Lakeville hadn’t changed. No surprise there. He’d gotten out of town the day after high school graduation and hadn’t ever looked back. If he didn’t know the way the gossip mill in this place worked, he’d have bet no one even remembered Ed Rockwell. But one of the pillars of the community, someone he would have called an old bat before he grew up, would probably take one look at him and start scolding him for TP-ing her house fifteen years back. He must have been a real trial to the town.
Might as well get it over with. He closed his suitcase, shoved it in the closet, and strode out of the lonely safety of the hotel room. No one accosted him. In fact, he didn’t see a single soul until he reached the town square.
Looked like the entire population had gathered for one of their urban rites. This time it was the retirement of Miss Carter, the only high school teacher he’d respected. Even liked. The one to whom he owed pretty much everything. She’d encouraged him, stood by him, pounded education into him, given him the desire and the resolve to ride the Navy to a college degree and a decent job. And she’d seen to it that he had ambition. The job gave him the money and time for grad school, so he owed his master’s degree to Miss C.
Hence his presence in the place he hated more than anywhere else in the world.
Hence his polite attention to the windbag speeches by the mayor and the school principal and a bunch of other people he didn’t remember.
Hence his sharp, two-fingered whistle when the boring speeches were over and Miss C. had expressed gracious and graciously short thanks for whatever they’d given her. Her head snapped up, and her gaze raked the crowd. He’d swear that gaze lingered, drilled right through him just the way it had ten years ago at his own graduation. Long-buried habit had his heart leaping with guilt. Ten years of adulthood had him smiling.
Damn, but she was a great old girl.
The crowd dispersed, drifting across the grass to where the United Church ladies had set up tables of food. Nothing happened in this town without food. He snorted and made his way to Miss C.’s side.
She turned and offered her hand in what looked like an automatic gesture.
He took it in both of his and smiled down at the small, fierce woman. “Congratulations, Miss C. You survived in spite of us.”
“Edwin Rockwell,” she exclaimed. “I never thought I’d see you here again.”
“I never thought I’d be here again. But for you”—he gave her a dramatic half bow—“I’d do anything. I couldn’t miss seeing you today.”
“Blarney,” she snapped. “You’re just here to see Angelina.”
She might as well have thrust a sword through his heart. His vision blurred and words dissolved before they reached his dry-as-a-bone mouth.
“Angelina Harris,” Miss Carter said. “Surely you remember the girl you were attached to as though you were conjoined twins the last two years of school?”
Of course he remembered the girl who had cut him to ribbons and left him for dead. But hearing her name had severed some connection between brain and body. He couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. And knew he looked like an idiot, standing in the middle of the town square, staring at a little old lady.
“Angelina,” the little old lady repeated. “The girl you got pregnant and deserted. The girl you left to the mercies of her white-trash parents and the sharp-tongued gossips of this town.”
Her mouth kept moving, so he knew the words went on and on, but he couldn’t hear them for the buzzing in his head. Angie. Pregnant. Deserted. He hadn’t. He couldn’t have.
But he could have. If she’d been pregnant…if she’d gotten pregnant that last night… Why wouldn’t she have told him? Written? Called? Anything?
“Me?” he asked. Squeaked.
Miss Carter’s gaze drilled through him like a laser beam. “You didn’t know,” she said after a pause he thought might last until the Trumpet of Doom.
“I didn’t think you would abandon her like that.”
“I wouldn’t have.” At least he didn’t think he would have. They’d always been so careful. Maybe she hadn’t made other guys wear a condom every time. What if the father had been that football player? “Why do you think it was me?”
“Oh Edwin, really.”
The familiar, scolding tone of her voice made him feel about sixteen again.
“The poor girl thought the sun rose and set in you. She never even looked at another boy after you started dating her.”
Maybe. Maybe not. Or maybe she’d just been better at hiding her cheating than his first girlfriend had been.
“I always worried about the two of you, you know. The two-year gap in ages is quite significant when it’s the difference between sixteen and fourteen. Or eighteen and sixteen.” That sharp glance cut him again. “Apparently I was correct in worrying.”
Apparently so. He swallowed hard even though his mouth remained desert dry. “Did she say it was me?”
He knew that overly patient tone of voice. It meant Miss Carter was about to lose her temper.
“Angelina never told anyone who the father was. She absolutely refused to say a word on the subject. She wouldn’t admit it was you, but it seemed obvious to the town, especially to the ladies who live on gossip.”
If shock hadn’t frozen any hint of emotion in him, he’d feel sorry for Angie. “What—what did she do?”
Miss Carter snorted. “Her parents threw her out of the house, of course. It was a scene worthy of an old Gothic novel, lacking only the snowstorm and the already-born child.” She stopped and frowned. “If you want to know more, I suggest you wait until you have composed yourself and go ask Angelina. She is, of course, the only one who knows the truth.”
He reeled as though her words had been another blow. Ask Angie? See Angie? Actually talk to Angie. “I don’t know where she is,” he muttered.
“And it would never occur to you to ask someone?” she said with asperity. “Honestly, Edwin, I would like to think better of you.” She took his arm. “But I suppose you have had something of a shock. You look as though I had smacked you with a dead chicken.”
If she had, the shock would have been less. And easier to cope with.
“So I think you need to escort me across the square, and we will get some food, which you will at least pretend to eat. After that, you may walk two blocks down the street and speak with Angelina. She is staying at the hotel.”
* * * *
So she didn’t live in town. He’d imagined she’d never leave Lakeville, and he’d worried about seeing her at Miss Carter’s shindig, but he had hoped to get in and out of town before she noticed. He hadn’t run far geographically, but Lakeville and San Francisco could have been on different planets even though they were only two hundred miles apart.
He didn’t want to see her. Some of his worst nightmares had been of Angie and Dirk together, living the happy life in the old hometown.
That Pandora’s box needed to stay closed. He’d relived the angry moments of good-bye again and again. Had suffered through endless dreams and nightmares of his Angie-less life. Didn’t want to remember the joy of sinking into her lushness.
He couldn’t make himself ask the desk clerk which room was hers. Maybe her name wasn’t Harris anymore. Maybe she wouldn’t open the door, wouldn’t even talk to him. Maybe stopping in the bar would give him courage. A drink. Or two. Or even three.
The throat-closing anxiety receded a fraction as he stepped into the dimly lit, polished-wood and upholstered-seat glory of the hotel bar. The first sip of aged single-malt helped even more. He leaned his elbows on the bar and let his gaze drift over the room reflected in the back-bar mirror.
Only a few people here. A discouraged-looking guy he tagged as a salesman. A couple of women who looked like they should be drinking tea instead of martinis. His gaze faltered when he saw the woman sitting alone in a booth across the room. As though she felt it touch her, she looked up at him.
His gaze locked with hers. Shock and disbelief had the blood draining from his head.
No. It wasn’t. Couldn’t be.
The world didn’t hold enough scotch to make this moment bearable. But Miss Carter had sent him here to do it, so he ignored the horrified expression that spread across Angie’s face. He rose and crossed the room to join her. It seemed stupid to say something like “May I join you?” so he just slipped into the booth across from her.
For a moment, time stumbled, and it felt like the old days. Even at the most heated time in their relationship, the days when not touching felt like being torn in half, he and Angie always sat across from each other so they could look into each other’s eyes.
He could lose himself in the velvet depths of those big sapphire eyes.
Now her eyes were just as big and blue as ever, but the velvet depths held something that looked more like—fear? anger?—than lust.
was angry? She’d been the one to play around. She’d been the one who screamed she never wanted to see him again. She’d been the one who hadn’t come to the train station to wave good-bye. And she’d been the one who let the whole town think he was a lowlife, deadbeat slime who’d abandoned her when she needed him. If she’d called him, or written, or anything, he wouldn’t be gobsmacked today. So yeah, he
had a right to be angry too.
“Hello, Angie,” he said, hoping his voice wouldn’t shake. God knew everything inside him quivered like a bowl of jelly in an earthquake.
“You cut your hair.”
She nodded, just the barest inclination of her head. It scarcely disturbed the riot of blonde curls. “So did you.”
He could barely hear her soft whisper. “Company dress code,” he said.
“I can’t imagine you working for a place like that…” Her voice trailed off, and she looked at him, helpless as a bunny facing a hound.
Right. Helpless as a faithless bitch dumping her boyfriend when he was off serving his country. “Miss Carter just gave me some interesting news,” he said. “I understand—”
Angie’s porcelain skin flushed a deep rose. “Not here. Not in public.”
“My room, then.” His room. Room with a bed. A nice, big, smooth bed. He saw awareness of sex on her face too. The booth seemed to contract, locking the two of them in an embrace that called up every hot, steamy moment they’d ever shared.
He ruthlessly pushed down the desire to leap across the table and grab her. To take that mouth, to feel the lush flesh of her breasts. To fill his hands with the heart-shaped roundness of her butt.
That was ten years ago. He’d changed. Angie had changed. Now he wouldn’t even let himself wonder where she lived. He dragged himself back to the present with ruthless discipline and stood. Took her arm and led her to the elevator. Silence burned his ears as the car slid smoothly up to the third floor. He swallowed a snort. The penthouse, the desk clerk had called it. Angie didn’t look at him once.
Once he closed the door to his room behind them, she whirled to look at him. “So. What do you think we need to talk about? All the teenage stuff is done and over with, and we don’t have anything else. You made it clear ten years ago that we were history.”
“Me! You said you never wanted to see me again. You didn’t even come to say good-bye when I left for boot camp.” And hadn’t that
hurt. Hadn’t she been able to tell how scared he’d been? Not just about leaving. Not just about what he’d face at boot camp. Scared of leaving her. Scared of having to live through the days without her.
“A teenage fight, Eddie. And water under the bridge. Nothing to talk about.”
“Come on, Angie. You had a baby. Don’t you think I have a right to know if I’m a father or not?”
“Sure. You have a right.” Based on tone of voice alone, she wished him dead. No, not dead. Annihilated. “So, congratulations, Eddie. You’re a father. Now what?”
He should have expected it. After all Miss Carter had said—but the reality hit like a freight train. He didn’t want to feel, so he blotted it out. If anything could change his life, parenthood would do it up brown. Numbly, he stared at Angie, ready to fall into her warm, tropical-sea gaze the way he used to. Deep down he knew, just knew, that she hadn’t lied to him, hadn’t cheated on him. He couldn’t face the knowledge. “How can you be sure it was my baby? We always used condoms.”
“And they’re not one hundred percent foolproof.” She glared at him. “Because, you idiot, I never had sex with anyone else. Let’s not have that same fight again. I didn’t sleep with whatever his name was. You were jealous of nothing. I thought you were using it as an excuse to break up with me. But again, water under the bridge. Done and over with.”
“No.” The word shot out of his mouth before he could stop it. What was he thinking? He couldn’t be a father. He had a perfect life. But underneath the surface of that life lurked something he’d never known was there. A kid facing life without a dad? Not something he would be a party to. “I want to meet him. Her. Whatever.”
“Him.” Angie bit off the word as though it hurt. “Good luck with that.”
“What the hell does that mean?” he blurted out in panic. The kid was dead? Because Ed had failed him?
“I mean, the kid was adopted,” Angie said.
He remembered Angie’s faux tough talk as clearly as if it had been yesterday. The funny little wobble in her voice when she tried to sound as though she didn’t care about something. The way her shoulders squared when she tried to show no one could hurt her. “Come on, Ange. What happened?”
“The baby was adopted,” she repeated.
“It’s not like I had a choice. I wanted him even though you were gone. Even though you didn’t want anything to do with either of us.”
Ed thought about the misery of his days in boot camp, wishing Angie would answer his letters. Call. Show up at the front gate. Anything.
“If you recall, I had just turned sixteen. I wasn’t exactly a free agent. My parents and the doctor arranged the adoption.”
“If your parents believed I was the father, why didn’t they get in touch with me? They didn’t. They never contacted me. How did they arrange an adoption without the father’s permission?”
“They did try to contact you. They said you never answered them.”
“Of course I didn’t. I never heard from them.”
“Whatever. It doesn’t matter, Eddie. It’s done and over with now. Has been for a long time.”
Ed looked at his watch. “Long time
for me has been about twenty-eight minutes, so I’m not quite ready to be done with the subject. You threw away my kid. I think the least you can do is fill me in…just the facts, ma’am.”
He could see Angie pull anger around her like a protective cloak. “Well, Eddie, if you hadn’t cut class so often, you’d have learned that when a sperm encounters an egg—”
“Cut the crap, Ange.”
“I already told you. The baby was adopted. By a couple who would give him all the things I couldn’t. The kid got a good deal, and I’ve learned to live with it. That takes time, so you might as well get started.”
“I want to see his picture.”
“Not a chance. I don’t have any. I never saw him.” She looked away, lips pressed together in a hard line. “Never held him. No contact. I don’t know who they are, and they don’t know who I am. That was the agreement.” She jumped to her feet and turned away, fumbling in her purse.
Probably going after a handkerchief. Anger swept through him like a tidal wave. Angie always could cry up a storm and then things were okay. Okay
seemed like it might be something of a stretch for him.
“Miss Carter said they threw you out.”
“They did,” she said in a ragged voice. “She took me in. But they came after me and sent me to a home for unwed mothers. More like a prison, really.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I would have—” He didn’t know what eighteen-year-old Eddie Rockwell might have done. He’d grown up some in ten years. Thank God.
“Would have what, Eddie?” She snapped the words as though she’d read his mind and stalked across the room. At the door, she whirled to face him. “You were gone. You were in boot camp before I knew I was pregnant. And even if you’d known, even if you had stepped up to the plate, what could you have done? Married me? I was sixteen. My parents ruled.” After a pause, she added, “We’re done here.”
Angie, ten years older, about ten pounds heavier, wearing more clothes and less makeup than he’d ever seen on her, still did it for him. His brain might be fried by her news, but his body knew what it wanted. He crossed the room before he knew he was going to move and put his hands on her waist, the way he always had. “Angie—”
She smacked his hands away. “Same old Eddie,” she said, anger making the words burn hard enough to leave scars. “Get your brain out of your pants and grow up.” She spun out into the hall and slammed the door in his face.