Tropical Leopard’s Longing bonus epilogue: Pregnancy Knows
“Pregnancy Knows” occurs after Tropical Leopard’s Longing and before Tropical Lion’s Legacy, and contains minor spoilers! New to Shifting Shands Resort? This complete 10 book series (plus two short story collections!) is available to read in Kindle Unlimited now, and the first book, Tropical Tiger Spy, is now available in audiobook format!
Laura stood up too fast and had to focus hard on fighting down her nausea. The last thing she wanted to do was throw up on Scarlet’s shoes. The looming weight of Laura’s secret pregnancy had lifted, now that most of the staff knew, but she and Tex still hadn’t told Scarlet. The resort owner was in a mood like black ice already; the disaster of Darla Grant’s wedding had undoubtedly not been good for her bottom line, there was a pending lawsuit, and the press had not all been flattering. The staff was giving her a wide berth.
An even wider berth than usual.
“I love you, Cowboy,” she told Tex, as he put up his “Help yourself at the cooler!” sign. “But your bar smells bad.”
Tex looked affronted. “What does it smell like?” he asked, inhaling deeply.
“Like your feet,” Laura complained, knowing that she was complaining and hating it. Pregnancy hormones made her feel a moment from weeping, too. “Sweaty cowboy boots. And bruised mint. And that new cleaning liquid. And seventeen kinds of booze.”
“I only smell sixteen kinds of booze,” Tex teased her kindly. “Pregnancy nose is amazing.” He kissed the tip of it and Laura got a whiff of his breath, which would have been inoffensive at any other time. She waved a hand in front of her face.
“I want to walk around with a clothespin holding it shut,” Laura laughed. “The people coming off the last charter nearly made me puke.” In truth, she hadn’t actually thrown up that much since she realized what was going on, but she did get a sick feeling that left her dizzy and without appetite.
“You are looking a little green around the gills,” Tex said kindly. “Can I get you a tonic before the staff meeting?”
Laura tested the idea and shook her head. Despite the name, her morning sickness seemed to hit worst in the early afternoon, when the sun was highest and she had the most to do…and her chance of running into Scarlet was the highest.
Gizelle, barefoot, was sitting in the middle of the steps up from the bar to the restaurant, holding something cupped in her hands that she was studying intensely.
“What have you got there, cub?” Tex asked, as they parted to step around her.
“I’m not a baby,” Gizelle said gravely. “And I’m not a bear. I have an ant. Did you know that they can lift up to fifty times their own body weight? And there’s a caterpillar in Laura that will be a butterfly.”
“Ah…do you mean the baby?” Tex asked as Laura put a hand reflexively to her belly. She wasn’t by any means obviously pregnant; as weird as her body felt on the inside, she looked no different in the mirror’s reflection. Yet.
“I don’t remember meeting it,” Gizelle said curiously, still focused on the ant that was scurrying frantically around her fingers trying to escape.
“It won’t be born for many months,” Laura said gently. “You haven’t met it, yet.” It occurred to her suddenly that Gizelle might not ever meet her baby, at least not while it was young. Scarlet didn’t want children on the island, and Gizelle would likely never leave it. “Gizelle, sweetheart, please don’t say anything about it to Scarlet yet.”
They didn’t have a plan for the future yet. Laura hated to ask Tex to leave his bar; he loved it here as much as she did, if not more. But the resort wasn’t a place to raise a baby, all alone with no other children, even if Scarlet did decide to allow it.
Gizelle looked up with shining eyes. “There are so many secrets,” she observed without judgement. “Old secrets. New secrets. Big secrets. Baby secrets. Do you think that I could have a baby? I have a mate, now.”
“Would you want one?” Laura asked cautiously, sitting on the step beside her.
“Do you know how it works?” Tex sat at Gizelle’s other side.
Gizelle smiled and laughed. “Yes, of course. Breck explained everything in great detail,” she said carelessly. “And Conall always—wait, that’s too much information. I remembered!”
Laura exchanged an amused look over her head with Tex.
“I never was a child,” Gizelle said, herding her ant carefully back from her wrist to her fingertips. “How could I teach a baby how to be one? What do you do with a baby? There’s so much to know.”
Since this was a question that Laura had been wrestling with herself, she hesitated.
“I don’t think anyone has all of the answers,” Tex said thoughtfully. “We just have to make it up as we go, and love it completely. I hope.”
Gizelle’s head swiveled to look at the bartender. “Wait, you don’t know?” she said dubiously. “Don’t you remember when you were a baby?”
“No,” Tex said in surprise. “No one does!”
“Why not?” Gizelle said in astonishment. “Do you?” She turned to Laura.
“No,” she said. “He’s right. No one remembers being a baby. You don’t start remembering things until you’re a little older.”
Gizelle looked suspicious, like she thought they might be making a joke she didn’t understand. “There’s so very much to know,” she said with a sigh. “But it ends soon.”
“What does?” Tex asked.
“My memory,” Gizelle said. Then, abruptly, she stood up and started twisting around in alarm, shaking her sundress and lifting one bare leg after another. She craned to see the backs of each elbow, and contorted into awkward forms as she chased her own backside around in a circle like a dog.
“What’s wrong?” Tex asked, rising to his feet in alarm, an arm out to catch Gizelle if she toppled off the step.
Laura scrambled to her own feet and had to sway a moment in dizziness. “What is it, Gizelle?”
“I’ve lost my ant!” she explained in dismay. She fell to her knees and began poking around in the grass at the edge of the steps. “There are too many, I’ll never find him. There are more ants than there are people, more than twelve thousand different kinds, did you know? I’m a terrible mother. He’ll get lost! He’ll get into the salt! He’ll be stepped on!”
“There are other ants,” Tex said, trying to comfort her.
“You wouldn’t say that about a baby,” Gizelle scolded him, peering into the grass.
Laura had to smother a laugh over her earnestness. “No, we wouldn’t,” she agreed. “But there’s a big difference between an ant and a baby.”
“That ant is all grown up,” Tex pointed out. “Maybe he wants to go live his own life.”
Gizelle abandoned her search and came to stand next to Laura on the same step. She was so slight and spent so much time crouched down that it was easy to forget that she wasn’t also short. “You’ll take good care of your baby,” she said confidently. “And I will find a new ant to love and raise.” She considered. “What about a bird? Maybe I can catch one! Oh, but the kittens would want it for their own.”
Then very suddenly, she bent to put her head very close to Laura’s belly, though she didn’t offer to actually touch her. “Maybe you will remember,” she said. “Remember your ant.” Then she straightened. “Can I be his ant?”
“Ant?” Laura said in confusion. Did she mean aunt?
“His?” Tex added hopefully.
“It’s a homonym. If I were your sister, I could be! Instead, Jenny will be. Oh! That means that Travis will be an uncle! Do ants have sisters? I have to look it up on my tablet!” Then, in a flash of salt-and-pepper braids and bare legs, she was gone, flying down the stairs and away through the hedges.
As she often did, Gizelle left a moment of dazed confusion in her wake. “Do you think she actually knows it will be a boy?” Tex asked, as they resumed their climb of the stairs to the restaurant. He slipped an arm around her waist.
“Sometimes, she knows things,” Laura said thoughtfully. “And sometimes she really doesn’t.”
“You’re worried,” Tex observed, because he knew her so well.
“I’m going to miss this place,” Laura confessed. “And we can’t stay, can we?” She was all but begging for him to tell her differently. He was so proud of his bar, and all their friends were here, even her sister.
“How lucky are we?” Tex said unexpectedly.
“Lucky?” Laura didn’t feel lucky. She felt like crying.
They were at the top of the stairs, near the archway leading to the restaurant, and Tex drew her to one side. “So lucky,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where we are, or where we end up. We’ll be together, you and I…and our child. Not everyone gets to do that. Not everyone gets to work at a place like this, and maybe we’ll come back someday. But there’s a whole big world out there, and we’ll find a place where we can fit. Maybe Texas. Maybe California. What’s between them, Arizona? New Mexico? I could live there. I could live anywhere with you. We’ll visit when we can, and Jenny and Travis can come see us whenever the resort isn’t on the brink of falling down or being sued.”
Laura hated the rollercoaster of hormones, but this was the good part, the hopeful part. The part where Tex was right, and this was exactly what was supposed to happen and she was deeply, tremendously excited. They were on the brink of something amazing and new, a journey together that was terrifying and…absolutely perfect.
She didn’t have to know where they would end up yet; they had time, still. To her chagrin, tears overflowed her eyes.
Tex crumbled and stepped to embrace her. “Oh, Laura, sweetheart, it’s okay, it’s going to be wonderful, everything will work out exactly as it is supposed to and I love you so much, please don’t cry!”
But these were tears of happiness, and Laura fell into his arms laughing. “I know,” she said. “I know.”
Ready for a re-read? The first nine books are also available in box sets!