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When she woke up the morning of November first staring at water stains on a stippled ceiling, Julie Marlowe wondered if she was having a bad dream. Then she remembered that uncomfortable twinges in her lower back had forced her to take a break on her journey home the day before, and the closest available accommodations had been at the Sleep Tite Motor Inn.
She managed to roll her pregnant body off the sagging mattress and swing her feet over the edge. The bathroom's tile floor was cold beneath her feet, and the trickle of spray that came out of the shower head wasn't much warmer. She washed quickly, then dried herself with the threadbare but clean towels on the rack. She had another long day of travel ahead of her, so she dressed comfortably in a pair of chocolate-colored leggings and a loose tunic-style top. Then she slipped her feet into the cowboy boots she'd bought "just because" when she'd been in Texas.
Seven months earlier, she'd had a lot of reasons for wanting to leave Springfield. But after traveling eight thousand miles through twenty-seven states and sleeping in countless hotel rooms, she was more than ready to go home.
She missed her family, her friends and the comfortable and predictable routines of her life. She even missed her father, despite the fact that he could be more than a little stubborn and overbearing on occasion. The only person she could honestly say that she didn't miss was Elliott Davis Winchester the Thirdher former fiance.
Julie had told her parents that she needed some time and some space to think about her future after ending her engagement. Lucinda and Reginald hadn't understood why she needed to goand how could she expect that they would when there was so much she hadn't told them?but they'd been supportive. They'd always been unflinching in their support and unwavering in their love, even when she screwed up.
When she left Springfield, Julie was determined to ensure that she didn't screw up again.
She felt a nudge beneath her rib, and smiled as she rubbed a hand over her belly. "You weren't a mistake, baby," she soothed. "Maybe I didn't plan for you at this point in my life, but I know that you're the best thing that ever happened to me, and I promise to be the best mommy that I can."
The baby kicked again, clearly unconvinced.
Julie couldn't blame her for being skeptical. Truthfully, she had more than a few doubts of her own. She and Elliott had talked about having children and neither wanted to wait too long after the wedding before starting a family, but she hadn't known she was pregnant when she gave him back his ring and left town.
After a quick visit to the doctor confirmed that she was going to have a baby, she wasn't even tempted to change her course. Though she'd known Elliott for two yearsand had been engaged to him for six monthsshe'd suddenly realized that she didn't really know him at all. What she did know was that he wasn't the kind of a man she wanted to marry, and he certainly wasn't the kind of man that she wanted as a father for her baby.
Of course, that didn't change the fact that he was the father of her baby, but she hadn't been ready to deal with that reality in the moment. Maybe she'd been running away, but over the past few months she'd accepted that she couldn't run forever. In fact, in her current condition, she couldn't run at all anymore. The best she could manage was a waddle.
And she was ready to waddle home.
Lukas Garrett snagged a tiny box of candy from the orange bowl on the front deskthe remnants of the pile of Halloween candy from the day beforeand emptied the contents into his mouth.
Karen, the veterinarian clinic receptionist and office manager, shook her head as he chewed the crunchy candy. "Please tell me that's not your lunch."
He swallowed before dutifully answering, "That's not my lunch."
"Lukas," she chided.
"Really," he assured her. "This is just the appetizer. I've got a sandwich in the fridge."
"PB & J?"
"Just PB today." He reached for another box of candy and had his hand slapped away.
"You need a good woman to take care of you."
It was a familiar refrain and he responded as he usually did. "You're a good woman and you take care of me."
"You need a wife," she clarified.
"Just say the word."
Karen, accustomed to his flirtatious teasing, shook her head.
"Go eat your sandwich," she directed. "As pathetic as it is, I'm sure it has slightly more nutritional value than candy."
"I'm waiting to have lunch after I finish with the morning appointments." He glanced at the clock on the wall, frowned. "I thought for sure Mrs. Cammalleri would be here with Snowball by now."
"She called to reschedule," Karen told him. "She didn't want to leave the house in this weather."
"What weather?" Luke turned to the window, then blinked in surprise at the swirling white flakes that were all that was visible through the glass. "When did it start snowing?"
"About an hour ago," Karen told him. "While you were ensuring that Raphael would never again be controlled by his most basic animal urges."
He moved closer to the window. "Did the forecast call for this?"
She nodded. "Twelve to fifteen inches."
He frowned. "How does global warming result in early season snowstorms?"
"We live in a Snowbelt," she reminded him. "And the current catchphrase is 'climate change.'"
"I'd prefer a climate change that included warm sun and sandy beaches."
"So book a vacation."
"I've been thinking about it," he admitted. And while an island getaway held a certain appeal, he had no desire to go on a holiday alone. Nor was he interested in venturing out solo with the goal of finding an anonymous female someone to share a few days of sun, sand and sex. That kind of thing had lost its appeal for Luke before he'd graduated college.
"Well, another thing you should think about is closing up early," Karen suggested. "Mrs. Cammalleri was your last scheduled appointment and the way the snow's already falling hard and fast, if we don't get out of here soon, we might not get out of here at all."
"The clinic's open until three on Fridays," he reminded her. "So I'll stay until then, but you go ahead."
"Are you sure you don't mind?"
"Of course not. There's no need for both of us to stay, and you've got a longer drive home than I do."
Karen was already tidying up her desk, straightening a pile of files, aligning the stapler with the edge of her desk calendar, putting the pens in the cup.
Luke took advantage of her distraction to snag another box of candy. "If this keeps up, the kids will be building snowmen tomorrow."
"Hard to believe they were trickor-treating just last night, isn't it?"
"Yeah." He couldn't help but smile as he thought about his almost five-year-old nephews, Quinn and Shane, who had dressed up as SpongeBob and Patrick. Their baby sister, Pippa, was too young to go door-to-door, but even she'd been decked out in a pumpkin costume with a smiling jack-o'-lantern face on the front and a hat with stem and leaves.
His eldest niecehis brother Jackson's twelve-year-old daughter, Avahad skipped the candy-grabbing ritual in favor of a Halloween party with some friends at the community center. And Jack had chaperoned. Luke wasn't at all surprised that his brother, who had earned quite the reputation as a heartbreaker in his youth, was a slightly overprotective father. The surprising part had been finding out that he was a father at allespecially to the daughter of the woman who had been Luke's best friend since fifth grade.
He was still surprised, and a little annoyed, that Kelly Cooper had managed to keep her weekend rendezvous with Jack a secret for more than twelve years. It was only when she'd moved back to Pinehurst with her daughter at the end of the summer that Luke had learned that his brother was Ava's father and that his designation as "Uncle Luke" was more than an honorary title. He still wasn't sure that he'd completely forgiven her for keeping that secret for so long, but he was genuinely thrilled that Kelly and Jack were together now and making plans for an early December wedding.
"From carving pumpkins to throwing snowballs in the blink of an eye," Karen noted as she turned to retrieve her coat and purse from the cabinet behind her deskthen muttered a curse under her breath as she nearly tripped over Einstein, Luke's seven-month-old beagle puppy.
He'd been one of a litter of eight born to a severely malnourished and exhausted female who had been abandoned on the side of the road. A passerby had found the animal and taken her to the veterinarian clinic. The mother hadn't survived the birth, and Luke had been determined to ensure that her efforts to give life to her pups weren't in vain.
Thankfully, Karen had stepped up to help, and between the two of them, they'd made sure that the puppies were fed and nurtured and lovedand then they'd given them to good homes. But Luke had always known that he would keep one, and Einstein was the one he'd chosen. And he loved the crazy animal, even if he wasn't exactly the genius of his namesake.
When the puppies were first born and required almost constant care, it made sense for them to be at the clinic. Luke also believed it would help with their socialization, getting them accustomed to being around people and other animals, and so he'd continued the practice with Einstein long after his brothers and sisters had gone to other homes. Unfortunately, one of Einstein's favorite places in the clinic was wherever he could find Karen's feet.
"I swear that animal is trying to kill me." But despite the annoyance in her tone, she bent to rub his head, giving him an extra scratch behind his left ear because she knew that was his favorite spot.
"Only if he could love you to death," Luke assured her.
She shook her head as she made her way to the door. "You should go home, too," she said again. "No one's going to come out in this weather."
As it turned out, she was right. Aside from Raphael's owner who came to pick him up, the front door didn't open and the phone didn't ring. So promptly at three o'clock, Luke locked up the clinic and headed out to his truck with Einstein.
Of course, this was the puppy's first exposure to snow, and when he stepped out onto the deck and found himself buried up to his chest in the cold, white fluff, he was not very happy. He whined and jumped, trying desperately to get away from it. And when he couldn't escape it, he decided to attack it. He barked and pranced around, clearly under the impression that he was winning the battle.
Luke couldn't help but chuckle at his antics. The animal would probably play in the snow for hours if he let him, so he finally picked up the pup and carried him to the truck. He sat him on the floor of the passenger side and let the heater blow warm air on him while Luke cleared the thick layer of snow off of his windows.
Luckily he'd found an old hat and a pair of gloves in his office, and he was grateful for both. The unexpected snowfall might have been fun for Einstein, but driving through it was a completely different story, even with all-wheel drive. The snow had been falling steadily and quickly and the plows hadn't yet been around, so he knew the roads would probably be slicka fact that was proven when he fishtailed a little as he pulled out of the clinic's driveway and onto the street.
Warm and dry once again, Einstein hopped up onto the passenger seat and pressed his nose against the window, his breath fogging up the glass. When Luke finally turned onto Terrace Drive, the pup barked excitedly, three quick little yips. The snow was still falling with no indication that it would let up anytime soon, and he was as happy as Einstein to know that they were almost home.
The cold had come after the snow, so the first layer of flakes had melted on the road, then frozen. Now there was a dangerous layer of ice beneath everything else, and Luke suspected the tow trucks would be working late into the night. It would be too easy to slide off the road and into a ditch in these conditionsas someone had apparently done right in front of his house.
Julie clenched the steering wheel with both hands and bit down on her bottom lip to hold back the scream of frustration that threatened to burst from her throat. A quick detour through Pinehurst to meet with a friend of her brother's from law school had seemed like a great idea when she'd called and made the appointment a few hours earlier, but that was before the snow started.
Still, she'd no intention of being dissuaded by some light flurries. Except that those light flurries had quickly escalated into an actual blizzard. Weather reports on the radio had warned people to avoid unnecessary travel. Since Julie had been on the highway between Syracuse and Pinehurst at the time and pulling off to the side of the road in order to be buried in snow didn't seem like a particularly appealing option, she decided her travel was necessary.
And she'd almost made it. According to her GPS, she was less than three miles from Jackson Garrett's officebut it might as well have been thirty. There was no way she could walk, not in her condition and not in this weather.
Tears of frustration filled her eyes, blurred her vision. She let her head fall forward, then jolted back again when the horn sounded. Greatnot only had she driven into a ditch, she'd just drawn attention to the fact by alerting anyone who happened to be passing by. She didn't know if she was more relieved or apprehensive when she realized that no one seemed to be anywhere in the vicinity.
She was sure she'd seen houses not too far back. In fact, she specifically remembered a sprawling ranch-style with a trio of grinning jack-o'-lanterns on the wide front porch, because she'd noted that it wouldn't be too long before those pumpkins were completely blanketed by snow.
She closed her eyes and silently cursed Mother Nature. Okay, maybe she had to accept responsibility for the fact that she'd been driving through a blizzard with no snow tiresbut who the heck would have thought that she'd need snow tires on the first day of November?
She felt a spasm in her lower back in conjunction with a ripple of pain that tightened her whole belly. Julie splayed a hand over her tummy, silently trying to reassure her baby that everything was okay. But as the first tears spilled onto her cheeks, she had to admitif only to herselfthat she didn't know if it was. She didn't know how being stuck in a ditch in the middle of nowhere during a freak snowstorm could possibly be "okay."