It was almost five o’clock when the twins brought Sarah back from the stables. Ian came in with them. The rest of the family were in the lounge and Carrie was lying on one of the couches, a pillow under her head. Sarah immediately ran to her, but stood silently, a little frown on her face.
Brad had been chatting to Max but now he stood up, lifting the child into his arms. “Mommy is just resting, sweetie. Did you have a good time in the stables?”
Sarah wound her arms around his neck and whispered in his ear. “I ride Ginger. I wear hat!”
He smiled. “I know. You must always wear a hat when you ride. Uncle Ian won’t let you go on a horse without one.”
“Ssh. Daddy! I give Mommy big surprise!”
Ian glanced at Carrie, and put in very quietly, “Sarah sits well. You’d think she’d been learning for months.”
Brad eyed him solemnly. “Exactly how long has she been learning?”
Ian grinned, shrugging, “About two weeks! Don’t worry, brother dear. Carrie gave me permission to teach her. She actually said ‘when she’s older’, but I mentioned to her yesterday that I’d given Sarah a pony and was teaching her, and she didn’t freak out! I promised I’d take good care of her!”
For a second, Brad seemed distracted, as if he was thinking of something else. Then he said, “Could I see you for a minute in my study?”
Ian blinked. “Sure. Have I done something wrong?”
Brad smiled. “Not at all. I just want to clarify something!” He put Sarah down, saying, “Don’t wake Mommy, sweetie. You just play with Erin for a few minutes while Uncle Ian and I have a chat.”
He watched the child run to her baby cousin who was bouncing along in the baby-walker, and he winked at Julie. “Will you watch her for a minute?”
“Of course.” Julie said. “She can help me feed Erin before her Daddy gets in from the clinic.”
Ian followed Brad into his study, rather slowly, and stood with his back against the closed door. He was frowning and as Brad turned to look at him, he said quietly, “I hope I wasn’t out of line telling Carrie that I was teaching Sarah?”
Brad shrugged and shook his head. “No, it’s nothing to do with that! I’m just curious to know when you told my daughter that she was adopted!”
Ian drew in his breath sharply, his eyes wide. “I didn’t tell her that! Brad, I swear I didn’t say….”
He heard Brad’s laugh, and relaxed. “In any case, she’s not adopted!” he muttered lamely.
Brad perched on the edge of his desk. “It seems that Sarah not only heard that her mother - Carrie - was dying, but also that I was sending her away to her ‘other’ mommy! You can imagine how angry I was!”
“Good gracious!” Ian was shocked. But he frowned, confused. “She heard that about her other mother yesterday? But it was when I picked her up from Edmund on Saturday that she was asking questions about - about her birth. We saw a pregnant woman at the fete, and you know how fascinated she is with Vicki’s condition at the moment! She told me the lady had a baby in her tummy like Aunty Vicki, and asked me if she grew in her mommy’s tummy too. I - I couldn’t lie to her. I told her, no, she didn’t grow in Carrie’s tummy, she grew in her heart. I didn’t think she’d remember. But I swear I didn’t mention that she was - adopted!”
“I’m not blaming you,” Brad assured him. “She told us she grew in Carrie’s heart. That was very sweet. Edmund said she’d asked them too. I just wonder what has made her start asking questions now. She’s still very young. I don’t think she really understands. But it concerns me that she’s hearing things that are upsetting her. I’m going to speak to the tenants on the estate and be completely clear that my daughter is not my love-child that I foisted on Carrie!”
“You believe that’s what they think?”
Brad shrugged. “I have no idea what they think! They know it was her grandfather who bought one of the cottages. He's well known! And the older ones know that I dated Barbara years ago so they know Sarah is her child. People put two and two together and make whatever number suits them to gossip about!” He smiled. “But thanks for everything you do for Sarah. It can’t be easy, knowing how much you hated her mother!”
Ian blinked. “I love Sarah! We all do! And anyway, Carrie is her mother now - and that other bitch is probably rotting in hell!”
His venom made Brad flinch, but he said quietly, “I can only hope not! Barbara was not a good woman, but she gave me Sarah. And - and she gave me a way of escape from having to marry her too, I suppose!”
Ian studied his brother’s face for a minute, then he said simply, “I think that was God’s plan!”
Carrie was just waking up when they came back into the lounge, and her uncle was helping her to sit up. She seemed rather disorientated and kept blinking as if to clear her vision.
Max put his hand under her chin and said softly, “Look at me, Carrie. Are you in pain?”
She groaned a little, but muttered, “No, not really. I - just feel strange, - dizzy - and - and a bit nauseous.”
Brad frowned as he bent over her to kiss her cheek softly. “Not feeling well, love? Maybe I should take you back to bed?”
She swallowed and answered shakily, “No, I’ll be okay. It’s almost dinner time. Where’s Sarah?”
He glanced over to where Sarah was sitting on the floor in front of Erin, wiggling a soft toy. “She’s over there, playing with Erin,” he answered rather vaguely.
Max was checking her pulse, and she pulled her wrist away petulantly, saying, “I’m fine, Uncle Max. I just wish I felt - normal! I hate being so - weak and tired all the time! ”
“Oh, Carrie, for heaven’s sake!” Max answered crossly. “You are not the nurse at the moment!”
She lowered her eyes, knowing exactly what he was saying, and muttered, “I’m sorry. My - my head aches and I feel as if I want to throw up! I don’t want to be a nuisance!”
He smiled. “I know you don’t. And you’re not! You don’t consider your patients to be just a nuisance, do you?”
“No, of course not, but….” She burst into tears, much to the alarm of Brad and the rest of the adults in the lounge. And Sarah shot to her feet, dropping the teddy bear, and ran towards the couch.
“Mommy?” Her eyes darted back and forth between her mother and father.
Brad sat down next to Carrie and put his arm around her, comforting her as best as he could. The tears did not last long, and she leant against him as he took the distressed Sarah onto his lap.
“Mommy has just woken up, sweetie. She’s all right.”
Sarah caught hold of Carrie’s hand. “I here, Mommy. I look after you.”
That made Carrie give a little smile, and all trace of weepiness was gone as quickly as it had come. Her uncle lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. “Hmm. I’m sure that we can give you something for nausea. June will be here soon. Want to sit in the wheelchair, or would you rather lie down again?”
“I’ll stay here,” she mumbled, leaning closer into Brad as his arm slipped around her waist. She rested her head against his shoulder. Sarah put her little hand on her mother’s cheek, and stroked the soft skin, repeating, “I look after Mommy.”
Carrie closed her eyes and relaxed again, and Max nodded and winked at Brad.
“You have a little nurse in the making! Although she assures me that she wants to be a doctor!” He patted Sarah’s head fondly. “I’m going to fetch some pills for your mommy. Maybe you can make sure she swallows them?”
The child nodded gravely, and Brad suppressed a laugh.
While they waited for Max to come back, Sarah sat very still on Brad’s lap and held her mother’s hand. Carrie’s eyes remained shut, and she didn’t move, and Brad kept his arm around her waist.
Vicki came towards them, a worried frown on her face. “Is Carrie ok? Has she gone back to sleep?” she whispered.
“Mommy got ouchie!” Sarah said quietly, before Brad could respond.
He smiled. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she’s fallen asleep again,” he told Vicki. “She drops off so quickly! The surgeon says that’s normal, and she needs as much sleep as she can get.”
“I’m not sleeping,” Carrie muttered, but she didn’t open her eyes. “I have a headache, that’s all!”
“Your uncle has gone to get your medication,” Brad said. “He’ll be back soon. Just rest, sweetheart!”
“I need the bathroom,” she replied, and shifted her body slightly, squeezing Sarah’s hand.
She wet her lips, opening her eyes to look up at Vicki. “Are you ok? How are you feeling?”
Vicki smiled “I’m fine! This is the last week of the term, and then maternity leave. Can I help you to the bathroom?”
“I’ll help her,” Brad stated firmly.
“I wish I didn’t need help,” Carrie uttered, as they helped her into the wheelchair. “I hate being as weak as a baby!”
Vicki took Sarah over to the couch on the other side of the lounge, as Brad pushed the wheelchair into the nearest bathroom. Luke was playing a board game with the twins and Jessica, and he smiled at the child when she put her head on his wife’s tummy, almost as if she was listening to the babies in there.
When Mark came in from the clinic, he and Julie took their daughter upstairs to bath her and put her to bed. June and her husband joined the family in the lounge a few minutes later and while Max occupied Neil in conversation June made sure that Carrie took her medication.
Nanny took Sarah upstairs to get her washed and ready for dinner, and while she was gone Vicki approached Brad, rather apprehensively.
“I just had a very disturbing conversation with your daughter. Do you know who Lucien is?”
Vicki bit her lip. “I don’t know. I first thought she said Lucy-Ann, but she assures me it's a boy, so I assume his name is Lucien. She was apparently playing with him in the park, when she was with her grandfather and Irene, and he asked her if she has a real mom!”
“What?” Brad’s eyes narrowed. “A child?”
Vicki nodded. “Sarah isn’t old enough to have enlightening conversation. But I gather, from what she told me, that this little boy is older than she is.”
“What did she tell you?”
“From what I could understand, Lucien’s real mother is dead and the lady who was with him at the park is his ‘pretend’ mom! I think that means his foster mother!” She shrugged. “In any case, Sarah said that Lucien has had lots of ‘pretend’ moms. He apparently asked Sarah if Irene was her ‘pretend mom’ or if she grew in her tummy. Sarah told him that her mommy was sick and Irene was her granny." She swallowed. "But she knows Brad! She knows Carrie didn’t give birth to her!”
Brad breathed in relief, and a slight smile crossed his face. “I know she does! So that’s why she’s started asking questions!” he mused.
Vicki frowned. “What questions?”
“About her mommy! She asked Edmund if she grew in her mommy’s tummy, and then she asked Ian the same question.” He smiled at Vicki’s raised eyebrows. “It’s ok, Vicki. We were also very perturbed when we found out that she knew that Carrie isn’t her real mother. She’s very young and she doesn’t understand, but the only thing that bothered her is the thought of being sent away to live with a stranger. I think we managed to suppress that idea.”
“She’s fascinated with my tummy and chatters to the babies in here as if they can hear her,” Vicki told him, patting her belly. “I - I was rather dumbfounded when she told my babies that she didn’t grow in her mommy’s tummy! I didn’t know that she was already asking about her real mother.”
“Carrie is her real mother,” Brad emphasised. “The only mother she’ll ever have!” A thought struck him and he frowned. “If this Lucien has had lots of foster mothers, maybe he told her that he was sent away because he was naughty - or something like that! Sarah was terrified that we were going to send her back to her real mother when she thought she’d hurt Carrie. I didn’t realise just how traumatic these last few days have been for my baby girl.”
“She seems happy enough now,” Vicki said. “So, it was Edmund who told her she’s adopted? Or was it Ian?”
“She isn’t adopted!” he replied quickly. “I’m her legal guardian, her named father. Carrie is my wife so she’s her mother! Edmund told me she’d asked, but they drew her attention to something else. When Ian fetched her, she asked him too. He told her she didn’t grow in Carrie’s tummy, but in her heart!”
“Oh, how sweet! Trust Ian to come up with something like that!”
Ian looked at them from across the room where he was chatting to Christopher. “I heard my name!”
Brad grinned. “You shouldn’t listen to other people’s conversations!”
“I didn’t,” Ian replied with a grin of his own. “I just heard my name. Am I in trouble?”
Vicki giggled. “Not at all, brother dear. Brad was just telling me what you told Sarah about her growing in her mommy’s heart! You can be very wise when you want to be!”
He winked “I’m a teacher! I have to be wise all the time!”
During dinner that evening Carrie ate very little, even with Brad’s help, and immediately afterwards she asked to be taken upstairs so she could read Sarah a story before she went to sleep. Brad pushed the wheelchair close to the side of Sarah’s bed, and they listened to her childish prayers before Brad tucked her in. As usual, Sarah asked God to bless all of the family, naming each one, and then went on to name as many of the staff as her little mind could remember, her usual delaying tactics. Brad sat patiently on her bed, and grinned at Carrie as the little girl ended her prayer with, “And please make Lucien better! And my Mommy! She not come with You, Jesus! Amen.”
The story was short, for which Carrie was extremely grateful, but she was sagging by the time Sarah was fast asleep. After helping her to the bathroom Brad settled her in bed and went to shower.
When he slipped into bed beside her, he thought she was asleep, but she turned her head towards him and whispered, “Hold me, Brad.”
He smiled, taking her into his arms. “Do you want anything, sweetheart? Cocoa?”
“No, just a kiss. Who’s Lucien? A new member of staff?”
Brad shrugged. “No, a child she met in the park! Obviously made quite an impression on her if he gets a mention in her prayers too!” He grinned.
“Oh. Sweet of her to remember him anyway.” She gave a little sigh. “Are you not joining everyone for a nightcap tonight?”
“I’d much rather be with my wife, you know that!”
“I’m keeping you from being sociable to our guests. And your work!”
“Everyone understands. Even my agent! The book is almost finished! I’m allowed to take a few days off!” He grinned, and kissed her.
She snuggled closer. “I wish - I wish I felt stronger. But - it won’t be forever, Brad. I promise.”
He frowned as she closed her eyes. It unnerved him the way she just dropped off to sleep so suddenly. June, Max and even Mark had assured him that it was perfectly normal, but to Brad, it certainly did not seem natural at all. He held her in his arms and prayed fervently for her.
But he knew he was struggling hard to believe that God was listening. He even tried muttering something he had read in the bible. "Father, help my unbelief." But, in the silence of the night, he was aware that the love and fervour that had been with him since he was a child, was fast waning. It was a very long time before he fell into a fitful sleep.