“You’re going to be okay, Mia. Let me be okay, too.”
“Fine.” She tucked the firearm under her arm, strode forward and ripped the envelope from his hand. “But you keep out of my life. Don’t ever come back—don’t ever come looking for this child. You’ve given up the right to have anything to do with him.”
Ellis nodded, turned his back and walked quickly to his car. The Mercedes pulled away before Mia even made it back to her truck. Sitting in the cold cab, she tore the envelope open, expecting another of Ellis’s tricks. It was too thin for its contents to amount to much. A few hundred. Maybe a thousand. There was no way—
Mia stared at the cashier’s check she pulled from the envelope.
Two hundred thousand dollars. Ellis had given her two hundred thousand dollars. A wave of dizziness crashed over her as she realized what this meant.
Ellis was out of her life. Forever. But he’d given her the means to do what she’d known for months she’d have to do.
Raise this baby alone.
It was several long minutes before she could start the truck and pull back onto the road. As she drove down through the dark, silent country highway toward the Double-Bar-K, Mia decided she needed a cup of decaf coffee before she could face her day. She wished she could get the caffeinated kind, but she’d have to wait a few more months for that. She bypassed the ranch and headed into town.
She couldn’t sort through her emotions. She was relieved Ellis was gone. She’d lived in fear of being called out for their affair for months, and she knew the minute friends and acquaintances spotted her pregnancy, they’d have a lot to say. With Ellis—and his wife and children—out of the way, the speculation would be easier to bear. Mia would carry her shame for hurting Elaine the rest of her life; she didn’t need everyone in town pointing their fingers at her. She felt hopeful, too. The money he’d given her would go a long way toward raising her baby in comfort. The money brought its own problems, however. Ellis might think Luke would step in and marry her, but she knew better. No man as proud as Luke Matheson would want a pregnant bride. By giving her enough cash to move out from Luke’s spare room, Ellis had unwittingly ended her brief stint in paradise.
Living with Luke had been a dream, the kind you never wanted to awake from, but she’d never slept with the cowboy—only kissed him once. It had been enough for her to be close to him. To get to see him first thing in the morning and last thing before going to bed at night. To fall asleep knowing only a bedroom wall separated them. That proximity had kept her hopes alive.
Now it was time to leave all that behind, and with Ellis’s money, she didn’t even have the excuse anymore that she was too poor to move.
Two hundred thousand dollars.
She wasn’t poor anymore.
She parked on the street near Linda’s Diner, which opened early to suit the hours of the hardworking ranchers who lived in these parts. She found a booth where she could escape notice and smiled gratefully when the waitress, Tracey Richards, poured her a cup of decaf without even being asked.
“No.” Mia thanked her and took a sip of the scalding liquid. She should have known she wasn’t meant for happiness. Men always caused her trouble. Ellis Scranton was only the latest example. She shook her head at the memory of a worse offender—Fred Warner—pushing down the ache of pain it caused. Warner had ruined her beauty pageant career—no great loss except that it had dashed her mother’s hopes of having a beauty queen for a daughter, and ended the closeness between them long before Mia’s indiscretions with Ellis did. Ellis was the root of all her current distress, though. If only she’d never met him!
Mia placed a protective hand over her belly.
No, she’d never wish their relationship away. Not really. If she’d never met Ellis, she wouldn’t have this baby—this baby who already meant the world to her. Yes, in a perfect world, she’d get to have Luke, too, but this wasn’t a perfect world.
“Coffee and a bagel with cream cheese, please.”
Mia looked up at the familiar voice and saw Inez Winter take a seat at one of the tables in the center of the diner. Inez caught her eye and quickly turned away, color staining her pale skin.
Mia looked away just as quickly. She didn’t speak to Inez these days, although they’d once been good friends. Inez had been on the beauty pageant circuit, too. She’d been a contestant in Mia’s last pageant, back when they were both fifteen, but she hadn’t defended Mia when rumors started flying about her and Fred Warner, who was a pageant judge. Inez hadn’t said a word, even though Mia had seen her slip into a supply closet with the man during one of the practice sessions—the same closet he’d tried to lure Mia into before she’d told her mother about him.
Mia bit her lip, swallowing the pain that never quite went away. Inez hadn’t spoken up. None of the other girls had. It had been Mia’s word against Warner’s and Warner won out.
No one believed her when she told them he’d tried to kiss her—tried to touch her. Mia swallowed. The truth—the truth she’d told no one, not even her mother—was that he had touched her. She’d figured out pretty quickly that no one wanted to hear that. Just speaking up about Warner and saying he’d lured her into a closet was enough to start a firestorm that turned all the other contestants against her. At first, her mother though she’d lied, too. Mia had realized that if she told the whole truth—that his hands had gone all kinds of places on her body before she fought him off—everyone would hate her even more.
So she hadn’t said a word.
Mia took a deep cleansing breath and sipped her coffee. All that was years ago. She wasn’t a vulnerable little girl anymore. She was a woman—almost a mother. And now she had enough money to get her own place and begin a new life. She’d be strong for her son or daughter, and she’d always believe them when they told her things. She’d always protect them.
Mia jerked and her coffee spilled over the side of her cup.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Mia looked up into Inez’s serious face. “That’s okay.” Was Inez really talking to her? After six years of silence?
Inez took a shaky breath. “Look, there’s something I should have said to you a long time ago. I want to say it now. Can I sit down?”
Mia nodded, bracing herself for more recriminations. She didn’t know what she’d do if Inez dragged up the past and called her a liar again.