ETHAN DID HIS BEST TO WORK BUT by ten in the morning he’d given up on the pretense. He wasn’t fooling anyone, especially not himself. His sister Nevada had asked him twice if everything was all right. He’d told her that he was fine, but after spending twenty minutes doubling an order for lumber, only to realize it was for a job they’d completed two weeks ago, he knew he had to get out and clear his head.
“I’ll be back in an hour,” he yelled over his shoulder as he left the office.
“Don’t hurry back,” Nevada muttered, just loud enough for him to hear.
Normally he would have gone inside and called her on it, but not today. Not when he was still having trouble wrapping his mind around what had happened the night before.
He had a son, he thought, getting in his truck and starting the engine. A child. For eleven years and he’d never once known or imagined or guessed. All because Liz Sutton had kept the truth from him. Deliberately.
The rage that had poured through him the night before ignited again, burning hot and bright. He forced himself to focus on his driving, to pay attention to little things like stop signs and other traffic, as he steered the truck through town.
Rather than go to his place, he went back to the house where he’d grown up. If anyone could talk him down, it was his mother. Denise Hendrix had raised six kids, surviving the loss of her husband, Ralph, nearly a decade ago. She was the heart of the family, the one everyone turned to when there was a problem. She was rational, thoughtful and would be able to give him a perspective other than his own. Because right now all he wanted was to take his son and bolt.
Not a smart plan, he told himself as he drove through the familiar neighborhood, then turned into the driveway.
He checked the clock on the dashboard of his truck. With all six kids out of the house, his mother had a lot more free time these days. Time she filled with classes and her friends. If he remembered correctly, his mother should be between the gym and whatever lunch date she might have lined up.
He crossed to the front door, but it opened before he could knock.
“I saw you drive up,” his mother said with a smile, looking fit in a T-shirt and flared cropped pants. Her feet were bare, her toes painted pink. Although she’d always worn her hair long, a few years ago, she’d cut it off and every time he saw her, it was shorter still. Now it barely came to the bottom of her ears.
“Hey, Mom,” he greeted, bending down and kissing her cheek. “You going to get your head shaved next?”
“If that’s what I want,” she declared, stepping back so he could enter. “I’m working out more and short hair is easier. Today was my yoga class. I seem to be missing the bendy gene. I swear, the positions some of the women get in defy me. I push, but I can’t help thinking that at some point, I’ll simply snap a bone. I’m at that age, you know. Shrinking and brittle.”
Denise was in her early fifties and could easily pass for ten years younger. Despite the years she’d been alone, she’d never dated. Intellectually he knew it would be nice for her to find someone. But speaking as the oldest son and the one responsible for her, it wasn’t anything he wanted to deal with. Beating up some old guy for making moves on his mother wasn’t Ethan’s idea of a good time.
“Sweet of you to say so.” She studied him for a second, her dark eyes seeing more than most people’s. “What’s wrong?”
“Maybe I came by just to see you.”
“This time of the morning, midweek? I don’t think so. Besides, I can tell. What is it?”
She moved to the kitchen as she spoke and he followed automatically. Everything big was discussed in the kitchen. All revelations, celebrations, announcements.
She poured them each a cup of coffee, then picked up hers and leaned against the counter.
Her gaze was watchful, her expression neutral. She would wait as long as it took. As a teenager, he hated her patience. It had made him squirm and writhe until he eventually confessed to whatever it was he’d done wrong. Today he was grateful she didn’t try to distract him with small talk.
“I have a son. His name is Tyler and he’s eleven.”
His mother nearly dropped the mug of coffee. She quickly put it on the counter. Color drained from her face. She inhaled a deep breath, then another.
“Liz Sutton is back in town,” he continued. “I noticed her during the race yesterday. I went to see her and she told me.” He shoved both hands into his jeans. “I haven’t seen him, yet. I will later tonight.”
“Liz Sutton? You slept with Liz Sutton?”
“It was a long time ago, Mom.”
“I thought I knew about all your girlfriends. When was this?”
Before he could answer, she frowned. “If he’s eleven, you were in college. When we let you live in that apartment over the garage during the summer when you were home. You had sex above the garage?”
“Mom, that isn’t relevant.”
“I think it is. Very relevant. You promised you wouldn’t. You said no girls. You lied and you got one pregnant.”
She drew in a breath. “Fine. You’re right. Liz got pregnant and…” Her eyes widened. “I have a grandson. Oh, Ethan. How did this happen?”
“We just talked about the sex thing.”
“No. I mean you having a child all this time. Eleven? You said he was eleven? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t know.”
She gasped. “She kept it from you? I can’t believe it. How horrible. We have to do something. Are you sure it’s even yours?”
Her reaction was a little scattered, but that was to be expected. It wasn’t as if he was thinking straight, either.
“I’m not trying to be mean, but are you sure? Eleven years is a long time for her to keep this to herself. And why now? What does she want?”
That was a lot of questions. He went with the easiest one first. “The kid is mine. She wasn’t seeing anyone else.”
“Everyone knew what her mother was and the things I heard about her. More than heard. She would get drunk, stand in the parking lot of the bar and scream.” His mother shook her head. “It was horrible. I always felt so badly for Liz. I used to wonder if I should say something or try to help. I have daughters. I know what it’s like. But then she got pregnant.”
“Mom, you didn’t know she was pregnant.”
“You’re right.” She returned to the table. “I don’t even know what to think.”
“You and me both.”
“Do you think she wants money?”
“How do you know?”
“She’s a successful mystery author. You’ve read her, remember? She’s written five books and they’ve all done well.”
“I guess you’re right.” Denise made a small sound of defeat and collapsed into a chair by the worn table. “You have a son.”
“That’s what she said.” He settled across from his mom. “I can’t get my mind around it all.”
“All this time and she didn’t say a word?” Denise demanded, her strength obviously returning. “What a total bitch. How dare she keep your son, my grandson, from us. From the family. Who does she think she is?”
His mother was nothing if not loyal, he thought, amused by her easily engaged emotions. Then the humor faded as he remembered she was right. Liz had stolen the one thing that couldn’t be recovered: time.
Denise sprang to her feet and paced the length of the kitchen. “Did she even try to get in touch with you? Why now? What’s different?”
“She’s back because of her brother’s kids.” She’d said more, but he hadn’t been paying attention to much beyond how she’d looked in the moonlight. That was the hell of it-he’d been happy to see her. Had wanted to tell her that she’d grown even more beautiful. He’d apologized for how he’d acted. And she’d let him.
“She didn’t come here to tell you about the boy? About Tyler?”
He shook his head. “It’s complicated. She says she tried to tell me when she first found out, but when she came back, I was with someone else.” He wasn’t going to tell his mother he’d been in bed with Pia O’Brian. They’d dated all of two days and honestly, he couldn’t remember ever sleeping with her.
“No. She says she came to town five years ago and spoke with Rayanne. She says she told Rayanne about Tyler and that she wanted to talk to me.”
His mother stared at him intently. “And?”
“She claims she got a letter from me, telling her that I didn’t want anything to do with her or Tyler. That she was to stay out of town.”
Denise folded her arms across her chest. “That’s just so typical,” she grumbled. “Make up a stupid story and then expect everyone to accept it without a shred of proof.”
He would agree, except for one thing. “She says she still has the letter. She’s going to have it delivered by tomorrow morning.”
“Do you believe her?
“I don’t know.”
Tears filled his mother’s eyes. She sank back into the chair. “All this time a little boy has been out there, a member of our family, and we never knew. He’s been lost. Desperate. Alone.”
Ethan didn’t think Liz would appreciate Denise’s assessment of the situation, but his mother had always had a way with words.
“He needs us,” she said, touching his arm. “We have to be there for him. Finding out he has a father is going to be huge.”
“I know.” He squeezed her hand.
She drew in a breath. “We need a plan. We have to stay calm. You’re meeting them tonight?”
“Good. You should be friendly with Liz. Don’t push her right now. The last thing we want is her running away. I know you’re angry and God knows she deserves it. There’s no excuse for what she’s done. None. It wasn’t as if you would have turned her away. You married Rayanne when she got pregnant, and it’s not like she was a catch.”
“Mom,” he began warningly.
She held up her hands. “I know. I’m sorry. You were doing what you’d been taught-taking responsibility and upholding the family name.” Then she frowned. “Ethan, this is two girls you’ve gotten pregnant. I thought your father had the ‘safe sex’ conversation with you. Did he leave something out?”
Ethan stood and took a step back. “Mom, let’s remember the point of the conversation. Liz and Tyler.”
“Right. I know you’re mad. I’m beyond mad. I just want to squash her like a bug. But we can’t. There are things to be worked out. Besides, Tyler is only a boy. He probably loves his mother. You can’t get between them. So when you meet him tonight, be friendly to her, as well. Once you know what’s going on, then you can come up with a plan.”
Hearing her advice helped him to put things in perspective. His relationship with Tyler was his first priority. Punishing Liz could wait.
“Thanks, Mom.” He leaned down and kissed her cheek.
“You’re welcome.” She touched his cheek. “I want to meet him. My grandson.”
“She’s back home now?”
“Yeah.” The house had been old and run-down twelve years ago. Now it was worse.
“This will work out,” she told him. “You’ll see.”
He would make it work out, one way or another. Liz wasn’t going to steal any more time from him.
LIZ AND TYLER SPENT THE morning strolling through town. She’d wanted to familiarize herself with the area, although she quickly found out that she hadn’t forgotten anything about living in Fool’s Gold. While there were new businesses, and an impressive development of golf course homes, the basic grid of the town hadn’t changed at all. If you lived close to the park, you could get anywhere by walking.
A little before twelve, she took Tyler to the Fox and Hound for lunch. She remembered the location being a restaurant while she’d been growing up, although it had been called something else. As they waited for their food, they pored over the visitor brochures she’d picked up on their walk and discussed points of interest they could visit while they were here.
“Do you think my dad will want to take me hiking?” Tyler asked.
“I don’t know,” she admitted.
She knew that Ethan had been injured in college, shortly after she’d left town. Something about a bike crash. At the time, she hadn’t wanted to know the details. From the little she’d seen, he could walk easily enough, so he could probably handle a day hike.
“You said he rode a bike,” Tyler repeated. “He raced?”
“Yes. In high school and college. He had a friend name Josh. Josh had hurt his legs and he rode his bike to get his strength back. Like physical therapy.”
Tyler nodded, his gaze locked on her. “My dad rode with him?”
“They were friends. They were both really good and started racing together. Then your dad got hurt.”
“What happened to Josh?”
Liz pointed to the poster on the wall-the one that showed Josh Golden in racing gear, a helmet under one arm, his free hand holding on to his bike.
“Whoa!” Tyler grinned at her. “My dad knows Josh Golden?”
“I think Josh lives in town.”
Lunch arrived. Between bites Tyler peppered her with questions. Some she could answer, some she couldn’t. A few she ducked. By the time they were on their way home, she was exhausted and feeling more than a little frayed around the edges.
“How about giving me some time to work?” she asked as they approached the house.
“Okay. I’ll watch a movie.” He grabbed her wrist and looked at her watch. “Five more hours.”
She forced a smile. No doubt her son would count down the minutes. While she understood and appreciated his excitement, nothing about this was simple for her. Especially Ethan’s understandable rage and her own growing sense of having screwed up.
But when the self-doubt threatened, she reminded herself that she
What kind of woman kept information of a child from her husband?
In high school, Rayanne had traveled with a pack of mean girls and Liz had been one of their favorite victims. Rayanne, Pia O’Brian and a few others had delighted in making Liz’s life a nightmare. Liz might have been smart and pretty, but she’d been poor, living in a bad part of town and she’d had a reputation.
It didn’t matter that Liz hadn’t dated a single guy until Ethan. Not only had he been her first time, he’d been her first kiss. But as far as everyone in high school was concerned, Liz Sutton had been a piece of ass who put out for anyone who asked. Or paid.
There had been plenty of guys who’d claimed to have done her. She’d heard the bragging, the taunts. No one cared that it wasn’t true. No one questioned the rumors. After all, her mother was a drunk and a whore-why not her?
She shook off the past, knowing it wouldn’t help her now. She had to focus on what was happening today. Wasn’t that enough of a problem?
When they reached the house, Tyler raced into the living room to pick a movie. After searching through the collection in the small bookcase by the window, he chose one and brought it to Liz.
“It’s kind of a girl movie,” he said with a shrug, “but I haven’t seen it.”
Liz glanced at the Hannah Montana title, then ruffled his hair. “Sometimes girls are fun.”
He would find out about girls being fun soon enough, she thought, watching him bolt upstairs. She’d brought the portable DVD player he used when they traveled, along with headphones. So the house would be quiet. She couldn’t use noise as an excuse not to work.
After booting up her laptop, she did a quick check of e-mail, then opened her Word document. But despite the half-written sentence and the blinking cursor, she couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
Everyone always talked about how great she had it. That being a writer was so wonderful. She could work anywhere, at anytime. Which was, in theory, true. But there was also no one else to do the work when she wasn’t in the mood, or when life interfered, like now. No meeting to take her mind off her swirling thoughts. At this point she would happily return to her waitressing days rather than try to come up with a few good pages. But that wasn’t an option. She could only type and delete until something finally clicked or there was a miracle.
Today the miracle came in the form of someone ringing the doorbell.
Liz saved her pitiful three sentences and got up from the kitchen table. When she opened the front door, she decided
Denise Hendrix, Ethan’s mother, stood on her doorstep. The woman was well dressed, fit, attractive and based on the fire spitting from her eyes, really, really upset.
“May I come in?” Denise asked, pushing past Liz and entering the shabby living room, then facing her. “We’ve never met, but I’m Ethan’s mother.”
“I know who you are.”
“And why I’m here?” Denise demanded.
As questions went, it wasn’t a difficult one. She nodded.
Denise looked around. “Where is he?”
Liz assumed she meant Tyler. “Upstairs, watching a movie.”
Denise’s gaze went to the stairs. Longing darkened her eyes, then faded as the other woman turned back to her. “Probably for the best. You and I need to talk.”
“Ethan spoke to you.” Liz made the words a statement.
“Yes, he did. He told me you’re claiming to have had his child. A child who is now eleven years old. A boy you’ve kept from his entire family.” Denise glared at her. “I told him to be nice and rational. That it would be easier if we all got along.”
“Advice you’re choosing not to take?” Liz asked, feeling defensive and understanding at the same time. Not exactly a comfortable combination of emotions.
Denise shook her head. “I should, but I can’t. You’ve damaged us all, but your boy most of all.”
Liz grabbed hold of her self-control with both hands. She’d never thought to ask Ethan to keep the information to himself. She didn’t go around talking about her private life with very many people. It didn’t occur to her that he would speak to his mother, and so quickly.
But the Hendrix family had always been close. Something she’d envied when she’d been younger. Now the warm, loving, supportive mother had been replaced by one who perceived one of her own had been wronged.
“I came back to tell Ethan I was pregnant,” Liz countered, knowing there wasn’t actually any point in defending herself, but unable to stop. “I’d been gone about two months. I found him in bed with someone else.”
Denise frowned. “Which I’m sure was very painful, but not an excuse to keep that kind of information from him. He was a father. He had the right to know.”
Liz drew in a breath. “You’re right. He did. Which is why I came back five years ago to tell him. He wasn’t home and I spoke to his wife. I told Rayanne everything and she promised to tell him. Less than two weeks later, I received a letter from Ethan telling me that he wanted nothing to do with me or Tyler. That I should keep away from him and Fool’s Gold. I’m having the letter sent overnight and it will be here tomorrow. I’m happy to give you a copy.”
Liz reached for the door and pulled it open. “So if you’ve only come here to insult me or accuse me of everything from being a whore to tricking your precious son, then I’m done with this conversation.”
“I have a lot more to say.”
“This may be a crappy little house, Denise, but it belongs to my family, not yours. I’m asking you to leave.”
Denise hesitated. She had dark eyes like her son. Like Tyler. Emotions flashed through them.
“He told me about the letter,” Denise said grudgingly. “Ethan may not want to believe Rayanne lied to him, but it sounds exactly like her. If there was a problem she didn’t want to face, she avoided it. You having Ethan’s son would have been a big problem.”
Was that a peace offering? Like it or not, this woman was Tyler’s grandmother.
Liz crossed to her laptop and hit a few keys, then she turned the computer so the screen faced Denise.
The older woman’s mouth dropped open. Color bled away and her eyes widened. She stared greedily at the slide show Liz had started. All the pictures were of Tyler.
“He looks just like Ethan did when he was young. Like all my boys.” Her breath caught. “His smile is different.”
Denise glanced at her, then back at the computer. “He’s eleven?”
“This changes everything.”
Liz didn’t know if she meant the fact that they now knew about Tyler, or the fairly obvious proof he was a Hendrix. “I know you don’t believe me, but I never wanted to keep Tyler from his father. I did try to tell him. The first time was a poor effort, but the second, I really thought he knew.”
“I believe you,” Denise said slowly. “But I can’t help being angry. We can’t get back all the time that was lost.”
Liz thought about pointing out that Ethan had been the one to sleep with her, to take her virginity, promise to love her forever, then dump her. That when she’d run, he hadn’t bothered to come after her. It was as if she’d never mattered at all.
“Are you going to keep him from us?” Denise asked, sounding both defiant and afraid.
“No. I never wanted that. My life with Tyler wasn’t about punishing anyone. He would like to have a big family.”
“He could have had one all along,” Denise snapped.
“And your son could have been more responsible.”
“Don’t bring Ethan into this.”
“Right. Because I got pregnant all on my own. That whole slut thing, right?”
Denise pressed her lips together. “No. That’s not what I meant. I’m sorry.”
“I appreciate that, but I have things to do.” The door was still open. Liz glanced toward it. “We can continue this another time,” she elaborated. “After I talk to Ethan.”
Denise hesitated, then nodded and left.
Liz closed the door and leaned against it. Talk about a tough twenty-four hours, and it wasn’t over yet.
EXACTLY AT SIX, ETHAN KNOCKED on Liz’s front door. Her SUV was still in the driveway. He’d checked on it a couple times during the day. Not that he actually thought she would leave, but he wanted to be sure.
The door opened and Liz stood there, glaring at him. “Right on time,” she snapped. “Probably because you’re so damn rested, having sent your mother to take care of things for you.”
She looked good. All fire and temper, her green eyes flashing. He was caught up in the sight of the freckles he’d remembered. In the dark, he’d been unable to see them, but now he could count them easily. So it took a second for her words to register.
“She was here earlier. It was great. Because you yelling at me isn’t enough of a thrill.”
He grimaced. “I didn’t tell her to come by.”
“You didn’t have to. The Hendrixes all stick together. It was that way years ago and nothing has changed. You told her about me and Tyler, and she showed up. Are you really going to stand there and say you’re shocked?”
“No,” he conceded. “It’s totally her style. For what it’s worth, she’s the one who told me to be rational and reasonable.”
“It’s not worth very much.” She rubbed her temple. “I have to admit in all the years I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to have you involved in Tyler’s life, I never thought of having to deal with your mother.”
“She’ll do anything for the people she loves.”
“Like I’m getting on that list?”
“You know she’ll be there for Tyler.”
“A small consolation,” Liz said. “Right now the only thing I’m grateful for is the fact that she didn’t have time to tell me what having your son is going to mean to the Hendrix family name. How we’ll have to make sure we act right all the time and do the right thing, so the legacy isn’t tarnished.” She took a step. “Come on. He’s waiting to meet you.”
Ethan followed her in. He wanted to ask what she’d told Tyler, what his son was expecting. All day he’d imagined what he was supposed to say or do, how to make it everything Tyler wanted the moment to be. Before he could ask, or even swallow the sudden surge of anger that followed the concern, she stopped and turned to face him.
“He’s really excited and a little scared. I told him some about you-what you do, that sort of thing. Please remember however you feel about what happened, he’s not to blame.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“He’s my son,” she reiterated, staring into his eyes. “I’ll do anything to keep him safe.”
A claim Ethan hadn’t been able to make until now, he thought, knowing he couldn’t dwell on the unfairness of the situation. Tyler was the important one here. The one who had to be protected.
“I’m not going to hurt him,” he said gruffly.
She sighed. “Just be careful. The ability to hurt someone is usually in direct proportion to how much that person cares about you.”
She moved into the living room, then called up the stairs. “Tyler. Your dad is here.”
Ethan braced himself for emotional impact. He heard slow footsteps on the stairs, then his son came into view.
Any doubts he might have had about paternity died the second he saw Tyler. The boy was all Hendrix. From the dark hair and eyes to the shape of his head. He looked like Ethan’s younger brothers had when they’d been kids.
An unexpected rise of emotion made it tough to talk. He was filled with longing and sadness, as well as wonder. His kid. How had this happened without him guessing Tyler was alive?
Liz waited until the boy stepped into the living room, then moved behind him and put her hands on his shoulders.
“Tyler, this is your dad, Ethan Hendrix. Ethan, this is Tyler.”
“Hi,” Tyler said, sounding uncertain. He stared at Ethan, then glanced away, before looking back.
“I was telling Tyler about how you used to ride bikes when you were younger.”
Ethan appreciated the help, even as he resented the need for it. “I was about your age,” he said. “My friend Josh had to ride to help his legs get stronger. We had a lot of fun together. In high school, we started racing competitively.”
Tyler stared at him, wide-eyed. “You grew up here?”
Ethan nodded. “All my life. I come from a big family. I went away to college, but when I graduated, I moved back home.”
“Mom says you have brothers and sisters.”
“Two brothers, three sisters. My sisters are identical triplets.”
“So you can’t tell them apart?”
He smiled. “It was hard when they were younger, but now they’re pretty different.”
“Do they know about me?”
“Not yet, but when I tell them, they’ll want to meet you.”
Liz motioned to the sofa. “Why don’t you two sit down and I’ll get some lemonade. We have freshly baked cookies, too.”
“We made the cookies after my cousins got home from school,” Tyler explained, leading the way. “They’re still in school until Friday. Melissa and Abby.” He wrinkled his nose. “They’re okay, you know, for girls.”
“Words that will warm their hearts,” Liz murmured, before she went into the kitchen. The girls were upstairs, out of earshot, thank goodness.
Tyler launched into a detailed description of his last few days of school, his friends in San Francisco and what movies he wanted to see that summer.
“Super powers would be a lot of fun,” Ethan told him.
“That one starts in three weeks. Mom always takes me on the first day. We go to the early show, except this one time we went at midnight.” Tyler laughed. “I was still a kid, so I fell asleep. Mom didn’t mind and took me back the next day so I could see what I missed.”
Tyler talked on, the conversation growing easier with every passing minute. Apparently he didn’t stay shy for long. Ethan watched as well as listened, recognizing a few Hendrix family traits in his son.
The subjects themselves were conventional. School, sports, friends, his family. But the latter gave him trouble, seeing as Tyler’s only family was Liz. From what Ethan could tell, she’d been a good mother. Caring, fair and strong when she needed to be. And Tyler had thrived.
He supposed that some part of him should be pleased, but all he felt was deep resentment for what he’d lost. No, he reminded himself. Not lost. What had been stolen from him.
When Tyler ran upstairs to find a favorite video game, Ethan moved into the kitchen. He found Liz there, flipping through a magazine.
“You’re not rejoining us?” he asked, leaning against the door frame.
“I thought I’d give you two time together,” she said. A faint smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. “Afraid you’ll miss the cookies?”
Humor as a peace offering, he thought. While the sexual side of him could appreciate the shape of her face, the appeal of her body, the rest of him wasn’t so easily swayed.
“I want more time with him,” he said bluntly.
She closed the magazine and rose. “I wasn’t trying to keep him from you,” she began then shook her head. “Never mind. We’ll have that argument when I have evidence on my side. What did you want to suggest?”
“We have a minor league baseball team in town. They’re playing tomorrow. I want to take him.”
“Sure. What time?”
“The game’s at noon.”
She was too agreeable, he thought, irritated. He wanted to fight with her, argue. He had too much energy and nowhere to put it. Apparently she could also read his mind.
“I’m not the bad guy,” she elaborated softly. “I wish you’d at least try to see that.”
“You kept me from my son. There’s nothing you can say to make that right. What Tyler and I have lost can never be recovered.”
She stared at him for a long time. “I agree I have responsibility for what happened, but so do you. And until you can admit your part of the blame, you’re going to be so caught up in the past, that you’ll miss the present and what you have now.”
“What do I have? A kid who doesn’t know me?”
“You have a second chance, Ethan. How often does that happen?”