CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Dani curled up in the corner of the sofa, Gloria holding her and rocking her back and forth.

Everything hurt. She could barely breathe because the sobs were too harsh and frequent. She felt as if she’d been beat up and left for roadkill, only this was worse. She’d done it to herself.

“I trusted him,” she cried. “I t-trusted him. I know better. They’re all bastards. Every one of them. I thought he was different. I thought he was better than Ryan or Hugh, but he’s not.”

Gloria smoothed her hair. “Shh. It will be all right.”

“Will it? Really? Can you know that?”

“I know you’re too strong to let this setback break you.”

Dani tried to laugh, but the sound that came out was more of a gargle. “I don’t think so. I feel completely broken. Worse. I feel shattered. I can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep leading with my heart only to have it stomped on.”

She grabbed a handful of tissues and blew her nose, then began to cry again.

There was a huge open wound right in the middle of her chest. She wondered if her very essence was going to spill out onto the rug and evaporate. She was hurt on a level that was past anger. She’d believed in Alex. That’s what really killed her. She’d totally believed in him.

“He said all the right things ” Dani said. “Like Ryan, only better because they weren’t about me. He always talked about his family and being so damn loyal. Like he was this incredible guy.”

“You don’t know that he’s not.”

“He cheated on me with his ex-wife after telling me this whole story about how she’d cheated on him. We bonded over slimy ex-spouses.”

“So why would he say all that if he was really still sleeping with her?”

“To suck me in.”

Gloria smiled sadly and touched her cheek. “That’s a complex plan, Dani. Do you really think you’re worth all that?”

Despite everything, Dani laughed. Then she collapsed in her grandmother’s arms and began to cry again.

“She’s having his baby. I saw the picture. I saw her stomach.”

“Maybe she has gas.”

The sob-giggle combined into a snort. “Women like Fiona do not have gas.”

“Everyone has gas. You don’t know she’s pregnant and if she is, you don’t know it’s really Alex’s baby. Fiona has an agenda. You said she wanted Alex back. Getting her competition out of the way is going to make that go more smoothly.”

“Maybe,” Dani said, unwilling to give Alex the benefit of the doubt.

“Someone else could be the father.”

Based on how beautiful Fiona was, Dani was willing to bet there would be thousands of volunteers.

“I don’t know what to think,” she admitted. “I want to believe it’s all a game she’s playing, but she knew stuff about the house. Specific stuff and he said she’d never been there. So he has to have lied about that.”

“I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for how she knows that.”

Dani sniffed. “You’re taking his side. That’s not allowed.”

“I’m trying to help you see that you don’t have all the facts. If it turns out he’s betrayed you, then I’ll have Walker hire some mercenary type to grind him into dust.”

There was a fierceness in Gloria’s voice that made Dani feel safe and loved. It was no match for the ache inside, but it helped a little.

“I like that plan,” Dani admitted.

“So we’re in agreement. In the meantime, you need more information. You have to talk to Alex.”

“Not today,” Dani said. She’d barely gotten through her shift at Bella Roma before escaping to Gloria’s house where she’d collapsed. “Not for a long time.”

“Eventually.”

“Maybe.”

Dani wiped her face and wondered how she would get over this if Alex was the cheat she suspected. Were there really no good men out there or was she just cursed to never find one of her own?

***

Alex waited until everyone had left the meeting. Mark picked up the phone in his office, then glanced at Alex. “Did you want something else?”

“I want to talk about how you got the charges against me dropped.”

Mark shook his head. “There’s no need to thank me. I was happy to do it.” He looked at his watch. “I need to make this call.”

Alex ignored that. “I’m not here to thank you. I’m here to ask you what the hell you think you were doing, messing in my life? You didn’t even have the courtesy to talk to me first. You just fixed everything. Like that was the right thing to do.”

His father straightened in his chair. “You could show a little gratitude. If you’d been charged, you would have had to leave the campaign. Your old law firm wouldn’t have wanted you back, so what would you have done? If you’d been convicted, the likelihood of you ever practicing law again would have been close to zero. I saved you, Alex. Don’t forget that.”

“I wanted to handle things myself.”

“Give me a break. How were you going to do that?”

“By working through the system.”

“The system? The only system that matters is the one we control. You’re acting like a child. Did you want to go to jail?”

“If necessary,” Alex said, determined to keep his temper. He knew Mark’s style well enough to recognize the technique of trying to make his opponent feel foolish enough to walk away without finishing the discussion. Alex wasn’t going to be sidetracked. “I want to do the right thing.”

Mark stood and walked around his desk. “The right thing is for you to live up to your potential. You have an outstanding career and why should some pissant reporter get to screw that up? Did I make a few calls? You bet. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. You’re so big on family loyalty and protecting those you care about. So am I, and that’s what I did. I protected you.”

Alex stood. “You got involved in a legal matter that didn’t concern you. You used your position to influence a district attorney. Doesn’t that bother you? Because it sure as hell bothers me.”

Mark leaned against his desk. “I keep forgetting how idealistic you are. Look around. This isn’t an intellectual discussion in some Ivy League law classroom. This is the real world. Do you know why you’re on my campaign right now? On my staff? Because your law firm wants you to be here. They let you go because they’re hoping I’ll win the election. Then they’ll have a connection to the White House. You know it and I know it. All of life is politics, son. It’s a reality and you have to accept that.”

“Political reality has to stop somewhere.”

“Why?” Mark asked, sounding genuinely confused. “Why does it stop anywhere?”

Alex got it then. He’d never seen his father before-not as he really was. Mark wasn’t evil or power-hungry. He simply saw the world in the way that made his life easier.

He thought of Katherine, who lived her life doing the right thing-not only because it was expected but because doing the right thing defined her. Yet she loved Mark with every fiber of her being. How did she reconcile the two?

If she were here now, she would tell him that loving someone meant accepting them as they were-good points and faults. He could love his father, but accept the faults? That was going to be tougher.

He had two choices. He could accept what had happened, or he could walk away. His gut told him to walk. That he wasn’t the man to be a part of that.

But his heart remembered standing next to his birth mother’s dead body, sobbing because he hadn’t been able to save her. His heart remembered his vow to be loyal, no matter what. That if he ever found a family again, he would stand with them, protect them and never walk away. His heart remembered Katherine teaching him that duty was everything.

He didn’t have a choice. He would stay, because it was the right thing to do.

***

Dani didn’t even know which channels carried political shows on Sunday morning, but she flipped through the national networks until she saw men and women in suits looking serious. Then she poured herself a cup of coffee and prepared to become informed about the American political scene.

She’d never been interested before, but then she’d never had a parent running for national office before, either. Better late than never and all that. At least she always voted.

She sipped the coffee and listened to the guests talk about the latest crisis in the Middle East. Her mind wandered, probably because she was so tired. She hadn’t been able to sleep in four days. Not since she’d spoken with Fiona.

Dani had been dodging Alex’s calls-something she couldn’t do forever. But she didn’t know what to say to him. Part of her was afraid of the confrontation because it would be ugly, but mostly she didn’t want to hear him admit that yes, he was a bastard and she’d been fooled yet again. Until there was confirmation, she was weak enough to want to believe the best of him.

“Shame on me,” she murmured into the quiet of the room, as the show shifted into a commercial break. “I need to be stronger than this.”

And she would be. In time. Wasn’t she allowed a little weakness, at least in the short term?

The show resumed with a shift in topic. She saw a picture of Mark Canfield and turned up the sound.

“While the presidential election is nearly eighteen months away,” the host said, “already things are heating up in the state of Washington. Bill?”

The camera panned to one of the other men in suits. “It’s true. Senator Canfield, always a voter favorite, is facing a unique and uncomfortable situation. Trouble in his own home. Nearly two months ago we learned about his daughter from a previous relationship.”

Dani nearly dropped her coffee when her own picture flashed onto the TV screen. She swore.

“Danielle Buchanan arrived unexpectedly and turned around the whole campaign. The senator was up-front with the public and the poll numbers showed the American people respected his honesty. Experts believe the main reason for that is the senator’s wife, Katherine Canfield. She’s seen as the perfect wife and mother. She has embraced Dani, both literally and figuratively. If the wife can forgive the husband, then the nation can, too.”

“It didn’t work for Hillary,” one of the other guests said.

“Different situation,” Bill went on. “The senator’s relationship with Dani’s mother predates his marriage. But while the numbers were climbing, they’ve taken a sudden downswing in the past couple of weeks, ever since the public discovered that Dani and the senator’s oldest son-who is adopted-have formed a romantic relationship.”

Dani knew what was coming and braced herself to see that horrible picture of her driving away from Alex’s house. Sure enough it was put up in a corner.

“The problem is,” Bill said, “the American people have a limit to what they can tolerate and they’re not willing to accept the love child of a presidential candidate dating his adoptive son.”

“But they’re not related,” the host said.

“That doesn’t seem to matter to the polls. The senator’s numbers have been dropping steadily. If this continues, there’s not going to be a Canfield bid for the presidency. The campaign will be over before it even begins.”

***

“Your young man is here,” Bernie told Dani the following day shortly after two. “Go on. I’ll finish up here.”

Dani’s stomach tightened with dread. “No, it’s okay. I’ll tell him I can’t see him now. I want to work my whole shift.”

Bernie grinned. “I just said ‘your young man.’ Now I’m talking like my mother. I need work to distract me. Go. It’s fine.”

Trapped by a kind man with good intentions, Dani nodded, then walked through the main dining room of Bella Roma.

The lunch crowd had faded to only a few diners. She easily saw Alex standing by the front door. He didn’t look happy.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” he said as she approached.

She hadn’t seen him in nearly a week. Despite everything, she found herself wanting to step close and have him hold her. She wanted to feel his arms around her and breathe in the scent of his body. She wanted to kiss and be kissed and have all the bad stuff go away. Which only showed that she was spineless, weak and in need of a feminist intervention.

“I haven’t known what to say,” she admitted, then nodded toward the back. “We can talk in my office.”

He frowned. “So there’s a problem.”

“Let’s talk in private.”

He followed her into the small, crowded space. There was a desk, a file cabinet and not much extra room. Especially with them both standing.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “You haven’t returned any of my calls. I went by your grandmother’s place this weekend and she said you were out of town.”

She’d hated to ask Gloria to lie for her, but she hadn’t been ready to face Alex yet. She still wasn’t

“I’m not ready to deal with this,” she admitted.

“Deal with what? What are you talking about? Dammit, Dani, why are you avoiding me?”

“Because I don’t want to see you,” she snapped back. “Can I make it more plain than that? I don’t want to see you.”

He stiffened as if she’d slapped him. “All right. You going to tell me why?”

She couldn’t. She couldn’t say the words without crying and she refused to break down in front of him. She turned away.

“Just go,” she said softly. “It will be easier that way.”

He grabbed her by the arm and turned her to face him. “Maybe I’m not interested in easy. Maybe I want the truth.”

“You want bullshit, because that’s where you live,” she snapped.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

His eyes were the color of a midnight sky. She hated that she could be angry and hurt and still notice that.

He swore then and crossed his arms over his chest. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “I expected better of you.”

“What?”

“You saw the shows on Sunday. You’ve been reading the papers. You know the numbers are falling and you’re running away, just like you said you would. You’re taking the easy way out. I never thought you’d get political so fast.”

She went from sad to furious in two nanoseconds. “Welcome to my world of disappointment. That’s what I’ve been thinking about you. For starters, I haven’t gone political, but how kind of you to judge me. As for why I’ve been avoiding you, here’s the reason. I’m tired of lying, cheating, rat bastard men in my life, of which you are apparently the latest in a long chain. You talk a great game. You played me like a pro. Congrats on that, by the way. You make Ryan look like an amateur.”

He dropped his arms to his side. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Drop the act. I’ve talked to Fiona. I know the truth.”

“What truth? There’s no truth.”

“Right. You’re a lawyer. Everything is relative. If that works for you, great. But it doesn’t work for me. How incredibly pedestrian of me to expect the man I’m sleeping with to sleep with only me. I suppose you can get out of it on a technicality. We never had the ‘it’s exclusive’ conversation. My bad. No, wait. Your bad. You’re a disgusting person. I’m sorry I got to know you, I’m sorry I slept with you and I can’t tell you how much I regret that because Mark’s my father, I can’t just walk away from you and never see you again.”

He took a step toward her. “You think I’m seeing someone else?”

“I know you are. Fiona. She told me. Are you excited about the baby?”

He stiffened and looked stunned. “She’s pregnant?”

Dani stared at him. “She didn’t tell you? Gee, I spoiled the surprise. Yes, Alex. You’re going to be a daddy. In the end you get everything.”

“I’m not sleeping with Fiona,” he said, but he sounded distracted.

“That’s convincing. Look, you don’t have to play the game. She told me everything. It’s obvious she’s been in your house and in your bed. I’m too tired to keep fighting this battle. I give up. I’m so over men. I thought you were special. Better… But you’re not.”

“I don’t deserve that. I haven’t done anything.”

“Let me guess. You’re sorry I had to find out this way.”

His gaze narrowed. “If that’s really what you think of me, then we have nothing to talk about.”

“Didn’t I tell you that when you first walked in?”

He stared at her for a long time. She braced herself for the apologies, the explanations. She desperately wanted him to prove her wrong. That’s how gone on him she was. She wanted him not to have cheated so they could be together again. Talk about sad.

But in the end he didn’t say anything else. He walked away and never looked back.

***

It was the worst possible time to be practicing a speech she didn’t want to give, but Dani couldn’t come up with a good excuse for changing her appointment with Katherine. It was only after she’d parked and walked to the front of the house that she realized she could have simply phoned and said she wasn’t feeling well.

Apparently, along with her heart, she’d also lost her brain.

The thought flashed in and out of her head so quickly that it took her a second to understand its meaning. When that sank in, she slowed, then stopped, right in the middle of the walkway.

She’d lost her heart? Was that possible? Did she love Alex?

She stood there, waiting for the answer to the question, then realized she already knew the truth. Of course she loved Alex. Not loving him would have made what he’d done so much easier to take.

“The hits just keep on coming,” she murmured to herself, then continued up the wide path to the front door.

All she’d ever wanted was to find where she belonged. Instead she’d made a mess of everything.

As she knocked, she did her best to clear her head. She had to focus on her meeting with Katherine. She would deal with Alex-pain when she got home.

“Dani!” Katherine opened the door and smiled. “Come in, come in. Are you nervous yet? I hope not. You’re going to do great and I’m going to be able to say I knew you when.”

Dani stepped into the large house and instantly felt the welcoming warmth reaching out to comfort her. Katherine was lovely and gracious as always.

“I’m trying not to think about the speech,” she admitted as she followed Katherine into her office. “When I let myself go there, I feel like I’m going to throw up. It’s not pretty.”

“Vomiting rarely is. Can I get you something? Coffee? Soda? Water?”

“I’ll take a water.”

Katherine walked to an antique chest which opened up to reveal a small refrigerator. “One of my indulgences,” she admitted as she removed two bottles of water. “When I get working on a project, I hate to break my concentration. I’m terribly spoiled.”

“You’re great,” Dani said and instantly felt stupid. As if she was babbling around someone she admired. Which she kind of was.

“Thank you,” Katherine said..”You’re very kind.” She pointed to the folder on the coffee table. “There it is. The infamous speech.”

Dani held in a groan. She picked up the folder and flipped through the pages. There were only five of them, double-spaced. The opening told a story of a working single mother who found out she had stage four breast cancer and her quest to find the right family to take her children.

Maybe it was the placement of the moon or the fact that she was due to get her period in three days or the hellish trauma she’d been suffering, but Dani found herself suddenly fighting the need to cry.

She sank onto the sofa as she struggled to keep from bursting into tears. Breathing slowly didn’t help, nor did swallowing or thinking about something else.

Katherine moved closer. “Dani? Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. It’s just stress.” She blinked several times and tried to smile. “Sorry. I won’t be like this when I give the speech. I’ll be too frightened.”

Katherine handed her a box of tissues. “Don’t apologize. You feel what you feel. Is there anything I can do?”

It was a simple question, but the kindness in the other woman’s voice was too much. One tear escaped, then another. Dani did her best to hang on to the little dignity she had left.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I’m, ah, dealing with a lot right now. Not that I need to tell you. You have your own issues. I’ve made things worse. I know that. I didn’t mean to. I really admire you and I’m so sorry I’ve screwed up your life.”

Katherine sat down next to her. “You haven’t screwed up my life.”

“How about challenges?” Dani asked with a sniff. “I’ve brought those along. You don’t deserve that.”

“You haven’t done anything. We’re all fine.”

“I never wanted to hurt you.”

Katherine’s mouth tightened. “I’m not hurt.”

She was lying, but Dani understood that. Under the circumstances, why would Katherine trust her with the truth?

“I’ve made a mess of everything,” Dani said. “Without even trying. Imagine what I could have done if I’d been working at it.”

“What mess?” Katherine asked.

“The poll numbers. I was watching one of those political shows on Sunday and they said the poll numbers were down because of me and Alex. They said the Canfield campaign was already over.”

Katherine patted her arm. “You can’t believe everything you hear. Of course the campaign is going forward. If this is the worst of it, then Mark will win by a three-quarter majority. Poll numbers go down, then they go up. This week it’s you. Next week it will be something else.”

She sounded so calm. So confident. Was it really that simple?

“I haven’t damaged Mark’s chances?”

“Never.”

“Okay.” Dani wiped her face. “That’s good.” She straightened and patted her cheeks. “I’m healed. At least for now. Do I look scary?”

“You look fine.”

“Thanks. I want you to know I didn’t mean for any of this to upset you. For what it’s worth, I won’t be seeing Alex anymore.”

Katherine tried not to react to the news. Despite everything, she’d found herself liking Dani. The young woman seemed sincere and Katherine had always been a sucker for anyone suffering.

As for Dani and Alex not seeing each other, she tried not to be happy about it, but relief flooded her. If they weren’t together then maybe Katherine wouldn’t get so many questions about them all the time. She was tired of the questions and the humiliation those questions brought.

There was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” Katherine called.

Bailey walked into the room. “Dani! I heard you were here.”

Dani smiled at the teenager. “I am. How are you? Do you still love your shoes?”

“More than anything.”

Katherine drank her water and tried to be mature. It didn’t matter that Dani had taken Bailey shopping for high heels. Honestly, she, Katherine, had never thought to make the offer. It was good for Bailey to get out with other people-people who weren’t family-and experience the world. She was fine with it.

Okay, maybe there had been a tiny twinge that she hadn’t been the one to share that experience with her daughter, but she would get over it.

“I have a dance,” Bailey said. “For school. It’s the night of my birthday and I get to wear a beautiful dress.”

“Lucky you,” Dani said. “I’ll want to see pictures.”

Bailey sank onto the floor and grabbed Dani’s hands. “Will you please take me shopping for my dress? I want you to help me find it. Please?”

The words cut through Katherine like a laser.

She ‘d wanted to be the one to go shopping with Bailey. She’d wanted to be the one making those memories. Although she and her daughter had never talked specifics, she’d assumed she would be the one going with her.

Jealousy burned hot and bright, making her want to attack the woman responsible for this situation.

“Bailey, I’d really like that” Dani said, sounding as if she meant it. Which she probably did. “Katherine, would that be all right with you?”

Katherine knew her jealousy was misplaced and that she was acting like a child. The lessons she’d learned from her mother came back to her. Always be calm, no matter what she was feeling inside. Always do the right thing, the proper thing.

“Of course. You’re so sweet to take her. I know Bailey will have a wonderful time.”

It hurt to speak the words. It hurt to smile. She wanted to hiss and scratch like a cornered cat.

Bailey sprang to her feet, then hugged them both. “I can’t wait! I can’t wait!” She spun in a circle, her hands in the air, her face bright with pleasure.

Katherine looked at her daughter and tried to find happiness in the moment. She just couldn’t. She wasn’t that big of a person.

When Bailey left, Dani sighed. “She’s so great. I adore her.”

“Me, too,” Katherine said, doing her best to keep the sharpness out of her voice.

“Thanks for letting me take her shopping.”

“It’s not a problem. Now what were we talking about?”

Dani’s face shifted until she looked as if she’d lost everything. “Alex,” she murmured. “That we won’t be seeing each other anymore.”

“I see,” Katherine said. “What changed your mind? The poll numbers?”

She should point out to Dani that she couldn’t let other people’s opinions run her life. That was the right thing to do. But before she could decide if she was that mature or not, Dani said, “No, it’s not the poll numbers. Alex accused me of that, too.”

“Really?”

Dani nodded. Her eyes were dark and filled with pain. “I’m sorry about the numbers, but that’s not the reason. He thought I was running away. To make things easier.”

“You’re not?”

“No.” Dani swallowed. “I think…I think he might still be seeing Fiona. She came to talk to me and she made a really good case for that.”

Katherine could feel Dani’s pain. The other woman looked at her.

“You know them both. Is it possible? Could Alex still be seeing Fiona?”

It was like an out-of-body experience, Katherine thought as she seemed to stare down at the room. She could see herself sitting on the sofa. So perfect, she thought, taking in the cashmere sweater, the pearls. She was a clich?. A clich? whose life had been turned upside down by the proof that her husband could father children when she couldn’t have them herself.

She argued that it wasn’t Dani’s fault. That she hadn’t knowingly brought this humiliation to Katherine. That the fact that she and Bailey got along was a good thing. She could hear her mother’s voice telling her to always be a lady.

Screw that, she thought bitterly. For once she was going to do exactly what she wanted to do. What felt right and would make her hurt a little less.

She looked at Dani and lied. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I do think it’s very possible Alex and Fiona are seeing each other.”

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