Authors: Linda Conrad
She stood and pulled the softly colored afghan off the back of the sofa and placed it on Annie's lap. “Now, let's begin by you calling me Elizabeth. This is going to be such fun. I can hardly wait.”
he next morning at sunrise Nick made his way to the pool house to talk to Annie. His visit to Dr. Gamble yesterday afternoon had been eye-opening. But he was still in shock and hadn't slept, trying desperately to focus on what would be the best thing for everyone.
He had no way of knowing yet what Annie would want to do. But Nick could only hope she wouldn't want to go back to her family in Boston on a permanent basis. When the doctor had confirmed that it was entirely possible for a man with a low sperm count to conceive a child with a fertile woman, Nick had been more confused than ever about what the right move would be.
Trying to imagine what it would be like to be a father, he wanted to see into the future. To envision what a child of his and Annie's making would be like.
But instead of thinking of children, he thought of Annie, with her zest for life and her colorful nature. It made him remember her, lying naked beside him with fire in her eyes. She'd had eyes for only him then, and wanted him.
An old familiar wedge of guilt drove straight into his soul. Thinking about Annie only caused a lustful hunger to bubble up deep in his gut. Again.
He couldn't believe he'd let things with her get so out of hand during the storm. He'd betrayed Christina's memory, dishonored Annie and had probably disappointed his parents beyond redemption.
However, all this introspection was useless. There was nothing to do now but swallow the regret and discuss the problem with Annie.
Before he raised his hand to knock on the pool house door, he peeked through a window into the front room to see if anyone was awake yet. Annie normally would be up at this hour, but in her condition would she rather sleep late?
He saw her, with that graceful athlete's back to him, dressed in shorts and standing in front of the small kitchenette with hands firmly fisted on her hips. She'd tied her fiery curls back with a band, but several wispy strands still escaped down her neck to give her a feminine and fairy-tale princess look.
Gulping back the immediate lash of hot desire that went straight to his groin, Nick forced his gaze away and softly knocked on the door. Their discussion had to remain all business. His lust for her had already landed them in a huge predicament. One he had no idea how to fix.
Annie opened the door and gazed up at him. He felt his body sway toward those deep luminous green pools and had to reach out to steady himself by holding the edge of the door.
“We need to discuss things,” he heard his own voice saying from far away.
“Outside, please,” she whispered. “I don't want to wake your mother. We were up late talking and I know she must be jet-lagged.”
He stood aside and let her slip out of the door before he closed it behind her. It took every bit of his control not to touch her as she passed by and started out ahead of him toward the cliff stairs.
Annie sat down on the top stair and stared out at the first rays of orange dawn peeking out over the ocean. She turned back when he came up behind her and motioned for him to sit beside her.
He would rather stand, thank you. Getting too close to her had not proven to be the safest thing for him to do in the past.
Nick went down three steps and turned around to talk, almost face-to-face at this level. It was too close to suit him, but at least he wouldn't have to touch her.
“I thought I had better start out by apologizing for my actions during the storm, Annie.” He fisted his hands and stuck them in his pockets. “This is all myâ”
“Stop it, Nick,” she warned. “My being pregnant is every bit as much my own fault as it is yours. I didn't have to say yes. And as a matter of fact, as I recall, it was me that begged you and not the other way around.”
He blinked twice and simply stared at her. Somehow his voice had been lost in the middle of her little speech.
“I know you're feeling guilty here,” she rushed on. “But don't. It makes me wonder if I shouldn't be feeling guilty myself, and I refuse to do that. And I don't need your pity either, thanks. I don't want you to put yourself out on my account.
“I'm a grown woman who can take care of herself,” she continued. “Your mother has invited me to stay on the island until the baby is born, which I intend to do unless you have major objections. After that, I'm not sure what I'll do, but I would never keep you away from your child if you wanted to see it from time to time.” She hesitated and looked up at him with huge, wary eyes.
“Annie,” he said softly. Her vulnerability and the nervous habit she had of talking too fast made his heart ache. Everything was clear to him all of sudden. There was only one thing that would ever make this situation right.
“I would never be able to rest not knowing how you two were getting along every day,” he told her with a quiet plea in his voice. “Let me be with you, take care of both of youâand do what's right. Marry me.”
“What?” Her eyes blazed at him and she stood up. “I just told you I could take care of myself. You don't need to be some kind of martyr and marry a woman you don't love. We will be fine.”
He'd had a feeling she was going to say that. One little part of him breathed a big sigh of relief. But another large part of him refused to pay attention.
Nick climbed the stair to be on her level and took her lightly by the shoulders. “As you no doubt recall, I don't believe that love is a necessary requirement for getting
married. But honor and fidelity are the best reasons I know of for two people to make a commitment to each other.
“Let me honor you, and honor our child,” he continued.
She looked as if he'd struck her rather than tried to do the right thing. So vulnerable and alone it almost brought tears to his eyes, she bowed her head and sighed.
He rushed ahead, knowing he could push her over the edge now. “Return the favor and do me the honor of becoming my wife, Annie Riley.”
He held his breath for a moment, almost convincing himself it would be better if she turned him down.
Annie lifted her chin and looked at him. “Yes.”
“What?” There was a whooshing sound in his ears and he wasn't sure he'd heard her right. He dropped his hands.
She laughed, but it sounded hollow. “My answer is yes. I will marry you, Nick. Sure you don't wanna take it back?”
“No,” he answered with a raspy voice. He cleared his throat a couple of times before he tried again. “No, of course not. I want to be sure you two are okay. Iâ¦”
“And I'm just old-fashioned enough to want my child to have a father,” Annie interrupted. “So when do you want to do it?”
His head was thumping and his blood was running hot and cold, but he shook it off and tried to focus. “As soon as possible, I guess. Uhâ¦where would you like to have the ceremony take place? Here? Boston?”
“Here. Iâ¦I'm ashamed for my mother to find out and I don't want to tell anyone in my family until after we're married. It'll be easier on everyone that way.”
The whole thing was beginning to sound dirty and way too dry for such a sacred ceremony. But then again, it was him that had wanted them to stay on a businesslike level.
He reached for her but she turned her back. “Go away for now, Nick. We can work out the details later.”
Did she want him to hold her? Perhaps seal the deal with a kiss the way it was in her books? He was afraid to touch her. Afraid he might actually break down if she cried in his arms.
“I'll call the village magistrate and work it out,” he said to her back. “It will be okay, Annie. I promise.”
And God help him, he would move heaven and earth as he'd promised his mother to make it so. For Annie.
Annie held herself together until she heard Nick's footsteps walking away. Running down the stairs to the isolated beach, she finally let her tears flow.
Not sure what she'd expected when Nick turned up at her door at sunrise, a proposal of marriage hadn't even been on the list of possibilities. In the back of her mind, she supposed what she'd imagined was that he would offer money to support his childâsupport both of themâas long as they were somewhere on the other side of the world.
When he'd popped the question, though, marriage suddenly seemed the right thing to do. They shared romantic ideals of family and both of them had prehistoric notions that children needed two parents.
When they'd talked during the hurricane about his first wife wanting a baby, the look on his face had been clear enough. He'd wanted a child, too.
But did he want a new wife? Did he really want her?
Standing at the water's edge, she looked out as the sky completed the change from the periwinkle-blue of predawn to the rose and gold glow of morning. But the beauty she beheld only made the ache in her heart grow stronger.
Tears streamed down her cheeks, as she wondered why things had to be so complicated. Why couldn't she and Nick have fallen in love, then gotten married and had sex, and then had a baby? That was the way it was in fairy tales.
She sniffed and wound her arms around her middle. Grow up, Annie girl. Life is not a fairy tale. No one had ever even hinted that it would be.
She'd said yes to his proposal to quell her panic at being a single mother. Marrying Nick would save her reputation and give her back her family. And maybe their marriage would work out okay in the end.
So what if he could be the most annoying man in the world at times. She respected Nick more than she could say. And she trusted him to take care of her and their babyâeven though he'd made it clear he didn't love or need her.
He was honorable and reliable and rich.
Instead of those thoughts calming her tears, a sob ripped from her throat and the watery flow increased. Oh, God, how she wished he would love her like her father loved her mother. That's what she'd always dreamed about. A Prince Charming whose love would grow stronger each day.
But it was not to be for her. No. She was preparing
to marry a man who didn't love her at all. Wouldn't let himself love her, even though she was half in love with him already.
A nasty image of the future jumped into her mind. Since Nick didn't love her, would it be possible that the ghost of his first wife and her unfulfilled desires could come back to haunt him someday? When Annie's baby came, would it just serve to remind him of how much he wished it was Christina having his child?
Annie didn't think she could accept being married to a man who couldn't bear the sight of her and only stayed married for the child's sake.
Nick would always honor his duty to their child, Annie knew that. But her family was not going to be of any use to Nick's father. Their marriage would not be a meeting of business entities. Without love, they would have nothing to hold them together the way he'd had when he first married Christina.
Annie sniffed back what she hoped were the last of her tears. She'd gotten herself into this mess. If she and Nick became strangers after the baby came, she would just have to get herself back out of it again.
It would absolutely kill her to have to live with him and love him, knowing full well that he couldn't stand being with her.
Love him? Damn it. So it
love that she had already been feeling toward him.
Love. How scary was that?
The tears began again in earnest. Oh heaven help her.
What a mess. Divorce was almost as terrifying a phrase in her family as unwed mother. But what else could she do if it came to that?
Sighing, she knew her hormones were raging and making her a complete mess at the moment. But she simply had to think this through before she made a move.
Her child needed a name and a father. And she really wanted a chance to build a life with Nick. Maybe she could find a way to make him want to keep her in his life, too. Perhaps she could weave a little Irish magic around him and make him need her. Maybeâ¦
Okay, she could do this. She would take the chance on Nick. And just pray she would be strong enough to find a way out if things got unbearable.
Later that afternoon after work, Annie found herself at the village clinic getting a premarital checkup. Nick had disappeared after his own exam, saying he would be back to pick her up in a while.
“You're a fine healthy young woman, Annie,” Doctor Gamble told her. “You should have no trouble carrying this child and as many more as you and Nick decide to have,”
The idea of having more children depressed her. She'd always wanted to have at least four. But those thoughts would have to wait until she saw what happened in her marriage after the first one arrived on the scene.
“Should I expect to limit my physical activities in the later stages of the pregnancy? I want to keep working with the dolphins and I just love being in the ocean. Will I have to stop at some point?”
“I really don't see any reason why you couldn't keep going as long as you feel well. The last couple of weeks before your due date you might want to slow down
some, but swimming is good for you as long as you don't overdo it.
“I'm not sure how Nick is going to handle your spending so much time in the water, though,” the doctor continued.
She stopped rebuttoning her blouse and looked at the doctor. “You mean because his first wife drowned? I know he hasn't been able to get back in the water himself, but that shouldn't have anything to do with me. I'm a terrific swimmer.”
“So was Christina. So was Nick, for that matter. In fact, he was a world-class yachtsman up until the accident. Christina's avocation was marine science research. Nick's was captaining an America's Cup contender.”
“Really? He's never mentioned sailing.”
“He wouldn't. Nick was the one that insisted Christina learn to crew for his team. She didn't like all that speed and the need for such quick response times.”