CHAPTER SEVEN

PASSING THROUGH A METAL detector, then being patted down before going into prison had a way of putting one’s life in perspective, Liz thought the next morning as she waited while the guard searched her purse. When she’d been cleared to proceed, she followed yet another guard into a small room with a table, half a dozen chairs and a small window looking out onto a courtyard.

Since it wasn’t a regular visiting day or a normal visiting room, they would have an element of privacy. She pulled out a metal chair and sat down. The room was cool and despite the small size, she felt oddly exposed. Although that could have more to do with what had happened the previous evening than her meeting with Roy.

She hadn’t slept at all. Telling herself she’d acted irresponsibly and impulsively didn’t make for a restful night. Nor did the waves of sense memory that shuddered through her from time to time. Physical reminders of the music Ethan had played on her skin.

The last thing they needed were more complications, but here they were. And she had no one to blame but herself.

Sucking in a deep breath, she pushed the memories and recriminations to the back of her mind. She would beat herself up some more on the drive back to Fool’s Gold. Right now she had to concentrate on seeing her brother for the first time in nearly eighteen years.

As if on cue, the door-opposite the one she’d used-opened and a man entered. He was a few inches taller than her, with thin gray hair and weary green eyes. She knew Roy was in his forties, but he could have easily passed for a man in his sixties. For a second he stared, confused, then he smiled.

“Damn. Look at you,” he greeted as he approached. “They said I had a visitor. I couldn’t figure out who. It’s not the regular day and no one comes to see me. I thought it was a mistake. How you doing, Liz?”

“Hi, Roy. It’s been a long time.”

She’d been twelve when he’d taken off without warning, leaving her in the hands of an indifferent parent. Still a child. She’d grown up a lot that summer.

“You look good,” he told her, pulling out one of the chairs and sitting down. “I’ve read your books. You’re famous now, aren’t you?”

“Not exactly.” She settled in a chair across the table. “But I know a guy who got me in to see you on a non-visiting day.”

“That’s something.”

He looked tired-as if the road of life had been too long.

“I’m real proud of you, Lizzy,” he continued. “Real proud.”

“Thanks.” She glanced around the bleak room. “What happened? How’d you end up here?”

He shrugged. “There was a fight in a bar. I defended myself, but the D.A. didn’t see it that way. It wasn’t my fault.”

The words were familiar. It had been like this before, she thought sadly. When she’d been younger. Nothing had ever been his fault.

“How long are you in?” she asked.

“Fifteen to twenty. I’ll get out sooner. For good behavior.” He leaned toward her. “You seen my girls?”

“I have. They’re great. They miss you.”

“I miss ’em, too. I should write more, I know. Time has a way of slipping by. I’m a busy man.”

He was in prison-how busy could he be? But she knew there was no point in having that conversation.

“I was surprised you’d moved back to Fool’s Gold,” she said. “When did that happen?”

“After Mom died.” He frowned. “I thought you knew. I always stayed in touch with her. I came back when she got sick. It was fast. She went into the hospital and a week later she was gone. I’d just married Bettina and we didn’t have a place, so when I found out Mom had left me the house, I moved us there.”

She shook her head. “You stayed in touch with Mom? You wrote and called?”

“Sure. I wrote you, too. After I left. You never answered. I thought you were irritated or something.”

“I never got the letters,” she said softly, trying to breathe through the pain. Roy had written? She’d thought he’d simply disappeared, abandoning her without a second thought.

“You know what Mom was like,” Roy reminded her. “She had her weird rules.”

Liz remembered. Her last contact with her mother had been the older woman’s request that Liz not bother her again. Someone in the hospital had contacted her through her publisher to tell Liz that her mother was sick. Before she could finalize her travel arrangements, she’d received another call saying her mother had died. At that point, returning to Fool’s Gold for the funeral had seemed pointless. Now she knew that Roy had been there.

“Relationships are complicated,” she murmured, not sure what she should have done differently. There was no real sense of loss, just an absence of connection, and sadness. Roy was her brother-they should have been a family, but they weren’t. They were only relatives.

“I came to see you because of your girls,” Liz informed him. “Melissa e-mailed me a few days ago.” She hesitated. “I’m sorry, Roy, but Bettina is gone.”

He turned away. “I wondered,” he muttered, returning his attention to her, looking more resigned than surprised. “I haven’t heard from her in a while. She took the girls with her?”

“Um, not exactly. Bettina took off a couple months ago. Melissa and Abby have been on their own ever since.”

The color drained from his tired, wrinkled face. “That bitch. She never said a word. Are they all right?”

“They’re fine. Melissa’s been taking care of both of them. When it got to be too much for her, she found me through my Web site. I came right away. Some arrangements have to be made…”

Roy rose and crossed to the window. He stood there, his shoulders bent. “I got no one, Lizzy. Those girls? They’re all I have. Can you take ’em?”

She wanted to say no. She barely knew her nieces and looking after them for a few days was very different than taking responsibility permanently. But even as she tried to refuse, she knew she couldn’t. If the girls didn’t stay with her, they would go into foster care, probably be separated. Who knew what would happen to them.

“I’ll sign whatever papers you want,” he added quickly. “To make it easy on you.”

“Of course I’ll take them,” she replied, smiling when he turned to face her. “But I can’t stay in Fool’s Gold. My life is in San Francisco, as is Tyler’s.”

“He your husband?”

“My son. He’s eleven.”

Roy grinned. “You got a boy? I didn’t know.”

Their mother had known, but obviously she hadn’t felt the need to pass on the information. “He’s great.” She pulled a picture out of her purse and carried it over to Roy.

Her brother stared at the photo. “He’s a good-looking kid.”

“I think so.”

He swallowed. “Maybe San Francisco would be better for my girls. A chance to start over where no one knows about me. I tried to settle in town, but it didn’t go well. People couldn’t get past the family name, you know? You could sell the house and put the money away for them. For college or a wedding or something.”

She thought about the battered old structure that was as tired-looking as Roy. “It would need some work,” she began.

“Not much. I got most of the projects started.”

“I noticed that.”

He smiled sheepishly. “I’m not one for finishing.” The smile faded. “I need you to take care of my girls, Lizzy.”

Perhaps it had always been inevitable that things would end up this way, she thought. “They’ll be safe with me.”

“I know they will. You’ve gone and gotten all fancy, with your books and everything. They’ll like that.”

“They’d like to see you.”

“No. Not here. I don’t want them thinking of me here.”

“You’re their father. They need to know you’re all right.”

He sucked in a breath. “Visiting day is bad, Lizzy. Everybody crying. There’s no being together.”

“Their stepmother abandoned them, they don’t know me at all. You’re the one person in their life they know loves them.”

“Fine. But give me a couple of weeks. I’ll write ’em and let ’em know I’m thinking about ’em.”

“Sure. I’ll be in Fool’s Gold a bit longer.” Figuring out what to do with the house would take some time. She had a feeling that neither girl would be especially excited about the thought of moving. Melissa had certainly been clear about that already.

“Thanks, Lizzy,” Roy said, hugging her.

She held on, trying to reconcile the man she hung on to with the brother she had adored. But it was impossible. Too much time, she thought sadly. Too many miles.

“I’ll be in touch,” she promised and walked toward the door that would lead to the outside world, while Roy stepped through the one that took him back to prison.

“SO IT’S A CAMP?” TYLER ASKED. “Mom sends me to a day camp in the summer. I went overnight a couple of times, up in the mountains.”

Ethan glanced at his son, then returned his attention to the road. “This is both,” he explained. “Kids come from all over and they stay for a couple weeks. Local kids can come up daily, if they want. There’s a bus that takes them.”

Liz had dropped off Tyler about an hour ago, hovering by the front door until the kid had reached Ethan’s office. As if she was avoiding him. Who was he kidding-of course she was avoiding him. Why wouldn’t she?

Ethan had planned for Tyler to stay in his office for the morning, maybe head over to the turbine manufacturing facility. But Raoul had called and asked to meet him at the camp and Ethan had figured that was as good a way to spend a morning as any. Maybe going to the camp would be a better distraction. He needed something to stop him from thinking about what he and Liz had done the previous night.

Ethan hadn’t meant for anything to happen. It had been so far off his radar, he hadn’t even thought about coming up with a plan to avoid having sex with Liz. He’d been so damned angry-he still was.

Although he had to admit seeing the letter had shifted things. And being alone with Liz had been better than he’d remembered. She’d always been beautiful and smart and funny. Now she was those things plus she had a maturity that appealed to him. He’d wanted her years ago and he still wanted her, even though being with her meant nothing but trouble.

He turned off the main highway, onto a private road marked by a red sign pointing to “End Zone for Kids.”

“The guy who started the camp used to play football,” Ethan said. “Raoul Moreno. He was a quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys.”

Tyler looked at him, his eyes wide. “I know who he is. Does he ever come to the camp? Do you think I can meet him?”

“Remember I told you I had a meeting with a guy? He’s that guy.”

“Sweet!” Tyler bounced in his seat. “That’s so awesome. I can’t wait to tell my friends.”

“I’ll take a picture with my cell,” Ethan told him. “You can e-mail it to them.”

“All right!” Tyler stared out of the front of the truck. “Are we there yet?”

Ethan laughed, then turned into the mostly empty parking lot. The camp would officially open on Saturday when the first inner-city kids arrived. The day camp for locals began on Monday.

Initially, Ethan had wondered at the wisdom of mixing the overnighters with kids from town. His sister Dakota who ran the camp for Raoul, had explained that it was a good learning experience for both groups. Usually small-town kids and inner-city kids had almost no contact, except possibly during regional and statewide play-offs. Getting them involved with each other now meant expanding their world view before they made up their minds about what the world was like.

Ethan parked between a Ferrari and his sister’s beat-up Jeep. Tyler was out of the truck before the engine was off, jumping impatiently as he waited for Ethan.

“Is that his car? It’s really cool. I like the color.”

They walked into the main building, where there was a big living area and the dining room. The offices were in back.

As they made their way down the hall, Ethan studied the walls, the fit of the windows and looked for anything that needed touch-ups before the camp opened. He’d already walked the property with the job foreman, creating a punch list of things that needed to be finished. From what he could tell, it was all done.

Raoul’s office door stood open. Ethan walked in and found the other man sitting on the corner of his desk, rather than behind it. Josh Golden was there, too. They both looked up when he and Tyler entered.

“Hey, Ethan,” Raoul greeted, standing and holding out his hand. “Thanks for making the drive.”

“No problem.”

The two men shook hands. Ethan turned to Josh and did the same, then put his hands on Tyler’s thin shoulders.

“This is Tyler,” he introduced, pausing before adding, “my son.”

Raoul greeted the boy, while Josh looked as stunned as a cartoon character going off a cliff.

“Your son?” Josh repeated. He mouthed “Who?” over Tyler’s head.

“His mom is Liz Sutton.”

Tyler shook hands with both men, then stared adoringly between Raoul and Josh. “You’re both really famous.”

“I’m better looking,” Josh said easily. “And smarter. Raoul’s kind of homely.”

Raoul grinned. “I could snap you like a twig. If it wouldn’t make a mess, I’d do it right now.”

Tyler stood as if mesmerized by the thrill of the moment.

“What are you doing here?” Ethan asked Josh.

“Talking to Raoul about a pro-am golf tournament. Pia’s been on my ass about it.” Josh hesitated, glanced at Tyler, then cleared his throat. “I mean butt. She’s been on my butt about getting him to sign up. She seems to think people will care that we have some ex-quarterback playing. I think they’ll find it boring.”

“He’s threatened,” Raoul said, settling back on the corner of the desk.

Ethan grinned. “He sure is. Probably scared he won’t be Fool’s Gold’s favorite son.”

Josh frowned at Tyler. “Do you hear a buzzing sound? Not conversation. Something more annoying.”

Tyler laughed.

“I’m playing in the tournament,” Raoul told Josh. “Want to put your money where your mouth is?”

Ethan shook his head. “You might not want to bet against Josh. He’s pretty good at golf.”

“So am I.” Raoul sounded confident. “How about five thousand a stroke? The winner donates the money to the charity of his choice.”

“Done,” Josh said easily. He turned to Ethan. “You playing?”

“No, but now I’ll be watching.” He glanced at Tyler. “We’ll have to talk about who we’re willing to bet on.”

Tyler looked between the two competitors. They were both tall and muscular. Josh was what his name implied-golden. Blond hair, hazel eyes. Raoul was dark. Ethan had worked out with them enough to know they were well matched physically. Each could bench press about three hundred pounds. As could he. But he worked out because he liked it. Sometimes it seemed like Josh and Raoul were in the gym because they had something to prove.

“You’ll pick me,” Josh declared easily and winked at Tyler. “They’re going to talk business for a while. Want me to give you a tour of the place?”

“Sure,” Tyler said eagerly. “You’ve been here before?”

“A few times. You think a guy like Raoul could do this all on his own?”

Tyler laughed.

Raoul sighed. “You’re overcompensating again. Should I feel sorry for your fianc?e?”

Josh’s grin turned cocky. “Ask her yourself. She’ll tell you how satisfied she is.”

Josh and Tyler left. Ethan and Raoul settled at the small conference table in the corner, a stack of folders between them.

“Is Josh always like that?” Raoul asked, obviously amused.

“Since he was a kid. Underneath the cocky exterior, Josh is a great guy.”

Raoul nodded. “He’s been a big help with the camp. I’ve never set up anything like this, but his work on the cycling school gave him a lot of good ideas. Not that you need to tell him that I said that.”

“I won’t.” Ethan flipped open the first folder. “We’ve worked through the punch list. I’ll take a look around, but from what my foreman told me, we’re done with the refurbishing.”

“You promised me a camp I’d be proud of,” Raoul told him. “You were right.”

They went through the various projects. The next phase was more bunkhouses and clearing an area for an ice skating rink. Raoul wanted the camp to go year-round. Ethan made notes of what he wanted to double check, including housing for the overnight staff.

“You still thinking of putting in a house for the camp director?” he asked.

Raoul shrugged. “I would, but Dakota said she’s not interested in living on-site. She prefers her place back in town.”

Ethan studied the detailed map of the camp. “There’s plenty of room for a couple of houses, if you decide you want to stay here all year.”

“I’m with your sister. I’d rather be in town.”

Ethan chuckled. “Don’t want to give the kids that much access?”

“No. They’d never leave me alone.” Raoul leaned back in his chair. “If I decide I want to build a place instead of buy, would you give me a bid?”

“Sure. Got anywhere in mind?”

“I’m looking at a few lots. There are a couple of old houses that have potential, but they’d need gutting or close.”

“I can do either.” Ethan closed the folder. “You sure you want to settle in a small town? Fool’s Gold is pretty different from Dallas.”

“I like it here,” Raoul admitted. “I’ve traveled a lot, seen most of the world. I’m looking for a home base. Something permanent.”

Ethan would guess Raoul was in his early thirties. His football career had been a stunning success, so money wouldn’t be a problem. “I have three sisters,” he said lightly. “Stay away from them.”

Raoul laughed. “Spoken like an older brother.”

“You got that right. Besides, there are plenty of other women in town. A lot more women than men, in fact.”

“I’ve noticed that. Lots of pretty ones, too. Anyone else you want to warn me about?”

Ethan thought of Liz, her shiny red hair, the scent of her skin, the way she tasted when he kissed her. He remembered her passion, her cries as she came, the flash of anger in her green eyes as she’d pointed out that what they’d done was fifty kinds of stupid.

The memories were enough to heat his blood. He found himself wanting to see her again. No. Not see. Make love. Slowly, this time. In a bed, with plenty of time to remember and even more to explore.

A wanting complicated by their past, Tyler and anger.

“There’s no one,” he said.

Raoul’s gaze seemed to see more than it should. “You sure?”

“Positive.”

LIZ CHECKED HER LIST, BEFORE turning her cart toward the checkout line. Pia had called a couple hours ago about the girls’ night in. When Liz had tried to beg off, saying she didn’t want to leave the kids by themselves, Pia had offered to move the party to Liz’s place. Liz had been so unprepared for that suggestion, she hadn’t figured out a way to say no. In a matter of seconds, she’d gone from unwilling participant to hostess. It was a move that would make any four-star general proud.

At least it was a distraction, Liz thought. There was no way she could panic about what to serve and think about Roy while worrying about Ethan. Her brain simply wasn’t that big.

She got in line behind an older woman and wondered if she should buy another bag of ice. Pia had said everyone would bring plenty of liquor. Liz only had to provide snacks. Someone named Jo would bring the blender. But blender drinks required a lot of ice.

She eased out of line and started to turn toward the freezer case, when a woman in her fifties, someone Liz had never met, stopped her.

“Are you Liz Sutton?” she asked, looking more annoyed than friendly.

Liz hesitated. “Yes.”

“I thought I recognized you. I’m friends with Denise Hendrix and I wanted to tell you that I think what you did is just awful. What kind of mother keeps her child from his father? There’s no excuse for that. You hurt a wonderful family with your selfishness. I hope you’re happy now.”

“Not so much,” Liz murmured as the other woman stomped away.

Still astounded by the encounter, she grabbed a second bag of ice, and returned to the checkout line. As she stood there, she felt as if everyone was staring at her, judging her.

“Hateful old cow,” she muttered quietly, wishing the name-calling would make her feel better. It didn’t.

When the clerk announced the total, Liz picked up her wallet and pulled out the bills.

There should have been over one hundred dollars, but instead there were only three twenties and a single five. She frowned, sure she’d checked her cash before she’d left the house, but obviously not. She shoved the money back into her wallet and zipped a credit card through the machine.

The girls were home by the time she arrived at the house and Tyler had returned, as well. They competed for her attention as they talked about their day. She listened and nodded, doing her best to keep smiling, to forget the woman at the grocery store and not get lost in thinking about Ethan, either. Which was tough with Tyler starting every sentence with, “And then my dad…”

She got the food put away, chicken breasts in the oven for the kids and explained about the women coming over that evening.

“I thought the three of you could go to the video store and rent movies for tonight,” she suggested.

Abby and Tyler agreed. Melissa tilted her head.

“Maybe I could stay with you,” she said. “You know, not with the kids.”

Abby and Tyler rolled their eyes. “We’re not kids,” Abby chided. “And you’re not all that grown-up. You’re only fourteen.”

“I’m a teenager,” Melissa reminded her.

Liz didn’t know what exactly happened at girls’ night in, but she knew there was a lot of drinking.

“How about if you stay for the first half hour,” she suggested. “While everyone is getting here. Then you can go upstairs.”

“Fine,” Melissa conceded with a sigh. “But I’m very mature.”

“I know, honey. You did a great job while you were alone.” She hesitated, then asked the girls to sit at the table. “I want to talk about your dad.”

Tyler hovered by Liz. “Should I go upstairs?” he asked in a loud whisper.

She nodded. “I’ll explain all of this later.”

“Okay,” he said, and ducked out of the room.

She settled across from the girls who were huddled together, shoulders touching, identical fearful expressions in their eyes.

“I saw your dad today,” she began. “He really misses both of you and said to tell you how much he loves you.”

“Did you tell him about Bettina?” Melissa asked.

“I did. He was angry and hurt, but so proud of you for taking care of your sister. I explained how you got in touch with me and he was really impressed.”

Melissa looked both pleased and afraid. “He’s not coming home, is he?”

Liz reached across the table and took their hands in hers. “No, honey, he’s not. He’s going to be at Folsom for a while longer.” She drew in a breath. “I’m going to be taking care of you.”

Abby and Melissa exchanged another glance.

“I want to see my dad,” Abby said.

“In a couple weeks we’ll go for a visit. And your dad said he’d write you.”

They both nodded. Abby’s eyes filled with tears. Before Liz could go to her, she pushed back her chair and ran up the stairs.

“I’ll talk to her,” Melissa declared, sounding far older than fourteen.

Liz wanted to ask who would take care of Melissa, but knew this wasn’t the time. Damn Bettina, whoever she was, and Roy for getting in trouble in the first place. He’d been impulsive when he’d been younger and it didn’t sound like that had changed. Unfortunately, now his daughters had to pay the price.

She checked on the chicken, then went through the list of snack foods she’d bought. There were different cheeses, some frozen bruschetta she would heat after the chicken was done, chips, salsa, avocados for guacamole. She’d bought boxes of crackers, various cookies, the ingredients for a quick seven-layer bean dip and a presliced veggie plate. If Pia and her friends wanted something fancier, they were going to have to give Liz more than four hours’ notice.

She climbed the stairs and went into the master bedroom. She kept her clothes here and shared the master bath with her son. After going through the few items of clothing she’d brought with her, she picked a dark green wrap shirt made out of one of those amazing fabrics that never wrinkled. She changed her shirt, decided her jeans were fine, and replaced her Ryka walking shoes with cute flat sandals.

Tyler and Abby walked into the bedroom. The young girl looked a little puffy around the eyes, but otherwise fine.

“We’re going to get the movies,” Tyler announced. “Is that okay, Mom?”

“Sure.” She gave him a twenty and smiled at Abby. “You’d probably like something funny for tonight.”

Her niece nodded, then barreled toward Liz and threw herself into her embrace. Liz hugged her tightly.

“I know it’s scary right now,” she whispered. “But I’m going to take care of you.”

Abby nodded and stepped back.

“We’ll be right back,” Tyler called as they headed for the stairs.

“Get something funny,” Liz yelled after him from the doorway.

“Oh, Mom.”

Liz grinned and returned to the bedroom.

She pinned back her hair, then washed her face before smoothing on moisturizer. Melissa inched into the bedroom.

“Abby’s better,” she said. “This is hard on her.”

“On you, too.”

Melissa shrugged.

Liz opened her zipped cosmetic bag. She pulled out concealer and smoothed the cream under her eyes, then blended with her ring finger. The mineral base she used went on next. When she’d covered her freckles and blended the color, she dug in the bag for her eye shadow.

“How do you know what to do?” Melissa asked. “I bought some makeup at the drugstore. You know, before. I couldn’t get it right. Plus, I didn’t like how that liquid stuff felt on my skin.”

Liz glanced at her niece. At fourteen Melissa was old enough to wear some makeup. At least mascara and a little lip gloss. The girl’s skin was smooth and had that glow older women spent a fortune trying to duplicate.

“A base is for smoothing out the color of your skin and hiding imperfections,” Liz told her. “Your skin is practically perfect.”

“Unless I get a zit.”

“They happen. As for the rest of it, I learned by doing, mostly. We can practice together this weekend. The basics aren’t hard.”

“Really?” Melissa looked both hopeful and almost afraid. As if anticipating anything good was a mistake.

“Sure.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

Liz dug around in her bag again and pulled out a tube of gloss. “In the meantime, try this. It’s one of my favorites.”

Melissa took the container and turned it over in her hand. “Sugar cookie?”

“Oh, yeah. It looks good and tastes better. Sometimes it’s very cool to be a girl.”

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