First Comes Baby

ISBN: 978-0369710666

First Comes Baby. . .

March 2022
Her to-do list was slightly out of order…

“Will you marry me?”

When Josie LeClaire went into labor alone on her farm, the single almost-mother had no one to turn to but her neighbor, Miles Halstead. Fortunately, the widowed single father was more than up to the task. And as he found himself unable to stay away from the lovely Josie—and her adorable newborn son—he realized he wanted her in his life as more than a friend.

Josie treasured what Miles had already come to mean to her and her baby. So when he uttered those four words, of course she said yes. Even if he couldn’t say the three words she really wanted to hear…

Wild Rose Sisters

Book 1: The Father of Her Sons
Book 2: First Comes Baby...  (March 2022)

Book 3: Title TBA (November 2022)

 

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Chapter One

Yanked from a deep sleep, Miles Halstead popped straight up in bed. A dog barked nearby—his border collie, Bruce.

“What the…?” Miles flipped on the bedside light. On alert at the door to the front hall, Bruce whined. Ears cocked, he waited, quivering, for Miles’s command.

“Sit,” said Miles. “Quiet.”

Bruce dropped to his haunches and stayed there.

Miles blinked away the last cobwebs of sleep. He’d heard noises, hadn’t he? Loud noises…and not just Bruce barking.

Miles grabbed for his phone. The screen lit up—3:10 a.m.—as the doorbell rang twice. Rapid-fire knocking followed.

Bruce whined again.

“Bed,” he said to the dog. Bruce was a great guy. He trotted right over to his bed in the corner, got in and curled up with his nose on his paws.

Shoving back the covers, Miles grabbed for his jeans. He yanked them on and then stuck his feet into fleece-lined slippers. He was pulling his sweatshirt on over his head as he emerged from the bedroom into the foyer.

Once at the front door, he hesitated.

Realistically, the chances of some bad actor standing on the porch with mayhem on his mind were practically nil. Miles’s nearby hometown of Heartwood, Oregon, had very little violent crime. Here at Halstead Farm, they’d never had a break-in—not once in all of Miles’s thirty-nine years.

Then again, a man never knew when trouble might come for him. Miles had done three tours in Afghanistan back in the day. His time in the Middle East had taught him that he couldn’t be too careful.

Flipping on the porch light, he peered out the beveled-glass windows that decorated the top of the door. The wide porch, with its natural stone pillars topped by boxy, Craftsman-style columns, appeared deserted. Beyond the porch roof, snow drifted lazily to the ground.

“Miles!” a woman’s desperate voice shouted from below his line of sight on the other side of the door. “Hello! Are you in there…?” The question trailed off on a groan and a single hard knock followed.

So, then. Probably not a home invasion.

Miles slammed back the dead bolt and flung the door wide to find his neighbor, Josie LeClaire, crouched below him right there on the welcome mat. Josie lived and worked on Wild Rose Farm, which bordered Miles's farm. He stared down at her in disbelief. She had her head tipped low. Both hands clutched her very pregnant belly.

“Finally!” Tossing back her long, curly hair, she glared up at him, her pretty face sheened with sweat in spite of the cold. The smattering of freckles across the light brown skin of her cheeks stood out in sharp relief. “I thought you’d never open up.”

“I’m sorry.” He dropped to a crouch beside her. “Sometimes I’m overly cautious.”

She scoffed, “You think?” But then, with a sigh, she patted his hand. “It’s okay, Miles. You’re here now and I’m grateful—and I really need a ride to Heartwood Memorial to have this baby.”

A glance at his gravel driveway showed no sign of a vehicle. “You walked here?”

“I was afraid to drive.” She stuck out her strong chin at him. “And please don’t look at me like that. Yes, I walked. It’s less than a mile from my house to yours.”

He pressed his lips together to keep from asking why she hadn’t just called someone.

Apparently, Josie guessed what he was thinking. Flipping her hair back again, she blew out both cheeks with an impatient breath. “Okay, fine. It’s like this. I lost my phone somewhere and I had no way to call anyone because a month ago I decided to save money by disconnecting the farm’s landline and having it rerouted to my cell. Not the most brilliant decision, I see that now.” She was shivering.

He needed to get her inside. “Come on in the house. It’s got to be twenty degrees out here and you shouldn’t—”

“Miles!” she cried as she manacled his wrist with one hand. With the other, she flipped all that misbehaving hair back from her flushed face again. “Contraction,” she croaked at him. “Just…let me get through it.” Her full mouth had pinched tight. “And don’t you dare leave me, okay?”

“I’m right here, going nowhere—breathe.” Miles had not only delivered calves, attended the births of more than one foal and helped shepherd a number of other four-legged creatures into the world, but he’d also coached his wife through the deliveries of his two daughters. Both times, he’d done his best to provide the mother of his children with whatever she needed, including support and encouragement. “Just breathe.”

“Breathe,” Josie repeated, her gaze locked on his face.

“That’s it. Slow. Steady.” He spoke gently, quietly. “Nice and calm…” He matched his breathing to hers. The seconds ticked by. Finally, the contraction reached its peak and faded off.

“Ashley and Hazel?” she panted.

“In town at my mom’s for the weekend. Let’s get you inside…” He got his arm around her again and tried to urge her upright.

She balked. “Miles. You’re not listening. I need to get to the hospital. Will you please drive me there?”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

Clearly doing her best not to yell at him, she drew in a slow, careful breath through her nose. It didn’t work. She ended up screeching, “Miles! Will you do it, or won’t you?”

“Josie,” he soothed. “Come on now, don’t get yourself worked up. Take it easy. Remember to breathe, okay?”

“Get myself worked up? I’m already worked up. Nothing’s going as planned. It’s a mess, Miles.” She forked her fingers through her hair again. “A complete mess.”

“Are you bleeding?”

“What? No.”

“Did your water break?”

“Uh, no. Not yet…”

“Well, I really do think you need to come inside. We’ll get hold of your doctor. Everything will be fine.”

With a groan, she started massaging her temples. “I don’t get it. Why won’t you listen to me?”

“Because it’s snowing, and I think you should talk to your doctor first.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Miles. I have to ask. Who made you the expert here?”

“Well, I wouldn't call myself an expert. But I did deliver Ashley on the side of the road about three hours after Fiona went into labor.”

"Wow," Josie said softly.

"Yeah. It was pretty scary…" His older daughter had been born in the cab of a 1986 F-150 pickup halfway to the hospital. When he thought back to that night, he could still hear Fiona’s screams of pain and terror. In the end, Ashley came out screaming as loud as her mother. At the sight of the tiny girl, Fiona had stopped shrieking, demanded that he hand over her baby and then cried with sheer joy.

It had all turned out fine. Mother and daughter came through the birth just great. That night, he’d been the happiest man alive…

“Miles?” Josie was staring at him, worry crunching her eyebrows together. “Are you all right?”

He pushed thoughts of Fiona and her betrayals from his mind to focus on the pregnant woman crouched beside him now.

Josie gasped as another contraction took her. She moaned and panted. He did his part and talked her through it.

“I want to push,” she wailed. “I shouldn’t want to push. Not yet. It’s too soon to push…”

Miles made soothing noises and reminded her of her breathing until that contraction finally crested and passed, at which point he accepted that he needed to stop arguing with her. “Okay, how about this? I really don’t feel right about driving you, but let me get my phone and I’ll call you an ambulance.”

“Wait!” She grabbed his arm again in a death grip. “I think my water just broke. And why is it I’m getting the feeling that this baby’s coming out very soon…?”

"I have that feeling, too. And it’s freezing out here. Will you please come in the house?”

She wouldn’t even stand up. In fact, she slapped at his hand as he tried again to help her upright. “Just give me a minute, will you?”

“It’s like this,” he said gently. “You’re having that baby, and it's happening fast.”

“It’s fifteen minutes to the hospital.”

“It should be fifteen minutes, weather permitting. But it’s been snowing for hours.”

“The wind’s died down, though. The snow hasn’t piled up much.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s safe on the highway right now.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine. Really, I…” Her voice trailed off. She blinked, spread her hands protectively over the large ball of her belly and stared down at it. He watched her face as understanding finally dawned for her.

This might be her first baby, but Josie was a farmer and a damn good veterinarian. It had taken her a while, but she was getting her body’s message now.

“Oh, my god.” She gaped. “You might be right. It came on so quickly. This is precipitous labor, isn’t it? How can that be? First babies are supposed to be late. Labor usually takes hours and hours…”

He nodded and made all the right sympathetic sounds as he finally succeeded in getting her to her feet. “Come on. My room’s right here at the front of the house…” He got her over the threshold and shoved the door shut. “This way.”

In his room, he took her to the corner chair.

“I can’t sit there. I’ll leak all over it.”

“I don’t care.”

“Well, I do.” Panting and groaning, she tossed her shoulder bag on the chair and then dropped to a crouch under the window. “Could you get me a towel, please?”

“Absolutely.” He ducked into his bathroom and grabbed one off the rack. “Here you go.” She took it. “Now, just let me get the bed ready, okay? We need to make you more comfortable.” He smoothed the top sheet and straightened the blankets. “I need something waterproof…”

“Shower curtain maybe?” she suggested on another groan.

“There’s one in the back bathroom.” He was already headed for the door.

“And more towels, Miles. Please…”

“Don’t worry. I hear you. I’ll get those, too.”

In the bathroom off the other downstairs bedroom, he took the shower curtain off the rings as fast as he could and then raced to the utility-room cabinets for a spare top sheet and a stack of towels.

As he entered the front bedroom again, Josie announced, “I need to push, Miles. It needs to happen soon.”

“A minute more.” He dropped the towels on the chair next to her, spread the curtain on the bed and covered it with the sheet. “Just try to hold off until we get you up on this bed.”

“I’ll get on the bed myself. You call my doctor.”

“What about that ambulance?”

She shook her head. “Later. Probably. Just my doctor for now. I don’t know the number offhand, but her name is Contreras—Anita Contreras.”

Josie had already shucked off her outwear and most of her clothes, including a pair of shearling boots. Dressed now in a big shirt that came to midthigh and a pair of heavy socks, she grabbed another towel and climbed onto the bed. She spread out the towel, then perched on it, whipped off wet underpants and tossed them in the general direction of the rest of her discarded clothes.

Miles googled the doctor’s number, made the call and got an answering service. A woman promised that Dr. Contreras would call back soon.

“The call service will contact your doctor right away,” he explained to Josie as he hung up.

“Great,” she said grimly. Still panting, she blew an errant coil of hair out of her eyes.

“I’m just going to go and wash my hands, Josie. I’ll be right back, okay?”

“Go.” She waved him away.

He scrubbed up and returned in a flash. Things got serious after that. Josie moaned, yowled and panted. Miles scrambled to obey every order she growled at him.

Between bouts of screaming and firing commands at him, Josie talked. She said a boatload of stuff she probably would never have shared with him under any other circumstances.

“I was so sure of how it would be,” she moaned. “Me and my baby and Payton and Auntie M, a family of women, supporting each other, with Payton and me raising our children together.” Josie was one of three half sisters, each with a different dad, all three of them raised by their Aunt Marilyn on Wild Rose Farm, where Josie lived on her own now. Until recently, Payton, the youngest sister, had lived at the farm, too, along with her preschool-age twin sons. “Now Auntie M’s off in Salinas with Ernesto—” Ernesto Bezzini was Marilyn’s boyfriend “—and Payton’s in Seattle.” Recently, Payton had married and moved north with her new husband, the father of her twins. “They’ll both be here—Auntie M and Payton—on Wednesday, which is two weeks before I’m even due. This shouldn’t be happening. We had it all planned….” Josie let out a wail of frustration.

And then, hardly pausing for a breath, she switched subjects.

She told him all about how she’d chosen her sperm donor, of all things. “I wanted someone smart and tall and athletic. The donor I used is six-three. He skis and runs marathons and he graduated college with a three-point-eight GPA.”

Miles nodded and made encouraging noises as she babbled away. He never would have guessed that his neighbor had a sperm donor—a literal one, a man she’d chosen from a list of donors at a sperm bank, and someone she’d never actually met.

When Miles had first noticed that Josie was pregnant, he’d assumed there must be a guy in the picture, at least for the sperm donation.

He wondered if his daughters knew how Josie had gotten pregnant? He wouldn’t be surprised if they did. Both of his girls liked Josie. They enjoyed hanging out with her—well, maybe not Ashley so much anymore. His older daughter was too busy with her friends to have much interest in anyone out of high school. But Hazel, who was thirteen now, still loved helping Josie care for the various injured and ill animals she was always nursing back to health in an old barn at Wild Rose.

Miles could easily imagine Josie mentioning how she’d chosen to become pregnant to one or both of his girls. That didn’t mean his daughters would have shared the information with him. They tended to be reluctant to discuss anything remotely sexual with him. He understood their hesitance about such subjects and realized he probably should try harder to get them to open up about that stuff with him.

But discussing reproduction with his daughters made him at least as uncomfortable as it seemed to make them. He’d gotten through the basic talks well enough—how babies are made, how protection is necessary each and every time.

That was pretty much as far as it went.

Josie kept talking. “Being a single mom made so much sense in theory, you know? But the closer I got to my due date, the more I wondered what I thought I was doing. Seriously, whoever said I was qualified to take care of a newborn human?”

He fed her ice chips, wiped her face with a cool cloth and said what he figured she needed to hear, that she would be a great mom, the best mom ever in the history of moms. “My girls think the world of you, Josie. You’re helpful, you’re kind and you care.”

“But can I do this?” Josie asked, her voice full of emotion. “Can I make it on my own at the farm with a baby to look after?”

“Of course, you can.”

All at once, she was crying. Tears streamed down her face. “I just…don’t feel prepared. I had to take maternity leave from the animal clinic. I told them I needed a few months off. It was just too much, with the baby coming and the farm to take care of.” Josie had been on call for the clinic. She treated livestock and pets at all the local farms—Halstead Farm included. “I’m in over my head, not ready, not up for this, no!”

Miles’s phone rang. It was Josie’s ob-gyn. He felt infinite gratitude to Dr. Contreras for choosing that moment to return his call. His neighbor could use a distraction. “It’s your doctor.”

“At last.” Josie sniffed and swiped the tears away with the back of her hand. “Would you put her on speaker, please?”

Miles punched the speaker icon. “You want me here or…?”

“Just don’t go far,” she said.

He handed over his cell. “I’ll take Bruce out for a minute.”

Josie nodded as the doctor started talking. Miles clicked his tongue at the dog, who jumped up and led the way.

When they came back in, Bruce went to the kitchen, probably in search of his water bowl.

In the bedroom, Dr. Contreras seemed to be wrapping up the call. “You’re doing great, Josie. You and your baby are going be fine. As soon as I say goodbye, I will call you an ambulance. They should be there shortly. They’ll take good care of you and bring you to the hospital, where I will be waiting for you.”

“But I, um…”

“Yes?”

Josie seemed to have no clue of what to say next. She looked at Miles for help. Pasting on an understanding expression was the best he could do. Josie’s shoulders sagged. “Never mind,” she said to her doctor. “Thanks. I’ll see you at the hospital.”

“Excellent,” Dr. Contreras said firmly. “Just keep on as you have been. I’ll need your neighbor’s address.”

Miles rattled it off.

“Got it,” the doctor said. With a cheerful “I’ll see you at Heartwood Memorial,” she ended the call.

For a moment, Josie stared blankly into the middle distance. “She had me check my own dilation and effacement. We’re close, Miles. She says we’re doing great.”

“You bet we are,” Miles agreed with all the enthusiasm he could muster.

“Here you go.” She handed him back his phone.

He stuck it in a pocket and picked up the bowl with the ice chips in it. Not all of it had melted yet. “How about more ice chips?”

Josie grabbed his arm for the umpteenth time. “I’m already in over my head with work at the farm. What if I can’t do this at all? What if I crash and burn and my baby suffers and grows up to hate me?”

Miles reassured her some more that she could do it, that all would be well, that his girls adored her and so would her baby and he would be right next door, ready to help out whenever she needed him.

“But my baby’s a boy and boys aren’t girls!” she moaned.

“Josie. Come on now. Think about it. You looked after Payton’s boys all the time when they still lived at the farm, didn’t you?”

“You’re right,” she grudgingly agreed.

“Open up.” He fed her a spoonful of watery ice.

She sucked and swallowed. “I did watch my nephews all the time. I miss Penn and Bailey so much! And maybe you're right and it will all be fine. Maybe I’ll manage after all, raising a boy…” She burst into tears and started in all over again, bemoaning her lost phone and her sister and aunt who weren’t here when she needed them.

Miles repeated the soothing things he’d already said: that she would be fine, the phone would turn up and she would be a good mom. A terrific mom. The best mom ever.

“Not convinced,” she replied mournfully. “But I appreciate all your efforts to ease my mind. You’re a good man, Miles Halstead—somewhat clueless, it’s true, but nobody’s perfect.”

Ten minutes later, she was screaming, her shirt pulled up above her breasts, all modesty long gone.

The baby’s head crowned. With the next push, a scrunched-up little face appeared.

Once both shoulders had emerged, it was over in seconds. The red-faced, wailing baby boy slid from his mother’s body and straight into Miles’s waiting arms.

“My baby.” Tears streamed down Josie’s cheeks. “My baby’s here…”

Miles did a quick inventory of the sticky little guy. He looked fine and had all his fingers and toes. Sounded fine, too, with that loud, furious cry at being suddenly ejected into the big, wide world.

Over the baby’s cries, he heard the ambulance in the distance, the siren blaring, growing louder.

“About time,” Josie muttered. Lights flashed in the front window as the ambulance pulled up. The noise and sudden brightness startled the tiny boy. He let out a loud grunt of surprise and his eyes popped open in his red, contorted face.

“Well, look at you.” Miles couldn’t help but smile as he and Josie’s son stared at each other. Outside, the blaring siren stopped.

“Is he okay?” Josie asked in a tired voice.

“He looks great to me.” Careful of the still-connected umbilical cord, Miles transferred the baby to his mother’s waiting arms.

“Hello, sweetheart.” She cradled his gooey body against her chest. “I’m so glad you’re here.” She seemed composed now, though the tears still streamed unheeded from her eyes. Glancing up at Miles, she asked, “How can I ever thank you?”

“No thanks are needed. You know that.” Awkwardly, he patted her shoulder. The doorbell rang. “I’ll let them in…”

She was cooing at the baby again as he went to the door.

When he ushered the two EMTs inside, one of them asked Miles if he was the dad.

The question gave him the oddest feeling of pleasure, reminding him how happy he’d been at the births of each of his daughters. Before Fiona died, he’d still sometimes hoped they might have a boy, too.

But that was back when he had no idea that he was living a lie.

“I’m not the dad, just a neighbor.” He pointed the two men toward the open bedroom door as his phone bleated in his pocket.

It was Rafe Jenks, who’d worked on Halstead Farm since Miles was in his teens. Rafe lived in a single-wide trailer near the horse pasture. “Miles, are you okay? I saw the ambulance.”

Briefly, Miles explained about Josie and the baby.

“Good thing she made it your house,” said Rafe.

“Yeah.”

“Give her my best, huh?”

“Will do.”

As he put his phone back in his pocket, Josie caught his eye. “Could you hand me my bag?” One of the EMTs had the baby at that moment, so Josie’s hands were free.

Miles grabbed the bag from the chair by the window and gave it to her. "Rafe sends good wishes."

Josie managed a weary smile. "Thank him for me."

"Will do."

She dug out her keys and then turned those amber eyes on him again. “You’ve been a lifesaver. I hate to ask for more, but…”

“I’ll look for the phone and bring it to you when I find it.” He took the keys.

“Thank you.” She frowned.

“What else?”

She winced. “Tink’s alone in the house and I’m not sure how long I’ll be at the hospital.” Tinkerbell was Josie’s sweet-natured Dutch shepherd.

“I’ll bring her over here.”

“I owe you.” Josie gave him a wobbly smile. “I owe you so big.”

She was still thanking him profusely as they put her in the ambulance.

Miles called Rafe as the ambulance drove away.

“Everything okay?” the older man asked.

“It’s all good. Josie and the baby are on their way to Memorial.” He explained about the missing phone. “So I need to find it and take it to her. I shouldn’t be gone long, but Josie’s on her own and she might need me to stick around at Memorial. You think you could keep an eye on Tinkerbell and Bruce while I’m gone?”

“Sure, I’ll get Bruce,” Rafe said. “Just leave him at the house.” Rafe had a key. “You bring Josie’s dog to me and I’ll look after her, too. It’s no problem.”

“Thanks. And I hate to ask…”

Rafe gave a rusty chuckle. “I’m a big boy. I can manage whatever needs doing around here on my own for a few hours. What about at Josie’s place?”

“Not sure. I’ll need to check with her…and on second thought, I’ll just take Bruce with me to Josie’s, pick up Tinkerbell and bring them both to you.”

Rafe was always razzing him about how he “coddled” his dog. Miles braced himself for a teasing remark or two. But Rafe didn’t get on him. “Works for me.”

“Thanks, man.”

“Anytime.”

With Bruce panting happily on the seat beside him, Miles drove his crew cab the short distance to Josie’s small house on Wild Rose Farm. The house was one of three built in a circle with a wide, sloping grassy space between them—grassy in the warmer months, anyway. Now, a blanket of fresh snow covered the ground between the three dark cottages.

When Miles mounted the steps to the porch, Tink barked once, sharply, from inside Josie’s house. He unlocked the door. She was waiting right there on the other side, a good protector.

She seemed to recognize him and gave an eager little whine when he pushed open the door.

“Tink, sit,” he said, and she did.

The search for Josie’s phone took about three minutes. He grabbed it and went looking for the other things Josie might need. She was a practical woman, after all, a woman who tended to plan ahead, the type to have a suitcase all packed, ready if needed for an overnight hospital stay. He found that suitcase waiting in the closet of her spare bedroom, along with a car seat and a fully stocked diaper bag. He loaded everything into his pickup on one side of the back seat, leaving the other side for Bruce. Tink, he took up front with him.

After dropping the dogs off with Rafe, Miles hit the road. The trip took fifteen minutes, exactly as Josie had said it would. Though snow had piled up on the shoulder, the road itself was clear all the way to town and also on the surface streets that led to Heartwood Memorial.

The ease of the trip had him feeling a little foolish that he hadn’t taken Josie straight to the hospital when he’d found her crouched at his front door. They definitely would have made it before the baby arrived and she could have skipped the ambulance ride.

But then he grinned to himself, thinking of that moment right after the birth, when the little guy’s eyes popped open, and he made that sound of complete surprise. Overall, helping Josie have her baby had made Miles feel good—helpful and competent. Needed in a way he hadn’t felt in a few years now. He just really hoped the new mom and her baby had come through in good shape.

And did she have insurance? He would definitely step up and cover the cost of the ambulance ride if she didn’t—after all, that she’d had to deliver her baby in his bedroom was on him.

At the small hospital, the lone woman in reception told him to have a seat the waiting area. He’d gone to school with one of the nurses who worked there, Darlene Kent. Darlene’s daughter, Aurora, was best friends with Ashley.

Miles asked for Darlene and luck was with him. Aurora’s mom came on duty at six and had just arrived for her shift. Darlene vouched for him, so they let him in to visit Josie and the baby.

In Josie’s room, the blackout curtains were drawn. She was sound asleep. The baby, in the hospital bassinet beside her, was sleeping, too.

The other bed was empty, so the room was really quiet.

Miles considered collecting the suitcase and baby stuff from the truck and leaving them there. He could put her phone on the bed tray, where she would see it when she woke up. She looked so fragile, though, in the dim light that streamed in from the hallway—fragile and conked out from exhaustion.

It felt wrong to leave her and the little guy here all alone. Miles took off his heavy jacket and wool cap and dropped them on one of the guest chairs. He took the other chair just as the baby started fussing.

Jumping up again, he bent over the bassinet. “Shh, it’s okay…” he whispered, and gathered the small boy in his arms. The red-faced newborn squinted up at him, his tiny, wrinkled hands curled into fists, his small mouth working. He weighed so little, like something that might blow away in a brisk wind. Had his girls ever been this small?

“How are you doing?” he asked in a whisper. “Feeling okay?”

The baby made grunting sounds. Miles thought a diaper change might be necessary.

But then the kid yawned some more and closed his eyes with a soft, contented sigh. Miles walked him back and forth for a few minutes, making certain he’d gone to sleep again.

Carefully, Miles returned the boy to the bassinet and sat down again. Just for a few minutes, he thought, in case the baby woke up again—a few minutes, and he would put on his coat and hat, bring in the baby stuff from the pickup and go home.