“Hi, Rosa,” Julian said, then turned to Liam. “I’m so sorry, Liam. I told my agent to keep the press away, but he ignored me. Really, I’m sorry. And believe me, they’re like termites—once they infest your house, you have to deal with them. If I didn’t talk to them, God knows what story they’d come up with. At least this way it’s the truth.”
Liam looked at him. “Your truth, maybe.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve spoon-fed them a romance, haven’t you, with you as the hero of the piece, the white knight who arrived in a black limousine and pulled her back from the brink of death.”
“You have not heard the worst of it, Dr. Liam,” Rosa said, shuffling toward the two men. “When I was walking into the hospital, I heard the questions. The reporters were asking about his daughter.”
“Jesus Christ.” Liam grabbed Julian by the shoulders and shook him. “Tell me you protected her. Tell me you didn’t say a goddamn word about your daughter.”
Julian winced. “I protected her—honestly, but
Val … he told them that she was a cheerleader at the high school.”
For the first time in his life, Liam punched a man. He drew back his fist and slammed it into Julian’s pretty-boy jaw. Pain radiated all the way up his arm. “There are only eight cheerleaders at the high school.”
He turned to his mother-in-law. “You stay here with Mike. Keep the press away from her. I’ll get the kids and be back as soon as I can. We’ll come in through the back way.”
Please let me get to her in time.
Liam glanced at the clock on the Explorer’s dashboard: 3:05. Cheerleader practice ended five minutes ago …
He pressed harder on the gas. At the entrance to the high school, he knew he was going too fast. When he turned the wheel, the tires skidded sideways. For a split second, he lost control of the car. Then the tires grabbed hold. The car hurtled down the driveway and into the parking lot.
He was too late. Already there was a crowd of reporters outside the school’s front doors. Klieg lights stood on their perimeter like black insects. They were all talking at once; their combined voices sounded like the start-up of a buzz saw.
Liam lurched out of the car and ran toward them. The ground was slick and mushy with old snow, and twice he almost fell. By the time he reached the sidewalk, his heart was hammering.
“Jacey!” His voice was lost in the din.
Reporters circled the small group of cheerleaders like a pack of wolves, jockeying for position, making it impossible for Liam to get through. They were shouting out questions, one after another.
“Which one of you is Juliana?”
He heard Mrs. Kurek, the cheerleader adviser, answer, “There’s no Juliana here, now go away.”
Liam tried to see above the crowd, but there were lights and cameras everywhere, and the reporters knew how to close access.
He screamed his daughter’s name, trying to push through the sardine-packed bodies. It was impossible.
“Which one of you has a mother in a coma?”
He knew that all it would take is a look at Jacey …
“There she is!”
The mob shifted, separated, and came back together around Jacey, cutting her off from everyone else with practiced ease. Wolves separating a baby lamb from the herd.
“Are you Kayla’s daughter?”
“Are you Juliana?”
He could see that Jacey was breathing heavily. She was afraid. “I’m Jacey,” she answered softly. “My mom’s in a coma….”
A microphone flew at her face, almost hit her in the nose. “How does it feel to be his daughter?”
Liam screamed her name. He grabbed hold of the cameraman in front of him and shoved. The camera fell to the ground, the man stumbled sideways.
Liam surged through the opening. “Jace—come here!”
Above the crowd, their gazes met. Liam saw the fear in his daughter’s eyes. He saw when she gave way to panic; not all at once, but in little breaths. He plowed through the crush of bodies. She held out her hands toward him.
He pushed and shoved his way forward, his hands outstretched, fingertips straining to touch hers.
“How does it feel to be Julian True’s daughter?” someone yelled out.
A hush fell. Jacey looked at Liam, her mouth open, her eyes widening in shock.
“Jesus Christ, she doesn’t know—”
“Move in, Bert, get a shot of her face—now—”
“GET AWAY FROM HER!” Liam screamed the words. He threw himself forward, knocking people aside, ramming them with his elbows.
At last he was at her side. He slipped an arm around Jacey and pulled her close. He could feel her trembling. “It’s okay, honey,” he whispered in her ear, even though he knew it wasn’t true.
“Who are you?” someone shouted at him.
“It’s the doctor,” someone else said. “What are you—”
“She has no comment.” Liam heard the snarl in his voice; it was an unfamiliar sound that came from a dark place deep inside him. He dragged a dazed Jacey through the crowd and helped her into the Explorer.
The reporters followed them all the way, still shouting out questions and popping photographs. The last thing Liam heard as he slammed the car door was “Get the license plate number.”
He started the engine and hit the gas. The car surged forward, tires spinning on the slushy snow, and spun out of the parking lot.
His heart was hammering, and there was a coppery fear taste in his mouth. He’d never felt so ashamed and defeated in his life. He had failed to protect her. It was his fault. The daughter he loved more than his own life had been hurt.
Jacey twisted around in her seat, watching the road behind them. “They’re not following us,” she said in a watered-down version of her ordinary voice.
Liam veered left onto the snowy, unmaintained forest service road that led to Angel Falls State Park. He chose this road because it only appeared on the most detailed maps of the area. No one would follow them here.
When they reached the end of the road, they found the empty parking lot as pristine as a new sheet of paper. In the late afternoon it was dark in these deep woods.
He parked near the information board, a rough-hewn wooden pyramid that told the story of these falls, discovered and named by Ian Campbell in honor of his beloved wife.
Liam took a deep breath and turned at last to his daughter. “I couldn’t get to you fast enough.”
She looked at him, her dark eyes confused and afraid. “Is it true, Dad?”
He wanted to be angry with Mike right now, but as it was, all he felt was cold and hollow. “It’s true. Your mom was married to Julian True.”
The color faded from her cheeks. She looked impossibly young and vulnerable. “He’s my father?”
Father. The word hit Liam like a blow to the larynx. For a moment he couldn’t speak, and when he did find his voice, it was dull and flat. “Yes.”
Her eyes rounded. “Oh, my God …”
He waited for her to say more, but she remained silent. It felt to Liam as if seawater were rising between them, rising, becoming a rippling wall that distorted their images. He tried to think of what it was that he should say, but that emptiness was inside him again, bleeding into the silence. Finally he told her the only truth that mattered. “I should have told you—”
“Is that why he’s really in town? To see Mom?”
“Did you know he was my father?”
He understood the question. She didn’t want to believe that he had lied to her all these years, and as much as he wanted to protect Mike, he wouldn’t deceive Jacey. That’s why she was so hurt now. “I heard the same stories you did. Mike told me that she’d been married too young, to a man who only wanted to party and have fun. I didn’t know it was Julian. I found out the truth when I went looking for that dress you wore to the dance.”
“The way she wouldn’t ever talk about my other dad … I figured he was a bum or a bad guy. Some loser she met in college.” She paused, looking at him. “When I was little, she used to cry every time I asked about him, so I stopped asking. Jeez … Julian True.”
Liam tried not to be hurt by the tiny, hitching smile that tugged at her mouth. What teenager wouldn’t be thrilled to find out that a famous movie star was her father? It didn’t mean she’d turn away from the father who’d always been there for her, holding her hand, kissing away her little girl’s tears. At least that’s what he told himself as the silence between them stretched on and on.
“When was she going to tell me? When we colonize Mars?”
It had come faster than he’d expected, the anger, and he didn’t know how to assuage it. There was no way to excuse what Mike had done to her. It was selfish and hurtful, and now, these many years later, they would all pay for the lie that had lain between them, curled silently in a silk pillowcase.
“I don’t know when she was going to tell you,” he said at last.
He could see that she was close to crying. She seemed to be holding the tears back one shallow breath at a time. “That’s why he came to the prom—to dance with me—but he didn’t say anything that mattered. How did he know Mom was hurt?”
“I called him. I … discovered that your mom responded to his name. I thought that if he talked to her, she might wake up, and it worked. She woke up yesterday.”
“Julian woke her up—after all the hours we all spent talking to her?”
Liam winced. He felt hemmed in by all the times he’d told Jacey that love would reach Mikaela in her darkness. “Well—”
“Oh, my God, what if …” This time she couldn’t hold back the tears. She launched herself at Liam, landing in his arms as if she were a child again. She cried on his shoulder. The warm moisture of her tears seeped through his flannel shirt. When she drew back, she looked different somehow, changed, as if the tears had washed away the last, sticky traces of the little girl she’d been and made room for a young woman.
“I hate her.” At the confession, she started crying again.
He touched her face. “No. You’re hurt and angry—and you have every right to be. But you could never hate your mom. She loves you, Jace—”
“What about you? She lied to you all these years, too.”
He sighed. “Sometimes people lie to protect their loved ones. Maybe she thought … we couldn’t handle the truth.”
Jacey sniffed, wiped her nose with the back of her hand. Her eyes were glazed with tears as she looked at him, her mouth quavered. “He didn’t want me, did he? That’s why he never called or wrote.”
Liam wanted to lie to her, but it was lies that had brought them to this sorry, painful place in their lives. “I don’t know Julian well enough to answer that.”
He could see that she was shocked and confused and angry. The truth had pushed her out on a twisting, narrow road, and only she could find her way. “I’m sorry, Jace. For all of it.”