Me and my great ideas.
Early Tuesday evening, Risa stood in the elevator, wondering how she would survive the next few days. She was clutching Natalie’s hand in her own, while holding the volcanic spew-fest known as baby Grace with her other arm. Jason was free, and it had taken a series of pleas, threats and bribes to keep him from punching all the numbers on the panel.
Janine had only been gone a few hours—she probably wasn’t even checked into her room yet—and all hell had broken loose. After dropping Janine off at the airport, Risa was shocked when all three kids burst into tears. Jason and Natalie had been excited, babbling about how much fun they’d have with Aunt Risa…but the moment Janine escaped visual contact, it was Niagara Falls. Combined with high keening noises that straddled the range between human earshot and what only dogs could hear.
Attempting to cheer them up, Risa had taken them for burgers, but on the way home Risa realized she’d left baby Grace’s diaper bag in the restaurant. They’d gone back to search with no luck, and by then Natalie was tired and whiny. Baby Grace was also screaming her little baby lungs out since it was bottle time. Desperate for at least one of the two girls to stop crying, Risa made a hasty pit stop at the grocery store and grabbed a familiar looking container of formula. Both Natalie and Jason assured Risa that it was the brand Mommy bought.
She poured the ready to serve formula into a new bottle and fed Grace right there in the parking lot. It wasn’t until after Grace was happily sucking down the formula that Jason reminded Risa you have to boil new bottles before you can use them. In theory, she agreed; in practice, she’d once seen Janine take a beetle out of Grace’s mouth, so a non-boiled bottle probably wasn’t the end of the world. Still, she felt guilty for screwing up so soon.
Guiltier yet when Grace finished and the projectile vomiting began. Too late, Risa realized that while she had picked up the right brand of formula, it hadn’t been the lactose free variety the intolerant baby required. The ride home had been punctuated with Jason and Natalie informing Risa every few minutes that Grace had spit up again. And Risa’s worries that she would be the world’s worst mother.
When the elevator stopped, Risa wanted to cry with relief. In her apartment, she had the right kind of formula for Grace and a bed for Natalie’s nap. But in one last hurrah, Grace threw up across Risa’s turquoise blouse, Jason shoved his sister in his typically-little-boy hurry to get out of the elevator, and cranky Natalie plopped down in the middle of the hallway and began bawling. Loudly.
She could have drowned out the sound of 747s taking off at Hartsfield.
Risa didn’t know whether to be thankful or mortified when the door to 7-G opened and Jack Wolfe stuck out his head.
He assessed the situation in a single glance, and one corner of his mouth lifted. "Need a hand?"
Though she much preferred helping others, like Janine or the unemployed people who came to Perfect Placement, this was no time for pride. "Yes. Desperately. Please."
He corralled the oldest Griggs sibling, who had headed the wrong way down the hall. Then he joined Risa in front of her apartment unlocking the door while she held onto Grace and a squalling Natalie. At the moment, the baby was doing nothing more than cooing softly, but Risa refused to be lulled into a false sense of security. As soon as the door was opened, Risa made a beeline for the kids’ luggage, which Janine had brought over that morning when she delivered the van and its necessary car seats.
After repositioning Grace in her arms and dabbing the checkered burp cloth against the latest stain on her blouse, Risa grabbed a pillow and Joey the stuffed bear. Then she escorted Natalie to the guestroom and tucked her in. Risa promised ice cream when the little girl woke up if she’d just close her eyes and take a nap. Natalie gave a brief, watery smile at the mention of ice cream and was asleep before Risa left the room.
Risa carried the baby back to the living room, where Jack and Jason sat on the black leather sectional sofa she’d bought in a bizarre fit of modernism, unlike the house of antiques in which she’d been raised. Her neighbor and Janine’s son appeared to be having a very serious, man to man discussion about the merits of Nintendo versus PlayStation. Jack made a friend for life when he told Jason that, if it was okay with Risa, he’d borrow one of his nephew’s two game systems and some racing cartridges for Jason’s visit.
The little boy’s face lit up and, as he and Jack exchanged smiles, Risa realized they could be mistaken for father and son. With their dark hair and matching outfits of jeans and solid colored T-shirts, they looked similar enough.
Jack reached out to tousle the boy’s hair, and her insides did something twitchy that she didn’t care to analyze.
"Well, Natalie’s napping," Risa said softly. "Jason—"
"I’m too big to nap."
"Of course you are," she agreed solemnly. "But you’re not too big to stretch out on the couch and watch cartoons, right? And wouldn’t you be more comfortable if I get you your pillow and a blanket?"
He thought that over and deemed it acceptable.
Jack rose from the couch. "Need anything else?"
"If you really don’t mind…? Janine dropped off a portable play-pen that still needs to be set up."
"Just tell me where."
She cocked her head in the direction of the hallway. "Back in my room." Baby Grace had laid her head down on Risa’s shoulder, her breathing slow and deep. With any luck, all three kids would sleep, and Risa would have time to devise a battle plan before cooking dinner. This week might be more complicated than she’d originally deluded herself.
Jack picked up the collapsed play-pen from the corner and followed her.
Once they’d both crossed the threshold into her bedroom, Risa’s heart gave an irrational thump against her chest. Suddenly her queen-sized bed seemed mammoth, drawing both her gaze and her thoughts. She glanced around quickly to make sure nothing intimate was laying out where Jack might notice it, like lacy pajamas or a thong.
You sleep in oversized cotton shirts and wore a thong exactly once before swearing never to repeat the hideously uncomfortable experience.
"So where do you want it?" Jack asked.
A number of terribly inappropriate answers sprang to mind, and Risa ignored them all, ashamed to even think them with cherubic, innocent Grace in the immediate vicinity.
She pointed to the carpeted area at the end of the bed. "There’s fine."
Kneeling, he unzipped the bag and extracted a jumble of plastic, metal and netting. "I can’t believe you agreed to watch three kids when you have white carpeting."
Remembering Janine’s skepticism and the patronizing expression on Phillip’s face when he’d questioned whether she could handle it, she snapped, "I’m sure it will be fine. Carpets can be shampooed, you know."
He glanced up, one eyebrow raised. "I meant it as a compliment. I know carpets can be shampooed, but some people have a different way of looking at it."
"Sorry." Heat rushed to her face. "Didn’t mean to be defensive."
He looked up again, started to say something, then gazed past her and grinned. "I love the nightstand, nice use of color."
"You aren’t the only one who’s gifted with a paintbrush," she kidded, thinking it was refreshing to joke with a man. She certainly never had with the Judge, and while Phillip was a Great Man who often did Great Things, she never felt quite right poking fun around him.
Jack snapped some thingamajig into place and nodded crisply. "All set."
"Great." Risa peered at Grace’s pursed lips and heavy-lidded eyes. "I think she’s—"
On cue, Grace began to wail. The muted, high pitched howl of an ambulance when it’s still quite a distance behind you. Like the approaching emergency vehicle, Grace grew louder and more urgent.
"Wet diaper?" Jack suggested.
"Probably, and I left her diaper bag at the restaurant. Can you hold her just a second?" Without waiting for an answer, she thrust the baby into his arms, hurried to the living room and returned with diapering supplies.
Jack laid the baby on the bed to be changed, and Risa hesitated.
"Is this not a good place?" he wanted to know.
"N-no. I just realized I’ve never changed a diaper." She’d helped Janine all through the pregnancy, but when Grace had actually been born, Janine’s retired mother had come up from Florida to help for a month. Risa’s assistance had always been more along the lines of taking the older children to the park so Janine could have time with the baby.
I have a college degree and run my own company. I can change a diaper. She unsnapped the little pink onesie as Grace squirmed around on the duvet, then reached for the tabs on the disposable diaper.
She jerked her hand back, keeping it close enough so that Grace couldn’t roll over and scoot toward the edge of the bed. "What? Don’t tell me I’ve done something wrong already."
"You did say ‘her’ earlier, right? It’s hard to tell with babies."
"When they’re wearing pink?"
He shrugged. "Hey, we had five kids in my family, and hand-me-downs were a necessity. I think Mom actually put my youngest brother Bruce in a yellow dress in an emergency once. Of course he’s in extensive therapy now…Never mind. Proceed. I just wanted to make sure if she were a boy, you weren’t in the line of fire."
"Huh? Oh. No, I’m safe." She removed the damp diaper and seconds later replaced it, inordinately proud of herself. She hadn’t put it on backwards or anything; of course the picture of the happy duck on the front made it easy to avoid that mistake.
Unfortunately, by the time the onesie was refastened, Grace had progressed to the "too tired to sleep" stage, and her cries were increasing in volume.
"Here." Jack reached for the baby, which Risa found a little presumptuous. She could rock, walk or sing as well as he could. But, remembering how much she’d enjoyed the sight of him smiling and talking with Jason, she handed over the baby.
As he took Grace, his eyes widened, zeroing in on Risa’s fingers. "Wow," he said in a near whisper. "I didn’t realize the Hope diamond had left the museum."
"Ha ha." She resisted the temptation to hide her left hand behind her back.
He swayed slightly, shifting his weight on the balls of his feet and rubbing Grace’s back. Despite his relaxed stance, tension was suddenly apparent in the rigid set of his jaw and anger glinting in his eyes. What right did he have to be angry about anything?
In the same quiet tone, he added, "He could have just branded you with the same result."
"Where do you get off being so sarcastic?" she hissed at him, infusing her words with ire if not volume.
"Don’t get mad at me for noticing. What reason is there for wearing something like that except to catch attention?"
"It’s a token of—of commitment."
Anger vibrated inside her. He barely knew her and had no business questioning her this way. "Just because your marriage didn’t work out doesn’t mean—" The stiffening of his shoulders, the hurt in his gaze, was all it took to halt her words. "I think you should go now."
He placed the now-sleeping baby inside the makeshift crib. "I think you’re right."