Excerpt from Ooh, Baby!
Book #3 of the Halo Island Series
“Hi, Lily, it’s Janice.”
As if Lily didn’t recognize her sister’s voice. “It’s your mommy, Willa—at last,” she told the gurgling baby on her hip.
“Embla,” Willa said, and then blew bubbles with her little lips.
At seven months she wasn’t old enough to speak actual words, but Lily thought she understood. “Willa says hello, and that she’s excited to hear your voice.” Moving into the living room, cell phone in her free hand, Lily squeezed between the armchair and the compact desk that served as her office. “You know I adore Willa, but I’m leaving soon for that lunch with my friends. For my, ahem, birthday?”
“Omigosh, it’s April thirtieth, isn’t it? It completely slipped my mind. Thirty on the thirtieth. Happy birthday, Lily. Or should I say, old lady.”
Lily winced. “Very funny—but you’re not far behind.” Willa was heavy, and after stepping over the coffee table, which was laden with baby paraphernalia, Lily sank onto the love seat. She propped the baby close beside her, keeping an arm around her. “In just two short years you'll be thirty.”
“Ugh. I'd rather not think about that now.”
The response was typical Janice. At times she was as irresponsible as a teenager. “Back to Willa. You were supposed to be here by now. You didn’t forget that, too, did you?” Lily forced a laugh. “As if you’d forget your own daughter.”
A distinct possibility, since like their mother, when Janice fell in love she tended to forget everything but her man. At the moment she was dating a bass guitar player, and after bringing Willa from Seattle to Halo Island so Lily could watch her, Janice had rushed back to the Seattle airport and caught a flight to San Francisco for a romantic weekend. She’d returned to Seattle this morning.
When Janice remained silent, Lily went on. “I checked, and your plane was on time. You were supposed to be here by now.”
“I know, but…”
That little hesitation set off warning bells in Lily’s mind. Willa was squirming, so she laid her on her back. The baby waved her chubby arms and legs in the air and rewarded Lily with a toothless grin.
“Did you miss the ferry?” The only way to reach Halo Island was via seaplane or ferry, and the ferry was cheaper.
“Not exactly. You’ll never guess. Bobby invited me to tour with his band, all the way across the country! They might even let me sing backup! This could be my big break, and I’m just thrilled!” Every statement a joyous exclamation.
As pleased as Lily was for her sister, who had forever dreamed of earning her living as a singer, she wondered about Willa. “Great, but do you think all that traveling is good for a baby? Remember how chaotic our childhood was, and how we always swore we wouldn’t do that to our kids?”
Not that Janice had ever wanted children. But then Willa had come along. The baby’s father was long gone.
“How could I forget something that important?” Janet said.
Lily grabbed a rattle from the coffee table and handed it to her niece. Over the phone she distinctly heard an airport announcement. “You’re in the Seattle airport,” she guessed.
The realization irritated her—why hadn’t Janice said so up front? She never stated the plain truth unless it suited her, another despicable trait inherited from their mother. “You should’ve told me sooner, so I could change my lunch plans.” Too late for that now.
“Actually, I’m at LAX with Bobby and the band. Could you keep an eye on Willa while I’m gone?”
LAX? “But I—” Lily began, stopping when the baby exchanged the rattle for a hank of her hair—shouldn't have bent down—and pulled it toward her mouth.
Lily gently untangled herself from the pudgy fingers, then swiped a trail of drool off the baby’s chin. “You know tourist season starts in two weeks. I’m swamped trying to make enough jewelry for opening day.”
“You’re always swamped. This’d only be for two weeks—three, tops.”
Babies were all-consuming. Having just spent two and a half days with her niece, Lily understood this oh, so well. “You know I dearly love Willa,” she said, planting a quick kiss on the baby’s foot. “But you also know how small this houseboat is. Six hundred square feet is barely room for me, and with my jewelry stuff everywhere…”
She glanced toward the kitchen, where the small eating bar and two stools were piled with boxes of beads, fasteners, coils of metal wire, pliers, and other supplies. Lily shuddered to think what would happen should Willa get hold of any of it.
“Come on, Lily,” Janice prodded. “You’ve always loved kids. Heck, you practically raised me. You’re great with Willa—much better than I am. She adores you.”
Trust Janice to know exactly what to say. Lily was good with kids, and hoped to have a whole brood someday. She wanted what she and Janice had never had, a big, happy, stable family. With a loving husband at her side, a man who actually wanted his children, and neither of them lying to their kids about anything, ever.
Yes, Lily had been burned by Jerome, who'd wormed his way into her heart and bed before she found out he was married. And yes, that'd hurt. But it'd been over a year now, and she was ready to move on.
At the same time, what with saving up to buy Mr. Creech’s building on Main Street—he’d offered her a great deal, provided she came up with the down payment by fall—and steadily growing her jewelry business, there wasn’t much time for dating, let alone babies. Yet her biological clock had begun to tick. Loudly.
“Lily? You there?”
“Listen here, Janice. Even if you forget about my lack of space, the hazards to Willa’s safety, and the fact that I’m about to begin putting in ten-hour days, seven days a week, I’m not ready for this kind of responsibility. Not even for a few weeks.”
“I so get that, but this is my big chance, and you just said that all the traveling wouldn’t be good for Willa. I don’t exactly have anyone else to turn to. Would you leave a baby with our mother?”
Who at the moment was so wrapped up with her current lover, she barely stayed in touch. “No,” Lily replied without hesitation. She released a heavy sigh. “All right, I’ll do it. But you have to pick up Willa before tourist season begins—no later than May fourteenth.”
A Sunday. With the season officially opening May seventeenth, that seemed reasonable.
“Thanks, Lily. I really appreciate this. I’ll be in touch, or if you need to reach me, call or text.”
As the phone clicked in Lily’s ear, Willa stuck her toes in her mouth and gurgled.
Seated at a table for four plus a high chair in the Salty Dog, a restaurant favorite of locals and tourists alike, Lily shared the latest from her sister while Willa gummed a roll. “I’ll be taking care of my niece for the next two weeks.”
Joyce and Cindy, Lily’s two employees and also her friends, had already cooed over the apple-cheeked baby, who'd charmed them with her big blue eyes and rosebud mouth. Now they said nothing.
But Charity, Lily’s best friend, spoke right up. “That’s some sister you have. And with tourist season about to start. I’d like to give her a piece of my mind. Saddling you with—”
“Shh.” Lily laid a warning finger over her lips and turned her gaze to the baby. “Not in front of Willa. We’ll talk later. It isn’t every day a girl’s friends treat her to lunch, and I intend to enjoy every second.”
“Personally, I’m glad you’re doing this for your sister,” Joyce said. “It isn’t easy raising a baby alone.”
A divorced, thirty-three-year-old mom, she ought to know. She smiled. “That’s why I’m eternally indebted to you for hiring me. Where else could I earn a decent income working out of my home?” Making the jewelry Lily designed. “I'm happy to do this for you.”
“I second that,” said Cindy, age thirty-seven. Her husband, a ferry captain, had been injured in a freak accident and was on permanent disability, which didn’t pay enough to support a family of four. He helped as much as he could with their two grade-school children, cooking meals and driving them to and from school.
Cindy took care of the house and yard, and also worked for Lily, both from home and at the booth where Lily sold her jewelry during the four months it was open.
“Ditto." Charity grinned at Lily. "It’s your big day, and we’re glad for the excuse to meet for lunch. Turning thirty is painful, but you’re gonna love this new decade of your life,” she said, sounding as if she knew firsthand. And she was barely thirty-one.
“That's the plan.” Lily straightened Willa’s bib, then picked up the menu and studied it. “The grilled crab and cheese looks good. That’s what I’ll have.”
“Me, too.” Joyce closed her own menu. “I still have Kayla’s stroller, if you want to borrow it. And a ton of baby toys and clothes.”
“I could use a stroller, and since Janice only packed four outfits and a handful of toys, I’ll take it all.”
While Wanda, the pink-uniformed waitress who had worked at the Salty Dog forever, took their orders and Willa turned what was left of her roll to pulp, Lily glanced out the window. Dark clouds hung in the sky and pelted out a furious rain—not unusual for the end of April in the Pacific Northwest.
Before their food arrived, Lily opened the birthday cards from her friends. They were sweet and funny, and she laughed and passed them around. Willa crowed happily— she adored people—and the mood turned festive.
In no time, Wanda arrived with their mouthwatering food and a fresh roll for Willa. “You sure are a cutie-pie,” she cooed, earning a delighted squeal from the baby. “You girls enjoy.”
For a few moments Lily and her friends went silent except for murmurs of pleasure while they ate, with pauses to pay attention to Willa, who entertained them with her babbling and bemused facial expressions.
At last coming up for air, Charity shook her head. “Tourist season is grueling for all of us.” Like Lily, she had her own business—wind socks and chimes—and also rented a booth near the waterfront. They’d met there. “With Willa to look after, how will you get ready?”
There was the twenty-four-carat question. “Janice promised to pick her up before the season actually starts, which is something to be grateful for,” Lily said, thinking positive. “I guess I need to find a sitter. Any ideas?”
Her friends drew a blank.
Suddenly, bearing a cake ablaze with candles, her lips twitching, Wanda made her way toward them. Everyone in the restaurant—this time of year, all locals—broke into song. “Happy birthday to you."
Lily wanted to cry. She’d lived on the island only seven years, but the people were so warm and accepting, she felt as if she’d been here her whole life. When the song ended she swiped at her eyes. “Thank you all so much.”
“Aww, you’re welcome.” After giving her a fond smile, Charity turned her attention to the cake. “Now, make a wish and blow out all those candles before they melt the icing.”
“Aren’t you the comedian.” Lily didn’t think long about what she wanted. With the jewelry business growing, the best friends ever, a cozy little houseboat, and an old but reliable car, both paid for, her life was just about perfect. There was only one thing missing—a man to share it with.
Now that she was over Jerome, even if she was busy getting ready for tourist season, she ought to at least start looking for an honest, trustworthy man who liked children. Closing her eyes, she silently made her wish. Someday in the not too distant future, let me find true love.
She opened her eyes and blew with all her might, extinguishing all thirty candles plus the one to grow on. The room erupted in cheers, then everyone returned whatever they'd been doing and Wanda headed for another table.
Lily cut the cake and passed out the plates. She placed a pink rose made of icing on the tray of Willa’s high chair. The baby stuck her fingers in it, then sucked them with gusto.
“I’ll bet I know what you wished for,” Charity said. “The money to buy that building on Main Street. I'd kill for a prime location like that.”
Every artist Lily knew was green over the bargain price Mr. Creech had offered her, and she grinned. “I’m sure that if the man lived in your neighborhood instead of mine, you’d have shopped for him and brought him meals after his knee surgery. Then you'd be the one saving up for the down payment. Since I’ve already saved most of the money, I’m not about to waste a wish on that. If this year’s season is as good as the past few, I’ll have the rest of what I need in plenty of time.”
“Then what did you wish for?” Charity asked.
Cindy shook her finger. “If she tells, won’t that cancel the wish?”
“Don't be ridiculous.” Joyce leaned in and lowered her voice. “Tell us, Lily.”
Seeing no reason not to—they already knew she was ready to date again—Lily shared. “I’m not getting any younger and I want kids. I wished for a good man.”
“I’ve been trying to find one of those since my divorce,” Joyce muttered. “Lots of luck.”
“When it comes to men, none of us has had much of that.” Propping her chin in her hand, Charity sighed. “I wouldn’t mind getting married and having a baby myself. At the moment I’d settle for a decent date.”
During the brief, heavy silence that followed, Lily wondered how she’d meet someone on Halo Island, which wasn’t exactly teeming with single males. For a moment her spirits plummeted. But this was her birthday, and she wasn’t about to ruin it with depressing thoughts. She smiled brightly. “Isn’t this the best cake you ever ate?”
“Tastes homemade,” Charity said, licking her fork. “So, birthday girl, what’s on your agenda the rest of the day?”
“We need to stockpile more inventory and I’d planned on making jewelry. But now…” She glanced at Willa. “Maybe during her nap.”
“I’m happy to work more hours if you want,” Cindy volunteered. “Max needs a uniform for Little League, and we could use the extra cash.”
Joyce nodded. “I can always use more money.”
They were dependable, loyal, fast, and good at the craft, and Lily needed them as much as they did her. Plus, she loved them dearly. “You two are godsends. Feel free work as much as you want.”
Willa smeared her hair with her sticky hands, then began to fuss, signs that she was tired. “She needs a nap,” Lily said, already anticipating a few hours of work time. “I should take her home. Remember, keep your ears open for a dependable sitter.”
Later, while the baby slept in the portable crib Janice had brought and squeezed into Lily’s bedroom, Lily opened the day’s mail before settling down to work. No birthday card from her mother, which came as no surprise. Eventually she’d remember.
There were four thick catalogs from jewelry supply companies, the latest Glamour magazine and a thin, business-size envelope.
IRS, the return address said. Lily had paid both her annual and quarterly taxes. What could the IRS want from her? She opened the envelope, read the letter and felt sick.
They wanted money, lots of money, and were going to audit her. In mid-June, at the height of tourist season.
She massaged her temples, where a headache was starting. “Happy birthday to me.”