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The Only Solution(12)

By:Leigh Michaels



Wendy thought she saw a tiny frown draw Mack's eyebrows together, but he  didn't answer. They were in the city by then, driving through one  residential section after another. The side streets were busier than the  highway had been, and slicker, too. The snow was coming down harder,  and his eyes didn't stray from the road. It was obviously not a time for  further discussion of Marissa.

No longer afraid that Mack might doze off, Wendy drifted into silence  herself. She studied the patterns left by tires in the street and  watched the snowflakes fall in shifting formations against the  streetlights  –  sometimes hard and thick like salt dashed from a giant  shaker, sometimes more like the fragments of ivory in an old snow dome,  shaken up and left to float gently down on a quiet scene.

In the back seat, Rory gave a baby snore and then a couple of grunts before she settled into silence again.

When Mack spoke, his voice was so soft that Wendy almost didn't hear at  first. "Thanks for coming with me. I could never have managed the trip  alone."                       
       
           



       

She turned her head slowly against the leather seat and looked at him.  He was staring straight ahead, and she could almost pretend that she'd  been dreaming, for there was no softness in his face.

She wanted to look straight into his eyes, to see if there was more  behind his words than simple gratefulness. But she couldn't; in the  dimness, even if he were looking directly at her she couldn't have read  the expression in his eyes.

Before she could find an answer  –  or even wonder why it should matter so much  –  Mack said, "Here we are."

The car turned abruptly into a driveway, skidding slightly as it drew to  a halt. Wendy looked up at an enormous set of wrought iron gates, the  biggest she had ever seen in her life. Each metal frame was at least ten  feet tall and crafted of turns and spirals so delicate and elaborate  the gates looked almost like lace. Beyond them, at the end of a long  driveway, lay a house  –  an elaborate, sprawling Jacobean-style brick  manor, with stone tracing around each door and window and wings going  every which way.

"Good heavens," she whispered.

She didn't know she'd said anything at all till Mack answered. "It takes  people that way sometimes." He reached for his wallet and pulled out  what looked like a credit card, then lowered the car window and inserted  the card in a discreet black box at the edge of the drive. The gates  swung silently wide.

"Much more thoughtful than making the gatekeeper stand out in the cold,"  Wendy said. She was babbling because she was annoyed. He could have  warned her.

No, she thought. Nothing could have prepared her for this. She had  expected an exclusive neighborhood, a quiet street, a big house, but  even if Mack had described this place, she couldn't have imagined a  country estate set in the middle of a city, complete with brick walls  and acres of grounds and what looked like an enormous fountain in a  courtyard by the front door. In a big stone-arched bay window, the  lights of a Christmas tree gleamed.

She turned her back on the scene and reached around to swathe Rory in  blankets again. The child's eyes were wide open; they looked enormous  and unusually dark in the indirect light which spilled in from the  courtyard.

"Hello there," Wendy said softly. "How long have you been awake?"

Rory grinned and waved her arms to be picked up. She strenuously  objected to being covered up with a blanket again, and she was yelling  lustily by the time they reached the huge, carved front door.

It swung open silently in front of them, and Wendy braced herself for  the first encounter with Mack's parents. She half-expected they might  simply seize Rory from her arms.

The man holding the door was tall and very erect and formally dressed in  dark evening clothes. His neat precision made Wendy feel even more  grubby, and she tightened her hold on Rory. The child needed to be  changed, she was certain  –  and she couldn't bring herself to think about  that wonderful tailoring encountering a wet diaper.

"Good evening, sir," the man said, and bowed just a little. "Good  evening, miss. Mr. Burgess is in the library, Mr. Mack. I'm afraid Mrs.  Burgess has already retired to her rooms, since you were delayed."

She went to bed? Wendy thought unbelievingly, and then told herself not  to make rash judgments. Had Mack even called his parents to let them  know what was going on? If not, his mother had good reason to assume  they wouldn't arrive till tomorrow.

Mack nodded, apparently unsurprised. "You might tell her nurse that we're here, Parker, in case she's still awake."

Her nurse? Wendy felt a bit ashamed of herself. If Mrs. Burgess was ill, that would explain a lot.

"Certainly, sir. Shall I show you into the library?"

"No. Just take these coats and we'll fend for ourselves." He shrugged  his coat off, then took the safety seat from Wendy's arms and set it on a  nearby table to unwrap the top layer of blankets. The table was dark,  rich wood, polished to an almost mirror-like shine. Wendy shuddered at  the thought of putting a scratch on it.

Through an arched doorway she caught sight of the tree. It was both tall  and broad, and there must have been thousands of pure white lights  glistening like icicles on the boughs. Underneath were heaps of  packages. If this was what Mack called a subdued Christmas...                       
       
           



       

The butler helped her remove her coat; Wendy felt his hands tremble just  a little and looked over her shoulder at him in surprise. He was  watching Rory. As Mack lifted the baby out of the seat, she blinked  warily in the bright light, then caught sight of Wendy and gave a  breathtaking smile.

"And this is Miss Marissa's little one, sir?" Parker said softly. "We're  all so glad you've brought her home." He picked up the carry-on bag  Mack had set down.

"I think we'll need that," Mack told him. "She feels a bit damp."

Wendy found a diaper and a clean sleeper in the bag, and Parker showed  her into a powder room, lined with pink marble, that was far larger than  the bath in her apartment. She took an extra couple of minutes to  freshen Rory up. The sleeper wasn't new, and it had never been fancy,  but at least the child could be appealingly clean and neat. She wished  that she'd thought of adding a hair ribbon to the supplies in the bag;  Rory was starting to get a few curls now, and a ribbon might have stayed  in place long enough for introductions.

She stole a minute as well to touch up her own appearance. The first  principle of marketing was to put the best possible face on the product,  and that was as true of herself as of Rory. She didn't want the  Burgesses to think their granddaughter had been in the care of a slob.  There wasn't much she could do, of course, except touch up her braid and  apply fresh lipstick  –  but at least she'd know she'd tried. They would  probably scarcely look at her, anyway.

Mack was still in the hallway, lounging against a walnut coat tree, when  she came back. The mirror stretched a good two feet above his head, but  it was still dwarfed by the height of the room. She glanced up at the  ceiling. If she was any judge at all, that was a masterpiece of carved  plaster.

Mack straightened up, and his gaze lingered for a moment on her mouth.  Wendy felt warmth surge over her; at least he'd noticed the effort she'd  made. "Ready?" he asked softly.

She almost said no, but she took a deep breath instead and nodded.

The library was warm. In the massive stone fireplace, a blaze had burned  down almost to embers, and its glow mingled with pools of soft light  from several lamps. A man rose from a leather wing chair beside the fire  and turned to greet them. He was quite a little shorter than Mack, but  there was no mistaking the family resemblance in the shape of his face  and the set of his eyebrows. "Ah, there you are, Mack," he said. "And  Miss..."

"Miller," Mack supplied. "Wendy, my father."

Wendy shifted the baby a little so she could hold out her hand if Samuel  Burgess offered to shake it. He didn't, however; his eyes were on Rory.  But he didn't make a move to touch her. His hands were clasped behind  his back, and he rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet as if he  was uncertain of himself and annoyed at feeling that way.

Rory didn't cry or duck her head against Wendy's shoulder, but watched  him attentively. Finally she smiled  –  a wide, engaging, friendly grin.

Samuel Burgess smiled back, and suddenly Wendy was fiercely glad that  she was here to see this moment. "Perhaps you should hold her, sir," she  said gently.

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