Sarah's child (Chapter 11)

"Give me your car keys," he said the next morning as he was leaving for work. Frowning, she got the keys from her purse and gave them to him. He took his own keys from his pocket and put them in her hand. "Drive my car for the duration. It's bigger, more comfortable, and will give you more protection, as well as being an automatic. You don't need to be changing gears."

"Well, if you insist." She took the keys and lifted an ele-gant eyebrow at him. "What's this going to do to your cor-porate image?"

"Send it right down the old tubes," he said and grinned.

The Mercedes felt huge around her, and she drove with ponderous care, fearful of putting the slightest scratch on its unblemished surface. She was used to wheeling her dashing little ZX into the narrowest of parking spaces, to darting through holes in traffic that looked limited to bicycles, but there would be none of that with Rome's car, which was pre-cisely what he'd intended.

The summer days ended. Derek went back to school, and time seemed to slow. Sarah felt her pregnancy weighing heavily on her now, though she was still in good health and Dr. Easterwood was well satisfied with her condition. She hadn't gained all that much weight, only ten pounds, but it was amazing how heavy ten pounds could be when they were concentrated in one spot. When Dr. Easterwood told her she'd probably gain another ten pounds before she delivered, Sarah groaned in disbelief. "I won't be able to get out of bed!" she protested. "I have to roll out on my hands and knees now! I won't be able to buckle my shoes!"

"I've heard it all before," Dr. Easterwood said, unimpressed. "Wear slip-on flats, and get your husband to help you get up."

Since Rome was sleeping in his bedroom, he was never around to see her struggles to get out of bed, and she was always careful to sit on the edge of a chair now, so she'd be able to get up without making a spectacle of herself. Relaxing tub baths were a thing of the past, and showers were the order of the day. Shaving her legs or putting on panty hose involved some in-credible contortions. She sighed, looking at the tight little mound of her stomach. Ten more pounds was out of the question.

Forgetting her promise not to tell him anything about the baby, that night she groaned to Rome, "Can you believe it? Dr. Easterwood said I'd gainten more pounds! I'm huge al-ready! I won't be able to walk."

He looked at her, startled by the real distress in her voice. She was seven months pregnant, and Diane had been that big at four months. But Sarah had never been pregnant before, and he realized with amazement that he had far more experience with this than she had. He also knew of a woman's fears and discomforts as her time came nearer and her waistline kept expanding. The one thing he couldn't do was laugh, though when he looked at her swollen little stomach he wanted to ab-solutely roar with laughter. Itwas a small baby, he realized with relief, and a weight lifted from his shoulders.

She looked so forlorn, he was reminded of when she'd had the flu and she'd been disgusted with being ill. She couldn't take being in anything but tip-top shape, capable of handling whatever came her way. She needed comforting; she needed him, just as she had when she'd been ill.

He pulled her onto his lap and kissed her, careful not to let his arm touch her stomach; instead, he put his hand on her knees. "I think you're beautiful," he said, and she was. She was glowing, her hair lustrous, her skin radiant. He kissed her again, his hand going automatically to her full breasts.

She sighed with pleasure, her lips parting for his. Shaken by her nearness and by the softness of her in his lap, he kept kissing her while he unbuttoned her top and sought the warm satin of her flesh. Her breasts were rounded, growing to ful-fill the needs of his child, filling his palm. Her nipples strained to the touch, and she clenched her hands in his hair, kissing him wildly.

"I'm going to explode," he groaned, pulling his mouth away.

Dr. Easterwood hadn't told Sarah that she had to abstain yet, but she didn't try to push Rome into making love to her. That was his decision, and she felt a little shy at the thought anyway. She was no longer slender; she'd feel awkward and not sexy enough for him.

He rebuttoned her blouse, and Sarah knew he'd made his decision. She accepted it without argument, sliding from his lap. "I'm sorry for being such a crybaby," she apologized, then suddenly realized what she'd said, and that she'd bro-ken her promise.

He gave her an unreadable look, one that made her flinch inside. No matter how she felt, she never mentioned her prob-lems to him again. When the baby began kicking so energet-ically that she couldn't sleep at night, she tolerated it in silence. She endured the growing aches and pains in her over-burdened muscles, the total discomfort; though it seemed like forever, she knew that in a matter of weeks it would all be over.

On the first of October Dr. Easterwood told her to stop driv-ing at all, and to get more rest. That was something she had to tell Rome, as that effectively put a stop to working at the store. So instead of being fussed over by Erica and Derek and a steady stream of customers, there was only Mrs. Melton to fuss over her, though Marcie did run up to see about her sev-eral times a day. Rome began spending all his evenings at home, though Sarah knew he would normally have at least a few business dinners to attend. Max was covering for him, was all he said when she asked him about it.

Sarah found that she was too lethargic to even miss the store. She read a great deal and tried to decide on baby names, but she really couldn't concentrate on anything. She slept a lot in the afternoons, because that was when the baby seemed to sleep. At night, it did aerobic exercises.

During the nights, lying awake with only her unborn child for company, Sarah tormented herself, trying to decide if she'd made the right decision. Just the very thought ofnot hav-ing the baby was insupportable; it was Rome's child, con-ceived in an act of love, and even before its birth she loved it with a deep devotion that startled her, for somehow she had-n't expected to feel such a sense of physical ownership. The child was part of her too, an extension of herself. As such, she felt it keenly when Rome rejected the child.

But the decision she'd made, even if it had been the only decision shecould make, could blight the child's life. She knew that Rome's aversion to it wasn't one to be taken lightly, that it had been formed in the blackest days of his life. She could still feel his anguish, his deep and utter despair, and even now she cried for him when she remembered the empti-ness of his eyes. She had backed him into a corner, forced him to choose between accepting the physical presence of a child he didn't want, or losing the warmth of his wife's love, which still seemed so new and fragile to him. He'd never even hoped to find love again, not after the tragedy that had left his life a wasteland; when he did love, he was both astonished and frightened by it. But when faced with a choice, he'd chosen Sarah, even at the cost of considerable emotional pain to himself.

Adoption was an alternative that kept springing to Sarah's mind, only to make everything in her writhe in rejection. There was no easy answer; no matter what she did, someone would be hurt. If she gave up her child, its loss would haunt her for the rest of her life. If the love Rome felt for her eventually died under the weight of a burden he couldn't carry, wouldshe come to resent her own baby?

Ever since she'd made the decision to keep the baby, she hadn't let herself think of all those things. She'd taken each day as it came, not planning too far into the future, ignoring the problems she knew were waiting for her, because she simply couldn't handle them. All she had been able to do was live in the present, her mind and body preoccupied with the processes of life going on inside her. She'd been kept busy by the store, distracted by the constant company of other people. But now she was spending her days mostly alone, with noth-ing to do but think, and she was afraid.

If she lost Rome now, what would she do? She'd reached for a miracle when she married him, and found it. To have him walk away from her now would shatter her. Yet she'd risked destroying her marriage, and done it deliberately. Al-ready he was more remote from her, and growing farther apart every day. He was kind, and solicitous of her comfort and health, but the baby prevented any real intimacy with him, and she was beginning to fear that they were merely po-lite strangers.

The Rome she knew was an impatient, dynamic man; he made things and peoplemove. He'd overcome a horror so great that many men would have buckled under it, broken for-ever. That Rome wasn't the polite, carefully controlled man who came home from the office every night, asked if she felt all right, and ignored her for the rest of the evening. What if his distance was the result of indifference, and he wouldn't approach her even without the bulk of pregnancy as a barrier? Was he simply doing the polite thing and lending her his name until after the baby was born?

Sarah was thankful that the first natural childbirth class that she and Marcie attended came on a night when Rome was on an overnight business trip, so she didn't have to explain to him where she'd gone. Sarah had put off the classes, hoping against hope that Rome would decide to attend them with her, but at last, time forced her to make a decision. If she didn't attend the classes soon, the baby would come anyway. She felt shy and awkward about attending the classes so close to term, and she keenly felt Rome's absence. Marcie was a dear friend, but every other woman in the class was accompanied by her husband, and Sarah intercepted several pitying glances that came her way.

The class made her feel better in one respect: She was near term, but there were a lot of women so swollen with preg-nancy that they made her little pumpkin of a stomach look hardly respectable. She patted her unborn child fondly, think-ing that she liked it just the way it was.

Rome came home early the next afternoon; he came into the living room where she was sitting with her feet propped on the coffee table while she industriously tried to complete every puzzle in a crossword puzzle book. Placing his brief-case down with controlled movements, he said, "I called you last night, but you weren't here. Where were you?"

Startled, Sarah looked up at him; then her glance slid away. She'd been wishing that he weren't so remote, but somehow she'd forgotten just how disconcerting he could be when he pierced someone with those fierce dark eyes. He wasn't re-mote now; he was angry.

He unbuttoned his suit jacket and shrugged out of it, toss-ing it across the back of the sofa. Sitting down across from her, he raked his fingers through his wind-tossed dark hair. "I'm waiting," he said softly.

Sarah closed the crossword book and laid it aside. "I'm sorry that I didn't tell you before, but I didn't know how to bring it up," she admitted. "Marcie took me to the natural childbirth classes that hospitals give now; she's going to be my coach. Last night was the first class."

His mouth tightened, and again she caught the flicker of something deep in his eyes, the same unreadable something that had been there several times before. "I suppose I'm lucky you didn't ask Max," he said.

"Rome!" Shocked, a little hurt, she stared at him.

He made an abrupt movement with his hand. "Sorry. I didn't mean that. Damn!" he swore softly, sliding his hand to the back of his neck and rubbing the tense muscles there. "I'll be glad when this is over."

"A few more weeks," she whispered, watching him with her heart in her eyes. "What then?"

He breathed deeply, his powerful chest stretching the fab-ric of his shirt. There were grim lines in his face, bracketing his mouth. "Then I'll have my wife back," he said bluntly.

"I know it's been difficult for you – "

"No, you don't know. You don't have any idea." His voice grew sharp. "You made it pretty plain when you gave me your ultimatum: Put up with it, or get out. You want that baby more than you want me. I thought about it, harder than I've ever thought about anything before in my life, and I came close to leaving, but in the end I decided to take what I could get. I may come in second with you for now, but that state of affairs won't last. When that baby is out of the way, when I can touch you again, you're going to be my wife, first and foremost, be-fore anything else. If you can't live with that, tell me now."

She sat very still, a little pale, but meeting his gaze unwa-veringly. "Your wife is all I've ever wanted to be."

"I don't want the baby between us. Take care of it, yes, but when I come home at night, your time becomes mine. I want your attention, all of it, without you jumping and running every time it whimpers."

"Even if it's sick, or hurt?" Couldn't he hear his own words? Did he really expect her to ignore her own child?

He winced, as if he suddenly realized what he was asking. "No, of course not." Shaken, he looked at her. "I don't know if I can handle it. I want you, only you, the way it was before. I don't want anyone else intruding."

"We'll manage," she said softly, wanting to put her arms around him and reassure him of her love, but she knew he'd re-coil from the pressure of her stomach. But something of what she was thinking must have been in her eyes, because he got to his feet and leaned over her. For the first time in weeks he kissed her, not just a brief touch of his lips to her cheek or fore-head, but a deep, intimate kiss. She met it shyly, almost afraid to respond, but he cupped her chin and kissed her again, de-manding and receiving the passion that he knew she could give.

"How much longer?" he murmured, lifting his head.

"About three weeks until it's born, then…six more weeks after that."

He sighed. "It'll be the longest nine weeks of my life."

The next week another trip came up unexpectedly. He'd been curtailing his traveling, with Max often going in his place, but Max was on the East Coast already when the emer-gency cropped up in Los Angeles. Like a general directing his troops, Anson Edwards sent Rome to California.

When he told her, Rome saw the disappointment on her face. "It won't be a long trip," he tried to comfort her. "Three days, at the most. The baby isn't due for another two weeks, and I'll call you every night."

"I'm not worried about the baby," she said honestly. "I'llmiss you!"

"Not for long. I'll drive everyone into the ground getting this mess cleared up," he said grimly, then stunned her by tak-ing her in his arms, the first time he'd done that in months. Ignoring the bulk of her stomach, he kissed her with growing desire, his hand going to her full straining breasts. "I didn't know," he said in astonishment, lifting his head and staring at the ripe curves that filled his hand. "You've grown more than I'd realized."

A warm blush was on Sarah's cheeks as she leaned against him. He laughed and kissed her again, still fondling her. "I'll be back before you know it," he promised.

Late that night an ache low in her back woke Sarah, and she lay awake for a long time, but the ache faded and she sighed in relief. The baby was still, for a change, and she'd been sleeping deeply. She didn't want the baby to come while Rome was so far away; even though he wouldn't be in the labor room with her, or helping her with the delivery, she wanted to know that he was close at hand. As her time ap-proached, she began to fret about the trauma of birth; she'd have clung to him like a frightened child if they were closer, if circumstances hadn't put a wedge between them.

The next afternoon the ache began again and laced around to her lower abdomen. It wasn't really pain, just an achy, heavy tightened feeling, but she knew. She alerted Marcie, then called Dr. Easterwood, who instructed her to check into the hospital then, rather than waiting until the contractions were close together. Sarah's next call was to Rome's hotel in Los Angeles; he wasn't in, but she hadn't expected him to be at that time of day. She left a message that she was beginning labor and told him which hospital she would be in. As she hung up a tear rolled down her cheek. She so wanted Rome there! But she wiped it away and touched her stomach. "We're on our way," she told her baby.

Marcie came up to collect the suitcase, and Mrs. Melton hugged Sarah; then they went to the hospital. Sarah was checked in and checked over. She was in the preliminary stages of labor, and everything looked normal. All she had to do was wait.

Rome sat in the office he'd commandeered from the West Coast district manager, an array of numbers and sta-tistics before him, but he couldn't concentrate on paper-work. He tapped his pen thoughtfully on the blotter, wishing he were at home with Sarah, rather than having to patiently sort out a mess that never should have developed in the first place.

Sarah. She was more on his mind lately than she'd ever been before, and he'd spent a lot of time over the years think-ing about her. She was so determined to have that baby, and she'd dug in her heels with a stubbornness that belied her del-icate, elegant appearance. He'd somehow never thought that Sarah would be the motherly type, though Justin and Shane had adored their "aunt" Sarah.

He winced as he thought their names, and their images swam before his eyes, coming between him and the papers spread out on the desk. Laughing, rowdy little boys, with Diane's bright blue eyes and golden brown hair. How he missed them! How he'd loved them, through every stage of their development from the moment he knew of Diane's preg-nancies. Diane had gotten as big as a barrel with both of them, unable to struggle out of bed or even out of a chair without his help. Many times during the night when advanced pregnancy would force her to the bathroom every hour, he'd pulled guard duty, always ready to give her a supporting hand. He'd rubbed her back for her, tied her shoes for her, held her hand during labor, and supported and comforted her during delivery.

He'd done none of those things for Sarah.

He went rigid with the thought. She wasn't as big as Diane had been, of course, but he'd seen her carefully edging her weight forward on a chair so she could get up, and he hadn't helped her. He'd left her alone in her bed to cope with back-aches and midnight visits to the bathroom. She hadn't asked for help in anything, and he realized with a spear of pain that took his breath, that she hadn't asked because he'd made it plain she couldn't rely on his aid. She'd needed help, every day, but she'd never asked. She'd borne the burden of preg-nancy alone, with the knowledge in her eyes that he didn't want her child.

Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. Regardless of how he felt about the baby, he should have been with Sarah, helping her through the months. In a detached way, he could even understand why she was so determined to have the baby: Because she loved him, she also loved his child. Sarah didn't throw screaming fits, didn't demand anything from him; she simply waited, and loved him, never giving up on that love. There was a gentle strength in her that had enabled her to wait for him for years, loving him, yet still being a good friend, the best of friends, to Diane. She'd loved his sons and been silently at his side when he stood by their graves, thinking that there was no reason left for him to live.

She had many graces, but the sweetest grace of all was the bottomless, unending love she gave, its gentle glow bathing everyone in her acquaintance, and he was at the center of that glow. How could he have discounted its worth?

Without thinking, obeying an impulse that was undeni-able for all that it remained nameless, he picked up the phone and called her. Mrs. Melton answered the phone, and a moment later he dropped the receiver back onto its cradle, his face pale.

He opened the door and barked at the secretary sitting at her desk outside, "Get me a flight to Dallas, right now. I don't care what airline, as long as it's the next one out. My wife has gone into labor."

Galvanized by both his tone of voice and the priority every woman gave to birth, the secretary got on the phone and in only a moment was demanding that a seat be found for Mr. Matthews.

Rome piled the reports into his briefcase and slammed it shut. He should have been there, damn it! She was two weeks early; was something wrong?

Dr. Easterwood had warned him of the possibility of com-plications. He knew, personally, how narrow Sarah's pelvis was; how often had he held her hips in his hands as he made love to her, marveling at how slim and delicate she was? The baby wasn't a large one, but was it too large? If anything hap-pened to her –

He couldn't complete the thought.

He never knew what strings the secretary pulled, or whose name she invoked, but someone was bumped off a flight leav-ing within the hour for Dallas, and he was on it. He didn't have time to return to his hotel and check out, or get his clothing. He gave terse instructions to the secretary to have that done, and get his suitcase shipped to him. He said "thank you" roughly, then left.

Let Anson Edwards and Spencer-Nyle wait. Sarah was more important.

Four and a half hours later, after a ground delay in Los An-geles that had seemed interminable, an inordinately slow flight, and battling the traffic from the airport to the hospital where Mrs. Melton had told him Sarah had gone, he strode up to the desk nurse on the maternity floor.

Sarah was dozing, while Marcie quietly read a magazine. Both Sarah and the baby were being closely monitored, but time was dragging and nothing was really happening, though the twinges were getting closer together. They were in a pri-vate labor room; a television was mounted on the wall, and they'd watched the evening news, then a situation comedy. She'd thought Rome would have called before then, but per-haps he was being held up at the office. After all, there was a time difference of two hours.

He came into the room and Marcie looked up, her eyes widening. She got to her feet. "Where did you come from?"

"Los Angeles," he replied, his strong mouth quirking in momentary amusement. "I caught the first flight out when Mrs. Melton told me Sarah had gone into labor."

Sarah's eyes fluttered open, and she looked at him drowsily; then abruptly she was wide awake. "Rome! You're here!"

"I'm here," he said gently, taking her hand.

"I called your hotel and left a message for you."

"I know; Mrs. Melton told me. I've also talked with Dr. Easterwood. I was in a panic, afraid something was wrong because it's two weeks too soon, but she said everything's all right."

"I'm really not in labor yet, just trying to be, but she wanted me here so she could keep an eye on me."

She was beautiful, he thought. Her white-gold hair was pulled up, away from her face, and twisted into a single long braid. Her eyes were bright and clear, a soft Nile green, and her cheeks were flushed. She wore one of the plain nightgowns she'd been wearing at home, and she looked about fourteen, certainly not old enough to be having the infant who made a mound against the fabric. He kissed her gently.

"Since you're here, I'm going to go down to the cafeteria and get something to eat," Marcie said cheerfully, with the ob-vious intention of giving them some time alone and not being abashed about it.

But when they were alone, it was difficult to say anything. He held her hand, wishing that it was already over with, that she didn't have to face labor and birth. He didn't want her to be in any pain, not even the natural pain of having a child.

Finally he drew a deep breath. "I won't go in the delivery room with you, but I'll be waiting."

"Just knowing that you're here is all I need," she said, and it was.

Her daughter was born twelve hours later, after a relatively easy labor and birth. "Oh, she's a tiny sweetheart," Dr. Easterwood cooed as she placed the baby in Sarah's arms. "Look at that black hair!"

"She looks like Rome," Marcie pronounced flatly, only her laughing, tear-filled eyes visible above the surgical mask she wore. "I swear, she's even got black eyes."

Sarah examined the tiny infant, who'd already stopped her outraged squalling and was lying as if tired from her ordeal, ready to go to sleep. Rome's daughter. She couldn't believe it. Somehow, she'd thought it would be a boy. Tears filled her eyes as she touched the damp black curls with a shaking fin-ger. This was the most precious thing she'd ever seen.

Several hours later she woke to find Rome sitting quietly be-side her bed; she'd been so sleepy when she was placed in her bed, she'd only been able to give him a smile before drifting off. She didn't say anything but watched him as he read the newspaper. He was tired; he'd been up all night, and dark cir-cles lay under his eyes. He needed a shave too, but he was gor-geous. With the enthusiasm of a new mother, she wanted to ask him if he'd seen the baby, but she knew he hadn't. By even com-ing to the hospital, he'd given her more than she'd expected.

"Hi," she said softly.

He looked up, relaxing as a deep relief spread through him. Somehow, until she spoke to him, he'd been afraid to believe she was all right. He took her hand and carried it to his lips, tenderly kissing her soft palm. "Hi, yourself. How do you feel?"

She considered her state of being, moving gingerly. "Not too bad. Better than I'd expected. How doyou feel?"

"Dead on my tail," he said, making her laugh.

"Why don't you go home and get some sleep? I'm not going anywhere."

"You'd better not." He let her convince him to go home, because he really needed to get some sleep before he fell on his face.

When the baby was brought to her to nurse, Sarah cried when the tiny rosebud mouth automatically rooted for her nip-ple. Her very own baby! She was thirty-four years old and had long ago given up the thought of being a mother, but now she had this minute living, breathing miracle in her arms. She stroked the downy hair that covered the small round head, then examined the incredibly small fingers, the shell of her ear. How very much like Rome she was! There was even a smooth olive tint to her skin, a hint of her father's darkness, and her eyebrows mimicked Rome's bold slant.

The baby opened her eyes, looked around vaguely, then closed them again, evidently content that everything was right in her world. Marcie had been right; she had Rome's eyes too.

She named the baby Melissa Kay, and by the time she went home three days later, the name had already evolved into Missy. Rome had spent a lot of time with Sarah at the hospi-tal, but he always stepped out when it was time for the baby to be brought in to her, and as far as she knew, he hadn't seen it. He didn't drive them home from the hospital – she hadn't expected him to – and she understood that she'd have been asking too much of him if she'd tried to introduce him to his child by that method. He would have to decide for himself if he wanted to know his own daughter. Marcie drove them home, and together they placed the baby in her crib for the first time, both of them leaning over to admire the way she squirmed around until she was comfortable.

Missy was beautiful; Sarah knew that, if given the chance, she was capable of working the second miracle.