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Sunshine splashed into the windows of the Bremerton waterfront café. Rachel Peyton sat in a booth, gazing out at the street and taking occasional sips of the apple juice she'd ordered. It was Friday, late afternoon, and she'd come here after work to meet a friend. She couldn't stop thinking about her marriage to Bruce, wondering how it had disintegrated so fast. They'd gone from an impromptu wedding last December to separation less than ten months later. She turned her head to look in the direction of Cedar Cove. The town was situated on the other side of Sinclair Inlet but might as well have been across the Pacific.
Rachel felt she couldn't go back home to Cedar Coveto Yakima Streetand yet she had no other viable choice. She'd left after the latest argument with her stepdaughter, Jolene. Although Bruce was aware of the tension between her and Rachel, he'd never adequately addressed it, believing it would eventually resolve itself. Oh, sure, he'd made a halfhearted offer to go to counseling with, or more likely without, Jolene. But that was too little, too late. Nothing had changed, and, as a result, the stress in their home had become intolerable. Now that she was pregnant, Rachel had decided to leave
for the sake of her sanity and for her own health and that of her baby.
She'd lied to Bruce, saying she had a place to staywith an unidentified friend. Instead, she'd checked into a Bremerton hotel.
The problem was, she needed her job if she was going to support herself, which meant she'd need to find an apartment in Cedar Cove or at least nearby. Everything was complicated by the fact that this hadn't been an easy pregnancy. She had severe morning sickness and her blood pressure was dangerously high. That was understandable, considering the tension in the house. If not for the baby, Rachel might have found the strength to deal with Jolene. She might've been willing to devote all her energy to sorting out the complicated tangle of the girl's emotions, giving her the constant reassurance she seemed to require.
Since Jolene had learned about the baby, the whole situation had become that much more difficult. Not only did her stepdaughter see her as competition for Bruce's affections, but now Rachel had committed an even worse crime by bringing another child into the family, robbing the girl of his undivided attention.
What shocked Rachel was how close she and Jolene had been before she married Bruce. As a motherless child herself, Rachel had taken a special interest in Jolene, part maternal, part friendly. They'd bonded when the girl was just six, a year after Jolene's mother was killed in a car accident. Bruce had brought Jolene into the salon for a haircut and Jolene had sadly told her how much she missed her mommy. Rachel had been drawn to the child because she'd identified with Jolene. She still recalled in vivid detail how she'd felt when her own mother had died and she'd gone to live with her mother's sister, a woman she barely knew.
Through the years, the closeness between Rachel and Jolene had grownuntil she'd made the mistake of marrying Jolene's father. To be fair to the teenager, Jolene had wanted Rachel and Bruce to wait until she'd had time to get used to the idea. Bruce, however, wouldn't hear of it. He'd wanted them married. Well, so did Rachel, although she'd asked Bruce to delay the wedding because of Jolene's qualms. But by then
the momentum of their plans had taken over.
In the beginning, after first meeting Bruce, she hadn't considered him anything more than a friend. He was Jolene's dad. He relied on her help with his daughter. For years there hadn't been the slightest indication of romantic interest on either part. Rachel was seeing Nate Olsen, a navy warrant officer she'd met after bidding on him at a fundraiser for the local humane societythe Dog and Bachelor Auction. Shortly after the wedding, Nate was deployed out of state, but now he was back. They'd been in contact recently and, in fact, he was the friend she'd arranged to meet here.
For a while she and Nate had seriously thought about marriage. However, by the time he'd asked her to make a decision, Rachel had come to realize she was in love with Bruce. Surprisingly, miraculously, Bruce loved her, too. From there everything had moved quickly. Too quickly
She had to acknowledge the truth of that old cliche about marrying in haste. Rachel had been all too willing to accept Bruce's assurances that Jolene would adjust. After all, he'd pointed out, it wasn't as though Rachel was a stranger.
But Jolene hadn't adjusted. Whatever affection she'd had for Rachel had changed into passive-aggressive behavior and then escalated to open antagonism. Not wanting to distress her husband, Rachel had done her best to deflect Jolene's hostility. The pregnancy was unplanned, and she'd hoped to keep it a secret for a few months, but Bruce insisted it was only right to tell Jolene. That, too, had backfired. And it had led to this.
The café door opened but Rachel didn't look up until Nate Olsen slid into the booth across from her.
She glanced up and offered him a weak smile.
Nate's blue eyes narrowed slightly. "You okay?" he asked, sounding concerned.
"You don't have to say it. I look terrible."
"Not terrible," he said. "Just
Nate had emailed her when he returned to Bremerton. He felt she should know so that if they inadvertently ran into each other, she'd be prepared. With everything else that was happening, Rachel hadn't paid much attention to his email and hadn't responded. Nate was someone she'd loved in the past. She was a married woman now.
With time on her hands at the hotel, she'd gone to the business center and logged on to her email account. She'd impulsively answered his message, telling him that her marriage was falling apart. After they'd exchanged a few short emails, Nate suggested they meet. She'd accepted his invitation.
"At my last doctor's visit I learned I have an iron deficiency." It didn't help that she hadn't been able to keep down a meal. Her morning sickness lingered for most of the day, making her feel too queasy and uncomfortable to eat. She'd lost weight when she should be gaining.
"I'm glad you got in touch."
"I probably shouldn't have." Only Rachel didn't know who else to contact. She couldn't reach out to her friends; they were the first people Bruce would approach. This separation was difficult enough without dragging her friends into the middle of it.
"I meant what I said," Nate continued. "If you ever need anything, call me. You know I'll do whatever I can."
When the waitress came over to the table with a coffeepot, Nate turned over his ceramic mug and she filled it.
At his words, tears of appreciation sprang to Rachel's eyes. "I know."
"What can I do?"
She wasn't sure. "Like I said in my email, I
I've left Bruce and Jolene." It went without saying that this fit right into her stepdaughter's plans. Undoubtedly Jolene was ecstatic about having her father to herself again.
"So it's come to that?"
Rachel's dark hair fell forward as she looked down. "I
talked to Teri and she wants me to move in with her."
"Are you going to?"
"I can't. That'll be the first place Bruce goes. I told him I was moving in with a friend
. At the time I thought I might take Teri up on her offer, but I can't do that to her. She and Bobby have their hands full with the three babies."
"Teri had triplets."
Nate laughed. That seemed to be a common reaction when people heard about the triplets. "She always does everything in a big way, doesn't she?" he murmured.
He knew Teri, so he also knew that if anyone could handle this, it was her friend. But capable though she was, Teri didn't need a miserable friend to deal with, in addition to caring for three babies.
"So, if you don't move in with Teri, where will you go?"
"I.I don't know." All that mattered was getting out of the house as fast as possible. She got a hotel room, but that was far too expensive to be a permanent solution. At this rate she'd drain her bank account in a week. Besides, it wouldn't take Bruce long to discover where she was, and once he did, he'd do whatever he could to convince her to return home. Rachel couldn't allow that to happen, not while the situation with Jolene was still unsettled.
Nate sipped his coffee in thoughtful silence. Eventually he said, "You could always move in with me."
Rachel's head shot up. That wasn't even a consideration. If Bruce learned she was living with Nate he'd feel blindsided. Besides, it would give Jolene more ammunition to use against her. "I'm grateful for the offer, I really am, but I couldn't possibly do that."
"Nate, I couldn't
. What would Bruce think?"
"Do you need to tell him?"
" She opened her mouth to object, then merely said, "He'd want to know."
"Of course he would, but you don't have to tell him everything. The only important thing here is that you're somewhere safe and that you're taking care of yourself."
Rachel stared at him. "Are you suggesting I lie to my husband?"
"Not lie, exactly. I'm saying don't fill in all the blanks. As it happens, the house I'm sharing belongs to a friend of mine. I have a room, but there's a third bedroom available. Unfortunately, Bob's deployed right now, so it would just be the two of us. If you're uncomfortable with that, I understand."
She exhaled, feeling torn. His idea did seem like a good solution, but she could only imagine how Bruce would react if he discovered the truth. For obvious reasons, the two men weren't on the best of terms.
"It might help you decide if I tell you I'm seeing someone."
Actually, that did help. "Is it serious?" Rachel asked.
Nate shrugged. "Serious enough. I'm out with Emily three or four nights a week. You'd have the house to yourself most of the time."
"What kind of rent does Bob charge?"
Nate mentioned an amount that was more than reasonable, then added, "You wouldn't be expected to cook or clean or anything else if that's what you're thinking."
"Oh." She nibbled her lower lip as she considered his suggestion. He'd given her an option she hadn't expected.
"Before you answer, why don't you come over and check out the place."
Still, she hesitated.
"You want to get away for a while, don't you?" She did, and Nate knew that. "Someplace where Bruce and his daughter would never think of looking?" She nodded slowly.
"Don't worry about me," Nate told her once again. "I loved you, Rachel, I really did, but I've moved on. However, I care about you, which is why I brought up this arrangement. If you're concerned about what might result from the two of us being in the same house, then let me assure you right now, nothing's going to happen."
"Okay," she whispered. "I'll go see the place."
"Good." He left money to pay for their drinks, then slid out of the booth.
Rachel stood and immediately felt dizzy. She would have stumbled if Nate hadn't grabbed her elbow.
"When's the last time you ate?"
She closed her eyes and tried to remember. "A while ago. I'm fine."
"No, you aren't. Listen, no arguments. Once you've toured the house, I'm fixing you something to eat."
"I'm surprised you don't remember that I'm a man of many talents."
His smile was just the salve she needed, his friendship the mainstay that would see her through this upheaval in her life.
She followed Nate to the Bremerton address he gave her. The house was in a nearby neighborhood, convenient to the navy base. The two-story structure, built after the Second World War, had a large front porch and shuttered windows. It was meant for a family.
Unexpected emotion swelled up inside Rachel as she looked at the house. Her mother had been a single parent and her aunt had never married. All her life Rachel had yearned to be part of a family. When she married Bruce, she'd felt as if she finally belonged. She had a husband and a stepdaughter and they were bonded together by love. It didn't take long for that dream to shatter and now, once more, she was on the outside. . The baby stirred, and she pressed her palm against her stomach, hoping her child would one day know the love of a father, a mother and a big sister.
"Would you like to come in?" Nate asked, again clasping her elbow as though he feared she might crumple onto the pavement.
Without answering, she accompanied him up the walkway to the steps.
"I do my best to keep the place neat, but you have to remember I'm a guy and housekeeping is low on my priority list."
"I'll remember," she said, managing a glimmer of a smile.