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Copyright © 2017 by Lorana Hoopes, Jenna Brandt, Carol E. Keen, Elle E. Kay, Mary C. Findley, Judith Robl, Evangeline Kelly, and C.J. Samuels
Cover design by Mary C. Findley
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
More by Lorana Hoopes AKA LL Hoopes
AUDREY STARED AT THE NURSES leaning over the silver table, obscuring the view of the thing she wanted to see most.
“Are you ready, Mom?” The head nurse turned to Audrey, a tiny blue package in her arms.
Mom. The word had never applied to her, and she wasn’t sure it fit. Was she ready? Probably not. Would she ever be completely ready? Probably not. But that didn’t change reality. She tucked a strand blond hair behind her ear and nodded.
“Here’s your son.” The nurse held the swaddled bundle out to her. Audrey opened her hands, unsure of what the nurse wanted her to do. The nurse’s face softened and her warm brown eyes sparkled. With one hand, she adjusted Audrey’s arms to place the tiny bundle in them. “Hold him like this,” she demonstrated. “You always want to support his head.”
Audrey nodded, trying to keep her arms from shaking. Afraid to breathe, afraid to move, afraid to drop the infant, she kept her eyes glued to him. Would he shatter like a piece of glass? The image sent a shiver down her spine. She didn’t want to find out.
The nurse’s eyes twinkled as she watched Audrey adjust and readjust her holding position. “There is a bassinet here.” The nurse pointed at a clear plastic tub similar to a large shoe box on top of a wheeled table. It didn’t look comfortable to Audrey, and she wondered how a baby slept in it. “If you want to take him walking, you need to put him in the bassinet, okay?”
“Do I hold him the rest of the time?” As much as she was enjoying the baby in her arms, what happened when she needed to sleep or use the bathroom.
The woman chuckled. “You hold him as much as you want and put him down when you need a break. We’ll come in every few hours to check on you, and we’ll show you how to change his diaper and dress him. You’ll be a pro before you know it. Don’t worry.” She patted Audrey’s arm like her grandmother used to when she asked a silly question, and then the nurse walked out of the room, still smiling and shaking her head.
Audrey’s eyes dropped to the sleeping baby. His shock of dark hair invoked visions of his father, the olive skinned Italian who had charmed her with his fast tongue. She hoped it was the only trait Cayden would get from him. The world didn’t need another heartbreaker. “I have no idea what we’ll do, Cayden, but we’ll figure something out.”
Blake turned the glass on the countertop and glanced up at Max who leaned against the back counter, arms folded across his chest as he waited for the answer to his question. The green of his plaid shirt matched the faded ball cap turned backwards on his head. “Sorry, it’s just getting close to Christmas, and I miss Connie.” A vision of the day she left popped into his head.
Blake opened the door, expecting to see Connie on the other side in her Sunday best. The church service started in half an hour. Though Connie stood there, his smile faded as he took in her jeans and t-shirt. There was no requirement of the patrons to dress up, but Connie always wore a dress or skirt. “What’s going on?” Blake asked.
Connie bit her lip and her eyes fell to the ground. “I wanted to say goodbye.”
“I can’t stay any longer, Blake.” Her eyes lifted to meet his, and he saw the shimmer of liquid in them. “I hoped I could make a life here, but I’m a city girl. I miss the lights and night life; I miss the excitement.”
“But, we were discussing marriage last week.” Blake struggled to make her words compute in his brain.
“I know,” she nodded, “and that’s what got me thinking. The thought of living the rest of my life here is depressing, so though I love you, I have to say goodbye.” She leaned in and pecked his cheek before flashing a sad smile and walking back to her car.
With a heavy heart, Blake watched her drive away before shutting the door and leaning against it. His brain tried to make sense of her departure.
“I get it,” Max said, leaning forward and dispersing Blake’s memory. “It’s not the same, but you’re welcome to spend Christmas with Layla and me.”
Blake offered a half smile. “I’ll consider it, but it’s your first Christmas together. You’ve been in love with that woman since I’ve known you and I don’t want to be a third wheel. Besides, I’ll probably hit the Christmas Eve service at church and spend the day with my mom. She’s been lonely without my father around.”
Max shrugged and turned back to the kitchen to finish serving the lunch crowd.
Blake took a bite of his hamburger, but while he knew it was delicious – Max was known for his burgers – it held no taste in his current mood. After fishing a few dollars out of his wallet, he laid the money on the counter, picked up his coat, and walked out the door.
The McAllister development where he worked sat a mile up the road, but as fifteen minutes remained on his lunch break, he chose the scenic walk through downtown. His own house resided on the quiet outskirts of town, so other than hanging out with Max at The Diner, he didn’t spend much time in the downtown area.
Blake pulled his coat tighter as the winter air bit through the heavy wool. Star Lake generally received one or two good snowfalls every winter, and though Christmas was still a few weeks away, the snow appeared imminent.
He didn’t mind the snow, but he wished he had someone to share the experience with. Curling in front of the fireplace alone held little appeal.
Audrey shoved the last item in her suitcase and pushed down on the bulging rectangle to engage the zipper.
“Where are you going to go?” Audrey’s roommate, Desiree, leaned against the doorframe twirling a lock of her long dark hair.
“The only place I can,” Audrey said, sighing, “Home.”
The thought held little appeal. Though her parents had given her access to the trust fund at eighteen, she had opted to move to LA to try her hand at acting. At first, the experience amazed her and she’d found work, but then the jobs became fewer and farther between and after she ended up pregnant, they had dried up completely and all the money she had saved was almost gone.
Desiree’s nose scrunched in disgust. “You’ll go back to that tiny town, why?”
“I haven’t had a job in months Dez, my savings have run out, and I can’t go to work without someone to watch Cayden. If I go home, I can get help from my parents until I get back on my feet.” At least she hoped they would help. They weren’t too happy when she decided not to go to college, but she didn’t think they would turn their grandson away, even if they didn’t want to help her.
Desiree shrugged and flicked her hair behind her bony shoulder. “Nothing in the world would make me return to my crappy hometown.”
Audrey knew Desiree’s home life had been rough, but while she hadn’t wanted to grow up under her mother’s thumb, it hadn’t been a bad childhood. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be back, but I wish you luck.”
After a quick hug, Audrey picked up Cayden’s car seat, slung her bag over her shoulder, and left the apartment she had called home for the last few years.
AUDREY STOOD OUTSIDE THE MANSION, her heart a lead anchor in her chest. She ran the possible options one more time, desperate for a new solution, but nothing existed. Her last five hundred dollars had paid for the flight and the rental car, so even if another way existed before, it was nonexistent now.
Her finger trembled as it pressed the ornate gold doorbell.
A young woman in a pale pink uniform answered the door. Though her face was unfamiliar, her position was not. Audrey’s mother had always insisted on help.
“Can I help you?” The woman’s even and friendly tone didn’t mask the sadness in her eyes. Audrey knew the expression too well. Though she loved her mother, Evelyn’s overbearing personality and her obsession with money and status often left those around her drained and empty.
“I’m Audrey. Is Evelyn home?”
The woman’s eyes widened at Audrey’s name. Her mother must have informed even the newest help of her wayward daughter, but the woman, polite as ever, nodded and motioned Audrey to follow her.
Audrey stared at the threshold. If she stepped over the line, there would be no turning back, and the anchor on her heart pulled ever tighter. Was this the only way? Audrey hadn’t even spoken with her mother, and yet the imaginary noose tightened around her neck. Her throat dried up, and she closed her eyes to calm the beating of her erratic heart.
“Are you all right?”