(Unedited Sneak Peek)
Cassie Davis stared at the pink and white test stick, surprisingly calm considering her entire world could change in a matter of minutes. Three minutes, to be exact.
“Cass, you ready?” Eliza Parker called from the other side of the bathroom door. “The meeting’s already started.”
“Almost.” Cassie glanced at her phone balancing precariously on the narrow edge of the porcelain sink. According to the timer, only forty-five seconds had passed since she’d placed the cap back over the absorbent tip of the pregnancy test. How was that possible? It felt like a lifetime ago.
“Are you okay?” Eliza’s concern carried through the thin crack in the doorframe. “You’ve been in there for ages.”
“I’m fine. Be right there.” She stuffed her phone and the test stick in the pockets of her long, lightweight cardigan and flicked on the faucet to wash her hands.
In hindsight, she shouldn’t have taken the test at work. While The Calendar Café—a bakery and coffee shop combo she co-owned with Eliza—often felt like home since they spent so much time there, it afforded little privacy. And yet, after days spent avoiding the inevitable, too fearful of the potential outcome, she suddenly needed to learn her fate, to the point of anxious distraction. How would she be able to restrain her burning curiosity until after tonight’s gathering?
The tiny strip of plastic scorched a hole in her pocket as they closed the café and headed across the town square toward the meeting hall. Cassie barely noticed the pleasant evening breeze that smelled faintly of apple blossoms, or the way the setting sun painted the Western-style storefronts in a soft pinkish hue. Normally, she’d savor every sweetly scented breath, soaking in each nuanced detail that made Poppy Creek the most magical town she’d ever known—a town she’d gratefully called home for the last two and a half years.
But tonight, she couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the impending test results. It felt as though a switch had been flipped in her brain, jerking her thoughts from dogged denial to a single-minded desperation. When she’d missed her period last month, she’d brushed it off. With her irregular cycle, missing one period here or there wasn’t uncommon. But missing two periods in a row? That was difficult to ignore. So, that afternoon, she’d waited to take her break until Sally Hooper—an infamously unobservant cashier at Mac’s Mercantile who hadn’t even noticed when her husband bought all the supplies for her own surprise birthday party—came in for her shift. In a town like Poppy Creek, you could never be too careful. If anyone witnessed her purchase a pregnancy test, the news would make it to Luke before the three-minute timer had a chance to chime.
The tangled knot in Cassie’s stomach tightened as she and Eliza climbed the creaky wooden steps leading into the large one-room meeting hall. Her husband, Luke Davis, waved at them from the back row of folding chairs where he’d saved them a seat.
His warm hazel eyes shimmered with affection as he met her gaze, then crinkled around the edges when he smiled. Her breath stalled somewhere in her throat, too feeble to handle the way his entire face lit up with delight at the mere sight of her. They were approaching two years of marriage, and he still looked at her with the same adoring disbelief, as if he couldn’t believe his good fortune.
To be honest, she was the one who felt lucky. She’d never met a man like Luke, so strong, steadfast, and selfless. So full of love. He would make the most incredible father.
Guilt pricked her heart as she followed Eliza to their seats, the pregnancy test jostling in her pocket with each step. If the results were positive, Luke would be overjoyed. Like most married couples, they’d talked about having kids before, and Luke couldn’t wait to be a dad. She’d tried to match his enthusiasm, hoping, praying her heart would change. How could she admit the idea of motherhood filled her with an intense, all-consuming fear that she wouldn’t be good enough? That she’d be just as unqualified for the role as her own mother, and her mother before her?
When it came to maternal bloodlines, the Hayward women had a less-than-stellar gene pool. Her mother and grandmother had a horrible falling out shortly after her grandfather’s death, which resulted in her mother skipping town at eighteen, with an infant Cassie in tow, never to speak to her grandmother again. Cassie’s earliest memories were of dingy motel rooms and even worse apartments, and a parent who was rarely sober and barely keeping it together. If it wasn’t for her mother’s beguiling beauty and infectious charm—which inspired benevolence in both men and women alike—she wasn’t sure how they would’ve survived.
As for her grandmother, Cassie had mixed feelings. Without Edith Hayward and the unusual terms of her will, Cassie never would’ve moved to Poppy Creek and met Luke, plus so many others she now considered family. Inheriting her grandmother’s cottage had been the lifeline she’d needed, and she couldn’t be more grateful. And yet, why hadn’t her grandmother reached out to them before her death? Would their lives have turned out differently if she’d tried to make amends sooner? Cassie couldn’t help mourning all the lost years… all the what-ifs.
Mayor Burns shot her and Eliza a look of annoyance as they settled in their seats, but he didn’t miss a beat of his monologue. He gave the same one every year before the big Founders Day Festival, extolling the three main families who established the town of Poppy Creek in the 1800s: the Haskets, the Cunninghams, and the Burnses. As the legend goes, they’d come in search of gold, but found a new, better way of life. They’d built a legacy. One that he still carries on to this day, et cetera, et cetera, and so on.
While Cassie could appreciate his familial pride, the tales grew more outlandish with each retelling and his constant grandstanding wore on her nerves. After all, it wasn’t as if he’d personally saved the town from drought, famine, and forest fires.
Nevertheless, Founders Day—which was a bit of a misnomer since the festival actually lasted three days—was an annual highlight. Under normal circumstances, she’d hang on every detail of this year’s celebration with eager anticipation. But her thoughts kept drifting to the item in her pocket.
“Lastly,” Mayor Burns said loudly, yanking her attention to where he stood at the podium. His thick, dark hair glistened in the overhead light, the not-so-subtle sheen a clear sign he needed to cut back on the pomade. “I have an update on the library. As you know, the property has been in my family for generations, and I’ve been leasing it back to the town for a price that’s more than magnanimous.” He paused as if he expected praise or applause, then cleared his throat and continued. “But I’ve recently received a generous offer from a well-reputed developer. They plan to convert the building into a one-stop shop for affordable consumer goods, and I think it’s in the town’s best interest to accept.”
Cassie stiffened, the life-altering pregnancy test momentarily forgotten as the room erupted in cries of protest.
“People, people, please calm down.” Burns rapped his gavel against the podium a few more times than necessary, as if the action brought him personal satisfaction. “Change is hard, but it’s time we think about our future. Forward progress is the bedrock of a town’s survival.”
“But what about the library?” Beverly Barrie, the head librarian for several decades, asked in a voice fraught with apprehension.
Her husband, Frank, squeezed her shoulder in a show of support.
“I’m sure we can find a suitable location to relocate the library,” Burns said with an air of indifference. “Besides, aren’t people reading more e-books these days, anyway? We can simply move the library online.”
Beverly gasped in horror, her hand flying to the vintage cameo at her throat. More outraged murmurs rippled throughout the room.
Cassie’s stomach clenched at the collective aura of alarm. Mayor Burns couldn’t seriously be considering selling a historic piece of the town to a faceless corporation, could he?
“What about preserving the town’s heritage?” Frank narrowed his bushy, silver-speckled eyebrows at Burns, his gray eyes darkening with displeasure as if a storm brewed just beneath the surface. “You let in one money-grubbing muckety-muck, you might as well turn Main Street into a strip mall.”
“With all due respect, Mr. Barrie,” Burns purred with practiced patience, “I hope you trust me more than that.”
“Not even as far as I can throw you,” Frank muttered under his breath.
Cassie hid a smile. Just a few short years ago, Frank would’ve been the last person to champion their bucolic way of life. An infamous recluse, he rarely left his house, let alone frequented the quaint mom-and-pop shops lining the four cobblestoned streets framing the town square. Now, despite his somewhat crusty and cantankerous exterior, he’d become a beloved member of the community. And although he was old enough to be her grandfather, he’d become the father figure she’d never had.
A sudden surge of emotion swelled in her chest at the thought. She’d never met the man who bore her DNA. She didn’t even know his name. Despite her many attempts to learn more about him, her mother had doggedly kept his identity a secret, for reasons she wouldn’t divulge. A microscopic seed of resentment burrowed in Cassie’s heart. What would she say to her own son or daughter one day when they asked about their family tree?
“The fact is,” Burns said in an authoritative tone, tearing Cassie from her melancholy musings, “the library can’t keep up with its lease payments, and I’ve been lenient for as long as I can. If it’s not this developer, it will be someone else. I, for one, want to see Poppy Creek grow and thrive, not shrivel into a ghost town like so many others before us.”
A somber hush settled over the room as his ominous words sank in, permeating the air with a thick haze of hopelessness.
There had to be something they could do. Cassie couldn’t bear the thought of Poppy Creek changing, possibly losing its very essence, purely for the sake of perceived progress. And while big corporations could provide jobs and cheap goods, and they weren’t evil in and of themselves, there was something special about their way of life. Poppy Creek was a tiny pocket of tranquility in a tumultuous world, and now more than ever, she wanted it to stay that way.
As if driven by an internal force greater than herself, she rose from her chair. Her cheeks colored as everyone turned toward her, waiting for her to speak.
Mayor Burns glowered as if he could force her back into her seat with the harsh angle of his eyebrows, but her feet remained rooted to the floor.
“What if we use the festival as a fundraiser for the library?” Her voice shook with nerves, and she gathered a breath to steady it. “We could hold a silent auction, sell raffle tickets, and whatever else we can think of. If we raise enough money to pay off the debt and cover a rent increase, will you honor the library’s lease agreement?”
The mayor’s brown eyes muddied, and a muscle in his jaw flexed, almost imperceptibly. Was he angry? She couldn’t tell for sure, but her heart sank.
The room rumbled in support of her proposition, and the mayor’s sharp, chiseled features melted into a smooth, syrupy smile.
“Of course. I only want what’s best for the town.”
His response was met with applause, which he accepted with exaggerated humility.
Cassie subconsciously placed a protective hand over her stomach.
Although she’d gotten the answer she wanted, something in the mayor’s gaze left her feeling oddly unsettled.
Cassie stared out the passenger window, barely registering the silvery, moonlit tree line as their faded red pickup rattled down the rugged two-lane road pitted with poorly filled potholes.
“Hey,” Luke said, breaking the silence. “You made the right decision.”
She shifted in her seat to face him, suppressing the urge to fling her arms around his neck in a grateful embrace. How did he know her so well? “Are you sure? I keep wondering if I should’ve accepted Landon’s offer.” Landon Morris, a billionaire entrepreneur and newcomer to Poppy Creek, had approached her privately after the meeting and proposed buying the library from Burns and donating it back to the town. On the surface, it seemed like a simple solution to their problem, but she’d ultimately advised Landon against making the generous offer.
“You made the right call,” Luke assured her. “Having Landon whip out his checkbook every time the town has a financial need sets an unhealthy precedent for everyone involved, but especially Landon. It would change the dynamic, turning him into an ATM, and people would stop viewing him as an equal member of the community. The issue concerns all of us, and it’s important we take ownership and solve it together.”
Cassie couldn’t help but smile. That was exactly how she felt about the situation, and hearing Luke voice her thoughts helped ease some of her doubts. “How do you always know the right thing to say?”
“I think it has something to do with the mind meld that happened when we got married. The one that lets us finish each other’s sentences and read each other’s thoughts.” He flashed her a grin—the one that usually made her stomach flutter—but this time, her stomach lurched at the terrifying prospect. What if he really could read her thoughts? Would he think less of her?
“Besides,” he added as if they’d never changed topics, “I have no doubt we’ll be able to raise enough money. It’s just unfortunate we even need to. I still can’t believe Burns wants to sell the library to a developer.” He briefly dimmed his headlights for a passing car, then flicked them back to brights, illuminating the shadowy silhouette of the surrounding pine trees.
“To be honest,” Cassie admitted, “I’m not surprised. I don’t know him well, so maybe this is uncharitable, but something’s always seemed a bit off about him.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. He’s never been the town’s most popular mayor.”
“How does he keep getting reelected?”
“Lack of competition, I guess.” Luke shrugged. “There’s some old bylaw that stipulates the mayor has to be from one of the founding families. Billy and Gina, the last of the Hasketts, didn’t have any children. Billy’s in his late nineties now—and thinks wearing pants is optional—so that rules them out. The Cunninghams and the Burnses came to blows over something several years ago. No one knows for sure what happened. Frida Connelly swears they argued over which color to paint the gazebo in the town square, but that seems unlikely. At any rate, now the Cunninghams either raise armadillos in Oxnard or oxen in Amarillo. I can never remember which. Rod and Anne Burns only had one son, Bryce. So, I guess you could say he’s our mayor by default.”
“That’s kind of sad. Can’t the bylaw be changed?”
“Probably. Bryce took over after his dad passed away, and as far as I know, no one ever questioned it.”
“What about his mom?” Cassie asked, realizing she’d never thought about his parents before. Mayor Burns had always lived in her mind as this singular entity who simply materialized into existence. Until recently, she didn’t even know his first name.
“Anne?” Luke said thoughtfully. “I think she moved back to Washington after her husband died, to be near her family.”
“Isn’t Bryce her family?”
“Yeah…” He trailed off, his brow furrowed as if he struggled to find the right words. “Let’s just say they never saw eye to eye.”
“Then I’d probably like her,” Cassie teased.
“You’d love her. She and my mom used to be good friends. They hosted a book club together when I was a kid. She’d be glad you stepped in to save the library.” He briefly took his eyes off the road to meet her gaze. “I know I said this earlier, but it bears repeating. I’m really proud of you, Ru.”
The tender way he evoked her nickname sent a pleasant ripple down her spine. Even though they’d settled into the comfortable rhythm of married life, he could still melt her in an instant, with little more than a simple word or touch. Would all that change if they had a baby on the way? She reached inside her pocket, guilt making her palms sweat. She needed to tell him.
“I never want Poppy Creek to lose its heart and soul,” he continued, unaware of the smoldering secret between them. “This town, exactly as it is now, is where I want to raise our kids.” He cleared his throat. “You know, whenever we’re ready to have kids.”
“Luke, stop the truck,” she blurted, unable to wait a second longer.
Startled, he punched the brakes. “What’s wrong? Did you see a deer?”
“No. I—” She hesitated, suddenly at a loss for words. How did she even begin to explain? “I, uh, need to talk to you about something. It’s important. Can you park up ahead?” She pointed toward a small clearing on the side of the road.
He tossed her an uncertain glance, but did as she asked.
She reached for the overhead light, then remembered the bulb had burned out. Or had the wiring fried? She couldn’t remember. Either way, the truck had been falling apart for years and needed to be replaced, but it had belonged to Luke’s father, so he refused to part with it. His sweet, sentimental side was one of the countless qualities she loved about him. And one of many that would make him a wonderful father.
Tears welled in her eyes at the thought, and she blinked them back, fumbling for her phone.
Focus, Cassie. You don’t even know for sure if you’re pregnant.
“Cass, what’s going on?” Luke asked, concern creeping into his voice.
“I need more light.” She yanked her phone from her purse, frustrated to find another dead battery. But what did she expect when she’d spent half the day Googling everything from pregnancy symptoms to preschools?
Pulse racing, she shoved open the passenger door and slipped into the dim moonlight. The cold night air wrapped around her, making her shiver.
“Where are you going?” Luke switched off the engine, and the low growl gave way to an eerie stillness save for the quiet chorus of crickets.
Trusting him to follow, she scrambled toward the beam of the headlights, her heart pounding, her stomach swirling. For an instant, the world seemed to sway, and she closed her eyes, waiting for the ground to stop spinning beneath her.
She’d delayed the inevitable all day, afraid of the finality, but now, the urgent need to know the truth—one way or the other—seemed to suck all the oxygen from the air.
The sound of Luke’s boots crunching on the loose dirt and gravel stopped a foot or so away. “Cassie?” He spoke her name softly, his question lingering on his lips.
She opened her eyes. Her husband stood before her, the ever-steady pillar she’d learned to lean on, no matter the storm. He never wavered, never faltered. And yet, she’d let her insecurities and fears keep them apart.
“There’s something I need to show you.” She dug her hand in her pocket and retrieved the pregnancy test, keeping her fingers wound tightly around it.
“What’s—?” His voice fell away and he met her gaze, his expression searching, hopeful. “Is that—?”
She nodded, her throat too tight to speak.
“What does it say?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I’ve been waiting to find out.”
He bridged the distance between them, stopping toe-to-toe. She felt the heat from his body, felt his eagerness. He placed a hand on her upper arm, the firm, comforting pressure of his palm radiating through the thin fabric of her cardigan. Suddenly, every sound—the rustling of the wind in the trees, the rhythmic croak of the bullfrogs, even her own heartbeat—all seemed louder and more distinct.
This was it. The moment of truth. The moment that would define the rest of their lives.
Luke took her free hand in his, lacing their fingers together until their palms met. For several seconds, neither of them moved. Cassie savored the warmth of his touch, clinging tightly, afraid to let go. What if, from this moment on, everything changed? Or what if nothing changed at all? She wasn’t sure which outcome frightened her more.
Ever present, ever steady, Luke stood quietly by her side, cradling her hand in his, not rushing or pressuring, simply waiting until she was ready.
Gathering a tenuous breath, she loosened her grip, uncurling her fingers.
Her heart stopped.
Even the bullfrogs and crickets seemed to pause in silent solidarity.
There, in the gleam of the headlights, were two unmistakable pink lines.
“Does that mean what I think it does?” Luke asked in a hushed breath, as if speaking too loudly would somehow alter the results.
Tears welled in her eyes, springing from a place deep within herself she couldn’t explain, a mixture of joy, terror, and disbelief—a sensation so overwhelming, she could hardly find the strength to stand. “We’re pregnant,” she whispered, her words sounding disconnected and far away, as if they belonged to someone else.
“I can’t believe it! We’re going to have a baby!” Luke swept her off the ground, spinning her around before he gathered her into his arms for a kiss so passionate and all-consuming, she almost forgot her fears. When their lips finally parted, he pressed his forehead to hers. “You’re going to be the best mom,” he murmured, his tone raspy with emotion.
She stepped closer, burying her head against his chest as a silent tear slid down her cheek.
He seemed so confident, so certain. And for now, that would have to be good enough for the both of them.
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