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She smiled adoringly at him from her seat in the stroller, showing off the two tiny teeth she'd sprouted this month. Flanking the stroller were a bulging suitcase and a pink diaper bag.
Like he was going to carry that around.
His ex-wife stood behind all this, looking like a model in a sleek leather jacket and high-heeled boots. No one would guess Jessica had ever had a baby, let alone just six months ago.
"I can't do this," he said flatly. "You've never let me have Mandy overnight before. Now at the last minute, you expect me to take care of her full-time for three weeks?"
"I guess if the Hartford Police Department believes you're smart enough to be a detective, you ought to be able to handle a baby. I've written out everything you need to know in here."
She passed him a notebook, as well as another,
thicker book. "Plus, I'm lending you my copy of What to Expect the First Year. Don't lose it."
"Look, I'm not wild about leaving her with you, either. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me."
"Spending your Christmas vacation in Australia, compliments of an Aussie snowboarder you met on the slopes two weeks ago. Yeah, some lifetime chance."
"Will is a great guy."
"I'm sure. Aren't they all?"
"You're a fine one to talk. What's the longest you've stuck with one girlfriend?"
"Let me see nine months?"
Her face reddened and he knew he'd scored a point. "That doesn't count. You only married me because I was pregnant. We both knew it was a mistake almost right away."
"Wrong. You're the one who decided it was a mistake." When he'd said his vows, he'd intended to stick by them. Not that he and Jessica were such a perfect couple. But when you had kids, you stepped up to the plate.
It was what all the Gray men did. And while he couldn't live up to his older brothers in many other ways, in this one area he'd tried to do what was right.
"Don't give me that crap. You were relieved when I moved out. Even if you won't admit it." She pulled up the sleeve of her jacket so she could see the gold watch on her wrist. "We don't have time to argue. Will's picking me up for the airport in half an hour."
"Okay, so let's schedule our fight for when you get back. Is January fifth good for you?"
She ignored him, but he could tell she was struggling not to smile. Instead, she bent to whisper something to Mandy.
He heard snippets. "Mommy loves you lots of presents miss you, baby."
When she straightened, there were tears in her eyes. Not that he'd ever doubted that Jessica loved their daughter. But what kind of mother left her six-month-old baby while she cavorted with her new ski buddy in Australia?
"You're not listening to me. This really is a problem. I took today off, but I have to work tomorrow."
"Don't you have any vacation time coming?"
He grimaced. "Yeah, right." She knew he'd used it all in the weeks after Mandy was born. Besides, he'd just been promoted, assigned a new partner and given a high-profile case. "What am I supposed to do with Mandy while I'm on duty?"
"What all the rest of us working parents do, Nick. Hire a sitter. Or ask your mom."
He knew better than to mess with his mom's bridge/Scrabble/shuffleboard plans. Gavin and Allison would be the perfect choice. They were already looking after eight-year-old Tory and their new son, Jack. What was one more baby?
But his middle brother and his new wife lived in Squam Lake, New Hampshire. Much too far for a daily commute to Hartford.
Nick's head was still spinning with possibilitiesor rather the lack of themwhen Jessica put a hand on his arm. He looked at her white-tipped fingernails with mild curiosity. Once, her touch had set his libido on fire. Now he felt nothing.
"Mandy has had her breakfast and her diaper is clean. In about two hours it will be time for her nap. Good luck, Nick. I'll check in with you after we land in Sydney."
And then she left.
Seconds ticked by. A minute passed. Silence.
Mandy's big eyes were fixed on him. She seemed expectant.
He turned his hands palms up. "Sorry kid. I have no idea what I'm doing here."
Since he'd made detective and stopped shift work, Nick had fallen into a routine of spending Sunday afternoons with Mandy. The routine went like this:
Pick up Mandy after her nap. Strap her into the infant car seat that Gavin and Allison had bought him for a baby gift, then drive to Matthew and Jane's place.
Hand baby to either Mom, Jane or Matthew.
Grab a beer.
Watch TV, with intermittent interaction with baby.
At dinnertime, warm up the bottle and canned baby food that Jessica had packed in the diaper bag yes, the ugly pink one.
Feed Mandy, then let his mom or Matt hold her while he ate his own dinner.
Get back in his car, drive to Jessica's and leave Mandy with her.
That was it. With the support of his extended family, he could look after his daughter for half a day maximum. How was he supposed to cope with her full-time? He loved holding Mandy close while she slept and trying to make her smile when she was awake. But he couldn't fill a day with that stuff. Not even when you factored in feedings, naps and changing diapers.
When she was older, they'd be able to go to the park, play board games and read books together. But Mandy was too little for any of that.
"You don't watch TV, do you?"
Mandy pursed her lips, blowing bubbles with her saliva.
"I didn't think so."
With Mandy still gazing intently at him, he pulled out Jessica's notebook. On the first page she'd listed emergency numbers: the doctor's office, the poison center, and several others.
He flipped the page to Mandy's Daily Schedule. His ex had itemized Mandy's routine, but when he read closely he realized the list wasn't very complete. For instance, at seven in the morning Mandy was supposed to be cleaned, dressed and fed.
Then there was nothing until her nap at ten.
That was two hours from now.
What was he supposed to do with a baby for two hours?
He looked at the What to Expect book, but it was too long. It would probably take him a couple hours to find the right chapter.
Nick smiled at his daughter. She smiled back. Maybe he wasn't supposed to do anything with the baby. Maybe she just sat in her stroller and looked at him while he went about his normal business.
Normal business for a day off work was reading the paper and enjoying a pot of coffee. Pleased with this idea, Nick wheeled the stroller to the kitchen, then started a pot. He spread the paper over the table, like usual, and got out his favorite mug.
He turned to look at her. "What was that?" The noise hadn't sounded like a cry. But it hadn't sounded happy, either. He pushed her stroller closer so she could keep her eyes on him. She seemed to like that for some reason.
He turned to the City section, looking to see if there was anything about the case he'd been assigned yesterday. He scanned the front page, then the rest of the section, but there was no mention of a runaway teenager.
Mandy made another noise. A little louder and longer than the last one. Definitely not happy. He pushed the stroller even closer. It didn't help. She screwed up her face and pushed out her bottom lip.
Clearly Mandy was not a fan of the coffee-and-newspaper routine.
Maybe he'd find something in her suitcase to distract her, but when he opened it, out tumbled clothes and more clothes. Nothing else.
He tried the diaper bag next. It was full of empty bottles, a tin of powder to make formula, jars of baby food andrather unimaginativelydiapers. Again, there seemed to be enough of everything to last thirty days or more.
Finally he noticed the pocket on the back of the stroller. Great, here were some actual toys. He pulled them out, one by one, and passed them to Mandy. She just threw them on the flooreach one seemed to make her madder than the one before.
For Pete's sake, why hadn't Jessica bought the kid any toys that she liked?
"What's the matter, Mandy? Do you want some Hot Wheels? Maybe a Transformer?" He was pretty sure she was too young for those, though.
God, what was he going to do? The neighbors would soon be calling to complain. Besides, it kind of made his chest ache to see her acting so distressed.
Finally inspiration struck. He'd take her for a walk. There were always tons of parents and nannies pushing strollers around the neighborhood, even in the winter.
He bundled Mandy in her snowsuit again and just that seemed to be enough to distract her from crying. She stared at him with her big blue eyes, through a sheen of tears. When she finally smiled, it was like she'd never been unhappy at all.
"You like going for walks, don't you?" He dried her eyes with the corner of a flannel blanket, then grabbed his own coat and went out the door.
Fresh snow had fallen last night and as he pushed the stroller down the sidewalk he was glad that back when they'd still been together, he and Jessica had decided to invest in one of those all-weather jogging strollers, even though neither one of them jogged. The big wheels cut through the powder like nobody's business.
He headed for the park.
Newly aware of babies, suddenly it seemed that he could see nothing but parents pushing babies in strollers or carrying them close to their chest in padded holders. Several of the mothers were rather pretty.
He caught the eye of a striking brunette walking toward him with her baby in a sling. She smiled and it occurred to him that she might be a single mother.
"Cute baby," she said. "Is that your daughter?"
"Yup." He could tell she wanted him to stop and talk. It would be so easy to do. He'd start by admiring her baby, then shift to a compliment about the mother's smile.
He kept walking.
Yummy mummies were fun to look at, but they weren't his style. Besides, since the breakup of his marriage, he'd been taking a little hiatus from women.
Nick ambled to the end of the stree...