By Alisha Paige
Anna pulled the tattered invitation out of her daily planner and stared at it. She blew out a slow breath. She really had no intention of going when her neighbor had given it to her weeks ago. What she really felt like doing was burying her head beneath her pillow while the kids ate TV turkey dinners. The ones with the sticky cranberry dessert square in the center.
Her mother sounded sad about it over the phone, but said she understood. Maybe the rest of her family wouldn't feel the need to baby her if she weren't there. Ever since Brad had left, they'd been coddling her. Everyone in the neighborhood knew about it too, but they were easier to face than her family with all their long faces and whispers.
“Katelynn? Are you and Lisa about ready?”
“Yep! I'm putting on her boots!”
“Good girl,” Anna yelled back as she shut her computer down.
Work would have to wait. Writing short stories for the hometown newspaper paid the bills, but just barely. Brad had yet to send a dime of child support and soon she'd have another mouth to feed. Very soon. Like in six weeks.
If only that phone bill had never come when Brad was working out of town. The one with all those strange calls to another state. Hours and hours of long distance calls late at night. Funny thing was, it wasn't the long calls that bothered her. It was the two minute calls. Now she wished she had never given him a second chance.
“Oh, I was calling her to tell her to put another log on the fire,” Brad had said while shaving.
“Put a log on the fire?”
He nodded as he dunked the razor into the warm sink water.
“You called her just before work to tell her to put a log on the fire?”
Brad turned to face her, half covered in shaving cream as he rolled his eyes. “Have a heart, Anna! It was 28 degrees for heaven's sake! She asked me to call and wake her in the morning to remind her to put another log on the fire.”
Anna had stared at him open mouthed. Was she hearing him correctly? Was her husband overly concerned about another woman being cold? A woman he used to share a bed with years ago?
“I told you. I won't call her again. She's pathetic. She only needed a friend to talk to. She's been going through a rough time. She can't even afford to pay her gas bill. Come on, have a heart!”
Have a heart?
Brad ran the razor beneath his chin. A wicked visual skittered across Anna's mind. Maybe if he'd just cut his jugular. She could watch him bleed to death right there on the ivory bathroom carpet. Maybe then she'd feel better.
Anna sniffed and rubbed her belly after the baby gave her a swift kick in the ribs. Back to reality.
Katelynn helped her sister shrug into her coat and they were off.
“How old are Jewel's grandkids?” Katelynn asked.
“I'm not sure, but she has nine of them, so I think you'll find someone to play with.”
“Goody!” Katelynn sang as she pulled her sister along.
“Goody!” Lisa mimicked.
Anna sighed as the girls skipped ahead. She could already see guests arriving at Jewel's house. She refastened the foil around the pumpkin pie and ran a hand through her curly blonde hair. She'd barely brushed it, but who cared, she thought.
“Anna! You came!” Jewel said as she waved from the front porch, holding the screen door open.
Anna took a deep breath as the kids ran inside. She walked up the steps, holding onto the railing. Now nearly eight months pregnant, every step up was a balancing act.
“I'll just put this in the kitchen,” Anna said as Jewel kissed her on the cheek.
The aroma of turkey and dressing filled the small living room as Anna darted past half a dozen children running amok. Jewel already had a Christmas tree. Anna didn't even want to begin to think about Christmas. She turned the corner into the kitchen and tripped over a toy train. The pie went sailing as she gripped the wall when two arms caught her from behind.
Anna looked over her shoulder as the stranger kept his large hands extended over her belly.
“Hey, I felt a kick! Must of startled the baby,” he chuckled.
Anna blushed, then cleared her throat. “Thank you. I think I'm okay now.” She turned around and stuck her hand out.
“I'm Anna. I'm Jewel's neighbor.”
The man grinned, exposing two very deep dimples. Blonde, wispy bangs fell over one twinkling blue eye. He swiped them away with one hand. “I know who you are. I'm Ben, Jewel's son.”
“Daddy, Daddy! Can I play outside with Lisa? Can I pull her in the wagon?”
Ben looked over at Anna. “Is that okay? He'll be careful. He takes his cousins for rides all the time.”
“Sure. But let Kate help, okay?”
“Yes ma'am,” the little boy replied, flashing her a toothless grin before running outside.
“Such good manners!” Anna replied as she eyed the pumpkin pie upside down on the kitchen floor a few feet away.
“Yeah. He's a good kid. So, you ready for number three?”
“Hardly! Do you and your wife have any more?”
Please don't tell me she's dead.
“I'm not married.”
“Don't be. It's been years. She wanted a career more than a family.”
Anna eyed the dead pumpkin pie again. Maybe she should clean it up, but she knew it would be a feat to scrape it off the floor in her state.
“Don't worry about that. I'll get it.”
“I'm so sorry.”
Great, we're repeating ourselves.
Anna tucked a stray curl behind her ear. This dinner was going to be longer than she thought.
“I've started taking my son to Mother's Day Out on Mondays. Mother said you take your girls too. Would you be interested in meeting for a cup of coffee or maybe lunch?”
“Oh…I don't know, Ben.”
Ben looked at the dead pumpkin pie and scratched his head. Anna palmed her belly and stared at the gurgling coffee pot.
“Look at you two!” Jewel cooed from behind.
They turned around. Anna stared at the giant sequined turkey on Jewel's apron. Ben laughed out loud. “Look at what, Mother?”
“The two of you. You're standing under the mistletoe!”
Anna's heart thumped wildly as she glanced up.
Ben's smile turned to a frown as he eyed the plastic holiday decoration hanging from a single thread.
“Well, go ahead, Benjamin. Kiss our neighbor. Lord knows she deserves a kiss.”
Anna's mouth fell open as heat rushed through her, setting her cheeks on fire. She never had a chance to close it as Ben leaned over, put his arms around her and gave her a searing two second kiss.
“You sure you won't meet me at Mother's Day Out?” he asked staring down at her as he licked his lips.
Anna blinked as liquid warmth spilled into her. She felt the baby roll over as tears welled up in her eyes.
God! Don't cry now!
Two tears slid from the corners of her eyes. Ben pulled her closer. “Anna! God! Forgive me,” he whispered, wiping her tears away with the back of his hand.
“No,” she said softly.
“I understand,” he answered. He began to release her. He grimaced and squeezed his eyes shut.
She grabbed his arms, pulling them back around her. “Oh Ben! That's not what I meant. I meant I can't forgive you. You did nothing wrong. I'd love to see you again!”
A lopsided grin curved around Ben's face as he locked his fingers behind her back. “You would?”
About the author: Alisha Paige was born and raised in Texas. She’s married to an extreme alpha-male who gives her plenty of good material, in and out of the bedroom. When she’s not writing about werewolves, vampires, witches, fairies or ancient history, she’s spending time with her family, gardening, singing, reading, eating rich dark chocolate or drinking fine red wine. Visit Alisha at her website!