Authors: Patricia Davids
Tags: #Fiction, #Religious, #Romance, #General
“Your secret is safe with me.”
“It had better be. And speaking of secrets, tell me more about this woman. I didn’t know you were dating anyone.”
“We were never exactly together.” He shook his head. “It’s a long story.”
“In other words, it’s none of my business.”
“It’s not that.” Taking a deep breath, Mick said, “It’s that she’s decided she doesn’t want me involved. She doesn’t want my help. Have you ever met a woman who makes you feel like you don’t know which side is up?”
“Often. It’s what they do.”
Mick grinned. “No, this is something more. I really care about this woman, but I can’t figure her out.”
“No one can figure out women.”
“You’re being a big help.”
“Mick, you can’t make her let you into her life unless you take her to court and get a custody agreement to share the kid. How many of those relationships turn out friendly? Either she’s still interested in you or she isn’t. Decide how far you’re willing to go before you’re in over your head.”
Wasn’t he already in over his head? Mick crossed his arms and leaned back against his locker. “I know I can’t risk driving Caitlin away and losing Beth, too.”
* * *
It was a little after one o’clock in the morning, and Caitlin had been in her new room for nearly two days before she faced the fact that she couldn’t make herself stay away from Beth any longer. Gathering her courage, she walked down the hall to the NICU.
Her legs felt like rubber, but she forced herself to go on. How long would this weakness plague her? Out on the streets, weakness made a person an easy target. She’d learned the hard way that she had to look strong even if she wasn’t.
She scrubbed her hands and arms as she had seen Mick do, then showed her ID band to the unit clerk. The woman opened the door and Caitlin walked into the nursery. A gray-haired nurse came up to her with a bright smile and asked, “Can I help you?”
“I’m Caitlin Williams. I’d like to see my daughter.”
“Ah, you’re little Beth’s mother. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Phyllis, and I’m her nurse tonight. She’s doing very well.”
The nurse led the way to Beth’s bedside. Once there, she lowered the Plexiglas panel and pulled up a chair so Caitlin could sit down. Beth lay on her side in a U-shaped roll that kept her arms and legs tucked close to her body.
“Has anyone explained our equipment to you?” Phyllis asked.
Caitlin shook her head. She still couldn’t get over how small and how totally helpless her baby looked.
“Okay, I’ll explain it all, but you only need to remember one thing.”
Caitlin’s gaze flew to the nurse’s face. “What’s that?”
The woman smiled warmly. “All of this equipment belongs to the hospital, but Beth belongs to you. Our job is to take care of her until she’s ready to go home, but we can’t replace you. Your job is to love her.”
Caitlin bit her lip and nodded. It sounded so simple.
The nurse patted her arm. “Good. This machine is a ventilator, and it’s helping her breathe. You and I breathe twenty-one percent oxygen in the air around us. Beth is getting thirty-two percent oxygen. The monitors tell us her heart rate, how fast she’s breathing, and how well she’s using the oxygen we’re giving her. It will also tell us if she needs more.”
She indicated the small clear tubes taped to the baby’s stomach. “These are her IV lines. One is in an artery in her umbilical cord and the other one goes into a vein.”
“The first time I was here, I pulled one of them out,” Caitlin admitted.
“Yes, I know.” The nurse laid a hand on Caitlin’s shoulder. “It was a very unfortunate accident. In the twenty years I’ve been working in this NICU, it’s only happened a few times.”
Surprised, Caitlin glanced up. “You mean someone else did it, too?”
“Yes, and they were just as scared as you were. I know things seem overwhelming, but try not to focus on the equipment. Focus on your baby. Talk to her. She’s heard your voice all these months, and she’ll know it now. She knows your smell and your touch. Really, she does. Babies are amazing people. Now, I’ll leave you two alone.” The nurse started to move away.
“Can’t you stay?” Caitlin called after her, frightened at the idea of being left alone with her baby.
“I have other babies to take care of. I’ll be right over here.” She indicated an incubator down the aisle. “Just sing out if you need something.”
Caitlin nodded, but couldn’t quell her sense of fear. She stared at her baby. Now what?
aitlin stared at her daughter. Talk to her about what? Beth stretched in her sleep and stuck one foot in the air. Carefully, Caitlin reached for it. Five tiny toes spread wide apart then curled tight as she touched them. Leaning closer, Caitlin saw the baby’s second toe was longer than her big one.
She’s got my feet!
“Beth with the funny toes is mine,” Caitlin whispered.
A sudden flood of emotion took her breath away. It tightened her chest until she could barely breathe. Her baby’s foot was warm and real in her hand. For the first time, she felt connected to her child. The rolling, kicking, belly-heaving lump had turned into a person with feet like her mother’s.
A profound sense of wonder grew into a joy unlike anything she had ever experienced. Suddenly, she had to know everything about her child. She studied Beth’s thin legs and knobby knees. She had Vinnie’s knees.
“Well, if you had to get something of your dad, his knees aren’t such a bad thing.”
Pity for Vinnie skirted the edge of Caitlin’s happiness. How could something so wonderful have come from something so wrong?
The baby stirred and captured Caitlin’s attention once more. The diaper, small as it was, almost swallowed her. Her arms were as lanky as her legs. And was that hair on her back? It was! Fine, downy hair covered the baby’s shoulders.
“You look like a cross between a monkey and a frog, you poor little thing.”
The tape that held the ventilator tubing in place hid part of the baby’s face, but Caitlin intently studied the rest. She saw a small pointed chin and flyaway eyebrows, and wrinkles on a wide forehead. Her soft cap of hair held a hint of red just as Mick had said.
Sitting motionless, gently clutching her daughter’s foot, Caitlin’s gaze poured over every inch of her baby. Wonder, fear and a deep happiness stirred inside her. This was her daughter—her child for a lifetime. The knowledge made her want to shout with joy. For the first time in years, she felt maybe God was on her side after all.
If You’re listening, God, thanks for saving my baby.
Her elation faded and doubts pressed in. How would she take care of such a small and frail person? Would she repeat the mistakes that Dotty, her own mother, had made?
Dotty hadn’t been able to care for herself, let alone a child. Caitlin lost count of the times her mother tried to get straight. Each and every time, Caitlin hoped and prayed and promised God anything if only He would help her mother stay off drugs. Each and every time her mother failed, Caitlin knew it had somehow been her fault. She hadn’t been good enough. She wasn’t smart enough, or quiet enough, or neat enough.
After she had been taken away from her mother, she went through a string of foster homes. There were a few bad homes, but there had been more good ones—ones with people who cared about her, and whom she cared about in return. The best one had been the Martin family. She lived with them for almost the whole year when she was eight.
The Martin family took her in and treated her like she was somebody special. They went to church and took Caitlin with them. They prayed together and they talked about loving each other and loving God. Caitlin found it odd at first, but after a while it began to comfort her, knowing that God was looking out for folks.
But in the end He didn’t let her stay with the Martins, either. No matter how hard she prayed, she was still sent away. Once more she went back to Dotty during one of her sober, repentant spells. If God heard any of Caitlin’s prayers after that, He didn’t show it.
Dotty claimed to want and love Caitlin, and maybe she did, until life became too difficult, until her cravings for drugs pushed aside her need to be a mother. Then Caitlin was neglected and forgotten again.
It wasn’t long before Caitlin understood that her mother was never getting straight, and she knew that God didn’t care.
So, Caitlin stopped caring about being good, or neat or smart. Surviving became her goal. She never allowed herself to depend on anyone ever again. Not until Vinnie had she let another person get close. And what a fool she had been over him.
Oh, he was good—she gave him credit for that. He was as smooth a liar as she had ever met, and she had met some great ones. He’d studied her and found a weakness she hadn’t even known she possessed. He made her feel needed.
He had pursued her with a single-mindedness she mistook for love, but she refused to follow in her mother’s footsteps. She insisted on getting married. To her surprise, Vinnie agreed. Things were good at first, but it wasn’t long before he started to stray.
Afterward, he made a great show of being sorry and begging her to forgive him. The sad part was that she did. She believed him when he said he was paying the rent and putting the meager paycheck she earned into a savings account. She signed them over to him every Friday evening without hesitation.
Then, one Friday night, it wasn’t enough. That night Vinnie robbed the diner where she washed dishes and he died in a car chase with the police.
Now, she didn’t have money or a place to live. She didn’t have a job or much hope of finding one, but she had a baby.
A beautiful, baby girl. She had someone to love and cherish—someone who would love her in return. She touched Beth’s cheek with her fingertips. The baby opened her eyes and blinked. Caitlin smiled and leaned toward her.
“Hello, Beth,” she said softly. “We haven’t really met, yet. I’m your mother.”
Phyllis stopped by again. “Would you like to hold her?”
“Could I?” Excitement sent Caitlin’s pulse racing. “I’ll be real careful.”
“I know you will. Let me get someone else to help.”
“What do I do?”
“Just relax and enjoy her.”
Caitlin tried, but she was so nervous her hands shook as two nurses transferred the baby from the bed and laid her on Caitlin’s chest. At the feel of her baby’s small, warm body next to hers, Caitlin’s heart expanded with a wealth of emotion so overwhelming it stunned her. She laid her cheek against Beth’s head and longed to curl around her, to draw her even closer and hold her so tight that nothing could ever hurt her again.
Caitlin’s whole world narrowed to the child she held. Her very own wonderful, wonderful child.
She had no idea how long she held Beth. It wasn’t until the nurse came back and asked her if she was tired that Caitlin realized she was.
“A little,” she admitted after glancing at the clock and seeing it was almost five in the morning. She was tired, but content for the first time in a long, long while.
They moved Beth back to the open unit and Caitlin’s sense of helplessness returned. She could hold her child, but Beth needed nurses and machines. Caitlin rose stiffly from the rocker.
“Let me call your nurse and have her take you back to your room,” Phyllis offered.
“No, I can manage.”
“Are you sure?”
Caitlin nodded. She had to regain her strength, and she couldn’t do it by letting others take care of her.
“All right.” Phyllis turned away, then paused and looked back at Caitlin. “I meant to ask you earlier if you were planning to nurse her?”
Caitlin frowned. “I wanted to, but I can’t now, can I?”
The nurse’s smile was indulgent. “Of course you can. I’ll get you a pump and show you how to use it. You’ll need to start pumping every three to four hours. If you do that, your milk should come in again. It’ll take a while, and you’ll have to be faithful about pumping, but when Beth is ready to start feedings, you should have something to give her. We’ll store what you pump in our freezer. That way, we can have milk for her even when you can’t be here.
“Mother’s milk is the best thing for her. It’s easiest for her to digest, and it has antibodies that will help her fight off infections. She’ll have to be a lot bigger and off the ventilator before she can actually try to nurse, but she’ll get there.”
Suddenly, Caitlin’s feelings of helplessness eased as she realized this was something that no one else could do for her child—not Mick, not the nurses, no one. Mother’s milk was best and it was something only she could provide. Elation filled her. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”
“Good. I’ll get you a kit.”
The nurse left, and Caitlin smiled as she tucked Beth’s foot back inside the roll. A small arm shot up and waved in the air in response. Caitlin grasped the hand and felt tiny fingers clutch hers in return. Waves of warmth flooded Caitlin’s heart. Her baby did need her, and somehow, she would find a way to take care of them both.
* * *
Mick left the firehouse as soon as his shift was over and drove straight to the hospital. Fortunately, it had been a quiet shift, and he’d managed to get a few hours of sleep. Now he had forty-eight hours until he had to be back on duty and he planned to spend a lot of that with Beth, and hopefully Caitlin.
At the NICU, he was pleased to see that Beth had Sandra as a nurse again. It made him feel like he had a friend taking care of Beth.
“How’s she doing?” he asked, pulling a stool close to the bedside.
“Hey, Irish. We’ve missed you around here.”
“I had to go back to work.”
“I understand. Beth is doing well. She even gained a little weight. About a quarter of an ounce.”
“How did Caitlin do?”
Sandra’s smile faded. She turned away and began to straighten some papers on the bedside stand. “Ms. Williams didn’t come in when I was here yesterday.”
Mick frowned. “She didn’t? I was told she was moved to the maternity floor. Isn’t that just down the hall from here?”
“Yes, it is.”
“And Caitlin didn’t visit at all? Maybe she isn’t feeling well. I should go check on her.”
“I heard in report that she’s being released the day after tomorrow.”
Sandra eyed him intently. “You didn’t know? I assumed she was going home with you.”
Mick avoided her gaze. He didn’t want to get into a lengthy explanation. “Caitlin and I aren’t together.”
“I’m relieved to hear it.”
“You don’t seem like the kind of guy who’d put up with a person like her.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“She’s been pretty rude to some of the staff.”
“I know she’s got a mouth on her.”
“Well, her nurses offered to bring her in several times, but she flatly refused to come. Apparently, she was none too nice about it.”
“She refused to see Beth? In the ICU we had to all but tie her to the bed to keep her from coming here.”
“We have to be concerned when a mother shows signs of detachment from her infant. If Ms. Williams doesn’t begin to visit regularly, we’ll have to inform our social worker.”
“I don’t know what to say.” Mick cupped his hands carefully around Beth’s body. She squirmed a little, then lay still. She was so adorable. He knew he’d never tire of watching her.
Sandra covered Mick’s hands with her own. “Beth is such a little darling. It’s good to know that she has at least one attentive parent. I’ve seen a lot of fathers go through here, but I’ve rarely seen one as loving and as devoted as you.”
“My—don’t you two look cozy.”
Mick’s head snapped around. Caitlin stood a few feet away watching them with narrowed eyes. If anything, she looked even paler than the last time he’d seen her. Dark circles under her eyes made her face look pinched and worn.
Sandra removed her hands from Mick’s. “Good morning, Ms. Williams. It’s nice to see you.”
Mick stood and offered Caitlin the stool. “I just came in to say good morning to Beth, and Sandra was kind enough to update me on her condition.”
“How sweet. Maybe she’d like to update me, too.”
“Of course.” Sandra’s smile was cool. “Beth gained a small amount of weight, about a quarter of an ounce, and her oxygen is at twenty-seven percent.”
Caitlin sat down and gently took one of Beth’s hands in her own. “That’s less than when I was in earlier.”
Puzzled, Mick glanced from Sandra to Caitlin and back. “Sandra, I thought you said Caitlin hadn’t been in?”
“I guess I was mistaken.”
Caitlin gave her a pointed look. “I guess you were.”
“I didn’t see you yesterday or the day before, and I wasn’t told in report that you’d been in.” With that, she left the bedside.
Caitlin watched her go. “That woman doesn’t like me.”
“But she’s very good with Beth.”
“I guess that’s what matters, isn’t it?”
The scent of Mick’s crisp aftershave soothed Caitlin’s headache. Everything about him was soothing. His voice, how he cared for Beth. She had to remind herself that he wasn’t for the likes of her. He’d be interested in smart women, someone like Sandra. Not someone too stupid to read.
She should concentrate on Beth, not her feelings for Mick. Her baby was the one who was important. They had missed too much time together already. He was a distraction she couldn’t afford. It would be better if he left before she found herself hoping for something more from him.
She said, “Thanks for stopping by, but don’t let us keep you.”
Mick shifted from one foot to the other beside the bed. Caitlin gave him a dismissive glance. “What?”
“There are some things we need to talk about.”
With an exasperated sigh, Caitlin swung around on the stool to face him. The sudden movement sent dizziness sweeping through her, but she managed to stay upright with a tight grip on the bed.
“Mick, thanks for getting me to the hospital and for watching over the baby while I was out of it, but I’m fine now. You can go. You’ve done your job like a good little Boy Scout.”
He glanced around the unit, then leaned close to her. “It isn’t that simple.”
She leaned away from him, away from the desire to rest her aching head against his strong chest the way she had when he held her in his arms. “It is that simple. I’m her mother. You’re just some guy who happened by. Thanks for the help, but we’ll be fine on our own now. I think it would be best if you didn’t come around anymore.”
For a lot of reasons that she couldn’t say aloud. She didn’t want to feel this longing that possessed her whenever he was near. She didn’t want to hear the voice that wove its way through her dreams with whispered words of reassurance and caring and made her believe that everything would be okay.