May I present the epilogue to the High Stakes, Hard Sell series. Thank you to all my readers for your support and feedback, and to the author Karaline who did such fantastic editing for the series. I’m very grateful to everyone.
Jane gazed out the passenger seat window at the spring scenery as Mike steered her car north up the 400 and away from Toronto. It was a lovely Friday in early May; the snow had disappeared and the sun was shining bright and hot. In the back seat Nessa was reading aloud to herself from a Little Mermaid picture book.
Jane should have been enjoying herself; she’d taken a few days off for the trip, the weather promised to be lovely and the landscapes along the route to Elliot Lake were some of the loveliest that nature had to offer. The man she loved was in the driver’s seat next to her, Nessa was her typical well-behaved self. The multiple injuries she’d sustained back in February and March had healed and she was pain-free. In theory, all the ingredients for a wonderful vacation were present.
Instead, she felt like coming apart. She tried to keep her demeanor calm and pleasant to avoid alerting Mike but it was a struggle even for the normally poised and composed salesperson.
She took another swig of flat ginger ale, hoping it would calm her upset stomach. She suspected the nausea was due to biology more than stress.
Going to see her estranged mother for the first time in fifteen years was anxiety-inducing on its own, but Jane could have handled it. The fact that her older sister would be there too – the first time Jane had seen her since their falling out several weeks ago – added to the stress, but even that wouldn’t have been too much. She thrived on high pressure; she’d already rehearsed what she wanted to say to both of them.
But throw in the surprise pregnancy and it was all she could do stop herself from screaming or crying. Or both.
She’d taken the home pregnancy test yesterday after a week of on-again off-again nausea. It came out positive. She’d run out and bought a second one; surely false positives happened all the time, right? Positive, again. She’d spent the evening freaking out, overcome by the enormity of it. Even after a sleepless night she wasn’t any closer to a plan, or even putting her scattered thoughts into order.
And how to tell Mike? How would he react? She trusted him – she HAD to trust him. ‘Trust Mike’ had become her mantra since she’d discovered the secret of beating the old lady’s curse. But Jane was a planner, and she wanted to have at least a semblance of a plan before she dropped the bomb on him.
She marveled again at her woeful luck. In twenty-nine years she’d had unprotected sex once. Once! One evening of passionate, wonderful, bareback sex with Mike. She’d expected to die soon afterward so what would be the harm in dropping her guard just once?
She swore silently. It turned out that ‘expecting to die soon’ wasn’t a good form of birth control.
Was this the old lady’s curse, lashing out at her in its death throes, inflicting one last indignity? A baby couldn’t be a curse, surely? Babies were always blessings, though sometimes well-disguised, right?
The nausea wasn’t going away.
“Could we pull off in Vaughan?” she asked.
“We just got on the highway. You want to pull off already?”
“Isn’t that what I just said?” she snapped, then regretted her tone but didn’t apologize.
Mike glanced over at her briefly, his expression puzzled. “Okay, we’ll stop in Vaughan.”
“Can we have McDonald’s?” Nessa asked from the back seat.
“We just had breakfast an hour ago,” he said.
“But I want a Happy Meal.”
“You don’t need a Happy Meal.”
Kneeling over a public toilet in a McDonald’s washroom wasn’t the way Jane had envisioned spending the first part of her trip, but after ten minutes of retching she started to feel a little better. Hopefully the morning sickness would taper off soon. It was called ‘morning’ sickness for a reason, right?
She splashed water on her face at the sink, then looked at her haggard expression in the mirror, praying it was the terrible lighting that made her look like a fifty-year-old who hadn’t slept in a week.
How to tell Mike?
“Mike, I’m pregnant, and I’m sure it’s yours.” The direct approach. The bombshell.
“Do you think Nessa would want a younger brother or sister?” The reach-him-through-Nessa approach had worked before. It would let her ease into the heavy stuff.
“Houston, we have a problem…” Humour. Break up the tension. Start things off with a smile.
Jane groaned, closed her eyes and breathed deeply.
It was pointless. He wouldn’t want another child. He was just starting a new career as a junior event promoter on the fighting circuit. The learning curve was steep – busy days and long nights. Between that and Nessa, he had his hands full already. He and Jane weren’t even discussing marriage yet – it was damn sure a baby bursa escort wasn’t in the script.
Or…maybe he’d be thrilled? He was so good with Nessa. Fatherhood seemed to suit him. He had the temperament for it and all the soft skills. This was a chance to have a child that was ‘his’. A chance to experience parenthood right from the very start. And this time he wouldn’t have to go it alone – Jane would be there with him, sharing the load.
…Assuming SHE wanted the baby! She had an amazing career with a bright future. She wasn’t even thirty yet – WAY too young to be thinking about settling down. The possibility of actually carrying, delivering and then raising a baby seemed so overwhelming that Jane didn’t know how to deconstruct it into pieces she could think about in a reasonable way. She knew she should make her choice before getting Mike’s input. Or…would Mike’s opinion somehow make her own decision easier? It was impossible to know the right approach.
Ironically, the perfect person to ask for advice would have been her sister Betty. She’d know all sorts of psychological tricks to help her sort out her feelings and thoughts on the matter. But the two of them weren’t on speaking terms, and in any case Betty was hardly objective where Mike was concerned.
No, this was Jane’s decision, and hers alone. Or…maybe a decision for her and Mike together? Damn it!
She opened her eyes and shook her head slowly. She had to tell him. Soon.
Trust Mike…trust Mike.
Jane returned to the table to find Mike sitting next to a partially-eaten Happy Meal. Nessa had vanished into the network of tunnels and slides in the play area.
“I don’t think she’s going to finish her fries,” he offered.
She grabbed one and savoured the salt and grease. “Thanks. And sorry for earlier. I’ve been feeling a little queasy today.”
“Not too late to cancel the trip. Maybe you’re coming down with something.”
“We can’t. I don’t want anyone to think I’m backing down.”
“Well, it will be…great…to see your sister again, and her boyfriend. Jake, right?” Somehow Mike got the words out without an accompanying eye-roll.
“James. And he’ll hate your guts on sight; Betty will have seen to that. So will mom and Stan.”
“Tell me why you invited me again?”
“And?” He understood her well enough to know there was usually more than one reason.
She gave him a wicked grin. “And with you there, Betty will be so distracted by her hatred of you that she won’t be able to control the situation with her psychological trickery. It will level the playing field.”
His return smile was no less evil. “I like this plan. I’m in.”
She laughed despite her stress and reached for his hand. They were so GOOD together, and she’d enjoyed re-learning him over the last couple of months, after their five-year ‘hiatus’. He’d matured a lot since their first go-round and she was constantly finding new facets to him that hadn’t been there before, but the essential core of the man she’d fallen in love with so many years ago remained intact. That, and his hard body and flawless green eyes.
They held hands and picked at cold french fries as Nessa climbed, crawled and bounced around the play area with some other children, giggling and shrieking all the while.
“She gets along well with other children,” Jane said, her tone deliberately light.
“Mmm. She made a lot of friends in Kindergarten this year.”
“I’m glad. It can probably get lonely, being an only child. It’s good for her to have other kids around.”
He nodded, eyes on his daughter as she played. Ever-attentive. A really good dad.
“Nessa’s mom kept all her old baby dishes and bottles up in the kitchen cupboards. I guess she planned on having more than one,” Jane said.
“Probably. Brynn loved kids. Watching Nessa run around at Burger World was one of her favourite things.”
“Do you ever wish you’d been there right from the start? You know, when Nessa was still an infant?”
Mike looked at her, one eyebrow slightly raised.
Oops. Not subtle enough. He was getting wise to her gentle probing. She bailed on the subject.
“What does that kid have on his face?” she asked, nodding in the direction of a boy coming down the slide.
Mike looked and smiled, and the conversation lapsed into a companionable silence.
She would tell him…soon. But not here. Not in a McDonald’s play area, surrounded by screaming children and half-eaten fast food. This wasn’t The Moment. Besides, it wasn’t fair to spring this on him right before an already awkward rendezvous with a bunch of people who despised him. Why add to the tension? She could keep her powder dry and tell him after the meeting, when the moment was right.
She only demanded he stop twice more on the way to Sudbury, and by mid-afternoon her stomach had calmed down to the point where she started thinking of food again. They’d booked a hotel there for the night; Elliot Lake was just a two-hour bursa escort bayan drive away and the meeting with mom and Betty wasn’t until eleven on Saturday.
“Dinner first, or swimming first?” Mike asked, after they were checked into the room.
“Swimming!” Nessa shrieked, and started digging through the suitcase in search of her bathing suit.
Mike wrapped Jane in a tight hug from behind and nuzzled her neck. “If you’re still not feeling good, why don’t you lie down and I’ll take her? I can bring something back for you if you’d rather hole up here for the night.”
She made no attempt to wiggle out of the warm embrace; his lips on her skin sent pleasant tingles down her neck. “I’m feeling better. I thought maybe I’d take Nessa to the pool and you can get in a quick workout. There’s a mini-gym on the ground floor.”
“I haven’t spent much time with her this week. I’m in cute-kid withdrawal.”
“That explains all the kid-related questions today.”
His tone was teasing – he didn’t suspect the truth – and she realized she’d need to back off before she gave the game away entirely. She wanted to tell him in her own place and time, not have him clumsily stumble onto the truth.
Nessa changed in the room and Jane waited until they were in the change room next to the pool. She’d packed a conservative, black one-piece, not knowing who else might be there and not wanting to raise any eyebrows. Besides, there would be time for sexy attire later, when Nessa was asleep and she had Mike all to herself. She’d packed something special with that in mind, too. She hoped her mercurial stomach decided to cooperate.
She’d grown fond of the kid in the two months they’d known one another. Nessa was cute and enthusiastic and gleeful. Smart and observant. She had her dad wrapped around her little finger and had quickly figured Jane out, too. It was fascinating to watch the little girl adapt to new situations and figure out how solve problems. She was tenacious in pursuit of what she wanted. Nessa would be a fantastic salesperson, someday.
Jane liked the way she felt when she was looking after Nessa. Time spent with the little girl felt…important. Meaningful. Worthwhile. The quiet times were the best – reading bedtime stories or watching Disney movies on the couch together. Those moments stirred tender feelings that were both unfamiliar and welcome. Maybe even…maternal?
Unfortunately, Nessa wasn’t a ‘quiet’ swimmer. She was a splasher. A shouter. A grabber. A jumper. Jane’s role was reduced to making sure the kid didn’t injure herself or anyone else, and trying to minimize the disapproving looks she received from the older gentleman who’d come to the pool hoping to get in a peaceful thirty minutes of lane swimming.
But it was fun. Nessa kept her smiling.
And when Mike dropped in to take Nessa back up to the room, Jane treated herself to a twenty-minute stress-melting sauna. Pure heaven! And the silence gave her some much-needed time to think.
“Could I get you something from the drink menu?” the server asked Jane. “Tonight is two-for-one margaritas.”
“I’d load up, Janey,” Mike quipped. “It’s going to be a stressful day tomorrow.”
It was tempting – the panic of the last thirty-six hours had her itching for something strong to take the edge off. She sighed and handed the menu back to the young woman. “Perrier with lemon, please.”
“Amber ale for me, orange juice for the young lady,” Mike said, with a nod to Nessa.
“Can I have Coke?”
“You had Coke at McDonald’s.”
“Juice,” he said, uncompromising. Nessa recognized the tone and gave up with an exasperated sigh, then returned to colouring her paper place mat with crayons the restaurant provided.
“Didn’t you use to preach about the evils of alcohol?” Jane jabbed him.
“You’re thinking of coffee. Besides, I’m an event promoter now. The more alcohol I drink, the better I can relate to you sales-y types.”
“JUNIOR event promoter,” she corrected. “Don’t go getting ahead of yourself, junior.”
Punch. Counter-punch. She loved their banter.
Nessa piped up with a couple of questions and Mike gave her the attention she needed.
“So…you haven’t signed the new lease yet?” Jane asked, hoping the change in subject wasn’t too abrupt.
“First thing Monday. Goodbye lumpy couch, hello two-bedroom apartment!”
“Getting out of that old, musty place will be great for both of you.”
“Yeah. But in part thanks to you, I’ll have some great memories of living there.” He winked at her, and the look in his eyes made her warm.
“You know I’m not renewing my lease at the end of the month, right?” she said, trying to sound offhand. “And I’ve been thinking more about what you were talking about before – maybe getting a place together?”
He gave her a perplexed look. “You said it was too soon, and you didn’t want to rush anything.”
“Yes…but I’ve been giving it more thought lately,” she said, “I mean, you obviously escort bursa feel we’re ready. And we love each other, right?”
“You’re saying you’ve changed your mind?”
“I guess I’m saying maybe we should discuss it a bit more before we both commit to new leases.”
He gave her a long, even look, like he was trying to figure her out. She hated that appraising, skeptical expression, but realized she’d earned it. She WAS playing games, trying to get his thoughts about raising a new baby together without actually telling him she was pregnant. That wasn’t honest, or fair. She never wanted to be that way with him again – scheming and secretive. She wanted to be open and honest and to trust him to handle the truth on his own. Hadn’t that been the lesson of the curse? Trust?
She waved at the topic dismissively with her hand. “Maybe now’s not the place. Later?”
“Yeah, sure. I’d love to hear your thoughts.”
Later that evening, Mike handled all the daddy stuff, getting Nessa into her pyjamas and reading to her quietly as she lay in one of the two queen-sized beds in the hotel room.
Jane tried to shove all her emotional baggage to the side for long enough to fire off a dozen work emails. High-performance sales was a demanding mistress, requiring constant vigilance and round-the-clock attention to a myriad of details and relationships.
She supposed that would have to change when – if – she decided to become a mother. She still didn’t know how she felt about that – would she appreciate the break from the fast track or would she find motherhood limiting and dull?
When Nessa was asleep, Mike fired up his own laptop and did some reading. The two of them spent an hour that way, Jane at the tiny desk and Mike propped up on pillows in bed, both working. It was companionable and new – the ‘young professional’ was a side of Mike she’d never seen during their earliest years together. It suited him. She knew if he decided to pursue event promotion with the same zeal he’d applied to his fighter training, he’d enjoy a lot of success.
Eventually he closed the laptop and got into the shower, and Jane figured it was time to put away the business and embark on an evening of pleasure.
She stripped off her clothes and put on the calf-length, indigo satin babydoll she’d picked up earlier in the week, then admired herself in the full-length mirror on the closet near the door. The nightwear wasn’t transparent, but the thin material clung tight to her curves. It somehow covered all her naughty bits while at the same time leaving very little to the imagination. She loved the colour, and how it fit her. It would drive Mike crazy.
She turned, looking at herself from different angles, suddenly wondering if a long pregnancy would wreck her body and render her unable to show herself off in seductive lingerie. Kind of a petty concern, she supposed, when compared to the importance of adding a new life to the world. But she’d always taken pride in her appearance and worked hard to maintain it. Feeling beautiful and sexy was important to her. Being able to inflame her man, to see the hunger in his eyes, was a real turn-on, and she wasn’t ready to give that up.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly as all the fear and uncertainty came rushing back in. Of all the problems facing her, post-pregnancy night attire was near the bottom of the list.
She could hear him drying off, brushing his teeth. She struck a pose for him, feet apart, stomach in, chest out, hands behind her head, eyes smoldering. When he came out of the washroom in a towel he saw her and stopped, rooted in place, eyes wide and mouth open. His gaze roamed over her, growing more heated by the second.
“Ooh, Janey,” he said, barely audible.
She began a slow, seductive approach, eyes never leaving his.
He gave her a wolfish grin that made her shiver. “Uh-huh. I like.”
She came to a stop close to him, near the bathroom door. A secluded spot in the hotel room not immediately visible from Nessa’s bed. With a kid around, it was important to think strategically.
He rested his hand on her hip, and she could feel the heat of him through the thin fabric. She loved looking up into those perfect, emerald eyes. His hunger for her was easy to read.
“You know it’s going to be awful tomorrow, with my family,” she said, loosening the towel he’d wrapped around his waist, letting it drop to the ground. He was naked underneath.
She slid her palms over his cock, finding it more than half-erect already.
“But you still came with me anyway.”
He nodded and touched her cheek with his fingertips.
“I feel kind of bad for you.” He’d grown rigid in her hands. She rubbed his shaft slowly from the head of his cock, slowly down to his scrotum, then back up.
He groaned quietly. He stroked her left nipple through the nightie with the backs of his fingers. It hardened in appreciation.
“Maybe there’s something I can do to make it up to you?” she said.
“A few things come to mind, actually.”
He leaned down and kissed her and she returned it passionately, continuing to caress him. He squeezed her breasts through the satin and she moaned her approval.