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The clock over the door ticked its steady rhythm, and I took one more look around the room. Time was almost up. Most of the kids were already done with their test and had their heads down on the desk the way I’d instructed them to do when they finished. There were a few who still hastily scribbled away on their papers, and when the bell rang, I expected to see their crestfallen expressions, but it still didn’t make it any easier. I had a handful of kids who tried so hard, but despite all their hard work and all the extra time I put in with them, grade four math just wasn’t clicking. They weren’t going to be happy with their marks. Neither would their parents. The kids took off as soon as the bell rang and I gave them permission to clear out. All except one. I waited a beat before I got up to collect the papers. He sat at the back of the room, staring intently at his paper as if he could change the answers he’d recorded by sheer will. I purposely took my time working my way through the room, giving him all the time I could.
Finally, I couldn’t put it off any longer. “You did good, Conner.” I took his paper and offered him a smile, because it was all I could give him.
“Thanks, Ms. Titan. But if I don’t pass grade four, my dad will kill me and—”
“I have no doubt you’ll pass, Conner. You’ve been working really hard.” And it was true. Conner was a good kid with a huge heart. It hadn’t all clicked for him academically yet, but it would. I had no doubt. He reminded me of Ben at that age. Smart kid, just needed the right motivator. We were getting there. At least with Conner. Ben seemed to be a different story these days. “Now stop worrying about it. You did all you could. Go enjoy your afternoon, okay?”
I knew the second he left the room he’d stop worrying about fractions and start concentrating on whether the ice on the lake was frozen thick enough yet. It seemed to be the prime worry for all the little boys in town—and most of the big ones too.
But not Leo.
My heart both skipped a beat and stopped for a split second. A mixed feeling, to be sure. Because although after five years of waking up in his arms, turning to look into those deep brown eyes, he still made me feel like a teenager in love, it was the twinge of fear that caused me to pause that was new. Well, if I was honest, it’d been there for a while, slowly building. When the seasons changed again, the air grew cold and the snow began to fly, the fear and worry were all I could think about when it came to Leo.
Last winter hadn’t been easy. I’d lived through some impressive Canadian winters in my life, but maybe I’d managed to block out the worst of them, because when the never ending storms came, snowing us into the cabin more than once, even I suffered through the endless cold and long, dark nights. Summer had been too short, as summers always were. But with every day that passed, I watched Leo, and I could see the worry lines around his eyes creasing. And I knew exactly what caused them. The winter winds not only kept business away from the inn, but they kept my active, warm-weather loving husband shuttered indoors. Like a caged animal, he’d spend the next few months pacing the floor, trying to find something to keep him busy when there was nothing he could do that would compare to simply going outside without a parka on.
He hadn’t said anything, at least not to me, but I knew it was weighing on him. If we had another bitter cold season, it wasn’t just the inn that would suffer.
I stuffed my papers into my bag and gathered the last few things I’d need for the evening. I tried to hurry because Ben was supposed to be waiting for me at the front doors. At almost twelve, he wanted so badly to have his freedom and walk home from school with the other boys; at least, that’s what he said around them. Secretly, I think he liked those quiet moments we spent together. It was a few minutes of quiet, just the two of us. At least that’s what I liked to believe and I was hanging onto it.
Not quite a teenager but no longer a boy, Ben constantly struggled for independence and with the insecurity that came with the awkward pre-teen years. It was a continuing battle and one that only escalated as his hormones started to kick in. Almost a teenager. God. The thought continually hit me out of the blue. My baby was going to be a teenager in only a few short years. The age gap between Ben and any future siblings was only getting wider. Not that I wanted it that way. In fact, quite the opposite. My hand instinctively went to my stomach the way it’d been doing more and more for the last few weeks.
Maybe this one would stick?
It was a terrible way to think, but I couldn’t help it. Three miscarriages had taken their toll and I refused to get my hopes up with either the pregnancy or what I hoped beyond hope would be the outcome. It was too painful. Besides, there was nothing to even think about until I took a test and knew either way what I was dealing with. I should have taken the test weeks ago. Maybe even months ago, but my body was less than reliable these days and missing a period wasn’t all that unusual. Besides, secretly I thought that maybe if I ignored it, it would hurt less when the inevitable happened. Again.
By the time I’d fed the class hamster and flicked the lights out, I was running a few minutes late and Ben wasn’t in the hall where he was supposed to meet me.
“Perfect.” I scanned the hall. No Ben.
It was happening more and more. He was using any excuse to take off and leave with his friends. Maybe I was wrong, and he didn’t cherish those quiet moments quite as much as I thought he did. The thought sparked a twinge of pain in my chest. Leo kept telling me I was deluding myself with the fact that Ben was growing up. I wanted to keep him little for a bit longer. It was a losing battle, and I knew it. But it didn’t stop me from trying.
“Are you talking to yourself again?” Liz Walker, who taught the one grade-six class in our small school, came up beside me and nudged me with her elbow. “You know it’s a sign of insanity, right?”
“If you had a pre-teen boy, you’d be going insane, too.”
She threw her head back and laughed. It was a sound that never failed to cheer me up. It was almost impossible to be grouchy or sad when you were surrounded by someone as vivacious as Liz. “I’m surrounded by twelve of them every day, Lex. And just as many pre-teen girls, which is arguably worse. Much worse.”
I shook my head because she had a point.
“But I feel for you,” Liz added. “I really do. It can’t be easy. But Ben’s a good kid. He’ll be okay. Come on, I’ll walk out with you.”
It was a handy thing to be friends with Ben’s teacher, because in the next five minutes, I got an update about his schoolwork, including the assignment he hadn’t handed in. I was fairly positive that Ben wouldn’t agree with me about the convenience of his mother being buddies with his teacher, but it did have its perks.
“I’ll talk to Ben about the story,” I promised Liz as we walked out into the chilly afternoon air. As cool as it was, it wasn’t cold enough to freeze the lake fully. Not yet anyway. It was only mid-November. There was lots of time for the cold to settle in.
Lots of time.
I may not have thought it was very cold, but I had no doubt that Leo was bundled up and next to the fire at the inn, worrying about the cold and money and bookings and pretty much everything that was out of his control. And a number of things that were in his control. But he’d worry anyway, because that seemed to be more and more what he did lately. He’d been way too stressed out lately, and not for the first time I wished I could give him a reprieve from the stress. Even for a little while.
My hand went to my stomach again and I bit my lip.
I looked down the street in the direction where Ben would have gone with his buddies. It was a long walk home, considering we lived out of town, in the area that was thought primarily of as the renters’ cottages. And it was, too, but that’s why I liked it so much. It was quiet. With no real neighbors for most of the year, it was almost as if we lived all on our own. Besides that, it had been Uncle Ray’s special place for years, and I’d never sell it.
After Uncle Ray died, the cabin was the only real connection Ben and I had to him.
Of course, the house hadn’t been designed to be lived in year round—well, it hadn’t really been designed to be lived in at all. It had been built as a cabin, a summer retreat.
The insulation was just another concern that Leo was probably worrying about. We’d talked about replacing the windows before the snow flew and getting some better insulation sprayed into the walls to help keep the house warm and cut down on our heating bill. I’d been tucking away money for the last few years, and then there was our savings, a small inheritance that Uncle Ray had left us. But I didn’t want to touch it. Either way, I knew we had enough by now but I hated to bring it up, because although he’d never say anything, I knew Leo didn’t want to put more money into winterizing the house. I think secretly he hoped I would wake up one morning and decide it was too cold in the Canadian Rockies and we should move.
Not that the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. Because it had. Sure, I loved the lake. There were a lot of memories here. It was Uncle Ray’s house, but that was the problem, too. It was Uncle Ray’s house. We’d lived in the cottage for almost five years, but despite spending all that time there, it still didn’t seem like our place yet. To be fair, I probably hadn’t tried hard enough. The years had been busy. Leo spent all his time at the Lake Lillian Inn, transforming it into a thriving business and for me, building up a whole curriculum for grade four from scratch took time. Let alone getting Ben adjusted to his entirely flipped upside-down life. He’d adjusted much better than I’d expected to finding out his father wasn’t really his father and Leo, a man he’d just met, was his father and we were in love and moving to the lake. It was a lot for anyone, let alone a little boy. But he was resilient and not only had he adjusted, he’d thrived.
Despite that, we still hadn’t settled in and the problem was I’d been using the same excuses for years and that’s all they were.
God, she was beautiful.
Even bundled up in that thick black coat of hers that I hated so much, she looked amazing as she walked through the doors of the Lake Lillian Inn. I flipped my laptop shut, tossed it to the couch next to me and left the warmth of the fire where I’d been working on some new marketing ideas to greet the love of my life properly.
I pulled her close and swallowed whatever it was she was going to say with a kiss. But I could never only have a taste of Lexi. It was never enough. With one hand keeping her close, I unbuttoned just enough of that dammed coat to slip a hand inside and onto her sexy curves. She moaned. Just a little, and only so I could hear, but it was all the encouragement I needed. There wasn’t much I could do about it in the foyer of the inn, but when we got home…
My hand slipped around to run down the swell of her breasts and rest on her stomach, just over the line of her belt. And just like that, the kiss was over. Lexi pulled away, that look on her face. The look I couldn’t stand because it reminded me just how much she was hurting. I should have known better. Ever since the last miscarriage, she would barely let me look at her stomach, let alone touch it.
“It’s fine.” She straightened her hair and tightened her coat around her. There was a smile on her face, but it was tight and forced. Not the smile I wanted to see. “I’m sorry to bother you, but…” She glanced around, likely to see whether anyone was there to overhear us, but it was November, one of the slowest months at the inn, despite every effort I’d made with marketing. Bump season, the time between the summer and winter seasons, was one of the hardest challenges I’d ever had to overcome managing a hotel. Of course, there was no bump season in Vegas. A lot of things were different in the Canadian Rockies. Including my family.
“You’re not bothering me.” I took her hand and led her to the couches in front of the fire where I’d been working. “You know I love it when you visit. How was school? Where’s Ben?”
Her face shifted again, and instead of sitting, she popped back up and paced. “I was hoping he’d be here.”
“He didn’t wait for me again, and I assumed he’d be at home after walking with his buddies. But he’s not and well, I was hoping he’d be here with you.”
I could count on one hand how many times Ben had come to the inn on his own to hang out with me in the last year. He used to ride his bike down the gravel roads to spend time with me whenever he could. I’d had him painting, cleaning, hauling boxes, you name it. Ben loved helping out. Or at least, he had. Now that he was in grade six, things were different. But it was perfectly normal. Or at least that’s what Lexi told me. I really had no idea. “He’s not here.” I shrugged. Lexi got a lot more worked up about these things than I did. It was a small town, and Ben was a kid. He’d be fine; it was all part of growing up. Hell, when I was his age, I was by myself most of the time. I definitely didn’t have a mom hovering over me, worrying about where I was every second of the day. Ben was old enough to hang out with his friends. In fact, I encouraged it. Not that I was about to suggest that to Lexi.
At least not at the moment. I was smarter than that. There was definitely a time and a place to mention things like that. And it wasn’t right then.
“I’m sure he’s fine, Lex. He probably just forgot to tell you he was going to Marcus’s house. You know boys, they’re pretty forgetful and—”
“He should have told me.” Lexi spun around again. “He knows I worry and I think it’s more than that. Something’s going on.”
“What do you mean?”
She turned to look at me. Her hair flipped over her shoulder; the sight distracted me for a moment, but only a moment. “I talked to Liz today,” she said. “She was telling me Ben didn’t hand in a short story assignment. That’s not like him at all,” Lexi continued. “Ben doesn’t blow off homework. He just doesn’t.”
“He’s a pre-teen boy.”
“That’s not an excuse.”
“No. But it’s the reality.”
Lexi shook her head and turned away to look out the window. “No. It’s not our reality. I refuse to allow Ben to flunk grade six.”
I went up behind her and rubbed my hands up and down her arms. She still hadn’t taken off that jacket, and I had to fight to keep from doing it for her, but there’d be time for that later. For the moment, calming her down was way more important. When Lexi got worked up, she could really get herself going. And I knew Ben was fine. Of course he was. “He’s not going to flunk grade six. He’s a smart kid.”
“Is he?” She spun in my arms and I caught her tight. “Is he really? Do smart kids blow off assignments? No. It’s not like him, Leo. It’s not like him at all.”
I couldn’t disagree with that. It wasn’t like Ben to ignore homework. He was a good kid who got good grades. Something was definitely up with him. I just didn’t know what. But I would. After dinner, I’d take Ben for a walk with the dog and we’d get to the bottom of things. I told Lexi as much.
“That’s good, Leo. It is, but…”
There was more going on with her. Something she wasn’t saying. And for a moment, I thought she was going to tell me, but then her mouth closed and her lips pressed into a line, the way it was more and more these days. “No but.”
Her smile was sweet and even though I didn’t believe her for a second, I smiled and pulled her close to press a kiss to her forehead. “Okay, babe. Are you headed home? Or do you want to stick around?”
She shook her head and rebuttoned her coat. “No, I should get going. I have tests to grade and I need to stop at the store and…”
“And? What do you need? If you have work to do, I can stop for you. Just give me a list.”
Her face transformed into a beautiful smile that lit up her whole face. I knew just how much it meant to her when I offered to run the simple errands for her. It was no big deal for me, but for her…well, if I could do anything to put that smile on her face, I would. Every time.
“Just a few things,” she started. “Milk, some fruit, and—you know what?” The smile fell from her face and she shook her head hard. “I’ll go.”
“Seriously, it’s no bother. I wanted to talk to Seth about taking on some more hours, anyway. It’s no trouble.” Seth and his wife, Enid, ran the general store, but after convincing Seth to quit teaching and come work for me at the inn last year, he had been taking on more and more jobs for me, and I know he had real potential to manage things in my absence. Not that I had an absence planned or anything, but a holiday would definitely be a good idea and I was determined that this would be the year that Lexi and I got away. Maybe we could even take Ben to Vegas and show him where we met….
“I got it, Leo.”
I returned my attention to Lexi in time to see her turn and head for the front door. “I’ll just pop in and meet you at home, okay?”
“If you’re sure.”
I bit my tongue because there was absolutely no point in pushing her if she didn’t want to be pushed. Instead, I grabbed her arm and pulled her into me to give her a kiss that left nothing to the imagination. “I look forward to seeing you later,” I whispered in her ear before I sucked her lobe into my mouth the way I knew would send a thrill through her entire body.
She gave me a sexy smile that promised of more later, but when she finally turned and slipped out the front door, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that not only was our son going through something I was going to have to figure out, but so was his mother.