EIGHT

Riley turned on the desk lamp, determined to power through these last few charts before he went home for the night. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast and his head throbbed, but the sooner he finished, the sooner he would have time to call his son.

Riley reached into his pants pocket and touched the wallet-sized photo Kat had given him, with a cell phone number on the back. He’d already memorized it.

With a sigh of resignation, Riley clicked on the miniature tape recorder and resumed his dictation: Patient is a forty-seven-year-old premenopausal female presenting with a variety of non-specific symptoms. … He released the record button while he scanned the paperwork, then spoke into the mike again: Dizziness, headache, body aches, joint pain, insomnia, depression He stopped, suddenly aware that he’d dictated these same words many times that day. Riley tossed the recorder to his desk.

You weren’t meant to live like this, he said, knowing the reprimand was more for himself than Mrs. Anita Prejean, the premenopausal woman tucked away inside that chart.

Riley rose from his chair and paced his office.

Riley figured that Mrs. Prejean’s symptoms were caused by what was, in his opinion, the world’s number-one diseaseunfinished business. After six years as a primary-care physician, Riley could say that most people got sick because they lived a life of liesa simple reality that was almost impossible to cure. The lies led to stress, which affected every organ system in the human body. He saw it all day, every day. And sometimes he thought of himself as nothing more than a lifeguard at an alligator-infested swamp, where all he could do was fix the latest flesh wound before he threw the swimmer back.

There were all kinds of lies, of course. There were the direct kinds, like marital affairs, dishonest business practices, and stealing what didn’t belong to you. And there were the lies of omission and neglectsecrets never shared, anger never expressed, feelings shoved down so deep that people couldn’t even put a name on what they felt. Patient after patient had come to him over the years with physical complaints he could trace directly to the accumulated stress of dishonesty. Lurking beneath the surface of their lives were silent burdens of guilt, shame, and bitterness, the inability to forgive oneself and others, and buried fears powerful enough to squeeze the joy out of the present day.

And nobody was immune.

Riley wandered to the exposed-brick wall of his office. He stared at everything displayed before himthe slew of diplomas, board certifications, awards. All the family photos.

His gaze fell on his parents’ official wedding portrait. It was 1968, a summer of free love, race riots, and assassinations in the rest of the country. Not in Persuasion. From what he’d always heard, life had gone on like it always had around here, with mine strikes and unemployment worries. The only ripple was that every few months, word would come that another boy would not be coming home from Vietnam to exchange his camouflaged infantry helmet for a miner’s hard hat.

Riley stared at his parents’ young faces, amazed at the combination of innocence and resolve he saw there. He wondered what could have been racing through their minds the instant the camera flashed, what they feared, what they hoped for, whether they already knew which pieces of themselves each would have to keep hidden from the other in order to survive.

Big Daddy looked so fresh and handsome, the familiar crevices at his mouth and eyes not yet carved into his face. His Marine Corps head was shaved brutally close, and his jawline was fixed in seriousness, even on his wedding day. A week later, he would be off-loading from a Huey in a jungle clearing near Cambodia.

And there was Riley’s mother, the former Miss Eliza Starliper, the town’s great beauty. Her brown hair was teased ridiculously high, held in place by a tiny white bow that looked too dainty for the job. She had a sly smile on her lovely lips, as if she couldn’t believe what she’d just pulled off. Eliza’s beauty had meshed with Aidan Bohland’s small-town prestige, and a new family had been born.

Riley’s gaze moved toward the photo of Matt, Big Daddy, and himself fly-fishing in Wyoming the summer he’d finished his residency. A rumbling of regret moved through him. His own boy would have been about twelve that summer. He should have been with them. Instead, he was loose in the world, maybe playing baseball like all the Bohlands before him, doing homework, arguing with his mom, and thinking his father didn’t love him. It was almost too much to bear.

There was a lot to make up for in that young man’s life, and Riley knew he’d do whatever it took. He’d repair the lies. Erase the half-truths.

He’d tell all the untold stories. He’d make sure his son didn’t go another day with only part of the picture.

Not /his/ son.

Riley backed away from the photos and stared out at Main Street. Who was he kidding? He was no superhero. He wasn’t even courageous enough to be honest with his own brother about how he’d been paying for the clinic project. How was he going to be the kind of dad he wanted to be?

The door to his office creaked open without a knock, and Riley knew it could only be Matt.

Did you find her? Riley heard the impatience in his own voice as he spun around.

Oh yeah. No problem. Matt stayed in the doorway, not moving inside. He frowned a little. You think too much, Bro.

Would you want a doctor who didn’t?

Matt chuckled. You weren’t thinking about medicine and you know it.

Where is she?

She’s at home in Baltimore.

That’s good.

But do you want to hear the funny part?

Riley raised his eyebrows. There’s a funny part?

Matt chuckled. The thing is, Kat was right where BettyAnn said she was, all along.

Riley jerked his head back in disbelief. But we know she wasn’t.

And, Matt added, she was in Baltimore at the same time. Let’s get some fresh air and I’ll tell you all about it.

Riley took off his white coat and tossed it over the back of his office chair. Once he turned off the lights and set the security system, he and Matt headed up Main.

Did you eat? Matt asked.

No, I didn’t eat. Just tell me what you found out.

Matt shook his head and laughed again, clearly relishing whatever it was that he was about to share. Check this out, Riley. When BettyAnn was about to die, try to remember /exactly/ what she said to you, OK?

Riley stopped, glaring at his brother like he was nuts. How many hundreds of times had he gone over this with Mattin hotel rooms, in breakfast joints, in the cab of the pickup on the road to somewhere else they wouldn’t find Kat and the boy? BettyAnn had said that Kat and her son were in Patterson, California. She spoke the words and then she died. That information was the only thing Riley and Matt ever had to go on in the months that followed. It was all they could pass on to the private detectives and the police. It was the only thing that kept them going. And Riley remembered those words like BettyAnn had spoken them one second ago, not one year.

She was in the ICU at Davis Memorial. Her fight was over. BettyAnn had requested that she not be resuscitated, and the DNR order was slapped above the head of the bed like an orange neon beacon, impossible to miss.

By that time, all they could do was keep her as comfortable as possible until her body gave out. He’d come by on morning rounds and she was lying gray and listless with a white sheet tucked around bony ribs. Her eyes flashed when she saw Riley; then she sent Virgil out of the room with a weak flop of her hand. Riley was surprised to see Virgil leave without a word of protest.

BettyAnn motioned for Riley to come close. She whispered so softly he had to put his left ear down to her lips.

You have a boy, she said. Kat had a child.

Riley pulled back enough to stare into BettyAnn’s sunken eyes. They were filled with sadness but something more. It looked almost like love.

His throat was suddenly so tight and dry he could hardly speak. Are you certain?

She nodded, the effort causing her to push the morphine pump for another dose of relief.

Where did they go?

In that surreal moment, Riley heard his own question and thought it sounded comically matter-of-fact, like he was asking BettyAnn if his little family had gone to a matinee or out to get ice cream. But his mind was spinning, his heart was ready to leap from his body, because Kat was somewhere with his child/his child/and BettyAnn was telling him this because she was dying. She was dying at that instant.

Hang on, BettyAnn. Riley focused his eyes on hers, seeing how she struggled to stay with him. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. Please.

Just tell me where I can find them.

She said something. He couldn’t hear it. The anxiety ripped through him.

Again, BettyAnn. Please /say it again./ Yes, Riley remembered what she’d said. He stared at Matt, standing there on the sidewalk with that stupid grin on his face, and he humored him by reciting the exact words yet one more time: BettyAnn said,?Patterson in California.’

Matt shook his head, his smile widening. Not /exactly./ No?

Nope.

Then what did she say? No more of this bullshit, Matt. What’s going on?

Matt put his hand on Riley’s shoulder. BettyAnn Cavanaugh said, ?Patterson /and/ California.’ It’s an intersection in a working-class section of Baltimore.

Riley’s mouth fell open.

Kat and Aidan lived at 456 California Avenue until 1994, in a row house smack across the street from Patterson Park, in Highlandtown. She wasn’t using her real last nameshe took on the name of the woman she stayed with.

Riley stared at his brother for a long, silent moment, as the events of the last year of his life raced through his brain. BettyAnn’s news. The wedding. The breakup. The private detective. The three-month leave of absence he took to find Kat and his son. Oregon, Texas, South Dakota, and a dozen more states that were all a blur to him now. Every single moment of that year was lived knowing he had a child he might never find.

And his son had been a five-hour drive away.

Did you hear what I said, Bro?

Riley nodded, awash in the randomness of it all, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. So he did a little of both.

It was impossible to sleep in this place. How was a man supposed to recover from having a balloon shoved into his groin if he couldn’t get a decent night’s rest?

Virgil lay awake in the hospital room, a sickening yellow night-light casting its glow on all the odd shapes around him. Somehow, being alone in the hospital felt a hell of a lot lonelier than being alone at home.

At least at home, there were no nurses giving a play-by-play on how it was a shame he had no visitors or flowers.

Even his old bat of a sister hadn’t bothered to come see him. She had called and spoken to the Chinese doctor, so at least it appeared she cared whether he lived or died. But Rita might have done that only for show.

Riley Bohland had stopped by, but that was probably required because he was Virgil’s doctor. All Bohland wanted to know was whether Virgil had heard from Kat.

He had no idea what was going on with those two, but her showing up had obviously fucked with Bohland’s head.

Virgil didn’t know what to do with himself, trapped in here like a lab rat. He tried to read the paper but couldn’t stay focused. He tried to watch TV, but it put his neck at an uncomfortable angle. And since sleeping was out of the question, that left him a lot of time to think.

He could see how having two heart attacks might make a man reevaluate things. It’s unsettling when you almost die. Fortunately, there wasn’t a damn thing he regretted about the way he’d lived his life.

But he couldn’t stop thinking about BettyAnn and the secret she could have told Bohland. Virgil hadn’t laid a hand on his wife in twenty years, so it couldn’t have been that. It was something to do with Kat, no doubt, because BettyAnn never forgot that the two of them were sweethearts once. The whole business bothered Virgil.

BettyAnn used to try to hide the fact that she’d been crying about Kat, but other than that, the woman lived an open book. Virgil told her how much money to spend at the IGA, and she’d show him the receipt to prove that’s exactly how much she spent. He told her what clothes to wear and what hairstyle to choose, and that’s how she dressed and styled her hair. He told her who she could and could not associate with, and that’s what she did.

She was a simple woman who needed his guidance to stay happy and peaceful. She’d long ago proven she couldn’t handle freedom, so Virgil gave her the structure she craved. The idea that there would be anything in her head that he hadn’t put there left him uneasy. BettyAnn was his plaything, his doll baby.

So how come his doll baby had something to tell Bohland just before she died? How come she specifically asked that it never be revealed to her husband, her king?

For the first time in twenty years, Virgil wanted a drink. It was no coincidence that the craving had returned the moment Kat did.

Madeline studied the low-cut, fur-trimmed neckline of Carrie’s wedding dress and realized three things simultaneouslythat it was not the same gown she had last year, that it really was stunning, and that Madeline never should have passed on those lies to Kat, because at some point in the very recent past, Carrie Mathis had become crazier than a hoot owl.

Too much cleavage? Carrie cupped her satin-supported breasts and sashayed her way to the kitchen sink and back to the table. I’m pursuing an understated, sexy look, you know? Smokingly hot, but in a Grace Kelly sort of way.

Carrie swished until the white satin train swept around her feet. I want Riley’s eyes to absolutely bug out of his head when he sees this!

Madeline nodded, not sure what to say, thinking that Carrie would have no problem getting Riley’s eyes to bug out because he’d get one look at the woman he’d told to get lost a year ago, all dolled up in her wedding dress, ready for a secret wedding where he was expected to be the groom, and his eyes would bug out just fine. Madeline became vaguely aware of the nausea creeping into her belly.

Hey, Carrie?

Hmm? She was petting the strip of white fur at her wrist.

Have you told anyone else about the wedding?

Carrie’s head snapped to attention and she flashed an over-the-top smile at Madeline. Carrie was gorgeous, with dark brown eyes and gleaming brunette hair, a flawless olive complexion, and that smilethat Miss Universe kind of smile that seemed to suck the energy from a room and shoot it back out like lightning. Madeline remembered how she’d actually felt nervous the first time Carrie checked into Cherry Hill, like she was meeting a daytime TV star or something. Then it hit hershe’d seen the woman on TV a thousand times, doing those public-health announcements for the State of West Virginia, and she’d actually been silly enough to ask for her autograph. Boy, did that seem stupid now.

Does it matter who I’ve told? Carrie continued to smile but raised a single eyebrow in challenge.

It’s just that… well… most brides have some kind of guarantee that there’ll be an actual groom before they get into the nuts and bolts of the wedding. You know, like buying a dress.

Carrie sniffed, tossing her hair. I’m not most brides.

True enough. Madeline squirmed in the kitchen chair, trying to find a delicate way to talk some sense into her. I’m only saying that What /are/ you saying, Maddie? Carrie scooped up the yards of satin and sat down in the kitchen chair across from Madeline. She folded her hands in her lap and lowered the wattage of her smile. Are you questioning whether I know what I’m doing? Do you think for one minute that I don’t have every contingency covered?

Madeline blinked, feeling the sheen of perspiration beginning to form on her brow and under her arms. There was something unsettling about the lilt of Carrie’s voice and the way her smile just hung there, unrelated to anything pleasant or funny. Madeline was nervous again, and it wasn’t because Carrie was beautiful. It was because she was just plain weird.

But Riley said he didn’t want to marry you.

Because of a personal emergency, not because his feelings had changed for me.

Madeline swallowed hard, knowing that she’d have to continue carefully.

You tried for months to get him to reschedule and he wouldn’t do it, remember?

Carrie glared at her.

I remember you telling me that while Riley was out of town you called him every night, sobbing, and e-mailed him several times a day. He broke up with you, saying you were obsessive and irrational, remember?

Carrie scowled.

So, let’s look at this realisticallynot only did Riley not want to marry you; he didn’t even want to date you anymore. I think you need to accept that, and move on.

You are so very, very mistaken. Carrie crossed her arms under her breasts, showing more cleavage than Grace Kelly ever did. Riley simply put our relationship /on hold,/ Maddie. That’s all. And I am only utilizing the laws of attractionI’m attracting good into my life by preparing for it, making room for it, opening my arms to receive it, and what is good for me is marrying Riley Bohland.

Madeline’s left eye started to twitch.

Riley is most definitely responding. He’s warming up, moving a little closer to me every day.

You really think so?

Carrie grinned sweetly. I know so. I spent time with him just today, as a matter of fact. We had a wonderful talk.

With a nod, Madeline got up and took her teacup to the sink, turning away from Carrie to gather her thoughts, and her only thought was, /This woman is fuckin’ nuts./ Maybe she should tell someone. How about Matt?

Was Carrie weird enough that Madeline should alert the authorities? What could they charge Carrie with? Assault with a deadly wedding? Aggravated positive thinking?

Madeline rinsed the china cup under the faucet, letting her thoughts swirl around with the water. Maybe she was just overreacting. Everyone was a little crazy in their own way. After all, half the town had told her she was insane to buy this old place and turn it into a B and B. And look at it now! Maybe it was none of her business what delusions Carrie operated under.

Madeline turned off the water and shook her head. She knew she’d made it her business the moment she allowed Carrie to manipulate her with the promise of conference bookings. She’d made it her business the second she told Kat just enough garbage to make her run out of town.

Besides, was it even possible to overreact these days? Madeline wiped her hands on a kitchen towel, thinking of the average night of network newssuicide bombings and schoolroom shootings, a killing spree here and a paranoid rampage there. Private delusions didn’t always stay private.

Sometimes they exploded all over the place, changing history.

Madeline turned around and gasped. Carrie was right up against her. How had she moved without making a sound, especially draped in all that fabric?

I didn’t mean to scare you, Carrie whispered.

Oh. Sure. No problem. Madeline braced herself on the edge of the sink and leaned back to gain a few inches of distance from Carrie.

It’s not wise to pass judgment without all the facts, Madeline. Carrie said this as sweetly and as patiently as if she were showing a child how to use a salad fork. As your friend, I’m just giving you that bit of advice.

Madeline tried to produce a smile; all the while her heart was thudding in her chest. Thanks.

You were not privy to the events that led up to the wedding’s cancellation.

OK. She tried to move a little to the left without Carrie noticing. It didn’t work.

Carrie’s eyes flashed. Since you brought all this up, how about we just stay put and finish this conversation?

Madeline nodded, mentally calculating how many steps it would take before she could lunge for the kitchen wall phone.

You see, that girlthat Kat Cavanaughshe is responsible for all this. She must have heard that Riley was about to marry me, and she used her poor dying mother to pass on the rumor about a baby, just in time to ruin everything.

Madeline jolted to attention, her focus moving from 911 to the word baby. What baby?

Carrie laughed. Oh, she claims that Riley fathered a child back in high school, a child no one has ever seen or met. She timed the rumor for maximum devastation, just in time to stop the wedding. She was jealous, no doubt. Carrie shook her head in disgust. Thenthis is the most despicable partthat woman led Riley on a wild-goose chase all over the country to find this alleged child. She did it to distract him, take his attention off of me, and ruin my life.

A baby?

So she claims.

Did he find it?

Of course not. There /is/ no baby. That’s my whole pointaren’t you paying attention? Carrie sighed with impatience. Remember when Riley told everyone he was taking a leave to care for a relative out west?

That was a liehe was out searching for the non-existent child!

Madeline hadn’t heard anything this juicy since 1999, when Ralph down at the Sunoco had sent away for that mail-order bride who broke out in hives when she met him and cried for two weeks straight until he agreed to ship her back to Romania.

So this is why Kat Cavanaugh came back herewithout a child, you’ll have noticedjust in time to ruin my plans for the second time!

Madeline tried to shake off the confusion. Riley got Kat pregnant? But Kat said they hadn’t seen each other since sophomore year, before she disappeared. But that would make perfect sense! Kat was pregnant when she left town! Oh, this was just too delicious! This made way too much sense!

You have no right to judge me. Carrie’s gaze drifted past Madeline’s face to the window over the sink, where it seemed to settle in unfocused peace. You don’t know how much I love Riley and how I only have his best interests at heart. You don’t know that I am only doing my job as his woman. I am taking care of him, don’t you see?

Carrie refocused on Madeline, cheerful again. And when he realizes everything I’ve done all this time to protect him, he won’t want to wait another day for me to be his bride! And here I’ll be…

She stepped away from Madeline, beaming now, gesturing to her gown like a game-show hostess. I’ll have everything arranged! And, of course, you’ll be a bridesmaid.

I will?

I’ve ordered you a gorgeous red velvet gown with a flattering empire waist. I had to guess at the sizesixteen?

Madeline felt her eyes go big.

Now do you understand all this, Maddie?

She gave a weak nod, sort of understanding.

So just relax. Carrie gave Madeline’s shoulder a friendly squeeze. I’m not crazy. I’m just very, very efficient.

Riley pulled on a light jacket, took the cordless phone and a cold beer out to the front porch, and chose the sturdiest of the old wooden rockers for his purposes. Loretta plopped down at his feet.

Listen up, girl, he said to the hound, pointing the phone in her direction. This is just about the most important conversation I’ve ever had in my life, so keep the play-by-play to a minimum decibel level, if you please. /Aaahrooomfff,/ she said.

Riley set the beer on the porch floor and studied the wallet-sized photo of his son. In just two days, he’d handled the picture so often it had taken on the gloss of age. He flipped it over and stared at the phone numbers in Kat’s handwriting. It was a small comfort, but he had to admit he was relieved to at least know where both Kat and Aidan were, and that they were both safe, even if she wouldn’t answer his calls. As things stood, this thin scrap of paper was the only proof he had that Kat’s visit had been real and not just the best fucking dream he’d had in twenty years.

He punched in the area code and paused, still not certain which of the numbers he should try firstthe dorm phone or the cell phone? Probably the cell. All the students at Mountain Laurel had cell phones plastered to the sides of their heads all day, every day, and he figured it couldn’t be much different for the kids at Johns Hopkins. He hit the numbers quickly and waited for the ring.

He got a busy signal.

Riley disconnected and had begun to dial the other number when his phone rang. He blinked twice in disbelief, because Aidan’s cell number had just flashed on the caller ID. He was nearly breathless when he answered. Hello, this is Riley Bohland.

The line stayed silent for an instant before a deep voice said, Uh, this is going to sound totally strange…

Hello, Aidan.

Or not.

A goofy smile spread all over Riley’s face and he let out a laugh. It was all he could do. After all this time, his boy was on the other end of the line! And he sounded grown-up and strong. Funny. Smart. He sounded /real./ I just called you, Aidan. Your line was busy.

Because I was calling you, I guess.

Yes.

Wow. Look, I just wanted to introduce myself. I, uh, this is pretty awkward, but I don’t have any freakin’ idea what to call you: Dr.

Bohland? Riley? /Dad?/ I mean, that just sounds totally surreal coming out of my mouthI’ve never used that word in my life.

Riley closed his eyes and took a deep breath, saying a silent prayer of thanks for his boy’s ner vous rambling. It gave Riley a chance to savor the timbre of Aidan’s voice and the rhythm of his words. It was the sound of pure joy pouring down on him, and Riley let a tear roll down his cheek without wiping it away.

You can call me anything you like, Aidan. It’s fine if you’re not ready to think of me as your father. There’s a lot to figure out between usa lot to get used to.

Cool, Aidan said. Then he went quiet again.

Cool, Riley said, smiling.

Uh, look. The thing is, my mom told me about you just today, at lunch. I never knew you existed until a few hours ago. It was kind of a shock, if you know what I’m saying.

Riley adjusted himself in the chair, uncrossing and recrossing his legs, rocking back and forth to relieve the tension. Whatever he did, he didn’t want to push too hard, make Aidan angry, or make him regret what he’d learned that day. It was the same kind of shock for me. I didn’t know you existed until last year.

Mom told me.

It took a lot of courage for you to call, Aidan. And I thank you. Riley began to relax, believing they were off to a solid start. I’m glad you’re willing to talk.

Aidan sounded surprised. Of course I’m willing. I’m your kid, I guess.

You sure are, Riley said, shaking his head in amazement. You have no idea how obvious it is. I saw your picture.

You did? Which one?

Your mom gave me your senior class photo.

Aidan groaned. God, I hate that picture.

Riley laughed. He’d hated his senior picture, too. A year or two after graduation, everyone did, no matter how they’d primped and agonized over it at the time. It was another rite of passage he’d missed with Aidan.

One of thousands.

Riley felt a sudden sadness. Kat had never had a senior picture to hate.

She should have had oneright there in the /Underwood Overview,/ their high school’s yearbook, the names Bohland and Cavanaugh separated by the same three kids who’d acted as yearbook spacers from kindergarten forwardbucktoothed Emily Bok, Travis Butt Head Butrick, and the pathologically shy Anna Callahan.

So I look like you?

Riley refocused on his son’s voice. Yes, but you look so much like my brother, it’s scary.

How many brothers and sisters do you have? Do they have kids? Do I have any cousins? By the excited way Aidan asked, it was clear this was a newand welcomeconcept.

No sisters and just one brother, Matthew. Your uncle Matt is the police chief of Persuasion. He’s a few years younger than me, and he doesn’t have any kids. No cousins.

Aidan remained quiet.

My parentsyour grandparentshave both passed away. My mother died when I was twelve. My daddy died about five years ago. You’re named after him.

Did you know that? His name was Aidan Bohland.

No shit.

It’s true.

OK. So I don’t have any grandparents left at all?

Riley stopped the back-and-forth motion of the rocker, struck by the pain in his son’s voice. Here Aidan was, suddenly discovering at age nineteen that he came from somewhere and was part of a family, only to find out much of the family was gone. Riley swallowed hard, remembering how Kat had expressly told him not to mention Aidan to Virgil, but what about the other way around? Aidan was an adult. If he wanted to initiate contact with his grandfather, that was Aidan’s decision to make.

Besides, Riley’s son had just asked him a question that deserved an honest answer.

I would ask that you get the details from your mom, but I will tell you that you do have a grandfatherVirgil Cavanaugh is his name. He’s an artist and a retired college professor. He still lives here in town.

Aidan’s silence made Riley aware of how cold that response must have sounded, how anyone would expect something more at the end of that sentence, such as, /and I’m sure he can’t wait to meet you!/ Unfortunately, Riley didn’t know what Virgil wantedor what he even deserved.

Jeez, Aidan said sarcastically. Is this where you tell me he was a quiet man, kept to himself, and no one ever suspected he killed squirrels in his basement?

Riley let go with a big laugh, which was Loretta’s cue to begin her howling harmony. He tried to shush her, but she was on a roll.

What is /that/?

Riley wrapped his fingers gently around the dog’s gray snout, muffling the howls. That’s just Loretta. She’s a talkative old coonhound. He patted her on her head and resumed his rocking. And no, Virgil isn’t a psycho killer, but he’s not the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, and I’m not even sure your mom would want me telling you anything about him.

When Aidan spoke, his words were tinged with disappointment. Mom told me today that her mother died recently, but she didn’t say one word about what’s-his-name.

Virgil.

Right.

The loneliness Riley heard in his son’s voice nearly broke his heart.

Aidan, if there’s one thing you take away from this conversation, you’ve got to know that I started looking for you the minute I learned you existed. Riley stopped and took a breath before the emotions could overrun him. I tried to find you and your mom. It’s a long story and I’ll tell you all about it sometime, but the second I knew you were alive in the world, I went searching for you.

I know. Mom told me.

Riley detected anger along with Aidan’s disappointment, and he didn’t blame him. Look, I agree that your mom made a mistake when she chose not to tell you that you had a dad or I had a son. It was a whopper of a mistake.

You could say that, Aidan said, laughing uncomfortably.

I would have loved to have been your dad all this time.

Yeah.

But your mom had her reasons, Aidan. It’s hard to see them from where we sit today, but Katyour momshe really believed she had no choice. Things weren’t great for her here.

Apparently not. But did that give her a right to keep me in the dark for my entire life? I mean… Aidan paused and sighed. It’s just that I’m so fucking pissed at her right now, I don’t know what to do.

Don’t cut her off, Aidan. Give it some time. You know, it took a lot of guts for your mom to tell you the truth after all these years, knowing how mad you’d be.

But she totally lied to me.

Yes, she did. Riley tried to soothe him without coming off as condescending. She lied to me, too. I understand how you feel.

No, you don’t! You can’t! Aidan stopped, lowering his voice as he continued. Look, this whole thing has just blown my mindit’s like waking up one day and finding out that nothing is what you thought it was.

That’s exactly what’s happenedfor both of us.

Yeah. OK. Aidan took his time before he said anything more. So what do we do now?

Riley was wondering the same thing, and he smiled because he was so pleased with the person his son had turned out to be. He was articulate, sensitive, brave. But Riley was smiling mostly because his son had just asked him for guidance. He breathed deeply, images of Big Daddy steamrolling through his head. Sure, Big Daddy had done a lot of things right, but Riley would never bulldoze his kid the way his father had, and he’d always believed that, if ever given the chance, he’d figure out a way to be his own kind of father.

This was his chance.

I think our next step is to get to know each other. I’d like to come to Baltimore to see you, if you’d agree to that. And I’d like you to come up here for Thanksgiving break, spend some time getting to know where you come from. Other than that, I suppose we’ll figure it out as we go along. How does that sound?

Sounds good, Aidan said, his voice lighter. I’d be up for that.

They talked for about an hour more, mostly about lacrosse, biochemistry, and a beautiful and brilliant girl named Rachel, whom Aidan had met in freshman physics class. Riley said good-bye to his son with a promise to talk again the next day.

Riley had just taken a long sip from his now lukewarm beer and settled back into the rocking chair when Loretta started up again. Whisshhht, he hissed at her, but her rumble of complaint began to gain momentum. It grew louder as it moved up from her big barrel chest into her throat.

Then she tipped her snout into the air and howled outright.

I said stop it. Riley was just about to put her inside when he realized why the dog was howling. Loretta’s keen sense of hearing had detected the car coming long before it made the corner. Riley got to his feet. He stared, his mouth opening in disbelief as Carrie’s Volvo pulled in the drive.

He felt like tilting his head back and howling, too.

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