“It’s because of my sister,” I said.

He tilted his head, his eyes waiting for me to say more. “Ella?”

“Yes. She’s a single mom. As you know.”

“I do,” he said, then took a bite of the mushroom omelet.

I took a bite too, chewed, then spoke again. “And don’t get me wrong. Her son is the coolest eleven-year-old I know, but . . .” I heaved a sigh. “She had him when she was seventeen.”

He nodded. “Right. I sort of did the math the few times we’ve visited her,” he said, since he’d met my sister and her kid, and my parents too. They lived nearby.

“She didn’t plan on getting pregnant in high school, but she wasn’t going to give up the baby. It wasn’t easy,” I said heavily, remembering the terror on Ella’s face when she’d learned she was having a baby. “I was only in eighth grade. We’d always been close, and I wanted desperately to help her, to fix the problem. But there was, of course, nothing to be done. My parents didn’t want her to have an abortion, and she didn’t either. She’d planned to give up the baby for adoption.”

“That must have been tough for Ella.” His eyes filled with sadness.

“But once she was further along, she couldn’t go through with the adoption,” I said, recalling Ella’s tears, her heartache. “I used to hear her crying at night, and in the morning, she’d talk to my mom about what to do.”

“That’s so hard. I can’t even imagine how my sisters would have handled that,” he said sympathetically, his eyes soft as they locked with mine.

“My parents supported her choice. They understood it too—why she’d had a change of heart. But once he was born, everything was upended for her, and for them too. They became grandparents, and, in a way, parents again.”

“It’s the kind of life change that shocks everyone,” he said, taking a second to squeeze my arm, a friendly, caring squeeze.

“And she also took it upon herself to make sure I wouldn’t follow in her footsteps. She urged me to be careful, to use protection. It was nonstop, her advice train. And, of course, it was and is good advice,” I said, and took a drink of the coffee, thinking of my overprotective sister. “Her advice worked. But in a different way.”

He lifted a curious brow, as he took a bite of the omelet. “How so?”

“I made a different decision then—to wait. I didn’t want to take a single chance, Adam. I didn’t want that type of soul-ripping, bone-crushing heartache. And I also knew from an early age what I wanted in life.”

“Your photography,” he said, smiling, like he was delighted to know the answer.

I smiled too. “I knew what I wanted when I was thirteen and my parents gave me my first camera. All I ever wanted was to be a photographer. To go to art school, to learn the craft. I didn’t want anything to derail my plans. And when Ella got pregnant, I learned exactly how one mistake, one stolen moment where you took a risk, could backfire. Could capsize your future. Even though my parents helped, Ella had to drop out of high school for the first six months after the baby was born. My mom cut back at her job to help with the baby. And when Ella finally went to college, it took her six years and so many sleepless nights to get her degree.”

“That’s rough,” he said, shaking his head and reaching for my hand, clasping it. “I had no idea how hard it was for her.”

“She’s on the other side now. An amazing nurse, with a great kid. Her own place too. But it took a long time, Adam,” I said, squeezing his hand in return. “And I wanted something different. I wanted my dreams first, and my dreams meant a bachelor’s degree. I promised myself I would remain a virgin all through college. But I wasn’t stupid. I took precautions just in case. I started on protection back then, because I didn’t want to ever worry about a broken condom. I knew I had to be in charge of my own fate and my own body. And I suppose I figured I’d meet someone after college, but I haven’t met anyone I liked enough,” I said with a what can you do shrug. “And honestly, it was easier to devote all my energy to work and photography.”

He flashed a proud grin, gesturing around my home and to the studio at the far end of the hallway where I shot my pictures. “And it paid off. You’re so young and so far ahead in your career, and you own your own home at twenty-four. That’s amazing.”

“Thank you,” I said, and I was proud too—I’d accomplished a lot already at my age, and I was relentless with my drive. I’d shut most things out of my life except for friends and photography for the last few years, dating only sparsely. “And I’m glad of that. Even when I dated, I never met anyone who thrilled me.”

Tags: Lauren Blakely The Gift Erotic
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