love, forgiveness and what it means to be a family.”
Meg Michaels, a bookstore owner,
has already walked away from two cheating exes. She’s learned her lesson and
has her mind set on success—until she gets knocked up. Embarrassed and
unwilling to discuss her situation with friends and family, she wears layers to
hide the pregnancy.
When Meg gets sick
at a party, she’s mortified. Even worse, Theo Taylor, the guest of honor,
discovers her secret. Theo, an Army
medic wounded in the war, agrees not to reveal her condition, and the two forge
a bond of friendship that blossoms into love.
Theo is soon filling all of Meg’s late-night cravings—and not
just the pregnancy-induced ones. But can their love overcome all the obstacles that stand between them and creating a happy family?
I first caught sight of Theo at his
welcome home party. A mob shifted around him, jockeying for a position next to
the guest of honor. I lingered near the door to the living room and listened to
the joyful words and murmur of good wishes directed toward him.
Someone whispered, “… lucky to be
The doorbell rang and crowd parted. For
a moment, he stood alone. Tears burned the backs of my eyes. I couldn’t see the
luck in what was left of him.
Ellie pinched my arm. “Don’t stare,”
she said on her way to the door.
I bit my lip, turning away. But my
attention found its way back to him, and I sneaked another look at his arms, surveying
the road map of scars trailing away from bandages. My gaze traveled to his
face, and I gasped. Theo glared at me with defiant hazel eyes, as if to say, Go ahead and look all you want; I can take
it.I knew he’d lived through much worse than I had and that my own
problems paled in comparison with his. I could use some of his strength. But,
of course, I couldn’t tell him that.
“What’s wrong with you?” Ellie
hissed, using the same voice as when she caught me eating the cookies meant for
story time at our bookstore.
She steered me into the dining room,
and once she had me cornered, she snatched a box of tissues and pushed them at
me. “Get control of your hormones. We already went over this. If you want to
keep your secret, you can’t get all teary eyed.
“I know.” I blinked rapidly, waving
the tissues away. “I’m not crying. I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with
me.” I pressed my lips together, trying to clamp down on the list my brain
rattled off. I had plenty wrong with me. But a party wasn’t the time for a self-directed
lashing. I could save that for home, after I dispensed a generous share of
support to my best friend, who was desperate to give her brother-in-law the
hero’s welcome he deserved.
Ellie hugged me, and the tension
between us evaporated.
“Don’t let Theo see you looking at
him with those weepy eyes. He gets pissed whenever anyone shows him an ounce of
“Deal. But I wish we could do
something for him.” I hadn’t meant to gawk at the guy.
With all the progress updates Ellie
had shared with me, I knew far too many details about his surgeries and
struggles. Theo often woke up screaming, but no one said whether his cries came
from pain or nightmares. That knowledge haunted me until my overactive
imagination filled in the blanks. I knew too much about the man, and I’d never
met him before today. Worse, all I could do about it was put on a happy face.
I stepped back and reached out to
touch the soft cotton of Ellie’s new yellow dress. “You look fantastic.” The fabric
hugged the curve of her belly, erasing any doubt she was pregnant and not just
packing on the pounds.
“Thanks.” She scanned the crowd.
“Jake got back late last night,” she whispered. “He picked Theo up at the rehab
facility and brought him to their mom’s house.” The lines around Ellie’s mouth
deepened. “Jake offered to let Theo stay here, but fortunately, their mom
didn’t like that at all. Jake’s optimistic, but I never met Theo before he
deployed, you know? I wish I had.” Ellie rubbed her belly. “Theo’s quiet.”
The doorbell chimed, and Ellie
hurried off. I used the chance to slip into the bathroom. I flipped the exhaust-fan switch and sighed
with relief that the hum muffled the noise of the partygoers. With trembling
hands, I turned on the cold water and let the icy stream rush over the insides
of my wrists. I took a deep breath and checked my clothes in the mirror.
My new Marc Jacobs jacket covered
the basic black T-shirt that hid a waist-contouring camisole. Skinny jeans and
burgundy, open-toed heels completed my look. Almost anywhere else in the
country, my outfit would’ve been perfect for a casual spring evening.
But not in Texas.
Early May, and the temperatures had
already soared into the mid-90s. To make matters worse, my jeans fit tighter
than they had the week before. I’d expected they would loosen after I wore them
awhile. At least the cut of the jacket hid my growing belly. My secret is
safe for another day.
I licked my lips and swallowed the
lump in my throat before rejoining the party. The chatter and laughter had
risen to competitive levels. I couldn't face trying to fit in, and I fell back
into a trance. Theo fumbled around Ellie’s living room, gripping his crutches.
One of his arms was heavily bandaged, and he had a thick square of white gauze
taped below his ear. But what sent a shiver through me was the sight of his leg.
He had only one.
“Come on. I’ll introduce you,” Ellie
said from behind me. She hooked her arm through mine and pulled me along.
“Theo, this is my friend, Meg Michaels.”
“Hello.” He gave a slight nod,
shifting on his crutches to extend his hand to me.
Despite the fact that I’d had my
eyes on him for most of the last half hour, I’d failed to notice his
hit-the-pause-button good looks. Theo’s injuries drew attention away from his
athletic build, but there was no hiding the tall, rock-solid composure. Close-cropped
dark hair added to his dangerous edge. But when his full lips lifted into a
smile, I could barely stand still at the unexpected warmth that surged through
me. That surge skidded to a halt when his brooding eyes locked onto mine.
Theo cleared his throat.
I reached for his hand. “It’s a
pleasure to meet you.” Did he have any idea how much I already knew about him?
My face heated, and I felt like a big dummy while he appraised me as though he
had all day. Ellie had disappeared, and I didn’t know the proper protocol for
socializing with a man I inexplicably felt intimidated by. Not that Theo seemed
He appeared all too comfortable with
silence, but I needed to speak, if he wasn’t going to. So I wouldn’t have to
yell over the noise of the party, I leaned into him, despite the fluttering in
my chest that made it hard to inhale. “Would you…” Background music and clatter
from the growing crowd swallowed my words.
He angled in closer. “What?”
I kept my eyes on his, refusing to
glance at any other part of him. “Can I get you something to drink? Do you need
anything?” I cringed at my voice—too pitchy, too polite.
He shook his head and looked past
I mumbled an excuse about helping
out with dinner, stepped away from him, and fled to the back of the house.
Melinda, Ellie’s mother-in-law,
darted around the kitchen, yanking covered casserole dishes from the fridge and
shoving them in a row along the counter. How had Theo and Jake come from such a
trim little woman? Her white hair fell in waves around her flushed cheeks.
“Hey there.” I huffed shallow
breaths to fend off the strong aroma of browned butter. My stomach clenched.
“Hi Meg.” Melinda's puffy, dark-ringed
eyes surveyed the spread in front of her.
“You’re doing an amazing job, but
don’t you want to go sit with Theo?” I wrapped my arm over her shoulders,
giving her a squeeze, suddenly aware that no one was looking after her needs. I
wasn’t qualified for that job; mothers were not my thing. “Tell me what to do.
I’m here to help.”
“Why did I insist Jake and Ellie
give Theo a party?” Her voice cracked and her lip trembled, but she continued
to work, tearing foil off macaroni and cheese, baked beans, and corn on the
cob. “Theo used to be so popular. He always wanted his friends around—they were
all so wild—but only a few of them replied to the invitation.” She slammed her
hands down on the table and lowered her head. Her pale-blue eyes were wet and
red rimmed, but she held back her tears.
“It’s okay. He’s going to be fine,”
I promised, even though I had no clue if that were true. “He’s not alone. There
are tons of people out there. Ellie invited the staff from the bookstore, and
Jake has plenty of wild friends.”
Melinda turned to me, nodding.
“You’re right. You know, I accepted what Theo had been through… how he had
changed. But that was at the hospital and at rehab where he was surrounded with
guys he could relate to, people who were going through the same thing he was.
It’s different here.” She blinked, and tears slipped in two straight lines down
her face. “Every time I look at a young man I think: Theo should be like that.
He shouldn’t have to go through this. It’s not fair.”
“It’s not, and I’m so sorry.” I
moved to hug her, but she wiped at her face and turned away from me.
“It’s okay. I’m fine.” She cleared
her throat and squared her shoulders. “Theo needs to eat. He has to keep his
energy up. Can you man the grill? I can’t do the burgers and do this.”
“Trust me, no one wants me in charge
of the grill, but I’ll go find Jake. Are you sure you’re okay?”
She yanked open the silverware
drawer and rummaged around, pulling out a collection of serving spoons. “I am.
Thank you, Meg.”
I ducked out of the kitchen, wiggled
my way around the thirty or so people in the living room, dodged conversations
with friends, and found Jake and Ellie whispering together near the front door.
Jake’s hand rested on Ellie’s belly, an image I’d seen many times, but today I
had to look away.
Jake and Ellie highlighted the loneliness of my pregnancy. I could almost long
for Bradley’s return, but since he disliked public displays of affection, I
doubted he’d be much of a tummy toucher. I had called off our wedding four
months earlier, partly because of his business trips. At first, he’d leave me
for a few days or a week at a time. But as his weeks away piled up on each
other, that feeling of a shared life fractured. The longer he stayed away, the
less we connected when he came home.
Especially once I found out he had
plenty of time to spend in the company of another woman.
“Hey, break it up guys,” I said.
“Jake, your mom wants you at the grill.”
As he walked by, he patted me on the
shoulder, in on my little secret. When one’s best friend gets married, one
learns that even the most classified information is going to echo off an extra
set of ears. I loved Jake, though, so I was okay with it. Ellie’s man was
loyal. I’d trusted him even before she did and had convinced her that she was
going to lose a good one if she didn’t give in to love. In the first year of
her marriage, Ellie was already four-and-a-half months pregnant.
That was the best part of my
mistake. While I might have gotten my single self knocked up, at least my
lifelong best friend and soul sister was preggers, too.
“Hey, little momma.” Ellie rubbed
her belly, smiling deliberately at mine.
“Shush!” I looked over my shoulder
and stuffed my hands in my jacket pockets. “Don’t say that.” I’ve never been a
self-conscious person, but since my flat abs had exploded into a telltale pooch
two weeks before, I’d been nearly hysterical, feeling as if I were wearing one
of those "Baby on Board" T-shirts with a big arrow pointing down.
“Sorry, Meg. I just know everything
is going to work out for you.” The warmth in Ellie’s voice triggered a lump in
my throat. “Besides, you’ve always got me to lean on.” She squeezed my shoulder.
Scanning the faces in the room, I
struggled to breathe. How many of those people thought they knew all about me? I
took a step back, but there was no escaping the pressure that rolled over me
like a wave pulling me under.
My stomach churned under the
unrelenting fear of discovery and the weight of choices before me. The smell of
beef cooking on the grill didn’t help. Rising bile in the back of my throat
overwhelmed the familiar metallic taste.
“You don’t look good.” Ellie came to
my rescue, as always. “Why don’t you lie down in my room for a while? I’ll
cover for you.”
“Are you sure? I’m supposed to be
helping you.” I took a deep breath, determined to pull myself together, but
prickling sweat popped out on my brow.
“Let’s go.” Ellie put her arm around
my waist and led me away from the crowd. I looked over my shoulder. Theo was
eating from a plate on a TV tray, carefully chewing each bite. Melinda sat next
to him looking calm and composed.
After Ellie left, I kicked off my
heels and hung my jacket and T-shirt over the chair of her antique vanity in
the far corner of the room. The ceiling fan, set to low, spun in lazy circles.
I lifted my hair in a twist and looked down at my body. The camisole that used
to conceal my belly accentuated the protruding bump. I couldn’t deny the
There was a baby onboard.
I tugged the hem of my camisole up
over my bump and tucked it under my swollen breasts. The snug top stayed where
I’d left it. I couldn’t believe someone was in there. Before, every choice I’d
ever made was calculated. A few random decisions had changed everything.
The bedroom door banged open, and I
jumped, expecting Jake or Ellie. Instead, Theo lumbered in on his crutches and
slammed the door behind him.
“Excuse me, do you mind?” I tugged
my top in place to cover myself, but Theo’s gaze took in my bare skin. He
watched my movements closely and locked the door. For some reason I flushed and
grew warmer as he came closer to the bed. Could
he want to trap me?Of course, the thought was ridiculous. I was pretty
sure my small, five-foot-five-inch, exhausted, knocked-up self could plow
through a one-legged boy covered in bandages if I wanted to get out of there
badly enough. The thing was—I wanted to stay.
“Give me a break.” He hobbled to the
king-size bed without looking at me then propped his crutches against the wall before
falling back onto the mattress. “You think you can hide in here all by
yourself?” He hauled what was left of the lower half of his body onto the bed.
A flash of pain crossed his bronzed face. Closing his eyes, he lay back on the
striped navy sham. He ran his good hand through spiky hair the same tawny brown
as the week-old scruff on his face. “Hit the light on your way out,” he barked.
“Hey, I was here first, and I was
just about to rest there. Ellie told me I could.” I smacked a hand over my
mouth. “Wait… I’m sorry. That was rude.”
Theo lifted his head off the pillow,
squinting from the overhead light. He peered at me in a slow, thorough
inspection that left me fighting not to squirm.
“Well, Jake told me I could crash
here. Turn off the light and come on.” He patted the bed next to him. “Forgive
me—I didn’t see that you are with child.” He rolled his eyes.
The breath shot out of my lungs, and
I wrapped my arms around my stomach as if I could hide the truth. “Stop looking
at me,” I said, making my way to the light switch.
Although he’d draped his tan,
muscular arm across his forehead, I sensed his eyes tracking me. I pictured my
belly growing with each step, the truth transparent. I switched off the lights.
The sun was on the other side of the house, and fading afternoon light glowed
in the room. I went back around the bed and paused, not sure I really wanted to
get in with this hostile-looking guy who had spent recent years surrounded by
sand and weapons.
Theo glared sideways at me. “Don’t
flatter yourself. I’m not about to make a move on some pregnant chick. Either
get in or get out—I don’t care.”
My mouth fell open. “Oh… you think I
think…” My voice quivered, so I stopped and tried another tactic. “I don’t…”
More quivers. I forced out the only response I could manage. “Whatever.” I
snatched my heels off the floor, ready to go home.
“Wait. What are you doing?” Theo
scrubbed his hand over his face. “Don’t go.” His tone softened. “I shouldn’t be
alone right now.” He was giving me those big, puppy-dog eyes, but I could see his
“What? Now you want me to stay?” No
more quivering. The words flowed when the focus was on him. “What’s with you?” I
itched to make a run for it, but even so, he intrigued me.
“Cut a guy some slack, will you? My
social graces are rusty.”
“Oh, please! I’ve been warned not to
give you anything that might resemble sympathy.”
“I don’t want your pity.” A spark
flared in his eyes. “Are you always this sassy, or is your condition playing
with your hormones?” He had a full-on grin, his white teeth gleaming.
His audacity got the best of me.
“Shut up, or I’m going to take your crutches when I leave.”
My threat only made Theo roar with
laughter, infuriating me more.
“You’re a bad girl, teasing a
hurt man. Just get in bed—you look tired. I’ll leave, if you really want me to.”
I gave in because he was right: I
was worn out. “No, don’t go.” I dropped my shoes, went to the bed, pulled back
the covers, and climbed in, staying as far away from him as I comfortably
could. “Let’s call a truce. I’ll stay over here, you stay over there.” I
settled the plush bedding around me and rolled over to face his direction. The
visible side of his body was flawless.
“Fine, but you better not snore or
I’m going to flatten a pillow over your head.”
I stifled a giggle. “You’re not at
all what I expected.”
He jerked his head toward me, eyeing
me suspiciously. “What did you expect?”
“I just thought a war hero would be
nice.” I yawned.
“I’m not nice enough for you?” His
voice, low and smooth, did nothing to hide his amusement.
I relaxed, sinking in the mattress.
“No, you’re a total asshole.”
The bed shook with his laughter.
“Well, at least you’re honest, but don’t call me a hero.”
I heard the smile in his tone, but
my eyes were closed. I really should have
just stayed in bed today, I thought, drifting off to sleep.
My eyes were open before I realized
I was awake. Theo, bathed in moonlight, lay stretched out on top of the covers
next to me.
“You don’t have a ring on.” He
searched my eyes.
“I gave it back when I cancelled the
wedding. Bradley wanted me to keep it…” I looked at my bare hand in the dim
room. My ring finger felt naked without the karat-and-a-half, princess-cut
diamond. Sometimes I still caught myself rubbing the area, searching for the
phantom ring. “But I couldn’t.”
“So what, you didn’t want a shotgun
“Wait. Bradley’s not the father.” I
cringed as soon as the words left my mouth.
His eyes twinkled in the moonlight,
and he grinned again.
“So you are a bad girl.”
Claire Ashby was born and raised in the heart of Atlanta. At a
young age, she began keeping journals and over time embellished the details of
her quiet days. Eventually, she let go of writing
reality altogether and delved completely into the world of fiction.
When she’s not reading or writing, she spends her time watching
extreme survival shows and taking long walks after nightfall. She has an
unnatural love of high places, but still regrets the time she skydived solo.
She believes some things are better left to the imagination. She resides in
Austin with her family and a pack of wild dogs.
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