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Pulling into a circa-1950 gas station thirty miles from her hometown, Sophia Pirelli drove to the first of two pumps and dropped her head back against the seat. Tall pines lined the roadside and dotted distant hills. A slight breeze carried their scent, as well as a hint of salt and sand and sea. So close to home, yet she was tempted to gas up and floor it back to St. Louis, where she'd been staying with her cousin, or or anywhere other than here.
As much as she loved her family, another trip home filled with worried looks and sympathetic, sorrowful "Oh, Sophias" from her parents might be more than she could take. Add in the "I told you so" times three from her older brothers, and she didn't know how she'd make it through the visit. She could hear Sam, Drew and Nick already.
I told you you wouldn't like Chicago.
I knew you'd hate being a live-in maid, surrounded by strangers.
If only you'd listened when we told you to stay home. If only she'd listened.
Her life's list of if onlys ran the length of her arm, down to the ring she wore as a constant reminder of regret and past mistakes. Sophia twirled the silver band with her thumb as she climbed from the car. She'd known she couldn't stay away forever, but the nerves tearing her up inside reminded her the old saying was true.
"You can't go home again," she murmured as she swiped her credit card.
And as if this first visit home in two years wasn't going to be hard enough, she had an unplanned pregnancy to confess. Despite the three over-the-counter tests, the doctor's confirmation and her undeniable morning sickness, Sophia still had a hard time believing she was pregnant. She was alternately thrilled and terrified with both emotions sometimes overwhelming her at once.
But if the idea that she would soon be a mother felt like something out of a dream, then the two months since discovering her pregnancy were straight from a nightmare. She could only imagine the explanation she'd have to give her family.
Yeah, you guys were right. Chicago never did feel like home. I hated living in the Dunworthy mansion surrounded by people who treated me like I was miles beneath them. So, I guess it's just as well that I got fired for "seducing" Todd, the family's youngest son, who just so happens to be the father of the child I'm carrying.
That was all a bit much, even for her. Still, she would have to tell them, but not until after her parents' anniversary party. Their thirty-fifth anniversary.
Vince and Vanessa Pirelli had a great deal to show for those thirty-five yearsa strong, love-filled marriage, three handsome, successful sons who lived and worked in their hometown. Nick, the oldest, was the town's vet. Drew owned his own construction company. Sam was a top mechanic. And then there was Sophia, the baby and black sheep of the family.
She refused to cast a pall over this celebration. She'd done enough of that as a teenager.
"Well, well, if it isn't little Sophia Pirelli."
The mocking comment carried across ten feet of asphalt from the small glass-front shop stocked with beer, cigarettes and travel-sized necessities. Sophia didn't recognize the voice, but it hardly mattered. She turned to face the uniformed attendant, who obviously recognized her. She sneaked a glance at the ragged name tag tacked to the gray, button-down shirt as the man swaggered toward her and wracked her brain for a memory of the brawny, dirty blond-haired man named Bob.
Drawing a blank, she forced a smile and said, "That's right. You were in my brother's class at Clearville High, weren't you?"
Her three older brothers' combined high school careers spanned nine years. It was a good guess that this man had been a classmate to one if not two of them, but not enough to cover her lack of recognition.
The man gave a scoffing laugh. "You always did think you were too good for the rest of us," he almost spat.
Heat climbed to Sophia's cheeks. Any number of denials rose to her throat, but they would have all been lies. Truth was, she had thought she was too good for her small hometown, certain bigger and better things existed in the world outside its close-knit confines, and in high school, she'd made little secret of how she'd felt.
"You and Amy Leary were the Clearville queens, treating the rest of us like your pawns. You didn't care who got hurt."
And that was the worst of it, Sophia thought, memories crowding around her until she felt trapped, suffocated. People had gotten hurt.
"My name is Jeff," he ground out.
She closed her eyes briefly. "Of course it is," she murmured beneath her breath, knowing nothing she said would change this man's opinion of her. An opinion too many people in town shared.
"But you're not so high and mighty now, are you? I heard you're nothing but a maid, scrubbing rich people's gold-trimmed toilets."
The implied insult stung. Being a maid had never been her dream job, but it was a job that, until Todd came along, she'd done quietly, anonymously, blending into the background, unnoticed by those around her. Almost as if the uniform had the power to make her invisible, which had been fine with Sophia.
After everything that happened in the months before she left Clearville, she'd wanted little more than to disappear.
Reminding herself she'd faced far harsher criticism than anything Bob/Jeff could dole out, she lifted her chin and said, "Actually, I'm not a maid anymore." A hollow victory since she was unemployed instead, but he didn't need to know that.
Looking disappointed that his gold-trimmed toilets comment had gone to waste, Jeff demanded, "So what are you doing?"
"Buying gas," she said as she reached past him and grabbed the pump, "so I can go home to visit my family."
Maybe it was the reminder of her family, of her brothers, but the man gave her a last disgruntled look before lumbering around to the back of the small shop. For Sophia, though, the damage was already done. Her hand shook so badly it took three tries to get the pump into the tank, and the knots tightening her stomach made morning sickness seem no worse than a hiccup.
Knowing she needed a break before climbing back behind the wheel for the final leg of her journey, Sophia hesitantly approached the shop. She half expected Jeff to jump out from the side of the building and bar her way, but she slipped inside unnoticed. The young girl behind the register didn't look up from her phone, her fingers flying across the tiny keyboard, as Sophia ducked down the first aisle and into the restroom with a relieved sigh.
Was this what her whole trip would be like? Hiding out and doing her best to dodge her past?
The trill of her cell phone offered a welcome distraction, and she reached inside for her purse. When she saw her cousin's number, Sophia winced. Thanks to spotty reception and Theresa's work schedule, they'd been playing phone tag most of the trip. She flipped open the phone, already knowing she was going to get an earful.
"Where are you?" Theresa demanded in place of a normal greeting.
"I'm less than an hour from home," Sophia said as she tucked the phone against her shoulder and turned on the faucet to wash her hands.
"What's happened? What went wrong?"
"Nothing went wrong, but thanks for expecting the worst," Sophia said.
"I didn't say you did something wrong. But you should have been home by now. We plotted out your route before you left and figured how long it would take."
Theresa had plotted; Sophia had tossed the detailed directions into the back seat where they'd remained. "You also told me to take it easy. No need to hurry, remember?"
"I remember. But at no time did I say to drag your feet the whole way or to delay the inevitable for as long as possible."
Sophia wanted to argue, but her cousin knew her too well.
She glanced at her reflection over the utilitarian sink, seeing her short, dark hair, her brown eyes, the slight upward tilt to her nose. She looked a little pale, a little tired, but nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing hinting at the news she had to share. Still, it was almost like looking into a two-way mirror with Theresa on the other side, seeing all her doubts, her insecurities, her reluctance.
"You have to tell your family the truth."
"I know, Theresa," Sophia said, squelching a touch of irritation. Easy for Theresa to say. She wasn't the one with the big secrets. No, Theresa was the one with the college degree and the good job. But she was also the one who'd welcomed Sophia into her home in St. Louis when she'd been fired by the Dunworthys.
Irritation fading away, Sophia said, "And I would have had to tell them a month ago if you hadn't let me stay with you. If I haven't thanked you for that, I should have. I really appreciate you taking me in for the second time."
Five years ago, when she first left Clearville, she'd gone to live with Theresa in Chicago, where her cousin had been going to college. The move was supposed to be a chance to start over, to wipe the slate clean. For a while, Sophia supposed she'd succeeded, only to mess the whole thing up again, prompting yet another flight to her cousin, who was now living and working in St. Louis.
"You already thanked me, and you know my door is always open. But you can't keep hiding."
"I'm not. I'm going to tell my parents everything." Eventually Turning away from her reflection, Sophia left the restroom as Theresa pleaded, "Well, at least tell them the truth about Jake Cameron. Every time I talk to my mother, she raves about how handsome and charming he is." Sarcasm coated her words as she affected her mother's husky voice. "She can't stop gloating that she got to be the first one in the family to meet him."
Her cousin's tone softened as she added, "I know how hard it's going to be to tell them all that's happened. And the news about the baby shouldn't be done over the phone. But this stuff with Jake "
This stuff with Jake Sophia's heart spasmed at the very mention of his name, and her hand tightened on the phone. She wished she could dismiss Jake Cameron as easily as Theresa had, but Sophia didn't know how she was supposed to do that. Every thought, every memory, every reminder of the time they spent together made it hard to breathe, and yet she couldn't stop thinking about him.
Maybe it was an unforeseen drawback of the years she'd spent as a maid; maybe it was a reaction to the way Todd Dunworthy had treated her and the news of the baby she carriedlike dirty secrets to be swept under the carpet. Sophia wasn't sure. All she knew was that the first time Jake smiled at her, the first time he looked at her with those gorgeous, almost golden eyes, she'd felt he could see the real Sophia.
Not the Pirellis' little girl. Not the screwup kid sister.
In Jake's eyes, she saw a strong, confident woman reflected back at her. She sawor she thought she sawan interest and a desire that made her feel noticed for the first time in a long time.
She'd done her best to downplay her feelings for Jake after he left. But what else could she do? Sophia thought. She didn't have any idea how to explain to Theresa her bone-deep certainty that Jake Cameron was a man she could count on, one she could trust, one who would never hurt her. She had yet to figure it out for herself especially since it turned out none of those things were true.
Once again, she'd trusted the wrong person, only to be let down in the worst possible way.
As for why she hadn't told her family about him, well, that one was a lot easier to understand, Sophia thought as she left the store. Her aunt Donna had met Jake when she was visiting from Palm Springs. And Donna had been as charmed as Theresa said. She'd immediately called Clearville, armed with stories about Sophia finally meeting a "nice man."
In truth, Jake Cameron was nothing more than a liar and a fraud, but Aunt Donna didn't know that. She thought he was charming, smart, handsome.
"I just don't get it." Her cousin sucked in a quick breath, then hesitated as if debating what she wanted to say next. "You're not hoping that he'll, I don't know, have some crazy explanation and that you guys can pick up where you left off"
"No! Of course not. Nothing he could say would make a bit of difference," she insisted. She hit the button on her keychain remote, the beep of the alarm sounding the exclamation point on her statement.
"Okay. Good." Theresa gave a sigh of relief. "Because that's pretty much what I told him when he called."
"He called?" Sophia demanded, hating the way her heartbeat quickened at the thought. "When?" She slid into the driver's seat, her legs suddenly weak.
After he left St. Louis, Jake had left a few messages. Sophia ignored the calls and they quickly stopped, convincing her she'd done the right thing in refusing to hear out his vague promise of an explanation.
"Yesterday and maybe a couple of times before that."
"What do you mean, a couple of times?" Sophia asked suspiciously.
"You said you didn't want to talk to him."
"So you didn't bother telling me he called?"
"Would you have called him back?"
"No. Maybe. I don't know. But you didn't have the right to make that decision for me, Theresa."
"I was trying to look out for you. If you didn't want to talk to him"
"Not the point," Sophia argued. "And by the way, you're really starting to sound like my brothers."
"That's not fair."
Probably not, but this close to home, she was already on the defensive. Despite her poor choices in the present and the past, she needed to prove that she could take care of herself.and the baby she carried.
Taking a breath, she said, "I'm sorry. But if he calls again, let me know, okay? Even if I have no intention of returning his call," she added quickly, then wondered which of them she was trying to convince.
She had no reason to call Jake back. Everything about their relationship had been a lie. So why did she still miss him so much? Why did she still long to hear the sound of his voice?
Because she was an even bigger fool than she wanted to admit, that was why! Big enough of a fool that she'd daydreamed about how her trip home would be easier with Jake by her side. How his thoughtfulness and charm would impress her mother . How his wry sense of humor would win over her father How his confidence and strength could withstand whatever her sometimes obnoxious, oftentimes macho brothers might throw at him