Smoke and embers, p.13

Smoke and Embers, страница 13


Smoke and Embers

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  Never in her life had she felt as beautiful and cherished as she did with this man. He completed her soul. She snuggled a little closer to him.

  “I’m glad you are here.” Her finger trailed a path down his bare chest.

  Mike shifted on the bed, turned Brooke in his arms, and looked at her. “You don’t know how much this means to me.” He ran a hand over her belly. “Being a father means the world to me. I almost had that once.”

  Brooke tilted her head to the side. “What do you mean?”

  He sighed. “My ex got pregnant several months before we split.”

  “Oh. I didn’t know that.” Brooke didn’t recall any talk about a pregnancy. “What happened?”

  “By that time, things were already rocky between us. I wanted a family. She wanted a career. She was so determined to climb that damn corporate ladder, and she wasn’t about to let a baby get in her way. Without even discussing it with me, she had an abortion.”

  Brooke gasped. She leaned back, put her hands on his shoulder and pushed him forward. The tattoo on his back glared up at her. It made sense now. She ran her fingers over the inked skin, appreciating the angel wings. She traced the words, Never in my arms, Always in my Heart. Mike’s body trembled beneath her touch. “Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry, Mike. I had no idea.”

  He looked at her and shook his head. “No one did. I kept that inside me and filed for divorce the same day. She knew how badly I wanted that child. She took that joy from me.”

  Brooke touched his cheek. “I would never deny you that happiness. In the hospital I thought you didn’t want the baby.”

  He took her hand in his, kissed her palm, then linked their fingers together. “I was angry. But not about the baby. I am still pissed at whoever started that fire. And I will get to the bottom of it, one way or another.” He laid her back, cupped her belly with his hand, and stared into her eyes. “This makes me happy. You make me happy.”

  Chapter Sixteen

  Brooke’s face heated and tears filled her eyes, distorting her view. For almost a month she had rummaged through the ruins of her home, saving what she could, and cherishing the memories of what she couldn’t. The insurance company had finally given the approval to demolish what remained. Now, she watched as her lifelong dream was destroyed. Bulldozers plowed down the remnants of her bed and breakfast. Boards crumbled to the ground and were hauled off in big dump trucks. Her life was in those pieces of wood.

  “Hey baby.” Mike’s arms wrapped around her, pulling her against his body. “You don’t have to stay here while they do this.”

  She shook her head. “No, I want to. It’s just hard watching my life pile up and get hauled away.” She swiped the wetness off her cheek.

  Mike’s hands settled over her belly. “How’s our little one today?”

  Brooke’s heart melted. To have his love and support meant the world to her. She laughed. “Okay after a round of morning sickness.”

  “I told you I should’ve stayed at your place last night. I could’ve helped you this morning.” His serious tone comforted Brooke.

  “And what would you have done? I don’t think you could’ve gotten sick instead of me.”

  He turned her in his embrace so they were facing each other. “I would’ve gotten you a wet rag, something to drink, or held your hair out of the way.” He ran a hand through her hair.

  Brooke was touched by his compassion. “You would’ve done all that?”

  “And more.” He kissed her gently.

  Together they watched as the last of the building was ripped down, loaded in the trucks, and hauled off. When there was nothing left except the cement blocks, Brooke walked through the area that once was her home and her business. She tried to tamp down the anger rising inside her, but it bubbled up anyway. What kind of trouble had Kyle gotten himself into that he had to mortgage their house? And who else did he owe that they would want to burn down the place? What did they gain by doing that? If they were just trying to scare her, it was working. Especially now that she had to worry about someone besides her own self.

  The bank had approved her loan so she could start rebuilding. Mike and her other friends assured her they would pitch in wherever possible. The contractor she hired guaranteed he would be able to get the building up quickly. That was good news because she needed to fill her guest list as soon as possible. Her business would have to continue to be profitable now that she had a monthly note to pay.

  The house plans she decided on were a little different from what it once was. It would be very similar to a duplex in that the guest quarters were completely separated from hers. She now had to take a bedroom for her baby as well as herself. The design gave her family privacy while giving her guests their own discretion.

  “Brooke.” Abby walked toward her, followed by the rest of their gang. “How are you doing?”

  “I’m good. Better than I thought.” She accepted a bottle of water offered by Laci. “Thanks.”

  “The contractor’s crew have this covered. You need to take a break. Come with us to Tucker’s.”

  Brooke looked from her friends to the men working around them. “I don’t know.”

  Mike put a hand on her shoulder. “Baby, there’s nothing for you to do right now. Let them get after it.” He slipped his hand around her waist, tilted his head to the side. “Come on.”

  Through all the turmoil resulting from the fire, Brooke’s heart was elated at the love and support shown to her by her friends. Especially Mike. He was there for her every day and most nights. The only time they were apart was when he was at work. Even then, he texted at every opportunity. Brooke put a hand over her belly. There was barely a bump there, but inside was the most treasured gift in all the world. She wondered if the little one would look like his or her daddy, sandy blond hair with intense green eyes. She nodded her head to no one in particular.

  Together, they walked down the beach until they arrived at Graeme’s bar. The men went to get drinks while the women found a table outside under the shade of an umbrella.

  “Abby, this place is booming with business.”

  “Yeah. It stays busy. I’m glad Graeme hired enough help so that he and Cooper don’t have to spend so much time here.”

  “I kind of like that.” Laci said. “Cooper comes to New Orleans more than ever.” She shook her head.

  Brooke laughed. “I’m glad you’ve finally accepted the fact you two are meant for each other and you have stopped fighting him.”

  Laci smiled. “We are making progress. And he likes the challenge when I put him off.” She winked at Brooke as the men approached. Cooper sat next to Laci and draped an arm over her shoulder.

  Brooke felt a whisper of peace run through her body. All was right in the world with her and her friends. Something had changed with Laci and Cooper. What, she wasn’t sure, but it was there in Laci’s content expression versus the uptight one that generally plastered her face when Cooper was around. Brooke made a mental note to ask her friend about it later.

  Abby and Graeme were so in love with each other. They were six weeks further along in their pregnancy than she and Mike. Abby’s belly showed the signs of life inside. It comforted Brooke to see how loving and supportive Graeme was with her cousin. Abby deserved the best.

  Mike slipped his arm around Brooke’s shoulders and pulled her closer to him. Her insides turned to jelly. Every time he touched her, she wanted to melt against him. Now that Brooke finally accepted the fact that Mike was not responsible for Kyle’s death, it opened a whirlwind of emotions inside her. The attraction that laid dormant for so long between the two of them, finally opened up. Their relationship blossomed into something she thought she would never have. She laced her fingers with his and squeezed.

  The band kicked into a slow country song by Billy Currington. Mike tugged on Brooke’s hand, leading her onto the dance floor. He held her tight against him, his hands rubbed at her back, soothing her aching muscles without even realizing it. One hand tangle
d in her hair at the nape of her neck. Thrills shot through her body as he whispered the lyrics into her ears. He trailed soft kisses from her ear to her lips. He kissed her deeply as their bodies swayed to the music. Brooke was oblivious to everything around them.

  When the song ended, she gently kissed him. “You’re definitely doing something right,” she said, mimicking the title of the song. This man was everything she ever dreamed about. One thought nagged at her though. They created a baby together and Mike was one hundred percent in on loving and supporting her and the little one, but they hadn’t once discussed anything permanent between the two of them. In the beginning, Brooke was satisfied raising a child on her own, with or without Mike’s help. Now, she wanted more. Why couldn’t she leave good enough alone?

  She sucked in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. This was her life right now. She would enjoy it as it came. One day at a time. The next months would be hectic with the rebuilding of her home and B&B, decorating from the ground up, lining up guests after the grand opening, and doctor’s visits to make sure the little one was healthy. Brooke was only a few years away from forty, and although late-in-life pregnancies were more common, her doctor wanted to keep a close eye on things. With the gang around her, time would pass quickly. And with Mike next to her, she could handle this. If only she was convinced he wasn’t doing these things out of an obligation to his friend, her late husband.


  It was hard to believe the holidays were upon them. Christmas was only one day away. Brooke had spent most of Christmas Eve at her dad’s house cooking and getting dinner prepared. She was looking forward to spending the next day with him as they did every year. The cool evening breeze from the ocean sent a chill through Brooke’s body. She walked over and closed the open window. Brooke looked around her little cottage, her home for now. Her and Crystal’s. Brooke placed a hand over her belly. The little girl was just beginning to get active, more of a flutter than an actual kick, but it was confirmation that there was a new life in there.

  Brooke wished the house would be ready before Christmas, but the contractor said that because of all the rain, it just was not possible. Which was probably a good thing. What would she do in that big house all by herself for the holiday? The B&B was always rented out for Christmas. Brooke made sure her guests felt welcomed and loved, whether it was a family, couple, or a single person celebrating the holidays. She had always decorated extravagantly for the Christmas season. She did it for her guests, but more so for herself. It was the one thing Kyle allowed her to take control of and do as she pleased.

  The tree was her favorite. Perusing the lots for the right tree was her time to recharge. Once she found the ideal one, her goal was to renovate it into a new piece. She transformed the bare branches with new life. Made them shine and sparkle. She gave the unembellished tree significance with the garland, balls, and lights. Somehow she related the rebirth of her Christmas trees to her hope that one day she would be able to recharge her own life. Get out from under the possessiveness of Kyle.

  Now, she had that opportunity. Unfortunate that he lost his life in the process, but it was a new beginning for Brooke. This Christmas was so different because it would be the first year for her to be alone. Not that she was alone, but Crystal wouldn’t be born for another four and a half months. And she had her friends. But in her heart, she was alone. Abby and Graeme were celebrating and planning for the birth of their first baby. Even Laci and Cooper were spending the week together. Cooper packed a bag and sped off to New Orleans. Then there was Mike.

  A knock at the door brought her out of her thoughts. She pressed her eye to the peephole. Mike stood on the other side, a bag in one hand and a tree branch in the other. What was he up to? She opened the door for him to enter. He dropped a kiss on her cheek as he passed by.

  “What are you doing with that?” Brooke eyed the distorted branches. It reminded her of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree from the cartoon she enjoyed as a child.

  “I’m bringing you a tree.” Mike set the bush on an end table, turning it around several times before nodding his head and stepping back. “You can’t have Christmas without a tree.”

  Brooke burst out laughing. “That is not a tree. It is a branch.”

  Mike ignored her remark and pulled out a red ribbon, a short strand of lights, and several silver and red balls. He stepped over his pile of decorations and pulled Brooke into his embrace, kissing her with fervor. “How about I fix us some hot chocolate then we can decorate.”

  “Decorate that?” She pointed to the fixture on the table. “It’s not strong enough to hold up the ribbon, much less those ornaments.”

  “You underestimate me.” He tugged her by the hand into the small kitchen and settled her into a chair. He made his way around, pulling out cups, cocoa mix, and a pot to heat milk.

  Instead of questioning his reasons for being there, other than the baby, Brooke relaxed and let him do his thing. The chocolatey scent of the cocoa drifted across the room to tingle her nose. She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes. She could picture spending many evenings with Mike in the house with her. His presence during her pregnancy touched her. She only wished she could convince herself he was doing this because he wanted to and not because he felt obligated.

  She opened her eyes. Mike leaned against the counter, his jean clad legs crossed at the ankle. He stared at her. The heat in the room was not coming from the stove. Instead it came from those intense eyes of his. They raked over her from her head to her chest, then lingered on her belly bump. Brooke’s body warmed. She swore she could feel his gaze on her as it traveled back up to her face. Their eyes locked.

  Her breathing increased. Mike picked up the two mugs, walked behind her, reached around her with both arms, and set the chocolate down in front of her. Hot steam drifted up into the air, mixing with Mike’s masculine scent, making Brooke’s head spin. He nuzzled her neck, kissing her behind the ears. She leaned her head back against his chest. His heart beat hard and fast beneath his polo shirt. His hands trailed over hers, barely skimming over her skin. The light touch sent chills through her. He circled her body, interlocking his fingers across her belly.

  “How’s my Crystal doing tonight?” he whispered into her ear.

  Brooke sighed. “Sweet as ever. I can’t wait until you feel her move.” She placed her hands over his.

  “Me too, baby.” He kissed her cheek. He released his hold on her and picked up the mugs. “Let’s go sit where it’s more comfortable.”

  They sat on the sofa, sipping on the hot chocolate. When they were both done, Mike took her by the hand. “Okay, let’s get this tree looking like Christmas.”

  Brooke shook her head. She couldn’t picture this little thing looking much like a Christmas tree, but she allowed Mike to try his best. After a several attempts, they stepped back to admire the completed task. A tiny star rested on the top branch, held up by crafter’s wire. The few ornaments and ribbon filled in where there were no leaves, making the tree look fuller than it actually was. Brooke smiled to herself. This was nice. And such a sweet gesture by Mike. His kindness touched her deep inside.

  Mike picked up the unused decorations and placed them back in the bag. “Go turn down the lights so we can see how she looks.”

  Brooke walked to the wall and flipped the switch. She turned and took the few steps that brought her back to where Mike stood. The tree sparkled, a soft glow from the strand of lights lit the room.

  “It’s beautiful, Mike. Thank you so much.” She touched his arm.

  “I couldn’t see you going without a tree. Granted, it is not the nine-footer you are used to, but it was the best I could find for this small house.”

  “Perfect.” Brooke moved closer, examining the tree up close. She ran her hands lightly over the star. Her trees were normally topped with an angel, but she liked this. Maybe that would be her new tradition. A star to shine brightly, lighting the way for her family, friends, and guests. Sitting on top of the cotton t
ree skirt was a little present wrapped in red with a tiny silver bow. That was not there when they had finished decorating. Mike must have placed it there when she went to turn down the lights. She traced her fingers over the little box then looked at Mike.

  He stepped closer to her and picked up the box. “Merry Christmas.” He handed her the present.

  She looked up at him. “That’s not fair. Your presents are at Dad’s. I don’t have anything here for you to open.”

  “Don’t worry about it. Tomorrow is fine. This one is meant for tonight though. Open it.”

  Her hands shook as she tore at the wrapping paper. She let the red paper fall to the floor, then turned the white box over in her hands. She pulled the lid off and peeked inside only to find another smaller box. A lump formed in her throat. This couldn’t be what it looked like. Confused, she looked up at Mike.


  Mike wanted to hold her trembling body against his and kiss away the wetness that was threatening to fall from her eyes. She looked so soft and vulnerable. He took the box out of her hands. Opening the lid, Brooke’s eyes misted over. He pulled out the solitaire diamond ring, took her left hand, then he bent down on one knee.

  “Baby, our lives were thrown together in a crazy way. All I want to do is make your life, and our baby’s easier. Will you marry me?” He held the ring suspended in air, not yet slipping it on her finger.

  “Mike…I…lo… I don’t know…” She swiped at the tears on her cheeks and took a small step away from him.

  His heart broke. All the nerve it took to get to this point and she wasn’t sure. How could he have thought she had real feelings for him? He made a fool out of himself. There was no choice left now except to go into repair mode. If she wouldn’t marry him because of feelings, maybe she would for the baby’s sake.

  “Crystal needs a mother and a father. I want her to have that.” He stood, but did not let go of her hand. “Let’s give her a family.”

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