Close to Her Heart

Book Three of the Carrigans of the Circle C Series

Dani Carrigan has always relied on logic when making important life decisions, but when she discovers she’s pregnant – and that there’s a chance her baby may be born “not perfect”— logic lets her down. 

It would help if the baby’s father would pop the question, but widowed father Adrian seems more interested in protecting his six-year-old daughter than committing to his new relationship with Dani. 

The last time she felt this alone and scared was when she was 16 and her mother died, leaving Dani to raise her younger sisters with precious little help from her distant and disapproving rancher father. She felt so inadequate then, but is she any more prepared to be a mother now? 

Support comes from an unlikely source. Dani always saw her next-door neighbour and friend, divorce attorney Elliot Gilmore, as a charming, handsome, playboy-type. But with each challenge she faces, from pregnancy, to delivery and beyond—Elliot reveals himself a better man than she ever guessed. 

Is it possible that Elliot hasn’t been playing the field—but waiting for her?


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April

When the ultrasound technician excused herself from the examining room, Dani Carrigan was unconcerned. As a healthy, thirty-four-year-old woman, with no family history of relevant medical problems, she didn’t see the need.

She had other matters on her mind.

First, the need to urinate. She’d been instructed to drink several glasses of water prior to the ultrasound.

Plus, her exposed belly was cold, thanks to the gel the technician had gooped over her skin. The gel had been warm when the technician—an intensely serious woman about Dani’s age who had introduced herself as Emily—first applied it. But it had cooled now, and the air circulating from the heating system at the University of Washington Medical Clinic didn’t help.

Dani glanced at the empty chair next to her examining table. Most women these days brought their husband, or significant other with them to these things.

Her significant other still didn’t know she was pregnant.

She had to tell him soon.

Her belly had popped two weeks ago, and for that amount of time she’d been avoiding sex. But her last reason not to invite him back to her place after they’d gone out for a nice dinner—she had too much paperwork to catch up on—had caused him to raise his eyebrows. She’d never used work as an excuse before.

Dani closed her eyes, picturing Adrian Carlson in her mind. She loved his thick, slightly wavy dark hair, which he wore short at the sides, but piled high over a forehead with a slight widow’s peak. He had intense gray eyes, deep set under serious eyebrows. Strong cheekbones, a firm jaw. And a mouth that often quirked up at one corner, when he was amused.

More importantly, he was the most intelligent man she’d ever met. And he was also the Department Head of Psychology. In other words—her boss.

If that wasn’t complicated enough, he already had a child. A daughter, Ava, who was only six years old. The mother—his wife—had died two years ago. Adrian was very protective of his daughter. So much so, Dani still hadn’t met her, even though she was anxious to do so. Dani knew how painful it was to lose a mother prematurely and she felt that she would be able to offer some comfort to the little girl.

In time, Adrian always said when she raised the subject.

Dani was very much afraid that Adrian wasn’t going to welcome the news that she was pregnant. But maybe he would surprise her. Perhaps a new child would be just the sort of life-altering event that would make him finally ready to commit fully to their relationship. Including—and this was a long shot, and maybe old-fashioned of her to even want, but she did—marriage.

The door to the examining room opened, letting in a waft of air that chilled her belly further, as well as the technician and a second medical professional—this one a man in his forties with a white lab coat, wearing wire glasses that had slid partly down his very narrow and long nose.

“Dani? I’m Dr. Buttress. I’m just going to have a look at these pictures.” He took the wand and began running it over her belly, just as the technician had already done. He began by scanning all over, and then narrowed in on a certain small area.

Dani felt the first sliver of concern.

She’d seen the beating heart. She knew her baby was alive.

“Is something wrong?” Up until now, every one of her doctor appointments had been completely normal. Her OB, Dr. Gwen Fong, was relaxed and reassuring. “Keep doing what you’re doing, Dani. Continue with those iron and folate supplements, and remember to take some time to exercise moderately, every day.”

Earlier, when the technician had asked if she wanted to know the sex of the baby, Dani had been tempted. Girl? Or boy?

Having grown up with three sisters, she’d be so much more comfortable with a girl. But maybe Adrian would prefer a son? She felt sexist and uncomfortable even entertaining that thought.

But now, the baby’s sex was the furthest thing from her mind.

Just let her—or him—be healthy.

Please.

When she’d first figured out she was pregnant, Dani had been surprised by her strong emotional reaction. It had gone beyond happiness, had been, in fact, the purest sensation of joy that she’d ever experienced.

Dani was a scientist, a PhD in psychology accustomed to making logical decisions based on the facts of a situation.

In her case, having a baby didn’t make sense. She had a demanding career that she loved. She wasn’t married. Had no family living in Seattle for support.

Yet. She desperately wanted this baby. At night when she put her hands on her belly and closed her eyes, she imagined holding a newborn in her arms. Breastfeeding, then rocking her to sleep. She’d held her sister Mattie’s twin daughters when they were little and remembered how light and delicate they had seemed.

So precious.

Dani focused on Dr. Buttress’s milky brown eyes, trying to glean a hint of what was going on in his head. He relinquished the wand, peered once more at the screen, then stood back on his heels.

“The heart looks good. Baby’s size is what we’d expect at sixteen weeks…”

She could sense the “but.” She held her breath as she waited for it.

“But I’m seeing a few markers here.” He glanced away from her, back at the screen.

Dani’s gaze flew to the technician. Emily’s lips were pressed together in a sympathetic expression. Far from reassured, Dani turned back to the doctor.

“High fluid levels at the nuchal translucency.” He pointed on the screen to a spot on the baby’s neck. “Also the little finger only has two joints and the femurs are short relative to body size.”

Dani reflexively bent her only little finger, noting the way she could curl it into her palm. Only two joints—that didn’t seem too bad. And if the baby was on the short side, well, that was okay, too. She and Sage were tall, but their other two sisters—Mattie and Callan—could definitely be classified as petite.

The doctor sighed. “We can’t be sure. Not from just one ultrasound. But these are markers for Down Syndrome.”

* * *

Dani stepped out the main doors of the Medical Center, managed a few steps, before freezing in confusion. Where had she parked her car?

She glanced around, taking stock of her surroundings. She noticed the deep blue of the afternoon sky, the fresh green of the grass, the shy pink of cherry blossoms only just past their prime. Seattle was at its best in April, though the city was pretty all year round, with a mild climate so unlike the harsh winters and scorching summers of Montana.

Homesickness hit her with a punch of aching sadness. If only she could be in the kitchen of the Circle C ranch, with all her sisters at the table doing homework or just gabbing, and Mom busy at one of her usual spots by the sink or the stove. Dani longed to be a child again, with few responsibilities and no difficult decisions expected of her.

But, she was an adult. And her mom had been dead for a long time.

Suddenly, she remembered where she’d left the car.

As she strode toward it—a semblance of the confident, professional woman who’d shown up for this appointment—she thought about how she’d expected this day to end.

She’d booked the ultrasound for late on a Friday afternoon, so she could go straight home afterward. The plan had been to spend the weekend spreading the news. First, her sisters, starting with Sage, who was as sweet as the chocolates she made for the townspeople of Marietta, Montana. No matter what she really thought of Dani being pregnant, Sage would react with only kindness and joy.

Dani would call Mattie, next, on her ranch just south of Flathead Lake. Since Mattie had daughters of her own—one of whom, Portia, was enrolled in university here in Seattle, taking Dani’s Intro to Psych class—she would be excited as well.

Youngest sister Callan, still at home with their father on the Circle C, was more of a wild card. She might be thrilled, indifferent or disapproving, depending on her mood.

Dani’s father, Hawksley, however, was sure to be unimpressed. But that didn’t matter. He’d never been very involved in any of their lives. Since their mother’s death, when Dani was sixteen, he’d been even more removed.

Dani negotiated her Volvo through the early-rush-hour traffic, relieved when she finally pulled into the parking space under the condo building she’d lived in for the past two years. She gathered her purse and briefcase, anxious for the moment when she could kick off her heels, put on some comfy clothes and pour herself a glass of—…Four months ago she would have enjoyed a glass of white wine. These days, her beverage of choice was usually milk.

After that, Dani wasn’t sure what she’d do. Certainly, she wouldn’t be making those phone calls she’d planned. Not after that awful ultrasound. No, tonight she just wanted to be alone and have a chance to regroup. When she was stronger, maybe after dinner, she’d get on the web and do some research.

Down Syndrome.

The words hovered in her mind like an unwanted guest she wished she’d seen coming so she could have refused to open the door. She had more than a layman’s knowledge of the syndrome, as it was included in materials in one of her courses. She also remembered a girl who’d been a year younger than her in grade school, a girl who had often played alone during recess. The girl had been short, somewhat clumsy, with small slanted eyes, thick glasses, and a tendency to stare down at her feet when she was walking.

Was her baby going to be like that girl?

Dani blinked as tears suddenly blurred her vision. Not wanting to risk being trapped with a stranger on the elevator—or worse, one of her friend— she took the stairs to the eighth floor of her building. There were six, three-bedroom units here, but only the four on the west side—including hers—had city and ocean views.

Her hand was on the doorknob, she’d actually inserted her key, when Eliot emerged from the door beside hers. Damn. Eliot was the last person she wanted to run into right now.

“Hey, stranger,” he said easily. “You’re home early for a work day.”

She forced a smile before looking at him. “Slacking off. You caught me.”

He must have come home from work early, too, because he’d already changed from his usual suit into the sort of weekend casual clothes one would expect to see in a Ralph Lauren ad: dark jeans, a vaguely nautical navy sweater with thin white stripes across the chest, and loafers that probably cost more than a pair of tickets to the Mariners.

Was it her imagination, or was Eliot checking out her waistline?

“I was talking to Miriam earlier. We’re thinking tonight would be good for a Happy Hour party. My place,” he added.

Miriam also lived on this floor. The three of them had evolved into friends over the two years they’d lived here, shortly after the renovated condo units were put on the market and promptly snapped up by upwardly mobile professionals. Their Happy Hour parties lay at the crux of that friendship, but she’d been avoiding them since she’d found out she was pregnant. “Well…”

“You better not suggest we have brunch on Sunday, instead. You’ve used that line too many times this winter. "

True. Because she could avoid drinking alcohol for brunch. If she turned down a drink at one of their Happy Hour parties—which involved imbibing copious amounts of a feature cocktail, chosen and supplied by the host of the evening, followed by several rounds of nerdy board games like Rumi Cube or Scrabble—they’d know right away something was up.

This was supposed to be the weekend when she came clean. After the phone calls to her family, she’d planned to tell Miriam and Eliot next. She’d been nervous about their reactions before she found out about the Down Syndrome markers.

Now, she was terrified.

Yet, she had to tell someone. She was so tired of keeping such a big secret. Of feeling run-down and nauseous without being able to complain to anyone. Of worrying about the future, about Adrian’s reaction, about how she was going to handle this at the university…

She could feel tears filling her eyes again and dipped her head so Eliot wouldn’t see them. But she was too late.

Eliot touched her chin, lifting her face a few inches. “I had a feeling something was wrong.”

He took her briefcase out of her hand, and pushed open her door. Ushering her inside, he went straight to the fridge. “I’m going to pour you a drink and you’re going to tell me everything. It’s Adrian, right?”

Eliot had never met Adrian, but he didn’t like him just the same. On principle, he often said, at which point Miriam would nod and give Dani a look. I’m not saying anything, because girls have to stick together, but you do know Eliot is right, don’t you?

Dani sank into one of the white leather chairs next to the fireplace. She knew what Eliot was looking for. In less than a minute, he’d have it all figured out.

“You don’t have an open bottle of white?” Eliot shut the fridge, then checked the cupboard where she kept her stash. When she wasn’t drinking cute cocktails invented by her friends, Dani always drank white wine.

“Mother Hubbard, what’s going on here? You’re completely out of—"

And just like that, Eliot went silent. As it extended, Dani imagined him thinking about her avoidance tactics lately, counting back the weeks and the months, to when they’d begun. As her friend left the kitchen and settled in the chair next to hers, she braced herself.

“How long have you been pregnant?” he asked.

End of Excerpt

Find out more about the Carrigans of the Circle C Series →

Close to Her Heart is available in the following formats:

Close to Her Heart
September 23, 2014
Tule
Romance