The memory of the night she lost the baby lied coiled within her, mean as a snake ready to strike at any time. She clenched her hands at her sides as it hit its mark, fingernails digging into her palms. It had been over a year, yet the blotting out of the tiny life by her own body still haunted Gabby Atwood. Betrayal of the worst kind.
Today was not a day to dance with her demon. Forcing the searing memory back down into the shadows of her buzzing mind, Gabby took the cheese and fruit platter from the refrigerator. Her hands were shaking so badly, the cracker she pulled from the box bounced out of her hands, leaving a trail of crumbs on the counter top. Get a grip, girl. Whisking the crumbs into the trash, she brushed off her hands and carried the platter into the living room. She sat the platter down next to the vase stuffed with dusky blue Hydrangea blossoms. Heather’s favorite flower according to the social worker. Bailey, the yellow Labrador Retriever, eyeballed the cheese with longing and inched closer, nose twitching.
“Don’t even think about it. This cheese is not for you,” she said. “In fact, I think maybe you should go outside and play for now.” Gabby lured a disappointed Bailey away from the cheese with his tennis ball and let him out into the fenced yard.
Wiping her sweaty palms on her jeans, she glanced at her watch. “Ben, honey, are you almost ready? They should be here any minute now.”
“Almost,” her husband called from the bedroom.
Unable to sit still, Gabby paced around the living room. Her green eyes darted around, trying to see it from Heather’s eyes. Her and Ben’s favorite over-sized chair that they cuddled in while watching movies sat beside the fireplace like a reliable old friend. A bit worn, molded to their bodies by time, but so inviting with its pile of pillows and cashmere throw folded up on the ottoman. The dark oak grandfather’s clock with its soothing, constant heartbeat of time. First impressions were everything. Would she find their home as warm and cozy as Gabby and Ben did? She had vacuumed up most of the pet hair from Bailey and Joe, their hefty Maine Coon cat. She tucked a lock of her strawberry blonde hair behind her ear and straightened the magazines on the coffee table. They had been longing for a baby for so long. Gabby was almost afraid to hope that this could be it. The chance at starting their family.
Ben walked in as she was plumping up the pillows on the sofa. She noted how handsome he looked dressed in khakis and a maroon polo shirt. His salt and pepper hair was still damp from his shower.
“Do I pass inspection?” he teased as he put his arms around her. He knew how important this day was to her.
“I’ll guess you’ll have to do,” she teased back with a grin. “What about me? How do I look?” Her sundress skimmed her slim frame, and the soft pink color suited her pale coloring.
“You look perfect. Amazing, actually,” he said, nuzzling her neck and pulling her closer.
“O.K., behave,” she said, playfully pushing him away. “We have to be on our best behavior, you know. Today has to be perfect, and I’m already a bundle of nerves.”
“Try to relax, honey. Everything will be fine. What could possibly go wrong?”
Gabby’s heart rocketed into her throat as the doorbell rang.
“This is it,” she said, crossing the room to answer the door. “Cross your fingers.”
* * *
Gabby tried not to stare with envy at the young woman’s belly, swollen with life, as the social worker, Marion Jamison, introduced them.
“Ben, Gabrielle, I’d like for you to meet Heather O’Neal,” Marion said. Ben and Gabby had been told that Heather was nineteen and attending the local college. Her baby was due in a couple of months, and she had decided she wasn’t ready to start a family. Heather had chosen them as one of the possible couples to adopt her baby. Marion had told them there were two other couples she wanted to interview, as well. That had depressed Gabby for days. So much about this process was heartbreaking. Gabby hated that she had to compete with other couples for a chance at a family.
“It’s so nice to finally meet you in person. This is my husband, Ben,” Gabby said as she offered her hand to Heather. Petite, with doe eyes the color of chocolate, and short, spiky auburn hair, Heather reminded Gabby of an elf or pixie.
“It’s nice to meet both of you too. I’m glad you agreed to meet me on such short notice. We have other home visits to do, and I wanted to do them all at once. As you can see, there’s not much time left for me to make a decision,” Heather said, cupping her very pregnant belly.
“Not a problem. How about a quick tour of the house, and then we can sit down and have a snack or something to drink while we talk?”
“Sounds great. It’s been a busy morning,” Heather said.
As they all got comfortable in the living room, and were getting to know each other, Joe, the cat, decided to make an appearance. Hopping up on the back of the sofa, he made his way over to Heather. Her eyes began to water as a sneezing fit came upon her.
“Oh, no. Are you allergic to cats?” Ben asked.
Peering up with red-rimmed eyes, she wheezed, “Yes, I am. I love them, but I’m severely allergic.”
“I’m so sorry,” Gabby said, scooping up Joe and opening up the patio door to put him outside. “Ben, why don’t you get her some water.” Marion rummaged in her purse and handed Heather several tissues.
As Gabby turned to close the door behind Joe, Bailey darted into the house and bounded straight for the new people sitting on the sofa, tennis ball in mouth. Heather never saw the hairy missile coming, as she wiped her teary eyes.
“Oh my gosh, who is this?” she said, as the slobbery ball plopped into what little lap she had left. Bailey’s muddy paws planted on her leg.
“This monster is Bailey,” Gabby said, dying a little inside as she wrangled the excited dog as he dove for the cheese platter. “He loves meeting new people, as you can tell, and he loves cheese. I’m so sorry, Heather. It’s not usually so hectic around here.”
“Uh huh,” said Heather, wiping at the mud on her pants.
Ben came in with a glass of water for Heather. As he was handing it to her, Bailey broke away from Gabby and hit Ben’s hand, sloshing the water down the front of Heather.
“Oh, dear,” Marion said as she and Heather both jumped up. Putting her hand on Heather’s back, she said, “Maybe now is the not the best time. Why don’t we plan on another day. Let Heather recover a bit.”
Gabby swallowed back tears as Marion led a red-eyed Heather to the door.
“Of course. Heather, I’m so sorry. It was lovely getting to know you,” Gabby said.
“Please do call us to reschedule. We’ll make sure these two misfits are not in the way next time,” Ben added.
“Sure. Nice meeting both of you,” Heather said, blowing her nose as they closed the door behind them.
Tears rolled down Gabby’s face as she watched her dream walk out the door.
* * *
The next morning, Gabby and Ben were sitting down to breakfast. Gabby’s eyes were swollen from crying herself to sleep over the disaster that took place yesterday.“Honey, try not to be too upset. I hate to see you like this,” Ben said.
“I’m trying, but why does it have to be so hard? I feel like a failure.”
Before Ben could respond, Gabby’s phone rang. “Gabrielle, it’s Marion. How are you?”
Gabby’s eyes widened as she looked at Ben. “Hi, there, Marion. I’ve been better. Ben and I want to apologize again for yesterday. We feel terrible about what happened. Hopefully, we can reschedule right away.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Marion said.
“Oh, I see,” Gabby said. A wave of disappointment engulfed her.
“Heather has already made her decision. That’s why I’m calling. Can you come into my office sometime this week to fill out the paperwork?”
“The paperwork?” Gabby asked, confused.
“The paperwork, yes. She chose you and Ben to adopt her baby. She adored you. Said your house was lively and fun. Not too stuffy, unlike the others. Reminded her of her childhood. She was actually relieved when she met you and Ben.”
“Are you serious? We’re getting a baby?” Gabby whispered. Ben came over and took her hand, tears in his eyes.
“Yes, dear. You’re getting a baby. Congratulations.”