I followed her, inhaling the familiar apple and cinnamon scent that was faintly shadowed by something that reminded me of vanilla. “Pound cake?”

She glanced over her shoulder, winking. “You bet.”

My stomach grumbled happily.

Mom always walked fast, like there weren’t enough minutes in a day, and most certainly did not look like she was a few years shy of fifty as she moved through the house. She had me and married young, at age twenty-four. Thinking that drove home the fact that I was twenty-three and I—

My mouth dried as I shook the thought out of my head. I looked like my mom. Her black hair was cut shorter, though, brushing her shoulders, and there were more fine, delicate lines at the corners of cornflower blue eyes and near her lips. She wasn’t as tall as I was, as my height was something I’d picked up from my father, but my mom was beautiful.

And I knew she had to have guys lining up to be with her, both those younger and older than her, but she didn’t date, and I knew she never would.

The kind of love my parents had felt for each other defied reality.

A pound cake was cooling on a rack near the stove, and I could practically feel my mouth starting to water as Mom picked up a knife. “How was the drive?” she asked, slicing into the cake. “Did you have any trouble?”

“Not bad.” I sat at the same kitchen table where I’d grown up eating evening meals. “It probably would’ve been under three hours if I hadn’t hit traffic.”

Mom placed a plate in front of me, along with a fork. A second later a glass of milk appeared, and I was suddenly thrust back into a time when there was so very little to worry about. Tears burned the back of my throat, and I blinked my eyes rapidly as I cut into the cake.

She sat down beside me, a cup of coffee in her hands. Within a heartbeat, Loki jumped up into her lap. “I was surprised when you said you were coming home. I wasn’t expecting to see you until Thanksgiving.”

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With my mouth full with buttery goodness, I raised a shoulder in a shrug.

Mom eyed me as she sipped her coffee, careful not to disturb the dog curled in her lap. As I concentrated on finishing off the pound cake, I knew my mom was figuring me out just by watching me. She could read me like I had all my secrets written on my forehead. She knew something was up, and I also knew she wouldn’t beat around the bush, waste time with banal conversation.

And she didn’t.

“You look really tired, honey.” She lowered her cup. “You haven’t been sleeping well.”

Sleeping this past week had been hard. I’d go to bed with my thoughts in so many different places that I’d wake up several times throughout the night, my mind racing as if I hadn’t been asleep at all.

“Is it work?” she asked.

I placed the fork on the empty plate. “Work is fine, perfect actually. It’s a good job, and I’m happy with it.”

“Then what’s going on?” Mom’s lips curved slightly. “I know something is. The moment you called me, I did. You don’t live in a different time zone, but a three hour drive isn’t a walk in the park.”

Taking a drink of the cold milk, I leaned back in the chair. I lifted my gaze and my eyes met hers. “Do I really look that bad?”

“You don’t look bad, honey, but you look tired.” She paused, her hand absently smoothing over the top of Loki’s head. “And you sounded stressed when you called me.”

My stomach churned, and I wasn’t sure if it was due to the infamous morning sickness or just nerves, because I came down to see my mom so I could tell her the truth, so I could get grounded and hear her advice. This was probably going to be one of the biggest bombs I would ever drop on her, and I felt sick.

“Stephanie?”

Reaching up with a shaky hand, I tucked my hair back behind my ear. “There is a reason why I’m here. Not that I didn’t want to see you.”

Her smile turned wry. “Uh-huh.”

“But I need your . . . advice.” I could feel my lower lip start to tremble. “I need your help.”

She sucked in a sharp breath. “Okay. Now I’m starting to freak out a little.”

I clamped my hands together in my lap, because I was also starting to freak out a little. Well, I was quaking inside, so I was freaking out a lot. I stared at my bleached white knuckles and forced my hands to relax. “I . . . I’m pregnant.”

Silence.

So much so, you could hear a cricket sneeze.

It stretched so long that I had to look up and see her reaction, and when I did, she was simply staring at me. Her eyes were wide, her lips were parted. Blood had drained from her face, and her hand had stilled along the dog’s back.

“I’ve messed up,” I whispered, close to tears. “I know I have. I should have . . . well, I was careful. He was careful, but I missed pills and the condom must’ve broken.” My cheeks started to heat, and even though I’d always been open with my mom, this was an awkward conversation. “I took three tests,” I rambled on. “All three of them said I was pregnant, so I know . . . I know I’m pregnant. I’ve been feeling sick and I’ve been tired and I . . . I messed up.”

“Oh, honey.” Mom snapped out of it. Leaning over, she managed to keep Loki in her lap while she squeezed my arm fondly. “You didn’t mess up. Getting pregnant is not messing up.”

Sure as hell didn’t feel like the opposite. “He’s not my boyfriend,” I said bluntly, needing her to know the whole picture. “We were together . . . once.”

Understanding seeped into her features as she got what I was saying. Pregnant due to a one-night stand. How . . . how cliché. She blinked once and then twice. “It happens,” she said slowly, as if she was still processing everything. Her hand squeezed my arm again. “More than people realize, it happens.”

Yeah, but I never thought it would happen to me.

Famous last words.

“You know that your father and I weren’t married before I got pregnant with you,” she said after a moment. “Things don’t always work out as planned.”

I wanted to smile, because I knew she was trying to make me feel better about this. “But you two were together and you were in love and—”

“And none of that is required to have a baby, hon. It’s nice. It’s what we all hope for—what I hoped for when it came to you—but it’s not always what happens.”

I stared at the scratched surface of the table, my voice barely above a whisper when I spoke. “Are you . . . are you disappointed?”

“Honey, why would I be disappointed?”

A strangled laugh rattled out of me as I leaned forward, running my finger along the grooves in the table. “Um, maybe because I’m twenty-three and I’m pregnant . . . and I’m single.”

“Could be worse.”

I arched a brow.

“You could be sixteen and this could be happening. Or you could be sick instead,” she said, her gaze steady and serious. “You know, Stephanie, things could be worse.”

I thought of the knock on our door nine years ago. “You’re right.”

She exhaled slowly and then patted my arm before picking up her coffee. She took a huge gulp, and all I could think was there wasn’t enough caffeine in the world to deal with this. “Do you know what you are going to do?”