CHAPTER TWO

LIZ HUGGED THEM BACK, recognizing the relief and desperation in their embrace. They were too young to have been left on their own. What had Roy’s wife been thinking?

She mentally added that question to the growing list she would deal with later. For now she wanted the girls to feel safe and get them fed.

“You’re really here,” Melissa said, looking at her. “Really?”

“Yes. I got your e-mail this morning and came right away.”

Melissa, thin and nearly as tall as Liz, drew in a breath. “I’m really glad. I was trying so hard to make it okay, but I couldn’t. The money Bettina left us ran out really fast.”

Abby, a little shorter and also thin, bit her lower lip. “Are you our aunt?”

“I am. Your dad’s my brother.”

“You’re famous.”

Liz laughed. “Not really.”

“But you have books in the library. I’ve seen ’em.” Abby glanced at her sister. “I don’t read them because Melissa says they’ll give me bad dreams.”

Liz reached out and touched the girl’s cheek. “I think she’s right. But maybe when you’re older.”

“Or you could write a book for girls my age.”

“Something to think about.” She looked past the girls and saw Tyler standing in the doorway to the hall. “Girls, you have a cousin. My son Tyler is with me. Tyler, these are your cousins, Melissa and Abby.”

The girls turned. Tyler smiled.

“Hi,” he said, sounding more curious than uneasy.

“Hi,” the girls responded together.

“Tyler’s eleven,” Liz told them. “His last day of school was today.”

Melissa wrinkled her nose. “We have to go until Friday. Then we’re off for the summer.”

A fact that would make life easier, Liz thought. If she ended up taking the girls back to San Francisco, she wouldn’t have to worry about pulling them out of school.

Abby turned back to her. “Where’s Tyler’s dad, Aunt Liz?”

Not a question Liz wanted to deal with right now. She saw her son’s expression sharpen, as if hoping she would share some information. Not likely, she thought, wishing things had been different and Ethan had at least wanted to be a small part of his son’s life.

“Not with us,” Liz stated lightly. “Why don’t we go into the kitchen and get you two something to eat? I picked up a cooked chicken and some salads on the way into town. Then we’ll get to know each other a little and you can tell me what’s been going on.”

She had more to say, but both girls ran into the kitchen, as if desperate for food. Based on how they’d been living, they probably were.

She served them each a large portion of the chicken, along with coleslaw and potato salad.

The girls fell on the food, practically shoving it in their mouths. Liz poured the milk she’d bought and they gulped two glasses each. As she watched them devour the meal, she felt herself getting angry. How could Roy’s wife have simply abandoned the girls like that? What kind of heartless cow left two kids on their own? The least she could have done was phone social services on her way out of town.

She decided she would find out all she could about Bettina then kill off a character just like her in her next book. The death would be grisly, she promised herself. Slow and painful.

Tyler watched the girls wide-eyed, but didn’t say anything. He seemed to sense they’d been hungry for a long time, which was sad but probably a good lesson for him. Not everyone got to have three meals a day.

Liz took in their worn, not-very-clean T-shirts. Their jeans had seen better days, as well, and their sandals were in need of replacing. She knew most fourteen-year-old girls would be humiliated to be without stylish clothes and at least a hint of makeup. Was Melissa without both by choice?

When the feeding frenzy slowed, Liz settled across from Melissa. Tyler stood by Liz’s shoulder and she wrapped her arm around his waist.

“How long has Bettina been gone?” Liz asked.

“A while. Nearly three months. She left us with one hundred dollars. When that ran out…” Melissa dropped her gaze to her plate, then pushed it away.

Liz thought about the potato chip wrappers in the trash. The small apple on the counter. If there wasn’t any money and no one was taking care of them, there was only one way they could have survived. Melissa had been stealing from local stores.

“We’ll talk about that later,” Liz offered. “Privately. We can talk to the store owners and explain. I’ll pay them back.”

Melissa flushed, then swallowed. “I, um… Thanks, Aunt Liz.”

“How about just calling me Liz? Aunt Liz is too long.”

“Okay. Thanks, Liz.”

“Did your friends know Bettina was gone?”

Abby shook her head. “Melissa said not to tell. She said we’d be taken away and put in different homes. That we’d never find our way back to each other.”

“I wasn’t going to let them take Abby from me,” Melissa claimed fiercely, her green eyes flashing with determination.

An admirable sentiment, if slightly impractical when the alternative was starving. Of course Liz might be the wrong person to make a judgment on the issue. She’d adored her big brother and he’d taken off without a word, leaving her behind.

“A couple of my friends figured it out,” Melissa admitted. “They would bring us food sometimes. It’s been hard. I really thought I could take care of us both.”

“It’s a big responsibility,” Liz conceded. “You did the best you could, but the situation was impossible. I’m glad you e-mailed me.”

Abby grinned. “She’s read all your books, just like Dad. He has them all upstairs. Can we go see him?”

“Let me find out what’s going on first,” Liz explained, stalling for time. She didn’t even know where Roy was, let alone what he’d been convicted of or where he was incarcerated.

“Dad’s really proud of you,” Melissa told her shyly. “He talked about you all the time.”

Liz wasn’t sure how she felt about that. Roy’s pride hadn’t extended to getting in touch with her. As his daughters had proven, finding her wasn’t all that hard.

Abby raised her face to the ceiling. “The lights are on.” She grinned. “It won’t be dark anymore.”

“Everything’s back on,” Liz confirmed. “Even cable.”

Their eyes lit up. “We can watch TV?” Abby asked.

Tyler looked at Liz and grinned as if to point out he wasn’t the only kid who wanted to watch TV all the time.

“Not until your homework is done,” Tyler informed them. “And not every night.” He sighed heavily, as if his life was pain.

Liz laughed. “It’s true. I insist on reading nights every week, where we just sit quietly and read.”

“I like to read,” Melissa said. “But Dad and Bettina let us watch TV all the time.”

An issue she would address later, Liz thought. “If you two are done, why don’t you take your plates to the sink and rinse them? Then we can make a list and go to the grocery store.”

When they’d rinsed their plates, she sent Tyler to see if the upstairs bathroom had toilet paper and Abby out to the garage to check if there was any laundry detergent by the old washer. She and Melissa sat back at the table and started to make a list.

“We’ll get the basics,” Liz began. “But not too much. I’m not sure how long we’ll be here.”

Melissa frowned as she flipped her long hair over her shoulder. “We’re not leaving. I’m not going to let anyone separate me and Abby.”

Liz touched her arm. “I’m not suggesting anything like that. But you can’t stay here alone. You have to live with an adult or two. I’ll talk to your dad about the situation.”

“What about you?” Melissa stared at the table as she asked the question.

“I don’t know. If there’s other family, then we’ll have options to explore. If not, then you and Abby will be coming back to San Francisco with me.”

Melissa sprang to her feet. “No. We won’t go. We live here. In Fool’s Gold.” Tears filled her eyes.

Liz rose. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Everything is still new and we haven’t even gotten to know each other. Let’s not worry about anything more than today.”

“I won’t go. Neither will Abby.” Melissa looked defiant, despite the tears. “I mean it, Liz. You can’t make us.”

Liz knew that if she ended up with custody of the girls, she could and would, but there was no point in pushing hard now.

“I understand,” Liz assured calmly. “As I said, let me talk to your dad and figure out where we are. I won’t do anything without talking to you first. Can we put this on hold for a bit?”

Melissa looked as if she wanted to argue, but nodded slowly.

Liz took her seat and turned back to the list. “Shampoo and conditioner?” she asked.

Melissa sank into the chair across from her. “We’re out of them, too.”

Liz made a note. “You’ll have to show me what you like. What about makeup?”

It was a bribe, plain and simple, but she figured both she and Melissa had earned the break.

“I, ah, don’t wear that much, but I’d like to.”

Liz smiled. “We’ll get mascara and lip gloss when we go out, but later in the week, we’ll make a serious drugstore run and get some fun stuff to play with.”

Melissa leaned close. “Do you have highlights?”

Liz fingered her layered, wavy hair. It fell just past her shoulders-a length that allowed her to pull it back, put it up or go crazy with the hot rollers and have beauty pageant curls.

“A few. Our hair is about the same color. A bit of reddish gold adds dimension.” Liz shrugged. “You’re pretty without any help, but in a few years, you’ll be looking for more.”

Melissa flushed. “Abby hates her hair. It’s so red.”

“She’ll grow into it. When you’re young, it’s hard to be different.”

“That’s what my mom used to say.” Melissa pressed her lips together as she twisted her fingers. “She died.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It was a long time ago. Abby doesn’t remember her.”

“But you do.”

Melissa nodded.

Liz wondered about the woman her brother had married and where he’d been all this time. When had he come back to Fool’s Gold? Had it been when their mother had died? Liz suspected she’d left the house to him. But how had anyone known how to get in touch with him? Unless he’d been in touch with their mother and she hadn’t known.

More questions for later, she told herself.

Tyler clattered down the stairs. “No toilet paper,” he announced. “And there isn’t soap in the shower.”

He sounded both shocked and delighted by the strangeness.

Abby returned to the kitchen to say there wasn’t any laundry detergent, either.

“I don’t know if my car’s big enough for all we’ll have to buy,” Liz teased brightly. “We may have to tie one of you on the roof of the car to make room.”

Abby looked a little startled, but Tyler laughed. “I’ll do it. Tie me on the roof, Mom.”

“Thank you for volunteering.”

Abby glanced between them, then smiled shyly, as if getting the joke. “You could tie me, too.”

“Why thank you,” Liz said, touching her cheek. “That’s very thoughtful of you. Okay-are we ready? I was thinking we’d have spaghetti for dinner. How does that sound?”

“My favorite,” Tyler yelled.

“Mine, too,” Abby said.

“With garlic bread?” Melissa asked.

“It wouldn’t be spaghetti if there wasn’t garlic bread,” Liz told her.

Melissa grinned.

ONE SHOPPING TRIP, A DINNER and shared kitchen cleanup later, Liz supervised the kids settling in for the evening. Melissa had one last assignment for school, while Abby and Tyler sat on the sofa downstairs to watch a movie.

Liz poured herself a second glass of wine, then carried it out front. While her nieces were great, the situation was intense and she felt the need to be alone for a few minutes.

She walked to the edge of the porch and sat with her feet on the second step. The night was clear, the stars much bigger and closer than they appeared in San Francisco. Here there weren’t big city lights to dilute the heavens. She could make out the mountains to the east, rising miles into the sky. The very tops seemed to almost brush the twinkling stars.

The sound of the movie carried to her, a safe sound. Abby and Melissa were good kids dealing with an impossible situation. Her anger at the absent Bettina grew every second. How could an adult simply walk away from two girls like that? Even if she didn’t want them herself, she could have done something to make sure they were taken care of.

Part of Liz wanted to call the police and report the woman, but she wouldn’t. Not until everything was straightened out. Getting social services involved at this point was a complication no one needed. Besides, she wanted to talk to Roy first.

At dinner Melissa had mentioned her father was at Folsom. Despite the fact that Johnny Cash had made the place famous with a song, the facility was old and very much a prison. Liz had researched the prison for one of her books. She still had several contacts there which would mean getting in to see her brother would be relatively easy.

But knowing that didn’t make the idea of seeing him after all this time anymore comfortable. What was she supposed to say?

She shook off the question and returned her attention to the beautiful night. That was easier than thinking about the past, or hey, even the present. After all this time, she was back in Fool’s Gold. Who would have thought?

The grocery shopping had been uneventful. Only one shopper had recognized her enough to call her by name. The older woman hadn’t been the least bit familiar to Liz, but she remembered enough of small-town life to pretend to be delighted at the meeting. The woman had commented on how nice it was that she’d come back for Roy’s girls.

An innocent comment, Liz thought as she sipped her wine. There was no reason for her to want to snap at the other woman, ask her how it was possible that an entire town hadn’t noticed two girls living on their own. Of course this was the same town that had seen plenty of bruises on her arms and legs and no one had asked any questions back then, either.

“Don’t go there,” she whispered. She was here to help Roy’s girls and get out as quickly as possible. Nothing else.

She heard someone walking on the sidewalk. Instinctively, she stiffened before reminding herself that this was Fool’s Gold, and no one ever got mugged here. She looked up to see a man walking by. Only he didn’t keep walking. He stopped at her front gate and let himself in. The wineglass nearly slipped from her fingers as she watched Ethan Hendrix stroll toward her.

“Hello, Liz.”

He was as tall and handsome as she’d remembered. Broader and a little older, but only in that good way men age. It was too dark for her to make out his exact features, but if she had to guess, she would say he was happy to see her. At least he was smiling.

She blinked, not sure he was real, but the image didn’t go away, which was confusing. Why would Ethan be pleased she was back in town?

She clutched her wine in both hands. Standing up made the most sense and was also polite, but she wasn’t sure she could manage it. Her legs felt a little wobbly as she stared at the first man she’d ever loved. If she’d had another glass of wine, she probably would have admitted he was the only man she’d ever loved, but why go there now?

“Ethan,” she said, startled to have his name on her lips after all this time. She’d yelled at him, cursed him, cried for him and begged-but only in her mind. In the past twelve years, she’d never once spoken his name. Except once…to his wife.

“I thought I saw you earlier,” he revealed, moving closer and shoving his hands in his front pockets, a smile tugging at his lips. “At the race. I tried to get to you, but there was too much of a crowd. You’re back.” The smile turned into a grin. “You look good.”

She looked what?

Gathering all her strength, she set the glass on the porch, then pushed to her feet. After crossing her arms over her chest, she realized she still had to tilt her head slightly to meet his gaze. Time had not caused him to shrink.

“It’s not what you think,” she began. “I’m not here to make trouble.”

Confusion flickered across his face. “Why would you be?”

“I’m here because of my brother and his daughters. This isn’t about anything between us.”

The grin faded into a straight line. “About that,” he reflected, then shrugged. “I was a kid and a jerk. I’m sorry.”

As apologies went, it wasn’t much of one. Not when compared to his incredible rejection of both her and their son, but Ethan had never been big on accepting responsibility for his relationships.

For him, it was all about how things looked. After all, he was a Hendrix. A member of the founding family. Upholder of all things good and right. A girl from the wrong side of the tracks was good enough to sleep with, but a guy like Ethan would never want anything more.

“Whatever,” she muttered. “I didn’t know my brother had moved back and I didn’t know about his daughters. Until Melissa wrote me. That’s why I’m here. It’ll be two weeks. Three at most. I’ll stay out of your way, just like you asked.” Commanded was more like it, but this didn’t seem like a good time to bring that up. She was tired and dealing with too much already. A fight with Ethan would only complicate the situation.

She shook her head, her temper rising just a little. “But I will point out you don’t own the town, and you don’t have any right to tell me where I can or can’t be.”

“I know,” he said, moving a step toward her. “Would it help if I said I have no idea what you’re talking about?”

The lazy smile returned. The one that always had the ability to make her stomach flip over a couple dozen times.

“I wanted to welcome you back,” he continued. “And tell you I think it’s great you’ve been successful with your books. Even though I’m not sure I like the part where you kill me over and over again.”

Now he wasn’t the only one who was confused, she thought. He wanted to talk about her books?

“You deserved it,” she retorted. “And technically I haven’t killed you at all.”

“Then why do your victims always have a more than passing resemblance to me?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Which was a lie.

“Right.”

The smile left again as he took another step toward her. A step that put him a little too close.

“Eleven years ago I was a jerk,” he said. “I admit it and I’m sorry. That’s what I came by to say.”

“What?” She dropped her hands to her hips and glared at him. “That’s it? After everything that happened the last time I came to town you want to talk about that?

His eyebrows drew together. “What last time?”

“Five years ago, I came back to speak to you. Instead I had a very awkward conversation with your wife. You were out of town. Then I received your letter a few days later.”

The frown deepened. “What?”

She wanted to shriek. “I came here to talk to you. To tell you about Tyler. I saw Rayanne, who said you were out of town. About ten days later, I got a letter from you telling me you didn’t want anything to do with either of us. To stay away from Fool’s Gold and that if I came back, you’d make sure I regretted it.”

The frown turned into an expression of dismissal. “I accept that what I did all those years ago was stupid and mean, and I’m sorry. As for this crap-don’t bring my wife into your stories.”

She stiffened. “Stories? You think I’m lying? I spoke to your wife five years ago. You wrote me a letter. I still have it.”

He shook his head. “I didn’t write you a letter. You didn’t see-” He hesitated. “I don’t know if you saw Rayanne or not. I could have been traveling. I saw you in town earlier today, so I came by to say hello and apologize. That’s it.” His gaze sharpened. “Who’s Tyler? Your husband? You’re married?”

Oh, God. Liz sank back on the step. Thoughts and memories flooded her, making it impossible to pick just one. The early past intruded first-reminding her how much she’d once loved Ethan. How he’d convinced her to trust him, had told her that he loved her. She’d given herself to him on a starry night, by the lake. Desperate emotion hadn’t been enough to make her first time not hurt, and he’d held her when she had cried.

They’d planned on her joining him at his college, because being together in Fool’s Gold was impossible. Not that his family was especially rich, but because they were respectable. Something Liz Sutton could never be.

She remembered him and his friends at the diner where she worked after school. How his friend Josh had mentioned seeing Ethan with her. As clearly as if it was happening right now, in front of her, she recalled Ethan’s discomfort. He’d said she was a piece of ass-but not anyone he could be interested in. He’d denied her, had denied them. She’d heard every word.

Maybe if she’d been older she would have understood why he’d said what he did. Or if he’d been more mature or stronger, he could have stood up to his friends. Instead he had hurt her and she’d reacted. She’d walked over to the table, picked up the chocolate milk shake she’d brought him only minutes before and thrown it in his face. Then she’d walked out. She’d quit her job, packed a bag and run away to San Francisco.

Three weeks later, she’d figured out she was pregnant.

She’d returned to town, prepared to tell Ethan, only to find him in bed with someone else. She’d run again. This time she’d been determined to make it on her own. But five years ago, as Tyler had been getting ready to enter first grade, she’d decided to make another attempt to tell Ethan. Which had led to the conversation with his wife and the letter telling her that he didn’t want anything to do with her and his son.

None of this made sense, she thought. Ethan was many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them. He wouldn’t just forget about his own child. Unless he really hadn’t been told. Which meant his wife had kept the information of Liz’s visit from him.

“Liz?” His voice was low. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know.” She pushed to her feet. “At the risk of repeating myself, Rayanne never told you that I came to see you?”

“That’s right.”

“You never wrote me a letter.”

“No.”

“So you don’t know about any of this?”

“Any of what?” he asked.

She sucked in a breath. She’d known there was a good chance she would run into Ethan again. Or his wife. Or both. But she’d never imagined anything like this.

“I came back to see you five years ago,” she began. “No, I came back a few weeks after I left, but you were in bed with Pia.”

“What?” He stiffened. “I didn’t…” He half turned away, then faced her again. “It’s not what you think.”

“I thought you were both naked and in bed,” she said, struggling to keep her voice even. “It doesn’t matter. Screwing around with Pia isn’t the point.”

“I didn’t screw around.”

“No? Then your intense and meaningful relationship isn’t the point, either. I came back to tell you that I was pregnant. When I saw you in bed with Pia, I took off. I was too hurt, too angry. You’d denied me in public and then slept with one of the girls who delighted in tormenting me.”

She squared her shoulders. “More irrelevance, right? The point is, I always wanted you to know. So I showed up here five years ago to tell you about Tyler. I spoke to Rayanne and told her. Then I got a letter from you saying you didn’t want anything to do with me or Tyler and to stay away from town.” A letter apparently written by Rayanne.

Ethan stared at her as if he’d never seen her before. Emotions flashed across his face. Disbelief, confusion, anger.

“Tyler isn’t your husband?”

“He’s my son. Your son. He’s eleven. And he’s here.”

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