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Baby of Shame
By Julia James
Ulverscroft Large PrintCopyright © 2006 Julia James
All right reserved.
RHIANNA was stepping out on to the zebra crossing. It was pouring with rain, the wind battering the rain hood on Nicky's buggy. She'd checked both ways before starting to cross, but as she pushed forward, eyes stinging with rain, her head bowed into the wind, weak and exhausted but with desperate urgency, it came again, the way it always did.
A screech of tyres, an engine roaring, and then a blow so violent it lifted her up and threw her sideways as the black and white painted tarmac slammed up to meet her. And then the sickening thud of her body impacting — and then the darkness. Total darkness.
She jerked as her brain relived, yet again, the moment when the speeding car had run her down on a pedestrian crossing. The jerking caused pain, shooting through her, but following the pain came worse — much worse.
A voice screaming — screaming inside her head. Distraught. Demented.
Nicky! Nicky! Nicky!
Over and over again. Drowning her with terror and fear and horror. Over and over again —
A hand was on her shoulder. Her eyes flew open. One of the nurses was speaking.
"Your little boy is safe — I've told you that. He's safe. He wasn't injured."
Rhianna stared up into the facelooking down at her, her eyes pools of anguish. "Nicky," she whispered again, her voice husky, fearful. "Nicky — where are you? Where are you?"
The nurse spoke again, her voice calm and reassuring. "He's being looked after until you get better. Now, you just relax and get some sleep. That's what you need now. Would you like something to help you sleep?"
Rhianna pressed her lips together and tried to shake her head. But any movement when she was awake was agony. Even breathing was an agony, her infected lungs raw and painful.
"I can't sleep — I mustn't! I've got to find Nicky...they've got him. They won't give him back. I know they won't — I know it, I know it!"
Her voice was rising again, fear gulping in her throat, and she could hardly get the air out of her.
"Of course you'll get him back," the nurse said bracingly. "He's only been taken into care while you're here. As soon as you come out they'll hand him over —"
But terror flared in Rhianna's eyes. "No — she's taken him. That social worker. She said I couldn't look after him, that he'd be better off in care." Her hand clawed at the nurse's fingers, eyes distending. "I've got to get him back. He's my son!"
"I'll get you a sedative," the nurse said, and went off. Dread and anguish filled Rhianna. Nicky was gone. Taken into care. Just like the social worker had said he would be.
"You clearly can't cope with looking after a child." Rhianna heard the condemning tone ringing in her memory. "Your son is at risk."
Oh, God — why? Why? thought Rhianna. Why had the woman had to turn up just then? She'd felt so ill, and it had only been a few days after her father's funeral. She'd taken a double dose of flu powder and it had knocked her out, so that when the social worker had arrived it had been Nicky — still in his pyjamas, patiently watching toddler TV in the living room, with a bowl of spilt cereal on the floor — who'd opened the door to the woman while his mother lay collapsed in bed, breathing sterterously and all but unconscious...
The woman had taken against her, Rhianna knew, the first time she'd ever come to the rundown council flat to assess whether Rhianna's plea for home help for her father was valid or not. The woman had told Rhianna bluntly that her father needed hospitalisation until the end came, that a dying man should not be anywhere near a small child, and that if Rhianna insisted on refusing to name her child's father she had no business expecting the state to pay for his upbringing instead of his father. Nicky should be in nursery and she should go back to work, because that was government policy.
At the end of her tether, Rhianna had lost her temper and yelled at the woman, not registering that she was still holding the vegetable knife she'd been chopping carrots with in the kitchen before the social worker had come in to harangue her. Seeing the knife blade, the woman's eyes had flared, and she told told Rhianna she was dangerously violent and brandishing a weapon threateningly.
After that everything had gone increasingly downhill. Her father's life had drawn to its tormented close, and she'd eventually had to call an ambulance to take him to hospital, where a final stroke had brought the end at last. Her exhaustion, her illness, her desperate need to shelter Nicky from what was happening all around him, had laid her lower than she had ever been in the five bleak years since her world had collapsed around her.
And when the social worker had arrived that fateful morning, to find Nicky unsupervised and Rhianna passed out, it had been the final straw.
"I'm having a Care Order issued," the woman had told her grimly. "Before any harm comes to him either from your violent tendencies or your complete lack of responsibility." She'd dipped her finger in the trace of flu powder on the bedside table and sniffed it suspiciously, glaring down at the barely conscious Rhianna. "I'll take this for analysis, so don't even bother to try and hide whatever other drugs you've been using."
She'd left the room, and Rhianna had somehow found the strength to get out of bed and stagger after her — only to crash into the doorframe as if she were, indeed, under the influence of drugs instead of being so ill with a chest infection she could hardly breathe.
When the woman had gone, informing her she would be returning shortly with the necessary documentation to remove Nicky, Rhianna, out of her mind with terror, had dragged clothes on and set off for the doctor's surgery, desperate to get some antibiotics as well as her doctor's avowal that she was not a drug user and was not violent — anything she could use to fight off the Care Order. But before she'd been able to get to the surgery she'd been knocked down by a speeding car on a pedestrian crossing.
When she'd surfaced back to consciousness it had been to find herself in a hospital ward, her body in agony, her limbs and torso strapped up, a drip in her arm and her lungs on fire.
And Nicky gone.
Nicky — her only reason for living, the only light in the black pall that crushed her, the only joy in her life.
Nicky — she had to get him back! She would die without him. And he — oh, God — she could not bear to think of his distress, his confusion. Taken into care with no familiar face around him, no mother to keep him safe the way she had kept him safe all his little life. Despite all the strain and pressure, the hardship and the relentless, punishing difficul-ties of nursing her difficult, cantankerous father, despite coping with no money, coping with her father's depression and his slow decline into both physical and mental incapacity, with no one to help, no one to turn to, and only the bare subsistence of the state to keep them going.
Nicky! The silent, anguished cry came again and again as she drifted in an out of consciousness, reliving over and over the moment when the car had crashed into her and she'd thought it was Nicky who'd been killed...
But he wasn't dead! Dear God she'd been spared that. He was alive, but gone, and she was terrified that she would never get him back. Never. He'd be put up for adoption, spirited away, locked away...taken from her...
The nurses had tried to help. "Is there no one who could look after him for you? Friends, neighbours, relatives?"
Rhianna's hands had clawed on the bedclothes. "No one." She had no relatives — not since burying her father. No friends left. All gone. And neighbours — she'd never befriended anyone in the council flats, too caught up in her own overwhelming problems to have time, or any spare energy, to notice anyone else — too horrified, if she faced up to it, that her life had sunk to these sorry straits.
One of the nurses had spoken again. Very carefully. "What about your little boy's father?" Rhianna's eyes had hardened automatically, irrevocably. "He has no father."
Tactfully, the nurse had said nothing more, but as she'd bustled off Rhianna's own words seared in her mind.
He has no father....
An image leapt in her mind like a burning brand. Burning through her skin, her flesh. Her memory...
RHIANNA had been desperate. Filled with a sick, agitated desperation that had made her do what she had done.
But she had had no choice.
Now, somewhere close to the hospital, she could hear the chilling wail of an ambulance siren. It echoed in her memory — the wailing siren of the ambulance, five long years ago, carrying her stricken father to hospital. A heart attack, and it had been her fault — her fault for telling him what she had just heard from Maunder Marine Limited. That they had themselves been acquired, and so their own corporate investment programme would have to go on hold until their new owners, Petrakis International, had given it their approval. That could take months, she'd been warned.
Months during which Davies Yacht Design would have no idea whether or not the life-saving takeover by MML would ever go ahead.
And without that assurance her father's company would go under — succumb to its debts as its creditors foreclosed. It would be the end of the company — and the end for her father. He lived for his company — lived for designing yachts. A vocation. An obsession. Taking over his whole life, giving it the only meaning it had.
And she, his daughter, would be no comfort to him. Unless she could save his company. She had left the intensive care ward, left her father wired up to monitors, the nursing staff looking grave, and gone back to her father's office.
And picked up the phone.
There had to be a way to get the go-ahead for the takeover by MML. She had been the one to approach them in the first place, convincing the larger company that Davies Yacht Design was a profitable acquisition prospect. Forward order books were full, and the company's technical reputation was outstanding, but the chronic under-capitalisation and growing debt-interest burden, combined with a major client cancelling his already completed order and another one changing his mind halfway through, had pushed Davies Yacht Design to the brink. Her father's complete lack of interest in the mundane details of keeping a company financially healthy had meant the banks had lost confidence in him and they wanted an exit. If it wasn't going to come from a white knight like MML, then they would foreclose.
She had to get MML to go through with the acquisition! But it had looked as if it was not on their say-so any more. It was Petrakis International who would have to agree to it.
And there was no reason why they should not, Rhianna had thought desperately. Investing in Davies Yacht Design would pay off handsomely — if she could just convince them as she had convinced MML.
But she'd hit a stone wall. It was standard corporate policy, Petrakis International had informed her, to stall all its acquired companies' major investments until they'd been checked out. She'd gone as high up the company as she could reach, and the answer had always been the same.
So she'd aimed for the top, as a last desperate throw. Alexis Petrakis — head of Petrakis International. Fifteen minutes. That would be all she'd need. Fifteen minutes to run through the figures, to show what a shrewd investment it would be for MML to buy Davies Yacht Design.
But his PA had shot down her hopes. Yes, Mr Petrakis was currently in London, but his diary was full, including the evenings, and he was flying back to Greece in three days' time. Perhaps next month...
But next month would be too late.
There had been only one thin sliver of hope left to Rhianna. The PA had mentioned that on his last evening in the UK Alexis Petrakis would be attending a business dinner at one of the top West End hotels.
It had been her last, last chance...
She closed her eyes, lying in her hospital bed, feeling memory pour over her like a sheet of acid, burning into her skin. Feeling again the claws, like pincers in her stomach, as they had that fateful evening as she'd sat worried sick, at the table in the thronged banqueting hall.
Because it had seemed Alexis Petrakis wasn't going to show! It had all been in vain. She'd come up to London, forked out a fortune for a ticket to the dinner, splashed out on a new dress and a session at the hairdresser and beauty parlour — all money she could ill afford, given the parlous state of the finances at Davies Yacht Design — all for nothing. She'd even altered the seating plan posted in the cocktail reception area for the dinner, so that she would be sitting next to Alexis Petrakis. But though she'd managed to take her seat without anyone else challenging her — the seat next to her, with Alexis Petrakis's nameplate — remained empty.
Her heart had sunk, heavy as lead.
If Alexis Petrakis were not there she might as well give up and take the next train home, to return to the hospital waiting room and wait for any sign that they would move her father out of intensive care.
Worry had closed over her.
A waiter had approached their table, deftly placing a starter course in front of each guest. As she'd murmured her desultory thanks another, taller figure, in a black jacket, not white, had suddenly also been standing there momentarily. Then he'd been taking his seat — right beside her.
"Do please excuse me — I've been delayed," he apologised briefly to the table, his English fluent but accented. He nodded at several of the guests, acknowledging them by name, and then turned to his right.
"Alexis Petrakis," he said, holding out his hand. But Rhianna wasn't capable of responding. She was simply staring.
This couldn't be Alexis Petrakis. Alexis Petrakis — chairman of an international company — should be middle-aged and corpulent, like three-quarters of the male guests here tonight.
But the man who'd just joined the table was...devastating. The word thudded in her brain.
Excerpted from Baby of Shame by Julia James Copyright © 2006 by Julia James. Excerpted by permission.
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