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The Daddy's Promise
By Shirley Jump
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe mouse won - by default.
If the doorbell hadn't rung, Anita Ricardo was sure she would have won the staring contest with the scrawny rodent. Then she could have chalked up at least one point for herself on this hot, calamity-prone day.
Well, maybe a half point.
The three-note off-key song played again. Not exactly the lyrical melody of the bell back at her apartment in L.A. - the apartment she'd given up to come to Mercy, Indiana, and start a new life.
Unfortunately, right now a new life meant living in a rickety rental house with a rodent for a roommate.
Geez, put that way, her life sounded like the plot of a bad sitcom. Anita got to her feet. She reached for the front door, twisted the knob and pulled. The heavy door refused to budge. For the second time that day, the late-August humidity had swollen it tight to the frame. The first time, she'd been able to use a little elbow grease - little being the operative word for a five-foot-three woman who barely topped a hundred pounds - to wrestle it open.
The doorbell pealed a third time. Anita put both hands on the knob and yanked.
"Just a minute," she yelled. Maybe it was the plumber, here to do something about the sputtering rust that passed for water. Or the electrician the landlord had promised to send over to fix the flickering lights. Or even, please Lord, the telephone company, here to connect her with the outside world.
Anita tugged harder. The door moved a fraction of an inch. She put her weight into it and then -
The knob jerked out of the locking mechanism and right into her hands. Anita stumbled back several steps. She blinked at the brass sphere in her hands.
"Hello?" called a quavering female voice.
"Hang on a minute. I have a bit of a problem here." She tried to slip the knob back into the hole. It refused to connect. Anita bent down, peered through the opening and saw -
A canned ham.
"Um, hello?" Anita said to the pink oval.
The ham moved away, replaced by an eye and part of a wrinkled cheek. "Why hello, dear. Welcome to Mercy." The woman straightened and the ham swung into view again. Fully Cooked, Real Maple Flavor, No Refrigeration Needed. "I'm with the Mercy Welcoming Committee."
"Do you have a screwdriver with you? Maybe a sledgehammer?"
"Did you say sledgehammer, dear?"
"Never mind. Let me open the window." The back door, Anita knew from an unsuccessful door-pull match this morning, was likely just as stuck. She straightened, then lifted the sash on the small window, fumbling with the finicky metal screen.
After two good curses and a solid tug, she managed to fling it up. She dipped her head to her knees and crawled out the window and onto the wide wooden porch.
The woman didn't blink at Anita's unconventional entrance. She looked close to eighty years old and wore a bright floral sleeveless dress shaped more like a bell than an hourglass. "Here you go, new neighbor." She thrust the basket into Anita's arms. "I'm Alice Marchand."
Anita staggered a little under the weight of the wicker container. A hand-drawn smiley face dangled from the handle, with the words "Welcome to Our Town" forming the lips. The basket was piled to the brim with a motley collection of foods and household things: a red flashlight emblazoned with Joe's Hardware: Screws You Can Use; two bottles of Pete's Hotter Than Hades Salsa; some calico-topped jars of home-canned food; a Tupperware container of chocolate-chip cookies; and the piè cederésistance, a hand fan from the local funeral home, decorated with Ten Tips for Planning Early for the Afterlife.
The basket took the prize for hokiest gift of the year. And yet it touched some kind of sentimental nerve because, for a brief second, Anita wanted to cry.
Crazy. She was hot, sweaty and tired. Nothing more. A glass of lemonade and a good meal and she'd be back to her regular, optimistic self. "Thank you, Mrs. Marchand."
"Oh, I'm not a missus. Never did find a man I could tolerate." She leaned closer and winked. "Besides, I'm holding out for true love."
Anita chuckled. "The basket is beautiful. Thanks again."
"It's nothing. Just a bit of Indiana hospitality." Miss Marchand bent forward, pointing inside it.
"There's some of my neighbor Colleen's homemade orange marmalade in there, and a loaf of bread baked special by the ladies of the Presbyterian Church. Oh, and a coupon for Flo's Cut and Go. Our little beauty shop hasn't been the same since Claire left - that's who rented this house before you. The new girl, Dorene, is trying, bless her heart, but she's just not Claire." Miss Marchand pressed a hand to her gray pouf. "Dorene is mighty stingy with the hairspray. Keep an eye on her with the Aqua Net."
"I'll, ah, keep that in mind." She should invite the woman in for a glass of lemonade, but doubted a senior citizen would be up to a climb through the window. "Would you like something to drink? I can go in and get -"
"Looks like you have your hands full already. And, in a few more months, you'll have them twice as full," she gestured toward Anita's stomach.
Anita glanced down at her legging shorts and oversize T-shirt. She'd just hit the seventh month of her pregnancy and had outgrown most of her regular clothes but hadn't yet bought many maternity clothes. Stretchy outfits and sundresses were comfortable and the easiest on her tight budget. "How did you know I'm pregnant?"
"Old lady's intuition. Not to mention, the little clues sitting in the porch swing." She smiled, gesturing toward the pregnancy guide Anita had left out there earlier that morning. Beside it sat two pairs of half-crocheted baby booties, one in pink and one in blue.
Excerpted from The Daddy's Promise by Shirley Jump Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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