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The January darkness had already begun to gather outside as Stacey Handley came into the day-care center. The misty drizzle of rain blanketing the region would have reduced visibility on I-5 almost to zero. John was a cautious driver, thank heaven, but the weather conditions on this first Friday of the new year meant he'd probably be late. That and the demands of his job with the Washington State government.
Taking a deep breath, Stacey accepted the inevitable. Even with his usual quick turnaround, her ex-husband would be making the two-hour drive back from Portland to Olympia in full darkness, in slippery conditions, with their precious two-year-old twins strapped in their seats in back.
It wasn't his fault.
It wasn't hers.
It was the fault of their divorce, for sure, and all the mistakes they'd made—including the fact that they'd gotten married in the first place.
In contrast to the gloom outside, the day-care center attached to the Portland General Hospital felt bright and warm. Children's artwork hung on the walls and on colored yarn from the ceiling. Creative imagination buzzed in the home corner, the dress-up area, and the block space.
The place drew Stacey in, giving the usual lift to her spirits. She always loved dropping in here to see Max and Ella during her breaks, and picking them up at the end of the day. In her anticipation at seeing them, she forgot temporarily about the lonely weekend that lay ahead. But for now, she was happy to spend some precious minutes with the twins before John collected them.
Max saw her almost at once and catapulted into her arms. She returned his hug and inhaled the clean smell of his wheat-blond hair, noting that Ella, as usual, was too busy to have noticed her arrival. "Hi, sweetheart," she said to her little boy. "Did you have a good afternoon?"
"Did you? Can I see?" She tried to put him down, but he kept his arms tight around her neck, accidentally pulling on hair that needed a fresh cut.
At this age, he was more clingy than Ella. She always became so absorbed in her play that Mommy often had to join her in an activity for several minutes before she could slowly coax her daughter to let it go. The two were so different in both looks and temperament. Strangers were astonished to discover that they were twins.
Once more, Stacey felt the usual uncomfortable kick of her heart at the thought of letting them go for a whole weekend. Somehow it hadn't seemed so hard last spring after John had first moved to Olympia. Max hadn't yet been walking. They'd both been taking longer naps. When you'd said to them, "Time to get out of the bath," they hadn't thought to protest.
But now, nine months later, they were such a handful. John was a good father and tried his utmost. He usually took them one weekend in three, sometimes one in two, and their divorce had been amicable enough to avoid any dispute over custody or access. Could he really be as watchful as she was, though? Did he fully understand just how fast they could get into trouble?
She glanced toward the window again, and already it looked much darker out there, although it was only just after four. The rain hissed and spat against the glass.
Not rain anymore.
How were those roads? She needed to get back to work—but she reminded herself that with the twins away she could work late tonight in order to catch up if she was away from her desk for too long now. She could spend a little more time with her children, and coax some hugs from busy Ella, who'd only just seen her and called out, "Hi, Mommy!"
Her heart kicked again.
And then, just when it was the last thing in the world she was thinking about, she heard the voice and saw the face she'd lately been remembering so vividly. Remembering, and trying so hard to prepare for, since she'd dealt with certain employment formalities in the Portland General administrative offices several weeks ago.
He stood right there in the day-care center doorway. Gorgeous, ambitious, wide-horizoned Jake. The man she hadn't married seventeen years ago. The man she'd once expected would share the daunting tasks and incomparable rewards of parenthood right along with her. The man who'd left Portland way before she was ready to let him go.
Jake threw her a shocked glance, his recognition instant and obvious. Max had settled himself on her hip as if he planned to stay there all night. Ella trotted toward her for a hug. Stacey would have her arms full by the time Jake reached her.
The relationship between herself and the two small children must be written in every gesture. He would have to realize that they were her kids. In seventeen years she'd been through all sorts of changes, and her emotions had run the gamut. So had his, no doubt. Seventeen years was a long time.
Had he noticed her signature on a couple of the administrative letters he would have received from the hospital? She'd kept her maiden name for work and had gone back to it in her personal life after the divorce. Had Jake realized that coming back to Portland would mean seeing her again?
From his expression, apparently not.
It all seemed too significant.
The burden of being a parent...of caring that much...of risking and losing and hurting...of dealing with two sets of feelings that didn't match...was such a large part of what had separated herself and Jake all those years ago, when they were both still in their teens. She didn't know whether she should still be angry about things he'd said and done. She'd moved on, hadn't she?
Now, trying to keep Max anchored to her hip while she simultaneously scooped Ella up before she began to cry, Stacey muttered under her breath, "It's just the same. I'm carrying the weight. And he's free. Just as he wants to be."
She already knew he wasn't married. Dealing with Portland General Hospital's personnel files had its advantages, sometimes. And when a man like Jake wasn't yet married at the age of thirty-five, it could only be by his own choice.
He looked so good. With Ella's smoochy kiss warm on her cheek, she took in all the ways he'd changed...as well as the ways he hadn't. If he'd been good-looking in her own eyes back then, he would turn any woman's head now. He was thirty-five, the same age as Stacey herself, and while many of his contemporaries had begun to lose their hair and gain at the waist-line, Jake looked fit and strong and confident—a man totally in his prime.
He'd filled out since the age of eighteen, but all of it was muscle, tamed a little—but not much—by the dark tailored trousers and gray-and-white cotton sweater he wore. His dark hair was cut short enough to be neat but long enough to remind her of the way she'd once run her fingers through it. As he passed beneath the beam of a recessed light in the ceiling she saw just the faintest smattering of silver around his temples and behind his well-shaped ears.
He'd entered with Jillian Logan who was a social worker at the adjacent Children's Connection and spent a lot of time here in the hospital, as well. Stacey didn't know if the shared last names were just a coincidence. Logan wasn't uncommon, but anyone with that name around this place tended to be related. From the way Jillian had caught her eye, smiled and turned in Stacey's direction, it seemed as if she might soon find out.
"Stacey, hi," she began briskly. She was a very pretty woman with her long brown hair and brown eyes, but usually dressed to give off an impression of professional competence rather than personal warmth. She favored tailored clothing and classic colors, such as today's suit in pale sage green. "I dropped into your office at the wrong moment and discovered my cousin."
Well, that answered the question about their names. The Logan family was very prominent around Portland General Hospital and the adjacent Children's Connection. Jillian's parents had donated an enormous amount of financial and practical support to the fertility clinic and adoption center over the years.
Odd, actually. Stacey had known Jake so well, but she didn't remember any mention of his prominent Logan cousins—not even when she and Jake had been planning their wedding and talking about the guest list.
Jake and Jillian had thrown each other a slightly self-conscious glance, too, as if the word cousin didn't feel quite right to either of them.
"He'd like a tour, if there's time, to meet a few people and get his ID card, that kind of thing," Jillian went on, as Stacey lowered both twins out of her arms. "You're starting Monday, Jake?" He nodded and she turned back to Stacey. "Oh, I haven't actually introduced you. Stacey, this is—"