Copyright © 2017 Lacy Williams
She couldn’t stop shaking.
Jean clicked to end the call. The way her hands trembled, it took two tries. She’d just finished letting her sister—and boss—know she wouldn’t be on time for her shift.
She hadn’t burst into tears, which was one positive.
But it was close as she squinted against the bright summer morning sun and looked again at the mangled mess that used to be her car. The Prius hybrid sedan had been perfect for toting a baby around. Now it was crumpled, the rear end smashed nearly to the steering wheel.
Happy birthday to her.
She rested one hand on the bulge that currently blocked her view of her feet.
“We’re okay, baby,” she whispered. A tiny thump from what might be a hand or foot reassured her.
The car hissed, something inside the engine ticking.
The teenage girl who’d had her face in her phone and had run the four-way stop sign was sobbing into her hands, sitting on the shoulder of the road behind the smashed four-door SUV. A sheriff’s deputy stood nearby, chewing her out. Probably trying to scare her from doing something so stupid again.
A big black truck roared up the gravel road and crunched to a stop twenty yards away.
She knew that truck. Sam.
The firefighter—and her high school crush—stepped out of the truck wearing his turnout pants, thick black boots, and a navy T-shirt with the local station’s crest emblazoned on his pec.
His very muscled pec.
Not that she should be noticing.
She glanced away, drawing a trembling breath.
She heard his footsteps crunching in the gravel as he approached. From her peripheral vision, saw him wave at the deputy. All the emergency responders in their small town knew each other.
“Hey, mama,” he said.
Their group of friends, including her older sister and younger brother, had gifted her the nickname six months ago when she’d announced her pregnancy.
She tried to tip the corners of her mouth up in a smile, but the emotions she’d been holding in let loose.
“Hey.” He reached out for her, but the with tears blurring her eyes, she missed when she tried to avoid his touch. Instead, his arms closed around her, and he drew her into his chest.
She was so shaken that she let him.
He couldn’t get his arms around her waist, so he held her shoulders. Gently. Not quite crossing the Friend line into Romance territory.
She let out the tears that she’d hidden just below the surface since the terrifying moments of the crash.
He held on, a pillar of virile, male strength.
And she liked it. Too much.
She couldn’t allow herself to lean on him.
Because when the baby arrived, she was on her own.
There was no daddy in the picture for them.
It was better not to rely too heavily on Sam now, lest she get weak and needy.
She sniffled and pushed back from his chest. He let her go but didn’t move back. This close, with his blond hair tousled and his brown eyes squinty like he might be worried about her…
That high school crush threatened to rush right back.
She wiped one hand across her cheek, catching the last of the tears that had fallen. “What are you doing here?”
“My shift just ended. I was on my way out the door when Richelle stuck her head in the locker room and told me you’d been in an accident. Thought I’d better check on you.”
That was… weird. Why would the emergency dispatcher think Sam would care one way or another? Everyone in their small town knew they were in the same group of friends. Maybe that was it.
That had to be it, right?
She gestured to the half-Prius. “My car’s totaled.”
What was she going to do? She needed the car to get to work and back. She’d planned to get an infant car seat, but she hadn’t yet. What if the baby came before she could get the insurance mess straightened out? There were still three weeks before her due date, but some babies came early, didn’t they?
She startled when he cupped her cheek gently in his big, work-roughened hand.
Her spinning thoughts focused on his warmth and the intensity of his gaze. “What about you? The both of you?”
She was imagining the intensity. Or… so much adrenaline was still in her body from the crash that it was making her attribute motives where they didn’t exist.
She stepped back. and his hand fell away. Better not to confuse things, right?
Baby needed her to be strong.
“I’m fine,” she said, but the shakiness of her voice belied the statement. She shrugged a little under his stare and propped one hand on her lower back. “My back’s a little sore, but I don’t think it’s from the wreck. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep. I can’t get comfortable.”
A throb of pain in her lower back seemed to punctuate the statement.
“Your car’s not going anywhere. Why don’t you let me give you a ride to the hospital?”
“Unless you’d rather wait for an ambulance.”
Her frown deepened. “I can’t go to the hospital. I have to get to work.”
His stare was so serious it was almost comical. “You’re not going to work. You need to get checked out. Make sure everything’s okay with…” He gestured to her huge belly.
“I’m fine,” she said, but he was already pulling a slim cell phone from his hip pocket. He punched the screen with one finger and then held it to his ear.
That was her sister’s high school nickname, one that no one used much anymore. What was he calling her for?
Jean’s temper ignited as he talked.
“Jean’s not coming in today. I’m taking her to the hospital.”
How dare he? The trip to the nearest town big enough for a hospital was forty-five minutes one way. By the time they waited to be seen, her whole day would be shot.
And it was totally unnecessary.
She was fine.
“Yeah.” He glanced at Jean and then away. If she wasn’t mistaken, a blush was climbing into his cheeks. What was that all about?
She lost the train of thought as a sharp pain stabbed low in her belly and radiated upward. She gasped.
His eyes slid to her. “I gotta go.”
She exhaled in a rush as the stabbing pain dissipated. She started marching toward his truck. The sooner they got this over with, the sooner she could get back to work. She couldn’t afford lost wages.
She only had three weeks before this baby arrived. Every second counted.
Jean let out a surreptitious exhale as the pain gripping her abdomen eased off.
She shifted in the uncomfortable plastic hospital chair, hoping to ease the ache in her lower back. They’d already been in the ER waiting room for an hour.
The country hospital was so small there wasn’t an obstetrics wing. But the ER was bustling.
Apparently there’d been a spate of bad luck today. Some high school kid got injured running track first period. Another bad car accident. And a little girl with an infected spider bite. Jean was supposed to be next.
Of course the man next to her noticed her discomfort.
“That’s the fourth one this hour,” he said, and it was hard to miss the concern in his voice. Friendly concern.
“It’s just Braxton Hicks.”
She’d had the practice contractions off and on for the past week. Although they hadn’t been nearly this strong. “There’s still three weeks to go,” she said, maybe a little too brightly.
She sat forward on the edge of her seat, using one hand to press against her lower back.
Sam probably meant to comfort her by staying, but she worried that she was making him miss some much-needed rest after his twenty-four-hour shift.
And she couldn’t stop thinking about how he’d held her on the roadside. For those few moments, she’d felt… safe. Cared for. Like she was more than a friend to him.
Which was stupid.
Hadn’t she already proved she sucked at relationships? She was twenty-three, and the only relationship she’d had since college had imploded more than a year ago.
Eight months ago, she’d had a one-night stand. A stupid brainless decision borne from her desire for connection, a real connection with another human being. With an absentee mother and a father who’d worked too much to compensate, she’d never really felt connected to anybody.
Well, she hadn’t gotten the connection she’d craved that night. She’d woken up in a shroud of shame and guilt and then reaped a heap of consequences for her choice.
She didn’t even know the guy’s last name or phone number.
She was going it alone. Just her and Baby.
The last thing she needed was a muddle of feelings for Sam, feelings probably fueled by an overflow of hormones and panic as the due date marched ever closer.
“Here. Let me.”
Before she realized what was happening, Sam had edged nearer. His broad hands moved her fingers out of the way, and he began to massage her lower back.
“Tell me if I hurt you.”
She almost moaned at the perfect pressure of his fingers right where she needed it. The ache in her muscles loosened beneath his touch.
After a few minutes, his hands swept up her back to settle on her shoulders. She hadn’t realized how much tension she was holding there until it started to fall away under his ministrations.
Another contraction built, pressure growing from the bottom of her belly and radiating upward.
Sam must’ve felt her tense up. His hands stilled, cupping her shoulders until it passed and she exhaled.
He squeezed her shoulders gently. “Probably not how you planned to spend your birthday, huh?”
She’d been trying not to think about it. One more year before her quarter-century birthday, and she’d failed in the life-planning department. She worked as an assistant in her sister’s tiny law practice. Was getting ready to welcome a baby into her life. And now she had no car.
Whoop-dee-do. Happy birthday to her. She’d even convinced her siblings not to throw her a party this year. She didn’t want to be the center of attention while she looked like a whale.
His hands swept down again, focusing on the lower back, where the ache had returned.
She couldn’t help it. The tension drained out of her body—for the moment, anyway—and she leaned into him. His shoulders were broad enough to support her—even with the baby weight. Her head rested in the hollow between his jaw and shoulder. And his magic hands kept working on her lower back.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I’ll move in just a—”
Another contraction came, this time more suddenly. She caught her breath. They were coming faster.
But they could still stop, right?
“Easy.” His voice came close to her ear, low and steady. “Breathe.”
She closed her eyes. The moment felt intimate. Too intimate for just friends.
The contraction pulsed and faded. She really should sit up. Move away from Sam.
But his hands smoothed down her arms, sending shivers through her that had nothing to do with the baby. Then he clasped both of her hands.
“This isn’t the best timing, but… I’ve had feelings for you for a long time.” She was still pressed against him and felt his throat work as he swallowed.
The top of her head went hot, and then heat trickled down her face and into her neck.
“I was waiting for the right time, and then you announced you were pregnant. The timing never seemed right, and… this sounds stupid but, I don’t want to wait anymore.”
She should sit up, but it felt easier not to look at him. She’d never expected this. And here she sat, looking like a fat cow. There wasn’t anything remotely attractive about her right now.
“I don’t know what to say,” she whispered.
His chest expanded, and then he exhaled. “You don’t have to say anything right now, but I wanted you to know… I want to be there for you. And the baby.”
Just then, an older woman approached them. A grandma, maybe, with silver hair and glasses. “I just wanted to say that you two are the cutest couple. When is your baby due?”
Stunned, Jean sat with her mouth half-open, struggling to find an answer. Before she could, another contraction took her, this one strong enough that she cried out.
I’ve had feelings for you for a long time.
I don’t want to wait anymore.
I want to be there for you. And the baby.
Jean panted through another contraction. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
This was happening. The baby was coming. And she wasn’t ready.
Minutes ago—hours?—her had water broken. Sam had rushed up to the nurse behind the desk and demanded a room. His commanding presence had gotten things moving, and now she was in a hospital gown, an uncomfortable monitor wrapped around her middle to gauge the baby’s heartbeat. The hospital bed was uncomfortable, her feet were burning up beneath the covers the nurse had tucked over her.
Her OB was on the way.
She wiped her face with a tissue from the bedside table.
She couldn’t stop thinking about the things Sam had said.
She was officially in labor, and in between contractions, her mind was spinning with his declarations.
A knock sounded at the door, and she called out, “Come in.”
And there was Sam, sticking his head and shoulders in the door.
Was he looking at her differently? There was a softness in his eyes. Had it always been there, and she’d missed it, too wrapped up in her own self, her own problems?
“You can come in.” She hadn’t planned to say it, but there it was.
He moved slowly toward the bed.
“Carrie’s on her way,” he said. “And your brother’s not far behind.”
Tears filled her eyes again. Stupid hormones. Carrie was her delivery coach. She’d encourage her through this.
Another contraction came, and Jean’s head arched back on the bed. Everything tightened, even her lungs. She couldn’t catch her breath.
Sam held her fingers in a loose clasp. She grabbed onto him, squeezing so tightly her knuckles turned white.
“You’ve got this,” he said softly. “Breathe with me.” He did a series of short and long breaths, a pattern that she was able to follow.
Her breathing evened out as the contraction faded. She was crying again. and he handed her tissues before she could even think to ask.
She mopped up her face as best she could. “You’re really good at this.”
He grinned. “Our truck once responded to an emergency call for a woman in labor. We got very close to delivering her baby on the side of the road.”
She could see him in her mind’s eye, tall and confident as he helped a laboring mother. He was doing it now, with her, wasn’t he? He was still in his uniform, his shoulders broad beneath that T-shirt.
Maybe it was just a hero complex. His supposed feelings for her.
Another contraction came. She gasped against the pain, not able to follow his breathing this time.
“I don’t—think I can—do this,” she gasped. She was starting to realize the severity of her situation. A baby was going to exit her body. Soon.
He smiled tenderly at her, not complaining as her fingers remained locked around his.
“You’re doing fine,” he said.
“Nuh-uh,” she grunted as the contraction eased off. She let go of him this time. “I was s-supposed to have three more weeks. I don’t even have the crib set up.” A soft sob shook her. “I don’t have a car seat. I don’t have a car!” She ended in a wail.
“You have friends,” he said simply. “Friends who care about you. We’ll get it taken care of.”
Another contraction came. They were close together now.
Everything was happening too fast!
“Why?” she wailed through the pain. She panted. “You don’t—even know me—not really.” Her stomach lurched. “Oooh,” she groaned. “I’m going to throw up—”
He reached behind the bed, somewhere she couldn’t see, and came up with a collapsible bag. A barf bag.
She clutched it, but the contracted eased off before she needed to use it.
He brushed her sweaty hair out of her eyes. “I know you. You work for sister not because you need to, but because she needs your help as she gets her practice up and running. You saw a connection between your brother and Amanda and set them up. You volunteer at the animal shelter and at your church’s soup kitchen. And I know you’re scared.”
Here came another contraction. He held the barf bag in front of her face.
The pain was too great for her to be embarrassed.
“And you know me,” he said calmly, like they were having a normal conversation.
She panted for breath.
“You know about my dad leaving senior year, you know that I lost my brother—my best friend—in Afghanistan.”
She closed her eyes against the onslaught of pain, but even so, she could imagine his earnest gaze.
“You know my faults, too. I’m messy in the kitchen when I cook. I can’t read a map to save my life. And sometimes I talk too much.”
She couldn’t help but smile at that one.
The contraction dissipated, and she could breathe again. She opened her eyes, and he was right there, his stare just as steady as she’d imagined it.
His hand closed over hers on the bed rail.
“You can trust me. I won’t break your heart.”
“Knock knock!” Carrie’s voice rang out as she swirled into the room, larger than life.
Sam didn’t look away from Jean. “Reinforcements.” He smiled wryly. “I was kinda hoping she’d get delayed, and I could stay.”
He was? He really wanted to see her when she was a teary, testy mess?
“I’ll be back,” he said. He leaned closer and brushed a kiss on her sweaty cheek. “You got this,” he whispered.
And then he was gone.
“Here comes another one. Push this time.”
A scream clawed its way out of Jean’s throat as pain ripped through her.
“Another big push.”
“I—can’t!” she wailed.
“Yes, you can.” Carrie’s calm demeanor annoyed Jean.
Another scream escaped as a contraction followed right on the heels of that one.
A gush and a release and then—
“Here he is,” the doctor said.
A squalling, tiny, fluid-covered little body was laid on her chest. She raised shaking arms to hold this little naked person.
He stopped crying, staring at her with dark blue eyes, open wide.
“Hello, you,” she whispered, tears blurring her vision. She quickly blinked them away, not wanting to miss one second.
Moments stretched long as they stared at each other, breathed together.
Two days later, Jean cuddled little Eli close as the nurse helped her into a wheelchair—standard procedure for new moms getting discharged.
Carrie was packed up with a diaper bag and Jean’s necessities, ready to follow her out of the hospital. She’d assured Jean that she had a car seat ready to go.
Sam hadn’t returned since he’d left an hour or so before the baby had been born.
She knew he had a shift at the firehouse, but she ‘d sort of expected a call… at the very least.
Did he regret all the things he’d said in the heat of the moment?
Had he realized exactly what a relationship with a single mother would entail? She’d been up all night feeding the baby. She caught snatches of sleep throughout the day. There was no room for dating in her life—wouldn’t be for months, maybe years.
Not to mention that while she’d grabbed a shower this morning thanks to Carrie holding the baby, she didn’t have a stitch of makeup on, and her hair was barely controlled in a French braid. And her stomach… no one had warned her about the draggy folds of skin that would remain after the baby was born. Ugh.
Why would a good-looking guy with a great job want to sign up for laundry, dishes, and tons of dirty diapers with a woman who looked like she did? She couldn’t blame him for staying away.
In the dark of night, when she’d been up feeding the baby, she’d thought a lot about Sam.
And realized the crush she’d had on him in high school had never really gone away. She’d been distracted from by college and dating, but it remained. It was different, but it was as strong as ever.
He’d been right when he’d said she knew him. He was one of the good guys. Someone she could trust.
Someone she could… love?
But none of that mattered if he was no longer interested.
She looked down on the precious bundle in her arms. Her son.
It still seemed surreal.
With her forefinger, she traced baby Eli’s fingers and then the back of his tiny hand.
From the moment the nurse had laid his naked body on her chest, her heart had expanded until it felt it might burst from her chest. Every time she looked at him, she felt it all over again.
Her worries hadn’t disappeared, but she was determined to make the best of things for her son.
First order of business when they got home, assemble that crib. Her sister and brother had purchased it for her early in her pregnancy, but she’d avoided it for months. She was done avoiding. She had someone to take care of now.
The hospital’s automatic sliding doors opened, and the nurse wheeled her onto the sidewalk, Carrie following behind.
Jean blinked in the orange afternoon sunlight. It’d be dinnertime soon. Maybe she’d talk Carrie into picking up something at the cafe on their way to her house.
She looked for Carrie’s car at the curb, but a red minivan was parked right in front.
And then Carrie went right up to it and opened the passenger door. She pushed a button on a key fob, too, and the back doors—on both sides!—gently motored open. A car seat was plainly visible in the bucket seat.
“What is this?” Jean asked. “Where’s your car?”
“This is your rental. Until the insurance claim is finalized.”
Carrie only answered with an enigmatic smile. She took Eli from Jean and gently set him in the car seat.
Jean stood, watching as her son settled in with a tiny yawn.
“Hop in,” Carrie said.
So she did.
Carrie was remarkably close-mouthed on the forty-five minute drive home. And she refused to stop for food.
Five minutes out, Eli began fussing. Within moments, his fussing turned into ear-splitting squalls.
Carrie turned the car onto Jean’s tree-lined street. “What’s wrong with him?”
“He might be hungry again.” Jean unbuckled and turned around in her seat, hanging over the back of it to try and see the baby. She put his pacifier in, which he instantly spit out. His cries got louder.
Carrie pulled into Jean’s driveway, and she jumped out almost before the car was in park.
Because she’d been facing backwards, she hadn’t noticed until now that several cars and pickups were parked next to her curb.
“What’s going on?”
Carrie shrugged, but the expression that had been enigmatic at the hospital had turned slightly panicked.
Jean fought with the car seat for several precious seconds as Eli continued to cry, red-faced and screaming at the top of his lungs.
Carrie headed up the sidewalk carrying Jean’s bags. Jean lifted the carseat and followed. The door stood open as Jean brought the baby in his carrier.
And came face-to-face with all her friends.
“Surprise!” they shouted.
And she promptly burst into tears.
Eli had been so worked up and Jean had been so overwhelmed that it’d taken thirty minutes in her darkened, quiet bedroom for them both to calm down long enough for him to eat.
He kept falling asleep as he suckled, which meant it took almost an hour for him to finish.
She gently raised him to her shoulder and patted out a burp, careful not to wake him.
She stared at the closed bedroom door. Were her friends still waiting out there? The birthday balloons and their curious, happy glances had felt overwhelming as she’d stood in her sweats with her baggy belly and no makeup on, a wailing baby her perfect accessory.
But she should at least thank them, shouldn’t she?
She opened the door a crack, listening.
It was quiet.
She patted the baby’s bum as he rested against her shoulder and wandered down the hall toward the living room.
She stalled out in the open doorway of the baby’s room. A soft light glowed from a lamp on the dresser.
The crib had been assembled. It stood white and beautiful against the pale yellow wall, caddy-corner to the window. So had the changing table she’d forgotten about purchasing.
An afghan she hadn’t knitted was folded on a rocking chair she didn’t remember purchasing. Curious, she went to the closet. Inside, someone had assembled an organizer and sorted all the baby clothes she’d received at the shower Carrie had insisted on throwing her. Soft baby blankets were folded on the shelf.
And several boxes of diapers were stacked on the floor.
Who’d done all this?
She left the room and walked down the hall. A little faster this time.
Everyone was gone.
One side of a banner that read “Happy birthday” had fallen, and two balloons were in remnants on the floor.
And someone was moving around in the kitchen. Two someones, based on the low murmur of voices.
Her stomach grumbled, so she headed that way.
Carrie was still there.
Her sister looked between them and then sent Jean a huge wink. “I think I’ll show myself out.”
Jean stared after her. When her sister had disappeared, she turned to Sam. “She knows?”
From the other room, the front door closed with a soft snick.
A blush was climbing into Sam’s cheeks. “Yeah. She noticed me pining after you a couple of months ago, and she gave me a couple of prods.”
He was probably being polite. Carrie wasn’t known for being subtle.
He raised both hands and ran them into his hair, gripping the thick strands. The muscles in his forearms flexed.
“I’m really sorry. That was probably the worst idea I’ve ever had. I thought, since you’d missed your birthday…”
Now that things were quiet and it was only the two of them, Jean could smile. A little.
“It’s okay.” She’d been the one to overreact. “I just… It was really unexpected and I’m pretty tired and… and I know I don’t look my best.” Her hand went to her stomach of its own accord. She definitely didn’t want him looking there.
His eyes were soft, and he took a step closer. “I think you look absolutely beautiful.”
Heat climbed into her face. “Does your chief know you need an eye exam?”
He chuckled. “Can I see him?”
Sam came closer and edged around her to see the sleeping baby’s face. His hand came to rest at her lower back, warm and steady.
“He’s so tiny,” Sam whispered.
The awe in his voice expanded her heart in her chest.
“The best birthday present ever,” she whispered.
“Carrie sent me every picture she took. I wanted to get back up to the hospital to see you guys, but…”
“You’ve been busy.” Jean dared to turn slightly, putting herself face to face with him. Close.
Close enough that he could put his arms around her if he wanted.
He didn’t, but she could see in his eyes that he was waiting for some sign from her.
She swallowed hard. “I thought about what you said. A lot.”
And that had been before she’d come home to find all the lovely things he’d done for her.
He wasn’t touching her, but he held her with the intensity of his gaze. “Yeah?”
She nodded. “And I think I’d like to try. To be together. With you.”
A slow, warm smile spread across his face. His hands rested gently at her waist, and he drew her close. He brushed a kiss on her forehead and then let go of her with one hand to raise her chin and tilt her face up.
He waited, maybe for her to grant permission.
She wanted his kiss. Tilted her mouth toward him minutely.
His lips closed over hers, warm and tasting of cinnamon gum. She felt his kiss all the way to her toes. Heat and emotion rushed to the top of her head.
And then he drew back, his hand cupping her jaw. “Beautiful,” he whispered.
Eli snuffled and shifted on her shoulder, but he didn’t wake. Could the baby hear her pounding heart, tucked so close to it?
“I can hear your stomach growling,” he whispered, kissing the end of her nose.
She wrinkled it at him. Talk about ruining the romance.
But he was grinning. “There’s dinner warming in the oven. Why don’t you sit in your recliner, and I’ll bring it to you?”
That sounded perfect. It’d been a long time since someone had wanted to take care of her.
Sam seemed to read her feelings in her eyes, because he brushed another gentle kiss across her lips.
“Always.” He gave her a gentle push toward the living room.
She settled in the recliner, Eli in the cradle of her arm, and wondered at the changes in her life in just two days.
Eli was a wonderful surprise.
And Sam… Sam was a gift she’d never expected.