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Shawn Wagner shifted an overstuffed beach bag from one shoulder to the other and tried to concentrate on how good the cool, damp sand felt underneath her toes. The Florida surf crashed gently against the shore, the waves foaming along the coastline, rhythmically calming her nerves and reminding her how much was inevitable.
Just like the tide rolling in, she, too, would go on. Being pregnant again wasn't the worst thing that could happen.
But still… this pregnancy had caught her by surprise.
She strolled along, frustrated that she couldn't find the spot where they'd set up camp yesterday. It was so perfect, too. Quiet, near three big rocks. A wide patch of sand for the girls to build sand castles in.
But… none of the rocks they were walking by looked familiar. As the girls giggled and marched in front of her, Shawn paused again. Had they gone left after the third green garbage can or right?
"Mommy, what are you doing?" Mary called.
"Trying to remember where we set all our stuff yesterday."
"Oh." Ever eager to please, Mary stood by her side like a little sentry, looking this way and that.
But really, every spot on the beach looked pretty much the same.
"Kit, do you remember where we were yesterday?"
Her five-year-old looked around. "Uh-huh."
"Uh-huh!" Grabbing three-year-old Elsie's hand, Kit started walking again. "Come on. It's this way."
Slipping her hand into Mary's outstretched one, Shawn grinned. "Let's follow our leader."
"How come Kit always knows where to go?"
"I don't know. I guess she's got a lot of your daddy in her."
"I never remember." Worriedly, Mary chewed on her lip. "Does that mean I'm like you?"
It was humbling to realize that her middle child was actually worried about that possibility. "Maybe." When they finally reached their destination and stopped in front of Kit, who was holding Elsie's hand with more patience than usual, Shawn said, "Good job, honey. This is the exact place where we were yesterday."
Kit's smile could have outshone the sun. "Hooray!"
"Hooray is right. Let's get settled, ladies." With little fanfare, Shawn set down the beach bag, dug around for the king-size quilt, then shook it out over the soft-as-powder surface. Grains of sand flew up in its wake.
Once the wrinkles were smoothed out, Mary and Kit set up their towels, toys and floats. Elsie occupied herself by scooping up sand and watching it run through her fingers.
Shawn wondered just how in the world she was going to manage four girls. Because really, some days, she wasn't so sure she managed all that well with three.
Well, that was an understatement if she ever heard one. No matter what she did, things just seemed to naturally go awry. She forgot where she parked because she was thinking about grocery-store coupons. She was late for almost everything because three girls didn't always follow directions right away.
Being late, a little scattered and sometimes absent-minded didn't bother her. She figured it was a temporary thing, and probably not uncommon. After all, hadn't she just read about other moms contracting "momnesia," too? It had to be fairly prevalent for someone to have made up a new term to describe moms who forgot things.
And, well, with three kids under six, Shawn figured she was entitled to have a bit of momnesia every now and then.
Unfortunately, her faults had long stopped being endearing to Eddie. In fact, he'd only seemed amused by her antics when they were dating. Soon after they'd taken vows, it became apparent that he wished she was a little more on the ball.
But they'd been in love and they'd had three beautiful girls together. Then she'd lost the baby. Though the doctor had promised that there was no reason for the miscarriage, both she and Eddie had tried to find a cause.
She'd started blaming Eddie for not helping enough. And he, well, Eddie had mentioned the way she'd carried Elsie around nonstop. Even though he knew Elsie had pretty much clung like a koala from the moment she was born.
After that big fight, they'd both apologized. Eddie had been particularly remorseful, saying he'd had no right to ever say such things. That of course the miscarriage had been nobody's fault.
But some things couldn't be forgotten.
So after Elsie turned two, neither could take the arguing anymore. They'd separated. Six months later they'd divorced.
Funny how that divorce hadn't made things between them any easier. One night four months ago they went a little too far back down memory lane. And now she was pregnant again.
"Mom, where's the sunscreen?" Kit fumbled through the mesh beach bag, tossing toys out carelessly. As two bright red shovels landed at Elsie's feet, she looked Shawn's way again. "I can't find it."
"I know I packed it today. Let's see what's under these toys."
"Daddy doesn't like it when we empty toy bags and bins like that," Mary said. "He said it makes a big mess that's hard to clean up."
"Then I guess it's a good thing he's not here, hmm?"
Though she'd already doused them in sunscreen, she dutifully helped them apply another layer. Then, after a warning to mind the surf, she watched her two oldest grab pails and shovels and run to the water.
And when she finally sat down, it was next to Elsie, who was now looking very grown-up in one of Mary's old suits.
This was supposed to be a new year, a new beginning. The divorce was final, the girls were finally adjusting to seeing one parent at a time, and Elsie was out of diapers.
Funny how things weren't going as planned. Now, instead of taking the changing table and crib over to Goodwill, she was going to have to pull it out of the attic again—this time by herself. No way was she going to get Eddie involved—at least not for a while. The difficulties a new pregnancy would bring were just too harmful.
Tugging on the hem of her tank top, Elsie claimed her attention again. "Momma, I'm thirsty."
Shawn handed her a juice box, followed by the requisite Goldfish crackers. When her baby was happily sipping and munching, Shawn watched Kit and Mary do their favorite beach activity—building a giant sand castle.
Oh, they loved coming to the beach—thank goodness for Bill and Sharon Wagner. Just months after she and Eddie had separated, his parents had stopped over out of the blue.
After catching up for a few minutes, they'd given her a key to their condo. "Eddie may be breaking up with you, but we're certainly not," Sharon had said. "Promise us you'll come to Bishop's Gate with the girls at least once a month."
Shawn had been thrilled, but reluctant to make things uncomfortable for Eddie. "You sure about that?"
Bill had placed the key in her hand and curved her fingers around it. "Very sure."
The girls loved the weekends in the tiny beach community just thirty minutes outside Destin so much that Shawn agreed to the arrangement, even thought it meant that they saw Eddie a little bit more than she'd like. Eddie had bought a condo at Bishop's Gate almost as soon as they separated.
When snack time was over, Shawn walked Elsie to the castle construction zone and dropped onto the damp sand next to the other girls.
They sat for a few minutes, Elsie content to watch her sisters, Shawn happy to sit in silence and watch the waves crash along the shore.
Looking up, Kit narrowed her eyes. "Momma, is that Daddy?"
Shawn's head popped up. There was only one man who could fill out a T-shirt like that. Only one man who walked with such confidence. "I believe it is."
"Who's that he's with?"
"I don't know." With effort, Shawn looked away from her former husband and concentrated on the woman by his side. All Shawn could see were long legs and long blond hair.
Kit frowned as she dug a moat. "Why's he here now? Tomorrow is when we're going to the aquarium."
Keeping her voice calm and reassuring, Shawn said, "I don't think he planned on seeing us."
"Because he's with that pretty lady?"
"Yep." Forcing a smile, Shawn added, "I'm sure Daddy's still taking you tomorrow and that you'll have a great time."
Mary packed wet sand in her pail. "Are you going to come?"
"Probably not. Daddy likes having the three of you to himself."
"I don't think so." Mary widened her eyes. "He says when we're all together, we're like a pack of wild animals."
"Y'all can be—but only sometimes." Ruffling Mary's wispy hair, she said, "Other times I think you're just fine."
"But you still love us?"
"Always. Daddy loves you, too."
Standing up, Kit looked knowingly at Mary and Elsie. "Daddy loves us, he just doesn't want to live with us no more."
"Daddy doesn't want to live with me," she gently corrected. "Daddy and I are the ones with the problems. Not you three."
Kit frowned. "That's what you always say."
"I say it because it's the truth."
As the girls pondered that and stared at their daddy— who seemed oblivious to them—Shawn did some pondering herself.
What had happened, anyway? First they were living the dream. Next it felt as if they were constantly fighting.
He'd come home exhausted and only want to sit and watch TV, instead of helping to get dinner on the table.
His patience with her hadn't been at an all-time high, either. He got frustrated when he came home to a messy house and crying kids. Even though he well knew she couldn't be perfect if she'd tried.
For a little while she had tried real hard—but then she'd lost the baby and nothing seemed to matter.
However, in her heart, Shawn knew she still loved him. There was something about him that struck her fancy and held on tight.
And, oh, but he could kiss.
And he was certainly capable in a crisis. Four months ago, when they'd been spending the weekend at the beach and Mary had contracted a fever, she'd called him, asking if he could run to the store for Popsicles and another bottle of children's Tylenol. He'd ended up staying until all three girls fell asleep.
They really should've known what was going to happen. One hug had morphed into one kiss—which had never been enough. Before her mind could put a stop to shenanigans, their clothes had been off and they'd been sprawled sideways on her king-size bed.
"Sorry. What, Kit?"
"Daddy's coming closer!"
There was no reason for her heart to start pounding. No reason for her to care at all. Everything between them was over. O-v-e-r.
It was just such a shame that she couldn't turn those feelings off.
Swallowing hard, she firmly told herself to move on. It was time. Itreally was. "Well, girls, let's see what happens when he notices us. I bet he's going to be real surprised."
Mary beamed. "I'm gonna say 'Boo' and then he's gonna jump up high and be surprised! That will be real fun to see."
"Yes, it will," Shawn agreed, brushing back a tender wisp of hair from her brow. "It's going to be a sight to see, I just know it."
"Eddie, aren't those your girls? I swear they look just like the girls in the pictures you showed me."
Eddie turned away from admiring the way Jayne's thick blond hair curled on her shoulder to glance in the direction she was staring. "Yep. And with them is my ex."
"Uh-huh. That's her."
Crystal-blue eyes looked faintly accusing. "You didn't tell me she was so pretty."
"She's okay." Eddie knew he was lying. Shawn was downright beautiful, even after three kids. Long tan legs. Soft feminine arms and shoulders. Rounded hips. A waist that practically yelled for hands to encircle it.
Even after everything they'd gone through, he was still drawn to his ex. Some days he'd wondered if that tender feeling—that attraction—would ever go away.
Some days he wondered if he even wanted it to. From the moment he'd first talked to Shawn on the phone, she'd made him feel more alive. Those feelings had intensified during their courtship and marriage.
And then, of course, it had dissolved into only a shadow of its former self.
Jayne's steps slowed. "So… those really are your kids?"
"Yes. All girls. I told you I had three." For a moment the statement hit him hard. Once, they'd been going to have more.
"They're so close in age."
Pulling himself back to the present, Eddie nodded. "I know." He and Shawn never had been good at spacing things—not schedules, not arguments, not babies. When Jayne still looked at them warily, he did the inevitable. "We can turn around if you want."
"We can't do that—what if they saw us?"
"They haven't." If they'd seen him, his girls would be on their feet, and Shawn… well, Shawn would be looking him and Jayne over without an ounce of shyness.
Jayne steeled her shoulders. "I'd like to meet them. Meet all of them."
"All right, then. Come on, I'll introduce you." When Jayne stepped a little closer and possessively slipped her hand in his, he forced himself to relax. Jayne was great. Jayne was perfect for him. And though he hadn't planned on introducing Shawn to her anytime soon, there was no time like the present. But he had a feeling this was going to get awkward.
"Daddy, you did see us!" all three of his daughters cried as they jumped to their feet.
He looked at his ex. "I did?"
"We've been watching you two," Shawn explained. "The girls were wondering when you were going to notice them."
"We surprised you, Daddy!" Mary squealed. "Though I was gonna get you good and say 'Boo!'" She tickled his waist for emphasis.
Eddie pretended to jump in fright. Mary laughed. The joyful sound was so contagious, he couldn't help but chuckle, too. "You got me good. I'm glad to see you." By the time he hugged all three girls and kissed three foreheads, his tension was forgotten.
Until Shawn stepped forward and held out her hand to Jayne. "Hi. Shawn Wagner."
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Jayne said.
Eddie wasn't sure if it was the voice of steel that Jayne suddenly adopted, the ironic smile Shawn was displaying or the curious looks of the girls—but he definitely did feel like he'd just jumped in the deep end and was treading water for dear life.
Especially when Jayne slipped her hand in his again.
After an interminable moment of silence, Shawn said, "So, are y'all out for a walk?"
"Yep." He cleared his throat. "Girls, this is Jayne. Jayne, please meet Kit, Mary and Elsie."
"I'm the oldest," Kit proclaimed.
Jayne smiled broadly. "You sure are! I love your bikini! I'd love to get one just like it."
Kit tilted her face up. "Really? My mommy says she doesn't wear bikinis no more."
When Jayne turned to Shawn, Shawn patted her stomach with a hint of a smile. "Three kids, you know."
For a split second, he'd been tempted to correct her. To remind Shawn that she'd had four children. Four.