CHAPTER THIRTEEN

LIZ HAD DONE HER BEST TO prepare Roy’s daughters for the reality of seeing their father in prison, but words couldn’t begin to explain the experience. Not only did Melissa and Liz have to leave their cell phones in the car, Abby wasn’t allowed to bring gum. She’d had to tell the girls not to wear chambray shirts or jeans because the color was forbidden for visitors. It was what the prisoners wore. They all had to make sure their shirts had sleeves and that they would have to pass through a metal detector before they could see their father.

Their cheerful mood during the drive had faded, the closer they got to the prison, then disappeared when they stopped by the structure. Liz understood completely. There was no way to look at the forbidding building and feel anticipation.

They followed the other visitors to an open patio where Roy hovered. He looked both excited and nervous.

“You came,” he said, when he saw them.

Abby rushed toward him and he embraced her, but Melissa hung back.

“It’s all right,” Liz told her.

Melissa shook her head. “It’s not,” she whispered. “He’s not getting out of here, is he?”

Liz’s throat tightened. “It will be a while.”

“How could he do this? How could he leave us?”

Liz didn’t know what to say.

“He’s still your dad,” she managed to murmur. “He still loves you.”

Melissa swallowed. “Loving us isn’t going to be enough.”

She slowly approached her father, then hugged him.

The three of them settled on a picnic table. Liz hung back, wanting to give them private time together. She sat by herself, reading the book she’d brought, trying to ignore the other reunions going on around her. Some groups were happy, but others were quiet, marked with tears and obvious pain.

About an hour later, Roy walked over to sit next to her.

“They told me that you’re having the house fixed up,” he relayed, avoiding her gaze. “Thanks for that. I got the paperwork that lawyer sent. I’ve already signed it and sent it back.”

She nodded. The house was being put into a trust for the girls.

“When it’s finished, I’ll talk to a real estate agent again and we’ll figure out if it’s better to sell it now and invest the money or keep it and rent it out.”

Roy nodded. “Do whatever you think is best. You were always the smart one in the family.”

“Either way they’ll have money for their future.” They wouldn’t need it for college. If either of her nieces wanted to go, Liz would pay for it herself. She thought about saying that but thought Roy might think she was showing off. The situation was awkward enough already.

“I signed that other paper, too,” her brother told her, looking at her for the first time. “The one making you their legal guardian. I told them that they have to do what you said. Mel’s mad because you want to move them to San Francisco. I told her it was for the best.”

“I doubt she believed you.”

“She’ll get over it. She’s just a kid.” He shifted uneasily. “I was thinking you probably shouldn’t bring them back to see me again. It’s too hard on them.”

Liz had a feeling the person he was most concerned about was himself. “Are you going to write them?”

“Sure. Sure. I sent that one letter.”

“They’ll want to hear from you. You’re their father.”

“I know. I said I’d write.”

“Okay,” she murmured. “I’ll make sure they write you, too, and let you know what’s going on with them.”

“Thanks, Liz.”

“Sure.”

He returned to his daughters. A few minutes later, the girls walked over to her.

There were tears in their eyes. Abby tried to smile but failed. Melissa, like her father, wouldn’t look at Liz.

“Ready to go?” Liz asked.

Abby nodded.

They returned to the car. The afternoon was warm, the sky a cloudless blue. She cranked up the air conditioning until it blasted them, then headed for the freeway.

“Dad said you were our legal guardian now,” Melissa reported as she stared out the window.

“I am.” Liz clutched the steering wheel. “It’s not that he doesn’t love you. This just makes things easier. Like if you have to go to the doctor’s, I can sign the paperwork.”

“Or make us move,” Melissa said bitterly. “You’re not our mom.”

“I’m not trying to be,” Liz explained, refusing to take the attack personally.

“Can’t we stay?” Abby asked softly from the back-seat.

“No,” Melissa told her, turning to glare at her. “We can’t. Aunt Liz is going to make us move and we can’t stop her. If we run away, the police will find us and bring us back. She can do anything she likes. Even dump us in foster care.”

Liz merged onto the freeway. “Melissa, that’s enough,” she said sternly. “You can be mad at me if you want, but don’t take it out on Abby. No one is going into foster care and you know it. You may not like the idea of moving, but in the few weeks you’ve known me I’ve done my best to take care of you.”

“You might be able to make us move, but I’ll never forgive you,” Melissa announced. “I’ll hate you forever.”

“Something we’ll both have to live with,” Liz told her.

She glanced in the rearview mirror and saw Abby was crying. Melissa had her head turned away, so Liz wasn’t sure how upset she was. Nothing about this situation was easy, she thought sadly. Nothing was the way it was supposed to be.

No one spoke. After a few minutes, she turned on the radio. A while later, Abby’s tears stopped. She sniffed every now and then but otherwise was silent. Melissa sat stiffly in her seat. When they finally arrived back in Fool’s Gold, Liz was actually relieved to be in town.

She drove directly to the house and had barely put the car in park before Melissa jumped out. Abby followed her sister.

Liz got out more slowly, then came to a stop when she saw Ethan at the top of the porch stairs.

He’d spent the morning with Tyler and no doubt wanted to complain about something or throw her under a nearby bus. She was too tired and drained for another fight, but telling him that felt like admitting weakness.

“I take it things didn’t go well,” he guessed as he approached her.

“Knowing their dad is in prison and seeing him there are two different things. They’re upset.”

He was tall and handsome and the fact that she noticed made her want to stomp her foot in frustration. Why did he have to be the one man on the planet able to win her with a single look? Even now, with the injunction, the past and everything else between them, all she could think about was stepping into his strong embrace and letting him handle things for a little while.

“They took it out on you,” he assumed, not asking a question.

“I’m an easy target.”

He reached toward her. She thought about stepping back but instead braced herself. He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.

The light brush of his fingers against her skin made her warm inside and a little stronger. Craziness, she told herself. Ethan might not be the enemy, but he wasn’t exactly her friend.

“Let’s go riding,” he offered.

“What?”

“We’ll rent bikes. For all of us. Getting out of the house will make Melissa and Abby feel better and you won’t have to deal with them alone.”

“It makes me nervous when you’re nice,” she admitted.

“I guess I should be nice more often so you get used to it.”

“I find that unlikely.”

He gave her a slow, sexy smile. “Don’t sell yourself short.”

“Very funny. I was trying to indicate I’m not sure you can be nice.”

“Try me.”

She would like to, even if that made her the local idiot. “I think a bike ride would be safer.”

A HALF HOUR LATER, THEY HAD bikes and were making their way around the lake. Sunlight sparkled on the water where paddle boats glided. Families sat on the grass or under the trees. On the other side of the bike path, teenaged boys played with a Frisbee.

Ethan hung back, wanting to make sure that Melissa and Abby were both comfortable and safe as they rode. Abby stayed close to Liz, talking easily. Melissa was in front, her shoulders stiff, her pace determined. The teenager was obviously still angry.

Tyler was on the other side of his mother. Ethan watched his son weave back and forth, deliberately riding a serpentine course. Every now and then he took both hands off the handlebars, causing his mother to glance at him. Tyler grinned and returned his hands to the bars.

When a family on bikes came toward them on the wide, paved path, everyone moved to the side. Melissa wobbled a little and had to put her foot down to keep from falling. Ethan rode up to her.

“Been a long time,” he said with a grin. “It’ll come back to you.”

“Riding bikes is for kids,” she said, pouting.

“Ever hear of the Tour de France?”

She sniffed. “That’s some big race.”

“Right. Know what they ride?”

“Fine.” She rolled her eyes. “Kids and weird people.”

He held in a laugh.

They were a ways back from Liz and the kids. He lowered his voice.

“Who are you really mad at? Your dad for being in prison or Liz for wanting to move back to San Francisco?”

She turned away. “I’m mad at Liz.”

“I don’t believe that.”

She glared at him, tears filling her eyes. “You don’t know anything.”

“I know some. I know this is hard. I know you’re about the bravest person I know, taking care of your sister like that. And I know Liz dropped everything to come here the second she got your e-mail.”

Melissa sucked in a breath. “Maybe.”

He didn’t know if she was talking about herself or Liz and decided not to push it.

“I don’t want to leave here and she’s going to make me,” Melissa said.

Not a subject he could be neutral about, he thought. He didn’t want Liz to go, either. But he also knew this was a chance for him to protect Liz’s back and show her that he wasn’t the bad guy in all of this.

“She’s taking you away from all your friends and never letting you come back, huh?” he asked. “That sucks.”

Melissa glanced at him. “She said I could still see my friends. You know, on the weekends Tyler’s with you. And I’ll have my cell phone.”

He didn’t say anything.

She sighed. “It won’t be the same.”

“That’s part of growing up. Things change.”

“But I don’t want this.”

“That happens, too.”

There were a lot of things he didn’t want. He didn’t want to have missed the first eleven years of his son’s life. But no matter how he yelled or complained or threatened, nothing about the situation would change.

“Sometimes you have to accept how things are,” he said as much to himself as to Melissa. “You can make it easy on yourself, or you can make it hard. The choice is yours.”

“Maybe I don’t want to grow up,” she argued.

“After what you’ve already been through?” He smiled. “Sorry, Melissa. It’s happening and you’re turning out great.”

“Can we get ice cream?” Tyler asked, looking back at Ethan.

“I think ice cream is a good idea,” Liz agreed. She pointed to the stand up ahead. “Something dipped in chocolate would be very nice.”

Beside her, Abby laughed. “You really like chocolate.”

“I do. It’s a chick thing.”

“Ice cream for everyone,” Ethan concurred. He turned to Melissa. “You okay?”

She nodded.

Fifteen minutes later they were all stretched out on the grass, in the shade, eating ice cream. Abby stayed close to Liz, as did Tyler. Melissa was a few feet away, by herself. Ethan found himself wishing Liz were leaning against him the way Abby leaned against her. Because being angry didn’t mean he stopped wanting her.

It had always been that way, he reminded himself. It had been the first day of his senior year of school. He’d been walking down the hallway when he’d spotted Liz. She’d had that shy, terrified look that told him she was unprepared for the transition from junior high.

Even then she’d been beautiful. Tall and slim, with curves in the right places. There’d been something about the way she’d carried herself-with a warning that you could look but you couldn’t touch. She didn’t make eye contact with anyone.

One of Ethan’s friends had nudged him.

“See that girl there? She’s Liz Sutton. I’ve heard she puts out as much as her mom. I hope it’s true.”

Ethan didn’t know what combination of events had started the rumors about Liz. Maybe the girls in school had resented how beautiful she was. Maybe the boys had hated that she wouldn’t pay attention to them. But in a matter of weeks, everyone knew Liz Sutton had a reputation for being easy and cheap.

Even so, he’d been attracted to her. Not just for the potential sex, but because he’d seen something in her eyes. Something that called to him.

He’d spoken to her a few times that year. Or at least he’d tried. She’d always turned away and disappeared with an ease that told him she was well practiced at vanishing. Then he’d graduated and gone off to college, nearly forgetting all about Liz.

Until the summer before his senior year. When he’d come home in May and literally run into her on the sidewalk. He’d taken one look at her and known he had to have her.

His initial interest had been about how she looked, but he’d quickly discovered there was a smart brain behind the green eyes. That Liz had a wicked sense of humor and yet a moral compass that appealed to him. He’d learned she was kind and self-aware and that no one else had ever kissed her. He’d been her first…for everything.

“Ethan, what are you thinking?” Liz asked. “You have the strangest look on your face.”

He smiled. “I was remembering that you were the smartest girl in school.”

Liz wrinkled her nose. “Hardly.”

Abby and Tyler both looked at him. “Really?” Tyler asked. “Mom was smart?”

“Hey, kiddo. I’m plenty smart now,” Liz pointed out.

He grinned at her, then turned back to Ethan.

“She was,” he told them. “All As in her classes. A scholarship to college.” Which she hadn’t used because of him, he reminded himself.

“That was a long time ago,” Liz reminded, avoiding his gaze. “School was easy for me. I liked to read. Books were my friends.”

“Is that why you write now?” Melissa asked. “Because you used to read?”

“I’m sure that’s part of it. One of the best ways to learn how to write is to read.”

“How can you have a book for a friend?” Abby asked. “You can’t talk to them.”

“No, but they can take you away to another place. With books, the world feels safe.”

Abby and Melissa looked at each other, then back at her.

“Could you give me the name of some books to read?” Abby asked quietly.

“Sure. We can go to the library later.”

“I like to read, too,” Tyler said.

“Are you going to be a writer?” Melissa asked. “When you grow up?”

Tyler shook his head. “I want to build stuff, like my dad.”

Ethan happened to be looking at Liz as their son spoke. She didn’t react at all, as if she’d already heard this. But to him, the information was new and filled him with a sense of pride. He waited for that to be followed by resentment-after all, he’d already lost so much.

The feelings were there, but not as intense as before. The loss, the anger was muted somehow. Less important. Liz had been right-he couldn’t have a relationship in the present if he kept living in the past. What mattered with Tyler was today.

His gaze drifted over Liz’s face. She was a part of his son’s life. He couldn’t have one without dealing with the other. He’d loved Liz once-as much as he could at that age. With a limited life experience and nothing much ever required of him. He’d been a child in a man’s body. He was older now. But all that life experience hadn’t made him a whole lot smarter when it came to Liz.

THE AFTERNOON OF BIKE RIDING stretched into a dinner out, followed by a movie. By the time Ethan walked Liz and the kids home, it was after ten and everyone was tired.

Liz felt her own emotional exhaustion sucking at every step and knew the girls had to be ready to collapse, as well. For once, no one protested getting ready for bed. While she checked on the girls, Ethan said good-night to Tyler. They met downstairs. Liz was prepared to thank him for the day and show him the door, but something in his eyes stopped her. They were bright with an emotion she didn’t recognize.

“I never got to do that before,” he revealed quietly. “Put him to bed.”

There was nothing accusatory in his tone, and still she felt as if he’d hit her in the stomach. Her body stiffened as guilt flooded her. Then like a montage in a movie, she saw her son’s life as a series of pictures.

Somehow in the challenge of raising a baby alone, she’d forgotten about the magical moments Ethan had missed. The first smile, first step, first word. First day of school, first friend. But even more painful were the everyday things she took for granted. The moments that made a relationship.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered and sank onto the sofa. “I’m so sorry.”

He sat next to her and wrapped his arms around her. For once, she let herself lean on someone as everything crashed in on her. Being back in town, the stress with her nieces, the reality of dealing with Ethan again. He might be the cause, but he was also the only safe haven she’d ever known. While their time together had ended badly, that was for another time. This was about now and maybe what could have been.

“I never wanted it to be like this,” she muttered, fighting tears.

He touched his fingers to her chin, easing her head up until they looked at each other.

“I know,” he told her.

“It’s mostly your fault,” she declared with a sniff.

“I’ll take some of the blame.”

“I can’t believe you married Rayanne.”

She hadn’t meant to say that and as soon as the words popped out, she covered her mouth.

“I take it back,” she said quickly. “I’m sure she was lovely.” After all, Pia had changed into a nice, normal person. Rayanne could have had the same sort of transformation.

He angled toward her, his hand resting on her shoulder. “You mean, why did I marry her?”

“I didn’t ask you that. I’m assuming the normal kind of thing. Dating, falling in love, marriage.”

His dark gaze held hers. “You know about my bike crash in my senior year of college?”

She nodded.

“It was a moment of bad judgment or bad luck. I zigged when I should have zagged.” He shrugged. “I hit Josh’s bike, but I was the one who went down. I was hurt bad enough that I couldn’t race again.”

“That must have changed everything.” She remembered how he’d loved the sport. How winning mattered more than nearly anything. Without wanting to, she recalled the night he’d vowed that she was more important than anything else. How he loved her more than winning. She’d been young enough and foolish enough to want to believe him.

“I didn’t take it well,” he admitted. “I was angry and blamed Josh. He felt guilty enough that we didn’t talk for over ten years.”

That stunned her. “He was your best friend.”

“Yeah, well, we can both be stubborn. Things are fine now.”

“I hope so.”

“You’re too softhearted.”

“I pretend-murder people for a living. How softhearted can I be?”

“I’ll remember that.” He reached for her hand with his. “I finished school and came back to town. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I wasn’t going to do it here. A few weeks later, my dad dropped dead of a heart attack. I’m the oldest. Suddenly it was all up to me.”

“The family business,” she murmured. “You never wanted to go into construction.”

“I didn’t have a choice. There were six people depending on me. My mom fell apart. The girls were still in high school, my brothers needed to finish college. So I did what had to be done. But I didn’t like it.”

She hadn’t liked being responsible for a newborn. Maybe that’s what life was about-doing the things that had to be done without expecting anything in return.

“I grew up those first few years,” he admitted. “Painfully, kicking and screaming. Then one day I realized I liked building things. I liked starting a project and seeing it through. By then nearly four years had gone by and I hadn’t been out on a date. One day Rayanne walked into my office and asked me out. It shocked the hell out of me.”

Because Ethan wouldn’t see himself as sexy, smart and dependable. Three irresistible qualities when it came to picking a husband.

“We started dating,” he said, averting his gaze. “One thing led to another. I liked her, but I knew she wasn’t ‘the one.’ The day I planned to break up with her, she told me that she was pregnant.”

Liz did her best to keep her expression neutral. To not give in to the churning emotions inside her.

Pia had already told her that he’d married Rayanne because she was pregnant. But she couldn’t help feeling annoyed. No, more than annoyed.

There was a voice in her demanding why Rayanne and not her? Reminding the voice he hadn’t known she was pregnant didn’t make her feel any better.

“You seem to have a track record of unplanned pregnancies,” she told him. “Haven’t you ever heard about birth control?”

One corner of his mouth turned up. “That’s what my mom said. Only with a little more emotion.”

“I would think so. If we weren’t having this very nice moment, I’d smack you on the back of the head and tell you to be more careful.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She sighed. “So you married her. And then I showed up and because you’d told her about our relationship, she felt threatened.”

“Probably.”

“We’ve both really messed up,” she said.

“I guess we have.”

They smiled at each other then, and she found herself getting lost in his gaze. When he shifted toward her, she moved the last few inches, bringing her mouth to his.

This kiss was more tender than the last one. His firm mouth teased hers, making her melt even as she wrapped her arms around him.

He pulled her closer, their legs tangling on the sofa. She parted her lips and he eased inside, his tongue stroking hers. Need blossomed, but she ignored the wanting. Not only were there three kids upstairs, she wasn’t ready to make love with Ethan. Last time had been unplanned-an event driven by passion. She’d been able to walk away, only slightly scarred by the experience. This time would be different. This time there would be emotional complications and they were the last thing she needed.

Apparently he was feeling the same. They kissed again and again, but he didn’t push things further. She savored the feel of his body next to hers, enjoyed the heat building inside. It had been a long time since she’d really wanted a man. Wanted this man. Because Ethan could do things to her no one else could.

He drew back and they stared at each other.

“I should probably go,” he murmured.

She nodded, and shifted so he could stand. When she rose, he pulled her to him and kissed her again. After glancing at the ceiling, he exhaled slowly.

“You have a houseful of kids up there,” he noted.

“I know.”

He rested his forehead against hers. “Damn.”

She touched his face, rubbing her fingers against the stubble. For a second she allowed herself to think what it would be like if they were alone. If there weren’t other considerations. If she didn’t have to worry about losing her heart to a man she couldn’t trust.

He kissed her lightly, then walked to the door. “I’ll see you soon.”

She nodded and followed him onto the porch. He walked down the steps, along the path, then turned onto the sidewalk. After he was gone, she stood there, looking up at the night sky, admiring the stars. Two months ago her life had been so routine, she thought. So predictable. Things had changed quickly, and she couldn’t be sure where she would be two months from now.

There was something fun about the not knowing, she told herself. Then she leaned against the porch pillar and breathed in the scent of the night.

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