Trapped like a rat, Hannah O'Connell thought as the screen door slammed and all too familiar footsteps sounded briskly in her back entryway.
"Hannah?" her best friend, Josie Wilkes, called out. "Don't get up. It's just me."
Hannah clutched the handles of the wicker laundry basket as if it were full of drug money instead of mounds of damp things fresh from the washing machine. You'd think most people would consider hanging out wash pretty harmless. But she had a funny feeling Josie Wilkes wouldn't see it quite that way.
Hannah looked for someplace to ditch the evidence, but there was no retreat. Reckless, her nineteen-year-old daughter Becca's grizzled black Lab, blocked the way to the laundry room, immovable in his unfailing hope that anyone at the door might be his girl home from college. And Josie was already rounding the corner into the kitchen, a bulky plastic baby carrier clasped in both hands.
"Just when you think you're indispensable, you find out the world can get along just fine without you." Josie sighed without looking up as she settled her five-month-old, Tommy, in the middle of Hannah's kitchen table. "You should see those eager little volunteers we trained at the community garden taking over while the two of us are on leave. By the time we get back to work they'll have pasted their names over ours on the manager's doors. When I stopped by to pick up the veggies they wanted to send you as a get-well present, I told Steve to quit looking so happy about being in charge or I'd rip his heirloom tomato vines out by the -- whoa there!" Josie's green eyes widened in disapproval as they locked on Hannah. "Exactly what do you think you're doing, buddy old pal?"
Hannah's cheeks burned, but she clutched the basket even tighter in spite of the ache radiating from the angry red scar on her abdomen. "It's been four weeks since my surgery."
"And by my count that leaves at least two more weeks before you're allowed to lift anything at all, let alone something as heavy as that basket."
"But all this sitting around is driving me crazy, Josie. I can't stand it."
"Civilization as we know it won't come to a crashing halt if you let someone help you for once in your life, Hannah," Josie insisted, grabbing the basket's rim.
"Easy for you to say!" Hannah tried to hide a grimace of discomfort as she released her hold on the basket. "If people don't stop telling me to sit still, take it easy, you won't have to worry about my incision anymore. I'll just be stark, raving mad."
"I know you're not used to sitting around. But the more you obey doctor's orders, the sooner you'll be yourself again."
If only it was that simple, Hannah thought. Six weeks of rest, and everything back to normal. But things hadn't been "normal" even in the months before she'd gotten sick. How could she begin to explain how much deeper the trouble ran than recovering from surgery?
That her life didn't fit anymore? That for the past year and a half she'd felt out of place in the world she'd always been so at home in? How could she explain her struggles in the months since Becca had left home for college, Hannah trying with all her might to find her way in a life that was utterly changed?
Even working in the garden, one of Hannah's most cherished pleasures, was denied her now. Since she'd started getting sick five months ago, the physical exertion was impossible.
Impossible for now, Hannah reminded herself, trying to be firm. Hadn't she promised herself that just for today she wasn't going to think about everything she couldn't do? That she'd find out what she could do instead?
But even if she did find the words to explain that much, she couldn't tell Josie the whole truth -- that sometimes she got so sore, so tired, so worn out she feared if she didn't force herself she might never move again.
Josie's freckle-spattered face crumpled in a frown, making her look like a disgruntled, red-haired elf. "Hannah, you know darn well the doctor would have a fit if he saw you lifting something this heavy. Not to mention Sam."
Hannah's cheeks burned as she imagined her husband's reaction to this little mutiny of hers. Sam's blue eyes filling with worry and confusion, looking at her as if he expected her to shatter at any moment.
But she was tired of people hovering over her, whispering about how pale she was when they thought she wasn't listening. She was tired of feeling sick and fragile and helpless. She was tired of Sam watching for every nuance of pain or discomfort, the slightest tightening of her jaw, a stifled moan or wince when she moved the wrong way.
"I know everyone is worried. I gave you all a scare. But the crisis is over," Hannah said more sharply than she intended. "And near as I can tell, having a hysterectomy doesn't transform you back into a child. I can still make my own decisions, and if I want to hang out a load of laundry, not Sam, nor you, nor anyone else has the right to stop me."
Surprise flared in Josie's eyes. People were always telling Hannah she'd feel better if she just let her frustrations out once in a while. It didn't make her feel better. It left a rotten taste in her mouth. And taking it out on Josie was inexcusable. Josie had been terrific these past weeks, running to the grocery store, filling the freezer with casseroles so Hannah just had to stick them into the oven for dinner. It wasn't as if Josie didn't have a full enough plate of her own, either. A new house, a new baby, a new husband, adjusting for the first time in her life to being a stay at home mom, and helping her nineteen-year-old adjust to sharing mom's attention.
"I'm sorry," Hannah apologized. "You've been amazing, helping me through all this.....I'm just tired. Tired of being shut in, tired of feeling useless."
"You? Useless? That's a laugh. You're constantly running around at warp speed doing something for someone else. But the instant anyone wants to do something for you -- oh! The horror! As your best friend, I've got to warn you that it's a really annoying personality trait."
Josie had forced Hannah to be on the receiving end once in a while no matter how uncomfortable it made Hannah. Sometimes Hannah had even managed to enjoy it.
"Hannah, so many people love you." Josie's tone gentled. "Don't make it impossible for us to show you how sorry we are you had to go through this. How glad we are you're going to be okay."
But I'm not okay, Hannah wanted to cry. That's the problem. I'll never be okay again. Are you still a woman after they rip that part out of you? Are you still a woman if you can never have a baby again?
Hannah turned away, but it didn't help. Her gaze fell on the portable baby carrier/car seat on the middle of the scrubbed oak table, Josie's red-haired baby boy sleeping in it like a cherub. Hannah tried to stifle a jab of envy. She was glad for Josie. God knew, Josie deserved this chance to be happy.
She'd met Josie when they'd been joint room mothers the year their daughters were in third grade. And they'd been inseparable ever since. After years of struggling as a single mom after her divorce and raising her oldest alone, Josie'd gotten a second chance when Hannah and Sam had set her up with Sam's best friend, Tom Wilkes. The bearlike cop had made Josie forget her vow never to trust a man again. They'd married and Josie had finally been able to have the second child she'd always dreamed of. Little Tommy was a miracle to both his parents, and Hannah and her husband Sam had been along for the whole journey.
That had been before the distance had crept between Hannah and Sam. Before they'd learned to be careful around each other. Before the looming shadow of Becca's leaving home and Hannah's illness had changed everything between them.
"Hannah, don't shut out the people who love you," Josie pleaded. "You and I have been through hell together. Marriage, divorce, chickenpox. We've told each other everything. Talk to me, Hannah."
Not quite everything, Hannah thought. Her eyes filled with tears she'd bottled up in the time since she'd fought the doctors, argued her last, surrendered to surgery because there was no other choice. Sick for months, she'd nearly managed to put herself on the critical list, believing -- hoping -- that the changes in her body weren't signs that something was very wrong, but maybe, just maybe, the pregnancy she'd secretly hoped for so long.
"I wasn't finished," Hannah admitted brokenly. "I thought I still had time..."
Josie squeezed Hannah's hand.
"I know it sounds crazy. I mean, I'm healthy, aren't I? It wasn't cancer. Like the doctor said, 'You're forty-four years old, Mrs. O'Connell. What are you saving your uterus for?' "
Josie made a face. "I'd love to see just how blasé that doctor would be if you went after his reproductive organs with a scalpel!"
Hannah couldn't help but chuckle. She knew Josie's tactics, diffusing anything that hurt too much with that cynical humor that had protected her for so long. From bullies who'd teased her about her fiery hair, through the rocky parts of her first marriage, to the tough stuff she'd witnessed day after day in social services until she'd quit to raise her new baby.
Josie's eyes glistened in sympathy. "It stinks. You should have had a dozen kids. I've seen so many in rotten circumstances and their parents have litters of kids. But you, you're the best mother I've ever seen, and -- " Josie broke off. "It's just not fair."
Maybe it was fair. Wasn't that what terrified Hannah the most? The possibility that the empty spaces in her life were exactly what she deserved? She'd spent the past nineteen years hoping against hope that maybe, just maybe, if she was the best mother in the world to her little girl, God or fate or whoever was in charge would give her another chance. But the surgery had brought an end to even that faint hope.
The finality of knowing she would never have another child had brought memories flooding back, mistakes she'd made, prices she'd paid, regrets as real, as raw, as vivid as if they'd happened yesterday instead of a lifetime ago.
She'd worked so hard to make up for the past. Hadn't Hannah earned one more chance? But maybe there were some debts that no amount of regret or reparation could ever pay in full.
Hannah brushed back a strand of the black, wavy hair that cascaded halfway down her back. She held on tight to her morning resolution that today she would be stronger, do better, hold back shadows inside her.
She forced a smile, shrugged. "What was it my grandma used to say? Life's not fair?"
Josie made a face. "I always hate it when people say that. But from what I hear around town, it would have been worth listening to a few minutes of her words of wisdom for a slice of her raspberry pie."
Hannah sighed. "I can still taste it every time I walk into this kitchen." Hannah looked around her, taking in the red and white checked wallpaper, the white curtains with their blanket-stitched edges in cherry red embroidery floss. Scrubbed white cupboards with windows cut into them displayed time mellowed stoneware and bowls in which five generations of her family had mixed biscuits and cookies and pie dough.
When she and Sam had bought the house from her grandmother just before Becca was born, she'd told Sam this kitchen would always mean "home" to her. But homes were supposed to be full of life and laughter and commotion. Children's school books sprawled across the table, their cast off shoes cluttering the entryway, the music from CD players drifting down from their bedrooms.
Even after seven months with Becca in college, Hannah couldn't get used to the silence of her daughter being gone.
In spite of her best efforts, Hannah's eyes burned. "I'm tired, Josie. I'm so tired. I don't know..."
"Don't know what?"
"What I'm supposed to do now. It's like I've lost something I never even had."
"What about Sam? You have Sam."
What about Sam? Hannah choked back the words. Truths she couldn't even share with her best friend. How could she tell Josie that she and Sam hadn't slept together for months? How could she explain he'd moved his things into Becca's room -- his wooden hairbrush, the bottle of cologne Becca had given him for Christmas, his slippers and robe? She'd had so much trouble sleeping in the months before the surgery, he hadn't wanted to disturb her when he got up early.
And as for sex? He hadn't dared to touch her since the night her pain had gotten so bad she'd cried out. She could tell he still hoped things would be better between them as soon as she finished healing from her surgery. But she knew the truth. It was as if the doctor's knife had slipped. Cut away any spark of desire, any flare of sensuality she'd ever had, and thrown it out with the rest of the surgical debris.
How could you still be a woman if you couldn't even respond to your husband when he touched you? Fear shuddered through her. What if she could never find that part of herself again?
She closed her eyes, remembering all too clearly Sam's face -- the hurt, the confusion her subtle rejections cost him. The pain that haunted his eyes -- asked over and over again in silence. What have I done? Don't you love me anymore?
Questions she knew cut him far deeper than they would have wounded anyone else.
It isn't you, she'd told him. It's me. Just me.
But he didn't believe her.
She opened her eyes to see Josie staring at her, worry creasing her freckled face.
"There's one more thing I thought I should mention. Hey, it's not like it's that big of a deal. I just don't want you to, you know, be surprised."
"By what? The last shocking thing that happened in Willowton was when Mrs. Carney accidentally put salt instead of sugar in her fair-day pies."
Josie's smile didn't quite reach her eyes. "You probably didn't hear that old Mrs. Blake fell a few weeks back."
"No," Hannah said. "That's too bad."
"Well, seems that her son's come back to town to take care of her for a while."
"Tony?" Instinctively, Hannah crossed to a chair, sank down. She fought back a tiny flutter of panic.
"I remember that airhead ex-cheerleader at PTA once making a big deal about how you two had dated back in high school. I don't know, there was something in your eyes that -- well, I just thought it wouldn't hurt to warn you. I heard from Maria down at the courthouse that he's handling his big-city cases from here. He's going to do some temp work down at the courthouse to break up the monotony. Just thought you should know."
She'd been so unnerved by the mention of Tony Blake that Josie had noticed? Remembered all this time? She'd have to be more careful.
"Don't worry. It was a long time ago," Hannah said. Then why didn't it feel that way? Especially now? She pressed her hand to her tender scar.
"Why don't you lie down," Josie said. "Take a nap. From the looks of you, you could use one. I'll hang these clothes out for you before I go."
Hannah didn't feel like fighting anymore. Maybe Josie was right. Things would look more manageable after some extra sleep. "Thanks."
She wandered into her favorite room for napping, the sun porch that stretched along the east side of the house. She lay down on the white wicker swing with thick cushions she'd always found so comforting. But today, the room didn't work its usual magic. She peered out the window to the backyard, and watched Josie deftly pinning the sheets along the swoop of white line while Tommy kicked and waved his arms from his baby seat.
But this time it wasn't Josie's affection or Tommy's baby antics that pulled at her heart. It was the garden that lay just beyond the two of them, silhouetted against the ravine. Three lilac bushes, heavy now with buds, formed a backdrop for the riot of bulbs and perennials jostling for every inch of space at their feet.
Hannah swallowed hard, remembering the day Sam and Becca had dragged her from the house to see her "surprise."
"It's a Mother's Day garden!" Four-year-old Becca had chirped. "See, there's one lilac for you, one for Daddy an' one for me! An' there's lots of room, too, so when I get a brother or sister like Rachel or Jana, we can put more lilacs in for them, too!"
Hannah had cried, delighted, hugged them both -- Becca, smelling of fresh dirt and baby shampoo, Sam woodsy and warm, his body hard, his hands callused from work. So familiar, so strong every time they brushed her skin, they left a trail of sparks in their wake. She'd been so sure then, about everything. She and Sam would be crazy in love forever. They would fill the garden with lilacs. She'd been so sure --
But as the years passed by, with no sign of the brother or sister Becca had spoken of, Hannah had filled the empty spaces they'd left in the garden with other flowers, trying to hide them. And Sam -- Sam's smiles grew uneasy, as if her love were water he was trying to hold in his hands, helpless to keep it from slipping away.
Now, there would never be another lilac bush, full of blossoms tucked into that garden. There'd be no more babies. No more chances.
And Tony's come back, a voice inside her whispered. Wouldn't that make things even more strained, reminding her of things she'd tried to forget? What if he --
No, Hannah told herself firmly. It didn't matter. Nine months of high school -- that's all she'd known him. He might as well be a stranger. Just a wispy memory from a long time ago.
Let the past stay where it belongs, Hannah resolved. Where it can't hurt you.
She was hurting enough already, she thought as she drifted off to sleep. There could never be an ache more painful than her Mother's Day garden, and all the blossoms that should have been.
The afternoon sun was streaming across Hannah's face when she finally woke from her nap, and for a split second, she was well again. Strong. The house was still bursting with kids and chaos and there was nothing she couldn't do. Then she moved.
Hannah pushed herself up on her elbows, hating that moment when it all came flooding back to her. The weakness, the sense of frustration and the pressing loneliness. That was always the hardest part, when she woke up and remembered what was real.
Shoving herself upright, she rubbed the sleep from her eyes, paused for a moment to catch her breath, let the tenderness in her belly subside. No, she wasn't going to let either her emotions or the aches and pains of recovery ruin things today. She was better. And she was going to prove it to everyone. Especially herself.
Maybe Josie had intercepted her on the way to hang out the sheets, Hannah thought. But she could still take them down and fold them by herself.
She stood and made her way out to the backyard. Odd. There weren't as many clothes on the line as she remembered. Sam's blue shirt was missing, and those peach towels she had tucked into the basket were nowhere to be seen. Maybe they had blown off the line. And where was the basket? It looked like Josie had set it in the shade of the lilacs.
It was an odd place to leave it, considering the fact that Josie had wanted Hannah to take as few steps as possible. She trudged over to the wicker basket. Maybe Josie had hoped if she stuck it far enough out of the way, it would discourage Hannah from taking the laundry down. Josie should have known better.
With a smile, Hannah bent down to grasp the worn wooden handles. She froze. The missing clothes lay in a soft puddle in the bottom of the basket. Pillowed on a drift of peach towels was a tiny bundle wrapped in the soft folds of Sam's favorite blue shirt. Suddenly, the bundle moved. Had some animal gotten into the basket and not been able to get out? Hannah wondered. Maybe she should just tip the basket on its side, let whatever it was scamper away?
But as she touched the basket's rim, the creature whimpered, rustling something white and crisp. A folded bit of paper safety-pinned to a corner of the fabric the way Hannah had pinned important school notes to Becca's shirts to make sure they made it to kindergarten. "What in the world?" Hannah breathed, nonplussed.
Heart hammering in her chest, she reached down to touch the bundle, ever so carefully drawing a corner of Sam's shirt aside. Her knees buckled. She sank to the ground, barely feeling the jarring pain that went through her body. Round blue eyes gazed up at her from a red, wrinkly pixie face. The tiny rosebud of a mouth sucked fiercely on a tightly clenched fist.
A baby. Far tinier than chubby Tommy Wilkes.
Hannah blinked hard, swiped her hand across her eyes, but the baby was still there. Dear God, had the poor little thing been crying? How long had it lain out here alone? With trembling fingers she tore loose the note, unfolded it.
I always thought if I could pick anyone in the whole world to be my mom, it would be you, Hannah read. Please take care of her for me. Her name is Ellie. Eleanor Rose.
Hannah gasped, stunned. Eleanor Rose? That was her grandmother's name. A coincidence? A sign from God? Or had the girl who left the baby here known how much Hannah had adored her grandmother? Had the girl given her baby that name on purpose?
Don't hate me. The letter ended. I'm just so scared.
Hannah dropped the note back into the basket. Who had left the baby here? Obviously some girl who knew Hannah. One of the army of Becca's friends who had made the farmhouse their second home? Or one of the "satellite kids" who'd only drifted in and out of Becca's circle of friends?
Instinctively, Hannah's mind sorted through dozens of mental pictures, faces and laughter, hair and eyes, trying to remember any changes in the kids who'd come to see Becca off that last day before she left for college. Who on God's earth could this baby belong to? And where was she? Trying so hard to hide what had happened to her? Desperate? Despairing? Too young and naive to know how many things could go wrong after childbirth? Or with a fragile new life?
Oh, God, Hannah thought, what was she going to do? She'd need to get the baby to a doctor, make sure the little one was healthy. And she'd need to call the authorities -- wouldn't she? It was the right thing to do. Unless the terrified kid who had had this child changed her mind. Tortured by guilt at abandoning her baby, needing not censure, but a quiet, calming place to learn how to be a mother.
And once she did call the authorities, what would happen then? The girl who had trusted her, turned to her when she was terrified and lost and alone, could be drowning in legal trouble. Could she even end up in jail?
The possibility chilled Hannah. No. She'd have to think what to do, find some way to keep the baby safe and give the baby's mother at least a little time to reconsider, maybe even change her mind, without facing such grim consequences....
I'm so scared...the note had said. Hannah knew just how paralyzing fear could be.
Slowly, she brushed the baby's cheek with her finger, half terrified the little one would vanish if she touched it, the other part of her terrified the baby would still be there, forcing her to take responsibility for deciding what to do next.
A delicate shiver ran down her spine. She'd forgotten how velvety a baby's skin felt, so warm, so impossibly soft. The baby turned her face toward her finger, latched onto Hannah's knuckle with her little mouth, sucking. Dewy, dark-lashed eyes drifted shut. Hannah lifted the baby in her arms, cuddled it close. Ellie melted into her as if Hannah had held her a hundred times. The baby heaved a contented sigh that wrenched at Hannah's heart.
"Hush, now. Hush," she murmured, laying her cheek against the baby's own, breathing in the soft, clean scent of baby soap and powder. Whoever had left the baby here had tried to take care of her as best they could. It comforted Hannah, made her heart ache, imagining the young mother bathing her little one for the first, maybe the only time. Had she cried when she'd put the baby into the basket? Was she watching, even now, to make sure nothing happened to the little one until Hannah found her?
Hannah glanced up, eyes searching the crescent of ravine that bordered her backyard, looking for any shadow, any movement at odds with the familiar quiet of the place.
"Hello?" she called out, keeping her voice gentle. "Are you out there? Let me help you. Help both of you. Don't be afraid."
Don't be afraid? Who was she kidding? The girl must be terrified. Desperate. With good reason. Or she would never have left her newborn behind.
She heard a crackle of leaves and all but jumped out of her skin. She took a running step toward the sound, feeling for all the world as if someone were watching. But at that instant, a gray squirrel popped out, eyeing her inquisitively. Hannah's heart dropped. No. It wasn't the baby's mother. Even if it had been, she could hardly chase the girl down the steep slope of overgrown ravine with a newborn in her arms.
She cuddled the baby closer, the miracle of the tiny life seeping into her, a sense of purpose warming the cold places, the need to keep this baby safe easing her weariness.
"I have to think what to do," she whispered against Ellie's downy hair.
But in her heart, Hannah already knew.
Sam O'Connell sped down the road, car wheels protesting on turns taken too fast, engine gunning as he grazed through intersections governed by traffic signals that even the most generous judge couldn't call "yellow." But he wouldn't have pulled over if a whole fleet of squad cars had been tailing him, their red lights lit up like Christmas trees.
His shoulders tightened, the knot in his throat all but choking him as Hannah's voice echoed in his head.
Please come home, Sam. Please. I need you.
He'd begged her to tell him what was wrong. Pleaded with her. But she'd only hung up the phone, leaving him to the mercy of his own imagination and the buzzing emptiness of the phone.
I need you.
The words should have made his heart soar. He'd spent most of his life wanting Hannah to need him, waiting for her to ask him for something, anything. But now, he only tasted the metallic tang of his own fear, felt the sinking sensation of his own dread of the unknown, and the fear that somehow he would fail her.
What the hell could be wrong? In twenty-two years of marriage he could never once remember Hannah calling him at work, asking him to come home. Her voice had been so strange, thready, agitated, refusing to tell him what was wrong. He'd left the office/shop building of O'Connell Construction at a run, his employees staring after him, stunned -- boss man gone crazy. But then, if he ever was going to lose his mind, Sam thought grimly, this would be the time.
The past months had been torture -- not knowing what was wrong with Hannah, not being able to help her. Seeing the warm, vibrant woman he'd married the day after they'd graduated from college fading away into a pale ghost of herself before his very eyes. Watching her slip away from him, wisp by wisp until he couldn't reach her anymore, no matter how hard he tried.
And now this -- calling him at work, begging him to come home without so much as a hint why? It wasn't her way, hiding things like this. She was always the calm one, the one who called him after stitches had been finished, broken bones set, crises handled. Then he'd hear her voice on the phone, so reassuring. I didn't want to worry you. Everything's fine now. She'd describe whatever had happened in detail, somehow managing to find humor in it, softening the blow with tales of how Becca had charmed her doctors and nurses or taken over her little corner of the emergency room. Then he could laugh, bring home a stuffed animal or coloring books, or whatever "dad" thing he could think of. And when he got home, everything would be just like always except for the addition of a bright pink cast on Becca's arm or a glow-in-the-dark bandage decorating her chin.
Yes, everything would be "fine," just like Hannah said. But not this time. Sam's intuition buzzed. This time things definitely weren't "fine."
Was Hannah sick? Had she done too much, done damage to her incision? He'd been begging her to slow down since the day he'd brought her home from the hospital. Unfortunately his pleas for her to take it easy had only fired her determination to prove he was wrong. She was patient, kind, mothering the whole world, but she could also be the most stubborn woman he'd ever known. If she'd hurt herself -- who knew what damage she could have done. She still looked so fragile it terrified him.
Sam pulled into the farmhouse drive, shoved the car into park, then jumped out. Everything looked so normal, quiet. That made it even more nerve-wracking somehow.
"Hannah?" he bellowed. "Where are you?"
"In here," came a small voice from the living room. Sam rushed toward it. She was curled up on the couch looking pale, bewildered, her riot of dark hair tangled about her shoulders and a bundle of peach towel tucked tight against her abdomen.
"Are you all right?" Sam asked. "Should I call the doctor?"
"I already have, but...but not for me."
"You're not making any sense. I don't understand." He crossed to her, felt her cheek for fever. Her skin was clammy cold. "Hannah, damn it, what's going on?"
She turned wide eyes to him, pleading. "Josie stopped over, helped me hang up some things on the line. Later, when I went to take them down -- "
Damn it, she had torn something, Sam thought. "The doctor said you weren't supposed to be lifting."
"That doesn't matter right now. Believe me."
"Then what the hell -- "
"I'm trying to tell you if you'll let me!" she cried, exasperated. "I went to bring the basket in, and there was...I found...this." She tipped up the bundle in her arms, drew back the folds of shirt. Sam stared down at a tiny scrunched-up face.
Sam went ashen. "Hannah, that's a baby."
"I know," she said tentatively.
"Well, what are you doing with it? Everybody around here knows you're still not feeling great. I'm not going to let you be taken advantage of right now, end of story. If one of the neighbors dumped this kid on you to baby-sit, I swear I'll strangle them!"
"That's not it. Not exactly." She was hedging. Hannah almost never hedged. She licked her lips, a nervous gesture from way back. Then she ducked her head, the fall of black curls obscuring her face.
"Who does the baby belong to?" Sam demanded.
"Right now, I guess she belongs to...me."
Sam's heart thudded. Hard. "To you? That's impossible."
Balancing the baby in one arm, she handed him a rumpled note. Sam's brow furrowed as he tried to make sense of it. "If this is a joke, it's damned well not funny!" But it was no joke. He knew it in his gut even before Hannah shook her head in denial. Knew it from the memory of Hannah's voice on the phone, the bleached white color of her cheeks.
"What kind of person would just...just abandon a baby -- " he choked out. But then, why should he be surprised. He had firsthand knowledge about what kind of woman abandoned a child. A woman like his own mother.
Hannah waxed even paler. "Someone scared. Too young." Hannah peered down at the baby, touched its cheek. "Sam, the mother didn't throw the baby in a Dumpster! She left her where she knew I would find her. The baby was warm, clean, there was even formula and a few bottles tucked in at her feet."
"I don't give a damn if there was college tuition stuck in the baby's diaper!" Sam tried to shove away the memories of the boy he'd been, searching through the house, calling his mother's name, finding silence, nothing but silence. "You don't just dump a baby on a stranger's doorstep!"
"I don't think the mother did. She knew me. Knows me. She asked me to take care of the baby." Her voice softened, obviously awed by that trust. Alarm bells jangled in Sam's head.
"No way are you going to take on the responsibility for someone else's baby!" Sam insisted. "You can barely take care of -- " He stopped, his cheeks darkening. She looked as if he'd struck her.
"Go ahead. You might as well finish. We both know what you were going to say. I can't even take care of myself."
The last thing he'd wanted to do was hurt her. But someone had to tell her the truth. "Hannah, I'm just being honest. You haven't been yourself since Becca left for school. And since the surgery -- Honey, you have to see how it is. There's no way we can keep this baby."
Fierce, almost feral protectiveness sparked in her eyes, her chin bumping up a notch to that angle he knew was damned dangerous. The baby squirmed a little as Hannah's arms drew her even closer. "The mother didn't ask you to take care of the baby. Maybe it isn't for you to decide."
He took a deep breath, struggled to calm his voice. "Hannah, think about this! Reasonably. Rationally! You know Dr. Campbell said your hormones would be out of whack for a while, you'd be overly emotional. You need calm, quiet, to get better."
"I've had enough calm and quiet to choke!" she cried. "Maybe that's not what I need at all. Maybe I need a reason to get up in the morning! Someone to take care of. Love."
"I thought you had me," Sam said softly, his mind filling with so many dreams. Hopes he'd had, the two of them spending time together, nothing to pull their focus from healing whatever was wrong between them. Time to fall in love all over again.
She winced, but she didn't back down. "Sam, please. It won't be for very long anyway. The mother obviously cares for the baby. She wouldn't have taken such good care of her -- "
"She dumped the baby in our backyard. It hardly qualifies her for "mother of the year." Besides, if what you say is true that's the best argument yet for not keeping the baby. You'll get attached to her and have to let her go -- it would break your heart."
"Don't I have the right to decide if I think it's worth the risk?" Hannah insisted. "I know the baby isn't mine. I won't be able to keep her forever. But why can't I keep her for now?"
"It's not that simple and you know it!" Sam said, groping for some way to make her see reason. "There have to be laws about this -- proper legal channels you have to go through. You can't just...just keep a baby as if it were a stray dog or cat."
Her eyes narrowed, fierce. "Maybe not, but I don't want to do anything that might hurt the baby's mother, either. Have the police carry the baby off to strangers and issue a warrant for the girl's arrest. Leave no chance for her to change her mind, make things right. Sam, this baby could belong to anybody. Any of Becca's friends. The girls who giggled over boys in our living room, slept over in Snoopy sleeping bags. What if it was Becca who was in so much trouble?"
Sam's gut twisted. "Damn it, Hannah, that's not fair!"
"Wouldn't you want her to have just a few days' grace? Time maybe to get up the courage to tell someone the truth before the police turned up on her doorstep and it was too late?"
"Becca would never do something so terrible!"
"You don't know that for sure, Sam." Pain flared in Hannah's eyes, the same lacerating pain he'd felt at even imagining their little girl in such desperate circumstances. "God knows, I hope she could come to me, tell me...but if she couldn't, I hope someone would help her."
"You're not responsible for saving the world, Hannah!" he snapped, smarting because she'd managed to hit him below the belt. Damn it, she wasn't playing fair.
"I'm not asking to save the world, Sam. Just this baby. Just for a little while. A week at most to give Ellie's mother a chance to come back and claim her. Then, I promise I'll call anyone you want. Please. I'm begging you." She sucked in a deep breath, met his gaze so steadily it made his fists knot. "No, I'm not begging you. I'm telling you I know I'm supposed to keep her for now, take care of her. She needs me, Sam. And I need her."
"Aw, Hannah -- " Sam grimaced, shaking his head.
"Have I ever really asked you for anything, Sam?"
No, he thought grimly. He'd always wished she would. He would have given her anything -- the stars, the moon, a rainbow painted only in the colors she loved best. But a baby? Someone else's baby?
"Sam, it will just be for a little while. For all we know, this whole thing could be over by nightfall. Tomorrow, three days from now. The mother could come back at any moment. The mother even named her Ellie. Eleanor, after my grandmother. She must know me -- know me well. Trust me."
Her eyes pleaded with him, soft, luminous, as she lay one hand ever so gently on the sleeping child. Sam's shoulders sagged. He knew when he was beaten. But it still stung like hell.
"So why'd you even bother calling me if you'd already made up your mind?"
"Because I need you to help me. Much as I want to take care of Ellie, I -- Sam, part of me is scared, too." She did look scared. The fear was layered in the dark-fringed depths of her eyes. Afraid of what? Hannah was a born mother. She always had been. Perfect. He was the one who had been a hell of a lot less than that. But she was asking him for help. Needing him. Or at least she thought she did. The sweetness of that squeezed in around his confusion.
"Okay," he agreed at last. "We'll do this your way. Just tell me what you want to do."
A smile dawned over her features, so grateful it made him feel like a selfish heel.
"I've already got an appointment with Becca's old pediatrician. I thought someone should look at Ellie, don't you think? A doctor, I mean. To make sure she's all right?"
Of course she'd already figured that much out. She probably already had the box full of Becca's old baby clothes in the washing machine. But there were other practicalities she might not have thought of. "Yeah. She should see a doctor. But how are you going to explain that a baby just dropped into your lap? You can't tell him the truth and expect him to keep this secret! He could lose his license!"
For an instant she looked crestfallen, then just as suddenly she brightened. "I'll just say I'm taking care of the baby for a friend. It would be true. I just don't know exactly which friend."
"I don't like it, Hannah," Sam grumbled. "Not a damn bit. But if you're dead set on it..."
Sam winced at the determination sparking in her eyes, a flash of fire, of strength of passion, the first he'd seen in far too long. It would only be for a little while, he reassured himself. Then, maybe --
Maybe this would help open doors between them, tumble walls.
Maybe, after the baby was gone they'd remember how to talk to each other, touch each other.
Sam swallowed hard, tried to silence the voice inside him, the one that whispered:
Or maybe this will break Hannah's heart.
Copyright © 2002 by Kim Ostrom Bush