Ian and Gabby turned in unison to see Brian easing his utterly limp girlfriend down to the floor, his voice panicked as he repeated her name.
And, for perhaps the first time, he could imagine Gabriella Ross as a doctor.
While the rest of them stood gaping in shell-shocked confusion, Gabby was at Brian’s side in a heartbeat, helping him lower Candace’s head gently to the floor. “What happened?” she asked, none of Brian’s panic in her voice.
“She just…collapsed. What the fuck…? Candace.”
“Brian,” she said evenly, “calm down. She’s breathing, she’s okay. I want you to raise her legs off the floor, about a foot…right there. That’s good.”
Ian couldn’t see much of what was going on now. Macy was crowding in with Ghost behind her, trying to peek over her shoulder, and in this close-knit bunch, Ian was the outsider. “Should I call an ambulance?” he asked, darting toward the phone. Doing something, anything, instead of being a damn lump in the background.
“No, she’s coming around,” Gabby said, still with that smooth tone. He didn’t f**king like it. It was so f**king fake. Fucking fake crooning doctors and nurses hovering over him while the overhead lights blinded him and blurred red through the blood pooling in his eye…
“There she is,” Brian said. “Easy, baby. Talk to me.” His voice snapped Ian out of his waking nightmare. He staggered back a step, rubbing his hand across his chest. Inside flesh and bone, his heart pounded out of control.
Through the rushing in his ears, he heard Candace murmur in confusion. She was okay. That was good. Now he needed to get the f**k out of here before anyone noticed he might just suffer the same fate.
“Must’ve been some kiss, Brian,” Gabby said, and nervous laughter met her stab at humor. “You’ve got the girl literally swooning over here.” Candace apparently tried to sit up, but Gabby wasn’t having it. “Not yet, sweetie. Take it slow. Someone get her some water.” Ghost left to do that while Macy went down on her knees beside her best friend.
Ian heard Gabby ask Candace if this had ever happened before as he found a chair and parked his ass in it. Despite his overwhelming urge to flee, everyone would wonder what the hell was wrong with him if he abandoned the scene.
“No,” the other girl said, her voice small. “Never.”
“Pulse is good. I’d check your blood pressure, but I’m assuming there’s no monitor on the premises.”
“No,” Brian said.
“You should take her to get checked out.”
“I’m fine,” Candace protested, sounding a little stronger than a moment ago. “Must’ve been the heat or something. And I haven’t felt that great today, so I haven’t eaten.” When Ghost came back with a bottle of water, the group as a whole helped her slowly sit up and take a few sips.
“You’re not pregnant, are you?” Macy demanded, and the question silenced the ongoing conversation as if a switch had been thrown.
Oh shit. Ian almost chuckled as he imagined the look on Brian’s face. Most of the group was hidden from him by the counter. He could only see Gabby in profile.
“Well…not that I know of,” Candace said.
“That occurred to me too,” Gabby said coolly. “I just didn’t want to say anything.”
“Yeah, leave that to me,” Macy said with wry humor. The door opened, and a trio of clients strolled in, stopping to exclaim when they saw the little group huddled around Candace. Ghost ran interference there while Brian lifted Candace off the floor, cradling her close as he headed toward the back with her. Indeed, he looked pretty damn pale. She clung to him, her face buried in his shoulder.
“Are you okay?” Gabby asked, and Ian jerked his gaze to her face. He hadn’t noticed her approach. He also didn’t like the assessing nature of her expression.
“I’m fine,” he grumbled, getting to his feet. Apparently the latest diversion hadn’t made her forget her reason for coming here. As they headed toward the back, he heard her deep breathing behind him. Had Candace rattled her that much?
“Do you think she’s okay?” he asked as he led her into the room where he’d given her her tattoo and closed the door.
She frowned at him. “Candace? I think she’s fine. I think she’s probably pregnant, yeah.”
“Damn. Brian’s gonna freak.”
“I know. Considering her family…that would not be a good thing.”
Yeah, he’d gotten that impression. “So, what did you need to talk about?”
“All right, what do we need to talk about?”
She fidgeted, crossing her arms, then dropping them at her sides, and finally, surprisingly, she burst out laughing. He might have been amused too, if her green eyes hadn’t misted up, if she hadn’t started looking as if she might now dissolve into tears. With both hands, she pushed her hair back from her forehead. “I can’t even believe this is happening.”
He’d been apprehensive about what she wanted. Now, full-fledged dread settled deep in his gut. He stepped to her, gently taking her arms in his hands. “Gabby. Tell me.”
“Ian…it seems I’m pregnant.”
With that, her gaze lifted to his, hitting him like a lightning strike.
And…he went…numb. To everything but her. The uncertainty in her eyes, the quivering of her bottom lip. Not knowing what else to do with the beautiful creature standing there, looking at him, waiting for…something, anything, he took one more step to her on jellied legs and drew her into his arms in mute astonishment. She went, burying her face in his shirt. Dampness promptly spread against his skin, her silent tears leaking through the fabric of his T-shirt.
It was most single guys’ worst nightmare, he supposed…but to him…
The numbness shattered, and he wanted to kick his own ass for smirking at Brian earlier. Karma had certainly bit him back fast over that one. Christ.
How the f**k had this happened? They’d taken precautions. Unless that one moment of fooling around in the kitchen had sealed their fate.
“Are you sure?” he asked dumbly. She wouldn’t be here telling him if she wasn’t. But his mind wouldn’t settle on anything even remotely intelligent to say.
“After three positive tests, I’m pretty sure. I have every symptom in the book.” Pulling away from him, she wiped her eyes with a finality that said she was done with tears. “It’s okay. I’ll deal with it.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means don’t panic, because you don’t have to worry about anything. I’m going to have this baby, and no one ever has to know it’s your baby if you don’t want them to. And I know you don’t,” she finished with a tinge of bitterness that cut him.
The words your baby caught and rattled around the inside of his brain. A baby. His baby. He didn’t know shit about babies. He had no brothers or sisters, so no nieces or nephews. No very young cousins. Walking by while a mother pushed a stroller down the sidewalk or in a store was about the extent of his contact with babies. “I don’t mean to be a dick, Gabby, but…you’re a hundred percent positive it’s mine?”
He steeled himself for an outburst, but it didn’t come. “I’m going to give you that one, because I understand that’s a legitimate concern, Ian, but it’s yours. I haven’t been with anyone else. Not since my ex-fiancé.”
He wanted to believe her. But Brian had stood in this very building and talked about how Gabby had gone a little wild, about how his mother had said there had been nights she didn’t come home. Granted, it didn’t mean she’d been out screwing other men…but she’d damn sure come on strong to him. He didn’t think he was out of line by voicing those concerns.
“You don’t believe me.”
He looked her in the eyes. Now he could practically see the impending outburst gathering steam. “If you say it’s mine,” he said at last, “then it’s mine.” And he meant it. Surely, if she had been with anyone else, if she had any doubts whatsoever about the paternity of this child, that other guy was where she would be right now. Not here, trying to pin it on someone who didn’t have shit to offer her.
She went off alert. He turned away and bumped his thigh lightly with his fist, trying to get a grip, trying to think.
“What are you thinking?” she asked, and he almost laughed at the timing of the question.
“I don’t know. I really don’t.”
“Yeah. I know the feeling.”
“Have you told anyone else?”
“No. I thought you deserved to know first.”
“Jesus. You have so many plans, Gabby. This is…I just can’t f**king believe this.”
That was all it boiled down to. She was standing here telling him everything about their lives was going to change in a handful of months, and for the most part, she was being so cool about it. He just couldn’t wrap his head around it yet.
“Don’t worry about me. I have a strong support system. And those plans did include a baby someday…just not anytime soon.” She cleared her throat. “Anyway. I should go check on Candace.”
“Wait. We should get together later and talk about this.”
“What’s to talk about?”
“You just walked in here and told me I’m going to be a father. Did you think I’m not going to take that shit seriously?”
“We were together for one night. I wasn’t expecting a proposal, and I don’t want one.”
“I wasn’t offering one. But I’m not gonna turn my back on the situation either. I’m not gonna shrug it off.”
Was she kidding him right now? “Goddammit, Gabby.” He crossed the room to her in only a couple of strides. “You think just because we were only together one night that I don’t give a shit about you, or about this? You got under my skin. Ever since that night, I haven’t been able to f**king stop thinking about you. I haven’t been able to sleep for imagining you beside me. Now you tell me that against all odds, we created a life. I still can’t believe it, but if you’re thinking I’m content with just being the f**king sperm donor, you’re wrong.”
All at once, his own words informed him how he felt; he’d just needed his brain to catch up with his mouth. Despite the shock, despite the dismay and the worry and the “Oh, shit, what have I done?” running on an endless loop in his head—this was a chance to set all the wrong things right in his life. All the hurt, all the emotions he’d kept buried so deep were boiling to the surface. Not in anger. In eagerness to be dealt with once and for all.
He’d hoped for a softening of her expression as he spoke, hoped that his lame words could convey what he’d been feeling about her for the past few weeks, but he must’ve failed. Her gaze remained steady on his, riveted, but in the end, she was unmoved. “What do you think is going to happen? I’m not changing any of my plans until I absolutely have to. I’m still leaving in a couple of weeks. There’s nothing for me here.”