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Andy's new tenant hadn't mentioned that little detail over the phone. He sat at the wheel of his pickup and watched her unloading her things onto the porch, with a vague sense that he was spying, while he gave about thirty percent of his attention to his sister Scarlett's voice in his ear. " so there was nothing we could do, and it was so fast "
A very nice wheeled designer suitcase thumped up the wooden steps. The new tenant paused to stretch her lower back, placing a hand there for support.
The bump of her pregnancy was unmistakable in this pose, neat and round and firm, but as soon as she straightened again it almost disappeared. She had the kind of long, lean, gym-honed body that made a pregnancy look like this season's hot fashion accessory, and she was probably a little chilly in those threequarter-length sleeves, since it was only the beginning of April and the clear air had a definite bite.
" so I've been thinking I might take a week off, just some quiet time, but not here in the city " Scarlett had called Andy on his cell just as he was about to drive past his own house on his way from his office to the store, so he'd pulled over in front of his neighbor's place to take her call, only a few yards from his own driveway. He hadn't intended to watch his new tenant unloading her car, it had just happened that way.
" and if it wouldn't create problems for you and Laura.. " he heard Scarlett say into his ear.
He put his reply in fast. "Laura and I have split up."
"Oh, Andy! When?" His sister sounded distressed.
"February. It's okay. It's not a problem."
There was a beat of silence as Scarlett absorbed the news. "She tried too hard, didn't she?"
"Yeah, she did," he admitted, glad that Scarlett understood, so he didn't have to explain.
"Was she upset?"
"She was the one who made the move. I came home from work and there was a note and a whole lot less stuff." The extent of Laura's stuff had been part of the problem. "But we both knew it was coming. She's found someone who appreciates her for who she truly is, the note said."
"And she was right. I really didn't do that." Speaking of ouch.
The tenant heaved a second suitcase out of the trunk of her car and paused once again to arch and rub away the ache in her back. Her outfit looked brand-new and designer label, the soft sage-green stretch fabric gathered at the side seams so that it made her bump into a graceful curve instead of an inconvenient bulge.
Her dark brown hair shone with rich chestnut lights, and the artfully casual topknot looked as if it had been twisted and pinned in place at a Manhattan salon not more than half an hour ago, just as the fringed and patterned scarf around her neck could have been draped by a Hollywood stylist. Her sunglasses said expensive loud and clear.
But it was the bump that had him thinking.
"Definitely pregnant," Andy muttered. "Wonder when she's due."
"Sorry?" said Scarlett.
"My new tenant seems to be pregnant."
"Oh, you have a new tenant? Ohh."
He couldn't miss the disappointment. "Is that a problem?"
Seemed to be the tenant that was the problem for his sister, not the pregnancy. He didn't have a problem with either the tenant or her fashionable bump, but he was a little curious about why a woman like thisall big-city sophistication and stylewas here in a small, scenic town in Vermont, renting solo, on a short-term lease. Where did the pregnancy fit in?
"Well, see, that's what I've been working up to," Scarlett said. "I'm taking some time off. Hoping to. Thinking about it. I'd been wondering if I could use your rental half, since it's been empty. You know, just sit in a porch swing for a week."
"You can sit in my porch swing, instead of the rental one."
"I know, but it's not the same."
"It's almost the same," he pointed out, "since my place and my rental are two halves of the same house."
He'd loved the extravagant Victorian on sight, four years ago, and since he hadn't needed such a big place, he'd been happy that it was divided into two generous apartments. He was casual about renting out the half he didn't live in, relying on word of mouth and a couple of low-key listings on the internet, preferring short leases for the variety. He hadn't hugely cared when it stood vacant, as it had been all this past winter, while his two-year relationship with Laura had done its slow, splintering crash, like a felled tree.
"Yeah, but that's No, I can't explain." Scarlett sounded very flat, and very tired.
"This is only a three-month rental," he began.
This was what made him curious. Three months renting to a pregnant tenant from New York City, who had most definitely told him on the phone that she'd be living there alone, and that she didn't want a longer lease because she was only subletting her condo in Manhattan for the first two months, and didn't want it sitting empty for too long. She was a corporate accountant, she'd said.
So where did her due date fit in to her stay here? What was her plan? What were her intentions once the three-month lease was up?
"So if I hold off on my vacation until July " Scarlett said.
"You may actually be able to come up here and get a Vermont tan," he finished for her. "And make it longer than a week. Make it as long as you want."
He'd experienced for himself the therapeutic benefits of escaping the city and coming to the Green Mountain state. Five and a half years ago, one weekend here had led to a major change of lifestyle and priorities. Scarlett had been largely responsible for the whole thing, and now he had a chance to return the favor.
"But, no, I'll never get July," she said. "New rotations start. I have a shot at August. Just a week " She was talking to herself more than to him, mentally adjusting her heavy schedule.
Like every member of the McKinley family except Andy, she was all about crammed schedules. He remembered all too well what that was like.
On the porch, a heavy-looking cardboard box was about to join the two suitcases. This time, the arch-and-rub was followed by a hard lean onto the seat of the porch swing. The swing rocked too much and the pregnant tenant Nelson, Claudia Nelson almost lost her balance. She grabbed the swing chain, pivoted on one foot and sat on the moving seat with a hard thump, and Andy had to fight an impulse to leap out of the pickup and rush to her aid.
Which she might not have appreciated, since she would have no idea who he was at this point. Anyhow, she'd recovered her balance now.
Recovered her balance, but not her built-in cool. She flattened her hand over her upper chest and took some breaths that looked as if they'd been learned in prenatal class and practiced diligently since. In through the nose. Out slow and steady, through rounded lips.
Shoot, she wasn't in labor, was she? She only looked around six months or so, but as he'd already observed, she had the kind of body where it was hard to tell.
"I'd better go," he told Scarlett. "Think about it for August or whenever, and call me back when you decide.
"I'll hold off on another tenant for a while when this one moves out. Meanwhile, if you want to come up sooner, I can check out some of the bed-and-breakfasts around here. They're pretty quiet. And I can make sure a porch swing is part of the deal."
"Thanks, Andy. But, no, it was probably a dumb idea." Down the line, Scarlett sighed to herself and began planning again. "I'll wait. Even August, with the new interns I'll check the calendar. Maybe October."
Scarlett disconnected the call before Andy could tell her that October sounded too far off, given the stress and fatigue in her voice. He knew what his father, Dr. Michael James McKinley, Senior, would have said to her: "Get a good night's sleep and pull yourself together, Scarlett. You're a cancer specialist. You're going to lose patients. You can't let it get too personal."
Speaking of personal, it was time for Andy to introduce himself to the lady with the bump. The trip to the store for some steak and potatoes to accompany salad and a beer as tonight's meal would have to wait.
There was a man in the front yard. Claudia had been vaguely aware of him since he'd pulled to the curb thirty feet down the street to take a call on his cell, but then she'd taken her eye off him for a few moments while she caught her breath after that scary near-fall.
Now, instead of ending the call and driving away as she would have expected, he was suddenly here, coming toward her, smiling as if he knew her.
Or as if he had suspect intentions.
She had a moment of vulnerability, unfamiliar and unwanted. The baby crammed itself against her lungs, making her breath short. Her female friendswell, her one best friend, Kelly, plus her work colleagues and her hair stylistkept telling her approvingly that she barely showed. But, oh, the baby was there, and if she didn't show much from the outside it was only because the pregnancy was crowding out her internal organs, instead.
What did this man want? Around her own age of thirty-four, he looked strong and competent and sure of himself, dark haired, square-jawed, crooked-nosed, dressed in conservative dark pants and a pale polo shirt, with sleeve bands that stretched tight around hard biceps. His stride was long and he had an aura of casual ownership.
Of the moment.
Of the situation.
It might have been appealing in other circumstances. She liked competence and control in a man.
Right now, however, there was no traffic going by and the air had filled with an odd stillness, as if she and this stranger were the only two people anywhere near. He was kind of frowning and smiling at her at the same time. He was incredibly good-looking, with an especially nice mouth. Any woman would be bound to notice. But he was big and strong and she was no match for him physically. Especially not now.
She stood, and the swing rocked again, reminding her of how she'd almost fallen a moment ago, and then had bumped down on it painfully hard.
She was used to grace and strength in her body, not this clumsiness.
She was used to being fully in control.
She wasn't used to this instinctive gesture of curving one hand in protection across her lower stomach, while the other was pressed against her beating heart.