THE STILLNESS OF THE NIGHT was broken only by the quiet murmur of the sea. Gently undulating waves lapped the Gulf Coast shoreline. Soft as a sigh, a salt-tanged breeze wrapped its way around the solitary figure roaming the sandy stretch of beach.
There was a sensual fullness to the tall and graceful form, from the curve of rounded breasts beneath the pale blue cotton top, to the coltish legs clad in dark blue slacks. The woman ceased her restless prowling and slowly closed her eyes, lifting her face to the sable canopy that stretched endlessly above. Hundreds of diamond-bright stars wove a meandering pathway through the night-dark sky. The moonlight shone down on her profile, etching in silver the small straight nose, the full mobile mouth, the wavy hair that flowed like silk halfway down the proud lines of her back.
To a casual observer, she might have appeared much like the serene moonlit Texas night of which she was so much a part. But only the moon, the stars and the sky were there to bear witness to the turmoil in her mind—and her heart.
No, there was little comfort to be found in the solitude of the night for Jenna Bradford. And for the third night in a row, she was very much afraid she would find sleep just as elusive.
A sudden burst of wind sent her long black hair whipping around her face. Eyes that were normally a vivid shade of green turned dark with uncertainty as she opened them and lifted a slender hand to brush the wayward strands from her face. Wrapping her arms around herself to ward off the sudden chill, she retraced her steps with a long-legged stride that soon carried her to the rear of a long string of apartment buildings dotting the shoreline. Once on the flagstoned terrace, however, she made no move to enter her home. Instead she settled herself on a lounge chair and gazed out at the glasslike surface of the Gulf.
Jenna smiled a little ruefully as she pulled a blanket over her shoulders. Neil would have a fit if he could see her now. Her late-night excursions would have to stop once they were married; he would never stand for it. Perhaps Neil was a bit overprotective, but he had compensating qualities, she hastened to remind herself. He was concise and articulate, not only in his manner of speaking but in his way of thinking, as well. She suspected this stemmed from his years in law school. With his oftentimes serious, intent look, she occasionally teased him that he reminded her of a wise old bird. A pair of owlish glasses was all that was needed to complete the picture. Yet, even though she admired his sound reasoning and judicious nature, she was beginning to wonder if he wasn't rather... ambitious.
And somehow, Jenna wasn't quite sure how she felt about that.
But now was a time for joy, a time to love and be loved, a time every little girl dreams of. She should have been deliriously happy, she told herself for what seemed the thousandth time that day. Well, perhaps not deliriously so, since that wasn't her style. But certainly she had every reason to be thankful.
Again her eyes grew troubled as she gazed at the luminescent moon riding high in the sky. Thankful. It was, perhaps, an odd word to describe a woman who was to be married to a successful Houston attorney in six weeks' time.
Pre-wedding jitters. Could that possibly be what this vague uneasiness about her future husband could be? She breathed an uneasy sigh. She wasn't sure, and a twinge of guilt shot through her. Neil, her wedding, her future with him, should have filled her thoughts to the exclusion of all else. Instead the past few days had found her looking over her shoulder, unable to escape the specter of the past.
No, it wasn't Neil who dwelled in her thoughts so much as... Robbie. Robbie. Again she felt that elusive tug on her heart, like a fish caught on a hook and struggling to be free.
It was hard to believe the evening three days prior had started so innocently. Jenna shook her head. Her feelings, capped tightly in storage for nearly four years, had suddenly escaped, like a burst of steam from a kettle, and now she was being forced to deal with them. The only problem was how. Her heart gave her only one choice, but her mind urged caution. Three days of searching and she still wasn't sure. But was her choice the right one? For her? For him? For all concerned?
Her doubts had started Monday night, just a few days after she'd stopped working. It had been ages since she'd taken a vacation, and with so many details to be taken care of before the wedding, she had decided to take a short leave of absence from her nursing job in the Galveston Hospital Emergency Room. She and her mother had spent the day in Houston shopping for a wedding gown, and when her mother had headed home late in the afternoon, Jenna had met Neil for an early dinner. Later, when the nose of his car pointed toward Galveston, she glanced over in surprise as he exited the highway for a suburb twenty-five miles from the city. He drove straight to the heart of a residential district, finally pulling over to the curb on a wide, tree-lined street.
"Well, what do you think?" With the characteristic energy that was almost his trademark, Neil was at the car door and opening it for her before she had a chance to turn in her seat.
Out on the sidewalk, Jenna could only stare at the large Cape Cod-style house in front of her. Dense foliage edged the house before giving way to a velvety green lawn that stretched to the curb. Tendrils of ivy hugged the base of the huge oak tree in the middle of the front yard, lending a homey ambience that she found immensely appealing.
"Why are we stopping here, Neil?" she asked curiously as he pulled her toward the house. "I thought you were taking me home."
A slight breeze ruffled his thick brown hair, and he grinned openly at her. "How would you feel about calling this place home?" Pulling her toward the front door, he laced his fingers through hers.
Stunned, Jenna turned slightly to stare over his shoulder. Her gaze encompassed the house and surrounding expanse of lawn before she turned her tentative look on him.
"Well, don't you have anything to say?"
A niggling feeling of suspicion traced its way up her spine. "Neil," she began, "are you trying to tell me—"
"I bought this place?" he finished for her, smiling. "Not exactly, but I think we should think seriously about it. Even the location is perfect—halfway between Houston and Galveston. It's no more than a thirty-minute drive to work for either of us." He grabbed her hand and pulled her along behind him. "Come on, I'll give you the grand tour."
Jenna was speechless as he produced a key and led her through the house, exclaiming delightedly over the extensive use of wood and brick throughout, the polished oak parquet floors, the crisp starched curtains hanging at the windows. When they were standing in what Neil informed her was the master bedroom, he wrapped an arm around her and tipped her face up to his. "Tell me the truth now. Do you like it?"
"I—I love it," she told him breathlessly. "But I had no idea—"
"I know." His mouth curved in a self-satisfied smile. "I wanted to surprise you. You don't mind, do you?"
"Mind! How could I mind living in this lovely home?" Her fingers traced his cleanly shaven jaw. "You're a treasure, Neil. You know that, don't you?"
He laughed and pressed a kiss in the palm of her hand before his eyes roamed around the room. "You're the one who's a treasure. I wish I'd found you years ago. Long before I ever met Anna." He shook his head. "Marrying her was the worst mistake of my life. Thank God the marriage lasted only two years."
Jenna smiled. "Marrying her was probably the only mistake you've ever made in your life," she teased gently. "And you did find the perfect woman eventually."
"A woman after my own heart," he said, looking down at her. "Just as dependable, efficient, stable and practical—"
"As you are," Jenna finished, laughing. "I've never been much of a believer in the theory that opposites attract."
Neil drew her body firmly against his. "We are a lot alike, you know. Anna used to prattle on incessantly. I think your reserve was one of the first things that attracted me to you."
"I didn't think you even noticed," she recalled dryly. "The night we met you were too busy talking about the job offers you'd had and which one you were going to accept."
His smile was a little sheepish. "What can I say? I was fresh out of law school and I guess it went to my head."
On reflection, she could see why. Neil had worked hard for his law degree. His parents had farmed a small piece of land in west Texas that had seen drought after drought for many a year, and his childhood hadn't been the easiest. After a stint in the military, Neil had been nearly twenty-six before he'd been able to scrape up enough money even to begin college. But despite juggling his classes with a full-time job, he had graduated from law school with honors. As a result, he'd had offers from several prestigious law firms. He had finally accepted a position as legal counsel for Citizens for Texas, a watchdog land conservation group that had become a force to be reckoned with during the past two years.
"You told me once you thought I was rather standoffish," she remembered suddenly.
"You do come across that way at times," he said, raising an eyebrow. "You're not shy, just rather conservative. Not that there's anything wrong with that." A rare twinkle appeared in his eyes. "But I certainly never thought I'd have an Amazon in my bed."
She smiled in spite of herself. "You may never have one in your bed if you keep this up," she warned him with mock severity. Neil was usually so serious and businesslike; she enjoyed the few times he teased her. But the fact that she didn't wear her heart on her sleeve was no indication that her feelings weren't as strong as the next person's. And as for her height, she was tall for a woman—five-nine in her bare feet. Secretly she was glad she didn't have the large bone-structure that sometimes went hand in hand with such height in a woman. As a child, she'd hated towering over her schoolmates, boys and girls alike. It wasn't until Jenna was thirteen, when her mother finally convinced her to throw back her shoulders and make the most of her slender gracefulness, that she'd gotten over her self-consciousness. And, she had to admit, it was certainly no liability for a nurse to have a strong back.
She lifted her hands to Neil's shoulders and glanced up at him. "When Mother and I were shopping today, I found the most fantastic wedding dress at Neiman-Marcus." Touching her lips gently to his, she smiled up at him. "You should see it, Neil—yards and yards of ivory satin and lace, a high Victorian neckline..."
A half smile tipped his lips. "Are you trying to tell me I'm marrying an old-fashioned girl?"
"I thought I was marrying an old-fashioned guy," she retorted pertly.
"You are." Gently he untangled her arms from around his neck. "Come on, I'll show you the rest."
There were four bedrooms upstairs, a country-sized kitchen, very spacious living room and a small den downstairs. Though the house was old, it had obviously received a great deal of tender loving care.
"Has it been on the market long?" she asked as they stepped into the dining room. Her voice bounced off the walls of the empty room.
Neil shook his head. "The owner was transferred out of state. I don't think it will take long to sell once it goes into multiple listing. Mark Henderson tipped me off about it."
"Mark?" She glanced over in surprise. A big, sandy-haired man with a booming voice, he was an acquaintance of Neil's. "I thought he was an insurance salesman."
Neil nodded. "He's taken up real estate on the side." Blue eyes alight, he clasped both her hands in his. "Well, what do you think? Should we buy it?"
Jenna frowned. "What about the price?" she asked cautiously. "You're not a struggling young attorney anymore, but can we afford it?"
A faint line appeared between his eyebrows. "You said it yourself, Jenna. I'm not a struggling young attorney. Do you think I'd even consider it if I thought it was beyond our reach?"
It was, she decided, a silly question, after all. Neil was perhaps the most organized person she had ever known, always planning ahead. Her smile reappeared. "Does that mean no more peanut butter sandwiches for lunch?"
He seemed to relax. "No more peanut butter sandwiches," he assured her, then kissed her briefly on the mouth. "The owners are eager to sell and they're asking less than market value. I think we could make this place a home, Jenna." Slipping an arm around her narrow waist, he walked her into the living room, glanced sideways at her and said lightly, "I can see it already—coming home from the office into your arms, the smell of fresh-baked bread drifting through from the kitchen, the pitter-patter of little feet upstairs—"
"Whoa!" Jenna wrinkled her nose at him. "I might be a little old-fashioned, but homemade bread? Not unless you'd like a few broken teeth. Yeast and I just don't get along. And as far as the pitter-patter of little feet..." She shook her head. "There's no hurry, remember? We've already decided to put that off for a while."
"I know. But I've been thinking." He gave a shrug. "We've got money in the bank and we're financially able to support a child. Why wait?"
Jenna stared up at him for a few seconds before gently pulling away from his arms. "But we already agreed," she protested. "We were going to wait at least a year."
Neil frowned. "What's the matter, Jenna? I thought you liked children."
She half turned away from him, aware of the displeasure in his tone. "I do," she said earnestly, then hesitated. "But there's plenty of time—"
"This is the perfect time." Neil's face softened as he caught her by the shoulders and turned her to face him. "And how are perfect in every way for me, Jenna. You'll be a perfect wife, a perfect mother." He bent to take her lips in a brief kiss. "That's why I'd like to buy this place. My apartment in Houston is no place to bring up a child. Here he or she will have room to run, room to grow."
Jenna grew suddenly stiff in his arms. "You want to buy this house because you think it's the perfect place to bring up a child? I thought you wanted it for us."
The minute the words were out of her mouth she realized how selfish they sounded. But Neil didn't seem to notice.
"I do. For all of us. And now that I've been giving it some serious consideration, I like the idea of having a child right away. After all, I'm a man on his way up and I won't be at Citizens for Texas forever. And I have an idea being a family man could be a big plus for my career."
"A man on his way up..." Jenna could hardly believe what she was hearing. His tone was matter-of-fact, but laced with a touch of something she found oddly disturbing. "I thought you liked your job," she said slowly. "I thought you believed in what Citizens for Texas stands for. Environmental law is your specialty."
"That's not the point, Jenna." There was a slight tinge of exasperation in his voice. "The experience has been invaluable, but who says I have to be locked in to one organization for the rest of my life? In fact, I've been putting out a few feelers lately and it looks as if I might be in hot demand. We're going places, lady!" he said almost gleefully. "I have big plans, Jenna. Plans for me, plans for you, plans for us." His blue eyes gleamed as he squeezed her waist and grinned down at her.
Jenna felt almost sick. There was nothing wrong with a little ambition. After all, Neil had had so little as a child and he'd come such a long way. But she couldn't shake the feeling that he was being greedy, that he wanted too much too soon. She had to struggle to find her voice. "And those plans include starting a family right away?"
"The sooner the better. In fact, even six weeks is too long to wait." His expression changed as he bent to take her lips in a hungry kiss. "I wish we were getting married tomorrow," he whispered against her mouth. "And don't say you weren't warned—I don't intend to let you out of bed for an entire week after we're married."
And that should accomplish what he wanted quite effectively, Jenna reflected with some resentment. Unable to feel her usual tingling response at his touch, she pulled away from him to gaze out the window. Darkness was settling, and pink and purple clouds hovered on the horizon. Love and family and children were what marriage was all about, so why was she feeling such a burning sense of betrayal? Neil was a strong-principled man, staunch and firm in his beliefs. He was close to his parents and two sisters, perhaps not as close as she was to her mother and father, but they kept in touch and spent many holidays together. And yet... here he was talking about making a home, having children and his career in the same breath.
She clenched her hands. She was overreacting, she told herself frantically. Putting too much into his words, looking beyond them. But that didn't explain her strange reaction to the mention of a baby so soon in their future.
Jenna's skin grew cold and clammy. Suddenly she knew what was behind this vague feeling of doubt she was experiencing, and it could be summed up in a word.
"Jenna, what's wrong?"
She could feel Neil's puzzled look on her face and shook her head quickly. There were some things better left unsaid and—God, but she hated to think it forgotten. Buried in the past, where they belonged.
She forced a smile. "Nothing. Nothing at all."
And she went through the evening with a curious feeling of hope in her heart—hope that the matter would work itself out and things could go back to the way they were before. But it was a sense of blighted hope, as she soon discovered.
They had finally agreed to put off making a decision about the house and give it a little more thought, but again and again over the next three days she recalled his wish for a child, and soon the words hung over her like an oppressive shroud. He wanted a family right away. Regardless of Robbie, regardless of Neil's reasons, the idea shouldn't have bothered her so much. They had discussed children soon after their engagement six months ago, and she'd known the first time they'd touched on the subject that she was going to have to deal with it eventually. But now that the prospect was baldly staring her in the face, she was aware of a nagging restlessness inside her, and she wasn't sure why.
Still, she tried to delude herself. She even tried to picture herself as the mother of Neil's child. Would he or she have Neil's rich brown hair with her green eyes? Or would he have her dark hair and Neil's blue eyes? Or would their child be a carbon copy of him—or her?
But that was when the trouble really started, because no matter how many times she tried to envision herself with a baby in her arms—Neil's baby—all she could see was another.
She drew a deep, unsteady breath as she continued to gaze vacantly at the Gulf. There would come a day when she could remember Robbie without this hurting, empty ache inside, but when? When?
She couldn't hide things from Neil any more than she could continue to deceive herself, and the matter had finally come to a head a few hours ago. Neil had come for dinner, and it was after they had cleared the table that he drew her down beside him on the couch.
His fingers slid beneath her hair to knead the taut muscles of her shoulders. "Something's bothering you, Jenna," he remarked softly. "Tell me what's wrong."
Jenna sat silent for a long time, her fingers clasped tightly in her lap. For an instant she considered telling him the truth—"the whole truth, nothing but the truth." The phrase rang like a death sentence through her mind. Still, given the same set of circumstances again, she knew she'd have done exactly the same thing as she'd decided before. But would Neil understand? Would he forgive her? Yet what was there to forgive? She'd done nothing wrong; she had nothing to be ashamed of. She had given two people what they had desperately longed for, all they'd ever wanted in the world, and it was a gift more precious than gold.
She had once promised herself there would be no regrets, no dwelling on the past or on what might have been.
"You've been acting strangely ever since I showed you the house." Despite his soothing touch on the muscles of her shoulders, there was a trace of impatience in his voice. "I thought you liked it."
A sigh escaped her lips and she smiled weakly. "I love the house, Neil."
When she hesitated, he pressed on. "Then what is it?" His eyes on her averted profile, he frowned, and then comprehension suddenly dawned. "It's what I said about having a baby, isn't it?"
Jenna nodded, then hesitated. "I'm not sure we should rush into it right away," she said slowly. "It would be nice to have some time to ourselves for a while."
"We've known each other for two years already, Jenna," he reasoned calmly. "And we'd have almost another year even if you got pregnant right away."
She turned away from his eyes, unable to bear his piercingly direct regard. Somehow she realized she'd secretly been nursing the hope that his desire to have a baby so soon was perhaps a moment of whimsy, a fanciful notion. After all, they'd been standing in what he hoped to see as their home, looking into the future.
She shifted uneasily on the cushions. "Yes, that's true, but..." She stopped, unsure of what she wanted to say, unsure of what was driving her. She and Neil were about to start a life together. Why was she suddenly plagued by doubt and senseless fears? What was wrong with her?
"I don't think you realize how strongly I feel about this, Jenna," he told her with a hint of obstinacy. "So I'd like to have a baby. What's the problem?"
"That's all well and good, Neil," she said in a carefully neutral tone. "But you seem to be forgetting I have a voice in this, as well."
Neil drew back from her abruptly. "I'm not trying to force you into anything," he said coldly. "But I'm thirty-six years old. I want to have a family while I'm young enough to enjoy it. I want to be able to run and play with my children—I don't want to be resigned to sitting on the sidelines because I'm too damned old to have a little fun."
Jenna prickled like a cat at his sharp tone. "You're exaggerating," she countered swiftly. "You're as fit as any twenty-year old—and you're making it sound as if you're about to fall over dead any day now!"
His mouth tightened angrily. "I suppose it never occurred to you that not only would I like to be around for my children, but I'd like to be here to see my grandchildren, too!"
Her lips puckered with annoyance, she stared at him as he paced around the room. He was being completely unreasonable—wasn't he? How many couples did she know who elected to have a baby right after they were married? Surely not many. If it happened, more than likely the baby was on the way before they were married. If only he hadn't mentioned that a family could be a boon to his career. If only...
But suddenly she realized she was only making excuses. No matter what his reasons, she should have had no reservations about carrying Neil's baby, whether it was now or ten years from now. Creating a child together was the ultimate expression of love between a man and a woman, wasn't it? The thought of having Neil's child should have held no doubts, no uncertainties, but—God help her—it did. And she didn't know why.
She knew only that in some twisted, jumbled way deep in her soul it had something to do with Robbie. She closed her eyes as a feeling of hopelessness rose inside her.
"Well, don't you have anything to say?"
Jenna flinched at Neil's angry bark, opening her eyes to stare at him. His arms were crossed over his chest. She could see frustration warring with anger in his dark blue eyes, and something else, as well. The harsh and implacable look she detected on his face stunned her.
Her mind whirled giddily. She had the strangest sensation that she was seeing him for the first time...and he wasn't the earnest, thoughtful man she had come to know at all, but a stubborn one. Unyielding. She felt helpless, suddenly drained, suddenly. .. so very empty inside.
Slowly she shook her head, her eyes dark and cloudy as she looked at him. "I'm sorry, Neil," she said quietly. "But this is something I'll have to work out for myself."
A tense silence settled over the room. When Neil finally spoke, his voice was curiously flat and hollow sounding. "So this is where we stand. You go your way and I go mine." He paused. "Is this any way to start our marriage, Jenna?"
EVEN NOW, HOURS LATER, his words caused an empty ache and a feeling of frustration to well up inside her. Jenna stirred on the chair and glanced at the luminous dial of her watch. It was nearly midnight. She rose and stretched her cramped muscles. In the time that she had known Neil and they had started to date, they'd had the usual heated exchange every so often. But he had never—never—walked out on her. She was sorely tempted to call him.
As if on cue, her cell phone rang. Jenna hurried to answer it, her voice rushed.
"Jenna. Were you asleep?"
Neil. "No. I was just sitting outside... thinking." Her tone was carefully neutral as she eased into a chair. Was he still angry? Upset?
"Outside? You were outside at this time of night?"
She nearly laughed at his sharp tone, reminded of her earlier thoughts. "I'm fine, Neil," she said softly.
He surprised her by pressing no further. Instead he said in that brisk, no-nonsense way of his, "I had to talk to you, Jenna. I called to apologize." When he cleared his throat, she had the feeling that for once he was at a loss for words. But when she made no response, he went on. "You were right, Jenna. Having a baby is something we should decide together. When we make up our minds to go ahead with it, I want it to be something we both want. So..." He seemed to hesitate. "We'll put the idea on hold for a while until you make up your mind."
Jenna sat quietly through the brief speech. Perhaps she should have been relieved; she had won, hadn't she? He wasn't going to try to force something on her she didn't want or wasn't ready for. Neil had come through, after all.... As she had known he would? She hadn't known that, and the thought was jarring.
"I love you, Jenna."
Jenna opened her mouth—but nothing happened. Her throat constricted tightly against the words uttered so easily up until that moment. They simply refused to come, and it was several seconds before she finally found her voice. "I—I love you, too."
"Then I'm forgiven?"
Her fingers tightened on the receiver. "Y-yes."
He didn't seem to notice the almost imperceptible hesitation, and they went on to talk for several more minutes. But while she was on the phone with Neil, the hazy shroud of doubt that had plagued her these past few days at last began to slip away, and she finally felt able to see her way clear through the uncertainty, the shadow of the past
Her thoughts were a strange mixture of hope and fear as she tumbled into bed that night. Later, she thought. Later she would sort out this jumble of emotions about Neil, but for now it would have to wait. Her marriage would have to wait. Everything would have to wait. And she could only hope that Neil would understand, because she had the feeling he would never have brought up the subject of a child if he'd known what it would trigger.
Because in the past few minutes Jenna had come to a very important decision and a startling realization about herself. She had once promised herself she would never look back, but she couldn't go on any longer as she had been—floundering in limbo, caught somewhere in time, trying to forget and never quite being able to, not wanting to go back and yet afraid to take that first step forward to sever all ties.
She was trapped and there was only one way out. In her mind there was no right, no wrong, no past and no future. There was only now . . .
And an overpowering need to see her son once more.
THE DECISION finally made, Jenna was left feeling oddly at peace with herself. She slept the sleep of the dead that night, awakening the next morning feeling far more refreshed and revitalized than she had all week. She had never been one to wallow in indecision for long; once her mind was made up, she wasted no time making clear her intentions. "Willful" was what her mother called her. She smiled a little as she showered and slipped into jeans and a pale yellow T-shirt. Her father wasn't one to mince words. "Pigheaded" was how he often referred to his daughter.
She made several quick calls to the florist and caterer. But once she sat down to address the wedding invitations she'd started a week earlier, her brief respite of peace began to shatter once more. She had to force herself to plod through the remainder of the guest list. It was well after lunch when she drove over to the post office, but once there, she stood before the big blue mailbox outside for a full minute before slowly dropping the bundles of envelopes inside. Without being consciously aware of it, she found herself at her parents' house a short time later.
She glanced up warily at the threatening purple storm clouds gathering overhead as she switched off the car engine. A gusty wind blowing in from the Gulf rattled the leaves of the huge cottonwood tree bordering the sidewalk as she hurried toward the white two-story house, wrapped on three sides by a wide porch. Jenna had come to live in this house when she was five years old, and even though she had been on her own since she'd finished her nurse's training, this was the one place in the world she would always think of as home.
A drenching sheet of rain began to fall just before she reached the shelter of the porch. Mindful of her wet feet, she ran around to the back entrance and slipped off her sandals.
"Whew! Just in time!" she muttered, stomping into the kitchen. She reached for a towel and smiled at her mother as she wiped the moisture from her face.
Marie Bradford looked worriedly from her daughter's rain-spattered cotton blouse to the moisture trickling freely down the windowpanes. "Oh, dear," she murmured, "your father will be dripping wet by the time he gets back."
"Dad's gotten lazy since he retired," Jenna said with a shake of her head. "I suppose he's out fishing again."
Her mother nodded. "I'll have to dig out the hot water bottle before he comes home. His circulation isn't what it used to be."
"Oh, come on, Mom," she said softly. Already she could feel herself relaxing, and her lips twitched as she held back a smile. "Can't you think of a better way to keep him warm?"
"Like body heat, for instance," she murmured. "If it were my husband out there getting soaked to the bone, that's the first thing I'd recommend. And as a nurse, I can't think of a better remedy."
Marie Bradford turned to face her daughter with her hands planted squarely on her hips. "I know what you're trying to say, young lady, and I don't think I need to remind you that you and Neil are half our age!"
Jenna didn't miss the amused glimmer in her mother's brown eyes. She sat back and eyed her as she bustled around the kitchen, wiping the counter and spooning fragrant grounds into the coffeemaker. Her mother was in her mid-sixties, and if it hadn't been for the snowy white hair that she wore in a loose bun on her nape, she might have been taken for a woman twenty years younger. Her skin was smooth and free of wrinkles, her brown eyes snapping and vivacious.
"I hope Neil and I are as happy as you and Dad have been all these years," she said suddenly, last night's argument with Neil abruptly jumping into her thoughts. Her parents had been married for forty-five years, and she couldn't help but wonder—would her own marriage last that long?
There was a hint of wistfulness in her tone, and Marie looked at her in surprise. "I'm sure you will be," she said softly, moving to sit across from her daughter. "Dad and I were happy and content before you came to us, but there was something missing. I'll never forget how you looked the first time we ever saw you. You were so tall and straight, and you tried to look so brave—" She shook her head in remembrance. "But I could sense how lost and alone you were." Her eyes lifted to Jenna's and a soft smile lighted her face. "And I knew then how much joy you'd bring into our lives."
Jenna's thoughts drifted fleetingly backward. When she was four years old, her parents had been killed in a collision with a train. Miraculously she had emerged with barely a scratch. With no family other than an eighty-year-old great-aunt in Maine who was too old to be burdened with a small child, custody had been given over to the state. Her memories of that time were few: stark white walls, hard narrow cots, being shuffled from foster home to foster home for over a year. She had been too young to understand the whispered excuses...too quiet, too withdrawn...but old enough to understand the loss of warmth, the absence of love from her young life. Two people whom she had loved and depended on had been wrenched from her, and there was no one to replace them. No one who willingly gave what her tender four-year-old self craved so desperately: a warm pair of arms to hold her, the solid strength of a shoulder to lay her head upon.
Not until Jerry and Marie Bradford had entered her life.
She smiled across at Marie, her heart filled with tender emotion for this unselfish woman who had given her so much. She reached across the table and squeezed her mother's hand. "And you brought love back into mine," she said softly. Their eyes met and held, but suddenly a troubled light entered Jenna's.
"Mom—" She traced an idle pattern on the tablecloth, trying to find the right words. "What you said before... were you trying to say that children have a way of bringing people together?"
Marie shrugged. "I suppose so. Some people—the right people." She paused. "Not that I think it's a way to cure a troubled marriage, but I know that my own marriage to your father wouldn't have been nearly as meaningful without you."
Jenna took a deep breath. "I suppose a lot of people feel that way. People like—like Megan and Ward Garrison." Her fingers closed tightly around her coffee cup.
Marie regarded her steadily. "There's nothing wrong with that, Jenna."
"I never said there was," Jenna said quickly. She hesitated, then blurted out, "Neil... he—he'd like to have a baby right away."
For a long moment her mother's eyes remained riveted on Jenna's carefully controlled features before drifting to the white-knuckled grip of her hands around her cup. After all these years, there was still so much that Jenna held inside—Marie offered a quiet statement, "And that bothers you."
There was a tight little silence. "Yes and no," she finally admitted, her tone carefully neutral. Fingers that weren't entirely steady traced the rim of her coffee cup. "We—Neil and I had decided to wait a while before we had a baby, but now he's changed his mind." She hesitated. "And nothing would make me happier...eventually. But right now...right now it brings back so many memories, and I can't help but think of—" She broke off, stung to the core by her suppressed pain.
"Robbie," her mother finished for her softly. Again her hand reached out to cover Jenna's.
She nodded slowly, drawing both strength and comfort from the touch of her mother's hand. "Tomorrow I'm going to Plains City to see him, Mom," she said quietly. "Even if they won't let me touch him or hold him." Her eyes seemed two huge pools of longing in her pale face. "I have to do this, Mom. I have to." She looked across at her mother, somehow not surprised to see a kind of gentle comprehension reflected "in the soft, brown depths. Instantly the years fell away—
IT WAS A NEWSPAPER ARTICLE that had first caught Jenna's eye nearly five years earlier, "CHILDLESS COUPLE SEEKS SURROGATE MOTHER" was how the headline in the Houston newspaper had read. Since her adoptive mother had been unable to have children, Jenna was intrigued by the unique approach to the problem of infertility. On reading the story, she discovered that Megan and Ward Garrison, a couple who lived in northern Texas, were actively searching for a woman to bear Ward's child. Married for fifteen years and puzzled by Megan's inability to have a child in all that time, both had undergone a battery of tests several years earlier, only to find that Megan's fallopian tubes were blocked by scar tissue and she could never become pregnant.
Jenna was working as an office nurse for a physician with a family practice in Texas City at the time, and both the receptionist and the bookkeeper could talk about little else.
"You wouldn't catch me offering to have this guy's baby," Vera, the bookkeeper, declared later that morning. She flicked a disdainful finger at the newspaper. "My sister was sick for weeks on end when she was pregnant—and she looked like a cow from the time she was two months along!"
Marsha, the mother of a ten and a six-year-old and infinitely more mature than Vera, held a different viewpoint. "Your sister also had twins," she pointed out. "And some women love being pregnant—"
"Not me!" snorted Vera.
Marsha had simply smiled and shaken her head. "Wait until you're married," she said with a smile. "You might feel fat and ugly and you might be so sick you feel like you could never hold your head up again, but the minute you hold that tiny bundle of life in your arms, it's all but forgotten."
Vera cast a wary eye at the older woman. "That might be," she sniffed a little indignantly, again waving a hand at the newspaper, "but if you ask me, this is a little weird. I'd say that any woman who volunteers for this is doing it strictly for the money!"
"I'm not sure," Marsha said thoughtfully. Her eyes skimmed over the article. "It says here that the man is an engineer, and I doubt if they make all that much money. And though it says all hospital and legal expenses will be taken care of, it doesn't specify how much the fee is."
"It would have to be one heck of a lot before I'd do it," Vera snorted.
Jenna and Marsha exchanged a glance that seemed to indicate Vera needn't worry about the possibility. Marsha glanced down again at the newspaper. "It also says that any woman applying will be tested physically and psychologically." She frowned, then said slowly, "I guess that makes sense. I suppose that they would want to make sure she really knew what she was getting into, and after all—" she shrugged "—if a person went to all that trouble and expense, I guess they'd want the mother to be reasonably intelligent."
"Good Lord." Vera looked disgusted. "Imagine having to apply to have a baby—just like applying for a job!"
"It wouldn't be easy giving up a baby," Jenna put in pensively. "I suppose if you looked at it in terms of a job right from the start, it might make it a little less traumatic when the time came to hand over the baby."
"And that's not all," Marsha added. "It says here that single women are preferred. Apparently both the couple and their lawyer seem to think a woman who's never had a baby wouldn't be as likely to have second thoughts about giving it up."
"Well, they can count me out!" Vera's voice rang out loudly. "I might be single, healthy and intelligent, but there's no way I'd get involved in anything like this!"
There was a pause, and then two pairs of eyes simultaneously turned to Jenna.
"Don't look at me!" She held up her hands and laughed. "I tend to agree with Vera. It's a little too bizarre for me." The plight of these two people was rather sad; she felt a small stab of pity that they were so desperate for a child of their own, and the fact that they were willing to go to such lengths even made her admire them to a degree.
But beyond these thoughts, the realization of the heartache these two people were going through didn't hit home until several days later, when she walked in on her mother watching a local talk show that featured this same couple. More out of courtesy for her mother than any vested interest, she sat down to watch.
Seeing the actual faces of those two, instead of merely reading names in a newspaper, made the situation all the more real and all the more heartrending. Her first impression of Megan Garrison was that of a woman in intense pain. She was very blond, and small-boned and fragile-looking. Her husband, Ward, was as dark as she was fair, good-looking in a rough sort of way. There was something in the quiet tautness of his tone that caught Jenna's attention as they pleaded their cause, but it was his wife she responded to. She listened as they related how a previous attempt at locating a surrogate had ended in heartbreak: after carrying the baby to term, the woman had changed her mind at the last minute. And adoption was all but ruled out; the waiting list was seven years long at the least—they had been waiting years already.
Jenna's heart turned over in her chest as she heard the woman say, "I die a little inside with every day that goes by, and I see the hope that someday I may hold a child in my arms grow dimmer and dimmer. And hope is all I have—" Her voice broke tearfully, and long painful seconds ticked by before she was able to speak again. "Hope is all I may ever have."
The desperation, the fear, the despair, the realization that the woman had only this one small thread to cling to, touched something deep inside Jenna's soul. She longed to reach out and comfort Megan as her husband was doing, to wrap her arms around her and tell her that it was only a matter of time before her hope became a reality.
When it was over Jenna turned to her mother with a murmur of sympathy on her lips, only to find her doe-soft eyes swimming with unshed tears.
Jenna rushed to her side. "Mom, what is it?" Her tone was anxious as she pressed a handkerchief into her hand.
Marie attempted a watery smile. "I'm all right." She dabbed at her overflowing eyes and leaned her head back tiredly. Concerned, Jenna sat on the arm of the chair and searched her mother's face.
"I'm fine, really," Marie said again. She set aside the handkerchief and turned to Jenna with a sigh. "It's just that seeing that couple brought back so many memories." She lapsed into silence, but again her eyes grew red.
Jenna sat very still. She knew that she had been adopted because of her mother's fierce desire for a child, but for a moment she was almost stunned at her mother's heartfelt reaction to the plight of two people who were, after all, strangers. Instinctively she said, "You know exactly how that woman feels, don't you?"
"Oh, yes—exactly." Marie dashed at her eyes, and Jenna patiently handed the handkerchief back to her. "I wanted a child so badly I could taste it. Everywhere I looked—the grocery store, the drugstore, the doctor's office—there were mothers with children, mothers about to have a baby. And there I was, helpless, frustrated, hating myself for being jealous and wanting what they seemed to take for granted." A pained expression flitted across her face. "No one knows how worthless the inability to have a baby can make a woman feel—except perhaps a woman who's been through it herself." A pensive smile curved her lips as she looked up at Jenna. "But your father was wonderful through it all. He was the one who suggested adoption." She reached up a hand to cradle Jenna's cheek in her palm. "You'll never know how much of a blessing you were. Like a day of sunshine after a storm."
Jenna's throat felt raw. She tried to speak, but the sound refused to pass through her throat. She could only grip her mother's hand more tightly. Her eyes turned toward the television screen, where a newscaster's voice now droned on and on. She chastised herself for being the most insensitive clod ever to have been born And yet these two people weren't the only ones involved.
"I hate to say this..." She hesitated. "But finding someone to bear a child for them seems so—so drastic." She slipped onto the carpet in front of the chair, laced her arms around her legs and rested her chin on her knees. "Another woman is going to have to give up nine months of her life for these people. How many women would be willing to do that?"
"Oh, Jenna." The raw emotion in Marie's tone brought Jenna's eyes to her mother's in a flash, and they were held there by a depth of intensity she'd never glimpsed before. "What are nine months compared to a lifetime of loneliness? Some women can go through life without a husband or child, but there are others who can never be fulfilled unless they can share their love with a husband and family. Women like Megan Garrison—and me." She paused, her eyes now shining luminously. "It would take a very special woman," she said softly. "A woman who isn't afraid to give all of herself." She shook her head, a wistful smile on her lips. "I can't imagine being able to give anything more precious than the gift of life."
The gift of life. Almost with a sense of awe Jenna absorbed the words. Her parents had taken her into their home and their hearts, freely bestowing all the warmth and love they were capable of giving. She knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that their love for her was no different from what they might have felt for a natural child, had they been able to have one. And during the past few minutes, somehow all the long lonely years her mother had struggled through were poignantly brought to life inside Jenna. She could feel the same intense longing, the empty ache inside, that both her mother and Megan Garrison lived with day after day. But there was one difference.
She rushed to find a pencil and pad. Her fingers shook as she scribbled down the name of the Garrisons' Dallas attorney. It might be too late, or they might not want her, but by heaven, she was going to try. Her heart fluttered almost painfully in her chest as she looked up at her mother with shining eyes, her heart nearly bursting with emotion.
She, Jenna Bradford, was determined to have the child these two people wanted so desperately. For herself, for Megan Garrison—and for the woman before her, who had given her own life so much meaning. The woman who had taught her how precious love really was.
"JENNA." A gentle voice prodded her back to the present. "I understand what you're going through, but I have to ask this. How are the Garrisons going to feel about this? Have you talked to them yet?"
"No." She shook her head quickly, stilling the sudden pitter-patter of her heart that the words evoked. "I know we all agreed to make a clean break," she said quietly, looking straight at her mother. "But I think Megan will come around fairly quickly."
Jenna frowned. She took a sip of her coffee, grimacing at the cold, bitter taste. Carrying the cup to the sink, she emptied the contents, pondering the question while she poured a fresh cup. She had sympathized with Megan even before they had chosen her for a surrogate, but it had come as a surprise to find how much she really liked her when they had finally met face-to-face. Ward, on the other hand, was a different story. He was sweet, warm and tender with his wife, and though he was gracious enough the few times the three of them had been together, he wasn't nearly as easy to read as Megan, who was much more vocal. In fact, one of the last times she had seen him had left her feeling rather shaken.
She'd been in her sixth month of pregnancy at the time. Ward was in Houston on business, and Megan had come along with him. She'd met with them briefly at their hotel, and Megan was absolutely delighted at feeling the baby's vigorous movements inside her.
"Come and feel this!" she'd beckoned to Ward. Wasting no time, she snatched one large hand in hers and guided it to Jenna's protruding tummy. "He's doing somersaults in there!"
Jenna had laughed a little self-consciously, but at the sight of that dark hand lying so intimately on her belly, she'd felt an odd tightening in her chest. It really brought home the fact that it was this man's child she was nurturing inside her, but before she had time to analyze the feeling, the baby moved. Ward's hazel eyes flitted to hers in surprise before an oddly shuttered expression came over them, and then he abruptly snatched away his hand. The incident had hurt for some unknown reason, and she was left feeling just a little bit wary.
She turned to face her mother. "I'm not sure how Ward will feel," she admitted. "I didn't do it for him, you know. I did it for Megan." She mulled a moment longer. "But I think if Megan agrees, he will, too."
Marie nodded, then smiled. "I already know what your father will say."
Jenna resumed her place at the table and shook her head fondly. "He'll boom and bluster the way he did when I told him what I was up to in the first place, and then he'll say in that gruff way he has—" she drew her brows together over her nose and stuck out her lower lip wrathfully "'—you'll do what you want, anyway!"'
They both ended up laughing at a time when they very much needed the release. "You obviously see through him just as I do." Marie laughed one last time, then looked at her daughter. "How long do you plan on staying?"
Jenna's smile drooped a little, but she kept it firmly in place. Surely Megan and Ward couldn't deny her if she was practically camped on their doorstep. She refused to think beyond that.
"As long as it takes, Mom," she responded with false lightness. "As long as it takes."
"Then that leaves just one person to contend with, doesn't it?"
Her mother's voice was so quiet Jenna almost suspected she knew. Her fingers tensed in her lap. She took a deep breath. "It's his problem if he doesn't understand, Mom. Because I'm going to do it, anyway."
Marie darted her a surprised look. "That doesn't sound like you, Jenna. Surely you and Neil aren't having problems already? Heavens, you're not even married yet!"
Jenna could tell the laugh she gave was forced. Suddenly her thoughts darted back to the time when she was a lanky thirteen-year-old and had just discovered that their neighbor, Darren Phillips—the boy who threw stones at her and boasted he was the better baseball player simply by virtue of his sex—wasn't such a disgusting creature, after all. A ghost of a smile tipped her lips. Intent on proving him wrong, she'd spent many an evening with her father pitching a ball to her and giving her tips on her stance and swing. She'd broken the kitchen window twice with some very nifty line drives. And then the day came when Darren had given her her first kiss and she'd decided it was time to shelve her ball and bat. She had breezed in from outside, dropped herself at the kitchen table and promptly asked her mother how a woman knew when she was in love.
She'd never forgotten her mother's reply: "If you ever have to ask yourself if you're in love," she'd said with a secretive smile, "then you're probably not."
Suddenly Jenna couldn't help but recall the moment last night when she hadn't been able to tell Neil she loved him.
Marie reached out a hand to cover Jenna's. "You're not having second thoughts, are you, dear?"
Her reply was a long time in coming. "Neil is everything a woman could possibly want in a man. He's mature, nice-looking, attentive, and he has a very good job. Yes, he was a prize catch, according to her friends in E.R.
"That doesn't tell me much, Jenna. You say Neil is everything a woman could want in a man, but is he everything you want? You know I like Neil," Marie said slowly, "and I'll be more than happy to have him as a son-in-law, but we're talking about your happiness. And what you just said sounds strangely like an excuse." Her mother gave her a long, thoughtful look. "None of us needs excuses for loving, Jenna. Do you?"
Jenna looked down to where her hands rested in a white-knuckled grip in her lap. This time she didn't answer—though not because she didn't want to. She couldn't.
All of a sudden she didn't know.
THINGS DIDN'T FARE WELL at all with Neil that night. The changing expressions on his face would have been rather comical if the situation hadn't been quite so serious. Jenna could almost see the wheels turning in his head. At first he looked totally blank when she mentioned the term "surrogate mother." An extremely brief look of amazement came next, followed by disbelief and then what she really hadn't expected to see--a cold-faced fury. In fact, if the truth were known, she had been much more worried about Megan's and Ward's reaction than Neil's.
"Damn it, Jenna! How could you do something so harebrained, so foolhardy, so thoughtless?" Neil slammed his fist down on an end table and glared at her. "You, of all people!"
"Why, thank you. I'll take that as a compliment!" Her voice dripped icicles as she watched him pace around her living room. "It wasn't thoughtless, Neil," she countered harshly. "I knew exactly what I was getting into."
"And did you think about how you might feel five or ten years down the road? Did you ever think about how you're feeling now!"
When he threw her another furious glance, Jenna dug in her heels and prepared to do battle. Good Lord! Did he think she had gone into the arrangement blindly? Even if she had, the Garrisons' attorney, Ron Brewster, would have enlightened her in no time flat! Over and over he had stressed that they wanted someone who fully understood what she was getting into. And she had spent months and months preparing herself not to feel the way she did right now.
So what had happened?
She brushed aside the disturbing voice as quickly as she did Neil's accusations. "Of course I did," she told him tautly. "I didn't let myself think of it as my baby—it was their baby. All I did was give Robbie a temporary home."
"Robbie? The baby was a boy?"
Her chin held high against his accusing voice, she nodded.
"How old, Jenna? How old is he?"
"He's three years old," she said quietly.
Neil dropped into a chair. He sat there, his hands propped on his knees, his forehead supported by his fingertips. When he finally looked across at her, his eyes had lost some of their fierce glitter, but his voice was bitter and flat.
"Damn it, Jenna, I can't believe it! A stranger! You had a stranger's baby!"
"They weren't strangers, Neil. Not from the minute I saw them, and especially not after I met them."
"And that's supposed to make a difference?" Anger hardened his features. "You got all cute and cozy with the husband and that makes it all right?"
Jenna could hardly believe his outburst. "I didn't sleep with him," she said sharply. "Artificial insemination is about as cold and sterile as you can get! You're an attorney. You should know how it works!"
"I know all I care to know, and believe me, you just took the words right out of my mouth. 'Cold and sterile' is exactly the way I see this whole thing! How much did they pay you?" he demanded.
"Very little!" she shot back hotly. "I was off work for less than six weeks and I accepted only what I lost out on salary. And the fee didn't even play a part in why I did it! Just the other night you were spouting off about wanting a home and a family, but you 're the one who's cold and unfeeling! Is it so hard to understand that someone else has that very same need?"
His eyes remained locked with hers endlessly. Then finally he shoved an agitated hand through his hair. "All right, you've made your point. But we're getting married in less than six weeks, and besides, I can think of a dozen reasons right off the top of my head— moral, ethical and legal—-why this shouldn't be a proving ground for childless couples."
"I'm not saying it's the answer for everyone." Her tone was quiet as her anger began to abate. "But it was right for them, and it was right for me, and I'm not sorry I did it." She hesitated. "Only I have to see Robbie again."
His eyes locked with hers, probing, questioning— and still angry.
"I'm not sure I can explain exactly why," she said with a feeling of helplessness. "I only know that it's something I have to do." She swallowed uneasily before forcing herself to go on. "And then—then you and I can go on with our lives together."
The harsh, grating breath he drew was the only sound in the room. "I think you're asking for trouble, Jenna. I'm not even sure I should let you do this—"
She shook her head quickly. "You can't stop me, Neil." Her voice was very quiet, yet there was an unmistakable ring of finality to it. "No one can." She paused. "Please, try to understand—"
"I don't understand," he cut in abruptly. "And even if I could, I think you picked one hell of a time to go running off! In case you've forgotten, we're getting married six weeks from Saturday!" He whirled around and headed for the front door. "If it's not too much trouble—" he threw the clipped words over his shoulder "—give me a call when you get back."
With that, he walked out on her for the second time that week. Silently Jenna made her way over to a chair and sank into the cushions. It was, she realized shakily, perhaps a good thing that she was leaving for a few days.
It would give her some time to think about Neil--something she realized she desperately needed to do.
THE DRIVE NORTH filled one of the longest days of Jenna's life. Anxious to arrive in Plains City, she'd felt the long hours stretch out endlessly, particularly the last half-hour after Waco. Her muscles were cramped and aching from the hours spent in the driver's seat, and her frame of mind nosedived even farther when a fan belt broke just outside of Abilene and there was a two-hour wait trying to find a service station willing to repair it. And the matter wasn't improved any when her little Toyota became testier yet and she had a flat tire a mere half-hour after she'd finally gotten started again. Tired and frustrated, she finally arrived well after ten o'clock. She pulled into the first motel she saw and crawled into bed, exhausted.
She shielded her eyes against the bright glare of the sun when she stepped out of her motel room the next morning, looking up and down the main thoroughfare of the sleepy little town. There was a market, a hardware store, a feed supply store, a barber shop and a cafe.
It was in the direction of the caf6 that Jenna guided her footsteps. She had awakened ravenous, since she'd been too tired the previous night even to bother searching for a place to eat. Stepping inside, she glanced around the matchbox-sized interior. There was room for perhaps half a dozen people at the small counter, and three well-worn booths lined the wall. The fragrant smells wafting from the kitchen sent hunger pangs growling anew in Jenna's stomach.
She sat down on one of the stools near the counter, waiting her turn while a threesome in one of the booths was being served. She looked up when the waitress, dressed in a crisp blue uniform and jaunty cap, approached her.
"Hi." Fresh-faced and open, the woman flashed a wide smile. "What can I get you?"
Jenna smiled back and eyed the hand-lettered menu before making a quick choice. "How about coffee and a cinnamon roll to start with?"
"Comin' right up."
Her eyeswidened when the waitress placed a Texas-sized roll in front of her and a cup of fresh hot coffee. Pulling the warm, fragrant roll apart with her fingers, she savored the spicy taste of the cinnamon and gooey icing, resisting the impulse to lick her fingers.
"More coffee?" The waitress returned a few minutes later with the carafe in her hand. Jenna placed her hand over her cup and shook her head quickly. "How about another roll?"
"No, thanks." Jenna smiled and indicated her stomach. "It was delicious, but I couldn't take even one more bite."
"Not many people can handle more than one of Herb's cinnamon rolls." She grinned. "Fact is, he makes the best rolls in town."
Jenna nodded politely and commented, "It's so quiet here; it's hard to believe that Abilene is less than thirty miles away."
"It's not always like this," the waitress said with a wink. "After dark things tend to liven up a bit. You know how some men are about dropping in for a few beers after work—" She shook her curly head and grinned. "They talk about women being no better than a bunch of cacklin' hens when they get together, but I'll never believe it."
The waitress took advantage of the lull in customers and returned the coffee carafe to the hot plate, then came back to Jenna. The look she gave her was amicable but inquisitive. "You stayin' at the motel across the street?"
"Just passing through, I'll bet."
"Yes and no. Actually, I hope to be staying a few days." She hesitated, but couldn't help responding to the woman's friendliness. "I'm here to see the Garrisons—the Ward Garrisons. Do you know them?"
"Not personally." The woman shook her head, and a shadow passed swiftly over her face. "Don't see much of him anymore since... well, that's beside the point." She eyed Jenna curiously. "Are you a friend of the family?"
"A friend of the family?" For some reason the term sent an unexpected pain shooting through her heart. On blood ties alone, she was practically a member of the family. She resisted the impulse to laugh hysterically. Instead she gathered herself quickly under control and nodded. "Megan and I... were good friends some time ago. But I'm afraid I've lost the address after all these years." She tipped her head to the side and smiled encouragingly. "I don't suppose you happen to know where they live?"
The waitress shook her head apologetically. "Sorry—no. Wait a minute!" She snapped her fingers, already heading toward the kitchen. "I'll bet Herb knows. He's lived here forever."
"Take the first road to the left heading north out of town. Turn left again at the first intersection," she announced, bustling through the double doors a moment later. "It's the house at the end of the gravel road. Only one there, so you can't miss it."
"Thanks so much. I'll just be on my way, then." Jenna smiled gratefully and paid for her breakfast. Glancing back, she saw the waitress gazing after her with an odd look in her eyes. Jenna sent a little wave over her shoulder as she exited the tiny caf6.
She quickly walked across the street to where her car was parked in front of her motel room. She inserted the key in the lock, but suddenly she stopped, one hand poised on the dark blue roof as her mother's words from yesterday came back to her. How would Megan feel about her dropping in without any warning? It could be quite a shock, she suddenly realized. For a moment she hesitated, temptation almost overruling reason in this instance. Then, with a sigh, she turned and trudged the few steps to her room.
Inside, she sat down on the double bed and reached for the phone. The Garrisons' phone number popped into her head without conscious thought, and for a moment she sat stunned. Why was it that she remembered it after all this time? Was it because she hadn't wanted to forget? Her hand gripped the receiver as she recalled the last time she'd telephoned, to let them know her labor had started. Once again she could hear Megan's ecstatic voice coming over the wire.
"Oh, Jenna, I can't believe it! It's finally about to happen! A baby—our very own baby! We'll be there as soon as we can."
The memory was both poignant and sweet, and Jenna took a deep, shuddering breath to force back the odd sensation gripping her heart. She punched out the number with steady hands, aware of a faint flutter in her chest as she eased back on the bed and waited.
The phone rang once, twice and then again. Jenna felt her heart beating crazily.
She couldn't prevent a note of breathless excitement from entering her voice. "Megan?" She sat forward on the edge of the bed, her body taut as a bowstring. "Is that you, Megan?"
There was a long silence, and then a female voice demanded, "Who is this?"
Recoiling from the sharp tone, she shifted uneasily as she realized it wasn't Megan who had answered. "I... my name is Jenna Bradford." She heard a soft gasp but paid no mind. Her tone was cautious but hopeful as she spoke to the woman on the other end of the line. "I've just driven all the way from Galveston and I was calling to see if I might be able to see—'' Robbie. She stopped the word from slipping off her tongue just in time. "Megan," she finished hastily. A little puzzled by the awkward silence that followed, she bit her lip. "I'm sorry...I must have dialed the wrong number."
"No. No, this is the right number."
The admission came readily enough, but there was something in the tone... it was brusque, even a little hostile. Jenna's words were polite but guarded. "If I have the right number, then who are you?"
Again there was a long empty silence before the unknown woman spoke. "Eileen. Eileen Swenson." She seemed to hesitate. "I'm Ward's sister."
Ward's sister. No wonder the surprise at her name. "Then you know who I am," she said softly.
"Yes—yes, I do. And I think I know why you're here."
There was no denying the challenging note in Eileen Swenson's voice. If this was any indication of how Megan or Ward would feel... She could only pray it wasn't. She prickled a little but said politely, "If it's not too much trouble, could you put either Megan or Ward on the phone?''
There was a seemingly endless silence. "Megan's dead," the woman finally said quietly.
Dead...Megan was dead. Her mind reeled. It didn't seem possible. She'd never known her, not really. Was it possible to mourn someone's death without ever really knowing that person? But certainly Jenna knew all she needed to know. Megan was a warm, vital woman whose capacity for love went far beyond any ordinary measure, if indeed love could be measured. A dozen questions tumbled around in her brain. How had Megan died? And when? She couldn't suppress a burning feel of resentment against Ward for not letting her know, even while the rational part of her argued there was no need for her to know.
But suddenly she remembered Robbie. Megan was gone, but did that change anything? Her reason for being here? No.
"I'm sorry," Jenna said softly. "When... ?"
Eileen Swenson had no trouble understanding. "About a year and a half ago."
She twirled the cord around her finger and thought a moment. "Mrs. Swenson, I'd still like to talk to Ward—"
"He isn't here."
Jenna took a deep breath. "Then could you give him a message for me?''
"I'm sorry. I—I don't know when I'll see him again."
The woman was beginning to sound a little agitated. "Look," Jenna said evenly, choosing her words carefully. "I'm really not here to cause trouble, but don't you think you should let Ward decide whether he wants to talk to me?"
"I'm not lying," the woman defended herself. "He isn't here and I couldn't say when he'll be back. I only stopped by this morning to check on the house while he's away."
"Where is he?"
"New Mexico. He's working on an irrigation project there."
New Mexico...Lord, and she'd come so far already. Her muscles tensed with an emotion she wasn't yet ready to name. "I see," she said slowly. "Is Robbie with him?"
"No. He's staying with me. But please don't ask to see him. I couldn't possibly agree without Ward's permission."
Jenna's body went limp with despair. "I understand." Her voice sounded as hollow as she felt inside. She wasn't such a fool that she didn't know that engineering projects sometimes lasted weeks, months even. But suddenly there was a glimmer of life inside her. Surely Ward wouldn't leave Robbie for weeks at a time. "Do you expect him back soon?" She made no attempt to disguise her hopefulness.
There was a heavy sigh on the other end of the line. "I'm really not sure. Early next week maybe, but as 1 said before, I'm not certain." It was obvious the admission was made with great reluctance. "I'll let Ward know you're here... if you decide to wait around that long. Where are you staying?"
"I'll be here," Jenna promised in a low voice. "I'm at the Sundowner Motel." She paused. "Mrs. Swenson...?"
"I—thank you. Thank you for telling me."
The moment stretched out into a taut silence. When Eileen Swenson finally spoke, her voice sounded oddly strained. "Don't thank me yet. For all I know, you may have made the trip for nothing."
Jenna stared pensively out the window after hanging up the phone. The shimmering sunlight outside seemed a stark contrast to the dark emptiness of her mood. Apparently, all the odds were stacked against her. It had all started with her vague, restless feelings about Neil, and then he had warned her against coming. Then her car had broken down, and now—this. Megan was dead, and Jenna had been so certain she would let her see Robbie. It would be days before Ward returned, a hollow voice inside her protested. Better to go home now and forget she had ever come, forget she had even tried to see Robbie, forget he had ever been born.
But she couldn't. Dear Lord, she couldn't.
Refusing to give in to that tiny voice, Jenna got up, grabbed her purse and walked outside. Dispiritedly she walked the few blocks to the town's business district. There was more to the town than she had originally thought; she noticed at least three drugstores, a steakhouse and several more small cafes, one small but complete department store, one clothing shop, even a movie theater and a playhouse. All the amenities of a city, Jenna thought to herself halfheartedly, but without quite the variety to choose from.
Her steps eventually took her back to the motel, and Jenna found herself driving toward the Garrison place. The directions she'd been given earlier unconsciously guided her. Before she knew it, her car was parked in the gravel drive and her feet were carrying her toward the front door. Her footsteps echoed emptily as she mounted the steps, and for a fraction of a second, she stopped before lifting her hand to the brass knocker.
Silence greeted her.
After a long moment of almost fearful waiting, she turned and trudged slowly down the steps, her emotions so tangled that she felt unable to sort through them.
Taking a deep breath, Jenna forced her attention back to her surroundings. Beyond the cross-fenced boundaries of the small acreage the plains stretched for miles, rolling and clipping endlessly, glinting yellow in the bright September sunlight. In the distance she could see the sun-baked, gently rolling hills to the west. Settling herself under a towering cottonwood tree, she turned her eyes once again to the two-story farmhouse.
The yard was well kept, and the white clapboard exterior of the house looked newly painted. Although it was quiet outside, there was a warm, homey look to the house itself. A wide swing hung from the porch rafters near the front window. Jenna could almost visualize the inside, cheerful and cozy, a comfortable sofa laden with pillows in the living room, thick braided rugs covering the floor and knickknacks and treasures strewn throughout. The urge to scramble to the window and peer through the sheer curtains was so strong that she almost succumbed. Only the feeling that she would be spying, intruding where she had no business, prevented her from doing exactly that.
The thought sent a chill through her. Why had she come here? She agonized silently. Despite what Eileen Swenson had told her—that Megan was dead and Ward was gone—had she really believed it? Had she really expected the door to be thrown open and to be welcomed with open arms? She shivered. No. She could never expect that from Ward. She didn't know how she knew, but she did.
What if he said no? What would she do then? Could she deal with it, or would she handle it the way she had handled h all this time, sweeping her feelings under the rug once more? Denying the hopeless longing to see her child, to hold him, to know him? All these months—years!—she hadn't let herself think of him, but no matter how hard she tried, the memory was always there, lurking in some distant corner of her mind. Denied but never forgotten. For the first time, she realized how desperately afraid she was that Ward would refuse to let her see Robbie.
But her need outweighed her fear by far.
"Oh, Robbie," she murmured faintly, fervently. "I'm so close." Slowly she closed her eyes, unable to stop a wave of despair from sweeping through her. She heard words spinning through her brain—words she couldn't speak. So near and yet so far.
Her entire body trembled as she stumbled to the car and started the engine. She drove back to the motel in the same trancelike state she had left it. Outside, the small town went about its business while Jenna shut herself away in her room. Neil...Megan...Robbie... Faces whirled through her imagination, the features obscure and blurred. The squall of a newborn infant resounded in her subconscious and she flinched.
Finally she stumbled over to the bed and lay down, her body curled in a tight ball. She knew she desperately needed an outlet for all the pent-up emotion inside her, but as always, the tears refused to come. All the pain was tightly locked up inside her, and her heart was an unbearable weight in her chest.
IT WAS NEARLY DARK when the wheels of the small Cessna touched down in a perfect landing on the small airstrip just outside Plains City. Skimming across the smooth surface, the plane gently glided to a stop in front of the metal barn that served as a hangar. Moments later, a lean figure emerged from the building and strode toward the house. Though the man was rapidly approaching forty, a rangy, muscled hardness to the six-foot-three-inch frame had not yet been softened by the years.
Though Ward Garrison was tired and weary to the bone, a kind of hurried impatience marked his long- legged stride as he took the porch steps two at a time, heading with intent toward the den.
The room was paneled in knotty pine, and sparsely but comfortably furnished. Bookshelves lined nearly every available wall space. The only decoration was a pair of old flintlock rifles mounted above the stone fireplace. Near the window stood a worn leather armchair that had seen many years of use. A massive desk dominated the room, and Ward directed his steps toward it.
The chair behind the desk creaked a protest as he sat down. He made no move to reach for the phone; instead his hazel eyes rested on the framed photograph that occupied a place of honor on the desktop. A shuttered look came over his face as he picked up the oak frame, studying the fragile features in the photo as if to memorize them. But there was little need. Even without the reminder of those laughing blue eyes and silky blond hair, the image was printed indelibly on his brain. She looked so happy and carefree.... And it seemed like a lifetime ago that he had felt that way.
"Megan," he said aloud. And then he wished he hadn't, as the familiar tightening began to build in his chest. He took a deep, shuddering breath, but long minutes passed before he set aside the photograph and leaned back in his chair.
"Oh, Meg," he murmured faintly. "Sometimes it's still so hard to believe you're gone—" She had been a part of his life for so long... forever. And then a quirk of fate, a moment in time... and she was no more.
His eyes flitted to a smaller picture, but one no less dear to his heart. He felt a surge of pride and possessiveness. His son. His own flesh and blood, the one bright spot left in his life. The son Megan wanted so badly but wasn't able to have. Despite the brief time allotted to them, no one could have been a better mother to Robbie than Megan. She was1 his mother, the only mother he had ever known.
Ward's eyes grew unusually soft as he reached out a finger and traced the outline of the miniature features so like his own. Robbie had his bold nose, the same square jaw line. But his eyes... those vivid green eyes could belong to only one person.
The reminder was one he had learned to live with. Not that he was ungrateful... but there were times when he was strangely resentful of the woman who had given him his son, as well as of the fact that his own wife could never hope to conceive...while it had been so simple for her. And there were also times when Robbie would look up at him, his eyes unusually serious and urgent, yet so full of life and expression, and he felt a brief surge of anger jolt through his body, because he looked so damned much like her.
Ward reached for the phone and punched out a number. "Eileen?" He swiveled around in the chair to stare out the window. "It's me."
"Ward!" Mild surprise was registered in his sister's tone. "Are you home already?"
One side of his mouth quirked upward. "I pushed the crew as hard as I pushed myself so we could finish ahead of schedule."
"Well, thank heaven you don't do near as much traveling as you did five years ago." There was a brief pause. "It's hard on Robbie with you gone, as young as he is. He tries not to let it show, but I can tell."
"I know." There was a bitter edge to his smile. "You wouldn't believe how much I miss him. But with Tyler breaking his leg and laid up in the hospital, I had no choice but to fill in for him." He lifted a hand to smooth his rumpled dark hair. "Is Robbie still up?"
"No. I put him to bed right after dinner." Eileen's voice was full of apology.
Ward's smile was halfhearted at best, but he disguised his disappointment. "Well, don't bother waking him. I'll be over tomorrow to pick him up."
"Don't hurry on my account." Eileen laughed. "You know Robbie—always where the action is. And if there's nothing going on, he creates a little excitement of his own. But he keeps me busy and I love haying him around. The house is so empty with Tim and Katie away at college." She stopped for a second. "But I'm really glad you came back early. Frank's going to a cattle auction in Amarillo on Monday, so maybe I'll go along and do some shopping."
He nodded. "I'll see you tomorrow, then—"
"Ward, wait! There's something you should know—"
The sudden urgency in Eileen's voice stopped him from hanging up. Frowning, he spoke into the mouthpiece again. "Yes?"
"Ward..." Her voice dropped, and she seemed unsure of something. "I was at the house today to pick up the mail, and... someone called."
Something in her tone brought his tired senses fully alert. He leaned forward in his chair and asked in a clipped voice, "Who?"
It was a full minute before Eileen spoke. He could scarcely make out her muted tones. "Jenna Bradford."
"Jenna Bradford!" Ward sat back disbelievingly, his fingers tensing around the phone. "What did she want?"
Eileen was silent, hesitating just a moment too long, but somehow he already knew. "Robbie."
His insides were suddenly tied up in knots. Why now, after all this time... ? "What else did she say?"
"Nothing really." Eileen sounded just as confused as he felt. "She just said she didn't want to cause any trouble—but wants to see Robbie. And she's staying until she talks to you about it."
"Staying? You mean she's here?" He felt as if he'd been struck.
"Yes. She's at the Sundowner Motel in Plains City." An empty silence hung in the air as their thoughts veered in the same direction. "Ward, do you think...?" Eileen swallowed, almost afraid to say the words aloud. "Do you think she wants him back?"
"If that's the case, she won't be long in discovering she'll have one hell of a fight on her hands," he said grimly, "because I'm not about to let anyone take my son away from me. And the sooner she finds that out, the better." On that unrelenting note, Ward slammed down the phone and walked out the door.
There was no point in putting it off—he intended to find out exactly why Jenna Bradford was visiting.
THE EVENING stretched out emptily after Jenna finally roused herself. She must have fallen asleep, she thought vaguely, switching on the bedside lamp. Sitting up, she glanced at her watch. It was just after nine. A dull ache throbbed in her temples, and she stumbled to the bathroom to splash some cold water on her face. As she dried her hands, she studied her reflection. She looked strained and rather drawn, her eyes the only splash of color in an otherwise pale face.
The lateness of the hour rather than hunger reminded her that she hadn't eaten since lunch. Rummaging through a small bag from a convenience store where she'd stopped on the long drive yesterday, she found a half-eaten package of tiny sugared donuts. She nibbled on one, but the sweet taste was unexpectedly cloying. The few bites she took sat like a heavy stone in her stomach, and she pushed aside the package distastefully. Suddenly she felt as if the walls were closing in on her, and she knew she couldn't remain in the stark motel room any longer. After running a brush through her long dark hair, she grabbed her purse and a light denim blazer and went outside, intent on getting a breath of fresh air.
Darkness had already settled over Plains City, but the parking area of the motel was lighted by the bright glare of the sign near the office. Jenna was in the process of closing the door behind her when she noticed a dark maroon Blazer pull to a halt in one of the stalls. As a man got out, something in his lean, muscular bearing caught her eye. He was tall and broad shouldered, and a faint breeze ruffled his thick dark hair as he dropped his keys in his pocket. The sharp blade of his nose bespoke arrogance, the thrust of his chin determination. She registered the deeply chiseled features with a prickly sense of unease as she watched him slam the car door shut with almost vicious intent. Hazy spears of light shone down from the streetlamp, falling full on his face for a moment, as he moved away from the car.
Dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans and boots, the man could have passed for just another cowboy, one of the many who seemed to populate the town. As if he were caught in the same current of awareness as she, the man slowly turned to face her. Jenna couldn't tear her eyes away from his as a flicker of recognition passed between them.
Ward Garrison didn't bother to smile; he didn't bother to tip his hand in greeting. He just stared at her for what she suspected was the longest moment in her life. Then he began to move toward her.
Jenna's breathing grew almost painfully shallow as those hazel eyes stared unwaveringly into hers. Her heart thumped as she watched his face grow colder with each step that brought him nearer.
She had the feeling that the battle for Robbie was over before it had even begun.