Read an Excerpt
"It's official, Riley. You're pregnant." Pregnant.
Riley Sinclair touched a hand to her stomach, her manicured fingernails scraping across her red linen sheath. "Thank you, Dr. Reynolds. Thank you so much for letting me know."
The good doctor laughed. "Congratulations. You look to be about six weeks along. I'll see you next week for your first checkup."
Riley now stood in her office, remembering her earlier conversations with her doctor. After all this time, after all these years, she was finally going to get another chance to be a mother. Her stomach fluttered, nerves hitting against nerves. She touched a hand to her womb. She felt faint. She should have eaten breakfast. She'd have to take better care of herself now.
Sitting down in the white leather chair behind her ornate Louis XlV-style desk, Riley tossed back her shoulder-length blond hair and stared out the window. It was a lovely spring day in the tiny town of Sinclair, Georgia. She thought about the playground in the town square. Imagined taking a tiny tot there to swing and climb on the slide.
"A baby," she said out loud, just to test the words. Her little Yorkie barked his glee. Riley picked up the little dog and held him close. "Don't worry, Killer. Mama still loves you, too."
But it was official.
She was about to become a single mother.
Jackson Sinclair drove the slick roadster up the main street of the quaint Georgia town his great-grandfather had founded. He shifted gears at the First Bank of Sinclair, drove past First Sinclair church and kept right on going past the creamy yellow art-deco-designed The Life of Riley Gift Shop. He'd deal with his ex-wife later.
Right now, he wanted a juicy hamburger from the Hamhock Cafe. And he wanted to see the expressions on the faces of all the people he'd left behind five years ago. They'd all given him up for dead, or worse, given him up as washed-up and put out to dry. But, he thought with a sense of revenge mixed with regret, he was alive and breathing and in better shape than he'd been in a long, long time. He'd had a revelation.
And he'd come home to shout the news to the rooftops.
And to his darling ex-wife.
He parked the red '57 Corvette convertible and ran a hand through his shaggy dark brown hair. His brown cowboy boots clicking on the hot sidewalk, Jackson opened the screen door of the popular eatery and stood there, his aviator sunshades blocking out all the unpleasant memories of his hometown.
When everyone looked up, he grinned and said in a voice loud enough for all to hear, "That's right! The prodigal son has returned." Walking straight to the long Formica counter, Jackson hit his hand on the aged patina. "Dorothy Lyn, before you call Riley to let her know I'm home, would you serve me up one of your best Hamhock-burgers? With seasoned fries on the side and the biggest Coca-Cola you can find, suga'. Oh, and peach pie, too. I'm starving."
"Why, yes, I'd be delighted." Riley sat grinning from ear to ear while her sister-in-law and assistant Margie Sue danced around the room, Killer racing to stay with her. "Y'all just come on down tomorrow morning, then. We'll be here. We can talk about the shoot and the magazine article then."
She hung up and came around the desk to dance right along with Margie Sue and the little dog. "Can you believe? Magnolia Magazineas in Sharon Butler herselfwants to do a blurb on our shop?" Hopping on bare feet since she'd long ago kicked off her red high-heeled sandals, she held Margie Sue's hands in hers then grabbed her excited little dog. "Could this day get any better?"
"I don't see how," Margie Sue replied, her salt-and-pepper bob not moving an inch. Drenched in beige linen and wearing her favorite Birkenstock sandals, she looked as relaxed here in the busy retail shop as she did at home cooking for the entire family. "A baby and a spread in Magnolia Magazine. Can't get any sweeter than that, honey."
"No, I can't think of another thing that would make this day more exciting." Riley touched her tummy again. "I still can't believe it, Margie Sue. After all this time."
Margie Sue hugged her close. Twenty years older than Riley's thirty-five, and with four grown children of her own, Riley's sister-in-law had been a rock through everything. She was one of Riley's best friends. "Honey, I'm so happy for you. I can't wait to tell Delton. Your big brother is gonna just burst a gut with pride."
Tears welled in Riley's eyes. "I hope so. I hope Delton and Curtis and even Bobby will be happy. I know my methods were different, but it brought about the same result."
"Those boys don't care about all that. They know how much you've struggled with this," Margie Sue replied with a wave of her hand. "Those Atlanta doctors are the best at what they do. I'm sure they'll take real good care of you."
"Let's hope so," Riley replied. "Dr. Reynolds plans to consult with my local ob-gyn doctor, too, just in case. Now I need to finish this paperwork that's piled up all week." She stopped, memories flooding her mind. "I want to redo the nursery. Oh, I'll have to take a look at furniture and baby accessories when I go up to Atlanta next week for my checkup."
"Good idea," Margie Sue replied. "I'll get back out on the floor and tell the girls we need to spruce this place up for the possibility of a shoot in Magnolia Magazine. I mean, Southern Living last year and now one of the most popular women's magazines in the country. They'll just be over the moon about that." She whirled at the double doors. "Our traffic will pick up through the holidays for sure."
Riley rubbed her hands together. "Good. I'll need extra income to put away for a college fund." She gave Margie Sue a solemn stare. "And nothing about the baby yet. You can tell Delton after the fall barbecue next week, okay? I'll tell Mama and Daddy then, too. I'd like to wait a while longer. Just in case."
Margie Sue gave her a sympathetic look. "Okay, suga'." She did a zip across her lip. "Our secret for now."
After Margie Sue closed the door to her office, Riley settled Killer into his little four-poster bed and sat back in her chair, her heart caught between glee and agony. Holding her hand over her stomach again, she looked down at her womb. "I sure hope you take to me, little one. I love you already. So don't go away. Please don't go away. I can't take that again. Ever."
She thought of Jackson and accepted that this baby might never have a father. The pain of that situation made her want to protect her child even more. "It's just you and me, kid. I need to get used to that."
Riley straightened her spine. She'd been on her own for so long now, having a baby by herself should be a piece of cake. She'd make it that way by taking care of herself and this baby.
Ten minutes later, Margie Sue came back into the office, her brown eyes wide-open in that way she got whenever she had something either good or bad to tell Riley.
"What's up?" Riley asked, turning from her computer to stare up at Margie Sue.
Margie Sue shifted from foot to foot. "Honey, remember earlier when you said this day just couldn't get any better?"
"Yes," Riley said on a questioning note.
"How about if it went from good to worse?"
"What are you talking about?"
The door burst open and Uncle Floyd, all six feet of him in his standard overalls and John Deere cap, came strolling in, a massive frown on his furrowed brow. "Girl, you got trouble."
"What is going on?" Riley asked, standing up to hold on to the desk. "What kind of trouble? The livestock, the crops? Are our pecans bringing a fair price?"
"Ain't none of that," her uncle said, his eyes wide.
"He's back," Margie Sue said, a grimace on her face.
Riley's phone rang. She automatically put it to her ear.
"Riley, are you sitting down?"
"Dorothy Lyn, what's wrong?"
"He's back," Dorothy Lyn said.
A charge hissed through her system. "I'll call you back in a minute. Uncle Floyd is here."
She laid her cell phone down, her nerves jingling like Killer's rhinestone-studded collar. "Go on. Who's back?"
Uncle Floyd leaned across the desk, nose to nose with Riley. "Jackson Sinclair the Third," he replied. "Your ex-husband just rolled into town. And from the talk over at the Hamhock, he's here to stay."
An hour later, Riley pulled her car up the driveway of the home she'd won in her divorce five years ago. Southern Hill was the ancestral home of the Sinclair family. Or had been. Since Jackson was the last remaining male after his father's death, he had inherited the vast farm. But Riley had wrestled it out from under him during the divorce proceedings. Or rather, he'd practically given it to her before he walked away.
"Wasn't that hard," she said on a huff of breath after parking in the three-car garage behind the main house. Jackson had just about let the whole place go to ruin. Somebody had to be the adult. Somebody had to save Southern Hill for future generations. For her baby, she thought now.
She'd tried to convince herself she'd done the right thing when her marriage had dissolved like a swamp mist. But now she had to wonder. Why was he back? What did he want?
And how in the world was she going to hide this pregnancy from him?
Her hands shook as she went through the mail that Aunt Verde always left for her on the back hall table near the sun-porch, but Riley refused to let Jackson Sinclair scare her. The man had been gone for five long years, gone and out of her hair. Why was she so worried now that he was back?
Because he had that kind of power over her. Still.
Putting Jackson out of her mind, Riley headed up the back hallway to the kitchen, Killer trotting behind her like a little shadow. "Aunt Verde, I'm home."
"In here, sweetie."
Glad that she had her aunt and uncle here with her, Riley often wondered why she'd stayed in the huge Victorian mansion after Jackson had left. She couldn't explain it. Most people around here thought she'd stayed because she'd won the keys to the kingdom. She'd won two thousand acres of Sinclair land, and in Georgia, that was worth more than gold.
They'd never understand that she'd mainly stayed because it kept her closer to the man she'd once loved and to the room down the hall from her bedroom that she'd planned to use as a nursery. She's stayed because of the power and history of the Sinclair family and all that meant to this town. She wouldn't let this place go, and she certainly wouldn't let it be sold off to some stranger. Let the townspeople think what they wanted.
She was saving her ex-husband's legacy. Whether he wanted it or not. Maybe she'd subconsciously done this so she could wait for the day he decided to man up and come home.
"Well, darlin', today's that day," she said to herself as she rounded the corner to the big, sunny country kitchen.
"Talking to yourself?" Aunt Verde asked with a knowing grin. Killer ran to her aunt, ready for his after-work treat.
"Always," Riley replied. "What's for supper? Smells divine."
"Baked snapper with rice and turnips fresh from the garden. Corn bread. Sweet potato pie for dessert."
"I'm starving. I think I can handle that kind of meal."
Verde came around the big planked table where they usually had their more casual meals. "I heard your news."
Riley's heart did a little sprint. Did someone already know about the baby? No, of course not. Her aunt must be talking about that other news.
"You mean, that Jackson's back in town?"
"Yes." Verde held her hands together. "He'll kick us all out of here, I reckon."
"He can't kick us out," Riley replied with a sigh. "I won the entire estate in the divorce, remember?"
"Yes, but he's a Sinclair."
"And what am I?"
"I got this place in the settlement," Riley said again, trying to be patient. "So, we're safe."
"You're safe," she said, giving Verde a smile. "Do you think I'd let anyone put you out on the street again?"
"No, honey, I believe you'd fight to the finish. And I thank God every day that you're my niece."
Riley opened her arms and hugged her aunt close. "You're safe here, Aunt Verde. As mean as Jackson can be, he wouldn't dare put my kinfolk out on the road."
He might put her out on the road, but she'd deal with that day when it came.
Jackson parked his car at the end of the long drive near the curve. From here, he could see the house still glowing bright in the gloaming of the day. Two-storied and Victorian in a stark white, rambling and creaky, old but sturdy, with good bones and a pretty lady facade. Old moss-covered live oaks stood along the drive and around the big front lawn. Azaleas and crape myrtles thrived here. Roses bloomed here. Love grew here. Or rather, love had been a part of this house until he and Riley had changed things up. This was Southern Hill. This was his home. Or it had been.
Until vindictive Rileydebutante and society girl Riley Priscilla Buckingham Sinclairhad decided to take him to the cleaners in a nasty, splashed-across-the-headlines divorce. Left with nothing much but the clothes on his back, a small yacht and his convertible, Jackson had taken off to parts unknown. And he'd tried to stay there but a lot had happened since the night five years ago when he'd left Southern Hill and Riley behind.
He wanted to see her tonight, here in his home. Wanted to touch her and kiss her and smell that sweet perfume that only Riley could bring to life like a garden of blooming flowers.
He wanted to hate her and make her suffer, too.
He thought he could pretty much do both by teasing her and taunting her and working her up into a tizzy. That might bring him some satisfaction. Or it might make him even more miserable.
If only they'd had a child together, things might have been so different.
Jackson didn't drive on up to the house on the hill. Instead he hopped back into his car and headed to the town cemetery behind the church. Dusk was falling in shimmering waves of yellow-gold across the churchyard. The old pines swayed in the wind, hissing and singing. The crush of brown pine straw mixed with yellow sycamore leaves made a pretty carpet over the grass. Jackson moved through the rows and rows of some of his more recent ancestors, stopping briefly in front of his parents' side-by-side headstones, until he came to a small grave with a tiny cherub sitting with its head in its hands, looking down on the stone.
"Hi there, little fellow," Jackson said on a long sigh. "I know it's been a while since Daddy's been by, but I haven't forgotten you. I think about you every day."
Every day. "And mostly, every night."