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The Heart Stories

esKape Press

Heat Rating: SENSUAL
Word Count: 62,200
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The story that began on a North Carolina beach with a blind marine, a divorced mother, and a child with Down syndrome continues as the young family struggles to adapt to a new addition. Now eight months pregnant, Trish worries about her baby, her daughter, and her husband. But maybe she should be more concerned with herself. Dan struggles to prove himself at work in the face of what others consider his disability. As he wrestles with his job, he is also concerned with life at home and the impending birth of his son. How will he connect with a son when he’ll never even be able to play a game of catch with him?

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Chapter One
THE LIGHT TINKLE of Bella’s laughter filtered through the headset plugged into Dan’s laptop, and he paused the program that had been reading to him. The Internet version of the Thursday morning AP wire could wait. He slipped off the ear buds and laid them on the table.
“Okay, I’ll bite. What’s so funny?” he asked the nearly eight-year-old.
“Mama’s tummy. It’s — moving.” Bella’s chortles almost obscured her breathy-voiced answer.
He couldn’t help it. The grin spreading over his face wouldn’t be denied. It was the same way with every mention of the baby. They’d about given up hope of ever having one and then bam! An out-of-the-blue Christmas miracle.
Well, Bella was convinced it was anyway. The miracle part Dan couldn’t deny, given the grim prognosis for future progeny handed to them by every one of the top specialists they’d seen. His little family had certainly experienced a fair share of miracles from the start, so he knew they happened. And he supposed it was a Christmas miracle, considering that was when they’d found out about the little guy.
“Oh!” Trish’s peal of laughter sent happy tingles along Dan’s spine. “I think he’s dancing a jig this morning.”
“Pfft! Dancing? Please! He’s gonna play football… or soccer maybe.” Dan chuckled.
“Here.” Trish touched him on the forearm then lifted his hand and pulled it across her abdomen. “You tell me.”
The soft cotton top stretched tightly over her swollen abdomen. Had she grown that much just overnight? He added his other hand and cradled her belly.
Nothing happened, and Dan shook his head. “Seems to me he’s going to be spending his days lazing in a hammock.”
“Huh!” Trish covered his hand with hers. “It’s so weird how he calms down whenever you touch him.”
Dan concentrated on not frowning. Because the fact was, he wasn’t touching the baby. Only Trish’s rounded belly. Other people got to see his acrobatics under her blouses, but not Dan. And except for one time when the baby had first kicked, Dan hadn't felt anything either. It had been an emotional struggle listening to the other men in the childbirth class rambling on about the beauty of falling asleep with the baby’s gentle pokes against their hands.
Trish chuckled and gave Dan’s hand a little squeeze. “Little man, you’d better give a kick, or Daddy’s gonna think all I did was swallow a beach ball and call it a baby.”
“Hello? Hello?” Dan stroked one thumb back and forth next to Trish’s protruding belly button. “Are you in there, Little Boy Blue?”
Bella giggled. “That is not — his name.”
“I dunno.” Dan dropped his hands. “It will be if we don’t agree on what we’re going to call him. Little Boy Blue Conway. I think it has a nice ring to it.”
Bella made a raspberry.
Dan chuckled, keeping his sigh of frustration to himself. Soon enough, he’d feel his son move. After all, he was due to make his debut in just about a month.
“Bella, are you ready for camp?” asked Trish, moving off.
“I’m not done with — my cereal yet.”
“Isabella Marie!” Trish heaved an impatient sigh. “What have you been doing?”
“Reading my book — about — cats.”
Gotcha, Mom. You can’t exactly tell her not to read. Dan leaned back in his seat and waited. He loved the interactions between mother and daughter. The two of them were nearly identical in personality… with different likes and dislikes but equal degrees of stubbornness.
“Well, I need you to finish eating and that means your cat book will have to wait.” Water from the tap splashed into the enamel sink moments later and was just as quickly turned off with a squeak of the handle. “I have errands to run, so we need to leave early.”
Dan powered down his laptop and closed it. “Are you sure it’s okay to be driving this late in the pregnancy?”
Trish didn’t answer, though he could hear her exasperated breathing.
“All done! I’ll be — right back.” Bella scampered away from the table with a slap of bare feet on the linoleum.
Still no answer from Trish, so he offered a grin. “You’re saying nothing pretty loud again. Are you glaring at me?”
With a slight rustle of cloth, she crossed the room. One, two, three, four light footfalls. Her arms wrapped around his neck from the left, and she pressed her soft cheek against his.
Her every touch was as thrilling as the first time she’d picked up his hand on the beach and guided him into an introductory handshake. He rubbed his cheek on hers and released a contented sigh.
Trish changed the angle of embrace and slid her lips along his. “I don’t glare,” she whispered against his mouth.
“Uh-huh.” Dan pushed his arms around her waist — or at least the approximate place her waist would be if his son hadn’t taken up residence there. “Guess I’ll have to take your word for it.” He leaned into the brush of her lips at the precise moment she bent closer and deepened the kiss.
The air between them charged with electricity and heated up.
A man’s chuckle from the vicinity of the back door brought about a return to the real world and the stack of work awaiting Dan at the office.
“Better watch it,” said Nick Turner, U.S. Marine captain, co-worker, and best friend. “I’ve heard that’s a gateway for heavier stuff… like sleepless nights, baby bottles, and…” He coughed. “…diapers.”
A giggle burst from Trish as she pulled away. “Hey, Nick. Have you come to spirit my husband away to the world of whatever top-secrety thing it is he does these days?”
“Yup. And Ash is right behind me to get Bella to camp for you.”
Busted! Trish must have already handled the problem of transportation by calling Ashley. But why hadn’t she said anything? And he was pretty sure she had been glaring. That silence had definitely been her glaring silence. With a shrug, Dan slid his laptop into the case and zipped it shut. Give him a suspicious enemy troop movement to analyze any day. Pregnant women — his pregnant woman in particular — befuddled him.
AFTER GIVING TRISH a quick kiss through the passenger window, Bella galloped off. Trish watched until her daughter’s red T-shirt blended with the other red-shirted day campers. Sending Bella to the Camp Laurel day program had been a huge step in the process of letting go of the child to let her make her own way in the world. But it hadn’t been an easy one. If Trish had her way, her daughter would stay by her side, safe and protected.
“You have that same look on your face every time we drop her off,” murmured Ashley from behind the wheel of her midsize sedan.
Startled by the observation, Trish slumped back in her seat and sent her friend a sideways glance. “What look is that? And how do you know what I look like, anyway, since I was looking out the window?”
Sunlight filtered through the windshield and flashed off of shiny red nail polish as Ashley pointed to the side view mirror. “The look that says you want to go with her and make sure she doesn’t have to fight any battles today.”
A soft laugh escaped Trish’s lips. “I guess I just got so used to doing it from the time she was little. I try not to think of everything in terms of her having Down syndrome, but it’s not always easy when her differences from other kids show up.”
Ashley lifted an eyebrow. “It’s the same look you lay on Danny when you send him off for the day.”
The laugh stuck in Trish’s throat and she nearly choked on the indignation that rose like bile. “I do not look at Dan like that. He’s the most capable man I’ve ever met, even without his sight.”
“Well, there’s capable and there’s… capable.” Ashley shrugged and turned the ignition key. “And there are definitely things you shelter your man from the same way you shelter your daughter.”
The thought of needing to shelter Dan from anything was ludicrous. He’d walked blind through a hurricane to save Bella, for pity’s sake. Trish shook her head. “You’re crazy.”
“Am I?” Ashley spun the wheel, and they made a left onto the road that would carry them to Morehead City. “Why didn’t you tell Dan about your appointment today?”
Trish puffed out her cheeks and then released the breath through pursed lips. “Because I’m having a sonogram. The last one before I deliver, barring any problems.”
“Trish, that’s a big deal!” Ashley spared her a brief glance before returned her eyes to the road. “Why wouldn’t you want Danny along?”
This time the chuckle that squeezed out wasn’t so amused. “You’re kidding, right? He can’t see the pictures.”
“Oh, like you couldn’t describe them to him in exquisite detail.”
They turned onto the four-lane Atlantic Beach Causeway, and the buildings they passed became a blur of rental condos and charter fishing outfits. A pawn shop advertised military surplus items. Close enough to Camp Lejeune that personnel willing to make the nearly hour-long drive lived there, but with perfect access to beaches and ocean fishing, Morehead City was an odd mix of tourists and Marines.
Trish swallowed over the lump of emotion in her throat. “It hurts him… Ash. It hurts him that he’ll never see the baby. It disappoints him when the baby stops moving and he can’t feel anything.”
The tires hit the long bridge and began to sing along the pavement as they left the causeway behind. The fishy smell of the ocean hit her nostrils, and her stomach began to protest. Trish closed her eyes. Probably even before the road whine began, Dan would have known exactly where they were if he’d been along. Sounds and smells. That was how Dan found his way most of the time. Sounds, smells, his sharp memory. His guide dog, Jack. Her arm and her descriptions. Even Bella was learning to adapt to Dan’s blindness, though that was a good thing, since helping him required her to talk more, and her speech had improved as a result. She’d always felt deep down that meeting Dan had been a miracle for her and Bella.
They approached an intersection in time for the light to flash up to yellow and then red. Ashley eased off the accelerator, sending another quick look in Trish’s direction, as she braked to a stop behind a sporty red SUV. “And you know this how?”
“It’s all over his face.” Trish rubbed her forehead and sighed. “He couldn’t feel the baby kick this morning.” The baby had been jumping and rolling, but the minute Dan had touched her belly, all the internal pokes and waves had stopped — almost as though someone had waved a magic wand. Dan had grinned and shrugged but his brow had pinched ever so slightly, and a small sigh had escaped. It broke Trish’s heart every time that happened, and lately she’d seen it happen a lot.
It worried her. What if Dan couldn’t bond with his son? What if he was having second thoughts about having a baby at all?
“Trish… you’ve kept a lot from Dan through this pregnancy. The first ultrasound. That early test with all the letters?” Ashley’s tone was even, but her voice was tight.
Wonderful, I’m even learning to pick up voice inflection the way Dan does.
The light changed, and they started to move again.
“The CVS — chorionic villus sampling.” A lump formed again. She’d bled for a week after the doctor had stuck a needle through her cervix and pinched off a tissue sample from the placenta. She’d been certain she would lose the baby. “And Dan was in DC when I had it.”
“You didn’t tell him you were going to have it,” Ashley reminded her. She flipped up the turn signal lever and swung into a right turn. “You swore me to secrecy… even from Nick.”
Trish huffed out a breath. “Because they’re best friends! Nick would have told Dan. You know that.”
“What was the big deal about the test, anyway?” Ashley winced as the car bounced into then out of a pothole.
“Bella’s Down syndrome is caused by an extra chromosome. The CVS on Baby Conway examined the chromosomes and determined that he was healthy.”
And Dan had been livid when she’d confessed what she’d done. “Down syndrome won’t be a problem,” he’d grated out. “Losing the baby… that’d be a problem for me. You not telling me you were worried… that’s a problem for me.”
Ashley steered into the driveway of a red brick building that wasn’t much bigger than a sprawling ranch-style house. Two cars were parked in the lot, one on either side of the double front doors. They pulled into a spot beneath a tall oak tree, and Ashley turned off the car.
She tapped one finger on the steering wheel a few times then abruptly turned to face Trish, fixing her in a narrow-eyed stare. “Don’t you think Dan would have wanted to support you through the C — ah… the CVS?”
“No. He wouldn’t have.” Heat crept up from Trish’s neck and into her face at the admission. “He didn’t want me to have the test because it’s invasive and has a ten percent miscarriage rate.”
“What? That’s high!” Ashley frowned. “I don’t know if I’d have taken you to have it if you’d told me what a chance you were taking.”
Trish leveled a gaze on her friend. “It was my risk to take, Ash.” She smoothed a hand over her belly trying to settle the slow roll of nausea that had nothing to do with the baby’s movements. “I had to know. I love Bella. I wouldn’t trade her for anything. But I had to know if this baby was okay. I… I’m ready for a baby that won’t need heart surgery or speech therapy or mainstream special ed.” Tears pricked the backs of her eyelids but she blinked them back. “Dan said he didn’t care. That whatever happens we’ll deal with it. And I thought I wouldn’t care either but…” She lifted a shoulder, praying Ashley would show understanding. At least a little. “The more I tried to convince myself it would be okay, the more I found myself worrying about it. And… I had to know. When Dan got assigned to that task force at the Pentagon, that was like a sign I should…”
“Oh, hon,” said Ashley, laying a hand on Trish’s forearm. “So much worry, and you went through it all alone.”
“Dan was so over-the-moon happy about this baby… I didn’t want to take all that away from him by telling him how scared I was.”
Ashley swallowed hard. “You could have told me.”
Trish smiled and dashed away the last of her tears with the back of her hand. Her next words gushed out with a sense of relief. “I just did,” she whispered, and pulled the silver handle that opened the car door.

Chapter Two
DAN SET HIS laptop on the table in the conference room and took his seat. “At ease,” he murmured to Jack, who promptly sprawled out. “Lazy.” But he reached down and scratched the German shepherd between his ears.
From across the table came the tinny sounds of snorts and then mini-explosions followed by cheers mixed in with a chorus of “Ow-ow-ow!” The sequence finished with squeals and snorted laughter that gave Dan an unexpected craving for bacon.
“Nick, what are you playing now? It sounds like talking cockroaches.”
The sounds abruptly cut off. “Sorry. It’s a game APP. I’m hurling birds at pigs.”
Dan opened his mouth, but nothing came out as he tried to make sense of what his friend had just said. Finally, he had to ask the obvious question. “Why?”
“Ahh… eye-hand coordination, reflexes, honing trajectory skills?” Nick laughed. “Ashley got me hooked on it.”
“Ashley!” That… was a surprise. “She hates video games.”
Nick’s suggestive chuckle filled the air. “Yeah… exactly. She gets in this zone when she’s working on one of her art projects… and nothing cracks that bubble. Not even the suggestion of a little afternoon delight.”
Now, that Dan understood, and he laughed softly. “Trish does the same thing. It’s like she goes off into a world where no one and nothing else exists. Sorry, but I’m convinced that’s all part of being married, son.”
His friend snickered. “I’m way too much of a newlywed and a dog to accept that.” He shuffled some papers and coughed slightly. “So I started playing this stupid bird game one day and found the one thing that cracks the bubble and pulls her out of the zone.”
“What? Snorting pigs?”
“Pretty much.” Nick blew out a satisfied sigh. “The sounds bothers her, and I dare her to make me turn it off, and from there it gets physical. You should try— Sorry, man.”
He should be used to people freaking out over an inadvertent faux pas of suggesting that he should “see” something or in this case try something that would require sight. What he was used to was smoothing over the uncomfortable pauses. So Dan grinned before the sudden silence could turn awkward.
“No worries. I have my own way of getting Trish out of that particular place. And my way starts with the physical and ends with the more physical. You’ve never made love to a woman until you’ve done it in total blackness. Everything is enhanced. Try a blindfold sometime.”
Nick sputtered and coughed twice. He must have been drinking from his perpetual bottle of water.
His friend didn't have a chance for any sort of comeback. Hushed rubber-soled footsteps whispered briskly over the tile floor, and the aroma of ranch dressing tickled Dan’s nose.
“Hey, Lucy.”
His secretary gasped. “H-how did you know it’s me?”
Dan smiled and shrugged. “Lucky guess.” It was too much fun making everyone wonder — he’d never admit his awareness of Lucy’s tendency to bring along a salad smothered with ranch dressing to finish before their weekly stats and strats meetings.
“Am I interrupting something?” asked Lucy.
“Nothing we can’t finish on the way home,” said Nick smoothly. “Is Colonel Jenkins running this meeting?”
Dan tried to maintain a level tone. “That’s what the memo said.” At least he hoped it would be Jenkins and not Edgerton, given the history Nick shared with the latter. Aw, crap, I should’ve warned him. Maybe it’s not too late. “You know Colonel Edgerton’s on base, right?”
The sharply indrawn breath from across the table told Dan his friend hadn’t been aware.
“I guess it’s too late to put in for extended leave,” mumbled Nick.
The shuffle of footsteps and the rustle of clothing announced the mass entrance of other attendees. Dan hated these meetings more than he hated trying to figure out his pregnant wife’s mood swings.
His old mantra echoed through his head. Nothing to it but to do it.
The door at the back of the room closed with a click. In a flurry of soft clacks and whooshes, the blinds lining the windows were closed. The hum of a white noise machine began. A frown pinched Dan’s forehead. This wasn’t going to be a typical statistics and strategies meeting. A chill ran from his neck to the base of his spine, where its icy fingers grabbed and squeezed.
“Thank you for coming,” began Colonel Jenkins in his typical gravelly style.
Right. As if they had a choice of attending one of Uncle Sam’s meetings.
“IS THAT A foot?” Ashley nearly shouted. “It is! I see a foot!” Her grip on Trish’s hand tightened as if she sought to anchor her dancing feet to the floor.
Trish giggled. “It went by so fast I think I counted five toes.”
With a chuckle, the ultrasound technician — a girl named Jennifer, who looked barely old enough to be skipping high school — dragged the wand back through the goo coating Trish’s baby belly. The foot reappeared on the screen, froze for a second, and there they were… five toes.
Ashley sighed. “Aww, look at that.”
Trish rolled her head to take in Ashley’s enraptured face. “Maybe one day soon you and Nick will be making an announcement.”
“Maybe… I guess you never know. Though we’re kind of enjoying the newlywed phase a bit too much to work at it.”
“What?” Trish blinked. “You realize that’s an oxymoron, right? I mean ‘enjoying the newlywed phase’ kind of is working at it… at least if memory serves.”
Ashley grinned. “Let’s just say we get lots of practice at working at it and we’ll see what happens.”
The baby stretched. Trish’s stomach formed a pointed tent. “Oh, I know what tends to happen,” she said, laughing.
“Let’s see… you had a CVS, so do you already know the sex?” asked Jennifer.
“It’s a boy,” whispered Trish.
“Oops! Yes, it certainly is! See the turtle sign?”
Ashley snickered. “Is that the code word these days— Holy guacamole! That’s — that’s um, not very babyish.”
Gales of laughter burst from Trish’s lips, and after a moment, Jennifer joined in. “Think of the ultrasound like a funhouse mirror — size is often distorted.”
She rolled the wand again and located the heart. Then, holding it in place, she tapped something on the keyboard and turned a dial. Instantly, a hyper-fast whooshp-whooshp-whooshp murmured from the speakers next to her computer.
“Oh, Trish,” breathed Ashley. “That’s beautiful.”
“Yeah.” Trish sighed. “I forgot about that. Dan could have heard the heartbeat today. The first time we heard it — with this little hand gizmo the doctor had — Danny’s face just lit up.” She sighed again, knowing she’d messed up.
“Too bad you can’t take this home with you,” murmured Ashley, giving another squeeze of her hand.
“Are you talking about a Doppler monitor?” Jennifer fiddled with the keyboard and moved the wand then hit something on the keyboard again.
“That’s probably what it was.”
“You know you can buy one, right? Gold Mart has a pretty nice one for under a hundred dollars.” Jennifer held the wand in place and tapped on the keyboard again.
Trish barely noticed anything through the rest of the exam. Her mind was already racing ahead, planning the side trip she would beg Ashley to make to the big discount store.
“FOUR WEEKS,” MOANED Trish. “Four weeks of taking it easy? Was he serious?”
“If you’re talking about Dr. Peroli, I’d say he was pretty serious.” Ashley turned the car into the busy Gold Mart parking lot. “We shouldn’t have come at the end of the month. People must be shopping for the Fourth. Don’t they know it’s almost a week away?”
“Sorry.” Trish lifted a shoulder. “But I really want to get this for Dan, and if I’m going to be taking it easy for four weeks, this’ll be my only chance.”
Ashley sighed. “Well, if you won’t wait in the car, you’ll have to ride one of those scooters.”
Trish clamped her lips shut and glared at her friend, who only returned the glare, not in the least intimidated.
“Fine.” With a lot more grunting than she was happy with, Trish hauled herself to her feet and headed for the store, well aware that her indignant stomp was more of a swaybacked waddle.
“And at least he said ‘take it easy’ and not go on complete bed rest,” said Ashley when she caught up. “I’ve had friends that had to have strict bed rest. Dr. Peroli said you could walk around and sit with your feet up. You don’t have to stay in bed.”
“How am I going to cook breakfast and dinner for the bed and breakfast guests?” Trish slowed her steps, panting lightly, as they walked through the automatic doors. “It’s the height of the season. I don’t want to cancel everyone’s reservations, but it’s going to be hard to be a bed and breakfast for up to eight guests not to mention cook for my family and clean all the rooms, and…” She sighed and lifted her hands helplessly.
“Ack! You’re exhausting me just talking about it.” Ashley directed her attention to the gold-jacketed greeter. “We need a scooter.”
“Of course. The first one’s just had the battery charged,” said the smiling elderly gentleman with the shock of salt and pepper hair falling across his forehead. “The instructions are on the basket. Just let me know if you need any help.”
Trish settled herself on the padded vinyl seat and read the black lettering printed on safety yellow. “Pull the lever on the right back to move forward, release it to stop. Roll the handle on the left toward the rider to move backward, release it to stop moving.” She shrugged. “Seems simple enough.”
“Where do you think the monitor will be?” asked Ashley, motioning toward the in door. “Pharmacy or baby stuff?”
“I don’t know. But the pharmacy is closer to the front of the store.” Trish depressed the lever, and the scooter moved forward at the frustrating pace of a box turtle. “Man, even pregnant I can walk faster than this.”
“Did you ever think that might be your problem? You move too fast, don’t take time to just slow down and spot the roses in the distance, let alone smell them.”
Trish released the lever, and the scooter came to a near-instant halt in front of a display of vitamins. The brown bottles lined up on the shelves, yellow labels bearing an alphabet full of daily supplements, all supposed to make a person healthier and more vigorous. If only. With a sigh, she thought of the prenatal vitamins on the kitchen counter that she routinely avoided since they made her more nauseous than the morning sickness had. She probably should have tried harder to take them. Especially since the doctor was now concerned about anemia.
“I don’t know how you thought you were going to do it all.” Ashley picked up a bottle of ginkgo biloba and made a face. “I wonder if any of this actually works.”
“I guess I shouldn’t have taken on guests for the summer. At the time I thought it would be no big deal. I thought maybe I’d take on a high school student to help with the cleaning and I’d be able to handle the cooking.” Trish blew out a breath. “I didn't count on being told to slow down.”
“I can help a little. I’m great at cleaning.” Ashley picked up a bottle of vitamin C and examined the label. “But you know I’m a total loss with cooking.” She replaced the bottle on the shelf. Then her face lit up. “Hey! I know someone who’s a wizard at cooking… and looking for something to do this summer!”
It was too easy. Suspicion edged its way into Trish’s voice. “Who?”
Ashley’s answer was instant and triumphant. “Jay Harris.” She smiled. “He cooks like a dream, and he lives alone since his fiancée is stationed in Germany until the end of her tour. As neat as he keeps his classroom, I’m pretty sure he knows how to clean.” She slipped her hand into her jeans pocket and pulled out her cell phone. “Should I call him?”
“Ahh… umm…” Should she? It would be weird having a man working in the B and B… especially since she’d pictured a high school girl. “I thought he liked to travel while school’s out. He takes pictures. Won’t he want to go to Germany to see Lisa?”
“Yes, he takes great pictures.” Ashley nodded. She slid her phone open. “But this summer he’s taking the pictures close to home. They’re saving for their wedding. So? What about it?”
“I guess you could ask.” And if he accepted the job, hopefully she’d be able to clean out the refrigerator before he saw the disorganized disaster.

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