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Echoes of Home

For everyone who's hoping for the D-Dave Invasion to get his happily-ever-after...

HEART LAKE #12

CHRISTMAS MORNING

 

Dave Phillips woke up to an empty house, just like he always did. He preferred it that way. Holidays were no different.

 

Every Christmas, though, he made one exception. Slinging his legs over the side of his bed, he reached for his cell phone. It was on a magnetic charger, so there was no cord to unhook as he mashed the button beside the name of the only woman he had on speed dial. He lifted the phone to his ear.

 

As usual, she let it ring. And ring. Twice. Three times. Four times. Five times. He was surprised when it didn’t roll over to voicemail. Knowing her, she’d probably purchased a new phone and forgotten to set it up.

 

He listened to it ring a sixth time. Well, I tried. Lowering the phone from his ear, he hovered his finger over the disconnect button.

 

The light on the screen changed. “David?” Though faint, it was his mother’s voice.

 

He raised the cell phone back to his ear, awash with relief. “Merry Christmas, Mom!” As hard as he tried to hide it, there was a long-suffering note to his voice as he braced himself for what was coming.

 

“What’s merry about it?” She sounded even more bitter than she had last Christmas.

 

“I don’t know, Mom. It’s just something people say once a year.” Fortunately for her, Christmas didn’t come around any more often. Otherwise, she’d be hearing from her only son a lot more than she wanted to.

 

She grunted instead of answering.

 

“You alright?” he asked quickly. “You need anything?”

 

She gave a dry laugh. “Son, I’ve received generous divorce settlements from no less than four husbands. I can buy and sell your fancy Corvette and small-town office building a thousand times over.”

 

“Or you could come visit me,” he offered in a mild voice. The fourth husband was news to him. Before this very moment, he’d only known about three of them. It was hard to believe that a woman in her seventies had yet to figure out true happiness didn’t come from another human as imperfect as herself.

 

Only from a perfect God.

 

“I’ll never step foot in that town again,” she spat. “You know why.”

 

He did. Her first husband was buried in this town. Dave’s father. A degenerative bone disease had taken him prematurely from this world. Funny how his mother’s reason for leaving had been one of his own biggest reasons for staying.

 

“Things here are changing,” he coaxed. “You might actually enjoy a trip down memory lane.” She’d grown up in Heart Lake, the same as he had.

 

“Somehow I doubt that,” she sighed.

 

He’d expected her to change the subject. The fact that she hadn’t was a good sign. “The mayor declared an official end to the feud between the Remingtons and Hawlings.”

 

“Well, la-de-da!”

 

The anger in her voice surprised him, but he pressed on. “Turns out the whole feud was something made up. Both families were in on it.”

 

“Why am I not surprised?” Her tone grew as crispy as fresh-fried bacon.

 

“They came up with the story to fuel one of the biggest rodeo rivalries in the west.”

 

She sniffed. “Are you hoping I’ll beg you to continue?”

 

He smirked. She was interested alright. “They did it to bury the press about a missing woman. One of the town deputies snatched her out of a wagon bound for an asylum and hid her on the rez.”

 

“They hid a crazy woman?” His mother’s voice rose incredulously.

 

“She wasn’t crazy. Her guardian only made that claim in an attempt to steal her fortune.”

 

“Men!” Her voice dripped with disdain, as if every male on the planet fit into some dark and deplorable category. “Is there a point to your story?”

 

And this is why we only talk once per year. Dave swallowed his irritation, trying not to choke on it. “Gil married the great-great-great-granddaughter of the deputy and the woman from the asylum.” Just thinking about it made him chuckle. “Talk about a retirement bonus!” Since Gil had been born a Remington, he wasn’t poor. However, his small-town sheriff’s salary hadn’t exactly added much to the family coffers.

 

His mother was silent for several moments. “He finally gave Mary that divorce she wanted so badly, eh?”

 

Dave frowned. “Not exactly. She found out she had cancer, and Gil stuck it out until the end. The fact that she ever filed for divorce wasn’t public knowledge. How’d you find out?”

 

His mother made a huffing sound. “I may live in Italy, but I still hear things about Heart Lake.”

 

Apparently not current information. He wasn’t beyond goading her about it. “You wouldn’t be so far behind on your local gossip if you hopped on an airplane and visited your only child once in a blue moon.”

 

“How about we make a deal?” Her voice grew sly.

 

His gut waved a red flag, but he ignored it. “I’m listening.” He knew he was a fool to stay on the phone. Every man who’d ever made a deal with his mother had ended up on the raw end of it. Having the Queen of Sly for a parent was one of the reasons he’d decided to go into law in the first place. Pure self-preservation. It was also one of the biggest reasons he’d never married. She hadn’t been the best model for marital bliss.

 

“Give me a grandchild, Dave, and I’ll be all over you like a family of ticks on a dog.”

 

“Bye, Mom.” Rolling his eyes, he slid his thumb toward the disconnect button.

 

“I give you my word, son.”

 

Like that had anything to do with it. “I’m fifty-three, Mom. Pretty sure that ship has sailed.”

 

“Has it?” For no particular reason, she started laughing. “You might want to check in with your buddy Gil before nixing the idea altogether.” The line went dead.

 

You hung up me? Dave stared at his phone, shaking his head at it before tossing it onto the twisted linens of his unmade king-sized bed. He stomped through the first floor of his new three-story town home on the lake, feeling more dissatisfied than he had in a long time. It was full of more luxurious upgrades that a body could shake a stick at, not the least of which was the bubbling spa on the third-story balcony. Purchasing Gil’s home was probably one of his dumbest decisions yet. For the life of him, he still wasn’t sure why he’d done it.

 

Unless…

 

I’m envious of him, that’s what! If Dave was being perfectly honest with himself, part of him had always been envious of his best friend. Gil had been born a Remington, dated the most popular girl in school, kissed the nicest one, and still managed to marry the most popular one.

 

Okay, maybe I don’t envy him the last part. The next thirty-something years of Gil’s personal life had been agony. His career, however, had flourished. Everyone in town looked up to him. Though he’d never had children of his own, more than likely because Mary hadn’t wanted them — may she rest in peace — he was like a father to a lot of people. All the young cowpokes respected him. Every blasted one of his deputy understudies would literally follow him into battle. Children of all ages high-fived him on the street.

 

Whereas the only time folks call me is when they need something. The legal kind of something. Then they acted like Dave was boiling their first-born child for dinner when his secretary sent them the bill for his services.

 

He was halfway to the kitchen when his phone started ringing. Casting a longing look at his coffee dispenser, he debated letting the call roll to voicemail. It was probably a junk call at this time of day. Everybody who had anybody special in their life was gathered around a Christmas tree opening gifts about now.

 

Then again, maybe someone was calling him because they were in trouble. Bad things didn’t stop happening just because it was Christmas. He spun around so quickly in the middle of the great room that he stubbed his toe on the edge of the coffee table.

 

“Ow!” He hopped a few times on one foot, then took off at a shuffling jog toward his bedroom. He was out of breath by the time he reached his bed and fished his phone out of his sheets. A quick glance at the caller ID told him it was Gil.

 

Just the guy my mom suggested I get a hold of this morning. He accepted the call. “Yo!”

 

“Why does it sound like you just finished running a marathon?” There was a gleeful note to Gil’s voice that made no sense to Dave.

 

“Because I did. Stubbed my toe along the way.”

 

“Sorry to hear it. Might need to add more cardio to your workout, old man.”

 

“Merry Christmas to you, too,” Dave growled, wondering if Gil had forgotten they were the same age.

 

“Best Christmas ever, man!” For some reason, his friend sounded close to weeping.

 

“Oh? Why’s that?” Dave sank down on the edge of his mattress, not sure he was prepared to hear whatever had Gil so worked up.

 

“Bliss is pregnant! Wanted you to be the first to know.”

 

Dave blinked, unsure if he’d heard correctly. He shot a quick glance at his pillow to make sure he wasn’t still lying there asleep.

 

“You still there, D-Dave?” Gil gave a damp-sounding sniffle.

 

“Did you actually say…?” He scowled into space, wondering how in the world his mother had known. Maybe her sources weren’t so out-of-date after all.

 

“I did. I know we’re a little up in years for stuff like this, but we want you to be the godfather, so long as everything goes the way we hope and pray.” Gil’s voice grew thick with emotion.

 

Dave rubbed a hand over the lower half of his face, knowing Gil was referring to the increased risks surrounding a pregnancy at Bliss’s age. “Everything’s gonna be alright, man.” Dave wasn’t sure how he knew that. He just did.

 

Gil cleared his throat. “Thanks for saying that.”

 

“Have I ever lied to you?” Dave felt a little like crying himself. This was good news. More than good news. It was a miracle of biblical proportions — one he’d just a few minutes ago told his own mother was impossible.

 

Gil chuckled. “Is that a yes on the godfather thing?”

 

“You know it is.” The dissatisfaction Dave had been feeling lately skyrocketed to a feverish pitch. “Congratulations, bro.” It was both the best Christmas gift and the worst one. Yeah, he was happy for Gil. The fact that every last one of his best friend’s dreams was coming true, though, made him feel his own unfulfilled ones all the more.

 

“Thanks. This means the world to me. Bliss, too.”

 

Dave snickered to cover the emotions welling in him. “You might wanna hold that thought until we find out what kind of godfather I turn out to be.”

 

“Yeah, yeah! We knew what we were getting into when we asked you.”

 

“Then I’d better up my game to make sure you regret it,” Dave joked.

 

Gil kept talking like he hadn’t heard his last crack. “You still planning on joining the Remington clan for our big Christmas dinner today?”

 

Dave’s brain automatically reviewed the potential guest list and determined there would be no dateable women present.

 

“Thanks for the invite, but I’m gonna have to pass.” An idea had just popped into his mind, one that went against the very fabric of his orderly, well-planned-out existence.

 

“You feeling okay?” Gil asked quickly.

 

That's debatable. “Yeah. Why?”

 

“I’ve never known you to pass up my sister-in-law’s homemade banana pudding.”

 

“Any chance you’ll ask her to toss some into a to-go box for me?” Dave mulled over the ridiculousness of what he was about to do. Probably never be able to show my face at the Heart Lake Medical Center again after today. Then again, maybe the woman he was hoping to see wasn’t even on duty. He hoped for her sake that she’d been able to take off work for Christmas. Even if she had, though, somebody would be filling in for her. ERs didn’t shut down for the holidays.

 

“There’s a chance. You sure you’re okay?” Gil still sounded worried.

 

“Never been better,” Dave lied. “You get me that banana pudding, and I promise to stop by later on to trade it for the gift I got you guys.”

 

“Mercenary,” Gil muttered beneath his breath, but he was snickering when he hung up.

 

Dave got dressed before returning to the coffee dispenser. Since he was about to ask a woman on a date, he buttoned a white dress shirt and blazer over his jeans and boots. Then he moved to the window. Snow flurries were falling and melting into the lake, but the roads looked clear from where he stood.

 

Good. Though he owned a Jeep with snow tires, this particular mission called for his silver Corvette.

 

Before he headed to the garage, he brewed two cups of coffee to go. Black. If he got lucky and landed a coffee break with his target, the hospital break room should have creamers and stuff.

 

My target. He gave himself a mental eye roll as he stepped into the garage. It was no wonder he was still single with no serious prospects. He approached everything through the lens of an attorney.

 

He rested one of the cups on the hood of his car while he opened the door. Then he plopped both coffees into his cupholders and settled behind the wheel. He blew out a breath as he started the motor. Gil was probably right about adding some cardio to his workout regimen. He’d sort of stopped caring lately. If he was going to get back in the dating game, though, he’d have to start caring again.

 

I do care, actually. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe he cared too much about important stuff like love to make the same mistakes his best friend and mother had. Knowing he was distracted by his thoughts, he drove slower than usual around the lake and set his course for the Heart Lake Medical Center.

 

Since there was no traffic on the roads, he reached the medical center in record time despite his slower speed. There were almost no cars in the parking lot there, either, which he chalked up to a good thing.

 

Now to find out if his mark was on duty…nope! He hastily crossed out the word “mark” inside his head and substituted it with the words “future girlfriend.”

 

Lord willing.

 

It was a long shot, but it felt like his only shot right now in the world of romance.

 

Man! He was so out of touch. So off his game. Gil would laugh up a lung if he knew what his closest friend in the world was up to at the moment.

 

Before Dave’s better judgment kicked in, he pushed open his car door, lifted the two cups of coffee, and stepped out on the pavement. The snow was falling a little harder now. He nudged the door shut with his knee and moved toward the entrance door to the ER with his head lowered against the wind.

 

Stepping inside, he stomped his boots lightly on the entrance mat, hoping not to track anything in. The tile floor would get slick pretty quickly as the weather outside grew worse, and that was probably the last thing an ER needed.

 

A quick glance around the waiting room proved there were no patients waiting to be seen.

 

So far, so good.

 

A glance toward the check-in desk proved that the woman he’d been hoping to see was, indeed, present.

 

She looked up from her computer and stared at him in surprise through the glass wall separating them. Then she frowned worriedly. She stood and beckoned him forward.

 

His heart pounded with a nervousness he hadn’t realized a man his age was capable of feeling as he strode her way. He tried not to stare, but it was an impossible task. She was that cute in her red turtleneck sweater dotted with snowmen, and her white uniform jacket did nothing to hide her curvy figure. Though her blonde hair was pulled back in a twist, her thick bangs were brushed to one side, framing her heart-shaped features to perfection.

 

She leaned toward the speak-through vent. “Are you okay, Dave?”

 

He couldn’t help grinning as his gaze landed on her left hand. She still wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. Nor was there an indention where one might’ve been. “You remembered my name. Again.”

 

She rolled her eyes at him. “Everyone who attended Heart Lake High back in the day knew about the D-Dave Invasion. You were a legend.” Her blue gaze drifted briefly to the two cups of coffee in his hands.

 

Her words made his heart sing. Not only did she remember his name, she remembered his high school football moniker. “Those were the days, weren’t they?” He held one of the coffees toward the glass. “Care to reminisce over a cup?”

 

Her lips parted. “You brought me coffee?”

 

“Yes, I brought you coffee, Ju-Jillian.” He grimaced, wondering why he kept trying to call her Julie.

 

She chuckled. “Julie is my older sister. Y’all were seniors back in high school, while I was a lowly freshman. I probably should’ve mentioned that during your last visit, but…” She waved a hand. “We had more important things to discuss.” Like the fact that Gil had been unconscious when they’d wheeled him into the emergency bay after a hit-and-run accident.

 

“Wow!” Dave gave a huff of relief. “Thanks for setting me straight about that. Can’t tell you how guilty I felt about getting your name wrong the last time I was here.” He did a quick mental calculation and determined she was only fifty, maybe forty-nine.

 

A moment of silence fell between them that felt a little awkward. She delicately cleared her throat. “Are you ever going to get around to telling me why you’re here?”

 

“Oh! Right.” He grinned at her like an idiot. “Because I never properly thanked you for allowing me behind the curtain when Gil was in the hospital.” Though Dave wasn’t a blood relative, he’d been ready to get on his knees and beg for an exception. She’d relented before he had to take such drastic measures.

 

“It’s Christmas morning, Dave.” Jillian glanced around him. “Why choose today of all days to—?”

 

“I could ask you the same thing,” he interrupted, gesturing at her with his coffee again, “if you’ll just let me in, I can explain.”

 

She tapped a button, and the door to the receptionist area swung open.

 

“Thanks.” He moved toward her booth to deliver one of the coffees with a flourish.

 

Her fingers brushed his during the transfer. The way her cheeks turned pink told him it was an accident.

 

“Please.” She waved him around the cabinet. “I’m the only one on duty right now, so my co-worker’s seat is open.”

 

“Thanks.” He eagerly joined her in front of the glass.

 

She gave a breathy chuckle. “Just keep the CLOSED sign in front of your side of the window, esquire.”

 

“No worries.” He swiveled his chair her way and rolled it a few inches closer. “I only came to see you.”

 

“On Christmas day,” she repeated, sounding amazed.

 

“Got nothing better to do.” He shrugged. “Wasn’t sure you’d be here, but figured it was worth a try.”

 

“What about your mom?” She frowned thoughtfully as she cradled the paper coffee cup between her hands. It looked like she was trying to draw every ounce of heat from it.

 

His eyebrows rose. “You know my mom?”

 

“I know about her,” she corrected, flushing again. “Everyone in town wishes they could afford to visit her villa on the Italian coast.”

 

His eyebrows rose higher. “Dare I ask how you know all of this?”

 

“Facebook,” she supplied, bending her head over her coffee cup to take her first sip. She shivered again.

 

He abruptly set his coffee cup down and shrugged out of his blazer. “Here.” Without waiting for her permission, he half stood to drape it around her shoulders.

 

“Thanks.” She pulled it tighter around her. “I, um…” She shoved her cup of coffee back into his hands. “Unless this is decaf, I probably shouldn’t be drinking it.”

 

“It’s not decaf.” His attorney senses were buzzing with curiosity as he set her coffee cup beside his and slowly took a seat again. He continued leaning in her direction as he inquired softly, “You a tea-totaler, or what?”

 

She seemed to wilt a little beneath the shoulders of his blazer. “I should probably say or what and leave it at that.”

 

“Jillian, Jillian, Jillian,” he chided teasingly. Flirting with her came so naturally that he could only hope she didn’t mind.

 

She lifted her chin. “I’m not one of your clients, Dave.”

 

Ouch! So much for his attempt at flirting with her. “I haven’t forgotten.” He blew out a breath. “If this sounds like a cross-examination, it’s only because old habits die hard.” For once, he didn’t want to be seen as an attorney. He just wanted her to see him as a man.

 

Her lips twitched. “Okay. You’re forgiven.”

 

“Wasn’t aware I’d done anything wrong.” He made a face as he picked up his coffee cup again. “Other than failing to bring you decaffeinated coffee, that is.”

 

She gave a humorless chuckle. “You had no way of knowing I'm pregnant.”

 

He choked and nearly spewed the sip he’d just taken.

 

“Oops,” she murmured, blushing harder. “Didn’t mean to divulge that bit of information. If you could, um…do me a favor and keep it between us?”

 

Disappointment crashed through him as he mimed zipping his lips. He wasn’t sure why he’d assumed she was single. Lots of folks didn’t wear their wedding rings.

 

“It’s not what you think,” she declared in a low voice. “I know it’s a small town, and people are going to talk no matter what explanation I give them for my condition, but…” She raised her gaze to his and sighed. “I don’t know why I’m even telling you all of this.”

 

He snorted and took another bracing sip of coffee. “Technically, you haven’t told me much of anything yet, Mrs. er…Harris.” He gestured at her name tag.

 

“Oh, I’m not married.” She shivered again. “That’s kind of the problem. I’m a single, forty-nine-year-old woman who’s always wanted children. So, um…” She spread her hands. “I contacted a surrogacy firm in Dallas about a donor, took a few vacation days, and this was the result.” She gestured at her belly. “I’m four and a half months along, in case you were wondering.”

 

He nodded, not sure what sort of response situations like these called for. “Congratulations.” His specialty was criminal law, not fertility treatments.

 

“If you say so. I’m sort of terrified.” She shyly met his gaze.

 

“About?” Though she wasn’t his to worry about, an unaccountable burst of sympathy flooded him. Where was her sister? What about the rest of her family?

 

“Everything.” She held up a finger to a woman in a white smock who peeked around the corner at them. She waited until the woman walked away before adding, “I probably didn’t think this through. You know…” She hugged her arms around her middle. “Raising a kid alone, now that both my sister and parents have moved away. On a receptionist’s income. In a studio apartment. Seriously, Dave! What was I thinking?” Before he could formulate a suitable answer, she gave a self-deprecatory chuckle. “I’m sorry. You don’t need to respond to any of my rambling. No doubt you’re regretting bringing me coffee.”

 

“Not at all.” Regret wasn’t even close to what he was feeling. He was no longer feeling bored and restless, either. Listening to Jillian Harris blurt out her Santa-sized list of fears about becoming a single mother was a painful reminder of just how big his new town home was. And quiet. And empty. In comparison, she was about to start a family in a home that would soon feel too small and sound way too loud.

 

She blew out a breath. “Only because you’re used to having people unload on you, huh?”

 

“That’s not the only reason.” He winked at her.

 

Her eyes widened. “Dave! Did you just—?”

 

Attempt to flirt with you again? Yeah. “I think you’re cute, okay? And you were so kind and understanding about everything I was going through the last time we spoke that I’ve had a hard time getting you out of my thoughts.” His face was probably as red as hers by now, but backing down wasn’t in his DNA. “Which is why I'm here, hoping to wrangle a date out of you.”

 

Her gaze took on a glassy sheen. “After everything I’ve confessed to you?”

 

“I thought we established the fact that this wasn’t a cross examination,” he joked. “Plus, I zipped my lips, so your confession is going nowhere other than the dating destination of your choice.” Just say yes already!

 

“You seriously don’t mind going out with a pregnant woman?” Her words came out hushed with wonder.

 

“I would date you in a heartbeat.” A snicker escaped him at the mental image of his mother’s expression when he told her that his girlfriend was pregnant.

 

She blinked in astonishment. “Did I say something funny?”

 

“Nope. I was just thinking something funny.”

 

“I’ve bared my soul to you, esquire.” She wrinkled her nose at him. “The least you could do is let me in on the joke.”

 

He chuckled again. “I’m not sure you’re ready to hear it.”


“Why? Because I’m pregnant?” she shot back.

 

He liked her sass. “Nope. It’s because you haven’t yet agreed to be my girlfriend.”

 

Her eyes nearly bugged out. “I wasn’t aware that was on the table.”

 

“An oversight I am happy to correct.” He caught her hand before she lowered it, holding it gently between his. “Will you be my girl?”

 

She caught her lower lip between her teeth. “We barely know each other.”

 

“I’m trying to change that.”

 

They engaged in a very intense staring match that was charged with an ever-growing sense of awareness. The good kind. The tender kind. Almost of its own accord, his thumb brushed across the top of her hand. He had good instincts when it came to reading people. And right now, they were telling him she was a person worth getting to know better. A lot better. He couldn’t believe they’d co-existed for so many years in the same town before their paths had crossed.

 

She drew a sharp breath. “If I say yes, how do we know it’s not just the pregnancy hormones talking?” She gave him a half-sad, half-laughing shake of her head. “Women who are expecting can be very…emotionally needy.”

 

Since she was more than four months along, he could only presume she was speaking from experience, not merely quoting something she’d read in a book. Hoping to reassure her, he made a scoffing sound. “Good thing you’re talking to one of the loneliest guys in town.”

 

“You don’t know how tempting this is.” She glanced around them, looking uncertain. “But…what if you end up feeling used?”

 

Bring it on, babe. “I’m a grown man. I can handle it.” It was more than that, though. He’d been praying for someone like her to come his way. Someone single, lonely, and lovely. Feeling needed in the process was sort of the whole idea.


“What if you get attached to me?” She glanced down at herself. “To the baby?”

 

“What if I do?” he taunted quietly. It was a fair question to throw at a guy who’d spent so many years dodging that kind of commitment. But I’m ready now. Though the realization surprised him, it didn’t make it any less true.

 

“What if,” she continued in a nervous voice, “in the middle of all my newfound nesting instincts, I get attached to you as well?”

 

He curled his upper lip at her. “So far, you haven’t mentioned one thing that’s a problem I wouldn’t mind having.”

 

“Prove it,” she demanded softly, swaying a little in his direction.

 

“How?” At first, he assumed she was angling for a kiss, but he quickly realized she was swaying from tiredness.

 

“My shift just ended, and I am way too tired to get behind the wheel.” She squeezed his hands, giving him a beseeching look.

 

Good gravy! He glanced at his watch, noting it was five past eight. What in the world was a pregnant woman doing working the night shift?

 

“I’m glad I’m not the only one who recognizes that fact.” The woman in the white smock reappeared. “Please assure me this handsome gentleman is here to drive you home?”

 

Handsome? Dave glanced around them to make sure he was the only guy in the room.

 

Both women smiled.

 

“Sure am!” He shot to his feet and gently tugged Jillian to hers.

 

She took a stumbling step his way. He drew her closer to steady her.

 

“Mmm,” she murmured, tipping her head against his shoulder. “If you could just remain standing here for the next several years.”

 

I can do better than that, darling. With a grunt, he spun her sideways and hooked an arm beneath her legs, hauling her into his arms. She fit there like she was made to be held by him.

 

She gave a faint yelp of surprise. “Dave, you can’t carry me. I’m too—”

 

“That’s exactly what I’m doing, Jillian.” His arms tightened protectively around her. Though she wasn’t feather light, her size was no problem for his strength. He’d spent a significant part of his life in the gym, even participating in a few body building tournaments now and then. Funny how it felt like all of that had been leading up to this very moment.

 

“You know what I mean,” she protested, looking delightfully flustered.

 

He arched a single eyebrow at the chuckling woman taking over her shift. “Does she have a purse or anything?”

 

The woman was already reaching into a bottom drawer. She straightened and handed a floral quilted wristlet to Jillian. “You’ve been holding out on me, my friend. I expect a few details about this hottie when you return.”

 

Hottie? Handsome? It was impossible for Dave to tell if she was being serious or simply having a little fun at his expense. He stood in front of a mirror every time he lifted weights. He was all too aware he was a middle-aged guy with a receding hairline that he’d long since given up trying to style. For the past ten years or so, he’d simply worn it shaved. Better to look tough than just plain old.

 

Jillian treated Dave to a shy, laughing look before meeting her coworker’s gaze again. “Merry Christmas, Jean!”

 

“Merry Christmas, Jillian,” Jean returned in a voice laced with affection.

 

Jillian’s eyelids drifted drowsily as Dave carried her to his Corvette. It was still snowing. A light layer of whiteness coated the windshield.

 

“Wow! Nice wheels,” she murmured.

 

“Glad my girlfriend approves.” Technically, she still hadn’t agreed to be his girlfriend yet.

 

“I can’t believe you just called me that,” she chuckled as he gently deposited her on her feet beside his car.

 

“Anything else you’d prefer me to call you?” he inquired huskily. His gaze drifted to her very kissable lips.

 

“Actually, I like the sound of that just fine.” She reached up, shivering, to touch his cheek. “I like the way you hold me, too.”

 

“Plenty more where that came from. Just not right now.” He tamped down on the desire to take her in his arms again. Instead, he reached around her to open the passenger door. “Can’t have you and the baby turn into icicles on my watch.”

 

Her seatbelt was on, and her head was tipped against the seat rest by the time he climbed in beside her.

 

“This is nice.” She held out her hands toward the heater vents when they came on.

 

He wasn’t sure what she meant by nice, but he didn’t pry. If she meant that it was nice not being alone on Christmas morning, however, he couldn’t have agreed more. He waited until they reached the highway before glancing her way to ask where she lived.

 

Her hands were back in her lap, her eyelids were closed, and the cadence of her breathing suggested she might have fallen asleep.

 

He whispered her name to be sure. There was no response. After a short inner debate, he made the decision to drive her to his home on the lake. She could nap on the sofa in the living room. Depending on how long she slept, maybe he’d make it to that Christmas dinner at the Remingtons after all.

 

With a date.

 

He was going to get a real kick out of seeing Gil’s expression when they walked through the door together.

 

NEW YEAR'S EVE

 

For a guy who hadn’t dated much since high school, Dave found himself pulling out all the stops where Jillian was concerned — right down to setting out a candlelit dinner on the roof of his office building. Since they’d be seated under the stars, he’d rounded up no less than four propane powered patio heaters.

 

As they rode from the parking garage to the top floor in the private elevator he’d installed for authorized personnel only, he reached over and lazily tapped the stop button.

 

Jillian blinked in surprise at him as the elevator halted. “Is everything okay?”

 

“No.” He gave her creamy white sweater beneath her black-and-white plaid coat a once-over, unable to keep his gaze from drifting down to her baby bump. She was just starting to show. Man, but his girlfriend was every shade of hot! She knew how to fill a pair of jeans, too.

 

“Talk to me,” she commanded softly, reaching up to tuck back a strand of her hair.

 

“Not really in the mood for talking.” He reached over to finish tucking her hair behind her ear for her. “Ever kissed a guy in an elevator before?”

 

She shook her head, her blue gaze going all soft and melty the way it always did when he said stuff like that to her.

 

“May I be your first?” He caressed the lobe of her ear, making her shiver a little. He was cocky enough to believe it wasn’t because she was cold.

 

“And my only,” she agreed, catching her breath as he backed her up against the wall of the elevator.

 

He liked the sound of that. “Put your arms around my neck,” he instructed huskily. She might be the one who was pregnant, but he enjoyed being held by her every bit as much as she enjoyed being held by him.

 

“Bossy,” she teased as she slid her arms over his shoulders and twined them around his neck.

 

“Hasn’t scared you off yet,” he mocked as he hovered his mouth over hers.

 

“It’s only been a week,” she teased back.

 

“Happy one week anniversary, babe!” It felt like they’d been dating for much longer, probably because they were so perfect for each other. That, and maybe because of how much time they’d spend necking.

 

She gave a breathy chuckle against his lips. “I didn’t realize one week anniversaries were a thing.”

 

“Every moment we spend together matters to me, babe.” He touched his mouth to hers, savoring every sound she made. Every gentle movement as she snuggled closer. The way her fingers curled a little tighter into the back of his neck.

 

Mine. Mine. Mine. He deepened their kiss, feeling almost like weeping. She was everything he’d dreamed of. Everything he’d prayed for. Everything he hadn’t even realized he was waiting for — for one simple reason. He hadn’t known it was possible to feel this way about another person.

 

In one short week, she’d chased away his loneliness. She gave his life more meaning. More worth. She made him feel like he mattered.

 

He raised his head long before he was done kissing her. Shoot! He was probably never going to be done kissing her. “I love you, Jillian.”

 

Her gaze grew luminous. “It’s only been a week, Dave,” she whispered.


“I know.” He drank in her loveliness. “Just for the record, I’ve loved you for the entire week, and I’m just getting started. Hope that doesn’t scare you away.”

 

She smiled dreamily at him. “Where would I run to? You’ve got me trapped in an elevator.”

 

The laughter and joy in her voice was so sweet that it made his heart ache.

 

“Then I’d better give you some options.” He reached over to press the elevator button to get them moving again, gazing deeply into her eyes all the way to the top.

 

He backed from the elevator onto the rooftop courtyard, tugging her toward the circle of propane heaters he’d already turned on.

 

“This is amazing!” Her head spun as she drank in the table for two, the roses, and candles. “Oh, Dave!” In the distance, a few premature fireworks exploded, showering an umbrella of colorful sparks against the sky.

 

It was the perfect moment with the perfect woman.

 

He lowered himself to a knee in front of her. “Marry me, Jillian. Let me be your partner in crime. The father of your baby. The only guy you kiss in elevators for the rest of your life. If you don’t love me back yet, I get it. Like you said, it’s only been a week. But you don’t have to do this family thing alone. We can start off with a marriage of convenience and see where it leads—”

 

She shushed him by placing her fingers over his mouth. “I do love you, Dave. So much and so quickly that it’s become one more thing that terrifies me.”

 

He stood, keeping her fingers pressed to his lips while he kissed them one by one. “What are you afraid of?”

 

She shook her head, growing misty eyed. “Losing you, I guess.”

 

He continued kissing her fingers. “You do realize that marrying me would be the opposite of losing me?”

 

She drew a deep breath. “I just don’t want you to look back someday and feel like I took advantage of you with my current neediness.”

 

That again? He snorted. “I have needs, too.” He cupped her face with both hands. “You just happen to be the first woman capable of meeting every last one of them.” He wished he knew of a way to make her believe it. “You’re all I’ve ever wanted. It’s like my life was on hold before you came along. At least this part of it.” He tenderly brushed his lips against hers. “I don’t want to live without you. Without this.” He kissed her again and felt a jolt of movement against his midsection.

 

“Dave!” Jillian gripped the lapels of his coat. “The baby just kicked!”

 

“Well, I’ll be!” He lowered his hands to her belly. “Is it the first time?”

 

“Yes.” She pressed her hands over his, holding them closer as the baby kicked again. Tears dripped down her cheeks. “I think he likes the idea of having both a mom and a dad. So do I.” She raised her brimming gaze to his.

 

“I’m gonna take that as a yes.” Joy swept through him as he hugged her close.

 

“It’s a yes,” she declared, standing on her tiptoes to press her cheek against his.

 

“Let’s tie the knot soon,” he begged. “Before the baby’s born.” There was a small room adjoining the master bedroom in his new town home that Gil had been using as an office. It would make an ideal nursery.

 

“Whew! Planning a wedding and a baby,” she breathed, sounding nervous again. “That’s a lot.”

 

“Might be easier if you took some time off from work.” He leaned back a little to study her through heavy lids, hoping she wasn’t offended by what he was suggesting. Call him selfish, but he’d waited so long for her to come into his life that he didn’t mind the idea of having her all to himself for a while.

 

She looked even more worried. “What are you suggesting?”

 

“If you want to take some time off to be a wife and a mom, I’m cool with that.” He was an attorney. He could well afford to support their family on his income alone. “Your decision, of course. No pressure.”

 

“Oh, wow, Dave,” she sighed. “I’m not gonna lie. The idea of not working the night shift for a while has some serious appeal.”

 

He was hoping she’d say that. “Then turn in your resignation tomorrow.”

 

She burst out laughing. “Exactly how soon were you hoping to get married?”

 

“Yesterday.” He swooped in to nuzzle the edge of her mouth.


“I don’t have a wedding dress yet.”

 

“You look fine in what you have on, babe.” He dragged his mouth lazily over hers. “More than fine.”

 

“You’re crazy,” she breathed, kissing him back.

 

His heart felt close to exploding. “Nope. I’m Dave, the guy you just agreed to marry.”

 

The candles were burning lower by the time they sat down at the table, but their flickering glow was soon replaced by the fireworks overhead.

 

It was the perfect ending to the perfect night.

 

As well as the perfect beginning.

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Thank you for reading the final Bonus Epilogue to my Heart Lake Series! I hope the grand finale lived up to your expectations!!!

Craving more sweet cowboy romantic suspense?

Check out my Born in Texas Series.

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Much love,

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