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Teressa Wilder deposited her armload of groceries on the kitchen counter and listened to the cadence of her mother's voice as she read Sarah and Brendon a bedtime story. As a single mom, she didn't know what she would have done the past six years without her parents' support. Unfortunately, her mother never let her forget the sacrifices she'd made to help her.
Two children from two different fathers, and now
She grabbed the small white bag from the pharmacy, slipped down the hall into the bathroom and tucked the bag under a stack of towels. No sense in dropping the P bomb until she knew for sure. Her legs gave out, and she dropped down onto the toilet and covered her face with her hands. Who was she trying to kid? She was a baby-making machine. Hence her six-year-old daughter, Sarah, and three-year-old Brendon. She was probably the only almost-virgin with two kids. She could kiss goodbye her lifelong dream of escaping her hometown and becoming a chef in Paris.
"Teressa?" Her mother tapped on the door. "The children are asleep. Are you all right?"
No, but she would be. She was an expert at sucking it up. "Of course. Be right out." She flushed the toilet and splashed cold water on her face before returning to the kitchen.
She stopped in the doorway to watch her mother put the groceries away. "Don't bother with the groceries, Mom. You've helped enough for one day. Thanks for looking after Sarah and Brendon."
She tried to be as independent as possible, paying rent to her parents for the tiny carriage house that hid behind her parents' big, old family home, and she worked full-time as a cook at the local café. Her café. She may only own a third of it, but having worked there for five years she knew the business better than her other two partners, Sylvie Carson and Adam Hunter.
"You can't leave chicken at room temperature too long."
Teressa bit back the retort on the tip of her tongue as her mother stashed the chicken breasts in the refrigerator. Her mother meant well, it was just She was tired and needed to be alone. And she knew more about chicken than her mother, Sylvie, Adam and the whole damned town.
"Dad's probably wondering where you are. I'll put the rest away."
Her mother, whom she'd for some reason started to think of by her name, Linda, made one of her sounds of disapproval that she so excelled at. "Dad's asleep in front of the TV by now. That man." Her mouth twisted into a bitter shape.
"Maybe he should have a checkup. How long has it been since he's seen a doctor?" Her mother was convinced Teressa's father was the laziest person in their village, but Teressa worried he was the unhap-piest. She hadn't a clue how to help him, because he'd disappeared behind a wall of silence years ago.
"You know your father and doctors. He'd have to be half-dead before he went to see one. There's nothing wrong with him that a real job wouldn't fix." Linda sniffed her indignation. "Well, if you're sure you don't need any more help, I'll be off."
Teressa scooted over to the door and held it open. "Thanks again."
Linda zipped up her fleece. "They're my grandchildren. Of course I'm going to help. Good night, dear. And don't stay up too late. You look a little peaked."
"Good night, Mother." Teressa let the door swing shut as she went back to the groceries. Did people still use terms like peaked? How about devastated? Bummed out, desperate? Stupid? Yeah, definitely stupid.
What had she been thinking, having wild, totally out-of-control sex with Dusty Carson? God, he was so hot, there were days she could barely stand to be in the same room with him. Unfortunately, he was also irresponsible and immature. As friends they got along great. And as lovers, too. If their one time together was any indication, there were certainly no problems there. But as partners? Okay, maybe once or twice she'd imagined them together, but her daydreams never lasted because she was talking about Dusty. Mr. Party Boy. His head was as far from marriage and responsibility as it could get. She frowned. Strange that she'd never wondered why he avoided serious relationships.
She banged the cupboard door shut at the same time the phone rang. Checking the display to make sure it wasn't doofus-man, she scooped up the phone. It was Anita Carson, doofus-man's sister-in-law. Teressa didn't make friends easily, but Anita, Cal Carson's wife, was the kind of person who slipped under Teressa's defenses without her noticing. They were slowly becoming good friends, although they were polar opposites. Anita was cool, always unfailingly polite and had a husband who would walk over coals to get to her. Teressa blurted out what was on her mind more often than not and was certain there wasn't a man on earth who would care enough to take on her and her tribe of children.
"Hey," she croaked into the phone.
"Teressa? Anita here." Teressa heard the hesitation in Anita's voice. "Did you pick up the test while you were in town?"
Teressa tucked the phone under her ear and maneuvered a carton of milk into the refrigerator.
"And nothing. I just got home. I haven't had time to take the test." In the tiny village of Collina, New Brunswick, it was next to impossible to keep a secret, and telling Anita she might be pregnant was the same as telling the entire Carson clan. But a part of her had instinctively known she needed help this time, and it wasn't likely to come from her mother, so she turned to her new friend for help.
"Would you like me to come over?"
"Yes. No. I don't know." She closed her eyes and massaged her right temple. "I guess not. If I'm pregnant, I'm going to be a mess, and if I'm not I'm going to be a mess, only a happy mess."
Anita was silent for a minute. "I think I should come over. See you in a few minutes."
Resigned, Teressa finished putting the groceries away and slipped into the kids' bedroom to check on them. As usual, the sight of them asleep softened her knot of anxiety. They may have started out as "mistakes," but they were the best mistakes she'd ever made. She picked up Sarah's rag doll from the floor and tucked it into bed beside her tiny daughter.
Sarah had inherited Teressa's red hair, but instead of being heavy and straight like hers, it corkscrewed out of her head in zany curls. Teressa had talked her into growing it long, hoping the weight would help straighten it, but that idea wasn't working out so well. It wouldn't be long before the insults started coming Sarah's way on the playground. At least she could teach her daughter how to stand up for herself. As a child, it hadn't taken Teressa long to realize that following her mother's adviceto ignore what the other kids said and take the high roadwasn't going to cut it. She'd gotten as good at handing out the insults as receiving them. She kissed her daughter's forehead and moved across the room to Brendon's bed.
As usual he'd kicked off all his blankets. He had his father's blond curls, and her brown eyes. She put her hand on her stomach. Would this baby have Dusty's coloring? Dusty had blond hair and blue eyes so beautiful she could spend hours looking at him. He wasn't movie-star gorgeous; he was a fisherman, after all, and his face was lined from years spent on his boat, and from laughing. Dusty laughed a lot. Often just thinking about him made her smile, but not tonight.
Being a Carson meant something in the small fishing village of Collina. Not that the Carsons were rich. But Pops Carson was as close as they got to a mayor around here, and everyone respected the family. Growing up, she and Dusty hadn't run with the same crowd, because he was four years older than she was. But once they hit their twenties, age didn't matter as much anymore. She and Dusty had flirted with each other off and on, but once she had Sarah, Dusty switched to big-brother mode, which was his way of telling her they could be friends, but that was it. For all his crazy and wild ways, he'd become her sounding board and good friend. For the past three years she'd buried the physical attraction she had for him, until a few months ago when they'd both started spending time with the new guy in town, Adam Hunter. Unfortunately, Teressa had confused her friendship with Dusty as something more than physical attraction, and now there was a good chance their relationship was going to be put to the test because chances were she was pregnant.
When she heard a knock at the door, she pulled the blankets over her three-year-old son and dropped a kiss on his forehead. She should have told Anita not to come when she'd called earlier to ask if she could drop by. Anita was so reserved Ter-essa hoped some of her restraint would help keep her own emotions under control. But Anita would insist Teressa take the pregnancy test tonight, and she wasn't sure she was ready. She didn't think she'd ever be ready for a third child.
"What's that?" Teressa asked as she entered the kitchen.
"A bottle of nonalcoholic bubbly." Anita stashed the bottle in the refrigerator between the milk and the orange juice. Anita was tall and willowy, her long blond hair falling in a perfect curtain across her back. She used to have the perfect figure but had lost too much weight last summer, unlike Teressa, who had noticed lately that bits and pieces were starting to sag and shift, like those half-deflated balloons people tied to their mailboxes.
Two years ago, Cal and Anita had eloped before anyone from the family or the village had met Anita, and Cal, in his usual impervious way, presented his bride to everyone, expecting them to love her as much as he did. It had taken a while for folks to warm up to Anita because she was so different from the rest of them. But in the past few months, Teressa had been enjoying getting to know her better.
"I'm going to need something stronger than fake champagne to lift my spirits, girl," she admonished Anita.
Anita crossed her arms and tried to look stern, an almost impossible accomplishment for someone with Bambi eyes. "Have you done it yet?"
"Where's the kit?"
"What are you waiting for?" Teressa's shoulders slumped. "I just It's not that easy."
Anita's voice softened. "Whatever you decide, I'm behind you one hundred percent."
Teressa wrapped her arms around her waist. "It's not that I don't want the baby." That wasn't the complete truth. She did, and she didn't. Already having two children, she understood what an incredible gift it was to have a child, and she knew in her mother's heart terminating a pregnancy was not an option for her. But bringing up three children by herself? She wanted to cry every time she thought about the work and the responsibility.
"You're a wonderful mother, Teressa. Anyone can see that. If you're pregnant, and you want the baby, we'll all help in any way we can. I know you don't want to hear it, but I think Dusty is going to be a great dad."
"I just bet he's jumping up and down with joy right now."
"I imagine he's scared. Almost as scared as you."
"Scared he'll get stuck with me and my brood."
"Maybe." Anita shook her head. "But he cares about you, Teressa."
"If this were a few years ago, and it was just about Dusty and me, maybe we'd have a chance. But I'm twenty-eight years old, too old to get stars in my eyes. And I travel with a posse these days, in case you haven't noticed."
"You're arguing to avoid the inevitable. Go." Anita pointed toward the bathroom.
Anita tried to ignore the sadness that tugged at her heart as she watched Teressa disappear into the washroom. Sadness for her friend because her life had always been so hard, and sadness for herself because more than anything, she wanted to have Cal's baby. But Cal, afraid of history repeating itself, refused to start a family, and the miscarriage she'd had a few months ago had only confirmed his fears.
Once Teressa was out of sight, Anita sank onto a kitchen chair. She'd insisted on coming over tonight against Cal's wishes. Teressa deserved to have someone to hold her hand for this. Anita just wished there was someone stronger than her. She sighed and leaned back.
Everything was a test these days. Was she strong enough to stand by her friend without breaking down and tell her of course she was lucky to have a third child while Anita longed to have just one of her own? Could she fit into a community that was as alien to her as her father's world of rules and rituals would be to almost everyone living in Collina? Could she become a strong woman like Teressa and her sister-in-law, Sylvie? She wanted so much, but mostly she wanted a family of her own, and she was going to do whatever was necessary to make that happen.
She straightened when she heard a truck pull into the driveway. She'd found the courage to leave her old life and follow Cal to Collina, and she'd find the courage to prove to her husband she was emotionally and physically ready to have a child.
The hallway felt miles long as Teressa trudged toward her future. The past few weeks, she'd been playing a mental game, trying to trick herself into believing she wasn't pregnant when she knew she damn well was. Of course she was! She'd never caught a break.
Her life had derailed almost before it had started. When she'd become pregnant with Sarah, she'd had to forego the opportunity to attend the chef school she'd been accepted into and had gone to work as a sous chef in the local café she now owned in order to support herself and her new baby. She'd been there ever since, and yes, Dusty and Sylvie's father, Pops, who had owned the café for years, had been more than good to her. But no matter how kind and generous he'd been, Collina was still a small fishing village on the edge of the Bay of Fundy, and Paris was a million miles away.
She stopped and peeked into the kids' bedroom again. Angels, both of them. She could do this. There was room in her life for a third child. But that was all. Forget a husband or boyfriend. Romance? A serious career? Who had the time or energy?
She closed the bathroom door and pulled the pregnancy test out from under the towels. The moment of truth had arrived.
"When did you turn into such a slob?"
Good question. Dusty stuck his hands in his back pockets and rolled back on his heels. "Been a little preoccupied lately."
"Is that what you call it." His older brother, Cal, shoved two empty cases of beer out of the way with the toe of his boot. "How can you live like this?"
"I didn't ask you up here for advice on house-cleaning."