Family By Design
Rena sighed as she shut the door behind her and locked it. She glanced out the window as her date walked back to his car. It had been a lovely evening—good food, nice conversation. The trip to the museum was pleasant, the drive was pleasant, and the goodnight kiss was, well, pleasant.

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She flicked the curtains shut, then flipped off the news broadcast that spoke of rising tensions in the Middle East—that subject was anything but pleasant. Rena turned back to see her roommate walk in from the kitchen. As always, Chelsea’s sleek red hair and sparse makeup were perfect, her manicure fresh and flawless despite the long hours she spent cutting other people’s hair. It was maddening sometimes to live with someone who never looked mussed. Wasn’t there some kind of law against that?

“Back already, huh? How was the museum?” Chelsea asked as she dropped onto the sofa.

“It was nice.” Rena slid out of her light evening jacket and hung it over her purse on the hook next to the door, kicking off the pumps that had been killing her feet for the past hour. What had she been thinking when she’d chosen them? “What do you think of Greg?”

There was a small quirk of Chelsea’s eyebrow before she shot Rena a sideways look. “He seems nice.”

Rena crossed the room and slumped beside Chelsea. “I thought so.” She sighed, and then leaned her head back and looked at the ceiling. “We talked shop all evening, it was . . . fine.” She thought of the conversation. It had been interesting, even if it didn’t thrill her. “I’m thinking of letting things get serious with him.”

Chelsea laughed. “With sweet, dependable Greg? Whatever for?”

After a short pause to consider the reasons, Rena answered as matter of factly as possible. “He likes me a lot. He’s got a good job, and is active in the church. As you said, he’s sweet and dependable, we always have plenty to talk about, and he’s . . . pleasant.” Somehow she couldn’t make that last quality seem as positive as it should have. It sounded good when she listed his attributes all together like that, ideal even, but she couldn’t bring herself to get tingly over the man.

“You’ve been dating for two months and the best you can say about him is that he’s dependable and pleasant? Don’t you want more than that in a relationship, a husband?” Chelsea continued on without pausing for an answer. “Of course you do. He obviously doesn’t put any fire in your veins if you can consider it all so calmly.”

Rena rolled her eyes and began pulling the pins that kept her normally wild curls in a bun. It was pinned so tight a headache had been developing for the past hour. “Fire in my veins—you’ve read a few too many romance novels. Need I remind you, I’m thirty-two. I want to have children some day—before I hit menopause would be nice.” Though the wish was a dear one, the thought of settling down with Greg was far from exciting.

“The key word here is husband,” she continued. “No husband—no kids, no family. I mean, I love decorating, but I can’t fill the next four decades of my evenings helping Tucker with his renovation projects.” She paused for a moment and considered what she’d just said. Actually, the thought didn’t seem all that bad. She wanted to have kids. A lot. But as long as Tucker stayed single too, she’d have her best friend to hang out with. It could be worse. She sighed as her hair fell and she ran her fingers through the mahogany-colored locks that stretched below her shoulders.

“That doesn’t mean you have to settle for someone who only reaches pleasant on your relationship barometer. You’re pretty and interesting. Your super-model thinness and height don’t seem to hurt your date options.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” Rena brought her fingers and thumb together like her hand was talking, a sign they both used to signal the subject was closed. She knew Chelsea was well aware Rena wished she didn’t have such an overactive metabolism. And the guys who hit on her because they liked her shape were rarely her idea of dating material.

Chelsea was right about one thing, though. Rena didn’t feel so much as a tingle for Greg—even her feelings for Tucker were more interesting, and her relationship with him was almost as platonic as you could get. Almost. She sighed, then tamped down a smirk. “It wouldn’t be particularly fair. No husband should be left wondering why his wife liked her best friend better than him, and I think Greg’s already jealous.”

Chelsea laughed. “I can’t blame him. I swear Tucker’s perfect.”

“Tucker Shane is not perfect.” Rena stood and walked into the kitchen to get a drink of water. “Sure, he’s gorgeous, loves children, and is genuinely friendly to everyone. He’s a successful business man with a sharp mind and great sense of humor. He teaches Sunday School and speaks three languages.” That list only proved Chelsea’s point, so Rena continued, “But he’s also stubborn and practically paranoid about security. And we’re only good friends.” Noticing the dishes piled on the counter, she flipped on the hot water and closed the sink drain. It was her turn, after all. She wished they had a dishwasher.

“And all those muscles from his years in the Marines and the buckets of money he makes in his firm only make him less attractive,” Chelsea added, her voice filled with suppressed laughter. “It’s completely obvious why he hasn’t been able to convince some sweet young thing to marry him.”

“Who wants muscles and money, anyway?” Rena felt her lips twitch again, but mostly managed to keep the smile at bay. She reached for a bottle of water in the fridge. “So, since Greg’s obviously not The One—heck. I don’t believe in The One anymore. I’d settle gladly for The One Who is Much More Than Pleasant.”

“But still second best to Tucker.” Chelsea fished the drying rack from a bottom cupboard.

“The man doesn’t have to beat Tucker. Who could?” Rena looked at Chelsea, who nodded in agreement. “But it would be nice if he could come in a semi-close tie—and if the guy could get a little more sizzle into his kisses than Greg manages, I wouldn’t complain.” Greg had left a perfectly respectful peck on her lips at the door that night, as he had on most of their dates. She’d had hopes for much more in the tingle department when they started seeing each other, but the thrill of the new relationship had worn thin all too quickly. It wasn’t that they didn’t get along, he was interesting enough and they never ran out of things to discuss—he worked in interior design too, though for a different company.

“Or if you and Tucker—”

Rena snorted a laugh, cutting her roommate off. “If we haven’t fallen wildly, madly, passionately in love in ten years, I seriously doubt it’s going to happen. I’ll just have to find someone else.” A small, familiar ache grew in her chest and she pushed it away.

She wondered. If the two of them had met recently instead of a decade earlier, would something more have developed? It was a question she’d never be able to answer. She couldn’t imagine the past ten years without Tucker in her life, anyway. She wouldn’t be the same person.

“You’ve dated, and you turn down dates all the time.” Chelsea opened the fridge and began pulling out containers of leftovers, most of which were well past their prime. She dumped the contents in the trash, then loaded up the sink with the dishes.

Rena grimaced. Chelsea always seemed to get out of washing the nasty containers. She allowed the younger woman to continue, though. At least the fridge would be cleaned out. “Yeah. I’ve dated.” The prospect of more dating, more meeting strange men and finding they were odd or socially challenged or . . . pleasant was more than she could bear. “Maybe I should try becoming a nun.”

“I don’t think there are many successful interior designers who live in nunneries. Besides, there are no Mormon nuns.”

“Right. My mistake.” She rolled her eyes and plunged her hands into the frothy suds. “Maybe I’m being ridiculous, but I keep thinking something is around the corner, some change. If I hold on long enough, maybe I’ll finally meet that guy who can make my pulse jump.”

Silence stretched between them for a long moment. Finally, Chelsea broke it. “If worse came to worst you could always cut your hair. That would be a change at any rate. I saw the cutest style in a new magazine. It would be perfect on you!”

Rena looked at her roommate and burst into laughter at the change in subject. “Do you think mine needs a trim? I’ve been thinking of getting a weave.”

Her cell phone rang and she smiled when she recognized Tucker’s ring tone. Her smile didn’t last long.

Chapter Two

The first thing to pierce Tucker’s haze of grief had been Rena’s voice calling his name. He looked up to watch her sit beside him in the hospital waiting room. She wrapped her arms around him and he pulled her close, burying his face into the mass of curls at her neck. The soft musk of her perfume teased his senses and drew him a little closer to the real world. The waiting had seemed like forever.

“Sorry it took so long. There was a lot of traffic,” she said. “Has anyone been out yet to tell you what’s going on?”

Tucker didn’t loosen his grip on her as the florescent lights hummed above them. “A few minutes ago.” He paused as he tried to keep his voice even. “He’s gone, Rena. They’re both gone.” The words were hoarse, difficult to speak around the lump in his throat. His brother had been the last member of his family, and now both Cory and his wife, Hailey, had moved on to the next life.

“What happened?” she asked. There hadn’t been many details when he’d called her, just that there had been a car accident and where to meet him.

Tucker shook his head. “No one seems to know anything.”

The wait for Rena to join him, for word from the doctors, had seemed unending but he didn’t think knowing was any better. Tucker pulled back enough to look in Rena’s eyes.

“I’m so sorry. What about McKenzie and Derek? Where are the kids?” she asked.

“Maggie’s watching them. She wanted to come, but they’re both asleep and she didn’t want them to wake up to a stranger.” He referred to Hailey’s mom, the last living relative on her side of the family, other than the two kids. That thought made the emotions rise inside him again.

He released his grip around Rena, and then pulled her hand into his. Her touch was a lifeline. The question in her eyes was enough. They knew each other so well, he didn’t have to ask what she was thinking. “Cory asked me to take them.”

“You talked to him?”

“Briefly, when they were bringing him in, he called. He told me Hailey was dead, or he thought she was, and he had a feeling he wouldn’t make it either.” His voice broke as he remembered the brief conversation, the labored way Cory spoke, the memory-echo of his words. “He asked me to take care of them. How could I refuse?”

“You couldn’t. I know you couldn’t.” She reached out a soft hand and brushed it along his cheek. “So what’s next?”

He felt a bit of his tension release at her willingness to help. He’d known she would, and he really had so few places to turn.

* * * *

Bright sunlight belied the heavy air of mourning for those gathered around Cory and Hailey’s graves. Not a sound pierced the quiet except for the dedicatory prayer, and the low rumble of road traffic in the background. Rena gathered four-year-old McKenzie into her arms and held her close. The little girl’s soft, blond ringlets teased Rena’s face, making it itch, but she only crinkled her nose a little and tightened her grip on the child. Derek, McKenzie’s six-year-old brother, stood nearby, holding his grandmother’s hand. Tucker, who was saying the prayer, and Maggie were the only relatives the children had left. The thought broke Rena’s heart.

Tucker finished the prayer and McKenzie reached toward her grandmother. Rena worried about handing the heavy toddler to the aging woman, but Maggie held out her arms so Rena passed McKenzie over. She looked up to see Derek cross to his uncle. Tucker picked the boy up and hugged him close. Tucker’s dark, nearly black hair made Derek’s blond locks look almost white. Their shared pain was palpable and the thought of the children’s loss made her own emptiness seem somehow larger than ever.

A helpful ward member had brought the children to the grave dedication after the funeral ended. A large crowd of mourners stopped to give Tucker and Maggie condolences and offers of assistance. Rena stood in the background, not wanting to get in the way, but wishing she could ease her best friend’s grief.

The bright San Jose, California, sunlight overpowered the soft breeze. Rena removed her light summer sweater and draped it over her shoulder. She’d needed the sweater in the cool of the church during the funeral, but the July weather was perfect.

When she saw Tucker look over at her, his eyes dry but filled with anguish at what a drunk driver had done to his family, she hurried to his side. He pulled her into a hug, her arms surrounding both the man and the boy. Tucker’s hand came around her to caress her hair, which she had pulled away from her face. His touch offered as much comfort as it took and she stood on her toes to kiss Derek’s and Tucker’s cheeks before releasing them.

A long time passed before the crowd thinned to a few distant cousins and close friends. The sunlight waned and Rena figured the workmen standing several rows down under a tree were anxious to close the grave and return to their own homes. She said nothing about it to Tucker, only stood beside him and held his hand while he finished his silent good-byes.

Cory and Tucker had been very close. Their parents had passed away years earlier, though not at the same time, leaving the brothers with only each other to count on. This had made their brotherly bond even stronger. Her heart ached for his loss, knowing she could never really understand its enormity.

When the wait grew too long and the children became wiggly, Rena took their hands and walked them away. Rena heard the rustling of grass behind her and turned to see Tucker approach. His eyes glistened, but he looked as though he was ready to go. McKenzie launched herself into her uncle’s arms. They walked back toward Maggie’s car and settled the children into the car seats. They would meet everyone back at the church in a few minutes for lunch.

“When are we coming to live with you?” Derek asked as Tucker snapped in the seatbelt.

“Soon. As soon as I can get everything ready.” Tucker ran his thumb down Derek’s cheek and planted a kiss on his nephew’s forehead. Then he walked around and kissed McKenzie, too. “Be good for Grandma, okay? We’ll see you in a little while.”

Maggie approached them, her steps slow and methodical. Rena wondered if the woman was in pain. Her arthritis was getting worse and osteoporosis had set in with a vengeance. Maggie admitted she couldn’t take care of the children long term. Tucker planned to take them in himself, but the case worker seemed hesitant about giving him guardianship. The fact that his house was in mid-renovation couldn’t help matters.

Maggie and Tucker spoke for a moment before she got in her car and drove off.

After he watched them go, he walked back to Rena and slid an arm over her shoulder, guiding her toward his car. She fit easily under his arm, though at five-ten no one considered her short. “It seems unreal,” he said. “Everything’s happened so fast. I can’t keep up.”

“What? Superman isn’t perfect?” Rena tried to keep her tone light and teasing, but when Tucker looked at her, she knew the longstanding joke had missed its mark. She squeezed him around the waist in apology. “What did the case worker say when you talked to her yesterday?” He’d skirted the issue when she brought it up earlier. Rena had allowed the dodge, wanting to let him get through the funeral. But then some things had to be faced. The kids couldn’t stay with Maggie for long and he had issues to take care of before they could move in with him. The child welfare worker was high on that list.

His lips hardened into a thin line and a muscle jumped in his jaw. Not a good sign. “She’s supposed to call me in a few days. She says it should be fine as long as the house is safe and there’s somewhere for the kids to sleep. And then there are her concerns.”

“What concerns?” Rena couldn’t imagine anyone doubting Tucker’s parenting skills or his ability to provide a good life for the kids. What more did they want? Sure he was inexperienced, new parents generally were, but he loved those kids more than anything and he knew them well. Rena figured the case worker’s main worry should be keeping the children with family.

The thought caused an ache in Rena’s chest. Holding McKenzie earlier had been bittersweet. Now, as Tucker’s best friend, Rena knew she would be spending a lot of time with the children. She loved them, as everyone did, on sight. She told herself to be content with her role in their lives. It was probably the closest she would ever come to a family of her own.

Unfortunately, contentment was the last thing she felt.

“She didn’t say, but I imagine she’ll let me know soon enough.” They climbed into his car and he took her to the church.

By the time they arrived at the chapel for the small lunch with family and friends, he had pulled himself back together again. Determination was clear in his firm jaw and dark blue eyes. He wasn’t one to take things passively. There were things to do and she could see his mind was already turned toward resolving the issues between him and his goal.

Chapter Three

Tucker’s stomach clenched as he walked into the reception area of Child Protective Services. He told himself he didn’t need to worry, that the case worker would obviously want to place the kids with family. Still there was a voice whispering in the back of his mind that wouldn’t let him rest easy. She said she had ‘concerns’ and he understood that. He had worries of his own.

An older woman sitting behind the front desk looked at him as she hung up the phone. “Can I help you?”

“I’m here to see Lydia Watson. My name is Tucker Shane.” He smiled as nicely as he could manage and tried to appear unruffled.

“Hold on.” She picked up the phone and called the case worker. When she finished she looked at Tucker. “Please take a seat. She’ll be with you shortly.”

A moment later, the young woman Tucker had spoken with a few days earlier entered the room and smiled blandly at him. “Mr. Shane, let’s go into the conference room.” She pointed to a door behind him. After using her badge to key through, she led him partway down a long hall to a small room with a table and eight chairs.

Tucker sat and set his hands casually on the table top. He had long ago learned the importance of not letting anyone else see his agitation. “You said you were worried about a few things?”

“Yes. Everything looks fine for the kids to move in with you and the adoption should go smoothly enough. You could finalize in a few months if no one contests it. My worry is more that you’re still in the Marines, and you have no one to take the children if you were to be called up. If you were married, that would be different, but as a single man with no parents or other family support system, I don’t know what you’d do. You might be able to get out early, in which case, my major concern would be cleared away.”

Tucker considered what he would need to do to obtain a hardship discharge from the Marine Reserves. If he couldn’t, what other option did he have? Before he could think better of it, he blurted out, “I understand your concerns. I’m going to speak to my commander about getting an early discharge. My girlfriend Rena and I have talked about getting married; there just hasn’t been any rush.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wondered what he was thinking. Yes, they had discussed marriage, but not to each other! He and Rena had never even dated.

“Well, that would be another matter, then. I wouldn’t want you to rush into a marriage you weren’t ready for, but it would solve that problem.” Lydia mentioned that the children may need therapy to deal with their loss and upheaval, asked for clarification about child care, then ended the meeting.

He could barely keep his focus on her as he tried to figure out a way to avoid both getting out of his enlistment contract with the Marines and dealing with his fictitious relationship to Rena.

* * *

Despite the fact Rena was supposed to have Saturdays off, she spent most of the day in the office, trying to catch up on paperwork. During regular office hours she had so many distractions, people hurrying in and out, phones ringing, and faxes coming through. It was difficult to get anything accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. The past two weeks had been worse than ever with her attention so divided between jobs and personal problems that she had been constantly misplacing files. A renovation she’d been working on was done now, though, so she hoped work would be a little less insane.

After deciding she was finished with paperwork for the day, she wandered around a local boutique, looking for the perfect table lamp for another client. The Cowgills hadn’t fallen in love with anything on her showroom floor, and Rena had been keeping an eye out for something that would work. She often used spare time to check out the home furnishings in other stores—it helped keep her sense of what was popular honed and allowed her to find unusual pieces that weren’t available through her normal contacts.

It was mid-afternoon and the store was busy, but ChrisAnn’s still felt calm and serene. Soft chamber music emanated from hidden speakers, helpful service people popped up every few minutes, sure they could find exactly what customers were looking for. Rena watched it happen around her, but wasn’t interrupted in her search. All the employees knew if she was alone, she was only there to look.

She paused to consider a particularly gaudy purple lamp in the shape of an elephant and thought of a former client who would have loved the monstrosity. She walked around a corner toward a lamp that looked considerably more promising when her attention was diverted by the couple behind her.

“Shhh, she’s finally asleep,” a man’s voice said in little more than a whisper.

“I told you we should’ve brought the stroller. She would have been out twenty minutes ago,” a woman’s voice hissed back. Her tone softened considerably as she continued, “Now, where was that sofa you wanted to show us?”

Fingering crystal fringe, Rena turned and glanced at the couple out of the corner of her eye. They were in their earlier thirties, the woman smiled brightly at a saleswoman, rubbing a very pregnant belly. The man looked haggard and carried a sleeping toddler. Rena saw the man cradle the little girl against his chest, then run his fingers over her downy curls. The little girl shifted and rubbed her cheek against her father’s shoulder as he pressed a kiss to her head.

The scene made Rena’s heart ache. The couple couldn’t be older than she was, but they not only had each other, but one sweet child and another on the way. Tears filled her eyes and she forced herself to look elsewhere. She wished so much that she could really like Greg, that she felt something more for him. Why couldn’t she? Didn’t she deserve to have someone too? To have a child in her arms? She’d been promised in her patriarchal blessing that she would be a mother and had grown weary of people telling her to be patient, her time would come. She wanted a family now—not in the Millennium.

Holding back the pain, she hurried from the store and to her car, desperate to get there before the tears began to fall. Most of the time she was content with her life, more or less happy with the way things were going, with the successes she experienced professionally. There were days she relished the ability to go out when she wanted, to order takeout at any hour and catch a midnight movie if the mood struck.

This wasn’t one of those times.

She sat in the car. Her fingers clenched the steering wheel as she fought to hold back the tears. When she felt more or less under control again, she pulled out her cell phone and speed dialed Tucker. She worked to keep her voice even and her tone light when he answered the phone. “Hey, have any plans for tonight?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m free and easy.” His voice was mildly sarcastic and loosened her tightly-strung nerves just a bit if only for the warmth of his voice. “I’m at the house. Care to strip wallpaper with me?”

“Wow, what a temptation. Got anything to eat?” It was a joke, of course. He never kept anything but frozen dinners and bags of chips at his house. Most of the time he ate out. He didn’t have time or the inclination to cook despite the dream of a kitchen he had put into the old home. If she had a kitchen like that, it would definitely be used for more than reheating cold pizza.

“Yeah, I think there’s a few cookies left from that bag you brought on Tuesday.”

Rena smiled despite herself. “Call in an order to Chang’s and I’ll pick it up on my way over. I can’t imagine anything more exciting than stripping wallpaper. It’ll make my whole week.” Actually, she couldn’t think of a better way to relieve her sour mood than to spend the evening working with Tucker. There was a reason he was her best friend.

Twenty minutes later she pulled in front of the old Victorian Tucker had picked up for a song because it was such a wreck. That had been two months earlier. The yard was still a mess, but at least it was mowed and now that it was being watered, the grass was green again. There was almost no furniture in the house, Rena knew, but he was a man of few needs. The resale value would be immense. He paid cash for this house after flipping his previous renovation—making this his fourth fixer-upper since returning from duty with the Marine corps. Between his business and the house, he had been busy.

Over time, though, Rena suspected he’d begun to grow attached to the house. She couldn’t help but feel some attachment herself. This wasn’t the first time she’d joined Tucker in stripping wallpaper in the kitchen, the dining room, the master bedroom—which was also empty of furniture, or had been, until recently. The renovations on that room were finished weeks ago, but she knew he hadn’t moved in until after the accident when he needed to prepare Derek’s room. She’d often wondered if the lack of furniture and dishes was a way of reminding himself he would sell it and move on. Getting too comfortable there would make it harder to put it on the market again.

She knocked on the door and Tucker yelled to come in. When she tried the knob, the door opened, a fact that made Rena marvel. Tucker and his partner Cleve owned a security business: alarm systems, cameras, bodyguards, electric fences, computer systems, the works. He was paranoid about her being out after dark in her own parking lot, so she didn’t know why he’d leave the door unlocked, even in a decent neighborhood.

She came through and found him standing on a ladder just beyond the doorway. “You left the door unlocked?”

He smiled. “I unlocked it a minute ago when I was off the ladder.” He glanced pointedly at the dead bolt and then back at her face until she flipped it closed again.

Rena lifted the bag of take-out cartons and looked at the headway he had already made on the wall. “I thought you weren’t stripping in here.”

“Changed my mind. I found out the molding is mahogany. Mahogany.” He gave her an incredulous look. “Why would anyone in their right mind paint mahogany? And this wallpaper is ugly, so while I’m at it . . .”

That was another surprise Rena had found years earlier—Tucker the tough-guy Marine, the canny businessman, had an unbelievable love affair with natural wood. It was the thing that seemed to draw him to this house—the random-width oak floors, the wood paneling in the office, the fancy gingerbread around the windows and along the corners of the front porch. Interior design was her field, but his taste wasn’t half bad.

She understood his point about stripping the paint and wallpaper, but still wondered why he was spending time on that at the moment. “Beautiful. Are the kid’s rooms ready yet?” Had the man any idea of priorities? Why were they focusing on the foyer?

He sent her an affronted look. “What do you think I am? I’ve got everything done there that can be, until the carpet layers get here. Speaking of which . . .”

“Yes, I know. I have Tom’s solemn promise. They’ll be here next week. Don’t worry.”

Tucker put down the putty knife he was using to dig at the wallpaper and took a deep sniff. “That smells good. I’m starving.”

“Lucky I came along to feed you then, isn’t it?” She shook her head and walked into the dining room. A card table sat in one corner with a stack of paper plates and cups on one end. Two stools stood nearby, along with a large garbage can full of empty food containers and dirty paper plates. “You’re going to need to get a little furniture around here, you know. Civilized people eat at tables and use—get this—dishes that have to be washed.”

“Ha, ha. I own dishes that have to be washed. I just don’t use them.” The words were very Tucker, but he seemed uncomfortable, more subdued than normal. He helped her unload the plastic bag and set the white cartons out on the table. “I suppose you’ll be earning a fee for helping me pick out furniture, since I have to have some and don’t have time to look. I need sofas and tables and chairs, the works. McKenzie wants a princess bed. She’s too old to stay in the toddler bed. We’ll keep the rest of her furniture.”

“I have just the thing. I’ll check it out tomorrow and make sure it’s still on the floor.” Rena picked at her beef and broccoli.

“I knew I could count on you.” He loaded his plate and they ate in silence, though he kept throwing curious looks her direction. She pretended not to notice until he finally asked, “So what’s wrong?”

She should have known she couldn’t get anything past him. Sometimes Rena thought he knew her better than she knew herself. Still, maybe she could brush it off. “I’ve had a long day, but I got a lot done. I’ve put away the last of the Lawrence project and am ready for my new client to come in on Monday. Cowgills’ place is coming along.” She pushed the extra rice around her plate. “Did you see the kids last night?”

A shadow crossed over his face and she saw the anguish in his eyes before he closed them. Rena suddenly felt how petty her own worries were. Here she was upset because she was still alone when everything else in her life was fine, great even. Tucker had no one left but his niece and nephew. She was almost jealous of his impending fatherhood—would have been, if it weren’t for the tragedy that brought it on. Well, she admitted to herself, maybe she still was, just a tiny bit.

“Yes. They’re doing great, wearing Maggie right out.” He shook his head and his expression returned to concern as he zeroed in on her. “What’s wrong? I know it’s not work.” He fidgeted with his plastic fork.

The undercurrent of nerves she felt coming from him made her loath to tell him the truth. How do you tell your best friend, the man who had just lost his brother, that you were depressed because you aren’t married? How shallow was that? A glance at him told Rena he wouldn’t let up until she explained, though. “Happy couples and young children make me blue,” she said lightly, then stuffed her mouth with a large chunk of broccoli.

Anyone else would have passed it off with a commiserating look and then changed the subject.

Not Tucker.

He ran a hand down her hair and gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Don’t give up, you could find the guy of your dreams tomorrow.” There was a strange look in his eye that she didn’t know how to interpret.

She snorted. “I’ve given up on dreams of the perfect man. He doesn’t exist. It just seems . . . I’ve always been taught marriage and children were the whole point of life. No one put it in those words, but it doesn’t change the underlying message. Here I am—thirty-two, still single, and I wonder sometimes. What’s the point? What am I doing here?”

“Hey, now. You’re great, one of the top designers in the state, and a good friend.” It was clear Tucker wasn’t sure how to reply to her as he patted her back. That was fine by Rena. She didn’t expect him to have any answers. “You’re important to your clients,” he continued.

She let out a low laugh. “I’m good at my job, but what I do is hardly vital. I enjoy seeing things come together, but if I weren’t there to do it, my clients would find someone else.” She looked at him and felt guilty again. “I feel mean and selfish bringing this up now, with everything you have going on.” Tears began forming in her eyes and she blinked them back, desperate to pretend she didn’t care half as much as she did.

“Don’t. It’s okay, I understand.” He set aside his food and pulled her into his arms, offering some consolation. She reveled in the solid feel of him surrounding her. He propped his chin on her head. “You never know, a big change could be just around the corner.”

Rena hoped he felt some comfort in return. Tucker didn’t deserve to be dumped on. She hadn’t allowed her single status to bother her much over the years. Sure, when she was at church she was practically considered a spinster, but everywhere else there were plenty of people who didn’t marry until they were her age. The trouble was, most of her single coworkers seemed to be dropping like flies into matrimony, leaving her to wonder if her turn would ever come.

Copyright by Heather Justesen

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POD Like a Pro (Personalized Autograph)

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