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Lifting the lid from the slow cooker, Evette McGlin caught a fragrant whiff of the stew that had been simmering all day. That first savory note lasted all of two seconds before her stomach began its tap dance of betrayal. She gave the mixture of beef and vegetables a quick stir and clamped the lid back in place. She'd be glad when this morning sickness finally passed.
After all the years they'd been trying, she couldn't complain about being pregnant. But she was fifteen weeks along now, and the morning sickness didn't seem much better than it had been in the beginning. According to what she'd read in the towering stack of books on her nightstand, it wasn't all that unusual to feel a little queasy throughout pregnancy, but she wasn't looking forward to almost six more months of this roller coaster.
The oven timer sounded and she stooped to take the brown-and-serve rolls from the rack. All these maternal hormones were turning her into a regular Rachael Ray. Not that Judd minded. She smiled to herself, imagining his reaction when he walked through the door to find a home-cooked meal on the table for the second night in a row. She might be sorry she'd gotten into this routine if Judd came to expect home cooking every night, but it was healthier to make things from scratchand cheaper.
Now that she'd quit her job as manager of Furniture Gallery, every penny counted. There'd be no more eating out three times a week once the baby arrived and she was a stay-at-home mom.
She checked the clock on the microwave, then glanced out the open kitchen window overlooking the driveway. Judd would be home any minute. The days had been growing longer, but now the sky was dark, even for alate February evening. It smelled like rain. She hoped he didn't get caught in a storm on the highway. Funny. She'd never worried about him like this before she'd found out she was carrying their child.
She went to the pantry for candlesticks and matches. She couldn't keep up the Rachael Ray routine indefinitely, but they might as well enjoy it while it lasted.
The clouds broke as she closed the pantry door. Plump drops of rain hit the metal awning over the back door and she headed to close the window, but before she was halfway across the room the phone rang. That would be Judd.
He'd always been thoughtful, but since the day she'd told him about the baby, he'd become a big goofy sap, doting on her and rushing to meet her every need practically before she knew she had one. Okay, so the steak-and-potato dinners might have had something to do with his recent attentiveness, but he gave himself away cooing baby talk to her belly. He might not admit it to the guys at work, but he was as head over heels for this baby as she was.
She checked the caller ID. W. Greene. Hmmm not Judd. Who did they know named Greene? It was probably another annoying telemarketer.
She lifted the phone from its cradle. "Hello?"
"Is Judd McGlin there?" The woman's voice quavered, whether with age or emotion, Evette couldn't tell.
"No, I'm sorry, he's not home right now. Could I take a message?"
There was a long pause. Evette thought for a minute they'd been cut off, but the tremulous voice came back on the line. "Have him call Carla Greene Carla Jackson Greene, please."
"Just a minute." She jotted the name down. "May I ask what this is concerning?"
Again, an overlong hesitation. "Just tell him it's about Tabrina."
Evette's pulse stuttered. "Tabrina?"
"Tabrina Jackson. He'll know who I'm talking about."
Evette knew who she was talking about. But why, after all these years, would Tabrina Jackson want anything to do with Judd? "Does he have the number?"
She scribbled the phone number the woman gave her on the corner of an envelope from yesterday's junk mail. She started to read it back to the woman, but the line had gone dead.
Carla Jackson Greene a relative of Tabrina's, maybe? But why would someone be calling Judd about his old college girlfriend? A woman he'd been engaged to for a short time. That was, what almost seven years ago now? An image of the stunningly beautiful woman played in her memoryTabrina's smooth dark skin and the full features of her African-American heritage. Evette hadn't thought of her in ages, although early in their marriage, she'd wasted plenty of time wondering if Judd still thought about the woman he'd almost married.
She went to the kitchen window and peered out. Sharp spears of rain now pelted the driveway, bouncing back in buoyant splatters. Where was Judd? He should be home by now. As she backed away from the window, she caught her reflection in the darkened glass. Her hair had gone limp from the kitchen's humidity, and she suddenly felt middle-aged and frowzy.
Mired in old, uneasy memories, she turned and picked up the box of matches and went to the breakfast nook where she'd set the table for two. She slid open the cover and struck a match on the rough edge of the box, touching it to each blackened wick. The acrid odor of sulfur made her eyes burn, but the candles bloomed into flame. She shook out the match and moved to the stove to stir the stew again.
After a moment, she put down the spoon and placed a hand lightly over her belly. Her stomach was acting up again. This time Evette wasn't sure she could blame her pregnancy or the aroma of beef stew.
Judd McGlin leaned over the steering wheel and peered through the windshield at the thunderheads boiling overhead. He'd be lucky to get home before the clouds let loose their contents. It looked like he might be driving right into the storm.
Work was crazy with tax season upon them. And his part-time coaching job wasn't much better. Whatever had made him think he could combine a CPA's job with coaching the local high-school basketball team? They were headed into tournament season, and practice tonight had not gone well.
He blew out a stream of air. His recliner and the evening paper were calling his name big-time. Dinner was in the Taco Bell bag on the passenger seat beside him emitting a delicious smell. Evette had been craving a certain burrito she kept seeing in the TV commercials, and he couldn't wait to see her face when he presented her with the bag.
He should have called her during the day to see how she was feeling, but time had gotten away from him.
Something in his chest stirred at the thought of his wife. In spite of how miserable she was feeling, Evette had that proverbial maternal glow about her. He loved the way she savored each day of her pregnancy.
She'd longed for a baby practically since the day they married. It had been all he could do to convince her he needed to finish school before they started a family.
Their excitement had dimmed as month after month rolled by with no baby in sight. After four years of trying, with two early miscarriages and two surgeries for Evette, they'd finally reached the end of their possibilities.
And, of course, that's when God stepped in.
A baby. The thought alternately thrilled him and scared his socks off.
It still amazed him to remember the day Evette made the happy announcement. They'd been overly cautious at first, terrified of losing the baby, but she was almost four months along now and the obstetrician assured them everything was going exactly as it should. They'd told only a few of their closest family and friends, but if everything was still good at Evette's next doctor's appointment, they planned to throw a big party to make the announcement official.
The rain started, hitting the pavement like needles, but his exit was just ahead. With any luck he'd beat the downpour.
Ten minutes later, he clicked the remote and watched the garage door roll up. He still didn't take an automatic garage door for granted. This new house in Hanover Falls wasn't a mansion by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a big step up from the string of apartment complexes they'd lived in for the first four years of their marriage. The mortgage still made him nervous. He'd wanted something a little more modest, but Evette had talked him into this Tudor-style house in the oldest neighborhood of their little town. He'd acquiesced since Evette had already made a sacrifice moving two hours from St. Louis and her family.
He punched the remote again and watched the door close on the rain before he snagged the Taco Bell bag and went in through the laundry room. "Hey, I'm home."
Uh-oh. He smelled dinner cooking. And if his nose was any judge, it trumped the meager offering in his take-out bag.
The table in the breakfast nook was set and Evette was at the kitchen sink, filling a water pitcher. "Hey, babe," she called over her shoulder. "Did you get wet?"
He dropped his briefcase by the back door. Evette turned to look at him, and he held up the bag, trying to look appropriately sheepish. "Burritos. A midnight snack, maybe?"
She gave him a look. "Oh, Judd "
"Sorry. I didn't know you'd made dinner. You were craving these last night, and I just "
She made that cute pouty face he loved. "You're so sweet. I'll I'll save them for lunch tomorrow. Or" she rolled her eyes "I'll eat them tonight and gain ten pounds. And it's your fault if I do, buddy."
He laughed. "I'm not too worried."
She lifted the lid on the slow cooker and he went to stand behind her, pushing her silky dark hair off her neck and nuzzling her nape while she stirred. "Mmm. Smells good."
Laughing, she replaced the lid and leaned back into his embrace. "Are you talking about me or the stew?"
He gave her a peck on the cheek and reached around her to lift the lid off the pot again. "Both."
She laughed. "Good answer."
"No, but you had a phone call."
He stopped short at the table. "Whoa Candles? What's the occasion? Last time there were candles on that table it was about the baby. Wait a minute we're not having twins or something, are we? Please tell me we're not having twins."
She laughed her musical laugh again. "No, silly." She waited a beat. "Triplets."
He studied her, making sure she was joking.
"Relax." She patted her belly. "Little Bambino is just fine. And all alone in there."
He pretended to mop his brow in relief.
"Twins do run in the Bryant family, though " She patted his cheek. "Just so you know."
"You never told me that."
"Didn't want to scare you off."
"As if." He drew her into his arms and kissed her. "So really why the fancy dinner? I could get used to this, you know."
"I just thought candlelight would be nice with the rain."
"So who called?"
"Huh?" She brought the pitcher to the table and poured water over the ice in a tall tumbler.
Something in her voice set off a silent alarm. He eyed her, but nothing in her posture validated his concern. She poured water into a second tumbler.
"You said I had a phone call ?"
"Oh, yes. It was kind of weird." She looked up at him, wrinkling her nose. "Some woman. Said she was calling about Tabrina Jackson."
Judd's heart lunged in the direction of his throat. He swallowed hard and tried to make his voice sound normal. "It wasn't Tabrina?"
"No. It sounded like an older woman. She just said she was calling about Tabrina. I forget her name. The caller ID just said Greene, I think, with an e, but there wasn't a name. Maybe an initial? I don't remember."
Judd was aware of his wife's studied gaze. "Did she say what she wanted?"
"No. Just that you should call."
"I wonder what that's about?" He glanced at the clock. "Do I have time to call before dinner?"
She shrugged. "Sure. I won't dish up the stew yet."
He grabbed his water glass off the table and resisted the temptation to hold it against his temple. Evette handed him an envelope with the phone number printed on it in her curvy, precise handwriting. But he walked past the phone on the kitchen desk. "I'll take it back here," he said, hooking a thumb in the direction of the family room.
Her eyebrows lifted almost imperceptibly, but she didn't voice the question her blue eyes posed.
He moved through the house and took sanctuary at his desk in the small bedroom they'd turned into a den. Tabrina Jackson. Man. He hadn't heard one word from her since college. Since he broke off their engagement. They'd lost touch after that long-ago day in Simmons Park. He shook off the images. No use going there.
There'd been a time, after he married Evette, when Tabrina popped into his thoughts with frustrating regularity. But as the years passed and his love for his wife deepened, Tabrina had become a buried page in the scrapbook of his youth.
Unbidden, a vision formed in his mind. Smooth, soft café-au-lait skin. Thick ink-black hair. The mental image of Tabrina's full, pouty lips brought a rush of surprisingly familiarand decidedly uncomfortablefeelings.
Tabrina's almond-shaped, espresso-bean eyes weren't hard to conjure, either, but he couldn't bring the sound of her voice or the shape of her face into focus. Tabrina Jackson. What in the world could this be about after all this time?
Holding the slip of paper in one hand, he dialed the number. A woman's voice answered, almost a whisper. "Yes?"
"Judd?" Evette's voice carried from the kitchen.
For some strange reason, he felt as if she'd caught him sneaking a peek at the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
He pushed the mute button and worked to keep his tone casual. "Just a sec, babe. I'm on the phone."
He depressed the button again. "Um, yes this is Judd McGlin. I had a message to call here?" The silence lengthened. "Hello?"
A sigh filled his ear. "It's Carla, Judd. Tabrina's mother. Carla Greene now."
Tabrina's mother. "Carla? Wow Ihaven't How are you? Are you still in St. Louis?" Why was she calling him?
She ignored his volley of questions. "It's Tabrina, Judd. It's bad, real bad." Her voice broke into shards of emotion.
"Carla?" He paced around the desk. "What happened?"
"They think she's had a stroke. She's been unresponsive for two weeks now. They don't know now if she'll ever come out of it."
"What? I don't understand. What happened?"