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This Thing Called Love

By:Miranda Liasson

CHAPTER 1

Olivia Marks steered her grocery cart to the back of the crowded twelve-items-or-less line just as her baby niece began to cry. Wedged in her car seat between several bottles of diet cola, a jar of peanut butter, two frozen pizzas, a head of lettuce, and one roll of refrigerated cookie dough, Annabelle looked defenseless and diminutive. And mad as hell.

Olivia surreptitiously dropped two Kit Kat bars into the cart. She had to get out of this store before the crying really got rolling. Annabelle waved her arms and wailed as loud as an EMS vehicle on the way to the ER, the very picture of despair. Olivia felt her pain. She had the same feeling bubbling up inside herself right now.

People cast accusatory looks in her direction. Do something about that crying. What kind of mother are you? All around, people bustled about Gertie’s in their usual routines, but for Olivia, nothing was usual. Her life had changed faster than a Black Friday crowd rushing into Walmart, and she wasn’t at all prepared. She didn’t belong here, back under the microscope lens of her small hometown with a brand new baby she knew nothing about caring for.

The crying suddenly accelerated to tornado-warning pitch. Everyone turned and stared. Olivia counted eight people in front of her in line. Eight!

If only the older woman who had stopped to admire Annabelle in the vegetable aisle hadn’t clanged her necklace against the cart and woken her up, this nightmare wouldn’t be happening.

A silent prayer rose to Olivia’s lips. Just let me get my peanut butter home. Olivia’s stomach rumbled in response. How long had it been since she’d eaten?

Breakfast felt like a hundred years ago. The day had been a rush of meetings and loose ends too numerous to count. Then she’d rented a car and driven the two and a half hours from New York City to Connecticut, to her best friend Alex’s, to pick up the four-week-old baby.

“Shhh, Annabelle, shush.” She held the baby’s tiny hand. It was so weightless—fragile—that Olivia pushed down a tide of panic. “Just a little while longer.” She sounded like she was begging, not comforting.

A wave of helplessness engulfed her. Helpless was not a word she ever would have used to describe herself. Her job as an editor of self-help books at Andromeda Publishing in the city meant eighty-hour workweeks, high-pressure deadlines, and six-figure deals. But a baby . . . that was a whole other can of worms. One she had never expected to factor into her well-ordered life.

Her heart squeezed painfully as she recalled the car accident that had claimed the lives of her sister Trish and brother-in-law Kevin. They’d gone out to the garden center to buy more flowers for their tiny yard. On a Saturday afternoon, in broad daylight, a drunk driver had crossed the median, killing them instantly. Accordion-pleated the entire front half of the car as easily as a teenage boy would flatten a Coke can between his hands. Yet miraculously, the tiny baby had survived, tucked and buckled into her car seat in the back.

Desperation and despair threatened to thrash up inside Olivia like breaker waves over rocks, pummeling her and threatening to break her into a million pieces. Yet she was strangely numb, fueled by adrenaline and caffeine, and mercifully distracted by the impossible responsibility she’d been called upon to bear.

The interceding week had been a blur of packing, rearranging her schedule, her commitments, her life . . . to return home and take guardianship of Annabelle as her sister’s and brother-in-law’s wills had dictated.

Olivia set her jaw firmly and pushed down all the sadness, fears, and doubts that churned about inside her. Like why Trish had named her, the most unlikely of people, to take on such a critical job.

No, she wasn’t going there, to that dark place. Annabelle deserved better, and Olivia was determined, for Trish’s sake, to do whatever it took to give her baby the best life possible. She owed it to her sister, and to Annabelle, because that’s what Olivia always did. Her best. Always.

A middle-aged woman behind her whispered to her companion, “That’s why I never took mine out till they were six months old. Babies that age belong at home.”

If only she had a pacifier. With chagrin, Olivia remembered she’d left the diaper bag Alex had packed for her in the car.

“So disruptive,” the other woman said with a tsk.

Why had she ever thought to bring the baby grocery shopping? It was only that she didn’t want to ask anyone for help on her first day back. Anything she could do herself, she usually did. Asking for help was never her forte.

Of all the self-help books she’d edited and read, no well-meaning advice seemed to leap into her head for this situation. Meditate. Think positive. Send calming vibes into the universe. Avoid clutter. All useless in the face of a screaming, inconsolable infant.

She wracked her brain. What else could she do to calm Annabelle? Rocking motion. She’d seen mothers do that with good results. Olivia began to roll the cart back and forth in what she thought was a soothing rhythm. “There you go, Annie. It’s all right, baby. Just a few more minutes.”

Something dinged. Olivia looked up to see a flashing light on top of the cashier’s station.

God, no. Not the help light.

The cashier barked into a microphone, “Price check needed at register seven. Price check. Register seven.”

Olivia shifted her weight from one foot to another. She still wore her heels, and right about now, her toes were screaming for flip-flops. She cracked her neck to dispel some tension, then bent low to whisper, “Four more people, Annie. You can do it.”

Annabelle’s cries intensified to all-out wails. Her face turned reddish-purple as a beet, her tiny mouth contorted into a vibrating oval.

That was the white flag of surrender. Olivia would have to take the plunge and pick her up.

People stared, judgment written on their faces. Hadn’t anyo

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