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Simone Garner studied the home pregnancy test kit sitting on the white tile countertop in her bathroom and waited as one long second stretched into another.
She was thirty-seven years old and a nurse at Walnut River General Hospital, so she certainly should have known better than to let something like this happen.
But she had let it happen, and there was no one to blame but herself.
Two months ago, at a cocktail party Dr. Peter Wilder hosted to celebrate the rechristening of the hospital library in honor of his late father, a waiter holding a tray of champagne approached Simone and offered her a glass.
A teetotaler by nature, she nearly declined, but the festive mood had been contagious.
At first, the champagne hadn't done much for her except to tickle her nose and throat, but she'd soon acquired a taste for it, as well as a mind-numbing buzz.
So when Mike O'Rourke, an attractive medic she'd known for a while, volunteered to drive her home, she'd agreed. Then, while he opened the door to let her into his Jeep, she'd let him kiss her.
Or maybe she'd been the instigator.
Looking back, she wasn't entirely sure who'd actually made the first move. All she knew was that the star-spinning, knee-weakening kiss had happened.
After they arrived at her place, she should have thanked him for the ride and let it go at that, but for some reason, she felt compelled to invite him in. She'd given him a tour of the house she'd remodeled, then turned on her new stereo system and played a soft, suggestive love song.
"Do you want to dance?"
Her boldness had been so out of character that, in retrospect, she'd blamed her newfound self-confidence on the alcohol, as well as the sleek black cocktail dress she'd purchased for the occasion and the cute but impractical heels she'd probably only wear once.
With her senses still reeling from both the champagne and Mike's charm, Simone had slipped into his embrace, quickly relishing his musky, mountain-fresh scent and the faint bristle of his cheek against hers.
They'd swayed to the soul-stirring melody, hearts beating and bodies moving as oneuntil she'd stumbled.
She'd grabbed on to Mike for balance, and they'd shared a laugh, followed by a heated look, a lingering touch.
One thing had led to another, and they'd kissed again.
Oh, Lordy, how they'd kissed.
Then, for some crazy reasonthe heat of the moment, she supposedshe'd led him to her bedroom.
Waking up in Mike's arms and then sending him on his way would have been a lot easier to do if their love-making had only been so-so. In that case, he would have understood why she'd ended things.
But the entire experience had been off the charts.
And now she feared that if great sex had anything to do with sperm motility or fertility, she'd be having septuplets.
Oh, God, no. Please, no.
Just the thought of what a pink dot on the testing apparatus meant made her nauseous, even though she'd already had the dry heaves earlier this morning.
At first, she'd told herself that stress from work had caused her period to be delayed. After all, there had been some allegations of insurance fraud at Walnut River General, and the timing couldn't be worse, with the hospital in danger of being taken over by Northeastern HealthCare.
And to top it off, someone was leaking financial information and other sensitive data to the conglomerate, putting the hospital at a significant disadvantage for negotiations.
But Simone hadn't been able to explain away her symptoms any longer. So she got up from her seat on the commode and stood before the test, while her future and the pale yellow walls of the small bathroom seemed to close in on her.
No pink dot yet, though.
Maybe it had been stress. Maybe her conscience and her imagination had become a tag team and were really doing a number on her, punishing her for allowing herself one little sexual fantasy.
After all, she and Mike had used condoms, but, looking back, she had to admit they'd gotten a little careless with their use as the night wore on.
She blew out a sigh, then glanced at her wristwatch, realizing it was silly to second-guess the test results when she'd know for sure in a few more minutes.
Nevertheless, she wasn't the kind of woman she'd pretended to be and couldn't help feeling foolish for her lack of self-control.
Over the past five weeks, she'd rationalized about what she'd done at least a hundred times, telling herself she was a healthy woman with sexual needs that hadn't been satisfied in a long time. And that she couldn't help having a one-night stand with the dark-haired para-medic who was too sexy for his own goodor rather, for her own good.
But Mike O'Rourke was five years her junior. And he deserved a girl his own age, a younger woman who shared his white-picket-fence dreams.
Now, here Simone was, facing the reality of her champagne-induced mistake.
If her suspicion was right, if she was pregnant, she would make an appointment with Mark Kipper, one of the doctors in the Walnut River OB/GYN Medical Group. She was determined to do whatever it took to make sure the child was as healthy as possible.
A thump sounded against the door, followed by a bark and a whine.
"Hold on, Woofer," she told the big, clumsy mutt who demanded her time when she was home. "I'll be out in a minute."
Each day after a trying but satisfying shift at the hospital, she went home and was met at the gate by the ugly but lovable dog she'd adopted through an animal-rescue group.
Finding Woofer and bringing him home had been a fluke that had proven to be a blessing for both woman and dog, even if there were times she missed her privacy and freedom.
But at least she could put Woofer out in the backyard to entertain himself with butterflies and chew toys while she was at work. She certainly couldn't do that with a baby.
Simone took a good hard look at the testing apparatus that held the answer to the question that had been haunting her since the morning she'd awakened in Mike's arms.
As a mental clock ticktocked in her brain, she watched the little pink dot grow darker by the moment. Then she blew out a ragged sigh of resignation.
She was pregnant.
With Mike O'Rourke's baby.
What the hell was she going to do?
There was no telling how the handsome paramedic was going to feel about this. She suspected the news might blow that crush to kingdom comea good thing, actually. But still, Simone was in no hurry to tell him.
"Ar-oof." Woofer's tail thump, thump, thumped against the door. "Ar-oof, ar-oof."
That darn dog could be such a baby sometimes.
In fact, he was the only baby a woman like Simone ought to have. Which was why there was only one option for her to consider adoption.
As she watched the dot turn a deeper shade of pink, her uneasiness grew by leaps and bounds.
Mike wanted more out of their professional relationship than friendship, and ever since they'd made love, he'd been even more determined than ever to be a part of her life.
If he weren't such a nice guy, if he didn't make her laugh like no one else could, she would have given him the cold shoulder and completely shut him out until he saw reason and left her alone.
It was a ploy she had perfected in the past, an easy ruse that had come with the old baggage she carried from childhood.
But she'd never been able to fully shoot an icy glare at Mike. He'd just been too sweet, too charming.
Another thump sounded on the bathroom door, followed by a loud bark. "Okay, Woofer. We'll take a walk. Just give me a"
The doorbell rang, and Woofer took off, howling up a storm, his paws clomping across the hardwood floor of the small, cozy house.
"Oh, great," she muttered, assuming a neighbor or possibly a salesman was at the door. "I'm coming!"
She left the pregnancy test in the bathroom, its pink dot shining like a beacon, and headed for the entry, where she would have to run interference between the person knocking and her four-legged roommate.
Woofer might look and sound like one heck of a guard dog, when in truth, he was a real softie. If confronted with a burglar, he'd probably knock him to the floor and lick him to death.
When she reached the door and peered through the peephole at the man on the front porch, instant recognition caused her heart to drop to the pit of her stomach.
There stood Mike O'Rourke, as big and gorgeous as you please. He wore a pair of faded Levi's, a navy-blue T-shirt that displayed a white Walnut River Fire Department logo across his chest and a heart-stopping grin.
In his hands, he held a cardboard box.
What was he doing here? "Just a minute." She grabbed Woofer's collar and pulled him back so she could get a hold of the knob. Hopefully, the screen door would prevent the dog from dive-bombing Mike and knocking him on his butt, which more than one E.R. nurse had admired behind his backa butt that Simone had learned was even more noteworthy bare.
She swung open the wooden door, leaving the screen to separate them.
Mike, with his black hair stylishly mussed and his green eyes sparkling, shifted the box he held from one side to the other. "I brought you something. Can you put Woofer in the backyard for a couple of minutes?"
He'd brought her something?
Well, it certainly wasn't flowers. Or chocolate, which seemed like the kind of romantic gift he might offer her.
"Give me a minute, will you?" She grabbed Woofer by the collar again. "I'll be right back." Then she led the dog to the kitchen and opened the back door, encouraging him to romp in the yard.
But Woofer wasn't happy about missing the excitement of having a guest, and Simone, on the other hand, wasn't all that thrilled about having Mike O'Rourke stop by, especially today.
Of course, she supposed it wouldn't hurt to sit outside with Mike on the front porch for a little while and chat.
But when she heard the hinges of the screen door creak open, followed by footsteps on the hardwood floor, her senses reeled and her tummy took a tumble.
She didn't need to consult a psychologist or social worker to figure out why.
Not with that home pregnancy test propped up on her bathroom counter, the results as obvious as a pink neon sign.
Mike couldn't imagine that Simone had expected him to stand on the stoop like a pizza deliveryman. And although she hadn't exactly invited him into the house, she was putting Woofer in the backyard, and she'd said she would be right back.
So he'd entered the living room, took a seat on the pale green sofa and waited for her to return.
Actually, what he'd brought her wasn't exactly a giftunless she wanted to keep it, which, he guessed, would be okay.
He glanced down at the cardboard box with the airholes he'd poked in the lid. He was in a bind, and the first person he'd thought about was Simone, who had a soft spot for animals.
After all, she'd not only opened her heart and home to Woofer, a brown, mop-haired dog who stood a slam-dunk chance to win an ugly-pet contest, but she also treated him as though he had a pedigree and was destined for nobility.
The night Mike had driven Simone home from the cocktail party, she'd invited him in and introduced him to the oversize, gangly mutt that couldn't walk across the floor without his hind end doing a hokeypokey shake to the right.
"That's got to be the ugliest dog I've ever seen," Mike had said.
"I know," she'd responded with a pride-tinged voice.
"That's exactly why I adopted him. He needed a home more than any of the other dogs. Besides, he's a real sweetheart."
At that point, Simone had turned to Woofer and given him a big hug, which had caused the hem of her dress to hike up and reveal a lovely expanse of her upper thigh.
A smile had stretched across Mike's face, but not just because of the sexy flash of skin. It was the glimpse he'd gotten of the real Simone Garner that evening that had turned his heart on end. A fun-loving, brown-haired beauty that the no-nonsense nurse kept locked away.
Most of the medical staff at Walnut River General, as well as a lot of the guys at the department, thought Simone was cold and distant, but Mike knew the dedicated E.R. nurse better than anyone and saw things in her no one else did.
Sure, she could be aloof at times, but Mike suspected she'd been hurt by someone in the pastand badly. He also believed that if anyone could help her heal and forget about the pain, it was him.
When he first met her a few years ago, it was on a professional level. He and his partner had brought in a teenage girl who'd been the victim of a hit-and-run. The seriously injured teen had been in severe pain and was screaming for her mom, who'd yet to be identified or notified.
Simone had begun talking softly to her at first, soothing the teen's fears, while doing her job and getting a name and number for the mother.
Mike had walked away from the E.R. that night with a great deal of respect for her. Respect had given way to admiration, and over the course of the year, Mike had taken a long, hard fall for her.
There'd even been a time or two when he'd caught her looking at him, passion clearly brewing in those soulful brown eyes. A guy didn't misread something like that.
Yet even though he knew she felt something for him too, she'd turned down each of his attempts to date her.
Then came the cocktail party that Dr. Peter Wilder had hosted.
Simone had been a warm and sexy woman that night, her walls and her legion of defense mechanisms down for the count.
But she'd soon grown distant, claiming it had all been a mistake and referring to what they'd experienced as a one-night stand.
As soft footsteps sounded, he glanced up and smiled. But she didn't return the friendly greeting. Instead, she seemed nervous, agitated and slightly unbalanced.
Of course, she'd been acting that way around him ever since they'd slept together. So maybe he shouldn't read too much into it.
She nodded at the box he held. "What do you have in there?"
He untucked the lid and pulled out a sleepy puppy, its black-and-white coat soft and curly. It didn't take a blood test to determine that it had various quantities of cocker spaniel, poodle and terrier DNA.