CHAPTER THREE

ETHAN HEARD THE WORDS BUT THEY made no sense to him. Son? As in a kid? An eleven-year-old boy who was his?

“You never told me.”

The words came from him, although he couldn’t feel himself speaking. He was still trying to make sense of the information. A baby? No. Not a baby. A child. His child.

“I did tell you,” Liz reiterated, putting her hands back on her hips, looking as if she was prepared to take him on. “I just explained that. I’ll admit I didn’t make much of an effort when I came back the first time, but the whole naked-in-bed-with-Pia was more than I could handle. I came back a second time.”

“Stop.” He glared at her, anger growing. “You’re lying.”

“I told you-I still have the letter. I can have my assistant send it overnight. It will be here day after tomorrow.”

He knew there wasn’t a letter, mostly because he’d never written one.

He turned and walked back to the gate, before facing the house again. Liz stood silhouetted in the glare of the porch light. He’d been so damned happy to see her. He’d wanted to come talk to her. Now this.

“How the hell can you stand there and tell me I have an eleven-year-old son I’ve never known about?” He stalked toward her, fury growing. “You didn’t bother to tell me that you were pregnant? What gives you the right?” He swore.

“I did try to tell you,” she countered. “You were too busy screwing Pia.”

He grabbed her arm. “I don’t care if I was burning down the entire town. You were pregnant with my child, and I had the right to know.”

She jerked free. He let her, mostly because of how he’d been raised. It was the right thing to do.

“I cared,” she snapped. “I cared a lot. You were supposed to love me. You convinced me it was safe to love you back. You took my virginity, then let someone call me a whore in front of all your friends.”

“None of that matters.”

“Of course it matters. It speaks to who you are as a person. It’s the reason I didn’t try very hard.”

The unfairness of the accusation burned. “I was a kid,” he growled.

“So was I. Eighteen, alone and pregnant. If you expect a break, then I get one, too.”

“No. It’s not the same. He’s my child. You deliberately kept us apart for years.”

Liz drew in a breath and nodded slowly. “I know. That’s why I came back to tell you five years ago.”

He didn’t believe the bullshit story about talking to Rayanne. He didn’t care about anything except he had a son.

He pushed past her and headed for the door. “I want to see him.”

“No!” Liz grabbed his arm and held on with both hands. “Ethan, wait. Not like this. You can’t just walk in there and blurt it all out. He’s only eleven. You’ll scare him.”

He could have kept walking. She didn’t have the physical strength to stop him, but as her words filtered through the haze of anger and resentment, he recognized that something-or someone-was more important than both of them.

Tyler.

He stopped.

She released him, then came around so they were facing each other again. “I’m shocked, too. And sorry about all of this. I swear I thought you knew.”

“I want to meet him.”

“I agree. But we need a plan. He has to be prepared.”

He narrowed his gaze. “You lost your right to decide what happens the day you chose to keep him from me.”

She raised her chin. “That’s where you’re wrong. This isn’t a game. We’re talking about a child’s life. As for rights, I’m his mother and you’re not on his birth certificate.”

He’d never wanted to hit a woman before. Never wanted to punish one. Intense rage grew until it nearly overwhelmed him.

“I’m not saying I don’t want you to have a relationship with him,” she continued. “I do. That’s why I came back before. Of course I want that. I’m pissed, too. You said you loved me and yet you never bothered to look for me when I ran away. Based on what I saw with Pia, did you even miss me at all?”

“What does that matter?” He swore again, then took a step back. “You stole eleven years from me, Liz. Stole time and memories I can never get back. Do you really think hurt feelings from high school come close to measuring up to that?”

“I’ll accept responsibility for the first few years,” she told him. “But not the last five. Why do you refuse to believe me? I was here. I spoke to Rayanne. I’ll show you the letter as soon as it gets here. In the meantime, go talk to your wife.”

He stared at her. Of course. She wouldn’t know. “Rayanne is dead.”

Her eyes widened. “Oh, God. I’m sorry.”

He glanced up at the house, wanting nothing more than to break in and take what was his. He might loathe Liz with every part of him, but she was right about one thing-Tyler was the only one who mattered in this situation. Bursting in and grabbing him would only terrify the kid. Ethan wanted a better start than that.

Not that he should have to worry about that, he thought grimly. If he’d known about Tyler, he would have been there from the beginning. Been a father.

“I’ll be by tomorrow after work,” he said quietly. “I want to meet him then.” He met her gaze. “No excuses.”

She nodded. “I’ll tell him tomorrow, prepare him.”

“Going to make me an asshole?”

“Of course not.”

“What have you told him before now?”

“Nothing. I wouldn’t lie to him. I told him there were things I wouldn’t talk about. He doesn’t always like that answer, but he accepts it.”

Because he didn’t have a choice, Ethan thought, still fighting fury. Liz had controlled the situation, done whatever she wanted. Well, that was about to change. He would make sure of it.

“You’ll be here?” he asked, not putting it past her to leave town. What was different was this time he would follow, chasing her to the ends of the earth, if necessary. She’d already stolen too much from him.

“I’ll be here,” she said. “I swear.”

He gave a hollow laugh. “Because your word means something?”

She dug in her jeans front pocket and pulled out her car keys. “Want to hang on to these? Will that make you feel better?”

It might, but it wasn’t necessary. “I have your license number. If you try to sneak away, I’ll have you hauled back for kidnapping.”

An empty threat. If she was telling the truth-if he really wasn’t on Tyler’s birth certificate-then his rights were probably limited. But if she pushed him, he would do everything in his power to make it happen. Tyler was his son-and Ethan took care of what was his.

A voice in the back of his head whispered if he’d been as willing to claim Liz, none of this would have happened. He would have known about Tyler from the beginning.

A fact that might be true, he told himself, but didn’t erase what she’d done.

“Ethan, please.” She gazed into his eyes. “We have to work together. Make this right for Tyler.”

“I agree, but don’t expect me to ever understand or forgive you, Liz. You played God with my life and my son’s life. I hope there’s a special place in hell for you.”

She flinched as if he’d hit her. He didn’t care. Instead he walked toward the sidewalk, stopping when he reached the gate. “I’ll be back tomorrow at six. Don’t make things worse than they are.”

And then he was gone.

LIZ REACHED FOR HER COFFEE. She usually tried to limit herself to one or two cups a day, but after a sleepless night, she had a feeling she was going to exceed her limit before noon.

She’d been an idiot. She accepted that. What she really didn’t like was the reality that she’d been thoughtless and cruel-characteristics she would have claimed weren’t a part of who she was.

Ethan’s parting shot-that she’d played God with both him and her son-had been a direct hit. One she’d been unable to forget. Guilt was powerful. Despite the fact that she’d come back to tell him everything five years ago, he’d still lost the first six years of Tyler’s life.

The time couldn’t be made up, as he’d said more than once. And she regretted that. But now everything was worse. Apparently Rayanne hadn’t told Ethan about Liz coming to town at all. There hadn’t been a second rejection, this time of both her and her son. Not that it mattered. Ethan obviously didn’t believe her. Still, she would call Peggy and have the letter sent overnight. An easy solution to only part of the problem. If only she could explain away the first six years as easily.

She heard footsteps on the stairs and got the milk out of the refrigerator. She’d already put a couple boxes of cereal on the table, along with bowls and spoons.

Melissa entered the kitchen first, her jeans and T-shirt clean from the loads of laundry Liz had finished the evening before, her hair shiny and bouncy. She moved to the table.

“Good morning,” Liz said, forcing herself to smile. Her trouble with Ethan had nothing to do with the girls.

“Hi.” Melissa moved to the table but didn’t sit down. “You’re still here.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Melissa shrugged as she pulled out a chair. “You didn’t sleep upstairs. In my dad’s room.”

The thought of sleeping in the same bed as her brother and her mother before him had totally creeped her out. Which wasn’t the point. Obviously Melissa had gotten up to check on her.

“Sometimes I like to work at night,” she detailed, which was true but not the reason she’d chosen the sofa in the living room over the bed in the master bedroom. “Being downstairs seemed easier.”

“I thought you’d left.”

Melissa didn’t look at her as she spoke.

Liz crossed to her and put her hand on the teenager’s shoulders. “I’m not abandoning you or Abby. I know it’s going to take a while for you to believe me, but you can trust me.”

“Okay.”

“I mean it,” Liz declared firmly. “We’re going to figure this out together. You don’t have a cell phone, do you?”

Melissa shook her head.

“We’ll get you one after school and program my number in. Then you can always get me. Would that help?”

Melissa brightened. “I’d be able to call my friends, right?”

“Yes.”

“And text?”

Liz smiled. “As long as you promise to stop before your thumbs fall off.”

“I can do that.” The teen pulled a box of breakfast cereal toward her.

“Then we have a deal.”

Abby burst into the room and ran over to Liz, then hugged her. “Do I have to go to school?”

“Yes. You have, what? Three days left? You’ll survive.”

Abby grinned. “I knew you’d say that.”

“But you thought you’d ask anyway?”

“Uh-huh.”

The girl sat across from her sister and reached for the cereal.

It didn’t take either of them long to eat breakfast. After they put their bowls in the sink, Liz reached for her purse. “We didn’t get anything for lunch, so do you mind buying?”

The sisters looked at each other, then laughed.

“We can buy lunch,” Melissa agreed happily. “That would be, like, totally great.”

Liz wondered how long they’d been going without lunch. Couldn’t they have gone into a free lunch program? Of course that would have meant someone knowing there was a problem in the first place.

She handed them each ten dollars, then walked them out to the gate. They waved and promised to be home right after school.

“We can bake cookies before dinner,” she yelled after them.

When they’d turned the corner, she headed back into the house and made a note of the cell phone errand and started a second grocery list that included ingredients for chocolate chip cookies. Once that was done, she called Peggy to have her overnight Ethan’s letter, along with some notes she’d left behind.

When she hung up, there was plenty of thunking from upstairs, telling her Tyler was up and making his way to the shower. She paced nervously until he came downstairs and she was forced to act normal, then she chatted with him through his breakfast.

“I thought we’d make cookies later,” she told him, as he finished up his cereal. “When your cousins get home from school.”

He grinned. “Sweet.”

“Is that about the cookies, or the fact that they still have school and you don’t?”

He laughed. “Both.”

He got up and carried his bowl to the sink. After rinsing it, he looked for a dishwasher, then frowned when he didn’t find one.

“What am I supposed to do with it?” he asked.

“Stack it in the sink,” she instructed, thinking if this were a made-for-TV moment, she would be smoking and looking for her morning shot of Jack Daniels. “We’re going to be washing dishes the old-fashioned way. By hand.”

He looked confused, as if the concept was impossible to imagine. Liz agreed with him, but wasn’t willing to buy one for the few weeks they would be in town. At least there was a microwave. A true necessity, she thought. Popcorn was required for movie night.

“What are we going to do today?” he asked, returning to the table.

“I thought we’d take a walk through town,” she offered, studying his familiar features and wondering if anyone who saw him would guess the truth. To her he looked exactly like Ethan, but that could just be because she was looking for certain features. “Then you can play Xbox while I work.”

His dark eyes crinkled. “I love summer vacation.”

“I’m sure you do. But you aren’t going to spend three months getting great at your favorite game.” Once they were back in San Francisco, there would be classes and a couple of weeks at camp. Maybe there was a day program here she could get him in. And the girls, too, she thought. Although Melissa might be too old.

“How about two months?” Tyler suggested, wiggling his eyebrows. “And twenty-nine days.”

“Unlikely.” She drew in a breath and wished he was next to her so she could hold him tight. Because as soon as she said the words, everything was going to change. She knew that. The truth would change everything and they would never go back.

“I have to talk to you about something,” she said, then added, “It’s not bad.”

“Okay.”

He waited patiently, trusting her. Because she’d never lied to him, had never let him down. She annoyed him because she was the mom and there were rules, but that was different. Expected.

“You’ve asked me about your dad a lot,” she began. “And I would never talk about him.”

He wrinkled his nose. “I know.”

“I’m ready to talk about him now.”

Tyler had been leaning back in the kitchen chair. But then he sat up and stretched his arms toward her, his expression expectant. “My dad?”

She nodded. “He’s, um, he’s a good guy. A contractor. That’s someone who builds things, like houses and-”

Tyler sighed heavily. “I know what a contractor is, Mom.”

“Oh. Of course you do. Well, he’s a contractor and he also builds windmills. The kind that generate electricity.”

“Wind turbines.”

“What?”

Tyler looked a little smug. “They’re called wind turbines.”

“Thank you.” She shifted in her seat, wishing she didn’t have to tell him and that everything could stay the same. Only that was selfish. Tyler deserved to know his dad and Ethan…well, he deserved to know his son, too.

“He lives here. In Fool’s Gold. You’re going to be meeting him tonight.”

Tyler was out of the chair faster than light. He raced toward her, then threw himself at her and held on tight. “I’m meeting my dad? For real?”

“Yes. I saw him last night and he wants to meet you.”

Tyler stared into her eyes. “Tonight?”

“At six.”

An awkward time, she thought. They either had to eat really early or really late. Not that she would be in the mood for food and Tyler would probably be too excited, but the girls needed dinner.

She would make them something at five, she thought absently, pulling the shopping list toward her.

“My dad’s coming here?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You really saw him and everything?”

She hugged him, wishing she could hold on tight forever. “I did.” She smoothed back his hair, then stared into his dark eyes. “Stuff with grown-ups gets complicated sometimes. I came back to talk to him about you when you were six. He wasn’t here. He was away on business. So I told someone else about you and she promised to tell him, only she didn’t.”

That much was clear. Ethan had been beyond stunned by the news.

“She lied?” Tyler sounded shocked. He was still young enough that he believed most adults told the truth.

“She kept the truth to herself, which is pretty much the same thing. I thought he didn’t want anything to do with us, but I was wrong. He’s very excited to see you.”

Tyler’s eyes widened with hope. “You think he’ll like me?”

“I think he’ll adore you.” She touched his cheek. “You look a lot like him. The dark hair and eyes.”

“But I have your smile.”

“Yes, you do and I want it back.” She leaned in and tickled him.

He laughed at that as much as at the familiar and silly joke.

He leaned against her. “I wish I was still in school so I could tell everyone I have a dad, too.”

“You’ll tell them in September.”

“Do you think Dad will come live with us in San Francisco?”

If she’d been standing she would have fallen on the spot. “Gee, ah, probably not. Your dad’s life is here, in Fool’s Gold. He has a big family. I don’t know who still lives here. Probably his mom and I would guess a few of his sisters.”

Tyler stared up at her. “There’s more?”

There was an entire herd, she thought grimly. Because Ethan’s relatives were also Tyler’s. The thought made her a little nervous. How could she compete with an entire family? Not that it was a competition, she reminded herself. But still…

“You have two uncles, three aunts, who are triplets by the way, and a grandmother.”

“Cool!”

“I know,” she said with false excitement. “You’ll have so much family, you won’t know what to do with everyone.”

“Anyone my age?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t know for sure. You can ask your dad.”

There could be dozens, she reminded herself. Any of his siblings could have married. Ethan might have children from his marriage to Rayanne, although they would be younger.

She shook her head to force out the thought of her encounter with his late wife. There was enough going on without that messing with her mind.

Tyler spun away and pumped his arms. “This is the best, Mom. I have a dad. We’re a family.”

They were a lot of things, but Liz didn’t think family qualified. Not with how much Ethan hated her.

“It’s going to be interesting,” she admitted. Perhaps not in a happy way, but that wasn’t Tyler’s problem.

“May I use the computer so I can send an e-mail to Jason?”

She nodded.

He ran out of the room. Seconds later, she heard the loud thundering of his steps on the old and creaking stairs.

At eleven, life was simple. A new dad was a great thing. There weren’t any complications, no ambivalence, no worries about the future. While she couldn’t seem to stop thinking about everything that could go wrong.

“Probably the reason I write what I do,” she murmured as she rose and walked to the sink to tackle the morning dishes. Some days murder and mayhem suited her mood. She would work out her frustrations on a deserving victim, then have her character find justice in the end.

But this wasn’t fiction-this was real life. And she had a feeling things weren’t going to be tidied up quite so easily for her.

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