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A sharp, stabbing pain grabbed Sara Carter's middle, and she gripped the steering wheel tightly, struggling to maintain control of her car.
The contractions were getting more intense and closer together. She'd had a nagging backache since early morning, but hadn't even realized she was in labor until a gush of water between her legs sent her running to the bathroom.
Even now liquid continued to trickle out of her.
Amniotic fluid, she realized.
The hospital had told her to come in right away, and she thought she had time to get there. It wasn't even snowing when she left the house. Now it looked like she was inside a giant, freshly shaken snow globe.
"Dear God," she prayed. "Let me get to the hospital in time. Because nobody's going to find me out here if I get stuck."
Doubtless the hospital staff assumed she'd be with her husband. But she didn't have one. She probably never would. Unless she met a guy who could live up to her memories of Jack Morgan, the father of her child.
At least there were only a few cars on the road. Other motorists had wisely turned back or found shelter. But her only choice was to plow ahead.
She certainly wouldn't find help at home. The little rented house in the rural end of Howard County, Maryland, was the only thing she could afford at the moment because her savings were dwindling. And she was going to be out of commission for at least a few weeks after she delivered. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, she could get back to work staging housesmaking them look their best for potential buyerson a limited basis. But she was bound to lose a lot of her customers to competitors by turning down jobs.
Life as a new mother would be tough.
Jack's wealthy family could have helped ease her financial burden, but they'd turned their collective backs on her after his death.
She snorted as she remembered the conversation with Jack's father when she'd given him the news. If she wanted child support, she'd have to prove paternity with DNA testing. And sue them.
She shuddered. If she did prove the baby was Jack's, they might try to take him away.
"Never," she whispered, to the child she carried.
A boy. Named Daniel. He was all she had left of the man she loved, and she would raise him in a way that would have made his father proud.
She didn't want to think about how hard that was going to be. Instead she let memories of Jack Morgan comfort her. He was the wounded war hero who'd come back from the Naval Medical Center to try to pick up his life.
She'd met him at an expensive house her friend Pam Reynolds was showing. Tara in Howard County, she'd jokingly called it.
His brother had dragged him along to look at the property, and Jack had obviously been annoyed to be there. Maybe she'd seen him as a challenge at first. But the relationship had quickly become important to both of them.
"Oh, Jack," she whispered as she leaned forward, trying to see through the blinding whiteness ahead of her. "It should have worked out differently. If only you were still here."
But he wasn't. And there was no use wishing that her life hadn't gone careening off the rails in such spectacular fashion. All she could do was make the best of her future.
A future without the man she loved.
Sometimes she wondered how warm, caring Jack Morgan could have come from such a cold, money-obsessed family. But that wasn't her immediate problem.
Another contraction made her gasp. Pulling to the shoulder, she waited for the clutching pain to diminish. As soon as the contraction subsided enough for her to concentrate, she nosed back onto the road.
Only fifteen minutes to Howard County General Hospital now. Well, maybe under better conditions. Should she stop and call for help? No, she might end up having the baby in the car if she risked waiting here.
"You're going to make it," she told herself. Or that was what she thought. Until she came around a curve on Route 108 and saw the pickup truck stalled at the bottom of a hill.
As her car began the long slide toward the disabled vehicle, she frantically turned the wheel, trying to avoid a collision. But the wheels failed to catch on the slick surface, and she felt the car gaining momentumhurtling her toward disaster.
The bone-rattling impact of the car slamming into the truck stunned her.
Air bag? Where was the air bag?
The moment her forehead smashed against the windshield and glass shattered, she knew she and the baby were going to die.
Sara couldn't feel her body, but her mind floated somewhere in darkness. Ahead of her, she could see a beautiful golden light. The warmth drew her, but something held her from going there.
A presence hovered around her. No, two of them. They had come to guide her to the light. Where she'd be warm and safe. And all her problems would be gone.
But something was wrong.
She could hear them talking. Arguing.
"It's not her time."
"Of course it is. Look at her."
"I mean, her life wasn't supposed to work out this way."
"She shouldn't have been driving in a snowstorm."
"She was on her own. It wouldn't have happened if he'd been with her."
"He's long gone."
"Maybe it doesn't have to be that way." The one who objected made a dismissive sound. "What are you talking about? We're not authorized to change history."
"We can rectify mistakes."
"Not on our own."
"She's got strength and determination. She doesn't deserve to end this way."
"Not everybody gets what they deserve."
"Give her an opportunity to change fate."
There was a long pause. "We could be making a terrible mistake. We could be punished."
"It won't be noticed."
"You want to take that risk?"
"Look at it this way. Either everything turns out the same again, or she has a chance to change her destiny."