Home > The Plan (Off-Limits Romance #4)

The Plan (Off-Limits Romance #4)
Author: Ella James







There are a lot of pros, I tell myself as I drive South. For one: the lack of smog. I couldn’t put a percentage on it, but my lungs will be a good bit healthier in Fate than they were in Chicago. I could add years onto my life by moving home. Okay, maybe not years, but probably months. They say every moment is a chance to turn it all around, right?

Not the U-Haul, Marley.

Throw another strike in the “pro” column for the teensie crime rate in my hometown. You’re not going to lose your life at random in small-town Alabama. If you get killed, it’s going to be because your coked-out bestie crashed the boat when you were working on your tan sans life jacket, or your off-the-wagon cousin Larry thought your festive reindeer antlers were the real deal at the family Christmas party.

By the way, after the party, you won’t have to worry about driving home in snow. Winters here are cold and wet, with lots of pass-the-Prozac gray skies, but sometimes it’s mild enough to stroll the boardwalk by the lake or even take a boat out.

The lake. See? Total pro right there. It’s big and…soothing. Right? I mean, the lake is totally soothing. Most people soothe themselves by fishing, a mind-numbing pastime that makes me want to drown myself, but there are certain times when boating can be fun. I spent my high school years skiing, drinking, and making out on islands.

Those were good times.

They were.

As if to reassert itself, Lake Fate glints between the pines. The highway furls onto a wooden bridge whose planks clack as I steer the U-Haul over it and into a tunnel of massive, mossy oaks. And even though I grew up here, and even though I’ve always come home once a year, I’m almost stunned by the beautiful scene in front of me: a line of pristine, pre-war mansions, glistening like jewels under the storybook trees.

Fate is known in Hollywood as a setting for feel-good, down-home films. Every spring, the people here spritz up their antique palaces and welcome camera-toting tourists, all eager to step back in time and see the world through a simpler lens.

I pass the shady median where a wrought-iron sign proclaims, in fancy script, “Fate Will Change Your Life.”

It should probably say, “Itty bitty town, majestic ego…”

Life-changing this place is not, but it does have another big strike in its favor: cheapness. Seriously—everything, so cheap it’s almost laughable.

You can get one of these stately mansions for three-hundred thousand dollars, and a sprawling lake-front lot for less than a million. Average income in a place like Chicago stretches here into enough to live like royalty.

The canopy of oaks thins just a little, revealing the picturesque town square. At its center is a giant catfish statue, leaping from a brick concourse amidst several fun spray fountains.

The Fate Hotel, a caved-in relic when my mom was little, was elegantly restored when I was a kid: three red-brick levels sporting ivy-covered, iron balconies, Greek-revival-style columns, and a gold-lettered awning.

As I wait at the red light beside the hotel, a group of tourists on bicycles pedal down the sidewalk that runs down Main, toward the lake.

I catalogue the shops that line the square as my foot clamps the brakes: florist, farmer’s market, antique store, coffee shop, bike shop, jewelry store, monogramming shop, even a boat dealership.

All things I can’t afford to even think about right now, but…one day soon, I hope.

I grit my teeth as I hang a right at the light, bypassing the rest of cutesy Main and driving slowly through another gorgeous, historic neighborhood. The narrow street tilts upward, and I gas the U-Haul toward the top of Rudolph Hill. A few minutes later, I roll to a stop under the trees at Rudolph Park and look down at my little town. The Baptist church steeple. The giant, round silos. The old mill—now a bank—and the stripes of train tracks cutting into Main and Dixie. Everything shaded by pine forest. Everything swathed in kudzu vines.

A line of sweat trickles down the side of my nose, and I suddenly I have to bite my lip to keep from crying.

I can’t lie, not even to myself; I didn’t want this. Don’t.

In the back of my U-Haul, folded into a small square, is a posh and cozy, $800 pram—a designer stroller that would have been a chariot for my sweet, fat-cheeked baby angel.

Angel baby.

I sink my teeth into my lower lip, but can’t hold back a tiny sob. I would have taught you how to plant seed, and drive a boat, hop on a tire swing and throw your head back till you’re dizzy. We would have strolled down Main Street in your silly, fancy stroller. You would have been the cutest baby anywhere in Alabama in your frou-frou little outfits.

God, I want her! It’s been five months, and I still have nightmares where I see her as she was the day I lost her. The same day I met her. It just doesn’t seem real—still. I still want my full-term, living baby more than anything on earth.

Tears stream down my cheeks as I glare down at my hometown from atop the hill. It’s not that it’s so horrible, it’s that this isn’t supposed to be my life. I don’t deserve this.

And how small, and how pathetic, that that’s where I am emotionally: the why-me phase. Why anyone? I’ve got it better than most people alive right now on planet earth, and still…

I swallow back another sob and draw my arms around myself.

There’ll be another time to try.

But not right now. I’m all out of savings. And here in bum fuck nowhere, I’m an hour or more from an in-vitro clinic—at least two from somewhere reputable. When I do save up enough to try again, I wonder what people will say about a single mom who chose to have a baby by herself?

I wrap an arm over my head and cry, because this shouldn’t even matter. When mom’s health took a turn and my brother, Zach, told me the doctor gave her just a year or two, I was already pregnant. At the time, I didn’t give a passing thought to moving back here, to the town I fled the day I graduated high school.

When I lost her, I felt frantic. Try again, just try again. No price was too high, no course of action too extreme. Of course, by then I’d burned through all my savings. I used the last of my retirement on another IVF cycle, and that one failed. Some flaw with the donor sperm. The clinic should have caught it. They offered me a discount on my next cycle, but then Mom fell. Zach was out of town, so she laid there without her oxygen until her physical therapist arrived five hours later.

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