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Molly Jackson's pros/cons for keeping her birthday to herself—
1. Don't have to laugh weakly at lame jokes that go, "Let me guess. twenty-nine again, right?" Thirty-two is not only chronologically correct but absolutely acceptable.
2. Don't have to worry about getting dragged out to a bar or restaurant by well-meaning Danbury Way women only to quietly obsess for three hours that I could be at home preparing that report for my newest client and worry that I'm wasting valuable time.
3. Don't have to deflect curious, endless questions about my getting-bigger stomach. Don't have to smile distantly and nod vaguely when the words "sperm bank" inevitably come up. Don't have to feel guilty, and then extra guilty that I feel guilty.
4. Staying indoors all day means my hair won't frizz up in the rain.
1. Have to make my own cake.
The rain splattered down harder, startling Molly from her thoughts for a moment, but as she watched water stream down the windowpane, she was pulled back into the haven of her organized mind.
Molly was never off task for long, whatever the task happened to be.
Ten minutes later, she was con-less and convinced she'd made the right gut decision about her birthday. Plus, she was itching to get in to her office to start plowing through her in-box. She glanced up at the kitchen clock, which she could see from where she sprawled in the center of her soft, bouncy sofa—8:00 a.m. on the dot. She rose—or tried to rise. Her new weight unbalanced her and she fell back down, her behind sinking into the crevice between the sofa cushions. She was surprised it fit in there, because lately, she'd noticed her back end widening inch by inch, minute by minute. At this rate, by next week she'd be turning sideways to go through doorways. Someone would have to slap a Wide Load sign on the butt of her heather-gray sweatpants, the only item of clothing in her closet that she could still breathe in.
In what was becoming a common occurrence, her noncuddly, nonmaternal thoughts dissolved into guilt. "Sorry, baby," she said, patting her stomach gently. "I'm just not used to you being so—so there." She sighed. "Every day, you take me as much by surprise as the day I found out about you."
Thinking about that, and thinking about how every day for the rest of her life would contain a persistent element of unexpectedness, Molly felt love.And hiding just underneath that thick cozy cover of love, a thinner, shakier stranger of a feeling that could possibly be—
No. Not fear. Molly refused fear. Never let it in. She planted both palms on the couch and hurled herself up so efficiently she almost flew across the room into the wall. She walked to the staircase and ascended it, each deliberate step taking her away from the moment where she might have given in to her feelings, admitted what the fear did to her, welcomed this emotion she so rarely experienced.
And she refused to experience it, to surrender to it now. She was a single, pregnant career woman, and she couldn't afford to give in to—that emotion.
She pushed through the door to her office and sat down. She glanced around at the clutterless desk, the efficient file cabinet, the dust-free computer monitor. This was control. She was in control. She could do anything she put her determined mind to.
The phone rang, and she donned her headset. She switched her computer on with one hand as she clicked onto the phone line with her other hand. "M.J. Consulting," she said, her tone crisp.
She smiled, the same way she did after answering every first phone call of the day. She so loved the name of her own one-woman company. She particularly loved the name of her own company spoken by her in her own office, in her very own still-felt-like-new home.
"Yes, Mr. Trent, how are you?" she asked, leaving the smile on her face so it would come through the receiver on her client's end. She reached for a pen out of her pencil cup and her hand came up a half-inch short.
Listening intently, Molly leaned forward. She tried not to groan into her headset as her stomach pressed against the desk, holding her back, keeping her capable fingertips just out of reach.
Busy, busy, busy all day long and that was just fine with Molly. By a quarter to four, she was famished, even after having eaten a massive roast-beef sandwich just a few hours ago. She stretched her arms over her head and contracted her tight lower back. Through the narrow break between the filmy lilac-colored curtains, she spied Sylvia Fulton walking back from her mailbox with a pile of magazines and catalogs, a filmy pink scarf tied over her gray hair. Molly waved one of her hands over her head and, squinting, Sylvia waved back, even though she probably couldn't see Molly, just the shadowy motion of her greeting.
Molly got up and rubbed her lower back. Getting the mail was a good excuse to get blood circulating in her legs again.
She went downstairs and grabbed her umbrella from the pail beside the front door. It was only about twelve paces to the mailbox, but she might as well try to minimize the inevitable hair frizz.
The wind sent a spray of rain into her face, so she tilted her umbrella in front of her—which was why she didn't see Irene Dare and Rhonda Johnson loitering in front of her house until it was too late to ignore them.
"Hi," Molly said neutrally, sliding her unimportant-after-all mail from her box and turning to go.
"Molly!" Irene said. "You look just wonderful."
"Wonderful," Rhonda echoed.
Molly laid a hand on her stomach and silently apologized to her baby for exposing it to the nasty elements so early in its development. And she wasn't thinking about the weather.
Rhonda smiled at Molly from under a bright blue umbrella, Irene from a light pink one. Despite the miniature terriers each woman carried like infants, their two smiles reminded Molly of the sly Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp.
"I was just saying to Irene as we passed your house, "I wonder how Molly's doing," Rhonda purred—er, said. "And I said, "She's so brave."
"Not that brave," Molly said. "It's probably safe to assume that women have been having babies since the dawn of humanity."
"I mean, brave for doing it without a man around to help you."
"Oh, I don't think a man will be able to push better than I can when the big day comes."
Undaunted, Irene chimed in, "You know, there are some people who say that going to a sperm bank is, well, desperate. But I don't agree with that at all."
"No?" Molly asked, echoing the sarcasm.
"No, of course not," Irene went on. "In fact, if I were in your shoes—What I mean is, just getting to the age where it was time to finally give up on finding a man and have a baby on my own—it might be nice to be able to pick and choose what sperm I wanted. Custom-built baby." She grinned.
"Irene? A baby?" Molly heard someone say, and all three women turned to find Rebecca Peters had walked two doors down from her place. "First of all, one can only assume you're speaking theoretically."
Irene, who Molly knew full well was obsessive about preserving her gym-toned looks, sputtered at the not-so-subtle insult.
"Besides," Rebecca went on smoothly, "would you really be able to handle one more big mouth to feed?"
The grin flew off Rhonda's face and landed on Molly's. She covered it discreetly with her hand.
"Rebecca, how lovely to see you," Rhonda said.
"Too bad we were just leaving." They turned their backs, but before they walked away, Rhonda said over her shoulder, "Molly, you should run inside now if you want to save your hair. Although it looks like it might be too late."
Rebecca put two fingers in her mouth and made a vomiting sound. "Those two rats. And I'm not even talking about their scrawny little dogs." She laid a hand on Molly's shoulder. "I saw them waylay you from my window, so I figured I'd come to your rescue before your hormones made you do something you'd regret."
Molly reached up and squeezed Rebecca's long, graceful fingers. "Thank you. Although I'm not sure I would have ever regretted it."
"Good point." Rebecca's sharp blue eyes flashed with leftover rebellion. "I seriously can't believe their nerve. You know, people insist the city is cold and rude. But let me tell you, I never had to deal with anyone like that before I moved to quiet little Danbury Way."
"Please don't let them spoil Rosewood for you," Molly said. "No one else is like them, you know that."
"Yeah, I think I do."
"Besides, they live around the corner on Maple-wood. They're not Danbury Way-ers."
The two women surveyed the wet street companionably from their dead end of the cul-de-sac. Now that Irene and Rhonda had slunk off, they were the only ones out in the dismal weather. After a few moments, Rebecca turned around. "It's hysterical how from this spot, our places look like little out-houses for Carly's mega-mansion."
Molly giggled. As much as she loved her home, and as nice as the house was that Rebecca was renting, they unfortunately flanked the ostentatious brick edifice.
"Good thing I adore Carly so much," Rebecca said, "or I might be jealous."
"No, I think if I was going to bother being jealous, it would be of that new man of hers."
Rebecca grinned. "Yeah, Bo's something else. I'm happy for them. Listen, you'd better get back inside. You don't want to catch a cold."
"I'm fine. But it's my hair, isn't it?"
"Oh, you're gorgeous and you know it."
"And for that, you're invited for lunch tomorrow."
"Cool. I'll come by around noon." She turned to go.
She swiveled back around. "Yeah?"
Her friend waved it off. "Please. Don't you know we city girls are always looking for a fight?" She put up her fists and gave a one-two punch to the air in front of her.