Lauren Elliott had received the most depressing news of her life.
Her sister was pregnant.
Her younger sister.
Oh, she was happy and excited for Carol, but mingled in with the joy was an undeniable sense of envy. The fact that Carol was about to become a mother shouldn't have come as a shock—her sister and Jason had been married for two years, after all. Lauren loved her sister, and Jason would make a wonderful father. What bothered her was the fact that at age thirty-four, Lauren was still unmarried.
Single. Oh, how she'd come to hate that word.
Walking down Blossom Street, Lauren buried her hands deep into the pockets of her fawn-colored rain jacket. Tulips and crocuses bloomed in the flowerpots that hung from the streetlights, and the scent of roses, lilacs, and camellias followed her as she walked past Susannah's Garden, the flower shop.
Lauren kept her head down as she mulled over this latest development. This was it. The end of her rope. The line in the sand. She was finished waiting for Todd to give her an engagement ring. A year earlier she'd had the DTR—Defining the Relationship—talk with Todd and he'd assured her that marriage was definitely part of their future. Only he wasn't in a financial position to make the leap just yet. He'd suggested they give it time, and she'd reluctantly agreed. That was twelve months ago, and frankly her patience was shot. She'd dated the popular local television newscaster for three years and it was time to own up to the truth. If Todd was sincere about wanting her for his wife, then she would have had a diamond on her ring finger long before now.
Clearly Todd enjoyed their relationship just the way it was, and in some ways so did she. Todd was fun and smart, and she liked being with him. Because of his job, Lauren frequently accompanied him to high-profile social events. As a result, she was able to mingle with some of the city's elite, and it didn't hurt that many of these socialites came to John Michael Jewelers, where she worked, for their jewelry needs.
Lauren passed A Good Yarn and the window display instantly caught her attention. She stopped to give it a look and shook her head. Wouldn't you know it, the display in the yarn store's window was a baby blanket.
A beautiful baby blanket knit in lovely pastel colors. Lauren wanted to groan. She loved her sister, but there'd always been a friendly rivalry between them. More laid-back of the two, Lauren didn't have big career ambitions, whereas Carol worked as a program designer for a large software company out of California. She'd married her college sweetheart and seemed to have the perfect life.
Lauren had dropped out of college after a couple of years and over time had worked at a number of jobs. She enjoyed sales and seemed to be good at it. The irony was that her specialty was engagement and wedding bands. The couples she dealt with were deeply in love and eager to start their lives together. It gave Lauren a deep sense of satisfaction to help them take one of their first steps toward commitment.
The bottom line, she realized now, was that Todd was completely content to leave matters just as they were. They got along great and talked frequently. Rarely a week passed without them attending some sort of social event. They would like to spend more time together, but Todd was busy with his broadcasting career. He had his sights set on getting an anchor position and focused most of his attention on achieving his professional goals.
"Hello, Lauren," Lydia Hoffman said, coming up from behind her.
"Oh, hi." Lauren spun around to greet the owner of the yarn store. Lydia's husband, Brad, had purchased his wife's wedding band at John Michael Jewelers, where Lauren had worked for the past five years.
"Isn't that a beautiful baby blanket?" Lydia asked, apparently noticing that Lauren's gaze was focused on the window display.
"It is." Lauren had no option but to agree.
"I think I've sold more yarn from this display than any I've ever done. There's something about knitting for babies that draws people into the shop. Just yesterday a customer stopped by and bought yarn for the blanket and told me she doesn't know anyone who's having a baby, but she thought she'd knit it anyway."
Lauren faked a smile. "I just got word my sister is pregnant." She didn't elaborate and explain that Carol was a full two years younger than she. "When I saw this blanket I thought I should knit it for her."
"I'm sure she'd treasure it. Anything homemade makes a baby gift all the more special."
Lydia inserted the key to the front door, and while Lauren was tempted to purchase the yarn right then, she needed to get to work herself. "I'll be by later today or tomorrow to pick up the yarn."
"Make it Thursday. I'm sold out, but I have a new shipment due in then. I'll be here if you need any help with the pattern," Lydia assured her.
John Michael Jewelers was one block down from the yarn store. Elisa Lippincott, the original owner's daughter, managed the store now with her husband, Garry. Lauren enjoyed her job immensely and considered Elisa a friend as well as her employer.
"Morning," Lauren said as she came into the store. She locked the door behind her. When the safe was open all the doors leading into the store remained locked.
Elisa stuck her head out of the walk-in safe. "Morning," she returned brightly. She had a pair of jewel cases in her hands, which she set into the display window that looked out onto Blossom Street.
Lauren removed her raincoat and stuck it in the back office along with her purse. Right away she helped Elisa get out the precious stones. Despite the down economy, the store continued to do well. Elisa, Garry, and Lauren—all working full-time, along with a few part-time sales associates—were a good team.
"Garry will be in sometime this afternoon," Elisa explained as she set out the semiprecious stones. "He's got a meeting at the school for one of the boys, and then he's headed to lunch with the Rotary Club."
Garry was the company expert when it came to men's and women's watches. Lauren headed up their diamond sales, and Elisa handled just about everything else.
"I heard from my sister," Lauren said casually as she set the jewels in the display case, locking them inside. "Carol and Jason are pregnant." She made sure she sounded pleased and excited for her younger sibling.
"It is," Lauren agreed. "It's just wonderful. Mom and Dad are over the moon. Their first grandchild."
Elisa paused and focused her attention on Lauren. "You sound like you're ready to cry."
"I could break into sobs at the drop of a pin," she admitted, and tried to laugh it off, but the only sound that came out was reminiscent of something one might hear on the Sci-Fi channel. She quickly got hold of herself. "Tell me, Elisa, and please be honest. Is there something wrong with me?" Because Elisa was her friend, she expected the truth.
"Am I annoying?"
"Not at all." Elisa sounded shocked that Lauren would suggest such a thing.
"Do I have a domineering or unpleasant personality?"
"Do I bore you?"
"No." Her friend shook her head.
"Am I unattractive?"
This question produced a laugh. "Hardly. Have you looked in a mirror lately? You're gorgeous—tall and slim, with your stunning blue eyes and that dark hair. I swear there must be some Scottish blood in you somewhere. Half the men who come in this shop leave half in love with you."
Her friend's words were a balm to her wounded pride. "Then why am I still single?"
Elisa didn't hesitate. "Because Todd Hampton is an idiot." She gently squeezed Lauren's forearm. "You've been much too patient with him. You need to give Todd an ultimatum," she suggested. "He loves you. All he needs now is a gentle shove in the right direction. Tell him it's time; you've been patient to this point, but you aren't willing to continue without a firm commitment."
An ultimatum for Todd—Lauren had reached the same conclusion but then rethought the matter. The fact was, she'd spent the majority of the night tossing and turning, mulling over her options with Todd. She'd teetered back and forth with the relationship, wondering what would be best. She hated the idea of forcing him to set a date, and then wondered why she'd been so willing to let matters drag.
"The thing is ..." Lauren didn't get the opportunity to finish her sentence when Elisa's cellphone chirped.
"It's Katie." Elisa grabbed it before the second chirp.
Lauren knew the shop owner had been anxiously awaiting a call from her oldest child. Katie was a college freshman, and Elisa had undergone separation anxiety sending her only daughter away to school, which was less than three hundred miles away in Pullman, Washington. Elisa worried incessantly over Katie's diet, studies, partying, alcohol, and dating. If Katie didn't contact her mother at some point during the day, Elisa was convinced her child had fallen victim to any number of dreadful possibilities.
"Katie, why haven't you called?" Elisa demanded. "You didn't answer the text message I sent, and—"
Elisa paused, then let out a loud gasp and hurried into the small office, quickly closing the door. Lauren couldn't help but wonder what that was about. Her friend tended to be something of a drama queen. Even with the office door closed, Lauren could hear Elisa, although she couldn't make out what she was saying.
The possibilities raced through Lauren's mind. More than likely, it was something minor. Katie might have flunked an important test. More likely, she needed extra money put into her bank account. Quite possibly, she hadn't turned in her library books on time and had allowed the fine to accumulate. Lauren liked Katie and considered the teenager levelheaded and responsible. As a friend and employer, Elisa was great, but as a mother, she was a bit fixated.
Ten minutes later, Elisa reappeared, as white as a sun-bleached sheet.
"Elisa," Lauren asked tentatively. "Is everything all right with Katie?"
Her friend didn't answer and then simply shook her head.
"Do you need to sit down?"
Lauren scooted over a stool, and Elisa sank onto it in slow motion.
"Do you want me to call Garry?"
That got an immediate response that came as a shout: "No ... no!"
"Can I get you coffee?"
"I need something way stronger than coffee. Way stronger."
Lauren didn't think they kept anything more potent at the store, unless it was for a special sales event. Even then it was champagne, and Lauren suspected Elisa wasn't in the mood to celebrate with a glass of bubbly. "Can you tell me what's wrong?"
"I ... I don't know." Tears welled in Elisa's eyes.
Apparently, this was something far worse than an overdue library book or a failed test. Disregarding what Elisa had claimed she needed, Lauren brewed her a single cup of coffee, making sure it was extra-strong. She added three cubes of sugar and stirred until it had dissolved before delivering it to her friend.
Elisa held on to the cup with both hands as though it was all that was keeping her from falling off the edge of a ten-story building. "Do you remember Dietrich?"