CHAPTER SEVEN

Dani drove out of the Bella Roma parking lot and realized she didn’t want to go home. The thought of the press lurking around her small house gave her the creeps. She pulled to the side, of the road to figure out where she should go instead.

All of her brothers would welcome her, but she wasn’t comfortable barging in. Her list of girlfriends was pitifully small. Between working and taking care of Hugh, she hadn’t had time for much of a social life. Which left only one person.

She punched in the numbers on her cell. The call was answered on the first ring.

“Hi. Did you see the paper?”

“Of course. It could be worse. When Reid was in the paper, they said he was bad in bed.”

“Okay, that helps with my perspective. I don’t want to go home. There are reporters everywhere.”

“Then come here. I have a perfectly good gate I’m willing to use on your behalf.”

“Are you sure?”

“Where else would you go?”

An interesting question, Dani thought as she pulled into the open garage at her grandmother’s house. When she stepped out of her car, she hit the button to close the garage door, then went inside. Gloria was waiting for her at the top of the stairs.

Dani climbed to the first floor. “I really appreciate this,” she said. Or at least that’s what she meant to say. Instead she burst into tears.

Gloria pulled her close and hugged her. “I know it’s not all right at this minute, but we’ll make it all right. I promise.”

***

Katherine poked her fork into the small scoop of pasta salad on her dinner tray, but she didn’t bother to eat any. She couldn’t. Her stomach had been a mess all day. She knew the cause was an unfortunate combination of stress and pain, but knowing the reason didn’t make it any better.

She felt as if she’d been run over and left for dead on the side of the road. Every part of her ached. Getting through the day, smiling at her children, pretending everything was fine had taken all she’d had and then some.

The newspapers lay where she’d left them, the headlines clearly visible on the leather ottoman. She’d known the news would come out-it always did. But so soon? And like this?

A few friends had called to check on her. They’d been kind. She’d heard the questions in their voices but no one had come right out and asked if she was the reason she and Mark had adopted. Perhaps they hadn’t needed to ask. Perhaps they already knew.

It shouldn’t matter, she told herself. Being unable to have children was no big deal. It happened to thousands of women. They went on to lead fulfilling lives. She had, as well. She loved her family. She wouldn’t change anything about it… except possibly to have given Mark what that other woman had been able to provide.

She heard his footsteps on the hardwood, floor. He came into her study and sank down at the end of the sofa.

“What a day,” he began, after kissing her on the mouth and touching her cheek. “Talk about hell. We’re caught up in damage control. The way the press got the story makes it more difficult to spin, but we’re working on it. We haven’t run any poll numbers, but the consensus is this won’t hurt us too much. With the right slant, it could really work in our favor.”

“That’s something,” she said calmly, when what she really wanted to do was scream at him. Couldn’t he tell this was hurting her? Didn’t he know that she was devastated?

If she had to guess, she would say he hadn’t had time to think of it yet. He was too caught up in his campaign.

“Have you talked to Alex?” Mark asked. “He hit that damned reporter. He’s going to be charged. There’s a problem I don’t want to deal with.”

“He was defending Bailey. I’m sorry there are going to be consequences for him, but I can’t regret what he did. It was the right thing.”

Mark stared at her. “You’re right. We can leak that to the press. No one likes anyone taking advantage of a child.” He smiled. “You’re brilliant. You should be on my payroll.”

It was a familiar comment. She was supposed to follow it up by saying she would rather be in his bed. Tonight, she couldn’t.

“People have been calling ” she said. “Friends, acquaintances.”

“You’ll handle it,” he said with a yawn. “You always do.”

Unexpected anger boiled up inside of her. “What if I don’t want to handle it? I didn’t ask for any of this, Mark.”

He looked at her and frowned. “It’s not like I knew and kept it from you. Dani was as much a surprise to me as she was to you.”

Somehow Katherine doubted that. After all, Mark had known about his affair with Marsha Buchanan.

“You must have met her as soon as you moved back to Seattle,” Katherine said. “Within a few weeks.”

He was smart enough to look wary. “I did. I was angry about our breakup and I wasn’t looking to get involved. It just happened.”

“You loved her.” She spoke calmly, not wanting him to know how important his answer was to her.

He shrugged. “Does that matter now? It was a long time ago. Katherine, this isn’t going to help.”

She pushed to the edge of the sofa, but didn’t stand. “Nothing is going to help. Everyone will know I’m the reason we couldn’t have children. Everyone will talk about me and pity me. Everyone will know I’m the one who’s broken. All my work will mean nothing.”

He slid across the sofa and pulled her close. “Of course it means something. Do you think the people you help care if you can have children or not? For the record-you’re not broken. You’re the tough one.”

She pushed him away. Perhaps for the first time in her life, she didn’t want him touching her.

She stood. “You have what you’ve always wanted. A child of your own.”

He rose. “That’s not fair. I was fine adopting. I’ve never complained about the situation.”

Her anger grew. “How big of you. Perhaps you should mention that during the campaign. ‘My wife couldn’t have children and I didn’t complain. Won’t that make me an excellent president?’ Do you still love her?”

“What? No. It’s been thirty years. I barely remember what she looks like.”

Katherine desperately wanted to believe that. She wanted him to convince her that she was the only one who mattered.

“Were you still with her when I came back to you?” she asked.

“No. We’d broken things off.”

“Did you end it or did she?”

He looked away. “Does it matter?”

Of course it mattered, but she already knew the truth. Marsha had ended the relationship.

“Why did you marry me?” she asked. “Was it for the money?”

He looked at her then, his blue eyes dark with an emotion she couldn’t read. “Is that what you think of me?” he asked.

“Don’t try to distract me, Mark. I want to know the truth.”

“You’re not going to believe anything I tell you tonight. You want me to be the bad guy. I’m sorry Dani has disrupted our lives, but I’m not sorry she’s alive. I can’t be. Thirty years ago, you ended our relationship. I came back to Seattle and yes, I fell in love with another woman. It’s been over for years. I never think about her. You’re my wife, Katherine. I love you. We have a life together. A family. Doesn’t that mean anything?”

It meant so much more than she could ever explain. At least to her. But what about to him?

She loved him so much. Too much. What would have happened if Marsha hadn’t ended things? What if she, Katherine, had asked him to choose? Who would he have wanted to be with?

He was right, she wouldn’t believe him, whatever he said. Mostly because she already knew the answer.

***

“I’m seeing more of you these days,” Katherine said as she poured coffee.

Alex took the mug she offered. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

She smiled. “Hmm, let me think.”

He chuckled. Katherine had the ability to make each of her children feel as if he or she were the only one who mattered. Should he ever have kids of his own, he was hoping to give them the same gift.

It was early, barely after seven, but she looked as she always did. Perfect makeup, casual but expensive clothes. His mother defined class.

She settled back in her chair and picked up her coffee. “I’ll admit to being intrigued. It’s not often that Mark is afraid to discuss something with me, and I can’t remember the last time he sent you in his place.”

“I can. I was seventeen. He’d lost Bailey at the mall for over an hour and he was afraid to tell you himself.”

She smiled. “You’re right. So what has him quaking this time?”

“He wants you to invite Dani along to one of your charities and then have the press there.”

With someone else, he might have continued with the explanation, but this was Katherine Canfield. She’d been a politician’s wife nearly as long as she’d been married. She would do the right thing because it was right. Duty defined her.

Nothing about her expression changed. She sipped, men nodded slowly. “If I accept Mark’s daughter, then America should, as well. After all, I’m as close to a wronged party as there can be, under the circumstances.”

She was calm and rational, which he appreciated. Yet how was that possible? “Doesn’t this piss you off?” he asked. “Don’t you hate the world getting into your life?”

“Of course, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Let me check my calendar and see what events I have in the next few weeks. I want to pick a charity that can use the extra publicity. What is it your father is always calling the press?”

“The jackals.”

“Right. The jackals can do some good this time.”

“You always say and do the right thing.”

Her mouth tightened. “I wish that were true. But I try. I suppose I get points for that.”

“This has to be hard for you.” Knowing about Dani privately was one thing, but having the world talk about her was something else.

She shrugged. “I don’t like being the subject of gossip, but sometimes it can’t be helped. In time, people will find something else interesting to talk about. Until then, I’ll do what I’ve always done. Take care of my family and try to make a difference in the world.”

“You made a difference with me.”

“You were easy.”

“I wasn’t. They told you not to adopt me. They said I couldn’t be socialized.”

“They were wrong.” She reached across the table and took his hand. “You’re the reason we have eight children, Alex. I had a dream and a plan, but I had no idea if I was capable of raising one child, let alone eight.”

It wasn’t just the volume, he thought, it was who those children were. Children with needs, both medical and emotional. Children other people hadn’t wanted.

“When you turned out as perfectly as you did,” she said, her voice teasing, “I knew I could do it again.”

“I’ll remind them at the holidays. They can all buy me extra presents.”

His mother laughed.

He studied her for a second. “Are you sorry Dad’s running for president?”

Her humor faded. “No. It’s what he’s always wanted. I think he has a good shot, better than most. Are you worried the news stories will materially damage his chances?”

“I don’t know. I’m not an expert.”

She released his hand and picked up her coffee again. “Trust the American people. They’ll understand. If Mark had had an affair while we were married, then that would be different. But this was before our engagement. Everyone can do the math.”

“Marsha Buchanan was married.”

“People will think badly of her, not your father. It’s not fair, but there it is.”

This had to be killing her, he thought. Being at the center of a scandal. Worse was the speculation about why the Canfields really adopted all those children. He’d already heard what people were saying. Maybe Katherine wasn’t such a saint. Maybe she simply couldn’t have children of her own. She was making the best of a bad situation. After all, Mark obviously didn’t have a problem.

The need to protect rose up inside of him. The promise had been made more than twenty years ago, but he still felt the burning intensity of it.

He’d been eight when Katherine had taken him from the foster home. The latest foster home, because there were so many. She’d been patient through his clumsiness, his tantrums, his terrifying dreams. She’d taught him, praised him and gradually found her way into his heart. He still remembered everything about the afternoon she’d sat him down and had told him, if he wanted, he could stay with her forever.

He’d tried not to cry, because he was older and it wasn’t right for an eight-year-old boy to cry. Still, he hadn’t been able to help himself. She’d held him while he’d sobbed and had asked him to tell her what was wrong. He hadn’t. He didn’t want her to know what he remembered… how he was seeing his birth mother murdered in front of him. How he’d been terrified and alone and he hadn’t been able to save her.

When he’d realized what Katherine was willing to do for him, how much she loved him, he’d vowed he would protect her and the rest of her family, with his life, if necessary. No one would ever hurt her.

Yet here she was, in pain.

“There is a condition of my cooperation with Dani,” Katherine said, drawing him back to the present.

He raised his eyebrows. “That’s not like you.”

“I know. These are unusual circumstances.”

He thought about Dani, about their kiss the previous night. About how he wanted to do more. Was that the condition? Stay away from Mark’s daughter?

He knew Katherine would never interfere in his life that way, even if she did know he was interested. But there was a bigger problem. Him seeing Dani would hurt Katherine. She would see it as a betrayal; as if he’d chosen Mark over her. Which he hadn’t, but it made for an awkward situation.

“I want you to give Fiona another chance,” his mother said.

It had been a morning for remembering, Alex thought grimly. While recalling his early years with Katherine and Mark had been pleasant, not so with memories of his ex-wife. In a single moment of time, he’d become a clich?-a wronged husband who came home early and walked in on his wife fucking another man.

Not in their bed. That would have been too tame for Fiona, who always sought more sensation whenever possible. No, she and her companion had been naked on the dining room table-a wedding gift from Katherine’s cousin. An antique of some kind. He’d never paid much attention to things like that.

But the image of her naked legs wrapped around the other man’s hips, the auditory memory of her screaming for more, her long red hair spilling on to the wood, was locked in his brain forever.

He reached for his coffee. “It won’t be a condition. Fiona and I are finished. There’s no going back.”

“Why?” Katherine asked. “I know she loves you. You must still have feelings for her. You never talk about what happened. I realize you’re an adult and you’re no longer required to run to me with every problem you have, but I want to help. You were so good together.”

They looked good together, he thought cynically. There was the difference. They made a perfect couple-but that was only on the outside. On the inside, they were worlds apart.

“Trust me,” he said. “It’s long over. We’ve both moved on.”

“She hasn’t.”

Alex didn’t know what stories Fiona had told his mother and he didn’t care. He’d made the decision not to tell anyone the truth to save himself the embarrassment of admitting his wife had married him for money and position. She’d played him and he’d let himself be played.

The less painful half of the equation was that after throwing Fiona out, he hadn’t missed her as much as he thought he would. Apparently he hadn’t been in love with her. At least not at the end of the marriage. Or maybe he’d never loved her at all. Which wasn’t a fact that made him proud.

“You seem to have made up your mind,” Katherine said. “Are you going to tell me why?”

“No.” He softened the word with a light touch. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. I know you care about both of us. My marriage to Fiona is long over. There is nothing anyone can say or do to get us back together.”

“I’ve known you long enough to recognize that stubborn set of your jaw. All right. I’ll let it go. It makes me sad, though. I thought the two of you had something special.”

“I thought we did, too, but I was wrong.”

Alex left shortly before nine. Katherine watched him go. He was a good man and as much as she wanted to take credit for that, so much of who he was came from inside of him. She’d merely offered suggestions.

Sometimes she thought Mark could learn something from Alex, then she shook off the disloyal thought. She accepted Mark, flaws and all. Wanting him to be different would only make her unhappy and snarky, to quote Julie. No man wanted a snarky wife.

She heard footsteps in the hallway and looked up. Fiona stepped into the smaller of the two family dining rooms. She was perfectly dressed, but there was a faint puffiness around her eyes.

“What happened?” Katherine asked. “Are you all right?”

Fiona swallowed. “I’m sorry. I got here about a half hour ago. To finish with the menus. I wasn’t trying to listen in on your conversation with Alex. I didn’t even know he was here. I just…” Tears filled her eyes. “I heard what he said.”

Katherine rose and drew the other woman close. “Oh, Fiona. I’m so sorry.”

“I still love him. I’ve been hoping that we could work things out, but now…”

Katherine closed her eyes and absorbed the other woman’s pain. She knew exactly what she was going through. When Katherine had ended things with Mark all those years ago, she’d thought she would cue from missing him. Eventually her pain had pushed her to fly to Seattle and beg for a second chance.

“It’s over,” Fiona said dully.

Katherine stepped back and shook her head. “It’s only over if you stop trying. Alex is a good man. If you give up on him now, then you’re not the right one for him. Sometimes you have to love them through the rough spots. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Don’t give up hope, Fiona. I know you can get Alex back. I know it and I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

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