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For Charlene Cooper, that world-shaking Saturday in April began like just about every other Saturday.
The alarm jarred her from sleep at five-fifteen. She rolled out of bed, yawning, and padded straight to the bathroom, where she shrugged out of her sleep shirt, hung it on the back of the bathroom door and climbed in the shower.
Twenty minutes later, she was dressed in jeans and a red T-shirt with the Dixie's Diner logo across the front, her blond hair pinned loosely up in the back. She took a minute or two to brush on a hint of blush, a little lipstick and mascara.
Since her bedroom and the only bath were both once having entered her living room or the kitchen beyond. She never ate breakfast before she left in the morning. There would be coffee at the diner, after all. And Teddy, the early-shift cook, would scramble her a couple of eggs on request.
She ducked back into the bedroom to grab her purse from the dresser and returned to the entry, where she reached for the doorknob.
At that exact moment, just before she turned the knob, her life changed forever.
With one tiny sound.
It was a soft, happy, cooing sort of sound. Like a puppy. Or a kitten. Or maybe a pigeon. It was coming from her living room.
A pigeon. In her living room?
There it was againand no. Not a pigeon. Not an animal at all.
More like a
Charlene let out a tiny cry of pure bewilderment and whirled for the living room, where she found something truly, completely impossible.
A baby all wrapped in a fluffy pink blanket, lying there on her antique mahogany and horsehair sofa, beneath the picture window that looked out on the deck.
Charlene's purse hit the rug with a soft plop. She put her hands over her mouth, backed up to the ancient rocker that had once belonged to her great- grandmother and slowly lowered herself to the seat. The rocker creaked softly as it took her weight.
And the baby on the sofa waved its fat little hands and cooed at the ceiling as if it didn't have a worry in the world. Not far away, on the floor at the end of the sofa, there was a battered-looking flowered diaper bag and a dingy blue car seat.
Somebody had broken into her house and left a baby, complete with car seat and diaper bag. Who would do such a crazy thing?
Slowly, as the baby made a goofy little noise that sounded almost like a giggle, Charlene lowered her hands and gripped the carved arms of the old rocker. "Hello?" she said aloud, her voice all strangled and strange sounding. Maybe the motheror whoever had brought the babywas still in the house. She cleared her throat and called more forcefully in the direction of the kitchen and the spare bedroom at the back of it. "Anybody here?"
The baby waved its fists some more, and the pink blanket made a rustling sound, a sound like paper crackling.
Charlene shot to her feet again and approached the cooing infant.
There. Pinned to the blanket on the far side. A folded sheet of lined paper.
The baby gurgled and cooed some more, blinking its blue eyes, smiling up at Charlene as if it recognized her.
But that was impossible. This baby was tinytoo tiny to recognize anyoneat that age when they seemed to be smiling at you, but weren't, really. No more than they were actually waving at you when they wiggled their fat little arms in the air.
Hands shaking, Charlene unpinned the folded paper. She set the pin in a pinecone bowl on the side table. Her knees felt kind of wobbly, so she backed up again and sat in the rocker before she dared to unfold the lined sheet.
It was wrinkled, the note. She smoothed it on her knee, blinking in horrified disbelief as she recog- nized that sloppy, back-slanted scrawl.
"Oh, God," she heard herself whisper. "Oh, no"
Meet your niece, Mia Scarlett Cooper. She is five weeks old, born on March 15. Isn't she beautiful? Takes after her mommy that way. And I need a little favor. See. The thing is. It's just not working out for me, dragging a kid around everywhere I go. I need a break, and even though you and me don't always get along on stuff, I know you'll take good care of her. She's a good baby.
And I don't know how to tell you this, but I guess you need to know that Brand is her dad. And in case you're wondering, the answer is yes, that's why I ran away last year. Because of Brand and how he treated me.
With love, even though I bet you don't believe me,
Charlene had the strangest feeling, as if she would shatter and fly apart, pieces of her shooting every- where. Carefully, holding herself together by sheer effort of will, she rose again and approached the child.
The babyMia. Her name was Miaand she didn't seem to be smiling anymore. But she wasn't crying, either. She gazed up at Charlene through wide, calm eyes and went on gently waving those itty-bitty fists.
She had the cutest little dimple in her chin.
A dimple that reminded Charlene of the cleft Brand Bravo had in his chin.
Charlene turned and sat on the sofa at the feet of the pink-blanketed bundle. Some time went by. Seconds? Minutes? She couldn't have said. She sat there, unmoving, staring straight ahead at the grouping of family photos on the opposite wall pictures that included one of her mom and her dad on their wedding day. Her mother was laughing as she stuffed wedding cake into the open mouth of her groom. They looked so happy. Young. Strong in the certainty that they had long lives ahead of them.
There were family groupings of the four of them: father, mother, two smiling daughters. And of Charlene and Sissyseparately and together. In one, Charlene stood on the steps of the big white frame house on Jewel Street, the house where they'd all been a family, before the accident. The child, Charlene, was grinning wide, proudly holding her newborn baby sister in her nine-year-old arms.
"Sissy" Charlene said the name aloud.
And then she blinked some more, shook her head and read the note again. And againthree times through before her stunned mind could finally en- compass the enormity of all this.
Her baby sister had a baby of her own, a baby who just happened to be lying right there beside Charlene, kicking her tiny feet under the blanket, staring up at the slanted, beamed ceiling, making those adorable happy-baby sounds.
A baby named Mia, whose father wasBrand? No. Charlene couldn't bear to believe thatand really, it just wasn't possible. Was it?
Of course not. He wouldn't
Yes, it was true that she had a low opinion of Mr. Bigshot Lawyer and Confirmed Bachelor, Brand Bravo. Anyone in town could tell you that. Still, Charlene would have sworn he'd never sink so low as to seduce a mixed-up kid like Sissy, a kid who just happened to be Charlene's own sister.
But then again
Well, the timing did add up. And last year, during Sissy's disastrous month back in town, she'd grown swiftly notorious. And not only for her skimpy outfits, spiked purple hair and the safety pin she wore in her nose, but also for the way she would throw herself at every guy in sight.
And even if her style was way out there for a con- servative community like New Bethlehem Flat, no one could deny that she was pretty in her own Ã¼ber- Goth kind of way. It was just possible that she'd caught Brand in a moment of weakness.
"Ga," the baby said. "Wa"
And what about the way Sissy left last June, van- ishing in the middle of the night on the same night that someone ransacked Brand's law office and stole his petty cash drawer? The thief had never been caught, but everyone in townincluding Charlene, though she'd never admit it out loudknew it had to be Sissy.
Why would Sissy do that, trash Brand's office, steal the cash drawer and disappear into the middle of the night, unless she was really mad or desperately hurtingor both?
The baby kicked, sharply nudging Charlene's thigh. Charlene instinctively responded, smoothing a hand on the blanket, feeling the shape of that tiny, perfect foot, almost smiling in spite of the shock and confusion she was dealing with.
And besides, she thought, though Sissy had problemsa raft of themthere would be no point in her lying about Brand being the father. Even a messed-up nineteen-year-old has to know that all it takes is a simple paternity test to settle that question once and for all.
So. Well. It had to be true, didn't it?
This baby, her niece, was Brand Bravo's child. "Oh, no," Charlene whispered and put her head in her hands. "Oh, God, no"