THERE WERE CERTAIN benefits to being the youngest girl in a family with seven children, such as the fact that by the time Brindle Montgomery could walk, her older siblings had already done so much crazy, stupid shit, nothing surprised their parents. When Brindle hit her teens, Sable—the third oldest, and until Brindle had come along, the most rebellious—had left no troublesome stone unturned. Brindle had always done as she pleased, and she believed in living life to the fullest. That was why, when she scheduled a six-week trip to Paris, no one had given it a second thought. Finding out she was pregnant a week after arriving had complicated things, and she’d extended her stay to try to figure out her life. Though she hadn’t told her family why she was staying, they weren’t surprised by her change of plans. Now here she was, three and a half months later, counting on those skewed expectations. She didn’t think her pregnancy would come as too big of a shock to anyone. Well, anyone other than her on-again off-again boyfriend of a dozen years, Trace Jericho.
As she stepped from her car after the longest travel day ever, she began questioning her decision to come straight from the airport to the barn bash the Jerichos threw every year for Halloween. But it was rare to get all of her siblings in the same place at the same time. They were all there for the event, as was Trace, which meant she could deliver her news in one fell swoop. She’d convinced herself they’d rally around her, supporting her decision and taking it all in stride.
Now she called bullshit on all of that.
But her situation wasn’t going to change, and she needed to face her future head-on. She straightened her spine, shoved her keys in her coat pocket, and headed across the field toward the barn.
Children darted around adults, who were busy mingling. Just beyond, strings of black and orange lights illuminated the massive barn, which was decorated with scarecrows, ghosts, ghouls, and gauzy fake spiderwebs. It was a typical Oak Falls affair, one that Brindle usually looked forward to. But as she weaved through the crowd, her thoughts turned to Trace and the reason she’d gone away in the first place. She’d loved him for so long, she couldn’t think clearly when she was around him, and she was at a point where her feelings had grown so big, she needed to know if they were real. But their relationship was complicated, with as much turmoil as pleasure. And oh, what pleasure Trace Jericho could bring! But relationship wasn’t the best definition of what they had, since neither one had ever wanted a long-term commitment.
Or at least that’s what she’d always thought.
“Hi, Miss Montgomery!” a group of girls dressed as princesses, witches, and cheerleaders called out as they ran past.
Everyone was dressed in costume, making them hard to identify, which was just fine with Brindle. She only wished she had a costume. She taught English at the high school and drama at the elementary school, which meant she knew almost everyone in their small town. Normally, she loved everything about their close-knit community, from events like the barn bash right down to the gossip that many people rued. But she was so nervous about sharing her news, she didn’t want to deal with any of that before seeing her family.
Her heart raced with the thought of telling him she was pregnant.
Her stomach knotted as people started noticing her, waving and calling out. She ducked her head and pulled her coat across her stomach, wishing she hadn’t always kept herself in prime bikini shape. Most women puked through their early months of pregnancy, but Brindle had been ravenous. She had eaten so much, she already had a little belly. Sable would probably say she was drinking too much red wine and eating too many bonbons.
“Brindle?” Beckett Wheeler’s voice startled her from her thoughts. He threw his arms around her. He was dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt, and a leather jacket. His short dark hair was slicked back from his face in a fifties style.
Beckett was a bigwig investor and one of Trace’s best friends. He was a nice guy, but Brindle was on a mission and she didn’t need him thwarting it.
“I heard you were coming tonight,” Beckett said. “I can’t believe you’ve been gone since July. How was your trip? Trace is here somewhere. That man nearly drove everyone crazy while you were gone.”
She stumbled momentarily over his comment about Trace, but who knew what that really meant. For all she knew, he was driving them nuts chasing women.
Trying to push that hurtful thought aside, she said, “The trip was amazing and it’s good to see you, but it’s been a really long day and I need to see my family before I fall over with exhaustion. I’ll catch up with you soon.”
“Cool. Your family’s in the barn. If I see Trace, I’ll tell him you’re here.”
She waved absently and hurried away. Trace. Oh God, Trace. Being home made her situation even more real. It was one thing to think about telling everyone she loved that she was pregnant, but now that she was there, staring at the ground to keep from meeting the eyes of friends, she wasn’t sure she could go through with it. What would her family think of her? What would Trace think of her?
I can do this, she told herself as she entered the barn. She’d been telling herself that for so many weeks, she almost believed it.
Music blared from the stage, where a group of people played banjos, drums, guitars, flutes, and saxophones. She was surprised neither Sable nor Axsel was onstage. In addition to owning an auto shop and being a kick-ass mechanic, Sable played guitar in a local band called Surge, and their only brother, Axsel, was the lead guitarist for Inferno, one of the hottest bands around. He was a legitimate rock star.
She scanned the crowd, spotting her family surrounded by Axsel’s entourage. Even though they were in costume, she could identify every family member. Her parents were dressed as Sonny and Cher. Her mother looked younger with the long black wig, and her father actually pulled off the fake mustache pretty well. Her chest constricted at the thought of telling them about the baby. They’d always supported her decisions, but would they support the biggest one of all? Or would they be too disappointed to see straight?
She stopped cold at that thought as she watched her tight-knit family laughing and talking animatedly. Youngest or not, she needed to face the truth. Skipping school, partying too much, and sneaking out was nothing like an unplanned pregnancy at twenty-five. This was uncharted territory for their family. Her gaze moved to her oldest sister, Grace, and her new husband, Reed, handcuffed together and dressed as a prisoner and a policeman. If anyone should be announcing a pregnancy, it was them.
Sable’s laughter hit Brindle’s ears, pulling her from her thoughts. Her family was now focused on Morgyn and her new boyfriend, Graham Braden, whom they’d all met at Grace and Reed’s wedding before Brindle left for Paris. Morgyn and Graham had just returned from ten weeks in Belize, where they were building a community of tiny houses for one of Graham’s business ventures. Although Brindle was close to all of her siblings, she had a special bond with Morgyn, followed closely by Sable. She had talked to Morgyn often while they’d been away, though Brindle hadn’t told her, or anyone else, about the pregnancy. Morgyn had gushed about Graham’s adventurous personality, the way he understood her like no man ever had, and just about everything else Graham-related. Her sister had been so happy, she hadn’t noticed a difference in Brindle. Or maybe I’m just that good at hiding things. Morgyn and Graham were dressed as bride and groom, which was hilarious considering Morgyn, like Brindle, had no interest in marriage. Single sisters forever!
Time to pull up my big-girl panties and get this over with.
As she weaved through the crowd, she smiled inwardly at the fact that pulling off her big-girl panties was what had gotten her into this quandary in the first place.
Every step made her even more nervous, and when she was a few steps away, she felt like she couldn’t breathe.
I can do this. I can do this.
“I’d argue that point,” Morgyn said as she slipped her arm around Graham.
Brindle pushed through the crowd, smiling despite her nerves, and said, “What are we arguing about?”
“You’re home!” Morgyn squealed, throwing her arms around Brindle. They were the only blondes in the family, taking after their father, while their other siblings were darker, like their mother.
They didn’t have time to say more, as their mother, Marilynn, pulled Brindle into a tighter hug than she ever had. Her mother was warm and funny, but having raised seven strong-willed children, she knew how to turn on the drill-sergeant facade when she had to.
“Oh, my sweet baby girl! I have missed seeing your beautiful face.”
“I missed you, too, Mom,” Brindle said as her siblings all spoke at once.
“Hi, sweetheart,” her father said as he gathered her in his arms. “I sure have missed you, pumpkin.”
“I missed you, too, Daddy.”
Grace grabbed Brindle next, and since she and Reed were handcuffed together, he joined in. Amber weaseled her way in, her golden retriever, Reno, sticking to her like glue as she embraced Brindle, her seizure-alert necklace familiar and present between them. Amber had epilepsy, and Reno was her service dog.
“I’m so glad you’re home, Brin,” Amber said, absently touching her seizure-alert necklace. The necklace featured a button that Reno could push with his nose if Amber had a seizure, and it included an internal GPS system to alert family members and emergency services to Amber’s location. Thankfully, the alert system had been needed only once, since Amber’s seizures were controlled well with medications.
“Wow, you look hot,” Brindle said, admiring Amber’s fairy outfit, complete with bright blue and silver wings and cowgirl boots.
Amber lifted one shoulder in a sheepish shrug. “Thank you.”
Their sister Pepper moved in for a hug. She carried a stuffed monkey and wore tan shorts and a matching shirt, hiking boots, and a safari hat. “I’m glad you made it back safely.”
“Thanks. Nice legs, Pep,” Brindle said.
“I’m Jane Goodall,” Pepper explained.
Pepper was Sable’s older twin, and she was as proper as Sable was unfiltered. Pepper was a research scientist in Charlottesville, Virginia. She’d developed Amber’s seizure-alert necklace when she was in graduate school and had since patented it and sold it all over the country.
“Let me in for a squeeze.” Sable, dressed as Catwoman, pulled Brindle into her arms and said, “About damn time. I need someone to party with.”
“Whoa, girls,” their father said. “We’re having a welcome-home breakfast tomorrow, so don’t stay out partying too late tonight. I want to hear all about Brindle’s trip.”
“We won’t.” Brindle wouldn’t be partying anytime soon. Her stomach knotted again. She’d missed them all even more than she’d realized, and now that she was in the thick of them, her courage to reveal her pregnancy was slipping away.
“Well, I didn’t miss you one bit,” Axsel said with a smirk. He embraced her and said, “But I did miss the way you attract hot guys.”
Brindle laughed. Axsel was gay, and they’d been checking out guys together forever. “I missed you, too, Ax.”
“How was your flight?” Pepper asked. “You must be exhausted.”
Brindle groaned. “My flight was awful. I haven’t even been home yet. I didn’t want to miss seeing everyone, so I came straight from the airport. You guys look great in your costumes.”
Reed lifted their handcuffed wrists and said, “Forget the ball and chain. This works much better.” He pointed to Graham’s and Morgyn’s costumes and said, “Bride and groom? Guess you guys are next?”
Sable scoffed. “You’d have to drag Morgyn kicking and screaming to the altar. Didn’t you know that about her?”
“No. Really?” Reed asked.
“Well, actually…” Morgyn thrust her left hand out, showing everyone the gold band with cardinal directions carved into a little round disk on her ring finger, and said, “We eloped!”
Amber squealed and hugged her. “Oh, Morgyn!”
“What?” Sable snapped. “No way!”
Brindle was dumbfounded.
“Holy cow. You’re really married?” Grace asked as everyone else congratulated Morgyn and Graham at once.
Ignoring the mayhem, Brindle caught Morgyn’s eyes and said, “Married? You’re married?”
Morgyn nodded, teary eyed and grinning like she’d never been happier. “I’m married.”
“And you’re so happy.” Brindle couldn’t keep the astonishment from her voice.
“Happier than I ever imagined,” Morgyn said.
Not in a million years would Brindle have believed Morgyn would get married. Then again, she never would have imagined herself pregnant. But her pregnancy hadn’t been planned, while Morgyn’s marriage obviously was.
“What changed?” Brindle asked.
Morgyn looked lovingly at Graham and said, “Everything. I’ve been his from the day we met, and I wanted the world to know it.” She looked thoughtfully at Brindle and said, “Are you happy, Brin? Did Paris help you figure things out?”
“Yes.” Although it had taken Brindle some time to wrap her head around the reality that she was pregnant, she was happy about the baby, and she finally knew exactly what she wanted. But she decided not to steal Morgyn and Graham’s thunder. She could tell her family tomorrow at breakfast. Instead, she said, “I guess this summer was good for both of us.”
“Married,” Sable said. “I can’t freaking believe it. How on earth did you manage that, Miracle Man?”
Graham looked at Morgyn with so much love in his eyes, even Brindle melted a little.
“I didn’t,” Graham said. “She got me to marry her.”
All eyes turned to Morgyn.
“Were you drunk?” Sable asked.
“Yes,” Morgyn said, earning a confused look from Graham. “Drunk on love.”
As Graham pulled Morgyn into a kiss, Brindle shrugged off her coat. “All this hugging and mushy talk is making me hot.”
Amber gasped, her eyes drawn to Brindle’s belly. “That’s a great costume! Where did you find such a tiny baby bump?”
Shit. Why hadn’t she worn something looser than leggings and a tight tunic?
Morgyn spun around, her eyes sweeping over Brindle. She tried to school her expression, but not before Brindle saw shock, and then hurt, in her eyes. She probably should have told Morgyn, but Brindle had wanted to figure out how she felt about the baby without the pressure or input from her family. Now she’d give anything to have told Morgyn so that hurt wouldn’t be there—and so she didn’t feel like she was standing alone and naked on a street corner, with her entire family gawking in disbelief.
“Please tell me that’s from eating too many French pastries,” Grace said.
“Are you…?” Pepper reached over and touched Brindle’s belly.
Brindle turned away. “Stop!” Ugh. How could she ever have thought this would be easy?
“Brindle…?” Morgyn looked worried.
“Honey,” their mother said, wide-eyed. “Are you…?”
Brindle’s eyes teared up as she nodded. Their mother opened her arms and pulled her into them. “It’s okay, honey.”
“I’m sorry, Mom,” Brindle whispered.
“No, baby girl,” her mother whispered. “There’s no reason to be sorry. We love you, and we’re here for you.”
Tears slipped down Brindle’s cheeks, and she quickly wiped them away, too overcome with emotions to speak.
“Holy crap, Brindle,” Axsel said with shock, but not with judgment, and she loved him for that.
Sable crossed her arms, staring at Brindle, and said, “Whose French ass do I need to kick?”
Just as she opened her mouth to try to respond, Trace’s handsome face appeared through the crowd, and Brindle’s mouth went dry. He casually draped an arm around Sable, flashing his panty-melting smile, his ever-present Stetson firmly in place. In the space of a second, Brindle’s gaze drifted to his broad, muscular chest and biceps earned from working on his family’s cattle and horse ranch. His tight jeans defined the formidable bulge behind his zipper that she knew intimately. She breathed harder, knowing just how good his hard body felt pressed against her, his thick thighs nestled between her legs. She swallowed a needful sound.
“I’m in for some French ass kicking!” Trace announced, tearing her from her fantasy.
Her strappingly large cowboy was as arrogant as ever. His dark eyes landed on her, and the air around them sizzled and sparked, unleashing the rush of desire that had always consumed them. Her pulse raced. She was sure she was going to pass out.
“Mustang, you’re back!” The nickname he’d given her long ago rolled off his tongue like liquid heat. He stepped forward, arms open, and his gaze drifted lower. He stopped cold, the air between them chilling.
Brindle put her hand protectively over her stomach, stumbling backward. She’d thought she could do this, but seeing his desire for her replaced with something dark and traitorous did her in. She struggled to hold back tears as she said, “I can’t do this right now.” She looked away, trying futilely to regain control. Her heart was shattering inside her chest. With one last glance at her parents, she said, “I’m exhausted. I’m going home. We can talk about this tomorrow.”
She pushed past Trace and hurried toward the barn doors.
WHAT THE FUCK just happened? Trace tried to put together the pieces of his fracturing world. He felt like he’d stepped on the prongs of a rake and the handle had smacked him in the face as his Mustang stormed away. Only the pain was lower, burning right in the center of his chest. He took off after her, running out of the barn and into the crowd, and spotted her rushing toward the parking lot. He caught up and grabbed her arm, spinning her into him. Her pain-filled eyes shot up to his like lightning, and the pieces of the last few months started falling into place. Fuck, Brindle. What have you done?
“Don’t!” she cried, tears flooding her cheeks.
“You were supposed to come back at the end of August,” he seethed through gritted teeth.
She clenched her jaw, glaring at him with the same ferocious stare that had first drawn him in. She had the darkest brows and lashes of any natural blonde he’d ever seen, a slim, upturned nose, and lips that made his cock weep. She was just a little thing, but she was as feral, stubborn, and untamable as he was. She could bring him to his knees with a glance or a single sugarcoated sentence, and don’t get him started on her touch…
“That’s why you stayed in Paris for two extra months? You got knocked up by some French asshole?” The accusation hurled from his lungs, anger and hurt slamming into him. “What the fuck, Brindle?”
She tried to pull out of his grasp, but he held tight. He’d been trying to hold on to her forever, but they weren’t a hold-on-tight type of couple. They weren’t a couple at all, and he knew that all too fucking well.
“What don’t you get, Trace?” She tore her arm free and hollered, “That I’m pregnant and it’s not yours? Even a big arrogant cowboy like you can understand that.”
It’s not mine hit him with the force of a freight train. Holy hell. He didn’t want a kid, and he definitely didn’t need a kid. But knowing Brindle was carrying another man’s child fucking gutted him. He could do little more than stare as she stormed away, her words, It’s not yours, driving into him like a dagger over and over again.
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