“You are having a baby soon.”
Mia tried not to take it personally, but it really bothered her that no one thought her wedding planner idea was worth a try. No one but Rose, that was. “Don’t you think I can do both?”
Hannah shrugged. “Maybe. But Luke’s going to inherit a quarter of the Double-Bar-K eventually. Think of the lifestyle he could give you and your baby.”
“Jake’s going to inherit, too, but that hasn’t stopped you from pursuing your dreams. Why doesn’t anybody think I can do this? What is it? Am I stupid? Naïve?”
“You’re twenty-one. You’re pregnant. You barely graduated from high school.” Hannah ticked the reasons off on her fingers.
Mia reared back. “Hey! It’s okay for me to say that about myself. It’s not okay for you to go on about it.”
“You asked me a direct question and I gave you a direct answer. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but the way you act is the way people perceive you, Mia. If you go around dressing like a teenager, people will treat you like a teenager. If you make mistakes, like it or not you’ll be judged for those mistakes.”
Mistakes. She’d sure made a lot of them, and she’d suffered for every one. Which was exactly why she’d called Inez and told her she wouldn’t take part in her campaign to get Warner off the beauty pageant judge circuit. Inez hadn’t been happy, of course. Her final words had stayed with Mia all morning, flooding her with shame. “I get it. No one stuck up for you when Warner hurt you. I guess you think you don’t need to stick up for anyone else.”
All she’d get for speaking up would be more judgment, though, and people were judging her enough. Just wait until her belly was as big as Autumn’s had been. The whole town would be talking about her.
Mia scrambled to her feet and made a show of looking at her watch. “You’ll be late getting back to work. Thanks for all your help.”
Hannah sighed. “I’m not trying to be a bitch, Mia. I’m trying to help. If you want to be taken seriously, you need to be serious. Go ahead and prove everyone wrong. I’d like that more than anything. And for what it’s worth, I think you do have what it takes to be a wedding planner, but only if you take it seriously. Stop trying to be such a beauty queen all the time and be a grownup instead.”
Be a grownup. Wasn’t that what she was trying to do? Didn’t grownups provide for themselves? Didn’t they stand up for themselves, too?
Don’t they stand up for others? a small voice inside asked. She pushed the thought away. She couldn’t take on Warner right now—she just couldn’t.
Mia kept quiet as she showed Hannah to the door, then returned to her room to unpack the bag Hannah had brought. The room was small but pleasant, with a queen-sized bed, desk, dresser and its own bathroom. Its window overlooked pastures that sloped off down to Chance Creek, but at the moment even the gorgeous view couldn’t lift Mia’s spirits.
She thumped the suitcase down on top of the bed and unzipped it, but before she started unpacking she trailed across the room to look in the mirror above the dresser. As much as she hated to admit it, Hannah was right; she did dress young for her age. Today she looked like a teenager, and a rather sullen teenager at that. The beauty queen remark was completely unfair though. She grimaced at her reflection. Or maybe not. It was true she never left the house before she put on her makeup and pulled her waist-length sleek, black hair up into her signature high ponytail. She knew the deceptively schoolgirl look left it swishing seductively with her every movement. Knew too that ponytail fascinated men. She wore clothes that accentuated her figure. She always had. She’s not too bright, but she’s a looker. How many times had someone said that about her? Or her favorite: Don’t worry about your grades, honey; that figure will land you a good husband.
People were right; she’d never done terribly well at school. Her pageant schedule kept her too busy to study much. By the time that ended she had other things on her mind. She was sure she could have done much better if she’d applied herself, but maybe not. She frowned at her reflection. Maybe she was as dumb as everyone thought.
No. She wasn’t going to talk herself down anymore; she had plenty of other people to do that. She had a baby to care for now, which meant it was time to get her act together. Hannah was right. If she wanted people to take her seriously, she needed a new look. She could spend just a little of Ellis’s money on that, couldn’t she?
She met her own gaze in the mirror and nodded firmly. Yes, she could.
Mia hadn’t come home.
Luke sat on the sofa in the dark in the cabin’s small living room. Once he’d arrived home, exhausted from rushing through his chores, then going to help Amanda Stone with hers, he’d parked himself there, expecting Mia to arrive any minute and explain where she’d been. He hadn’t believed it when she never came home the night before. He’d barely slept a wink, pacing the living room floor until all hours. He’d spent all day hoping she’d finally appear so they could make up, then maybe go out to dinner like he’d planned, or skip all that and go straight to bed. He’d meant to carefully explain his reservations about her wedding planner idea, but tell her he was prepared to be supportive.
He never got the chance. Mia was through with him.
His phone rang at nine and he jumped to answer it, only to find Ethan on the line.
“She’s here,” he said simply. “Thought you’d want to know. She’s packed enough to stay a while.”
Luke couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought to check Mia’s room. Had she snuck back in while he was doing his chores to pack her things? He’d been so sure this was a temporary setback. If he was honest, he’d admit he didn’t think she’d have the guts to leave him for good—not in her situation. In his mind he’d built a whole daydream in which she was the helpless maiden and he was the savior on a big, white horse. Turned out Mia didn’t want saving.
At least not yet.
She’d change her mind, though. She had to. How would she manage once she’d had her baby if he wasn’t there to support her? How would she pay for childcare when her job at the restaurant paid minimum wage? Even if she didn’t love him, she’d see what he had to offer her. A good home. A secure job.
Luke surged up off the sofa and paced the room. He didn’t want her to need him—he wanted her to want him. To love him back as much as he loved her. What if she’d thought it over and decided she didn’t? Fifteen minutes later, his mind no clearer, he entered the kitchen and opened the fridge. He hadn’t eaten dinner—hadn’t had time. When he spotted the neatly stacked storage containers of leftovers from the last meal Mia cooked, his heart sunk. What if she never came back?