Stupid fucking liar.
Micki set the stick with its hateful little window and its even more hateful little two lines on the bathroom sink, then stared at it for a solid five seconds while reality set in.
How did this happen? She lifted her head and peered at herself in the mirror as panic exploded, searing her skin.
“Don’t,” she muttered.
In her lifetime, she’d faced her share of challenges. And panic didn’t get a starring role in her coping-with-life strategy. But, dammit, she’d been so careful about never missing a pill.
The ringworm. Or, more specifically, the ringworm medication.
A low moan filled her throat. My God. She still didn’t know what she’d touched to catch that bit of nastiness, but the meds, her doctor had warned, reduced the effectiveness of her birth control. He’d also said the risk was low. Really low. She’d shared this with Gage, the absolute love of her life, and he’d seemed unfazed.
Then again, he was a man and when it came to sex, the big brain didn’t necessarily do the thinking.
His swimmers—of course—defied the odds. Not a surprise, given she’d long ago nicknamed him Captain America or Mr. All-American or any other litany of names that put the most honorable man she’d ever met in a category he more than deserved.
She thought back over the last few weeks of brutal mood swings, touchy stomach, and…God, the fatigue. All of it made sense.
A knock sounded on the door and another spurt of panic ensued. Standing on the other side would be her blond-haired blue-eyed Iowa farm boy whose parents went to church—without fail—every Sunday. His family was about as apple pie as they came.
An unexpected pregnancy from Gage’s reformed black hat girlfriend would put his mother in a straitjacket.
The knock came again. “You okay?”
Hardly. Definitely not okay. She glanced at the hateful stick again. Still two lines, still a positive result. Not that she’d expected it to change, but a girl could hope.
“Stupid, fucking stick,” she muttered.
If she didn’t respond, Mr. All-American would knock down the door and rush in to save her. That’s what he did. He saved people. Except, right now, she didn’t need that. She needed to figure out how to tell him she’d colossally screwed up and—guess what, honey? We’re having a baby. Lord, did he even want children?
They’d never specifically spoken of it, but he was most definitely a family man. Still, who knew?
She cleared her throat and pushed her shoulders back. “I’m good.”
The doorknob turned and she snatched up the hateful pregnancy test, shoving it into her back pocket. She spun to face the door just as he poked his head through. His blue eyes that she loved from the moment she saw him zeroed in on her.
She forced a wobbly smile. “I’m almost ready.”
Still with the intense eye contact, he tilted his head. ‟Babe, no offense, you look like hell. Are you sure you’re up for this?”
The evening’s festivities included heading into town for Steele Ridge’s annual Novemberfest. The annual holiday festival was her brother Grif’s brainchild and included a tree lighting and town merchants staying open late and offering big sales. As much as Micki hated crowds, she had to give her brother props on this one. Residents and tourists, cash and plastic at the ready, swarmed a closed-off Main Street.
Micki tugged on the hem of her Henley shirt while cursing herself for wearing such a formfitting garment. No way she’d walk by him. Gage, honorability notwithstanding, was after all a male. An extremely horny male who made little effort to avoid checking out Micki’s rear whenever the chance presented itself. Today, he’d get way more than he bargained for with the test peeking out.
She leaned one hip on the sink. “I’m a little tired. That’s all.”
“Seems to me you’ve been a little tired for weeks now. Maybe it’s time to go to the doctor? Get some blood work done.”
Blood work? Please. That’s the last thing she needed. But right now, while confusion and life-altering circumstances loomed, the simplest thing to do would be to agree. Get her Mr. Fix-it sidetracked and off the topic of her health. “I’ll do that. First thing Monday morning I’ll call the doctor and make an appointment.”
Technically it wasn’t a lie. Given her current state of knocked-upness she needed to speak with Dr. Simons anyway. Figure out her options. As if there were any, because having her baby—Gage’s baby—was the only option. At least to her. But what would he think?
“Good,” he said. “Thank you. I’m worried about you.”
This man. Always concerned about the people he loved. And even the people he didn’t love. How many times had he stopped to help a stranger on the street simply because it was the right thing to do? How she, a hacker with a sketchy past, even deserved him she had no idea.
Maybe she didn’t. Particularly after being irresponsible enough to get herself pregnant. Micki the screwup. No one should be shocked.
She pointed at the door. “I need another couple of minutes in here.”
He nodded. “Sure. Take your time.”
He closed the door and she stepped toward it, quietly flipping the lock before opening the under-sink cabinet and digging out the red toiletry bag Brynne had given her for her birthday. She tucked the test underneath the various compacts and mascara tubes.
Gage had seen her putting makeup on thousands of times and knew what the bag contained. He had no reason to rifle through it. And that made it the best damned hiding place she had until she figured out how to inform her man about his impending fatherhood.
Gage headed down the stairs, the old wood creaking under his feet. Normally, he didn’t mind the sound. Micki had grown up in this house and the little reminders of its age made him think of his own childhood. Of his parents and family and a time when life was…well…easy.
Lately? Easy was scarce. Mainly because something was seriously off with Micki. For weeks she’d been dragging herself out of bed. A few times he’d come home from work early and found her curled up on the couch with a blanket for an afternoon nap. Micki? Not a napper.
At least not since he’d known her. And it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that when a person who didn’t usually sleep a lot slept a lot, that person probably had a health issue. Thyroid maybe?
Cancer? MS? Addison’s?
He stopped at the base of the stairs, took a look back. He hadn’t heard her exit the john yet and it never took her this long to get her shit together. What the hell could she be doing in there?
Maybe he should take her to the ER. Micki’s cousin Cash’s girlfriend, Emmy, was an ER doc. She might be there and could do blood work. Figure out whatever this phantom disease was. Then, they’d make a plan on how to tackle it.
One thing was for sure: His girl was not herself.
The squeak of the bathroom door opening sounded. Finally. He peered up the stairs. “You good?”
“Listen Mr. All-American,” she called, “knock it off. I’m fine. Just moving slow today.”
At least her tendency to get testy when he went into fix-it mode hadn’t been affected.
He blew out a hard breath and stepped away from the staircase. As much as it killed him, as much as this not knowing might eat him alive, absolutely rip him apart, he’d let her handle it. All he’d do is ask her on Monday if she’d called the doctor. That’s it. She couldn’t be pissed at him for caring. Even if she was, tough shit. He loved her.
He moved to the couch and dropped onto the arm to wait for her. That’s all he could do right now.
A few minutes later her footsteps sounded above him, followed by the telltale creak of the steps. She appeared at the bottom, but instead of looking at him, she kept her back to him as she lifted her leather jacket off the wall hook. Then she bent low and grabbed her scarf and hat from the wicker bin on the floor.
When she finally turned to him, he studied her face. She’d slipped some shiny lipstick on and maybe added a little makeup, because her color was better. Not that pasty white from minutes ago.
He jerked his head. “Pretty lady.”
That brought a smile to her face. Damn, he did love to see her smile.
He rose from the couch and met her near the door, holding his arms open for her to slide in for a hug. “Thanks for going with me.”
She inched back, tipped her head up, and met his gaze. “Ditto. Besides, we can’t miss Novemberfest. Not when it was our sort of unofficial first date.”
It was way more than that. He’d never considered himself a romantic, but Novemberfest was special. Not only had it been their first outing together after they’d met, it marked the first time he’d ever kissed Micki Steele and now nearly three years later this had become a tradition. They’d return to the exact spot at the exact time and kiss. Just like the first time. Before that first kiss, he’d had no flipping idea Micki Steele would turn his life inside out. She’d changed everything and now he couldn’t imagine a day—an hour—without her.
He loved her. Insanely. Her passion, her incredible drive to figure out how things worked and what made people tick. She did everything—including love—with ferocity. Hell, she’d run off to Vegas as a teenager and worked for a low-life, scumbag criminal to protect her twin brother. Did she even get what kind of strength that took?
He hoped to marry her one day. That, he knew, he’d have to tread carefully with. Loners didn’t like people up in their business. Lucky for him he had patience.
A lot of it.
Main Street was packed.
Jeez, Grif had probably broken the bank to advertise this sucker because Gage wasn’t sure he’d ever seen this many people in their little town. Already, his skin started to itch. Since his traumatic brain injury, he’d stayed clear of busy places. Post TBI, loud areas rivaled an icy knife through his eye.
He and Micki stood near one of the barricades staring into the crush moving under a festive canopy of twinkling holiday lights suspended across the entire block. She glanced to her right where the side street blazed with blue and white lights for Chanukah and the entire downtown was an explosion of holiday cheer.
“My God,” she said.
“Yeah. Between the two of us, this crowd is enough to get us committed.”
At that, she laughed, but that extremely sweet sound was smothered by the squeal of a toddler—yikes, on that. Ignoring the said icy knife through the eye, he angled back, found the offending squealer and his parents not five feet away. Accompanying them was a teenaged boy moaning about the lameness of Novemberfest. These people had their hands full.
The couple moved around Gage and Micki and she let out a long sigh. “Kids,” she said, giving him the side-eye. “They can be a challenge.”
“Sure. That can be said about adults, too.”
“True. Good point.”
At the end of the block in front of the giant Christmas tree Grif had shipped in from some farm in the next county, the band did a decent job covering a Jason Aldean song. In his time here, Gage had expanded his musical library to include more country artists. Being from the Midwest, he’d been exposed to country, but it was his parents’ country—George Jones, Hank Williams, Conway Twitty. This new country? He liked it. A lot. He also liked the way Micki teased him when he’d sing along in the truck.
The aroma of grilling meat drew his gaze left. He couldn’t see beyond the cluster of bodies in front of him, but that smell came from the direction of the Triple B where Randi, the owner, and Britt Steele, Micki’s brother and Randi’s fiancé, were rumored to be manning a giant grill.
He grabbed Micki’s hand and headed toward the B. “You hungry? I could eat.”
“When can’t you eat? I’m not ready, but you get something.”
He refrained from telling her that, to his knowledge, all she’d eaten in the last six hours was a hunk of bread from the bakery.
“How about a snack?” he asked.
What ensued was one of those pain-in-the-ass sighs women did when they simply wanted to tell a guy to shut the fuck up. “I’ll eat later,” she said.
Of course. She was already rail thin and he didn’t want her losing any more weight. Blood test. Definitely making her get a blood test.
“Hey guys,” Randi said when they approached the makeshift snack bar.
“Hi.” Micki stepped over to where Britt flipped a burger. She scooted to tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. “Hey, big brother.”
“Hey to you, little sister.” He closed the lid on the grill. “Did you just get here?”
“We did. Gage is hungry.”
Britt turned and reached to shake Gage’s hand. “What can I get you? Burgers are almost ready.”
“Give me a double cheeseburger. Extra cheese. Please.”
“You got it. Give me two minutes.” He jerked his chin right. “Micki, Evie is helping down at Brynne’s shop.”
“Ooh, I haven’t seen her in three days.” She wrapped her hand around Gage’s jacket sleeve. “Babe, while you’re waiting on your burger, I’ll run down and say hey to Evie and Brynne.”
Evie owned and operated a med mobile. Basically a rolling doctor’s office that serviced low-income areas. Given the recent flu season—a bad one at that—Micki’s baby sister had been pulling double time.
Britt watched Micki head toward La Belle Style, the boutique owned by Brynne Steele, Britt and Micki’s sister-in-law.
Once she was out of earshot, Britt jerked his thumb in Micki’s direction. “What’s wrong with my sister?”
Thank you. At least Gage wasn’t paranoid. “Got me. She’s been tired a lot. And moody as hell.”
“Hell if I know. And God knows I don’t have the balls to ask that question.”
“I told her to make a doctor’s appointment on Monday.”
Britt lifted the grill cover and went to work adding cheese to a couple burgers. “I’ll mention it to Evie. Maybe have her take a look at her.”
Why Gage hadn’t thought of that he had no idea. “Good idea. She’s been this way for weeks now. It’s not like her. “
“Maybe she’s pregnant,” Randi cracked from her spot at the portable register.
All movement seemed to stop—had someone just hit the pause button?—as Gage and Britt stared at her.
Micki? Pregnant? He thought about it. The sudden onset of fatigue, the sleeping—a lot—and the lack of eating. Just the other night she’d complained of a queasy stomach and nibbled on ginger snaps while he demolished a steak.
Could she…? Nah. He’d know.
Definitely. Plus, she’d tell him. He thought.