Home > Somebody's Baby (Darling, VT #3)

Somebody's Baby (Darling, VT #3)
Author: Donna Alward

CHAPTER 1

Oaklee Collier was so sick of attending bridal and baby showers she was thinking of developing a chronic and convenient illness just so she wouldn’t have to go.

Saying no just wasn’t an option. Not for sunny and upbeat Oaklee, who ran the town of Darling’s social media and knew exactly what was going on, where, and when. She’d been present at so many events that she’d been given the office nickname—unoriginal at that—of Social Butterfly. Of course she’d been naïve back a few years ago when she’d started interning with the Darling Town Office during the summers. And oh, so smug, like she had the world by the proverbial tail. Flitting from event to event had suited her just fine. Brides and babies had her oohing and aaahing appropriately, because she’d figured she was well on her way to both events, and in that order.

She wasn’t smug anymore. And she was sick and tired of pasting on a smile when faced with happy ever after when she knew for a fact such a thing didn’t exist.

She hit the gas and turned onto a backroad, heading toward the lake just outside the town. This last shower had been a double whammy. The bride was a coworker, and she was also expecting a baby. Double the celebration, since the wedding would happen in September and the baby was due in February. Rebecca was blissfully happy with her blissful husband-to-be and their blissful home, and in six and a half months she’d give birth to a blissful little baby Becky or Darren.

Blech.

And it might have been easier to stay cynical and annoyed if she hadn’t felt the sting of tears at the back of her eyes, clogging her throat.

Damn Jeff anyway. Damn him for ripping out her heart by leaving her standing at the chapel altar. The only consolation was that they’d been eloping in Vegas, so her humiliation hadn’t been witnessed by a church full of family and friends. It was one of the best-kept secrets in Darling—no small feat.

Thank God for small miracles. Being left at the altar was not an event that would ever have been forgotten in a town the size of Darling. Especially not when the bride was a former Homecoming Queen and the groom was her high school sweetheart, and both were at the tender age of twenty-two. Thankfully Jeff had disappeared across the country to a new job and she didn’t have to face him ever again.

She was twenty-four; young, just embarking on her career and with a world of options ahead of her. But tonight, at the fifth or six shower since spring, she’d felt much, much older. And tired.

The lake never failed to make her feel better, though. It was mid-August, and the brash heat of July had faded just a bit, taking the humidity with it. Days were hot with a clear, blue sky; evenings were cool and peach and purple, all soft around the edges. She parked away from the public beach, wanting to avoid people. Instead she took off her flimsy sandals and walked away from the evening stragglers who marred the smooth sapphire surface with their splashing. She followed the slightly more rocky shore a few hundred yards east, and then stopped and stepped into the cool water.

It surrounded her toes, curled around her ankles, washing away the hectic pace of the day and the constant ache from her impossibly high heels. She let out a sigh and waded deeper, but not up past her calves. She didn’t want to get her hem wet, then have it itch the whole way home. Instead she stood there, soaking in the last of the sun’s rays, letting the lake water wash away the stress of her daily performance. Oaklee Collier. Good for a laugh, plays on the Internet as her job, never has to worry about money because her brother’s a big shot. Oaklee Collier who has it all. And oh, by the way, how’s your love life? The reality was far more boring, so she never bothered to set anyone straight. The truth was, she worked damned hard, and she refused to let her big-shot hockey-playing brother pay her way. Her love life? Hah. Nonexistent.

A powerboat sped by, quite a way from shore, but close enough she heard the catcalls from the guys on board. In a few minutes the wake would create gentle rocking waves that made the lake sound remarkably like the ocean. Oaklee waited, and smiled a little as the first little curl chased her calves. The rhythmic laps of the waves broke on the gravelly beach, and Oaklee took a step back. When she did, her foot landed on a rock—a slippery rock that put her off balance. She stumbled and instinctively reached out to steady herself, only there was nothing to grab on to. Instead she took half a dozen awkward steps, splashing in the waves and soaking her skirt in the process.

“Dammit!”

She made her way back to the dry shoreline and assessed the damage. The back of her skirt wasn’t too bad, just a little damp. But the front, where she’d tipped forward, was soaked halfway up her thighs. It was a white skirt, and she supposed she should be grateful that it hadn’t got wet farther north. She still had to walk back to her car. The last thing she needed was to be practically exposed. No one needed to see what she was wearing beneath her skirt.

So much for peace and quiet and equilibrium.

Still out of sorts, she started for Darling and home. Home consisted of an apartment, the end unit of a four-plex in a new development close to the golf course. She lived there alone. Her folks lived across town in the same house they’d lived in when she was growing up. There were days she seriously considered taking her talents and moving elsewhere, but she had a good job and in the current economy that wasn’t anything to sniff at. Besides, Darling was home. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but there was still something comforting about it. She could always count on Darling to stay exactly as it had always been.

She was halfway back to town in the purple twilight when her phone buzzed. She ignored the sound, but a few seconds later it buzzed again, and then again. Sighing, she reached over to the passenger seat and grabbed it. She hit the power button and looked down, only for a second, and when she glanced up again she gasped and hit the brakes as hard as she could.

But it was too late.

Her heart pounded as she sat for a few moments, numb. Oh God. She’d hit … something. Had it been a raccoon? A bear cub? A dog? She didn’t want to go look, but knew she must. Throat tight, chest cramped, she got out of her car and ventured carefully toward the front of the vehicle.

It was a dog, and it lay on the road, chest heaving, head resting on the dirt. His—or her—tongue lolled out of its mouth, and tears spurted into Oaklee’s eyes. “Oh God,” she said, stepping forward. “I’m so sorry. Oh God.”

The dog whimpered, tried to get up, but fell back down again. She couldn’t see much blood, but she knew she had to do something. She couldn’t just leave it here to die. Tentatively she reached out a hand to pat its head, and it nuzzled at her wrist, giving the pad of her thumb a lick.

The damn thing was licking her hand after she’d just hit it with her car. Stupid thing. How dumb and trusting did you have to be to do something like that? Why wasn’t it angry or afraid and snapping at her?

She went back to the car and found an old beach towel in the mess that was her backseat. “Come on, then,” she said, wondering how she was going to possibly move it. At her best guess, the animal weighed at least fifty or sixty pounds. She was in good shape, but that was still a hefty dog to be lifting into a car.

It took another five minutes of struggling and sweating before Oaklee had the dog half on the towel. It had yelped several times, and she was crying now, hating that she was hurting it but unable to do anything else. Why had she thought taking the backroads would be a good idea? There hadn’t been another car since she stopped. There were no houses, either. She couldn’t even stop and ask someone if they owned the dog.

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