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A Family Forever
By Brenda Coulter
Steeple HillCopyright © 2006 Brenda Coulter
All right reserved.
Staring in increasing revulsion at the mushroom-and-Swiss-cheese omelet on the plate in front of her, Shelby Franklin was distinctly aware of each cold, tingling bead of perspiration that erupted on her forehead. Whatever had possessed her to order eggs? Accepting this breakfast invitation had been dumb enough, but she'd reached the summit of stupidity by ordering eggs.
Her stomach endorsed that opinion with a rebellious squeeze. Breathing deeply through her nose, Shelby shifted her gaze to focus on the upside-down reflection of her face in the shiny bowl of her unused teaspoon. If she concentrated, maybe she could hold this back.
A sudden, sharp noise made her flinch, but she didn't look up as the clatter of metal on thick ceramic echoed through the nearly deserted restaurant. The realization that her companion had dropped his fork and must now be studying her with those alert, coffee-brown eyes of his caused Shelby's heart to plummet into the roiling cauldron of her stomach. Did he have to notice everything? "Shelby?" Tucker Sharpe's deep voice rumbled like distant thunder.
She lifted both hands to deflect his concern. "I'm okay," she insisted, not daring to look up. Her mind spun in desperate circles as she struggled to think up an excuse, an explanation, anything that would prevent him fromguessing what she wasn't ready for him to know. "I haven't been sleeping much," she offered, staring hard at the spoon.
Tucker would buy that. Judging by his haggard look when he'd greeted her earlier, Tucker hadn't been sleeping much, either, these last three weeks. He and his brother had been unusually close, and losing David had hit him hard.
Maybe almost as hard as it had hit Shelby. "How far along are you?" Tucker queried softly. Shock jerked her head up. "What?" A muscle twitched in his angular jaw as his mouth tightened and his dark eyebrows slammed together, creating the remote, disapproving expression Shelby had come to know well in recent months. Her best friend said Tucker was great looking, and maybe he was, with that lean, wholly masculine face and that luxuriant chestnut hair that rioted in little waves and spikes on top of his head. But every time he looked at Shelby, his shapely mouth thinned into a hard, straight line and his dark eyes sparked with silent accusations.
"You heard the question, Shelby. How far along are you?" Shame caused her head to droop like a rain-drenched garden rose on a weak stem. "Just a few weeks," she whispered.
She didn't need a doctor to tell her when it had happened. There had been only the one time, just four days before David's accident. Shelby hadn't felt right about it, not even when David had reminded her — as if it could have slipped her mind even for a moment — that their wedding was less than a month away. Catching her bottom lip between her teeth, Shelby bit down hard. She had broken God's rules, and now she must face the consequences.
She tucked her curly, shoulder-length hair behind her ears, then instantly regretted the nervous gesture because it exposed more of her guilty face to Tucker, the mind reader.
"You just found out." He released a heavy breath that sounded as though he'd been holding it awhile. "You didn't know on Sunday."
No, if she had known then, when she'd sat beside him in church, he'd have read her as effortlessly as he was doing right now.
"I'll marry you," he said quietly.
Shelby looked up, certain she couldn't have heard him correctly. "M-marry me? You?"
He nodded almost imperceptibly, then just sat there, tall and straight and silent as a lighthouse, watching her.
Tucker was a friend to everyone in town. He'd even been Grand Leprechaun at this year's St. Patrick's Day parade, a very big deal here in Dublin, Ohio. But it was clear he didn't like Shelby. She hadn't been good enough for his younger brother.
After David's funeral she had expected to be forgotten, but she'd quickly learned that straight-arrow Tucker would not allow his personal feelings to interfere with what he saw as his duty to look after David's bereaved fiancee. If she happened to sit down alone at church, Tucker would materialize at her side, grave and solicitous. He was constantly inviting her out for meals, inquiring whether her ancient car was running okay, asking if she needed anything.
Yeah, she needed something. She needed Tucker to get out of her life so she could concentrate on rebuilding it.
Twisting the diamond ring on her left hand, she shook her head, declining Tucker's ridiculous proposal. Then because he still seemed to be waiting, she gave him some words. "No. Thank you. There's no need for...that."
His eyes widened in apparent horror. "But you're going to have the baby, aren't you?" He glanced over his shoulder as if afraid someone might overhear them, but it was late and the breakfast crowd was gone. He leaned forward and lowered his voice, anyway, his dark eyes urgent. "Please tell me you're not thinking about —"
"No," she interrupted, shocked. "I could never do that." His shoulders slumped and the vertical line between his eyebrows almost disappeared as the tension drained out of him. "Then marry me. You don't have to go through this alone."
Didn't she? She'd been alone all her life. Until six months ago, when she had foolishly allowed herself to begin dreaming of marriage and children. When she had accepted David, she'd thought God was finally going to allow her to taste happiness. But after dangling it in front of her, he had snatched it away.
"The baby deserves a father," Tucker pressed.
Why did he assume that having the baby meant keeping the baby? She couldn't do that, not without money or parental support, and she had neither. Oh, sure, Tucker was offering to marry her. But even if she could disregard that pesky detail about not being in love with him, she'd have to be crazy to sign up for a lifetime with a man who so clearly disliked her.
She knew what she had to do. On a violin teacher's salary, she had no other choice. But she pressed her lips together as her stubborn heart fought to override her common sense. From the moment she'd realized her body sheltered this little spark of life, Shelby had been gripped by a fierce, protective love that went beyond all reason. This was her baby. How could she ever put it into another woman's arms?
"You can't do it." Slowly tracing the rim of his coffee mug with a long, square-ended finger, Tucker watched her intently. "You can't give it up."
How did he do that? How did he look inside her, read her mind? He often finished sentences for her, but there was nothing endearing about it, as might have been the case had David possessed the ability. It frustrated her no end, being unable to entertain a thought without Tucker picking it up and saying it out loud.
But maybe, just this once, it was all right, because the turmoil inside Shelby was threatening to rip her apart. Maybe a full confession would assuage some of this awful guilt. And there was no need to worry about Tucker's good opinion, was there? Because she couldn't lose something she'd never had.
"It was just one time." She said it fast, before she lost her nerve. "I know it shouldn't have happened at all, but —"
"You don't have to tell me this."
"Yes, I do." She sucked in a breath and forced herself to continue. "I know what the Bible says, and I meant to honor God by waiting, but then I didn't wait. I felt horribly guilty afterwards, so we agreed —"
"You don't owe me this," he interrupted again. "It was between the two of you and God."
"But if I...marry you..." Had those words actually come out of her mouth? She had no intention of marrying Tucker.
He shook his head. "I want this child to have David's name and be brought up by the people who loved his father. Right now, that's all I care about."
That was all he cared about? Shelby swallowed hard. "Do you mean you wouldn't expect —"
"You need time to grieve." Tucker's voice broke on that last word and his thick black eyelashes dipped low, reminding Shelby that he, too, was grieving. She had a feeling he blamed himself for not preventing David's accident, but she knew as well as anyone how difficult it had been to talk high-spirited David Sharpe out of anything. He'd wanted to ride his motorcycle in the rain; what could his brother have done to stop him?
Tucker raised his eyes and pinned Shelby with a sober gaze. "We could have separate bedrooms until the baby comes. What happens after that will be up to you."
"But how could you be content with that kind of arrangement?" she blurted. "Why would you saddle yourself with a woman you don't love?" Or even like, she added silently.
From the way his mouth tightened, she knew he'd read her mind again. "We'll get along fine," he said.
Yeah, she'd believe that in about a million years. "Do you even like babies?" she challenged.
"I've never been around any." Above the collar of his black T-shirt, his Adam's apple took a long, slow dip. "But I'll be a good father. And husband."
"No." Shelby managed to gather her wits enough to give her head an emphatic shake. "I couldn't."
"Just think about it."
She sure would. The next time she needed a good laugh, she'd just think about marrying Tucker Sharpe. Wouldn't it be delightful, sitting down at the breakfast table every morning and being treated to that scowl of his?
He lifted his coffee mug with a hand that trembled slightly. "Have you told your parents?"
"Last night." Resenting the way his gaze roamed over her face as though cataloguing each of her hated freckles, Shelby turned her head and looked out the window next to their table.
A light breeze ruffled a sea of pink tulips on the berm underneath the restaurant's sign post. It was a perfect spring morning, all blue sky and cotton-ball clouds, and even through the glass Shelby could hear the sweet "cheerio" of a robin. The world was still turning, just as if David hadn't died. And it would keep on turning, no matter what happened to his baby.
"They won't support you," Tucker said flatly. Shelby's gaze jerked back to his face, but she said nothing because he wasn't wrong. She loved her mother, and her stepfather was all right, but Diana and Jack Dearborn had never been the kind of people to make a stand as a family.
"So what are your options?" Tucker pressed. David had talked about buying life insurance and naming Shelby as the beneficiary, and if he had followed through on that, she'd be okay right now. But all he'd left behind was the wrecked motorcycle, a flashy car that wasn't paid for and a couple of thousand dollars in credit-card debt.
She couldn't give up the baby, but how could she keep it? Just two years out of college, she was still paying off loans and existing month to month on her meager salary as a middle-school strings teacher in nearby Columbus. She had a handful of private violin students and she jumped at every opportunity to pick up her own instrument and perform with a friend's quartet, but she was barely making it.
Tucker lifted one of his giant hands and rubbed the back of his neck. "You know, there are lots of places in the world where this kind of marriage wouldn't even raise an eyebrow."
Shelby raised two eyebrows, then said with some asperity, "This is not one of those places."
He folded his arms on the table, nudging his plate away with an elbow. "Well, I don't know of any Bible verse that says a couple has to be 'in love' before they marry. So as long as we're both fully committed to providing this baby with a real family, why shouldn't it work out?"
There were lots of reasons. Shelby was just too upset right now to think of any.
"As a matter of fact," Tucker continued, "it could be a real plus, going into marriage without any foolish romantic expectations to trip us up."
So romantic expectations were foolish, were they? Did he honestly believe marriage could be reduced to a business arrangement? "That isn't enough, Tucker. Not for me." Shelby shook her head at him. "And not for you, either."
"This isn't about us. This is about a child."
Shelby looked down at the hands she'd clenched together in her lap. She turned the left one slightly and watched her three-quarters-of-a-carat diamond solitaire flash red and purple sparks. She could sell the ring, she realized. She could get a smaller apartment and give up regular haircuts and premium chocolate and those ridiculously expensive caffe lattes. If the pregnancy and birth were uncomplicated and the baby was healthy, she might be able to manage.
Excerpted from A Family Forever by Brenda Coulter Copyright © 2006 by Brenda Coulter. Excerpted by permission.
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