CHAPTER TEN

AFTER A FEW DAYS, LIZ SETTLED into a routine. The construction crew showed up every morning and made impressive progress on the house-a fact that surprised her. She had wondered if Ethan had told his people to go slow, but he obviously hadn’t. The kids settled into the rhythm of day camp, taking the bus up the mountain every morning and riding it back down every afternoon.

They all loved their programs, especially Melissa, who had already spent two evenings online checking out the USC Film School. Ethan had seen Tyler twice, which she encouraged. He’d also tried to talk to her, which she’d resisted. Despite his apology, she was still hurt by what he’d said to his mother. The honest assessment that she didn’t matter shouldn’t have been a surprise, but knowing that didn’t take away the sting of the words.

He was a weakness. Here, in town, on a sunny morning as she walked by the lake, she could admit the truth. There was something about Ethan. Maybe because he was the first man she’d ever loved, ever been with. Maybe because they had a child together. Whatever the reason, he could get to her in a way no one else could. Around him, she was vulnerable. Which made him dangerous.

Avoiding him might not be the most mature response, but it was the safest.

Liz glanced at her watch. She’d had a productive writing morning and had rewarded herself with this walk. But now it was time to head back to her computer and review the pages she’d written. To make them better, sharper.

She took the path leading back to town, thinking that she could stop for a latte. The caffeine would perk her up and give her the energy she needed to push through the pages. She’d barely made it to the corner when someone called her name. She turned and saw Montana waving.

While Ethan might not be one of her favorite people at the moment, Liz found herself smiling as Montana approached. Ethan’s sister was unfailingly cheerful and enthused. There were days when a little enthusiasm was the best gift possible.

“Taking a break?” Montana asked as she approached. “I’m desperate for coffee. I was up all night reading. It’s so hard when a book is great, you know? So great you can’t stop reading even though it’s late and your eyes are burning.”

“It’s the best compliment any writer can ask for,” Liz told her. “Come on. I’ll buy you a latte.”

They got their coffee, then sat in the shade on the small patio outside Starbucks.

“My mother hates you,” Montana stated cheerfully. “Okay-maybe hate is too strong, but she’s still going off on rants about you.”

Liz held in a groan. “Thanks for the update.”

“Don’t worry about it. She starts out feeling sad about how everyone said really bad things about you in high school. She has three daughters and knows if anyone had talked about us that way, it would have broken her heart. Then she admits it would have been tough to raise a kid on her own and how you did such a great job. Then she starts in on the fact that you would have been welcome in her house and all she missed and then she’s throwing pots and we’re ducking for cover.”

Liz winced. “You have a gift for making things come alive.”

Montana laughed. “The outbursts have a little less energy every time. In another month or so, she’ll be calm.” Her humor faded. “It’s not you she’s mad at. It’s circumstances. I think she understands more than she’s letting on.”

“I hope so,” Liz said, thinking that Denise would always come down on Ethan’s side. After all, he was her son and Liz was just the woman who had kept Tyler from the Hendrix family.

“Dakota and Nevada are pretty much staying out of it,” Montana continued. “And my other brothers barely know what’s going on. Mom will come around. It’s worth the wait. Once you’re part of the family, she’ll do anything to protect you.”

“She might make an exception for me,” Liz murmured.

“No,” Montana corrected, briefly touching her arm. “I’m saying this all wrong, aren’t I? She’ll be there for you, Liz. I promise.”

“Thanks. How’s the book fair coming?”

“Great.”

Montana launched into details about the project. Liz pretended to listen, but instead thought about the other woman’s words. Liz’s track record with Ethan wasn’t exactly impressive and while the idea of Denise being on her side was tempting, she knew better than to hope for too much.

“If you have anyone you want to invite,” Montana was saying, “let me know and I’ll put them on the list. We’re going to have a VIP reception and everything. A chance for lesser mortals to mingle.”

Liz laughed. “Lesser mortals? I don’t think so.”

“It’s how we see ourselves. We have a club with bylaws and everything. So anyone from San Francisco?”

“No, thanks. My friends there have all been to plenty of signings. I think my assistant would like to come, though. Every time I talk to her, she wants to know about small-town life.” Obviously Peggy had been watching too much TV, Liz thought grimly. If she knew the reality of Fool’s Gold, she would run in the opposite direction.

Montana’s eyes brightened with interest. “No one of the male variety longing for your return?”

“Sorry, but no.”

Montana sighed. “Damn. I was hoping one of us had a decent love life. Mine sucks.” She sipped her coffee. “I can’t believe you’re not married. You’re successful, beautiful, totally together.”

If Liz had been drinking, she would have choked. “Is that how you see me?”

“Well, yeah. It’s who you are.”

“Not exactly. I’m more the scrambling-to-keep-up kind of person,” Liz told her. Beautiful? Not even with perfect lighting. “The book success is great, but it’s what I do, not who I am. And there are downsides.”

“Crazed fans?”

“I’m sure I have a few. But the bigger problem is more how people think about me. The assumptions.”

Montana leaned toward her. “By people you mean guys.”

Liz laughed. “Did you have to choose this moment to be perceptive?”

“It’s a gift. Who is he?”

Liz hesitated, then decided she didn’t mind telling the story-even if it made her look stupid. “His name is Ryan. He’s a writer, too, which should have been a clue. When we met, he’d published two classic coming-of-age novels. Sort of a poor man’s Nick Hornby, without being even close to that good. But he’d had some modest success. We met at a launch party for another author. He was charming and I was…” She drew in a breath. “I was lonely.”

“How long ago was this?”

“About four years ago. I’d been raising Tyler on my own, I’d managed to get my first book published, and while it had done well, it was a first book. I didn’t know if I had a career or a single lucky break. I was still working as a waitress to support us, writing at night and getting by on about four hours of sleep.”

Liz shrugged. “We talked at the party, exchanged numbers. I didn’t think anything of it. And I didn’t hear from him for about three months. At the time he said it was because he’d been on the road, looking for inspiration for his next book.” She wrinkled her nose. “I figured out later, it was because he was waiting to see how my second book did.”

Montana’s eyes widened. “No way.”

“Uh-huh. I suppose if it hadn’t been successful, I never would have heard from him.”

“What a jerk.”

“A very smooth, good-looking jerk,” Liz told her, remembering how dazzled she’d been on their first date. Ryan couldn’t have been more attentive and interesting. Not to mention funny, charming and kind. He’d been great with Tyler, too. He’d played her and her kid, and she hadn’t known at all.

“He was everything I could have wished for. I was crazy about him. We got engaged.”

“You were married?” Montana’s voice was a squeak.

“No. Somehow the wedding never got planned. Which turned out to be a good thing. He went to New York to meet with his publisher about his new book. He wouldn’t tell me what it was about, which was fine. That was his process. While he was gone, I watered his plants.”

Liz rested her forearms on the table. “Okay-let me just admit I was really curious about the book he was writing. He’d been so excited about it and his previous book had bombed. I wanted him to do well.”

Montana’s mouth twitched. “You went snooping.”

“Not my finest moment, but yes. There were some notes on his desk and I read them.”

“It wasn’t very good?” Montana asked sympathetically.

“Worse. It wasn’t his. He’d stolen my idea. Unlike him, I do talk about my stories. I can be tedious and annoying about it. It’s how I work through problems before I start the actual writing. So he knew everything I was going to do. He had taken the entire story, changed the names and written it. Without saying a word.”

Liz still remembered standing in Ryan’s office, hearing nothing but a rushing sound. She’d wondered if there was something wrong with her brain-a stroke or something. Because what she’d been reading hadn’t made sense. It couldn’t. The man she’d said she would love forever, the man she’d promised to marry couldn’t possibly have taken her work for his own. There had to be a mistake.

Montana swore softly. “What did you do?”

“I tried to convince myself I was crazy. Then I got mad. I waited until he was home and I confronted him.”

“Did he deny it?”

“No. Apparently having a good idea isn’t enough. His editor had hated the book and told Ryan they wouldn’t be publishing him anymore. Ryan was furious. He blamed me. He said I’d known what he was doing and had tricked him into writing a story that didn’t work. He said it wasn’t fair. That he had the actual talent. I was nothing but a hack, yet I had all the success.”

She still remembered the fury in his eyes, the loathing.

“He’d never been interested in me beyond what I could do for his career. He’d lied about nearly everything, especially how he felt about me.” Liz managed a smile. “The good news is he moved away after that and my recovery was fairly quick. Apparently I wasn’t as in love with him as I’d thought.”

But it had been one more illustration of the lesson that men shouldn’t be trusted. Not with something as delicate as a woman’s heart.

“How did Tyler take it?” Montana asked.

“It turns out my son had never much liked Ryan but he hadn’t told me because he wanted me to be happy. Which makes me about the luckiest mother ever.”

Montana sniffed. “Now I just want to hug him and never let go.”

“I know how you feel.”

“And kill that Ryan jerk. Want me to give Ethan his name so he can beat him up?”

Liz shook her head. “Probably best if Ethan doesn’t hear the story at all.” She didn’t need him to know how stupid she’d been.

“You’re right. But still. I hope he’s punished in some way.”

“I suspect Ryan will be unhappy for most of his life. That’s punishment enough for me. I’m just happy to have escaped. He gives writers a bad name.”

“You should tell the college to start giving your scholarship to students who want to be writers. That would be very cool.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your scholarship. Okay, it’s not yours, but it’s named after you. Here. At Fool’s Gold Community College.”

If they’d been drinking alcohol, Liz would have thought Montana was drunk. But it was the middle of the day and they’d only had lattes. “I don’t have a scholarship at the college.”

“Sure you do. It was set up a while ago. I don’t know all the details, but it was started with the scholarship you didn’t use.”

Liz stared at her blankly. “The scholarship?” Nothing about this made sense.

“You had a scholarship out of high school. Remember?”

“Sure. But I left.”

“Exactly. Someone had the idea to use that as seed money to fund a scholarship every year. They’re given to women who have faced hardship-financial or personal. I know because I looked into applying. You really don’t know about this?”

“No.”

“You should talk to the college. They can explain the details.”

“I will,” Liz assured, thinking that Montana had to be wrong. Who would have started a scholarship in her name?

An hour later, she had the information package in her hand and was smiling at a very excited clerk in the admissions office.

“We’re all huge fans,” the older woman told her. “I can’t believe you’re really here. We read all your books.”

“Thanks,” Liz said. “Can you tell me about the origin of the scholarship?”

The woman, her tag read Betty Higgins, frowned. “I would have thought someone would have been in touch with you about it. Very strange. Anyway, when you left town without using your scholarship money, someone suggested giving it to another student. But then several people came in with anonymous donations, increasing the amount and we realized we could make this an annual scholarship instead of a onetime gift.”

Betty glanced around as if to make sure they were alone and lowered her voice. “I moved here a few years ago, but heard all about your sad story. How your mama, God rest her soul, wasn’t exactly maternal and a lot of boys said hateful things about you. Apparently many people knew you were having a rough time of it and they felt badly. So they put this all together. Your scholarship is one of our most popular. Not only for people funding it, but for the women who apply. Most of the recipients are returning students. Women with families, trying to give themselves a better future. It’s so inspiring.”

Talk about too much information in too short a time, Liz thought, her head spinning.

She remembered the scholarship she’d been offered and how she’d planned to use the money to go away to college. She and Ethan had spent the summer talking about being together on a university campus. How perfect it would be.

Then he’d denied even knowing her and she’d taken off. She’d never given the money a second thought. She’d left because staying was impossible.

That much she could handle, but Betty’s claim that people had known about her circumstances astonished her. Part of her appreciated the gesture of donating while the rest of her wondered where they’d been when she’d been young and alone. A kind word back then would have meant the world to her.

It was too much, she thought.

“Thanks for the information,” she said.

“You’re welcome.” Betty smiled. “This is such a thrill. I can’t wait to tell everyone I met you. Oh. We’re having our reception in a few weeks. For the recipients. Can you come?”

“I, ah…”

“It’s only for an hour or so. I know those women would appreciate the chance to thank you in person.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Liz countered. “I’m not the one they should be thanking.”

“You’re an inspiration. In fact, two of the women wrote about you for their essays. How you started with nothing and made yourself a success. Why don’t I send you an invitation and you can think about it?”

“Um, sure.” Liz cleared her throat. “Thank you.”

“It was my pleasure.”

Liz left the college and walked to her car. But instead of driving home, she made her way back into town and parked outside of the Hendrix Construction office. Before she could change her mind, she turned off the engine and went into the building.

After giving her name to the receptionist, she paced the small waiting area. Seconds later, Ethan appeared, looking tall and strong and pleased to see her.

Inside her belly, something fluttered. Something hot and bright and dangerous. She ignored the sensation.

“Is this a good time?” she asked. “Can you talk?”

“Sure.”

He led the way to his office. “Everything all right?” he inquired as he closed the door behind her.

“No. Nothing’s all right. I’m still mad at you, by the way, so don’t think everything is fine between us. I hate this town. I hate everyone knowing everything about me. Your mother is still angry at me, and I hate that part of me understands why. I blame you for most of this, in case you were wondering. But just when I think I know exactly where all the pieces fit, I get surprised.”

“A good surprise or a bad one?”

“Good.” She paced the length of his office. “There’s a scholarship in my name.”

“At the community college.”

“You knew?” She spun to face him.

He leaned against his desk. “Sure. It’s been around awhile.”

“You never thought to tell me?”

“Why would I?”

Right. “I don’t know why, but I feel like it changes everything. But where were these caring people when I was growing up? Why didn’t someone tell protective services that my mother was slapping me around? Why didn’t someone notice that she supported herself with casual prostitution with her underaged daughter in the house? Probably because they didn’t want to get involved. So they ignored the problem until it went away, and then they started a scholarship in my name. Does that make sense to you?”

She crossed to the window and turned back. Moving seemed required. She wasn’t sure what would happen if she stood still. Scream maybe. Or fall apart.

As she passed Ethan, he grabbed her and pulled her close. At first she resisted, but then she collapsed into his arms, wanting to feel his strength surround her.

“It’s okay,” he murmured.

“You think?”

“It will be.”

She sucked in a breath, letting her hands rest on his shoulders. “This town is making me crazy.”

“If it makes you feel any better, old Mrs. Egger cornered me yesterday. Slapped me with that big purse of hers and accused me of not respecting you. Not only did she give me what for because I’d, and this is a direct quote, ‘ruined the reputation of a perfectly respectable girl,’ she pointed out that if I was going to let my sperm loose on society, I should keep track of them.” He shuddered. “I never want to hear a woman in her eighties talking about my sperm.”

Liz leaned her forehead against his shoulder and smiled. “I always liked Mrs. Egger.”

“I thought you’d say that.” He put his hand on her chin, pressing until she looked at him. “I know this is hard.”

“You really don’t.”

“I’m trying to understand. I want you to like it here.”

Meaning he wanted her to stay. Which wasn’t going to happen, but there was no reason to go over that material again, she thought, wanting to stay in his arms forever.

Her gaze dropped to his mouth. Wanting burned. Not just for how kissing him would make her feel, but because when she was with him, nothing else could touch her. There was only the man and what they could do to each other.

“I thought I was only going to have to deal with Roy’s kids,” she admitted. “You weren’t supposed to be a part of this.”

“Too late to get rid of me now.”

“I don’t want to,” she said.

“What do you want?”

An impossible question, she thought. One without an answer.

No. That wasn’t true. She had plenty of answers, just none she wanted to share with him.

“I want us to be friends,” she told him. “I want to be able to trust you.”

“You can.”

“I don’t think so.”

He kissed her. “Come on, Liz. You know me. I’m a good guy.”

“Are you saying there aren’t any more surprises?”

Before he could answer, his phone buzzed.

“Sorry to bother you, Ethan, but it’s that call from China.”

Liz stepped out of his arms. “When did you go international?”

“Not me. The windmills.” He frowned. “I need to take this call, but then I want to talk to you.”

“I’m fine. Go be successful. I have to get home.”

“Liz, I-”

She cut him off with the shake of her head. “International calls shouldn’t be kept waiting. I’ll see you later.”

She stepped out of his office and made her way to her car. Thoughts spun in her head. That there were multiple versions of the past. While she resented the fact that no one had bothered to step forward when she was growing up, she hadn’t been as ignored and forgotten as she’d thought.

Which meant what? That Fool’s Gold wasn’t evil? She’d never thought of it that way-at least not in general.

The information about a scholarship in her name shouldn’t have made a difference, yet she found herself feeling better about nearly everything and wasn’t exactly sure why.

LIZ WOKE EARLY THE NEXT morning with a growing sense of the inevitable. After showering and dressing, she went downstairs and started coffee. The kids would sleep until the construction crew arrived, which gave her a half hour or so of perfect quiet.

She took her coffee out onto the front porch to enjoy the stillness of the morning. The air was cool, the sky clear. The sound of birds greeted her as she settled on the top step with her mug.

Maybe she needed more time before making her decision, she thought cautiously. Yes, there were things she really hated about this town, but there were other parts she liked. Melissa and Abby were desperate to stay and after all they’d been through, shouldn’t she consider their feelings? Tyler would enjoy living close to his dad and Liz knew it was what Ethan wanted, too. Ethan’s mother was a problem, but better a rabid grandmother than one who wasn’t interested at all. Given time, maybe she and Liz could come to terms.

Of course Liz could be completely fooling herself. There was the possibility she was blinded by a scholarship, a few kind words and the feel of Ethan’s arms around her. Clarity would come with time, she told herself. She didn’t have to tell anyone she was having second thoughts about leaving.

An unfamiliar sedan pulled up to the curb and an older man in a suit got out. He stared at her a moment, shrugged, then reached for something in his car.

“Morning,” he said as he approached, an envelope in his hand. “You’re up early.”

She smiled. “It’s the only time it’s quiet.”

“I hear you.” He hesitated. “My workday starts in a couple hours. I was on my way to Starbucks. They’ve got me hooked on their lattes. Can’t get going in the morning without one.”

She rose and moved to the gate. While the conversation was pleasant enough, she felt uneasy with the man’s presence.

“Can I help you with something?”

The old man nodded slowly. “I would have come back later, but seeing as you’re already up… Elizabeth Marie Sutton?”

How did he know her name?

She felt a prickling sensation on the back of her neck.

He held out the envelope, then waited until she took it. “You’ve been served.”

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