Angie felt a stab of fear. She knew about crying in the middle of a pregnancy. "What is it?"
"David and I have been talking."
"The baby is okay?"
Angie felt a flood of relief. She’d overreacted, as usual. "Oh. Well, I’ll let you two keep talking." She started toward the stairs.
"Wait," Lauren called out, getting awkwardly to her feet. She grabbed a piece of paper from the coffee table and handed it to Angie.
David immediately moved in close to Lauren, put an arm around her.
Angie looked down at the letter in her hands.
Dear Ms. Ribido: We are pleased to offer you admission to the University of Southern California … undergraduate … full scholarship for tuition and housing … respond by June 1 …
"I knew you could do it," Angie said gently. She wanted to throw her arms around Lauren and twirl her around, laughing, but that kind of enthusiasm was for ordinary girls in ordinary times. This was anything but.
"I didn’t think I’d get in."
Angie had never heard that sad edge in Lauren’s voice before. It was heartbreaking. Of all the trials Lauren had faced this year, this–the attainment of her dream–had perhaps hurt the most of all. Now a decision would have to be made, and all of them knew it. "I’m proud of you."
"This changes things," Lauren said so softly that Angie found herself leaning forward to hear.
Angie ached to hug her, but David was there, holding Lauren’s hand. "It’s not impossible to go to college with a baby."
"A two-month-old?" Lauren’s voice sounded old and far away. It echoed and faded, as if she were throwing the ugly words down a well.
Angie closed her eyes. Any answer to that would be a lie. Angie knew already what Lauren was sure to discover: day cares that took two-month-olds were rare. And certainly expensive. She rubbed the bridge of her nose, sighing softly. This was like being on a sinking ship. She could feel the water rising. "That’s a problem," she said at last. There was no point lying. "But you’re a strong, smart girl–"
"A smart girl would have done things differently," Lauren said. Her eyes filled with tears again, though she was trying to smile. She looked up at David, who nodded down at her encouragingly. Then she looked expectantly at Angie.
For a moment no one spoke.
Angie felt a chill slide down her spine. All at once she was afraid.
Lauren let go of David’s hand and took a step forward. "Take our baby, Angie."
The air rushed out of her. She felt her lungs shake with the force of it. "Don’t," she whispered, using her hands to ward off the words.
Lauren took another step. Closer. She looked so young. So desperate. Tears swam in her eyes. "Please. We want you to adopt our baby. We’ve been talking about it all day. It’s the only way."
Angie closed her eyes, barely hearing the tiny, mouselike sound that escaped her lips. She couldn’t go back down that dream road. It had almost killed her last time. She couldn’t think about filling her empty, empty arms again with …
She couldn’t. She wasn’t strong enough.
And yet. How could she possibly walk away from this?
She opened her eyes.
Lauren was staring at her. The girl’s pale, full cheeks were streaked with tears. Her dark eyes were bloodshot and swollen. The letter from USC was right there, a piece of paper that could change lives …
"Please," Lauren whispered, starting to cry again.
Angie’s heart seemed to cave in on itself, leaving her feeling empty inside. Lost. There was no doubt in her mind that she had to say no to this baby. And no way on God’s green earth she could do it.
She couldn’t say no. Not to Lauren, and not to herself. But she knew, deep in her slowly crumbling heart, that she was doing the wrong thing, even as she said softly, "Yes."
"THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH YOU TODAY," Mama said, pushing the glasses higher on her nose.
Angie looked away. "Nonsense. I’m fine."
"You are not fine. Jerrie Carl had to ask you for a table three times before you answered her."
"And when Mr. Costanza asked for red wine, you handed him the bottle," Mira said, wiping her hands on her apron.
Angie shouldn’t have come into the kitchen. Like a pair of hyenas, Mira and Mama sensed distress, and once alerted, they tended to move together, following, waiting.
"I’m fine." She turned and left the kitchen.
Back in the busy dining room, she felt less obvious. She did her best to function. She moved slowly, perhaps, but given her state of mind, any movement at all was a triumph. She smiled blankly and tried to pretend that everything was okay.
The truth was, she couldn’t feel much of anything at all. For the past twenty-four hours, she’d kept her emotions in a locked box into which she dared not peek.
It was better not to see. She didn’t want to look too closely at this Faustian bargain that she and Lauren had struck. It would take them on a terrible journey, this deal; at the end of it there would be broken hearts on the side of the road. Angie felt as if she’d sealed herself into a small, dark room.
She went over to the window and stared out at the night. The bustling sounds of the busy restaurant faded behind her until she couldn’t hear anything beyond the beating of her heart.
It was the query that had kept her up all last night; the first thing on her mind this morning.
Her emotions were a tangle of hope and despair. She couldn’t find a place from which to begin the unraveling. A part of her kept thinking, A baby, and with it came a swelling in her heart that was almost unbearably sweet, but on the heels of that thought was always the other one, the darker, Lauren won’t be able to do it.
Either way, there would be heartbreak. At the end of this road lay a terrible choice: Lauren or the baby. Angie could, at best, have one or the other. At worst, she could lose them both.
She gasped and spun around. Conlan stood behind her, holding a dozen pink roses.
She’d forgotten about their date. She tried to smile, but it was weak and desperate and she saw a frown dart across his forehead. "You’re early," she said, laughing a little too sharply, praying it was true. It usually was.
He was still frowning. "Only a minute or two. Are you okay?"
"Of course. Let me just get my coat and say good night." She edged past him and headed for the kitchen. She was at the swinging door when she realized she hadn’t taken the flowers from him.
"Conlan’s here," she said to Mama and Mira. "Can you guys close up tonight?"
Mama and Mira exchanged knowing looks. "So that was it," Mama said. "You were thinking of him."
"I’ll give Lauren a ride home," Mira said. "Have fun."
Angie forgot to laugh or say good-bye. Instead, she headed back to the dining room. "So, where are we going?" She took the flowers from him, pretended she could smell their scent.
"You’ll see." Conlan led her out to his car and helped her into the passenger seat. Within minutes they were driving south.
Angie stared out the window. In the tarnished glass, her reflection stared back at her. Her face looked long and thin, drawn out.
"Is it the baby stuff?"
She blinked, turned. "What?"
"Yesterday you cleaned out the storage room, right? Is that why you’re quiet?"
There it was again, the hesitancy in Conlan’s voice, the treating her with kid gloves. She hated the familiarity of it. "I was okay yesterday."
Had it really only been a day ago that she’d been there, squatting in front of the relics of her ancient hope, believing she’d moved on?
"I boxed everything up and brought it to the cottage for Lauren." Her voice snagged on the name and it all came rushing back.
Take our baby, Angie.
"You sounded good," he said cautiously.
"I was so happy about it." She hoped her voice didn’t sound wistful. So much had happened since then.
"We’re here." Conlan turned into a gravel parking lot.
Angie craned her neck and peered through the windshield.
A beautiful stone mansion stood flanked by Douglas fir trees and rimmed in rhododendrons. The Sheldrake Inn welcomes you, read the sign.
She looked at Conlan, giving him her first real smile of the evening. "This is more than a date."
He grinned. "You’re living with a teenager now. I have to plan ahead."
She followed him out of the car and into the cozy interior of the inn.
A woman dressed in full Victorian garb greeted them at the door and showed them to the front desk.
"Mr. and Mrs. Malone," said the man behind the reservation desk. "Right on time."
Conlan filled out the paperwork, offered his credit card, then whisked her upstairs. Their room was a beautiful two-room suite with a huge four-poster bed, a river rock fireplace, a bathtub big enough for two, and a magical view of the moonlit coast.
Slowly she turned around to face him.
How can I tell him?
She was helpless to resist the sound of his voice. She moved toward him. He pulled her into his arms, held her so tightly she felt dizzy.
She had to tell him.
If they were to have any kind of future, she had to tell him. "Conlan–"
He kissed her then, so gently. When he drew back, he looked down at her.
She felt as if she were drowning in the blue of his eyes.
"I couldn’t believe you gave the baby stuff away. I’m so proud of you, Ange. I look at you now and I can breathe again. I don’t think I realized until yesterday how long I’d been holding it all inside."
"Oh, Con. We need–"
Very slowly he bent on one knee. Smiling, he held out her wedding ring. "I figured out what to do with it. Marry me again."
The way Angie dropped to her knees was more like folding. "I love you, okay? Don’t forget it. As Papa used to say, I love you more than all the drops of rain that fall."
He frowned. "I expected a simple yes. Then a rush to the bed."
"My yes couldn’t be any simpler, but I need to tell you something first. You might change your mind."
"About wanting to marry you?"
He looked at her for a long time, a slight frown creasing his brow. "Okay. Hit me."
She drew in a deep breath. "Yesterday, when I called you about the nursery, I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell Lauren." She stood up and moved away from him. She went to the window, looked out at the crashing surf. "When I got home, she’d been crying. And David was there."
Conlan stood up. She heard the creaking of the old floorboards. He probably wanted to come stand behind her but he didn’t move.
"She got a full ride to USC. Her dream school."
"It changed everything," she said softly, echoing Lauren’s exact words. "Maybe if she had a toddler, she could swing it, but a two-month-old? There’s no way she could handle USC, working, and raising a newborn."
It was a long time before Conlan spoke. When he did, his voice was ragged; not his voice at all. "And?"
Angie squeezed her eyes shut. "She wants to give the baby up for adoption. She thinks it will be the best thing for the baby."