we both underestimated him.”
It was his smile that triggered her memory. Oh, yes, she knew him now. She had sketched him once, tried to capture his powerful body and his gentle manner that was so at odds with his size. She had caught that unique quality with limited success. Maybe because gentleness was something she knew little about. “I’ve seen you at one of the shelters.”
“I try to get over to Mercy House once or twice a week.”
“Eddy brought you to my room, and you stayed with me until the ambulance got there. You came with me. The siren was so loud. What happened after that?”
“You had your baby in the emergency room.”
“I don’t remember,” she whispered.
“You told me to go with her when they took her to the nursery, and I did. Apparently, before you passed out, you told them I was the baby’s father.”
Caitlin resisted the urge to believe him. “Why would I do that?”
“The doctor said that women who have an embolus like you did—they know something is wrong. If you thought you were dying, maybe you didn’t have anyone else who could take care of her.”
He was telling the truth. Somehow she knew it, but she couldn’t remember. What kind of mother forgets the birth of her own child?
No! She couldn’t think like that. She was going to be a good mother. Sitting up, she ignored the pain and dizziness that came back as she swung her legs over the edge of the bed. “I have to see her.”
“Whoa!” He grasped her shoulders. “You almost wound up on the floor the last time you tried this.”
She struck his arm away. “Get your hands off me.”
“Hey, I’m trying to help. Do you
to fall on your face?” His voice rose in response to hers.
“What I want is for you to get away from me,” she shouted.
The door opened and the nurse entered, followed closely by the doctor who had examined Caitlin earlier.
“Oh, no you don’t,” the nurse chided. She quickly slipped her arms under Caitlin’s legs, lifted them back onto the bed and pulled up the rail, killing Caitlin’s hopes.
Angry and frustrated by her own helplessness, Caitlin shook the bed rails again. “Put this thing down! You can’t keep me away from my baby!”
The doctor spoke up. “Ms. Williams, you must calm down.”
Mick listened to the outburst that followed in stunned disbelief. Sleeping Beauty was awake, but this was no princess. And she wasn’t behaving the way he had imagined Beth’s mother would act. He should have known better. The woman had spent her life on the streets. Why had he expected something different?
The doctor grabbed Caitlin’s swinging arms and held them still. “Nurse, give her ten milligrams of Valium IV,
“No!” Caitlin’s voice rose to a shriek. The fight drained out of her. “No drugs. Please—I’ll be good. I will. Only, no drugs,” she pleaded.
Her gaze fastened on Mick. Those wide, beautiful, tawny-gold eyes begged for his help again, he knew it without her saying a word. How did she do it? When her defenses were up, he couldn’t read a thing in her eyes, but now they spoke volumes, like the time he’d found her in labor.
Mick laid a hand on the doctor’s shoulder. “Sedating her won’t be necessary.”
Releasing his grip on her now limp hands, the doctor straightened. Caitlin remained quiet. Staring at Mick, she nodded slightly then closed her eyes in defeat.
“Outbursts like this can’t be tolerated,” the doctor began.
Mick spoke up. “Don’t worry, it won’t happen again. Will it, Caitlin?”
Her eyes snapped open and for a moment, defiance glared out at him, but it quickly disappeared. “No, it won’t happen again,” she answered meekly.
What a chameleon she was. He almost laughed. Instead, he said, “Ms. Williams is obviously distraught over her desire to see her daughter. I’m sure she would rest better if she could see her baby, even for a few minutes. I could take her.”
Rubbing his arm where Caitlin had landed a blow, the doctor considered the request. “I’m not insensitive to her concern, and she certainly appears stronger than I expected. I’ll have one of the nurses accompany you. But just for a brief visit, then she comes directly back here.”
“Understood,” Mick agreed. Caitlin remained silent. Did she have enough strength to tolerate the trip? Perhaps it wasn’t wise to risk taking her to the NICU.
Suddenly, her hand shot out and gripped the doctor’s arm. “Thank you,” she whispered hoarsely. Her eyes brimmed with unshed tears as her gaze fastened on his face.
The doctor patted her hand. “You win this round, but don’t expect to win every one. I pack a mean left hook, myself.”
A slight smile trembled on her lips as she nodded.
With Betty’s help, Mick swaddled Caitlin in a blanket and carefully lifted her into a wheelchair, then with the two of them managing the IV pole and pumps, they made the trip down the hall to the elevators. He watched with renewed concern as Caitlin slumped lower in the chair when the elevator door closed. He touched her shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Caitlin battled the nausea threatening to overwhelm her as the elevator rose, but she straightened at Mick’s touch and managed to answer, “Sure.”
If she admitted to anything different, showed any sign of weakness, she knew he’d take her back to her room, and she wouldn’t see her baby. Her head alternated between piercing pain and reeling dizziness. If she had tried to walk she never would have made it.
He rattled on about the NICU, but she couldn’t listen. It was all she could do to keep from falling out of the wheelchair.
The bell chimed for their floor and the doors parted. “This is it,” Mick announced.
Anticipation lent Caitlin added strength. Her baby was here.
Mick maneuvered her through a set of wide doors. A young couple stood washing their hands at a large sink. Mick waited until they were finished, then he pushed Caitlin up to the sink. He patted a sign on the wall beside her.
“The directions for working the sinks and for washing your hands are right here. You have to do this every time you visit. I’ll let them know you’re here.” He stepped over to a sliding glass window and spoke with a woman seated at a desk behind it.
Caitlin stared at the gibberish on the wall. Now what? She searched for a way around her problem. There was always a way. Leaning back, she turned her friendliest smile on the nurse waiting beside her and held out her arm with its IV board. “I can’t get this wet, can I?”
“It says to use the germicidal foam. Let me help you.”
“Thanks.” Caitlin waited while the woman applied a white foam that looked like whipping cream and smelled like alcohol.
Mick came back at that moment. “Let me get scrubbed, then we can go in.”
Caitlin watched closely. She could remember how to do just about anything if she saw it done once. He pulled a small package from a holder on the wall. Opening it, he used a funny little stick to clean under his nails, then he scrubbed up to his elbows with a brush. He kept glancing at a clock over the sink. After three minutes, he rinsed and dried off with paper towels. She could remember that.
Betty held the door open as Mick pushed Caitlin through and said, “I’ll wait downstairs until you’re done. Give me a call when she’s ready to come back.”
He agreed then maneuvered Caitlin’s wheelchair into a large room, and her heart began to race. At last, she was going to see her baby. But in the room lined with babies in beds and incubators, Caitlin suddenly realized she didn’t know which baby was hers.