When Kate's husband, Ward, locates the son she put up for adoption as an unwed teen, she's understandably wary. What if he looks like his father instead of Ward?
The boy, now a man, is also wary. Who are these people who suddenly want him to be a part of their lives? Where were they when he was growing up, when he needed to feel a part of something bigger? After meeting, everyone's fears dissipate.
Then Ward passes away unexpectedly. Although devastated, Kate is thankful he never knew the truth. Facing the rest of her life alone, she returns to work in the company he founded. She's still coming to grips with life as a single when she learns her son was adopted into the family of Jesse, the boy who turned her away as a pregnant teen.
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Snow had just begun to stick as the last revelers pulled away from the Country Club. "And another Beecham Christmas party goes down in history," Kate Beecham said to her husband of twenty-five years. "I'm glad we scheduled it early this year. I think this winter is going to be a bitch."
"Yup," Ward said.
"It was a good party, hon."
He slid into traffic. "Yup."
"I felt sorry for Phyllis though. That long black gown she wore made her look like a string of licorice. Something less severe would've been more attractive on her."
"Dave looked terrific though. But I didn't like the bimbo he came with. Too bad he can't settle down with a nice girl."
Realizing conversation was futile once her husband switched into automatic response mode, Kate leaned back and silently reviewed the evening's events. She was half-asleep when Ward's softly spoken words jolted her awake.
"Do you ever think about finding him, Kate?"
Her eyes flew open, and she stole a look at his face, pained to see, grimly illuminated in the greenish glow of the dashboard, remembered loss, shared loss. She'd hoped the passage of time and the phenomenal success of their business would've lessened the sorrow. As if time and circumstances could ever mitigate the loss of a child.
It seemed so unreal to her now. A living being, concealed beneath layers of baggy shirts and sweaters, unborn, innocent, and a young girl sent to live with an aunt in upstate New York. The girl never saw the tiny infant who'd grown under her heart, never heard his mewling cries, or held his warm body to her breast. The entire experience left an empty place in Kate's heart that lingered still. Did she ever think about him? Often. Did she ever think about finding him?
"No," she whispered. "Never."
Ward dipped his head in silent acknowledgement. And though he made no further mention of the child, his introspective look spoke volumes.
* * *
Days later, Ward's sudden interest in something Kate thought they'd put behind them years earlier still troubled her. She knew he thought about it, as did she. But they never talked about it. Ever. Why had it come up now?
She was seated at the hair salon at the mall, waiting for her color to set when her thoughts skipped ahead to her family's mid-winter vacation. The annual respite was a godsend for Ward. The minute he stepped off the plane he was a changed man--the most important decision on his plate, whether to jog, swim, or bike around their island getaway. Because he'd been so preoccupied lately, Kate hoped the relaxing interlude would take his mind off more distressing matters.
As she skimmed through one of the salon's few new magazines, a gaggle of teen-aged girls loitered outside the salon's window. Exposing as much skin as was legal, the girls postured and posed, showing off their various body piercings and tattoos in an obvious attempt to catch the attention of the boys hanging out on the opposite side of the corridor. The scene set a tidal wave of memories in motion.
How different she'd been at their age. At fifteen, all she wanted was to get through the day without attracting attention; she would've done just that were it not for a broken zipper and an errant football.
* * *
As the shyest girl in her sophomore class, Kate Hadley was used to cruising just under the radar. This year would be different, she vowed. This year she would speak up in class and smile instead of cringe when someone spoke to her. Determined to make it her best year ever, she even joined the drama club. But when the instructor asked the group to prepare a monologue for their next meeting, she panicked and dropped out of the club.
Later in the week, when Miss Kleinfeldt called on her to deliver her oral book report, she screwed up her courage and proceeded to the front of the room. When the class started snickering, Miss Kleinfeldt tapped the board with her pointer, and the giggles subsided. Not until she finished her book report and returned to her seat did she realize the zipper on her slacks had split open, exposing her satin-clad butt.
Mortified, she sat through the rest of class, blind and deaf to everything but her humiliation. When the final bell rang and classes were dismissed, she ran to her locker for a sweater, tied it around her waist, and rushed outside.
But before she could board her bus, a football sailed her way. "Look out," someone yelled.
She ducked, but not soon enough. Her books and papers fell to the ground, and she knelt to gather them up.
"Sorry about that," a male voice said, joining her. "You're not hurt, are you?"
"I'm okay," she mumbled. Lifting her head, she found herself staring into the emerald eyes of Jesse Townsend, senior and captain of the football team.
A gust of wind stirred the nearly naked trees, and a shower of crimson and gold rained down. The boy behind the smiling eyes laughed, picked an amber leaf from her hair, then rejoined his buddies. Embarrassed by the unwanted attention, Kate scrambled onto the bus and dropped in the first available seat. Someone in the back giggled, and she pressed her flushed face against the window, certain they were laughing at her.
In the following week, no matter where she went, she bumped into the popular football captain. Each time they met, he smiled and winked while she scurried off like a timid mouse.
Well-liked by students and teachers, Jesse Townsend was the envy of every boy in school. Rumor had it that he'd scored with every member of the cheerleading squad and was scouting about for fresher pom-poms. Kate had heard the talk and was understandably wary. Why would the most popular boy in school smile at her, a faceless, nameless nobody, rejected by both the letter jacket and leather jacket cliques?
The noon bell rang, and she was struggling to jam a book in her locker when she sensed someone behind her. She spun around. "Oh," she said in a squeaky voice foreign to her ears. "It's you."
Jesse grinned. "Need some help?"
She slammed her locker shut with a clang. "No. Thanks."
"Your locker looks almost as messy as mine." He chuckled. "Come on, I'll walk you to your next class. Mrs. Greene, right?"
She nodded, stunned that he'd gone to the trouble of checking her schedule. Then she saw the group he was with when she and the football collided. The boys grinned and whispered behind their hands. Thinking she'd been set up, she turned to Jesse, her voice cool as she said, "Thanks, but I have another stop to make first." Then she hurried in the opposite direction.
He followed. "Hey, wait up, I won't bite."
Wheeling around, she bravely looked him straight in the eyes, those captivating, green eyes. "Please, don't play games with me. Is this a dare from your friends?"
"No. Of course not. The truth is, I've been wanting to talk to you again."
"Yeah." He scraped his toe against the floor. "Hey, you're not seeing anyone, are you?"
She dropped her gaze, remembering Ward and the little disagreement that had spiraled out of hand. She didn't even remember how it started, only how it ended. Since then, she'd been the object of a few look-sees from boys, their eyes seemingly asking the same question, "Will she or won't she?" She always answered with a blush.
Although she'd only had two sweaty-palmed movie dates before Ward, Kate knew that shy girls who played hard to get often didn't get got, having adorned many a wall at school functions before arriving at that conclusion. Since Ward was also shy, that had never been a problem. It made for a lot of quiet dates, but never a problem.
But Jesse was different. And if she wanted to keep his interest, she'd have to loosen up.
Forcing a smile, she accepted his offer to walk her to class, acutely aware of the hushed whispers and curious stares of classmates.
Within days, Kate's rank in the adolescent pecking order rose several notches as she and Jesse spent long hours together, talking, dreaming, and sharing their thoughts on life, love, and happiness. Kate confided her hopes of becoming a teacher; Jesse expressed his desire to play professional football. Oddly enough, both believed their dreams were attainable.
Two exciting weeks later, Kate found herself sitting with Jesse's friends in the football stadium, cheering him on in the big Thanksgiving game. Although the air had a definite bite to it, and she'd grown hoarse from yelling, nothing short of a blizzard would've made her zip up her coat and hide the gold, heart-shaped necklace he'd given her.
After winning the game, they went to his house. His parents were having their holiday dinner at his sister's, he said, and the house was theirs for a few hours. A ripple of trepidation passed through Kate at the prospect of being totally alone with a boy, especially a boy for whom she had such strong feelings.
He led her into the den just off the foyer. Richly decorated in an old west motif, the room looked like a page from a Louis L'Amour novel, right down to the hand-rubbed, mahogany bar with attached brass foot rail. Jesse explained that his dad was a diehard cowboy buff and had even named his children after old west legends. Martha Jane Canary, better known as Calamity Jane, was his sister's namesake.
"So can you guess who I'm named after?" He affected a tough guy stance by cocking his thumbs and blowing imaginary smoke from twin index fingers.
"Well, I know it's not Jesse Jackson." She giggled. "So it must be Jesse James."
He winked. "You're good."
Unimpressed by his father's rogue gallery, Jesse turned on the TV to catch another game while Kate perused the sepia reproductions on the wall. Then she kicked off her sneakers and joined him on the sofa, confessing that she really didn't understand the game very well.
Jesse caressed her cheek with his knuckles. "Then I have a lot to teach you."
Kate tensed. Unsettled by the meaning behind his words and touch, she bounded from the sofa. "Why don't we dance?" she said, looking through his record albums.
He groaned. "Nah, I'm not much of a dancer."
"Neither am I. So come on, this should be interesting." She put on an Elvis album, then tugged him to his feet.
Forced into it, Jesse assumed the proper stance, and she assumed hers. When the romantic ballad ended, he didn't pull away. His mouth came down over hers, his lips soft, sweet, unlike Ward's stiff kisses. Enjoying the intimacy, she melted into his arms. But when he tipped her tongue with his, she drew back.
"Sorry," he mumbled.
She brought her hand to her mouth, embarrassed by her reaction. "Hey, I have an idea," she said, sailing over the awkward moment. "Why don't we go to my house and see how the turkey's doing?"
"I have a better idea. Why don't I see what I can scrounge up in the kitchen? You can have your turkey later."
Thinking she could use some time out, Kate agreed. She told herself it was just a kiss, nothing to get excited about. After all, she'd been French kissed before. Once. The last time she thought it merely sloppy; this time she found it positively electrifying.
Jesse returned with a bag of Fritos, a bottle of red wine, and a mischievous grin on his face. Kate's eyes nearly popped out of her head when she saw the wine. "Won't your folks get mad?"
He filled two glasses to the rim. "Nah, theyll never miss it."
Kate tested her drink, wrinkled her nose, then swallowed quickly. Jesse laughed and took a healthy gulp of his. Gradually, by alternating a swallow of wine with a handful of chips, Kate managed to empty her glass. Jesse promptly refilled it.
By the time they reached the bottom of the bottle, Kate's inhibitions as well as her good sense had vanished. "Come on, Jess, I wanna dance again."
Feeling no pain himself, Jesse bowed from the waist in a mock gesture of formality. "May I have the pleasure of this dance, my dear?"
"You may," she said with a wobbly curtsey.
Giggling wildly, the tipsy teens launched into a mild fox trot, graduated to an exaggerated waltz, then swept into a crazy tango, hooting with laughter when they bumped into the coat stand in the foyer. "I beg your pardon, ma'am," Jesse said to the coat stand. Kate howled.
After several false starts and fumbled moves, they got their feet working again and danced back into the den. Then Jesse stuck out the wrong foot, Kate tripped, and they collapsed on the sofa in a fit of breathless chortles.
"Whew, it's getting warm in here," she said, pulling her sweat shirt over her head. Glancing down, she noticed the two top buttons of her blouse had come undone. "Oops." Giggling, she started to fasten them. Jesse grabbed her hand, twined his fingers through hers, then eased her down on the cushions. Beginning with her pearl-studded earlobes, he trailed baby kisses down the curve of her neck to the gentle rise of her breasts.
Kate felt a momentary twinge of guilt. She'd promised her mother during the "talk" that she wouldn't let a boy touch her below the neck. But Jesse wasn't just any boy, she reasoned. Jesse was special. She loved being with him, loved the easy way he laughed, the way he made her feel.
Her senses dulled by love and wine, she closed her eyes, her sigh inviting him to linger. Her blouse fell open and he caressed her midriff with light, feathery strokes, his hands amazingly soft for an athlete. His lips teased and tantalized, aroused and confused as they worked across her breasts and belly. Their passions high, they tugged at each other's clothes. When the barrier of clothes no longer separated them, they lay together, excited by the feel of flesh upon flesh.
Kate experienced a sharp jab and instinctively pushed against it. Caught between pain and pleasure, she felt as though she were on a giant Ferris wheel, rising toward an open sky, then plummeting earthward with a gut-tingling thrill. With each revolution, the wheel went faster, her mind and body wanting, yet not wanting the ride to end.
Then Jesse moaned, his muscular body convulsed, and the ride came to a grinding halt. Stranded on the edge of nowhere, Kate slowly regained her sensibilities and with them a profound sense of shame. Gathering her disheveled clothes around her, she ran to the bathroom and promptly threw up.
"Kate? Are you all right?" she heard through the ringing in her head.
Pale and shaken, she cleaned herself up, then opened the door. "I'm okay."
"Katie, I'm so sorry. I never meant for that to happen. It's just that I love you so much."
Unsure if she was ready for the kind of intimacy such a relationship entailed, Kate met Jesse's declaration of love with silence. What had just happened was more than she bargained for. More intense, more frenzied, more confusing. It was also less than she expected, as though the gods of love had withheld completion as punishment for her complete abandonment of good sense.
Puzzled by her lack of response, Jesse raised her blotchy face to his. "Did you hear me? I love you, babe."
"I heard," she said in a wooden voice. "But I have to go now. My mother will be worried."
His face and arms fell. "Okay." He bit his lip. "I'll get your coat."
Kate didn't say much on the ride home, unable to voice the feelings swirling through her mind and body. Jesse was unlike any boy she'd ever known. He'd awakened her heart, made her feel things, grown-up things she never experienced before. But in so doing, he ruined their innocent, little romance. Holding hands and sneaking a kiss behind the bleachers would never be the same again.
* * *
"Mrs. Beecham, the timer went off," the salon operator said. "You need to get that solution rinsed out now."
Kate blinked. "What? Oh. Sorry, I was in my own little world there for a minute." Setting her unread magazine back on the stack, Kate followed her hairdresser to the sink. As she passed the salon's window, she saw the two groups of teenagers had paired off. Step two of the mating ritual.
Ward Beecham was a self-made man, a man whose rugged good looks and fair business practices earned him the respect of people in all walks of life. As he and Kate stepped inside the crowded cafe, the mustachioed businessman cast an amused eye over his shoulder as hordes of people scurried to and fro, hoping to complete their business ahead of the predicted blizzard.
"Look at those nervous Nellies, Kate. They've probably already stripped the grocer's shelves of anything edible. As if their families will suffer without their daily fix of carbs and sweets."
Kate returned his observation with a smile, then glanced around the small coffee shop. "Looks like we might have to wait for a table."
Ward frowned, remembering when he could go into any establishment in town and be served immediately by people he'd known all his life. In the sleepy little village of his youth, families often left their doors unlocked. No one had a security system, and neighbors often stopped by for coffee without giving notice first. A throwback to colonial times, Middleburg, New Jersey, with its weathered wooden fences zigzagging through cow pastures, was an anachronism even then.
Now, the entire area was a bustling community of mini-estates guarded by stone pillars and iron gates. Although Ward regretted the part he'd played in the demise of small town America, the businessman in him knew that, had he not participated in the building boom, someone less ethical would've stepped in to fill the void.
Started on a shoestring, Beecham Construction Company had suffered its share of growing pains in its infancy. It wasn't easy competing with established firms who'd underbid a young upstart just to keep him from getting a toehold in the business. Fortunately for Ward, excellent workmanship won out; his company grew into the largest builder of fine, executive-style homes and office buildings in northern and central New Jersey.
And none of it would've been possible without the woman beside him. Kate was his anchor, as much a part of his success as the bank officer who'd loaned him seed money with nothing in his pocket but a clutch of glowing references. She'd put in as much sweat equity as he, spending long hours in the office for little more than pocket change; all this while trying to juggle a growing family's needs.
Peering toward the common, Ward admired the annual Christmas display. Every year, for as long as he could remember, the park-like setting took on the appearance of a child's wonderland. Though not as elaborate as in years past, the scene evoked fond memories, as did all of Middleburg. He and Kate had picnicked in its sunny meadows, had their first awkward kiss in the local movie theater, built their dream home on four of its hilly acres, and raised two beautiful daughters there. His roots stretched as deep as the gnarled oak on the common.
Like the pages of a book left outside on a balmy summer day, the pages of Ward's mind fanned ever backward, to a time seldom visited but not forgotten. An infant boy whisked away minutes after birth, a young girl returning to town as though she'd merely been away at summer camp, and a premature end to the carefree days of youth. Without a doubt, it was the bleakest period of his life.
The sun didn't shine again for him until the summer after graduation, when he and Kate got married. Although it had been hectic trying to combine a full-time job with a full course load at the local community college, having Kate in his corner made it all worthwhile. Determined to make something of himself, he stuck to his grueling schedule for two years. Then exhaustion finally took its toll; forced to choose between a degree and a job, he chose the paycheck. For a married man with responsibilities, there didn't seem to be any other option.
"Honey, come on," Kate said, tugging on his sleeve. "A table just opened up."
Ward closed the memory book in his mind and followed his wife as she weaved through the packed eatery. The waitress brought them water and took their orders; Kate peeled off her gloves.
"What were you dreaming about just now?" she asked. "I had to tell you twice about the table before you even looked at me."
"I was just thinking about the good, old days. Remember when we used to take the girls into town to see the Christmas display?"
"Ah, yes." She smiled. "And I'll never forget the time we put Sheri on top of the giant rocking horse in Santa's workshop."
Ward laughed at the shared memory. "Yeah, she screamed so loud, I thought they'd hear her in the next county."
The laughter dwindled and Ward's thoughts turned to business. His eyes drifted toward the thickening sky, and he hoped the snow would hold off long enough to allow his men to get another foundation in the ground; even better, until after their daily visit to the tavern on their way home. He hated to think of his hard-working, hard-drinking employees driving on ice-slicked roads.
"Speaking of Sheri," Kate said. "I heard from her today."
"Yeah? What's new?" he asked, eyes still fixed on the sky.
"She said if the roads aren't too bad, she might be home Saturday after exams. Otherwise she'll stay in the dorm an extra day. Can you believe she's halfway through her freshman year already?"
He nodded, fingertips tapping hoof beats on the table. When the drumming reached a feverish tempo, Kate grabbed at his hand. "Will you stop that? Now you asked me a question, then you didn't even have the courtesy to listen to my answer."
"Sorry. It's just that I have a ton of jobs to wrap up this month or I'll lose my performance bond. And with the holidays right around the corner, the pressure's on like you wouldn't believe."
"Honey, you've never lost a performance bond yet, and you won't now."
His gaze again swept toward the sky, prompting Kate to throw her hands in the air. "Am I talking to myself here?"
"Don't get excited. I heard you. What about Val? Think she'll make it home for Christmas?"
Her dour expression told him what he already knew: Val would come home when she damn well felt like it and not a minute sooner.
Their older daughter had always been a volatile topic between them, Kate fearing the girl would come to an untimely end far from home with no one at her side who truly gave a damn; Ward insisting she would tire of her wild ways and settle down.
Lunch arrived, and much to his wife's annoyance, Ward dispatched his without delay. Kate slammed down her cup so hard it rattled the saucer. "Dammit, Ward, can't you even spare a few minutes to enjoy a pleasant lunch with me?"
The sharpness of her words struck a chord in him. She was right. There was no need to drive himself. He had an impeccable reputation, a company on sound financial footing, and his girls were almost grown. At this stage in life, he had no more mountains to climb. Well, almost none.
"Sorry," he said, dispelling any further admonishment she may have considered. "Forgive me?"
She turned away, petulant. "You didn't even notice my hair."
He fingered her ash-blonde hair cropped to just below her ears. His was still the rich, dark color of his youth, while she'd been covering gray for a year. "I noticed, and you look terrific, honey. I like that shade on you."
His tender gaze turned mischievous, and he wiggled his eyebrows a la Groucho Marx. "So how about a little nooner?" He twiddled an imaginary cigar.
Kate gave up a smile. "You're impossible."
Grinning, Ward signaled the waitress for their check. "I guess that's a no. But that's okay." He scrunched his eyes together. "I don't think I could take you on right now anyway."
Kate pulled two foil-wrapped tablets from her purse. "Here. Take these. And after the holidays, we're taking a nice, long vacation. Dave can handle things here."
Ward tossed back the pills with the last of his water. "Sounds great. Why don't you give old Will a call and ask him to air out the beach house. Tell him we'll be down right after the first of the year. I'll have an exact date for you once I talk to Phyllis."
Will McHenry, their closest neighbor on the island, was an aging sailor who prided himself on being one of the first to inhabit the area. While others had come and gone, unable to withstand the inconvenience of living on a spit of land previously accessible only by boat, Will had stuck it out through hurricane and high water, his leathery face bearing testimony to his many years battling the elements.
Looking forward to some time off, Ward left a generous tip for the waitress. Then he escorted his wife to her car.
"Now don't get so overtired you pass out the minute you hit the sofa tonight" she said in parting.
He leaned in to give her a peck on the cheek. "Yes, Mama." Standing back, he waited to see if her engine would turn over. Sometimes that old car of hers was a lot like its owner--obstinate and reluctant to yield until completely warmed up.
The car whined, sputtered, then roared to life, chugging away amidst plumes of smoke and vaporized exhaust.
Ward gave a final wave before heading back to the office. And now to scale that final mountain.
* * *
Ward's moodiness weighed heavily on Kate as she headed home from the cafe. His thoughts had been everywhere but there with her. Was he pushing himself too hard? Was he worried about the business? Or was he still thinking about the boy?
Although she'd always known it was a possibility, his question the night of the Christmas party had caught her offguard. Although she often fantasized about finding her son, she'd never actually seek him out; she couldn't encourage him to do that either. It was a can of worms best left unopened.
* * *
Reeling with disparate emotions, none of which she'd ever experienced before, Kate sat in stony silence as Jesse drove her home. She knew he deserved an explanation. But how could she express what she felt when she couldn't put a name to her feelings?
She was still trying to work it out in her head when he pulled up to her house and turned off the ignition. The silence was deafening. Unaware of any words that would lessen the pain she was about to cause, Kate removed the chain and heart from her neck, cupped it gently in the palm of her hand, then placed it on the seat between them.
The silence lengthened. Unnerved by his lack of response, she turned to him, his expression one of incredulity and pain. And though he nodded in grim acceptance, the set of his lips and his brimming eyes betrayed him.
Minutes later, after telling her mother she'd already eaten, Kate shut herself in her room. Wrapped in an old bathrobe, she burrowed into the furry menagerie on her bed and reached for Nubbin, her favorite teddy. With chewed-up ears and no tail, Nubbin had sipped imaginary tea with her, suffered the indignity of riding in a pink baby buggy with ruffled dolls, and even accompanied her to kindergarten that first scary day. The tattered teddy was her confidant for dreams, wishes, and secrets. More importantly, he never scolded when she misbehaved, always staring back with happy, non-judgmental, button eyes.
Dissolving in tears, Kate buried Nubbin under her other fuzzy friends; she wouldn't be confiding in him tonight.
A light tapping at her door checked her muffled sobs. "Honey, are you all right?" Her mother poked her head in.
Kate sniffed. "I'm fine. What is it, Mom?"
"Oh, dear," her mother said as she felt Kate's brow. "I hope you're not getting that bug that's going around. You look flushed."
Kate pulled the collar of her robe up to her ears. "I'm just a little wind burned." She hoped the robe covered any hickeys she might have.
"Are you sure? Because if you're not feeling well, I can tell Ward to call back."
She bolted upright. "Ward's on the phone?"
Her mother grinned and Kate ran for the hall extension. She waited for her to return to the kitchen, then snatched up the phone. "Ward?"
"Kate?" His voice cracked when he said her name, and her heart smiled.
Dear, sweet Ward, who never asked anything of her she wasn't comfortable in giving. Sensitive and caring, he'd never ply her with wine, then take advantage of her. Losing herself to passion was the last thing she had to worry about with Ward.
He asked about her holiday, and for the second time in less than an hour, she lied. They talked about every little thing that didn't matter, each hesitant to bring up the one thing that did. When it seemed as though his call was merely a courteous gesture and not an attempt to reconcile, Kate's spirits plunged. A long pause ensued. Then, as if on cue, both mumbled an apology.
"What did you say?"
"No, what did you say?"
"Oh, Ward, I'm so sorry," she said, twisting the phone cord into a knot. "It was all my fault. Please, can't we forget the terrible things we said to each other?"
"I've forgotten already."
"Me too. Do you think, maybe we can?"
She breathed a sigh. "I'd like that. And, Ward, promise me you'll always be there for me. Please, no matter how horrible I am."
They talked for three hours that night, and when they said goodbye, Kate silently vowed to never let anyone or anything come between them again. Then she took a long, hot shower, cleansing herself of the scent and feel of Jesse's heated flesh.
The following excerpt is from the middle of the book.
He looked up from his weeding, spotted her, then rose in one agile motion. No groan, no hunched posture, his back as straight as a boy's. It bothered Kate that she would notice.
"Sorry to disturb your gardening," she said in a cool voice. "I didn't know you were out here."
He brushed the soil from his hands. "I try to stay on top of things when I have the chance. Marti likes to can and freeze, so I do my best to keep her happy."
"Oh, by all means. Do keep Marti happy."
He cocked his head, as if wondering whether to respond to her flip remark. He chose to ignore it. "So what did you two talk about in there?"
She harrumphed. "As if you didn't know."
His lips pulled into a frown. "I can guess."
"Look, Kate, if you have a problem being here, why did you come?" His voice took on an edge of its own.
"You know very well I couldn't refuse."
"Well, you're here now, and you obviously have something to say, so get it out of your system."
Kate fought an overwhelming desire to flee. She didn't like confrontations but, dammit, she did have something to say. And this time she wouldn't run off in tears. This time she would tell him exactly what she thought of him and his baby-stealing sister.
"You're right," she said, squaring her shoulders. "I didn't come outside to admire your gardening talents. I came out because I'd had enough of your sister's sob story. I'm not about to forgive and forget, live and let live, and all that crap. You had your fun, then you went on your merry way while I spent the summer carrying a child I didn't even have the privilege of raising. Oh, no. That honor belonged to you and your family."
"I made a bad choice, Kate. I'm not proud of it. What more can I say?"
A gust of wind caught Kate's skirt, billowing it around her knees. But like the green things rooted in the soil nearby, all she could do was shiver and sway.
"It's still a bit chilly out, Kate. Why don't you go inside now?"
Trembling, Kate stood fast. "She said you didn't know. Is that true?"
"You never suspected anything, anywhere along the line?"
"How could you not know? He's got your hair, your eyes."
"He was only a baby when they brought him home, Kate. To a guy, all babies look alike. Hey, it happened; I'm sorry. Now can we get past it and go on with our lives?"