NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD WILLIAM Rennehan knew only one thing with absolute certainty. No one, but no one, was going to take his infant daughter away from him. The other thing he was quite sure of was that her name was Delilah.
He barely heard the low murmurs of the nurses and the swishing sounds of their soft-soled shoes as they bustled about the neonatal intensive care unit. His eyes were riveted on the minute form of his first-born child. Some of the babies in the nursery were squawking, their faces puckered like red apple dolls. Delilah slumbered peacefully in her bassinet, skin like porcelain, diminutive mouth quivering now and then as though she was lost in a delightful dream.
She was perfection, from her delicately shaped ears to her ten teensy toes. If he hadn’t been so awestruck, he’d have unwrapped her from her blanket to count the toes again, just for the pleasure of it.
He’d held her briefly right after she was born, and been struck by a tidal wave of love so intense it almost knocked him off his feet. In that instant, his heart began to burn with a whole new purpose.
That was just before the code blue, when all hell broke loose in the delivery room. A nurse sprang forward, snatched the baby out of his arms, and hustled him into the hallway before he could open his mouth. He was left to stand there in bewilderment; bereft of the squirming bundle of pure joy he’d cradled so fleetingly.
His ears and senses told him there was pandemonium on the other side of the door he’d had slammed in his face. The baby seemed fine; something must be wrong with Candy, he concluded. He tried to prevent his imagination from going crazy, but a cyclone of fear swirled around his chest, intensifying as the minutes dragged by.
And then it was all over. The door swung open and the doctor who’d attended the birth stepped into the hall. He planted himself in front of Will, eyes boring into him like laser beams.
“Your wife, I regret to inform you, has passed away,” he said abruptly. “We did everything we could but we lost her.”
Lost her? Will blinked uncomprehendingly.
The doctor’s nostrils flared like those of an angry bull. “You can’t just walk in off the street, Mr. Rennehan, with your wife in the last stages of labour, and expect us to be apprised of her condition. Apparently, neither of you thought it necessary to seek regular prenatal care, even though she presented here today with blood pressure through the roof and classic signs of preeclampsia.” His voice had risen and his face was shiny with perspiration.
Will cringed inwardly.
“I hope to god you have a plan for looking after this infant,” the doctor continued. “She could have died too but miraculously the only issue appears to be that she’s underweight. I’ve ordered her taken to the NICU for observation. She’ll be there for a couple of days unless we find a problem, in which case she’ll stay until we see fit to discharge her.
“In the meantime, get the nursery ready at home.” His smouldering eyes assessed Will with agonizing condescension. “And you’d better get some help lined up—you’re going to need it.” He swiped a hand over his haggard face and let out a sigh of defeat. “What an unnecessary waste,” he muttered. Then he turned on his heel and slouched off down the hall in his wrinkled blue scrubs.
Will wasn’t sure if it was Candy he was referring to, or him, with the words unnecessary waste. He felt like a whipped dog, ready to put his tail between his legs and slink off to hide. Comprehension slowly began to infiltrate his muddled brain; Candy had died, and somehow, he was being held accountable. The doctor’s scathing indictments pierced his fragile psyche like poisoned daggers.
A nurse with somber eyes laid a hand gently on his arm. She guided him back into the delivery room where he stood frozen by the hospital bed. His daughter had already been whisked away to another part of the hospital. He stared at Candy’s lifeless form, feeling as impassive as a bulging-eyed bullfrog on a lily pad.
One of her eyelash extensions had come unglued and was resting against the pallid flesh of her cheekbone. She would have been horrified, he thought. Wisps of matted blonde hair clung to her skull, congealed in cooled sweat. Nineteen years old is too young to die. He couldn’t comprehend it.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. “Is there anything I can do?” a voice asked softly. He gazed, bewildered, into the face of a middle-aged woman dressed in a conservative black pantsuit. A silver cross hung around her neck. “I’m the hospital chaplain,” she explained, smiling gently. “You’ve just had a terrible shock. Why don’t we go sit for a bit and collect our thoughts? Perhaps I can give you a hand in notifying loved ones and making early arrangements.”
Will blinked at her vacantly. Arrangements? Then it struck him, like a blow from a sledgehammer, that whatever needed to be done, it was all on his shoulders. He thought he might puke or bolt from the room.