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Unemployed and pregnant! Those were two words Gabriella Castle had never envisioned applying to her, at least not in combination. Now, in a twist of fate she couldn't possibly have anticipated, she was out of work and, just as shocking, expecting a baby. So much for years of fast-track career dedication and workaholic tendencies!
Sitting in the middle of her comfortably furnished living room in Raleigh, North Carolina, Gabi stared at a painting that had cost more than some people made in a year. Her sister Emily had talked her into it when she'd stayed overnight a few weeks ago. She'd seen it in some fancy auction catalogSotheby's or someplace like itand insisted it would be just the thing to pull all the colors in Gabi's haphazardly decorated living room together.
"Besides that, it's a great investment," Emily had said enthusiastically. "In a few years, it will probably triple in value."
Gabi wondered if she could simply get her money back now. She was probably going to need it.
In the meantime, she couldn't help wondering if her sister could come up with a paintingor a magical formulathat would pull her life together.
Even though it had been three days since she'd walked into her boss's office expecting to be commended on her latest public-relations campaign for their biomedical company, only to leave the room with a severance package, she still couldn't quite believe what had happened. She'd been working since she was eighteen, climbing the corporate ladder since she'd turned twenty-one.
Driven by ambition and the determination to prove something to her father, she'd worked out a career plan even as she'd scheduled her college classes, taking a succession of internships and summer jobs to gain the experience that would land her a top-notch job after graduation. She'd hoped that job would be with her dad, but Sam Castle had turned her down flat.
Once hired by a competing company and more driven than ever, she'd made a meteoric rise to become the company's top public-relations executive by the time she was twenty-eight. Everyone had assumed there would be a vice presidency in her future. She'd certainly earned it.
Unfortunately, it seemed that particular career path didn't blend with being an unmarried mother, not in certain circles, anyway.
Not that her boss had dared to fire her. No, Amanda Warren had just made it impossible for her to stay. She'd outlined a plan that would keep Gabi well hidden from the judgmental world for the duration of the pregnancy. Beyond that, well, the handwriting had been on the wall. Her days of being a high-profile spokeswoman for the company were over.
She could have stayed and fought, but still reeling from the news that she was pregnant, she hadn't had the energy for a legal battle. She'd opted instead to negotiate a buyout that would give her a smidgen of dignity, a decent severance package and time to consider her options for the future.
A future that included a baby! That was, of course, the real kickerthe unexpected news that had first left her stunned and shaken and launched this downward spiral.
It wasn't that she hadn't understood that no method of protection was a hundred percent foolproof, but she'd thought birth control pills and condoms together were reasonably effective. Her boyfriend of five years, Paul Langley, had thought so, too. In fact, he'd been so certain of it, his first reaction had been to suggest that the baby couldn't possibly be his.
Then, once convinced of the truth, he'd said she was on her own, that a baby wasn't part of their deal. She hadn't even been aware that their relationship was a "deal" only as long as it was convenient for him.
As she was pondering just how wildly out of control her life suddenly was, her phone rang. According to the caller ID, it was her older sister, Samantha. Knowing Sam would just keep calling until Gabi picked up, she answered, trying to inject an upbeat note into her voice.
"When you didn't answer your cell phone, I called your office and was told you no longer work there," Samantha said, sounding suitably stunned. "What's going on?"
Gabi sighed. So much for any chance of keeping her professional catastrophe a secret from her family, at least for a while longer. "I quit," she explained to her sister. "Or was forced out, depending on your point of view."
"But why?" Samantha inquired, her tone indignant. "Not because you took some time off to go help Grandmother after the hurricane, I hope."
"No, of course not. They understood about that, and I had a ton of vacation time coming to me. They owed me that time off. If that had been an issue, they'd have let me go months ago."
"Then why?" Sam asked, sounding gratifyingly bewildered. "You gave that company a national presence. What's wrong with those ungrateful wretches?"
Gabi smiled at the fierce defense. "Actually, it was the work that gave them a national reputation. I just spread the word."
"There you go, being all humble, but we both know the truth." Samantha hesitated, then asked, "What are you going to do now, Gabi? Have you decided? I know how important that job was to you. It was your life."
"And how pitiful is that?" Gabi said, seeing clearly for the first time what a mistake it had been to focus almost exclusively on work. Her relationship with Paul had definitely taken a backseat, something that had suited them both. Unfortunately, given his attitude over recent developments, she doubted that even fulltime devotion would have changed anything.
"You'll do things differently next time," Samantha soothed. "Now you know that no corporation is worth expending all that time and energy on, not when they can treat you like this. Have you started looking yet?"
"I'm still trying to wrap my mind around what's happened," Gabi admitted, which was putting it mildly. "With the severance package they gave me, I have some time."
"Well, you know some other company will scoop you right up. Call Dad. He has a million contacts in that whole biomedical research world down there. Maybe he'll even rethink his previous stance about not hiring family and hire you himself."
"Not now," Gabi said. Not only did she not want her father to know about the pregnancy just yet, she had a hunch it would pose a problem with other old-fashioned employers, as well. As for her dad, well, his reaction wasn't something she was ready to contemplate.
"Why not now?" Samantha pressed. "This is one of those rare instances when Dad really could help. He'd even want to."
"I'm not so sure," Gabi said. Her father was as conservative as anyone. He was very conscious of the need in their field to make the right impression, to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose, no mistakes allowed, personal or professional. He'd been equally rigid with his family. She had a feeling he'd side with her boss and, if that was the case, she didn't want to know it until she had her feet back under her and a plan in place.
"Is there something you're not telling me?" Samantha asked suspiciously. "I know you. It's not like you to let any grass grow under your feet. I'm surprised you didn't have another job lined up by the end of the day."
"Haven't you heard? These are tough times."
"And you're very good at what you do and have the perfect mentor in Dad. Of all of us, you're the closest to him. Why don't you want to ask for his help?"
Since it was clear Samantha wasn't going to let this go, Gabi sucked in a deep breath, then blurted, "Because I'm going to have a baby, that's why." She nearly choked on the sob that came with the words.
Dead silence greeted the announcement, before Samantha finally said softly, "Holy saints in heaven! A baby, Gabi? Are you sure?"
"Do you think I'd have mentioned it to my boss if I hadn't been sure?" Gabi said dryly.
"And that's why they let you go?" Samantha asked, clearly shocked. "Isn't that illegal?"
"Technically they didn't let me go. They demoted me, so I negotiated a buyout. A win-win for everyone, according to Amanda. Who knew she was a better spin master than I ever dreamed of being?" Gabi said, unable to keep a bitter note out of her voice.
"Okay, let's forget the job for the moment. It doesn't matter," Samantha said. "The baby's Paul's."
Gabi was grateful that there'd been no question mark at the end of her sister's statement. "Of course."
"How'd he take it?"
"As if I'd committed a felony. Needless to say, he's no longer in the picture."
"The rat," Samantha said with feeling. "I never did like him."
Despite the tense atmosphere, Gabi smiled. "You never even met him."
"And that's precisely why I didn't like him. What kind of man doesn't want to meet his girlfriend's family? He never even showed his face when we were helping Grandmother after the hurricane."
"And what a blessing that probably was. Give him a hammer and he'd probably do more harm than good."
"Not what you need in a man," Samantha declared. "Now Wade Johnson? He's the kind of man to have around in a crisis."
Gabi stiffened at the out-of-the-blue mention of the man who'd been underfoot nonstop while they were making repairs to the family restaurant, Castle's by the Sea, after the hurricane. "Why would you bring him up?"
"Because he was around after the storm, just like Boone. And I saw the way Wade looked at you, as if he'd never seen anyone so perfect in his entire life."
"Let me remind you that I said the same thing to our sister about Boone, and look at the two of them now. In a few months Emily and Boone will be married, assuming he can convince her to finally set a date. I'm good at this stuff, Gabi. I recognize heat between men and women, even when they're both in denial."
"Well, you're wrong this time. Besides, don't you think the timing is just a little off for me to be thinking about a relationship? I'm going to be having another man's baby in a few months."
Samantha sucked in a deep breath at the reminder.
"Are you at least happy about that?" she asked hesitantly. "A baby, Gabi! That is so incredible."
Gabi rested a hand on her belly, felt the faint stirring there. The first time she'd felt that tiny life inside her, she'd fallen in love. Being pregnant might be inconvenient. It might not have been the result of a love match. It might have cost her a job, but she already loved this baby more than anything. She'd do whatever it took to protect it and make sure it had everything it deserved
including two parents who would treasure this priceless gift when the time came.
"I'm thinking about adoption," she admitted to Samantha, deciding to test the idea she'd mentioned to no one else.
Her words were greeted by stunned silence.
"Samantha? You still there?"
"You'd give up the baby?"
Gabi closed her eyes. "I think it's the only way to make sure it has a good life. And, to be honest, I don't want to be tied to Paul through this child. I don't want to take a cent of support money from him. I don't want anyone so selfish in this child's life."
"Oh, sweetie, forget Paul for the moment," Samantha protested. "You can give this baby a good life. You can surround him or her with a whole family who'll fall in love the instant he or she is born."
"Babies shouldn't start life with an out-of-work single mother," Gabi said wearily.
"It's not as if you're going to be destitute. And you'll find another job when the time comes," Samantha insisted. "Plus, we'll all help. Me, Emily, Grandmother, even Dad will be on board. His first grandchild? You know he's going to be thrilled about this."
"Is he really?" Gabi asked skeptically, sounding more like Emily than herself. Emily was the one who never gave their father credit for having deep feelings for any of them. Besides, Sam Castle had hardly noticed his own children unless they were in trouble. It seemed unlikely he'd be over the moon about a grandchild. The image of him sitting in a rocker cuddling a baby was so incongruous, it was laughable.
"Well, you don't have to decide right this second," Samantha said, backing off to give her breathing room. "We'll talk about it when I see you."
"When you see me?" Gabi asked suspiciously. "Since when are you planning a trip back down here?"
"I'm driving home tomorrow," Samantha said, as if the trip had been scheduled for days, rather than minutes. "Meet me in Sand Castle Bay. You don't have anything to keep you in Raleigh right now, so no arguments. You've already said you're not looking for work just yet, so you might as well enjoy this unexpected time off. You need sunshine and sea breezes to put this in perspective. You know you do. You'll see things much more clearly then."
"I'm not sure I'm ready to lay this on Grandmother just yet."
"Be there or Emily and I will come and drag you over there bodily, if we have to," Samantha insisted, refusing to cut her any slack.
"Emily's there now?" Gabi asked, surprised. "I thought she was working night and day at this new job in Los Angeles."
"She also has a wedding to plan. And she's still after Grandmother to do a little modernizing of the decor at Castle's. She and Boone flew in a couple of days ago. She claims she wants our opinion on the wedding plans. That's why I called in the first place, to let you know we've been called into action."
Gabi laughed. "Since when does Emily listen to anything you or I have to say when it comes to her life?"
"She says there are incredible weddings on those soaps I've been on, and I should know a thing or two. And we're both her sisters, and we're to be in the wedding party. I'd suggest if you don't want to wind up wearing a very unflattering shade of whatever color's in fashion in Hollywood these days, you need to be there to speak up. Listen to me. I'm the oldest. I know best."
Gabi laughed. "Since when? I've always been the sensible one. Everyone knows that."
"If that were true, how'd you land in this mess?" Samantha taunted. "See you tomorrow, sweetie. And don't worry. This is going to work out. I promise."
Gabi hung up and sighed. Sand Castle Bay was the very last place she wanted to go right now, but Samantha was right about one thing. It was exactly where she belonged.