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“Flush-mount hanger. Self-drilling hanger. D-ring hanger. Bear-claw hanger. Sawtooth hanger. Hanging system.”
Mabel Antonoff propped her hands on her hips, gazing up at the towering array of hooks and wires, and sighed.
Why did hanging a picture have to be so complicated?
The heavy, thudding sound of several sets of steel-toed boots racing toward her jerked her out of her picture-hanging mind spiral, and she glanced up just in time to see two store employees racing past.
“Call 911,” one of them barked breathlessly into his walkie-talkie. “We have a medical emergency in aisle twelve.”
Mabel didn’t waste a second. She dropped the array of hanging apparatuses she’d compiled and took off running.
She’d barely gone three steps when the rearmost employee turned to her with his hands up. “Ma’am, there’s no need to be alarmed, but I need to ask you to—”
“It’s okay, I’m a nurse.”
He looked doubtful, and she sighed inwardly. She was, in fact, a master’s-qualified advanced practice nurse, a certified nurse-midwife, and a credentialed surgical first assistant, but she frequently came up against the assumption that her job title meant she spent her days drawing blood and fluffing pillows.
She was on the brink of informing him that she knew just as much as the paramedics who’d be on their way when she heard a distinctly solid, belly-rooted moan that could only mean one thing.
Someone was giving birth.
She darted around the employee, who thankfully gave up on his effort to delay her and followed instead. She sprinted through the aisles, pausing only long enough to read the numbers, before taking a hard right at aisle twelve—plumbing and bathroom fixtures.
Mabel elbowed her way through a pack of well-intentioned onlookers to find three men crouched around a heavily pregnant woman sitting on the floor: a bewildered-looking store manager, according to his shirt; a semihysterical man wringing his hands who she suspected was the soon-to-be father; and a broad-shouldered man whose authoritative posture suggested he’d stepped in to get the situation under control.
Mabel ignored everyone except the expectant mother. She knelt beside the woman and took her hand, smiling warmly.
“Hey, hon. I’m Mabel, and I’m a midwife. What’s your name?”
“Ashley,” she said through clenched teeth.
“How far along are you, Ashley?”
“Forty weeks and three days. My husband thought walking around the hardware store might help bring on labor.” Ashley shot the hand-wringing man a lethal glare.
Mabel relaxed slightly. The baby was full-term—and in a hurry, as evidenced by Ashley’s long, gut-deep moan as another contraction overtook her.
She glanced up at the manager, who stood behind Ashley. “Can we get some clean towels or blankets? Maybe a couple of pillows?”
The manager nodded briskly and bolted down the aisle, shoes squeaking on the linoleum floor.
In her peripheral vision Mabel sensed the third man—the take-charge one—rise to his feet and start to back away.
“Not so fast,” she addressed him, not taking her eyes off Ashley’s face as she beckoned him back with her free hand. “Can you get everyone out of here and set up some kind of perimeter? We can’t block the route for the paramedics when they arrive but maybe you could find—”
“Mabel, it’s me.”
She didn’t recognize the voice. Oh God, was it someone she’d dated? Coaching herself to be polite despite her growing exasperation, she glanced over her shoulder.
Suddenly it all made sense: this was a dream. There was no other possible explanation for the presence of Sam Strauss, the man she’d once believed was the love of her life and whom she hadn’t seen in over a decade, here in this hardware store in Orchard Hill, Missouri.
But if this was a dream, shouldn’t he look younger? Closer to the teenage version she’d known? Not that this Sam hadn’t improved with age. In fact he looked better at thirty than he had at eighteen. His shoulders had broadened and his cognac-brown hair remained thick and full. He wore well-cut jeans, an unremarkably gray long-sleeve shirt, and paint-splattered sneakers. His stormy-sea eyes were sharper and wiser, yet the faint creases bracketing his mouth suggested he’d found plenty to smile about over the years.
Mabel supposed she should pinch herself, or shake her head really hard, or find some other way to snap out of this hallucination. That’s probably what this was, she concluded, realizing she’d skipped lunch. If she squinted at just the right angle she’d see it wasn’t Sam at all, but someone she knew who looked enough like him to—
“I want a divorce,” Ashley growled before losing herself to another contraction, her eyes screwed shut, her teeth bared.
Mabel wrenched her attention back to Ashley, leaving the Sam-or-not question aside for now. As the expectant mother groaned, the manager returned with armfuls of throw blankets and decorative pillows, all with the tags still on.
When Ashley’s contraction subsided, Mabel gently swept the hair off her sweaty forehead and spoke in a gentle tone. “Is this your first baby?”
Ashley shook her head. “Second. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Any complications with that one?”
“None. She came fast, though. Six hours, start to finish.”
“Looks like her little brother or sister is competing for the record. Are you feeling any pressure?”
“Lots. It’s a boy, by the way.” Ashley flashed her a brief, happy smile that reassured Mabel even more than the knowledge she’d already had one uncomplicated—if swift—delivery, so was statistically likely to have a repeat performance.
“How would you feel about standing up? Maybe we can get you to hang on to this bar here.”
Ashley rose shakily to her feet, and Mabel guided her to a display wall for towel rails. She yanked on one experimentally and then, satisfied it wouldn’t give way, urged Ashley to hold on. With Ashley’s okay, she draped the biggest blanket across her back to give her privacy, and then asked her husband to discreetly remove his wife’s underwear. Her midwife’s instinct told her this baby was imminent—a suspicion instantly confirmed as Ashley groaned in a way that signaled she was almost ready to push.
She turned back to Maybe Sam, who, she concluded gloomily on second glance, was Definitely Sam.
He was also Inexplicably Sam. What on earth had brought him back to the hometown he hadn’t visited since the day he left for college?
That was one of a thousand questions flashing in her mind as she looked at him, but like the others, it would have to wait. While she’d been settling Ashley he’d done a fantastic job of corralling the onlookers, even hanging rather lovely chenille throws at both ends of the aisle to block rubberneckers while leaving the way clear for the first responders—whenever they managed to beat the pouring rain and rush-hour traffic to get here. She didn’t really need him for anything else—but if she sent him away, would she ever see him again?
Did it matter?
“I have advanced first aid training,” he offered, as if he knew she needed a reason to keep him around. “And I attended a birth once. In the field.”
“The field,” she echoed, trying to ignore the uncanny way he was still able to read her, still preternaturally capable of sensing what she needed. She didn’t want to think about that, or whether he meant a cow field or a daisy field or a freaking battlefield. The store manager had vanished, potentially on a quest to better color coordinate the array of linens, and she could use whatever pair of hands she could find.
Even if they belonged to Sam Strauss.
“See if you can get these blankets open.” She tossed him a couple that had plastic tags keeping them folded. With her foot she shoved another one on the floor between Ashley’s legs.
Ashley’s moans were primal now, so fast and intense that she’d given up cursing at her husband, who by now was white-faced and wide-eyed as he stroked his wife’s back.
When the next contraction finished Ashley glanced sideways at Mabel, her expression desperate. “I don’t think I can do this.”
“Of course you can,” Mabel replied cheerfully. “And anyway, what other options do you have right now?”
Ashley’s next moan was anger-fueled and determined, and Mabel smiled to herself.
Mabel ordered Sam to stand behind Ashley’s husband, then carefully rolled up the blanket.
“The head is right there,” she reported. “Another push and it’ll be out. You’ve got this.”
Mabel crouched behind Ashley, totally focused as she prepared to guide this brand-new person earthside.
This was her favorite part of every birth. It reminded her of taking a breath before jumping into a pool, that last-second inhalation, the final step before trading the safety of dry land for the exhilarating uncertainty of the water. A new life was imminent, on the brink of bursting into the world, and there was nothing left to do but breathe, hope, and pray.
Ashley pushed, practically silent with the effort, her knuckles white on the towel rail. Her husband patted her shoulder faintly, staring down the length of her back. Sam was motionless beside him, his eyes narrowed in focus, palpably vigilant.
Mabel closed her eyes for a single second and thought, as she always did, of her biblical predecessors, Shiphrah and Puah, who defied Pharaoh to protect a generation of Hebrew sons. She recalled their courage, let it fill her heart, and opened her eyes with renewed bravery and confidence.
One final, unholy shriek from Ashley, and it was done. The baby boy slid into Mabel’s hands, ruddy and blinking and hollering in fury.
Mabel quickly checked his vitals and then handed him to Ashley. Sam hastily assembled a nest of blankets from the stack he’d unpackaged and Ashley’s husband eased her down into it. Mabel helped Ashley tuck the new baby beneath the neckline of her dress, checked there was enough slack in the cord, and stood back with her hands on her hips, pleased with the scene before her.
Ashley smiled up at her, twin streaks of tears splicing her cheeks. “Thank you.”
“Sister, you did all the work. I just—”
A thundering crash cut her off, followed what sounded like a herd of elephants pushing a giant roller skate. An instant later Sam’s cleverly hung screen was swept aside and two paramedics raced toward them with a stretcher between them—and a pack of curious shoppers following closely behind.
“You missed the main event, but I’ll catch you up. Baby boy is full-term at forty weeks and three days. Initial Apgar was nine, and—”
Was she being haunted by the ghosts of ex-boyfriends past, present, and future? Mabel turned slowly toward the other paramedic, praying it wasn’t that awful guy who’d taken her to the seafood place last month—and then sighed in relief.
“Jonah,” she greeted her friend Ellie’s boyfriend warmly. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“Heard some rock star midwife delivered a baby in the bathroom aisle. Also, I need some light switch covers. Don’t suppose you’ve seen any?”
“Can’t say I have, but then I was slightly distracted by a medical emergency.”
“Which you handled more than capably.” He smiled approvingly. “We’ll take it from here, and you can get back to your shopping.”
“Actually I’m going to hightail it out of here before they charge me for all the blankets.” She nodded to the pile, now abandoned as Ashley and her newborn were safely on the stretcher.
“I saw the store manager—he seems pretty happy. I’d say there’s a gift card with your name on it.”
Mabel said goodbye to Jonah, and then to Ashley, who looked so calm and contented it was hard to believe she’d just given birth in the middle of a hardware store. Mabel gave the husband her number, just in case the paramedics needed any more details from the birth.
Then it was time for the task she’d been avoiding: Sam. Why was he back? For how long? Probably wasn’t any of her business, but she wanted to know regardless, if only so she could studiously avoid him until he left again.
She turned toward where he’d been leaning against one of the shelving brackets, her shoulders squared, bright smile in place.
He was gone.
“Of course,” she muttered, unsure whether she was more disgusted with him or herself. She’d been foolish to even entertain the notion that anything had changed in the last twelve years. He’d left her then—no surprise that he’d left her now, too.
She started toward the door, coaching herself to focus on the win. She’d delivered a healthy, happy baby in pretty damn trying circumstances. Ashley and her husband—she hadn’t even bothered learning his name, she realized with a wry smile—now had a cozy family of four. One girl, one boy. A perfect balance—exactly what she used to hope for, back when she thought that future might be possible for her, too.
She could see sunlight as she approached the entrance. The rain had stopped, and the clouds had parted. She’d coaxed another new life into the world, safe and sound.
No way would she let the ghost of Sam Strauss steal her joy.
Especially not now, with less than two weeks left before Rosh Hashanah. The date happened to coincide with the six-month anniversary of her divorce, and she’d promised herself a new start this year—a real one.
No more dating. No more swiping through apps, no more awkward text exchanges, no more stilted conversations over lukewarm coffee, no more carefully worded rejections, and absolutely no more obsessive phone-checking only to be ghosted for the umpteenth time.
No more searching, or chasing, or hoping at all. Every man she’d ever loved had left. She was done running after men who didn’t deserve her. The one who was meant to be hers—if he existed at all—would walk straight toward her.
She’d been so absorbed in her thoughts, she hadn’t noticed the crowd outside the store—not until she practically walked headfirst into a TV camera.
Suddenly she was surrounded. Reporters from local TV stations thrusting microphones toward her, hordes of faceless observers filming her on their phones, and a raft of store employees applauding and cheering. She was startled, excited, and feeling distinctly unmoored.
This was what she’d been waiting for.
End of Excerpt