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Sarah's child (Chapter 12)

Rome took Sarah to bed and held her against him for the first time in months, his arms tender. He kissed her over and over, as if he couldn't get enough of having her in bed with him again. He was careful not to jostle her, but he felt an almost desperate need to hold her. Sarah curled against him, wish-ing that the six weeks were over instead of having barely begun. Her hands sought his hard, muscular body, traveling lightly over him as she reacquainted herself with the various textures of his flesh. "I love you," she said against his throat.

"I love you. Never again," he said deeply. "I'll never let you sleep away from me again."

Sarah slept contentedly but woke at the first small cry Missy gave that signaled her hunger. Gingerly she slipped from the bed and tiptoed down to the nursery to cuddle her daughter and reassure her that she wasn't in danger of starv-ing. She changed the baby's diaper, then sat down in the rocker and hummed as she nursed Missy, slowly rocking back and forth. Missy wasn't a fussy baby, and she went to sleep immediately after her stomach was filled. Gently Sarah placed her back in the cradle, then returned to her own bed, snug-gling against the warmth of Rome's back.

He didn't move, but his eyes were open, and he stared stonily at the wall.

Sarah had worked hard before, but she'd never worked as hard or been under as much strain as she was in the following weeks. If Missy hadn't been a good baby, it would have been impossible. During the day, after Rome left for work, Sarah spent as much time as she could with her daughter, playing with her, doing all of the things that a baby required. Mrs. Melton took care of the mounds of laundry and the cleaning, which freed Sarah for all her other duties. She tried to give Missy bot-tles as a supplementary feeding, but the formula made her spit up, and the pediatrician advised Sarah to feed the baby solely by breast until she was a little older; then they'd try the for-mula again. That meant she couldn't leave Missy alone for any length of time, as she demanded regular feedings.

She always had Missy bathed and in bed for the night be-fore Rome came home from work and kept her fingers crossed that the baby wouldn't wake before it was time for her usual feeding The door to the nursery was always closed when Rome was home, and he never glanced at it, never asked about the baby. He'd told her how it would be, but until she lived the reality of it, Sarah hadn't realized just how difficult she'd find it. She was so proud of Missy, she wanted to take her to Rome, hold her out, and say, "See what I've given you." How could he fail to be as enchanted with the baby as she was? But she always reminded herself that the next step was his, that she couldn't force him.

Other people weren't so reticent. Max came to dinner one night and insisted on going in to see the baby. Sarah cast a helpless glance at Rome's set face, then got to her feet to take Max to the nursery. Marcie and Derek were frequent visitors, and they weren't shy about talking about Missy in front of Rome. Because he couldn't close his ears, he heard in enthu-siastic detail from Marcie just how beautiful his daughter was. He knew that she was growing like wildfire and that al-ready she recognized people.

A haunted look came into his eyes. He tried not to think about the nursery or its occupant, but a painful curiosity seized him every time Sarah got up in the middle of the night and went in there. He sometimes thought of standing in the door-way and looking in, but a cold sweat would break out on him. A baby…no, he couldn't handle another baby. She wasn't Justin or Shane; she couldn't replace his sons. He couldn't take the risk.

The thought of a daughter was alien to him. He'd known only husky rough-playing little boys. He thought often of his boys, as Christmas approached, another Christmas spent with-out them. It was his second Christmas with Sarah, and he found that the pain was almost gone because he had her. There was still, and would always be, a haunting sense of loss, but it was bearable now. He could think of Justin and Shane, and re-member the good times, the hilarious things they'd done. Diane was farther from him; there was still love for her, but it was more of a remembered love. Sarah was his present, and he was stunned anew by the fierce passion he felt for her, eclipsing the relationship he'd had with Diane, because his capacity for love had increased so much under Sarah's gentle glow.

One night during the second week of December Sarah went into his arms as usual, her head finding its customary place on his shoulder. "I'll be going back to the store tomor-row," she said casually, her voice soft in the darkness.

Moving swiftly, he reached out and turned on the lamp, then propped himself up on one elbow and loomed over her, his brows drawn together. "Dr. Easterwood released you?" he asked sharply.

"Yes. I had my checkup today. She said I'm in perfect health." She gave him a slow, bewitching smile.

It was fascinating to watch the way desire changed his face, made it harder and more intent. "Then, why did you wear that nightgown to bed?"

"So you could take it off."

He did. He was very careful with her, slowly building her to a state of readiness before bracing himself atop her and eas-ing himself into her body. Sarah gasped, but not with pain. It had been so long! She clung tightly to him, quivering with al-most unbearable pleasure. His hands were everywhere on her newly lush figure, discovering and delighting in the fullness of her breasts, stroking her intimately. She lost her grasp on reality, carried away by delight to a different realm of con-sciousness where only he existed.

* * *

Wrapped warmly against the weather, Missy was taken to the store the next morning, and Sarah had to fight to get to hold her own child. She was careful not to overdo it, and they went home early, but the excursion had tired both of them. She put Missy down for her nap, then crawled sleepily into her own bed. She'd just take a short nap, she told herself.

Missy's fretful cry woke her and she started up; the grow-ing twilight told her that she'd slept much later than she'd in-tended and Rome would soon be home. Missy was ravenous; there was a lot to be done, but Missy wouldn't wait. Sarah sat down in the rocking chair and put the baby to her breast.

She didn't hear Rome come in, but suddenly she felt his presence, and she looked anxiously at the door. She felt weak when she saw him standing just beyond the door, not stepping inside, but his eyes were on her and the baby in her arms. He couldn't see anything but the top of Missy's head and one tiny hand as it kneaded Sarah's breast, but a spasm of pain crossed his face. Without a word, he turned and walked away.

Sarah stared down at the baby, shaking. She'd messed up her schedule, she realized. She should have bathed her before nursing her, because now Missy was going to sleep, and she wouldn't take kindly to being roused by her bath. What would she do if Missy decided to throw a howling temper tantrum? As she grew older she was showing definite signs of her fa-ther's temper, as well as a comic determination to have every-thing just the way she wanted it, if an infant that young could be said to be that discriminating. But there was a certain way she liked to be held, and other small things that had to be just right to satisfy her. She would fuss indefinitely until circum-stances were righted. To keep things quiet, Sarah decided to skip the bath for one night, and she changed Missy's clothes, then put her to bed, hoping she'd sleep after that long nap.

"I took a nap this afternoon and overslept," she explained a little nervously to Rome when she came out of the nursery.

His shoulders were tense, but he didn't say anything about Missy. Instead he picked up on the way Sarah had given her-self away. "Going to the store tired you out, didn't it?"

"Yes, and it's so silly, because I didn'tdo anything," she said in exasperation, glad that the tense moment had passed.

"You'll have to get used to it all over again, and I want you to do it gradually. Take it easy," he ordered, and kissed her hello.

But of course, for Sarah, there was no taking it easy. She threw herself back into the routine of the store with joy, for she'd missed it more than she'd ever imagined. She was al-ways careful to leave early enough to get Missy taken care of before Rome came home, but the infant was becoming so ac-tive that Sarah could already foresee the day when there wouldn't be any of this putting her to bed and watching her go promptly off to sleep. Every day she was awake longer, her legs and arms waving around energetically.

After a particularly exhausting day, Sarah fell deeply asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. Rome lay beside her, slowly relaxing, and was almost asleep himself when he heard the baby cry. He went stiff, waiting for Sarah to wake and go to the child. He couldn't stand hearing that cry. But Sarah was still asleep beside him; she'd worn herself out.

He knew she'd eventually hear the baby's cry and get up to tend it, but he didn't know if he could stand it that long. A moment later he knew that he couldn't. He reached out to shake Sarah awake; then something stopped him. Perhaps it was her face, so peaceful as she slept; perhaps it was the nights in years past when he'd gotten up in the middle of the night to answer a sleepy cry for daddy. For whatever reason, he got out of bed and found himself standing out in the hallway.

He realized with surprise that he was shaking, and sweat was running down his spine. It's just a baby, he told him-self. Just a baby.

He stretched his hand out and opened the door, scarcely able to breathe from the band that was constricting his chest. There was a small yellow night-light plugged into an outlet close to the crib, enabling Sarah to see when she got up in the middle of the night. It also enabled Rome to see the child, who'd worked herself into a furious tantrum. Her tiny fists were clenched and jerking spasmodically, her legs were drawn up, and she was squalling for all she was worth. She was used to having her wants catered to immediately; this unreasonable delay wasn't something she intended to tolerate.

He swallowed, slowly walking closer to the crib. She was so small, the temper she exhibited was ludicrous. A girl…what did he know about girl babies?

Shaking, he slid his big hands under the infant and lifted her, surprised at how light she was. Missy squalled a few more times, but the touch of those big hands told her she wasn't alone, and after a few hiccuping sobs she quieted.

Old skills came back to him automatically. Hurrying, without looking at her face, he changed her diaper and was about to settle her back into the crib when she made a coo-ing noise, and he jerked, almost dropping her. He looked at her and froze, mesmerized, as the baby looked at him with such innocent trust and acceptance that he almost screamed aloud with pain.

It wasn't fair. Sweet heaven, it wasn't fair. He'd avoided her, hadn't even held her, hadn't looked at her; he'd rejected his own child, but none of that made any difference to her. She didn't scream in fear at being in unfamiliar hands. She sim-ply looked at her father with automatic acceptance, then began trying diligently to control a waving fist long enough to stuff it into her open, avid mouth.

Looking at her was like looking at himself, immortalized. He stared in fascination at the dark hair, the almost-black eyes. Her mouth was Sarah's, he realized, a soft, tender mouth, but the rest of her was a feminine version of himself. She'd been born from the sweet, loving times in Sarah's arms, a part of Sarah, a part of himself. He'd wanted her life de-stroyed before it even began.

A low, raw cry came from his lips. He lifted her again, cradling her in his arms, and he sank to his knees. Bending over his child, he cried.

Sarah jerked awake, knowing that something was differ-ent. Her hand sought Rome but found only the empty pillow, and she sat up. An odd, strangled noise came to her ears, but it didn't sound like Missy. She whispered "Rome?" but there was no answer.

Quickly getting out of bed, she reached for her robe, pulling it around her. Going to the door, she looked for any light to indicate where he might be, but there was none. Then she heard the choking noise again, and she went cold. It came from the nursery. Missy was choking!

Her hand at her throat, she flew on silent bare feet down the hall, but only a split second had passed before she realized that it wasn't Missy. She stopped, her breath ragged. Rome?

The nursery door was open, and she moved silently so she could see into the room.

Rome was on his knees on the floor, Missy in his arms. He held her cuddled to his chest, and the raw, strangled sounds came from him.

Sarah almost moaned aloud. She wanted to go to him, to wrap her arms around him and comfort him in his grief, grief for the children he'd lost, grief for the child he hadn't wanted. But this was his private moment of recognition with his daughter, and Sarah silently made her way back to bed.

She lay quietly, wiping away the tears as they wet her face. It was a long time before Rome came back to bed, sliding under the covers in a careful manner. She could tell that he was simply lying there, unable to sleep, but she didn't reach out for him. He was fighting a terrible inner war, and she couldn't help him.

He didn't mention it the next day, but there was a quiet-ness about him, a sense of peace that hadn't been there be-fore. He left for the office, and Sarah dressed Missy for her day at the store. There was nothing she could do but carry on exactly as she had before.

Derek only had a half-day of school, and he came in after lunch. Deftly he lifted Missy from her carrier, kissing her downy cheek. With the incredible sense of timing he had, he looked at Sarah as he jiggled the baby. "Is everything going to be all right for you?" he asked.

"Yes, I really think it will be," she replied. "How did you know?"

"The way you look." He smiled at her with deep tender-ness. "I knew he wouldn't be able to resist her for long."

Perhaps Derek had inside information, Sarah thought, watching him as he walked around the store with Missy in his strong young arms, talking to her as if she understood every word he said, and showing her all the brightly colored items that would interest her. And perhaps she did understand him; Max had compared Derek to an archangel. He might not be an angel, but he walked with them.

Sarah didn't deviate from her routine; Missy was sound asleep when Rome came in from the office. They ate dinner as usual, talked casually; she read while he read a few reports. Then she got ready for bed, checked on Missy, and crawled gratefully into bed, yawning.

Rome came out of the bathroom, drying his broad shoul-ders. "Here," he said, tossing the towel to her. "Dry my back."

He sat on the bed and she rubbed the towel over his back, then pressed a quick kiss on his spine. Tossing the towel to the floor, he turned to push her onto the pillows. "I can't tell you how much I love you," he said quietly.

"Try," she urged.

He laughed, bending down to kiss her with growing hunger. His lovemaking was incredibly sweet and intense that night; he held back, satisfying her time and again before letting himself go, then holding her tightly until she slept.

Missy woke in the early hours, wanting to be fed. Before Sarah could get out of bed, Rome threw the covers back and got to his feet. "Stay there," he said. "I'll bring her in here."

In a moment he was back, with a fussing infant in his arms. As he gave her to Sarah he said, "You know, don't you? You were awake last night."

"Yes, I know." All the love in the world shone out of her eyes as she looked at him.

"You should hate me," he said roughly. "For what I wanted to do."

"No, never. You were hurting, and you wanted to protect yourself. I understood."

He looked at the baby as she nursed, and his hard dark face took on such a tender expression that Sarah came apart inside. Very gently he touched Missy's cheek with one forefinger. "She's more than I deserve. I got a second chance all the way around, didn't I?"

No, not a second chance, a second miracle. He'd been a man dead inside, and love had brought life back to him. He'd al-ways carry the scars that marked the people he'd loved and lost, but he could go on living now. He could laugh again, and enjoy the passing of the seasons. He could watch his child grow, de-light in her shrieks of laughter, her innocence and enthusiasm, and give his love wholeheartedly to his second miracle.

He leaned over and kissed Sarah with slow deliberation, with love and passion. When Missy had been fed and was in her crib, he wanted to make love to his wife again, to show her how much he loved her. She was his first miracle, bring-ing him back into the sunlight.

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