Unexpected fate, p.17
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       Unexpected Fate, p.17
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         Part #1 of Hope Town series by Harper Sloan
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  He spins on his solid-gold—with glittered embellishments on the heels—stilettos and gives me a big smile.

  “Oh, darling girl, come and let Sway rub that belly! My lord, I love babies. Stella!” he screams, and I watch her wince.

  I swat his hands away when he tries to open the top buttons of my blouse.

  “Yes, Pops?” she responds with an eye roll. “God, leave her tits alone! Sometimes, I wonder if you’re not really straight. ”

  “Don’t you give me that ’tude! I’ll go get your dad next door and have him remind you that you’re supposed to be sweet to me. I’m just trying to make sure little mama gets her tips. She’s got four male heads to work on today. ” He gives me a wink.

  “I’m always sweet to you, you weirdo. ”

  I laugh at them and move around Sway and into the madness of the salon. Looks like a full house today, too. All eight stations are busy—minus Sway’s and mine, of course.

  “Where are the cameras at, Sway?” I call over my shoulder as I head to the breakroom to throw my purse in my locker.

  “On the way, little mama. ”

  I manage to get myself in order and a good head start on Mrs. Cartwright’s highlights—without Sway seeing me doing color—before I hear Devon bang his way through the door.

  “Ah! If it isn’t my favorite home away from home! Are my little bees ready to buzz today?”

  I roll my eyes in the mirror, causing Mrs. Cartwright to giggle.

  “Hey, Dani,” Don says from right over my shoulder. “We’re going to need you to look over these story lines. ”

  I spin on my amazingly kickass black heels and look down at Don. Yeah, down at him. My heels make me maybe right at five foot five and he’s still shorter.

  “I’ve already told you, Don. I don’t do fake. If you want someone to beef up your show, then hire an actor. ”

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  “Holy shit, did you swallow a beach ball?”

  Oh no he did not.

  I might be rounder and my belly might be a very noticeably pregnant, but I am not that big!

  He’s looking at me with the strangest look on his face. As if he’s mad about me being pregnant.

  “What did you—” I stop talking when I hear a crash in the front and turn my head to see what happened. Mark is bent over to help the cameraman who looks to have tripped and dropped his equipment up.

  “Son of a bitch, Troy! Do you have any idea how expensive those cameras are?” Don yells and walks away from me.

  “God, what’s up his ass today?” Maddi says, sidling up to my side. She drops a makeup brush and bends over to get it before giving me her attention. Her hand, as usual—it’s always her first reaction when she’s near me—goes to my belly for a small rub. “Maybe he’s worried about the camera adding ten pounds and you looking like a whale,” she smarts, and I give her a shove.

  “Shut up. Stop using my paranoia to mess with me. ”

  “Incoming,” she says oddly and moves back to her station.

  I give Mrs. Cartwright a look before glancing up in my mirror and seeing Mark walking over.

  “Hey, Mark,” I say with a smile.

  “Dani. Uh, you’re pregnant?” He’s looking at my stomach like it’s about to jump off my body and smother him.

  “It would appear so, Mark,” I laugh. “I didn’t get a chance to share the news with you before you left. ”

  He clears his throat, looking pained.

  So weird. “Everything okay?”

  “What?” He shakes his head. “Oh, sorry. Just a lot on my mind. Things back home were crazy. That girl I was telling you about? Yeah, not sure if it’s going to work out. She wanted . . . well . . . ” He points to my stomach, and it hits me. She wanted kids and he must not have.

  “Oh, I’m sorry, Mark. Don’t worry. There’s tons of fish in the sea. Hey, how about we grab lunch today? Catch up and all that?”

  The whole time I am talking, his eyes keep wandering back to my stomach. Damn, the guy must really have an issue with kids.

  “Probably not today. Lots of stuff we need to catch up since we were gone for a while. Hey, did Don talk to you about the story lines we want to try and hit with this round of filming? They would probably jack up the drama, good for ratings and all that. ”

  What the hell? He knows how I feel about that crap.

  When I don’t answer, he looks down at my stomach again before sharing a look with Don and walking away without another word.

  So. Freaking. Weird.

  I look over at Maddi, and she looks just as confused as I am. She shrugs one shoulder and then turns back to the young girl she’s giving makeup tips to.

  I return my attention to my job. It isn’t long before I realize the day is wasting away and I still haven’t eaten a thing.

  “Hey, Maddi? I’m going to order some Chinese. You want in?”

  I walk around and get orders from a few more people before placing the call. If I don’t eat soon, I’ll most likely take off my arm between clients. I would rather just go out and get it myself, but Dad was clear that I’m not to leave the salon alone—for anything.

  I am in the middle of cleaning out my brushes and wiping down the area in front of my mirror when I hear the door ding and I look up to see the blessed food delivery.

  “I could give you a kiss. I’m so hungry,” I tell the young Chinese man.

  He doesn’t say anything, just roughly shoves the heavy bag in my hand and thrusts the receipt in my hands. I sign it, add the tip, and shove it back. Maybe a little harder than I intended, but damn. What’s it take to get a little friendliness?

  “Have a nice day,” I mumble.

  Of course I’m ignored and he’s right out the door a second later.

  I look around, thinking that maybe I have some sort of “don’t talk to me” vibe since there isn’t anyone near me except for our receptionist, Kat.

  “I’ll be in the breakroom if anyone needs me. I think I have about forty-five minutes before my next client gets here. ”

  “Sure thing, Dani. ”

  I drop the bag down in the middle of the breakroom and make quick work of pulling off the staples and opening the large, brown bag. Expecting to find our lunch order, I’m momentarily shocked by what I see inside. Then, when what I’m looking at sinks in, I jerk my hands back towards my body.

  I feel like I’m drowning. The sound of my blood pumping ferociously through my body is making my ears cloud. My eyes tear up and my vision gets foggy. I must be screaming something fierce, because the next thing I know, the door is slamming open and Sway, along with half of the other stylists, come barreling in.

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  Sway grabs my shoulders and tries to get me to talk through my hysteria. “Child! Good heavens. What has gotten into you?”

  I go slack, and I feel him adjusting his grip to keep my body from falling to the floor.

  “Stella? Talk to me, ella-bella!”

  I focus on Stella over Sway’s shoulder, and the look of terror on her face does nothing to help my panic. I start to gasp and struggle against Sway. I have to get out of here.

  “Someone go next door to CS and get some help. ”

  I don’t hear anything else after that. My body decides that it’s had enough and just shuts down. My cries silence, my tears dry up, and I just go slack.

  My focus stays straight ahead, but I don’t see anything. My mind is too busy focusing on what I saw inside that bag.

  The baby doll snapped apart with red letters against the torso.

  Their words forever branded in my head.

  An image I will never, as long as I live, forget.

  GOD, IT FEELS GOOD TO be home. I’ve been back stateside for the last week, having to debrief up north before I was able to get my ass back to Georgia. It was an impossibly hard week because I knew I was within a few hundred miles of holding my girl. I didn’t
have time to call and check in with Dani. I knew that, the second I heard her voice, it would be game over, so I stayed the course and checked in with my dad and Axel as much as I could. So far, nothing’s changed.

  My first stop home should have been Dani’s, but I figure she is at work, and that gives me some time to get a shower, change out of the clothes I’ve been traveling all day in, and get to her for what I hope will be a welcome surprise.

  I pull my truck up to the apartment and lean back with a deep sigh. Fuck if my body doesn’t relax within seconds of parking my truck. Especially now that I know there will be no more of this leaving shit. I officially have been let go from the program. No more gone for months, going dark with no chance of talking to the ones I love back home. And most important—no more leaving Dani.

  We can finally focus on growing our relationship. Making her mine. And I’m never going to fucking let her go. In the back of my mind, I’ve worried that she’s had enough waiting, given up on us before we could even get off the ground running, but I’ve pushed it aside and kept hope.

  There is no way that, after all of this time, when we finally have our shot and it will be over before we even get started.

  Reaching over the back seat, I grab my bag and climb down from my truck. Then I pause to stretch before I bound up the stairs two at a time. I drop my bag, dig for my keys, and open the door.

  The smile on my face dies instantly when I walk into the living room. Every single fear I’ve had since I left comes back but with a soul-crushing force.

  My girl.

  My fucking Dani-girl is wrapped up tight in the arms of the man I’ve considered one of my closest friends for years. Her back is to me, her head is tucked into his chest, and his arms are wrapped around her tight. He looks up when the door opens, and I can’t even look him in the eyes because of the red haze clouding my vision.

  I didn’t think it could get worse. Nope. Never in my wildest nightmares did I think it could be worse than seeing her in the arms of another man. But when she turns at the noise and I get a good look at her, my world stops spinning. Right here, it just stops with an intensity that rocks my foundation.

  “The fuck?” I bellow, the sound booming through the room, bouncing off the walls, and making Dani flinch.

  “Huh?”

  I look from her stomach—her slightly rounded and very obviously pregnant tiny bump of a stomach—and I feel my lip curl in disgust.

  “And here I figured you would be waiting with your arms wide open. ” I throw my bag down and turn my back on them both.

  I hear her gasp just as the door slams behind me. I don’t even pause. The lump in my throat is burning and my eyes are watering. I blink, willing the show of emotion to stop, and thunder my way back down the steps and into my truck with a swiftness that shouldn’t be possible given the way I’m feeling right now.

  I just left my heart on the floor up there while my future fell around me.

  After hours of driving around, the sun setting in my rearview mirror, I find myself pulling up to the one place I know will give me some peace.

  My parents’ house.

  Cam’s and Colt’s trucks are gone, so at least I know I won’t have to deal with them. As much as I would love to see my brothers, right now, with my mind as volatile as it is, it would be a reunion they don’t deserve.

  Dad’s truck is parked right next to Mom’s minivan. The lights are shining brightly out the windows and onto the front lawn. I sit in my truck for the longest time, still trying to calm my mind.

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  My throat still locked down with a lump the size of Texas.

  I don’t even know how to process what I saw when I walked into my apartment. Dani looked so lost—until she turned to see me—and I still can’t place the emotions that crossed her face, but she almost looked guilty. A feeling I never thought I would see from her. I’ve struggled with the way I’ve felt for her for so long, but never once did I feel guilt.

  Then, when I saw her belly . . .

  Even with the flash of betrayal, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful she looked with that sign of life growing on her tiny frame.

  All the dreams I used to get me through almost seven months of deployment of the future we would live—together—gave me the focus I needed to push through the pain of missing her. All of it, just like our start, is over before it began.

  I jump when I hear a knock on my window and look up to meet my dad’s concerned, blue eyes. I’m not sure how my mind knew that he was what I needed, but the second I see him, I let the emotions that were threatening to burst through tear through me.

  “Dad,” I lament. My shoulders start to shake, and I don’t even care that the tears are starting to fall from my tired eyes.

  His eyes narrow and he pulls the door open. I climb out, slap my arms around his back, and, for the first time since I left home, let him be my strength.

  “Jesus, C-man. What in the hell is going on?” He pulls back, runs his hand over his thick, graying hair, and then grabs my chin, forcing my eyes to his.

  “I just left the apartment,” I sigh, getting a hold on my emotions. “I’m sorry. I was doing a good job at keeping my shit together. ”

  He just looks at me, confused, before a flash of understanding flickers through his eyes. “I see. I know it must be quite shock. I’ll admit your mother and I were just as surprised. ” His tone gives nothing away, clearly letting me run this show.

  “I don’t understand. I can’t even seem to wrap my mind around what I saw, let alone everything that I’m feeling right now. ”

  He gives a soft laugh. “Yeah, it was a shock for me, too, when it happened to your mom and me. ”

  I’m explaining what seeing Dani like that did to me when his words register. “What?”

  “When I first found out she was pregnant, shock was my first feeling, hands down, but then, when I realized what our love had created . . . Fuck me, that was one of the most incredible feelings in the world. I’ll admit it even made me cry, son. No shame in how you’re feeling. ”

  “What?” I repeat, shocked.

  “Christ, Cohen. Did finding out you’re about to be a dad knock you stupid?”

  “What?” I offer lamely, that feeling I had finally rid of in my gut returning.

  “Uh, so I take it you didn’t just see Dani?”

  “Yeah, I fucking saw her—wrapped up in Chance’s arms,” I snap.

  His brows crinkle and he looks at me, waiting for me to continue.

  “Wrapped in his arms, Dad. What more do I need to give you. They looked cozy enough that I didn’t stick the hell around. ”

  His eyes harden, and he shakes his head. I wasn’t expecting the hard hand against my head.

  “The fuck!” I shout at him.

  “The fuck about sums it up. I never thought I would say this to you, but damn, you sure did fuck things up big time with that idiot move. ”

  “What the hell are you talking about?” I ask, rubbing my head. “That hurt, old man. ”

  “You really thought she’s with Chance? Had been with Chance? Son, she’s six months pregnant. Do the fucking math. ”

  “Yeah? I left almost seven months ago. ”

  “Did you even pay attention in school?”

  My mind starts spinning, trying to remember what little I know about the female reproductive system. When the truth hits me—hard—I have to stabilize myself with one arm on the truck.

  “Yeah, son. Some stupid shit about the adding two weeks here, taking the time of conception and then adding some weeks—I don’t really know how the hell it works, but I assure you that she is very much pregnant with your baby. Trust me. It was a shock to us as well, but not once did we lose the faith you did in your girl. ”

  “I fucked up,” I exhale deeply.

  “You sure did. Come on. I’m shocked your mother hasn’t broken down the door to see you,
and we need to give Dani some time to cool off before you rush over there. I guarantee you, if she’s anything like her mother, the lack of trust you held for her will piss her off, maybe more than it will hurt her. Either way, you have some serious making up to do. ”

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  He walks away, muttering something about raising me better than acting like a douchebag.

  “MY HANDSOME BOY!” MY MOTHER screams when I walk in the door. She slams herself into me and gives me a hug tight enough to knock the wind out of me. Then she follows it up with a slap on the side of my head that rivals my father’s in pain.

  “Dammit, Ma!” I exclaim and move away from her vicious hands before she can get another slap in.

  “I heard every word, you silly boy. How could you even think that?” She jabs her fist on her slim hips and gives me a hard look. “I can’t even imagine what she’s feeling right now. Not after the day she had. ”

  “What does that mean?” I ask.

  “Oh no, you don’t. She’s fine where she is. For now, you’re going to tell me how in the world you could even think that she had been unfaithful. ”

  Jesus. Where do I even start?

  I follow my parents into the kitchen, where Mom starts a pot of coffee. Thirty minutes later I have it all laid out.

  My rush to get home, the exhaustion that months of stress and worry had placed on my shoulders, and the feelings that seeing her with another man had rushed to the surface.

  “I snapped. There isn’t an excuse, but fuck. I let my jealousy get the best of me. ”

  “Not an excuse, but it’s forgivable, Cohen. It couldn’t have been easy being away when you knew that you’re needed at home. I get what you’re saying, but that still doesn’t explain how you rushed to the thought that she was with another man,” Mom says with a sigh. “It wasn’t right, but given everything you’ve been through, I understand. ”

  “You need to talk to her, son. Don’t let this fester,” Dad adds when she finishes talking.

  “I know. I know. ”

  It’s been four hours since I walked in and assumed the worst. The fact that I’m about to be a father hasn’t even settled in now that the relief that I was horribly wrong is still fresh in my system.

  “Do you want to talk about it, son? How you’re feeling? I know it’s a lot to take in. ”

  I look over at my dad and sigh. Not for the first time, I realize just how lucky I am that he found my mom and, in turn, found me. He’s been my rock since I was three—my hero—and the man I’ve always hoped I could just be half as good as.

 
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