Piper, Crafted with Love, book 6
Coming Sep 20, 2023
If someone came through the door with a gun and told Piper Goodson to move, they’d just have to shoot her.
She leaned back and rested both hands on the top of her very pregnant belly. The plate in front of her was all but licked clean. A few swipes of barbeque sauce and a crust of Evan’s homemade bread was all that remained. She grinned across the table at her husband. “That was amazing, but when I said I was craving ribs, you could’ve cooked them at home.”
Evan stretched his hand across the table and waited until Piper laid hers in it. He raised it to his lips and brushed her knuckles with a kiss. “I could’ve cooked at home, but where’s the fun in owning a restaurant if you can’t treat your beautiful wife to a special meal?” He looked around the darkened room. “And having the restaurant all to ourselves is romantic.”
Piper followed his gaze. A dozen roomy, high-backed booths lined the walls, and another eight tables took up the area in the center. Not a huge space, but Piper was praying that every night saw all one hundred and ten seats filled with hungry diners and another hundred lined up around the block.
Evan’s plan was to keep it simple during the day to encourage a casual lunch group. He’d dress up the atmosphere with linen tablecloths, candles, and flowers for the dinner crowd he hoped to attract. Once the doors opened to the public in another sixty days, the wood floors and dark walls would shine with the reflection of the recessed lighting. Tonight, though, the room was cozy with nothing but the flickering candles on their table and the faint glow from the kitchen.
Oakleigh’s was Evan’s dream. It was also the name of the child currently sitting on Piper’s bladder. When she’d asked him what he’d say to future children about naming the restaurant for the oldest sibling, Evan had told her not to worry. There would be a restaurant for each of them.
That was Evan.
The plan for his food dynasty was firmly in place.
“You’ve created something very special here,” she told him. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of you.”
“I couldn’t have done it without you. You’ve always had my back. Oakleigh is scheduled to arrive in another four weeks, and I’ll have a month to be a dad and help you with the baby before the grand opening. I know some might shake their heads at the idea of starting a business and parenthood at the same time, but you never even blinked.”
“That’s because your ideas are amazing. I’ll admit to some hesitation about a fine dining establishment in a place like Ashton, Oklahoma, but your idea to lure the customers in by offering a casual menu at lunch is brilliant. Once they try your burgers and meatloaf, they’ll be hooked and coming back for steak and lobster. I predict great things.” She picked up her water glass and held it across the table. “Here’s to Oakleigh’s and her chef. May they thrive.”
Before Evan could clink his glass against hers, a sharp pain twisted her stomach.
Piper sat back with a gasp.
Evan’s expression went from companionable to anxious in a heartbeat. “What’s wrong?”
She lowered her glass and glanced down in horror as a wet stain grew on her clothing and her seat became a puddle. Shock sent her heart into her throat and threatened to steal her breath. “My water just broke.” The whispered words were rife with fear. “It’s too early.” Her breath shuttered in and out. “Oh, dear God, I can’t do this again. What if—?”
“Don’t.” Evan scooted out of his seat and knelt next to her. “Sweetheart, don’t think like that.”
“But—” She stopped and looked down at her belly.
“She kicked me.” Piper rubbed the spot, feeling a tiny foot there, and raised joyous eyes to Evan. “She kicked me.”
He grinned. “That’s our girl. She’s sending us a sign. Having her tonight just means I get a few extra weeks to spoil her before the restaurant opens.” He stood and held out a hand. “Let’s go have a baby.”
Piper felt the contraction building. They’d been getting harder and more frequent. That was certainly expected after five hours of labor. What she hadn’t expected was the exhaustion.
How did women do this?
She watched the monitor beside her bed, distracted for a second by the lightning flashing outside her second-floor hospital window. Storms were unusual for August in Oklahoma, but not unheard of. Oakleigh Ray might have some heavenly fireworks to announce her arrival.
Piper closed her eyes at her husband’s words and tried to relax, trying not to break his hand as the pain mounted.
“This is a good one, babe, you’re doing fine. Remember your breathing.” Evan mimicked the breathing techniques they’d studied as part of their preparation.
Piper forced herself to follow his example. It wasn’t the old Lamaze that she’d read about because there was no way she was having this baby without some really good drugs. But the breathing exercises helped her relax and focus. Her very modern doctor was a proponent of epidurals administered at the six-centimeter mark. Right now, she was wishing for an older and wiser version who might have gone for four.
She smiled when she felt Evan lean down to whisper in her ear. “Almost done. You’re such a trooper.” She closed her eyes and soaked in his words.
When she felt him jerk upright, she looked just in time to see two nurses and her doctor rush into the room.
One nurse took her blood pressure while the other and Dr. Franklin fiddled with the monitors.
Piper tracked their movements, finally landing on the screen that registered Oakleigh’s heartbeat. It had been steady at around one hundred fifty beats per minute, but that number was dropping.
“One hundred?” Piper asked. “Is that normal?”
Dr. Franklin kept his back to her, his focus on the screen. “No, but it’s coming back up.”
The first nurse lowered the safety rail and lifted the tubes and cords out of Piper’s way. “I need you to turn over on your side and pull your knees up.”
Piper heard the subtle urgency in the nurse’s voice and struggled to do as she was told. She watched the display as well, frustrated when the climb stopped at one-twenty. She peered over her shoulder at Evan.
Her husband gave her a reassuring smile before his eyes went back to the stubborn number. “Dr. Franklin?”
The doctor finally faced Piper and Evan. “Looks like Miss Oakleigh is already a drama queen.” He patted Piper’s knee. “It’s not unusual for the heart rate to fluctuate a bit. One-twenty is still in the normal range. Let’s see what happens with the next contraction.”
Evan nodded in the direction of the bank of machinery. “Speaking of…”
It took all of Piper’s strength to keep her eyes open as the graph charting the contraction built to its highest peak yet and hung there. The groan that escaped her lips had nothing to do with pain and everything to do with her baby’s heart rate. It hovered at one hundred for a few seconds before dropping to ninety-nine.
She’d never seen people move so fast.
Piper found herself being whisked down the hall while Dr. Franklin barked orders to half a dozen nurses. She heard the words ‘emergency C-section’ and ‘fetal distress,’ closing her eyes at the nauseating twist the situation brought to her stomach. Between that and the dizziness caused by the rush from one room to the next, it was all Piper could do to keep from vomiting into the blankets.
The world jerked to a stop as they reached their destination. They tried to shift her to another bed and Piper’s arms flailed in fright and confusion.
Evan leaned across her upper body. “Babe, be still. You’re going to pull your IV out.
“Step back, Mr. Goodson. We’ll take care of her.”
The combination of uncertainty, the rushing of the staff, the bright lights, and the muffled medical terms got the best of Piper. She found herself floating between the past and the present, not sure where one started and the other stopped.
The excitement she’d felt at that first positive pregnancy test almost three years ago. The joy of sharing each milestone of her pregnancy with her sister, Madison. And though Piper hadn’t volunteered to be a surrogate to earn her sister’s gratitude, it’d felt nice to have something between them other than years of animosity.
Even though Piper and Evan hadn’t been ready for children of their own, they’d been on the same page where the surrogacy was concerned, joking that it was a dry run of sorts. He’d rubbed her back as she dealt with morning sickness and fetched food from the all-night market when a midnight craving hit. They’d spent hours lying in bed at night watching her stomach ripple as the baby turned somersaults, laughing when the baby got the hiccups, and talking about that nebulous point, down the road, when they’d do this again with a baby of their own.
The pregnancy had been textbook perfect right up until the night before her eight-month checkup. On that night there were no somersaults or hiccups, just an odd stillness. Piper went to the doctor the next day, anxious to hear her niece’s heartbeat.
What she heard was nothing.
What she got was her worst nightmare.
A few hours later, she’d held her sister’s hand as they took turns holding that precious, tiny, lifeless body. A baby so perfect that the idea of death seemed ludicrous. But it was all too true.
Cries echoed in the background of Piper’s thoughts. She heard them as Madison’s wails of grief. Piper struggled against the tide of memories that threatened to pull her under. She had only one conscious thought to cling to.
Please, Father, not again.
“Piper, she’s here.”
A cool hand touched her cheek.
“Sweetheart, can you hear me?” Evan asked. “She’s here.”
She turned into the comforting touch, struggling to get her bearings as the mind-numbing memories faded from her system. “Hmm…?”
“Oakleigh. She’s here, and she’s absolutely perfect.” Evan put his head on the pillow next to hers and whispered into her ear. “You did it, babe. I’m so proud of you.”
Piper’s eyes fluttered open. Where was that crying coming from? Her niece had never uttered a sound.
“Ok, Mommy and Daddy, time to meet your daughter.”
Piper blinked and tried again to clear her head.
That’s my baby crying?
How could I have a baby and not even know she was born?
In that instant, before she ever stroked her daughter’s soft cheek, before her first sniff of the new baby smell she’d spent eight months dreaming of, guilt settled on her. Guilt and the weight of an unbearable anxiety. They landed on Piper’s chest with a thud.
She should be aching to get her hands on the squirming child, not relieved that her arms were strapped to the side of the surgical table.
“Look at her, sweetheart. We made a baby. I’m a daddy.”
The pride in Evan’s voice was unmistakable, and Piper struggled to find a matching emotion.
She was rescued by the nurse.
“Dad, why don’t you take your daughter and follow me? We’ll get Miss Oakleigh cleaned up while they finish up with Mom. Then you guys can spend as much time as you want getting acquainted.
Piper watched them go and wondered what in the world had happened to her world.
Evan Goodson stepped into the hospital waiting room at three o’clock Saturday morning. The expression on his face had to be one of crazed joy, but he could not have cared less. He’d just watched his newborn daughter have her first bath.
Leaving her with the nurses, even for this necessary errand, was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. What if Oakleigh did something for the first time and he missed it? He’d have to make this quick.
His entry caused a flurry of motion as Piper’s friends and fellow crafters surged to their feet and surrounded him.
Ruthie spoke before he could open his mouth. “Thank God. How are they?”
Holly nudged the older woman’s arm. “Look at him. I think that smile pretty much says it all.”
“We need details,” Sage added.
“How much did she weigh?” Lacy asked.
“Length,” Maggie demanded.
Ember waved the group quiet. “Ladies, come on. Give the man a chance to speak.” She undid her own injunction by posing her own question. “How’s Piper?”
So much for quick. Evan was about to start answering, but then noticed the youngest and quietest in the group.
Cami lifted her shoulders, let them drop, and motioned to the news-hungry women. “I think they covered it.”
Evan reached under the green scrub top he still wore and retrieved his phone. He swiped open the picture app and handed the device to the nearest woman to pass around, soaking up the oohs and ahhs like a sponge.
“Oakleigh Ray Goodson, six pounds, five ounces. She is eighteen inches long and perfect in every way. She has her mommy’s hair and my nose.” He waited for the phone to make the rounds. Once it had returned to him, he stared down at the screen, mesmerized.
“Oh, look at Daddy,” Ember whispered. “She’s already got you wrapped around her tiny pinkie.”
“Guilty as charged.” He knew he was beaming, smiling so much, his cheeks hurt, but he couldn’t have stopped on a bet.
“Piper?” Lacy asked.
“Exhausted. We were both terrified when they whisked her to surgery.” He could still picture the terror in her eyes. Thank God their nightmares hadn’t come true.
“I would think fear was a normal reaction after last time.” Ruthie’s words were sympathetic.
Evan looked past Ruthie to the lone figure sitting in a corner. Piper’s sister, Madison, hadn’t joined the throng of curious friends. Evan understood, though. This had to be hard on her for many reasons.
“Yeah,” he finally answered. “But God is good. The baby arrived healthy and screaming, and Piper made it through like a boss.”
“Can we see her?” Sage asked.
“Piper or the baby?”
“It’s late, y’all.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Or early, I guess. Would you hate me if I asked you to come back after she gets some sleep?” He almost withered under the disappointed stares of the women. “We’ll be here for at least two days, so there’s plenty of time for visits. I’ll let Piper know you went home under protest, but I think she’ll be a lot more receptive to visitors after she’s had some sleep.”
Ruthie patted his cheek. “You poor man. She’s a mother now. If we wait until she’s had a chance for a good night’s sleep, we won’t see Piper for the next eighteen years.” She grinned and added, “But we get it. Tell her well done and that we love her.”
“Thanks for understanding.”
The women gathered their things, and Evan accepted hugs and their congratulations and followed them into the hall.
“Oh, wait!” Cami rushed back into the room to where she’d been sitting. She reached behind the chair and pulled out a flat package wrapped in brown paper. She handed it to Evan. “I almost forgot.”
“What’s this?” Evan asked.
The rest of the women had turned to watch.
Evan figured the only way to get them back on their way was to do as Cami asked. He ripped the wrapping free and stared down at a painting of him and Piper. In the image, he stood just behind his wife and looked over her shoulder at the pink bundle Piper held lovingly close to her chest. The baby’s features didn’t show, but that didn’t detract from the detail of the painting or the emotion it invoked.
“Cami, it’s beautiful. Thank you.”
The younger woman blushed under his praise. “I finished it last night. I was going to give it to Piper at the store next Monday, but it was dry, so I wanted her to have it now.” She put her hands behind her back and rocked up on her toes. “Happy baby!”
Five more minutes of appreciative comments before Evan was alone with Madison.
The woman hadn’t moved or said a word, and he couldn’t read the expression on her face. He crossed to where she sat, leaned the painting against some chairs, and stooped down in front of her. “Thanks for coming.”
She nodded and reached for her bag. “I’m leaving too.”
Evan stopped her with a hand on her arm. “My request that everyone come back later didn’t include you. You have a niece to hold, and I’m sure Piper would love to see you.”
Madison stared over his shoulder, and Evan didn’t know what to think about the lack of animation on her face,
“I needed to be here, but now that I know everything and everyone is fine, I need to go. Just let Piper know I was here. Have her call me when she feels up to it.”
“Madison.” Evan moved out of the way as she stood, swallowing his words. He didn’t want to pressure her to do anything she wasn’t ready for. The fact that she was here at all surprised him. She was still hurting. He’d only been a parent for an hour, but the idea of anything happening to Oakleigh sent a cold chill over every inch of his body. He couldn’t imagine what she dealt with on a daily basis.
Evan pulled his sister-in-law into a hug. “Thanks for coming.” She was stiff in his arms, so he backed away and motioned to the door. He followed her out and watched as she headed toward the bank of elevators down the hall.
Seeing his grieving sister-in-law, his joy dimmed just a little. He wished there were something he could do to make her feel better.
It took every ounce of Madison Stanley’s control not to run down the hall. The pain of being back in this place was almost more than she could bear. By the time she reached the elevators, she was clutching the locket that held a snip of baby Rebecca’s hair while her body shook with emotions that threatened to put her on her knees.
She stabbed at the button, did her best not to cry, and hoped that, when the elevator car arrived, it would be empty so she would have a few seconds of solitude to examine what was going on inside her heart.
Of course she was relieved that Piper and the baby were fine. She and her sister had never been close, but Madison didn’t wish her ill.
Really, she didn’t.
Shame booted the relief out of the way and flushed her face with heat. There’d been a moment, when the nurse had come to tell them that they were taking Piper to surgery, when satisfaction had threatened to overwhelm her. Her single thought?
Maybe there was justice in the universe after all.
Despite all the protests of the doctors involved, Madison remained certain that Rebecca would have arrived alive and healthy if only Piper had listened to reason.
Madison had begged her sister and her brother-in-law not to go on that cruise. Piper had naysaid her concerns, arguing that she was healthy, the baby was healthy, and the doctor had given his blessing to their vacation plans at nearly six months along. The fact that her baby died in Piper’s womb just weeks later only proved Madison’s misgivings. And her sister’s selfishness.
Madison groaned and leaned against the wall of the elevator. Her precious, precious baby, dead before she lived, while Piper had a healthy daughter to love.
Resentment and envy waged a bloody war in Madison’s heart. Once again, her sister had the thing that was rightfully hers.