Bundle of Joy
"When we opened the Shelter for Survivors of Abuse in Philadelphia, I never imagined the program growing and now, we're opening another center here in Llanview. Everyone is so committed to help. I cannot tell you how important facilities such as these are and I appreciate the support that made this possible."
Evangeline Williamson paused as her chest tightened with emotion. She looked at the crowd and although she'd encountered many faces in court, somehow this night was different and honored a truly special occasion. Her searching gaze found and connected with John McBain's shining blue eyes. He gave an encouraging nod and a wide smile. Strengthened by his presence, she accepted the happy warmth spreading through her and continued her speech.
Afterward, she and John met at the lovely mural Cristian Vega painted to commemorate the grand opening. Usually a new shelter opened without fanfare. This time, Lieutenant Governor Kevin Buchanan and his mother, Viki Davidson wanted to bring attention to the center. Their reasoning was that the more people who knew about it the better. This branch of The Shelter would not be Llanview's dirty little secret. Their backing made this center even more inspiring than the one in Philadelphia.
John slipped his arm around her waist. His body heat warmed her wherever their bodies touched. Basking in the pleasure of just having him with her, she leaned against him.
"Quite a turnout," he said. "How long do you have to stay?"
She gave him a playful nudge. "You don't mess around, do ya? You just get straight to the point."
"Time is precious. I realized that when you dumped me."
She ignored the teasing glint in his eyes. Yeah, she ended their relationship, but how long did that last? Five hours at the most! She wasn't ready to put a name on it, but there was just something about him that made staying away virtually impossible.
"Seriously," he murmured, brushing hair from her cheek, "can you leave now?"
"I've spoken with all my contacts and did a little schmoozing. Yeah, I don't see why I can't."
The drive from The Shelter to Evangeline's townhouse took longer than expected. A fresh snowfall filled everyone with wonder and traffic slowed. John grumbled under his breath, but she loved every second of it. The white icy crystals were so beautiful. No two were alike and just watching a light blanket of snow cover the ground reminded her of happy Christmases spent with her mother and father.
His hand closed over her knee. His strong fingers worked magic. Contentment coursed through her. Maybe this year, new special memories would be created.
He found a space a few doors down. His arm curved possessively around her shoulders as they made tracks on the sidewalk. Evangeline thought of the party and how wonderful it was. But in all honesty, she couldn't wait to get back home with John. A nice long soak in the bathtub followed by dessert and maybe a movie. Could it get any better than that?
"What's that?" John asked. "Were you expecting a package?"
"That's not a package." She frowned at the plain wicker basket waiting on the doorstep. "And no, I wasn't expecting anything. I wonder what it is…"
"Don't touch it!"
Before she could blink, he pushed her aside and conducted a quick inspection. He checked all sides before he lifted the basket.
"It's not too heavy. What the hell! Something's alive in here."
She'd never been good at waiting. Evangeline raised the lid and peered inside. A fuzzy pink blanket greeted her. She parted the covering and gasped.
"Oh, my God!"
"What is it?" He looked over the lid. "Is that what I think it is?"
"Yeah." Carefully, she reached inside and lifted the small, squirming bundle. "It's a baby."
Evangeline tested the bottle on her wrist. She felt John's eyes on her. After disagreeing for the past couple of days, they finally reached a compromise. If the mother didn't return by Christmas, she wouldn't object to him contacting Child Protection Services.
Well, maybe she wouldn't.
"You're falling for her."
She lifted three-month-old TaKiya from the portable bassinet she bought the morning after the beautiful baby entered her life. Large brown eyes fixed on Evangeline. The round face and chubby cheeks created a remarkably expressive face. How could Evangeline not fall for her?
"I'm just feeding her." All kinds of maternal instincts kicked in as she watched the baby suckle. Tiny fists curved around the bottle. TaKiya's silky, dark cap of curls tickled Evangeline's forearm. She leaned back in the rocker and simply enjoyed the moment.
"Just?" He moved to squat beside the rocking chair. He stroked the baby's cheek with the pad of his index finger. "You've redecorated this place with a crib, rocker and the dresser is full of baby clothes. Evangeline, you can't keep her."
"I'm just taking care of her," she said softly so as not to alarm the baby. "In the note, Janae said she needed a few days to get everything set up and she'll return for TaKiya."
"Janae left her baby," he said in a hoarse, strained voice. "She didn't know when or if you were coming home that night."
"I know what you're saying, but she's young and she's trying to start over."
"You're making excuses and that's not like you."
"Janae was one of the first girls I counseled at the center in Philadelphia. We were both pretty young. I tried my best, but obviously… Look, John, I owe her. It's as simple as that."
"She's using you--"
"You don't even know her."
"No, but I know you." He took her hand. "I don't want you to get hurt."
"But how fine will you be when Janae returns or worse…if she doesn't."
She met his stare and answered him as honestly as she could. "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."
Evangeline hated to admit it, but John was right. She'd fallen head over heels for TaKiya. The tiny bundle of joy had her spellbound. Work lost its appeal. Even tennis took a backseat. Nora called, wondering if she was sick and needed cans of chicken noodle soup to ease her misery. Evangeline hated keeping the truth from her friend, but Nora was known for taking a logical, no nonsense approach. And quite frankly, Evangeline got enough of that from John. So, she claimed having a heavy workload with little time for play. Nora backed off, but nothing seemed to stop John.
Christmas Eve arrived and still no word from Janae. Evangeline dreaded the inevitable. She cuddled TaKiya in her arms and was holding her when John used his key to enter her townhouse. His eyes quickly found hers. He set his bags beside an end table and crossed to them.
After placing a sweet kiss onto her lips, he pulled away to gently caress the sleeping baby's cheek. "She looks so peaceful."
"She has no idea her world's about to be turned upside down."
He ran a hand through his hair and stood. "You still haven't heard from Janae."
"Not a word." She sighed. "I thought I knew her better than this. I can't imagine leaving TaKiya anywhere and not checking on her and making sure she's safe."
He removed his jacket and pulled an envelope from the pocket. As he lifted TaKiya into his arms, he handed Evangeline the letter. "I found this taped to the door."
With trembling hands, she ripped the envelope open. The one page letter was hand-written. She recognized Janae's handwriting and quickly folded the letter. Her throat constricted. Breathing became painful. In a choked voice, she said, "John, I don't think I can do this."
"Do you want me to read it?"
She watched John hold TaKiya. Over the last few days, he'd done his share of feedings and diaper changes. All without complaint. A few times, she heard him humming a lullaby. TaKiya wowed them both with many toothless grins. Whether he admitted it or not, Evangeline knew he cared for the baby as much as she did.
"I don't want either of us to read it. Can't we just burn it in the fireplace?"
"I wish…" He drew a quick breath and lowered his gaze to the awakening baby. She shook her fist at him and he smiled. "I wish we could. For years, I closed myself off, not wanting to care and risk hurting again. Then, you came along and I didn't want to live like that anymore. And here's this little angel and I don't want to let her go, Evangeline. I like coming here and seeing her in your arms. Everything that's happened at work is left outside. Inside, it's just the three of us and I can't tell you h-how good that feels."
"Oh, John." Tears welled in her eyes. Her heart ached for the three of them.
"Just read the letter," he said. "Putting it off won't change what's in it."
She stood and gestured for him to sit in the rocking chair. Her footsteps paced the length of the fireplace as she forced herself to comprehend Janae's letter.
I'm sorry about the way I left TaKiya, but I know she's in good hands with you. As you can guess, I'm not coming back. I can't. My life is too screwed up. I don't want to mess her up, too. Please, take care of her. You're so smart and together. I know it will rub off on my little baby and make her far better than I'll ever be. Don't hate me or blame yourself. You did your best with me. I wish things could be different. Let TaKiya know I love her and I'll always be thinking of her.
"Oh, God." Her knees weakened. Evangeline fell to her knees, clutching the letter.
"What!" John moved to join her on the floor. TaKiya kicked and flayed her arms within his protective embrace. He soothed her with circular strokes on her back. His voice dropped to an even tone. "What did it say?"
"She's not coming back. What do we do now?"
His mouth curved into a gorgeous smile. "Do now? Do you want her?"
"How can you ask? Having a baby now wasn't a part of my plans, but she's here. I love her, John."
He reached out and cupped Evangeline's cheek. "I know you do. I wanted to be sure… I have a few friends in the right places. Maybe they can pull some strings and you'll be able to keep TaKiya."
"Don't you want her, too?"
TaKiya chose that moment to gurgle and blow bubbles. He rocked her close to his chest. Staring into the baby's chocolate brown eyes, he said, "I love her."
"Maybe we can find a way to keep her together." She brushed the back of her hand against his stubble-covered jaw. "Would you like that?"
"The two of us?" He cocked an eyebrow and dazzled her with a grin. "Evangeline Williamson, are you asking me to marry you?"
"Um, no! I was just thinking that we're getting pretty good at this and we're making a good team."
"We are." Laughter faded from his voice. His features softened. "And maybe we can be the parents she needs. God, I can't believe I'm saying this and agreeing to this. Who am I?"
"You're John McBain," she said softly. "The man I love."
"I know. I wasn't sure you'd have the guts to say it."
"Don't start," she playfully warned.
"So, you don't want to know that I love you, too and that if we take it day by day, we can make this family thing work out for all three of us."
"Well, of course, I like knowing that."
He leaned forward and kissed her. Afterward, he kissed the tip of TaKiya's nose. The baby giggled and radiated pure joy. Evangeline rested her head on his shoulder. She became overcome with peace and filled with hope. The three of them becoming a family sounded perfect. Like John, she had some friends at Family Court. With little TaKiya a part of hers and John's lives, there was no doubt this Christmas would be remembered forever.