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Chapter One


 

Jillian Foley looked down at the bouquet in her lap. The irises were already beginning to wilt in the late summer heat. They could use some water, she thought. She could use some water, too. At her feet, Sabrina stirred in her baby carrier. Jillian rocked the carrier with her toe and the baby settled and fell back to sleep. Jillian felt envy over the infant’s oblivion to the world around her.

She wished she could shut out the world so easily. She wished she could just go to sleep and shut out the surroundings. The hall of the courthouse was stuffy. The clerk they’d seen upon arrival said the air conditioning was broken. Austin’s mother had instantly started complaining.

“You should have that sort of thing fixed right away,” she chided. “The comfort of your visitors should be paramount, especially since our taxes pay your salary.”

Jillian knew what the clerk was thinking. No one asked you to come here, lady. Jillian wished the clerk would just say it so she could respond, “Believe me, if I could be anywhere else but here I would.”

Austin came and sat back down beside her.

“There’s two more couples ahead of us and then we’re up,” he said. We’re up. Jillian thought that was a pretty fitting comment from a guy who used to play minor league ball. She wondered if he also felt he was about to step up to the plate and hit one big strike.

“Your flowers are on the floor!” Martha Bellaford stomped over and snatched the bouquet up. “I paid for these, young lady. You could be more grateful!” At Jillian’s feet the baby began to fidget and whimper.

“Did I wake my grandbaby? Did I? Did I?” The older woman cooed the words at the baby as she knelt and pinched the baby’s cheeks. Sabrina began to bawl. Jillian wanted to scream. Now the baby would cry through the entire wedding. She leaned over, undid the harness around the infant’s tiny chest and picked her up. Sabrina could cry for both of them.

“Give her to me. I’ll take her,” Austin’s mother demanded.

“No.” Jillian said resolutely and shot the woman a look that she hoped would remove any doubt about how much she despised her.

“Austin….” Martha said, pointing to Jillian as if she expected her son to snatch the child from her arms and hand it over. But this time, he came through for Jillian.

“Don’t push it, Mom,” he said. “This is hard enough on her as it is, OK?”

It was the first time that Austin had acknowledged what Jillian wondered he even realized, that she did not want to marry him. That she was only doing this because she and Sabrina was about to be kicked out of her small apartment after she’d lost her job waiting tables and the Burrito Barn. Her next student loan fund wouldn’t be available for another two months. She was scared. When Austin had come to her and told her that his mother had found out that he’d fathered a child and was about to strip him of his inheritance if he didn’t marry the mother, she’d felt stunned and trapped.

“It was a one night stand,” she’d said when he showed up on her doorstep. She still wondered how he’d found her; did he even know her last name? Later she’d learn that he’d tracked her down through Toby, the manager of the O’Kelly’s where she’d been working the night Austin came in with some of his friends.

“I know,” he said, and explained that this was a business arrangement. Nothing would be expected but to keep up the pretense of a marriage for a year or so, long enough to appease his mother who claimed he’d ‘disgraced’ her by fathering a child out of wedlock.

“Why should I marry you?” she’d asked hotly. “Not that I care, but you haven’t been here for the pregnancy, the delivery, anything! I’ve done everything, paid for everything..”

“Look, I didn’t know until just recently. One of the guys who was with me that night…you two have a common acquaintance that’s a friend of one of your more talkative girlfriends. She told him you were pregnant by a one night stand and the baby was born in February. She said it was by a guy named Austin. I was going to come around and help. I just wanted to do it in a way that mama wouldn’t find out….”

His voice faded. He looked embarrassed. He looked up, looked around

“Hey,” he said. “You need this, too. I saw the eviction notice on your door, Jillian. Let me be in your life and Sabrina’s. I want to be. We’ll stay together for a year. I’ll make sure you’re compensated. After that….”

“Foley-Bellaford?” Jillian startled as their names were called. Sabrina was fretting and sucking on her little fist.

“What a beautiful baby,” the clerk said as they walked into the makeshift wedding chapel of the courthouse. “How old is she?”

“Two months,” Jillian said.

“Well congratulations,” the clerk said. She turned to Austin. “Are you the proud papa?”

“Yes,” Austin said, and smiled at Sabrina. When he’d first met his daughter, he’d seemed almost afraid of her. But now that he’d satisfied himself that she would not break he picked her up on his own and Jillian often found him just marveling at her while she slept.

“I’m the grandmother.” Martha Bellaford’s nasal tone disrupted the pleasant memory she was trying to have.

“Any more guests coming?” the clerk asked. Jillian knew what was implied. The clerk was curious as to whether any of her family might be attending her wedding.

“No,” Jillian said. She’d been on her own since thirteen. If her parents didn’t care she was now a mother, it logically followed that they wouldn’t care that she’d become a wife.

The ceremony began. A portly female judge with a kind face and a shock of unruly white hair read the vows. “Do you, Austin Wentworth Bellaford take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife, to love, honor and cherish her through sickness and in health, through times of happiness and travail, until death do you part? 

He did. Jillian could feel his eyes on her but she could not meet them. She was still clutching the baby, and glanced up at him as he said, “I do.”

“Do you, Jillian Rose Foley, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, to love, honor, and cherish him through sickness and in health, through times of happiness and travail, until death do you part?”

Jillian crossed her fingers under the hem of Sabrina’s gown. She may have made some mistakes in her life, but she was not entirely comfortable promising to spend the rest of her life with someone when they both knew it was a temporary arrangement.

“I do,” she said, looking not at Austin but at Sabrina. She was doing this for her child, after all. Her heart felt heavy. The things we do for our kids, she thought.

They were pronounced man and wife.

“You may kiss the bride,” the clerk said. Austin leaned in. Jillian had not kissed him since they’d had sex that one night. Both had been tipsy. He’d waited for her to get off work. They’d gone out. It had just been for a drink, or so she’d thought. But she’d felt an attraction to him. She still felt it. She let him kiss her on the lips.

Martha stepped up and interrupted the kiss. “I’ll take the baby now,” she said, her arms outstretched. She had a calculating, satisfied expression on her face that made Jillian nervous.

“She’s fine with me,” she informed the older woman.

Her new mother-in-law scowled.   “You need to sign the certificate, dear,” she said tightly, forcing a smile.

“Her father can hold her while I do,” Jillian said. She handed the baby to Austin. He took her, more confident now than he’d been when she’d first placed the baby in his arms just a few weeks earlier.

“It’s OK, mom,” he said. “I need to get used to this anyway.”

“Yes, you’d better get used to it. You’re not going to be a part-time father, Austin. You’re a fulltime father, and your child’s well-being must always come first.” Martha Bellaford said, but she was looking at Jillian as she said it. Jillian didn’t respond. She walked away.

“Try not to let her get to you,” Austin said.

“It might be easier if she didn’t try to act like my child is her child,” Jillian said.

“Our child,” Austin corrected. “But she’ll get the message.”

“Do you promise?” Jillian looked directly at him now. “I’m not stupid, Austin. I know part of the reason your mother forced you to marry me is because she wants to get her hooks in Sabrina. But I’ll fight you both to the death before I let her take her.”

Austin looked taken aback. “Look, Jillian,” he said quietly. “If those are her intentions, she’s not shared them with me.” He glanced at his mother, who was across the room talking on her cell phone. She was frowning and glancing in their direction. “My mother is very controlling. I told you that. But we’re married now and that means you and Sabrina come first.”

“Until it’s over, right?” she said.

“We’re always going to be linked through the baby,” he said. “You know that. And I told you when I…proposed…that I wasn’t going to force you to stay with me. But my family name is important to Mom, especially since my father passed. I know it’s antiquated, but she still has old-fashioned notions about honor and responsibility and I do, too. If I’d know, Jillian, I’d have offered to help with the baby. That’s my job as a man.”

“You seem as much a mama’s boy as a man,” she said bitterly, and then sighed, feeling guilty. “I’m sorry, Austin,” she said. “That wasn’t fair. You were honest with me about this and you’re right. I just don’t want you to feel like you have to pretend to care.”

The baby started to fret. He jiggled her awkwardly, but she stopped. Austin looked at Jillian, his face serious. “You think I’m pretending?”

She gave a sad smile. “Come on. We spent one night together and have been back in touch for a couple of months. I’m not deluding myself, Austin. After a lifetime of being abandoned, I’ve learned not to let myself get too trusting,” she said. “No one’s going to take care of us in this world. A person has to take care of themselves.”

“That’s kind of sad,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s true.”

She laughed bitterly. “That’s because you’ve never had to want for anything.”  Jillian reached down and picked up the diaper bag. “Can we go?”

“Sure,” he replied. They headed for the door, but were intercepted by Martha Bellaford, who was again eyeing the baby.

“Would you like me to take the baby for the night so you two can have your first night as husband and wife together?”

“No,” Jillian said. “A shotgun wedding calls for a rapid fire honeymoon, Mrs. Bellaford. We both have to work Monday, so I think we’re going to spend the weekend fixing up the apartment.”

As part of the arrangement, Austin had signed a lease on a three bedroom apartment. It was nicer than anything Jillian had ever lived in, certainly nicer than the one bedroom place she’d shared with her daughter before he’d showed back up in her life. She’d not wanted to move in with him at his place; she insisted on having her name on the lease so she could not be kicked out on a whim and he’d surprised her by agreeing even though she had no money for even part of the deposit. He’s been so polite to her and Jillian wasn’t sure what to think of that. Both of them were being forced to marry the other - Austin by his mother and her by fear of homelessness. And yet he seemed less resentful and more cordial. Jillian didn’t want to be cynical, but she couldn’t help it. She feared that somehow Austin would turn on her, that the man he was pretending to be was not the man he really was.

Austin’s mother pulled him aside. Jillian could see the older woman arguing vehemently in hushed tones while cutting eyes her way from time to time. Martha Bellaford’s manicured nails were digging into her son’s arm when he finally pulled away.

“NO, Mother!” he said, and his tone was loud enough to attract the attention of everyone around them. “I’m not going to force her to do that. Now just back off, OK?”

Martha Bellaford stopped talking and looked around awkwardly. She tucked at her bun with her hand and smiled uncomfortably at the passersby who were looking at them.

“Very well, dear. Just trying to help,” she said. “As you wish. We’ll talk later, after you’ve had time to think about why you might want to think about the benefits of accepting your mother’s offer of help. If you continue to refuse I’m going to doubt your commitment to your future.” She looked icily at Jillian. “I’ll see you two lovebirds later.”

The parting shot was delivered with dripping sarcasm. The baby, which Austin had handed to Jillian before going to talk to his mother, was starting to fuss.

“What was that all about?” she asked when he walked back over.

“Nothing I can’t handle,” he replied. “Let’s go."  They signed the marriage certificate. She hyphenated her last name.

Jillian followed him to the car. A few spaces over, the couple ahead of them were standing in front of a car with the words “JUST MARRIED” painted across the back. A friend was taking snapshots of the couple and what looked to be the matron of honor and best man. All four were laughing happily. Jillian looked away as she fastened Sabrina’s infant seat into the back of Austin’s SUV. It had leather seats and a sunroof. She’d never even owned a car. His was a college graduation present from his mother.

Sabrina was sucking on her pacifier and was fortunately quiet until they got back to the apartment. She was asleep halfway through her bottle, her little mouth still working the nipple as she slumbered. Jillian carried the infant into the nursery and laid her in the crib designed to convert into a youth bed later. There was a matching changing table and dresser in the corner. The furnishings were expensive, all purchased by Martha Bellaford.

Jillian looked down at her daughter, marveling at how much the baby favored her new husband. She remembered when she met Austin’s mother for the first time. Martha Bellaford had taken one look at the infant and remarked, “Well, I was going to ask for a DNA test but that’s really not necessary.”  As much as it galled Jillian, she could only agree;  a DNA test was a waste of time.

Jillian wondered if her daughter would grow up to be as beautiful as Austin was handsome. She had this thick, dark hair, the same gray-green eyes, the same dimple in the chin. She had long graceful hands and long legs. Would she be tall like him? Or short like Jillian, who felt even tinier next to her 6’4” mate.

“Jillian.” His voice called to her from the living room. The baby was making sucking motions with her mouth. Jillian popped the pacifier in the child’s mouth and went back out of the room. Austin was on the couch. He patted the seat, indicating she should sit down. She did.

“So, we’re married,” he said.

“Yes, we are.” She sighed. “And I’ve already told you that you don’t have to pretend that this is about anything more than an arrangement to keep your mother from turning your life into a living hell, Austin. I’m going to get a job and get back in school. Once I get stabilized I can just quietly move out. We don’t even have to tell her right away…”

“Jillian, hold on…” He put up his hand to silence her. “It’s not just about my mother. Yeah, she insisted but I want you and Sabrina in my life.”

“You could have had that without marrying me,” she said.

“Maybe,” he agreed. “But not in a way that would have been honorable. I’m a very old-fashioned guy at heart. I know that most women today feel the way you feel. I was just fortunate enough to find you when you weren’t in any position to blow me off.”

Jillian raised her eyebrow. “Wait. What are you saying? That you’re glad I was in such dire straits?”

“To be honest, yes,” he replied bluntly. “I’m not like most men. I believe that the man should be the bread winner, the leader. That’s hard to do when a woman is too independent to accept his leadership. I plan to be the head of household.”

She felt herself bristle. “And what about what I want?”

“You’ll have everything you want here,” he said. “I’ll give you security, pay for your education, but I don’t want you to get a job. I want you to stay at home with our daughter, Jillian.”

Jillian sat there stunned. So many times she’d thought about how she dreaded leaving her daughter to find a job. She’d gone back early after the birth, trying not to cry when she left her week-old daughter with a neighbor. Her breasts had hurt from being bound so she wouldn’t leak milk while she took medication to dry it up. She’d wanted to nurse, but knew that she couldn’t nurse and work as a waitress. When Toby had told her she was being let go, he did not tell her it was because she was a new mother. Legally he could not discriminate. But Jillian knew how he felt about employees with kids; she’d heard him make disparaging remarks about them before. She knew he’d wanted to fire her when she was pregnant, but probably worried it would be too obvious. So he chose the morning when the cross-town bus ran late; even though she’d never been late before he’d fired her on the spot.

Now she finally had the chance to be a full-time mother. So why did it scare her? She knew. Because she would be financially dependent on Austin, and she’d never been dependent on anyone. Now, sitting in an apartment on expensive furniture that was legally half hers, she could not allow herself to accept his offer.

“No,” she said. “As much as I’d like to, no. I can’t not work, Austin.”

“I’m afraid you don’t have any choice, Jillian.”

At first she wasn’t sure she’d heard correctly. Was he serious? She looked at his face. Yes, he was completely serious. And she felt herself getting angry.

“Let’s get something straight,” she said. “When we took vows in that courthouse, I did not promise to obey.”

He reached for her. At first she didn’t comprehend what he was doing until she was facedown over his knee. His next words completely terrified her.

“You will after this,” he said.

 

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