Even though she was listening to Christmas carols on her iPod, Mary Jo Wyse could hear her brothers arguing. How could she not? Individually, the three of them had voices that were usually described as booming; together they sounded like an entire football stadium full of fans. All three worked as mechanics in the family-owned car repair business and stood well over six feet. Their size alone was intimidating. Add to that their voices, and they'd put the fear of God into the most hardened criminal.
"It's nearly Christmas," Linc was saying. He was the oldest and, if possible, loudest of the bunch.
"Mary Jo said he'd call her before now," Mel said.
Ned, her youngest brother, remained suspiciously quiet. He was the sensitive one. Translated, that meant he'd apologize after he broke David Rhodes's fingers for getting his little sister pregnant and then abandoning her.
"We've got to do something," Linc insisted.
The determination in his voice gave her pause. Mary Jo's situation was complicated enough without the involvement of her loving but meddlesome older brothers. However it wasn't their fault that she was about to have a baby and the father was nowhere in sight.
"I say we find David Rhodes and string him up until he agrees to marry our sister."
Mary Jo gasped. She couldn't help it. Knowing Linc, he'd have no qualms about doing exactly that.
"I think we should, too --- if only we knew where he was," she heard Mel say.
Unable to sit still any longer, Mary Jo tore off her earphones and burst out of her bedroom. She marched into the living room, where her brothers stood around the Christmas tree, beers in hand, as its lights blinked cheerfully. Ever since their parents had been killed in a car accident five years earlier, her older brothers had considered themselves her guardians. Which was ridiculous, since she was over twenty-one. Twenty-three, to be precise. She hadn't been legally of age at the time of their deaths, but her brothers seemed to forget she was now an adult.
All four of them still lived in the family home. Linc and Ned were currently seeing women, but neither relationship seemed very serious. Mel had recently broken up with someone. Mary Jo was the only one eager to leave, chafing as she did at her brothers' attempts to decree how she should live her life.
Admittedly she'd made a mess of things; she couldn't deny it. But she was trying to deal with the consequences, to act like the adult she was. Yes, she'd made a massive error in judgment, falling for an attractive older man and doing what came all too naturally. And no, she didn't need her brothers' assistance.
"Would you guys mind your own business," she demanded, hands on her hips. At five-three she stared up at her brothers, who towered above her.
She probably looked a sight, although at the moment her appearance was the least of her problems. She was dressed in her old flannel nightgown, the one with the Christmas angels on it, her belly stretched out so far it looked like she'd swallowed a giant snow globe. Her long dark hair fell in tangles, and her feet were bare.
Linc frowned back at her. "You're our sister and that makes you our business."
"We're worried about you," Ned said, speaking for the first time. "You're gonna have that baby any day."
"I don't know nothin' about birthing no babies," Mel added in a falsetto voice.
If he was trying to add humor to the situation Mary Jo wasn't amused. She glared at him angrily. "You don't have to worry about delivering my baby. This child is my concern and mine alone."
"No, he isn't."
From the very minute she'd tearfully announced her pregnancy four months ago, her brothers had decided the baby was a boy. For some reason, the alternative never seemed to occur to them, no matter how often she suggested it.
"You're depriving this baby of his father," Linc said stubbornly. It was a lament he'd voiced a hundred times over the past months. "A baby needs a father."
"I agree," Mary Jo told him. "However, I haven't seen David in weeks."
Mel stepped forward, his disapproval obvious. "What about Christmas? Didn't he tell you he'd be in touch before Christmas?"
"He did." But then David Rhodes had made a lot of promises, none of which he'd kept. "He said he'd be visiting his family in the area."
"Where?" Ned asked.
"Cedar Cove," she supplied and wondered if she should've told her three hot-headed brothers that much.
"Let's go there and find him," Linc said.
Mary Jo held up both hands. "Don't be crazy!"
"Crazy," Linc echoed with a snort of indignation. "I refuse to let you have this baby alone."
"I'm not alone," Mary Jo said. She gestured toward them. "I have the three of you, don't I?"
Her brothers went pale before her eyes. "You. . . you want us in the delivery room?" Mel asked in weak tones. He swallowed visibly. "You're joking, right?"
Mary Jo had delayed registering for the birthing classes because David had promised to attend them with her. Only he hadn't managed to show up for the first session or the one after that or the following one, either. Giving up on him, Mary Jo had begun a session that week --- a lot later in the pregnancy than she should have. She'd gone by herself and left the class in tears. Although she'd considered asking Ned if he'd be her birthing partner, she hadn't found the courage to do it yet. And she wasn't sure he'd be the best choice, anyway. Her other options were her girlfriends Casey and Chloe; however, Casey was terrified by the idea and Chloe, married last year, was expecting her own baby.
"Right." She struggled to maintain her composure. "That was a joke."
They released a collective sigh.
"You're distracting us from what's important here." Obviously, Linc wasn't going to be put off. "I want to talk to David Rhodes, just him and me, man to man." He clenched his hands at his sides.
"And when Linc's finished, I want a turn," Mel said, plowing his fist into his open palm.
Mary Jo rolled her eyes. She'd defended David to her brothers countless times. She'd defended him to Casey and Chloe --- the only other people who knew David was her baby's father. Casey worked with her at the insurance company in Seattle, so she'd met David, since he'd come to their office for meetings every few weeks, representing corporate headquarters in California. David had charmed just about everybody --- with the possible exception of Casey.
He'd always had such good excuses for missing the birthing classes, and she'd believed him. It was easy to do because she so badly wanted to trust him. He claimed to love her and while the pregnancy certainly hadn't been planned, he'd seemed genuinely pleased when she'd told him. There were a few legal and financial matters that needed to be cleared up, he'd explained, but as soon as they were dealt with, he'd marry her.
For a number of months Mary Jo had convinced her brothers that David's intentions were honorable. Now, though, she had to resign herself to the fact that David wasn't willing or able to marry her. She realized she didn't know as much about him as she should. Granted, he was older by at least twenty years, but her infatuation had led her to dismiss the significance of that. Now Mary Jo had to doubt his sincerity. She hadn't heard from him in more than two weeks and he wasn't answering his cell phone, and even during their last conversation, he'd been preoccupied and abrupt. He'd mentioned that he'd be in Cedar Cove for Christmas with his father and stepmother and would call her then.
"Do you want to marry David?" Ned asked. He was the only brother to take her feelings into consideration.
"Of course she wants to marry him," Linc answered, scowling at him. "She's about to have his baby, isn't she?"
"I believe I can answer for myself." Mary Jo calmly turned toward her oldest brother. "Actually --- "
"You're getting married," Linc broke in.
"I won't have you holding a gun on David!"
Linc shook his head, expression puzzled. "I don't own a gun."
She sighed; her brothers could be so literal sometimes. "I was speaking figuratively," she said loftily.
"Oh." Linc frowned. "Well, I'm not talking figures, I'm talking facts." He raised one finger. "You're having a baby." He raised a second. "The father of that baby needs to accept his responsibilities."
"He will," Mary Jo murmured, although any hope that David would take care of her and the baby had long since been dashed.
"Yes, he will," Mel said firmly, "because we're going to make sure he does."
"And that includes putting a wedding band on your finger," Linc informed her, giving her a look that said he wouldn't tolerate any argument.
The baby kicked as if in protest and Mary Jo echoed the child's feelings. She no longer knew what she wanted. In the beginning she'd been head-over-heels in love with David. He was the most exciting man she'd ever met, and without even trying, he'd swept her off her feet. Mary Jo had been thrilled when he paid attention to her, a lowly accounting clerk. Compared to the boyfriends she'd had --- as naive and inexperienced as she'd been herself --- --- David was a romantic hero. An older man, confident, witty, indulgent.
"Mary Josephine," Mel said loudly. "Are you listening?"
Blinking to clear her thoughts, Mary Jo focused on her middle brother. "I guess not, sorry."
"Sorry?" Mel stormed. "We're talking about your future here and the future of your son."
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Mary Jo yawned. She couldn't help it. She covered her mouth with one hand and placed the other on her protruding belly. "I'm going to bed," she declared.
"Mary Jo!" Linc shouted after her as if she were a rifle recruit and he was her drill instructor. "We need to decide what to do here and now."
"Can't we talk about it in the morning?" She was too exhausted to continue this argument with her brothers at --- she glanced toward the antique clock --- almost midnight.
"Linc, be reasonable."
"We have to get this settled." Mel joined forces with his older brother.
Again Ned didn't speak. He cast her a look of quiet sympathy but he wasn't taking sides. Mary Jo could see that he felt Linc and Mel were right --- not about becoming Mrs. Rhodes but about the need for her to make some kind of decision.
"Okay, okay, but we've already said everything there is to say." She sagged onto the sofa and tried to keep her eyes open.
Linc glanced at the clock, too. "As of about one minute ago, it's officially Christmas Eve. Rhodes promised to be in touch before Christmas."
Exhaling a deep sigh, Mary Jo shrugged. "He might've said on Christmas. I've forgotten."
"Well, I haven't." Mel's feet were braced wide apart, his arms folded across his massive chest.
"I haven't forgotten, either." Linc, too, crossed his arms. They looked like bouncers at a tough bar, but Mary Jo feared the person they'd toss out on his ear would be David Rhodes.
And he'd deserve it; she knew that. He'd deceived her not once, not twice, but a dozen times or more. Some of the responsibility was hers, though. Even though she was aware that he'd abused her trust, she'd continued to believe him, giving him chance after chance. Now her brothers were trying to save her from him --- and from herself.
"David said he'd contact you before Christmas," Linc reminded her. "That's less than twenty-four hours."
"Yes, it is." Her agreeing with him was sure to confuse her well --- meaning brothers.
Apparently shocked by her unaccustomed meekness, Linc frowned, then checked the clock again. "Yup, less than twenty-four hours. It's time you realized he has no intention of doing the proper thing."
Mary Jo couldn't argue with that. She was just tired of discussing it. "You never know," she said, forcing a note of optimism into her voice.
"Then you're living in a dream world, little sister," Mel said through gritted teeth.
Ned sat down next to Mary Jo and reached for her hand. "Linc and Mel are right," he told her gently.
"About what?" She was so exhausted, her vision had started to blur.
"Someone needs to get in touch with David. If we can't find him, then one of his family members. He has to be held accountable."
Linc snorted again. "David Rhodes needs to make an honest woman of you."
If Mary Jo heard that one more time she was going to scream. "I am an honest woman! I don't need David or any man to validate what each of you should already know."
"Yeah, yeah," Linc muttered. "Don't get your knickers in a knot. It's only an expression."
"What we all want," Mel began, as if to clarify their thoughts, "is for you to be happy --- with the father of your baby."
Mary Jo doubted that was even possible. She'd lost faith in David and as much as she wanted to believe he loved her and cared about their child, the evidence stated otherwise.
"He's not giving us any choice," Linc said, his dark eyes menacing. "We're going to find him and --- "
"Linc, please. Hold off for a few days. Please." She hated to plead but it was Christmas and she didn't want to see the holiday ruined for any of them. She was protecting David --- again --- and the irony didn't escape her. Despite all these months of intermittent contact and broken promises, Mary Jo still felt the urge to shield him from her brothers.
But her real concern was for Linc, Mel and Ned. She didn't want them ending up in jail because of David.
"We're not waiting a minute longer!" Mel boomed. "If David's in Cedar Cove, we're going to track him down."
"No. Please," she said shakily.
"You don't have a say in this anymore."
"Linc, it's my life! Listen to me. I --- "
"We've listened to you enough," her brother said, matter-of-factly. "Now the three of us have decided to take matters into our own hands."
Mary Jo couldn't let her brothers get involved. She shuddered as she imagined them storming into Cedar Cove on Christmas Eve, bent on forcing David to marry her.
No, she couldn't allow that to happen. Resolute, she stood up and started for her bedroom. "We'll finish discussing this in the morning," she said in as dignified a voice as she could manage.
Linc seemed about to argue, but her fatigue must have shown because he hesitated, then nodded reluctantly. "There'll be no avoiding it, understand?"
"Night, sweetie." He threw his arms around her in a quick hug, as did Mel and then Ned.
Mary Jo slept soundly for six hours and woke in a cold sweat. She knew she'd never be able to stop her interfering brothers from invading Cedar Cove, embarrassing her and possibly doing bodily harm to David. The only solution she could think of was to get there first and warn David and/or his family.
With that in mind, Mary Jo left her brothers a note and slipped quietly out of the house.
Excerpted from A CEDAR COVE CHRISTMAS © Copyright 2010 by Debbie Macomber. Reprinted with permission by Mira Books. All rights reserved.