“Six years is a long time.”
“Too long. Then we moved here. She told me things would be better because her brother was here. Until then I hadn’t known I’d had an uncle.”
“What happened when you met him?” Gracie asked.
“I didn’t. She left me at the motel and went to see him herself. When she came back, I knew that she’d been crying, but she wouldn’t admit it. She wouldn’t say anything except she was going to find us a nice little house where we could be happy.”
He led Gracie toward a cluster of rocks and sat down next to them. She settled beside him. He reached for her hand again.
“I put the pieces together over time,” he said, not wanting to remember, but lost in the past all the same. “Her brother told her that she’d turned her back on the family when she’d run off to be with my father. As far as he was concerned, she didn’t exist. Neither did I.”
Gracie shifted closer so she could snuggle up against him. “I’m sorry your uncle was just a big old poop head.”
Despite the ghosts and the ache of the past, Riley smiled. “I’ve been calling him a heartless bastard all these years, but I kind of like poop head.”
“It’s true. How could he ignore his own family?”
Riley leaned back against the rocks and put his free arm around her. “Easily enough. I never did meet him. When I got in trouble around town, he’d send me a letter, reprimanding me for whatever I’d done.”
“You were never that bad.”
He glanced down at her. “I was wild.”
She smiled. “I know. It was one of your best qualities. Your bad-boy ways made my little teenage heart beat so fast. You were dangerous and sexy.” She gave him a teasing grin. “Did you know I had a crush on you?”
He chuckled. “Gee, really? You were so subtle about it.”
“I know.” She sighed. “That’s me. Subtle gal. Did he come to the wedding?”
“No. My mom probably sent him an invitation, but I didn’t care if he showed up or not. I’m sure Pam was hoping for a great gift, but he didn’t bother with that, either.”
“I know Pam’s being really nice and all,” Gracie said. “But it’s hard for me to feel sorry for her.”
“Me, either. I didn’t want to marry her. Did you know that?”
She stared at him, her eyes wide. “You’re kidding. I thought you were wildly in love with her.”
“Lust,” he said firmly. “There’s a huge difference. At eighteen, I liked having her as a steady girlfriend, because she put out. When she told me she was pregnant, I was furious. She’d sworn she was on the Pill and I believed her.”
Gracie shifted on the sand. “I never said I was.”
He brushed his mouth against her hair. “Not the same thing. I told you, I don’t blame you for that.”
He pulled his hand free and pressed it against her mouth. “No.”
“But—” He pressed a little harder. “What aren’t you getting?”
He appreciated her worrying, but as far as he was concerned, the fault was his. He’d been the one so damned intent on having her, he’d forgotten to make sure they were both protected. He hadn’t gotten successful by being stupid.
“What were we talking about?” he asked.
“You not wanting to marry Pam because you were secretly in love with me.”
“I didn’t want to marry Pam.”
“I’ll take that if it’s all I can get,” she said. “And remind you—again—that I warned you about her.”
“Yes, you did, but I didn’t listen. Not that it would have mattered. My mother insisted. She said I had a responsibility.” He grimaced as he remembered the fights he’d had with her. “She wanted me to be respectable and do the right thing.”
“You just wanted out.”
“Yeah. I’m not saying my mom was wrong. But at eighteen, I didn’t see it. I married Pam, stayed around long enough to find out she wasn’t pregnant, then took off. But first I told my mom she’d ruined my life and I would never forgive her.”
He stared out at the dark ocean. The moon hadn’t risen and he could barely see the white foam swirling along the beach.
“It was the last time we ever spoke,” he said slowly.
“What?” Gracie pushed away and stared at him. “You mean because you left?”
He nodded. “I was angry. I took off and headed north. Eventually I ended up on those oil rigs in the South China Sea. I grew up a little and got some perspective. So I sent her a letter and a check. She wrote me back, asked me to come see her sometime. I said I would. But I never made the time.”
He hadn’t thought it was important and he’d still been angry.
“Finally she wrote me and told me she was sick. Cancer. So I made arrangements to come back. But she didn’t say it was urgent and I didn’t drop everything. A week before I was supposed to leave, I got a call from a nurse in the county hospital telling me my mother had less than forty-eight hours to live. It took me fifty hours to get back. She was already dead.”
Gracie tightened her hold on him. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s long over. Technically Yardley was right today. I never did come back to see my mother while she lay dying.”
“You didn’t know.”
“Is that a good excuse?” he asked, still staring at the ocean. “I don’t think so. She was alone. That’s the worst of it. She died in the county hospital by herself. Her selfish son couldn’t be bothered to get his ass back in a timely fashion. And her own brother, who lived right in town, didn’t bother going to see her.”
Gracie rose to her knees and stared at him. “What are you talking about?”
“Donovan Whitefield kept his word. He never forgave his sister.” Riley looked at Gracie. “I found her letters later. The ones he’d returned without ever opening them. She begged him for money to pay for treatment. What I sent her wasn’t nearly enough and she knew that back then I couldn’t have afforded medical treatments. So she asked him, and he didn’t even bother to read them.”
She made a noise low in her throat then threw herself at him.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, pressing against him and shaking.
He stiffened, not sure what to do with her sympathy, then he wrapped his arms around her.
“It’s okay,” he said.
“It’s not.” She raised her head and looked at him. He thought he saw tears on her cheeks, but he wasn’t sure. “None of it is okay. You’re carrying around all this guilt, but it’s not your fault. You didn’t make your mother sick and you didn’t know you had to come back.”
So Gracie wanted to make it all right for him. Didn’t she know that wasn’t possible?
“I did after she told me,” he said flatly.
“But she could have made it more clear. You’re not psychic. Okay, yes, you’re guilty of not hurrying, but that’s all. The rest of it…. How could your uncle have done that? How could he have turned his back on her? I might not like Alexis and Vivian very much right now, but I would never turn them away. Especially with something like that.”
Riley doubted Gracie would turn away a rabid dog if it needed help.
“You need to understand I’m long past saving,” he said. “I’ve made my peace with the past.” Although “peace” might be the wrong word. He’d accepted what had happened and decided how he was going to make it right.
She cupped his face in her hands. “You haven’t found peace. You’re still angry.”
He liked that she could read him so well. “I’ll get over it.”
Gracie wasn’t sure that was possible. How was Riley supposed to accept all that had happened and move on? She could feel the pain inside of him. It radiated from him and made her ache inside. She wanted to surround him and hold him until he began to heal.
She wanted to return to the past and prevent it all from happening.
He was good and strong and decent. He didn’t deserve all this.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, still cupping his face. “I hate that Mayor Yardley took a very personal, painful piece of your past and used it to make himself look better. It’s slimy and horrible.”
“Is he a big old poop head, too?”
“He’s on the poop head management team.” She wiped her tears. “How could he do that? It’s so horrible. And now people are going to think badly of you. It’s not right.”
“I’ll survive,” he said.
“What you need is to win the election. Can I do anything to help?”
“I’ll let you know if we come up with a plan that includes you.”
“I don’t mind knocking on doors and telling people I’m not pregnant.”
One corner of his mouth turned up. “That would get their attention. Why don’t we wait until we’re sure you’re not pregnant before heading in that direction.”
“Oh. Right. Good point.” She slumped down next to him. She didn’t want to think about a baby right now. “I don’t think I could handle one more thing.”
“You mean between your sister who’s getting married, the one freaking out about her husband, the cakes you have to bake, Pam, the mayor telling everyone we’ve had sex and the fact that you might be pregnant?” he asked.
She groaned. “Gee, when you put it like that, I barely have anything going on anymore. Is your list better or worse?”
“It’s different. My father showed up today.”
She didn’t think there was anything else that could shock her, but she was wrong.
“Your father? Here?”
“At the bank,” he said as he slid his hand into her hair and finger combed it to the ends. “It’s been twenty-two years and I still recognized him. I guess that says something.”
She didn’t know what to think. “He wanted to see you?”
Riley gave a laugh that had nothing to do with humor. “No. He wanted money. There was no ‘Hey, son, how’s it going.’ He just asked me to write him a check because he’s running a little short this month.”
She felt as if someone had drop-kicked her heart. Riley spoke as if it didn’t matter, but she knew the pain of being abandoned by a parent. Maybe her situation was a little different, but the loss was very similar.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“It happened. I threw him out but he’ll be back. Hell, I’ll probably give him the money just to get rid of him.”
“I’m sorry,” she repeated and wrapped her arms around him. “I don’t know how to make this all better.”
“Not your job.”
“I know, but I still want to fix it. Make things better.” She reached up and touched his face. “Come home with me.”
Nothing about his expression changed. “That’s a short-term solution.”
“It’s the best I have right now.”
“I’m not complaining.”
GRACIE WONDERED if she would fight second thoughts on the drive back to his house. The night was dark, the car silent. Their only communication came from his hand holding hers, his thumb brushing against the back of her hand.
Her body was an odd combination of tension and relaxation. While the thought of them making love again had her quivering from the inside out, she also felt completely calm. As if this decision had been made a millennia ago and she was simply fulfilling her destiny.