RELEASE BLITZ!!! WHEN YOU MAKE IT HOME...BY CLAIRE ASHBY
Oh I do love the dark and brooding ones. Theo, you had me at chapter 1!
Meg Michaels, a bookstore owner, has already walked away from two cheating exes. She’s learned her lesson and has her mind set on success—until she gets knocked up. Embarrassed and unwilling to discuss her situation with friends and family, she wears layers to hide the pregnancy.
When Meg gets sick at a party, she’s mortified. Even worse, Theo Taylor, the guest of honor, discovers her secret. Theo, an Army medic wounded in the war, agrees not to reveal her condition, and the two forge a bond of friendship that blossoms into love.
Theo is soon filling all of Meg’s late-night cravings—and not just the pregnancy-induced ones. But can their love overcome all the obstacles that stand between them and creating a happy family?
I first caught sight of Theo at his welcome home party. A mob shifted around him, jockeying for a position next to the guest of honor. I lingered near the door to the living room and listened to the joyful words and murmur of good wishes directed toward him.
Someone whispered, “… lucky to be alive.”
The doorbell rang and crowd parted. For a moment, he stood alone. Tears burned the backs of my eyes. I couldn’t see the luck in what was left of him.
Ellie pinched my arm. “Don’t stare,” she said on her way to the door.
I bit my lip, turning away. But my attention found its way back to him, and I sneaked another look at his arms, surveying the road map of scars trailing away from bandages. My gaze traveled to his face, and I gasped. Theo glared at me with defiant hazel eyes, as if to say, Go ahead and look all you want; I can take it. I knew he’d lived through much worse than I had and that my own problems paled in comparison with his. I could use some of his strength. But, of course, I couldn’t tell him that.
“What’s wrong with you?” Ellie hissed, using the same voice as when she caught me eating the cookies meant for story time at our bookstore.
She steered me into the dining room, and once she had me cornered, she snatched a box of tissues and pushed them at me. “Get control of your hormones. We already went over this. If you want to keep your secret, you can’t get all teary eyed.
“I know.” I blinked rapidly, waving the tissues away. “I’m not crying. I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” I pressed my lips together, trying to clamp down on the list my brain rattled off. I had plenty wrong with me. But a party wasn’t the time for a self-directed lashing. I could save that for home, after I dispensed a generous share of support to my best friend, who was desperate to give her brother-in-law the hero’s welcome he deserved.
Ellie hugged me, and the tension between us evaporated.
“Don’t let Theo see you looking at him with those weepy eyes. He gets pissed whenever anyone shows him an ounce of sympathy.”
“Deal. But I wish we could do something for him.” I hadn’t meant to gawk at the guy.
With all the progress updates Ellie had shared with me, I knew far too many details about his surgeries and struggles. Theo often woke up screaming, but no one said whether his cries came from pain or nightmares. That knowledge haunted me until my overactive imagination filled in the blanks. I knew too much about the man, and I’d never met him before today. Worse, all I could do about it was put on a happy face.
I stepped back and reached out to touch the soft cotton of Ellie’s new yellow dress. “You look fantastic.” The fabric hugged the curve of her belly, erasing any doubt she was pregnant and not just packing on the pounds.
“Thanks.” She scanned the crowd. “Jake got back late last night,” she whispered. “He picked Theo up at the rehab facility and brought him to their mom’s house.” The lines around Ellie’s mouth deepened. “Jake offered to let Theo stay here, but fortunately, their mom didn’t like that at all. Jake’s optimistic, but I never met Theo before he deployed, you know? I wish I had.” Ellie rubbed her belly. “Theo’s quiet.”
The doorbell chimed, and Ellie hurried off. I used the chance to slip into the bathroom. I flipped the exhaust-fan switch and sighed with relief that the hum muffled the noise of the partygoers. With trembling hands, I turned on the cold water and let the icy stream rush over the insides of my wrists. I took a deep breath and checked my clothes in the mirror.
My new Marc Jacobs jacket covered the basic black T-shirt that hid a waist-contouring camisole. Skinny jeans and burgundy, open-toed heels completed my look. Almost anywhere else in the country, my outfit would’ve been perfect for a casual spring evening.
But not in Texas.
Early May, and the temperatures had already soared into the mid-90s. To make matters worse, my jeans fit tighter than they had the week before. I’d expected they would loosen after I wore them awhile. At least the cut of the jacket hid my growing belly. My secret is safe for another day.
I licked my lips and swallowed the lump in my throat before rejoining the party. The chatter and laughter had risen to competitive levels. I couldn't face trying to fit in, and I fell back into a trance. Theo fumbled around Ellie’s living room, gripping his crutches. One of his arms was heavily bandaged, and he had a thick square of white gauze taped below his ear. But what sent a shiver through me was the sight of his leg. He had only one.
“Come on. I’ll introduce you,” Ellie said from behind me. She hooked her arm through mine and pulled me along. “Theo, this is my friend, Meg Michaels.”
“Hello.” He gave a slight nod, shifting on his crutches to extend his hand to me.
Despite the fact that I’d had my eyes on him for most of the last half hour, I’d failed to notice his hit-the-pause-button good looks. Theo’s injuries drew attention away from his athletic build, but there was no hiding the tall, rock-solid composure. Close-cropped dark hair added to his dangerous edge. But when his full lips lifted into a smile, I could barely stand still at the unexpected warmth that surged through me. That surge skidded to a halt when his brooding eyes locked onto mine.
Theo cleared his throat.
I reached for his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Did he have any idea how much I already knew about him? My face heated, and I felt like a big dummy while he appraised me as though he had all day. Ellie had disappeared, and I didn’t know the proper protocol for socializing with a man I inexplicably felt intimidated by. Not that Theo seemed to mind.
He appeared all too comfortable with silence, but I needed to speak, if he wasn’t going to. So I wouldn’t have to yell over the noise of the party, I leaned into him, despite the fluttering in my chest that made it hard to inhale. “Would you…” Background music and clatter from the growing crowd swallowed my words.
He angled in closer. “What?”
I kept my eyes on his, refusing to glance at any other part of him. “Can I get you something to drink? Do you need anything?” I cringed at my voice—too pitchy, too polite.
He shook his head and looked past me.
I mumbled an excuse about helping out with dinner, stepped away from him, and fled to the back of the house.
Melinda, Ellie’s mother-in-law, darted around the kitchen, yanking covered casserole dishes from the fridge and shoving them in a row along the counter. How had Theo and Jake come from such a trim little woman? Her white hair fell in waves around her flushed cheeks.
“Hey there.” I huffed shallow breaths to fend off the strong aroma of browned butter. My stomach clenched.
“Hi Meg.” Melinda's puffy, dark-ringed eyes surveyed the spread in front of her.
“You’re doing an amazing job, but don’t you want to go sit with Theo?” I wrapped my arm over her shoulders, giving her a squeeze, suddenly aware that no one was looking after her needs. I wasn’t qualified for that job; mothers were not my thing. “Tell me what to do. I’m here to help.”
“Why did I insist Jake and Ellie give Theo a party?” Her voice cracked and her lip trembled, but she continued to work, tearing foil off macaroni and cheese, baked beans, and corn on the cob. “Theo used to be so popular. He always wanted his friends around—they were all so wild—but only a few of them replied to the invitation.” She slammed her hands down on the table and lowered her head. Her pale-blue eyes were wet and red rimmed, but she held back her tears.
“It’s okay. He’s going to be fine,” I promised, even though I had no clue if that were true. “He’s not alone. There are tons of people out there. Ellie invited the staff from the bookstore, and Jake has plenty of wild friends.”
Melinda turned to me, nodding. “You’re right. You know, I accepted what Theo had been through… how he had changed. But that was at the hospital and at rehab where he was surrounded with guys he could relate to, people who were going through the same thing he was. It’s different here.” She blinked, and tears slipped in two straight lines down her face. “Every time I look at a young man I think: Theo should be like that. He shouldn’t have to go through this. It’s not fair.”
“It’s not, and I’m so sorry.” I moved to hug her, but she wiped at her face and turned away from me.
“It’s okay. I’m fine.” She cleared her throat and squared her shoulders. “Theo needs to eat. He has to keep his energy up. Can you man the grill? I can’t do the burgers and do this.”
“Trust me, no one wants me in charge of the grill, but I’ll go find Jake. Are you sure you’re okay?”
She yanked open the silverware drawer and rummaged around, pulling out a collection of serving spoons. “I am. Thank you, Meg.”
I ducked out of the kitchen, wiggled my way around the thirty or so people in the living room, dodged conversations with friends, and found Jake and Ellie whispering together near the front door. Jake’s hand rested on Ellie’s belly, an image I’d seen many times, but today I had to look away.
Watching Jake and Ellie highlighted the loneliness of my pregnancy. I could almost long for Bradley’s return, but since he disliked public displays of affection, I doubted he’d be much of a tummy toucher. I had called off our wedding four months earlier, partly because of his business trips. At first, he’d leave me for a few days or a week at a time. But as his weeks away piled up on each other, that feeling of a shared life fractured. The longer he stayed away, the less we connected when he came home.
Especially once I found out he had plenty of time to spend in the company of another woman.
“Hey, break it up guys,” I said. “Jake, your mom wants you at the grill.”
As he walked by, he patted me on the shoulder, in on my little secret. When one’s best friend gets married, one learns that even the most classified information is going to echo off an extra set of ears. I loved Jake, though, so I was okay with it. Ellie’s man was loyal. I’d trusted him even before she did and had convinced her that she was going to lose a good one if she didn’t give in to love. In the first year of her marriage, Ellie was already four-and-a-half months pregnant.
That was the best part of my mistake. While I might have gotten my single self knocked up, at least my lifelong best friend and soul sister was preggers, too.
“Hey, little momma.” Ellie rubbed her belly, smiling deliberately at mine.
“Shush!” I looked over my shoulder and stuffed my hands in my jacket pockets. “Don’t say that.” I’ve never been a self-conscious person, but since my flat abs had exploded into a telltale pooch two weeks before, I’d been nearly hysterical, feeling as if I were wearing one of those "Baby on Board" T-shirts with a big arrow pointing down.
“Sorry, Meg. I just know everything is going to work out for you.” The warmth in Ellie’s voice triggered a lump in my throat. “Besides, you’ve always got me to lean on.” She squeezed my shoulder.
Scanning the faces in the room, I struggled to breathe. How many of those people thought they knew all about me? I took a step back, but there was no escaping the pressure that rolled over me like a wave pulling me under.
My stomach churned under the unrelenting fear of discovery and the weight of choices before me. The smell of beef cooking on the grill didn’t help. Rising bile in the back of my throat overwhelmed the familiar metallic taste.
“You don’t look good.” Ellie came to my rescue, as always. “Why don’t you lie down in my room for a while? I’ll cover for you.”
“Are you sure? I’m supposed to be helping you.” I took a deep breath, determined to pull myself together, but prickling sweat popped out on my brow.
“Let’s go.” Ellie put her arm around my waist and led me away from the crowd. I looked over my shoulder. Theo was eating from a plate on a TV tray, carefully chewing each bite. Melinda sat next to him looking calm and composed.
After Ellie left, I kicked off my heels and hung my jacket and T-shirt over the chair of her antique vanity in the far corner of the room. The ceiling fan, set to low, spun in lazy circles. I lifted my hair in a twist and looked down at my body. The camisole that used to conceal my belly accentuated the protruding bump. I couldn’t deny the obvious.
There was a baby onboard.
I tugged the hem of my camisole up over my bump and tucked it under my swollen breasts. The snug top stayed where I’d left it. I couldn’t believe someone was in there. Before, every choice I’d ever made was calculated. A few random decisions had changed everything.
The bedroom door banged open, and I jumped, expecting Jake or Ellie. Instead, Theo lumbered in on his crutches and slammed the door behind him.
“Excuse me, do you mind?” I tugged my top in place to cover myself, but Theo’s gaze took in my bare skin. He watched my movements closely and locked the door. For some reason I flushed and grew warmer as he came closer to the bed. Could he want to trap me? Of course, the thought was ridiculous. I was pretty sure my small, five-foot-five-inch, exhausted, knocked-up self could plow through a one-legged boy covered in bandages if I wanted to get out of there badly enough. The thing was—I wanted to stay.
“Give me a break.” He hobbled to the king-size bed without looking at me then propped his crutches against the wall before falling back onto the mattress. “You think you can hide in here all by yourself?” He hauled what was left of the lower half of his body onto the bed. A flash of pain crossed his bronzed face. Closing his eyes, he lay back on the striped navy sham. He ran his good hand through spiky hair the same tawny brown as the week-old scruff on his face. “Hit the light on your way out,” he barked.
“Hey, I was here first, and I was just about to rest there. Ellie told me I could.” I smacked a hand over my mouth. “Wait… I’m sorry. That was rude.”
Theo lifted his head off the pillow, squinting from the overhead light. He peered at me in a slow, thorough inspection that left me fighting not to squirm.
“Well, Jake told me I could crash here. Turn off the light and come on.” He patted the bed next to him. “Forgive me—I didn’t see that you are with child.” He rolled his eyes.
The breath shot out of my lungs, and I wrapped my arms around my stomach as if I could hide the truth. “Stop looking at me,” I said, making my way to the light switch.
Although he’d draped his tan, muscular arm across his forehead, I sensed his eyes tracking me. I pictured my belly growing with each step, the truth transparent. I switched off the lights. The sun was on the other side of the house, and fading afternoon light glowed in the room. I went back around the bed and paused, not sure I really wanted to get in with this hostile-looking guy who had spent recent years surrounded by sand and weapons.
Theo glared sideways at me. “Don’t flatter yourself. I’m not about to make a move on some pregnant chick. Either get in or get out—I don’t care.”
My mouth fell open. “Oh… you think I think…” My voice quivered, so I stopped and tried another tactic. “I don’t…” More quivers. I forced out the only response I could manage. “Whatever.” I snatched my heels off the floor, ready to go home.
“Wait. What are you doing?” Theo scrubbed his hand over his face. “Don’t go.” His tone softened. “I shouldn’t be alone right now.” He was giving me those big, puppy-dog eyes, but I could see his smirk.
“What? Now you want me to stay?” No more quivering. The words flowed when the focus was on him. “What’s with you?” I itched to make a run for it, but even so, he intrigued me.
“Cut a guy some slack, will you? My social graces are rusty.”
“Oh, please! I’ve been warned not to give you anything that might resemble sympathy.”
“I don’t want your pity.” A spark flared in his eyes. “Are you always this sassy, or is your condition playing with your hormones?” He had a full-on grin, his white teeth gleaming.
His audacity got the best of me. “Shut up, or I’m going to take your crutches when I leave.”
My threat only made Theo roar with laughter, infuriating me more.
“You’re a bad girl, teasing a hurt man. Just get in bed—you look tired. I’ll leave, if you really want me to.”
I gave in because he was right: I was worn out. “No, don’t go.” I dropped my shoes, went to the bed, pulled back the covers, and climbed in, staying as far away from him as I comfortably could. “Let’s call a truce. I’ll stay over here, you stay over there.” I settled the plush bedding around me and rolled over to face his direction. The visible side of his body was flawless.
“Fine, but you better not snore or I’m going to flatten a pillow over your head.”
I stifled a giggle. “You’re not at all what I expected.”
He jerked his head toward me, eyeing me suspiciously. “What did you expect?”
“I just thought a war hero would be nice.” I yawned.
“I’m not nice enough for you?” His voice, low and smooth, did nothing to hide his amusement.
I relaxed, sinking in the mattress. “No, you’re a total asshole.”
The bed shook with his laughter. “Well, at least you’re honest, but don’t call me a hero.”
I heard the smile in his tone, but my eyes were closed. I really should have just stayed in bed today, I thought, drifting off to sleep.
My eyes were open before I realized I was awake. Theo, bathed in moonlight, lay stretched out on top of the covers next to me.
“You don’t have a ring on.” He searched my eyes.
“I gave it back when I cancelled the wedding. Bradley wanted me to keep it…” I looked at my bare hand in the dim room. My ring finger felt naked without the karat-and-a-half, princess-cut diamond. Sometimes I still caught myself rubbing the area, searching for the phantom ring. “But I couldn’t.”
“So what, you didn’t want a shotgun wedding?”
“Wait. Bradley’s not the father.” I cringed as soon as the words left my mouth.
His eyes twinkled in the moonlight, and he grinned again.
“So you are a bad girl.”
Claire Ashby was born and raised in the heart of Atlanta. At a young age, she began keeping journals and over time embellished the details of her quiet days. Eventually, she let go of writing reality altogether and delved completely into the world of fiction.
When she’s not reading or writing, she spends her time watching extreme survival shows and taking long walks after nightfall. She has an unnatural love of high places, but still regrets the time she skydived solo. She believes some things are better left to the imagination. She resides in Austin with her family and a pack of wild dogs.
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