Baby on the Doorstep


A wary loner is brought together with the lovely neighbor he’d never noticed by the baby mysteriously abandoned on his doorstep.

THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR,
a novella in the anthology:
BABY ON THE DOORSTEP

Harper Monogram · isbn: 0-06-108498-0

Traitorus Hearts I love writing anthology stories. The reason's pretty simple: I like immediate rewards. A typical manuscript might run 450 pages, but an anthology story is perhaps 125. If you have a really great day writing, and knock off 10 pages or so, in the middle of a book that might take you from 207 to 217. Big whoopie deal. In an anthology, though, that's a good chunk of the project. You feel like you're actually getting somewhere.

That said, this was still one of the most difficult things I've ever written. This was an editor-generated anthology, and we were given a lot of parameters to work with, something I'm not used to. I had to write the story of a man and woman who discover an abandoned baby, and there were a number of "musts," including a locket. Once I got past the set-up, however, I ended up enjoying it a lot.

That is until I got a copy of the entire book in the editing stage and discovered that one of the other authors -- lovely women, both of them -- had killed off my hero and heroine in her subsequent story! Luckily, the editor decided that was a tad too depressing. Whew.

--Susan


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Baby on the Doorstep A baby.

Dear God, a baby. What damn-fool idiot would leave a baby on his doorstep?

As soon as Michael Collins had taken the child into the shelter of the house, he'd raced back outside, hunting the yard and the street for any sign of who'd knocked on his door. The road was empty except for the spray of icy rain and bare, broken branches.

Unwilling to leave the baby alone any longer, terrified something would happen to it, he'd finally given up and rushed back home.

It hadn't disappeared while he was gone. He'd been nearly convinced that it would, and wasn't quite sure whether he should hope for that or not.

He sagged into the nearest chair, his hands hanging loose between his knees, and stared at the dishpan and the neatly tucked bundle of cloth it held. He'd peeled back the blanket that draped loosely over the top only once, only long enough to see what it held.

He didn't even dare touch the pan again. What if he did something wrong? What if he hurt it? Dear God, what in the hell was he supposed to do with the thing?

Ever since Michael had returned from the war, he'd done everything he could to avoid babies. When he walked through the streets of town, he kept his head down; on the rare occasions that a mother brought her child into his smithy, he averted his eyes, keeping them carefully on whatever bit of metal he was working.

He had to. It was asking too much of him, to be confronted so vividly with all he'd lost. It was too much pain to live with, and so he didn't. He survived only by keeping it ruthlessly boxed away. And by carefully, sometimes rudely, staying away from any reminders of what could have been, if only he'd been less stubborn. Less plumb self-righteously stupid.

But he couldn't keep his eyes off the blue-speckled dishpan and its living cargo. Was it breathing all right in there? What if the blanket sagged down and blocked its tiny nose? Maybe there was something wrong with it. Maybe whoever left it on his doorstep had confused his house with Dr. Williams' next door, not realizing the doctor had left nearly two years ago to run a Union hospital.

He leaned over and gingerly lifted the faded wool blanket.

Jesus, it was so small. He couldn't decide if it was the ugliest thing he had ever seen, or the most beautiful. Skin pink as a sunburned pig, blotching in the wavering firelight. A head no bigger than a misshapen orange, crowned with delicate fuzz the pale white of dandelion tufts. Little bitty features, eyes screwed shut with lids so thin they looked almost translucent.

Jesus Christ.

It could be sleeping. Or it could be dead. How the hell was he supposed to know?

Carefully he brought the tip of his forefinger under a nose that was barely the size of his fingernail. He caught a whisper of fragile warmth, a current of air so insubstantial, at first he wondered if he imagined it. It was breathing, then. Good.

Now what?

It squirmed a little, opened and closed its mouth a few times.

Then it started hollering.

He jumped back. "Damn it!" He knew he shouldn't have gone near the thing. And now look. He'd barely touched it, and already it was wailing away.

"Aw, come on, don't do that."

He picked it up, dishpan and all. Even with the sturdy metal pan and what had to be a few dozen yards of cotton and wool gauze, it still seemed lighter than even a small horseshoe.

"Please, please, don't do that."

It didn't listen. Who would have thought a creature that small could scream so loud? At least he knew the lungs were in working order.

"Please be quiet," he pleaded, not at all sure why he thought it would respond to politeness. It just seemed like the thing to do.

He cautiously jiggled the pan a little. The baby's face was rapidly turning from pink to all-out beet red, looking like it might head right on to purple.

"Shit!"

Michael Collins was no fool. He knew when he was in over his head.

He flipped the blanket back over the screaming child, sheltering it from the cold rain outside, and went straight for the door.

Perhaps Katherine Williams had imagined opening her door to see Michael standing there a few times. Okay, maybe even more than a few times, when her defenses were down. Even so, she'd never really expected to find him there. And certainly not warily cradling a cloth-wrapped bundle from which resounded the unmistakable sounds of a very angry infant.

"Michael!"

"I know it's late, I'm really sorry," he said in a desperate rush, "but can I come in?"

"Of course." She stepped aside to let him enter, her shock rapidly giving way to a vibrant curiosity. What in the world was Michael doing with a baby?

"Here" He shoved the pan in her hands, so quickly that she was grateful for efficient reflexes. "I don't know what I did to it, I swear. I just checked to make sure it was breathing, and it woke up and started screeching and I don't see how I could have hurt it, I barely touched it, and –"

"I'm sure you didn't." She swallowed a smile, knowing he wouldn't appreciate it. That was more words than she'd heard from Michael in the previous six months put together, and it pleased her. "Doesn't sound hurt to me, anyway. That's a mad cry if ever I heard one."

She set the baby down on the sofa and began unwrapping the layers of cloth. "Let's see what we have here now, hmm?" she said soothingly. "You sure are a loud one, aren't you?"

Hovering over her shoulder, Michael shifted awkwardly from foot to foot. "Is it? It sounded awful loud to me, but I didn't think I could have hurt it so bad. Maybe I scared it."

Oh no, you're fine, aren't you little one?" She lifted the baby into her arms, charmed as always by the thistledown weight and new-sweet smell of an infant. She swayed, an even, soothing motion, and the crying eased a notch. "Of course, if Michael doesn't stop all that twitching, it's no wonder you're a tad upset, is it?"

He froze. "Sorry."

Katherine broke into laughter. "Relax, Michael, it's only a baby."

He shot her a look of pure disbelief. "How do you know it's all right?"

"Well, now, my sisters have eleven between them so far, not counting the one Anne's expecting any day. I do know what I'm doing."

"Then what's the matter with it?"

"Hmm." She bent her head, so she could brush her nose over the softness of the fuzz on the baby's crown and fill herself with the scent. It had been too long since she'd held such a little one. "Needs a britches change, would be my guess. Or perhaps the babe's hungry."

"Well do it!"

"All right." Fortunately, she kept a stack of diapers in the linen closet. It was easier than her sisters having to pack a supply every time they brought one of their children to visit. She fetched one, and changed the baby right on the embroidered brocade of the soft – her mother would have had a fit, but who would tell her? – while Michael perched uneasily on a chair nearby, as if he couldn't quite decide whether he should bolt.

"Now." She lifted the child to her shoulder, and she burrowed in, nuzzling the side of Katherine's neck. "I've got some questions, but first we need to feed her. She's hungry."

"She?"

"Yes, she. Didn't you notice?"

"I didn't look!" he said, clearly aghast.

"Of course not." She turned to head for the kitchen, but the look in his eyes made her pause.
His eyes had always drawn her. Not only with their color, a deep, unusual green, like pines hidden in the shadows of a forest glade, but with the life they held, the secrets, the fierce intensity.

But ever since Sarah had died giving birth to their stillborn child, and he'd limped home for the war over a year later with a bullet in his hip and that bleak emptiness in his eyes, she'd looked into them a hundred times, searching for something, anything, a vague spark of the power that had once been there. There's been nothing . . . until now.

His gaze never left the child. Half of him was terrified, certainly; but there was also a tentative, unmistakable yearning, so fragile it nearly broke her heart just to look at it. And if it could hurt so much just seeing him that way, how much worse must it be for him, to be feeling it?

"Here." Her decision made, she placed the baby in his arms before he had time to think about it and backed away. His big hands, rough, scarred from his work, shiny with red patches where he'd burned himself on the red-hot metal, nearly swallowed up the tiny body.

"But I can't –"

"Of course you can," she said calmly. "Or I wouldn't let you touch her. Just keep her head supported."

"I know that much!" he snapped.

And, before he could protest again, she disappeared down the hall without so much as a backward glance.

"Lord." He wondered how many times he'd begged help from Above tonight. He'd thought he'd given up that useless habit long ago. Back when he'd lain in a Union hospital and prayed for death and even that release had been denied him.

The crying picked up volume again. It astounded him that she could keep it up that long. He tried the swaying he'd seen Katherine use, rocking back and forth, and was immensely relieved when it seemed to help.

The warmth of the child, perceptible even through the layers of blankets, surprised him. He wouldn't have guessed she would be so warm. And he would never have guessed he would like the feel of her in his arms so much.

Which, of course, was exactly why he had to get her off his hands and out of is life as soon as possible, before he started to like it too much. Because there was no way in hell he was ever going to allow himself to go through losing someone he would miss ever again.

"Here we go."

When Katherine reappeared at his side, Michael gratefully moved to hand over the baby, but she shook her head. "Oh no, you go ahead and feed her. Might as well get used to it." She handed him a small tin bottle topped with a black rubber nipple.

He was about to protest the "get used to it" when the infant let out a renewed wail. Desperate, he jostled to free up one hand, tucking her more firmly in the crook of his elbow, and nudged her mouth with the tip of the nipple.

She latched on with such ferocity that he nearly jumped, her cries instantly replaced with the sounds of lusting suckling.

"What the heck did you put in there, anyway?"

"Just water, mostly. A teaspoon of sugar and cream." Katherine played her fingers lightly over the baby's head. Elegant fingers, long and slender; a musician's hands. "She's too young to handle anything richer yet, I think."

"Young?"

He looked up to find Katherine close beside him, her head bent over the child in his arms. Closer than he'd been to a woman in months . . . years. Her hair was loose, falling softly over her shoulders, the firelight picking out strands of red in the rich, glossy brown, and his belly contracted painfully.

It had been his choice, the absence of women in his life. His punishment, for not having been there when Sarah needed him the most. For being off hammering horseshoes on military nags while she struggled for her life, and the life of their child, and lost. It hadn't been nearly penance enough – not even when he talked his commanding officers into letting him leave the army smithy and fight at the front instead. After Sarah's death, just the idea of touching another woman seemed sordid and sacrilegious.

He could live without the sex. It was the other things he missed more, the soft, daily things. The feel of warm, damp woman's skin right after her bath or the curve of a secret smile that was just for him. Once, a few months after learning of Sarah's death, he'd counted out enough money for a prostitute the night before a battle. Not to sleep with; he'd known he wouldn't be able to bring himself to do that, as much as he would have welcomed the oblivion. He'd just wanted the chance to bury his nose in the silky coils of a woman's hair and breathe in that sweet scent one more time. Instead, though, she'd stunk of smoke and whiskey and other men, and he'd left feeling worse than before.

But this was Katherine. Katherine, his wife's best friend, whom he'd always liked in a vague sort of way but never thought more about than that. She lifted her head, her blue eyes dark as twilight in the shadowed room, and she was close enough to kiss, and he was utterly shocked that the idea had even occurred to him.

Hell! He didn't want this. Didn't want it, didn't need it, couldn't handle the complication of it. He survived each day only by removing himself from even the possibility of feeling anything, not pleasure or pain, and certainly not this sudden, sharp flicker of unwelcome attraction.

"How old do you think she is?" he asked, looking for distraction.

"You don't know?"

"No, I –" His gaze whipped to hers. "You don't think she's mine?!"

"She's not." She wasn't, of course, and Katherine knew it. Michael would never suspect that half of her almost wished the child was his. She would rather have him be a man, even a flawed and careless but obviously alive man, than the cold, stiff monument to grief he'd made of himself.

"She's not."

"Well, she's certainly brand new. Not more than a day or two, I'd say." Unable to resist, she let her fingers drift over the baby's scalp, taking pleasure in that impossibly tender skin. "She's small, though. And had a bit of a rough time of it. See how her head is misshapen from being pushed through the birth canal?"

Though it was hard to tell in the dusky light, she could have sworn he blushed, and was utterly charmed by it. Katherine supposed it wasn't the sort of thing a lady of any delicacy should say to a man. But childbirth was not a modest undertaking, and she'd gone through it with her sisters and friends often enough that she was no longer embarrassed by any aspect of it.

"Is that what it's from? I'd wondered," he said.

"Mmm-hmm. It'll go away, though, soon enough." He looked so fine with a child in his arms, she decided. Even so obviously uncomfortable. There was something about a big, hard man with a new life held safe in his battered hands that would always get to any woman with a heart. And she had one, as hard as she'd tried to steel it against him. "Are you going to tell me where she came from?"

"Here. You take her."

"Does it bother you to hold her?"

"No." He was surprised she asked; he was so accustomed to people carefully choosing their words around him, never touching on any subject that might remind him. Even more surprised that his answer was the truth. He would have guessed it would hurt more, expected that he could hardly bear to be so near a newborn. But two years had passed, and it was hard to mourn something that was a possibility more than a memory. Hard, too, to remain distant and unfeeling with the soft weight of a child in his arms.

When Katherine settled on the sofa, he took a seat in a nearby chair. Better not to risk being too close to her, he reasoned. Though he'd known her for years – seven? eight? – and never felt it before, that was no guarantee that the odd, and surprisingly potent, burst of attraction would go back where it came from. He dared not take the chance.

"Now then," she prompted.

"Someone left her on my doorstep."

"Just like that?"

"Just like that." It still seemed impossible to him. Who could abandon a child like that? And who would be idiot enough to give over care of an infant to him?

The baby squirmed and gave out a fussy cry. He yanked the bottle from her mouth and frantically looked to Katherine for help. Wasn't she ever going to rescue him? Couldn't she see he was utterly helpless? "Hell, she's gonna start hollering again."

Katherine grinned, clearly unconcerned, and just as clearly having far too much fun at his expense. "You probably just need to bubble her."

"Huh?"

She motioned with her hands, demonstrating how to bring the baby to his shoulder and gently pat her back.

"What if I hit her too hard and hurt her?"

"You won't." He had no idea where she'd developed this unshakable faith in his abilities. Until now, he'd always considered her a fairly intelligent woman. And he refused to be flattered by her confidence in him.

"Worst thing that could happen," she continued, "is she'll lose her dinner all the way down your back."

He looked up abruptly and she burst into laughter. The woman was giggling at him, damn it, her eyes dancing with amusement and firelight.

"You might as well get used to that, too," she said.

"I'm not getting used to anything!" he said, with enough force that the baby startled. "Can I put it down now?"

"Of course. She's probably ready to go back to sleep, anyway."

Even after so brief a time holding her, surely less than an hour, he felt the reluctance to give her up, knew that he would miss the feel of her against his chest. And since he understood, far too well, the danger of growing accustomed to having something warm and sweet in his life, he moved to return her to her dishpan bed as fast as he could.

He carefully tucked the blanket in around her, and caught a glint of metal, hidden deep in the folds of cloth. Curious, he probed the blankets, drawing out a delicate chain spun of gold, fragile as the strand of a spider's web. An oval disk twirled from it, catching flashes of the flames from the hearth and throwing them out into the darkness.

"What is it?" Katherine asked.

"Here." Taking care not to accidentally brush her fingers with his – who knew what the result would be, in a night that seemed completely beyond his control – he dropped it into her waiting palms.

"A locket," she murmured, fingering the edges of the oval. "Half of one, at any rate. From her mother, I suppose." She glanced up at him. "Why are you standing there? Sit."

This time, there was no inconspicuous way to select a place comfortably far from her. Uneasy, he took a seat on the far end of the couch. Even from there, he imagined he could smell her, a drift of soap and toilet water.

"What are you going to do now?"

"Do?" He'd been too busy trying to survive each moment without doing that fragile infant permanent harm to give much thought to what came next. He'd been hoping Katherine would simply take over and save him the worry. "I'll find her mother, I suppose."

"It might not be that easy." Or even desirable, in Katherine's opinion. A woman who could abandon a child on the doorstep of a stranger should hardly have the right to such a precious charge. "She was probably quite desperate, to leave her child like that. Or perhaps . . . oh, I don't know. Maybe, in her shame, she threw herself in the river. She was unmarried and alone, cruelly cast off from her family, and the stranger who attended the birth couldn't keep a motherless child, for she already had six of her own she could barely keep fed. Before she took her tragic leap to join her murdered love, the mother begged the kindly stranger to find her daughter a good home. And the good home selected you."

"Did you just think of that?" he asked, caught between admiration and sheer astonishment.

"Well . . . no," she admitted. Mother's off to Anne's until after the baby's born – the twins are only eleven months, you know. So I've been reading at night to occupy myself." She leaned forward, drawing him into her conspiracy. "Novels. And if you tell her, I'll make you very, very sorry. I promise I will."

"Oh, I believe you would. Clearly, you're much more imaginative than I am. Who knows what you'd come up with." He gave a mock shudder.

Then he added one more extraordinary thing to an already extraordinary night – laughter. How long had it been? Long enough he barely recognized the sound of his own laughter. He tried to feel guilty, tried to stop in inappropriate response, but he couldn't find the will. It just felt too damn good.

Katherine sobered, and he had the oddest urge to do something silly, just to see if he could make her laugh again. And if that wasn't silly, he didn't know what was.

"What if you can't find her mother?" she asked.

"I will." There was nothing else to be done.

"And what will you do with her until then?"

"You could take her," he suggested hopefully.

Katherine drummed her fingers on her knees, considering. She'd take the child, in a moment, if it came to that. But if she did, she knew what would happen. She'd noted how quickly he'd rid himself of the baby after she finished her bottle. If the baby with her, Michael would retreat back into his comfortable, sterile isolation. She had no doubt of it. That tender glimmer of interest and emotion she'd seen when he looked at the babe would be gone as if it had never existed.

She knew of no better way to mourn and heal than to hold a child.

"Oh, I don't think so," she said slowly. "I have work to do. Who would care for her when I teach? Or play at the Sunday services? Mother won't be home for two months, at least."

Obviously, it had never occurred to him that she would refuse. His eyes went wide, his mouth opened and closed, as if he felt the need to say something but couldn't quite figure out what.

"I guess you'll have to keep her yourself."

"What!" Now there was clear emotion in his eyes – pure and unmistakable panic. "That's" – he cast around for a word strong enough – "impossible!"

It was patently unfair of her to use a confidence he had no idea she knew. She was going to do it anyway.

Sarah had told her once that the reason Michael was so obviously and completed devoted to his new family was simply because he'd never had one of his own. He'd been raised in an orphanage and hated every second of it. She suspected he'd cut off his own arm before consigning another child to the same fate.

"I suppose," Katherine said, as if thinking aloud, "that we could consult Reverend Hartman. Perhaps he knows of a good orphanage that would be willing to take her in, poor thing." She was faintly surprised that she'd managed to speak the words so calmly, for she hated the idea herself, and would never let a child go into one of those cold and lonely places if she could possibly prevent it.

For a moment she thought she'd badly miscalculated. His expression went dead cold and Katherine was afraid that, once again, Michael had managed to detach himself from everything – and everyone – around him.

"No," he said flatly. "She's not going to an orphanage. Ever."

Her relief was muted by the distinct possibility that he would never forgive her for making the suggestion. Still, she'd had little choice. Nothing else had lured him back from his icy grief; if this worked, she would gladly live with his anger in return.

"Do you have any other suggestions?"

"I still understand why you can't. You can't have lessons more than a few hours a day. I've got my own work to do."

"Yes, well . . ." He was right, darn it. She'd hoped to get this settled before he had time to think it through. "I . . . " She sniffled loudly. "I think I'm getting a cold, though. Wouldn't be good for her to be around me all the time. At least until I'm not sick anymore."

"A cold?"

"Oh yes." She rubbed her neck. "My throat's real scratchy."

"And I suppose she could catch it."

"Of course. Wouldn't do at all."

"I guess not."

"If you keep her, I'll help you all I can," she suggested quickly. "I'll teach you everything you need to know. You can drop her off on your way to the smithy in the morning. I'll watch her any time I don't have lessons to give."

"What about your cold?"

"Oh, as long as she's not with me all the time, it'll be okay. I'll be careful."

Baby on the DoorstepTruth be told, he'd probably be heartily sick of her presence before this was over. Though she was absolutely sure of the baby's welfare – Michael was intelligent, capable, and sensible, and that was, in her opinion, far more important than his sex in the ability to care for a child – he was a tad short on practical experience. But what brand new parent wasn't? Still, she fully intended to live in his pocket, at least for a while.

"Whatever you need, Michael, just remember I'm right next door."

 

END OF CHAPTER ONE
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