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"Contemplating making a run for it?"
Startled, Gabby Craig looked out of her open driver's-side window to find the last person on the planet she wanted to see. The Honorable Judge Dane Bocelli Ben's big brother.
"You're allowed, you know? Hell, if they weren't my flesh and blood, I'd be home watching football."
"Go away, Dane. I'm actually very much looking forward to sharing Sunday supper with your family."
"That why you've been sitting in this heat, staring straight ahead for the past five minutes?"
"You timed me?" She'd been so deep in thought that she hadn't even noticed him pulling up behind her.
"Not intentionally. I've been waiting to help you from your car. You are about eighteen months pregnant with Ben's baby. It can't be easy. Going it alone."
"I manage," she snapped, grabbing her purse and a plate of cookies from the passenger seat. Seeing how the quiet, maple-lined street in the heart of Valley View's historic district was hardly a hotbed of crime, she took her keys from the ignition but left her windows down. She attempted opening her door, but was mortified to find that with both hands full and her huge belly crammed against the wheel, she did indeed need assistance.
"Let me take all of that," Dane said, opening her door and then taking her purse, keys and foil-wrapped plate. He tossed her keys in her purse and slung the leather bag over his left forearm, shifting the cookies to his left hand. He held out his right hand to her. "Ready?"
"Thank you," Gabby said to be polite, even though she really didn't want this man's help. Or a whiff of his rich, citrus-and-leather cologne. Everything about Dane was imposing. His towering height and powerful build. His being nearly ten years older than her. His penchant for dark suits paired with red power ties. The judge's perma-scowl that even across the Bocelli Sunday family dinner table usually left her feeling guilty. Throw in short-cropped dark hair, somber brown eyes and voilà Dane was the polar opposite of his always smiling, blue-eyed brother.
Out of the car, Gabby dropped Dane's hand as if it were electrified. In the year she and Ben had dated, in the six months since Ben had left her for greener pastures, Dane had never been overly kind. Never rude, but distant.
Ignoring her runaway pulse, she forced a deep breath.
"I've always loved your parents' house," she said, desperate to fill the awkward silence. The pink, green and white Queen Anne with its scalloped siding, elaborate trim and turret on the right side always made Gabby think of a wedding cake. Too pretty to eat, yet a creation she could gaze upon all day long. Throw in Mama Bocelli's famous flower gardens ringing the house and the place was a slice of fragrant heaven. She and Ben used to share the porch swing while his still-feisty grandmother entertained them with outrageous stories from her youth. Now the swing and white-wicker rockers sat empty, hanging baskets of ferns still in the stagnant Arkansas heat.
Dane shrugged. "This monstrosity is a maintenance nightmare."
"But worth it, right?" They crossed the street and stepped onto a winding brick sidewalk.
Dane's only response was another shrug.
Whatever. It wasn't as if she'd come here to see him. In fact, when Ben's mother had issued the invitation, Gabby had secretly hoped Dane wouldn't be in attendance.
"Look at you!" The front door had burst open and out came Mama Bocelli across the porch and down the stairs, arms outstretched for a hug. "You're glowing!"
Gabby grimaced. After looking in the mirror one last time before heading out, Gabby had been convinced she'd never looked worse.
Ben's mother hugged the way she cooked and gardenedwith warmth and unabashed pleasure. The woman's heart was as big as her dyed-black hair. Gabby's throat unexpectedly swelled from the pleasure of being heldeven by Ben's mother. With no family in town, her loneliness had at times been overwhelming.
"Girl," Mama said, still holding Gabby's hands but stepping back to appraise her. "You're too thin. Let's get you inside for a solid meal."
Nana Bocelli tottered out the door and onto the porch. "Gabrielle, you're about the size of the Hendersons' new backyard storage shed!"
From behind, Dane laughed. "Nana, I was just thinking the same thing. Only she's a pleasing-looking shed."
"Dane!" Mama scolded. "What a horrible thing to say, and, Nana, I thought I asked you to keep an eye on the marinara sauce?"
Nana yawned. "I got bored."
Once Gabby had mounted the stepsMama helping her every step of the wayNana pulled her into another great hug. "It's been too long since we've seen you. You should stop by more often."
"I know," Gabby said, following along with the tide as they all ushered her inside. "Work has been crazy, and"
"You should make time for family," Mama said.
Pops Bocelli was snoring in his favorite recliner.
Mama kicked it, but he just changed position.
Hiding a smile at the antics of the long-married couple, Gabby said, "I know, and I love thinking of you all as family, but with Ben out of my life, I don't want to intrude."
"Ben's a fool," Dane said, passing them on his way into the house.
"Ignore him," Mama urged. "Now, come and sit at the kitchen table while I finish up. I want to hear all about what you've been doing."
Dutifully complying, Gabby trailed after the buxom woman. The kitchen's air was sumptuous. Laden with rich scents of simmering marinara and the lasagna's cheese. "Mmm " she breathed in "I've so missed your cooking."
"You're welcome anytime. I've told you that."
"Mama," Dane interjected from a shadowy corner, arms crossed. "Gabrielle and Ben are no longer together. It's only natural that she'd want her space."
"Stay out of it," his mother snapped. "Your brother will be back to marry this girl and raise their baby, and when he does, you'll eat your words."
Sighing, he said, "With all due respect, Mama, Ben's a different breed than the rest of us. To him, responsibility is a dirty word."
"Hush," Mama said, Nana watching on as if this was the best entertainment she'd had in weeks. "Gabrielle, would you like a glass of milk? Maybe juice?"
"No, thank you," she said, feeling caught up in the middle of a battle the family been waging most of Ben's life. As amazing as he was, he was also that infuriating.
Mama poured her a glass of milk anyway, setting it on the table, along with a cheese-filled Danish. "Here, you need a before-supper snack."
"Thank you," Gabby said, even though what she'd have really liked was a sampling of lasagna.
"Now," Mama said, "I was talking with Bella Marconiyou know, my canasta partner from down the streetand she said her pregnant daughter is about as far along as you and starting Lamaze. Have you checked into any classes?"
"Yes," Gabby said, "but you have to have a partner."
"I'm available most every night of the week," Nana said. "Except for Tuesdays. That's my and Edgar Rowley's regular date night."
"Um, Nana, thanks for the offer," Gabby said, "but I still have a week to find someone before my class starts."
Pouring Italian dressing onto baby greens, Mama said, "Don't you worry, honey. I'll put my thinking cap on and come up with the perfect partner."
An hour later, Mama snapped her fingers and said, "Dane! He can be your partner! I can't believe I didn't think of it sooner." Gabby sucked a bite of lasagna down her windpipe, coughing till she nearly blacked out. The heat didn't help, seeing how Pops Bocelli was too cheap to turn on the central A.C. An oscillating fan stirred soupy air, moaning with each turn.
Nana patted her back. "You all right?"
"F-fine," Gabby finally managed to say.
Helping herself to thirds of lasagna, Nana made a slurping noise with her dentures. "Now that you're breathing again, I think Therese has an excellent idea. Don't you, Dane?"
"See?" Mama said, picking up the bread basket and thrusting it at Gabby. "My good boy agrees, don't you, Dane?"
Suddenly fascinated by his salad, he ducked his head.
"For God's sake, Therese," said Pops. "Leave it to Ben to clean up after himself."
"Clean up?" Mama slapped the lace-topped table hard enough to rattle the good china. Three red rose petals drifted down from a center arrangement. "This is your future grandchild. If your son were half a man, he would marry the poor girl. Make an honest woman of her, but nooo " She blew her nose into the embroidered handkerchief she kept stashed up her sleeve. "Your boy would rather break his mother's heart than"
"Don't cry, Ma." Ben's big brother, an inch taller and a hundred times more responsible, said, "I'll do it."
"That's a dear boy." Nana patted his hand. She was a patter. To her way of thinking, there was no crisis too large or small that a simple pat could not make better. If only Gabby felt the same.
Far from it, she wanted to slide out of her chair and onto the floor, where she would then crawl unseen out of the house to run screaming down the street. She should've known better than to even mention Lamaze to Mama. But then wait, Mama had been the one who'd brought it up.
"You'll see," Pops said around a bite of his lasagna. "Ben'll do the right thing. Mark my words, Gabrielle, he'll not only be back in time for your Lamaze class, but to marry you. Give the baby our family name."
"Th-that's okay," she said, curving her hand over her bulging tummy. "I shouldn't have even said anything. I'll find someone else to be my Lamaze coach. Maybe a friend from"
"I'll do it," Dane said. Was it anger darkening his tone? If so, was he put out with her? His mother? His little brother? Or could it be something else making him sound less than his usually unflappable, professional self?
"But, Dane," Gabby argued, "really, I'm sure one of my friends from work will be happy to"
He fought right back. "I said, I'd"
"No," she insisted. "I won't"
An earsplitting whistle erupted from Nana. How the woman managed it with her dentures Gabby didn't know, but when it came to getting folks' attention, Nana got the job done. "Gabrielle, say thank-you to Dane. Dane smile. Act like spending a few nights with your brother's pregnant future bride is an honor, rather than"
"I'm not marrying Ben," Gabby protested.
"Hush!" Pops said. "All of this screeching is making my stomach sour." He clutched his chest.
Mama made clucking sounds, passing Pops the bread. "Eat more. It'll counteract the acid."
Dane rolled his eyes.
Nana upended a bottle of Chianti into her emptied milk cup.
"What are you doing?" Mama asked. "Your doctor said lay off the sauce."
Nana clicked her dentures before downing a big swig.
Under his breath, Dane asked Gabby, "Want to get out of here? Talk?"
She placed her napkin alongside her plate.
"What's wrong with talking here?" Pops asked. "Your mother made cake."
Dane stood, kissed the top of his mother's head. "We'll be back for dessert."
"Promise?" Mama asked.
"Oh, for crying out loud," Nana said, stealing Pops's wine, "he's a grown man, Therese. Let him have some fun."
"Sorry." In a diner three blocks from his parents' home, Dane leaned his head back and sighed. He and Gabrielle shared a black vinyl corner booth. Coffee and apple juice were on the way. Sinatra crooned from the jukebox. The daily chicken-and-dumpling special flavored blessedly cool air. The only other diners were two white-haired guys playing checkers at the counter. "Tonight got a little crazy."
"A little?" Gabby yanked a napkin from a chrome holder and proceeded to shred it into about fifty pieces. "I've never been more mortified in my life."
"Not even when my loser brother left you on your own and pregnant?" The second the words left Dane's mouth, he regretted them. Regretted the way she'd stopped shredding her napkin to instead grip the pieces so tightly her knuckles whitened. "Sorry, again. That came out wrong."
She shook her head. "You called it the way you see it. If the truth hurts " She shrugged.
"Still " He should've reached across the table, eased his fingers between hers and squeezed. Her complexion was pale and her eyes were wet; her lower lip almost imperceptibly trembled. A part of him was afraid she'd cry. Which would've been bad.
"Really," she said with a sniffle, "I'm over Ben's leaving."
"You don't look it."
Her gaping mouth told him yet again he should've kept his big mouth shut.
Luckily, the waitress arrived, placing their drinks on the table with little fanfare. "How far along are you?" she asked Gabrielle.
"A little over six months."
"Whew." With a faint smile, the waitress, whose name tag read Candace, added, "I don't envy you the coming months. Although at least it should start getting cooler."
"Thank goodness." Gabby managed a smile. "Do you think I could get an order of fries?"
"Sure thing, hon. I'll have those right out."
"Hungry?" Dane asked.
"No. Just needing to eat."
"Oh." What did that mean? Deciphering women had never been his strong point. He never lacked for dates, but also never seemed to get much past the initial stages. He'd been accused of spending too much time growing his law office. Now, spending too much time at the courthouse. He'd been told he was no fun. Apparently he lacked the romance gene.
"Have youor your parentsheard from Ben lately?"
Stirring sugar into his coffee, Dane said, "He called Nana a couple weeks ago on her birthday."
"I was sorry to be out of town. She throws a good party."
Gabrielle was a certified massage therapist in a swanky local spa. But she also had a business degree, and put it to good use when she'd launched her own line of herbal massage oils. According to his mother, Gabrielle's schedule was filled weeks in advance. Proving that while her job might be touchy-feely, she had a good head on her shoulders. As such, Dane had always wondered what she'd seen in Benthe perennial party boy. Aside from his humor and looks, he was a royal screwup. It took him six years to finish a four-year business degree. Got kicked out of his latest apartment for having forgotten to pay his rent. Ohhe'd had the money, he'd just been too busy to pay his bill.
Shaking his head, Dane sighed.
"What's wrong?" Gabby asked.
"Your boyfriend. My brother. What'd you ever see in him?"
"Well " Had he imagined it? Or did her green eyes brighten just at the thought of Ben? "I suppose his sense of humor is what first attracted me to him. He's a great dancer. Mixes a mean margarita. Has a grin that never fails to flutter my insides. When he makes guacamole on Friday nights, he sings. He even"
"You aware you're speaking of him in present tense?"
"Am I?" She sipped her juice, and it didn't escape his attention that her hands trembled. "That bother you?"
"No. I just " What? What was his problem? Ben had already irrevocably hurt this woman. Why couldn't Dane at least allow her the comfort of reminiscing over happier times? "I guess I'm still so ticked off at him. You know, for what he's done, that"