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Keri sat in a straight-back chair, eating cake and sipping a tangy fruit punch. The living room of the beautiful old Victorian house was decorated with pink-and-blue crepe paper and balloons. Adding to the vivid atmosphere were lots of brightly dressed women, the same women who had welcomed her with open arms to Jake McCoy's town, even though they only had Keri's word that Jake was the father of her baby, due any day. Fainting was apparently a reasonable measure of truth telling.
Her child wouldn't lack for anything, Keri thought, looking at the colorful array of baby clothes and gear, the largesse of the baby shower now winding down. Some items were new and store bought, others were handmade, repaired or recycled with loving care. Her eyes welled at everyone's generosity.
"Don't you go crying on us again," Dixie Callahan warned from the chair next to her. "I've already had to redo my mascara twice."
"Switch to waterproof," Keri teased the woman, who had quickly become her best friend, the curly-haired blonde from the Take a Lode Off Diner that life-changing day last December. Along with Donovan, Dixie had kept Keri from sliding off the chair when she fainted and had felt proprietary ever since. "It's hormones, Dix. I have no control over them. Anyway, I'm not sad. I'm happy."
As happy as a nine-months-pregnant, thirty-year-old woman could be, she supposed, when the father of her baby hadn't been heard from for five months. Had he been injured during his assignment, whatever that was? Would someone inform them of thator if he died? Would he ever know he'd fathered a child?
Not that he'd ever sought the role of father. Far from it. Since Keri had landed in town, she'd learned that all three McCoy brothers were commitment-phobic, although the youngest brother, Joe, had been engaged briefly to Dixie last fall after fifteen years of an on-again, off-again relationship that had started when they were high school freshmen.
Keri had moved too often and had lived outside of the U.S. most of her life, so she'd never known that kind of long-lasting relationship. "Having roots" was just a concept to her, not a reality.
"How're you doing, angel?" Aggie McCoy, Jake's mother, asked, bending close, worry in her eyes. Aggie was the world's best hugger, her cushy body like Mother Earth personified, her bottle-black hair and vibrant blue eyes suited to her personality. Keri adored her.
"I'm not in labor, Aggie," she answered with a grin. She'd had two false alarms in the past week, so it was no surprise that everyone was anxious. "How's Nana Mae? Is she tired after all this noise and activity?"
"She's loving every second of your party. Holding court, as you can see. Mama's in her glory. You've been so good for her."
"I'm the lucky one." By the end of Keri's first day in town, she'd been hired as a live-in attendant for Maebelle McCoy, Aggie's eighty-nine-year-old mother-in-law. Nana Mae needed help but would never admit it. Keri needed a place to stay but wouldn't accept charity. Two birds, one stone, Joe and Aggie had pointed out. So, Keri earned her keep by helping out Nana Mae, a job that required more domestic duties than the nursing care that Keri was trained to give.
Aggie took Keri's hand. "I wish with all my heart that Jake would walk through that front door right this second."
"Me, too," Keri said, her heart doing a little dance at the thought. She'd been fretting about his return for what seemed like years instead of months. She just wanted to get the conversation over with, so she would know how he felt and what they would do about it. Even her dreams weren't immune to her tension, having become much more intense lately, more detailed.
"I know, angel. And I know how much you love him." Choked up, Aggie squeezed her hand.
Keri looked at her lap. She couldn't tell Aggie the truth. Jake needed to be the one to decide what he wanted his family to know, not Keri. Still, she felt guilty for keeping things from them. And also worried about him coming home and finding her pregnant. Her emotions were jumbled, changing daily, sometimes hourly.
"Joe's got some empty boxes," Aggie said after a moment. "He'll take everything to Mama's for you. A bunch of us will come along and help you put everything in place. You shouldn't be moving heavy things now."
"Thank you, Aggie. I don't know what I'd do without you and your generous friends and family. You were so kind to host this shower for me."
"It's my grandbaby." She may have eight children and sixteen grandchildren, but this yet-to-be-born child was her Jake's child.
People started saying their goodbyes, the noise escalating, punctuated with laughter. Then Aggie opened the front door as the first few guests were leaving.
"Oh, my word!" She stood utterly still, before suddenly shaking herself, a huge smile spreading over her face. "Jake! You've come home. Jake!"
Keri couldn't see himtoo many people blocked her viewbut her instincts took over. She stood, looking for a place to hide, panicked, the urge to avoid him stronger than the urge to see him. Five months ago she could've hidden her news until she'd told him. Now he could see for himself, without any softening of the blow first.
And in front of his family and friends.
The sea of people parted, putting her at one end of what felt like a dark tunnel, with Jake at the other end, his arms around his joyous mother, Donovan at his side. Donovan's gaze fired straight at Keri. She ignored it to take in Jake's appearance, her heart sinking. He'd lost weight. His hair hadn't been cut in who knew how long. He looked as if he hadn't slept for well, months.
Tears pushed at her eyes and burned her throat. What happened to you?
He scanned the crowd. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath, waiting for him to spot Keri, but his gaze didn't linger on her, giving her just a brief, blank stare before continuing on.
He wasn't even going to acknowledge her? Or worse, he didn't recognize her? Keri set her hands protectively on her belly, shielding her baby from the hurt she felt herself. She hadn't realized how much it mattered that he accept her and their
His gaze zoomed back to her and zeroed in, frozen.
"What's going on here?" he asked his mother, who still had an arm around him.
"We're having a baby shower. Aren't you going to say hello to her?" she asked in little more than a whisper.
Keri managed a smile, knowing everyone expected her to run to him.
The problem was, she could barely manage to breathe, much less run.
"Well, go on, son," Aggie said, grinning. "Kiss the woman you love."
Jake's blue eyes lasered Keri's then lowered to her abdomen and back up again.
"Welcome home," she said, her voice shaky, her whole body quivering.
"Yeah, go kiss her, Papa," Dixie shouted. "She's been waiting a long time for you."
Keri could see it was all too much for him. Whatever he'd been doing had only been made worse by coming home to find he was about to become a father. He was thirty-seven, but he looked years older.
He started to speak, then spotted Nana Mae, who had made her way over to him. His eyes went soft. Tenderly, he gathered his grandmother close.
"I missed you," she said, patting his back. "There'll be plenty of time to catch up with the rest of us. You go ahead and greet your girl."
He headed toward Keri. A smile came over his face. He picked up speed.
She trembled with relief. Everything was going to be okay. He was in shock, but he wasn't rejecting her. Okay, good. Okay. Good. Breathe
Then he was there, within touching distance. He curved his hands around her arms. "Look at you," he said, as if he'd been waiting for her. Then he took her into his arms. She hugged him back
"I'm going along with this only because of my grandmother," he whispered in Keri's ear then released her, keeping her hand in his as Aggie started shooing people out.
Stunned, Keri said nothing, couldn't have mustered a word.
"Mom," he said. "You don't need to do that. We'll just step into the kitchen for a minute."
He led Keri away, a journey that seemed to take an hour, during which she plastered a smile on her face. When the door was shut and they were alone, he released her.
"We're in love?" he asked. "I"
"And this" he gestured toward her belly "is mine?"
"I'm supposed to just believe that?"
"You can do the math. If that doesn't work for you, we can do DNA tests after it's born. I don't need proof, but I figure you do."
"It? You don't know the gender?"
"I decided not to find out. Where have you been, Jake? Why couldn't you call home?"
His mouth hardened. His eyes lost their sheen. "In Venezuela. Nothing like a little kidnapping to stir things up, eh? And revenge. Only sometimes it's not so sweet."
Jake turned away from Keri's horror-filled eyes. He shoved his fingers through his hair and stared at the floor. All he wanted was some peace and quiet. To sleep in his own bed. To take a shower whenever he felt like it, for as long as he wanted. To eat something he could identify.
Instead he'd been blindsided with a pregnant Keri Overton, the woman who'd consumed his thoughts night and day for far too long. The woman he'd been locked up withbecause she thought she knew better than he about how criminals operate.
And then there was his brother. Yeah, Donovan was a dead man. During the almost three-hour drive from the San Francisco airport to Chance City, he hadn't once mentioned Keri, who was not only pregnant but on the brink of giving birth. To his child. The result of a one-time, "are we going to get out of here alive?" moment after they'd been kidnapped together, along with her boss/patient. One damned time. And apparently she had everyone in Chance City snowed, convincing them they'd been in love.
"Did you even recognize me?" she asked from behind him.
He blew out a breath. "Not at first." He should have, considering everything, but he'd been caught off guard, especially by her pregnancy. Would never have thought of her in terms of being pregnant. She'd had months to call and tell him that bit of news, all that time from Labor Day until Christmas before he'd gone deep undercover. She hadn't called, so he'd decided he was safe from that worry.
"Would you have recognized me?" he countered, facing her.
"I don't know. You've lost weight, and your hair is long. You look older. Maybe it's the beard."
He laughed coldly. Yeah, he'd aged about a hundred years. "Well, you've gained a lot of weight, and your hair is much longer, too." She'd had short, straight hair before. Now it was almost shoulder length and wavy. But still a rich, shiny brown, a much deeper shade than her eyes
The kitchen door swung open, and Donovan came in.
"Thanks for the heads-up," Jake muttered.
Donovan ignored his sarcasm. "Everyone's gone except family. Everything okay here?" he asked, looking from Jake to Keri.
"You should've called ahead," Keri said. "That kind of shock can send a woman into labor, you know. And what about your mom and grandma? I thought you were in Alaska, anyway."
"I was, until Jake called. We coordinated our flights to arrive in San Francisco at the same time."
"Give us a minute more," Jake said to his brother, not wanting dissension, too tired to participate. He shoved his hands in his pockets, found the small gold medallion he carried with him, rubbed it enough to heat it up.
"Sure," Donovan said. "I just wanted you to know who was still here."
As soon as the door shut, Jake focused on Keri. "Why does everyone think I'm in love with you?"
Her cheeks pinkened. "I didn't think it was necessary to disillusion them. Besides, I was protecting your image."
"Yes. And our child's. Your town adopted me. But also I needed them, so I let them think what they wanted."
He recalled the excited, hopeful look on his mother's face as she'd waited for him to kiss Keri, the woman he loved. He closed his eyes, exhausted.
"You need to sleep," Keri said, touching his arm.
He pulled back. "Where are you living?"
"With your grandmother. I've been helping take care of her."
What now? He couldn't live apart from her.