Kids by Christmas (reprint)
Harlequin Superromance (January, 2016)
Adopting one child is challenge enough for a single woman like Suzanne Chauvin. Now that she has the chance to adopt a brother and sister who shouldn't be separated, she has to keep her life as simple as possible.
Which means she doesn't have time for an added complication in the form of her neighbor Tom Stefanec. Tom knows too much about Suzanne's past…and she knows nothing about his.
She had no reason to be depressed. None whatsoever. Especially after having spent a nice Thanksgiving yesterday with her sister, Carrie, and Carrie's family.
Suzanne Chauvin pulled into her driveway, the trunk of her car full of groceries, but didn't move even though she'd turned off the engine.
It's the gloom, she told herself. This was her least favorite time of year, with the days so short she left the house every morning in darkness and didn't go home until after dark, too. And these past few weeks had been particularly rainy, even by Pacific Northwest standards. The drizzle and gray seemed unending.
But Christmas was coming, Suzanne reminded herself, and it would be even better than Thanksgiving. This year would be special, even if she hadn't heard from the adoption agency. Special because it would be the first Christmas spent with her sister and brother since she was six years old and their family had been torn apart after their parents were killed in a car accident.
So there. She had every reason in the world to be cheerful. She'd found her younger brother and sister after years of searching, had reunited with them and liked them both, had rejoiced when in turn they'd both fallen in love. Carrie was married now, to the private investigator Suzanne had hired to find her, and Gary was planning a wedding right after Christmas.
Suzanne's business was going well, too. She'd opened a yarn shop in downtown Edmonds this past year, and despite her trepidation had been overwhelmed by support from area knitters. With Christmas shoppers in force today, her receipts had been the second highest since she'd opened.
Maybe she was just tired. She was working six days a week, plus doing the books on her one day off.
Once the agency calls me and I have a little girl or boy of my own, I'll cut back, she promised herself.
If they ever called.
Chilly now after sitting so long in the car in her own driveway, Suzanne finally sighed, grabbed her purse and keys and got out.
Forget adopting a child so that she finally had a family of her own. Her mood could have been improved by something a whole lot more modesthaving an automatic garage door opener. And a garage that actually had room for her car to be parked inside it.
Which only required the time to hold a garage sale, and the money to buy and have someone install the opener.
For once, she didn't give a thought to her next-door neighbor, even though she usually sneaked a glance at his house to prepare herself in case he was out front. Not that Tom Stefanec was stalking her or anything like that. He just made her uncomfortable. And she preferred to avoid him when possible. But he'd be eating dinner by now, not hanging around outside on a damp night.
The little lever beside her seat no longer unlatched her trunk. Heck, she was lucky the car was still running. She went around back to manually unlock the trunk, hitched her purse over her shoulder and reached for the first bag.
"Need a hand with those groceries?"
At the voice from behind, she jerked her head up and rammed it against the trunk lid. Tears sprang into her eyes. Swearing, she let the grocery bag go and rubbed the bump she could already feel rising.
"I'm sorry," Tom said, stepping closer. His voice had roughened in contrition. "I startled you. Are you okay? I can get you some ice "
Suzanne blinked away the tears. "No, I'll be okay. I just didn't see you."
A big, powerfully built man, he had a rough-hewn face that wasn't ugly but was far from handsome. The combination of porch light and streetlight cast shadows on his face, accenting cheekbones and a nose that looked like it had been broken at some point.
"Sorry," he said again. "I should have realized you wouldn't see me coming. I have a package for you. The UPS guy left it with me since you weren't home."
Head throbbing, she said, "Really?" A package? She wasn't expecting anything.
He handed it over, and after a glance at the return address label, Suzanne said with pleasure, "Oh, it must be my new pattern!"
"Pattern?" he asked.
"I sell knitting and crochet patterns for publication. I work out designs, mostly for kids, like sweaters with flowers or horses or whatever on the front."
He nodded, apparently satisfied by this explanation. "Congratulations on the new one. You must be really creative."
Pleased despite her headache, the drizzle that had begun anew and her weariness, Suzanne said, "Thanks."
"I'd be glad to give you a hand with those groceries."
No way she was letting him in her front door, especially since she'd been so busy over Thanksgiving weekend she hadn't done her usual thorough housecleaning.
Tom was Neat didn't cover it. Obsessive-compulsive? Maybe not certifiable, but close. Suzanne was quite sure his garage floor was cleaner than her kitchen counters. His lawn looked better than her living-room carpet. His flower beds were tidier than her coffee table. She was afraid to see what the inside of his house was like.
"No, I'm fine, but thank you," she said, once again gathering plastic grocery bags.
He bent his head in acknowledgment and melted into the darkness. But then, barely visible, he paused.
"Any word on the adoption?"
"No." She awakened every morning thinking, Maybe today, and went to bed every night thinking, Maybe tomorrow. But she was afraid the loss of her caseworker at the adoption agency would mean delays. Rebecca Wilson had resigned to move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and at some point in the near future marry Suzanne's brother Gary. Suzanne was very glad to welcome her into the family; she liked Rebecca. She just wished Rebecca had waited to quit until after she'd found a child for Suzanne to adopt.
"Oh. Well, good luck," her neighbor said courteously, at last leaving her alone.
Suzanne made two trips to carry her bags into the house. Then she made herself put away the frozen and refrigerated food before she opened the package and took out twenty copies of a pattern she'd designed last spring for a sweater that could be knit in any children's size from 2T to 6T, as well as preteen sizes. The photo on the front of the glossy booklet showed three children modeling the sweater in different colors. She'd knit all three herself. Fish leaped across the front. A toddler boy wore the sweater in aqua with a single red fish. A girl a few years older wore it in white with two fish in sea foam green, while a preteen wore the longer, slouchier version with smaller red fish on black. They'd come out really cute, and she thought the pattern would be popular. She'd order it right away to sell in her own shop, open only a few months.
This probably wasn't the world's best timing for adopting a child, not with the hours she was putting in getting the business off the ground. And especially not with money so tight. But Suzanne didn't want a baby. She'd asked for an older child, one who needed her. She would manage financially, just like other parents did.
Rebecca had hoped she'd have one by Christmas, but here it was, the twenty-fourth of November, and she hadn't heard a peep from the agency.
Quit obsessing, she ordered herself. It would happen. She'd been approved. Somewhere there was a child who would become a Chauvin who was probably, right this minute, scared and wondering what would happen to her. Or maybe him, although Suzanne thought that as a single woman she was probably better suited to raising a girl.
Darn it, she'd revel in Christmas this year whether she had a child by then or not. Being with her brother and sister would be enough.
Their parents had died when Suzanne was six, Lucien three and Linette just a baby. Suzanne had stayed with their aunt and uncle, but Lucien and Linette had been taken away to be adopted. This year, finally, Suzanne had been able to let go of the awful sense of loss she'd lived with for twenty-five years.
She'd found them. Mom had always said, "You're the big sister, Suzanne. You take care of your little brother and sister." She hadn't been able to, not then, and had suffered irrational guilt as well as loss. But just this fall, all three had finally been together again, and they would be on Christmas Day. And she and Carrie would be there to see Gary marry.
Best of all, their family now included Carrie's husband, his son and parents, and Carrie's adoptive parents. It was going to be quite a crowd at Carrie's house in Seattle. Every time she thought about it, Suzanne got tears in her eyes.
She had fulfilled that long-ago promise to herself to reunite the three of them. She'd started forging a satisfying life for herself by quitting her job and opening Knit One, Drop In, her yarn shop. Remarriage clearly wasn't in the near futurein fact, after the disaster her marriage had been, she wasn't all that interested in the possibility. But she did want children. And adopting one Well, she thought she could once and for all lay to rest that irrational guilt. She could do for some little girl or boy what she hadn't been able to for her sister and brother. For her, that would be every bit as fulfilling as bearing her own child.
She'd jumped through every hoop the agency held up. Now, she was just waiting.
But the answering-machine light wasn't blinking, and the phone was silent. Another day closer to Christmas, and the bedroom down the hall stayed empty.
The phone did ring Monday morning just as she was going out the door. Laden with her purse, her lunch and two knitting bags, one of which held the sweater she was currently knitting for Michael, Carrie's stepson, and the other a project she intended to teach in her morning class, Suzanne hesitated with the front door open. For goodness sake, the caller was probably a telemarketer! But if Carrie or Gary was calling this early, it might be important. So, with a sigh, she closed the door, set down her lunch and one knitting bag and went back to pick up the phone on the last ring before voice mail turned on.
"Hello." The voice was a woman's, and unfamiliar. "May I speak to Suzanne Chauvin?"
What was she sellingaluminum siding or cellphone service?
"Speaking," Suzanne said warily.
"Oh, I'm so glad I caught you! Rebecca Wilson passed your file to me."
She kept talking, but Suzanne didn't hear a word. Her heart was drumming too loudly. It was the adoption agency. At last.
"I'm sorry," she said into a pause. "I didn't catch your name?"
The woman's laugh was pleasant. "I don't blame you! It's Melissa Stuart. I worked with Rebecca, and she asked that I take your file rather than it going to her replacement. I gather you're to be sisters-in-law."
"Yes, that's right." Sick with anticipation, she reined in her impatience. This new caseworker might be assessing her despite Rebecca's recommendation. She couldn't be crazy and scream Get to the point! "Mine was the best home study Rebecca ever did. I'm pretty sure she didn't expect to fall in love that day."
Another laugh. "No, I'll bet she didn't. Well. I'm sure you're wondering why I'm calling."
"Rebecca had noted that you might consider taking siblings, not just a single child. I have a brother and sister right now who need to stay together, and I was hoping to discuss them with you. Might we be able to get together?"
A brother and sister. Two children, not just one.
"I. How old are they?"
"The boy is seven and his sister ten."
Would they want to share a bedroom? Suzanne wondered. Or would they each need their own? Well, of course their own eventuallyno teenage girl could share with a bratty little brother. But for now?
Wait! she ordered herself. She didn't know anything about them. What had happened to their parents, how traumatized they were, or whether they had special needs she couldn't meet, not with the long hours she had to put in with a new business.
She was getting ahead of herself.
"When did you have in mind?" she asked.
"The sooner the better," Ms. Stuart said. "I'd be free at three this afternoon if you can get away, or " She paused. "Let me see. Eleven tomorrow morning."
She couldn't wait until tomorrow morning. Her afternoon beginner's class ended at 2:50. If she could get someone to mind the store Suzanne calculated quickly.
"I could make it to your office by about 3:15. Would that work?"
"Perfect! Shall I expect you, then?"
"I'll be there," she promised.
She pushed End, then stood for the longest time staring at the phone as if she had no idea what to do with it.
Not just a child, but children. Two of them. Children by Christmas.
She was in shock and knew it.
Two? Her preconceptions were dissolving and floating away before her eyes. Her sitting on the sofa with a little girl leaning against her as she read aloud. One small bike in the garage. Sewing and knitting lessons. Giggles. An incredible bond, with just the two of them.
A brother and sister already had a bond, with each other. They needed her more, in some ways, and less in others. Most boys wouldn't want to learn to knit. She'd have to juggle two sets of activities, two parent-teacher conferences, two bikes and demands for sleepovers and struggles with math or reading.
She'd be doubling the grocery bill she'd anticipated, the after-school care bill, the back-to-school shopping bill.
She didn't know whether to be excited or terrified. No, she did know. Terror was winning. What if these children didn't like her? What if one or both had big emotional problems? What if they whispered with each other and shut her out? What if, what if, what if.
"You haven't made a commitment," she said aloud.
She hadn't. She'd talk to this Melissa Stuart. Find out more about the children. Maybe she wasn't right for them.
Ashamed of the trickle of relief she felt at the idea that she would have a justifiable reason for rejecting two children who needed a home, Suzanne finally hung up the phone, grabbed her bags and left.
Was she not as committed as she'd thought? Had she been enamoured with the idea of a fairy-tale adoption and not the hard reality of older children traumatized by dysfunctional parenting, loss and rejection?
Or did anyone in her situation feel these mixed emotions? This was a huge step, without the phasing in you got when you had a baby in the normal way. Maybe panic was natural and normal.
Call Rebecca, she decided. She'd know.
Suzanne was ten minutes late unlocking the door of her small business, but fortunatelyor unfortunatelyno customers stood on the sidewalk with their noses pressed to the glass. The first hour was usually slow, even in this pre-Christmas season. In fact, she'd already decided that, once she had a child, she'd change her hours. Nine to five-thirty was too much. She could open at ten, close at five. And close two days a week instead of just one. Sunday and Monday, she thought.
Two women wandered in shortly thereafter and wandered out again without buying anything, but with copies of Suzanne's class schedule tucked in their tote bags. They might be back. They might pass on the schedules to friends or daughters who would sign up. She never knew, but she hoped each time.
After the bell tinkled and the door closed behind the two women, Suzanne grabbed the phone and dialed Gary's number in Santa Fe.
Rebecca answered on the second ring. "Suzanne! How nice to hear from you. I'd been meaning to call to find out if Melissa has been in touch."
"She called this morning." Suzanne repeated what the caseworker had said. "I have an appointment to talk to her this afternoon, but I'm petrified. And that makes me wonder if I really want to do this, and I'm ashamed of even wondering, and."
Rebecca laughed. "Well, of course you're scared. This isn't like adopting a newborn. And, believe me, even those couples are nervous as well as thrilled. They aren't sure they'll know what to do. What if the baby won't quit crying? What if they don't feel instant love?"
Her heart lurched. "Oh, God. I didn't even think of that. What if I don't?"
"Then it will take time," Rebecca said practically. "It's kind of like an arranged marriage. Plenty of those ended up blissfully happy, but I'll bet virtually every bride and groom was scared to death when they said, 'I do.'"
"I guess that's true."