Authors: Patricia Davids
Tags: #Fiction, #Religious, #Romance, #General
He wasn’t part of her life. He donated a few hours of his time each week to play with the kids at the homeless shelter—he didn’t live there. He didn’t belong to the world that Caitlin struggled to survive in. He was a fantasy, a fairy tale, a glimpse of the kind of life she could only dream about.
Sandra came back to the bedside with a new bag of IV fluids and began to change the old one. Caitlin addressed her. “Is it true that only a parent can decide who’s allowed to visit a baby in here?”
“Yes, that’s true,” Sandra answered.
Caitlin indicated Mick with a jerk of her head. “I don’t want him in here anymore.”
Obviously puzzled, Sandra glanced from one to the other.
“Caitlin, please,” Mick pleaded. “Let’s talk about this in private.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
Sandra laid down the bag and tubing. “I can’t keep Mick from seeing Beth. A father has the same legal rights that a mother does, whether they are married or not.”
“He’s not her father.”
“I was told—”
“I don’t care what you were told.” Caitlin’s headache mushroomed and her dizziness worsened. She saw Mick’s eyes narrow as he stared at her. She couldn’t let him see how weak she was. She summoned up the strength to glare at him and keep her voice level. “I’m telling you he’s not her father.”
“Sandra, can you excuse us?” Mick spoke quietly, his gaze never wavering from Caitlin’s face.
“I’m afraid not. I’m going to have to ask you to take this outside the unit. The relationship between you two is not my concern, but Beth’s welfare is. Babies are very susceptible to our emotions, and I won’t allow you to upset my patient.”
Glancing at the woman’s set face, Caitlin felt a grudging measure of respect for her. “Fine. Whatever.”
Caitlin stood, and Mick’s hand quickly closed around her elbow to help steady her. For a moment, a surge of something she couldn’t define raced through her blood at the warmth of his touch. If only she could lean on him.
Don’t do it. He’ll just let you down when you don’t expect it.
Hadn’t she learned anything? No one was going to take care of Caitlin, except Caitlin. She twisted away from him, and keeping her back straight, she walked out of the unit and down the hall to her room. Once inside, she sank gratefully onto the side of her bed. The simple walk had left her exhausted.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she lied. “I don’t know why you’re still hanging around. What part of
don’t you get?”
“I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“Save your pity for the kids at the shelter. Beth and I are going to be fine on our own.” She was so tired. If only he would go. She didn’t want to say things that would hurt him.
Mick shoved his hands into his pockets and turned away, but he didn’t leave. He crossed the room to stare out the window. Something was eating at him, she could tell by the tense set of his shoulders. After a moment, he turned to face her.
“It isn’t pity that I feel for Beth. I’ve grown to love her. The kind of love a father has for his child. I don’t know how else to tell you this except to say it flat out. When Beth needed surgery and it looked like you weren’t going to recover, I signed paternity papers. Beth is legally my daughter.”
aitlin shot to her feet, anger lending her a surge of strength. “You can’t take her away! She’s mine! She’s my baby!”
“Calm down.” Mick seemed unfazed by her outburst.
“Don’t tell me to calm down!”
“Yelling isn’t going to help anything. Let me explain.”
“Oh, I already know what’s going down. You’re trying to steal Beth from me.”
He regarded her with a steady gaze. “I’m not trying to steal anything. I’m trying to do what’s best for her.”
what’s best for her,” Caitlin shouted, advancing toward him. “
her mother, and
can take care of her.”
His quiet question drove the fight out of Caitlin and left her reeling. She backed away until her trembling legs touched the bed. She sank onto the edge of the mattress.
She didn’t know how. Looking down, she saw her hands were shaking. She clutched them together until her knuckles grew white in an attempt to hold them still.
“By the time Beth leaves this hospital her bill will be close to two hundred thousand dollars. Do you have it stuffed in a sock somewhere, because I didn’t find it in your purse or your boxes?”
He’d looked through her things, through her sketches and her few pitiful possessions. She felt sick inside. “You had no right to do that.”
“I was trying to locate some family or friends.”
“I told you, there isn’t anyone. I’m all she has. I’m all she needs.”
“Caitlin, no one should have to live the way you were living. I want to help. I’ve put Beth on my insurance. Her care here will be covered, all but a few thousand dollars. I’ll take care of that.”
“I don’t want your money.”
“It’s not for you, it’s for Beth.”
Caitlin stared at him a long time without speaking. He met her gaze without flinching. Was he sincere? People she trusted had fooled her in the past. She watched his face closely. “What are you getting out of this?”
“I get to know that Beth isn’t going to be destitute, that she isn’t going to be living in a shelter, or a slum, or worse.”
“I don’t need your help.” Her defiance was an act she prayed he couldn’t see through.
“That’s not the way I see it.” He leaned a hip against the windowsill and folded his arms. “According to her doctor, Beth will be here for at least another two months. If, by the time she’s ready to be discharged, you have a job and a decent place to live, I won’t do anything except provide support payments. I’d like to think we can work out a schedule for visitation.”
And if she didn’t have those things? Fear, cold and deadly, crawled over Caitlin. Her stomach clenched in a painful spasm, and bile rose to the back of her throat. He couldn’t take her baby from her, could he?
“You aren’t her father. There’s some kind of test that’ll prove it.”
“You mean a paternity test? One can’t be done without my consent. I’ve signed a legal paternity paper. I can even produce witnesses from the E.R. who’ll swear that
said I’m her father.”
“I’ll say I lied.”
Mick watched with concern as the color drained from her face. He was going about this all wrong, but the woman knew how to push his buttons. She couldn’t take care of Beth without help. He had to make her understand that.
“Social services won’t let you take a baby back to the squalor you were living in. I can provide everything she needs.”
“I see you’ve thought this through.” She managed to hold her head up, and he admired her control, but she couldn’t stop the quiver in her lower lip.
“I’m serious about seeing that Beth is well taken care of. I love her like she was my own child.”
“And this is how you show it? By threatening to take her from her mother?”
“I’m not threatening you. I want to give Beth a decent life. She would have died if she had been born out there. You barely survived. Is that what you want for her?”
“No.” She pressed a hand to her trembling lips.
Suddenly she wavered, and he crossed the room in three long strides to reach out and steady her. He’d been too hard on her. He should have found an easier way to make her see that she had to accept his help. “Are you okay?”
“I’m going to be sick.” She bent forward.
Mick held on to her, preventing her from tumbling off the bed. Bracing her against his side, he reached for the call light. “Easy,” he coaxed. “I’ll get you some help.”
When her spasms passed, he helped her sit up and lie back in bed. Her face resembled white marble with pale blue veins the only color in it. He was ready to rush out into the hall and grab the first nurse he saw when Caitlin’s eyes fluttered open.
Slowly, she focused on his face. “I messed up your shoes.”
“I think maybe I deserved it.”
“You did.” She closed her eyes again.
“I’m sorry I upset you. We can talk about this later.”
Her eyes snapped open, and her gaze bored into his. “There’s nothing to talk about. She’s my child, not yours.”
The intercom on the wall over the bed clicked on. Someone said, “May I help you?”
“Yes,” he answered. “Miss Williams has just been sick. Could you send a nurse in?”
“Someone will be right there” came the clipped reply.
Caitlin turned her face away from him. Stubborn, irrational, pathetic—every word fit the pale young woman in front of him, but the image that stuck in his mind was that of a wounded lioness snarling in defense of her cub. Maybe it was the color of her eyes or the fierce determination beneath her words. Whatever it was, he knew he would have a fight on his hands unless he could convince her to accept his help.
He waited in awkward silence for the promised help and breathed a sigh of relief when a nurse finally entered the room. He stepped back from the bed. “I’ll wait outside.”
Caitlin made no comment, and he left the room with the sinking feeling that he had failed miserably at presenting his case. Instead, he was afraid he had left exactly the opposite impression.
After locating a public restroom, he cleaned his shoes as best he could then returned to wait outside Caitlin’s door. It opened at last, and the nurse came out. He moved to pass her, but her arm shot out blocking his way.
“I’m sorry. Ms. Williams has requested that you not be allowed back in.”
Caitlin obviously wasn’t willing to listen to reason.
“All right, I’ll leave,” he told the waiting nurse. “Do you have something I can write a note on?” He took her pen and notepad and wrote out exactly what he intended to do. He offered to help Caitlin find a job and a place to stay. His only aim was to help her get back on her feet.
Caitlin listened to the muffled voices outside her door. If only he would go away. She never wanted to see his face again. In the dark interior of the crumbling building where she had labored in pain, Mick had appeared like a movie hero. His voice had been soothing and calm, his hands had been strong and gentle. She had dared to trust him because there hadn’t been anyone else. Now, he could take away the only good thing that had ever come into her life. An overwhelming sense of betrayal brought a fresh rush of tears to her eyes.
Dashing them away with both hands she vowed they would be the last ones she ever shed over Mick O’Callaghan. She had to be strong now—strong enough to keep her baby. When the time came, she and Beth would disappear before Mick could stop them. The first thing she had to do was to get out of this hospital.
The door opened, and the nurse came back into the room. “Has he gone?” Caitlin asked.
“Yes. He wanted you to have this.” She held out a note.
After a second of hesitation, Caitlin took it. Opening the folded piece of paper, she stared at the dark, bold lines marching across the page and desperately wished they made sense to her the way they made sense to everyone else. Crumpling the message, she tossed it toward the trash can. It didn’t matter what he had to say. She wouldn’t let him or anyone else take her baby. Ever!
Caitlin waited, but the anger she hoped would burn away the memory of Mick’s deep, soothing voice didn’t materialize. The ache of his betrayal remained, but she couldn’t hate him.
Beneath the pain caused by his words, she saw the truth in what he said. He only wanted what was best for Beth. Maybe she couldn’t take care of her baby.
No, she wouldn’t accept that. Flinging aside the covers, she forced her weary body out of bed. “I’m going to the nursery.”
The nurse moved to help. “Are you sure you want to get up?”
The room swam around Caitlin, and she clutched the side of the bed to steady herself. “I’m fine. Really.”
She even managed a smile. She couldn’t allow anyone to see how sick she was. She had to get dismissed from this place.
“Excuse me, but are you Ms. Williams?”
Caitlin turned to find a man in an ill-fitting suit standing in the doorway.
“I’m Caitlin Williams,” she answered.
The man seemed distracted as he searched through papers in the folder he held. His face brightened when he located what he was looking for. “I’m Lloyd Winston, the social worker for this unit.”
On a scale of one to ten, that statement dropped the man to a quick zero in her books. Had Mick already set the ball in motion to get custody of Beth? She tried to hide her sudden fear.
He closed the file and smiled at Caitlin. “I see here in your doctor’s note that he plans to dismiss you tomorrow. I understand that you are currently without a place to live. Tell me, where do you plan to go once you’re discharged?”
“Out of here.”
“That’s your only plan? Well, perhaps I can help. Let me see what shelters have openings.”
* * *
Mick maneuvered his SUV through the Saturday afternoon traffic with less than his usual care. He was furious.
Lord, help me. I know I shouldn’t pass judgment on Caitlin, but she is deliberately making things harder.
She had been dismissed from the hospital, and the only information he could get was that she had gone to a shelter. Apparently, she’d asked Winston not to disclose which one.
Cutting sharply in front of another car, Mick ignored the irate honking behind him and took the off-ramp. Ten minutes later he pulled up in front of his home.
His mother and Naomi stood at the curb pulling shopping bags from the trunk of a gray sedan. The women smiled when they caught sight of him.
“You’re just in time. Make yourself useful.” His mother held out a bag. He took it, picked up another then followed the women into the house.
Once inside, he placed his bags on the kitchen counter. Naomi began putting the contents away. “We haven’t seen much of you lately, Mick.”
“I’ve been at the hospital a lot. Did you miss me?”
She chuckled and batted his arm. “Of course I didn’t, but your mother did.”
“Nonsense, Naomi, I’m a big girl. I can spend a few hours without someone hovering over me. How’s the baby doing?”
“Better. Dr. Wright said she’ll begin trying small feedings tomorrow. It’s definitely a step in the right direction.”
His mother nodded. “Good. And how’s the baby’s mother?”
“She’s a royal pain.” He glanced at her. “Sorry.”
Elizabeth gazed at him for a long moment. “I’m surprised to hear you admit as much. For a while I thought you were developing an infatuation for her.”
He looked away from her intense scrutiny as he shifted uneasily. “It’s not like that. It’s just that she needs so much help, but she won’t admit it.”
Naomi shut the cupboard door with a crack. “Maybe it’s because her house isn’t on fire.”
He looked at her sharply. “What do you mean?”
“It seems to me that you’re way too eager to dash in and try to save her.”
“And that’s a bad thing?”
“Of course, it isn’t,” his mother interjected.
“Unless the person you’re trying to save knows the house isn’t burning,” Naomi added.
“You think she doesn’t want my help because she doesn’t believe she needs it?”
Naomi leaned against the counter and crossed her arms over her thin chest. “Look at it from the poor girl’s point of view. She asked for your help when she was in labor, didn’t she? And she accepted the help you offered?”
“If you’re right, and she named you as her baby’s father only when she thought she was going to die, it stands to reason that now that she’s recovered, she feels that she doesn’t need your help anymore. I think you should respect her wishes. You can’t force people to accept help if they don’t want it.”
“But she’s destitute. How is she going to take care of Beth if she doesn’t have a job or a place to live?”
“Surely she has family or friends she can stay with?” Elizabeth suggested.
“Not that I could locate.”
“Did you ask her?” Naomi demanded.
“Sort of,” he admitted slowly.
“And did you give her a chance to answer, or did you charge ahead with your plans for her ‘rescue’?” With both hands she made quotation marks in the air.
“Maybe I was a little forceful, but I care about Beth.”
His mother moved to cup his cheek with her free hand. “You’re a very caring man. I’m sorry things didn’t work out the way you hoped.”
“I can’t let Caitlin take Beth and vanish.”
“Wait a minute.” Elizabeth held up one hand. “Caring for a child who’s alone in the world is one thing, but getting involved in a custody dispute is a whole different kettle of fish.”
“My choices are do nothing and let Caitlin disappear into those stinking slums with a helpless baby, or I make sure that doesn’t happen. God put me in Beth’s life for a reason. I’m not turning my back on her.”
He rose and headed for the front door, more disappointed than he cared to admit.
She caught his arm and stopped him. “Mick, you can’t save every destitute child you see.”
“I can save Beth. She’s going to be part of my life. Why is it so hard for everyone to accept that God wants me to care for this child?”
Elizabeth pulled her hand away. “It may be what the good Lord wants. But I think you need to be very sure this isn’t just about what Mick O’Callaghan wants.”
* * *
Caitlin stood and listened to the hawk-faced matron in charge of the women’s dorm at the Lexington Street Shelter.