LIZ HAD NEVER BEEN TO A WAKE before and wasn’t sure what to wear. And it was blisteringly hot, which limited her options. She settled on a green sleeveless dress and cream-colored sandals. Word of the celebration of Crystal’s too-short life had come from Montana, who had phoned her two days before and asked her to bring a salad. Apparently the wake was a potluck.
As the type of salad hadn’t been specified, Liz had settled on a favorite pasta and mixed lettuce salad that was both healthy and delicious. Normally, she enjoyed making the salad, but this morning her heart hadn’t been in it. Crystal’s death was just too sad, her life over too soon. Even though they hadn’t been close in years, Liz felt the loss of someone she’d considered a friend.
She’d done her best to avoid thinking about where she was going and what would happen when she got there. She had a vision of a bunch of people sitting around in a quiet room, speaking softly, with everyone trying not to cry. Liz didn’t want to share her emotions in public, that was for sure.
But when she got to Jo’s Bar she was surprised to find what sounded like a party going on. The main room was full of people laughing and talking. Music played in the background and a slide show of pictures of Crystal and a handsome young man in a marine uniform flashed on a big-screen TV.
“Hi. Thanks for coming. We’re putting food in the back room,” Montana greeted as Liz entered. “On the pool tables.”
The tone was friendly but not especially welcoming. Sort of the way one spoke to a stranger.
Liz froze. After all this time, was Montana now blaming her for what happened with Ethan and Tyler? She felt stricken. It wasn’t as if she had a lot of friends in town-she didn’t want to lose one now.
“Are you…” she began, only to stop.
While the woman standing in front of her looked very much like Montana, there were differences. Shorter hair, a faint scar on the right cheek. A different way of standing.
Triplets, Liz thought in relief. Montana was one of three identical triplets.
“You’re not who I thought,” Liz explained.
“Who were you expecting?” the other woman asked.
“Montana. I’m Liz Sutton. We met at the girls’ night at my house.”
Ethan’s sister smiled. “I remember. I’m Dakota.”
“How are you holding up? It’s got to be difficult, moving back here, dealing with Ethan and taking on Roy’s kids.”
“I’m handling it. Some days better than others.”
“If you ever need anything, call me. I’m always up for babysitting or whatever.”
“Thanks. That’s really nice of you.”
“Hey, you’re family now.”
“I appreciate that.” She raised her bowl. “I’ll put this with the other food.”
“Great. Jo’s serving pink grapefruit martinis at the bar. She and Crystal created them one night about a year ago and they’re surprisingly good.”
As it was barely two in the afternoon and she had three kids coming home around four, Liz agreed but privately told herself she would only have one.
She made her way through the bar, stopping to greet the few people she knew. She felt herself relaxing. It was unlikely anyone would verbally attack her at Crystal’s wake. This was a time to focus on the young woman who had died. And Dakota’s offer to help had been both unexpected and really nice.
After dropping off the salad next to several other dishes, she returned to the main room, where she saw Pia talking to a group of women.
Liz started to approach them, then stopped, not sure if she should join in. Pia made the decision for her by excusing herself from her friends and walking over to Liz.
“Hi,” Pia said, her eyes red from tears. Her mascara was smudged, her face pale. “I’m a mess.”
“You’re missing a close friend,” Liz stated, giving her an impulsive hug. “It’s okay to be a mess.”
Pia hugged her, then stepped back. “I guess. I can’t believe she’s gone. It’s not a surprise, and yet I can’t seem to get my mind around it.”
“We never expect people to die, even when we know they’re going to.”
Pia nodded slowly. “You’re right. But knowing that doesn’t make it easier.”
“I’m sorry. That will take time.”
Pia’s eyes filled with tears again. “It’s so damned unfair, you know? Crystal was a sweetie. She’d already lost so much. And then to die like this.”
Liz didn’t know what Pia was talking about. “I thought she was sick.”
“She was.” Pia sniffed. “I meant the other part. She was married. He was a soldier in Iraq.”
Liz looked around the room but didn’t see any men who fit that description. “Is he still over there?”
Pia shook her head. “He died. Because they knew that would be a possibility, they decided to make sure there were children. They used IVF to create several embryos before he left, just in case.”
Liz gasped. “Crystal has children?” That would make it worse.
“Not exactly. After her husband died, she went to have the embryos implanted. During a routine physical, she found out she had cancer.” Pia’s eyes filled again. “Can you imagine? She couldn’t even have her husband’s children. I don’t know how she kept going every day. She was so nice. I’ll never be that nice.”
Liz hugged her friend again. “You’re perfectly nice.”
“Not really. I try. I was horrible in high school, but you know that. I want to be better. I have her cat and I swear I’ll do everything possible to make that cat happy.” She sniffed again. “I guess I should buy a book or something. ‘Cat Happiness for Dummies.’”
Liz didn’t mean to be insensitive, but she couldn’t help laughing. “I’m not sure they have that title yet.”
“I have to do something. I guess I should really be grateful she only left me the cat. She had those embryos. I don’t know what arrangements she made for them.”
Liz hadn’t thought about that, but it made sense. Crystal would be concerned about her unborn children. “That would be a lot of responsibility,” she conceded quietly.
“Figuring out what to do with them?” Pia asked.
“Sure. Implied in the gift is the request to have the babies, then raise them.”
“I’m glad it’s not me,” Pia noted. “A cat is about all I could handle. I’m not very maternal.”
“You don’t know until you try.”
“I have trouble keeping plants alive. I don’t really do the nurturing thing.”
Liz shook her head. “Do you think I was prepared to have Tyler? You do what’s required. At first it’s hard, but then it gets easier.”
“I need a drink,” Pia muttered. “Let’s go see what Jo’s pouring.”
They made their way to the bar. Before they reached it, an older woman paused to glare at Liz.
She felt a sinking sensation in her stomach and wondered if she could escape out the back way. But before the plan formed, the woman spoke.
“You should have married him,” the older woman snapped, her eyes nearly as blue as her hair. A shapeless floral print dress hung past her knees and her sensible shoes gave her an extra inch of height. “It’s disgraceful. In my generation, if a girl got pregnant, she married the father of her child. Now young people have sex and don’t worry about the consequences.”
Liz opened her mouth, then closed it. What was there to say? Her mind was totally blank, except for the continual chanting of “Anywhere but here.”
Pia stepped in front of her and waved her index finger at the woman. “Back off, Esmeralda. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Liz was a kid. If you’re so concerned about what’s right, why didn’t you step in back then? Why didn’t you talk like this to Liz’s mother? Everyone knew what was happening at her house. Where was your moral code then?”
Esmeralda pressed her thin lips together. “Well, I never.”
“Now you have,” Pia declared firmly. “This is my friend’s wake. Do you really think Crystal would want you talking like this here?”
Liz, feeling all warm and fuzzy and supported, expected the older woman to snap back at Pia.
“You’re right,” Esmeralda said primly. She turned to Liz. “I apologize. For Crystal’s sake.”
“Thank you,” Liz acknowledged, stunned.
Pia linked arms with Liz and took her the rest of the way to the bar. “See? It’s not so bad here.”
“I can’t always count on you to rescue me.”
“I will if I’m there. And let me say for the record, that shows what an amazing person I am.”
Liz accepted the drink Jo passed her. “Because I don’t deserve you defending me?”
Pia took her drink, smiled her thanks, then turned back to Liz. “You walk really straight for someone with such a big chip on her shoulder. It’s impressive.”
Liz bristled. “I don’t have a chip.”
“Oh, please. It’s huge. The size of a small car. Which must make sleeping difficult.”
Liz narrowed her gaze. “Are you drunk?”
“No, but I plan to be.” She took a big swallow of her martini. “My point was you’re so damned perfect, I should hate you, but here I am taking your side. You should be grateful. And maybe buy me a diamond or something.”
Liz had barely sipped her own drink, but her head was spinning. “I’m not perfect.”
Pia rolled her eyes. “As if that’s true. Look at you. You were gorgeous in high school, and now you’re even more beautiful. Worse, you don’t seem to notice. It’s not like you go out of your way to be attractive. It just happens. Have you ever seen me in the morning? No. Well, let me just say without some serious work, I can’t walk out of the house. I would scar small children for life.”
Liz didn’t know if she should laugh or run for her life. “You’re insane.”
“Maybe, but it’s true. Even more horrible, you’re smart. Everyone knows it. Back in school, the teachers always talked about you. ‘Why can’t you be smart and dedicated like Liz?’” she repeated in a mocking tone. Pia took another sip. “You ruined it for all of us.”
Now Liz couldn’t help laughing. “I did not.”
“Ya huh. You so did. And now. Look at you. You’re a famous mystery-thriller writer person. You’ve got that damn scholarship in your name at the stupid community college. You have a great kid. What do I have? A cat who doesn’t even like me and three dead house-plants.”
Pia looked miserable and defiant and slightly tipsy. Liz took her free hand and squeezed her fingers. “I’m not all that, and you have so much more than you listed. You have a great job and a community and people who love you. Crystal loved you.”
Pia wiped tears from her face. “She did and she was great. But you have character and I never did.”
Liz kept a hold on her fingers. “You have enough character for all of us. Trust me.”
Pia’s wide eyes filled with tears again. “You promise?”
“Cross my heart.”
ETHAN PUNCHED THE BUTTON TO increase the incline on the elliptical. It was midafternoon and the gym was quiet. A few high school guys worked out with the free weights and there was a yoga class going on in the glass-enclosed area at the far end of the building.
“This is how girls work out,” Ethan grumbled as he wiped away sweat.
Josh grinned at him. “We could have gone bike riding.”
“I didn’t have time. Unlike you, I work for a living.”
“I work,” Josh protested. “Not very hard, but I work.”
His friend had called to suggest they head to the gym together. They’d briefly discussed a thirty-mile bike ride, but Ethan had meetings later that afternoon. As much as he would have enjoyed the mountainous route, it would have to wait for another day.
“Maybe this weekend,” Josh suggested. “If you’re not too busy with Tyler.”
“Why are you free on the weekend?” Ethan knew his friend, a recent newlywed, spent every free second with his wife.
“Charity and Mayor Marsha are going to San Francisco to shop for the baby’s room.”
Ethan grinned. “You don’t want a say in colors and accessories?”
Josh shuddered visibly. “No, thanks. I just want the baby to be healthy.”
“And a boy.”
Josh chuckled. “I wouldn’t say no to a boy. But we’re waiting to find out. Charity wants to be surprised.”
Ethan felt the burn in his legs and increased the pace of his workout. “You scared?” he asked.
Josh shrugged, then nodded. “Sometimes. When I think about it. What do I know about being a father?”
Ethan could relate to that. The difference was Josh got to start small-with a newborn. Of course a baby was a whole different set of worries.
“I know what you mean,” he said.
“How’s it going with Tyler?”
“Good. Great. He’s bright and funny. Athletic.”
“You see yourself in him?”
“Yeah, but there’s a lot of Liz, too.”
“Is that bad?” Josh asked.
“Sometimes,” Ethan admitted, wiping away sweat. “I’m dealing, not that I have a choice. But when I think too much about what she did…” He grabbed his water bottle and swallowed several gulps.
Going there, getting riled up, accomplished nothing, Ethan reminded himself. It was a waste of time and energy.
“She speaking to you?” Josh inquired.
“The injunction. I would have figured she’d come after you with something sharp.”
“She wasn’t happy,” he commented. “I reacted. It wasn’t smart. But it’s done now.”
“Can’t you undo it?”
Ethan thought about the judge. She didn’t seem like the type of person who would support him changing his mind. And he wasn’t willing to test the theory and risk jail time.
“We’ll figure out a plan,” he declared.
“Charity said Pia told her Liz came back as soon as she found out she was pregnant. But you were other wise engaged.”
“I was asleep,” Ethan protested.
“With Pia in your bed.”
Josh grabbed a towel and wiped his face. “Sorry to tell you this, but Liz pretty much gets a pass. She left town because you threw her under the bus and then you were in bed with another woman when she came back to tell you about the baby. There’s no way you’re the good guy.”
“She kept my kid from me. Nothing excuses that.” No matter what, Ethan had lost something unrecoverable.
“I’m not saying it’s an excuse. I’m saying you’re not blameless.”
“Maybe.” He didn’t want to think about that. “Everything would have been different if she’d stuck around. Woken me up. Hit me with something.”
“That’s not her way.”
“You know this how?” Ethan asked.
“She left. She was hurt and she went quietly. You might not want to admit it, but from what I can see, she did a hell of a job with her kid.”
“I know.” He had no complaints about Liz as a mother to his son.
“Maybe she’s not the one you’re mad at,” Josh guessed.
Ethan’s legs ached, his muscles shook slightly with the effort of his workout. He pushed harder, not wanting to hear his friend’s words, let alone think about them. Then the machine beeped, indicating his thirty-minute program had ended. He slowed reluctantly.
“Sure Liz didn’t tell you when she first found out,” Josh continued. “But the real tough one is that she came back.”
Ethan stepped off the machine and grabbed his towel. “Thanks for the update.”
Josh ignored that. “Rayanne kept the truth from you. She was your wife. You should have been able to trust her more than anyone. You
Ethan started to turn on his friend only to remember that Josh had also been betrayed by a woman. Big time. Maybe he knew what he was talking about.
“She felt threatened,” Ethan admitted, reaching for his water. “She was pregnant when we got married.”
“I figured,” Josh told him.
Ethan raised his eyebrows.
“Come on,” Josh said, spraying down the handles of the machine and wiping them off, then handing the disinfectant to Ethan. “She was never your type. I couldn’t figure out how you two got together at all.”
“I came up for air and she was there,” Ethan detailed. “I’d been working hard, learning the business, starting with the windmills. I hadn’t had much time to date. One day Rayanne walked into the office and I was interested.”
He didn’t bother saying it wouldn’t have lasted. Bad enough to admit that to Liz. For reasons he couldn’t explain, he’d wanted her to know the truth. But no one else needed the information. Despite the circumstances, Rayanne had been his wife. She deserved his loyalty.
“She was only a few months along when Liz showed up,” he recounted. “I was out of town. I’m sure the news frightened her. I’d talked about Liz some, so she had a clue about how serious things had been. Or maybe she would have imagined the worst regardless. Plus knowing I already had a son might have scared her into thinking I wouldn’t care as much about our baby.”
At least that was his assumption. He’d only been able to look at things from his perspective. Rayanne wasn’t around to ask.
He wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. Wanted to believe the best of her, but the bottom line was, she’d kept her secret until the very end. Even when they’d both known she was dying, she hadn’t told him about Tyler. That was a tough thing to forgive.
“You’re still pissed,” Josh pointed out.
“Does it ever occur to you that because you can’t get things right with Rayanne that you’re taking out all of it on Liz?”
Ethan stared at his friend. “What are you talking about?”
Josh shrugged. “I’m just saying that sure, Liz has some blame in all this, but so do you and so does Rayanne. Only Rayanne’s not here. Being mad at the dead never plays well, even to ourselves. So what are you left with? Liz.”
Ethan finished his bottle of water and tossed the empty container into the recycling bin, then dropped his towel across his shoulder and headed for the locker room. Josh fell into step beside him.
They walked downstairs and pushed through the swinging door. His friend’s words made sense, which fried his ass.
“When did you get all insightful?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” Josh admitted.
“I don’t like it.”
“Me, either. Makes me feel like a girl. Don’t tell anyone.”
SATURDAY DAWNED AS HOT AS THE rest of the week had been. By ten, it was close to eighty-five degrees. The air conditioning in the old house was questionable at best, which meant it was on the repair list. But so far, the subcontractor hadn’t shown up. Something Liz would discuss with Ethan the next time she saw him. In the meantime, she had three kids to deal with.
Melissa and Abby were arguing about who got to use the phone next, with Abby pointing out Melissa could just as easily use her cell phone, while Tyler resented the limit on his computer game time.
“Dad would let me play longer,” he whined as she reached for the controller.
“You don’t know that.”
“Uh-huh. He let’s me do lots of stuff you don’t.” Tyler’s lower lip jutted out.
She didn’t doubt that Ethan wasn’t into things like limits right now. He was getting to know his son.
She told herself to be patient and understanding. That everything would even out eventually.
“I’m glad you’re getting along with your dad, but right now your computer game time is up.” She took the controller from him. “We’re heading out, so please put on your swimsuit.”
“I want to go see Dad instead.”
She ignored that and walked to the stairs. “Fifteen minutes,” she yelled over the girls’ bickering. “Be ready or be left behind.”
Abby ran to the landing. “Where are we going?”
“The pool. We’ll spend the whole day there.”
“Can we have hotdogs for lunch?” Abby asked.
Melissa joined her. “I’m too old for the pool.”
Liz was less sure about leaving the teenager home alone. Not that she was afraid Melissa would get into trouble, but more because she would brood. Better for her to be out with people.
“Call one of your friends and invite her along,” Liz offered. “Be ready in fifteen minutes. I mean it.”
The two of them turned and ran down the hall. Liz went upstairs to put on her own bathing suit. She didn’t have big plans to get in the water, but the odds of being splashed were huge. Better to be prepared.
Tyler slowly climbed the stairs, muttering something about preferring his father.
It took nearly a half hour to get out the door, but it was worth it. Although there were several families at the pool already, there were still plenty of spots in the shade.
“How about over there?” Liz asked, pointing.
“I see Jason,” Tyler said, already moving away. “I’m going to see if he wants to go on the slide.”
“Brittany’s with her mom,” Abby stated. “May I sit with them?”
“Madison’s waiting for me by the snack bar.” Melissa was already inching away.
Liz gave permission for Abby to visit with her friend and found herself carrying everything over to the bit of grass she’d selected and laying out towels. She put on sunscreen, plopped a hat on her head and opened the romance novel she’d brought with her. Less than a minute later, her cell phone rang.
“It’s Pia. I’m at your house. Where are you?”
“At the pool.” She hadn’t talked to Pia since Crystal’s wake. “What’s going on?”
“I have printouts of the posters,” Pia explained. “I wanted to make sure they’re okay with you. After all, you’re our star.”
Liz frowned. While she appreciated the concern, the posters weren’t her business. Pia’s job was to promote the entire signing and the town. Besides, Liz had seen the posters at the meeting.
Then she realized that maybe it wasn’t about the posters at all, but about missing Crystal.
“I’d love to see them,” Liz told her. “But I’ve got all three kids here. Why don’t you put on a sassy bikini and join us?”
Pia sighed. “No, thanks. I’ll just go home. I’m not feeling very well.”
“All the more reason to slather on sunscreen and pretend to tan. Come on. I desperately need an adult to talk to.”
Pia hesitated. “Maybe,” she said. “Okay. I’ll be there. Want me to bring anything?”
Pia chuckled. “I don’t think they’ll let me open a bottle by the pool.”
“Probably not. Then just bring yourself. See you soon.”
Liz was concerned that Pia would change her mind, but in less than a half hour, the other woman had shown up with her towel and a cooler full of cold water.
As Pia peeled out of her shorts and tank top, Liz tried not to be envious of the other woman’s long, lean legs. Height was required to look that good, she decided. While she wasn’t exactly vertically challenged, Pia topped her by a good three inches.
“This is nice,” Pia said, settling on the towel next to her and looking around. “It’s been years since I’ve hung out at the pool.”
“I’ve been here on and off since school was out,” Liz told her. “The hotdogs are good.” She glanced at Pia. “How are you doing?”
“Okay. I miss Crystal a lot, but work is keeping me busy, so that’s good. I bought a collar for Jake. Sort of as a way to let him know we’re committed to each other, now that Crystal is gone.”
Liz blinked at her, not sure what to say.
“I know he’s a cat,” Pia added with a smile. “We don’t actually have those conversations.”
“Good. Because I would have worried about you.”
“I was all set to put the collar on him when Dakota scared me off.” Pia paused. “She’s one of Ethan’s sisters.”
“I’ve met her a couple of times.”
“She said a friend of hers put a collar on a cat who’d never worn one and he about ripped his head off, scratching to remove it. He nicked a vein or something and there was blood everywhere. The last thing I need is to come home from work one day to a scene in a horror movie.”
Liz winced. “Are you sure Dakota wasn’t trying to be funny?”
“I don’t think so. Anyway, Jake won’t be getting his collar anytime soon.”
“Probably a good plan.” Liz thought about Ethan’s sister. “Doesn’t Dakota work at the camp?”
“She’s the head counselor, which doesn’t sound as important as it is. She has a PhD in childhood development. Raoul Moreno owns the camp. While it’s just a summer place now, he wants to expand it into a year-round facility. Dakota is helping him with that.”
Liz frowned. “Raoul Moreno. Why is that name familiar?”
Pia grinned. “Oh, honey, you haven’t seen him? He and I haven’t actually had a conversation, but I’ve spotted him around. Talk about yummy. Tall, dark and very pretty. In a macho, Latin kind of way. He played football for the Dallas Cowboys. Quarterback. Smart and athletic. Does it get better than that?”
“Sounds like someone has a bit of a crush.”
“Only from afar. I’m not interested in having a relationship right now.”
Pia hesitated. “I’m not very good at them. I want to be. I want to be nurturing and know fifteen different ways to stylishly cut a sandwich. But it’s not my thing. I like kids, in theory. I don’t know much about them. But getting serious and having one of my own? I don’t really think I’m the right person for that.”
There was something about the way she said the words. As if there was more, but she wasn’t comfortable telling the story. Liz didn’t want to press. Her friendship with Pia was still new. But she couldn’t help wondering what secrets her friend was keeping to herself.
“I don’t think skilled sandwich cutting guarantees great nurturing,” she said instead. “I only know two ways.”
“That’s one more than me. Besides, you’re a natural parent. I’ve seen you with Tyler. You two have a great relationship.”
“I’m a parent because I got pregnant,” Liz told her. “I was eighteen. Instinct or not, I was a kid and I know I made a bunch of mistakes. I spent the first year terrified I was going to drop him or something. I think loving is a whole lot more important than anything. Children need to know they’re wanted.”
“That’s true,” Pia said. “Not being wanted sucks.”
“It’s a nonissue,” Pia said flatly. “I’m between men and I intend to keep it that way. I have Jake the cat and that’s enough.”
“At least he won’t leave the toilet seat up.”
“Exactly. I heard from Crystal’s lawyer. She wants me to come in and talk in the next few weeks. She said there was no rush so I’m assuming there’s something in Crystal’s will about a formal transfer of ownership.”
“Be sure to tell the city,” Liz teased. “There’s paperwork with pet transfers.”
Pia lowered her sunglasses and glanced over them. “You’re not all that. You know that, right?”
Pia smiled at her. “I’m glad you came back.”
Liz groaned. “Don’t say that.”
“Still being harassed by the elderly?”
“They’re not all old.” Thinking about Fool’s Gold left her feeling confused. “There are some things about being here that I really like and some that make me insane.”
“Where does Ethan fall on the list?”
“He’s on both sides.”
“See? Men are a complication.”
“Tell me about it,” Liz grumbled. “I know he wants a relationship with Tyler and I encourage that. But then he goes and does something stupid like the injunction and I want to bitch slap him.”
“Can I watch? It would be the highlight of my week.”
Liz smiled faintly. “Probably not his.” She sighed. “I just don’t know what to do.”
“Because you don’t know how you feel about him? How could you? It’s been years, but you were in love with him once and now you have Tyler together. It’s got to be complicated. Trying to decide if you still love him.”
Liz felt the world tilt to the right. She grabbed on to her towel to keep from sliding away. Only nothing was really moving-it was all happening inside of her.
“I don’t love Ethan.”
Pia’s expression turned pitying. “Speaking as a professional, I can tell you that denial is a dangerous place to live. It really messes up any long-term planning. I’m not saying you love him, I’m saying you have to decide if you might.”
“No. I don’t accept that. He denied me in public-twice! He never tried to find me. I’m sure he hasn’t thought about me in years.”
“Interesting. So your feelings are dependent on his? I wouldn’t have thought you were that shallow.”
Liz sputtered. “Excuse me? That’s not what I’m saying.”
“It’s what you said.”
Liz sucked in a breath. “The point is I’m not interested in Ethan that way and he’s not interested in me. We have a child together. There are details that have to be worked out. Nothing more.”
Care about Ethan? Love Ethan? Not on this planet. She barely liked him. Okay, sure she wanted him, but that was different. Having a sexual connection was hardly significant.
“You’re wrong,” Liz added. “You couldn’t be more wrong.”
Pia picked up a bottle of water and opened it. “Isn’t there a line in Shakespeare about protesting too much? I can’t remember, but then, I’m not the literary one here.”
“No. You’re the crazy one.”
Instead of getting upset, Pia only smiled.
Liz glared at her, then crossed her arms over her chest and stared out at the pool. Love? That was just plain stupid. She didn’t love Ethan. She refused to do more than like him and that was just for her son’s sake. Anyone who implied otherwise needed some serious mental therapy.