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Lauren Seville pulled her car to the side of the road and stepped out. The summer day was gorgeous, the sky impossibly blue and bright with sunshine. Standing in front of a picturesque pasture in rural Connecticut, she breathed in the mingled scents of wildflowers and listened as the birds chirped and chattered overhead. Then she bent at the waist and retched into the weeds.
The day might be gorgeous, but her life was as unsettled as her stomach at the moment. She was pregnant.
Long agolong before she'd met and married investment broker Holden Seville and had embarked on a career as the Wife of a Very Important Mandoctors had informed Lauren that she would never conceive. Now, four years into a marriage that had proved as sterile as she'd believed herself to be, she had.
She straightened and stroked her still-flat stomach through the lightweight fabric of her sundress. The news, received just two weeks earlier, still filled her with elation, awe and a sense of anticipation. She was nearly three months into what she considered a miracle.
Her husband did not share her joy about the baby. In fact, quite the opposite.
"I don't want children."
She could still hear the cold dismissal in his tone, but his words were hardly a news flash. He'd made that fact perfectly clear when he'd proposed marriage one year to the day after their first date. Children were disruptive, messy and, most of all, needy, he'd said. They were an improper fit for the career-and-cocktails lifestyle Holden enjoyed and planned to continue enjoying.
Lauren didn't share his view, but she hadn't argued it at the time. Why bother when the point was moot? Or it had been.
A fresh wave of nausea had her bending over a second time.
"Oh, God," she moaned afterward, staggering back a few steps to lean against the passenger side of her car.
How foolish she'd been to hope that her husband's rigid opinion would soften now that the deed was done. It still came as a painful shock to discover that he wanted it undone.
"End your pregnancy," he'd told her. Your pregnancy. As if Lauren was solely responsible for her state. As if he had no tieby blood or otherwiseto the new life growing inside of her.
He'd finished his ultimatum with: "If you don't, I'll end our marriage."
So, a mere twenty-four hours after refusing, Lauren found herself standing alone on the side of a country road gazing at a pasture, feeling queasy, exhausted and longing for the comfort of the king-size bed in their Manhattan apartment. She would go back eventually. She'd left with nothing but her purse and painful disillusionment. But she wasn't going to return until she had formulated a plan. When she faced Holden again she would do so with dignity, with her hormone-fueled emotions under check. This time she would offer him a few terms and conditions of her own.
"Hey, are you all right?"
The deep voice startled Lauren. She swung around in time to see a man jogging toward her from the farmhouse just down the road. Good Lord. Had he seen everything? Embarrassment turned her cheeks hot and she couldn't quite meet his gaze.
"I'm fine," Lauren called.
She pasted on a smile and headed around the car's hood, all the while hoping he wouldn't come any closer. But he continued down the road in a long-legged stride that brought them face-to-face before she could open the driver's-side door of her Mercedes and get inside.
Doing so now would be rude. Lauren was never rude. So she remained standing, lips crooked up in the same polite smile that had gotten her through many a tedious dinner party with her husband's work associates.
"Are you sure?" the man asked. "You still look a little pale. Maybe you should sit down."
Lauren pegged him to be in his midthirties and physically fit, if the nice sculpting of his tanned arms was any indication. He was average height with tousled, mocha-colored hair that the breeze teased into further disarray.
"I've been sitting. Well, driving." She waved a hand down the road in the direction she'd come. "I just stopped to to to stretch my legs."
"Right." Kind eyes studied her a moment. "Are you sure I can't get you a glass of water or something?"
"Oh, no. But thank you for offering."
It was a programmed response and so it slipped easily from her lips. She was used to lying about her feelings, subjugating her needs and putting a positive spin on everything. She'd done that growing up so as not to upset her workaholic parents' hectic timetables. She'd done that as a wife, putting Holden and his demanding career first. But she'd been driving for more than two hours with no particular destination in mind. She had no idea how long it would be before she reached the next town. At the moment the undeniable truth was that she had to use the bathroom and would trade her Prada pumps for a good swish of mouthwash.
So, before she could change her mindagainshe said primly, "Actually, I would appreciate the use of your facilities."
"Facilities." She thought he might grin. But he didn't. He swept a hand in the direction of his house and said, "Sure. Right this way."
As they walked toward the farmhouse, he rested his hand on the small of her back, almost as if he knew she wasn't quite steady on her feet. The gesture struck her as old-fashioned, gentlemanly almost. It seemed a little odd coming from a guy who was wearing a T-shirt whose logo was too faded to be readable and a pair of jeans stained on the thighs with various hues of paint.
She chided herself for judging him based on appearances alone. Lauren knew better than anyone that looks could be deceiving. She'd met enough designer-dressed phonies over the years. People who said all the appropriate things, supported all the right causes and knew which fork to use for their salads, but it was for show. She could spot them easily enough. It took a fake to know one.
Did anyone know the real Lauren Seville?
That thought had her remembering her manners. "I'm Lauren, by the way."
He smiled and a pair of dimples dented his stubble-covered cheeks. "Nice to meet you. My name's Gavin."
When they reached the house, he guided her up the steps to the porch and held open the front door for her. Curiosity had her glancing around when she entered his house. Beyond the foyer, the living room was bare of furniture unless one counted the sawhorse set up next to the fireplace.
"Are you working here?"
"Why do you ask?" But he laughed then. "Actually, I own the place. I'm in the middle of some pretty aggressive renovations."
"So I see."
He settled his hands on his hips and glanced around, looking satisfied. "The kitchen's coming along nicely and the bedroom on this floor is done. I'm just finishing up the crown molding in here. I'm debating whether I should stain it or paint it white. Same goes for the mantel I made. What do you think?"
That threw her. Gavin barely knew her and yet he was asking her opinion. "You want to know what I think?"
He shrugged. "Sure. Fresh eyes. Besides, you look like someone with good taste." His gaze skimmed down momentarily, his expression frank and appreciative, but hardly leering. It left her feeling ridiculously flattered.
And flustered. "You built the mantel too, hmm? You're very good with your hands."
"So I've been told."
Heat prickled Lauren's skin. Hormones, she decided. Fatigue.
Gavin cleared his throat. "The bathroom is down that hall, first door on the right."
As she walked away, he called, "Ignore the mess. I'm in the middle of rehabbing that room, too."
He wasn't kidding about the mess. Shattered tiles from the walls lay in a heap in one corner and the light fixture was a single bare bulb that hung from a wire protruding from the ceiling.
Lauren stepped to the pedestal sink and turned on the faucet, half expecting to see the water come out brown. But it was clear and cool and it felt gloriously refreshing when she splashed some of it on her face. Though she wasn't one to snoop, desperation had her opening his medicine cabinet in search of something to help rid her mouth of its foul taste. She sighed with relief when she found a tube of toothpaste. She squeezed some onto her index finger and used it as a makeshift brush. When she joined Gavin on the porch a few minutes later she felt almost human again.
He was seated on the swing at the far end, a bottle of water in each hand and a cell phone tucked between his shoulder and ear. When she stepped outside, he ended his call, maneuvered the bottles so he could clip the phone back onto his belt and stood.
"Feeling better?" he asked as he handed Lauren one of the waters.
"Yes. Thank you."
"Good. Have a seat." He swept a hand in the direction of the swing he'd just left.
It looked comfortable despite its worn cushion. Comfortable and inviting, much like the man himself. More than anything she wanted to sit. Lauren shook her head. "I really should be on my way."
"Why? Are you late for something?" he asked.
"No. I just I don't want to put you out. I'm sure you have better things to do."
"Nothing pressing. Well, the house. There's always something to do here." Gavin laughed. "But it'll keep." When she hesitated, he added. "Come on, Lauren. Join me. Consider it your good deed for the day. Once you go I'll have to get back to work. I'd appreciate the break."
"Well, in that case " She smiled, and though it wasn't like her at all to spend time with a strange man in the middle of nowhere, she sat on the swing.
It creaked softly under her weight. She allowed it to sway gently. Wind chimes tinkled in the breeze. The sound was pleasing, peaceful. It took all of her will-power not to sigh and close her eyes.
Gavin settled a hip on the porch railing, angled in her direction. "So, where are you headed, anyway? If you don't mind me asking."
Lauren uncapped the water and took a sip. "I don't have a destination, actually. I'm just out driving."
"It's a nice day for that."
"Yes." Because he was studying her again, she glanced away. "It's lovely around here."
"You should have seen it in the spring when my orchard was in bloom."
"Three acres of apple trees," he said, pointing behind her.
She turned for a better look and could just make out some of the golf-ball-size green apples that had taken the blooms' places. Lauren had always lived in the city, first in Los Angeles and now in New York. She'd never called the countryside home. Even vacations had been spent in urban settings Paris, London, Venice, Rome. But something about this place was vastly appealing. Peace, she thought again. Ten minutes on Gavin's front porch had had the same effect as an hour with her masseur.
"Have you lived here long?" she asked.
"No. I bought the place last year." He sipped his water before adding, "After my divorce."
"No need to be. I'm not."
The reply was quick and matter-of-fact, but Lauren thought she detected bitterness. She wasn't sure what else to say so she settled on, "I see."
Gavin didn't seem to be expecting any sort of response. In fact, he changed the subject. "I like challenges, which is one of the reasons I bought this place. A few months after I began working on it, though, I got tired of commuting out from the city on the weekends. So, I decided to take an extended break from my job and I moved here."
She couldn't imagine Holden taking a break, extended or otherwise, from his job. Her husband ate, slept and breathed the stock exchange. Even their vacations rarely saw him out of touch with his office. It struck her then that even if he changed his mind about the baby she'd still be a single parent for all intents and purposes.
"You're frowning," Gavin said.
"Oh, sorry. I was just thinking about " She shook her head. "Nothing." Then, because he was still watching her, she said, "So, you lived in New York?"
He sipped his water. "For the past dozen years."
She couldn't quite picture him there amid the skyscrapers, bustling pedestrians and heavy traffic. Though she barely knew him at all, he looked like a man who enjoyed wide-open spaces and the quiet that went with them. Places such as this. And though Lauren had always been an urbanite, she could understand why.
"I live in New York," she said.
"You're not from there originally, though, are you?" She blinked. "No. I'm a West Coast transplant. Los Angeles. How could you tell?"
Gavin studied her. He hadn't expected that answer. Something about Lauren seemed too soft, too uncertain for city life. Her looks certainly fit, though. He allowed his gaze to take another discreet tour from her perfectly coiffed hair to the heels of her fashionable pumps. He'd seen plenty of women who looked just like Lauren parading into Manhattan's private Colony Club or exiting their stretch limousines in front of the posh apartment buildings on Park Avenue. Still
"You don't seem like a New Yorker," he said at last. She surprised him by replying, "I was just thinking the same thing about you."
"I'm not a native, either," he admitted. "I was born and raised in a little town just outside Buffalo. Does it still show?"