Valentine baby, p.1

Valentine Baby, page 1

 

Valentine Baby
 


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Valentine Baby


  Tom’s first thought when he entered his living room was that he didn’t remember leaving the lights on when he’d left.

  Letter to Reader

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Books by Gina Wilkins

  About the Author

  Letter to Reader

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  THE PRINCESS BRIDE by Diana Palmer.

  Copyright

  Tom’s first thought when he entered his living room was that he didn’t remember leaving the lights on when he’d left.

  His second thought was that he was certain he hadn’t left a baby on his coffee table!

  Slowly Tom glanced from the rosy-cheeked infant to the one on the Valentine’s Day card he’d just received from his mother.

  Cupid, he thought blankly.

  A sound from the hallway brought his head up. Just as he’d started to deal with his amazement at finding a baby in his living room, he was slammed by another, even more paralyzing shock.

  Leslie Harden smiled at him.

  “Hello, Goose,” she said lightly. As casually as if it hadn’t been eighteen months since she’d walked out of his life.

  Tom rubbed a hand over his eyes. All the times he’d fantasized about Leslie coming back to him, he’d never imagined it happening anything like this....

  Dear Reader,

  In celebration of Valentine’s Day, we have a Special Edition lineup filled with love and romance!

  Cupid reignites passion between two former lovebirds in this month’s THAT’S MY BABY! title. Valentine Baby by Gina Wilkins is about a fallen firefighter who returns home on Valentine’s Day to find a baby—and his former sweetheart offering a shocking marriage proposal!

  Since so many of you adored Silhouette’s MONTANA MAVERICKS series, we have a special treat in store for you over the next few months in Special Edition. Jackie Merritt launches the MONTANA MAVERICKS: RETURN TO WHITEHORN series with a memorable story about a lovelorn cowboy and the woman who makes his life complete, in Letter to a Lonesome Cowboy. And coming up are three more books in the series as well as a delightful collection of short stories and an enthralling Harlequin Historical title.

  These next three books showcase how children can bond people together in the most miraculous ways. In Wildcatter’s Kid, by Penny Richards, a young lad reunites his parents. This is the final installment of the SWITCHED AT BIRTH miniseries. Next, Natural Born Trouble, by veteran author Sherryl Woods—the second book in her AND BABY MAKES THREE: THE NEXT GENERATION miniseries—is an uplifting story about a reserved heroine who falls for the charms of rambunctious twin boys...and their sexy father! And a sweet seven-year-old inspires a former rebel to reclaim his family, in Daddy’s Home, by Pat Warren.

  Finally, Celeste Hamilton unfolds an endearing tale about two childhood pals who make all their romantic dreams come true, in Honeymoon Ranch.

  I hope you enjoy this book and each and every title to come! Sincerely,

  Tara Gavin,

  Senior Editor and Editorial Coordinator

  Please address questions and book requests to:

  Silhouette Reader Service

  U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269

  Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3

  GINA WILKINS

  VALENTINE BABY

  My thanks to Pete Reagan of the Fayetteville, Arkansas,

  Fire Department, who patiently answered questions for

  this book and the one preceding it.

  Books by Gina Wilkins

  Silhouette Special Edition

  The Father Next Door #1082

  *It Could Happen To You #1119

  Valentine Baby #1153

  *From Bud to Blossom

  Previously published as Gina Ferris

  Silhouette Special Edition

  Healing Sympathy #496

  Lady Beware #549

  In From the Rain #677

  Prodigal Father #711

  †Full of Grace #793

  †Hardworking Man #806

  †Fair and Wise #819

  †Far To Go #862

  †Loving and Giving #879

  Babies on Board #913

  †Family Found

  Previously published as Gina Ferris Wilkins

  Silhouette Special Edition

  ‡A Man for Mom #955

  ‡A Match for Celia #967

  ‡A Home for Adam #980

  ‡Cody’s Fiancée #1006

  ‡The Family Way

  Silhouette Books

  Mother’s Day Collection 1995

  Three Mothers and a Cradle

  “Beginnings”

  GINA WILKINS

  declares that she is Southern by birth and by choice, and she has chosen to set many of her books in the South, where she finds a rich treasury of characters and settings. She particularly loves the Ozark mountain region of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri, and the proudly unique people who reside there. She and her husband, John, live in Arkansas, with their three children, Courtney, Kerry and David.

  Dear Reader,

  There’s just something about a baby....

  All I have to do is see one, and I melt. I watch babies in restaurants, in stores, in church. I can be entertained for hours, just studying their expressions, and the wonder of exploration in their wide, curious eyes. My husband and I have three children of our own—ages seventeen, fourteen and nine—and we agree that nothing in our lives is more important to us than our kids. Our children have brought us joy, pride, fun—a few gray hairs—but mostly, children bring love.

  Babies have a way of changing priorities, as Leslie and Tom discover in this story. Leslie thinks her career is the most important part of her life—until she finds herself responsible for a tiny, totally dependent baby boy. And Tom rediscovers his own strengths through the vulnerability of the baby who unexpectedly enters his life. Their commitment to taking care of Kenny gives them the courage to acknowledge the lasting commitment they have for each other. Their Valentine Baby brings love into their lives—and a few other lives along the way.

  There’s just something about a baby....

  Chapter One

  Tom Lowery shook his head as he prepared to turn into the driveway of his Fayetteville, Arkansas, home. Apparently, the high-school cheerleader who lived with her parents next door was having a party again. Cars and pickup trucks—some fairly new, others barely roadworthy—were parked everywhere on the narrow cul-de-sac, hardly leaving enough room for Tom to navigate through them.

  At least no one had blocked his driveway, as had happened last time Brandi had thrown a party, though one vehicle was parked right on his curb, two tires on the grass. He lifted his eyebrow when he identified that one as a late-model Lexus. Some parent was being awfully brave to entrust a teenager with that expensive vehicle, he thought as he drove into his carport.

  He could hear faint sounds of the party as he climbed out of his own functional, sport utility vehicle. Wondering if Brandi’s parents were home, and, if so, how they withstood the constant pounding bass of the music blasting from a stereo, he unlocked his kitchen door. He turned on the light in his kitchen and paused to glance through the day’s mail, which he’d retrieved from his mailbox at the curb. There was a bill from the electric company. A you-have-already-been-approved credit-card solici
tation. And a bright-red envelope addressed to him in his mother’s familiar handwriting. That one he opened, after tossing the others onto the counter.

  He chuckled when he saw the card his mother had sent him. On the front was a photograph of a chubby, bald infant wearing nothing but a diaper and holding an enormous red heart—a captivating Cupid with a big, slobbery grin. The words “Happy Valentine’s Day, Baby” were printed inside the card, and beneath them Nina had signed, “To my favorite valentine. Love, Mom.”

  He had a great mom, Tom thought with a fond smile. Always seemed to know when he needed cheering up.

  Maybe it was the date that was bothering him. Friday, February 14. Valentine’s Day.

  Maybe it was just his awareness of the occasion that made being alone seem lonelier than usual tonight. Or maybe it was the fact that he’d spent the past few hours with three couples who’d been so blissfully paired off. Zach and Kim, still practically honeymooners after eight months of marriage. Chris and Burle, happily entangled in a lengthy engagement. And Sherm and Sami, who’d been married for years, were the parents of a month-old daughter and still held hands and sneaked kisses when they thought no one was looking.

  They’d all made every effort to keep Tom from feeling the odd man out, but they hadn’t been entirely successful. He’d been encouraged to take a date to the dinner party, but there hadn’t been anyone in particular whom he’d wanted to invite. So he’d come home early, prepared to spend the rest of the evening guzzling soda and staring at the tube. Hardly high excitement, but it sure beat sitting alone and watching all those couples falling all over each other. Especially since they all insisted on treating him as “poor, brave Tom.”

  Still holding the valentine, he walked out of the kitchen, deciding to change into comfortable sweats before crashing into his favorite recliner.

  His first thought when he entered his living room was that he didn’t remember leaving the lights on when he’d left.

  His second thought was that he was certain he hadn’t left a baby lying on his coffee table.

  The rosy-cheeked infant was strapped into a molded plastic carrier that sat squarely in the center of Tom’s large, round oak coffee table. The baby was looking around the room with bright, curious eyes, seemingly perfectly content to be there. Slowly, Tom glanced from the baby on his coffee table to the one pictured on the front of his valentine’s day card from his mother.

  Cupid, he thought blankly.

  A sound from the doorway into his hall brought his head up. Just as he’d started to deal with his surprise at finding a baby in his living room, he was slammed by another, even more paralyzing, shock.

  Leslie Harden smiled at him.

  “Hello, Goose,” she said lightly, as casually as if it hadn’t been eighteen months since she’d walked out of his life.

  She hadn’t changed at all. Her figure was still willowy, graceful. Her dark-auburn hair still waved softly around a face that looked younger than her actual age. There were no lines around her clear blue eyes or her soft, sweetly shaped mouth. She was thirty now, he acknowledged slowly. Less than three months younger than he was.

  Two thoughts occurred to him almost simultaneously. He hadn’t gotten over Leslie Harden, and the baby in the carrier was obviously too young to be his. He was trying not to analyze his reactions to either observation just yet.

  She was still waiting for him to say something. He cleared his throat and tried to speak as casually as she had. “Hello, Leslie. Er, how did you get in?”

  She reached in the pocket of the red-and-black-plaid blazer she wore with a red turtleneck and black jeans. “You haven’t changed your locks,” she said as she held up a jingling key ring.

  And he hadn’t asked for his key back when she’d left. He wondered how that detail had been overlooked—and if it really had been unintentional.

  He glanced at the baby, noting that it still lay quietly in its carrier, and that it was staring at Tom as if studying a new life form. It was almost bald, with only a bit of dark fuzz covering its soft scalp, and it was dressed in a soft white romper thing that could have suited either gender. “Er, is this yours?”

  “Sort of,” Leslie answered with a vague half shrug.

  Tom rubbed a hand over his face, half-seriously wondering if he’d fallen asleep in his recliner in front of the TV and was now having a really bizarre dream. All the times he’d fantasized about Leslie’s coming back to him, he’d never imagined it happening anything like this.

  He wondered if she had any idea what seeing her again did to him.

  He cleared his throat. “I’ve got to admit that this is a surprise.”

  She walked toward him, her expression rueful. “I know. I suppose you could charge me with breaking and entering, if you like.”

  He moved his hand to the back of his neck to massage a muscle that had tightened into a knot. “When I gave you that key, I told you that you were welcome to use it whenever you liked. That hasn’t changed.”

  Her lower lip quivered—just for a moment, but he saw it. His stomach clenched in reaction. Tom had always been a sucker for someone in need, and all his instincts told him that Leslie was in trouble.

  “I, er...”

  She didn’t seem to know how to continue, but just stood there, looking at him. Looking lost. Uncharacteristically vulnerable. And his first instinct was to take her in his arms and promise her anything.

  Apparently, he’d learned little from the heartache he’d suffered when she’d walked out on him.

  “Maybe we’d better sit down,” he suggested, waving her toward the couch.

  She nodded and perched on the very edge of the boldly striped sofa, her gaze averted as she made a visible effort to pull herself together. Tom glanced at the empty space beside her and quickly decided to sit in one of the two matching recliners, instead. He moved toward it, grimly aware of his limp, aware of Leslie watching him.

  An uncomfortable memory flitted through his mind. Leslie’s voice echoed through his thoughts, as it had many times during the past year. At least I won’t be around to watch you kill yourself, she’d said just before she’d left him. He’d been annoyed then by her implication that he was reckless and irresponsible just because he liked taking a few risks, seeking a few thrills.

  He wondered if she would be able to resist the impulse to say “I told you so” when she found out about the accident that had come too damned close to leaving him confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

  The baby squirmed in its seat and stuck a finger in its mouth, reclaiming Tom’s attention.

  “Who is this?” Tom asked, wondering if he really wanted to hear the answer.

  Leslie smiled. “This,” she said, “is Kenny. My ward.”

  Ward. Tom digested the word for a moment, trying to analyze his reactions to it—foremost of which seemed to be relief. “Your ward?”

  “He’s Crystal Pendleton’s son.”

  Tom recognized the name. “Your stepsister.”

  Looking a bit surprised, Leslie nodded. “I wasn’t sure you’d remember. You never met her, and I didn’t talk about her much.”

  “You mentioned her a couple of times.” Tom could have added that he remembered almost every word Leslie had said to him during the few spectacular months they’d been together, but he didn’t. After all, he still didn’t know why she’d come back.

  Crystal, he recalled, had been the daughter of a woman Leslie’s father had married after divorcing Leslie’s mother when Leslie was very young. There had been other wives and other children after that, but Leslie had mentioned Crystal with a warmth in her voice that hadn’t been there for the others.

  Leslie took a deep breath, then spoke rather flatly. “Crystal died six weeks ago.”

  Tom looked from the baby to Leslie. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

  “She had cancer. She discovered it during her pregnancy. She could have had treatment in the early stages, but she refused because she didn’t want to harm
the baby. By the time Kenny was born, it was already too late to stop the spread of the cancer. She and the baby were living with me when she died in her sleep just after Christmas. She was only thirty-two.”

  “I’m really sorry, Leslie. I know you were fond of her.”

  “She was my sister.” A quiver ran through her voice, but she steadied it quickly. “She made a will before she died, naming me as the baby’s guardian.”

  “What about the child’s father?”

  “She never told me his name. She said it didn’t matter, that the guy was married to someone else and didn’t want anything to do with his son. I have no way of finding out who he is.”

  Tom looked again at young Kenny, trying to imagine Leslie raising him alone. He was having a little trouble visualizing it. During the time he and Leslie had been together, she’d never expressed any real desire to have children of her own. Not that they’d ever talked about anything that permanent between them, of course.

  Career was all that had seemed to matter to her, he thought with a touch of lingering bitterness. It had been her career as an up-and-coming young attorney that he’d blamed for their breakup.

  “There was no one else to take him?”

 
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