Excerpt for The Stork Club by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Stork Club

by Patricia Holden

Published by Susan Sampson at SmashWords

Copyright © 2018 Susan Sampson

Cover Photo from Free Images

Other Titles from Patricia Holden on Smashwords:

Turn My Head

Break Through

Third Time’s the Charm

Conflict of Interest

Romeo Night

Last Man Standing

Talk Dirty To Me

Secrets of the Bayou

High Maintenance

No Turning Back

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Chapter 1

Gabriel Pernoud kept a close eye on the door in the screened in porch of his friend Mickey Dolan’s house. At some point in the last hour, Gabe’s fiancé, and the other three members of the string quartet in which she played, disappeared inside. Curiously enough, given that they had met not all that long ago, Mickey’s fiancé disappeared at about the same time.

Where did they all go? Gabe thought to himself. It was a constant mantra he kept up while the girls were missing. Something about the way they all disappeared into the house at the same time set his teeth on edge. Everyone at the party today had a tour of the interior earlier, and had seen the before of the renovation his friend Mickey and his soon to be bride to be were going to do to the place. They were really going to turn the already almost modern vintage house into a showstopper for themselves, that was for sure. After the tour, once plans were discussed, and all questions were answered as to how Mickey was going to transform the house, the whole gang of guys in the circle of close-knit families and friends of which the Pernouds were a huge part, headed outside to sit around the pool in the notorious St. Louis August heat and humidity.

That was when the girls disappeared.

Now that they were outside and sitting down, the guys talked of nothing of import, actually, as all of them were anxious for a good break from reality. So many of their lives had changed so drastically in the last year they needed the respite. So did the ladies, actually, which was why Gabriel was watching the back door of Mickey’s house waiting for an ax of doom or something similar to come through it. He could feel it coming. Something was up with the girls, that was a given, and Gabe had a sneaking suspicion he knew what it was. At least when it came to his own fiancé, he was pretty positive of what was going on since he was a stellar medical scientist student having completed rotations in all the specialties. He knew the signs were there. His fiancé was displaying them whether she told him about them or not. And the other four girls that disappeared with her into the house? One of them, anyway, he knew was in the same boat as his fiancé. The other three? Given the state of contentment among the guys who were seated with him and his brothers around the pool, three of whom just happened to be those specific girls’ fiancés, it was a good possibility they were all about to have their lives turned upside down.

More than likely, they were all about to get the same news, and there was no getting around-

“Staring at the door isn’t going to make her appear any faster, you know,” his brother Francis said into his ear. Still, Gabe didn’t look away from the screen where he was sure the girls would exit the house sooner or later.

“No,” Gabe told his brother who was not two years older than him, “but I’m not sure I like the way they all went into the house together, and haven’t come back out.”

He heard Francis snort. “You’re inviting trouble,” his brother said just as the first of the five girls, Francis’s fiancé Rosemary, opened the screen door. She exited followed by Gabe’s own fiancé, Alicia. Both wore the same deer in the headlights expression that confirmed for Gabe what the girls were doing while they were in the house, and it wasn’t convening a coven, that was for sure.

Gabe blew out a deep breath. “Yep, just as I thought.”

“What?” Francis asked as Gabe’s eyes locked with Alicia’s.

“You and I are about to become members of the stork club.”

Alicia Drummond closed the dishwasher in the loft she shared with her fiancé in the part of St. Louis known as the Central West End. For some decades now, the CWE was one of the centers of revitalization and regentrification in the city. When lofts became all the rage a few years back, well, places like this old warehouse which was now obsolete in American life and could be converted into living spaces, seemed to attract redevelopers out of the blue. The loft was very modern, very fashionable, and very much a single living room with designated areas defined only by the furniture in them.

On this particular evening, though, the walls of the open concept space seemed to be closing in on Alicia. The open and spacious loft was, in reality, pretty cozy, truth be told, and right this minute she needed a momentary escape from the closeness to process the piece of information she really needed to tell her fiancé, and didn’t know how. Breathing started to be difficult when she thought about it too much. She needed fresh air, she thought. Not that the air outside would be all that fresh tonight. After all, the local temperatures had reached ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit earlier in the day. The concrete of the city would still hold a lot of that heat since the sun had not been down all that long, and the radiant warmth was trapped close to the buildings as it rose from street level.

At the moment, it didn’t matter to her, though.

She needed the quiet stillness of the night to calm her, and the fresh air even if it would be overly warm.

She looked over her shoulder to the table tucked in the corner of the part of the open space she and Gabriel Pernoud used as a living room. Before he started his dissertation research last year after he was finished with the medical school portion of his medical scientist education, Gabe bought the penthouse loft in this converted warehouse as the building was just blocks from his lab. At the time, it was convenient for both of them being so close to the place they both worked. Tonight, he sat at the table that served as his at home desk and office, all six foot two of him with the black curls, and the Atlas wide shoulders, typing away on his notebook computer. She knew he had notes to get written out from his short trip to the lab when they drove back into the city from their friend Mickey Dolan’s party this afternoon. She certainly didn’t begrudge him the time. No, in fact, it would give her a few more minutes to calm her nerves before she told him the news she wasn’t sure he was ready to hear.

Alicia left Gabe to his typing, and quietly walked to the French doors that opened onto the balcony that ran along the east wall of the loft. She opened one side of the doors, and stepped into the heat of the night, where the only sounds on the stagnant air were the distant wails of sirens, passing freight trains, the light rail cars of the mass transit system, and the occasional fireworks when a member of the Cardinals hit a homerun travelling from the ballpark downtown. This high off the ground mosquitoes were not a problem, but still, one had to watch out for birds, and every now and then at dusk a bat.

She lifted her head to look at the night sky. Clouds covered the stars, and reflected the lights of the city. The part of town where she and Gabriel lived was fashionable for being full of what was left of the grandeur of graceful mansions and wealth accumulated in the late nineteenth century when St. Louis was a truly desired place to be and own a business. Much of that grand crystal and lace elegance was torn down or otherwise exported in the name of progress during the twentieth century, though. In a complete switch of circumstances, the historic buildings that remained were now revered for their charm and character, and one by one, they were being restored to magnificence so long as outside investors were fended off as well as the sorts of people who raped beautiful buildings by removing hand crafted original features, and selling them to the highest bidder.

Alicia took a deep breath, and gradually let it out.

Slowly, but surely, the warmth and stillness of the night soaked into her body. Her tense, nervous, and oh, so pregnant body.

Alicia closed her eyes. She tried not to think about what happened this afternoon in that luxury bathroom in the master suite at Mickey Dolan’s house. She tried to forget about it.

But she couldn’t.

She and the other four women with her - her cousin Marianne, Rosemary Fallon, Josie Miller, and Mickey’s Tara - all had been drinking from the same well, apparently. They were all knocked up. The EPTs they took one after another this afternoon told the tale.

Alicia once again felt the panic that took hold when she picked up the test she took and saw the two lines on it start to bubble inside her. It wasn’t that she didn’t suspect it, but-

She jumped when strong arms surrounded her from behind, and pulled her against a chest that was hard as iron. She took a yet another deep breath, and leaned back into Gabriel’s warm and comforting embrace.

“Come to grips with it yet?” he asked quietly in the deep, dark velvety voice that he and his brothers all shared. He put his lips to her temple.

Alicia rested her arms on his, and asked, “Come to grips with what?”

She felt him laugh against her before he said, “What you and the rest of the quartet figured out at the party this afternoon.”

He KNEW? The rat. He knew and he didn’t say anything, letting her worry about how to tell him….

She took courage from his strength surrounding her, and said, “How did you figure it out?”

“Ali, I have the equivalent of an MD degree, remember?” he patiently told her. “We did cover reproduction in med school. I know your body well enough to know the signs were there.” She stilled in his arms, and waited for the punchline. “So while you were asleep the other night, I got out my stethoscope.” He kissed her temple again. “There’s a tiny heart that is a part of you and me beating away inside you.” His arms tightened around her. “I listened to it last night, too.” He kissed her temple again.

Well, Alicia thought, all her angst and worry today had essentially been for nothing. The thought kicked up that heartburn that had been bugging her for the last week. He sounded like he was thrilled. Thank Heaven for that small favor, she mused to herself. But, honestly, that wasn’t her only pressing concern at the moment. “Your Nonna is going to kill me,” she told him. Gabe’s grandmother - the famed Grande Dame of Milan fashion - was making her wedding dress for their nuptials which were scheduled at the end of next month. The old woman had been warning Alicia for over a year to not be pregnant at their wedding since the dress wouldn’t hang right if she was. Maybe being so early in the pregnancy, that wouldn’t be a problem, but Alicia doubted it.

Alicia closed her eyes and sighed. With Nonna, it was going to be a problem.

She felt Gabe laugh against her back again before he said, “Oh, Nonna is not going to be too mad at you. It’s me she’ll want to skin. I’m actually more worried about my parents’ reaction. I mean, if everything goes right, they’re going to get two more grandkids at about the same time.”

“Gabe, your mom and dad are earthy enough, they aren’t going to care when they get grandkids or from who.” After all, she thought, Gabe’s older brothers all were busy starting families. Four babies had been born into the Pernoud family since Christmas, and another was due next month. “My parents, on the other hand,” she paused her heart flipping in her chest. “I just hope my mother doesn’t ask where this baby came from.”

“It came from your frustration with her at my parents’ Fourth of July party,” Gabe said flat out.

Alicia tilted her head back on his chest. He was probably right. They really weren’t paying attention that night. She was upset, and he consoled her the old fashioned way-

Gabe went on, “Tell you what, you want to keep it quiet for a while, I’m fine with that, but I guarantee you that my brothers will know without either of us having to tell them, and it’s a good bet their wives will as well.”

Alicia moaned. “Yeah, when I’m at my parents’ for brunch tomorrow, I won’t say anything unless I have to.” She paused for a moment. “I wish I was going out to Adam’s estate with you to paint the ice instead.”

She felt him chuckle against her back. “I’m sure you do. You, though, are done painting until the baby comes. I don’t want you inhaling those kinds of fumes while you’re pregnant.”

A few hours later, Gabe stirred from a restless sleep and opened his eyes. The light from the street lamps reflected off of the cloud cover outside poured through the series of picture windows in their bedroom despite the light, sheer curtains covering them. He leaned up on an elbow, and looked down at his bride to be. His beautiful inside and out woman who had every right to be thoroughly angry with him, and, he got the idea, really wasn’t. At this point, she was still in shock about their new addition, and feeling the effects of his or her living inside her. She really didn’t feel well enough to be mad at him.

All along, whenever they started talking about the future, they really had planned on waiting a few years before starting their family, and he…well, when this child was conceived, he knew darn well and good they were playing with fire. And he went ahead and knocked her up anyway.

And the truth of it was that he was not sorry he did it at all. He was already excited about welcoming their son or daughter and proving to his brothers he was just as much of a man as they were since all of them managed to sire offspring in the last eighteen months.

Gabe took a deep breath and studied Alicia’s pale skin that turned pink with too much sun. Her long, curly, blonde tresses were spread out on the pillow. Her plump, full lips were slightly open as she slept. Her big, sky blue eyes were closed while her body rested, and grew the baby he knew was nestled inside her, right where Gabe put him or her last month.

Unable to help himself, just to be able to experience the wonder of it yet again, Gabe quietly reached to his nightstand and opened the drawer. Right where he had stashed it earlier, his stethoscope gleamed in the ambient light coming off the clouds. He lifted it out of the drawer, and put the tips in his ears. Slowly and deliberately, so as to not wake her, Gabe warmed up the diaphragm over the listening device with his breath, and reached under the covers and her nightshirt to put the surface over her womb. Clear as day, he could hear the tiny heart beating away.

Gabriel closed his eyes when his breath left him, just like it did a few days earlier when he gave into his curiosity, and took a listen the first time. He was awed then, and he was no less awed now.

The two of them had made a new life together. Deep down, Gabe was more than sure Ali would be in the same place he was as soon as the early pregnancy symptoms she was accumulating were a thing of the past. He also knew his family would be more than welcoming of a new life added to their increasing numbers.

Her family, on the other hand-

All bets were off on that score.

Chapter 2

Alicia got behind the wheel of her silver Range Rover, a birthday present from Gabriel this year, and plopped the six pack of bottled water she was carrying in a reusable bag from a local grocery store on the passenger’s seat. If there was one thing she was sure her parents would not have at this brunch her mother called for this particular Sunday, it was bottled water not in an emergency preparedness kit. To be blunt about it, Alicia’s mother considered all plastic bottles an abomination, and bottled water a complete waste of money at that. Nothing else mattered in Elise Drummond’s mind…certainly not that tap water wasn’t distilled or purified or that pregnant women shouldn’t drink it.

After attending Mass this morning, Alicia and Gabe split up for the day and took separate cars to their respective destinations – their family strongholds. He had to run by the lab and check on a couple of experiments before traveling west to his brother Adam’s house, and she was headed to her parents condo just over the city-county line at the eastern edge of the suburbs. It was the Drummonds’ downsized home away from home now that they had sold the big house and estate where Alicia and her brothers and sisters grew up. Their parents’ primary residence was now in South Florida, but the condo served as a base to be closer to their children as the kids were spread out all over the country, and tended not to visit them when they were in the south for the winter.

Alicia was the only one who stayed behind to settle for life in their hometown. Everyone else, she always figured, bugged out, and abandoned her.

As she drove toward the county, taking the streets rather than the highway which was already clogged with people headed for the free entertainment and cultural amenities the city’s Forest Park provided on this Sunday morning, she mentally braced herself for the command performance her mother insisted all of the Drummond kids give to wish their father a Happy Birthday. Earlier this summer, he survived a prostate cancer scare. After that, their mother thought his birthday this year was an important enough event to ask all of her children to travel to the condo, and have brunch.

And each and every one of Alicia’s siblings had called her to complain about the choice of location for the event. Alicia had the shortest distance to travel since the condo was less than six miles from the loft. That, to her brothers and sisters, was an unforgiveable offense for which she was guilty even if they were the ones who had moved away over the years.

Considering that Alicia’s oldest sibling, Sharon, lived in Seattle, and Caryn was in San Diego, Chase in Denver, Grant in Chicago, and Alicia’s younger sister, Jill, lived in New York...yeah, she was the closest. And, really, as far as Alicia was concerned, her siblings had no one to blame about their distance from the condo than themselves.

For once, it felt good to have something to hold over all of them. Of course, Alicia being engaged to a Pernoud...long ago, she recognized that there were some green eyes among the pretty blue-eyed Drummond siblings when it came to that. None of her siblings’ more fashionable metropolitan area homes could match the wealth Alicia was about to marry into even though the Drummond clan was almost as well off as the Pernouds were rumored to be at this point. What was interesting about that, though, was the people who were least concerned about all the wealth they accumulated over the centuries were Gabriel and his brothers.

For them, being rich just was.

And Alicia found that amazingly attractive.

Once she reached Clayton, the St. Louis County seat and one of the region’s centers of business, Alicia drove through light traffic to find a spot to park on the street. Fortunately, her mother had said she would provide the food for this event. Unfortunately, Alicia knew that that meant it was either going to be catered, or her mother picked up pre-made items from one of the grocery store chains that would be dripping in sauces with all sorts of additives or commercial mayo. Her mother’s take on cooking stood in complete contrast to several of the Pernoud women who considered using store bought chicken broth cheating in the kitchen. To Elise Drummond, anything was delicious so long as she didn’t have to make it, which was why Alicia usually ate before she joined her family for meals. The premade stuff just didn’t compare to fresh food prepared without all the additives.

On that depressing note, Alicia entered her parents’ condo building, and walked across the lobby to the elevators.

When her parents bought in this building, Alicia’s mom explained to her that part of the appeal was that it was close to a number of hotels. The beauty in that, of course, was that Alicia’s siblings would be able to find accommodations close by. There were only two bedrooms in the condo, and space was scarce, her mother had told her.

It was a good thing her parents had no grandchildren, Alicia thought for the thousandth time as she ascended the elevator. Her older siblings….

She took a deep breath. She never thought she would be the first kid in her family to have one of her own, but that was how it was shaping up.

She just hoped the pressure of being the first at something in this family didn’t kill her. Being a first at anything in her family had never happened before.

At the appropriate floor, Alicia exited the elevator, and headed to her parents’ door. She knocked, and forcibly calmed herself waiting for it to open. When her brother Grant swung it wide, he looked her up and down, and said, “Overdressed as always, I see.”

Alicia looked down at her loose, rayon sheath dress with the three quarter sleeves. It was a perfectly summer paisley print and fell to just below her knees. She looked back up, and into her brother’s smirking eyes. “In some circles, this is known as casual, you know,” she returned, passing him to head into the beige space in front of her.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said from behind her. “I take it your fiancé wears all Brooks Brothers all the time.”

Alicia turned on the ball of a ballet flat clad foot, and looked up a little at her brother. His hair was darker than the typical blonde Drummond locks, thanks to their mother, but the blue eyes in that long, chiseled face were just the same as hers. And they dripped disdain.

“Actually,” she told him, “Gabe was headed to the lab this morning in shorts and a t-shirt, but when he does dress up, his suits are hand-made in Milan.” By a designer friend of his grandmother’s, but her brother didn’t need to know that.

“Oh, good, Alicia,” her mother’s voice, not supported by any sort of abdominal strength, crackled from a doorway farther down the hall. “We need your help getting the meal on the table.”

Alicia sighed, tamping down the heartburn that started to bubble from her stomach, and headed toward the tiny kitchen her mother swore was entirely too big for just her and Alicia’s father. When she arrived in the doorway, Alicia saw her two older sisters standing at the island counter in the blindingly white space pulling dollar sandwiches out of commercial packaging, and putting them on serving trays. Neither looked up, and neither said a word to her. Sharon’s blonde hair was styled with feathers over her forehead and the rest hanging to just below her ears. Her plain button down shirt hung loose over long shorts. Caryn’s short skirt was denim, her shirt a tank with buttons around the neck. Her hair was almost non-existent cut as short as it was.

When she turned to her mother, Alicia was in no way shocked at the short in the back, longer on the top graying hair that had been severely damaged by regular blow drying. She also wasn’t shocked to see simple, light khaki crop pants and a button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Without looking, Alicia knew her mother’s shoes would be some kind of rubber soled adventure flats that were far more about comfort than fashion. If her mother was nothing else, she was predictable.

Her clothes were more so.

What Alicia was shocked to see was half a dozen food containers, and a stack of pressed glass bowls on the counter. Usually when they all got together and her mother was providing a meal, they just scooped from the plastic and ate off of paper plates so as to not have to do the dishes.

Her mother looked up at her. “Alicia, I said not to bring anything,” her mother admonished nodding at the bag hanging from her hand.

“I know, Mom,” Alicia told her walking into the kitchen to plop the bag with the bottled water on the counter. “But you never have bottled water, and Gabriel has me drinking it.”

That much at least was true. Sort of. Gabe hadn’t said a word about it, but she knew it was going to be all bottled water all the time until at least late March. At the moment, her mother didn’t need to know why Gabe had her drinking it, though.

“It’s such a waste when the tap water here is as clean as it is,” her mother’s blue eyes were glacial. “But then, your fiancé can afford to be frivolous with his money.”

Alicia held back the eye roll that really wanted to happen on its own, and plopped her purse on the counter next to the bottled water. She’d been hearing snide and nasty things about Gabe and his money ever since she announced to her family that they were moving in together, and she was quitting her job at the medical library on the campus where he was going to school so that she could pursue music with the string quartet full time. She was the cello player of the group, and being in that spot in Rosemary Fallon’s group, she got to play three magnificent instruments from the Baroque period that had been collected by Rosemary’s grandfather, the late Senator Aidan Dolan. The other instruments in the collection were violins and violas, and they were all going to be featured on the group’s first album currently in production. Uh, well, the album that was being rehearsed, anyway. No recording sessions had actually been scheduled just yet even if the contract was pretty much already negotiated and all but signed.

Alicia went about following her mother’s orders, scooping the contents of the store bought containers into the bowls that were laid out on the counter, and did her best to ignore the inane chatter of her sisters. They were discussing their latest dating failures, and comparing notes as to why they should just swear off men, and be happy. They both had been married for a while, and since they had been there, done that, and had the t-shirts, they claimed they didn’t want to repeat the experience.

If it hadn’t been for Gabriel, Alicia might have joined in the conversation, but she knew her opinions on why their marriages failed wouldn’t be appreciated.

“Oh, Alicia,” she turned her head to see her brother Chase, pretty much a carbon copy of her, only five inches taller and about sixty pounds heavier, in the doorway.

“Hey,” she said to him.

“Bloody Mary or Mimosa?” he asked point blank.

“Uh,” she looked around at the others in the room before shaking her head. “No thanks.”

“Jeez,” came from her sister Caryn. “Not only is she overdressed, but now she’s prudish about booze? Alicia, you’ve been hanging out with the Pernouds way too long.”

“Caryn,” Alicia put as much derision in her voice as she knew how, “under normal circumstances, the Pernoud boys can drink just about all of you under the table. It just so happens that I haven’t had much to eat today, and I need to drive out to Adam’s when we’re done here, so drinking right now is out.” She hoped that was plausible enough of an explanation to shut them all up. As it was, she was going to have to talk fast to keep eyebrows from being raised when she didn’t eat the half cooked roast beef or the chicken salad let alone the tuna that was headed for the table.

That would undoubtedly raise suspicion.

“Likely excuse,” Chase said departing the doorway.

“Or it could be,” her mother declared, “that she’s trying to keep her figure from going before that expensive designer dress Stephen Pernoud’s mother is making her goes on her body.” Elise picked up a couple bowls of food. “Not that I know what it looks like.” The barbs from her mother on all things have to do with the wedding had been sharp for months. For some reason, the woman had dreams of taking her wedding dress shopping - and finding the cheapest, simplest frock she could for Alicia to wear just to be able to say she did.

“Mom,” Alicia huffed. “Nonna said she would make a dress for you for the occasion.”

“I have a dress for your wedding,” her mother retorted.

“Yes, but after wearing it as mother of the bride twice and mother of the groom once, wouldn’t you like a new one?” Alicia asked. Truth be told, Alicia hated that dress. It did not suit her mother at all. But, it was cheap, rather dressy, and could be used more than once.

“I actually wore it for mother of the groom, twice,” her mother said pointedly. “And it still fits, so why would I need a new one?” With that, Elise Drummond sailed out of the room.

Alicia looked at her sisters. They seemed to be enjoying themselves watching their mother try to send her on a guilt trip to the resale shops.

She sighed, and picked up another couple bowls of food to carry into the dining room, another nondescript and beige space that didn’t even sport a floral centerpiece.

Alicia knew darn well and good that cut flowers were an extravagance that the condo never saw. It was yet another thing her mother thought was a perfect waste of money.

When she got into the room, her father was seated at the table with Chase’s wife, a modern woman her brother had married four years earlier in a destination wedding at Lake Tahoe. Alicia really didn’t mind Chase’s wife - unlike her sister Caryn’s ex and her brother Grant’s ex – the woman could at least carry on a decent and pleasant conversation.

“Hi, Dad,” Alicia felt her face smile as she walked around the table to give her dad a kiss.

“Good morning, dear,” he said, returning it with a smile of his own. “I’m glad you were able to join us today.” Keith Drummond was a trim man, compact and mildly athletic. His sandy blonde hair had long since turned silver, and his blue eyes were just as piercing as ever behind his bifocal lenses. Beyond that, he was as nondescript as the space around him. He was the younger of a duo of brothers who inherited an internationally renowned security firm, the one for which Keith’s wife Elise insisted it was too dangerous for him to work.

But it wasn’t too dangerous for him to still retain a portion of the ownership and reap the profits. That arrangement was just fine with Alicia’s mother.

Alicia always suspected there was more to that story than had been shared with their kids, but she probably wouldn’t get it completely unless she had her dad alone to talk. And, that, she knew, was simply never going to happen.

For the next few minutes, a steady stream of plates and dishes came into the dining room carried by Alicia and her siblings. They plopped everything down in no particular order, and sat the same way, in any seat that was open. Naturally, while the assembly was going on, her sister Jill walked through the front door. And, as usual, Jill missed all the work of setting up the meal. Unless Alicia missed her guess, Jill would find a way out of cleaning up afterwards, too.

After they were all seated, the lot started passing dishes. Alicia followed suit, although her eyes met her father’s in the midst of it. He rolled his in complete understanding of her trepidation. None of the rest of the family seemed to think giving thanks to the Almighty before eating was worth their time anymore.

Alicia just forked a piece of pineapple to her plate when her brother Grant opened the conversation. “So, Alicia,” she turned to look at him. “What exotic locale is Gabriel taking you to for your honeymoon?”

Alicia looked at him, his expectant expression almost a smirk.

“Yeah, really,” Chase said from his seat across from her. “With all the properties the Pernouds have all over the world, you don’t need reservations.” He put a forkful of eggs in his mouth.

“After all,” her mother said from the end of the table, and displaying the impeccable table manners she taught all of her children, “it’s not like you chose a destination wedding.”

Oh, crap, Alicia thought. Here we go. The damn destination wedding thing again.

“Uh, well,” she looked at her brother Chase, “I think we’re just going to go to the apartment in Manhattan for a week. We didn’t want to go down to St. Kitts during hurricane season, and Francis and Rosie are headed to Newport, so that’s out-”

“What,” Grant interrupted her, “they don’t have a place in Tahiti or a private island somewhere?”

Alicia speared him with her eyes. “No, they don’t. Most of the Pernoud family properties are estates that were never sold over the years, or are apartments in capitol cities.”

“And you didn’t want to do Paris in the fall?” her sister Caryn put in.

Alicia looked at her. “We’re actually planning to go to Paris when Gabe gets his PhD hood, but that hasn’t been finalized yet. The apartment in Manhattan is open the week after our wedding, so that’s where we’re going.”

From beside her, her sister Jill, dressed in all black and carrying an air of bitterness that only transplants to New York could, said, “I can’t take time off that week. Not when I’m coming back here for days for a wedding I’m not even in.”

“No one is asking you to,” Alicia sighed.

“Well,” her mother decided to pipe up, “New York wouldn’t be my choice, but enjoy yourselves.” She bit into the banana she finished peeling, her gold bridgework flashing.

Alicia wanted to sink into her chair.

“So, who is in your wedding,” Sharon asked. “I mean, since none of us are.”

“Oh,” Alicia said. “Just Rosie and Francis. We decided to keep it from getting too elaborate, so the two couples are standing up for each other.”

“Just a church wedding at the wealthiest parish in the county wearing a designer dress hand made by the Grand Dame of Milan, and a reception at the most exclusive country club in the city,” her mother said. “Yeah, that’s really simple.”

“And boring,” Grant declared. “Seriously, you’re marrying a Pernoud. They can afford to take a few hundred people to a destination wedding.”

Alicia sighed, and put her hands in her lap. “The only other place we considered was Gabe and Francis’s grandparents Beauchamp’s place on Corsica. They would have loved to have us, but it just didn’t work out.” More like the younger Pernoud siblings knew that any wedding there would be overkill since three of Gabe’s brothers were married there last year. That, and Gabe’s brother Adam didn’t want his Grandmere Beauchamp to overwork herself again. She had a tendency to do that.

“But you couldn’t pick a place in the mountains or on a beach?” her sister Sharon asked. Her destination wedding was on a cruise ship. Alicia seriously wondered from time to time if she remembered how that episode in their lives turned out.

“Sharon,” Alicia said tiredly, “we didn’t want that. I know you all have bagged the Church, but we haven’t, and we’re not going to - and that includes our wedding.” She looked around at the table. Her father smiled softly at her.

“Well,” her mother declared, “then maybe you will be willing to make Christmas a destination affair. Your dad and I are talking about maybe skiing at the holidays this winter. We thought we could make it a family trip.” She looked Alicia in the eye. Alicia’s heart sank. Not only was she pregnant, but Gabriel hated skiing. Not to mention, finding a place to stay in ski country that close to the holidays was going to be difficult if the reservations hadn’t been made already.

She kept quiet while her siblings all declared the notion a great idea.

“So, Alicia,” Chase asked, “where’s the Pernoud family ski lodge?”

Wait, she thought, they expected-

Oh, they’ve got to be kidding, she fumed. She looked Chase in the eye and said, “I don’t know that they have one. Since Gabe and I have been together, no one in the family has ever mentioned going skiing.”

“That I find hard to believe,” Grant put in. “When we were in high school, his brother Damian talked about some place they had in Colorado.”

She looked around the table. All eyes were on her. She held a short breath and honestly said, “If they have something like that, I know nothing about it. Besides, um, traveling at Christmas this year is out for us. Gabe has long-term experiments running, the quartet has gigs lined up already for that week, and I wouldn’t be able to ski anyway.”

“Bullshit,” her sister Jill declared.

Alicia picked up the bottle of water she had taken into the dining room off the table, and screwed open the cap. “Well, it’s not a hot idea to ski while you’re pregnant.” She took a swig of water while the table erupted with condemnation.

Chapter 3

Gabriel hit the button to lower his driver’s side window, and reached through the air to punch in the code on the keypad which would open the gate in front of him. Just to save time, and to avoid the delay parking up at the house would incur since he’d have to stop and talk to at least one female in the family, Gabe decided to get into his oldest brother Adam’s estate via the long way, and arrive there through the back gate. This particular property had been in the family for a couple hundred years. It actually started out as a horse farm, and now was the center of life for the Pernoud clan. One by one, as his older brothers got married last year, they bought up the houses and estates surrounding original family compound. At the time, as all the buying was going on, it seemed like they couldn’t get away from each other.

The truth was, though, in the large, close-knit Pernoud family, none of them really wanted to.

Gabriel was the lone member of the brothers to escape the circle, and on days like this, he had to remind himself why he moved into the city rather than continue to live with his family in what amounted to the woods in the midst of a major metropolitan area.

Essentially, when it came down to it, Gabe hated the drive back and forth to the medical school. That was pretty much the only reason he left the bosom of his clan. Well, that and needing to study without the distractions the house offered including the building sitting in the valley below the main house. That was where he was headed now. The place he was dressed to enter in long work pants and a long sleeved shirt on morning when the temperature had already reached ninety-two degrees. The building his brother Adam built just for fun. Its purpose was essentially a tightly held secret kept from most of the city. Only their closest friends knew that the place wasn’t an illicit drug lab or sex slave auction house. Oh, no, he thought, parking his Range Rover, and getting out to cross the narrow drive in front of the building. The secret was still safe. And the building itself was still one one of the main draws for him to move back out to the family compound at some point.

Which would be happening sooner rather than later given the latest twist in his and Alicia’s life together.

He opened the door to the super secret building, and walked into the cavernous mercury vapor lit space. It was cold in there. Colder than usual, but within the confines of the dasher boards that surrounded his brother Adam’s rink, was a fresh sheet of ice, and Gabe’s older brothers, a small army for today’s task, were busy painting it white.

“It’s about time you got here,” his brother Francis, the one just older than him said from the ice surface where he was rolling paint. “Adam’s been on a tear about getting the white done before we put the lines and circles down. He also seems to think we’re all going to stay up all night running the Zamboni.” Poor Francis sounded downright testy about that prospect.

Gabe felt his eyebrow cock in the family facial tick. “We won’t be able to do the detail work until late this afternoon, you know that. We start running the Zamboni too soon after we paint, and we’ll have to start over,” he told his brother. He walked toward the dasher boards, and got a good look at how far his brothers had gotten on their most hated annual task. Painting their hockey rink white was about halfway done, which meant they were behind. Gabe knew they got a late start this morning, but he didn’t think it would have been that late.

“Gabriel!” his brother Adam yelled from the other end of the rink, “get your shoes covered, and grab a roller. I want to be able to shoot pucks tomorrow night.”

“Good luck with that,” Gabe said under his breath. They might be done with all the painting and get another inch of frozen water on the surface by tomorrow night, but the ice wasn’t going to be hard enough to play the way they really liked by that time. He walked to the far end of the building to grab his “clean” shoe covers, and get a roller. He looked out at the ice, and at the six older men who resembled him enough anyone could tell they were siblings. They ranged in height from Damian’s six feet to Adam and Ben’s six foot six. Those three had the same inky black hair as Gabriel, but kept it cut close to their heads so that no one really knew if they had curls or not. Christian, Ed, and Francis had lighter hair like their mother did when she was their age. All of their eye colors reflected their hair, and all of their shoulders were the same wide set that made finding off the rack dress clothes next to impossible.

Not that any of them wore off the rack dress clothes. For the most part they lived in casual wear, but all of them had a full complement of custom, hand made dress attire from Milan. Even their tuxedos were hand made.

It was one of the pain in the butt privileges of being filthy rich, Gabe thought to himself any time he actually had to wear a tie.

Once he had clean booties on his feet and was armed with a paint roller, he walked to the open doors in the dasher boards and looked for a spot to fill in. For the most part, the edges were done, and the brothers were working their way toward the center.

“Here,” Adam materialized beside him with a tray of white paint. “You take this one and head over between Francis and Ed, and I’ll mix up some more.”

He looked up at Adam. “You want me to start filling in the pathway?”

“Yep. As soon as it’s dry Damian’s going to get out the string and the compass.”

“You’re awfully anxious to get this done this year,” Gabriel’s tone was dry but curious.

His big brother blew out a breath. “I need something other than the wave resistance pool to work off steam.”

“You could have your wife help you do that,” Gabriel said without irony.

Adam sighed. “I would, but she’s still nursing Jamie, and we are putting off having another one for a bit. When she’s ready, I’ll switch tactics. You’re the doctor in the family. You can figure out the rest.”

Gabriel laughed silently while he walked down the middle of the rink. Last year, after he got married, Adam was usually in a damn good mood almost all of the time, and steam blowing wasn’t a priority, not like it was before Adam had a regular sex life. Amazing how Gabriel got used to that when it happened.

So did the rest of them, actually.

Once Gabe had the paint tray on the ice and started filling in what his brothers had left bare, Francis painted his way over to him. “You were right,” his older brother said quietly and just for Gabe’s ears.

“I was right about what?” Gabe asked him.

“Rosie being pregnant,” Francis sounded scared.

“So’s Alicia.”

“Yeah, but she hasn’t had trouble in that department. Rosie has.”

“Francis,” Gabriel sighed. “Rosie’s perfectly normal. All that stress from the mating roulette you two were doing was getting to her. Quit worrying about her and worry about Nonna taking our heads off later this afternoon when she does their next wedding dress fitting. Both of them are going to need to have the seams let out.”

His brother huffed, but he didn’t argue the point.

A couple hours later, Gabriel climbed into the driver’s seat of his Range Rover while Francis climbed in behind him, Ed climbed into the other front seat, and Damian in behind him. They had finished the white layer of paint on the ice, and convinced Adam that taking a break for lunch was a good idea while they waited for it to dry before starting on the details. Adam still wanted to get started putting a good inch and a half of ice on top of the paint, but even he was getting hungry.

Plus, the boys all needed to check in with their women, and spend some quality time with their progeny. At least that’s why Ed, Ben, and Christian wanted a break. Their babies drew them like moths to flame.

Gabriel could sympathize. Some day he’d be doing the same sort of thing, he was sure. Right now, though, he really just wanted to find Alicia and escape into one of the steam baths that Adam put in the house, except that she couldn’t do that until March or April.

Gabe’s euphoria dimmed just a little, but not enough to really put a dent in his good mood.

“So,” Ed put his elbow on the window ledge of the passenger door, and talked to the car, “do I get to dish out advice on how to make it through the first baby?”

“God, no,” Damian said from behind him. “Dad’s been explaining things to me for weeks.”

“Not for you, you self-centered shit. For our little brothers here.”

Silence filled the vehicle as Gabriel put it in gear.

“Our little brothers?” Damian asked.

“How do you figure that you should be dishing out new dad advice?” Gabe asked pulling into the drive that led toward the top of the hill behind Adam’s house.

“Don’t be dense, Gabriel.” Ed sounded a lot like Adam all of a sudden.

Gabe wasn’t trying to be dense, but he was curious. “Seriously, what makes you say that.”

“You could say your girls are glowing,” Ed deadpanned.

A moan came from Francis.

“Hey, don’t worry about it, Francis,” Ed told them. “Seriously. The one who noticed was Mom, and she’s downright giddy with the prospect of more grandchildren.”

“Easy for you to say,” Francis told him from the back seat. “You were married how long before you and Beth had one.”

“Long enough to know that you have no idea how much your perspective on your woman is going to change,” Ed told him.

“What they go through,” Damian said to the car, “is pretty rough.”

“It’s perfectly natural,” Gabriel declared with the authority of one who had actually learned how to deliver babies in medical school. “Look, I know you guys are still wallowing in the changes your wives have gone through in the process, but this is part of life. It’s the way the human body works.”

“We’ll remind you of that when your Alicia is no longer the slim almost model you fell in love with, and is barfing at four in the morning,” Damian told him.

In the midst of all the rink painting hoopla, and all of his brothers hopping into the big outdoor pool on the side of the house to swim with their families, Gabriel opted to run on the treadmill in the weight room in the basement. It was one of the many features Adam had installed when the seven of them were living in the house together as bachelors, and they generally only had themselves for companionship. Exercise, including weightlifting, swimming, and ice hockey, was just a part of their lives.

Earlier, when they got to the top of the hill to the house, their mother and grandmother - and Adam’s wife Mae who was still officially the woman of the house despite Nonna and Manon staying with them, both women having previously held that title - informed them that lunch was still an hour off, and that they should go relax and enjoy the children. The boys’ father, the other wives, and the boys’ younger siblings, triplets who were twelve, were all in the pool with the three older babies - Adam’s son James, Ben’s son Matthew, and Christian’s daughter Anna Maria. Ed’s wife Beth was sitting in the shade under the deck on the patio nursing their daughter Mary Beth. Damian’s wife Margot was not outside. She had four weeks to go before their son was officially due, and was in what could charitably be described as the miserable stage of pregnancy.

It was just as well for her to be out of the heat, Gabe thought.

Man, he shook his head, even at home with the family, he thought like a doctor first and foremost. He was going to have to watch that habit.

After his brother Ed’s crack in the car about Alicia, Gabriel knew he was going to need some time alone to blow off the sudden urge to punch his brother. It was one of Gabriel’s quirks, the temper, and he was about the only one of the brothers who couldn’t just let a burst of fury die. He had to work it off. That being the case, while the other guys were all changing into swim trunks, he went into the bedroom in the basement that he and Alicia shared when they spent the night out there, and found himself some running clothes. He would rather work off the need to put his fist through something in the wave resistance pool, or even the lap pool now that it was refilled after summer repairs, but Adam had strict rules about athletic safety in the house. No one swam without a lifeguard and no one lifted weights without a spotter. It was just too dangerous. Gabriel appreciated that more than his big brother knew, and when he saw his brothers all light up seeing their kids and wives this afternoon, he wasn’t about to deprive them of the joy of being with them to ask someone to lifeguard. No, he’d just make do on the treadmill.

Gabe climbed on the belt of the machine and set his program not just for a run, but some serious thinking time just to get it done. He needed to face a few facts about not just himself, but the situation he and Alicia now found themselves to be in, and he wanted to do it head on rather than let it linger.

He started moving with the track of the machine, and mentally went over the checklist of reasons he decided on working in lab medicine rather than practicing it. Mostly, it had to do with not having to deal with hospital politics. He watched his older brother Adam deal enough with local civic leaders - including hospital officials - to know that that minefield just wasn’t for him. University politics were bad enough, but if he brought in grant money and published a lot he would have no trouble at least getting lab space, and would be mostly left in peace. He didn’t care about a salary like so many people who infested universities these days. He was already rich beyond their dreams, and didn’t spend anything close to what his investments made on an annual basis. Last year, when he approached Adam about moving out of the house, he had already arranged his finances to be sure he could live far more than comfortably on what had already been passed down to him.

To put it mildly, he and Alicia didn’t have to work. They only did what they did in that regard because they loved their respective fields.

And that was confounding for a lot of people in the world who just didn’t understand that there was more to work than getting up in the morning and going to a job in exchange for cash. For many people, including Gabe and Alicia, work had to be meaningful in some way. Alicia played the cello and in doing so helped to soothe human souls. He was studying human biomechanics in conjunction with energy, and hoped to make a difference in the lives of people who needed help just moving through their day. It was a daunting task, and one that he knew he would most likely just be a cog in the wheel of achievement, but still, to him, it was interesting and he would do his part, even if he had to fund his research himself.

That had been the plan when he finally pulled the trigger to live on his own last year, and invite Alicia along for the ride. That had been the plan, and then his brothers one by one either finally met their head turners, as they called the women with whom they fell in love at first sight, or managed to get them to give in to the attraction and get married. Adam went down first. He hired Mae to be the housekeeper, and the brothers knew he was a goner before lunch on the day he met her. Ben fell like a ton of bricks right in front of all of them. Christian and his wife went through hell before she finally gave in to the attraction, and let him help her with some personal and professional difficulties. Damian swore the earth moved under his feet when he met Margot. Ed and Beth were forced to admit that they had eloped years earlier when Mary Beth came along. And Francis and Rosemary...that was a long time coming.

What none of them knew though, was that Gabriel had been gone in love with Alicia for a long time, far longer than any of his brothers had been aware. True to being the odd one in the family of engineers who fell in love at first sight, Gabe actually lost his heart to Alicia Drummond at the tender age of five years old. They were at a party at her Uncle Alan’s house, and she managed to be just what he wasn’t – entirely too feminine to climb a tree. She wasn’t impressed with him then, not like she was when they ran into each other at the library at the medical school years later, but she stole his heart that afternoon and he never forgot her. No, the day he saw her in the medical library pushing a book truck, and putting journal volumes on a shelf, he knew immediately who she was.

Now that they were twenty years older, he could actually ask her out.

Why he hadn’t done that in their high school and college years was a topic he avoided contemplating. The truth was, once Gabriel’s parents disappeared, the brothers didn’t see the Drummonds all that often, and Gabriel really didn’t know that she would be interested.

As it happened, he didn’t actually need to be worried about it.

Alicia never said she remembered that party or meeting him, but she was definitely interested in going out, even before he told her who he was. During his years in medical school, they developed more than a friendship. It wasn’t necessarily dependent, he told himself, but it was definitely a partnership. She helped him get past the pain that came eventually when he thought his parents were never coming back. She gently encouraged him to go to Adam and ask to escape the family orbit, as she put it, even suggesting the reasons why it would make sense for him to find his own place. She also complimented him in almost every way.

That was why he wanted to punch his brother Ed earlier. One of the ways Alicia complimented him was in looks. Where he was dark, and solid, she was light and ethereal. She didn’t exactly have the model level looks that their brother Ben’s wife Darcy had, but Alicia was a beautiful all-American girl. Several of his friends that graduated this year following four years of medical school were quite jealous of her being his. Really, given her build, Gabriel doubted multiple pregnancies would do much to change her figure, but he really didn’t want anyone else contemplating that fact. Not even one of his brothers.

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