The Secret Baby, page 1
The Secret Baby
Copyright © 2019 by London James
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Stuck With You (Sneak Peek)
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"Do you have any idea what's going on here?"
She leans in conspiratorially.
"I heard someone on the ride passed out," she says. "Andrew and I were already here ready to take our romantic ride. We were hoping the operator would stop us right up there at the top so we could feel like we were kissing amongst the stars."
And bringing it back again. "What happened?" I ask.
"Someone called someone else and said they saw the person behind them slump down and were worried."
"Behind them?" Owen says. I look up at him. "Didn't Ann say it was the person in front of them?"
I look back at Julie. "Does anyone know who called?" I ask.
She shakes her head.
"No one can nail that down. But someone got in touch with the operator, and he's trying to figure out who it could be."
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the wheel bring a bucket to a stop and several people streaming out. It starts up again and another comes by. More festival-goers get off and scurry across the platform to the exit ramp. It seems like the call was a hoax until the next bucket slides to a stop in front of us.
"Oh, shit," I whisper.
"Is that…" Owen asks.
I nod. I'd know that red face and the terrible gold corduroy pants he's worn three times already anywhere.
Earlier that week…
“Dear lord. My ass looks like the before picture for an article about squats,” Skylar moans.
I roll my eyes at her, and for the thousandth time, I run my cleaning rag over the glass of the antique mirror she’s using to scrutinize herself.
“Well, if you let Seb and me put the mirror on the wall, you won’t be able to see your ass in it anymore, and then you can tell yourself it looks like whatever you want it to.”
She makes a face at me but steps aside, flopping down onto one of the chairs I moved out of place to clean the mirror.
“Maybe you won’t notice as much when you put on the rest of your costume,” Sebastian says as he takes his place on the other side of the mirror.
“This is my costume.”
My eyes scan the sparkly, silver leotard Skylar is wearing over her iridescent tights. “I thought you wanted to dress up as a fairy for Halloween. That looks a little sparse,” I say. “We live in Georgia, not the Sahara.”
“I’ve been warned against cultural appropriation,” she explains.
That’s a conversation I feel blessed not to have been a part of, so I’m just going to slip right on past it and move forward.
“So, what’s the alternative?” I ask.
“I’m a dime.”
“You’re a… dime?”
“Yeah. Isn’t it cute? I mean, it’s not completely finished yet. Elsie Rae is going to put the little face on it in vinyl. She ordered a roll of the super shiny stuff and everything.”
I nod at Sebastian to tell him I’m ready, and together we lift the mirror.
“Just make sure you’re careful when you climb up into the heat press.”
The mirror feels much heavier now than it did this morning. Then again, right now, I'm lifting it up over my head to hang it on a nail sticking out of the wall. Earlier, all I did was push it across the carpet after taking it out of the closet.
“Explain to me why we’re putting this monstrosity on the wall,” Seb says. “You’ve always hated it. I thought that’s why you took it down and stashed it in the closet as soon as you inherited this place.”
There’s a touch-and-go moment where our ability to control the mirror could go either way, but we regain control and settle it into place. “I don’t hate it,” I reply.
“You said it makes you feel like if you look at it too long, Bloody Mary’s going to show up behind you,” Skylar points out.
“Exactly. That's what makes it perfect for the Halloween season.” I step back and let out a gust of breath, fluttering my dark hairs that refuse to stay in place as part of my bun. “It really is god-awful, isn’t it?”
“But it’s authentic,” Seb says, trying to comfort me and find a bright side to the situation.
“That’s one word for it. Gran told me it was here when she was a little girl, and her mother told her it was old, even then. I'm hoping it gives the place some extra charm.”
“I thought the place was pretty charming already,” Skylar offers.
I walk over to the floral print couch and fluff the throw pillows.
“Avery...” Skylar sounds exasperated. “I swear those pillows have been through enough. They are as fluffy as they are ever going to be.”
“Everything has to be perfect,” I tell her. “With this whole Vidalia Isle Harvest Festival thing happening, more tourists are coming this summer than any other year. It’s great for business, but that means in the next couple of days, all of the rooms will be full, and I want to make sure the B&B is…”
“Perfect!” Seb and Skylar say together.
“Yeah…” I reply, and the word comes out in the form of a sigh.
“Why don’t we just go ahead and stop using that word?” Sebastian says, coming to wrap an arm around my shoulders. “Nothing is perfect, and that is just fine.”
“You know I usually love when you start channeling Mr. Rogers, but in this situation, things really do have to be as close to perfect as possible.”
“Everyone loves this place. It's already perfect,” Skylar tells me, tossing her arms out to her sides in an effort to reference the entirety of the antebellum house. It was my grandmother's attempt at converting her childhood home into a bed-and-breakfast.
“You mean everyone will love this place by the time I'm done with it. It used to be perfect, but that was when my grandparents were still running it. This place was everything to my grandmother. It was in her blood, right next to her biscuit recipe and the bourbon. I can’t run it like she did. The linens never smell quite as good. Guests don’t sit around in the den, roasting marshmallows and listening to Gramps’ stories before bed. And I can’t bake a biscuit like hers to save my life.”
“That’s because she signed a pact with the devil to make them as delicious as they were under the one condition that she would never utter a word of the recipe to a living soul. Everyone knows that,” Skylar s
“That’s entirely possible,” I relent.
“And I’d be severely concerned if a bunch of your guests started sitting around the den listening to your gramps tell stories at night. He died two years before your gran did. Besides, you haven’t lit that fireplace or had marshmallows to toast since the Christmas before last,” Seb adds.
“Now, whose fault is that?” Skylar asks.
Seb's eyes slice sideways to glare at her. “The marshmallow was on fire, Skylar. Fire. I can hardly be blamed for what happened.”
“You flailed and flung it across the room like a little gooey Molotov cocktail, and it lit the curtains on fire.”
“They were ugly curtains anyway,” I say. “The point is that I’ve been trying to live up to the legacy they left ever since I inherited Hometown Bed And Breakfast. This season could be my chance to really gain some traction. Autumn in Vidalia Isle is always a draw, and with the festival going all through September this year…” I let out a sigh and shake my head slowly. “It could be a game changer.”
Sebastian and Skylar exchange a glance, and I immediately know they are up to something. As my two best friends ever since I started spending my summers here as a teenager with my grandparents, these two are easier to read than a Dr. Seuss greeting card. I grab one of the chairs and wriggle it back across the cream-colored rug. I set it in place, and then I go back for the other one. When I figure there’s little more I can do for the parlor, I head for the kitchen. My friends trail after me.
“Speaking of the festival,” Seb says.
I part the lacy curtains that hang near the sink. I want to let in more of the early-afternoon sunlight. “What about the festival?” I ask.
“As you might know, it’s getting its official kickoff tonight. We really want you to come with us.”
Opening the dishwasher, I lean down to unload the freshly washed breakfast aftermath. “There’s no way I can take that much time away,” I tell him.
“But it’s a ball, Avery. A ball. People are getting dressed up, and there’ll be dancing.” Sebastian smiles. “It’ll be amazing.”
“Then I’ll look forward to hearing all about it tomorrow,” I tell him. “Tonight, I have to be here.”
“You’ve been cleaning and polishing and rearranging for days,” Skylar argues. “You deserve a break. Besides, you already said your new guests aren’t scheduled to get here until the day after tomorrow.”
“As far as I know,” I say.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Remember that blogger I was telling you about?”
“The Rude Man Sleepeth?” Sebastian clarifies with a question.
His fingers wiggle over the fruit bowl. He plucks a grape from the vine and sucks it between his lips with a distinct pop.
“That is still not the name of the blog,” I tell him.
“It should be. For a man’s whose entire job is to drive around, sleep, and eat breakfast, he is super mean.”
“Much more goes into reviewing bed-and-breakfasts than that,” I argue.
The last plate clatters into place, making noise as it collides with the rest of the dishes already in the cabinet.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. The point is there have been some rumors that he’s traveling through this area and has mentioned he’ll be reviewing a new up-and-coming bed-and-breakfast next week.”
“You aren’t a new bed-and-breakfast. You’re a really old bed-and-breakfast.”
“But I’m new to him. He’s never come to Vidalia Isle before. If he came here and gave Hometown Bed And Breakfast a good review, it could be huge for business. A feature from him could mean enough reservations to increase our rates and maybe even stay open during the week all year, rather than just during peak season. I might even be able to hire a team of staff members who can handle everything around here. Then, I could put more of myself into my own stuff.”
“That’s even more reason to come with us tonight,” Sebastian says. “Most of the village and a ton of tourists are going to be there tonight. The tickets for the event sold out weeks ago.”
“See? Can’t go.”
“You’d only have to think that if your two best friends hadn't come into this situation dead-set on not taking no for an answer. What if we told you we'd already gotten you a ticket?” Skylar proposes.
“You bought me a ticket weeks ago, and you didn’t think to mention it to me until today?”
“We’ve mentioned it. Not that we’d gotten you a ticket… but we did mention the ball. We knew that if you had too much time to think about it, you’d talk yourself out of it. But if we just kind of sprung it on you, we could get you to agree. You don't have time to come up with an excuse to back out now.”
“Well played, I must say. But even if I wasn't already busy doing all the work around the B and B, I cannot justify taking that much time away from my responsibilities here, and I’m also just not feeling very social.”
“That wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain ex of yours, would it?” Sebastian asks.
I walked myself right into that one.
“Chad is a non-entity in my life. He ceased getting to have anything to do with my decisions and future plans when we broke up six months ago.”
“Let’s be honest. He didn’t really have a whole lot to do with those even when you were together.”
“Besides,” I say, gliding past the comment, “I don’t think a ball is really his scene.”
“Are you kidding? He’ll do anything to try to get your attention again. If he thinks you’re going to be somewhere, he’s going to be there, too.”
“All the more reason to not go.”
“It’ll be fine. It’s a masquerade.”
“Masq-uerade," Seb emphasizes. "Everybody is going to be wearing masks. He won’t be able to recognize you.”
“We dated for years. I don’t think a mask is going to totally obscure my identity.”
“If he doesn’t have anything to do with your decisions, why would it matter? He’s been trying to reclaim you ever since you broke up with him. He thinks he’ll still have a spot, sitting beside you on the front porch, sipping lemonade, and watching the world go by.”
“Thanks for that extremely flattering visual of my life.”
“That’s not what I meant. I just mean he has some unfinished business with you.”
What an awkward, drawn-out way of saying it. This tells me Sebastian is trying hard to say it with some tact.
“Unfinished business? Is that your way of saying we broke up because I wouldn’t put out?”
“I was actually trying really hard not to say that.”
“What I think Sebastian is getting at is that Chad feels slighted. You so wisely chose not to have Chad be your first, and yet everyone in the village was taking bets on when you’d announce the engagement. His desperation for you to take him back stems from feeling like he didn’t fulfill his manly destiny.”
I scoff. “Because that’s so much better. He wants to get back with me, not because he loves me or thinks we have a future together, but because I wasn’t his conquest.”
Skylar thinks about that for a second. “It sounded better in my head," she says.
My eyes roll back so hard, I nearly knock myself off balance, so I let the momentum carry me to the pantry so I can gather ingredients for cinnamon rolls.
“The point is that Chad is in the past. No more hanging out. No recounts. He’s done. You broke up with him because you know there’s no future for the two of you, and you want to live your life. So, start living it," Skylar presses. "Go to the ball. Look gorgeous and drum up some business. Do something completely revolutionary and unexpected and have fun.”
My hands go through the motions of making cinnamon roll dough. It's so natural that I don't even have to think about it anymore. Gran taught me to make dough the day before I need it so that the flavors have time to develop.
“I appreciate you two thinking about me, and I love you for it, but being ready for the guests is really what I need to focus my attention on right now.”
“Alright,” Sebastian says. “I guess the renaissance of Hometown Bed And Breakfast means you’re going to need a new brochure.” He draws his phone from his pocket and snaps a picture of me. “Oh, that’s a good one!"
Skylar leans over his shoulder to peek at the picture, and she nods.
“It’s definitely a keeper.”
He turns the phone, confronting me with an image of my hair hanging in scraggly strands around my face. What little makeup I put on this morning is now streaked across my shiny nose, and the look on my face is several shades away from awake and hospitable.
Dropping the dough onto the counter, I stomp out of the kitchen and toward the front stairs.
“Where are you going?” Seb asks.
“To my bedroom to put on a fucking dress.”
“Gown,” he calls as his footsteps start after me. “You need a gown.”
“Do you always travel with a mask in your backpack, or is this just for the ball?”
Seb runs his fingers over the dramatic peacock feathers. They are curving up from one corner of the black satin mask he just produced from his bag.