Carrie drew in her breath sharply, aghast, her eyes registering the confusion and horror on her husband’s face as he stared into the eyes of their child.
It was Max who was the first to speak. He took the child by the arm and drew her away from Brad. “Sarah, what other mommy? Who told you that you’re not staying with your real mommy already?”
The child sniffed again, and rubbed at her eyes. “They say Jesus take Mommy away, Daddy send me to my real mommy! I not want go away, Grandpa.” And she burst into another bout of sobbing.
“Who the hell said that?” Brad exploded, without thinking.
Carrie struggled to sit, wincing as she reached for the little girl. “My baby, come here.” She tried to stay calm, but her heart was racing, and she cursed the weakness in her frail body. Brad was shaking with rage and she wanted desperately to soothe him, but her daughter needed her. Max helped her to sit as she took Sarah into her arms, holding her as best as she could manage, while the child clung to her and cried.
The doctor put his hand on Brad’s arm. “Seems she heard more than we thought. Calm down, Brad. This is no time to let that temper get the better of you!”
“It was bad enough that she thought Carrie was dying!” The words came through clenched teeth. “I could forgive that because we all thought it! But this is sheer gossip! My child is too young to hear ………….”
“Stop it!” Max squeezed Brad’s arm, -hard! “Calm that temper of yours before you say anything else! Your wife and child need your support, not your anger!”
For a second Brad stood still, breathing heavily, then he swallowed, took a deep breath, and sat down on the couch next to Carrie, his arms encircling both his wife and the sobbing child. “It’s ok,” he murmured to Sarah. “Do you think we would ever let our little princess go away from us? Don’t cry, sweetie. You’re staying right here, with Mommy and Daddy, always! I promise!”
“I make Mommy sore!” Sarah muttered.
“No, my darling. You didn’t!” Carrie said quickly. “It’s just my head that is sore, and you didn’t do it!”
Sarah raised her eyes and looked into Carrie’s face. “You my Mommy.”
It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. From a scared three-year-old!
Carrie had tears in her own eyes. “Yes, Sarah. I’m your mommy, for always. No one is ever going to take you away from us.”
“I not go with my other mommy!” She pouted angrily. “I stay here.”
Brad took the child onto his lap as Max helped Carrie lie down again.
He mopped at her tears and wiped her nose. “You’re not going anywhere, Sarah! I’ll never let you go away from us. My sweet baby girl, you know how much we love you, don’t you?”
She sniffed, then nodded and stretched out her arms. “This much!”
Brad gave a short laugh, and hugged her. “Much, much more, sweetheart! You and your Mommy are the most precious people in my life.”
“You love my mommy!” Sarah announced suddenly, taking Carrie’s hand again. “Kiss Mommy better, Daddy!”
Max gave a wry laugh. “Hmm. If kisses are all it takes, she should be the healthiest woman in the world!” He went to the door of the lounge. “I think you three need to have a talk. I trust that by tea-time there’ll be three happier-looking people in the house!”
When he had gone, Brad complied with Sarah’s request and kissed Carrie very gently. Then he lifted Sarah back onto his lap and said quietly, “Sweetie, I don’t ever want you to be scared of anything you might hear. I told you to talk to Daddy, or Mommy, if anything makes you sad. Why didn’t you tell me that someone mentioned your - other mommy?”
“I not go to her, Daddy. I stay with you and Mommy?”
“You’ll always stay with us.” He hesitated before adding, “Your real mommy died, Sarah. Do you understand?”
She wrinkled her nose, but seemed undisturbed. Then her eyes met Carrie’s. “You my Mommy!” she repeated. Then added, “I not grow in your tummy. I grow’d in your heart!”
Both Brad and Carrie gasped in amazement at such a statement from so young a child.
“Who - who told you that?” Brad asked softly.
A smile shone through the sad little eyes. “Uncle Ian.”
Carrie swallowed. “He - he told you I wasn’t your real Mommy?”
“No. He say I grow’d in your heart ’cos I special.” Then, as if she was now tired of the subject, she stated, “I listen Daddy’s heart.”
She held up the resonator and Brad helped her with the ear pieces. He sat still while she listened, but his eyes were on Carrie, noting the little frown on her face.
“Why don’t you go and find Grandpa Max and give him his stethoscope back, sweetie?” he said. “I need to talk to Mommy for a minute.”
“This mine! Grandpa Max say I have it! You play piano, Daddy?”
“In a little while, maybe. Go and fetch your puzzles and we’ll play here while Mommy rests.”
He watched her skip out of the lounge, then he squeezed Carrie’s hand and said softly, “She’s still too young to really understand. Are you ok, my love?”
Carrie swallowed, saying shakily, “I think I’m a bit shocked that she even mentioned her real mother. I didn’t think she knew!”
“You are her real mother, Carrie.” he said gently. “The only mother she has! I’m the one who needs to be worried. Somewhere out there she has a father who doesn’t know anything about her!”
“So, if he doesn’t know about her, why should you be worried? It’s your name on her birth certificate!” She gave a little smile. “It actually went quite well. She was adamant that I’m her mommy. It’s going to be all right, Brad. Are you - are you ok? You looked so angry!”
He shrugged. “Yeah, I’m all right. But I am angry! People have no right to discuss my family and things they know nothing about. First, it was that you were dying, and now, that I’m sending my child to live with her real mother! Sarah is too young to overhear such stuff and nonsense!”
It was obvious that he was now getting riled up again, and Carrie said soothingly, “Calm down, love. People make assumptions when they don’t know the truth. And we haven’t exactly told anyone the circumstances about Sarah.”
“It’s nobody else’s business!” he growled. “But this will never happen again. I’ll make sure of that!”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m not sure, yet.” He bit his lip. “I don’t want either you or Sarah to be hurt by rumours and gossip. Or any of the rest of the family, for that matter.”
“We all know the truth, so gossip can’t affect us!”
“Sarah doesn’t understand,” Brad said. “We’re the only parents she’s ever had. All she cares about is that she’s not going to be sent away!” He scowled. “How can anyone even think that I’d send her to live with a stranger?”
Carrie put her hand on his arm. “They can only assume things, Brad. Please don’t get angry again.”
His expression softened, and then he smiled, “Are you afraid of me when I get angry?”
That made her smile too. “How could I ever be afraid of a man who loves me as much as you do? I just don’t want you to worry.” A pause, then, “I wish I didn’t feel so weary. I - I just want to close my eyes for a little while. I’m so tired - so very tired.”
Brad frowned as her eyes fell shut. It worried him to see how quickly she dozed off sometimes, although both Max and Mark had told him to expect it. He fetched a light blanket from a cupboard in the hall and covered her, though it was not cold and she still had her silk floral gown on over her pyjamas.
He stood beside the couch, reflecting on her simple beauty, even with the bandages covering her head. To him, she was perfect in every way, and he thanked God once again that she was still with him. For the umpteenth time he asked himself why he was so blessed, and he still had no answer. Even the pain had diminished these last few years, so that nowadays he only felt it when the injections, that Max administered, wore off, or rare spasms, like the one he’d had earlier today, hit him. Spasms that seemed to be coming more regularly again!
He turned as Sarah came back into the lounge, a finger on his lips. She glanced at the couch, and smiled, then duly whispered, “I not wake Mommy up!”
She put the puzzles and books she had been carrying onto the rug on the floor. The stethoscope was still hanging round her neck, and she put her hands on her hips and looked down at the skeleton. “Mr Bones sleeping too!”
Brad laughed softly, spreading himself out on the rug beside the toys. “Hmm. Better not wake him, then!”
“Silly Daddy,” the child whispered, grinning. “He sleep all the time!” She sat down, opening one of the boxes and tipping the puzzle pieces out. “We do Barney puzzle, Daddy?”
They sat on the floor together and he helped her put the large pieces in the puzzle. When Nanny brought the tea-trolley in, Carrie was still asleep. Max and Neil joined them, and shortly afterwards June came in from the clinic in her white coat, stethoscope hanging round her neck.
Her husband stood to greet her, saying, “Hello darling. It’s not often I get to see you looking like a doctor!”
She smiled. “It’s not often you get to see me at all during working hours. Mark said I could come for tea and check up on my patient!” She glanced at the sleeping Carrie. “Nice to see that she’s resting.”
“May I pour you some tea, dear?” Nanny asked.
“Thank you, Mrs. Craig. I’d love a cup.”
“It’s Nanny, dear. Everyone here calls me Nanny!”
“Except me!” Max put in quickly, winking at her. “You’re my Ellen. Took me long enough to make you my wife.” He grinned. “I’m glad I came to my senses before you were snapped up by some other man!”
Nanny blushed as she poured the tea, and said, “Oh, Max! I was too busy being a nanny to notice any men snapping at my heels. And you were the only one who ever took me to the theatre. I only had eyes for you. Drink your tea!” She handed June a plate, indicating the food on the tea-trolley. “Help yourself, dear.”
“Looks scrumptious,” June said. “Just the type of things my husband loves!” She smiled at Neil as he took another chocolate brownie, and he winked at her.
Brad laughed. “A man after my own heart! I can’t resist anything with chocolate or ice cream.“…
Neil also laughed. “Neither can I! As you can see!”
“Brad has to eat properly because of his blood sugar,” Max told them. “Along with all his other health problems, he has a peculiar pancreas too.”
“My health is just fine,” Brad said abruptly. “God looks after me and even arranged for my doctor to be on hand whenever I need him.”
Max raised his eyebrows. “Not that you take any notice at all of anything I say! God has all the credit for keeping you alive!”
“God has all the credit for keeping us all alive,” Brad said emphatically. He looked across at his wife and sighed. “I should never have doubted Him!”
“There was a moment during the surgery,” June admitted, “when I thought we were losing her. That was a first for me! It’s usually after the surgery that I tend to have doubt!” She smiled. “But God steadied my hands and my mind just when I needed Him.”
Neil smiled at her. “You are a brilliant surgeon. You’ve never lost a patient yet! I’m so proud that you’re my wife!”
Just before tea-time ended, Carrie whimpered and opened her eyes. Sarah immediately jumped up from the floor, and ran to the couch.
“Mommy! You sore, Mommy?”
Carrie met the child’s eyes. “I’m f-f-fine, darling,” she stammered.
But she flinched as Brad went to help her sit up, and she groaned. “I - I need to - to use the bathroom. I’m - I’m sorry, Brad.”
He blinked. “Sorry for what? I’ll help you.”
Sarah’s stood and watched with big eyes as they helped her mother into the wheelchair, and when Brad pushed it out of the lounge, Nanny gathered the forlorn little girl into her arms.
“It’s all right, princess. Mommy’s fine. Let’s put some nice cookies on a plate for her and then I’ll pour her a cup of tea.”
“Mommy got ouchie.” Sarah muttered.
“No, no, sweetheart,” Max told her. “Your mommy’s still a bit tired, that’s all. That’s why your daddy has to help her.”
“I help Mommy.”
“Yes, because you’re such a good girl. But Mommy might cry, or even get cross. But that’s because she doesn’t like being ill. Do you understand?”
Her brow puckered, but she nodded bravely, and repeated, “I help Mommy.”
Nanny hugged her. “Let’s go to the kitchens and get some of those special wafers that Mommy likes.”
She took the child off and Max picked up the skeleton and put it back on its stand.
“Poor child,” he said. “It’s very hard for her. And now she’s afraid of the things she heard!”
“What things?” June asked.
Max explained briefly about what Sarah had heard the previous day, adding, “We can only speculate, of course, what is going through her little mind. And she isn’t really old enough to tell us. Yesterday we thought it was just that she’d heard her mommy was dying! Today we understand that she thinks her daddy will send her to live with her real mother!”
“Carrie isn’t her real mother?” Neil asked. “I didn’t know that!”
June smiled. “Carrie didn’t give birth to her. She can’t have children! But she is her mother! Just as Brad is her father!”
“Not exactly!” Max told him. “Her mother named Brad as the father on her birth certificate. Carrie became her mother as his wife.” He smiled. “Brad isn’t her biological father either. It’s a complicated story, but, believe me, Sarah will never be allowed to become at all like her biological mother! Barbara was - well, let’s just say that she wasn’t a very nice woman! She was murdered when Sarah was still a tiny baby!”
“Wow! Sounds intriguing!”
“Hmm,” Max replied. “There’s more intrigue in Brad’s novels! He doesn’t like to think about his association with Barbara, but he loves Sarah as if she was his own child.”
“She’s adorable,” June said. “And very bright for her age. She showed me her dolls yesterday and knows all the countries from the costumes they’re dressed in.”
“And most of the bones on that skeleton too!” Neil put in with a laugh. “Almost put me to shame!”
Max also laughed. “Yes, she’s definitely a very clever little girl! Learns quickly, and remembers very well. And she’ll never be rude and obnoxious. Brad won’t allow that! He takes after his father as far as discipline is concerned. The Conway’s are known around here for their politeness and etiquette!” He grinned, adding, “and their wealth of course. Brad owns the property they live in, although he insists that he, or his family, gets no special attention or privileges.”
“He’s certainly a very special man,” Neil said. “From what you and June tell me, he shouldn’t even be able to walk.”
“Or stand, for that matter!” June put in. “Professor Dennison has put out a whole medical paper based on Brad’s case. A living miracle, he says!”
Max nodded, smiling. “Yes, he’s very blessed. His faith really does move mountains!”
At that moment, Brad pushed the wheelchair back into the lounge. His face was grim, and Carrie was crying.
June moved to the wheelchair immediately. “What is it? Pain?”
“No,” Carrie sniffed. “Just a headache.”
“She’s upset because I have to help her,” Brad said quietly.
“I shouldn’t need help!” Carrie retorted, more tears rolling down her cheeks. “I used to be able to lift my patients! Now I’m not even strong enough to take myself to the toilet!”
June gave a slight smile. “But you will be, Carrie! You’re already doing so much better than I expected! As a nurse, you know the danger of allowing patients to walk alone after major surgery. Your strength will return, just give it time!”
Brad bit his lip. “ I think I might have hurt her. I thought she was going to fall!”
Carrie swallowed back tears. “No! I just don’t want you to hurt yourself! That’s why I cried out! I’m sorry!”
Max frowned. “Carrie! Stop crying and tell us what happened. Are you in any pain?”
She sniffed. “No.. I was dizzy and Brad was going to lift me. I - I yelled at him!”
“No, you didn’t! I hurt you!”
“You didn’t hurt me!”
“I grabbed you by the hip!”
“You were going to lift me! Your back……”
“My back is fine! I’m not going to just let you fall.”
“I wouldn’t have fallen!”
“You don’t know that! You could have collapsed!”
“I was just dizzy! I wouldn’t have fallen!”
Max gave an exasperated grunt. “Will you both stop bickering? Carrie, if you want to stay downstairs, you’d better get used to your husband helping you.”
She sniffed. “I - I like him helping me. It’s just ….” She burst into another bout of crying. “If he - if he hurts himself, I’m too w-weak to help him!”
“I’m not going to hurt myself, Carrie!” Brad pulled a clean handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped at her tears. “But you must tell me if you feel dizzy!”
June took her wrist and felt for her pulse. “Do you feel dizzy all the time, Carrie, or only when you stand?”
“When I stand,” Carrie muttered. “I don’t have the strength to stay on my feet for long. Then I feel faint, as if I’m going to pass out!′ She gulped, adding, “I’m sorry.”
That made June smile. “Why are you sorry? ”
“For causing all this trouble,” she wailed, her face crumpling again!
“It’s no trouble, Carrie.” June said. “The weakness is normal. I suspect that your blood sugar has dropped because you’re not eating enough. We can remedy that! You are slightly dehydrated too.”
Brad bent over her, looking into her ravaged face. “Hey!” he said gently. “It’s all right! Don’t cry, sweetheart. Please, don’t cry!”
“You’re scared to hold me too tight, and I can’t hold onto you! I hate being like this!” she sobbed. “I’m scared, Brad. I don’t want to fall, but I don’t want you to hurt yourself either!”
Brad cupped her chin in his hand and planted a kiss on her lips. “I will never let you fall! I promise! Please don’t cry, love!”
“I’m sorry,” she apologised again. “I don’t know why I’m so emotional! But you didn’t hurt me - really, you didn’t!”
Brad looked sceptical, but he left it as Sarah and Nanny came back to the lounge. Carrie drank two cups of tea and nibbled on one of the wafers to please Sarah. June checked her blood pressure and administered medication before she went back to the clinic.
As it was such a warm and beautiful day Brad took Carrie out onto the patio beside the rose garden. Sarah brought her colouring book and lay on the floor next to the wheelchair with her crayons.
Brad sat next to the wheelchair holding Carrie’s hand and they chatted about general things, mostly family. It was not only the accident itself that was gone from Carrie’s memory, but also the events leading up to it. She could not recall leaving Sarah with Edmund and Irene, or even why she had taken her there in the first place.
They were still there when Nanny came through with a dark-haired man with small gauze bandage on the right side of his forehead.
“Brad, this is Mr. Wilkins!” Nanny introduced him. “He’d like a word with you and Carrie.” She gave Carrie a rather concerned smile, and then she quietly withdrew, taking Sarah with her.