Her sadness at the thought nearly bowled her over.
Where would she be for Christmas? In a hotel? Or some new, tiny rental apartment on the other side of town?
Pressing her lips together she made herself keep walking.
“Hey, stranger, how is it going?” Autumn asked when she spotted Hannah. “Your mail is on the counter, by the way.”
Hannah hesitated when she saw she’d stumbled in on a Cruz ranch meeting. Ethan, Autumn, Jamie, Claire, Rose, Cab, Morgan, and even Rob with his still-bandaged shoulder sat around the dining room table with a laptop and papers in between them. She knew the four couples met at least once a week to go over things. Since all of them owned part of the ranch, they all had a say in how it was run. Hannah had been here long enough to know their disagreements could get heated, but they generally worked them out.
“Um… fine.” She headed for the counter.
“Fine?” Rob echoed. “Uh oh, what’s my brother done wrong now?” A tall man, with the same blond hair and blue eyes as Jake, he watched her with a smile.
“Not so much your brother,” she said, “Your father, on the other hand…”
“My father can drive anyone crazy,” Rob said.
“What did he do?” Morgan asked.
Hannah sighed and slowed her pace. “It’s just that he… has some strong ideas.”
Rob roared with laughter and the others exchanged amused grins. “You don’t say,” he choked out when he got control of himself.
“Ideas about what?” Autumn’s eyes were bright with curiosity.
“Let me guess,” Rob said. “Marriage. He’s got some scheme to marry you off to Jake and get an heir, right?”
Hannah’s mouth dropped open. “How did you…?”
“He’s my father,” Rob said. “And Jake is my older brother. I’m sure he’s in on it, too. You think Jake is going to wait around to marry now that I have? He’s never let me win any race. I bet it’s killing him I beat him to the altar and I’m the first to have a kid.” He put a hand on Morgan’s belly and smiled. “Wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Jake knocked you up on your first date just to get back at me.”
Hannah nearly tripped, but she caught herself with a hand on the edge of the kitchen counter. She picked up the pile of envelopes there and pretended to study them.
“Hannah?” Morgan asked tentatively when the silence Rob’s statement brought stretched out too long. “You’re being awfully quiet.”
“I’m not interested in marriage right now.” Hannah hoped her tone was even. “I want a career. I’ve decided to go back to school.”
Another silence greeted this statement, until Autumn got up from her seat and came around the table to join her. “I wondered what was in that fat envelope from Montana State.” She pulled it from the bottom of the pile in Hannah’s hands and waved it.
“You’re going to college? Good for you. Women need to nurture their passions.” Claire stood up, too, her sleek black bob swinging. She came to join Hannah and Autumn.
“Well? Open it! See what it says.” Autumn pushed the envelope into Hannah’s hands.
“It’s just some information.” But she couldn’t help herself. When she opened the envelope she found a course catalog and all sorts of information for incoming students. She had seven weeks to register and prepare. She held the paperwork up. “Time to pick out my classes!”
Autumn ran to fetch glasses and a bottle of juice so they could toast her success; there were too many pregnant women present to use anything stronger. Hannah was ushered to the table where everyone took turns looking through the contents of the packet.
“It says you’ll get a separate envelope with financial aid information,” Claire said. “You know there are lots of scholarships for adult learners. Do your research. You shouldn’t pay a dime more than you have to.”
“I will,” Hannah assured her. She didn’t say that Bella had already offered to help. She still felt shy about that fact. She was accustomed to paying her own way in life.
“What are you studying, anyway?” Jamie said. “You never told us.”
All eyes turned her way and Hannah’s confidence drained away. “I want to be a veterinarian. Like Bella,” she said.
The room fell quiet and she saw Autumn exchange a glance with Claire.
“How many years of school is that?” Morgan said.
“Four and a half for me,” Hannah said. She thought she heard the words they didn’t say: How would she manage that? Was she smart enough to be a vet? Was she overreaching herself?
“What does Jake think about that?” Rob asked.
“He thinks I should forget it and just marry him. He wants me to keep to the ranch.”
“So he does want to marry you,” Autumn said slowly. “Being a rancher’s wife is great, but you can be more than one thing. I run a guest house. Claire’s an interior decorator. Morgan’s going to head up a winery. Why can’t you do both?”
Rob spoke up. “Look, one thing about the Mathesons is once we get an idea into our heads it’s hard to shift us. Hard, but not impossible. Stick to your guns. In the end Jake will come around.”
“You really think so?”
Rob hesitated just long enough to undo all the confidence his words had instilled in her. “I hope so.”
The drive to DelMonaco’s seemed to take longer than usual, but once she was seated in a booth across from Jake in the noisy restaurant, their menus in front of them, Hannah relaxed a little. As he scanned his menu she found herself watching his hands. The way he held the laminated rectangle of plastic. The way he fiddled with his silverware. He had square palms and long, blunt fingers. And she knew from experience exactly how they could make her feel.
A little shiver coursed through her.
“Are you cold?” Jake asked. She hadn’t thought he was paying her any attention.
“No, I’m fine. What are you having?”
“Manicotti.” He tossed the menu down. “You?”
“Chicken parmesan.” She cast about for something else to say. “Thanks for asking me here. It’s a nice change.”
“Figured you could use a break.” He bent forward. “The way you’ve worked so hard to keep the cabin straight and the way you’ve been cooking—it means the world to me.”