CHAPTER TWELVE

LIZ HAD NEVER BEEN TO A CITY event-planning meeting before. When Pia had called to invite her, she thought the afternoon might be interesting. Her stay in Fool’s Gold was temporary but she might as well get a feel for the good as well as the bad. If nothing else, she may be able to put the experience in a book.

A little before two, she walked to the City Hall building and found her way to the meeting room. When she opened the door, she was surprised to find herself in a good-size open space, with about three dozen chairs facing a long table and a podium. Most of the chairs were full, and three women chatted by the head table. Montana and Pia were among them and smiled at her.

Liz smiled back, then went to find an empty seat.

Her choices were limited. There was one next to a young mother with a baby. Liz didn’t recognize her, so they hadn’t gone to school together. Odds were the woman wouldn’t care about Liz or her past. There were several older women sitting together, but after the recent comments on her character by strangers, she wasn’t sure she wanted to risk the wrath of a potential mob.

Unable to find a place that felt safe, she settled for a seat in the back corner. With any luck, she would be ignored.

A woman in the row in front of her turned to face her. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Marti and I just love your books.”

“Thanks.”

“Your main character is wonderful. She feels so real. And thank God you’re not putting too much gore in your books. I know violence is part of the genre, but some authors go too far.”

“I enjoy writing my stories,” Liz acknowledged, knowing a neutral response was usually best. The truth was she always liked hearing her readers opinions, even when she didn’t agree with them. Readers probably thought she ignored what they said, but that wasn’t true. Liz had made not a few changes in story lines based on reader input.

“I love reading them,” Marti repeated, before smiling and facing front.

Pia moved to the podium and called the meeting to order.

“We’re planning the book festival,” she began. “Thank you all for coming out this afternoon. This is going to be our biggest and best program ever, which means lots of opportunity for volunteering. We’ll get to that later. First, let me go over the program.”

A screen rolled down behind her. She pushed a few buttons on her laptop and a big poster appeared. It was bright and inviting, giving the dates of the Fool’s Gold annual book festival. The border was filled with pictures of both authors and books. Liz was relieved to see that she was just one of the many on this poster. The one Montana had shown her a few days before had featured her prominently. Not something to endear her to the other local authors.

“We’re going to set up in the park,” Pia continued. “Given that we have a few better-known authors this year, we’re expecting a larger crowd than usual.”

“That’s right,” someone in the front called. “There’s that mystery writer everyone’s been talking about. What’s her name?”

A ripple of laughter flowed through the room. Liz chuckled. “I can’t remember,” she said loudly. “But I’ve heard she has an attitude, so watch out.”

An older woman stood up and waved at Liz. “I have a new quilting book out this year. Chances are my fans are going to be flooding the park. Just so you’re prepared.”

“I look forward to meeting them,” Liz told her.

Pia looked at Liz with a teasing expression. “I think our local New York Times bestselling author can handle the competition.”

Pia went through the list of authors. As promised, most of them were local, self-published and their books dealt with unusual or dying crafts. Using sticks for art and furniture. Making meals from what one can find on the forest floor. There was mention of an author who wrote about the Indian legends. The book sounded interesting, but when Liz asked Marti about the author, the other woman told her no one ever saw him in town. He lived in the mountains and kept to himself.

“There are tons of rumors,” Marti admitted. “Seeing him is like seeing Bigfoot. I’ve heard everything from him being one-hundred-and-eight, English and a former explorer to him being young, gorgeous and really rich.” She lowered her voice. “Personally I like the second story best.”

Liz thought the old British explorer sounded more intriguing. She would have to look up the mysterious author at the signing.

Despite everything going on, she found herself looking forward to the event. Her usual signings were in big stores or at industry events. Very organized and predictable, with crowd control and readers kept at a respectful distance. This sounded more fun. She liked the idea of being part of a writing community. There were days when figuring out a new way to serve chicken for Tyler seemed impossible. Feeding someone what could be found on a forest floor was impressive.

Pia went through the rest of the programs, the various opportunities for volunteering, then opened the meeting for questions.

Two people wanted to know about taking sign-up sheets around town. The only man at the meeting pointed out that just because there were more women than men in town didn’t mean it was right to take over all the men’s restrooms every time there was a festival. Men had needs, too. Pia promised to look into the problem.

“Anything else?” she asked.

The young mother with the baby rose slowly. “I’m sure a lot of you aren’t going to agree with me, but I have to say, I’m just sick about having that woman here.” She pointed at Liz. “What she did to Ethan is shameful. Keeping his little boy from him all those years. It’s worse because of him losing Rayanne and their baby.” The woman’s eyes filled with tears. “Rayanne was a sweet girl and now people are saying terrible things about her.” She glared at Liz. “I don’t believe any of them.”

The room went silent as everyone turned to stare at Liz. Her warm fuzzies about the signing, the town and ever thinking it was smart to come back, disappeared. She sat in her seat, embarrassed, angry and determined not to blush. Speaking any words seemed impossible, let alone the right ones. What was she supposed to say?

“Let’s stay on topic, everyone,” Pia reminded from the front of the room. “We’re here to talk about the book festival.” She glanced at the young mother. “Melody, I know Rayanne was your friend, but this isn’t the time or the place to have this conversation. Can we please finish up here.”

Both her voice and her gaze were sympathetic. Liz appreciated the support, although she still felt sick to her stomach. Then the woman next to Marti rose.

“Melody, you need to get your head out of your butt. Liz didn’t do anything wrong. She was a kid, dealing with a lot of crap.” The older woman cleared her throat, then faced Liz. “I knew your mother and I had a bad feeling about what was going on at your house every night. I knew she drank and I knew there were men in and out of that place. A lot of us knew and we didn’t do anything to protect you. We should have. You were just a little girl.”

The woman drew in a breath. “I’m sorry for my part in that. I’ve given money to the scholarship and I’ve acted differently since then. But that doesn’t make up for me turning away when you were growing up.”

Several other women nodded. Melody looked furious.

“That doesn’t excuse what she did to Ethan.”

“Maybe if you spent more time looking after your own family, you wouldn’t have time to worry about something that happened all those years ago,” the older woman snapped. “After all, your husband spends plenty of nights up at the lodge, flirting with a certain cocktail waitress.”

Several people gasped. Melody went red. Pia grabbed the microphone.

“People, please. This is getting out of hand. Obviously we need to finish this another time. We-”

The door by the front of the room opened. An older woman walked in. It took Liz a moment to recognize the mayor. Marsha Tilson looked pale and it was obvious something bad had happened.

Pia stared at her. “It’s Crystal, isn’t it?” she asked softly, her voice picked up by the microphone.

The mayor nodded and held out her arms. Pia went into them and started to cry.

Liz stared at them both, unable to believe what she’d just heard. Crystal couldn’t be dead. Sure she was sick, but Liz had seen her only a few weeks before. She’d been walking and talking and…

Her eyes burned with unshed tears. Liz remembered the pretty, friendly girl from high school who had taken the time to give her hope.

“Oh, Crystal,” she whispered. “Not so soon.”

Nearly everyone in the room began talking. A few were crying. Liz got up and slipped out before anyone noticed.

As she walked home, she thought about Crystal, the town and how coming back had changed her life forever. She could leave and swear she would never return, but Fool’s Gold had made a mark on her. One that nothing could erase.

There were horrible people here, but there were also good ones. People like Crystal, who took the time to change a life with a few words.

FAMILY COURT WAS IN THE county courthouse-away from the center of town. A fact that made the experience slightly more bearable, Liz thought as she walked into the old building. There were murals in the massive entryway-the kind painted in the 1940s and depicting farmworkers and loggers. The subjects stood ten or fifteen feet high, the sure brushstrokes and colors still vivid after all these years.

Liz saw Ethan waiting by a bank of elevators. He wore a dark suit and white shirt, very different from his usual jeans and boots. Professional looked good on him. Not that a man with his height and muscled body ever looked bad, she thought, trying not to notice.

They moved toward each other. She squared her shoulders, grateful her three-inch heels meant she didn’t have to look up very far to meet his gaze.

“No lawyer?” he asked.

“We’re meeting the judge in her chamber,” Liz stated. “It’s an informal meeting. The lawyer I contacted suggested trying to keep it friendly for as long as possible.”

“With the judge,” he noted, his gaze unreadable. “Not with me.”

“I’m not the one who started this.”

He shoved his hands into his front pockets. “I didn’t want you to leave.”

Something she could understand. Despite her claims that he could see Tyler whenever he wanted, she understood the fear of losing the one thing that mattered.

“You should have talked to me before doing this,” she told him evenly. “This is where you went and now we’re stuck.”

“You owe me, Liz,” he said quietly.

“Maybe, but this is the wrong kind of payback.”

“I need to know I’m not going to lose my son.”

“What did I ever do to make you not trust me?”

“You didn’t tell me right away.”

So they were back to that, she thought, both annoyed and sad. The same road, the same words, the same feelings. They were trapped and she didn’t know how to make things different.

They walked to the waiting room, and then were called into the judge’s chambers.

Judge Powers was a small woman, with dark hair and a petite build. She sat behind a large desk and leaned back in her leather chair as Ethan and Liz walked into the room.

She motioned for them to sit across from her, then drew in a breath.

“This sort of action makes me tired,” she began, her voice thick with irritation. “You’re wasting my time and the court’s time. You are two reasonably intelligent people who went to all the trouble to create a child together. Now, when your son is eleven, suddenly I have to deal with this?”

Liz had to consciously press her lips together to keep her mouth from falling open. She hadn’t known what to expect, but it sure hadn’t been a beginning like that.

“Your Honor,” Ethan responded, “there are some extraordinary circumstances.”

“There always are,” she said, reaching for her reading glasses and opening a file. “Dazzle me with them.”

Ethan briefly explained about how Tyler had come to be in his life. Liz gave him points for being fair about her attempts to tell him. He was a little dismissive of her first effort, but detailed the second accurately.

Judge Powers frowned. “Your wife kept the information about your son from you?”

Ethan nodded.

“There’s a prize,” the judge commented. “Where is she now?”

“She died a few years ago.”

The judge drew in a breath. “I’m sorry for your loss. So now you’re back in town, Ms. Sutton. I understand you’re caring for your brother’s two daughters while your brother is incarcerated. Is that correct?”

Liz nodded, shocked for the second time in the very short meeting. “Yes, Your Honor.”

“Don’t look so surprised,” the judge said. “I do my homework. What you’re doing with them is admirable. I’ve heard you plan on taking them to San Francisco with you. How do they feel about that?”

“They’re not happy about the decision.”

“They’re teenage girls. They’re not going to be happy about anything.” She picked up the folder and looked at Ethan over her glasses. “This wasn’t the smartest thing you’ve ever done.”

“I’m beginning to see that.”

“It’s done now. You’re going to have to deal with it. Both of you. School starts the Tuesday after Labor Day. You have between now and the Friday before Labor Day to come up with a reasonable plan. You will present it to me at nine that morning. If I like it, then everything will be fine. If I don’t…”

She smiled tightly. “Trust me. You’re going to want me to like it.” The smile faded. “However, if you don’t come up with a plan, then I will put both of you in jail and charge you five hundred dollars a day until you do. Each. That should cover the cost of three additional children being put in our already overcrowded foster care system. Have I made myself clear?”

Liz nodded. She had no idea if Ethan did the same, but then they were being shown out.

She stood in the corridor feeling as if she’d just escaped a war zone.

“Jesus.” Ethan shoved his hand through his hair. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“We’re going to have to figure something out,” Liz insisted, glancing back at the door. “While I’m sure you’re not excited about paying five hundred dollars a day, either, I can at least work from jail. You made this happen, Ethan. Now we’re both stuck.”

“I did what I had to do.”

“You’d rather be right than anything?” What happened to the gentle, funny man she’d fallen in love with? Was he gone forever? Or had the person she’d cared about been little more than an illusion?

“I can’t lose Tyler again.”

“You won’t,” she said, frustration boiling inside of her. “How many times do I have to tell you before you’ll believe…”

She stared at him as understanding dawned. “Of course,” she whispered. “You can’t believe me. Because if I’m reasonable, if I really want you to get to know your son, then I’m not the bad guy. And just maybe part of the reason you don’t know him now is because of the choices you made.”

She was thinking about how he’d betrayed her, but the tightness in his expression warned her that he’d gone to a different place.

“You leave Rayanne out of this,” he growled.

“I wasn’t talking about her.”

“You blame her.”

She considered the question. “Not as much as you do.”

“I don’t blame her. She was my wife.”

There was something about the way he said the words, she thought. She didn’t know what it was. What secret or piece of information she was missing.

Before she could decide if she should hit him or walk away, he surprised her by touching her cheek with the back of his hand.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Sensitive topic.”

“Apparently.”

They stared at each other. Looking into his eyes was a little too much like looking at the sun. Do it for any length of time and there would be permanent consequences.

“I don’t want to fight with you,” he told her. “You’re right. We need to come up with a plan.”

The gentle stroking made her want to lean against him. “As if I’d trust you now.”

“I don’t want to hurt you, Liz.”

She glanced away. “What do you want?”

He dropped his hand to his side. “I want a do-over. I want to be there when Tyler’s born and watch him grow up.”

There was raw honesty in his expression and anguish in his tone. Her chest tightened.

“I’m sorry, too,” she said softly. “More sorry than I can tell you.”

“I know.”

Two little words that usually didn’t mean much. But this time, spoken by him, they were the world.

“We can make this work,” she reiterated. “I want you and Tyler to spend as much time together as possible.”

“Hard to do when you live in San Francisco.”

She wanted to say that if this was so damned important, he could be the one to move. He could run his businesses from there. Only she knew that wasn’t possible or practical. That most people would say she should be the one to compromise. To turn her life upside down and move back to Fool’s Gold. Because it would be better for everyone.

Everyone but her.

“I need to get back,” she concluded. “I have to work before the kids get home from camp.”

They walked to the parking lot together. Liz tried to think of something to say-another compromise that they could both live with. But it didn’t exist.

When she pulled out the keys to her small SUV, Ethan grabbed her arm. He pulled her around and there, in the middle of the afternoon, in an open parking lot, on a Thursday, he kissed her.

His mouth claimed hers with a combination of need, anger and determination she could relate to. Instead of pulling away, she leaned into him, kissing him back just as passionately, letting her emotions flow through her. Their lips clung, their bodies strained. He wrapped one arm around her waist, she put her free hand on his shoulder.

For a single moment, there was nothing but the heat of the sun and the man who held her. There was wanting and promise and in that space of time, anything was possible. Then sanity returned in the sharp honk of a horn, the sounds of traffic and the realization that this problem was bigger than a kiss.

Ethan released her. She stepped back. Without saying a word, they each got in their own car and drove away.

LIZ ARRIVED HOME KNOWING THAT if she wasn’t expecting three children to walk in the front door in the next hour or so, she would give in to the theory that it was five o’clock somewhere and pour a big glass of wine. As it was, she changed into jeans and a T-shirt and medicated herself with Diet Coke and two peanut butter cookies. She’d barely taken her first bite, had yet to feel the sugar coursing through her body, when someone knocked on the front door.

She found herself hesitating before answering. In this town, unexpected company was rarely the good kind. A theory confirmed when she pulled open the door and found Ethan’s mother standing there.

Liz did her best not to flinch. She knew better than to show fear in the face of a predator. Denise Hendrix smiled and held out a covered casserole dish.

“Mac and cheese,” she said. “It was Ethan’s favorite when he was growing up. Actually it was all my kids’ favorite. What is it about children and cheese and pasta?”

Denise looked both friendly and hopeful.

Liz once again wished for wine or a margarita. When neither appeared, she stepped back to let the other woman in.

“You’ll want to put this in the fridge,” Denise continued. “It only needs to be heated. About forty minutes at three-fifty. Oh, and take off the foil.”

“Thanks,” Liz said, taking the dish and walking into the kitchen. “Can I get you anything?”

“No. I’m fine. Were you working? Am I interrupting?”

“I’ve been dealing with other things today,” Liz said, wondering if she should mention the visit with the judge or leave that for Ethan to share. She wasn’t completely sure about Denise’s reason for stopping by. Somehow the food delivery seemed more like an excuse than a plan.

“Do you have deadlines?” Denise asked.

“Yes. I usually stay on top of them. This summer has been a challenge.”

“You’ve been dealing with a lot.”

Sympathy? Was it safe to trust it? “There are unique circumstances.”

Denise leaned against the counter. “I know about the injunction and I’m sorry my son was such an idiot. I hope it went well with the judge.”

So his mother already knew. Is that why she’d stopped by? But why not wait and get the story from her son? “We saw her this afternoon. It was interesting.” Liz explained how she and Ethan had until the end of summer to come up with a plan.

“Do you know what you’re going to agree on?” Denise asked.

“Not yet. I know what Ethan wants.” Liz said the last sentence defiantly. Because it would be what Denise wanted, too.

“I’m sorry about what happened,” the other woman told her. “That you had to go through having a baby on your own. I remember when I was pregnant with Ethan. I was terrified. You were younger and alone. That couldn’t have been easy.”

Liz forced herself to relax. She moved to the kitchen table and pulled out a chair, then waited for Denise to do the same before sitting.

“I had a few difficult moments,” she admitted. “Luckily I found a shelter for pregnant girls. It was nice not to be completely by myself. I saw a doctor, got the right kind of food and vitamins.”

“I wish we’d known,” Denise offered. “I wish you’d come to me.”

Liz stared at her. “I appreciate what you’re saying but that would never have happened.” It wouldn’t have occurred to her. Not ever, but especially not after Ethan had rejected her so publicly.

“I understand. I wish I’d known the two of you were together. Maybe I would have thought to check on you.”

Rather than say something she would regret, Liz pressed her lips together and nodded slightly.

“I knew what they were saying about you, back then,” Denise told her. “I always felt so bad for you. I wish your mother had protected you more.”

“She was the real problem. I wasn’t doing those things. I wasn’t that girl, but no one cared to look beyond the rumors. Well, except for Ethan and then, not so much.”

Denise frowned. “What do you mean?”

“It doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago.”

“It matters to me.” She leaned toward Liz. “Why did you leave that first time?”

Liz tried to be vague. This was Denise’s son, after all. “We had a fight.”

“I don’t believe that’s the only reason.”

Liz drew in a breath. “You should ask him.”

“I’m asking you.” Denise gave her a faint smile. “Don’t make me use my ‘bad mom’ voice. I have six kids and a lot of practice.”

Fine. If the woman wanted to know, Liz would tell her.

“Ethan and I had been going out for two months. He didn’t want anyone to know. Despite how much he said he loved me, I think he was a little embarrassed by my reputation. I was going to join him at college, where no one would know about me. We were going to be together. I loved him. He was my first boyfriend. My first kiss. My first…” She cleared her throat. “You know.”

“I can imagine. Then what happened?”

“I was working at the diner. Ethan was in with his friends, like always. I used to think it was so romantic that no one knew. It was our secret.” Knowing Ethan loved her had made her feel special.

“Josh mentioned seeing us together. All Ethan’s friends started going after him, wanting to know if he was ‘doing me.’” She laced her fingers together, determined to stay in the moment, to not remember too much. “He said he barely knew who I was. That he would never be interested in someone like me.”

Denise flinched. “Oh, Liz. I’m so sorry.”

She shrugged. “I was humiliated and hurt. I could feel my heart breaking. I dumped a milk shake on his head and walked out. That was the last time we spoke. When I found out I was pregnant, I came back to tell him. I found him in bed with another girl.”

“Oh, God.” Denise touched her arm. “That’s awful. I don’t know what else to say.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not. Nothing about the situation is okay.” Denise shook her head. “It’s Ralph, and that damned idea of his that we’re the Hendrixes. The family that founded Fool’s Gold.” She sounded frustrated. “Reputation is everything. Act right, do right, be right. Emotions be damned.”

Denise sighed. “I loved my husband from the moment I first saw him, but he wasn’t easy. And he passed all that righteousness onto Ethan.”

Liz wasn’t surprised. “He was the oldest.”

“Exactly.”

“Being with someone like me violated everything his father had ever said. I get it.” Liz spoke as if the words didn’t hurt her and hoped the other woman couldn’t see the truth.

“For Ralph, the world was black and white. Reality is much more gray. I don’t think Ethan was mature enough to see that.”

Denise sounded sincere and conciliatory, which Liz appreciated, but it also made her uncomfortable.

“I’m fine,” she said quickly. “The past is over. Tyler and I have been fine. I’ve taken good care of him.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Denise assured her. “But while you’ve been busy taking care of your son, who’s taken care of you?”

“I don’t need anyone to take care of me.”

Denise smiled gently. “Liz, we all need someone. And now you have us. I hope you’ll accept me and my children into your family. You’re a part of us now.”

It was as if she could hear a door slam somewhere in the distance. No. Not a door-a gate. Denise was Tyler’s grandmother. He had aunts and uncles. However far she might want to run, she was bound to these people forever, and for the life of her, she couldn’t figure out if that was a good thing or a bad one.

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