NINE

Just a year ago, Riley would have been checking out Caroline’s legs as she sauntered up his walkway. Tonight, he checked for weapons.

Riley stood on the top step, more as a blockade than greeting. He didn’t want her on the porch, let alone in the house. I told you to never come back here again.

I thought you meant the office. She flashed him a grin and stopped at the foot of the stairs, looking up at him sweetly.

I was just heading out, Riley lied.

Carrie’s eyes flickered toward the half-empty beer in his hand, and her tolerant smile revealed that she knew better. I just need a minute of your time.

Then we’ll talk while I walk you to your car.

He took a sip from his beer and stepped down to the sidewalk, walking right past Carrie and catching a whiff of her perfume. She’d worn the same scent since their first year of med school, and when he was in love with her, he had associated that scent with joy. Nowadays it just reminded him of the nauseating cocktail of formaldehyde-phenol that had hovered over them as they dissected their anatomy lab cadaver, proving that love could not only make you blind, but it could fuck with your olfactory system, too.

Could you put that dog away, please?

Riley smiled to himself. He knew Carrie hated Loretta. It was mutual.

You won’t be staying. He pulled open the driver door of Carrie’s sedan and gestured for her to get behind the wheel. Drive safely.

Carrie’s hand covered his. Please, Riley.

He yanked his hand away.

How did this happen to us? We belong together.

Riley turned and walked toward the house.

You are cruel! she screamed after him. You let a rumor completely destroy everything we’d planned! You went chasing after a baby that doesn’t even exist! How could you do that to me?

Riley made it to the porch, Loretta at his heels. I’m calling the police.

Why couldn’t you give us another chance, Riley? Why? Carrie ran up the sidewalk, falling onto her hands on the porch steps, where she began to wail. Loretta joined in. Even though you basically left me at the altar, I was here waiting for you when you got back! But you just pushed me away! I love you! Why can’t you understand that? Shut that dog /up/!

Riley retrieved the cordless phone and began to dial, knowing that even if he did call the police, no one on the other end would be able to hear anything because of the surround-sound howling.

Carrie screeched louder than the dog, Riley! Look at me! I insist you look at me when I’m talking!

Whssht! Loretta strolled over to Riley at the command and sat at his feet in silence. The day I canceled the wedding to go look for Aidan was the best damn day of my life.

Carrie’s face collapsed. The tears stopped instantly. Who is Aidan?

My son.

You found him?

We found each other. Through Kat.

Carrie straightened up, dusting off her suit. So that’s why she came to town? To tell you about your son?

The police should be on their way, Riley said.

She’s just trying to ruin my life, don’t you see?

The pleasant lilt of her voice made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He almost wished he’d actually made that call to the police. What in the hell are you talking about, Carrie?

That Cavanaugh girl. Carrie ran a hand through her hair and smiled.

She’s just trying to keep you from me.

Riley rubbed his jaw. Few things about the human condition surprised him anymore, but from a clinical perspective, Carrie’s complete disconnect with reality was as fascinating as it was creepy.

Well, Carrie, here’s the thing…

Yes? Her eyes brightened.

Kat is back in my life and Aidan is very much my son. That’s where my attention is. Not you.

Her smile vanished. She began to slowly back away, retreating toward her car. Just before she ducked inside and drove away, she said, You will live to regret this.

Not likely.

Loretta let out a howl of good riddance.

He was hard as rock, but his flesh tasted sweet, tender, and as melt-in-your-mouth warm as freshly baked bread slathered in butter. Kat was operating on nothing but instinct, driven on by his wordless responses. When she flicked at the underside of his cock with her tongue, he shuddered. That probably meant he liked it. She nibbled along the length of him, cradling his flesh in her teeth while she looked up at his awestruck face. That move must have been a winner, too. When she accepted the swollen head into her mouth and sucked, his cock tasted salty and strong, and his hands went to the sides of her face, gently pushing her away.

Baby, stop. Please. I’m going to come.

That’s OK, she said, truly meaning it. She was fascinated. She couldn’t believe her little mouth held such power over his strong body. She wondered whether all girls had this talent, or if her gift was special.

Either way, it amazed her that she’d already brought him to the point where he was panting and his eyes became so focused he looked angry.

But he wasn’t angryjust serious. He tried to smile as he moved his hands to her hair and stroked, his groans becoming more desperate. Kat wasn’t certain, but she didn’t think he could maintain this excitement too much longer before he She jolted awake. The air felt strangely hot and humid, heavy with the smell of the ocean. Wherever she was, she was a world away from Persuasion’s quarry road and the very first time she’d tasted Riley.

Kat tentatively opened one eye and found herself peering over the edge of a pair of dark sunglasses, only to be struck by light so bright it was painful.

Would you like me to freshen your drink?

Kat lolled her head to the left and encountered the smiling face of a blond guy she thought might be named Jeff. For some reason, she thought he might sell air conditioners for a living. Why would she think that?

Why would she know his name? Her head hurt.

Then it all started to come back to her.

After a restless week in Baltimore, she and Nola had taken a last-minute vacation to the Cayman Islands. They’d flown first class, of course, and checked into a suite at a posh resort. And the night beforetheir first night on the islandthey’d met four Connecticut businessmen at the resort disco. Kat vaguely recalled that Jeff over there, if that was in fact his name, was one of them.

Her body suddenly tightened in panic, her brain racing from one question to the next without pause: Why was this guy sitting next to her, sharing the same beach umbrella? Where was Nola? What had happened last night?

Why was she dreaming of sex with Riley? Could she possibly have…

Did this guy…? /No!/ Without showing any of her anxiety, Kat used a fingertip to nudge the sunglasses down her nose, taking in Jeff’s pleasant expression and his equally pleasant physique. She felt relief wash over her. The answer was noof course she hadn’t. She remembered now. She and Nola had made it back to their suite, quite late and pretty damn giggly, but without any men from Connecticut, the Cayman Islands, or anyplace else.

Jeff gave Kat a friendly smile and pointed to her half-empty cocktail glass. You know what they say about the hair of the dog and all that.

Kat sat up in the cushioned chaise lounge, not wishing to appear to be lounging alongside Jeff. She quickly scanned the beach, and found Nola several umbrellas away, holding court with Jeff’s coworkers.

Are you staying with Mojitos today? Or did you switch to Alka-Seltzer?

Kat ignored the guy’s self-satisfied chuckle, glad that at least one of them thought he was funny. The tall, narrow bar glass on the table was sweating on the outside and its contents looked non-descript, but with a little effort, Kat remembered her cocktail of choice: two Excedrin with a ginger ale chaser.

Thank you for the offer, she said to Jeff in the most pleasant voice she could muster. But I’d prefer to pay for my drinks myself.

He laughed again. You already have, cuteness. This is an all-inclusive resort.

Right. I knew that. Kat wished this guy would get the hint. How rude did she have to be? She’d spent the last twenty minutes or so drooling on herself and dreaming about sex with the only man she’d ever wanted, who was about to marry someone else. She wasn’t exactly encouraging Jeff’s attention.

Besides, I’m really enjoying your company, he added.

Behind the dark lenses, Kat rolled her eyes. I’ve been asleep. I have a wicked hangover. You must be easily entertained.

He chuckled again. Not particularly, but I think I’d enjoy watching you do pretty much anything.

Kat turned away, not sure if the sudden desire to heave was because of last night’s Mojitos or Mr. Jeff. This guy was trying so hard that even if she were interestedwhich she wasn’this approach would have made her run.

She stared hard at Nola in an attempt to will her to turn around and get back here to their umbrella. No such luck. Nola was enjoying herself, and whatever tale she was spinning had the men enthralled. Then again, maybe their interest was in Nola’s little red bikini and not her storytelling.

You know, Kathy, you dodged all my questions last night. Jeff had turned on his left side so that he could gaze at her. He also managed to provide Kat with a full frontal view of himself. How thoughtful of him.

It’s Kat. And trust me when I say that you’d not like my answers.

He laughed again. Jeff sure was a cheerful guy. I think I may have mentioned that I’m an engineer. We’re down here bidding on a new resort construction project.

Mmm, she said.

I design commercial ventilation systems. My specialty is airborne contaminants.

Really? How interesting.

Kat let her head fall back on the cushion, trying to figure out when she could safely take another dose of Excedrin as Jeff droned on about air volume and something called duct velocity, a term that struck her as unbelievably funny. Maybe she was still tipsy.

She sighed and folded her hands in her lap. It had been seven days since she’d returned from Persuasion and nearly that long since Aidan had spoken to her. She’d kept busy, of course. She’d accepted a bid for gutting the kitchen and bathrooms of Phyllis’ row house and hoped to have it in move-in condition by the New Year. Also, she’d officially resigned her job at the florist, and though her boss was sad to see her go, she said she’d known it was coming. If someone left me money, I’d run out the front door like the joint was on fire, she’d said.

Kat gazed out at the shocking blue of the ocean and smiled to herself at the irony. Here she wasrich, single, and not burdened by the need to work for a living. Her child was grown and in college. She could do anything she wanted to do and go anywhere she wanted to go. She could start her own business or go back to school and major in any damn thing she felt like. She could live anywhere she wished. She could see the world, and, in fact, had already seen New York City and Grand Cayman Island.

So why did she feel so empty? Why did the prospect of any of those grand life adventures feel like a dreaded chore?

Riley was marrying somebody else, that’s why.

And you? What do you do? Are you married? Seeing anyone?

Kat realized that Jeff had stopped talking about ducts and had moved on to her personal life. With a sudden jolt of inspiration, she looked him square in the eye.

I should probably warn you that I’m on a truth kick, she said. I’ve gone through some big changes lately, and I’ve decided that the only way to live from here on out is to tell the truth, no matter what. So you might want to take your towel and escape while you can.

Jeff tipped his head in interest. How’s that approach working out for you?

Kat laughed. It’s a long story.

I got time. Our pre sen ta tion isn’t until tomorrow.

Kat saw genuine interest on the man’s face, but she shook her head. I don’t think so.

Why don’t you start at the beginning? That’s usually a good place. Then you can just build on that.

Kat frowned. You mean, like, with my childhood?

Sure.

You have no idea what you’re getting into.

Jeff shrugged. Take me for an example. I was one of three kids, born and raised in Vermont. My dad was a middle school principal and my mom ran a day-care center. I went to Yale on scholarship and got my degree in engineering. I’m thirty-two. Never been married.

Wow, Kat said. I must have missed that sign-up sheet.

And you?

Kat reached for her watered-down ginger ale and drank every warm, fizzless drop that remained. I was born in a West Virginia coal-mining town, she said.

He laughed. That’s a good one.

It’s not a joke.

Oh. Jeff looked mortified. Sorry.

It was also a college town. My father was an art professor and a wife beater. My mother was a house wife who was scared of her own shadow. One Wednesday when I was sixteen, I found out I was pregnant, got thrown out of school, kicked to the curb by my boyfriend, and then went home to find my dad out in his sculpting studio, screwing the governor’s wife.

The state had commissioned him to do her bust, but I guess he decided to go ahead and do all of her.

Damn.

He saw me watching them. He sent the woman packing and then got in his car and drove off. My mom came home a couple minutes later. She’d been at the grocery. She found me out in the studio where I’d smashed the bust to a million pieces.

Jeff stared.

My mom told me my dad would kill me when he found out. I cried and told her I was pregnant. She gave me all the cash she had hidden in the cookie jar and then kicked me out.

Oh my God.

So I hitchhiked on a lumber truck and was taken in by a woman in Baltimore who played bingo for a living and had up to forty-seven parakeets at a time. Her name was Phyllis and she helped hide me so my family could never find me. I had my baby. He’s a sophomore at Johns Hopkins now. He wants to cure cancer.

Jeff’s mouth hung open.

I got my GED and then an associate’s degree from a community college.

I’ve worked as a florist for seventeen years, can you imagine? Then Phyllis died a few months ago and left me stinking rich. Apparently, she’d invested all her bingo winnings in communication and tech stocks.

So I went with Nola thereKat pointed over her shoulderto Manhattan, where we got outrageous head-to-toe make overs and then came up with the brilliant idea that I should go back to my hometown and get revenge while I still looked good, which we did about a week ago.

Jeff leaned toward Kat. I’ve been meaning to tell you how much I love your cut.

Thanks.

So? What happened?

Well, my father had a heart attack when I showed up in town. Then I learned that my mother died a year ago. Then I realized I might still have feelings for my high school sweetheartmy kid’s fatherwho is getting married to another woman in a couple months.

No!

Yes. But we had incredibly hot sex while I was in townbefore I knew he was engaged. In fact, I was just dreaming about him a minute ago, thinking how every time I’ve ever touched that man has been like magic.

Even the first time. And we were just kids. Kat paused. You know, I’ve only ever experienced sex and love together when I’ve been with that man. What is /wrong/ with me? I mean, it can’t be natural to be hung up on one man your whole life, can it?

Jeff’s lips parted like he wanted to speak, but nothing came out.

Here’s the really interesting part. Kat took a deep breath. I’d always told my son that I didn’t know who had gotten me pregnant as a teenager, that I was just another runaway hillbilly slut teenage mother.

Get /out/ of here!

So just the other day I had to tell him the truththat he has a father, a father who wanted him all along. I had to tell him I’ve been lying to him his whole freaking life! And now he won’t speak to me!

Jeff suddenly sat up, swinging his feet over the edge of the lounge chair and shoving them into the sand. He hung his head in his hands and mumbled something that Kat thought ended with the word nightmare.

Yeah, she said, sighing. It’s a mess.

But aren’t you relieved? When Jeff looked up, Kat saw tears in his eyes.

Aren’t you at least glad that the truth is finally out? You’d been carrying the burden of lies for so many years that it’s got to feel good to let it go.

Kat thought about that for a minute.

Jeff looked worried by her delay in answering. It’s a good thing, right?

Actually, Kat said, it pretty much sucks.

Oh God! Jeff put his hands on either side of his face and looked nervously out to sea.

Kat was surprised by the level of his concern. The guy seemed broken up over her story. Hey, I’ll be all right, she said.

Jeff turned back and snapped at her, This is not about you! His outburst was obviously a surprise to him and he groaned. Look, I’m sorry. I do want you to be OK and everythingyou seem like a wonderful personbut I was thinking about /me/. My own lying, stinking mess of a life. I’m..

. well…

Kat was having trouble following him. You’re what?

So completely gay, he whispered. I’ve been hiding all my life, but I’ve finally fallen in love and I have to come out to my family, friends, even the guys I work with, or I’m just going to explode! Jeff’s eyes flickered toward the group down the beach. But after hearing that god-awful account Kat sat up too fast and almost lost her balance.

Don’t say that! She placed her hand on Jeff’s forearm. My situation is just a little unusual is all. I’m sure the truth works out really well for most people.

Jeff stared down at his feet and wiggled his toes in the sand. I don’t know.

By the way, why were you hitting on me so hard if you’re gay?

Jeff raised his eyes and stared at her incredulously.

Fine, but if you plan to keep posing as a straight man, you need to improve your game. Those were the worst pickup lines I’ve ever heard.

Am I interrupting something? Nola’s voice had an edge of disapproval to it.

Kat turned, leaving her hand on Jeff. Not at all. Join us.

I should be going anyway. Jeff jumped from the lounge and grabbed his towel. Maybe we’ll all catch up later.

Kat was surprised when Jeff leaned down and kissed her cheek and whispered, Thank you, sweetie. She smiled at him.

Nola wasted no time spreading her towel on the chair and taking Jeff’s place. He’s cute. Is he any more exciting than the other three?

You seemed happy enough over there.

Nola shrugged. I’d rather be getting my freak on than my geek on.

Kat laughed and lay back down, closing her eyes. You say you’re not looking for a man, anyway.

I’m not, and ten minutes with those weenies reminded me why.

Jeff was a very nice guy, actually.

Yeah? Well, I bet Dr. Bohunk wouldn’t like him very much.

Kat hissed. He’s gay, Nola. /Riley is gay!/ Kat burst out with a laugh, which hurt her forehead. I was talking about Jeff.

Thank you, God.

But don’t say anything to his friends, because they don’t know. Not yet, anyway.

Well, all I’m saying is, I think you’re glossing over the fact that Riley has been trying to reach you for days.

There’s nothing to say to each other.

You really should talk to himmaybe he’s had a falling-out with the future Mrs. Bohunk. Hey! Nola shot straight up with excitement. Maybe Riley was so happy to see you that he’s called off the wedding!

Kat closed her eyes, relieved to retreat behind the shades. Her head pounded harder, which wasn’t entirely bad, because at least it gave her something to focus on besides the ache in her heart. /How could Riley be marrying someone else? He was supposed to be with me! How could he love anyone elseever?/ I’ve told you, Nola. Riley and Aidan know about each other and what happens from here on is between them. There’s no future for me and Rileyeven if I wanted one, which I don’t.

Nola chewed on her lip. You should at least hear what the man has to say.

Can we just drop it for now? I’m on vacation.

Technically, hon, the rest of your life is nothing but one long vacation. Nola stretched out on the chair with a deep moan of contentment. Not that there’s a damn thing wrong with that.

The presentation was titled /Diabetes Management in Rural Uninsured Populationsa Quarter Century of Failed Policy/, and Carrie’s mind churned with fury. Oh, the injustice of it all! How could this have happened? How could something with so much promise be upended this way?

Kat Cavanaugh would pay.

Carrie sat front and center in the small statehouse auditorium, crossing her legs and pretending to listen intently. In just minutes, she would be expected to stroll up to the podium and comment on the ongoing study.

But if the truth be told, she couldn’t summon any interest in chronic disease management at this particular moment. While the presenter had droned on about community exercise classes and supervised meal planning, Carrie had been busy sending all of her positive, life-affirming energy toward Riley. Simultaneously, she’d been visualizing Kat Cavanaugh being run over by a garbage truck.

Carrie heard everyone in the auditorium clap, so she began clapping as well. She looked around, smiling pleasantly, trying to gauge how close the speaker was to wrapping it up. Carrie figured she had at least another ten minutes.

She would find Kat Cavanaugh’s weak spot. Everybody had one. With a head start from Madeline and about three thousand dollars’ worth of billable hours from a private detective, Carrie now knew quite a bit about the girl who’d been running around Baltimore using the last name Turner.

Carrie had had a hearty laugh when she found out how Kat had gotten her money. It turned out she wasn’t a call girl after allshe was a flat-out whore! Carrie could only imagine the elaborate web of deceit Kat had spun to get into that unsuspecting woman’s will.

Kat’s mother might be dead, but her fathera retired Mountain Laurel professor recovering from balloon angioplastystill lived in Persuasion and might be worth a visit. And then there was the infamous child. Just as Riley said, his name was Aidan, and he’d somehow gotten himself accepted into Johns Hopkins on a lacrosse scholarship, which floored her. She herself had applied there for both undergraduate and medical schools and was rejected both times! It must have been because she was from out of state. And didn’t play lacrosse.

Carrie checked her lipstick in a small compact and let out a big sigh.

It really did take a lot of nerve to name that kid Aidan. She knew Big Daddy had to be rolling around in his grave at the insult. If Riley weren’t so sentimental, he’d get a paternity test on the kid and move on. But Carrie was beginning to realize that Riley needed to believe the child was his. He had such a good heart. He had so much to give. He just wanted to be a father! /Oh, Riley/, she thought, closing her eyes to center herself, /I am open to receive your love. I say yes, yes to your love! And I will give you the son you so desperately want, a son who can carry on the Bohland family name without shame/.

Her mind drifted to the spat she’d had with the caterer earlier that morning. That diva actually said he refused to drizzle his hollandaise sauce on anything but the finest local or regional asparagus, which would be unavailable in December in West Virginia. Carrie had been stupefied. How simple could it be? She was the bride. She wanted fucking asparagus for the reception. What part of that arrangement didn’t he understand?

Carrie felt a sharp jab on her upper arm and turned in shock to the person who’d obviously assaulted her.

Wake up, whispered the man in the next seat. He jerked his thumb toward the stage. They just introduced a Dr. Caroline Mathis. That’s you, right?

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