The party swirled around me, laughter, the sound of clinking glasses and the overwhelming smell of perfume and aftershave that did its best to cover the scent of so many people crowded into such a tight space.
I’d given up on trying to breathe through my nose, especially if I wanted to keep the salad I’d eaten at lunch time where it was supposed to be. Pregnancy had some perks but I had quite quickly learned that having a sense of smell to rival any blood hound wasn’t one of them.
Gertrude had truly outdone herself. It was an odd feeling to attend a party she had thrown in my honour and yet this wasn’t the first ‘make-up’ party she had thrown for me after finding out I was pregnant.
Except she wasn’t really throwing the party in my honour, it was for the child I carried and the promise that the Ashcroft name would continue. If I was honest I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about that.
Gertrude had proven herself to be dangerous and untrustworthy and I wasn’t entirely sure how much of her hatred she had truly managed to bury.
Closing my eyes I pressed my hand against the large roundness of my belly, sucking in a slow breath as the baby inside began a fresh round of kicking my bladder.
David’s voice sent a shiver of desire coursing through my veins as his breath fanned against my neck. The sound of his voice didn’t just have an effect on me, our son choosing that moment to place a particularly heartfelt kick against my insides.
I winced and pressed my hand against my stomach, letting the air hiss out between my teeth before I could answer.
“Your son seems to think my bladder is good target practice for his martial arts training.”
Opening my eyes I stared up into his face, a smile curling my lips.
David’s grin made my heart skip around in my chest. Watching him change as the months passed had been truly breathtaking. I’d always known David as kind and loving, his touch igniting something primal within me. But now it was so much more.
As the days ticked down to my due date I found myself wishing time would speed up and simultaneously slow down. It was hard to wrap my head around two such conflicting emotions and yet I felt them.
“We don’t have to stay.”
I smiled up at David, my hand cupping the side of his strong jaw.
“You know we can’t just walk out, what’ll your mother think?”
David’s gaze darkened momentarily and the flicker of uncertainty passed through his eyes. His hand closed around mine, drawing it away from his jaw and over to his lips.
The kiss he placed against my palm was feather light but it was enough to quicken my pulse and send it thudding into my throat.
“She’ll just have to understand, Carrie. She insisted on the party and we were gracious enough to attend, despite how far along you are… If we leave early no one is going to mind.”
Pain flared through me, forcing me to grit my teeth and grab onto the support David offered.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” David’s voice was filled with concern as he wrapped his arms around me, drawing me in against his body.
The pain subsided leaving me with an unpleasant tingling after glow.
“It’s fine, just braxton hicks like the doctor said.”
The panicked trip to the hospital when I’d felt the first of the braxton hicks the week prior still brought colour to my cheeks.
“Are you sure?” The concern was still there in David’s voice as I pushed away and stared up into his face.
“I’m sure but I think you’re right and we should go home, if I spend much longer on my feet I think you’ll have to get the fire department out to cut my shoes off.”
“Why didn’t you say anything earlier? You sit and I’ll go and sort the car.”
The disapproving look in his eyes made me smile and I bit back the smart reply that skipped along the tip of my tongue.
I let him guide me over to a deserted couch near the back of the room, a sigh of relief escaping me as the pressure subsided in my back and feet.
He waited only long enough to see me nod and then he was gone, his stride long and powerful as he crossed the room. I watched him as he approached Gertrude, the tension he carried visible in the stiffness of his shoulders.
I couldn’t hear what was being said but the look on Gertrude’s face spoke volumes and as soon as David turned to get the car, my heart sank as she made a beeline for me.
“David said you’re not feeling very well.” It was more of an accusation than a statement.
“I think I’m just tired. The party has been fantastic but you know you didn’t need to go to so much trouble.”
Gertrude studied me for a moment, her eyes narrowing as though if she stared hard enough she would be able to read the thoughts inside my head.
“I forgot you’re not really built to have children are you?”
Her words were like a slap in the face and the seconds ticked by as I struggled to find a suitable answer.
“Excuse me?” The words stuttered out of me as shock spiralled through me. In the months since she’d discovered I was pregnant all the usual nasty quips and downright rude behaviour had ceased.
“Carrie, don’t take it so personally I’m just stating facts. Growing another person inside you isn’t easy but to do it and carry so much extra weight it’s bound to put undue stress on your body.” She smiled and reached out as though to take my hand in hers.
Shrugging away from her I shook my head as though that simply movement alone could dislodge the anger I was feeling at her words.
Pushing up from the couch my body protested at the sudden and uncoordinated movement.
“You have no right to speak to me like that.” I kept my voice deliberately low my feeble attempt to keep my blood pressure in the normal range.
“Carrie, please, I think there’s been a misunderstanding. I’m just concerned for you and the baby.”
“Don’t give me that, Gertrude, the only thing you’re truly concerned with is appearances and I don’t fit the ideal mould you had in mind for your son.
“You’ve hated me from the moment you set eyes on me and I should have remembered that. Instead I allowed myself to be swayed by your pretence at making amends. I should have known it would only be a matter of time before the truth came out.”
“How dare you speak to me like that, after everything I’ve done for you? You do realise that without me no one here would ever accept you? You don’t belong in David’s world and without me to accept you, you’d simply be a figure of ridicule.”
A giggle escaped me and then another until I was practically doubled over with laughter.
“Why are you laughing?” Gertrude’s icy tone cut through my laughter and I raised my gaze to hers.
“I’m laughing because what you’ve said is ridiculous. I never asked to be accepted by you or anyone here, Gertrude. Not one of you really matters. I would love to think you could show your son the respect he deserves and trust that he has found a woman he loves, a woman who loves him. And I do love him but you can’t see any of that because you’re so wrapped up in your own petty bitter hatred.”
“What the hell is going on in here?” David’s voice boomed through the room.
The sound of his voice momentarily distracted me. It wasn’t until Gertrude’s hand connected with my cheek that I truly realised what was happening.
The sting of her blow brought tears to my eyes and I took one stumbling step backward as a wet warmth spread down the inside of my thighs.
David’s arms wrapped around my shoulders steadying me.
“I should have known all of this was a lie! What the hell are you thinking, mother, she’s pregnant?”
I stood there, shock robbing me of my voice as my mind struggled to come to terms with what had just happened. It was too early, it was all too soon, I still had four weeks to go before my due date but the fluid that covered my legs told me none of that mattered anymore.
“David.” My voice came out much lower than I anticipated and he continued to berate his mother.
“David!” I said, speaking firmly and forcefully.
He turned his attention to me, his voice cutting off mid word. The moment I had the full weight of his gaze trained on me I didn’t hesitate.
“I think my waters just broke.”