CHAPTER NINE

The dining room table at the Canfield house looked about a hundred years old. It was solid wood, with elegantly carved legs and space for twenty. But instead of a sophisticated dinner party, schoolbooks filled the surface.

Ian sat at one end, his wheelchair replacing a regular chair. He worked slowly, carefully recording his answers on a pad of paper. Bailey had a sheet of math problems in front of her. Trisha read a history book. Quinn practiced his writing, Oliver looked at a picture book while five-year-old Sasha colored.

“Controlled chaos,” Katherine said over the din of six children working and talking. “It’s like this all through the school year.”

“I’m impressed,” Dani said and meant it. “That they are all so willing to do their homework and that they do it together.”

“Sometimes Ian goes to his room when he has to concentrate.”

“It doesn’t happen often,” Ian said, without looking up from his paper. “I’m pretty smart.”

Katherine rolled her eyes. “I can see we need to have another conversation about grace and humility.”

He glanced up. His mouth twisted in what Dani had come to realize was a smile. “Hey,” he said. “It’s me. Isn’t that enough?”

Dani grinned. Ian looked at her and winked.

Dani walked to where Trish was reading her book. When she looked up, Dani carefully signed, “You like your class?” At least that’s what she hoped she signed. She wasn’t totally sure.

Trish stared at her for a second, then smiled and nodded while making a fist with her hand and rocking it up and down.

“That means yes,” Katherine said. “I didn’t know you signed.”

“I don’t,” Dani said hastily. “Please, don’t quiz me. I’ll fail. But I know Trish is deaf and I wanted to be able to communicate with her so I went online and looked up a few phrases. There’s an online dictionary that has video clips, so you can see how the signs are supposed to be done. I had trouble figuring them out from reading the description.”

Dani shrugged, suddenly feeling silly. “You probably knew that.”

“We have a CD-ROM dictionary that shows the signs. I agree, it makes it easier to understand the directions, especially on the more complicated signs.” She touched Trish’s shoulder. “She’s in a special program for deaf students where she’s learning to read lips and vocalize, as well as sign. We want her to be comfortable in both the hearing and the deaf world.”

“Makes sense,” Dani said.

“It’s complicated,” Katherine admitted. “There’s a big debate in the deaf world about keeping their culture strong, focusing on their language. I want to respect that, but I also want Trish to be able to be happy and successful. It’s something I can get passionate about, as can the deaf community. It makes for interesting debates.”

Oliver tugged on Dani’s hand. When she looked down, he handed her a large picture book. “Read, peas.”

“I would love to read you a story.” Dani glanced at Katherine. “If that’s all right?”

“Of course. I’ll start dinner.”

Dani felt her eyes widen. “You cook? Oh. Sorry. That came out wrong. I’m sure you can, but when do you find time? You’re so busy with your work and the children.”

Katherine laughed. “Don’t get excited. I rarely cook anything from scratch anymore. I have dinners delivered. They’re prepared and ready to be grilled or popped in the oven. If it’s a big party, I use a caterer. I still make soups and stews on weekends, when I have a free afternoon, which isn’t often. Okay, there’s a big overstuffed chair in the family room, assuming you don’t mind cuddling while you read.”

Dani smiled at Oliver. “I love cuddling.”

She took the book and his hand and let him lead her to the family room. It was a huge open space with a big television at one end and seating for twenty. Oliver pointed at a dark blue chair with a large, squishy ottoman.

Dani settled down, then lifted Oliver onto her lap. He wiggled until he was wedged between her and the side of the chair, then he put his head on her chest and sighed. Sasha walked over and stood by them.

“I want a story, too,” she said.

“Absolutely. You want to sit with me?”

Sasha nodded, then crawled over to Dani’s other side.

“‘Once upon a time there were two kitties named Callie and Jake. They were brother and sister and lived in a blue house with a green lawn. They liked to play in the sun and take long baths.’ That is a green lawn. I wish my lawn looked that good.”

Sasha giggled. “You need a gardener.”

“I probably do.”

Oliver, who was a few years older, but hampered by Down’s syndrome, pointed at the book. “Kitty,” he said.

Dani put an arm around each of them and continued reading. As she told the story of two cats welcoming a human baby into their home, she wondered at the heartbreak of having a child who would always have challenges. Would Bailey or Oliver ever get to live on their own, get married, grow old?

What about Quinn who looked like other children, but couldn’t learn as quickly? Or Ian, who was brilliant, but trapped in a body he couldn’t control?

The blessings of this family overwhelmed her, as did the potential for heartache.

When Dani finished the story, Oliver and Sasha ran off to play. Dani wandered into the kitchen to see if she could help.

“You were gracious enough to invite me to dinner,” she said. “I’m prepared to earn my place at the table.”

Katherine laughed. “Oh, but you work in a restaurant. How do I know you’re not going to silently mock my skills?”

“Never. I’m in management. I don’t do actual cooking.”

Katherine wore wool slacks and a blouse that was probably silk. With her hair pulled back and tasteful pearl earrings, she looked as if she’d just stepped out of the pages of Town & Country. Yet when Sasha came running in the kitchen, Katherine caught her easily and pulled her close for a hug.

“I could be very good if I had a cookie,” the little girl said.

“I’m sure you can be very good without a cookie. Dinner’s in less than an hour.”

Sasha sniffed. “That’s a very long time and I’m very hungry.”

“I suspect you’ll survive.”

Sasha glanced at Dani. “Do you want to give me a cookie?”

Dani shook her head.

Sasha sighed heavily and left.

Katherine picked up the knife she’d been using to slice broccoli. “She’s in a ‘very’ stage right now. Everything is very something. She’s so dramatic. I won’t be surprised if she ends up on the stage.” She glanced at Dani. “You know Sasha is HIV positive.”

Dani nodded.

“You’re not afraid to touch her? You had her on your lap while you were reading.”

Dani had the sense of being tested. “No. I’m not concerned.”

“People have a lot of misconceptions about HIV.”

“Among other things,” Dani said quietly. “You must deal with it all the time.”

“I do. A lot of people think I chose these children I because they have problems. That’s not true. I chose these children because they touched my heart.”

Dani understood how that could happen. They were already making inroads into her heart.

She’d put off thinking about children when she and Hugh were first married. Taking care of him had been all she could handle. Eventually, he’d become more autonomous, so she’d explored different options, including in vitro fertilization. Then Hugh had said he wanted a divorce and it had all hit the fan. Now, for the first time in her life, Dani understood what people were talking about when they mentioned a biological clock. There was some serious ticking going on with hers.

“Alex mentioned the charity event to me,” she said. “I’m sorry you have to deal with me in public.”

“Don’t be,” Katherine told her. “We’ll be fine.”

“I’ve never done anything like that. Spoken in public, been to a fancy charity.”

“It sounds worse than it is,” Katherine said with a smile. “I’m thinking we’ll go to a luncheon. It’s more low-key. As for speaking, one of Mark’s people will prepare a few remarks and go over them with you. We’re talking ten minutes, tops.”

Ten minutes sounded like a lifetime to Dani. “Great,” she murmured, wondering what the headline would be when she projectile vomited halfway through her speech.

“You’ll be fine. I’ll help. When it gets closer we can talk about what you should wear and how to make sure you don’t have anything in your teeth when you smile for pictures.”

Dani felt both pleased and awkward. “You didn’t have to do any of this. You could have thrown me out of your home. Instead you’ve made me feel welcome.”

“You’re Mark’s daughter, Dani. That means something to me.”

“You’re an amazing woman.”

Katherine laughed. “How I wish that were true. I’m just like everyone else, trying to get through the day.”

Dani doubted that. Katherine was class. Dani didn’t think she could have been as kind if the situations were reversed.

“Who knows,” Katherine said as she scooped the broccoli into a steamer. “You may find you enjoy the charity work. Some women find it very satisfying. I do, as does Fiona. You met her, didn’t you? Alex’s wife.”

Dani’s insides went cold. “His wife? I thought…”

“They’re divorced,” Katherine admitted as she poured water into a pot. “I don’t know what’s going on. Honestly, Alex won’t talk to me about specifics. Fiona is devastated. I’ve asked him to rethink his decision. I’m getting through to him, at least that’s what I tell myself.”

Dani didn’t know what to say. When Fiona had gone on about being a member of the Canfield family, Dani had thought it was just cheap talk. Now she wasn’t so sure.

But Alex had kissed her, Dani reminded herself. He wasn’t the kind of man to play around, was he?

She swore silently. Not again, she told herself. She would not be played again. So how to be sure?

“Marriage is difficult,” she murmured, because a reply seemed expected.

“I agree. I’ve told Alex it’s important to take the time they both need to be sure. As it is, we’re hopeful.”

Hopeful. Fiona had used the same word. Did that mean anything? Was Dani looking for trouble where there wasn’t any or was the truth staring her in the face? Was Alex too good to be true?

***

Gloria put her feet up on the coffee table and pointed the remote control at the television. “It’s unrated. But as it is a political interview, I doubt we have to worry about graphic violence and sexual situations,” she said as she pushed Play.

The video started.

Dani took a handful of popcorn from the large bowl between them. “If there is graphic sex involving my biological father, I’m so out of here. That’s not an image I want planted in my brain.”

“I doubt the junior senator from Washington interviewed naked. Although if he looked good in a thong, that could help his campaign.”

Dani didn’t know if she should laugh or be shocked. “Gloria Buchanan, I can’t believe you said that.”

“Why shouldn’t I appreciate a handsome man in a thong? I’m not dead. At least not yet.”

“Still, it’s borderline icky.”

“So I’m supposed to go blind as well as break my hip?”

“No, but let’s not talk about thongs.”

Gloria winked. “I’ll only sin in my heart.”

“A good place for it.”

Dani ate the popcorn. Six months ago she never would have believed that she could have enjoyed living with Gloria. Six weeks ago it would have been a stretch. But here she was, in her house and feeling perfectly comfortable. It was a miracle.

“Our interview tonight is with Senator Mark Canfield. The senator is considering a run for president, although a recent revelation about an illegitimate child might present a challenge to the campaign.”

Dani grabbed another handful of popcorn. “I never thought of myself as illegitimate. How Victorian.”

“You have a father listed on your birth certificate.” Gloria told her. “You’re fine.”

“So reality doesn’t matter? It’s all about perception?”

“Naturally. You should already know that.”

Dani had a good sense of it. She turned her attention back to the interview.

Mark let the other man talk himself down, then began to calmly explain how a member of the media used a puppy to get a child with Down’s syndrome to betray a family secret.

He was good, speaking slowly, conversationally, painting a vivid picture of a pretty little girl who could never really understand the harsh cruelty of the world. Mark made Alex’s intervention sound like a knight riding to the rescue, and the discovery that Dani was his long-lost daughter a miracle.

“He’s good,” she said when she’d chewed and swallowed. “Better than good.”

“He’s a professional. What did you expect?”

Dani wasn’t sure. “The smoothness is off-putting,” she admitted. “Sometimes he doesn’t seem fully human.”

“Don’t judge him because he’s good at his job,” Gloria told her.

“Why couldn’t he be a plumber or a math teacher?”

“Life isn’t that convenient.”

“Whose decision was that?” Dani reached for more popcorn. “I can’t figure Mark out. I can’t figure any of them out. They’re living in a world I don’t understand.

“Don’t be sorry you met him,” Gloria told her. “He’s your father. It hasn’t been very long. Give both of you a little more time. It will get easier.”

“I hope you’re right,” Dani said. “Sometimes I think I should just disappear. That if I stay around, we’re all headed for a massive disaster. What if I’m the reason he’s not elected president?”

“Don’t be a quitter. You have nothing to do with the election.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Neither do you. I like a good worry as much as the next person, but give this one a little time off. You can always come back to it later if you need to.”

“How rational,” Dani murmured, not feeling very rational at the moment. Still, her grandmother was right. Dani couldn’t be sure her presence had done any harm. After all, she was tracking well. She would just wait and see how it all played out. What’s the worst that could happen?

***

Katherine finished putting night cream on her face, then pulled off the scrunchie that held her hair back. She looked up and saw Mark getting undressed in their walk-in closet.

As always, the sight of him thrilled her and watching him take off his clothes made her want to make love to him. Instantly her mind filled with images of them naked, touching, kissing. Her body tightened.

So many of her friends talked about sex being a chore, something to get through so they could get to sleep, but it wasn’t that way for her. She wanted Mark as much today as she had when they’d first been together. She had a feeling they could be eighty and toothless and he would still turn her on.

She walked to the doorway of the closet. “I talked to Dani about both of us appearing at the charity event. She’s a little nervous, but I think she’ll do well.”

“Good,” he said, not even looking at her. “Is my black pinstripe suit at the cleaners?”

An innocent question that brought tears to her eyes. “That’s it?” she asked. “All you can say is good? Don’t you have any idea of how this is hurting me? Don’t you know that I’m devastated by her presence and what it means?”

He frowned. “What do you want me to say?”

That he would love her forever. That she was the most important part of his life. That he’d never loved anyone but her. Words he would never speak.

She turned away. “It doesn’t matter,” she whispered, knowing this was a battle she could never win. Mark would never love her as much as she loved him. He would never want her the same way. She’d tried to make peace with that truth for years. Tried and failed.

“It does matter.” He moved close behind her and put his hand on her shoulder. “You matter. I don’t know what to say. Katherine, you’re the one who broke off our engagement all those years ago. You’re the one who dumped me. You sent me away.”

She nodded, because it was true. Still tears burned in her eyes. “You weren’t supposed to fall in love with someone else. You were supposed to miss me.”

“I did miss you.”

“Not enough to keep from having an affair with that woman. I was devastated, Mark.” She turned to face him. “I couldn’t stand the thought of telling you I couldn’t have children. Rather than see your pity or watch you walk away, I let you go. But I never stopped loving you. That’s why I came back. That’s why I flew out here and begged for a second chance. Do you know how hard it was to tell you I couldn’t have children?”

He took her hands in his, his blue eyes dark with confusion. “And I was fine with it. I said it didn’t matter and it didn’t. I loved you, Katherine. I still do.”

“But you loved her, too.”

“It’s over.”

Was it?

She pulled away and walked into the bedroom. The questions haunted her. Why had Mark really married her? He’d been ambitious and she’d been rich. Until she’d known about Marsha, she’d assumed he’d really missed her. Now she knew he’d easily moved on and had gotten involved with someone else in a matter of days. That simple fact changed everything.

What would have happened if Marsha hadn’t ended things? Would Mark have been willing to come back to her, Katherine, then? She would never know.

He came up behind her and drew her against him. “I hate to see you hurting.”

“I’m fine,” she lied.

He turned her until she faced him, then put one hand on the back of her neck and kissed her.

She had a feeling he was trying to distract her. She willed herself to be strong, but it was impossible. She’d never been able to be strong where he was concerned. The second his mouth touched hers, all she wanted was to surrender. Wanting overwhelmed her and she gave herself over to the man and how he made her feel. The pain would still be there in the morning, but for now, this was enough.

***

Alex knew it was going to be a long day when the only nonlawyer in the meeting was his father.

Peter Aaron flipped through the folder in front of him. “We have some time before the charges are filed. If we talk to the D.A., we’ll find out what they’re planning.”

“They’re planning a circus,” Mark grumbled. “This is all political. They want to hurt the campaign. The damn press.”

“There are a lot of ways this can play out,” Pete said. “We need a few details before we can come up with a game plan. The partners are very interested in the outcome of all of this.”

Alex kept his expression neutral and calm, but on the inside, he wanted to throw something. Or hit something, which is what had gotten him in trouble in the first place. He didn’t usually have trouble controlling his temper, but when he’d decked the reporter, something inside him had snapped.

He hated all this. He hated that there was no good outcome for him, with the exception of the charges simply going away and that wasn’t going to happen. However this fell, he was screwed.

Pete Aaron was a partner in Alex’s law firm. He was working Alex’s case for only one reason and that was Mark’s bid for the presidency. If Mark was elected, then Alex would have a place at the White House and the firm would benefit. If Mark didn’t run, or wasn’t elected, Alex had a feeling he could kiss his corporate law career goodbye.

What frustrated him the most was that it didn’t matter why he’d hit the guy. No one wanted to talk about an asshole using a kid to get private information. Oh, sure, it would come out at the trial, but now it was simply incidental.

The other two lawyers talked, with Mark adding a few comments but he, Alex, didn’t listen. They were coming up with a plan and it would be his job to go along with it. After all, there was a presidency at stake.

He thought about the hurt in Bailey’s eyes when she realized she’d done something wrong and knew that given the same set of circumstances, he would do it all again, regardless of the outcome.

He studied his father. Mark loved the political arena. If he won, they were all going to be in it for a long, long time.

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