Natalie Coombs is determined to help every young woman who walks into the Pregnancy Center—but one client might prove to be a bigger challenge than Natalie can handle when she brings along with her a terrible secret that threatens to unravel everything.
As if the jolt of becoming a single mom to her two sons wasn’t enough, Natalie Coombs is facing new stresses as the director of the crisis pregnancy center. A teenager who comes in for testing brings back memories of a client who still haunts Natalie—another pregnant girl whose life tragically ended in suicide. Desperate to reach this new client before it’s too late, Natalie finds herself crossing professional boundaries and doing things she would have never considered before. When she incurs the wrath of a mysterious assailant, Natalie is forced to carefully consider the cost of following her heart and her convictions amid betrayal, physical danger, and strained relationships.
Filled with high-stakes emotion and poignant drama, you’ll find yourself engrossed in this gripping tale of conflict and commitment.
Natalie Coombs thought the girl across the desk looked eighteen or nineteen. She had a world-weary look in her eyes Natalie had seen before—deep pools of despair that reminded Natalie of someone else.
“No, everything is confidential.” She extended her hand across the desk. “Most of my clients call me Miss C.”
“I’m Linn.” She shook Natalie’s hand. Her dark hair hung down on both sides of her face like a curtain. “Can I take a test here?”
“Sure, you’ll just need to fill out a form, then answer some questions first, all right?”
Linn nodded, and Natalie handed her a clipboard with the in-take form. “You can have a seat over there.”
Linn settled into the farthest corner chair, and Natalie returned to the desk. Linn looked familiar, but then all the locals in Jackson Hole had seen each other at some point. Natalie was glad she’d sent this morning’s volunteer, Amanda, upstairs to sort through the batch of baby clothing they’d just received. She had a feeling God had called her to help this girl. Her resemblance to Dana was uncanny, and Natalie prayed things would turn out differently for Linn than they had for her first client. Even though a year had passed, Dana’s face still burned like a brand on Natalie’s heart.
Natalie sneaked a glimpse at Linn. As the girl read the form, she toyed with the collar of her shirt. It looked as if she’d snagged it from the bottom of the pile in a cold dryer. At least she looked older than a lot of girls who walked through the doors. Old enough to get pregnant, young enough to be scared. And she was scared. Natalie could see it in her eyes. Lord, help me to show her Your love.
The phone rang, and Natalie reached for it. “Jackson Hole Hope Center.”
“Hi, it’s me.”
His voice was a punch in the gut. He still took her breath away, just in a different way. She walked into the storage room and shut the door behind her. “I’ve asked you not to call me here.”
“I can’t help it. My plans have changed.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Picking up the boys, going camping. I can’t do it this weekend.”
She closed her eyes. She could feel her shoulder and neck muscles drawing tight. “Don’t do this to them again. You know they—”
“I can’t help it, all right? I have to work. Half my crew deserted me today.”
Well, you’re an expert at desertion, aren’t you? Natalie rubbed her temple. In her mind, she could see Taylor and Alex scrounging in their closet for their sleeping bags the night before. She could see them packing their clothes and filling baggies with Cheese Nips and pretzel sticks to take along.
“Will you quit it with the silent treatment? Tell them I’m sorry, all right? I’ll take them next—”
“No way. You call them and tell them. I’m not doing it this time.”
“Would you stop making it sound like I do this every week? I told you I’ve gotta work. Will you cut me some slack here?”
“Call them, Keith. I’ve got to go.” She disconnected before he could argue. She could hear her pulse in her head, and her scalp felt two sizes too small. Maybe she could take the boys camping herself. She thought there was a tent in the basement somewhere.
But it wasn’t the camping they’d so looked forward to; it was their dad’s company. Besides, she wouldn’t know a stake from a pole.
She stretched her neck, tilting her head to the side, feeling the pull of tightened muscles. She couldn’t think about Keith right now. There was a girl in the lobby who needed her. She drew a breath and blew it out slowly, letting her facial muscles relax, then opened the door.
Linn was still in the corner chair. The clipboard rested on her lap, and she stared out the picture window where the words “Jackson Hole Hope Center” played in reverse. In the distance, Wyoming’s Tetons rose majestically through the summer haze.
“All finished?” Natalie asked.
Linn nodded, then stood and walked toward her. The rubber sole of her shoe was loose at the toe and flipped with each step. Linn handed her the clipboard.
“Great. If you’ll just step into that room there, I’ll be right with you.”
Normally, the volunteer would help the client, but Amanda lacked the experience to counsel with Linn. Anyway, Natalie felt drawn to help the girl.
Natalie called up the stairs. “Amanda . . . can you come watch the desk again?”
Moments later the volunteer bounded down the creaking steps. “Sure.”
Natalie glanced at her watch. Shoot. “Could you do me a favor and call Paula?”
“No problem,” Amanda said.
Natalie jotted down her sister’s cell phone number. “Tell her something came up, and I have to cancel our lunch plans.”
Amanda began punching the numbers.
“Thanks a bunch.” Natalie grabbed a questionnaire clipboard from her desk and entered the counseling room.
“Now, then.” She took a seat on the chair across from the girl. “I’ll need to ask you some questions, and then I’ll get you the pregnancy test. As I said before, all the information you give me is completely confidential, OK?”
“The test is free, right?” Linn blinked, and a stray hair caught in her lashes, bobbing down and back up.
“That’s right. There’s no charge.” And that’s why most of the girls came here. Most couldn’t even afford a fifteen-dollar test from the drugstore.
Linn’s gaze darted around the room from chart to chart, as if she were afraid the walls were going to collapse.
“I know you’re anxious right now, but we’re here to help, Linn, all right?”
She nodded, and Natalie perused her in-take form. “I know you’ve come because you think you’re pregnant. Can you tell me why?”
She shrugged. “I’m late.”
“When was your last period?”
“Seven, eight weeks ago, I think.”
“Are you using any kind of birth control?”
She crossed her arms, cupping her elbows with her hands, the nails short and ragged. “Yes—well, usually.”
“How long have you known the baby’s father?”
She looked away. “Almost two years.”
Natalie wrote it down. “Are you still seeing him?”
Linn’s lashes fluttered down, and she shook her head.
“Have you ever been pregnant before?”
Her brows drew together. “No.”
“I’m not making any assumptions about you, all right? I have to ask everyone these questions.” When Linn nodded, Natalie continued. “What do you plan to do if you’re pregnant?”
Her gaze fluttered to the floor. “I’ll have to get rid of it. Have to . . . my dad would go postal if he found out.”
Natalie carefully kept her expression bland, though her stomach clenched at the words. She zipped through countless other questions, from substance use to family relationships to dreams and goals. That’s when Linn finally opened up.
“I’m going to college in the fall. I got a full scholarship to Loyola University in Chicago, and I mean room and board and everything.” Her chin came up a bit.
“That’s great, Linn. Congratulations. What will you be studying?”
“Psychology.” She smiled for the first time and wiggled her brows up and down. “I want to see what makes people tick.”
“Well, when you find out, let me know, OK?”
Natalie tried to draw her out for a few more minutes, tried to put her at ease. When Linn’s shoulders curled forward and her hands lay loosely on her lap, Natalie asked the last questions, the most important ones.
“Can you tell me what your religious background is like? Do you belong to a church or synagogue?”
She shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. My grandma was Catholic . . . ,” she offered feebly.
Natalie jotted it down. “How is your relationship with God?”
Linn’s leg stopped bouncing. “Oh. It’s fine, good.” She nodded her head vigorously.
Linn gave vague answers to the last questions concerning religion, and Natalie knew the girl needed Christ. Use me, Lord.
“Well, you’ll be happy to know we’re finished playing Twenty Questions.” She pulled a release form from the desk and handed it to Linn. “I’ll need your signature on this form. Basically, it says you understand this is not a medical facility and that the pregnancy test may be inconclusive.”
As Linn read the form, Natalie retrieved the pregnancy test and slid its contents onto the table. When Linn handed her the signed form, Natalie gave her the instruction sheet and explained what to do. Linn went to the adjoining bathroom with the plastic cup in hand.
Natalie watched the door shut and closed her eyes. Lord, my heart is burdened for this young woman. She doesn’t know You, and she doesn’t know right from wrong. Father, if it’s possible, let the test be negative. I don’t want to see another tiny life snuffed out, and I don’t want to see another woman scarred with the consequences. Yet, not as I will, Lord, but as You will.
A few moments later, Linn returned with the urine sample and set it on the paper towel Natalie had laid out. Next, she opened the foil wrapper and pulled out the test cassette and dropper. She dipped the dropper into the urine, releasing the bulb to pull up the liquid. Pausing, with her hand over the test cassette, she looked at Natalie. “Four drops?” Her voice quivered.
“Yes.” Natalie indicated the correct spot on the cassette. “Right in there.” She pointed to the test window. “This other one is the window to watch. If there’s a pink line there in five minutes, it means you’re pregnant.”
Linn’s hand shook as she squeezed out the drops. When she was finished, she straightened and looked at Natalie.
“All righty.” Natalie grabbed the egg timer and set it for five minutes. It began ticking off time. “I’ll set the test over here where we can forget about it. Want a soda?” She smiled sympathetically. “This can be the longest five minutes of your life if you don’t have something to do.”
“No, thanks.” The girl sat back down, and Natalie sat across from her.
Linn tilted her head back against the wall. “I can’t be pregnant. I just can’t.”
“Well, we’ll have the results of the test in just a few minutes, and if you are, there’s a lot we can do to help you.”
“You know somewhere I could get an abortion cheap? I don’t have much money.”
Cold fingers squeezed Natalie’s gut until it was compacted into a hard knot. “If there is a pregnancy, this is a time of crisis. You’re scared, confused. I know you just want this to be over with, but abortion doesn’t solve that problem. It only creates new ones.”
The girl’s gaze fell on a picture on the wall. It was a photo of a newly formed baby. Just as quickly, Linn’s gaze fell away.
“All the organs have formed; the heart is beating. It’s not what you’d expect so early, is it?”
Linn’s gaze swung to the test, though she couldn’t see the windows from her seat. “There’s just no way I’m ready to be a parent, and my dad’s been telling me since I was twelve what would happen if I ever got knocked up.”
Natalie offered what she hoped was a comforting smile. She wanted so badly to reach out to Linn, but she felt Linn closing up and changed the topic. “Did you graduate this past spring?”
“Yeah. With high honors. That’s how I got the scholarship.”
“That’s wonderful, Linn. Your dad must be very proud.”
She snorted. “He’s just glad I’m cutting out in the fall.” Linn tossed her dark hair as if that didn’t bother her.
Natalie knew better. “Did you participate in any activities in high school?”
Linn shrugged. “Didn’t have time. I worked part time and had to keep up with homework.” Linn glanced toward the timer. “How much time left?”
“Three minutes.” Natalie gave a sympathetic smile. “They creep by, don’t they?”
Linn’s leg bounced up and down as she looked around the room. Natalie didn’t have to turn around to know what she was seeing. Charts of a baby’s development from conception on, pamphlets on adoption, the bulletin board with pictures of clients and their babies. That was her favorite. Tangible evidence of the lives they’d helped touch and change.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” Natalie asked.
A faraway look entered her eye. “Nope. Just me.”
Natalie smiled. “I always wanted to be an only child. Especially when my sisters were aggravating me.”
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
Natalie searched for a new topic. “What made you decide to be a psychology major?”
“I don’t know. I like to guess what people are thinking, why they do things and stuff. I want a real job, you know? A career. I want to dress up when I go to work and have people respect me.”
“Sure, that’s understandable.”
Linn’s gaze flittered toward the timer.
“One minute left,” Natalie said. “There’ll be a pink line in the reference window, and if there’s a pink line under it, the result is positive. Also, understand that sometimes if you’re pregnant but there’s not enough of the pregnancy hormone, the test can still read negative.”
“How accurate is it?”
“The instruction pamphlet says ninety-nine percent.”
Linn’s brows ticked up, then down again, and she began twisting a ring on her finger.
“That’s pretty. Can I see it?”
Linn held out her hand. A sapphire shimmered on the gold band. “It’s beautiful. Is that your birthstone?”
Linn’s eyes clouded. “No, I—”
The timer dinged, and Linn’s startled gaze met Natalie’s.
“Well, let’s go see, shall we?”
They walked over to the table. The phone rang in the other room, and Natalie heard Amanda answer it. When they rounded the examination bed, Natalie could see the test cassette, could see clearly the test results. She stepped aside, allowing Linn to come near.
The girl’s eyes fixed on the test. Natalie could see the moment she understood. Her eyes widened for just a moment before they closed. When she opened them, her gaze swung to Natalie’s, her eyes lit with desperation.
Denise Hunter is the internationally bestselling author of more than twenty-five books, including A December Bride and The Convenient Groom, which have been adapted into original Hallmark Channel movies. She has won The Holt Medallion Award, The Reader’s Choice Award, The Carol Award, The Foreword Book of the Year Award, and is a RITA finalist. When Denise isn’t orchestrating love lives on the written page, she enjoys traveling with her family, drinking green tea, and playing drums. Denise makes her home in Indiana where she and her husband are rapidly approaching an empty nest. You can learn more about Denise through her website DeniseHunterBooks.com or by visiting her Facebook page at Facebook.com/AuthorDeniseHunter.
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