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The Only Solution

By:Leigh Michaels

The Only Solution
Leigh Michaels

       CHAPTER ONE




Moments after the first tiny whimper, Wendy was already on her feet and  reaching for her lightweight terry robe. She hadn't been asleep, of  course  –  how could anyone sleep after the sort of day she'd had?  –  but  her limbs felt heavy nevertheless, and she blinked irritably at the  night light in the baby's room. Dim though it was, it seemed to assault  her tired eyes like a lighthouse beacon.

Rory's whimpers had rapidly escalated into wails, but when she saw Wendy  in the doorway, she began to wave her arms and babble, eager baby  noises which almost made sense.

"I thought you were going to start sleeping through the night," Wendy  said as she lowered the crib rail and picked up the child. She flicked a  fingertip gently against Rory's soft cheek. "I gave you definite  instructions about that just yesterday, didn't I?"

Rory giggled and put her fist in her mouth. Wendy laughed, cuddled her  close, and carried her to the tiny kitchenette to get a bottle.

Rory's fist didn't satisfy her appetite for long, and before her bottle was warmed she was starting to wail again.

Wendy popped the nipple into Rory's mouth and settled into the rocking  chair in the small living room. The baby nestled in her arms, sucking  contentedly, and Wendy put her head down on the padded back of the chair  and stared at the small Christmas tree in the corner. She hadn't  bothered to plug in the lights, but as the air stirred, strands of  tinsel turned silently and gleamed in the dim glow which spilled in from  the kitchen.

How many nights had they sat there like this, sharing warmth and  nourishment, comfort and hope? Rory was almost five months old now. She  had been just six weeks when Marissa put her completely into Wendy's  care.

"It seems like forever," Wendy said.

She heard the despairing note in her own voice, and looked down at the  baby with a sudden urge to explain that she didn't mean "forever" in a  negative sense. She meant that it seemed Rory had always been part of  her life, and the thought of giving up this precious child was enough to  twist her heart like a soggy dishrag.

To tell the truth, Wendy could hardly remember what her life had been  like before Rory came into it. It hadn't been bad, of course  –  she loved  her job and she had her friends and plenty of interesting things to do  –   but she hadn't realized how much everything changed when there was a  child involved. Everything was so much more important, now that Rory was  intertwined into her future.

Giving up this child would be like tearing the center from her life. It  would be every bit as self-destructive as driving her car off a cliff.

And yet, what other choice did she have? She had gone over and over the  options. In the last two days, she hadn't thought of anything else. The  problem was, there really was only one thing she could do  –  the one  thing which would rip Wendy apart, but which would be best for Rory.

On the coffee table by the rocking chair lay the pink slip she'd gotten  in inter-office mail two days ago. It was not literally pink, of course;  it was a letter, on ordinary company stationery, briefly informing her  that in two weeks her services would no longer be required.

For an instant, anger boiled up in her. Five years she'd worked for that  company, and her boss hadn't even had the decency to break the news  personally.

Rory stopped eating and grunted in protest at being held too tightly.  Wendy took a deep breath and forced herself to relax. She really had  nothing to complain of; the lack of notice hadn't been personal. Nearly  every other employee had gotten the same news, in exactly the same way.  There had been no warning  –  just a rumor here and there in the last few  months that the company wasn't doing well, but nothing more definite.  Not till two days ago, and then there had been only the curt  announcement that the bankruptcy papers had been filed and the business  would be liquidated, and therefore the employees would be dismissed.

Two weeks before Christmas, Wendy thought bitterly. What a way to celebrate the holidays!

The timing wasn't quite as heartbreaking for her as for some others, of  course. Wendy hadn't gone overboard on her Christmas shopping, so  January's bills would be no worse than usual. Rory was too tiny to know  the difference, and she would rather play with spoons and boxes than  toys, anyway. But in some other homes around Phoenix tonight, things  were different.                       
       
           



       

Still, knowing that others had it even worse didn't ease Wendy's own problems.

She had a savings account, but she'd invaded that a few months ago when  Rory outgrew her bassinet and needed a crib and a multitude of other  supplies. She'd never dreamed babies could be so expensive. Infant  formula cost the earth  –  the price per case had shocked her even before  she was faced with the loss of a paycheck. Diapers weren't cheap either.  Then there was child care  –  she'd still need someone to look after Rory  on a regular basis, or she wouldn't be able to interview for other  jobs.

What was left of her savings wouldn't last long, and the severance pay  she'd been offered was a pittance at best. Besides, she was afraid to  count on it  –  because of the bankruptcy, it might not materialize at  all.

Rory placidly sucked on her bottle. Her tiny hand was curled trustingly  around Wendy's little finger. The baby had Marissa's eyes, clear and  blue as a summer sky, with the same dark ring around the iris which  Marissa had always said meant she had second sight.

Though the clairvoyance the young woman had claimed hadn't been worth  much in the end, Wendy thought, or she'd have sensed that car coming in  time to get out of its way. Or at least she'd have seen the future  clearly enough to write a will.

Rory finished the bottle with a gulp. Wendy patted her back to bring up  the last bubble, then changed her diaper and put her back in bed. She  hovered beside the crib for a while and watched the baby in the dim  light and remembered the day she had stood beside another bed...

Marissa's pretty face had escaped damage in the collision, and so it was  possible to pretend that she was going to be all right. But Wendy knew  from the ceaseless bustle of medical personnel, from the hissing and  buzzing of the machinery, that the reality was all too grim, and not far  off.

They hadn't really expected her to regain consciousness at all, but  somehow Marissa had pulled herself away from the gathering darkness and  clutched Wendy's hand. In a whisper, her tone fierce even though her  voice was so faint Wendy could hardly hear, Marissa said, "Take care of  my baby, Wendy. Don't let my parents get their hands on her. They'll  ruin her, too. Promise!"

Wendy had tried not to wince at the bruising pressure of Marissa's  grasp, and she said, "I promise." Then the grip had relaxed, and Marissa  was gone.

With shaking hands, Wendy straightened Rory's blanket and braced herself  for what she must do tomorrow. She could no longer take care of Rory in  the way Marissa would have wanted. So she would break her promise to  Rory's mother, and she would break her own heart.

There simply wasn't any other choice.



*****



Wendy hadn't said anything yet about the company's closing to the young  woman who took care of Rory during the day. The wound was too new, too  raw, to talk about in public, and Carrie had been busy with other  parents whenever Wendy came. But the following morning when Wendy  carried the baby into Carrie's house, it was obvious that she had heard  the news.

"My husband said I had to tell you I can't work on credit," she said  softly. She didn't meet Wendy's eyes; she was concentrating on  unbuttoning Rory's sweater. "I told him you wouldn't expect me to, but  he said I had to make it clear." She looked up anxiously. "Will you  still be bringing her?"

"I don't know. I'll tell you as soon as I can." Wendy kissed the baby's  cheek and handed over the bag which held the day's supplies, and hurried  out into the rain before Carrie could ask any more questions.

Back in her car, Wendy put her head down against the steering wheel for a  moment. Why hadn't she told the truth? She wouldn't be bringing Rory  much longer, because Rory would be six states away.

She hadn't said it because the longer she could delay putting it into  words, the longer she could pretend that she wasn't going to make that  telephone call. That she wasn't going to give Rory up at all.

But  –  difficult though it was to reconcile her conscience  –  she was  going to break her promise. Marissa would understand, she told herself.  Marissa would probably want her to do exactly that. Wendy couldn't care  for Rory now, not the way the baby should be cared for. No mother would  want her child to live in poverty when something better was available.                       

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