Vengeance: An Oak Grove Suspense

Vengence Cover verticalChapterOne

Shayla

I stand in my shower pondering all the ways my life has changed since my parents’ death when I was thirteen. How would things be different for me if my parents hadn’t been killed, if I hadn’t ended up pregnant at fifteen, or if I hadn’t had to raise my son alone? How different would things be if his dad would have been there for us? What if I hadn’t married a man who was already married? That last one is still a sore subject for me. But none of these things were in my power to control or change. Not that I’d want to change anything … okay, I would change marrying a married man. The rest, though it’s a nice idea to have one’s parents, I couldn’t change it and still be sure I’d have my son. I love my son more than words and I’ve made something out of myself in spite of everything I’ve gone through in my life. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger they say, and I believe it. I’m definitely a stronger person because of my experiences. Even if those experiences were due to others’ choices for my life.

I haven’t squandered the gifts and privileges that the Thorns (my adoptive parents) and my birth-parents’ trust-fund gave me. I’m sure trust-fund sucked all sympathy for me out of your mind, but it wasn’t an extreme amount. It was enough to get me through college, buy myself a car, and my first house. Plus, the Thorns helped with my son and anything else that came up. They went above and beyond as I became a doctor and got my life started in our new home. They even supported my decision to marry my husband, even though they weren’t pleased.

The latter was entirely my choice and it was the wrong one. He was a fellow resident and things were easy with him. I thought he was the forever my son and I needed, but I was terribly wrong. He seemed like a good man. Everyone (minus my parents) loved him, but two weeks ago, I found out that his business trips were really just to see his other wife. He handed me “divorce” papers, giving me everything. In exchange, I was to never contact him or his real wife, whom he had married the day they graduated high school, making our marriage a complete farce. Angrily, I signed the papers and threw them back at the lawyer before storming out of his office.

My son, Dylan, was devastated. Todd had been the only father he knew. He didn’t even have the decency to tell him goodbye. Instead, he left a note telling Dylan he was sorry. I can forgive a lot of things, but that isn’t one of them. A pounding on the bathroom door startles me back to the present.

“Mom! The movers are here!” Dylan shouts.

That would be my current life choice. One I’m not sure is the best, but at least I’ll be back home. I’ll have the Thorns around for support. Plus, Dylan’s dad (his biological one) wants to get to know him. I’m probably more nervous about that than Dylan, but only because it’s Ryan, the love of my life. I shake thoughts of him from my mind as I quickly finish up my morning routine and head out to instruct the movers what must go. It doesn’t take them long to clear out the already packed boxes, and by ten in the morning, we’re ready to make the six hour trip home. We ride in almost complete silence for the better part of two hours before Dylan says anything.

“Is Ryan going to be there tonight?” Dylan asks.

I quickly glance over at him. He seems nervous. “Um, I asked him not to be.”

“Why?”

“I just thought it would be better if we could get settled in before we have to deal with him.”

Dylan turns in his seat. “What’s that mean?”

I run my hand through my hair. “Nothing bad. I just haven’t seen him in almost sixteen years.”

“Oh.” He pauses then asks, “Do you still love him?”

I scrunch my nose. Not that it’s unexpected for a kid to want to know about his parents, but it’s so complicated. Ryan and I had decided it would be best to not tell Dylan about our phone calls. He knows that I’ve talked to him, of course, just not the extent or frequency. I wanted to be sure Ryan was really committed to having a son and everything that entails and that he wasn’t just feeling entitled because he contributed DNA. Especially, since a lot of his reasoning was that he wanted to get to know me again with the added caveat that we should work through our issues. Our issues have nothing to do with him knowing his son. But, I agreed, because I honestly believed Dylan would be better off in the dark for now. Why get his hopes up if Ryan turns out to be a jerk about the whole thing?

“Mom?” Dylan asks, drawing me out of my thoughts.

“I don’t know,” I finally say. “People change, Dyl. I love a part of him, the part that gave me you.”

“That’s grownup speak for, ‘Yes, I pine for him.’ or whatever those romance novels say.” He laughs. I swat him playfully.

“I have no clue what they say, but no, it’s not adult speak for anything. It’s just the truth. I’m not the same person I was when I was fifteen and I’m sure he isn’t either.”

“He sounds like a total douchebag to leave his pregnant underage girlfriend to join the military.”

“First, watch your mouth. Second, he didn’t know anything about you until a year ago.”

Dylan scoffs. “Why didn’t he step up then?”

I exhale. I know he’s not a little kid, but there’s so much he just wouldn’t understand. I don’t even understand it myself. This bond that Ryan and I had. I can feel it simmering under the surface, and I know if I let it, it will consume me again. I just need time to sort through my feelings without giving a blow by blow to my son. I let out an exasperated sigh and try to be as honest as I possibly can.

“Because he was in the middle of moving across country to care for his mom and he

didn’t find out about you in the best of ways, so he was a little rattled.”

“Yeah, you’ve told me that already.” I can tell by his tone that he’s not happy with my answer.

“Yes, but you keep asking. Dylan, there’s really not much to it. He broke up with me and joined the Marines. I found out I was pregnant after he left. I tried contacting him and couldn’t reach him. Then a year ago some girl we knew from high school told him I had been pregnant and had a little boy who she thought the Thorns kept.”

“So he went to Maw and Pops?”

“Yeah, and they told him the truth; that I’d tried contacting him. He knew that was true, because he was the one rejecting my calls.”

“Why would he do that?”

“The one time he answered, he basically told me he was an adult and didn’t have time for childish games anymore and I should stop calling him because he was with someone else. He hung up and I never tried again.”

“Jerk.”

I hate that Dylan is forming a low opinion of his father, but I can’t lie to him either. Ryan hurt me deeply.

“Yep, but in his defense, he had no clue about you.”

“But you knew each other your whole life; your parents had been best friends. Weren’t they supposed to take you when your parents died?” my son asks. I can hear a tinge of anger in his voice.

I inhale a deep breath and explain to him again, “Yes, that’s true. I later found out that they’d had a huge falling out and had planned to change their will so that the Thorns would take me. That’s why it took them so long to get me. They only had a handwritten letter that my dad had started. They had to go through foster classes and be approved, since the change wasn’t put in place.”

“That took over two years?”

“Yeah, because at first they tried fighting to get me with the letter, but I got lost in the shuffle of things and they couldn’t find my file. The system is so bogged down that things just happen, but luckily I went to them right before I found out I was pregnant. I have no clue what would have happened to you if I’d been in a group home.” I shudder at the thought.

“Was your adoption finalized before you knew?” Dylan asks.

I shake my head. “No, not until June, right before I had you.”

“Right. So, Maw and Pop adopted you, you had me, then went to college and became a big time surgeon.”

I laugh. “Yeah, exactly.” There was so much in between those things, but that was the perfect summary for a teenager.

We’re about an hour from our new, old home when the phone rings. I groan when I see that it’s Ryan. “It’s your dad, you want me to answer?”

“Go ahead, but do hands free.”

I roll my eyes at my protective offspring, but do as he asks. Nosy kid. “Hello,” I answer.

“Hey, you almost here?”

“About an hour out.”

“Awesome. Listen, I know you don’t want me there, but I’d really like to have dinner with you guys tonight.”

“Ry …”

“I know what you said, Shayla! You’ve kept me from my son for fifteen years and I will not miss another day of his life. You owe me this much. It’s just pizza.” Sighing, I look at my son, who looks almost hopeful. I’m about to answer when Ryan continues. “Unless Dylan doesn’t want to meet me tonight, I’ll be there.”

I gesture for Dylan to answer. He clears his throat and says, “Uh.

Yeah, that’d be great.”

“I’m on speaker?” Ryan says with an edge of anger.

“Duh, you called me while I’m driving.”

He huffs. “Right, sorry. It’s good to hear your voice, Dylan. I can’t wait to finally meet you.”

“Me too,” Dylan replies.

I’ve spoken to Ryan a handful of times since he called me that first time. That initial conversation was full of anger and accusations, but eventually we called a truce. The rest of our conversations were … nice, for lack of a better word. He filled me in on a few things about his past, and I about mine. We never talked about our break up other than both agreeing we wished things had been different. It’s crazy that those little interactions have stirred up feelings in me that I don’t know what to do with. I miss Ryan; that much I do know, but there’s a hopeful longing inside of me that things between us might work out this time. I’m not sure how I’ll react to him when I see him. I know I want to be careful, and take things slowly, but it’s hard to tell my heart to do that. I’m scared we’ll move too fast, and not only will I get hurt, but Dylan will as well. That alone makes me so anxious that I feel sick.

Dylan and I are quiet the rest of the ride until we get about a mile from the house. “Um, we’re almost there. You sure this is okay? If you don’t want to meet like this, I’ll call him.”

“No, it’s fine. I want to meet him.” I nod in agreement, hoping this isn’t the wrong choice for my son.

We arrive at my childhood home not long after. My heart thuds a rapid rhythm in my chest as I see Ryan standing on the porch steps. He looks so … good.

“Dang, that’s him?” Dylan asks.

I can’t help but giggle. “Yep, that’s your dad.”

“Awesome. I hope he can teach me how to build muscle like that. Wonder if he’d take me to get a tatt.”

“No!” I yell, looking at him with wide, surprised eyes. He throws his head back and laughs.

“You’re so easy, Mom.”

I smack his arm. “You snot.”

He continues to laugh as he gets out of the car. Taking a deep breath, I reach for the door handle, only to let go when the door is pulled open by Ryan.

“Long time, no see,” he greets me with an easy bright smile. The one I remember so well, the one his son also has.

“Yeah, I guess it is.” My smile is involuntary.

This easy nature is one of the things I fell in love with when we were kids. He’s like gravity; he’s always pulled me in. Suddenly, and without warning, he pulls me into a tight hug. My arms hang limply at my sides.

“I’ve missed you,” he whispers into my hair. I exhale softly, closing my eyes to keep my tears at bay. Just as quickly as the hug starts, it ends and he says, “Introduce me to our boy.”

I pull back and wipe my eyes before turning to our son. “Dylan, this is your dad, Ryan.”

“Hey,” Dylan says quietly.

He sticks out his hand into the customary first meeting handshake. Ryan, who is a hugger by nature, swats his hand away and pulls him into a full bear hug. Dylan squeaks in surprise, but accepts the hug from his dad and returns it. My heart melts at the sight of it.

“I’m so glad you’re here. We have a lot to talk about, but first, I want to introduce you to Luigi’s famous pizza!” He slaps Dylan on the back and pulls him towards the house.

I can already tell that Dylan is being sucked in by Ryan’s charm, but I guess that can only be a good thing. Gale Thorn, or Maw as Dylan calls her, stands on her porch next door and waves hello with a big smile. I return her smile and wave.

“I’ll come over soon.”

“Take your time, darling. Get reacquainted. We’ll be here.” I nod and hurry up the stairs. By the time I get inside, the guys have filled their plates and have started to eat.

“Just alike. No manners.” I tease. They both give identical snorts.

“So I get my awesomeness from my dad,” Dylan says with a cheese-pizza-filled grin. I shove him playfully by the shoulder.

“You get your nastiness from your dad.”

“Hey, I resemble that remark!” Ryan defends with the same pizza-filled grin. I knew they looked similar but seeing them together, it’s remarkable. Dylan is a younger Ryan.

“You’re ridiculous as always, I see,” I tell him.

“Always,” he agrees. “So, Dylan, you excited about going to school where your parents went?”

Dylan rolls his eyes. “I’m pretty sure all schools are the same. I do want to try out for football though.”

“Well, you’re in luck. I happen to be one of the coaches.” He winks.

I look at him. “Really? I thought you were a police detective.”

He nods and wipes his mouth. “I am, but the school lost their coach over the summer and asked me if I’d help out.”

“Is Principal Dillard still there?” I ask.

“Nope, he retired last year, but his daughter took over. You remember Amber, right?” I grimace. We were almost enemies because of Ryan. Well, because Ryan dated me. “She’s not so bad anymore. She’s married with a couple of kids.”

“That’s good.”

Ryan laughs at me. “You sound barely convinced. It won’t be as bad as you think.”

I give him a look to show my disbelief. “I’m sure there’s gossip. The town isn’t that big.”

Ryan nods as he grabs his third piece of pizza. “Of course. A town this small wouldn’t be what it is without gossip. I’m sure if I’d come back sooner, I’d have known right away that you’d had my kid,” he says this almost playfully, but I can tell there’s some hurt too.

“I’m …” Ryan holds up a hand to stop me.

“I’m not over it, but I understand, mostly. It’s in the past and I’m ready to move on. All I’m saying is this town thrives off of the latest juicy news.” I know he’s right so I don’t argue.

“Where have you been if you weren’t around here?” Dylan asks. He knows his dad was in the military, but neither of us know much else.

“I was in the Marines for four years. Then I worked in DC with the FBI. I came home a year ago to help my mom, who had cancer, but she’s doing a lot better now. She’s in remission. I hadn’t been back here in sixteen years before then.”

“What do you do now?” Dylan asks.

“I’m a detective with the police department. There’s not a lot happening in this tiny town, so I often work with a few of the surrounding cities or sometimes fill in as a Deputy Sheriff.”

“You like it?”

I watch as father and son talk and my heart aches for them both, for time lost. Even though I didn’t intentionally choose to separate them, I had done just that. My choice caused this, but Ryan’s choice to not speak to me also played a part. I can understand his guilt and anger, but I can also understand moving forward. After talking for a few hours, Dylan glances at me.

“Do you mind if I crash?”

I know he’s exhausted; neither of us has been sleeping well. I nod my head, standing. “Of course not. I’ll help you get settled.”

Ryan stands as well. “I’ll work on the mess.”

I nod and mouth, “thank you.” I lead Dylan to his room, which is up the stairs and the first bedroom on the left. Gale has already fixed it up for him, though I’m sure he still needs to personalize it. His bed and furniture were delivered a few days ago so he can shower and jump right in.

“What’d you think?”

“I like him,” Dylan says immediately.

I smile. I’d meant his room, but I’m glad he and Ryan hit it off so well. “That’s good.”

“You think he likes me?” He seems so much like my little boy, I want to hug him tightly, but I know he won’t like an emotional mom moment.

“Of course he does. You’re awesome, what’s not to like?” I tease.

He smiles. “I hope he sticks around.”

“He will. Everything will be okay, baby.” I smooth my hand through his hair like I’ve done many times throughout his life.

“I hope so. I’m really tired. I think I’ll just crash, okay?”

“Whatever you want. Tomorrow, we’ll have to help unload the moving truck, but after that we’ll just take it easy and start unpacking the next day.”

“Sounds good. Night, Mom. I love you,” Dylan says, hugging me

I squeeze him tightly, making him chuckle, then stand on my tiptoes to kiss my over six-foot-tall son on the cheek. I pause for a moment as I step out of the room, not looking forward to going back downstairs and having what I’m sure will be an awkward conversation with Ryan. When I reach the kitchen, I stop and stare at the man before me. He is so much different from the boy who left me. He’s grown a few inches taller, making him closer to six-three and he’s bulked out. Not like a body builder, but very fit and lightly tanned, with visible muscles. His slightly wavy, almost black hair is longer than I’ve ever seen it. It’s now hanging down to his shoulders. I can see bits of tattoos peeking out of his tight, black t-shirt, and his blue jeans are faded and worn but fit him so perfectly. He’s absolutely as breathtaking now as he was when I was fifteen. At that time in my life, I thought the world revolved around him.

“See something you like?” he asks, startling me out of my thoughts.

I clear my throat. “Yep,” I answer honestly.

“What’s that?” he asks with a quirked eyebrow.

“The walls. I like the paint color Gale chose.”

He guffaws. “Yeah, right. You’re still a horrible liar. I saw you checking me out.” He flexes his muscles, to which I roll my eyes.

“So why ask then?”

Chuckling, he walks over, stopping directly in front of me, and giving me a sexy smile. His hand lifts and moves a piece of my hair behind my ear, causing my breathing to hitch.

“I still affect you,” he whispers leaning into me. “You still very much affect me.” He presses a kiss to my temple. “Beautiful,” he murmurs.

My eyes close as I try to reign in my emotions. It’s ridiculous for him to affect me all these years later, especially with the hurt we’ve both caused each other. He must sense my distress, because he gathers me into his arms and holds me tightly.

“It’s going to be okay, sweetheart. I’m not going anywhere this time. I swear.”

I clutch his shirt in my hands as the dam breaks. He lifts me off the ground, carrying me into the living room and settling us both on the sofa.

“I needed you and you wouldn’t listen,” I sob, letting every bit of pain I’d felt all those years ago surface. “I had to raise him on my own.”

“I know. You’ll never understand the depth of guilt and regret I feel. I hate myself for turning you away. For how I spoke to you the day you called.”

I pull away and sit beside him on the sofa, instead of on his lap. I brush my hair out of my face and twist it into a messy bun before letting my hands fall to my lap to pick at the invisible lint on my pants.

“I’d never hated anyone until that day. You were so cruel. I swore I’d never forgive you, but when I held Dylan in my arms, that all went away. I was so thankful you’d given me him, even if I was too young to really care for him properly. I swore that day that I’d never let him down. I’d finish school and go to college. I’d be a doctor just like my dad. If it wasn’t for the Thorns taking me in when they had, none of that would have happened.”

He squeezes my hand. “I’m grateful for them and what they did for you both. I’ll never hurt you like that again.”

“Don’t promise me that. You don’t know me and I don’t know you. We haven’t seen each other since we were basically kids.”

“I can tell you’re still the same loving and sweet girl you were then. Sure, you’ve grown up and matured, but under that armor of adulthood, you’re still the scared little girl who would climb into my bedroom window and let me hold her all night.”

He leans forward and presses his lips to mine. I resist for about half a second before I give into the passion of my first love. My hands move to his hair and pull him closer. He winds his arms around my back and shoulders, holding me tightly. I haven’t had a kiss this passionate, this exciting, or this full of meaning since the day he broke up with me. Only this time, it isn’t a goodbye.

A bang causes us to break apart and look to our left. Dylan stands there with his mouth gaped open and his eyes wide. He stutters a few times, but gets out a rushed, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you.”

I try in vain to right myself. “What’s wrong?” I ask him.

“Nothing. I was thirsty and couldn’t sleep.”

I jump up. “I’ll get you a bottle of water.”

I hurry into the kitchen, leaving father and son alone. Leaning heavily on the counter in front of the sink, I mentally scold myself. What was I thinking letting Ryan get to me like that? I swore to myself long ago to never get involved with him again. Things would never be off the table for us, ever. I see that now. I grab a water bottle and fill it with filtered water and ice. I head back into the den, but stop when I hear voices, not wanting to intrude. Okay, okay, I was eavesdropping.

“Sorry you had to see that,” Ryan says.

Dylan snorts. “What, you molesting my mom?”

“I was not molesting her. I was kissing her. There’s a huge difference,” Ryan tells him with a bit of anger in his voice.

“Yeah, like it’s not rape for a nineteen year old to have sex with a fifteen year old.”

I knew he couldn’t be as accepting as he had seemed to be. I step out and stare at the two of them for a moment before shifting my look solely to Dylan.

“Okay, that’s enough. He did not rape me. He was eighteen when you were conceived.”

Dylan sputters and shrugs his shoulders. I know it’s not much of a concession. He takes the water bottle from me and then storms up the stairs to his room, slamming his door. I turn to Ryan.

“I have never said anything like that to him. Ever.”

“Don’t worry about it. If he was with an eighteen or nineteen year old, I could see myself having issues with it. We probably shouldn’t have been dating, but we were and he’s the result. I’ll deal with whatever anger he needs to get out.”

I sit down on the couch right in front of him as he sits on the coffee table. “You never raped me.”

“I know,” he tells me, looking me in the eyes. I see his regret.

“You’re not quite three years older than me. It might have been different if you were ten years older, but almost three is nothing, really.”

We are quiet for a long while before I look up to him and see his eyes water as he stares at me. I can see so much on his face right now that I have to fight the urge to pull him towards me.

“I loved you so much. I never wanted to leave you. My dad convinced me that it was the best thing for you. I had no idea you were pregnant. Then when you called me, he told me you were just trying to get me back and I had to stay strong because you were so young. He said that since the state was involved with you, they’d arrest me for statutory rape or something. Even that Simon guy said something similar. I’m so sorry. I should have…”

My eyes tear up as I give in and pull him into my arms, holding him tightly. I’d always thought it was strange the way he was acting, but I never thought it was because of his parents, or Simon for that matter. I thought Simon understood.

“Your dad knew I was pregnant when I called you,” I confess.

He pulls back. “What?”

I clear my throat. “I called you at home first, but he wouldn’t let me talk, so I went to your house. Your dad answered the door. I told him needed to talk to you, or at least write you a letter, that it was important. I didn’t expect you to take me back, I just had to tell you something. He said it wasn’t a good idea and refused to give me your address. I begged him, and finally confessed that I needed to tell you I was pregnant. I told him that I didn’t expect anything out of you or them, but I thought you should know.” Ryan sat for a long time just staring at me. I grew uncomfortable under his gaze. “I’m sorry.” I blurt out.

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” He shakes his head. “I don’t understand why he’d do that. Unless, he thought I’d get into trouble. What exactly did he say to you?”

I decide to only answer his first question, because I honestly don’t want to relive the latter questions. “Because you wouldn’t listen to me. The first time you called was horrible and then after you calmed down, you only wanted to talk to Dylan.”

He nods agreeing. “And my dad, what did he say, Shay?”

I look down for a moment and steady myself. “Your dad told me not to tell anyone because you could go to jail.” He lifts my chin so that I’m looking at him. “Then he told me to keep my legs closed from now on. I’m paraphrasing, because there was some really harsh language in there that doesn’t need to be repeated.”

Ryan makes a really disgusted noise before standing. “I need to go,” he growls as he heads to the door.

I grab his arm. “Hey, it was almost sixteen years ago. Just let it go, please.” When he still doesn’t move, I say, “For Dylan.”

He slowly turns towards me, taking my hand from his arm and holding it in his. “Shayla, my dad died two years ago.”

I gasp. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I had no idea. I shouldn’t have told you.”

He waves me off. “It’s fine. I just need to process all this. I have no doubt he said that to you. He’s said several things to me over the years that I didn’t understand, but now it all makes sense. I need some time to think. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I nod. “Okay. Drive carefully.”

“I don’t need to drive. I live next door.” He chuckles. I look at him confused. “I bought the old Brammer house a year ago. That’s when I found out about Dylan. Sarah Davidson was the real estate agent. She mentioned you and you being pregnant. She had no idea the baby was mine, but I marched right over to the Thorns and asked them. They didn’t want to talk to me, but after I saw his picture, there was no denying it.”

I knew he’d gone to them, but I didn’t know the circumstances. “Why didn’t you tell me when we talked?”

“I didn’t want you to change your mind about moving here.” He had me there. I definitely would have reconsidered.

“You want to see my house?”

“Yeah, but maybe tomorrow. I’m beat and you need to process, remember?”

“You’re right. Plus, if you came over I wouldn’t let you leave.” He chuckles.

“I’m sure that would make our angry son so happy.”

He frowns, all teasing gone. “I really hate that he thinks that about me.”

I shake my head. “I don’t think he does. He’s just angry. He has a lot of pent-up feelings. I mean, the only man he’s ever known as a father cut all ties to him. He basically lied to him most of his life. Then he finds out about you. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the age difference thing.”

“Right, we’ll talk. Hopefully, he won’t hate me forever.”

“He doesn’t hate you.”

“What about you?”

I smile sadly. “I could never hate you, Ryan. We’ll work something out.”

He gives my hand a squeeze. “I love you, Shay. Always have and always will.”

I can tell by the look in his eyes that he’s totally serious. I believe him, but I can’t tell him I’ve always loved him. It may be true, but I need to guard my heart a little while longer.

Chapter Two

Shayla

I wake up early the next morning. It’s still dark out, but I can’t seem to fall back to sleep, so I head to the kitchen for some coffee and a piece of leftover pizza. I feel like death warmed over. Unfortunately, it’s not a feeling I’m unaccustomed to. This is often the feeling I get after pulling double shifts at the hospital. Thankfully, my new position is mostly days with only a few on-call nights.

I take my very nutritious breakfast to the window seat in the den and stare out to my backyard. It’s hard not to think of my parents when I see my old tree house. My dad spent a month of weekends building the thing. It’s survived well through the years, but Pop recently hired a treehouse expert to make sure it was stable enough for an adult. He also turned it into a mini man-cave for Dylan. He has no clue. I’m actually pretty excited to show him later today.

I’m not sure how long I sit thinking about all the times my parents, Ryan, and I played in this backyard; even Ryan’s parents and siblings were here all the time. Our house was always full and loud. No one would have guessed I was an only child. I may not have had a ton of friends from school, but I had plenty from my parents’ friends who mostly had kids around my age. I never felt deprived or like I was missing out. I loved my life and my parents. I had everything a kid could ever want or need. It was perfect and I want that for Dylan. I’m startled when I hear a throat clear behind me.

“Morning,” Dylan says, his voice thick with sleep.

He looks like he’s had a rough night. I open my arms to him and just like he did as a little boy, he curls up beside me, wrapping his arms around my waist, letting me cuddle him.

“Don’t tell anyone,” he mutters.

I giggle. “I won’t ruin your street cred.” I kiss his forehead. “It doesn’t matter how old you are, sometimes you just need your mom. I know I sure do.”

“I’m glad I still have you. I feel like a jerk for saying that to Ryan. I was just so angry. I mean, I’m not a kid anymore. I know about rape. Sometimes it happens on dates.”

“I assure you that he did not rape me. We were very much in love. I was sad and lonely, but I loved him, and I chose to give him my virginity.”

“Gross,” he mumbles, making me laugh.

“I’m just being straight with you, babe.”

He sighs and tightens his hold on me. “I don’t think I could handle it if I was a product of … that. My friend from school, Jenni, was, and she said she felt guilty, and even though her mom and stepdad loved her, she had a hard time connecting with her mom.”

“I’m sorry that happened to her mom, but it’s never the child’s fault. Please believe me; you were not created out of trauma.”

“I do.” He sits up to face me. “I was worried that’s why you wouldn’t tell anyone who my dad was.”

“I didn’t tell anyone because I knew he was eighteen and I was a minor. I didn’t want him to be in trouble and even though we dated when he was a minor, it wouldn’t have mattered. My parents were gone and I was in the system. I had no adult to say they approved of us. Things were different back then.”

“That was probably smart then.” He takes my cold coffee from me, smiling. “I’ll get you more. Did Maw bring over those homemade pop-tarts she was talking about?” His hopeful grin is adorable and very reminiscent of his father at his age.

“Yep, in the fridge, or there’s cold pizza.”

“No way. I need the tarts!” He takes off running to the kitchen.

Shaking my head, I follow. I turn the corner to see him already popping them into the toaster. “You know, I’ve told you your entire life, since learning to walk, to stop running in the house.”

He smiles big. “Sorry.”

“Sure, sure. Your dad is coming over in about an hour,” I tell him as I look at the clock.

He grimaces. “How bad does he hate me?”

“He doesn’t. He was upset that you thought that, but it’s understandable. You should probably apologize for yelling at him though.” He nods but says nothing. I don’t dwell. “Registration for school starts at noon. You excited?”

“Not really. I do want to try out for football though. Did Ryan tell you when tryouts were?”

“Saturday, I think.”

“Do you think we can find my cleats and gear before then?”

I nod, taking a sip of my fresh coffee. “I labeled the box. The movers were supposed to put the boxes in each room.”

He groans. “I have so many boxes.”

I laugh. “Probably more than I do.”

We chat for a few minutes as we eat, then head to our rooms to get ready for registration. It doesn’t take me long to get ready, and by the time I’m heading down the stairs, the doorbell is ringing. I open it with a smile when I see Ryan standing there. He’s wearing a pair of navy basketball pants and a white polo with the school’s eagle logo in the corner.

“So you’re coach today and not Detective Jacobs?”

“Yep, though I’m going into the station after registration. Is our boy ready?” He kisses my cheek as he enters the house.

“Probably. Want something to eat or drink?”

“Nah, I have a coffee in the truck.”

“Hey, Ryan,” Dylan says as he enters the kitchen. He’s wearing faded jeans and a vintage t-shirt with converse sneakers. I smile at him. “What?”

“Nothing, it’s just surprising to me how little styles change. Your dad wore something like that when he was in high school.”

“I still wear stuff like that,” Ryan chuckles.

Dylan looks down at himself. “Maybe I should change.”

“Don’t be like that.” I laugh and hand him the shirt he’d asked me to press earlier this morning.

After Dylan gets his shirt on and I’ve gathered my things, we head out to Ryan’s truck. The drive to the school is fairly uneventful. We pull up about twenty minutes later. It’s strange to me how little it’s changed.

“I’ll go with you to the office, but then I have to go to the gym,” Ryan explains as he helps me out of his truck. He’s always been a gentleman.

“What exactly do you do here?” Dylan asks his dad.

“I’m one of the temporary assistant football coaches until they find a replacement. Then I’ll probably just fill in and help out.”

“What happened to the last one?” I ask.

Ryan chuckles humorlessly. “He was caught with the head cheerleader. She was eighteen, but that doesn’t really matter to the school board.”

“I’d say not. That’s awful.”

“Pretty much. So, after he was fired, they asked me to fill in. I’d been helping out before it all went down, so it was an easy transition.”

“You played in school?” Dylan asked.

Ryan stops by the school’s trophy case and points to a picture of him next to a huge trophy. “Yep, we won state that year. We’ve only won state twice since.”

“That’s cool. My old team won state a few times. We even had a few students go to the Little League World Series in baseball.”

“That’s awesome. I’m proud of you, son.” Ryan clapped Dylan on the back, making his son smile broadly. “You okay?” Ryan asks me as he runs a hand down my arm.

I nod. “Yeah, it’s kind of surreal. I mean, not much has changed. Some updates, but basically I feel like I’m right back where I was.”

“I know what you mean. I felt that way when I first came back.” He opens the office door for us.

“Well, as I live and breathe. Look who the wind blew in!” Jeanie Montgomery yells as I walk through the door.

“Hi, Jeanie.”

“I didn’t believe Gale when she said you were coming home. Good to see you, sis.” She hugs me tightly. Jeanie is one of Gale’s best friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if she knows every facet of my life.

“It’s true. I’m back.”

“And this must be Dylan. I feel like I’m in 1994 again. You’re a spitting image of Ryan at your age.”

“If it’s my age, then you’d have to be back in 1992,” Ryan smirks. She slaps him playfully.

“Shut up, you fool.” She turns to address Dylan. “I’m Vice Principal Montgomery. Don’t believe a thing these two have to say about me.” She sticks her hand out to Dylan. “Welcome to our school.”

“Thanks.”

We chat for a few more minutes, then Ryan excuses himself to the

Ryan stops by the school’s trophy case and points to a picture of him next to a huge trophy. “Yep, we won state that year. We’ve only won state twice since.”

“That’s cool. My old team won state a few times. We even had a few students go to the Little League World Series in baseball.”

“That’s awesome. I’m proud of you, son.” Ryan clapped Dylan on the back, making his son smile broadly. “You okay?” Ryan asks me as he runs a hand down my arm.

I nod. “Yeah, it’s kind of surreal. I mean, not much has changed. Some updates, but basically I feel like I’m right back where I was.”

“I know what you mean. I felt that way when I first came back.” He opens the office door for us.

“Well, as I live and breathe. Look who the wind blew in!” Jeanie Montgomery yells as I walk through the door.

“Hi, Jeanie.”

“I didn’t believe Gale when she said you were coming home. Good to see you, sis.” She hugs me tightly. Jeanie is one of Gale’s best friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if she knows every facet of my life.

“It’s true. I’m back.”

“And this must be Dylan. I feel like I’m in 1994 again. You’re a spitting image of Ryan at your age.”

“If it’s my age, then you’d have to be back in 1992,” Ryan smirks. She slaps him playfully.

“Shut up, you fool.” She turns to address Dylan. “I’m Vice Principal Montgomery. Don’t believe a thing these two have to say about me.” She sticks her hand out to Dylan. “Welcome to our school.”

“Thanks.”

We chat for a few more minutes, then Ryan excuses himself to the gym and Dylan and I headed off to find his classes and meet his teachers. The day is full of familiar faces, some I wish I could permanently forget, but others are a nice surprise. By the end of the day, Dylan’s met a few of the guys from the football team and is excited about trying out Saturday morning.

Dylan and I head over to the gym to meet up with Ryan. On entering the gym, we find him in a heated conversation with a woman. I recognize her as Dylan’s English teacher. She looks over to us a few times as she argues with Ryan. I wish I could hear their conversation or at least read lips. The sight in general makes me nervous, though I have no idea why. I have no claim to Ryan.

“Enough,” I hear Ryan yell, his hands go to his hair, pulling roughly. He looks like he’s about to lose his cool. He turns from her and heads over to Dylan and me.

“This isn’t over, Ryan!” she yells after him.

He rolls his eyes and groans. “Ready to go?” he asks us cheerily. No sign of his previously expressed frustrations.

“What was that all about?” I ask.

“I’ll tell you later. How about we go get some lunch? There’s a new place that serves Thai food not far from here. It’s pretty good.

“Okay, but I need to get home soon. I have work tomorrow.”

He frowns. “I didn’t think you started for a few weeks?”

“Officially, I don’t. But they want me to fill out some paperwork and talk to a few people.”

“Who’s staying with Dylan?” Ryan asks.

Dylan chuckles and replies, “I’m fifteen, Dad. I can stay by myself.”

Ryan just stares at our son. He’d yet to call him Dad. Dylan looks confused back and forth between his dad and me.

“What? Did I do something wrong? Why are you guys staring at me?”

Ryan shakes his head. “You called me Dad.”

Dylan blushes. “Oh, uh … sorry. I didn’t reali …” Ryan waves him off.

“Don’t apologize. I want you to call me Dad. It just took me by surprise. I like it, really.”

“Okay. I can stay by myself,” he says, going back to the previous topic.

Ryan nods. “If you want, but I don’t have to be at work until four. I thought maybe we could hang out. Do you like to fish or golf?”

“Golf? I haven’t been in months. I was in First Tee when I was little.”

“Cool, I’ll set up a tee time.”

“Mom, do you know where my clubs are?”

The acceptance they have for each other is heartwarming, though I worry about Dylan blowing up again. It’s to be expected really. I think he wants to let his dad in, but teenagers are fickle creatures.

“Yeah, they’re in the garage. I had the movers unpack that already.”

“Awesome. So you think you can get a tee time, Dad?”

Ryan beams at his son. “Of course.”

He pulls out his phone and calls immediately, setting it up for nine A.M. The rest of the day we spend eating, laughing, and just being a family; it’s probably the most fun I’ve had in years. It’s not that we were an unhappy family with my ex-husband, but this is different. I feel a sense of belonging here; I just hope it isn’t premature. I worry that Ryan will decide this isn’t what he wants.

“You look happy,” I say as I sit down on the sofa after refilling our coffee cups.

Dylan is out in his man-cave, which he totally flipped over. He ran straight over to the Thorns looking for Pop, but he was still on his fishing trip. I can see the two of them hanging out in there for days.

“I am.” Ryan turns towards me. “He called me Dad. I didn’t think I’d ever hear that from him.”

“He just needed to feel comfortable, and wanted. Todd has really done a number on him. I mean, he’s always known Todd wasn’t his biological father and, until last year, he was a good dad. He was at all his games and practiced with him. He really was the perfect parent.” I hate feeling like I’m sticking up for my ex, but it was true. Todd was a great dad.

“If he’d been married since high school, how’d he stick around for you guys?”

“What I was told was that they were married right after high school graduation at the courthouse. They didn’t tell anyone. He still went away to college, but the stress of a long distance relationship, plus college, was too much, so they broke up. He said he thought she’d filed years ago, when we had no issues getting a marriage license. Then, I guess sometime in the past couple of years while on one of his real business trips, he found out she hadn’t filed. He hadn’t bothered going back to his hometown before he had that conference, because his parents had moved closer to be with him. He started going to conferences two years ago, different areas never the same places.”

I pause and shake my head. I was so blind and stupid. What wife doesn’t realize the frequency of her husband’s business trips? I glance at Ryan and I can almost tell he’s thinking it too. With a sigh, I continue this uncomfortable tale.

“He is in a different field than me. I never questioned anything. I was glad he was continuing his education. Then last year, he got offered a job in Utah. That’s where he grew up and she lives … he lives now. He talked about us moving with him, but I was under contract. My contract was up this past summer and the plan was tha

coffee cups.

Dylan is out in his man-cave, which he totally flipped over. He ran straight over to the Thorns looking for Pop, but he was still on his fishing trip. I can see the two of them hanging out in there for days.

“I am.” Ryan turns towards me. “He called me Dad. I didn’t think I’d ever hear that from him.”

“He just needed to feel comfortable, and wanted. Todd has really done a number on him. I mean, he’s always known Todd wasn’t his biological father and, until last year, he was a good dad. He was at all his games and practiced with him. He really was the perfect parent.” I hate feeling like I’m sticking up for my ex, but it was true. Todd was a great dad.

“If he’d been married since high school, how’d he stick around for you guys?”

“What I was told was that they were married right after high school graduation at the courthouse. They didn’t tell anyone. He still went away to college, but the stress of a long distance relationship, plus college, was too much, so they broke up. He said he thought she’d filed years ago, when we had no issues getting a marriage license. Then, I guess sometime in the past couple of years while on one of his real business trips, he found out she hadn’t filed. He hadn’t bothered going back to his hometown before he had that conference, because his parents had moved closer to be with him. He started going to conferences two years ago, different areas never the same places.”

I pause and shake my head. I was so blind and stupid. What wife doesn’t realize the frequency of her husband’s business trips? I glance at Ryan and I can almost tell he’s thinking it too. With a sigh, I continue this uncomfortable tale.

“He is in a different field than me. I never questioned anything. I was glad he was continuing his education. Then last year, he got offered a job in Utah. That’s where he grew up and she lives … he lives now. He talked about us moving with him, but I was under contract. My contract was up this past summer and the plan was that I’d move there before school started. However, a few months ago, he came home from his trip and told me our marriage was never valid because he was already married. He took everything in his personal bank account and a few things from the house. Other than that, I got the rest. Oh, and get this, during the year he’s spent on business trips, they had a baby.”

I can’t blame Todd for wanting to be with his kid, but he certainly could have told me a lot sooner. Cheating is cheating even if, technically, he was cheating on her with me. The whole mess is ridiculous. I’m distracted when Ryan squeezes my knee.

“I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that. He’s a moron.”

Smiling, I say, “I know he is. His other wife knows all about me. I’m trying hard not to be bitter, but it’s difficult.”

“I don’t doubt it. I think you’re handling it well.”

“Yeah, now, but the day I found out, I sent Dylan to his friend’s house. I then burned everything that was Todd’s and a few things he’d bought me, including our wedding pictures.”

“Good. You should have an outlet.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m over it, but it did help.” I giggle, thinking about the pyre I had in my back yard. The neighbor called the city on me.

“What’d you do with my stuff when I left?” he asks cautiously.

I frown, staring down into my almost empty coffee. “You really want to know?” He nods. “Okay, but don’t think less of me.”

“Never.”

Sighing, I shift on the couch so I can see him better. “At first, I kept everything. I cried for days. I only had two pictures of us and a few things you’d bought me. I kept them on my person. I stared at your picture for hours, sobbing. I’ve never felt so alone in my life, even when I lost my parents.”

 His face is pained, and rightfully so. I’m not so vindictive that I want him to hurt, but I do want him to realize how hard his leaving was and how it affected me. He turns away from me and rests his head on the back of the sofa with his eyes closed. I continue, and even though my eyes tear up, I hold it together. This is the past, I’ve moved on. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

“You know before you left I’d been moved to the final group home. I kept everything with me, of course, but I was taken from the group home the day I came to the Thorns, without being allowed to get my stuff. They said they’d send it to me, but I only had one picture with me and the necklace you’d given me for my birthday the year before my parents died. I never took it off. Eventually, the picture was ruined. So, I had nothing left other than the locket you bought me. I kept it on, until I married Todd.”

I never told Todd the significance of the locket. It felt too personal, even to share with my husband. We sit in silence for several long moments before he abruptly sits up and pulls me into his arms.

“I’m so sorry. You’ll never know how much I hate myself for what I did to you.”

He hugs me tightly, kissing my head, face, and eventually making his way to my lips. His kiss starts out slow and soft but ends in deep passionate kisses that leave us both breathless. He sits back, letting me go as he scrubs his face.

“I shouldn’t have done that,” he mumbles.

“I didn’t push you away.” I probably should have. I’m not ready for a relationship right now, especially with Ryan. There’s still too much to talk about between us, but this pull I feel to him is so unreal. I’m not sure how long I can keep my feelings at bay.

He grabs my hands. “I won’t leave you again. I swear.”

I want to believe him, I really do, however, my faith in men right now is at an all-time low. “I don’t know if I’m ready for an exclusive relationship right now. Besides, what about the English teacher?”

He looks confused for a moment, then recognition lights his eyes. “That’s Lydia. We dated for a few months last school year. I broke up with her, she’s too clingy. I couldn’t handle a relationship at that time anyway. My mind was wrapped up with you and Dylan, and honestly we didn’t really get along very well. It wouldn’t have worked. What you saw today was her trying to get me back and me completely refusing.”

“Are you sure?”

“Totally. Shay, you’re who I’ve always wanted.” He leans in to kiss me again, but this time I pull back before he can. He nods in understanding.

“Why do I always walk in when you’re sucking face?” Dylan grumbles, rubbing his eyes.

“We didn’t … I mean weren’t,” Ryan blurts out.

I laugh. “Stop being a snoop. I thought you were in bed?”

“Oh, the kid’s in bed, so the parents get to make out?”

“Exactly,” Ryan says with a huge smile, recovering from his outburst with cockiness. Typical Ryan. I shove him, laughing.

“Yuck,” Dylan gags.

I can’t help my smile. “What do you need, Dyl-pickle?”

He glares at me. “I told you not to use that name in front of anyone.”

“I didn’t. Parents don’t count. It’s our right.” I wink.

“Whatever. I have a headache and can’t sleep.”

I frown, standing, I grab a pin light and give him a brief scan, at which he huffs and grumbles. “I have oils in my purse. Use the one labeled migraine.” He nods and heads into the kitchen.

“Oils?” Ryan asks.

I nod. “Yeah, I know I’m a doctor, but I like natural remedies before medications. I don’t like pumping our bodies with synthetic, if natural will work. We use a lot of essential oils.”

“Oh, that makes sense, I guess. Will that help him?”

“It normally does. He only gets them when he’s stressed. All this mess has him on edge.”

Ryan runs his hand through his hair. “I don’t think I’m helping the situation either.”

“Don’t worry about me, Dad. I want Mom happy and I haven’t seen her as happy as she’s been the past couple of days in my whole life. It’s not you.” Dylan kisses my cheek, then heads back upstairs with his water and rollerball bottle of essential oils.

“If I’m hindering anything, I’ll give you both space, but I can’t stay away for long.”

I grab his face in my hands and stare into his eyes. “Please don’t leave. I can’t stand the thought of you giving us space.”

I feel the tears forming in my eyes. It is irrational, we haven’t seen each other in almost sixteen years, but I can’t fathom the thought of losing him again. All my feelings and desires rushed back into me the moment I laid eyes on him. Not to mention what Dylan would think if he gave us space. He’s been through so much lately.

“Oh, baby. I’m not leaving you guys. I meant what I said, I can’t stay away long, but if you need a couple of days to process, I’m willing to give them to you. We’ve been through a lot. I know we’ve talked a lot about what happened. I, for one, don’t blame you for any of it anymore. You were a scared little girl, believing a man who you called uncle most of your life. I believed him too. I shouldn’t have. I can’t hold any of this against you. I made poor choices and I listened to the wrong people.”

I shake my head and answer with an emphatic, “No! This isn’t all your fault. We both listened to people we shouldn’t have. We tried to protect each other. I’ve never blamed you. I blamed your dad, and yes, I hated you for a little bit, but like I said, that went out the window the moment I held our son in my arms.”

Irrational as it may be, for once I am going with my heart. I am going to see where this goes. Though, I’ll try to set a reasonable pace, my head and heart doesn’t always agree on what a reasonable pace is.

We talk until our eyes won’t stay open, getting out every hurt and fear we’ve had. We end up falling asleep together on the sofa. I wake to the sound of crunching. Slowly, I open one eye to see my son sitting on the coffee table facing me, a crunchy granola bar in his hand and smirk on his face.

“Morning,” he chirps.

I rub my eyes and stare at him. “Morning. What are you doing?”

He shrugs. “Just eating breakfast.”

He waves his granola at me. Just then a loud grumble alerts me to the fact that I’m not alone on the couch and I am, in fact, lying on Ryan’s lap. I sit up quickly. Dylan chuckles and gives me an all too familiar smirk. Snorting a laugh, I grab a throw pillow and smack him with it.

“You know who you remind me of right now?”

“Who?” Dylan asks, still chomping away.

“Your father.” Dylan’s smile widens.

Ryan wakes up abruptly with my movement, shakes his head with said smirk on his face. “Looking in a mirror, I tell ya.”

“Really?” Dylan asks.

Ryan nods as he readjusts himself to sit up better on the couch. “Yeah, you could be my twin. I’ll find some pictures for you.”

“That’d be cool. You think your parents would want to meet me?” he asks, making him seem so much younger than his short fifteen years.

Running a hand through his hair, Ryan says, “Of course. It’s just my mom now, but she’d love to meet you. So would your aunt and uncles.”

“Yeah?”

“Of course. I’ll set something up for this weekend. Maybe Sunday. Do you have to work?” he asks me.

“No, I don’t actually start until a week from Monday. I’m on days, and then on call twice a week,” I explain.

“Oh, that’s awesome. I thought you’d be gone a lot.” He gives me a wink.

“She’s always worked that schedule since I was little,” Dylan explains.

“Speaking of schedules, what time is it?” I ask, looking around for my phone.

Dylan pulls his out of his pocket. “Seven-thirty. I have to leave in about an hour for football.”

“I have to be at work soon,” Ryan says, standing.

I look up at him, not wanting him to leave yet. I know it’s ridiculous, but it’s been so nice reconnecting.

“Can you stay for breakfast?”

“Yeah, you need help?”

“No, I’ll handle it.”

“Do I have time to run home and shower really quick?” he asks as we walk into the kitchen.

I nod. “Yeah, I’m going to put bacon in the oven then run for a quick shower myself.”

“Perfect. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.” He gives me a quick kiss to the cheek then runs out the side door to the neighboring house.

“You’re in love with him aren’t you?”

I turn to my son. “I’ve always loved him. He gave me you.”

“Yeah, but I’ve never seen you look at a guy like you look at him. Even with Todd.” He’s way too perceptive for a fifteen year old.

I don’t say anything as I set the oven and place the tray of bacon inside. “I love your dad. I don’t know if we’ll start a relationship or not. We shouldn’t have kissed and I’m sorry you saw that. More than anything, I don’t want you to be hurt again. I know he’s your dad, but my first priority is always you.”

“Sometimes it’s okay to make yourself happy, Mom.”

He kisses my cheek before heading to the den to watch T.V. I wipe the tears from my eyes, caused by my ever so sweet little boy.

Chapter Three

Shayla

After a super-fast shower, I blow dry the front and top of my hair and let the rest air-dry. I grab a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, a pair of Chuck Taylor’s, and then head down to the kitchen. I’m just cracking an egg into the skillet when Ryan enters the back door. I can’t help but stare. He’s wearing dark jeans, a white dress shirt with a skinny black tie, and a black leather jacket. He looks … badass, for lack of a better word. Well, hot…he looks hot. He knows he’s getting to me, because the smirk on his face is absolutely ridiculous. It’s the one his son had donned less than an hour before.

“You look beautiful,” he says, kissing my cheek.

“Thanks. You clean up well. You look … good.”

He laughs and wipes the side of my mouth, like there’s really drool there. “Yeah, I can tell you like how I look.”

I swat him with a kitchen towel. “Conceited much?”

He shrugs as he grabs an apple, taking a huge bite. “Nah, I’m just confident.”

“If you say so, Mr. Detective.”

We chat and tease a little more before Dylan enters the kitchen and takes a seat on the window bench at the table. I pass him a plate of bacon, eggs, and toast.

“Thanks, Mom.”

“You’re welcome, sweetheart. Do you want cashew or almond milk?”

“Do we have chocolate cashew?”

“Yep.” I get him a glass.

“Cashew?” Ryan asks.

I chuckle. He has a lot to learn about my healthy ways. “Yeah, we still drink whole milk, but only on occasion, and if it’s organic and minimally processed.”

“You’re a hippie in disguise, aren’t you?” Ryan laughs.

“Naturalist, actually.” I wink.

He guffaws. “Whatever, weirdo.” I roll my eyes at him as I place his food down in front of him. He digs in. “What’re your plans for today?”

“Unpacking, and taking Dyl to football,” I tell him, sitting down with my own plate of food.

“I’ll drop him off. It’s on my way. I can probably pick him up today too. My schedule is pretty flexible.”

“Okay, that would help. I need to run a few errands, so that will make it easier for me.”

Ryan winks. “That’s what I’m here for, babe.” I smile as I shake my head at him.

“I thought you helped coach?” Dylan asks.

Ryan wipes his mouth then says, “Yeah, I do. But mostly as a fill in at games. I will probably pop by at some point.”

“Cool.”

“When are you off? I’ll cook dinner,” I ask.

Ryan pulls out his phone and then says, “I should be done around five, unless I get a case. It’s pretty slow around here. I’m the only detective, but a lot of times I fill other roles. Sometimes I help out neighboring precincts.”

“Why do they have a detective if they don’t need one?” Dylan asks.

Ryan holds up a finger to indicate to wait while he chews. “Normally, they just use uniformed cops, they serve both roles, but I’m actually just waiting for the chief to retire. I’m taking over when he’s done. I kind of just do my own thing. I fill in a lot for the chief. He has two more months before he can retire. He’s not in the best of health.”

“So why not just retire early?” I ask.

“Stubbornness.” Ryan chuckles. “You want to meet for lunch?”

“Sure.” I hand Dylan his water bottle and kiss his cheek goodbye.

“I’ll be in the car so you can be gross,” Dylan says as he walks out the side door to Ryan’s house.

“Gross is fun,” Ryan says, chuckling as he leans in for a kiss.

~*~

Later that morning, I’m finishing unpacking in the living room when there’s a knock at the front door. I open it with a smile on my face.

“Hey, Mama!”

She wraps me in one of her motherly hugs. She may not be the woman who gave birth to me, but Gail Thorn loves me like she did.

“How are you, sweet girl?”

“Good. Really good.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I brought baby boy a banana cake. I made it with your recipe so it’s nice and healthy.”

I chuckle. “Thanks, he’ll love it.” I take the cake into the kitchen. “When will Pop be home?”

“Oh, they should be back tomorrow.”

I shake my head, laughing. His fishing trips are more about drinking beer and gossiping than about the fish.

“Where are you headed today?” I ask.

“Crochet circle at church.”

“You mean gossip circle. Make sure they don’t gossip about me,” I tell her. I’m only half kidding.

“You know they will, but it will only be good things. How are Dylan and Ryan getting along?” she asks as she sits down on the sofa.

“Great. They are so much alike it’s scary. It makes me feel even worse about keeping them apart for so long.”

“It couldn’t be helped. You tried.”

“I know, but I should’ve just blurted it out on the phone or something.”

Gail rubs my arm soothingly. “You did everything you could. At least they have each other now.”

“That’s true, I guess.”

“Everything happens for a reason, sweetheart. Don’t beat yourself up about the past, just try to move forward.” I nod in understanding. She is right, I know that. “I hate to run, but I need to be at the church in twenty minutes. This weekend, you guys should come over.”

“Ryan wants to take Dylan to meet his family.”

“Oh, well you do that. We’ll be seeing you guys a lot anyway.”

“Why don’t you come over Monday night?”

“How about you come to me. You’ve moved and unpacked, let mama take care of you. I really need to run.”

“Have fun gossiping. I’ll see you Monday.” I giggle.

She smiles. I love the twinkle in her eyes. She lives for the latest juicy gossip, but at the same time, I know if they bring me up in a negative light, she’ll be the first to put them in their places.

“You know I will. Dave Johnson was spotted with Helen Zhar. You know that will be the talk of the morning.”

“I’m sure it will be. Love you,” I tell her, still chuckling with her.

She kisses my cheek, returns my love, and then heads back to her neighboring house. I’m lost in the unpacking again when my phone rings. I smile when I see Ryan’s number. A few weeks ago, his number caused me panic. He was trying to reconcile the news of having an almost grown son and, as expected, he wasn’t handling it well. He definitely wasn’t happy with me then.

“Hey,” I say as I take a seat on my bed.

“Hey, you. How’s the unpacking?”

“Good. I finished the living room and kitchen. I started on the den, but got distracted by my bedroom.”

“Ah, bedrooms can do that.” His voice drops in tone. He might be sixteen years older, but it’s the same voice he used when we dated. It got me every time. Seems to be no different now. “But I wasn’t calling about bedroom activities, I was calling to see if you wanted to meet me for lunch? If you’re too busy, though, I understand.”

“I can do that. I have all week to finish. The movers really did most of it already, I don’t have a ton left.”

“Great. I’ll be there in ten. Is that enough time?”

“Yeah, as long as you don’t mind me wearing what I had on at breakfast.”

He chuckles. “Well, I would like to see you in less, but for lunch at the diner, it’s great.”

“Oh stop it! I’ll be ready, but I need to get off the phone.”

“Okay, I’ll see you soon.”

“The side door is open,” I tell him quickly, hoping he’s not disconnected.

“Not safe, babe.” I can see the scowl on his face in my mind. I smile.

“You’ll be here in less than ten. I’ll be fine.”

“I need a key.”

“Fine, we can stop by Hadley’s.”

“Seriously?” He asks at my mention of the local hardware store.

“Yes! Your son lives here. You’ll need to have access.”

He hums. “Yeah, that’s why.”

I laugh. “Exactly why. He might accidentally lock himself out, and Maw and Pop may not be at home. Now, let me go so I can freshen up.”

“I like you sweaty and dirty.”

“Oh my God! I’m hanging up now.”

I hear his laughter as I end the call. My face warms with blush, but I shake it off. I don’t have time for fantasies right now. By the time I’m exiting my bedroom, he’s coming through the side door in the kitchen. He looks incredible. He’s lost his jacket as the weather has warmed, and rolled up his long sleeves, tattoos exposed, and others peeking from under his sleeve. His hair is more tousled than this morning, like he’s been a little stressed through the day and had his hands in it often.

“See something you like?” He asks, noticing my stare. He flexes his muscles.

“You said that earlier. I think you’re a touch conceited.” I can’t help the grin that spreads on my face. I run my hands up his tattooed arms until they wrap around his neck. “You’ve aged well. You were hot in high school, all the girls thought so, but now you’re just so much more. I can’t stop staring at you,” I answer, going with my heart instead of my head.

He smirks at me before leaning forward and pulling me tightly against him, taking my breath away with a searing kiss. Pulling back with a sigh, he rests his forehead to mine.

“We should go before something happens we’re not ready for.”

I nod, agreeing. “How can I feel this way after sixteen years, after everything we put each other through?”

He hugs me tightly. “I don’t know, but I feel it too. I was serious when I said I’d missed you through the years. I tried to move on, but in the few relationships I’ve had, I just couldn’t get you out of my head.”

“When you say things like that, it makes me incredibly sad. I feel so guilty.” I turn from him and grab my jacket and purse.

He runs his fingers down my arm to my hand and twines our fingers. “Don’t. I could have talked to you. I wanted to, but I let my dad get in my head. I had choices, but I let someone else make them, thinking it wouldn’t be my fault. It was wrong. I loved you with my whole being. I should have never let you go. I lost not only you, but my son too. I won’t make that mistake again.”

I blink away the tears building in my eyes and clear my throat. We don’t have the time we need for this conversation. “We should go. You have to be back to work soon.” He nods, tugs my hand, and leads me outside. “I didn’t know you had a squad car?”

“Loaner. Mine’s being serviced.” He opens the passenger door for me to get in.

“They don’t care if you have a civilian in your car?”

“Nah, but I could cuff you and make you sit in the back if you’d like.”

I guffaw. “Ah, no. I’ll be just fine up front.”

“Suit yourself.” He smirks. “Is the diner okay?” He asks as he buckles his seatbelt.

“Yeah, I haven’t been there since I’ve been back. Does Ray still run it?” I ask, thinking of the man who was in his early fifties when I moved away.

“No, his son, Ray Jr., took over. They use the same recipes. He worked there for a long time before. It hasn’t changed much. He has put a few new things on the menu though.”

“Sounds great.”

We hold hands and chat about Dylan on our way. It only takes about ten minutes to arrive. He kisses the back of the hand he’s holding before telling me to stay put while he gets my door. He has always opened my door. When I was young I thought it was silly, but now I think he’s incredibly romantic. Gentlemen are hard to find nowadays. It’s another thing about him that our son has missed out on. Guilt flares once more. He helps me out of the car and leads me into the diner with his hand on the small of my back.

The diner is exactly like I remember. Red and white décor, pictures of the greats through time scattered all over the walls, an old juke box in the corner as before, but also a new version alongside the older one. There are touches of new, but mostly it’s remained the same. It’s comforting.

“Hey there, detective. Usual?” A very endowed blonde girl asks as she pours another customer’s coffee.

“Yeah, but she’ll need a menu.”

The woman then notices me. Her eyes travel down to our joined hands and scowls. I guess Ryan still has a fan club. He motions for me to sit in a booth then slides in beside me. He lays his arm on the back of the bench and turns towards me.

“This okay?”

“Yeah. I take it you come here a lot.”

He smiles cockily. “Yeah. You jealous of Tracy?”

I roll my eyes. “No, but she’s clearly not happy about you holding my hand.”

“Nah, she’s harmless. We went out once, but she’s not my type.” I don’t know if I like knowing that he’s been with her. It makes me insanely uncomfortable, especially since she’s our waitress.

“What if she spits in my food? She looks like she’s trying to blow my head off with her mind,” I whisper as I look at Tracy, who’s shooting daggers my way.

“I didn’t sleep with her. We went on one date, to the movie in the park. She spent most of that time talking to the guy beside us, who she went home with later that night.”

“Well, that’s rude.” I shake my head. “I don’t understand how anyone could not want to be with you.”

“You’re biased, though. Maybe I make a horrible boyfriend.”

“I doubt it. You were a great boyfriend.”

“No, a great boyfriend wouldn’t have broken up with the girl he loved unconditionally.”

“You did what you thought was the best. Let’s not dwell in the past. We have a fresh start. Let’s just start over.”

“Okay, sounds perfect.” He gives me a quick peck to the lips as Tracy arrives with my menu and a cup of coffee for Ryan. “Tracy, this is my girlfriend, and mother of my son, Shayla. Shay, this is Tracy. Best waitress Ray’s has.”

“Nice to meet you,” I tell her.

“Girlfriend? Didn’t you just move to town yesterday?” she asks me.

“Actually, I moved here on Thursday.” I figure she’s questioning Ryan’s declaration.

She rolls her eyes. “So you move here two days ago and you’ve already snagged the town’s hottest bachelor?” She mumbles. “You must be giving it up.” Ryan hears her.

“Listen, Tracy. Not that it’s any of your business, but I’ve known Shayla since we were kids. We have a fifteen-year-old son together. This isn’t new, this has always been.” Tracy looks offended as she turns and storms off. “Sorry. I don’t know what her problem is. We can go somewhere else.”

“I don’t want to cause you problems. We can stay.”

“It’s not causing me any problems. She’ll get over it. She doesn’t have a say in what I do. I literally see her once a day, in here; I order and leave.”

“She obviously thinks she has some sort of claim to you.”

“Nope. You’re the only one I want to claim me.” He winks and kisses my lips softly.

I sigh. “We need to talk about the girlfriend proclamation. I told you I wasn’t ready for a relationship right now.”

A clang breaks us out of our bubble. Ryan turns, eyebrows scrunched together with an unsatisfied look on his face. “Tracy, I’m not sure what’s going on, but I think we need to have Melody as our waitress.”

“Whatever,” Tracy snaps as she rolls her eyes.

A few moments later, Melody comes to the table and apologizes for Tracy, takes our order, and doesn’t stare at Ryan like he’s a piece of meat. Our lunch is smooth from that point forward. We talk mostly about Dylan and how he did at tryouts. They went well, but I knew he’d do well. He’s as good as his dad, if not better, when it comes to sports. We also talk about my schedule at the hospital and clinic, we don’t, however, mention anything about our relationship.

“So, you don’t stay at the hospital all day?” he asks, taking a big bite of his sandwich.

I take a drink to clear my throat before answering. “No, well sort of. The clinic is right off the hospital in the medical complex. I do consultations there, but mostly I do emergency surgeries.”

“So you work in the ER?”

“Yeah, but only when they need a possible surgery. I stay in the OR wing.”

“What days do you do consultations?”

I pull out my phone to view my schedule. “I’ll print this out for the fridge at the house and you can have a copy if you want. I’m basically working four twelve hour days, though at times it turns into sixteen hour days or longer. I’m on call once a week, on one of my working days. I have three days a week off, unless I need to fill in for someone. It’s a pretty set schedule.”

“Do you have days that are just in the clinic?”

“Yes, unless I have a patient in the hospital or emergencies. I do surgeries on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursdays and again if there’s an emergency. Tuesdays and Thursdays are clinic days. I work my clinic schedule on Thursdays around my surgeries that day. I have off Friday to Sunday. On occasion I might have to work a weekend.”

“That seems like a pretty good schedule.”

“It was one of my stipulations on taking the job. I didn’t want to miss any of Dylan’s games.”

“You’re a good mom.”

I blush at his compliment. We’ve never addressed me being a mother directly. I mean, we both know, we’ve just never talked about what it has been like for me being a single mother.

“Thanks. I think you’ll be a good dad. You’ve been great with him so far.”

He doesn’t say anything for a few moments, then looks up with a glisten in his eyes. “I hope so.” I squeeze his hand in assurance.

We leave the diner and head back to my house. “Thanks for lunch. Will you be done in time for dinner with us?”

“Yeah, Dylan is going to ride home with Tyler from down the street. I meant to tell you earlier.”

“Is he on the team?”

“Yeah. You might not remember his parents, they were in my grade. Sam and Julie Winters. I think Julie’s maiden name was Porter.

“Is she Debbie Porter’s older sister?”

“Cousin, but yeah, that’s her. They’re good friends of mine. Tyler’s a good kid. He’s a year older than Dyl.”

The silence stretches in the car, it’s a bit uncomfortable. I want to say so much, but know it’s not the time for anything I could bring up. I settle with, “I should let you get back to work.”

“Yeah, I should check in.”

“Thanks for lunch.”

He kisses the back of my hand. “Of course. I love spending time with you. It’s like no time has passed, but at the same time, it’s like an eternity. We have so much to learn about each other.”

“Yes, we do. Be safe, I’ll see you at six for dinner.”

“Sounds good, Shay.” He leans over and kisses me. I can’t help wrapping my fingers in his dark wavy hair and pulling him closer to me. “Keep that up and I won’t be going back to work.” He winks as I giggle at him. I feel like that love sick girl from so long ago. It’s a nice change for my heart.

“Bye,” I whisper as I jump out of the car and head up to my house. I stop on the steps to wave and blow him a kiss. He returns it before backing out and heading down the street.

Chapter Four

Ryan

A year ago, if you would’ve told me I’d be dropping Shayla off after a lunch date, I would’ve laughed in your face. A year ago, I hated her. I was too consumed with anger and guilt to see anything good in my life. Anger with myself, my dad, heck, even my mom, took over my life, and everything else was not important enough for me to give a second thought. I couldn’t believe they’d keep something like this from me. In my mind, Shayla was the enemy. I was dead set on getting my kid no matter what it cost me. I wanted to hurt her for the hurt she’d caused me. Remembering that first phone call now, well, let’s just say it makes me feel like total scum.

I angrily pace back and forth in my childhood bedroom. I had come home to interview for the chief of police position. A position I would have never taken if it hadn’t been for my mom. She was sick, cancer, and even though my brothers and sister were close, most of them have kids and families. They tried to take care of her, but I could tell it wore on them. I loved my job with the FBI, but I couldn’t keep it and help at the same time. This was the only reason I came back to this backwards town. I hated this place so much when I left at eighteen. I haven’t come back here since. My parents always flew to me. I didn’t even come back for my dad’s funeral. I was on a case, undercover. No excuse, I guess, but that’s the one I used. He was my dad and I loved him, but we didn’t get along. Everyone knew that. So, here I am back in the town I hate, looking at the house next door to the house Shayla lived in until her parents died. I had no idea when the realtor told me about the perfect house for me, that it was the one beside her old one.

The house was perfect. It was one of the smaller houses on the block, three bedrooms. Everything I needed. It was at the end of the street, woods surrounded the back and one side. I could purchase the wooded lot too. It was really perfect. That was until that dumb, gossipy tramp, Sarah Davidson opened her mouth and told me I was a father and my son was fourteen years old. Fourteen! In her defense, she had no clue what she’d just done. She never mentioned me as the father. I didn’t say another word to her though. I just stormed out of the house and straight to the Thorns.

“Ryan?” Mr. Thorn addresses me.

“You knew?”

Sighing, he pulls the door open and waves me in. “Gale, Ryan Jacobs is here.”

“Oh dear,” Gale mutters as she comes around the corner.

Looking around the room, I notice pictures of Shayla growing up, then of a little boy. I grab the one closest to me. There’s no denying he’s mine. He has the same black hair, bright blue eyes with the annoying ring of navy around the outer edge that I have. He even has a dimple in his left cheek as I do. My legs feel as if they’re about to give, so I collapse onto the chair nearest me. I look up to them with angry tears burning my eyes. How could she do this to me? I thought she loved me.

“Ryan,” Mrs. Thorn starts, but I interrupt.

Shaking my head angrily, I ask, “Why would she do this to me? I thought she loved me.”

“Oh, sweetheart. She did love you and she tried so hard to find you. We would’ve helped her, but she refused to tell us who the father was. We, of course, suspected you, but she was in the system so long, and some of that time we didn’t see her. We didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize her placement with us. It was wrong, I know, but we only did what we thought was best for her and Dylan.”

“Dylan?”

“Your son,” she answered kindly.

Tears spill down my checks. I’ve never in my life felt so many emotions at once. Hurt, anger, joy, confusion, and a slew of others I can’t even begin to pinpoint.

“How long have you known?” I ask after I’ve collected myself.

“Since she graduated from med school, so about six years. She only told us then because Dylan had asked about his dad.”

“I don’t understand why she wouldn’t have tried to find me. I mean, I get while she was in the system, but she would’ve been out by the time he was two or when you guys adopted her, right?”

“I think you need to ask her that. She would never tell us what happened. But please know, she did what she thought was best. It killed her not to tell you. I would find her rocking him and crying her little eyes out. It was heartbreaking to watch.”

I shake my head and halfheartedly chuckle. “Shay was always the stubborn one.”

Mrs. Thorn laughs. “Oh, that is definitely true and that son of yours gets that from her too.”

I smile knowing a little about him helps. “Can I keep this?” I ask motioning to the picture in my hand.

“Of course. Would you like Shayla’s number? She’s told us several times if you ever showed up to give it to you if you wanted it.”

“Please. I don’t know if I’ll call. I need to get this …” I trail off not knowing what to say.

Mr. Thorn squeezes my shoulder. “We understand, son. Take your time. We won’t mention it to her. You both need to work through this on your own.”

I’m shocked he’d do that for me. “Thank you.”

Nine months pass and I never call. Well, I dial her number a few times, but I never push send. Then one day, I don’t know what made me do it, but I push send and she answers.

“Hello?” Shayla answers. I’m frozen. I can’t respond. “Hello? This is Doctor Thorn; do you need help?”

“Dr. Thorn?” I say. She’s a doctor. She made it, just like I knew she would.

“Yes, this is she. May I help you?”

I don’t know what brings on my anger, but I lash out. “Yeah, you can tell me why I was never told I was a father!” I yell.

“Oh, no! Ryan?”

“Of course, it’s Ryan.” I mock her with as much disdain I can muster. “This is the lowest thing anyone could ever do. I never thought you’d be capable of something so evil, Shayla. You let me go for the past fifteen years, totally unaware. How could you do that?”

There is silence, then, “Excuse me. I’ll be in my office, but only get me if there’s an emergency. This is important.” I hear walking and a door shutting. “Ryan?”

“I’m here.” I’m breathing heavily, my adrenaline pumping wildly.

“I’m so sorry. I can’t even tell you how sorry. I tried, in the beginning, to contact you.” Her voice shakes as she speaks.

I’ve scared her. Good. I know she had tried; I ignored her calls but she still should have tried harder to get a hold of me. She shouldn’t have given up so easily.

“That’s why you kept calling?”

“Yes.”

My anger starts to deflate, but is still very much present. “It wasn’t because you wanted me back?”

“No … I mean, I did, but I accepted you didn’t want me. I just wanted you to know about your son.”

I snort. Didn’t want her. If only she knew how wrong that was … is … was. I’m so confused right now.

“Dylan?”

“Yes, Dylan James Thorn.”

“James?” My middle name as well as her birth father’s name.

“Yes.”

Something about knowing that I’m represented in his name causes the rest of the anger to fall away. I’m still upset, but I’ve had nine months to process, to accept. I honestly wasted those months. I should have gone straight to her, but she was married and Dylan was happy. Even though, at first, I wanted to rip him away from her, I couldn’t do that. My siblings and mother made sure I didn’t do anything rash or stupid. I step out on my back porch and stare at the treehouse in the backyard of Shayla’s old home. A couple of kids, a boy and girl were playing, screaming, and chasing each other. They remind me of a more innocent time.

“The treehouse?” I ask, as the memory of us hits me.

“What?”

“It had to have been in the treehouse. That was the first time.”

“Yeah, I mean, there was only twice, but I figured the first. The math works.”

“Sorry I yelled.”

“Don’t be. I deserve it.”

I shake my head. She’s always taken the blame, even when we were kids. “Don’t do that. We’re both at fault. It’s overwhelming.” We’re both silent as the minute’s tick by. It’s uncomfortable at best. When I can’t take it anymore, I ask, “Does he know about me?”

“Yes. Gale sent me a yearbook so I could show him a picture. It’s black and white, but it’s all I have.”

I nod. We had tons of pictures, but they’re all at my mom’s.

“I want to talk to him.”

“Okay, let me talk to him and I’ll see what he wants to do.”

I snort, anger flaring again. “How about you let me talk to my son, because I have that right. You didn’t list me as the father, but I have blood right to him. I’m sure any judge would agree.”

“You’ll not take my son from me,” she snarls.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to get to know my child. You took what wasn’t just yours.”

“I didn’t say you couldn’t talk to him. I said I’d let him decide. He’s not a child. He’s fourteen.”

A knock on my car window startles me out of my thoughts. I was so horrible to Shay. I don’t know how she forgave me, but by the next phone call, I’d calmed down and we talked. She told me about her divorce and moving home. I decided to wait to talk to Dylan. I wanted to be sure I was calm. I didn’t want him to hate me if I was caught off guard and said something out of anger. I look up at my knocker and smile.

“Son, what are you doing?”

“You’ve been sitting in the car for over thirty minutes. I thought you were practicing with us today. The guys are getting restless. He pointed back to the field.”

“Sorry. Just thinking. Actually, I have to head to the station; I just stopped by to check on you. Is Matthews not here?”

“No, he’s here. He just thought you needed something. I’m still okay to ride with Ty, right?”

“Yeah, yeah. I told your mom. She said dinner’s at six.”

“Okay. I’ll be back. Practice is over at four.”

“Good. I’ll come to Monday’s practice. I have some paperwork to finish so I better get going.”

He nods. “You sure you’re okay? Mom’s okay?”

I smile. “We’re both fine, buddy. I’m just a little distracted, that’s all.”

“Okay. I’ll see you at home then.”

I nod, smiling, before backing out of the parking spot and heading to the station. I still can’t believe that I’m where I am now, my son in my life, Shay in my life again. I hate myself for not getting my act together sooner, but I’m going to make up for that. If it’s the last thing I do.

~*~

I’ve been working in my office for about an hour when May, my assistant, pokes her head around the corner.

“You have a phone call on line three. A Special Agent Marsh?”

I smile and nod. “Yeah, thanks. Shut the door, please.” She does as I ask and I pick up the phone. “Harry! How’s it going, man?”

“Same as always. I finally popped the question to my girl.”

“No kidding! Man, congrats. That’s awesome.”

“Thanks. It’s going to be crazy big. You should come. How’s life in Podunk?”

I laugh. “Ah, it’s not bad. Now anyway. At first, it was miserable. My mom was sick, finding out I have a teenaged son, finding a house. It’s been crazy.”

“Whoa, now. Back that up. You have a teenaged son?”

“Yeah. Nothing like finding out something like that through your realtor.”

“Shayla?” He asks, his voice still shocked.

I clear my throat. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about Dylan and Shayla, but a part of me wants to keep them for myself, but he is my best friend and I haven’t spoken to him in over a year. He’d been on a case when I left and other than the quick email on a case I’d been on, we hadn’t had time to chat.

“Yeah.”

“What in the world? I just can’t comprehend why she wouldn’t tell you.”

Sighing, I tell him, “She tried to tell me. I was too stubborn to listen. Then my dad and her social worker had her scared to death. She thought I’d go to jail if she told, which could have been possible. I had turned eighteen when we had sex the first time. And cliché as it is, she got pregnant from that.”

“Wow. I can’t imagine. I bet you were pissed at her.”

“Yeah, I went through a big angry phase. I hated her for a while, but then we really talked. I don’t blame her for what happened. She was trying to protect me and our son. I wish I’d come home during the past years, but that was my choice.”

“She’s lived there this whole time?”

“No, she lived up north about six hours from here. She moved back after her scum of an ex broke her heart.”

“How’d your parents not know?”

I snort in disgust. I still haven’t forgiven my father. “My dad did know. He scared the crap out of Shay so she never told a soul. Made it seem like it was a boy in one of the homes she was in. Her adoptive parents figured it out, but she didn’t confirm it until a few years ago. There’s no denying he’s mine. The boy is my twin.” I laugh.

“That’s awesome. Congrats, Papa,” he laughs.

I smile. “Yeah, man. It’s been great. I never thought of myself as a father, but hearing him call me dad, it’s been … life changing really.”

“I bet. Hey, I hate to ruin all this happy talk, but I called with some info for you.”

“Hit me,” I tell him sitting back in my chair ready for whatever he throws at me.

I hear shuffling papers and his throat clearing before he says, “You remember Jason Mathis?”

“Of course, The Fox Killer.”

“He’s been released.”

I fly up out of my seat in shock, almost knocking my coffee over. “What do you mean he’s been released? Tell me you’re lying. He killed ten people! Ten, Marsh! And that’s only the ones we found. Who knows how many there truly are.”

“I know, I know. One of the witnesses recanted her statement. Somehow, they came up with undeniable proof she was lying. She’s in jail for falsifying. It’s messed up. They’re still trying to pin him with what’s left, but she was a major witness. The whole case is being reevaluated. He was held as long as possible, but his release was ordered.”

I let out a huge breath. I have no clue what to think. This guy was no joke. It took me over two years to take him down. There’s no way that my biggest case could have had some technicality that would throw the evidence into question. This whole thing reeks of an inside job.

“This is huge,” I finally say.

“It is, but that’s not all. He left an origami fox on his bunk.”

My heart sinks. That’s his calling card. He left it with his victim as a clue before he’d kill his next victim. I almost don’t want to ask, knowing the implications of the answer but I do anyway.

“What was in it?”

“A hair. Forensics ran it, but there’s nothing in the data base. We have nothing to go on. We’ve got uniforms on him, watching, but he’s being citizen of the year.”

“Keep me posted.”

“I will. He was ordered to stay put and check in with a parole officer, not that that will stop him if he wants to leave.”

“Right, I’ll do what I can, but I don’t know what good I’ll be.”

“They have your testimony, but you might have to come back in once the case is back in court.”

“Yeah, anything. I have to get going. I’m meeting Shay and Dylan for dinner.”

“You guys back together already?” he asks with a chuckle.

I can’t help smiling. “Nah, but it’s only a matter of time. She wants me. I can tell.”

He guffaws. “Oh, there we go with your Rico Sauvé ways.”

I laugh with him. “Nah, it’s not like that. I love her. Always have. I’m tired of messing around. We messed up as kids, we wasted sixteen years without each other, I’m done. I want her and Dylan.”

“I get it. That’s awesome. I’m happy for you.”

“Thanks. And thanks for calling. Keep me in the loop.”

“I will. Later, Jacobs.”

“Later, Marsh.”

I shake my head, trying to wrap my head around the news that Mathis is out. Jason Mathis was my biggest case. I was undercover in the Mathis Crime Organization for almost a year. That was what I was doing when my dad died. We had so much evidence, it should’ve been impossible to turn over. Something is very wrong here. My initial thoughts are that it’s an inside job, that some official is pulling what should be un-pull-able strings. I slam my hand down on my desk. I have a sinking feeling he’ll be coming for me. He sees me as his nemesis. I don’t think he can find me, but I’ll be damned if I let him get to me or my family. I grab my things and head out of the office, ignoring the wave May gives me as I pass her.

My mind is everywhere as I travel to Shay’s. I can’t even process what would happen if Mathis came after me. Shayla and Dylan are my priority now. I won’t let anything happen to them. When I finally arrive at Shayla’s, she calls out to me to just take a seat, that dinner is almost ready.

“Will do,” I say as I do what she tells me.

I’m happy that dinner is a simple affair, but a happy one. I want more days like this with them; this natural day-to-day conversation has already lightened my mind and put Mathis’ release on the back burner for now. This is what I never knew I needed, my family.

~*~

Sunday comes quicker than I would have imagined. It’s afternoon as I watch my son pace back and forth in the living room while we wait for Shayla to finish getting ready. We are set to head over to my grandma Penny’s house. The whole family will be there, well, all that can be at least. Dylan seems uneasy about something, but I can’t imagine what he would be nervous about.

“Son, you’re wearing a hole in the floor.”

He stops and turns towards me. “Sorry. I’m just worried. What if they don’t like me?”

I snort. “They love you already.”

“How’s that even possible. They’ve never met me.” He finally sits down in the chair across from me.

“You’ve talked to my mom on the phone, you know she’s head over heels for you.”

This, of course, is an understatement. Sure, my mom has other grandkids, but Dylan is the oldest. She’s seen him over the years and always suspected he was mine, but every time she brought it up to my dad he shut her down quickly. She was relieved to know she wasn’t crazy and that Dylan did indeed look like me, because he was mine. It caused a big rift between my mom and Gale’s relationship, but it’s now on the mend. She understood this was my father’s doing and she wasn’t unaccustomed to his poor choices.

“Yeah, on the phone, but what if I’m not good enough in person?”

I tilt my head to the side and stare at him for a second, before standing to my feet and kneeling in front of him. I rest my hand on his shoulder so he’s looking straight at me.

“Dylan, my family isn’t Todd. They aren’t going to turn you away or think anything other than how lucky they are to have you with them. I feel the same. I know we’ve only known each other a short time, but you are my son and I love you. Nothing could ever change that. It was instant the moment I saw your picture at the Thorns.”

“But I wasn’t good enough for T …”

I stop him. “Todd is a jackass. He didn’t know what a good thing he had. And you know what? I’m glad. If he hadn’t screwed up, I wouldn’t be here right now with you.”

I pull him into a hug. I feel him sighing in relief and his tears soaking my shirt. He’s needed to do this, to get out his true fear. Todd made him feel unwanted. Oh, but this boy is so wanted and so needed, he has no idea. I wasn’t lying when I said it was instant. The very moment I looked at that picture, I loved him. I may have been angry, but never with him. He’s not done a thing wrong in this situation. I rub his back soothingly, holding him tightly, trying to comfort him the best I can. To make up for all the times I should’ve been there but wasn’t.

“Hey, what’s going on? What happened?” Shayla asks, sitting on the arm of the chair. Dylan sits back and pulls her to him. She’s halfway in his lap and in the chair. She squeaks at the suddenness. “Oh, baby, what’s wrong?”

“I’m scared.”

“Of what, Dyl?”

“Of not being good enough for the Jacobs’.” He sits back, wiping his eyes. I grab some tissues from the table and hand them to him.

“You are a Jacobs and you are good enough. That was never the issue. Trust me,” Shayla says.

He leans his head back on the chair and rubs his eyes. “I need to know why you did it. Why you didn’t tell them about me?”

I look at Shay and she looks at me. She moves back to the arm of the chair so she can see him better. I can see she is debating, running through possible responses and then she looks resolved as she starts speaking.

“I was in foster care when your dad and I started dating. He’s older than me, not that it’s wrong, it’s fine. We could date, but we couldn’t be intimate. He could’ve gotten into big trouble, even though the Thorns were adopting me, and the worker didn’t know I was pregnant until it was finalized. I begged them not to tell. I didn’t show until really late in my pregnancy and I wore baggy clothes. Simon, my caseworker, he didn’t know until you were two. He sought me out. He tried then to get me to tell him who your dad was, but I told him it wasn’t his business anymore. He knew it was your dad, accused him. He wanted me to press charges. Plus …”

I stop her. I turn to Dylan. “Your grandpa, my dad, he scared your mom. That’s why as soon as she graduated, you guys moved away.”

“That’s why Maw and Pop came to stay with us so much? You didn’t want to come back here?” Dylan asks.

“I was so afraid that even though I was over eighteen, they’d still find a way to press charges. I knew your dad was in the military and I just imagined all these terrible things happening to him. I couldn’t bring myself to admit to anyone that he was your dad until you asked when you were nine. I knew then I had to, but I made Maw and Pop promise not to tell anyone until I could reach your dad.” She took a huge breath, then looked over at me. I can see tears in her eyes. “I’ve never told anyone this, but I called your dad,” she says to me, then turns to Dylan, “your grandpa, shortly after your birthday that year, and told him you were curious. I told him I understood he didn’t want Ryan to know and that was fine, I was engaged, and I didn’t want anything. I just thought you should at least know your dad. He told me Ryan couldn’t be reached and if I tried to call him again or contact Ryan, he’d press charges for harassment. I should have kept trying, but I didn’t want to cause problems.”

I stare at her for a long while. I’m not sure why she never mentioned any of this, but then again, she didn’t tell me about my dad’s involvement until we saw each other. She’s always trying to protect me, crazy girl. She looks at me concerned.

“I’m not mad at you. I’m upset with my dad more than I can explain, but he’s not here anymore. I’d like to put all this behind us and move forward. A lot of mistakes were made, but they were made in the effort to protect those we love. Let’s just vow from this point forward, that the three of us are a team, even if we aren’t dating, Shayla. The three of us talk about everything, no secrets.”

They both agree. I pull them into a family hug. That’s what we are, no matter what. The drive to my mom’s is full of happy chatter. I tell Dylan a few silly stories about his mom, teasing her. She laughs, but for the most part, lets us talk. I squeeze her hand as I pull into the drive of my family home. I know there’s nothing for her to worry about, but I can tell she’s nervous.

“Oh, my goodness!” My mom squeals from the porch steps. She pulls Shayla and Dylan into her arms.

I chuckle. “Let them breathe, Mom.”

“Sorry, I just … oh, look at you. You look more like your dad in person.” She pats Dylan’s face. “Come in. My manners are out the window. Have a seat. I’ll get us something to drink.”

“I’ve got it, Mom,” my sister, Alaina, says, setting a tray of drinking glasses with a pitcher of iced tea on the coffee table. “Hi, I’m your Aunt Alaina, but everyone calls me Laney.”

She smiles at Dylan and then looks at Shay. She and Shayla used to be friends, not like Shay and I were, but they’re the same age and had several classes together in school.

“Shay,” she greets her with a warm smile.

“Hey, Laney.”

It doesn’t take long for us to get settled in or for my mom to drag out the photo albums from my youth. There’s tons of Shayla as well. The fear I’d seen in Dylan’s eyes on the ride over is replaced with laughter and contentment. The easy acceptance of my mom and sister has done that for him.

I look over to Shay. She’s been quiet most of the time. She’s answered questions and laughed, but I can tell she’s a bit distant. As Dylan is looking at pictures from right around the time he was conceived, she excuses herself to the bathroom. She’s gone so long, that I go to check on her.

“Shay?” I say, knocking on the door.

“Sorry, be out in a minute.”

I can tell she’s been crying. I twist the knob, finding it unlocked. I slowly push it open, giving her a chance to deny me. She doesn’t. I find her sitting on the side of the bathtub, tissue in hand.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” I ask, kneeling down in front of her.

“I’m a horrible person. I kept him from his family.”

Frowning, I push her hair back so I can see her face. “You’re not horrible. We both made mistakes. You can’t shoulder all the blame.”

“You should hate me. I kept your son from you, your mom, and your whole family. I was selfish.”

“You were scared, that’s not being selfish. You thought something horrible would happen to me, so you protected me. That’s not being selfish.” I snort and shake my head. “If anyone’s at fault, it’s me. If I wasn’t so hardheaded and would have let you talk when you called, I would have known. I don’t know what would have happened, but it would have been worth it.”

“Not if you were in jail or labeled a sex offender. That’s what would have happened. Even if you didn’t go to jail, you’d be considered a sex offender because you were eighteen and I was fifteen. That wouldn’t be worth it. You couldn’t see him right now. You’d have lost your job and any chance of being what you want. At least, now you have him in your life. I just wish that I would have found you sooner. I’m so sorry.”

I wipe the tears from her face. “We’ve apologized enough. Let’s place the blame where it belongs, on my dad and that stupid social worker, Simon. We have forgiven each other; we’ve agreed to move forward. Right?” She nods. “Then come back out there with me and visit with my family. I know they may not say it, but they missed you.”

“Yeah, okay. When will your brothers be here?”

“Nathan had to work, and Paul is on a business trip, but we’ll meet up with them when we can. Paul’s wife is going to bring the boys down to meet Dylan and watch his first game.”

“Good. They’re about the same age right?”

“Yeah, Sam is fourteen and Danny is about to turn thirteen.”

“Good, he needs cousins. He’ll like that,” she says, wiping under her eyes.

I kiss her forehead, then help her up. I squeeze her tightly and she returns my embrace with a chuckle. God, I have missed her. I won’t let anything get in the way of us being a family.

“I love the sound of your laughter. Now, let’s go hang with my family.”

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