SEVEN

Virgil was tired of lying around on his back like a dead fish. The hospital room smelled like day-old cabbage, and none of the nurses were attractive enough to serve as a distraction. He wanted to rip the damn tubes out of his veins, get the hell out of there, and get to his studio. For the first time in years, his hands were itching to do real work, substantial work. Funny how the rest of his body had chosen this particular time to break down.

He tried to get comfortable by turning on his left side, which didn’t work because the hospital bed was as snug as a slab of marble. He tried to remember the last time he’d spent the night anywhere other than his own bed. It wasn’t when BettyAnn was sick. That he knew. Even at the end, when everyone knew she was dying, he’d get in the car and go home at night. That meant it had to have been all the way back in his New York days, when it wasn’t uncommon for him to spend his evenings in an acid-induced fog looking for trouble and women, which, now that he thought about it, was redundant.

Virgil grunted, pulling at an IV line that he’d somehow managed to twist around his butt. Life was strange. One bad acid trip and he ended up taking a temporary teaching post at a no-name college in Appalachia. He only wanted to lie low until the police stopped nosing around. It wasn’t his fault that that girl had decided she could fly and chose his fourth-story window as her launching pad.

Virgil coughed. His chest was sore.

As fate would have it, he met BettyAnn his first week in Persuasiona pretty, soft-spoken girl with a big problem and not a lick of sense. It didn’t take him long to see that just paying attention to her made her follow him around like a puppy. She’d worshipped him. And why not? He was a sophisticated visiting art instructor, older than her and famous by Persuasion’s standardsone of his sculptures had been featured in /Life/ magazine! BettyAnn was so grateful he’d married her that she did everything he told her to. She was a good girl. Sure, they’d had their rough patches, but it had been a marriage that workedshe got what she needed and he got what he wanted, which was something most people couldn’t say about their blessed unions.

Virgil was just about to buzz for the nurse when the esteemed Dr.

Bohland strolled through the doorway. Virgil studied him, noting how much he’d aged in the year since he’d cared for BettyAnn.

Good morning, Virgil.

Nothin’ good about it.

As his doctor flipped through his chart, Virgil decided that Riley Bohland had grown into a refined version of his daddy, with more smarts and less brawn. It was the younger Bohland kid who’d turned out to be a carbon copy of Aidana charming good ole boy who thought his last name gave him the right to tell people what to do with their lives.

Has the cardiologist seen you?

Of course not. I was simply thrown in here and left to rot. You people just want me for my insurance money.

Riley clipped the chart back to the foot of the bed and sighed. Maybe we just enjoy the pleasure of your company.

Virgil narrowed his eyes. Riley had a silly grin on his face. It had something to do with Kat; he could smell it. He sometimes wondered what would have happened with Kat and Riley if she hadn’t run away. Probably nothing good.

Did you know Kat was coming to town?

Riley flinched ever so slightly at the question, then put the stethoscope in his ears and leaned close to Virgil. Nope. Please hold still for a moment.

It felt like an eternity, but Virgil did what he was told, waiting patiently as Riley pressed the cold metal disc onto his skin and asked him to take a deep breath.

Anything? Virgil asked.

I’m definitely hearing some irregularities. Dr. Zhou will be in to see you shortly, and you’ll be in excellent hands.

Virgil grunted. He sounds like another damn foreigner.

She’s originally from China.

A woman /and/ a foreigner? Jesus! I’ve hit the jackpot.

She trained at WVU, same as me.

Peking, Persuasionit’s all the same nowadays, anyway, right? Virgil tried to adjust the pillows behind his back so he could sit more comfortably. This hospital looks like it’s run by the UN. My nurse is from the Philippines. You must be the last American doctor in this state.

Riley smiled slightly at that. Not hardly. I’ll be back to see you this evening.

Hold on a damn minute.

Riley turned, not bothering to hide the fact that this conversation apparently required every bit of patience he possessed.

I never liked your family much, Bohland.

Riley shoved his hands in the pockets in his chinos and said nothing.

But you were a good doctor to BettyAnn and I want to thank you for that.

Riley looked shocked. You’re welcome.

She always said good things about you. She liked you for some reason.

I’m glad.

Now, I never got around to asking you this, but what was it my wife said before she died, when she shooed me out of the room that day? Was it a medical question?

Riley frowned. I’m afraid I can’t say, Virgil.

His face went hot with anger. Why the hell not? There were no secrets between us. I’m sure she’d want me to know.

Riley shifted uncomfortably. She asked that I not share it with you.

He shot up in bed so fast that an electrode popped off his neck. Liar!

His vision began to swim. My wife never kept anything from me! Never!

Calm down, Virgil.

A wall of pain slammed into his chest. His lungs caught fire. It’s happening again, he gasped. Get the Chinese woman. Quick.

It happened on a Saturday morning when Kat was thirteen, in mid-May. The big lilac bush outside her bedroom window had blossomed. Lush, fluffy purple cones and dark green leaves blocked her view of the side yard and the broken split-rail fence that separated their property from Mrs.

Estes’. Because it was warm enough to sleep with the window open, Kat had woken up that particular morning with her senses filled with the deep, sugary sweetness of lilacsand the familiar sound of her mother being beaten.

Kat pulled the covers over her head and shook. Would this be a short one, or a long one? Should she shut her window so Mrs. Estes didn’t hear? Exactly where in the house were they fighting? The hallway? Would she be able to run out the back door without them noticing? Would there be drops of blood on the wood floor? She hated cleaning up blood. She closed her eyes, clasped her hands together so hard it hurt, then bowed her head under her blankets. /Please, God, no blood today. That’s all I ask./ She knew what would come next. On Monday, Kat’s mom would have to tell the school that Kat had the flu, so she could stay home for a few days to put ice and Band-Aids on her mom’s face and make sure she had aspirin. Kat hated that.

And she hated that she’d have to make meals because her mother would be too weak. Those dinners were always terrible, and not just because Kat wasn’t the world’s best cook. They were terrible because she would have to take a tray to her mother, who would eat propped up in bed, and then Kat and her father would sit there at the kitchen table, alone, long minutes of silence pierced with his usual warning: /Stop worrying about your mother or I’ll really give you something to worry about./ She hated that he’d come home with flowers for her mom, like that was supposed to make everything all right, and her mom would tell Kat to fetch a vase and put them in water so she could /ooh/ and /aah/ over them from her sickbed, like the flowers weren’t edged with brown and her eyes weren’t rimmed in black-and-blue.

Kat hated that her dad would act all cheerful and announce that they were going to the Rialto for father-daughter movie night, where they’d catch the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger flick.

She hated that her mother refused to go to the doctor every time she got beat.

But more than anything, Kat hated that the single most important rule in her family was that none of this ever happened.

On that particular morning, Kat thought maybe she’d had enough of secrets. She got up out of bed, pulled on a pair of light blue seersucker shorts, a pale green T-shirt, and sneakers. She ran a comb through her hair and pulled it back in a ponytail. She decided to put off going to the bathroom, because she didn’t want to risk opening her door. Kat pulled her nightstand to the windowsill, pushed the window open as wide as it would go, took out the screen, and climbed through, feet first. There was no way out but through the lilacs, so she jumped into the bush, breaking more than a few branches in the process. She rolled out into the grass, scraped, bleeding on the inside of her thigh, and covered in a sheen of tiny four-petaled purple buds. But she was out of there.

She ran down Forest Drive to Main Street, the soles of her shoes slapping at the concrete, purple specks flying off her like confetti.

Based on the fact that the Gerhards hadn’t picked up their morning paper, she guessed it was about six-thirty. Riley would still be home, because baseball practice didn’t start until nine.

She raced by the Missonis’, the Ballingers’, and the McClintocks’, then took the usual shortcut through the Wilmers’ backyard, jumped the chain-link fence, and landed in the row of cedars that fringed the south end of lawn of the Bohland House. Like always, she ran across the lawn to the side of the house, then hopped up onto the large central air-conditioning unit so she could reach the porch railing. She walked along the railing until she could get a foothold on the wide ledge of the dining room bay window, then pulled herself up onto the tile roof.

Once she got a handhold on the window frame of the turret, she inched along until she got to the carport, remembering to avoid the three loose tiles on her way to Riley’s window.

She didn’t bother knocking on the glass because she didn’t want to wake up Big Daddy or Matt. She pushed up the heavy old sash and threw her legs over the ledge, landing with a thud on Riley’s floor. His room was a disaster, like always, and it smelled like sweaty socks. She took off her shoes and crawled under the covers with Riley, spooning against his back, his solid heat spreading through her like a blanket for her insides. She sighed. He woke up.

What the? Riley flipped over so fast he nearly tossed her out of the bed. Kat? Holy shit! Big Daddy’s gonna skin me alive!

Sssshhhh. Kat put her arms around Riley’s waist and pulled him close.

She felt her body begin to tremble.

Oh no, Scout. Is he doing it again?

She nodded, keeping her face buried in his neck. Riley was the only person who ever used that nickname, and it sounded so comforting and safe that she wanted to cry. She took a deep breath of himhe smelled earthy and sweet, and she could detect the lingering traces of bath soap and deodorant. He had probably taken a shower just before bed.

I’m calling the police this time.

He’ll take it out on me.

I’m telling Big Daddy, then. Maybe he can talk some sense into him. One day he’s going to kill her.

Please just hold me.

Riley did. He brought his arms around her back and hugged her as tight as she could stand. After a few moments, he raised his hand to the back of her head, and slipped her hair from the ponytail holder. Kat snuggled closer, feeling her ribs against his. She felt her small breasts being squashed between them. She threw her top leg over his and held on, like they were falling through the sky and he was the only one with a working parachute.

When she couldn’t hold it in anymore, she cried.

Riley let her, stroking her hair and whispering to her that everything would be all right.

Who do you love? he asked.

Riley James Bohland, forever and ever, she said between sobs.

Who do I love?

Katharine Ann Cavanaugh, forever and ever.

That’s right. And when we get married, we’re going to live so far away that Virgil will be nothing but a bad memory. What kind of car do you want?

A Jeep with the top down.

And what’s the first house we’re going to buy together?

The ski cabin in Colorado.

Then?

The beach house in California.

Next?

Our penthouse in New York.

Are you doing OK?

Kat nodded, her tears slowing. I’m always OK when I’m with you.

Good. How many kids will we have?

Two.

One girl and one boy?

Yes.

Which will be first?

The girl.

No, the boy.

Kat giggled a little.

And what will we do for the rest of our lives?

Be happy.

That’s right. Riley kissed the top of her head. Hey, you got little purple things all over you.

Kat pulled her face from its hiding place in the crook of his neck and looked up into his blue eyes, so deep they almost looked black. I fell into a lilac bush.

How’d that happen?

She felt kind of silly, but she told him the truth. I jumped out of my bedroom window.

You’re all wet.

Kat sniffled and wiped her eyes. Sorry. All my crying must have gotten your shirt wet.

No. I mean down here on your legs. You’re wet.

I think I got scraped up and I’m bleeding.

Riley tossed back the covers and pulled away so he could look at her. Oh my God! he whispered.

Kat stared down at the front of Riley’s body and gasped. Something shifted inside her core. The awareness was so deep and intense it was almost uncomfortable. She’d heard about how this could happen to boys, that sometimes guys woke up with hard-ons because they’d had sex dreams.

But she didn’t know they got /that/ hard!

She continued to gawk. A rush of heat moved through her, the likes of which she’d never experienced. Her mouth went dry. Her nipples tingled.

All she wanted was to press up against that hardness. Her body insisted she do it.

Shit, Kat. There’s blood all over you.

I told you I got scraped up.

No. I’m mean it’s smeared all over the inside of your legs. /What?/ Kat looked down at herself and froze in embarrassment. This could not be happening. Blood had soaked through the crotch of her seersucker shorts and spread out into the fabric. A thin, sticky smear of red covered the inside of both of her thighs.

I think you started your period.

Kat recoiled, pushing herself away from Riley as she groaned out in horror. What girl would want the boy she loved to see that? What had she ever done to deserve such a terrible fate? She leaped up from the bed, and Riley followed her.

Kat was heading toward the window when he jumped in front of her, blocking her exit. Kat couldn’t stop herselfshe looked to see if he was still hard. He was. Harder, even. She tried to swallow, but it was like she couldn’t remember how.

You started your period. So what? It’s no big deal.

She put her face in her hands and wanted to stay hidden there forever, but Riley peeled her fingers away.

No biggie, Scout. Seriously.

No /biggie/? I want to die, I’m so embarrassed! I just came over here because I had to be with you and there is nobody else I could tell and I didn’t even check and It’s your first one, right? Here. Let me clean you up. Riley grabbed a towel that was draped over a chair and squatted in front of her.

Gingerly he used the towel to dab at her thighs, frowning in concentration as he worked.

Kat looked down at his curly dark head, realizing there was something wonderful and scary about what Riley was doing. He was more comfortable with her body functions than she was. Taking care of her came naturally to him. The fact that someone loved her that much stunned her, and hot tears began to roll down her face.

OK. Riley stood up, throwing the towel on the floor, avoiding her eyes.

Maybe there’s still some of my mom’s stuff around here. I can go check.

Riley? she whispered.

He turned back toward her. He swallowed hard. God, Kat.

There was a need in Riley’s eyes that she’d never seen before. The space between them suddenly felt charged, alive. Riley had been everything to her through all the thirteen years of her lifeplayground enemy, teasing dweeb, friend, brother, lab partner, protector, confidant, and boyfriend. By fourth grade it was understood that they were destined to be together always. There had never been any question. But in an instant, all that had changed. Suddenly, this wasn’t a game anymore. It was dead serious.

Riley leaned down and kissed her. He’d been kissing her since the sixth-grade carnival, so she was familiar with all his different kinds of kissesthe soft ones, the ones where he tried to put some of his tongue in her mouth, the ones where he made little noises. This kiss was different from all the others. His lips met hers with such purpose that she felt nailed to the floor. His mouth moved on her like he wanted to gobble her up. Her mind was jumbled with images and thoughtsthe shame of the blood on her thighs, the shock of his lips, the heat she felt deep inside her body, the outline of Riley’s… well, his /penis/, all big and hard and looking like it was ready to bust through his red nylon shorts.

The kiss continued. Riley’s hands found their way to her bottom, and though they’d never been there before, it felt perfectly natural to have his hands clamped tight, one on each cheek. Oh, she tried! She really did! But Kat couldn’t stop herself. As the kiss intensified, she put her shaking hands down inside the elastic waistband of Riley’s shorts, encountering prickly hair and the strangest flesh. It was like velvet and metal at the same time. She wrapped her fingers around its fullness, stroked it once, and noticed that it jumped all by itself. She then pulled it completely free of the fabric and cupped it in her palm, stopping the kiss so she could look down at the amazing thing in her hand.

Without warning, Riley’s body shook and a stream of white stuff came shooting out of his penis, landing belly level on her T-shirt.

That’s the exact moment Big Daddy knocked on the door and entered without waiting for a response. Kat and Riley jumped apart and stood at attention like they were facing a firing squad, which was exactly the case. Kat’s mind began to race through everything that Big Daddy must have seen in front of himhis son shoving his private parts back down in his shorts, a girl standing next to a bloody towel, and, worst of all, the evidence of what they’d been up to all over the front of the girl’s shirt.

Big Daddy’s form seemed to take up every inch of the doorway. He leaned against the frame and crossed his arms over his chest.

Riley took a step forward, partially blocking Kat. Daddy, it’s not what you think.

Son, I’m a fifty-two-year-old man. I ain’t fallin’ for the okey-doke here. I know what I see and I know what it is.

Big Daddy’s gaze fell on Kat. She wished she were dead as the mayor of Persuasion quickly surveyed her state, then sucked on his teeth. He cleared his voice, and it came out in its usual gruff way, but tinged with sweetness. Scoot on in the washroom and fix yourself up, Kat.

Yes, sir. She scootedgladlyand closed the bathroom door behind her with relief. She could hear the conversation just fine from behind the closed door.

Daddy, you don’t understand

Sure I do.

Kat pressed her ear up against the thick wood. Her knees were knocking, she was so scared. What would Big Daddy do? If he told her parents that she was here, her life would be over. Just the thought of her father knowing anything about this made her dizzy. She always knew that if he ever got the right excuse, her father’s fists would find her face just as easily as they found her mother’s. This would be all it took.

Kat heard the creak of the floorboards as Big Daddy moved all the way into Riley’s room.

Are you out of your mind, Son?

She needed somebody to talk to, Daddy.

Didn’t know talkin’ could get so messy.

I didn’t touch her.

You expect me to believe she just up and started bleeding like that?

That’s exactly what happened, sir. She started her period.

What the?

Kat could feel the laser beam of Big Daddy’s stare cutting a hole right through the bathroom door. She took a step back.

Virgil’s been puttin’ a beating on BettyAnn this morning. Kat was scared and she ran over here.

There was an instant of silence; then Big Daddy moved again. He’s doin’ /what/?

Hitting her. Beating her up. He gets drunk out in his studio, stays there all night fussin’ over his stupid sculptures, then comes in and beats the shit out of BettyAnnlike everything’s her fault.

Another silent pause. Kat had to put her ear back against the door to hear Big Daddy clearly. Do you mean to tell me that you’ve known about this and never came to me?

Riley’s response was just as faint. Kat begged me not to say anything to anybody, because she thinks she’s gonna be next if she tells.

Big Daddy blew air out of his nose and groaned. Boy, she’s damn right she’s gonna be next, but only if something’s not done to stop him. You better listen and listen goodif you ever hear about anything like this again in the future, you tell me. You understand?

Yes, sir.

I will never be angry if you come to me with the truthabout anything, no matter how bad it is, and that’s a promise. Now, answer me, Son. Did you, or did you not, take that girl’s virginity?

No!

All right, then. Big Daddy shifted his weight and the floor crackled beneath him. But something happened. I’m not blind.

Kat couldn’t hear Riley’s answer, but the words had the rhythm of a confession.

Big Daddy’s response was angry: No son of mine is gonna ruin his life by getting a girl pregnant before he’s even out of junior high school. It happens, but it’s not going to happen to a Bohland. Do you understand?

Yes, sir.

Now go get some of them female pads out of the hallway storage closet and take them to Kat. I’m gonna have myself a nice little man-to-man with Virgil Cavanaugh.

In the two days she’d been back from Persuasion, memories like that one had come hard at Kat, full of detail and out of nowhere. In fact, she was remembering events and conversations she hadn’t thought of a single time since the night she’d hopped in Cliff Turner’s truck and ended up right here, in Phyllis’ Baltimore row house. It was as if Kat’s disastrous visit had opened a can of past and pain, and now she couldn’t get the lid back on.

The knock at the door forced Kat to remember why she was there. After months of procrastinating, she’d finally called a real estate agent to look at Phyllis’ place, and she’d arrived right on time. It didn’t take Kat long to show her aroundthere wasn’t a lot to seeand she waited to hear her opinion.

If you’re willing to spend about forty thousand for upgrades, you’ll earn six times that at sale, no problem. Just replace the kitchen cabinets and countertops. Install new appliances. Floors. Update the bath. Rip out the old carpet. Paint. Update the wiring and plumbing. The furnace.

Kat nodded, looking past Julianna Dubrowski and her file folder to study Phyllis’ kitchen, trying to view the room with an objective eye. No luck. All Kat saw was scenes from her lifebaking that chocolate cake from scratch for Aidan’s first birthday, the night the pipes under the sink burst and flooded the whole first floor, and the rip-roaring fight she’d had with Phyllis the day Kat told her she’d decided not to apply to a four-year college but to work full-time and move into her own place instead.

No potential buyer would be as sentimental. They’d only see the faded yellow walls, peeling mintgreen linoleum, and metallic red countertops from the era of beehive hairdos. It dawned on Kat that the term upgrade didn’t do justice to the amount of work the real estate agent had just suggested.

Sounds like we’d have to gut the place.

Basically, yes.

Kat laughed. You realize she didn’t spend that much to buy the entire house back in 1973?

Julianna smiled with glee. Oh, I know! That’s the beauty of these vintage Highlandtown row houses, especially the ones across from the parkshe could get close to a quarter of a million for it!

Kat made an effort to return the smile but didn’t have the energy. She won’t get any of it, Julianna. She’s dead.

The agent’s eyes went wide with embarrassment. Of course! Sorry. I knew Phyllis Turner. Well, I knew /of/ her, anyway. Everyone in the neighborhood did, and everyone was shocked to hear that she passed.

Julianna hugged her folder to her chest. My mother played bingo with Phyllis at Sacred Heart, you know. She said she was unbelievablecould handle two dozen cards at a time. And the birds. We all knew about the birds.

She had quite a few.

And frankly, just between you and me, Julianna leaned close and lowered her voice like she was worried the linoleum might overhear her comment, my gut feeling was the house would be even more of a mess than it is.

I’m a little surprised there’s no… you know… pet odor.

Kat nodded, wishing Phyllis herself were here to respond to this. She could just imagine itPhyllis in her housecoat with a Newport Light dangling from her lips. /Move your vulture butt on out of my house,/ she’d say. /The only gut you should be focused on is the one that hangs over your mother’s stretch pants./ And the idea of Phyllis Turner being a multimillionaire! It’s completely insane! You can’t make up this sort of stuff! Exactly how much was she worth when she died?

Kat felt like bonking Julianna in the head with her folder for being so insensitive. She was worth quite a bit. Excuse me a second.

Kat moved into the tiny dining area and stared out the sliding glass door. She missed Phyllis like hell. Kat missed her cackle of a laugh and her firsthand reports on the Baltimore City Council meetings, which she attended in person every Monday night and analyzed with zeal. Kat missed how Phyllis would offer advice to anyone within shouting range on relationships, career, parenting, and managing the Baltimore Oriolesall subjects she’d had precious little personal experience with in her own life.

Around Highlandtown, Phyllis was known for her eccentricities and that’s all, because that’s where Phyllis wanted it to end. She didn’t see the need for anyone knowing too much about her affairs, and the fact that the kids called her the Crazy Parakeet Lady just made her laugh. Only Kat and Cliff knew the whole story, and that’s the way Phyllis liked it.

Julianna hadn’t finished with the subject at hand, apparently. My mother said Phyllis played the stock market and had four million when she died.

Is that true?

Not quite. (It had been $3.8 million, not that it was anyone’s business.) So what happened to all the birds?

We found homes for them.

She was sure an unusual lady.

Kat put a palm up against the cool glass. What Phyllis had been was unusually kindso much so that it took Kat over a year to trust her. Kat thought she was just too good to be true. She never called the authorities on Kat. Phyllis was quick to get Kat hooked up with everything she neededprenatal care, GED classes, baby supplies, even a Social Security card. How many people would have done that? How many people would have welcomed a pissed-off, pregnant kid with a gigantic chip on her shoulder and asked for nothing in return? Who else but Phyllis Turner would have waited weeks before she even inquired about Kat’s family? Who else would have simply let the gossip become the truththat Kat Turner was the orphaned child of Phyllis’ second cousin, a girl who’d gotten herself in trouble and had nowhere else to go, and she’d be staying for as long as she liked.

Kat knew she’d owed Phyllis the truth about where she came from, who she was, and how she ended up hitchhiking to Baltimore, but she never found the courage to tell her. She convinced herself that it would hurt less if she just pretended none of it ever happened. So now, at age thirty-seven, Kat was left with lies /on top/ of the hurt, which, as it turned out, had just been lounging around all those years, picking its teeth, waiting for just the right moment to pop up and slap her upside the head.

Apparently, that time was now.

So, I’d like to talk price if we could.

Julianna’s voice faded into the background as the weight of the situation hit Kat: Now that Riley Bohland knew how to find Aidan, it was only a matter of daysif not hoursbefore everything blew up. She had to get to Aidan before Riley did. She had to be the one to tell her son the truth, not a stranger.

Kat leaned her forehead against the sliding door and shut her eyes for a moment. There wasn’t room in her life for fantasies anymore. She could no longer pretend. She’d gone back to Persuasion to get revenge and returned with the empty truth. Her mother was gone. Phyllis was gone.

Kat and Riley had been stupid, horny kidsnot each other’s soul mates.

And she would now have to right twenty years of wrongs with her son.

Clearly, Kat’s basic approach to life was in need of the same level of upgrades as Phyllis’ row house.

How does that sound, Kat? Would you like some time to think about it?

Kat gazed out at the tiny fenced yard, its summer lushness fading from the chilly nights and waning sun. Kat looked twice at the tangled hedge of rosebushes and wondered if Phyllis had been too tired in the spring and early summer to prune her beloved plants. If so, Kat hadn’t noticed.

Every time she’d asked if there was anything she could do, Phyllis would dismiss her offer and tell her to concentrate on her own life. /This old broad is still full of piss and vinegar,/ she’d say. /You should be out there trying to drum up some excitement of your own while you’re still young./ Phyllis died sitting in her Barcalounger by the front window, /Good Morning America/ on TV and the sports section of /The Sun/ on her lap. A massive stroke, the doctors said. The parish priest assured Kat that Phyllis had left this world in peace. As they soon found out, she’d also left this world stinking rich. To Uncle Cliff and his family Phyllis bequeathed her Cal Ripken Jr. autographed baseball and a million dollars nobody knew she had. To Kat and Aidan she left everything elsethe house, forty parakeets, and the balance of her money market accounts, stocks, mutual funds, and IRAs.

I can’t do this. Kat spun around in time to see Julianna’s mouth fall open in surprise. I just realized I can’t sell. It’s the only part of Phyllis that still exists. I’ll fix it up and live here myself.

Julianna gave a little shrug and handed Kat her card. The market is very unpredictable. And mortage rates may not I understand. I apologize if I wasted your time.

As Kat ushered Julianna through the small living room and out the front door, her cell phone rang. She yanked the phone from her front pocket.

Aidan! Finally!

What’s up, Mom? Everything OK?

Fine. Hey, have you gotten any strange phone calls you want to tell me about? The line went quiet. Aidan?

Uh, does this one count?

In her head, Kat let out a giant sigh of relief. Funny, she said.

So you and Nola survived the Big Apple?

How could Kat explain to her son that they’d conquered Manhattan just fine but gotten their asses kicked in Persuasion, West Virginia? Aidan had no idea they’d driven therein fact, Aidan didn’t know there was such a place, that his father lived there, or that his life was about to be upended.

Kat steeled herself to do what was right. Starting today, everything would be on the up-and-up. Aidan would demand it. He deserved it.

New York was great, honey. We’re both gorgeous now, in case you were wondering. So can I take you to lunch?

Today?

Yes, today.

I’ve got a two o’clock physics lab.

It’s only eleven. We’ll grab something quick. I’d really like to talk with you. It’s important.

I guess, but…

How about we meet at the G and A? When’s the last time you had a decent chili dog?

It was barely noon, and the day was turning out to be one for the record books. Riley had a waiting room full of impatient patients. Carrie had been paging him all morning, asking for a few moments of his time. The clinic’s new general contractor e-mailed to inform Riley that all the electrical work done by the old contractor was not up to code. And the short meeting Riley had tried to squeeze in with the loan officer first thing that morning had lasted an hour, and ended with a tidy, tri-folded legal document being shoved in Riley’s hand.

It seemed the First National Bank of Persuasion wasn’t pleased with his sporadic payment plan of the last six months and had decided to foreclose on the lien and put the Bohland House up for auction.

But no word from Kat.

Riley paced his office and groaned out loud in frustration. Kat coming back was a miracle and a mistake all at once. Why wouldn’t she return his calls? What made her blow out of town without a good-bye, without a plan for how they would proceed with Aidan? Nothing made any sense, and Riley had spent the last two days in a state of agitation. Matt said he’d run into Kat and her friend in front of the house Sunday morning and that Kat had seemed goofy and nervous, but normally so. Matt had talked to Madeline at Cherry Hill and she said the women ate breakfast and abruptly checked out, but that nothing obvious had been amiss.

Once Virgil was out of recovery, Riley asked him if he’d heard from his daughter. Why would I? was his response.

So Riley was left wondering what had happened between the post-sex bliss and the burning-rubber way she left town. Was this some kind of compulsion for Kat? Did she run away as a hobby? Was this how she’d always been and would always be? If he tried to get to know her again, was this what he’d have to look forward tosweet, hot love followed by this body-snatcher disappearance act?

There was a knock on his office door. Izzy poked her head in, and he held up a hand before his nurse could relay the obvious.

I know. I know. It looks like I’ll have to shuffle some appointments into next week.

True, but I wish it were only that. A pained look spread across her face. I hate to tell you this, but Dr. Mathis is in the waiting room, demanding to see you. She’s making a bit of a scene.

You’ve got to be joking.

Knock-knock! Carrie peeked over Izzy’s head, and flashed her high-voltage smile.

Izzy looked like she was going to cry. I’m so sorry, Dr. Bohland!

It’s OK. Not a problem. Riley motioned for Carrie to come in, and she immediately closed the door and posed up against it, hands clasped demurely behind her back. She wore a black skirt and matching jacket, obviously custom tailored, because it fit so tightly, Riley figured he’d have trouble wedging a piece of dental floss between the fabric and her skin.

You’re a hard man to reach, Riley.

That’s because I’m not reachable. He leaned back in his chair and rocked, wondering what alternate universe he’d once called home, because he actually used to think Carrie Mathis was a warm, loving, and decent woman. He was almost ashamed to admit he’d fallen for that act not once, but twicefor their whole first year of med school and then again, three years ago, when Carrie started her statewide diabetes project and chose Persuasion as one of her data collection sites.

Maybe he was blinded by her smile. Maybe he’d given up on ever finding love againthe kind of love he’d once felt with Katand decided that settling for a successful, attractive colleague wasn’t the worst fate in the world.

From her deathbed, BettyAnn Cavanaugh had saved Riley’s life.

What do you want, Carrie?

She let loose with a throaty laugh. Oh, now, that’s a loaded question.

Riley shook his head. I’m at a loss here. Help me out. What exactly do you need to hear before you understand it’s over between us?

Carrie looked offended.

Because, from where I sit, it looks pretty cut-and-dry. I ignore your phone calls and pages because I don’t want to talk to you. I tell my staff not to let you in the door because I don’t want to see you. Would you prefer I hire a skywriter? Put it on a billboard by the highway?

Place an ad in the /Charleston Daily Mail/?

Riley watched her top lip twitch, its glossy surface catching the light.

It amazed him that he’d once found her beautiful. Compared to Kat, Carrie seemed plastic.

Pardon me, Riley, but I thought you might want to hear some good news.

What?

I heard the clinic is going to be a funding priority this legislative session.

He narrowed his eyes at her. I didn’t hear the funding freeze had been lifted.

It hasn’t. Not yet. But when it is Riley rose from his chair. Carrie had picked the wrong day to try to screw with him. He walked around his desk and went toward her.

Three years ago, it was Carrie’s enthusiasm alone that had conjured up state funding for the Persuasion Rural Health Clinic. Though he couldn’t prove it, he knew it was her spitefulness that had gotten the funding pulledit was no coincidence that the legislature reneged soon after Riley called off the wedding and broke up with Carrie once and for all.

Because of her, Riley had mortgaged everything he owned, and the clinic was still more than a million dollars shortand that was before he’d learned the whole place would have to be rewired! /God, what a stinking mess./ Thanks for the update, Carrie. I’ll have our lawyer make a few calls.

She shook her head, incredulous. That’s it?

That’s it. Don’t ever show up here again. Got it?

Carrie’s lips parted. Riley heard her let out a soft squeak of indignation before she turned on her high heels and left.

Kat watched Aidan start in on his third chili dog, all the while talking about how he might change his major to biochemical engineering.

Mom, seriously. There is so much amazing shit going on in stem cell researchespecially now that they’ve determined that other cells can yield the same kind of potent regenerative capabilities as in embryos.

That will bypass the whole ethical debate and bust this field of research wide open!

He sucked on the plastic straw sticking out of his old-fashioned Coca-Cola glass. That’s where I want to be in ten yearsright in the middle of that revolution. Can you imagine all the diseases the world will finally have a way to fight?

That’s wonderful, sweetheart. Kat stared at his five-o’clock shadow at one in the afternoon, and the way his mouth curved up so slightly at the ends. He was such a Bohland. Kat saw so much of Riley in her boy’s face and body that she wondered what her contribution had been. He had Matt’s smile. And, if she took away about a hundred pounds and a half a foot, she could see Big Daddy in there as well. Kat swallowed hard with the burden of all she was about to lay on Aidan, this boy who came from a long line of men he never knew existed.

She’d made such a horrible mistake.

Alzheimer’s. Parkinson’s. Cancer. Aidan used a paper napkin to wipe away a drip of chili on his chin. We’re on the verge of being able to break apart the human genome inside a cancer cell and see exactly where it went off-track, then target each of those chromosomes with drugs developed to correct that particular defect. It would be like going after a fruit fly with an Uzithat sucker just couldn’t get away!

Kat smiled at him, so proud of his passion and intelligence, so aware that his father had been just like him as a young man. She needed to change the subject in a hurry, before she lost her courage.

Speaking of human genes, I have something to tell you, Aidan. She took a deep breath. I need to talk to you about your father.

My /whaaa/ Aidan’s entire body went still. His eyesthose intense blue eyes his father gave himhad gone huge. What are you talking about? he whispered.

I haven’t been completely honest with you. You need to know that up front. And I am asking you to find some way, at some point in the future, to forgive me.

Aidan dropped the last remaining bite of hot dog onto the chipped plate and stared at her. The enthusiasm that had been in his eyes just seconds ago had been replaced with what Kat could only describe as fear and dread. His mouth pulled tight. You know who my dad is, don’t you? You’ve always known.

Kat was busted. That’s true, technically. But it’s a much bigger story, and I think you’re old enough to hear the whole thing now.

Oh, really? Aidan took a sip of his soda, then slammed the glass down on the green Formica tabletop. He glared at her. I’ve been old enough to hear the truth for about a decade now and you know it. You haven’t told me because /you/ couldn’t deal, Mom. Not me. So don’t go putting this all on me.

Kat was shocked. Aidan had never talked to her this way before. The anger she saw in him cut her to the bone, but she suspected she had it coming. Telling Aidan the truth was going to take more courage than anything she’d ever done in her life. In comparison, getting in that truck with Cliff Turner seemed like a snap.

All I ask is that you put yourself in the right frame of mind to hear everything I’m about to tell you. Please. Just listen to the whole story; then you can decide how angry to be. Kat tried to reach out to touch his forearm, but he jerked it away. You need to hear this, sweetheart.

Aidan nodded, then brightened up with mock enthusiasm. I am the demon spawn of Troy Mikulski, is that what you’re going to tell me? I always suspected it.

Kat thought she’d fall out of her plastic chair. /What? Hell/ no! She reached out for her son again, but he made it clear he was off-limits.

Baby, Troy is not your father. He’s just a guy I wasted two years of my life with! Kat was horrified. My God, Aidan. That was back when you were in middle school. Please don’t tell me you’ve been walking around all this time thinking that bozo was your father?

Aidan let loose with a bitter laugh, then shouted, What the hell was I supposed to think? He jumped up and kicked his chair. I never had anything else to go on! Every time I asked about my father, you gave me some lame answer about your sordid past and you not even knowing who knocked you up and that it was all part of a life you wanted to forget!

The grill cook turned around, hot-dog tongs in his hand and his face plastered with a hopeful grin.

Keep your voice down, Aidan.

No! This sucks! He waved his arms around. All you ever told me was that we needed to focus on the here and now, and that was basically nothing but a load of bullshit! You /lied/ to me, Mom. You left me swinging in the wind. How bad can a parent be?

Sit your ass down, Aidan. /Now/. Kat hadn’t heard herself speak like that in yearsnot since Aidan came home at 2:00 A.M. from an alleged night at the movies, smelling like pot. She had grounded him for six months. But in this case, Kat knew she was the one who deserved to be grounded. As Aidan plopped back down in his chair, she saw his shoulders droop with despair.

Sure. Why not? he said flatly. Let’s have it.

Kat took a giant breath, searching her son’s face for an opening, an indication that he was ready. She encountered steady, smart eyes, filled with hurt that was her doing. He was my childhood sweetheart, Aidan. I really thought we loved each other, and he never knew he’d gotten me pregnant, up until recently.

He never knew? Aidan was scowling.

No.

Why?

Because I never told him. I ran away without telling him I was pregnant.

Aidan let out a snort of disgust. Brilliant move, Mom. He took another sip of his drink. He didn’t look at her.

But he found out last year, from my mother, just before she died. And he’s been looking for youfor both of usever since.

Aidan’s neck snapped in attention, and he stared at her. Wait a minute.

You told me your parents died when you were a teenager.

They were dead to me.

Wow. This is so incredibly fucked.

Aidan.

Seriously, seriously fucked. He shook his head. OK, so you say this dudemy /father/has been looking for me? Is that part the truth, at least?

Absolutely. I just saw him last weekend and told him all about you. He mentioned wanting to spend Thanksgiving break with you. I gave him your phone number. That’s why I asked you earlier if you’d gotten any strange calls. Kat dug into her bag and pulled out Riley’s business card. Here.

This is him. Look on the back.

She watched her son’s hand tremble as he traced his fingertips along the raised black print.

He’s a freakin’ doctor? Aidan looked up, stunned, his whisper fading as he flipped over the card to read Riley’s handwritten note: /I can’t wait to get to know you, Aidan. Call me at work or on my cell anytime. Here’s my home number, too…/ Shit, Mom. I don’t believe this! Aidan stuck the business card in her face. But what’s that last number there on the end? Is that a seven or a one? I can’t read his writing!

Kat laughed. It’s as bad as yours.

Where the hell is Persuasion, West Virginia?

It’s where I grew up.

Aidan’s smile faded, and he pulled the card away. I see. Yet another detail you lied to me about. You always told me you grew up in Martinsburg.

Yeah. At least I got the state right.

Aidan shoved the business card in his front jeans pocket, shaking his head. Anything else you lied to me about, Mom? He folded his hands on the table, his face contorted with sarcasm. Are you an alien? Are you really a man? Is your name even Katharine Turner?

Ah. Kat clicked her tongue on her teeth. Actually No way It’s Katharine Cavanaugh. I took Phyllis’ last name, not because she was a distant relation, like I told you, but because I didn’t want to be found. I wanted to protect you.

Aidan’s face fell. Kat knew she was asking a lot of him. Please try to understand, sweetheart.

So my real name is Aidan Cavanaugh?

Well, if that’s what you choose. Or Bohland, after your dad. I guess you can decide that later. It’s something we’ll have to sort out legally, I suppose.

Aidan slowly shook his head, his eyes filled with sadness. What the hell were you thinking, Mom? What could have possibly been so bad that you lied to me from the day I was born? What were you trying to protect me from?

Kat didn’t want to cry. She’d prided herself that no matter how rough things had gotten in all those years, no matter how she’d fought to keep it together with night school, work, bills, Aidan had never seen her break down. She was beginning to wonder if she’d done him a disservice by not letting him see how much she’d struggled.

Well, what I was thinking was… I’d hoped to… I just wanted to protect you from Kat gulped down her sob. From what happened to me, dammit! From getting rejected by those people, the people who tossed my pregnant ass out onto the street when I was sixteen years old!

Aidan frowned as he listened.

And I’m sorry if I made the wrong decision, but it was the only one I could make at the time. I thought it was best for my child.

Aidan stood up again, his mouth slowly twisting in grief. News flash, Mom: It wasn’t.

Fine. We can talk more about this later, when you’ve cooled off. Kat stood up, too. Do you need some money this week? She reached into her purse, but Aidan placed his hand on her wrist.

She looked up at him. He looked down at her, the pain distorting the shape of his handsome face. I don’t need anything from you anymore, Mom, he said softly. You’ve done plenty.

Aidan turned his back on her and walked out of the diner without another word.

Kat followed, perfectly aware of the way the grill cook checked her out as she went through the door.

She called Nola from her cell phone, watching Aidan’s form disappear down Eastern Avenue. She could barely hear Nola’s voice over the racket of delivery trucks and cars without mufflers.

How’d it go?

Oh, just /super/! Kat turned away from the street noise and back toward the diner but spun right back around when the grill cook winked at her.

That bad?

Kat sighed, raising her voice. If I’m lucky, he’ll forgive me by the time he’s seventy.

Oh, well, hon… Nola sounded thoughtful. You’ll only be eighty-something, and you know what they sayeighty is the new thirty!

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