Authors: Linda Conrad
He reached out and steadied her. “Are you all right?”
“You're the second person to ask me that today,” she said as she pulled away from him. “I'm fine. Just late.”
Nick studied her face for a moment. “You don't look fine. You look exhausted. Have you been working too hard?”
Her stomach was doing flip-flops at the mere sight of him. And she felt her heart skip as it started beating in double time.
In the morning light, he looked so good she nearly drooled. Tall, handsome and tanned from working outdoors, the sight of the man she cared so much about made her whole body tighten and her mouth start to water.
Had he asked something? The hunger she'd been feeling became a violent stomach roll all of a sudden.
“Excuse me, Nick.” She turned and stepped back inside the door, determined to reach the pool house bathroom in a hurry.
“But I wanted toâ¦”
“Later, please,” Annie pleaded.
She slammed the door behind her and made a mad dash to the bathroom, getting there just as the entire contents of her stomach came back up with a powerful whoosh. Well, of all the embarrassing things.
Rinsing her mouth out with water, Annie wondered if she had picked up a bug. But she had no fever. And actually, she felt just fine now that her stomach was empty.
Maybe it had been caused by too much junk food. That might be the correct reason for the weight gain, too.
But when she raised her head and looked in the mirror, she saw a stranger staring back at her. No, wait, stranger wasn't the right word.
Her eyes were a bit sunken in her head, but it
her face, just rounder and softer from the added weight. Staring down at the neckline of her square-necked T-shirt, Annie was amazed at how her breasts had suddenly become what could only be called voluptuous.
Weird. None of the girls in her family ever had big breasts until theyâ¦
Gasping, Annie beheld the truth in the mirror. She saw her sisters, Kelly and Colleen, grown round and glowing with their pregnanciesâand looking right out
of the mirror behind her eyes, laughing hysterically at her expense.
In shock, Annie put a hand to her mouth. Then she put the other hand across her belly. Oh my gosh.
Later this afternoon she would get someone from the research team to drive her down to the village store for a pregnancy test kit. But she really didn't need a test to tell her what was clearly written all over her.
She was going to have a baby. And regardless of what he'd told her, she was going to have Nick's baby.
Dear Lord. Now what?
Nick backed away from her door after Annie slammed it in his face. He'd wanted to tell her about his mother's arrival today. But then he'd been blinded by the sight of the faint purple smudges under her eyes, and of her neon pink shirt, and of her face that was somehow glowing and more beautiful than he had ever seen.
He needed to walk away from her now while he could still fight off the furious desire that was buckling his knees. He almost hated her for doing this to him, for being everything that Christina wasn't, and for being the most desirable woman he'd ever known. But he couldn't.
The sad fact was that he was the one to blame for not being able to control his own yearnings. Angry at himself, he jumped into his Jeep and headed down to the latest construction site in the village.
When he'd given Annie the responsibility for the dolphin center, he'd imagined that would be the best answer for both of them. But now he wondered if he had been selfish to want to keep her near enough for him to
see, yet hold her far enough away so that there would be no chance of pulling her back into his life.
It couldn't be the best thing for her, staying here on this isolated island and not getting the opportunity to go out in the world to find friends and perhaps a man who would love her forever.
That troubling thought made him slow the Jeep and ball his fists against the steering wheel. The very idea of Annie with another man made him suddenly mad as hell. But he had just better get over it.
Annie had told him that she imagined him as a storybook prince, bewitched and waiting for a princess to come break the spell. Hell. He didn't need to read that damned gypsy's fairy-tale book to know he'd been acting more like a mean old ogre. A beast, like the one in that old tale of the beauty and the beast, who locked up beautiful women and never let them leave the castle.
Blowing out a breath, he decided to give the whole thing some more thought. But not until after his mother had left the island again. It was too hard to think with her nearby. Almost as difficult as being around Annie.
Almost, but not exactly the same.
“The island doesn't look too terribly shabby,” his mother said as he pulled in to the lot beside the pool house. “The trees will take some time to grow back, but all in all it's much better than I'd imagined. You must've worked round the clock to get the work done.”
He shook his head. “I've had lots of help. The islanders have been amazing.”
His mother smiled. “My great-great-grandfather always thought so, too. He said there were no better peo
ple anywhere on earth than the families he'd hired to come work and live here.”
Nick forgot from time to time that it was his mother's family who had owned this island for generations. His father had always been such a huge presence in his life that he was shocked to remember that it was his mother who had inherited all the money from her wealthy American ancestors.
“Well, here we are,” he told her as he parked the Jeep and got out to carry her luggage. “I doubt Annie will be here to greet you. In the afternoons she can usually be found down at the lagoon, working with the dolphins.”
His mother shot him a very strange look before she shrugged her shoulder and climbed out of the Jeep. “That's fine, dear. It will give me a chance to settle in. I'll look forward to dining with her later.”
“Wellâ¦” Nick filled his arms with his mother's luggage and followed her as she unlocked the door and stepped inside. “I don't know ifâ¦”
Just as his eyes adjusted to the cool interior of the three-room pool house, Annie came flying out of the bathroom and nearly knocked into his mother.
Her eyes filled with confusion for a second, then she grinned and hugged his mother. “Oh, Mrs. Scoville. I'm so glad to see you.”
His mother gave Annie a kiss on the cheek and held her at arm's length to study her. “It's wonderful to see you again, my dear. I've been quite eager for us to have a nice chat. Would you care to join me for a cup of tea?”
“Uh, can it be later, please? I have to go back to work now.” Annie pulled out of his mother's grasp, nodded to him and ran out the door.
He dropped his mother's bags and dashed outside after Annie. “Wait a second,” he muttered as he caught her by the arm. “What's so urgent that you can't spend a few moments to talk to my mother?”
She tugged against his grip then spun around when he refused to release her arm. “Nick, please. I have to go now. I'm sorry.”
Studying her eyes, he saw they were overly bright and the remnants of tears lay caught in her lashes. “At least tell me what's wrong. Maybe there's something I can do.”
“You've already done it,” she said on a deep breath.
He stared down at her, wanting desperately to wrap her up in his arms and make whatever troubled her go away. “What have I done? Just stand still a second and talk to me. Are you sick?”
She laughed, but the sound was more like a strangled sob. “For the third time today, I'm fine, dammit.” Yanking her arm out of his grip, she flipped her loose hair back off her shoulder. “I'm not sickâjust pregnant.”
It took a second for her words to sink into his thick skull. “What? You can't be.”
Laughing again, she swiped a hand over her face and cleared away a lone tear. “Just had the test. It's official. I guess your doctors didn't know what they were talking about when they said you couldn't have a child.”
He stood there, dumbfounded, for much too long. Long enough to see the rejection and hurt fill her eyes.
“Sorry to spring it on you, Nick, but you insisted. And I really have to go now.” She turned and rushed away toward the lagoon.
Leaving him stunnedâand more than a little baffled. Damn it all to hell.
ick's feet were glued to the patio, his brain frozen and unable to function. Was it possible Annie was going to have a child? And more to the point, that he was going to be a father?
“Is that a real possibility, son?” The soft voice came from behind his back, echoing his thoughts.
Uh-oh. He didn't want to turn around and have to face his mother, who had obviously overheard Annie's announcement. What would he say?
he say? Something like:
So sorry. I took advantage of an employee. And at the time, she was a nice young, naive virgin. Isn't that just the kind of honorable thing you always wanted for your only son?
Letting out a breath, Nick turned around to face his mother and to begin facing the consequences of his actions.
“Do you mean, is it possible that Annie is pregnant?” he asked, hedging for time. “I cannot imagine that she would lie about such a thing, Mother.”
His mother's violet eyes were filled with questions. But beyond those, she had a kind of bewildered but blissful expression on her face. It made him feel ashamed all of a sudden.
“But if you meant, is it possible that the child is mine,” he rushed out with a huff. “I don't know. The doctors in Alsaca were quite positive that my sperm count ranged too low to be effective. Butâ¦”
He had to clear his head and begin accepting facts, but how could he when his mother kept looking at him that way? “On the other hand, I have no doubts that any baby Annie would be having from her time on the island must beâ¦my child.” There. He'd said it.
His stomach rolled and he was beginning to feel dizzy. He had too many unanswered questions of his own to talk about this just yet, especially with his mother.
“Come back inside with me for a few minutes, Nicholas,” his mother said as she gently touched his arm. “You look like you need to sit down.”
Blinded by shock, Nick let her guide him inside the pool house. The front room was laid out like a small apartment with a kitchen and seating area.
All the thoughts in his head at the moment were of babies. Little boys with fiery red curls, running outside to play with Annie's exuberance. And little girls, with her deep green eyes, lifting their arms to him for a hug.
After they were seated at the tiny two person table,
his mother took his hand. “You never said anything before about what the Alsaca doctors told you.
I suspected there was a problem with Christina being able to conceive, but now everything makes more sense.”
“What makes sense?” To Nick, the whole world was upside down. Nothing made any sense at all.
“Your isolation from the world. Your determination to open this marine mammal center.”
“I was just trying to honor Christina's wishesâ¦her memory.” A small flame of anger lit in his gut at his mother's pop-psychology attempts.
“No, Nicholas. It's all been built on your guilt about not being able to have a child. I'll wager it has something to do with disappointing your father.”
He stood and fisted his hands in his pockets. “I really don't want to talk about this right now.”
“Oh, but you should. Talking is the best way to think through a situation.”
“No, Mother. Stop trying to meddle.”
She looked up at him with disappointment in her eyes. “Just let me say a few things then. First, I want you to go down to the village clinic and discuss your physical situation with Dr. Gamble. Let him help you understand.”
When Nick started to argue, she broke in again. “I realize he's just a small-town family physician, but you've known him all your life. And I know you trust his knowledge and expertise the same way I do. Do it for me.”
He hung his head. “Yes, all right. I can do that.”
“Good. And afterward, I insist you go and discuss
this situation with Annie. She's a fine young woman who didn't deserve your terrible silence when she told you nothing but the truth. I have no idea what has transpired between youâ¦” she hesitated and then stood up and touched his hand.
“Well, I can imagine some of it. But regardless of whatever else you are, son, you are an honorable man. I expect you to ask Annie what she wants to do and then to move heaven and earth in order to abide by her wishes.”
“Do?” As in the future? He hadn't thought that far ahead. And couldn't imagine doing it now, either.
“Think over the possibilities on your way to see the doctor. You may want to ask him any questions you have about that, too.”
“All right. Fine. Anything else?” His irritation was growing and he needed some air.
His mother stretched up on tiptoes to give him a kiss. “I love you, Nicholas. You and Annie have created my first grandchild.”
The guilt came back with a force that nearly knocked him to his knees. “I would appreciate it if you did not mention this to Father,” he said though gritted teeth. “In fact, don't discuss it with anyone until I can speak to Annie.”
His mother studied him for a second. “I agree, son. You must be the one to tell your father about this. But would it anger you if I talked to Annie about the subject before you do?”
“No meddling, Mother.”
When she looked wounded, he relented and gave her a hug. “Yes, perhaps you can give her some advice,
or at least give her an opportunity to talk it over with another woman. But you are not to pressure her in any way. Is that clear?”
“Perfectly, Nicholas.” She kissed him again. “Now go ask your questions of the doctor and think about what you want to do. I believe you're going to make a wonderful father.”
He hadn't yet even considered the ramifications of that. He'd thought about Annie being a good mother, but him a father?
Now that the biology of fathering a child appeared to have happened, Nick had to wonder what kind of father he would really make. His own father's example was not one Nick wanted to follow. The man was a control freak, a tyrant.
Nick's whole life had been spent trying to please his father. To no avail. Never good enough. Never smart enough. The only thing that he'd ever done right in his father's opinion was to marry Christina.
And now? Now he was about to become a father without even the benefit of marriage. He could just imagine what his father would have to say about that.
Annie made it all the way through the afternoon's work at the lagoon without breaking down. But now she found herself standing alone at the ocean's edge right before dusk on the verge of panic.
She loved being here on the island, with its hazy blue skies and brilliant aquamarine waters. But she had to give some consideration to where she would go and what she would do now that she was expecting a baby.
The thought of going home to her family snuck in and then back out of her mind. They were going to be terribly disappointed with her predicament. She just couldn't bear thinking of the hurt looks in their eyes when she told them the truth. As much as she loved them all deeply, South Boston was the last place she would go now.
She'd escaped the tenterhooks of home once. And that was tough enough, what with everyone convinced that she would never make it on her own.
But Annie knew she'd grown strong and independent since she'd moved a million light years away from her childhood. And she was sure she would be able to figure out some other way rather than running back to her family.
She thought about the large savings account she'd built up from her wages here, and absently placed a protective hand against her stomach. There would be two of them to consider from now on.
So how would having a baby affect her career? Annie imagined that being a personal trainer would be pretty much out of the question for a while. What else could she do to support herself and a child?
A big part of her was thrilled and excited at the prospect of becoming a mother. It was something that every little girl dreamed about, including her. She loved her nieces and nephews and babysat for them all the time back in South Boston. Holding a baby in her arms brought wonderful maternal urges that had always made Annie secretly covet her sister's lives.
Yes, that part was thrilling all right. But another part of her was afraid. Afraid of seeing societies' reaction to
her single motherhood. Her life was definitely not going down the road of any fairy-tale now.
And what would Nick's reaction be when he overcame his initial shock? Would he want to participate in his child's life? Or would he want to be rid of them both so he would not have to be reminded of his indiscretions?
With thoughts reeling and emotions raging, Annie turned around to head back up the cliff toward the house. She saw Nick's mother standing on the patio, watching her.
Darn it. Mrs. Scoville must've heard her talking to Nick. Facing the embarrassment of Nick's mother knowing of theirâ¦uhâ¦affair before she had a chance to sort out her own feelings was the last thing Annie wanted to do.
But Mrs. Scoville had always been most gracious and kind. And Annie knew she had nowhere to run anyway.
With the red blush crawling up her neck and about to strangle her, Annie slowly climbed the few steps to the patio. All she could do was pray that the normally nice, civilized woman would not be angry about the fact that Annie had seduced her only son.
“You looked so distraught and lonely out on the beach all by yourself,” Mrs. Scoville said as she reached out for her. “Please come have tea with me. Talk to me. Let me help you.” She placed her arm around Annie's waist and propped her up as they walked back toward the pool house.
Annie leaned against the older woman's warmth and sighed. This is what she might've wished her mother would do for her. Comfort her. Baby her.
But Maeve Mary Margaret O'Brien Riley would no doubt grab her up by the hair and throw her into a convent instead. No, this kind of comfort and intimacy would never come at the hands of her own mother. And the other members of her family wouldn't dare go against the matriarch.
There would be no long talks on the phone to her sisters. No emergency consultations with her grandmother on what to do for morning sickness. Annie vowed not to mention it to them at all until after the baby was born.
She let Nick's mother lead her into the pool house, where a silver tea cart sat laden with small sandwiches and steaming milk. It was such a welcoming sight that Annie nearly broke down and cried.
“Sit here, dear,” Mrs. Scoville said. “Or would you be more comfortable having a shower before you take tea?”
There was such an obvious look of concern in the other woman's eyes that Annie immediately released the tension she'd been holding. It was the best she could've hoped for, and she suddenly felt much safer than she had only a few minutes before.
“I missed lunch today and lost everything I'd had in my stomach before that. I'm starved. Could we just eat first?”
“Certainly. Please sit down. I'll pour.” Mrs. Scoville fussed over her and made sure she had what she needed before she joined her at the table.
Annie wolfed down a couple of finger sandwiches and followed them with a cup of warm milk garnished with a dash of tea and sugar. Already she was beginning to feel more human.
“I have to apologize for my son's actions this afternoon,” Mrs. Scoville began when Annie leaned back in her chair. “In his defense, I can only say that this must have been as big a shock to you as it was for him. But he will step up and stand beside you in the end. At his core, he is driven to be noble.”
“Oh I know that,” Annie said with surprise. She'd never had any real doubts about him doing whatever he saw as his duty. It had just been the first rush of panic that made her go crazy with doubt.
The older woman smiled, but then her expression turned wary. “Have youâ¦” Mrs. Scoville hesitated, looking conflicted and concerned. “Well, have you considered all your first options?”
“Options?” What was she asking? “If you mean about where I want to live after the baby is born, no. I thought I'd wait and see what Nick wants us to do. I'll try to abide by his wishes. If he wants us to live close enough that he can visit his child, we'llâ¦”
“You intend to have this child then,” Mrs. Scoville interrupted. She released a deep breath and smiled.
“What? Of course. You didn't thinkâ¦” Annie nearly came up off her chair before she calmed down and realized the woman didn't really know her all that well. “That was never an
I not only intend to have this child, I intend to raise it, with or without anyone's help.”
The older woman placed a hand over hers and smiled again. “The rest of your decisions should be made together with Nicholas. But I can assure you that neither you nor my grandchild will ever want for anything.”
Her grandchild? Oh my gosh. Suddenly, this baby was becoming very real. That spurt of panic was back.
She was actually going to be a mother. And perhaps a single mom, at that.
“I didn't have any daughters,” Mrs. Scoville continued in a soothing voice. “But I did have a baby once, and I have a sister who had a child. Will you allow me the privilege of assisting you with this pregnancy? We may have to learn some of the newer methods and ideas togetherâ¦”
She stopped speaking and tilted her head to study Annie. “Perhaps you would prefer to go home to your own mother to await your child?”
“No.” Annie answered with way too much force. “No,” she said again, softer this time and with a smile. “I'd be really grateful if you'd let me stay here on the island until the baby is born, Mrs. Scoville. And believe me, I'll gladly take whatever advice you want to give.”
Mrs. Scoville's eyes filled with tears, but she chuckled and patted Annie's hand. “Wonderful. I just know you and Nicholas will be able to work something out.”