Amazed by You (Tuscany, Texas, #4) by Patricia W. Fischer by Patricia W. Fischer - Read Online

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Amazed by You (Tuscany, Texas, #4) - Patricia W. Fischer

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faith

Chapter One

The Pathway Home—Foster Home

Tuscany, Texas

April 1998

I’m coming to get you.

Stephanie Stratford froze.

I know you’re in there, the rich voice echoed down the hall.

Quick footsteps on the hardwood floor made her hair stand on end. She crouched behind a high-backed chair as the door flew open. A scream escaped her as her heart jumped to her throat.

Gotcha! A tall, lanky, brown-haired boy stopped short in the doorway. His eyes scanned the room and went wide when they met hers. He put his hands up in surrender. I’m so sorry. I thought…

It’s okay. I’m okay. Placing her hand on her chest, his shocked expression made her giggle nervously.

I didn’t mean to scare you. I thought my cousin was hiding in here. Harrison? Is he in here?

She stood on jelly-like legs. No, just me.

A flush of pink stained his cheeks and he tucked his thumbs in his belt loops. Playin’ hide-and-seek with the kids. You know. Bein’ a good cousin and all.

His voice had a natural, melodious cadence that temporarily calmed her frazzled nerves. Don’t worry about it. I need a good scare.

Why’s that?

She hesitated. Would he react like all the boys at her school had? What difference did it make what he thinks? You’ll be out of here soon enough.

Stephanie navigating her large belly around the chair. Shame made her avoid eye contact. I’m late.

She mentally cringed. What would this guy say? Or would she become invisible to him just like she had at her high school? Not even the baby’s father acknowledged her existence.

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched him purse his lips for a second as he seemed to be deep in thought. Well, either you ate the entire Sunday brunch at Jet’s Cafe or you got a baby hidin’ in there.

Stephanie’s head popped up as she locked eyes with him. He was teasing her!

Ever since that blue line popped up, boys her age avoided her like the plague, but this one seemed to be completely comfortable with the idea she was a knocked up fifteen-year old. Joking with her even.

Well, two can play at that game. Yeah, I totally ate too much.

I thought so. Charlie’s the cook there and he can make a chicken fried steak that’s hard to turn down. He patted his flat belly. I’ve eaten a few of those myself.

I love me some chicken fried steak. Only problem is I don’t understand how they can make chickens taste like beef. She gave him her best doe-eyed stare, twirling a lock of her over-bleached, short blonde hair between her fingers as she watched him process her words. It’s like, totally weird.

Within moments, the corner of his lush mouth curled into the most adorable smirk. That’s funny.

Thanks. Stephanie tried not to stare at his dimples or the wave of his hair or how kind his eyes were, but she couldn’t help herself. Even the few spots of acne she could dismiss because his eyes were bone-meltingly gorgeous.

If the situation had been different, she most definitely would have tried to snag him as her boyfriend. Instead, she sat in this foster home, waiting for the birth of her child. The last words her mother spoke to her before she drove away was, Call me when it’s over.

Tall, cute, and lanky leaned against the doorframe. How late are you?

She played with the hem of her oversized NSYNC t-shirt. The t-shirt her dad bought her last year when he took her to the concert, right before her perfect life fell apart. Oh, uhm, almost a week.

Giving her a kind smirk, he shrugged. That’s not so bad. It’s your first, I’m guessin’. Not unusual for you to go past your due date.

Stephanie threw her hands up in frustration. Why would you even know that? I’m pregnant and I didn’t know that.

My aunts are in charge here. If you listen, you pick up things. Useful things.

Useful? And why would a high school boy care about babies? It’s not like boys your age care about anything but themselves anyway. She didn’t mean for her words to come out like venom, but after being rejected by the father of her baby, discovering she’d been her father’s second, secret family, and her mother dumping her here, she’d lost faith in just about everybody.

Stephanie blinked back tears that burned her eyes. I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair. Mood swings. I need to have this kid.

His forehead furrowed. Not all high school boys care about just themselves. Some actually think with something besides their peckers.

A round of nervous giggles disrupted her frustrations. Stephanie bit her lip at his comment. You just couldn’t be more perfect if you tried, could ya? How old are you?

Fifteen, almost sixteen.

The curtains danced as the spring breeze blew in a fragrance of the flowers she’d watched the women plant this morning. You’re a nephew, huh?

He tapped his well worn boot at a spot on hardwood floor. One of many.

The ladies here are nice to me. Gave me that yellow rabbit to give to the baby, since I like yellow, like sunflowers. She pointed to the stuffed animal sitting on top of her suitcase. I think it’s the one from Winnie the Pooh.

They’re good people. If you let them, they’ll help you any way they can.

Good to know.

Plus, if you ever found yourself in trouble of any kind—

Stephanie shook her head and pointed to her stomach. "No way. This is not happening again."

No, no, I mean any kind of trouble. Not just pregnancy trouble.

His compassion made a lump form in her throat. No one had ever looked out for her like that before. I see.

You can always come back here. That’s something my aunts have always said. Once you’ve been here, you’ve always got a home. Always.

Good to know. She drummed her unmanicured fingers on the chair. The sounds of happy squeals from the kids playing on the lawn brought a smile to her face. The summer morning would have been a perfect time to get outside, breathe the fresh air, and generally enjoy life. Too bad she didn’t want to leave this room. Miss Grace said she never forgets a face. I guess that helps if you said you were here before and you weren’t.

The teen smiled. His teeth perfectly aligned, making his mouth look even more kissable. If you really needed something, they’d be there.

The awkward silence felt good. It meant she was actually talking to someone again. Someone who bothered to notice her and thank heavens he happened to be cute. Which one are you again? Kind of a lot of you.

Stephanie didn’t know why she even bothered to ask him anything personal. As soon as the baby was born, she’d sign those adoption papers and head back to New Mexico to… what exactly?

It’s not like she could just walk back into school in the fall and act like she’d been on an extended vacation to France. Everyone had watched her stomach get bigger as their under-the-breath comments made her feel smaller.

Even her beloved choir teacher glared at her with a judgmental, prune-faced scowl when Stephanie arrived for the Christmas concert in the required school shirt and obviously pregnant.

After that, Stephanie hadn’t earned first chair soprano again. Until then, she’d always been first chair.

She mentally shook off the uncertainty.

One crisis at a time, Steph.

But, this guy hadn’t looked at her with pity or even appeared disgusted at her size. He’d treated her with respect and she’d sorely missed that in her life.

I live down the road. My mom and dad—

Boo!

He threw up his hands in mock surprise as a younger kid jumped from the doorway. There you are!

Yanking on his cousin’s shirt, the child begged, Come on. Yer daddy said we can go to your house and swim.

Disappointment settled in her chest and for a moment, she thought he might have felt the same way. Go on. Swimming is important.

Without further discussion, the child nodded and left.

He gave her respectful nod. Nice to meet you.

You know if you put a little Tea Tree Oil on those spots, they’ll clear right up.

What?

Way to be tactful, Steph. She hadn’t mean to blurt that bit of health information out, but she really wanted this guy to stay. Until a few moments ago, she hadn’t admitted to herself how lonely she was. This conversation had been like a warm hug that she didn’t want to give up just yet. The acne. I use it. Works well.

He blushed as he touched his face. Thanks.

It’s not bad, really. And you can use it for a mild antiseptic if you need to. Scratches. Scrapes. Insect bites. I take it camping with me. Kind of an all-in-one remedy. I use it for just about everything. All of a sudden, she realized she’d moved close enough to him to smell the subtle scent of mint.

I’ll remember that. He turned to leave, but paused. The kindness in his rich brown eyes made her breath catch in her chest. Just want you to know, I think you’re amazing.

What? A compliment had to be the last thing Stephanie expected, especially here. It took every ounce of strength she had not to crumble to the floor and sob. Amazing? I doubt that.

He reached out and patted her shoulder. Come on now. Give yourself some credit. You’re making a big sacrifice here. Giving your baby a good shot at life and you a new start. That’s an amazing thing to do.

If you only knew the whole story. You wouldn’t think I’m so amazing.

Her heart beat frantically as she tried to think of something intelligent to say in response, but his tenderness had her so flustered, she could barely form any words. After a few beats, she managed to whisper, Thank you.

His strong hand rested on her shoulder as he leaned in and kissed her on the cheek.

She felt her eyebrows hitting her hairline. The innocent kiss sent waves of tingles through her body.

Oh my goodness.

When he stood back, the shocked look in his eyes made her think his unexpected, but endearing gesture flustered him just as much. He cleared his throat as he stepped away from her. Sorry.

She inhaled. He smelled of peppermint and summer. Please, don’t be.

Ugh, stop flirting you hussy. That’s why you’re in this mess in the first place.

I hope it works out for you both. The chestnut-haired Adonis-in-training turned and walked out of the room.

Placing her hands on her belly, Stephanie nodded. Me too.

Chapter Two

Present day…

I can’t come back to Tuscany.

I need you to stay with Hannah until she finishes high school, Penny Marcos explained over take-out from Jet’s Bluebonnet diner.

Stephanie had to will the chicken-fried steak dinner she’d already eaten, not to make a second appearance. I have a business to run back in Albuquerque. I don’t have time to raise a child.

She stuffed a wad of buttered sourdough bread in her mouth, hoping her comment would end the discussion. The rich buttered bread melted on her mouth, making her involuntarily sigh, but it hardly served as a conversation ender.

Watching her sister, Penny, visually bore her anger into her, Stephanie knew they were far from talking.

The silverware jumped when Penny slammed her hand on the table. Well, you’re gonna. Hannah is your responsibility now. You’re going to do right by her.

An unintentional snort escaped her. Penny, I can’t just up and move away. She’ll have to come there. My life is there. My boyfriend, my work, my house.

My, my, my, it’s just all about you, isn’t it?

Don’t start this. Pouring more ranch dressing on her salad, Stephanie stabbed at the lettuce. You do this every time when we’re together. Talk about how irresponsible I’m being. How I won’t put down roots or commit to anything or anybody.

And I’ve always understood why. You've not had the greatest parental examples, but this time, it’s different. I’m dying. Her barely forty-year old half-sister popped a handful of pills and winced as she swallowed.

Stephanie felt like someone had kicked her in the stomach. For the first time during this most recent visit, Penny said it out loud and that made it real.

Hannah doesn’t need any more instability in her life. She needs to stay put. With her dad gone and me about to…

Don’t say it again. Saying it only admits it’s going to happen. And Stephanie loved denying things would happen. In her short twenty-nine years, she’d always been very good about procrastinating responsibility, just like her mother. With the exception of her pharmacy degree, Stephanie had yet to follow through with anything else. She’d never held an address for more than six months, she’d never stayed with any one guy for much longer. Hell, she’d never even owned a pet, much less take care of a child.

Penny took a small bite of her grilled chicken and chewed with slow, grimacing movements. Her oxygen tubing draped over her ears and around to her nose.

Seeing her sister waste away, ripped at her heart. If the chicken is too much, I can make you a smoothie. Some soup? Hot chocolate?

Steph, please, don’t make this complicated.

Coming back to Tuscany would be a bad move for me and you know it.

As if anyone will remember you. You were here all of three months fourteen years ago and never left the Pathway Foster Home property before giving birth. You barely left your room.

Panic grabbed her by the chest as she turned around and peeked down the hallway. Hush, she’ll hear you.

Penny waved her off as she sipped her wine. She’s at a wedding with her boyfriend’s family.

Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to come back here to visit, much less live here? I don’t want to give anyone the chance to recognize me. Despite Miss Grace Parker and her sisters being incredibly kind and gracious to Stephanie all those years ago, the last thing Stephanie wanted was for people to know why she knew them.

Especially Hannah.

Penny let out a long breath as she massaged her stomach. "This isn’t about you anymore. I want Hannah to have something that’s stable and normal. She’s been through enough chaos to last her entire life."

The words of truth stung. Yeah, I suppose so. Does Danny know?

He does.

When Penny said nothing else and looked away, Stephanie had to bite her tongue not to keep from saying anything profane about her former brother-in-law.

Dr. Danny Marcos, explorer extraordinaire, chose a life of ocean research over family five years ago and as far as Stephanie knew, had never looked back.

Penny wiped away her tears. "This is where she grew up. This is where she was born and this is where she has all her friends, her boyfriend, her life."

What about my life? The words sat on the tip of her tongue, but saying such a things would only make Stephanie look even more selfish and ridiculous.

Penny made complete sense, but Stephanie didn’t want to hear the reasonable words her older sister had to say.

Taking Penny’s thin hand, Stephanie squeezed it. You have no idea what you’re asking me to do.

Penny slowly repositioned herself in the chair. She glanced at her food and pushed her half-full plate to the middle of the table, knocking over a couple of pain pill bottles.

Stephanie’s heart sunk seeing her sister whither away. Please eat. The bread is amazing.

"Don’t change the subject, Steph. I need you here. Hannah needs you here. You owe that to me and especially to her…and you know it."

I can’t. Stephanie tried to put distance between them, but her sister held onto her hand with an iron grip. Without making eye contact, Stephanie swallowed hard. Does she know?

Penny didn’t answer right away.