Grace didn’t know why he remained persistent. She hadn’t given him any encouragement. And so far, she’d been the only one to benefit from this relationship—she and her garage door.
“I’d like to show you my place someday,” Cliff said. “You and Charlotte can both come. In fact, I’d enjoy it if you would. It’d be completely nonthreatening,” he said with a grin. “You can even bring Buttercup if you want.”
Grace thought about it. She’d formed an image of his home, and she was curious to find out if the reality matched her expectations. She nodded. “I’d enjoy a tour,” she said.
“When you’re ready to learn how to ride, Brownie’s the one who’ll teach you everything you need to know. She’s gentle as the day is long, and she’s the perfect horse for a beginner.”
“She’s agreeable to that, is she?”
“Sure is.” Cliff’s eyes danced. “So, should I schedule an outing this month?”
December was usually crowded with engagements, but in her current frame of mind, Grace wasn’t in the mood to socialize. The prospect of visiting Cliff’s ranch strongly appealed to her.
“I’m free on Saturday afternoon, if Charlotte is.”
Cliff looked pleased. “I’ll find out and get back to you.”
“You meant that, about Buttercup coming along?” Her dog was an important part of her life and Grace liked the idea of the golden retriever accompanying her.
Cliff reached for her gloved hand, taking it between his own. His eyes met hers, and he smiled. “I keep telling you I’m patient, Grace, and it’s true. I’m willing to wait for what I want.” Then he turned over her hand and kissed the inside of her wrist.
Grace closed her eyes to savor the moment. She wanted this too. As much as he did—maybe more—but first she had to get Dan out of her head. And out of her heart. Because, despite everything, he still claimed a piece of it.
Maryellen didn’t need the pregnancy test kit to tell her what she already knew. Sitting on the edge of her bathtub, she stared at the little blue stick and felt the numbness spread into her arms and legs. It’d been nearly a month now, and she’d done her best to ignore what was becoming increasingly obvious.
Striking her forehead with the heel of her hand, she closed her eyes. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
Panic grew inside her until she was sure she was going to faint. Regaining control of her emotions required a monumental effort.
When she could manage it, she stood and studied her reflection in the bathroom mirror. How pale she was. That explained a comment she’d received earlier in the day. A longtime customer had stopped by the gallery, taken a hard look at Maryellen and asked if she’d had the flu.
A bad case of the flu would’ve been welcome, compared to confronting the truth of her situation.
What should she do? The question rolled around in her mind like a marble inside a tin can. Difficult as it was, she tried for a while to pretend that nothing was wrong. But after heating a frozen entrée in the microwave, she sat at the kitchen table and sorted through her emotions.
One thing was clear. She wasn’t telling Jon Bowman. He was completely out of the picture as far as she was concerned. There was no reason to tell him. No reason to see him. Jon’s work was now being represented elsewhere. He need never know about the pregnancy until after the baby was born, and then he’d no doubt assume some other man was the father. That was exactly what Maryellen wanted.
The thought that perhaps he had a right to know wasn’t something she could accept at the moment. The thought that perhaps he, too, had a responsibility toward this baby—no. She rejected the idea without further consideration.
Another concern arose: the necessity of keeping this news a secret from her friends and family for as long as possible. A year earlier when Kelly was pregnant, her sister had barely showed. Even in her seventh month, Kelly had worn her everyday clothes. Maryellen hoped she might be able to hide her condition until then, as well. She’d wear loose dresses and make a point of staying away from formfitting business attire. Hiding her pregnancy would be a challenge but she’d do it while she could.
She needed to make room in her life for the baby. This unplanned pregnancy was a shock but she’d quickly adjusted to it. In a sense, she was getting an opportunity she’d never anticipated. This child, her child, was taking shape within her womb, and for a moment she was almost giddy with joy. Then reality hit.
In a little less than eight months she’d be a mother. Life was giving her a second chance, and this time she wasn’t going to repeat the mistakes of the past. This time she wouldn’t allow a man to dictate her life—and that of her child.
Overwhelmed by emotion and full of half-formed plans, Maryellen found that sitting at home held little appeal. The Christmas shopping season was in full swing, and if ever there was a night she needed gaiety and fun, it was now.
She headed for the shopping complex on Cedar Cove Drive
, next to the six-plex theater. The strip mall held several small businesses, a Wal-Mart, a huge craft store and a hardware outlet. The parking lot was nearly full. Maryellen walked toward the cinemas and glanced over the selections offered, but didn’t see any that piqued her interest.
Rummaging around the craft store seemed a far more interesting prospect. It wasn’t until she was walking across the parking lot that she saw Jon, coming in her direction. Instinctively, Maryellen froze. Jon saw her and he, too, stopped in his tracks. Each seemed to be waiting for the other to make the first move.
Maryellen recovered before he did and even managed a smile as she continued toward him. “Merry Christmas, Jon.”
“Hello, Maryellen.” His look was guarded, closed. “Christmas shopping?”
“Browsing.” Her shopping had been finished months earlier.
He merely nodded.
“I understand you’ve taken your photographs into Seattle.” The rumor mill had been quick to inform her that his work was now being displayed in a large Seattle gallery. It was a coup for him and she was pleased to hear it, although the Harbor Street Gallery would miss the money his work generated.
He nodded again.
“Congratulations, Jon.” She genuinely meant that.
No need to stand in the middle of a parking lot. “Well, it was nice seeing you.” That was stretching the truth, but it would be impolite to say anything else. She started to walk past him when he stopped her.
“Yes?” She knew she sounded impatient.
“About that night.”
She closed her eyes, not wanting to hear it. “Haven’t we already discussed it to death?”
“I didn’t plan what happened.”
“So you said.” She didn’t dare look at him.
“What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t protect you, if you know what I mean.” He shrugged when she failed to respond. “Do you really need me to spell it out?”
“No.” An explanation was the last thing she needed. Not when she knew better than he did exactly what the consequence of that night could be—what, in fact, it was.
“Will you be all right? I mean, is there a possibility that…you know.” His concern was evident in his anxious frown.
She forced a smile. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I am worried.” His eyes clouded. “I need to know—to be sure.”
For one terrifying moment, Maryellen was afraid he’d guessed. “I’m fine, Jon. I appreciate your concern but the situation’s under control.”
His relief was evident as the tension eased from his shoulders. “You’re sure?”
He held her eyes a second or two longer, then abruptly turned away.
Now Maryellen could finally relax. She expelled her breath and hurried into the Tulips and Things Craft Store.
On Friday, five days before Christmas, Maryellen took her lunch break down at the Potbelly Deli, which served wonderful soups and inventive sandwiches. The restaurant was a local favorite, and she went there as often as she could. Enjoying a cup of the seafood chowder, Maryellen sat in the corner by herself, reading an art magazine, when her mother stepped inside.
“I thought I saw you in here,” Grace said. “Do you mind if I join you?”
“I’d love it.” Although they lived and worked in the same town, a week would slip past without the chance to talk or visit.
Her mother ordered a bowl of the tomato bisque soup and a cup of coffee, then sat in the chair across from her. “I had a visitor not long ago.”
It didn’t take Maryellen long to guess. “Cliff Harding?”
Blushing, Grace nodded. “He invited me and Buttercup to see his horse ranch. I went out there on Saturday.” She stirred her soup and didn’t look up. “Charlotte was going to come originally, but she wasn’t feeling well, so it was just Cliff, me, Buttercup and the horses. He has magnificent horses.” After a slight pause she continued, adding comments about the home, a two-story log house, and the acreage—pastures, woods and even a stream.
Maryellen couldn’t remember seeing her mother more animated about anything in quite a while. “That sounds wonderful.” It was a step in the right direction that her mother had agreed to this outing with Cliff.
Grace tasted the soup, crumbled a package of oyster crackers and dumped them in. When she glanced up, she stared at Maryellen for a moment, her eyes narrowed. “My goodness, you’re terribly pale,” she said. “Are you feeling sick?”
“I’m pale?” She tried to pretend this was news.
“You look anemic.”
“I’m fine, Mom.”
Her mother studied her, frowning slightly. “I want you to promise me you’ll make a doctor’s appointment.”
“I don’t need to see a doctor,” she said, wanting to laugh off her concern. “The next thing I know, you’ll be lecturing me about eating prunes the way Mrs. Jefferson always does.”
Grace swallowed another mouthful of soup. “If you don’t make the appointment, then I will. I don’t remember ever seeing you this pale. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were pregnant.”
The words shocked Maryellen so badly that she choked on her soup. She coughed and wheezed, tears springing to her eyes, and her mother leaped up and pounded her hard on the back.
“Are you all right?”
Maryellen reached for her water glass and sipped. “I’m fine…I think.”
A minute or more passed, and Maryellen could feel her mother’s scrutiny. When Grace finally spoke, her voice was low. “Your father was always closest to Kelly,” she said. “You were the one I identified with most. We’re quite a bit alike. You realize that, don’t you? My hair was once the exact shade of yours. My eyes are the same dark brown.”
Maryellen didn’t know where this conversation was leading, but she had her suspicions. “You’re my mother,” she said lightly. “Of course I look like you.”