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The doorbell rang. The long, offensive peal of sound made Elaina McIvor jump and scrawl an unwanted line of red across the back of the zebra on her drawing board. Harrison arched his back and leaped soundlessly to the floor, then followed her as she slid from her stool and walked toward the door.
"Those kids," she muttered. "As flattering as all this is, I wish they'd get over their fascination with having me live next door." They were nice kids, she supposed, as far as kids went. Not that she knew a lot about children, in spite of the fact that they were the focus of her work. She knew even less about living in suburbia. But in the week she'd been here, her next door neighbors' two sons had disturbed her at work about twenty times a day. She was never going to get her current project completed at this rate, and then she'd be in trouble with the publisher who'd given her the job of illustrating the darned book. Oh, what the heck, she thought. Who'd ever heard of a red-and-white zebra in the first place?
The bell was ringing again, a loud, irritating buzz instead of the nice, melodious chimes she'd had in her apartment. Maybe, she mused, she'd read those two little boys the story and threaten them with the same fate as its characters. That should put some distance between their visits.
She snatched open the door, ready to address her junior-sized neighbors, but instead her eyes met a pair of brown, bony knees. A large, overstuffed pink-and-blue plastic tote bag was bumping against them, with a baby bottle sticking out of the top. Those knees were connected to a pair of deeply tanned, muscular thighs with curling dark hair covering them right up to the ragged edges of a pair of cutoffs, cutoffs that clung tightly to slim hips and a flat belly. An expanse of bare skin extended above the faded denim shorts, terminating where the hem of a half-length T-shirt covered it. An arrow of curling hair seemed to stitch the two garments together. A plump, pink baby was perched astride that narrow waist, wearing a yellow sunsuit and a happy grin. Elaina raised her startled gaze up and up and up until she encountered a pair of merry green eyes under dark brows. "Hi," said the owner of those eyes. "You Elaina McIvor?"
"Yes." She couldn't say anything else. The size of the man took her breath away. She was nearly six feet tall herself, and he towered over her. On his hip, the baby looked ridiculously tiny.
He smiled and said, "Oh, good. It's taken me hours to track you down. I'm Dr. Bradshaw."
At her blank look, he added, "From University Hospital? Margo Lawrence is my patient so I volunteered to bring the baby." He thrust the baby into her arms. "This is Betsy. She's wet."
That was a perfectly redundant piece of information, Elaina discovered as her arms went instinctively around the child. The man put the bag down at Elaina's feet and leaped off the porch, ignoring the three steps leading down to the walk.
"Wait!" she called out. "Hey! What is this?"
"A little girl," he said, slightly impatient. "Betsy. She's eleven months old. Oh! Didn't they call you yet?" He smacked his forehead with the heel of one hand. "And here! I almost forgot. You must think I'm nuts. This will explain things." He reached into the back pocket of his cutoffs and hauled out a folded envelope. Leaning over and stretching out an enormously long arm, he stuffed the envelope into the tote bag. Then he loped down the walk to the disreputable green van parked the wrong way at the curb.
"No! Wait!" Elaina called. "Come back here!"
He slammed the driver's door and shouted out the window as the van began to roll, "Later. I can't stop now. I'll be back."
Then the van was screeching away, lurching as it shot over to the right side of the street, leaving only a little cloud of blue smoke. When that was gone, she could almost have believed that the van and the green-eyed man had been figments of her imagination. Except for one thing. Twenty pounds of warm, wet baby were riding astride her hip.
"Well," she said faintly, "this is the weirdest thing that's ever happened to me!"
What was she supposed to do now? Call the police and charge the guy with child abandonment? Call the loony bin and have herself committed for believing that any of this was really happening? Or pretend that wasn't a man in a rusty van, but a stork? Some stork. He was almost gangly enough to be one, she thought before she shook her head. No. He had been tall, that was true, but not gangly. In fact, he had been extremely well built. She sighed, thinking about how well built he was. The baby patted her face with a warm, plump hand and said, "Mama?"
"No way! Not on your life!" said Elaina, alarmed. "I'm not your mama, sweetie." The baby had the bluest of blue eyes and a light golden fuzz on her head. Since she looked nothing like the dark-haired, green-eyed man who had shoved her into Elaina's arms, chances were he wasn't her parent either.
So who was? And who was her mama? The baby smiled at Elaina, several teeth, as tiny and as white as seed pearls, shining wetly in her mouth. Elaina smiled back. "That's something we're going to have to find out very soon, isn't it? Not only who your parents are, but where they are."
"Hey, look, Miss McIvor's got a baby!"
Elaina removed her fascinated gaze from the baby's delicate face and pinned it on the pair of grubby little boys who stood at the end of her walk, staring into the yard through the iron gate in the hedge.
"Can we come and play with your baby, Miss McIby?" asked the smaller one.
"Her name's Miss McIvor, Petey," the older boy said, "and you don't wanna play with her baby. It's a girl."
"Oh. How do you know?"
"Look at it. It's got ruffles on its bottom."
Petey looked and scowled. "Oh, yeah." The two boys vanished, obviously having something much better to do than play with a girl.
"What a way to achieve peace," Elaina muttered. "Import one girl-baby and the boys disappear like smoke."
She carried baby and tote bag inside, determined to read whatever kind of explanation the crazy doctor had stuffed into the tote. She stood the child on her feet in the middle of the living room. The girl's legs collapsed under her and she sat down on that wet, ruffled bottom and began to howl. Elaina stared at her, bewildered. Was there something wrong with her? Were her legs crippled? She had taken her own weight for an instant, then simply caved in. Or had she crumpled from sheer temper?
Harrison came to investigate the noise. The baby stopped making it. She reached for Harrison's tail, saying something that sounded like, "Lemme at him!" But maybe, Elaina decided, it was merely the expression on the baby's face that said it. At any rate, Harrison wasn't concerned. He rubbed his neck and shoulder against her fat thigh and the child dug her little starfish hands into his thick white fur.
Elaina lunged forward to prevent certain disaster, but to her amazement, Harrison was purring. She backed off, taking the moment of peace to seek out the note she hoped would explain things a lot more fully. Maybe it even contained instructions on the care and feeding of an eleven-month-old child.
She stared at the familiar bell symbol on the corner of the envelope. "Huh?" she said as she withdrew its contents. "A phone bill?"
It was made out to Dr. Brent Bradshaw, who had a post office box at the university, and was for the standard charges plus three long distance calls to the same number in Buffalo, one to a number in New Mexico, and another to a different number in Buffalo. And it provided absolutely no explanation whatsoever. Elaina read it through twice and checked the reverse side, only to learn that three of the Buffalo calls had been made during business hours when the rates were highest. That information, while interesting, made nothing clear at all, and she was starting through it again when a horrific crash sent her whirling around. The baby was no longer in the center of the living room floor, but was over by the far window, hands full of greenery, hair full of soil, eyes full of tears, and mouth wide open, hollering again.
"Oh, no!" Elaina ran across the room. "Oh, darling! What happened to you? Easy now. There ... Oh, thank goodness, you aren't too badly hurt." She turned from the cactus to the baby. "Young lady, will you please stop that noise? And give me those. Oh, poor, poor Brahms. You tore off three of his fronds."
She set her wounded plant carefully back on his stand, then scooped up some of the loose soil from the carpet. She patted it around his roots and straightened the fronds as best she could. The torn ones would have to be rooted. Luckily, that wasn't difficult with Christmas cacti. Brahms bloomed a lovely shade of crimson and she would be happy to have several more of him around. But she preferred to do the cutting herself.
The bellowing stopped and Elaina looked down, blinking, feeling suddenly like the lowest, most miserable excuse for a human being ever allowed to live. She had just given precedence to a plant over a little child! She had left it to Harrison to comfort the baby! What use was she?
"Betsy?" she said experimentally, trying the name out. The little girl looked around and smiled that rather infectious smile again. And most forgivingly, Elaina thought. She crouched and lifted the wet and now muddy baby into her arms, gently brushing Harrison aside. "Oh, you poor little thing. I'm sorry, baby. Let's get you cleaned up, huh? We'll worry about the carpet and Brahms later."
Elaina put the plug in the tub and turned on the faucets, adjusting the water temperature. While the tub filled, she stripped the baby, enjoying the enthusiastic way in which Betsy accepted having her clothes removed. She squirmed and wriggled and kicked and giggled. "You really are a cheerful little thing, aren't you?" Elaina said. "I mean, don't babies cry for their mothers when they're left with strangers?" Far from crying, Betsy crowed with glee when she realized she was about to be bathed. And when Elaina sat her down in the water, she promptly sank.
"Oh, my gosh!" Elaina cried, grabbing at the baby frantically. She missed, grabbed again, and hung onto an incredibly slippery little body. Betsy sputtered and gasped and giggled, bobbing up and down in the much too deep water. She seemed unharmed, to say nothing of unconcerned. Elaina dried her face with the corner of a towel and pulled the plug, letting water run out and not stopping it until only a few inches remained in the bottom of the tub. "We live and learn," she said, gently splashing water over Betsy's back. "I only hope you live through my learning. At least the dirt is all washed out of your hair, though that wasn't the way I had intended to go about it." She looked at the baby splashing happily in the shallow water, sucking on the washcloth. "You sure didn't mind getting dunked, did you? I suppose, if I had to have a baby dumped on me, I'm lucky it turned out to be such a good-natured one."
And Betsy was good-natured—until the time came to take her out of the tub.
She screamed. She kicked. She waved her arms, fists flailing, catching Elaina on the face and neck until she got smart and wrapped the child in a towel, arms, legs, wet, slick body and all, then held her close, rocking her.
It didn't help one bit. Pacing, almost running back and forth, Elaina weighed a hundred different possible solutions to the problem and rejected them one by one, up to and including simply putting the baby onto the floor and letting Harrison take over.
"What do you want?" she asked. "What can I do for you?"
Suddenly, she remembered the bottle. She pulled it from the tote bag, snapped off the lid, and shoved the nipple into the gaping mouth. Like magic, the noise stopped and Betsy reached up to pat Elaina's face, her tiny hand soft and warm from the bath, gentle and tender and immensely moving. Biting her lip, Elaina sat down on the sofa, one leg curled under her and resting against the arm of the couch as she cradled Betsy close.
"Hey, little girl," she said softly. "I don't know who you are or why you're here, but I think I could get to like you."
It was true, and the thought amazed her. When she had been younger, she had of course expected one day to have children. She had wanted them, but Kirk had not. At least not for a long time, he'd said. He didn't think they'd make good parents. She'd gone along with his belief. It was easier, she had learned early in her relationship with him, not to try to force her views on him. He'd held them in such contempt.
Elaina sighed. Maybe he'd been right. No instinct, not even common sense, had told her not to make the tub too full, had it?
When Betsy finally fell asleep, Elaina whispered, "Now what do I do with you?" The answer presented itself almost at once: Put a diaper on her. The towel and Elaina's lap were both soaked. The bag in the foyer contained a small selection of things Elaina presumed were baby necessities. She pulled out the various contents, and smiled at one. A cloth book—a very familiar-looking cloth book.
With Betsy still sleeping against her shoulder. Elaina flopped open the limp, well-chewed book. Her smile deepened at the line that read Illustrations by Elaina McIvor. She had literally lost count of the number of children's books she had illustrated, but it still thrilled her to see those words, especially in a book that some child was enjoying.
With the baby changed and stuffed—not without difficulty—into a terry-cloth sleeper, Elaina stood looking down at her sleeping on her bed, still not quite sure she believed what was happening. Now that she had time to think, the worries came sweeping back.
What if the phone bill man had kidnapped Betsy? What if she was an unwitting accessory to a crime? What if he wasn't a doctor at all but was a patient—probably from the psycho ward—and had snatched Betsy? Things like that happened all the time. He could even have stolen the phone bill to give his story credence.
She had to call the police. She picked up the phone on her bedside table, then set it down again. It wasn't connected yet. Maybe tomorrow, the telephone company had said. And maybe not until next week.
The man hadn't looked like a criminal, had he? she asked herself. That was, if kidnappers had a certain kind of look.
If they did, his didn't qualify. Her mind had absorbed his appearance like a photographic plate, she now realized. In addition to being tall, he was broad in the shoulders, narrow in the waist and hips, and powerful in the legs. And good-looking. Not classically handsome as Kirk had been, but there was something about him that appealed to her on a very personal level. Which was odd, because since Kirk, she hadn't felt attracted to anyone. She hadn't wanted to. What had happened with Kirk had been too painful to risk a repeat of any kind. But still, she couldn't get Dr. Bradshaw's face out of her mind. Or the memory of his hard, tanned body. He was quite different from Kirk. Could that be what made him so attractive to her? She hoped he'd come back soon.
Oh, cut it out, Elaina, she told herself. Even if he was attractive to her, that didn't mean he was attracted!
Why then couldn't she stop thinking about him, about his laughing green eyes? Along with that laughter there had been a deep intelligence in his eyes, as if he were examining everything around him, sorting the input through a sharp mind, and assessing what he saw. He looked like a man she would enjoy talking to. A man who would have a lot of interesting things to say. Did she really want to call the police on a man who had such intelligent eyes? No, she didn't. Not right away, at any rate. The best thing to do was wait a while. He had said he'd be back. And it wasn't as though she didn't know who he was. After all, she had his address and his telephone number, not to mention his telephone bill. Also, the baby was sleeping so soundly it would be a shame to disturb her by having police officers and social workers come storming in here just because she had reported Brent Bradshaw for abandoning Betsy when she wasn't at all sure that that was what he had done.
Excerpted from Pockets Full Of Joy by Judy Griffith Gill. Copyright © 1988 Judy Gill. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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