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Until Noelle Stevenson actually saw the word "pregnant" on the plastic stick, she'd allowed herself to believe everything was going to be all right. After all, it had been her first time. Wasn't she supposed to have a grace period? Like when a light bill was due? Those extra couple of days until disaster struck?
Apparently not, she thought, barely able to breathe as she turned the plastic over in her hands. Pregnant. Her.
She couldn't imagine what her parents were going to say. Not that they would kill her. Anger seemed pretty manageable. Instead they would get quiet, look at each other in that way of silently communicating that had always driven her and her sisters crazy, then ask her what she wanted to do. After all, she'd created the situation, now she would have to deal with the consequences. They were going to be disappointed and that was always the worst.
Noelle looked in the mirror and saw the fear in her eyes. She wouldn't be twenty for another two weeks. She was supposed to be starting her second year at community college in the fall. There couldn't be a baby. This wasn't really happening.
The sound of footsteps on a hardwood floor got her attention. It was barely after six in the morning. The office should have been deserted. Who had picked this particular morning to come in early, too?
Not waiting to find out, Noelle stuffed the stick back into the box and shoved the box into her coat pocket. She quickly glanced around the private bathroom of her employer to make sure she hadn't left anything behind, then hurried through his office, hoping to make an escape before anyone caught her.
She raced across the large space and dashed into the hall, only to slam into the one person she would most like to have avoided.
"What's the rush?" Devlin Hunter asked as he reached out to steady her.
Noelle cleared her throat, then forced herself to smile as she stepped back and wondered what on earth she was going to say. The truth was impossible. She could imagine the look on his face if she blurted out, "Gee, Mr. Hunter, I needed to come in extra early so I could have some privacy in the bathroom. At home, I share with my three sisters. What with me thinking I might be pregnant with your late brother's child, I really didn't want to let my family in on my little secret. You, either, for that matter."
"Um, no rush," Noelle said, knowing she sounded impossibly stupid. "I, ah, needed to get some work done, so I came in to get a jump start on it."
Mr. Hunter glanced at his watch, then at her. "It's barely after six."
"I actually know that."
"I didn't know Katherine was such an exacting boss," he said, a faint smile tugging on the corners of his mouth.
Technically, Noelle didn't work for Mr. Hunter. She worked for his assistant. Secretary to an assistant — it was a little like being the dog's pet. Still, she adored Katherine, who always let her schedule her hours around her college classes.
"She's not," Noelle said. "I just wanted to, you know, be diligent."
He studied her as if he didn't quite believe her. Noelle knew she was a lousy liar and wondered what, exactly, he could read in her eyes.
Mr. Hunter was tall — taller than Jimmy had been. They both had dark hair, but Mr. Hunter had green eyes, while Jimmy's had been brown. That wasn't the only other difference, either. Jimmy had been a lot younger and not nearly as responsible. Not until he'd gone into the army.
She didn't want to think about Jimmy being gone or her being pregnant. So she smiled and started to move around Mr. Hunter.
"I'll just get to my desk," she said, hoping he wouldn't ask why she'd been in his office.
She moved to the left and he moved to the right. As they were facing each other, that meant they bumped.
He excused himself and lifted his briefcase so she could get by. The corner of the case nudged her pocket and something fell to the floor. Mr. Hunter bent down and picked it up.
Her heart froze in her chest. One second there was beating and the next...nothing. She closed her eyes and willed herself to disappear. Or at the very least, grow wings and fly away. Flying would be excellent.
Instead there was only the sound of their breathing and a long, lingering silence.
"Did I interrupt you before or after you took the test?" he asked quietly.
She kept her eyes shut. Humiliation burned both inside and out. "After."
She opened her eyes and looked up at him. "I'm pregnant."
Dev had figured the worst part of his day would be arguing with one of his suppliers. He'd been wrong.
"Then I guess we should talk," he said and led the way into his office.
Devlin swore silently. Jimmy had just been a kid, he thought grimly. Noelle Stevenson was even younger. He set the pregnancy-test kit box on his desk.
She sat across from him, all wide-eyed and scared. He doubted she could look more embarrassed or uncomfortable and guessed she wanted to be anywhere but here, which was exactly how he felt. But despite the awkward situation, he wasn't going to walk away from his responsibilities.
He'd always been the one to take care of his brother when they'd been younger and clean up Jimmy's messes when they were older. But a baby...
"You were dating my brother," he said.
She nodded without looking at him. "We'd been going out a couple of months when he joined the army. He said I should see other people after he went away, but I didn't want to, so when he came home on leave, he said..." She swallowed. "We talked about getting married."
Dev remembered being twenty and interested in a girl, and he knew his brother. If discussing marriage was what it took to get her into bed, then that's what Jimmy would have done.
"I thought..." She toyed with the buttons on her jacket.
"He was really sweet and fun and he was going to a dangerous part of the world. He said he might not come back."
Dev held in a groan. Not just for the overused line, but with the realization that not only had his brother gotten a girl pregnant, that she might have been a virgin.
"Your first time?" he asked bluntly.
Noelle hunched over so her long, pale blond hair covered her face, but he saw her nod. Disbelief blended with anger. If his brother had been alive, Dev would have beaten the crap out of him. But Jimmy was gone. One way or another Jimmy had always managed to make his problems Dev's problems. This time, under circumstances that were still filled with grief. Pain warred with guilt but neither won. And there was still Noelle to deal with.
He figured it would be insensitive to boot up his computer at that moment so he could get into the personnel files there. Without them, he knew very little about her. She worked for his assistant. She'd been with the company a little less than a year. She'd had minimal office skills when she'd arrived, but she'd worked hard and now Katherine claimed she couldn't exist without her.
Sometime over the spring, Jimmy had met her and they'd started dating. But who was she and what the hell was he supposed to do now?
"I didn't mean for this to happen," Noelle said quietly, still not looking at him. "I thought I loved him, but I wasn't sure. And he was so sweet... But I knew I should wait. Only then he was killed and I thought I'd done the right thing. I felt so horrible for him and for you. I know you're his only family. And then I thought everything would be okay. Except I was late and a couple of days ago I realized I might be...you know."
She stopped and sucked in a breath. It was then he figured out she was crying.
He stood and walked into the bathroom, where some mystery cleaning person always left a fresh box of tissues. After handing them to her, he perched on the edge of his desk.
"How old are you, Noelle?"
She took the tissues and wiped her face with one, then blew her nose. "I'll be twenty in a couple of weeks."
Still a kid herself, he thought. "You go to college?"
"Community college. I'll start my second year in the fall." She wrinkled her nose. "I know, I know, I should be at UC Riverside, but early in my senior year of high school I was skiing with the youth group." She looked up and actually gave him a little smile. "I had a close encounter with a tree. I usually do better than that.Anyway, I broke my leg and messed up some ligaments, which meant surgery and physical therapy and more surgery. My mom homeschooled me and I was able to graduate with my class, but I missed out on a lot of activities and the SATs. I wasn't even able to apply to a four-year college. So I'm doing it this way, which is good because it saves a lot of money. I mean, there are four of us and it's not like my parents are rich or anything."
Too much information, he thought, not sure where to go first. "You still live at home?"
"Yes. I'm one of four girls. The oldest." The humor in her blue eyes faded. "Talk about setting a bad example."
"What do your parents do?"
"My dad's the pastor at our church and my mom works in the office."
Dear God, Jimmy had slept with a minister's daughter? "What do you want to do when you finish college?"
"Go into nursing, specializing in pediatrics." She held up her hand. "I beg you, do not give me the 'be a doctor instead' lecture. When I was in the hospital, the people who made a difference for me were the nurses. That's what I want to do — take care of kids and help them be less scared while they're sick."
"No lectures," he promised.
Now what? The young woman was pregnant with his brother's child, and that made her his responsibility. But how to handle things? If Jimmy were still alive, he could insist they get married. He could...
Jimmy wasn't alive, he reminded himself again and he, Dev, was the reason.
The ever-present guilt coiled around him like a large, deadly snake. He willed himself not to react. The more immediate problem was Noelle's pregnancy and what to do about it, and her.