“It’s me, but then you know that. This is the forty-eighth message . . . which means I haven’t seen your face in forty-eight days. I haven’t held you. I haven’t seen your smile. I don’t know where you are, Harlow. I’ve looked, baby. God, I’ve done everything I could. Where are you? Are you even listening to these messages? Your voice-mail box is all I have left of you. I f**ked up. I f**ked up so bad. Just call me or answer my calls or send me a text. No, call me. Don’t just text me. I need to hear your voice. I just . . . I need to see you, Harlow. I can’t make this right if I can’t hold you—”
Another message cut off. Damn voice mail never let me finish. But then I wasn’t sure she was even listening to her voice mail. I’d been calling every damn night since the moment she walked out my door, and still nothing. I had gone to her dad’s house in Los Angeles, and no one had been there, though I hadn’t been able to see for myself—I wasn’t even allowed past the gate. Security threatened to call the police.
Rush assured me she wasn’t in Beverly Hills. But he knew where she was. She had told him where she was going the day she left my house for the last time, but he wouldn’t tell me. He said she needed time, and I had to give it to her. The night he told me he couldn’t tell me where she was, I had planted my fist in his face for the first time since we’d known each other. He’d taken the hit and shaken it off like the badass he was. Then he’d warned me that was my only shot. He understood, but the next time, he would be fighting back.
I had felt like a shithead for hitting him. He was protecting Harlow, and she needed someone to protect her. I just couldn’t stand not being able to hold her. Not explaining why I had acted like a jackass.
Blaire had just started talking to me again. She’d been so mad at me when she’d seen the bruise on Rush’s face and his bloody nose. She’d refused to speak to me for almost a month.
I couldn’t talk to anyone but Harlow’s voice mail.
I would wake up in the morning and go to work doing manual labor for one of my construction jobs. I needed the physical abuse in order to sleep at night. Once the sun set and I couldn’t work anymore, I would come home, eat, take a bath, call Harlow’s voice mail, and go to bed. Then I would do it all over again the next day.
Nannette had stopped trying to contact me. After I kept refusing to answer her calls or the door when she came over, she got the hint and left me alone. Seeing her only brought back all the pain I’d caused Harlow, and I hated seeing Nan’s face. I didn’t need any more reminders of all I had done to hurt Harlow.
Was it possible to hate yourself? Because I was pretty damn sure I did. Why hadn’t I controlled the shit pouring out of my mouth the last time I’d seen Harlow? I’d ruined it. I’d hurt her. Remembering her face as I’d ranted about her not telling me about her illness made it impossible for me to look in the mirror. She had been scared, and I had been worried about me and my f**king fears. How had I become so selfish? I had been terrified of losing her, but all I’d done was send her running.
I was a bastard, a heartless bastard. I didn’t deserve her, but I wanted her more than I wanted to breathe.
I was losing precious time with her. I wanted to make sure she was safe and protected. I wanted to be there to take care of her and make sure she was healthy. Make sure her heart was OK. I didn’t trust anyone else to keep her alive. Fuck! The idea of her being anything other than alive ripped open my chest, and I had to double over to breathe.
“You gotta call me, baby. I can’t live like this. I have to be with you,” I cried out into the empty room.
Sitting on a hay bale with my knees pulled up under my chin and my arms wrapped around my legs, I watched my half brother, Mase, work with a young thoroughbred that was giving him fits. Having something to focus on other than my inner thoughts was easier. I found myself more worried about Mase breaking his neck than my own problems.
Tonight would come soon enough. My phone would ring, and then my voice mail would ding, alerting me that he had left another message. I would spend the next few hours staring at the wall while mixed emotions ran through me. I wanted to listen to Grant’s voice mails. I missed him. I missed hearing his voice. I missed his dimpled smile. But I couldn’t, even if he was sorry, and I had no doubt, after all the phone calls and his attempt to fight past the security at Dad’s house, that he was sorry.
He was terrified of losing someone he cared about again. If I told him I was carrying our child inside me and that there was a possibility I wouldn’t make it through the delivery, I was afraid he would want me to do what Mase wanted me to do. What the doctors suggested I do.
I loved Grant Carter. I loved him so much. But I loved someone else just as fiercely. I loosened my hold on my legs and placed my hand on my stomach. It was still flat, but I had seen the small life inside during the ultrasound. How could any of them expect me to abort this child? I loved this child already. I loved the child’s father. I had never expected ever to feel this way. It was a dream I had let go of long ago.
I wanted this baby. I wanted this child to have a life. A wonderful, full life. A life with nothing but love and security. My grandmother had been very firm in her belief that abortion was wrong. I had always wondered if she would feel that way if it was me who had accidentally gotten pregnant. But it had never crossed my mind that I might conceive a child with a man I loved. A man who made me want things I shouldn’t want.
The fear was there that maybe they were right . . . maybe I wouldn’t make it. But I believed I would. I wanted this baby. I wanted to love and hold my baby and show that I would do anything for it. I wanted a child of my own. I wanted it enough to live. I was determined that I could do this. I would do this.
I wished Mase understood. I hated seeing the fear flash in his eyes every time he glanced down at my stomach. He was terrified because he loved me. I didn’t want to scare him, but he had to trust me. I could do this. From sheer willpower alone, I could have this baby and live. As if Mase could hear my thoughts, he jumped down off the horse and leveled his gaze on me. Always the concern. I watched as he led the horse back into the barn. We had been out here all morning, and now it was lunchtime.
Mase’s stepfather had given him some land at the back of their property, and Mase had built a small log cabin on it. Luckily for me, his thirteen-hundred-square-foot home had two bedrooms. No one knew about this place, since it was tucked out of sight, so when the media showed up at Mase’s mother’s front door, she just told them neither of us was there, and if they didn’t get off the property, she would call the police. Now that the media knew me as Kiro’s daughter, it was harder to hide.
Since then, it had been silent. We didn’t go into town, and I had been able to hide out in Mase’s log cabin. Other than the visit to the ob-gyn, which Mase’s mother took me to, I had been staying in seclusion. Dad had called a few times. I hadn’t told him about the pregnancy, but I had just found out myself last week.
Mase wanted to tell Kiro. He was sure Dad could force me to have an abortion. I knew it was pointless. I knew in my heart what I was going to do. No one was going to change that. And if my willpower to live wasn’t enough, my baby would be loved. The one person standing by me in all of this had assured me that she would raise this child and love it as if it were her own. Maryann Colt was the mother every kid deserved. When I was little and would visit Mase, his mother would make us cookies and take us on picnics. She would tuck us in at night, and after she would kiss Mase’s cheek and tell him she loved him, she would do the same to me. As if I belonged there.
And Maryann knew what it felt like to be a mother. She understood the need in me to protect this baby. She had held my hand when they confirmed that I was indeed pregnant. Her tears hadn’t been of sorrow but of joy. She had been happy for me because I was happy. That evening was the first time I had ever heard Mase fight with his mother. Maryann had stood by me while I explained that I wasn’t having an abortion. Mase had been furious. He’d ended up begging me to reconsider.
I knew that Grant would be worse. Telling myself that he had forgotten me or that he didn’t care was pointless. I knew better. He still called me every day and left a message. He wanted forgiveness and was possibly ready to take that chance of loving someone with my condition. But now the risk was so much greater. In the end, I didn’t think he would have enough strength to stick it out. I couldn’t forget the words he’d said to me the last time I’d seen him. Our chance was over.
“You feeling OK?” Mase’s voice interrupted my thoughts, and I covered my eyes from the sun and squinted up at him. He was dressed in his faded jeans and a blue plaid shirt. A fine layer of dust covered him from his morning activities, and the cowboy hat on his head was tilted back as he wiped the sweat on his forehead with a towel from his back pocket.
“I’m fine. Just lost in my thoughts,” I explained.
He held out his hand to me. “Come on, let’s go eat something. Momma will have lunch on the table by now.” Maryann cooked a full meal for lunch every day. She said her guys needed it to keep going hard outside. Mase’s stepfather was still using a walking stick after taking a tumble off his tractor, even though he’d already gotten his cast removed. Mase had been picking up his stepfather’s slack for a while now, and he seemed relieved that he was back out working. His stepfather raised beef cattle, and his work was grueling. Mase was only used to training a few horses.
I slipped my hand into my brother’s and let him pull me up. I wouldn’t admit to him that I was weak from my loss of appetite. I wasn’t nauseated from the pregnancy, but I missed Grant. Right now, I wanted him. I wanted to share this with him. To see him smile and hear him laugh. I wanted more than he could give me.
“You haven’t smiled in days,” Mase said, letting go of my hand.
I dusted off my bottom and managed a shrug. “I’m not going to lie to you. I miss him. I love him, Mase. I admitted that to you already.”
Mase fell into step beside me as we walked toward his parents’ large white farm house with its wraparound porch and flowers in the window boxes. Mase had grown up with the perfect life. The kind that kids like me don’t believe in unless they’ve seen it. I wanted to give that kind of life to my child.
“Answer his call tonight instead of sending it to voice mail. He wants to hear your voice. At least give him that. It might make you feel better,” Mase said. This wasn’t the first time he’d urged me to answer Grant’s calls. I hadn’t told Mase why I’d left. I couldn’t stand the idea of Mase hating Grant. He wouldn’t understand why Grant had reacted the way he had. And he’d never forgive him. They would be family one day. This baby would make them family.
And if I wasn’t around . . .
“You’re stubborn, Harlow Manning. You know that?” He nudged my shoulder with his arm.
“I’ll answer him when it’s time. It just isn’t time yet.”
Mase let out a frustrated sigh. “You’re carrying his baby. He needs to know that. This ain’t right, what you’re doing.”
I brushed the wisps of hair that had fallen out of my ponytail holder out of my face. He wouldn’t understand why I couldn’t tell Grant. I was tired of having this conversation with him.
“No one will persuade me to give up my baby. I will not choose myself over this child. I can’t. I won’t. I just . . . don’t ask me to again, just understand that I have to do this my way.”
Mase tensed beside me. Any reminder that I was taking a gamble with my life upset him. But it was my life to choose. I didn’t push him to agree. We walked in silence to the house.
Maryann stood over the stove in a blue and white polka-dotted apron, which I knew was monogrammed on the front. It had been a gift from me when I was seventeen. When the screen door slammed behind us, Maryann glanced over her shoulder and smiled. “Just about ready. Set the table for me, will you?” she said, then turned back to the stove.
Mase went to the silverware drawer, and I went for the plates. This had become a regular routine. After putting down four place settings, I went to get the mason jars and fill them with ice and sweet tea.
“Five places today. Major will be here for lunch. He called this morning to let me know he was on his way into town. Dad agreed to hire him for the next six months. He needs a break from the drama at home, and we need another strong pair of arms around here.”
From what I remembered of Major, he was a bully. A scrawny, mean bully. But then, I hadn’t seen Mase’s cousin since he was ten, so things could have changed. He should be taller than four and a half feet and have his braces off by now.
“Uncle Chap still planning on divorcing this one?” Mase asked as concern wrinkled his brow. We never talked about his cousin, mostly because Major had lived in a different country every time Mase had mentioned him. Uncle Chap was a Marine, and he was hard-core. He also made it his goal in life to marry as many young, beautiful women as he could. Major always had a new mom. That much I remembered.
Maryann sighed and set the biscuits on the table. “The thing is, this time it isn’t about some pretty young thing wanting a sugar daddy. Hillary also wanted Major, and apparently, she got him. Major made a mistake, and, well, Chap isn’t very happy with his wife or his son. Major can’t go home and face his dad now, and he doesn’t want to go back to college. He’s confused and unhappy.”
Mase set the pitcher of tea on the table and swung a surprised expression toward me. He hadn’t known this bit of information. Interesting. “You mean . . . Major tapped his stepmom?”