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Good girlsgirls brought up to have the best table manners, taught to respect their elders and never to allow a boy to French kiss them on the first dategirls like that didn't steal. They just didn't.
Alaina was sure of it.
And she ought to know. She was one of those girls. Well she had been one until about a year ago, when she'd ignored the pleading from family and friends and run off for parts unknown on the back of a Harley with a man she barely knew.
A year ago she hadn't been desperate. She hadn't been alone in the middle of nowhere with barely a cent to her name.
And she sure as hell hadn't been pregnant.
Yeah. Desperation had a way of sending all those years of uptight, mind-your-manners behavior right out the window. It left you in a panic. And right now, in this greasy spoon of a diner in the North Georgia mountains, it left Alaina convinced that no one would notice if she slipped a day-old doughnut off the cake stand on the counter and sneaked it into her coat pocket.
She could do it. She just had to get up the nerve.
She eyed the doughnuts on the tray, and unbelievably, her mouth actually watered. Her stomach sent a message, too, growling a complaint. A cup of coffee wouldn't be enough to carry her over until tomorrow.
The waitress, a sweet-faced blonde about the age of Alaina's mother, caught her attention as she motioned toward the cup cradled between Alaina's hands. "More coffee?"
Alaina nodded, though she could hardly take her eyes off the doughnuts, imagining how good one would taste.
"Where you headed?"
"That's still an hour away. You have family there?"
"Long way to walk. Especially in the rain."
Since there were few cars outside the diner, and Alaina was the only customer, she supposed the waitress had figured out that she'd walked or hitchhiked this far. Or maybe the knapsack and her rumpled jeans and jacket were a dead giveaway that she wasn't just a tourist up to see the October foliage.
The knowledge that she must look to be in dire straits made a lump of misery rise in Alaina's throat. Not so long ago in Miami, she'd had a six-figure bank account at her disposal for walking-around money. She'd driven a new Mercedes every year and had a separate closet just to hold all her shoes. She'd certainly never looked like a bum without a cent to her name. And she'd never, ever, have entertained the idea of stealing something to eat.
She shook off that moment of self-pity. Having all those material things back home had never brought her much happiness. Darn little, in fact.
The waitress used a pair of tongs to pluck one of the doughnuts off the dessert stand and drop it onto a saucer. She pushed the dish in front of Alaina and winked at her. "Go ahead. It's on the house."
"That's not necessary. I'm"
"We throw out the leftovers at the end of the night," the woman explained. "Besides, our coffee's kind of lousy, so something sweet might make it taste better."
The knot in Alaina's throat got bigger. "You're very kind."
"We girls have to stick together." The waitress gave her a closer glance. "You remind me of my middle daughter. Blond, with those same deep-blue eyes and high cheekbones. Before she got married, she had to beat the fellows off with sticks."
Alaina had to smile at that. "It's been a long time since I've had to beat off any men. If anything, I can't seem to hold on to the ones I catch."
She hadn't meant to say that, and frowned down into her coffee. Too much information. But this woman was the first friendly face Alaina had seen since this morning, when she'd awakened to find Jeffrey gone from their hotel room. Along with her wallet and her pride.
Stunned, she'd listened to Jeffrey's Harley roar off into the distance. Last night they'd had a brief, heated discussion about the fact that she was pregnant and he was about to become a father. Could he handle that? she'd asked. Guess she had her answer now.
The waitress leaned against the counter. "You got man trouble? Some guy doing you wrong?"
Alaina shook her head, giving the woman a noncommittal smile around a mouthful of doughnut. Stale or not, it tasted delicious. "Not really," she said after she'd swallowed it down with a sip of coffee. The waitress was right. It did make the brew taste better. "The only one doing me wrong is me. I've made some incredibly stupid choices in the past few years. And the more I try to straighten myself out, the more I seem to mess things up."
"Don't sweat it. It can happen to the best of us."
"It never used to happen to me," Alaina said, almost to herself. "I'm thirty-two. Is it possible to have a midlife crisis at that age?"
"I suppose it depends how much you hate the kind of life you've had."
The front door swung open on a blast of rain-scented wind as a man in overalls came into the diner. The waitress left to offer him coffee from the pot she carried.
Alaina munched the doughnut slowly, savoring every bite.
How much had she hated the life she'd left?
She could imagine that many women her age would have been delighted to find themselves in her previous situation, the life she'd had before Jeffrey. Married to a prominent doctor. Living in a spacious mansion on the chichi side of Miami Beach. Doing whatever she pleased each day. Every day.
Eventually, that life of privilege and excess had led to boredom and complacency and the end of her ten-year marriage. Of course, finding out her husband, Gil, had not one, but two girlfriends on the side hadn't helped. The divorce had been an embarrassingly public nightmare, nasty and full of recriminations. What a relief it had been to see the last of it. And Gil, too.
But was she really any better off now?
She brought her hand to her stomach, where her baby resided beneath the tiniest bump.
Yes, she thought. Yes.
By this time next year her lifelong dream of having a child would be a reality. It didn't matter that she might have to be a single mother. It didn't matter that the father, Jeffrey Balfour, apparently didn't know whether he wanted to have anything to do with this baby or not.
None of that concerned her now. All she cared about was keeping this small scrap of life within her alive and safe.
And that meant she needed to get to Lake Harmony.
The waitress returned. Before she could ask more questions, Alaina slipped all the money she had onto the counter. Two dollars and twelve cents. She wished she could give the woman an outrageously generous tip, but those days were gone. At least until she could get to a bank in Lake Harmony on Monday.
"Thanks for the doughnut," she said with an appreciative smile. "And the conversation."
The woman put a hand on Alaina's arm. "Don't go anywhere. I'll be right back."
She disappeared down the counter, and Alaina watched as she spoke to the cook. He gave Alaina a quick glance, then nodded. A moment later, the waitress was back.
"You don't have to walk or hitchhike all the way to Lake Harmony. Lester gets off at six. He can give you a ride as far as Blairsville."
Alaina hesitated. The cook seemed agreeable enough, but these days you never knew. Gil had looked like quite a prize once upon a time, and Jeffrey well, Jeffrey had looked like salvation. And yet here she was.
Until today she'd never hitchhiked in her life, and she didn't like it much. Of course, lately she'd done a lot of things she'd never done before.
The woman squeezed Alaina's arm. "Lester's harmless. He'll talk your ear off about Star Wars, but that's all you'll have to worry about."
"That's awfully nice, but"
The waitress plucked the sprinkle-covered doughnut off the cake stand and set it on Alaina's plate. "Eat this and think about it. Important decisions shouldn't be made on an empty stomach."
As it turned out, Lester was a perfect gentleman.
Maybe if Alaina had looked like Princess Leia, she'd have had a wild man on her hands, but the waitress had been right. Lester's life was devoted to Stars Wars. He spent the entire drive through the mountains talking about the movies and how unfair it was that George Lucas had decided to end the franchise. By the time Lester let her out on the road to Lake Harmony, Alaina, who had never been much of a sci-fi fan, had heard enough about Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Force and Darth Vader to last a lifetime.
Hefting her knapsack, she began to walk. In spite of the ever-darkening clouds that threatened to block the fading sunlight, she tried to enjoy the peace and quiet of the winding mountain road.
The last time she was in this area she'd been a teenager. From the age of nine, she and her sister, Maggie, had often been summer guests of the Davidson family. The Davidsons were their neighbors in Miami and owned a vacation home on the shores of Lake Harmonya hundred-year-old, two-story cottage they called Heron Cove.
The summers Alaina had spent here were some of the happiest of her life. The Davidsons' childrenZack and his sister Sandyhad been her best friends. The memories the four of them had made together were like priceless gems Alaina hoarded in her mind. When Jeffrey had left her high and dry this morning, and she had been filled with frantic uncertainty about what she should do next, she couldn't help thinking that Heron Cove, only two hours away from Atlanta, could be the safe haven she needed so badly. A place she could rest and regroup.
A fat raindrop splashed on her hand. She looked up to see that what was left of the blue sky was fast turning a furious gray-green color.
She picked up her pace, but by the time she made the front porch of Heron Cove, it was dark and she was soaked to the bone. Mountain rainstorms could spin around the hills and valleys of this area like Tasmanian devils, ripping leaves off the trees and splitting the sky with thunder and lightning.
Alaina stood at the front door, shivering, trying to catch her breath.
She knocked, but got no answer. Years ago, the Davidsons had always closed the place after Labor Day when the kids returned to the city for a new school year, but sometimes they came up to see the fall colors.
Maybe not this year. The place looked vacant, unwelcoming. Weeds were high in the front yard, and Mrs. Davidson's old garden was running wild over its borders. Peeling paint and a shutter hanging at an odd angle indicated that the house might be more than just temporarily vacant.
When Alaina saw Zack at her sister's wedding two years ago, they'd hardly exchanged a dozen words. For all she knew, the Davidsons might have sold Heron Cove. They would never have allowed this place to fall to ruin. So what had happened?
A flash of lightning turned the gnarled trees around her into menacing ghosts. The hair on Alaina's arms stood up with every crackle of electricity in the night sky.
Now what? She could hike on into town, but she had no money for a hotel.
The Davidsons had treated her like family. At one time, they might even have hoped that she'd be their daughter-in-law. But that had been so long ago. She shouldn't have counted on finding them here, ready to welcome her with open arms.
She suddenly felt foolish and desperate and very cold. She couldn't just stand here all evening. Praying the Davidsons would understand that she'd had little choice, Alaina tugged hard on the front door.
Which meant the only way to get inside would be to break in.
Wow. First she'd considered stealing a doughnut, now she was planning a B and E with the Davidsons' cottage. This was turning out to be a red-letter day for lawlessness.
She glanced around the wide front porch, hoping to spot something heavy she could use. Heron Cove was three miles from the heart of Lake Harmony, down a narrow country road with no neighbors. That meant no witnesses, either. No one to catch her breaking the law in such a ridiculously embarrassing way.
Shivering, she hunched deeper into her jacket as a gust of cold air swept across her back. She trotted down the steps. Wiping rainwater from her face, she hunted until she found a good-size rock in the yard.
Back at the door, Alaina laid her free hand against her stomach, rubbing gently. "May the Force be with us, kiddo," she whispered as she used the rock to break one of the panes of glass that bordered the entryway.
It shattered with an awful noise, and she made a mental note to repay the Davidsons once she got back on her feet.
Alaina cleared the glass from the frame with the sleeve of her jacket, then gingerly slipped her cold, nearly numb fingers through the opening so that she could manipulate the lock. A couple of turns and the doorknob moved under her hand.
Not bad for her first breaking and entering. Hopefully her last.
She withdrew her arm and almost fell inside the house on a fresh growl of thunder.
The foyer was pitch-dark, so she left the front door open. She fumbled along the wall, searching for the light switch. Nothing happened when she found it and flipped it on. Either the storm had blown the power or the house no longer had electricity.
It didn't matter. In some ways, the dark felt warmer, protective somehow, and after all the summers she and Maggie had spent here as guests, she could still find her way around.
She moved slowly toward the kitchen, relieved when flashes of lightning revealed familiar itemsthe wooden bin in the hallway where muddy shoes were left, the pictures of long-departed Davidsons on the walls near the stairs. It was wonderful to see that some things hadn't changed. Heron Cove must still belong to the family.
In the pantry, Alaina found the candles and matches that were kept there for emergencies. She sat down at the table, allowing herself a sigh of exhaustion as she held a match to a small candle.
Something dripped against the tiny flame, causing it to sputter. Not wax, she realized with a frown.
She turned her hand and saw the neat cut along the side of her wrist. She must have sliced it on a piece of glass when she'd stuck her hand inside the broken window. She'd been so chilled she hadn't even felt it.
Blood welled and continued to drip on the table, and after that first, stunned moment, Alaina jumped up to grab a kitchen towel. She twisted it around her wrist, which she pulled against her breast, then sat down again.